The 2015 Fantastic Four
Three to Make the Jump in 2014 of the Full Four?
It’s time to consider the 2015 Version of the Fantastic Four. Long time readers will know that I started charting “surprise teams” in 2006 and found that since 2000 an average of nearly four teams per season go from losers the previous campaign to the playoffs.
That’s a sizable churn, one far in excess of the “surprise team” template you often find in pre-season annuals. The numbers prove that the enforced parity of weighted drafts and weighted schedules works. Nearly every fan base enters a new season hopeful that its club and reach the post-season.
2014 — The Fantastic One
Last year was an outlier for the formula. Only one team, the Detroit Lions, jumped from a losing record to the postseason. In years where the numbers have fallen short of four, the slots have been hoarded by 8-8 clubs that found a spark. That was true again last year as the Cowboys, Steelers and Ravens all jumped from .500 in 2013 to double digit wins.
The league did again provide a couple of big jumping final four candidates. The Texans rebounded from a 2-14 mark in 2013 to 9-7, and the Bills jumped from 6-10 to 9-7. Mediocre quarterback play left both clubs one win short of a playoff berth, but both enter 2015 with high hopes.
This year, I’m hedging on four. I’m picking three new playoff teams from the losers ranks, leaving an intriguing fourth candidate on the outside looking in. The constant among these teams is good young quarterback play.
I’m taking most of my candidates from the NFC, which has been the far more volatile conference the last 15 years. The AFC has been remarkably stable, as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco made the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, Ravens and Broncos perennials for the post-season. Add Andrew Luck to the re-built Colts and I don’t see much churn in that conference. The main questions are whether the Chiefs, Chargers and Bills can nose out the Bengals for one of the last remaining playoff slots?
Records also suggest we should keep looking to the NFC for jumpers. Only five of the AFC’s sixteen teams finished below .500 in 2014 while nine of the NFC’s sixteen were losers.
Here’s my slate
- The St. Louis Rams (6-10 in 2014)
Jeff Fisher has always played meat-and-potatoes football. At USC he played for John Robinson, who used a power-I running attack and a star-studded defense (FIsher was the only member of the ’81 Trojans secondary to not be a 1st round pick) to make regular Rose Bowl trips. In Chicago, Fisher watched Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan meld a Walter Payton-led rushing attack with the 46 defense into a Super Bowl winner.
At Tennessee, Fisher used the same formula to build the Titans lone Super Bowl entry. His offense played sluggo football, running Eddie George behind a massive line that was led by Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. On defense, coordinator Gregg Williams ran his version of the 46. When the Titans added standout rookie rusher Jevon Kearse in 1999, they broke out of a loaded AFC field and won the AFC.
In his third year in St. Louis, Fisher may have enough young talent to repeat the formula. He and GM Les Snead used the RG III trade bounty to build a fearsome defense, led by the new Fearsome Foursome of Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Chris Long. The Rams have been force-feeding offensive linemen onto their roster and this offseason added quarterback Nick Foles and top RB prospect Todd Gurley. If Gurley lives up to his hype, he could be the new Payton, a workhorse who can carry a team. The NFC West is loaded, but so is the 2015 Rams roster.
- The Minnesota Vikings (7-9 in 2014)
The Vikings got early dividends from rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater, who proved a quick study to OC Norv Turner’s lessons. Bridgewater was surprisingly steady down the stretch and this year he’ll have Adrian Peterson in his backfield. The blue chipper missed most of last season on the suspended list. The Vikings added Mike Wallace to give Bridgewater a deep threat and to keep 8-man fronts away from Peterson.
Add a defensive-heavy draft that added CB Trae Waynes, MLB Eric Kendricks and DE Danielle Hunter to a unit that added Rusher Anthony Barr the year before and Minnesota may have the offensive and defensive balance to jump from 7-9 to the playoffs.
- The New York Giants (6-10 in 2014)
I’ve flip-flopped between the Giants and the Atlanta Falcons for this third spot, and the Giants prevail, because they’re a year ahead of Atlanta in their overhaul. HC Tom Coughlin made radical changes to his offensive staff after a disappointing 2013, canning long-time OC Kevin Gilbride and several long-term assistants. Coughlin hired Packers QB coach Ben McAdoo and tasked with teaching Eli Manning the same offense that serves Aaron Rodgers so well.
The Giants struggled badly early on but got their offensive bearings, averaging 29 points per game the last six weeks. They’re continued their Cowboys-like offensive line rebuild (two their last three 1st rounders have been spent on O-linemen, and they used a 2nd round pick on a center the year they picked Odell Beckham in the 1st). Their defense needs work but their offense could be hot enough to follow the 2014 Cowboys offense-first script into January.
Borderline team — The Atlanta Falcons (6-10 in 2014)
If there is a fourth loser to playoffs team, I’m giving the Falcons the nod. Atlanta was an offensive first team in 2014 but their defense was too weak to help out. The Falcons lacked the running power to control games the way Dallas could. Steven Jackson finally reached the end and while the Falcons could pass, they often had to play catch-up.
New coach Dan Quinn will install the Seattle cover-3 4-3 he coordinated for Pete Carroll, but he lacks the talent he enjoyed in Seattle. He added a much-needed edge rusher in Vic Beasley and a top corner prospect in LSU’s Jalen Collins. If 3rd round RB Tevon Coleman hits the ground running, he could give the Falcons the balance they need to better control games with their offense. I’m hedging and guessing that Atlanta’s payoff will come in 2016.
4. The 8-8 team most likely: The Miami Dolphins
The Buffalo Bills receive a lot of pre-season hype as a team on the come and Rex Ryan may be able to repeat the magic he spun with his first two Jets squads, which both reached the AFC Championship game. Until the Bills find a dependable quarterback, I’m looking to the .500 ranks for my AFC surprise. The Dolphins get the nod because they are better settled at quarterback. Ryan Tannehill continued his steady progression, clocking in an impressive 27-12 TD to INT ratio despite a middling cast of weapons.
The Dolphins drafted WR DeVante Parker to replace the disappointing Mike Wallace. On defense, the Dolphins spent a mint to lure Ndamukong Suh, and spent their 2nd round pick on massive DT Jordan Phillips. If they can add inside pressure to complement ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, the Dolphins could leapfrog 9-7 squads like the Texans and the Bills and land a wild card slot. Tannehill gives them the QB edge their rivals lack.