And so, the regular season is done. The end of the road for 20 teams, and the beginning of a new journey for 12 others.
A year that started off with no clear favorites has ended with one team looking unstoppable and an ultra-competitive NFC where no team really stands out. Along the way we’ve seen coaches fired as their teams have struggled under the weight of expectations (Minnesota, Dallas, Denver and San Francisco), teams come from nowhere to contend (Kansas City and Tampa Bay) and a whole load of other drama centered in New York/New Jersey (foot fetishes and illicit text message).
Here’s the good, bad and ugly from all 32.
1. New England Patriots 14-2 (1st last week)
THE GOOD: They bring the backups in and lose what exactly? The Coach of the Year has coached his players up exceptionally, and manages to get the best out of them.
THE BAD: In making themselves clear favorites they’ve got themselves a giant bullseye on their back. Does it matter?
THE UGLY: The ugliest thing about the Patriots is the prospect of facing them right now.
2. Atlanta Falcons 13-3 (2)
THE GOOD: After their passing game had seemed in a funk recently, it got itself out of it just in time for the playoffs.
THE BAD: Is it a good or bad thing that it seems like New Orleans or Green Bay will be the first to visit the Georgia Dome?
THE UGLY: How much do you think Arthur Blank spent on that suit that Michael Turner and Roddy White drenched?
3. Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4 (5)
THE GOOD: I wrote about Mike Wallace last week and I’ll write about him again. His ability to get open deep could be what pushes the Steelers deep into the postseason.
THE BAD: But his quarterback is going to need time, and can this offensive line do it against the best defenses?
THE UGLY: If they win their divisional game and wind up in Foxboro, you have to wonder what they have learned since the last time they faced New England.
4. Baltimore Ravens 12-4 (3)
THE GOOD: They’re going into the postseason with some momentum, and that defense has it in them to be suffocating.
THE BAD: They rarely look utterly convincing. It’s the playoffs and they need to put everything together. Can they?
THE UGLY: The drop off from Jared Gaither to Michael Oher at left tackle has been steep, but it could be worse if Oher is severely limited.
5. New Orleans Saints 11-5 (4)
THE GOOD: Would you really want to face New Orleans and Drew Brees in the playoffs?
THE BAD: They have eventually rested some players after picking up some injuries, but losing at home to Tampa isn’t the momentum you need.
THE UGLY: Bit classless of the Saints the way they celebrated beating Atlanta, and some of the comments that have come out afterwards. Those sort of things come back to haunt you.
6. Green Bay Packers 10-6 (8)
THE GOOD: They deservedly made the playoffs. The Football Gods got that one right.
THE BAD: Philadelphia up first and then Atlanta if they win? It won’t be easy getting to the big one.
THE UGLY: How do you give up that many penalties in a game, Bryan Bulaga?
7. Chicago Bears 11-5 (6)
THE GOOD: In a game that meant to little to the Bears with their number two seed sown up, that defensive display will have scared any team they’re going to meet.
THE BAD: In the same way that display from Jay Cutler will have encouraged them.
THE UGLY: And ultimately that could be the problem with the Bears. On their day so very good, but yet struggling to put it all together. Against a constant stream of good opposition it makes the Vince Lombardi Trophy look a distant dream.
8. Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 (7)
THE GOOD: Their backups played pretty darn well.
THE BAD: The NFC North, in the shape of Minnesota and Chicago, showed us how to beat Michael Vick. Their next game? Against the NFC North Packers.
THE UGLY: If Kevin Kolb has to play for any significant amount of time you do worry about this team.
9. Indianapolis Colts 10-6 (9)
THE GOOD: They’re playing as well as they have all year. Something to be said for timing.
THE BAD: You still can’t help but look at that defense and think it’s going to put their offense in a position it can’t recover from.
THE UGLY: Even in a year where he has struggled more than we’ve seen in a long time, how good has Peyton Manning been? And how unfair is it for him to be that much better than me on his worst day?
