Recent history shows teams can make quick leap away from losing
Prior to the start of every NFL season predictions by writers and fans are tossed around in a vaguely indiscriminate manner. Most of it is a lot of the same.
The prevailing belief being that teams who missed the playoffs by a mile and performed in the bottom 15 percent of the league in the previous season will more or less repeat that same level of nonsuccess and dysfunction in the upcoming season.
Because of this erroneous belief, there's not much of a grass-roots campaign on how Terrible Team A is going to shock everyone and the league and catapult into the playoffs. What's interesting, though, is there were three such teams in 2012: Indianapolis (11-5; 9-win improvement from 2011), Minnesota (10-6; 7-win improvement), and Washington (10-6; 5-win improvement).
Recent history informs us that these kinds of leaps in improvement are exceedingly likely. In fact, since 1990, roughly 25 percent of the teams that finish 6-10 or worse make the playoffs the following year, according to Grantland.com's Bill Barnwell.
Last year, I whiffed on these predictions: Neither the Rams (7-8-1; 5-win improvement) nor the Buccaneers (7-9; 3-win improvement) made the playoffs like I had predicted. To my credit, though, both teams were markedly better in 2012 than they were in 2011. I'm tempted to give myself a half-win for the Rams prediction-a 5-win improvement is a pretty solid return on my prediction, but I won't. It stands: 0-for-2.
So here's to hoping I can do better this year, as I lay out my predictions for which two hapless teams from 2012 are destined to make an unexpected leap and earn a playoff berth this season.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (LAST SEASON: 2-14)
The Chiefs genuinely earned their woeful, last-place record in 2012, so why, exactly, do I think they have a chance at making the playoffs? Well, for one, Kansas City's defense, which somehow featured four Pro Bowlers, forced a league low 13 turnovers in 2012. That's an abysmally low rate for any team, let alone one with the defensive talent that the Chiefs have. The likelihood of this defense being that porous at forcing turnovers this season is highly unlikely.
Probably the strongest argument for the Chiefs making a leap is this: Andy Reid as head coach is a massive upgrade from Romeo Crennel, and Alex Smith is most likely not going to throw 20 interceptions like Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined for last season. Sure, Smith and Reid won't engender greatness, but that's OK. They're already light-years better than what Kansas City rolled out in 2012. They just need to be occasionally good and mostly competent, and that can actually be more than enough.
DETROIT LIONS (LAST SEASON: 4-12)
After going 10-6 and making the playoffs in 2011, it sure seemed like Detroit was on the upswing after nearly a decade of being embarrassing and terrible (and in that order). Then 2012 happened and it felt like: Man, that didn't last long, the Lions are already bad again? Well. ... it's complicated. They were bad last year, but there are plenty of reasons to think they can return to their 2011 form this season.
No team in the NFL faced a tougher schedule last season than the Lions. That's an unfortunate and unlucky circumstance to be in. Moreover, they posted a dreadful record in one-score games (3-8), but history tells us that records in one-score games (good or bad) often fluctuate from year to year. A lot of what determines the outcome of a one-score game comes down to either chance or plain, dumb luck. Sometimes you're unlucky and misfortune happens. That was the Lions last year (and I guess you could make the case they've always been like that).
If Detroit's backfield can take some of the pressure off of Matthew Stafford's arm, and if Ndamukong Suh can spearhead a defense that actually forces turnovers (Detroit only forced 17 total turnovers in 2012; only five teams forced fewer), and if their core stars can stay healthy, Detroit has a good shot at making the playoffs and by extension making it look like I know what I'm talking about.
Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.