The NFL Playoffs are not only a showcase of the league’s talent, but they are a reward for many teams that have practiced and worked hard throughout the season. The playoffs not only get entertaining when two talented NFL teams faceoff, but when a team that had low expectations in the preseason, played its hardest and earned a playoff spot. These teams are underdogs and fans become passionate about them, as it is a sports tradition to root for the underdogs. These underdogs could come from both the AFC and NFC, but let’s focus on the NFC. Here are two NFC dark horse teams that have low expectations, but could make the playoffs.
NFC Dark Horse Playoff Teams
Last year the Lions finished 4th in the NFC North with a 3-12-1 record. The Lions had the 17th best offense, with a top 10 passing offense, but a horrible rushing offense.
Improved Rush Offense
Last year Kerryon Johnson was a key contributor to the horrible rushing attack. He underperformed in eight games and he was out for the other eight games. This rushing offense will greatly improve with the rookie D’Andre Swift as the starter instead of Kerryon Johnson. Swift is a talented runner and pass catcher who will overall improve the Lions offense. Not only will the rushing offense improve with the addition of D’Andre Swift, but the offensive line that was top 15 last year, added two starters in Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai who will create room for D’Andre Swift to run.
Healthy Matthew Stafford
The offensive line also plays a huge part in the pass protection of the biggest issue on this team, Matthew Stafford. His injury led to the downfall of the Lions. Matthew Stafford has a huge impact on this offense, as last year if not injured, he was on pace for over 35 touchdowns, 4,900 passing yards, and MVP contention. Matthew Stafford is elite by himself, but he has great offensive weapons too.
Elite Receiving Group
At the tight end is T.J. Hockenson, who is very young and solid. He managed to rack up 367 receiving yards before getting injured. He is projected to be one of the best tight ends in the upcoming years. Another group of great offensive weapons is the Lions receiving group. Its led by the lengthy and underrated Kenny Golladay. He is a huge red zone threat as he led the league in receiving touchdowns with 11. The other two receivers, Marvin Jones Jr and Danny Amendola are also very solid and can rack up lots of yards.
Overall, the Lions have a solid offense that is led by an elite quarterback in Matthew Stafford and a great receiving core. If it wasn’t for injuries, this offense could have possibly carried the Lions into the playoffs. If the Lions offense can stay healthy, there is no reason they shouldn’t be in the playoffs this upcoming year.
Improved Pass Rush
Last year the Lions defense was the 2nd worst in the league and they had the worst pass defense. The awful pass defense was not the secondary’s fault, but it was the fault of the pass rush. Virtually no pressure was put on opposing quarterbacks, which gave time for them to scan the field and throw to the receiver of their choice. Even though the two defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers are returning, the pass rush got major help through many additions. These additions include the two solid defensive tackles, Danny Shelton and Nick Williams, additionally the linebacker Jamie Collins.
Revamped Run Defense
Last year, opposing running backs ran over the Lions defense, for those reasons, upgrades were needed. These upgrades included Jamie Collins who is one of the two new linebackers along with Reggie Ragland. Both of them will be the starters, along with the only returning starting linebacker, Jarrad Davis. These linebackers will provide great run support to the defensive tackles. Danny Shelton and Nick Williams are also new, but solid in stopping the run.
Although this offseason the Lions traded away their elite corner, Darius Slay, they added many new faces to this secondary room. Replacing Slay is the rookie Jeff Okudah who is predicted to play great and become elite in the future. The Lions also added the veteran Desmond Trufant who will bring experience to this group. Duron Harmon was brought in to replace Quandre Diggs who was traded midseason to the Seahawks. Harmon is not as good as Diggs, but he is serviceable. The only returning starters are the free safety Tracy Walker who is solid and Justin Coleman, who will sit on the bench this season.
NFC Dark Horse Teams: Lions Summary
The Lions have a very good offense that includes an elite quarterback and receiving group. On the defensive side, the Lions are not going to be great, but they have improved. If the offense stays healthy and the defense is top 20, then there would be no surprise to see this team in January.
Last year the Cardinals finished 4th in the NFC West with a 5-10-1 record. They had the 12th worst offense, a below-average pass offense, but a top 10 rushing offense.
