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.
Many teams basically have been underachievers this season, including three — Cowboys, Jets, Giants — who still could make the postseason. While Tampa Bay has taken a huge nosedive a year after going 10-6, maybe that 2010 success was an aberration.
Clearly the biggest rejects are the Eagles, Chargers and Colts.
Indy, of course, can place a disclaimer on its 2-13 mark: Peyton Manning's absence. It's virtually unheard of for a team to collapse in the manner the Colts did without their star and leader, but it's still a valid reason for all the losing.
More troubling is how nobody picked up the slack until the team was threatening to go winless for the entire schedule. That could cost coach Jim Caldwell his job.
San Diego finally sprinted to a strong start under Norv Turner, going 4-1. Then it fell apart as Philip Rivers' struggled, penalties and frustration mounted, and injuries hit. Even though the Chargers (7-8) got back to .500 with a three-game winning streak, that's not the territory people projected for them.
"Every loss is disappointing, but knowing you are not going to the playoffs is even more disappointing," linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "There are going to be positives in your life, there's going to be negatives in your life, so it's what you do with those negatives."
They've piled up the negatives in Philly: The Eagles are sitting out the playoffs despite their talent haul in free agency.
Bringing in such prizes as cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, DE Jason Babin, DT Cullen Jenkins and WR Steve Smith raised expectations in Philadelphia. Most of the additions, particularly RB Ronnie Brown and backup QB Vince Young, didn't help raise the level of play, though.
"This is an unfamiliar feeling, an unfamiliar sight," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said. "I've never really witnessed this. It's a reality check. Look in the mirror."
What they will see is the biggest flop of 2011.
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