Making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons is never easy in the NFL.
Every year, there is almost always a new crop of teams entering the postseason. Last season, four teams missed the playoffs that made it in 2011. Before that, there was a streak of 16 years were at least five teams from the previous postseason missed the playoffs in the following year.
So who is going to miss out on the AFC playoff picture this year?
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
The Bengals made the postseason in back-to-back years, and appear to be a team on the rise. They are led by quarterback Andy Dalton and dynamic receiver A.J. Green, and they have the makings of an up-and-coming group. If Dalton and Green continue to progress in Year 3, then the Bengals could find themselves right back in the playoffs.
Houston Texans (12-4)
The Texans were one of the best teams in the NFL during the regular season, but they hit a wall against the Patriots in the playoffs. Led by Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Texans have one of the top defenses in the game. With quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Arian Foster, they have an offense to match. They're banking on the new addition of former Ravens safety Ed Reed to help get them over the New England hump.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts were one of the surprise teams in the NFL last year, with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck leading them to a postseason berth. The team played inspired football for first-year Head Coach Chuck Pagano, who underwent a battle with Leukemia soon after taking the job. The Colts won't catch any teams by surprise this season, and all eyes will be on Luck to see if he can build off an impressive rookie year.
New England Patriots (12-4)
It's been a tumultuous offseason for New England, given the Aaron Hernandez case, the injuries to Rob Gronkowski and the departure of top receiver Wes Welker. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the Patriots, they still have a future Hall of Fame coach and quarterback. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have the Patriots competing for Super Bowls nearly every season, and expectations are still sky-high in New England.
Denver Broncos (13-3)
The Broncos had their season ended by a remarkable Ravens comeback in the divisional round. Despite that loss, the Broncos were still one of the best teams in the NFL and are heading into the 2013 season with Super Bowl expectations. Quarterback Peyton Manning is looking to add another Lombardi Trophy to his resume in the twilight years of his career, and the Broncos have all the makings of a team that could end up playing on the final Sunday of the season.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
The Ravens are hoping to break a recent trend of Super Bowl winners – the last eight haven't won a playoff game the year after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens have to replace 11 players who started last season, and they have a new roster of talent headlined by a rebuilt defensive front. Quarterback Joe Flacco is the new leader of the team now that Ray Lewis is gone, and he'll look to bring the Ravens back to the playoffs for the sixth straight season.