Which NFL Teams Are Absolute Locks for the Postseason?
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Locks for the postseason? Yes. That’s what the title says.
And the realization is that it’s still June in the year of 2013 and the NFL’s 94th season doesn’t start for another two-plus months.
But that’s the question and as usual, the attempt will be made to answer it as accurately as possible. And we’ll use some somewhat recent history to make a point…maybe?
From 1996-2011, a span of 16 seasons, there were at least five teams that reached the playoffs that failed to get to the postseason the previous year. That streak was snapped a year ago, when eight of the 12 clubs that reached the playoffs in 2011 returned to the postseason in 2012.
All told, six of the eight reigning division champions repeated last season, including all four winners in the AFC (New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos). As for the other conference, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers held serve in the NFC North and NFC West, respectively.
Using the theory that until last season, there were at least five new playoff teams the following years, we are going to cut to the chase and just put a half-dozen clubs in right now (for those of you who love that “if the season ended today?” thing, this should make you very happy).
So with just under 11 weeks remaining before the start of NFL 2013, there are six available postseason invitations. As for the current playoff field, here goes everything.
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From 1966 to 2007, a span of 42 seasons, the Atlanta Falcons never posted back-to-back winning seasons nor made consecutive playoff appearances.
That all changed in 2008 with the hiring of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith, as well as the selection of quarterback Matt Ryan in the first round. The Falcons have enjoyed five winning seasons and have reached the postseason three straight years and four times since 2008.
And they’ll be back in the playoffs in 2013.
Now no one is saying that the Falcons will repeat as NFC South champions. As everyone knows by now, no team has won back-to-back titles in this division since it was formed in 2002. But Smith, Ryan and company will be in contention for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Is this a perfect football team? Hardly, but who is? And if the Atlanta defense doesn’t perform better against the run in 2013, the club could go from the top seed in the NFC to on the outside looking in quickly.
But here’s a vote of confidence that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has some something up his sleeve when it comes to that, as well as fixing a pass rush that produced just 29 sacks a year ago. The signing of defensive end Osi Umenyiora helps, but it merely offsets the loss of defensive end John Abraham.
We all know what Ryan, as well as wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez can do. And new running back Steven Jackson hopes to come up with his usual 1,000-plus yards rushing, as well as contribute to the passing game.
In the playoffs, it’s been a struggle for this team as of late. But one way to go 1-4 in the postseason on a five-year span is to get to the playoffs four times…and counting.
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The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the National Football League’s much-maligned franchises for the last 20-plus years.
But thanks to head coach Marvin Lewis and some excellent draft classes, they’ve been a lot better than you think as of late. And when the team reaches the playoffs in 2013, they will have made a little history.
The Bengals first took the field in 1968 in the American Football League. And since that time, they’ve yet to go the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. The team is prepared to do just that this year after securing wild-card berths in 2011 and 2012.
Truth be told, Lewis and company have been to the playoffs three of the last four years, which includes an AFC North title in 2009. And when you look at the talent on this roster, it’s hard to believe that they aren’t the current front-runner in their division.
Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green have excelled, the latter a two-time Pro Bowler in as many NFL seasons. The running game emerged during the second half of 2012 via BenJarvus Green-Ellis and could be even better this year with the addition of rookie Giovani Bernard.
And what can you say about the defense? Including last year’s rough playoff loss to the Houston Texans, the Bengals limited each of their last nine opponents to 20 points or less. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and emerging defensive end Michael Johnson anchor this unit.
Now Cincinnati has not won a playoff game since 1990, when it defeated Houston...as in the Oilers. But it’ll get another chance this season to put that issue in the rear-view mirror as well.
Green Bay Packers
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The last time the Green Bay Packers didn’t reach the playoffs was 2008.
That marked the first year of the Aaron Rodgers Era in terms of the team’s starting quarterback.
And obviously, ’08 proved to be the exception rather than the rule. As mentioned, the Pack has been back in the postseason each of the last four years and has won the NFC North each of the last two seasons.
The numbers that Rodgers has put up are astounding. Since taking over in 2008, he’s thrown 170 touchdown passes compared to just 45 interceptions during the regular season.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that the Packers have come up very short in three of those playoff runs. Despite the gaudy offensive numbers, Green Bay won Super Bowl XLV in 2010 but in those other three years, the team failed to reach the NFC Championship Game.
