As we stare down the second half of the NFL's regular season, this much seems apparent from my vantage point: In most cases, a 2006 playoff trip portends little in the way of a repeat performance this year.
This season's 12-team playoff field still has eight weeks to fully take shape, but if the postseason were to open based on the current standings, among the interesting nuggets would be the following:
• Eight of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last year are playing no better than .500 ball at the 2007 midseason. That's San Diego, Baltimore, Kansas City (all 4-4) and the Jets (1-8) in the AFC, and Seattle, New Orleans (both 4-4), Chicago and Philadelphia (both 3-5) in the NFC.
Granted, the NFL playoff field turns over at about a 50 percent clip every year. In the past five seasons (2002-2006), 27 different teams have made the postseason, with only the Texans, Dolphins, Bills missing the cut in the AFC, and the Lions and Cardinals in the NFC. But this season, fully two-thirds of the playoff incumbents appear in jeopardy of missing out on a return invite to the dance. The last time the postseason featured eight new teams was 2003.
• An astounding six of the eight teams that won at least 10 games last year have slumped to .500 or below halfway through this season. Even more surprising, four of those six teams that dominated in '06 have already lost more games in the first half of this year than they did all of last year: San Diego (from 14-2 to 4-4), Chicago (13-3 to 3-5), Baltimore (13-3 to 4-4) and the Jets (10-6 to 1-8). And the Saints (10-6 to 4-4) and Eagles (10-6 to 3-5) are fast closing in on exceeding their '06 loss total. The list includes the AFC's No. 1-2 seeds of last year (Chargers and Ravens), and the NFC's top-seeded Bears.
• The only two exceptions to the what-goes-up-must-come-down rule will not shock you. New England (12-4 to 9-0) and Indianapolis (12-4 to 7-1) have maintained their level of excellence, proving once again that it's a Pats-Colts world and the other 30 NFL teams are just living in it. In the NFC, the only two '06 playoff qualifiers who seem well-positioned to return to the Super Bowl tournament are Dallas (7-1) and the Giants (6-2), who happen to square off this weekend in the Meadowlands with first place in the NFC East on the line.
So what do Weeks 10-17 in the NFL hold? Knowing now what we didn't know in early September, here's how we see the 12-team playoff field coming together, division by division:
A win this week at the Giants would give the Cowboys what amounts to a three-game lead over New York with seven to play, and that would be a sizable cushion entering mid-November. But Dallas still has to play arch-rival Washington twice, and the Redskins could make it a three-team race in the East.
If the Packers stumble unexpectedly somewhere, they will have the opportunity to make amends and wrap up the North with a Week 17 home game against Detroit, the team they always beat at Lambeau (16 consecutive home wins in the series).
The Bucs will be in the NFC South race the whole way, but will wind up settling for the conference's top wild-card slot and a playoff trip that should save coach
Detroit's second-half schedule includes four games against teams with at least six wins, plus a trip to dangerous San Diego, so I'm not sure that Detroit is going to make it to Jon Kitna's predicted 10-win season. But I'm giving the Lions the NFC's second wild card berth based on what I expect to be a Week 11 home win over the Giants, the team that Detroit must beat out to make its first playoff appearance since
And no, I don't expect
In our haste to coronate the Patriots and compliment the Colts, we've all been a bit guilty of overlooking the fine season the Steelers are assembling. But with
Not that I expect it, but wouldn't it be great if Indy still had to win its Week 17 home game against Tennessee to lock up the division title?
San Diego's second-half schedule features just two teams that are currently under .500, but if the Chargers get on a roll, they can beat anybody, anywhere.
The Titans don't have much offense, but they don't need a ton of it to win. They've held six of their eight opponents to 14 points or fewer, and they're 5-1 in those games, with only a 13-10 loss at Tampa Bay ruining that record. Something tells me
As for Cleveland, even if it comes out of the next two games with losses at Pittsburgh and at Baltimore, don't give up on the Brownies. At 5-5, they'd still be in decent shape to put four or five more wins on the board and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Cleveland isn't getting it done on defense, but the Browns offense has something special building, and you can't help but be entertained by a team that has won its past three games 41-31, 27-20 and 33-30 (in OT).