Updated: Sep 2, 2019
When it comes to the playoffs in the NFL, there’s constant turnover on a year-to-year basis in both conferences. In fact, only five teams from the 2017-2018 season made the playoffs in 2018-2019 (Patriots, Chiefs, Rams, Saints, and Eagles). With questions looming around multiple playoff teams from last season, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's surprising retirement, the Cowboys and Chargers both dealing with running back contract issues (Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon), and Texans starting running back Lamar Miller suffering a torn ACL in the team’s third preseason game, there’s bound to be change yet again in the 2019-2020 NFL playoff picture. Here are five teams that you should be on the lookout for heading into the NFL’s 100th season.
Green Bay Packers
2018 season record 6-9-1
2019 season prediction: 10-6
With new head coach Matt LaFleur in and long-time Packer head coach Mike McCarthy out, it seems as though it’s time for a new era in Green Bay. This is especially true for running the football.
In 2018, the Packers ranked dead last in the league in rushing attempts (333) and 22nd in yards per game with 104.2 yards per game. That should change this season with running back Aaron Jones as the featured back. Jones thrived in an expanded role last season, rushing for 728 yards and eight touchdowns while adding 206 yards and a touchdown receiving in 12 games. The third year back out of University of Texas El-Paso (UTEP) also led the NFL in yards per attempt at 5.5.
Green Bay’s schedule is also favorable the first half of the season as five of their first seven games are at Lambeau Field. Getting off to a quick start this season will be crucial as four of the Packers final six games are on the road. In one score games, the Packers went 3-6-1 in 2018. Look for that number to vastly improve with superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers under center, star receiver Davante Adams lined up at receiver and a revamped defense built through free agency and the draft. There’s no doubt the Packers should be in contention come playoff time.
2018 season record 7-9
2019 season prediction: 10-6
The 2018 Falcons season can be summed up in three words: a roller coaster. After losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round in 2017, their season got off on the wrong foot in 2018. While Atlanta turned it around to get to .500 at 4-4, the ups and downs took a turn for the worse. The Falcons lost five straight games, getting outscored 141-88 and not scoring more than 20 points in that span.
The injury bug also hit the Falcons hard. It affected impact players on both sides of the ball such as running back Devonta Freeman, linebacker Deion Jones, and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen all spent some chunk of the season on injured reserve.
With a plethora of injuries and poor play, Atlanta’s defense was its downfall finishing 25th in points per game (26.4). However, the Falcons offense shockingly finished 6th in points with 25.9 points per game, one of three teams to finish in the top 10 and not make the playoffs (Buccaneers and Panthers).
Just like last season, it won’t be an easy start for the Falcons in 2019. They open the season in Minnesota and five of their first seven opponents are playoff teams from last year (at Vikings, Eagles, at Colts, at Texans, and the Rams). However, if the Falcons can weather the storm, the home stretch is favorable with matchups at the 49ers, home against the Jaguars, and at the Buccaneers from weeks 15-17.
If and it’s a huge if the Falcons can stay healthy this season, I believe they’ll have a great chance to be in the playoff hunt by season’s end. Heading into the season, Atlanta upgraded their offensive line, kept their elite receiving core intact, and as of now have a relatively healthy defense. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons will no doubt be playing football in January this season.
2018 season record: 7-9
2019 season prediction: 10-6
Carolina, much like their NFC South rival Atlanta, had a dramatic up-and-down season in 2018. After winning six of their first eight games, the Panthers limped their way to the finish line losing seven of their last games. In fact, much like the Packers, the Panthers struggled mightily in one score games. They went 3-7 in such occurrences, including five straight losses of a touchdown or less from week 11 to 15.
One of the lone bright spots for Carolina was running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey proved himself as one of the elite, dual threat running backs in the entire league in 2018. The eighth overall pick in 2017, McCaffrey shined last season with 1,965 total yards from scrimmage (1,098 rushing and 867 receiving) and found the end zone 13 times. The Stanford product also averaged 5.0 yards per carry, tied for ninth best in the NFL with Giants phenom running back Saquon Barkley.
