Each year in the NFL features a heavy amount of turnover when it comes to teams making or missing the playoffs. That's how the league wants it -- parity every which way in order to give teams a fighting chance year after year.
I alreadyafter missing out on the playoffs in 2016. Now I'm making a run at finding five teams who will drop out of the playoffs. Last year featured a 2-2 record on the teams who would miss the postseason (as well as a 2-2 record on the teams who would make the postseason), although ultimately it ended up being six teams who jumped up and joined the playoff ranks and, of course, six teams who fell out of contention.
Let's take a look at five candidates for regression. If you hate my choices and have better ones (and you almost assuredly do), hit me up on Twitter @WillBrinson.
- 2016 record: 10-6
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 7.6
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 7.5
Overview: For a minute the Dolphins looked like the worst team in the NFL last season. A 22-8 loss to the Bengals on Thursday night of Week 4 was the nadir, with the only win of the first five weeks coming in overtime over the lowly Browns. They were 1-4 and looking utterly lost, and there were major questions about the direction of this team.
Credit Adam Gase for a quick turnaround that featured Miami closing the season out 9-2 as it established a power running game behind Jay Ajayi and a suddenly dominant offensive line. The season ultimately ended with Matt Moore going up against the Steelers in the playoffs, which went about as well as you would expect. But clearly this was the start of something special for Gase and Co., although just how much they can build on last year remains in question.
Why they won't make the playoffs: The schedule down the stretch for the Dolphins was a big help. Miami played the Jets twice, the Bills twice, the 49ers, the Rams and the Cardinals in a rainstorm. That's seven pretty good matchups of their final 11 games, and during that stretch the Dolphins went 7-0 in games that were decided by one score or less. That's a major red flag for regression.
Ryan Tannehill is coming off an injury and did not necessarily "break out," although Gase did a nice job building on his strengths. Laremy Tunsil was a draft day steal for Miami, but is now moving to left tackle. It's his natural position, but the loss of Branden Albert means a lack of continuity on the offensive line. From Week 6 on, Jarvis Landry averaged five catches for 67 yards and scored just three touchdowns. We think he's great, right? The defense could be top half of the league, but it could also fall apart because of age.
Why they might make the playoffs: Gase is a really good coach. The turnaround he pulled in the middle of last season was incredible. He was starting to find a vibe with Tannehill, and there are enough weapons on this offense that this team could do some damage. Gase is willing to compromise his preferred method of attack for simply being effective.
Maybe Tunsil is an animal, maybe Ja'Wuan James is a beast on the right side and maybe Ajayi comes out on fire and rushes for 200 yards per game. He doesn't need that much, honestly -- he can be quite good without breaking O.J. Simpson records. If everything with the defense holds, if the Jets and Bills are terrible and if the running game stays strong, this can be a team that gets within range of a wild-card spot.
- 2016 record: 9-7
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 6.5
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 8.5
Overview: There is a really good case to be made that Texans coach Bill O'Brien does not get enough credit for his ability to get the most out of a limited roster. No, he has not developed a quarterback yet, but the Texans made the playoffs for the second straight year despite having a very bad situation under center. Last year featured Brock Osweiler -- signed after Brian Hoyer melted against the Chiefs in the playoffs -- and his $72 million contract, one of the true albatrosses of modern NFL free agency. Osweiler was truly terrible for Houston, eventually getting benched for Tom Savage and traded in the offseason to the Browns in what amounted to a salary dump.
Adding to Houston's difficulty was the season-ending injury to J.J. Watt. Winning nine games with a team that lacked its best defensive player and had its most expensive offensive player serving as an 800-pound anchor for everyone else is an impressive feat. The franchise reacted in aggressive fashion again this offseason, giving up a first-round pick to acquire Deshaun Watson in a draft-day trade with ... the Browns! So Cleveland now holds the Texans' top two picks in 2018, which is a pretty scary thought for a team that outperformed expectations last season.
Why they won't make the playoffs: Until proven otherwise, we're going to operate under the assumption that the AFC South, despite being an improved division this offseason, is going to feature just a single playoff team. The last time two teams made the playoffs from this division was 2012, and if you believe two AFC West teams will make the playoffs (I do) then you have a lot of teams in other divisions fighting for a single wild-card spot. We haven't seen a team from this division with double-digit victories since 2014; pardon me for being skeptical.
A bigger red flag for the Texans is their point differential, which was minus-49. That is not good. The only AFC teams that were lower were the Jets, Browns and Jaguars. The Texans certainly have all the pieces in place on defense, but they are losing Vince Wilfork (big body in the middle) and A.J. Bouye (breakout cornerback), and Watt's health is certainly in question until we see him back on the field. Offensively, they were depressingly ineffective at using Lamar Miller in creative ways. Watson was great on the big stage, but he's not even the starter, with O'Brien pointing to Savage instead. The division should be substantially better, with all three of the other teams improving. The Texans could easily win six games and no one should blink.
