In theory, playoff droughts aren’t something that should really happen in the NFL. Although only 12 teams make the playoffs every year, the NFL’s salary cap, draft rules, and general parity should ensure that teams make the playoffs on a semi-regular basis; everything’s designed to help the downtrodden teams bounce back to contention as soon as possible.
That isn’t always the case in reality, however. The Oakland Raiders lost Super Bowl XXXVII and haven’t returned to the postseason since. The Cleveland Browns fell in the 2002 AFC Wild Card playoffs and have been trying to get back ever since. Sometimes, things just don’t work out, as long-term front office mismanagement or quarterback searches that never really seem to end weigh a franchise down, putting them in the doldrums year after year after year.
There are currently 12 franchises who are sitting on playoff droughts of three years or longer, ranging from teams with short-term issues like the Atlanta Falcons to teams with long-term organization issues like the Buffalo Bills. Six of these teams—the Bills, Raiders, Browns, Rams, Jaguars, and Dolphins—are sitting on the longest playoff-free streak in franchise history. There’s some historic futility going around the league; a side-effect of the NFL expanding to 32 teams and not expanding the playoffs since the 1990s.
But that’s all ancient history—it’s time for training camps, OTA and general optimism. It’s likely some teams will break playoff droughts this season, as last year’s playoff teams fall out and new teams are needed to replace them. The question is which teams it will be.
Here are the eight teams with three-season or more droughts that are most likely to finally see some playoff football this season. Obviously, not all eight of these teams will make the playoffs this year; most of them likely won’t. Still, if it’s going to happen, these are the eight most likely to do it.
16 Oakland Raiders
The Raiders were blown out by Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, 13 long seasons ago. Since then, however, they’ve been lost in the proverbial wilderness. They haven’t put together a winning season since 2002 and have averaged less than five wins per year since then. Really, their 2002 Super Bowl appearance was a leftover of the Jon Gruden era; since then, the Raiders have been involved in one of the league’s most active coaching carousels, with nine head coaches over the last 13 years. Couple that with poor front office decisions from an aging Al Davis and you have the recipe for a long period of mediocrity. The closest they’ve come to sniffing the playoffs in the past decade came with an 8-8 season in 2010 and they still finished a couple games out of the division. It’s been a bad time in Oakland.
15 Oakland Could Make the Playoffs Because…
They’ve got at least one star on each side of the ball. Derek Carr looked very good in his second NFL season last year and Khalil Mack is one of the best pass rushers in football, which isn’t a bad way to start building a contender. They’ve put together a number of successful drafts under general manager Reggie McKenzie, and have a bunch of young talent waiting to put it all together. Because they play in a very tough division and have to give up a home game to play in Mexico City this year, I’d pin their return a year or two down the road, but the team’s definitely going in the right direction.
14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay lost to the New York Giants in the 2007 NFC Wild Card playoffs, eight seasons ago. Since then, they’ve only even finished third in the NFC South twice and have averaged less than six wins per season. They’ve had four different head coaches and five primary starting quarterbacks since then, as they’ve struggled to find any sort of on-field consistency in the Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano or Lovie Smith eras. 2010 was their best chance to break back into the playoffs, as the team went 10-6 behind Josh Freeman’s one good season with a Pro Bowl left tackle in Donald Penn. Unfortunately, they lost out to the Green Bay Packers based on a strength-of-victory tiebreaker and had to sit at home. They haven’t come close since.
13 Tampa Bay Could Make the Playoffs Because…
They finally look to have a triad of talent at the skill positions. The trio of Jameis Winston, Doug Martin, and Mike Evans look like a legitimate threat for the immediate future on offense, especially as Winston continues to develop. They’ve also added a number of key defensive players to the roster this offseason—both rookies like cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence, as well as veterans like Robert Ayers, Daryl Smith, and Brent Grimes. They’re still probably a year or two from being real contenders, but for the first time in quite a while, the arrow’s pointing up for Tampa Bay.
12 Tennessee Titans
The Titans fell in the 2008 Divisional Playoffs, losing a nail-biter defensive struggle to the Baltimore Ravens. They didn’t absolutely collapse immediately in the aftermath of that loss—they only missed the playoffs in 2011 thanks to a head-to-head loss against the Cincinnati Bengals—but things have gradually slid further and further down, resulting in the team earning a top-two pick in each of the last two drafts. The bottom has fallen out over the last two years, with the Titans putting together a 5-27 record and have put together some of the worst teams since the franchise moved to Tennessee.
11 Tennessee Could Make the Playoffs Because…
Have you seen the AFC South? For most of recent history, it’s been the Indianapolis Colts and the three stooges, but the Colts weren’t very good at all last season, even when Andrew Luck was healthy and they’re not getting any younger. 8-8 could realistically win the division, so a step forward for second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota; impact performances from rookies Jack Conklin, Kevin Dodd, Austin Johnson, and Derrick Henry, and solid veteran acquisitions like Ben Jones, DeMarco Murray, Rashad Johnson, and Rishard Matthews could see a quick boost to mediocrity for Tennessee—and that might just be enough to get them into the postseason.
