The 2015 NFL season approaches the end of its regular-season component having seen some of the decade's most competitive games and also seeing encouraging signs of progress from some struggling teams and signs of decline from some established contenders. A view of which teams seem to be trending where as 2016 approaches - we leave aside two obvious powers in the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, both of whom speak for themselves as contenders -
Trending Upward -
Tennessee Titans - It may not seem the Titans are trending upward having fired coach Ken Whisenhunt and with a defense that has given up 27 or more points game after game all season, and especially after atrocious performances on all sides of the ball against the New York Jets and in late December against the Houston Texans, yet despite being in the bottom five in scoring in the league, the Titans with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota are showing he is the real deal. He is going through the typical rookie season of struggle - made worse by missing several games with injuries, reminiscent of the likes of Troy Aikman - while establishing himself as a legitimate player. Mariota has had to play comeback football all season and has shown fight in most games; the victories over New Orleans and Jacksonville showed that and the close losses merely show how close he is already to becoming someone special. The Titans need to shore up on the line, especially on defense, and they can use some reinforcement at receiver and tight end. These issues are fixable and Mariota shows he can improve, which is what they need to become true contenders again.
Jacksonville Jaguars - It's clear now Blake Bortles has a positive future and the Jaguars likewise have a positive future. Though his career completion percentage still has not reached 59% in his second year his touchdowns have skyrocketed while his interceptions have dropped. The Jaguars in mid-December 2015 were ninth in scoring; the biggest need for improvement is defensively having allowed 28 or more points seven times. As with fellow AFC South mate the Titans, the Jaguars' problems are fixable having seemingly nailed it with their quarterback.
Oakland Raiders - For the first time since back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2010-11, the Raiders reached at least seven wins, and in Derek Carr they seem to have their quarterback of the future. His touchdowns have increased and INTs dropped in his second year, and the negativity that surrounded the organization in this decade more and more is fading away. With solid drafting and a capable program in place after a decade of scattershot incompetence from the late Al Davis, the Raiders have stopped being the punchline.
New York Jets - The Jets went from the undisciplined bluster of Rex Ryan to the greater professionalism of Todd Bowles and after the fiasco of a teammate breaking Geno Smith's jaw the Jets came out and have not only played well, they'd showcased far greater professionalism as an organization; gone is the bluster, the sloppy discipline, the endless and never-justified boasting. While there have been some embarrassing moments for the Jets, they have been few and far between. The biggest issue for the Jets is Ryan Fitzpatrick has played better than expected but is not the long-term answer. Yet for the first time in a long time it's now possible to think of the Jets as a team that isn't going to falter, though they may not be strong enough to truly contend.
Minnesota Vikings - The Vikings reached ten wins for the first time in three seasons and in Teddy Bridgewater they have a quarterback who has improved in his two seasons so far. The issue that stands out for the Vikings is their offense remains too Adrian Peterson-dependent. They also have struggled against quality opponents; the gag job at the end of the Arizona game was cringe-worthy while the missed FGA in the playoffs against the Seahawks was the ultimate heartbreak after two spectacular wins to grab the NFC North. Defensively they've been solid; now they need to improve on offense and take that next step.
Washington Redskins - It's fun to call them the Deadskins but the reality is the Redskins made themselves less and less of a punchline by outright winning the NFC East. They reached six wins for the first time since 2012, but unlike that hallucinational season with the inept Robert Griffin III this season looks more legitimate under Jay Gruden, the Arena League coaching legend. Kirk Cousins' performances have improved markedly from the past and there is now something to build on in DC where before there wasn't. The key remains that Daniel Snyder leave his football people alone.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Jameis Winston has gone through the typical rookie struggles and the Cam Newton 2011 analogy looks stronger than it might have earlier in the season. Winston's completion percentage needs to improve, but his fight has been legitimate, while Tampa Bay's run game has gone under the radar to some extent with a 4.8 YPC average and within less than 190 yards of 2,000 entering mid-December. Issues that are fixable can be addressed; the Bucs look to have gotten it right with Winston.
Seattle Seahawks - Forget about the 2-4 start and the distractions of contract controversies - the Seahawks behind Russell Wilson began surging in mid-October to where Wilson was scoring at least 29 points in five straight games after their bye week, surging all the way to the NFC Divisional playoffs. The Marshawn Lynch era appears to be ending, but the Seahawks are becoming less a running team and more a passing team, and that bodes well down the road.
Arizona Cardinals - The only thing wrong with them as they exploded to thirteen wins and reached the NFC Championship Game is that an aging Carson Palmer has played well but something still seems to be missing from his game - the seven turnovers against Carolina illustrate this is hideous fashion. The Cards have astonished everyone since Bruce Arians took over and it only looks to continue; upgrading the quarterback area is still a need, but not so desperate as with other teams.
Trending Downward -
Indianapolis Colts - Andrew Luck has played superbly in his first four seasons, but his growth as a quarterback has not shown itself to be that impressive. His poor record outside of the AFC South and the lack of wins beyond 11 a year indicate a quarterback who may have plateaued. The scuttlebutt earlier this year was that eyes were opened within the Colts organization as to the effectiveness of Matt Hasselback's West Coast style of offense versus the more reckless style of Luck. Injury to Luck forced 40-year-old Hasselback to play a lot more than expected, and the team atmosphere seems more and more toxic with interference from owner Jim Irsay (not the most dependable of God's creatures to use a Spencer Tracy soundbite) and upheaval in the front office and coaching staff. It all adds up to a Colts team that looks less like the wannabe-dynasty of 1999-2010 and more like the inept also-rans of 1978-98.
Atlanta Falcons - It's now clear Matt Ryan is not the answer. A new head coach came in and after a 5-0 start Ryan and as a result the Falcons disintegrated to irrelevance shown in most graphic form in the 38-0 shutout by the Panthers. Ryan's inability to handle playoff football showed itself in his first five seasons and the last three have shown he plateaued in those years. Now the Falcons need to start thinking about a replacement for Ryan.
San Diego Chargers - Collapse is the only description for the underachieving Chargers. A spectacular comeback win over the Detroit Lions was the highlight of a season that was lost almost before November arrived. Spotty play by Philip Rivers, some terrible O-line play, and lack of clutch playmaking have made 2015 the return of the nightmare years of 1997-2003, and the Los Angeles rumor isn't going away as stupid as the concept remains. A coaching change is desperately needed for the Chargers, a far more talented team than their abysmal record this year indicates.
New York Giants - That Tom Coughlin lasted as long as he did is astonishing given now four uninspiring seasons in a row to go with six other seasons where the Giants went nowhere. Eli Manning's play has been at times spectacular but it hasn't made the Giants all that competitive, and the circus catches by Odell Beckham make the highlight reels but aren't winning them any games. A promoted head coach has his work cut out for him.
Baltimore Ravens - Suddenly the Ravens have become irrelevant. Despite competitive games and 2015's season sweep of the Steelers, Baltimore has persistently failed to seal any deal and the lack of answers brings question as to the true worth of Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh; we also have to start questioning Ozzie Newsome's team-building acumen of late.
There are of course the going-nowhere teams like the Bills, the Dolphins, the Lions, the Bears, and the Browns. We also have teams like the Chiefs and Packers where we're not truly sure if they're improving even as they made the playoffs - Aaron Rodgers despite his insane touchdown to beat the Lions has been exposed again as a frontrunning phony (the regular season slaughter by the Cardinals underscored this while the two Hail Marys in the playoff matchup were prayers in every sense of the term, and Carson Palmer answered in hilarious fashion in overtime) while Alex Smith has gotten the Chiefs farther than anyone could have expected - all the way to the first playoff win for the Chiefs since 1993 - yet we've long known he can never be what the Chiefs need. With all that, we've seen some solid indications that the league in 2016 may see legitimate competitive change.