What a season. The Falcons and Dolphins rose from the ashes to win 11 games a piece and make the playoffs.
11 wins for the Patriots wasn’t good enough to get in. New England became the first team to miss the tournament with an 11-5 record since the league expanded the playoff format to 12 teams in 1990.
The Chargers were 4-8 and three games behind Denver with four to play and somehow managed to steal the AFC West at 8-8.
The Jets and Cowboys suffered monumental collapses while the Ravens and Eagles experienced unexpected resurgences.
And let’s not forget about the Giants, who endured more than a helping of drama. In the final edition of the 2008 power poll, it’s the champs who again reign supreme.
1. New York Giants (12-4) There are concerns for the Giants going into the playoffs — notably the health of Brandon Jacobs and the ultimate effect Plaxico Burress’ absence will have on the passing game — but the road to Tampa goes through the Meadowlands in the NFC. The champs defended their crown admirably through a difficult regular season.
2. Tennessee Titans (13-3) Each of the other five AFC playoff teams finished stronger than the Titans over the last six weeks. However, despite going just 3-3 down the stretch, Tennessee solidified its status as the team to beat in the AFC with an emphatic 31-14 win over Pittsburgh in Week 16.
3. Carolina Panthers (12-4) The Panthers had a golden opportunity to steal home field from the Giants in Week 16 but John Kasay couldn’t connect on a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Carolina is a seasoned and balanced team that has advanced to at least the NFC Championship Game in each of its three previous playoff appearances. Watch out for the Cats.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) The Steelers won six of their last seven, with the one loss coming in Tennessee on Dec. 21. After that game a few choice Titans saw fit to stomp on a Terrible Towel. It would be an understatement to say the Steelers took exception to that display and will look to exact some revenge should the teams meet again in the AFC Championship Game.
5. Indianapolis Colts (12-4) At 3-4, the Colts season was on the line in Week 9 against New England. They rallied to beat the Patriots and haven’t looked back since, steamrolling their way to nine straight wins to close out the 2008 campaign. Wild-card teams winning it all has become the trend recently (Pittsburgh in 2005 and the Giants in 2007). Indy fits the mold.
6. Baltimore Ravens (11-5) The Ravens have been smashing teams lately. A Week 15 meltdown vs. the Steelers is the only blemish on their record since mid-November. The Baltimore defense turned back the clock this year and Joe Flacco performed well for a rookie. A deep playoff run may be in the cards.
7. Miami Dolphins (11-5) By winning their last five games the Dolphins tied the ’99 Colts for the greatest turnaround in NFL history. Miami went from 1-15 a year ago to 11-5 and division champions, a remarkable feat. That it concluded with Chad Pennington returning to beat the team that jettisoned him was fitting.
8. New England Patriots (11-5) It could be argued that what Bill Belichick, Matt Cassel and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff and players accomplished this year was comparable to the 16-0 season of a year ago. Either way, there’s no disputing that this team deserved to be in the playoffs.
9. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Matt Ryan deserves to finish in the top-three of the MVP voting after the resurgence he led in Atlanta. At this time last year the Falcons were reeling from the incarceration of their iconic quarterback and the unseemly departure of their coach. Now they’re back in the playoffs with a rookie quarterback leading the way. Wow.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) After tying the Bengals and getting tuned up by the Ravens, the Eagles were left for dead at 5-5-1. Heck, entering Week 17 Las Vegas still had them at 75/1 odds to win the Super Bowl. Then down went Tampa Bay. Down went Chicago. The Eagles did their part, dismantling Dallas to slip into the playoffs via the trap door. Now those are odds are 13/1. That must be one of the most drastic 24-hour shifts in the history of Vegas.
Week 17 Picks: 13-3
Coming Friday: A comprehensive look at all four wild-card games and complete playoff picks.