There’s several contenders for Super Bowl 52 next season, but only two can make it and others have to wait. I basically see the league in three groups. There’s the contenders. Then there’s the teams for whom the moment has passed. Then there’s the teams so bad they should be on a five-year plan. The teams on a five-year plan should feel lucky. They’re in the second tier behind the contenders. The teams on the way down haven’t yet learned they should be on a five-year plan. So they’re on a seven-year plan, possibly longer.
It’s challenging to predict the next Super Bowl for all 32 teams. It’s not like power rankings. You can try and project who has the most promising young players and maybe you’ll base that on high, recent draft choices. But you don’t know what’s going to happen in free agency, and you don’t know who’s going to come up with the best sleepers. Seasons go by so quickly and teams' windows close so fast.
This is a sport that still has four franchises that have never been to the Super Bowl. How do you guess on something that’s never happened before? Here’s our best shot at it:
32 Arizona Cardinals — Super Bowl 67
You’d suppose a team that goes to the conference-title game is on the verge of getting to the Super Bowl. But if they lose said conference championship 49-15 and go 7-8-1 the next year, they don’t seem so close. The cynic looks at the Cardinals and sees Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald going into their 14th seasons and thinks, ‘Their time has passed. Their last best chance was two years ago.’ The optimist points to David Johnson and Patrick Peterson, and sees it a little differently.
Somehow Arizona’s 2016 model had a losing record despite ranking sixth in scoring. But forget about next year, this team needs to think about the future. With an improving NFC West around them, it's unlikely they'll be able to take the reins back so quickly.
31 Atlanta Falcons — Super Bowl 53
There hasn’t been a Super Bowl loser return the next year since the Buffalo Bills' run of four losses in the early 1990s. Atlanta can take solace in the fact that in the 2018 season, they’ll have a good shot at playing a home-game Super Bowl. This is a team that at halftime of the last Super Bowl had outscored opponents 101-44 in the postseason. They're one of the top contenders in 2017. But that collapse. Ouch.
The Falcons had three first-team All-Pros last season in Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Vic Beasley. They were No. 1 in points, and second in yards, though the defense was 27th and 25th against, respectively. While the hangover will be too much for the Falcons to overcome this year, expect their shot at redemption to come in the 2018 season.
30 Baltimore Ravens — Super Bowl 66
The days of winning purely with defense are over for Baltimore. Last year when QB Joe Flacco threw for over 4,000 yards for the first time, the team went 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the second-straight year. Of course he was only one of 13 passers to throw for 4,000 yards, so don’t give the offense a free pass just yet. While the Ravens led the league in pass attempts, they were only 12th in passing yards.
With Baltimore, it still comes back to defense. Last year the D ranked No. 7 for fewest points allowed, and were ninth-stingiest for points. But these aren’t your father’s Ravens, who could win almost with defense alone. They’re going to need time. A lot of time.
29 Buffalo Bills — Super Bowl 59
Forget about the Super Bowl, Buffalo hasn’t been to the postseason since 1999. They’re not that far away, though. The team has been a combined 24-24 over the past three seasons. The problem is, they don’t know they’re not a college team from the 1970s. They were the number-one rushing team in the league last year, but were 30th in passing.
Defensively, it’s just the opposite. They allowed only four touchdown passes last year, but a league-high 31 on the ground. Even though the Bills were nearly .500 last year they’ll be drafting 10th overall. They were one of three 7-9 teams last year and have the highest pick among the three.
They still don't know who their franchise quarterback is, but once they have one, a Super Bowl won't be far off.
28 Carolina Panthers —Super Bowl 58
They’ll be only two seasons removed from the Super Bowl when they start play in 2017, but a return to the big game seems rather unlikely after a 6-10 season. And let’s face it, with the emergence of Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and a still Drew Brees-led New Orleans, the NFC South is no tiptoe through tulips. But the Panthers have enough pieces left over from 2015 to make it interesting. I don’t see them beating out Atlanta any time soon, however, and if they do, there’s still the Buccaneers to contend with.
This is a franchise who, even though they recently went to the playoffs in three straight seasons, have never recorded back-to-back winning seasons. Newton will likely be a seasoned veteran before they're back in the big game.
27 Chicago Bears — Super Bowl 59
Chicago hasn’t had a winning season since 2012, and hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2010. They were 3-13 last year, their worst record since before the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. With Jay Cutler likely gone, it’s time for a five-year plan. And even that might be optimistic. On the plus side, Leonard Floyd, their top draft choice in 2016, had 7.0 sacks as a rookie. Jordan Howard had a banner year at RB, finishing second in the NFL behind Ezekiel Elliott.
