This is one of my favorite weeks every year, as I'm starting my annual look into the NFL teams most likely to improve or decline during the upcoming season. It's time to take a closer look into what happened a year ago and use history to help project the most surprising teams in 2022.
Heading into last season, despite their 1-5-1 record in games decided by seven points or fewer, the Bengals narrowly missed out on the list of teams most likely to improve. Given that this column identified the 2017 Eagles and 2019 49ers as major improvers before they made their own runs to the Super Bowl, not including the Bengals was disappointing.
The good news is the five teams mentioned in last year's column all improved, gaining an average of 2.9 wins per 17 games on their 2020 records. (The move from 16 to 17 games means that many of the stats mentioned in this column are a little more torturous to discuss than they were before.) The 49ers and Eagles both went from last place to the playoffs, while the Broncos, Falcons and Jaguars each made smaller strides.
In all, 20 of the 25 teams mentioned in this piece over the past five seasons have improved the following season, rising by an average of 3.1 wins per 17 games. I'll hit my five favorites for 2022 below, including teams at the top and bottom of the league. I'll even include an honorable mention for a team that undoubtedly would have been included in this list if it had merely avoided a foolish mistake this offseason. On Wednesday, I'll hit the five teams most likely to decline.
As is the case every year, this list relies on statistical measures of performance that have a track record of predicting improvement or decline in the following season(s). Let's start with a team with Super Bowl aspirations:
Buffalo Bills (11-6)
The Bills are a perfect example of how luck and small sample events can play a dramatic role on a team's record from year to year. Here's where they ranked in a number of key categories between 2020 and 2021. I won't include their win-loss record, but using the data below, would you guess they had a better record last season or in 2020?
The 2020 Bills went 13-3. The 2021 Bills, who were markedly better on a play-by-play and drive-by-drive basis across the board while playing an easier schedule, lost three more games. What changed is how they performed in games decided by seven points or fewer. The 2020 Bills went 4-1 in those close games, which helped get them onto last year's list as one of the teams most likely to decline.
The 2021 Bills went 0-5 in those same games. Their performance in one-score games didn't regress to the mean; it regressed all the way past the mean. It's almost impossible to be as good as they were in 2021 without winning the close ones. Since 1989, only one other team posted a winning record while failing to win a single game by seven points or fewer, when the Super Bowl-winning Rams went 0-3 in those contests in 1999. (They proceeded to win the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl by a combined 12 points.)
Buffalo, of course, famously did not win a close game in the postseason. After blowing out the Patriots in the wild-card round, it lost an instant classic to the Chiefs despite taking back the lead twice inside the final two minutes. Josh Allen & Co. didn't get a chance to touch the ball in overtime, leading to complaints their season came down to a coin flip.
If the Bills had been able to pull out the closest of those five one-score games during the regular season, they might not have needed overtime at all. They were forced to play in Kansas City in the divisional round because they lost from a dominant position against Tennessee. Trailing 34-31 with 22 seconds to go, they sent Allen out on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak to try to win the game from the 3-yard line, only for Allen to be stopped by Jeffery Simmons. Allen otherwise has gone 13-of-14 on fourth-and-1 situations, with an aborted snap against the Jets as the only other blemish on his record. This was bad timing (and a great play by Simmons) as opposed to something meaningful about Allen being unable to perform in important moments, as we saw with his incredible play against the Chiefs in the fourth quarter during the postseason.