This past Sunday night, with the Chargers and Raiders capping off the wildest game of the entire 272-game NFL regular season that included the wildest potential playoff scenario, the football fan collective is now stealthily morphing into postseason mode.
But just before we turn that particular page, let’s tie a bow on the entertaining regular season that was. With the NFL asserting itself as a truly unpredictable, “week-to-week” league, where literally anything can happen and often does, it’s intriguing to now reflect back on which teams were far better than expected, which ones completely fell flat, and which ones performed within the realm of what we assumed they would.
Back in November, I introduced a new system of win measurement called PACE Rankings for both the NBA and NHL. The information in the tables below are based on that same concept, but instead of a real-time, ongoing assessment, these numbers were constructed with conclusive outcomes. The numbers don’t lie. Consider this a watered-down, one-and-only NFL version for the 2021 regular season.
The data below contains rather simple metrics. Each team’s preseason win projection (“Projection”) via their preseason Over/Under win total (set by oddsmakers), their 2021 win-loss record (“Record”), and the difference between the two (“Difference”), which tells us how each team performed relative to their preseason expectations. As you’ll see, I’ve created three distinct tiers that separate the less-interesting middle teams from the more intriguing outliers at the end of the spectrum; those teams that more significantly exceeded and fell short of expectations, for a wide variety of reasons.
In somewhat of a plot twist here, let’s actually start not at the beginning, but smack dab in the middle.
The 18 teams that finished the season within 2 games or less of their initial preseason win projection (above or below):
Pittsburgh Steelers: What a weird season for this team. They participated in the league’s only tie of the season and waited quite literally until the season’s final kick on Sunday night to see if they’d make it to the postseason. Aaaaaaand exhale. Ben Roethlisberger’s potential swan song will get at least one more week. With what’s one of my favorite NFL statistics, head coach Mike Tomlin secured his 15th straight season with a .500 record or better. Incredible consistency.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts rival the Chargers (more on them directly below) for the most abrupt and disappointing end to their season. Given the gift of having the 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars as the last game on their schedule, all they had to do was show up and win. That easy. But they did not. Instead, they got embarrassed. This team is loaded with talent but in the end, they got in their own way. The turnaround was impressive, as they team started 1-4 and got it to 9-6 by Week 16, before collapsing. Jonathan Taylor truly had an all-world season and this team will be back for more in ’22 within arguably the easiest division in football.
Los Angeles Chargers: Man, that Week 18 finale had to sting like hell, as the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson booted the Chargers out of the playoffs. The interesting tidbit that will be taken away from this game (and will be talked to death on the morning debate cycles) is coach Brandon Staley’s decision to call a timeout and essentially set up the game-losing kick. Instead, it appeared the Raiders were willing to let the clock run out and allow BOTH teams into the playoffs. Instead, the Chargers sealed their own fate. But damn, how good is Justin Herbert going to be for the next decade? Answer: GOOD.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs, having appeared in the previous two Super Bowls, came in with the highest win projection of 12.5. It looked like there was no chance in hell that they’d get close to 12-13 wins while sitting at 3-4 after Week 7. But the Chiefs did the thing where they ripped off nearly two months of wins and fell just shy of the AFC’s #1 seed. Now, they’re armed and dangerous. Though I contend that Patrick Mahomes hasn’t quite looked like “Patrick Mahomes” all season. He’ll have his extended opportunities soon.
Miami Dolphins: I have to shoutout the Dolphins, entirely due to this squad putting forth one of the most impressive in-season turnarounds that I can remember. This team started out a putrid 1-7, completely flipped a switch, and finished 8-1 down the stretch. Overall, they had the most impressive of all of the “9-8” seasons and narrowly missed the playoffs. See, it’s a week-to-week league.
Detroit Lions: You know, the Lions tried hard. Real hard. Beating the Packers in Week 18 took them out of the top draft slot, but this team played all 60 minutes for head coach Dan Campbell more often than not. They were feisty and tested most teams. It takes a “special” team to go under 4.5 wins, but the Lions got the job done. This was not par for the course in 2021.
