NFL Teams Ready to Step into Playoff Contention
One of the biggest draws of the NFL is the fact that it presents an ever-changing landscape. Each new year can see a powerhouse crumble while previous basement dwellers rise from the depths and into playoff contention.
This coming season will likely bring more of the same.
While trying to predict the fall of the mighty can sometimes be fun (especially for fans of opposing teams), today we are going to focus on those teams poised to leap from obscurity and into contention.
It is important to note that this is not a prediction of teams that will make the 2014 postseason, but a look at teams that are ready to realistically compete for a playoff spot after years of futility.
To qualify for our list, teams cannot have reached the postseason in the past three years (following the 2011-12 season). Potential contenders will be identified based on offseason roster and coaching moves, strength of schedule and player health and availability.
Honorable Mention: Oakland Raiders
2013 Record: 4-12
2014 Strength of Schedule: .578
I really like some of the moves the Oakland Raiders made during the offseason, including the addition of veteran quarterback Matt Schaub.
The Raiders also had what I believe to be a fairly strong draft, so I do see Oakland fielding a much-improved team in 2014.
First-round pick Khalil Mack should make an immediate impact on defense and second-rounder Derek Carr may bring a spark to the offense if he can somehow win the starting job. According to Vic Tafur of the the San Francisco Chronicle, there is a real possibility of Carr doing exactly that.
However, the simple fact that the Raiders face the toughest schedule of any team in the NFL makes it hard to truly include them on our list. In addition to playing six AFC West games against 2013 playoff teams (the Raiders were the only team in the division to miss the postseason), the Raiders also have to battle the tough NFC West.
Ultimately, I see this as a transition year for Oakland with brighter seasons to come, but it is important to remember that the San Diego Chargers slipped into the postseason with a 9-7 record a year ago. Strange things can happen in this division and it is hard to completely rule the Raiders out as a surprise team.
2013 Record: 4-12
2014 Strength of Schedule: .453
While the Jacksonville Jaguars do face a relatively forgiving schedule, I believe the team spent the offseason building for the future more than a 2014 run.
However, I do believe the Jaguars have an outside chance of ending their playoff woes if some of the rookies manage to make a quick transition to the pro game.
The Jaguars have already made it clear that the plan is to sit rookie quarterback Blake Bortles for a season and allow him to learn under journeyman Chad Henne. However, that doesn't mean rookie wideouts Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson can't be immediate contributors.
Rookie running back Storm Johnson can also have an impact alongside free-agent acquisition Toby Gerhart.
The real trick in Jacksonville may rest with head coach Gus Bradley's ability to create an exciting and winning culture in the locker room. So far, it appears he is on his way to doing exactly that.
"You hear a lot on the outside," Lee recently said, via Ken Hornack of FoxSports.com. "But coming here, this is great."
Jacksonville probably has a better chance of ending its postseason drought in 2015 than this season, but a Wild Card spot isn't completely out of the question. Facing the league's fourth-easiest schedule should give the Jaguars plenty of winnable games, and strange things seem to happen every year in the NFL.
2013 Record: 4-12
2014 Strength of Schedule: .465
With new general manager Ray Farmer and new head coach Mike Pettine building the team, the Cleveland Browns aggressively approached the offseason and are set up to be a contender if the right pieces fall into place.
On paper, the Browns defense should be even better than the ninth-ranked unit (332.4 yards per game allowed) the team fielded last season. Free-agent additions like Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby should help bring leadership, while young players like rookie first-round selection Justin Gilbert should add talent.
Of course, Cleveland will still have to find a way to play efficiently on offense, especially with star receiver Josh Gordon facing a potential year-long ban. Gordon's recent DWI arrest could end any hope of him winning his appeal, which is scheduled for late July, according to ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio.
Adding free-agent running back Ben Tate and rookie runner Terrance West should help bring balance to the unit, but Cleveland's fate likely hinges on the team's ability to get solid quarterback play.
Fortunately, the Browns shouldn't be forced to start rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel before he is ready due to the presence of journeyman Brian Hoyer.
The AFC North sent just one team (the Cincinnati Bengals) to the playoffs a year ago. If the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens again stumble, I believe the Browns will have a decent chance of slipping into the playoffs, especially with the league's seventh-easiest schedule.
St. Louis Rams
2013 Record: 7-9
2014 Strength of Schedule: .564
The St. Louis Rams face the league's third-toughest schedule and reside in arguably the NFL's toughest division.
