The 2010 playoffs featured five participants that weren't there the year before, and, while a 42 percent turnover seems high, it's not. As a matter of fact, it's business as usual in the NFL, where there have been at least five newcomers to the playoffs in each of the past 15 years.
One of them was the Kansas City Chiefs. They hadn't made the playoffs since 2006 and, entering last season, had 35 losses in their previous 41 games. No problem. They beat defending division champion San Diego in the season opener, won the AFC West, then hosted a playoff game for the first time since January 2004.
|Jamaal Charles helped the Chiefs become a surprise playoff participant in 2010 -- but get ready for a slip in 2011. (Getty Images)|
This one's a no-brainer. The Seahawks became the first team to make the playoffs with a losing record, so they already have one foot out the door. This is a team with a veteran quarterback who has a history of injuries and a not-so-ready-for-prime-time backup. Granted, Charlie Whitehurst looked decent vs. St. Louis in the season finale, but he's hardly proven. In fact, until then he looked iffy, and that's being kind. Anyway, Seattle isn't the team to beat in the NFC West. St. Louis is. If Matt Hasselbeck plays as he did in the playoffs, yeah, I could see the Seahawks making it. But he had seven touchdowns and a 102.4 passer rating in two postseason games, after 12 TDs and a 73.2 rating during the regular season. Plus, he has missed games in four of the past five seasons, including the past three. Hasselbeck's shelf life is short, and I don't trust his backup.
What I like: They're the defending division champions and pulled the mother of all playoff upsets by beating New Orleans.
What I don't: Hasselbeck turns 36 this season, the running game ranked 31st and the defense stinks. Look at Seattle's past nine starts, including the playoffs. It allowed 33 or more points in all but two of them and hemorrhaged 33 or more in five of its past six road games. Nobody can win like that.
Verdict: It's hard to argue with Pete Carroll's record. He has been to the playoffs three of his past four years of NFL coaching, and he dethroned the defending Super Bowl champion in his latest tour. But the Seahawks lost seven of their final 10 regular-season games and were smoked in those seven defeats -- losing by an average of 22.1 points. That better change, otherwise it's look out below.
The Bears had the second-best record in the NFC, but they weren't the best team in their division. Green Bay was ... and is. Let's face it, people, Chicago got lucky. That's OK. That's how some guys go to the head of the class, and the Bears came within a victory ... within one Caleb Hanie TD pass ... of reaching the Super Bowl. The Bears were good last season, much better than I anticipated. But they were lucky, too, and that combination is hard to beat. One problem: Good luck seldom lasts, and the Bears' luck ran out in a playoff game that will have repercussions into next season. I don't know how Chicago overcomes Green Bay in the NFC North, and I don't know how Jay Cutler overcomes fallout from his last performance. Yeah, OK, so the club rallied around him, but let's see how he responds -- because isn't that what it's always about with this guy? How he responds to, well, anything??
|Up vs. down|
We know there is turnover in playoff teams every season. Here are five to watch when next season arrives. Read More >>
What I like: Cutler not only had his first winning season since high school, he won a playoff game, too.
What I don't: I don't trust the quarterback. I don't trust the wide receivers. I don't trust the offensive line. And I don't trust the running game. Bottom line: I don't trust the Bears, not in a division with Green Bay.
Verdict: The last time Chicago reached the Super Bowl (2006) it cratered the following season, and I can see that happening again. Green Bay takes over in the NFC North. I think we all expect that. The question is: Where does that leave Chicago? All I know is that if I were the Bears I would be wary of Detroit. The Lions should've beaten Chicago the first time around and nearly beat the Bears in the rematch with a third-string quarterback. Detroit will improve. Chicago won't.
Another team that was lucky and good. The Jets have been saving their best for the postseason, and there's no getting around it: These guys are legit in the playoffs, with a 4-2 record (all on the road) and two AFC Championship Games in two years. But tell me a club outside of the Bears that caught more regular-season breaks than these guys. I know, it's better to be lucky than good, and it's best to be both. The Jets and Bears were. But that luck will run out, and it runs out this season. The Jets have decisions to make with their roster, with some of those veterans who last season made plays down the stretch will be gone this time around. That doesn't improve their chances of going far. Neither does this: They play the league's third-toughest schedule, with road games vs. three playoff clubs (Philadelphia, Baltimore and New England).
