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NFL Playoff Picture (Who's New in '09)

   by Larry Ness - 08/13/2009

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. Last week I listed the six playoff teams from 2008 to most likely be back in the postseason in 2009 (see Who's coming back? in past articles) and here I'll rank the non-playoff teams from last year which are most likely to be playing in the 2009 postseason field.

I seriously doubt anyone feels that the Patriots won't be back in this year's postseason field. I sure believe they will be. Brady, 87-24 (.784) as a starter in the regular season, is back with Moss and Welker (112 and 111 catches in his two years with the Pats) as his two main receivers. The running game is a question mark but playing as a pass-first offense in 2007 surely didn't hurt the Pats (averaged 36.8 PPG in going 16-0). The Pats must go to London this year but their opponent is the Bucs, a 9-7 team last year which is almost surely destined to be a sub-.500 team in 2009. New England is scheduled to play Sunday Night games at Indy on Nov 15 and at Miami on Dec 6 plus a Monday Night game at New Orleans on Nov 30 (was 0-3 in three similar away games last year), but I expect 2009 to be a "return to form" for the Pats.

I'll rate the Saints as the second-most likely non-playoff team from last year to be in the 2009 postseason field. Despite owning mediocre a receiving corps, QB Drew Brees has completed 65.7 percent of his passes in his three-year tenure in New Orleans. He's averaged 4,636.7 passing yards per season these last three years (threw for 5,069 last year), while tossing 88 TDs and just 46 INTs. Those are truly amazing numbers. I'm not sure Reggie Bush will ever be the player people expected him to be (remember those Gale Sayers comparisons?) but he's still a talent and assuming everyone stays healthy, the Saints' running game will be a solid complement to Bress' passing game.

The defense is expected to be much better this year (new DC in Gregg Williams) and last year's team outscored its opponents (463-393) and outgained them by about 70 YPG. Those numbers at not indicative of an 8-8 team. The Saints play the 12th-toughest schedule in 2009 but believe it or not, it's the easiest among all NFC South Division teams. The NFL went to four divisions in each conference at the beginning of the 2002 season and since then, the Bucs have won the South Division three times, the Panthers have won it twice, while the Falcons and Saints have each taken the division once. No team has ever repeated as division champs. Carolina went 12-4 to win the division last year (Falcons went from 4-12 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008 to grab a wild card spot) but I'm predicting that "the Saints will come marching in" this season.

I don't believe the Vikings will repeat as NFC North Division champs in 2009, leaving the 'door wide open' for either the Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers. I give the Bears an edge over the Packers and will start with the team once known as "the Monsters of the Midway." Remember, the Bears won this division in 2005 (11-5) and in 2006 went 13-3 and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Grossman 'imploded' in 2007 (Bears finished 7-9) but last year the Bears were in the playoff 'hunt' most of the season, before finishing 9-7. Grossman is gone (thank goodness) and so is Orton (a serviceable QB at best), who is in Denver, which sent the Bears Jay Cutler in return.

The critics say Cutler hasn't led his team into the playoffs in either of his two years as Denver's No. 1 QB (he's 17-20 as a starter) but that's hardly fair. Cutler threw for 3.497 yards in 2007 (20 TDs / 14 INTs) and then 4,526 yards in 2008 (25 TDs / 18 INTs). His completion percentage is 62.9 percent during that time, posting QB ratings of 88.1 and 86.0 (pretty decent). Did any of those critics happen to notice that the Denver 'D' (if you pardon the pun) allowed 409 points (25.6 PPG) in 2007 and 448 points (28.0 PPG) in 2008? Or, that the Broncos, once known as one of the NFL's best rushing teams, saw their running disappear over the past two seasons.

The Broncos undersized OL was one of the best units in the NFL for about a decade, leading to multiple 1,000-yard seasons by All-Pros like Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis but also paving the way for 1,000-yard seasons for Mike Anderson (twice), Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell. Denver's leading rusher in 2007 was Selvin Young (729 yards) and in 2008 was Peyton Hillis (who?) with 343 yards. In Chicago, Cutler will have Matt Forte in his backfield, who ran for 1,238 yards and caught 63 passes while scoring 12 TDs on the season. The Chicago defense has struggled the last two seasons but is overdue to rebound in 2009. After 11 different QBs these last eight years, the Bears have a true No. 1 QB and with an easier schedule than in 2008, are my pick to with the NFC North.

