NFL

2013 NFL Playoff Teams That Could Come Up Short of Postseason in 2014

Tyler HornerCorrespondent IIAugust 23, 2014

2013 NFL Playoff Teams That Could Come Up Short of Postseason in 2014

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    USA TODAY Sports

    With each new NFL season comes a chance for each team to start anew, to forget the struggles of yesteryear and focus on the here and now. 

    Due in part to the NFL's scheduling protocol, making the playoffs in consecutive seasons is no easy task, especially as a division champion, because you then get the gift of playing each of the other division champions from your conference the following season. 

    Teams that finished second or below in the division only have to face one conference division champion outside of their own division's winner. Instead, they play two teams who placed the same within their division (For example, the last place team in AFC West in 2013 [Oakland Raiders] plays the last place team in the AFC North [Cleveland Browns].)

    This scheduling procedure allows lesser teams a better chance of bouncing back from of a poor season and even of making the playoffs. 

    There's also the pressure associated with defending a division title that many such winners fail to use constructively. 

    Consider also that the gap in talent from top to bottom in the NFL is relatively small, and it becomes inevitable that some teams will rise while others fall. 

    Read on to find out which teams could experience such a fall and consequently miss the playoffs in 2014.

Carolina Panthers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC South Champion, No. 2 Seed in NFC)

    Divisional Round: Lose 23-10 vs. San Francisco 49ers

     

    What's Changed 

    The Carolina Panthers lost a number of solid veteran players from their offense this offseason. Gone are left tackle Jordan Gross and guard Travelle Wharton (both of whom retired) and wide receiver Steve Smith, who left via free agency.

    Gross's strength in the run blocking tailed off towards the end of his career, and I feel new left tackle Byron Bell should actually represent an upgrade in that area. However, Bell was routinely pushed around by the league's better pass-rushers when he lined up at right tackle, and the move to left tackle means he'll only face tougher competition. In Carolina's loss to New England in its third preseason game, Patriot defensive end Chandler Jones beat Bell twice for sacks on Cam Newton.

    Wharton's replacement is Amini Silatolu. This is a step backwards in pass protection, where Wharton was a legitimate technician, but it's two steps forwards in the running game, where Silatolu was dominant last season before tearing his right ACL in Week 5. 

    Smith will be replaced by 6'5" rookie Kelvin Benjamin, whose length and physicality appears to be a great fit for a quarterback like Cam Newton who wants to push the ball downfield.

    Free-agent signings Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant replace Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon Lafell. Ginn's ability to take the top off of defenses will be missed, and while LaFell never improved route-running and had unreliable hands, he was an excellent blocker on the edge. 

    On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers' revolving door at safety will continue. Last season, Mike Mitchell was the lone constant and could play in the box or as the center fielder. 

    With Mitchell gone, they're hoping free-agent signings Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud can play the role of strong safety and free safety respectively. 

    At cornerback, Carolina lost Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn, both great matchups in the nickel on quicker slots, and added Antoine Cason and rookie Bene Benwikere. 

    Both have higher upside but are downgrades in terms of experience and consistency. 

     

    The Road to the Postseason

    The Panthers face a tougher schedule this season that includes a grueling five-game stretch (Week 6-Week 10) in which all their opponents will be 2013 playoff teams.

    Before that stretch, though, they have a relatively weak schedule that includes no playoff teams from a year ago. 

    In Week 2, a stout Detroit Lions defensive line could create problems for Carolina's offense, and you can't overlook the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, but they should still come out of their first five games with at least four wins. 

    The Panthers then hit the road to take on the Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers before returning home to host the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints. 

    All present tough matchups for Carolina, and the Panthers should be happy to split these games and have a 6-3 record heading into Week 10, when they'll look to further develop their chemistry in the passing game against a Philadelphia Eagles squad that has one of the weakest secondaries in the NFL.

    Following that game, the schedule eases up as the Panthers face 2013 bottom-feeders Atlanta Falcons (twice), Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay. 

    A road game in New Orleans in Week 14 could go a long way in determining their hopes of repeating as division winners. 

     

    Their Competition for a Playoff Spot

    It's looking more and more like the NFC South is New Orleans' division to lose. Talent-wise, the Panthers aren't far behind, but with a deep group of receivers and a high-powered vertical passing offense, the Saints have the favorable matchup. 

    New Orleans also has one of the easier schedules in the league; outside of Carolina, the Saints face just three 2013 playoff teams—Green Bay, Cincinnati and the San Francisco 49ers—and they play each at home. 

