By Andy Goddard (@godsy1985) – 16th June
The National Football League is meant to be one of parity (tell that to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots). In 2018 the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts all reached the playoffs after having losing records in 2017. It is one of the great things about the NFL, the possibility of going from being the worst team to lifting the Lombardi trophy is real. So who are our candidates this year? Let’s look at four teams that finished at the bottom of their respective divisions.
New York Giants
The Giants had an awful 2018 season with a 5-11 record but the emergence of Saquon Barkley was a big plus with his 1307 rushing yards and 721 receiving yards. The play of Eli Manning was much maligned but when you look at the stats, he may not have been as poor as advertised. Eli’s QB rating was 92.4 which was the forth best of his career and his 66% completion ratio (for 4,299 yards) was the highest of his career. (http://www.nfl.com/player/elimanning/2505996/careerstats). There is no doubt that Manning has lost some mobility though. He was sacked 47 times in the 2018 season (a career high) and the offensive line needs some attention but it is fully expect that the Giants will be a run heavy team in 2019. Barkley is primed for another phenomenal season and with the addition of Golden Tate at wide receiver they still have weapons even without Beckham Jr. In 2018, the Giants lost eight games by 7 points or less and lost their final two games of the season by just a single point! When you look at their 2018 season in more detail, they weren’t far away from a 9-7 record which could have seen them reach the playoffs!
The Giants also have two big advantages in 2019. Their strength of schedule is ranked as the 27th most difficult and the NFC East is wide open. Whilst the Philadelphia Eagles should improve (as long as Wentz stays healthy), the Dallas Cowboys may go backwards and the Washington Redskins are potentially starting a rookie quarterback. If they can upgrade the pass rush (which ranked 30th in sacks) they should have a great shot at reaching the playoffs in 2019!
The Bengals have a talented roster that have been under-utilised for years but with new head coach Zac Taylor now at the helm, could the Bengals improve of their 6-10 record in what is normally a tough division? The AFC North has lost a huge amount of talent from the Pittsburgh Steelers, has gained a mass of talent in Cleveland and has a seemingly sketchy playbook and an ageing defence in Baltimore. There doesn’t appear to be a clear favourite in the division and this may open the field up for the Bengals to surprise a few people. For this to happen the Bengals will need to improve massively on what was one the weakest defences (yardage wise) in NFL history, ranking fifth all time in yards allowed (https://www.pro-football-reference.com/play-index/tiny.fcgi?id=xNW3M). Cincinnati will be hoping that the coaching change can address this situation. There is plenty of talent of the offensive side of the ball with the serviceable Andy Dalton throwing to A. J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Tyler Eifert as well as having Joe Mixon in the backfield, they seem to have a balanced attack if it can be exploited to its full potential.
With the AFC North in a stage of transition its very easy to see the Bengals finishing at the top of the pile, however, it is also very easy to see them finishing in last place once again!
New York Jets
The New England Patriots may have won the AFC East in 16 out of the last 18 seasons but they can’t win forever, can they? Coming off of a 4-12 season, Adam Gase is now the head coach (replacing Todd Bowles) and the team have made some great moves in both free agency and the draft. Le’Veon Bell is a stellar running back with his patient style but questions remain over whether sitting out the whole of last season will have impacted him in any way. Then there is second year QB Sam Darnold who, at times last season, looked very much like the franchise player that the Jets needed. Darnold did have his struggles (as most first year QB’s do) but if he does make the transition to the second year, similar to that of Mitch Trubisky at the Bears, the Jets are well primed to cause teams problems. With the drafting of Alabamas Quinnen Williams (defensive tackle) ‘Gang Green’ may have found a run blocker to play at nose tackle in a 3-4 defence that’s Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams is reportedly staying with.
The New York Jets also have one of the easiest schedules in 2019, tied at 27th. The only problem here is that they are tied with the New England Patriots (https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/2019-nfl-strength-of-schedule-patriots-and-redskins-have-it-easiest-raiders-face-roughest-ride/). Winning the AFC East maybe very difficult in 2019 but it wasn’t long ago that the Jets went into Foxboro for a divisional playoff game and came out victorious. The 2019 season may be slightly too early but the Jets are building a strong team for the future and it would not surprise me to see them in the playoffs in 2019.
The Jags plummeted after reaching the 2017 AFC Championship Game finishing last season with a 5-11 record. However, there is no last-place team that is better equipped to rebound. They still have a talented defence that finished fifth in the NFL in 2018 (http://www.nfl.com/stats/categorystats?tabSeq=2&defensiveStatisticCategory=GAME_STATS&conference=ALL&role=OPP&season=2018&seasonType=REG&d-447263-s=TOTAL_YARDS_GAME_AVG&d-447263-o=1&d-447263-n=1) and they have upgraded where they needed it most, quarterback! For the last two seasons many people have wondered what this team could be with more functionality at QB. Nick Foles has shown that he can produce on the biggest stage and the 2017 Super Bowl MVP can also call on running back Leonard Fournette. Fournette had a poor 2018 season that was hampered by injury, suspension, and by his own admission, being in ‘sub-optimal shape’. With a healthier o-line and improvement in fitness, the LSU man will need to produce with more consistency for the Jaguars to have a chance.
Head coach, Doug Marrone has also had a big change up of his coaching staff with 8 coaches either joining the Jags or being promoted from within (https://www.jaguars.com/news/official-defilippo-named-oc-staff-finalized). One major problem for the Jaguars could be the strength of the AFC South. The Texans, Colts and Titans all had winning records in 2018 with two of the three making the playoffs. Whilst the division is relatively open, it’s up for grabs because all of the teams are good. However, if Foles can reproduce his performances from Philly and Fournette can get back to his 2017 form, the Jaguars should get back to the playoffs.
For my money, the Giants and the Jaguars have the best chance but what do you think? Will any of these teams even make the playoffs or is there a better candidate out there? Let us know @Full10Yards