The NFL is defined by parity. No team has won consecutive Super Bowls since the New England Patriots back in 2003 and ’04. No NFC East team has even won consecutive division titles since the Philadelphia Eagles stacked four straight from 2001 to ’04. This is what makes the league so damn watchable.
But in recent years, postseason play has been elusive for certain franchises. Nine teams will enter the 2022 campaign with a playoff drought of at least three seasons:
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Tough for those nine fan bases … but useful for me! This is, after all, the Schein NINE.
So, of those nine teams, which is most likely to snap its playoff drought in the coming season? Least likely?
Let’s rank ’em, Schein Nine style, beginning with a well-rounded squad that’s not only poised to hit the postseason tournament, but make a run once there …
Earlier this month, I penned a BOLD PREDICTIONS column with this forecast: The Chargers field a top-three offense and defense. This team is rich with talent on both sides of the ball. And the best part? These Bolts are hungry. They have to be, considering they’re a part of this Schein Nine in the first place.
“We haven’t made the playoffs,” Los Angeles GM Tom Telesco said on my SiriusXM Radio show, “Schein on Sports,” last month. “We can’t be overconfident about anything.”
Spot on. I can’t envision Justin Herbert and Co. reading offseason press clippings and getting too cocky — not when Herbert has yet to take a single postseason snap.
Speaking of Herbert, he’s off to a historic start, with the most touchdown passes in his first two seasons (69) of any quarterback in NFL history. And the best is yet to come. At publishing, Caesars Sportsbook gives him the fifth-best odds to win MVP at 12-1, behind only Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and back-to-back winner Aaron Rodgers. Nice company to keep — and if anything, Herbert might be too low. The guy is going to explode in Year 3, with draft reinforcements up front (OG Zion Johnson) and in the backfield (RB Isaiah Spiller). Tight end Gerald Everett was a useful pickup in free agency, too.
I particularly love Telesco’s offseason additions to the defense. Khalil Mack joins Joey Bosa, giving the Chargers a terrifying pass-rushing duo. Mack wasn’t Los Angeles’ only high-profile acquisition, either. In the back end, J.C. Jackson signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal to be the CB1 of a talented secondary. And don’t overlook the free-agent signings of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, two big-bodied defensive linemen who’ll undoubtedly boost a run defense that ranked 30th in 2021.
As long as Derwin James fully recovers from the surgery we just found out about — keep the star safety in bubble wrap all summer ! — the Chargers will win the toughest division in football and win multiple playoff games, too.
I wish Tyreek Hill would stop the insanity of comparing Tua Tagovailoa and Patrick Mahomes. I’m a huge Tua fan, but Mahomes is one of the most special and talented quarterbacks ever. Just end it, Tyreek. Let Tua breathe. He can prove his worth on the field, especially with all of the upgrades to his supporting cast.
Hill’s unquestionably the most high-profile addition to Miami’s offense, but he isn’t the only one. The Dolphins scooped up two starting offensive linemen (LT Terron Armstead and LG Connor Williams), three quality backs (Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Sony Michel) and another talented wideout in Cedrick Wilson. Plus, I love the energy and play-calling ability that new coach Mike McDaniel brings to the table.
While Tua is no Mahomes, he’s still a 24-year-old who’s gone 13-8 as a starter over his first two years in the league. He’s being unfairly maligned — and he’s going to silence the haters by taking Miami and his new weapons to the playoffs.
Denver’s a proud franchise, and this six-year drought is the Broncos’ longest playoff-free stretch since the 1970s. But Russell Wilson changes everything. The nine-time Pro Bowler gives this team credence, juice, hope and a totally new culture. Quarterback play in Denver has been flat-out inept since Peyton Manning retired. That’s a long time ago. But it’s a new day in the Mile High City — and not just at the game’s most important position.
Nathaniel Hackett was a fine choice as Denver’s new head coach. While he didn’t call plays in Green Bay, Hackett showed his capability in that role during previous stops in Jacksonville and Buffalo. This is the guy who helped Blake Bortles get a three-year, $54 million extension, after all. Hackett and Wilson are poised to take this young offensive core to the next level. I’m especially enamored with Javonte Williams at running back. This tackle-breaking machine is about to break out in a major way in Year 2.
Defense wasn’t the problem under former coach Vic Fangio. In fact, last year’s unit ranked third in points allowed and eighth in yards allowed. The Broncos accumulated more edge-rushing juice in free agency (Randy Gregory) and the draft (Nik Bonitto). Also, I’m already on record predicting Patrick Surtain II will become a first-team All-Pro cornerback in the near future.
This feels like a 10-win team — at minimum.
Admittedly, this is where this list transitions from viable playoff contenders to wishful thinking. It’s a pretty steep drop from the Broncos to the rest of this group. But, hey — this league produces surprises every season. At this point last year, who had the Bengals nearly winning the freakin’ Super Bowl?
