The season is over. We know who won and lost and, to some degree, how. So what's the prognosis? Baseball has its 'Pythagorean' analysis of how good teams really were. That's stat-based, of course. Football can be a little more subjective, and sometimes a little easier to pigeonhole in the regular season. Every year seems to produce two to four huge surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. The playoffs, of course, have proven far more difficult to project.
That's largely because of the significance of injuries. While modern baseball injury lists have shot through the roof, football injuries dwarf them. Why? Are both sports burdened with artificially overdeveloped monsters, men whose bones and tendons can no longer support their inflated muscles? Or have athletes just become softer somehow? Believing the latter is as naive as believing that linemen just naturally went to 300+ pounds overnight because the Fruit Loops of the '80s were somehow better than the Trix of the '60s. Silly rabbit. Of course PEDs are involved. So is the increasingly weaponlike nature of 'protective' gear. Those factors, combined with an ever-higher bar on health assessment, conspire to make NFL rosters volatile. It's just a fact of life, and must be taken into consideration.
Possibly great changes that will be wrought by the draft and free agency are yet to be determined, of course. We could always wait until May. But clearly, even waiting until the regular season starts is too early to predict what most teams will look like by December, so why bother? Besides, what fun is waiting when football withdrawal is about to supersede end-of-season shock?
Team-by-team, here's a look at how the playoff contenders looked and, of course, where they may be headed. Call it the wrap of this season. Call it Chapter Zero of next season's analysis.
The Super Bowl champs seemed destined for the scrap heap with not long to go in the regular season. The return of Ray Lewis suddenly injected them with inspiration (or maybe deer antler juice). Or did it? The major difference-maker in the team's turnaround seems rather to have been the replacement of Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell as OC. The ground and pound game had gone stale. Ray Rice looked fried. Caldwell committed an act of desperation, turning the offense fully over to Joe Flacco. It worked. Flacco's combination of crisp, accurate short passes and long bombs, many of the jump-ball variety thrown (with a cannon) while scrambling, proved almost miraculous. Can the Ravens keep that up?
Well, yes and no. They have a lot of free agents. They have aging players. And there's pretty good history to say that an offense based largely on jump-ball long bombs won't prove any more a bread-and-butter strategy than, say, evading sacks and hitting David Tyree (or Mario Manningham) with impossible throws. More so than most of this year's contenders, the Ravens may be a question mark. Their division doesn't help. The Bengals are built to play them. The Steelers should be back.
The Ravens, ultimately, were a model of many recent Super Bowl winners --- a team from the middle of the contender pack that hit its stride at just the right moment. That means a lot, obviously. They are well-coached. Does not having Ray Lewis on the field make a huge difference? Maybe. If Ed Reed isn't back, does that make a huge difference? Maybe. There go your front-seven and back-four quarterbacks.
Offensively, Flacco should continue to prosper with the reins loosened. If he doesn't, it's over. If he does, even if not at the absurd pace he set at the end of the 2012 season, they'll be back. Likely not back in the Super Bowl, but they'll contend like they do every year.
The biggest fly in the ointment may be that Flacco is a free agent. His own agent is already selling him as the highest-paid QB in the league. That will never happen, but several teams out there need a quarterback. That could drive his price to where keeping him hurts the Ravens almost as much as losing him. Expect a franchise tag in the absence of a quick deal. Even that hurts.
San Francisco 49ers
The biggest challenge for the Niners, who should be back in improved form, may originate in their own division. They seem to have their biggest streaks of bad play against good teams that aren't overwhelmed by their physical strength --- the Ravens, Patriots and Seahawks come to mind. How about the Rams?
The risky decision to bench Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick doesn't look exactly like giving Tom Brady the reins over Drew Bledsoe --- yet --- but it's close. Smith has become the latest Wally Pipp. With a training camp under his belt as starter, Kaps (my fingers hope that catches on) ought to be even better. He doesn't seem to have shown overt weaknesses that tape study can exploit, and he's already got two full seasons with the Niner/Harbaugh playbook.
