We're mixing it up again going into the playoffs. In an up and down year, six of the 13 SPF teams made the playoffs. Two, Washington and Tennessee, made it in the final weekend.
SPF is rooting for an all-Footprint Super Bowl, and this isn't out of the realm of possibility. Let's take a look:
1. Dallas Cowboys - This team is still number one because their fans are excited about home field in the playoffs, but there are some chinks in the armor. The Cowboys are probably not as good as their record. The offense has sputtered a bit, and the defense was erratic all season.
Randy Galloway is pressing the panic button. He probably is doing so a bit early - even the undefeated Pats looked human in December. The fact is that all NFL teams usually get better over the course of a season unless serious injuries issues arise.
Still, the Cowboys have to stay focused in their bye week. Other teams are circling around their front office people and their coaching staff (Jason Garrett and Tony Sparano). This comes with success.
Wade Phillips will have to show what he's all about - especially if the Cowboys end up facing the Redskins in two weeks.
2. Indianapolis Colts - SPF continues to keep is short and sweet in regards to Indy. This team is a machine. Things look mighty good for another Super Bowl win.
The Pats are worn down. The Colts have the number of every other team in the AFC. The NFC doesn't look all that tough.
This team has unflappable leaders. That is its strength.
3. Washington Redskins - They're back! The Redskins were cellar dwellers in the Poll throughout a good chunk of this season. Now, they have found themselves behind a very unlikely player - Todd Collins. Tom Boswell neatly summarizes Collins' effect on the rest of the team.
Sean Taylor's tragic death aside, the Redskins were already in turmoil before that fateful day. Gibbs was out of sync with his coordinators. He was spoonfeeding a young QB, Jason Campbell, while his offensive veterans were being underutilized. This led to problems with his defense because they were asked to do too much.
Todd Collins' history with OC Al Saunders made it all click thanks to Jason Campbell's injury. Collins can execute the offense perfectly allowing the team's investment in solid offensive veterans like Clinton Portis and Antwaan Randel-El to finally pay off.
The Redskin now have an immediate future as a playoff upstart and a long term future as an elite team. Collins is the perfect bridge to Campbell's long term ascendency to the starter's role.
Gibbs now can come back as head coach, and he can do so as a winner once again. Things are very bright in Redskins Country.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars - Close behind the Redskins are the Jacksonville Jaguars, another team that has felt the cold, cold bottom of our Poll. Like the Skins, the Jags found their magic over the course of a season, also behind a connection between OC and offensive personnel.
SPF has been very consistent in its criticism of the Jags under Jack Del Rio - he didn't make the most of his stable of offensive playmaker. First year OC Dirk Koetter has fixed that issue.
The Jags are loaded on offense which is why it made no sense when they were playing 13-9 slugfests each week. Now, Koetter has QB David Garrard distributing the ball to all the WRs, TEs, and RBs, as well as having a lethal, 1-2 punch in the backfield with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Meanwhile, the defense is as solid as ever. The secondary has an occasional lapse, but they are young.
Jacksonville now heads to Pittsburgh to play a team they completely dominated in the snow a few weeks back. This Pittsburgh team will be ready to play. The Jags are the better team, however, and they should show it.
SPF expects the Jags to win. They need to in order to keep their momentum going.
This team is a Super Bowl caliber unit. The Jags might not make it this year because of the experience in New England and Indy, but they need to show that they are right behind both of those teams.
5. Tennessee Titans - The Titans also found themselves over the course of a season. For while when they were 6-2, they were thoughts that the Titans were on the verge of competing with Indy. That wasn't the case, but it shouldn't have been expected either. The Titans are extremely young.
Heading into their road game against San Diego, the Titans remember fumbling a sure win against this same team only a few weeks back. They will be hoping for revenge.
The debate about Vince Young versus Kerry Collins is a great problem to have. The Titans now have depth and experience on offense. They can win this game.
It would speak volumes about the AFC South if both the Titans and the Jags win this weekend.
6. Tampa Bay Bucs - SPF is sounding the alarm in Tampa. The Bucs are clearly the thinest team in the playoffs with the least future upside. They skated into the post season in an incredibly down year in the NFC South. Both the Falcons and the Panthers lost their starting QBs and the Saints lost their focus. Still the Bucs only finished two games ahead as the division winner.
