The Tennessee Titans finished 9-7 last season and held the dubious distinction of being the only team with a winning record NOT to make the playoffs. It begs the question: Who will be the best NFL team in 2012 to miss out on postseason play?
The Dallas Cowboys will be the best team to miss the playoffs for the second straight year. (Yes, despite having a worse record at 8-8, they were better than Tennessee in 2011.) Not only are they the third-best team in a brutal NFC East, but they play in the better conference and drew the AFC North and NFC South as part of a stifling schedule.
Based on front-line talent alone, the Cowboys remain very good. The trouble is, there are depth issues in a lot of the spots where stars are starting. If the situation with Jason Witten illustrates anything, it's that there are a handful of places on the roster where just one injury could leave this team in dire straits.
The New York Giants are the best team in the division. The Philadelphia Eagles have the best talent. That doesn't make the Cowboys bad. But come January, it'll leave them on the outside looking in.
The New York Giants were rather lucky to get a home game in the playoffs last year at 9-7. This time around, I see them winning nine or 10 games, but falling short to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East and missing out on a wild-card berth because of the trio of potential powers in the NFC South.
When it comes to Tom Coughlin's Giants, it's all or nothing.
This question comes down to Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit. All three of these teams have playoff-caliber quarterbacks who have been to the playoffs in recent years, and all three clubs are definitely capable of making the postseason in 2012. Ultimately, injuries will probably decide how things shake out.
Atlanta visits Detroit on Dec. 22. The following week, Detroit hosts Chicago in the teams' regular-season finale. With this schedule in mind, I give Detroit the best shot of these three squads to make the playoffs. I'm going to put Chicago above Atlanta because of the Bears' superior defense. So my vote goes to the Falcons.
It looks as though at least one squad from the deep and competitive NFC North will be left out of the postseason once again in 2012.
It's possible that the Week 17 divisional showdown between the Bears and Lions in Detroit will be an elimination game. Then again, the healthy returns of Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, plus the addition of Brandon Marshall, could help Chicago finish what it started last season before injuries dashed playoff hopes. If the Bears have a two-game lead over the Lions heading into the season finale, even Matthew Stafford's high-powered passing attack won't be able to keep Detroit from being the most talented team watching the playoffs.
The more I think about this question, the more the Philadelphia Eagles bounce around in my head. For how many games can Michael Vick stay upright? The Eagles play in the daunting NFC East and also drew the AFC North in cross-conference action; how many wins can this team string together? Can LeSean McCoy pull off another season like he had in 2011, when he was the best back in the NFC? Can Jason Babin play out of his freaking mind again at age 32?
The answer, of course, will come from the NFC, because in the AFC, it's the New England Patriots ... and everyone else. I like the Chicago Bears to win the North and the Green Bay Packers to earn a wild-card berth. The New Orleans Saints will win the South, and the Atlanta Falcons will take the other wild-card spot. Dallas will win the NFC East; a healthy season from DeMarco Murray will take the load off Tony Romo, who won't have to worry about throwing costly interceptions in the final five minutes every week. So that means the Giants and Eagles will be on the outside looking in.
New York didn't improve in the offseason, and I'm not convinced Michael Vick can make it to Labor Day, much less Halloween or Thanksgiving. The "Dream Team" will stop drawing comparisons to the Miami Heat and start resembling the New York Knicks.
The New York Giants were a 9-7 team that managed to make the playoffs in 2011 ... and eventually went on to win the Super Bowl. There's a good chance the Giants could win more games this season but miss the playoffs. The NFC is certainly good enough (or even enough) to have a whole bunch of teams competing for playoffs spots, and the Giants could end up on the wrong side of the equation.
Dallas will take the NFC East, exacting revenge on the Giants for last season. Yeah, the Cowboys have some injuries right now, but they'll get it together and, with a favorable stretch of games in December, seize the division crown.
Look for the New Orleans Saints to hover around the .500 mark and miss the playoffs, too.