2021 Seasons In Review

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·35 min read
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Teams listed by draft order, minus trades.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to just film a PSA on the dangers of hiring a college coach? Rather than become the next Jimmy Johnson or Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer got “cautionary tale” tattooed on his forehead, behaving like a frat brother instead of a leader of men. Although he held onto his job for 14 agonizing games, Meyer sealed his fate in September. That was when he skipped the Jags’ team flight home from Cincinnati to go cavort with coeds in Ohio State garb. That sad spectacle laid bare Meyer’s unique blend of hubris and unseriousness. Neither Meyer nor his team ever recovered, with struggling No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence having to spend his stretch run awkwardly answering questions about his head coach instead of fine tuning his game. That’s the real wreckage Meyer leaves behind. Lawrence was always going to be in for a bumpy rookie ride with the league’s worst roster. But to not even have a teacher? It’s a year he will never get back, one that could prove fatal to his development. You may have found Meyer’s foibles funny. For the Jags, they were yet another fiasco leaving them ever further behind the rest of the league.

31. Detroit Lions

It’s all about expectations. The fact that keyed-up new coach Dan Campbell never got himself hospitalized with caffeine poisoning or accidentally drove a motorcycle over Jared Goff was enough in some people’s eyes to make the Lions’ season a success. The lowest bar was cleared. That Campbell actually coached competitive football and won a few more games than expected was icing on the cake. Campbell threads a unique needle, positioning himself as both old school tough and the ultimate player’s coach. For at least one year, he pulled it off easily, winning new fans nationally and holding the line locally. The task will become tougher in Year 2, where merely winning a few games with Goff will no longer be enough to earn respect points. Campbell seems like he will be up to the challenge, but it’s not the first time someone has seemed up to the challenge in Detroit.

30. Houston Texans

Surpassing low expectations never felt so deflating. Head coach David Culley’s hiring was first guessed. Davis Mills’ selection was a third-round afterthought. Both vaulted past a bar the general public set at “zero wins,” yet only one of them remains with the team. What should have been a surprisingly promising campaign was instead just the latest chapter in this franchise’s recent dysfunction. Culley was sent packing over nebulous “philosophical differences” so second-year GM Nick Caserio could take another crack at finding a Patriots lackey to his liking. (He failed.) The coaching distraction, of course, was just a distraction from the real distraction: Deshaun Watson's legal situation and standing with the team. A 17-game inactive in 2021, Watson’s status was the albatross at the center of everything. Even if Culley had won 10 games, the Texans could not truly move forward until Watson was no longer with the club. That will be the case in 2022. Caserio and Jack Easterby have not earned the benefit of the doubt. They will at least soon clear the dark cloud that has hung over this organization since January 2021.

29. New York Jets

Permanent midnight rolled on in Florham Park, with the Jets winning five games or fewer for the fifth time in six years. On the sideline, Robert Saleh had no cure for what ailed Todd Bowles and Adam Gase. Quite the opposite, in fact, with the defensive-minded hire chewing through pencils as Gang Green’s defense cratered to 32nd in both points and yards allowed. Under center, No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson looked like what he was: A rookie whose biggest college start came against Coastal Carolina. The Jets used Wilson's Week 8 knee injury as an attempt at a mental reset, extending his rehab beyond what was probably necessary with a stint in Mike White timeout before a brief stay in Joe Flacco jail. Those detours predictably ended up in the ditch, and it’s unclear what anybody learned. Even the bright spots burned out, with second-year LT Mekhi Becton appearing in only one game after what was supposed to be a 4-6 week absence with a knee issue ballooned to four months, reportedly because he put on too much weight during his convalescence. It never rains in Jets Park, only pours. It’s probably for the best that Saleh and Wilson got that lesson out of the way early. Now we’ll see if they can rise out of the wreckage that consumed their predecessors.

