After a wild, roller-coaster ride through the regular season, 12 teams moved on to the playoffs. But what of the 20 squads that missed the cut -- including those that fell just short, like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals? History suggests that several of these teams will bounce back in 2014. Just look at this season's postseason field, which includes five franchises that didn't make the playoffs last season (the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints).
Scanning the ranks of the teams that will be watching the Super Bowl hunt from home, which one has the best chance to make the playoffs next season?
Seeing a Steeltown bouncebackThe Pittsburgh Steelers, and not just because they perhaps should have made it this season. They got off to a brutal 0-4 start in 2013, hampered as they were by some critical injuries (including season-enders to Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote). But one thing that came out of their strong finish was that some of their younger talent emerged, like rookie running back Le'Veon Bell. And -- hallelujah! -- Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally clicked when the veteran quarterback began running the no-huddle offense more often.
The defense probably will see some personnel changes, and there are some contracts with huge cap numbers that have to be managed (Troy Polamalu's among them). But there is no dominant team in the AFC North -- despite their issues, the Steelers split with the Bengals and Ravens and swept the Browns -- and Pittsburgh should at least be able to snag a wild-card spot next season.
Ravens, Cardinals and Rams ready to rise; watch out for Lions and TexansTwo teams that should rise next year are the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, though the strength of the division they play in (the NFC West) might hurt their chances, as it did this season. I also like the Baltimore Ravens to rebound. Joe Flacco and the defense are both good enough to land Baltimore back to the playoffs, and I'm banking on the Ravens fixing the offensive line and adding a receiver.
Other good possibilities are the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans. The Lions have the talent to challenge for a playoff spot in 2014. Houston's prospects, meanwhile, depend on what the Texans, who have the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, do at the quarterback position. As we've seen, a rookie signal-caller can lead you to the playoffs.
Arizona is primed to break through in 2014Of all the teams that missed out on the playoffs, the Arizona Cardinals have the best chance to make it in 2014. Heck, they should've made it this year, what with their double-digit win total. If they had gotten in, the Cards would've been dangerous with that defense, Larry Fitzgerald and the mindset established under first-year head coach Bruce Arians. Remember, Jonathan Cooper, last April's first-round pick, didn't play a down that counted, moving to injured reserve after breaking a leg in a preseason game. When Cooper returns, he will greatly aid the line. It also wouldn't surprise me to see 'Zona invest in a young quarterback.
General manager Steve Keim is fantastic. He'll get the necessary complementary pieces to get this team, which I labeled the most fascinating of 2013, over the hump in 2014.
Don't overlook talented Texans, especially in that divisionBelieve it or not, I like the Houston Texans, if for no other reason than they'll be facing watered-down competition in the AFC South. Three of the four teams in this division don't have their quarterback of the future. In a related note, the Texans hold the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Houston still has the best overall defensive personnel. Losing Brian Cushing in October made a bad season worse on that side of the ball. Ditto Arian Foster on the other side. This club might only go 8-8 or 9-7, but as we saw this season, that's enough.
Cleveland can make it happenCall me crazy. I know they just fired their coach and owner Jimmy Haslam is fielding "Three Stooges" questions ("Hey, Moe, pull my finger!"), but the Browns are poised to make that leap. They were actually making it this year -- but then Brian Hoyer was hurt and the season fell apart. Hoyer is so underrated. And I'm sure they'll sign Mark Sanchez as insurance for 2014. ... OK, I'm not really helping my argument with that last bit, so let me move on.
Cleveland has big weapons in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, an underrated defense and an upgrade at running back TBD (Ben Tate, anyone?). What's not to like? The next head coach is going to be in a great spot. As to who that will be ... I had a feeling that, had the Jets let Rex Ryan go, he would have ended up with the Browns. Back to the drawing board.
Detroit is ready to contend, regardless of who lands the coaching jobNot sure what was in that champagne glass last night, but I've awoken here on the dawn of 2014 with a newfound optimism. Last year is in the rearview mirror, and brighter days clearly lay ahead for the Texans, the Steelers, the Falcons and especially the Lions.
We might not know who'll wind up landing the head-coaching gig in Detroit, but we do know that lucky guy will inherit the game's best non-quarterback (Calvin Johnson), a young, rocket-armed QB who's shown a knack for coming through in the clutch and a potentially dominant defensive front. (I mean, really ... imagine if Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah and Nick Fairley ever get their collective thing together.)
I predict that, a year or two from now, Lions fans -- flush with success -- will look back with a tinge of frustration that their team stuck with the out-of-his-depth Jim Schwartz for at least one season too many. But they shouldn't. Like I said, it's time to look forward to brighter days.