The Athletic: Which of last year’s non-playoff NFL teams have the best chance to get back in?

Iamtdg

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By Sheil Kapadia Aug 17, 2020

Over the last five seasons, an average of six new teams — meaning teams that didn’t make it the previous year — have made the playoffs. Last year, there were five new playoff participants: the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans.

This season offers even greater hope for teams and fan bases since the NFL has added a seventh playoff team in each conference. Going forward, 14 of 32 teams (43.8 percent) will make the postseason.

Which of the 20 teams that missed out last year are best positioned to make it this season? Below are rankings from most likely to least likely, including what each team’s specific playoff path could look like.

1. Dallas Cowboys
Playoff path: They get some better luck after going 1-6 in one-possession games last year. Dak Prescott sprays the ball all over the field to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb, and Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has an IT guy disconnect Mike McCarthy’s headset during games so he can’t meddle in the play calling. Instead, McCarthy’s sole job is to give a thumbs-up every time the Cowboys are faced with a decision about whether to go for it on fourth down. The defense is up and down, but Demarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen combine for 24 sacks. After the Cowboys clinch the division, Jerry Jones pours himself a couple glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue, calls an impromptu press conference and announces the Cowboys will sign Prescott to a long-term extension after the season. Prescott responds with an Instagram selfie of him soaking in a bathtub full of $100 bills, and the contract saga drags deep into the offseason once again.

2. Indianapolis Colts
Playoff path: Philip Rivers thrives playing behind an offensive line that returns all five starters and was one of the best pass-blocking units in the NFL last season. He and Frank Reich form the league’s most popular old-guy duo. When they’re not carving up opposing defenses, they’re discussing recent Home Depot purchases and marveling at the benefits of a Roth IRA. DeForest Buckner wins Defensive Player of the Year, the Colts fix their kicking game, and they capitalize on facing the league’s easiest schedule.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Playoff path: After a season in which they turned the ball over 41 times — the most of any team in the past six seasons — the Tom Brady-led offense produces the fewest giveaways in the league. Brady is rejuvenated by the more relaxed atmosphere in Tampa and is reminded of what it’s like to play with great receivers as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin combine for 2,600 yards. Shaq Barrett headlines a defense that returns a league-high 84 percent of its snaps from a season ago and features one of the NFL’s best front sevens. Bruce Arians convinces Brady to release an alcohol-infused TB12 beverage that increases flexibility but also offers a buzz, and the Bucs make the postseason for the first time since 2007.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Playoff path: Fueled by a Jay Glazer mailbag on The Athletic, Ben Roethlisberger shows up shirtless to his Week 1 press conference, refuses to answer questions and just flexes on and off for an uncomfortable 90 seconds before eventually signing off Zoom. It’s the start of a special season in which Roethlisberger stays healthy, JuJu Smith-Schuster goes off for 1,400 yards and Diontae Johnson and James Washington prove to be more than capable complementary pieces. A defense that returns 83.8 percent of its snaps, the second-most in the league, from a year ago takes over as the NFL’s best with T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick splitting Defensive Player of the Year votes. Mike Tomlin avoids a losing record for the 14th straight season and the Steelers return to the playoffs.

5. Cleveland Browns
Playoff path: Baker Mayfield looks like a natural fit in Kevin Stefanski’s two-tight end, play-action offense. He and Odell Beckham Jr. find the chemistry that was missing a year ago, and the offensive line turns into one of the best in the NFL as Nick Chubb leads the league in rushing. Myles Garrett puts the defense on his back en route to a 17-sack season, and Cleveland feasts on the league’s third-easiest schedule, making the postseason for the first time since 2002.

6. Chicago Bears
Playoff path: Matched with a coaching staff that has intimate knowledge of his strengths and weaknesses, Nick Foles wins the starting quarterback job and plays well, but he is injured in November. With Mitch Trubisky back in the fold, the Bears lean on their defense, and a ferocious pass rush featuring Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks keeps Chicago afloat. Foles returns for the final three games, catches fire, looks like his 2017 self and leads the Bears back to the postseason.

