2019 NFL Predictions: Steelers, Broncos, Bills (not Browns or Packers) lead list of teams to make leap back into playoffs

Man, optimism is so much easier. After writing about five teams who would miss the playoffs and, frankly, struggling to find five good candidates to fall back, it's onto the teams who will make a leap.

What's crazy is I'm not even taking the two obvious layups in Cleveland and Green Bay. The Browns and Packers could definitely make it back to the postseason and no one would be surprised, but I'm passing on the low-hanging fruit. I'll save that for someone else. I'm also barely passing on the Falcons, but only because I feel bad for cursing them last year. 

Last year, I went three of five for teams that would miss the playoffs, and I would give myself partial credit for the Eagles simply because things basically went as I predicted and then Nick Foles magic happened late. In 2017, I managed to successfully hit on four of five teams who would take a step back. You can read 2018's version of step back teams here

I've been less successful at predicted who would leap up and make the postseason, going two for five in 2018 and two for five in 2017 as well. Let's try and fix that below. Speaking of below, you can also listen to the Pick Six Podcast where we break the teams down below and by subscribing to the only daily NFL pod on the planet

Carolina Panthers

Overview: The Panthers have been a bit of a juxtaposition in this space recently, with me putting Ron Rivera on the hot seat rankings and also putting Carolina's offense on the potential breakout list. Both can be true, and I'm not sure the former is actually a problem for the Panthers having a great season. Ron Rivera actually performs very well following a down season/when he's on the hot seat. Remember when the Panthers were about to can him in 2013 after EJ Manuel and the Bills beat Carolina and sent Rivera to 0-2? Then "Riverboat Ron" was born and the Panthers ripped off a 12-2 run to close the season. Rivera's been up and down almost every year of his career in Carolina, going 12-4, 7-8-1 (division winner!), 15-1, 6-10, 11-5 and 7-9 over the last six seasons. Those two recent seasons down coincide with Cam Newton's season ending early with shoulder surgery. Since 2013, a healthy Cam has equated to a playoff run. It's why Newton is the most important figure in the entire NFC South. 

Why they might not make the playoffs: Newton is coming off his second shoulder surgery and is still ramping up his throwing plan. Carolina was 6-2 when he got hurt and finished the season 7-9, with the only other win coming in a meaningless Week 17 victory over Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints. I don't want to cut this section short, because there are other reasons the Panthers could miss the playoffs -- potential offensive stars get injured (Greg Olsen) or don't actually break out (Curtis Samuel) or maybe the offensive line is much worse than we thought or perhaps the new-look defense doesn't gel or maybe the division is just too tough -- but the bottom line is if Cam isn't healthy Carolina won't be playing in January. And it will be an interesting offseason to say the least.

Why they will make the playoffs: Newton has been healthy, especially after a season when he misses games. He should be motivated for contractual/status reasons in Carolina this year. Offensively, Carolina has maybe the most talent yet around Cam. The offensive line is surprisingly talented and deep -- it could challenge to be a top-10 unit this year if everything breaks right. Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Samuel and Olsen is a lethal amount of talent for Norv Turner to work with. Defensively, Rivera has the most unique group he's had in a while. Adding Gerald McCoy, Bruce Irvin and Brian Burns this offseason as Rivera moves this team to a hybrid-style 3-4 front is one of the most interesting storylines in the NFL. McCoy gets his old team, the Bucs, twice in the first six weeks of the season. He should come out warm. Burns has been unblockable in training camp. Luke Kuechly appears to be healthy and Shaq Thompson will finally get a chance to showcase his skillset in this defense. The schedule isn't that difficult -- Warren Sharp's Vegas total strength of schedule has Carolina at 22nd but there are some bottom feeders on there, playing the Saints twice alters things and I think Vegas has the wrong number (7.5) for Carolina. It's going to move to eight at some point with the juice. The Panthers also went a ridiculous 2-7 in one-score games last year, with most of the losses coming after Cam was injured. That should regress to the mean in 2019. 

Minnesota Vikings

Overview: After signing Kirk Cousins to a monster $84 million deal last offseason the Vikings quickly became a trendy Super Bowl pick and couldn't keep pace with expectations. They slept-walk through a loss to the Bills at home and then got in a shootout with the Rams on primetime four days later; they fell to 1-2-1 and maybe didn't ever recover. Tough road games -- New England, Seattle and Chicago -- late in the year spelled doom for a team that wasn't prepared for primetime nor the outdoors (oddly, being from Minnesota and all). John DeFillipo was fired midseason as Mike Zimmer grumbled about running the ball more. The defense was good but not elite, per se, largely driven by the midseason absence of Everson Griffen. Dalvin Cook didn't play the whole season and after a nuclear start, Adam Thielen cooled down the stretch. Zimmer is now fully embracing the pressure of perhaps coaching for his job -- or at least being relatively near the hot seat? -- and people doubting him.

