Is two games enough of a sample size to glean pertinent information about an NFL team's prospects? Probably not.

Has that ever stopped anyone from making definitive statements about teams and the potential outcome of their season? You already know the answer to that one.

But one thing nobody -- not even the loudest talking head -- can say for certain is that they know who the frontrunner is in the NFC.

In the AFC, plenty are already falling over themselves to crown the Buffalo Bills. An extremely compelling case can be made for the Chiefs and maybe even the Los Angeles Chargers if they can keep Justin Herbert from further injury.

The NFC, though? That's an extremely tough conference to decipher at this early stage.

That is not to say there aren't standout teams. To the contrary, there are six that look to have an excellent shot of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl as they all reside in the top 10 of Stats Perform's power rankings.

Two of them will face off at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Green Bay Packers in what could be the final meeting between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who met in the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago. The Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams will visit the San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of last year's title game in Week 4.

But which of that group has the best shot? Stats Perform has used its advanced data to examine the case for each of the six.
 

Philadelphia Eagles

Record: 2-0

Power ranking: 1

The Eagles have firmly lived up to their offseason hype so far, with Jalen Hurts piloting an efficient offense that is the most explosive in the NFL through two weeks.

Indeed, the Eagles are fourth in yards per play on offense while, prior to Thursday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, no team in the NFL had produced more plays of 10 yards or more than Philadelphia's 39.

A.J. Brown, their blockbuster draft-day trade acquisition, has quickly built a superb rapport with Hurts. The former Tennessee Titans wide receiver has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 14 of his 21 targets and is averaging 8.2 burn yards per route (the league average is 3.6).

The threat Hurts provides in the run game has helped Philadelphia rack up 189.5 yards per game on the ground, second only to the Browns. While a small sample size, the Eagles' early success on the ground is illustrative of just how difficult they are to stop with the diversity of their attack.

There's more reason for doubt on defense, with a three-interception effort against the Minnesota Vikings in which the Eagles allowed only seven points following a 38-35 shootout with the Detroit Lions. Yet a very favourable schedule may not see any defensive failings properly tested until Week 12 against the Packers and allow Philadelphia to move into prime position to compete for the NFC's top seed.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Record: 2-0

Power ranking: 4

Tampa Bay's average margin of victory across two games is 13 points. The Bucs eased past the Dallas Cowboys 19-3 and eventually emerged from a fist fight with the New Orleans Saints as 20-10 victors.

Yet it's tough to declare their start to the season as overly impressive, at least by Brady's lofty standards.

The Bucs have scored only two offensive touchdowns as they have battled injuries at the wide receiver position and struggles on the much-changed interior of the offensive line.

Rather than Brady making a hot start to the season he initially decided against playing, it is the Bucs' defense that has led the way.

There were 182 seconds left in their game with the Saints by the time they surrendered a touchdown for the first time this season, with the Bucs conceding only 4.25 yards per play, the third-fewest in the NFL.

Rodgers and Green Bay will provide an early and stern test of their credentials, but there is evidence to suggest the Bucs will eventually have a recipe for a potential second championship run in three seasons.

For all the protection issues in front of him, Brady has delivered a well-thrown ball on 81.7 per cent of his pass attempts and has thrown just one pickable pass in 60 throws. Given the defense's level of play and the weapons the Bucs still have to return, it stands to reason they will soon be delivering much more complete performances that will greatly enhance their reputation as contenders.

Los Angeles Rams

Record 1-1

Power ranking: 3

Thrashed by Buffalo on the night they raised their Super Bowl banner before having to survive a remarkable late scare against the lowly Atlanta Falcons, the Rams do not look like a team ready to repeat.

They still sit third in the power rankings, but there are plenty of red flags surrounding the Rams in this embryonic season.

It is the pass protection that stands as the most pressing concern, Matthew Stafford was under constant duress in the opener and injuries up front have hurt the Rams' cause further, hindering Stafford to the point where he is averaging almost half a yard under expectation in expected passing situations.

With 58 total points allowed, there are clearly vast improvements to be made on defense, too.

However, Aaron Donald already has a league-leading 17 pressures and Jalen Ramsey came up with the game-clinching interception in the endzone against Atlanta, and that often decisive star power makes the Rams a tough team to count out, especially with a game against an Arizona Cardinals team they have consistently dominated on the horizon in Week 3.

San Francisco 49ers

Record 1-1

Power ranking: 5

The greatest threat to the Rams from inside their own division comes from the team who suffered an injury that would have ended the hopes of most teams in the league.

San Francisco lost quarterback Trey Lance in just his second game of his first season as starter in the 49ers' 27-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Yet, by keeping Jimmy Garoppolo around on a restructured contract, the 49ers gave themselves an insurance policy, one that can keep them firmly in the mix even without Lance.

Garoppolo has helped the 49ers to the brink of Super Bowl glory in the 2019 season and the NFC Championship Game last term and, while the Niners' ceiling without Lance is perhaps lowered, the floor of Super Bowl-calibre roster has been raised by the former New England Patriot's return to the line-up.

Though they suffered an upset at the hands of a Chicago Bears in Week 1, the 49ers have one of the most complete rosters in the league and their defense is off to a magnificent start, allowing the second-fewest yards per play (4.08) in the NFL.

It was anticipated the safety position may be a weakness. Instead, it has so far been an unexpected strength, as has an inexperienced and remodelled offensive line that has won 81.6 per cent of its pass-blocking matchups. It will be tough to identify an obvious flaw on this team if the pass protection continues to excel, with the play in the trenches made even more critical because of Garoppolo's long injury history.

Minnesota Vikings

Record: 1-1

Power ranking: 8

Hopes the Vikings could become one of the most dynamic offensive teams in football under Kevin O'Connell were damaged by Monday's 24-7 defeat to the Eagles.

Despite another vintage primetime meltdown from Kirk Cousins, the Vikings have the makeup of a team that could contend to go deep in the NFC playoffs if things break right.

They demonstrated how dangerous O'Connell's offense can be in their opening win over the Packers, with Justin Jefferson weaponised by the former Rams assistant's complex attack.

Even though he was kept in check by Philadelphia, Jefferson's 8.5 burn yards per target are the fifth-most among receivers with at least 10 targets in the first two games.

The offensive line remains a problem, but the early signs are that the Vikings' defensive front will be one that tilts games in their favour, having already registered six sacks for negative yardage.

Cousins is delivering the ball accurately, posting a well-thrown rate of 86.5 per cent and, though there are questions about his ability to perform under the brightest spotlight, a schedule that features 10 games against 2021 non-playoff teams could give the Vikings the edge of their division rivals in the fight to get to the NFL's postseason pressure cooker.

Green Bay Packers

Record: 1-1

Power ranking: 9

The Packers got the poor start out of the way in a Week 1 loss in Minnesota that left Aaron Rodgers visibly exasperated. Normal service was resumed, however, in the routine Week 2 win over the Bears.

