Eighteen of the NFL's 32 teams have been eliminated from the 2016 postseason. A 19th, Tampa Bay, is only alive in the vaguest sense. With 10 teams having clinched playoff trips, we are down to three teams -- the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins -- competing for two spots with one week to go. Most of the drama revolves around seeding and byes, with eliminated teams like the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints only standing out for the possibility of spoiling their rivals' chances of claiming a first-round bye.
We also know some of these eliminated teams will make it to the postseason in 2017. Five teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2015 -- the Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants -- will be playing for keeps after Week 17 this season, and the Lions have a chance to join them. The typical NFL season sees between four and six new playoff teams, so we would expect about a quarter of the teams that missed out in 2016 to be sitting pretty this time next year.
Which teams will those be? There's still an entire offseason of player and coaching turnover to come, but we can start making educated (or uneducated) guesses now. We already know 15/16ths of each team's 2016 performance, as well as their 2017 opponents, which is a great start in projecting future performance. Given that information, let's highlight the 10 teams most likely to force their way into the playoff picture in 2017. I'll leave out Detroit, Green Bay and Washington since they're still technically favorites to make it into the postseason. Let's start with the last team left with a miraculous chance:
The Bucs are still technically in the hunt, but after losing their past two games, FPI gives them what rounds to a zero percent shot at making the playoffs. The story with the Bucs and their recent decline is the same as it has been all season: giveaways and takeaways. Mike Smith's defense forced 14 takeaways during Tampa Bay's five-game winning streak; that same unit forced only one turnover in subsequent losses to Dallas and New Orleans. The offense, meanwhile, has given the ball away six times in two weeks after turning it over only five times during the five-game winning streak. Sometimes, it's really that simple.
The good news for Tampa Bay is it has a staggering amount of cap space to work with next year, with some $78 million available before the team re-signs any of its free agents. The Buccaneers might want to bring back starters like center Joe Hawley and safety Bradley McDougald, but they should have plenty of flexibility as they approach free agency. Tampa Bay will look at a wideout to play across from Mike Evans with Vincent Jackson leaving. The Bucs also will look for help at safety and surely will be in the running to add a No. 1 pass-rusher for yet another season, with nobody on the team producing more than 6.5 sacks so far this campaign.
Some might argue the Buccaneers' impressive second-half performance is a sign they'll improve in 2017. It's entirely possible the Bucs will get better next season, of course, but research suggests there's no carryover effect for late-season performance from year to year. Tampa Bay also could encounter a tougher division in 2017, with a better showing from the ...
Underlying metrics from 2015 suggested the Panthers were likely to decline in 2016, but nobody could have expected Carolina to fall all the way from 15-1 to 6-9 with one game to go. While the raw totals suggest defense has been the problem, with the Carolina unit ranking 27th in points allowed, advanced numbers make it clear the offense has been an issue. Carolina's defense, while not the world-beating unit from 2015, is still a respectable 10th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), while the offense is 20th and special teams 27th.
Punting has been the biggest problem for Carolina, given the Panthers lost 10.5 points of field position on punts this season, the fourth-worst figure in the league. Those numbers are never entirely the punter's fault, but it speaks to how foolishly aggressive the Panthers were in trading a 2018 fourth-round pick to the Browns for Andy Lee just days before the Broncos cut a useful punter, Britton Colquitt, who would later sign with Cleveland. Carolina's punt coverage has been bad, but trading for Lee was never going to be a quick fix, and that price was exorbitant on the day of the trade.
General manager Dave Gettleman has mostly done excellent work during his time in Carolina, but he has been too aggressive with trading draft picks, especially given the nature of his cap-strapped roster. The Panthers likely won't regret dealing a sixth-round pick for Jared Allen last season, but in addition to the Lee move, they've traded up on draft day to acquire Bene Benwikere, Devin Funchess, Daryl Williams and Daryl Worley. It's still too early to grade those moves beyond Benwikere, who showed promise before being surprisingly released this season, but we know teams who trade up are often overconfident in their ability to outpick the market. With a 2018 fourth-rounder already missing, Gettleman can't really afford to keep dealing away picks, even if the Panthers will get a third-round compensatory pick for losing cornerback Josh Norman.
