It was Yankee hurler Lefty Gomez who said he'd rather be lucky than good, but it just as well could have been an NFL general manager.
After 17 weeks of football chaos, 20 non-playoff-bound teams are wondering what could have been, had the ball bounced their way.
So who among them was lucky and who just plain bad?
The following power rankings take a crack at that question, paying close attention to what I consider the three most variable elements of professional football—injuries, turnovers and won-loss records in close games.
That's the formula, folks. Let the ranking begin.
2011 was a charmed year for the San Francisco 49ers.
A quarterback mired in five years of mediocrity has his pro best season to date, a stingy defense posts its stingiest totals yet and the league’s best turnover differential helps a team with offensive soft spots ascend to the NFC’s second seed.
Things couldn’t have gone much better at Candlestick. Even 49ers fans have to admit, no one saw this coming.
After untold years of misfortune, things went the Detroit Lions’ way in 2011.
Star quarterback Matthew Stafford stayed healthy, the defense forced 32 turnovers and a resilient squad managed dramatic comebacks against the Vikings, Cowboys, Panthers and Raiders to claim their first playoff appearance since 1999.
If there’s worry for Detroit fans, it's a defense that rated 23rd in yards allowed and 24th in scoring. Had they not managed a 5-3 record in games determined by seven points or less, those unbecoming totals might have torpedoed their playoff dreams.
It’s amazing a team without a single win of more than a touchdown managed eight of them, but the Arizona Cardinals found a way.
Playing 12 of their 16 games with margins of victory less than a touchdown, the Cardinals came out on top more often than not.
Impressive as it was to watch, Arizona fans can’t expect much improvement from a team that finished below league average on both sides of the ball and were outscored by their opponents.
Especially discouraging was the fact that they played better with John Skelton at quarterback than starter Kevin Kolb.
The issues with this team run deeper than an 8-8 record suggests.
Based on their on-field performance, the Bengals' 9-7 finish was no fluke.
They were about as luck neutral as a team can be, with a point differential befitting their slightly above-average record and a plus-1 turnover differential signifying no skew in that department.
If the Bengals had any charm it was their relative sturdiness. Rookie tandem Andy Dalton and A.J. Green stayed healthy and progressed quicker than expected.
The Falcons were a good team that played like a good team.
Expectations of greatness after the team traded up to draft Julio Jones went unfulfilled by its on-field performance, not by any stroke of misfortune.
A healthy Falcons team finished 10th in offense and 12th in defense, striking a balance that led them to a second straight playoff appearance and has them positioned well in the NFC playoff bracket.
I’m nitpicking here, but Baltimore’s 12-4 record at times seemed in spite of their 15th-rated offense.
While that unit floundered for stretches, the NFL’s No. 3 defense dominated all year. Even when Ray Lewis missed time, the ageless Ravens D smothered opponents.
That unit ranked second against the run and first overall in passing touchdowns allowed. Against the league’s top quarterbacks in the playoffs, those strengths ought to tilt games in Baltimore’s favor.
Plagued by the league’s worst offense, the Jacksonville Jaguars ended up where they belonged in 2011.
Hope for the future rests on a capable defense (sixth overall) and the improvement of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
For now though, Jacksonville’s 5-11 record suits their unrealized potential.
A team with Cleveland’s defensive ability—fifth in scoring defense, 10th in yards allowed—has no business going 4-12.
A moribund offense factored heavily into the Browns’ poor performance and a 3-6 record in games decided by seven points or less also played a part.
An injury to Colt McCoy stands mentioning, though the offense did little to impress under his guidance.
Bottom line: the Browns lost a host of close games, but they also failed to win big. Until they fix the offense, expect similar results from this team.
Any 15-1 season in the NFL requires a dose of luck.
For the Packers, critics might mention their league-best winning percentage in games decided by less than a touchdown or their 34 takeaways.
A good deal of that was the byproduct of a potent offense that put the D in position to force turnovers and was near impossible to stop in the fourth quarter.
