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What Next For Eliminated Wild Card Teams?

It’s always cruel that Olympic judo tournaments start on the very first morning of the Olympics. It’s a sport where your entire Olympics can be over in the blink of an eye. One loss of concentration, and your opponent scores ippon, then you’re eliminated, just like that. You can train all those years to get to the Olympics, and then five seconds and – boom! – it’s over. Wild Card weekend isn’t quite that cruel, but given how gruelling the season is, and how much hope and optimism the playoffs can inspire, any Wild Card defeat is gut-wrenching. But it’s not the end. So, what next for those eliminated teams? Do they thrive in the future, or was this their one shot?

Chicago Bears (2018 record: 12-4)

Talk about a gut-wrenching loss. Cody Parkey’s double-doink on a potential game-winning kick initially looked like a cruel mistake. Closer examination reveals a deflection by Eagles special-teamer Treyvon Hester. So, as often happens to kickers, you get reams of taking-it-super-serious fans screaming blue murder at Parkey for something that wasn’t entirely his fault. Anyway, that’s by the by.

The Bears look in a good situaton for the future because, with a young team that could thrive for years. The defensive core of this team is locked up. Mack, Hicks, Fuller, Smith, Goldman, Jackson, and Amukamara are under contract until at least 2020. Trevathan and Floyd are signed through 2019. So, the biggest defensive loss among playing staff this offseason would be the underrated Adrian Amos. But strong safety is a position of declining importance. No, the bigger issue for the Bears’ defense is that DC Vic Fangio will be a sought-after head coaching candidate.

Fangio’s D plays with energy, power and creativity. Sure, this is an insanely talented group of players. But Fangio’s creative wrinkles help it shine. Look at how an offense sets out to double-team Khalil Mack, who then drops into coverage, leaving a blitzing Danny Trevathan unblocked on the inside. Then, he throws in a slot blitz at just the right time. I’m not sure Fangio would be a dead cert as a head coach – he makes sense if a team has an ascendant OC they want to keep around (Cleveland and Freddie Kitchens would have made sense). But he’s a big loss if he leaves the Bears.

Key offensive personnel are still mostly secure – Robinson, Burton, Cohen, Trubisky and most of that offensive line, though Cody Whitehair should be next up for a big payday. There’s some depth there, though Jordan Howard will need to be replaced (or re-signed, though it’s unlikely). Cap space is…okay. But offensive developmentll depends on Trubisky’s development, and if his evaluation is hard enough as is after this season, predicting his future is triply so.

Houston Texans (2018 record: 11-5)

Houston have seemed on the precipice of collapsing for much of Bill O’Brien’s reign. But it never quite comes. I don’t know what to make of a team that had 11 out of 16 games end as one-score games, but a 6-5 record in those games doesn’t suggest 11 wins is statistically anomalous.

We think of Houston being an injury-ravaged team in recent years. But other than wide receiver, the important pieces stayed healthy much of the year. And that in itself is worrying. What odds that the Texans get another mostly-fit year from Watt, Clowney, Mercilus, McKinney, Jackson, Mathieu, Joseph?

Indianapolis comfortably handled the Texans (Godofredo A. Vasquez/ Houston Chronicle)

Flip over and you immediately see another ceiling on Houston’s progress: the offensive line. You can make a case that five new starting linemen are needed, but picking any unit (tackles; left or right side; interior) and trying to make a strength of it is a direly-needed starting point to the offseason. Make no mistake: without O-Line overhaul, Houston are going no further, even if they get lights-out offensive skill position play. At least – even after presumably re-signing Clowney and maybe Mathieu – they’ve got the cap space to do so. Maybe they can get a reliable #2 receiver while they’re at it.

Seattle Seahawks (2018 record: 10-6)

Just when you think the Seahawks have escaped the nefarious clutches of one incompetent coaching assistant, they bumble into another. Tom Cable may now be flinging bat guano at the Oakland offensive line, but Brian Schottenheimer has appropriated his fart-mantle. Faced with a predictable run-first offensive game plan that wasn’t working in the wild card game, Schottenheimer…persisted. And Seattle lost. And it took Russell Wilson going off-script to even keep it close.

It’s hard to bet against Pete Carrol continuing to defy predictions in 2019. We all predicted doom amid the decapitation of the Legion of Boom, but we were proven wrong. Youngsters like Shaquill Griffin, Tedric Thompson, Tre Flowers, Delano Hill have played well. Frank Clark might be an odious human but Seattle love his sack totals enough for them to do the mental gymanistics.

But on offense, Schottenheimer may continue to be a limiting factor in 2019, even if going run-first worked often in 2018. Personnel-wise, once Russell Wilson is locked up past 2019 the core will be secure through 2020. There’s cap space to bring in much-needed upgrades on the offensive line and at tight end. And you’d expect both depth and the continued replacement of veteran defenders will continue next year. But we wrote them off last year as a potential 3- or 4-win team. Let’s not make that mistake again.

Baltimore Ravens (2018 record: 9-7)

The season of limbo in Charm City could well become an offseason of change. First we had the retirement of legendary long-term GM Ozzie Newsome, and next we’ll see the passing of the quarterback baton from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson. And now John Harbaugh is being linked with various moves out of town? Harbaugh won playoff games each of his first five years at head coach, culminating in a 2013 Super Bowl win. Since then he only has one playoff win, though since taking over in 2008 only has one losing season (5-11 in 2015). But this was Baltimore’s first year in the playoffs since 2014. And Harbaugh’s first loss in the wild card round. It’s difficult to gauge whether he’s done all he can, or if this is the start of a renaissance.

That overshadows everything in a way it shouldn’t. Whether Baltimore will succeed in the next few years will depend on how Lamar Jackson develops. How doesn’t just mean “how well”, but whether the Ravens continue to emphasise his strengths while coaching up his weaknesses. Jackson is never going to be a pocket passer, thank God. But he has to become a more consistent passer. The good thing is, he’s only just celebrated his 22nd birthday, and has just been the youngest ever quarterback to start a playoff game.

The Ravens roster is solid and they have acceptable cap space beyond 2019 (especially if they find a trade partner for Flacco). Wide receiver and interior offensive line seem to be the offseason priority from a personnel point of view. From a coaching point of view, is it a coincidence the first team to play the Jackson-‘backed Ravens took them apart? If not, then that’s a gameplan that needs some more tweaks and wrinkles. And that’s unsurprising really. The scheme was implemented midseason, at the drop of a hat, and it speaks credit that it took them to a playoff place.

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