The 2021–22 NFL playoff bracket featured seven teams that had not reached the postseason the year before. The most stunning among them, obviously, were the Super Bowl runner-up Bengals, who finished the previous season 4-11-1. Their transcendent star quarterback suffered an incredibly serious knee injury in 2020, and their forays into free agency seemed, from a 30,000 foot view, to be mere pebbles in a quarry.
How wrong we were.
For all of the NFL’s shortcomings, postseason turnover keeps the sport relatively interesting. Owners who want to win have the tools at their disposal.
In that spirit, one of our favorite yearly exercises is to project the “worst-to-first” candidates around the league—or at least, in years when some entrenched elite teams make that a very short list, some teams that will be new to the playoffs. Last year, we got four out of six right, with the Chargers missing the postseason by one game and the Giants exposing some of my early-spring misplaced optimism. Maybe the following teams aren’t going to literally ascend from the bottom of their division to a deep playoff run like the Bengals did a year ago, but they will have markedly improved, going from January couch-surfers to full-blown participants. This is an effort to identify teams that will either rebound off a surprisingly poor season last year, or finally reap the fruits of a rebuilding process.
Are the next Bengals tiptoeing among us right now? Let’s find out …
2021 record: 8–9, fourth in AFC North
Key additions: Marcus Williams, Morgan Moses, Kyle Hamilton, Tyler Linderbaum, David Ojabo, Kyle Fuller, Michael Pierce
The Ravens making the playoffs feels like the safest bet we can possibly make when talking NFL futures. In my recent 100 bold predictions column, I had the Ravens winning at least 12 games and Lamar Jackson reentering the MVP conversation. Last year, despite having to re-sign half of the guys in Madden 2004 to play running back amid a rash of injuries and despite missing Jackson for five games, the Ravens were still one of the five most successful teams on early-down success rate (via Sports Info Solutions) and the best team in the NFL in red zone success rate. Why? The system works. It’s still incredibly hard to defend. That hasn’t changed. Now, with Jackson in a contract year, a host of healthy backs and quite possibly the deepest tight end room in football, everything is set up for the Ravens to take advantage of a division in flux.
Los Angeles Chargers
2021 record: 9–8, third in AFC West
Key additions: J.C. Jackson, Khalil Mack, Kyle Van Noy, Austin Johnson, Zion Johnson, Isaiah Spiller
Despite missing the playoffs in 2021, the Chargers were among the best offensive teams in football, ranking in the top 10 in nearly every major offensive efficiency category. In Brandon Staley’s first year as coach, their red zone scoring percentage rose by nearly 10 points. It’s safe to say they were held back defensively by a unit that was, for one reason or another, stuck in its base defense far too often (nearly a quarter of all snaps) and hammered by the increasingly popular outside-zone running scheme. Sports Info Solutions had the Chargers as the second-worst team in EPA/play when facing zone rushes. It’s somewhat amazing that a team this flawed defensively (from a personnel standpoint) came as close as L.A. did to making the playoffs. Now, with more heft up front, better linebackers, better corners and a more diverse rushing game that should better complement their quarterback, the Chargers feel like a lock to reach the playoffs coming from an AFC West division that will almost certainly field three teams in the bracket.
2021 record: 7–10, fourth in AFC West
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Key additions: Russell Wilson, Randy Gregory, K’Waun Williams, Billy Turner, Alex Singleton
Speaking of which, the Broncos begin their season against the quarterbackless Seahawks and Texans before a game against the still raw Trey Lance in Week 3. First-year coach Nathaniel Hackett has a great chance to begin the Russell Wilson era with some serious momentum. Hackett has said that he won’t simply be bringing the Packers’ offense with him, which is a true statement. Steeped in the West Coast’s oldest principles, Hackett has run a diverse array of offenses, though some of Green Bay’s core principles will come with him and modernize a Broncos offense that went stale. Last year, Denver ran presnap motion fewer than most teams in the NFL, while the Packers were among the most motion-heavy teams in football. It’s safe to say that Wilson won’t be jammed behind some predictable, static system that operates far too frequently under center. Hackett’s ability to connect with his quarterbacks, from Ryan Nassib to Blake Bortles to Aaron Rodgers, is the stuff of legend in NFL circles. This will energize Wilson, a quarterback who has spent the past few seasons trying to evolve without the opportunity to do so.
