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NEW TGS COVER STORY...NFL SEASON REVIEWS AND DIV. ROUND NOTEBOOK
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The weeks following the conclusion of the NFL regular season can be newsworthy, even for teams that don't make the playoffs. Especially for franchises looking for new head coaches (at the moment there are six--Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago, NY Jets, Oakland, San Francisco).

Thus, the NFL version of the "coaching carousel" figures to continuing spinning up to (and perhaps slightly after) the Super Bowl. Keep an eye on a collection of current NFL assistants that likely include Seattle d.c. Dan Quinn, Seattle o.c. Darrell Bevell, Arizona d.c. Todd Bowles, Denver o.c. Adam Gase, New England o.c. Josh McDaniels, Cincinnati o.c. Hue Jackson, and Detroit d.c. Teryl Austin, and a few others, many of whom likely to be interviewed when their playoff assignments are complete, which also could delay the eventual naming of head coaches by several teams.

Meanwhile, speculation also centers upon those entries that didn't qualify for the postseason, and what changes might be in the offing in the coming months. As we usually like to do at this time of January, a quick review of the past campaign is in order for the non-playoff qualifiers, especially those teams in the market for new head coaches (we'll include some other coaching possibilities beyond those assistants listed above in our team-by-team reviews). All of that before updating NFL Division Round history and notes.

First, a quick look at the offseason situations for those teams that did not qualify for the playoffs, listed in alphabetical order by conference. Straight-up records for 2014 are included.

AFC


Buffalo (9-7)...Despite posting a winning record for the first time since 2004 and avoiding the AFC East basement for the first time in six years, the Bills' NFL-long postseason drought extended to 15 seasons. Now they enter the offseason with a couple of serious issues. First, at QB, where effective stop-gap Kyle Orton has retired, likely forcing Buffalo to search for a new pilot via the draft or free agency with EJ Manuel no longer appearing a long-term answer. But the real shocker came last week when HC Doug Marrone resigned to pursue job openings elsewhere after the recent sale of the franchise to Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the NHL Sabres. With front office and coaching changes aplenty, and a big question at QB, the Bills, even with some undeniable positives (specifically a "D" that recorded an NFL-high 54 sacks, and promising skill-position weaponry like Clemson rookie WR Sammy Watkins), have several questions to be answered entering 2015.

Cleveland (7-9)...After an early-November Thursday beatdown of the Bengals in Cincinnati, the Browns led the AFC North and were briefly the talk of the NFL. But things fell apart shortly thereafter to the point where HC Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer nearly lost their jobs, as impatient owner Jimmy Haslam toyed with the idea of a fourth Cleveland HC and GM in as many seasons. The steps backward in December have put the Brownies in a familiar place, on the ropes, still with significant questions at QB with Brian Hoyer certain to test the FA waters and Johnny Manziel's maturity issues jeopardizing his future in C-Town. Troubled WR Josh Gordon, suspended again at the end of the regular season, is unlikely to return. After finishing last in completion percentage and third-down conversions, the "O" figures to command most of the offseason attention. At least the D" needs less fine-tuning.

Houston (9-7)...New HC Bill O'Brien proved a shrewd hire by owner Bob McNair, keeping the Texans alive in the AFC playoff chase until the final weekend and forging a 7-win improvement from the 2-14 train wreck of 2013. O'Brien did so with plenty of help from MVP candidate DE J.J. Watt (who also caught three TD passes!) and four different QBs, ending the season winning twice with Case Keenum, released in the summer but signed in an emergency from the Rams' practice squad after Ryan Mallett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Tom Savage all went down in rapid-fire succession late in the season. We'll see if O'Brien sticks with his current options at QB or looks in a different direction in the offseason, where Houston is likely to be active in free agency, especially in the secondary with several of the current DBs now out of contract. Another situation to watch will be that of vet WR Andre Johnson, due a sizable payout in 2015, but a likely candidate to be released unless his contract is restructured.

