Leading into 2015 the common consensus in NFL circles had the Patriots and Seahawks as red hot favorites to go back-to-back as Super Bowl combatants. Fast forward to February and all of a sudden Tom Brady and Russell Wilson will be watching the game on their couch contemplating what is to come. This is the beauty of football – regardless of past history and talent comes the pressure of expectation. Nothing is guaranteed in this game.
A lot can change between seasons within the National Football League. Drafting rookies, trade deals and coaching shake ups alter the landscape drastically. It can turn an unfancied team into a playoff contender, a good team into a great team, or vice versa. One look at the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly
and it’s clear to see how a handful of bad decisions can be the difference between post season football and being shown the back door.
Unlike other campaigns where an elite collection of franchises had a monopoly over the league’s fortunes, the generational tide is turning. No longer is the class of Brady, Peyton and Eli Manning the dominant force they once were. Time waits for no man as the contenders for 2017 and beyond are looking generally more towards quarterbacks who are younger and offer something a little bit different than what we’ve seen before. No country for old men and all that …
Of course the big hitters of the 2016 playoffs will stay in the fold, change doesn’t occur overnight. But some are poised to pounce next season having laid the groundwork and biding their time in the shadows. Season 2016 leading into Super Bowl 51 is looking to be the most competitive in years and it that spirit, here are the 20 teams who could face off in 12 months from now.
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20 Oakland Raiders
If you are looking for value from the local bookie then the Oakland Raiders could be a good bet for a shock run to SB51. With Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Carr calling the shots from the pocket, the much maligned franchise finally has some certainty with the Rams moving back to LA instead of them and a young list that comprises of linebacker Khalil Mack, and Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree as wide receivers. That’s enough offensive arsenal for Carr to work with and coach Jack Del Rio will be confident of earning a winning season from 2015’s 7-9 record. They might be starting from a low base but Raider Nation is on the rise.
19 Buffalo Bills
Any outfit coached by Rex Ryan will give themselves a fighting chance across a season, his record proves as much. Although many pundits saw the Bills as a serious contender to get out of the AFC East, they blew too hot and cold to end at 8-8 and finish 3rd in the division. To get all the way to the big dance the high profile players at Buffalo are going to have to go above and beyond, especially quarterback Tyrod Taylor who is going to have to have a season akin to Carson Palmer (without the playoff choke).
18 Dallas Cowboys
Surely the Dallas Cowboys can only go in one direction – up! The iconic Texas franchise stunk up the NFC East to end 4-12 with a list that should have had them contending for the divisional title. The haters see them as overrated, starting with poster boy and quarterback Tony Romo, troublemakers Greg Hardy and Dez Bryant, and lame duck head coach Jason Garrett. If the organization grows a backbone and leaders emerge from this crisis then they could go a long way. That is a big “if” though.
17 Detroit Lions
To think they were virtually within an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary of making the playoffs, the Detroit Lions could have been going into 2016 with a lot more confidence than they will be. The NFC North franchise couldn’t recover from a shocking start to the season but finished strong to come within touching distance of post season football to end on 7-9. Head coach Jim Caldwell has at his disposal a settled squad with the likes of Matthew Stafford, Ameer Abdullah, Calvin Johnson and DeAndre Levy to the lead the charge in 2016. Comfortable outsiders but stranger things have happened in the NFL.
16 Houston Texans
It’s difficult to get battled-hardened playing in the terrible AFC South. The flipside of this scenario though is that if the Texans can get the better of the Colts then the division is theirs and they can start planning for the playoffs earlier than their contemporaries. Having been bundled out at the first time of asking in the post season, Bill O’Brien is left with one major headache to address – what to do with the quarterback? For a team that boasts the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Alfred Blue, Brian Cushing and the unstoppable JJ Watt, the burning issue that will be eating up fans in Houston is the QB dilemma between Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and BJ Daniels. Solve that puzzle and the path begins to look clearer.
