• My Scores
  • NFL
  • MLB
  • Golf

Five teams on the way up, five on way out of playoff picture

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Former Philadelphia rocker Robert Hazard was right. We're riding on the escalator of life, and nowhere are the rides more active than the NFL where there have been five new playoff teams each year for the past 15 seasons.

Somebody's always going up, someone's always going down. We just have to figure out who's going where, only I'm going to limit this year's roll call to five teams per stair. Five going up; five going down. Got it? Let's begin.

Going up

Houston -- Talk about a leap. The Texans haven't been to the playoffs before. Heck, they broke .500 only once, and that was 9-7. Now they take care of both, reaching the playoffs by winning the AFC South. You heard me: Winning the AFC South. Two reasons: 1) Peyton Manning's injury guarantees the Colts go backward and 2) Wade Phillips. I'll be honest, I liked these guys before Manning was hurt. What held them back a year ago was the world's worst passing defense, and that's a problem if you're chasing Manning. Enter Phillips. When he took over as defensive coordinator in San Diego before 2004, the Chargers ranked 31st in defense; a year later, they were 11th. A year later, they were also AFC West champions. Phillips will make a difference, and so will smart additions to his defense -- like defensive backs Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning and rookies like J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed and Brandon Harris. Houston could always score; it just couldn't stop anyone, with opponents putting up 24 or more points in all but two games last year. That must change. Phillips' arrival guarantees that it will.

Lions QB Matt Stafford has more weapons around him to thrive. (Getty Images)  
Lions QB Matt Stafford has more weapons around him to thrive. (Getty Images)  
Potential land mine: An injury to quarterback Matt Schaub. Without him, they're left with Matt Leinart. Draw your own conclusions. That hamstring problem with running back Arian Foster is a red flag, too. Darrelle Revis experienced the same setback last season after missing training camp, and it took him a couple of months to recover.

Detroit -- For the first time in a decade, the Lions are dealing with expectations ... and it's about time. "We need to get to the point where expectations aren't news," coach Jim Schwartz said. "We're still at that point, and that shows where we are as a team. We haven't done it yet. I'm sure if you were up in New England right now, and you would say, 'Hey, how are you guys handling the expectations?' they would be like, 'Geez, what's new? It's been like this for the last decade.' That's where we expect to go: where expectations aren't news." It took the organization a decade to dig out of the debris of Matt Millen's draft and personnel decisions, but the Lions are back, they're improved and they could be playoff ready. One problem: The division. They live on the same block as Green Bay and Chicago. One won the Super Bowl; the other won the division. Another problem: The uncertain future of quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions insist he's not injury prone, and, for their sake, I hope so. But he missed more games (19) in two seasons than he played (13). If he's OK, they're OK. He looks sensational this summer and has weapons around him to flourish. Detroit also has an improved pass defense to keep opponents in check, with the addition of defensive tackle Nick Fairley (if he recovers from that foot injury) and an improved group of linebackers trouble for opponents.

Potential land mine: The running game. The loss of rookie Mikel Leshoure was huge. Plus, Jahvid Best just suffered a concussion. Jerome Harrison's not the answer, folks. This bears watching.

St. Louis -- The Rams should've won the NFC West last season ... and would have had they had a wide receiver of consequence. Well, now they do. They added Mike Sims-Walker. Mark Clayton re-signed. Donnie Avery is healthy. OK, so they're not exactly franchise wideouts, but they're upgrades for Sam Bradford who, as a rookie, operated with next to nothing for targets and still was the best quarterback in the division. In fact, he was so good, the Rams would've reached the playoffs had they beaten Seattle in the season finale. Rebuilding this franchise has been a long, painful exercise, but it's ready to pay off -- with the Rams a trendy pick to win the division for the first time since 2003. In between, there has been nothing but bad football, with St. Louis going 35-77, including a 6-42 run from 2007-09. That's about to change.

More on NFL
Related links
NFL coverage on the go
NFL Training Camps More training camp coverage
Previews for all 32 teams

Potential land mine: The schedule. "Look at their first seven games," Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told me. "It's brutal." He's right. Five of their first seven opponents had winning records, including Philadelphia, New Orleans and Green Bay, and a 2-5 start is not inconceivable.

