PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — As the NFL season quickly approaches, fans around the country are excited about what the new year will hold for their team. Every year, fans from all teams come in with the impression this could be “their year.” In most sports this would be false hope, but not in the NFL, where the playoff turnover from year to year is nearly 50 percent.
Here are four teams that will turn around last season’s misfortunes and find themselves back in the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons (4-12 Last Season; 4th in NFC South)
The Falcons had the NFC’s best record in 2012 and were one play away from reaching the Super Bowl. However, awful offensive and defensive line play, along with severe injuries to key players (Julio Jones, Sam Baker and Sean Weatherspoon) led Atlanta to dismal 4-12 record.
The Falcons made moves this offseason to improve what was already a talented nucleus. Free agent signing Jon Asamoah and first round draft pick Jake Matthews should help bolster the offensive line, while defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai will help on the other side of the ball. Winning the battle in the trenches will be the first step for the Falcons to turn it around. Better luck with injuries should give Atlanta more depth to close more games in the 4th quarter and turn around some of those late-game losses (3-7 in close games last season).
Atlanta still has one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL with Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas. Matt Ryan is still an upper-echelon quarterback who should bounce back from a down year with better protection. Having Jones healthy for 16 games will help Ryan and company return to one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the league.
Chicago Bears (8-8; 2nd in NFC North)
The NFC was brutally competitive last season, and the Bears were just one of the teams to be a victim of circumstance. The Bears missed the playoffs for the second year in a row after suffering a heartbreaking last-second loss to the arch nemesis Green Bay Packers on the last game of the regular season, for the NFC North title.
Chicago still boasts one of the best receiving duos with Pro Bowlers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Matt Forte is one of the NFL’s best running backs and is coming off one of his most productive seasons as a pro. After watching backup Josh McCown light it up in his place last season, the pressure will be on Jay Cutler to maximize the offensive talent on the roster this season.
The Bears defense struggled mightily during in a transition year after the firing of Lovie Smith. Chicago was last in run defense last season and they’ll have to reverse that if they want to return to the playoffs. Signing defensive linemen Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston will help the Bears win more battles at the line of scrimmage this season, while getting more pressure on opposing QBs. The Bears also signed veteran safety Ryan Mundy and first round pick CB Kyle Fuller will improve what was a suspect secondary last season.
Baltimore Ravens (8-8; T-2nd in NFC North)
The Ravens have had a tumultuous offseason to say the least. Baltimore had the dubious distinction of leading the league in offseason player arrests; none more high profile than Ray Rice’s domestic violence incident that resulted in a 2-game suspension. Still, the Baltimore made some great moves this offseason to recover from last season’s Super Bowl hangover.
Signing ex-Panther WR Steve Smith was an absolute coup for Baltimore. The Ravens struggled in the passing game last season, lacking the talent and leadership at wide receiver to support QB Joe Flacco. Smith’s toughness and big-game playmaking ability is exactly what the Ravens have been looking for, after releasing veteran Anquan Boldin last offseason. Dennis Pitta—returning healthy this season after missing 12 games with a hip injury—will also be crucial for the Ravens passing attack.
Rookies LB CJ Mosley and DT Timmy Jernigan have been causing mayhem in training camp on defense. The Ravens needed to infuse youth and athleticism on that side of the ball after the unit took a step back in 2013. Baltimore still has a strong nucleus defensively with Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil. Adding Mosely and Jernigan to an already talented group of players could help Baltimore return to playing elite-level defense.
In a division where no other teams made great strides, Baltimore could find themselves back at the top of the class.
Houston Texans (2-14; 4th in AFC South)
The Texans were essentially the Atlanta Falcons of the AFC last season. After a wildly successful 2012 season and Super Bowl aspirations to boot in 2013, the Texans completely flopped. The offensive line couldn’t protect the quarterback, Matt Schaub imploded, and injuries mounted on both sides of the ball.
Drafting DE Jadeveon Clowney with the number one pick in the draft and pairing him with former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt means Houston will have one of the most imposing defensive fronts in the AFC.
Clowney is an absolute blue-chip prospect, with all of the physical tools to become an All-Pro defensive end sooner rather than later. New defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will certainly have plenty of creative ways to maximize the talents of Clowney and Watt.
The Texans still have some questions on offense, however. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has been very turnover-prone throughout his career, and the right tackle position is still somewhat of a mystery. Nevertheless, new head coach Bill O’Brien was one of the most innovative offensive minds in the NFL before taking the head coaching job at Penn State in 2012.
Back in the NFL, O’Brien has some explosive weapons to play with in Houston. Andre Johnson and Arian Foster can still play at a high level, and second-year WR DeAndre Hopkins could be in for a breakout season. O’Brien will mask some of the deficiencies and maximize the talent of the star position players to surprise many.
An extremely soft schedule and a weak division should help the Texans return to the postseason.
Elijah Stewart is a CBSPhilly.com contributing blogger and former intern of the 94WIP Morning Show, as he continues his studies at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
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