One constant in the NFL has been change in the playoff lineup from year to year, usually about half the field. Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic ranks this year’s candidates to crack the postseason.
The 2018 postseason featured seven teams that missed out on the playoffs in 2017. While that’s slightly above average, the year-to-year turnover among playoff teams is common. In the past 10 years, an average of 5 1/2 new teams have made the playoffs each season.
So which of the 20 teams that missed out last year will make it in 2019? Below are my rankings (which everyone will obviously wholeheartedly agree with) from most likely to least likely. Along with each team’s listing is a blurb on what its most likely playoff path will look like.
Playoff path: Mike Zimmer works his magic, Danielle Hunter leads the league in sacks, and the Vikings finish in the top five in defensive efficiency for the third straight season. But it’s the improvement on the other side of the ball that gets them back to the playoffs. Offensive adviser Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski work brilliantly together to maximize Kirk Cousins’ strengths and develop a scheme that masks deficiencies up front. Rookie center Garrett Bradbury looks like a seasoned vet and provides stability on the offensive line while running back Dalvin Cook develops into a multi-dimensional weapon and piles up 1,300 yards from scrimmage.
Playoff path: Baker Mayfield delivers a performance reminiscent to what we saw from Carson Wentz in his second season with the Eagles in 2017. Mayfield’s innate sense of knowing when to extend plays and when to get rid of the ball makes up for shortcomings on the offensive line and Odell Beckham Jr. leads the league in receiving yards. Defensively, Myles Garrett builds off his 13 1/2-sack season and generates Defensive Player of the Year buzz as the Browns’ pass rush emerges as one of the best in the NFL. Cleveland takes advantage of the fourth-easiest schedule in the league and captures the AFC North title.
Playoff path: Ben Roethlisberger sprays the ball all over the field to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Diontae Johnson, eclipsing 5,000 passing yards for the second consecutive season. Players speak openly about how the locker-room culture just feels different this year. Defensively, the Steelers lead the league in sacks for the third consecutive season, second-year safety Terrell Edmunds makes the leap and rookie linebacker Devin Bush has an instant impact.
Playoff path: The pieces on the offensive line come together, Cam Newton’s shoulder gets back to 100 percent and Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore combine for 3,200 yards from scrimmage. Brian Burns wins Defensive Rookie of the Year, Gerald McCoy shows he has plenty of gas left in the tank and cornerback Donte Jackson makes big strides in his second season. When the dust settles, Newton takes home his second MVP, and the Panthers emerge as the surprise team in the NFC.
Playoff path: The new faces on the offensive line (Chris Lindstrom, James Carpenter) provide an upgrade, and Dan Quinn’s decision to replace all three coordinators breathes a new energy into the franchise. Matt Ryan is peppered with questions about why he’s so much better in 2019 and points out that he was pretty good in 2018 (fifth in ANY/A) while donning a T-shirt that reads: Put some respect on my name. The Falcons’ defense doesn’t get decimated by injuries like it did a year ago, and Quinn listens to his analytics team about being more aggressive on fourth downs, which gives Atlanta an edge in one-possession games.
Playoff path: Aaron Rodgers finds the right balance between playing within the structure of Matt LaFleur’s offense and improvising to extend plays when necessary. Rodgers has his best year since 2014 and directs a news conference tirade toward Analytics Twitter for even suggesting that he’s somewhere between Andy Dalton and Ryan on the scale of NFL quarterbacks. Cornerback Jaire Alexander emerges as one of the better young cornerbacks in the league, Za’Darius Smith nets double-digit sacks and the Packers get a lot luckier with injuries (30th in adjusted games lost on defense) than they did a year ago.
Playoff path: DeForest Buckner (12 sacks last season), Dee Ford and Nick Bosa form one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the NFL. Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy, Kyle Shanahan schemes receivers open and George Kittle breaks his own record for receiving yards by a tight end in a single season. Suddenly after four consecutive losing seasons, the 49ers look like one of the more balanced teams in the NFL, and they stun the Seahawks and Rams to capture the NFC West crown.