28. New York Giants

It’s not always success that sticks in the collective psyche, no matter how much America loves a winner. We dig infamy, too, and when it comes to ill repute, few moments of the 2021 season rival what the Giants did in Week 18. On 2nd-and-11 from their own two-yard line down 3-0 late in the second quarter, the G-Men called a quarterback sneak. On 3rd-and-9 one play later, they did it again. Three yards and 48 hours later, Joe Judge was fired. Like Campbell in Detroit, Judge’s first year in New York was considered a modest success largely for what didn’t happen. He didn’t fight the team mascot, for instance. Year 2 revealed the depth of the absence. No plan, no hope, and ultimately, no fight. Judge would bitterly protest that final charge, but NFL coaches who actually want to win games do not call quarterback sneaks on second down to improve their punt position. You could have Johnny Knoxville under center and that wouldn’t be the plan. It is not something any serious leader would do, and despite his deadly serious manner, Judge was never serious. He had a fully realized conception of what a head football coach should be. He had no clue what it actually required. What’s left behind — namely QB Daniel Jones — will probably soon be gone, too, as the G-Men embark on a much-needed professionalization after nearly a decade in the post-Tom Coughlin wilderness.

27. Carolina Panthers

The “analytics” felt further away than ever. The Sam Darnold plan didn’t work. The Cam Newton plan didn’t work. The running the ball without Christian McCaffrey plan didn’t work. Nothing worked in a season that frankly felt like an exposure for second-year coach Matt Rhule. Increasingly desperate with no good ideas, Rhule spent most of the second half of the year opining on the need to establish the run. The results were losses to the Football Team, Dolphins and Falcons, amongst others. The news was slightly better on defense, where first-round CB Jaycee Horn looked like a difference maker before breaking his foot and mid-season acquisition Stephon Gilmore provided a jolt. The revolution would maybe be televised if the Panthers could simply find a quarterback, but there will be nothing simple about it with Darnold’s $18.8 million salary needlessly locked in for 2022. Rhule says the things modern owners want to hear. It’s time for him to do the only thing fans care about: Win.

26. Chicago Bears

Behind every bad season is a good “QB1 👀” tweet. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of recent football history knew how the Bears’ March 24 Andy Dalton post would turn out. It goes without saying that Dalton would not be the QB1. It is also a tried-and-true fact that if you feel compelled to tweet about having a QB1, you have a roster that isn’t ready for prime time, ironic in the Bears’ case since they only play in prime time. After Dalton unsurprisingly tanked to begin the year, Chicago’s struggles deepened even as Dalton’s first-round replacement, Justin Fields, showed promise down the stretch. It was no thanks to his coaching staff or supporting cast. The former called the offense like Fields was Nick Foles instead of a dangerous dual threat. The latter was decimated behind second-year pro Darnell Mooney. Allen Robinson’s legs appeared completely gone. Since-fired coach Matt Nagy seemed more interested in grinding out a few victories with Dalton than setting the Bears up for their Fields future. Neither objective was accomplished in a 6-11 campaign. Starting over yet again, the Bears have an impressive building block in Fields, but the other materials are sorely lacking.

25. Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons entered Week 17 still alive for a playoff berth. Sure, they were 7-8 with a -122 point differential and needed multiple miracles to happen, but they were alive nonetheless. The Gatorade was not turned into wine. They lost to the Bills and Saints and limped into the offseason with a still-misleading 7-10 record. “Still misleading” because the Dirty Birds’ -146 point differential was the second worst in the NFC and fifth worst in football. Still misleading because there weren’t really positives of any kind. No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts did deliver on his enormous hype with the first 1,000-yard campaign by a rookie tight end since Mike Ditka in 1961, but he scored only one touchdown in the process. That’s what happens when your quarterback is a risk-averse Matt Ryan, a player who decided he would rather take third-down sacks in the red zone than attempt tight-window throws to Julio Jones. Of the seven teams Atlanta did beat, zero made the playoffs. Against future postseason squads, the Falcons were 0-7 with a -159 point differential. Ghastly. Along the way, one of the best players on the team, Calvin Ridley, was forced to step away for mental health reasons. There is speculation he does not want to return to Atlanta. This roster is not close, not even remotely. The only offseason possibility is pain before possible renewal.