Green Bay's problem is that the Packers have a roster in which several holes can be picked. The offensive line has struggled amid left tackle David Bakhtiari's prolonged absence, while the Packers' hopes of fixing their continually porous run defense have not come to pass as yet. They have surrendered 5.56 yards per play on the ground, the fourth-most in the NFL.

Rodgers has yet to build a rapport with a young receiver corps as the Packers look to put the Davante Adams saga and eventual trade to the Las Vegas Raiders behind them. Though the lack of a connection may be more down to a paucity of faith in his inexperienced wideouts' ability to catch the ball, rather than any worries about their success in creating separation.

Second-round pick Christian Watson has recorded an impressive 14.4 burn yards per target on the small sample size of seven targets. With Rodgers delivering a well-thrown ball on 89.3 per cent of his attempts, it might not be too long before Watson becomes a more integral part of the passing game, though the diversity the Packers gain through having running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon on the field at the same time can keep the offense performing efficiently regardless of how the wideouts progress.

Jones, unquestionably one of the most complete backs in the NFL, has produced a big play on three of his eight targets this season, with defenses forced to respect both the run and the pass when he and Dillon line up in two-running back personnel groupings.

The Packers' secondary, despite being shredded by Jefferson in Week 1, is in the top 12 in open percentage allowed while the strength of their defensive line has Green Bay in the top 12 in pass rush win percentage.

Both the front and the back of the Green Bay defense have the talent to rise much higher on those lists and, if such strides are accompanied by Rodgers developing an understanding with his new weapons, the Packers will likely soon have a compelling case for being the conference's elite.

"Anticipation has the habit to set you up for disappointment."

That refrain from The Arctic Monkeys song 'The View From The Afternoon' applies perfectly to the world of fantasy football, where high expectations are often not reflected by the end result.

While it is too early in the NFL season to be writing off teams and players who have not lived up to their hype as yet, there will already be fantasy owners getting impatient with certain players they drafted to help their team to glory.

Fans of the Las Vegas Raiders will certainly be irritated by their winless start while two offensive stars in the NFC West have yet to deliver much for differing reasons.

Keep that theme and that division in mind as Stats Perform dives into this week's edition of fantasy picks.

Quarterback: Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders @ Tennessee Titans

Is it time to panic in Vegas after an 0-2 start? It certainly will be if the Raiders do not get it done against the also winless Titans.

Recent evidence quite clearly points to the Raiders' quarterback putting Las Vegas in a position to finally get up and running against a Tennessee defense that was shredded by the Buffalo Bills in Week 2.

The Titans are giving up seven yards per pass play, the seventh-most in the NFL, while the six passing touchdowns they have conceded are the third most.

Las Vegas' offense may not be on the same level as that of Buffalo, but the Raiders should have more than enough to consistently take advantage of a Titans defense that has been hit by injuries and reward fantasy players willing to give Carr a shot.

Running Back: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles @ Washington Commanders

The Eagles' offense is built around quarterback Jalen Hurts, with his ability to thrive running the ball a critical component of their early success this year.

But Sanders' 20 touches in the win over the Minnesota Vikings illustrated that he too is a key part of the attack.

Through two weeks, he is averaging 88 yards per game on the ground and this week gets to face a Commanders defense allowing 7.48 yards per rush, the highest average in the NFL.

Sanders should, therefore, be a high-floor fantasy play at running back this week, though Hurts' involvement in the ground game somewhat limits his ceiling.

Wide Receiver: Allen Robinson, Los Angeles Rams @ Arizona Cardinals

The highly anticipated return to form for Robinson following his move to Los Angeles has yet to come to fruition, though he did find the endzone last week against the Atlanta Falcons.

In Week 3, he has a clear opportunity to build on that showing against a Cardinals team whose failures should not be masked by their incredible comeback win over the Raiders.

The Cardinals have allowed 7.65 yards per pass play in the first two games and seven passing touchdowns, the most in the NFL.

In other words, the Rams should have little problem moving the ball on Arizona, putting Robinson in position to have a big day as a mismatch in the red zone.

Tight End: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers @ Denver Broncos

The Niners should get Kittle back from a groin injury this week, and the fact the Jimmy Garoppolo has had to step in for the injured Trey Lance is unlikely to have any negative impact on his production.

Kittle's chemistry with Garoppolo is well-established and, though theoretically he has a tough matchup against a stingy Broncos defense, there is room for optimism he will immediately hit the ground running in his season debut.

That optimism stems from the Broncos' performance against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1, when Denver allowed eight catches for 102 yards and a touchdown to tight ends, an average of 12.75 yards per reception.

If Kittle is allowed to do similar damage, then arguably the best yards after catch threat at his position could make it a long night for Denver and a great one for fantasy players with him on their roster.

Defense/Special Teams: Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints

OK. Listing the 0-2 Panthers here might elicit a double take, but there's logic behind this pick, believe it or not.

The Panthers may be heading to a complete teardown come the end of the year, but the defense is not the reason behind their struggles.

They have given up just 4.31 yards per play, the fourth-best average in the NFL, and just three offensive touchdowns.

Yes, the Saints are the better team, but they are also starting a quarterback in Jameis Winston who has four fractures in his back.

A low-scoring struggle is the most likely outcome in this NFC South matchup and, for that reason, the Panthers are a defense worthy of streaming for fantasy players in a bind at that spot.

It was smooth sailing in the first half for the Los Angeles Rams before some late shenanigans resulted in a narrow 31-27 win at home against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

The Rams were cooking early, jumping ahead in the first quarter when quarterback Matthew Stafford decided to feed newly acquired wide receiver Allen Robinson II for a one-yard touchdown.

Their 7-0 lead was doubled to 14-0 when Darrell Henderson rushed one in from eight yards out, and after a Falcons field goal, the Rams added their third touchdown of the half with a three-yard fade to the back corner of the endzone for Cooper Kupp.

Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Kupp nabbed his second of the game after half-time, getting on the end of a 10-yard pass to make it 28-3. He went on to finish with 11 catches from 14 targets for 108 yards and two touchdowns, after snagging 13 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown in Week 1.

While the game appeared dead, nobody told the Falcons as they began to march back into the contest.

The first receiver taken in this year's NFL Draft – Drake London, at pick eight – gave the Falcons their first touchdown of the night, and the first of his career, when he reeled in a four-yard pass from Marcus Mariota.

Another field goal for the Rams would extend their lead to 31-10, which was cut to 31-17 when Olamide Zaccheaus found some space for an 11-yard touchdown reception with eight minutes remaining.

The Rams clearly felt they had done enough for the win, and were content to punt the ball away on their next drive, only for the punt to get blocked, scooped up and run in by Lorenzo Carter for a Falcons touchdown, with a two-point conversion cutting the deficit to 31-25.