15 New York Giants
If one aging Manning can beat the Patriots in a championship game and go all the way to the Super Bowl, why not his younger brother? With the huge void left by the departure of head coach Tom Coughlin done and dusted, the incoming Ben McAdoo will have his work cut out to match his legacy. But he has a lot going for him to appease the fans at MetLife Stadium. Should Eli recapture his former glories and stop throwing picks, the Giants have weapons in the form of Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, Rashad Jennings and Jason Pierre-Paul. That is a pretty handy platform to work off.
14 Minnesota Vikings
Should Blair Walsh come out of his cold, dark room over the summer and remember to kick laces up – then the Minnesota Vikings could go places in 2016. The heartbreaking missed kick remains one of the great chokes in the NFL and considering that they would have knocked out the Seattle Seahawks demonstrates that the Vikings have the defensive fortitude to worry any team. Topping the NFC North at 11-5, Minnesota will go into 2016 with an older and wiser Teddy Bridgewater at QB, Adrian Peterson at running back and a well-drilled defensive unit. If they can score enough touchdowns they will be a hard to topple.
13 New York Jets
If it weren’t for the Cleveland Browns then the New York Jets would be one of the most popular punch lines in football. Then all of a sudden they came within one game of the playoffs after beating the Patriots in the regular season and people stopped laughing. Coming second in the AFC East with a more than credible 10-6 record, Todd Bowles quietly went about his business to guide Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB to win football games. With Eric Decker, Brandon Marshall, Chris Ivory and co giving the Jets options, 2016 could be a year the Jets faithful have been waiting for.
12 New Orleans Saints
With Sean Payton still in the hot seat as head coach (at least at the time of writing), the organization has a reasonable amount of clarity for planning ahead. With Drew Brees at quarterback they should still be in a healthy position for 2016 and given their 408 points scored in the regular season they’ve show a propensity to rack up enough touchdowns to still be considered a threat. But given the touchdowns they leaked to the opposition, seeing a staggering 476 points put on them in 2015, we think Payton will have the defensive line working overtime in the off season.
11 Washington Redskins
As the DC club hitches their ride to Kirk Cousins’ wagon, the essential question now revolves around what they do with Robert Griffin III (RG3). If the Redskins decide to keep him around then he can provide cover and completion for Cousins, but given his temperament on and off the field they might be best advised to send him packing. Washington were the best of a bad bunch in the NFC East division, taking some late season clutch games to end on 9-7 with 6 of those wins coming at home. With a settled QB and FedExField finally becoming a fortress again, DC fans could be forgiven for getting their hopes up. You like that?
10 Green Bay Packers
One man guarantees that the Packers will be a post season contender – Aaron Rodgers. The star quarterback showed calm and poise under pressure even when he wasn’t at his best. The two stunning Hail Mary touchdowns against Detroit and Arizona demonstrates that no game is ever done as long as he has the ball. Finishing a narrow second to divisional rivals the Vikings in the NFC North at 10-6, the Packers will head into next season still boasting Randall Cobb, John Kuhn, Devante Adams, Julius Peppers, Sam Shields and Clay Matthews III. And if Eddie Lacy actually gets fit – then look out! Write them off at your peril.
9 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are still really good, just not quite Super Bowl good. Yet. Head coach Mike Tomlin might not be rated as one of the best tacticians in football but the understated man with the clipboard still managed to get the better of the Cincinnati Bengals on the road and kept their cool despite all the chaos and without their star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Their all-star list of players beyond the QB still include Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, DeAngelo Williams, Jarvis Jones, Brandon Boykin and a multitude of tough units that know how winning is done. They might not get all the way there, but they won’t be far off.
8 Cincinnati Bengals
Oh Cincy. The poor Who Dey faithful continued their cursed run in the post season with a spectacular implosion at home to the Steelers, illustrating how the mechanics of the mind come into play when the pressure and expectation is truly applied. You could not fault them during the regular season at 12-4 in the AFC North, transitioning easily from Andy Dalton to AJ McCarron at quarterback and killing teams on offense with AJ Green, Marvin Jones and Giovani Bernard. Then there is the unrelenting defensive force of Vontaze Burfict and Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones who make it their mission to hurt people. The problem though is that they go too far too often, and the only thing that will stop them from achieving their goals is their horrible disciplinary record. Fix that and the curse might be lifted.