    Carolina's playoff hopes will likely depend on winning a wild card spot. The entire NFC West should be in the wild card race so therein will Carolina find most of its competition for the secondary route to the postseason—of the New York Giants and Eagles, whoever fails to win the division should be in the mix as well. 

    For the Panthers, their charge towards the playoffs likely won't end until Week 17, and it's very possible that they find themselves tied with multiple teams for the final wild card spot. 

     

    Final Thoughts

    There may be no team that is more of an unknown heading into 2014 than the Panthers because of the immense amount of roster turnover they experienced this offseason. 

    With the pieces they have in place, there's no doubt that they have the ability to get on a hot streak once again and take the No. 1 seed in their conference. 

    However, with as many great teams as there are in the NFC, it's hard to say definitively that Carolina will end up with a spot in the postseason. While it doesn't reflect on how highly I think of this team, it's probable that they will come up short based on a projected ascension of the Rams, Cardinals and Giants. 

     

    Projection: 10-6 (No Playoffs, Lose Tiebreaker to St. Louis Rams)

Indianapolis Colts

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    2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South Champion, No. 4 Seed in AFC)

    Wild Card Round: Win 45-44 vs. Kansas City Chiefs

    Divisional Round: Lose 43-22 @ New England Patriots

     

    What's Changed

    The Colts running game could struggle mightily in 2014 after losing running back Donald Brown to San Diego. 

    They didn't make a huge commitment to run the ball last season because their interior linemen struggled to get much of a push. However, they were one of the more efficient rushing teams in the NFL because of Brown's prowess on off-tackle carries. 

    Brown isn't a back known for his ability to break tackles or his break-neck speed, but he has excellent patience and vision, which should be a prerequisite to play behind the Colts' porous interior offensive line. 

    However, it is not a prerequisite, which is why Trent Richardson found his way onto the roster. There's no doubt that Richardson is a more physically impressive player than Brown, but he doesn't seem to have the vision and patience that Brown does, which leaves him consistently swallowed up on runs up the gut. 

    The Colts are relying on addition by subtraction to improve their offensive line, and I'm not convinced that it will. Second-year player Khaled Holmes will start at center and rookie Jack Mewhort will start at left guard, replacing Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn respectively. 

    Josh Chapman will move into the starting lineup at nose tackle this season and should provide a better anchor against the run, although he's limited as a pass-rusher. 

    Arthur Jones was signed to get more pass rush out of their starting three defensive linemen because they contributed little last season, and the Colts don't want Robert Mathis to completely carry the burden of pressuring the opposing quarterback for another season. 

    They lost their best inside linebacker when Pat Angerer left for Atlanta, but they did add a comparable veteran in D'Qwell Jackson through free agency. 

    Where the Colts needed to add talent was in the secondary. Vontae Davis has proven himself to be a high-end No.1 cornerback, but they lack options beyond him. 

    Greg Toler will start opposite Davis, but given his injury history, its unlikely he'll make it through the season healthy. Nickelback Darius Butler is a ball hawk, but his inconsistent play and penchant for getting beat deep makes him an unreliable replacement for the injury-prone Toler. 

    The Colts also let go of their best safety, Antoine Bethea, and managed not to bring in any suitable replacement; the starter appears to be Delano Howell, an undrafted player in his third season.

     

    The Road to the Postseason

    The Colts begin the regular season with a road game in Denver, followed by a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, which will be played without Mathis, who's suspended for the first four games.

    I can't imagine the Broncos dropping their season opener, and the Eagles present a tough matchup because of their dominant running game, led by All-Pro back LeSean McCoy. 

    The schedule quickly eases up from there, as the Colts face between Weeks 3 and 7 the bottom teams in their division, as well as the Baltimore Ravens, whose stout defense could keep the game close despite their questionable firepower on offense.  The Colts should win at least three of the four games. 

    The meat of their schedule lies in the middle, however, as a difficult four-game stretch looms. The Colts host the Bengals in Week 7 and the New England Patriots after Indy's Week 10 bye, and they hit the road to face the Pittsburgh Steelers and Giants in between. 

    The Bengals, Giants and Patriots all present problems for the Colts because of their deep and talented secondaries, and although Indianapolis has a better team than the Steelers, it's never easy to go into Heinz Field and win. 

    But luckily for the Colts, playing in the AFC South allows them the opportunity to get right back into the playoff hunt despite potentially heading into Week 12 with a 4-6 record. 

    Their final six games include no 2013 playoff teams and, once again, they face each of their divisional opponents, although I wouldn't put it past them to drop at least one game within the division—potentially to the Houston Texans in Week 15.

    Games against the Washington Redskins and Browns should be easy wins while a Week 16 road game in Dallas could prove to be trouble.

