Welcome to The Big Take, where we comb through our drafts folders for the boldest, potentially irresponsible predictions. The ones we might feel confident enough to share in Slack but have real reservations airing in public. The ones that are more likely to be Old Takes Exposed fodder than an opportunity to beat our chests. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Leading us off today are two white-hot assessments of the upcoming NFL season.
The Indianapolis Colts Will Play in the AFC Championship Game
Frank Reich can coach. Having a different starting quarterback every single year has made establishing any continuity much harder. His hand-picked guy, Carson Wentz, turned out to be a mess on the field and lacked the leadership skills necessary, so once again it was back to the drawing board. Where the Indianapolis Colts found Matt Ryan. The steady, reliable, and somewhat limited veteran. Perhaps with him doing just enough to win on the strength of a defense that forced the second-most turnovers in 2021 and was ninth in opponents scoring. Perhaps a weak AFC South will provide plenty of opportunities for layup victories and the ability to prove they are worthy of being the favorites to win the division.
I'll go several steps further. Not only will the Colts win the group going away, they will benefit greatly from the AFC Central and AFC West cannibalizing each other. They will, somehow, emerge after 17 games with the second-best record in the conference and a shocking bye, then homefield advantage for the divisional round. Then they'll capitalize on the opportunity and gain entry into the AFC Championship Game before being buzzsawed to death by a more formidable, complete team capable of offensive explosion.
Are there some concerns? Yes. The Colts' passing defense was second-worst in all of football last season. Michael Pittman Jr., Paris Campbell and Alec Pierce lack seasoning. The top six wideouts on their current depth chart have combined for all of 148 NFL receptions. They'll have to greatly exceed expectations and produce immediately.
On the other hand, there's the security blanket named Jonathan Taylor in the backfield. Reich and Ryan may decide to increasingly build the whole offense out of the superstar. Making everyone else's job easier.
Also intriguing? A paper-thin schedule ranked 26th-hardest. Two free wins for the taking against both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. Throw in a split against the Tennessee Titans and the Colts would be 5-1 in the division. Very winnable home tests against the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Commanders and Pittsburgh Steelers. Opportunities away from home against the New England Patriots and New York Giants. Beating up on poor competition isn't sexy but wins are wins.
Finally, though difficult, ascensions like this have great precedent. Look no further than last year and the Cincinnati Bengals. Every year there's one team that does more than anyone expected. And sometimes that team is exposed in the end. That could be the Colts. That will be the Colts.
The Arizona Cardinals Will Finish Last in the NFC West
The Arizona Cardinals enter 2022 with high expectations after giving Kyler Murray a big ol' extension on the heels of the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2015. But they will not live up to those expectations. In fact, they're set up to disappoint so hard that they'll finish last in their division.
Arizona had a fine offseason but they did not lift a finger to address their offensive line issues. Murray was pressured on nearly 30 percent of his dropbacks in his playoff debut against the Los Angeles Rams. Admittedly, going up against the defensive front that drove the Rams to the Super Bowl is no easy task. But Murray still got sacked 31 times in the regular season, 17th in the league. Not horrible. However, keeping the pocket clean for Murray is more important for the Cardinals than nearly everybody else because he's small and struggled with injury through the first three years of his career. If he has room to work, Murray is as good as they come. If he doesn't, the wheels come off, and Arizona invested no resources to ensure success in that area.
Then there's the whole Kliff Kingsbury thing. Kingsbury is a bright offensive mind who has not been able to adjust at any point in his career. Both his college and professional teams have taken nosedives in the second half of every season he's coached. Arizona started so hot in 2021 that it didn't affect their playoff chances but it doesn't change the fact that they went 4-6 in the last 10 games of the season. This is a trend, not a one-time occurrence. Until Kingsbury proves otherwise, we operate under the assumption that the Cardinals will struggle once the weather gets cold.
The Cardinals play in a difficult division, of course, but the haters reading this post will point to the Russell Wilson-less Seahawks as the obvious candidate to come up last in the NFC West this year. In response, I'd like to remind everybody of Murray's 2-3 career record against Pete Carroll's defense and Arizona's schedule, ranked eighth in the NFL in terms of difficulty of opponent.
Will Murray play with the same hunger after securing the bag? Will his studying clause debacle help or hinder his confidence? Can Kingsbury kick his bad habit of collapsing down the stretch? Will the defense have enough playmakers after letting Chandler Jones walk and watching high picks like Isaiah Simmons disappoint early on? All of these questions must be answered. But 2022 feels like the year where defenses figure Murray out and the Cardinals lose a few coin-toss games to come up very short after a largely successful 2021 season.