On Tuesday, I broke down the five NFL teams I project to improve during the 2022 season. Everyone loves hearing that their favorite team is likely to get better. Today's column? Not quite as popular. As I do every year, I'm going to pick the five teams I think are likely to decline.
It's not the most loved column of the season, but it does usually turn out to be reasonably accurate. Over the past five years, the teams I've highlighted in this column have declined 20 out of 25 times. Just two of those 25 teams have improved by even a single win the following season. Those 25 teams have fallen off by an average of 3.3 wins per 17 games. (Spreadsheets did not enjoy the NFL's move from 16 to 17 games.)
Last season was probably a little below average by this column's standards. The Bills and Chiefs both declined by several wins, which played a significant role in the AFC playoff race. The Browns, who were trendy Super Bowl candidates heading into the season, fell off more dramatically. The Packers dropped off only from 13-3 to 13-4, though, and the Titans defied the odds by improving on their record from the prior season.
We'll take four out of five and move forward into 2022. Let's start this year's column by making what some would say is an ill-fated decision to take another run at the team that defied the numbers a year ago:
Jump to a team:
Falcons | Packers
Raiders | Steelers | Titans
Tennessee Titans (12-5)
The Titans were the fifth team on my list a year ago, when I wrote that I narrowly picked them ahead of the Seahawks. Obviously, this wasn't a great decision! The Seahawks had been on my list in 2020 because of an impressive record in close games, something they managed to repeat in 2021. I called off the dogs and took them off the list a year ago, at which point they dropped from 7-3 in close games to 2-5. They weren't all that much worse on a snap-by-snap basis than they had been in 2020, but with less luck in one-score games and an injury to quarterback Russell Wilson, they fell apart.
Let's take a look at my case for the Titans a year ago and see what happened ...
They were unsustainably good in games decided by seven points or fewer. After going 7-6 in one-score games during coach Mike Vrabel's first two years, the 2020 Titans went 7-2 in one-score games. History tells us that's extremely difficult to sustain; teams that win five more close games than they lose in a given year often don't keep that up the following season. They go from 199-44 (.819) in those close games to 102-126 (.447) in those same games the following year. Their overall record declines by an average of four wins per 17 games.
Well, the Titans didn't keep up their record in close games, but they came close. Instead of going 7-2 in one-score games, they went ... 6-2. I wrote about their closest game of the season on Tuesday, in which they did the near impossible and stopped QB Josh Allen on a fourth-and-1 run to hold on to a three-point victory against Buffalo. That one stop was enough to keep Tennessee from coming up short of its 2020 record and eventually secured it the top seed in the AFC.
The Titans went 2-1 in overtime games; they needed scores in the final 30 seconds to force overtime and beat the Seahawks, although they came up short in overtime in a similar situation against the Jets. They blew a late lead against the Colts in Week 8, only to win in OT after picking off Carson Wentz. They beat Trevor Siemian and the Saints after stopping them on a 2-point try, and beat the 49ers on a field goal with four seconds left on the clock. These were almost all genuinely close games as opposed to the sort of one-score contests in which a trailing team scores in the final 30 seconds to make a game look close.
There was a significant chance Derrick Henry wouldn't be as effective in 2021, and the Titans would suffer as a result. Henry wasn't the same guy as he had been in 2020. He was far less efficient even before suffering a right foot injury in November, as he fell from 5.4 yards per carry all the way down to 4.3. An unprecedented workload kept Henry's raw numbers looking like normal, but just about every single advanced metric of note suggested he wasn't the dominant back of the prior two seasons.