Atlanta would get a chance to drive down and win the game after Kupp coughed up an uncharacteristic fumble, but Mariota's pass into the endzone was picked off by Jalen Ramsey, allowing the Rams to run out the clock, even taking an intentional safety in the process to drain the time.

Stafford completed 27 of 36 passes for 272 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, and with Falcons running back Damien Williams placed on injured reserve, Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allegier split the carries with 10 each.

Wilson's Broncos ride to choppy first win

New Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson heard boos in his first home game in Empower Field at Mile High, but did enough to earn an unimpressive 16-9 win against the Houston Texans.

The Broncos trailed 6-3 in the final seconds of the first half, and with fourth-and-goal at the one yard line they opted to trot out the kicker, which was met with a chorus of boos for the coaching decision.

After an interception on the opening drive of the second half, Wilson himself was met with boos as he had only completed six-of-18 passes up until that point, but a touchdown pass to Eric Saubert at the start of the fourth quarter was enough to get the Broncos over the line.

Wilson ended up completing 14 of his 31 passes for 219 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and he relied heavily on receiver Courtland Sutton, who reeled in seven of his 11 targets for 122 yards.

What a first week of the NFL season that was.

So much drama, so many late twists, and it's almost time to do it all over again as Week 2 looms on the horizon.

Sunday sees Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looking to follow up their opening win against the Dallas Cowboys when they head to New Orleans, the Los Angeles Rams will aim to get on the board when they host the Atlanta Falcons, while Russell Wilson's first home game for the Denver Broncos sees them welcome the Houston Texans.

With all that and more, Stats Perform has used Opta data to preview the weekend's action in the NFL.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0) @ New Orleans Saints (1-0)

The Saints have won their last seven regular-season games against the Buccaneers, matching the longest previous winning streak by either team in this rivalry, a run of seven consecutive wins by New Orleans from 2011 to 2014. Tampa Bay did beat the Saints in a Divisional Playoff game following the 2020 season.

Tampa Bay had one interception (by Antoine Winfield Junior) in their season-opening win at Dallas. The Bucs were 11-0 last season in games in which they intercepted at least one pass. The Green Bay Packers (also 11-0) were the only other NFL team to go unbeaten last season in games in which they recorded one or more interceptions.

New Orleans won their season opener in Atlanta, 27-26, after trailing 26-10 in the fourth quarter. It was the first time in franchise history that the Saints won a game in which they trailed by 16 or more points in the fourth quarter, and only the third time they won a game in which they were behind by 16 or more points in the second half.

Tom Brady and the Bucs lost their last game against the Saints, 9-0 (Week 15 last season). That is one of only three times that Brady's team has been shut out in his 317 regular-season and 47 postseason starts in the NFL. The other shutouts were in 2003 (Patriots at Buffalo, 31-0 in Week 1) and 2014 (Patriots at Miami, 21-0 in Week 14).

Atlanta Falcons (0-1) @ Los Angeles Rams (0-1)

Including their original stint in California and time in St. Louis, the Rams are 28-8-2 (.778) at home against their former NFC West rival, Atlanta Falcons. That is the best home record of any franchise against a single opponent (minimum of 30 games) in NFL history.

Cordarrelle Patterson rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown in Atlanta's season opener. At 31 years old, Patterson is the second-oldest player in team history to have 100+ rushing yards and a touchdown run in a game, behind only Warrick Dunn, who had two such games.

The Rams started the season with a 31-10 loss to the Bills, the largest home loss in a season opener ever by a defending Super Bowl champion. The team has not started a season at 0-2 since 2011 when they were in St. Louis and have not lost their first two games as the Los Angeles Rams since 1987.

Cooper Kupp tied a career high with 13 catches in the opener against Buffalo. Including playoffs, Kupp has at least five receptions in each of the Rams' last 22 games. Only Antonio Brown has a longer such streak of team games with five or more catches in the Super Bowl era (37).

Houston Texans (0-0-1) @ Denver Broncos (0-1)

The Texans opened their season with a 20-20 tie against the Indianapolis Colts, despite being outgained by 218 yards in the game. Prior to Houston on Sunday, the last team to tie a game while having 200+ yards less than their opponent was the Packers against the Broncos in 1987.

In his first game with the Texans, O.J. Howard scored touchdowns on each of his two receptions. Howard joins Jaelen Strong as the only players to ever have two TD catches in their team debut for Houston.

Denver committed 12 penalties in their 17-16 loss to the Seahawks on Monday. It was the most penalties the Broncos have ever committed in a season opener, surpassing the 11 penalties they had to kick off the 1970 season against the Bills.

Russell Wilson threw for 340 yards against the Seahawks in his Denver debut. It was the most passing yards by a Broncos QB on their debut with the team and Wilson's 12th career game with 340+ passing yards (his teams are 5-7 in those games).

Elsewhere...

The New England Patriots travel to the Pittsburgh Steelers after suffering a 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, and have not started a season with consecutive double-digit losses since losing three straight games by such a margin to begin the 1969 campaign.

Baltimore's Lamar Jackson threw for three touchdowns against the New York Jets after throwing three or more TDs just twice all of last season. Before they host the Dolphins, it is notable that, in his career, the Ravens are 13-1 when Jackson has three or more pass TDs, the second-best team record among active players behind Josh Allen at 14-1 (minimum 10 such games).

Starting with their 2013 NFC Championship game success over the 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks are 15-2 in their last 17 games against San Francisco, which includes season sweeps in 2020 and 2021. The 15 wins since January 2014 are tied with the Patriots (vs. Jets) for the most by an NFL team against a single opponent in that span (including playoffs).

The Arizona Cardinals will need to watch Davante Adams, who had 10 catches for 141 yards on 17 targets in his Las Vegas Raiders debut. That is the most targets for any player in their first career game with the Raiders in the past 30 seasons. The only other with player with 15+ targets in their Raiders debut over that span is Randy Moss in 2005 (15).

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay admitted it was a "humbling experience" to lose 31-10 to the Buffalo Bills in the opening game of the new NFL season.

The Bills looked strong throughout at SoFi Stadium, with quarterback Josh Allen putting in a sensational performance as he threw three touchdowns, rushed for one of his own, and completed 26 of 31 passes for a total of 297 yards.

After unveiling their Super Bowl LVI banner, the Rams struggled in front of their own fans as all 10 of their points came in the second quarter, with Buffalo shutting them out in the second half.

"When you look at a lot of the ways that this game unfolded, [I] feel a huge sense of responsibility to this team," McVay said after the loss.

"We weren't ready to go. I take a lot of pride in that, and that's on me. I've got to do better. There were a lot of decisions that I made that I felt didn't put our players in good enough spots.

"So it was a humbling experience, but we're going to stay connected. We're going to all look inward. We're going to do a better job moving forward."

Allen became the first QB in NFL history to record 250+ passing yards, 50+ rushing yards, three or more passing TDs, a rushing TD, 80 per cent completions and a win in the same game.

