Over the past two-and-half weeks, the NFL playoff field has been trimmed from 12 teams to two. Only the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles remain. The two teams will meet in Super Bowl LII in a week-and-a-half to wrap up what's been another thrilling season. But just because the season hasn't ended yet doesn't mean we can't already look ahead to the 2018 season.
Ten playoff teams have seen their seasons end in heartbreak. The Chiefs blew to the Titans at home. The Bills against the Jaguars. The Panthers watched Devin Funchess misplay a potential game-winning touchdown. The Rams went after a dominant regular season. The Falcons drew up when a touchdown would've sent them to the NFC title game. The Saints had their game against the Vikings won right up until the moment . as Myles Jack so eloquently put it. The Titans also got Brady'd. The Steelers lost to Blake Bortles. The Vikings to become the first team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl at their home stadium.
The 10 playoff runner-ups have seen their Super Bowl dreams dashed, but hope shouldn't be lost among the fallen. Most of them are set up for the future and should be in a position to contend for a playoff spot again in 2018. With that in mind -- and with 10 days to go until the Super Bowl, which means we're sorta killing time this week -- let's run through the 10 playoff losers' chances of doing what they failed to do this year. Let's rank their chances of making it to the 2019 Super Bowl.
We start with the Buffalo Bills ...
10. Buffalo Bills
- Point differential: -57
- DVOA: 21st
- Key question: Do they keep Tyrod Taylor?
The Bills are last for a myriad of reasons: They snuck into the playoffs with a nine-win season, they're stuck in the same division as the Patriots, and they have an uncertain quarterback situation. The long-term future of the Bills appears to be relatively bright and Sean McDermott coached the hell out of a team many assumed would be tanking in 2017, but this isn't a stacked Bills team. This is still a roster in need of rebuilding.
The Bills' point differential in 2017? Negative 57 -- roughly the same as the Bengals and Bears point differentials, and worse than the Redskins and 49ers point differentials. Barring a substantial upgrade of talent in the offseason, the Bills will likely regress or maintain their .500-ish level of play.
9. Tennessee Titans
- Point differential: -22
- DVOA: 18th
- Key question: Can they build an offensive system tailored to Marcus Mariota's strengths?
I've been high on the Titans for a while now. Marcus Mariota has a chance to develop into one of the game's best quarterbacks. But they -- both the team and Mariota -- weren't all that great in 2017, just like the Bills. The Titans were outscored by 22 points over the course of the season. By DVOA, the Titans ranked 18th. They were average for the most part, but like the Bills, they snuck in at 9-7.and I still think
But there's reasons to be optimistic about their future namely because he's talking like a coach who understands how to maximize Mariota's strengths -- a quality that Mularkey didn't have.. I have no idea how , but at the very least,
"We're going to run the football. We're going to run it from the quarterback being under center. We're going to run it from the QB being in gun. We're going to give Marcus some easy access throws, RPOs [run-pass options] or run relief," Vrabel said, per ESPN. "We're not going to run it into eight or nine guys. We're not going to be silly. I believe in screens. I believe in play-action, things he does well."
That's enough for the Titans to avoid the last spot on this list.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
- Point differential: +76
- DVOA: 10th
- Key question: Will they transition from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes?
Andy Reid is a top-five coach, evidenced by his track record of getting teams to the playoffs. But he hasn't yet shown the ability to get the Chiefs over the hump. The Chiefs rank above the Titans and Bills because, unlike those two teams, they were actually a good football team for most of the season, outscoring their opponents by 76 points and finishing 10th in DVOA.
But Reid's inability to get the Chiefs to turn the corner, a defense that got exposed in 2017, and an uncertain quarterback situation makes them an untrustworthy Super Bowl pick. Let's focus in on the quarterback situation, because that's ultimately what matters most. The Chiefs will have to ask themselves this offseason if they believe Alex Smith is the quarterback to get them to the Super Bowl or if 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes is ready to step in.
Either way, the Chiefs' Super Bowl chances aren't great. With Smith under center, they're very likely a contender to make the playoffs, but they're unlikely to overcome the hurdle that is the New England Patriots. With Mahomes and his big arm under center, their ceiling expands, but so does their floor -- and not in the right direction. Their best move is to jettison Smith via trade and play Mahomes. It might not end in a Super Bowl run in 2018, but it will improve their odds of winning one in the future once Mahomes accrues more experience.
Just don't expect Mahomes to immediately elevate the Chiefs to the status of Super Bowl contender. Mahomes is capable of making the impossible plays:
But he still needs to learn how to execute the little things on a play-by-play basis -- the things Smith does.
He can do things that help you win championships, but he still has to learn to do the things that get you to the playoffs— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) September 1, 2017
7. Carolina Panthers
- Point differential: +36
- DVOA: 9th
- Key question: Will ?
The Panthers would be higher if. Norv Turner has accomplished a ton over his lengthy career, but it's been a while since he's seen any sort of success.
Norv Turner hasn't coached a top 15 offense since the 2011 Chargers.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 9, 2018
The Panthers' chances also take a hit because they play in arguably the best division in football. The Saints aren't going anywhere unless they let Drew Brees leave in free agency. The Falcons should improve in their second year under Steve Sarkisian (more on that in a second). The Buccaneers ... well OK, the Panthers don't have to worry about them.
Don't get me wrong: The Panthers are a good football team with a good quarterback, a good young running back in Christian McCaffrey, one of the game's best tight ends in Greg Olsen, and a defense that finished the year seventh in DVOA. Circumstances around them, though, might prevent them from getting back to the postseason.
