Four '05 playoff teams that have reasons to worry


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Jan 22, 2006
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Signs of trouble
Four '05 playoff teams that have reasons to worry

All the drama surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers the last couple weeks has me questioning their chances of duplicating their playoff run of last season. I wouldn't have said that three months ago, but it's easy to change your mind when their starting quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) smashes his face in a motorcycle accident, their first-round pick (Santonio Holmes) gets arrested twice in a two-month span and their most beloved player (Jerome Bettis) is settling into retirement and preparing for a television career. It's not that the Steelers don't have any talent. They have plenty. I just wonder where their heads will be once this season begins.
And the Steelers aren't alone in that regard. Within the last few weeks, a handful of other playoff teams from last season have also had issues. Some face contract complaints. Others are contending with bickering. A couple are hoping unproven players can ease the loss of long-time stars. What they all have in common, however, is this: They don't look as strong as they did at the end of last season.

That said, here is my list of problematic playoff teams:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Though Roethlisberger should be ready for the season, that doesn't mean Steelers fans can start thinking about repeating as champions. Losing wide receiver Antwaan Randle El in free agency is a big blow because of the versatility he brought to the offense and his explosiveness as a return man. It's even more of a big deal now because Holmes, despite all his speed and potential, already looks like he has to overcome maturity issues. If he can't grow up, that passing game that looked so impressive during most of the postseason won't be half as scary. Add in the free-agent departures of two solid role players on defense (free safety Chris Hope and defensive tackle Kimo Von Oelhoffen) and the leadership void created by Bettis's retirement (which means outspoken outside linebacker Joey Porter has to become a more tempered voice in the locker room) and you can see where this is going. When you play in a division that could be as competitive as the AFC North -- with the Bengals and the improved Ravens gunning for playoff spots -- the road back to the postseason won't be easy.

2. Chicago Bears: It's never a good sign when you have three key players from last year's team griping about their situations. One of the underlying factors in Chicago winning the NFC North last season was its chemistry. Now we know that Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher is upset about being paid back-up money, even though he recently ended a holdout and reported back to offseason workouts. We also know that Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs is just as disgruntled with his deal and that running back Thomas Jones doesn't like the idea of splitting carries after a 1,300-yard season. What this all means is that the Bears are on the verge of having major chemistry issues. Players notice the team isn't taking care of young stars like Vasher and Briggs. That kind of controversy can destroy players' confidence in an organization. Remember, the Bears followed a magical playoff season in 2001 with a three-year slide into irrelevance. If they're not careful, they may be looking at a repeat of that fall from grace.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: One man is going to factor heavily into the Jags' hopes of returning to the postseason -- Matt Jones. If the second-year receiver can become a steady target for quarterback Byron Leftwich, Jacksonville will be fine. If he can't, then I don't know who's going to be leading a receiving corps that looks awfully thin now that Jimmy Smith has retired. Smith may have been well past his prime, but he kept defenses honest with his smarts and savvy. He also provided plenty of confidence for Leftwich and eased the pressure on the running game. Without Smith, Leftwich has to carry a greater offensive burden. Several scouts have told me they still don't know whether Leftwich is ready to do just that. He needs help. The Jags better find some for him in training camp.

4. New York Giants: I have a feeling wide receiver Plaxico Burress' frustration isn't an isolated incident. He started fast last season but cooled off. The offseason was filled with speculation of a rift between he and quarterback Eli Manning. Burress recently shot down that rumor, but I wouldn't be surprised if this issue resurfaces. The reason Burress went south is that Manning isn't as good as his press clippings suggest -- at least not yet. Manning's 52.8 completion percentage and 75.9 quarterback rating are evidence of that. If he doesn't improve those numbers, Burress won't be the only unhappy person in the Tri-State area. There will be plenty of Giants fans joining him because their team will be home for the postseason.
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