With the new season upon us, what better time than now to talk about the playoffs?
There are 31 fan bases across the country full of high hopes that their favorite team will make the playoffs. For New England fans, it’s become basically an annual occurrence, so they probably aren’t too concerned.
Enjoy it while you can. For some the prospect of playing in January may not last a month if they begin with two or three losses to start the season.
And yet just about every year, when those 12 playoff teams are set, you’ll hear phrases like, “no one expected them to get in,” or, “nobody could have predicted that.” And there are several factors that come into play when a team that made the playoffs the previous year is left on the outside.
Injuries have huge impact. Injuries to Aaron Rodgers with the Packers and Odell Beckham, Jr with the Giants are a couple examples from last year that had big effect on their team’s chances. Scheduling can be a major issue. A team may have made the playoffs after playing a third or fourth place schedule last year but they might falter when playing a first place schedule this year. And the schedules also rotate what other divisions you play. Maybe your team is playing the NFC North or the AFC South this year, meaning they may struggle to find some wins in tougher contests.
Predicting the teams that make the playoffs this year after missing last year can be just as daunting. There’s always a hot team that people are talking about in the preseason. I’ve heard the Los Angeles Chargers being mentioned in that capacity often this year, but there is always some guessing in the process. Here we will look for patterns or indicators that may point you in the right direction to improve upon that guesswork.
By my count, over the last 5 years, there have been 28 teams to make the playoff after missing the previous year. 11 in the AFC and 17 in the NFC. That’s an average of 5.6 per year and there were eight new teams in 2017, representing a 67 percent turnover, the highest in the last five years. Looking a little deeper, there seem to be a couple of factors that keep repeating.
Record the previous year
The first factor that jumps out is how the team finished the year before. 18 of the 28 teams finished within one game of .500.
This may seem somewhat obvious at first. 17 of those 18 finished in second place or third place in their division the year before, so they showed promise. Just one, the 2017 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, played a fourth place schedule after finishing 7-9 in a very competitive NFC East in 2016.
Finishing close to .500 is by no means a guarantee. For example, the Dolphins from 2009 – 2014 finished either 7-9 or 8-8 in five out of those six years and never made the playoffs the following year. A Jeff Fisher-coached team finished within a game of .500 10 times in his 22 years as a head coach and made the playoffs just three times in the following year.
The second factor was a recent coaching change. In 11 of the 28 cases, a team had a head coach in either their first or second year.
The new coach could be inheriting an underachieving team and capitalizing, similar to Andy Reid in 2013. The Chiefs finished 2-14 in 2012 but had six Pro Bowl players. They added Alex Smith among others and made the playoffs four out of the next five years. Or maybe they could come in and dazzle (for a short period of time) with a wild new offensive scheme and take the league by storm, a la Chip Kelly with Philadelphia.
There are plenty of reasons why a coaching change can give a team a boost, but how much of a boost is hard to determine.
Incidentally, there were three teams that hit both of those factors with a near .500 record and a coach in their first 2 years with a team. The Eagles with Doug Pederson in 2017, Mike Zimmer in his second year with Minnesota in 2015 and Jim Caldwell’s first year in Detroit in 2014. The Saints also kind of fit this scenario when in 2013 they were coming off a 7-9 year when Sean Payton was suspended.
Based off of these two factors, there are 15 teams this season who did not make the playoffs last season, finished within one game of .500, or have a head coach in his first or second year. Let’s take a look at each team and review their chances.