Jacksonville (3-13)...Though 2nd-year HC Gus Bradley continued to show promise in 2014, the Jags actually regressed in the W-L column (from 4-12 to 3-13). Some of that can be blamed on the growing pains of rookie QB Blake Bortles, who assumed the starting role a bit sooner than expected in what turned out to be an awkward transition from vet Chad Henne. The Jags would finish at or near the bottom of most offensive categories, but at least believe they finally have their franchise QB in place. And the "D" would keep the Jags in most of their games after September. While there is still organizational support for Bradley, who appears to be building a stable foundation, a move toward .500 will nonetheless be expected in 2015. Look for Jags to be seeking upgrades in the OL and secondary in free agency and/or the draft.

Kansas City (9-7)...It was a bittersweet ending for the Chiefs in 2014, beating the Chargers in the finale behind backup QB Chase Daniel, denying San Diego an AFC wildcard while technically jumping ahead of the Bolts to second in the AFC West. But KC would also barely miss the playoffs, as late-season losses at Oakland, Arizona, and Pittsburgh would in the end prevent Andy Reid from back-to-back postseason visits. Reid's offseason priorities are clear, including upgrades at WR after none caught a TD pass from either Alex Smith or Daniel the entire season, as well as along the OL. The Chiefs have a tight cap and will also have to do some creative contract adjustments (perhaps requesting vets such as LB Tamba Hali and WR Dwayne Bowe to take pay cuts) in order to make a stab at re-signing FA LB Justin Houston, the NFL sack leader.

Miami (8-8)...More than a few NFL observers believe owner Stephen Ross acted impulsively in the euphoria of a penultimate win over the Vikings when announcing that HC Joe Philbin (23-25 with no playoff appearances in three seasons) would return for a fourth season in 2015. Miami would subsequently lose to the Jets to complete a December fade for the second year in a row. (Sources have also indicated that Jim Harbaugh might have taken a hard look at Miami had the Dolphin job opened). The good news is that Ryan Tannehill seems established as a legit NFL QB. But Miami enters the offseason looking for upgrades along both lines, while there remains a chance Philbin might part with d.c. Kevin Coyle after the stop unit's late-season collapse.

NY Jets (4-12)...By midseason it was apparent that owner Woody Johnson would be parting ways with HC Rex Ryan and GM John Idzik, which was confirmed on "Black Monday." Johnson has enlisted NFL front-office vets Charlie Casserly and Ron Wolf in an advisory capacity, and they are likely to help Woody arrive at a GM selection before naming a new coach; sources say both positions could be filled within the week (ex-Bills coach Doug Marrone is considered a possibility for the latter). Expect a major roster overhaul to commence thereafter, with more offensive playmakers to be targeted after Eric Decker and Percy Harvin were added this past season. Those moves could also include a new QB, perhaps by moving up in the draft for a chance at Oregon's Marcus Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston (both expected to declare for the draft), though there might be a chance Geno Smith will be brought back for another shot. The new GM and coach will at least have the luxury of considerable cap space, allowing the Jets to make a splash in free agency if they wish.

Oakland (3-13)...For a long while it seemed as if the Raiders might challenge the 2008 Detroit Lions' regular-season mark for futility (0-16) before a mild late-season surge resulted in home wins over the Chiefs, 49ers, and Bills. Those results have given interim HC Tony Sparano a shot at keeping the job, since the team became more competitive after Dennis Allen walked the plank following an 0-4 start. Owner Mark Davis is also reportedly mulling what to do about GM Reggie McKenzie, hired with Allen after the 2011 season when Davis would regrettably jettison HC Hue Jackson, who almost took Oakland to the playoffs. All is not completely bleak in Oakland, however, as some nice potential building blocks (rookies QB Derek Carr & LB Khalil Mack, and 1st-year RB Latavius Murray) emerged in 2014. Before anything, however, Davis has to find his coach for 2015.

