(Note: This is the fifth in a series of six preseason NFL articles)
The NFL expanded its playoff field to include 12 teams beginning in the 1990 season. Heading into the 2009 season, there had been 110 teams from 1991 through 2008 to follow a playoff appearance with another one the very next season. That’s an average of 6.1 per season. The 2009 postseason included six teams from the 2008 field and six teams that sat out 2008's postseason (right on the number!). Updating the numbers reveal that 116 teams have followed up a playoff appearance from the year before over the last 19 seasons (still 6.1 per).
Interestingly, the top-three seeds from 2008's AFC field all failed to qualify for last year's postseason (Titans, Steelers and Dolphins), while neither of the NFC's top-two seeds from 2008 were around last January either (Giants and Panthers). Returning playoff teams from 2008 in 2009 were the Cards, Chargers, Colts, Eagles, Ravens and Vikings. "Newbies" were the Bengals, Cowboys, Jets, Packers, Patriots and Saints. I did a two-part article last season calling for the Cards, Chargers, Colts, Eagles, Giants and Steelers to repeat as playoff teams in 2009. Four of those teams did repeat, as the Giants and Steelers were the exceptions
I called for the Bears, Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, Saints and Seahawks to be new to the 2009 playoff field in the second part of that article and again was correct with four of my predictions (Cowboys, Packers, Patriots and saints) while missing my calls on the Bears and Seahawks. The NFL preseason kicked off Sunday night from Canton, as the Cowboys beat the Bengals 16-7. So it's time to again "make the call" on playoff-repeaters from 2009 for 2010 and those I expect to be new to the playoff-field this coming season.
Note that back in 1995, eight of 12 teams returned to the postseason from 1994, the most-ever from one year to the next. The fewest "repeaters" in any one season has been four, which happened in 2003. It sure seems to me that the 2010 playoff 'roster' will challenge, if not surpass, the record eight repeaters we saw in the 1995 season. Brett Favre is a wild card for the Vikings. If Brett plays in 2010, it's hard not seeing the Vikings returning to the postseason in 2010 but if doesn't, "all bets are off" concerning Minnesota. Taking the Vikings out of the equation, I'll argue here that there will be EIGHT playoff repeaters from 2009 this coming postseason.
I'll start with the defending Super Bowl champs, the New Orleans Saints. Working against them is recent history. Only one team has repeated its Super Bowl win (the 2004 Pats) over the last 11 years. None of the other 10 defending champs even made it back to its own conference championship games with five missing the postseason entirely following their Super Bowl wins. Add to that, we note that since the NFL expanded to 32 teams and eight divisions back in 2002, the NFC South has yet to see a repeat champion in its own division.
All that said, how can't the Saints return to the postseason in 2010? Head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees have revitalized a team and an entire city. With a group of largely non-descript receivers, Brees has averaged just over 4,500 YPG passing the last four seasons and 30.5 TD passes per year (he's had 34 in each of the last two). His 70.6 completion percentage and 109.6 QB rating last season were both career-highs. Joined by a RB "by committee" philosophy, the Saints led the NFL in both YPG (403.8) and scoring (31.9 PPG). Payton is a great offensive mind and his hire of Gregg Williams as DC before last year was a master stroke of genius. The Saints defense was a major liability in the two previous seasons but last year's unit forced 41 turnovers (26 INTs were the third-best total in the NFL) and New Orleans' turnover ratio of plus-11 was third-best as well. Pencil in the Saints for a playoff spot in 2010.
Staying in the NFC, the Cowboys have a legitimate chance to be the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, as Super Bowl XLV will be played in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. I don't know anyone who thinks much of head coach Wade Phillips but his 34-17, .667 record (including 1-2 in the postseason) ranks as the highest in team history. Romo is a quality QB (4,483 YP, 63.1 % and 26-9 TD/INT ratio LY) with a deep set of RBs in Barber (932 yards / 4.4 YPC), Jones (685 yards / 5.9 YPC) and Choice (3459 yards / 5.5 YPC). WR Miles (81 / 16.3 / 11 TDs) had a breakout year in 2009 plus rookie Dez Bryant joins Roy Williams and Crayton. TE Witten has averaged 90.3 catches per season and 1,042.3 yards per season the last three years. However, while Dallas ranked second in total offense (399.4 YPG), it finished just 14th in scoring (22.6 PPG). That must improve and it figures to. The defense is just fine, ranking 9th in YPG (315.9) but 2nd in scoring (15.6 PPG). Dallas could be in Arlington come February.
Whether or not Favre plays in Minnesota this year or not, expect the Packers to be back in the postseason in 2010. Rodgers was good in 2008 (his first season as a starter) but outstanding in 2009 (64.7%, 4,434 YP and 30-7 TD/INT ratio). All this with an OL which allowed 51 sacks on the season (but just 10 the last six games). Grant is solid but not spectacular at RB but WRs Driver (six straight 1,000-plus seasons and an average of 81.3 catches per year) and Jennings (an average of 74 catches and just over 1,200 yards the last two years) give Rodgers a terrific duo. Dom Capers took over as DC last season and like Williams in New Orleans, turned things around. Green Bay's defense ranked second in YPG (284.4), 1st in rush D (83.3 YPG), 1st in interceptions (30) and 1st in TO differential (plus-24). DB Woodson was named defensive player-of-the-year. The Pack is Back.
