Five NFL playoff teams face a hard road back

This should give you a better appreciation of the Colts’ current league-best run of eight consecutive playoff appearances: Since 2001, in the topsy-turvy, parity-centered world known as the NFL, it has been the norm for fewer than half the teams in a given season’s playoff field to duplicate the feat the following season.

While powers such as Indianapolis and San Diego have consistently kept themselves in the picture, the AFC has seen plenty of back-and-forth leapfrogging in its two toughest divisions — the East and North. In the NFC, consider this: Nine different teams have represented the conference in the past nine Super Bowls.

Here’s a look at five 2009 playoff teams that will have trouble making the Super Bowl tournament in 2010 (in alphabetical order):

Neither Matt Leinart nor Derek Anderson can fill Kurt Warner's shoes.
Neither Matt Leinart nor Derek Anderson can fill Kurt Warner’s shoes.

Arizona Cardinals. No 2009 playoff qualifier has been hurt more by personnel changes this offseason. Four top performers — Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle — won’t be back.

Warner retired despite playing some of the sharpest football in his career the past two years, a standard that will be difficult for any quarterback — let alone Matt Leinart or Derek Anderson — to match.

You can expect coach Ken Whisenhunt to get some of his younger talent to respond, but he may not have enough to overcome the 49ers in the NFC West. San Francisco (8-8) finished only two games behind Arizona last season and should enter coach Mike Singletary’s second full season with great confidence, having swept the Cardinals in ’09.

The Niners are young with potential to rise. "They’re our biggest rival now. They don’t like us, and we don’t like them," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. "We want some revenge, but they definitely will be better."

Cincinnati Bengals. This team took on the role of Cardiac Cats last season, surviving many close games en route to dethroning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in the tough AFC North. The Bengals were much-improved—especially on defense—but they struggled down the stretch.

Trading places
Over the past nine seasons, here’s how many of the previous year’s 12 playoff teams returned to the postseason:
2001 — 6
2002 — 7
2003 — 4
2004 — 7
2005 — 5
2006 — 5
2007 — 6
2008 — 5
2009 — 6

There was a lack of big-play pop on offense, and the defensive front wore down as injuries took their toll. Those problems caught up with them in the wild-card playoff loss to the Jets.

The Bengals should be boosted by the free-agent pickup of wide receiver Antonio Bryant and a return to health. The biggest concern lies in the stout division competition.

The Ravens, armed with Joe Flacco and now Boldin, are built to contend again. The Steelers should come back stronger, assuming that whatever happens with Ben Roethlisberger off the field won’t take him away from what he can do on the field.

To avoid falling out of the playoffs, it will take an MVP-caliber season from quarterback Carson Palmer.

Minnesota Vikings. This team will have a tough time making the playoffs with or without Brett Favre. In the unlikely scenario that he doesn’t return, it will put a lot of pressure on Tarvaris Jackson to deliver — especially in the division series with Green Bay, where the quarterback edge would tilt to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

If Favre returns, you can’t expect a carbon copy of ’09. With every passing year, there are questions about when he might run out of fuel as a passer. He also took a lot of hits in the NFC championship loss to New Orleans, and his play declined. Will other teams try to follow the Saints’ wear-him-down strategy?

It’s not just Favre; age is slowly creeping up on both sides of the line, and top cornerback Antoine Winfield will turn 33 in June. With all of that comes some key durability concerns. When you consider how young the Packers are at most positions, they are a better bet to stay healthy down the stretch. That makes them a more promising pick in the division race.

The window is by no means closing for the Vikings. But if they expect to reach the playoffs and make another deep run, they need some good fortune with the health of their older players.

New England Patriots. Their division opponents have been active in the offseason so far. The Dolphins made the big defensive upgrade by signing Dansby. The Jets have been busy adding a pair of former Chargers, Antonio Cromartie and LaDainian Tomlinson.

After some early noise that the Patriots were going to pursue Julius Peppers, the biggest news out of their camp has been Randy Moss’ statement that he expects 2010 to be his last season with the team.

Miami should be improved, with Chad Henne starting from the beginning of the season and an upgraded defense that should make more big plays. The Jets, of course, return with Rex Ryan’s dominant defense—and Mark Sanchez has the talent and drive to skip the sophomore slump.

It’ll be hard to deny the Brady/Belichick Patriots the playoffs. But the Dolphins and Jets both have recent experience playing spoiler.

Philadelphia Eagles. Most of the NFC’s playoff turnover results from the ultracompetitive play in the East. If the Giants rebound in 2010, they’re more likely to bounce Philly than Dallas from the playoff mix.

The Cowboys have fewer holes to worry about. The Eagles’ defense gave up too many big plays down the stretch, and the team has a recent history (’05, ’07) of missing the playoffs when it looked like a sure thing.

