If the 2022 NFL regular season felt more competitive than usual, that’s because it was.
The average margin of victory was 9.7 points, the lowest since 1932 (9.13), and there were 156 one-possession games — the most ever in a season.
A roller-coaster final stretch to the season produced two postseason firsts before it even starts: Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady will once again set the record for oldest quarterback to start a playoff game, while San Francisco’s rookie Brock Purdy will become the first Mr. Irrelevant (Pick No. 262) to start a playoff game at quarterback.
So, as the league enters the playoffs this weekend, the status quo has been disrupted, and the talent — which prominently features new blood — has never been more dynamic.
Seven teams made the playoffs after missing out last year, tying the record for the third consecutive season: Ravens, Jaguars, Chargers, Dolphins, Vikings, Giants, and Seahawks.
Five first-year head coaches led their teams to the playoffs, the most in NFL history: Doug Pederson (Jaguars), Kevin O’Connell (Vikings), Brian Daboll (Giants), Todd Bowles (Buccaneers), and Mike McDaniel (Dolphins).
Ten of the 14 QBs are under 28; the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (27) is the oldest AFC QB.
Meanwhile, the league’s four highest-paid quarterbacks by average annual value — Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($50.3 million), Denver’s Russell Wilson ($48.5 million), Arizona’s Kyler Murray ($46.1 million), and Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson ($46 million) — missed the postseason.
And somewhat quietly, the Chiefs secured the No. 1 seed and a bye as they look for their third AFC title in four years behind Mahomes — owner of the largest overall contract in North American sports history (10 years, $477 million; up to $503 million with bonuses).
It all creates enormous stakes in the chase for the Lombardi Trophy — for the players on the field, the media networks, and the fans.
The chance to win a Super Bowl by itself is enough to motivate most NFL players — but the financial incentives certainly don’t hurt.
The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement pays players the same amount based on how far their teams go in the postseason, following a standardized scale.
Teams that win their division will pay their players $46,500 each, while non-division winners — and first-round bye teams — will shell out $41,500 for Super Wild Card Weekend.
For the Divisional Round, players will receive another $46,500, and then $69,000 for playing in a Conference Championship Game.
For the Super Bowl, the losers of the Big Game take home $82,000 — while the winners will each make $157,000.
In Week 18, the final opportunity for postseason berths and regular-reason bonuses, several players cashed out, per data from Spotrac.
Seahawks QB Geno Smith maxed out his 2022 incentives at $3.5 million by adding a $1 million playoff bonus.
Jaguars WR Christian Kirk totaled $1.5 million after reaching the first tier of his catches bonus and the second tier of his receiving yards bonus with his big game against the Titans.
Chiefs WR JuJu Smith-Schuster earned the rest of his $3 million in incentives after his first catch of the game against the Raiders, while DT Chris Jones earned $1.25 million by reaching 10 sacks on the year.
Their Chiefs teammate Mahomes is in line to add $1.25 million to his $29.45 million salary by winning MVP (he’s the runaway favorite). He can earn another $1.25 million by winning the AFC Championship Game.
Justin Houston provided at least one example of six-figure “loss” because of a minor statistical difference.
The Ravens LB entered Week 18 needing one sack to achieve a $500,000 bonus for 10 sacks on the season.
In the fourth quarter, Houston found the quarterback — but so did LB Odafe Oweh, meaning Houston was credited with half a sack and ended the season with 9.5.
Not all was lost: Houston still made $1 million in bonuses by reaching the first two tiers of his incentives.
The Battle for Eyeballs
In March 2021, the NFL locked in its current media rights for an astounding $113 billion over 11 seasons.
Disney (ESPN) is reportedly paying $2.7 billion per year for its rights, while Paramount (CBS), Fox, and Comcast (NBC) are forking over $2 billion annually. New kid on the block Amazon is reportedly paying $1 billion per year for its package. And Google (YouTube TV) just acquired multibillion-dollar rights to the “Sunday Ticket” package that kick in next year.
Fox averaged 19.4 million NFL viewers, a 4% increase from last season. The Sunday afternoon “America’s Game of the Week” averaged 24.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched window on TV for the 14th straight year.
CBS averaged 18.5 million viewers — the network’s most-watched regular season in seven years.
NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” averaged a total audience delivery of 19.9 million viewers, up 3% from 2021. “SNF” is on track to become the most-watched show in prime time for a record 12th straight season.
ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” — revamped with announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman — actually experienced a 2% decrease from 2021, averaging 13.8 million viewers. However, that’s in part due to the data’s exclusion of the highly anticipated (and enormously well-viewed) Bengals-Bills Week 17 matchup canceled in the wake of Damar Hamlin’s medical emergency.
ESPN will get some compensation in the form of the juiciest matchup of the first round: a Monday night showdown between the Buccaneers and Cowboys.
And then there’s the grand experiment from Amazon: In its first season exclusively streaming NFL games, the tech giant averaged 9.6 million viewers per “Thursday Night Football” game — but with a median viewer age of 47, seven years younger than the median of viewers on the traditional networks.
Amazon doesn’t currently have any playoff games — but if it builds on its success in subsequent seasons, an exclusively streamed postseason contest could be in the cards.
The Public’s Money
Many fans watching at home will have more than pride at stake.
The increasing legalization of sports betting in the United States has been a smashing success.
Quarterly records for sportsbook revenue were repeatedly broken (Q3, $1.68 billion), and it only took the first three quarters of 2022 to break the annual record ($4.78 billion).
With more bettors than ever in the mix, this is poised to be a record-setting postseason for wagers and overall handle. So where is the money riding?
The Chiefs enter the fray as the odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl at +340 — but only by virtue of being a No. 1 seed.
“One less game is the easier road, that’s pretty much the reason why the Chiefs are Super Bowl favorites,” says Caesars Sportsbooks’ assistant director of trading Adam Pullen. “Even though the Bills are prohibitive favorites against the Dolphins, that’s still one more game that they have to play. But if they were to meet in the AFC Championship, the Bills would be favored and be Super Bowl favorites then.”
Bettors agree: At Caesars, Buffalo (+400) leads all playoff teams in both bets (16.7%) and handle (21.0%).
The public’s next-favorite team is the 49ers at +450. They have garnered 12.4% of the tickets and 15.4% of the money — creating tremendous liability for Caesars.
“The 49ers are the one team we do not want to win the Super Bowl,” Pullen says.
And then there are the Cowboys, who — despite being Forbes’ most valuable sports team in the world at $8 billion — aren’t getting respect from the books or betting public. They currently sit at +1300 to win it all and are outside Caesars’ top five in both bets and handle.
The Seahawks, Jaguars, Giants, and Dolphins all sit +5000 or longer, making it unlikely they’ll hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February.
But given the unprecedented nature of this season, they could just be the best value plays.
Ever wonder what your favorite players have been up to since retiring from the game? Watch the latest episode of Second Acts, a new series from Front Office Sports, here.