Predicting NFL teams most likely to decline in 2022

Predicting NFL teams most likely to decline in 2022 post thumbnail image

On Tuesday, I broke down the five NFL teams I project to improve during the 2022 season. Everyone loves hearing that their favorite team is likely to get better. Today’s column? Not quite as popular. As I do every year, I’m going to pick the five teams I think are likely to decline.

It’s not the most loved column of the season, but it does usually turn out to be reasonably accurate. Over the past five years, the teams I’ve highlighted in this column have declined 20 out of 25 times. Just two of those 25 teams have improved by even a single win the following season. Those 25 teams have fallen off by an average of 3.3 wins per 17 games. (Spreadsheets did not enjoy the NFL’s move from 16 to 17 games.)

Last season was probably a little below average by this column’s standards. The Bills and Chiefs both declined by several wins, which played a significant role in the AFC playoff race. The Browns, who were trendy Super Bowl candidates heading into the season, fell off more dramatically. The Packers dropped off only from 13-3 to 13-4, though, and the Titans defied the odds by improving on their record from the prior season.

We’ll take four out of five and move forward into 2022. Let’s start this year’s column by making what some would say is an ill-fated decision to take another run at the team that defied the numbers a year ago:

Jump to a team:
Falcons | Packers
Raiders | Steelers | Titans

The Titans were the fifth team on my list a year ago, when I wrote that I narrowly picked them ahead of the Seahawks. Obviously, this wasn’t a great decision! The Seahawks had been on my list in 2020 because of an impressive record in close games, something they managed to repeat in 2021. I called off the dogs and took them off the list a year ago, at which point they dropped from 7-3 in close games to 2-5. They weren’t all that much worse on a snap-by-snap basis than they had been in 2020, but with less luck in one-score games and an injury to quarterback Russell Wilson, they fell apart.

Let’s take a look at my case for the Titans a year ago and see what happened …

They were unsustainably good in games decided by seven points or fewer. After going 7-6 in one-score games during coach Mike Vrabel’s first two years, the 2020 Titans went 7-2 in one-score games. History tells us that’s extremely difficult to sustain; teams that win five more close games than they lose in a given year often don’t keep that up the following season. They go from 199-44 (.819) in those close games to 102-126 (.447) in those same games the following year. Their overall record declines by an average of four wins per 17 games.

Well, the Titans didn’t keep up their record in close games, but they came close. Instead of going 7-2 in one-score games, they went … 6-2. I wrote about their closest game of the season on Tuesday, in which they did the near impossible and stopped QB Josh Allen on a fourth-and-1 run to hold on to a three-point victory against Buffalo. That one stop was enough to keep Tennessee from coming up short of its 2020 record and eventually secured it the top seed in the AFC.

The Titans went 2-1 in overtime games; they needed scores in the final 30 seconds to force overtime and beat the Seahawks, although they came up short in overtime in a similar situation against the Jets. They blew a late lead against the Colts in Week 8, only to win in OT after picking off Carson Wentz. They beat Trevor Siemian and the Saints after stopping them on a 2-point try, and beat the 49ers on a field goal with four seconds left on the clock. These were almost all genuinely close games as opposed to the sort of one-score contests in which a trailing team scores in the final 30 seconds to make a game look close.

There was a significant chance Derrick Henry wouldn’t be as effective in 2021, and the Titans would suffer as a result. Henry wasn’t the same guy as he had been in 2020. He was far less efficient even before suffering a right foot injury in November, as he fell from 5.4 yards per carry all the way down to 4.3. An unprecedented workload kept Henry’s raw numbers looking like normal, but just about every single advanced metric of note suggested he wasn’t the dominant back of the prior two seasons.

The Titans fell from fourth in offensive DVOA in 2020 to 20th a year ago. They were still good in the red zone, but their fifth-place ranking wasn’t at the historic levels we saw between 2019 and 2020. Their play-action game declined notably; they went from averaging 11 yards per attempt between 2019 and 2020 to 8.5 yards per attempt last season. Once Henry went down, Ryan Tannehill & Co. averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt on play-action, which ranked 26th in the NFL over that timeframe. An injury-marred season from new acquisition Julio Jones didn’t help matters.



Liz Loza discusses why fantasy managers might be concerned when drafting Derrick Henry.

