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Pretenders to Contenders: Teams Who Missed the 2017 Playoffs But Could Reach Super Bowl LIII

In 2016 the Eagles missed the playoffs. The following year the team won Super Bowl LII. Which NFL franchises could follow in Philadelphia's footsteps in the 2018 season?

With the 2018 NFL season kicking off next Thursday, we’re running out a week’s worth of countdowns to help you get ahead of the madness…

The Eagles saved the 2017 NFL season.

Bruised from a rash of injuries to its brightest stars and battered by a president using solemn player protests as campaign ammunition, the NFL was in dire need of a miracle. A team without its starting quarterback, facing the most hateable franchise in the sport that pulled off a stunning, high-wire upset on the most important day of the year was nothing short of fortuitous. It’s also the reason we watch.

The Eagles finished with a 7–9 record the year before, falling to fourth in the NFC East. Without the prospect of this kind of turnaround, the NFL season would start to feel like Major League Baseball in July or the Premiere League beyond the big four (sorry, Leicester City, it’s about sample size). 

An optimistic person could make a Super Bowl argument for almost half the teams in football every year. Here’s ours for the teams that, like the Eagles, could reach the game having not made the playoffs the year before.

1. Los Angeles Chargers

The first few of these will be easy. The Chargers barely missed the postseason last year and are loaded on both sides of the ball. Anthony Lynn’s offense finished first in passing yards and sixth in passing touchdowns. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram both posted double-digit sacks, and Casey Hayward has turned himself into a perennial top five cornerback in football. Philip Rivers undoubtedly has enough in the tank and, so long as the running game can develop a little more efficiency, they will challenge the Chiefs for the AFC West title.

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2. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers is back and Davante Adams has developed into a dependable No. 1 wide receiver. While the change in defensive coordinator has received mixed reviews, getting Mike Pettine’s take on the personnel could be an advantage for a division who has seen nothing but Dom Capers for years. There are two quarterbacks in the NFL who can personally lift a franchise to the postseason even in a year with ho-hum personnel, and the Packers have one. Though this year, they also seem to have put the pieces in place for a complementary running game and a red-zone weapon in Jimmy Graham who could transform Rodgers’s already versatile functionality in the red zone.

3. Baltimore Ravens

Yes, we’re (slightly) buying into the Joe Flacco preseason hype. This defense was good enough to prop up a very mediocre offense and an injured quarterback with no weapons a year ago. Is it crazy to think that a team which can consistently bang around the .500 mark in one of the toughest divisions in football could take off with the best set of receivers they’ve had since the Super Bowl run in 2012?

Internally, the Ravens are planning on a renaissance season offensively, and have taken the firehose approach to addressing some of their biggest deficiencies. While the Ravens are not one to spend at the top-tier of the free agent market, they dominated the middle-tier in hopes of finding a few solutions for Flacco. Forget for a moment the constant threat they have levied in regards to playing both Flacco and Lamar Jackson at the same time. If anything, this will be a wrinkle smaller and less significant than the ill-fated Tebow/Sanchez debacle. Think of it instead as a quicker-moving, more efficient version of the 2017 offense—one with far more balance.

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4. San Francisco 49ers

Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t lose a game as 49ers starter last year so we are, by law, required to dump rocket fuel on this celebratory bonfire.

Could the Patriots backup turn out to be a run of the mill player? Absolutely. But he doesn’t look like it, and the 49ers aren’t planning on it. The offseason addition of Jerrick McKinnon is going to break this offense wide open and create matchup nightmares across the offense. The team also upgraded at right tackle and will start to integrate the first high-drafted receiver of the Kyle Shanahan era in Dante Pettis.

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They have enough team speed to win matchups consistently and a defense that was already solid against the run a year ago. It’s not difficult to imagine them capitalizing on a down year for the Cardinals and a potentially clamorous situation in Los Angeles, where the Rams have signed every high profile player willing to move to Culver City.

5. New York Giants

The Giants are experts at stumbling into the playoffs during the Eli Manning era and could be prime candidates to do so this season.

Dave Gettleman inherited a hollow roster, and even though he spent lavishly to land LT Nate Solder and used the second overall pick as a short-term B12 shot, he set the team up to be a legitimate divisional contender in 2018. The Eagles are so much deeper across the board and the Giants may struggle against teams with more than two weapons at the receiver position. What’s working in their favor? They nabbed arguably the best coaching free agent on the market this offseason in former Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher and will be heavily influenced by Pat Shurmur offensively. Manning has responded well to coaching changes in the past, and could be energized by a playcaller who has been influenced by some of the game’s best offensive minds.

If nothing else, a true every down back who can punish defenses running behind an improved offensive line is good enough to net you a few wins.

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6. Houston Texans

This is a trendier pick, but as we cautioned in one of our earlier countdown-to-kickoff pieces, Deshaun Watson might still need more time to recover from this injury.

However, if the tires meet the road where Houston left off a year ago? All bets are off.

In training camp, the Texans offense looked sharp and will feature more option wrinkles than in years past. Watson may be the best combination of athlete and passer in the league behind Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Even last year, he was starting to excel at some of the tight window throws and unique-placement passes that are critical for a quarterback to pick apart teams from the pocket.

Defensively, the endless dream of seeing J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney on the field together for an entire, totally healthy season is still alive. What can Watt be at this point in his career? What can Clowey be if coordinator Romeo Crennel puts him in Watt-like positions to maximize his efficiency? We may find out. 

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7. Cincinnati Bengals

When I did a story about the opening of legal sports gambling in New Jersey, the Bengals had the lowest odds on the board at 125-1. I did not partake, but a betting man has to see some value there.

Cincinnati patched up their offensive line and John Ross has looked good enough this preseason to diversify their offense in a way we haven’t seen since Tyler Eifert’s breakout in 2015. It’s understandable to yawn at the Bengals, but any team with an adequate quarterback, Hall of Fame wide receiver, stud cornerbacks and solid pass rushers needs to be taken seriously, especially when there’s some cracks in the façade in Pittsburgh.

Lewis also changed up defensive coordinators, bringing in Teryl Austin from Detroit. Is that enough to consider them a contender? Crazier things have happened.