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NFL is Back

   by Larry Ness - 09/04/2008

The NFL debuted with another Thursday night opener as the defending champion New York Giants opened the '08 season with a 16-7 win over NFC East Division rival Washington. The Giants jumped out to a 16-0 lead and their 16-7 lead at the half stood up, as Jim Zorn lost his head coaching debut.

For those of us who have been around for awhile, having a defending Super Bowl champ from the NFC is nothing new. However, the balance of power has clearly shifted to the AFC as of late. Consider this. The NFC dominated the Super Bowl winning 15 of the 16 played beginning with Super Bowl XV and ending with SB XXXI. The only AFC team to interrupt the NFC's dominance during that stretch was the then-LA Raiders, who beat the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.

However, Denver ended the NFC's stranglehold by winning back-to-back Super Bowls (XXXII and XXXIII) following the '97 and '98 seasons, starting a trend in which the AFC has captured eight of the last 11 Super Bowls, despite last year's win by the Giants. During that same 11-year span, the AFC has won more interconference games in nine of the 11 seasons, with its best one-year mark coming in 2000 (34-17).

Which teams will make this year's postseason and which two will head to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII on February 1? I'll give it a shot at the end of this article but first, how about a history lesson? The NFL expanded its playoff format in 1990 to include 12 teams and in only one year since (1995), has as many as eight teams returned to the postseason after making it the year before. The Colts own the longest active playoff streak at six consecutive seasons, with the Patriots and Seahawks making it five seasons in a row. The Giants, the defending champs, are the only other franchise to have made it as many as the last three years!

However, playoff droughts are much more commonplace, as eight different franchises open the 2008 season having not made the postseason in any of the last five years. Leading the way (so to speak) are the Arizona Cardinals, who have sat out the last nine postseason, followed by the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, who have missed the last eight. The Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins have missed six straight years (in Houston's case, it's the franchise's only six years, joining the NFL in 2002), while Bay Area neighbors the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers have not played a playoff game in any of the last five seasons.

So typically, there have been about six or seven repeat playoff teams each year, meaning that five or six teams that did not make the previous season's playoffs, do so the next. Recent history shows that of 2004's 12 playoff teams only five made it back to the postseason in '05. Just five of '05's dozen playoff teams repeated in '06 and just six of '06's playoff teams made it back to last year's postseason.

Let's get to some predictions. Super Bowl losers have fared very poorly this decade, beginning with the Giants, who lost to the Ravens in the 2000 season and then in 2001, finished 7-9 and out of the playoff picture. Over the last seven years, the Seattle Seahawks are only Super Bowl runners-up (2006 season) to have qualified for the playoffs the next year (2007 season). The last seven Super Bowl losers have combined to go 38-58 (.396) SU and an even worse 34-59-3 (.366) ATS in the year after their Super Bowl loss.

Since the NFL expanded to eight four-team divisions in 2002 (East, North, South and West in both the AFC and NFC), neither conference has seen all four of its division winners from one season, repeat as division champs the next. However, I'm calling for that to change in '08, as I see the same four teams which won AFC division titles in '07 repeating again in '08, starting with last year's Super Bowls losers, the New England Patriots.

The Patriots will lose a few games this year but they'll have no problem taking the East. The Steelers will edge the Browns in the North, the Colts will make the postseason for the seventh straight year by winning the South and the Chargers have way too much talent for any of their West rivals. Last year's two wild card teams came from the South (Jags and Titans). This year I'm picking the Bills and the Browns as the AFC's two wild card teams.

The Cowboys won the NFC East last year and will win it again in '08. The Seahawks will win the NFC West for the fifth straight season but I expect the Vikings to win the NFC North (Packers won last year) and the Panthers to wins the NFC South (Bucs won last year). The Giants and Redskins were last year's NFC wild card teams but both could easily miss this year. The Giants have a shot (the Redskins don't) but my picks are the Eagles and Cardinals, who if I'm right, would end the NFL's longest active playoff drought.

Next stop, Tampa.

Good luck, Larry

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