Every year, the NFL playoff picture gets turned on its head. The league prides itself on parity, and each postseason offers a chance for that to be celebrated. Some preseason favorites prove as dominant as expected. Others are replaced in the mix for a Lombardi Trophy by surprise contenders. It's why fans of every team that missed the playoffs in 2022 should have some hope for 2023.
Need some help getting pumped for the 18 teams who failed to crack the postseason last year? We're here to assist. Some non-playoff teams have improved more than others this offseason through free agency and/or the 2023 NFL Draft, but all have at least one thing to look forward to in the future. Here's one reason for each of those clubs to be a little optimistic going into the new season:
|Justin Fields actually has a supporting cast. A year after actively avoiding legitimate offensive upgrades, Bears management prioritized more short-yardage toughness with RB D'Onta Foreman and TE Robert Tonyan, better protection with OT Darnell Wright and OG Nate Davis, and most importantly a No. 1 pass catcher in D.J. Moore. Their young quarterback still needs to prove he can excel as a decision-maker, but he shouldn't always have to play Superman now.
|Sean Payton means business. The longtime Saints coach didn't leave a cushy TV job to play loosey-goosey with star QB Russell Wilson, whose influence appeared to fuel his own flop of a Broncos debut in 2022. Already Payton seems to be prepping for a return to a run-first, play-action-heavy approach, which often helped Wilson in his Seattle days.
|The passing attack looks deeper. Nick Chubb remains an underrated centerpiece of their offense, but we all know that Kevin Stefanski and Co. are dependent on Deshaun Watson reverting to Pro Bowl form under center. A year after leaning heavily on Amari Cooper, the former Texans QB now has ex-Jets prospect Elijah Moore on the outside, along with rookie Cedric Tillman Jr. and veteran speedster Marquise Goodwin as rotational options. They'll need all the firepower they can get in a tough-nosed AFC North.
|A plentiful 2024 draft awaits. Technically this goes even beyond the 2023 season, but with QB Kyler Murray on the mend and the rest of the roster porous on both sides of the ball under new coach Jonathan Gannon, they're a popular bet to contend for the No. 1 pick next year. Couple that with a first-rounder they also got in a draft-day swap with the Texans, and Arizona may well have a couple of early Day 1 selections next offseason.
|Finally, there is long-term upside under center. After years of betting on middling and/or aging veterans, Indy has itself maybe the most dynamic raw talent of the 2023 QB class in Anthony Richardson. His lack of polish as a passer may spell a stint on the bench, or keep them a year away from contention even in an open AFC South. But even his supersized athleticism as a scrambler should make the Colts a tougher out than expected.
|Sam Howell has a decent setup. We know nearly nothing about Howell the NFL QB, who enters as an almost-unchallenged QB1 after making a single Week 18 start, but he's got better weaponry than some youngsters. Terry McLaurin is an alpha on the outside, Jahan Dotson should be better and the O-line now has ex-Chiefs starter Andrew Wylie. Couple that with Ron Rivera's perpetually stout defensive front, and maybe you can talk yourself into another wild-card push.
|They've done everything they can to hide the QB situation. Call them a more aggressive version of the Commanders, who are also relying on a wholly unproven young signal-caller. RB Bijan Robinson, WR Drake London and TE Kyle Pitts are a nice offensive foundation at the skill spots, and S Jessie Bates III headlines a spruced-up "D." Maybe, just maybe, Desmond Ridder's development as a legit passer won't matter if Arthur Smith can lean almost entirely on the run again.
|They're following the Buccaneers' Tom Brady blueprint. As in, go all in to acquire a grizzled future Hall of Famer, then make him unofficial general manager in hopes of an instant title run. Look, Aaron Rodgers is a short-term rental going on 40, and he was a shell of his MVP self in a sluggish Packers finale, but he's a massive -- and, perhaps more importantly, motivated -- upgrade at a vital position. Captaining a playoff-caliber lineup, he's got the arm and vision to make a run.