Speaking to NBC after the victory, Allen said: "We knew if we came out and tried to execute the way we know we can execute, we were going to move the ball the ball and score. Our defense played a hell of a game.

"Defense's job is to get the ball back, but the offense can help and let them go and pin their ears back by getting up and putting them in legit passing situations and letting them go. 

"We got a bunch of dawgs up front. [Former Ram Von Miller] is the leader of that D-line and they played outstanding."

The Bills play the Tennessee Titans at Highmark Stadium in Week 2, while the Rams will look to put their opening defeat behind them as they host the Atlanta Falcons.

The Buffalo Bills were too strong for the reigning Super Bowl champions in the NFL's season kickoff on Thursday night, shutting the Los Angeles Rams down in the second half to run away 31-10 winners on the road.

It was a stylish start for the Bills as they received the opening kick and marched down the field in nine plays, culminating in a 26-yard touchdown pass from Josh Allen to Gabriel Davis for the first score of the season.

That set the table for what looked like it may be a shootout, but the rust was still clearly not shaken off as the next five combined possessions resulted in three turnovers and two punts.

A beautiful throw from Matthew Stafford found Cooper Kupp in the back corner of the endzone late in the second quarter, and after Allen's second interception of the game, a 57-yard field goal as time expired from Matt Gay had things tied at 10-10 going into halftime.

There were warning signs for the Rams as they needed three Bills turnovers to remain competitive, and when the visitors cleaned things up in the second half, the hosts had no answer.

The first three Bills drives of the second half all resulted in touchdowns, with Allen rushing for one score, finding Isaiah McKenzie for a short-range touchdown, and heaving long for a 53-yarder to Stefon Diggs to complete the rout.

Stafford could only find success throwing to star receiver Cooper Kupp, who finished with 13 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown from his 15 targets, while the five other players to catch a pass combined for 16 catches for 112 yards on 25 targets. He also had three interceptions after one more in garbage time.

Allen finished 26-of-31 for 297 yards with three touchdowns and two picks, adding 10 rushes for 56 yards and a score on the ground. Diggs was his top receiver with eight catches for 122 yards and a touchdown from nine targets.

The NFL is set to hold a moment of silence ahead of Thursday's season-opening kick-off encounter between the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Rams following the death of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.

The reigning Super Bowl champions will make the trip to New York state to start their defence in the 2022 campaign curtain raiser.

Before a ball is kicked however, both teams will pay tribute to the late monarch, Britain's longest-reigning sovereign at the time of her passing at the age of 96.

"Everyone at NFL UK is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Her Majesty The Queen, Elizabeth II," read an official message posted to social media by the league.

"Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with The Royal Family. We join all those mourning the loss of Her Majesty."

The NFL is due to hold three games in London this year as part of their International Series, with the first to come in week four between the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Hours before beginning defence of their Super Bowl title, the Los Angeles Rams announced they have agreed to extensions with head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead through the 2026 season.

McVay has led the Rams to four playoff appearances and two trips to the Super Bowl in five seasons since the team made the then 30-year-old the youngest head coach in modern NFL history in 2017.

He became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl at age 36 when Los Angeles defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in February.

The 2017 NFL Coach of the Year's 55 regular-season victories are tied with Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin for the third-most of any coach through his first five seasons in NFL history.

McVay also sports a 7-3 postseason record with three NFC West titles over his tenure, along with an NFC championship in 2018 that resulted in the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years.

Snead, entering his 11th season as the Rams' GM after remaining with the team following its move from St. Louis back to Los Angeles in 2016, has also played a major part in the franchise's recent success by assembling one of the league's most talented rosters through the draft and trades.

The Rams have drafted five Pro Bowl players, most notably three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and 2021 Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp, under Snead's watch.

The 51-year-old has also established a reputation as one of the league's most aggressive and shrewd executives by acquiring several other members of last season's championship core via the trade and free agent markets.

Snead snared three-time All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey from the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019 and landed quarterback Matthew Stafford in a blockbuster trade with the Detroit Lions in March 2021.

He later made two significant in-season moves that contributed to last season's title run by trading for star pass rusher Von Miller and signing wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

"As an organisation we constantly strive to better ourselves every day. This requires selflessness, dedication and great leadership throughout. Sean and Les personify this mindset," Rams owner Stan Kroenke said in a statement.

"They have been crucial to many of our successes that transcend wins and losses. They epitomise the 'We, not me' mantra that permeates the entire organisation.

"We look forward to many more exciting seasons at SoFi Stadium as Sean and Les continue to play meaningful roles within the organisation and throughout the community."

Los Angeles will kick off the 2022 NFL season Thursday night at SoFi Stadium against reigning AFC East champion, the Buffalo Bills.

The idea of "any given Sunday" is what makes the NFL so compelling.

Any one team can beat another, and that means at this stage of the season, with the first snap still to be taken, every team can have Super Bowl aspirations.

Sort of.

The Cincinnati Bengals, for example, may have been slightly surprising contenders in 2021, but there remain some teams whose title hopes are so remote as to be non-existent.

For some, this is because they have missed their shot at glory in recent years; for others, the plan is to challenge in seasons to come.

So, this leads us to draw up a preseason tier system, ranking all 32 teams by their Super Bowl windows with the help of Stats Perform AI predictions...

Nowhere near

This is unlikely to be a season to remember for the teams grouped in this category, for a variety of reasons.

The Houston Texans won the AFC South in 2018 and 2019, but the Deshaun Watson saga and two down years have them looking at a rebuild, with the data forecasting just 4.8 wins this year. That at least ranks them ahead of the Atlanta Falcons (3.6 projected wins) and the New York Giants (4.2), while the Texans did gain draft assets in the Watson trade.

The Chicago Bears are the fourth and final team projected to earn fewer than six wins (4.9), with second-year quarterback Justin Fields receiving little help on offense and playing behind an offensive line ranked 31st in pass protection.

Meanwhile, the Washington Commanders rank 31st in terms of skill players – better only than the Falcons – with faith in Carson Wentz long since having diminished. In Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, the Carolina Panthers have two high-draft-pick QBs unlikely to trouble the postseason. The New York Jets are in a similar boat, even if Zach Wilson is still young.

The Detroit Lions might argue they do not deserve to keep such company after a 3-3 finish to last season, but nobody could seriously argue they are title contenders.

Entering contention

If that first group was a mixed bag, so too is the second.

Anyone who has paid any attention to the New England Patriots' preseason would suggest they are very fortunate to be given any hope of success in the near future, but they finished with 10 wins in 2021 – even if that number is projected to shrink to 7.7. Despite a trade for Tyreek Hill, that still ranks the Patriots comfortably ahead of the Miami Dolphins (7.0), although the losing team in their Week 1 meeting will face a long slog of a season.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Philadelphia Eagles are forecast to have 11.9 wins – the second-most in the NFL – after a very strong offseason. But Jalen Hurts, for now, is unproven in the postseason, so Philly fans may have to stay patient.

