Things can change quickly in the NFL. One year a team may be raising the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season and the next, the team may be sitting at home waiting for another one to raise the trophy.
The Denver Broncos, who were last year’s Super Bowl champions, are sitting at home, and another team will win a title this year. Runner-up the Carolina Panthers missed the playoffs, too.
A multitude of reasons for teams falling off after making the playoffs, including free agents leaving, player retirements, coaching changes and, of course, injuries, exist.
The exact opposite can happen for teams that make the playoffs after missing out the year before, with reasons such as key free-agent signings, injury-free seasons, smart draft choices and a great coaching hire.
The Broncos struggled in the first season after Peyton Manning retired. While the defense was its dominant self, the offense struggled without a strong quarterback.
Injuries and free agent losses were big reasons for the Panthers’ slide, but so was quarterback Cam Newton’s play. He wasn’t nearly as good this season as last. Denver also struggled at quarterback due to the lack of a halfway decent running game.
Of the 12 teams that reached the playoffs last season, only six reached the postseason again this year. Four of those were in the AFC: the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans.
Things are drastically different in the NFC. Just the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers returned to the postseason.
In the AFC, the Cincinnati Bengals went 12-4 last season but went 6-9-1 this season. Nearly every team in the AFC playoff field bettered its record from 2015, except the Houston Texans, who finished 9-7 both years.
Top seeded New England went from 12-4 last year to 14-2 this year, and that was without quarterback Tom Brady for four games. Second seed Kansas City went 11-5 in 2015 and finished 12-4 this year.
Third-seeded Pittsburgh improved one game from 10-6 in 2015 to 11-5 this season. The Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders went from out of the playoffs to in the playoffs.
Miami was 6-10 last year but improved to 10-6 this year, and in 2015, Oakland was 7-9 but went 12-4 in another dramatic turnaround in 2016. These two teams give hope to every AFC team that finished with a losing record.
Things were vastly different in the NFC, where four teams from last season failed to make the playoffs. The two repeat teams, Green Bay and Seattle, basically held serve from 2015 to 2016. The Packers went 10-6 both seasons, and the Seahawks went from 10-6 to 10-5-1.
Besides the Panthers, last year’s second seed in the NFC, the Arizona Cardinals, went from 13-3 to 7-8-1. The Minnesota Vikings went from 11-5 in 2015 to 8-8 this year, as injuries hit the team hard.
The Washington Redskins went from 9-7 last year to 8-7-1 in 2016. Nearly every team that made the playoffs last season was in the running until late this season.
A ton of turnaround teams were in the NFC, with the Dallas Cowboys leading them. The return to prominence came from rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, as the Cowboys went from 4-12 in 2015 to 13-3 this season.
The Atlanta Falcons went from 8-8 last season to 11-5 this year. The New York Giants went from 6-10 in 2015 to 11-5 this year. Finally, the Detroit Lions went from 7-9 last year to 9-7 this year.
A lot went right for the NFC teams that made the playoffs this season. But mainly, Dallas didn’t have a quarterback injury, and New York, Detroit and Atlanta got better quarterback play out of Eli Manning, Matt Stafford and Matt Ryan, respectively.
It will be interesting to see how these new 2016 playoff teams fare against the remaining 2015 playoff teams. Will the teams in this year’s Super Bowl be new additions to the playoffs, or will a team that was close last season have a break through?
We will begin to find out when Wild Card weekend, this Saturday and Sunday, begin the playoffs and the quest for a title.