The league brass wants the NFL playoffs to be accessible. Through 2019, only six of the 16 teams in each conference made the field, and that gave the NFL a lower rate of playoff participation than a couple of peer leagues (the NHL and NBA) while keeping it just a hair ahead of Major League Baseball. So in 2020, the NFL added a seventh playoff team for each conference, which not only created more playoff games but also kept more teams in the race until later in the year. That had the snowball effect of creating more meaningful regular-season contests, too.
In theory, the change should also result in fewer teams having long droughts between appearances in the NFL playoffs. For the moment, eight teams—a quarter of the league—are mired in slumps of four seasons or longer without a playoff appearance. The New York Jets have a 10-year drought. The Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals have missed the postseason five years in a row. And the Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions are all sitting on four-year absences from the playoffs.
Which of those skids have the best chance of ending in 2021? And which are liable to last a while longer? Here’s a closer look at these teams, and an assessment of how hopeful their fans should be.
It’s Not Looking Good
These teams should continue to be among the league’s worst, at least for 2021. They’re staring down long rebuilds and/or don’t have the necessary pieces in place to compete yet.
New York Giants: Quarterback Daniel Jones was a bizarre selection when the Giants took him seventh overall in the 2019 draft. It doesn’t look any better now that Jones has played two years and placed 34th in the league in adjusted pass yards per attempt over that timespan. It’s unlikely he’ll get the Giants back to contention. Though the team had a nice 2021 draft, they won’t truly level up until someone better than Jones is throwing the ball.
Detroit Lions: The Lions are the best bet to be the worst team in the NFL this year. After failing to win with talented quarterback Matthew Stafford, the organization had the mercy to trade him to the Los Angeles Rams for the underachieving and limited Jared Goff. Being so bad for so long has allowed the Lions to add some high-end talent in recent drafts, including offensive tackle Penei Sewell this spring. But as with the Giants, things won’t really rev up until someone else is playing QB—or at least until they’ve surrounded Goff with as much talent as the Rams did. You can make the NFL playoffs with Goff, but that requires a big effort from everyone else on the roster.
Hang Tight a Little Longer
New York Jets: There’s some hope on the horizon for the team with the longest postseason drought in the league. The Jets drafted BYU QB Zach Wilson seventh overall in April, and there’s a good chance he’ll be the guy to bring the team back to the NFL playoffs (eventually). He also has some talented receivers at his disposal, and left tackle Mekhi Becton is a present-and-future star.
But the Jets’ defense, especially in the secondary, will have a lot of problems stopping other teams. Throw in some expected growing pains for Wilson, and the Jets are still likely to be really bad this year. But they should at least be fun to watch, and better days are coming.
Cincinnati Bengals: Some pieces are in place for Cincinnati. QB Joe Burrow, the top pick in 2020’s draft, should make positive strides as long as he’s recovered from an ACL tear and other knee damage suffered late last season. Burrow also has three high-upside receivers in veteran Tyler Boyd, second-year man Tee Higgins, and Burrow’s former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase.
So why temper expectations? For one thing, the offensive line is likely to be well below average. For another, the defense struggled last year and then lost edge rusher Carl Lawson in free agency. The Bengals probably need a little more time before making a playoff run.
Denver Broncos: The Broncos don’t have a suitable QB. 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock was arguably the worst QB in the NFL in 2020, especially if you look at the numbers. Advanced stats like estimated points added per play and completion percentage over expectation (you can find those stats here) paint a clear picture of Lock: He is not up to snuff.
But the Broncos aren’t hopeless: Their defense should be pretty solid. They have one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Bryce Callahan, and their key franchise player, outside linebacker Von Miller, will return this year after he missed 2020 with a dislocated tendon in his ankle.
A Fighting Chance
Las Vegas Raiders: The Raiders’ offensive line probably won’t be great, but other than that, there’s a lot to like about Jon Gruden’s team. QB Derek Carr isn’t a world-beater, but he’s one of the better passers in the league. Other offensive highlights include a couple of talented running backs, one of the league’s best tight ends in Darren Waller, and a sneaky-exciting receiver corps led by 2020 first-round draftee Henry Ruggs III.
The defense should get useful pass-rushing help from free agent signee Yannick Ngakoue, and the defensive front has a few other big talents, including Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferell. If the secondary holds up—which it might, especially if rookie safety Trevon Moehrig plays well—Vegas could make the playoffs.
The Time to Contend is Now
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have one of the better pass defenses in pro football, highlighted by the great cornerback pairing of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. Howard may well be on the way out, but the secondary still has enough pieces to defend the pass well. Their defensive line and linebacker groups need to get a lot better, and they might, because some injured players will return to those positions and the Dolphins also drafted a strong edge rusher in Jaelan Phillips, who played last season at the University of Miami.
But so much of Miami’s success or failure will come down to Tua Tagovailoa, the former Alabama star who struggled as a rookie QB in 2020. If Tagovailoa puts it together, the Dolphins should make the NFL playoffs. If he doesn’t, they won’t, and it’ll be on head coach Brian Flores to identify another option.
Arizona Cardinals: QB Kyler Murray, the 2019 draft’s first overall pick, got a little better in his second year on the job in just about every statistical category. He even made the Pro Bowl. But he hasn’t yet had a breakout season to establish himself as one of the league’s best QBs, and if one is coming, it should happen right about now. It’s Murray’s third year under head coach Kliff Kingsbury and his second year throwing to the best receiver in the NFL, DeAndre Hopkins.
It’s also time for the Cardinals to level up on defense. The last two years, they drafted two of the most versatile linebackers to ever enter the league—Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and Tulsa’s Zaven Collins. If they’re good, and if new defensive line pickup J.J. Watt plays anything like his old self, then the defense should give Murray some margin for error.
For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!