Which NFL teams will join playoff field in 2022? Ranking candidates from least to most likely

So ... you're sayin' there's a chance?

As we recently explored, the NFL playoff field turns over significantly on an annual basis – at least four different teams joining the bracket in each season since 1990. But the churn goes deeper than that while providing more than a glimmer of hope for success-starved fan bases.

Consider:

► In 17 of the past 19 seasons, at least one team has won its division after finishing in last place the previous year.

► In 18 of the past 19 seasons, at least two teams have been crowned division winners after failing to qualify for postseason the previous year.

► With the exception of the nine-game 1982 strike season, when divisional play was suspended, at least one team has won a division title after failing to qualify for the postseason the previous year in every season dating to 1977.

► Since the NFL expanded to a 14-team playoff field in 2020, seven new teams have reached the field in both seasons.

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So if you support a downtrodden squad heading into the 2022 season, now is the time for optimism. Here's my ranking, from least likely to most, of 2021 non-playoff qualifiers and their chances to crack postseason. (Projected record – following Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson's 11-game suspension – noted in parentheses, asterisks signaling predicted playoff berth):

Will Chargers QB Justin Herbert reach the playoffs for the first time in 2022?
Will Chargers QB Justin Herbert reach the playoffs for the first time in 2022?

18. Houston Texans (3-14)

They're almost certainly headed in a better direction ... after ricocheting off rock bottom in the aftermath of the Watson saga. That doesn't mean they'll reap many results in the win column even if the roster is incrementally improving.

17. Atlanta Falcons (2-15)

Heading into his second season, Arthur Smith seems to be that rare coach who can routinely maximize his talent and regularly steal games from seemingly superior opponents, as often happened in 2021. But though it's unwise to sleep on these Falcons, it does appear they will be overmatched on both sides of the ball virtually every Sunday for the foreseeable future.

16. Chicago Bears (4-13)

Rookie HC Matt Eberflus takes the reins with a sterling reputation as a motivator yet a coach players go to the mat for. Perhaps, like Smith, he'll be able to squeeze more out of a roster that doesn't appear to have much juice. Playing in what's probably the NFC's least-competitive division won't hurt ... especially if Eberflus and his staff can find ways to develop second-year QB Justin Fields even though it appeared the organization didn't invest much on the offensive side of the ball this offseason.

14a. New York Jets (5-12) and 14b. New York Giants (5-12)

Not very big apples. Remarkably, the NYJ and NYG are both 22-59 since the start of the 2017 season – tying for the worst record in the NFL over the past five seasons while also combining  for seven last-place divisional finishes during that span. Coming off a widely hailed 2022 draft, the Jets appear to have the more talented roster but need sophomore QB Zach Wilson to take a significant step once his surgically repaired knee allows him to step back onto the field. Playing in the weaker NFC might give the Giants a better shot at snagging a playoff berth, but they'll need oft-injured RB Saquon Barkley to revert to Pro Bowl form while hoping first-year coach Brian Daboll can get lame-duck QB Daniel Jones to perform like the franchise player he was supposed to be.

13. Cleveland Browns (6-11)

The resolution of Watson's disciplinary case provides a measure of clarity – especially since the five games tacked onto his original suspension come against the Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins, Bills and Buccaneers. There are too many talented players here to dismiss the Browns out of hand ... but it's going to take a Herculean effort to remain relevant by the time Watson is scheduled to return in Week 13.

12. Seattle Seahawks (5-12)

It's a given a Pete Carroll-coached team will play hard and with an edge. And this offense could score points in clusters given its playmakers. But a leadership void created by the departures of QB Russell Wilson and MLB Bobby Wagner and a major question about how much production this team will get from Wilson's replacement suggest Seattle will miss the playoffs in successive seasons for the first time since 2008-09.

11. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-11)

Their last two drafts should prove bountiful, and they continue to add established veterans in free agency ... even if they're overpaying to lure them to Duval County. But most important, the vibe is much better post-Urb, and highly regarded QB Trevor Lawrence should begin fulfilling his vast potential in collaboration with a Super Bowl-caliber coach in Doug Pederson. And it's not like the Jags should lose sight of the AFC South lead by Halloween, as has happened the past two seasons, which both featured 1-6 starts.

