Last week, we looked at the 10 teams that I feel are the worst in the league – and while there will doubtless be a surprise team among them, odds are that most of those teams won’t be in contention in December. However, in the parity-driven world of the NFL, the number of teams in contention vastly outnumbers those with no chance – and I can see a realistic playoff scenario for each of the top-19 teams. Let’s take a look at the ‘contenders’, the 11 middle teams who all have a shot at the playoffs but could easily miss the postseason as well.
#22: Miami Dolphins
Key Additions: RB Reggie Bush (trade); OL Mike Pouncey (15th overall)
Key Losses: RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams
Why they might be better than this: Reggie Bush might finally live up to the hype and be a stud every-down back; Chad Henne could break out; truthfully, I’m having trouble coming up with a lot of upside for this team – in fact, I originally had them picked higher and upon further review, I simply don’t see how they can have a good season, barring a monster improvement from Henne.
Why they might be worse than this: If Bush doesn’t work out, it’s all on Henne – and with Brandon Marshall’s offseason woes, I don’t look for the Dolphin aerial attack to be that potent; their schedule isn’t the most difficult I’ve seen, but I also see very few ‘gimme’ wins – Buffalo, Denver, MAYBE Oakland – the rest they will either be underdogs or even as I see it; aside from Bush, there’s not a lot of projectable skill on this team. To me they’ve become a more talented version of the Bills – yes, they will work hard, but they are BORING, and that’s something Miami has not been for a long time.
Final notes and prediction: Coach Tony Sparano was 11-5 in his first season, and since the team was 1-15 the year before he was seen as ‘the answer’. In the past 2 seasons he’s gone 7-9 each time, and the underlying numbers have steadily eroded as well. It’s looking more and more like his first season will be his career highlight, and also the aberration. Of all the teams we discuss today, this is the one I think has the least chance of finishing .500 and of making the playoffs , hence the low ranking – however, they are less likely to completely implode than some of the following teams as well. 6-10 for the Dolphins.
#21: Tennessee Titans
Key Additions: QB Jake Locker (#8 overall), QB Matt Hasselbeck (FA); TE Daniel Graham (FA)
Key Losses: QBs Vince Young and Kerry Collins; WR Randy Moss; TE Bo Scaife
Why they might be better than this: When healthy, Hasselbeck is better than Collins and will be a great mentor for young Locker; unluckiest team in the league a year ago, finishing 6-10 despite outscoring opponents by 17 points; RB Chris Johnson among the most exciting players in the league; draft was heavy on defense after Locker; division is down a bit in 2011.
Why they might be worse than this: Johnson just reported making him more of an injury risk since he missed camp; Hasselbeck is injury-prone and Locker won’t be ready to contribute until late in the season; top WR Kenny Britt’s status is still questionable – all of this makes Tennessee’s offense a good bet to end up below-average; out-of-division schedule is tough (AFC North and NFC South); another team with a new coaching staff and not much time to implement systems.
Final notes and prediction: I struggled a lot with the Titans – I think they were a lot better than a 6-10 team a year ago, but there’s been a lot of turnover at key positions and I’m very concerned about Johnson’s health when he reports – had he not held out, I’m sure I would have ranked the Titans higher. Without him, this is a flat-out bad offense, and the defense will be no better than average. 7-9 for the Titans in a rebuilding year.
#20: Cleveland Browns
Key Additions: DL Phil Taylor (21st overall)
Key Losses: DT Shaun Rogers; G Eric Steinbach (IR)
Why they might be better than this: Defense made great strides a year ago, and Taylor will further strengthen their front-seven; QB Colt McCoy showed real promise a year ago and should develop further this season; RB Peyton Hillis broke out in 2010 and is now the established feature back – and he’s still only 25; the non-division schedule should not be that difficult, and their first 11 games are probably the easiest I’ve seen – only two 2010 playoff teams, and we probably shouldn’t even count Seattle – AND they catch Indy early, when there’s a decent chance Manning will either not play or be very rusty. I can easily envision them at 6-5 or 7-4 after that stretch.
Why they might be worse than this: The injury to Steinbach really hurts – he is a premier guard; McCoy has few receiving threats to work with, allowing teams to stack the line to stop Hillis; another team with a new coaching staff and very limited time to implement new schemes; the TOUGHEST December schedule I’ve seen yet – 3-game road trip to PIT, AZ, and BAL sandwiched between home games against the Steelers and Ravens – 2-3 would be amazing and 1-4 probably expected after running that gauntlet.
Final notes and prediction: I think Cleveland will be a factor in this division soon if they continue to add pieces – I like McCoy and Hillis, and there is a lot of front-seven talent on defense – but I think they’re still at least a year away. Look for a lot of early-season excitement in the Dawg Pound with that schedule, but let’s see how they fare late in the year. 7-9 for the Browns.