10. New York Jets 11-6 (11)
THE GOOD: A win with the backups in doesn’t hurt.
THE BAD: But it doesn’t prove anything.
THE UGLY: Remember when Rex Ryan was doing a lot of talking? If you speak to much you may end up putting your foot in your mouth …
11. Kansas City Chiefs 10-6 (10)
THE GOOD: Better to get beaten like that the week before the playoffs.
THE BAD: But the downside is they got manhandled with their starters and could now face New England in the divisional rounds.
THE UGLY: There’s a weird feeling about the Chiefs, like they should be grateful to have gotten this far, with one eye on next year and who their next OC will be.
12. San Diego Chargers 9-7 (13)
THE GOOD: The collective smiles on the faces of the AFC playoff teams. Nobody wanted to face the Chargers.
THE BAD: Bad luck, or creating your own misfortune? The Chargers played hard ball with two offensive stalwarts and the end result left too much for Philip Rivers to overcome.
THE UGLY: Special teams. If there’s one last point about the Chargers season, let it be how special team errors absolutely crippled them. Coach Steve Crosby had to go, and did.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-6 (14)
THE GOOD: On talent levels alone, this team seemed bona fide contenders for the first pick in the 2011 draft. But they overcame a small budget and a young team to not just finish with a 10-6 record, but be competitive against the top teams by season’s end. Kudos Raheem Morris.
THE BAD: There’s something to be said for being an unknown force. The Bucs have a new challenge coming up with expectancy levels on the rise.
THE UGLY: Far too much was made of the number of starters they had that were rookies — a lot of those came at the end of the season (when they were losing games to teams like the Lions).
14. New York Giants 10-6 (12)
THE GOOD: They aren’t going to have to make wholesale changes.
THE BAD: In 8 minute they undid a season’s worth of good work and could never recover.
THE UGLY: Another tipped pass intercepted. This was a team that made numerous negative plays that really hurt their team (and quarterback’s TD-INT ratio).
15. Oakland Raiders 8-8 (16)
THE GOOD: They’re really going places with Tom Cable as head coach.
THE BAD: What’s that you say? They got rid of him?
THE UGLY: You’re not joking? Same old Raiders.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars 8-8 (15)
THE GOOD: They looked a lot worse than an 8-8 team at the start of the year. They overachieved for most of the season.
THE BAD: Then underachieved when it really mattered. That’s a horrible way to close out a season.
THE UGLY: That Jack Del Rio’s position was ever in doubt. He did enough this year and this team is developing nicely.
17. Seattle Seahawks 7-9 (29)
THE GOOD: When it mattered their defense played like a playoff team.
THE BAD: That still doesn’t hide the fact they had a losing record.
THE UGLY: What could happen to them when they face the Saints. Potential to be extremely ugly.
18. St Louis Rams 7-9 (17)
THE GOOD: This whole franchise moved a giant leap forward.
THE BAD: But when it came down to it, they fell apart with the playoffs on the line.
THE UGLY: That we expected too much. They’ve made strides but we got ahead of ourselves in thinking they could deliver more.
19. Dallas Cowboys 6-10 (19)
THE GOOD: DeMarcus Ware finished as the NFL sack leader, and yet how often was he spoken about this year?
THE BAD: How much does it hurt that they’re watching the road to the Super Bowl — their Super Bowl — unfold without them in it.
THE UGLY: They were outplayed by the Eagles backups for a lot of that game. One last embarrassment to an embarrassing season.
20. Detroit Lions 6-10 (24)
THE GOOD: To end the season the way they did could prove massive in changing around the mentality of this franchise.
THE BAD: They won’t be picking in the top ten. In such an unfamiliar situation, will they know what to do?
THE UGLY: As strange as it may sound, 6-10 can be considered a disappointment given how close they came to winning a lot more.
