Any NFL team’s season can come down to a single play, but the final results are still a collection of thousands of moments and decisions that year that led up to said play. There are now only 12 teams fighting for their lives, these franchises made countless transactions and decisions, and each of them there are one or two key moments that put them in position to win the Super Bowl.
For every team that already knows their season is over, they will spend months analyzing what went wrong. For these franchises headed to the playoffs, they’ll try to replicate the one decision that went completely right. The rest can only hope but to emulate.
Patriots: Signing LeGarrette Blount to a one-year, $1 million contract.
Trading for tight end Martellus Bennett was a major coup for Bill Belichick, but recognizing the value of a cheap running back vs a marquee free agent or high draft pick is also what makes him so good at what he does. The Patriots don’t invest in the running back position but keep getting quality production out of the players they do find, including Blount who has scored an NFL-high 17 rushing touchdowns.
Steelers: Not re-signing Kelvin Beachum
Pittsburgh didn’t change a lot, but the decision to let Beachum leave helped them keep other things. After displaying impressive skills as their left tackle from 2013 until tearing his ACL in 2015, the Steelers were wary of Beachum returning to full health and he signed a contract with the Jaguars that paid him $5.3 million this season. So far the offensive line has been great with Alejandro Villanueva at tackle while Beachum has struggled in Jacksonville.
Texans: Holding onto Jadeveon Clowney
There were rumors that the team was open to trading Clowney, who struggled in his first two seasons because of injuries and a position switch. Even if those rumors may have been baseless, some GMs might get nervous and try to deal Clowney while he still had some value. The Texans didn’t and he’s developed as they hoped, totaling 52 tackles, six sacks, a forced fumble, 18 QB hurries and 16 tackles for a loss. Overall, Houston had a terrible offseason: The contract given to Brock Osweiler was a mistake from day one, first round pick Will Fuller has done nothing in the last three months, Lamar Miller was an overpay at running back. But staying the course with Clowney is a big reason they’re going to the playoffs.
Raiders: Signing Kelechi Osemele
Oakland made several key free agent moves, including linebacker Bruce Irvin and cornerback Sean Smith, but the huge contract given to guard Kelechi Osemele – five years, $85.5 million, highest-paid guard in the NFL – appears to be a risk that’s paying off. The Raiders now have an offensive line, including left tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson, that’s at least the best in the AFC. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to protect Derek Carr from a broken leg, but it’s also what’s going to give backup Matt McGloin a fighting chance.
Chiefs: Drafting Tyreek Hill
Hill will probably never be able to escape his domestic violence conviction in 2015, but maybe that’s for the best. Maybe the constant reminders about what he did – punching and choking his pregnant girlfriend – will keep him from forgetting about how horrible he was in that moment. But Hill has seemingly done everything you’d hope a person would do in the two years since his arrest, telling the New York Times in November that he was “real dedicated” to making things right, including attending court-ordered therapy, and taking care of his now-ex and their son financially. On the field, he’s been the game-changing offensive weapon that the Chiefs have missed the last couple of years without a healthy Jamaal Charles. Hill has scored 11 total touchdowns in 15 games and could be the difference in Kansas City finally making it back to the Super Bowl or another early round exit. Of course there will always be the fear that he gets in trouble again, but for the moment he’s going in the right direction.
Dolphins: Hiring Adam Gase
There is inherent fear with any coaching search because you know you’re putting the keys to your franchise in the hands of the unknown, especially for a first-time head coach like Gase. But Miami has their first playoff appearance since 2008 and could get their first playoff win since 2000, one year after Dan Marino retired.
Cowboys: Drafting Dak Prescott
Taking Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall made sense to everyone, but when Jerry Jones failed to land Paxton Lynch after the Broncos traded up for him, they were left to the “third tier” of quarterback prospects, which included Dak Prescott in the fourth round. After Tony Romo broke a bone in his back in the preseason, things were nervously turned over to Prescott, and he’s responded with arguably the best rookie season of all-time. Forget about how good the offensive line and Elliott are and just watch him play; it doesn’t make any sense that he was at Mississippi State a year ago. He’s far too advanced. And the Cowboys are two wins away from their first Super Bowl appearance since 1995 because of this move above all others. Even if it was somewhat by accident.
Giants: Re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul
They fired Tom Coughlin, drafted Eli Apple and Sterling Shepard, and went all-out in free agency by adding Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison, but it was the move to keep Jason Pierre-Paul that’s had the biggest payoff. Shrouded in uncertainty because of his hand injury from a fireworks incident, Paul only cost $10 million on a one-year deal, but he’s playing like the great defensive end he had been for most of his career again. The only mistake may have been not signing Pierre-Paul to a longer contract.
Falcons: Drafting Keanu Neal and Deion Jones
Give credit to Atlanta for not making any drastic moves after last season when some fans wanted to see some combination of head coach Dan Quinn, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and general manager Thomas Dimitroff fired after a disappointing finish following a 6-0 start. The Falcons now boast the best offense in the NFL, but it seems like the happiest surprise for Atlanta this year is the immediate production of Neal and Jones, their top two picks in the draft. Neal is an excellent strong safety with 100 tackles and four forced fumbles this season, while the linebacker Jones has 100 tackles of his own, plus three interceptions and two touchdowns.
Seahawks: Moving Justin Britt to center
It would be so much easier to say what Seattle has done wrong this year rather than what they’ve done right. The Seahawks seem to be blowing their window of opportunity by neglecting the offensive line, failing to find adequate depth at the running back position, and throwing to Jermaine Kearse far more than any team should ever throw to Jermaine Kearse. One thing they did finally do right with the offensive line though is move Britt, a tackle in 2014 and a guard in 2015, to center. He’s finally found a home there and he’s a Pro Bowl alternate in the NFC.
Packers: Moving Ty Montgomery to RB
Green Bay had one of the great underrated moves of the offseason by re-signing linebacker Nick Perry to a one-year, $5 million deal (Perry has 10 sacks) but their midseason adjustment of making Montgomery the lead back helped get them back to the playoffs. Primarily a receiver and kick returner throughout his college and NFL career, he was called upon to play in the backfield following an injury that put Eddie Lacy on IR. He had 19 touches for 126 yards in his first start and he’s averaging 6.3 yards per carry over the last nine games. He’s not a full-time, every down back, but he’s one of the most interesting weapons in the NFL.
Lions: Drafting Taylor Decker
Shoring up the offensive line by getting Decker in the middle of the first round and having him turn into an exceptional rookie left tackle is a big reason why Detroit could get their first playoff win since 1991. Remember when the Lions used to draft a wide receiver in the top 10 every year no matter what? They’re doing things a little differently now and wouldn’t you know it, the franchise isn’t quite a joke anymore. Not quite.