It’s hard to separate fortune from performance in Green Bay’s sterling season, but to escape a 16-game gauntlet almost unscathed suggests a few good bounces.
Rex Ryan’s stable of high-priced talent was on the field most of the year—they just didn’t play well.
If the Jets had a gripe with the fates, they might point to a defense that rated fifth in yards allowed but 20th in scoring. For whatever reason, a pretty stingy New York defense couldn’t keep opponents off the board.
It might have something to do with an offense that ranked 25th in yards gained and dead last in the AFC in giveaways, a combination that conspired to give opposing offenses short fields.
Tampa Bay free-fell from 10-6 to 4-12 because of bad play, not bad luck.
The Buccaneers finished 21st in offense and 30th in defense, losing seven games by more than 15 points.
A minus-14 turnover differential shoulders some of the blame. But considering all four of the team’s wins came by seven points or less, Tampa fans should be thankful this squad won at all.
It was an abysmal year for a young team, one that should prompt plenty of soul-searching and house-cleaning this offseason.
The New York Giants had a few bad breaks—injuries to the secondary, chief among them—but overall fans have to be pleased that a team with such flaws won its division.
The Giants finished 27th in total defense and 29th against the pass, posted a negative point differential and still snuck away with a division crown.
It merits mention, however, that the schedule-makers did New York no favors. The Giants faced the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints in non-division games while the rival Cowboys drew the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New York’s slate turned out to be the third toughest in the NFC, highlighted by a brutal six-game stretch that lasted the whole of November and into January.
Somehow, despite allowing 400 points, the Giants weathered the storm and came away with a playoff berth.
We all know Tom Brady’s Patriots are great, but I’ll color them lucky this year for their offense's uncanny ability to protect the ball.
New England lost a league-low five fumbles in 2011, staking them to an AFC-best plus-14 turnover differential.
That edge bailed out an injury-riddled defense rated 31st in yards allowed and helped New England to their second consecutive AFC No. 1 seed.
Tim Tebow haters may disagree, but the Denver Broncos kind of earned that 8-8 record.
Sure there were miracle comebacks and a 7-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, but the Broncos also suffered from the worst turnover differential in the AFC that included 15 lost fumbles.
OK, maybe that minus-81 point differential shouldn’t have yielded a .500 mark, but the Broncos did more good than the casual observer might think.
In the end the squad was relatively luck-neutral, contrary to the theories of divine intervention circling their success.
The New Orleans Saints and their record-setting offense were good this year, and they could have been even better.
The New Orleans D managed a league-low 14 turnovers a year after they forced 25 takeaways. With a few more fumbles recovered or passes picked, a potent offense could have scored more.
Not that Drew Brees needed the help—just a few more yards to gain on his way to the record books.
If late injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall compromise the Steelers’ playoff run, then Pittsburgh’s season will have the feel of poor luck.
As of now though, they are right around where they ought to be with the league’s top-rated defense and an offense ranked 12th in yards for scrimmage.
If anything the offense has been a bit unlucky, with all that production resulting in just the 21st-rated scoring offense. Had a stingy defense forced more than a league-low 14 turnovers, that total could have been even higher.
Pete Carroll’s 2011 Seahawks matched their 2010 record despite outperforming the team from a year ago.
In 2010 Seattle managed a 7-9 mark and a division championship despite ranking in the NFL’s bottom five on offense and defense.
This year their defense jumped up to No. 9 in the league while their offense stood idle, earning them a more deserved 7-9 finish but ultimately little progress.
Dolphins partisans looking for excuses can point to Miami’s 2-5 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a mark that contributed to the 0-7 start that buried the team early.
All in all though, the Dolphins landed just about where you’d expect a team with the 22nd-rated offense and 15th-rated defense to land.
Unless you think the team would have been much better off under injured quarterback Chad Henne, Miami’s 6-10 record is a fair reflection of its performance.
In retrospect, losing Fred Jackson snuffed the Bills' playoff potential. But if Ryan Fitzpatrick was as good as Buffalo seemed to think he was early in the year; this team should have been able to recover.
