The NFL features far more parity than any other professional sports league. There will be roughly five new playoffs teams in the NFL, all with a shot at the Lombardi Trophy, whereas the NBA features maybe five teams total who can win the championship.
Last year was a perfect example, too. After seeing an average of five new teams in the postseason over the past three years, a whopping eight new teams jumped up and made the playoffs last season. The Bills, Jaguars, Titans, Eagles, Vikings, Saints, Panthers and Rams were all on the outside looking in after the 2016 season, but all had fairly viable championship hopes just a year later. Three of those four teams made conference championship games and Philly took home the title.
Assuming anyone will make or miss the playoffs is a fool’s errand — last year I nailed four of my five predicted teams who would fall short, but I still only hit on half the teams! I went just 2-3 on teams who would jump up and make the playoffs, which is not terrible until you realize a quarter of the NFL went from being out of the postseason to being in and I got only a quarter of that group. So, yes, an eighth for you math majors.
Somehow, despite all that turnover, this year feels even more difficult than last season to predict teams who will fall short of the playoffs. At least one squad looks kind of obvious, but it’s hard to nitpick with some of the teams from last year’s field. Let’s try anyway.
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- 2017 Record: 9-7
- 2017 Expected Wins: 6.4
- 2018 Vegas Win Total: 6.5
Overview: The Bills had no business being in the playoffs, a testament to an excellent job by Sean McDermott and his staff. Take away the inexplicable decision to plug Nathan Peterman in the starting lineup against the Chargers in the heat of a playoff race — with Tyrod Taylor playing just fine, no less — and he would have received more attention for COY. Buffalo leaned on a scrappy defense and an excellent season from LeSean McCoy to make a run in a watered-down AFC. The Bills got lucky with the Chargers losing their first four games and Andy Dalton stealing Baltimore’s soul on the final play of the Bengals regular season. The Bills had a pair of just confusing wins — against the Falcons in Atlanta, against Kansas City in Buffalo — and a wild overtime victory against the Colts in a blizzard. They then rebooted the quarterback position this offseason, adding the raw-but-talented Josh Allen in the draft and AJ McCarron in free agency. Those two guys and Peterman are going to start 16 games this year, barring a trade.
Why They Won’t Make the Playoffs: The quarterback position does not inspire immediate confidence. Allen could totally shock the world and play at a high level as a rookie, but there is not a precedent for someone completing 56 percent of his passes in college and becoming an efficient quarterback at the pro level. McCarron is a career backup and Peterman was a fifth-round pick. The skill positions are a major problem as well, outside of McCoy. Kelvin Benjamin is the Bills WR1 and Zay Jones is next in line. After that it gets really thin. Charles Clay is an underrated tight end weapon but not the focal point of an offense. Three of the first four games are on the road, with the Ravens, Chargers, Vikings and Packers serving as a brutal opening stretch for Buffalo. The Bills might be averaging under 10 points a game a quarter into the season.
Why They Might Make the Playoffs: The defense has a chance to be much better than anyone expects. The key offseason additions for Buffalo — Star Lotulelei, Tremaine Edmunds and Vontae Davis — should make this unit better at every single level. McDermott showed last year he is a very capable coach in terms of immediately turning a group of hodgepodge players into a quality unit. Despite being left a bunch of different players from different systems, the Bills were an above average defensive team in 2017. If the AFC is as weak as it was last year and Buffalo gets some seriously surprising play from one of its quarterbacks, this team could make another stunning run to the postseason. But they certainly look like the top regression candidate in 2018.
- 2017 Record: 13-3
- 2017 Expected Wins: 11.8
- 2018 Vegas Win Total: 10.5
Overview: HEY NOW, JUST A SECOND, PLEASE PUT THOSE BURNING PITCHFORKS DOWN. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles are listed here and it feels weird for me to do it, because they looked like the second coming of an NFL dynasty during their run to the title. They lost their franchise quarterback and still won the damn Super Bowl. That doesn’t happen often. And there’s nothing in this offseason, at least from a roster-movement perspective, that would indicate the Eagles won’t be good again in 2018. Carson Wentz is coming back, Nick Foles is there as insurance, Haloti Ngata was added to shore up the defensive line and Mike Wallace is a nice upgrade over Torrey Smith at receiver. LeGarrette Blount is a sneaky loss in the running back department, but Jay Ajayi should be able to step up and be a feature back. I love what Howie Roseman has done and think the Eagles could easily win the Super Bowl a second year in a row. I firmly believe they are the favorites to win the division again, but that’s what people said about the Cowboys before 2017 too.