The Bears needed a draft victory after Kevin White, as the team’s top 2015 pick missed the ’15 season to injury, and played only four games last year. Chicago will draft No. 3 overall, their third top-10 pick in as many seasons.
26 Cincinnati Bengals — Super Bowl 62
Is there any Super Bowl love for a team that is 0-8 in the playoffs since their last playoff win at the end of 1990? Last season’s 6-9-1 result could almost be seen as a relief for a fan base that had endured wild-card round losses for five straight years. Thanks for their first losing season since 2010, the Bengals are going to draft No. 9 overall, barring a trade. It will be their first top-10 pick since 2011, and their first top-20 pick in five years. With the core of the team that had the five-year playoff run well into their careers, but not that old, it’s time to reload more than rebuild. It’s not unrealistic to see the team as a contender this year, but even a wild-card win would seem like a ‘when’s the parade?’ moment.
25 Cleveland Browns — Super Bowl 61
Since the Browns returned to the NFL as a 1999 expansion, they have made the playoffs just once and are 0-1 in the postseason. They were 7-9 as recently as 2014. Since then they have fallen to 3-13 and 1-15. They’re not going anywhere until they have an answer at quarterback, where they had three starters last season, all opening three or more games. Even the old Browns never went to the Super Bowl. And the current model isn’t getting anywhere near the big game anytime soon. On the other hand they’re in the top draft position this year. Last year they traded down from the No. 2 pick and didn’t make a selection until the 15th pick. As a result, this year they have two first- and two second-round picks.
24 Dallas Cowboys — Super Bowl 52
They’ve got maybe the best offensive line — three first-team All-Pros on the O-line last year — and one of the best running backs. But, ugh, you can’t like their playoff record, save for the argument that maybe they’re due. Since last winning the Super Bowl in the 1995 season, they haven’t made it past the divisional playoffs in nine trips to the postseason. That includes three home-game losses.
History aside they’re one of the emerging teams in the NFL and anything short of at least a trip to the NFC Championship will be a disappointment in 2017. Somehow QB Dak Prescott won Offensive Rookie of the Year over teammate RB Ezekiel Elliott, even though the Cowboys ranked No. 2 in rushing yards, and were 23rd in yards passing.
23 Denver Broncos — Super Bowl 55
Last season Denver became the first Super Bowl Champion to fail to make the playoffs since the New England Patriots in 2002. The Pats went on to win the Super Bowl for the 2003 season, so that’s encouraging. With both Kansas City and Oakland making the playoffs last year, the AFC West will not be an easy place to have a rebound year. Still, Denver has a terrific defense, which last year ranked fourth in both points and yards allowed. They did this while the offense didn’t crack the top-20. Last season Denver traded up in the draft to take QB Paxton Lynch No. 26 overall.
This year they’ll pick 20th, which will be their first top-20 pick since taking Von Miller No. 2 overall in 2011. The Broncos probably aren’t that far from a Super Bowl return but it’s hard to see a franchise QB in their future.
22 Detroit Lions — Super Bowl 65
Along with Cleveland, the Lions are one of two teams that were established before the first Super Bowl, in the 1966 season, who have never been to one. Houston and Jacksvonille haven’t been either, but they’ve only been in the league since 2002 and 1995, respectively. Furthermore, Detroit has not had a postseason victory since the 1991 season, and currently have an eight-game playoff losing streak.
In 2016 the Lions were a 9-7 wild card, two seasons removed from an 11-win year. The encouraging thing is the defense, which was 13th in points allowed, while the offense was 20th in points scored. Traditionally, the Lions are all about the offense, but their defense is now a strength. Still, it's hard to see the Lions overthrowing the Packers as long as Aaron Rodgers is still playing. So their turn may not come for a long time.
21 Green Bay Packers — Super Bowl 64
Though they remain one of the best teams in the league, Green Bay has not been in the Super Bowl since 2010. They’ve reached the NFC title game twice since, and haven’t missed the playoffs since 2008. If Eddie Lacy gets healthy they might have something. Last season with a depleted rushing attack, they still had limited success. While ranking 29th in rushing attempts, they were 20th in rushing yards. The defense could use some help. While the offense was fourth in the league in scoring, the D was 21st in points allowed.
The clock isn’t really ticking for Aaron Rodgers, who last year, in his 12th season, led the NFL in touchdown passes for the first time. Still though, the Packers seem doomed to keep coming up short.
