Among my favorite NFL factoids and extremely high on the list of what makes the NFL so far and away the most popular sport in America is this little tidbit. Over the past 16 seasons at least 5 of the 12 playoff teams from the previous year have failed to repeat. In five of those seasons, including 2011, six clubs have failed to repeat, four times seven clubs have failed to repeat and in 2003 only four ’02 playoff teams made it back to the postseason.
On average over those 16 seasons half the prior year’s playoff clubs have failed to get back to the playoffs the following year, so it is more than just reasonable to assume there will be six new playoff teams in 2012 — it is extremely likely. But with division winners automatically qualifying and looking at how the divisions break up — the Browns won’t win the AFC North, will they — this will be a year only five of last year’s playoff teams drop out. So the question is: who among the Packers, 49ers, Saints, Giants, Falcons, Lions, Patriots, Ravens, Texans, Broncos, Steelers and Bengals are likely to drop out, and which teams will take their spots?
I simply do not see the Packers, 49ers, Patriots or Texans failing to qualify for postseason play this year either because they are that good or their division is that bad. The problem the Giants, Lions, Saints and Falcons have is the NFC is absolutely loaded this year, so I’m going to guess only two of the four get back. Either the Saints or Falcons will win the NFC South and the runner-up will be fighting with the Lions and Giants for the same wild-card spot. That means that among the Broncos, Ravens, Steelers and Bengals, only one can repeat, and that will be either the Ravens or Steelers as the winner of the AFC North.
In spite of their truly impressive success under Mike Smith, something about the Falcons’ defense just doesn’t feel right to me and the reality of the Saints is that for all their coaching problems, I’m not sure their roster won’t be better than last year, so I’ll give the NFC South to New Orleans. And believe it or not, I think Ndamukong Suh will be closer to the 2010 version than 2011 and that between Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, the Lions will be closer to 20th in the league in rushing than 29th, and that will earn them the sixth seed in the NFC.
Marvin Lewis has taken the Bengals to the playoffs three times in nine years but never in back-to-back seasons and has never won a playoff game. Both the Ravens and Steelers have taken hits due to veteran releases, salary-cap casualties and injuries, so I’ll give the AFC North to the Ravens and say the Bengals and Steelers are at home for the new year. The Broncos were a mirage last year in a terrible division, and while Peyton Manning is a great story, their roster is no better than third-best now in the AFC West. So the Giants, Falcons, Steelers, Bengals and Broncos are out, but who’s in?
The Eagles are not a legitimate Super Bowl threat because I believe Michael Vick is the best athlete in the NFL but just an average quarterback. But they are the best team in the NFC East. Both wild cards will come out of the NFC North as the Bears were 7-3 and cruising last year when Jay Cutler went down. While Cutler is back, they now have the best No. 2 QB in the NFL in Jason Campbell and also made huge additions in Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush. They’re not a Super Bowl contender, but they are a wild card.
In the AFC, I love the Chiefs with the return of Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, Matt Cassel and Tony Moeaki, and the addition of Eric Winston and Peyton Hillis, and I think A.J. Smith has had as good an offseason as any G.M. in the league in reshaping his club. The Chargers will be a wild card.
My last newcomer is the Bills. The Jets would be the easy choice, but that’s too easy, and there are just too many distractions on that club. I’m not a Ryan Fitzpatrick guy, but there are a lot of other things I like about the Bills, and some team has to really surprise us, doesn’t it?