Odds are, even long shots can win

Which of these perennial losers can end drought?

September 05, 2010|By Sam Farmer

The NFL is built on competitive balance and the notion that any team from any sized market has a reasonable chance of winning the Super Bowl.

Not many people predicted the Saints, among the most downtrodden organizations in sports, ever would hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Now, they are defending champions.

But changes at the top are what the NFL is all about — with every season, churn, churn, churn.

In each of the last 14 seasons, at least five teams have made the playoffs after missing them the season before. Last season, it was the Bengals, Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, Saints and Jets.

What's more, for the league-record seventh consecutive season at least one team made the worst-to-first switcheroo in its division. That was the Saints, who went 8-8 in 2008 to 13-3 in 2009. They also became the third franchise since 1999 to go from the bottom to a Super Bowl victory in a year, joining the 1999 Rams and 2001 Patriots.

But seven franchises have gone at least five seasons without making the playoffs, led by the Lions and Bills, both of whom have endured 10-season droughts. The others are the Texans, who have yet to make the playoffs in their eight seasons, Browns (seven), 49ers (seven), Raiders (seven) and Rams (five). A look at why they will — or won't — make the playoffs this season:

Lions

They're in! With Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on one side of the ball, and Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch on the other, these guys have to be better than the teams that lost 30 games over the last two seasons.

They're out! Jim Schwartz has an outstanding defensive mind, but his starting middle linebacker, DeAndre Levy, and his best safety, (Louis Delmas, are dealing with groin injuries, and linebacker Zack Follett has gone from being cut last year to a starting job. That's desperation.

The real deal: Optimistically speaking, the Lions are at least a couple of solid years away from being playoff contenders, especially in the tough NFC North.

Bills

They're in! Have you seen C.J. Spiller? The rookie running back from Clemson has looked terrific so far, with three touchdowns in exhibitions and three runs of 20-plus yards. He's the type who can make even an average offensive line look great.

They're out! The Bills would kill for an average offensive line. They're decent in the interior, but their tackles stink. The two biggest hits quarterback Trent Edwards took this summer were when right tackle Cornell Green got beat, and left tackle Demetrius Bell was among the league's most penalized linemen last season — in eight games.

The real deal: If any team has a chance to go 0-16, it's the Bills.

Texans

They're in! The Texans have inched their way to respectability, finishing 9-7 last year for their first winning season in franchise history. Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson can be a scary combination, in a good way.

They're out! Linebacker Brian Cushing, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year in both a vote and re-vote, is suspended for the first four games for using a banned substance. That's a big setback for the Texans.

The real deal: A wild-card spot is a possibility, but the AFC South still belongs to the Colts.

Browns

They're in! Not everyone noticed, but the Browns finished the 2009 season with four victories. Mike Holmgren will change the culture in Cleveland, and the addition of players such as linebacker Scott Fujita is one of the ways.

They're out! Jake Delhomme, the ninth starting quarterback in 12 years to open the season for the Browns, has yet to prove he can be the player he once was. Receiver/returner Joshua Cribbs is explosive, but otherwise the team lacks speed in a big way.

The real deal: If the Browns can improve on last season's 5-11 record, they can break out the bubbly. There's still a significant talent gap between them and the rest of the division, and the middle of their schedule is a beast.

49ers

They're in! For the first time in a long while, the 49ers are the stable ones in their division — no changes at head coach, offensive or defensive coordinators or quarterback. In addition, Frank Gore is going to run better behind a more reliable line, even though they are starting two rookies and a veteran who hasn't played center since college.

They're out! The 49ers have depth problems at cornerback and speed issues in the secondary as a whole. Thing is, who in the division can exploit that?

The real deal: The 49ers will make it back to the playoffs this season, taking the next step after going 5-1 in the division and sweeping the Cardinals in 2009.

Raiders

They're in! Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha feels better about this Raiders team than any he has played on before. That starts with the change at quarterback. Jason Campbell isn't spectacular, but he sure beats JaMarcus Russell. Rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain could be outstanding.

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