#19: New York Giants
Key Additions: CB Prince Amukamara (19th overall);
Key Losses: CB Terrell Thomas (torn ACL); WR Steve Smith; TE Kevin Boss
Why they might be better than this: I’ll admit I’ve never been an Eli Manning fan, but there’s no escaping the fact that since he became the Giants’ starting QB, the offense has ranked in the top-10 in four of six years and never worse than 14th in points scored – he’s a big part of that; the defense rebounded nicely in 2010 after a horrid 2009; much like Manning, coach Tom Coughlin is talked about more for what he’s bad at than what he’s achieved – frankly, he’s done almost as good of a job as Bill Parcells did (for 10+ win seasons, no losing seasons since 2004); division isn’t nearly as tough as it used to be, and a very easy early schedule might allow them to start 4-2 or even 5-1.
Why they might be worse than this: Manning is still too prone to turnovers – 25 INTs last season – and with two of his top targets gone (Boss and Smith), especially Boss, who was his ‘safety valve’ most of the time, I look for Manning to struggle early; DE Osi Umeniyora is still recovering from injury, and Thomas’ season-ending injury puts a lot of pressure on an already-thin secondary – in short, I think the defense will take a step back this season; finishing schedule is BRUTAL, and Coughlin teams already have a reputation for fading in December – I could see them conceivably losing six of their last eight games.
Final notes and prediction: I know I’m being a bit hard on the Giants picking them this low, but Manning simply isn’t accurate enough to thrive without playmakers on the outside – while I expect the running game will be strong, I think the offense as a whole will take a step back. That, combined with that brutal finishing schedule and an expected rebound in Dallas (more on them below), means someone has to take a major step back in the NFC East – my pick is the Giants. 7-9 for the G-Men.
#18: Arizona Cardinals
Key Additions: CB Patrick Peterson (5th overall); QB Kevin Kolb (trade); WR Chansi Stuckey(FA); LB Stewart Bradley(FA); TE Todd Heap (FA)
Key Losses: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; RB Tim Hightower; WR Steve Breaston;
Why they might be better than this: The 2010 Cardinal offense was a textbook example of the importance of the QB position in the NFL. In 2009, the Cards had a top, if aging, QB in Kurt Warner – they scored 375 points. Last year, with Warner retired, their QB play was simply atrocious, and they scored only 289 points despite having almost every other skill player back from 2009. The Cards’ front-office made a bold move to acquire Kevin Kolb, and while I still question if he’s merely good or if he can be elite, there’s simply no question that he’s a HUGE improvement at the position for this team; adding Peterson through the draft should help stabilize a secondary that was, frankly, terrible in 2010; the defense struggled in 2010 but I expect them to rebound somewhat this season; finally, the division is the worst in football, and the schedule begins and ends with a total of seven winnable games (first three, last four).
Why they might be worse than this: The Cards have lost their depth at a number of positions – WR, RB, CB, and QB are the most important. An injury to Kolb, RB Beanie Wells, or WR Larry Fitzgerald would severely hamper the offense; Wells HAS to break out this season – Hightower was traded and 2nd-round pick Ryan Williams is out for the season; I’m betting on the defense to improve, but the fact is they gave up about the same number of points in their super bowl season (2008) as they did last year – in other words, it’s quite possible that the defense simply isn’t good; the middle of the schedule has some very tough games, especially the East Coast road trips that have traditionally given this team fits.
Final notes and prediction: Kolb’s addition alone has to be worth a couple of wins, especially in the mediocrity of the NFC West – and the Cards have enough talent to get to .500, which makes them a contender in that division – but I question Kolb’s durability, Wells’ ability to handle the load, and the defense’s ability to allow under 380 points. They’re a much better team than last year’s Seahawks, and it would not shock me if they won the division, but I think the Rams are just a bit better at this juncture. 8-8 for the Cards.
#17: Chicago Bears
Key Additions: OL Gabe Carimi (29th overall), TE Matt Spaeth (FA)
Key Losses: S Danieal Manning, C Olin Kreutz
Why they might be better than this: They bring back almost all of the key pieces from a division-winning 11-5 season – and keep in mind, they were in position in Week 17 to keep the Packers from even making the playoffs; their defense was vastly improved in 2010, ranking 4th in points allowed and frustrating the high-octane Packer offense in all three meetings; coach Lovie Smith has been at the helm for seven seasons and provides an even-keel, calming influence on the team.
