Philadelphia, PA – Even though a couple of teams are usually a stone-cold lock to return to the NFL playoffs every season (Green Bay and New England probably fit the bill in 2012, for instance), the reality is that about half of the 12 postseason qualifiers fail to get back the following year.
So, if there are going to be up to six new playoff teams this season, which 2011 non-playoff qualifiers have the best chance to make it to the tournament?
Here's one guess:
Ah, the Dream Team. That's what last year's backup quarterback, Vince Young, called the Eagles during training camp this previous summer. Despite all the talent on hand, the 2011 season - at least the first three-quarters of it - was more like a nightmare for Philadelphia. The Eagles started out 4-8 before rallying to win their last four games and narrowly miss the playoffs.
You've probably heard this excuse before, but it was legitimate in the Eagles' case. With all the personnel changes and the installment of a new defense with a new coordinator in Juan Castillo, the lockout-shortened training camp and no organized offseason workouts contributed heavily to the early season struggles.
Now with a full offseason and training camp, the Eagles should be able to build on the confidence they developed while closing last year with a four- game winning streak.
The biggest changes to the roster should bolster the defense. DeMeco Ryans will be the run-stopping middle linebacker they lacked last year, and rookies Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry are all high-upside players who could make big impacts right away.
The offense is back intact, with the notable exception of left tackle Jason Peters, who will likely miss the season with a double Achilles rupture. Luckily, Philadelphia was able to replace him with free agent Demetress Bell, who should do a serviceable job.
The NFC East is probably the NFL's strongest division from top to bottom, and the lack of proven quarterback depth behind Michael Vick is potentially troubling. All things considered, this still looks like a 10 or 11-win team.
Like Philadelphia, Dallas finished 8-8 last season and barely missed the playoffs. Unlike the Eagles, though, the Cowboys appeared on the verge of the postseason before closing the year with back-to-back losses to Philly and the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Admittedly, it's troubling to the Cowboys' 2012 playoff hopes that they went 0-4 against the Giants and Eagles last year, with one blowout loss to each rival. Still, this is a talented team that just needs to perform a bit better in the clutch.
Tony Romo is knocked for his lack of clutch play, but he had the fourth best quarterback rating in the NFL last season. He was hardly the Cowboys' problem last season. In Dallas' final 12 games, Romo threw 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions. In the final four, he had 10 touchdowns to just one interception.
Dallas will need to play better defensively to return to the postseason. There's a good chance it will happen, because the Cowboys now have the physical cornerbacks (ex-Chief Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne) necessary to execute coordinator Rob Ryan's defense.
OK, this one is hardly a stretch. After all, the Bears were one of the best teams in the NFL last year until quarterback Jay Cutler broke his thumb while engineering a November win over San Diego that raised Chicago's record to 7-3.
With Cutler out of the lineup, Chicago lost the next five games in a row. Compounding the problem, star running back Matt Forte was injured early in a Week 13 loss to Kansas City. Without their two best playmakers, the Bears' offense was dreadful down the stretch.
Assuming better luck in the injury department, this ought to be a better season for the Bears. Cutler has been reunited with ex-Broncos teammate Brandon Marshall, who will give the Bears a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the first time since the 2001 and 2002 version of Marty Booker. And Marshall has much more ability than Booker ever did.
Additionally, the Bears selected talented Alshon Jeffery, the former South Carolina receiver, in the second round of April's draft. And perhaps just as importantly, Chicago used free agency to improve its depth at quarterback (Jason Campbell) and running back (Michael Bush). Had those guys been on hand last year, this would have been a playoff team. That's why the Bears should be able to get there this year.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Yes, the Chiefs finished last in the AFC West last season. Yes, it says here that they have a chance to go from worst to first this year.
A year after winning the division, Kansas City had unbelievably bad luck with injuries in 2011. Talented tight end Tony Moeaki suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the Chiefs' final preseason game. Elite safety Eric Berry tore his ACL in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. A week later, running back Jamaal Charles sustained the same injury and was lost for the rest of the season.
The Chiefs also lost starting quarterback Matt Cassel in Week 10. He missed the final seven games with a broken right hand.
Kansas City played a large portion of its season without four of its best players. Still, it finished just one game out of first place in the AFC West.
The defending AFC West champion Denver Broncos added Peyton Manning, so they're going to be the favorite to repeat. Don't sleep on the Chiefs, though. If healthy, they're considerably better than their 2011 record indicates.
NEW YORK JETS
This isn't a big stretch, since the Jets reached the AFC Championship game in both 2009 and 2010 before slumping to 8-8 last season. It won't require a big jump to get back to the postseason, but the national perception of this team seems to be that it's headed for a major nosedive.
A couple of things not to like include the volatile locker room late last season, with receiver Santonio Holmes becoming a cancer at worst and a pain in the neck at best. Also, the addition of Tim Tebow could have a negative effect on starting quarterback Mark Sanchez. Although Sanchez is the unquestioned starter, he needs to exhibit confidence and produce during a tough early season stretch or risk losing significant playing time to his popular new backup.
Tony Sparano taking over at offensive coordinator might be a big help. He will mesh well with Rex Ryan, as both like a power running game to be the centerpiece of the offense. Still, the Jets will likely take more shots downfield than they did last year, and rookie wideout Stephen Hill could make a significant impact.
Defensively, in a "bad" year, the Jets ranked fifth in the NFL last season. They could improve this year with top draft pick Quinton Coples helping the pass rush, 2011 top choice Muhammad Wilkerson expected to take a major step forward, and free-agent safeties LeRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell likely to upgrade that position.
If Ryan doesn't guarantee a Super Bowl this year, and the Jets find a way to remain a bit under the radar (easier said than done, with Ryan as their coach), it's possible they could return to prominence.
The Titans were 9-7 last season, which was nearly good enough to get to the playoffs. This is an up-and-coming team that only lost the AFC South by one game last year (although, to be fair, injuries to Houston quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson kept the race close).
Star running back Chris Johnson held out and came into last season out of shape, never really rounding into top form. If he does this year, the Titans' offense will be much improved. They also lost top wide receiver Kenny Britt to a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. After undergoing three minor knee surgeries during the offseason, he also faces potential league suspension for a DUI arrest in July.
If Johnson and Britt bounce back and tight end Jared Cook lives up to his promise, this could be a much-improved offense. Top draft pick Kendall Wright will give the team another home run threat at wide receiver, while free-agent guard Steve Hutchinson should make the Tennessee offensive line one of the best in the AFC.
The most interesting things about this team will be its preseason quarterback battle, with veteran Matt Hasselbeck trying to hold off 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker), and its ability to survive a brutal early season schedule. The first four games are home against New England, then at San Diego, home against Detroit and at Houston.
Head coach Mike Munchak had hinted earlier this summer that Hasselbeck might get the starting nod by virtue of his experience, given that tough early schedule. That might be a mistake.
Locker is going to be a very good NFL quarterback, and his youth, athleticism and big arm might give the Titans a better chance to survive that September gauntlet.
Here's hoping he gets the nod early. It could mean the difference between getting to the postseason and narrowly missing.