Broncos, Steelers, Giants could execute a 49ers-like turnaround


I understand that the wound is still fresh for the 49ers faithful. San Francisco, of course, just blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead over Kansas City to lose Super Bowl LIV. But the fact that these Niners even made it to Super Bowl LIV remains one of the better stories of the 2019 NFL season.

Six months ago, San Francisco was coming off its fifth consecutive non-winning season -- a 4-12 slog marked by injuries and embarrassment -- thus limiting expectations for the 2019 campaign. Many folks, myself definitely included, saw the team as nothing more than an also-ran. Then the Niners went out and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record before blowing out a pair of playoff foes to reach Super Sunday. Talk about flipping the script!

With that in mind, I wanted to spin forward to next season: Which teams could enjoy a 49ers-like turnaround in 2020? OK, not necessarily 4-12 to the Super Bowl -- because, yeah, that's pretty darn unique -- but who could go from forgettable in 2019 to fascinating in 2020? Here are three I'm keeping my eye on as we head into the offseason:

Denver Broncos (7-9 in 2019)

Denver entered last season with an interesting approach, rolling with veteran QB Joe Flacco and veteran coach Vic Fangio. Most teams were going for young quarterbacks and young head coaches, but the Broncos were like, "Forget that -- we're going the other way!" Zigging when everyone else is zagging sounds great in theory, but it didn't really work out so great for Denver in reality. The Broncos started 0-4. You started to wonder if they had made a mistake with Fangio -- and if the franchise icon who hired Fangio was himself the problem.

Why did the Broncos even bring in an over-the-hill vet like Flacco in the first place? Because it's John Elway. And while the Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-general manager has done a fine job in building various areas of the roster over the years, he just hasn't been able to solve Denver's QB conundrum since Peyton Manning retired. The Broncos are 27-37 since their Super Bowl 50 triumph, missing the playoffs in all four ensuing seasons. Mostly because of the quarterback position. That has to be really frustrating. Imagine being one of the greatest plumbers in human history, but your pipes burst every fall. Like Flacco did.

But alas, in December, Drew Lock arrived!

After suffering a thumb injury in the preseason, the second-round pick spent the first three months of the campaign on injured reserve. But he returned to start the last five games of the season, leading Denver to a 4-1 mark with some pretty encouraging play -- particularly in a 38-24 win at Houston, when Lock outdueled Deshaun Watson by completing 22 of his 27 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns (against one pick).

So, heading into 2020, the Broncos have an intriguing 23-year-old quarterback. And that's not the only promising young piece on this offense. Running back Phillip Lindsay, an undrafted free-agent signee in 2018, has opened his NFL career with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Courtland Sutton (1,112 receiving yards) looks like a legit WR1, while DaeSean Hamilton closed out last season with the two most productive games of his young career. And maybe tight end Noah Fant can help Broncos fans forget the team took Jake Butt one selection before George Kittle in the 2017 NFL Draft. (Sorry.)

Then there is Fangio's defense, which played quite well despite the fact that Bradley Chubb missed the last three months of the season. The Broncos allowed the 10th-fewest points per game (19.8). Linebacker Alexander Johnson was a breakout star, while Von Miller remained a menace off the edge.

With seven wins, Denver actually enjoyed its most successful season in three years. And honestly, if not for the last-minute heroics by a couple of GOATs -- Mitch Trubisky and Gardner Minshew -- this team could have hit the postseason in the AFC. But that was last year. Let's talk about this coming year, because I love Denver as a playoff team. We still have a long way to go before training camp, but Broncos fans should feel very good about this team's chances -- yes, even with the AFC West featuring the defending champion Chiefs and improving Las Vegas Raiders.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Speaking of teams that had an outside chance of making the 2019 AFC playoffs ... Let's talk Steelers!

You trade Antonio Brown. You let Le'Veon Bell walk in free agency. You lose Ben Roethlisberger for the season in Week 2. And yet, you're still in the postseason hunt come Week 17?? What a coaching job by Mike Tomlin, who somehow navigated through all the attrition and drama to avoid suffering his first losing season as a head coach. And I feel like his team has a lot of similarities to the aforementioned Niners, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Outside linebacker T.J. Watt was my selection for Defensive Player of the Year. Minkah Fitzpatrick appeared well worth the first-round pick Pittsburgh sent to Miami in September. (Especially with the pick only being No. 18 overall, thanks to Pittsburgh's refusal to bottom out.) D-lineman Cameron Heyward just earned first-team All-Pro honors, while rookie LB Devin Bush showed immense promise in his debut season. So the Steelers, who just led the NFL in takeaways (38) and sacks (54), have studs on all three levels of the defense.

