Since the NFL's realignment to eight four-team divisions in 2002, the league's 12-team postseason has averaged slightly more than six new entries per year (6.4 to be exact, see table). That means we have come to count on at least half the NFL playoff field rolling over most every season, making for the annual guessing game of who's in and who's out when it comes to next January's Super Bowl tournament.
With the majority of this offseason's personnel maneuvers behind us, it's time to hazard our best guesses about the turnover factor in the 2009 playoff field. The goal is two-fold: Identify which six non-playoff qualifiers from 2008 (three in each conference) will take a step up and make the postseason in 2009, and which six 2008 playoff teams won't return. Think of it as an extremely early version of who's hot and who's not, well before the first whistle of this season is even blown.
• New England -- A no-brainer to start, but everybody's got to hit their layups. Without Tom Brady last season, the Patriots went 11-5 and scored more than all but one AFC team (San Diego). With Brady's return to health -- relax, Pats Nation, he's gonna be ready -- there's no reason to think of New England as anything other than the conference's top Super Bowl contender.
The schedule is undoubtedly tougher this season, with New England drawing the NFC South and AFC South (which featured seven of eight teams at .500 or better in '08), rather than last year's lame NFC West/AFC West combo (one winning team last season). But the Patriots have made another nice veteran signing in running back Fred Taylor, improved their weak secondary, and I don't expect them to be doomed this season by the twin losses of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and personnel man Scott Pioli.
• Houston -- It might surprise you to learn that only five AFC teams own more regular-season victories than the Texans' 16 in the past two seasons, and that New England (27), Indianapolis (25), Tennessee (23), Pittsburgh (22) and San Diego (19) have parlayed those wins into nine out of a possible 10 playoff berths. Houston has gone 8-8 the past two seasons, and seems on the cusp of finally making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. But we've heard that before, because the Texans have been teases for a while now.
What's going to be different this time? Well, for one I don't see Houston starting the season 0-4 and playing its hurricane-delayed home opener in Week 5 again. Secondly, quarterback Sage Rosenfels isn't around to give away a game or two in spectacular fashion. Lastly, I like the way Houston's schedule breaks. The Texans don't play 2008 playoff teams in consecutive weeks until late November. By then I think Gary Kubiak's team will be well on its way to growing up.
• Buffalo -- Was the Bills' 5-1 start last season a mirage? It's possible, given the five teams Buffalo beat in that span finished a combined 24-56 (.300), with only one of them (the 8-8 Chargers) turning respectable later in the season. It's a make-or-break season in Buffalo, because Dick Jauron and his staff know a fourth consecutive 7-9 finish spells the end, and that should lend both clarity and urgency to the situation.
Signing Terrell Owens was the ultimate win-now move, but a good short-term fix for an offense in desperate need of more points and production. The Bills' reworked offensive line remains a work in progress, but the season should rise or fall on the progress Trent Edwards makes in his second full season as a starter, and the development of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert as a play-caller. If both aren't markedly better, the Bills will stretch the AFC's longest playoff drought to a decade.
• New Orleans -- When I project the last-place Saints to make the jump to the 2009 playoffs, I'm counting on more than the NFC South's penchant to reshuffle itself almost each and every season. The defensive improvement I foresaw for New Orleans last season never materialized, as a wave of injuries and the same old propensity to allow the big play doomed Sean Payton's club to the fate of losing a series of high-scoring games.
But the Saints offense is special (a league-high 463 points), and with six of its eight losses by a combined 18 points, New Orleans was tantalizingly close to winning and winning big. Can't win big if your defense gives up 24.6 points per game, you say? Tell that to Arizona, which won the NFC despite a defense that allowed 26.6 per game. The Saints hired veteran defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to fix the problem, and I think it'll be remembered as one of the most pivotal moves of the NFL's offseason.
• Dallas -- There are no two ways around it: The Cowboys underachieved mightily in 2008 and became a dysfunctional team in the locker room in the second half of last season. But only one of Dallas' losses came against a losing team, and that was at St. Louis in its first game without injured starting quarterback Tony Romo. Otherwise, the Cowboys lost to Pittsburgh, Arizona, Philly, Baltimore and the Giants -- the NFL's final four and its defending Super Bowl champion -- as well as to 8-8 Washington when the Redskins were rolling early.
Three reasons why the Cowboys will be better off in 2009 jump to mind: 1) Romo doesn't have to sweat the T.O. drama any more, and that's going to help his head and his game; 2) explosive running back/return man Felix Jones should play more than six games this time around; 3) the Cowboys improved their porous secondary both at cornerback and safety in free agency and the draft.
• San Francisco -- The 49ers finished the season at 5-2 in their last seven games under interim head coach Mike Singletary, and that's almost always going to earn you chic-pick, team-on-the-rise status heading into the following season. But there is something about Singletary's old-school approach that seems to be exactly what the lackadaisical 49ers have lacked in recent years. He doesn't seem to suffer fools or sloppiness too well, and those are two things that have not been in short supply in San Francisco for a while now.