The San Francisco 49ers are even younger at QB after promoting Trey Lance to a starting role, which explains why the prediction model looks so unfavourably on a team many consider contenders right now. Just 7.1 projected wins speaks to the potentially low floor Lance brings.

NFC West rivals the Arizona Cardinals have to be considered among this group of future hopefuls, with Kyler Murray hugely talented and now committed long term but frustratingly inconsistent, while the Jacksonville Jaguars will hope Trevor Lawrence can follow in the footsteps of the Bengals' Joe Burrow – the number one pick the year before him.

The Los Angeles Chargers, with 9.8 projected wins, have Justin Herbert to lead their charge, while the Cleveland Browns might have been contenders already if not for Watson's suspension, which is enough to limit them to a still strong 9.3-win forecast.

In their prime

The Chargers may have Herbert, but they also have three division rivals who intend to win and intend to win now. Indeed, all four AFC West teams rank in the top half of the league in terms of projected wins, with the Chargers second – behind the Kansas City Chiefs (11.5) and just ahead of the Denver Broncos (9.7) and the Las Vegas Raiders (9.2).

The Chiefs lead the AFC in this regard, although their playoff win over the Buffalo Bills last season came down to a coin flip, and the two are set to be similarly tough to separate this year. Buffalo are down for 11.1 wins.

The two teams coming off a Super Bowl run are of course prominent among the contenders, even if the model has far greater optimism for a Los Angeles Rams repeat than for another Bengals charge. The Rams are backed for a league-leading 12.4 wins and given a 15.3 per cent shot at defending their title, while the Bengals are actually projected to dip below .500 with 8.2 wins.

The Bengals' route to the Super Bowl will be complicated not just by the AFC West and the Bills but also by any return to form for the fit-again Lamar Jackson's Baltimore Ravens, who are counted among nine teams on course for 10 or more wins (10.4).

Also in that group are NFC pair the Dallas Cowboys (11.0) and the Minnesota Vikings (10.9), who may not even be the best teams in their divisions but might be nearing a point when they must seriously challenge or start again, which brings us to...

Last chance saloon

As long as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the QBs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers, those teams are in with a chance. The question is how long that will remain the case.

Brady is 45, briefly retired this offseason and then missed a chunk of the preseason. Rodgers is 38, has repeatedly been linked with a move away from Green Bay and lost top target Davante Adams ahead of the new season. Still, the Buccaneers rank eighth for projected wins (10.7), with the Packers up in third (11.5).

They are not the only ageing teams in the NFL, however.

The Indianapolis Colts hope they have upgraded in moving from Wentz to Matt Ryan, yet the former MVP is now 37 and last played in the postseason in 2017 – when Wentz's Eagles took the title.

Tennessee Titans QB Ryan Tannehill is a little younger at 34, but of greater concern would be Derrick Henry's durability after the injury that limited to eight games last regular season. The Titans need to make the most of any seasons they have left of the superstar running back going at full tilt.

Missed their chance

Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees won Super Bowls with the Seattle Seahawks, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New Orleans Saints respectively, but with all three having now moved on, it is difficult to see those teams plotting a path to the title.

For the Seahawks and the Steelers, this will be their first year without their stalwart QBs, even if things had already gone stale in 2021. Wilson dipped below the .500 mark for a season for the first time in his career, while Pittsburgh were attempting to stay competitive in spite of Roethlisberger rather than because of him.

Still, with both gone – Wilson to Denver and Roethlisberger to retirement – there is a void under center that has not been suitably filled. Seattle also rank 32nd in pass protection, likely leaving Geno Smith hopelessly exposed.

The Saints have had another 12 months to come to terms with Brees' exit, albeit they spent it juggling Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill at QB. Winston's season-ending injury doomed the Saints' hopes of contention last year, and New Orleans' outlook for 9.5 wins with the entertaining but erratic former number one pick is at least far more positive than that of the Seahawks (6.2) or the Steelers (7.0).

Regardless, each of these three teams have provided an example in how not to do succession planning. They all could have won additional honours with their departed veterans and now face long waits for further title tilts.

The time is almost upon us. When that first ball is kicked at the start of the Los Angeles Rams' opener against the Buffalo Bills on Thursday, we will be on our way to yet another enthralling season of NFL action.

And there are few better reasons to get excited at the beginning of a new campaign than the promise of a good old redemption story.

These tales may not necessarily revolve around someone who has suffered a fall from grace, though; in some cases, it might just be someone who has taken a smidge longer than expected to blossom.

So, before the thunder and lightning of a new NFL season, Stats Perform has taken a look at five men who could have a touch more motivation to show everything they have to offer in 2022.

Baker Mayfield – Carolina Panthers

Mayfield perhaps leaps out as the most obvious choice.

Big things were expected of the quarterback when he was the number one pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, charged with leading a flailing 0-16 Cleveland Browns.

There were moments of promise in his four years in Cleveland, throwing 27 touchdowns in 14 games in his first season, and in 2020 he played a big part in getting the Browns to the playoffs, unthinkable when he came through the door.

However, in 2021, Mayfield threw just 18 TD passes, the worst season of his career, as a Browns team who were starting to feel like they had outgrown him finished 8-9.

Of quarterbacks to have more than 300 passing attempts, only Sam Darnold (59.9), Trevor Lawrence (59.6) and Zach Wilson (55.6) had a lower pass completion percentage than his 60.5.

After a lot of uncertainty, he finally found a new home after being traded to the Panthers, who are in desperate need of a quality QB after the Darnold experiment failed last year.

It is a risk for both parties, and both need it to work, but you could also argue it could not get much worse for either.

Gabe Davis – Buffalo Bills

There had not been any immediately obvious signs that Davis was going to be a breakout star for the Bills for most of his first two seasons.

Seven TDs in his rookie year – and none in the playoffs from only four catches – were followed by just six in the 2021 regular season.

However, thanks to his explosive performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in last season's playoffs, plenty are excited about what could come from Davis and the much-fancied Bills in 2022.

His four TDs and 201 yards from eight receptions – for an average of 25.1 yards – were still not enough as the Chiefs ultimately won the AFC Divisional Round encounter in overtime, but Davis emerged as a potential new star.

By the end of the campaign, no player had recorded over 1,000 burn yards – yards in situations where a receiver 'wins' his matchup against a defender – from fewer receptions (45) than Davis.

But was this a one-off, or can Davis do it all over again? We will soon find out.

Trevor Lawrence – Jacksonville Jaguars

Lawrence could end up being a very similar story to Mayfield. He was also the number one pick for a team with little else going for it.

In his rookie year, Lawrence threw for 12 TDs, but his poor pass completion percentage was set out above.

He remained a busy man regardless, with only six QBs making more than his 602 pass attempts, but the Jaguars could only manage three wins, two more than in 2020.

