One of the great aspects to this year’s regular season was the number of teams with playoff aspirations late in the season. Some were pipe dreams cobbled together by distant hope (Miami holding on despite injury), some were late surges that came up short (Tennessee), but several teams were a few bounces away. Here’s a look at just why they are spending the postseason on the sidelines.
Houston stands as the narrowest miss. With four 9-7 teams fighting amongst the AFC wildcard, tie-breaking procedure favored the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens over Houston. The Texans first winning season in history was thought over when they fell to 5-7, but late success coupled with several teams disappointing down the stretch put Houston back in the hunt.
The Texans were led by a high powered passing game that ranked best in the league at 290.9 yards a game. They put up a solid 24.2 points per game behind quarterback Matt Schaub. On defense the team ranked 13th, fueled by defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing and monster defensive end Mario Williams.
Ultimately, the team’s downfall stemmed from playing in the AFC South. The Texans were 1-5 in a division that boasted a combined 26-14 record (.650 winning percentage) outside their division. The inability to finish either close game against Indianapolis especially hurt their chances.
Jacksonville ended the year two games back at .500, but have to be entered into the discussion for holding onto an AFC wildcard slot until the final two weeks of the season. By week 13 the 7-5 Jaguars were a surprise team in a year where many teams had underwhelmed.
The Jaguars held a respectable 3-2 divisional record and an extremely strong 6-2 conference record that gave them good tie-breaking power over other teams if they could maintain. With games against Miami and Cleveland during the final four, a split in that last quarter would have given them an 8-4 conference record that would have assured not only a playoff berth, but a fifth seed.
Instead Jacksonville dropped its last four games in a row, watching five other teams leapfrog over them in the AFC wildcard race to finish last in the AFC South. Although Jacksonville played close matches against playoff teams (losing by three to Indianapolis and defeating New York) a modest early schedule including St. Louis, Kansas City, Seattle, Buffalo, masked the team’s overall quality, and the final fall sealed the team’s fate.
Denver, like Jacksonville, was a longtime wildcard holder that ended up not even amongst tie-breaker discussion to close the year. They began the year with a scorching 6-0 record, only to finish the year 8-8 behind a disappointing loss to top ten drafting divisional foe Kansas City.
Denver’s revamped defense started the year hot. They ended the year ranking a solid seventh in total yards allowed, but the drop-off from early in the year to the final 2-8 skid was significant. Across the first six games they allowed 66 total points (or 11 points per game). During the last ten games they gave up 264 points (for 26.4 points per game) that is more than double the points allowed early in the year.
When the defense was stonewalling teams Denver’s middle of the road (15th in the league in total offense) offense was enough to edge Denver over most teams. When the defense gave way, the Kyle Orton-led Broncos lacked enough firepower to take up the slack.
The final AFC entry into this race, the Pittsburgh Steelers, put up a similar 9-7 record to the current wildcards, but stood behind the other teams in just about every tie breaking scenario. The defending Super Bowl Champions looked strong early despite injury to star safety Try Polamalu.
They started the year 6-2 in a hotly contested AFC North that saw the upstart Cincinnati Bengals keeping pace. In a head-to-head matchup to decide who would be the division leader, Cincinnati defeated Pittsburgh 18-12.
That game would begin a five game losing streak that would be Pittsburgh’s undoing. Across that streak they fell to Oakland, Kansas City, and Cleveland; three teams that ended the year a combined 14-34. Beyond the embarrassment of losing to three top ten drafting teams, the losses also contributed to a 2-4 divisional and 6-6 conference record.
Those two records rated the Steelers towards the bottom of any tie-breaker. To have gained entry into the postseason, Pittsburgh’s only chance would have been a 10-6 record or losses among the other 8-7 teams during the final week. With Baltimore, New York, and Houston failing to cooperate, Pittsburgh once again will fail to make the playoffs following a Super Bowl victory.
The lone NFC team in this discussion, the Atlanta Falcons, had their hopes dashed much sooner than their AFC counterparts. Once the New York Giants began their utter collapse Atlanta fell into place as the only real spoiler possibility within the NFC playoff race.
Early season optimism with the Falcons high powered offense leading the way to a 4-1 start quickly faltered as injury and missed opportunities took their toll. The Falcons two primary cogs, workhorse back Michael Turner and budding star quarterback Matt Ryan missed a combined seven games (eight if you consider Ryan was out after attempting only three passes in Week 12).
The Falcons slipped to 6-7 with their stars out of the lineup before the return of Matt Ryan led to a three game surge to end the year with the team’s first back to back winning seasons. The achievement was little consolation however to a Falcons deep eyeing a deep playoff run early in the year.
Each of these teams had their hopes dashed as the year wound to a close. In the AFC a tight race led each team to believe it might be able to eke out a wildcard berth in the final week. In the NFC strong seasons by Green Bay and Philadelphia wrecked most team’s hopes of entering the playoffs, but Atlanta managed to turn a season that was potentially one healthy Michael Turner game away from altering their fates.
Every year playoff hopefuls strive and fail, but in this 2009 NFL season, many of these missed by the smallest of margins. As they look back over their season, each has to be wondering "What if?" over the few small changes that could have altered their playoff fates.