(Note: This is the final installment of my six-part 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).
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. I wrote previous article on 2010 playoff repeaters before Brett returned to Minnesota. Here's how I opened that article. "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 that there will be EIGHT playoff repeaters from 2009 this coming postseason."
With Brett back in camp, I'm sticking with my original statement and calling for NINE teams to be back in the postseason this year from last year's playoff-field. The teams I don't think will be back are the Bengals from the AFC (won North division) plus the Cards (won West division) and Eagles (wild card) from the NFC.
I've only got three available spots (one in the AFC and two in the NFC) but I'll list five teams (two in the AFC and three in the NFC) as the most likely to 'crash' this year's postseason 'party.' The Tennessee Titans are my first choice in the AFC with the Pittsburgh Steelers being my second choice. I'm picking the San Francisco 49ers to win the NFC West (ending Arizona's two-year reign) plus tapping the Giants or Falcons to grab the lone remaining NFC spot. I expect either the Giants or Falcons will enter as a wild card but wouldn't be too shocked if the Giants edged the Cowboys for the East title or if that curse in the NFC South continued (no repeat champions since the league's 2002 expansion) and the Falcons unseated the Saints as division champs.
The Titans went an NFL-best 13-3 in 2008 behind the surprisingly good play of journeyman QB Kerry Collins and a defense which ranked 7th in total defense and 2nd in PPG (14.6). However, Tennessee's defense imploded last year (particularly its pass D which ranked 31st at 258.7 YPG), allowing 25.1 PPG (28th). Collins struggled early and the team opened 0-6. During the team's bye week, Owner Bud Adams insisted Vince Young be reinstated at QB and that move, plus the unbelievable play of RB Chris Johnson, sparked the titans to wins in eight of their final games. The only two losses came to the 14-2 Colts and the 13-3 Chargers.
Fisher enters his 17th season in 2010, making him the NFL's most-tenured head coach and expect this defensive-leaning coach to get the defensive unit back closer to its 2008 level. Young showed great maturity last year and he plays behind an OL which is ranked among the best in the league (just 15 sacks, the second-fewest in the NFL). That OL helped pave the way for Johnson to get 2,006 yards rushing season (his 2,509 yards from scrimmage set an NFL single-season record) plus should give Young enough time to find an improving group of receivers. If the defense improves like I think it will, only the Colts will have a better record in the AFC South than these Titans, who should win 10 (maybe 11?) games.
Whether the Steelers have a chance to compete for a wild card spot (or the AFC North title), will depend on how well they play until Big Ben returns and whether he misses four or six games. If he's forced to sit out six games, Pittsburgh becomes a long shot but the Steelers could survive him missing four (see Roger Goodell). Despite being sacked a career-high 50 times in 2009, Big Ben completed a career-high 66.7 percent last year, topping 4,000 yards (4,328) for the first time in his career with 26 TDs and just 12 INTs in a career-high 506 attempts.
Holmes (79 catches / 15.8 YPC / 5 TDs) was shipped to the Jets but the ageless Ward caught 95 balls (12.3 YPC / 6 TDs) and TE Miller caught 76 (6 TDs). Mike Wallace (39 catches for a team-high 19.4 YPC / 6 TDs) will take Holmes' place and don't be surprised if Limas Sweed (remember him at Texas?) turns into a pro wideout. The OL is not quite what it used to be but Mendenhall still ran for 1,108 yards (4.6 YPC / 7 TDs). Pittsburgh wins with defense but last year's unit was riddled with key injuries, most notably Polamulu (missed 11 games) and DE Aaron Smith (lost in Week 5 for the year).
Pittsburgh finished fifth in total yards allowed (305.3 YPG), including 3rd in rushing (89.9) but fell to a tie for 12th in points allowed (20.3 PPG). The team's inability to hold late leads led to a five-game losing streak (after a a 6-2 start) in which the Steelers lost by 6, 3, 3, 3, 7 and 7 points. That final loss was an embarrassing 13-6 loss in Cleveland on a Thursday night. Pittsburgh rebounded to win its final three games (averaging 30.0 PPG) but it was too little, too late. If Big Ben only misses four games and the Steelers can mange to go 2-2, they can challenge in the AFC North or maybe grab a wild card spot.
As I pointed out in part-two of this six-part series, 11 of the last 13 teams to finish 8-8 (or worse) since 2004, have rebounded to post winning records the following season. Their collective records jumped from 100-108 (.481) to 130-77-1 (.627)! With that in mind, I put the San Francisco 49ers at the top of my list of new NFC playoff qualifiers in 2010. The 49ers began their turnaround in 2008, going 4-1 in their final eight games under then-interim head coach, Mike Singletary. The 49ers opened the 2009 season 3-1 but a 2-6 skid but them "behind the eight-ball," as the team finished 8-8 but did outscore its opponents by 49 points.
The two-time defending NFC West champs (Cardinals) have have to replace Kurt Warner in 2010 with either Matt Leinart or Derek Anderson (talk about damned if you do and damned if you don't!), not to mention losing WR Anquan Boldin (trade) and safety Antrel Rolle (FA). I've never been totally convinced that Alex Smith is the answer at QB for San Fran but he did throw 18 TD passes in his final 11 games plus I'm not ready to dismiss David Carr, who could just find a home in the Bay Area, ala Jim Plunkett with the Raiders, after everyone assumed his career was over (bold prediction).
