Every year it seems, some team on the outskirts of the NFL playoff picture launches into an unexpected winning streak during the second half of the season and propels itself into a stunning playoff berth.
Last year, it was the 3-8-1 Panthers, who responded to a six-game losing streak with a four-game winning streak, claiming an unlikely NFC South title. (Think how left for dead Cam Newton and Ron Rivera were just 12 months ago.) They haven't lost a regular-season game since. In 2013, the 3-5 Eagles and 4-6 Chargers both got hot during the final weeks of the year and made it to the postseason. In 2012 it was Robert Griffin, who took a 3-6 Washington team into the bye and went 7-0 afterward to win the NFC East, and Andy Dalton and the 3-5 Bengals, who went 7-1 afterward to pick up a wild-card spot.
Who will be that team this year? I would be on my way to Vegas if I knew, but let's run through the candidates to see if we can surmise which of the teams on the periphery has the best shot at making a run. ESPN's Football Power Index includes 10 NFL teams with a playoff expectancy lower than 25 percent and greater than 1 percent, with Tennessee dropping out of that group after Thursday night's loss in Jacksonville. The Titans therefore join the Ravens, Chargers, Lions, 49ers and Browns in the group of six teams who are too far gone to compete in the postseason. That's what you get for passing up two fourth-and-shorts.
Those 10 teams, then, are the ones who stand out as possible late-season breakouts. (The ones who aren't mentioned here are just too good to qualify as surprise playoff attendees.) FPI has an estimate of their playoff odds, but let's give the numbers some help by adding a bit of real-life context. I'll run through those 10 teams, the factors in their favor and what their best route is to January football. And let's start with 2014's worst team, a group that has slowly begun to creep up toward respectability here in 2015 ...
The 10 challengers
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 3.8 percent
The Buccaneers would seem to fit the Griffin model in Washington; if their talented rookie quarterback can get hot and take a step forward, that might be enough for Tampa to start winning games, given its defense is a very respectable 15th in DVOA. And really, Jameis Winston already has begun to take a step forward; after posting a 38.4 QBR before Tampa's bye, Winston has thrown two picks in four games and put up a 71.5 QBR, good for the ninth-best figure in the NFL.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, even if Winston has improved, he's still probably going to be a turnover-friendly passer given the style he employs. Their defense also has been heavily dependent upon takeaways, with a league-high 9.3 percent of opposing possessions ending in fumbles, comfortably the highest rate in football.
They're also five games out of first place in the NFC South with seven games to go, leaving them dependent on the wild-card hunt to come up with a playoff berth. They've already lost to possible competition such as the Giants and Washington, leaving the Bucs vulnerable in tiebreaker scenarios.
9. St. Louis Rams
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 3.1 percent
The Rams looked like serious contenders two weeks ago when Todd Gurley was in his pomp, but a narrow loss to the Vikings and a blowout defeat at the hands of the Bears have left their playoff hopes in shambles. Gurley has been held to 136 yards on 34 carries over the past couple of weeks, with the Rams going 6-for-30 on third down. Nick Foles has a league-low QBR of 34.1, which led the Rams to pull the trigger on a quarterback change this week, dumping Foles for the watch-your-head ceiling of Case Keenum.
Of course, a great front seven and a dominant running back have pushed a team to unexpected heights before. The Vikings pulled that off with Christian Ponder and Adrian Peterson in 2012, winning their last four games to claim an unlikely wild-card berth. That's not out of the question for St. Louis, but it'll be tough, given that the Rams still have to play the Bengals, Cardinals and Seahawks, with the latter matchup in Seattle.
A lot would have to go right for the Rams, but it's not impossible. If Gurley plays at an MVP-caliber level and the Rams split their two road games against Baltimore and Cincinnati over the next two weeks, they would get to a three-game homestand at 5-6, with games against the Cardinals, Lions and Buccaneers. A sweep there would be a lot to ask, but it would ensure that the Rams hold the tiebreaker in the NFC West over the Cardinals. It might take Aaron Donald literally eating Carson Palmer to see both teams end up at 10-6, but stranger things have happened, starting last season.