The last few years, the lack of a running game and problems on the defensive side of the football have derailed Mike McCarthy’s team. But there appears to be help on the way as recent drafts have brought a slew of young talent on defense and especially in the backfield, most notably in April with the selections of running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin.
Sure, winning the NFC North for a third straight year won’t be easy as both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears each won 10 games in 2012. But these Packers have proven that it does not take a division title to win a Super Bowl championship.
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The Houston Texans have gone from not being able to reach the playoffs to getting in a postseason rut.
It’s not the worst thing in the world. But no doubt head coach Gary Kubiak would like things to change this season.
In 2011, the Texans finished 10-6, won their first AFC South title and set a franchise record for regular-season victories. They would defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild card round only to fall short in the divisional round.
In 2012, the Texans finished 12-4, won their second straight AFC South title and set a franchise record for regular-season victories. They would defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round only to fall short in the divisional round.
But things will be different this year as Kubiak and company return to the postseason. The addition of three key veterans (safety Ed Reed, punter Shane Lechler and fullback Greg Jones) will help greatly, especially once Reed is healthy. And that appears to be a priority for the game’s 10th-leading interceptor with 61 thefts.
Add in rookie wideout DeAndre Hopkins, the team’s first-round pick in April, as well as a roster that already includes Pro Bowlers in running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels, as well as 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt (league high 20.5 sacks) and this is one of the best rosters in the league.
As for quarterback Matt Schaub, who slumped late last season, last year’s playoff experience should prove very beneficial—especially when it comes to the 2013 postseason.
San Francisco 49ers
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Head coach Jim Harbaugh is certainly hoping that his San Francisco 49ers continue what has been a very natural progression.
In his first season at the helm, the Niners sideline leader ended the franchise’s eight-year postseason drought via a 13-3 record and an NFC West title. San Francisco would eventually host the NFC title but fall in overtime, 20-17, to the New York Giants.
A year ago, the 49ers finished 11-4-1 and were once again division champions. Harbaugh’s club would again get to the conference championship game and this time would win it. But the season ended on a downer courtesy of a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Apparently, that means the Niners should be hosting the Lombardi Trophy at MetLife Stadium this coming February.
As history shows us, that is a task easier said than done. It’s worth noting that the last team to win the Super Bowl this season after losing the Super Bowl was the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Head coach Don Shula saw his club fall, 24-3, to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI and then was perfectly content to watch his team go undefeated in 1972 (17-0) on the way to capturing Super Bowl VII.
Back to the Niners, who are now being led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The running game is top notch with Frank Gore, LaMichael James and more. The passing game will look a little different temporarily as injured Michael Crabtree is sidelined indefinitely. And that could mean a different role for tight end Vernon Davis. San Francisco’s offensive line is one of the best in the game.
Defensively, Harbaugh’s club must rebound from a late-season slump partly due to injuries to defensive tackle Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith. But Harbaugh’s team figures to bounce back. And getting back to the playoffs figures as well.
One look at their current roster and it is safe to assume that the Seattle Seahawks are loaded for bear.
Head coach Pete Carroll is also hoping that his talented team is prepared for some 49er, Ram and Cardinal as well.
Heading into the 2012 playoffs, the Seahawks were on a big-time roll. The club had won five straight games as it prepared to meet the Washington Redskins in the Wild Card Round. The team rallied for a 24-14 win and went on to drop a heartbreaking 30-28 decision to the Atlanta Falcons a week later.
That postseason experience should serve the Seahawks well in 2013.
Quarterback Russell Wilson will be a year wiser and that could be bad news for the rest of the league. If you include the playoff split with the Redskins and Falcons, the Pro Bowler threw 21 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, plus ran for five touchdowns, in his last 11 outings.
The addition of wide receiver Percy Harvin to go with incumbents Golden Tate and Sidney Rice gives Wilson a lot of options. And veteran running back Marshawn Lynch was huge last season, rushing for 100 or more yards in 11 of his 18 total outings in 2012.
As for the defense, it is one of the best in the league led by a very talented secondary. In 2012, the Seahawks allowed a league-low 245 points. It marked the first time in the franchise’s 33-year history that the team had achieved that feat.
Yes, the NFC West has come a long way since the Seahawks won it with a 7-9 record in 2010. And once Carroll’s club returns to the playoffs in 2013, it may be going a long way as well.