Arizona -- There were a couple of reasons the Cardinals won the NFC West in back-to-back seasons: 1) They had a terrific head coach, and 2) they had a terrific quarterback. The quarterback left last season, and there was little coach Ken Whisenhunt could do to stop the bleeding -- with Arizona hitting below .500 for the first time in Whisenhunt's tenure. Something had to change, and something did -- something like Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals desperately needed a quarterback, and they found the best one out there in Kolb. People tell me they overpaid for him, but I say it's way too early to make a decision. Because if Kolb solves the position and makes Arizona a playoff threat -- both of which I think happen -- sticker shock doesn't matter. You do what's necessary to make a problem go away. It's a quarterback-driven league, and if you don't have one you can trust, you go to the back of the class. All I know about Kolb is this: His arrival helped convinced Larry Fitzgerald to stick around, and that's good enough for me. Oh, one other bonus: The Cards have the league's easiest schedule -- their opponents went 113-143.

Potential land mine: It's not the running game. Heck, the Cards ranked last in rushing in 2008 and reached the Super Bowl. Nope, it's the offensive line. It must protect Kolb. Without him, we're back to 2010.

San Diego -- The Chargers aren't exactly a reclamation project. They were 9-7 last year, but they missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. That is about to change. First of all, the lockout favors them. They're a veteran team that made few changes and returns one of the game's top quarterbacks. That will be advantageous, especially at the start, where the Chargers have been no better than 2-3 the past four years. Don't count on an encore. Second, Rivers has his weapons back. This club was so beaten up a year ago that it suited up an NFL-record 74 bodies, with Rivers forced to find 17 targets. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson will play an entire season. All-world tight end Antonio Gates is practicing again. Running back Ryan Mathews is healthy. Most important, the club has a new special-teams coach, and, no disrespect to Steve Crosby, but last year's performance was the mother of all train wrecks. You name it, the Chargers blew it. Punts were blocked, field goals were missed, kickoff coverage stunk, punt coverage stunk. Any change would be better. New coach Rich Bisaccia is a change, and one that will make a difference.

Potential land mine: Turnovers. They crippled the Chargers the first half of 2010, with the club committing more (19) than it did the previous season (17). Fumbles were most common, with the Bolts losing 12 through their first seven games. They lost seven in 2009. "The more we have the ball in our hands and the more we take care of it," running back Ryan Mathews said, "the more we win." Smart man.

Going down

League MVP Peyton Manning gives the Colts hope, but they'll take a step backward this season. (Getty Images)  
League MVP Peyton Manning gives the Colts hope, but they'll take a step backward this season. (Getty Images)  
Indianapolis -- The Colts are a descending team, and not just because Manning is recovering from neck surgery that caused him to miss training camp. They're just not as deep, as talented or as complete. The last time Manning missed training camp, the team was 3-4 out of the chute and finished second in the division to Tennessee. I could see the same thing happening here, only Houston is this season's Titans. The Texans will open with Indianapolis, and what timing. They won last year for the first time in the history of the series, and they should win again. Indy was smart, choosing offensive linemen with their first two draft picks, basically because Manning to them is like oxygen to us. Without him, they don't survive. But this isn't so much about protecting Manning as it is getting him in football shape, and that will take time. In the meantime, the Colts should suffer. Four of their first seven games are vs. opponents with winning records, including Pittsburgh and New Orleans, which means a 3-4 start is possible again.

Where there's hope: Manning. He led the team to nine consecutive victories down the stretch in the aforementioned 2008 season. Plus, he was the league MVP.

Kansas City -- There are disturbing signals coming out of Arrowhead, most of which revolve around an offense that last season committed fewer turnovers than everyone but New England. Kansas City has two touchdowns in three preseason games and has been outscored 70-23, and while that doesn't concern me, the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis does. Weis and quarterback Matt Cassel seemed to have a rapport that made Cassel a more efficient and more confident quarterback. But Weis is gone, and Jim Zorn replaces him -- and I'll cut him slack only because Todd Haley runs this club. Haley did a marvelous job navigating the Chiefs down the stretch last season, overcoming a drubbing in San Diego to win the division. But I was lukewarm about the Chiefs' draft, I'm a little concerned about their offensive line, and their first-stringers couldn't stop the run last week vs. St. Louis. Something tells me Kansas City could struggle, particularly early, when the Chiefs play four of their first six on the road -- including San Diego, Oakland and Indianapolis.

