|Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press|
|Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions will have to fight off the Chicago Bears to return to the playoffs in 2012.|
The NFL prides itself on parity. Each season, there are several new teams in the postseason that weren't in the playoffs the year before. Playing off the NFL schedule release, which 2011 playoff team won't be back in the 2012 postseason and which non-2011 playoff team will replace it?
Count out the Lions; Bears will riseAlthough they seem to be a team on the rise, I think the Lions are vulnerable and won't make the playoffs, using the schedule as the basis for this call. They have four sets of back-to-back road games -- an odd twist -- and six of those road games come before Week 11. The three home games in that stretch -- St. Louis, Minnesota and Seattle -- are very winnable. Things seemingly break their way late with five of the final seven games at home, but those games are against Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Chicago. That's a rugged stretch.
The Bears will take Detroit's place, as the games against stronger opponents on their schedule are bracketed by seemingly weaker foes. For example, they play the Colts to open the season, then play at Green Bay, then play host to the Rams and then travel to Dallas and Jacksonville. Three of the final four games are on the road, but it's a manageable stretch: at Minnesota, home against Green Bay, at Arizona and at Detroit.
Chargers in, Bengals out in the AFC playoffsI look for the San Diego Chargers to replace the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC playoffs this season. Ironically, they will play each other in San Diego on Dec. 2 in a game that might decide who goes to the playoffs.
The Bengals are a good young team, but play in a very tough division. They could not beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore last season and still have to be rated behind them in the division. They also face the NFC East, a tougher division than the NFC South, which San Diego faces. Cincinnati's December schedule also is more difficult than San Diego's closing stretch.
I feel San Diego has done more to date to improve its team than Cincinnati, adding WR Eddie Royal, WR Robert Meachem, LB Jarret Johnson and RB Le'Ron McClain to replace WR Vincent Jackson and RB Mike Tolbert. Cincinnati will have two first-round picks to San Diego's one in this year's draft, so they might close the gap.
Champion Giants won't be back; Eagles, Cowboys will duke it outWhen the 2011 season ended, the Giants were covered in confetti, celebrating a dynamic Super Bowl XLVI win in Indianapolis. Yet before the finale, they were in the same position as so many -- fighting for an invitation to postseason play. The G-Men earned it by beating the Cowboys on the season's last day, and the rest is history.
But the margin of error in the NFC East hasn't changed, and Dallas and Philadelphia will be much improved. Coach Tom Coughlin's team was a great story. But the Cowboys will replace them in the playoffs in 2012. And not to be out-done, the Eagles will find a spot as a wild-card team, too.
Bears set up for strong start, finish; Giants have it roughIt's hard for me to see a playoff return for the New York Giants. Heresy, I know. But they play the hardest schedule a defending champion has ever encountered. Look at how they finish after their Week 11 bye. Even their "easy" games are tough: Tampa Bay, Carolina and, well, Cleveland. But I'm seeing 8-8 for the Giants.
Taking the Giants' place in the 2012 postseason will be the Chicago Bears. They have home games against Indianapolis and St. Louis, with an away tilt at Jacksonville in the first five weeks. 4-1 isn't out of the question. In the final six weeks, they get the Vikings twice, a home game against Seattle and a roadie at Arizona. You talk about being set up to start and finish well, that's the Bears. As long as Jay Cutler stays healthy, Chicago could actually win the NFC North outright.
Party for Panthers in NFC South; sorry, Saints and FalconsThere is going to be a changing of guard in the NFC South. I'm already on record saying the Panthers will get off to a hot start. I might as well take it one step further: The Panthers will win the NFC South, and the Saints and Falcons will both miss the playoffs.
The Bears likely would have made the playoffs last year if Jay Cutler had stayed healthy, and they are postseason-bound in 2012. In fact, the two wild-card teams will come from the NFC North.
After a brutal stretch at the beginning of the year puts the Broncos in a 2-4 hole, they'll fail to defend the AFC West title. The Chargers will win the division and somehow save Norv Turner's job again.