Four teams (Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle and Washington) made the 2012 playoffs after missing in '11. Will last season's also-rans rise up with enough force to match or exceed that number in 2013?
In the latest Audibles Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar each pick a trio of teams that could be ready to make a playoff leap.
Doug Farrar: Chicago Bears.
This would seem a simple pick, since the 10-6 Bears were a couple of plays away from a playoff appearance in 2012. But a lot has changed in the offseason, and any return to form for this team will be far more reliant on a consistent passing offense. Lovie Smith's Bears teams were built on stout defense for a decade, but Smith got the axe on Dec. 31, making him the most successful NFL head coach to be fired since the Chargers dismissed Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 campaign in 2006. The Smith firing put a serious burden on general manager Phil Emery to get things right as he redefined the franchise on his terms, and Emery's first move was to replace Smith with former NFL quarterback guru and CFL head coach Marc Trestman.
Emery's overall thinking seemed logical -- the Bears had the league's best defense by some metrics, but the offense had been everything from inconsistent to hide-your-eyes awful during Smith's tenure. The Bears paid a heavy price for quarterback Jay Cutler in 2009, and he hasn't lived up to expectations as a projected top-level signal-caller. Cutler has been scuttled by his own funky mechanics, not to mention a series of offensive coordinators seemingly unable to get the best out of him, and a lack of overall talent in the receiver corps and offensive line. The Bears are in the opening stages of turning that around, and Trestman's timing-and-rhythm approach to the passing game might provide the same positive results Cutler had under Mike Shanahan in Denver. If the defense holds fast, a postseason return seems a pretty solid bet.
Chris Burke: Dallas Cowboys.
We can dismiss the Cowboys as underachieving or overrated, and either designation would be accurate. For all they've done wrong over the years, though, the Cowboys made the playoffs in 2009 and had chances at division titles in Week 17 of both '11 and '12. In other words, it's not as if Dallas has totally fallen off the NFL map recently.
This is a team with the potential to be as dangerous offensively as just about any in football -- if the offensive line can hold its own (something the line has not accomplished over the past few seasons). Tony Romo nearly reached 5,000 yards passing last season, thanks to a loaded cast of characters around him -- Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and so on. Bryant, in particular, will be worth watching this season, as it appears he is on the verge of becoming a superstar.
The question for Dallas is if the defense can make enough stops to get this team to double-digit wins. It did not do so last season, coughing up 29 or more points on six occasions -- the Cowboys were 1-5 in those games. There are reasons to be concerend there, too, from the line to the linebackers to the secondary. But even a slight improvement could be enough to push the Cowboys back to the postseason.
Farrar: New Orleans Saints.
All the Saints need to make the playoffs and be a serious threat for the Super Bowl in any season is to have an average defense, because their offense is that potent. In 2012, they ranked third in the league in points scored (28.8 points per game), the fourth time they've been in the top three in the last five years. Problem was, the defense run by Steve Spagnuolo ranked 31st in points allowed (28.4 points per game), which was the real reason Drew Brees' team missed the postseason for the first time since 2008. When they won Super Bowl XLIV at the end of the 2009 season, the Saints ranked first in points scored and 20th in points allowed.
So, while it's crucial for the team's success that head coach Sean Payton is back after a year's enforced vacation, the real difference-maker on the Saints' coaching staff must be new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ryan's defenses in Oakland, Cleveland and Dallas have never ranked higher than 13th in points allowed (the 2010 Browns), but if Brees stays healthy and Payton is calling the shots, more should not be required. Ryan has talent along his defensive front even though endbacker Will Smith is out for the year with a torn ACL. Ryan should be able to coax fine performances out of the underrated Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro is just the kind of rangy hitter who should thrive in a system that requires its defensive backs to cover a lot of ground. The Saints went 7-9 despite all the BountyGate turmoil; a return to form should mean a fairly easy return to the postseason.
Burke: Pittsburgh Steelers.
Salary-cap woes have made it hard for the Steelers to do much in free agency over the past two seasons, beyond casting a few of their high-priced veterans out to sea. So why is this team, whose offseason pickups were more or less limited to bringing back CB William Gay and drafting a couple talents, better than the 2012 version?
It starts with a player by the name of Troy Polamalu. The Steelers' dynamic safety missed nine games last season, neutering a lot of what the defense could do. To their credit, the Steelers still gave up less yards than any team in the NFL. But they failed to generate those key, game-changing moments that Polamalu specializes in. His presence back on the field this season will make Pittsburgh much tougher for opposing offenses -- and a few more turnovers would make life easier for Ben Roethlisberger, who should have the added benefit of an improved run game alongside him.
Farrar: Buffalo Bills.
Backing a team with just one winning season in the new millennium seems risky, but I think the Bills are ripe for a move to a new tax bracket. The AFC East is open for business in ways it hasn't been in years, and if everything comes together, the Bills stand to benefit. They'll struggle in pass defense for a while as Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd recover from injuries, but they've got a very solid front seven, and a new defensive coordinator in Mike Pettine who knows how to use those players to provide maximum quarterback disruption. Pettine's new defense has already caused confusion for Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (another reason we like the Bears to move up in the NFC North, by the way), and the talent matches the schemes.
The question marks really reside on offense, but that's more a matter of experience than ability. Running back C.J. Spiller has the potential to be a truly franchise-defining player, but he's only shown that in one season so far. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel might provide a transcendent combination of mobility and passing acumen, especially if new head coach Doug Marrone runs a heavy dose of no-huddle, but we haven't seen enough yet to be sure. We know that the Bills have an above-average offensive line, a bunch of exciting young targets for the quarterback du jour and a pretty spiffy schedule. The 2004 Bills, the only winning example this franchise has had since 1999, spackled things together using aging vets, and young talent the coaches didn't always know how to use. The new Bills appear to have a better plan.
Burke: St. Louis Rams.
Let's start with the obvious argument against the Rams: They play in the NFC West, quite possibly the best division in football. Navigating through San Francisco, Seattle and even an improved Arizona team to find enough wins for a postseason berth will be tricky. That said, the Rams' failure to make the 2012 playoffs was caused by their struggles outside the division, not within. St. Louis was 4-1-1 against the NFC West and 3-7 against everyone else.
On paper, the Rams are a better team this year than they were in '12. They used the draft to upgrade at linebacker (Alec Ogletree), safety (T.J. McDonald) and wide receiver (Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey), plus made what may be one of the big scores of free agency in left tackle Jake Long.
The added pieces to the offensive arsenal should bode well for Sam Bradford, who might be approaching make-or-break mode in St. Louis. The defense finished in the top half of the league last season in both points and yards allowed. So, if Bradford can pick up the pace in his fourth season, the Rams could have enough on both sides of the ball to play on past Week 17.