8. Oakland Raiders
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 5.1 percent
While none of these squads is playing great football, the Raiders have been the best team of the 10 featured on this list; they're 14th in DVOA, highlighted by their ranking on offense, where they're sixth. They may very well have the best quarterback on this list in 2015, given how Derek Carr has rapidly matured this season. They're also a remarkably healthy team, which helps. After getting Nate Allen back from the short-term IR list, the only starters they have out with long-term injuries are offensive lineman Menelik Watson and veteran end Justin Tuck.
There's no guarantee that injury luck will continue, though, and they lost another starter when Aldon Smith was suspended for the remainder of the season this week. Their defense, a middling 24th in DVOA, has been dependent on interceptions from 39-year-old safety Charles Woodson. And while they're tied in terms of record with the 4-5 Chiefs, both FPI and DVOA see the Chiefs as one of the 10 best teams in the league, which isn't the case for Oakland. The good news is that the Raiders will get a chance to argue their case, with two games against Kansas City to come. They also have winnable road games against the Lions and Titans over the next two weeks, but the schedule gets ugly after that, with the Broncos and Packers joining those two Chiefs games on the slate. If the Raiders beat a fading Brock Osweiler-led Broncos team and sweep the Chiefs, they could be favorites in the AFC West.
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 14.2 percent
Just behind the Raiders in terms of DVOA is 15th-placed Washington, coming off of its biggest win since 2005 after stomping the Saints by 33 on Sunday. That was also the best game of quarterback Kirk Cousins' career, with Cousins posting a perfect passer rating as part of a four-touchdown performance. The most important number in his stat line might very well be zero -- that's the number of times he turned the ball over. Cousins has just one interception in his past three games, which is the first time in his career he has made it through a three-start stretch with that low of a total.
It's not impossible to imagine Washington taking a leap forward if Cousins really has managed to kick a turnover addiction, but it's going to take far more than a three-game sample to believe that's a new trend. (Cousins was also strip-sacked for a touchdown in one of those games.) Washington's fate is still up in the air in the wide-open NFC East, but they were unlucky to miss out on facing the Cowboys while Tony Romo was sidelined by his collarbone injury. In fact ...
6. Dallas Cowboys
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 2.9 percent
FPI is designed to account for how teams struggle with things such as quarterback injuries, but it's almost impossible for any sort of model to account for just how dramatically a team drops off when it replaces arguably the league's best quarterback from 2014 (Romo) with replacement-level fodder like Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. As somebody who was skeptical of the Cardinals' chances this year, I know how that model feels. And thankfully for Cowboys fans, Romo is back to face the Dolphins this week.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys may be too far buried to surface in time for the playoffs. If Dallas had won even a single game while Romo was out, the Cowboys would still be in striking distance in the NFC East. Instead, they're 2½ games behind the Giants. Worse? They face the league's second-toughest schedule over the remainder of the season, including games against the Dolphins, Packers, Bills and Jets.
5. New Orleans Saints
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 4.8 percent
It's fair to say that the Saints made a desperate move in firing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan Monday, but sometimes in these sorts of circles, desperation can work wonders. (Besides, he was due.) Remember that the Ravens had a stagnant offense a few years ago before deciding to fire Cam Cameron in favor of recently deposed Colts coach Jim Caldwell during December; all Caldwell did was lead the Ravens' offense to an unlikely Super Bowl title behind one of the greatest postseason runs in league history from Joe Flacco. Dennis Allen's name took similar sorts of damage as Caldwell's did after the former failed in Oakland, but it's virtually impossible for the Saints to be as bad going forward as they were under Ryan this year.
If that dismal Saints defense could improve to the lofty heights of mediocrity, there would be something here. The offense continues to perform at a high level, and the Saints face the third-easiest schedule in the league over the remainder of the season. It's just tough to count on the Saints' defense after it has struggled so mightily for so long. This is the league's fourth-worst team by DVOA, which is mighty embarrassing given that New Orleans is eighth in offensive DVOA.
4. Houston Texans
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 22.9 percent
The best playoff odds among these teams by FPI's model actually belong to the Texans, who make it to the postseason in nearly one-quarter of simulations. They're also the closest to a playoff berth in real life, given they're currently tied for first place in the AFC South with the Colts. Indy holds the tiebreaker after handling the Texans in Houston 27-20, but J.J. Watt & Co. will get a rematch in Indy on Dec. 20. With the best non-quarterback in the league on their roster, the Texans can at least imagine their top superstar taking over games, as Watt did when he posted a 10-hit game against the Titans on Nov. 1.
