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NFL Playoff Picture (Who's Coming Back in 2009?)

   by Larry Ness - 08/06/2009

The NFL expanded its playoff format to include 12 teams for the 1990 postseason. The 2008 Pats became just the fifth team to win double digits in a single year since that time and not qualify for the playoffs. They also became the first to win 11 games and not do so. The 1985 Broncos also failed to qualify for that year's postseason despite an 11-5 record, but the playoff field that year consisted of 10, not 12 teams.
How many teams can we expect to make this year's postseason that also made last year's field? History tells us that on average, about half. There have 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. 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 just once (in 2003).

Therefore, history tells us that we can expect six of last year's playoff teams to repeat in 2009, while six others will make room for six teams which failed to play in last year's postseason. In this article I'll list the six playoff teams from 2008 to most likely be back in the postseason in 2009 and then Monday, I'll rank the non-playoff teams from last year which are most likely to be playing in the 2009 postseason field.

The Indianapolis Colts own the longest active postseason streak with seven straight playoff appearances, followed by the New York Giants, who have qualified for five straight postseasons. Throw in the defending champs (the Pittsburgh Steelers) and that gives you the three teams most likely to be back in 2009 postseason field.

The Colts have been to the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons, setting them apart from the rest of the NFL's franchises. Only one other team, the Philadelpa Eagles (who have been in seven of the last 10 postseasons), has been in more than six of the last 10 playoff fields. Tony Dungy has retired, after leading the Colts to seven playoff appearances in his seven years at Indianapolis, including winning at least 12 games in each of the last six years.

Jim Caldwell is his hand-picked successor and while Caldwell has been an assistant at Indy since 2002, the fact remains that his only previous head coaching experience is his eight-year 26-63 (.292) mark at Wake Forest. The Colts will also have a new OC, DC, OL coach and special teams coach. Is that a real concern? It's something to consider but does anyone really believe the Colts are not playoff-bound in 2009?

They still have Peyton Manning and he's off an MVP season. An infected left knee required two off-season surgeries but he didn't miss a game in 2008. The Colts opened 3-4 last year but won their final nine games with Manning topping 4,000 yards passing for the ninth time in his 11 seasons (27 TDs and 12 INTs). WR Reggie Wayne has topped 1,00 yards for five straight years (averaged 86.4 catches per season in that stretch) plus TE Dallas Clark caught 77 passes in 2008.

The running game ranking second-to-last in the NFL last year (79.6 YPG) but with a return to health by Joseph Addai and the addition of rookie RB Donald Brown (U Conn), the Colts running game should be greatly improved. With a better-balanced offense expected in 2009, the defense (which ranked a respectable 11th overall last season) should improve. The Titans had a 'miracle' season last year and that still couldn't keep the Colts out of the postseason. The more things change in Indy, the more they stay the same. Make it eight straight postseasons (and 10 of 11) for the Colts in 2009.

I'll rank the Pittsburgh Steelers right behind the Colts. The Steelers have had the NFL's No. 1 defense in each of the last two years. QB Ben Roethlisberger may not be anyone's first choice in their fantasy league but he's 51-20 as a starter in the regular season. He has quarterbacked the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles in his first five seasons, including last year when the Steelers finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing (2nd-lowest finish since the 1970 merger. Assuming Willer Parker remains healthy this year, he and the combo of Mendenhall and Moore should return the Steeler running game to its former place.

WR Nate Washington left via free agency but with Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes (both Super Bowl MVPs) plus Limas Sweed and TEs Miller and Spaeth, the Steelers offense will be just fine. Pittsburgh faced the NFL's 4th-toughest schedule last year but after a 6-3 start, won nine of their last 10 games (including the postseason). They lose only two starters off last year's team and the 2009 schedule is ranked 28th (based on opponents' 2008 record), so expect the Steelers to playing in January again.

The Giants just recently signed Eli Manning to a huge contract and some may question whether he's worth it. His overall numbers have never been great, although he is coming off a career-year in 2008. He completed 60.3 percent (career mark is 55.9) for 3.238 yards with 21 TDs and 10 INTs for a QB rating of 86.4 (career mark is 76.1). However, unlike the 2007 postseason, Manning did not play well in the Giants' 2008 playoff loss to the Eagles.

