NFL Week One Winners and Losers

Usually the first week of the NFL regular season is mild. It was anything but mild on Sunday. Week one is seen by some as a fluke week, while some see it as prelude on what’s to come when teams settle in. Here are the winners and losers from Sunday’s games.

Winners: The Detroit Lions for trading Matthew Stafford and re-building the offense

It was one rough year for Detroit sports fans in 2021, and the Lions highlighted the struggle. Week one last season against San Francisco, Detroit was down double-digits before a rapid comeback. Sunday they almost beat a superior Philadelphia Eagles team in a back-and-forth scoring game.

Lions quarterback Jared Goff threw for two touchdowns while runningbacks Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift ran for three scores. Swift’s touchdown gave Detroit their first lead of the season and the offense dictated pace in the first quarter.

This is a big contrast from how the Los Angeles Rams started last Thursday night. Former Lion quarterback Matthew Stafford is battling a hand injury and the Rams scored ten points in a game Buffalo dominated. It’s valid to say anyone behind Los Angeles’ offensive line would’ve put up similar numbers. If Stafford somehow plays this season hurt, then Detroit traded their hot-and-cold quarterback at the right time. Draft picks such as Amon-Ra St. Brown (who had eight catches for 64 yards and a touchdown) have been worth it.

O.J. Howard

Howard has been under scrutiny since his tenure in Tampa Bay. His injuries and struggle to not just catch passes but remain as a top two tight-end option made an easy removal off the Buccaneers roster. Houston signed him in the offseason and both may benefit moving forward.

Despite tying a superior Indianapolis Colts team at home, O.J. Howard scored both touchdowns for the Texans. His second from 22 yards gave Houston a 17 point lead, their largest of the afternoon.

There aren’t too many fans or analysts that could name a receiver on the Texans roster outside of Howard. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a bigger part of the offense the next few weeks and quarterback Davis Mills’ favorite target.

Kansas City Chiefs

There was a lot of talk and debate on how good the Chiefs would be in a loaded AFC West. While week one can have fluke teams tricking people early, Kansas City played a complete game against a shaky Arizona Cardinals team.

Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs offense overwhelmed Arizona early, scoring 14 points in the first quarter. When the fourth quarter started, Kansas City led by 30 and Mahomes had thrown five touchdowns. Tight-end Travis Kelce caught eight passes for 121 yards and a score. Even rookie seventh round draft pick Isiah Pacheco ran for over five yards a carry and scored.

The Chiefs defense did a good job too. 14 of Arizona’s 21 points came when the game was out of reach. Greg Dortch was the Cardinals’ leading receiver and the running game was all but irrelevant due to Kansas City’s offense scoring at will.

Plus, the win helps the Chiefs stay at .500 in case they lose Thursday night against Los Angeles, a team they’ve struggled against the past two seasons.

Week one action

One usually doesn’t put a whole week into the win or loss column, but this is an exception. Week one was wildly fun and had everything a fan and analyst could want.

Here’s a fun breakdown of what happened: the two teams in last year’s super bowl lost. One was a blowout, the other in a dramatic overtime performance where kickers couldn’t make field goals. The first tie of the season occurred. Cleveland won their first opening day game since 2004 (with a new kicker too). Comeback wins, a high-scoring back-and-forth game in Detroit, four rookie head coaches won their debuts and the league MVP had his worst performance since last season’s week one.

Last but not least, week one ends with the highly anticipated Denver versus Seattle matchup featuring the return of Russell Wilson in the Pacific Northwest. It will be one of the most talked about weekends throughout the whole season.

Losers: San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco had many things in their favor Sunday. The Chicago Bears’ stadium was again a cesspool of mistakes and the 49ers were favored to win by 95% of people who picked the game (via ESPN). Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team played well for three quarters, leading by seven when the fourth started.

As you might guess, the lead didn’t last long.

Chicago stormed back and scored 12 of their 19 points in the first seven minutes of the quarter. Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields played better than 49ers starter Trey Lance. Fields has less to work with than Lance, and he looked better on finding his receivers and scoring.

Offense wasn’t the deciding factor in the loss. The defense committed 12 penalties for 99 yards, equivalent to a whole football field. Usually teams giving up that many yards lose the game.

There’s also criticism on coach Shanahan for running the same predictable plays he used in both the conference championship game last year and the 2021 regular season. Many teams expect 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel to run the ball on trick plays. The Bears knew it when the second half started, and little changed to help new starter Trey Lance make the most in a winnable game.

It also doesn’t help San Francisco might be without their starting runningback Elijah Mitchell for a few weeks. Week two against Seattle will say a lot about what the 49ers can do for this season.

General manager and head coach Bill Belichick

If Belichick was just a GM and not a coach, he would’ve been fired after two years. His drafting and building of the Patriots since 2020 might be the downfall of the franchise.

You’d think with how the Miami Dolphins made easy work of New England on Sunday that the rookie head coach would be on the losing team and not the winning one. The Patriots were one of two teams in the early afternoon games to be shutout at half-time (the other being the Chicago Bears). Unlike the Bears, New England didn’t win their game.

The Patriots acquired a lot of skill players to help sophomore quarterback Mac Jones not do everything himself. Kendrick Bourne was missing in action after a 41 yard catch. Five players ran for a total of 78 yards in a 13 point loss, and two of those players ran for zero yards or worse. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are paid millions of dollars to average two receptions for 25 yards. Then there’s Nelson Agholor who’s doing…I don’t know what.

It doesn’t help when the play-calling goes pass option first. Jones shouldn’t attempt 30 passes in a game where the score is close. After the loss it was announced Jones suffered a back injury. While it’s only week one of the regular season, it’s hard to see how New England wins their next four games without adjusting to better offensive planning and schemes.

Tennessee Titans and their offensive coordinator Todd Downing

The Tennessee Titans were in a great position to have an early first place grab in the AFC South after the Indianapolis Colts tied in Houston. The New York Giants were horrendous last season and rookie head coach Brian Daboll was aggressive early in situations that didn’t call for it. Yet the Titans found ways to lose.

Derrick Henry, who’s the most valuable player on the team and the best runningback in the league, ran 21 times for 82 yards. Tennessee misses receiver A.J. Brown already because the best pass catcher of the late afternoon was Kyle Philips. Philips had six catches for 66 yards, and Dontrell Hilliard had 61 yards on three catches and both Titans touchdowns.