Instead the Harvard grad struggled to replicate his early-season success and Buffalo finished middle of the pack in offense.
On defense things were even worse, with a unit that ranked 26th in yards allowed and 30th in scoring defense. Until the front office fixes that, Buffalo fans can’t expect more than six or seven wins.
Forget the Chris Johnson drama; the biggest blow to Tennessee’s season was the loss of star wideout Kenny Britt in Week 3. Britt's injury forced Nate Washington into a feature role and took the bite of Tennessee’s passing attack.
Other than that, the Titans played as well as a 9-7 team should. They were middle-of-the-pack in offense, defense and turnovers.
They finished a tiebreak away from the playoffs, and deserved to sit on the edge of playoff contention. Tennessee was the best team to miss the playoffs in 2011, but it didn’t have the potential to be much better.
It’s hard to separate the suck from the luck with the 2011 St. Louis Rams.
A bad blend of injury setbacks, missed opportunities and straight-up bad play turned last year’s NFC West Cinderellas into this year’s ultimate pumpkin.
A 1-5 record in games decided by seven points or less suggests the Rams were a few wins better than the standings indicate, and injuries to Sam Bradford and Danny Amendola capped this team’s potential.
Problem is they weren’t much better when Bradford was under center.
Early outcomes in 2012 will go a long way toward determining whether this year was a worst-case scenario or the sign of faulty foundation.
With no clear answer at quarterback, the 2011 Washington Redskins weren’t ticketed for greatness. But they also were better than their 5-11 record.
A rash of injuries at running back, wide receiver and tight end squelched a promising start, while a 3-5 record in games decided by seven or less included a couple of potential wins that slipped from their grasp.
And then there’s the 34 turnovers that led Washington to the worst turnover differential in football.
No team, no matter the talent, can overcome that many mistakes.
Despite finishing right around league average in offense and defense, the Redskins fell hard. There’s a .500 team lurking under that mask of misery though, and with the right quarterback Washington could surprise in 2012.
Injury-wise the Raiders caught an unfair share of bad breaks.
Jason Campbell and Darren McFadden went down with season-ending injuries at critical times, forcing the fate of their season into the hands of an aging and out-of-practice Carson Palmer.
Between the lines, though, Oakland was lucky to win even eight games. They won seven of those contests by a touchdown or less and lost five times by 10 points or more.
They ended the season scoring 74 fewer points than their opponents, and on that account were fortunate to stay in playoff contention up until the season’s final day.
Few enjoy making excuses for the Dallas Cowboys, but 2011’s version have a few legitimate gripes.
Tony Romo struggled through a few ailments, and various injuries at running back kept the ground game in the league’s bottom half.
The Cowboys also endured a string of tough losses early in the year to the Jets, Lions and Patriots and blew a crucial game at Arizona down the stretch.
But the luck wasn’t all bad.
Dallas won four games by three points or less, including two in overtime.
Here we are again with the San Diego Chargers—another team that had the talent to win a weak division but couldn’t overcome a dreadful stretch.
It’s a familiar plot for Chargers fans.
Turnovers and poor play in the clutch undermined a team ranking sixth in offense and 16th in defense.
San Diego went 3-5 in games decided by seven points or less and finished with a turnover differential worse than minus-five for the second consecutive year.
If you call that bad luck, then it explains San Diego’s decision to retain head coach Norv Turner. If you think it’s bad coaching, then expect more of the same from the disappointing Bolts in 2012.
The Minnesota Vikings shouldn’t have gone 3-13 in 2011.
With Adrian Peterson in the backfield, Percy Harvin out wide and Jared Allen heading the defense, Minnesota had six- to eight-win potential.
An unstable quarterback situation undermined the Vikes early in the year and a few bad breaks late kept them from breaking through. Peterson’s injury hurt and a 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less kept a competitive team from blooming into a winning team.
