- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Going back to the mid-1990s, approximately 50 percent of NFL playoff teams made return trips to the postseason the following year. (Since 1998, an average of 6.14 new teams qualified each season.)
This year, however, it appears there will be a much higher rate of return visits.
Ten teams -- five in each conference -- have put themselves in position to start making serious playoff plans. Nine of those 10 made the playoffs last year; the Bears are the only team among the 10 that didn't.
In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons are running away with the NFC South and the New York Giants are starting to do the same in the NFC East. The San Francisco 49ers have control over the NFC West for the moment. At 5-3, the Green Bay Packers are tied with the Minnesota Vikings for second place in the NFC North, but you'd have to think they will solidify a playoff spot in the second half of the season. That makes four possible repeat playoff teams.
In the AFC, little has changed. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are ranked 1-2 in the AFC North. New England leads the AFC East. Denver is leading the AFC West and looks like a serious playoff threat with Peyton Manning thriving at quarterback. Houston is once again running away with the AFC South.
How the scramble for the final couple of playoff spots will unfold is anyone's guess. Most forecasters didn't give the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts much hope, but these teams, which meet on Sunday, have legitimate shots. There is a decent chance for an 8-8 wild card in the AFC, so really only a handful of teams are out of it. If Seattle goes 8-0 at home -- which is possible -- it could get a wild-card spot in the NFC.
The Bengals will have to play better in the second half to return to the playoffs. The Lions can still make it back, and they picked up their game in Week 8 against Seattle. The Saints, who won the NFC South in 2011, now face Philadelphia in a Monday night matchup that has the look of an early elimination game.
Sure, some of the top teams in the conference could collapse in the second half, but the way things are trending, the playoff bracket may look similar to last year's. And it's a pretty good group.
From the inbox
Q: Given the state of the Dallas Cowboys and Mike Holmgren's situation in Cleveland, I think he could get the Cowboys back on track if Jerry Jones would give him a little rope to work with. What do you think?
Fred in Freeland, Wash.
A: I could see it happening if -- and this is the big if -- Jones is willing to change coaches. Jones believes in Jason Garrett. He likes the fact Garrett won't battle him on personnel issues. He likes Garrett's bright mind. He also likes the fact he's a former Cowboys player. But if the Cowboys don't make the playoffs, Jones has to start to think whether this is the right coach for his franchise. Holmgren would be a perfect fit because Jones and Holmgren have a good relationship. I could also see Andy Reid as an option if he's let go by Philadelphia.
Q: Most people seem to agree that the Patriots' offense has struggled this year, and this is surprising because it was so explosive last year and added Brandon Lloyd as a deep threat. The one major loss has been offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who is now the coach of an overachieving Penn State team. How much do you think the Patriots miss O'Brien, and do you think an NFL team will be trying to grab him for a head-coaching job?
Adam in Brooklyn
A: O'Brien is a battler and I don't think he would consider NFL offers when he wants to do his best to help Penn State. The transition back to Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator has been spotty. Week to week you have to guess if the Pats are going to be a running team or a passing team. I believe they will settle things as the season progresses. As you can see, the Patriots can score a lot of points when they mix the run with the pass. Tom Brady won't let things get too far out of control.
Q: I am a longtime Chiefs fan and I am disappointed every year. What can or should the Chiefs do to get back to the glory days of 1960s?
Rudy in Dallas
A: Everything in this league starts with the quarterback. If the Chiefs get a top-five pick, they will have to consider the quarterbacks in next year's draft. They also have a lot of key free agents. They could lose Branden Albert, Glenn Dorsey, Dwayne Bowe and others. They have to make the right decisions on who they lose and who they keep. They have plenty of cap room. They will need to make some big free-agent moves to get the fans to buy back into the team. The big thing is getting the quarterback situation right.
Q: I strongly disagree with your assessment that John Skelton seems to be the better quarterback for Arizona over Kevin Kolb. First, it's difficult to accurately assess the situation when your QB is getting pressured over 50 percent of the time on dropbacks. Second, Kolb has shown drastic improvement in his pocket presence over 2011. Thoughts?
Shane in Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
A: I'll give you an evaluation that came from Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings. He thought Skelton was hard to sack because his drop back is at 8 feet, and he has a knack for being able to step up in the pocket to avoid a sack. Allen said Kolb puts his back foot at 9 feet and doesn't move. That's why Kolb tends to get sacked more and get injured more than most quarterbacks. When I saw the Cardinals in training camp last year, I thought Kolb was the answer. But how you look in practice doesn't always translate into games. The Cardinals pushed for Peyton Manning because players and others in the organization didn't believe in Kolb. Of course, no quarterback can survive behind that offensive line.
Q: The Steelers are looking like they are going to make a run toward the end of the season and end up just fine again, but I'm wondering, at what time do you start looking at the future in regards to the QB position?
Al in Olympia, Wash.
A: This may sound crazy, but I don't think you start thinking about it. In some ways, the organization may have been thinking about Ben Roethlisberger's health when it hired Todd Haley as offensive coordinator. The Steelers know Big Ben takes a lot of hits. The way they are running the new offense gives Roethlisberger more protection and exposes him to fewer hits. He's getting rid of the ball more quickly, and that's smart. Because Roethlisberger has the Steelers in the playoff hunt every year, they will be drafting toward the bottom of the first round, a spot that is very difficult to find a long-term replacement. The Steelers are years away from having to address that problem.
Q: We hear quite often (especially with my Jets) how teams need to establish an identity on offense. I believe this line of thinking is nonsensical and outdated. In today's NFL, teams should game plan their offensive attack each week based on the perceived weakness of that week's opponent. If your identity is to run the football but your opponent that week is superb at stopping the run, why implement the "irresistible force meets an immovable object" offensive attack?
Justin in Ridge, N.Y.
A: It's pretty clear an offense can't be one-dimensional. If you operate a pure running offense, you're always going to be in close games, and even bad teams can be one touchdown pass away from beating you. If you pass the ball, the cold-weather games in November and December could cause problems. You need a balance, no question. What is most important in 2012 is to have a quarterback who excels in the fourth quarter. Some weeks, the Giants don't run the ball well. Some weeks, they may be off with their throwing. No matter how they play, Eli Manning can make it work in the end with a fourth-quarter comeback. That is today's football.
Q: How is there even debate about Matt Hasselbeck being the starting QB for the Titans? After surprisingly taking the Titans to 9-7 last year and the way he's played the past couple weeks to essentially save what was a lost season, I just don't understand the rush to bring back Jake Locker.
Sid in Boston
A: I agree with you. I thought they should have started Hasselbeck at the beginning of the season. Locker did well, but the team went 1-3 with him as the starter. Hasselbeck is 2-2, but he has two fourth-quarter comeback wins. He can get the team into a good rhythm. The Titans probably didn't figure their defense was going to give up more than 30 points a game. Had they known that going into the season, they might have started with Hasselbeck.
23hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo