Saturday, January 3, 2009

NFC Wildcard: Cardinals-Falcons (Live)

Miles and I will be bringing live updates and opinions on the Cardinals-Falcons game. Everyone seems to have counted the Cardinals out, but as long as they can throw the ball they've got a good shot. They're in a dome, so why can't they beat the Falcons?

Pretty pitiful start for the Cardinals, who follow a sloppy kickoff return with a 3 and out.
4:42: Matt Ryan makes a terrible pass which is intercepted. We have yet to see a first down in two drives. Weren't we expecting at least 10 points by now?
4:47: After three straight rushes by Edgerrin James (um, is this 2004?), the Cardinals just bombed it 42 yards on a flea flicker to Larry Fitzgerald who out-leaped two Falcons' defenders. If the Falcons can't stop Edge and let Kurt Warner set up play action, this is going to be a blowout.
4:54: The Falcons finally got their first first down, and an interesting matchup will be Pro Bowl-bound Roddy White against rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. In other news, Michael Turner is getting stuffed so far.
5:03: A surprisingly balanced attack from the Cardinals so far, with 5 rushes and 5 passes.
5:09: The Falcons offensive line is looking just awful. Michael Turner has no running lanes, and Matt Ryan has been sacked twice so far in the first quarter.
5:11: Warner throws 2 straight passes that probably should've been intercepted. Both team's offensive lines have been terrible. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the NFC!
5:26: Falcons are finally on the board with a field goal after a good-looking drive.
5:31: Just as the commentators were talking about how Anquan Boldin was averaging around 6 yards after the catch, he turns an 8-yard Kurt Warner check down into a 71-yard touchdown. Lawyer Milloy had a chance to tackle Boldin near the sideline, but pulled a Roy Williams (safety) and whiffed. Rackers drills the extra point and the Cardinals are up 14-3.
5:37: Roddy White drops a wide-open pass. I thought the Falcons' receiver woes left with Michael Vick. Apparently not.
5:45: Finally the Falcons offense shows signs of life, as Ryan methodically leads the offense down the field and Turner caps off the drive with a 7-yard TD run. Cardinals' lead is down to 4.
6:00: Halftime. Why is Matt Millen on NBC? Sigh. The game break actually helps the Cardinals more at this point, as the Falcons had built up some nice momentum and currently have a 3-point lead on a 2-yard pass to Justin Peele.
6:16: Halftime ends with a Jerious Norwood 26-yard kickoff return. On the first play, Michael Turner had the ball stripped by Darnell Dockett and it landed right into Antrelle Rolle's hands, who took it to the end zone. Cardinals lead again 21-17 after an exciting Neil Rackers point after.
6:26: The Falcons' drive after the turnover has been a disaster; a run for a short loss, a first-down pass negated by a holding penalty, a false start, and a deep pass incomplete. On the resulting punt, Steve Breaston was hit after calling for a fair catch to give the Cardinals' another 15 yards in field position.
6:32: Pathetic looking drive from the Cardinals, who ran once for 5 yards and then threw two incompletions (both to Larry Fitzgerald), one of which should have been a defensive holding penalty. Neil Rackers then missed a 51-yard field goal.
6:46: After trading possessions, the Cardinals just dominated the Falcons on a methodical 14-play, 76-yard drive finished off by a Tim Hightower run that resembled Michael Turner's walk into the end zone in the second quarter. The Cardinals converted four third downs and extend their lead 28-17.
6:50: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie just made a great pick over Roddy White. The Falcons tried an up-and-out and Matt Ryan held it for about a half-second too long. Considering the ease at which the Cardinals are moving the ball, one more score by them could put this game away.
6:55: End of the 3rd quarter, Falcons ball.
7:06: After a confusing holding penalty against the Falcons on a Cardinals punt, Matt Ryan held the ball way too long in his own end zone and the Cardinals capitalized with a safety. Cardinals 30, Falcons 17.
7:20: The Falcons have the ball with about 7 minutes left and Matt Ryan just played with fire and almost threw a pick to Roderick Hood. On 4th and 6 Jerious Norwood took a little dump off in the flat for 30 yards.
7:24: Roddy White just scored a touchdown on a short pass to the right. Cardinals 30, Atlanta 24.
7:30: Huge catches by Larry Fitzgerald (15 yards) and Steve Breaston (25 yards) have put the Falcons' playoff hopes in severe jeopardy.
7:32: And right after Breaston's big game, John Abraham blew up a stupid reverse and tackled him for a loss of 8. A 22-yard completion to tight end Stephen Spach takes us to the 2-minute warning.
7:37: Since the Falcons burned all their time outs before the two minute warning the Cardinals will kneel it to advance in the NFC.