Where there's hope: It's all about San Diego in the AFC West, and if the Chargers get off to one of their tortoise-like starts, there's an opening for someone. The Chiefs will play San Diego twice in the first seven games -- including the third weekend -- which means they can make the first move ... just as they did a year ago.

Seattle -- Everywhere I went this summer, people were asking, "What in the world are the Seahawks doing?" I wish I had an answer. Right now, it looks like they're trying to maneuver for Andrew Luck. I mean ... Tavaris Jackson as your starting quarterback? Are you kidding me? They would have been better off keeping Matt Hasselbeck. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had him in Minnesota, which makes you wonder how he could've signed off on him. I mean, seeing is believing. Sure, Sidney Rice is an upgrade, but how does he get the ball? When Jackson was in Minnesota, Rice was ineffective. In fact, he did virtually nothing until Brett Favre showed up, and then it was only for one season. I always count on Pete Carroll to run the ball, but Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett? Behind a line that's ready to demote first-round draft pick James Carpenter? I underestimated the Seahawks a year ago, and they won the division. I don't care that it was with a losing record. They won. They then beat the defending Super Bowl champions in the playoffs. That was a major accomplishment. It will not happen again. Not now.

Where there's hope: Hey, it's the NFC West, where you can go to the playoffs with a 7-9 record. Anything is possible. Seattle proved it last season.

Chicago -- I'm in the minority here, but I think these guys are the third-best team in the NFC North, and here's why: There's just too much static this early in the season. Forget the Chester Taylor "miscommunication." Lance Briggs wants a new deal. Matt Forte wants a new deal. Roy Williams is out of shape. Olin Kreutz is gone. Jay Cutler is the quarterback. "A dysfunctional embarrassment" is what Chicago Tribune columnist Melissa Isaacson called it. The Baltimore Ravens will second that motion. They're the team that thought they had a draft-day deal with the Bears, only to see it fall through when Chicago failed to notify NFL headquarters. That's bad for business. But this is about football, and what's bad there is the schedule. The Bears will open with Atlanta, go to New Orleans, then return home to face Green Bay. Combined records of those three -- 34-14, and that includes the past two Super Bowl champions. Best-case scenario: They're 2-1. More likely -- 1-2 or 0-3.

Where there's hope: They're the defending division champions; not Green Bay. Which means Cutler finally put together a winning season. Not only that, he went to the conference championship game. That's a start. Where he ... and the Bears ... go from here depends more on Green Bay, and, yes, the Packers look that good.

Pittsburgh -- Two things that concern me about the Steelers: 1) An aging defense and 2) history. The Steelers allowed fewer points than anyone last season, but they looked downright ordinary in the second half vs. the Jets and the entire game vs. Aaron Rodgers. There's age in a lot of places, and while that means experience, it generally doesn't mean speed. Rodgers had no trouble picking the Steelers apart in Super Bowl XLV, and tell me offensive coordinators everywhere didn't pay attention. Of course, offensive coordinators everywhere don't have Aaron Rodgers, but that's another story. The point is: The Steelers looked vulnerable. But my issues with Pittsburgh don't stop there. It's the Steelers' post-Super Bowl history that bothers me. They went to Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008 and deflated after each season. In 2006, they were 8-8. In 2009, they were 9-7. Both years, they missed the playoffs. Something tells me it's déjà vu all over again.

Where there's hope: There's only one speed bump in the division, and it's Baltimore, and last time I checked, the Ravens had issues on the offensive line and only two wide receivers with experience. Plus, the Steelers won six of the past eight times the two met -- including twice in the playoffs. Meaning? Meaning if you believe in psychological advantages, you believe in the Steelers.


Biggest Stories

CBSSports Facebook Google Plus
Conversation powered by Livefyre


Most Popular

CBSSports.com Shop

Men's Nike Jarryd Hayne Scarlet San Francisco 49ers Player Pride Name & Number T-Shirt

Newest NFL Gear
Get your favorite team today
Shop Now

2016 Super Bowl
Super Bowl