2021 was a year of change in the NFL. Since 1978, the league had been accustomed to 16 regular-season contests per team, and since 1990, 12 available postseason spots was the norm. Both things changed in the last two years, with the league (intentionally) adapting an 18-week schedule for the first time in ’21 and expanding to 14 playoff spots to grab in 2022, with seven each in the AFC and NFC.
While one additional club in each conference was welcomed to the postseason, there were still multiple teams on both sides that fell short.
Of those teams, some saw it best to continue a rebuilding process, while others reloaded to ensure the best chances of making the postseason in 2022. Here, the latter squads are the ones we’ll be focusing on, specifically in the AFC.
Some are a direct result of their own improvements, while others are a product of their division. But all the same, these three AFC teams have a chance to make the postseason after missing out the year prior.
AFC teams poised for playoffs in 2022 after missing in 2021
3. Los Angeles Chargers
Let’s get the low hanging fruit out of the way first. The Chargers have a great chance at making the postseason in 2022.
Under Justin Herbert, the L.A. team in the AFC West has yet to earn a spot in the postseason. During Herbert’s rookie campaign in 2020, the Chargers finished with a record of 6-9 under the former Oregon quarterback. This last year, the Bolts sparked a winning season, finishing above .500 at 9-8. An additional leap forward is very realistic.
No division in football had a more notable offseason than the AFC West, and of the four teams in the division, possibly none more than the Chargers.
To start the offseason, the team brought back No. 1 wideout Mike Williams on a five-year $89.6M deal. Shortly after, the Los Angeles AFC team shifted the attention to defense, trading for All-Pro Khalil Mack. This trade pairs Mack with Pro Bowler Joey Bosa, giving the Chargers a run at fielding the best edge rushing duo leaguewide.
The final big transaction was the signing of All-Pro cornerback JC Jackson. Jackson spent last season in New England, where he allowed an opposing passer rating of 46.8, earning Second-Team All-Pro honors.
With all these new additions added to a roster that already contained studs such as Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen and Derwin James, it’s easy to cement this team as a playoff squad in 2022.
Not so fast, because nothing is cemented in the AFC West.
The negative for the Chargers in 2022 has nothing to do with their assembled team, but rather, the other rosters in the division. While the Chargers have undeniably gotten better, so has the rest of the AFC West … minus the Kansas City Chiefs, who are reigning back-to-back-to-back-to-back AFC Championship Game attendees.
With the acquisition of Russell Wilson, the Denver Broncos are automatically a serious threat. After bringing All-Pros Davante Adams and Chandler Jones onboard, so are the Raiders. Don’t sleep on the Chiefs, either, because they’ve accomplished too much to be written off.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Quietly, the Colts had one of the better offseasons in the NFL.
The team lost young stud Rock Ya-Sin, who posted the lowest completion percentage allowed in man coverage leaguewide, but gained Pro Bowler Yannick Ngakoue in the process. Ngakoue has been one of the league’s more consistent pass rushers, totaling at least eight sacks in each of his six seasons.
The cherry on top? Indianapolis was able to replace Ya-Sin with former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.
In the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Colts selected playmaking receiver Alec Pierce to give newcomer Matt Ryan another target. The addition of Matt Ryan was another key offseason move, landing the quarterback who recorded a league-high 47.6% completion percentage on throws 20+ yards out in ’21.
Ryan came in second on NFL Network’s list of top-10 deep ball passers in 2021.
With a defensive line that consists of Kwity Paye, DeForest Buckner and Yannick Ngakoue, expect this to be one of the best defensive lines around the NFL. This will bode well with the passing defense, which fields former DPOTY Stephon Gilmore, Kenny Moore, and gets some additional help from linebacker Darius Leonard.
Offensively, behind Matt Ryan lies All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor. In front of Ryan stands the No. 12 offensive line in 2021, per Pro Football Focus. Best of all, aside from the Tennessee Titans, the division should be fairly uncompetitive.
If all goes as planned, Indy should be as close as it gets to a lock.
1. Miami Dolphins
This one seems rather obvious, doesn’t it?
Miami entered the offseason with an offensive line ranked dead last, per PFF. In response, the Dolphins went out and grabbed the No. 1 tackle on the market in this year’s free agency in Terron Armstead, along with interior lineman Connor Williams, who helped the Cowboys take the top spot on the ’21 offensive line rankings.
Williams earned a PFF grade of 76.4 last season. Armstead, the abovementioned tackle, posted a grade of 75.9.
Perhaps bigger than the drastic change at offensive line was the acquisition of All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill. In each of his six seasons at the pro level, Hill has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, along with three First-Team All-Pro honors.
The Dolphins also added Chase Edmonds to their running back room, and Cedrick Wilson to play alongside Tyreek Hill. Another underappreciated signing was do-it-all fullback Alec Ingold, who caught 28 balls for 17 first downs and three scores during his time with the Las Vegas Raiders.
The offense is scary enough, but how about their defense?
At the cornerback position, the Pro Bowl duo of Byron Jones and Xavien Howard will lurk in the secondary. Last year, the pair broke up 26 passes, and in 2020, they logged a combined 12 interceptions. Second-year safety Jevon Holland is another player on this defense who deserves respect, as well.
This team will move as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa does. If Tua takes the right steps forward, this Dolphins squad will be a team to fear. If not, Miami will be back in no man’s land where they’re not good enough to make the playoffs and not bad enough to earn a high draft pick.
Based off the steps Miami has taken to retool Tua’s weapons and offensive line, there’s a good chance the former Alabama quarterback takes care of business.