However, I still believe the Rams have a fighting chance of pushing for a playoff spot in 2014. The team fell just a couple games short in 2013, despite missing starting quarterback Sam Bradford for nine games.
The tricky part will be for St. Louis to find greater success within the NFC West (the Rams were 6-4 outside the division last season). Having Bradford at 100 percent for the season should be a major boon, as should the Rams' impressive draft class.
St. Louis nabbed a potentially elite offensive lineman in Auburn's Greg Robinson. The team also added a starting-caliber defensive tackle and cornerback in Aaron Donald and Lamarcus Joyner, respectively. Rookie running back Tre Mason should he a valuable complement to second-year runner Zac Stacy as well.
Considering the Rams won seven games in each of the past two seasons, they aren't really new contenders. However, the team has yet to take that next step and really push the more successful teams in the conference. This could be the year it finally happens.
St. Louis already fielded an impressive scoring defense last season (ranked 13th, allowing 22.8 points per game). If the Rams can make some offensive improvements and post even a slightly better divisional record, I see little reason why the team cannot be battling for a playoff spot late in the regular season.
2013 Record: 6-10
2014 Strength of Schedule: .500
The Buffalo Bills are in the midst of the league's longest active playoff drought, but that could well come to an end this season.
If second-year quarterback EJ Manuel can take a few positive steps this season (and remain healthy), I believe the Bills will have a good chance to compete for a playoff berth.
While the New England Patriots still have the inside track to the division title, the rest of the AFC East, and the AFC in general, has been somewhat inconsistent. A three-win improvement could be good enough for Buffalo to earn a Wild Card spot, especially if an AFC team like the Kansas City Chiefs takes a step back this season.
Manuel's development should be made easier by the addition of first-round draft pick Sammy Watkins, who has the potential to be the best receiver in the division right out of the gate.
The real question is whether Buffalo's defense can maintain its high level of play after the loss of coordinator Mike Pettine. Buffalo's defense ranked 10th overall (333.4 yards per game allowed) and second in interceptions (23), but Pettine defected during the offseason to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
2013 Record: 10-6
2013 Strength of Schedule: .547
After making the jump from 5-11 to 10-6 last year, you could say that the Arizona Cardinals made the leap into contention this past season. However, there is a lot to be said for remaining contenders, and a second consecutive winning season would really help to raise the expectation level in Arizona.
Last year's team was nearly good enough to sneak into the postseason. Veteran quarterback Carson Palmer and his array of receiving weapons helped the Cardinals field the league's 12th-best offense (346.4 yards per game).
Meanwhile, Arizona's sixth-ranked defense (317.4 yards per game allowed) helped to ensure the team was consistently within distance of a victory.
The Cardinals looked to free agency to help upgrade the offensive line, which was one of the few real weaknesses in 2013, and came away with left tackle Jared Veldheer as the big prize.
The drafting of former Washington State safety Deone Bucannon should help add punch to the back end of the Arizona defense. Rookie tight end Troy Niklas and rookie wideout John Brown join veterans Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to form a dangerous receiving corps.
The goal for Arizona now should be to try to win an additional game or two in order to rise out of the brutal NFC West as contenders for the division title.
2013 Record: 7-9
2014 Strength of Schedule: .438
Believe it or not, the Tennessee Titans were actually fairly close to earning a postseason berth last year. Had starting quarterback Jake Locker not missed nine games due to injury (he was 4-3 as a starter last season), the Titans' playoff drought may have already ended.
The return of a presumably healthy Locker should give Tennessee a fairly good chance of making a playoff run in 2014. With the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans each trying to rebuild after disappointing 2013 campaigns, the Titans might even be able to challenge the Indianapolis Colts for an AFC South title.
Having the league's second-easiest schedule certainly won't hurt Tennessee's cause.
The Titans didn't make a ton of significant offseason moves, but did retool the offensive line. Free-agent addition Michael Oher and first-round pick Taylor Lewan should each make an impact in the pass-protection department, which is good news for Locker (or rookie Zach Mettenberger, should Locker stumble).
The level of success the Titans manage to find this season may hinge on quarterback performance and Tennessee's ability to take pressure off their quarterback via the run game.
New head coach Ken Whisenhunt has a history of helping quarterbacks succeed, which is a promising sign for the first challenge. With Chris Johnson now a New York Jet, the latter task falls to second-round draft pick Bishop Sankey.