The Expectations Power Rankings, 2007-2008 32-17

Every year teams go into the season with baggage- a Super Bowl victory or defeat, major offseason acquisitions or releases, a history of being horrible, or perennial underachievers. While it's true that win differential doesn't tell the whole story- the Patriots couldn't be expected to repeat their perfect regular season, nor could anyone have reasonably expected the Lions to lose every game in 2008 (or could they?)- it provides a unique look at the league's booms and busts. Context means everything for teams like the Chargers and the Cowboys, while the same weaknesses that plagued the Bills and the Texans in 2007 helped them to a repeat performance in 2008. Here's the list with commentary starting with the largest negative differential to the largest positive differential. In cases of ties, the team that had more wins in 2007 got the lower ranking on the negative side while the team that had less wins in 2007 got the lower ranking on the positive side.

32. [-7] Green Bay Packers (2007: 13-3, 2008: 6-10) - It is genuinely difficult to pin down the root causes of the 2008 Packers' ineptitude. Some people might point to the Brett Favre saga/trade installing Aaron Rodgers as the franchise quarterback. That doesn't fly very far when you look at Rodgers' numbers (4038 yards, 28 TDs, 13 interceptions) compared to Favre's (3472 yards, 22 TDs, 22 interceptions). Ryan Grant's slow start might have played a part, but the Packers were doing well in the first half of the season. The defense certainly played a part, but outside of a couple games (New Orleans, Carolina) they were averaging around 18-20 points per game which isn't terrible. So I guess the only thing we can say is that it was a team effort.

31. [-7] Detroit Lions (2007: 7-9, 2008: 0-16) - You'd think that teams with more to lose might stand a better chance to make #31 on this list, but the 2008 Detroit Lions' season was epic. Starting the season with Jon Kitna before placing him on IR in week 5 under suspect circumstances, Dan Orlovsky's casual romp out of the back of the end zone against the Vikings in week 6 (final score: 12-10), firing General Manager Matt Millen, and bringing in Daunte Culpepper back to the NFC North, the Lions managed to finish in the bottom 5 in almost every meaningful statistical category. The silver lining? Calvin Johnson is living up to his draft status, finishing the season with an exceptional 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns, tied for the league lead with Larry Fitzgerald. Head coach Rod Marinelli has been fired as the Lions begin the rebuilding process.

30. [-6] Jacksonville Jaguars (2007: 11-5, 2008: 5-11) - While most of the Jaguars' woes can be attributed to an incredible number of significant injuries on their offensive line, their problems went much deeper as the season went on. Their starting middle linebacker was benched for disagreeing with Jack Del Rio in a team meeting. Newly resigned David Garrard threw 15 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in 2008 compared with 18 touchdowns and 3 interceptions last year. The defense couldn't muster a pass rush despite drafting Derrick Harvey 8th overall and Quentin Groves in the second round. Fred Taylor started complaining before getting hurt and placed on IR, possibly (and probably) ending his career. The playoff victory over the Steelers in 2007 is just a fond memory, and the Jaguars have some major issues to address in the offseason.

29. [-6] Cleveland Browns (2007: 10-6, 2008: 4-12) - The Browns' dismal 2008 showing has already drawn blood with the firing of GM Phil Savage and the firing of former head coach Romeo Crennel. Honestly I'm not sold on putting the blame on Savage- it's hard to win when the first three quarterbacks on the depth chart go on IR- but not scoring a touchdown in 6 straight games is amazing and goes straight back to the playcalling. Also in fairness to Savage, Brady Quinn did look like he could be successful before his injury. The Browns' easy 2007 Cinderella season came back to haunt them with a much more difficult schedule and the re-emergence of the Baltimore Ravens as a force in the NFC North. They have the talent to be successful, but key stars such as Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow are malcontents and it might leave the Browns better off if they found trade partners.

