NFL Final Conference Standings, Post Mortem, and Playoff Schedule

I decided to put the final standings, analysis, and announced playoff schedule into one omnibus posting, so its liable to be fairly lengthy.  The bulk of this post will be each conference ranked 1-16 (obviously top 6 will be actual playoff seeding) with analysis.  As per my usual over the past two months on the playoff picture posts, I will start with the AFC:

1. Tennessee: Its a rather unique phenomena when a top seed in the conference is getting so little attention, but that has been the case for the Titans.  Even when they were undefeated they didn’t get a ton of love, and they certainly haven’t since they lost to the Jets.  They finished 3-3 in their last 6 games, though that included essentially a preseason game with the Colts yesterday.  Very good defense, strong running game, adequate passing game.  I can’t help wondering if they will be like some Chiefs teams of the 1990s that had regular season records only to lose right away in the playoffs.  They will play the Ravens in the divisional round if Baltimore wins, and that could be a tough matchup for them.

2. Pittsburgh: They Steelers would have a complete team if they got solid offensive line play.  They went 12-4 on a brutal schedule, playing the AFC South and NFC East along with New England and San Diego.  They key for Pittsburgh will be to avoid turnovers, as its hard to move the ball consistently on that defense.  And, of course, that goes to the health of Ben Roethlisberger.  All indications are he will be fine in two weeks for their first game, but I hope, if his mind is still a bit foggy, that Tomlin does not take a chance on Ben playing a less than sharp game.  Leftwich can Jeff Hostetler this team if needs be.

3. Miami: Great season for the Dolphins capped with that win in the Meadowlands yesterday.  Miami ended up getting the better end of the Favre/Pennington sequence.  Good running game, dependable quarterback, and solid defense.  Of course, their reward is a home game with a team that beat them in the regular season, but the Dolphins cannot be taken lightly.  Should they get past the Ravens, Joey Porter would have a return to Heinz Field the next Sunday.

4. San Diego: First team to start a season 4-8 and make the playoffs, the Chargers were able to run down a sputtering Denver team at the end, possibly to the detriment of the rest of the conference.  In December they played like we expected all season.  Still a mediocre defense that will struggle mightily to contain Peyton Manning Saturday night, but the Chargers are definitely peaking at the right time.

5. Indianapolis: Speaking of peaking at the right time!  Started 3-4 and have won 9 straight games since them.  Would have lost the tiebreaker anyhow, but they actually fought back to within one game of their division lead and are tied for 2nd best record in the NFL despite their seeding in the conference.  They are the trendy pick to win the AFC Playoffs, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise if they did.

6. Baltimore: With a rookie at quarterback the Ravens managed to go 11-5 on mostly the same brutal schedule the Steelers played.  Indeed, both games with Pittsburgh where nail-biters and winning either one would’ve given them the division title and #2 seed.  I have been impressed with the job John Harbaugh has done in managing Joe Flacco and putting him in maximum position to succeed.  We will see how he handles playoff pressure, but with that defense and McGahee and Laron McClain running the ball, this Ravens team can be very dangerous

7. New England: Ouch!  To go 11-5 and miss the playoffs is just horrible luck.  Of course, one could argue their record is somewhat inflated by having played the NFC West, as oppossed to a San Diego that had to play the NFC South.  Still, that was perhaps the best job Belichik has done with that team since the one that won Super Bowl XXXVI with Tom Brady thrust into the lineup early in the season (that team also went 11-5 but that was good enough for the 2nd seed in the conference that year).

8. New York: I think today’s firing of Eric Mangini was a bit of an overreaction by the Jets front office.  I look for him to wind up somewhere else; perhaps Cleveland.  But it did all unravel for the Jets after a win in Tennessee made them 8-3 and the flavor of the week a month ago.  Losses to Oakland, Seattle, and San Francisco are ultimately what did this team in.  And now they get to sit through the soap opera known as an offseason with Brett Favre on your roster.

9. Denver: Everyone will look at the December collapse going from 8-5 and 3 games up on the Chargers with 3 to go to missing the playoffs, but the only even sorta bad loss in that trio was the home game with Buffalo.  What really did this team in were midseason losses to both Oakland and Kansas City.  Indeed, those games are why they lost the tiebreaker with San Diego.  Jay Cutler is a very solid quarterback, but Shanahan needs to find a defense.  They looked terrible last night.

