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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL UPDATE & DIVISION ROUND NOTES & 2013 REVIEWS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Even for teams that don?t make the NFL playoffs, the weeks following the conclusion of the regular season can be newsworthy. Especially for those franchises that have hopped aboard the ?coaching carousel? as they look to make changes on the sidelines. The NFL version of carousel has been spinning rapidly over the past week, and more changes are possible.

Meanwhile, speculation also centers upon those teams 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, plus early notes about the coaching hot seat for 2014. We?ll speculate upon both of those subjects before updating NFL Division Round history and notes in just a moment.

First, a quick look at the offseason prospects for those teams that did not qualify for the playoffs, listed in alphabetical order by conference.

AFC

Baltimore...It has started to dawn upon Ravens backers that 2012 was the culmination of a great five-season run for HC John Harbaugh...not the beginning of an extended dynasty. The Ravens? slip to 8-8 suggests more than a Super Bowl hangover, as many key pieces from last year?s title run have either departed or are on the decline. That might not include QB Joe Flacco, entering his 7th season next fall, although his numbers dropped precipitously (a career-worst 22 picks) after signing the big offseason contract, which also contributed to some salary juggling by GM Ozzie Newsome. Top RB Ray Rice (only 3.1 ypc in 2013) is also showing signs of wear-and-tear, and the passing game never really compensated for Anquan Boldin?s offseason departure to San Francisco. There re offseason FA issues at the TE spot, too (including key weapon Dennis Pitta, who missed most of the 2013 season). Meanwhile, the defense, while still formidable, has lost some of its swagger from the playoff years with the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed influences now gone. Newsome goes into the offseason probably looking to upgrade the receiving corps while figuring out if he can keep potential FA OTs Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe in the fold. Adding a few more defensive pieces will also be addressed.

Buffalo...Although the Bills still haven?t reached the playoffs this millennium (the longest such postseason drought in the NFL), there is reason for optimism under HC Doug Marrone, entering his second season next fall. Some of the pieces seem in place offensively, especially with ex-Florida State QB EJ Manuel flashing real upside (when healthy) in his first year running the Marrone offense, which figures to operate at a faster speed next season. Defensively, the team set a franchise sack record. Offseason priorities probably center around upgrades along the OL, and whether WR Stevie Johnson can bounce back from a subpar 2013 (in which case it might be time to turn to the many promising young WRs on the roster).

Cleveland...The Browns have turned into the league?s laughingstock, now working on their third HC in as many seasons (and fourth in five years) as owner Jimmy Haslam is proving as unpredictable as a decades-ago George Steinbrenner did with the New York Yankees. The decision to axe HC Rob Chudzinski after just one season was a shocker; the Browns are in the process of finding a replacement, and some college candidates (including Notre Dame?s Brian Kelly and Vanderbilt?s James Franklin) have even been floated as possibilities. In the meantime, Cleveland is also going into the offseasson looking for a new QB, with Brandon Weeden now two regimes removed from being the fair-haired boy, and Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer not considered long-term solutions. The new coach must surround his new QB with better offensive pieces, although WR Josh Gordon was one of the breakout stars of 2013. With seven picks in the first four rounds of the draft (including the fourth overall selection), the Brownies have plenty of flexibility heading into the offseason. First, however, they need a new coach.

Houston...What didn?t go wrong this season with the Texans, considered a bona fide Super Bowl threat entering the campaign, then losing their last 14 games (and it was very close to 16 in a row) in one of the great collapses in NFL history? By mid-December, HC Gary Kubiak (whose difficult year included a mini-stroke on the sidelines of a midseason game vs. the Colts) walked the plank, and ex-Penn State HC (and Bill Belichick disciple) Bill O?Brien has already been named as Kubiak?s successor. Most of the pieces seem in place for a quick turnaround, save perhaps at QB, where O?Brien and GM Rick Smith are almost sure to turn elsewhere after Matt Schaub?s disintegration (10 TDP and 14 picks) and unconvincing work by 2nd-year QB Case Keenum. With the first pick in the draft, the Texans have plenty of options, including a possible trade of the pick (which has already been floated). The question is if Smith and O?Brien would rather go for a veteran alternative at QB who might prove more helpful in getting Hosuton immediately back to playoff contention, or gamble on a rookie. Expect the team to decide rather quickly in which direction to head at the all-important QB spot.

