Playoff turnover: Six new teams in, six old ones out for '09 postseason
Easy to see Patriots returning to postseason with healthy Tom Brady
San Francisco will use its end of '08 momentum in weak NFC West
Will Colts' playoff streak end? Overcoming Titans, Texans will be tough
Since the NFL's realignment to eight four-team divisions in 2002, the league's 12-team postseason has averaged slightly more than six new entries per year (6.4 to be exact, see table). That means we have come to count on at least half the NFL playoff field rolling over most every season, making for the annual guessing game of who's in and who's out when it comes to next January's Super Bowl tournament.
With the majority of this offseason's personnel maneuvers behind us, it's time to hazard our best guesses about the turnover factor in the 2009 playoff field. The goal is two-fold: Identify which six non-playoff qualifiers from 2008 (three in each conference) will take a step up and make the postseason in 2009, and which six 2008 playoff teams won't return. Think of it as an extremely early version of who's hot and who's not, well before the first whistle of this season is even blown.
Six new playoff teams in 2009
New England -- A no-brainer to start, but everybody's got to hit their layups. Without Tom Brady last season, the Patriots went 11-5 and scored more than all but one AFC team (San Diego). With Brady's return to health -- relax, Pats Nation, he's gonna be ready -- there's no reason to think of New England as anything other than the conference's top Super Bowl contender.
The schedule is undoubtedly tougher this season, with New England drawing the NFC South and AFC South (which featured seven of eight teams at .500 or better in '08), rather than last year's lame NFC West/AFC West combo (one winning team last season). But the Patriots have made another nice veteran signing in running back Fred Taylor, improved their weak secondary, and I don't expect them to be doomed this season by the twin losses of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and personnel man Scott Pioli.
Houston -- It might surprise you to learn that only five AFC teams own more regular-season victories than the Texans' 16 in the past two seasons, and that New England (27), Indianapolis (25), Tennessee (23), Pittsburgh (22) and San Diego (19) have parlayed those wins into nine out of a possible 10 playoff berths. Houston has gone 8-8 the past two seasons, and seems on the cusp of finally making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. But we've heard that before, because the Texans have been teases for a while now.
What's going to be different this time? Well, for one I don't see Houston starting the season 0-4 and playing its hurricane-delayed home opener in Week 5 again. Secondly, quarterback Sage Rosenfels isn't around to give away a game or two in spectacular fashion. Lastly, I like the way Houston's schedule breaks. The Texans don't play 2008 playoff teams in consecutive weeks until late November. By then I think Gary Kubiak's team will be well on its way to growing up.
Buffalo -- Was the Bills' 5-1 start last season a mirage? It's possible, given the five teams Buffalo beat in that span finished a combined 24-56 (.300), with only one of them (the 8-8 Chargers) turning respectable later in the season. It's a make-or-break season in Buffalo, because Dick Jauron and his staff know a fourth consecutive 7-9 finish spells the end, and that should lend both clarity and urgency to the situation.
Signing Terrell Owens was the ultimate win-now move, but a good short-term fix for an offense in desperate need of more points and production. The Bills' reworked offensive line remains a work in progress, but the season should rise or fall on the progress Trent Edwards makes in his second full season as a starter, and the development of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert as a play-caller. If both aren't markedly better, the Bills will stretch the AFC's longest playoff drought to a decade.
New Orleans -- When I project the last-place Saints to make the jump to the 2009 playoffs, I'm counting on more than the NFC South's penchant to reshuffle itself almost each and every season. The defensive improvement I foresaw for New Orleans last season never materialized, as a wave of injuries and the same old propensity to allow the big play doomed Sean Payton's club to the fate of losing a series of high-scoring games.
But the Saints offense is special (a league-high 463 points), and with six of its eight losses by a combined 18 points, New Orleans was tantalizingly close to winning and winning big. Can't win big if your defense gives up 24.6 points per game, you say? Tell that to Arizona, which won the NFC despite a defense that allowed 26.6 per game. The Saints hired veteran defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to fix the problem, and I think it'll be remembered as one of the most pivotal moves of the NFL's offseason.
Dallas -- There are no two ways around it: The Cowboys underachieved mightily in 2008 and became a dysfunctional team in the locker room in the second half of last season. But only one of Dallas' losses came against a losing team, and that was at St. Louis in its first game without injured starting quarterback Tony Romo. Otherwise, the Cowboys lost to Pittsburgh, Arizona, Philly, Baltimore and the Giants -- the NFL's final four and its defending Super Bowl champion -- as well as to 8-8 Washington when the Redskins were rolling early.
Three reasons why the Cowboys will be better off in 2009 jump to mind: 1) Romo doesn't have to sweat the T.O. drama any more, and that's going to help his head and his game; 2) explosive running back/return man Felix Jones should play more than six games this time around; 3) the Cowboys improved their porous secondary both at cornerback and safety in free agency and the draft.
San Francisco -- The 49ers finished the season at 5-2 in their last seven games under interim head coach Mike Singletary, and that's almost always going to earn you chic-pick, team-on-the-rise status heading into the following season. But there is something about Singletary's old-school approach that seems to be exactly what the lackadaisical 49ers have lacked in recent years. He doesn't seem to suffer fools or sloppiness too well, and those are two things that have not been in short supply in San Francisco for a while now.
Whether or not the 49ers have enough quality quarterbacking to make their first playoff appearance since 2002 remains a question, but let's not lose sight of something here. The NFC West's past three champions have gone 9-7 (Arizona in 2008), 10-6 and 9-7 (Seattle in 2007 and 2006), so it's not going to take a quantum leap for San Francisco (7-9 last year) to scale that particular mountain.
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