Whether or not the 49ers have enough quality quarterbacking to make their first playoff appearance since 2002 remains a question, but let's not lose sight of something here. The NFC West's past three champions have gone 9-7 (Arizona in 2008), 10-6 and 9-7 (Seattle in 2007 and 2006), so it's not going to take a quantum leap for San Francisco (7-9 last year) to scale that particular mountain.
• Miami -- The Dolphins' 10-win improvement last season was a turnaround for the ages, but Miami might wind up wishing it hadn't set the bar quite so high in the first year of the Tony Sparano era. I like what the Dolphins are building, but I can't see them duplicating their 2008 success, when they won eight of their 11 games by margins of nine points or less. Last year, Miami had the NFC West and AFC West on its schedule. The party's over, because this season it's the considerably tougher NFC South and AFC South that the Dolphins draw.
Miami helped itself in the secondary in the draft and free agency, but that's not going to be enough to separate the Dolphins in the AFC East because I think the Patriots, Jets and Bills all got better on defense. And if I were a Fish fan, it would make me nervous that Chad Pennington has rarely put together two big seasons in a row without an injury or a benching.
• Baltimore -- The Ravens were the AFC's other big turnaround story last season -- going from 5-11 to 11-5 and a pair of playoff wins -- but there was nothing fluky about them. They smacked you in the mouth on defense, took care of the football on offense, and got better the longer they played, both in specific games and in the season. Rookie head coach John Harbaugh had Baltimore playing smart, disciplined football, and that had not been the case for the Ravens in 2007.
I have no great reasoning for listing Baltimore as a non-playoff qualifier in 2009, because I like almost every move the Ravens made this offseason. Getting cornerback Domonique Foxworth in free agency was an upgrade over Chris McAlister, and offensive linemen Matt Birk and Michael Oher were nice pickups as well. Baltimore will be in the playoff hunt, but my hunch is some of the breaks won't go its way this year, and returning to the ranks of the AFC elite will be just beyond its reach.
• Indianapolis -- Predicting the demise of the Colts would appear a fool's game, given their seven-year streak of making the playoffs and a six-year run of winning at least 12 games every regular season. But the law of averages say it has to end at some point for Indy (doesn't it?), and with new head coach Jim Caldwell elevated to replace the departed Tony Dungy, maybe some key component of the team's success will go missing this season for the first time since 2001.
When they were sitting 3-4 entering November last season, the Colts looked like an aging team that finally had too many vulnerabilities for their all-world offense to overcome. Then Peyton Manning got healthy, and it all came together in the form of a nine-game winning streak entering the playoffs. This is a team that hasn't lost anyone it can't live without this offseason -- Marvin Harrison included -- but that might not be enough in a division where the Colts could find themselves looking up at both Tennessee and Houston.
•Atlanta -- Sensing a trend in my logic? Like the Dolphins and Ravens, I foresee the Falcons slipping back to non-playoff-team standing after all three clubs enjoyed magical 2008 seasons under rookie head coaches. Atlanta's success last season came faster than anyone within the organization expected, and as everyone knows, staying on top in the NFL is tougher than making the climb the first time.
Again, I like the program that head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are putting in place in Atlanta, and I'm not predicting a plunge back to the ranks of the double-digit losers. But the Falcons must contend with the AFC East and NFC East on their schedule this season, and that could result in them having a better team than 2008, but not necessarily a better record.
• Arizona -- The Cardinals lost the Super Bowl in February, and you know what that means: They're long shots, at best, to return to the playoffs this season. Seven of this decade's first eight Super Bowl losers failed to qualify for the post-season the following year, the dreaded hangover effect that was overcome only by the 2006 Seahawks, who squeaked in atop a weak NFC West at 9-7. Sure, the Cardinals could become the next aberration to that trend, given they play in that same lowly division, but recent history says it's not likely.
Arizona won on the strength of its 6-0 record in the NFC West last year, and that better not slip by more than a game or two in 2009, because I think the 7-9 49ers, 4-12 Seahawks and 2-14 Rams all are great bets to better last year's win totals. For the most part, the Cardinals had a status quo offseason, and that usually translates to a lack of improvement in the NFL. Suffice to say Arizona isn't likely to repeat its feat of giving up 426 points -- just one fewer than the 427 it scored -- and still making the playoffs.
• Carolina -- How tightly bunched is the NFC South? Remember that Monday night Bucs at Panthers game in early December last season? Tampa Bay entered that game looking like it was in control of the division at 9-3 and having already beaten Carolina handily once. But the Panthers won big that night, Atlanta finished strong, and three weeks later the Bucs missed the playoffs, winding up a scant game ahead of the last-place 8-8 Saints. That's why the well-balanced NFC South hasn't had a repeat champion in the division's first seven seasons of existence, and why I don't see the Panthers ending that streak.
Carolina didn't over-react to its shocking playoff loss at home to Arizona, and that's to be admired. The Panthers will return with almost the same lineup in 2009 that worked so well last year in the regular season. On the other hand, consistency has not been a Carolina hallmark. The Panthers have never had consecutive winning seasons or playoff berths in their 14-year franchise history. Alas, the beat goes on.