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Colts, Steelers, Buccaneers positioned for return to NFL playoffs

Last week, I made a handful of virtual enemies by suggesting three 2019 playoff teams -- the Texans, Patriots and Vikings -- might struggle to return to the postseason again next season.

Part two of the assignment -- hopefully one that will earn me allies in various online pockets -- comes packed with less negative energy: finding those three teams' replacements in the 2020 playoff field.

Two teams from the AFC and one from the NFC who, today, appear to be heading in the right direction toward January play. Let's take a look:

Indianapolis Colts (2019 record: 7-9)

A pair of AFC South-altering events hint at a playoff return for Indy: First, Texans czar Bill O'Brien's decision to strip Houston of star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, which we unpacked in the companion piece to this article. The second comes in the form of Philip Rivers, the ex-Chargers passer who now operates under center for a Colts team that spent last season recovering from the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck. Backup-turned-starter-turned-backup Jacoby Brissett battled nobly during a 7-9 campaign, but Indy's front office -- not afraid to self-scout and ask tough questions about the roster -- knew an upgrade was needed.

Rivers isn't peaking -- he's far beyond that glory turn -- but his close relationship with coach Frank Reich and knowledge of the offense suggest a smooth transition during a COVID-19-tinged offseason. It's fair to ask if the Colts instead should look to the draft for a long-term answer, but the club opted for an ultra-savvy ironman in 2020 over rolling the dice on an April addition. The NFL is about relationships and this felt like a fit from the minute Rivers packed up his wife and nine children to bolt Southern California.

With pristine signal-calling from Luck two seasons ago, the Colts notched a 10-win campaign and whipped the Texans in Houston during a 21-7 beatdown on Wild Card Weekend before tumbling to the Chiefs. The earmark of that squad was stellar offensive line play -- and nothing has changed. Rivers will roam behind a white-knuckle front five led by guard Quenton Nelson and smartly re-signed bookend Anthony Castonzo. Not unlike Tom Brady in Tampa, Rivers gives off the vibe of a cast-off star driven to prove his former employer a fool for waving goodbye. I like his chances, with Reich operating as one of the finer offensive strategists league-wide.

It was puzzling to see top-shelf general manager Chris Ballard dump cover man Pierre Desir just one year into a three-year extension, but the presence of second-year corner Rock Ya-Sin eases the loss. The Xavier Rhodes signing won't move much product. The plus for Indy is DeForest Buckner, acquired from the Niners for the 13th overall pick in a move that should flip the switch on an evolving front seven. I have questions about handing Buckner $21 million per year -- an uncharacteristic swap-and-pay for Ballard -- but the 6-foot-7, terror-spinning lineman will pair nicely with edge rusher Justin Houston. There's a world where these moves underwhelm, but I adore Indy's chances to carve out a respectable, playoff-worthy record.

Why they might stumble: The Colts still live in a tough division (we see you, Titans) and face a batch of rugged contests against the Ravens, Steelers and Packers. The offense is far from weapons-rich, and Rivers is coming off a year that saw him toss a perilous 20 picks. If the 38-year-old QB's legitimately washed, this could turn messy in a hurry.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2019 record: 8-8)

This one's less about what Team X did/didn't do over the past two weeks and more about an organization that always bounces back. Flairs went up in the 'Burgh last week when Ben Roethlisberger tweeted a kindly coronavirus message that showed the densely bearded, 38-year-old passer resembling a Pacific Northwest logger who hadn't seen society in 44 months. Big Ben will never be mistaken for a Beachbody spokesman, but he laughed off notions he's gone to seed, announcing: "I've heard people say I'm fat, and that just blows my mind. I'm lighter and in better shape than I was in either of the past two years. I haven't stopped working out."

Of more critical import, Roethlisberger noted he's "throwing without pain for the first time in years" on his way back from an elbow surgery that wiped out all but two games of his 2019 adventure. After Ben went down, Pittsburgh struggled to stay afloat with flatlining Mason Rudolph and saucy-until-not Devlin Hodges guiding the Steelers to an 8-8 record. Runner James Conner missed six games, too, while JuJu Smith-Schuster dealt with injuries of his own during a down autumn.

Disastrous luck aside, Pittsburgh was 8-5 -- with Mike Tomlin a candidate for Coach of the Year votes -- before the wheels spun off. Few leaders did more with less on offense. Tomlin also coached up a vicious, sack-happy defense that saw T.J. Watt and the recently re-signed Bud Dupree combine for 26 takedowns. Losing interior mauler Javon Hargrave is no help, but Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt still roam for a defensive front among the rowdiest in the AFC.

It won't be easy to win an AFC North inhabited by the near-perfect Ravens, but I refuse to listen to wind about the Browns or Bengals until they achieve something special in a calendar month beyond August. Pairing continued growth from younger wideouts Diontae Johnson and James Washington with a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers -- a .500 squad with the Football Gods dropping unholy fire in 2019 -- make for a solid playoff entry in 2020.

Why they might stumble: Perhaps Big Ben truly has gone all Henry David Thoreau on us?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2019 record: 7-9)

I harbor suspicions over offseason glory-squads.

The rise of the Bucs, though, is winning me over day by day for one reason: We've funneled into the weirdest possible wormhole.

For eons upon eons, I've viewed the Bucs as a low-wattage, forgettable outfit wearing the ghastliest getups in football: a noisome collage of red, orange and grayish alloy tin. Eternally nestled under the blinding Tampa sun, Bucs games are not to be witnessed with a hangover.

Until now.

The unis are set for a makeover, but the bigger transformation comes in the form of football demigod Tom Brady hitting town to lift the Bucs out of hell while sticking it to the Patriots. I don't care what TB12 -- or, apparently, TB x TB (what?) -- says about his departure from New England. The man is determined to set the NFL on fire and prove Bill Belichick fatally flawed for allowing the soon-to-be 43-year-old passer to walk.

Mike Evans. Chris Godwin. O.J. Howard. A fiery defense. Plus a refreshing new companion in straight-talking coach Bruce Arians. On paper, the parts exist to make noise in the NFC South. With the Panthers in transition and the Falcons something of an underwhelming mystery, Tampa looms as a candidate to climb after losing six one-score games during last year's 7-9 output. That came with ex-passer Jameis Winston hurtling for 30 touchdowns -- but also 30 interceptions with a record-setting seven pick-sixes. Imagine if Brady -- equaling last year's numbers -- tosses just eight interceptions.

Why they might stumble: What if the greatest coach in football history correctly scouted the demise of the greatest quarterback? What if a top-heavy NFC refuses to craft the dreams of every TV executive in America -- a Brady-tugged Bucs team becoming a runaway hit? One year ago, plenty of us fell for the concept of a Cinderella Browns bunch marching into Super Bowl dreamscapes. They wound up bitten and lashed by terrors of the night. Pretty endings don't come easy.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.

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