Every year, five or six teams who missed out on last season's playoffs find their way into the postseason. Half of them we never even see coming. Who truthfully had the Bears romping to the NFC North title this season, or the Colts even coming close to January football?
That's the beauty of the NFL. Every year you start with a clean slate and renewed hope of making it back to the big time... unless you're the Browns. Except even that's about to change!
Here are the five teams I think are most likely to reach the promised land in 2019 after missing out this year...
I can't believe I'm saying this, but of all the teams who have missed out on the playoffs in 2018, the Cleveland Browns are the one I'm most confident in righting that wrong in 2019. I know. But tell me you disagree? This is an incredibly talented roster which has shown just how dangerous it can be ever since the curse that is Hue Jackson was ejected from the building. The Browns have gone 5-2 since Gregg Williams was named interim head coach and Freddie Kitchens took over the offense. Baker Mayfield has clearly loved working with Kitchens - he has a passer rating of 114 since the former running backs coach was made offensive coordinator.
Mayfield is the biggest reason why I now believe in the Browns. Not only has he put together an excellent rookie season, but he's brought a new energy to Cleveland. The type of fight a franchise so deep in the mire needed to drag its head back above the swamp water. Mayfield is an infectious winner, and on Sunday he has the opportunity to lead the Browns to their first winning season in over a decade.
But it's not just Baker - look anywhere on this Browns roster and you see talent. Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi and Emmanuel Ogbah are turning into one of the league's most threatening pass rushes, the offensive line has allowed Mayfield to be sacked just 25 times, Denzel Ward is a star defensive back, Nich Chubb has had a huge year at running back and Jarvis Landry is a top slot receiver. Cleveland could do with a little more juice at receiver, but that's something they can and will address in the offseason. If the Browns make the right call in their head coaching hunt I can see them winning the AFC North in 2019.
The clock is ticking for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Rodgers is now 35 years old, and may only have two or three years left at the top of his game. He can't go out having won just one Super Bowl. It would be criminal. That's why Green Bay's choice of their next head coach is so vital, and it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if Rodgers had a little say in the matter. The Packers are nothing without him - last season was evidence to that.
Fresh ideas are needed in Green Bay - Mike McCarthy was once an excellent head coach, but his methods feel outdated now. The offense needs to start playing to Rodgers' strengths instead of just relying on him to carry them into the postseason. An overhaul at wide receiver would help. Outside of Davante Adams there's been little to get excited about out wide in Green Bay, but Geronimo Allison has been out injured and Marquez Valdes-Scantling has shown some potential. In the backfield, Aaron Jones' limited use has been puzzling. Jones averages more yards per carry than any other back in the NFL, and there's no question he should be the main man, with Jamaal Williams playing a supporting role.
First-round rookie corner Jaire Alexander has been the big positive on defense - he should develop into a star player - and the defensive line has come up with 43 sacks despite being banged up all year. The safety position needs addressing, but all in all the Packers are only a couple of pieces away from being contenders again - so long as Rodgers is Rodgers and they hire the right coach.
We all know the problems with the Giants, they have a quarterback who is several years past his best and an offensive line which is about as effective as a broken turnstile. These are two giant (ahem) issues for a team trying to win football games, and it's crazy to think the men upstairs genuinely believed they could reach the playoffs with such glaring holes in their roster.
The flip side is this: the Giants have some of the most talented skill position players in the NFL, and the addition of even an average QB and a couple of linemen could turn them into a real powerhouse, and an absolute joy to watch. There's no more spectacular wide receiver in the league than a fit Odell Beckham, and Saquon Barkley is well on his way to becoming the best running back in the NFL. Barkley has the third-most yards from scrimmage behind Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey in his rookie year. He makes you sit up and pay attention every time he gets the ball in his hands, and as badly as the Giants need a quarterback, can you really say Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Josh Allen are better long-term prospects in the NFL than Barkley right now?
So where do the G-Men look for their quarterback? The noises around New York suggest they plan to bring Manning back and draft a rookie to learn under him, but I think they should focus on a player already in the league: Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater is essentially auditioning for a starting job in the Saints' clash with the Panthers last week, and if he looks the part the Giants should go after him with everything they've got. He could step into this team and turn them into a win-now outfit.
San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo's hot streak to end the 2017 season made the 49ers the most hyped team of the offseason. As tends to happen with these shiny, new, exciting teams, I think the hype arrived a year too early. Obviously Garoppolo's injury was a massive blow for the Niners, but it's clear their problems are far larger than that. Their turnover differential of -21 is by far and away worst in the league, and they lack options in the passing game outside of George Kittle, who's had an excellent season.
The good news? San Francisco have almost $60 million in cap space to address this issue, and they're also heading for a top three draft pick. They'd be wise to invest that pick in one of the many star defensive lineman in this year's class, as the defense needs strengthening at every position, but don't you think some of that cap space could be spent on a certain someone named Le'Veon Bell?
Garoppolo, Bell, Jerrick McKinnon and Matt Breida would make up one of the most dangerous backfields in the NFL, and the great positive to Bell is he's far more than just a running back - he would immediately improve the 49ers' passing attack. San Francisco are likely to see a lot of competition for his signature - the Jets are another likely destination with plenty of money in the bank - but they should go all out to get him. It's easy to forget just how brilliant Bell is when you've not watched him in a year.
The Jags have been a horrible car crash this season, a real motorway pile-up. It's hard to believe they were a tipped pass away from the Super Bowl less than 12 months ago. But there's a route back to the promised land for Jacksonville, and it's a very simple one: get a new quarterback.
The Blake Bortles era seems to finally be over - he'll go on to make a very handy back-up elsewhere in the league - and no one ever thought Cody Kessler would be the answer, but who do they bring in? They have a nice high draft pick if anyone in the 2019 class has caught their eye, but doesn't Joe Flacco feel like he'd be a nice fit in Jacksonville? Flacco is an average NFL quarterback, and that's all the Jags may need to get back to the top. The defense has the playmakers to carry this team in the way it did in 2017, and how Chicago's did this season. It's shown signs of getting its mojo back in the second half of the season.
Outside of the quarterback position, the biggest question hanging over the Jaguars is the fitness of Leonard Fournette. Fournette has spent long stretches on the sidelines in each of his first two seasons, and Jacksonville need him firing if this defensive philosophy is to work. Look at teams like Baltimore and Seattle, whose offensive success is built on their running game. Still, the Jags' problems are ones it should only take one offseason to fix, there's definitely reason for hope.