Earlier, we took a look at the teams I believe will finish in the bottom half of the NFL this saeson. Each year, around six teams that made the playoffs last season miss the mark. The result is that six new teams make the dance the following year. From our 32 - 15 rankings, you'll notice I have Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City missing the playoffs. The teams below will be in the conversation come December.
Make the jump to see my better half.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers-- If I could pick any team in prime position to become dominant in a few years, this would be the one. We laughed when the Bucs hired Mark Dominic and Raheem Morris as GM and head coach, but two years later Tampa has a roster stacked with youth and plenty of cap space. They play very hard, but lack explosiveness. I'd rather have Josh Freeman as my quarterback than Big Ben, whom he's often compared to. If this team continues to build and draft following the same blueprint they started with, they will be scary good in a few years. The only questionable move they've made in the past two years was giving a punter $19 million. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?
15. Detroit Lions-- Assuming Stafford stays healthy this team is locked and loaded. Sure, they've got big questions at cornerback and linebacker but I believe in their head coach, and I think like Tampa last year, this team is too young to know they aren't supposed to win.
14. Indianapolis Colts-- Assuming Manning gets healthy in time for the regular season, look for the Colts to go .500 through the first eight games, then rip off enough wins to finish 10-6. The best thing the Colts did this off-season was add a few starters to the offensive line; guys who will dramatically improve pass protection and run blocking. The only thing bigger than Manning's forehead is his ego, but I think rust coupled with an improved offensive line will persuade Manning to tone it down a little and actually hand the ball off.
13. Dallas Cowboys-- Saying those two words together brings vomit to the back of my throat. I think the best thing they did was add coach Rob Ryan. This team is still suspect at many positions, and as long as Jerry Jones is Jerry Jones, I think they'll find a way to screw it up. Jason Garrett needs to study the definition of balance and understand the advantages of using that group of RB's with an offensive line more suited to run block, lose the infatuation and control his desire to play with all his toys in the passing game. Tony Romo needs to take a leadership course and grow a pair of nuts. The same goes for DeMarcus Ware -- just ask Warren Sapp. Too many "leaders" on this team stand by and allow others to suck.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers-- I'm a big Mike Tomlin fan. I think he's learned better how to not sound like Rex Ryan and I think he's got a great grasp on how to handle his team. Tthis team is another prime example of how to build through the draft and develop players. However, they are getting older and I question their identity on offense, in the secondary, on offensive line and with offensive skill position players. I question how healthy this team can stay. They typically have players who redshirt and learn for a year or two then come out of "nowhere" with big impact. But I think the Steelers have an "off" year. Not quite 8-8, but 10-6 at best.
11. St. Louis Rams-- Yeah, you heard right. This team is starting to make all the right moves. No doubt, they have the best quarterback, arguably the best staff and balance of youth and experience in their division. Winning their division won't surprise many, but ranking higher than a few other big name teams will.
10. New York Giants-- How can you be in the biggest media capital of the world and stay under the radar? By having Tom Coughlin as a head coach and Eli Manning as your quaterback. This team is well coached and composed of manageable egos. They have talent and will surprise many who sleep on them.
9. Houston Texans-- Why did they not re-sign Dunta Robinson, only to give the same money to Jonathen Joseph a year later? They'd be scary if they had both. Yet they did improve their secondary, and Wade Phillips will have a great impact on their defense. Which is good news considering they have a balanced offense.
8. Atlanta Falcons-- This team is well coached. They have a good GM and though they mortgaged the future a little on Julio Jones, they were still able to add a pass rusher in Ray Edwards. Atlanta played the kind of football that causes many to grit their teeth last year but they look to be more explosive going into 2011. I question their overall depth across the board, as well as their secondary after Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. I also question whether Matt Ryan has enough guts to be anything more than "master of the checkdown." Seriously, how about playing a little more aggressive?
7. New York Jets-- Rex Ryan is a good coach, yet he and his team have a polarizing effect: you either love them or hate them. The Jets have reached the AFC Championship Game by winning multiple road playoff games each of the last two years. It won't happen a third consecutive year. Those odds are too great. The only way the Jets go far is if they win the division, and I don't see them doing that. I'm not sold on their wide receiver group or their running back depth. I'm also not sold on their overall depth and I damn sure ain't sold on Mark Sanchez. This team is aging, and I don't believe they've done much to upgrade the secondary or pressure.
6. San Diego Chargers-- How can a team finish first overall on offense and defense and still miss the playoffs? Ranking dead last on special teams, having a revolving door at skill positions and giving the ball away will do that to you. It looks as though the Chargers have fixed their special teams woes and if they can find some semblance of balance on offense, they ought to finish with double digits in the win column.
5. Philadelphia Eagles-- The Eagles are another team who typically draft well. They are normally proactive in extending the contracts of younger players before they peak (saving big money from not waiting for a rookie deal to expire and market value to go up) so it is a surprise everyone but DeSean Jackson got paid this month. We all know about the big name additions Philadelphia added, but they are ranked fifth due to the losses. Despite adding players like Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkins on defense, the Eagles still have question marks at linebacker and safety. I think they are yet another 4-3 team that has devalued the LB position. Oh, and did I mention Michael Vick has only played one full 16 game season in his career? I think injury, game management and ego management cause the Eagles to fall short. I also believe Andy Reid will never be cured of "the fever." Something tells me defenses have Vick figured out and if my gut is right, the Giants will win the division and the Eagles won't finish with this ranking.
4. Baltimore Ravens-- The Ravens quietly upgraded key positions of need through the draft and free agency. Ozzie Newsome is a top five general manager who has an eye for talent. Sure, the defense is aging but they've got plenty of guys who will become household names just waiting in the wings. All they have to do is find an identity on offense and stick with it.
3. New Orleans Saints-- After battling multiple injuries concentrated at a few critical positions, the Saints still managed to go 11-5 last year. They weren't in great position to address their key weaknesses after winning the Super Bowl in February of 2010 due to free agency restrictions placed on them during that unique off-season, coupled with picking 32nd in the draft. However, this off-season we saw the Saints aggressively attacking and filling those areas of need in the last few months. Like the Patriots, the Saints have a great mix of youth and experience and are poised to have great balance on both offense and defense.
2. Green Bay Packers-- This team won the Super Bowl last year with 15 significant contributors (many were starters) on injured reserve. If you want to see how to build through the draft and develop young players, this team is a prime example. They've had a very good draft this off-season and gotten many of those injured players back to health. They also have the validated confidence that comes from reaching the ultimate height. The only reason they aren't No. 1? That big bullseye on their backs that Saints fans know so well.
1. New England Patriots-- This team scares me. Forget the meaningless lopsided week one victory in this preseason, I'm more concerned with their balance. I believe they remedied their rushing attack. I believe they have a fine mix of youth and veteran experience on both sides of the ball. Even better, they put up the best record in football last year mainly with youth. After playing in a 4-3 defense for 60% of their snaps last year, the Patriots look to be making a full time switch with the additions of Albert Haynesworth and Andre Carter. They have youth and speed at linebacker and defensive back, and I think they will be able to get pressure with the veterans on the defensive line. New England with a balanced offense along with a balanced defense is a very dangerous team.