Playoff path: Rookie Josh Allen contributes right away, and the defense, which finished sixth in efficiency last year, resembles the 2017 unit. Nick Foles finds comfort working with his former quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, proves that what he did in Philadelphia wasn’t a fluke, and the offense isn’t hit as hard with injuries (31st in adjusted games lost last year). Things go so well that Jalen Ramsey gets a new contract from the Jags and a sponsorship deal with Brinks. He and Tom Coughlin form America’s most unlikely bromance, and the Jaguars go back to the postseason.
Playoff path: Safety Jamal Adams, linebacker C.J. Mosley and rookie Quinnen Williams headline one of the most improved defenses in the NFL. Sam Darnold makes the leap, leaning heavily on Le’Veon Bell, who catches a career-high 88 passes. General manager Joe Douglas orders Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to watch the Mr. Rogers documentary before Week 1. They learn to embrace their warm and fuzzy sides, the Jets take advantage of the league’s second-easiest schedule and they return to the postseason for the first time in nine years.
Playoff path: Sean McDermott once again shows he knows how to coach defense, Ed Oliver looks like the steal of the draft and the Bills allow the fewest points of any team in the NFL. Josh Allen comes up just short of joining Michael Vick as the only quarterbacks ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, and the passing game centers on a series of downfield attempts to John Brown that lead to defensive pass interference penalties. The Bills finish behind only the Patriots in the AFC East and snag a wild-card berth.
Playoff path: Vic Fangio’s defensive genius carries over to Denver where Von Miller and Bradley Chubb combine for 31 sacks. Mike Munchak proves to be one of the most important offseason coaching additions in the league as he shores up the Broncos’ offensive line. It’s not always pretty, but Joe Flacco does just enough, and Denver sneaks past the Chargers for second place in the AFC West and earns a wild-card berth.
Playoff path: Replacing LaFleur with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith proves to be an upgrade. Derrick Henry leads the NFL in rushing yards, and Adam Humphries proves to be one of the offseason’s best free-agent signings, becoming Marcus Mariota’s favorite target and delivering a 90-catch season. Jurrell Casey and Harold Landry combine for 20 sacks, the Titans turn into a top-10 defense and Deion Sanders finally learns Kevin Byard’s name.
Playoff path: Jameis Winston thanks the football gods for delivering Bruce Arians to him and shows up to every game rocking a custom Kangol to show his appreciation. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin form the best wide receiver duo in the league, while Byron Leftwich develops into a play-calling savant, emerging as a head-coaching candidate after just one year in Tampa. The defense — well, let’s just say the Bucs win a lot of high-scoring games. They get bounced in the wild-card round, but the season is a step in the right direction, and the short playoff run gives them ample time to scout kickers ahead of next year’s draft.
Playoff path: Think 2013 Chip Kelly-led Eagles. Kliff Kingsbury brings the Air Raid to the NFL, adjusting his scheme to fit what worked so well for Kyler Murray at Oklahoma. Murray and the system are able to compensate for a lack of talent on the offensive line. Christian Kirk leads the team with more than 1,000 receiving yards, and David Johnson looks like the player we saw in 2016. Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs combine for 22 sacks, and the Cardinals become one of the most fascinating teams in the league.
Playoff path: Derek Carr builds a tremendous rapport with Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams while running back Josh Jacobs wins Offensive Rookie of the Year. The defense struggles overall but produces some timely takeaways, and Gareon Conley breaks out as one of the league’s top young cornerbacks. The Raiders finish in second place in the AFC West and sneak in as a wild card.
Playoff path: They play a boring brand of football, but it ends up being effective. Kerryon Johnson emerges as a star and piles up 1,500 yards from scrimmage. A healthy Matt Stafford bounces back, and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell uses play-action to scheme explosive plays downfield. Trey Flowers gets off to a good start in his new home and reaches double-digit sacks for the first time in his career. The Lions’ front seven leads the way, and Detroit finds its way to a wild-card berth.