Whether it was sloppy throwing or feeling the need to take risks with little assistance, Lawrence threw 26 pickable passes, with only four QBs who made over 300 pass attempts seeing a worse pickable pass percentage than his 4.59 per cent (Jimmy Garoppolo – 4.82, Taylor Heinicke – 5.04, Zach Wilson – 5.21, Davis Mills – 5.56).

There is undoubted talent there, hence the hype when he was picked up by Jacksonville in 2021, and it is surely just a case of Lawrence having more help and getting more experience. We will perhaps see this season.

Matthew Stafford – LA Rams

Yes, it's another quarterback, but with a twist. This one just won the Super Bowl, after all.

It may seem strange given the ring he has on his finger, but the situation with Stafford's elbow means he must prove himself all over again.

In terms of numbers, the Rams QB has now established himself among the elite. Stafford ranks in the top 12 all-time in completions (11th, 4,302), passing yards (12th, 49,995), passing yards per game (sixth, 274.7), touchdown passes (12th, 323) and game-winning drives (seventh, 42).

Crucially, he led the team to Super Bowl success last year, too.

But the Rams' hopes of a repeat are pinned on Stafford being fit enough to perform all year long, and there are some worrying noises around an elbow issue heading into the year.

Should Stafford shake off those concerns and combine with Cooper Kupp for another outstanding season – and perhaps another ring – nobody could possibly doubt his legacy.

Kliff Kingsbury – Arizona Cardinals

It is not just players who have something to prove, but coaches, too – and you could argue Kingsbury does more than most.

While undoubtedly a talented coach, Kingsbury is building a reputation as someone who comes up with effective plays to start a season but is less able to adjust to keep ahead of the competition once they figure it out.

After winning their first seven games, the Cardinals raced out to a sensational 10-2 start last season, well ahead of projected results, only to stumble to 11-6 after losing four of their last five in the regular season, before being humbled 34-11 by the Rams in their first postseason game.

The excellent start cannot be ignored, but neither can the fact that it made nine seasons in a row in which a team led by Kingsbury have had a worse second half of the season than the first.

Despite being without DeAndre Hopkins for the first six games due to suspension, Kingsbury has an exciting team in Arizona and it would be no surprise to see them start strongly again.

They just need to figure out a way to maintain it this time.

Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald has drawn a line under his part in last Thursday's practice brawl against the Cincinnati Bengals, stating "what matters" is that he is ready for the season opener against the Buffalo Bills.

The defensive tackle was caught on camera in footage from a joint practice session between last season's Super Bowl finalists swinging a Bengals helmet as a weapon on August 25.

No ban has been handed down to him for his part in the fight, while Donald stated he did not wish to rehash the subject in an appearance on the AP Pro Football Podcast last week.

Speaking to media ahead of the NFL curtain-raiser against the Bills, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year reiterated his stance, while pointing out that nobody was injured in the incident.

"My main focus is Buffalo right now," Donald said. "I'm happy nobody got hurt in the practice and whatever, but my main focus is Thursday night against Buffalo.

"Everybody protected each other, everybody got out of the situation clean [and] healthy. So that's what matters. [I'm] ready for Week 1."

Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris meanwhile further added that the team treated the incident as a serious matter, but suggested it was an "error" of judgement more than an intentionally malicious move.

"You don't want to swing a helmet ever just at anybody in general, but there have been some helmets ripped off at times," he added.

"You never ever want to do those things. You don't want to have that on your resume.

"But at the same time, those things happen in practices. They're mistakes. They're errors and they're correctable when they happen at these times."

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford says there are "no limitations" on his right elbow ahead of the NFL season opener against the Buffalo Bills on Thursday.

The 34-year-old played through the pain as he helped the Rams to victory at Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this year.

Stafford required a mid-term injection to continue and did not throw during workouts in the spring, with a specific throwing schedule during the Rams' training camp.

But he has revealed he is ready for the new campaign, and says there will be nothing to hold him back, stating: "I feel good. I'm ready to go, no limitations.

"I feel great. I'm ready to go play. [You] can always be better, can always try to feel like [you're] 21 again. But no, I feel really good. I feel like I can make every throw."

Rams coach Sean McVay echoed Stafford's comments, adding: "He's throwing the ball excellent. He feels good. Everyting that I'm seeing is reflective of everything he's saying to me."

Stafford will be looking for another strong regular season in his second year with the Rams, after throwing 41 touchdowns prior to last season's playoffs, the joint-best of his career to date (also 41 with the Detroit Lions in 2011).

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has downplayed a brawl in their Thursday practice against the Cincinnati Bengals where he was seen swinging a Bengals helmet as a weapon.

Footage emerged of the incident from the practice session between last season's Super Bowl teams with three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Donald at the center of it.

The situation led to calls for a suspension, but clubs, and not the league, are responsible for overseeing the players' conduct in practice, with no ban transpiring since.

Rams coach Sean McVay played down the significance of the fracas later in the day and Donald reiterated that on Wednesday.

"It was just a practice. It was football," Donald told AP Pro Football Podcast.

"I don't really want to go back to nothing negative that happened and talk about something that happened in a practice. My main focus is Buffalo."

Donald indicated he had addressed the incident with McVay and teammates but would not be drawn on it further.

The Rams start the new NFL season against the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night.

The Los Angeles Rams were boosted at Monday practice by the returns of running backs Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers after soft tissue injuries.

Rams head coach Sean McVay revealed they were "just being smart" with the pair who had injuries during their Super Bowl-winning campaign last season.

Akers was part of the Rams' Super Bowl triumph after missing most of the season due to an Achilles tear in July last year, while Henderson had a four-game layoff with an MCL sprain.

McVay said the pair were full participants during practice.

"They looked good," McVay told reporters. "They got a few reps and so, it was a good thing.

"Like I mentioned, Darrell was able to get a bunch of full-speed work the other day. Cam looked good today. So I expect all hands on deck."

Henderson led the Rams' running backs for touchdowns last season with five from 10 starts. He had 149 rushing attempts for 688 yards, along with 29 receptions for 176 yards and three TDs.

No one player is bigger than the team. It's a phrase that is most commonly applied to football of the other variety, but it can be a tricky one to throw around in the context of the NFL.

In a game and a league where the quarterback position has an outsized impact, there is no denying there are players whose importance overwhelmingly dwarfs that of their team-mates.

And, for all the work NFL teams do to put together 90-man rosters and then get them down to 53, so many critical games are decided by a handful of key plays by one player.

As the NFL approaches the 2022 regular season, there are a collection of players, not all of whom are quarterbacks, who look almost certain to have a defining influence on the campaign.

Here, with the help of its advanced data, Stats Perform ranks the most important players of the 2022 NFL season.

10. Robert Hainsey - Center, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers' hopes of reclaiming the Lombardi Trophy following Tom Brady's decision to end his 40-day retirement were dealt a massive blow last month when center Ryan Jensen suffered a serious knee injury.

