Remember the summer of 2008? You know, when the Cowboys and Browns were planning on meeting in the Super Bowl, the Falcons were staring down the barrel of a gun after the Mike Vick era ended with the three time pro bowler in jail and the franchise in disarray, and the Packers looking towards the future with their new quarterback?
It seems that we fans, and the NFL for that matter, somehow forgot about what was supposed to happen, and went along with what was actually happening.
So that brings us to the all important question: which teams were the big winners and losers of the 2008 NFL season?
And I don't mean who has the best and worst records, that's obvious. What I mean is who had the best and worst seasons in relation to what they were supposed to do.
For example, we all knew that the Lions and the Raiders weren't making any runs to the Super Bowl and that the Giants and Steelers would probably find themselves at or near the top of their respective conferences at the end of the season.
So compared to what was expected to happen, who had the best and worst seasons?
First, we have the Baltimore Ravens.
The team that finished 5-11 in 2007 is now looking at a possible playoff appearance thanks to their new coach, their rookie quarterback, and a defense that found their fire again. So how did they get to this point?
After losing running back Jamal Lewis and linebacker Adalius Thomas after the 2006 season, the Ravens were looking at a dismal offense and a coach, Brian Billick, who was past his prime in a franchise that was ready to let him go. With the end of the 2007 season came the realization that the Ravens needed to acquire a franchise quarterback after Steve McNair retired and the need for an effective running back was higher than ever.
They fixed both of these problems by drafting Joe Flacco and handing the ball off to Le'Ron McClain more. These solutions resulted in an improved running game and a quarterback who, with no previous NFL experience, has thrown for over 2,500 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Although those are not Pro Bowl numbers, Flacco is getting the job done and learning the offense. So, what were people thinking of the 2008 Baltimore Ravens?
Most people thought they would be a middle of the pack team that would probably not make the playoffs. Right now they are 10-5 and staring at a potential playoff spot, which, in my book, makes them a winner of 2008.
Next, we have the model of consistency, the Indianapolis Colts.
Coming into this season, fans were looking at a team that had its star quarterback under the knife over the summer and its pro bowl center out for a few weeks. With these issues, the Colts were hearing that this might be the year that they don't make the playoffs.
People were saying how Peyton Manning couldn't come off of the surgery the same and that without Saturday, his entire game would be off.
For the first few weeks, those predictions were dead on. Then came the rest of the season, where the Colts became the Colts of old, and Peyton Manning found his rhythm again. Now, the Colts have clinched a playoff spot at 11-4 and have won eight straight games after starting 3-4. Compared to where they were supposed to be at this point, the Colts are definitely winners.
And now there is the curious case of the Miami Dolphins.
The 1-15 team from a year ago now has Bill Parcells on the payroll, a new coach, a new quarterback, a new offense, and a new outlook on life. As you can tell, a lot changed in Miami since a year ago.
Chad Pennington is leading the revamped offense and the running back tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams has opposing defenses bewildered and the Dolphins at 10-5. The defense has also stepped up this year, improving in almost every single defensive category.
After making big changes in the offseason, the Dolphins were picked to improve, but not by much. The general consensus was that the Patriots would run away with the AFC East and the Dolphins would be at the bottom, still rebuilding. Considering that they are currently in an extremely tight race for the AFC East crown, and have improved markedly, i consider the Dolphins one of the big winners of the 2008 NFL season.
Last but not least, we have the biggest winner of the 2008 season, the Atlanta Falcons.
The comeback story of the year has got to be this franchise, as it went from the bottom of the league at 4-12, through a coaching change that completely devastated the team, and suffered through a season where its quarterback corps was made up of Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwhich, and Chris Redman.
The outlook for the 2008 season revolved around rebuilding the franchise. With rookie quarterback Matt Ryan out of Boston College and running back Michael Turner coming over from San Diego, the future looked bright for the Falcons. Atlanta, however, did not know that the future would come this soon.
They are now 10-5, have clinched a playoff spot, and have proved to the rest of the league that they are legitimate. Because of where everyone thought they would land this year and where they are now, the Falcons are the winners in this column.
The Losers list starts out with a couple of NFC North teams that aren't exactly finishing the season how they wanted to. The first is the Green Bay Packers.
This team had quite possibly the most tumultuous offseason of any team. The legendary Brett Favre left for retirement, then decided he did in fact want to play...well you know the rest. Once that saga was over, the team decided that its best bet was to stick with the quarterback they drafted to replace Favre, Aaron Rodgers.
Although this decision seems to be the right one with the numbers he is putting up, it appears that the team was not ready for this switch. The Pack is sitting at 5-10 and in third place in the NFC North. This from a team that was picked to compete with the Vikings for supremacy in the division.
So for all intents and purposes, the 2008 Green Bay Packers are a big bust.
The second team from the NFC North is the Minnesota Vikings, and I know, I know, they're on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. But this is a team that was picked to stop the Packers and win their division with relative ease.
With Adrian Peterson coming off of a huge rookie season, Tarvaris Jackson looking to continue to develop, and a defense which was bolstered in the offseason by the acquisition of Jared Allen, this team was looking to be the top dog in the NFC. But that is not the case. After going through a quarterback switch two weeks into the season, then going through another one near the end of the year, where do they find themselves after week 16? Instead of hoping to wrap up home field advantage, they are hoping to just gain a spot in the playoffs.
The Vikings' season has not gone to plan, and that makes them a loser of the 2008 season.
The last two teams on the loser list are from the AFC. These teams were both fairly successful last year and had high hopes for the 2008 season.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were highly touted as this year's sleeper pick for the Super Bowl, but the season did not go that way. After starting slowly at 3-3, the Jaguars were not able to pick it up and went 1-6 over the next seven weeks, and found themselves at 4-9 in week 14. This team clearly underachieved, as David Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew did not play to the level that they played to last year.
That underachievement is what puts them on this list.
The second AFC team is a team that I love to hate. Going to school in Ohio, I have met many, many Cleveland Browns fans who, before this year, had decided that this was the year for the Brownies to go all the way. They were cocky without a reason, and people were actually picking this team to represent the AFC in the big game. The Browns and their fans thought that Donte' Stallworth and Shaun Rogers were the men to bring a championship to a city that has long needed one.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, this was not the case.
The Browns went back to their old ways, and broke the hearts of so many Clevelanders. So how did this happen? Well, Derek Anderson showed his true colors, Brady Quinn got hurt, Romeo Crennel turned into possibly the worst coach in the NFL, and Braylon Edwards started dropping every other pass thrown to him.
The team is now 4-11 and looking forward to the Draft in April.
So, with due credit going to the Panthers, Titans, Cowboys, Vikings, and everybody else, that's my list of the big winners and losers of the NFL this year. Let the comments begin. Happy Holidays everyone.