Each NFL postseason, there is a year-to-year change in which teams qualify for the playoffs. Some teams make incredible leaps from ‘worst to first’, others use the offseason to put their roster over the edge and contend for the Super Bowl.
However, for every team that improves and enters the postseason, another team fails to meet expectations. There is a slight caveat for this upcoming NFL season: A seventh playoff spot (or third wild card team) has been added in each conference. Therefore, three new teams could enter the playoffs with just two being forced to exit the picture.
In the AFC, the likes of the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs are probably safe bets to make the contend again next season. With new challengers rising, other former playoff teams may not be so fortunate this upcoming season.
(Be sure to also check out NFC 2020: Who’s In, Who’s Out for further predictions!)
In: Las Vegas Raiders
Last year, with Jon Gruden taking over coaching duties, the Oakland Raiders found themselves with a 6-4 record through Week 11. Unfortunately, they stumbled to the finish line, winning just one of their final six games.
This put the Raiders in a four-way tie for 8th place in the AFC, as they held the same 7-9 record as the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, and New York Jets. With just a couple more wins, most specifically in a Week 14 matchup with the Tennessee Titans, the Raiders could have been a playoff team last year.
In the upcoming NFL season, the Raiders will complete their move to Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada; becoming the Las Vegas Raiders. In this new setting, can Derek Carr, Jon Gruden and company qualify for the playoffs?
As long as the Raiders don’t regress, they’ll be right in the playoff mix. A strong offseason and draft may have been enough to push the Raiders over the edge and into one of the seven playoff spots that will be available in the AFC.
In free agency, Las Vegas added backup quarterback Marcus Mariota, linebacker Cory Littleton, defensive end Carl Nassib, safety Damarious Randall and safety Jeff Heath. In terms of weapons for Carr, the Raiders signed veteran tight end Jason Witten and former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
In the 2020 NFL Draft, Las Vegas nabbed three wide receivers in the first 81 picks; most notably Henry Ruggs out of Alabama. The Raiders had two first-round selections, also adding Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette to their roster.
With reinforcements on the way, the Raiders should improve on their 7-9 record, and have the potential to be one of the better teams in the AFC.
In: Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts ended their 2019 campaign just as the Raiders did: Spoiling a promising 6-4 start, sputtering to a 7-9 finish. Indianapolis had all the talent needed to make the playoffs last year.
Jacoby Brissett has been a solid starter for the Colts. He went 7-7 last year in games that he started and finished, missing one start and exiting very early in a matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Colts would have been primed to compete for the playoffs next year with the former New England Patriot under center.
Instead, the Colts decided to go all-in, bringing in longtime Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. The 38-year old veteran has seen much better years in terms of success when evaluating his 2019 season. From a personal standpoint, he played well, completing 66% of his passes for 4,615 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Chargers went 5-11, often losing tight games at the last moment.
Besides adding Rivers, the Colts used their top 2020 draft selections on additional offensive weapons. With the 34th overall pick, they selected wide receiver Micheal Pittman Jr, and with the 41st pick, running back Jonathan Taylor. The Colts didn’t neglect defense though, selecting safety Julian Blackmon in the third round and defensive tackle Robert Windsor in the sixth round. The Colts also added quarterback Jacob Eason out of Washington as a potential long-term option.
Earlier in the offseason, the Colts traded their first-round pick for San Fransisco 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. They also signed defensive tackle Sheldon Day and cornerback Xavier Rhodes to strengthen their defense.
With a solid team in 2019 and instant improvements made to the roster, the Colts are attempting to compete now. They will be a tight three-team race in the AFC South, battling the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans.
The Colts have all the tools to finish with at least nine wins, and likely qualify for the seven-team playoff field in 2020.
In: Pittsburgh Steelers
I considered a couple other teams, including the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, for the AFC’s final playoff spot. However, if there were seven playoff teams per conference last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have qualified, despite a disastrous season.
As long as the Steelers don’t go backwards, they have a great chance to make the playoffs in the upcoming season. Most notably, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be back after last year’s circus that included Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.
However, quarterback problems weren’t the only position ravaged by injury. Starting safety Sean Davis missed 15 games, running back James Conner missed six games, fullback Roosevelt Nix missed 13 games, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster missed four games, and defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt missed the team’s final ten games.
Despite injuries and inconsistent quarterback play, the Steelers finished second in the AFC North at 8-8. If they can manage eight or more wins next season, the playoffs should be attainable goal.
Out: New England Patriots
Knocking the New England Patriots out of the postseason due to the departure of Tom Brady seems like an easy decision, but it’s not.
As long as Bill Belichick is the head coach, the Patriots will be a threat to make the playoffs no matter who the quarterback is. In 2008, with Brady sidelined for the season, Belichick utilized Matt Cassell at quarterback en route to an 11-5 season: That somehow wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. With the additional wild card position, anomalies like that will be more rare.
It’s reasonable to think the Patriots will take a step back, the only question is, how far? New England was already regressing in 2019, failing to earn a first-round bye for the first time in a decade.
The Buffalo Bills, on the other hand, are a team on the rise. Buffalo finished 10-6 last year, just two wins behind the Patriots. After a strong draft and the acquisition of Stefon Diggs, Buffalo should be the favorite for the AFC East.
New England will still have a fighting chance at a wild card spot, but with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets also taking steps forward, wins against divisional opponents may be harder to come by.
Depending on additional moves or a change at quarterback, the Patriots dynasty could just be on pause, as opposed to being over. As currently constructed, I think they narrowly miss the playoffs.
Out: Houston Texans
The Texans have been consistent, winning nine or more games in five of the last six seasons. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is one of the most electric players in the NFL, and when things are clicking, Houston has an explosive offense.
Unfortunately, Houston traded away Watson’s best weapon in wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans did receive running back David Johnson in their trade with the Arizona Cardinals, as well as wide receiver Kenny Stills from the Miami Dolphins.
While Watson may be able to make due with his new toys, an inconsistent defense and feisty division could limit the Texans this season.
Assuming the Tennessee Titans pick up where they left off in the AFC Championship, and Philip Rivers working out well for the Colts, the Texans could quickly find themselves as the third-best team in the AFC South.
Houston had a decent draft, but only five selections with none coming in the first round. Defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, a second round pick, should help the pass-rush along with J.J. Watt.
Will it be enough to fix a defense that allowed 385 points last season; the second-most of any playoff team? Despite finishing 10-6, the Texans didn’t even have a positive point differential (-7.)
I could see a few wins slipping away from the Texans next year, despite Watson’s best efforts. If the Titans (9-7 last year) and Colts (7-9) improve, the Texans could miss the playoffs for just the second time since 2015.
Be sure to also check out our predictions for the 2020 NFC Playoff teams!