Tennessee has to involve receivers like Austin Hooper and Robert Woods more while easing Treylon Burks into the starting role. It would also help if the offensive line learned to block better and not play like they want quarterback Ryan Tannehill dead every other possession.

If the Titans are going to be a playoff team, they have to fix the simple things early and use their offense the right way. It could take a while.

Cornerback CJ Henderson

The Cleveland Browns won their first opening day game in almost 20 years when rookie kicker Cade York kicked the game winning field goal. Cleveland won a game by two points they shouldn’t have. Earlier in the game there was a play that set up quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s one yard touchdown pass to Kareem Hunt.

One of the worst mistakes a defensive player can make is committing a terrible penalty during a turnover changing play. It can negate the turnover and not just give the offense the ball back, but additional yardage.

Cleveland’s second possession of the game started in the second quarter and on a third and three at the Carolina 35, Brissett took a risk and threw deep to Amari Cooper in Carolina’s endzone. The pass was under-thrown and Panthers cornerback Xavier Woods intercepted the pass.

Unfortunately for Woods and the Panthers defense, cornerback C.J. Henderson wrapped Cooper up in his arms and threw him onto the ground before the pass landed in Wood’s hands. Color commentator Jay Feely said, “there’s no reason to throw a player down when the pass would have been intercepted anyway”.

While a 58 yard field goal is a bad way to lose a game, it’s better than throwing a defenseless receiver onto the ground and giving up seven points after.

2022 NFC Playoff Picks

The NFC has won the last two Super Bowls in opposite ways. Tampa Bay’s annihilation of Kansas City revealed how the Chiefs relied on certain offensive schemes, something that carried into last season. Los Angeles won a contested although controversial title game that will be a topic of conversation for years. This season Arizona’s State Farm Stadium hosts the Super Bowl. The Cardinals were the only undefeated team before losing to Green Bay October 28th, 2021. They finished in second place at 11-6 and suffered a blowout loss to the Rams. Arizona can continue the Super Bowl home field advantage streak but will have to get past the other 15 conference teams (notably Tampa and Los Angeles).

It’s time to break down which seven teams in the NFC have the best chance to reach the playoffs this season. There aren’t many quality teams in the NFC this year, so expect at least two teams with ugly records to clinch a spot and maybe win a playoff game.

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

Fun fact: Matt LaFleur has led the Packers to 13 straight wins in three straight seasons, a first in NFL history.

Let’s be honest, no one in the NFC North will come close to challenging Green Bay for the division. Chicago’s roster is bottom five in the league, Minnesota has an inexperienced head coach that’s dealing with a defense that’s either too young or too old, and Detroit is still re-building on offense and defense. The Lions could clinch a wild-card spot, but they must learn to play with leads early, something they didn’t do much last season.

This leaves the Packers as the easiest team in the NFC to win a division title. They still have the current league MVP who’s guided the team to three straight 13 win seasons since new coach Matt LaFleur expanded the playbook. Even better, Green Bay’s schedule faces two playoff caliber teams before Halloween arrives. At worst, they’ll be 6-2 before November.

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints

Todd Bowles replaces Bruce Arians as head coach in Tampa Bay. Bowles was known in New York to get the best out of his players, regardless of talent on the roster

The Buccaneers are a favorite to win both their division and the Super Bowl. If a serious NFL fan or analyst looks at their schedule however, they’ll know a hard year is in store from start to finish. Tampa opens against Dallas, New Orleans, Green Bay and Kansas City. All four teams are expected to make the playoffs this year by a good amount of both analysts and fans, and some even the championship. While the Buccaneers’ schedule gets easier by Thanksgiving, the early tests and division games against New Orleans will show early how the chemistry is for both league icon quarterback Tom Brady and new coach Todd Bowles.

The Saints are needed relief for NFC wildcard depth. They also have a coaching change with the promotion of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen after Sean Payton resigned. New Orleans added veteran quarterback Andy Dalton to backup the inconsistent Jameis Winston. Even if Winston goes down with another injury similar to last year’s, Dalton can do enough to help the Saints win games. The return of star receiver Michael Thomas and the drafting of Ohio State receiver Chris Olave gives a boost to an offense that relies on runningback Alvin Kamara and receiver Tre’Quan Smith.

Despite missing last year’s playoffs, New Orleans swept division champions Tampa Bay, including an impressive 9-0 shutout in their December 19th meeting.

If the Saints make the playoffs, it’s because the defense is top five in the league. The unit also added quality players in safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Taco Charlton. New Orleans will be a hard team to score against, but they must score more than 17 points a game to be a serious playoff contender.

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

Coach Nick Sirianni had an educational first year in Philadelphia. Unlike many coaches, he adapted on the fly by Halloween and the result landed the Eagles into the playoffs. Sirianni leaned on the running game, let quarterback Jalen Hurts play a more liberal style under center, and the defense improved due to better time of possession from the offense. Philadelphia went one and done in the playoffs because they were overmatched by a Tom Brady-led Buccaneers team.

The Eagles trading for A.J. Brown, dumping Jalen Reagor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and signing Zach Pascal upgrades the receiving core.

This year general manager Howie Roseman made the moves to improve the offense to benefit and amplify Hurts’ progression. The offensive line is rated by Pro Football Focus as one of the best in the NFL, a reversal from three seasons ago. Roseman’s biggest offseason move was trading for Tennessee Titans star receiver A.J. Brown. Brown impacts the team and division early, demanding opponents cover two talented receivers instead of playing against the run. Alongside DeVonta Smith, Brown will stretch the field and make sure Hurts can pass the ball faster and sooner rather than scrambling every other play. The addition of Zach Pascal helps take pressure off Dallas Goedert on inside routes. Plus the team dumped two busts in Jalen Reagor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.

On defense Haason Reddick is a jolt to a front seven anchored by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The trade for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson from New Orleans adds depth to the secondary and an inflammatory player who’s drawn multiple ejections from offensive players, usually receivers.

The NFC East might have another team make it to the playoffs if neither the NFC South nor West can produce a third team. Dallas doesn’t have enough receiving options, and that’s before potential injuries to receivers becomes an issue. The Commanders are hit-or-miss with Carson Wentz starting at quarterback with a shaky offensive line and the New York Giants are favorites to be top five in next year’s draft.

NFC West: Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

After an abrupt release from Seattle, the Los Angeles Rams signed Bobby Wagner (45) to a five year, $50 million deal. Besides quality sideline-to-sideline play, his mentoring of linebackers such as rookie Ernest Jones (53) for the defense should make the Rams a harder defense to score on this season.

