One of the most difficult things to achieve in the NFL is sustained success.
Even for the most hyped, "can't-miss" squads out there, the bottom is seemingly always threatening to fall out -- as the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons can attest, coming off a season in which they plummeted out of the ranks of the playoff elite and into the cellar. The fact is, it's a good bet that at least one -- if not more -- of the teams currently viewed as likely contenders will have a disappointing year. The tricky part is figuring out which one(s).
Below you'll find six playoff participants from last season -- including one very big fish -- that I expect will take a step back in 2014. Of course, what that means is different for each team; for some, a "step back" constitutes winning one or two fewer games, while for others, it's missing out on the postseason. Teams are arranged according to their chances of slipping -- from the most likely to drop to the least.
1) Kansas City Chiefs
Things might seem to be pointing up for the Chiefs, who won nine more games in 2013 than they did in 2012, but storm clouds have gathered -- starting with the way last season ended. The Chiefs headed into their Week 10 bye as one of the NFL's hottest teams, building up a 9-0 record while giving up just 12.3 points per game. When they returned to action, though, the wheels seemed to fall off. Kansas City went 2-5 the rest of the way, yielding a whopping 27.7 points per contest before bowing out of the playoffs with a 45-44 loss to the Colts -- in which they blew a 28-point third-quarter lead. I think opponents simply learned how to attack this defense.
The Chiefs will face a much more challenging schedule in 2014, especially in the early going, with trips to Denver in Week 2, Miami in Week 3 and San Francisco in Week 5 -- which will come on a short week following a Monday night contest against the Patriots -- as well as visits to the tough environs of Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the back half of the sked. And they'll have to do it without two key pieces on the offensive line, as Branden Albert and Geoff Schwartz -- good players both -- left via free agency. I have concerns about a unit that gave up 41 sacks in 2013 with Albert and Schwartz in the fold. As for quarterback Alex Smith, one wonders if he can get this squad over the top. Moreover, he might play out the last year of his contract without an extension, and it's historically tough to win with a quarterback in that situation. Finally, Kansas City was exceptionally healthy for most of last season, losing just 22 total games to injury, and it would be foolish to expect the team to be that lucky again.
As good as dynamic running back Jamaal Charles is, I'm not sure he'll be able to compensate for some of the issues that could potentially dog this group. Between the tougher schedule and offseason losses, I don't think Kansas City will make the playoffs in 2014 -- and this is the strongest feeling I have about any of the teams on this list.
2) Carolina Panthers
No team has repeated as champion of the NFC South since the division's inception in 2002 -- so even if there weren't a handful of other reasons to worry about the Panthers, history would suggest someone will take their place atop the standings.
Cam Newton had a spectacular 2013, but ankle surgery has put a damper on his offseason, keeping him, for the most part, out of early workouts -- where he would have had a chance to begin gelling with what is almost a completely new receiving corps following the departures of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn. Furthermore, the left tackle position is up in the air in the wake of veteran Jordan Gross' retirement. Carolina's defense, which ranked second overall last season, still looks as if it will be potent behind a solid front seven, though there are concerns with this unit, as well. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell -- who really brought a lot of toughness in 2013 -- are gone, while defensive end Greg Hardy's off-field issues might be cause for concern. Ultimately, I think Carolina will miss the playoffs.
3) Cincinnati Bengals
Suffering three consecutive first-round flameouts in the playoffs -- as the Bengals have done -- can really affect a team's psyche and perhaps make players apprehensive. Of course, that's the last thing Cincinnati needs heading into 2014, with a tougher schedule on the horizon and new offensive and defensive coordinators taking over.
First, the Bengals figure to face stiffer competition within the AFC North, as both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers -- their opponents for, respectively, the season opener and regular-season finale -- will be better than they were in 2013. The Bengals also face a three-game midseason road stretch -- against the New Orleans Saints, Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- that promises to be difficult.
