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Ranking likeliest new NFL playoff teams and which team each would replace

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The Eagles went from 7-9 to Super Bowl champs last season, and parity is alive and well in the NFL. In fact, in every year since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, there have been at least four teams that made the playoffs after missing the previous year. In 2017, there were actually eight new playoff teams: the Eagles, Bills, Panthers, Jaguars, Rams, Vikings, Saints and Titans.

So which teams are the best candidates to do the same in 2018? And which teams are the best candidates to drop out and miss the playoffs? The NFL Live crew asked 22 of ESPN's experts for their picks on both sides -- each voter was asked to pick five new teams that will be in the playoffs, and five more that will be out. The answers might surprise you:


Five teams that could return to playoffs

1. Houston Texans

Total votes (of 22): 21

How they fared in 2017: 4-12. The Texans went 1-8 after Deshaun Watson suffered a torn ACL in practice before their Week 9 game vs. Indianapolis.

FPI rank headed into 2018: 19th

Why there's optimism: Two words: Deshaun Watson. In six starts last season, the quarterback showed just how good he and this Texans offense can be. Of course, the key will be whether Watson can stay healthy, having now torn the ACL in both legs. In his last five starts, Watson led the Texans' offense to at least 33 points in each game, including 57 against the division-rival Tennessee Titans. Houston also has improved on defense, adding Tyrann Mathieu, Aaron Colvin and Justin Reid in the secondary, and the Texans are hoping to have a healthy J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus on the field as well. The key for this season will be health, but if the Texans can stay off the injury report, they have a high ceiling and could go from worst to first in the AFC South. -- Sarah Barshop

2. Green Bay Packers

Total votes (of 22): 20

How they fared in 2017: 7-9. Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6 at Minnesota and played in only seven games.

FPI rank headed into 2018: 7

Why there's optimism: Rodgers. If his return from a broken collarbone isn't reason enough -- and it should be considering the Packers had made the playoffs eight straight years before the streak ended last season -- then here are a couple more reasons: Brian Gutekunst and Mike Pettine. Gutekunst replaced ousted general manager Ted Thompson and already showed signs of aggressiveness in free agency (signing the likes of Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson) and in the draft (when he traded back and then up in the first round). Pettine, the new defensive coordinator, has brought an aggressiveness to the defense that was lacking in the final couple of years under longtime coordinator Dom Capers. -- Rob Demovsky

3. Los Angeles Chargers

Total votes (of 22): 19

How they fared in 2017: 9-7. The Chargers started 0-4 and finished 6-1, but a Week 15 loss at Kansas City crushed their playoff hopes.

FPI rank headed into 2018: 11

Why there's optimism: The Chargers won nine of their last 12 games in 2017 and barely missed the playoffs. And with the three other teams in the AFC West dealing with different levels of transition, Los Angeles has the most continuity returning on its roster and the coaching staff. The only starters the Chargers lost in free agency are safety Tre Boston and guard Kenny Wiggins. And they return the top decision-makers on the team's coaching staff, with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley reaching new deals this offseason. In his second season with a franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers, coach Anthony Lynn should compete for a division crown. -- Eric D. Williams

4. Baltimore Ravens

Total votes (of 22): 9

How they fared in 2017: 9-7. Baltimore was stunned on the final day of the regular season, losing its playoff spot after Cincinnati scored on a 49-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining to win.

FPI rank headed into 2018: 15

Why there's optimism: The biggest reason for optimism is the health of Joe Flacco and his revamped wide receiver group. Flacco had his best offseason in recent memory, and many believe it's the result of him not having to deal with knee and back injuries. The last time Flacco was this healthy was 2014, which was also the last time Baltimore reached the postseason. Another factor is the Ravens' overhaul of Flacco's targets. Baltimore upgraded by adding Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead. This offseason, Crabtree has looked like a No. 1 receiver, Brown has repeatedly made big plays downfield and Snead has consistently gotten open over the middle. The Ravens are looking to avoid missing the playoffs for a fourth straight year, which hasn't happened since the franchise's first four years of existence (1996-1999). -- Jamison Hensley

5. San Francisco 49ers

Total votes (of 22): 8

How they fared in 2017: 6-10. The 49ers won their final five games after Jimmy Garoppolo, who was traded midseason from the Patriots, took over as the starter.