San Diego (9-7)...The Chargers matched their 2013 record for second-year HC Mike McKoy, but this time it wasn't good enough to reach the playoffs. Late-season rallies at Baltimore and San Francisco had given the Bolts a chance to squeeze into the postseason field as the year before, but a Week 17 loss in Kansas City wrecked those plans. At QB, Philip Rivers still has some gas in his tank but couldn't maintain his early-season pace, due in part to an inconsistent infantry and lineup shuffling along the OL. By the end of the season the Charger ground game had disappeared, and, with RB Ryan Mathews slated for free agency, the Bolts must decide if his injury history is worth the risk, or hope U of Buffalo rookie Branden Oliver (562 YR) and vet Donald Brown can carry the load. The Mathews decision looms large in offseason plans that also likely include upgrades along both lines.

Tennessee (2-14)...After a promising 26-10 win over the Chiefs in Week One, the Titans won only once more (a 16-14 squeaker over the Jags) in a massively disappointing season for first-year HC Ken Whisenhunt, whose stern, tough-love style apparently didn't resonate. It was the franchise's worst record since 1994 when the team was based in Houston. After giving up on injury-prone, FA-to-be QB Jake Locker at midseason, Whisenhunt gave an audition to LSU rookie Zach Mettenberger, who showed some promise but only had a few weeks at the helm of the offense before going down with injury. With Locker surely walking, did Whisenhunt see enough in Mettenberger to hand him the job in 2015, or will the coach look elsewhere at QB? There have been rumors that Jay Cutler could return to Nashville (where he starred in college at Vandy), and Tennessee does have the second choice in the draft, where at worst it could have either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, if both declare as expected. Roster needs are many, however, with recent attempts to upgrade the OL and locating a featured pass rusher having failed. Lots of work to do at LP Field.

NFC


Atlanta (6-10)...In the end it was a pretty easy call for owner Arthur Blank to jettison HC Mike Smith, under whom the Falcs had regressed over the past two years after playoff berths in four of the previous five seasons. Atlanta stayed in the NFC South race until Week 17 in 2014 only because the division was so bad, and a 34-3 blowout by Carolina in the South-decider would seal Smith's fate. The operation became stale the past couple of seasons, and the new coach will have some reclamation work to do with a "D" that ranked near the bottom in all relevant stats. (Interestingly, Rex Ryan is apparently being given a serious look by Blank and GM Thomas Dimitroff, who is being retained.) Specific offseason target areas are likely to be along the OL to bolster pass protection and in the defensive front seven, where a pass-rush specialist or two could be used. The new coach will inherit a nice nucleus of offensive weapons, with QB Matt Ryan entering his prime years and a dangerous receiving corps led by Julio Jones and Roddy White. This might not be the worst job for a coach to inherit.

Chicago (5-11)...Where to start? Dysfunction with a capital "D" at Soldier Field led to the Bears hitting the eject button on both HC Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery at the conclusion of the season. After finding a new coach and GM, Chicago must decide what to do with QB Jay Cutler, still owned $15.5 million in 2015, which could make him difficult to trade. The aging roster lacks speed and has glaring deficiencies almost everywhere. The bullet-riddled defense, however, is likely to be the focus in free agency and the draft, with safety and MLB likely to get plenty of attention.

Minnesota (7-9)...No playoff berth again in Minneapolis, but plenty of feel-good with the Vikes, who seemed to find both their coach (Mike Zimmer) and QB (Louisville rookie Teddy Bridgewater) for the future in an uplifting 7-9 campaign that was better than most expected. There were some disappointments, with the distractions of RB Adrian Peterson at the top of the list; a decision on what course Minnesota takes with AP will be a much-watched development in the offseason. Regardless of what happens with Peterson, expect the Vikes to look for more playmakers to surround Bridgewater, who appears a star-on-the-rise after completing more than 70% of his passes over the final five weeks and engineering four comeback wins. Note that the Vikes also have one more season in the Minnesota Gophers' TCF Bank Stadium before their new retractable-roof home, on the site of the old Metrodome, is completed.

