Parity has long been one of the NFL’s calling cards and a major reason it continues a runaway as the country’s most popular sports league.
Sure, it’s been largely dominated by the New England Patriots for the past two decades, but rarely has the greatest dynasty in NFL history been viewed as a prohibitive favorite. And hope springs eternal league-wide because the draft, salary cap, injuries and a limited inventory of games combine to provide just about any club the opportunity to make a deep playoff surge.
Who saw the Tennessee Titans reaching the championship round last season? Or the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017? Heck, the more time passes, the more remarkable the Atlanta Falcons’ run to Super Bowl LI – and overtime fail at New England’s hands – seems.
The NFL loves to cite year-over-year turnover in its playoff field. Since 1990, when the 12-team postseason format was implemented, at least four new teams (and often many more) have reached the Super Bowl tournament annually after being spectators the previous year.
But it’s more than a churn of predictable powers. Since 2015, 29 of the league’s 32 teams have made at least one playoff trip. Since 2010, when the New York Jets reached the second of two consecutive AFC championship games, the only teams absent from postseason are the Buccaneers (last appearance, 2007) and Browns (2002) – two organizations that could very well cast futility aside in 2020.
And, don’t forget, we’re guaranteed at least two new playoff entries this season with the league expanding to a 14-team bracket for the first time in a non-strike campaign.
Here are nine that seem likeliest to break through, from most likely to least, with September’s action now in the books (current record in parentheses):
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1. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0): Baltimore’s loss Monday gave Pittsburgh sole possession of first place in the AFC North, though the Steelers will have to contend with both the Browns and Ravens in October. But every reason to be upbeat about a team that seems to be wedding last year’s dominant defense with an offense once again thriving under QB Ben Roethlisberger’s watch. Big Ben is playing at a high level, his 105.2 passer rating on track to establish a career high, and the rejuvenation of his elbow coinciding with renaissance seasons from RB James Conner and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. More important, that elite D ranks second (290 yards allowed per game) and is once again leading the NFL in sacks (15). Whether or not the Steelers knock Baltimore from the divisional throne, Pittsburgh looks capable of making serious noise in January.
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2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1): Despite their season-opening loss at New Orleans, the Bucs have bounced back to claim exclusive ownership of first place in the NFC South. QB Tom Brady’s play has steadily improved (yes, his opponents have also gotten steadily worse), former Pats teammate Rob Gronkowski returned to relevance Sunday in Denver, and key rookies like RT Tristan Wirfs and S Antoine Winfield Jr. are playing well. If the newcomers, including RB Leonard Fournette, continue to jell with the Bucs’ established stars, this team has an open path to a division crown and more. Keep a close eye on second-year LB Devin White and a fourth-ranked defense that should only get better as Brady and Co. settle in.
3. Los Angeles Rams (2-1): They should be 3-0, robbed of a win in Buffalo by a highly suspect pass interference call. Regardless, very encouraging start for a team proving offensively diverse without RB Todd Gurley – five players are averaging more than six touches per game, and that doesn’t include underrated TE Tyler Higbee – thanks in part to a revitalized offensive line. The defense needs to dial in under rookie coordinator Brandon Staley, but when you’ve got DL Aaron Donald and CB Jalen Ramsey – and upcoming games against the Giants and Washington – ample opportunity to get right.
4. Dallas Cowboys (1-2): They could easily be undefeated, yet came equally close to a winless start. But playing in what shapes up as a pathetic NFC East, America’s Team should enjoy a substantial margin for error as it looks to extend a pattern of winning the division every other year since 2014. There’s no denying the talent, ever-improving QB Dak Prescott triggering the league’s No. 1 passing attack while armed with a receiving corps that’s apparently four deep given how Cedrick Wilson played Sunday. Dallas should also be bolstered assuming the eventual returns of starting OTs Tyron Smith (neck) and La’el Collins (hip) and LB Leighton Vander Esch (broken collarbone). Three of the Cowboys’ next five contests are of the divisional variety, which should be a golden opportunity to create space between them and their battered rivals. In the interim, new coach Mike McCarthy needs to get RB Ezekiel Elliott and a middling run game going while ensuring secondary breakdowns are addressed.