28. [-6] Seattle Seahawks (2007: 10-6, 2008: 4-12) - The main reason the Seahawks' were so pitiful on offense stems mainly from injury. Franchise quarterback Matt Hasselbeck missed the majority of the season with a back injury, and before that Seattle wide receivers were dropping like flies. When you end the season with your starting wide receivers being Koren Robinson and Courtney Taylor, you know you've hit rock bottom. Offseason acquisition Julius Jones predictably wasn't stellar, starting only 10 games and finishing the season with just under 700 yards and 2 touchdowns. Since the offense couldn't do anything, the defense spent the entire game on the field and as a result finished 25th in scoring and 30th yards allowed. Mike Holmgren's parting gift was, apparently, a top-5 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

27. [-5] New England Patriots (2007: 16-0, 2008: 11-5) - Losing Tom Brady in week 1 (further proof that he sold his soul to the Devil last year) put a serious damper on the Patriots' plans to continue their domination of the AFC. Backup Matt Cassel had a slow start, but developed into a viable NFL starter and only just missed taking the Patriots into the playoffs. Since Cassel is in the final year of his contract and with all signs pointing to him earning a monster contract in the offseason, recent news of complications with Tom Brady's knee surgery make the situation that much more interesting. Other significant injuries- Adalius Thomas, Rodney Harrison, Teddy Bruschi, Lawrence Maroney, among others- also contributed to their fall from grace. The Super Bowl Curse is real.

26. [-4] Dallas Cowboys (2007: 13-3, 2008: 9-7) - The Dallas Cowboys soap opera reached new heights this year. Tony Romo's finger injury cost him 3 games in which the Cowboys went 1-2. A host of chemistry issues with (surprise) canonical loudmouth Terrell Owens and apprentice Roy Williams about the offensive playcalling along with Jerry Jones' repeated refusal to admit anything was wrong with things like the defense (after giving up 34 points to the Rams and 35 to the Giants two weeks later) only fueled the fire. Losing in spectacular fashion to the Ravens in the Texas Stadium finale on 80-yard runs by Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee followed by a 44-6 thrashing in Philadelphia exposed the Cowboys for what they really are; a team with lots of talent that simply can't win big games. Wade Phillips has to be on the hot seat, while offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has seen his stock fall from speculation that he would be named the Cowboys' next coach to whether or not he will keep his job in the offseason as well.

25. [-3] San Diego Chargers (2007: 11-5, 2008: 8-8) - Things didn't go right for the Chargers from the start of the season when Jake Delhomme rifled a pass in between three Chargers defenders to hit Dante Rosario in the end zone for a last-second victory in Carolina. Shawn Merriman's knee injury cost him the remainder of the season, while star running back LaDainian Tomlinson was slowed for much of the year with a toe injury. Lack of a pass rush exposed a ball-hawking secondary that all of the sudden wasn't able to stay in man coverage long enough for the defensive line to get to the quarterback. While their final record should really read something along the lines of 8-7-0-1, with the fourth column denoting Ed Hochuli's contribution to the season, the Chargers did not play up to their opponents and as a result were beaten by all of the 2008 teams that made the playoffs.

24. [-3] Cincinnati Bengals (2007: 7-9, 2008: 4-12) - Why Marvin Lewis gets to keep his job while Romeo Crennel loses his is beyond me; at least Crennel has had a winning season as head coach in the last 5 years. Chad Johnson's ridiculous offseason demand to be traded fizzled before he shutup and went through the motions of masquerading as an NFL starting wide receiver. He certainly didn't up his stock any with his 540 yards and 4 touchdowns. For once it was not the Bengals' defense that shoulders the majority of the blame, as the offense finished 32nd in points and total yards per game. When Cedric Benson is signed off the street and represents an upgrade to your starting running back corps, you know you're in trouble. The good news? They've earned a high draft pick that they can spend on another linebacker to put on IR.

