Well to be honest, it started off less as an analysis of who could go from missing out to making the playoffs and more of a look at the more volatile teams. The piece got off course, so let's amend that here.
Here's my pick of one team from each division who's either going to have a memorable season or one to forget.
NFC East - Philadelphia Eagles
Kind of an easy pick. Does Chip Kelly's uptempo offense...ok, that's an understatement...1980s cocaine-riddled Wall Street trader paced offense translate to an improvement over last year's 4-12 record? Perhaps. Do the voluminous changes he's set to implement make it difficult to transition seamlessly into a new era of offensive football? Perhaps. Is it likely that the Eagles stumble their way through the early going before settling into a groove and reaching 6 or 7 wins? I doubt it. Kelly's either the strategic toast of the season or Eagles fans are wondering if they bit off more than they could chew after year one.
NFC North - Detroit Lions
If you throw out 2010 when Matt Stafford played just 3 games, the Schwartz/Stafford era started off with just 2 wins in 2009, 10 in 2011 and 4 last year. Volatility? This is it...in the form of a QB, head coach and team.
NFC South - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are picking up some sleeper nods to surprise this year and pick off the Saints for a slot behind the Falcons. I'm surprised to not see more predicting them to just fall asleep. Anyone feel certain one way or the other about Josh Freeman? I sure don't. And you've got a defense coming off a season in which they were fourth to last in yards allowed (despite having the league's best rushing defense per yards allowed) under a head coach who is best described as...not friendly. There are worse things, but those factors don't add up to steadiness in year two under Schiano.
NFC West - Seattle Seahawks
This one was pretty easy for me. The Rams? High floor, low ceiling. The Niners? Really high floor. The Cardinals? Certainly plausible improvement on the...cards...but a low ceiling nonetheless. The only team I could see going wildly in opposite directions all things considered is our friends in the Pacific Northwest. Though they brought in Percy Harvin, the Hags were 27th in passing yards last year. Through the first four games of the year, they averaged less than 150 passing yards. Through the last four games before the bye in week 11, they averaged less than 180 yards. There's no denying, Russell Wilson's best game was by far the last game he played in Atlanta in the divisional round. But that shouldn't gloss over the entirety of his season which was more managerially impressive than it was a display of overt physical talent (see: RGIII). And for a team that Football Outsiders ranked as having the fourth fewest games lost to injury, to me this is a team with a wonderful O-line, a wonderful secondary and a lot of complementary pieces. That's not a setup for easy predictability.
AFC East - Miami Dolphins
I'll take the new playoff team I picked from this division on Saturday. I mentioned on Saturday that I liked their draft class. Rookies stable are not (Yodafootball.com, yo). And while I like their depth...nobody looks at the depth of a team and sees January football. Still, to repeat this weekend's penultimate point, they've got a possible franchise QB with a lot to prove. This is the kind of team who makes a big jump and surprised people or who languishes in year two only to rebound and set themselves up for a solid near-future in year three. Hey, where have I seen that before? (As an aside, I really wanted to go with the Patriots here. Total overhaul of their receiving corps, passing defense 29th in yards allowed last year...this could be the year the luster wears off of Tom Brady.)
AFC North - Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs three of the last four years. Before AJ Green leading the team in receiving yards the last two years, that record went to Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2010, 2009 and 2008 respectively. I have no idea who the Bengals are.
AFC South - Indianapolis Colts
Plenty was made of #1 overall pick Andrew Luck's rookie season, and for good reason. He's got a great skill set, and with Reggie Wayne and the versatile T.Y. Hilton leading his receiving corps he put together very, very impressive numbers as a rookie. And yet as a team, there's not much to get excited about beyond that group. The defense was a step below mediocre, and Luck really stumbled through the last few games including a postseason trouncing at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. While many were raving about Luck's season leading Indianapolis to an 11-5 campaign. bear in mind the following results:
- Lost to Jacksonville at home
- Lost to the New York Jets by 26
- Beat the Browns by just 4 points at home
- Needed overtime to beat the Titans in the first of their two meetings
- Beat Miami by just 3 points at home
- Drubbed by 35 points by the Patriots
- Between weeks 12 and 16, went 4-1. Those four wins came against teams who combined for just 18 wins. The average margin of victory in those four games? Five points, shy of a TD per game lead.
Those aren't the kind of memories I expect most held over from Luck's rookie campaign. Behind the 11-5 record are plenty of factors that portend a big drop off...unless Luck's sophomore campaign is really spectacular, which isn't out of the question.
AFC West - Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs quietly put together a decent passing defense in recent years, though their 2-14 record last year certainly did little to gain them any plaudits. It's hard to understate, though, how impressively unimpressive the Chiefs' QB play has been the last two years with Matt Cassel, Brady Quinn and Tyler Palko combining to form a consistent trio of meh-diocrity. While Alex Smith isn't the most exciting option, he did help the 49ers to an NFC Championship game just two years ago. Throw in Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster and newly-signed Donnie Avery, this is a unit that could contend soon...but the O-line needed more help than just #1 overall pick Eric Fisher, and the pass rush isn't nearly as strong as it needs to be to face their post-bye week stretch run which features plenty of QB talent: Peyton Manning in week 11, Philip Rivers in 12, Peyton again, followed by RGIII, whoever's standing in for Oakland, Andrew Luck and Rivers to close out.
What teams do you think are headed one way or the other? Which teams have no shot at a 7 or 8-win season and either glide through the season to the playoffs or see everything combust?