This might seem self-evident, but each season will be judged, to some degree, as a "failure" by 31 of the 32 squads in the NFL, in that almost everyone becomes a loser at some point along the way. Of course, some losers tend to be in much better shape than others.
As we get ready for Super Bowl XLIX, I thought I'd look at the 10 teams that have been eliminated from the playoffs and rank the five with the biggest windows to continue competing over the next several seasons. Such an undertaking is, of course, something of a crapshoot -- for example, I'm sure most would have joined me a year ago in predicting big things in 2014 for the Saints, who ultimately stumbled to a 7-9 finish. But I did use a system, which took into account record, yardage totals, point differential, turnover differential, sack differential and first-down totals, to help me put this list together.
The five teams listed below might be smarting from early playoff exits, but they and their fans should take heart in the fact that they're primed to be players on the postseason stage for years to come. Here, ranked according to the relative size of their competitive windows, are those teams:
1) Green Bay Packers
The Packers' advantage begins with Aaron Rodgers, the top quarterback and best player in the NFL. The 31-year-old -- who is under contract through 2019 -- is playing about as well as anyone can play the position right now, and he should be in his prime for another six or seven years. He's sturdily built and, as evidenced by the way he played on essentially one leg in the postseason, has plenty of toughness.
Green Bay has a very good young offensive line -- though Bryan Bulaga is set to hit free agency -- and a back on the rise in Eddie Lacy. The Packers also boast an excellent receiving corps, led by Jordy Nelson. Bringing back free agent-to-be Randall Cobb would be good, but the team does have enough talent to survive a defection by the versatile pass-catcher. The ascendance of second-year pro Sam Barrington at linebacker is a plus.
The main question for this team is this: Can it overcome the trauma of the epic collapse in the NFC Championship Game? Talk of that massive lost opportunity -- of the many things that went wrong, of the controversial play calls -- will go on all offseason, and it might threaten to spill over into the 2015 campaign.
2) Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo is 34 and coming off an injury-riddled campaign. But he also posted the NFL's best passer rating (113.2) and completion percentage (69.9). I would think Romo should be able to play at this level for another four or five years, especially with that stellar young line -- anchored by Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith (24), Travis Frederick (23) and Zack Martin (24) -- in front of him.
The Cowboys should have some salary-cap space available, and if owner Jerry Jones wants to open his wallet, he can retain both running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Dez Bryant, who are set to hit free agency. That said, if Dallas has to choose to keep one of those two players, Bryant is the pick. Backup running back Joseph Randle should be a capable starter if Murray leaves; Randle is not as strong as Murray, and he might not be quite as good a pass-catcher, but he has a real quick burst and played well for stretches in 2014. It would be much more difficult to replace Bryant. Terrance Williams is a strong No. 2, but I don't see him as a No. 1.
Dallas' defense -- which outperformed expectations, allowing 60 fewer yards per game in 2014 than it did in 2013 -- has some good pieces, including promising youngsters Anthony Hitchens, Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. The fact that coordinator Rod Marinelliwill be back is huge. Retaining linebacker Bruce Carter will be key. And, of course, linebacker Sean Lee, who missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL, should be healthy and ready to go.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger's 11th season in the NFL might have been his best. The 32-year-old posted career highs in passing yards (4,952) and completion percentage (67.1) and tied a personal best in touchdown passes (32). Of course, he was helped greatly by the performance of outstanding running back Le'Veon Bell and a potent receiving corps led by stud Antonio Brown and phenomenal rookie Martavis Bryant. Also, don't overlook the job offensive line coach Mike Munchak did boosting up that unit in his first season with Pittsburgh.
Longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeaubowed out after the Steelers' wild-card loss, but his replacement, former linebacker coach Keith Butler, actually joined the organization before LeBeau's most recent stint in Pittsburgh began, so it's not like the unit will have to adjust to a completely new voice. The Steelers need to start forcing turnovers with the same ferocity they once did. Cameron Heyward has improved greatly, but former first-round pick Jarvis Jones needs to step up; he hasn't really done anything in the past two years.
Veteran safety Troy Polamalu, who has slowed down considerably, could be done in Pittsburgh, but the next generation of young talent is in place. Rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt both played well and are loaded with potential. In fact, the Steelers likely will look back at the 2014 draft class as an exceptional group, with Shazier, Tuitt and Bryant all capable of become special players and perennial Pro Bowlers.
4) Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco bounced back from a disappointing 2013 with a great 2014 campaign, thriving in Gary Kubiak's offense, which suited the quarterback very well. Kubiak's gone, of course, having left for the head-coaching job in Denver, but I think new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will be able to keep things going strong for Flacco. Late Raiders owner Al Davis once told me Trestman was as smart as any assistant coach the franchise ever had. The interesting factor with Flacco is that his base salary is set to rise sharply in 2016 as part of the massive, back-loaded deal he signed after winning Super Bowl XLVII.
Veteran receiver Steve Smith will be 36 next season, but I don't know if he'll ever be too old; he's just so quick and competes so well. I think Baltimore will find a way to bring back Torrey Smith -- who is set to hit free agency this offseason -- and it'll be to the Ravens' benefit, as he seems to get a bit better every year. The team would also do well to hang on to Justin Forsett, who surprised everyone with the fifth-best rushing total in the NFL (1,266), though I suspect Baltimore would be able to successfully slide another back in there should he leave. The offensive line -- led by the outstanding Marshal Yanda -- held strong this season despite being forced to lean on rookies James Hurst and John Urschel late in the year, which is a good sign.
5) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts' season ended with a blowout loss in the AFC Championship Game, and they have a smattering of troublesome holes to fill. They also have the best young quarterback in the NFL. Andrew Luck is sturdy, he's athletic, he's smart and he's hard-working. He's reminiscent of Peyton Manning, except Luck is much more athletically mobile, able to move around without getting sacked. Sure, he had a night to forget in Foxborough (12 of 33, 126 yards, no scores, two picks), but he'll still be a top-notch signal-caller for the next 12 years or so, in my estimation.
Indianapolis must boost its running game. Trent Richardson, who cost the Colts a first-round pick in a trade with the Browns, has been a massive disappointment. Still, if he has played his last down in Indy -- something many speculate is the case -- that'll open up some additional salary-cap space. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are very good, while T.Y. Hilton and rookie Donte Moncrief, who I think has No. 1 potential, stand out at receiver. Vontae Davis has become one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. Rookie pass-rusher Jonathan Newsome (6.5 sacks) surprised with his excellent play; he should be joined next season by veteran Robert Mathis, who missed 2014 with a four-game suspension and torn Achilles.