No one wants to admit it, not the team nor the fans, but every competitive team in the National Football League enjoys a period where the right combination of personnel on both sides of the ball opens a window of opportunity to attain the highest achievement in the sport: the Super Bowl. Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills are intimately familiar with this concept; so are Dan Marino and his Dolphin teams of the early '80's.
There are a number of teams who've been consistently successful over the last four or five years but haven't capitalized on their playoff opportunities. Now the pressure is really on for one of these franchises to bring the Lombardi Trophy home.
The "Dream Team" failed to live up to lofty expectations in 2011. One of the best teams in the NFC last year slumped to an 8-8 record in a season that ended before it started. The Eagles dropped four of their first six games and couldn't recover despite their star-studded roster.
Since 2006, the Eagles have been to the playoffs four times, only to lose twice in the wild card round and once each at the divisional and conference championship round. The signs of fracture between Andy Reid and his team began to widen this year, as was evident with the issues surrounding DeSean Jackson.
That's not the only challenge facing the Philly crew. How many years does Michael Vick have left given his durability issues? The Eagles showed, at times, the explosive nature of their offense, but looking forward, can this team stay healthy enough to put their full potential to bear on the NFL?
Da' Bears missed the playoffs in 2011 after reaching the NFC title game in 2010. The Brian Urlacher-led Bears defense has been among the statistical leaders in the league over the last four years without a title to show for it.
Urlacher (age 33), Lance Briggs (31) and Julius Peppers (31) form the core of an aging defensive group and it showed at times this season. Things got especially tough on the monsters of the midway after Jay Cutler went down with a season-ending thumb injury in week 10, dropping five of their last six games.
Even with a healthy Cutler, it's likely the Bears will still be looking up in their own division to the Packers for a few years, by which time the window will have closed on this talented group of football players.
It seems as though at the advent of every new season, the Chargers are listed among the favorites for the Super Bowl and yet each year they come up short of the ultimate prize. In fact, the Chargers are haven't had losing season since 2004 (one of only three teams to do so, New England and Pittsburgh being the others).
You can blame the slow starts (4-8 in 2008, 2-3 in 2009) or you can question the coaching acumen of Norv Turner. Certainly having Phillip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and some top ranked defenses at your disposal sets the bar high. Now after a second consecutive season without a playoff berth, it looks like the Chargers' best years are behind them.
The 'Boys had a "win and you're in" game only a few weeks ago against the New York Giants but blew that opportunity at MetLife Stadium, missing out on the playoffs for the second straight year. Their last appearance in the postseason came in 2009, when they were blown out by Brett Favre and the Vikings.
Surely, Jerry Jones's patience has run out by now. He's built a billion dollar palace, fired coaches and made his desire for championships otherwise obvious. While the Cowboys have some terrific offensive weapons in WR Dez Bryant and RB DeMarco Murray, they still haven't found the answers on defense and the time for Romo and company may have come and gone.
Give Rex Ryan credit—he led the Jets to two straight AFC championship games in his first two seasons at the helm. But 2011 was a major step backwards for the J-E-T-S. They dropped their last three games, including painful losses to hated rivals the Giants and Dolphins.
They weren't able to effectively run the ball, and quarterback Mark Sanchez regressed in his decision-making and leadership skills. Revelations of discord amongst team in the week that's followed the end of the regular season have only soured further the atmosphere.
The Jets have many issues to address in the offseason, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, but it may be quite a few years before they sniff the Super Bowl again.