Playoff path: Landon Collins provides leadership, the talented group of young defensive linemen continues to develop and Washington finishes the year as a top-10 defense. Jay Gruden relies heavily on Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice so that Dwayne Haskins is positioned not to have to do too much as a rookie. They win a bunch of low-scoring, one-possession games, sneak in as a wild-card team, and Daniel Snyder spends the offseason reminding everyone he’s a genius.
Playoff path: Zac Taylor proves to be a Sean McVay clone and schemes around the Bengals’ offensive line problems, finding creative ways to get the ball in the hands of guys such as Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd. Lou Anarumo goes from anonymous NFL assistant to genius defensive coordinator and becomes a local folk hero in Cincinnati. Every time the Bengals produce a takeaway, the Paul Brown Stadium DJ blasts “Louie, Louie” and the crowd sings along, basking in the delight of a playoff season they never saw coming.
Playoff path: Saquon Barkley sets an NFL record for yards from scrimmage, eclipsing Chris Johnson’s mark of 2,509 from 2009. Jabrill Peppers delivers an All-Pro season, resulting in Dave Gettleman imitating that Vince McMahon meme as he roams the streets of New York and Northern Jersey brimming with pride. After losing in the wild-card round, the team announces that it has signed Eli Manning to a 10-year extension.
Playoff path: A series of meteors strike the earth on the Monday after Week 17, destroying 20 of the 32 NFL teams. With only 12 teams left standing, Roger Goodell decides that they’ll all make the postseason. The 0-16 Dolphins become the first team in NFL history to both make the playoffs and then have the No. 1 pick in the draft.
At ESPN.com, Bill Barnwell walks down much the same path, although 2018 playoff teams are eligible for consideration on his list of most improved. It’s long so you can read a shortened version below or see all his deep thoughts here.
The NFL moves and shifts faster than you think. Since the league went to its current standings and schedule format back in 2002, an average of six teams have made repeat trips to the playoffs each season, meaning half of the playoffs turn over from season to season. Just five of the 12 teams that made it to the playoffs in 2017 made it back to the postseason in 2018, and even that was up from four the previous season.
Is the NFL just total chaos outside of the Patriots inevitably winning 11 or more games? Maybe, on the surface. It would have been difficult at this time last year to see perennial contenders like the Steelers, Vikings and Panthers taking a major step backward and missing the postseason, while struggling franchises like the Bears and Colts rode stunning streaks into the playoffs. There is a place you might have gotten tipped off about those very teams (and a handful of others) declining or improving: this very column from one year ago.
Over the past two years, I’ve identified 11 teams whose underlying statistics seemed to portend future improvement in this column. Nine of those 11 teams have improved, with the average team’s record jumping by nearly four wins from the previous season. Let’s run through the five NFL teams numbers suggest are most likely to improve their record from 2018, a list that starts out West. We’ll hit the teams likely to decline on Tuesday:
San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
2018 point differential: minus-93
Pythagorean expectation: 5.8 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 3-5
FPI projected strength of schedule: 15th-easiest
This time last year, there was no trendier pick to make a leap into the postseason than the 49ers, who had started 1-10 in 2017 before winning each of Jimmy Garoppolo’s first five starts as a member of the organization. The numbers didn’t bear out that sort of optimism, but we didn’t really get a chance to see what would have happened; Garoppolo tore an ACL during a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs, and the 49ers didn’t have the horses to get by without their starting quarterback — though they eventually stumbled onto a solid half-season from undrafted free agent Nick Mullens.
Curiously, even though Garoppolo should be ready for Week 1, San Francisco isn’t getting the same sort of hype this summer. This year, the numbers and San Francisco’s offseason personnel moves actually back a meaningful improvement in 2019. If they can get a healthy season — or at least a significantly healthier season — from Garoppolo, the Niners might very well emulate the 2018 Colts in making an unexpected trip to the playoffs.
Last year was a lost season for the 49ers, but it wasn’t quite as bad as the 4-12 record seem to indicate. Their minus-93 point differential suggests they were closer to a 6-10 team, which doesn’t sound great, but that’s a much better starting point for negotiating this season. The 50 most similar teams in terms of underperforming their record since 1989 improved by an average of 2.7 wins the following season. That group includes the 2017 Texans, who were featured on this list a year ago after a 4-12 season and also benefited from getting their promising young quarterback on the field for an entire campaign.