Jacksonville...After threatening into November to challenge the 2008 Detroit Lions? infamous 0-16 mark, the Jags rallied and split their last eight games. Much promise has been shown by HC Gus Bradley, although for the Jags to take the next step they need to make several personnel upgrades. Which starts at the QB spot, and whether Jax wants to move forward with Chad Henne and continue to hope Blaine Gabbert develops into a force, or go in a completely different direction and start fresh. GM David Caldwell thus has a big decision to make entering the draft, and longtime lynchpin RB Maurice Jones-Drew will likely be allowed to test the FA waters. The defense needs less fine-tuning than the offense, but without upgrades on the attack end (and at QB), the Jags likely remain a good distance from playoff contention.

Miami...While it looks as if HC Joe Philbin will survive into 2014, there are still doubts regarding GM Jeff Ireland, whose fate has apparently not yet been determined by owner Stephen Ross after watching the Dolphins blow a chance at a playoff berth by losing their last two games in ugly fashion to the Bills and Jets. (Ed. note: Ireland and the Dolphins "parted ways" on Wednesday.) Regardless, Philbin is going to be on a very hot seat entering 2014, and questions also abound regarding the future of o.c. Mike Sherman. (Ed. note: Sherman was dismissed on Monday.) Miami obviously needs to address OL issues that put QB Ryan Tannehill under siege for much of 2013, while also upgrading a backfield that did not replace the zip that Reggie Bush provided until he left for Detroit. The OL figures to be a major focus in free agency and/or the draft, while adding another quality RB will also likely be a priority.

NY Jets...By the end of the season, it was a pretty easy call for owner Woody Johnson to bring HC Rex Ryan back for a sixth season next fall. The Jets fought their way to the finish line in 2013, winning three of their last four to end up a respectable 8-8, while rookie QB Geno Smith began to provide some spark down the stretch. With the distractions surrounding QB Mark Sanchez (surely to be released after missing all of 2013 with a shoulder injury suffered in preseason) now in the rear-view mirror, GM John Idzik will concentrate on upgrading the wide receiver corps and also shoring up an aging 2ndary in the offseason.

Oakland...It looks as if GM Reggie McKenzie and HC Dennis Allen are going to get one more chance to get things right (or at least closer to right) in 2014 after another 4-12 face-plant and the latest condemnation of franchise supremo Mark Davis, who could not wait to clean house and get rid of HC Hue Jackson (who in retrospect did a good job in 2011 getting the Raiders to .500) after papa Al Davis? passing just over two years ago. Oakland has been in salary cap hell lately, however, and effectively only had $93 million (a league low) to use on its 2013 roster. Recent draft errors have created a further gloomy scenario in Oakland. Among many offseason dilemmas at the Coliseum, the Raiders have a serious decision to make at QB, whether to pin their hopes on Terrelle Pryor or Matt McGloin emerging as forces or, once again, look elsewhere for help (Matt Flynn?s addition last year did not prove a benefit). Oakland will also need upgrades at running back, and overall depth could be improved as well. In other words, lots of work to do.

Pittsburgh...Was the glass half-full or half-empty for the Steelers in 2013? In the end, Pittsburgh came tantalizingly close to sneaking into the playoffs after a bumpy 0-4 start to the season, and there is encouragement after a hot stretch drive. But it also marks two straight non-playoff years at Heinz Field, and Ben Roethlisberger stayed healthy enough to play in all 16 games in 2013. Considering Big Ben?s recent injury issues, that figures to be hard to replicate again in 2014. But the fact is that Pittsburgh enters the offseason hard against the salary cap and will not have a lot of flexibility unless several key components (including defensive stalwarts Troy Polamalu & LaMarr Woodley) restructure their deals, while longtime cogs such as Ryan Clark & Brett Kiesel are likely to depart in free agency. The defense could have a much different look in 2014, the WR spots might need some adjustments, and the Steelers will also be looking closely at their young OL to see if upgrades might be necessary as well. We?re not sure the Steel is as close to a return to prominence as some believe.

Tennessee...The first post-Bud Adams move by the organization looked a lot like the old version of Adams when HC Mike Mucncak was sent packing after three seasons. Team CEO Tommy Smith now must decide upon a new coach before moving forward. A new staff likely solves questions regarding the futures of o.c Dowell Loggains and co-d.c.?s Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams as well. Keeping QB Jake Locker healthy will be a key in 2014, and there is a chance that star RB Chris Johnson might be asked to restructure his contract (which might not prove an easy negotiation). Expect OL issues to be addressed either in free agency or the draft.