The Rams didn’t lose too much talent this offseason. In fact, they addressed a weak spot on defense signing All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to a five year deal after Seattle released him. Wagner isn’t just a tackling extraordinaire, he guides defenses to cover holes especially near the sidelines. Los Angeles will win their division due to a better and upgraded defense.

One issue that could linger is the re-building of the offensive line. Austin Blythe was signed by Seattle in free agency while offensive captain left tackle Andrew Whitworth retired. Quarterback Matthew Stafford faces injuries almost every season, so it will be interesting how Los Angeles looks health-wise when they host a playoff game.

Trey Lance now starts at quarterback in San Francisco after head coach Kyle Shanahan decided he’d seen enough of predecessor Jimmy Garappolo

San Francisco has a high chance of making the playoffs in a weak NFC. The only realistic situation if they don’t make a wild-card spot could be a large amount of injuries, something fans and analysts know has happened multiple times in the Kyle Shanahan era.

There are issues the 49ers have to address throughout the season. The interior offensive line is in bad shape, partially due to the departure of Laken Tomlinson to the New York Jets. The running game will feature more from Jeff Wilson Jr., Elijah Mitchell and Jamycal Hasty. Trey Sermon was cut and Jaquiski Tartt was traded to Philadelphia. Then the questions of Trey Lance being the starting quarterback to guide San Francisco back to a Super Bowl pile on.

Last but not least, the 49ers have an up-and-down schedule where they play easier teams such as Chicago and Atlanta to Kansas City and Denver. If San Francisco is at .500 when they hit the bye week, they could start playing their best football.

Lost in the talk of the Russell Wilson trade is how Seattle has three quality tightends in Noah Fant (above), Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson.

This is going to draw a lot of laughs and criticism, but this is of course the dark horse pick for the NFC. The Seahawks have a better shot to make the playoffs than most fans and analysts think.

Let’s start with offense. Geno Smith was named the starting quarterback. Despite barely winning the job in an awful preseason, Smith is familiar with the offense. The Seahawks have one of the top receiving duos with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. They also have a top tightend duo in Will Dissly and the newly acquired Noah Fant. Then there’s the offensive line which should be better in the interior. Austin Blythe being the starting center and a current champion shores up the middle, and Gabe Jackson and Damien Lewis are solid offensive guards. The position with the most question marks could be the first year tackles.

The defense is in an interesting position. This would be a problem if Seattle played four defensive linemen and three linebackers (thus the term 4-3 defense), amplified by the departure of top pass rusher Carlos Dunlap. Except head coach Pete Carroll fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., a coach many people wanted to see let go for defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt. Carroll also hired Sean Desai from Chicago to oversee changes. This will give former second round pick Darrell Taylor the switch to outside linebacker in the new three defensive linemen and four linebacker set (and this term is 3-4) in a hit-or-miss season.

Seattle’s secondary needs star safety Jamal Adams to step up and play better in pass coverage. While he does well in pass-rush situations, Adams struggled last season when receivers went one-on-one downfield against him. Outside of Adams, the Seahawks have one of the best safeties in Quandre Diggs to intercept opposing quarterbacks and finish tackles. Sidney Jones IV is back at his starting cornerback position and Coby Bryant has impressed a lot of analysts and coaches.

Seattle has a better chance of making the playoffs over Arizona for a number of reasons. The biggest one is the Seahawks’ stability in upper management compared to the Cardinals. Remember Arizona started hot the past two seasons but made the playoffs once (that one game was a beatdown loss against a division rival). Star receiver DeAndre Hopkins will be out at least a month due to drug suspensions and Kyler Murray’s lack of development plus a rift with management doesn’t bode well for the future.

Another big reason is strength of schedule. Arizona has a bye week the first week of December. Taking both matchups against Seattle (in a four week span) out of the picture, nine of the ten games feature an opponent many expect to reach the playoffs. After their bye week, the Cardinals play Denver, New England and Tampa Bay late in the season. Ouch.

Seattle by contrast gets lucky in their schedule early, drawing Russell Wilson and the Broncos week one. Wilson didn’t play in the pre-season and Denver has a new head coach figuring out what to do. Seattle also plays San Francisco, Atlanta and Detroit three weeks after. Even before their mid-November week off, the Seahawks play the New York Giants and might split with a tired Cardinals team.

Arizona’s defense doesn’t have the same counters to Seattle’s offensive weapons even when healthy. Last but not least there’s the coaching factor where Pete Carroll has lead the Seahawks with no elite quarterback play. We’ll find out by week seven whether Seattle can win the easy games and hang in the playoff race or if they’ll have multiple first round picks. Regardless, it’s possible we could see a team under .500 clinch a wild card spot to close out the NFC.

Last year’s NFC predictions: 4.5-2.5

2022 AFC Playoff Picks

The 2021 season was almost a total success for the American Football Conference. From the AFC South division race between Indianapolis and Tennessee to the Cinderella season for the Cincinnati Bengals, the biggest takeaway was the conference depth of playoff contenders in each division. The AFC West is now the toughest in division in the NFL. All four teams could make the postseason this year. There are three solid contenders in both the east and north. Last but not least, expect the same kind of playoff race both the Colts and Titans had in the south to heat up once again, this time with a more balanced roster in Indianapolis and a more desperate team in Tennessee.

It’s time to break down which seven teams in the AFC have the best chance of reaching the playoffs for 2023. By far the hardest conference to choose seven teams, not every pick will make the postseason listed, but there are some sure bets and teams that might surprise.

AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers

The two most dominant teams in the AFC North led by T.J. Watt (90) and Lamar Jackson (8) will determine who takes the division in their two rivalry games.

A lot of people are high on both Cleveland and Cincinnati mainly because of acrobatic quarterback play and offensive stats. The Browns won’t have their franchise star acquisition DeShaun Watson for eleven games. The Bengals will be targeted just as much as the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Both Ohio teams are shaky on defense especially in the secondary, something Baltimore and Pittsburgh took measures to build up in both free agency and the draft years ago.

The most important aspect early in the 2022 season are divisional games before November. Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore play both Ohio teams some time before that deadline. Their games against each other are late in the season, and will be watched by fans and analysts carefully throughout the country.