RB Gore is the first player to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in four straight years in team history, despite a below-average OL which has also allowed more sacks (150) over the last three seasons than any team in the NFL. However, that's why the 49ers became just the third team since the 1970 merger to take two OL in the first round of last April's draft. The team hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since T.O. in 2003 but Crabtree caught 48 balls for 625 yards despite missing the season's first five games due to a holdout. That figures out to 70 catches for just over 900 yards for a full 16-game season. WR Ted Ginn, Jr (like Carr) could be a pleasant surprise in new surroundings plus TE Davis ( after initially catching the wrath of Singletary), has turned into one of the league's best pass-catching TEs (78 / 13 TDs).
The defense ranked just 15th overall in yards allowed last year but 6th vs the rush (97.0 YPG) plus most importantly, fourth in point allowed (17.6 PPG). The Cards a ripe for the taking in 2010 plus neither the Seahawks or the pathetic Rams are much of a threat. San Francisco went 5-1 in the NFC West last year, including sweeping its season series with the division-winning Cardinals, so I'm looking for the 49ers to win the NFC West in 2010.
The Giants shocked the world by taking down the "unbeatable" Patriots in Super Bowl XLII by the score of 17-14. An 11-1 start to the 2008 season followed but a 23-11 home loss to the Eagles in the divisional round abruptly ended New York's 2008 season. The Giants opened up 5-0 in 2009 but the team completely imploded, losing EIGHT of its final 11 games. The running game went from No. 1 in the NFL with 157.4 YPG (5.0 YPC) in 2008, to 17th (114.8 / 4.1 YPC). The defense was tied for 13th in YPG (324.9) but 30th (26.7) in PPG plus consistently allowed second half leads to slip away before ending the year by allowing 41 and 44 points in the season's final two games (both at home).
That cost DC Bill Sheridan his job, with Perry Fewell taking over (was at Buffalo). If the Giants get healthy, Fewell likely will have at his disposal the league's deepest (and surely one of the best) D-lines in the NFL, as well as a crowded and talented secondary. Once a team strength, the LB corps is mediocre at best but if pass rushers Tuck, Umenyiora and Kiwanuaka (plus 1st-round pick Pierre-Paul of USF) can team with the Giants deep group of interior lineman plus FA's Rolle and Grant join a secondary which sees Phillips, Ross and Webster healthy, no one will be too worried about the team's LBs.
Eli set career highs in completions (62.3), yards (4,021), TDs (27) and QB rating (93.1), doing it all with a no-name cast of receivers (like Brees). Smith caught a team-record 107 passes (1,220 yards / 7 TDs), Nicks had 47 catches (16.8 per / 6 TDs) and Manningham may be the most elusive and explosive of the group (57 / 14.4 / 5 TDs). Jacobs struggled after back-to-back seasons of 1,000 yards and 5.0 YPC (835 YR / 3.7 YPC) but he's back healthy plus Bradshaw (778 YR / 4.8 YPC) is a terrific change-of-pace option. The OL is solid and I expect the Giants to join the Cowboys from the East as one of six NFC playoff teams in 2010.
Mike Smith led the Falcons to an 11-5 record (and a wild card berth) in his first season with Atlanta and followed it up with a 9-7 record last year. Atlanta failed to make the postseason last year but for the first time since the team entered the league (for the 1966 season), the Falcons posted back-to-back winning seasons. That's some pretty good stuff considering that Smith's QB is Matt Ryan (a rookie in 2008), RB Turner struggled with a an ankle sprain all season (falling to 871 yards from a league-high 1,699 in 2008) plus the rest of the roster suffered too many injuries to list. All that and Atlanta faced a more more difficult schedule in 2009 than it did in 2008.
Ryan didn't suffer from a "sophomore slump" (58.3%, 2,916 YP / 22 TDs and 14 INTs) but he did battle a painful "turf-toe" injury which cost him two games and bothered him for many more. Turner should be much healthier this year plus in Snelling (613 YR / 4.3 YPC) and Norwood (263 YR), the Falcons have as much quality RB depth as any team in the league. The OL is good (same five are in place from the last two season) plus WR White (85-1,153 / 11 TDs) is off his third straight 1,000-yard season and TE Gonzalez (83-867 / 6 TDs) seemed rejuvenated last season after getting away from KC.
The pass D has to improve (ranked 28th last year at 241.9 YPG) and the addition of free agent CB Robinson (Texans) should be a huge help as would the expected return to health of CB Williams (lost for the year in Week 6). No. 1 pick Weatherspoon, a LB from Missouri, is viewed as a "can't miss' player plus the Falcons also need DE Abraham to get closer to the 15 1/2 sacks he had in 2008 than the 5 1/2 he had last year. A return to health of DT Jerry will go a long way in improving Abraham's production. The Flacons should flirt with 10 wins this year and if the Saints suffer a "Super Bowl letdown" (they wouldn't be the first to do so), Atlanta could be back in the postseason.
I'll be back on Tuesday or Wednesday with my Preseason Notes (Week 2/ Week 3) and my Heisman preview is set for next Friday (8/27).
I dare someone to follow Larry Ness' picks for 1 year in all of his sports.