Jensen has been one of the most underrated and pivotal factors behind Brady's success in his two seasons in Tampa. The quarterback's relationship with his center is critical to any offense and Brady has enjoyed an outstanding rapport with Jensen.

Now Jensen's replacement Hainsey must quickly establish a similar connection with Brady if Tampa Bay's offense is to perform at its peak in 2022.

Additionally, Hainsey - a third-round pick in the 2021 draft who played only 29 snaps as a rookie - must attempt to replicate Jensen's performance of last season.

Jensen was 11th among all centers with a stunt-adjusted pass block win rate of 80.66 per cent, while his double team-adjusted run block win rate of 87.92 per cent was the best for his position and second among all offensive linemen.

It is a tall order for Hainsey to reach that level in his first season as a starter. However, it is crucial he ensures the drop-off from Hainsey is not too steep so Brady can keep an offense that was the third-most efficient in the NFL, according to Stats Perform's Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE) metric, performing at a championship-calibre standard.

9. Nick Chubb - Running Back, Cleveland Browns

The furore around the Deshaun Watson saga is rightfully unlikely to die down any time soon despite the NFL closing the book in the context of league discipline.

With Watson set to be suspended for the first 11 games, the Browns will be walking a tightrope as they bid to stay in contention with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback in their starter's absence.

Brissett has a 14-23 record as a starter and last season his well-thrown percentage of 75.8 across his five starts for the Miami Dolphins was the eighth-worst among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts.

Cleveland may, therefore, need to take the emphasis off Brissett, and the best way for them to do that is by leaning on arguably the premier running back in the NFL. 

The Browns led the NFL with 5.09 yards per carry last season, their success built around Chubb's complete skill set.

Chubb was third among running backs with a minimum of 100 carries with an average of 3.44 yards before contact per rush. He was tied 10th in yards after contact per carry (2.17) and led the NFL in yards per carry on plays where there was a run disruption by a defender, his average of 4.51 illustrating his ability to create yardage for himself even when the defense broke into the backfield.

His performances helped the Browns finish second in yards over expected on running plays and, though an undoubtedly talented defense will do its share of the heavy lifting, Chubb must ensure the devastating efficiency Cleveland displayed on the ground last year is maintained for the offense to perform at a high enough level to keep a team harbouring Super Bowl aspirations in the mix until Watson returns.

8. A.J. Brown - Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia's blockbuster draft-day trade for Brown was the clearest signal yet of the Eagles' intention to do everything they can to make Jalen Hurts succeed as their franchise quarterback.

Brown arrived in Philadelphia after racking up 1,000-yard seasons in two of his three campaigns with the Tennessee Titans. He would have had a third had Brown not been forced to miss four games through injury last season, and Brown projects as the ideal receiver to help take Hurts to the next level.

The former Ole Miss star thrived in a Titans offense based heavily around play-action passing concepts.

Meshing with Hurts, who ranked sixth in well-thrown rate (80.4 per cent) on play-action among quarterbacks with at least 50 such throws and averaged a league-leading 16.78 air yards per attempt on those passes, should not be a problem for Brown, who figures to make life significantly easier for his quarterback.

Indeed, Brown gives Hurts a physical wideout who can make tough contested catches over the middle of the field and has the route-running talent to consistently separate from defenders to make big plays. Brown produced a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 64 per cent of targets (including the playoffs) and was tied for the NFL lead (min. 100 targets) in burn yards per route last season with an average of 4.0.

Everything is seemingly set up for a blissful marriage between quarterback and number one wide receiver. There is a lot of pressure on Hurts to succeed with a loaded offense but, similarly, Brown will be under intense scrutiny as he will be tasked with continuing his outstanding Titans displays and, critically, avoiding any injury problems that could limit the ceiling of a team many anticipate becoming contenders after a flurry of offseason activity. 

7. Davante Adams - Wide Receiver, Las Vegas Raiders

Adams made a decision that changed the landscape of both the NFC and AFC when he eschewed the chance to stay with the Packers to sign a five-year, $141.25million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders following a trade that allowed him to reunite with college quarterback Derek Carr.

While Aaron Rodgers must adapt and excel without his long-time favourite target in Green Bay, Adams starts his new era in Las Vegas under tremendous pressure to live up to his megadeal.

The numbers from his time in Green Bay suggest he should have no problem doing so. 

Adams is second in receiving yards (3,924) and touchdowns (34) over the past three seasons. With an above-league average burn rate of 65.6 per cent last season, Adams was fifth in burn yards per route (3.5) among receivers with a minimum of 100 targets (including the playoffs). He was second (3.4) and first (3.9) in the same metric in 2019 and 2020.

His consistency in creating significant separation from defenders must continue in his new home for the Raiders' big swing to pay dividends in an AFC West division now widely regarded as the best in the league following a series of high-profile moves by all its inhabitants.

Moreover, Adams must re-establish the rapport he had in college with Carr, who had a well-thrown rate of 81.6 per cent that was third among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts in 2021.

Carr has the accuracy to reap the benefits of playing with Adams as Rodgers did. As long as the change of scenery does not provoke a surprising Adams downturn, the Raiders will have the arsenal to match the fireworks their division rivals can produce.  

6. Aaron Donald - Defensive Tackle, Los Angeles Rams

To label Donald as an important player is arguably the most obvious statement that can be made about the NFL.

But, with significant doubt hanging over the fitness of the Los Angeles Rams' star quarterback Matthew Stafford, there may be an onus on Donald to carry the burden of helping them repeat as Super Bowl champions.

While Stafford is still expected to play in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, he has spent the offseason dealing with an elbow issue head coach Sean McVay conceded is "abnormal" for a quarterback.

That at least creates the possibility of Stafford enduring injury-related poor performances or even missing time if it is eventually determined he requires surgery.

Playing in an NFC West division that houses a fellow NFC heavyweight in the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams can ill-afford to have any such scenario result in prolonged struggles.

Thankfully for the Rams, Donald is as impactful as Stafford when it comes to deciding games, as he did in Super Bowl LVI with his key fourth-down pressure of Joe Burrow.

Donald comfortably led all defensive tackles in both pressure rate (28.1 per cent) and run disruption rate (37.2) last season. No other defensive tackle with a pressure rate of 20 per cent or better had a run disruption rate of 30 per cent or higher.

With the spectre of possible quarterback injury issues hanging over the Rams, it is imperative Donald continues to produce his frequently game-winning destruction for Los Angeles to mitigate the influence of any such problems.

5. Von Miller - Edge Rusher, Buffalo Bills

The Bills famously failed to finish off the Kansas City Chiefs in last season's epic Divisional Round playoff clash as inexplicably soft defensive play-calling allowed Kansas City to move into range for a game-tying field goal in the final 13 seconds of regulation.

Yet one of the reasons it got to that point was the Bills' failure to convert their pressures of Patrick Mahomes into damaging sacks.

