They say that success is never final, and failure is never fatal ... but it's hard to wrap one's head around the subtleties of those two divergent forces after one loses a playoff game. Now, for those teams eliminated in the wild-card round, the analysis portion of the year begins. Where are the holes, and how can they be filled? Here's one potential issue for each of the four teams eliminated over wild-card weekend.
• Cincinnati Bengals: Can they overcome Andy Dalton's low ceiling?
“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” -- Auric Goldfinger
Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have seen quarterback Andy Dalton three times in the postseason, you can bet they're pretty frustrated with all the enemy action going on. In two games against the Houston Texans and Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers -- all first-round playoff losses -- Dalton completed 70 passes in 123 attempts for 718 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. His postseason quarterback rating is 56.2, a figure which wouldn't get him off the bench had he not set the franchise record for touchdown passes in the 2013 regular season.
But that's the problem with Dalton -- he's an average-to-good quarterback with a ridiculously talented group of targets around him, whose abilities have been maximized by an understanding coaching staff, and we still don't know when that failing spring will snap. One thing's for sure -- it will generally snap in the postseason. Against a Chargers defense that was the league's worst in the regular season, Dalton overshot his targets, looked balky in and out of the pocket, missed open reads and continued to make rookie mistakes ... which would be OK if this wasn't his third season.
"Whatever you do during the regular season doesn't matter once you get to the playoffs," he said after the most recent loss. "It's disappointing. All the good stuff we did this year, then to come out and not win this game kind of hurts."
At least he understands the problem. But can he fix it with his limited palette? The Bengals have an outstanding defense, an above-average offensive line and a group of skill players that most other teams would envy. Dalton has one year left on his rookie contract, and if he can't transcend his limitations to date, and that window starts to close, Cincinnati will have some interesting decisions to make in 2014 and beyond.
• Green Bay Packers: Cam Dom Capers still get it done?
Despite the fact that Aaron Rodgers was out for almost half the season with a broken clavicle, the Green Bay Packers still ranked ninth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics. The defense, however, was a problem all year, no matter who was healthy and who was not. Green Bay ranked 31st in those same metrics on the defensive side of the ball, and though defensive coordinator Dom Capers' troops did a pretty decent job of keeping the San Francisco 49ers under wraps at frozen Lambeau Field in Sunday's 23-20 playoff loss, the team's continued inability to keep Colin Kaepernick under wraps points to a worrisome inability to adjust.
Capers has been the team's defensive coordinator since 2009, and in that span, the Packers have finished second, second, 25th, eighth, and 31st in FO's defensive stats. So, a defensive coordinator whose squad finished eighth just a year ago would seem to still have something on the ball -- but there are also times when Capers' line concepts don't seem to work, and an overreliance on man coverage comes back to bite the team.
“If Dom’s under contract, I expect him to be back," cornerback Tramon Williams told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel after the loss. "He’s been a vital part of our defense, too. We won a Super Bowl with Dom and our entire coaching staff. We’re comfortable with these guys. These guys come out and work every day, put in an enormous amount of hours throughout the week. Those guys put their hearts and souls into it. So for you to ask me that question, yeah, he’ll be back.”
Perhaps, but any more defensive regression will force change.
• Kansas City Chiefs: Will the real defense please stand up?
Through the first nine weeks of the 2013 season, the Kansas City Chiefs were undefeated, and their defense, led by first-year coordinator Bob Sutton, was the NFL's best. It was a shutdown unit capable of sacking quarterbacks and ending drives with equal fervor. Then, injuries started to take their toll, and that formerly great defense wasn't so formidable anymore. Sutton's squad dropped from fifth to 15th in opponent-adjusted efficiency in the second half of the season, and from second to 17th against the pass.
And in their 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, that defense allowed Andrew Luck to complete six passes of 20 yards or more and erase a 28-point third-quarter deficit. It was the second-largest comeback in NFL postseason history, and it seemed unthinkable just a few months before that the Chiefs could allow such a thing. Luck finished with 443 passing yards and four touchdowns as his three interceptions faded into the subsequent offensive onslaught. Second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton stunned the Chiefs' secondary with 11 catches on 13 targets for 224 yards and two touchdowns
"We gave up too many big plays," Andy Reid said, stating the obvious. "That's what it came down to. That's what you saw if you look at the different stats; that's really where it points to. You can't do that. You have an aggressive style defense and you have to have an aggressive attitude with it. You can't afford to give up big plays."
It was a requiem for the playoff loss, but also for the second half of Kansas City's season. People calling for Sutton's ouster are overreacting, but the Chiefs have a lot to figure out in the offseason.
• Philadelphia Eagles: Can the defensive improvements hold up next season?
And on the other end of the spectrum, there are the Philadelphia Eagles, who also came into this season with a first-year defensive coordinator. Things started out rough for Billy Davis as he tried to merge his personnel and schemes, but it all started to come together right about the time that Chip Kelly found his franchise quarterback in Nick Foles. From Weeks 1 through 9, Philadelphia ranked 30th in FO’s metrics, but they vaulted to 12th in the season's second half. The strongest improvement came against the run, where the Eagles improved from 22nd to fifth.
That held up for the most part in the postseason, even though Philly lost to the New Orleans Saints 26-24. Drew Brees threw two picks and was limited to 250 passing yards. Mark Ingram ran for 97 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, which certainly went against type, but Davis and the Eagles have a lot to look forward to with this defense. The front seven is excellent minus a top-tier pass-rusher, the secondary can be tweaked from good to great with a few new moves and it's clear that Davis is in sync with his players. To his credit, it was the coach who took the blame for deficiencies in the run defense.
"That's on me," Davis said. "I made the calls for the passing game, to make sure we keep the big plays off of us ... I could've called more of a run-heavy defensive game."
It speaks well for the future of this defense that Davis' players weren't having any of it.
"We shifted our attention, obviously, to their passing game," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "We went 'coverage' a lot, because we felt like we could hold up in the run with six guys, five guys in the box. And we did at times, but we didn't enough,"
The Eagles should be seen as a potential force contender in 2014. That won't take any of the sting out of this season's end, though.