Each year the NFL features a pretty heavy amount of turnover when it comes to teams who make the playoffs. The parity of the league encourages teams to remain hopeful, offering fans the opportunity to make the playoffs if a front office can make the right moves in the offseason.
Over the past three years the NFL has seen an average of five teams jump up and make the postseason and, obviously, five teams drop out of the playoffs. (the Cowboys and Raiders) who would take a jump into the postseason. (I also went .)
There is only one division where assumption is not the mother of all eff ups. The AFC East, where betting on a different team to emerge victorious is a very dumb idea until Tom Brady proves otherwise. Any other division is up for grabs as are the two wild-card spots.
Let's take a look at five teams who can make a jump in the standings and join the postseason. We'll point out their record last year, their expected record last year (Pythagorean wins -- essentially where their points for vs. points against suggests they'll finish) and where Vegas projects these teams in 2017 plus break down reasons why they will and why they won't make the playoffs.
There is a pretty good chance that not every single one of these teams makes the playoffs, so feel free to throw it in my face several months from now.
Los Angeles Chargers
- 2016 record: 5-11
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 7.7
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 7.5
Overview: Last year's Chargers team has to go down as one of the most unlucky teams in NFL history. The Chargers started the season 1-4, with all four of those losses coming by single digits. Their Week 1 gag to the Chiefs was an all-timer: People like to hate on win probability, but the Chargers were up 27-10 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter; 99 percent of the time teams win that game. Another four losses after Week 6 came by single digits and another two of those came by less than 10 points. The Chargers finished the season 1-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They lost Keenan Allen, Jason Verrett, Danny Woodhead and Manti Te'o .
Why they will make the playoffs: Better luck has to come Philip Rivers' way at some point, right? He has annually dealt with major attrition to his receiving corps and skill-position players and is one of the least-protected franchise quarterbacks over the last decade.
The good news is that Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. Both guys could end up starting -- Lamp looks like a lock at guard -- and can provide depth across the line if needed. Russell Okung was not good in Denver last year but he has pedigree and is a worthwhile gamble protecting Rivers blindside. This is maybe the best group of skill-position guys in San Diego since 2007. Nothing is certain, especially in terms of injury, but Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin, Hunter Henry, Antonio Gates, Tyrell Williams and Branden Oliver comprise a deep, talented and diverse group of weapons for Rivers. The defense finished 29th in points allowed last year, which is surprising. This is a good defensive team that could take a major leap this year -- advanced statistics back up the production, with the Chargers finishing eighth in Football Outsiders Defensive DVOA. Joey Bosa, who missed the early part of his rookie season in a holdout over offset language, is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Melvin Ingram was locked down this offseason and will be a dangerous chess piece for new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. The secondary features Verrett and Casey Hayward, who was a steal in free agency last offseason. The defense as a whole features five first- or second-round picks and young, emerging talent. One sleeper reason this team succeeds: the pressure of expecting an exit from San Diego no longer exists. We can suggest the players don't care about changing cities but it clearly affected the Chargers last year. that is going to be slammed and raucous for every home game is going to inspire this team., using two of their three top picks on versatile, potential plug-and-play offensive linemen in
Why they won't make the playoffs: All of the reasons to be bullish on the Bolts could go south. The offensive line additions and attached projected protection could be way too optimistic and Lamp/Feeney could be overwhelmed. Okung might be a terrible signing. The Chargers are sitting on more dead money built into the salary cap than anyone else in the NFL, so it's not like we should automatically assume they are pulling the right strings. The defense might not take a step and maybe Bradley's tenure in Jacksonville scarred him enough that he doesn't maximize the talent on that side of the ball. Gordon was three yards shy of 1,000 last year, but assuming he continues developing is an optimistic assumption, especially if he isn't healthy. Maybe bad luck is just part of life for Rivers (blame the college he attended?). Allen could not be recovered from his ACL injury and Williams, who has been banged up this offseason, might not be ready for the big stage. There is a fine line here between an incredible group of skill players and a suddenly thin unit. Anthony Lynn is a first year head coach and we have no idea if he'll actually know what he's doing. They were on this list last year and didn't really come close, which should probably be a red flag for yours truly more than anything.
