Every team that made the playoffs last year has their eyes on the Super Bowl this season. On the eve of the NFL season, it’s time to burst their playoff bubbles. At least four teams that made the playoffs the previous season have fallen out the next in each year of the past decade. Both of the past two years saw a higher turnover rate, with eight teams that did not return to the postseason in 2017 and seven teams not returning last year. Let’s run through last year’s playoff teams in each conference, in descending order of how likely they are to qualify for the playoffs this season.
New England Patriots
2018 Record: 11-5, AFC East champion (no. 2 seed in the AFC)
Let’s get the easy ones out of the way. New England has missed the playoffs once in the last 16 years, and that season the Pats went 11-5 without Tom Brady. This nearly two-decade Brady-Bill Belichick postseason run is the most successful stretch since the one by Tom Landry’s Cowboys. New England’s reign will end eventually. Brady is 42, and while he’s defied Father Time, he is officially in uncharted waters for NFL quarterbacks; he looked uneasy by the end of last season (including a quietly meh Super Bowl performance that would have been a bigger story if his team needed more than one touchdown). But picking against the Patriots is silly until we see otherwise.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Their only enemy is the slow march of time, and we rarely know when it is outside the gates.
Kansas City Chiefs
2018 Record: 12-4, AFC West champion (no. 1 seed)
Their world-breaking offense from 2018 is almost certain to regress this year. The question is not if, but by how much. As ESPN’s Mike Clay explained while presenting an excellent case for the Chiefs missing the playoffs, of the 30 offenses that have scored 50 or more touchdowns in the past 10 years, 27 have scored fewer touchdowns the following season. (The other three offenses are all Patriots teams.) On average, those 27 teams dropped roughly one touchdown per game the following season. Clay also projects Kansas City will face the toughest schedule of defenses in the NFL this season.
Still, it’s tough to see Kansas City missing the playoffs entirely, particularly if its 31st-ranked defense improves. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo replaced Bob Sutton, which is potentially a big upgrade. The team also swapped pass rusher Dee Ford for Frank Clark at defensive end and brought in safety Tyrann Mathieu to replace Eric Berry, and both moves improve each position. But Kansas City still has questionable cornerback depth behind Kendall Fuller and also little defensive line help behind Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Higher than most think, but still low.
Los Angeles Chargers
2018 Record: 12-4, second in AFC West (no. 5 seed in the AFC)
Los Angeles suffered from their usual preseason injury woes when safety/linebacker/slot cornerback/blitzer/everything-except-nose-tackle Derwin James landed on injured reserve with a foot injury. On offense, running back Melvin Gordon is still holding out as of Wednesday for a new contract or a trade, but the men meant to protect Gordon may be the real problem. The Chargers have one of the weakest offensive lines in football. Left tackle Russell Okung has been dealing with a pulmonary embolism and has no timeline for a return. His backup, Trent Scott, is an undrafted player entering his second season. Right tackle Sam Tevi is not much more experienced and has struggled to pass block. Together, Scott and Tevi form one of the worst tackle combinations in the NFL. On the interior, left guard Dan Feeney and right guard Michael Schofield may be the worst guard combo in football. The Patriots exposed Los Angeles’s line weaknesses in their blowout divisional-round win, and it will be tough for the Chargers to patch it together this season without stellar work from Phillip Rivers and the defense.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Serious.
2018 Record: 10-6, AFC North champion (no. 4 seed in the AFC)
The Ravens salvaged their season by plugging in Lamar Jackson at quarterback, but it remains to be seen how well they adapt this year. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the offense developed by his staff will use concepts not seen since the 1950s. Whether that scheme works in 2019 will be a fascinating subplot, but it’s certainly no guarantee. On defense, the Ravens lost four starters this offseason. Future Hall of Famer Earl Thomas should be an upgrade over safety Eric Weddle, but the team downgraded in the three other spots by failing to adequately replace inside linebacker C.J. Mosely or pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs, all of whom left in free agency. The AFC North will be tougher this year thanks to the resurgement Browns, so Baltimore doesn’t need to slip too much from last year’s 10-6 record to miss the playoffs.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Depends how dangerous the Browns are.
