Last season’s playoffs provided excitement, shock and was historical.
It provided excitement in watching Rex Ryan and the Jets finally defeat the Indianapolis Colts. Everyone was shocked to watch Marshawn Lynch take on 8 defenders and win sending this first ever 7-9 team to the Division round. Yes, the almighty Saints lost to the Seahawks in the playoffs, in the first round. Lastly, it was historical to watch the two most successful franchises duke it out in the Super Bowl with Green Bay eventually returning the Lombardi trophy to its origins.
Assuming there is actually a NFL season in 2011, the playoff teams are bound to change. It wouldn’t be exciting, shocking, or historical if the same teams were in it every year.
Here are my five teams that might be spectators come January and a couple will definitely be surprising.
No one will be shocked if the team that went 7-9 last season did not make it to the playoffs. In fact, most people will not notice any team that comes out of the NFC West until they pull a major upset, like the one in New Orleans last season.
The Seahawks have an aging quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck. The running game is still unproven, though Lynch has been very good since mid-season last year. The NFC West is so unpredictable and easily the weakest division that Arizona could easily win the division next season.
The main reason the Seahawks will not be in the playoffs is that a clear leader will emerge. The St. Louis Rams are primed to establish themselves as the top dog in the division.
The Rams have an established running game, a talented receiving corps thanks to the Draft, and probably the best quarterback in the division in Sam Bradford.
The Rams defense is a question mark and the offensive line is still a work-in-progress, but just having Bradford and Steven Jackson makes them the favorite and makes Seattle who could have a 7-9 record, but will not be close to winning the division.
The Chiefs had an outstanding season last year. Charlie Weiss did wonders for Matt Cassel, they possess the best running back duo in the NFL in Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe and Tony Moeaki have become reliable targets in the passing game, and the defense is really developing into a top 10 unit.
There are just a few problems that lay in the way.
First, Cassel will not have Weis to coach him up. Cassel needs to grow up and become an NFL quarterback now or he will be looking for a job. His inconsistency could cost the Chiefs the season.
Second, the Chiefs did not win the division last season, the Chargers lost it. Poor special teams and untimely turnovers were the ONLY reasons the Chargers were not in the playoffs. They were first in offense and defense last season and will certainly be in the playoffs this time if they can keep up the high level of play.
The Bears did a great job winning the division last year. They fought the Packers very hard and, though they lost to them in the playoffs, they still had a great season.
Jay Cutler was the quarterback Chicago was hoping they would get when they traded for him. Matt Forte broke out of his shell and did more than just catch the ball out of the backfield. The defense was back to its dominance as Brian Urlacher made all the difference.
There are a few glaring holes that could be the downfall to the Bears in 2011. The offensive line added Gabe Carimi, but one guy will not stop Cutler from getting sacked the most in the NFL. The receivers benefited from Mike Martz’s system, but Johnny Knox is not a No.1 and the Bears will need a No.1 receiver if they want to win a Super Bowl anytime soon.
I also fear that if the Bears do not win the division then they will not get in as the NFC is too deep. There are three teams in both the NFC South and the NFC East that will be very competitive and will probably take the two Wildcard spots.
The biggest obstacle is the NFC North. The Packers won the Super Bowl with 17 players on the Injured Reserve. They are strong at quarterback, receiver, tight end, defense, kicker, and are pretty good on the offensive line and at running back.
Chicago may not even be the second best team in the division. The Detroit Lions played the Bears very tough bring back the title “Black and Blue” division. They lost the first meeting on one of the most absurd rules next to the one that says you can only hit the quarterback in the upper half of his shoulder pads.
The Bears won the second meeting also on a very questionable call. Add the fact that Detroit improved at the running back, wide receiver, and defensive line positions the Bears may not even be in the ball game next season.
Everyone believes the Jets are a lock to make the playoffs, especially after defeating the Colts and Patriots. I do not share the same confidence and here is why.
Mark Sanchez is developing into a good NFL quarterback. Dustin Keller is developing into a good NFL tight end. Then of course there is that big, nasty offensive line.
What bothers me is everywhere else. The running back position is led by LT and not Shonne Greene, that is a problem. Greene had a breakout year in the playoffs two years ago leading to the departure of Thomas Jones, but last year he struggled. He was not the same runner and questions linger as to if he can handle being the main guy.
Next, the top three receivers are all free agents or looking for a long term contract. It is unlikely the Jets can retain both Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. The Jets do not have the depth to lose any of their receivers which could cause problems for Sanchez.
The defense is also in question. Antonio Cromartie is a free agent. David Harris is looking for a new deal. The linebacker corps is a little on the old side. They were able to sure-up the line through the Draft, but Peyton Manning and Tom Brady aren’t running backs.
What might be the biggest problem for the Jets is that they are in the AFC. Kansas City plays in a weak division and has improved greatly from a couple years ago. The Texans are so far past the point that they might explode this season. The Chargers will be in the playoffs this year. The Jets might be the odd man out.
Marshawn Lynch gave me the greatest sleep of my life the night he owned the Saints defense. I didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the playoffs.
Experts and analysts everywhere were so thrilled with the Saints’ draft that they are a huge contender for the Super Bowl, but there is a chance that nothing has really changed in New Orleans and they have the same problems in different packaging.
The Saints can pass the ball. It is as guaranteed as the sun coming up in the morning. Unfortunately, the best passing game only gets a team to 8-8, or in last season’s case a humiliating defeat to the Seahawks.
The Saints don’t run the ball and haven’t since Deuce McAllister left. They drafted Reggie Bush, but he’s never been a NFL running back, but more a diversion and may not be back next season. Now they drafted Mark Ingram who is clearly a running back, but the big question is can the Saints use him. There is more to a running game than just handing off the ball. The Saints need to prove that they can be a balanced offense and succeed.
Another major problem is the defense. The defense was a huge question mark all season and in the end looked like a high school team when the Saints needed them most. They go out and draft Cameron Jordan to help with the defensive line. The question is will he make a difference?
Hasselbeck owned the defensive secondary and Jordan isn’t the best of pass rushers in a 4-3 defense. Lynch took on 8 defenders, how would Jordan be different? Did the Saints address needs? Yes. The thing is that it may not be enough and the team’s time to shine may have come and gone until another 40 years comes around.
The biggest problem for the Saints is the one facing the Bears. The Falcons might be the top dog now. Tampa Bay made leaps and bounds to becoming a contender last season. The Giants just got ten times better through the Draft. Dallas will have Romo back. If the Saints don’t win the division, they could be done and will be scratching their heads until 2012.
I am not saying that these five teams will not make the playoffs and free agency could easily shift the tides in their favor. These five teams are just those who people should hold off on guaranteeing as playoff teams because each team has big weaknesses that can be exploited and each team will have new and improved competition that they may not be able to overcome.