     

    Their Competition for a Playoff Spot

    Within the division, it looks like only Houston has the potential to give Indianapolis trouble. With far and away the most talented defense in the AFC South, the Texans may just need to come out on the right side of a couple close games and, with a schedule so weak that I can't help but laugh every time I look at it, they could easily take the division even if they get swept by the Colts. 

    As odd as it sounds, the AFC South could get two teams into the playoffs despite being the weakest division in football. 

    And it could be the Colts that get a wild card bid. 

    The San Diego Chargers will be in the thick of the wild card race once again, but a grueling final quarter of their schedule could be their undoing. They host the Patriots and Broncos before hitting the road for games in San Francisco and Kansas City. 

    Beyond the Chargers, the Steelers, Ravens, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets will be lurking close behind but, in my mind, they aren't in great position to have winning records this season, and it will take at least nine wins to get the second wild card spot in the AFC. 

     

    Final Thoughts 

    Many are touting the Colts as the next team to make the leap into the elite of the NFL, but that prediction is mainly motivated by a blind faith in Andrew Luck and an ignorance of a questionable running game and aging defense. 

    There's no doubting that Luck improved from year one to year two, and he's certainly one of the most clutch young quarterbacks in NFL history, but his play is still maddeningly inconsistent and that is not a part of the recipe for winning your division in consecutive seasons. 

    Ultimately, being in a conference that's a little thin around the middle could propel the Colts into the playoffs, but they're going to have to improve on the offensive line and refresh the defense with young talent before they're ready to make a Super Bowl run. 

     

    Projection: 9-7 (No.6 Seed in Playoffs)

Philadelphia Eagles

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    2013 Record: 10-6 (NFC East Champion, No. 3 Seed in NFC)

    Wild Card Round: Lose 26-24 vs. New Orleans Saints

     

    What's Changed

    The Eagles offense retained almost all of its starters from 2013, but that doesn't mean they're likely to keep up the same outlandish efficiency that they played with once Nick Foles took over at quarterback in Week 5 of last season. 

    There's no doubt that Foles was playing out of his mind in 2013, and it opened up a lot of eyes to the possibility that he could be the next franchise quarterback in the NFL. 

    But it's difficult to project the future performance of a quarterback based on one season in a revolutionary offense, which defined a season of incredible highs culminating with a the low of a first-round playoff loss.

    One thing that we can be sure of is that the offense lost much of its explosiveness when DeSean Jackson walked out the door. Getting Jeremy Maclin back from injury should soften the blow, but he's never been a No. 1 receiver and he's lining up opposite Riley Cooper, whose production began tailing off towards the end of 2013. 

    Philadelphia was also fortunate that its entire starting offensive line was healthy for a full 16 games. I'm not one to project injuries, but is it realistic to expect consecutive seasons of such healthy line play? I don't think it is. 

    The trend of continuity applies to the defensive side of the ball also, where the Eagles retained their starting front seven and lost just one starter from the secondary. 

    Philadelphia would like to see more pass rush from its outside linebackers, but Trent Cole's production has dipped with age and Brandon Graham has never become the prolific pass-rusher that the franchise hoped for. 

    Last year's strong safety, Patrick Chung, is replaced by Malcolm Jenkins, who isn't necessarily much of an upgrade. Jenkins has a reputation as an outspoken leader, but outside of that and experience at all positions of the defensive backfield, he brings little to the Eagles. He lacks open-field tackling ability and isn't enough of a playmaker to warrant the risks he takes in coverage. 

     

    The Road to the Postseason 

    The Eagles have a fairly advantageous schedule before their bye week. They should be heavy favorites in home games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Redskins, and they face a San Francisco team in Week 4 that will likely be without it's two best defensive players, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. 

    In Week 2, LeSean McCoy should have a field day in Indianapolis, and while home games against stout defensive teams like the St. Louis Rams and Giants should be close, the Eagles could very well head into their Week 7 bye with five wins. 

    The four weeks after the bye get a bit tougher, as they face tough defenses in Arizona and Houston before returning home to face 2013 division winners Carolina and Green Bay. Splitting these four games would be a victory for Philadelphia, or at least a boon to their playoff hopes. 

    The final stretch of six weeks includes four division games, three of which are on the road, and a home matchup with Seattle. This stretch could put the Eagles on the wrong side of the playoff picture or in a tie for the final Wild Card spot, with the Giants as the projected NFC East winner. 

     

    Their Competition for a Playoff Spot

    Winning the division certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility and most consider the Eagles to be the heavy favorites to win the NFC East. However, despite the uncertainty around the Giants' offense, I still have them as the division champion. 

