Compared to other pro sports, the NFL has a surprising amount of parity. Unlike the NBA or baseball, where the team with the most talent/money generally wins, the NFL can pride itself on “any given Sunday.” This doesn’t guarantee a team that was one of the worst in the league last year can suddenly contend for the Super Bowl, it’s certainly more plausible. Especially when people realize that, as a rule, half the teams that were in the playoffs last year end up not making it the following year.
Take a look at this short list compiled since the lockout, where teams that had made the playoffs the year prior didn’t make it that year (so, for example, the Steelers made the playoffs in 2011 but not 2012).
2011: Bears, Chiefs, Colts, Eagles, Jets, Seahawks
2012: Giants*, Lions, Saints, Steelers
2013: Falcons, Ravens*, Redskins, Texans, Vikings
2014: 49ers, Chiefs, Chargers, Eagles, Saints
2015: Colts, Cowboys, Lions, Ravens
2016: Bengals, Broncos*, Cardinals, Panthers*, Redskins, Vikings
* Denotes a team was in the Super Bowl the previous year.
It’s something to keep in mind when looking at power rankings or whatever horse shit people are using to drive clicks to their site.
So, let’s play a game: Take six teams that made the playoffs the year before and replace them with six teams that did not. Obviously, when playing, keep in mind divisions and conferences.
– Kansas City Chiefs: Admittedly, it’s not easy to find six teams to remove from playoff contention this year, especially in the AFC. Andy Reid’s a helluva coach and has assembled a great staff. This can be accurately stated because they’ve made the playoffs three times in the past four years…despite the fact they have almost no vertical passing game. One would think that defensive coordinators would figure this out and shut down his one-dimensional offense but it hasn’t happened (yet).
However, if we’re picking six teams, the Chiefs are going to make the cut. For all his coaching ability, Andy Reid absolutely sucks at clock management. The Chiefs also have a tough schedule with games against teams that either made the playoffs last year and/or on the cusp of entering this year (Patriots, Eagles, Texans, Steelers, Cowboys, Giants and the Dolphins).
And that’s not including the division they play in. The Broncos and Chargers took them into overtime, with the Chiefs’ victories against them coming later in the season when both teams were out of playoff contention. While they swept the Raiders and have dominated the series (Andy Reid’s Chiefs have only lost 1 game to the Raiders), there’s nothing stopping the pendulum from swinging the other way.
– Miami Dolphins: Every year has a “fluke” team that makes the playoffs, a team that didn’t really impress before and doesn’t the year after. Such teams include the Eagles (2013), Lions (2011, 2014), Redskins (2012, 2015) and the Vikings (2012). Last year’s “fluke” was the Dolphins.
Unlike the Chiefs, the Dolphins are an easy pick for this list. The Dolphins piled up victories against mostly crap teams (49ers, Rams) or snake-bitten ones (Browns, Chargers). They also play in a fairly easy division, with games against the Jets and Bills. However, they also have to play the Patriots twice (and went 0-2 against them last year). The Dolphins also lost games to teams that were in contention in 2015 and/or 2016 (Bengals and Seahawks). In fact, their only legit victory was against the Steelers, who underestimated them (the Dolphins were 1-4 heading into that contest).
This year, the Dolphins have to play against the Titans (who they lost to last year), the Ravens (who they also lost to last year…), the AFC West and the NFC South. Jay Cutler is an upgrade over Ryan Tannehill in terms of talent but he’s also only made the playoffs once in his entire career (2010 with the Bears).
+ Los Angeles Chargers: The problem with this game is that the AFC is a weak conference. There are two elite teams (Patriots, Steelers), one on the cusp of joining the elite (Raiders), teams that are very good but need a quarterback (Chiefs, Texans)…and those teams are on a whole other level from everyone else. Aside from the Bills, Browns and the Jets, the AFC is full of middling teams that have potential but something is holding them back.