23. [-2] Kansas City Chiefs (2007: 4-12, 2008: 2-14) - The Chiefs traded Jared Allen to the Vikings in the offseason and subsequently finished the regular season with 10 team sacks. Allen finished with 14.5. The Kansas City defense was like a sieve finishing 30th in rush defense and 28th in pass defense (and they only finished that high because teams could run as much as they wanted to). 20-year GM Carl Peterson announced his resignation effective immediately after the season, although Head Coach Herm Edwards says he doesn't plan to step down. The Chiefs' quest for the number one pick in the 2009 Draft was foiled by sneaky Detroit, and Larry Johnson has recently started asking for his way off the team (blessing in disguise?). Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez will probably either retire or be traded in the offseason as well.

22. [-1] Indianapolis Colts (2007: 13-3, 2008: 12-4) - The Colts started the season 3-4 before things started to fall into place for them and finished the season with a 9-game winning streak. As seems to be a trend with the Colts, injuries to running back Joseph Addai, left tackle Tony Ugoh, center Jeff Saturday, safety Bob Sanders, middle linebacker Gary Brackett, and cornerback Marlin Jackson as well as two preseason surgeries on Peyton Manning's knee contributed to the early ineptitude. The Colts lost the AFC South title for the first time in 6 years to the first-seeded Tennessee Titans. Questions remain about the future of aging Saturday and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who clearly lost a step after last season's knee injury, but as long as three-time MVP Peyton Manning is still healthy the Colts will be contenders.

21. [-1] Washington Redskins (2007: 9-7, 2008: 8-8) - The Redskins started the season with a loss on opening day to the Giants before ripping off four straight wins including two impressive road victories at Dallas and at Philadelphia. At the bye they were 6-3 with all of their remaining division games at home; the Redskins seemed like contenders for the NFC East title. Clinton Portis was leading the league in rushing while the media was singing the praises of rookie head coach jim Zorn. However, losses to Dallas, the Giants, Baltimore, and Cincinnati put them firmly out of the playoff picture, leading Zorn to proclaim he felt like "the worst coach in America" an also starting speculation that Redskins owner Dan Snyder might be looking to replace him. That probably won't happen, but the Redskins really need to take a look at what happened in their Dallas Cowboys-esque late season collapse.

20. [-1] St. Louis Rams (2007: 3-13, 2008: 2-14) - The Rams started the season 0-4, allowing an average of 36.8 points. In their week 5 bye, head coach Scott Linehan was fired and defensive coordinator (!) Jim Haslett was promoted to take his place. Despite the dangers of promoting a defensive coordinator whose schemes were allowing 36 points per game, Haslett managed to pull out two wins before losing every single game after week 7. To Haslett's credit, he did lower the Rams' defensive points per game to 26.5 after the bye (which still would have been 6th-worst in the league). It remains to be seen what will happen with the Rams' staffing- the record begs replacement, but the players recently petitioned to keep Haslett on board.

19. [0] Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2007: 9-7, 2008: 9-7) - The Bucs didn't count on having a difficult time in the doldrumic NFC South, but the re-emergence of the Panthers and the surprise of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and Michael Turner in Atlanta conspired to keep the Bucs out of the playoffs. Early in the season the offense struggled to put points on the board and Jon Gruden & company leaned heavily on Monte Kiffin and the defense. Going into week 16 the Bucs were 9-5 with the languishing Chargers and the perennial whipping boys the Raiders left on the schedule. Everything seemed to be going fine until news broke that Kiffin was leaving the Bucs after the season to join his son Lane as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Volunteers. The result? Epic collapse; allowing 41 points to the Chargers and 31 to the Raiders- both losses at home. Without Kiffin the Bucs are in for an interesting 2009.

18. [0] Houston Texans (2007: 8-8, 2008: 8-8) - The Texans had a roller coaster season but things aren't looking so bad. For the second straight season they didn't finish with a losing record, while Andre Johnson solidified his status as the most dangerous wide receiver in the game. Rookie third-round pick Steve Slaton exploded onto the scene after replacing washed out Ahman Green as the starter and finished with 1282 yards and 9 touchdowns. The defense is still the weak link, but Mario Williams finished with 12 sacks and the defense as a whole is young. Gary Kubiak is borderline hot seat if he doesn't at least get the Texans to 9-7 next season, but if Matt Schaub can stay on his feet the Texans offense should be able to carry them to 9 wins.

