SULLIVAN: Who could rise up, who could fall out of 2021 NFL playoff picture

Jerry Sullivan

One of the great things about the NFL in the age of parity and free agency is that the playoff field can change so radically from one year to the next.

Sure, you get some consistent winners and losers, but the margin between teams in the league’s muddled middle is generally quite small. A few big plays along the way, or a key injury, can be all that separates a double-digit win playoff team from an also-ran.

Teams win big and fall back all the time, and vice versa. There have been seven different NFC teams in the Super Bowl in the last seven years. Four of the last five hadn’t even reached the playoffs the year before.

The Carolina Panthers went 7-8-1 in 2014, surged to 15-1 and the Super Bowl in 2015, then back to 6-10 the next season. I’m sure the experience wasn’t lost on Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, who were working for the Panthers at the time.

History shows that about half of the NFL playoff spots will change from one year to the next. Over the last 20 years, 115 teams have missed the playoffs after making it the previous year, just under six a year. There were 117 who qualified after missing the year before.

That makes it even more remarkable that the Patriots could make the playoffs 11 years in a row and 16 years out of 17 — or of course, that the Bills could manage to miss the playoffs 17 straight seasons.

Last year, there were seven new teams in the field. Only five missed from 2019 because the addition of an extra wild card in each conference allowed the Colts and Bears to get in. The league retained the seven-team format for this season.

It’s fun to project which teams could make the leap, or which might fall on hard times. Here are five teams that are likely to make the jump into the playoffs in 2021, and five who could be in for a fall:

FIVE TEAMS THAT COULD GET IN

NEW ENGLAND: All right, Bills fans want no part of this. But how do you bet against Bill Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls as a head coach and is third in career regular-season coaching wins (with 280) behind Don Shula and George Halas?

Granted, the Pats missed Tom Brady last season. They’re going with a rookie, Mac Jones, at quarterback. But Belichick won his first Super Bowl with a young Brady managing a run-first offense and a strong defense. That’s the model that they’ll use this season. They bolstered the receiving corps with veteran wideout Nelson Agholor.

The defense figures to be better, with Dont’a Hightower, a two-time Pro Bowler, back at linebacker. They added another Pro Bowl linebacker in Matt Judon, who signed for four years, $56 million.

LA CHARGERS: Tom Telesco, the pride of St. Francis High, brought in a new, defensive-minded coach in Brandon Staley. He bolstered a weak offensive line by signing three free agents and drafting left tackle Rashawn Slater at No. 13 overall.

The Chargers have a budding star in quarterback Justin Herbert, who set a rookie record with 31 touchdown passes last season. LA has an underrated, versatile running back in Austin Ekeler and a premier wideout in Keenan Allen.

The Chargers need to win close games. Their first six losses of 2020 were by a TD or less, two in overtime. It’ll help to have safety Derwin James, who missed all of last season. Edge rushing stud Joey Bosa is smack in his prime, and Staley says Bosa is getting comfortable with his new defensive scheme.

SAN FRANCISCO: Two years ago, coming off a 4-12 season, they went to the Super Bowl under Kyle Shanahan. They slipped to 6-10 last year (who predicted that?). The Niners were crushed by injuries, the most in the NFL based on some analytics.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo played only six games, wideout Deebo Samuel seven, tight end George Kittle eight. The Niners traded three picks to move up for quarterback Trey Lance. But Garoppolo is 24-8 as an NFL starter with a career 98.9 rating. He can get them to the postseason if he’s healthy.

A pass-rushing Bosa — Nick in this case — is key to this team’s defensive fortunes, too. Bosa tore his ACL in the second week a year ago. He’s expected to be ready for the season opener.

ATLANTA: The Falcons are Exhibit A in how narrow the margin can be in the NFL. A year ago, they were outscored by just one point a game on average. They went 4-12, blowing leads in a mind-blowing fashion that stirred bad memories of their collapse against the Patriots in the Super Bowl five seasons ago.

They have a new head coach, Arthur Smith, and a new defensive coordinator after persuading Dean Pees to come out of retirement. The defense isn’t that bad, and Pees had success with defenses in New England, Tennessee and Baltimore. They also have an easier schedule, including no Drew Brees in the division.