2018 Record: 11-5, AFC South champion (no. 3 seed in the AFC)
The Texans mortgaged their future to acquire left tackle Laremy Tunsil (and Kenny Stills and some late picks) from the Dolphins, so missing the playoffs in 2019 would be hilarious. It also wouldn’t be surprising. The Texans faced the easiest opposing pass offense schedule in the NFL last year, according to Warren Sharp. As Sharp notes, the Texans faced five quarterbacks who are currently backups, unsigned, or on IR (Blake Bortles, Brock Osweiler, Blaine Gabbert, Cody Kessler, and Nathan Peterman); three quarterbacks who may lose their starting jobs this year (Case Keenum, Marcus Mariota, and Eli Manning); and three rookie quarterbacks (Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, and Baker Mayfield). Houston went 9-2 against that motley crew. The only starting-caliber veteran quarterbacks Houston faced were Tom Brady, Andrew Luck (twice), Dak Prescott, and Nick Foles, and they went 2-3 in those contests.
In 2019, the Texans will be spared Luck, but will face Drew Brees, Nick Foles, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, and Patrick Mahomes in their first six games. This is a team that just traded Jadeveon Clowney away for a third-rounder. The Texans are the favorites in the AFC South, but it wouldn’t be shocking if having real quarterbacks pick them apart changes the balance of power in the division.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Depends on the strength of Bill O’Brien’s blood pacts.
2018 Record: 10-6, second in the AFC South (no. 6 seed in the AFC)
Jacoby Brissett may prove to be a capable starter (the Colts seem to think so and handed him a two-year, $30 million contract extension this week) but even with Luck they managed to scramble into only the second wild-card slot last year. This ship is sinking before it has even left the harbor.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Significant.
Los Angeles Rams
2018 Record: 13-3, NFC West champion (no. 2 seed in the NFC)
Since the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s, 40 percent of Super Bowl losers (10 out of 25) have missed the playoffs the following year. A few indicators suggest the Rams could join that group. First, they’re a good bet to win fewer games in 2019. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pegged them as a regression candidate, thanks to their unsustainable 6-1 record in one-score games and astonishing fumble-recovery luck—they grabbed 12 of 14 forced by their defense, which will be nearly impossible to replicate. Los Angeles lost center John Sullivan to retirement and Rodger Saffold in free agency and is replacing both of them with second-year players. Their sterling string of health the past two years was broken by Todd Gurley’s lingering knee injury and Cooper Kupp’s torn ACL, and additional injuries to their offensive line or skill players could expose a top-heavy personnel group, especially when it comes to protecting the newly minted multi-multi-multi-millionaire Jared Goff.
And yet the Rams are heavily favored to return to the playoffs and have the third-best odds on Bovada for the best regular-season record in 2019. It’s easy to see the Rams doing worse than 13-3 this year, but that doesn’t mean they’ll bottom out.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Low.
New Orleans Saints
2018 Record: 13-3, NFC South champion (no. 1 seed in the NFC)
The Saints are the favorites to win the NFC this year, but also could face the sharpest fall of any team. Last year’s no. 1 seed fell to the Rams after a controversial non-pass interference call that arguably cost them a trip to the Super Bowl. It was the second year in a row the Saints suffered a devastating playoff defeat after the Minneapolis Miracle in January 2018. New Orleans is entering its second consecutive revenge tour, which frankly sounds exhausting.
Drew Brees turns 41 in January. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted, Brees may have already begun declining at the end of last season, when he went from MVP-caliber to ordinary seemingly overnight. The QB’s dwindling arm strength was reportedly one of the reasons receiver Brandin Cooks wanted out of New Orleans two years ago. Brees remains a needlepoint-accurate passer, which has offset his diminished deep ball, but if his accuracy falters it would impact New Orleans’s entire offense. Center Max Unger retired this offseason, which was an under-the-radar impactful loss for the Saints’ excellent offensive line—especially as team has shifted to a more run-heavy approach as Brees has aged.
Aside from the Saints’ internal questions, the NFC South looks better. The Buccaneers will go from clown car (clown ship?) to a far more serious unit under Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Atlanta suffered a slew of injuries last season that led to its defense underperforming. The Panthers could be the breakout NFC team of the season with receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel playing alongside Christian McCaffrey. New Orleans went 4-2 in the division last year (including a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Panthers), but repeating that may be a much harder task this year in a competitive division.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Rising.
2018 Record: 10-6, NFC East champion (no. 4 seed in the NFC)
The Cowboys seem like the obvious team in the NFC to drop out. Even with the Ezekiel Elliott extension finally resolved, Dallas has had a dysfunctional offseason as five players try to negotiate long-term deals—including their quarterback Dak Prescott, who is still unsigned beyond this year. Considering not every player is likely to sign a deal, there could be toxic locker-room chemistry in Dallas, and this is a team that had to scrape by the Eagles and Washington to win the NFC East last year. But the Cowboys still have many quality players on both sides of the ball. Their offensive line is a known commodity at this point, but Elliott, Amari Cooper, and underrated free-agent addition Randall Cobb make for a potent offense, and the Cowboys have elite talent at linebacker and excellent players at defensive end and cornerback.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Lower than people think.
2018 Record: 12-4, NFC North champion (no. 3 seed in the NFC)
Last year, the Bears defense led the league in fewest points, touchdowns, and first downs allowed; most turnovers forced; most defensive touchdowns; and most expected points contributed by a defense, defensive DVOA, and pass defense DVOA. They finished second in run defense DVOA, second in yards allowed per play, and third in sacks.
It goes without saying that doing all of that is hard. In fact, when it comes to the turnover aspect, that stat will be almost impossible to repeat. Batting down passes and forcing fumbles is a skill, but catching those deflections and recovering said fumbles is mostly random. The Bears forced three or more turnovers in half of their games last year and recorded at least one turnover in 15 of 16 games as they went 12-4. That kind of turnover luck isn’t feasible to repeat, nor is their subsequent defensive scoring or great field position, and so their overall record will be difficult to replicate, too.
That is before factoring in that they lost the person orchestrating said defense: Vic Fangio, who left to be the head coach of the Broncos. He has been replaced at defensive coordinator by Chuck Pagano, who is solid. But assuming the Bears could play at the same level without Fangio because they still have Khalil Mack is like swapping Sean McVay for Norv Turner and assuming the Rams will have the NFC’s best offense because of Todd Gurley. The Bears’ scheme mattered, and now the architect is gone.
All of this puts more pressure on young Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to perform. Most of what we’ve seen in his career suggests he cannot pick up any slack for the Bears defense. If Trubisky rises to the occasion, he and head coach-slash-play-caller Matt Nagy deserve serious props and mea culpas from doubters, starting with yours truly. But if he can’t, the Bears may need to ask some hard questions about whether they want to extend Trubisky. And that’s before we get into their kicking situation, which is worse off than if they had just kept Cody Parkey on the team after his double doink.
Danger of missing the playoffs: Higher than people think.
2018 Record: 10-6, second place in NFC West (no. 5 seed in the NFC)
Seattle snuck into the playoffs last year by finishing 6-1 after starting 4-5. The team’s saving grace this year may be a weak NFC West. San Francisco and Arizona still look a year (or three) away from contending. But if San Francisco is ready and Arizona is competent, the Seahawks may not even be able to count on beating up their divisional rivals, so they’ll need to either best the Rams for the division title (a tough deal) or try to win a wild-card spot in a competitive conference. It doesn’t help that they’ll be playing the AFC North—including the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns—as well as the NFC South, which includes the Falcons, Saints, Bucs, and Panthers. Seattle romping through that schedule is not impossible—Russell Wilson at 35-to-1 to win MVP is a great bet—but it’s also not likely.
Danger of missing the playoffs: DangeRuss (sorry).
2018 Record: 9-7, second place in the NFC East (no. 6 seed in the NFC)
The Eagles were the NFC’s no. 1 seed in 2017 and the no. 6 seed in 2018. They seem like an excellent bet to return to a first-round bye in 2019. Their path could be obstructed with one obvious derailment: Carson Wentz’s health. Wentz has gone down each of the last two years, and now Nick Foles is no longer around to save them. Backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld broke his left (non-throwing) wrist in the preseason, and while it’s not a season-ending injury, it’s hardly encouraging that Philly’s next backup is Josh McCown, who had to be coaxed out of retirement and a TV gig to take the job. Nobody wants Wentz to get injured, but nobody would be surprised if it happened.
Danger of missing the playoffs: TBD.