20 Houston Texas — Super Bowl 53
The former Houston Oilers never made the Super Bowl during their years in Houston, before relocating to Tennessee and becoming the Titans. The Texans, who brought the NFL back to Houston in 2002, have never made it out of the Divisional Playoffs in their four trips to the postseason. They’ve never figured out how to develop or acquire quarterbacks.
Last year, they brought in the Broncos heir apparent Brock Osweiler, who had a winning record as a starter, but didn’t wow anybody, not with more interceptions than touchdown passes, or averaging under 200 yards passing per game. They do defense well, however. Last year they were No. 1 in yards allowed, but only 11th in points allowed. Being only one ingredient away, their time should come very soon.
19 Indianapolis Colts — Super Bowl 63
After a 2-14 2011 season Colts fans took solace in the form of the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft. Enter Andrew Luck who led the team to three 11-win seasons in his first three years. But it’s been back-to-back 8-8 years the last two seasons and they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2014. Although Luck will be judged on whether he takes Indianapolis back to the Super Bowl or not, the defense needs to step it up. They ranked 30th in yards allowed last season.
Since drafting Luck, they’ve only had one pick in the top 20, last year’s selection of C Ryan Kelly, No. 18 overall. The Colts will draft 15th this year. An improving AFC South will also make life difficult for the Colts to make it to the Super Bowl.
18 Jacksonville Jaguars — Super Bowl 64
Jacksonville has the best excuse for having never reached the Super Bowl — they haven’t been around that long. Whereas it took Seattle 30 years to get to their first Super Bowl, the Jaguars will be entering their 23rd season in 2017. They weren’t always a loser, they played in two AFC Championship games in the late 1990s. But times have changed. They have had six-straight losing seasons since going 8-8 in 2010. The last time they had a winning record was in 2007. What can you say when high draft picks every year haven’t been enough? They were 3-13 last year, but don’t blame the defense, which ranked sixth in yards allowed.
This team has seemingly gone one step forward, two steps back, and there's just no end in sight. Let's say, they need another... 10 years.
17 Kansas City Chiefs — Super Bowl 68
The last time the Chiefs were in the Super Bowl was the 1969 season, the final year before the NFL-AFL merger. Since then they’ve only gotten past the Divisional Playoffs once, reaching the AFC Championship game in the 1993 season. Three times they have gone 13-3 only to lose in the divisional playoffs. To move on, they’re going to have to open it up offensively. They didn’t have a 1,000-yard back last year, and QB Alex Smith, while being one of the most efficient passers in the game, only threw 15 touchdown passes in his 15 starts.
But there’s a difference between brilliance and efficiency and that seems to be the same margin that stands between where the Chiefs are and the teams that play their way into conference-championship weekend.
16 Los Angeles Chargers — Super Bowl 60
The Chargers come to Los Angeles after back-to-back last-place finishes in the AFC West. Before that, they had eight winning seasons over an 11-year span, a period in which they never won less than seven games, and went 8-8 twice. Last year’s selection of DE Joey Rosa, No. 3 overall, and the Defensive Rookie of the Year, was their first top-10 draft choice since 2004. This year, barring a trade, they’ll be picking seventh. I
t’s always tough to get back to the top when you have been picking in the back half of the first round for a long time, but there’s nothing like relocating to buy a little time. With Philip Rivers behind center, the Chargers will be a lot more exciting and more capable than the Rams. However, their Super Bowl may have to come with Rivers' successor, as their climb to the top won't come quickly.
15 Los Angeles Rams — Super Bowl 63
A 4-12 season in their first year back in Los Angeles was a downturn for a team that has had four seven-win seasons since 2010. They haven’t had a winning year since 2003. They’ve spent too much time drafting high but failing to develop their players. They took Sam Bradford No. 1 overall in 2010, and Jared Goff No. 1 overall last year. It remains to be seen if Goff pans out, but his rookie year wasn’t too inspiring. In between those picks, the Rams handed the No. 2 overall pick in 2012 to Washington, in exchange for a number of high picks.
Of course you have to do something with the picks and it hasn’t worked out well for the Rams, not to mention they went the opposite direction in trading several picks to draft Goff, including the No. 5 overall pick this year.
14 Miami Dolphins — Super Bowl 56
Last season, Miami made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Of course they haven’t had a postseason victory since 2000, so a run to the Super Bowl seems unlikely any time soon. Hopefully for the Dolphins, QB Ryan Tannehill can regain his form of before his season-ending injury in Game 13 of 2016. He had a career-best 93.5 passer rating on the year, and he has given the position stability that it hasn’t had since Dan Marino retired at the end of 1999. Miami was only 24th in offense last year, but reaching the playoffs in their first year under coach Adam Gase bodes well for the future.
