Parity in the NFL is something that many reference but few truly understand. To the man on the street, “parity” means that his team, no matter how poor their previous season, has a chance to win it all every year.
The modern NFL seems to have fallen into a pattern of relative certainty when it comes to churn. On average, 6 teams who made the playoffs last year make it again, 6 teams fall out of the playoffs, and 6 new playoff teams emerge*. Before we find out too much about this season, let’s see if we can guess who’s making The Drop and The Leap.
It seems like eons ago, but here were the playoff teams from last year: Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Chicago Bears. Last season was the first time since 2004 that only 5 new teams made the playoffs. We’re due for a year of 6 or higher.
I look at that list and I see a few obvious candidates for regression. I see some really good teams who, barring catastrophic injury, should stay in the hunt. Let’s get the easy stuff over with first. Here are my six 2010 playoff teams who are not going to make the postseason in 2011.
Probably going for the low-hanging fruit here, but the NFC West gets passed every year or two at the very best. I suppose it’s kind of an obvious statement to say that the team who went 7-9 last year probably won’t make the playoffs. There’s not enough to like about the offense and the defense is losing its core in Tatupu. Fun fact about the 2010 Seahawks: opponents outscored them by 97 points in the regular season!
New Orleans Saints
This has more to do with a team poised to make The Leap than it does with anything the Saints are doing wrong. I can see it being a rocky first year of the Mark Ingram era, but then things coming back in focus in 2012 after Colston and Meachem’s contract year. The Saints are well-run but play in a tough division that’s getting tougher. They easily have a 9-7 in them.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs played the weakest schedule in the AFC last season and went 10-6. As a Dwayne Bowe fantasy owner, I have to say I do not trust this team. It’s hard to pick out who may unseat them in the AFC West, given how poorly the Chargers played in the first half of 2010, but I just don’t see KC rolling into the postseason again. I do like the way they’ve built their defense, so I don’t feel great about this pick.
Looking back, it’s very unclear how exactly Chicago won the division that included Green Bay. If Chicago gets in this year, it will be as a Wild Card and I don’t like the chances of that happening. They’re another Jay Cutler meltdown away from a losing season, and they’ve added Roy Williams to the mix to accelerate that process.
This is where these things getting really tough. It’s hard to imagine any of the teams left on the board taking a big step back. The Colts, however, went 10-6 last season, never really developed a running game, and relied more heavily than they ever have on Manning. Number 18 completed 450 passes last season, which was a career high for him and lead the league. Given the murkiness of his health situation going into this year, I could see this as the long-awaited Colts implosion.
I feel like a total homer putting the Steelers here. Let’s be honest, I don’t want them to make the playoffs. But, before you roll your eyes completely, keep in mind they are definitely subject to the “Super Bowl loser takes a huge step back” syndrome that plagues so many teams.
So we have the six teams making the Drop, and you saw how tough that got after the first couple. This game is fun but almost impossible. That many teams falling off from one year to the next seems to defy instinct, but there are at least 5 and some times as many as 8 that make The Drop. Once we’ve subtracted our Droppers, we are left with New England, Baltimore, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Green Bay holding strong. Now, let’s take a look at who out of the remaining 20 teams is poised to make The Leap.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ten wins was a big over achievement last season for this young team, and the backlash has already started. Everyone loved them at the end of last season, and without playing a game, this off-season everyone seemed to get tired of the Bucs talk and has pegged them to be the big disappointment of 2011. I’m still a believer.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers can probably blame missing the playoffs last season on Vincent Jackson if they want to. Even without Jackson for 13 games, the Bolts scored the second-most points in the NFL and will only get better on the offensive side of the ball as Ryan Mathews gets healthy. This pick seems to easy, which probably means it’s wrong.
I don’t love the Kevin Kolb trade, because I think Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a really excellent player. However, when you look at who was available on the quarterback market (and the Cardinals desperately needed one), the only guy I really liked more was Orton, who Denver seems intent on keeping. I think everyone secretly (or publicly) hopes Kevin Kolb is terrible. He probably isn’t. We do know that Larry Fitzgerald is definitely not terrible and due for a rebound season. Plus, come on, it’s the NFC West!
This is the obligatory pick-the-Texans-to-make-the-playoffs portion of the column. Are the Texans just fun to watch and we get sucked into thinking they might be good every single year? At least they sort of proved those blustery “you have to be able to run the football!” analysts wrong last season by going 6-10 with the NFL’s leading rusher. Stop breaking our hearts, Texans. Kick the Colts when they are down and win 11 games!
New York Giants
The Giants were a Desean Jackson punt return away from making the playoffs last season. It just doesn’t seem like the NFL if the Giants are missing from the playoffs for too long. They fell short the last two seasons, but seem to now understand that Ahmad Bradshaw is the guy to ride. They also get to play the entire NFC West this season, in addition to having the Dolphins and Bills on the schedule.
Well, I suppose if nothing else, this will be the year where we find out if Vince Young was the albatross holding the Titans back. Then again, it also feels like the Titans are a Chris Johnson holdout/hamstring and a Kenny Britt suspension away from 5-12. One thing is for certain, and it’s Matt Hasselbeck is an upgrade over the Kerry Collins/Rusty Smith collaboration. If they got to 6-10 with those guys, it’s plausible they sneak in as a Wild Card with Hasselbeck.
Play the game for yourself. 6 in, 6 out, 6 stay. Who do you have?
*Historically the average is close to 6, over the last eight seasons, it’s jumped to 6.5, but that includes the wacky 2003 season when eight teams made The Leap.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore, works for a sports-oriented non-profit, and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com