10 Chicago Bears
The Bears looked poised for a potential Super Bowl run in 2010, but Jay Cutler was knocked out of the NFC Championship Game and they fell to the Green Bay Packers. They haven’t been terrible since then—a 10-6 record in 2012 had them a tiebreaker away from a Wildcard berth—but they’ve never been able to re-produce that success on the field. After two non-starter seasons behind head coach Marc Trestman, the Bears rebooted the franchise with John Fox last season.
9 Chicago Could Make the Playoffs Because…
Under John Fox, they began to look like they knew what they were doing. Jay Cutler may not be the quarterback you’d love to build a franchise around, but he’s an above-average NFL starter and Kyle Long provides the basis for a solid offensive line. The defense, in the second year of transitioning to Vic Fangio’s 3-4 system, should be better as well, with Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman joining rookie Leonard Floyd as a boost of much-needed talent. If running back Jeremy Langford can take over for Matt Forte and Dowell Loggains can replace Adam Gase as offensive coordinator, the Bears could turn a few heads this season.
8 Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were driving for the winning score against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFL Championship, but ultimately turned the ball over on downs and missed out on the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl. They plummeted from 13-3 to 4-12 the year after thanks in large part to a ridiculous number of injuries. While they’ve improved by two games in each of the last two seasons, they still finished two games out of playoff contention last year.
7 Atlanta Could Make the Playoffs Because…
The team jumped off to a 6-1 start last year; while that ended up being somewhat smoke and mirrors, they still showed they have a triad of skill position players that matchup with anyone else in the league, with Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and especially Julio Jones having great years. The offense as a whole should return to being an above-average unit, especially with Alex Mack filling their rather gaping hole at center. Derrick Shelby should provide a boost to the defense, which will be Atlanta’s main weakness this year. They should be an improved team, even if they’re unlikely to replicate the luck that led to their great beginning to 2015.
6 Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams haven’t made the playoffs since 1989, while the franchise as a whole last saw the playoffs in 2004, when they were routed in the Divisional Playoffs by the Atlanta Falcons. They’ve averaged just over five wins since then, though that number’s being dragged down by a three-year stretch from 2007-09, when they finished with 13, 14, and 15 losses. They’ve gained a reputation in recent years under Jeff Fisher as a team that plays their divisional rivals hard, only to flop when any actual expectations are placed on their shoulders.
5 Los Angeles Could Make the Playoffs Because…
You could argue the Rams have been one player away from being a contender in recent years. In three of the last four years, the Rams have had seven wins and have been frustratingly close to getting over the hump. That’s why they mortgaged their future to trade up for California quarterback Jared Goff. If Goff can have a rookie season like Russell Wilson in 2012 or Cam Newton in 2011, and if Aaron Donald and the defense continue to play at a high level, you could see the Rams moving forward significantly this year. Playing in the same division as Seattle and Arizona is tough, but the Rams have the nucleus for something here.
4 Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars were last in the playoffs in 2007, when they got steamrolled by the then-undefeated New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round. Since then, things have not gone well. The Jaguars have had five consecutive seasons with double-digit losses, the longest active streak in the NFL and the longest overall streak since the Cleveland Browns did it for six straight years between 2008 and 2013. The end of the Jack Del Rio era has seen the team in a constant rebuilding mode, with the team facing television blackouts and voluntarily giving up home games to play in London. In recent years, they have been constantly mentioned as a possible target for relocation, which is never the sign of a strong franchise.
3 Jacksonville Could Make the Playoffs Because…
Not only do they get to play in the same soft AFC South as the Tennessee Titans, but the Gus Bradley/David Caldwell regime is beginning to pay dividends. Blake Bortles took a significant step forward in his sophomore season and Allen Robinson provided him with a valuable receiver to throw to. Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, and last year’s first-rounder who missed all of last season, Dante Fowler, should provide a quick boost to the defense. If the young offensive playmakers continue to improve and take the next step forward, there’s no reason why the Jaguars can't win the division.
2 Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills have yet to join the 21st century. Their last playoff appearance came in 1999—a loss to the Tennessee Titans in the famous Music City Miracle game. Their last playoff win came in 1995, with people like Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, and Bryce Paup being major contributors. It’s been a long time since the mid-90s. The Bills have had only two winning seasons since their last playoff berth, and six-or seven-win seasons dot their recent history. The Bills’ 16-season drought is the longest active streak of futility and the longest such streak since the New Orleans Saints’ 20-year gap which ended in 1987. The Bills are verging on historic futility.
1 Buffalo Could Make the Playoffs Because…
They’re actually pretty darn good. The defense was a top-five defense in both 2013 and 2014, but it fell a little back to Earth last season. Still, with Rex Ryan at the helm, and with additions like Shaq Lawson, Reggie Ragland, Sterling Moore, and Zach Brown providing reinforcements, there should be a significant bounce-back effect there. Tyrod Taylor was a surprising revelation in his first year as a starter, and if the Bills can couple their 2015 offense with the defenses of the years prior, they’ll have a playoff squad. They’re helped by Tom Brady’s four-game suspension; Buffalo’s yearly trip to New England looks like it will avoid the future Hall of Famer, which helps. Yes, they’ve suffered some bad luck with offseason injuries to Lawson and Sammy Watkins, but all in all, this is the best chance the Bills have had in a long time to reach the playoffs once again.
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