Why They Won’t Make the Playoffs: One of the biggest reasons involves the team’s biggest strength: the quarterback position. Wentz is coming from an ACL injury and Foles is notoriously streaky. Wentz failing to recover, or dealing with a setback of some kind, doesn’t automatically mean Foles comes in and wins MVP. This is a team that lost its offensive coordinator (Frank Reich) and quarterbacks coach (John DeFillipo). There are a slew of other injuries to monitor as well. Jason Peters is returning from an ACL injury at the age of 36. Darren Sproles is coming back from a broken arm and a torn ACL. Jordan Hicks is coming back from an Achilles tear. Alshon Jeffery is returning from shoulder surgery after battling through to play the entire year. Timmy Jernigan is suddenly dealing with back issues, no easy issue for a big man who battles in the middle. Philadelphia was 13th in adjusted games lost last year, so it’s not like it dealt with tons of injury issues overall. And the NFC is going to be really tough this year. Every single division has at least one legitimate Super Bowl contender and most of them have two. Someone could win 10 games and miss the postseason in this conference.
Why They Might Make the Playoffs: Because Roseman’s built a really deep and talented roster, one clearly capable of overcoming attrition to win a lot of games and make a deep playoff run. The Foles thing has been a hot-take topic this offseason, but the reason the Eagles don’t want to trade him is a fear of Wentz not being healthy and the importance of the quarterback position. Doug Pederson is a good enough coach where the Eagles can keep right on cruising despite some injuries. He proved as much last year. It’s difficult to find an area of weakness for the Eagles and it’s fair to assume the secondary (don’t forget about Sidney Jones) and receivers (Mack Hollins, ahem) could continue to only get better. Wentz will be going into his third season — expectations will be huge and he has managed to meet them every step of the way. This is, by far, the weakest NFC division in my opinion. The Eagles could steamroll everyone again. We thought the Cowboys would do the same last year too.
- 2017 Record: 9-7
- 2017 Expected Wins: 7.4
- 2018 Vegas Win Total: 8
Overview: The Titans were one of the teams we identified last year who could take a step and make the playoffs, but sometimes the results don’t justify the process and that’s the case with Tennessee. This offense regressed and couldn’t run the ball as effectively, and the Titans were just flat lucky to make the playoffs. They profiled as a sub-.500 team. The offense was below average and the defense was worse. Hence the wholesale changes last year, pushing out Mike Mularkey even after he won a playoff game, and finding a coach in Mike Vrabel willing to try and develop Marcus Mariota. The addition of Matt LaFleur, who studied under Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, as offensive coordinator could pay big dividends. GM Jon Robinson went full New England in the offseason, signing Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis. The Titans have a really nice set of secondary now, with Butler, Logan Ryan, Adoree Jackson, Kevin Byard and Jonathan Cyprien.
Why They Won’t Make the Playoffs: First off, the AFC South is a really difficult division. The Jaguars look like a loaded team — even if the quarterback position is problem, they are not going to fall off a cliff on defense. The Texans should be getting Deshaun Watson back. Andrew Luck should be returning for the Colts. We’re assuming everything will run smoothly in a new offensive system, but that’s largely the McVay factor. Mariota might have hit his ceiling, and combining Derrick Henry and Lewis sounds great on paper, but it could certainly have some growing pains. The pass catchers on this offense — Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews, Delanie Walker, Taywan Taylor — also look OK on paper, but the Titans’ passing game doesn’t have to be explosive. Tennessee added Dean Peas as defensive coordinator and I see it as an upgrade, but the impressive secondary won’t be worth much without a pass rush up front. The Titans have a lot of pieces in that regard, but we’re not sure how the front seven fits with the addition of Rashaad Evans and Harold Landry from the draft. I’m a touch leery of Taylor Lewan holding out and how it might impact the offense.
Why They Might Make the Playoffs: To be clear, I am actually very high on the Titans this year. I like all of their offseason changes, I like Mariota a ton, I am completely all in on Henry and I think Davis has a breakout season. To me, their defense is a sleeper to be a top-10 or maybe even a top-five unit this year. I’m tempted to go on a half-cocked notion and pick the Titans to make the Super Bowl. I like them that much. But there are definitely underlying concerns when it comes to the possibility of them taking a step back this season, especially from a statistical standpoint. The point differential is a major red flag — the Titans finished with a -22 point differential on the season. They finished 5-4 in the regular season in one-score games and picked up another win against the Chiefs in the playoffs. If the offensive line clicks and LaFleur turns them into a poor man’s Rams, they’re going to be dangerous. I see that as the likely outcome, but the reality of their situation makes them a potential non-playoff team.
