Predicting NFL teams most likely to decline in 2023 season

On Tuesday, I broke down the four NFL teams I expect to improve in 2023. That’s the fun piece. This column is the one that doesn’t go over quite as well. Time to break down the four teams most likely to decline. Given that the preseason is the most optimistic time of the year for most franchises before reality sets in after Week 1, you can imagine what the replies typically look like.

The results here are hard to ignore, however. Using many quantitative metrics to lead the way, I’ve named 30 teams in this column over the past six years. Twenty-four of those teams declined the following season. Four maintained their winning percentage, while just two of those 30 improved. The average team declined by 3.2 wins per 17 games. (Moving from a 16-game to a 17-game season makes these comparisons a little messier.)

Last year was a surprising 4-1 performance. Why surprising? The Packers and Titans were two teams that seemed immune to the math. Both defied the odds after appearing on the 2020 list. While the Packers declined by a single loss in 2021, the Titans won the AFC title. Injuries and regression toward the mean finally got them last season, as both fell below .500.

Misplaced optimism over the addition of Davante Adams didn’t save the Raiders, who dropped from 10-7 to 6-11. The Steelers needed a second-half surge to come close, but since the NFL counts a tie as a half-win for purposes of winning percentage, 9-8 was narrowly worse than 9-7-1. The Falcons were the team whose decline I felt surest about, and they defied the odds, sticking at 7-10 for the second consecutive season. I’ll stand on identifying four playoff teams that each failed to make it back to the postseason.

Here are four more likely candidates to decline. Three made it to the postseason in 2022, but I see only one likely to return. It isn’t the team at the top of this list that has been in this spot since sometime in December.

More: Four teams likely to improve

Jump to a team:
Eagles | Giants
Steelers | Vikings

Record in 2022: 13-4
Point differential in 2022: minus-3
2022 record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 9-0
Projected strength of schedule, via ESPN’s FPI: 15th toughest

No sense in leaving the team everyone knew was coming until the end. You already know the story with the 2022 Vikings because it became part of the conversation surrounding the team, which I couldn’t have imagined happening a decade ago. They went 9-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer and threw in a couple of wins by eight points for good measure. No team in NFL history has ever gone undefeated while winning that many close games. In the playoffs, Minnesota promptly lost a one-score game to the Giants in the wild-card round.

Earlier this offseason, I took a deep dive into the Vikings and the team that will appear next on this list, so I won’t go into detail with all my findings here. I’ll just play back the key points. The Vikings were 13-4, but they were outscored by three points. They ranked 26th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), the Football Outsiders statistic that measures performance on a play-by-play basis. By win probability added, they played like the Rams and Broncos through three quarters and were the best team of the past decade by far in the fourth quarter.

In all, the Vikings outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 4.6 wins; even after adjusting for the extra game, that’s the largest gap between point differential and win-loss record through 1989. It’s tough to find comparable teams for them from the past, simply because they are such significant outliers versus virtually every other team in recent history.

The best I can do is look at the 12 prior teams that had outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by at least three wins in a given season to see whether they hold any sort of hope for the Vikings. The first signs aren’t positive. Those teams went 82-14 (.854) in one-score games during their outlier season. During the following campaign? Those same teams went 46-43 (.517). Gulp.

What happened to those 12 teams?

