Every NFL season there are franchises that take a step forward and teams that take a step backward, and the 2016 season was no different.
Over the past six years, 29 new teams have made the playoffs when missing out on the postseason the previous year, meaning slightly less than five new teams make the playoffs each year.
In 2016 six new teams in the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, and Detroit Lions made the playoffs after missing out the previous season, and Fourth & Goal picked three of them on its playoff push article last year.
Below is a list of Fourth & Goal’s top five playoff push teams for the 2017 season:
5. Denver Broncos
The Broncos missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record just one season after winning Super Bowl 50, and if not for their division, the AFC West, they likely would be higher on this list.
Denver’s front office addressed the team’s biggest flaw this offseason, signing guard Ron Leary in free agency and drafting offensive tackle Garett Bolles in the first-round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Bolles has already earned the team’s starting left tackle role ahead of the regular season, and an improved offensive line should only elevate the team’s passing attack and ground game in 2017.
Trevor Siemian is also entering his second season as the franchise’s starting quarterback, and his experience in 14 games in 2016 should lead to a more productive season.
While the Broncos still have questions surrounding their offense, Denver’s defense remains atop the league. The Broncos allowed the fourth fewest yards and points during the 2016 season, and the hope is that an improved offense can alleviate some of the pressure on the defense.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers posted their first winning record (9-7) since 2010 last season, and have playoff expectations in head coach Dirk Koetter’s second season at the helm.
Franchise quarterback Jameis Winston is entering his third season in Tampa Bay and has some new weapons to work with in 2017. The Buccaneers signed veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency and selected Alabama standout tight end O.J. Howard in the first-round of the draft.
Pairing Jackson with rising star receiver Mike Evans should only open up the field for Winston, but it’s not just Tampa’s improved offense that could lead to a postseason appearance in 2017.
The Buccaneers also added some key pieces to their defense this offseason, including defensive tackle Chris Baker and rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Tampa also just landed one of the most talented released players of the roster cut-down deadline this past Saturday, signing three-time Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward to a one-year deal.
The additions Tampa’s front office has made this offseason plus a second year under Koetter should position the franchise to compete for an NFC South division title in 2017.
3. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings got off to a 5-0 start in 2016 but ended up finishing the year with an 8-8 record.
Head coach Mike Zimmer led Minnesota to their first division title since 2009 in 2015 and is looking to get the Vikings back to the playoffs this season.
The Vikings were decimated by injuries throughout the course of the 2016 season and acquired quarterback Sam Bradford through a trade shortly before the start of the regular season. The former No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft played fairly well behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines, completing a career-high 71.6 percent of his passes for 3,877 yards.
The Vikings will likely only expect more out of Bradford in his second season in their system and his third year under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Minnesota has also revamped the entire offensive line this offseason and signed offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency.
The Vikings also added an explosive rookie running back to their roster in Dalvin Cook, but it’s truly Minnesota’s defense that separates this team from other potential contenders.
Minnesota’s defense surrendered the third fewest yards and the sixth fewest points during the 2016 season, and have cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Everson Griffen, nose tackle Linval Joseph, safety Harrison Smith, and middle linebacker Eric Kendricks all returning in 2017.
The Vikings will have a challenge with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in the NFC North, but Minnesota’s defense should be set for another top ten finish this season.
2. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are the second team from the NFC South on this list and join their Super Bowl 50 opponent, as they also look to shake off their 2016 hangover season.
Carolina missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012 last season but will have a healthy Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly returning to lead both sides of the ball in 2017.
The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year missed the team’s final six games last season due to a concussion, while Newton played through a shoulder injury down the stretch of the regular season.
Newton has since undergone shoulder surgery, and both are expected to be on the field when they take on their Week 1 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.
While the health of Newton and Kuechly is vital to the franchise’s success, the Panthers have also added some significant players to both sides of the ball, including future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers and dual-threat rookie running back Christian McCaffrey.
The Panthers are unlikely to put up the same jaw-dropping numbers they did during their 15-1 regular season in 2015 but are surely hungry to prove they belong atop the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons.
1. Tennessee Titans
The AFC South legitimately has three potential playoff contenders in the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, and Titans, and even Jacksonville’s newly improved defense has the Jaguars garnering some national spotlight ahead of the 2017 season.
Despite the openness of the division, the Titans should be viewed as the top playoff push team of 2017.
Tennessee already had one of the league’s best offensive lines, a dominant backfield, a franchise quarterback, and an above average defense last season and have only addressed their weaknesses during the offseason.
While the Titans had an above average defense in terms of yards and points allowed in 2016, they struggled against the pass, surrendering the third most yards in the league through the air.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson quickly addressed the team’s secondary in free agency, signing cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien. Tennessee also added cornerback Adoree’ Jackson with the team’s second first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Titans are hoping the additions to the secondary will help elevate their entire defense this season, and on the offensive side of the ball, Robinson looked to give franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota all the weapons needed to succeed.
Tennessee selected Western Michigan standout receiver Corey Davis with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and used a third-round selection on wide receiver Taywan Taylor. Tennessee’s front office also signed three-time 1,000-yard receiver Eric Decker following his release from the New York Jets, giving Mariota a veteran receiver with playoff experience.
From top to bottom the Titans have one of the most well-rounded offenses in the league, and it will be up to head coach Mike Mularkey to lead the franchise to its first division title since 2008.