If there's one predictable thing about the NFL playoffs it's this: You can't predict them in the preseason.
Just last season, the Oakland Raiders ended a 14-year postseason drought by becoming one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC. Until January, the team never lost back-to-back games and saw Derek Carr and Khalil Mack generate buzz for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year respectively. If not for the broken leg Carr suffered in Week 16, the Raiders likely would have secured the No. 2 seed in the conference and a first-round bye.
Likewise, 2017 should see a franchise or two (or three) rise up to become a force during the regular season and playoffs. While predicting which teams ultimately emerge involves its own set of challenges, several appeared primed to make the leap at the outset.
Dak Prescott's meteoric rise became one of last season's dominant narratives, but before he helped the Dallas Cowboys secure the NFC East and a bye in the playoffs, Philadelphia's Carson Wentz garnered more attention among rookie quarterbacks. Wentz's FCS background made him an unlikely No. 2 overall draft pick and an even more unlikely early success story. In his first four games, he passed for 1,007 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception while helping the Eagles to a 3-1 start. In that moment, it seemed the team had finally found the rightful heir to long-time starter Donovan McNabb.
The rest of the season proved unkind to Wentz, who posted a 72.3 passer rating and tossed more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (nine). The league caught up to the rookie and he failed to adjust back. The Eagles saw their fortunes tumble accordingly, finishing the year with a losing record and a last-place finish in the division.
With a second offseason under his belt, Wentz looks to reclaim the form that made him and Philadelphia a force during the opening quarter of last season. He also has a bevy a new weapons, including Pro Bowl wideout Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and LeGarrette Blount. After playing with a pedestrian groups of skill-position players in 2016, this enhanced supporting cast could help Wentz make the leap and carry the Eagles with him.
But even if Wentz doesn't justify his hype in 2017, the Eagles' robust defense could take over. The unit made a dramatic leap a year ago, improving from 17th to fourth in DVOA in its first year under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. All the key pieces return, and several major additions -- defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, defensive end Derek Barnett, and cornerback Ronald Darby -- could legitimately push Philly's defense ahead of all others.
The NFC East has multiple quality teams for the Eagles to contend with, and that dynamic could limit their ceiling during the regular season. Still, the anticipated second-year jumps for Wentz, Schwartz's defense and head coach Doug Peterson provides some needed built-in improvement. Playoff contention seems a logical and realistic next step.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
HBO's "Hard Knocks" usually portrays the team it covers as an up-and-coming force ready to take over the NFL world, but rarely does it actually come to fruition. Last year's subject, the Los Angeles Rams, wound up 4-12 and fired its head coach, Jeff Fisher, before the end of the season. A similar fate befell the Atlanta Falcons two years prior, with Mike Smith losing his job due in part the unmet expectations generated by the show.
However, the 2017 Bucs appear different than those squads. Tampa Bay finished fourth in weighted DVOA last year and added starting defensive tackle Chris Baker and Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward. While other recent "Hard Knocks" squads trended downward, the Bucs appear headed in a positive direction.
That holds particularly true for the offense. Head coach Dirk Koetter had to funnel so much of his offense through wide receiver Mike Evans, the only reliable pass-catcher on the team over the past two seasons. This year's group adds Pro Bowl wideout DeSean Jackson and athletic rookies O.J. Howard to the mix, giving quarterback Jameis Winston the opportunity to spread the ball around more judiciously.
The NFC South features the last two teams to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, and each has a legitimate path to return there this season. For the Buccaneers to avoid falling behind, Winston needs to cut down on his turnovers (he threw interceptions on 3.2 percent of his passes last year) and the coaching staff needs to squeeze better play out of second-year defenders Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves. While not guaranteed, those goals seem achievable.
In some sense, the Titans broke out of the doldrums last season. The team delivered its first winning record since 2011 and saw Marcus Mariota improve in nearly every statistical category in his first full year under head coach Mike Mularkey. Just as importantly, Tennessee established an identity -- Mularkey's oft-derided "exotic smashmouth" style proved to be a mesh with the roster's offensive talent -- for the first time since Vince Young's heyday roughly a decade ago.
Tennessee also dealt with a fair amount of bad luck last season. In addition to Mariota's injury, the team recorded the fifth-fewest fumbles, directly contributing to its 17th-place finish in turnover differential. The Titans missed the playoffs by the smallest of margins in 2016, meaning a regression towards the mean with fumble recoveries could alone prove the difference between a division crown and the playoff drought extending to nine years.
The drama elsewhere in the AFC South could also help Tennessee return to the playoffs. The Houston Texans went nearly the entire preseason without naming a starting signal-caller, eventually settling on Tom Savage over the more-talented Deshaun Watson. The status of Houston's starter could change in a matter of weeks, and in-season quarterback controversies tend to end poorly for the team in question. Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Colts will start the year without Andrew Luck under center and don't have an exact date for his return. Without Luck, the already overmatched Colts stand little chance of competing for the division. The Jacksonville Jaguars remain outside the conversation so long as they stick with Blake Bortles.
With such middling competition, the improved Titans should expect double-digit wins and a home game in the playoffs this year.