  • The 1992 Colts fell from 9-7 to 4-12, in part because quarterback Jeff George, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 draft, held out to open the season after being benched the previous season. The best thing about the 1993 season was that it eventually landed Indy the No. 2 overall pick, which it used on future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.
  • The 1999 Titans made an unexpected leap to 13-3 and came within a yard of winning Super Bowl XXXIV. They managed to maintain their success the following season, as they dramatically improved their underlying level of play and went 13-3 with a 12.9-win Pythagorean expectation. Is there hope for the Vikings?
  • The 2004 Steelers rode a rookie quarterback by the name of Ben Roethlisberger to a stunning 15-1 record before losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. They fell to 11-5 the following season, with Roethlisberger missing four games because of various injuries, but still won the AFC North and finished as Super Bowl XL champions. The Vikings would settle for that, right?
  • The 2009 Colts went 14-2 and advanced all the way to Super Bowl XLIV before falling short against the Saints. The 2010 team went 10-6, and while that was good enough to win the AFC South, the Colts were upset at the buzzer by the Jets in the wild-card round in what turned out to be Peyton Manning’s final game in a Colts uniform.
  • The 2011 Chiefs were themselves disappointing, as a team that had made the playoffs in 2010 started 5-8 and fired coach Todd Haley before beating the previously undefeated Packers and finishing 7-9. That win was enough to get Romeo Crennel the full-time gig, but the 2012 Chiefs dropped to 2-14. Again, there was a bright side: The organization replaced Crennel with newly fired Eagles coach Andy Reid, and that has gone pretty well since.
  • The 2012 Colts were a model-breaker. They went 11-5 with a 7.2-win Pythagorean expectation. The following season, they went … 11-5 with a 9.4-win Pythagorean expectation. Then they went 11-5 with a 10-win Pythagorean expectation. Andrew Luck didn’t sustain any ability to win a disproportionate number of close games after that point, but the Vikings have to hope they can thrive as the Colts did in defiance of the numbers.
  • The 2016 Raiders broke out with young stars Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack surrounding Derek Carr. They emerged from years of cap doldrums with a 12-4 season, only for a Carr injury to sink their playoff chances. They added Marshawn Lynch to the mix for 2017, but the magic was gone; they fell all the way to 6-10, leading ownership to fire Jack Del Rio and replace him with Jon Gruden.
  • The 2019 Packers went 13-3 in Matt LaFleur’s first season at the helm. They also broke the rules of this exercise, sustaining their 13-3 record the following year, with Aaron Rodgers winning MVP. They fell ever so slightly to 13-4 the following season, as Rodgers claimed another trophy, before they finally broke last season and dropped to 8-9.
  • The 2020 Browns were a feel-good story, as new coach Kevin Stefanski unlocked the best out of Baker Mayfield and pushed the team to its first playoff victory since 1994. Browns fans were excited about taking the next step after improving their defense, but it didn’t come; Cleveland dropped to 8-9 and Mayfield moved on to Carolina.
  • The 2020 Chiefs had gone 8-0 in one-score games as part of a 14-2 season. They had Patrick Mahomes. I put them in the “likely to decline” column with as much trepidation as possible, even acknowledging they were going to take only a small step backward. In the end, they started 3-4 and finished 12-5 in what was Mahomes’ worst season, going 5-3 in one-score games in the process.
  • The 2021 Raiders were last year’s poster boys for regression toward the mean, a 10-7 team that had the point differential of a 6.9-win team. New coach Josh McDaniels believed in his team’s chances, trading for Davante Adams and signing Chandler Jones in free agency. The Raiders dropped from 7-2 in one-score games to 4-9 and quickly fell out of the race in the AFC; after finishing 6-11, they cut Carr and moved on to the Jimmy Garoppolo era.

There are some positive tales in there for the Vikings. Three of those 11 teams managed to maintain their record from the prior season. Another declined but still won the Super Bowl. Minnesota was such an enormous outlier relative to its record that it could decline by three or even four wins and still be favored to win the NFC North given the upheaval around the division.


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The Vikings haven’t conducted their business this offseason as if they were one of the best teams, which is no surprise given that they have one of the more analytically inclined front offices in the league. They’ve gotten younger, moving on from veterans Patrick Peterson, Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen, while taking shots on the upside of free agents Byron Murphy and Marcus Davenport.

They decided against an extension for 35-year-old quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose latest salary restructure voids after the 2023 season. He was 28-27-2 in one-score games before last season. If the Vikings disappoint, this will likely be Cousins’ last season in purple and gold. If coach Kevin O’Connell has somehow unlocked a formula for winning close games with Cousins, though, they would have to give their signal-caller a new deal, right?