    The race will be close and it should come down to a Week 17 game in New York, but the Giants are the easier team to project because of a talented defense that should be even more dominant this season, as well as a comparatively easy schedule. 

    If they find themselves in the wild card race, they'll be battling a slew of teams that comprise the meat of the NFC—Arizona, Carolina, San Francisco, St. Louis and even Dallas could get into the midst of the chase. 

     

    Final Thoughts

    The Eagles should still be an incredibly exciting team to watch this season and find themselves in plenty of high-scoring affairs, but it's difficult for one-year-wonder quarterbacks and coaches to sustain nearly unprecedented success, so expecting similar offensive production this season is unfair.

    It also bothers me that Philadelphia didn't necessarily improve their roster over the offseason. They lost DeSean Jackson and attempted to compensate with running back Darren Sproles, who is a pure third-down scat back, and rookie receiver Jordan Matthews, who can't be expected to produce half of what Jackson would have this season. 

    Until they shore up one of the worst pass defenses in the league, the Eagles will remain on the brink of the postseason, and being in a loaded conference significantly depletes their chances of getting back to the playoffs.

     

    Projection: 9-7 (No Playoffs)

San Diego Chargers

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    2013 Record: 10-6 (Wild Card, No. 6 Seed in AFC)

    Wild Card Round: Win 27-10 @ Cincinnati Bengals

    Divisional Round: Lose 24-17 @ Denver Broncos

     

    What's Changed

    After a terrible offensive season in 2012, the Chargers bounced back to form in 2013 behind the arm of Philip Rivers and an efficient running game. 

    Because of this success, they didn't make many changes on the offensive side of the ball. Rather, they chose to add depth and youth. 

    Running back Donald Brown comes over from the Colts, and that move solidifies Danny Woodhead's role as a pure out-of-the-backfield receiver. When Ryan Matthews is not on the field, it will likely be Brown who takes the majority of the carries, at least on downs one and two. 

    The offensive line added rookie Chris Watt to the mix, and he should start at right guard until Jeromey Clary comes back from injury.

    On the opposite side of the ball, the Chargers took some steps to repair what was arguably the worst defense in the league last season—to be fair, their play was less embarrassing during the latter half of the season. 

    Defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes can create pressure on the quarterback, but they were pushed around against the run. Without a true run-stuffing nose tackle, the Chargers really struggled in power-running situations. 

    The pass rush should be improved if Dwight Freeney can stay healthy, but he'll mainly be a third-down pass-rush specialist for the Chargers at this point in his career. Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram are more capable three-down players than Freeney at this point, although Ingram is coming off of a season abbreviated by a knee injury. 

    Cornerback Brandon Flowers was brought to play in the Chargers' off-coverage scheme, but they still lack playmakers in the secondary, as well as a physically imposing press corner to match up on larger, possession receivers. 

     

    The Road to the Postseason

    By the numbers, San Diego's 2014 schedule appears less difficult than it really is; games against the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders (twice) drag down the projected average strength of schedule, but within their own division are two of the top teams in the AFC, the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs.

    To start off the season, San Diego travels to Arizona before returning home to host the Seattle Seahawks. They then hit the road in Buffalo, in what should be a closer game than many anticipate because of the Bills defense. It's not unfeasible that San Diego starts off the season 0-3. 

    The schedule eases up from there, as they host the Jaguars and Jets before heading to Oakland to take on an annually dismal team that still has managed to split games with San Diego in each of the past four seasons.

    Following tough divisional games against the Chiefs (home) and Broncos (away), the Chargers could be under .500 at the midseason point. It wouldn't be the first time they found themselves in a hole midway through a season, but the second half of San Diego's schedule may just be too tough to overcome. 

    The Chargers have to make a run in the third quarter of their schedule to get back into playoff contention. Away games in Miami and and Baltimore won't be easy, nor will home games against the Rams or Raiders, but the Chargers will have to come out of that stretch with at least three wins to give themselves a chance at making the playoffs.

    The final four games of their season all come against 2013 playoff teams; they host the Patriots and Broncos before heading to San Francisco and Kansas City. These games could very be their undoing, because the Chargers will likely have to win at least three of these contests to get over the .500 mark and into the playoff picture.

     

    Their Competition for a Playoff Spot

    The Chiefs should hold a sizable lead for the first wild card spot in the AFC, leaving the Chargers in contention with either the Colts or Texans (whichever does not win the AFC South) for the final spot and the conference's No. 6 seed. 

    The Jets, Dolphins, Steelers and Ravens should be following closely behind, but I can't imagine any getting over .500 this season with the holes currently in their rosters and it will take at least nine wins to grab a Wild Card spot in the AFC this season. 

