Since the NFL expanded to a 32-team league back in 2002, the league's annual postseason tournament has featured an average of 5.8 teams that did not participate in the playoffs the year before. There have been as many as eight new teams in the playoffs (2003) and never fewer than four (2012 and 2015).
As of this writing, six teams are in position to make the postseason after missing it last year, two from the AFC and four from the NFC. The Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders have taken the places of the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC. In the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Los Angeles Rams have taken the place of the Carolina Panthers, the Arizona Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers, and the Washington Redskins.
Which of those six teams is most likely to still be in possession of its playoff spot at the end of the season and which is likely to relinquish it? After watching tape and breaking down numbers for all six teams, we ranked them below -- in reverse order of likelihood to make the playoffs.
6. Los Angeles Rams
We may live to regret this ranking as the Rams don't play another team that currently has a winning record until they meet the New England Patriots in Week 13, but they are still the team in this group that seems most like a mirage.
They've have arrived at their 3-1 record despite having been outscored by 13 points so far this season; that record includes a 28-0 loss to the 49ers in Week 1, which they followed up with one-score wins over the Seahawks, Buccaneers, and Cardinals. Point differential is generally a better indicator of future success than actual won-loss record, and blowouts also tend to be a better indicator of true team quality than close wins or losses because a team's record in one-score game tends to regress toward .500 over time. (The Rams themselves went 5-4 in one-score games last season and 3-4 the season before that.) Both of those factors point toward a regression in record over the next 12 games for the Rams.
We also have to consider that the Rams currently rank 32nd in yards per game, 30th in points per game, and 31st in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down, distance, and opponent). There hasn't been a single team since the league expanded to 32 teams to make the playoffs with a bottom-three ranking in offensive DVOA.
Considering the Rams are unlikely to get above-average quarterback play at any time this season, that their offensive line has been among the league's worst units in both pass-blocking and run-blocking, and that they are generally bereft of playmakers beyond Todd Gurley, they do not exactly strike one as the kind of team that is about to make a jump out of the offensive basement.
Add to all that a defense that has so far been good but not great (23rd in yards allowed, ninth in points per game allowed, 12th in defensive DVOA) and you have a team that is seemingly just waiting to fade out of the playoff picture.
5. Baltimore Ravens
Like the Rams, the Ravens have played a bunch of close contests; each of Baltimore's four games this season has been decided by one score. Their three wins have come over the Bills, Browns, and Jaguars, teams that are a combined 3-6 in their other nine games this season. (The lone loss was to the Raiders, who we'll get to later.) Only being able to beat those teams by a combined 14 points is not exactly a great sign for their future prospects.
The Ravens also have the misfortune of playing in what might be the most competitive division in football, and have to battle it out with both the Steelers and the Bengals for the AFC North crown. FiveThirtyEight's Elo rating system considers both of those teams more likely than Baltimore to actually finish atop the division, which puts a dent in the Ravens' postseason chances. If they're competing with four or five teams for two spots, it's much more difficult to get in.
Now, an interested observer might say that those qualifications apply to the Raiders as well, and wonder why Baltimore finished behind them in these rankings. (The Ravens have a better point differential than Oakland through four weeks and also share a division with two 2015 playoff teams in the Broncos and Chiefs.)
Here's why: Oakland's offense seems more likely to be a sustainably elite unit for the rest of the season than Baltimore's defense, due to the strength of the offensive line and the receivers surrounding Derek Carr; and we're more confident in the Oakland defense bouncing back from its comparatively poor performance than we are in Baltimore's offense.
4. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are surprisingly sitting at 3-1 despite being without Tony Romo, DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Rolando McClain for all four games, Tyron Smith for two, and Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick for one (and maybe more).
Dak Prescott is making believers out of everyone in the football world, Ezekiel Elliott is living up to expectations, and the defense (led by Byron Jones, Sean Lee, and the resurgent Morris Claiborne) has been merely below-average, as opposed to awful like it was last season.
They've been steady in a way that seems eminently sustainable, and we actually had a different team in this spot before taking a look at the schedule. (Really, you could put the next three teams in any order and it'd be OK by me.) In four of their next five games, they'll play the Bengals, Packers, Eagles, and Steelers. Dallas' three wins are over Washington, the Bears, and the 49ers, not exactly the class of the league.
The Cowboys are about to come up against a considerably tougher slate.
They'll be getting reinforcements on both sides of the ball in the form of Lawrence's return from suspension this week, Dez, Scandrick, and Tyron's expected returns from injury sometime soon, and Romo's possible/probable return sometime after the bye as well, but the Cowboys definitely seem like the team on this list with the greatest amount of unknowns.
