Redskins, Ravens lead list of five teams that could make leap into the playoff field in 2018
Washington and Baltimore are two of the less obvious contenders to make the playoffs after missing out last year
Every year the NFL is slammed full of parity -- a couple of surprising teams jump up and make the playoffs, while several teams we never thought in our wildest dreams could regress manage to fall back and miss the postseason.
Oddly enough, four out of the last 10 Super Bowl winners have managed to miss the playoffs the following year, with the Eagles TBD. Philadelphia was one of the teams . Judging by my mentions, Eagles fans have abandoned the City of Brotherly Love moniker.
Nevertheless, we soldier bravely on to a group of teams who WILL make the playoffs in 2018. Last year this was my poorly performing segment -- after going 4-1 on my teams to miss,. I firmly believe this year will be better, because there are a pair of very obvious candidates who should make the postseason.
Love the list, hate the list or just want to cuss at someone? Let me know on Twitter @WillBrinson.
And for a more detailed breakdown of possible playoff teams, check out the Pick Six Podcast, which features former Steelers cornerback and CBS Sports HQ star Bryant McFadden and I breaking down our choice of five teams who will make the leap. If you subscribe and listen to our daily NFL podcast, we will be best friends. Not even kidding. Your options to eternal friendship: via iTunes | via Stitcher | via TuneIn | via Google Play
Los Angeles Chargers
- 2017 Record: 9-7
- 2017 Expected Wins: 10.4
- : 9.5
Overview: Everyone knew this was coming, right? The Chargers aren't just , they're also the favorite in their division for the first time in a while, and it makes some sense. The Chargers lost Hunter Henry already during OTAs, but largely had a very nice offseason. They added Maurkice Pouncey to what might be the best offensive line in front of Philip Rivers since LaDainian Tomlinson was there and stole Derwin James with their first-round pick of the draft. They're a year removed from moving and Anthony Lynn has some experience as a head coach now. Everyone should be more comfortable.
Why They Will Make The Playoffs: They shouldn't be on this list, because they should have made the playoffs last year. Los Angeles finished 9-7 after starting 0-4 and easily should have been 2-2 at worst. Their other three losses were an eight-point loss in New England to the Patriots, a three-point overtime loss in Jacksonville to the Jaguars and an ugly meltdown against the Chiefs late in December, with Rivers making an MVP push and the Chargers threatening to steal the division away. They are talented at every position -- Rivers is still a top-10 quarterback, Melvin Gordon's established himself as a consistent runner out of the backfield, Keenan Allen showed signs of a major breakthrough last year and they'll be getting Forrest Lamp back on the offensive line, which already features Dan Feeney, Russell Okung and Pouncey. Defensively, Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are the best edge-rushing duo in the league, and James on the back end will make this defense studly. If there were ever a year to take this division it's now, with the Chiefs in transition at quarterback, the Raiders in transition with their coach and the Broncos trying to figure things out. This should be the Chargers' year, especially with a soft schedule.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs: Chargers-related things. This team has found a way to flub good situations before over the past 10-15 years. The Henry injury is certainly ominous -- Vegas dropped the Chargers from roughly 14-1 to win the Super Bowl to 22-1 after that injury, and it mainly felt like "because they're the Chargers" reasons. The defense is very good, but the linebackers can be issues, Corey Liuget will be missing for four games to start the year and Jason Verrett has to stay healthy for a full season. Rivers has shown he can mature physically as a quarterback but it's possible he just completely falls off a cliff and he's certainly at the age where it might happen. Patrick Mahomes could be great for Kansas City, the Broncos defense might be elite and Jon Gruden could fire up the Raiders into another 12-win season. It's all on the table but the Chargers have a nice path.
Green Bay Packers
- 2017 Record: 7-9
- 2017 Expected Wins: 6.3
- : 10
Overview: Another obvious option for a very obvious reason: Aaron Rodgers. The Most Physically Gifted Quarterback Ever lost another large chunk of a season in 2017 when he suffered a broken collarbone on his throwing shoulder. The disastrous season resulted in major turnover on all levels. Ted Thompson out as GM, Dom Capers out as defensive coordinator, Alex Van Pelt out as QB coach, Jordy Nelson out as Rodgers No. 1 weapon. Brian Guntekunst did a fine job this offseason, bringing in Mike Pettine as DC and picking up some weapons like Jimmy Graham. He also added Muhammad Wilkerson on the defense and picked up Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson to beef up the defensive backfield. All in all, it's pretty clear the expectations are there for Green Bay to contend or win the division -- if Rodgers is healthy, missing the playoffs would be a massive disappointment.
