|With a healthy Jay Cutler, the Bears should challenge the Lions and Packers in the NFC North. (Getty Images)|
Every year for the past 16 seasons there have been at least five teams to make surprise appearances in the playoffs -- which is another way of saying at least five teams that made it to January that weren't there the year before.
Houston was one of those clubs in 2011. So was Detroit. Neither had been on the postseason radar since 1999, or the Lions' last playoff appearance, yet both overcame considerable setbacks to make it to the postseason.
So the question is: Which five make it this season? Well, I have five candidates, though I include one disclaimer: To qualify for this list, you can't have had a winning record in 2011. That eliminates someone like Tennessee, which was 9-7 but left out in the cold, but it does allow any of the eight teams that finished .500.
|Buffalo Bills (6-10 in 2011)|
The Bills made strong offseason moves, including the additions of linebacker Mario Williams and defensive end Mark Anderson, but none is stronger than naming Dave Wannstedt as defensive coordinator. With Wannstedt in charge, the club goes to a 4-3 that should improve on its next-to-last-place standing in sacks and No. 19 ranking in pass defense. Williams and Anderson will squeeze the pocket, while first-round draft pick Stephon Gilmore should step immediately as a starter at cornerback. Adding Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder brings depth at linebacker, while versatile Cordy Glenn was a second-round steal who should be in the mix at left tackle. All the moves are aimed at improving in the AFC East, and you don't gain ground unless you figure out how to overcome Tom Brady who, it just so happens, is 18-2 against Buffalo. With the defensive additions the Bills just made, I like their chances of finishing second in the AFC East and producing their first winning season since 2004.
Another reason for hope: Running back Fred Jackson is back. Not only that, he just signed a two-year extension. Good. He deserves it. Jackson is one of the league's most underrated running backs, on schedule last year to produce more than 1,500 yards rushing before he was hurt in the 10th game. When he's right, so are the Bills, and when he wasn't they turned to C.J. Spiller last season. Smart. Spiller and the Bills each found out how valuable he can be. Look for him to get more touches this season.
One possible area of concern: Look at the first nine games. They're brutal. With the exceptions of Kansas City (7-9) and Cleveland (4-12), there's not an opponent with a losing record. Worse, there are four (including New England twice) that won divisions, including two that were in conference championship games and one -- New England again -- that reached the Super Bowl. I know, Buffalo ties for the 29th most difficult schedule out there, with opponents producing a .473 winning percentage, but the Bills must survive a treacherous early run that helped bury St. Louis a year ago.
|Chicago Bears (8-8)|
The Bears were on their way to making the playoffs last season when they lost quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. Suddenly, the team that won seven of its first 10 games won only one of its last six. Having Cutler and Forte back improves Chicago's chances of getting back on track, but the Bears did the smart thing and signed safety nets for both positions to minimize the risk of another collapse. So Jason Campbell sits behind Cutler, Michael Bush sits behind Forte and the Bears sit behind Green Bay and Detroit. Only not for long. With those additions, plus the acquisition of a legitimate receiving threat in Brandon Marshall, Chicago has an offense that could squeeze Green Bay's 32nd-ranked pass defense and push Detroit to the side. All I know is what I saw from Cutler last season is the first time I've liked anything about the guy. He finally started playing like a quarterback instead of acting like a diva who makes bad decisions and worse throws. Maybe, just maybe, he finally gets it ... and it's about time. He and Marshall combined for a lot of receptions in Denver. They should again.
Another reason for hope: The Bears have one of the game's premier pass rushers in Julius Peppers, but needed a bookend on the other side ... and new GM Phil Emery may have found one in first-round draft pick Shea McClellin, who made a zillion plays at Boise State and was one of the draft's premier edge rushers.
One possible area of concern: I was surprised Chicago didn't use one of its six draft picks on an offensive lineman. The Bears allowed 49 sacks last season, and only four teams had more. I don't know, maybe that's an admission that the Bears believe in tackle Gabe Carimi or that offensive coordinator Mike Tice has a plan we don't know about to keep defenses off Cutler.
|Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)|
Just a hunch, but there will be dozens of preseason publications that put the Eagles -- not the New York Giants -- at the top of the NFC East, and there's a reason: These guys never, ever, ever go more than one season without making the playoffs. Not under Andy Reid they don't, and Reid -- like San Diego's Norv Turner -- is under orders to get this team in gear again ... or else. I say he does because there were a couple of nagging problems with last year's Eagles that should be corrected. First of all, the Eagles stunk against the run. At least they did early, with opponents finding holes the size of the Schuykill to run through. That exposed Philadelphia's unprotected and underwhelming linebackers, and it wound up sinking the club -- with Philadelphia blowing five fourth-quarter leads. The Eagles added tackle Fletcher Cox in the draft and acquired tackling machine DeMeco Ryans, and suddenly a weakness doesn't look like a weakness anymore.