Has a new Coach and finished close to .500
Los Angeles Chargers – As I mentioned the hot team with the pundits. Head coach Anthony Lynn is in his second year. They have a veteran quarterback with play makers at running back and wide receiver. They are also helped by a formidable pass-rushing duo in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa on a defense that allowed only 17 points per game and lost four games by 3 points or less. Chances – GOOD
Detroit Lions – Matt Patricia was brought in from New England. The offense has weapons to put points up, but can their defense do enough to stop offenses? Their division is going to be tough with Aaron Rodgers back from injury, Kirk Cousins back from the bank, and Khalil Mack brought in to make things difficult. Chances – SOLID
Arizona Cardinals – Steve Wilks is the new man in charge. The positives include David Johnson being back after missing a year, Larry Fitzgerald being Larry Fitzgerald and Chandler Jones coming of a monster year. Negatives are a completely new quarterback room, not much help on offense after the previously mentioned stars, and a schedule that includes the NFC North and AFC West. Chances – LOW
New Head Coach
Indianapolis Colts – Fresh off the Super Bowl, Frank Reich begins his first year as a head coach. Andrew Luck will be back and hopefully healthy and they landed a lot of young help through the draft, lead by Quentin Nelson. But there are many holes to fill and not enough talent to fill it yet. Chances – LOW
Oakland Raiders – Chucky is back and already making his presence known and not in a good way. They wasted a third-round pick on Martavis Bryant in the draft and then this week traded All Pro EDGE Khalil Mack to the Bears. I’m not sure what their plan is but it’s a cloudy at best. Chances – LOW
Denver Broncos – Vance Joseph is in his second year as a head coach and and they are hoping Case Keenum can continue his success from last year. The draft yielded some talent on both sides of the ball but can the No Fly Zone hold up? Chances – LOW
New York Giants – Pat Shurmur take the reins of an offense that could cause issues in years to come. Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, and Beckham are a formidable trio if the offensive line improves on what they did last year. Tough schedule for them with NFC and AFC South but they could make a run. Chances – SOLID
Chicago Bears – Matt Nagy comes over from Kansas City to a team who suddenly became very interesting. They have a young quarterback, a young running back, and they added Allen Robinson to lead the young wide receiver group. The aforementioned Mack, along with Roquan Smith, have been added a solid defense that will have to contend with the prolific NFC North offenses. Chances – SOLID
San Francisco 49ers – Kyle Shanahan is in year two after winning their last five in 2017 once Jimmy Garoppolo was inserted. They’ve added pieces to the offensive line and have a young front four on defense. They have to fill the shoes of Jerick McKinnon, who was brought over in free agency but is out for the season with a knee injury. Chances – SOLID
Baltimore Ravens – They’ve revamped the receiving corps to try and add more punch to the offense. They play the NFC South and AFC West and four of their first six games are on the road, including three games on the road in their division. They’ll need to get off to a good start or they could be chasing their division all season. Chances – SOLID
Cincinnati Bengals – They were last in offensive yards per game and 26th in points scored. They’ll need a healthy John Ross and Tyler Eifert to boost the offense. After five-straight playoff seasons, they have missed the postseason the last two years and are trending in the wrong direction. Chances – LOW
Dallas Cowboys – Ezekiel Elliott will be back for a full season and four of the six receivers are new to the roster. There are plenty of questions. Who will replace Jason Witten? How will the offensive line perform with center Travis Frederick out (Guillain-Barré syndrome) and rookie Connor Williams at left guard? Four of their last six games are at Jerryworld. Chances – SOLID
Washington Redskins – They have added Alex Smith, Adrian Peterson, and Paul Richardson to an offense that was 16th in points per game. Their defense was bottom five in points allowed and the schedule isn’t favorable with NFC and AFC South on tap. Chances – LOW
Green Bay Packers – The offense has Aaron Rodgers back healthy and added Jimmy Graham. Muhammad Wilkerson solidifies the defensive line and the secondary is deep. The schedule looks favorable with the AFC East and NFC West. Chances – GOOD
Seattle Seahawks – The Legion of Boom is no more and they seem to be in a rebuild after five-straight playoff appearances from 2012 – 2016. They don’t have lot of viable weapons on offense other than Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin (who is already dealing with a knee issue). Their schedule looks very tough but they have four of five at home to finish. Chances – LOW
Who’s it going to be? The average of the last five years is 5.6 new teams each year so I will pick five. I’m going with:
AFC – Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore Ravens
NFC – Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers
If I take one more team, I am going off the board and taking the Houston Texans. They don’t meet the criteria but they did finish 9-7 for three years previous to last season.
Let me know who you like and we’ll check back in January and see if this theory works.