The good news for the Ravens and biggest difference this season is Baltimore isn’t injury plagued before week one. Last year the top two runningbacks and key starters of coach John Harbaugh’s defense suffered season ending injuries before playing a regular season game. Outside of an injury to runningback Gus Edwards, the Ravens look better and are on pace to finish better than last. Plus, Lamar Jackson is still the top quarterback in the division who can light up any defense at any given time.

The Steelers have named former number two overall pick Mitchell Trubisky their starter under center. Trubisky might be the answer Pittsburgh needs with his accuracy on the run and his knowledge learned under coach Brian Daboll in Buffalo.

Pittsburgh had everything except a quarterback who could throw past 15 yards in 2021. The Steelers were predictably spanked in their only postseason game and had to evaluate who should replace Ben Roethlisberger. The cheap signing of former Bears starter Mitchell Trubisky is an underrated move. Many forget Trubisky throws accurately when he scrambles and runs outside the tackles. Despite being a dual option threat, Pittsburgh prefers he runs when necessary and find ways to get sophomore runningback Najee Harris more carries.

The Steelers have a top ten defense, and special teams helps ease Trubisky into a better offensive system. Pittsburgh will be challenged early with playoff quality opponents. Coach Mike Tomlin must have his team ready against an upset Cincinnati team that swept them last year for week one.

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

Jonathan Taylor led the 2021 NFL season in total yards with 2,171. His 18 rushing touchdowns and 5.5 yards per carry kept the Colts in the playoff race until their loss in Jacksonville week 18.

Regardless on whether you think Tennessee or Indianapolis wins the AFC South two things are clear: both teams will go all-out against the other and when healthy, the Colts have a championship caliber roster.

The Titans may have a quarterback and coaching problem on their hands. Their unexpected one-and-done playoff appearance after winning the AFC South last year led them to draft Malik Willis and trade A.J. Brown. Their offensive line is still a mess and while both teams will be tested early and face each other before November (twice), Indianapolis is easily the calmer of the two teams and the better coaching.

Many who have kept up with Indianapolis know the defense is a top five unit in the league. DeForest Buckner and Darius Leonard ravage offensive lines. The additions of defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Rodney McLeod cements the Colts defense as one of the hardest to score on.

AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins

Stefon Diggs (14) is still one of the top receivers in the league. He’s a dependable target for quarterback Josh Allen and another player who can lead Buffalo deep in the playoffs.

In the playoffs, the Bills are a punchline and synonymous with failure or choking. In the regular season, they’re one of the best teams. Despite the departure of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to the New York Giants, Buffalo’s offense is in a good spot to dominate the conference and possibly the league.

The Bills added players in runningback and outside linebacker, positions they’ll perform better in this season. Two time Super Bowl champion Von Miller wants a challenge and runningback Duke Johnson should be a boost when Devin Singletary isn’t playing every down. Receiver Jamison Crowder makes up for the loss of Cole Beasley.

Buffalo has a tough schedule to start the season. Last year they had one hiccup loss until that last loss before the bye week. They start with Los Angeles, Tennessee (the team they lost to before that bye) and Miami. We’ll see how good they are early.

Tyreek Hill’s trade to Miami will cause ripples in both the AFC West and AFC East this season.

Speaking of Miami, this is the surprise pick of the conference. The Dolphins had a controversial offseason firing Brian Flores, a respected and honest head coach and hired Mike McDaniel from San Francisco. The questions on the organization’s credibility and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will be answered this season. Miami added phenom receiver Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead at tackle, cementing a deep and talented offense. The defense is still one of the best in the league with the best cornerback in Xavien Howard.

This is the year the Dolphins have to show that the “Tanking for Tua” narrative has paid off. The New York Jets aren’t going to make the playoffs with the amount of competition in the east, and there could be more regression in New England. It’s why the hiring of Mike McDaniel and the third year of Tagovailoa under center couldn’t be more important.

AFC West: Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos

Third year quarterback Justin Herbert is a favorite to win the MVP award this season.

Like the Buffalo Bills, the Chargers are pretty good in the regular season (no postseason thoughts yet thankfully). Despite their comical decisions to not clinch a playoff spot last season, the roster received many upgrades on offense and defense. Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa will terrorize offensive lines if they stay healthy for even half the season. Middle linebacker brings more veteran leadership with Kyle Van Noy. On offense, Gerald Everett is another multi-faceted weapon for quarterback Justin Herbert to throw to on inside routes, and then the team picked up Sony Michel for runningback depth behind Austin Ekeler.

Coach Brandon Staley’s second season should elevate the team and make the leap to being a playoff contender. The Chargers do a great job bottling division rivals Kansas City and Las Vegas, who they play the first two weeks of the season. It’s not until a Monday night game against Denver that Los Angeles will face their first test in late 2022.

New coach Nathaniel Hackett will have an easier time to settle in since Denver traded for a top five quarterback in the league. His offensive line schemes will be one of the more under-talked about parts before Week One.

It’s another perfect time to bring in a wildcard contender. Denver’s injuries, just like Baltimore’s, won’t be as common place this season. Denver did lose more talented players this offseason than they gained, but they acquired the quarterback the franchise desperately needed to elevate team play in Russell Wilson. Wilson will face a rash of challenges, amplified by not playing in the preseason and an expanded contract. The Broncos have a steady and solid defense that former coach Vic Fangio tooled and tweaked, they just need to score more than 13 points a game.

Both teams give Kansas City and Las Vegas problems. The Broncos’ quarterback choice, as well as reinforcing both offensive tackles, finally poses a significant problem to both the Chiefs and Raiders. Regardless, the AFC West will be the funnest division to watch in 2022.

Last year’s AFC predictions: 1.5-5.5

A Look Back at The Most Memorable Gold Medal Winners from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics

For those who keep up with not just this blog but the Pro Talk sports page on Facebook, you’d know a poll was conducted on who had the most memorable and possibly gold medal performances on the rescheduled summer olympics in 2021. Each voter was given the option to pick the three headlined events they remembered and liked most. There were many choices to vote for and some surprised Wesley and I.

A year later, Wesley and I reminisced on what stood out in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and what we are still talking about after memories were refreshed previously in Eugene, Oregon the past few weeks.

Who the voters chose

The Men and Women’s basketball teams dominating play for gold medals each

The first choice makes a lot of sense. Both the U.S. women’s and men’s basketball teams dominate Olympic play/conversation regardless of the year. 2021 was no different. The women again went undefeated and tore through Japan and Australia to win gold. Looking back at the game, it’s fitting Brittney Griner got the start at center in the championship round in what might be her last internationally televised game and Sylvia Fowles played the last minute of the round to conclude her Olympic career.