|Both sides of the ball are more explosive. After becoming NFL darlings for playing late-year spoiler in 2022, the Lions got busy addressing the secondary and ended up with at least three feisty new starters in Cameron Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley. Then, in an unorthodox draft, they added juice in the backfield with RB Jahmyr Gibbs. As long as they can keep QB Jared Goff upright and comfortable to feed a deep WR group, they should be playoff-bound.
|The pressure of a title run is off. No, that's not what anyone in Green Bay wants to hear, but with Aaron Rodgers, the only true focus had been getting over the hump alongside Matt LaFleur. Now, with Jordan Love finally taking over, there should be grace for such a young gunslinger (and young weapons, like Christian Watson and Jayden Reed) to grow into their own.
|The program finally has the right leadership. Previous coach Matt Rhule preached patience when he arrived, forecasting a renewal of the whole franchise, but new coach Frank Reich has been there, done that, coming from respected stops in Philadelphia and Indianapolis. More importantly, his No. 1 pick, Bryce Young, has all the tools you want in a QB, save for prototypical size. Having a signal-caller with such wisdom beyond his years will go a long way.
|Patience might actually be running thin on offense. We know Bill Belichick can have their defense ready to compete, especially with enticing rookies like Christian Gonzalez and Keion White onboard. But this is clearly an offensive league, and Bill O'Brien's return as offensive coordinator, as well as steady whispers of Belichick's discontent with former first-round QB Mac Jones, suggests New England will explore other options under center if Jones can't elevate a run-first attack.
|Jimmy Garoppolo is just as, if not more, capable of a playoff push than Derek Carr. That, unfortunately, is kind of where the good news stops. Though a very serviceable figurehead, the fragile Jimmy G is now behind a worse O-line than he had in San Francisco, and the team's new weapons (i.e. Jakobi Meyers, Austin Hooper, Michael Mayer) are essentially a lateral move from Darren Waller. They're praying for instant returns on their defensive investments.
|They can't be much more injury-riddled than they were in 2022. Everyone from Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp to Aaron Donald missed extended action with medical issues, and now, though Los Angeles has stripped its roster of pricey but proven veterans in the name of a quasi-rebuild, Sean McVay should at least have a more predictable lineup.
|Derek Carr will be motivated to win over his new city. At the end of the day, New Orleans is probably just buying another wild-card run or two by postponing a true rebuild; it's not as if Carr is joining an all-star lineup, a la Matthew Stafford with the Rams in 2021. Still, after nine gutsy but mostly underwhelming years in the Raiders organization, the veteran should be amped up to prove Las Vegas made a mistake while feeding Chris Olave and, hopefully, Michael Thomas.
|Few young QBs are better suited for a leap than Kenny Pickett. The second-year man still has lots of room to grow after a rookie year defined more by late-season grit than eye-popping play-making. But the Steelers have a better line, now featuring ex-Eagles starter Isaac Seumalo, as well as an underrated skill group that includes Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Allen Robinson and Pat Freiermuth. If Mike Tomlin's always tough "D" is also intact, it's not crazy to think this team could be a sneaky playoff contender.
|They've finally got foundational investments at premium positions. C.J. Stroud at QB and Will Anderson Jr. at pass rusher represent the biggest long-term bets this team has made since allowing Deshaun Watson to sit -- and then dealing the polarizing QB -- during what amounted to a forfeited 2021-2022 slog. They've still gone a little heavy on free-agent leftovers to fill the lineup; Stroud's protection and weapons are just so-so. But at least there's hope for the future, especially with the fresh mind of DeMeco Ryans at the helm of the staff.
|They've got at least one eye on the future. You don't trade up to draft a QB at No. 33 overall, after all, if you're not also entertaining a split from aging, expensive leaders like Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. To be fair, under Mike Vrabel, those guys are always more competitive than you'd think. They've probably also hit their peak. New GM Ran Carthon may not be quite ready to go all in on the rebuild, and who knows if newcomer Will Levis will be ready to take over under center in the near future, but it's good, in a division where other clubs are wisely resetting, that they're also considering tomorrow.