|Summer of Sam? This could be the breakout season for Sam Bradford and the Rams. (AP)|
When it comes to the NFL playoffs, six is the magic number. As in, on average, over the past 10 years, every year six playoff teams from the season before are out, and six new teams are in. Half the field remains; half are replaced.
It's just one more sign of parity (economic socialism too strong a term?) that makes the NFL such a wild and crazy ride, with twists and turns each season. Of course, the shared television revenue and nature of the draft and system for scheduling games and the salary cap all help maintain such equity, and, with 10 years of a new CBA in place, it's safe to assume it's here to stay.
Frankly, this season, with the rise of some of the young, talented teams in each conference, I'm not sure the Joy of Six will apply this year. I'm thinking more like four or five teams will swap out from the 2011 postseason. But then, who am I to challenge what has become an NFL reality?
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And with rosters relatively set for the start of training camp at this point, I'm prepared to take a shot at sizing up the field. As a brief primer, last season New England, Baltimore, Houston, Denver, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati qualified in the AFC, and Green Bay, San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, and Atlanta qualified in the NFC.
Injuries will certainly play a major role in the ultimate outcome of which teams return, and every year a team or two ends up drastically better, or worse, then it was just a few months ago. That, too, is the nature of the game. But then again, the power of an elite quarterback is just as tried and true, and that's why I'd put some of last year's playoff group in the "virtually certain to be back" category.
In other words, unless one of these teams loses a Hall of Fame quarterback for good in the first few weeks of the season, they're in. I'm putting New England, the Giants and Green Bay in this group.
New England has little competition in that division, and the Pats got better and deeper while Buffalo is the only other team in the AFC East to make power moves, and I don't believe it's enough to close the gap.
The Packers looked like they might be perfect a year ago. They aren't missing the playoffs this season.
As long as Eli is healthy I see the Giants trying to defend their title in the postseason. It may be ugly with another late run required, and I'm sure they'll stumble in November or something like that to keep it interesting, but they are too organizationally strong for me to think they aren't in the equation even in a more competitive NFC East.
And while the Texans lack a future Hall of Famer under center, Matt Schaub is plenty good enough, so I'm lumping then in with this first tier of returnees as well. Hell, they survived injury catastrophes a year ago and still made a nice playoff run. They can't be that banged up at critical positions again, and that division is sitting right there for them to snatch and run away with.
Outside of that, I could see a case for anyone of the 2012 postseason teams crumbling.
Can Alex Smith do it two years in a row for the 49ers? The NFC West remains no great shakes. But even saying all of that, would I be stunned if the 49ers weren't back in the playoffs? No.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh aren't getting any younger. The Ravens will likely be without defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs all season, while the Steelers must adjust to a new offensive system. The Suggs injury is huge, and even if Baltimore's offense steps up, it might not be enough in what may be the toughest division in football.
The Broncos got immensely better at quarterback ... assuming Peyton Manning stays healthy and returns to his old form. That's a big if. That young defense should continue to get better, but then again, San Diego should be more consistent this season and Philip Rivers is too good to struggle like that two years in a row.
The Bengals and Lions have so many young pieces in place, but then again these are still the Bengals and Lions were talking about: can they put it together two years in a row?
The Falcons, to me, are vulnerable. The run game seems to be slipping, there remain pass rush and coverage issues and I'm not sure their home dome mojo is still as profound as it seemed a few years back. They look like a team that could slip, and their division rival Saints, well, all they're dealing with is a prolonged contract negotiating with their quarterback and bountygate and losing their head coach all season, well, it's an unprecedented level of offseason turmoil.
That's a lot to overcome. I tend to think the Saints use it as motivation and rise above it all, but that's hardly a given.
But if you're going to make me pick six who won't be back, I'll go with Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, San Francisco and Cincinnati. I'm just playing a hunch here, and, as I said, I'm not sure half the field will turn over this time around. But if history is going to hold, then I suppose I'll go with these six.
Which begs the question: Well, genius, then which are the six new teams?
Well, glad you asked. And I'm gonna go bold here. Why not, right?
If the 49ers aren't going to make it in this scenario, then give me the Rams. I believe this is the year Sam Bradford puts it all together. This is a team that was a win away from the playoffs in 2010 and has the potential to step up. The schedule won't be as brutal this season and the injuries can't be as devastating.
Every year there is a team that comes out of nowhere, so give me the Rams in 2012. Also, I like the Panthers as a wild-card team. They will learn from some heartbreaking defeats from a year ago and Cam Newton will continue to make history. The linebackers will finally stay healthy, the run defense will improve. I love the direction this franchise is heading in and Newton has a full, normal offseason under his belt now. So I say the Panthers in and the Falcons out. Rounding out the NFC, I'll take the Eagles to replace the Lions.
Despite their horror start, the Eagles got close in 2011, the dream team stuff is long forgotten and key players like LeSean ‘Shady’ McCoy and DeSean Jackson have their financial futures secured now. I say the improving offensive line keeps Mike Vick healthy enough to get in.
In the AFC, Give me the Chargers to replace the Broncos, with Norv Turner and A.J. Smith's jobs on the line. I'll go with a resurgent Chris Johnson to lead the Titans back to the playoffs, as that team is now long removed from Jeff Fisher's abrupt departure and all the VY drama and Johnson's prolonged holdout.
This is where I run into problems, because ultimately I do believe at least two teams from the AFC North make it, and I have a hard time convincing myself a team like the Jets, Raiders, Chiefs or Bills could really beat both the Ravens and Bengals out. But if I have to pick one, I'll go with the Bills and that improved pass rush to get in as the final AFC wild card.
So that's my six. How about yours?