Six Teams Who Could Crash the NFL Playoff Party in 2010
Every new season in the National Football League brings with it renewed hope and optimism for franchises looking to burst through the playoff bubble.
And most of the time it does happen.
Usually a couple of teams improve so dramatically that a losing season the year before, becomes a playoff berth the following year.
This year will be no different.
Some will rise and some will fall. The only questions remaining are: who will rise and who will fall?
As for the falling, I'll answer that one another time.
For now, here's a look at at six teams who missed the playoffs last season, but could break through in 2010 if everything falls into place.
The Dolphins have a solid, young quarterback (Chad Henne) and a veteran backup (Chad Pennington) leading the way.
Now they actually have someone to throw the ball to.
Miami gave up a second-round pick to grab WR Brandon Marshall. He's immature and moody, but there's no denying his talent. Throw Ricky Williams into the offensive mix and now the Dolphins can move the chains and score some points.
The defense is still a work in progress, but the additions of DE/DT Jared Odrick and LB Koa Misi in the draft will strengthen this unit.
Miami faces a tough task rising in a division that has New England and the resurgent Jets in it.
If they can avoid injuries, improve the defense, and get a couple breaks go their way, the Dolphins could find themselves back in the hunt in the AFC East.
The Texans finally broke through with a winning season last year after three straight 8-8 campaigns. Unfortunately for them, 9-7 wasn't good enough to earn a playoff berth.
GM Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak are preaching patience while they build Houston into a contender and the fruits of their efforts are starting to pay off.
The defense took a hit with the four-game suspension of 2009 Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing. Even so, the Texans have an aggressive, young defense led by All-Pro Mario Williams and LB DeMeco Ryans. This unit is tough and getting more confident with each game. Top pick Kareem Jackson will help shore up a secondary that had some problems last season.
Offensively, Kubiak needs to find another weapon besides all-everything receiver Andre Johnson. QB Matt Schaub has emerged as a legit starter in this league, but his offensive pickings are slim.
Rookie Ben Tate, a hard-nosed runner, was drafted to shore up the Texans' running back by committee merry-go-round. That may not be enough when you're in the same division as the AFC champions.
Houston is on the cusp of being a playoff team. The defense is already playoff caliber. If the Texans can find a number one running back, and another wideout to compliment Johnson, the offensive will be too.
The Titans had the best record in the AFC in 2008, but a horrendous start to the 2009 season left them outside looking in come playoff time.
Jeff Fisher is one of the all-time great coaches in this league and proved it last season. After an 0-6 start that included a humiliating 59-0 loss to the Patriots, Fisher righted the ship and closed out the season 8-2.
With RB Chris Johnson, Tennessee has the most explosive player in the game. His 2,006 yards rushing and 2,509 all-purpose yards are a testament to his abilities.
Vince Young is starting to get it at quarterback and the offensive line is one of the best in the league. The one bugaboo has been at wide receiver. The Titans haven't been able to find a No. 1 guy since Derrick Mason left after the 2004 season. Fisher is hoping rookie Damian Williams can emerge.
The Titans also need to find a capable backup running back now that LenDale White is in Seattle.
Despite the loss of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tennessee has a solid defensive line and one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
Keith Bullick has left the building and Will Witherspoon, who looked like he was going to be a star in Carolina, takes his place. This is Witherspoon's third team in less than a year.
The Titans can run the ball, but Fisher must try to establish a passing attack to make Tennessee a legitimate playoff contender.
Before you start laughing at this selection, think about this for a moment.
The Redskins had a top 10 defense last season. Washington surrendered only 319.7 yards per game. With Brian Orakpo another year older and wiser and the rest of the unit intact, expect even more improvement from the 'Skins in 2010.
In addition, Washington added one of the greatest football minds in the history of the game when Mike Shanahan was hired.
The two biggest problems on offense from last season have been solved - quarterback and offensive tackle.
Owner Daniel Snyder finally realized that Jason Campbell does not fit the west coast system and sent him packing to Oakland on draft day. In his place came the biggest surprise move of free agency: the Eagles traded within their own division, sending Donovan McNabb to Washington.
McNabb immediately makes the Redskins legit, he may not have of won the big one, but there's no denying his success in Philadelphia.
With a solid, young receiving corps and a three-headed backfield of Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson, and Willie Parker, McNabb has all the weapons he needs to turn Washington's fortunes around.
With Chris Samuels' early retirement, the Redskins needed help at left tackle in a bad way. They got it through the draft when coach Shanahan selected Trent Williams from Oklahoma with the sixth pick. Williams was in the same zone blocking system at Oklahoma that Shanahan has run since his Denver days with Alex Gibbs.
He will start right away and be a huge presence for the Washington offense. The Redskins play in the toughest division in the game, but don't be surprised if they make a playoff push this season.
The Falcons were a playoff team in 2008, just missed out on the postseason in 2009, and should return to the playoff party in 2010, provided Michael Turner stays healthy and the defense improves.
Offensively, the Falcons are as good as anyone not named the Saints in the NFC.
QB Matt Ryan is surrounded by weapons, starting with the backfield combo of Turner and Jerious Norwood.
Coach Mike Smith is going to reduce the wear and tear on Turner by limiting his carries and that's a good thing. Turner is a physical runner who was bruised and banged up all season. When he was out, the Falcons struggled. Atlanta is a running team first and foremost. They need a healthy Turner if they want to get back to the playoffs.
WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez are Ryan's main targets through the air. Look out for rookie speedster Kerry Meier. He has a chance to to be the No. 3 man on the receiving corps. Mike Johnson, a solid offensive lineman from Alabama, could start right away at guard.
Atlanta focused on improving a lackluster defense in the offseason, and made a big splash in free agency by signing CB Dunta Robinson from the Houston Texans. Robinson is the shut-down corner the Falcons lacked in 2008-09.
In the draft, Atlanta picked up OLB Sean Weatherspoon from Missouri, and CB Dominique Franks from Oklahoma. Both could break the starting lineup out of camp.
The Falcons are healthy and primed for another playoff run. The have a hard task ahead with the Super Bowl champion Saints in the same division, but if the new additions help improve the defense, and Turner and Ryan stay healthy, Atlanta should make the playoffs in 2010.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers made this list not because they have such an awesome team, it's just the rest NFC West is so mediocre.
Seattle and St. Louis are in full-fledged rebuilding mode and Arizona lost Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby, and Anquan Boldin. With Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson fighting it out for the Cardinals starting QB job, a down-turn is likely in Arizona.
Which leaves us San Francisco as the possible team to beat in the division.
QB Alex Smith doesn't inspire much confidence, but coach Mike Singletary has assembled good young playmakers on both sides of the ball who have the same work ethic as their leader.
Patrick Willis is the best linebacker in the game right now. He leads a defense that is tough, hard-nosed, and cast in the image of Singletary.
If Michael Crabtree develops in his second year, Smith improves even a little, and Frank Gore stays healthy, San Francisco should win the division.