New teams will make postseason, but who's out to make room?
Once upon a time, dynasties roamed the NFL earth. The Packers ruled in the '60s, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in the '70s, the 49ers">49ers dominated in the '80s, the Cowboys reigned in the '90s and the Patriots won three championships in four years in the first decade of this century.
You don't hear the "D" word much anymore. That's because a team that makes the playoffs one year -- no matter if it loses its first game or wins the Super Bowl -- is almost as likely to miss them the next year.
Since the league realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002, there has been a significant turnover in postseason teams every year. In the last nine seasons, the AFC has averaged 2.7 new entrants each year. In '03 and '06, four AFC teams who sat out the big dance the year before made it to the playoffs. It's an even bigger average in the NFC: 3.4. That conference had five new playoff teams in both '05 and '08.
Combining both conferences, there has been an average turnover of 6.1 teams. That means 50 percent of the playoff field changes every year.
What does that pattern foretell for the 2012 season? It means there could be big changes in the postseason field again. We're not offering these scenarios as hard-line predictions but, rather, as possibilities.
They nearly made it a year ago, in Mike Munchak's first year as head coach. The Titans went into the final regular season game in contention for a playoff spot but, even though they beat the South division champion Texans in Houston, they lost a playoff tiebreaker with Cincinnati.
Second-year quarterback Jake Locker will start for Tennessee, but he won't have to carry the offense on his shoulders. Chris Johnson, who took a step back last year after becoming the sixth running back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in 2009, is ready for a rebound after missing most of the 2011 preseason because of a contract hassle. The Titans plan to get him the ball more in space, where his speed makes him dangerous. Wide receiver Kenny Britt (who will miss the first game because of a suspension) is a downfield threat, and Locker also will look for Nate Washington, who led the team in receiving last season (74 catches for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns). The offensive line, led by bookend tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart, allowed only 24 sacks last year.
It took this team 10 years to make its first playoff appearance, but Houston could struggle to defend its AFC South championship. Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense figures to be a force again, even without former mainstays Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans. That unit vaulted from 30th in total defense in 2010 to second in 2011 in Phillips' first year as coordinator. The concerns are the health of quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Schaub, who is 31 and coming off a Lisfranc fracture to his right foot that forced him to miss the final six regular season games and two playoff games, has played all 16 games just twice in five years in Houston. Johnson missed nine games last season with a hamstring injury. Without him on the field, the Texans lack a vertical threat who can consistently separate from the defense.
Injuries shredded them last year. Quarterback Matt Cassel (broken hand), running back Jamaal Charles (torn ACL), tight end Tony Moeaki (torn ACL) -- three key players on offense -- missed all or significant portions of the 2011 season. Safety Eric Berry, a Pro Bowl pick in 2010, tore his ACL in the first game of the season. Despite that, the Chiefs were long shots to win the AFC West division going into the final game of the season.
Now, those linchpins are back. Wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin, a first-round pick in 2011 who missed the first five weeks of the season with a broken hand, are capable weapons for Cassel. The team also added several key veterans during the offseason, including offensive tackle Eric Winston, running back Peyton Hillis and cornerback Stanford Routt. This is a fairly young team (no player is older than 30) and it appears ready to compete for the division title it won only two years ago.
It almost seems like heresy to think that a team that has gone to the playoffs in seven out of the last 10 seasons and has appeared in three Super Bowls (winning two) during that time would miss the postseason. But the Steelers have issues that could keep them on the outside looking in.
The oft-volatile Todd Haley has replaced Bruce Arians as the offensive coordinator. Arians had mentored Ben Roethlisberger for his entire career and was a big part of the quarterback's development. The team lost the savvy playmaking ability and veteran leadership of wideout Hines Ward, who retired after last season. Mike Wallace, the team's most dangerous wide receiver, missed the entire preseason due to a contract issue. There have been injuries to three other key players: linebacker James Harrison, running back Rashard Mendenhall and rookie guard David DeCastro, who recently underwent knee surgery and is expected to miss at least half of the season.
Throw in the fact that the Ravens finally have caught up with the Steelers -- Baltimore won both games against Pittsburgh last year and finished first in the rugged AFC North -- and this season could turn into an uphill battle for the Men of Steel.
Despite winning five of six AFC West division titles from 2004-09, the Chargers have been labeled by critics as classic underachievers. Their playoff record during that run was 3-5, and they reached the AFC championship game only once. Still, there are several reasons to think San Diego could get back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Despite an off season last year (he had a career-high 20 interceptions), Philip Rivers is on the threshold of joining the elite quarterbacks in the league. Since 2007, when coach Norv Turner arrived, Rivers has the second-most passing yards and the third-most touchdown passes of any quarterback. Even though young running back Ryan Matthews seems fragile -- a broken collarbone will keep him from missing the start of the season -- he is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he rushed for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns. New coordinator John Pagano has made the defense less complicated, which means tackle Antonio Garay, linebackers Shaun Phillips and Jarret Johnson (an offseason addition from Baltimore), and secondary anchors Eric Weddle and Antoine Cason will do more reacting and less thinking.