Since Kansas City is being ruled out this year, the Chargers have the best shot to replace them. While the Chargers have talent on both sides of the ball (notably Philip Rivers and Joey Bosa), I’m going to put my tinfoil hat on and figure the NFL wants a return on its Los Angeles investment. They’re more likely to see that return with Philip Rivers and the Chargers than the Rams.
The problem with the Chargers is that they are the most unlucky team in the NFL, whether its accumulating injuries or finding creative ways to lose games (4 of their losses had deciding scores within the final two minutes of a game or overtime). Of course, a new coaching staff can fix all that. The Chargers aren’t a pick to be made with confidence but their chances are better than the other teams in the AFC (see the honorable mentions below).
+ Tennessee Titans: With Andrew Luck dinged up and Joe Flacco’s contract eating up the Ravens’ talent, the Titans make the cut as an AFC playoff team to add. Tennessee has a lot of good pieces in place: stellar offensive line, a potent ground game, star QB and a terrific pass rush. This is a team that kicked the shit out of Green Bay last year and beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead (in December!). The Titans also get some cupcake teams to beat up on (49ers, Browns, Rams) in addition to the weak division they play in.
That said, if the AFC wasn’t so devoid of talent, I’d be a lot more pessimistic about the Titans. Their coach sucks (Mike Mularkey has two winning seasons but is 9-32 otherwise) and Marcus Mariota has been injured each season he’s played. The NFL’s a QB-driven league and the Titans are toast without Mariota.
Honorable Mentions: The Bills were a possible entrant before they traded Sammy Watkins. The Bengals could sneak in but I think Hue Jackson was the key to that offense’s success. I like Doug Marrone in Jacksonville (he coached the Bills to a winning record a few years ago, only the second time that’s been accomplished since 1999) but Blake Bortles is going to hold that team back. The Colts are a soft team that will fold without Andrew Luck for any period of time…and there’s no guarantee he’ll be 100% when he returns. The Ravens are in a similar situation with Joe Flacco, whose massive contract has really depleted that team of talent.
The Steelers were considered as a team to take out of the playoffs for two reasons. (1) Ben Roethlisberger was considering retirement this past off-season, so it’s fair to question whether his heart’s still in the game. (2) For an elite team, the Steelers have a nasty habit of playing down to competition (they lost two games to rookie QBs last year and allowed the 1-4 Dolphins to beat them). However, the Steelers play in such a weak division and their schedule is pretty easy (they play the AFC South and the NFC North) so it’s difficult to see them missing out.
The AFC Playoff teams: Patriots, Steelers, Raiders, Titans, Chargers, Texans
– Dallas Cowboys: Jason Garrett reminds me of Art Shell: A coach who was once a player during the franchise’s glory days who oversees a talented team that underachieves or comes up short. This might be an odd thing to say considering how much Dallas overachieved last year (I was pro-Dak over Tony Romo but didn’t think they’d win 13 games with him) but the fact remains: Green Bay was able to march down the field in 30 seconds to kick the game-deciding field goal and knock the Cowboys out of the post-season. At the very least, a talented team takes that game to overtime.
Another reason to be down on Dallas is that quite a few of their players are either suspended for a few games (Ezekial Elliot, David Irving, Randy Gregory) or injury-prone (Dez Bryant). While Dak Prescott is talented, defensive coordinators now have a whole year of game film on him to study. If anyone’s a candidate for a sophomore slump, it’s Dak. Also, the Cowboys had fits against the Giants last year and with the Eagles on the rise, Dallas won’t have an easy walk to the division crown.
– Atlanta Falcons: Since the lockout, there have been three times a team that was in the Super Bowl has failed to make the playoffs. Last year was crazy enough to have both teams miss it! If we’re picking a team from the Super Bowl to miss the playoffs this year, the Falcons are a better choice than the Patriots.
