5. Carolina Panthers – Record: 6-10
The Panthers still have basically the same roster that they had when they won the NFC in 2015 and went 15-1. However, this season didn’t work out like they had planned due to injuries and inconsistent quarterback play from Cam Newton. The Panthers defense still has a ton of talent and it will be even better if they can add some more pieces to their secondary. Also, if Cam Newton is healthy next season then he should be much better than he was this season and the Panthers will need him to play well in order to make the playoffs. The pieces are all in place for Carolina and now they just have to win the close games that they failed to win this past season.
4. Arizona Cardinals – Record: 7-8-1
Arizona made it to the NFC championship game in 2015, but this past season they certainly underachieved the expectations for them to be super bowl contenders. Cardinals running back David Johnson had an MVP caliber season and I’m sure he will do the same in 2017. Also, Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL in receptions in 2017 and he shows up every season to be an impact player even as he starts to age. Arizona even has great playmakers on defense with Patrick Peterson and Chandler Jones. The Cardinals have an extremely talented roster, but the question is how well Carson Palmer will play next season. Palmer didn’t play that well this season and it held the Cardinals back. However, this team is a playoff contender if they can put everything together next season.
3. Denver Broncos – Record: 9-7
The Broncos still have a top NFL defense and that won’t change heading into next season as they will be returning basically every player from that defense. However, it is the offense that made this season such a disappointment following a super bowl win. If the Broncos can find a way to improve their offensive line then this could be a really good team in 2017. Also, running back C.J. Anderson will be returning from injury in 2017 which should provide the running game with a much needed boost. The quarterback position is the one mystery surrounding the Broncos. They could stick with Trevor Siemian despite average play this past season. The Broncos probably will make 2016 1st round pick Paxton Lynch their starting quarterback in 2017 if he is ready to play or they could acquire a veteran quarterback like Tony Romo. Overall, the defense carried Denver this past season to a 9-7 record and I’m sure that unit will do the same again in 2017. Denver will have a new coach, but this should be a playoff team as long as they can improve their offense.
2. Indianapolis Colts – Record: 8-8
It was yet another disappointing season for the Indianapolis Colts as they didn’t make the playoffs for the 2nd consecutive year. However, there is reason for optimism with the Colts that they’ll be able to make the playoffs in 2017. The main reason is because they have Andrew Luck who is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He has plenty of weapons around him on offense with running back Frank Gore and star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Also, the offensive line play is starting to get better which should allow him to be more effective. The main concern for Indianapolis will be their defense for sure especially after the retirement of their best defensive player Robert Mathis. Indianapolis needs a lot of help on defense and even if their defense can be average next season then this should definitely be a playoff team.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Record: 9-7
It looked like the Buccaneers were out of it after going 3-5 to start the season, but they came up with 5 straight wins to have a chance at making the playoffs. The Buccaneers have a great quarterback with Jameis Winston and a great wide receiver with Mike Evans. Tampa Bay’s defense started to really play well towards the end of the season and that gives great optimism for next season. As long as defensive coordinator Mike Smith remains with the Buccaneers then this defense should be good. If the Buccaneers can get some better offensive line play in order to protect Jameis Winston then it could make their offense really good. Also, a big issue for Tampa Bay was that they didn’t have enough around Winston to make him successful. Tampa Bay needs to find a quality wide receiver this offseason and then they won’t have to rely so much on Mike Evans in the passing game. The Buccaneers proved that they can be a good team, but they need to add a few more pieces in order to be a playoff team in 2017.