Five non-playoff teams that could make Super Bowl 51

Can a disappointing end to the 2015 season propel the Jets to Super Bowl 51 next year?
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By Mark Fishman

Other than the inevitability of the New England Patriots always making the playoffs, football is the toughest sport to make accurate predictions about year in and year out. One injury, one play or one bad call can change an entire season for the better or worse.

Each and every year, a few new teams come out of nowhere to compete, and a few others simply fall of off the face of the Earth. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five NFL teams who missed the playoffs this year but just might have a chance to win it all next year.

1) Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys' 2015 season was nothing short of a disaster. Expected to contend for the Super Bowl, they finished 4-12 after losing star quarterback Tony Romo twice to a broken collarbone.

Although going 1-11 without Romo was an excruciating experience for Cowboys fans, it did expose and exemplify the holes on the Dallas roster that owner and general manager Jerry Jones needs to fill if he wants his team to compete in January and February.

To start, the Cowboys might not regret letting running back DeMarco Murray leave, but there’s no question that they missed his presence. The Joseph Randle experiment was a failure, as he was cut midway through the season, Lance Dunbar was lost for season with a knee injury in Week 5, and while Darren McFadden was solid, he’s hardly the type of player you would want to be your bell cow going forward given his injury history and age. Whether it’s via free agency or the draft, the Cowboys have to bring in a new running back who can return their rushing attack to what it was in 2014 season, in which they went 12-4.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys must find a way to develop a pass rush. Greg Hardy didn’t have the impact on the field the team hoped he would and likely will not be back season. Also, second-round pick Randy Gregory, while loaded with talent, looked lost out on the field. As of right now, the only consistent pass rusher under contract for the Cowboys is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, but he alone won’t be enough.

The team has invested a lot in Gregory, so the Cowboys will likely pin their hopes on the second-round pick from Nebraska having a breakout season next year. Still, adding a veteran pass rusher via free agency this offseason would be a prudent move.

All things considered, the Cowboys' Super Bowl hopes, like so many other teams in the NFL, are largely pinned on the quarterback position. If Romo, who will be 36 by the start of the 2016 season, can stay healthy, the Cowboys will have a shot at making some serious noise in the postseason. If Romo misses any extended period of time, well, we all know what happened this past year.

2) Baltimore Ravens

A popular pick to win the AFC before the start of the 2015 season, the Baltimore Ravens were ravaged by injuries from day one. First-round pick wide receiver Breshad Perriman didn’t play a single game due to a knee injury, linebacker Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles in the first game, Joe Flacco tore his ACL, Steve Smith Sr. was lost for the season too and, well, you get the idea. Every week it seemed the Ravens were putting a new player on injured reserve. With that type of bad luck, John Harbaugh’s team never stood a chance in the AFC North, finishing with a record of 5-11.

Fortunately for Ravens fans, all of their key players they lost to injury are expected to be back and healthy next year. Still, Baltimore has several areas on the roster it needs to address.

First off, the Ravens' secondary was a mess last year. Will Hill III is a standout at the safety position, but he needs some help back there. Cornerback Jimmy Smith had his worst season as a pro, and Lardarius Webb didn’t fare much better opposite of him. The Ravens must find a couple new cornerbacks who play at least somewhat consistent pass coverage. With only six interceptions all of this past season, the Ravens must address their needs in the secondary this offseason.

Most importantly however, with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed retired, and Terrell Suggs nearing the end of his career, the Ravens need to find new voices inside their locker room to lead the team into a new era. Naturally, much of that onus will fall onto Joe Flacco’s shoulders, but on defense, the Ravens need a new player to take charge. Whether it’s C.J. Mosley, Elvis Dumervil or Courtney Upshaw, the time has come for a younger player to become the new face of the Ravens defense. If this can happen, a Super Bowl appearance next season is entirely possible for Baltimore.

