Key for Vikings is addressing RB, MLB
Len Pasquarelli explains why the Eagles, Vikings and Chargers could bounce back this season after missing the postseason in 2005.
Since 1992, the NFL has averaged almost 2.1 "rebound" franchises -- teams that qualified for the playoffs one season, missed them the next, but returned the year after. And in six of those 14 seasons, including three of the last four, there have been three such teams. So the odds seem pretty good that the Atlanta Falcons, who advanced to the NFC title game in 2004, then dropped six of their last eight games in 2005 to finish at 8-8, won't be the league's lone rebound contender this season:
Here are three other teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2004, missed the postseason in 2005, but could perhaps be back in the Super Bowl chase in 2006:
• Minnesota: As turbulent as the past season has been in the Twin Cities, first-year head coach Brad Childress will bring discipline, new coordinator Mike Tomlin will bring the Cover 2 scheme he learned so well under Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay and that combination could bring the Vikings a playoff berth. There remain, clearly, a lot of question marks. But in a division where Chicago appears to be the only legitimate playoff contender, Minnesota might find some answers.
Two keys will be identifying an every-down tailback, after the team played musical chairs at the position the past three seasons, and finding a viable middle linebacker. There are skeptics who have questioned whether Chester Taylor, the former caddie to Jamal Lewis in Baltimore, is a starting caliber tailback. But the free-agency acquisitions of guard Steve Hutchinson, who will team with tackle Bryant McKinnie to create a terrific left side of the offensive line, and lead-blocking fullback Tony Richardson will help. There are a lot of candidates for the middle linebacker job, a critical position in the Cover 2 and a spot where Tomlin has to get a player with enough quickness to drop deep into the center zone. Quarterback Brad Johnson, 37, has started all 16 games only twice in the past six seasons. But if he can hold up physically, there are plenty of weapons at his disposal. The defensive line is one of the league's deepest.
Defensively, the Eagles posted just 29 sacks in 2005 and, for coordinator Jim Johnson's blitzing schemes, that isn't nearly enough. Veteran defensive end Darren Howard, who has been victimized by injuries lately, was signed as a free agent to bolster the pass-rush. And Johnson has vowed to move Jevon Kearse around in the defense, including playing him at the "joker" position, to provide him more pass-rush opportunities. This remains one of the NFL's best-run franchises, from top to bottom, and there is more than enough talent for the Eagles to contend again for a playoff spot. That said, in a division where every team might be a viable contender, Philadelphia doesn't rule the roost the way it once did.
• San Diego: Regarded by many as the best team that didn't make the playoffs in 2005, the Chargers are an intriguing blend of talent on both sides of the ball. But San Diego squandered a lot of games last season, particularly in the late going, and third-year quarterback Philip Rivers, who started zero games in his first two seasons, will be taking over for departed Drew Brees. For all its alleged firepower, the San Diego offense, which statistically ranked 10th in the NFL in 2005, disappeared at times. And although tight end Antonio Gates is a superb weapon, the wide receiver play must improve. Tailback LaDainian Tomlinson suggested recently that he needs to get the ball more, especially out in space in the passing game, and that wouldn't be a bad idea.
Anchored by tackle Jamal Williams, arguably the NFL's best unknown interior lineman, the defense ranked No. 1 versus the run. And the linebackers -- especially on the edge, with the combination of defensive rookie of the year Shawne Merriman and veteran Steve Foley -- are excellent. But the Chargers ranked just 28th in pass defense and San Diego registered only 10 interceptions, fourth fewest in the league. That augurs a shake-up in the secondary, and the Chargers signed free-agent safety Marlon McCree and used a first-round draft choice on cornerback Antonio Cromartie to begin remaking the unit. Still, the team's playoff chances probably come down to how Rivers performs.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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