The cap woes I mentioned, though, are becoming a thing of the past. The Panthers had more than $18 million available after moving on from Norman. And while they weren't able to use that space to re-sign impending free agents like Kawann Short, they'll be able to roll over much of that money to 2017, where they already have $62 million in space. Carolina will have to use that space to rebuild at the line of scrimmage, with Short, Charles Johnson and Mario Addison all unrestricted free agents on the defensive side of the ball and the offensive line collapsing under injuries and poor play. A cornerback to replace Norman wouldn't hurt, either. Gettleman has been able to string together good to great teams for years on a shoestring budget; now, finally, we get to see what he can do with real money.
The numbers suggested the Chargers were likely to improve in 2016 by virtue of their record in close games in 2015, when they were just 3-8. They have banked five wins, so they are guaranteed to improve on their 4-12 record of a year ago, but the Chargers still have managed to lose games in what is almost an impressive variety of fashions in the fourth quarter. Last Saturday, it was having two game-tying field goal attempts alternately blocked and missed as the Chargers gave Cleveland its first win, a result that might have sealed the fate of embattled head coach Mike McCoy.
This year's Chargers are a staggering 1-8 in one-touchdown games, which I define (in keeping with history) as games decided by seven points or fewer. If you go with an eight-point spread, they were a still-brutal 4-9 in close contests. It's tempting to see the Chargers struggle badly in consecutive seasons in close games and ascribe it to some inescapable measure of their true nature, but we've seen teams produce a terrible record in close games over two seasons and still regress toward the mean the following year. Take the 2012-13 Lions, who were a combined 6-14 in one-touchdown games. The following year, they went 6-1 in those same contests and made the postseason. The 2011-12 Panthers, who were 2-12 in one-touchdown games, lost their first two games by less than a touchdown in 2013, then won their final five en route to a division title.
San Diego also should benefit from a significantly healthier roster next year, with stars like Keenan Allen and Jason Verrett returning from injuries that cost them most of the 2016 season. They should be healthier, but it's unlikely they'll be healthy: Both Allen and Verrett have struggled with injuries throughout their career, so it's tough to project them for a full 16-game slate. Add the fact San Diego plays in what seems to be the most difficult division in football, the AFC West, as well as the uncertainty surrounding a possible move to Los Angeles, and it's difficult to put the Chargers any higher on this list.
The bizarre saga of Minnesota's defensive backfield ignoring Mike Zimmer's instructions may be a tempest in a teacup, but it has only distracted from the fact their pass defense has declined dramatically as the season has gone on. Once their unsustainable takeaway rate dried up and star safety Harrison Smith missed time with a high ankle sprain, the Vikings fell apart against the pass. They were fourth in pass defense DVOA in Weeks 1-9, but after allowing Aaron Rodgers to pick them apart on Saturday, the Vikes have fallen to 21st in the same category since Week 10.
Their pass defense, ironically, might be the one aspect of their roster the Vikings don't need to address this offseason. For all they've done right over the past few years, Minnesota is a team in transition right now. The Sam Bradford trade ended up being a major disappointment; not because Bradford was awful, but because he wasn't good enough to drag a dismal running game and collapsing offensive line to the postseason. The Vikings likely finished about where they would have with Shaun Hill (or a far cheaper trade target like Josh McCown) under center, and they gave up a first-round pick for the privilege. Bradford has some value as both the team's starter and a trade candidate in 2017, but the Vikings very well could have gone into the market this year and acquired a far better passer in Tony Romo or a cheaper, similarly qualified option for free in Jay Cutler.
Bradford likely will remain under center next season, but the Vikings need to build a functional offensive line if they want any quarterback to succeed. They'll likely allow tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith to leave in free agency, but Minnesota desperately needs stability up front, even if it means going after a veteran like 35-year-old Bengals star Andrew Whitworth. (Here's where a first-round pick to use on a lineman would be nice.) They also need to figure out what to do with Adrian Peterson, whose $11.8 million base salary is tied up in an option due on Feb. 5. Peterson would be owed a total of $18 million for the 2017 campaign, an untenable amount given no other running back in football has a cap hit of even $9 million. The Vikings will need to renegotiate a deal with Peterson or allow him to move on, leaving Minnesota in need of a playmaker alongside Adam Thielen in what was an increasingly bland offense this season.
On pure talent, the Vikings would rate among the best non-playoff teams in the league. It's about more than pure talent, though. Minnesota could very well position itself to be a favorite for a postseason return. But the Vikings will need to spend wisely up front, resolve their running back situation and hope to keep the injury-prone Bradford (or Teddy Bridgewater) healthy in the process. And even if they do all that, they're still up against a perennial juggernaut, the Packers.