    Ultimately, the Colts' weak schedule and Houston's even weaker schedule will likely put these teams in a better position down the stretch than the Chargers, whose December schedule is in another league from Houston and Indianapolis.

     

    Final Thoughts

    Every season, the Chargers seem to hang around the .500 mark and 2014 should be no different. Until they put a solid defense on the field, they will continue to struggle to put opponents away.

    Their offense will remain one of the most potent in the NFL behind the arm of Rivers and a strong offensive line, but they'll need several defensive players to step up in order to become a playoff-caliber team. 

     

    Projection: 8-8 (No Playoffs)

San Francisco 49ers

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    2013 Record: 12-4 (Wild Card, No. 5 Seed in NFC)

    Wild Card Round: Win 23-20 @ Green Bay Packers

    Divisional Round: Win 23-10 @ Carolina Panthers

    Championship Game: Lose 23-17 @ Seattle Seahawks

     

    What's Changed

    Thought the Niners' fifth-ranked defense often carried the team in 2013, it's the offense that will carry a bigger burden in 2014. 

    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be turned to as the player who needs to assume leadership of the offense and take strides forward as a franchise quarterback, but the hope that he'll turn into a pocket passer is beginning to wither. 

    And that's not necessarily a bad thing for the 49ers offense because Kaepernick can be a weapon outside of the pocket, and he creates a lot yards with his legs when either the pocket collapses or he struggles getting through his reads.

    The 49ers could have used some new faces on the offensive line, but they didn't add any starter-caliber players. Having a healthy Mike Iupati should be a boost to the run game, but the loss of center Jonathan Goodwin hurts because his replacement, Daniel Kilgore, is an unexciting prospect with no experience as a starter. 

    The smartest move San Francisco made over the offseason was adding running back Carlos Hyde in the second round of the draft. While I still think Gore is one of the league's best backs, drafting Hyde will only extend the veteran Gore's career. 

    The offseason made a mess of San Francisco's defense, and it may take until midseason for the unit comes back to form. 

    Gone are three starters from the secondary, including both starting cornerbacks, and the replacements aren't exactly inspiring; replacing Donte Whitner at strong safety will be a traditional free safety, Antoine Bethea, and only rookie hybrid defensive back Jimmie Ward has starter talent at cornerback behind incumbent Tramaine Brock. 

    But injuries and suspensions are what could truly spell trouble for the 49ers defense; linebacker NaVorro Bowman should miss at least half of the season recovering from a torn ACL, their best pass-rusher, outside linebacker Aldon Smith, is expected to be suspended for at least six games, and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is out for the season, leaving the defensive line without one of its best run defenders.

     

    The Road to the Postseason

    San Francisco's start to the season could get downright ugly, as their seven opponents before the bye week have a combined 2013 record of 67-45, and they don't even play the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks during that stretch. 

    Remember also that they could very well be playing each of these seven games without their two best defensive players and they will be facing some very impressive offenses—among them are the Cowboys, Bears, Eagles and Broncos. 

    In other words, I won't be shocked if they begin the season 2-5 or worse. 

    Even if they regroup following their Week 8 bye, the 49ers will not have an easy finish to the regular season: Home games against St. Louis, San Diego and Arizona will be challenging, and they'll have to play the Seahawks twice and have road games against the Giants and Saints. 

     

    Their Competition for a Playoff Spot

    I think that fellow NFC West teams Arizona and St. Louis have had better offseasons than San Francisco, so they should be making a push for a playoff spot. I can even see the Cardinals potentially taking the division. 

    The Philadelphia Eagles may succumb to a schedule that toughens down the stretch, as could the Panthers. 

    San Francisco should lead the Cowboys and Lions by season's end, but it will likely be the Panthers or some combination of NFC West rivals that put the 49ers outside the playoffs looking in for 2014. 

     

    Final Thoughts

    There's no doubt in my mind that the 49ers will be playing like a playoff team come December, but I'm betting that the combination of a taxing schedule and the absence of two valuable players will put the playoffs out of reach for them this season. 

    Don't confuse this projection as my doubting that Kaepernick is a franchise quarterback. He's carried the team through the playoffs in consecutive seasons, but he's not been a high-volume passer since taking over the reins late in 2012, so whether he can consistently rally a 49ers team that finds itself behind in games because of a less-than-stellar defense remains a big question mark.

    If Kaepernick can prove me wrong and maintain his efficiency while throwing 500-plus passes, then this team could be dangerous once it's back to full strength, but he has yet to show that he can take that step. 

     

    Projection: 9-7 (No Playoffs)

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