With Tomlin's D well-equipped to hold up its end of the bargain in 2020, it's going to come down to the quarterback being able to effectively return from his injury -- which is exactly what the 49ers needed from Jimmy Garoppolo in 2019. The only problem in this comparison? Jimmy G is a young stud who's still in the opening stretches of his career. Meanwhile, well ... I don't know if you saw shots of Big Ben on the sidelines this past year, but the 37-year-old looked like Yukon Cornelius out there. You know, the bearded prospector from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? And speaking of Rudolph, that combination of Mason Rudolph and "Duck" Hodges was not good. They were like the buddy cop movie we never asked for. Like something starring Bruce Willis. But I digress. Rudolph and Hodges ruined JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had fewer than 50 receiving yards in five straight games, the longest streak of his career. JuJu had 6 receiving yards in the Week 17 loss at Baltimore. SIX. The 2020 Steelers can be quite imposing, even if they get just average quarterback play from Roethlisberger. He doesn't need to be Patrick Mahomes. Something above Mitch Trubisky should do the trick. (And really, the Steelers need to sign one of those veteran quarterbacks who are expected to hit the market this offseason. Andy Dalton in a Steelers uniform would be surreal.)

Pittsburgh should (and most likely will) be squarely in the mix for a postseason bid in the fall. The good news for the Steelers (and Broncos, for that matter) is that a limited 9-7 Titans team just reached the AFC Championship Game. This shows you that parody (sorry, parity) is alive and well in the AFC.

New York Giants (4-12)

It was not too hard to make a case for the Broncos and Steelers. You probably even agreed with me. The reason why? Defense. It's what spearheaded the 49ers' revival this past season. When you look at the Bears' 12-4 comeup in 2018, it was the defense. And the Rams had an underrated defense during their turnaround, too.

This just isn't the case with the Giants, who were not great on defense last year. To put it mildly. (That's like saying Joker was a bit dark and depressing.) The Giants finished 30th in points allowed, 28th in takeaways and 22nd in sacks.

But I like where the Giants are headed -- at least offensively.

I was a fan of the Joe Judge hire. Dude coached under Nick Saban and Bill Belichick. Won two national titles. Won three Super Bowls. So I'm not as concerned that he was "just" a special teams coach. He has a pretty good offensive coordinator to lean on in Jason Garrett. It's important for a young coach like Judge, who is 38, to have somebody there with him who has called a timeout in the NFL. That's what Garrett brings. Think of him being there for Judge the way Wade Phillips was there for Sean McVay in the Rams coach's first few seasons. (Which apparently means Garrett's going to help get the Giants to the Super Bowl and then get fired.) Garrett is also a good offensive coach. And Big Blue really needs that. Over the past four seasons combined, the Giants rank 27th in the NFL in points per game. They're 29th in rushing during this span. I expect Garrett to change a lot of that. The 2019 Cowboys ranked sixth in scoring and fifth in rushing. Not to mention, first in total offense and second in big plays. And if you want to point out that Garrett wasn't the play caller, I counter with the fact that Dallas was seventh in points scored and fourth in total yards when he was from 2007 through 2012. So burn.

Let's also be honest and acknowledge that Garrett has enticing young talent to work with. I mean, you have Saquon Barkley, as gifted a running back as we've seen enter the NFL in many, many years. Quarterback Daniel Jones looks like he could be the real deal, as he had at least one touchdown pass in each of his 12 starts. (Mr. Dimes does need to stop with the fumbles, though.) I also like Darius Slayton. I know people were gaga over A.J. Brown, who was indeed great, but Slayton tied Brown for the most receiving touchdowns by a rookie (8). Slayton could develop into a WR1 on his own, but could you imagine if they were able to land a guy like Amari Cooper in free agency? Offensive line could be a priority in the draft, with somebody like Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton being an interesting option at No. 4.

Obviously, New York represents the biggest leap of faith in this exercise. I'm really curious to see what the Giants do in the offseason. I'm not making an official prediction yet, but I've got my eye on them.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.



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