The Atlanta Falcons came practically out of nowhere in 2016 to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI. And while they lost, what the Falcons achieved in just getting to the big game exceeded expectations in a major way.
With a 6-10 record in 2014 and an 8-8 record last year, Atlanta appeared to be at least another year two way from being able to compete with the big guns in the NFC.
Then Matt Ryan exploded with his best year on record while the defense turned up the heat and morphed into a very competitive unit in the second half of the year and into the playoffs. Ultimately they fell short of the goal but gave the eventual Champs all they could handle in the process.
This leads us to wonder, which teams will surprise us in 2017?
Which teams are being dismissed as incapable a competing at the highest level despite the fact that they may not be as far away from achieving greatness as it appears at first glance?
Which teams have a chance to be the 2017 version of the Atlanta Falcons? That’s what we’re going to explore here.
Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
Blessed with of one of the NFL’s top passers in Andrew Luck, the Colts have a chance to ascend to great heights.
This is been true since Luck was drafted in 2012, but the poor decisions made by former general manager Ryan Grigson doomed Indianapolis to mediocrity the past two years. Even more so, Grigson’s refusal to protect his franchise passer resulted in luck being injured far too often.
Additionally, Grigson did a terrible job of stocking his roster with defensive talent, which put way too much pressure on an offense that was set up to fail.
Thankfully there is a new man in town, rookie general manager Chris Ballard, who is highly respected for his ability to not only evaluate talent but also to get along with those around him. This was something that was lacking the past five years, and nobody should discount how much having even a little more accord within the organization will help the Colts this year.
With plenty of cap space to work with Ballard has a chance to make significant improvements if he does not follow the steps of his predecessor. Savvy picks in the upcoming draft, along with key additions in free agency can vault the Colts into contention in the AFC.
Assuming all of that happens, the big question remains, can Luck avoid the big turnover in big games? If he can answer this question with a yes then the Colts have a legitimate chance to challenge the best teams in the AFC and make an appearance in Super Bowl LII.
Washington Redskins (8-7-1)
Though the mighty Dallas Cowboys appear to have the NFC East in a stranglehold, history tells us that it’s not so simple as that. In fact you have to go all the way back to 2004 to find the last time that a team in this division won back to back titles. And while it might seem that the next best team in the NFC East is the New York Giants, all four teams have a legitimate chance almost every single year to claim the crown.
This leads us to Washington, the team that won this division in 2015 before stumbling this past season and falling short of the playoffs. This is a team that has some serious holes to fill to become a championship contender, most notably on the defensive side of the ball.
The Redskins finished this past season with the 28th-ranked overall defense and the 19th-ranked scoring defense. Especially considering the significant investment the team made to acquire cornerback Josh Norman, these numbers were startlingly bad. One of the reasons to believe this defense can get better is the hire of Jim tomsula to coach the defensive line. He was tremendous during his time in San Francisco at the same job and should make a significant impact for Washington.
Assuming quarterback Kirk Cousins returns to the team as expected, the offense should remain a potent unit even without former offensive coordinator Sean McVay. While Cousins was not as sharp this past season as he was in 2015, he remains one of the best pure passers in the game. The team has decisions to make in regards to the receiver position, with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson set to become free agents. But the bottom line is this offense should remain very good.
To this point, Washington has not yet shown itself capable of playing at the highest level on a consistent basis in the Jay Gruden era. It surely is a stretch to assume that this team has the ability to take the giant leap necessary to reach Super Bowl LII. But by no means should we discount it out of hand.
Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
Moving to Los Angeles might not have been ideal for the Chargers, but their first year in the City of Angels should go better then what the Rams experienced after moving from St.Louis.
For starters, the offense should be extremely good, especially considering new head coach Anthony Lynn’s emphasis on running the ball. Melvin Gordon had a tremendous second year after fizzling out as a rookie, and if he’s utilized even more this upcoming season it should give Philip Rivers a boost in the passing game.
Another reason Chargers fans should expect a quick turnaround is that the defense should only get better with Gus Bradley calling the shots. Joey Bosa, Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman are all going to improve the more they play, and the defense will be all the better if Melvin Ingram returns instead of hitting the market in free agency.
Also it’s important to remember that there was not a single team in the NFL as snake-bitten with injuries as the Chargers were this past year
Finally, Los Angeles will almost certainly be better in late-game situations now that Mike McCoy is out of the equation. So while it may seem strange to think that a team that won just five games in 2016 can make it into the Super Bowl, the Chargers aren’t is far away from the pinnacle as it may appear.
Minnesota Vikings (8-8)
The Vikings have a huge caveat that must be addressed before they have any chance at beating the best teams in the NFC. Their offensive line is a dumpster fire of ineptitude, and without some serious upgrades across the line Minnesota’s offense will continue to be minimally effective.
It’s no small task. This unit was a mix-and-match, get your quarterback killed squad in 2016 that also was responsible for the NFL’s worst rushing offense. Making matters worse is that the 2017 NFL Draft isn’t exactly loaded with top offensive tackle prospects, which is the team’s biggest area of need.