Fantastic Rush Attack
This running back group lost the veteran David Johnson, but he underperformed and he was injury-prone. The starter is Kenyan Drake who was traded from the Dolphins midway through the season and he totaled 817 rushing yards along with 171 receiving yards last year. He is a great runner and a solid pass-catching option. I expect him to get over 1,000 rushing yards and over 250 receiving yards with an offensive line that is better than the Dolphins. The Cardinals also have solid backups in Chase Edmonds and Eno Benjamin who should combine together for over 500 rushing yards. Besides the running backs, Kyler Murray also rushed for 544 yards.
Last year Kyler Murray won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year while totaling 3,722 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, and 544 rushing yards. The Cardinals had a low ranked passing attack because Kyler didn’t have to pass a lot due to the run offense being very good. He is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the league. He is an explosive player that frightens defenses with his legs and arms which makes him a game-changer. I like many others expect Kyler Murray to be an MVP candidate this season and to have a breakout year. The reasons for a breakout season are an improved offensive line and an elite receiving core. I expect Kyler Murray to throw for over 4,100 passing yards, over 25 touchdowns, and accumulate 550 rushing yards.
Elite Receiving Core
One of the biggest moves this NFL offseason was DeAndre Hopkins getting traded to the Cardinals. Hopkins is one of the best receivers in the league as he makes spectacular catches and can run after the catch. He is joining an already solid group of receivers. Besides Hopkins, the other receivers include the great veteran Larry Fitzgerald who is still going great at age 36 and the last receiver is the young Christian Kirk who is known for his speed. Besides the starters, the Cardinals have decent backups in the speedster Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler. These receivers should succeed especially since the head coach, Cliff Kingsbury, is a passing minded coach. I expect this group to combine for well over 3,000 receiving yards. This offense is very capable of taking the Cardinals into the playoffs.
Enhanced Run Defense
The Cardinals had the worst defense last year, this included the 2nd worst rush defense and a bottom 10 pass defense. The biggest factor that led to this awful display on the defensive end was a horrible run defense. It was a huge need and it was filled this offseason. The Cardinals added the very good Jordan Phillips to play as their nose tackle. He is known for his pressure, but he is also very good at stopping the run. Another addition is the freak athlete, Isaiah Simmons who is a tackling machine and will provide much needed run support. Along with Simmons, Jordan Hicks who is very good will also help to stop the run.
The Cardinals have one of the best linebacking cores in the league. It is led by one of the most underrated players in the league, Chandler Jones. He brings monstrous amounts of pressure, and he totals over 13 sacks almost every year. On the other side is the new addition, Devon Kennard. Like Chandler Jones, he also brings large amounts of pressure. Expect these two, to combine for well over 20 sacks. Moving on into the interior, Jordan Hicks is an underrated tackling machine who can get close to 100 tackles. Finishing of the group is the rookie Isaiah Simmons who is a freak athlete. He can tackle, play coverage, and pressure the quarterback. He can also play strong safety. Like Hicks I expect Simmons to get close to (or surpass) 100 tackles.
The secondary last year didn’t have a great season, but I expect it to improve. The leader on this secondary is the pro bowler Patrick Peterson. He is an elite shutdown corner. His counterpart is the young Byron Murphy Jr. He is also a very solid corner and he is expected to break out this season for the Cardinals. The big bright spot last year was the free safety Budda Baker. Even though Budda Baker had no interceptions, he led the league with 104 solo tackles and played all over the field. The last piece is the young strong safety Jalen Thompson who is decent but needs to improve productions. Overall, this secondary is very young but is a playoff-caliber secondary.
NFC Dark Horse Teams: Cardinals Summary
Overall, the Cardinals play in a very tough division, but they have a solid team. They have a very good offense led by the young Kyler Murray. If their defense can be decent, then they have a very good chance to make the playoffs.
NFC Dark Horse Teams Recap
The Lions and Cardinals are both teams that are sleeper playoff teams on the NFC side. Both of these teams have very good offenses that are led by solid quarterbacks. Their biggest issues are their defenses, and if they can play decently, then one of these teams should make it in. In conclusion, even though the Cardinals have a tougher division, I think they are more likely to make the playoffs than the Lions. They have a better offense and defense than the Lions. I say that, but you never truly know how a team will play during the season, which is what makes the NFL so entertaining.
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