Houston finishes with three games against the AFC South, which is promising, but they may be all but finished by the time they get there. The Texans get playoff contenders such as the Jets, Bills and Patriots in three of their four games before that season-ending divisional stretch.
One weird thing about the Texans: incredible luck on special teams this year. They've generated an even 10 points of "hidden" special-teams value this season, tops in the league and out of nothing besides total randomness. Opposing kickers are 11-for-15 (68.8 percent) this season against Houston; only kickers against the Falcons (66.7 percent) have been worse. That's a big chunk of why the Texans have been so lucky.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 13.8 percent
The Jags might not deserve to be 4-6, given that they blew a 27-3 lead against the Bills before coming back, needed a miraculous face-mask penalty and a blown false start call to beat the Ravens, and outlasted the Titans on Thursday night in the ugly game you stopped watching when Clippers-Warriors began. The six-point win over Tennessee was Jacksonville's first win by more than a field goal all season. This isn't a good football team by anyone's definition of the word.
But the best teams aren't necessarily the ones who make it to the playoffs, and Jacksonville has a very reasonable path toward the postseason. Those wins are already banked. The Jaguars' division is eminently winnable, with the Colts a half-game ahead in first place. And, heading into this week, the Jaguars were set to face the easiest schedule in football over the remainder of the season, with four games against the AFC South to go with matchups against the Chargers, Saints and Falcons.
If there were ever a team that might get better as the season goes along, it's Jacksonville, which features one of the youngest offenses in league history and a defense full of veteran free agents who are just getting comfortable in Gus Bradley's scheme.
2. Miami Dolphins
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 7.4 percent
Having salvaged their playoff hopes with a come-from-behind victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia last week, the Dolphins can still claim serious designs on a playoff run. There's certainly talent here, even after the season-ending injury to Cameron Wake; the Dolphins have leaned on Lamar Miller during the Dan Campbell era with plenty of success, and Ndamukong Suh has elevated his game in Wake's absence. They remain paper-thin, but this is a team that ranks first in the league in variance on a per-game basis, which is promising when you consider Miami's chances of suddenly breaking out and going on a hot spell.
The Dolphins have virtually no shot at winning the AFC East and will have to rely on a wild-card berth to make the postseason, but that's not out of the question. Five of Miami's final seven games are at home, and while the Dolphins still have one more game against the Patriots, that will come in Week 17. If the Pats aren't going for 16-0, they will likely have the first seed wrapped up and sit their starters for a good chunk of that contest. And otherwise, the Dolphins don't have an especially difficult schedule; their toughest game is against the Jets in two weeks. Miami is still a flawed team, but nobody on this list is close to perfect.
1. Chicago Bears
Projected playoff odds, FPI: 8.0 percent
Who's that coming around the bend? The Bears were a league laughingstock after getting beaten down by the Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks as part of an 0-3 start, but much of that run came with Jay Cutler injured. Cutler is back and has been part of the solution this year, having posted a 71.4 QBR since returning to the lineup in Week 4. That's the fifth-best QBR in the league over that time frame. The vaunted defensive coaching combination of John Fox and Vic Fangio is also beginning to whip the D into shape; the Bears have allowed 20 points or fewer in four of their past six games.
The schedule is also bending Chicago's way. The Bears get Brock Osweiler this week in what may be a step down from the remnants of Peyton Manning, and while they get the Packers on Thanksgiving, their post-Turkey Day schedule is softer than silk. The only team with a winning record they face over the final five games of the season is Minnesota, and even the 7-2 Vikings are just 19th in DVOA. Green Bay's bad stretch is mostly just a mirage, but if the Packers continue to struggle on offense and Minnesota's carriage turns into a pumpkin, the Bears are one big run away from a stunning playoff appearance.
Of course, saying that the Bears have a shot at making the playoffs seems crazy right about now. But wouldn't we have said that about the Panthers when they were 3-8-1 last year? Or Washington when the Redskins were three games behind the Giants with seven games to play in 2012? Somebody has to make this sort of crazy leap into the postseason. It might not be the Bears, but there's a good chance somebody from this list will be a surprise package in this year's postseason.