Why they might make the playoffs: If Watt is healthy, they are loaded up front. Jadeveon Clowney could be poised for a huge year and Whitney Mercilus is criminally underrated. Savage, or Watson when he plays, just being better than Osweiler will immediately improve this offense, which should mean immediate improvements for DeAndre Hopkins as well as Miller.
The division is supposed to be better, but it doesn't have to be. The Titans could be overrated, Andrew Luck might not be healthy and -- stop me if you've heard this before -- the Jaguars might be overhyped. This was a team that was supposed to win about six games last year and it still managed to come away as a nine-win division winner. The Texans caught some breaks in a big way; that doesn't always happen for a team that is mortgaging its future on a single season.
New York Giants
- 2016 record: 11-5
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 8.8
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 9.0
Overview: The Giants did something the Giants don't usually do and spent big in free agency last year. They looked like the Redskins but got entirely different results, rolling to 11 wins thanks to a resurgent defense largely charged by some of those high-priced new defensive weapons, like Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon. Landon Collins emerging was a huge bonus too, and the Giants looked like a potentially elite defense.
That play masked the struggles of Eli Manning and the Giants' running game, not to mention the protection up front. It didn't matter, because this team was able to beat the Cowboys twice and secure a playoff spot before the final week of the regular season, which was spent spite-beating the Redskins to knock them out of the playoffs. Things didn't end well thanks to a boat trip by Odell Beckham and an ugly playoff loss in Green Bay, but this was a big bounce-back season in Ben McAdoo's first year as head coach.
Why they won't make the playoffs: Even though the Giants ranked as the No. 2 defense by DVOA, they were only the No. 16 team in terms of consistency week to week, according to Football Outsiders. The bigger concern here isn't that the Giants weren't consistent, it's that defense largely isn't a consistent year-to-year factor. There's a lot of luck involved.
The offseason additions are big splashes, particularly with Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram, but was Manning really missing weapons? Protecting him should have been the bigger concern, even if it would have been difficult to immediately improve the protection up front for Manning in the draft. There were options in free agency to at least move Ereck Flowers to the right side, where he's better suited.
The AFC West is on the docket this year, which is not going to be an easy proposition for anyone. The Cowboys should be good again. The Eagles will be better and the Redskins won't be a walkover. Paul Perkins could be the guy in this running scheme, but the Giants do not have an established workhorse.
Why they might make the playoffs: It all might hinge on Manning and/or his protection. He had a pretty similar season statistically to years past. He completed 63 percent of his passes, went over 4,000 yards passing, threw 23 touchdowns and had 16 interceptions. It was a very Eli Manning season. But he was not himself, and looked closer to the guy we saw struggle at age 32 before McAdoo took over as offensive coordinator.
Remember: Manning is 35. Quarterbacks are playing to a surprisingly old age in the year 2017, but we at least have one genealogical example of a quick drop-off in play, courtesy of his brother Peyton. Granted, Peyton was four years older and had undergone a bunch of neck surgeries, but it is worth noting. If Eli bounces back and the Giants offensive line manages to protect him properly, watch out. Adding Engram and Marshall to a pass-catching group that features Beckham and Sterling Shepard has the ability to be lethal.
- 2016 record: 9-7
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 7.7
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 8
Overview: You'll rarely see a luckier team than the 2016 Detroit Lions, a squad that trailed in the fourth quarter of every one of its first seven wins of the season. Matthew Stafford registered an absurd eight fourth-quarter comebacks through the first 13 weeks of the season, breaking a record held by Peyton Manning from 2009. Interestingly, Jim Caldwell was also the coach of that Colts team (that lost in the Super Bowl) -- Indy outperformed its expected win total by four that year and would drop down to be a 10-win team the following season.
The Lions were not nearly as dominant as that Colts team during 2016; Detroit limped into the playoffs with a banged-up Stafford and was run out of the gym by the Seahawks in the wild-card round. This offseason saw some pieces added to the defense, notably Jarrad Davis, who should immediately start at linebacker as a rookie. The offensive line lost two key pieces (Riley Reiff, Larry Warford) and managed to upgrade with the addition of T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner.
Why they won't make the playoffs: While the offensive line was upgraded initially, an injury to Taylor Decker this offseason cleared the way for Greg Robinson to start for the Lions at left tackle. That is a very serious concern. Stafford taking a leap in Jim Bob Cooter's offense and the offensive line coming together nicely resulted in Stafford's sack total dipping below 40 for the first time in two years. If that number rises again, the Lions offense will be less effective.
