Only one of the NFL's 32 teams can finish the season with the Lombardi Trophy but there are varying degrees of missed glory. Come the Monday after Week 17, there should be a trio of teams extremely frustrated after squandering excellent shots to prolong their seasons with a playoff bid.
For the three teams below, there are reasons for their failure, but no real excuses after the way the season unfolded. Below we highlight the Lions, Dolphins and Ravens -- all on the playoff brink -- to provide some perspective on which way they should turn their gaze after they recover from what will be a very painful Monday morning.
After Detroit's Week 10 win in Chicago, the NFC North was there for the taking. The Bears' and Packers' starting quarterbacks were injured and the Lions sat at 6-3 with what looked like a very navigable schedule in front of them. But this team imploded and was out of playoff contention after the Week 16 overtime loss to the New York Giants. How does that happen?
What were the causes of the implosion that cost the Lions six of their final seven games? The biggest area of concern is just overall discipline. The Lions got sloppy -- and this isn't new for this team.
Jim Schwartz preaches aggressive play and the Lions have drafted some players with suspect character as they came out of college. Crucial penalties and "finding a way to lose" have been staples of this organization of late. This problem, coupled with some poor in-game coaching adjustments, could cost Schwartz his job. Personally, I think the NFL is far too impatient with coaching decisions, but in this case, a change is needed.
If a coaching change is made, this could be a prime destination for a new coach because there aren't many weaknesses on this roster (which must make the Lions' playoff miss all the more frustrating for fans). Matthew Stafford began the season playing very well, but his mechanics deteriorated throughout this season, much as they did last year. In fact, Stafford's fundamentals and mechanics are simply awful, which will always cause accuracy issues. But from an outsider's perspective, there was little accountability for Stafford's haphazard approach to playing the position. The Lions' receivers dropped far too many passes and this organization still really needs to find a true No. 2 wide receiver opposite Calvin Johnson, but the way that Stafford has played cannot be acceptable going forward. If they can get more consistency from the most important player on the field, it will go a long way in the Motor City. There aren't many other missing pieces for the Lions.
As was the case for the Lions, a playoff spot was there for the taking -- and the Dolphins whiffed twice. Miami was in very good position after beating the Jets and Steelers on the road and then the Patriots at home in Week 15. But what happened over the final two crucial games of the season? The Dolphins lost in Buffalo and at home to the Jets by a combined score of 39-7. For the most part, Miami's defense played well this season and while the Dolphins have huge decisions to make on Brent Grimes and Randy Starks the Dolphins primarily need to improve the offensive side of the ball -- particularly the offensive line -- during this offseason. Even though Ryan Tannehill was under more pressure than any quarterback in the league, he did very little to change my opinion that he has the makings of a true NFL franchise quarterback. He has weapons in Mike Wallace, Charles Clay,Brandon Gibson and Brian Hartline -- whose absence after injury was a major factor in Week 17 -- but he needs more time.
Much was made, rightfully so, of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin situation off the field, but that situation also had major ramifications on the field. Incognito was a fine guard for Miami. He wasn't a superstar, but he was solid, tough and a true starting-caliber player. Martin, on the other hand, really wasn't playing well at left tackle after an up-and-down rookie season on the right side. Miami's front office traded up to select DE Dion Jordan on draft day, passing on tackleLane Johnson. They also refused to trade the earlier of two second-round picks to the Chiefs for Branden Albert. Neither decision looks so great right now.
After Martin left the team and Incognito was suspended, Miami added Bryant McKinnie and the line played better for a short stretch. But this unit was awful to end the season and was terrible for the majority of it. Not only was Tannehill under far too much duress, but the running game also was among the worst in the league. Lamar Miller led the Dolphins in rushing Week 16 with 8 yards. Not only should the Dolphins look to add both a starting left and right tackle, as well as another guard to the mix, but a do-it-all running back to challenge and hopefully surpass Miller and Daniel Thomas should be a priority. Miller is lost in the passing game as a receiver and especially as a blocker, while Thomas is a very pedestrian ball carrier.
Unlike the case in Detroit, I think the right head coach is in place. I have my doubts about the personnel decision-maker, but this late-season collapse should have Miami fans crying in their Wheaties.
Last year's Super Bowl champions will be watching the playoffs from home. Before getting whipped 41-7 at home in Week 16 by the Patriots, Baltimore looked like a potentially dangerous team in the AFC playoffs. But this is a highly flawed club and those flaws were exposed during the final two games of the season.
Baltimore had every opportunity to come away with a win in Week 17 during Andy Dalton's interception fest. But the Ravens could come away with only nine points off those early turnovers. Looking back on the season, a few more points would have gone a long way toward a shot to repeat. The Ravens lost five games by six points or fewer.
The common denominator in those losses? Their offense and the offensive line specifically.
Baltimore had an abysmal running game from start to finish. In fact, it might just be the worst running game in the NFL. The running backs share much of the blame for this ineptitude, but the line was a disaster in the run game. While this lack of run game was great for Baltimore's kicking specialists, it put far too much stress on the Ravens' defense and we saw late-game collapses on that side of the ball over the past few weeks. Also, winning on the road without a running game is very difficult in this league. That proved true for the defending champs as they won just two of their eight road contests. In protection, Joe Flacco could rarely go deep, which is a staple of this offense, and took more and more of a beating as the season went along. He was far from 100 percent at the end of the season, when it mattered most. Now, Flacco certainly did not have a strong season and made far too many poor decisions, en route to setting a new Ravens record for most interceptions thrown in a season, but as was the case with the running game, the line was the real problem. With an inability to run the ball, the play-action game that was so effective a year ago was mostly nullified.
Kelechi Osemele played great at left guard as a rookie and while he wasn't playing up to those standards as Baltimore inserted more of a movement-based zone blocking scheme this year (for some reason), his loss to injury was substantial. Baltimore traded for Eugene Monroe, who played very well after getting acclimated with his new team, but Monroe and Michael Oher are free agents. Oher is likely to leave, while Baltimore should consider using the franchise tag to keep Monroe to put next to Osemele on the left side of the line. That would get A.Q. Shipley out of the mix at guard, as Marshal Yanda is a rock at right guard, and allow Shipley to battle Gino Gradkowski for the starting center job next year. Center was a massive problem all season long, as Matt Birk's loss to retirement was very much felt. Shipley was often overmatched at guard, but he is much better at the pivot.
In this scenario, right tackle would be a high offseason priority, but there is reason for optimism with this front five going forward and we know that Ozzie Newsome is superb at roster management.
As disappointing as the end of the season was for these three teams, there is always next year. And a few additions should have them in contention once again in 2014.