The men had a different yet exciting series of events. They lost to France in the preliminary round, sparking conversations about team chemistry, coaching and who should or should not be starting. It was all word salad as they won the next two rounds by 20 or more points. In the championship round versus France, the U.S. pulled away in the second half securing a well earned and hard fought gold medal. Despite more competition from several European teams and Australia, there was no doubt who would win the number one spot when talent depth and determination came into focus.

Elaine Thompson-Herah’s Dominant Double-Double Gold Medal Performances

There aren’t too many track and field athletes who not just dominate, but have incredible headlining Olympic events cycle after cycle, year after year. Jamaica’s been blessed with runners that defy this narrative going back decades with Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. It’s why the eruption of Elaine Thompson-Herah to start the 2020s is just as if not more impressive.

Thompson-Herah won gold in the 100M, a feat that’s impressive considering the depth of quality sprinters in different countries. She cruised to an easy victory. She then dominated the 200M for another gold (more on her other gold medal later). That’s not something you hear every four years.

Even rarer, she did it back-to-back, becoming the first woman sprinter to win a double-double at consecutive Olympics.

Elaine Thompson-Herah is featured and was chosen by both Wesley and Justin. Neither have enough praise for how phenomenal her performances are, despite a nagging leg injury that plagued her Eugene races.

Jamaica’s Women’s 4x100M relay on Independence Day

(From left to right) Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Shericka Jackson and Briana Williams celebrate an iconic gold medal on Jamaica’s Independence Day in 2021.

The third gold medal for Elaine Thompson-Herah might be one of her most treasured. Along with revered female sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Shericka Jackson and Briana Williams made up a dangerous 4x100M relay team that dusted the competition. Re-watching the race, it’s safe to say that event was unfair to the other women who worked to get to the final round.

Even sweeter for all four ladies was the win coming on the 59th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence. Combined with the sprinting performances from one Elaine Thompson-Herah mentioned above, you could say the island still relishes a golden year topped with record-setting races.

Wesley’s Choices: Sydney McLaughlin Breaks her own record to win Gold in 400m Hurdles.

Sydney McLaughlin has been the big name in women’s track and field since her dominant Olympic gold medal events.

Sydney McLaughlin was on a roll coming into the 400m finals, already making history in previous events alongside 400m counterpart Dalilah Muhammad.  The two traded victories in a series of races, each capturing records respectively against one another.  The Olympic stage was set for both women to officially break the tie.  It seemed inevitable that another record-breaking performance would be needed for victory with these two titans clashing with all the marbles on the line.  A record-breaking performance was exactly what McLaughlin delivered. She surpassed her previous time of 51.90 by finishing with a whopping 51.46 to take the crown of queen of the 400m hurdles.

Allyson Felix and all her medals

Another track athlete I could not go without mentioning was all-time great Olympic Champion Allyson Felix.  In her fifth and final Olympic appearance Felix put a stamp on her track and field legacy capturing her 11th medal in her illustrious career.  This mark put her ahead of Carl Lewis making her the most decorated athlete in track and field U.S. history.  After starting a family, Felix came into the Tokyo Olympic trials and added onto an already impressive resume to earn her a top 3 spot in my mention for this year’s best Olympic performances.

Before I go with my final pick for who I think had the greatest performance in this years Olympics I will make a few honorable mentions.

         Athing Mu/800m Gold

         Yuto Horigome/Mens Street Skateboarding Gold

         Momiji Nishiya/Womens Street Skateboarding Gold

         Sakura Yosozumi/ Women’s Park Skateboarding Gold

         Karston Warholm/Mens 400m Gold (WR 45.94)

Elaine Thompson-Herah’s Dominant Double-Double Gold Medal Performances

Finally, there’s the best and the one that stood out most. It has to be for Elaine Thompson-Herah.  They called it a double-double due to the fact Elaine won gold in both 100m and 200m in consecutive Olympic events against some of the toughest competition of all time. There was no doubt who was the dominant runner of 2021s track and field events despite the many great runners (sprinting and distance running included) involved. Thompson-Herah stood out roaring her way to Olympic record books with a 10.61 in the 100m sprint. 

Justin’s Choices: Rebeca Andrade’s Captivating Gymnastics Performances

This was one of the few performances that doesn’t just stand out to me when first seen, but still is something I go back and watch a year later. Rebeca Andrade’s performances in the all-arounds, floor routine and vault were some of the most special events to watch this lifetime. The only reason she didn’t win gold in both floor routine and all-around performances was because she used too much power in her legs to land, adding deductions when her feet went out of bounds.

Regardless, Andrade’s performances were some, if not the most popular interactions on Twitter AND Facebook. Astonishing compared to how Jamaica fared in track, the U.S. dominated in basketball and volleyball, and how the Russians became a major storyline.

The most important part of her performance wasn’t just the attention, it’s what may happen to Brazil’s national gymnastics team in the future. After having both legs operated and worked on after muscle tears, Andrade is still a talking point for her performances in Brazil alone. Look for more black Brazilians especially to take part in gymnastics when the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic games roll around.

Elaine Thompson-Herah’s Dominant Double-Double Gold Medal Performances

Wow. Both the voters and Wesley were on the same page. This year in Eugene, Jamaican sprinter Shericka Jackson dominated in both the 100M and 200M. One might say Shericka knew she had to step her game up with how Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah have made their names in the sprinting field. Elaine’s 2021 performances were that special.

Thompson-Herah said in interviews after there were still things she had to fix and improve on. That’s scary considering how she made easy work against all of her opponents. Despite leg injuries this year, Thompson-Herah was considered dangerous and someone to watch.

Last but not least, Elaine Thompson-Herah won a third gold in a stacked 4x100M relay race. She was track and field’s 2021 most valuable runner.

The U.S. Women’s 4x400M relay where Allyson Felix surpassed Carl Lewis for most medals for a U.S. track athlete

There was no doubt in my mind what the first two choices would be. The third was tricky because of all the history being made with Suni Lee and Jade Carey, Cuba and Japan taking home their highest number of medals, and how dominant the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams were. This choice came down to what would be the most memorable not just one year from now, but five to ten years later. That easily came down to the U.S. women’s 4x400M relay team, which featured the top four U.S. runners closing out the relay races.