Jon Gruden fixates on old players because they can best execute his system. However, fossils like Jeff Garcia and Joey Galloway have only a few miles left in their tanks.
The biggest issue may be the potential loss of DC Monte Kiffin. The Oakland press is reporting that HC Lane Kiffin may bring in his father while the Tampa media tries to deny it. It seems unlikey due to Monte's large contract, but Al Davis knows his time is short. He wants to see another winner before he kicks it. That may give him the push to take Monte away from the Bucs.
SPF is sure that watching Jon Gruden dismantle his Raiders in the Super Bowl still stings Davis. He would like nothing better than to steal away the Bucs most important asset.
Monte Kiffin is simply the best DC in football. Unlike his HC Gruden who struggles to make his young offensive players productive and effective, Kiffin has completely rebuilt the Bucs defense even though he has lost key assistants and personnel in recent years.
If the Bucs lose Monte Kiffin, next season could be very, very ugly.
The Bucs must win against NY on Sunday. The Bucs must also keep winning. They are the thinest team, but they are also have the most experienced playoff leadership in the NFC outside of Green Bay's Brett Favre.
The Bucs can't win a Super Bowl, but they have the goods to at least play in one this year.
Gruden better hope that his investment in the oldies set pays off during this playoff season.
READY TO MAKE A LEAP
7. Miami Dolphins - The Dolphins are at the top of the list of non-playoff teams because they are finally heading in the right direction. Wayne Huizenga is a "hands off" owner. That is usually a good thing unless the guys you have are incompetent (Dave Wannstedt/Rick Spielman and Cam Cameron/Randy Mueller) or wish to be elsewhere (Nick Saban).
With Bill Parcells at the helm of the Dolphins, this should be a marriage that works. Parcells thrives when he has a good relationship with ownership. His short, but effective, tenure with the Jets showed that he can quickly assemble a winner if left alone, something that Huizenga will do.
Parcells will target people he has worked with before. That list would include Tony Sparano, who is already getting an interview with the Falcons. Another name could be Tom Coughlin, currently coaching the NY Giants. Coughlin is in the last year of his deal. If the Giants don't win in Tampa on Sunday, he might go. He can walk on his own if he wishes, and he might do so.
SPF thinks that a trio of Parcells, Ireland, and Coughlin would be a major coup for the Dolphins. Possibilities like this are what having Parcells as your main guy is all about.
(Let's also not forget that the AFC East is a horrible division. The Dolphins could make a big jump next season on that basis alone.)
8. Houston Texans - The Texans are in a tough spot. This franchise has struggled mightily since entering the league a few years back. Bob McNair is another "hands off" owner who has been burned by putting trust in the wrong people like Dom Capers and Charley Casserly. The franchise's blind faith in former number one QB David Carr crippled the team. Carr is a total and complete bust as an NFL QB. Carolina found this out when Jake Delhomme went down for the season.
Now, the Texans have a new challenge. Richard Justice is no longer just a rah rah rooter for the new Kubiak regime. He rightly is placing expectations on the Texans who finally registered a non--losing season. Being decent is no longer good enough.
The Texans have the unfortunate luck of being in the best division in football, the AFC South, with all the teams ahead of them being either elite (the Colts) or young and on the rise (Jags and Titans). The Texans might be able to win the AFC West, but they don't have that luxury.
Despite all of the odds against them, injuries always play a factor. The NFC South was crippled by injuries that skewed the meaning of the Bucs division win this season. The Texans could be the beneficiary of that same kind of luck next season.
That is why the team must get better everywhere. They must find a RB that can threaten the defense. They must make the defense better so that Mario Williams can fully blossom.
The Texans are playing with the big boys now. They have to start measuring up to that challenge.
AT THE CROSSROADS
9. New Orleans Saints - Was this team as good as its NFC title game run last year or was that a Katrina-fueled aberration? This season didn't fully answer the question. There is little doubt that the Saints have top shelf offensive talent. However, their defense is not working.
SPF thinks that the Saints merely read too much of their own off season press. Reggie Bush isn't a bust, but he isn't an every down back. The Saints need to find ways to capitalize on his athleticism. Drew Brees is a strong QB and having one of those is critical in the NFL.