Some folks might be surprised seeing Jacksonville this high on the list, given the unmitigated disaster that was the 2021 Jaguars. But Urban Meyer isn’t walking through that door any more. (Thank goodness.) Doug Pederson is the perfect coach to pick up the pieces in Duval County, as a fountain of positivity who just so happens to have an impressive track record of QB development. That last bit is quite crucial to these Jags, with Trevor Lawrence coming off a disappointing rookie season. Part of that can obviously be attributed to the horrendous work environment under Meyer, but the rookie still has a ways to go in order to live up to this “generational talent” billing. Pederson can help him get there. So can the influx of free-agent signings. Were some of them — SEE: Christian Kirk — overpaid? Sure. But they still represent upgrades to this roster — upgrades that give the 22-year-old signal-caller more of a chance. And I’m excited to see Travis Etienne by Lawrence’s side again. They made sweet music together at Clemson, but Etienne missed his entire rookie season with a Lisfranc injury.
In a loaded AFC, it’s a big ask for Jacksonville to go from 3-14 to the playoffs, but stranger things have happened. And I actually already stated that the Jaguars will finish ahead of the Patriots in AFC standings.
I really don’t like this roster. It’s a parting gut punch from the Dave Gettleman error, er, era. And I really don’t believe in fourth-year QB Daniel Jones.
But that said, I’m obsessed with the Giants’ new power couple of general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll. If anyone can coax positive play out of Jones, it’s Daboll. Shoot, if he can just teach the quarterback to take moderate care of the football, that’s a start. And I loved Daboll plucking Don “Wink” Martindale to run the defense. Another coach who gets the most out of his talent. Also, despite the fact that I see many holes in this roster, the Giants did just add a pair of certified studs in the first round of the draft. Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal? That’s a haul!
Look, the Giants could vie for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft. Or Daboll could get this team to play hard and smart, exceeding expectations. Regardless, Giants fans should be excited about the future. And an underwhelming NFC East provides more reason for optimism.
Dan Campbell makes headlines for saying things that are fun and wild, but don’t get it twisted: The man can coach. Players love him. Players fight for him. While the Lions went winless through the first three months of Campbell’s debut campaign, they never stopped competing and finished last season by splitting their last six games. Baby steps. Remember, this is the franchise that’s been “rebuilding since 1957.”
Campbell and GM Brad Holmes are indeed undertaking a true rebuild, but the vibe is completely different around these Lions. They’re building up the trenches, too, with solid cores on the offensive and defensive lines. I also loved Detroit’s draft, and not only because they grabbed University of Michigan star and Mitten State native Aidan Hutchinson. If first-round WR Jameson Williams is healthy sooner than later, I think the Lions will still be in the wild-card hunt when the Thanksgiving Day game against Buffalo rolls around. Then they can fade and finish 7-10.
If the Panthers trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, I reserve the right to bump them up a few spots in this pecking order. Like up to fourth.
If the Panthers trade for Baker Mayfield, I reserve the right to drop them down a few spots in this pecking order. Like down to ninth.
Fact is, Carolina has some solid pieces on defense. Christian McCaffrey, when healthy, is an absolute stud. There’s talent at receiver. But the quarterback position is currently a mess.
Furthermore, Matt Rhule has been uninspiring. And the Buccaneers and Saints still reside in the division.
Joe Douglas has enjoyed a superb offseason. In free agency, he rebuilt the tight end position (SEE: C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin), filled a hole on the offensive line (Laken Tomlinson) and fortified the secondary (D.J. Reed and Jordan Whitehead). Then he went out and just OWNED the draft. CB Sauce Gardner, WR Garrett Wilson and DE Jermaine Johnson II is the kind of first-round haul draft dreams are made of. In the second round, he grabbed this draft’s best running back (Breece Hall). In the third? The draft’s best tight end (Jeremy Ruckert).
With all of that inspired roster reconstruction, we’re gonna find out if Zach Wilson can play. And if Robert Saleh can coach. If everything breaks right, I can see this team doubling its win total from 2021. Unfortunately, this is an “end the playoff drought” ranking. And this AFC feels historically loaded. Not happening.
Matt Ryan is in Indianapolis. Calvin Ridley is suspended for the year. The defense is riddled with holes. Marcus Mariota is Marcus Mariota.
Sure, I love Kyle Pitts’ rare talent and Drake London’s instant upside. I still believe Arthur Smith can coach. But the 2022 Falcons are flawed in most areas. This is what the ground floor of a rebuild looks like.
Trying to win last year made sense. Tearing it down to build it back up was the only play in 2022. I still like the people in charge for the future of this franchise. But it’s going to be a long, long year in Atlanta.
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