The Panthers need to get Newton a true WR1 if they're going to journey further in the playoffs the next time around. This is how their season ended:
6. Atlanta Falcons
- Point differential: +38
- DVOA: 15th
- Key question: Does the offense improve in Steve Sarkisian's second year?
Maybe listening to Pete Prisco on the Pick Six Podcast (subscribe here!) all year long has converted me to a Falcons believer, but I really do think this team is going to improve in 2018. Much of the criticism about this team has centered on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who took over for Kyle Shanahan. The criticism is justified. This is an offense that scored 22.1 points per game a season after scoring 33.8 points per game. The , with a trip to the NFC title game on the line, really sums it up:
Despite their lack of success,I'm not certain it's a bad decision.
Hear me out: In Shanahan's first season as the Falcons' offensive coordinator, they ranked seventh in yards and 21st in points, which is similar to their rankings under Sarkisian (eighth in yards and 15th in points). The point being, the Falcons' offense struggled to punch it into the end zone in Shanahan's first season before making the jump to light speed in Year 2. It's not unreasonable to suggest that they could do something similar under Sarkisian in 2018. The key personnel will return and they'll have 18 games in his system under their belt. Expect the Falcons to only get better.
5. Minnesota Vikings
- Point differential: +130
- DVOA: 4th
- Key question: Who will be their starting quarterback?
The Vikings' defense is coming off a season where it allowed the fewest yards and fewest points in football. It's not the reason why the Vikings are placed in the middle of this list. Uncertainty on the other side of the ball is. For one, theAnd two, who will be the Vikings' quarterback in 2018?
Case Keenum experienced a fairy-tale season, but it's going to be tough to commit top quarterback money to Keenum. He could be gone. Sam Bradford could be too. Even if he does take a one-year, prove-it deal to remain in Minnesota, he can't be relied upon to stay healthy after a season in which he was able to play in two of 16 regular-season games. Teddy Bridgewater might be back, but he hasn't started a game since 2015.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
- Point differential: +149
- DVOA: 8th
- Key question: Do they upgrade from Blake Bortles or stay the course?
We all know the Jaguars are going to trot out a top-five defense in 2018, but they need to upgrade at quarterback. This is where, say, Alex Smith comes into play. If the Jaguars land Smith or Kirk Cousins or Tyrod Taylor in the offseason, they're a Super Bowl contender. They already should've made it to the Super Bowl with Blake Bortles at quarterback, but Tom Brady overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit because he's Tom Brady. Imagine what will happen if the Jaguars land a quarterback who's a natural thrower of the football.
The Jaguars also need to improve their receiving corps. But that defense is too damn dominant (No. 1 in DVOA) to think they won't be back in the playoffs a year from now. If they can come within a few points of upsetting the Patriots in the AFC title game with Blake Bortles, they can win it all with a Smith, Cousins or Taylor next year. Unfortunately, the Jaguars' deep playoff run might force them to keep Bortles, which would hurt their chances in 2018.
Of note: I have the Jaguars above the Vikings because their defense is younger. But these two teams stack up very similarly.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
- Point differential: +98
- DVOA: 3rd
- Key question: Can they finally get over the hump?
This one's easy: Big Ben is returning. Le'Veon Bell should be back, even if that means the Steelers have to franchise tag him again. Antonio Brown isn't going anywhere. That alone gives the Steelers the most explosive offense in football without factoring in the young JuJu Smith-Schuster. Then, there's their defense, which finished ninth in DVOA. Barring an injury to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are the biggest lock in this group to return to the playoffs.
The reason they're No. 3 and not No. 1? They've never demonstrated the ability to overcome the Patriots, who stand in their path in the AFC. They've gone winless against the Patriots in their past five meetings. And the Patriots aren't going anywhere. They've been to the playoffs in each of the past nine seasons and have advanced to the AFC Championship game in their past seven seasons. If the Steelers can't find a way to overcome the Patriots, they can't win a Super Bowl. It's as simple as that.
2. Los Angeles Rams
- Point differential: +149
- DVOA: 2nd
- Key question: Can they keep cornerback Trumaine Johnson?
And that leaves the Rams as one of the last two teams standing, which is amazing considering where the Rams were a year ago: coming off a 4-12 season with an alleged quarterback bust. Now? They're fresh off an 11-5 season that saw Jared Goff, under Sean McVay's tutelage, throw for 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Todd Gurley gave Brady his biggest challenge for MVP. And Aaron Donald looked like the best defensive player in football again.
The Rams finished behind only the Saints in DVOA. They tied the Jaguars for the best point-differential (plus-149) on this list. Only the Super Bowl-bound Patriots and Eagles finished above them. Goff should improve as he accumulates more experience. The average age of their offensive starters at the beginning of the season: 26, according to ESPN. The team should handle the playoffs better than they did this season, when they looked like a first-time playoff team in a home loss to the Falcons. The Rams are here to stay as a true contender in the NFC.
They have the added bonus of not having to face the Patriots until the Super Bowl, which vaults them above the Steelers.
1. New Orleans Saints
- Point differential: +122
- DVOA: 1st
- Key question: Will they keep Drew Brees?
If Drew Brees comes back, the Saints look a lot like a Super Bowl contender. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara form the best running back tandem in football. WR1 Michael Thomas became the first player in NFL history to snag 200 receptions in his first two seasons. Their defense, led by the young cornerback Marshon Lattimore and the veteran dominant pass-rusher Cameron Jordan, was the eighth-best by DVOA. As a team, they outscored their foes by 122 points and ranked first in DVOA.
If not for one awful fluky play, the Saints would've been in the NFC title game. They can get there in 2018. It all comes down to Brees' free agency. If they have a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback in Brees, the league's best running back duo, and a top-10 defense, they're a legit Super Bowl contender.