7 Indianapolis Colts
For a side that was knocked out of playoff contention early on, the Colts should be looking at earning the greatest improvement award at the very least in 2016. The club’s decision to rehire head coach Chuck Pagano had many fans in Indiana choking on their morning bagel, but that should be motivation enough for the experienced man to pick up the pieces from a disappointing 2015. So much will hinge on the fitness and wellbeing of Andrew Luck at quarterback. Should he make a full recovery, he will come back to a squad including Frank Gore and TY Hilton which should put the opposition on full alert in the AFC South. Even for a terrible season they still managed an 8-8 record, not too shabby for a franchise supposedly in “crisis.”
6 Denver Broncos
Plenty of Super Bowl teams have failed to make the grade the following season. Climbing the mountain is hard enough once, let alone having to turn around and back it up again. But for the franchise based in the Rockies this should not be too much of an issue. Even with an impending retirement to 39-year old veteran Peyton Manning, Gary Kubiak’s outfit is in good hands at Mile High Stadium. Brock Osweiler proved to be a more than adequate replacement at QB and with CJ Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, Vernon Davis, Omar Bolden, Aqib Talib, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware – they have all the makings of an elite team ready to go another round.
5 Arizona Cardinals
To stick or twist with Carson Palmer? The quarterback had a regular season only others can dream about to see the Cardinals smash the NFC West division at 13-3. The number two offense scored touchdowns for fun to score a staggering 489 points in the regular season and many thought Arizona was headed for glory in San Francisco this month. Then Carson Palmer happened. For a man in his mid 30s he should have handled the post season better and it throws into doubt everything they worked for. With the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Ellington they won’t fall off a cliff. The only question remains whether or not their QB can get his head back in the game after choking so badly in the playoffs.
4 Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid is an excellent football coach. His preparation and diligence leading into game day is as good as anyone in the league. It’s when game day arrives that the problems arise. His notorious time management errors cost Kansas dearly in their playoff loss to the Patriots. Should that issue be addressed then the side that racked up 405 points at 11-5 in the AFC West will be armed and dangerous leading into 2016. With Alex Smith at QB they have the right man and thrown into the mix with Jamaal Charles, Jeremy Maclin, Travis Kelce and co there is no telling where the ceiling is for the Chiefs.
3 Seattle Seahawks
While many would like it to be so, the Legion of Boom is not going anywhere. Despite losing out to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game, their 24-point comeback showed how hard they are to kill off in any given football game. Pete Carroll is floating a lot of his squad out on free agency to open up room for fresh blood but wisely keeping the core of a Super Bowl winning team. With Russell Wilson at QB, Marshawn Lynch, Thomas Rawls, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman all signed on, they will be one of the most feared football teams to start the NFL in 2016 make no mistake about it.
2 New England Patriots
A team led by Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as head coach will be a force to be reckoned with. The AFC East titans had an unusually off day at the office against a rampant Broncos defense one game out from the Super Bowl and the loss showed how fortunes can change on any given Sunday. Brady will turn 39 this year and the clock is ticking. Fortunately he can look around the field and see Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Bradon LaFell, Rob Gronkowsi, Rob Ninkovich and Malcolm Butler suiting up in Foxborough and it will take something special to close their season. Their motto “Do Your Job” tells you what they’re all about and you can be sure their roster will be doing just that come 2016.
1 Carolina Panthers
With the Patriots seemingly pulled back to the pack a little bit, the Carolina Panthers seem best placed not only to fight for next seasons Super Bowl, but become a regular fixture at the pointy end. Only a freak loss to the Atlanta Falcons of all teams ended their perfect record, quite something when you consider how dominant they have been in all facets of their football. Only a handful of teams had a better defense but nobody had an offense like them. Cam Newton is the MVP in waiting and right now he is the greatest commodity in football. This is a team on the rise and of all the NFL teams who could make SB51, the Panthers are easily the favorites.
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