Over the past two weeks previews of the AFC and NFC have been presented, division by division, with looks at what we might expect from the 32 teams in the 2010 season.
This week, predictions and projections shall be made as to the dozen teams to make the playoffs and the two survivors that may well meet in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas next Feb. 6 in Super Bowl XLV.
At the start of every season it’s generally easy to make a case for the teams that made the playoffs the previous season to do so once again. It’s a classic case of what we remember last influencing our expectations for the future. Often it comes from a mindset that expects stability and continuity from one season to the next.
But with such a short 16 game regular season schedule, there is a very fine line between a winning season and a losing one. The talent is spread out rather evenly through the 32 NFL teams. There’s not an overwhelmingly huge gap between the NFL’s best teams and the ones at the bottom. Often, it’s the ownership, management and coaching that can make a significant difference.
Notice how some of the most stable organizations seem to be contending for the playoffs season after season, perhaps with an occasional down year, but not very many.
The fact is that there is significant turnover on a season to season basis in the composition of the NFL playoff field. Since the playoff field expanded from 10 to 12 teams in 1990, an average of 6 teams each season make the playoffs that did not make the field a season earlier. That’s a turnover rate of 50 percent.
Division realignment in 2002 changed the dynamics as the NFL went from 6 division winners and 6 Wild Cards to 8 division winners and 4 Wild Cards but the historical numbers changed little. From 2003 through 2009 there have been as few as 4 playoff repeaters (2002 to 2003) and a many as 7 (2003 to 2004). Over the past seasons the number of teams returning to the playoffs the following season have been 5, 5, 6, 5 and 6.
Thus it would make sense, in forecasting how the 2010 season will play out, to expect between 5 and 7 teams that missed the playoffs in 2009 to make them in 2010. Obviously that also means from 5 to 7 teams that made the playoffs last season will miss out this season.
Injuries have a huge impact on a team’s fortunes throughout a season, especially injuries to key players that result in missed games. Clearly quarterback injuries are the most serious but injuries that necessitate adjustments along the offensive line or in the defensive backfield also have negative consequences more often than not.
There’s no way to predict which teams will face significant injuries but that’s where ownership and management play a key role. The ability to provide roster depth enables some teams to overcome injuries better than others. And that goes back to why there are a half dozen or so franchises that consistently are in playoff contention season after season.
Let’s start in the AFC where there appear to be two division winners that are significantly better than their other three rivals.
San Diego remains the class of the AFC West. It is arguable whether or not the gap between the Chargers and the rest of the division has narrowed but the only thing standing between San Diego and the division title is San Diego itself.
The Chargers have won the division in each of the last four seasons and in five of the last six. With the exception of 2008 when the Chargers were sloppy for much of the season and actually tied for the division title with an 8-8 record (with Denver ) their three other division titles since 2006 were won by at least four games. That’s pretty dominant considering just 16 games are played.
Indianapolis has been even more dominant in the AFC South, winning 12 or more games in each of the past seven seasons and five outright division titles during these seven seasons. In 2003 they tied with Tennessee for the division title with 12-4 records and in 2008 the Colts’ 12-4 record fell one game short of winning the division when Tennessee went 13-3. With Peyton Manning still at the top of his game at QB and Bill Polian handling personnel matters the Colts are still the team to beat in the AFC South and can be penciled in as making the playoffs again in 2010.
Cincinnati won the AFC North in 2009 largely because they won all 6 divisional games. The Bengals were 4-6 in non-division play. Baltimore made the playoffs as a Wild Card last season and thrashed New England in their first playoff game before losing at Indianapolis .
The Ravens appear to be an even stronger team in 2010 and should supplant Cincinnati as division champs. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without starting QB Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season but should be able to overcome his absence with capable backups and a very strong defense. Expect the Steelers, not the Bengals to provide the stiffest challenge to the Ravens.
New England has long been the class of the AFC East and is the pick to again win the division, notwithstanding the emergence of both Miami and the New York Jets as contenders. The gap has narrowed but don’t be surprised if the Jets slip a bit in 2010 as QB Mark Sanchez suffers a typical sophomore slump as opposing coaches have had a full off season to study his tendencies. Both the Jets and Miami should contend for the playoffs but expect each to fall a game or two short.
