Perhaps no team knows how hard it is to win a Super Bowl more-so than the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s. More recently, however (given the ever-changing landscape of the league), teams are finding just a spot in the heavily coveted post-season more difficult than years prior. Despite lofty expectations and assumed invites to the playoff party, undoubtedly there will be 2011 playoff teams unable to make it back in 2012.
Cincinnati Bengals: Very few expected the Bengals (with a rookie quarterback in a strike shortened off-season facing the toughest defenses in the AFC six times) to make the playoffs in 2011. Certainly a shock in 2011, I would be just as shocked if the Bengals were able to repeat their feat in 2012. A 4-12 season in 2010 made for a pleasant schedule in 2011, especially to kick the season off as the Bengals faced only 2 playoff teams (one being the 8-8 Tebow-less Broncos) in the first 9 games. The Bengals racked up wins, and perhaps more important, confidence in themselves. However, the Bengals ended 2011 without defeating 1 playoff team, showing their true colors and leaving me unconvinced of playoff prospects for 2012. The Bengals open against Division champion Baltimore, facing what will undoubtedly be an improved Redskins team in week 3 and seeing division rival Pittsburgh in week 7. Going into their bye, Cincinnati will lucky to be 4-3 with not only division foes waiting on the other end of the bye, but the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants. Cincinnati proved in 2011 they are trending in the right direction, but are not strong enough to become a staple of the playoffs just yet.
Atlanta Falcons: 2 seasons ago, the Atlanta Falcons finished one of the best seasons in franchise history and appeared to solidify their spot as one of the usual suspects for the postseason. Unfortunately for Atlanta in 2010, they ran into the buzzsaw that was Aaron Rodgers and the team has not looked the same since. Playing 6 games against playoff competition in 2011, Atlanta finished 1-5; despite finishing the season earning a wild card berth, the Falcons were again embarrassed by the eventual Super Bowl champ in the opening round. Falcon fans will point to those 2 playoff losses and find solace in the fact it was the eventual champ, but comfort is unwarranted as in both cases Atlanta did not even belong on the same field as either team. Michael Turner has reached that anti-magical year for NFL running backs and (outside of a spectacular performance against a horrid Tampa defense in week 17) really struggled down the stretch. Perhaps too expensive Julio Jones flashed at times, but struggled with injuries and drops throughout the season. The Falcons are attempting to transition to a more pass happy offense, but will have to do so without departed offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. There are concerns too in Matt Ryan's abilities to lead a pass heavy offense, perhaps complicated by major questions surrounding his offensive line. On top of everything, Atlanta sees a division in the NFC South greatly improved from 2011. Cam Newton and Carolina are surging and Tampa Bay made immense changes for the better in the off-season, not even mentioning Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. The Falcons will struggle within their own division and after making the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history, will find themselves missing out in 2012.
New York Giants: Perhaps the most controversial of the 3, Super Bowl champion New York Giant fans managed to both call for their head coaches firing and celebrate his success in a matter of weeks. A tale of 3 seasons, New York started the season 6-2, including a dramatic win over Brady and the Pats in Foxborough. Perhaps it was injuries catching up to them or boredom (maybe both), but curiously 4 short weeks later New York was 6-6 and on the verge of missing the playoffs. Backed into a corner and riding momentum, a lucky and good Giants team raised the Lombardi trophy in 2011. However, despite still being a good (great at times) team, New York will not be so lucky in 2012. Playing in the best division in football and with each team improving dramatically around them, 9-7 will not be good enough in 2012. I think it is fair to say 2011 was an anomaly for the Eagles; where deficiencies existed before, they have done a tremendous job attacking those weak spots. Dallas was one spectacular Eli Manning drive in week 14 from eliminating the Giants before their dramatic run. Like the Eagles, the Cowboys drastically improved their weakest link, retooling and rebuilding their defensive back field. The Redskins managed to sweep the Giants in 2011 and did so with Rex Grossman at quarterback; what is to happen with Robert Griffin III running the show? While every team in the NFC East improved, all signs point to the Giants being stagnant at best or what the NFL refers to as regressing. Most damning of all, however, is the Giants' most recent success working against them. The Giants, a team that has chronically struggled with consistency, lack the discipline to combat a rising division and will find themselves on the outside looking in, missing the chance at repeating in 2012.