When analysts and fans create their preseason predictions, many of the same teams make the playoffs from year to year. By the end of the season, there are a handful of new faces which the general public did not think to include in their initial rankings. In 2018, the Ravens, Texans, Colts, Chargers, Cowboys, Bears, and Seahawks made triumphant returns to the playoffs, displacing the Bills, Steelers, Jaguars, Titans, Vikings, Falcons, and Panthers.
Here are the teams that must exercise extreme caution in order to fend off their playoff spots.
2018 playoff seed: AFC #4
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have laid siege to the top spot of the AFC North. The Steelers aim to proceed through the addition by subtraction method, losing their two best skill position players over the off-season, but nevertheless, the Steelers have the talent to remain in the hunt for the AFC North.
For Cleveland, they went through the addition-by-addition method, adding Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt to a high-upside offense. If Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb continue on their paths toward success, playoff football may be a reality in Cleveland.
With that said, the Ravens have treaded water for the off-season. Despite defensive losses in the form of CJ Mosley, Z’Darius Smith, and Eric Weddle, the Ravens responded with the acquisitions of Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram. With a potentially loaded 2019 draft full of talent, the Ravens should be in play until Week 17.
Baltimore might simply miss the playoffs due to a difficult first-place schedule and the effect of having three good teams within the division.
2018 playoff seed: AFC #3
Similar to the Ravens, the Texans have plenty of talent on their roster, but the rest of the division sets the stage for a bloodbath in terms of playoff seeding. The Colts, Titans, and Jaguars are within striking distance of the AFC South crown, and each could bump out Houston from a wildcard spot.
The Colts, a playoff team in 2018, could end up being the best team in the NFL based on elite offensive line play, elite quarterback play, and an ever-improving defense led by Darius Leonard. They outclassed the Texans in the 2019 playoffs and should beat out the Texans for the AFC South title.
The Titans were a game away from the playoffs, losing in a do-or-die Week 17 match against the Colts. With a healthy Marcus Mariota, the Titans can beat anyone (with the notable and hilarious exception of the Andrew Luck-led Colts) and are poised to reclaim a playoff hold in 2019.
The Jaguars upgraded massively at the quarterback position and still sport an elite defensive unit. If Nick Foles can conjure his legendary magic, the Jags might slip into the playoffs and steal a spot from the Texans.
Kansas City Chiefs
2018 playoff seed: AFC #1
For the Chiefs, the Chargers stand as a colossal roadblock to their bid at another AFC West crown.
Over the course of the off-season, the Chiefs have said goodbye to Kareem Hunt, Dee Ford, and Eric Berry permanently. While they tried to stop the bleeding with the acquisitions of Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark, it may not be enough to improve the defense. While the offense is as good as anyone in the NFL, Patrick Mahomes is due for significant statistical regression in 2019. He may still be a great quarterback, but it is unlikely that the Chiefs steamroll their competition again.
The Chargers shored up the only problem spot in their team with the selection of Jerry Tillery. The Chargers will make a heavy play for the AFC’s top seed, and they should edge out the Chiefs.
The Chiefs will be in play for a wild card position, but with the AFC North and South providing significant threats to wild card spots, the Chiefs could miss the playoffs entirely.
2018 playoff seed: NFC #4
In a similar vein to the Chiefs, the Cowboys may not be the best in their division come the 2019 season. The Cowboys look excellent on paper, but a first-place schedule could result in extra losses which push the Cowboys out of the playoffs.
The Eagles, the only serious competition to the Cowboys’ stake as NFC East champions, are at a crossroads with the development of Carson Wentz. In 2017, Wentz was arguably the best quarterback in football and would have been a shoo-in for MVP had he not gotten injured late in the season. If Wentz returns to 2017 form, the Eagles will topple the mighty Cowboys.
Dallas has not gotten worse over the off-season, but any sort of hiccup from Ezekiel Elliott or the young members of the defense could spell disaster for the Cowboys.
New Orleans Saints
2018 playoff seed: NFC #1
The Saints overachieved in 2018. Coupled with collapses in Carolina and Atlanta, the Saints coasted to a division crown and clinched the top seed in the conference by virtue of Michael Thomas sending Marcus Peters to the shadow realm. However, the January version of Saints-Rams went the way of the Rams (controversy notwithstanding) and the Saints were left with a second straight gut-wrenching defeat to an inferior team.
With that said, the Saints will experience some regression to the mean in 2019. Drew Brees declined in December and January, but he still projects to be a top 10 quarterback in 2019. The losses of Mark Ingram and Benjamin Watson hurt the offense, but the defense cannot afford anything less than their best in 2019.
Carolina and Tampa Bay might not challenge New Orleans’ superiority, but Atlanta will certainly punch the Saints in the mouth, assuming relatively full health. Matt Ryan was every bit as good as his MVP self, and the offense in Atlanta is in the upper echelon of the NFL. The defense, if healthy, possesses enough very good players for the Falcons to make a definitive run at the Saints.
2018 playoff seed: NFC #5
The only 2018 Wild Card team on the list, the Seahawks face stiff competition from the remainder of the NFC. While the 49ers may be a year away from serious contention, the Seahawks are no closer to the Rams than they were in 2018. The Seahawks officially lost Doug Baldwin, Kam Chancellor, Frank Clark, and Earl Thomas, hurting the locker room and on-field performance. To compensate, the Seahawks shelled out a national bank’s worth of cash to Russell Wilson. With Wilson eating up so much of the Seahawks’ spending power, the rest of the team could suffer a dismal fate and eternal mediocrity.
The Packers and Vikings of the NFC North could parlay the Seahawks’ shortcomings into a return to the playoffs. The Packers worked tirelessly in the off-season to revamp the defense and surround Aaron Rodgers with an impenetrable wall. For the Vikings, they hope Year 2 of the Kirk Cousins experiment yields better results than the Week 17 loss to Chicago.
Seattle should stay in contention in the NFC playoff hunt, but unless they can replicate their 2018 late-season magic, the season may not bear fruits.