San Francisco was as good as they looked. Victory in the Super Bowl is useless as a predictive tool anyway. The coach is manic, and unless he becomes so intense that he burns his team out like his predecessor did, they should view the upcoming season as a mission. They should be back in the playoffs with a division title. But this time it won't be so easy, especially if the Rams use their draft picks wisely and Russell Wilson proves not to have been a flash in the pan, both of which are likely.
The Niners will be around for a while. So will their prime competition in the NFCW.
New England Patriots
The Patriots were probably better than the team that lost the Super Bowl in 2012, but they have a nagging issue. It's called durability, and it's haunted them since the first days of their dynastic decade-plus. Few today recall names like Earthwind Moreland, but he was part of the secondary on a 14-2 champion due to attrition. Even Tom Brady surfaced from the bench because of an injury.
If New England had entered the playoffs healthy and stayed that way, there's no question they would have been odds-on to win. But Julian Edelman, having a contract year, went down. Donte Stallworth, brought in to replace him, went down after one brilliant catch. Rob Gronkowski was unhealthy when it counted for the second year in a row. Chandler Jones had no ankles left and his pass rush was missed against Baltimore. Aqib Talib went down in the first half against the Ravens, freeing Anquan Boldin. As usual for the deep Patriots, it came down to one game where you are missing not just several pieces, but several critical pieces. Others seem to get healthy just in time. Not New England.
It's who they are. The Patriots are built on depth and, like a Japanese industrial juggernaut, on faceless pieces, at least in theory. They win at the pace they've set because players go above and beyond their ability and endurance. You can't just flip a switch and fix that.
A lot of talk centers on Tom Brady, who has come up visibly short in big games in recent years. His reduced weapon set in some of those games is partially to blame, but so is his own body. He's not as young as he used to be. That could be the biggest factor in New England's durability issues. And his will to win and ability to motivate have come into fair question.
Still, regardless of the draft (this is the year Haynesworth and Ocho bite them) or free agency (including their own with Welker, Edelman and Talib), they should be back. And as usual for the past six years, things will depend a lot on what's left when the big games roll around, as much as on who's hot and who's not. They aren't likely to focus on the distant future. B&B are getting up there.
Eternal bridesmaids, the Falcons are better than their playoff record indicates. They have plenty of tools, a good quarterback, and could easily have been in the Super Bowl.
Is Gonzalez done? Is he pulling a Favre? Whichever, Atlanta's roster should continue strong. Yes, they have issues with the pass rush and with other facets of their game, but they aren't irreparable.
They do have a question mark or two in their own division. It's not the Panthers. They may have finished strong, but it was after the pressure came off. They're still a show-me. It could be the Bucs, whose rise to the top popped like a bubble, and who no longer seemed reliable enough on offense. But they saw the emergence of a new rushing star, and the onus is being put on Freeman to deliver the goods by his coach. Captain Comeback will have to engender his own revival. But really, the anticipated threat is New Orleans, whose coaching tree seems back in bloom. Will that propel them back to the top?
It's doubtful. The Saints have issues that breaking legs and popping pills won't cure. They are a team past its peak, though still formidable. The Falcons are a team at its peak. But they won't have another divisional vacation this year, that's for sure.
Atlanta's downside is that they achieved their fine record largely by coming on strong late in bad games. While that's a great sign of character when infrequent, it's not a good modus operandi. They have a tendency to run hot and cold. That has to be fixed. Can it be fixed under the current regime?
They'll likely be in the mix again. Will they shoot to the very top this time? Probably not, but they have as good a chance as anyone.
Here's a mystery team for the ages. Talent abounds. The lines are strong. Some of the players are otherworldly monsters who've redefined their positions. JJ Watt swats passes down like Bill Russell blocking shots. They have a great runner, and he's durable. They have a star receiver. The QB doesn't get much respect, but he gets yards. Sure, they could use more depth. But they're missing something else.
The Texans didn't finish strong, and that's one barometer of their trouble. The other is a pair of absolute blowout losses to New England. What's that all about? Why did the Patriots manhandle them almost at will?
Well, the Patriots are pretty good, for starters. And the games were in Foxboro. But the Texans showed little ability to move the ball when their star RB and star WR were blanketed. And their defense, despite getting pressure, wasn't able to cope with New England's blitzkreig offense. It's also believable that the effect of the first blowout was cumulative, knocking some of the stuffing out of the confident Texans.