Hardly anyone picked the Bengals to be a playoff team last year, but they joined fellow AFC North rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the postseason. Much of Cincinnati's revitalization was due to the rookie passing combination of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. But the Bengals have had a hard time duplicating success.
The team hasn't made consecutive playoff trips since 1981 and 1982 (a season reduced to nine regular season games because of a 57-day players strike after which 16 of the then 28 teams qualified for a postseason tournament). The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990. History isn't on their side. Neither is the fact that they play in arguably the most competitive division in the league.
Yeah, I know it's been a long, frustrating drought for this team, which has missed the playoffs three out of the last four seasons and has won just one postseason game since 1996. But this could be the year of the Cowboy.
Tony Romo has taken a lot of criticism (some of it deserved) as the starting quarterback, but the pieces around him haven't always helped him out. He has a nice array of receiving weapons assuming wide receiver Miles Austin (hamstring) and tight end Jason Witten (spleen) can bounce back from preseason injuries, and wideout Dez Bryant can keep out of trouble. Another offensive weapon is second-year running back DeMarco Murray, a physical runner who will give Dallas a pounding force after recovering from a fractured ankle he suffered last season. The defense looks solid under the direction of the other Ryan twin, Rob, and should be even better with the additions of former Chief Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne at cornerback.
The last time they tried to defend their Super Bowl title (2008), the Giants won the NFC East but went one-and-done in the playoffs, losing to the Eagles. With Dallas and Philadelphia expected to be better this season, New York will be challenged to get back to the playoffs after knocking off the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI last February. Every year, it seems, the Giants put themselves in a desperate position -- they were 7-7 last season before making a late charge and winning six straight games -- and one of these times they won't be able to recover.
Although general manager Jerry Reese has done an excellent job of finding talent and coach Tom Coughlin always seems to keep the team headed in a forward direction, there are some concerns. The secondary has been thinned out because of injuries, the running game ranked last in the league in 2011, and a long-term injury to quarterback Eli Manning would be devastating.
The Dream Team is dead. Long live the Dream Team. The Eagles are getting a second chance after a dismal 8-8 season that began with a 4-8 record and was marked by quarterback Michael Vick suffering a rib injury that rendered him inactive for three games and other players failing to play up to expectations. Owner Jeffrey Lurie is on record that another 8-8 season won't be acceptable -- and could cost Andy Reid, the longest-tenured coach in the league, his job.
When Vick is healthy (he has only once made it through a full 16-game schedule), he is the most dangerous quarterback in the league because of his passing and running ability. Few quarterbacks have a better surrounding cast: running back LeSean McCoy, wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant, and tight end Brent Celek. Two-time Pro Bowl selection DeMeco Ryans is a new addition who should fortify the middle linebacker position, and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is expected to rebound from an off season last year.
They seemingly have an endless cache of offensive weapons, starting with quarterback Drew Brees, the NFL's most prolific passer in the last few years. When he's under center, the Saints always have a chance.
But this team, this organization, this fan base, has been shaken by the repercussions of the bounty scandal. Coach Sean Payton is suspended for the entire season. General manager Mickey Loomis and interim coach Joe Vitt will miss the first six weeks. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma could be out for the entire season if he loses his lawsuit against the NFL. That's a huge fallout, one which no team has ever had to deal with, and it has to be disconcerting. The Saints are putting up a brave front and have vowed to go on as before. But conventional wisdom says all those blows to their stability could keep them from being a playoff team.
They finally recognized that the NFL has become a passing league and gave quarterback Jay Cutler a deep threat by acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall, Cutler's old passing partner in Denver. With Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery on the field, the Bears now have some big playmakers at the receiver position. Cutler has recovered from the broken thumb that sidelined him for the final six games last season, and new coordinator Mike Tice's offense should be a much more comfortable fit for Cutler than what he played in under Mike Martz.
Defensively, Chicago is led by end Julius Peppers, linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and cornerback Charles Tillman. Although all those players are 30 or older -- and Urlacher's effectiveness coming off knee surgery remains to be seen -- the Bears still have the best defense in the NFC North.
If I'm a Lions fan, two areas concern me. One is the running game, where Jahvid Best starts the season on the physically unable to perform list and Mikel Leshoure is on the suspended list for the first two games. Kevin Smith is expected to get a lot of work, especially in the beginning of the season, but he needs to avoid the injuries that have slowed him in the past. The secondary picture also is troubling. The only consistently reliable player on that unit heading into the season is cornerback Chris Houston. Safety Louis Delmas still is recovering from knee surgery and the Lions don't know when he'll be available.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for more than 5,000 yards last season and wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson are big weapons. But the passing game can't carry this team alone. The Lions could be hard-pressed to go to the playoffs a second straight year.