By the time Super Bowl 56 comes around though, the Patriots' time on top will be coming to an end, which will open the door for another AFC East team to achieve some glory.
13 Minnesota Vikings — Super Bowl 56
Minnesota hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since the 1976 season. Since then they’ve been to the playoffs 20 times. Did I mention next year’s Super Bowl is in Minneapolis? It’s hard to imagine the Vikings making the leap from where they are to making a run in the playoffs. Last year the Vikings started out 5-0 before the bye week and went 8-8 for the year. Actually 8-8 sounds pretty good considering they were 28th in offensive yards last year. Since losing the NFC Championship at the end of 2009, Minnesota has been to the playoffs twice and lost both times in the wild-card round.
Still though, they're building a solid foundation in Minnesota and within five years, their work will start paying dividends. A Super Bowl 56 matchup of Minnesota vs. Miami isn't too far fetched.
12 New England Patriots — Super Bowl 52
It’s hard to argue with the Patriots in any year, even when Tom Brady is not in the lineup. The team was 11-5 in 2008, the year in which Brady suffered a season-ending injury in the opening game. And they were 3-1 last year while he was serving a four-game suspension, the only loss coming in one of two games with third-stringer Jacoby Brissett behind center. The Bill Belichick-era Patriots haven’t had the stability in personnel that say, the Chuck Noll Steelers had. In his 17 seasons as New England coach, the Pats have had no less than nine different leading rushers, and 11 different leading receivers. The constant is Brady, of course. You wonder who is going to retire first, Belichick or Brady. Until that day comes you have to pencil them in for the Super Bowl. Who else can contend in the AFC?
11 New Orleans Saints — Super Bowl 66
New Orleans has been 7-9 three-straight times since their last playoff appearance, in 2013. In each of those years Drew Brees has led the NFL in passing, so you’d have to say it’s still the same Saints team you remember winning the Super Bowl at the end of 2009. Oh, they may not have the supporting cast, but the same coach and QB — it works for New England. But the Saints play in the NFC South with the defending NFC champs, Atlanta, who last year out-New Orleansed New Orleans, leading the league in points scored, though they were second only to the Saints in total yards. New Orleans is still an unstoppable passing machine, but they’re a few years away in terms of improving a defense that was 31st in the league in points allowed.
Their window has closed and it could be a long time before it opens again.
10 New York Giants — Super Bowl 61
Ben McAdoo took over as Giants coach last season and the result was a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. But they didn’t make much of a game of it in Wild Card loss at Green Bay. It was otherwise a classic Giants team though; heavy on defense. They were second in the league in point allowed, but only 26th in points scored. When you have such luminaries as Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. you ought to be near the top in scoring, but that wasn’t the case. It’s time to revamp the Giants running game, which was only 29th in the league last year. A good power running game would symbolize a return to Giants football worthy of a defense that it already has.
With Eli aging though, their next Super Bowl may not come until his successor is not only in New York, but fully developed as a passer.
9 New York Jets — Super Bowl 69
One step up and two steps back is pretty much the history of the Jets. The team went 5-11 last year after a 10-6 in 2015. Somehow they failed to make the playoffs in their 10-win season, and haven’t been to the postseason since 2010. They need to think about a long-term quarterback. The Jets represent the sixth stop for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw five more interceptions than touchdowns last season. It's hard to predict Super Bowl glory for the Jets, because forward progression isn’t really their thing.
Four wins in 2014, 10 wins in ’15, and five last year, who can figure where this team is going? The Jets made the AFC Championship Game in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and ’10, making the playoffs each of those seasons as a wild card.
8 Oakland Raiders — Super Bowl 58
There were two Oakland Raider teams last year, the team led by QB Derek Carr that went 11-3 before his season ending injury, and the team that lost the season finale against Denver, surrendering the AFC West Division title to Kansas City. In the loss to the Broncos and the wild-card loss against Houston, the Raiders scored a combined 20 points. This coming from a team that reached 30 points eight times with Carr. Oakland was the seventh-leading scoring team last year, mostly by necessity with a defense with was 24th against the pass and 23rd against the run. Of course they had much to celebrate, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season.
It was also their first winning season since ’02, putting to end a stretch in which they went 8-8 twice, but lost 12 or more games seven times.
While the Raiders are on their way, their next Super Bowl appearance may not be as soon as people think, with a tough hill to climb in the AFC.