Record in 2022: 9-7-1
Point differential in 2022: minus-6
2022 record in games decided by seven points or fewer: TK
Projected strength of schedule, via ESPN’s FPI: 8th toughest

The team that vanquished the Vikings in the postseason was also their closest comparable during the regular season. The Giants set the tone for their season in Week 1, when they played the Titans tough into the fourth quarter. They took over in the final 15 minutes. A long drive ended with a touchdown pass to get within one point, and when the Giants went for 2, Saquon Barkley managed to elude two tacklers in the backfield and get into the end zone to take the lead. The Titans managed to get in position for a 47-yard field goal, but Randy Bullock’s miss from 47 yards out handed New York a 21-20 victory.

That style became a habit for the Giants, who won four games they trailed after the third quarter. Only the Vikings and Chiefs won more. The New York defense seemed to snap to attention only when the situation mattered most. When the team had a lead in the fourth quarter, it was the league’s ninth-best defense by EPA (expected points added) per play; it ranked 29th otherwise.

The Giants were the league’s worst defense by EPA per play on first and second down, but they were second best by the same metric on third down. They had the fourth-worst defense outside the red zone by EPA per play and the second best once teams got in scoring range.

The offense also improved dramatically in the final stanza, jumping from 16th in EPA per play to fourth over the final 15 minutes of the game. Daniel Jones & Co. weren’t great on third down, but they were the seventh-best offense at converting once they got inside the red zone.

The key for the offense was not turning the ball over. The Giants turned the ball over just 16 times in 17 games, ranking second behind the Lions. Unsurprisingly, when they didn’t turn the ball over even one time, they went 6-2, including their playoff win over the Vikings. They were 4-6-1 when they turned the ball over at least once.

Protecting the football was an important leap forward for Jones, who struggled mightily with fumbles during his first two NFL seasons. Despite scrambling often and being sacked on 8.5% of his dropbacks, he fumbled just six times in 17 games. His interception rate also dropped for the third consecutive campaign, as he threw picks on just 1.1% of his passes, the league’s best mark.

Avoiding giveaways is a great way to win games, but is it sustainable? Not often, no. Prorating all the stats above for a 17-game season, let’s go back through 2002. Fifty-nine teams from 2002 to 2021 finished their season with no more than 16 giveaways. Those teams, unsurprisingly, were very successful: They won an average of 11.6 games.

The following year, just five of those 59 teams managed to sustain their turnover rate. The average team turned the ball over 7.2 more times the following campaign and dropped more than 10 spots in the takeaway rankings. The average team declined by an average of more than one win, although two teams managed to avoid that fate last season (the Eagles and Vikings).

The Giants were able to win nine games and advance to the postseason by claiming a series of narrow victories against many of the easier teams on their schedule. They won only one game by more than eight points, a 38-10 blowout win over the Colts where Indy turned to Nick Foles and Sam Ehlinger. They were 2-7 against teams with a winning record, a group of opponents they’ll see more often in 2023: The FPI projects them to face the eighth-toughest schedule, while the FTN Football Almanac expects New York to face the fifth-toughest slate.

It’s tough to make a case that the Giants can repeat what they did in 2022. Are there reasons to believe they could improve their underlying performance? Absolutely. They were the third-youngest team in 2022 by snap-weighted age. They were cycling through replacement-level players at wide receiver, tight end and cornerback for stretches, and they’ve added Darren Waller and first-round pick Deonte Banks to the mix.


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At the same time, we can’t assume everything that went right for the Giants in 2022 will occur again, either. One obvious place to start: the availability of Jones and Barkley, who were each healthy for the full season. (Both sat out a meaningless Week 18 game against the Eagles.) Neither had completed a full season in 2019, 2020 or 2021, with each missing an average of just over five games per season. If the Giants can keep their resurgent quarterback and running back on the field for a full season again, they’ve got a shot at beating the odds. Without either of them for any extended stretch of time, it’s tough to see the team staying above .500.

Record in 2022: 14-3
Point differential in 2022: plus-133
2022 record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 6-1
Projected strength of schedule, via ESPN’s FPI: 12th toughest

The Giants and Vikings won’t cause anyone to bat an eye. The Eagles, though? A little more controversial. They looked like the league’s best team for most of last season, starting 13-1 before losing Jalen Hurts to an injury. They nearly beat the Cowboys with Gardner Minshew at quarterback, but Hurts gritted out a Week 18 win over the Giants before driving Philadelphia within three points of a Super Bowl win. With a quarterback like Hurts who is seemingly capable of leveling up each offseason, the Eagles should be one of the favorites for years to come.

There are still plenty of reasons to doubt that the Eagles will win 14 games in the regular season again, though. We’ll start with the same thing that has popped up for the Vikings and Giants: The Eagles rode their luck in close games. They went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, including a perfect mark in Hurts’ starts.

Were some of those games not as close as they seemed? Sure. The Packers kicking a field goal to get within seven points with 1:08 to go didn’t exactly threaten Philadelphia’s path to victory. At the same time, the Eagles were tied deep into the fourth quarter against the Cardinals before a late game-winning field goal and trailed the Colts by six points at the two-minute warning before a Hurts touchdown run. The 25-20 win against the Bears was a one-score contest deep into the fourth quarter. Those were legitimately close games against three of the league’s worst teams.

The Eagles saw lots of games against those teams. The FTN Football Almanac pegs them as playing the easiest schedule last season. FPI had them in 23rd, while my schedule model had them at No. 24. Philly played just three games against teams that won 10 or more games, and one of those was against the Vikings, and you know how the models feel about them. The Eagles managed to land games against each of the four worst teams by win-loss record: the Bears, Texans, Cardinals and Colts.

It would be a major surprise if their schedule was as easy in 2023. The FTN Football Almanac projects Philadelphia to face the fifth-toughest schedule. The Eagles play the first-placed teams in the NFC, swapping out the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC North for the NFC West.

After years of struggling to keep their key players on the field, the Eagles also enjoyed a remarkably healthy season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Hurts missed two weeks at the end of the season and was limited in the Week 18 win, but the offense was present for the vast majority of the campaign. Their 11 starters on offense — Hurts, their five linemen, running back Miles Sanders, wideouts A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, and tight end Dallas Goedert — missed just 10 starts all season. The secondary battled injuries to C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Avonte Maddox, but the Eagles were the third-healthiest team in football by adjusted games lost. They were 12th in 2021, 30th in 2020 and 21st in 2019.

They also shed more talent this offseason than your typical 14-win team. With Hurts earning a massive new contract, the Eagles understandably made cutbacks at a few positions. Sanders and Isaac Seumalo are gone on the offensive side of the ball. Most of the damage comes on defense, however, where they lost their best defensive tackle (Javon Hargrave), both starting linebackers (T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White) and both starting safeties (Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps).

The replacements are either less expensive options or draftees. General manager Howie Roseman wasn’t naive to what was coming — the Eagles are prepared with highly touted young defenders Jalen Carter and Nakobe Dean to take over two of those roles — but it’s no guarantee that Carter will be as good as Hargrave or that Dean will play up to Edwards’ standard. Safety looms as a major weakness, where the Eagles will use Reed Blankenship and either former Steelers defensive back Terrell Edmunds or third-round pick Sydney Brown as the starters. The defense declined dramatically last season when Blankenship replaced Gardner-Johnson in the lineup.

Of course, barring serious injury to Hurts, the Eagles should still be very good. I’m excited to see whether the “Tush Push” and their ability to extend drives on fourth-and-short seemingly at will allows them to exceed expectations for a second consecutive campaign. (I’m also wondering whether they’ll be the only team to push the envelope as aggressively as they did with that play a year ago.) In the weaker conference, Philadelphia should still be a huge favorite to return to the postseason. I just think that trip will come with 10 to 12 wins instead of 14.

Record in 2022: 9-8
Point differential in 2022: minus-38
2022 record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 6-5
Projected strength of schedule, via ESPN’s FPI: 11th easiest

I’ll admit it: I thought last year’s column had the Steelers dead to rights. Unimpressed by their 9-7-1 record while being outscored by 55 points in 2021, I suggested that 2022 would be a transitional season with rookie Kenny Pickett taking over as quarterback. I was concerned the Steelers couldn’t get any more out of their big three on defense, and when T.J. Watt went down in the opener with a torn pectoral muscle, those concerns felt justified. At their bye, they were 2-6. It felt like a lost season.

