Every year in the NFL, there’s one team that makes the playoffs when they’re least expected to. In 2018, that was undoubtedly the Indianapolis Colts. Starting the season 1-5, first-year head coach Frank Reich and his Colts finished the 2018 campaign with a 9-1 record in their final 10 games, earning the 6th seed in the AFC playoffs at 10-6. Looking ahead to 2019, there are five teams who were not playoff contenders this season that we should expect to contend for a berth next season.
Atlanta’s reason for missing the playoffs is not like the others. In Week one alone, the Falcons lost star linebacker Deion Jones and standout safety Keanu Neal in a road loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Jones and Neal are two of the biggest pieces of the Falcons’ defense, and the injuries to an already handicapped unit didn’t stop there. In a Week two overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta saw running back Devonta Freeman, safety Ricardo Allen, guard Andy Levitre, and pass rushers Takkarist McKinley and Shelby Harris exit with significant injuries. The remainder of the season played out in similar fashion to the first two weeks, with starters exiting games left, right, and center. In 2019, the injury bug takes most of the blame for the Falcons missing the postseason. Atlanta does not have much to do to return to being perennial playoff contenders, but it starts with the ability to stay healthy and the team needs to add more depth.
The Carolina Panthers may have been the most puzzling team in the league in 2018. Throughout the first nine games of the season, they looked like the Panthers we’re used to seeing, sitting comfortably in the NFC playoff race with a 6-2 record. Then, Week 10 came around and shocked just about everybody. Carolina was demolished 52-21 on the road by the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Thursday Night Football. The Panthers’ Week 10 loss would be the first of seven in a row. Carolina ended the season victorious against the Saints – who had nothing to play for – to finish the season 7-9. For this squad to return to the postseason in 2019, it should continue to work toward figuring out what their true identity is and to also stay healthy. While the Panthers’ season wasn’t as injury riddled as the Falcons’ was, quarterback Cam Newton played through a nagging shoulder injury for most of the year. They should also hope that they don’t have to take another road trip to Pittsburgh. Spoiler: they don’t.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Here’s where it gets interesting. Any average Joe would know that the Falcons and Panthers battle for playoff seeding year after year, and that it’s reasonable to expect them to return to the postseason next season. However, the Buccaneers making this list should not be portrayed as a giant curveball. The biggest reason why they made this list is not a certain player, but rather a coach. In fact, their new head coach, Bruce Arians. Arians is a great fit in Tampa Bay, due to the fact he knows how to win, get his players to buy into him, and most importantly, get the most out of his quarterback. When Arians was hired as the Cardinals’ head coach in 2013, he became the first Cardinals coach to win at least nine games, dating back to 1925! Arians’ Cardinals went 10-6, with Bengals draft bust and journeyman Carson Palmer at quarterback. Arians got multiple productive seasons out of Palmer, which is why Buccaneers fans should be very excited. Production at quarterback has been limited in Tampa Bay, as 2015 first-overall pick Jameis Winston has had to learn three different offensive systems and the talent around him has been less than stellar outside of Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Under Arians, it is not unrealistic to expect a Pro Bowl caliber season out of Jameis Winston.
Cleveland Browns fans should be the most excited of all fans in the NFL for 2019. You have your quarterback, Cleveland! Baker Mayfield looked phenomenal as a rookie for the Browns, throwing for 3,725 yards, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 14 games, 13 of them starts. Mayfield isn’t the only reason Browns fans should be pumped, though. Like Tampa Bay and Bruce Arians, their new head coach Freddie Kitchens knows how to get the most out of Baker Mayfield. With a genius for a G.M. running the show in John Dorsey, an incredibly smart and innovative coach in Freddie Kitchens, and finally, a franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield, it is safe for fans to expect their Browns to make the AFC playoffs for the first time in 17 years.
The Buffalo Bills have been similar to the Cleveland Browns for quite some time, but at least now it isn’t due to losing and having long, painful playoff droughts. Buffalo and Cleveland alike have found their franchise passers in Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield, respectively. Allen had an army of doubters heading into his rookie season, and he played like a man on a mission to prove them wrong, delivering impressive performances for the Bills. Buffalo is one off-season – this off-season – away from a roster built for playoff contention for years to come. Buffalo has roughly $90 million in salary cap space to use for building the offense around Josh Allen as well as 10 draft picks to continue to add young, exciting players. With a coach that players play hard for in Sean McDermott, a G.M. that deserves all the credit in the world for flipping this roster as quickly as he did in Brandon Beane, and a fan base that’s as loyal as any in the NFL, the future is very bright for in Buffalo.