It may also be that the wily Patriots just had the Texans figured out better than most by the time they played. They weren't alone in having the book, though. Houston's meteoric rise turned into a struggle as the season wore on. You have to adjust. They appeared not to know how nor much care to. They fell from a shoo-in #1 seed to the wildcard round, nearly blowing the division to the Colts in the process.
Houston is fairly deep. They lost Mario Williams last year and the defensive line improved. The microscope will again be on the coach, who was on the hot seat for underachievement prior to 2012. That seat, cool and comfy at midseason, will have a hair trigger on the heating coil if Houston stumbles out of the block.
Last question mark for the Texans --- how much of a threat are the Colts? It's a question that won't be answered before the season begins, but logic would seem to indicate that Houston is the AFCS team to beat for the near future at least, and ought to be a playoff contender again. But make no mistake --- Indy has put a scare into them. And will they finally win it all? Past history says no. They still haven't won at Indy. They sure as heck can't count on winning in Foxboro.
Peyton Manning had the same problem this season as rival Tom Brady --- both ran into a red-hot Ravens squad with a metamorphic quarterback and big, talented receivers. It's a hard thing to beat, even for them. But Manning's first year with a new team was otherwise an unqualified success.
The Broncos had the best record in the AFC at 13-3. Yes, it was aided by their division's abysmal performance, but they played well enough otherwise. You're never out of it with Manning, it seems. And the aging star should actually improve as the effects of his injury and layoff fade away. Plus, they have the best home-field advantage this side of Seattle.
So as he usually does in throwing the ball, Manning chose wisely in finding a home. Not even the most ardent pessimist could, at this point, predict that Denver will finish anywhere but first in the AFCW. That's a good playoff booster shot.
Denver has free agents to deal with, but may have cap space to go hunting if they can talk Manning into a contract restructure, which should be easy. He's not there to get rich. They also have six draft picks. They will use them wisely. Elway knows that Manning's window isn't going to stay open long. They will contend again, and considering their division, likely earn a bye.
The Hawks benefitted from a couple of game-changing bad calls early on, but they seized the opportunity and finished like a near-champ. Russell Wilson came out of nowhere. Marshawn Lynch was unstoppable. The defense pummeled opponents. And this is mostly a young team.
Wilson doesn't look like a flash in the pan. He improved as the season went on, and his team went from likely also-ran to the dark horse you didn't want to play if you could avoid it. There's no reason to think that trend won't continue.
Seattle's biggest challenge will be getting into the playoffs. San Francisco's level will help determine that. The Seahawks are plenty good enough to knock off the Niners in the division if they can win a reasonable number of road games, but the Roadhawks are one of the league's worst contenders, whereas the Homehawks are among the league's best.
Ultimately, San Francisco's consistency ought to get them past Seattle in the division. What that leaves will be a possible wildcard. And that means the road. It's a tossup from there.
Green Bay Packers
The Pack's latest ascendency may have seen its peak. There's little evidence that the Super Bowl champ that nearly went undefeated before being deflated back in 2011 has righted its ship enough to do more than escape its own division. The Vikings were an unseen threat this season, but look in hindsight more like a one-year wonder than an up-and-comer. The Lions, full of talent, imploded. The Bears are too reliant on a few vital cogs, and can't keep them healthy.
All of that leaves us with a likely NFCN winner with possibly nowhere to go. The Pack need to improve their defense. It's not like the '60s anymore. You can't rely just on aging as an attrition factor. And they aren't exactly starting with Lee Roy Jordan, Ray Nitschke and Herb Adderley. The offense has a great QB, but there's no sign of Jim Taylor getting 3 yards whenever you need them, nor of Paul Hornung sweeping for 10 yards behind Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston. They need a running game. And for all of their receiving talent, the loss of Donald Driver can't be a plus. Most tellingly, the trenches weren't up to title snuff on either side of the ball.
The Packers are still easily strong enough to contend, provided Chicago doesn't finally hit the lottery (or maybe just the law of averages) and stay healthy, and provided the Lions remain in a funk of shoddy discipline, something the release of Titus Young may help rectify. But they no longer seem a lock to get to the big dance. Like the Saints and Giants, they seem perhaps on the downside of their recent success. Their offseason actions may be crucial.
