Denver. Seattle. New England. Indianapolis. ... You’ll hear a lot of predictions this summer about what NFL teams will be left standing when the playoffs open. But many of those predictions will fizzle when teams’s fortunes take unexpected turns during the regular season.
There is one near certainty you can count on from this season’s NFL playoff field — there will be some surprise new entrants.
There were five new playoff teams last season that weren’t involved in the previous season’s tournament. And over the past three seasons there’s been an average of more than five new teams in each season’s playoff field.
So which teams will surprise — and which will disappoint? — this season in the NFL? Let’s take a look at some of the contenders:
Teams that could rise
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Is it fair to say a team that’s been to the playoffs in five straight years is on the rise? It is in this case.
Yes, the Packers won the NFC North with a 8-7-1 record last year. But really they underachieved because of their struggles during Aaron Rodgers’s seven-week layoff for a broken collarbone. The Packers were 5-2 when Rodgers went down and fell to 7-7-1 without him. In any other division, they would have been eliminated. Yet the ineptitude of their rivals in Chicago and Detroit down the stretch allowed Rodgers to come back in Week 17 and claim the playoff spot for the Packers.
With Rodgers healthy this year, the Packers should be better positioned for a deep playoff run. They added two significant defensive playmakers in safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers to a unit that’s anchored by Clay Matthews. The Packers open with a big challenge on a Thursday night in Seattle. That offers Rodgers an early opportunity to show that he intends to join the club of quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl trophies.
Why they might not rise: Their schedule is rough. In addition to Seattle, the Packers also play Carolina, New Orleans, Philadelphia and New England — all 2013 playoff teams. Plus, there’s a chance the Bears and Lions (with new coach Jim Caldwell) learned from their 2013 mistakes and will be ready to mount a stiffer challenge.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Steady leadership from new head coach Lovie Smith is a big change that could lift the Bucs, who were 4-12 last year. Former coach Greg Schiano ran a program that players chafed at (Darrelle Revis, before fleeing Tampa for New England, called it a “real tense” work environment). Smith, who was 81-63 in nine seasons leading the Bears, will install a more mellow atmosphere that allows the players to be at ease in a way that Schiano’s demanding style didn’t.
Still, coaches don’t win games — players do. And the Bucs have some talent in running back Doug Martin (healthy again) and the receiving duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. They’ll be working with journeyman quarterback in Josh McCown, who’s new to Tampa, but not new to working with Smith.
On defense, Revis may be gone, but there are playmakers in key positions such as new cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive linemen Michael Johnson and Gerald McCoy and safety Mark Barron. McCoy said the tone Smith has set in the building has allowed players to enjoy themselves, a trait that was missing in recent seasons. Just as John Fox (2011 Broncos) and Andy Reid (2013 Chiefs) used their veteran coaching guile to turn new teams into playoff contenders, look for Smith to have his team in the hunt in December.
Why they might not rise: The path through the NFC South isn’t easy with the Panthers (12-4 last year) and Saints (11-5) both returning from playoff runs. And the Falcons should bounce back from an off year. Plus, the Bucs have the worst quarterback in the division in McCown.
The Falcons’s 4-12 finish last year was a surprise from a team that was minutes away from clinching a berth in the Super Bowl the previous season. But as injuries to key playmakers mounted — including star receiver Julio Jones — the Falcons slipped into a funk they couldn’t get out of.
Fortunately, the core of the team that had five consecutive winning seasons before 2013 is still in place. And there are reasons to think they’ll return to the playoffs, starting with quarterback Matt Ryan. He’s still firmly in the second tier of the NFL’s quarterback echelon, mainly because of his lack of success in the playoffs, and he’s motivated to change that. Ryan is a two-time Pro Bowler with a 60-34 career regular-season record, but those accolades are obscured by his failures in the playoffs, where Ryan is just 1-4.
Ryan (who signed a $113 million contract last year) is already paid like a top-tier quarterback. Now he needs to produce like one. He’s got great weapons — Jones and Roddy White are Pro Bowlers who should ascend back to that level after down years — and a reloaded offensive line. Ryan must prove he can put the team on his back in crunch time.