The defense would struggle to maintain its takeaway rate, and the Titans’ turnover margin would regress toward the mean. The Titans forced turnovers on 13.7% of opposing drives in 2020, which ranked seventh best. When teams didn’t turn the ball over against Tennessee, they scored at the league’s second-highest rate. If the Titans didn’t improve on defense, they weren’t going to be able to sustain a winning defense on that sort of turnover rate.

Well, the defense improved. Even with free agent acquisition Bud Dupree limited by injuries, the Titans enjoyed big leaps forward from young players such as Jeffery Simmons, Kristian Fulton and Harold Landry, all of whom played at a Pro Bowl level. Tennessee forced turnovers on 11% of drives, which ranked 21st, but it was much better on the drives in which it was unable to force a takeaway.

The Titans’ turnover margin did regress dramatically, dropping from plus-11 to minus-3. They were simply able to overcome it by being better on a play-by-play basis on defense and continuing to pull out close games in the fourth quarter. They finished the year 20th in overall team DVOA, suggesting they were a slightly below-average team with spectacular timing.

Can they keep that up? Is a second impressive season in one-score games enough to treat it as a skill? Let’s take a look. The Titans are 13-4 in games decided by seven points or fewer over the past two seasons, so they’ve won nine more close games than they’ve lost. From 1989 to 2020, there were 29 other teams that were plus-eight or better in seven-point games over a two-year span. They were collectively 364-101 (.783) in those one-score games during their two impressive seasons.

The following season, they combined to go 108-100 (.519) in one-score contests. For every team that kept up its success in seven-point games, there were teams like the 2021 Chiefs and Seahawks, who regressed back toward (or even past) league average. The Titans might count on a healthy Henry to serve as their hammer in the fourth quarter in 2022, but other teams have had dominant running backs in the past, and they haven’t been able to win three-quarters or more of their close games on an annual basis.

It’s also fair to wonder whether the Titans will be a more talented team. Henry already was struggling with efficiency under his enormous workload before the foot injury, and the team doesn’t have much behind him on the depth chart. Dupree should hopefully be healthier — and the organization was able to retain Landry in free agency — but it also traded star wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Eagles for cap purposes and used a first-round draft pick on Treylon Burks, who hasn’t impressed in training camp. There are several first-rounders from years past missing from the roster, including Jack Conklin, Corey Davis, Rashaan Evans and Isaiah Wilson. The offensive line, once a core of the team, is a work in progress.

Titans fans will rightfully note that they’ve defied the numbers before, and it’s true. They’re a well-coached team and a generally well-run organization under Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson. They play in a relatively easy division, although they lose the extra home game this season and get placement games against the Bengals, Bills and Packers. We’ve seen that Tennessee is capable of beating any team on its day. I’m just not sure it will be the Titans’ day quite as often in 2022.

Packers fans have even more of a reason to be angry! After going 13-3 with a 9.6-win point differential in 2019, Green Bay made the list of teams likely to decline. It maintained a 13-3 record again in 2020 by improving its game-by-game performance and getting an unexpected MVP season from Aaron Rodgers, although the Packers still outperformed their expected win total. Back on this list for a second consecutive season, they went … 13-4, declining by only a half-game after sitting their stars during a Week 18 loss to the Lions. Rodgers won his second straight MVP award, and it sent me back to the drawing board.

Now, the Packers are back. Some of the factors we saw as problems a year ago played out as expected … and they just didn’t matter. Rodgers & Co. went from being the best red zone offense in recent league history to finishing 19th in points per red zone trip. Didn’t matter. Injured stars David Bakhtiari and Za’Darius Smith combined to play two games. Didn’t matter. Rodgers wasn’t quite as good as he had been during his MVP season in 2021. Didn’t matter. He still won it anyway.

How did the Packers pull it off? Let’s start with the obvious: They’ve done an excellent job of roster-building over the past few seasons, with 2021 as the ultimate feather in general manager Brian Gutekunst’s cap. With Smith basically out for the year, 2019 first-rounder Rashan Gary stepped into the lineup and played like a superstar. The offensive line mixed and matched players throughout the season. Free agent additions De’vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas, who had been ordinary everywhere else as pros, looked like stars in Green Bay. Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur deserve accolades for their work, even if it hasn’t yet resulted in a Super Bowl appearance.

Were they lucky in one-score games? A little, but not so much that it explains the difference between their win total (13.0) and their expected mark (10.4). They went 5-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer.



