The NFL doesn't want you to suffer as a fan in perpetuity.
Considerable infrastructure is in place to ensure teams that sink to the bottom of Competition Sea (not a real thing) don't stay there for long. The salary cap, the draft and revenue sharing all exist to promote parity. The league is set up to save organizations and their fans from extended stretches of irrelevance.
Of course, franchises need to make smart decisions on the personnel front and beyond -- and we know that doesn't always happen. Look at the Cleveland Browns, who, at 16 years and counting, own the NFL's longest postseason drought. For years, it didn't matter how many high draft picks, hot-shot QBs, new head coaches or promising team builders entered the building in Berea. The Browns could not escape their cycle of dysfunction.
Until recently, that is. The modern Browns are bursting with potential, any many smart football minds have labeled them as the favorites in the AFC North this season. I also believe in Cleveland's playoff potential, which is why you'll see them first in my ranking of teams most likely to end playoff droughts in 2019.
(READER'S NOTE: You're probably wondering what constitutes a "playoff drought." I've set it at three years, which gives us eight total teams to consider. Seems arbitrary? Well, yeah.)
1) CLEVELAND BROWNS
Last playoff game: 2002 AFC Wild Card (16 years)
There's so much to like about the Browns, on both sides of the ball. The Odell Beckham Jr. trade was a blockbuster for the ages, fortifying an offense that showed great potential last season without him. The defense should be improved with the additions of Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Eric Murray and Morgan Burnett. Cleveland has yet to identify a replacement for the traded Jabrill Peppers, and the offensive line is hardly an iron wall, but a Browns team that went 7-8-1 last year looks ready to take the next step. In his overview of the AFC North's projected starters, Gregg Rosenthal wrote that "Cleveland has the best combination of talent and youth in all of football." I agree, and it's why I see meaningful January football finally on the horizon. This is not a dream, Dawg Pound.
2) DENVER BRONCOS
I could have put a couple other teams in this spot, but the Broncos feel like the safest pick, albeit still one that could look very bad by December. A lot of that goes back to Joe Flacco, and whether or not he can still play quarterback at a proficient level over the course of an entire season. I harbor some doubts, but a healthy Flacco represents an upgrade over Case Keenum, who will be holding a clipboard in Washington this fall. Broncos fans should be excited to see how Von Miller and Bradley Chubb evolve as a terror tandem under new Broncos coach Vic Fangio. Of course, the biggest hurdle standing between Denver and a playoff return might be a division that includes two powerhouse teams that went 12-4 last year.
3) NEW YORK JETS
Last playoff game: 2010 AFC Championship (8 years)
Could the Jets actually be fun to watch this season? If so, when's the last time you could say that? Gang Green and their fans are all in on second-year quarterback Sam Darnold. General manager Mike Maccagnan did a nice job building around the kid with the additions of guard Kelechi Osemele, slot receiver Jamison Crowder and, of course, running back Le'Veon Bell, who should be Darnold's best friend. The Jets also added linebacker C.J. Mosley to the center of their defense. The four-time Pro Bowler should anchor the linebacker core the way Jamal Adams lords over the secondary. And up front, some think New York landed the best player in the draft, DT Quinnen Williams. With Adam Gase and Gregg Williams in the building, this will certainly be an interesting chemistry test for an eternally star-crossed franchise. But there is real promise in the Meadowlands. I wonder if Bill Belichick agrees.
4) SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Last playoff game: 2013 NFC Championship (5 years)
Is this the year we finally see a full season of Jimmy Garoppolo? His debut campaign by the Bay had gotten off to a rocky start before the season-ending ACL tear in Week 3. Still, there's reason to believe a healthy Garoppolo can make magic with Kyle Shanahan. On defense, San Francisco suddenly boasts a scary front seven with the additions of second overall pick Nick Bosa and LB Kwon Alexander and DE Dee Ford. I wouldn't call this a playoffs-or-bust season for general manager John Lynch, but the Niners have to show they're headed in the right direction. There's enough talent on this roster to make some noise in an NFC West in transition.
5) WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Last playoff game: 2015 NFC Wild Card (3 years)
The Redskins were in first place in the NFC East when they woke up on Thanksgiving morning last November, which has to count for something in an exercise like this. Then there's the draft, where Washington -- perhaps to the surprise of the Football Cognoscenti -- acquitted itself extremely well. First-round picks Dwayne Haskins and Montez Sweat should both be Year 1 starters. Another potential breakout candidate is running back Derrius Guice, the 2018 second-round pick who was earning rave reviews before a knee injury wiped away his rookie season. Washington might not profile as a Super Bowl contender, but the 'Skins very well could be hanging around the playoff picture come mid-December.
6) CINCINNATI BENGALS
Last playoff game: 2015 AFC Wild Card (3 years)
It's easy to forget now, but the Bengals actually led the AFC North at the quarter pole of last season. Things went sideways after that, as Cincinnati tumbled into the division basement. The 6-10 campaign did lead to change in an organization typically averse to rocking the status quo. Marvin Lewis' forever run on the sideline came to end, as the coach was replaced by Zac Taylor. Andy Dalton, while no superstar, is a better quarterback than he gets credit for -- and he has a solid core of playmakers around him in A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon. No. 11 overall pick Jonah Williams should bring some stability to an offensive line that could use it. The AFC North might be football's most competitive division -- with a fresh offensive philosophy and talent in the building, the Bengals should be able to hold their own.
7) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Last playoff game: 2007 NFC Wild Card (11 years)
Jason Pierre-Paul's neck injury -- sustained in a single-car accident earlier this month -- could have a huge ripple effect on a Buccaneers defense that feels extremely unsettled right now. Will Gerald McCoy remain on the trade block with JPP potentially facing an extended absence? Will McCoy be happy -- and more importantly -- productive? That's just one of the challenges inherited by Bruce Arians, who came out of coaching retirement to put the Bucs back on the map. Arians' biggest job will be unlocking the potential of quarterback Jameis Winston. DeSean Jackson is gone, but watch out for a breakout year from tight end O.J. Howard.
8) ARIZONA CARDINALS
Last playoff game: 2015 NFC Championship (3 years)
The Cardinals have their new head coach and rookie hot-shot quarterback in place. Of course, they thought they had that last year, and now Steve Wilks and Josh Rosen collect paychecks from other people. In any event, the Cards now believe they are where they need to be, as they attempt to regain NFC relevance. This is unlikely to be an overnight project, which is reflected in where I have them ranked in this exercise. Still, if Kyler Murray is as special as many people say he is, maybe he does have a transformational effect in the desert. It's unlikely to happen in 2019, but that possibility tells you why the Cardinals took such an unconventional path to where they are now.
Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus. Listen to Dan on the Around The NFL Podcast, which he hosts three times a week.
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