Why they might not rise: The Falcons defense is not as strong as their offense and the unit lost stalwart linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to a torn Achilles tendon in June. Hopefully his injury wasn’t an omen for their season.
A playoff spot is probably too much to ask from the Texans, especially with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting at quarterback. But they should improve significantly on last year’s sorry 2-14 effort. There is a lot of Pro Bowl talent on this roster: JJ Watt, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Duane Brown, Brian Cushing. Add top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to that mix and there should be optimism in Houston about the team new coach Bill O’Brien is building.
Quarterback will be a problem spot until O’Brien either injects a new level of talent into Fitzpatrick or finds a different long-term answer. The Texans won’t be a serious playoff threat until they figure that out.
Still, it won’t be surprising if the Texans flirt with .500 — especially in the soft AFC South — in O’Brien’s rookie season, which could leave them just a new quarterback away from threatening in 2015.
Why they might not rise: Fitzpatrick. Would he be the starting quarterback on any other team? Maybe the Titans, but that’s not saying much.
Teams that could fall
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Andy Reid’s team did not appear to add significant new assets to a club that stumbled to six losses in its final eight games after a 9-0 start last season. Quarterback Alex Smith has a valuable weapon in running back Jamaal Charles, but his depth chart options tail off considerably after that. (And top receiver Dwayne Bowe hasn’t performed at his former Pro Bowl level for the past two seasons.) The Chiefs defense is solid, but overall they have a look of a team that overachieved in 2013 and will have a hard time maintaining that pace this year.
Why they might not fall: Reid doesn’t miss the playoffs often. He has been to the postseason 10 times in 15 seasons. So he may have a plan that neutralizes the Chiefs’s weaknesses.
If this team had a quarterback other than Andy Dalton, the Bengals wouldn’t be in this category. They have an impressive defense that’s ranked in the top 10 in each of the last three seasons. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’ve been to the playoffs in three straight years. Of course, they haven’t won any playoff games in that time frame. And in January, superior quarterback play is often what separates teams and the Bengals don’t have that. Consider Dalton’s career playoff statistics: three starts, 56.9 percent completion rate, one touchdown pass, six picks, 56.2 rating. Until Dalton proves he can win a big game, he’ll be a liability that will make many skeptical of the Bengals’s chances.
Why they might not fall: A good defense added yet another good player in cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the draft. There are so many playmakers, and with Pro Bowler Geno Atkins due back soon, that it’s possible the defense powers the Bengals to a playoff spot again — in spite of their quarterback.
Who is going to catch the ball? The three leading wide receivers from last year — Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell (now with Patriots) and Ted Ginn — are gone. In their place are journeymen Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and ex-Patriots castoff Tiquan Underwood, plus top pick Kelvin Benjamin. The No. 1 pick notwithstanding (rookie receivers are seldom dependable), that lineup can’t make quarterback Cam Newton too excited. And Carolina has had the same top running back tandem in DeAngelo Williams, 31, and Jonathan Stewart, 27, for six seasons. How much do they have left?
Why they might not fall: Newton is a playmaker who makes it look like he can be a one-man offense at times. On the other side, Luke Kuechly is on the of NFL’s best young defenders. Those two anchors can make up for liabilities elsewhere.
Is it possible for the league’s worst defense to get even worse? We’ll see, because the Cowboys had the 32nd-ranked unit last year and seem to have regressed on paper. Two of their best defenders, Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware, left. Another, Sean Lee, suffered a season-ending torn ACL in June. Their defense is filled with question marks. And how many people really believe 34-year-old Tony Romo (and his balky back) when he says that his best years are still ahead of him? Cowboys fans want playoffs after three straight seasons of 8-8 records. That’s probably wishful thinking.
Why they might not fall: It’s hard to make the case. But if Romo recaptures the form he had in his 20s and if he stays healthy and if the defense plays way above expectations, then maybe head coach Jason Garrett can finally deliver the winning season he’s been seeking since 2010. But that’s a lot of ifs.