17. [0] Buffalo Bills (2007: 7-9, 2008: 7-9) - The Bills' excuse last season was a starting lineup with 10 starters on injured reserve. This season there's not such an easy explanation. The Bills and second-year quarterback Trent Edwards made some noise early on, starting 5-1 before getting into division play. That's where things took a turn for the worst as the Bills finished 0-6 against AFC East opponents. Head coach Dick Jauron, rumored to have signed a 3-year extension during the Bills' week 6 bye, somehow managed to keep his job as head coach after being shut out in Buffalo against the Patriots (and, in fairness, against the wind) in week 17. The Bills list of needs is long, and includes fundamentals like a halfway decent tight end, a pass rush, and a possession receiver to draw some coverage away from Lee Evans. With the future of the franchise in flux due to the economics of running any sort of major business in Western New York, the Bills are going to need a major spark to sell their seats.

The Expectations Power Rankings, 2007-2008 1-16

16. [+1] Oakland Raiders (2007: 4-12, 2008: 5-11) - Al Davis missed his second game in more than four decades and the Raiders won their week 17 matchup 31-24 against the Bucs in Tampa, knocking them out of the playoffs. Coincidence? It's the same old story with the Raiders; the trickle-down effect from the top has the franchise in a total mess. The Raiders have a personnel-based roster lacking the scheme to exploit their talents, and like the Jets they found out the hard way that throwing money at the situation (Tommy Kelly, Javon Walker) won't buy you success. On the bright side, 2007 first-overall pick JaMarcus Russell showed flashes of talent and 2008 fourth-overall pick Darren McFadden mostly lived up to the hype before he got injured. The future of the franchise hinges on how well these two turn out.

15. [+1] New Orleans Saints (2007: 7-9, 2008: 8-8) - I'm not sure a bad team has ever been so entertaining to watch. On offense, Drew Brees came up just 16 yards shy of Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record- and he would have had it if the last throw of the season had connected instead of landing at the feet of two Carolina Panthers. The Saints led the league in offensive points per game, and they needed it since they were in the bottom quarter in defensive points allowed. The amazing thing about the 2008 Saints is that they managed to get to 8-8; Brees turned crappy receivers into stars while dealing with a trip to London as well as a re-emergence of division rivals. During the upcoming draft, the Saints should pick up where they left off last season and continue to get some young talent in the secondary.

14. [+1] Denver Broncos (2007: 7-9, 2008: 8-8) - The Broncos' 2008 season will go down as one of the biggest collapses of all time. They held a 3-game lead on the second-place Chargers with three weeks to play for the division title and a home playoff game, yet somehow they managed to lose both games before meeting San Diego in the season finale and getting embarrassed 52-21. In a move that surprised nearly everyone, owner Pat Bowlen fired 14-year head coach Mike Shanahan. Once again, the Broncos' Achilles Heal was the defense, which despite having several high-profile names (DeWayne Robertson, Champ Bailey, Dre' Bly) managed to finish 26th in pass defense and 27th in rush defense. To make matters worse, in every game where the defense was giving them a chance to catch up the offense sputtered. Part of this could have been due to 6 Denver running backs put on IR throughout the season, but come on- 10 points against the Raiders in week 12? The Broncos are going to be a team to watch in the offseason, as they've got so many holes it's hard to even know where they'll begin to clean up the mess.

13. [+1] Philadelphia Eagles (2007: 8-8, 2008: 9-6-1) - Despite tying the lowly Bengals and losing a couple really weird games in bad ways, the Eagles snuck into the playoffs and knocked the Cowboys out in week 17. As usual, fans have been calling for Donovan McNabb's head despite the shortage of quality quarterbacks and the team's success with him under center. Andy Reid- "The Bloated One"- continues to take Philadelphia fans on the playcalling roller coaster- running the ball 10 times one week and 30 times the next. What part of "Brian Westbrook needs 20+ touches per game" is so hard to understand?