Matt Ryan is still an elite quarterback at 36 (eight years younger than Brady). Ryan led the league in attempts and completions last year and passed for 4,581 yards and 26 TDs, going over 4,000 yards for the 10th year in a row. They cut Julio Jones for cap reasons, but Calvin Ridley is a rising superstar at wideout.

DALLAS: Dak Prescott was on pace to throw for more than 6,000 yards when he got hurt in Game 5 last season. Prescott is back — albeit, without any preseason action due to a lat strain. But his offensive line is back intact and the Cowboys can flat-out score.

Of course, they gave up a franchise-record 473 points last season. Jerry Jones found a new coordinator in Dan Quinn (the former Falcons head man) and brought in five free agents and six draft picks to shore up the D.

The Cowboys continued the overhaul this offseason, adding five free agents and six draft picks on defense. There could be as many as six new defensive starters this season. Linebacker Jaylon Smith said the defense “can’t be the problem as to why this team doesn’t succeed.” Actually, it can.

TEAMS THAT COULD FALL OUT

TENNESSEE: The Titans are a chic pick in some circles to make the AFC title game. I see them as the team that went 9-7 four straight years from 2016-19. They’re a slightly above average team that benefited from getting two easy wins from the Jags and two from the Texans (granted, they caught the Bills on a bad night).

Ryan Tannehill has become a decent quarterback in his prime. But at times, he resembles the guy who couldn’t beat bad Bills teams with Miami early in his career. Last January’s wretched wild-card loss to the Ravens comes to mind.

Derrick Henry rushed 378 times for 2,027 yards last season. Most running backs wear down after carrying that sort of load. The defense regressed last season, finishing bottom 10 in the league in most categories. Well, with the added wild card, they could sneak in the playoffs at 9-7.

CLEVELAND: Baker Mayfield gets so many endorsements, you’d think he was a superstar. He’s not. The Browns won by running the ball and winning close games (7-2 in games decided by a TD or less) last season. They were 28th in pass attempts and 24th in yards, which doesn’t sound like a team with an elite passer.

The Browns can win if Mayfield doesn’t have to make big throws down the field. But they were remarkably healthy on the offensive line a year ago. Opposing coaches will catch up to them, and the NFC North will be better this season.

Cleveland’s defense is ordinary; bottom half in yards per play and takeaways. They gave up 30-plus points twice in wins against the Bengals. They beat the Jaguars and Texans, and lost to the Jets. When they lose 10 games, will Baker still get the sponsors?

SEATTLE: It’s hard to pick against future Hall of Fame quarterback Russell Wilson, who has reached the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons. But the Seahawks haven’t reached the NFC title game since paying Wilson big money after the 2014 season.

Wilson wasn’t the same guy after turning it over four times in a loss to the Bills in early November. Over the next nine games, including a playoff loss, he passed for an average of 205 yards a game. Now he has a first-time play caller in his new OC, Shane Waldron.

Seattle’s pass defense gave up 4,560 yards last season, though they tightened after a historically bad start. The schedule is tougher this year, with nine road games, including trips to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. I could see them regressing to eight or nine wins.

CHICAGO: I’d almost forgotten the Bears made the playoffs at 8-8 as the extra NFC wild card. Their fans would rather forget the dreadful, 239-yard offensive performance under Mitch Trubisky in a 21-9 wild-card loss at New Orleans.

They cut ties with Trubisky, who is now backing up in Buffalo. Chicago brought in Andy Walton and traded up to No. 11 to draft Justin Fields as the quarterback of the future — and soon, no doubt, the present.

Granted, it was only a preseason game, but getting drilled by Trubisky and the Bills was a troubling sign. Fields isn’t ready to lead a winning team. By the time this season is done, 8-8 will seem like the good old days in the Windy City.

NEW ORLEANS: Salary cap concerns diminished the Saints’ depth at cornerback, defensive line and wide receiver. The biggest loss, of course, is the retirement of quarterback Drew Brees.

Jameis Winston is the starter. He’s a dynamic passer, but he threw 30 interceptions two years ago. There’s a reason Tampa Bay wanted to move on to Tom Brady. I suspect the Bucs didn’t miss Winston very much on their way to the Lombardi Trophy.

Sean Payton is a very good coach who has won 64 percent of his games in New Orleans. But he’s about to find out what it was like for Belichick last season when he went into battle without HIS future Hall of Fame quarterback.

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