NFL Nation: 2011 Season Wrap

Jaguars regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:03
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 27
Preseason Power Ranking: 19

[+] EnlargeMaurice-Jones Drew
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMaurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing yards despite playing with the NFL's worst passing offense.
Biggest surprise: The Jaguars added six new veterans to their lineup of top-12 defensive players and once the group jelled it played very productively. Jacksonville finished sixth in overall defense, making giant strides from 2010 and maintaining the gain even as it lost a load of quality contributors to injury. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who finished the season as interim coach after Jack Del Rio was fired, did good work in his first season as the defense's playcaller. Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny was the sort of centerpiece tackling machine the team envisioned when signing him away from Buffalo as a free agent.

Biggest disappointment: The Jaguars didn’t intend for rookie QB Blaine Gabbert to start 14 games before they felt he was ready to take over. But by cutting David Garrard (who later wound up having back surgery) just a week before the season started and bailing quickly on veteran Luke McCown, they went against their own plan and paid a huge price for it. Jacksonville’s pass offense was worse than anyone could have anticipated, averaging just 136.2 yards per game. The NFL’s best passing offense in New Orleans averaged 334.2. Gabbert may not have been much better operating behind better protection and with more dangerous weapons at receiver, but it sure would have been good for him to have had a chance to find out. Tight end Marcedes Lewis killed the team with his disappearing act after he got his payday.

Biggest need: While the defense will need a pass-rushing end and at least one cornerback, the attention has to be focused on the offense. Mike Thomas was the team’s No. 1 receiver in 2011 but slumped badly after he got a contract extension and was not equipped to work as the primary guy. He should be the third option in 2012, working primarily out of the slot. The Jaguars need big, fast and physical receivers who can threaten downfield and go get the ball for Gabbert or whoever winds up playing quarterback.

Team MVP: Unquestionably, running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He’s just the fifth back since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lead the league in rushing on a team with the NFL’s worst passing offense. That means with no threat to keep defenses honest, he ran consistently against stacked boxes and still produced in a giant way. There are always worries about wear and tear on him, yet he finished very strongly with no sign of tapering off. The Jaguars need to get other guys who are good with the ball in their hands so they can rely on him less, extend his window, and increase the chance he’s on a winning team.

Still searching for pressure: How long have the Jaguars needed a consistent pass-rush threat off the edge? It seems they are always looking. Jeremy Mincey is a great, high-energy player, but he’d benefit greatly from having a player opposing offenses have to game plan around. Yes, the franchise missed badly when it traded up to No. 8 for Derrick Harvey in the 2008 draft and counted on its second pick the same year, Quentin Groves, to help rush too. They are mistakes they still haven’t made up for. Knee injuries and rehabilitation have meant Aaron Kampman has played in only 11 games in two seasons and will be hard to bank on.

Ravens regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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Final Power Ranking: 5
Preseason Power Ranking: 8

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Rice's explosiveness and versatility made the Ravens' offense tick.
Biggest surprise: First-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano vowed to "wreak havoc" when he took the job. But few could have imagined this drastic turnaround. Pagano went back to the aggressive blitzes that defined the Baltimore defense for a decade. The Ravens attacked quarterbacks and ripped the ball away from offenses. Pagano took over a defense that set a team record for fewest sacks in a season (27) and turned it into one that finished first in the AFC in sacks (48). Terrell Suggs led the pressure up front and is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lardarius Webb was the team's most improved player on defense as well as its best cornerback.

Biggest disappointment: The Ravens should be the top seed in the AFC and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after going undefeated for the first time at home and in the AFC North. But Baltimore fell shy of that goal because of a lack of focus. The Ravens struggled to beat the teams they were supposed to beat on the road. Baltimore went 2-4 away from home against teams that had a losing record at the time. The most embarrassing losses were at Jacksonville and Seattle. Sloppy play continually got the Ravens in trouble. In four road losses, Baltimore has taken the ball away twice while turning it over eight times (minus-six ratio).

Biggest need: Drafting Torrey Smith in the second round was a move in the right direction for Joe Flacco and the Baltimore passing attack. But the Ravens fell short of expectations, finishing 19th in passing and 20th in completions over 40 yards. The problem is a lack of playmakers who can stretch the field. Trading a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for Lee Evans looks like a mistake at this point. There is potential, however, with tight end Ed Dickson. Still, when LaQuan Williams is being used as a third receiver this year, that's a sign that the Ravens need more quality wide receivers.

