Analysis

NFL teams that can turn it around in 2022: Ravens, Vikings among those set to rebound 

The thought crossed my mind watching Patrick Mahomes duel Josh Allen in the greatest game we've witnessed this century: Everyone else is sitting at the kids table.

Compare what we saw in the Chiefs' and Bills' Divisional Round matchup -- a solar storm of points, yardage and pristine quarterback play – to watching the New York Giants lamely attempt to squeeze out a field goal in late December.

It's an embarrassing look for the gaggle of teams that can't get their act together. For fans of those out-in-the-cold operations, being stuck with a lost franchise makes for a depressing autumn. You're taunted by friends, your spouse thinks less of you and your children don't trust your sense of direction.

DADDY ROOTS FOR A LOSER.

It's no consolation today, but the NFL has morphed into an unpredictable carnival rooted in parity. If the hideous-to-examine 9-7-1 Steelers can enter January play, what's to say your team can't wedge through the postseason door? After all, the glorious Cincinnati Bengals were an appalling 4-11-1 just a season ago. The Earth changes.

Clinging to this tone of optimism, I present a parcel of clubs whose losing records from a year ago could flip into something spicier come 2022:

Baltimore Ravens
2021 record: 8-9 · 4th in AFC North

John Harbaugh won't win any awards for his team's 8-9 finish, but he's Coach of the Year material from where I sit. Through endless storm clouds, waves of chaos and ill fortune, the Ravens never blinked.


Baltimore became just the fifth team in league lore to lose four games by two points or fewer. Eleven of its opponents finished with a winning record. Twenty-five of its own players were sent to injured reserve, decimating the club and exposing a massively compromised secondary on a defense that finished dead last against the pass. The backfield was cooked in August. Lamar Jackson's ankle injury short-circuited a frustrating campaign for the former MVP. Still, the Ravens found themselves seconds away from making the playoffs, because this unusual franchise is built of steel. Few teams league-wide have earned more trust as a bounce-back candidate.


The surprise firing of Don "Wink" Martindale hints at an overhaul on defense, especially up front, where Baltimore houses one of the AFC's oldest collection of linemen. Look for the draft to bring a horde of beefy types to both sides of the ball, with a focus on offensive tackle and behemoths who can stuff the run. Bodies must be air-dropped into a secondary that appeared ready to suit up My Little Pony by mid-December. 


Questions linger about Lamar's future inside an offense that was largely figured out by defensive schemers, but all that darkness unfolded in a horror-show environment where his protection was battered and out of sorts in front of a shattered backfield. 


The Ravens had every excuse to win four games, but they came within a few bad breaks of postseason play. Bank on the fact that general manager Eric DeCosta is huddled away in a bunker, surrounded by half-eaten cartons of General Tso's chicken and plotting revenge. Harbaugh -- always open to change and new avenues -- does not rest. Lamar burns to prove his starry rise was no truncated fluke. 


These dudes will return with a fire from within.

Cleveland Browns
2021 record: 8-9 · 3rd in AFC North

Ponder where the Bengals are today. That's where the other team from Ohio was expected to be, rising out of a decades-long slumber to tussle with the gods. Last year's playoff run was viewed to be the opening chapter in a fairy-tale-like ascension. Instead, the Browns finished the season as the AFC's most disappointing team.


Questions drape the franchise: Is Kevin Stefanski the heady offensive mind of 2020? Or is he the architect of a frustrating attack that found itself nestled in troubling corners game after game down the stretch this autumn-into-winter? Is Baker Mayfield capable of becoming something more than a mid-level lob-artist? Or have we witnessed his low-hanging ceiling? 


It was a terrible campaign for Mayfield, who played through a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Injury noted, but he also appeared to regress inside an offense utterly devoid of a true top wideout after Odell Beckham begged his way off the team. Cleveland must use this offseason to juice up Baker's collection of targets.


The Browns have a talented roster, a savvy front office and a coaching staff that has shown it can win games. They're no longer an offseason darling, which might help a group with zero recent history of meeting big expectations. 


We're in strange territory: The rough-and-tumble AFC North now stares up at Joe Burrow and the Bengals. If the Browns can navigate a huge offseason, the long-meaningless Battle of Ohio might finally come attached to real-world stakes.

Minnesota Vikings
2021 record: 8-9 · 2nd in NFC North

We're staring at a team doused in unknowns. 


Mike Zimmer is out the door, along with longtime general manager Rick Spielman. The team has pegged Kwesi Adofo-Mensah for the GM spot, while candidates to fill the coaching seat include fast-rising Niners defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, Tampa's Todd Bowles and Cowboys defensive play-caller Dan Quinn, among others. Does the new regime stick with Kirk Cousins or trade the good-but-not-great quarterback for draft picks? They're sitting roughly $12 million over the cap (per Over the Cap), but Minnesota can open up prairie lands of room by moving on from Cousins, who is set to count for $45 million against the cap in the final year of his current contract. A new coach might blanch at the idea of rolling into Year 1 minus Kirk, especially when he's primed to roll inside an offense starring Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and a bona fide planetary star in Justin Jefferson


The NFC North is changing. The bullying Packers face cap hell of their own and questions around the future of Aaron Rodgers. The Bears are in flux. The Lions need all sorts of help. There's room for the Vikings to stake a claim, if new leadership can navigate the months ahead.

Washington Football Team
2021 record: 7-10 · 3rd in NFC East

Washington stood at 6-6 after a four-game win streak highlighted by bashings of the Bucs and Raiders. The offense boasts a workable nucleus of talent around Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas. A healthy Chase Young and Montez Sweat can operate as the cherry on top of a powerful defensive front boasting chaos-spinners in Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. I was swayed by the Taylor Heinicke Experience, but WFT must explore options under center. Ron Rivera would pair well with a proven veteran trade candidate, such as Derek Carr or Matt Ryan -- maybe even Russell Wilson. (Just throwing out names!) A tangible upgrade at the game's most critical position would place this scrappy-but-flawed outfit into a new circle of contenders in the NFC. It's challenging to imagine Rivera hitching his wagon to a rookie, but Washington also owns the No. 11 overall pick and could work its way up the board if it fell in love with a newbie. There's lots to like here if the offseason dots connect. 

TEAM X: Aaron Rodgers' new home (?)

Just a song before I go: If it comes to be that Aaron Rodgers is through with the Packers, taking his talents and penchant for drama elsewhere, said landing spot instantly moves to the top of this list. Could it be the Broncos? The Steelers? The Saints?

Color it improbable, but offseason ultra-weirdness is the new normal. The Packers sit roughly $40 million over the cap, and Rodgers made his position clear after crumbling in Saturday's nuclear-winter loss to the 49ers: "I don't want to be part of a rebuild if I'm going to keep playing."

I'm mostly convinced he stays put, but it's Aa-Rod we're talking about. This journey will be laced with all the requisite drama, overthinking and intrigue non-Packers faithful could wish for: The future is a vampire.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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