FPI rank headed into 2018: 10

Why there's optimism: Much of the optimism surrounding the 49ers stems from their 5-0 finish to last season after quarterback Garoppolo took over as the starter. While none of those wins matter now, they went a long way in creating the belief that Garoppolo is the type of franchise quarterback capable of leading San Francisco back to the playoffs. Combine a full season of Garoppolo with some offseason upgrades to his supporting cast, the return of some key defensive contributors from injury and a last-place schedule and there's genuine belief that the Niners could go from the NFC West basement to a postseason berth. -- Nick Wagoner

Other teams receiving votes: Broncos (6); Giants (5); Cowboys (5); Dolphins (4); Raiders (3); Bengals (2); Colts (2); Seahawks (2); Buccaneers (2); Redskins (1); Jets (1); Browns (1)


Five teams that could drop out of the playoffs

T-1. Carolina Panthers

Total votes (of 22): 22

How they fared in 2017: 11-5. Lost to Saints in NFC wild-card round

FPI rank headed into 2018: 9

Why they could miss playoffs: The Panthers haven't had a winning record in consecutive seasons since they began playing in 1995. If that pattern holds true, 8-8 or worse after going 11-5 a year ago won't be good enough to make the playoffs this season in the tough NFC South, where New Orleans and Atlanta appear loaded for another run. Much depends on quarterback Cam Newton, who is transitioning to a new scheme under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. He's also working with an overhauled group of wide receivers. If Newton doesn't improve in Turner's system that relies on more high-percentage passes then it will be tough for Carolina to keep pace with the Saints and Falcons, who have two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. -- David Newton

T-1. Tennessee Titans

Total votes (of 22): 22

How they fared in 2017: 9-7. Lost to Patriots in AFC divisional round

FPI rank headed into 2018: 20

Why they could miss playoffs: The Titans made significant changes in hopes of taking them, and specifically quarterback Marcus Mariota, to the next level. The big question is how long it will take Mike Vrabel and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to maximize this unit, and whether it will be enough to repeat as a playoff team in 2018. The AFC South might be the conference's strongest division with star quarterbacks -- Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck -- expected to return from injuries. It wouldn't be hard for the Titans to make progress but still miss the playoffs. The Titans made smart offseason moves, but they still lack proven elite star power. All eyes are on Mariota's development under LaFleur, and if it is slower than expected, that could lead to a non-playoff season. -- Cameron Wolfe

3. Buffalo Bills

Total votes (of 22): 21

How they fared in 2017: 9-7. Lost to Jaguars in AFC wild-card round

FPI rank headed into 2018: 27

Why they could miss playoffs: There is some optimism around Buffalo after the Bills drafted Josh Allen seventh overall in April, making him the highest-selected quarterback in franchise history. However, realistic expectations for the team in Allen's first season might not include getting back to the playoffs after sneaking into the field as a 6-seed in 2017. The Bills sent steady-but-unspectacular quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns as part of their maneuvering for Allen, leaving a void at the position in the short term. Whether Allen quickly takes the reins or the starting spot is held by AJ McCarron or Nathan Peterman this season, Buffalo's offense will have to earn a label as anything more than bottom of the barrel in the league. -- Mike Rodak

4. Kansas City Chiefs

Total votes (of 22): 20

How they fared in 2017: 10-6. Lost to Titans in AFC wild-card round

FPI rank headed into 2018: 13

Why they could miss playoffs: After five seasons with the remarkable stability at quarterback provided by Alex Smith, the Chiefs are headed into the great unknown at a most important position. Patrick Mahomes will take over at quarterback, adding an air of uncertainty where there had been none for the Chiefs. Mahomes played well in his one start last season as a rookie but he's only 22 and it's unrealistic to believe everything will go as smoothly for him over a long season. The Chiefs also were bad on defense for most of last season and unloaded two of their top defenders, including cornerback Marcus Peters. They might need Mahomes to play extraordinarily well to cover for their defense. -- Adam Teicher

5. Atlanta Falcons

Total votes (of 22): 9

How they fared in 2017: 10-6. Lost to Eagles in NFC divisional round

FPI rank headed into 2018: 8

Why they could miss playoffs: The Falcons have all the tools to be a playoff team, but there could be two significant obstacles. For starters, the status of star wide receiver Julio Jones, with his contract issue, is a much bigger deal than the team is making it out to be. Coach Dan Quinn always stresses "brotherhood" with his players, and not having Jones as part of that brotherhood this offseason has the potential to affect the team. Of course, the two sides could reach an agreement, but what if Jones' situation lingers into training camp and then into the start of the season? Imagine the offense starting the year without its best player. And speaking of offense, the offensive line still doesn't strike fear in opponents, and defensive lines in the NFC have gotten much better. If the O-line can't protect Matt Ryan and adequately clear holes in the running game, the Falcons won't be at their best, no matter how well the fast-and-physical defense plays. -- Vaughn McClure

Other teams receiving votes: Saints (7); Steelers (3); Jaguars (3); Rams (2); Eagles (1); Vikings (1)