National Football League
Five NFL teams on the rise: Bears, Steelers among playoff contenders
National Football League

Five NFL teams on the rise: Bears, Steelers among playoff contenders

Published Jun. 14, 2024 12:38 p.m. ET

The hype machine is humming as the NFL wraps up offseason workouts this week, with every talking head projecting which teams will emerge as a surprise contender this upcoming season. While I do not have a "Magic 8-Ball" at my disposal that predicts the future, my football senses tingle when I review my notes from the flurry of offseason transactions that have positioned some teams as dark horse playoff contenders. 

Given the turnover of playoff teams each year, here are five teams on the rise as playoff contenders: 

Chicago Bears 

General manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus might have surrounded the No. 1 overall pick with the best supporting cast around a rookie quarterback in NFL history. The additions of Keenan Allen, Rome Odunze, and D'Andre Swift to a lineup anchored by D.J. Moore and Cole Kmet should help Caleb Williams produce fireworks in the Windy City. 


As an ultra-talented gunslinger with supreme confidence, the USC product could make Bears fans forget about Jim McMahon's role in the Super Bowl Shuffle if he helps this high-powered offense reach its potential under his direction as a rookie starter. Though the veteran-laden defense must close out games with Montez Sweat, Tremaine Edmunds, Jaylon Johnson and Kevin Byard leading the charge, the Bears' high-powered offense could force opponents to chase points against a unit specializing in taking the ball away. 

Given the Bears' explosive potential on each side of the ball, Eberflus' squad could surge to the top of the NFC as a dark horse contender. 

Pittsburgh Steelers 

Mike Tomlin has worked wonders in Pittsburgh without a marquee quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger's retirement in 2022. While questions persist over the potential of Russell Wilson and Justin Fields following their roller-coaster journeys with their previous teams, the Steelers could help each player revive their careers by leading a team that adheres to an old-school formula (defense + run game + quarterback with magical close-out skills) that works in the Steel City. 

With Arthur Smith in place as the offensive coordinator, Wilson could re-emerge as a high-end quarterback playing in a quarterback-friendly scheme that has produced an NFL Comeback Player of the Year award winner (Ryan Tannehill) in the past. As the veteran looks to add to his 39 career game-winning drives, including four fourth-quarter comebacks in 2023, the Steelers could hand the ball to a magician with a knack for getting it done in the clutch. 

If Fields steps in as the QB1, he gives the Steelers a dynamic runner with a 1,000-yard season on the resume. As a rugged runner with explosive speed and quickness, the fourth-year pro adds a dimension to a lineup that features a pair of blue-chip runners (Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren) and a budding star wideout (George Pickens) on the perimeter. Though Fields must be a more consistent threat from the pocket, the former first-rounder makes the Steelers offense a multidimensional headache for defensive coordinators around the league. 

Considering the Steelers defense is loaded with Defensive Player of the Year winners and/or candidates (TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick), Tomlin has a team with the potential to make a deep postseason run.          

Expect Russell Wilson to revive his career with the Steelers?

Los Angeles Chargers 

Jim Harbaugh's arrival in Los Angeles should make opponents fear the "Powder Blues" soon. The former NFL quarterback has orchestrated dramatic turnarounds wherever he has coached (University of San Diego, Stanford, San Francisco 49ers and Michigan), relying on physicality and toughness from a run-centric approach to emerge as the biggest bullies on the block. 

In Los Angeles, Harbaugh's reliance on an old-school formula shows up in the team's decision to fortify the offensive line (Joe Alt) while building up the backfield to feature more downhill runners (Gus Edwards and JK Dobbins) with no-nonsense games. Although the loss of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams threatens to diminish Justin Herbert's effectiveness as a passer, the dominant running game could help the Pro Bowler attack opponents utilizing play-action passes to an unheralded, but explosive collection of pass catchers. 

Defensively, Jesse Minter will simplify the playbook to enable Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Derwin James, and Asante Samuel to make their marks as disruptive playmakers. If the Chargers defense creates more negative plays (tackles for loss, sacks, and turnovers) relying on simulated pressures and blitzes designed to create chaos at the point of attack, the wins will come in bunches for Harbaugh's squad in 2024. 

Chargers, Falcons, Jets highlight Colin's 2024 most likely new playoff teams

Atlanta Falcons 

After finishing with three straight seven-win seasons due to subpar quarterback play, the Falcons doubled down on the position with a blockbuster free agent signing (Kirk Cousins) and a top draft pick (Michael Penix, Jr.). Though the moves were criticized due to the significant resources expended on the position, Raheem Morris wants to ensure the Falcons have a point guard to run a fast-break offense with the firepower to light up scoreboards around the league. 

With Cousins expected to take the helm when the season kicks off, the offense should operate efficiently under the direction of a veteran with seven 4,000-yard seasons on his resume. As the four-time Pro Bowler gets comfortable dropping dimes to Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Darnell Mooney, with Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier sharing the load in the backfield, the Falcons' ultra-versatile offense could create matchup problems all over the field. 

If the offensive line can hold up at the line of scrimmage against aggressive pass rushers, the "Dirty Birds" will force opponents into shootouts that should match the squad's strengths. Given Morris' effectiveness at crafting game plans designed to neutralize aerial attacks utilizing a "coverage over pass rush" approach, the Falcons could chalk up wins by playing from ahead with the high-powered setting the tone behind Cousins' stellar play. 

Is the Michael Penix Jr. draft pick actually justifiable for the Falcons?

Washington Commanders 

The Commanders hope Jayden Daniels can jump-start a sagging franchise in need of star power at the quarterback spot. The Heisman Trophy winner steps into an offense loaded with dynamic weapons on the edges (Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson) and a complementary backfield that features a "banger" (Brian Robinson) and change-of-pace back (Austin Ekeler) in the rotation. 

Though the offensive line is a huge question mark, Daniels' athleticism and the Commanders' Air Raid-esque playbook could mask the unit's deficiencies at the point of attack. If the offensive coordinator can keep his prized pupil upright and protected, the former LSU/Arizona State standout could follow a familiar blueprint that helped Kyler Murray win an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. 

Defensively, Dan Quinn and a collection of veterans with winning pedigrees could team with Jonathan Allen and Da'Ron Payne to reverse the unit's woes. Bobby Wagner, in particular, adds leadership, toughness, and physicality as a tackling machine with Super Bowl experience. If Quinn creates the right locker room vibe during a rigorous training camp, the Commanders could surprise opponents as a rock-solid squad with playoff potential. 

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the "Moving the Sticks" podcast. Follow him at @BuckyBrooks.


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