Eli will be tested this year with no Burress or Toomer (left via FA) but he's got a great running game, led by Jacobs (1,089 YR / 5.0 YPC / 15 TDs), Ward (1,025 YR / 5.6 YPC) and even Bradshaw (355 YR / 5.3 YPC). The good news is that the defense will be outstanding The return of Umenyiora plus the FA signings of Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard (to join Tuck, Kiwanuka and Robbins) gives the Giants the deepest frontline in the NFL (maybe the best?). The NFC East is arguably the NFL's toughest division but I expect the Giants to make it six straight postseason appearances in 2009.

The Cardinals won a very weak NFC West last year with a 9-7 record, ending a nine-year playoff drought. QB Kurt Warner had an MVP-like season in 2008 (67.1 percent for 4,583 yards with 30 TDs and 14 INTs / QB rating of 96.9), throwing to the best WR duo in football. Fitzgerald caught 96 passes for 1,431 yards (12 TDs) and Boldin 89 passes for 1,038 yards (11 TDs). Third-receiver Breaston added 77 catches for 1,006 yards (3 TDs). The running game ranked last in the NFL (73.6 YPG / 2.5 YPC) but Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells is a physical runner with excellent speed (can you say rookie-of-the-year?).

The defense has to get better (ranked 28th in points allowed) and the Cardinals will be battling "the curse" of the Super Bowl loser this year. Seven of the last eight teams to lose a Super Bowl have failed to even make the playoffs the following year but remember, the Cards do play in the NFC West. Prior to last year, the Cards had just one winning season (1998) since moving to the desert in 1988 but last year won three playoff games and then outgained the Steelers 407 yards to 297 in losing the Super Bowl 27-23. Two straight winning years and another playoff appearance is "in the cards" for Arizona.

The Chargers won their final four games of 2008 and with an 8-8 record, won the AFC West. The Broncos, who lost their final three games, were willing accomplices. Like the Cards, the Chargers will benefit this year from playing in a very weak division. The Broncos could be a mess in 2009 (new coach and QB) plus the Chiefs and Raiders won't win much more than 10 games, combined.

This team now belongs to QB Philip Rivers, not LT. Rivers led the NFL with a QB rating of 105.5 last year, completing 65.3 percent for 4,009 yards with 34 TDs and 11 INTs. However, let's not be too quick in counting out LT. He's topped 1,000 yards in all eight of his seasons (11,760 career YR) and has added 510 catches. He's scored 141 TDs (126 rushing) plus thrown seven TD passes. Assuming Merriman returns healthy, the defense will be greatly improved.

Once again, the Chargers look great on paper. I'm not a big fan of head coach Norv Turner but one can't ignore the fact that under Turner (unlike with Marty), the Chargers have been able to win postseason games. The Chargers lost eight games by a TD or less last year but let's remember this team has scored 400 points or more in five straight seasons, gets Merriman back on 'D' and faces one of the league's easiest schedules (ranked 30th) while playing in one of its weakest divisions. How can't the Chargers return to the postseason in 2009?

My final spot goes to the Eagles, with an honorable mention nomination to the Titans. Actually, I expect both of these teams to return to the playoffs but I have to pick one. The Eagles and particularly Donovan McNabb were "left for dead" after the team's Week 12 loss at Baltimore (36-7). That game directly followed the team's infamous 13-13 tie the week before with the sad-sack Bengals and McNabb was benched at halftime of the game with the Ravens.

However, the Eagles won 48-20 on Thanksgiving night over the Cards and a 4-1 regular season finish got them a wild card spot at 9-6-1. They then won at Minnesota and the NY Giants, in the postseason, before falling at Arizona in yet another NFC championship game loss for Reid and McNabb (1-4 all-time). However, McNabb's far from washed up, as he completed 60.4 percent of his passes last year (23 TDs / 11 INTs) and passed for a career high 3,916 yards.

Westbrook must stay healthy but it's good news the Eagles drafted RB Sean McCoy from Pitt. Also, expect Missouri's Jeremy Maclin to join last year's rookie DeSean Jackson and possibly give McNabb his best group of receivers since T. O. was in Philly. The Eagles finished 2008 ranked third in yards allowed (274.3 per game) and gave up the fewest points of any NFC team (289 / 18.1 PPG). Philly has six tough division games plus non-division road games vs Atlanta, Carolina, Chicago and San Diego but the Eagles have the talent to return to the postseason.

Good luck, Larry

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