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4 NFL Teams ready to go from Pretenders to Playoff Contenders

FLICKR - Keith Allison

By Bart “Gunn” Weber

Every year there are new teams that take advantage of great chemistry, lucky scheduling, injuries to other teams and just plain good fortune to make a playoff run. Not every up and coming team has all the elements to make such a run so with that in mind here are 4 teams that will make the leap from middle of the pack to playoff contender, in 2017. 

Tampa Bay Bucs: The Bucs remind a lot of people of the Andrew Luck Colts: a team with a rising QB, solid ground game and some defensive elements that, if they come together, can really be a force. The difference is this Tampa team is actually really solid on the offensive and defensive line and can really push people around. Their linebackers are elite and can both cover and stuff the run. If their secondary can play as a unit and avoid the injury bug they should be a top flight unit. 

What I like the most about this team though is what they have done on the offensive side of the ball. Say what you want about James Winston’s off the field escapades, he thrived last season on the field and made huge strides as the season progressed. He made some mistakes as you would expect but he showed a lot of poise in the pocket and moved around in a way that reminded me of a younger Big Ben. Everyone knows what Mike Evans brings as a wide receiver, but the addition of DeSean Jackson can really open this offense up and take it to the next level. Winston has two guys that can fly and it will be very hard for any defense to cover both of them, let alone one of them on any given play. 

With a manageable first month of the season, if they can get by without Doug Martin (four game suspension) they can really make some noise. Week 5 at home vs New England will be a huge test and their first division game isn’t until week 8, but the schedule sets up nicely for this team to get some serious momentum. With a division that is not quite as strong as it looks from the outside, Tampa Bay looks to be the next team to take the division crown. 

Tennessee Titans: TheTitans made Marcus Mariota their #1 pick in 2015, signaling to the rest of the league that they were going all in on the highly rated quarterback. Mariota made some big time plays last season and showed why he was worth such a huge investment. DeMarco Murray was a pleasant surprise and, with the maturation of Derrick Henry, this group has a chance to grind teams to a pulp as they did last season. With an offensive line that can maul people, they just need to shore up their pass blocking and keep Mariota in one piece. 

The difference from 2015 until now is the additions to their passing game. Rishard Mathews is a year older in the system and showed he can be an exciting player, but the addition of Eric Decker and Corey Davis to the arsenal is what really has Titans fans excited. Always the underrated player, and a force in the redzone, Decker just makes plays, scores touchdowns and will make it difficult for defenses to key in on Delanie Walker in the middle of the field. If Corey Davis can put together a somewhat impressive rookie season then I can see this team going very far on the back of their soon to be elite young QB. 

The key for this team will be their defense. They have a pretty decent schedule and do not play a lot of elite offense but the defense is young, inexperienced and will have to come together fast and learn to play disciplined football, in order to avoid all the breakdowns that plagued them last season. With one of the (if not THE) weakest division in football, the Titans can really make strides and show the league they are more than just the hype. 

Philadelphia Eagles: Anytime you have a young QB with promise it’s imperative to put athletes around him that can make plays and help him thrive. Last season Philly just didn’t have the pieces on offense to continue the hot start from the beginning of September. They couldn’t stretch the field, their running game was stagnant and their young QB struggled to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers they did have, all while their defense struggled to stop offenses from scoring points at will. 

This season should be different and they are hoping the additions to their offensive core pays huge dividends. First is the return of their left tackle. Lane Johnson was lost for the season early last year and from that point on the offensive line was not quite the same. Getting Johnson back and healthy will give Wentz much needed backside protection and shore up some of the weaknesses they had on the line. Just as important, Philly welcomes in 2 dynamic wideouts in Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith. If Jeffrey can get over the injuries that have plagued him the last couple of seasons then he will provide a much needed #1 target that can go up and wrestle the ball from DBs and put fear into defenses. Say what you want about Smith losing some of his world class speed but the dude can still fly and he is only 28 years old. He has the ability to stretch the field like few in the league and, if defenses roll their coverage to Jeffrey, then he has the ability like D Jax to take the top off a D and make them pay. Add to that the bruising presence of LeGarrette Blount and the speedy dynamo Darren Sproles and Philly has a chance to control the line of scrimmage and dictate time of possession. 

Their schedule tests them early with four out of their first six games on the road, with 2 division games in the first 3 games surrounding a trip to Arrowhead. Three home games in a row before the the bye is nice but the schedule does them no favors after the bye with four out of five games on the road. The schedule looks daunting but if this team can stay healthy, get their linebackers to play better than last season, and get positive contributions from enigmatic wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz, then this team can make the push for the division title. 

San Diego Chargers: Wait, wait, didn’t this team move to LA? Won’t they be playing in the Home Depot Center in Carson?? Yes they did and yes they are, but does anyone really want to think about them as the Los Angeles Chargers? I sure don’t, so for the sake of this article they will remain just the Chargers. That said, I think the consensus is the Chargers will struggle again this season as quarterback Phillip Rivers is a year older and they seem to not be able to avoid the injury bug that has haunted them for what seems like a lifetime. 

One of the main reasons for the Chargers failures the past few seasons has been the failure of their offensive line to open up holes for the running game and more importantly protect Rivers. Last season specifically, Rivers didn’t have the time in the pocket to get the ball out accurately and after losing so many playmakers he tried to take on too much and it all fell apart. Making the line a priority in the draft was essential but losing their top offensive line draft pick was a huge blow. Fortunately it happened early in camp to give them time to adjust. With the addition of Mike Williams at wideout, the return of Keenan Allen and the speedy Travis Benjamin, Rivers will have his best wide receiver core in some time. Add in Hunter Henry taking the next step at TE and this team should be able to score a lot of points this season. If their running game stays solid, these offense could be elite again.

But the real reason for my optimism is the defense. Last year’s top pick Joey Bosa proved he was worth the investment and really shined as the season went on. The D Line of Bosa, Mebane, Liuget and Ingram proved to be a force and now have a full season of playing together under their belt. Couple that with some young stud LBs Jatavius Brown and Korey Toomer and this defense will have a chance to shut teams down and force a lot of turnovers and sacks. With three of their first four games at “home” and with two of those games against AFC West foes, the Chargers have a chance to gain the early upper hand in the division. They play every team in the division before their week 9 bye so the schedule sets them up for success as long as they don’t lose many of their big time playmakers. And, with the AFC east being their inter division foe, they have a chance to beat up on all the wannabe teams in that division other than New England. 

Rivers is a guy I have liked for a long time and he still has a lot left in the tank to take this team to the playoffs and possibly beyond. The division will be difficult but the Raiders are not quite as good as their hype suggests and Denver has serious uncertainty at the quarterback position. KC is the biggest threat and if they can get the upper hand on them early it will go a long way to building momentum and confidence for the stretch run. 

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