New Orleans (7-9)...A candidate for league's most disappointing team, the Saints had a golden opportunity to reclaim the NFC South with no one in the division getting above .500, but a puzzling inability to win at the Superdome (where New Orleans lost its last five games) condemned Sean Payton's team to also-ran status. The defense was largely to blame for the collapse, and it remains to be seen if d.c. Rob Ryan survives a staff purge by Payton that has already included three different assistants since the conclusion of the regular season. It will also be up to Payton and GM Mickey Loomis to determine if the roster needs an overhaul or merely a few tweaks in the draft and free agency. The Saints enter the offseason with limited salary flexibility thanks in part to the contract of QB Drew Brees, who projects a staggering $26 million against the cap.

NY Giants (6-10)...In the end, the season was a letdown for the G-Men, hoping for a revival with new o.c. Ben McAdoo, who imported the West Coast offense from Green Bay. Which seemed a decent fit for Eli Manning and the talent on hand at MetLife. But by the time Eli got comfy in the offense, and other weapons emerged, it was too late to make a run at the playoffs after a 7-game midseason losing streak. Along the way, however, the Giants discovered a new highlight-reel WR in LSU rookie Odell Beckham, Jr., who became an overnight sensation with his circus catches, while BC rookie RB Andre Williams also emerged as a force in December. Vet HC Tom Coughlin returns for 2015, though already under what looks like a must-win edict (also for GM Jerry Reese) from co-owner John Mara. The status of d.c. Perry Fewell remains up in the air. Improving the defense (especially vs. the run) will be an offseason imperative. Another situation to watch involves star DE Jason Pierre-Paul, a FA-to-be who has stated he wants to stay at MetLife but will not take a hometown discount.

Philadelphia (10-6)...What looked to be a near-certain playoff berth after a rout of the Cowboys in Arlington on Thanksgiving would instead disintegrate with three subsequent December losses that knocked the Birds out of the postseason. In the immediate aftermath, VP of Player Personnel Tom Gamble was moved out, with HC Chip Kelly now apparently controlling the personnel levers (supposedly much as Pete Carroll does in Seattle). Or, does the ouster of Gamble, hand-picked by Kelly, signal a rift with GM Howie Roseman? Could it precede a Kelly move elsewhere? (Owner Jeffrey Lurie would have to give his blessing to Kelly taking another job in the NFL while under contract, though Kelly could move back to the college ranks without Lurie's approval.) Stay tuned. Assuming Kelly stays, he will want more clarity in his QB situation, especially with Nick Foles having a somewhat disappointing 2014 before his broken collarbone. Mark Sanchez was on a one-year deal and will be a free agent, with no indication that the Eagles want him back at the Linc. Somewhere along the line in the offseason, the Birds will also likely address concerns at cornerback.

St. Louis (6-10)...Stuck in the NFC's (if not the NFL's) toughest division, the Rams never could overcome the preseason knee injury suffered by QB Sam Bradford, alternating between journeyman Shaun Hill and backup Austin Davis throughout the fall. There were some highlights, including home wins over last year's Super Bowl teams Seattle and Denver, and a road win at San Francisco, plus a 52-0 rout of Oakland, but consistency was always an issue. Moving forward, what to do about Bradford, who has lost an inordinate amount of time to injuries, must be addressed, but QB play was only part of the offensive problems that included too few big plays by the wideouts and the ground game taking to long to evolve (though Auburn rookie RB Tre Mason ran with some flair). In his three seasons, HC Jeff Fisher has been cursed by bad luck, but has yet to win more than seven games, and will likely be on the hot seat in 2015 if the Rams can't make a strong move toward the playoffs.

San Francisco (8-8)...We know why Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers decided to part ways, though continue to believe it is a most-regrettable development, as the fit seemed perfect on so many levels for the 49ers. Only it wasn't. Injuries and suspensions on defense and the season-long uncertainty with the coaching staff helped torpedo the Niners' chance for another playoff berth. The new regime will have to repair an offense that went wrong from the preseason, as the notion of turning Colin Kaepernick into a pocket passer helped undermine Harbaugh and o.c. Greg Roman. Beyond fixing the offense, the new coach and GM Trent Baalke are going to be dealing with plenty of big-name free agents who could walk, including RB Frank Gore, WR Michael Crabtree, G Mike Iupati, and both starting CBs. An interesting coaching name to spin out of the 49er rumor mill is none other than Mike Shanahan, at one time a Niner aide in the best George Seifert years and reportedly in a four-hour meeting with team officials last week.

