Which division champion won't be there this January?
The Denver Broncos won the 2015 NFL championship but won three fewer games in 2016 and failed to qualify for the playoffs.
The Broncos weren’t alone. The NFC champion Carolina Panthers met the Broncos in that Super Bowl but won nine fewer games in 2016 and also failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins also won division titles in 2015 but failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2016.
That’s right – six of the NFL’s eight division champions in 2015 failed to return to the playoffs the following season, including all four of the teams that won the NFC titles. So that’s the subject of this week’s Talk of Fame Network poll – which of the NFL’s eight division champions of 2016 is most likely to miss the playoffs in 2017? Here are your options:
Atlanta Falcons. The defending NFC champions blew a 28-3 third quarter lead in losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots. The Falcons addressed some defensive deficiencies, signing defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford in free agency and using their first two draft picks on front seven players. Atlanta drafted pass rusher Takk McKinley in the first round and run-0stuffing inside linebacker Duke Riley in the second.
Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were the NFC’s top seed last season with a 13-3 record. But no division has gone longer without a repeat champion than the NFC East. The Eagles were the last team to repeat there in 2003-04. The Cowboys return the league’s top two rookies of a year ago, quarterback Dak Prescott and NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott, but there were plenty of holes to fill. Nine starters are gone from the playoff lineup of last January.
Green Bay Packers. The Packers have won five of the last six NFC North titles and are also the last Super Bowl champion from the division (2010). The NFL is a quarterback’s game and Green Bay has one of the best in Aaron Rodgers. The Packers also gave him another elite weapon this offseason with the signing of tight end Martellus Bennett away from the Patriots. He led the Super Bowl champions with seven touchdown catches last season. Tom Brady’s loss is Aaron Rodgers’ gain.
Houston Texans. The Texans and the Patriots were the only two teams to repeat as division champions in 2016. But the Texans did it by the thinnest of margins. Houston was the only division champion to win fewer than 10 games (9-7) and were awarded the AFC South on a tie-breaker over the 9-7 Tennessee Titans. The Texans return a healthy J.J. Watt to rush passers and also hope to solve their quarterbacking woes with first-round draft pick DeShaun Watson of Clemson.
Kansas City Chiefs. Like the Texans, the Chiefs won the AFC West on a tie-breaker. Both Kansas City and Oakland tied for the division crown with 12-4 records but the Chiefs were awarded the West based on their regular-season sweep of the Raiders. The Chiefs traded up in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft to select quarterback Patrick Mahomes but he is likely to open the season on the bench behind incumbent Alex Smith.
New England Patriots. The Super Bowl champion Patriots won the AFC East a year ago by the widest margin of any division champion, four games over the Dolphins. New England has now won eight consecutive AFC East titles, and 13 of the last 15. Tom Brady is back. So is Bill Belichick. With the addition of Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots once again have one of the deepest, most talented rosters in the NFL.
Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers won the division a year ago despite playing for stretches without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (2 games), running back Le’Veon Bell (4 games) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (1 game). Can the Steelers stay healthy this season? Or healthier, anyway, to move from playoff contender to Super Bowl contender status?
Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have a Top 10 defense and that unit should be even better with the addition of their second-round draft pick Malik McDowell, a defensive tackle. The absence of Marshawn Lynch, thus the absence of a running game, hurt Seattle a year ago when they finished 25th in the NFL. The Seahawks hope to solve that problem with the signing of free agent Eddie Lacy away from the Green Bay Packers.