Why they might be worse than this: This pick is more hunch than fact; I’ll admit that up front – on paper, they are very similar to last season’s team. My problem is twofold: #1, I think the defense played ‘over its head’ in 2010 and will regress in 2011; #2, the biggest weakness on the team last season was the offensive line – and they let their all-pro center walk away. The team allowed 56 sacks a year ago, and after QB Jay Cutler there’s no depth at all. I think the line will be a problem all year; Cutler’s reputation as arrogant and ‘me-first’ led to a large controversy when he didn’t play in the second half of the NFL title game – one has to wonder if there will be any carryover; finally, they open with Atlanta, new Orleans, and Green bay – a potential 0-3 start that could send their season down the tubes before it really even gets going.
Final thoughts and prediction: I’m not a Cutler fan – he has loads of talent, but he throws too many picks and takes too many sacks, and I just don’t trust him in crunch time. If the defense slips a bit this season, more will fall on Cutler’s shoulders, and I don’t think he can handle it. With Detroit improving and Green Bay poised to be a powerhouse, I have a hard time seeing more than nine or 10 wins for the Bears, and I think .500 is where they will end up. 8-8 in Chicago.
#16 Detroit Lions
Key additions: DT Nick Fairley (13th overall); CB Eric Wright (FA)
Key Losses: None of note
Why they might be better than this: The Lions made a MASSIVE improvement a year ago, scoring 100 points more than in 2009 and allowing 130 less – their point differential was typical of an 8-8 team, so further improvement should mean an above-.500 record; Fairley gives the Lions quite possibly the best DT tandem in the entire league with last year’s top pick Ndamukong Suh; QB Matthew Stafford is healthy and still only 23 – if he can avoid injury, he should be a marked improvement over Shaun Hill; with an intact coaching staff and very little turnover on a young roster, further improvement is very likely. Stability is VERY underrated when judging how much a bad team will improve.
Why they might be worse than this: Stafford HAS to show he can stay on the field, and that he is still improving; the defense gave up a lot less points and yards, but their underlying stats weren’t great – the secondary in particular looks shaky; MUCH tougher schedule this season, as they play the NFC South and the AFC West – a total of 10 games against teams that won 10+ games last season; depth still an issue at most positions; chance that they take a step back before taking two steps forward (not uncommon after a major improvement to see a small ‘backwards step’ the following year)
Final thoughts and prediction: I know the Lions are kind of a trend y pick, and I am very aware that there’s a distinct possibility they will take another year to win – but I’m a big fan of Stafford and head coach Jim Schwartz, I love the patience he’s shown, and I think this team is ready to take another step forward. It won’t be a playoff team yet – schedule is too rough for that – but I think this team can either tie or finish slightly ahead of the Bears. 8-8 for the Lions.
#15 St. Louis Rams
Key additions: DE Robert Quinn (14th overall); TE Lance Kendricks (2nd rd); S Quentin Mikell (FA); Cadillac Williams (FA); CB Al Harris (FA)
Key Losses: None of note
Why they might be better than this: The Rams are superficially in a very similar situation to the Lions – third-year coach, building from the ground up, talented young QB, made a big leap a year ago. The main difference is that while the Lions have the Packers to contend with in the division (as well as the Bears), the Rams saw a free shot at a division title in 2011 and appear to have accelerated their timetable with their free-agent moves. Given the lack of talent in the division, the moves the Rams made combined with continued development from QB Sam Bradford and other key young players, could mean four or five wins in the division this season; the defense was the big improvement a year ago, going from 31st to 12th in points against, while the offense still was in the bottom six of the league – Bradford is talented enough to get the Rams some more points even if the rest of the team stagnates; again, stability matters, and Spagnuolo has built something good here and has stuck with his plan. Allowing Bradford to take his lumps early last season will pay major dividends this season.
Why they might be worse than this: Defense was ok against the pass a year ago but TERRIBLE against the run – they must do better than allowing 4.5 yards per carry or they will struggle; Bradford started every game a year ago – if he goes down, they have no depth at QB; early schedule is very difficult, and a bad start could ruin the season.
Final thoughts and prediction: Watch this team over the first eight weeks – if they even go 4-4, they should cruise to a division title. I’m a big believer in Sam Bradford and Steve Spagnuolo, and I think this is the most talented team in the division. They won’t win a ton of games, but they should improve throughout the year and be a tough out in the postseason. 9-7 for the Rams.
#14 Dallas Cowboys
Key additions: T Tyron Smith (9th overall)
Key Losses: RB Marion Barber; OL Andre Gurode
Why they might be better than this: Dallas’ defense had one of the worst 1-year drops in NFL history, going from 2nd in points allowed to 31st last season – 186 more points allowed! I think they were a bit overrated going into 2010, but they simply CANNOT be as bad as they looked; Tony room and Dez Bryant should be healthy and ready to put up big passing numbers along with WR Miles Austin; with the departure of Barber, Felix Jones gets a chance to shine, and I think he will step up; team responded well late under Jason Garrett last year, and his familiarity with the team and their familiarity with him will ease the transition for 2011; weak schedule featuring the NFC West gives ample opportunity for cheap wins.