The 7 teams that finished the season 2 or more games below their initial preseason win projection:
Cleveland Browns: Overall, it was a volatile season for the Browns and one in which they entered with plenty of hype, signified by the 10.5 preseason win expectation. There was the Odell Beckham drama, the multi-week Covid rapture (take a number), injuries to their talented pair of running backs, and of course the season-long magnifying glass that was centered on Baker Mayfield for both his play and for his nagging shoulder injury. 10-11 wins was always going to be a challenge in this division, and that was before including the Bengals as an unlikely but explosive upstart. Expectations will likely be lowered in 2022 for Cleveland, but underdog status seems to be where this franchise thrives.
Seattle Seahawks: If not for a late-season mini revival of sorts (winning 4 of their last 6), the Seahawks might have cemented their 2021 legacy as the most disappointing team in the league. Granted he missed several games with a finger issue, Russell Wilson did not resemble himself most of the season. That’s a big problem for a team that depends heavily on his creative playmaking (the defense is adequate, but these aren’t the Legion of Boom days). Pegged for 9.5 wins, Seattle didn’t really sniff that kind of pace all season.
Baltimore Ravens: Any standard dictionary should now include the Baltimore Ravens logo beside the word “collapse.” John Harbaugh’s team started out on fire, appearing nearly unstoppable. But then John (and maybe his ego) started getting in his own way, most notably botching two winnable games by going for the kill shot (2-point conversions) at the end of regulation. Both conversion attempts were unsuccessful and they threw away both games. On November 28th, they stood tall at 8-3 and in control of the AFC North division. They didn’t register another win for the rest of the season, with six straight losses to end the year, with four of them being within the division. Brutal. The mysterious Lamar Jackson illness and subsequent disappearing act didn’t help the cause.
Jacksonville Jaguars: This article by Rodger Sherman over at The Ringer is all you need to know about the Urban Meyer disaster and the 2021 Jacksonville Jaguars season. Can you picture this sorry franchise netting close to 6.5 wins? Bahahaha.
The 7 teams that finished the season 2 or more games above their initial preseason win projection:
Philadelphia Eagles: It’s always challenging to pick the best feel-good story of the NFL season, but the Eagles are certainly in the conversation. Behind a wicked rushing attack (minus a true superstar back) and the evolution of Jalen Hurts, the Eagles not only surpassed expectations (I certainly didn’t see them winning even 7 games), but locked up a playoff spot. All behind 40-year old rookie head coach Nick Sirianni. An impressive run for sure.
Green Bay Packers: After compiling a 39-10 record (.796%) over the past three seasons, including yet another #1 seed in the NFC in 2021, if Matt LaFleur doesn’t finally nab Coach of the Year honors, I might riot. Yes, I’m biased, but what else does this guy have to do already? The Packers have been the class of the league since well, Week 2. Aaron Rodgers, despite his many, many questionable remarks among his many, many media appearances this season, is your likely MVP. And deservedly so. The guy balled out again this season, while mostly not giving a fuck. The reward? Having the NFC road to the Super Bowl go through the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
Las Vegas Raiders: How in the blue hell did this team, with all of the theatrics and drama incurred, win 10 games and secure a playoff spot? It’s a modern day miracle. A quick recap:
- The courageous Carl Nassib announcement
- The Jon Gruden fiasco
- The Henry Ruggs tragedy
- The many absences of Darren Waller
- The death of John Madden
- The “Tie Game That Wasn’t Meant to Be“
Seems surreal. And honestly, it’s impossible not to root for Derek Carr (still underrated) and this rag-tag crew. So when it comes to the AFC, I’m on the Silver & Black bandwagon.
Cincinnati Bengals: Given the perennially low bar set by this franchise, no team surprised, exploded, entertained and arrived like the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals. In particular, the many Joe Burrow-to-Ja’Marr Chase hookups were magical. Seems there really is something to being former college teammates. Under a projection of only 6.5 wins, the Bengals ended up winning 10 games, capturing the AFC North division, and posting the highest win differential between expectations and reality. What a fun story. We could be looking at a team that resembles what the Kansas City Chiefs were a couple of seasons ago. If this team can even play a lick of defense in the playoffs, LOOK OUT.