Tampa Bay (2-14)...New HC Lovie Smith at least seemed to restore a sense of order to the franchise that spun out of control last season following Greg Schiano's dismissal, but Lovie's order was not reflected in the SU record that dipped to 2-14. Smith was not hired to oversee an extended rebuild project, so will be expected to show significant improvement in 2015 in an NFC South division that is full of question marks. With the first pick in the draft, the Bucs could certainly go for a QB (likely Oregon's Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, if he declares as expected), though Tampa Bay might be tempted to trade down as long as it can address QB issues that cannot be left to endure for another year with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. The Bucs are also in the market for a new offensive coordinator after ex-Cal HC Jeff Tedford had to step down for health reasons and QB coach Marcus Arroyo leading a collaborative, and often awkward, play-calling effort.

Washington (4-12)...In the end, first-year HC Jay Gruden narrowly missed losing his job (owner Dan Snyder has canned coaches after one year before) as the Skins stumbled to a 4-12 mark, their fifth season of double-digit losses in the last six campaigns. Where the Skins go at QB has to be addressed, because Robert Griffin III's skill set doesn't seem to match Gruden's offense; they either need to learn to co-exist, or one (or both) must go. Owner Snyder, for what it's worth, is also said to be losing his affinity for RG III, who has not looked the same since his most-recent knee injuries. At QB beyond Griffin, neither Colt McCoy nor Kirk Cousins appear long-term answers. Beyond the QB situation, the OL (which allowed 58 sacks, 41 in the last eight games) and the entire defense could be in line for a major makeover. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has already been released, so Gruden is in the market for a new d.c., too.

Meanwhile, while Division Round games have historically been fertile territory for home teams and favorites (almost always one and the same), their dominance has not been especially pronounced recent years. Indeed, since the 2004 postseason, road dogs stand 24-17-1 against the number in these playoff games.

Remember some dynamics worth mentioning that are unique to this round. Since 1990, when the playoffs expanded from 10 teams to 12, all Division Round hosts are off a "bye" and a week of rest. And almost all of the "powerhouse" NFL teams in recent memory are from that first-round "bye" group, including 55 of the last 70 Super Bowl participants since '78 (when the first-round "bye" was introduced). But at least one top conference seed has met defeat in six of the past eight seasons, including Denver in the AFC two years ago.

Also identifiable with this round are one-sided results, which have recurred with regularity over the decades. In fact, since 1975, more than half of these games have been decided by double-digit margins. Favored teams laying a TD or more (usually representing the cream of the NFL crop) have covered at a 56% (43-34-2) in the Division Round since '75. A Division Round trend to note in recent years has been on the "totals" side, "overs" in particular, now 12-4 since the 2011 playoffs despite posting only a 1-3 mark a year ago.

Following are the pointspread results in various spread categories of NFL Division Round playoff games since 1975. Our "charting" begins with the '75 season because, prior to then, playoff home teams were predetermined in a divisional rotation, as opposed to the better won-loss record. A "margin of victory" chart for the games since 1975 is included as well.

CATEGORY...RESULT

Favorites vs. line... 78-73-4 (1 pick)

Favorites straight up... 108-47

Favored by 0-3 points... 10-15-1

Favored by 3½-6½ points... 26-23-1

Favored by 7-9½ points... 28-23-1

Favored by 10-13½ points... 12-8

Favored by 14 points or more... 3-3-1

Home teams straight up... 110-46

Home teams vs. spread... 80-72-4

Home favorites vs. spread... 75-69-4

Home underdogs vs. spread... 4-3

Home picks vs. spread... 1-0

Over/under (since 1986)... 61-51

MARGINS OF VICTORY

1-3 points... 36

4-6 points... 12

7-10 points... 28

11-13 points... 13

14 points or more... 67


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