10a. Buffalo: Its hard to have a good season when you go 0-6 in division games.  Consistentcy is something the Bills have just not been able to find the last couple seasons.  They hope they have something useful in Trent Edwards.

10b. Houston: Two straight seasons of going 8-8 probably have Texans people a bit frustrated.  A terrible start, including a few agonizing losses in September and October, put Houston behind the 8 ball.  They finished the season very well.  There is reason for optimism, though the Titans and Colts figure to be a couple very difficult nuts to crack.

12. Oakland: Another team that seemed to finish on an up note, there would be reason for optimism in East Bay if not for their front office situation, well chronicled at the time of Lane Kiffin’s dismissal.  Will be interesting to see what direction they go for coaching.

13. Jacksonville: So much for my preseason pick of the Jaguars as Super Bowl champs this season!  The Jags just never seemed to recover from having 3 guards get injured on opening day and by November the white flag was waving.

14. Cincinnati: Bengals finished the season on a 3 game winning streak (admittedly ending with Cleveland and Kansas City) that puts a bit of breath mint to cover the halitosis from the first 3 months.  Defense was improved, but the offense was doing poorly even before Carson Palmer’s injuries.  I look for the Bengals to divorce from Chad Johnson and start a rebuild.

15. Cleveland: How many quarters was that without an offensive touchdown to end the season?  24?  Two shutouts to end the season?  The December futility can be chalked up to being reduced to playing at quarterback guys that probably shouldn’t be on an NFL roster, but this team was in trouble long before then.  They might need to part company with Braylon Edwards, and they definitely need to move Derek Anderson and let Brady Quinn have free run of the offense.  Published reports are that Bill Cowher is not interested in the head coaching vacancy.  Whether he really doesn’t want to come back into the same division as the Steelers, or its just the opening move in contract negotiations, I’m not sure.

16. Kansas City: I had never even heard of Tyler Thigpen before this season.  I’m not really sure the Chiefs were any better than the Lions, but they did manage to win a couple games.  We’ll see if Herm Edwards gets to stick around to try to get this team back to the point where it can play to win games.

NFC:

1. New York: So much for Super Bowl hangovers.  This team has struggled a bit down the stretch without Plaxico Burress, much moreso in games that Brandon Jacobs did not play.  But with that defensive line and Eli Manning, I think they are still the favorites to win this conference.

2. Carolina: I really didn’t see this kind of season coming from the Panthers, but good things usually come for teams that go undefeated at home.  Great running game, good defense, Jake Delhomme back to the Delhomme we remember from a few seasons ago.  They are well set in the playoffs too, as their first game will either be off of a Vikings team on 6 days rest, a suspect Arizona defense, or an Atlanta team they already beat at home this season.

3. Minnesota: Perfect example that the great defense and running game formula can still serve you well in the NFL.  Not sure how much of a playoff run they can make with Tavaris Jackson (or Gus Frerote) at quarterback, but at the very least Jackson can get some playoff experience for future years.  And, as far as that goes, the Eagles are not as unbeatable as everyone in the media has been acting the past 24 hours.

4. Arizona: Calling them the best of the worst might be a bit harsh, but they did go 3-7 in their games that were not against NFC West competition.  Dynamite passing game but not much else to recommend them.  I expect Atlanta to handle them; failing that they would give Carolina or New York a free pass to the championship game.

5. Atlanta: Remember when this franchise was in tatters after the Michael Vick fiasco?  I hope you do, because that was only a few months ago.  Just goes to show how quickly things can rotate in the NFL.  Matt Ryan had a great rookie campaign and the Falcons played very consistent football throughout the season, going 8-2 in games outside the tough NFC South.  If Ryan handles the playoff pressure, this team will not be an easy out.

6. Philadelphia: Remember when the Eagles were 5-5-1 and McNabb was being an idiot claiming to not know a regular season game can end in a tie?  Then they were 8-5-1 and seemingly flushed their playoff chances with a weak offensive showing losing to Washington last week.  But the Raiders and Texans threw them a lifeline and they used it to strangle the Cowboys.  They had a losing record in division games and still made the playoffs, which is quite rare.  I know the Steelers did that in 1989; not sure if anyone has done that since then.  Talk about your roller coaster rides!  If they get past the Vikings, they would next play the Giants, a matchup they just won a few weeks ago.

