5 NFL Teams in Best Position to Make 'The Leap' in 2013
For 16 years in a row, the NFL postseason featured an odd, repeating occurrence: A team that missed the playoffs the year before improved to not only make the playoffs but earn a first-round bye as well.
At least one team achieved this feat every postseason from 1997 to 2012, until the 2013 playoffs ended the streak.
However, for a league that boasts parity, the streak could start up again soon. Considering the possibility of such a thing occurring this season, let's look at which non-playoff teams from last year look primed for a top-two conference finish and first-round bye come playoff time.
The Dolphins should at least be fighting for a playoff spot with the team they’ve put together. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill should continue to develop, especially now that he has a legitimate deep threat in Mike Wallace.
The front seven on defense should also improve thanks to the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, Dion Jordan. But in order to get a first-round bye, Miami has to win its division. Can they unseat the New England Patriots atop the AFC East?
The Panthers also strengthened their front seven, drafting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to play with guys like Charles Johnson and Luke Kuechly. The offense needs more pass-catchers than the aging Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, and the backfield needs one of either Jonathan Stewart or DeAngelo Williams to finally step up and take over.
However, in both circumstances, Cam Newton can bail out his teammates. It might be a huge burden, but he could prove to be up to the task of carrying this team to greatness.
Kansas City Chiefs
Yes, this team just had the worst record in the NFL last season. But many of the pieces from the 2010 division champion team are still there, including Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe on offense and Brandon Flowers, Tamba Hali and Eric Berry on defense. The Chiefs also have one of the league’s weaker schedules.
The team’s most important addition is quarterback Alex Smith. Smith was just beginning to justify the San Francisco 49ers’ decision to hold onto him for the last nine years until an injury and Colin Kaepernick forced him out. While not elite, he is certainly an upgrade over Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn.
With a new coach and general manager as well, the Chiefs could be heading in a totally new direction in 2013.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs pulled off one of the biggest trades of the offseason by bringing in cornerback Darrelle Revis. He, along with free-agent signee Dashon Goldson, will significantly boost a secondary that was dead last in passing yards allowed last season.
As for the rest of the defense, tackle Gerald McCoy should anchor the line if he stays healthy. He played all 16 games for the first time in his three-year career last season, and the Bucs will need him to keep a clean bill of health once again.
Offensively, this team could really take off if it protects the ball and shows some consistency. Josh Freeman appeared on pace for a modest number of interceptions last year before throwing nine in the final three games, including two games with four picks.
Running back Doug Martin was a rookie sensation in 2012, but he’ll need to be a little more consistent. While he had five games with over 100 rushing yards, he also had five games with fewer than 60.
Still, Tampa’s offense has explosive weapons that could go off on any play. Pair that with an improved defense, and they have the makings of potential breakout team.
4. New Orleans Saints
Most of the Saints roster is the same from a year ago, but the difference with this team will be on the sideline.
Last year’s team won six fewer games than the year before without head coach Sean Payton. Now that he has served his year-long suspension for the bounty scandal, we will have a better idea of how many wins a good coach is worth.
The Saints have also brought in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. His introduction of a 3-4 defense may be the change this unit needs.
As for their on-field personnel, the offense will always be fine with Drew Brees pulling the strings. Defensively, the team's additions of Jim Leonhard and rookie Kenny Vaccaro will add depth to the secondary.
(Something to note: Between this top-five list and the honorable mentions, all three non-playoff teams from the NFC South are present. Not a good sign for the division champion Atlanta Falcons)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers don’t look like they’re in a position to make the jump from missing the playoffs to one of the two best teams in the conference; they lost arguably their best playmaker on either side of the ball in Mike Wallace and James Harrison.
However, their departures create openings for others. Receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders could flourish with the extra opportunities, giving Ben Roethlisberger two solid options instead of one.
As for Harrison, he is replaced by rookie Jarvis Jones, who injects some youth into an otherwise aging defense. Jones is a great talent who has a chance to join a long list of great Steelers linebackers.
Pittsburgh will also hope another rookie, Le’Veon Bell, will be the answer at running back that Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have failed to provide. With Roethlisberger and the defense the two constants on this team, Bell could be the X-factor in getting the Steelers past the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.
2. New York Giants
The Giants looked poised to make the postseason last year with a 6-2 record after eight weeks. But a 3-5 second half, including three losses in December, saw them lose control of their own destiny, and they didn’t get the help they needed in Week 17.
In 2013, though, they have a chance to exact revenge. Unlike the NFC South teams or the Steelers, the Giants are in a division that figures to be less competitive this year.
With Robert Griffin III’s health still in question, the Washington Redskins could fall back down to Earth this season. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys have been mediocre at best, and the Philadelphia Eagles are building for the future.
Tom Coughlin has proven to field more of a first-half team since 2007, when they went on to win Super Bowl XLII. However they have shown the ability overcome that weakness. In 2008, the Giants began the season 11-1 before dropping three of the last four.
If they follow that kind of pattern, no second-half collapse could ruin their season.
1. Chicago Bears
The Bears get the nod as the non-playoff team most likely to earn a first-round bye this season. They earned this by virtue of being, in my opinion, the best team to miss the postseason last year.
The offense needs to be a little less predictable, but what they do run, mainly Jay Cutler throwing it to Brandon Marshall or handing it off to Matt Forte, usually works. Any help, particularly in the form of a second viable receiving option opposite Marshall, could push the offense to significantly greater heights.
The defense was amazing last year, finishing eighth against both the run and the pass thanks in large part to their ability to force turnovers.
The Bears led the league in turnover differential, however, and a stat like that doesn’t always carry over from year to year. If the offense protects the ball well, it’ll make up for a possible drop in takeaways.
Last year, when 11 wins were enough to earn a first-round bye in the NFC, the Bears won 10 games. They weren’t far off the mark then and should get closer, if not reach that point, this season.
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