JJ Watt photo

Look for this former Badger -- Texans defensive end J.J. Watt -- in the NFL playoffs this season.

One thing about the NFL: It’s never the same old, same old in the playoffs.

In the past 17 years, no fewer than four teams have missed the playoffs after making them the previous season and the average turnover rate for playoff teams is six per year, which is half the field.

To predict what will happen this season, one must first determine which teams will fall out of the playoffs and then figure out which ones will play their way in. Neither exercise is easy.

FYI, the 2012 playoff teams were Green Bay, Washington, Minnesota, Atlanta, Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC and New England, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis and Denver in the AFC. Odds are, at least five of those teams won’t reach the postseason.

Which five will that be? Here’s one prediction:

NFC East: Dallas 9-7, New York Giants 9-7, Washington 8-8, Philadelphia 5-11.

This is NFL’s most balanced division, with four teams battling for one playoff spot. The Cowboys went into the final game the last two seasons with a chance to make the playoffs and failed, but they’ll finally get there after improving both lines. The Giants rely on their relentless defensive line, which will struggle to reassert itself after collapsing last year. Coach Mike Shanahan and quarterback Robert Griffin III aren’t on the same page, which signals trouble for the Redskins. New Eagles coach Chip Kelly won’t have the five fastest players on the field like he did at Oregon.

NFC North: Green Bay 11-5, Chicago 10-6, Detroit 9-7, Minnesota 7-9.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers gives the Packers a leg up in the NFL’s deepest division. If the running game and defense improve as expected, watch out. The Bears finally gave Jay Cutler an offensive-minded coach and it’ll be interesting to see what Marc Trestman can do with the temperamental quarterback. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford must become more efficient and the addition of halfback Reggie Bush will help. Opposing defenses will gear for 2,000-yard rusher Adrian Peterson, putting the Vikings’ fate is in the unsteady hands of quarterback Christian Ponder.

NFC South: New Orleans 11-5, Atlanta 10-6, Carolina 7-9, Tampa Bay 5-11.

Coach Sean Payton is back after a one-year suspension, but fiery defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be the key acquisition for the Saints. The Falcons will struggle to stay on top in the division unless 30-year-old Steven Jackson can revive the running game. The Panthers will go only as far as quarterback Cam Newton can take them. Last year, that wasn’t far. The Buccaneers’ Josh Freeman has been pretty good, but pretty good doesn’t cut it in this quarterback-heavy division.

NFC West: Seattle 12-4, San Francisco 11-5, St. Louis 8-8, Arizona 6-10.

San Francisco has the best roster in the NFL and Seattle has the best mojo, but the division title will come down to which young quarterback — the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick or the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson — can build on last season. My money is on Wilson. Injuries at wide receiver make the 49ers dependent on aging Anquan Boldin. Seattle’s lone weak link was the pass rush and the Seahawks think they helped that in free agency. The Rams are more competitive under coach Jeff Fisher, but it’s tough to make headway in this division. The Cardinals put their faith in quarterback Carson Palmer. Good luck with that.

AFC East: New England 13-3, Miami 10-6, Buffalo 4-12, New York Jets 3-13.

The Patriots will rule this division as long as quarterback Tom Brady stays healthy. The Dolphins could contend if second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes a step forward. The Bills and Jets will start rookie quarterbacks and one of them — ahem, it’s the one in East Rutherford, N.J. — will be looking for a coach soon.

AFC North: Pittsburgh 10-6, Cincinnati 10-6, Baltimore 7-9, Cleveland 5-11.

Sure, the Ravens won the Super Bowl, but the difference between first and third place in this rough-and-tumble division is minuscule. The Steelers will rebound if rookie Le’Veon Bell can revive the running game. The Bengals made the playoffs the last two years; the next step is to do something once they get there. It will take the Ravens time to recover from the loss of Bolden, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Mike Holmgren left the Browns as he found them — in bad shape.

AFC South: Houston 12-4, Indianapolis 8-8, Tennessee 5-11, Jacksonville 3-13.

The Texans get linebacker Brian Cushing back to go with end J.J. Watt, which could produce a defense to match the high-powered offense. Quarterback Andrew Luck was so good as a rookie that the Colts overachieved. Reality will set in this season. The Titans beefed up their running game, but they’ll go only as far as quarterback Jake Locker will take them. The Jaguars had two wins last year and doubling that is a realistic goal.

AFC West: Denver 12-4, Kansas City 9-7, San Diego 6-10, Oakland Raiders 1-15.

Defections and suspensions have clouded the picture on defense, but the Broncos could win this wimpy division with one linebacker tied behind their back. The Chiefs went 2-14 last season with a fairly talented roster. The addition of coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith will spur a quick turnaround. It will take the Chargers a while to get over their Norv Turner hangover. The Raiders’ best player is a kicker. Enough said.

To recap, division winners Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle plus wild cards Chicago and San Francisco will make the NFC playoffs and division winners New England, Pittsburgh, Houston and Denver, along with wild cards Miami and Cincinnati, will advance in the AFC. That makes for five teams that didn’t make the playoffs a year ago.

In the conference finals, Seattle will top Green Bay for the NFC title and Houston will prevail over Denver in the AFC. The Texans will then outlast the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.


Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.