7-9 isn't great, but it is only one game under .500. The Saints are still young. All they need is a little more focus and hunger to compete in the NFC South come next year.
10. Carolina Panthers - The Panthers lie at an important crossroads. In some ways, the team isn't far off. We've already made mention of the Bucs tenuous grasp on the NFC South. With all of their problems, the Panthers only finished two games behind them.
Still, there are cracks in the foundation of this team. First and foremost, the potential re-emergence of the Redskins hurts the Panthers. The Redskins are the historical team of the Panthers' region and this creates a comparison between the teams that will not favor the Panthers.
Not a lot separates teams in the NFL so the Panthers should expect to leap back into the realm of the playoffs. Fox has many questions to answer. Can he finally build a young, productive offense? Can he bring back the defensive intensity that defined the Panthers in his previous years as coach?
If Fox can't answer those questions sufficiently, expect a coaching change for 2009.
(SPF thinks the only reason it isn't happening this year is that there isn't a great replacement candidate out there something that could change with Bill Cowher's expected re-entry into coaching by the 2009 season.)
11. Cincinnati Bengals - This is it for Marvin Lewis. SPF warned about staying close to Carson Palmer. Now, Palmer suggest on the team's own website that the current coaching staff does not have the ability to take the team to the "next level".
Lewis is in a bad position. The Bengals have a very cheap owner who hasn't realized that the NFL has moved into the next century. Lewis worked better when the salary cap was lower and the talent disparities were closer. That isn't the case anymore and the Bengals lack of resources puts this franchise in a problem area.
Lewis has to find a way to make things work by weeding out the selfish players without stripping the team of its talent. This may prove difficult to do.
He begins the process by overhauling his defensive staff. Lewis didn't want to do it, but he had to in order to save his credibility.
Palmer is an elite QB that deserves an organization that can build a winner around him. Next season will tell whether Cincinnati is that place or not.
DOWN IN THE HOLE
12. Atlanta Falcons - SPF has been merciless on the Falcons this season, but help is on the way. We firmly believe that it is better to bottom out quickly than to do so over time. The Falcons flamed out completely and totally.
However, the team is not that far away. There is plenty of talent on the roster. The defense is young and aggressive. It only needs some discipline and a few tweaks.
Two holes need to be filled - player personnel and coach. The roster has a decent foundation. Arthur Blank has hopefully learned his lesson about being too involved with his players. Rich McKay can focus on stadium issues and other marketing efforts that he specializes in.
SPF thinks the answer is pretty clear - go raid the Colts! Jim Caldwell can be your coach and then find the best guy available who learned at the foot of Bill Polian. Caldwell is the perfect fit. He has been around Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning. This experience and his head coaching at Wake Forest make him Atlanta's perfect fit.
Atlanta must draft a QB in round one and develop him. They must also be able to identify a veteran QB to lead the team in the interim. They also must have a public face that connects with Atlanta. Caldwell is all of those things.
SPF also isn't afraid to say that Caldwell being African-American is a major plus. He is thoughtful and articulate like Tony Dungy. If he has Dungy's ability to reach players as disparate as Peyton Manning and Warren Sapp, then he is the man to bring on board.
Caldwell and a great personnel guy can quickly turn the Falcons around. The NFC South is up for grabs.
(After this was written, the news broke that Arthur Blank and Rich McKay are interviewing Jim Caldwell and Chris Polian, the Colts vice president of football operations and the son of team president Bill Polian. Glad to hear that SPF is in sync with Arthur Blank's thought process. The Falcons could be moving up in the Poll if they hire these two gentlemen)
13. St Louis Rams - Why are they at the bottom? SPF isn't even sure if this team will be a part of our Footprint by the decade's end.
Jeff Gordon nails it. His piece about the Rams future in St Louis is both grim and accurate. As a franchise, the Rams have nothing going for it. Ownership is bad. The management is rudderless. The coach has lost the respect of his veterans, yet is returning. The roster is filled with veterans who don't like the coach. The player personnel man might be canned in a scapegoat move.
Beyond that, the St Louis market is oversaturated. The stadium is already outdated. The worst thing is that the fan support has eroded. None of these things are good signs for a franchise that is teetering.
Still, St Louis is an amazing sports market. The hope of this franchise lies in an ownership change.