Giants among sleeper playoff contenders
With the regular season now less than a week away, let’s take a look at five non-playoff teams from 2014 that could surprise by making a postseason run in 2015:
Minnesota Vikings: Led by their second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings are on the brink of being relevant again. In the second half of 2014, Bridgewater was the third-best QB in the entire NFL, with a +11.5 grade, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. His 77.3 percent accuracy rate was ranked third last year, easily ahead of his draft classmates Blake Bortles and Derek Carr.
Defenses also now have something bigger to worry about: Adrian Peterson. The star running back makes his return and looks to recapture his 2013 form, when he led all running backs in elusive rating (our measure of how difficult a running back is to tackle). A QB-running back combo combined with a defense that made an enormous jump in defensive rating from 24th in the NFL to ninth in Mike Zimmer’s first year could catapult them to their first division title in 15 years (or at least a wild-card berth, if they lose out to the Packers).
Miami Dolphins: The Patriots’ dominance in the AFC East over the past decade has made Miami an afterthought, something QB Ryan Tannehill is looking to change. The fourth-year QB has quietly finished in the top 13 of QB rating each season he has been in the league. The Dolphins offense skews heavily to the short passing game, with Tannehill throwing deep (over 20 yards) only 10 percent of the time. It would be highly advantageous if they can have one of their WRs consistently stretch the field, and No. 14 overall pick DeVante Parker could help with that this season alongside excellent slot receiver Jarvis Landry.
Their big offseason acquisition of DT Ndamukong Suh from the Lions increases their ability to disrupt QBs with inside pressure every week. He had the most QB hurries and hits for all defensive interior players last year, as well as the most defensive stops.
Atlanta Falcons: Offensively, the Falcons are set at QB and WR with the duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones (both are top-10 players at their positions). Their offensive line has been the Achilles heel, dropping off since the 2012 season. In the past two years, Atlanta QBs have been subject to a league-high 331 hurries and 80 QB hits.
Their pass coverage is also a liability, and this season isn’t off to a great start. None of their current corners have a positive overall grade, and only Phillip Adams has a positive coverage grade (+0.2). The O-line and secondary issues are two red flags, but if the Falcons can somehow patchwork both (the addition of first-round edge rusher Vic Beasley, one of the most productive players in our college football grades last season), they might be able to steal what looks to be a vulnerable NFC South.
New York Giants: It’s tough to have a “surprise” team as high-profile as the Giants, but it seems like all the talk about the NFC East is centered around the Cowboys and Eagles. Quarterback Eli Manning is looking to bounce back from a +0.9 overall graded year that featured high-variance performances from week to week, but he has the weapons around him to help pump up his performance.
Odell Beckham Jr. is our No. 1-rated wide receiver entering 2015, while Victor Cruz both grade out well in our system – the combination of those three and pass-catching tight end Larry Donnell makes life for opposing defensive coordinators very challenging.
The one area that could hold the Giants back is their banged-up group of safeties. They recently re-signed Stevie Brown, but if one more safety gets injured, they’ll have to turn to one that has played less than 150 NFL snaps. If they can avoid the injury bug, the Giants are a strong contender to win the NFC East and potentially even make a deep postseason run.