- 2016 record: 6-10
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 7.2
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 9.0
Overview: The Panthers woke up in time for the 2016 season with the type of hangover you would expect to face if you spent the night out with Rob Gronkowski then came home at 3 a.m. and shotgunned a pint of scotch to take the edge off. After running up a 15-1 record, the Panthers were physically manhandled by the Broncos in Super Bowl 50 and never recovered; a slow start out of the gate (1-5) wiped out their chance of going over their win total in 2016. The play in the trenches killed Carolina, with Cam Newton coming under siege for most of the season. The result was folks wondering if Cam's 2015 MVP performance was his "peak" and an "aberration" instead of a stop on the career ascension tour. His weapons were not very good last year, the offensive line regressed to the mean from an outstanding 2015 and the defense did not find its groove until the second half of the year, largely due to a defensive line that failed to generate pressure either on the interior or from the edge. Josh Norman being cut loose during the franchise tag process did not help the secondary either.
Why they will make the playoffs: Carolina now gets a last-place schedule instead of the first-place schedule it received in 2016, which should bode well for a game or so improvement in terms of wins. The Panthers finished 2-6 in one-score games last year and were very clearly under their projected win total based on points scored vs. points allowed. The defense was still a top-10 unit by DVOA and returns virtually everyone, with the added benefit of bringing in help. Julius Peppers is not young, but he is a quality situational pass rusher. Add Peppers to Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Wes Horton and rookie Daeshon Hall and the Panthers can send some bodies from the edge. Star Lotulelei will be next offseason's focus in terms of contracts with Kawaan Short signed this year, but the pair of early-round picks from 2013 are prepared to wreak havoc in the middle. If the defensive line holds up its end of the bargain, the secondary will look much better, especially with James Bradberry potentially emerging as an upper echelon corner in his second year. The linebacking corps with Luke Keuchly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson might be the best in the league. Offense is the question mark, specifically as it relates to protection for Newton and Newton's health. Matt Kalil was signed to a large contract this offseason; if he lives up to that deal in the first year, this offense will be much improved. Newton had shoulder surgery this offseason and it remains to be seen how he recovers, !
Newton throwing is, in all seriousness, a good thing. Even better is the addition of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, a pair of modern NFL weapons who will shift seamlessly from running back to wide receiver and help improve Newton's completion percentage while decreasing his time in the pocket holding the ball.
Why they won't make the playoffs: 2015 was a fluke, and Newton has already peaked. He can't replicate his production from that season -- despite having better weapons -- because he's constantly under siege thanks to an offensive line that is injured and underperforming. Kelvin Benjamin and the former first rounder might very well not be a reliable and productive pass catcher this year. Devin Funchess' breakout was a hot topic during training camp last year and it never materialized. Will it this season? Greg Olsen is one of the best tight ends in the game but he is on the wrong side of 30. So is Thomas Davis, one of the team's defensive leaders. Luke Kuechly this season would be a major blow to the Panthers defense. The defensive line is deep but there might not be a blue-chip pass rusher. Special teams have been an issue for this team and Ted Ginn departed in feee agency (McCaffrey should actually improve them though). The division is as hard as it gets in football and it really is anyone's guess who emerges as the top team in 2017.
- 2016 record: 7-8-1
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 9.4
- 2017 Vegas over/onder: 8.0
Overview: Like the Panthers before them, 2016 was a nightmare season for the Cardinals. And like the Panthers, Week 1 probably should have been a sign: despite being handed a matchup against a Tom Brady-less Patriots team in a home opener, Arizona could not pick up the win against New England. They would fall to the lowly Bills on the road in Week 3 and to the lowlier Rams at home in Week 4. They would tie the Seahawks 6-6 in a beautifully horrific overtime game in Week 7 where Chandler Cantanzaro couldn't bury a short field goal. Bruce Arians was not amused. Carson Palmer looked like a shell of a 2015 MVP candidate for much of the season and . Michael Floyd, the would-be heir to Larry Fitzgerald's title as top receiver, was pushed out the door . A team that was a top-tier defense slipped to the middle of the pack.
