- Eight teams that didn’t make the postseason last year are in the playoffs this year—outsiders like the Bills, Rams, Jaguars and Titans and surprising high seeds Philadelphia and Minnesota. In what has been a tumultuous season, it’s a refreshing restart
There was a 28-minute span on New Year’s Eve that was everything Week 17 was supposed to be. The Titans eked out a win against the Jaguars, earning a wild-card bid. The Bills beat the Dolphins to keep their postseason hopes alive, then waited an excruciating 18 minutes for the end of the Ravens-Bengals game that would determine the fate of their season.
It was high drama packed into a tight viewing window. Any person with any tie to Western New York cheered when they saw Andy Dalton’s fourth-down pass complete to Tyler Boyd—then lost their damn minds when they saw Boyd shake free from three Ravens defenders for the touchdown that would win the game for the Bengals and send the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
No drought-breaker this year tops that of the Bills, whose fans had been waiting the longest of any in American professional sports (and yet still had the fortitude to tailgate so hard every Sunday that they routinely throw themselves onto tables, sometimes ones that are burning). But the Bills making the postseason after 17 seasons without was also one of several dry spells ended: 12 years for the Rams, nine years for the Titans and eight years for the Jaguars.
During a football season blemished by declining TV ratings and some high-profile cases of overhanded officiating, we’ve also ended up with a pleasant surprise: One of the most unpredictable NFL postseason fields in recent memory. Yes, the AFC runs through Foxborough, again. But of the 12 playoff-bound teams, eight did not make the postseason last year. That’s the most turnover since 2003—which, to put it into context, directly followed the last season the Browns made the playoffs and a healthy Tom Brady sat at home in January.
The NFC field has almost entirely turned over since last season, with the exception of Atlanta, which dropped from the No. 2 seed last year to No. 6 this year. Half the AFC field is new: three-seed Jacksonville, five-seed Tennessee and six-seed Buffalo. So if the field feels fresh, it is. Twice in the past five years, for example, there have been just half as many new teams—only four—from one year to the next.
There isn’t a single, overarching reason for this year’s turnover. The Rams broke free from their 7-9 purgatory thanks to a smart young coach, Sean McVay, who has shepherded last year’s No. 1 overall pick, QB Jared Goff. Last year’s No. 2 pick, Carson Wentz, took a quantum leap in his second season and put the Eagles on his back before his season-ending ACL tear last month. Drew Brees got a little help from a top-10 scoring defense; and Mike Zimmer’s stingy Vikings D finally got paired with a top-10 scoring offense. And in a year marred by injuries, the Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 in large part because Aaron Rodgers missed seven games with a broken collarbone, while the Seahawks’ season ended prematurely along with the ailing Legion of Boom.
But with the stalwarts of some of the most consistent playoff teams of the last decade—Brady and Rodgers and Roethlisberger—closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, the new blood in this year’s playoff field is refreshing. Wentz, before his injury, was the MVP frontrunner. The Rams taking over the NFC West felt like a changing of the guard in that division. Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, had an up and down season but finished it by literally stiff-arming his team into the playoffs. Jalen Ramsey, a linchpin of the Jaguars defense, is one of the best young corners in the league. And while they didn’t make the postseason, Jimmy Garoppolo’s 49ers, winners of five straight, ended the season as the hottest team in football.
It’s certainly possible this season has a predictable ending (here’s your reminder that in the six previous seasons the Patriots have had home-field advantage, they made it to the Super Bowl five times). But on wild-card weekend, we’ll be watching the Jaguars host the Bills and an NFL playoff game in Los Angeles. In other words, the most unlikely postseason field since … the last time the Bills made the playoffs, which as we know, was quite the long wait.
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