5. Indianapolis Colts (2-1): Guess who’s got the stingiest defense in the NFL in both yards and points allowed? Anchored by DL DeForest Buckner and LB Darius Leonard, Indy looks capable of checking opponents more formidable than the winless Vikings and Jets. Offensively, TE Mo Alie-Cox is an emerging player, though serious injuries to RB Marlon Mack and WR Michael Pittman Jr. are setbacks. Still, this team’s fate is likely to hinge on QB Philip Rivers, who will be 39 in December. His Colts debut at Jacksonville in Week 1 was shaky, and the veteran passer hasn’t had to do much during the team’s subsequent blowouts. Rivers never took the Chargers to the promised land, but it’s been some time since he had the backing of a defense and offensive line this stout. Stay tuned.
6. Arizona Cardinals (2-1): They made an impressive Week 1 statement by beating the (mostly intact at the time) 49ers on the road … though that was partially offset by Sunday’s stumble to the Lions in the desert. Still, a team with QB Kyler Murray, WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald, RB Kenyan Drake, OLB Chandler Jones and DBs Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker has more than enough talent to contend – even from the loaded NFC West. The Cards are on the road the next three weeks but should notch at least two wins given the Panthers, Jets and Cowboys are on the docket. Turnovers, the offensive line and a rough start for rookie Isaiah Simmons – Arizona may be asking the versatile defender, who’s lined up in multiple spots, to do too much – loom as concerns.
7. Cleveland Browns (2-1): Under new coach Kevin Stefanski, they’re enjoying just their third 2-1 start since 2002 – the only time the franchise has reached postseason since its 1999 reboot. RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt form the best backfield tandem in the league, QB Baker Mayfield has played efficient football the last two weeks – often rolling out and using play-action thanks to Stefanski’s system – and DE Myles Garrett could be the NFL’s next transcendent defender, anchoring a unit tied for the league lead with seven takeaways. The schedule’s about to get trying – the Browns will see the Cowboys, Colts and Steelers in October – but this squad has the talent to stay in the wild-card chase even while navigating the unforgiving AFC North.
8. Las Vegas Raiders (2-1): An offense averaging nearly 30 points per game has flashed courtesy of QB Derek Carr, RB Josh Jacobs and TE Darren Waller. However the Raiders are currently missing field-stretching rookie WR Henry Ruggs III and a pair of starting O-linemen (Trent Brown, Richie Incognito). Worse, despite personnel changes, a defense gashed for 90 points and more than 1,200 yards doesn’t look any stronger in 2020, particularly at the second and third levels. Vegas’ next four opponents are the Bills, Chiefs, Bucs and Browns – a gauntlet that should help reveal the Raiders’ level of legitimacy.
9. Chicago Bears (3-0): No losses here, so they’re relevant. Period. Chicagoans will cite perseverance for Da Bears’ comeback wins over Detroit and Atlanta – though most will see collapses by the Falcons and Lions, who would have survived had rookie RB D’Andre Swift not dropped what should have been the game-salvaging TD with 6 seconds to go. (I still wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit and Atlanta both overtake the Bears at some point this season.) Chicago also survived a very suspect Giants team stripped of its best player, RB Saquon Barkley, in Week 2. The Bears’ once-dominant defense looks decidedly average. RB Tarik Cohen is gone with an ACL tear. And, most important, coach Matt Nagy is now throwing in with newly promoted QB Nick Foles – whose right arm was a magic wand once again in relief Sunday yet has only produced as many as eight regular-season victories once (2013 in Philadelphia). The Colts and Bucs visit Soldier Field the next two weeks – very likely revelatory matchups.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis