With the playoffs starting this weekend it’s worth taking a look back at the 2009 NFL season.
Many of the big movers and shakers are getting ready for a Super Bowl run. In the AFC the top seeds feature the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts (who came incredibly close to an unbeaten year while Manning put his name higher in the NFL ranks) and the 13-3 San Diego Chargers (who saw a breakout year from Phillip Rivers and a defiant stance from Tomlinson).
Over in the NFC arguably the most improbable juggernaut in recent memory is the 14-2 New Orleans Saints (who in spite of head-scratching losses to the Bucs and Dallas boast a much-improved D) while the 12-4 Minnesota Vikings (enjoying the spoils of an ageless Favre and his endless theatrics) are the second seed.
From there it’s easy to look at the 10-6 Patriots (back to prominence with Brady in tow), 10-6 Bengals (who endured the tragic death of Chris Henry), 9-7 Jets (with the rookie brilliance of Ryan and Sanchez) and the 9-7 Ravens (with a suddenly vulnerable defense).
In the other division attention deservedly goes to 11-5 Dallas (who made a successful move to a bigger stadium), 10-6 Arizona (who continue to puzzle pundits with their success), 11-5 Green Bay (whose defensive resurgence seemingly came from nowhere) and 11-5 Philly (which took a chance on Vick and prospered).
However this reporter shifts attention to two of the biggest stories throughout the year in the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Last season, both squads went into the post-season eyeing glory. Pittsburgh climbed the heap and won the Super Bowl while the Giants fell flat in the first round.
Early on all signs pointed to the clubs providing more drama this month. New York ran out of the gate 5-0 to start 2009 and sparked talk of how dominant they could be.
Pittsburgh meanwhile seemed like a smart pick to defend their title with a 6-2 mark at the halfway point. Yet both clubs would stumble hard and end up out of the playoffs (the Giants crashing to 8-8 and the Steelers at 9-7).
New York rattled off disappointing losses to San Diego (21-20), Eagles (namely 40-17 in week eight) and topped it off with embarrassments against Carolina (41-9) and Minnesota (44-7).
Pittsburgh’s undoing would be an epic and baffling five-game losing streak that included losses to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns (all had over 10 defeats on the year).
It’s hard to say what went wrong in both cases aside from defenses that took big blows and never recovered. New York lost Pierce and its defensive coordinator while Pittsburgh had an injured Polamalu.
The G-Men and the Steelers would not be the only playoff teams staying home this year. The 9-7 Falcons (who lost an inconsistent Matt Ryan late in the year) and 8-8 Panthers (who suffered under a flaky Delhomme) joined them on the sidelines in the NFC.
The AFC would see disappointing finishes from the 7-9 Dolphins (who ended up with a losing record after a string of injuries) and 8-8 Titans (who inexplicably fell apart under Kerry Collins).
Of course no season wrap-up would be complete without looking at the chokers and jokes in the league. Teams like 7-9 Jacksonville (could not make the playoffs after controlling their fate), 9-7 Houston (underachieved yet again), 8-8 Denver (started 6-0 and still missed the playoffs) and 7-9 Chicago (who actually looked worse with Cutler) make fan loyalty a painful experience with their epic shortfalls.
Meanwhile the 1-15 Rams (the NFL’s worst team), 2-14 Lions (who improved slightly), 3-13 Bucs (suffering major rebuilding pains) and 4-12 Chiefs (had the most losses in the AFC) showed why they struggle to maintain a fan-base period.