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Which NFL Team Can Take the Next Step?

The NFL has the highest year-to-year variance out of all the professional sports leagues in America. Historical data suggests that just 50% of teams who made the playoffs in 2021 will not be back in the postseason in 2022. There will likely be between seven and nine teams who will make the playoffs in 2022 that missed them the year before. 

With NFL training camp starting next week, let’s examine which organizations have the best chance to make the playoffs this season after failing to do so last season. 

Miami Dolphins

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – AUGUST 21: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins reacts to a touchdown run by Myles Gaskin #37 (not pictured) against the Atlanta Falcons during a preseason game at Hard Rock Stadium on August 21, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The Dolphins had one of the busiest offseasons in the league and are coming into 2022 ready to make some noise. After going 1-7 in their first eight games last season, Miami found its stride, winning eight of their next nine games and just narrowly missing a wildcard berth. The defense, which ranked 20th during the first nine games, improved significantly in the second half of the season, ranking 7th best over the team’s last eight games and proving to be greatly important to the mid-season turnaround. With the defense from 2021 mostly intact, expect the Dolphins to have a slightly above-average defense in 2022.

While the Dolphins made no notable improvements to its defense, the coaching staff and offense are where the front office went to work. In the offseason, the organization hired first-year head coach Mike McDaniel to take over the team. McDaniel previously worked for Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers as the run game coordinator from 2017 to 2021 and as the offensive coordinator this past season. The 49ers ranked 4th in the NFL in rushing play percentage, whereas the Dolphins ranked 23rd, so expect Miami to look different on the offensive side of the ball with more running plays and movement before the snap. 

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 24: Jaylen Waddle #17 of the Miami Dolphins looks on against the Atlanta Falcons at Hard Rock Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Miami revamped its offense, bringing in the likes of Tyreek Hill, Raheem Mostert, Sony Michel, and Chase Edmonds to complement rising star, Jaylen Waddle. This group of players will be dangerous and cause havoc for opposing defenses. Hill, Waddle, Mostert, and Edmonds will all be utilized in motion before the snap, using their speed to confuse defenses and create gaps for Tagovailoa to exploit. Hill and Waddle are not only the fastest WR duo in the NFL but also one of the best. They can beat defenders off the line of scrimmage with their speed and pick-up yards after the catch, taking pressure off third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is not known for his downfield accuracy. 

The Dolphins also bolstered their offensive line by bringing in Terron Armstead, one of the best offensive tackles in 2021, and Connor Williams, another solid pickup. Tagovailoa has shown he is best at making short, quick throws, so with a new and improved offensive line and elusive offensive players around him, he should be able to thrive. 

Vegas projects Miami to have 8.5 wins this season, so they are expected to be in the hunt for the playoffs, but I believe with their new and improved offense, they will make a strong push for one of the AFC Wildcard spots. 

The AFC West

Arguably the strongest division in football, the AFC West has four teams with a high likelihood of making the playoffs. The Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers missed the playoffs last season but have a strong chance to make it this upcoming season. 

Let’s examine the Broncos first. 

Creator: Ron Chenoy Copyright: Ron Chenoy

A team that was mediocre in 2021 made one of the biggest splashes of the NFL offseason by bringing in former Seattle Seahawks QB Russel Wilson to take over control of the offense. For the last decade, Wilson has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league, winning the Super Bowl in 2013 and making the Pro Bowl in nine of his ten years in the NFL. The new Broncos quarterback has a young receiving core with high upside that he hopes to exploit. Jerry Jeudy, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2020, and Cortland Sutton, the Broncos’ second-round pick in 2018, have shown flashes of the upside they bring but have struggled with injuries and poor quarterback play to start their careers. 

The Broncos also have one of the best young running backs in the NFL in Javonte Williams. Williams had over 1200 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns during his rookie season in 2021. As a second-year back, Williams is hoping to build on his totals from year one and become the next young running back to breakout. 

Finally, Denver had one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2021, giving up the third-fewest points against in the entire league. They are bringing back many starters from last year and some newcomers like Randy Gregory, Alex Singleton, and D.J. Jones, who will all play impactful snaps for the Broncos in 2022. 

With an elite defense and an improved offense, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful that Denver will make it back to the playoffs for the first time since winning the Super Bowl in 2015. 

Now, let’s shift our focus to Denver’s rivals, the Los Angeles Chargers, who just missed out on the playoffs in 2021 after a crushing loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in overtime in the last game of the season. 

LANDOVER, MARYLAND – SEPTEMBER 12: Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers celebrates after defeating the Washington Football Team 20-16 at FedExField on September 12, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Chargers have one of the brightest stars in the NFL in third-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who made impressive strides last season. He led a Chargers offense that ranked 4th in total yards per game and 5th in total points per game. With stars Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams set to return in 2022, there is no reason that the Chargers will not have similar success again this year. 

The Chargers’ defense is what killed them in 2021, giving up the 4th most points in the league. The organization understood that to take the next step they needed to address the team’s defensive concerns, doing just that this offseason. The defense looked much improved after the Chargers traded for Khalil Mack and signed J.C. Jackson, but the front office did not stop there. They also brought in Sebastian Joseph-Day, Troy Reeder, and Kyle Van Noy, all players who will play a significant number of snaps in 2022. 

After an impressive offseason from the Chargers, they not only have what it takes to make the playoffs, but they could easily win the division and make a deep playoff run. 

The Minnesota Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA – SEPTEMBER 26: Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings during player introductions before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at U.S. Bank Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

After discussing three AFC teams, let’s now look to the NFC North and the Minnesota Vikings, a team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2019. 

Last season Minnesota had a slightly above-average team, ranking 9th in total points against and 14th in total points scored. A couple of unlucky moments turned what could have easily been a 10-7 team into an 8-9 team, who just narrowly missed the playoffs. 

Coming into 2022, the team brings back almost their entire offensive core. With quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and running back Dalvin Cook leading the team, the Vikings stars hope to build upon their last two seasons together. Jefferson and Thielen are one of the best wide receiver duos in the whole league and Dalvin Cook is arguably a top-five running back, so Minnesota has the pieces on offense to get the job done. If this trio of players can stay healthy for the 2022 season, Minnesota fans should expect big things in 2022. 

The most important thing for Minnesota in 2022 is winning its divisional matchups. The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears will likely be two of the worst teams in the NFL next season, so capitalizing on those games is crucial. The Green Bay Packers are also not the same team they were in 2021 without Davante Adams, so Minnesota is in a position where it can overtake Green Bay and win the division. They need to stay healthy and win divisional games against lesser opponents. 

That is easier said than done, but Minnesota has a real chance to make it out of the NFC North this season or slip into an NFC Wildcard spot. 

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