Before they were giving up a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl last season, the Atlanta Falcons were coming off of three straight years without even making the playoffs. But in 2016, everything came together for the Falcons and it ended with them winning the NFC South and earning the franchise’s second-ever appearance in the Super Bowl.
Parity is so prevalent in the current version of the NFL that the two teams who played in Super Bowl 50 (Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers) did not even make it back to the playoffs last season.
So who will be the team that makes an unexpected run in 2017? Also known as who has an outside chance to play the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship or the Super Bowl this season?
2016 record: 3-13
The Jaguars have been the definition of the NFL’s laughing stock during the past decade. After four playoff appearances in their first five years as a franchise, Jacksonville has played in a grand total of three postseason games since 2000.
This year, the Jaguars have a new full-time head coach in Doug Marrone and shiny new stud running back in rookie Leonard Fournette. They also quietly added a pair of top players through free agency this offseason in cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive lineman Calais Campbell.
Throughout Marrone’s coaching career (college and pro), his teams have succeeded by having a talented defense and controlling the clock on offense with the running game. The Jaguars are capable of having both of those in 2017.
Marrone’s conservative style of offense should also help quarterback Blake Bortles turn the ball over less (16 interceptions and eight fumbles in 2016), which will need to happen if Jacksonville is going to have any type of success this season.
2016 record: 7-9
After only missing the playoffs twice from 2000 to 2010, the Eagles have only managed one postseason appearance in the last six seasons. Philadelphia is hoping that head coach Doug Pederson will be able to help the franchise avoid two straight last-place NFC East finishes for the first time since 1999.
The Eagles did their best to prevent that from happening this offseason when they added wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount through free agency. Combined with Carson Wentz getting a full offseason under his belt this year, Philadelphia’s offense has the potential to be one of the league’s best in 2017.
Add in the fact that no team has repeated as NFC East champion since the Eagles did it in 2004, and Philadelphia has as good a chance as any to make a surprise run this year.
Los Angeles Chargers
2016 record: 5-11
The Chargers had a lot of hope for last season, but it was hard to really put together any type of success when half the team was not on the field due to injuries. No, really — 26 players from Los Angeles’ roster in 2016 ended up on injured reserve.
Without difference makers like Danny Woodhead, Keenan Allen, and Manti Te’o out on the field, the Chargers ended the year with a disappointing 5-11 record and a second straight last-place finish in the AFC West.
This year, the team not only has a new home in Los Angeles, but they also have a new coach leading the franchise in Anthony Lynn. The Chargers are hoping that Lynn will be able to help them get into the postseason for only the second time in the past eight years.
With so many players returning from injury this season for Los Angeles, it will almost be like playing with an entirely different team from a year ago. Combine that with the Chargers’ efforts to improve their lackluster offensive line this offseason through both the draft (Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney) and free agency (Russell Okung), the team’s performance in 2017 should be vastly different from a season ago.
They may even be able to give the fans in their new 27,000 seat home something to cheer about.
2016 record: 7-9
Fun fact: the last time the Bills tasted a playoff game was 99 days before Tom Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots. Will this finally be the year Buffalo’s fans get to experience a season with more than 16 games?
The team has floated around average for the past three years (at least seven wins in each season), but the Bills are hoping that their eighth head coach in 17 years (Sean McDermott) will find a way to get them over the hump and into the postseason.
Buffalo definitely does have a good number of playmakers on their roster capable of achieving a record that lands the team back in the playoffs. When quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running back LeSean McCoy, and wide receiver Sammy Watkins are all on the field at the same time, the Bills have one of most talented trios on offense in the entire NFL.
If their offensive stars can stay healthy for most of the year and McDermott is able to straighten out the team’s recent woes on defense, it could be a year to remember in the city of Buffalo.