Why they will make the playoffs: That Pythagorean win total should be highly encouraging to the Cardinals, because it indicates they were actually a playoff-worthy team last year if things went their way. Also encouraging was the play of Carson Palmer down the stretch in 2016 -- he completed 61 percent of his passes for 260 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in his final five games of the season. David Johnson put . This year he wants to hit 1,000 yards receiving and 1,000 yards rushing. The Cardinals would probably like to diversify their offensive attack, but when a guy is playing the way Johnson is playing, there's no reason to mess with happy. He should be a workhorse again in 2017. Fitzgerald once again topped the 100 reception mark and once again went over 1,000 yards. He's older now, but he also probably and could easily be in line for one of those mystical "throw it all out there" throwback seasons. Defensively this team lost a lot in the offseason via free agency (most notably Calais Campbell) but because of the way the draft fell, with teams trading up for quarterbacks, Arizona was able to add two immediate impact players in Hasaan Reddick and Budda Baker. Lots of folks are down on this defense, but if the pieces click this is a dangerous team full of play-makers like Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones and Tyrann Mathieu.
Why they won't make the playoffs: Everything might hinge on two former first-round picks, D.J. Humphries and Robert Nkemdiche, who have yet to really make an impact for the Cardinals. Arizona's front office and coaching staff are perfectly fine with players redshirting a year before really stepping in, but it makes it a full-on projection to assume they can be impact player on the offensive line and defensive line, respectively. It wouldn't be stunning if both players weren't ready for the spotlight. That would have a bad trickle-down effect on protecting Palmer and on the defensive line being able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Reddick and Baker are rookies -- they are play-makers but they're not guaranteed to be impact guys out of the gate. The secondary has tons of talent, but it isn't guaranteed to be deep and could be a problem like it was last year. Receiver outside of Fitzgerald is an issue. John Brown was a breakout wide receiver two years ago, but the man known as "Smoke" never recovered from a preseason concussion last season. J.J. Nelson, Jaron Brown and rookie Chad Williams are the next best options. David Johnson underwent surgery this offseason; he 100 percent has to be healthy (or has to be close to 100 percent healthy) if the Cardinals offense stands a chance.
- 2016 record: 9-7
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 8.1
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 9
Overview: The Titans were one of the biggest surprises last year, winning nine games that featured one of the league's best offensive lines paving the way for DeMarco Murray's resurgent season. The defense played well enough and Marcus Mariota quietly emerged as one of the best young NFL quarterbacks during a stretch of the season last year. The Week 10 game against the Packers in Nashville where . If the Titans offense had clicked a little sooner -- Tennessee only averaged 15.5 points per game in its first four games while going 1-3 -- the Titans could have won the division and supplanted the Texans as the AFC South's playoff participant. That would have spared us from a Brock Osweiler vs. Connor Cook game. Thanks to their success, the Titans are one of the trendiest teams this offseason.
Why they will make the playoffs: There is a pretty good history of a rushing attack being the sort of thing that teams can replicate from year to year, provided that the offensive line remains in place. The Titans certainly qualify: they have the same personnel starting on the offensive line this year that was playing in November of last season. Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan are anchors at the two tackle positions and they will help protect Mariota and pave the way for Murray. Even if Murray's workload is a concern, second-round pick Derrick Henry, who looked like he was ready to start as soon as last year, should see an increase in carries this season. It would take multiple injuries for the Titans running game to be completely derailed. Mariota should take a step forward too this year and . Corey Davis was a top-five addition in the draft, while Eric Decker was one of the best pickups in free agency, especially considering how late he was acquired. Delanie Walker is a stalwart in terms of catching the ball and it's easy to like what the Titans have put around their franchise quarterback. The defense has to be better too. Logan Ryan was a pricey offseason addition and Adoree Jackson, the Titans other first-round pick, gives Tennessee massive upgrades at cornerback. Let's be real too: this division is extremely winnable. When picking these teams to jump up or down, the AFC South is a pretty soft target, even if the Colts and Texans have had a stranglehold on it for a while. It wouldn't be stunning to see Houston, Indy or Jacksonville fail to live up to expectations.
