In an age of sports betting and fantasy football, it’s sometimes easy to forget about good old football rivalries. With a 17-game schedule, every game is critical in the NFL—none more so than the divisional matchups. When making preseason NFL picks, games within the division should be highlighted, as the two matchups between teams can make a big swing in the standings. Let’s start with the NFC, and tomorrow we’ll pick the most important divisional foes to watch in the AFC for 2022.
NFC East: Eagles vs. Cowboys
There will be teams that emerge and surprise, as is the case every season. But the NFC looks relatively straightforward in terms of the top challengers to last year’s division winners. In the NFC East, the Cowboys are looking to repeat as division champions, which is a tough task in one of the league’s most topsy-turvy groups of four. Dallas has star power all over the defense, led by Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs; meanwhile, the offense will run through Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and CeeDee Lamb, but the receiving group is dealing with injuries and traded away Amari Cooper this offseason. The Eagles got much stronger on both sides of the ball, adding A.J. Brown at receiver and beefing up the defense with additions like Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean, Haason Reddick, and James Bradberry. After two blowouts in favor of the Cowboys last season (though the Eagles rested their starters in Week 18), look for two closer battles this year.
NFC North: Vikings vs. Packers
The Lions garnered some consideration here as a team that looks primed to take a step forward under head coach Dan Campbell, but the Vikings have been flying under the radar leading up to the season. Kirk Cousins has plenty to work with on offense, including Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen; and the defense is powered by a potent pass rush that includes Danielle Hunter returning from injury and Za’Darius Smith bookending him on the other edge after coming over from Green Bay. And for the Packers, they’ll be adjusting to life without Davante Adams, but look for running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon to be a massive part of the offense all season. For those that play fantasy football, there’s the potential for plenty of points to be scored in these two showdowns given all the talent on the field, but the defenses have the upside to make these lower-scoring contests than anticipated.
NFC South: Buccaneers vs. Saints
The Saints are 4-0 against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers during the regular season since Brady joined Tampa Bay in 2020, but Brady’s squad won when it mattered most a couple of postseasons ago. Aside from that playoff matchup, New Orleans has played against a Brady-led offense about as well as any defense ever has, headlined by a 9-0 shutout victory last December during which Bucs star receiver Chris Godwin tore his ACL on a low hit. There are many storylines: Tampa Bay looking to figure things out in the series, Jameis Winston facing his former team, Mike Evans’ rivalry with Marshon Lattimore. And—nothing against the Panthers and the Falcons—but the Saints look like the team that can challenge the Bucs in the division if anyone can.
NFC West: Rams vs. 49ers
Bucs-Saints gets pretty heated, but the Rams-49ers rivalry is probably the best in football right now. These teams are very public about their dislike for each other. Just a few days ago, 49ers safety Jimmie Ward made that clear again:
— 𝙏𝙝𝙚𝙎𝙁𝙉𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙧𝙨 (@TheSFNiners) August 8, 2022
The San Francisco defense was awesome in their three matchups last season, and they brought major physicality in the run game with Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel. Rams-Niners is a bit similar to the Bucs-Saints rivalry, as Los Angeles was able to win the game that mattered most despite struggling otherwise in the series. The entire NFC West provides tough, gritty matchups, but it doesn’t get better than San Francisco versus LA.