We already know Jacksonville will go through some upheaval, having fired head coach Gus Bradley after a 14-48 record at the helm. GM Dave Caldwell appears to be safe, and the earliest suitor for the job reinforced his candidacy with a blowout victory over the Titans on Saturday.
Interim coach Doug Marrone oversaw a 38-17 victory over Tennessee at home, one that featured Blake Bortles' best start of the season. Bortles went 26-of-38 for 325 yards with a passing touchdown and a receiving score in Saturday's victory, leading to the natural progression of the idea Marrone could be the right coach to get the most out of Bortles. It's possible, of course, although one game is far too small of a sample to make any sort of meaningful insight, and it seems odd Marrone wouldn't have had enough sway as the team's assistant head coach to suggest and implement changes with Bortles on offense, especially in light of coordinator Greg Olson being fired earlier in the year. The bigger concern is interim coaches often fool teams with short-term success before struggling in the long term. It's unclear how Marrone would be different.
Regardless of who gets the job, the Jags can move fast if they either replace Bortles or find a coach who can turn him into a promising quarterback. Their defense is up to 13th in DVOA, and the offense still has a core of useful receivers. The organization likely will consider moving on from disappointing free agents like Julius Thomas, Jared Odrick, Dan Skuta and Davon House, but the Jags still will have $66 million in cap space next year before rolling over any of their existing $39 million or cutting any of those players. Whoever is in charge will have money to spend, a core of useful young talent and a weak division to attack.
The Colts, though, will have Andrew Luck, and it might be easier to build a team around a franchise quarterback than it is to find a quarterback to fit amid a useful team. Luck quietly has put together a bounce-back year after an injury-riddled 2015 campaign. And while he missed Indianapolis' Thanksgiving night disaster against Pittsburgh, his 72.3 Total QBR is good for sixth in the league. (You can throw the league's seventh-worst drop rate, 5.0 percent, in there for good measure.)
Oddly enough, after years of producing a win-loss record that grossly outperformed their Pythagorean expectation, the Colts are underperforming this year. Thanks to blowout victories over the Jets and Vikings and an obviously average 4-4 record in games decided by seven points or fewer, Indy is 7-8 with the point differential of a 7.9-win team. The Colts were a remarkable 25-8 in one-score games through the first four years of Luck's career -- a .758 win percentage, which was an outlier league-wide. The next-best team in close games from 2011 through 2015: the 49ers, who had a .674 winning percentage in seven-point games.
Even if the Colts remain a typical team in close games, the presence of Luck and the friendly confines of the AFC South leave them in the playoff hunt on an annual basis. They would have a better shot if the Colts were to improve their roster this offseason, but the recently extended combination of GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano have shown little aptitude for drafting and developing young talent or making useful additions in free agency. Indianapolis will have $60 million to work with, but Grigson's next successful offseason will be the first since choosing Luck in 2012.
The best team to miss the playoffs? That would be the Eagles, who finished fifth in DVOA despite a 6-9 record. Other metrics were similarly impressed, as Pro football Reference's simple rating system pegged the Eagles as the eighth-best team in the league, while their point differential suggests Philly should really be a little better than 8-7 right now -- a two-win swing. The Eagles have gone 1-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer, breaking their losing streak with a five-point win over the Giants last Thursday.
Advanced metrics are impressed by both whom the Eagles have beaten and the way in which they've won. Sure, the Eagles beat the Browns and Bears, which isn't notable. Their other four wins are over the Steelers, Vikings, Falcons and Giants, three of whom are 10-win teams. Those wins have come by an average of 14 points, the most notable a 34-3 romp of Pittsburgh in Week 3. Of those nine losses, eight have come against teams with a winning record, the Bengals being the lone exception.
Overall, Philadelphia has played the second-toughest schedule in football this season, a figure topped only by the Browns, against whom the universe is conspiring. That likely will be easier next year, although the Eagles will join the rest of their division in playing the AFC West (along with the far-friendlier NFC West). They'll also be better in close games, and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz should improve in his second season. The Eagles have the classic profile of a team likely to improve next season.
Well, not so fast. The Eagles have been very lucky with fumbles, recovering 28 of the 47 loose balls (59.6 percent) to hit the ground in their games this season. They've been incredible on special teams, where they lead the league in DVOA after finishing 10th a year ago and leading the league in 2014. Even if their special-teams play is still good next year, it's unlikely to be the league's best. The Philadelphia defense and special teams combined to produce five touchdowns this season, while their opposition has only scored one. The Eagles also were relatively healthy, although that idea looks worse if we consider Lane Johnson missed 10 games as a result of his second suspension for PEDs.
