Yesterday I examined four playoff teams most likely to take a step back. As I mentioned in that article, an average of four playoff teams from the previous post season have missed the playoffs the following season. We already examined the four teams that could miss the playoffs, but with that said one-question still looms: Which four teams will make the leap forward?
- Oakland Raiders: 2015 Record 7-9 (3rd In The AFC West)
I’ve bolstered the Raiders since the beginning of March, as a team I think is primed to make a jump from pretender to contender. As far as roster construction, the Raiders are among the most talented in the NFL. From top to bottom they are absolutely loaded.
The Raiders took a leap last season, improving from three victories to seven, and I expect a similar leap to occur next season. Not only have they improved their roster through the draft and free agency, but they also benefit largely from a division that has regressed greatly. Two of the four teams that I outlined in my article yesterday are in the AFC West, making the division crown that much more obtainable for the Raiders.
- Indianapolis Colts: 2015 Record 8-8 (2nd In The AFC South)
After making the playoffs in the first three seasons of the Andrew Luck era, the Colts took a step back last season, missing the playoffs and finishing with a winning percentage worse than .501 for the first time since 2011. Despite an injury plagued, flawed roster, the Colts limped to eight wins.
After ignoring their aging offensive line for years, the Colts finally used an early-round draft pick on an offensive lineman, drafting Ryan Kelly with the 18th overall pick. Since 2012, the quarterback of the Colts has been among the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. As talented as Andrew Luck is, he needs protection. He can only take so many hits, as we saw last season after he missed nine games due to a number of injuries.
The Colts have thrived off of their divisional opponents. Since 2012, the Colts record against the AFC south is 20-4. They have absolutely dominated the AFC South, while being just above average against the rest of the league. This year they will benefit greatly from not having to play a first place schedule.
Their schedule combined with the return of Andrew Luck will only help the Colts’ chances at returning to the playoffs.
- Dallas Cowboys: 2015 Record 4-12 (4th In The NFC East)
A year after coming within one play of playing for the NFC championship the Cowboys had a disastrous season. Not only were they hampered on the field by injuries to their star players, but they also made an abundance of bonehead off the field moves (Greg Hardy signing). It would be an understatement to describe their season as a season from hell.
With that said, this sets the Cowboys up beautifully for a bounce back season- a return to the postseason. Barring another injury to Tony Romo the team will be considerably better. Despite losing 12 games last season, they were not an awful team- seven of their twelve losses were decided by single digits. Plug in Tony Romo and you’re bound to win five or six of those games.
The return of a healthy Dez Bryant will only benefit the offense- an offense that two years ago finished in the top three.
Their first round pick, Ezekiel Elliott has the talent to be the next Adrian Peterson. This offense is going to return to its 2014 form. The only concern I have for this Cowboys team is their defense, specifically their defensive line that is composed of mediocre players.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2015 Record 6-10 (4th In The NFC South)
Like the Raiders, the Buccaneers are among the more popular selections among analysts to make a leap toward the playoffs. As last season progressed, Jameis Winston steadily improved- each successive month Winston recorded a higher completion percentage and attempted more passes. By the end of the year he was in complete control of the offense.
Bringing back Doug Martin, who finished second in total rushing yards last season, only adds to their chances of making the leap to the playoffs.
The team is young and I expect them to steadily progress. Playing in the weak NFC south will only benefit this team, as they get to play two games each against the inconsistent Saints and Falcons.
Spark Sports NFL Analyst