The last franchise to represent Florida in the Super Bowl is also the state’s best chance to return in the near term. There have been some lean years of late — Tampa Bay has produced three winning seasons in the past seven campaigns — but the
Bucs have a smaller slope to climb than their in-state counterparts. Tampa Bay showed progress last season, and continued growth could lead to a postseason run in the coming years.
State of the team: There was movement in the right direction. A year after an uninspiring 4-12 season, the Bucs went 7-9 in coach Greg Schiano’s first campaign, an effort that included a highlight of winning five of six games from Weeks 6 through 11. Meanwhile, the lowlight occurred when hopes of ending a four-season playoff drought were dashed when the Bucs dropped five consecutive contests from Weeks 12 through 16. The offense, led by fourth-year veteran quarterback Josh Freeman, was decent while averaging 24.3 points (ranking 13th in the NFL) and 363.8 yards (ninth). On the other hand, the defense was up and down; the unit allowed an average of only 82.5 rushing yards (first) but surrendered an average of 297.4 passing yards (32nd).
The roadblock: Their division will be a doozy. The NFC South has been one of the NFL’s strongest in recent years. Before this season, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints had made the playoffs each year since 2010. With coach Sean Payton’s return in New Orleans, along with promises of a revamped Saints defense after coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was fired, the Bucs’ margin for error will continue to be small. There are signs of potential, but Tampa Bay must show it’s capable of squeezing past division powers.
They’re still searching. Last season marked another change for the Dolphins, after moving past the Tony Sparano era. The franchise has produced only one playoff berth since stringing together seven in eight seasons from 1994-2001. Will quarterback Ryan Tannehill mature into the leader to guide the Dolphins back to the Super Bowl for the first time in almost three decades? Coach Joe Philbin hopes so.
State of the team: As should be expected, there were both highs and lows for Miami with a rookie quarterback. Tannehill led Miami to a 7-9 record and second place in the AFC East, the Dolphins’ best finish in the division since they won the title with an 11-5 mark in 2008. The offense was anemic across the board, averaging 18 points (27th in the NFL) and 311.5 yards (27th). Still, they finished within one victory of their second season with at least eight wins since 2005. That was partly because of a defense that allowed an average of 19.8 points (seventh) and 108.4 rushing yards (13th).
The roadblock: The offense must become more consistent. That could come with Tannehill’s growth, but his development will be key to any potential postseason berth in the coming years. The unit sputtered in the season’s second half last fall; Miami was held to 14 points or fewer four times while going 3-6 to close. There were glimpses of efficiency, such as a 35-13 rout of the Oakland Raiders in Week 2 and a 30-9 drubbing of the New York Jets in Week 8. Still, there’s room to do more. Tannehill’s performance will dictate how far the Dolphins go.
The wait could be a while. A Super Bowl with the Jaguars? Their path is filled with potholes, road spikes and a whole lot of unknowns. Anything is possible, though, and the Houston Texans have shown how a team previously wandering through the wilderness can find its way within sight of the big day. So there’s hope, even if it takes reading the fine print to find it.
State of the team: Change can be good. The Jaguars hired coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell in the offseason after a rocky 2-14 campaign, the franchise’s worst season in its 18-year history. There’s little reason to revisit 2012’s warts; Jacksonville’s offense and defense failed to rank within the top 20 in any major statistical category. So it’s best to turn attention forward: Will running back Maurice Jones-Drew recover from a fractured left foot? Will Chad Henne continue to be the starting quarterback of choice? What will become of former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert?
The roadblock: Where to start? The Jaguars are on the ground level of a rebuilding project. Dreaming about a Super Bowl berth at this point might as well be like searching for Atlantis in the deep end of a municipal pool. Instead, Jacksonville should be thinking small steps: Try to earn a winning record for the first time since going 11-5 in 2007, try to crack the playoffs for the first time since that same season, try to compete within an AFC South that should be solid for the foreseeable future with Houston and the Indianapolis Colts at the top. The goal: crawl, then walk.