Then the universe remembered who stands on the sideline for the Steelers. Mike Tomlin hadn’t posted a losing record in 15 seasons as a head coach, and he wasn’t about to start now. They split their first two games after the bye and then got white-hot afterward, winning six of their final seven games. They still came up a half-win short of their total from 2021, but they came as close as possible to defying the numbers.

How did Pittsburgh turn things around? It got Watt back, which helped immensely. Its schedule got easier, as six of its seven wins during the second half came against teams with losing records. The only exception was a Week 17 victory over the rival Ravens, who were starting Tyler Huntley at quarterback for the injured Lamar Jackson.


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The biggest factor, though, was something that holds concern for the Steelers and another team that isn’t on this list. Before the bye, they turned the ball over 14 times in eight games. After the bye? Pickett & Co. yielded five giveaways in nine games, three of which came in a Week 14 loss to the Ravens. They turned the ball over twice across their other eight games in the second half, and unsurprisingly, they won seven of those eight.

It’s impossible to count on any team to turn the ball over as infrequently as the Steelers did during that stretch over a full season, but there’s something to break down here. I wanted to test this improvement with teams from the past to see if those that improved their giveaway rate so dramatically from one half to the next kept their turnover rate relatively low the following season. There aren’t many comps, however.

The few teams that posted similarly drastic improvements in giveaways from one half to the next either were posting astronomical totals in the first half before regressing to league-average in the second half, changed quarterbacks after the season or had veteran quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford or Ben Roethlisberger. Pickett is a rookie who held the ball before his pass attempts longer than all but three other quarterbacks and posted a below-average sack rate. He had a 4.8% interception rate over his first five starts and an 0.4% rate afterward. Morphing from PJ Walker into peak Aaron Rodgers is a nifty improvement, but I don’t see how we can’t expect Pittsburgh to turn the ball over more often this season.

What makes this so interesting is the Steelers aren’t the only team that rode the turnover roller coaster in the second half to a turnaround. The Lions started 1-6 and turned the ball over 11 times across their first seven games. Then, suddenly, they morphed into something different. Jared Goff & Co. turned the ball over just four times in the ensuing 10 games, winning eight of those 10. Like the Steelers, they committed two of those turnovers in a single loss, to the Bills on Thanksgiving. The Lions just decided overnight to stop turning over the football, which immediately spurred a winning streak.

To be fair, the offense improved aside from strictly protecting the ball. If we eliminate the drives that ended in turnovers altogether, the Steelers jumped from 31st in points per possession before the bye to 11th afterward. Najee Harris hasn’t been an efficient back, but Jaylen Warren showed it was possible to look impressive behind a middling offensive line. That line should be better in 2023, with Isaac Seumalo joining from the Eagles and rookie first-rounder Broderick Jones likely to take over at left tackle, although he has looked uneven during the preseason.

I’m more concerned about the defense on paper, which is strange for a Steelers team under Tomlin. Cornerback is suddenly a problem, as Cameron Sutton and Arthur Maulet left in free agency and were replaced by the ex-Vikings duo of Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan. I’m not sure about their fit in a scheme that played man at the sixth-highest rate last season, and it’s a lot to ask of rookie second-rounder Joey Porter Jr. to be ready for a big role in Week 1. The last time the Steelers had a rookie cornerback start at least 12 games in a season was 1987. Even given the presence of Minkah Fitzpatrick, they probably won’t lead the league in interception rate again.

Watt should play something closer to a full season, which will help a sack and pressure rate that folded in his absence. Is the rest of the team around him likely to be healthier? Probably not, given that Pittsburgh had the league’s healthiest roster by adjusted games lost. You would probably rather lose two or three lesser starters than be without the star edge rusher for any length of time, but the Steelers don’t have the sort of depth they’ve had in years past.

There’s a definite tier gap in confidence between the first three teams, and the Steelers are in fourth for me. There are definite paths to them winning 10 games, especially if Pickett takes a second-year leap. If the defense loses one of the big three, the team struggles to stay as healthy as it did and/or the offense stops protecting the ball, I’m not sure we can count on the Steelers to keep Tomlin’s streak going into season 17.

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