12. [+1] Arizona Cardinals (2007: 8-8, 2008: 9-7) - Matt Leinart losing the quarterback competition in the preseason paved the way for Kurt Warner to resurrect his career, putting up an MVP performance through 12 weeks and leading the Cardinals to the NFC West division title. Even though nobody thinks they'll actually win a playoff game outside of Arizona, the Cardinals and Ken Whisenhunt certainly have the weapons to make things interesting. However with star receiver Anquan Boldin upset about his contract, virtually no running game to speak of, and an immature defense that was one of the most penalized in the league this season, the Cardinals have lots of things they need to fix in order to remain on top in the west. Warner also isn't getting any younger, so they need to decide whether or not Matt Leinart will remain in a Cardinals' uniform and start scouting to draft his replacement.

11. [+2] San Francisco 49ers (2007: 5-12, 2008: 7-9) - Head coach Mike Nolan was fired early in the season and replaced by Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, who finished the season 5-4 and was rewarded with the reins for 2009. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz was fired along with quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner and running backs coach Tony Nathan. Singletary seems to be just the breathe of fresh air that the stagnant 49ers franchise needs, and has told the press that they need a new quarterback, offensive lineman, and help in the secondary. Even if they can get to 8 or 9 wins next season, Singletary will be considered a success.

10. [+2] Chicago Bears (2007: 7-9, 2008: 9-7) - The Bears started out strong and even won some games behind their offense with Kyle Orton winning the starting job in training camp. A bad loss to Houston in week 17 ended their season as the Vikings clinched the NFC North and the Eagles took the last wildcard spot. With an aging defense and little to no offensive firepower outside of rookie running back Matt Forte, the financially stingy Bears will be looking to inject some youth through the draft. Lovie Smith could be on the hot seat in 2009 if he fails to take the Bears back to the postseason.

9. [+2] Minnesota Vikings (2007: 8-8, 2008: 10-6) - Adrian Peterson carried the Vikings into the playoffs. Along with the Williams Wall, a renaissance from aging cornerback Antoine Winfield, and the offseason acquisition of marquee defensive end Jared Allen, the Vikings defense finished first against the rush and 18th against the pass. Issues that need to be sorted out at quarterback could take place this January, and while head coach Brad Childress probably saved his job with the management by winning the division the fans certainly aren't going to give him a break unless he comes home with the Lombardi trophy.

8. [+2] New York Giants (2007: 10-6, 2008: 12-4) - The defending champions let everyone know that they were intent on repeating, earning the first seed in the NFC and the requisite first-round bye. First in rushing offense and 5th in scoring defense, the Giants have a proven winning formula. In what could be defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's last year with the team, he could earn himself quite the payday with a second ring. Despite the numerous distractions from Plaxico Burress, the Giants haven't given anyone a reason to believe they shouldn't be favored in all of their playoff games.

7. [+2] Pittsburgh Steelers (2007: 10-6, 2008: 12-4) - What really makes the Steelers' 12-4 record impressive is that they had one of the most difficult schedules in recent memory, facing the brutal NFC East and the AFC South. Plagued by injuries across the offensive line and at running back didn't slow them down as free-agent acquisition Mewelde Moore proved more than able to meet the challenge. As usual, Dick LeBeau's squad led the league in scoring defense, yards per game, and passing yards per game, while outside linebacker James Harrison had a legitimate shot at the AP MVP award with 101 tackles, 16 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, and an interception. Offensive line should be a priority in the offseason, but the Steelers should remain on top of the NFC North for the immediate future.

6. [+3] Tennessee Titans (2007: 10-6, 2008: 13-3) - The Titans finally moved out of Peyton Manning's shadow behind a stellar defense and rookie running back Chris Johnson. Albert Haynesworth was nearly unstoppable in the middle, playing for a new contract and making the Pro Bowl. Kerry Collins replaced Vince Young at quarterback and led the Titans to a 10-0 record before losing to Brett Favre's Jets. While they've managed to do well enough so far, this team would benefit greatly from a legitimate threat at wide receiver. Like the Cardinals, the current starter isn't getting any younger. If Vince Young can get over his depression, the Titans are going to have to decide how to handle that situation in order to play at the same level in 2009.

