The temptation after a crushing playoff loss is to think about the positives, to think about next season. There is usually flowery talk about a "foundation" that was built and the inevitable improvements to come. It's a natural instinct to believe things will improve, but it can be fool's gold.
The NFL is a zero-sum game and every team starts tied in the standings next year. Fans of the Redskins, Texans, and Bengals don't need to be told how hard it is to win a playoff game. They have combined to win three playoff games over the last 20 years. Minnesota has more relative success, but they are proof of how hard it is to make the Super Bowl. They have made the playoffs 20 times since their last Super Bowl appearance.
Houston Texans: Find skill position talent, starting at QB
The worst game of Brian Hoyer's life could do coach Bill O'Brien a favor. There is no chance the Texans will find it acceptable to run it back in 2016 with the same group of quarterbacks after Hoyer's five-turnover playoff meltdown. Hoyer's solid 2015 numbers (19 TDs, seven INTs) show that he's a fine option to compete for a job or be a backup. But he can't be The Guy. The Texans have 2014 draft man of mystery Tom Savage coming off an injury, and playoff backup Brandon Weeden will be a free agent.
The Texans need to draft another quarterback to develop and they certainly shouldn't rule out investigating the trade and free agent markets. Mike Holmgren's philosophy in Green Bay was a sound one: Add a quarterback at least every year until you find the right guy. And then keep adding one a year. Hoyer is under contract for $5.25 million and should be back.
Cincinnati Bengals: Rebuild secondary
The Bengals are in a mostly enviable position. We'd argue that they have the most complete roster in the AFC and don't have huge holes on either side of the ball. That said, they have more quality free agents than just about any team in the NFL and will have to make smart decisions on who to retain and who to let go.
Here's an incomplete list of the key impending free agents: Safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones, offensive tackle Andre Smith, wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones and linebackers Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur. That's nearly 7,000 snaps to replace, and we didn't include some other notable role players.
The crazy part here: Coach Marvin Lewis and owner Mike Brown deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to roster management. Few teams have drafted and developed better depth over the last five years.
Washington Redskins: Load up the defense, especially the secondary
The Redskins didn't beat a winning team all season in large part because their defense was mediocre. They finished 21st in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric on defense, 17th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. Relying on veterans like DeAngelo Hall, Dashon Goldson, and Will Blackmon made them one of the worst defensive backfields in the league. The pass rush is not special despite the presence of Ryan Kerrigan and promising rookie Preston Smith.
With Jason Hatchercontemplating retirement, general manager Scot McCloughan also will have to rebuild the front seven. McCloughan generally has to implement his vision while deciding which players brought in by the former regime make sense to keep. Kirk Cousins' new contract or franchise tag will take up attention and salary cap space this offseason, but he's not going anywhere. The defense is the bigger issue. The Redskins have all the markings of a team that could take a step back next season as McCloughan remakes the roster.
Minnesota Vikings: Develop the passing game
Sunday's loss to Seattle was painful for everyone involved with the Vikings. Mike Zimmer's team played their style of football, and it should have been enough to pull off the upset. Perhaps more than any team that lost over the weekend, they have the most promising young group of players to build off moving forward.
Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Sharrif Floyd, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith and Linval Joseph form an impressive (and mostly young) defensive core. The Vikings also have a young starting quarterback, and they to need get more aggressive with Teddy Bridgewater. Drafting Stefon Diggs was a great start, but Minnesota could use another front-line receiver. Bridgewater did a fine job in a "game-manager" role but the Vikings' offense was very limited in 2015.
It showed up in the team's playoff loss. On a day when Adrian Peterson averaged less than two yards per carry, offensive coordinator Norv Turner didn't trust Bridgewater enough despite a solid performance. Once they finally let Bridgewater throw, he set up what should have been a winning drive.
This improvement is a two-part process. Minnesota needs to upgrade the roster and start to retool its scheme in offseason practices to share the burden between Peterson and Bridgewater. Zimmer's style of play can win a division, but the Vikings will need to improve their passing game to win a Super Bowl.