Harry Douglas and Sam Acho weigh in on the wide receiver issues in Green Bay’s training camp.

This included a game against the 49ers in which San Francisco mismanaged the clock, scored with 37 seconds left and left the Packers just enough time to drive for a game-winning field goal. Against the Cardinals, they were stuffed on a four-play series starting at the 1-yard line up three points and saw Arizona drive the length of the field, only for wideout A.J. Green to fail to turn around for a pass in the end zone that was then picked off by Douglas. They had to survive two missed field goals from Evan McPherson in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Bengals, though Mason Crosby missed three of his own during the same time frame.

There’s not really a formula or a killer instinct here to serve as a through line for these games. It’s also worth noting that despite the Packers’ 14-6 record in one-score games during the regular season over the past three seasons, they are 1-2 in those same games during the postseason, having lost tight ones to the Buccaneers and 49ers over the past two seasons.

Rodgers also didn’t have a spectacular track record in one-score games or against the expected win model before 2019. Before LaFleur arrived, his record as a starting quarterback was 100-57-1, which we’ll count as 100.5 victories. Using those starts in the expected win model, we would have expected him and the Packers to win … 100.7 games.

Over the past three years, Green Bay has won 39 games. The Pythagorean model we use would have expected it to win 31 games. The Packers have an advantage over teams from the past by virtue of playing a 17th game last season, but has anyone in recent memory exceeded expectations quite as much as they have over a three-season span?

The answer is no. Since 1989, no team is really all that close to an eight-win gap between expectation and reality. The next closest comparable team is the 2012-14 Colts, who won 33 games against an expectation of 26.7 wins. The following season, they declined but still managed to keep surpassing their totals; they went 8-8 with a 6.1-win Pythagorean expectation. It wasn’t until 2016 that they got back in line with the rest of the universe.

Does this hold for all the other rule breakers? Not really. Let’s take the 36 teams from 1989 to 2019 that exceeded their expected win total by at least four wins over a three-year span. Those teams exceeded their expected win total by an average of 1.5 wins per season during their first three seasons in the study. In Year 4, they exceeded their expectation by an average of 0.2 wins, placing them right back around league-average.

If you’re skeptical the Packers will fall in line, I don’t blame you. Most teams turn the ball over more than 13 times in a season, but the Packers have been at 13 or below each of the past three years. When their stars miss time, they manage to coax star seasons out of previously underwhelming players. They find ways to win, even against a first-place schedule. They lost multiple coaches from their staff to jobs elsewhere this offseason and will probably turn an intern, a tackling dummy and a block of cheese into hot head-coaching candidates next offseason.

I’m trusting the numbers because I’m willing to get hurt again. The Packers will be very good again in 2022, but like I said a year ago, I would expect very good to look more like 11-6 than 13-4. I don’t expect many readers will want to accompany me on that journey, and I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way. When Rodgers wins his third consecutive MVP award, I’ll take personal responsibility.

Let’s go from the team that traded away Davante Adams to the one that acquired the former Packers star. The Raiders got hot in December, won four straight games to advance to the postseason and then gave the Bengals a tough time in the wild-card round. They followed up things by hiring longtime Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels as head coach and then added veteran stars on either side of the ball in Adams and edge rusher Chandler Jones. It’s going to be tough for the Raiders to win a loaded AFC West, but they shouldn’t have much trouble hitting 10 wins again in 2022. Right?

Since they’re in this column, you can probably suspect I don’t feel that way. They did go 10-7 a year ago, but they had the point differential of a 6.9-win team. They were outscored by nearly four points per game. It’s not exactly a like-for-like comparison because they got to play a 17th game, but they were outscored by 65 points on the season. From 1989 to 2020, just five teams with at least 10 wins were outscored at all during the regular season, and no team was within 30 points of where the Raiders finished last season.

Season-long advanced metrics didn’t think the Raiders were a good football team. They finished the regular season 21st in DVOA, ranking fourth within their own division. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) pegged them as the 23rd-best team in the league. Pro Football Reference had them 23rd in their Simple Rating System. They finished as the 13th-best team in the AFC.