The most obvious issue for the 49ers sans Garoppolo is that they couldn’t hold onto leads. They tied for the league lead in losing four games that they had led at halftime, which would be bad enough. What’s worse is they lost four games they had been winning in the fourth quarter:
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This doesn’t happen very often, even to bad teams. It’s tempting to ascribe this to a young team not knowing how to close games, but that’s too simplistic. Beathard was the quarterback in three of these games, and he played terribly in those key moments. Kyle Shanahan’s offense sputtered in the red zone all season, finishing 30th in the NFL with 4.21 points per trip. (Don’t tell Falcons fans.) The defense committed terrible penalties at exactly the wrong times when stops would have ended drives or put the opposing offense in a compromising situation.
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You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that no team in NFL history managed to intercept fewer passes in a season than the 49ers did in 2018. They also became the first team in history to rack up 11 games in a season without a takeaway, easily breaking the previous record of nine. San Francisco will intercept more than two passes in 2019 by sheer chance and randomness alone.
As you also probably suspected, a 49ers team that intercepted one pass every two months and started backup quarterbacks for most of the season also posted the league’s worst turnover margin, coming in at a dismal minus-25. The Bucs were the only other team below minus-12.
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Adding takeaways should raise San Francisco’s floor. It’ll end drives on defense and give an offense that inherited the league’s worst average starting field position on offense by nearly a full yard the opportunity to cash in on some short fields. The Niners’ offense is unlikely to be as dismal in the red zone as it was a year ago regardless of who lines up at quarterback or running back. Unless they’re forced to turn to Beathard or a quarterback not currently on the roster for significant time in 2019, they will be better than 4-12.
Their ceiling, though, might still depend on Garoppolo’s health. Mullens’ numbers in San Francisco are basically identical to those of Garoppolo, but most would admit that the former Patriots standout has more upside. It’s likely that Garoppolo will play more than three games in 2019, but we still haven’t seen the 28-year-old start more than five games at a time without getting injured. If he and a 49ers team that finished with the fourth-most adjusted games lost get healthier, they could deliver on their 2018 hype a year later.
Carolina Panthers (7-9)
2018 point differential: minus-6
Pythagorean expectation: 7.8 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 2-7
FPI projected strength of schedule: 12th-toughest
Let’s continue with another team whose season was dominated by an injury to its quarterback. The Panthers, listed as likely candidates to regress on last year’s list, started the season 6-2 before collapsing in the second half. With Cam Newton’s shoulder ailing and the roster riddled with injuries, Carolina went just 1-7 in the second half. It became just the eighth team under the current schedule structure to start 6-2 and finish with a losing record.
It’s too extreme to suggest that the Panthers were Super Bowl contenders in the first half of the year and one of the worst teams in football during the second half. Using point differential to project their record, they played more like a 5-3 team in the first half and a 3-5 team during the second half.
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Having gone 9-3 in one-score games since the start of 2017, the Panthers promptly went 0-5 in one-score contests during the second half of 2018. They blew narrow fourth-quarter leads against the Seahawks, Browns and Saints. Trailing 24-17 against a brutally bad Buccaneers defense, Newton & Co. made four trips into Bucs territory in the fourth quarter and failed to score even once.
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Newton has looked healthy in the early days of training camp and should be ready for Week 1. That’s a huge plus.