7. Las Vegas Raiders
Playoff path: Rookie Henry Ruggs III provides much-needed speed to the offense and Derek Carr benefits from playing behind one of the league’s best lines, producing the best season of his career. Tight end Darren Waller makes the Pro Bowl and Josh Jacobs leads the league in rushing yards. Defensively, the influx of talent (Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Maliek Collins) pays off, and second-year players Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby take big steps forward. Gruden and the Raiders cap off their first season in Las Vegas with a wild-card berth.

8. Arizona Cardinals
Playoff path: Kyler Murray takes a Lamar Jackson-like leap, and his downfield accuracy, combined with an efficient run game, produce a top-five offense. DeAndre Hopkins wears a T-shirt with Bill O’Brien’s face on it underneath his jersey as a reminder that someone actually thought it was a good idea to trade him in a deal that brought on David Johnson’s contract. Isaiah Simmons proves to be as valuable in reality as he is in theory, and Kliff Kingsbury gets the Cardinals to the playoffs in his second season.

9. Los Angeles Rams
Playoff path: The offensive line gets healthy and reverts to 2018 form as running back Cam Akers leads all rookies with an 1,100-yard campaign. Sean McVay adds new wrinkles to the offense and Jared Goff cuts down on his turnovers. Defensively, Jalen Ramsey produces the best season we’ve seen from a cornerback in the last decade and Aaron Donald does Aaron Donald things. New defensive coordinator Brandon Staley proves to be a brilliant find, and after a down 2019, the Rams surprise and win the NFC West.

10. Atlanta Falcons
Playoff path: The Falcons’ young offensive linemen stay healthy and improve, Todd Gurley plays with a chip on his shoulder and Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley carve defenses up. Together, they produce one of the most efficient offenses in the league, and Arthur Blank is rewarded for his patience with Dan Quinn. Defensively, Raheem Morris picks up where he left off in the second half of last season. Corner A.J. Terrell looks the part as a rookie, and Dante Fowler proves to be an excellent complement to Grady Jarrett. Despite dealing with the league’s toughest projected schedule, the Falcons emerge as a surprise team in the NFC.


What will it take for Julio Jones and the Falcons to return to the playoffs? (Brett Davis / USA Today)
11. Denver Broncos
Playoff path: Drew Lock rewards the organization’s faith in him, and Broncos fans shame any and all media members (present company included) who suggested that they should have done more to address its backup quarterback situation. Jerry Jeudy vies for Offensive Rookie of the Year and Courtland Sutton thrives in the new downfield passing attack, finally garnering the recognition he deserves as one of the best young wide receivers in the game. Defensively, Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and Jurrell Casey produce an unblockable pass rush and Vic Fangio does a brilliant job of scheming up coverages as Denver earns a wild-card spot.

12. Los Angeles Chargers
Playoff path: A season after they ranked 30th in injury luck and 32nd in fumble luck and were 2-9 in one-possession games, the Chargers benefit from a few more bounces going their way. Stealing pages from the Baltimore Ravens’ playbook, they unleash Tyrod Taylor as a dual-threat monster in an offense that couldn’t look any more different from last year. Austin Ekeler totals 1,800 yards from scrimmage and their offensive line upgrades (Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner) pay off. Gus Bradley moves away from his heavy Cover-3 scheme and becomes this year’s version of 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, enthusiastically chest-bumping and head-butting players coming to the sideline after every third-down stop and takeaway. He floods the field with defensive backs, and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram tee off on opposing quarterbacks as the Chargers produce a winning record and take second place in the AFC West.

13. Detroit Lions
Playoff path: Matt Patricia tries to improve his relationship with players by organizing group yoga sessions on Zoom every Friday afternoon. Matthew Stafford picks up where he left off before getting injured last season, and the Lions play to their strength, opening up the offense with a downfield passing attack. Jeff Okudah wins Defensive Rookie of the Year and looks like the NFL’s next great cornerback, and the Lions get luckier than they did a year ago when they finished 3-8 in one-possession games.

14. Cincinnati Bengals
Playoff path: Joe Burrow takes the league by storm and A.J. Green looks healthy and rejuvenated. Zac Taylor schemes up ways to mask the Bengals’ offensive line shortcomings and Joe Mixon has a monster year. The secondary improves and finds a level of mediocrity that was not achievable in 2019 and the Bengals benefit from much better luck than last season when they went 0-8 in one-possession games.

