NFL Predictions 2014: Underachieving Teams Poised for Breakout Playoff Run

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 08:  Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears participates in warm-ups before taking on the Philadelphia Eagles during a preseason game at Soldier Field on August 8, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The NFL prides itself on parity, and football fans will be treated to another dose of that in the 2014 season.

It's not a stretch to assume that a number of teams that missed out on the postseason a year ago will play their way in this time around. What’s more, factors such as injuries, age and difficult schedules could prevent some of last year’s division winners from repeating.

With that in mind, here is a look at three teams in particular that will make the playoffs in 2014 after falling short last season.

Chicago Bears

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

When we think of the 2014 Chicago Bears, it is all about offense, offense and more offense. Gone are the days when the defense forced two or three turnovers a game and carried the day in low-scoring, sloppy affairs.

In fact, the Bears finished second in the league in total points last year behind only the Denver Broncos and return all 11 starters from that unit. Quarterback Jay Cutler should show some improvement with more experience in Marc Trestman’s offensive system after posting a career-best 89.2 passer rating in 2013.

Then there are the weapons at the skill positions.

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery may be the best one-two wide receiver punch in the league. As long as Cutler gets the ball anywhere near his playmakers on the outside, they are going to catch it. Throw in Martellus Bennett running routes through the seam from the tight end spot and this passing attack is downright scary.

We haven’t even mentioned running back Matt Forte, who quietly posted 1,339 rushing yards, 594 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns a year ago. Few players in the league are as consistent as Forte, and he should once again put up productive numbers in Trestman’s offense.

We know the Bears are going to score points. The key if they want to make the playoffs will be stopping the other team.

Chicago finished a putrid 32nd in opposing rushing yards allowed per game in 2013 and was absolutely gashed a number of times. In response, it added proven veterans Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston in the offseason and drafted cornerback Kyle Fuller.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Jeffery praised Fuller in training camp, via Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“He’s going to be a star in this league. He makes a lot of plays. He’s a tough competitor. He likes to compete. It’s just something he was born to do. He’s a great cornerback.” 

If Fuller can keep up with the likes of Jeffery in training camp, he will fare well during the season. An improved defense and loaded offense will lead the Bears to the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The Baltimore Ravens will bounce back from a disappointing 8-8 finish partially because of their schedule. They play the NFL’s fifth-easiest slate based on their opponents' win percentages from a year ago, which will help on the path to the postseason.

The AFC North is not exactly murderer’s row, either. 

The defending division champ Cincinnati Bengals are the favorites, but take a glance at the first few weeks of their schedule.

Cincinnati Bengals 2014 Schedule
1Sep 7at Baltimore
2Sep 14Atlanta
3Sep 21Tennessee
5Oct 5at New England
6Oct 12Carolina
7Oct 19at Indianapolis
8Oct 26Baltimore

Is it really that difficult to imagine a scenario where they start 2-4 and face a must-win game against this Baltimore team in Week 8? With games at Baltimore, at New England, at Indianapolis and versus Carolina early, Andy Dalton and company will be tested.

Just imagine the scrutiny Dalton will face after signing a new contract if his team gets off to a slow start.

Regardless of Cincinnati's schedule, Baltimore still has to win if it wants to reach the playoffs. It finished 30th in the league in rushing yards per game in 2013 but brought offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak aboard to revamp the attack. What’s more, the presence of newly acquired Steve Smith will open things up for Joe Flacco and help the rushing attack along the way.

The combination of Smith and Torrey Smith means it will be nearly impossible for opponents to stuff the box. That will lead to more space for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to operate. 

Defensively, the Ravens added C.J. Mosley and Tim Jernigan in the draft to what was already a solid group a year ago. The new additions on both sides of the ball will be critical to securing a playoff spot.

New York Giants

The New York Giants also benefit from the scheduling gods. They face the sixth-easiest slate and will look to take advantage of it with a trip back to the playoffs.

Eli Manning threw 27 interceptions a year ago and the team still finished 7-9. By law of averages alone, he should throw fewer picks this year.

His new toy at wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. should help. Beckham is a speedster who will take away some of the defensive focus from Victor Cruz because if the LSU product faces single coverage, he will get open over the top. The safeties are at least going to be aware of Beckham's presence, which will give Cruz more space from the slot.

Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated likes the offensive additions as well:

Reese jettisoned receiver Hakeem Nicks and replaced him with LSU's Odell Beckham, Jr., the 12th overall pick in the draft. Beckham is a dynamic speedster who can burn defenders in the slot and outside, and he should team with Victor Cruz to pose serious problems for secondaries over time. An underperforming offensive line was given talent injections with free-agent guard Geoff Schwartz and second-round center Weston Richburg. The run game got a shot in the arm with Rashad Jennings, who ranked in the top-10 in all kinds of efficiency metrics despite playing with a moribund Raiders team.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Defensively, the Giants actually had a solid defense a year ago. They finished 10th in passing yards allowed per game and 14th in rushing yards allowed per game and added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the group. 

The NFC East is wide open. Dallas isn’t exactly bringing the 1985 Chicago Bears defense to the table, Philadelphia lost DeSean Jackson and Robert Griffin III is always a health risk. The Giants will emerge from the bunch.

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