3) Indianapolis Colts

Despite star quarterback Andrew Luck having a disastrous season, the Indianapolis Colts somehow went 8-8 and nearly won the AFC South. That being said, if what we saw this season form Luck is a sign of things to come, the Colts are screwed. However, if Luck’s play this season was just an aberration, Indy isn’t too far away from competing for a championship.

Assuming Luck comes back healthy and looks like the Pro Bowl quarterback we expect him to be, the Colts will be just fine on offense. The defense, however, is an entirely different equation.

The Indy defense ranked 26th overall in the NFL in total defense in 2015. In particular, the Colts D had trouble stopping the run. Naturally, to improve in this area Colts general manager Ryan Grigson will need to find new players to battle along the line of scrimmage. Rookie defensive end Henry Anderson played well at times and looks like a keeper, but he needs help. Finding a quality nose tackle either in free agency or the draft would go a long in improving this Colts defense.

Also, linebackers D’Qwell Jackson, Robert Mathis and Trent Cole are all in their mid-30s. Bringing in some younger players at the linebacker position, especially for a team like the Colts that play a 3-4 defense, would be wise move.

The X-factor in this Colts Super Bowl equation is with head coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano just signed an extension but was reportedly on the verge of being fired several times over the course of this past season. Something just feels a bit off about the relationship between Pagano and the Colts front office. It’s something to keep an eye on, but all things considered, if Andrew Luck can return to form anything is possible for Indy.

4) New York Giants

Despite having a rookie head coach in Ben McAdoo, would it really shock anyone if the New York Giants made a run at the Super Bowl next season? Quarterback Eli Manning has proven himself to be a stud in the postseason, evident my his two Super Bowl rings. The problem for the Giants usually lays in just making the postseason entirely.

Coming off of 6-10 season and having gone three straight seasons without making it to the postseason, most teams would be looking to rebuild, but the G-men really aren’t too far away from competing for a championship. In fact, if the team is able to successfully address two key issues, a Super Bowl run is not out of the question.

First off, we all know the absurd talent that is wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. However, other than the 23-year-old Pro Bowler, the Giants don’t have a single player at any of the skill positions whom an NFL defense needs to game plan for. Rueben Randle is a decent wideout but nothing special, and Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams are your basic run-of-the-mill NFL running backs. The Giants need to add another skill position player outside of Beckham Jr. who can break a game wide open.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Giants desperately need to improve their pass rush. The G-men finished with 23 total sacks on the season, third worst in the NFL. Jason Pierre-Paul is an unrestricted free agent and likely will not be back with the team, and other than Robert Ayers, the Giants don’t have single quality pass rusher under contract for next season. General manager Jerry Reese must bring in at least one new one, if not several new players, who can get to the quarterback by the time the 2016 season commences. That being said, if the Giants can check off these two boxes over the offseason, they’ll have a shot at making a run at the Super Bowl.

5) New York Jets

Despite going 10-6, the New York Jets just missed out on the playoffs after a disappointing loss to the division rival Buffalo Bills in Week 17. When taking a look at the Jets roster, you see many of the qualities that you would expect a Super Bowl contender to possess. Led by a dominant defense line, the Jets were fourth best in the NFL in total defense in 2015, they have a shut-down corner in Darrelle Revis, and have Pro Bowl-level players at the skill positions in Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Chris Ivory.

So what’s the problem with the Jets? Well, it’s that pesky quarterback position. All things considered, starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had a fine 2015 season, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns. But let’s keep it real, is Fitzpatrick a top 10 NFL quarterback? No. Is he even a top 15 quarterback? An argument could be made that he is, but probably not. In reality, Fitzpatrick is a 33-year-old journeyman quarterback who found an awesome fit with the Jets.

Still, if Trent Dilfer can be the starting quarterback of a Super Bowl-winning team, Ryan Fitzpatrick could just as well do the same. Crazier things have happened in the NFL. If the Jets defense remains one of the best in the NFL (or can improve even more), and if Fitzpatrick can limit his turnovers and get more production out of the tight end position, a Super Bowl run next season is far from impossible for that other team from New York.

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