In 2021, there were a number of teams who made the playoffs after missing them in 2020, most notably the Bengals, who came just short of raising their first Lombardi Trophy.
With the ever-changing landscape of the NFL, it is extremely difficult for the playoff picture to look the exact same every year. Some teams have improved more than others on paper, but injuries and other factors can also derail previous playoff teams.
Here are five 2021 playoff teams who could miss the playoffs entirely in 2022:
The Steelers will have a competitive team in 2022, especially on defense. The offense remains a major question mark no matter if Mitchell Trubisky is the starter, or if Head Coach Mike Tomlin hands the reins to rookie Kenny Pickett.
Without Ben Roethlisberger as the starting QB, the Steelers could see some more explosive plays, but both of these quarterbacks have concerns. Trubisky was inconsistent as a starter during his tenure in Chicago, and it’s to be determined if anything has changed since then. As for Pickett, it is unclear how quickly he can adapt to the NFL as a rookie. He was tremendous in college this past year, but there are no guarantees his collegiate success will translate to the NFL level.
Besides the quarterback position, the offensive line is still far from a productive unit. In 2021, the Steelers were middle of the pack in pass protection—Pittsburgh’s offensive line gave up 38 sacks—while also struggling to pave big enough holes in the run game. Despite the success of Najee Harris, Pittsburgh finished 29th in the league in yards per rush attempt at 3.9). With too many uncertainties, the AFC North getting better as a whole, and the Ravens returning key players from injury, it is tough to see Pittsburgh making the playoffs in 2022.
Las Vegas Raiders
The AFC West is going to be a slugfest in 2022. Even with the Raiders acquiring players like Chandler Jones and Davante Adams this offseason, they could find themselves on the outside looking in. The Raiders are bringing in a new head coach in the form of Josh McDaniels, and it’s unknown how he will perform in this role. McDaniels has not been a head coach since 2010 with the Denver Broncos.
The Raiders appeared to have improved offensively through the acquisition of Adams, but the team’s discipline and defense will be under strict scrutiny throughout this season.
Last year, the Raiders were the least disciplined team in the NFL. They averaged 7.3 penalties per game, 64.9 penalty yards per game and one turnover per game. This all culminated in a discipline total of 2.8, narrowly finishing below the Dallas Cowboys for dead last in The 33rd Team’s Discipline Index. Penalties were a major concern for Vegas in 2021 as a number of games had their outcomes impacted by the Raiders not being able to be disciplined in crucial moments.
As for the defense, despite bringing in Chandler Jones and Vernon Butler to boost the front seven, there are still questions in the secondary. They traded for Rock Ya-Sin, but he is not a true number one corner. With the offenses in the AFC West getting better as a whole, it is unclear if Ya-Sin and Trayvon Mullen will be the answers for stopping the likes of Keenan Allen, Jerry Jeudy and others.
While the NFC appears to be more top-heavy than the AFC, the Cardinals could still find themselves outside of the playoff picture. The Cardinals have a number of upstarts to compete with as well as the 49ers and Rams in their own division.
Arizona’s inability to finish seasons strong has plagued them in the Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray era. Kingsbury has had issues finishing seasons dating back to his days at Texas Tech, but this problem has extended to his career in the NFL.
Since becoming the Cardinals’ head coach in 2019, Kingsbury has gone 5-17 in the second half of the year. Murray has had trouble in the second half of the year as his numbers take a serious dive during the same points as Kingsbury’s. This is something they need to fix to compete with the NFC’s upstart teams, especially if they don’t start out the season as strong as usual.
The Cardinals’ offense will also miss star receiver DeAndre Hopkins for the first six games of the 2022 season. Despite Hopkins having a down year in 2021, he still takes the pressure off Arizona’s other receivers due to his pedigree and past performances.
Arizona brought in Marquise Brown from the Ravens this offseason, but he was up and down during his tenure with Baltimore. It’s unclear if he will become the number one wideout the Cardinals need during this stretch.
The Titans are going to be a tough out in the AFC regardless of what their record is in 2021. However, it’s hard to imagine they will replicate their performance from last year when they finished as the top team in the AFC before losing to the Cincinnati Bengals.
The defense figures to be strong once again, especially with a number of injured players making their long-awaited returns. It’s the offense where a number of concerns arise. The first is Derrick Henry’s health. After a dominant start to the year, he went down with a Jones fracture and missed half of the season before returning in Tennessee’s playoff loss to the Bengals.
Henry has gotten a large number of carries since becoming the starter. That could start to catch up to him this season if his workload remains the same. Tennessee should adapt its offense to limit Henry’s workload, but it will be difficult with how dominant he can be.
Another issue on the offensive side of the ball lies in the Titans’ passing game. They traded star receiver A.J. Brown to the Eagles, which could turn out to be a serious blow to this offense. To replace him, Tennessee brought in veteran Robert Woods and rookie Treylon Burks from Arkansas.
Woods is still recovering from a torn ACL, and it is unclear how productive he will be in at least the first part of the season. Meanwhile, Burks is just a rookie who will have some growing pains early on. Ryan Tannehill has also proven to be an average quarterback throughout his career. The Colts got better, making the AFC South harder to win. Tennessee could miss out on the playoffs if Tannehill doesn’t gel with his new weapons, and the offense is too reliant on Henry.
While this may be controversial, Dallas is in an interesting spot heading into this year. They play in one of the weaker divisions on paper and crushed the Eagles both times they played in 2021. However, the Eagles addressed some of their bigger holes, on paper. This could push Dallas out of the playoffs if the NFC is more competitive in 2022.
Dallas’ internal problems lie in its offensive line, and its defense’s ability to replicate its 2021 performance. For the offensive line, the Cowboys brought in Tulsa’s Tyler Smith to replace Conor Williams, who signed with the Dolphins this past offseason. Smith was seen as a reach by many, and he will certainly have growing pains as a rookie.
The Cowboys have generally struggled with health on their offensive line. Zack Martin and Tyron Smith, two key parts of Dallas’ O-Line, have both missed time at some point the past couple of years. Also, Terrence Steele has been inconsistent throughout his young career at right tackle. With a harder schedule this year, Dallas could decline than anticipated.
As for the defense, it turned opposing teams over early and often. Dallas’ defense finished with a league-high 26 interceptions in 2021 and forced 13 fumbles. In total, Dallas forced 34 turnovers. It will be difficult for Dallas to replicate that performance in 2022, especially with star cornerback Trevon Diggs accounting for nearly half of Dallas’ interceptions.
Dallas’ passing defense was bottom-five in passing yards per game, and Diggs gave up more than 1,000 passing yards despite his 11 INTs.
Brian Friedland contributed to this report.