The Eagles don't really have the cap space we also associate with rebuilding teams, which could limit them as they pursue badly needed weapons for Wentz. There's the frustrating reality of their division, which has flipped from doormat to elite overnight. The Cowboys are likely to decline some in 2016, but they'll still be very good. The Giants' defense isn't going anywhere and Washington is ninth in DVOA. There's a lot to like with the Eagles, but their path to the 2017 postseason isn't quite as clear as it seems.
Barring the sort of injury stack that sunk them in 2015, the Ravens always will be in the postseason or within striking distance of a playoff spot under John Harbaugh. They came within an Antonio Brown stretch of a likely postseason berth this season, and while they sport one of the oldest rosters in the league, GM Ozzie Newsome will get the draft right more often than not.
As always, the pressing concern is retaining the young talent Newsome and Harbaugh develop amid cap issues. Baltimore has just $20.5 million in space next year before signing starting right tackle Rick Wagner or star nose tackle Brandon Williams, who anchor the league's best run defense. They can clear out another $11.1 million by releasing Elvis Dumervil, Benjamin Watson and Kyle Arrington, then free up another $5.8 million by declining Mike Wallace's option. But those moves also open up new holes.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of a return trip to the playoffs remains, as is the case with the Eagles, the strength of the division. There's no reason to think the Steelers will suddenly fall off, and the Bengals are far more likely to return to their 2011-2015 level of play, when they averaged 10.5 wins per season, than they are to fall several games short of .500 again. Even the Browns will be a tougher out than they were in 2016. Maneuvering the AFC North will be Baltimore's toughest job next season.
The Titans have taken an undeniable step forward in 2016. Although he suffered a fractured fibula during Saturday's loss to the Jaguars, Marcus Mariota looks to be a true franchise quarterback -- and the Titans have the core of their offensive line locked in alongside him for the next several seasons. Coach Mike Mularkey has defied critics (such as myself) and produced an offense that worked, even if it's not exactly a state-of-the-art attack, as the Titans finished 10th in offensive DVOA. Plus, GM Jon Robinson's trade down with the Rams has delivered in abundance; the Rams will send their first-round pick and a third-round compensatory pick to Tennessee this year to finish up the Jared Goff trade, with that first-rounder currently in line to be the fifth overall selection.
Now, just as the Raiders did a year ago, the Titans can continue their growth by plugging the holes in their roster. Reggie McKenzie was patient and flexible, hitting his two immediate targets, guard Kelechi Osemele and cornerback Sean Smith, and then waiting to re-sign offensive tackle Donald Penn and add safety Reggie Nelson when their markets didn't develop as expected. Tennessee, which could have up to $100 million in cap space before signing any of its current free agents, likely will look to upgrade on defense. The Titans undoubtedly will target a cornerback to play across from Jason McCourty after seeing Perrish Cox and his replacements get burned all season.
It could even be easier for the Titans than it was for the Raiders, if only because they won't face similarly stiff opposition. While Oakland knew it would be up against a tough division, Tennessee will enjoy what should be a relatively easy AFC South on a year-to-year basis. I say "should be" because intradivision play cost the Titans a playoff berth this season. Mularkey's team was comfortably the best team in the division this year, as it's 14th in DVOA with the other three teams no higher than 24th. The Titans are missing out on a shot to play for the division title in Houston this week because they've gone 1-4 in the South, while the first-place Texans are 5-0. With some plugs around the roster and better play in their division, the Titans should be favorites to win the AFC South next year.
Naturally, last year's Super Bowl champions make their way to the top of this list thanks to a truly terrifying defense that isn't going anywhere. The Broncos likely will finish the season with the league's best defensive DVOA thanks to a remarkably dominant pass defense. The Eagles, in second place for pass defense DVOA, are closer to the Cowboys in 19th than they are to the Broncos in first. The only notable free agent impacting those numbers is veteran pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, who missed five games this year and could return as part of a timeshare with the emerging Shane Ray.
The Broncos will have to upgrade on offense, which shouldn't be a problem. Denver should have about $45 million in cap space heading into 2017 that would allow the Broncos to go after help along the offensive line, which never seemed to click this season. And the big upgrade could come at quarterback, where the Broncos can either hope for continued development from the combination of Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch or leap into the pool and go after Tony Romo. After four consecutive seasons of 12 wins or more with Peyton Manning in charge, an upgrade at quarterback could be enough to push Denver back into that sphere next season. At the very least, it should bring Von Miller and this dominant defense back into the postseason.