21. Minnesota Vikings 6-10 (18)
THE GOOD: The season is over and they can put it behind them with their new head coach sorted out.
THE BAD: When you go all in, you need to finish better than 6-10. They got it wrong this year.
THE UGLY: One final indignity. Beaten by the Lions. Apt.
22. Houston Texans 6-10 (27)
THE GOOD: They have the makings of a very good offense.
THE BAD: And a defense that is going to take an awful lot of work.
THE UGLY: After Week 1 they were Super Bowl contenders. Probably best we stopping jumping to conclusions.
23. Tennessee Titans 6-10 (23)
THE GOOD: With the season over they can move forward in one direction. What direction that is, though, is anybody’s guess.
THE BAD: Much like the Texans, they looked so good at the start of the season. Perhaps the biggest problem was their inability to cope with injuries on the defensive line.
THE UGLY: In a year of many lows, the belief that they could genuinely trust Vince Young to rescue this franchise is maybe the biggest one.
24. Washington Redskins 6-10 (21)
THE GOOD: They got good play out of fringe guys which speaks volumes for the coaching …
THE BAD: After the coaches did too much speaking of their own earlier on in the season.
THE UGLY: Is Rex Grossman really the answer?
25. Miami Dolphins 7-9 (20)
THE GOOD: No team is better at leaving seven men into pass block three pass rushers.
THE BAD: How else will Chad Henne be given enough time to miss his receivers?
THE UGLY: This team keeps regressing, and despite adding a big-play guy in Brandon Marshall has failed to evolve. Since implementing the Wildcat they’ve done very little but become predictable.
26. Cleveland Browns 5-11 (22)
THE GOOD: As good a job as Eric Mangini did, they at least now can get their own guy in place.
THE BAD: Why did they waste this season finding that out?
THE UGLY: Mangini brought in a lot of guys who you get the feeling wouldn’t catch on with a new coach. Is it going to be a case of taking a giant step back before they can compete in the AFC North?
27. Cincinnati Bengals 4-12 (26)
THE GOOD: Despite the record they were rarely overmatched.
THE BAD: Yet always found way to put themselves in situations to lose.
THE UGLY: While I’m all for stability, has Marvin Lewis done enough to be able to dictate terms of his return? The Bengals needed some fresh ideas.
28. Buffalo Bills 4-12 (25)
THE GOOD: We learned a lot of good things about some Bills.
THE BAD: And a lot of bad about the team in general. Short on talent in numerous areas, the best they can do right now is be competitive while looking past the win-loss record.
THE UGLY: The declaration that they won’t run an exclusive 3-4 system any more. Bold move, considering you’ve had four defensive linemen on the field for most of the season.
29. San Francisco 49ers 6-10 (31)
THE GOOD: In finding a new quarterback, they can at least move on from the old ones.
THE BAD: Why has it taken them this long to realize this?
THE UGLY: And why wait until the last week of the season to fire Singletary? Seemed cruel in some respects.
30. Denver Broncos 4-12 (28)
THE GOOD: John Elway is here to save the day!
THE BAD: Just how exactly is he going to do that?
THE UGLY: So long as he doesn’t trade away his franchise quarterback, receiver and tight end, as Josh McDaniels did, he’s made a good start. How have the Broncos found themselves in this hole?
31. Arizona Cardinals 5-11 (30)
THE GOOD: They won more games than they probably deserved to.
THE BAD: See above. On their day this was the worst side in the league.
THE UGLY: The one thing I’d question the coaches on more than anything is how they ran the same offense without Kurt Warner. Too many multiple receiver sets and too much passing when they don’t have the personnel to run it.
32. Carolina Panthers 2-14 (32)
THE GOOD: They never stopped playing hard.
THE BAD: Andrew Luck may stay in college.
THE UGLY: Which means they’ll need Jimmy Clausen to take a giant leap forward. He looked as shell-shocked as any rookie that played this year.