15. New York Giants
Playoff path: Dave Gettleman gets revenge on the nerds as Daniel Jones develops into one of the league’s best young quarterbacks, and Saquon Barkley becomes the second player in NFL history to produce 2,500 yards from scrimmage. Gettleman celebrates by trading future draft capital for more run-stuffing nose tackles. James Bradberry plays well at corner and rookie safety Xavier McKinney looks like a great find in the second round. The Giants win nine games and earn a wild-card berth.

16. Carolina Panthers
Playoff path: New offensive coordinator Joe Brady finds a way to scheme around a bad offensive line, Teddy Bridgewater gets rid of the ball quickly and the Panthers rely on an excellent group of playmakers, headlined by Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore. Head coach Matt Rhule implements a new culture, Brian Burns produces double-digit sacks and the Panthers clinch the seventh seed in the NFC during the last week of the regular season.

17. Miami Dolphins
Playoff path: Brian Flores establishes himself as one of the league’s most innovative young coaches, pulling out all the stops every week with unique game plans, trick plays and aggressive fourth-down decisions. The Dolphins go with a two-headed quarterback monster, shuffling Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa in and out of games, and flummoxing opposing defensive coordinators. Byron Jones and Xavien Howard produce the league’s top cornerback duo, and the Dolphins sneak in as the seventh seed in the AFC.

18. Washington Football Team
Playoff path: News breaks in late August that as part of Ron Rivera’s contract, Daniel Snyder has to spend the entire season on his yacht and is prohibited from contacting any member of the Washington Football Team. With full control, Rivera does his best to create a new culture. Chase Young is as good as advertised and Washington’s defensive line makes the leap we saw from the 49ers last season. Offensively, Terry McLaurin leads the league in receiving yards and Dwayne Haskins takes a big step forward in his second season.

19. New York Jets
Playoff path: Sam Darnold goes rogue, ignoring Adam Gase’s play calls in the huddle and instead going with his own. He knows that if he’s successful, Gase won’t be able to say anything. And his plan works. Playing behind an offensive line that reaches a level of competency that was absent last season, Darnold makes plays inside and outside the pocket. Gregg Williams finds a way to get the most out of a talent-deprived defense and Quinnen Williams makes the second-year leap. The Jets fire Gase after the season and GM Joe Douglas bring in his own guy. Darnold returns as starting quarterback and offensive coordinator in 2021.

20. Jacksonville Jaguars
Playoff path: In an effort to discourage tanking, Roger Goodell comes up with a new rule that calls for every owner to vote on the worst team in the league. The rule stipulates that whichever team gets the most votes will start every game with a 7-0 lead. The Jaguars are the winner. But soon, Goodell’s rule backfires. The Jay Gruden/Gardner Minshew partnership works out well and D.J. Chark finishes the season with 1,200 yards. Yannick Ngakoue has a change of heart and plays under the franchise tag, combining with Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson to form a talented group of pass rushers. The Jaguars stun the world by sneaking into the postseason and Goodell removes the rule after just one season.
 

Rev

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I don't think so, it seems to be implying that to get to the playoffs the Cowboys need to keep McCarthy away from playcalling.
I think it could be taken either way. Stating a problem that was going on (HC meddling in the playcalling) the previous year as a fix to make the playoffs. I dont know much about McCarthy's time in GB other than the obvious. Was this a known problem there?

Anyways its definitely not clear.
 

Smitty

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I think it could be taken either way. Stating a problem that was going on (HC meddling in the playcalling) the previous year as a fix to make the playoffs. I dont know much about McCarthy's time in GB other than the obvious. Was this a known problem there?
Well.... actually I think yes. There were some criticisms of McCarthy with playcalling towards the end of his tenure.

But then again that is just the proof that when you don't win like people expect, they'll levy criticisms at you that may or may not be fair. Because there is no basis for taking away playcalling duties from McCarthy if he doesn't want to give it up.
 

ravidubey

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I don't think so, it seems to be implying that to get to the playoffs the Cowboys need to keep McCarthy away from playcalling.
You are correct.

I wasn't much of a fan of McCarthy's playcalling, especially at key points in the playoffs.
 

ravidubey

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He's admitted that he made poor decisions and that's why he went all in with analytics.

Maybe it will pay off in Dallas.
I'm definitely a fan of how he reinvented himself post Green Bay.

Empty backfields vs Seattle in the playoffs? Not so much.
 
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