6 NFL contenders to watch this season
The chase for the Super Bowl looks wide-open
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The world's most spectacular sports league kicks off its 2022 season Thursday night when the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams host the hard-charging Buffalo Bills. Here's a look at some of the most interesting contenders in what looks like a very balanced NFL title chase, starting with Thursday's night's opponents:
Buffalo Bills: Every NFL fan seems to have two favourite teams this year: the one they've always rooted for, and the Bills. Buffalo stole everyone's heart last January by nearly knocking off Kansas City in the most thrilling game of the playoffs. The Bills scored a touchdown with just 13 seconds left to take the lead, only to lose 42-36 in overtime — another heartbreaking loss for the franchise that's also endured Wide Right, the Music City Miracle and four straight Super Bowl defeats. But things feel different now. The Bills have a superhero quarterback in Josh Allen, an elite defence (bolstered by the signing of star pass rusher Von Miller) and one of the last real home-crowd advantages in sports — thanks to the Labatt-swilling, table-smashing Bills Mafia. Add it all up and you get a scenario that many seasoned Buffalo fans never thought they'd see again in their lifetime: the Bills are the betting favourites to win the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles Rams: The dreaded championship hangover is a concern for a team that saw Miller leave for the Bills and nearly lost both its best defensive player (Aaron Donald) and its brilliant head coach (Sean McVay) to retirement before they decided to return. Also, quarterback Matthew Stafford is dealing with a sore elbow. But the Rams should get another big year from Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, who's coming off an astonishing season where he caught 145 passes for nearly 2,000 yards and scored 16 touchdowns.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Rams are the champs, but the Chargers might be the best team in L.A. Sure, a promising 2021 season went bust when the Chargers lost a de facto play-in game to the Raiders on the final night of the regular season to miss the playoffs. But the Bolts are super-charged on offence with MVP-calibre young quarterback Justin Herbert throwing to a talented group of receivers and versatile Austin Ekeler (20 combined touchdowns rushing and receiving last year) anchoring the backfield. The defence looks just as good with the addition of star pass rusher Khalil Mack and standout cornerback J.C. Jackson to an already strong unit.
Kansas City: Their streak of six consecutive AFC West titles could be in peril now that this is suddenly the NFL's most cutthroat division. The Chargers went all-in with their aforementioned moves, while the Raiders and Broncos followed suit by acquiring, respectively, star receiver Davante Adams from Green Bay and nine-time Pro Bowl QB Russell Wilson from Seattle. Kansas City bowed out of the arms race when it decided to trade top receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins rather than meet his contract demands. His (much) lower-cost replacement is JuJu Smith-Schuster, a good receiver for several years with Pittsburgh, but no Cheetah in terms of explosiveness. Still, the most important thing in this league is a good head coach/quarterback combo, and K.C. might have the best in Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
Cincinnati Bengals: They were a very good team last season, but Cincy's surprising run to the Super Bowl was as much a product of good timing and some lucky breaks as the team's actual skill level. Pretty much no one is picking Cincy to win the AFC again, but don't count them out. Third-year QB Joe Burrow is one of the best young passers in the league and second-year Ja'Marr Chase might already be the game's best receiver.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is this Tom Brady's last stand? The 45-year-old GOAT announced his retirement in February, only to unretire 40 days later. Then he took a strange 11-day leave of absence from Bucs training camp last month to tend to some "personal" things. Brady's name also came up in the NFL's investigation of the Dolphins' alleged violations of the "integrity of the game" policy. Miami, it was found, tried to lure Brady last year by dangling an ownership stake in the franchise. Taken together, all of this suggests Brady might soon be ready to walk away for real. But don't forget: he led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year, so an eighth Super Bowl title (and even a fourth regular-season MVP award) can't be ruled out for the ageless wonder.