5. [+5] New York Jets (2007: 4-12, 2008: 9-7) - Acquiring Brett Favre seemed like a good idea at the beginning of the season and even made it look like a good idea for the first half. Then Jets fans were reminded that he was Brett Favre after all as he threw just two touchdowns against nine interceptions (including 3 against the Dolphins, handing them the division title) in the final five games of the season. For some reason Favre's failures were put on Eric Mangini, who was fired ending his three-year tenure with the Jets. To make things more interesting, recent comments by several Jets players have revealed chemistry problems created by Favre's poor performance and general presence in the locker room. 6th-overall pick Vernon Gholston managed to flirt with the bust tag after just one season, notching only five solo tackles and starting zero games. You can almost hear Bill Belichick snickering during the Jets recent press conferences regarding the search for a new head coach featuring reporters asking pointed questions at Mike Tannenbaum and Woody Johnson about how they were actually the ones who brought in Favre and released Chad Pennington, who coincidentally had a career year. Even if Favre returns, it's hard to imagine them being this high on next year's list.

4. [+5] Carolina Panthers (2007: 7-9, 2008: 12-4) - Jake Delhomme bounced back from Tommy John surgery rather nicely, and coupled with a monster season from running back DeAngelo Williams the Panthers earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Steve "sucker punch" Smith finished with 1421 yards (3rd in the league) and averaged over 100 yards per game. Julius Peppers returned to dominance and finished the season tied for 5th in the league with 14.5 sacks. While the defense as a whole has been inconsistent, the Panthers force their opponents to choose between stacking the box against Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart or double covering Steve Smith. It's not a situation defensive coordinators want to be in.

3. [+6] Baltimore Ravens (2007: 5-11, 2008: 11-5) - The Ravens managed to turn the fortunes of their franchise around in a matter of months. Firing longtime coach Brian Billick and hiring little-known John Harbaugh raised eyebrows. Drafting quarterback Joe Flacco out of Delaware raised further doubts. People forgot that the Ravens defense has three of the best players at their positions- middle linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed, and outside linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs- and a proven scheme under coordinator Rex Ryan that gives opposing offenses fits. Pair a dominant defense with a strong rushing attack (the Cowboys found that out the hard way) in Willis McGahee and fullback Le'Ron McClain and you've got a team that strongly resembles the top teams in the league.

2. [+7] Atlanta Falcons (2007: 4-12, 2008: 11-5) - Finally making a break with the ugly Michael Vick/Bobby Petrino/DeAngelo Hall past, the Falcons cleaned house in the offseason. Free Agent Michael Turner finished the season second in the league in rushing. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan played like a seasoned veteran, and wide receiver Roddy White had a breakout year. On the other side of the ball John Abraham returned to relevance with an incredible 16.5 sacks. However like the Ravens, one can't help but wonder if this year's success was more due to the easier schedule than to the beginnings of a dynasty. The Falcons still need help on defense and a No. 2 receiver could turn a good offense into a great offense.

1. [+10] Miami Dolphins (2007: 1-15, 2008: 11-5) - The 2008 Dolphins completed a historical turnaround beating the Jets in the final week of the regular season, snatching the division title from the Tom Brady-less New England Patriots. To make it even sweeter, the winning quarterback was Chad Pennington- the former Jets quarterback traded to the Dolphins as an afterthought. Head coach Tony Sparano and Executive Vice President of Football Operations Bill Parcells brought an entirely different culture to the franchise and made the Dolphins watchable again. Longtime Dolphins fixture Jason Taylor was traded to the Redskins where he spent most of the season in anonymity. Joey Porter led the conference with 17.5 sacks. The wildcat offense spread throughout the entire league and, although its effectiveness generally decreased as the season went on, made things interesting. While the impending sale of the team to mogul Steven Gross has left Parcells' future with the team in doubt, the Dolphins have some great building blocks in place and have dragged themselves out of the AFC East's gutter. At least until next season, they've exceeded all expectations.