So clearly, the Vikings are a long shot to make it far in the playoffs, if they even get in.
That said, Sam Bradford was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL last year at taking care of the ball and putting the ball on point for his receivers. And if the line can produce better running lanes to help the Vikings feature a balanced offense, they might really have something.
Defensively, Minnesota was extremely up-and-down last year but still has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best, provided more consistency and discipline.
There are a lot of “ifs” involved here, but the Vikings aren’t as far away from success as it appears. Some smart moves in the draft and free agency, not to mention some salary-cap relief when Adrian Peterson either gets a revised contract or is released, will go a long way helping this team become a legitimate contender.
Buffalo Bills (7-9)
It seems like an impossible task for any AFC East team to knock off the New England Patriots, and if any team can do it our first inclination is to look at the Miami Dolphins. But let’s not discount the Bills, who are under new management this year following a couple of years with Rex Ryan at the helm.
The team is still reportedly undecided on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who is set to earn $27 million if he does stay with the Bills in 2017 (more on that here).
If he remains in Buffalo (they really should keep him as he’s been their best quarterback in quite some time) then the offense should thrive under new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who coached Taylor in Baltimore. This is especially true given the team’s success pounding the rock with LeSean McCoy.
Offense wasn’t a huge problem for much of the season in Buffalo, and it will only improve if receiver Sammy Watkins can stay healthy. Additionally, new head coach Sean McDermott should have a very positive influence on the team’s defense going forward. He came to Buffalo after coordinating Carolina’s defense the past six years.
With tremendous cornerbacks on the roster, a rock solid defensive front and some speedy linebackers, Buffalo could feature a much-improved defense in 2017.
We don’t expect they’ll beat the Patriots for the AFC East crown, but if the Bills get into the playoffs anything’s possible.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)
The Eagles have some significant work to do in order to move from the realm of mediocrity into the land of champions. But there is a lot to like about where this team is headed, provided those issues get resolved.
They already have their quarterback, which is the biggest issue plaguing most teams on the verge. They have a stout offensive line (provided Lane Johnson stays clean) and a tremendous defensive front. Football is a game won and lost in the trenches, and Philly has significant talent on both sides of the ball on this front.
Obviously, a lack of talent at the receiver position hurt Carson Wentz and the offense this past season. And without a lot of cap space, the Eagles will need to continue developing the talent they have and/or draft well to fill the void.
Additionally, the team lacks depth and talent on the back end defensively. Linebacker and cornerback are the weakest positions on defense, which was seen clearly in the team’s No. 24-ranked pass defense.
Still, the Eagles looked pretty darn good towards the end of 2016, winning their last two games against the Giants and Cowboys. With some key additions, they could shock the NFC East and make a real push for Super Bowl LII.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Given the tremendous competition atop the AFC, it would be shocking if the Titans ended up playing in Super Bowl LII. That said, this team has the makings of a perennial contender, and it just improved its record in 2016 by six games over the 2015 season.
Marcus Mariota is obviously a very talented young quarterback, and he’s one of the NFL’s best in terms of red-zone passing. His rapport with tight end Delanie Walker and receiver Tajae Sharpe will only improve, and he’s always dangerous on the ground. The Titans also feature one of the NFL’s most dangerous rushing offenses, spearheaded by a dominant offensive line and a two-headed monster in the form of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry.
Defensively, Tennessee showed signs of life this past season under legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. This defense finished No. 20 in the league in total defense and No. 16 in scoring defense.
With an abundance of cap space and a glut of draft currency (thanks to their deal with the Los Angeles Rams last year), the Titans have the means to significantly improve this unit during the offseason.
The AFC South is clearly up for grabs every year, The Titans fell short of claiming the crown by the slimmest of margins this past season and should be highly competitive again in 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Just like we’ve seen with the AFC South, the NFC South is wide open.
It’s no guarantee the Atlanta Falcons will even make it back to the playoffs after suffering a complete meltdown in Super Bowl LI, losing Kyle Shanahan to the San Francisco 49ers and hiring Steve Sarkisian in his stead. The New Orleans Saints appear to be stagnate without a defense these days, and the Carolina Panthers have serious work on defense and the offensive line to seriously threaten anyone right now.
Of all the teams in this division, the Bucs appear to have the best shot at not only winning the division but also making a serious run at a title in 2017.
Jameis Winston still has the tendency to throw into coverage and must break that habit, but he’s also one of the most fearless, most talented young passers in the game today. Add another receiving threat to go along with Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate and this passing offense is set to explode.
The Bucs also need to shore up their offensive line and draft another young running back. And it’s imperative to bring in talented defensive backs to shore up what was a mediocre pass defense last year, but that shouldn’t be a problem given the team’s cap situation.
Would it be shocking if the Buccaneers made it to Super Bowl LII? Certainly. But it’s not out of the question.