In addition to Dallas, Green Bay and New Orleans look like the soundest 2009 NFC playoff teams going into ’10. Philadelphia falls a little short of that group.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

This should give you a better appreciation of the Colts’ current league-best run of eight consecutive playoff appearances: Since 2001, in the topsy-turvy, parity-centered world known as the NFL, it has been the norm for fewer than half the teams in a given season’s playoff field to duplicate the feat the following season.

While powers such as Indianapolis and San Diego have consistently kept themselves in the picture, the AFC has seen plenty of back-and-forth leapfrogging in its two toughest divisions — the East and North. In the NFC, consider this: Nine different teams have represented the conference in the past nine Super Bowls.

Here’s a look at five 2009 playoff teams that will have trouble making the Super Bowl tournament in 2010 (in alphabetical order):

Neither Matt Leinart nor Derek Anderson can fill Kurt Warner's shoes.
Neither Matt Leinart nor Derek Anderson can fill Kurt Warner’s shoes.

Arizona Cardinals. No 2009 playoff qualifier has been hurt more by personnel changes this offseason. Four top performers — Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle — won’t be back.

Warner retired despite playing some of the sharpest football in his career the past two years, a standard that will be difficult for any quarterback — let alone Matt Leinart or Derek Anderson — to match.

You can expect coach Ken Whisenhunt to get some of his younger talent to respond, but he may not have enough to overcome the 49ers in the NFC West. San Francisco (8-8) finished only two games behind Arizona last season and should enter coach Mike Singletary’s second full season with great confidence, having swept the Cardinals in ’09.

The Niners are young with potential to rise. "They’re our biggest rival now. They don’t like us, and we don’t like them," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. "We want some revenge, but they definitely will be better."

Cincinnati Bengals. This team took on the role of Cardiac Cats last season, surviving many close games en route to dethroning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in the tough AFC North. The Bengals were much-improved—especially on defense—but they struggled down the stretch.

Trading places
Over the past nine seasons, here’s how many of the previous year’s 12 playoff teams returned to the postseason:
2001 — 6
2002 — 7
2003 — 4
2004 — 7
2005 — 5
2006 — 5
2007 — 6
2008 — 5
2009 — 6

There was a lack of big-play pop on offense, and the defensive front wore down as injuries took their toll. Those problems caught up with them in the wild-card playoff loss to the Jets.

The Bengals should be boosted by the free-agent pickup of wide receiver Antonio Bryant and a return to health. The biggest concern lies in the stout division competition.

The Ravens, armed with Joe Flacco and now Boldin, are built to contend again. The Steelers should come back stronger, assuming that whatever happens with Ben Roethlisberger off the field won’t take him away from what he can do on the field.

To avoid falling out of the playoffs, it will take an MVP-caliber season from quarterback Carson Palmer.

Minnesota Vikings. This team will have a tough time making the playoffs with or without Brett Favre. In the unlikely scenario that he doesn’t return, it will put a lot of pressure on Tarvaris Jackson to deliver — especially in the division series with Green Bay, where the quarterback edge would tilt to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

If Favre returns, you can’t expect a carbon copy of ’09. With every passing year, there are questions about when he might run out of fuel as a passer. He also took a lot of hits in the NFC championship loss to New Orleans, and his play declined. Will other teams try to follow the Saints’ wear-him-down strategy?

It’s not just Favre; age is slowly creeping up on both sides of the line, and top cornerback Antoine Winfield will turn 33 in June. With all of that comes some key durability concerns. When you consider how young the Packers are at most positions, they are a better bet to stay healthy down the stretch. That makes them a more promising pick in the division race.

The window is by no means closing for the Vikings. But if they expect to reach the playoffs and make another deep run, they need some good fortune with the health of their older players.

New England Patriots. Their division opponents have been active in the offseason so far. The Dolphins made the big defensive upgrade by signing Dansby. The Jets have been busy adding a pair of former Chargers, Antonio Cromartie and LaDainian Tomlinson.

After some early noise that the Patriots were going to pursue Julius Peppers, the biggest news out of their camp has been Randy Moss’ statement that he expects 2010 to be his last season with the team.

Miami should be improved, with Chad Henne starting from the beginning of the season and an upgraded defense that should make more big plays. The Jets, of course, return with Rex Ryan’s dominant defense—and Mark Sanchez has the talent and drive to skip the sophomore slump.

It’ll be hard to deny the Brady/Belichick Patriots the playoffs. But the Dolphins and Jets both have recent experience playing spoiler.

Philadelphia Eagles. Most of the NFC’s playoff turnover results from the ultracompetitive play in the East. If the Giants rebound in 2010, they’re more likely to bounce Philly than Dallas from the playoff mix.

The Cowboys have fewer holes to worry about. The Eagles’ defense gave up too many big plays down the stretch, and the team has a recent history (’05, ’07) of missing the playoffs when it looked like a sure thing.

In addition to Dallas, Green Bay and New Orleans look like the soundest 2009 NFC playoff teams going into ’10. Philadelphia falls a little short of that group.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

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