Why They Will Make The Playoffs: Again, Rodgers. He's the most dangerous quarterback in football when he's healthy. No one has a higher ceiling. He'll be protected by a strong offensive line and has Davante Adams (a blossoming star wideout), Graham, Randall Cobb and some young talent to throw to. The running game needs to get sorted out, but there's plenty of bodies back there. Defensively, this is the best team the Packers have rolled out in the past few years. I'm obnoxiously high on how much of a difference Pettine can make for this team -- his defenses were outstanding when he coached under Rex Ryan, and his tenure with the Browns was much better than people thought, in hindsight.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs: Just look at last year if you need evidence about the Packers not making it to the postseason. Rodgers has missed significant time in recent years, so while him losing a large chunk of the season would still be random and still be disappointing, it might actually conjure up "Is Aaron Rodgers Past His Prime and Injury Prone?" takes. Don't sell the media short on that one. The defense doesn't have to be good. I'm in on Pettine this offseason, but that could all turn quickly if the young secondary doesn't take a leap and the front seven can't pressure anyone. The running game is just kind of an assume thing at this point, but Aaron Jones is suspended, we don't know how the Packers want to use Ty Montgomery, so Jamaal Williams is sort of the guy by default but without great stats from last year. If Adams doesn't live up to the billing, Rodgers' receivers will have taken a major step back from peak Jordy Nelson.
- 2017 Record: 9-7
- 2017 Expected Wins: 10.4
- : 6.5
Overview: There's some commotion around this team because of incumbent quarterback/Super Bowl hero Joe Flacco sitting on an extremely hot seat. The selection of Lamar Jackson in the first round signified the Ravens' long-term plans and perhaps even their short-term plans: if Flacco is bad this year, Jackson can get on the field. He's electrified the city of Baltimore, he's electrified the Ravens fanbase and, frankly, thinking about Jackson running a fast-paced offense is electrifying. Even without Jackson under center, the Ravens have enough on hand to do some damage in the AFC North. Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown might be the best trio of wideouts Flacco's had in a few years, which says something (bad about their previous receivers). All of those guys were added this offseason, which is the final offseason of Ozzie Newsome's tenure as Ravens GM. There could certainly be a "Win One For Ozzie" sentiment here, which sounds foolish, but the Ravens managed to make it work the last time they won a Super Bowl.
Why They Will Make The Playoffs: We spend so much time in 2018 focusing on skill-position guys, we often lose sight of the fact where football is played, and the Ravens are deep in the trenches. They have a mauling offensive line, and it shouldn't be surprising if Orlando Brown -- a good football player with terrible combine testing -- ends up producing right away. Alex Collins is an under-appreciated smashmouth running back. Dude plays with his hair on fire. Even if you don't believe Flacco steps up, there are enough dangerous guys on offense to stretch the field and give him a deep weapon. Personally I don't want to bet against Joe Flacco with his back up against the wall. I've seen it and he turns into Joe Montana. Defensively this is a top-three DVOA team that didn't do a lot to get better in the offseason, but they don't need to get better. Baltimore shut out three teams last year! It doesn't sound as great as it should, but shutting out three different NFL teams in a single season in this era of passing is pretty impressive. Four of their seven losses were by one score, and they were 0-4 in those games. John Harbaugh is a very good coach. They have a three-game stretch of road games early but win one of those and they're getting to nine wins.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs: The whole Flacco-Lamar thing could completely unravel. Flacco's got pretty much carte blanche in Baltimore to do what he wants, but he knows the situation. He won't be on the Ravens in 2019, barring an injury to Jackson. His contract is unwieldy and Baltimore just invested in a big-name quarterback who got irrationally pushed down draft boards. The running game could struggle if Collins can't repeat last year's success and the offensive line isn't up to snuff. It's hard to see the defense being bad, per se, but the Ravens managed to the miss the playoffs with an elite defense last year. The difference now is they have a parachute for the offense if Flacco struggles.
