The San Francisco 49ers surprised everyone except themselves in making the NFL play-offs last season. Who will be this year's 49ers?Mike Tierney breaks it down.
Formulas abound but winning is the surest path to NFL play-offs
Few outside the San Francisco 49ers' inner circle foresaw the team coming within a breath of the Super Bowl last season.
San Francisco had not had a winning record and reached the play-offs since 2002.
New coach Jim Harbaugh had been away from the National Football League since 2003. Quarterback Alex Smith had just stepped off the trade block, while bearing the label of the most underachieving first overall draft selection since ... well, a long time.
"We started from scratch," Harbaugh said in retrospect. "We started with people not even knowing each other."
One of the NFL's endearing traits is that a team with modest expectations can bubble up and contend for the title. San Francisco, a consensus pick for third place in their division with six projected wins, went 13-3 to seize the conference's top seed. They had the New York Giants, the eventual champions, in grave danger at the NFC title game until two fumbled punt returns - one in overtime - scotched their Super Bowl aspirations.
San Francisco are the latest source of motivation for teams in the same boat - the type that takes on water and needs bailing out - entering this season.
Though certain heavyweights (the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints) rarely fail to revel in the post-season, the league is set up to create turnover with each year's cast.
Similar to Major League Baseball and more inclusive than the National Basketball Association, the NFL tournament, with a dozen participants, welcomes an average of six fresh teams annually.
Since the turn of the century, eight franchises have basked in the confetti shower at the Super Bowl. Several factors allow for quick turnarounds like those experienced by four teams last season.
In 2010, the Houston Texans, the Denver Broncos, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Carolina Panthers won a combined 16 games.
Cincinnati improved by five games, the others by four, winning an aggregate 33.
The league's great equaliser is its salary cap. Teams cannot devote more than US$120.6 million (Dh442.6m) to paying players this season. Better yet, if a team winds up under the figure in a given year, it can carry over "cap space" to the following season.
This year, there is no "floor", a minimum amount that franchises must spend on salaries. One does kick in next season, which will compel each team to shell out at least 89 per cent of the cap to players.
Though the money gap between frugal and free-spending teams has been insignificant for years, the floor in 2013 will assure that it remains so.
The system is designed to prevent disparities that characterise baseball. The New York Yankees earmarked $198m for salaries this season, nearly four times as some of their smaller rivals.
It is no coincidence that the Yankees unfailingly challenge for the pennant, while the other teams hardly ever sniff the play-offs.
Football further benefits from a shorter schedule that enables upstart teams to surf atop a decent win streak into the play-offs.
Had infrequent post-season participants Cincinnati and the Detroit Lions played 162 games, as required in baseball, or the 80 slogged through in basketball, they would have been on the outside, looking in. But Cincinnati opened 6-2 and Detroit 5-0, permitting each enough room for error later in the year to qualify.
The one-and-done nature of the play-offs empowers teams to advance more easily than they would in MLB and the NBA, where the best-of-seven series format reduces the chances for oft-changing Super Bowl finalists.
Also, injuries help spin the revolving door that permits the less common play-off teams to slide in.
Injuries cause roster churn, creating uncertainty and jeopardising continuity even on the best rosters.
The website Football Outsiders has developed a formula it calls Adjusted Games Lost, which computes how each team's record is affected by injuries.
Detroit were among the healthiest teams for missed games related to injuries, earning the fourth-highest AGL ranking.
Matthew Stafford, their quarterback, managed to play every week after missing multiple games in his first two seasons.
The least affected team by injury were Baltimore, who reached the AFC Championship game. New Orleans, another play-off contestant, were the No 3 luckiest team. They were eliminated by No 8 San Francisco, whose stout starting defence (plus the top substitute) sat out a mere eight games combined. Naturally, anticipate a play-off encore.
"I strong believe we should be Super Bowl favourites," tight end Vernon Davis said. "This team is ready."
Perhaps so. But if the pattern holds, it is 50-50 that the play-offs will unfold without them. And some other team will announce themselves as the San Francisco of 2012.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez, tight ends, New England Patriots
OK, these are two distinct players, but both wield receiving and running skills that defy their size. Gronkowski (6ft 6 ins, 265 pounds) is downright acrobatic. Hernandez (6ft 1 ins, 245lbs) is versatile enough to have devoured Denver Broncos in a play-off game.
Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver
Manning is a reminder that even a sure-fire Hall of Famer is no certainty to remain with one team his entire career. Questions remain on whether he can throw the long ball accurately, but there is little doubt with his short and medium-range passes.
Randy Moss, wide receiver, San Francisco 49ers
After getting passed around among three teams in 2010 and failing to find a suitor last year, Moss, 35, has found a fresh home on an offensively starved team that rode defence to the NFC Championship game. Gifted but temperamental. Surely this is his final shot.
Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota Vikings
The league’s best ball-carrier in recent seasons tore ligaments late last year. Despite taking on a light load in training camp and missing all exhibition games, Peterson was optimistic about answering the bell for the opener. Entering his sixth year, he has reached the stage for a running back where decline is common.
Michael Vick, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
The roller coaster ride continues. Vick was soaring in his second football life with the Eagles and is now on the downslide and seen as injury prone. The team owner has put pressure on Philly to excel – and no Eagle feels it more than Vick.
TEAMS TO WATCH
New coordinator Dirk Koetter will diversify offence with more screens and deep balls. Young Julio Jones and established Roddy White give quarterback Matt Ryan a devastating 1-2 receiver punch.
Defensive end Mario Williams signing not only improved Bills on paper but lifted their spirits. Few upper-tier free agents choose small-market teams. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a rising quarterback.
Opening win over Giants was no surprise, rookie corner back Morris Claiborne shores up secondary. Second-year tail back DeMarco Murray anticipates a breakout season. Quarterback Tony Romo has a plethora of receivers.
It is Super Bowl or bust for Texans in soft AFC South. Tail back Adrian Foster has no peer. Quarterback Matt Schaub has an arsenal of targets. Defense must recover from departure of four contributors to free agency.
Kansas City Chiefs
Clung to division title contention until final week of season despite loss of three core players to injuries. Quarterback Matt Cassel, tail back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry are back and fit.
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