24. Denver Broncos

The bridge is still to nowhere. In year six without Peyton Manning under center, the Broncos started their 10th quarterback. Like Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien before him, Teddy Bridgewater was not the answer. With Bridgewater’s returns ever diminishing, a loaded skill corps had nowhere to go. With the last of the championship core aging out on defense, there was no “better half” to carry the roster. Vic Fangio’s defensive scheming kept the returns respectable enough, but his offensive conservatism obliterated whatever slim chance they had of breaking through Bridgewater’s hard ceiling. It was simple football purgatory for a team that has been to neither heaven nor hell since Manning’s retirement. The time has come to start thinking bigger.

23. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks went down to the crossroads. They drove over the median. Putting the finishing touches on an era that was determined to end, Pete Carroll’s team continued its fade on defense and fully collapsed on offense. The product was frequently unwatchable before, during and after Russell Wilson’s three-week absence with a finger injury, with morale only improving after Rashaad Penny of all people restored balance to an attack that had become unrecognizable. Penny’s five-game finale — 92 carries for 671 yards and six touchdowns — was a fascinating coda to not only the season, but Carroll and Wilson’s never-ending argument about the nature of their offense. Should it be high-flying or grounded in traditional techniques? Carroll seemed to have a point by the end of the year. For his part, Wilson declined to tamp down the trade speculation that never went away and will be a brushfire by March. Lacking a first-round pick for a splash solution to any of their big problems, the Seahawks’ fortunes could get a whole lot worse before they get better.

22. Washington Commanders, née Football Team

It’s probably never a good thing when your big free agent quarterback addition with the word “magic” in his nickname goes down for the season in Week 1. It’s also probably never a good thing when your franchise’s hopes are pinned on a 38-year-old signal caller with his ninth club in 16 years. So it went for the team with no name as Ryan Fitzpatrick made it six attempts into 2021 before never being heard from again. Thankfully for the Football Team, they had another meme quarterback at hand in Taylor Heinicke, who led Washington to wins in two of their next three contests before staggering into the bye with four consecutive losses. The situation never really improved beyond there, but it sure got worse. Antonio Gibson played hurt. Terry McLaurin played hurt. Chase Young got hurt, suffering a torn ACL in Week 10. Somewhere along the way, Garrett Gilbert started a game because of the coronavirus. With the defense taking a step back on its 2020 form and the offense remaining stuck in quarterback neutral, there isn’t much for coach Ron Rivera to hang his hat on heading into the offseason. We would say Washington’s fortunes will only improve once they finally find their quarterback of the future, but tell that to Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins.

21. Minnesota Vikings

You aren’t always what your record says you are. The Vikings were definitely 8-9 with a -1 point differential. With his run-heavy, arch-conservative ways, coach Mike Zimmer was content to let every game come down to the last possession, if not the last play. A mind boggling 14-of-17 contests were decided by one score The result was a lot of lost coin flips for a team that could have been better with a more modern approach. It didn’t help that the defensive-minded Zimmer couldn’t solve the issues on his side of the ball for the second consecutive year. It all added up to the feel of an era ending, something that was confirmed when Zimmer was fired after eight seasons and GM Rick Spielman was let go after 16. Left behind is a solid offensive core but aged defense. The offseason question is whether new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah wants to cast his lot with a Kirk Cousins extension or blow things up and start anew. With Cousins being a good fit for the “Rams system” new coach Kevin O’Connell will likely employ, Vikings fans are probably stuck with Mr. “For Better or Worse” for at least another year or two.

20. Cleveland Browns

The dads were tweeting. Odell Beckham Sr. was demanding a trade. Kareem Hunt Sr. wanted his son to get the ball more. In the middle was Baker Mayfield, who was trying to follow up a career year with only one functional shoulder. It went poorly. Mayfield generated just 18 scores in 14 contests as the Browns fell back to 8-9 following last season’s playoff breakthrough. The silver linings were few. Beckham got traded and immediately revived for the Rams. Injuries abounded. All of two regulars — Myles Garrett and D’Ernest Johnson — appeared in every game. Mayfield played poorly enough that his Browns future is now in question. It might not be all the way back to square one, but the Browns’ number of steps back matched 2020’s steps forward. On the bright side, Kevin Stefanski still seems like the right man to lead the crew. The 53-man roster should remain largely intact for 2022, with Garrett anchoring the defense and the running game providing a foundation on offense. With a little bit better health, we know the Browns can at least make the playoffs with Mayfield. The problem is, 2021 made it clear that anything more is probably out of reach until the Browns try another “quarterback of the future.”

19. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens woke up on Dec. 5 with an 8-3 record and a shot at the AFC’s No. 1 seed. They wouldn’t win another game. What sounds stunning on paper was anything but on television. Injuries, bad defense and surprisingly shaky quarterback play were a toxic mix long primed for a stretch-run disaster. Bad luck — or was it bad process?— swooped in to complete the collapse, with unconverted two-point conversions ending the Ravens’ Week 13 and 15 defeats. With Lamar Jackson sidelined with a high-ankle sprain by this point, the Week 16-18 losses felt like a formality. They were thanks in part to a No. 32 pass defense that surrendered 525 Week 16 yards to Joe Burrow, the fourth-highest total in NFL history. It was those shocking aerial statistics that led to DC Wink Martindale’s January dismissal. With better health and better luck probably assured for 2022, what remains a strong roster and coaching staff will be one of the year’s most obvious bounce-back candidates.

18. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins had a seven-game losing streak followed by a seven-game winning streak, neither of which involved the Patriots, who they swept the season series from to bookend the year with victories before getting their coach fired. You know, just normal football stuff. So it wasn’t a basic season. It was a basic offense. That’s where now ex-coach Brian Flores sealed his fate, by coaching like it was illegal to win a game by more than three points. It’s a shame, because Flores had the game down cold on defense … after starting 1-7. The volatility — or was it something more? — was too much for owner Stephen Ross, who is now onto his sixth coach in 14 years since purchasing the team. New boss Mike McDaniel is inheriting a quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa who has proven he can game manage. That’s not a bar every quarterback clears. It also won’t be enough in a division with Josh Allen and Bill Belichick. If there’s no next step for Tua, there will be a new quarterback in 2023, and probably another new head coach in 2024 or 2025.

17. Indianapolis Colts

With Jonathan Taylor leading the way — and the league in rushing — the Colts were for beating playoff teams before they were against it. In Weeks 15-16, they dispatched the Patriots and Cardinals. Then they lost to the Raiders. Not ideal, but survivable. All they had to do to punch their postseason ticket was dispatch the Jacksonville Jag… oh… oh no. Indy’s Week 18 defeat is a loss that already lives in infamy, a punchline that will haunt the Colts the entire offseason, at the minimum. The bigger problem is the punchline that preceded that punchline. Carson Wentz’s play in place of Philip Rivers was reasonable enough the first half of the season, with the ex-Eagle exiting Week 9 the owner of a 17:3 TD:INT total and 100.1 QB rating. That’s where Weeks 10-18 come in. Wentz’s yards per attempt cratered from over 8.0 to 6.32 as he produced only 10 touchdowns in eight starts. He bettered 185 yards passing two times, and 250 once. Wentz categorically stopped making plays, opening the door to the kind of cataclysm that befell Indy in Week 18. Wentz’s albatross contract is such that he will be difficult to trade or release, though the Colts have already made it clear he is not guaranteed to keep the starting job. If they can find another solution, there is enough run game, offensive line and defensive talent here for the Colts to immediately rebound in 2022.

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16. Los Angeles Chargers

Brandon Staley broke the internet. Did he also break his playoff odds? The platonic ideal of an aggressive, EPA-focused modern coach, Staley operated as if situational football wasn’t really a thing, to mixed results. Never was this more vivid than Week 18, where the Chargers went for it on 4th-and-1 from their own 18 down just 17-14 early in the third quarter. Austin Ekeler was hammered for a two-yard loss, gifting the Raiders a field goal. Three points was the eventual difference in the game. The call wasn’t bad because it failed. It was bad because the other team was having so much trouble moving the ball it was resorting to something called the “Marcus Mariota package.” Maybe Staley should have acknowledged that reality. Things only got worse in overtime, where Staley called timeout even as the Raiders appeared content to take a tie, one that would have sent both teams to the postseason. Instead, they changed their play after Staley’s call and won the game. Patience, young football coach. Thankfully for Staley, his margin for error will soon be increasing. Justin Herbert is coming into his superstar prime, and this defense should be better in 2022. The future remains bright even if the head coach is a little too impatient to get there.