- 2017 Record: 7-9
- 2017 Expected Wins: 6.8
- : 6.5
Overview: Last year's Redskins team is treated as a bad squad with a stats-padding quarterback and a questionable defense. But the narrative could have been much different: no one in the NFL lost more games to injuries than Washington last year, per Football Outsiders' Adjusted Games Lost metric, and no one will remember this was a top-five team against the run before Jonathan Allen went down after five weeks. Cue a double down on the defensive line, with Da'Ron Payne joining his old Crimson Tide mate in the middle of this defensive line. Washington also dipped into the draft for LSU running back Derrius Guice, who might end up being the steal of the draft if he plays to his potential as a bell cow. Oh yeah: they decided to bail on Kirk Cousins, trading for Alex Smith before letting Cousins know about his free agency freedom. The offense has a makeover, but it's not that different.
Why They Will Make The Playoffs: This is not a perfect division for a playoff run, but it's better than the NFC South or the AFC East. The Eagles are the reigning champs and could destroy everyone. Or they could struggle to get healthy! Anything is possible in the NFL. The Cowboys don't have to be good this year, and the Giants are banking on Eli Manning returning to form. Washington is a sleeper to steal the NFC East. The offense is better suited for what Jay Gruden wants now -- Smith gives them a higher floor than Cousins, and if the offensive line is healthy, I'd bet on Guice easily topping 1,200 yards rushing. Jamison Crowder was tailor-made to work with a QB like Smith. I've been a Josh Doctson fan for a few years; now is the time for a breakout. Jordan Reed healthy would be icing on the cake. It's just a very bizarre situation, because the roster is consistent despite a ton of turnover. Smith isn't the type of guy to shake stuff up; he has a limited window left and gives them a really good shot to be entertaining and a thief in this division.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs: I could totally miss on Smith, who bears some similarity to Donovan McNabb (older veteran drafted with a top-five pick, traded by Andy Reid to Washington late in this career). Maybe Cousins going away reminds everyone how good he was. The pass-catchers don't have to stay healthy or be productive -- no one's done either on that front in the past few years. The offensive line injuries could be considered not a fluke, and it might just be a problem. If the defensive line doesn't stay healthy or generate pressure, the back end of the defense could struggle mightily to hold up. The Cowboys and Giants could be better and the Eagles could steamroll people. Gruden is -- unfairly, I think -- on the list of coaches who could be fired early per Vegas. If the wheels come off early, D.C. is always ripe for a football soap opera.
San Francisco 49ers
- 2017 Record: 6-10
- 2017 Expected Wins: 6.6
- : 9
Overview: This is so preposterous, having the 49ers at nine wins to start the season. They were a single-win team (1-10) before adding Jimmy Garoppolo and inserting him into the starting lineup. They were TERRIBLE. I've been sort of anti-49ers this offseason and now I find myself sort of buying into them as a sneaky NFC team to make the postseason. Credit to John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan for not sitting on their laurels this offseason. They went out and got aggressive in free agency and the draft, snaring Jerick McKinnon for a high price. If anyone else does that we might question it, but McKinnon certainly fits what Shanahan wants to do with his running backs. Mike McGlinchey in the draft gives them a potential long-term replacement for Joe Staley at left tackle. Richard Sherman is the headliner addition for a defense that feels a year away but might be terrifying if everything clicks.
Why They Will Make The Playoffs: Jimmy G is the truth and what we saw last year -- a calm, cool, collected signal caller dealing under pressure and playing Baby Brady -- carries over into 2018. If that's the case, you better buy fantasy stock in guys like Marquise Goodwin and George Kittle, because they will be catching passes from Jimmy G and those are two potential studs. Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas could all potentially hit their stride next year and make this defensive line one of the best in the league. Reuben Foster is suspended but for only two games. Sherman, if healthy, will have something to prove. Put the over/under on his interceptions of Russell Wilson next year at 1.5 and take the over. Adrian Colbert is on Pete Prisco's breakout stars team, and watching him, you can see why. Too many people know about this team, and they might be a year away, but if everything clicks, they will arrive this year and challenge the Rams for division supremacy.
Why They Could Miss The Playoffs: Everything doesn't have to click. The league's now got an entire offseason of watching Jimmy G under its belt, and that could result in a worse performance next year. His sample size is impossible to replicate on a full-season scale. (Right?) There might be serious growing pains for this offense, even with Shanahan and all those weapons. It's not a full-blown elite unit like he had in Atlanta, by any means. All those wonderful defensive pieces we mentioned could take another year to click -- Thomas wasn't a major impact guy last year, Foster didn't stay healthy, Sherman is coming off a torn Achilles and going to a new scheme. The Seahawks and Cardinals could very well be much better than anyone expects. A top-half finish for the 49ers is not a free gift by any stretch.
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