It was documented this would be Allyson’s last race in the international Olympic events. For fans and analysts like me, she’s been running since our teenage days at minimum, so it was a big deal for all of us watch her close out her career with not just a gold medal, but breaking Carl Lewis’ record for most medals of ANY U.S. Track and Field athlete all-time.

This year she retired after her last round of events in Eugene. While she performed well, no one’s forgetting how good that relay race to close out in Tokyo was and how high expectations will be the next few games for women’s track in the U.S.

A Truly Heartfelt Passing

Sports deaths are common every year, but some deaths stand out more than others. Recently the great basketball icon and social justice champion Bill Russell passed. It’s been felt how huge the loss is in the United States. Not even a week later, iconic play-by-play broadcaster Vin Scully passed the second of August.

I don’t usually write about passings not because it’s related to on-going sports seasons or games, but because most deaths are covered in depth, there’s no need to tell anyone something new. This case is different because it’s a personal one.

For those who don’t know me off of this site, I majored in sports broadcasting when i went to college and minored in journalism. My parents worked in broadcasting at some point in their lives, and they wanted me to be in the business, encouraging me at a young age. When asked in middle school what I wanted to be for a major project, i chose play-by-play announcer or commentator. One of my references used was Vin, who was and is mostly known for calling baseball games for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Vin found a perfect balance between story-telling and calling plays. Colorful vocabulary and simple words. Attention to details and letting the audience think. It’s what makes him to this day the best baseball play-by-play announcer many U.S.ians have heard over the decades.

The best part about Vin was knowing when to cherish historical moments and let others shine. Many in broadcasting are the complete opposite, and it alienates a lot of audiences and employees. These attributes made me believe I could one day be my own type of announcer and broadcaster while sticking to a lot of the same points Vin casually mastered or used without question.

I will never measure up to Vin’s career for many reasons, but his influence and inspiration led me down a sports path i’m well determined to grow, learn, write, talk and shine brightly on. Many sportscasters spoke on how his influence and how his career got them into sports careers, pushing them to be some of the best.

Vin Scully passed and transitioned at an age many of us dream of attaining, surrounded by those who loved him whether he knew or not. It’s true he left this world a better place but he also made the sports world a desired place to be regardless of how boring it could be at times. I am now reminded that before I hit thirty years old, many fans, analysts and children with aspirations of having the life as a sports analysts will be looking towards those in the business right now, wanting to be us decades down the line. A legacy is determined by those who remember the ones who pass, and right now, there are large shoes to fill.

One of Vin’s classic calls is the play breakdown of former Atlanta Brave Hank Aaron (44, white) breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. It’s touching how the moment was reserved fully for the Atlanta great, who’d broke a record many thought would stand a longer period of time.

2022 FIFA World Cup Group Stage Play Picks in Qatar

A lot has changed since the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Previous host nation Russia is seen as a villain by western society. French champion players Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe have struggled in their professional careers since winning the Cup, and Germany re-did their coaching staff after a 2020 UEFA disaster.

Then there’s the home of the games for 2022. It would be homicidal for FIFA to hold the games in 110 plus degree (fahrenheit) weather in the Middle East, so the tournament was pushed to November. Most teams will have the rare benefit of additional rest before competing.

For those not familiar with how round one of the World Cup works, this explanation should help (also, the image above is a starting point). Eight groups containing four teams each compete to advance to the next round. Two teams from each group advance. The two that advance must have high point totals or tie-breakers. Winners of each match get three points, those who draw receive one, and losers gain none. All four teams play each other in their own group. Therefore, it’s better to strategize how to play all three teams in order to advance. Now that you understand this better, it’s time to break down which two teams from Groups A through H have the best chance of advancing to round two.

Group A: Netherlands and Senegal

Senegal won the AFCON 2021 championship thanks to Sadio Mane’s penalty kick. They have the defense to stifle two of the three teams in their group, but they need enough offense to make round two.

Group A is an easy start for those not familiar with how the World Cup starts. Usually the host of the games is one of the four teams in the first group. Depending on the location, the host team is either a good team or an easy out. Qatar would fit in the latter.

That leaves Senegal, Netherlands and Ecuador to fight for the two spots needed to advance to round two. Both Senegal and Netherlands should have an easier time in round one after they play each other. Ecuador on the other hand could be in trouble. Senegal won the African championship in 2021. They’re balanced on defense while Netherlands is offensively the strongest team in the group. If Ecuador has any chance to advance, they must beat the Qatari team and rely on tie breakers to stay alive (which will be hard considering two of the three teams know how to play quality football).

Group B: England and the U.S.

Coach Gareth Southgate (left) will have his hands full as England faces two rivals in round one, the British press and extremist fans who expect a championship after a terrific UEFA outing last year.

This will be one of the most competitive and vicious groups once play starts. The British and the Welsh are rivals, and throwing both the U.S. team and fans as well as the Iranian team is like pouring gasoline on a wildfire. The winner/s will be bragging for a long time.

While the Welsh qualified, they haven’t looked strong nor played well against their European competition the past few months. This gives the English team an advantage since they’re well coached. Speaking of England, they’ll be targeted after their UEFA championship bid came up short against Italy. All eyes will be on how coach Southgate uses veteran players and substitutes especially in the match versus the U.S. team. While England should take care of business in round one, expect more serious conversations when round two starts.

The U.S. team is again in the middle compared to most FIFA teams. Thankfully for them, Iran and Wales shouldn’t be much of a problem on offense. The key is scoring first and holding leads well into the second half of those two matchups.

Group C: Argentina and Poland

One of the best offensive players in the world, Poland’s Robert Lewandowski should have the majority of scoring opportunities early versus Mexico.

Poor Saudi Arabia. Thrown in with Argentina, Poland and Mexico, the Kingdom will be lucky to tie one of the three teams. Mexico’s first round omens won’t disappear with the quality competition presented. While many expect Argentina to coast past round one, Poland playing well enough to advance might be one of the more interesting picks someone could have in these games.

Poland’s top player and elite goal scorer Lewandowski will be tested versus the Mexican team early. The Poles have to generate more offense from forward Arkadiusz Milik and midfielders Karol Linetty and Piotr Zielinski. Without a helpful supporting cast, they could be out of the first round faster than expected.

Group D: France and Denmark

The return of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen will be a pleasant storyline as the games progress. Hopefully he finishes the games strong.

Two of the hardest UEFA teams to knock out are placed in the fourth group with Tunisia and Australia. While they’ll play their best against Denmark and France, there’s no doubt both European teams will be favored.

