The NFL playoff field experiences a lot of turnover on a year-to-year basis, meaning there is always hope for those who will be watching from home this month.
There are seven teams that did not make last season’s playoffs that will be competing in the knockout rounds this postseason, all hoping to reach Super Bowl 53.
So which of the non-playoff teams from 2018 have the best shot at making it next year?
Here’s a look at five in the best shape to be preparing for the playoffs in January 2020.
Cleveland Browns (2018 record: 7-8-1)
The Browns are casting their net beyond interim coach Gregg Williams to find a successor to Hue Jackson, despite their surge in the second half of the season. Regardless of who takes the helm, Cleveland has a formula in place to go from laughingstock to serious contender. First overall pick Baker Mayfield has been a revelation, elevating a mediocre supporting cast with his fearless play at quarterback. Nick Chubb is a star in the making at running back and the defense has been transformed into an imposing force capable of generating pressure and creating turnovers. Also boasting an underrated offensive line, the Browns have a recipe for success even in a difficult AFC North.
QB @bakermayfield and RB @NickChubb21 are both finalists for @NFL Rookie of the Year!
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 3, 2019
New York Jets (2018 record: 4-12)
The Jets only need to look as far as the Bears for inspiration for a playoff run. Last year, the Bears were without a head coach after an up-and-down season for their young quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky. Fast forward 12 months and Chicago is heading into the postseason with some viewing them as Super Bowl contenders. With coach Todd Bowles fired, the Jets find themselves in a strikingly similar position, but with less talent on defense than the Bears and Sam Darnold coming off a better rookie year than Trubisky had for Chicago in 2017. If the Jets can put better skill-position players around him and build on what they have in Jamal Adams and Leonard Williams on defense, they should be in contention for a wild card berth in the next season.
San Francisco 49ers (2018 record: 4-12)
The Niners were the fashionable pick going into 2018, but the torn ACL suffered by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ended their hopes of contention in just the third week of the season. Still, a lost season has seen the Niners find a capable backup QB in Nick Mullens, put together one of the league’s better running attacks and develop a superstar at tight end in George Kittle. With Kyle Shanahan, one of the best offensive minds in the game, as head coach, the 49ers’ offense should continue to perform at a level to keep them in any game. Finding edge rushers to support emerging star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner will be key to giving a young defense that improved down the stretch the ability to close more games out and put the Niners in position to make the postseason.
Congrats @gkittle46! pic.twitter.com/EzfC8rkrEQ
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 31, 2018
Green Bay Packers (2018 record: 6-9-1)
It’s tough to keep a player as good as Aaron Rodgers down for long. The Packers had stagnated under Mike McCarthy’s leadership, but freed from the shackles of the former head coach, Rodgers and the offense should thrive, providing of course that Green Bay makes the right appointment in replacing McCarthy. The defense has issues, particularly in the secondary, but is not lacking the talent to make quick improvements and, with clearly the best quarterback in the NFC North at their disposal, it is not difficult to see a path to the Packers competing with the Bears for supremacy in the division.
Atlanta Falcons (2018 record: 7-9)
Much like the 49ers, injuries curtailed the hopes of the Falcons in 2018, their defense struggling significantly after early blows suffered by Deion Jones and Keanu Neal. Their offense was unable to produce the performances to consistently compensate for the defense’s deficiencies and changes are afoot on both sides of the ball. Improvements to the pass rush and to the offensive line are needed, but with Matt Ryan throwing to an extremely talented set of receivers, the Falcons are more than capable of producing the deep playoff run many expected of them this season, should a defense filled with promising young players stay healthy.