The NFL is built on competitive balance and the notion that, unlike baseball, any team from any sized market has a reasonable chance of winning the Super Bowl.
Not many people predicted the New Orleans Saints, among the most downtrodden organizations in sports, would ever hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Now, the Saints are defending champions.
But changes at the top are what the NFL is all about — with every season, churn, churn, churn …
In each of the past 14 seasons, at least five teams have made the playoffs after missing them the season before. Last season, there were six such teams: Cincinnati, Dallas, Green Bay, New England, New Orleans, and the New York Jets.
What's more, for the league-record seventh consecutive season at least one team made the worst-to-first switcheroo in its division. That was the Saints, who went from a last-place 8-8 record in 2008 to a first-place 13-3 in 2009. They also became the third franchise since 1999 to go from the bottom to a Super Bowl victory in a year, joining the 1999 St. Louis Rams and 2001 New England Patriots.
So anybody has a chance, right?
Technically, yes. But there are a handful of teams for years that have sifted to the bottom, the clubs with more stagger than swagger.
Seven franchises have gone at least five seasons without making the playoffs, led by the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills, both of whom have endured 10-season droughts. The others are the Houston Texans, who have yet to make the playoffs in their eight seasons, Cleveland Browns (seven seasons), San Francisco 49ers (seven), Oakland Raiders (seven), and Rams (five).
Call them the "Unleavened Seven" — teams that just can't seem to rise. A look at why they will — and won't — make the postseason this year:
THEY'RE IN! With Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on one side of the ball, and Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch on the other, these guys have to be better than the teams that lost 30 games in the past two seasons.
THEY'RE OUT! Jim Schwartz has an outstanding defensive mind, but what's he going to do with that back seven? Both his starting middle linebacker ( DeAndre Levy) and his best safety ( Louis Delmas) are dealing with groin injuries, and linebacker Zack Follett has gone from being cut last year to a starting job. That's desperation.
REAL DEAL: Optimistically speaking, the Lions are at least a couple of solid years away from being playoff contenders, especially in that tough division.
THEY'RE IN! Have you seen C.J. Spiller? The rookie running back from Clemson has looked terrific, with three touchdowns in exhibition games and three runs of 20-plus yards. He's the type of back who can make even an average offensive line look great.
THEY'RE OUT! The Bills would kill for an average offensive line. They're decent in the interior, but their tackles stink. The two biggest hits quarterback Trent Edwards took this summer were when right tackle Cornell Green got beat, and left tackle Demetrius Bell was among the league's most penalized linemen last season — and he played in only eight games.
REAL DEAL: If any team has a chance to go 0-16 this season, it's the Bills.
THEY'RE IN! The Texans have inched their way to respectability, finishing 9-7 last year for their first winning season. Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson can be a scary combination, in a good way.
THEY'RE OUT! Linebacker Brian Cushing, who won defensive rookie of the year in both a vote and re-vote, is suspended for the first four games for using a banned substance. That means he'll miss the chance to get after Peyton Manning at home in the opener, and that's a big setback for the Texans.
REAL DEAL: A wild-card spot is a possibility for Houston, but the AFC South still belongs to the Colts.
THEY'RE IN! Not everyone noticed, but the Browns finished the 2009 season by winning their last four games. Mike Holmgren will change the culture there, and the addition of players such as linebacker Scott Fujita is one of the ways.
THEY'RE OUT! Jake Delhomme, the ninth starting quarterback in 12 years to open the season for the Browns, has yet to prove he can be the player he once was. Receiver/returner Joshua Cribbs is explosive, but otherwise the team lacks speed in a big way.
REAL DEAL: If the Browns can improve on last season's 5-11 record, they can break out the bubbly. There's still a significant talent gap between them and the rest of the division, and the middle of their schedule is a beast.
THEY'RE IN! For the first time in a long while, the 49ers are the stable ones in their division — no changes at head coach, offensive or defensive coordinators, or quarterback. In addition, Frank Gore is going to run better behind a more reliable offensive line, even though that line is starting two rookies and veteran who hasn't played center since college.