Sleeper Teams Poised To Break Into The NFL Playoffs

Sleeper Teams Poised To Break Into The NFL Playoffs

Just about every season in the NFL, teams that finished last in their division the previous year become a playoff team the next whether it’s because of better health, a new head coach or simply better luck. Here are three potential sleeper teams this year and their odds to make the postseason.

Sleeper Teams Poised To Break Into The NFL 2022 Playoffs

Carolina Panthers (+325)

If Carolina finishes with a losing record again, Coach Matt Rhule is 100 percent getting fired, but I think Carolina could be pretty good as long as trade acquisition Baker Mayfield and star running back Christian McCaffrey stay healthy. Mayfield on Monday was named the Week 1 starting quarterback against his former Cleveland team over Sam Darnold.

“When we started this process, we were looking at three things,” Rhule said of naming Mayfield his starter. “Number one, mastery of the offense, number two, situational football excellence, and number three, moving the ball and getting guys involved. That’s been our focus all along. Baker has made a lot of improvement, a lot of growth in all three areas in a short amount of time.”

The move might have been widely anticipated from the outside, especially as Mayfield began looking more and more comfortable with the first offense after the first two weeks of training camp. Mayfield will start Friday’s preseason finale against the Bills and spend the rest of the time developing more chemistry and settling into a new home.

The former Heisman Trophy winner and former No. 1 overall pick was outstanding in 2020, creating a stir by leading them to the playoffs and their first postseason win since 1994. Injuries set him back last year, and the Browns were willing to part with him after making the Deshaun Watson deal. The Panthers gave them a conditional fifth-round pick in 2024 in exchange for Mayfield.

Watson will not play in the opener after being suspended by the NFL for the first 11 games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, so it will be Mayfield against Jacoby Brissett.

Detroit Lions (+300)

The Lions are a chic playoff pick under second-year Coach Dan Campbell. Detroit only had three wins in 2021 but was competitive in nearly every game. The defense was not good but should be much better with the addition of No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, the defense end from Michigan.

He crushed Detroit’s backup offensive line while getting eased into the rotation during OTAs, then was promoted to the first team for the start of training camp and continued to cause headaches. That has been especially true while kicking to the inside in subpackages.

“I’m ready to go,” Hutchinson said. “I think I just want to get [to the regular season]. All the preseason, all the camp stuff, it’s good getting better, but man, you just want to get to that Week 1 and get into the season and get rolling. Just getting a little antsy. So yeah, that’s how I feel.”

Hutchinson played some in the Lions’ preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons, making a couple impact plays right of the bat and earning a great grade from Pro Football Focus for his work over 11 snaps. Hutchinson did not play in the second preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, as both teams rested starters after two days of joint practices. He won’t play in Sunday’s preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers either, so the next time he’ll play is Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 11. Eagles’ offensive tackles Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson will be a strong test right out of the gate.

Jacksonville Jaguars (+400)

Last year was a complete disaster for the Jaguars and former No. 1 overall pick and quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but a lot of that can be blamed on since-fired head coach Urban Meyer. There’s a lot of talent on this team, which has a Super Bowl-winning coach in Doug Pederson. He thinks keeping a more even keel would benefit Lawrence in the early part of games.

“In Trevor’s case, we’ve just got to get him to calm down early in the football game and settle in. There were some throws that were missed that I know he would want back, and we’ve seen him make those throws in practice, so we know he’s capable of doing it,” Pederson said. “It’s just a matter of just kind of taking a deep breath as he starts the game and settle in. But those are all things that we continue to work on. We’ve got a couple weeks left here in camp, and we’ll try to get better.”

By all accounts, Lawrence looks more precise, more confident in this offense than a year ago. He’s spotting targets and throwing quicker. The Jags improved Lawrence’s group of wideouts by signing Christian Kirk from Arizona this offseason.

Kirk, 25, is coming off a career-best season in his fourth year in Arizona. The former second-round pick hauled in 77 receptions for 984 yards, both of which were career-highs, as well as five touchdowns in 17 games for the Cardinals in 2021. Just 25, Kirk will step in as an immediate starter who can play both outside and in the slot. Jacksonville went out and signed Marvin Jones Jr. last offseason, and now it has another new weapon who will help expedite Lawrence’s development.


 

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