NFL regular season postmortem: Teams most likely to be back in the postseason in 2012
Twenty NFL teams are already out, with history suggesting that 12-14 of those 20 teams will also fail to make the playoffs next season as well. The NFL may have great parity, but one-third of the NFL is blissfully unaware of it. This article is not about those teams.
This article is about teams that saw their season end on Sunday, but already have a leg up on their competition and perhaps even including teams in the playoff field. There are a couple teams on this list that are obvious, but a couple that you may not be considering as playoff contenders.
The problem with preseason projections at this early juncture is not their lack of accuracy, but that I’m regressing everything in my system so much that a vast majority of teams come out looking average. Which is a perfect representation of how the NFL works: most of the league heads into the offseason projected for 7 or 8 wins and has to do stuff to separate themselves from the pack. Again, this article is not about those teams.
San Diego Chargers/Philadelphia Eagles
I combined these two teams because there’s just not that much to say. Both teams underachieved this year. The Chargers, of all teams, actually won some games in September and October to obscure that things were going wrong behind the scenes, which became painfully obvious when they went on a six game losing streak that lasted from before Halloween until December.
The Eagles were a pretty good team this year. They were a mistake prone team that struggled with turnover differential in the first half of the year. They corrected those issues in the second half, just in time to lose Michael Vick to injury and trudge through a 1-2 record with Vince Young that dropped the Eagles to 4-8. That season had anything and everything.
Philip Rivers (and his protectors and receivers) deserves plenty of blame for what went wrong this season, but he also conclusively proved at the end of the year that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in football and the Chargers can not win games without him. Rivers played well enough down the stretch to save Norv Turner’s job and to save GM A.J. Smith’s job. While that is enough to make some Chargers fans sick, the Chargers will open 2012 as the overwhelming favorite in the AFC West. Again.
The Eagles will almost certainly open 2012 as the favorite in the NFC East. They have quarterback questions: if it’s not Mike Vick’s health, it’s his abilities, but he does happen to be at the controls of the most dominant offense in his division. This may not be a dream team, but it’s a team that has Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, Evan Mathis, Cullen Jenkins, Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Asante Samuel on the same roster. That’s pretty good.
The Seahawks, not the 49ers, are the best bet for first place in the NFC West next year.
It starts at the quarterback position, where although it is unclear what the Seahawks will do to improve on Tarvaris Jackson (who had a pretty good season), it’s clear that so long as they have Jackson, I would expect them to be stronger at quarterback than the 49ers. Alex Smith did have a great season. He threw an interception once every 91 passes. But with as stripped down to the basics as Jim Harbaugh’s offense was, there’s an element of beginners luck going against those teams that see him twice a year. This is not a difficult offense to scheme for, and furthermore, the formula relies on dominant defense to be successful.
It’s a formula run by many coaches with limited passers over the years and any coach that had a defense that wasn’t one of the five best units in football hasn’t won many games and hasn’t been able to avoid turnovers. There’s at least a decent chance that the Seahawks will have the best defense in the division next year as well.
Furthermore, the Seahawks are loaded with talent at receiver and have mastered Tom Cable’s zone blocking attack to become one of the most bruising, physical running games in football. While it’s too early to discuss the rebuilding Seahawks as a super bowl contender, it’s not at all too early to project them as the favorite in the NFC West next season.
Kansas City Chiefs
This may be premature because of the quarterback questions on the Kansas City roster. Matt Cassel? Kyle Orton? Someone else? It’s not too early however to fire up the Jim Zorn redemption tour, the way he coached Orton down the stretch in Kansas City.
The Chiefs won seven games after losing all those players to injury. Their defense probably had an overrated season, all things considered, but the unit was playing well at the end of the season (particularly against the run), and only the safety level remains a weakness. Getting Eric Berry back next season will help.
But the biggest difference is that the Chiefs developed Dexter McCluster as an offensive weapon and they will be getting Jamaal Charles back from injury. Charles’ effectiveness coming off an ACL injury is going to be a big story next year, but he will be just 26 years old next year, and he should be a quality runner throughout the duration of his extension with the Chiefs.
And obviously, the fact that the Chiefs and Chargers are going to be very good teams next year is really bad news for the Raiders and the Broncos.
Whether the Titans go with Jake Locker next year at quarterback or go with Matt Hasselbeck again to open the season, they are a team that sets up nicely to make noise in the AFC South. The Titans just barely missed the postseason and have only themselves to blame for dropping a game to the Colts. The Titans actually went just 2-4 in division play, the same record posted by the 2-14 Colts.
Where they really proved that they had the answers this past season was on defense, with one of the better secondaries in all of football. And while Locker remains unproven, we know how much Hasselbeck struggled to move the ball in Seattle before coming over and having a re-birth in Tennessee. This offense is set up for the quarterback to succeed.
Somehow, someway, the Titans will need to answer questions about their running game. This is a pass blocking line that doesn’t open up holes, and Chris Johnson is being paid a whole lot of money to tiptoe towards the sideline. Locker’s mobility and ability to bring college spread plays to the Titans if they are so inclined could help to split the defense for Johnson in 2012.
Still whether by a small decline from the Texans or by seizing a wild card if/when the Steelers/Ravens/Bengals decline, the Titans should be back in the postseason in 2012.
The scariest thing about Cam Newton is how mortal he actually was as a 22-year old rookie. This wasn’t like Andy Dalton who spent half a season for the Bengals playing over his head. Newton had some bad games along the way while putting together amazing accomplishments. In 2012, Newton will try to prove he is a generational quarterback prospect in the way that his division competition (Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman) never were.
The Panthers will need to find some solution on defense to keep Newton in games. They were ravaged by injury early last year, but Ron Rivera is not a lazy slouch of a head coach: he has long been able to identify defensive talent, and the Panthers went through a long rebuilding project on that side of the ball this past season. They went through rebuilding on offense as well, but Newton was so sensational that the rebuilding didn’t last long.
There will still be challenges. This team needs to get Newton some receivers. And all-world offensive coordinator Rob Chudzynski was so good with Newton this year that he likely earned himself a look as a head coach elsewhere. But the Panthers have the trifecta of: a great coaching staff, a sensational young quarterback, and a competent supporting cast for that quarterback. Now they just need to get the defense.