The Super Bowl LVI matchup is set: it’s the upstart Bengals against the star-studded Rams. The NFL couldn’t have picked a much better matchup to close the biggest season in league history, with Cincinnati trying for its first Lombardi Trophy and Los Angeles looking to become the second straight team to win it all in its own stadium. It’s must-see TV.
But what about all the playoff teams left by the wayside? Which of this year’s contenders that didn’t advance to the Super Bowl have the best chance to return to the dance — and go the distance — next season? Here’s how we’d stack up the 12 losing teams from the 2021 postseason by their chances of winning Super Bowl LVII:
2021 finish: 9-7-1 (0-1 playoffs)
Mike Tomlin can coach any team to the playoffs, and their defense still has foundational pieces, starting with game-wrecker T.J. Watt. But they’ve got a real uphill battle back to the promised land. Start with quarterback, where they have no short- or long-term answer in the wake of Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement. A big swing for someone like Aaron Rodgers feels far-fetched, and even a promising rookie (Kenny Pickett?) might require patience. They’ve also got holes in the trenches on both sides of the ball, which is never good. And then there’s the division, which figures to remain ultra-competitive with the Bengals, Ravens and maybe Browns vying for playoff berths yet again.
2021 finish: 10-7 (0-1 playoffs)
Derek Carr is an above-average QB, and new coach Josh McDaniels will conceivably do better with him than Kyle Orton way back in Denver, during his first and only failed head coaching stint. That’s if he doesn’t decide to explore alternatives. Las Vegas has the pieces — Josh Jacobs, Darren Waller, etc. — to stay competitive, but its aging defense remains a major concern. And that’s not accounting for the fact McDaniels just might not be a good head coach, and that they play in the same division as Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and whomever the Broncos bring in.
2021 finish: 9-8 (0-1 playoffs)
It all hinges on the QB. The Eagles showed fight in Nick Sirianni’s first year running the show, and they’ve got the ammo to improve the supporting cast around Jalen Hurts. Their O-line remains a top-five group. But who knows if Hurts can make a truly meaningful leap forward as a passer against real contenders? Right now, with a better defense, they’re built to ideally win like the 49ers, controlling the clock. As the playoffs proved, that has its limits in today’s game. Reinforcements on defense and at wide receiver would help. But unless Hurts bucks his own history as a run-first weapon or the Eagles land a QB who can win throwing the ball, they’re just wild card material.
2021 finish: 11-6 (0-1 playoffs)
How can Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray be trusted? The latter has flashed MVP stuff in multiple seasons only to revert to human form down the stretch, which fits right in with Kingsbury’s tendency to oversee late-season collapses. If everyone stays healthy, they still boast one of the most talented lineups in the league, but many of their veteran starters (e.g. James Conner, DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Zach Ertz, J.J. Watt) are either older, banged-up or set to test the market.
2021 finish: 12-5 (0-1 playoffs)
Like the Cardinals, they’ve got big-time veteran playmakers, except on both sides of the ball. You can do a lot worse than Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs as foundational starters. They also haven’t won more than a single playoff game since 1995. They’ve got an aging O-line. And Mike McCarthy may or may not be on the hot seat at head coach, with Dan Quinn probably waiting for the interim tag. Their talent has never equated to January success, so why should we buy in now?
2021 finish: 12-5 (0-1 playoffs)
Much like Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Mike Vrabel just has his team ready to go. By season’s end, the Titans are always giving their all, doling out a physical toll. A full year of Derrick Henry would go a long way in restoring their smash-mouth strategy, as would more development from their nasty D-line. Getting A.J. Brown a real complement at wideout would also help. That said, they have a ceiling with Ryan Tannehill at QB; he’s now 0-3 in his last three playoff starts, and while he all but ensures top-10ish regular-season production leaning on the run game, a splashy move for someone like Russell Wilson would make them a true threat.
2021 finish: 10-7 (2-1 playoffs)
Jimmy Garoppolo’s expected departure will probably be bittersweet for Kyle Shanahan. On one hand, Jimmy G’s predictable mid-tier production has allowed the coach to put his run-focused system first, trusting the run game and defense to carry the load. On the other, new QB Trey Lance — despite a raw passing resume — offers untapped upside as a runner himself. Nick Bosa and the “D” should remain solid, especially if the secondary gets reinforcements, but the Niners will go as far as Lance takes them.
2021 finish: 13-4 (1-1 playoffs)
What happens at QB? Tom Brady is expected to retire after 22 NFL seasons, leaving Bruce Arians without the general of his veteran army. That alone could totally dismantle their chances. But it’s not like they’re lacking weapons, boasting an elite WR corps (when healthy), promising young linemen and a still-rangy “D.” What if Arians goes ultra-aggressive again and lures a big name like Rodgers to town? Unlikely, perhaps, but let’s say they go milder — Jameis Winston? Carr? Marcus Mariota? In an NFC South without Sean Payton and a conference lacking the AFC’s elite array of QBs, couldn’t they make another sneaky run?
2021 finish: 10-7 (0-1 playoffs)
Wouldn’t it be so fitting if Bill Belichick returns to the promised land right after Brady retires, enjoying his own last laugh? New England has the Bills to reckon with, and it remains to be seen whether Mac Jones is more Brady or Garoppolo. But Belichick got his streaky rookie QB and a collection of mid-tier weapons to the postseason. The vaunted defense will need an injection of youth, and Jones could use another top pass target, but the Pats have been there, done that in terms of postseason contention. Would anyone be surprised if Jones takes a leap in Year 2 and this organization is back in the mix?
2021 finish: 13-4 (0-1 playoffs)
This is entirely contingent on Rodgers returning, which still seems like the most likely scenario if he doesn’t retire. Rodgers has made it clear he’s in a good place with Packers brass, and Green Bay can find a way to keep Davante Adams. The roster is still playoff-caliber, even if a few veteran trims are made. A free agent flyer or two at WR and pass-rusher, and they’d be well-positioned for another run. Now, if Rodgers hangs it up or relocates, you’re talking about a steep decline on the list, unless somehow Matt LaFleur is getting another solid veteran QB in return.
2021 finish: 11-6 (1-1 playoffs)
Josh Allen. That’s the reason. It’s more than that with Buffalo, of course. Sean McDermott’s a steady hand on the sidelines, if occasionally too conservative. Devin Singletary and the run game took a step late in the year. And the defense will have Tre’Davious White back. But Allen makes the whole thing run, bringing MVP stuff with both his arm and legs. He’s had the Bills knocking on the door the last few years, and it’s not a stretch to think he’ll get another clear shot at a Super Bowl trip in 2022.
2021 finish: 12-5 (1-1 playoffs)
It’s the easy answer, but it’s also the right one. Patrick Mahomes may have looked mortal more times in 2021 than in the previous two years, but as long as he is under center and Andy Reid is on the sidelines, they’re gonna be a thing in the AFC. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce remain Grade-A playmakers, and their chemistry with No. 15 alone gives Kansas City one of the game’s most explosive units. If Mahomes can learn to play a little smarter and they can get a pass-rusher to help Chris Jones, they’ll be fine.