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10. Denver Broncos (8-9)

A bit confounding that an organization breaking in a new coaching staff while integrating Wilson has opted against meaningful preseason snaps. Time will tell if that's the right approach but, regardless, pretty hard to envision the Broncos overtaking the other three thoroughbreds in the AFC West ... and they might even need two of those teams to break down in order to play into the middle of January.

9. Carolina Panthers (7-10)

Newly anointed QB1 Baker Mayfield has presented this summer as the mature, steadying voice that he didn't often enough manage to be in Cleveland. If he can also stabilize matters under center – and have RB Christian McCaffrey lined up next to or behind him most weeks – then this team has a legitimate shot to stick around and maybe even save HC Matt Rhule's job.

8. Washington Commanders (7-10)

Perhaps their best player, DE Chase Young, is out at least the first month of the regular season as his recovery from ACL reconstruction continues. Inarguably their most important player, QB Carson Wentz, has run the gamut by flashing first-round form this summer ... and alternately serving reminders of why he's on his third team in three years. It could all come together for a team that won the NFC East, where bizarre is the norm, in 2020 (despite a 7-9 record), but it could just as easily devolve into disaster.

7. Detroit Lions (8-9)

If you hadn't started falling for them after they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps despite failing to win any of their first 11 games last season, then maybe you've started crushing on Dan Campbell's crew after seeing a bit of grit during "Hard Knocks." Are they ready to win their first playoff game in 31 years? Probably not. But they could at least get their first crack at it since 2016.

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6. Minnesota Vikings (8-9)

They won a playoff game following the 2019 campaign but have otherwise been decidedly average – which is to say underachieving – during QB Kirk Cousins' four-year hitch. He probably doesn't get enough credit for his personal showing during that time, but he and new HC Kevin O'Connell must find a way to turn potential into broader results. A pass rush expected to be anchored by edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith could be an apt microcosm of Minnesota's boom-or-bust potential.

5. Miami Dolphins (9-8)

Perhaps the AFC's version of the Vikes, they're hoping to graduate from the playoff fringes to the playoff field under new on-field management. First-year coach Mike McDaniel and his Tua Tagovailoa-Tyreek Hill connection better be ready given a September gauntlet that includes the Patriots, Ravens, Bills and Bengals.

*4. Indianapolis Colts (9-8)

Frank Reich is heading into his fifth season with his fifth different starting quarterback, Matt Ryan this year. The former MVP seems to be galvanizing a locker room that predecessor Wentz failed to rally last year. “Matt Ryan has been everything we hoped and dream for. I know how happy the whole organization is, having his leadership going into the season," owner Jim Irsay said recently. “We’re really, really excited. I think we have a reason to be.” The additions of DE Yannick Ngakoue and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore don't hurt, either, nor does competing in what will probably be the league's poorest division.

*3. New Orleans Saints (9-8)

They have a chance to field the league's best defense, a top-five unit in 2021 that's added safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye to the back line. WR Michael Thomas is finally back but won't need to catch 100+ balls with first-rounder Chris Olave and vet Jarvis Landry now in the mix. If QB Jameis Winston can do what he did for seven games in 2021 – limit turnovers while efficiently distributing the ball – the Saints could reclaim the NFC South throne from Tampa Bay.

*2. Baltimore Ravens (11-6)

They should get a slew of stars back from injury even if not all of them are ready for Week 1. Former MVP Lamar Jackson, who was among the walking wounded in 2021, will either be playing for a megacontract or attempting to justify one – and could get substantial help from WR Rashod Bateman and rookie TE Isaiah Likely. And a team that was snakebit in 2021 is already seeing the luck pendulum reversing itself. Baltimore was initially scheduled to face Watson in his Browns debut in Week 7 but will instead draw him for his fraught home debut in Cleveland ... in Week 15.

*1. Los Angeles Chargers (11-6)

One to 53, easy to argue they have the best roster in a loaded AFC West. No quarterback has had a more prolific two-year opening than Justin Herbert, whose style of play reminds one of a young Aaron Rodgers. If Herbert can protect the ball just a bit better – and coach Brandon Staley can tighten up his defense and game management –the Bolts have the goods to end Kansas City's divisional reign.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL's new playoff teams? Ranking 18 choices from least to most likely