France has a lot to figure out with the declines of Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba (who isn’t on the roster). Karim Benzema, Moussa Diaby, and Adrian Rabiot will be the top players expected to carry the offense. The French will be targeted heavily since they won the last World Cup title. Expect all three teams that play France in round one to give them their best game.

Denmark versus Australia to finish group play will determine who advances. The return of Christian Eriksen is a jolt to Denmark’s national team, a well-rounded and balanced offensive threat with a solid defense. Don’t be surprised if the Danes finish with a better point total than the rest of the group with how little pressure they’ll have compared with France.

Group E: Spain and Germany

Sleeper team Germany’s new coach in Hansi Flick is gradually building the team chemistry. The new identity makes the Germans a threat many have wanted to see again since 2014.

If Japan or Costa Rica have intentions of doing well this World Cup, they might be disappointed. Japan plays a re-vamped German team early led by new coach Hansi Flick. Flick’s team tied most of their competition until they faced current UEFA champion Italy and throttled them 5-2. The team has the additional benefit of already playing most of the tough European teams and making sure to not give up leads. While the Germans won’t blow most of the teams away early, their advance to round two will spell trouble for serious contenders.

Until proven otherwise, this is Spain’s group to lose. Their unique style of play involving overwhelming time of possession and passing (think of the FIFA version of Russia’s KHL) ensures they’ll finish in the top two of the group. Even in last year’s UEFA championship series, Italy had to do everything to knock Spain out. It’s possible Spain goes past round two if they dominate just as much as they did last year.

Group F: Belgium and Croatia

The last great runs for both Luka Modric (white, left) and Romelu Lukaku (blue, right) will dominate Group F storylines. Both Belgium and Croatia will be desperate to come close to a title for their country.

The sixth group will have two main storylines: those dominated by stars Romelu Lukaku, Luka Modric and their teams, and Canada’s chances to upset one of the two European teams to sneak into round two. Croatia not having Danijel Subasic in net in their UEFA bid was a warning the team had to play better defense against quality teams (such as England). Both Ivan Ivusic and Dominik Livakovic are 27 and will need to gain at least one win to give the team relief early in play. As for Modric’s supporting cast, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Andrej Kramaric are slowly entering the twilights of their careers. They all need good runs and some goals to push the Baltic nation far into tournament play.

There couldn’t be more pressure on a team other than Belgium, which has come short of the championship game at least twice since their golden generation has taken the field. Michy, Leandro Trossard and Christian Benteke will have one last chance to make the Cup final before their careers start a gradual descent.

They’ll have to play phenomenal because Canada is the first opponent for their group play. The Canadians have a dangerous team that can give the sixth group some problems if not taken seriously. Canada also has the benefit of playing a weaker Croatia and an okay-assembled Moroccan team. We’ll see early how both the older European teams counter an under-the-radar Canada team that could cause damage past the group stage.

Group G: Brazil and Switzerland

Brazil dominated Copa America play in 2021. They’re the favorites to win the World Cup in Qatar as most of the team reaches their prime.

Brazil is clearly the best team in the seventh group. They don’t underestimate their opponents and they overwhelm defenses. The team that advances with them is where curiosity rises. Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon have multiple weak-spots and whoever advances will have a hard time getting past stronger teams.

However, if there is a favorite among the three, it would be Switzerland. The team’s well coached and made squads in UEFA struggle to finish their scoring chances. Plus they’re great in extra time, something a lot of teams could improve on.

Group H: Portugal, Uruguay

With question marks surrounding Luis Suarez playing for Uruguay in Group H, Ronaldo’s Portugal becomes the favorite to win the group.

It’s a small eighth group. One of the best players in FIFA history will have his team favored to enter round two early. South Korea and Ghana don’t have enough on offense and will struggle to beat both Portugal and Uruguay.

Uruguay is the best bet to advance after Portugal. There are question marks on Luis Suarez playing (if he does, it will be his last World Cup). As of right now, he isn’t on the roster, despite many articles saying he’ll be playing by November. Age is a factor the team has to take note of outside the Suarez issue. Two of the goal-keepers are 35 years or higher and there are three defensemen who are 34 or older.

Despite the age issues, Uruguay is still a well-rounded team that was built to succeed with/out Suarez. Where they go after round one should intrigue audiences.

2022 Stanley Cup Finals

The finals matchup is set. Both Colorado and Tampa Bay are stacked with stars, quality depth, defense and offense. Their power-plays and penalty kills are some of the best since playoffs began. Whoever wins the finals deserves the accolades and label of champion. Without further delay, it’s time to break down which team has the best chance of winning the finals and taking home both the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup.

#5 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #1 Colorado Avalanche

Roster depth, brilliant captains, best defensemen remaining, prolific passing, scoring and shot-blocking. When we think of Colorado and Tampa Bay, this is what comes to mind. Coaches Jon Cooper and Jared Bednar have stayed calm and poised, guiding their teams series after series. Many fans and analysts believe this is the best Cup finals matchup in over a decade. All the action and quality play shown nationally prove it’s hard to disagree.

Two of the league’s fastest scoring and puck-handling stars in Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon face off in a championship series even casual viewers will remember for a long time.

The two time reigning champion Lightning should get a lineup boost especially on the power-play with the return of Brayden Point sometime this series. Despite his absence since round one’s game seven against Toronto, Tampa’s power-play stayed consistent and alert. Physical, gritty play generated from Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos and Pat Maroon propel the Lightning to take series leads, especially when game fives roll around. On defense and the penalty-kill, whenever elite defender Victor Hedman struggles, Ryan McDonagh, Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak, Zach Bogosian and Mikhail Sergachev step up to shot block and clog passing lanes.

Colorado swept Nashville and Edmonton, two quality teams a good part of the NHL had fits trying to contain. Despite a controversial series against the Blues, the Avalanche doubled down and outworked coach Craig Berube’s team. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar stepped up on both offense and defense. When Darcy Kuemper couldn’t play, Pavel Francouz filled in well and closed out two series in sweeps. Pesky star Nazem Kadri may not be available to play in the series, and that might determine how physical Colorado plays in the first three games.

Series deciding matchup: Nikita Kucherov v. Cale Makar

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar locked down Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid as best he could. The result was a four game sweep. Kucherov is much more talented, physical and ahead in his career than McDavid, adding new dimensions to his game. The younger Makar (along with Devon Toews) will have his hands full with the speedy superstar who can pass and launch the puck at any spot on the ice. Whoever wins this head-to-head gives their team the best chance of pushing the opposition around to win the series.