Why they won't make the playoffs: On the other hand, Tennessee could be the team to fall short of the hype. As is plainly evident from the Titans Pythagorean win total, they weren't expected to be nine-win team last year and overachieved based on their point differential. What makes them so interesting is the strong play late and sometimes assuming year-to-year momentum is a dangerous thing to do. Their opening stretch is brutal, with a home game against the Raiders, a road game against Jacksonville, a home game against the Seahawks and then road games against the Texans and Dolphins. Those teams aren't the '85 Bears, but the home/road splits there are tough. Another slow start could be on the table. Do we trust Mularkey to be consistently good? Most people were aghast the Titans decided to bring him back for the 2016 season, believing him to be a placeholder while ownership tried to sell the franchise. Instead he thrust himself in the coach of the year discussion. The offense plays a style it can repeat over the course of an additional season, but if Mariota takes a step back (he looked like he was moving in the wrong direction early last year) then the Titans could struggle to achieve the heights of the second half in 2016. Ryan and Jackson are nice new toys in the secondary, but they're also a) an undersized No. 1 corner and b) a rookie who will be forced to adjust to Dick LeBeau's scheme. Everyone loving the Titans might be the biggest concern here.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 2016 record: 9-7
- 2016 Pythagorean wins: 7.6
- 2017 Vegas over/under: 8.5
Overview: Another overachieving team with a special, young talent at quarterback, the Buccaneers, like the Titans, also nearly made a playoff run in 2016, falling just short in what was a surprising season for Dirk Koetter in his rookie campaign as coach. Jameis Winston topped 4,000 passing yards again, although the Buccaneers success came despite a lack of a running game. Jacquizz Rodgers (560 yards) was the team's leading rusher thanks to Doug Martin's injuries and off-field struggles. . Tampa's defense improved, moving from Lovie Smith's soft Tampa 2 to the defense run by Mike Smith, despite the fact that they didn't necessarily have the personnel they would prefer to run Smith's scheme. The team went big this offseason, improving things around Winston by adding DeSean Jackson in free agency and O.J. Howard in the draft. Mike Evans emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL early in a pass-heavy offense.
Why they will make the playoffs: The offense has to take a step forward and become more balanced, not just in terms of pass vs. run, but also in terms of stretching the field. Jackson might very well be the most important offseason addition in the entire NFL when it comes to that -- he dramatically improves deep-ball accuracy of the quarterbacks he plays with and Winston badly needs to improve his deep ball. With Jackson, he has a receiver who can stretch the field vertically and open up things underneath for Evans. Add in Cameron Brate and Howard, the latter already an accomplished run blocker, and the Buccaneers have a host of weapons for Winston to work with. He could take a major leap and become a top-five quarterback/borderline MVP candidate if everything clicks correctly. Just for good measure the Bucs threw Chris Godwin into the mix as a third-round pick at wideout. Safety Justin Evans (second round this year) should improve the back end as should free-agent addition J.J. Wilcox. Vernon Hargreaves had an underrated rookie season and should take a step forward next year while working with Smith. The front seven is an underappreciated unit, with Gerald McCoy, potential Pro Bowl pass rusher Noah Spence and linebacker Lavonte David. This defense was better than anyone expected last year and could improve on its production.
Why they won't make the playoffs: Just like the Panthers, the Buccaneers face a difficult division. It will be hard for both of those teams to make the playoffs, although not impossible. The curse of "Hard Knocks" is in play here; Tampa will be MUCH hyped coming into the season after people watch this bunch of colorful personalities at work courtesy of NFL Films. It's pretty difficult to imagine the offense not being dangerous with all these weapons, but Howard is a rookie tight end (a position that doesn't usually see much production in the first year) and Evans did see his production tail off a little bit down the stretch as the team tried to run the ball more effectively. And what if Martin isn't ready to return to being a feature back? He's looked good in the offseason, but you can't hinge the running game on Charles Sims and Rodgers. This team needs Martin to pound the rock and set up Winston to wing the ball deep to Jackson. The defense was improved last year but it was still only middle of the pack in terms of points allowed. The Buccaneers lived on the edge for most of the season, playing 10 of their 16 games to a single score and winning six of those games. If Tampa is unlucky and the team is struck by an injury bug and doesn't win close games, the season has the potential to go south.