At the start of every season, most NFL teams are full of optimism.
They’ve added playmakers in the draft or through free agency and tweaked their playbooks just right.
Meanwhile, fans are excited and visions of the postseason dance in their heads.
Then, the season begins and the inevitable happens.
The hopes and dreams for most of the league’s franchises end in a nightmare.
Such is the case this year.
As 2021 draws closer to its conclusion, a number of teams are on the outside looking in.
The AFC playoff picture right now 🤯
Who’s making it in the last 4 spots 👀 🤔 pic.twitter.com/9q2U7M3cWQ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 21, 2021
Some of those on the outside were teams that looked primed for a deep playoff run back in August.
Of course, anything can happen in the next few weeks.
However, here are three AFC teams that are most surprisingly out of the playoff picture after Week 15.
3. Miami Dolphins
At the end of 2020, Miami looked like a team ready to take the next step.
Head coach Brian Flores overcame a rough first year in 2019 and guided the franchise to a 10-6 record last season.
Even better, he seemed to break the Bill Belichick curse.
Flores’ 2020 team overcame a 3-3 start to finish the last half of the season 7-3.
As 2021 got underway, the Dolphins edged Belichick and New England by a point in Week 1.
The good times ended abruptly in Week 2.
Miami would lose to Buffalo that week to begin a seven-game losing streak.
Even more concerning, reports surfaced about the team possibly moving on from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Thankfully, just when all seemed lost, the Dolphins got back on track and have won six straight.
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2021
Three difficult games remain against the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans, and Patriots.
Miami (7-7) will find out soon enough if their early-season swoon costs them a playoff spot.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Ever since quarterback Lamar Jackson joined Baltimore in 2018, the team has been a postseason threat.
In 2019, the Ravens won 14 games and then 11 last year.
Both seasons also saw the team lose in the Divisional Round.
It stands to reason that they should be pushing for another playoff berth this year.
After Week 12, Baltimore was on track to do exactly that as they were in first place in the AFC North with an 8-3 record.
Then, the Ravens promptly dropped three straight.
"I think our chances of winning right there were a little bit higher than in overtime," John Harbaugh says after his Ravens' go-ahead two-point try failed against the Packershttps://t.co/tEnkuv0mEO pic.twitter.com/vzYX342NCH
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) December 20, 2021
Baltimore (8-6) has remaining games against the Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Each opponent currently has a winning record and the Ravens have already lost to both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
1. Cleveland Browns
The angst of Cleveland Browns fans continues.
In 2020, the Browns returned to the postseason after nearly two decades.
First-year head coach Kevin Stefanski guided the team to an 11-5 finish and an appearance in the AFC Divisional playoffs.
In the offseason, the Browns front office got to work.
They brought in several prized free agents and did well in the 2021 draft.
Additionally, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. would be returning to the team after suffering an injury in 2020.
With good talent on both sides of the ball, Cleveland was predicted by many pundits to be Super Bowl contenders this year.
Instead, the season has seen inconsistent play, the departure of OBJ, significant injuries, and COVID restrictions.
After a loss to Las Vegas this past week, the team sits in last place in the AFC North with a 7-7 record.
— USACONTESTSONLINE (@USACONTESTSONL1) December 21, 2021
Their remaining games include Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.
Hopefully, the Browns can at least end the year with a winning record.