Why the might not make the playoffs: For starters, this is a tough neighborhood to deal with. The Packers have an angry Aaron Rodgers under center, the Bears look like a budding superpower and there's a lot of Vegas buzz about sharp money taking the Lions to make the playoffs. The NFC as a whole is just difficult too; someone is getting squeezed in a tough crowd of wild-card contenders. Revamping the offense should fix some of the problems, but it's not a guarantee. Cousins has to win some freaking prime-time games already. Even if the defense is top tier again -- and there's no guarantee it moves from top 10 back to top 5 -- it can't carry a questionable/uneven offense.

Why they will make the playoffs: Because I think the offense is poised to explode this season. Adding Gary Kubiak (one of the OG zone-blocking coaches) to an offense featuring Cook (ran the scheme at FSU) and Cousins (drafted by Mike Shanahan, Kubiak's mentor) and then drafting Garrett Bradbury (90 percent of his rushing snaps in his senior year at NC State were zone blocking plays) could kickstart things on that side of the ball. Thielen and Diggs and Kyle Rudolph flooding across the field on play action? Yes please. The defense is definitely older, but it's loaded with stars. Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph are a stout defensive line. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are locked into linebacker roles. Harrison Smith is begging for a bounce-back and the cornerbacks (Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes leading) are a deep and talented group. The schedule looks fairly tough but it interests me that starting in Week 10 they have just one game (at Seattle, Week 13, after their bye) that could potentially be bad weather. A hot start for this team, would put them in great position. I like the offense to surprise out of the gate. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Overview: Last year was a drama-filled disaster for Mike Tomlin's team, with Le'Veon Bell's holdout capturing the first half of the season and then Antonio Brown deathgripping the back end with his petulant behavior. Bell would eventually be set free into the wild, while Brown was sent to Oakland for a third-round pick. Things got so bad, the Steelers were willing to eat $25 million in dead cap space this year just to give away the best receiver in football for a mid-round pick. A slow start to the season beget a hot middle stretch but Pittsburgh's playoff aspirations were ultimately undone thanks to a late-season loss to the Raiders in Oakland that capped off a three-game losing streak. James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as viable superstars (and first/second-round fantasy picks) and Ben Roethlisberger led the league in passing yards, but there's no doubt last season was a major disappointment. 

Why they might not make the playoffs: It's entire possible that losing two offensive superstars is too much to overcome. What if JuJu isn't ready to be a No. 1? What if Conner can't stay healthy for a full season? The departure of Mike Munchak isn't getting enough attention for what it could do the offensive line. It's been a hot minute since the Steelers actually had a good defense. There's no guarantee it magically flips around this season.

Why they will make the playoffs: I am HERE for the Big Ben vengeance tour. If you think he's OK with everyone pinning the Steelers missing the playoffs on him you're insane. Additionally, he knows that if he goes out and has a monster year without Bell and Brown, he'll be highly praised both for his play and his leadership. Hell hath no fury like a QB spurned. More importantly, I just think the Steelers are loaded on both sides of the ball. Offensively they still have a very good offensive line, even without Munchak coaching. Conner showed he's very capable of being a feature back while Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell give Pittsburgh plenty of depth. JuJu is a stud. He's on his third team but Donte Moncrief just turned 26 years old, he's a veteran with upside. People are sleeping on James Washington -- JuJu is the rare breakout first year wideout for the Steelers. Vance McDonald is flying under a lot of radars. He and Samuels can soak up a ton of targets, especially in the red zone, this year. Devin Bush could change this defense. There's always been talent on the defensive line and the secondary is improved. Adding a sideline-to-sideline linebacker could turn this defense back to the level it displayed a few years ago before Ryan Shazier went down. It's an odd variable but the Steelers being listed as underdogs in this division? They will be aware of that. 

Denver Broncos

Overview: Actually a good team last year, the Broncos suffered from some bad coaching late in games. Out goes Vance Joseph and in comes Vic Fangio. Case Keenum was traded to the Redskins and Joe Flacco was acquired. Drew Lock was drafted, although there haven't been a ton of rave reviews for his play just quite yet. Defensively this has been a good team for several years now, even if the Broncos weren't THE BEST defense the last two years like they were in 2015 and 2016. John Elway feels a little sizzle near his seat, putting some pressure on his latest quarterback decisions and the need to win now.

