This season saw the lowest turnover of playoff teams in the last decade, joining 2012 as the only season in the last 10 years with fewer than five new playoff teams compared to the prior season. The NFC has been the more tumultuous conference year-to-year in the last decade, but with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson at the helm of some of the conference’s powerhouse teams, we may start to see the kind of stability that has been the trademark of the AFC in the last decade. And with the likes of Peyton Manning reaching the end of his tenure and the Texans’ question mark at quarterback, this list of teams to shake up the playoff picture has more of an AFC slant to it than history might suggest it should.
Below are five teams with a good shot to make a playoff appearance next season after falling short in 2015.
1. Oakland Raiders
The biggest issue for the Raiders entering this offseason is how they fill a void in veteran leadership, created by the retirement of DE Justin Tuck and S Charles Woodson. There is no doubt that the Raiders were a team on the rise in 2015, and with Derek Carr among our most-improved players in the league this season, they have an ascending player at the most important position in the field.
Aiding Carr’s development are a trio of passing options that are sure to make the Raiders a genuine threat to the Broncos and the Chiefs for the AFC West crown next season, with Michal Crabtree, Amari Cooper, and Clive Walford all earning overall grades of 74.0 or higher this season (1–100 scale), with plenty of room to grow for Cooper (18 drops) and Walford (less than 500 snaps played) after solid rookie seasons.
On the defensive side, everything starts with Khalil Mack, who proved this year that he is capable of game-winning, season-defining opportunities, just as Von Miller produced in the Super Bowl on Sunday. The Raiders are trending up, and should be taking aim for a playoff berth next January.
2. New York Jets
If the Jets could have managed to beat their former head coach even once, they wouldn’t have been on this list; if they could have beaten him twice, they would have had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. As it is, they fell short against Rex Ryan both times, but with the core of their defensive line and receiving corps still together, the Jets are still in a good position to build on this season come September.
Keeping their own talented crop of free agents in house will be a tough balancing act that the Jets will have to master if they are to maintain their momentum. The Jets have 6,886 snaps worth of playing time hitting unrestricted free agency, and with the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, and Ryan Fitzpatrick expiring, it is not the bottom of their roster hitting the open market. If the Jets can manage to “keep the band together,” then with the likes of Brandon Marshall (85.9), Eric Decker (83.5), Sheldon Richardson (81.1), and Leonard Williams (88.8) still in place, the Jets are set to go one better in 2016.
3. Atlanta Falcons
The only NFC entrant on this list boasted one of the most improved teams in 2015, though the Falcons stumbled after their fast start. In spite of that, in a league driven by quarterback play and the ability of receivers to make plays down the field, Atlanta boasts two prime pieces to make a run at the 2016 postseason. Boosted by having no crucial pieces set to hit free agency, the Falcons are well set to build upon their progress from last season without the need to cover newly-created holes from lost talent. A strong second half of the season from Vic Beasley (74.2) will offer hope for defensive improvement in 2016, which paired with the offensive trio of Matt Ryan (82.5), Julio Jones (96.0), and Devonta Freeman (79.4), should make the Falcons a team to watch in 2016.
4. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts went all in for 2015 with a slew of veteran signings, but came away with a busted flush. Andrew Luck struggled with both health and form, while too many of their veteran signings failed to deliver as the Colts moved backwards in a subpar AFC South. The clock is ticking on the Colts' ability to seriously invest around Luck before he gets the inevitable $100+ million standard NFL quarterback contract, but with a return to form from Luck in 2016, there’s no reason that they shouldn’t be able to challenge, and ultimately depose, the Texans as AFC South kings once again. This is still a quarterback-driven league, and Luck’s ability to deliver the big plays to the likes of T.Y. Hilton (85.1) and Donte Moncrief (77.8) should make the Colts’ favorites in the AFC South once again, in spite of their down season.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Colts won’t be unchallenged in the AFC South, however, with the Texans on the rise this season, and also the Jaguars showing signs of life with big strides made by their passing game in 2015 with the likes of Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson (87.6) and Allen Hurns (84.6) making a huge leap forward. If that trajectory can be maintained by the offense, the Jags will be threatening enough with an impressive rookie season from T.J. Yeldon (83.2) adding balance to the offense, even though the offensive line was only just inside the league’s top 20.
The ceiling for Jacksonville next season will come from the strides that their defense can make. They were deprived of first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. early in the offseason, and their pass-rush struggled all year as a result. Solid returns from the likes of Davon House (73.1) and Jared Odrick (73.7) must be built upon if the Jaguars are to move further forwards in 2016, but if the defense can match the strides the offense made in 2015, the Jaguars will be right in the mix in a wide open AFC South.