The forecast here calls for San Diego , Indianapolis , Baltimore and New England to be division winners with Pittsburgh and Tennessee earning Wild Cards. Thus four of last season’s six AFC playoff teams are predicted to again make the post season with the Steelers and Titans replacing Cincinnati and the Jets.
In the NFC the forecast calls for more turnover. Look for San Francisco to win the NFC West, ending the two season reign of Arizona . The Niners will be much improved on both sides of the football while the retirement of QB Kurt Warner will be than the Cardinals can overcome.
In the NFC North both Green Bay and Minnesota made the playoffs in 2009 but the call here is for just one of those teams to return. At some point father time will catch up to Vikings’ QB Brett Favre and this should be the season. The ankle which delayed his decision to return may ultimately be culprit but there are also other key injuries in Vikings camp that are a major cause of concern.
Don’t expect the Vikes to win both games from Green Bay this season as they did in 2009. Green Bay is still improving and they could post some spectacular numbers on both sides of the ball after finishing sixth in total offenses and second in total defense last season.
The NFC East is considered by many to be the best division in the NFL, if not the most competitive. Actually over the past three seasons the NFC East rates out at the second best division in terms of record against non-division foes, 76-43-1 (the AFC South is 82-38 over the same time frame).
Dallas is favored and they bring the most talented roster into this season. Quarterback changes in Philadelphia and Washington could have negative impacts initially while the New York Giants should be much improved defensively over the last half of 2009. Recall that the G-men are just three seasons removed from winning the Super Bowl and just two seasons removed from being the NFC’s top seed. The call here is for Dallas to win the NFC East with the New York Giants earning a Wild Card.
As pointed out last week the NFC South has been a roller coaster division with the last place finisher one season winning the division title the next in six of the seven seasons since 2002’s divisional realignment. No, don’t expect Tampa Bay to win the division this season but do expect either Atlanta or Carolina to make a run at defending division (and Super Bowl) champion New Orleans . Of the two Atlanta seems better positioned to provide that challenge as they come off their first back to back winning seasons in franchise history. Can they make it three winning seasons in a row?
In comparing the Falcons to the Panthers the edge on offense is with Atlanta but the defensive edge goes to Carolina . It’s long been accepted that defense trumps offense and, even though Julius Peppers is gone from Carolina, a solid defensive core remains and with as potent a one-two running back tandem as there is in the league, the call is for Carolina to edge Atlanta. But wait just a moment.
Let’s not concede the division – or even a playoff berth – to New Orleans . The Saints do not have a strong history of back-to-back playoff seasons. Everything went right for the Saints last season but there are concerns defensively. And 4 of the last 8 Super Bowl winners failed to make the playoffs the following season.
The gutsiest of our forecasts calls for the Saints to miss the playoffs in 2010 and for both Atlanta and Carolina to make the post season, with Carolina winning the division and Atlanta earning the Wild Card.
Thus, our NFC projections have Carolina , Dallas , Green Bay and San Francisco as division winners with the New York Giants and Atlanta as Wild Cards. That means Arizona , Minnesota , New Orleans and Philadelphia are forecast to not make a return trip to the playoffs.
In the AFC the call is for San Diego and Baltimore to earn the top two seeds and for Tennessee and Indianapolis to eliminate New England and Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The following week is forecast to have the Colts eliminate the Chargers and for Baltimore to get past Tennessee . In the AFC Championship game the call is for Baltimore to defeat the Colts and head to Texas for Super Bowl XLV.
The call in the NFC is for Green Bay and Dallas to earn the top two seeds while Carolina and Atlanta each win Wild Card games over the Giants and San Francisco . But both the Falcons and Panthers are forecast to fall the following week as the Cowboys and Packers advance to the NFC Championship game, in Green Bay . To the taunting chants of “Brett Who,” Aaron Rodgers leads the Pack over the Cowboys to set up a match with Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
Should this scenario somehow play out and we witness a Ravens vs. Packers Super Bowl, the call is for Green Bay to win their fourth Super Bowl Title with a hard fought 23-17 win over Baltimore , covering the line as a solid 3 point favorite with the game staying UNDER a Total of 44.
Next week begins a game-by-game preview and selection for the entire NFL card which starts on Thursday, Sept. 2 with a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship game in New Orleans against Minnesota and concluding with a Monday night prime time doubleheader.