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Carolina should also be far deeper on the defensive line after excellent offseason work from general manager Marty Hurney. With Julius Peppers retiring, the team rebuilt its edge rotation around Mario Addison by signing Bruce Irvin and drafting Brian Burns in the first round. With 2016 first-rounder Vernon Butler failing to emerge next to Kawann Short, the Panthers loaded up on interior help by signing Dontari Poe and then adding Gerald McCoy as an impact free agent from Tampa. They will throw a wider variety of defensive fronts out in 2019 to take advantage of their new weapons on defense.- – –
If Newton doesn’t return to his old form, of course, this team is in trouble. It’s difficult to see the Panthers competing for the playoffs with Taylor Heinicke or rookie Will Grier starting the majority of the season’s games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
2018 point differential: minus-68
Pythagorean expectation: 6.5 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 3-6
FPI projected strength of schedule: Seventh-toughest
The Bucs? Sure, I’ll understand if you’re not excited. This is a team that has just one winning season in the past eight years. Tampa’s 42-86 record over that time frame is the third worst in football, topping only the Jaguars and Browns. I just mentioned how the NFC South is topsy-turvy, but the Bucs have finished last in the division seven out of eight seasons over that span.
That’s all true, and Tampa might very well finish last again. There’s enough evidence, though, to suggest that Tampa will post six or more wins in 2019. And my reasoning involves a coach who has managed to defy the numbers before.
Tampa’s 2018 season, at least by point differential, wasn’t all that much different from its 2017 season. The 2017 Bucs went 5-11 while getting outscored by 47 points, which usually projects to about 6.8 wins. They narrowly missed making it onto my list of most likely teams to improve a year ago, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding Jameis Winston when I was putting together the column. The 2018 Bucs went 5-11 while getting outscored by 68 points, which is a 6.5-win pace. In 2017, they went 3-7 in one-score games, which is unlikely to recur, but not impossible: The 2018 Bucs went 3-6 in those same games.
Enter Bruce Arians. Tampa’s new coach spent 12 games as the interim coach in Indianapolis while Chuck Pagano was being treated for leukemia before leading the Cardinals from 2013-2017. Over that five-year span, Arians was an impressive 58-33-1. What’s even more notable for the purposes of this column is that the grizzled veteran coach went 28-12-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, winning more than 68% of the time in a situation in which we would typically expect coaches to go 50-50.
Is that 41-game sample enough to say that Arians has a special skill with regards to pulling out the close ones? I’m skeptical. Setting the lone tie aside, the binomial distribution suggests that a coach who won 28 of 40 coin flips would happen by chance just 0.8% of the time, but Arians’ success rate is more likely a product of the Wyatt Earp effect than indicative of what would be a remarkably valuable skill. I wouldn’t expect the Buccaneers to win nearly 70% of their close games in 2019, but at the very least, I expect them to have a fighting shot at winning half of their one-score contests under Arians. That alone would be progress.
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I’m less confident about the Buccaneers improving dramatically upon a defense that ranked last in DVOA in both 2017 and 2018. They allowed a 110.9 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks last year, meaning that the average quarterback played roughly as well against the Bucs last season as Russell Wilson did all year. It was the second-worst passer rating allowed for a team in NFL history, trailing the 2015 Saints. You know a defense is bad when it can drag Drew Brees down to 7-9.
Tampa may have upgraded by swapping out Gerald McCoy for Ndamukong Suh and Kwon Alexander for first-round pick Devin White, but it was already thin at defensive end before losing Jason Pierre-Paul, who is expected to miss most of the season with a neck injury. Few teams in the league are weaker on the edge than Tampa, which will need to depend on Suh and Todd Bowles’ track record of creating pressure with blitzes to generate a steady pass rush. Tampa has seven defensive backs on rookie deals who were taken in one of the first three rounds of the draft, and Bowles will need to develop them into worthwhile contributors.
I have question marks about the talent, but there are two reasons to think the Bucs might at least approach mediocrity on defense in 2019. One is health; last year’s Bucs posted the most adjusted games lost on defense of any team in the statistic’s history. JPP was the only defender who started all 16 games, but history tells us that it’s virtually impossible the Bucs will be as banged-up, even as they’re already working from behind after losing their star defensive end for a chunk of the year.
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To go this far without mentioning the offense is strange given that the Bucs clearly hired Arians to get the most out of Winston (or his possible replacement), but the offense hasn’t been the problem in Tampa. Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick turned the ball over too frequently in 2018, which helped drive Tampa to the league’s second-worst turnover margin, but the Bucs ranked 12th in offensive DVOA after an 11th-place mark in 2017. Arians’ success with a written-off Carson Palmer in Arizona suggests he can make hay with Winston if the embattled former first overall pick can stay on the field, but Tampa’s chances of improving in 2019 have less to do with the offense and more to do with what happens when their offense is on the sidelines.
