The success stories and failures of 2011

By Barry Wilner

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 26 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola (51) hugs teammate wide receiver Calvin Johnson during the closing minutes of an NFL football game against the San Diego Chargers in Detroit, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011. The Lions clinched a playoff spot with a 38-10 win.

Carlos Osorio, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

With one week to go in the post-lockout season, it's not too early to look at the success stories and utter failures of the NFL.

Celebrations are warranted in Houston, Detroit and San Francisco. In Denver and Cincinnati, too — even if their teams don't make the playoffs.

Protests already have broken out in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and San Diego over the flops by those cities' teams, and the folks in the New York area might be ready to picket the Meadowlands if both the Jets and Giants fall short of the playoffs.

Some thoughts on triumphs and downfalls this season:


Start in the Motor City, where Lions fans haven't seen their team in the playoffs since 1999. Worse yet, they've seen the Lions at the bottom of the standings in many years in between, including that humiliating 0-16 in 2008.

Now, at 10-5, the Lions own an NFC wild card — to the astonishment of center Dominic Raiola, who has spent more than a decade losing in Detroit.

I mean, 11 years — it hasn't really soaked in yet," Raiola said. "I don't know how to feel. I've never been here before. It's a long time coming."

Although the Lions don't appear capable of challenging for the Super Bowl quite yet, just having them in the conversation is unplowed territory in Detroit.

Same thing, of course, in Houston, which hasn't had a playoff team since 1993 — and that was the Oilers, who now reside in Nashville and call themselves the Tennessee Titans. The Texans (10-5) commemorated their 10th season by winning the AFC South even though such keys as LB Mario Williams, QBs Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, and WR Andre Johnson sustained injuries. A vastly upgraded defense under new coordinator Wade Phillips — who himself was sidelined by kidney/gall bladder surgery this month — and a powerful running game have been the catalysts.

"We want to keep it going," linebacker Connor Barwin said.

Getting this far should be satisfying for now.

One team that deservedly has designs on a run deep into January or beyond is San Francisco. The 49ers (12-3) have doubled their win total of 2010 and by beating St. Louis on Sunday will secure a first-round bye in their first playoff appearance since 2002. A staunch defense, terrific running game, superior kicking and an infusion of confidence/brashness from new coach Jim Harbaugh make the Niners a formidable foe.

"I think we've taken another step. We have more steps we can absolutely take," defensive end Justin Smith said. "We've put our team in a position to win a lot of games."

Including playoff games.

Tim Tebow, Von Miller, Willis McGahee, Elvis Dumervil and, most notably, the acumen of coach John Fox, have put the Broncos (8-7) in position to win the AFC West. That's stunning stuff considering how in flux this franchise was after 2010, and that the Broncos were 2-5 this season.

While many dismiss the Tebow phenomenon and note how ugly many of Denver's victories have been, they still are victories. San Diego and Kansas City, also-rans in the division, would surely take some of those.

Cincinnati (9-6) grabs the last AFC wild card by beating Baltimore on Sunday. Yes, the Bengals were in the playoffs two years ago and also in 2005, but they are contending now with a different cast, led by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. Regardless of how they fare, the Bengals have given rise to optimism in Cincinnati, and that's worth celebrating.


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