It'll soon be time to end the eternal offseason that is the NFL. We've anxiously been waiting for the start to the 2014 season as soon as the Seahawks had put the Broncos away by halftime of Super Bowl XLVIII. Pretty soon, it'll be time to put the 2013 season behind us and realize that 2014 will bring us new stars and new contenders. In 2013, the Panthers, Eagles, Chiefs and Chargers all made the postseason, after missing out in 2012, with Philadelphia and Kansas City even going from worst to first in their divisions.
We can't rule anything out in 2014 either. Teams surprise us every year and teams disappoint us, which opens the door for new teams to break through. There were teams that were painfully close to making the playoffs in 2013. There were underachieving teams and there were teams that were outright terrible but which made all the right moves in the offseason that will serve them well in 2014. Here are the five teams that are most primed for a playoff jump in 2014 after missing the dance last year.
5 Atlanta Falcons
Just about everything that could go wrong, went wrong for the Atlanta Falcons last season. Losing Julio Jones early on, then Roddy White took away the aerial attack that had gotten them to the NFC Championship the year before.
While every team has to deal with injuries, a bit of luck is involved in being healthy at the right time and getting your important players back. Atlanta had no such luck and they never recovered from their 1-4 start.
Keep in mind during that 1-4 start that they lost all those games by seven points or less, proving just how slim the margin is between a successful season and a complete failure. So, the Falcons weren't able to tow that line well last year. However, we mustn't forget the consistency they've been able to show in the last five years. Prior to last year, the Falcons held a 56-24 record over the previous five seasons with four playoff appearances and not a single losing season.
You have to give Mike Smith some credit for that even though many of his in-game decisions were highly questionable last year.
A healthier roster and a bolstered offensive line should get Matt Ryan and the offense back on track. Ryan was sacked 44 times last year and the Falcons made protection upgrades a priority when they drafted tackle Jake Matthews sixth overall.
With the devastating offseason the previous division winners, the Carolina Panthers had, the door's open for the Falcons to bounce right back and regain their 2012 form.
4 Baltimore Ravens
You can't keep a great organization down for long. While it will be very difficult considering they're in the AFC North, the Ravens have all the ability to bounce back from a Super Bowl hangover season.
The offseason losses following their Super Bowl XLVII win proved to be significant. Ray Lewis retired, Ed Reed moved on and while he certainly didn't provide much help for anybody last year, his form in 2012 proved hard to replace. They lost Paul Kruger as a free agent to Cleveland and Dennis Pitta fractured a hip in training camp, keeping him out of action until Week 14.
This time around, the Ravens had a good offseason, managing to keep Pitta from testing free agency, as well as re-signing tackle Eugene Monroe, whom they traded for midway through 2013.
They added to the fray, signing longtime Panther Steve Smith. Smith should have a very successful year in Baltimore, as he no longer has to be the no.1 receiver he was forced to play by default in Carolina well past his prime. Now he has other targets around him like Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones. The young big guns around him will make life easier for the 35-year-old, 5'9", 185-pound wide receiver.
The only negative aspect to the Ravens offseason was running back Ray Rice's despicable actions towards his fiancee. Rice has been indicted on third-degree, aggravated assault, thus he faces severe punishments.
If he's not available for the Ravens, new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will find ways for the offense to be productive. Getting Kubiak as OC was a huge coup for the Ravens. They have a very good chance of finding themselves back in the playoffs as a wild card in the shaky AFC.
This is also out of respect for what John Harbaugh has done as the Ravens head coach. He got them to the postseason five years in a row, with two AFC championship appearances and a Super Bowl win. He's among the elite coaches in the NFL and the elite ones usually find a way to succeed.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After some experiments with young head coaches that didn't work out, the Buccaneers decided to go the steady route this offseason, when they hired longtime Bears coach Lovie Smith to coach their young roster.
Smith sat out the 2013 season after being fired in Chicago following a 10-6 season in 2012, in which the Bears missed the playoffs. Smith is a perfect match with Tampa Bay, as the team has plenty of young talent to be successful and just needed good leadership at the top to guide them.
The big factor here, will be whether Josh McCown can actually be a successful starting quarterback. He's getting the opportunity in Tampa based on what he was able to do for Chicago when Jay Cutler was injured last season. McCown ended the 2013 season completing 66.8 of his passes for 1,829 yards with 13 touchdowns, one interception and a 109.0 passer rating. Still, can a 35-year-old career backup actually all of a sudden be a successful starting quarterback?
The rest of the roster looks very promising. It'll be important for Doug Martin to play more like the Martin we saw in 2012. He's coming off a torn labrum he suffered midway through last season.
The big duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans will remind McCown of what he had in Chicago, with two big bodies on the outside.
Lovie Smith's specialty is defense, and the team gave that unit a boost by signing breakout cornerback Alterraun Verner away from Tennessee. That helps the secondary and we'll have to see how Smith is able to mould this young group together, which includes Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy, Michael Johnson and Mark Barron.
The Bucs seem like one of those teams that could go from worst to first in their division.
2 Arizona Cardinals
There's no much of an argument needed here. Bruce Arians worked some magic in 2013 and led the Cardinals to a 10-win season, but unfortunately they still missed out on the playoffs, with the tough NFC West proving to be too much for them to make the leap.
This year can be different. Last year, the Cardinals became the only team in the past two seasons to beat the Super Bowl champion Seahawks in Seattle, with a 17-10 victory in Week 16. Their 23-20 loss to the 49ers in Week 17 ended their playoff hopes.
Carson Palmer started all 16 games for Arizona last year, throwing for 4,274 yards, completing 63% of his passes and throwing for 24 touchdowns. The problem was that went along with 22 interceptions. For the Cardinals to take that next step, the number has to come down, something that has plagued Palmer his entire career. The only season he had under 10 interceptions, was in 2008, when his season lasted only four games.
Still, there's a lot of talent on this Arizona team, with of course, Larry Fitzgerald and an emerging Michael Floyd out wide. John Abraham always seems to find a way to get sacks, no matter how old he is, and of course there's Patrick Peterson in the secondary, one of, if not the best corners in the game.
Just a repeat of their 10-6 record could be enough to make it to the postseason. The important factor will be divisional wins. Can they find a way to get by either the Seahawks and/or 49ers, and hold off the emerging Rams?
1 Chicago Bears
The Bears were that close to making the playoffs last year. The Packers had 4th and 8 close to midfield with time running out and Randall Cobb managed to get behind the Bears secondary and end Chicago's season.
The Bears missed out on a huge opportunity, as Aaron Rodgers missed nearly half the season with a fractured collarbone. Rodgers returned in time to help the Packers beat the Bears in Week 17 and win the NFC North with a 8-7-1 record. The Bears missed out at 8-8.
Chicago definitely got the explosive offense that was advertised with the hiring of Marc Trestman, but they lost their identity on defense, finishing dead last against the run and 30th in overall defense. Not quite the Monsters of the Midway defense.
The positives were the emergence of Alshon Jeffery and the Bears having the second-highest scoring offense, only behind the Denver Broncos.
The Bears got some help on defense this offseason, acquiring longtime Viking Jared Allen and five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson. The defense still has some rebuilding to do, but a second year under Trestman should make things more stable.
Also keep in mind that the NFC North isn't all that strong. There are still many question marks in Detroit and Minnesota. Green Bay will once again be the favorite, but the Bears have the firepower to hang in there until the end. If they miss out on the division, they still have a very good chance at grabbing a wild card spot.
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