New York Jets (4-12)
2018 point differential: minus-108
Pythagorean expectation: 5.4 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 1-5
FPI projected strength of schedule: Second-easiest
If low expectations for the Bucs are par for the course, projecting doom and gloom for the Jets is a cottage industry. Like the Bucs, the Jets have just one winning season in their past eight tries, including a 14-34 mark over the past three seasons under Bowles. The Jets fired Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan, although they curiously let Maccagnan hand out several huge contracts in free agency and handle the draft before removing him in May. New York will move forward with GM Joe Douglas and coach Adam Gase, with the latter hired to help develop second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
Am I optimistic about the Jets’ long-term future? Not really, unless Darnold is a transcendent quarterback who carries them to 10 wins every season. After years of dismal drafts, the team has just three players drafted by the organization before 2015 left on the roster in Bilal Powell, Brian Winters and Quincy Enunwa. They have attempted to cover up holes by throwing gobs of money at free agents, a strategy the Giants tried in 2016 ahead of Ben McAdoo’s first season as coach.
For a year, that strategy worked. The imports stayed healthy and played at a high level, and a Giants team that went 3-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer in Tom Coughlin’s final season went 8-3 in McAdoo’s first. They jumped from 6-10 to 11-5, and everything was great for a few months. The plan (and the record in close games) was unsustainable, and the contracts were generally bad ideas, but adding talent to a roster with missing pieces helps in the short term.
The Jets pursued a similar strategy with one year of success in 2015 after acquiring the likes of Darrelle Revis, and it would hardly be a surprise to see a short-term turnaround for the Jets in 2019. The contracts Maccagnan handed out to Le’Veon Bell, C.J. Mosley and Jamison Crowder probably won’t age well, but this team is unquestionably better right now for making those moves.
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It’s too much to expect Bell to be the runner he was in Pittsburgh behind a less-imposing offensive line, but the Jets’ running game should be significantly more efficient in 2019, especially after adding former All-Pro guard Kelechi Osemele on a salary dump from the Raiders and coaxing former Panthers stalwart Ryan Kalil out of of retirement to play center. That will help Darnold and the Jets, who faced the league’s third-longest average distance on second downs a year ago.
Darnold’s rookie season was uneven, as is often the case for highly drafted quarterbacks. The hope for New York is that the guy we saw in a three-game stretch from Weeks 14-16 is the quarterback the Jets can count on in 2019.
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Even if Darnold does take a step forward, the Jets will need to get more out of their defense to really shock observers. There’s unquestionable top-level talent here, with Mosley and rookie third overall pick Quinnen Williams joining Maccagnan’s two most productive draft picks in first-rounders Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams. Trumaine Johnson had a brutal debut season in New York, but he’s one year removed from a very good season with the Rams.
Gase’s team also will get help from a friendly schedule. While the Jets are stuck in a division with the Patriots, who severely limit Gang Green’s chances at a division title, they’ll face what Football Power Index projects to be the second-easiest slate in football.
New York Giants (5-11)
2018 point differential: minus-43
Pythagorean expectation: 7.0 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 4-8
FPI projected strength of schedule: Fifth-easiest
I can hear you laughing. I can’t blame you. The Giants are a punching bag after trading away Odell Beckham Jr. GM Dave Gettleman passed on a handful of quarterbacks in 2018 to take a running back with the second overall pick, talked up a crumbling Eli Manning, then drafted a guy who wasn’t very good in college to take over as the team’s quarterback of the future this past April. The Giants bandwagon is bare and empty right now, and with good reason. Nobody should be excited about this team.
At the same time, there’s reason to think the Giants were better than their 5-11 record in 2018. They finished 16th in the league with a perfectly average 0.0% DVOA, which was actually the best mark for any of the four NFC East teams. By point differential, the Giants played like a seven-win team, and the two-win gap between their win total and expected win total was the largest in the league. The argument here is that things that were out of their control might go their way in 2019, and that a less talented Giants team might still be likely to improve on their record from a year ago.
