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?
The 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.
- Charley Casserly NFL.com
Eagles, Cowboys could make it a big season for the NFC East
I 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.
- Chad Reuter NFL.com
Per usual, injuries will be the biggest factor in playoff races
Playoff 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.
- Jason Smith NFL.com
Giants won't make it back to the playoffs to defend title
This 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.
- Adam Rank NFL.com
Panthers will be the surprise team of the 2012 season
The 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.