7. Dallas: The word dysfunctional wouldn’t do this team justice.  Their season was probably turned by blowing that 10 point 4th quarter lead in Pittsburgh, even though they won the Giants game the next week.  They would’ve been fine anyway if not for losing a game in mid-October to the hapless Rams.  If I were Jerry Jones I would probably find a way to lose Terrell Owens, as no one is worth that level of headache.  I would also politely ask Roy Williams if he intends to spend next season with his head up his butt or actually play football.  Tell Jason Garrett that he has 2 quality running backs in Barber and Choice and he should use them.  And get Ware some help along the front 7 of the defense.

8. Tampa: They join the Jets and Broncos for having the worst collapse of the season.  They were 9-3 and playing Carolina on a Monday Night for advantage in the division.  Lost that, then lost to Atlanta.  But they were still fine; all they had to do, as it turns out, is win either one of the home games with San Diego and, um, Oakland.  Oops.  This team was killed by Monte Kiffin going to the Volunteers to coach for his son.  When that was announced Kiffin probably should’ve just left right away, because I think it was clear his head was not all in Tampa.  They went from a good defense to a terrible one (I should know; they were my fantasy defense).  Still, its also true that if they had beaten Dallas when Romo was out midseason they would be in the playoffs despite that collapse.

9. Chicago: Season, as it turns out, hinged on their wild finish with Atlanta early in the season; after the Bears scored with, IIRC, 11 seconds remaining, a kickoff out of bounds and a deep out pattern allowed Atlanta to win the game on a field goal.  Reverse that finish and both them and the Falcons are 10-6 with Chicago holding the tiebreaker for the 5th seed.

10. Washington: Would have made the playoffs if not for December losses to Cincinnati and San Francisco.  At times they looked like a good team, at times Jim Zorn looked like the worst coach in America (I am thinking of a couple games with questionable clock management for example).  I don’t think we know anything more about Jason Campbell than we did a season ago.

11. New Orleans: Drew Brees came within 16 yards of the single season passing yards record, but Reggie Bush is starting to look like a bit of a bust, and the defense could still use improving.  Mostly, though, they were in the wrong division.  Its not hard to picture them being flip-flopped with the Cardinals and having a stronger record.

12. San Francisco: Bad start, strong finish, just like the Houston Texans.  Mike Singletary got the interim tag removed from his title, and for good reason.  The 49ers played solid, hard, competitive football for him.  They came agonizingly close to winning a Monday Night game with Arizona shortly after he took over that would’ve given them a chance at the division title the final weekend.  They seem to have found something at quarterback with Shaun Hill.  I would keep an eye on them in 2009.

13. Green Bay: Its easy to point at 2007 with Brett Favre and compare it to 2008 with Aaron Rogers.  But the new quarterback was fine; someone in Green Bay should file with the police a missing persons report on the Packers defense.  For whatever reason, it just gave out.  They were able to hold their own with the Vikings and Bears, but they were only 2-8 in non-divisional games.

14. Seattle: Not the way Mike Holmgren wanted to embark on his sabbatical, but losing Matt Hasselback obviously wrecked that offense, and I think the rest of the team just kinda got old.  Time for Jim Mora Jr. to have the joy of a rebuilding process.

15. St. Louis: A random 2 game winning streak over the Cowboys and Redskins in mid-October when Jim Haslett took over is all that seperated them from the Lions.  Because, quite frankly, they sucked just as much.

16. Detroit: Not much you can say about 0-16.  Only time I saw the Lions this season was Thanksgiving Day, and I didn’t see much positive.  Marinelli is out, his son-in-law defensive coordinator is out, time to start from scratch with no Matt Millen.  Look for them to hire a coach whose name doesn’t start with “M”.

And, last but not least, here is the announcable portion of the playoff schedule:

Saturday January 3rd (on NBC):

4:30pm 5.Atlanta @ 4. Arizona, 8pm 5. Indianapolis @ 4. San Diego

Sunday January 4th:

1pm 6. Baltimore @ 3. Miami, 4:30pm 6. Philadelphia @ 3. Minnesota

Saturday January 10th:

4:30pm @ 1. Tennessee, 8:15pm @ 2. Carolina

Sunday January 11th:

1pm @ 1. New York Giants, 4:45pm @ 2. Pittsburgh

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