The Atlanta Falcons began the 2016 season with worse odds to win the Super Bowl than the Jaguars, Jets and Chargers. In fact, only four teams had worse odds than the Falcons. They came out of nowhere to reach the Super Bowl, putting together one of the best offensive seasons in NFL history. No one expected them to make it as far as they did, but for several reasons, they surprised everyone outside of Atlanta and nearly won it all.
So, which teams could be next season’s Falcons? There are a number of potential candidates. These teams have been relatively unsuccessful in recent years, and all of them missed the playoffs in 2016 – just as the Falcons did in 2015.
They also have good assets and fairly strong rosters with most of them missing a few pieces, thus preventing them from making the jump from being a fringe playoff team to Super Bowl contender.
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The NFC East will probably be the best division in football next year with all four teams boasting strong rosters. The Eagles are the weakest as of now, but that can change in the next few months.
Carson Wentz will have the entire offseason as the full-time starting quarterback, giving him additional time with the first-team in OTAs and training camp. Believe it or not, but that will make a big difference over last season, when he was No. 3 on the depth chart. As long as he can avoid a sophomore slump, the Eagles will be better than their 7-9 record from this season.
The front office will have to do its part if it wants to take the team to the playoffs (and beyond) in 2017. Wentz needs more playmakers at wide receiver – players who can reliably make easy catches as well as break tackles to gain yardage after the catch.
The defense is fine outside of holes at cornerback, which should allow them to choose offense in the first round of the draft. Or, in a different scenario, how good would free-agent wideout Alshon Jeffery look in green? Wentz would approve.
New Orleans Saints
It’s been four years since the Saints made the playoffs, which is far too long for a team with Drew Brees at quarterback. Will 2017 be the year they end that drought and make a run at a Super Bowl? It very well could be.
No one is really expecting the Saints to contend with the emergence of the Falcons and the Panthers expected to rebound. The Buccaneers are also an up-and-coming team, leaving the Saints with an uphill climb toward a division title in the NFC South. You’d be foolish to count out a team led by Brees and Sean Payton, though.
The Saints have endured three straight 7-9 seasons, largely thanks to an atrocious defense. The offense has ranked in the top two in yards in each of the past three years, while the defense has been 27th or worse each season. As a result, the Saints have a clear direction toward improving the roster: address the defense.
With the 11th overall pick and $28.7 million in cap space, the Saints have the assets to improve drastically on that side of the ball. If they do, they’ll be dangerous.
Oh, how quickly the Bengals went from perennial contenders to a mediocre team. Prior to 2016, they had made the playoffs in five straight years. They lost in the first round each time, of course, but just making the postseason that many times is impressive.
This past season was obviously a disappointment, but the roster is still littered with talent. Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Andy Dalton – they’re all terrific talents, and that’s only talking about the offense. If those players can all stay relatively healthy, the Bengals will be dangerous.
Improving the offensive line in free agency and the draft will be crucial to their success. That was a weak point of the roster last year and was a big reason the Bengals struggled to run the ball.
They’re not as underrated as some of the other teams on this list, considering how successful they’ve been for the past six years, but it’d still be a surprise to many to see them reach the Super Bowl the way the Falcons did this season.
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After the first five weeks of the 2016 season, the Vikings looked like Super Bowl contenders. They were the last undefeated team in the NFL, and the defense was championship-worthy. It was the offense that ultimately led to their downfall.
Though it’s unclear who will be their starting quarterback, it doesn’t matter much. Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are similar players, which makes it come down to the running game and the offensive line. If the Vikings can find success on the ground – be it with Adrian Peterson or a draft pick – it’ll open up the entire offense. Shoring up both tackle positions will also go a long way, considering how terrible they were at each spot due to injuries.
They came out of nowhere to go 5-0, so why can’t the Vikings sustain that sort of success in 2017? That’s the biggest question they face, and their offseason haul will be a big factor in whether their season ends in December or February -- at their home stadium for the Super Bowl -- next year.
It’s honestly pretty bizarre to think of the Colts as a “surprise” team in any given year, but that’s where we are with Indianapolis right now. They’ve missed the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1997-98, and the rest of the division has already caught up with them.
What they do have, though, is the best quarterback in the AFC South in Andrew Luck. As a result, the Colts are always a threat to win it all. Sure, they have their issues on both sides of the ball, but the offseason is shaping up to be a good one for the Colts. They’re picking in the top 15 and have about $55 million in cap space and Ryan Grigson is no longer the GM.
Indianapolis can solidify its offensive line, add a couple of playmakers on defense and possibly provide a spark to the running game with a dynamic back. If those three things happen, watch out for the Colts.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Thanks to the Falcons’ remarkable run, people tend to forget that the Buccaneers had a legitimate shot at winning the NFC South late in the year. The Bucs lost the division by only two games after they lost two of their last three, but the NFC South was well within their reach.
The Falcons are going to be a top team in 2017, but the Buccaneers are one to watch as well. Jameis Winston is entering his third year in the NFL, Koetter will be in his second season, and the offense is filled with playmakers. They’ll give the Falcons a run for their money in the NFC South and could easily win that division.
After all, they went from 6-10 to 9-7 in the blink of an eye, improving in just about every category. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them make the jump from 9-7 to 11-5 thanks to the development of Jameis Winston. We’ve seen a number of quarterbacks go from good to great in Year 3, and Winston can absolutely be the next.
The Titans have been overlooked for years. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 and have had just two winning seasons since then, and they play in the AFC South. All of those things are true, but 2017 is going to change the narrative that they’re a dysfunctional franchise.
Tennessee doesn’t have the dominant offense that Atlanta had, and the defense isn’t filled with speedy playmakers. But there are similarities that could lead one to believe they’ll make a run next season.
They have two outstanding running backs in Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray, Marcus Mariota is a smart quarterback with pinpoint accuracy, and Mike Mularkey is entering his second full season as the head coach – just as Dan Quinn did this season.
The Titans, in the always-weak AFC South, could easily make the playoffs and surprise everyone by making a run at the Super Bowl – especially after adding two rookies in the first round and two in the third (pending trades). If there’s a long shot to pick for the Super Bowl, it’s the Titans.