Last year the Kansas City Chiefs won their first nine games after having the worst season in franchise history the previous year. The Chiefs were the main example for an improving team, but they were not the only team to significantly improve. San Diego, Carolina, and New Orleans all had their teams reach the playoffs after missing the postseason the previous year. Here are a few teams that could take a big step forward.
1. New York Giants- The Giants have been up and down for the past 10 years, but last year was the worst season in the stretch. The team lost its first six games and finished the season 7-9. Quarterback and two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning threw 27 interceptions, most in the NFL, and only 18 touchdowns. That should change this year. After the woeful start, the Giants went 7-3 in their last ten games to close out the year. Manning will now have a dynamic rookie to throw to in Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle has potential as a starter. The offensive line, one of the worst in the NFL last year, added center Weston Richberg in the draft and guard Geoff Schwartz in free agency and the running game now has Rashad Jennings. The defense was solid last year after they traded for linebacker Jon Beason and the secondary is improved with the acquisitions of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond. Justin Tuck left, but if Jason Pierre-Paul stays healthy the pass rush could be scary. It also helps that the Giants are in the NFC East and have the pieces to run away with the division.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers- Like the Giants, Pittsburgh started last season poorly, losing their first four games. But in the second half of the season, the Steelers went 6-2 and were a San Diego loss away from making the postseason. The defense has improved with the additions of rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt and veteran safety Mike Mitchell, and several young players could break out. If Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds improve, the pass rush could be one of the best in the league. The linebacking core of Jones, Worilds, Shazier, and Lawrence Timmons is the strength of the defense and shows how the team is getting younger and faster. On offense, LeVeon Bell could emerge as a top running back. After his injury in the beginning of the season, Bell did very well and could be the center of the offense this year. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still one of the best in the league and has a great receiver in Antonio Brown, who had 1,499 receiving yards last year. Look for the Steelers to contend for the AFC North and make the playoffs.
3. Baltimore Ravens- John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco both missed the playoffs for the first time in their professional careers after making the playoffs five times. Flacco gets some of the blame after throwing a career-high in interceptions, but plenty of other units get some of the blame. Ray Rice, usually one of the best runners in the NFL, had a terrible season, partly because the offensive line was awful. But there is a good chance of significant improvement. The offensive line was improved, meaning the running game should be better, and Steve Smith, the best player in franchise history for the Panthers, was added to make the receiving group more dangerous. Dennis Pitta, Flacco's favorite target, is now healthy and should have 700 yards and 5 touchdowns. The defense also has potential. The unit has gotten a lot younger and has rookie C.J. Mosley, Matt Elam, and Jimmy Smith complementing Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Haloti Ngata. The special teams unit is arguably the best in the league, with Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch, and electric returner Jacoby Jones.
4. Houston Texans- In 2013, the Texans won their first two games... and then lost their next 14 games. The team got a lot better this off-season, especially the pick of Jadeveon Clowney and hiring of head coach Bill O'Brien. Clowney and former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt could be the best pass rushing duo ever and will definitely be scaring quarterbacks for the next 10 years. O'Brien will improve the offense and needs to choose between veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, backup Case Keenum, and rookie Tom Savage for the starting quarterback job. Ben Tate left, but Arian Foster used to be one of the best running backs in the league. Andre Johnson, the best player in the history of the Texans, is in a contract dispute but should come back and can be one of the most consistent receivers in the league. Houston has been injury-plagued and Foster and linebacker Brian Cushing will need to stay healthy for the team to contend. But thanks to the hirings of O'Brien and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and an extremely easy division, the Texans will have a bounce back year and could go to the playoffs.
5. Chicago Bears- For the majority of the 21st century, the Chicago Bears have been a defense-first team. But after Lovie Smith was fired, the focus switched. The team hired offensive guru Marc Trestman to improve their traditionally mediocre offense and it worked immediately. Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall had great years and Alshon Jeffery emerged as one of the elite wide receivers. And all of that was with a career backup, Josh McCown, at starting quarterback for most of the year, and now Jay Cutler is back from injury. The team was one win away from the playoffs last year and could win their division with their stellar receiver combination. The problem, surprisingly, is the defense, which was injury-prone for most of the Year and was near the bottom of the league in multiple statistical categories. The Bears did get help in the pass rush with the additions of Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen and the team has multiple young players who could emerge. Chicago has not lived up to expectations in recent years, but if they can dodge the injury bug they could win their division and make the playoffs.