Who are the real sleeper teams? Just look at the schedules
While the competitive balance that free agency, the salary cap and draft picks bestowed was ballyhooed for a few years in the 1990s, the truth about the NFL is that the same teams often win. There’s an oligarchy in place. The Patriots, Steelers and Ravens haven’t stayed down for long even if they turned in a sub-par season on occasion. In the NFC, the same thing goes for Seattle and Green Bay.
Other teams briefly have joined this ruling class only to stumble out of it: the 49ers when they fired Jim Harbaugh, the Eagles when they fired Andy Reid, the Chargers when they stopped drafting well, the Colts when the team around Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck stopped carrying its share. And so on. The NFL is better understood as a game of windows for good teams. Organizations can’t exactly control their circumstances on a game-to-game basis, but they can create a good enough team to perennially make the playoffs and let the chips fall where they may.
And then there are the sleepers. Sometimes they are already part of the oligarchy but have an unexpectedly high win total. And, sometimes, the sleeper teams come from divisions without an established hierarchy. It wasn’t a total surprise that the Chiefs and Raiders made the playoffs last season, especially since Denver went with the untested Trevor Siemian as its starting quarterback. The surprise was that both those teams finished with 12 wins. Carolina came out of nowhere in 2015, not only winning the NFC South but also finishing 15–1 and heading to the Super Bowl. Las Vegas sportsbooks had put their win over/under heading into the season at 8.5.
The one thing all three of those teams had in common, outside of good fortune in terms of turnover margin, is that they all played four games against the AFC South.
Long known as the cupcakes that Manning would feast on every year, the AFC South has been a dreadful division top to bottom since Manning’s departure. Last year, it was a division won by a team that paid Brock Osweiler $37 million in guaranteed money. So, while the Chiefs and Raiders were both good teams, their schedule got a little boost. Oakland went 4–0 against the AFC South, and Kansas City went 2–2, losing two games by a combined nine points. (Imagine the hype for the Chiefs had they gone 14–2, which easily could have happened.) The 2015 Panthers went 4–0 against the AFC South.
So while we don’t inherently know the quality of every team heading into the year, we have a pretty good estimation of most of them. Every year, each division plays two different divisions outside of home-and-homes in their own division and a few other games against teams that finished with the same standing in their respective division. Here’s how we expect that to play out this year.
AFC East: Plays the NFC South and AFC West
Neither the NFC South nor AFC West projects to have any out-and-out dreadful teams this year, which is foreboding news for the odds of a non-Patriots team making the playoffs again like Miami did last year. There’s at least a decent argument that the Buccaneers are a team on the rise, and that a healthy Chargers team could go worst-to-first. At the same time, outside of Kansas City and Oakland, I would argue that each of these teams has exploitable flaws. I would expect this division to lean toward a tougher schedule.
The bounce-back pick: Buffalo also adds games against Indianapolis and Cincinnati, so if new head coach Sean McDermott can improve the defense, things could be interesting in December.
AFC North: Plays the AFC South and NFC North
This is a great time to believe in a bounce-back for the Ravens. OK, so Aaron Rodgers is on the schedule. Outside of that, Cleveland is a dead-on-arrival franchise until proven otherwise, and Cincinnati looks less talented than it’s been in some time. Chicago has no quarterback, nor does Jacksonville. Detroit and Houston were last year’s two weakest playoff teams by most analytical measures, and the only team that has made a real investment in improving itself for 2017 in either division is Tennessee. This is a schedule that is very conducive for both Baltimore and Pittsburgh to make the playoffs, and possibly a schedule that could get them both to 11 wins or more.
The bounce-back pick: I can’t in good conscience tell you to believe in Cincinnati, but it won’t be surprising if Cleveland enjoys a mildly successful season and takes down five or six wins against this schedule.