Go back to that season-ending streak. The Raiders were at 6-7 and looking forward to 2022 after getting blown out by the Chiefs. From that point forward, they rekindled their playoff hopes by facing a series of compromised quarterback situations. In Week 15, they went up against the Browns, who were starting third-stringer Nick Mullens. In Week 16, their game against the Broncos pitted them against backup Drew Lock. The following week, they faced unvaccinated quarterback Carson Wentz, who had only been removed from the COVID-19 list just before the game.



Adam Schefter details how Davante Adams is fitting in with the Raiders and what Las Vegas’ offensive weapons could mean for Adams in fantasy.

If the Raiders had dominated those three games, it would have been one thing. Instead, they won those by a total of nine points. They followed those three wins with a much more impressive victory, topping the Chargers in overtime in that 35-32 classic to end the season.

On the whole, Las Vegas went 7-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. It went 4-0 in overtime, becoming just the second team in the past 30 years to pull that off (the 2011 Cardinals). It played four games against backup quarterbacks and went 3-1 in those games, meaning it was 7-6 when it had to play against the opposing team’s primary starter.

The Raiders did have a formula, but I’m not sure it’s particularly sustainable. Daniel Carlson kicked nine field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime to give them a lead, with those kicks eventually leading to five victories. Carlson is a great kicker, but that’s likely unprecedented in NFL history. ESPN has data going back through 2001, and no team over that time frame ever has had a kicker boot more than six field goals to give his team a lead in the fourth quarter or overtime. The record was five before 2021, when Carlson hit nine and the kicker we’ll get to on a team in a moment hit six.

To be fair, there were some elements of the 2021 team that should improve. The Raiders were the worst red zone defense of the past decade, allowing opposing offenses to score touchdowns on a staggering 81.4% of their trips inside the 20. That won’t happen again. They forced only 15 takeaways in 17 games, which ranked 29th in the league. And while the division will be tougher after the Broncos added Russell Wilson and the Chargers rebuilt their defense, they already faced the eighth-toughest slate of opposing teams a year ago, per Football Outsiders. They project to face the eighth-toughest schedule in the league again.

Overall, though, there’s a substantial amount of evidence suggesting the Raiders were not as good as their record in 2021. Their underlying level of play and true talent level have to be better for them to live up to expectations this season. The question, then, is whether they did enough this offseason to project as a 10-plus-win team.

The biggest arguments in their favor revolve around the additions of Adams and Jones. I had significant issues with the Adams trade given the cost of draft picks and his salary, and I don’t think it will age well, but he has his best chance of playing at an elite level for Vegas. He already has the much-ballyhooed relationship with Carr from their time together in college, which should help smooth his adjustment period with a new quarterback.

At the same time, we’ve seen Adams spend his entire career with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Rodgers, outside of those times when the Packers star was injured. Carr is an underrated passer and a player who has had to make do with underwhelming receiving corps at times with the Raiders, but he’s not Rodgers, no matter what Adams says (and then tries to take back). Adams will be a major upgrade on the likes of Bryan Edwards and Zay Jones on the outside, but projecting him to be the league’s top wideout based on his performance with Rodgers is curious.

Jones is 32, and while he’s still playing at a high level, he’s likely on the downside of his career. He racked up 10.5 sacks and 26 knockdowns in his return from a biceps injury for the Cardinals last season, but five of those came in the opening-day win over the Titans. ESPN pegged Jones at No. 33 among edge rushers in pass rush win rate, while the 36 initial pressures he created ranked 25th. Those are good numbers, but they’re not the sort of transformative marks we saw from him during his run as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Adams and Jones are good players, but the Raiders already had impressive talent at receiver (Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller) and on the edge (Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue, with the latter salary-dumped to the Colts for oft-benched corner Rock Ya-Sin). They didn’t address their offensive line or their secondary in any significant way, and those were the two biggest holes on their roster.

The problem with this roster, as I mentioned after Jon Gruden’s firing, is that the Raiders are simply missing what was supposed to be the core of their team. Gruden and former general manager Mike Mayock took swings at the top of the draft and missed, over and over again, over the course of their tenure in Vegas. Gruden’s lone successful first-round pick was his first, as left tackle Kolton Miller has grown into the best player on their line.

Otherwise, it has been a mess. The new Raiders regime just declined the fifth-year options for 2019 first-rounders Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Josh Jacobs, none of whom have emerged as even average starters at their respective positions. Henry Ruggs and Damon Arnette, their first-round picks in 2020, are out of football after off-field incidents. Alex Leatherwood, a first-rounder in 2021, lost his job at right tackle during his rookie season and wasn’t much better at guard. Behind them, top-100 picks such as P.J. Hall, Arden Key, Lynn Bowden Jr., Tanner Muse and Edwards are no longer on the roster. Gruden shipped virtually everybody from the Reggie McKenzie regime out of town, leaving the Raiders with precious little homegrown talent.