15. New Orleans Saints

Replacing Drew Brees was never going to be easy. Sean Payton probably still didn’t know it was going to be this hard. After two decades of flirting with or surpassing 5,000 yards passing, no team generated less aerial production. New Orleans’ 3,186 yards passing were fewer than offenses that started Joe Flacco and Mike Glennon. Grim, but you could also argue lucky. Anyone who watched Trevor Siemian or Ian Book play quarterback would probably be surprised this team managed 3,000 yards through the air. It was Book’s Monday night start in Week 16 that the world will never un-see. The rookie was so overwhelmed that it would not be surprising if his 12-completion, eight-sack, two-interception, three-point performance was the exact moment Payton decided he needed a break. And yet, wins the following two weeks put the Saints on the doorstep of the playoffs, with this 9-8 squad finishing as the NFC’s eighth seed. It was a testament to toughness and good coaching, but a reminder that those things only get you so far. This team was nowhere close without a quarterback. Far enough, in fact, that Payton is now on sabbatical. A franchise that knew only lean years before Payton’s arrival is now looking at a 3-4 year rebuild.

14. Philadelphia Eagles

Now here is a team that turned and faced the strange. Philly’s ‘21 vibes were off-kilter from the moment new coach Nick Sirianni showed up and started talking like a corner bar sage, and not necessarily the kind that makes sense. The bizarro world atmosphere was immediately evident on the field, where the offensive approach was nonsensical and the defense did its best to produce 158.3 QB ratings. After a series of new lows, the bottom fell out in the first half of a Week 6 loss to the Bucs where the Eagles attempted one running back rush. One. Out of answers, Sirianni did what many dream but few dare: The exact opposite. He started running the ball. A lot. So much so that by the end of the year, no team had run more. That’s despite the fact that only 2-of-17 games produced an individual 100-yard performance. This was a committee attack, one keyed by dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts. It produced an unlikely playoff appearance, albeit one built off the back of a ludicrously soft schedule. The Falcons, Panthers, Lions, Broncos, Saints, Jets, Football Team and Giants. That’s who the Eagles beat. Without hyperbole, the worst teams in the league. Good teams beat bad teams, but the formula is rarely taken to this extreme. It makes prognostication difficult heading into a fateful offseason where the Eagles own three draft picks between No. 15 and 19. Where will they go? Don’t be surprised if Sirianni doesn’t know yet.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger just wanted to go home. The rest of the AFC had other plans. After falling behind 29-0 and eventually losing to the go-nowhere Vikings in Week 14, the Steelers were 6-6-1 and nobody’s idea of a playoff contender. This being the Steelers, they couldn’t help but beat eventual AFC No. 1 seed Tennessee the following week, but a 36-10 loss to the Chiefs the day after Christmas seemed to settle the matter for good. Then things got weird. All you really need to know is that the Jaguars beat the Colts, the Raiders and Chargers decided not to tie, and the Steelers made the playoffs. Their 9-7-1 record meant they finished .500 or better for the 15th time in as many years under Mike Tomlin. The demolition loss to the Chiefs in the Wild Card Round didn’t even matter. Both points had already been proven: Roethlisberger had nothing left in the tank and the Steelers will always be wily under Tomlin. A departure just as big as Roethlisberger’s will follow when GM Kevin Colbert retires following the draft, but like former archrival Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, the elite-drafting Colbert should leave behind a useful parting gift. The future is always bright for this model organization.

