Eight in the Box: NFL teams that will be better in 2014 than they are in 2013
Each Friday, Eight in the Box will highlight a list of eight players, teams or moments and their impact on the 2013 season (and beyond).
The NFL's parity-driven model makes it possible for teams to turn around their fortunes quickly. Some franchises have taken much better advantage of that reality than others, but it is almost a lock that from year to year at least one or two downtrodden teams make unexpected leaps.
So, which teams are set to be far better in 2014 than in 2013? Here are eight (including one of those five teams just mentioned):
8. Buffalo Bills: Even though it might not feel like it as they head toward a ninth straight season below .500, the Bills have progressed this season. They might be even better than 4-7 right now had injury issues not slowed EJ Manuel's rookie season.
The base has been laid, though. Manuel looks at least competent as a young quarterback, and there is young talent around him on offense -- Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, to name a couple. A full offseason with Manuel in place under then second-year head coach Doug Marrone ought to do wonders.
Can Buffalo improve its defense this coming offseason despite the likely loss of safety Jairus Byrd? If so, the playoffs might be in order in 2014.
7. Green Bay Packers: Their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Lions proved the Packers have problems beyond simply Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone. Still, Rodgers' loss has been an insurmountable one, and they likely would have avoided this killer 0-4-1 stretch with him in the lineup. Simply by adding him back for a 16-game season, the Packers should be back in the discussion as an NFC North favorite and a contender in the conference.
There may be substantial changes afoot between now and then, starting with defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has come under increasing fire as his unit slumps badly.
6. Houston Texans: It can't get any worse, right? The Texans have lost nine in a row to fall to the bottom of the NFL standings -- a humiliating and frustrating turn of events for a franchise that won back-to-back AFC South titles.
In plummeting, however, the Texans have put themselves in position to use the draft as a fix for their most glaring weakness: quarterback. Houston is headed toward a top-five pick in a QB-heavy class, meaning that the days of hoping Matt Schaub turns a corner appear to be over. Dropping a Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr into this lineup won't fix all of Houston's woes (like on the offensive line), but it would help.
5. Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles are neck and neck with the Cowboys in the NFC East, so they won't exactly be starting from scratch in 2014. But if college football has taught us anything, it is that offenses typically need a year or two to transition into a scheme like the one Chip Kelly brought to the City of Brotherly Love (even though Kelly's O is an animal unto itself).
Philadelphia also would be wise to re-sign Jeremy Maclin, who has spent his contract year on injured reserve. Plop him back into the lineup alongside DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and an emerging Nick Foles, and Kelly's attack would have a shot to elevate again.
4. Atlanta Falcons: A no-brainer, only because the decimated offense should be healthier by the start of 2014. The Falcons have played without Roddy White, Julio Jones and Steven Jackson at various points this season, with Jones shut down entirely after a mere five games. As a result, that side of the football has slipped to No. 25 in the league after finishing in the top 10 for points scored from 2010-12.
The hit the Falcons will take this offseason: Tony Gonzalez's almost-certain retirement. He remains one of their most reliable weapons. Replacing a future Hall of Famer will be no easy task.
The Falcons also have to improve greatly on the offensive line and on defense to really get back to being a Super Bowl threat. However, there's is no way they will repeat this disastrous showing across the board.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are laying the groundwork right now for a step up in 2014. And now it may be fair to ask if Tampa Bay can do next season what Kansas City has done this year.
After all, the talent on this roster always seemed too high to justify that 0-8 start, even accepting the fact that the team's offense was in flux. With Mike Glennon delivering an impressive eight-game stint as the starting QB, though, the future looks bright there -- the emergence of guys like Bobby Rainey has further buoyed the outlook.
This defense also sits in the top half of the league, strengthened by anchors like Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, they play in one of the NFL's tougher divisions. But they won't be an easy out for anyone over this season's final five weeks or in 2014.
2. St. Louis Rams: If the Rams take advantage of the extra first-round draft pick coming their way from Washington -- possibly a top-five selection -- then look out. There's a ton of budding talent in place on this roster, both on offense (Tavon Austin, Zac Stacy) and defense (Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree, Janoris Jenkins). If Sam Bradford can get back from injury to pick up where he left off this season, the playoffs may not be far off.
So, add in a pair of top-15 draft selections, and St. Louis will have more than enough in the bank to be a threat in '14 and beyond.
1. Cleveland Browns: Solving their QB conundrum is absolutely task No. 1 for the Browns this offseason. Between free agency and a pair of first-round picks (thanks, Trent Richardson!), Cleveland should be able to do just that in the coming months.
There's plenty to like elsewhere on this roster, as well as in the coaching staff. Cleveland's sleeper status this season fizzled out courtesy of its current 1-5 stretch, but the Browns probably overachieved early. The defense remains a couple of pieces away, same as the offense. That said, both units are better today than they were a year ago. THE PLAYBOOK: Previewing Seahawks-Saints, Chiefs-Broncos, more Week 13 games