3 2012 NFL Wild Card Losers Who Will Certainly Be Back in the Mix Next Year
The NFL Playoffs said goodbye to four more teams who had visions of something bigger than merely a playoff appearance.
All four teams have something to look forward to in 2012. The Cincinnati Bengals have A.J. Green and Andy Dalton to build around. The Atlanta Falcons are just getting started, and the Detroit Lions could be considered the most dangerous team in the NFL. Some call them old, others experienced, but the Pittsburgh Steelers will return with much of the same core that made it to two Super Bowls.
Three teams in particular stand out as locks to make the playoffs next season.
The Atlanta Falcons sold the farm to draft Julio Jones early in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He may not have gotten them that elusive playoff win, but I still like the decision.
Jones and Roddy White will emerge as the most dangerous 1-2 punch in the NFL next season. The duo combined for nearly 2,300 yards and 16 touchdowns, and they are just scratching the surface. Jones did not really come into his own until the second half of the year, and he will continue to improve. White caught 100 passes for the second season in a row, and his steady hands are the perfect complement to the game-breaking Jones.
The team will return Michael Turner and his near-gaurantee of 1,200 yards rushing. Matt Ryan will never reach the level some thought after he led this team to the playoffs as a rookie, but he will continue to play at just-under an elite level, more than good enough for a team with this kind of weapons.
The defense improved in 2011, and with a few more tweaks (see: secondary), could enter top-10 status. It will not be easy with the New Orleans Saints, the dangerous Carolina Panthers and a potential comeback season for Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Bucs, but the Falcons should be back.
What they do when they get there is up to them. For the record, Falcons fans, do not give up hope on the quarterback formerly-known-as-Matty-Ice, yet it took Peyton Manning six years and four appearances to win his first playoff game.
A young and dangerous Green Bay Packers team followed the 2009 season by losing a shootout to the experienced Arizona Cardinals. They came back to win the Super Bowl the following season.
A young and dangerous Detroit Lions team followed the 2011 season by losing a shootout to the experienced New Orleans Saints. They came back to...
How will we finish that sentence? I consider the Lions one of five Super Bowl favorites next season. Matthew Stafford is 23 years old and threw for over 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Calvin Johnson is 26 and emerged as the undisputed best receiver in the game. As long as Ndamukong Suh keeps his head on straight, he is one of the most disruptive defensive players in the NFL.
A few quick suggestions as to how they can make the next step: Find some more balance on offense. Burners Kendall Wright and/or Lamar Miller should be available when they select in the first round. Wright, the fastest receiver in the draft, would be a perfect complement to Calvin Johnson.
The team needs to evaluate Jahvid Best and make a decision on his concussion issues. If they determine his career is at risk, they should take Miller, the draft's fastest running back. They also need to continue to build the defense, which slipped after an impressive first half of the year.
I am not bold enough to give a Rex Ryan-approved guarantee on the Lions' future. Just do not be surprised if they are holding up the Lombardi Trophy in 2013.
If the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals did not play in the same division, I would pick both to return to the playoffs. Well, they do, and the Baltimore Ravens have to be considered the favorites to win the AFC North next season.
It is very unlikely that three teams from the North will make it again. The Oakland Raiders will compete with a full season of Carson Palmer, the San Diego Chargers are always dangerous and the New York Jets will re-tool and make a run.
So, who is it going to be? The Bengals have a bright future with Andy Dalton and AJ Green, but Marvin Lewis' track record of making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons is awful, whereas the Steelers have missed the playoffs just once in the Mike Tomlin era.
The Steelers are getting old on defense, but have a dangerous young receiving corps in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Some members of the D have to go (James Farrior), but they should be OK, if not dominant, in that department.
They will need to look out for precipitous drop-offs from James Harrison (turns 34 in May) and Troy Polamalu (multiple concussions), but as long as they avoid another catastrophic injury bug, they should be fine.
Give me the Steelers' track record over the Bengals' potential.