The 'bounce back' has been a theme that's come to be more and more familiar in the NFL as of late. Three of the four teams who made it to last year's conference championships - the Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, and San Francisco 49es - all missed the playoffs the previous year. Though it can be hard to predict which teams will catapult themselves out of mediocrity, and rise to become playoff-caliber, why not try? No one saw San Fran's 13-3 season coming, there are convincing cases for each of the three teams below.
Detroit led in 14 of their 16 games in the 2019-20 regular season and had the lead in the fourth quarter in 10 of the contests, yet managed to go a dismal 3-12-1. It’s not only incredible that the Lions were able to squander such leads, but also incredible that the team had these leads in the first place, considering Detroit was hampered by injuries. The most impactful of said injuries undoubtedly being annually underrated QB Matthew Stafford. Stafford’s season ended in week 9 against the Oakland Raiders with a back injury and was replaced by Jeff Driskel and David Blough. Stafford will be back as the starter for the 2020-21 season and now has another weapon on offense with D’Andre Swift, one of the biggest steals of the draft. While Matt Patricia remains unproven as a head coach, it would be extremely hard to mess up an offense consisting of Stafford, Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Kenny Golladay, and TJ Hockenson. Assuming the injury bug doesn’t hit Detroit again, the Lions should be poised to make a run at the playoffs, if not the NFC North crown.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Two words: Tom Brady. With the addition of the GOAT in free agency, the Buccaneers will have a star-studded offense exploding with talent that will be hard to stop. The team went 7-9 under Jameis Winston’s oftentimes seemingly inept quarterbacking, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that the addition of Brady, and a slimmer Gronk, will vault the team up to a record in the range of 10-6. The offensive line could be an issue, but Brady is the master at getting the ball out quick and avoiding sacks -- so the o-line should not be too big of a concern. The defense is the only big worry with Tampa Bay, but assuming the offense lives up to it’s potential and lights up the scoreboard, the Bucs are never out of a game. Even if Brady remains in “decline” as many thought he did through last season, his presence and championship pedigree should be enough to inspire and elevate his teammates to making a push at a Super Bowl.
One year removed from Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement, the Colts have put themselves in a favorable position to make the playoffs through free agent signings and the draft. Their two biggest moves – signing Philip Rivers and trading for DeForest Buckner – would put them in the playoff conversation already but a stellar draft makes the argument even better. Despite not having a first-round pick Indianapolis was able to land RB Johnathan Taylor and WR Michael Pittman, Jr., both of whom should make an immediate impact in their rookie seasons. Although River struggled last season, the Colts have a top o-line which should give him more time in the pocket and help distance his touchdown to interception numbers (Rivers threw 23 TDs and 20 INTs last season). The defense should be improved as well: Buckner will help create more pressure alongside Justin Houston. In addition to the team’s improvement, as members of the AFC South the Colts are pretty much granted two automatic wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Colts are built to win now, so don’t be surprised if they start doing exactly that.