The running game is a major concern. Ameer Abdullah could become the modern-day feature back the Lions want him to be, but he could also fail to stay healthy this year, like he has the first two seasons of his career. Golden Tate is criminally underrated, but the Lions are scraping by with less-than-premium talent at the skill positions. That is not outweighed by premium talent on the defensive side of the ball -- the Lions finished dead last in DVOA last year. Detroit was 13th in points allowed last year and 18th in yards allowed; the advanced statistics and traditional metrics align in a way that should be a concern.
Why they might make the playoffs: Maybe Robinson, a former No. 2 overall pick, is capable of filling in on this quick-hitting, pass-heavy offense while Decker recovers. The offensive line should not be a weak point, provided Lang/Wagner are indeed upgrades. Marvin Jones taking a leap and channeling some consistency -- he had a 200-yard game last year -- would be a huge plus. Tate needs to start quickly unlike last year. Getting 16 games out of Abdullah would produce some special runs and serious chunk plays. Teryl Austin has done an admirable job patching up the defense over the past several years. Davis needs to step in and improve Detroit against the run and Ezekiel Ansah needs to record more than two sacks.
This team has to start hot too, because the early schedule is brutal: the Cardinals, Giants, Falcons, Vikings, Panthers, Saints, Steelers and Packers are the first eight games on the docket. Woof. The Browns and Bears (twice) give the Lions a comfier homestretch if they can stick around .500 through the first two months.
Kansas City Chiefs
- 2016 record: 12-4
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 10.1
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 9
Overview: Betting against the Chiefs and the stability that Andy Reid brings is a risky proposition, as yours truly found out in quick fashion last year. Chiefs fans spent the offseason bashing me for picking them to finish last in the division. I giggled loudly while they were losing to the Chargers early in Week 1 and then paid the price all season as they won 12 games and took the title in the dangerous AFC West.
This offseason has been tumultuous. The Chiefs got rid of big-name skill-position guys in Jamaal Charles and Jeremy Maclin. They let their general manager go after free agency and the draft. That draft featured a big-time trade up to get Patrick Mahomes, who is not supposed to play in 2017, effectively giving Alex Smith notice that this is his last season with the franchise. That's because Smith caps the Chiefs' ceiling -- that much was apparent in the playoff loss to the Steelers, when Kansas City couldn't beat a team that couldn't do anything other than make field goals. Any sort of vertical explosion would have resulted in the Chiefs advancing (to lose to the Patriots, but still).
Why they won't make the playoffs: The Chiefs were 6-3 in single-score games last year, indicating a pretty good amount of luck. They also outperformed their expected win total by nearly two games, so more luck. The offseason issues make me look at this franchise as a team in a bit of turmoil, even with Reid there to steady the ship. Tyreek Hill was tremendous last year and Travis Kelce emerged as one of the top three tight ends in the NFL. But goodness, without Maclin this receiving corps suddenly looks thin. Can Hill operate effectively as a WR1? The running back group should be fine: Spencer Ware is getting tossed to the side a little too quickly for Kareem Hunt, and Charcandrick West is on the roster as well. But there's nothing dominating about that group, at least from a guaranteed sense.
The defense should be good again: Justin Houston is expected to be healthy, and the secondary remains loaded with Marcus Peters and Eric Berry back there. Bennie Logan could be an upgrade over Dontari Poe. The schedule is ... not ideal. The Chiefs open up on the road against the Patriots before hosting the Eagles, playing on the road against the Chargers and hosting the Redskins. The Texans, Steelers, Raiders, Broncos, Cowboys and Giants are up after that. Kansas City can beat plenty of those teams, but it's not an easy start. If you believe the toughest division in football will provide another contender for the postseason (either L.A. or Denver) and that the Raiders will remain dangerous, Kansas City is a candidate to step back.
Why they might make the playoffs: None of this offseason hooey matters. Reid is, somehow, a really underrated head coach and he'll deliver another strong season. The running game isn't full of headline names but it's deep in young talent. Smith has been under the microscope before, when the 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round, and he responded by playing the best football of his career for a year and a half, before he was replaced.
If Mahomes looks good early and the Chiefs struggle out of the gate, it's not unreasonable at all to expect to see him under center in 2017. But if Smith plays well and the Chiefs hold serve, Mahomes will ride the pine, and that bodes well for the Chiefs producing a steady season. The defense could take a leap back up from 14th in DVOA to the heights of 2015 (sixth overall) and Hill could develop into a true WR1 who also manages to impact the return game in a major way. It's also possible that the Raiders, and not the Chiefs, are the team who takes a step back in terms of win totals. The Chiefs get the Jets, Bills and Dolphins down the stretch, which means getting to Thanksgiving with seven wins or so is probably going to produce a playoff season.