Buffalo registered 23 pressures of Mahomes, the most by any defensive team in the Divisional Round, but managed to get him on the ground just twice.

That performance will surely have had some influence on the decision to sign Miller to a lucrative six-year contract following his Super Bowl-winning sojourn with the Rams.

Miller's 115.5 sacks since entering the league in 2011 are the most in the NFL, and he proved he is still one of the best pressure generators in the NFL in 2021. His stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of 43.4 per cent was the fifth-highest among edge rushers with at least 100 one on one matchups.

The Bills can be confident Josh Allen and the offense will put them in a position to contend, but it is Miller's addition to a defense with few holes that may be the move to get them over the top.

Buffalo made a big bet on Miller maintaining his outstanding 2021 form. It is imperative that gamble pays off and, if some of his wisdom from years at the top rubs off on young edge rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham, the Bills will be extremely satisfied with their decision to put faith in the former Denver Bronco.

4. Patrick Mahomes - Quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

While the likes of the Raiders and the Bills are plotting to do what the Cincinnati Bengals did in last season's AFC Championship Game and topple the Chiefs, Mahomes and Co. are set to face internal challenges in their bid to remain atop the AFC West.

The primary challenge for the Chiefs will be to replace the impact of Tyreek Hill, the three-time first-team All-Pro speedster sent to the Miami Dolphins in a blockbuster trade.

Hill's threat as a downfield receiver tormented opposing defenses during his time in Kansas City, and he was second among receivers with at least 100 targets with a burn rate of 70.8 per cent (including the playoffs) in 2021.

Though the Chiefs did sign a replacement burner in the form of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the absence of Hill's game-breaking speed will likely force Mahomes to target underneath areas more frequently.

Mahomes was already forced to adapt in such a fashion last season to combat the two-high safety defenses thrown at the Chiefs by teams looking to nullify Kansas City's big-play threat.

Kansas City's struggles against such defenses served as one of the defining narratives of last season. It was a narrative, however, that was somewhat exaggerated and the Chiefs had clearly hit their stride by the end of the year.

Across the final five weeks of the season, the Chiefs averaged 283.6 net passing yards per game, the fourth-most in the NFL. They hit a significant speed bump in the second half of the conference title game, but Mahomes has had plenty of time to brush off that disappointment and needs to rediscover his best without one of his key support acts for the Chiefs to be the class of a stacked conference in 2022.

3. Lamar Jackson - Quarterback, Baltimore Ravens

Amid a flurry of big-money deals for quarterbacks and receivers alike, one high-profile contract saga has remained unsettled.

There has been no sign of an imminent agreement between the Ravens and Jackson, who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023 unless they can come to terms on an extension.

To say Jackson is important to the Ravens is to put it extremely mildly. He finished in the top five in Efficiency Versus Expected among quarterbacks in expected passing situations in 2019 and 2020 before an injury derailed 2021 campaign and, since taking over as the Ravens' starter in 2019, has averaged more yards per carry (6.36) than any other player in the NFL.

With 103 of his 468 rush attempts going for 10 yards or more, Jackson's explosive run rate of 22 per cent also stands as the best in the NFL over that same period.

Jackson's success in harnessing the dual-threat upside, as he did in spectacular fashion three years ago, will decide if the Ravens return to prominence in the AFC after the frustration of 2021.

Beyond that, however, the extent to which he nears his 2019 zenith could have a huge bearing on his negotiations with the Ravens next offseason should the impasse continue.

If Jackson performs at a level close to his MVP season, the Ravens will be facing the prospect of making him the highest-paid player in the NFL by a potentially massive margin in 2023. An unconvincing and unsuccessful season for Jackson may see him lose a lot of leverage.

2. Aaron Rodgers - Quarterback, Green Bay Packers

It was an offseason of contrasting emotions for the back-to-back MVP, who looks in line to finish his career in Green Bay after signing a three-year, $150.8m deal that made him the highest-paid player in US sports on an annual basis but must renew his quest for a second Super Bowl title without Adams.

The prospect of trying to climb the mountain sans Adams looks a daunting one considering their remarkable rapport and the fact Rodgers couldn't hit anyone but him during the Packers' Divisional Round loss to the 49ers last season.

Rodgers has to establish a connection with two young rookie receivers in Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, the latter of whom has enjoyed a sparkling preseason.

Green Bay still made moves to make Rodgers' life easier, though that impact may be less tangible than the one he and Adams produced consistently.

The Packers built up an increasingly talented defense in the draft, adding to their options on that side of the ball and improving the odds of Rodgers coming on to the field with favourable field position.

His receiving options may have changed dramatically, but Rodgers has no room to offer excuses given the apparent strength of the defense.

The 38-year-old's ridiculous consistency is fuelling thoughts of him going deep into his 40s, a la Brady; however, Rodgers' time to win a second ring is running out. After enjoying dominant season after dominant season with Adams as his top receiver, the challenge for the four-time MVP now is to elevate a young and unproven supporting cast as he seeks to right previous playoff wrongs.

1. Trey Lance - Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

A team that was minutes away from a second Super Bowl appearance in three years handing the keys to the offense over to a quarterback with just two starts to his name? It sounds risky, and there is an inherent danger in San Francisco moving into the Trey Lance era.

But this is why the Niners traded three first-round picks to the Dolphins to move up to the third pick in the 2021 draft to select Lance. There is risk, yet it is unquestionably worth the potential reward.

Lance will be taking over an offense that finished the 2021 season first in Efficiency Versus Expected, a testament to the plethora of talent on that unit, Jimmy Garoppolo's comfort in the offense and the play-calling of Kyle Shanahan.

The task for Lance is to weaponise the deep passing game of one of the most consistent and dangerous attacks in the NFL. While San Francisco might have to sacrifice some efficiency for him to succeed, the numbers indicate he is up to the job.

Garoppolo had eight pass plays of 40 yards or more across 15 games in 2021. Lance produced three in his two starts in relief of his injured predecessor.

On top of that, Lance averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt – the second most in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 50 passes – and no player to average at least 9.0 air yards had a better well-thrown percentage than Lance's 77.1.

The prospect of Lance reproducing that blend of aggressiveness and accuracy over a longer sample size while adding another dimension to a running game that racked up the eighth-most explosive rushes of at least 10 yards in 2021 should terrify opponents.

San Francisco's roster is filled with Pro Bowlers on offense and the Niners have further stacked a defense that forced the most negative plays (122) in the NFL last season with reinforcements up front and in the secondary.

The 49ers have a Super Bowl-ready roster but, for all his success, Garoppolo has been unable to get them over the hump to a long-awaited sixth title.

Lance has the upside to end that wait and the Niners may well become Super Bowl favourites if he is as advertised. Should he flounder, a prospective challenger could be removed from the NFC playoff picture. Simply put, there is no player more important to the hopes of a legitimate contender in the NFL.

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