When trying to determine which team has the best chance of doing something (in this case keeping a playoff spot), unknowns are the last thing you want to see. None of that is to say that the Cowboys can't or won't make the playoffs -- they actually seem like a pretty decent bet to do so. There are just a few safer bets on this list.
In what is quickly becoming a theme here, the Raiders have also played four one-score games. They've actually have two one-point victories in four weeks. That's an almost impossibly rare occurrence.
Like the Ravens, the Raiders play in a very tough division. FiveThirtyEight actually gives them a worse chance of winning the AFC West than the Ravens have of winning the North. The Broncos once again look like the class of the AFC West, and the 2-2 Chiefs could pick things up over the second half of the season once again, this time due to an offensive infusion when Jamaal Charles comes back from his latest ACL tear.
The Derek Carr-led offense is third in yards per game, seventh in points per game, and second in DVOA through four weeks and that's a good, solid base on which to build a contender, but the defense has been disappointing thus far, especially compared to expectations. We have confidence it can bounce back and become at least a league average unit, but it's safe to say that there's rational reason for at least mild concern.
The thing the Raiders have working in their favor is their schedule. They have a pretty good chance to stack wins with the Chargers, Chiefs, Jaguars, and Buccaneers coming up over the next four weeks. If they can go 3-1 or better during that stretch, it would go a long way toward securing playoff position, even if it's as a wild card team.
2. Atlanta Falcons
After watching all four games and looking into the numbers, I'm actually reasonably certain that both the Cowboys and Raiders are better football teams than the Falcons. Atlanta has an advantage they don't, though: the Falcons are 3-1 in a division where every other team is sitting at 1-3.
Getting off to a hot start doesn't guarantee you a playoff spot -- the Falcons know that better than anyone; they started 5-0 last year before missing the postseason. Getting off to a hot start, complete with a win over the biggest challenge standing in your way of a divisional title (the Panthers), while the rest of your division is ice cold, though, gives you a leg up. And that's what's happened for the Falcons so far.
And that's all before we get to the Atlanta offense, which has been the best in the NFL by every measure so far. The Falcons lead the NFL in yards and points per game, and are first in offensive DVOA. Matt Ryan leads all quarterbacks in every meaningful statistical category, and he's even been excellent when throwing to non-Julio Jones targets (79 of 105 for 985 yards, eight touchdowns, and two picks; good for a 121.3 passer rating). Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have combined for 451 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 95 carries, and have chipped in an additional 263 yards on 24 catches. The offense is firing on every cylinder possible.
I'm skeptical of the Falcons for two reasons, and they're why we originally listed the Falcons behind both the Cowboys and Raiders (and wouldn't begrudge anyone else who slotted them there):
- The schedule. The Falcons play the Broncos and Seahawks the next two weeks. Those are two of the best defenses in football, and the Falcons haven't played a defense ranked in the top-half of the league in DVOA yet. It's entirely possible that two weeks from now the Falcons will be a 3-3 team that has had merely a good offense through six weeks, rather than a great one through four.
- Their defense is an abomination. The Falcons rank 30th in yards allowed, 29th in points allowed, and 31st in defensive DVOA. And those figures might undersell how bad that unit really is. They rank in the bottom-half of the league in DVOA on passes everywhere except the right side of the field (they've been brutal on passes to the left and middle, as well as short, medium, and long), which is where Desmond Trufant spends a lot of his time. Only two teams have gotten pressure on the quarterback less often so far, per data from Pro Football Focus. They have the third-lowest Adjusted Sack Rate in the league, per Football Outsiders, which also ranks the 26th in Adjusted Line Yards against. This is a defense that does nothing well.
If the offense takes even a moderate step back, it may no longer be enough to prop up a defense that simply doesn't have anything going for it. It's just a matter of whether that step back happens soon (i.e., the next two weeks) or takes a while. The Falcons having a built-in margin of error in their division is the only reason they're ahead of the Cowboys and Raiders here.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles currently lead the NFL in point differential (plus-65) despite having played fewer games than 30 of the 31 other teams. They are the only team in the NFL that ranks in the top-five in DVOA in both sides of the ball. They have looked utterly dominant in their three games.
All that said, two of those three games were against the Browns and Bears, and this is still the same team that looked like it was tanking coming into the season. They're also the only team in the league that hasn't really had anything go wrong yet. That'll come at some point. We'll see how they deal with it then.
Still, they still get the Lions and the Redskins the next two weeks before they get into the meatier part of their schedule (Vikings-Cowboys-Giants-Seahawks-Packers-Bengals might be one of the toughest six-game stretches anyone has all year long), giving them a decent chance at running their record to 5-0 before they're seriously tested.
Barring injury or major regression (which, while it may come on offense, doesn't appear likely to on defense given the talent on hand and the fact the Jim Schwartz is running the show), they currently seem like the best bet of this group to be playing in the postseason.