This post was inspired by a discussion that occurred on ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning today, which was itself inspired by an incredible statistic about recent NFL history.
The stat? In each of the last fifteen seasons, at least five of the NFL playoff teams from the previous year have missed the playoffs. Let's go through that again: since 1996, of the 12 teams that make the playoffs each year, at least 5 of them fail to make the playoffs the next year. That's almost half the playoff pool! This is also in spite of the fact that, within those last fifteen years, four teams (Colts, Patriots, Eagles, Steelers) have made the playoffs in at least ten of those years. This trend seems to be a put-it-in-stone lock in recent football history, and certainly speaks to the parity in the league (at least among the bottom 7/8 of the league).
This begs the question: Which teams will fall out of the playoffs this year?
Since teams haven't played a single preseason game and are still not close to done fine-tuning their rosters, I'm not going to make any concrete distinctions about teams' records or who will definitely replace them in the playoff pool. I will simply posit which teams I feel are in a position to fall back into mediocrity after good seasons in 2010. Just to make it a little more interesting, though, I'll rank the teams in order by the degree of confidence I have in their inability to make the playoffs this year.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Anyone who read my blog with some degree of regularity during the football season hopefully knows that I don't trust Dwayne Bowe. At all. His 2010 season (as well as that of his quarterback, Matt Cassel) screams of flukiness: he averaged 7 catches for 105 yards and almost 2 touchdowns from weeks 6 to 12, but averaged 2.5 catches for 48 yards and 0.2 touchdowns the rest of the season. I have little confidence in his (or Cassel's) ability to repeat that performance. Not to mention that their toughest division rival, the Chargers, inexplicably missed the playoffs despite having the top-ranked offense AND defense.
2. Seattle Seahawks
I know this must be surprising to the people who look at the standings from 2010 and say, "What? There's a 7-9 team in the playoffs?", and immediately are assured that the Seahawks are the least likely team to repeat in the playoffs. However, there's one thing that you need to notice: the rest of the division was therefore 7-9 or worse! There isn't necessarily a team that is a clear replacement for them in the division. The 'Hawks did lose quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to free agency and replaced him with Brett Favre's backup, Tarvaris Jackson, though, so I can't feel too good about their chances. Not to mention that they won 4 of their games within the NFC West last year, and teams like the Rams and Cardinals should both show enough improvement for one of them to win 8 games and take this one down.
3. Chicago Bears
Not many people expected them to vault to a division title in the first year under offensive coordinator Mike Martz, especially with their lack of a go-to receiver and offensive offensive line. Not to mention, the Vikings unexpectedly bombed out and the (Super Bowl Champion) Packers dealt with a lot of injuries during the regular season. Jay Cutler is a time bomb when it comes to interceptions and their defensive stalwarts (Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, etc.) aren't getting any younger, not to mention the fact that the Lions and Vikings should show improvement enough to take a couple games off of their 5-1 record in the division in 2010.
4. Indianapolis Colts
GASP! Yes, I know they have made the playoffs in 9 straight seasons, winning 12 games or more in, what, 8 of them? But Peyton Manning is dealing with a neck injury that might be just tedious enough to treat that he does not have enough time to work on his timing with his receivers to come out of the gates strong. By the time he is in sync with everyone, though, Reggie Wayne's age may have shown, or Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, and/or Joseph Addai could be injured, or the defense anchored by aging stars Gary Brackett, Dwight Freeney, and Robert Mathis could give out. Something will give, and those wily Texans with their just-enough-to-be-average additions to their secondary and explosive offense will finally overtake the Colts.
5. Baltimore Ravens
I should preface this by saying that I have very little confidence in this pick, mostly because I cannot for the life of me come up with a team to replace them in the AFC playoff picture that isn't listed above. However, I felt that the loss of Derrick Mason (a reliable pass-catcher for still-developing Joe Flacco) as well as the aging process already showing last year on a once-dominant defense were enough to just maybe have them fall out of the race. I was strongly considering the Saints for this spot as well, but I feel that they didn't lose enough in the offseason to merit a strong downgrade, as well as the fact that they lost some tough games off uncharacteristic bad decisions from Drew Brees that I don't think will happen again. Since I promised earlier that I wouldn't have concrete predictions for these teams' records, I can simply propose which teams I feel are most primed for regression, and I think the Ravens are it.
So there you have it: The Eagles, Packers, Falcons, Saints, Patriots, Jets, and Steelers will make the playoffs again this year, while the Chiefs, Seahawks, Bears, Colts, and (perhaps) the Ravens will fall by the wayside.