The turnover of playoff teams is probably one of the least celebrated elements of the NFL’s recent success. The league’s cynical grip on its labor costs/relationships gets plenty of well deserved attention too, because this is a league where the athletes bear some of the greatest risks in exchange for very little financial or health security. The fact that your team can get hot enough at almost any time to get into the playoff tournament keeps the flames of hope flickering across the country way longer than it should.
Last season Houston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore, New England and Denver all made the NFL playoffs and recent history dictates that three of those teams won’t turn the trick in 2012. In hopes of crushing fans’ hopes before this NFL season has even started, here’s my look at three teams who went in 2011, but won’t in 2012.
Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are losing running backs like socks in a washing machine; seemingly not noticing until they need somebody to take the rock from Ben Roethlisberger. The offensive line is suspect and will continue to be in flux heading into this season. The linebacker crew is still one of the best in the league and thus the Steelers will always been in football games. They face Peyton Manning first and then follow up with some of the worst quarterbacked teams in the league – Jets, Redskins, Chiefs and Eagles come to mind. So why am I still down on PIT? Keeping Big Ben upright for 16 games is going to be extremely difficult for a patchwork offensive line and without him, Mike Wallace and, one of my favorite young WRs, Antonio Brown, aren’t dangerous at all. Because they’ll need to put up points against even those weak passing teams is why I’ll believe Pittsburgh will come up short. Playing down to the level of competition has always been a weakness in the Mike Tomlin era.
Cincinnati Bengals – The fantastic seasons from AJ Green and Andy Dalton in 2011 pushed Cincinnati to the playoffs and you’d think that those two –along with a quietly strong defense– will be even better in 2012. And you’d be wrong. NFL defenses were already figuring out Dalton in the second half of his rookie year and he’ll need to make a leap I ability this year, because PIT, BAL and NYG defenses will surely be ready for him this season. Similar to Pittsburgh, the Bengals won’t be able to grind out and smother their way to wins this season with defense and running. Rather than the ridiculous cliché of the NFL being a passing the league (teams with good QBs have always aired it out), I like to say this is an attacking league where teams relentlessly attack mismatches and weaknesses until they have reason not to. I don’t see the Bengals being able to put enough weapons and the right schemes together to replicate what they did last year. They face the same weak QBs Pittsburgh faces but –and I didn’t mention this for PIT– the AFC North loves to beat up on itself like no other in football. The try to smother each other all season and then get caught off guard against unfamiliar, unexpected upstart teams.
Denver Broncos -Now that the magic of Tebowery has come and gone, this is a Denver Broncos team that will struggle to make 8-8 in a year when that won’t be enough to make the playoffs. Peyton Manning is a question mark, who, even if he hasn’t missed a beat as a passer, won’t necessarily be able to get the most out of this offense in 8-10 games. These are new guys in a new offense –even if it’s built around Manning, it’s still new– and him transitioning smoothly into this situation is as hard to predict as Brandon Weeden in Cleveland. Plus the late game effort Bronco fans saw out of their defense last year in support of Tebow, not to mention getting games like the one kicker David Prater had against Chicago, just cannot be presumed. All that unlikely magic went to New York and nobody, not even Peyton Manning, can replicate it. Every defender in orange breathed a sigh of relief when #18 showed up because they knew they wouldn’t have to cover for a QB going 2-12 anymore. This is another case of a letdown nobody is expecting…except me.