If it seems like we see fresh faces in the playoffs every year, it's because, well, we do.
While we've all become accustomed to some amount of annual turnover among competitors in today's NFL, the actual numbers are eyebrow-raising when spelled out. Going back to 1990, at least four new teams -- that is, teams that did not make the playoffs in the previous season -- have hit the postseason every year.
Below are the four teams I currently believe have the best chance to make the playoffs in 2016 after missing them in 2015:
1) New York Giants
This is the only team on this list that is really a cinch. The massive investment on defense (signing defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Damon Harrison and drafting corner Eli Apple and safety Darian Thompson) is paying off. Through two weeks, the Giants have improved by 24 spots in defensive ranking (32 to eight), 19 spots in pass defense (32 to 13) and 20 spots in run defense (24 to four). In Week 1, New York held rookie back Ezekiel Elliott (running behind the Cowboys' vaunted line) to 2.6 yards per carry and a score on 20 attempts. In Week 2, the Giants limited Drew Brees and the Saints to 288 yards of offense and 13 points -- one season after losing a 52-49 shootout to New Orleans in which Brees and Co. rolled up 608 total yards. Jenkins (eight) and Apple (seven) led the team in tackles on Sunday, with Jenkins contributing a defensive touchdown on a blocked field-goal try. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is very good and will make great use of the new players and his returning stalwarts (including Johnathan Hankins, Jason Pierre-Paul and Landon Collins).
2015's eighth-ranked offense should be boosted by the return of receiver Victor Cruz (who's contributed a game-alteringcatch in each contest thus far) and the addition of rookie Sterling Shepard (14.5 yards per catch and a score). Quarterback Eli Manning is coming off an excellent season, and I expect him to continue thriving under head coach Ben McAdoo. The Giants were my preseason pick to emerge atop the NFC East, and they've only helped themselves in that cause.
2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs took a step back Sunday after an impressive opening to the season, but I still ultimately feel improved play by quarterback Jameis Winston in Year 2 and better coaching by new head man Dirk Koetter will get this squad over the hump. Despite how 2015 ended, the Bucs were not terrible, ranking fifth in offense and 10th in defense, with a four-game collapse undoing an otherwise promising 6-6 start. Winston looked great in the preseason, and he continued to show those improvements in Week 1 (71.9 percent completion rate, 281 yards, four touchdowns against one pick and a 125.1 passer rating) before stumbling quite badly in Week 2 (51.9 percent completion rate for 243 yards, one touchdown against four picks, a fumble, three sacks and a 39.2 passer rating). Of course, some of that can be chalked up to a young player struggling on the road.
It's obviously never good to lose by 33 points. But for what it's worth, Sunday's debacle came against one of the best teams in the league in Arizona, with running back Doug Martinexiting early due to a hamstring injury. The Week 1 win, meanwhile, came against Atlanta -- and beating a divisional foe in hostile territory is practically like winning two games. Of course, losing Martin -- who will be out at least three weeks -- hurts, but the bottom line is, the Bucs are 1-0 in the NFC South. With Koetter -- who is really good at coaching quarterbacks -- coaxing a big year out of Winston, Tampa Bay should still be on track to nab a wild-card spot.
3) Oakland Raiders
Continuity among coaches is huge, and the Raiders finally have some, with Jack Del Rio, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and defensive coordinator Ken Norton all returning from a 2015 campaign in which Oakland won more than four games for the first time since 2011. Plus, the Raiders have good, young players in key positions. Quarterback Derek Carr -- leading the No. 1 ranked offense in the early going -- is a hard-worker who, when I visited this team in camp, was throwing with more accuracy and confidence. He's an upbeat guy who is well-liked by the players. Receiver Amari Cooper (a team-high 208 receiving yards this season, with 18.9 yards per catch) is looking good after a foot injury slowed a promising rookie campaign. Khalil Mack has yet to register a sack after his 15-sack breakout in 2015, but it's only a matter of time before he gets on the board.
I still have some concerns. The defense, which ranked 22nd overall and 26th against the pass last season, has continued to get torched in 2016, ranking 32nd in both overall and passing defense, despite the high-profile additions of Reggie Nelson, Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin and Karl Joseph. But I think the unit will improve -- I like Irvin and rookie Jihad Ward, in particular, while Nelson should settle down and become a factor. I also think it says something that Del Rio and the team had the confidence to go for two to clinch the Week 1 win over New Orleans, and to go for it on fourth down twice in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Of course, the Raiders' failure to convert on the second of those fourth-quarter tries against the Falcons ultimately helped seal the loss. Still, the swagger Del Rio has shown thus far is the kind of thing that can catapult a team to success -- and this is a squad on the rise.
4) Baltimore Ravens
I'm thinking 2015 -- the Ravens' first losing season since John Harbaugh took over in 2008 -- will prove to have been an injury-pocked aberration. In Week 1, the defense, with Terrell Suggs back in the saddle after missing most of 2015 with a torn Achilles, put the clamps on the Bills to the tune of seven points and 160 total yards. In Week 2, Joe Flacco -- who missed much of 2015 with a torn ACL -- overcame a somewhat sloppy afternoon (55.6 percent completion rate with two touchdowns against two picks and a passer rating of 72.6) to lead the Ravens back from a 20-0 deficit in Cleveland. Notably, Dennis Pitta (who, due to a series of injuries, missed all of 2015 and most of 2014) racked up a team-high nine catches for 102 yards, while the ancient-but-capable Steve Smith (who lost a chunk of 2015 to an Achilles tear) contributed three catches for 64 yards.
The signing of safety Eric Weddle should help the pass defense, which only netted six picks last season. Mike Wallace looks like a great pickup, as he's racked up seven catches for 132 yards (18.9 yards per catch), plus all three of the team's receiving touchdowns thus far. He brings great speed and should be productive. The same could be said of second-year pro Breshad Perriman, who showed his scary ability on a jaw-dropping 35-yard grab against the Bills after missing all of 2015. It'll be tough to make the playoffs out of the AFC North, but if the Ravens can stay healthy, they should be a force to be reckoned with.
Three more teams that could make some noise:
Dallas Cowboys: Even with Tony Romo out for at least the first half, this team has plenty of talent. I believe two rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, will prove to be outstanding additions, with Prescott filling in well for Romo and Elliott overcoming his early fumbling issues to threaten for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Detroit Lions:Matthew Stafford is a very good quarterback who is going to have a big year under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. But there are still issues. Stafford's willingness to take risks usually pays off because of his talent. But on Sunday, it didn't (see: the end-of-game pick that cut the Lions' comeback try short). The team also incurred 17 penalties for 138 yards against the Titans, with flags nullifying three separate touchdowns -- including two in a row in the second quarter of the one-point defeat.
New York Jets:The Week 1 loss -- in which the Jets sacked Andy Dalton seven times and still couldn't stop the Bengals -- was discouraging, but if Gang Green can sweep the Bills and Dolphins, they'll have a shot at a wild-card spot. Thursday was a step in the right direction. After all, they're a missed Nick Folk kick away from potentially being perfect.