AFC South: Plays the AFC North and NFC West
For the AFC South, life also sets up pretty well. Each team is guaranteed games against Cleveland and San Francisco, at this point the two worst teams in the NFL. Cincinnati is weaker than it’s been before, and the Rams are handcuffed to Jared Goff, who was dreadful in 2016. While the upper crust of the schedule is a little scary between Pittsburgh and Seattle, this could easily work out in a way that gives us our first 10-win AFC South team since 2014. It enhances the stock of both Tennessee and Houston, especially if Houston finds a quarterback.
The bounce-back pick: I’m done betting on Jacksonville until Blake Bortles is put away, but if Andrew Luck enters pure witchcraft mode, the schedule sets up nicely for the Colts to make a playoff run.
AFC West: Plays the NFC East and AFC East
While Washington had a rough offseason, the rest of the NFC East looks loaded for bear. The middle of the AFC East was quite competitive in 2016, and the idea of Buffalo having a real defense again after two years in the Rex Ryan Exotic Scheme Zone should be a little terrifying. The only cupcake looks to be the Jets, who have no proven quarterback and couldn’t rush the passer in 2016. Overall, I’d say the odds are against the AFC West having two playoff teams again. It’s not a horrific schedule, but it’s solidly above average.
The bounce-back pick: The Chargers played good defense in 2016 but continued not to be able to run the ball and watched Philip Rivers fade down the stretch. Fresh eyes at head coach in Anthony Lynn could be very helpful, and they pick up games against the Browns and Jaguars because of their last-place finish.
NFC East: Plays the AFC West and NFC West
Much like the AFC West’s slate, this sets up as a couple of potential creampuffs (the Rams and 49ers) nailed to a bunch of live teams. Denver’s defense is a matchup problem, and outside of the Broncos there’s not a bad quarterback in the AFC West. Seattle and Arizona remain dangerous to some degree. There’s nothing here that should stop the Giants and Cowboys from making the playoffs if they play to their potential, but it’s about an average schedule.
The bounce-back pick: The Eagles played terrific defense in 2016, especially when you consider that they had no quality cornerbacks on the roster. Between the potential of a Carson Wentz improvement with new receivers, more games from Lane Johnson and a game against the 49ers, there are a lot of ways for them to make some progress.
NFC North: Plays the AFC North and NFC South
Games against the Bears and Browns will help these teams, but the NFC South is capable of scoring on anyone, and the NFC North isn’t exactly loaded with great defenses outside of Minnesota. The Vikings are probably the team most capable of making a leap here, and dates against the Rams and Washington help the cause. However, Minnesota didn’t exactly go out and improve the team beyond trying to make the offensive line passable.
The bounce-back pick: Minnesota, though I’d sure feel a lot better about that if I saw they were able to run the offense they did for the first four weeks of 2016.
NFC South: Plays the NFC North and AFC East
This is essentially a neutral schedule for the South, which adds the Jets and Bears, as well as potential regression candidate Detroit, but also has to deal with the Patriots and Packers. And in a division that always seems to be up for grabs, don’t forget about the benefit that third- and last-place schedules can provide. Carolina will get a game against the 49ers, while New Orleans picks up games against Washington and the Rams.
The bounce-back pick: I mean, Cam Newton was the MVP in 2015, right? We didn’t just dream that, did we? Improved health on the offensive line and more games from Luke Kuechly and corner James Bradberry should at least get the Panthers back closer to .500.
NFC West: Plays the AFC South and NFC East
What a time to be a Seahawks fan. Not only did the rest of the division implode around them the last few years, but this schedule also combines low-key games against the 49ers with the relative breeze that is the AFC South. Nobody should be surprised if the Seahawks post a 13-win year against this schedule. And by the same token, nobody should be surprised if Arizona is able to bounce back to the playoffs between health improvements on the offensive line and receiver group and a little boost from the patsies they play.
The bounce-back pick: Arizona. Though the defense will miss Calais Campbell, I could see the Cardinals riding this schedule to a lower playoff seed.