12. New England Patriots

“Patriots end their season at 10-8 and a blowout loss (sic) in the playoffs,” Boston Globe columnist Ben Volin intoned on Twitter moments after the Pats’ 47-17 Wild Card Round loss to the Bills. “Just an awful ending to the season, which raises questions about Belichick and Mac.” That’s one way to recap a season that saw the Patriots get the best rookie quarterback performance in the league and return to the playoffs just one year after letting Tom Brady depart in free agency. So is life when you are coming down from the pre-eminent North American sports dynasty of the 21st century. Everyone is going to look bad when compared to the 2001-19 Patriots, including the Patriots. It shouldn’t obscure what was a remarkably fast turnaround in 2021. You can question how high Mac Jones’ ceiling really is. He could already be close to maxed out. But we all be so lucky to draft a quarterback who maxes out as a rookie-year playoff starter. The more concerning issue down the stretch was the Pats’ defensive collapse, though you may have heard: Bill Belichick just might be the guy to fix that. The reign is over. Competitive football is here to stay.

11. Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders made the playoffs. The Raiders are embarking on a rebuild. It was that kind of year in Las Vegas. The Raiders’ second postseason appearance in the past 19 seasons was preceded by their ninth coach firing in the same time span. Jon Gruden’s ouster was due to the off-the-field issues. The same was true for both the Raiders’ 2020 first-round draft picks. Anarchy, but somehow an environment that produced probably the best overall effort of Derek Carr’s career. The problem there is that even a career year for Carr involved only 23 passing scores in 17 games. There does not seem to be another level for Carr to reach, but a new coach and general manager will try to help him find it, at least for one year. That’s how much longer Carr is under contract. How very Raiders that the most tumultuous season in franchise history not only ended in the playoffs, but left the biggest changes yet to come.

10. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals were 7-0 before they were 10-2. What happened next may shock you. 2-4 after Dec. 1, the Cardinals went 0-for-9 on third down as they got blown out of the Rams’ building in the Wild Card Round. After weathering DeAndre Hopkins’ Week 9-12 absence relatively unscathed, the wheels came off when Hopkins went down for good in Week 14. Hopkins’ loss exposed the paucity of Kliff Kingsbury’s “plan.” With no Hopkins to win 50-50 balls down the field, Kingsbury’s offense went fully horizontal, and the results were ugly. Kyler Murray’s yards per attempt fell from 8.4 for Weeks 1-14 to 5.7 for Weeks 15-19. Injuries to running backs James Conner and Chase Edmonds scuttled the obvious backup plan of relying more on the run, but Kingsbury had no answers for the kind of injury every team must deal with at some point in the season. If Kliff can’t manage games well and he can’t design a coherent offense the second one of his key players gets injured, what exactly can he do? The wheels are beginning to spin in Arizona, and with a free agent class that includes Chandler Jones, Zach Ertz, Christian Kirk, A.J. Green, Conner, Edmonds, etc., the degree to which 2021 feels like a missed opportunity won’t exactly be going down.

9. Dallas Cowboys

For some teams, when it rains, it pours. For the Dallas Cowboys, when it shines, it rains. So it was in the Wild Card Round where the 49ers fought the game in the metaphorical mud and Dak Prescott slid down into it … with 14 seconds remaining … and no timeouts. When he got the ball back, he spiked it into the offseason. Another promising Cowboys season come to ruin, this one with no catchy mantra like “Dez caught it.” The warning signs had been there for weeks. A Thanksgiving loss to the Raiders. Unconvincing wins over the Football Team and Giants. But the Cowboys seemed to get their mojo back with late-season 50-burgers against the same Football Team and Eagles. Sure, it was the Eagles’ B-team in a meaningless Week 18 contest, but someone’s gotta do it. The 49ers were nevertheless hyped as the exact wrong playoff opponent and proved to be so. The Cowboys were hyped as … well, nothing in particular since so many people still have a hard time believing in this franchise. That’s what happens when Mike McCarthy is your coach, or when you feed Ezekiel Elliott more or less so he can collect his pension. The good news is that young building blocks still abound on both sides of the ball. There is no such thing as the next Lawrence Taylor, but Micah Parsons could be as close as we get. On offense, Prescott can only get healthier in 2022 after his leg rehab led right into shoulder and calf issues. It’s just hard not to wonder what slapstick misfortune will befall this team next.