What I like: The play of Mark Sanchez in big games. The guy might be inconsistent during the season, but he's a bona fide winner in January. Look for the Jets to turn more and more of the playbook over to him. I like these guys on the road, too. Correction: I love them there. They're 15-7 (including playoffs) under Rex Ryan.
What I don't: First of all, they play in a division with New England. Second, they need to improve a running game that failed them in the AFC title game. Third, they were built for a one-year push to the top, and that year is over. Last, and most important, after two close calls they're due to take a step backward.
Verdict: The Jets are marvelous in the playoffs, but it's the rest of the season that concerns me -- with the Jets losing three of their final five regular-season games in 2010. This team wasn't built for the long haul. It hired veterans to push it over the top last year, and that didn't happen. So now LaDainian Tomlinson is a year older. So is Jason Taylor. Only one wide receiver, Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards, stays, and the smart money is on Holmes. And you tell me what to make of Antonio Cromartie. Bottom line: This club won't be better next season than it was in 2010, and then it was the AFC's sixth seed.
One of the feel-good stories in 2010, the Chiefs had six more victories than the previous year and knocked off four-time defending AFC West champion San Diego. Credit Todd Haley for doing the improbable, making the Chiefs respectable again. I like what's happening here. The Chiefs are young, improved and downright decent. But I don't like their chances of holding off San Diego a second straight year. The Chargers had a raft of issues that held them back last season -- including comical special-teams play -- and they will make corrections. They have a franchise quarterback, they have the league's top-rated defense and they should have a healthy Ryan Mathews. But this isn't about San Diego. It's about Kansas City, and the Chiefs' final two performances -- both at home -- plus the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis make me nervous about the future.
What I like: They solved the quarterback position, and their defense is young, talented and effective -- holding eight opponents, half the schedule, to no more than 14 points. Plus, they didn't make mistakes. Kansas City's 14 turnovers were second only to New England.
What I don't: Matt Cassel without Charlie Weis. I don't know, it just seemed to work so well last season. Now Jim Zorn takes over as quarterbacks coach, with Haley calling the plays, and I'm not sure that flies. Most of all, I don't like the Chiefs' chances of beating San Diego a second straight year. I know, Kansas City had the league's best rushing attack in 2010, but Thomas Jones turns 33 this season and Jamaal Charles isn't built to carry the load by himself. But it's not Charles who's the concern; it's Cassel. He was bulletproof for all but the final two games, then hit the wall -- with no TDs and five interceptions. So what? So the Chiefs lost by a combined score of 61-17.
Verdict: The Chiefs are legitimate. Of that I have no doubt. But I don't see them catching anyone by surprise again. They lost three of their final five, including two to division rivals, and surrendered 30 or more points in each of those losses. That might be an omen.
Now we get to my wild card. The Steelers are one of the most consistent, most stable and most successful ballclubs out there. But they're also one of the most predictable. Look what happened the last time they went to the Super Bowl. That was 2008. They didn't reach the playoffs the following season. Now look at the Super Bowl before that. That was 2005. They not only missed the playoffs the following season; they didn't win more than they lost. I think you see where I'm going here. The Steelers suffer Super Bowl hangovers, and maybe it's different now because they didn't win Super Bowl XLV, but I don't think so. It's not just the Steelers' Super Bowl funk that concerns me; it's that the NFL is cruel to Super Bowl losers in general. Of the past 10 clubs that lost the game, only three made it to the playoffs the following season. Combine that with an aging Steelers defense, and you have a ready-made case for Pittsburgh spending next January at home -- and I don't mean Heinz Field.
What I like: The stability of this organization and the success of its quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger is 10-3 in the playoffs, 2-1 in Super Bowls) and head coach (5-2 in the playoffs). I also like Dick LeBeau returning for a year to coach the defense. Nobody does it better.
What I don't: An ordinary offensive line, an aging defense and Pittsburgh's recent post-Super Bowl history. The Steelers play in a tough division, where bottom feeders Cincinnati and Cleveland are bound to improve and Baltimore is always a tough out. But this isn't about them. It's about Pittsburgh, and I'll trust history here.
Verdict: I know it doesn't make sense to put these guys on the sidelines, but it didn't make sense to put San Diego or Minnesota there a year ago, either. There are always playoff surprises, and the Steelers were one of them when they sat out the postseason following their past two Super Bowl appearances. I believe in history, and I trust trends -- which means I believe Pittsburgh misses the playoffs.