As exciting and thrilling as Super Bowl LI was, the cold reality of the final game of the NFL season is this – only two teams play in it. So while New England and Atlanta shared arguably the biggest stage in sports, the other 30 teams know that they will need to improve if they want the same opportunity next February. And for more than half of the league the first step comes in simply making the playoffs.
Related: Very Early 2017 NFL Predictions
Half of this past season’s 12 playoff participants (Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, New York Giants and Oakland) didn’t qualify in 2015. So with parity prevalent and turnover expected, here are five teams that could make surprise postseason runs in 2017.
(9-7, second in AFC South)
After finishing 3-13 in 2015, Tennessee recorded its first winning season since 2011. The Titans have a great foundation with quarterback Marcus Mariota, running back DeMarco Murray and tight end Delanie Walker, but could use another offensive weapon or two.
Tennessee has two first-round picks (No. 5 and No. 18 overall) in the upcoming draft, so the Titans will have opportunities to fill some of their biggest needs. And if Kansas City can’t agree to a long-term deal with All-Pro safety Eric Berry, Tennessee could be a possible landing spot.
Last season, the Titans improved their win total by six games. With no dominant team in the AFC South, including defending champion Houston, Tennessee could be tabbed as the preseason favorite in the division.
(9-7, third in AFC West)
After winning Super Bowl 50 a year ago, the Broncos missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season. Denver will now look to start another postseason streak with a new head coach (Vance Joseph) and the possibility of a new quarterback leading the offense.
Paxton Lynch, the 26th overall pick in last year’s draft, pretty much redshirted his rookie season, making just two starts and playing in only three games. But he will get every opportunity to wrest the starting job from Trevor Siemian, although it’s likely the Broncos will bring in either a veteran or draft another quarterback to increase the competition. Whoever is at quarterback, Denver also needs to address its offensive line in free agency and/or through the draft, especially if Lynch ends up being the starter.
But the real reason the Broncos could not only get back to the playoffs next season but be a contender once again is their defense. Denver finished fourth in total defense in 2016, despite having issues in stopping the run, and returns plenty of talent on that side of the ball. Even though the AFC West has gotten tougher don’t be surprised if the Broncos return to the postseason after a one-year absence.
(6-10, fourth in NFC South)
After losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50, Carolina tumbled from first to worst in the NFC South. As disappointing as this past season was, the Panthers still have 2015 MVP Cam Newton to lead their offense and plenty of other reasons to be confident about a bounce-back in ’17.
Newton had arguably one of his worst seasons as a pro in 2016, throwing for just 19 touchdowns passes compared to 14 interceptions and finishing with a career-low 52.9 completion percentage. As poorly as Newton played, the blame can’t fall solely on him, as Carolina could use some reinforcement along the offensive line and a more consistent running game.
The absence of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman impacted the Panthers’ defense more than anyone expected as well. Carolina, forced to rely on an inexperienced secondary, finished 29th in passing defense last season, an issue that was exacerbated by All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly missing the final six games because of a concussion. If the Panthers can improve in the secondary and tighten up the defense in a few other spots, they should at least be more of a threat in their own division, if not the NFC as a whole.
Los Angeles Chargers
(5-11, fourth AFC West)
The Chargers were decimated by injuries this past season, leading the league in players on injured reserve. This makes the fact that they lost nine games by eight points or fewer all the more painful.
Now relocated to Los Angeles and with a new head coach in Anthony Lynn, the key to the Chargers’ outlook in 2017 starts with Philip Rivers. The 35-year-old quarterback remains one of the most productive at the position, but he needs to find a way to cut back on his NFL-high 21 interceptions. Melvin Gordon was on his way to a 1,000-yard season before missing the final three games because of an injury. And even with injuries impacting their wide receiver corps and offensive line, the Chargers finished ninth in the league in scoring at 25.6 points per game.
The defense also felt the sting of the injury bug, notably in the secondary, but first-round pick (No. 3 overall) Joey Bosa emerged as one of the best rookies in the NFL, finishing with 10.5 sacks in 12 games. With better health and some reinforcements in a few key areas, the Chargers could experience a turnaround in their new home under their new head coach.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(9-7, second in NFC South)
After finishing 6-10 in quarterback Jameis Winston’s rookie season, the Buccaneers were on the cusp of the playoffs in 2016. Winston showed some improvement in his second season, throwing for 4,090 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he needs to cut back on his interceptions (33 in two seasons).
Tampa Bay’s defense was a huge reason for the three-win increase in 2016, as the Bucs finished third in the league in takeaways with 29. Rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves played much better during the second half of the season, which helped stabilize the secondary.
If Tampa Bay can find a reliable running game to take some of the load off of Winston, the Buccaneers could make the NFC South even more interesting in 2017.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.