Every year there are five new teams that reach the NFL playoffs. Who might those teams be in 2014, and who will they replace?
Bruce Arians did a marvelous job last season for the Arizona Cardinals, pushing them to 10-6 and just missing the playoffs. Already some free agency moves have strengthened an already solid roster. A good draft and another year in the system could make the Cardinals dark horses in that NFC West division, or at the very least a wild card contender.
A blown coverage ended the Chicago Bears season in Week 17 back in January. It seemed fitting because they managed to field an 8-8 record with the 30th ranked defense. The team has shown things should be different this 2014 NFL season. A myriad of changes to the defensive roster have brought in talents like Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Their #2 scoring offense remains intact. A productive draft has analysts believing they can contend.
New York Giants
The health of Eli Manning is obviously key to this situation but otherwise the New York Giants have busily erased many of the problems that dogged them last year including a porous offensive line with additions like Geoff Schwartz and an inefficient secondary with names like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. With the 12th pick they have a real chance to add a difference-maker to the new formula and with a health Manning can retake control of that NFC East division.
A 2-14 record pretty much says the Houston Texans were bad in 2013. No question. However, an overview of their roster reveals a unit that isn’t short on talent. What they lack is direction and stability at the quarterback position. Hiring Bill O’Brien who rescued PennState and holding the first overall pick in the NFL draft gives them a chance to solve both problems. Considering the weakness of the AFC South division, they could easily go from worst to first if things click quickly.
Things really began to come around on offense late in the year for the Pittsburgh Steelers and they almost used that momentum to rescue a pitiful 0-4 start. It didn’t happen but things are looking up this year. The defense got a nice boost at safety with Mike Mitchell while Ben Roethlisberger got some more toys in LeGarrette Blount and Darrius Heyward-Bey. One more infusion of talent to the defensive side and there is no reason to think the Black and Gold can’t overtake Cincinnati in that close-knit AFC North.
Defense led the way for the Carolina Panthers last year, and another Pro Bowl season from Cam Newton. However, it just feels like the team has lost more than its gained. The wide receiver position is a mess and the offensive line took a hit with the loss of Jordan Gross. Mitchell left the defense for Pittsburgh and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is in Minnesota. Can they really replace all those losses and still compete in a division that is only getting better by the day?
The same question can be posed about the Philadelphia Eagles. Chip Kelly and his dynamic offense were predictably a surprise to many team in the NFL last season. However, as so often happens teams will start to adjust. Kelly can’t expect a run of good health he enjoyed last year to continue nor the loss of DeSean Jackson to not impact his plans. Unless the defense makes significant strides from last year it’s hard seeing the Eagles squeak in like they did last year.
San Francisco 49ers
No question this is going to be the hardest sell considering the San Francisco 49ers have reached the NFC championship three years in a row. Still, there are new factors to consider. First is the health status of NaVarro Bowman, arguably their best defensive playmaker who tore up his knee in the game against Seattle back in January. Then there’s the lingering rumor about the locker room problems with Jim Harbaugh, whose act is “wearing thin” with the players. Finally, it’s the uncertain future of their defensive front. Justin Smith turns 35-years old this season and Aldon Smith was arrested yet again. Can the 49ers survive all these questions in the toughest division in football?
San Diego Chargers
A series of big wins (and lucky breaks) propelled the San Diego Chargers into the playoffs. Philip Rivers played outstanding, culminating in his winning comeback player of the year. Even so the Bolts don’t look much better off than a year ago. While their roster has largely remained the same the rest of the AFC West has improved, particularly the Broncos and Raiders. A 9-7 record likely won’t yield similar results this season for San Diego, and the loss of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was an additional blow.
Kansas City Chiefs
Unlike the Chargers, it might be roster losses that sink the Kansas City Chiefs after their unfortunate collapse in the playoffs against Indianapolis. Among some key names that are gone include Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz, Dexter McCluster, and Tyson Jackson among others. Salary cap prevented them from really adding any significant replacements. Andy Reid is a fantastic coach who finds ways to adjust but with all those losses and no second round pick in the draft he will have to pull off a miracle to make a run in 2014.