7 Philadelphia Eagles — Super Bowl 60
Where would the Eagles be today if the following folks had worked out: Chip Kelly, DeMarco Murray, or Sam Bradford? They might seem closer to the Super Bowl than they do now with back-to-back 7-9 seasons after missing the playoffs despite a 10-6 record in 2014. Of course they have Carson Wentz who looked the part of a franchise QB after staring out 3-0 in his first three starts as a rookie. The No. 2 overall selection of the 2016 draft opened all 16 games for the Eagles, who lost five straight before closing the season out with back-to-back victories over the playoff-bound New York Giants and Dallas.
Carson Wentz seems like he can be a long-term solution in Philly, but we're not prepared to say he's going to lead the Eagles to the top in the near-future. It'll take some time to get them there.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers — Super Bowl 65
Pittsburgh’s non-showing in the AFC Championship loss at New England sent Ben Roethlisberger into a funk where he said he was considering retirement. That might seem logical for the oft-injured QB, but it might be a signal to the front office — fix this. The conference title game is at the threshold of the Super Bowl, but a one-sided loss shows you how far away you really are. The Steelers last played in the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, and last year advanced past the divisional playoff round for the first time since. The defense was a mediocre 16th-ranked against the pass.
That’s not so awful, but they didn’t make much of a game of it in the AFC title-game loss at New England when Tom Brady recorded a 127.5 passer rating, his best playoff game in five years.
5 San Francisco 49ers — Super Bowl 57
After a three-year run of more than 10 wins each season, San Francisco has only a combined 15 wins to show for its last three seasons. They were in the Super Bowl as recently as the 2012 season, and two-game winners in 2016. They have a new GM and coach in 2017 so you’d have to say they’re staring from scratch. It’s five-year plan time and don’t expect to see San Francisco in the Super Bowl any time before that. They’ll have a new quarterback this season and they’ll need to address a passing game that ranked 32nd among 32 NFL teams in yards in 2016. They also need to fix a defense that was also last in points and yards allowed.
This might seem a little bold, but Kyle Shanahan could be a home run hiring for the Niners.
4 Seattle Seahawks — Super Bowl 54
Two Super Bowls followed by two seasons in which they couldn’t get past the Divisional round of the playoffs, the Seahawks don’t look any closer to getting back. By anyone’s estimation, Seattle seemed to have the worst offensive line in the NFL in 2016, yet they were 10th in the league in passing yards. But the running game, which was so much a part of their success in their Super Bowl seasons, was only 25th ranked last year. The real reason they regained their hold on the NFC West last year, after making the playoffs as a wild card in 2015, was their defense. The D was third in points allowed and No. 1 in yards per attempt against the run. If they get the running game back they could be back in the Super Bowl very soon.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Super Bowl 55
At 9-7 last year, Tampa Bay enjoyed its first winning season since 2010. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007, however. They’re showing all the signs of making a big leap. They went 6-2 during the last half of the season including back-to-back wins over playoff-bound Kansas City and Seattle. The Buccaneers look like a promising team of the future with a young franchise QB in Jameis Winston, and a second-year coach in Dirk Koetter. Their selection of CB Vernon Hargreaves No. 11 overall last year was kind of late pick for the Buccaneers, who had chosen in the top 10 four times since 2010.
This is a projection based on where the Bucs are trending and where the rest of their division is going. With a few more pieces, the Bucs will be a scary team for years to come.
2 Tennessee Titans — Super Bowl 54
The Titans' hopes in the near future hinge on the recovery of QB Marcus Mariota, who fractured his right fibula in the 15th game of 2016. He was the NFL’s 10th-rated passer last year and led Tennessee to its first winning season since 2011. The Titans have not been to the playoffs since 2008, however. Last year Tennessee was like an old-time college team, ranking third in rushing yards, and second against the run, while they placed 25th in passing yards, despite Mariota’s efficiency, and were 30th against the pass. They’re going to need to become a modern team. They’ve set themselves up for the future with last year’s trade of the No. 1 overall pick of the draft. This year they have two top-20 picks including No. 5 overall. With an improved secondary and a receiving option for Mariota, the Titans could rise as a contender very quickly.
1 Washington Redskins — Super Bowl 68
Last season Washington missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. They currently have a four-game losing streak in the playoffs. They’re a terribly inconsistent franchise. The last time they made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons was in the early 1990s when they went three-straight years, 1990-92, after missing the postseason with a 10-6 record in 1989. In 2016, Washington ranked third in offensive yards, but were 28th in yards allowed. They’re not going anywhere soon, not until they fix the defense. They’re going to have to finish stronger, too. Last year they were 6-3-1 after 10 games, and won only two the rest of the way.
With the amount of competition the Skins face in their division and the NFC in general, it's hard to see them getting over the hump anytime soon.