NFC


Arizona...The Cardinals ended 2013 as one of the NFL?s hottest teams, though it took the Big Red (who started 3-4) a bit too long to hit stride, costing it a playoff berth. Still, personnel upgrades continued all season for new GM Steve Keim, and first-year HC Bruce Arians proved a savvy hire. The emergence of WR Michael Floyd has taken some pressure off Larry Fitzgerald, but the ground game never quite showed the consistency it needed to display, and one wonders if Arians can squeeze another big year out of aging QB Carson Palmer. Don?t be surprised if Keim looks for a QB in the draft to develop behind Palmer, and adding another RB could also be prioritized after Rashard Mendenhall did not prove the answer.

Atlanta...If not for Houston?s collapse, then the Falcons? fade to 4-12 would have proven the league?s biggest disappointment in 2013. Now the question must be asked if the HC Mike Smith regime peaked in 2010 and 2012 when the Falcons earned home-field edge in the NFC side of the playoffs. The addition of RB Steven Jackson did not upgrade the infantry as hoped, partly because Jackson?s injury issues continued. With WR Julio Jones due back from injury next fall, QB Matt Ryan should once again have his featured wideouts (also including Roddy White) available again. The "D" was also never able to develop a consistent pass rush despite the addition of ex-Giants DE Osi Umenyiora (who led the team with 7.5 sacks). Merely getting healthier should prove a boost in 2014; both lines are likely to be addressed in free agency and the draft. Though owner Arthur Blank allowed Smith a mulligan this season, another playoff miss next fall will put the coach on a very hot seat.

Chicago...The Bears have already addressed a major question for 2014 by re-signing QB Jay Cutler to a long-term deal, but there are still more than 25 other potential FAs on the roster, which promises for an interesting offseason. Now, expect much focus on a defense that regressed alarmingly in 2013, failing to hold any foe under 20 points for the first time in the long history of the franchise. Cutler?s comfort with HC Marc Trestman?s offense proved important to bringing Trestman back for another go in 2014, but most sources believe Trestman does not have a lot of rope if he can't make the playoffs again next fall; remember, this was a 10-6 team Trestman inherited from Lovie Smith.

Dallas...It looks like Jerry Jones is going to continue to stick with HC Jason Garrett, though Jones has been less loyal to his coordinators in recent years, and it is likely one or both from among Bill Callahan (o.c) and Monte Kiffin (d.c.) do not return next fall. Something has to change after the Cowboys missed the playoffs for a fourth straight year, losing again in the last regular-season game to prevent a postseason appearance. We?ll also see if Jones decides whether now is the time to identify a successor at QB to Tony Romo, who will miss offseason work due to back surgery. The back seven on defense will also probably be addressed. On the plus side, Jones enters the offseason without too many FA questions on his roster, and is not in particularly bad salary cap shape.

Detroit...The consensus best job available after the dismissal of HC Jim Schwartz, we?ll see in which direction the Lions go with their new coach. The nucleus of a contender seems in place, with playmakers on both sides of the line of scrimmage and a ?young vet? QB in Matthew Stafford, although his performance has regressed since the 2011 playoff season. The new regime will also likely include a QB tutor who can smooth out some of the rough spots in Stafford?s game that have not dissipated with his years in the league. Which is why most believe it will be an offense-minded coach (instead of a defense-oriented sort such as Schwartz) that will be hired. Personnel-wise, the Lions are not in desperate need of front-line talent but could sorely use upgrades in depth across the board. If there is one area of concern to be addressed in free agency and the draft, it is likely to be in the secondary.

Minnesota...The dismissal of HC Leslie Frazier came as no surprise, but his successor is going to find a team in transition that is also going to be playing at an interim home (the U of Minnesota?s TCF Bank Stadium) for the next two seasons while its own new stadium is being built. The Vikes are thus in a ?new coach-new QB phase? in 2014, with Christian Ponder?s days likely numbered and Josh Freeman representing no more than a wasted $3 million. There?s a chance Matt Cassel could be retained as a stopgap QB if the Vikes decide to go the draft route and target a rookie with their high draft pick. But GM Rick Spielman has plenty of other questions to answer, including an aging and ineffective defense with plenty of expiring contracts. Once a coach and QB are identified, expect much of the Vikings? postseason upgrades to be focused on the stop unit that was last in points allowed.

