For the bulk of the 2009 NFL season, the league has been dominated by three teams.
When Week 13 ended, the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, and Indianapolis Colts were a combined 34-1.
Other teams flirted with elite status. Denver started 6-0 and the New York Giants charged to a 5-0 start early in the year. Cincinnati fought to enter the conversation with a 7-2 record. Ultimately, each of these teams was an afterthought, fighting for the title of "next best" behind the three juggernauts.
Across the final stretches of the season that notion has changed considerably.
The Colts, Vikings, and Saints have gone 5-8 since that span.
The Colts' two losses are more disheartening than concerning, being that they occurred after the team pulled its core starters for much of the final two games. The Vikings and Saints have some room to worry, however.
New Orleans had little to play for to close the year, but they were still not expecting three consecutive losses to end the regular season. The ballhawking defense of the Saints proved to be fairly mediocre when they couldn’t turn big plays, ending the year ranked 25th overall in yards allowed. That defense will be further tested by the injury to starting defensive end Charles Grant, a major blow to the team’s front line.
On offense, Drew Brees and his battery of receivers can still put a scare into any team they face. The vastly improved running game had suffered from inconsistency to close the year however, reducing the high powered Saints to a one-dimensional offense at times.
With injuries to the defense and trouble with the running game, New Orleans is suddenly looking much closer to the 8-8 team of last year, whose aerial assault could not overcome deficiencies across other aspects of their game.
In order to succeed, the team will need to reestablish the Mike Bell/Pierre Thomas running attack, and return to the earlier defense that was outscoring some teams' offenses.
Minnesota was picked by many to be the NFL’s best over the two undefeated teams through much of the year. The array of offensive weapons made the team downright scary while Jared Allen and the Williams wall put up an unstoppable defensive front.
As the season came closer and closer to an end, Minnesota looked vulnerable.
Allen’s impressive sack total (14.5) loses some polish when considering 7.5 of those occurred in the pair of Packers games. Stretching along the other 14 games, Allen has a respectable, but less superhuman, seven sacks.
On offense, the team’s expected powerhouse running game behind Adrian Peterson looked far more ordinary than expected, ranking 13th in the NFL in team yardage, including the span where he averaged below four yards a carry in eight of the final 10 games (his only two big games coming against a league-worst Lions defense and a Giants team that simply gave up to end the year).
Brett Favre picked up the slack for the team’s running game by putting up MVP-quality numbers across the entire season. The Vikings' eighth overall passing offense did suffer some setbacks however, with Favre throwing more interceptions across the final five games (four) than in the first 11 (three).
Favre will have the advantage of playing in a dome, but could still be a threat to force a pass at the wrong time. Even with a strong performance, there are concerns Brad Childress may be too stubborn to allow Favre the room to be the Hall of Fame leader he is.
Indianapolis does not have the obvious decline across their final games like New Orleans or Minnesota. They lost because they invested playing time in Curtis Painter in order to keep Peyton Manning healthy for the playoffs.
They now have a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed. The team is 7-8 in the playoffs during the Manning era, and nothing short of a title will assuage fans who feel they were denied a proper chance at going 16-0 in the regular season.
History may not be on their side either. Currently the Colts are 1-4 in the playoffs when Jim Sorgi closes the regular season.
One year is a blip, two can be a coincidence, but four quick exits can be considered a trend. Granted, Painter ended the year, not Jim Sorgi, but the Colts are still a team whose playoff resume this decade is somewhat disappointing.
The lone year Indianapolis won the Super Bowl, Manning played the entire regular season trying to fight for higher seeding. The team was never allowed to let off the gas, and consequently scrapped their way to an NFL championship. They have not fared as well when resting starters.
Paired with all of this is a year where half of their 14 wins occurred by way of fourth quarter comebacks. The Colts may have refused to lose across those 14 games, but were by no means steamrolling their opposition every night.
These teams have all maintained their upper echelon status by holding onto first round byes, but after spending the year head and shoulders above all opposition, they are now essentially one of the pack.
This opening is great for a playoff season where any one of the 12 teams could find itself hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but a rude awakening for three giants who had looked to tower above the rest of the league going into the playoffs.