You have to love the preseason. It's a time when every fan believes the best about their teams. Fans have high hopes for deep playoff runs or at the very least they have hopes of seeing their teams make a turn for the better. But then the regular season comes and a lot of those dreams come crashing down to reality. Remember when the 49ers pulled off their biggest come from behind victory in playoff history when they beat the Giants in '02? Dennis Erickson then came in to help them take the next step, but a few missed FG's later (Damn you Owen Pochman) and the 49ers were finishing the season at a disappointing 7-9.
Every year it seems at least half the teams that made the playoffs the previous year seem to miss it the following season. So with that in mind I thought I'd try to guess which 3 NFC teams and which 3 AFC teams that made the playoffs last season will miss it this one, and subsequently which teams will take their place. However, before I make the list I just want to say one thing. If you do disagree with one of my choices could you please give an alternate choice to replace it. Instead of saying, "You're an idiot! How can anyone with with basic football knowledge ever think team X won't make the playoffs?" Say something like this instead, "You're an idiot! How can anyone with basic football knowledge ever think team X won't make the playoffs when it's clear team Y has far less chance of making it." So with that in mind, here's my list placed in descending order from most likely to least likely.
NFC playoff teams that will fall short:
Yes, I'm a 49ers fan so this is somewhat of a homer pick. But it's more than just my love for the 49ers that has me picking against the Cardinals. They lost Karlos Dansby, Antel Rolle, Anquan Boldin, and the biggest loss of all, Kurt Warner. That means Matt Leinart is now their starting QB and the last time the Cardinals went into the season with Leinart as their starting QB, he lost his job to a journeyman QB who many believed had his best years behind him. Of course that journeyman was Warner, but you get the idea. The Cardinals just don't seem to have a lot of confidence in Leinart's ability. Who knows, maybe undrafted rookie QB Max Hall will surprise everyone much in the way Tony Romo did in Dallas. But I wouldn't bank my playoff hopes on it.
I like the Eagles. They're a well run organization that's been able to put a perennial Super Bowl threat on the field for most of the last decade, or at the very least, a perennial threat to lose in the NFC title game. But like the Cardinals, they just lost their star QB with Donovan McNabb now in Washington. Unlike the Cardinals I believe they have a QB in Kevin Kolb who can star in this league for some time. I compare the Eagles situation to what happened in Green Bay recently. They replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers, and while Rodgers was great, they went from just missing the Super Bowl, to a 6-10 record, to making the playoffs again the following season. Look for the Eagles to take a small step back before returning to the playoffs after a 1-2 year absence. Also look for the fickle Philly fans to start calling for Andy Reid's head if the playoff drought does reach 2 seasons.
You read that right. I'm picking against the Vikings. Not that I don't think the Vikings have a good chance of reaching the playoffs this season. It's just that I think the Saints, Cowboys, and Packers have a better chance. Plus, their hopes are pinned largely on a soon to be 41 year old QB who actually had his best seasons ever last year. His 107.2 QB rating and 7 interceptions were both career bests and his 4,202 passing yards were just short of his best ever. Can the Vikings really count on him to put up similar numbers? Six of the Vikings first eight games are against teams that made the playoffs last year. If Favre starts to show signs of his age and the Vikings get off to a rough start, look for the Vikings to fall short of the fans lofty expectations. And if Favre does put up numbers similar to last season while leading the Vikings to a Super Bowl victory, look for the Catholic church to canonize Favre as the Saint of football.
The NFC teams that make it back to the playoffs and my AFC picks are after the jump.
NFC teams back in the playoffs:
Again, yes I'm a homer. But we all know the NFC West is weak. The Rams have a long way to go before they're good again, the Seahawks still need another year or two, and the Cardinals are going in the opposite direction. It's the perfect combination for the 49ers who have slowly been building. They finished 8-8 last year and actually finished with a +49 point differential. If that isn't a sign from the football gods, I don't know what is. The wild card is Alex Smith. But as the Jets showed us last season, if a team has a staunch defense and great running game, they can overcome sporadic playfrom their QB. And if Smith does take that next step, look for the 49ers to do more than just make the playoffs.
