The annual shift in the NFL’s competitive landscape is among the league’s most exciting qualities. A team may celebrate a playoff berth one year, only to be left wondering what went wrong at the end of next season.
In each of the last five years, at least four teams did not make it back to the playoffs despite qualifying the year before.
Here are four squads likely to follow this trend in 2018, and the four teams poised to replace them.
Out: Buffalo Bills
In: Los Angeles Chargers
The Bills are coming off the monumental achievement of qualifying for the postseason for the first time this century. Don’t expect them to make it two in a row.
Top to bottom, Buffalo may have the league’s worst offense. The team traded quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns and drafted Josh Allen No. 7 overall in April. Allen will start his NFL career on the bench, as head coach Sean McDermott announced Nathan Peterman as the team’s Week 1 starter. A Peterman-led scoring unit devoid of weapons and lacking a stout offensive line has disaster written all over it, never mind the fact that star running back LeSean McCoy’s legal troubles could rear their ugly head at any moment.
Buffalo’s defense, which ranked 26th a year ago, improved in the trenches, but is inexperienced at linebacker and has question marks at cornerback across from stud sophomore Tre’Davious White. Leslie Frazier’s unit may have to concede well under 20 points for the offense to keep pace.
Meanwhile, the Chargers are finally ready to put the pieces together and reclaim a playoff spot. The team was riddled with injuries in 2017 and barely missed the postseason despite starting 0-4.
If the Chargers can avoid the injury bug in 2018, look for them to be one of the AFC’s top squads. Philip Rivers is still playing good football and an improved offensive line will be blocking for him. Defensively, Los Angeles’ lethal pass-rush duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, coupled with a top-notch secondary, will wreak havoc.
Out: Carolina Panthers
In: Green Bay Packers
Cam Newton has all the talent in the world, but leading the Panthers to a second straight playoff appearance may prove too tall a task.
Carolina’s troubles begin on the offensive line, which will struggle mightily to protect Newton. Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams are expected to miss a significant portion of the season (though Kalil has at times resembled a human turnstile) and Andrew Norwell bolted for Jacksonville in free agency. Combine that with an uninspiring group of receivers, led by Devin Funchess, and it’s difficult to be confident in Carolina’s passing attack.
The Panthers had a top 10 defense in 2017, but they could easily take a step back. Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis is suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, and their secondary lost Kurt Coleman and Daryl Worley this offseason. Neither player is elite, but in their absence, Carolina’s left to rely on an underwhelming combination of youth and castaway veterans.
If picking Green Bay as the Panthers’ replacement seems like an obvious choice, that’s because it is, thanks to the NFL’s most talented quarterback. After a disastrous season, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are relatively healthy and ready to reclaim a spot among the league’s best scoring units. The team quietly improved on defense as well, adding Muhammad Wilkerson to the defensive line and Tramon Williams, Jaire Alexander, and Josh Jackson (the latter two via the draft) to the secondary.
Out: Jacksonville Jaguars
In: Houston Texans
The Jaguars rode a not-so-terrible Blake Bortles and elite defense all the way to the AFC Championship Game last season. Their problem is an offense that isn’t potent enough (and probably won’t get lucky enough) to repeat a top 10 ranking and a defense that, though solid, won’t reliably be able to compensate for the dropoff on the other side of the ball.
Keelan Cole, Donte Moncrief, Dede Westbrook, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins don’t scare anyone as top pass-catching options, even though Nathaniel Hackett’s made similar situations work before. Meanwhile, the No. 2 scoring defense from 2017 should remain among the league’s best, but lost two key pieces in Paul Posluszny and Aaron Colvin, and the NFL’s brightest offensive minds have had an offseason to unlock Jacksonville’s secrets.
Though the Jaguars probably won’t flame out, the AFC South is competitive again and features (at least) three quarterbacks who are better than Bortles. All that could leave Doug Marrone’s squad on the outside looking in come January.
Houston appears ready to claim the division crown. The Texans’ offense is simply too dynamic to handle. Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Lamar Miller are as dangerous a quartet as the NFL has to offer. If everyone stays healthy, the Texans will score points in bunches, even against Jacksonville.
Health is a concern on defense too, but Romeo Crennel has abundant talent at his disposal. A relentless front seven plus new additions Tyrann Mathieu and the aforementioned Colvin give Houston playmakers at every level.
Out: Los Angeles Rams
In: San Francisco 49ers
On paper, Sean McVay probably has the best roster in the league. Unfortunately for him, football isn’t played on paper.
Looking at the Rams’ offseason additions, it’s easy to see a resemblance to the 2011 “Dream Team” Philadelphia Eagles, particularly on defense. With Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Lamarcus Joyner, there’s talent everywhere. Los Angeles, however, has a glaring weakness at inside and outside linebacker. Though Wade Phillips’ defense will be tough to block in the defensive interior, it will almost certainly lack pass-rush production from the edge.
The Rams’ 29.9 points per game led the league in 2017; then again, the Eagles were also a top scoring unit in Chip Kelly’s first year at the helm. That’s not to say McVay will follow Kelly’s career trajectory, but success in one year doesn’t automatically translate to the next. Defenses adjust and opponents find ways to exploit weaknesses.
If Los Angeles’ mega-roster doesn’t click in 2018, the San Francisco 49ers could take their place atop the NFC West. Year 2 under Kyle Shanahan will be smoother with Jimmy Garoppolo under center and an ascendant, young defense led by Reuben Foster and DeForest Buckner.
While expectations are high for the 49ers, they aren’t nearly as lofty as what the Rams are dealing with. An easier schedule could be a difference-maker too – San Francisco will battle the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Los Angeles faces the New Orleans Saints and defending champion Eagles.
The Rams and 49ers are both talented and well coached, so the battle for division supremacy will be close. With all eyes on L.A., the Niners could squeak into the playoffs and emerge as a surprise Super Bowl contender. The 2011 Eagles, after all, went 8-8.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)