One of the beautiful things about the National Football League is the relatively short amount of time a team can go from laughably irrelevant to worthy of a spot in the playoffs.
We’re just a year removed from the Los Angeles Rams going 4-12 with a rookie quarterback many were ready to label a bust, to witnessing them claim the NFC West with an 11-5 record – with that same quarterback leading the way.
Last season welcomed eight new teams to the playoffs from the year before as the Titans, Rams, Jaguars, Bills, Saints, Panthers, Eagles and Vikings joined the party. Not only did these newcomers exceed expectations, but three of the four teams in the conference championship games didn’t make the playoffs the year before including the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Injuries, roster turnover and simply underperforming also contribute to this parity in the playoffs as the Raiders, Texans, Lions, Seahawks, Dolphins, Giants, Packers and Cowboys were the eight teams that were replaced in the 2017 playoffs. Oddly enough, three of these teams took such a giant step back that they ended up drafting in the top 11 of the recently completed NFL Draft.
So which teams are set to make the jump in 2018 in hopes of being last year’s Philadelphia Eagles? Here are the top-five teams most likely to break into the NFL Playoffs after missing out last season.
5. Cleveland Browns
The words “Cleveland” and “Browns” were typed and deleted about 16 times before I finally felt at peace with including them on this list.
It seems fairly far-fetched considering the fact the Browns have won one single game over the course of the last two seasons, but take a look at the moves they’ve made this offseason.
Tyrod Taylor was brought in to start at quarterback despite the recent selection of Baker Mayfield as the top pick in NFL Draft. Let’s not forget Taylor just led to the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since the internet was invented, and it’s not like the 2017 Buffalo Bills were littered with talent on the offensive side of the ball.
Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson and recently drafted Nick Chubb form a solid trio in a backfield that finished in the middle of the pack (18th) with 107 rushing yards per game in 2017.
Reception-machine, Jarvis Landry, was brought in to man the slot receiver position and should help the success rate of Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman and David Njoku as they spread the field while Landry works the short-to-intermediate routes that he excelled with in Miami.
On the defensive side of the ball, Cleveland helped shore up its secondary with the addition of Damarious Randall and selecting Denzel Ward with the No. 4 pick in the draft. An improved secondary, combined with a pass rush that is likely to take a big step forward with both Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah having more in-game experience, should find itself in more opportune situations – especially with a more competitive offense helping control the ball and keeping the game in check.
4. Houston Texans
There wasn’t a more exciting offense to watch in 2017 than the Houston Texans before Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Through six and a half games, Watson accounted for 1,968 yards and 22 total touchdowns. For comparison sake, Drew Brees accounted for 25 total touchdowns, Blake Bortles 23 touchdowns and Matt Ryan 20 touchdowns, and they each played all 16 regular-season games.
If Watson is able to return to 100 percent by week one, Houston’s offense should pick up right where it left off as the franchise-changing quarterback pairs back up with one of the most complete receivers in the league, DeAndre Hopkins.
Despite limited time with Watson, Hopkins still managed to haul in 96 receptions for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns with the likes of Tom Savage and T.J. Yates throwing him the ball.
The Texans also return their defensive leader in J.J. Watt. One of the game’s most dominate defenders when healthy, Watt is desperately needed to return in a big way as the Texans finished dead last in the NFL last season allowing 27.3 points per game.
If Watson can stay healthy and lead the young Texans’ offense while the defense gets a much-needed boost from the return of Watt, look for Houston to give the Jaguars a run for the AFC South.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers haven’t been this excited about a quarterback since the days of Joe Montana and Steve Young. While I’m on the side with those who believe paying Jimmy Garoppolo $27.5 million per year is a bit outrageous, you can’t blame the 49ers’ front office for locking up the player they see as the face of the franchise, especially when that player plays the position of quarterback.
Garoppolo is in a great position to succeed as he’s paired with head coach and offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, who’s responsible for engineering some very successful offenses including the 2016 Atlanta Falcons that finished second in the league in yards per game and first with 33.8 points per game.
Complimenting Garoppolo on the offensive side of the ball is wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who was a solid contributor with Garoppolo towards the end of 2017, and the return of Pierre Garcon who missed a large portion of last season due to a neck injury.
The 49ers also brought in a unique playmaker to compete at running back as the signing of Jerick McKinnon should help ease the pain of losing Hyde. Look for McKinnon to play a hybrid role of how Shanahan used Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta in 2016 when they combined for 24 total touchdowns.
The 49ers have a tough task at hand if they plan on knocking off last year’s NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams – since they decided they weren’t playing games this offseason with the additions of Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib, and Sam Shields – but the chance of securing a wild-card position in the playoffs is definitely not out of reach for this up-and-coming franchise.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
After just missing out on the playoffs last year, look for the Chargers to make a run in 2018 as we witness the tail end of Philip Rivers’ Hall of Fame-worthy career.
The offense is already playoff ready with the likes of Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry leading the way while they hope last year’s first-round selection, Mike Williams, takes a giant step forward with a healthy 2018 offseason.
Los Angeles finished tied for fifth in the NFL with 43 sacks as Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram led the way with 12.5 and 10.5, respectively. The Chargers also finished tied for sixth in the league with 18 interceptions and just added another playmaker in the secondary with the selection of Derwin James with the 17th pick in the first round of the draft.
Another reason to keep an eye on the Chargers in 2018 is due to the fact that the defending AFC West champion, Kansas City Chiefs, are turning the keys to the franchise over to second-year quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes may be just what the Chiefs need to take the offense to the next level, but it’s quite possible that it will take a year or two for Mahomes to adjust to the speed and overall competition in the NFL, resulting in a step back this upcoming season.
1. Green Bay Packers
The clear-cut No. 1 team to make the playoffs in 2018 who failed to make it last season is the Green Bay Packers.
If it wasn’t for the controversial Anthony Barr play in week six of last season, it’s a safe bet that the Packers would have once again found themselves in the playoffs.
The team was 4-1 going into that game against the Vikings and proceeded to lose four of their next seven games before Aaron Rodgers returned in a must-win game against Carolina. The Packers obviously lost this game, but they would have needed to win out against the Panthers, Vikings and Lions to close out the season if they were to have any chance of making the playoffs. There’s no way they would have been in this situation if Rodgers wouldn’t have missed time, so you can hardly put the loss against Carolina on No. 12’s back.
Some will say Green Bay may face challenges on offense in 2018 given the players they have at wide receiver following the departure of Jordy Nelson, but Rodgers is the generational talent that makes players around him exceed expectations, so you won’t find me doubting the Packers’ offense in 2018 with Rodgers under center.
The question marks for Green Bay come on the defensive side of the ball. While the recent selection of cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson were the right moves, it may take a couple of years before the Packers see the return on their investment.
With that said, Green Bay has enough firepower on the offensive side of the ball to the point that it doesn’t need to be stellar on defense and hold teams to under 20 points per game. While it would be nice to rely more on the defense so that Rodgers doesn’t have to carry the team each week, that’s just not how this team is currently built.
They may not have enough talent on both sides of the ball to be serious Super Bowl contenders in 2018, but you can take a Green Bay Packers making the 2018 NFL Playoffs bet to the bank.
Check out the latest episode of the Loaded Box Podcast as the guys recap the 2018 NFL Draft.