The Gruden regime was able to find talent in later rounds, with Crosby and Renfrow as the two biggest hits, but this is a roster papered over with veteran signings and middling young players. The hope is McDaniels will do a better job coaching them up than the duo of Gruden and Rich Bisaccia, but the track record of Patriots assistants outside of Foxboro — McDaniels included — has been disastrous. McDaniels might have learned from his mistakes in Denver, but it’s hardly a lock that he’ll be a genius in Vegas, especially in his first season at the helm.

Of course, the Gruden era came about because of what happened the last time the Raiders had inflated expectations because of their luck in one-score games. In 2016, they went 12-4 with the point differential of an 8.7-win team, mostly because they went 8-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Carr led seven fourth-quarter comebacks, and while an injury to the quarterback compromised Oakland’s postseason game, it looked like Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack and the rest of their young core were about to start competing for Super Bowls.

I featured the Raiders as the most likely team in the league to decline heading into 2017 but still projected them to win eight or nine games. I was too optimistic. They went 6-10. Coach Jack Del Rio and McKenzie were fired, and the organization turned to Gruden.

I don’t think McDaniels is likely to lose his job with a similarly disappointing campaign, but the Raiders are more likely to win eight or nine games than they are to top their 10-win mark from a year ago. And if they don’t get superstar-caliber seasons from Adams and Jones, they might fail to live up to even those expectations.

One of my favorite streaks in football is Mike Tomlin’s 15-year run of avoiding a losing record. The Steelers went .500 with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges as their primary quarterbacks in 2019. The team’s reputation when it comes to drafting and developing talent requires no introduction. Tomlin is one of the best coaches in all of football. I take no joy in expecting the Steelers to break his streak in 2022, but this team has major questions on both sides of the ball.

During Ben Roethlisberger‘s swan song in 2021, the Steelers weren’t much better than the Raiders. While they finished 9-8, they were outscored by 55 points. They finished 23rd in overall team DVOA, down from eighth in 2020. Their usually dominant defense, facing the toughest slate of opposing offenses in the league and getting little help from their offense, ranked 22th in points allowed. They were a more impressive 14th by DVOA.

The Steelers instead thrived by going 7-1-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer. The first of those wins was an impressive victory in the opening week of the season at Buffalo, where they frustrated quarterback Josh Allen and blocked a punt for a crucial touchdown. Most of their other close victories weren’t quite as impressive, including:

  • A 23-20 overtime win over the Seahawks in Geno Smith‘s first start for Seattle.

  • A 15-10 victory in Cleveland against the Browns in which Jarvis Landry fumbled entering the red zone in the fourth quarter.

  • A 29-27 victory over the Bears in prime time that was most famous for Cassius Marsh being called for a ridiculous taunting penalty; the personal foul extended a fourth-quarter Steelers drive that was about to end with them punting, with Pittsburgh eventually kicking a field goal instead.

  • A 16-16 tie with the winless Lions, with the Steelers kept out of the loss column when Ryan Santoso missed a 48-yard kick in overtime.

  • A 20-19 win over the injury-riddled Ravens when the Steelers stopped a 2-point conversion try with 12 seconds to go.

  • A 19-13 win over the Titans in a game in which Tennessee lost three fumbles and was stopped in the red zone on the final drive of the game.

  • A 16-13 overtime win over the Ravens with Tyler Huntley at quarterback in Week 18.

The Steelers deserve credit for how they played, and there’s certainly no shame in beating the Bills and Titans, but there are several narrow victories over middling or injury-impacted teams on that list. They needed every one of those breaks to go their way to eventually make it to the postseason, where Roethlisberger quickly had his career ended by the Chiefs. Kicker Chris Boswell hit six field goals in the fourth quarter to give Pittsburgh a lead, trailing only Vegas’ Carlson in that category.



Marcus Spears reacts to Kenny Pickett’s preseason performance vs. the Jaguars but says he wouldn’t take the starter job away from Mitch Trubisky.