8. Buffalo Bills

The 2021 Bills were a great team whose two most memorable games were losses. After their Week 13 home humiliation in the snow where opposing quarterback Mac Jones attempted only three passes in a 14-10 Patriots victory, the Bills coasted to the Divisional Round, twice dismantling the Pats in the process. Then came memorable loss No. 2. 13 seconds was all that stood between the Bills and their second straight AFC Championship Game appearance. 13 seconds is all it took for Patrick Mahomes to ensure the game would be played in Kansas City for the fourth consecutive year, this time without Buffalo’s participation. That’s the way it goes in this league sometimes. The 2021 bad was still outweighed by the good. Josh Allen staked his claim to being the best non-Mahomes player in the league, while Gabriel Davis, Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary all emerged to flesh out and deepen an imposing skill corps. Head coach Sean McDermott continued to coach up the defensive side of the ball. Even with OC Brian Daboll departed for New York, all the ingredients for success remain. With the Chiefs looking vulnerable one week after winning their coin flip with the Bills, everything remains there for this team’s taking in 2022.

7. Tennessee Titans

We don’t talk about Vrabel. The league’s most underrated coach led its most disrespected squad in 2021, securing the AFC’s No. 1 seed even with franchise player Derrick Henry missing nine games with a broken foot. By the time the Divisional Round came along, the public was treating Chiefs/Bills as the de facto AFC Championship Game, never mind the fact that the Titans had already beaten both teams. All they had to do to quiet the critics was take care of business against the Bengals and advance to the conference title tilt for the second time in three years. Instead they lost, lending credence to the notion that they were the worst No. 1 seed in recent memory, the lucky benefactors of a crazy year in a coin toss conference. That, of course, is an uncharitable interpretation. In addition to the Chiefs and Bills, the Titans also beat both NFC Championship Game participants, Los Angeles and San Francisco. This was a good club, arguably an elite one. Its style — run the ball, make big plays on defense — simply affords no margin for error, a trapdoor Ryan Tannehill fell through with three crippling interceptions against the Bengals even as the defense did its big-play job with nine sacks of Joe Burrow. The wrong performance came at the wrong time, putting the Titans back on the hamster wheel of struggling to earn the wider football world’s respect despite their winning ways.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The roster ran out of gas, but it wasn’t because of the 44-year-old quarterback. Tom Brady continued his journey into the outer limits of the known universe, leading the league with 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. He was not the problem. It was that gravity still applies, no matter what the Bucs quarterback might have you believe. Injuries, injuries, injuries. That’s what left the Bucs shorthanded for the playoffs. The final straw was the hobbling of linemen RT Tristan Wirfs and C Ryan Jensen. Brady’s line had been the one position group to remain standing throughout a season that never had good health on defense and fell apart late on offense, to say nothing of Antonio Brown mid-game retirement in Week 17. Brady still almost rallied his team from a 27-3 deficit in the Divisional Round, but the fact that it was 27-3 in the first place spoke to a roster that no longer had what it took to hoist a Lombardi. However sad, that’s a normal football ending for the most abnormal of players in Brady. Now retired at the top of his game, Brady’s departure has the bill coming due for a franchise with a lot more to worry about than good health for 2022.

5. Green Bay Packers

It’s never quite the same old story, even if the ending is the same. Yes, it was yet another Packers season culminating with a home playoff defeat — their second straight as the No. 1 seed — but there were new wrinkles to the overall narrative, most notably Aaron Rodgers making the unusual decision to become an off-the-field issue at age 38. It began with his summer trade demand and ended with his coronavirus vaccine firestorm. Distractions that would have sunk a lesser player instead seemed to fuel Rodgers, even as his off-field controversy — no jab — led to the very real on-field consequence of missing Week 9. The football gods nevertheless smiled kindly, guiding the Pack to the NFC’s top record and Rodgers to his fourth MVP. After upping the difficulty level just for fun, Rodgers still glided through the regular campaign. It was just that final boss of Kyle Shanahan, who ended the Packers’ season for the second time in three years. It’s been so long since Rodgers beat the game. It’s unclear if he wants another crack at it in Green Bay.

4. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers went all in, trading two first-rounders and two third-rounders to move up nine spots in the draft for their quarterback of the future, Trey Lance. Only the future was not now in 2021. The Niners stuck with Jimmy Garoppolo — all wobbly deep ball and ill-timed turnover of him — as they rode Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa to the NFC Championship Game. The advanced stats claimed Jimmy G was good. The eye test confirmed he was not. It hardly mattered as Samuel went back to the future as an evolved version of the 1960s’ versatile running backs. With Samuel, George Kittle, Elijah Mitchell and Brandon Aiyuk operating as one of the league’s best skill corps opposite a terrifying pass rush, Jimmy G just had to stay out of the way. The high-risk approach worked until the final two drives of the conference championship, where the Niners finally needed Garoppolo to make a play of his own. He could not, and the 49ers were off to the golf course. It was an ending emblematic of the Shanny approach: Beautiful, but unnecessarily elaborate. Great right up until the second it's not. However hard he makes it on himself, Shanahan and his team appear to be “one player away.” Ready or not, here Trey Lance comes.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Nobody said it was easy for the Chiefs. Well, actually they did. And also, it kind of was. Until those pesky two-high safety shells put the clampdown on Tyreek Hill roaming free through the back end of enemy defenses. One of the signature defensive looks of the 21st century proved to be a surprisingly difficult mid-season obstacle for Andy Reid’s offense, but his defense’s now-annual second half turnaround masked the problem until Patrick Mahomes and company finally got back on track for the most important contests of the year. A surge that began in Week 14 appeared poised to roll through the AFC Championship Game as the Chiefs positioned themselves to go up 28-10 at halftime. Only, in throwback Reid fashion, they let the clock run out, instead heading into the break with a more modest 21-10 advantage. Comfortable, but not insurmountable. Surmounted it was as Mahomes played one of the worst halves of his career, a stunning letdown for a player of shocking consistency. Not even another coin toss victory could stop what was coming: A come-from-behind Bengals overtime win and the dethroning of Kansas City as AFC champions. The easy part really is over now. Mahomes’ cap hits are advancing along with Hill and Travis Kelce’s age. Money must be lavished on defensive and skill corps solutions. Like Peyton Manning in his prime, Mahomes keeps the baseline extremely high. Also like Manning in his prime, he is probably going to have to rely on rosters more flawed than the ones he had during the widest expanses of his initial championship window.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

There was always one more play to make. The game-winning touchdown that almost didn’t come against the Chiefs in Week 17. The goal-line interception of Derek Carr in the Wild Card Round. The interceptions turned into walk-off field goals in both the Divisional and Conference Championship games. Frequently down, the Bengals were never, ever out. The dam did not break until the second half of the Super Bowl, where an Aaron Donald gusher turned the tide and offered one final reminder of the Bengals’ biggest weakness: An offensive line that allowed 20 sacks across four postseason contests. When you can’t block, you can almost never win. It’s nothing short of a miracle it took 21 games for this to finally sink the Bengals. That’s what happens when you have the unsinkable Joe Burrow, an instant superstar who is already the most important player in Bengals franchise history. They just have to protect him. If they do, this loss will be little more than a prelude to a future title.

1. Los Angeles Rams

Matthew Stafford gets a ring. Aaron Donald gets a ring. Jalen Ramsey gets a ring. Odell Beckham gets a ring. Andrew Whitworth gets a ring. Eric Weddle gets a ring. Almost literally, every noteworthy NFL player who had yet to win a Super Bowl has now done so. Are the retirements about to follow? Weddle’s is confirmed. Whitworth’s is assured. Donald’s appears frightfully plausible. Even coach Sean McVay — the youngest to ever win the Super Bowl — has generated a “walking away” rumor or two. The fact that so many are considering hanging them up speaks to how difficult the Super Bowl-winning journey is for any squad. Consistently elite since 2017, the Rams had only three playoff wins to show for it before this season. Had the 49ers’ Jaquiski Tartt not dropped the world’s easiest interception in the NFC Championship Game, the crushing hurt might have extended at least another year. But he didn’t, and a team full of what the old timers might call “winners” has won. The coaches were great, the players were better, and the Rams are world champs.

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