The Packers are my second-choice for the division and I believe they also have a chance at the one of the two wild card spots, if the NFC East doesn't 'steal' both of them (Eagles and Cowboys). Don't blame Aaron Rodgers for last year's "fall from grace," as in a very tough situation (replacing Brett Favre), Rodgers completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 4,038 yards with 28 TDs and just 13 INTs (93.8 rating). Both Jennings and Driver topped 1,000 receiving yards last year (for Driver it was his fifth-straight such season) and the Green Bay passing game will be just fine in 2009. RB Ryan Grant's "coming out party" in the second half of the 2007 season was a huge reason the Pack went 13-3 that year and while he wasn't as dynamic last year, he still ran for 1,203 yards (averaged just 3.9 YPC).

Green Bay was 4-3 heading into its bye week last year, then lost the next two weeks by three (in OT) at Tennessee and by one the following week at Minnesota. Green Bay beat the Bears in Week 11 by the score of 37-3 but then lost five straight games before beating the Lions in Week 17. The record will show that Green Bay lost seven of its final nine games after the team's bye week but it should be pointed out that six of those lessee came by 3 (OT), 1, 4, 3, 4 and 3 (OT) points! Similar to the Saints, the Packers outscored their opponents (419-380) and outgained them (by about 17 YPG), yet went just 6-10. That's not likely to happen again. The Packers are on par with the Bears and Vikings and could win this division.

The Cowboys went 13-3 in Wade Phillips first year (2007) but then lost their opening playoff game that season 21-17 to the Giants (at home). Dallas opened 3-0 in 2008 but was forced to play without starting QB Tony Romo for three games in the middle of the season. Even so, the Cowboys had to lose three of their last four games to find themselves at 9-7 at year's end, just barely missing out on the playoffs. Romo has yet to win a playoff game (0-2) but he's 27-13 in the regular season as a starter and has back-to-back seasons in which he's completed 64.4 and 61.3 percent of his passes for 4,211 and 3,448 yards (missed three games) with 36 TDs / 19 INTs and 26 TDs / 14 INTs.

I'm not sure anyone in Dallas will miss T.O. and I'm of the belief that Roy Williams can be a "big-time" WR in the NFL (this year will tell). Marion Barber III is an excellent all-around RB and if Felix Jones can stay healthy, the Cowboys will have a terrific offense. The NFC East doesn't allow for much "wiggle room" but a quick look at the Cowboys'early season schedule reveals this. They have road games at Tampa Bay, Denver and KC, all of whom look like sub-.500 teams. The home schedule is much tougher with the Giants, Panthers and Atlanta (all 2008 playoff teams), plus Seattle. However, the Giants' game is on Sunday night in Week 2 (opening game in Dallas' new stadium) and the Panthers come to town the following week, for a Monday nighter. The Cowboys could easily be 6-1 before visiting Philly (MNF) and Green Bay in Weeks 9 and 10. I think Wade Phillips is a 'stiff' but Dallas could easily return to the postseason in 2009.

I promised to list six teams in this article but I must admit, I don't feel as if the Seahawks are that much of a threat to make this year's playoff field. However, let's not forget that the NFC West's defending champ (and preseason favorite this year) is the Arizona Cardinals. The Cards are not exactly a team one wants to put too much faith in, as last year's 9-7 season was just the franchise's second winning season since the team's move to Arizona in 1988. So, why not pick the Seahawks? Seattle went just 4-12 last year but that ended a five-year postseason run for the Seahawks, the last four as NFC West champs. If Warner gets hurt, Chris Wells can't revive the Cards' running game and the Arizona defense doesn't improve (allowed 426 points or 26.6 PPG), then the Seahawks can win this division (like the Cards did last year), by going 9-7 (or even 8-8).

I'll be back with a recap of NFLX Week 1 plus some more preseason 'talk' on August 18.

Good luck, Larry.

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