The Colts own the longest active postseason streak with eight straight playoff appearances. Peyton and the Colts went 3-13 in his rookie season (1998) but have since been part of the playoff picture in 10 the last 11 seasons. I won't waste space touting Manning's credentials (including 192 consecutive regular season starts) but I will point out that he's led his team to back-to-back 12-4 and 14-2 seasons (including a record 23-game winning streak) despite the Colts finishing 31st in rushing in 2008 (79.6 YPG / 3.4 YPC) and 32nd last season at 80.9 YPG (3.5 YPC). Wayne has averaged 88.6 catches, 1,249 yards and nine TDs per season the last six years. TE Dallas Clark set club records for his position with 100 catches and 1,106 yards in 2009 plus WRs Collie (60 catches / 7 TDs) and Garcon (47 catches / 16.3 YPC) played alongside Wayne last year with better than expected results. Gonzalez 57 catches in 2008, returns in 2010 after missing all of 2009 with an injury. The Colts defense is always questioned but the team is almost always playing come mid-January. No change in 2010.
The Chargers have won the AFC West in five of the last six years (since '04), missing only in 2005. Norv Turner gets little respect but he's 32-16 (.667) the last three regular season plus has added three postseason victories (Marty lost both of his playoff games with the Chargers, each time at home!). No one much cares that LT is now a Jet, as the Chargers finished 31st in rushing last year (88.9 YPG) with him. San Diego moved up 16 spots to draft Fresno State RB Ryan Matthews (1,808 YR / 6.6 YPC in 2009) plus Darren Sproles could be in a huge season. Getting down to brass tacks, this has been Phillip Rivers' team since his gritty performance in the 2007 AFC championship game while LT sat on the sidelines (behind his visor). Rivers threw for 4,009 yards in 2008 (105.4 QB rating) and 4,254 yards (104.4 rating) in 2009 with 62 TD passes and just 20 INTs combined, over the two years. How can San Diego not make the playoffs with the Broncos, Raiders and Chiefs going 23-25, 14-34 and 10-38 the last three season, respectively?
Anyone unfamiliar with the "New England story" since Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe two games into the 2001 season? The Readers Digest version goes like this. The Pats won Super Bowl titles following the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons plus came within 35 seconds against the Giants in Super Bowl XLII of completing the NFL's first-ever 19-0 season. The Pats have made seven playoff appearances in the last nine years, missing with a 9-7 record in 2002 and in 2008 with an 11-5 record when Brady was KO'd for the season in Week 1 vs the Chiefs. Wes Welker (off three straight 100-catch seasons) is getting back sooner than expected at WR plus Moss (83 catches, 1,264 yards and 13 TDs last year) is far from washed up. The Patriot running game is much-maligned but it ranked 12th in 2009 (120.1 YPG / 4/1 YPC ) and 4th in 2008 (142.4 YPG / 4.4 YPC). Peyton would 'kill' for that kind of support from his running game! New England's defense is not up to the units of their previous Super Bowl years but it's good enough for the team to make its eighth playoff appearance in 10 years in 2010.
The Ravens shocked everyone with their Super Bowl run in 2000, which ended with a 34-7 trouncing of the Giants. Baltimore followed with playoff appearances under Billick in 2001, 2003 and 2006 but a 5-11 season in 2007 cost Billick his job. John Harbaugh has led the Ravens to wild card berths in each of his first two seasons ('08 and '09), including a trip to the AFC championship game in 2008. His three playoff road wins are quite impressive, as are those of QB Joe Flacco. The Delaware QB sure looks like the "real deal," as he improved in almost every aspect of his play last season. RB Ray Rice turned into one of the NFL's best backs in 2009, rushing for 1,339 yards (5.3 YPC / 7 TDs) while leading the team with 78 catches. McGahee added 544 yards (5.0 YPC) plus tied a team record with 12 TDs. WR Mason had 73 catches (1,028 yards) and ranks 14th all-time in the NFL in career receptions (863). Joining him this year is Anquan Boldin, who has averaged 92.5 catches per year and just over 1,250 yards in the four seasons (of seven) in which he played at least 14 games plus Donte' Stallworth (who has looked great so far). TE Heap caught 53 passes last year, after two "off-years," looking more like the the player who caught 75 passes in 2005 and 73 in 2005. Baltimore has been defined by its defense this decade and last year's unit finished third in total D (300.5 YPG) and third in scoring (16.3 PPG). With "Big Ben" on the sidelines for at least the first four games and the Bengals expected to not match last year's 11-5 season, the Ravens are my favorite to win the AFC North.
Rex Ryan has the biggest mouth of any head coach in the NFL but he also could have the AFC's best team in 2010. His team snuck into the postseason last year in Week 17 (9-7) but then won at Cincinnati (24-14) and San Diego (17-14) before losing 30-17 at Indy in the AFC championship game, after leading 17-6. Mark Sanchez was a rookie QB and it showed during many games (53.8%, 12 TDs and 20 INTs), as the Jets finished 31st in the NFL in passing yards (148.8 YPG). However, they were the league's top rushing team (172.3 YPG) and while they no longer have Thomas Jones, they've replaced him with LT. Then there is 2nd-year player Shonn Greene (540 YR / 5.0 YPC), who stepped up with 135 and 128 yards in the team's two playoff wins. Ryan may to tough to listen to but he knows how to run a defense. The Jets ranked 1st in total D (252.3 YPG) and passing D (153.7 YPG with 8 Ds and 17 INTs) plus ranked 1st in scoring (14.8 PPG). There was nothing much wrong with the team's rush D either, which ranked eighth (98.6 YPG).
I'll return on Friday with a list of five teams which I believe have the best chance to join this year's postseason 'party' after missing out in 2009.