Verdict: This series reminds me of Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay team that went to the finals v. Chicago in 2015: high scoring, lots of speed and quality passing, and solid defense. Injuries in net stalled Tampa’s rhythm, causing coach Cooper to second guess who to start in net for games three, four and six. They were also relieved to get past the second round of the playoffs around that time. There’s a lot of the same structure in Colorado. Unfortunately for them the Lightning played stronger teams in the eastern conference. Tampa Bay’s obsession and want to win another title will establish them as the first dynasty of the 21st century.

Prediction: The Tampa Bay Lightning win the Conn Smythe and Lord Stanley’s Cup 4-2

Conference finals picks: 2-0
Overall Playoffs Picks: 9-5

2022 NBA Finals Championship Prediction

What an exciting finals matchup in the league’s 75th year of existence. Both the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors had phenomenal regular seasons and even better playoff runs. Boston routed Brooklyn, out-dueled Milwaukee and edged out Miami. There was either a sweep or a full seven game series. The Warriors broke down Denver, Memphis and Dallas teams highlighted by stars who finished their seasons with injuries or gasping for air. That’s why whoever loses this series could feel a low unlike any other. It’s time to break down which team has the best chance of winning not just another championship, but raising a banner on a notable and memorable NBA season.

#2 Boston Celtics v. #3 Golden State Warriors

The Warriors’ Stephen Curry won the first ever western conference finals MVP award. He anchors Golden State on their first finals run without Kevin Durant since 2016.

There’s a lot to love about Golden State this year. The trio of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green came back at full health entering the playoffs. Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole played lights-out all three rounds. Additional depth play from Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. solidify a top defensive unit and high scoring juggernaut.

The Celtics took advantage of every mismatch and outplayed every top opponent in the east. They bullied stars in every series. Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford are a fabulous four player set who take on and shut down any center or guard. Robert Williams, Daniel Theis and Payton Pritchard helped slow down forwards and offensive threats when playing major minutes. While Boston was pushed to the max their last two series, they stepped up and played their best basketball.

Verdict: This is a toss-up series. Both teams have every box checked and can convince any casual to hardcore basketball fan they can win. Yet the Warriors have some advantages Boston does not. Golden State is more seasoned, more experienced, and have more depth and offensive firepower the Celtics have yet to face in a full series. Ime Udoka hasn’t coached a team to the finals like Steve Kerr has. While the series will be fun, it won’t be surprising if the Warriors smother Boston the longer the series goes.

Prediction: Warriors win series and the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy 4-1

2022 NBA Playoff Picks Record: 10-4

2022 NHL Eastern Conference Finals Prediction

We’re here at last. The best two teams in the east made it to the conference finals. On one side, the well designed, balanced and surprising New York Rangers. Led by coach Gerard Gallant, Vezina candidate Igor Shesterkin and veteran Chris Kreider, the Rangers rallied from multiple two game deficits to win both full seven game series in thrilling fashion. On the other side, back-to-back and current champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Captain Steven Stamkos and last year’s Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy have played some of their best hockey this playoffs. Both teams will have their hands full, and many believe whoever wins this series is the favorite to win the championship. Time to break down who has the best chance to not just win the eastern conference, but possibly the Stanley Cup.

#4 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #3 New York Rangers

Two of the postseason’s most pivotal players have been New York’s Mika Zibanejad and Tampa Bays Steven Stamkos. Without their scoring prowess and high IQ plays, both teams aren’t in the conference finals.

New York and Tampa Bay have excellent coaches, Vezina and Conn Smythe caliber goaltenders, important scorers and elite playmakers. The Rangers won all three of the regular season matchups against Tampa, two by two goals or more. Center Brayden Point may play the series starting game three thanks to the Lightning’s quick sweep of the Florida Panthers. Tampa’s had at least nine days of rest while New York will again play every other day in a seven game series (minus a two day break if they can force a game seven). The Rangers defense got better the more they played a series, and gradually took over previous rounds against Pittsburgh and Carolina.

Series deciding matchup: The Kid Line of Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere has to beat Tampa’s third line of Nick Paul, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare/Corey Perry and Brandon Hagel. Most of the third line contributors are young and haven’t played past four seasons in the NHL. All of them will be tasked with major minutes and contributing not just in scoring but in momentum swings, blocked shots and physical defensive play.

Verdict: New York seems to play better when they have a series deficit versus their opponents. However they’ll be playing against the most qualified opponent who’s proven to win critical games both on the road and at home. The Lightning’s hungry new additions of Perry, Paul, Bellemare and of course Andre Vasilevskiy’s elite play after a loss or in a game seven doesn’t give the Rangers many options to string consecutive wins together. Tampa doesn’t like to dither with teams when they lead two games in a series.

Prediction: Lightning win series 4-2

Eastern conference playoff predictions after two rounds: 5-1

2022 NHL Western Conference Finals Prediction

The final two teams out west accomplished what many analysts and fans doubted: getting past the second round of the playoffs. There’s excitement over a Connor McDavid v. Nathan MacKinnon conference finals. Both are top skill players who score and accumulate points in any possible ways. Yet both teams are inexperienced this far in the postseason. It’s time to break down which team has the best shot of advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

#5 Edmonton Oilers v. #1 Colorado Avalanche

Colorado’s Nazem Kadri (left) decided last series by taking out Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington early. Besides controversial antics, Kadri’s scoring and pestering play are a big reason the Avalanche finally made it out of round two.

On paper there are many similarities between the Oilers and Avalanche that propelled both teams to the conference finals. Their starting goaltenders at one time played for Arizona, they score a lot of goals, they’re menacing on the power-play, they’re have great first lines, and both added veteran experience at the trade deadline.

On film Colorado’s the superior team. The Avalanche’s depth strengthens on the third line where J.T. Compher, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Andre Burakovsky flip games and score in needed times. Even the third line defensive pairing of Jack Johnson and Josh Manson can outplay and scrap better than Edmonton’s third line of Tyson Barrie and Brett Kulak.

The deciding factor is fluidity. The Avalanche can be a speedy, high-octane offense or play gritty and punishing. The Oilers aren’t at the dual threat stage yet, but Edmonton’s fans and spectators can be happy the team’s finally in the desired direction.

Prediction: Avalanche wins series 4-1

Western conference playoff predictions: 2-4