|Tom Gannam/Associated Press|
|Can the Rams go from cellar dweller to division champion? Sam Bradford and Jeff Fisher will give it a go.|
The NFL proudly trumpets its playoff parity, with an average of five new teams making the postseason annually since 2000. Last season, six teams made the playoffs that didn't in 2010 -- Texans, Broncos, Bengals, 49ers, Giants and Lions. With that in mind, which five 2011 playoff teams won't be back and who will replace them?
- Steelers and Broncos get pushed aside in the AFC, with the Bills and Chargers taking their spots. And the Lions, Saints and 49ers are out in the NFC, with the Eagles, Bears and Rams taking their places.
In the AFC, I love Pittsburgh's addition of Todd Haley and think Ben Roethlisberger takes a step forward this year, but Mike Wallace will need to acclimate, the running game will miss (a fully healthy) Rashard Mendenhall, and the defense is transitioning. With an easier schedule, the Bills edge out the Steelers for the second wild-card spot. The Broncos need a year to get right and will be nipped by a reloaded Chargers team with a determined Philip Rivers and a defense that has had Peyton Manning's number in the past.
In the ultracompetitive NFC, this year is the Lions' dip before a real championship contender emerges in 2013. A more complete team in Chicago (health permitting) will outdistance them for a wild card. The new coordinators bring new life to Atlanta, which slips past a New Orleans team that will miss Sean Payton. The rise of the Eagles in the East moves the Giants to a wild card and keeps the Saints out of the playoffs all together. And the 49ers' defense will be all it was in 2011, but the offense might lose its identity a bit with all the new toys. That will allow the reenergized Rams to sneak in as West champs at 9-7.
- Broncos, Bengals, Giants, 49ers and Lions will fall short.
Taking their place: The Chiefs, Jets, Eagles, Panthers and Seahawks. Picking Seattle to win the NFC West might be even crazier than Pete Carroll picking Russell Wilson as his starter.
Eagles, Cowboys could make it a big season for the NFC EastI can't see there being five teams from last season's playoffs that don't make the postseason again this season. But if I have to rank the five most likely 2011-12 playoff participants to miss the cut this season, I rank them in this order:
The five teams I think are the most likely to emerge as new playoff teams are:
I see Kansas City replacing Cincinnati in the AFC, and Philadelphia and Dallas replacing Atlanta and Detroit in the NFC.
Per usual, injuries will be the biggest factor in playoff racesPlayoff turnover is often a result of significant injuries (just ask 2011 playoff dropouts Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Philadelphia), so predicting who's in and who's out before the season is difficult.
For example, the Chargers, Raiders or Chiefs could take back the AFC West from Denver if Peyton Manning can't stay on the field. And the Ravens face one of the toughest schedules in the league without pass rusher Terrell Suggs for at least the first half of the year; if they falter, the Titans could sneak into the final wild-card spot behind a revitalized Chris Johnson.
The 49ers led the league with a plus-28 turnover differential in 2011; sliding from 13 wins to nine or 10 due to regression to the mean brings the Seahawks back into the NFC West hunt. A healthy Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, combined with new receiver Brandon Marshall, could help Chicago beat out division foe Detroit for a playoff spot. Even the Super Bowl champions could be vulnerable, as they won just nine regular season games last year (and were outscored by opponents 400 to 394). Philadelphia could make a run at the Giants if Michael Vick's health doesn't become a major issue.
Giants won't make it back to the playoffs to defend titleThis will be a year the Steelers take a step backward in the AFC North. Their defense is getting old, and the offense won't be able to run the ball, no matter how much it wants to. Denver's road to the playoffs goes through the most difficult schedule in the NFL. I think 8-8 is the ceiling. I'm picking an upset in the AFC South: The Titans will ride CJ2K to a surprise division crown. Houston is still the team to beat, but defensive defections will mount up for them.
In the NFC, the Giants lost too much offensively. Paired with an incredibly hard slate of games, the champs will miss the postseason. I'm also going to say no playoffs for the Falcons in 2012. They'll put up fireworks offensively, but the division is a heckuva lot tougher than it was a year ago.
Panthers will be the surprise team of the 2012 seasonThe Broncos, Bengals and Steelers won't make the playoffs in 2012. The Broncos will take a backseat to the Chiefs in the AFC West. The Bengals and Steelers won't be able to duplicate their previous success, and it says here the Chargers and upstart Bills grab the wild-card spots.
In the NFC, the Giants will have a better record than last season, but won't win the division, falling behind the Dallas Cowboys. The NFC South will continue to be one of the most turbulent divisions in sports, as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons both miss the playoffs. This year's surprise team will be the Panthers. The Bears missed the playoffs last year, thanks to an injury to Jay Cutler, but will be back with a division crown this season.