Which NFL teams will join playoff field in 2021? Ranking contenders from least to most likely

Parity has long been among the NFL’s calling cards, a main factor the league is so popular — a lot of fan bases going into a provided season believe their group has a chance to compete.

Current postseason history materials credence. Because the playoffs broadened to 12 groups in 1990, a minimum of 4 clubs that didn’t certify the previous year have actually made it the following season. In 2020, the very first time there were 14 playoff entries in a non-strike project, half of the bracket was made up of groups that didn’t reach the postseason in 2019.

Provided the bigger field, it appears this three-decade pattern of playoff turnover is most likely to continue advertisement infinitum. What does that mean for 2021? Here is a ranking of the 18 groups from in 2015, in order of least most likely to most, in regards to their possibilities to sign up with the Super Bowl 56 competition 6 months from now:

Neither the San Francisco 49ers nor Dallas Cowboys were playoff teams in 2020.

Neither the San Francisco 49ers nor Dallas Cowboys were playoff groups in 2020.

18. Houston Texans: Obviously they might be much better than I anticipate offered novice head coach David Culley pleased to cancel June’s compulsory minicamp, stating the group “accomplished what we wanted to get accomplished” as this rough offseason concluded. Uh, OK … though that didn’t consist of any resolution concerning undetectable Pro Bowl QB Deshaun Watson.

17. Philadelphia Eagles: From a green training personnel to assumed QB1 Jalen Injures to the getting corps to the secondary, simply way a lot of variables and unidentified products on a group that completed last in the lowly NFC East a year back.

16. Detroit Lions: In Some Cases, you need to strike rock bottom prior to you rebound. The Lions may in the middle of another modification of drill bits prior to they reach the deck.

15. New York City Jets: They directly missed out on owning the NFL’s worst record in 2020 however likely had the league’s worst lineup. GM Joe Douglas appears to have actually altered that, making aggressive relocations in complimentary firm and the draft. Tough to imagine the NYJ not completing last in the AFC East for the 5th time because 2016, however as OL Greg Van Roten stated just recently: “Hope has come back into the building.”

14. Jacksonville Jaguars: Though the spotlight will concentrate on novice QB Trevor Lawrence and NFL rookie Urban Meyer, the pre-existing nucleus of this lineup was barely awful. A wild-card push may not run out the concern — specifically if the Carson Wentz experiment goes awry for the Indianapolis Colts.

13. Cincinnati Bengals: The only AFC North team not to make the playoffs in 2020, Cincinnati has actually nonetheless generally been competitive in coach Zac Taylor’s 2 seasons in spite of his 6-25-1 record. It will take some doing to get away the divisional cellar, however a third-place surface here gave a wild card under the brand-new format.

12. Atlanta Falcons: Plenty has actually altered because the start of last season … though a 29th-ranked defense going through a philosophical overhaul has (not surprisingly) gathered little attention. However substantial enhancement under veteran organizer Dean Pees in a department unexpectedly lacking Drew Brees might assist Atlanta go back to importance — specifically because the Falcons weren’t many plays from changing in 2015’s 4-12 record to a 10-6 one.

11. Las Vegas Raiders: One of the harder teams in the league to figure, they’d give the Kansas City Chiefs all they could handle last year and then get blown out in Atlanta the following weekend. New defensive organizer Gus Bradley and a revamped offensive line must deliver if this organization is to position itself for its first playoff win in nearly two decades.

10. Denver Broncos: A strong finish in 2019 suggested they were on the verge of a playoff return in 2020. But that was before Pro Bowl WR Courtland Sutton and OLB Von Miller suffered season-ending injuries last September, while sophomore QB Drew Lock spiraled trying to recover from a shoulder sprain suffered in Week 2. All the weapons appear to be back in place, though cohesion and stability under center remain prominent questions.

9. New York Giants: They were one win shy of capturing the NFC East crown in coach Joe Judge’s rookie season, so there’s reason to hope. But they also have to hope QB Daniel Jones figures things out in Year 3 … and the O-line steps up … and RB Saquon Barkley regains his explosive form post-ACL surgery.