It’s incredibly hard for a team that lost the biggest game of the year to muster up the strength to make another run, especially when that team blew a 28-3 lead. Out of the following teams (87 Broncos, 88 Bengals, 89 Broncos, 93 Bills, 98 Falcons, 00 Giants, 01 Rams, 02 Raiders, 03 Panthers, 04 Eagles, 07 Patriots, 16 Panthers) that made the Super Bowl but missed the playoffs the next year, the Falcons share similarities with 4 of them: The 87 Broncos lost a 10-0 lead to the Redskins, the 88 Bengals lost to Joe Montana’s game-winning drive, the 04 Eagles couldn’t manage the game clock (as well as Donovan McNabb throwing up on the sidelines, depending on who you ask) and the 07 Patriots lost to David Tyree’s ridiculous catch. Like the Falcons, all of them blew leads or lost in a soul-crushing fashion. Unsurprisingly, they all missed the playoffs the next year.
Also, Matt Ryan has talent but is overrated. He doesn’t strike fear into defenses like Drew Brees, Tom Brady or even Cam Newton would. A lot of his success last year can be attributed to Kyle Shanahan, who has gone to coach the 49ers. His replacement is Steve Sarkisian, who was last seen at USC (where he was fired for drinking on the job) and being Alabama’s offensive coordinator in the title game against Clemson (which they lost).
The Falcons certainly have the personnel to make another post-season run but it seems more likely they are dethroned in the competitive NFC South. Since the division’s inception in 2002, only twice times has a team repeated as division champion (Panthers from 2014-2015). If we include repeat post-season appearances, only 6 times has that happened (10 Saints, 11 Saints, 11 Falcons, 12 Falcons, 14 Panthers, 15 Panthers).
– New York Giants: The Giants have a good defense but their offense is lacking. They ranked 25th last year in total yardage and 26th in total points scored. Eli Manning may have done his job with 4,000+ yards and 26 touchdowns…but he also threw 16 interceptions (his most since 2013) and maintained a 6.7 yards per average attempt (his worst since 2008). Viewers watched Peyton Manning fall off in his last year with the Broncos, so the defense had to carry his dead weight to a title. The Giants will have to hope for the same thing.
Such a hope will be faint, for the Giants have a tough opening slate. Before their bye week, the Giants face the following teams: @ Cowboys, Lions, @ Eagles, @ Buccaneers, Chargers, @ Broncos, Seahawks. They get to beat up on the Rams and 49ers after that but the Giants could be in too deep of a hole by that point.
Some people might think Brandon Marshall would bolster the Giants’ chances of making the playoffs. Some people would be wrong. The Giants already have one headcase receiver so adding one who is also a locker room cancer despite never being on a team that’s made the post-season is mind-boggling. One of the reasons the Giants were able to win Super Bowls is because they were able to marginalize headaches like Tiki Barber or Jeremy Shockey. Why they’re casting that mindset away now makes no sense.
– Detroit Lions: There are two reasons to be down on the Lions this year: Jim Caldwell and the team’s terrible luck. Caldwell has taken the Lions to the playoffs twice in his three years there but he was also the coach when the Colts folded under Peyton Manning. This ties in with the team’s terrible luck, as the Lions were 9-4 before injuries to talented players (QB Matthew Stafford, center Travis Swanson, running back Theo Riddick) derailed them. The overall point is that Jim Caldwell can do just fine when his talent is healthy but does a poor job at coaching up new talent (which is kinda the point of coaching).
+ Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There’s a trend in the NFL of talented young quarterbacks who were drafted by a team picking in the top 5 taking their team to the post-season in their third year. Matthew Stafford (1st overall pick in 2009) helped the Lions in 2011, Cam Newton (1st overall pick in 2011) took the Panthers there in 2013 and Derek Carr (2nd round pick but the Raiders were drafting in the top 5 in 2014) accomplished this feat last year. While this trend only seems to kick in every few years, Jameis Winston has a good chance of helping the Buccaneers be the exception to the rule.
