At an absolute minimum, there will be two teams that make the playoffs in 2020 despite not making the playoffs in 2019. (Assuming the playoffs actually happen.) The NFL has added a No. 7 seed in each conference, expanding the playoff field from 12 teams to 14. For that reason, this year's version of the "teams that missed the playoffs last year that will make it this year" piece is somewhat likely to be more accurate than it has been in previous years.
Another factor that makes increased accuracy more likely is that there are some glaringly obvious bounceback candidates out there, with several prominent teams prime for positive regression and/or improvement due to personnel changes at important positions like quarterback or head coach. In the space below, we'll dive into our four teams most likely to make the jump from the outside looking in into the actual playoff field in 2020.
Pittsburgh damn near made the playoffs last season despite fielding one of the league's worst offenses. The Steelers scored on only 28.6 percent of their possessions last season, the third-worst rate in the NFL. Of course, that happened with Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline. In four of the previous five seasons, the Steelers ranked inside the top 10 in percentage of possessions that resulted in a score, and they were inside the top five in three of those campaigns. It's extraordinarily likely that their offense is among the most improved units in the league in 2020 -- assuming Roethlisberger can play more than a game and a half.
The Steelers' defense should regress a bit from where it was last season, even if only because it's extremely unlikely that they'll force a turnover on 19 percent of their opponents' possessions again. But there is room for the defense to regress and still be an elite unit. They ranked fifth in both yards and points allowed last season, as well as third in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. (They ranked third in DVOA against both the run and the pass, a strong indication of the defense's overall strength.)
They return most of the personnel from last year's defense, with the only major change being Chris Wormley stepping in for Javon Hargrave. A full season of Minkah Fitzpatrick on the back end should help make up for that downgrade, though, as should the depth the team added with Alex Highsmith, Carlos Davis, Antoine Brooks, and Trajan Bandy.
The Steelers also still have one of the league's best offensive lines, and their pass-catching corps looks better than it did this time last year. Diontae Johnson took a step forward over the second half of last season, and even James Washington flashed some skills. They also brought in Eric Ebron at tight end, and drafted enormous speedster Chase Claypool in the second round. Roethlisberger has no shortage of options to whom he can throw the ball.
A schedule featuring games against the NFC East and AFC South helps the Steelers' chances as well, giving them the ninth-easiest slate in the league.
Coming into last season, the Cowboys were the poster boys for the type of team we would expect to regress and miss the playoffs after making it the year before. Dallas had gone 10-6 and won the NFC East in 2018, but had the point differential of an 8.4-win team and gone 9-3 in one-score games. Teams that overperform their point differential and have far-better-than-.500 records in close games tend to regress the following season, and that's exactly what happened to the Cowboys: Dallas went 8-8 last year.
However, the 8-8 Cowboys actually had the point differential of a 10.7-win team, with their plus-113 mark checking in as the sixth-best in the NFL. They also went an unsustainably bad 1-6 in one-score games. They are now a team that absolutely screams positive regression. If they are simply average at winning one-score games in 2020, they should be something like a nine- or 10-win team.
Helping them in that pursuit is the coaching upgrade from Jason Garrett to Mike McCarthy. Your mileage may vary on McCarthy's merits, but Garrett was one of the most damaging coaches in the league for a significant majority of his tenure in Dallas. His conservative nature often put the Cowboys in poor down-and-distance situations and led to their passing up opportunities for scores in favor of kicks. He showed very little awareness of proper clock management or the benefits of things like passing on early downs or off play-action as opposed to straight dropbacks.
McCarthy is almost Garrett's polar opposite in most of these areas. The new Cowboys coach was among the pass-heaviest coaches in the league during his time in Green Bay -- especially on early downs. His teams were among the most aggressive in the league on fourth downs and two-point conversions, belying the reputation he developed due to high-profile conservative decisions like those made in the team's NFC title game loss to the Seahawks.
Getting league-average strategy and decision-making from McCarthy would represent a big step forward for the Cowboys. If he pursues optimal strategies as often as, say, John Harbaugh and the Ravens did last season, that could benefit the Cowboys even more. Dallas should also get an upgrade on special teams, where they hired one of the league's best coordinators (John Fassel) to take over what was one of the NFL's worst units the past couple years.
Throw in a relatively easy schedule (10th easiest in the league) and the Cowboys look like an excellent bet to make the postseason.
The Steelers and Cowboys benefit from schedules that rank among the 10 easiest in the NFL. Well, the Colts face the single easiest slate of opponents in the league this season. They have the benefit of playing in the AFC South, their divisional rotation games are against the AFC and NFC North, and they get the Raiders and Jets thanks to a third-place finish in the division last year.
That third-place finish actually could have been a playoff season, though. The Colts began the season 6-4, only to see Jacoby Brissett's knee injury derail their offense and spur a 1-5 collapse down the stretch. Brissett wasn't the only one to miss time and play injured otherwise: T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell (the team's projected top two receivers coming into the year) combined to play just 674 snaps on the year.
The team replaced Brissett with Philip Rivers, who has yet to miss a start due to injury in his career. Even in the event he does suffer an injury for the first time, the Colts still have Brissett waiting in the wings as one of the NFL's best backups. They added depth at receiver (Michael Pittman Jr.), tight end (Trey Burton) and running back (Jonathan Taylor), further strengthening a unit that looked capable even while employing a backup plan under center. Rivers already has familiarity with Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni's offense from their time together with the Chargers, so he should be able to pick things up more easily than other QBs who change teams.
Indianapolis also added one of the league's best interior defenders, swinging a trade for DeForest Buckner. Plop him into the middle of the defensive line and let him wreak havoc, and things get easier for Justin Houston on the edge, for Darius Leonard and the other linebackers, and for the secondary as well. Matt Eberflus will put Buckner and everyone else in position to succeed, and the defense could take a quick step forward as a result.
The Colts are also helped by sharing a division with two teams that are among the most likely to regress in 2020: the Texans and Titans. Houston was outscored last season and still managed to make the playoffs, but traded DeAndre Hopkins for a running back who isn't even the most dynamic D.Johnson on the roster. Tennessee is extraordinarily unlikely to get most-efficient-QB-in-the-NFL-level play from Ryan Tannehill again, nor to see Derrick Henry average 5.9 yards per carry during the games Tannehill is under center. Any regression from either or both of those teams only helps the Colts' chances.
As you may or may not have heard, the Buccaneers have a new quarterback. While Tom Brady may not throw for quite as many yards or touchdowns as Jameis Winston did last season, one thing he will undoubtedly do is dramatically slash the team's turnover rate.
The Bucs gave the ball away on nearly 21 percent of their possessions last season, the single highest rate in the league. In the last decade, the Patriots never turned the ball over on more than 10 percent of their possessions. They were among the four least turnover-happy teams in the league in nine of those 10 seasons. That shift alone should give the Bucs 15-18 extra chances to score in 2020 than they had in 2019, and also keep their defense from facing short fields quite as often as they did a year ago.
The Bucs also have a strong defense, an upgraded offensive line, and a relatively easy schedule (11th-easiest in the league) on their side. They seem like one of the strongest bets to make the jump into the postseason field.