NFL Playoff Sleepers

Moe+Epsilon

Moe Epsilon

Albert Young, Staff Writer

Despite being under the unusual circumstances due to COVID-19, the 2020-2021 NFL Season is officially underway and in full swing. The season is full of intangibles as fan-less crowds, coronavirus guidelines, and a shortened preseason could affect even the league’s biggest stars. From unexpected injuries to game cancellations, anything can happen this season. Given the peculiar circumstances and the very possible discrepancies along the journey, here are the five teams that could surprise you when the postseason comes around. 

5. Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East)

Current Record: 1-3-1

Projected Record: 7-8-1

The Eagles have had a tumultuous start to the season as they saw injuries occur to over a dozen different starters. However, luckily for them, the Eagles seem to be in the undeniably worst division in football. Their toughest division rival over the years, the Dallas Cowboys, have one of the worst defenses this season, as they allowed 17 touchdowns and 8 field goals in the first four weeks. The other two NFC East teams, the New York Giants and the Washington Football Team, have a combined 7 touchdowns on offense and seem to be in no contention for the playoffs whatsoever. Therefore, if the Eagles can sustain their current production following a victory against a battered 49ers team, it would be likely that they will qualify for the playoffs by leading the division. Hopefully, with more starters being activated, the Eagles’ chances of staying afloat of mediocrity seem to be the key to winning the NFC East. 

4. Carolina Panthers (NFC South)

Current Record: 3-2

Projected Record: 9-7

After a surprising victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4, the Carolina Panthers may have already proven themselves to be considered a serious playoff contender (especially with the new 14 team playoff brackets). The Panthers, who have a top-12 offense alongside a top-11 defense, seem to be drastically over-performing expectations throughout the offseason. With an inept Falcons team, the Buccaneers and Saints seem to be the only obstacles obstructing the playoff berth for Carolina. However, both Tampa Bay and New Orleans have shown signs of serious inconsistency, and with star running back Christian McCaffrey soon returning from an ankle injury, the Panthers could potentially see their first playoff appearance since the 2015-2016 NFL Season.

3. Chicago Bears (NFC North)

Current Record: 4-1

Projected Record: 10-6

Following a huge victory against the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers, the Chicago Bears seem to have found their rhythm once again. Back in 2018, the Bears had one of the highest-scoring defenses in the league. After a season-ending play in what is now known as the “double-doink,” and a disappointing 2019 campaign (8-8), Chicago seems to be returning to its once-dominant form. The current Bears rank eighth among defenses in the NFL, and with former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles captaining the offense instead of 2018 first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears can look forward to some higher-scoring games. In addition, the Bears have started off hot with four wins out of five games and look to continue this streak against its NFC North division rivals: the Lions (1-3), Vikings (1-3), and Packers (4-0). With a division-heavy schedule ahead, expect Chicago to challenge Green Bay for the NFC North crown. 

2. Indianapolis Colts (AFC South)

Current record: 3-2

Projected Record: 10-6

The Indianapolis Colts are thriving under the newly-acquired veteran quarterback Philip Rivers and star pass rusher in the 6 foot 7 DeForest Buckner. Not only are the Colts assisting themselves by making such drastic improvements, their division, the AFC South, has seen some serious challenges thus far. The Tennessee Titans have recently had a disruptive coronavirus outbreak within its facilities, infecting 23 Titans’ staff and players. There have been serious talks for the Titans to forfeit the rest of their games for the season which could mean a free two wins for the Colts. Additionally, the Houston Texans traded away superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals this past offseason, proving detrimental to the Texans organization as they have started the season 1-4. This led to the recent firing of head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien whose decisions and actions seem to have done more harm than good. In addition to the Texans’ struggles, the Jacksonville Jaguars have seen their share of front office-related disasters as well. After dealing away defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and running back Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars are merely a shell of what they once were in the 2017 AFC Championship game. After starting 1-4, things are not looking better for the Jaguars and expect them to be a stepping stone for most NFL rosters. Therefore, with an improved star-studded roster along with a faltering division, expect the Colts to make a great impact in a postseason push. 

1. Cleveland Browns (AFC North)

Current record: 4-1

Projected record: 11-5

Is this the year that the Browns finally fulfill their expectations and make the playoffs? After a disastrous coaching tenure by Hue Jackson, Browns’ fans have found promise in quarterback coach Freddie Kitchens. After going 5-3 to finish the 2018 campaign, the Kitchens-led Browns fell to 6-10 in 2019 despite the addition of star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Kitchens was fired immediately following the end of the 2019 regular season. In the offseason, the Browns found a new general manager in former Eagles’ VP, Andrew Berry. The Browns also signed Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to become the new head coach. This would prove to be the turning point for the Browns. This new offensive scheme developed by Stefanski for the 2020 season is extremely run-heavy, and with the talent amongst the running backs, it is no surprise that the Browns are excelling on offense, scoring an average of 31 points per game. Both Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb are well above 5 yards per carry, which is roughly a yard more than their previous season. In addition to the Browns’ newfound offensive success, the defensive spotlight belongs to Myles Garrett, who is currently leading the league with 5.0 sacks over the course of four weeks. After multiple seasons of heartbreak, this seems to be the most promising season since 2014 for the Browns to finally make the playoffs again.