If you include the postseason loss, the Steelers were 2-7 against teams that would eventually finish with a winning record, with those opponents outscoring them by more than 11 points per game. They survived by going 7-1-1 against sub-.500 teams, and while the wins count just the same when you beat the teams you’re supposed to beat, they only were narrowly pulling out those contests. They outscored those teams by an average of 2.9 points per game.

With Roethlisberger retiring, one of the arguments in Pittsburgh’s favor has been the idea the offense was hopelessly limited by the quarterback, who had virtually no zip on his throws after returning in 2020 from elbow surgery. The Steelers were limited to short throws over the middle of the field or rainbow lobs down either sideline, while an immobile Roethlisberger was a sitting duck in the pocket for pass-rushers.

I won’t argue with much of that thinking, but there’s something missing from that equation. He certainly was limited physically toward the end of his career, and the quarterbacks replacing him will be more mobile and have stronger arms. No issues there. At the same time, though, he was a far more experienced and effective signal-caller when it came to reading defenses and understanding where pressure was likely to come from. This was a particularly important skill behind an offensive line that looked terrible on paper and didn’t perform much better in those moments when he had to hold the football.

While the Steelers imported a pair of competent veterans in James Daniels and Mason Cole this offseason, salary-cap limitations and a lack of significant draft capital invested up front leaves them with one of the league’s worst lines heading into 2022. Analyst Brandon Thorn, who does an excellent job breaking down offensive and defensive lines each season, projects them to have the worst offensive line in football.

Now, that line isn’t going to have a quarterback with Roethlisberger’s experience and aptitude for getting the ball out quickly. They’re going to be protecting for Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett. Trubisky and Rudolph have not looked good behind anything but pristine protection. Pickett has looked very good in the preseason, but he’s also a rookie, and during his senior season at Pitt, the first-round pick held the ball for an average of 3.12 seconds before throwing, which was the fourth-longest mark in all of college football.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers got transcendent seasons from stars T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. Minkah Fitzpatrick didn’t make the Pro Bowl after back-to-back first-team All-Pro nods, but it’s difficult to imagine them getting more out of their two star pass-rushers than they did in 2021, when they combined for 32.5 sacks and 56 knockdowns.

The other concern is that Pittsburgh has been aggressive trading draft picks in recent years, and those moves have focused more attention on some disappointing decisions in the first round. The team declined the fifth-year option of 2018 first-rounder Terrell Edmunds and then signed him to a one-year deal for modest money when his market didn’t develop. It traded up in 2019 for linebacker Devin Bush at the No. 10 pick, but that pick hasn’t worked out; Bush was only a two-down linebacker as a rookie and hasn’t looked the same since tearing an ACL in 2020. It also declined his fifth-year option and could hand his starting job over to Robert Spillane.

The Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for Fitzpatrick, and while they’re happy to have the star safety on their roster, their only top-100 pick during that draft was second-round WR Chase Claypool, who seemed to be in the doghouse last season. Their 2021 first-rounder was running back Najee Harris, who plays a position that typically doesn’t require first-round capital. Harris didn’t look particularly impressive as a rookie, and he’ll need a better second season to look worth the investment.

The Steelers unsurprisingly have landed players in later rounds, but their roster doesn’t look as deep or imposing as it might have a decade ago. They’re far more reliant on modest deals for veterans in free agency, usually in spots or at positions where they would have typically just developed their own talent in years past. They’ve obviously been incredible at landing receivers in the draft, but the line is a mess, inside linebacker is a concern and what had been a deep depth chart at cornerback has dissipated.

There’s certainly ways for them to exceed expectations in 2022. Pickett could win the starting job soon and look like he immediately belongs in the league, just as Mac Jones did with the Patriots a year ago. Roethlisberger’s departure could spark a more creative offensive scheme from motion enthusiast Matt Canada. The Pittsburgh defense could force a bunch of takeaways after dropping from 38 in 2019 to 27 in 2020 and 22 a year ago.

Facing what projects to be the league’s fourth-toughest schedule, though, it’s easier to see scenarios in which the Steelers take a step backward. It took All-Pro-caliber seasons from their two best players on defense and a season-long tightrope walk against middling competition to keep alive their streak of .500 or better seasons. If Tomlin can stretch that to a 16th consecutive campaign, I’ll respect the legendary coach even more.

