The NFL is an upwardly mobile league. If a team is bad, there’s a fair chance it will be good within a few years—the salary cap prevents teams from stockpiling talent for long and keeps high-quality players moving around the league. The other side of the coin is that it’s hard to stay good for long. There’s always pressure from below, and the teams with playoff-caliber rosters will always have to make hard decisions about which players to keep and which to let fly off into free agency.
This season is no different, and we’ll inevitably see some shakeups in the NFL pecking order. With that in mind, let’s meet the four 2020 playoff teams in the gravest danger of missing out in 2021.
The Washington Football Team
The WFT made the playoffs with a 7–9 record last year, getting in via football’s ultimate technicality of winning the woeful NFC East. The Football Team doesn’t have a particularly good answer at quarterback this season—not that it did last year, either. This year, Washington will rely on 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick to sling the pig.
Fitzpatrick is still a reasonably productive QB, and he might give the WFT better play than either Dwayne Haskins or Alex Smith did last year. But given how it snuck in last year, the WFT is in danger of falling out of the playoffs regardless of Fitzpatrick’s performance. The NFC East is wide open: Every team has a chance, but there are no shoo-ins this season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have not had a losing record since 2003. Since then, they have been the league’s most consistently at-least-decent franchise this side of the New England Patriots, and they even sprinkled in a few Super Bowl wins in the aughts. I am afraid that streak will end in 2021, as every sign points to the Steelers declining.
Ben Roethlisberger, the QB chiefly responsible for the Steelers’ success, is 39 and throwing with a surgically repaired right elbow. He looked lost at the end of 2020, and Father Time waits for no quarterback (other than Tom Brady). Roethlisberger’s offensive line could be the worst in the NFL; if they perform anywhere close to average it will be a huge achievement. The Steelers’ defense should remain one of the league’s best, and they’ll prevent the wheels from falling off, but another playoff run seems like a lot to expect from Pittsburgh.
The Chicago Bears
The Bears were the seventh seed in the NFC last year (thanks to the NFL’s decision to expand the playoffs), but they bowed out in the Wild Card round to the New Orleans Saints. Then they made the wise decision to let quarterback Mitchell Trubisky walk in free agency. They drafted Ohio State’s star QB Justin Fields to eventually replace Trubisky—a decision that should make the Bears a lot better.
But they’re starting this season on the border between in and out. Their best player, edge rusher Khalil Mack, turned 30 this year and can only remain a force for so long. Fields should be great, but he might need some time to get churning, or the Bears might decide to start mediocre veteran Andy Dalton at QB for a few games at the beginning of the season. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears snatched a Wild Card spot again (they won’t catch the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North), but there’s also a good chance they could narrowly miss out.
The Indianapolis Colts
Last year, the Colts managed a stopgap solution at QB when they signed Philip Rivers after his long career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. Rivers averaged just under 8 yards per attempt and did enough to get the Colts to an 11–5 record. They even kept the Buffalo Bills close in their Wild Card game. Now Rivers is retired, and the Colts have replaced him with Carson Wentz, who hasn’t been an effective QB since 2017.
The Colts hope Wentz, who fell out of favor with the Philadelphia Eagles, will thrive under his former offensive coordinator and current Colts head coach Frank Reich. That seems fanciful. Wentz has been in an across-the-board statistical decline for three years. While that slide came immediately after Reich’s departure from Philadelphia, three years is a long time for a QB to languish before rebounding. A turnaround seems unlikely for Wentz, and if he struggles, the Colts will be in danger of missing the dance.
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