There are many fabulous aspects of the NFL, and one I appreciate is the turnover in playoff teams year to year. We often get four or five different teams make the playoffs in a season.
We also usually get one team that goes from worst to first in its division, and though we didn’t see that this season, we got close. The 49ers and Packers both finished with losing records and just above fourth place in their division last year, and then they made it to the top this year.
Looking forward to 2020, which teams do I expect to make that jump? To me, there are two categories: the teams that are clear-cut candidates and the ones that are a bit more unexpected.
4 teams that are obvious playoff contenders in 2020
A couple of this year’s playoff teams, like the 49ers and Packers, should’ve been expected to get back to the postseason. The 49ers just needed a healthy quarterback and the Packers needed a new coach.
There are plenty of others in that same boat heading into 2020. Here are the teams that feel close with just a little adjustment.
The Cowboys have hired Mike McCarthy and say what you want, but McCarthy won a bunch of games in Green Bay. His offense did get stale in Green Bay and McCarthy has vowed to change his ways. Either way, I think he’s good enough to win more games for them than Jason Garrett did.
If we assume the Cowboys do re-sign Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, and make sure to bring back what they can of 26 unrestricted free agents, they have the bones of a playoff team. They need to improve their defense for sure, and McCarthy has hired Mike Nolan for that task. The Cowboys can be primed for that jump back to the top of the division.
Pittsburgh’s defense finished third in DVOA this season, which is remarkable considering how awful the offense was. The Steelers still came thiiiiis close to the playoffs despite all their injuries, especially at quarterback.
As long as Ben Roethlisberger returns next season, and the Steelers get average play from him, they will make the playoffs.
Just like the Steelers, the Colts had to play the season without the quarterback they had planned to start. Jacoby Brissett is much better than who the Steelers rolled out, but he really struggled down the stretch. I thought he’d play better this season than he ended up doing.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard gave what can best be described as a lukewarm endorsement of Brissett:
"The jury's still out" -- Chris Ballard on QB Jacoby Brissett being The Guy in Indianapolis.— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) January 2, 2020
Says he believes Brissett will be the team's starting quarterback come Week 1 of 2020, but doesn't seem to rule out the possibility that could change.
So, if Brissett isn’t the guy, where do they turn? I think Justin Herbert from Oregon would be the perfect fit for the Colts with the 13th pick in the draft. He’s got all the physical tools and he’s bright, but he needs an offensive mind to challenge him and get him to be more aggressive. I think Frank Reich could be that coach.
If they brought Herbert to the squad, paired with Ballard’s ability to draft and add free agents, then I think the Colts could win the division next season.
The Browns are talented. We know that. But they are an immature group right now. The right coach is needed to turn the culture around. Baker Mayfield has to decide to change his attitude. Plain and simple. Dude, you’re the Heisman winner and the first pick in the draft. Stop with the chip on your shoulder stuff. Stop talking shit to fans. Just stop it all.
So those are four teams that feel fairly obvious to make the jump from non-playoff contender to in the dance in 2020. Let’s look at a few others.
3 under-the-radar teams that can’t be overlooked
Drew Lock might be good, folks. Take out the snowy game in Kansas City, and Lock played well. He completed 70.7 percent of passes for seven touchdowns and two interceptions. The team went 4-0 in those games. It appears Lock could be the guy, but of course the work will continue in the offseason to improve his skills.
The Broncos need to upgrade their offensive line, but otherwise, the team isn’t that far off. Their defense finished 13th in DVOA as it got used to playing with Vic Fangio at the helm. I also think they started to learn how to win close games, something Denver didn’t do well early in the season. People had their pitchforks out ready to fire Fangio after an 0-4 start, and then lo and behold, the Broncos started to figure it out to finish 7-9.
The Jaguars kept Doug Marrone, and I believe this is the right decision after letting go of Tom Coughlin. It always felt that while Coughlin was in the front office, he was coaching from a distance, which hampered Marrone’s ability to do his job. Marrone has built a physical team and now just needs his team to stay healthy.
I still don’t know what to make of Kliff Kingsbury’s offense in year one. They were good at rushing the football, which is odd considering they are a passing-first offense. But, even if you take out Kyler Murray’s legs, they ran the ball well, often using multiple tight ends to get it done.
Their passing game came along, and Murray made some awesome throws. There’s still plenty to work on as the offense finished 21st in passing efficiency, though. Their red zone offense is suspect but not surprising. It’s something Kingsbury needs to fix to take the next step. If it is, the offense can be in the top 10 next season.
Defensively, they need to improve badly to get into the playoffs next season. I think they are a long shot given their talent and division, but they deserve to be on the list anyway.