There’s other reasons to like the Buccaneers. DeSean Jackson’s speed will give defensive coordinators headaches, as it willopen up things for Doug Martin (and Winston, if need be). It’ll also take away attention from Mike Evans, who is a little underrated compared to other stud NFL receivers (Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, A.J. Green). Jackson’s not the only Redskins player the Buccaneers acquired in free agency. Chris Baker will be lining up beside Gerald McCoy, which gives Tampa the best 1-2 punch at defensive tackle in the league.
+ Arizona Cardinals: An argument could be made for the Cardinals to be an overrated team. Carson Palmer is another year older (38), their offensive line is pretty subpar and their defense lost some key personnel (Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson). Good thing their divisional opponents are fairly weak and they get to beat up on the AFC South!
The main reason Arizona is a contender is Bruce Arians. Arians did a helluva job filling in for Chuck Pagano in Andrew Luck’s rookie year before taking the Cardinals to double-digit winning seasons for three consecutive years. With that kind of track record, it’s reasonable to rule last year as a mulligan. Carson Palmer has also looked really good this pre-season (last year he looked old and decrepit), so the offense will have some potency.
+ Philadelphia Eagles: A lot of the attention last year focused on Dak Prescott and deservedly so. But there was another NFC East rookie quarterback who performed well and that was Carson Wentz. This is a team that destroyed the Steelers in week 3 last year. They were also 5-1 when Lane Johnson, their best offensive lineman, was in the lineup. In fact, his suspension can be attributed to why the Eagles finished 7-9 as they only won 2 games without him.
With the Cowboys and Giants forecasted to take a step back, the Eagles have the best chance to step up. Their only weakness on offense is at running back (which could be fixed with LeGarrette Blount’s signing). They have some key pieces on defense (Fletcher Cox, Jordan Hicks, Timmy Jernigan) and just like Jim Johnson, Jim Schwartz will get the most out of his personnel. Besides, it’s not like Philadelphia has a history of a rookie QB having a losing season his first year and taking the team to the post-season the following year…
+ Carolina Panthers: Like the Cardinals, the Panthers had been mainstays in the post-season before not making the cut last year. Like the Cardinals, they have a good chance of returning. Carolina’s problem last year was that they had relied on an injured Cam Newton to carry their offense (who has had no one aside from Greg Olson to work with) and their defense lost Josh Norman.
Well, both of those issues had been fixed. Numerous pieces have been added to give Newton support. As for the defense, it’s unreasonable to guess they’ll return to the level of performance they had with Josh Norman locking down one side of a field. However, Ron Rivera is a good defensive coach and a year should be sufficient to coach up some new talent.
Also, the Panthers were in the Super Bowl just two years ago. If we revisit that list of teams that were in the Super Bowl but missed the playoffs the year after (87 Broncos, 88 Bengals, 89 Broncos, 93 Bills, 98 Falcons, 00 Giants, 01 Rams, 02 Raiders, 03 Panthers, 04 Eagles, 07 Patriots), all but two of those teams rebounded. To elaborate, the 1987 Broncos missed out on the playoffs in 1988 but rebounded to make the Super Bowl in 1989. The 1988 Bengals returned to the post-season in 1990, as did the 1989 Broncos in 1991 and so on and so forth. Carolina strikes me as a team that will rebound. For the curious, only the Falcons (who bottomed out and eventually landed Michael Vick) and the Raiders (who went through a decade plus of futility) are the exceptions to this rule.
Honorable Mentions: The Saints would be an option if Dennis Allen wasn’t their defensive coordinator (the Saints have been ranked dead last and next to dead last in allowing points the past two years). The Vikings have potential but Sam Bradford’s inability to throw deep will cost that team. The Redskins also have a brutal schedule and have too much dysfunction (drunk GM, Kirk Cousins contract drama, Cousins losing two of his top receivers via free agency and not being on the same page as Terrelle Pryor) surrounding them.
The NFC playoff teams: Packers, Eagles, Panthers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Cardinals