NY Giants...There were rumors that 67-year-old HC Tom Coughlin might have considered hanging ?em up after the just-completed 7-9 campaign, but Coughlin will return for what might be a last hurrah in 2014. The G-Men have rallied to unimaginable heights twice in his tenure (2007 & ?11) in similar unexpected fashion, although it is hard to anticipate a rerun if Eli Manning is really on the downside of his career, as his 2013 numbers (which included a league-high 27 picks) would suggest. There are also plenty of key FAs (which include nine starters, among them DE Justin Tuck & WR Hakeem Nicks) to be accounted for, and there are other personnel areas to be emphasized, including a RB corps for the league?s 29th-ranked infantry. A long-term successor to Eli could also be identified in the draft.

St. Louis...There are some legitimate questions regarding QB Sam Bradford, who has yet to demonstrate genuine star power in the NFL and will be coming off yet another serious injury (this one to his knee). With the second pick in the upcoming draft courtesy of the trade with the Redskins two years ago (talk about the gift that keeps on giving!), and Kellen Clemens no more than a (barely) serviceable backup, the Rams could be QB shopping in the offseason. Jeff Fisher?s defense appears solid, and rookies such as Vanderbilt RB Zac Stacy and West Virginia WR Tavon Austin look like keepers, but the QB position needs upgrading...and fast, since the NFC West has turned into perhaps the league?s toughest division.

Tampa Bay...The Glazers pulled the plug on the Greg Schiano experiment, as the abrasive ex-Rutgers HC was sent packing after the Bucs? 4-12 mess in 2013. Former Bears HC Lovie Smith has already been hired to help restore order, but will a new coach and GM (Mark Dominik also fired; replacement still to be named) be enough to turn the Bucs back into contenders? Though rookie QB Mike Glennon showed promise in 2013, he can hardly be considered a sure-fire long-term answer after part of just one season. Among other distractions, the Bucs were also hampered by several key injuries (including a scary staph infection scare) that Lovie hopes will not replicate in 2014. The first order of business for Smith will be high-priced CB Darrelle Revis; Lovie has already said he would like Revis as a key part of his defense, but a new GM might rather use Revis? huge salary on needed upgrades elsewhere (including the OL).

Washington...Neck-and-neck with Cleveland as the most dysfunctional franchise, owner Dan Snyder will now be working on an 8th coach in his 16 years in charge after dismissing Mike Shanahan following the Redskins? 4-12 train wreck. Getting RG III healthy at QB will be key to the new coaching regime, although many have questions about Griffin, his relationship with Snyder, and potential divisiveness in the clubhouse, not to mention mounting injury concerns. Some NFC East observers are hardly convinced that RG III is a savior for the franchise as it seemed for a while in his rookie season. But there are more problems with this roster other than the QB spot, will talent thin in several areas, and the defense requiring immediate attention after the 2013 collapse. Several vet defenders (including CB DeAngelo Hall and LB Brian Orakpo) are also looking at free agency. We hope the new coach knows what he?s getting into with the Redskins.

Meanwhile, in the playoffs, while Division Round games have historically been the territory of home teams and favorites (almost always one and the same), their dominance has not been especially pronounced in recent years. Indeed, since the 2004 postseason, road dogs stand 23-16 against the number in the Division Round.

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 have been 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 54 of the last 70 Super Bowl participants since ?78 (when the first-round ?bye? was introduced). However, at least one top conference seed has met defeat in seven of the past eight seasons, including Denver in the AFC a year ago.

Also identifiable with this round are lopsided 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% (42-33-1) in the Division Round since ?75. The strongest trend in recent years has been on the ?totals? side, ?overs? in particular, now 11-1 since the 2010 season playoffs (and 4-0 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... 76-72-3 (1 pick)
Favorites straight up... 104-47
Favored by 0-3 points... 9-15-1
Favored by 3½-6½ points... 26-23-1
Favored by 7-9½ points... 27-22
Favored by 10-13½ points... 12-8
Favored by 14 points or more... 3-3-1
Home teams straight up... 107-45
Home teams vs. spread... 79-70-3
Home favorites vs. spread... 74-68-3
Home underdogs vs. spread... 4-2
Home picks vs. spread... 1-0
Over/under (since 1986...) 60-48

MARGINS OF VICTORY
1-3 points 36
4-6 points... 12
7-10 points... 26
11-13 points... 12
14 points or more... 66


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