Head coach Marvin Lewis is this team's rock; folks seem to forget that before he arrived in 2003, the Bengals were regularly posting dreadful three- and four-win campaigns. That said, the coaching staff underwent significant change this offseason, with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer leaving for head-coaching spots (Gruden with the Redskins and Zimmer with the Vikings). Their replacements (Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther, respectively) are both NFL veterans who were promoted from within, but they're still new to these specific jobs with this specific team; such changes almost inevitably involve some level of adjustment.
Andy Dalton -- who, like Smith, is in the last year of his contract -- is just good enough to get the Bengals on the edge of winning but doesn't seem able to take them any farther. And quarterback isn't the only position surrounded by question marks: Rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard really has to do well, as Adam Jones and Terence Newman are getting up there in age and Leon Hall is coming off an Achilles tear. Defensive rock Geno Atkins, meanwhile, is dealing with his own recovery (from ACL surgery). I think Cincy is in line to top the disappointment of the past three years by missing out on the playoffs altogether.
4) San Diego Chargers
The Chargers barely made the playoffs in 2013, beating terrible Giants and Raiders squads and a Chiefs team in freefall down the stretch to nab the sixth seed in the AFC (though they did, it must be said, defeat the Broncos in Denver in Week 15). San Diego will find the going much rockier in 2014, as the Bolts' slate includes opponents from one of the toughest divisions in football in the NFC West. They also have to travel east for four games that will start at 10 a.m. PT, which is always a tricky thing to do.
One of the biggest factors working in the Chargers' favor last season was the resurgence of quarterback Philip Rivers, who halted an apparent career decline by throwing for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns against just 11 picks. While I'd like for Rivers to continue being successful as he approaches 33 years of age -- he's a great guy -- I just don't know if we can count on it. Finally, San Diego will end the season with two straight road games -- in San Francisco and Kansas City -- which is never the ideal way to close things out.
5) Philadelphia Eagles
Can Nick Foles have another season like he did in 2013, when he threw 27 touchdowns passes and just two interceptions? Unfortunately, I think the laws of gravity are against the young signal-caller, who will, of course, be without playmaking receiver DeSean Jackson. What will Philly's much-lauded offense be able to accomplish without Jackson, who was released in March, in the fold? I think you'll see opposing defenses stopping this vaunted attack much more effectively than they did last season.
Chip Kelly is a very hard worker who did a fantastic job making the difficult transition from college coach to NFL head man. Philly added some talent in safety Malcolm Jenkins and especially running back Darren Sproles, who is so good in so many areas. That said, the defense ranked just 29th last season, gave up nearly 400 yards per game and finished with just 37 sacks.
Here's an interesting wrinkle to consider: Since 1989, teams that have improved their record by five or more wins from one season to the next have tended to regress a bit going forward, suffering, on average, 2.4 additional losses in the follow-up campaign. (A stat that applies to Kansas City and Carolina, as well as Philly.) If that holds true, we can expect the Eagles to drop to eight wins -- though I think they have a good shot to buck this particular trend and land a postseason berth.
6) Seattle Seahawks
First of all, it's extremely difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions -- for even the most complete team. And the Seahawks have some issues, starting with all the talent they lost this offseason. The exodus included several players who, though they aren't perennial Pro Bowlers, are quite good. Last season's top overall defense really took a hit; top-notch cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond are gone, along with defensive linemen Red Bryant, who is great against the run, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald.
As for offensive talent, receiver Golden Tate, who made a lot of big plays last season, signed with the Detroit Lions. Of particular concern is the offensive line, with tackle Breno Giacomini heading out of town. A unit that gave up 44 sacks in 2013 might end up relying on second-year pro Michael Bowie -- a seventh-round draft pick in 2013 -- to shore up the right tackle position. It's not all doom and gloom, though; second-year pro Christine Michael could step up and be a real plus at running back, which would be helpful, given the recent uncertainty involving Marshawn Lynch.
The NFC West is going to be such a rough-and-tumble division that, unlike last season, I don't expect it will produce the NFC's No. 1 seed; these four teams are just going to knock each other around too much. I think Seattle -- which did, it must be said, get lucky a few times in 2013 -- might end up finishing with something like 10 or 11 wins.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.