Why they might be worse than this: The Cowboys cleared the decks to make a major free-agent splash, only to have all the available stars spurn them – in some cases, in favor of Dallas’ division rivals; even with some defensive rebound, it’s hard to see this defense as a top-10 or 15 ‘D’ – and the team brought in almost no help for the beleaguered secondary; Romo puts up the numbers, but does he have the durability and the commitment to be a top-tier QB? Finally, Philly improved themselves while Dallas more or less stood pat – on paper, the gap between the Eagles and the rest of the division has never been wider; tough finishing stretch with games at AZ, NYG, and TB along with home games against PHI and NYG – there’s a good chance their season will come down to those five games.
Final thoughts and prediction: They actually scored more points in 2010 than they did in 2009, and I think the offense has a chance to be top-5; however, the defense most certainly will not be, and they have just enough tough games to keep them from 10-12 wins. 9-7 for the Cowboys.
#13 Indianapolis Colts
Key additions: T Anthony Castonzo (22nd overall)
Key Losses: Safeties Bob Sanders and Ken Hamlin
Why they might be better than this: Peyton Manning proved in 2010 just how great he was. With three of his top four receiving options injured, virtually no running game, and a defense playing terribly, Manning somehow guided the team to four straight wins to end the season, and put up a spirited battle against the Jets. Manning set an NFL record for completions and had the 2nd-most attempts of all time – both far and away career highs for him. Despite everyone knowing he had to throw, he managed to complete 66% of his passes and was only sacked 16 times. The man is simply the greatest QB of our era; the aforementioned receivers are all healthy and should help diversify the offense; the defense was awful a season ago, especially late – a bit of a rebound should be expected.
Why they might be worse than this: Manning hasn’t played a down in the preseason and is 50/50 to start the opener – even if he plays, he’ll likely be rusty, and the last time something like this happened (Manning had knee surgery and missed the preseason in 2008), the team started 3-4 and Manning struggled before finding his stride. This team isn’t NEARLY that talented, and cannot afford a slow start from Peyton; the running game looks likely to continue to give Manning little relief; the defense gave up over 2000 rushing yards and allowed opposing QBs to complete 66% of their passes – in short, they made opposing QBs look almost as good as Manning; the schedule is murderous, with the AFC North, the NFC South, and a visit to New England.
Final thoughts and prediction: You often see coaches who take over for legends have a small ‘carryover’ period – think Barry Switzer in Dallas or George Seifert in San Francisco. After that period, there’s usually a period of decline unless the new coach is almost as good as the departed one. I think we’re seeing that effect in Indy – Tony Dungy literally never had a bad season at the helm of the Colts, but under Jim Caldwell the team seems on the verge of a major decline. I think it starts in earnest this season, and the only reason I’m picking the team this high is my faith in Manning – if he struggles or misses any time, this team could completely collapse. 9-7 for the Colts, with their first missed playoff season in 10 years.
#12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key additions: DL Adrian Clayborn (20th overall)
Key Losses: RB Cadillac Williams
Why they might be better than this: The Bucs were the youngest team in the league a season ago – and surprised everyone by winning 10 games, proving that they were talented as well. That young core figures to continue to develop this season; QB Josh Freeman had an amazing season – 60% completion rate, 25 TDs against only 6 INTs, and he was only 22; RB LeGarrette Blount also had an amazing season, averaging over five yards per carry; draft concentrated on defense, which I think was wise – the offense has few glaring holes and simply needs time to develop; overall, this appears to be the rising power in the NFC South.
Why they might be worse than this: The schedule was EXTREMELY friendly a season ago – the Bucs only beat one team with a winning record all season, and the schedule is much tougher this time around; Freeman’s 6 INTs are too low to be repeatable – as was the team’s total of 19 turnovers – look for at least twice as many picks and 10 more total turnovers this season; as we mentioned before, teams that take huge leaps in one season often take a slight step back the following year – even young, talented teams like Tampa.
Final thoughts and prediction: I’m bullish on Tampa’s future – but not so much in 2011. I look for Freeman to struggle a bit this year as defenses adjust, I look for the harder schedule to keep their win total down, and I look for the Bucs to barely miss the playoffs at 9-7…but watch out in 2012 and beyond.
Next week, we look at the best of the best – the top 11 teams in the league. Enjoy the holiday weekend!
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.