Why they might not make the playoffs: Flacco could get hurt and Lock might have to step in. Even with optimum health, this is a brutal division. Philip Lindsay was a breakout in 2018, but he's been hurt throughout the preseason. Who, exactly, are the stud pass catchers on this team? Protection and run blocking has been a problem for this team over the last several years. The offense is largely an unknown without a veteran for Flacco to lean on or someone to really stretch the field. Man the division is really, really hard. That's probably my biggest concern, because you need to get three teams in and hope no second team emerges from the AFC East or AFC North. 

Why they will make the playoffs: There are a few underlying factors that really get me excited about this team. For one, stealing Munchak from the Steelers is one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. It ranks up there with the Vikings getting Kubiak (ironically, from the Broncos) in terms of being able to make a difference. There's talent on this offensive line, with Ronald Leary, Garrett Bolles, Ju'Waun James and rookie Dalton Risner currently lining up to start. I'm buying a lot of shares of Royce Freeman this offseason, while Lindsay could still bounce back and Theo Riddick could be a sneaky addition. You'll laugh, but Flacco was GOOD last year before he got hurt. Lamar Jackson's emergence made him expendable, but I think he fits well with this Rich Scangarello offense. The new OC is unknown, but assuming he'll run something in line with a Kyle Shanahan system, it's easy to see Flacco fitting right in. I'm concerned about the pass catchers, but Courtland Sutton can break out right?? Emmanual Sanders coming off an Achilles tear is problematic. Noah Fant could be a guy Flacco just leans on, even as a rookie. Defensively why can't this unit be the best in football? We covered it more on Friday's Pick Six Podcast -- subscribe here to get it downloaded as soon as it lands! -- but this could be the best defense in football. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are superstars. Chris Harris got some money, but he's underrated and underpaid. Justin Simmons is emerging. Fangio turned the Bears into the best defense in football. There's no reason he can't do it with this team too. 

Buffalo Bills

Overview: The most obvious "come back to Earth" team last year, the Bills obliged quite easily, going 6-10 after Sean McDermott shocked the world with a playoff berth in his first season as head coach. All things said, it's pretty remarkable he's 15-17 so far in his career considering what he's worked with in Buffalo through two seasons. The Bills had lots of ups and downs last season and we saw lots of fights about whether Josh Allen is a good quarterback or not. Those shouldn't slow down this season, although Buffalo did an excellent job adding low-key quality options around him, both on the offensive line and in terms of pass catchers. Defensively there are some legit weapons on this team. Playing in Tom Brady's division does not help things, but the Bills have a decent shot at ascending to the king slayer role in the next year or so (probably not in 2019...?). 

Why they might not make the playoffs: There aren't any STARS on this team. LeSean McCoy is the most "famous" player? Not that fame matters -- there are budding stars on this roster, but we can't be sure they will bud this year. This division is pretty tough. Perhaps you've heard of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick? They've had this division on lock for all but basically one year in the last two decades. You better be planning on a wild card berth. The Bills outperformed their win expectancy last year, as their point differential indicated they were a five-win team. They were 30th in points scored, so the offense wasn't, uh, good. And it's not like they picked up monsters on offense either: Allen is throwing to Zay Jones, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Robert Foster and an assortment of injured/young tight ends. There's nothing young about the running backs! Shady McCoy and Frank Gore are ancient. Devin Singletary and T.J. Yeldon are younger but we don't know if they can be feature backs. Maybe the defense doesn't take the step everyone expects this season.

Why they will make the playoffs: Look, if we're being perfectly frank, I don't have the stones to put the Patriots on a list of teams that could miss the playoffs. But maybe THIS could be the year they take a step back and Brady falls off a cliff? Probably not, but it's more likely than it's ever been just because of the inevitable march of time. If that were to happen it would change the AFC landscape. Even if it doesn't, the Bills could take a leap forward. Allen is talented. No one denies this. The protection that adding Quinton Span, Mitch Morse and Cody Ford this offseason should provide will help in a huge way. That group of wideouts isn't sexy but it's somehow a massive upgrade from -- *checks notes* -- Kelvin Benjamin and Corey Coleman. If Allen takes a leap watch out. I think Shady will actually bounce back OK this year and Singletary could be a sneaky impact draft pick. There's some potential STUDS on defense (they're just not famous) in the form of Tremaine Edmunds (now legally able to drink!) and Tre'Davious White (he could be the NFL's top corner by the end of this year). McDermott gets the most out of his team and the Bills almost always find a way to win some surprising games at home. I think McDermott's undervalued as a coach, I think the Bills have been the most stable (!) non Pats team in the AFC East the last few years and I think if Allen takes a jump they can get back to the playoffs. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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