The Falcons were a competent team with terrible luck in 2020. As such, they made it onto last year’s list of the teams mostly likely to improve. In this column, “improve” and “decline” refer to your win-loss record, and by that measure, they succeeded. They jumped from 4-12 to 7-10.

Last season, though, the Falcons were a terrible team with incredible luck. In coach Arthur Smith’s first season, they were outscored by 146 points, which is 8.6 points per game. No seven-win team in league history has posted a worse point differential, and while that’s cheating because of the 17-game schedule, no six-win team in league history has posted a worse point differential than Atlanta’s minus-146 mark, either.

Atlanta finished with just 4.9 expected wins, which ranked 30th in the NFL. It needed a late-season surge to rise from the very bottom of the DVOA charts, eventually settling in at 30th by that metric. It finished the season 27th in FPI and 29th by the Simple Rating System. By every measure besides win-loss record, the Falcons were one of the league’s worst teams.

How did they get to 7-10? Unsurprisingly, they pulled out some squeakers. Aided by an excellent season from star kicker Younghoe Koo, they went 6-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Their largest victory came by a whopping eight points over the Panthers, who were rolling out the duo of Cam Newton and PJ Walker at quarterback.

Three of those seven victories came over backup quarterbacks, with the Falcons also topping Trevor Siemian during his time starting for the rival Saints and Tim Boyle‘s Lions. Their other wins came against the Dolphins, Giants, Jaguars and Jets. Their average win came by 4.7 points. Their average loss was by nearly 18 points.

This would normally be a pretty bad profile for the upcoming season. The Falcons were ticketed for this list before anything happened this offseason, solely based on how they performed in 2021. Take teams that outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 1.5 to 2.5 wins and see how they performed the following year, and you’ll find that nearly 70% of them decline the following season, with the average team falling off by 2.3 wins. There weren’t many reasons to think Atlanta would be the exceptions to that rule.

Then, the Falcons had one of the more bizarre offseasons in recent memory. They decided to briefly flirt with the idea of trading for Deshaun Watson, who would have been joining a team with no cap space and one of the league’s worst rosters before losing multiple future first-round picks. While they were occupied with Watson, they were stuck in stasis. They lost starting wideout Russell Gage to the division-rival Bucs and breakout linebacker Foyesade Oluokun to the Jaguars, costing them two NFL-caliber starters in the process.

The team’s public interest in Watson unsettled stalwart quarterback Matt Ryan, who then sought a trade elsewhere. With no leverage, the Falcons were able to get only a third-round pick from the Colts for their longtime starter. Atlanta, which had previously intended to restructure Ryan’s contract to create short-term cap space, instead ate a record $40.5 million in dead money on his deal. It had to then extend Grady Jarrett, who likely would have been a cap casualty to fit Watson on the roster, just to create cap space.



Field Yates feels confident that Kyle Pitts will have a productive season for the Falcons.

On top of all that, the NFC South got much tougher than it seemed in January. Tom Brady unretired. The Saints decided to invest heavily in competing this year as opposed to starting a rebuild after coach Sean Payton resigned. The Panthers finally were able to land an upgrade on Sam Darnold in Baker Mayfield. There was a window in which it looked like the Falcons might have fielded a team against a division whose starting quarterbacks were Darnold, Taysom Hill and Kyle Trask. That window closed quickly.

Oh, and while all that was happening, wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the 2022 season after the league found that he had gambled on games. Atlanta used its first-round pick on wideout Drake London, but he’ll have to make up for two departed starting wideouts in Gage and Ridley. London already is dealing with a right knee issue suffered during his preseason debut, although he expects to play in Week 1.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Falcons. They have a beautiful stadium. Cornerback A.J. Terrell is one of the best young players at his position in the game, and tight end Kyle Pitts might join him in that grouping this season. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was a reasonable Plan B with experience in Smith’s system, and while the Titans got much better after inserting Ryan Tannehill as their starter, Mariota was more competent than people remember. We might get to see rookie third-rounder Desmond Ridder at some point during the season. Koo has become one of the best kickers in the league. London and Pitts are going to put up some wild highlights on RedZone in garbage time at 3:45 p.m. ET every Sunday.

With that being said, the Falcons are likely going to be the worst team in the league this season. Smith was furious at suggestions his team was tanking the season. I take him at his word. I don’t think the Falcons are going to be tanking, because they aren’t trying to lose on purpose. It’ll just end up looking that way.

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