With their 9-7 finish las year the Falcons finally managed to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. Maybe that's karma for the unrealistic success of their baseball team that no one in Atlanta seems to care about. The Falcons have one of the best young QB's in the league with Matt Ryan, and if Michael Turner can stay healthy look for the Falcons to be a real threat to win the NFC. Even if Turner does miss a game or two, they have a solid backup in Jason Snelling. Now if they could just get M.C. Hammer to put them in another video, they could really get back to the big time.
I don't actually feel very confident about this pick, but I wasn't about to pick the Bears, and I'm still not sold on the team that's named after someone with a rudy complexion. The Giants still have Eli Manning, even if they secretly would rather have his brother, and Steve Smith stepped up last season to be a big time play maker. The key to the Giants success will rest with their defense. In their Super Bowl winning season they had one of the top defenses in the NFL, while at times last year they looked like a sieve. Seven times last season they gave up at least 31 points. If they play like the team that started last season 5-0, look for them to make it back to the post season. If not, it will probably be the end of the Tom Coughlin era in NY.
AFC playoff teams that will fall short:
This was my easiest pick. When was the last time any professional sport team in the state of Ohio had any amount of continued success. The Cavaliers probably came the closest and look where they are now. The Bengals finished with a 10-6 record but that was a little deceiving as they only had a +14 point differential. The key to the Bengals will be their offense. If they can improve on their 24th ranked offense, and in particular their 26th ranked pass offense, they might be able to prove my pick wrong. Not that I think they're going to lose any sleep over what I think about their chances.
I can hear the complaining already. Picking against Saint Favre and the Vikings was bad enough, but picking against the Jets? But why not? The strength of the Jets last year was their top ranked defense and triple headed monster running game. But that triple headed monster is down to one. Shonn Greene is still there but Thomas Jones and Leon Washington are both gone and have been replaced by the aging LaDainian Tomlinson. Fans love Mark Sanchez but the coaches were trying to do everything in their power last season to limit the number of times he threw the ball and thus limiting the amount of times he could lose the game for them. That means a lot will depend on Greene who has had injury problems in the past. If he were to get injured you can bet the Jets playoff hopes would all but go down with him.
Now I can really hear the screaming. Look, I honestly believe the Colts will make the playoffs this season, but I had to pick a 3rd team and look who's left: Patriots, Chargers, and Ravens. So I picked the Colts for one reason and one reason only. The Super Bowl losers curse. Of the last 11 teams to lose in the SB, 8 of them have not even made the playoffs the following season, and that list includes the Patriots after falling just short of a perfect 19-0 season. Did anyone expect the Patriots not to go back to the playoffs after their surprise loss to the Giants? Yes I know Tom Brady got injured, but it just goes to show you never know. So which teams were able to buck the curse? They were the Titans '00, Seahawks '06, and Cardinals '09. Hurray for the NFC West!
AFC teams back in the playoffs:
The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger have had a tumultuous off season to say the least. It was so bad I no longer have to double check to make sure I spelled Roethlisberger's name correct. But rather than tearing the team appart, I think this will bring them together. They're not that far removed from winning the Super Bowl and they still have every QB's best friend, a great running game led by Rashard Mendenhall. You also can't underestimate the impact of newly acquired free agent Arnez Battle. OK, that last bit was just a joke for the handful of 49er fans that are still reading this post, but the rest of it I believe will be proven true.
The Texans have been just like the 49ers of late, making small strides every year. Last season they finished 9-7 which was their first winning season in franchise history. Since the Colts are going to miss the playoffs as a result of the SB curse, someone has to take their place. So why not the Texans? With Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson leading on offense, and Brian Cushing who looks like a really ugly fat girl in his picture leading on defense once he gets back from his 4 game suspension, the Texans seem like the most logical choice to threaten the Colts. Although the Titans are close on the Texans heels.
Just as Rex Ryan has gotten things turned around in NY, Tony Sporano has done the same thing in Miami. The only difference is he's done it with a lot less fan fair and poster board material. They still have Ronnie Brown running their Wildcat, Chad Henne has finally given their fans a QB to get excited about for the first time since Dan Marino, but the biggest key to their success was the addition of Brandon Marshall. The addition of Marshall alone might be enough to leap frog the Jets as the second best team in the AFC East behind the Patriots. Now if they could only get Bill Belichick to stop cheating, or misunderstanding the rules according to him, they just might have a chance to actually win the East themselves one day.