In order for the Panthers to find themselves playing football in January this season, they’re going to have to start off to a similar pace as last year. Four of their first six games are against opponents who finished in the bottom half of the league in 2018 (Buccaneers (twice), Cardinals, and Jaguars). After the bye in week seven, the Panthers are going to have to put the petal to the metal unlike last season. They play a combination of New Orleans (twice), Atlanta (twice), Green Bay, Indianapolis, and Seattle over the final eight weeks of the season.
Even if they just improve their record in one score games by two or three wins, it will put Newton and company in a much better position. With a healthy Cam Newton at quarterback, wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel ready to take the next step, and McCaffrey running the rock for another 16 games, it leaves Carolina in good position to make a push for the postseason.
2018 season record 7-8-1
2019 season prediction: 11-5
Out of these predictions, the Cleveland Browns are no doubt the least shocking pick. According to RJ White of CBS Sports, the Browns are currently tied with the Los Angeles Chargers for the sixth best odds to win Super Bowl LIV in Miami at 15-1. That’s the best odds for any non-playoff team from 2018 with the Packers closely behind at 19-1.
You can’t blame the oddsmakers after the offseason the Browns have had. After a slow 3-6-1 start, the Browns caught fire in the second half, winning four of their last six games down the stretch. Just barely missing out on the playoffs, second year general manager John Dorsey took it up a notch. Dorsey acquired a slew of talent, including superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, and moved up in the 2019 NFL Draft to select highly touted cornerback Greedy Williams. These marquee players will join one of the best young core’s in the NFL that already include Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Myles Garrett, David Njoku, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward, who are all under 26 years old.
The first half of the season for the Browns could prove to be a tough one as four of their first seven games are against playoff teams from last season (Rams, at Ravens, Seahawks, and at the Patriots). If Cleveland can float around .500 after week 11 against the Steelers, it should be smooth sailing to the finish line as they play the Dolphins, Bengals (twice), and Cardinals over the last six weeks of the season.
Polarizing quarterback Baker Mayfield enters his second season with offensive weapons galore in Beckham Jr, Landry, Njoku, and Chubb at his disposal. With a potentially elite defense to back them up, the Browns should not only contend for the AFC North title but as one of the premier teams in the AFC alongside the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.
New York Jets
2018 season record: 4-12 2019 season prediction: 9-7
Last but not least, we have one of the more surprising picks to be playing football in January in the Jets. While they haven’t played in the postseason since going to back-to-back conference championships with former quarterback Mark Sanchez in 2009 and 2010, there’s optimism that this could be the year they get back.
One of the main reasons the Jets would play beyond the regular season is a healthy, 16 game season from running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell, who sat out all of the 2018 season over a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers, signed a four-year, 52.5 million dollar deal with the Jets in the offseason. In his last full season in 2017, Bell finished third in the league in rushing with 1,291 yards and third in touchdowns with nine on the ground. However, durability has been a concern for Bell his whole career. He’s only played all 16 games once (2014) and saw his yards per carry go from 4.9 in 2015 and 2016 to 4.0 per carry in 2017.
Gang Green also made multiple other offseason additions to bolster both sides of the ball. This included signing wide receiver Jamison Crowder and linebacker C.J. Mosley and drafting defensive lineman Quinnen Williams third overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
In order to make the postseason for the first time in almost a decade, the Jets are going to have to dominate the middle of the their schedule. From weeks 8-14, New York plays the Jaguars, Dolphins (twice), Giants, Redskins, Raiders and Bengals, who combined to go 40-62 last season.
With more playmakers at his disposal in year two, quarterback Sam Darnold will look to take the next step as the team’s franchise QB. Defensive leader and second year safety Jamal Adams will be the anchor of an underrated defense with more quality playmakers including Williams and Mosley in front of him. While the chances of dethroning quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots of the AFC East crown are thin, look for the Jets to compete for a wild card spot this postseason.