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NFL 2014: Who Are the New Fantastic Four?

NFL-kickoff-logoIn the early 2000s, I used to review new NFL yearbooks, which were published in early June. A consistent and annoying quality was their focus on the “surprise team,” one that would jump from outside the previous year’s playoff pool into the this year’s postseason.

I reviewed year-to-year standings since 2000 and found that looking for a single surprise team under-represented the incredible churn the NFL produces. From year to year, 50% of the playoff field changes. What’s more, each season sees a “fantastic four.”  On average, four teams that had losing records the previous year significantly increase their win totals and reach the post-season.

It almost happened again in 2013, when a single win prevented a new fantastic four. Here were last year’s terrific three:

— The Eagles changed their head coach and their quarterback, and jumped from 4-12 in 2012 to 10-6, claiming the NFC East in the process.

— The Panthers added another talented draft and leapt from 7-9 to 12-4. They replaced the Falcons as the NFC South champions.

— The biggest jump was made by Andy Reid’s Chiefs. In April, they picked first in the draft, as a result of a 2-14 2012.  Reid put Alex Smith under center and rode him and a nasty defense to an 11-5 mark.

In the NFC West, Bruce Arians’ Cardinals improved five games, going from 5-11 to 10-6. They entered the final weekend with a chance to be the fourth loser-to-playoffs contender, but lost the final wild card berth to the Saints.

Every year, three to four teams add five to ten wins to their ledger. Four of the thirteen teams who finished 2013 under .500 are candidates to join this year’s quartet. Here are my picks:

Atlanta:  The Falcons were 12-4 in 2012 and finished the NFC Championship Game four yards short of the Super Bowl. Last year they were destroyed by injuries. This year they regain wounded start like Julio Jones. They’ll also have the benefit of a high-slot draft crop to help them back on track.

No division churns like the NFC South, where last place teams regularly leap into first place the following year. The Falcons are my favorite to do the deed this year.

Washington:: The Redskins have ridden the roller coaster in recent years. They were 5-11 in 2011, won the division with a 10-6 record in 2012, then crashed to 3-13 after injuries hobbled Robert Griffin and several other starters.

Griffin returns to health and will have a new head coach in Jay Gruden. The Redskins play in the squishy NFC East. Another run up the standings could be in the cards. I’m waffling between the Giants and Redskins here, but favor the more surprising team.

St. Louis — The Rams are coming off their third bumper draft, courtesy of the Griffn trade with Washington. They beefed up thier offensive and defensive lines with high picks Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald.

The Rams already had the NFL’s best rush line and could be incredible if Donald starts his pro career quickly. They’re still so-so at quarterback and they play in the toughest division in the league, but their talent level could finally get them into the post-season.

Oakland — The Raiders have been a mess in recent years, but they had a decent defense in 2013. They spent heavily in free agency this past spring, adding Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley and Carlos Rogers to their defense and Donald Penn and Matt Schaub to their offense. Schaub’s meltdown was one reason the Texans ran the opposite direction last year, dropping from 12-4 to 2-14. He’s still an upgrade over Matt McGloin and gives the Raiders a chance.

The team’s free agents are older and may only be a short-term fix, but the team had a decent draft, so I’m making them my entry from the AFC, which has been the far more stable conference the last 12-15 years.

Dark horse: In years where we don’t see four teams make the jump, an 8-8 team often takes one of the spots. There are plenty of 8-8s to choose from, including the Cowboys, but my 8-8 most likely to break through is Baltimore. The Ravens have had to rebuild a defense was was dismantled after their title run two years ago. Ozzie Newsome has forced fed some talented kids into his lineup and his Ravens may be near to regaining a spot atop the AFC North.

Drop your Fantastic Four candidates in the thread.

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela