DALLAS — The Indianapolis Colts played mostly without Andrew Luck when they missed the playoffs in 2015 after winning their division a year earlier.
The star quarterback returns, and so do postseason expectations for a team that has made the playoffs 14 of the past 17 seasons.
And maybe this is the year for the Oakland Raiders, who haven’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since losing the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.
Luck missed nine games with an assortment of injuries and struggled with turnovers when he was playing. Protecting the fifth-year star is also a priority, with heavy investment in the offensive line and Luck’s offseason effort to refine his sliding technique to avoid big hits.
The Raiders have bigger hopes after a six-win improvement under coach Jack Del Rio to 7-9, with a promising young quarterback in Derek Carr and a potential superstar receiver in Amari Cooper. The defense has a proven pass rusher in All-Pro Khalil Mack, who had 15 sacks.
Besides the Colts, Dallas, Detroit and Baltimore were the other 2014 playoff qualifiers to miss a year later. The Cowboys are without Tony Romo again after he broke a bone in his back in a preseason game, the Lions are trying to move on after receiver Calvin Johnson’s retirement, and the Ravens are stuck in a tough division.
With all that in mind, here’s a glance at four potential playoff qualifiers that didn’t make it a year ago, and four prospects for missing out a year after getting in:
COULD GET BACK IN
Colts: Coach Chuck Pagano overhauled his staff after going 8-8 following 11-5 records in his first three seasons. First-round pick Ryan Kelly is a walk-in starter at center, and former Miami coach Joe Philbin is in charge of the blockers. Frank Gore believes he can end Indy’s eight-year stretch without a 1,000-yard rusher. Linebacker Robert Mathis should be motivated to help improve a struggling run defense in the final year of the 35-year-old’s contract.
Giants: New York spent big to re-sign Jason Pierre-Paul and lure fellow pass rusher Olivier Vernon and other free agents after missing the playoffs four straight years since winning the 2011 championship. Ben McAdoo replaced longtime coach Tom Coughlin. Eli Manning and top receiver Odell Beckham Jr. always give the Giants a chance to have an elite offense in the potentially weak NFC East.
Raiders: Carr took a step forward in his second season, throwing for 32 touchdowns and 3,987 yards. Cooper has a proven partner in Michael Crabtree. Latavius Murray was a 1,000-yard back. Oakland lost a lot of leadership with the retirements of safety Charles Woodson and defensive end Justin Tuck. But the Raiders hope to fill the void with four free agents: guard Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith, linebacker Bruce Irvin, and safety Reggie Nelson.
Jets: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick missed the offseason in a contract dispute but has been around long enough that it shouldn’t matter much. Versatile running back Matt Forte is joining an offense with receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, who combined for more than 2,500 yards and 26 touchdowns. The question is whether they can survive a schedule that includes six road games in the first nine weeks, and five of those opponents made the playoffs last year.
MIGHT NOT BE BACK
Redskins: Kirk Cousins had never won more than one game or started more than six before leading Washington to nine wins and the playoffs last season. He will have to match his NFL-best 70 percent completion rate if the Redskins can’t improve on a 28th-ranked defense. Cornerback Josh Norman and safety David Bruton Jr. were brought in as free agents to try to boost that unit.
Texans: Houston made the playoffs in the weak AFC South, then proved it didn’t belong with a 30-0 loss to Kansas City. The Texans are banking on Brock Osweiler proving he can be the playoff winner after he didn’t get a chance to show that behind Peyton Manning in Denver. Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is coming off back surgery that kept him out for the start of training camp.
Broncos: No Manning after he retired. No Osweiler after he spurned the Super Bowl champs to sign with Houston. And now free agent pickup Mark Sanchez was beaten out by 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian of Northwestern. Rookie first-rounder Paxton Lynch will have to wait for his chance. The uncertainty at quarterback makes Denver vulnerable, but one of the best defenses in the league is spearheaded by superstar linebacker Von Miller.
Steelers: Is it crazy to bet against Ben Roethlisberger, especially after he threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns in what are likely his only two series of the preseason? Perhaps. So how about this? The Steelers have never made the playoffs three straight seasons under the 13th-year quarterback, and they are coming off their fourth set of back-to-back appearances with him. Plus, running back Le’Veon Bell will be suspended the first three games and hasn’t been able to stay healthy the past two years.
Follow AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apschuyler