The numbers may be naive, but they’re optimistic. When you look at the 50 teams since 1989 with the most similar gap between wins and expected wins to last year’s Giants and see how they did the following year, 42 of the 50 teams improved. The 50-team subset improved by an average of 2.7 wins over their previous season’s record. Teams with this large of a gap between their implied performance and actual performance almost always produce a better record the following season.
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For whatever criticisms you want to lob toward Gettleman, he has unquestionably upgraded the offensive line. Will Hernandez was a passable starter as a rookie, and he’s joined now at guard by Browns import Kevin Zeitler, who has been consistently above-average as a run-blocker. Nate Solder was a mess in his first year away from New England, with Stats LLC crediting him for eight sacks allowed, but the former Pats star was still an upgrade on Ereck Flowers. (A low bar, to be fair.) His broader body of work suggests Solder will be better in 2019. Right tackle is still a question mark even after Gettleman signed former Panthers tackle Mike Remmers, but this should be the best offensive line the Giants have fielded in years. If you’re a team that wants to run the ball with your star back, it’s probably better not to have an offensive line that ranked 29th in Football Outsiders’ run-blocking stats.
The Giants will rely even more heavily upon Barkley, of course, but they might also hope to upgrade at quarterback. There are major question marks about No. 6 overall pick Daniel Jones and with good reason, but it’s hardly as though he’s Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre. Manning has been running on fumes for the better part of two years now, and even given Jones’ apparent lack of upside, it’s not out of the question that the rookie is better than the 38-year-old Manning this season. (It’s also entirely possible Jones is worse, which would be a serious problem.)
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So, the Giants might be worse on offense and probably won’t be better as a pass defense. I understand if you’re not exactly seeing a strong case for them to improve. Again, let’s run to the numbers. The Giants went 4-8 in games decided by one score or less. There are “close” games where a team scores late to make a contest look more competitive than it really was, and the Giants had games like that against the Cowboys, Falcons and Washington last season. They also lost on a late field goal against the Eagles and on a 63-yarder by Graham Gano and the Panthers in a game they led by two points. They were up six on the Colts in Week 16 and lost when Andrew Luck threw a touchdown pass with 55 seconds left, and then when they were up by seven against the Cowboys at the two-minute warning and allowed Dak Prescott to complete a fourth-and-15 pass for a touchdown and a subsequent two-pointer.
The flip side of that argument is that New York also won exactly one game against a starting quarterback, which came when it topped Deshaun Watson and the Texans in Week 3. The team’s four other wins came in games started by C.J. Beathard, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chase Daniel and Mark Sanchez, and while they blew out Sanchez and Washington, the other three wins were by a combined 10 points. Point differential is a better stat for predicting future performance, but it’s not a perfect one, and the Giants might be more misleading than most.
Other elements of the game won’t go against them. The Giants ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ “hidden” special teams statistic, which incorporates elements out of a team’s control, such as opposing field goal kickers. Opponents were 31-of-35 against the Giants last season, including a 6-of-7 performance from 50-plus yards. That includes the 63-yard Gano winner and a 56-yarder from Giorgio Tavecchio that put the Falcons game out of reach. The Giants recovered just 40% of the fumbles in their games, the fifth-worst rate in football. That’s total randomness.
The most important element in the Giants’ favor is one of the easiest schedules in football. They’ll get four games against the AFC East, and while you can probably safely pencil in the Patriots for a victory in New England on Oct. 10, that’s one of the weakest divisions in football. New York’s own division isn’t particularly scary given that Washington is a mess at quarterback and the Cowboys are likely to decline. As the last-place team in the East, the Giants get games against the Cardinals and Buccaneers.
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They are blessed to face low expectations in two ways. One is that they play in the same market as the Knicks and can’t possibly be run worse. The other is that they need to get to only six wins to improve on their record from a year ago. The Giants can get there.