8. Arizona Cardinals: They lost out on the NFC’s third wild-card spot last year by virtue of a tiebreaker. A full return to health by QB Kyler Murray should help in 2021 … though a full return to health by the Niners’ stars in an already loaded NFC West surely won’t. And the Cards’ ability to cover on defense and run the ball offensively remain points of contention.

7. Minnesota Vikings: Good news — since Mike Zimmer became the head coach in 2014, the Vikes have been playoff bound … in every odd-numbered season. For that pattern to hold in 2021, an atypically abysmal defense must return to form — which would also theoretically allow the offense to lean more on Pro Bowl RB Dalvin Cook than QB Kirk Cousins.

6. New England Patriots: LB Dont’a Hightower rejoins a team that splurged in free agency and has had a year to adapt to post-TB12 life. Assuming a 27th-ranked offense reverts to just average, the Pats should be back in the playoff mix this December — even if a return to the AFC East summit seems unlikely.

5. Carolina Panthers: The turnover in Atlanta and Brees’ retirement in New Orleans, NFC South rulers since 2017, might be quite the boon to Carolina — to say nothing of the return of All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey and opportunity afforded to new QB Sam Darnold. If a young defense keeps trending upward for a team that last reached postseason in 2017, look out.

4. Los Angeles Chargers: The talent is here in spades, headlined by offensive rookie of the year QB Justin Herbert — and he’ll now be protected by a significantly upgraded set of blockers. The question is whether the Bolts can carry over last year’s late-season momentum while adapting to a new coaching staff … and avoiding the crippling injuries that seem to plague them annually. But — for now — the glass looks mostly full.

Tua Tagovailoa (1) and the Miami Dolphins are hoping for a 2021 NFL playoff breakthrough ... as are the Las Vegas Raiders.

Tua Tagovailoa (1) and the Miami Dolphins are hoping for a 2021 NFL playoff breakthrough … as are the Las Vegas Raiders.

3. Miami Dolphins: With QBs Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick splitting snaps in 2020, the Fins nearly snatched a wild card before ultimately being undone by a Week 17 loss at Buffalo — when Tagovailoa threw a trio of interceptions (most during his rookie season) while FitzMagic was kept under wraps by COVID-19. But a fully healthy Tua, buoyed by a seemingly stellar draft haul — it included four of the top 42 selections, headlined by WR Jaylen Waddle — suggests this team is positioned to take the next step under third-year coach Brian Flores.

2. San Francisco 49ers: It hasn’t even been 18 months because one errant Jimmy Garoppolo pass seemingly cost them a victory in Super Bowl 54. The arrival of No. 3 overall draft pick Trey Lance means Jimmy G. is now fighting for his job — and maybe the perception he can be a dependable NFL starter coming off yet another curtailed season when injuries cost him 10 starts. Yet if Garoppolo approaches his 2019 form — same goes for DEs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, TE George Kittle, RB Raheem Mostert and WR Deebo Samuel, all key players who missed at least half of the 2020 campaign with injuries — there’ every reason to believe an outfit that cruised to the NFC title two seasons ago can once again be among the league’s elite groups.

1. Dallas Cowboys: “Hard Knocks” will record what’s commonly anticipated to be a bounce-back year in Huge D. Start with QB Dak Prescott, who’s returning from a substance leg fracture and dislocation of his ankle however stated this offseason: “I’ve buried the injury.” The Cowboys have also buried a horrific defense which routinely undermined them in 2020, enlisting former Falcons coach Dan Quinn to turn the unit around while drafting LB Micah Parsons and CB Kelvin Joseph to upgrade the talent quotient. Throw in what’s still perceived as a weak division, captured by the Washington Football Team’s 7-9 ledger in 2020 — and one where Prescott is decidedly the most established passer — and all signs point to America’s Team finishing back on top.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL teams that could crash playoff party: Ranking the contenders

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.