But let's be fair here. The defense wasn't entirely to blame. The Eagles' offense scored exactly one field goal in the fourth quarters of those five games, and I can tell you why in one word: Turnovers. Philadelphia committed more (38) than anyone but Tampa Bay. Reid will have quarterback Michael Vick run less and take fewer chances ... and that's precisely what happened in the final four games when the Eagles didn't lose. It's that team I believe you're going to see this season, and it's that team that should push the Giants.
Another reason for hope: Philadelphia got smart this year, returning to a practice of rewarding its own players rather than spending gazillions on unrestricted free agents. They extended Todd Herremans and Trent Cole and DeSean Jackson and are talking about a similar move with star running back LeSean McCoy. That should make for a happy locker room, which is a stark contrast from last season.
One possible area of concern: Vick turns 32 this summer and looked, well, ordinary too often last season. He's also prone to injuries, failing to play in all 16 games in any season since 2006. Something must be done to protect the guy, and this just in: The Eagles just lost their best pass blocker in left tackle Jason Peters. Free-agent Demetress Bell, who replaced Peters in Buffalo, is supposed to step in for him again, and while he's talented he's also an injury waiting to happen. Then, of course, there's a real question of: How far can Philadelphia actually go with the guy? I guess we're about to find out.
|San Diego Chargers (8-8)|
The Chargers failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons, and coach Norv Turner is on notice to win or else. So there's a sense of urgency there hasn't been before, and I don't know if that makes a difference, but I know what will -- the moves San Diego made in the offseason. The club desperately needed defensive playmakers and found three at the top of the draft, including first-round pick Melvin Ingram -- and, yeah, I know about his short arms. Big deal. The guy made a ton of plays at South Carolina and was a top-10 talent. As general manager A.J. Smith put it, "I think Melvin will have the same problem Tyrannosaurus Rex had millions of years ago." T. Rex disappeared. Ingram shouldn't. He's a versatile athlete who pressures the pocket, critical to San Diego when you're a team chasing Peyton Manning. I love the addition of run-stopper Jarret Johnson on the other side, a guy who was a vastly underrated fixture in Baltimore for nine years. Bolstering the defense, changing defensive coordinators and adding weapons to a passing game that too often disappointed should keep Turner in business.
Another reason for hope: In Eddie Royal, Roscoe Parrish and Michael Spurlock the Chargers suddenly are deep in return specialists who can go the distance. Parrish and Royal are punt-returners, which is good considering the Chargers ranked 22nd in that category a year ago.
One possible area of concern: The Chargers typically have tortoise-like starts, and they'll be challenged again with their first six games -- where only one opponent, Kansas City (7-9), had a losing record last season. Included are three playoff clubs, and the Chiefs game is at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chargers haven't won the past two seasons. But there's another stretch that's equally dicey, and it starts Nov. 18 vs. Denver in Denver, then follows with Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh -- all playoff teams. The Chargers had one of the league's easiest schedules last season and did nothing with it. This itinerary, the NFL's sixth-most difficult, has traps everywhere.
|Seattle Seahawks (7-9)|
There are few teams building more momentum that Seattle, which quietly put together a defense that could rival San Francisco for intensity, ferocity and opportune play. OK, so the Seahawks lost linebacker David Hawthorne, their leading tackler the past three seasons. They acquired linebacker Barrett Ruud and defensive lineman Jason Jones, retained defensive lineman Red Bryant and added Bruce Irvin, a first-round pick who has a ton of issues but whom scouts describe as the best edge pass rusher in the draft.
Seattle is chasing San Francisco in the NFC West, and the last time they met -- late last season -- they fell just short, losing by two points after quarterback Tarvaris Jackson fumbled with a little more than a minute left. Those Seahawks played great defense but didn't have enough offense. These Seahawks think they fixed the problem with the acquisition of quarterback Matt Flynn, and maybe they're right. Flynn has only two NFL starts, but he was marvelous in both. I don't know, but this looks like a carbon copy of the 49ers' blueprint, a club that can hammer you with defense and put just enough points on the board -- largely thanks to its running game. It worked for San Francisco. Why not here?
Another reason for hope: Four of Seattle's first five opponents didn't produce a winning record last season, and the fifth -- Green Bay -- the Seahawks draw at home. So at least there's a chance for a fast start. Now, look at the second-half of the schedule. Only one opponent -- San Francisco -- had a winning record, and again there's good news: Seattle draws the 49ers at home.
One possible area of concern: Flynn. As I said, he has a resume of two starts, and while they were terrific it's still only two. The Seahawks are the same club that gambled on Charlie Whitehurst two years ago, and you see how that turned out. This is supposed to be a low-risk move because general manager John Schneider knows Flynn from their days together in Green Bay, and I get that. But I also get that the last two moves Seattle made on quarterbacks blew up, with the club forced to go out and sign Flynn as the remedy.