- 2017 Record: 10-6
- 2017 Expected Wins: 9.9
- 2018 Vegas Win Total: 8.5
Why They Won’t Make the Playoffs: The Chiefs added Sammy Watkins this offseason to a group of players that features Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Travis Kelce. It’s hard not to get excited about what this offense can do when it’s clicking. But the reality is Patrick Mahomes might struggle to acclimate to life as a starter. Making matters more difficult for that transition is the schedule: the Chiefs get the Chargers (road), Steelers (road), 49ers (home) and Broncos (road) to start off Mahomes’ career as a starter. Woof. The next four games aren’t much easier: Jaguars (home), Patriots (road), Bengals (home), Broncos (home). They’re not going to go 1-7 in that stretch, but 4-4 isn’t off the table. The division looks easier on paper, but the Chargers could be legit, the Raiders could surprise with Jon Gruden and the Broncos defense could be back to Super Bowl levels with the addition of Bradley Chubb and the health of Derek Wolfe. I’m a fan of what Kansas City did with the defense, at least in terms of getting faster up front — the linebacking corps looks like it could really shut down the run this season. But the secondary has major question marks and they’re going to be facing some tough passing offenses early. The Chiefs could win nine games with Mahomes, put up a couple 40 burgers and we might all be wondering how they missed the playoffs and picking them as a sleeper next year.
Why They Might Make the Playoffs: Andy Reid should not be counted out. He’s criminally underrated because he doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring, which makes people forget he has more first-place finishes with the Eagles and Chiefs than he has finishes below second place. That’s absurd over a 19-year span. And Reid has a history of developing quarterbacks too, including Alex Smith, which is exactly why he’s trustworthy on the Mahomes front. We did see the Eagles randomly drop off one season six years into his tenure in Philadelphia, though, so anything is possible. It just doesn’t seem likely given what he’s done on the offensive front — Hunt is a second-year back and should be in for another large season, Watkins/Hill/Kelce is a loaded offensive weaponry. But they’ve got a nasty-looking schedule and a quarterback they’re working into a new system, with a lot of new defensive personnel. It wouldn’t be stunning if this team went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. I won’t personally be betting on it, but I think they qualify here.
- 2017 Record: 11-5
- 2017 Expected Wins: 9
- 2018 Vegas Win Total: 9
Overview: The Carolina Panthers finalized their sale from Jerry Richardson to David Tepper this week, excellent news for a franchise in a bit of flux this offseason. Moving past the Richardson era and focusing on 2018 is key. But there is still a lot to handle on the field. It starts with the offense, which is completely in flux, thanks to the firing of Mike Shula and the hiring of Norv Turner. All told, it’s an upgrade. And it should pay off in the long haul for Cam Newton. But I’m concerned the learning curve for Cam with a fairly new offense — it sounds like Norv wants to utilize a similar offense to what Rod Chudzinski had in place when he was Cam’s first OC — and playing behind a bad offensive line overcoming the loss of Andrew Norwell could cause some issues out of the gate. Adding D.J. Moore is a benefit and Devin Funchess remains underrated. Greg Olsen is a stalwart at the tight end position. Defensively, picking up Dontari Poe is a very notable addition, and part of Marty Hurney’s strong offseason.
Why They Won’t Make the Playoffs: Part of the problem here is the division and the conference. This could easily be the Falcons or the Saints — and it might be two of them who miss the playoffs — because the NFC South is loaded. The NFC in general is loaded. Carolina doesn’t have a horrible schedule — they get the Cowboys, Falcons and Bengals out of the gate — but a Week 4 bye is brutal. They also close with three games against the Saints and Falcons. Thomas Davis is going to miss the first four games of the season with a suspension. Ryan Kalil and Olsen are critical pieces of the offense but have to stay healthy and that’s been an issue for them. Will the running game be effective again this year? C.J. Anderson was a great signing, but it also indicates Christian McCaffrey probably can’t be a heavy between-the-tackles runner. When the running game wasn’t there last year, the Panthers struggled on offense. Luke Kuechly hasn’t been on the field 100 percent of the time lately because of concussions and he’s a Jenga Piece (copyright Dameshek) for this defense. The secondary is a major concern if Julius Peppers, Mario Addison, West Horton and Daeshon Hall can’t get home. Vernon Butler has to help fill the void on the interior with Poe and Kawaan Short. There’s just a lot of things that need to break right for the Panthers to repeat last year’s success.
Why They Might Make the Playoffs: But, honestly, anything is on the table for this team. We’ve seen Cam take the Panthers to the Super Bowl with Olsen and Ted Ginn as his top weapons, winning MVP en route. He has a ceiling like no one else in football, and remember Cam got hurt the next season and was recovering last year. A full season from Kuechly and an impact year from James Bradberry plus rookie Donte Jackson stepping up immediately along with another dominant Peppers year would make this a top-tier defense again. I think Anderson is undervalued and McCaffrey might be a perfect fit for his role in Norv’s offense. Ron Rivera doesn’t get enough credit for the amount of wins he has as a head coach. Everyone on this squad is playing for their jobs — David Tepper could completely clean house after this season if the Panthers struggle. It’s possible that inspires everyone to another successful year.
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