One of the things that makes the NFL great is its parity. While some teams are consistently in the mix, there is also a healthy amount of turnover of contenders. Last year’s Super Bowl is a great example of that with the Bengals going from a 4-11-1 team in 2020 to a club that was vying for a Lombardi Trophy the following season. Even the Super Bowl champion Rams were on the outside looking in on the playoffs in 2019 before winning it all in 2021. Simply put, teams are rising and falling each season in the NFL, and 2022 will be no different.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at a handful of teams that could be on a downward swing this season and take a step back from where they were in 2021.
We’re going to expand the definition of “step back” for the purposes of this conversation and not merely predict who’ll have a worse win/loss record than the previous season. As it relates to the Bears, we’re looking at them to take a step back not only in the NFC North standings (third place in 2021) but on the offensive side of the ball as well.
Last season, Chicago had the sixth lowest-scoring offense in the NFL, averaging just 18.3 points per game. Those totals were even worse in Justin Fields‘ 10 starts (16.8 points per game). While it’ll be fascinating to see how Fields improves as he heads into Year 2 and his first season as the full-time starter, there’s not much around him to feel optimistic about this unit as a whole. The wide receiver group lost Allen Robinson in free agency and now boasts Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, and Equanimeous St. Brown as its top three receivers. Meanwhile, the Bears O-line recently ranked 31st in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
With Fields’ running ability and running back David Montgomery as likely the Bears’ best route of attack on offense, that does limit the overall scoring ceiling, setting up an even worse finish in that spot than 2021. So, not only is this team looking at a possible last-place finish, but it could also be in contention for the lowest-scoring offense in the NFL.
The Seahawks finished last in the NFC West in 2021, so there isn’t much lower they can fall in that regard. However, they still were able to win seven games, which likely won’t be the case this season. The biggest reason for that is the massive drop-off in talent at quarterback. This offseason, Seattle traded away franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos and now have a training camp battle looming between Drew Lock and Geno Smith. In their career starts, these quarterbacks are a combined 21-34, which pales in comparison to Wilson’s 104-53-1 career record in the regular season.
Because of the free fall at quarterback, Seattle isn’t expected to make much noise in 2022 and could be among the bottom third of the league. With Lock/Smith slotting in under center over Wilson, the Seahawks will also be a less entertaining watch on a weekly basis.
The Browns are the biggest wild card on this list. They made one of the biggest blockbuster trades of the offseason by landing former Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, but there’s still no clarity on whether or not he’ll actually play for them this season. He is still waiting for a ruling by disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson on what sort of punishment (if any) he’ll face for his off-the-field issues, which included up to 24 lawsuits of sexual misconduct previously being filed against him. If Robinson rules in favor of the NFL, Watson could face an indefinite suspension that lasts at least a full season.
That result would leave the Browns exposed at quarterback, especially in the aftermath of trading Baker Mayfield to the Panthers. If Watson is suspended, Jacoby Brissett would be the team’s starter. While a solid backup, Brissett doesn’t bring the same level of talent that Watson does, and Cleveland’s ceiling for how far it could go in 2022 would be capped. When you account for a possible punishment for Watson and the fact that the AFC North should be more competitive in 2022 with the Ravens getting healthy, the Bengals emerging as a Super Bowl threat, and the Steelers bringing along a first-round quarterback, it could be tough sledding for the Browns.
I’m not saying that the Chiefs will be on the outside looking in on the playoffs with this take. However, their road to the postseason will be more difficult than its ever been under Patrick Mahomes in 2022. This offseason, the entire AFC West went through an arms race that now makes them the consensus toughest division in the NFL. The Broncos traded for Wilson and the Chargers bolstered their defense with corner J.C. Jackson and pass rusher Khalil Mack. Meanwhile, the Raiders have a new coaching staff headlined by Josh McDaniels, while also improving the roster, trading for star wideout Davante Adams and signing pass rusher Chandler Jones in free agency.
While all this talent was entering the division, the Chiefs saw a bit of a talent drain. They traded receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins and elected to let safety Tyrann Mathieu walk in free agency. Those two were some of the key pillars to what made the Chiefs Super Bowl champions in 2019, so this is something of a new era for Kansas City.
Of course, Mahomes still has tight end Travis Kelce to work with and the team did bring in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and rookie Skyy Moore at receiver. That said, there will likely be some sort of growing pains as these new pieces find their footing.
Because the rest of the division got better, that also makes the road through the regular season quite difficult for the Chiefs. Based on projected win totals, the Chiefs have the hardest schedule in the NFL in 2022. Again, this doesn’t mean that they won’t make the playoffs or fail to win the AFC West, but it’s no longer a slam dunk.
The Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season and it’s hard to see a scenario where that comes to fruition again in 2022. In fact, Tennessee isn’t even the favorite to win the AFC South this year after the Indianapolis Colts were able to upgrade at quarterback this offseason by trading for Matt Ryan.
This could prove to be a pivotal year for the Titans, especially at quarterback. Despite leading his team to a 12-5 record, Ryan Tannehill took a step back in 2021. His passer rating was the lowest it’s been since he arrived in Nashville and his 14 interceptions during the regular season were the most in his Titans tenure and second-most of his career. Those turnovers issues also reared their head in Tennessee’s one-and-done appearance in the playoffs as he threw three interceptions in the club’s 19-16 loss to the Bengals in the Divisional Round.
If Tannehill struggles again this season, the Titans do have an out in his contract next offseason where they could clear just under $20 million in cap space. Tennessee also drafted former Liberty quarterback Malik Willis in the third round, stoking even more fuel to the flames of Tannehill entering a make-or-break season.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that downward trajectory for Tannehill continue and, with the AFC getting stronger over the offseason, Tennessee could very well go from being the No.1 seed in 2021 to missing out on the postseason party in 2022.