In 2014, the Detroit Lions left everyone a bit surprised by making the postseason in the tough NFC. Back in 2013, it was the Kansas City Chiefs. Before that, came the Minnesota Vikings in 2012. Each of these teams made impressive turnarounds in just one season after struggling to find wins the year before. This is simply the nature of the NFL and how things seem to go on a yearly basis.
While only 12 teams make the playoffs, there seems to almost always be at least one dark horse who comes out of the woodworks. They may not win their division, but they at least manage to grab a Wild Card spot. Let’s jump into 2015 by taking a look at one potential dark horse from each division who could find themselves postseason bound this year.
AFC East: Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins were on the cusp of postseason play last year, finishing with an 8-8 record. Regardless, when you’re playing in the same division as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, you almost have to be considered a dark horse.
The Dolphins made a great move drafting wide receiver DeVante Parker, who seems to have all the skills to make some noise early in his NFL career. On top of that, the signing of tight end Jordan Cameron should help Ryan Tannehill continue to grow.
Tannehill has improved in each of his seasons in the league, with 2014 being a strong one for the former Texas A&M signal caller. While Tannehill threw for 4,045 yards, 27 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions, It’s not much of a stretch to believe those numbers may improve even more in 2015.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
While the other three teams in the AFC North made the playoffs last year, it basically means that we only truly have one dark horse to choose. Fortunately, I think the Browns may be able to shock the world in 2015. If Cleveland hadn’t lost the final five games of 2014, they could have replaced either the Steelers, Bengals or Ravens in the playoffs.
While it’s the popular belief that Johnny Manziel is a bust and Josh McCown will be the man under center, there may be a surprise there. As Sean Wagner-McGough of CBS Sports reported, Manziel looked great in a recent scrimmage. This isn’t like last season for Manziel-mania, and it’s possible that the young quarterback is actually growing and may wind up as the man under center in Cleveland.
AFC South: Houston Texans
The Houston Texans went 9-7 last year in a season filled with instability at the quarterback position. While they added Brian Hoyer into the mix this year, his battle with Ryan Mallett will be a fun one to watch. Don’t be surprised if Mallett grabs the starting job this season though. The loss of Arian Foster after suffering a groin injury is going to hurt, but don’t count out the Texans just yet. Bill O’Brien is proving to be one of the stronger coaches in the NFL, and this defense is one that strikes fear into opposing offenses.
While the Texans do need to figure out if Alfred Blue can handle the workload until Foster returns, the emergence of DeAndre Hopkins as a superstar may save this offense. The Texans have more than enough talent to get to the postseason in 2015.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs were a postseason team in 2013, as previously mentioned. With that said, it seems that many have forgotten about the talent this team actually has. Their defense is still incredibly talented, while they also have one of the best running backs in the NFL in Jamaal Charles. Tack on the free agent addition of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and the rise of tight end Travis Kelce, and all the sudden this offense looks seriously dangerous.
Alex Smith is the definition of a game manager, but the good news is that he has a ton of weapons surrounding him. The Denver Broncos may be the favorites to win the AFC West, but don’t sleep on the Chiefs and their potential to actually win the division.
NFC East: New York Giants
With the emergence of Odell Beckham Jr. last season for the Giants, Eli Manning looked like a confident quarterback once again. That resulted in the Giants winning three of their final four games. Also, in the previous three games before that, they lost by a grand total of 10 points.
Both Manning and the Giants as a whole have a lot to prove still before doubters start to believe in them, but they have the weapons for a turnaround. The signing of Shane Vereen was a good one, and Kevin Patra of NFL.com reported that Prince Amukamara actually said Victor Cruz looks faster than he did before his injury. That’s pretty scary to think about, especially when factoring in that Cruz will be paired up with Beckham Jr.
The Giants have an uphill climb in 2015, but don’t ignore this team.
NFC North: Minnesota Vikings
It’s Teddy time in Minnesota. The Vikings are feeling great about second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Best of all, the team will get Adrian Peterson back, who finally seems happy (or resigned) to be staying with the Vikings. Peterson will only make Bridgewater’s life easier in the passing game, so I expect both to have strong seasons.
One other reason to believe in the Vikings is the fact that they made an excellent decision by landing wide receiver Mike Wallace. The former Steeler/Dolphin has had his fair share of issues with his role in offenses, but Wallace should be the man in the Vikings’ passing game this season.
Do the Vikings have a new three-headed monster in Bridgewater, Peterson and Wallace? You bet, and it’s a group that could get the Vikings back to the playoffs.
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons
You could go all in on Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but in all likelihood they need another year or two. On top of that, the Atlanta Falcons and new head coach Dan Quinn are the team to watch this coming season. With Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White still leading the offensive charge, both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should bolster up the run game.
Quinn’s biggest impact will be on the defensive side of the ball, where we should fully expect to see the Falcons do a much better job of getting to the quarterback. In 2014, Atlanta was tied for the second fewest sacks with only 22. For comparison’s sake, the Buffalo Bills led the league with 54 sacks, while only five teams had fewer than 30 on the year.
Rookie Vic Beasley should help increase this number, but expect the defense as a whole to be better in 2015.
NFC West: St. Louis Rams
With the San Francisco 49ers taking a major step back and the Rams adding Nick Foles at quarterback, this is going to be a team to watch next season. St. Louis also made a bold draft choice in Todd Gurley, but it’s one that should pay off in a big way. Gurley has superstar potential and he’ll be pairing that up with a dangerous defense that’s trending upwards.
The Rams have a young team, and if receivers Brian Quick, Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin can take their game to another level in 2015, this may be the most surprising team of the bunch. Expect the Rams offense to take the major step expected next season, which could place them squarely as a Wild Card team. Also, don’t be surprised if they give the Seattle Seahawks two great games this year.