For a very long time the NFL saw, on average, five new teams jump into the postseason each year. Five is an anecdotal number, a digit roughly ascribed by an old sportswriters’ tale, although a generally accepted number with the rational assumption of variance built in. Some years less, some years more, but a general gravitation towards five happened at the end of the season.
However, things have been different the past several years. Covid wreaked havoc on everyone, and the NFL was no different. Playoff expansion, to seven teams on each side of the bracket via an additional wild-card team, means we can’t rely on old assumptions. Instead, we need to be diligent about accepting the possibility expanded playoffs could give us expanded variance within the bracket.
Each of the past two seasons, we’ve seen SEVEN new playoff teams. In 2021, with playoff expansion and the pandemic season behind us, the Patriots, Bengals (Joe Burrow’s second year), Raiders (despite firing Jon Gruden midseason), Cowboys, Eagles, Cardinals and 49ers all made the playoffs after missing the year before.
Washington, Cleveland and Chicago — plus two teams from the AFC South — made the playoffs in 2020, in case you forgot how weird life was back then.
Last season, the Dolphins, Ravens, Jaguars, Chargers, Giants, Vikings and Seahawks were all “new” playoff teams after missing from the year before. Four new head coaches on that list is interesting!
We might not go all the way to seven, and I’m pretty sure The Brinson Model™️ is underselling the number of new possible playoff teams, but it’s still early in the offseason. Let’s try and find as many as we can.
The easiest pick out there for new playoff teams, the Jets added Aaron Rodgers this offseason. Despite Rodgers already tweaking his ankle in OTAs (see why he never attended?!?!), the Jets are still a very popular team in Vegas and getting plenty of respect from the sportsbooks at just +200 to win the AFC East and -150 to make the playoffs at Caesars. There’s no need to belabor the point here: Aaron Rodgers absolutely makes the Jets a playoff-caliber team.
Again, kind of feels like an easy pick for this article! The Broncos traded for Russell Wilson last offseason and expectations were sky high. Whoops — Russ was TERRIBLE and Nathaniel Hackett became such a punchline at one point he grew a goatee like he was trying to make people forget he was still working in Denver. The NFL loaded Denver up on the prime-time schedule and we all paid dearly for it. This is very much like the Jets for me, though. Sean Payton, with a year off to recharge his batteries, is simply that big of an upgrade as a coach over Hackett (in his first season mind you) to push Denver into playoff contention territory, even though the AFC is admittedly quite loaded.
Given all three of the Colts, Texans and Titans used high picks on quarterbacks — drafting Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud and Will Levis, respectively — I almost wrote “AFC South Sleeper Team” here, but it felt like too much of a cop out to lobby for three teams. The Jags are huge favorites to win the division, and rightly so: they have the best roster, and I trust their QB/coach combo. And while I’m not a huge Stroud fan (a sentence that makes me laugh every time I write it, sorry not sorry to my good buddy Dave Stroud) I am a big DeMeco Ryans fan, and I think the Texans are being slept on for their roster improvements this offseason. With Damien Pierce/Devin Singletary and a good offensive line, this team should be able to run. Bobby Slowik is VERY intriguing as a first-year offensive coordinator coming from Kyle Shanahan’s system. The pass-catchers aren’t flashy, but this is the best floor Houston’s had in a while there. Will Anderson Jr. is the highlight on defense, but the Texans also added a lot of non-flashy veteran guys who could raise the bar for this unit, too. People will yell at me for this but guess what: DOOOOON’T CAAAAAARE.
A bigger favorite to make the playoffs (-170) at Caesars than the Jets, the Fighting Dan Campbells are the trendy selection for NFC North champs ahead of the season. With good reason: the roster is stout and the Lions have improved under Campbell significantly, overcoming some tough losses last year to make an impressive push for the playoffs. Jared Goff isn’t playing the best football of his career, but it’s pretty darn close. Detroit’s offensive line can keep it in any game, and if the Jahmyr Gibbs pick pans out, the running game will be a problem. If the Lions take a step forward defensively, their playoff price will look cheap by Thanksgiving.
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The NFC is pretty weak overall, and the NFC South is completely wide open this year. The Buccaneers look primed to cough up the NFC South mantle after Tom Brady took home back-to-back division titles before retiring. If you’re writing one of these “teams to make or miss the postseason” and you’re not using the NFC South, you should rethink your strategy.
Atlanta — my current pick to win the division — didn’t draft a QB, but I can see a lot of “Titans Lite” in what Arthur Smith is constructing with the Falcons roster. The defense needs to take a step forward, but if Bijan Robinson is his version of Derrick Henry, this team can pile up wins on an easy schedule.
Stop me if you’ve heard this but … the NFC is pretty weak overall, and the NFC South is completely wide open this year. The Buccaneers look primed to cough up the NFC South mantle after Tom Brady took home back-to-back division titles before retiring. If you’re writing one of these “teams to make or miss the postseason” and you’re not using the NFC South, you should rethink your strategy.
Carolina was never a QB away, but adding Bryce Young and upgrading to Frank Reich certainly helps accelerate what they hope is a postseason trip in the near future. D.J. Moore leaving is a problem for sure, but I like the floor-level veteran pass-catchers Carolina added this offseason, including Adam Thielen and Hayden Hurst. Neither one is a superstar, but both will help Young early and won’t have steep playbook learning curves. I believe people will be SHOCKED at the overall coaching upgrade here. Love the Panthers in 2023, which is not what I expected to say a year ago.
Los Angeles Rams
Everyone is over the Rams, ignoring the fact Los Angeles won the Super Bowl just two years ago. People keep pointing to television for Sean McVay, but he’s WAY too competitive to just call it quits coming off multiple losing seasons. If McVay fixes the offensive line, the Rams are going to take a nice step forward on offense. If Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp are healthy for a full season, we should see another big year from the future Hall of Famers. Defensively, the Rams did lose Jalen Ramsey and need big contributions from some under-the-radar players, but count out a defense with Aaron Donald on it at your own expense.
Those are my seven teams CURRENTLY. I think you could make the case for a few more, including the Rams, the Patriots, the Bears, the Packers and maybe another AFC South team if you’re feeling so inclined.
Send me your picks for new playoff teams or tell me why mine are terrible on Twitter @WillBrinson or Instagram @WillBrinson.