2021 record: 9–8, second in AFC North
Key additions: Matt Ryan, Stephon Gilmore, Yannick Ngakoue, Nick Foles, Rodney McLeod
The Colts, to me, seem analogous to the Chargers in that they were so talented but were ultimately held back by an unfixable segment of their roster that they realized was broken too late in the process. It’s unfair to place all of their woes on Carson Wentz, but the outgoing comments from nearly every corner of the Colts’ building were unprecedented. So, too, was the fact that the Commanders paid what they did for Wentz knowing that the Colts would have bussed him anywhere in the country and paid for the ticket. Schematically, Indianapolis was forced into an RPO-heavy system, using the quick-strike mesh point read on 84 of Wentz’s 516 dropbacks last year. The total number of RPO plays on Pro Football Reference’s advanced counter marked the highest number of RPO dropbacks Wentz had since they started counting the statistic after the 2018 season. As we saw with Tua Tagovailoa on the Dolphins, RPO-heavy passers can still maintain their accuracy and some promising statistics while not really moving the ball effectively against teams dropping seven or eight players into coverage with regularity. It feels a bit like getting really expensive running sneakers and pumping your feet quickly without realizing you’re on a treadmill not really going anywhere. Matt Ryan will change the way Frank Reich calls plays. What the Colts lose with the departure of brilliant defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, they will more than make up with improved quarterback play. Ryan, when matched with a dominant running game and a capable coordinator, is ideally suited for the latest coverage-heavy defensive evolution and had one of his most accurate seasons of late in 2021, despite a down year in Atlanta.
New Orleans Saints
2021 record: 9–8, second in NFC South
Key additions: Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Olave, Jarvis Landry, Marcus Maye, Kentavius Street
Saints fans have been rightfully all over me this offseason for panning their draft (because I thought they were acting too much like a contender and not a rebuilder) and then subsequently changing my tune and projecting them to make the playoffs. While I may not act like it sometimes, I come to you in each column a wholly fickle and imperfect person who reserves the right to change his mind. And change my mind I have, on the Saints. This offense is just too top-heavy with playmakers, and the bottom half of their division is going to be straight-up dreadful. Losing Sean Payton is obviously going to represent a challenge, but I’m fascinated to see Pete Charmichael stand on his own after more than a decade of dutiful service as offensive coordinator. The idea that he was just some kind of stationary carpool lane mannequin in New Orleans for so long during some of the team’s memorably successful runs with Taysom Hill and Teddy Bridgewater is hard to believe. We’ll now see how much of that ingenuity remains in house. Dennis Allen was a sensible promotion and seems to have inspired the organization to maintain its forward trajectory. Despite four quarterbacks taking snaps last year, the Saints were the best red zone team in the NFL per EPA/play statistics. Jameis Winston was 5–2 as a starting quarterback before tearing his ACL in Week 8. And while some of his best games still featured some classically overlooked eraticisms, Winston is good enough to lead this team to a No. 7 seed in the talent-starved NFC.
To this point, all of the teams on this list are ones that barely missed the playoffs this year. You, yourself, dear reader, could have looked at last year’s standings and simply bumped up a handful of teams grasping at playoff spots late in 2021. Do you feel ripped off as I selfishly try to make this year’s list a perfect six-for-six?
Then let’s get weird …
2021 record: 3-13-1, fourth in NFC North
Key additions: Aidan Hutchinson, D.J. Chark, Jameson Williams, Mike Hughes, Chris Board
Our ace college football writer Richard Johnson came on The MMQB Podcast a few weeks back and predicted the Lions would be playing in the postseason. I loved the prediction so much I filed for joint custody. It’s nice to get an early seat on the Dan Campbell bandwagon. There’s still plenty of room here. Jared Goff gets a lot of flack as a puppeteered quarterback who couldn’t succeed without Sean McVay, but Goff has been improving his decision-making skills and accuracy. His on-target throwing percentage was a career best last year, with more than 80% of his throws hitting their mark. The Lions had one of the better offensive lines in the league last year and should see the unit grow together again, buoying an offense that was surprisingly capable in disadvantageous late-down situations last year, according to SIS’s EPA statistics. Add in a new dimension to their pass rush with No. 2 pick Aidan Hutchinson and a sneakily deep wide receiver depth chart that should pose some legitimate matchup issues, and it’s not hard to see why we’re a little bit intrigued. The NFC is flimsy as is. Beyond the top five teams, there is certainly space for a wild card, and Detroit’s most basic tentpole strengths—pass protection and pass rush—are as functional as any team in contention. I’d be willing to bet a Campbell team won’t finish that poorly against the run two years in a row, too.
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