If there's an intriguing story in the NFL, the Redskins are it. Carried by their running rookie QB, they proved less than dynamic when he was partially immobilized. Now his prospects for longevity are in extreme doubt, as is the coming season. Fortunately for them, they had the foresight to draft yet another talented rookie. He may be their hope for the near future. The Skins have been trying to dodge the NFL's TV-scheduling questions about Griffin's timetable until the summer. Bringing him back early may prove disasterous. His mobility and fragility will be a concern when he does return.
So, presuming Captain Kirk opens the season, what is the future? The team won't look too different next season, with that one glaring transformation. Their future in any case is inextricably tied to their divisional competition. Cousins, from the more-than-glimpses seen of him, is capable of leading the offense perhaps as well as RG3. But it's all in other hands.
The Giants are a question mark as always. They have a 2-time SB-winner at QB. They have strong lines. They have a good big-game coach. What they lack is consistency. The Eagles, the Dream Team that became a nightmare, come off back-to-back disasters that have changed their personnel --- but maybe not their persona. Andy Reid is gone. So was Mike Vick. Now it looks like he's coming back. Teammates are lobbying for him. That almost certainly means he'll start, and we all know by now what happens when that happens. He may be Washington's best friend. Meanwhile, if the Cowboys haven't been demoralized by now, they never will be. Jerry will clearly begin to dictate specifics to the coach. Again, we all know what happens when that happens.
Still, all of these teams are strong enough to beat Washington. The Skins aren't likely to hit total pay dirt, RG3 or no RG3. Likewise, though, they are strong enough to win against such erratic competition. Will this be their year again in the NFCE? I wouldn't bet against it --- or for it.
These guys are so close to being really good. The defense is strong. The offense has a young QB who's proven clutch and a star WR, among other good points. But they're at that level that makes you wonder. They are certainly built for their division, and it's more formidable if you assume the Steelers will be back for another run. But they can't beat Houston in the playoffs. So far they're the only team that can make that claim.
Their tactical coaching is suspect. Many times they seem to win games in spite of odd play calling and clock management, as great plays in the nick of time keep them going. Alas, the coaching isn't likely to improve on a tactical level.
It's possible they could pound their way out of the AFCN into the playoffs again and even win it all with a Raven-like hot streak. It's highly unlikely. They seem at best high second-tier talent. But they also seem a contender for a wildcard spot.
Was the past season a revival of a talented team, a rebuilding program producing fruit, or a defense and running back carrying an overachiever? Maybe all of the above? Maybe an illusion?
The Vikings proved a competitive match for any team in their division, much to the shock of most. But this isn't a bunch of kids hitting stride in tandem. Rather, it's newbies combined with the deteriorating core of a prime contender. That's not necessarily a prescription for improvement. Christian Ponder has proven a dynamic force at times, but a helpless figure at others. Still, he's not the reason they may not be considered a serious threat in their division. The Vikings are at best the Bengals of the NFCN. This year still might produce wildcard status if the Bears and Lions lie down again, but that's it. Else... they're probably the Browns.
How did this team do what it did, nearly catching the uncatchable Texans before coming down to earth in the wildcard round of the playoffs? Was it Andrew Luck who, despite frequently completing fewer than half his passes, as frequently led great comebacks? Was it the inspiration of an ailing head coach? Was it the moon?
The success of the Colts was unanticipated for a team gutted and packed with raw rookies alongside aging veterans. In that sense they're not unlike Minnesota. But the Colts blew it up. Minny didn't. This was Phase One of the post-Manning rebuild, and it outdid itself.
Phase Two isn't likely to continue at that pace, one would think. If it did, they'd go 19-0. Still, all those rookies ought to be better, and will be joined by even more this time around. The Colts aren't likely to trade the farm for that 'one piece' that gets them over the top, as others like Cleveland seem inclined to do (and to pay for). They seem more realistic than that.
That they will finish second at worst in the AFCS seems probable. Unseating the Texans may prove daunting, though another 11-5 (.688) year might do it. Unless this season was a complete fluke, they ought to contend at least for a wildcard. In the playoffs, they didn't lose to anybody that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick didn't lose to. And those teams combined for a .766 winning percentage.