Since 2008, at least two NFL teams have made the playoffs after having a 6-10 record or worse the previous year (as I highlighted one of my projected breakout teams earlier). This means, by default, some teams that made the playoffs the year before have to fail to repeat the previous season's success.
These teams can falter for a number of reasons—age, injuries, improving division or having Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. These are the three playoff teams from last season I project to regress and have more free time than they would like come January.
Pittsburgh falls under this category mostly because I like the Bengals and Ravens more in the division and find it hard to believe the AFC North will sport three playoff teams for the second year in a row.
The Bengals are a young team positioned to keep maturing and getting better, while the Ravens seem to be comfortable letting Joe Flacco be Joe Flacco. Pittsburgh having a subpar season may have more to do with the play of Cincinnati and Baltimore. That doesn't mean the Steelers don't have problems.
The biggest question mark is on their offensive line.
The Steelers tried to improve the line and spent their first two picks in the 2012 draft on Stanford guard David DeCastro and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams. However, Adams currently sits behind Max Starks on the depth chart and DeCastro is on injured reserve/designated for return list.
The offensive line had Jekyll and Hyde tendencies in the running game last season. According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh ranked third in the league with 4.43 adjusted line yards—a statistic basically formulated to show how responsible the line is on running plays (explained in full here).
The O-line also ranked 23rd and 24th in stuffed runs (runs when the running back does not pass the line of scrimmage) and power success (critical runs on third and fourth downs or goal line situations with less than two yards to go) respectively, per Football Outsiders.
With the three-headed question mark at running back featuring Rashard Mendenhall coming back from an ACL injury, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, confidence isn't exactly pouring into the Pittsburgh ground game.
If there's no run game, Ben Roethlisberger might be dropping back to pass a lot. That might not be the best thing for Big Ben's health. Roethlisberger has played 16 games in only one of his eight seasons. Pittsburgh ranking 20th with a 7.2 percent adjusted sack rate (yes, another Football Outsiders stat— explained here) probably doesn't help.
If Roethlisberger can't stay on the field and the question mark around the offensive line never becomes a period, the Steelers are looking at a disappointing season.
The Lions are also going to be a victim of an improved division. Green Bay is still one of the best teams in the league, and the Bears went 8-8 last year with Caleb Hanie playing six games at quarterback. Jay Cutler has Brandon Marshall again and should look more like the 7-3 team that started last season.
Detroit has talent, but can they keep it on the field?
Matthew Stafford did throw for over 5,000 yards last season, but also completed only his first season playing 16 games.
The revolving door at running back is full of injury questions. Jahvid Best, while productive when on the field, starts the season on the PUP list and has become a concussion waiting to happen. Mikel Leshoure is coming off an Achilles injury and a two-game suspension to start the season. Starter-by-default Kevin Smith hurt his ankle during the preseason, but should be well enough to play Week 1.
Sure, the Lions have Calvin Johnson, but Shaun Hill throwing to him with a fourth-string running back to mix things up doesn't sound as enticing.
Megatron isn't in the clear either on the injury front -- he was on the cover of Madden. Maybe he can join Drew Brees as the only players on to have their numbers affected the next season, but the odds are against him. I'm not saying Madden was the reason Peyton Hillis quit on the Browns last year, but it probably didn't help.
The Lions also have to keep players out of handcuffs to keep them on the field. If I set an over/under for two-and-a-half Lions getting arrested during the season, you'd think about it for a while before you made your decision.
If I have to be confident in key Lions staying on the field in order for Detroit to make the playoffs again, I'm going to do exactly what this Lions will do this season—pass.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers' success in 2011 was in most part because Jim Harbaugh is a brilliant coach.
Harbaugh surveyed what he had offensively and catered his game plan to get the best out of those players. What he had was an average quarterback and below-average receivers. The game plan involved minimizing turnovers by minimizing risks taken.
The 49ers offense was content with advancing the ball with five-yard passes at a time, never making Alex Smith force a ball into coverage. This strategy got them all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
This offseason, San Francisco signed Mario Manningham and Randy Moss to be competent receivers for Smith. The addition of receivers will allow Harbaugh to let Smith take more shots down the field this season. I guarantee this will cause a rise in Alex Smith's interception numbers.
I'm not trying to say Alex Smith is going to go back to being terrible, he's just not going to repeat what he did last year.
Smith's five interceptions last year (at a low 1.12 percent of his passes) were his lowest total since 2007 when he threw four, but only played in seven games. Smith's other interception totals during his NFL career include 11, 16, 12 and 10.
This year on 3rd-and-9, the 49ers offense won't still be content with a two-yard check-down. Randy Moss will be on the field. Do you know what Randy Moss is like when he doesn't get the ball?
The great defense last year was aided because of great field position due to the lack of offensive turnovers. This season, the turnovers should increase and the defense will have to work a little more to stop opponents from scoring.
Each week I will pick every game against the spread, with five "lock" picks. Last season I finished 125-116-15 overall.
Week 1 Picks (home team in CAPS/Locks in BOLD)
CHICAGO (-10) over Indianapolis
CLEVELAND (+9) over Philadelphia
Buffalo (+3) over NY JETS
NEW ORLEANS (-7.5) over Washington
New England (-5.5) over TENNESSEE
MINNESOTA (-3.5) over Jacksonville
HOUSTON (-12.5) over Miami
St. Louis (+8) over DETROIT
Atlanta (-2.5) over KANSAS CITY
GREEN BAY (-4.5) over San Francisco
TAMPA BAY (+2.5) over Carolina
Seattle (-2.5) over ARIZONA
DENVER (-1.5) over Pittsburgh
Cincinnati (+7) over BALTIMORE
San Diego (+1) over OAKLAND
This Week: Overall 0-1, Locks 0-0
To see Dan's team over/under and playoff predictions and other entertaining sports tweets follow him on Twitter @DanPizzuta.
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