Which NFL playoff teams will return to field and which won't? Ranking all 14 teams by 2022 outlook
Since 1990, the NFL's postseason field has included at least four new teams every year. Which franchises could fall out of the postseason in 2022?
If there's one constant about the NFL, it's perpetual change – annual roster turnover, an ever-cycling coach carousel, rulebook tweaks, even stylistic and functional uniform alterations.
And, of course, there's the league's signature parity – the salary cap, draft and even scheduling formula designed to reward bad teams while frequently hampering good ones. And unlike college football's playoff system, which, to date, has typically featured the same cluster of teams, the NFL's postseason field is in constant flux year over year. Since 1990, when the league expanded the playoff bracket to 12 entries – it grew to 14 in 2020 – at least four clubs (and very often several more) that qualified in the previous season failed to return in the subsequent one.
Which teams from the Super Bowl 56 tournament are likeliest to fall by the wayside in 2022? Here's my ranking, first to worst, of 2021 playoff teams likeliest to return this season with their projected record – following Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson's six-game suspension – in parentheses:
1. Buffalo Bills (14-3)
Let's keep this brief. Prohibitive AFC East favorites and a chic Super Bowl 57 pick, it seems highly unlikely their postseason streak ends at three years, barring a catastrophic injury to QB Josh Allen or a total collapse of last season's No. 1 defense.
2. Green Bay Packers (12-5)
After losing All-Pro Davante Adams, arguably the league's premier receiver over the past two seasons, the Pack certainly have work to do coming off three consecutive 13-win seasons – none concluding with a Super Bowl berth – and are hardly a lock to secure a fourth consecutive playoff bye week. And yet they're probably elite given how relatively weak the NFC looks comparted to the AFC and should have a significant gap on the competition in what appears to be their conference's weakest division.
3. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
The reigning Super Bowl champions took some personnel hits in the offseason, most notably OLB Von Miller's defection to Buffalo, but seem to have less significant issues than their NFC West counterparts. LA is nevertheless in a seemingly tougher division than Green Bay given the 49ers nearly held off the Rams in January's NFC title game.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-6)
The interior of QB Tom Brady's offensive line will be entirely new, TE Rob Gronkowski is gone – for the foreseeable future anyway – WR Chris Godwin is trying to come back from an ACL tear, there's likely to be an adjustment to new head coach Todd Bowles, TB12 himself is on a mini sabbatical ... oh, and this team hasn't beaten the New Orleans Saints in the regular season in four years. Hard to imagine the Bucs won't be playoff bound for the third consecutive year on Brady's watch, but they seem to be facing more early challenges – including a rough opening stretch (Cowboys, Saints, Packers, Chiefs) – than the NFC's other projected elite squads.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (11-6)
The defending AFC champs will surely have their hands full in the AFC North, especially if the revitalized Baltimore Ravens make an expected resurgence. But the Bengals have undergone reconstructive surgery on their Achilles' heel, an offensive line that was consistently exploited in the playoffs – and end of Super Bowl 56 by the Rams specifically – poised to field four new starters. The only other roster issue seems to be S Jessie Bates' training camp holdout now that QB Joe Burrow has returned to practice following an appendectomy.
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6. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6)
They've won the past six AFC West crowns and haven't missed postseason since 2014. Given that level of consistency and continued presence of the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes tandem, you betting against K.C. to miss the playoffs now – even without WR Tyreek Hill and despite the improvements elsewhere in the division? Nah ...
7. Philadelphia Eagles (11-6)
Are they the seventh-best team in the league? Probably not. Do they have one of the best starting lineups anywhere, one able to strike multiple ways on both sides of the ball with a promising, multi-dimensional quarterback (Jalen Hurts) at the forefront? Most definitely. A soft schedule could also catapult Philly, which finished the 2021 regular season with a 6-2 sprint under first-year coach Nick Sirianni, atop the NFC East.
8. San Francisco 49ers (10-7)
They were half a quarter from returning to the Super Bowl last season but have nonetheless cast their lot with 2021 first-round QB Trey Lance rather than Jimmy Garoppolo. That could mean higher peaks and deeper valleys in 2022, but HC Kyle Shanahan and the balance of this roster are too good to be undone by an inexperienced, if extremely promising, young passer.
9. Dallas Cowboys (10-7)
A once-feared offensive line has gotten a facelift. QB Dak Prescott must adapt to a receiving corps without WRs Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson Jr., whom he targeted a combined 165 times in 2021. RB Ezekiel Elliott is trying to rebound from what was arguably his worst NFL season. In sum, a lot of questions about an offense that ranked No. 1 last year before self-destructing in the playoffs. Two things not to worry about, Dallas fans: budding superstar LB Micah Parsons and a schedule that's the easiest (based on 2021 records) of any of last season's playoff teams.
10. New England Patriots (10-7)
The departure of longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is currently a matter of much consternation as the Pats rewire their attack with the next play caller allegedly TBD. Yet a defense that was elite for most of last season is more than capable of providing early cover for Mac Jones and Co. while they iron out the wrinkles. Good bet Team Belichick gets things figured out while embracing the challenge.
11. Tennessee Titans (8-9)
A franchise that appears to be retooling on the fly might be overly reliant on RB Derrick Henry to make the offense work despite the heavy burden he's shouldered in the past. Maybe the physical All-Pro runner and punishing defense will be sufficient to carry this team, but mostly because someone has to win the AFC South ... even if it might not house one of the conference's seven best teams.
12. Las Vegas Raiders (9-8)
The arrivals of McDaniels and Adams have provided a shot in the arm for a team that, despite a minus-two turnover deficit, gave the Bengals about all they could handle in last season's wild-card round. Still, despite a potentially deadly passing game orchestrated by steady QB Derek Carr, major questions otherwise about the efficacy of this team up the middle on both sides of the ball – which is fairly worrisome in a division as loaded as the AFC West.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
The focus on an organization that's never finished with a losing record under HC Mike Tomlin is understandably on the Ben Roethlisberger succession plan ... which could be pretty daunting for QBs Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and/or first-rounder Kenny Pickett given Pittsburgh faces five 2021 playoff clubs before Halloween. The Steelers' outcome is also likely to be shaped more than most by however the NFL's appeal on Watson's punishment plays out. Yet even beyond those considerations, a team that couldn't stop the run last year – ranking last in the league – and continues to pose questions about its offensive line will likely have numerous hurdles to overcome.
14. Arizona Cardinals (7-10)
They didn't upgrade in free agency, mismanaged the draft – unless you think WR Marquise "Hollywood" Brown was worth a first-rounder selection – mismanaged QB Kyler Murray's contract saga while suspended WR DeAndre Hopkins mismanaged what he ingested. A team that's started hot before a major flop the past two seasons will face, among others, the Chiefs, Raiders, Rams and Eagles while Hopkins is out.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.