The good news for Minnesota fans is that their team stayed close in so many games and has young players at key positions to build around. A high draft pick puts them in position for a big step forward in 2012—provided Peterson can get healthy and stay healthy.
Panthers fans are likely pleased with a four-win improvement and the budding optimism stoked by rookie quarterback Cam Newton’s record-setting year.
Lost in the buzz about tomorrow is what could have been today.
The Panthers tied with the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams for the worst win percentage in the NFL in games decided by seven points or less, going just 1-5 in those contests.
Blown leads against the playoff-bound Packers and Lions didn’t help matters, nor did a chip-shot miss by kicker Olindo Mare in the waning seconds of a loss to Minnesota.
Misfortune against the NFC Central aside, the Panthers were among just three teams to finish in the NFL’s top 10 in offense and miss the playoffs.
Tighten up the loose ends, and the Panthers should contend for more than just respectability next season.
The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles are the first team since 2007 to finish among the NFL’s top 10 in offense and defense and not post a winning record.
That year’s underachiever?
The Philadelphia Eagles.
As it was in the past—with Donovan McNabb missing time and a defense incapable of forcing mistakes—Philly’s stellar output in 2011 fell victim to the bad luck triumvirate of turnovers, close losses and key injuries.
The Birds registered a minus-13 turnover differential (including the most giveaways in football) one year after nabbing nine more turnovers than their opponents, limped to a 2-5 record in games decided by seven points or less, blew five fourth-quarter leads and lost star quarterback Michael Vick for a key three-game stretch in late November.
As always, some of those woes followed from sloppy play and risk-taking by Vick. But with Vick at the helm last year, these same Eagles suffered fewer ill effects.
Perhaps it was the bad karma of “dream team” expectations that conspired to stymie a team with Super Bowl potential and enviable on-field production.
The Colts received the season’s most devastating injury setback when star quarterback Peyton Manning failed to recover from offseason neck surgery in time for the opener.
“In time for the opener” turned into “in time for the bulk of the season,” by which point the woeful Colts were so far from contention that it was only prudent to shut Manning down for the season.
But in between the lines Indianapolis also caught some bad breaks. They had a minus-10 turnover differential and went 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less.
Not that it was all bad news, since the Colts' 2-14 mark earned them the draft’s first overall pick and a shot at Stanford stud Andrew Luck.
On the injury front, few made out worse than the Houston Texans.
At one time or another they were without their star running back, wide receiver and pass rusher, all before burning through two quarterbacks in rapid succession.
In their first-ever playoff appearance, with a banged-up T.J. Yates at the helm, Texans fans must wonder what could have been with better health.
But there was good luck in the Texans' division title run, too.
Houston had the second-best turnover differential in the AFC and played the league’s easiest schedule, in part because long-time division tormentor Peyton Manning missed the year with injury.
Injuries nipped Kansas City’s chances for a division title defense before the season hit full stride.
Season-ending injuries to running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki whitewashed the first few weeks, and by October the Chiefs sat at 0-3.
Just as they began to recover, a season-ending blow to quarterback Matt Cassel in mid-November reversed whatever momentum they had mustered.
On the field they did well to win six games by seven points or less, but by that point the talent wasn’t there for much more than a handful of hard-fought victories.
The Chicago Bears earn the title of 2011’s unluckiest team because we saw just how good they could be.
Prior to losing Jay Cutler for the season, Chicago was 7-3 with impressive wins over the Falcons, Lions, Eagles and Chargers.
Then Cutler went down with the flukiest of injuries—caused by a missed tackle on an interception return—and Chicago went down with him.
Backup Caleb Hanie couldn’t protect the ball and a follow-up injury to do-it-all running back Matt Forte ended all hopes of playoff contention.
I lend some credence to the notion that Chicago should have had a better contingency plan, but looking around the league I see a lot of other teams that would have struggled with the hand the Bears were dealt.
Chicago fans can bear the harsh winter with the comforting notion that their team’s problems don’t run much deeper than the health of their star quarterback.
Save the quarterback, save the Bears.