Team MVP: Ray Rice's value can be measured by how the Ravens win games. In 12 victories this season, Rice has averaged 21 carries for 100.7 yards rushing. In four losses, he has averaged nine carries for 38.8 yards. Rice's strength is his vision and versatility. With the ability to beat defenses as a runner and a receiver, he produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns. The Ravens wouldn't be the AFC's second seed if not for Rice's big plays.

Tough decision: Ray Lewis has slowed toward the end of the regular season, and it could either be age finally catching up to him (he's 36 years old) or the lingering effects of a toe injury. Whatever the reason, the Ravens have to seriously think about Lewis' role next season. He prides himself on being an every-down player, but it could be time to limit him on third downs to save the wear and tear on his body. This will be a sensitive issue moving forward.

Seahawks regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 25

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMarshawn Lynch carried Seattle's offense and rushed for 1,204 yards on 285 carries.
Biggest surprise: Seattle's ground game continued building momentum after the Seahawks lost three starting offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. Losing rookies James Carpenter and John Moffitt from the line's right side threatened depth and continuity. Losing left tackle Russell Okung for the final four games should have been disastrous heading into games against Julius Peppers, Justin Smith and Calais Campbell. Instead, Seattle charged forward with Paul McQuistan at left tackle. Marshawn Lynch led the NFL in rushing yards over the final nine weeks of the season. He was fourth over the final four weeks, when McQuistan was in the lineup. Lynch needed only 15 games to top 1,200 yards rushing even though Seattle never started the same offensive line more than three games in a row. Line coach Tom Cable proved his worth.

Biggest disappointment: The Seahawks invested millions in free-agent weapons Sidney Rice and Zach Miller without getting much receiving production from either. Miller was a mainstay as a blocker, but Seattle did not maximize his talent as a receiver. Both Rice and Miller missed games to injury. They combined for 57 receptions, 717 yards and two touchdowns. Miller had 60-685-5 by himself with Oakland in 2010. Seattle went all season without getting a touchdown reception from a tight end. Rice underwent shoulder surgery this week and expects to require 3-4 months rehabilitation.

Biggest need: Quarterback and pass-rusher head the list. Those are arguably the two most important positions on any team. The Seahawks have done an admirable job building up their roster with emerging young talent, but they appear unlikely to take a big step forward without addressing those two key areas. The draft will be pivotal; a coin flip with Kansas City will determine whether Seattle drafts 11th or 12th overall.

Team MVP: Lynch, in a landslide. The adage about running backs being relatively replaceable did not apply to Seattle in this case. No back in the league ran as violently as Lynch this season. He ran through and over opponents, breaking free from packs of defenders. The Seahawks expect to add another big back through the draft or free agency, but there is only one Lynch. Re-signing him is a top priority.

In with the new: A strong rookie class made immediate contributions while offering promise for the future. Carpenter, Moffitt, linebacker K.J. Wright, cornerback Richard Sherman, receiver Doug Baldwin and receiver Ricardo Lockette showed enough to factor next season. All but Lockette project as starters. Another rookie receiver, Kris Durham, is returning from injury and has the size to become a Mike Williams type. Carpenter's future could be at guard if the team decides to stick with Giacomini at right tackle.

Raiders regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
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Final Power Ranking: 17
Preseason Power Ranking: 22

[+] EnlargeOakland's Denarius Moore
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREThe athleticism of Denarius Moore is a big reason why hopes will be high for Oakland's offense next season.
Biggest surprise: The Raiders’ young receivers emerged. The group is a bright spot of the team and will be a strong building block for the future. Quarterback Carson Palmer, 32, may have his flaws, but he still has a big arm and the Raiders can make some plays in the passing game. Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 overall pick in 2009, is one of the most improved players in the NFL. He had 64 catches for 975 yards this season. He had 35 catches in his first 26 NFL games. Add fabulous rookie Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford and Louis Murphy, and this is one of the best young receiving crews in the league.

Biggest disappointment: Poor defensive play. The Raiders have one of the more perplexing defenses in the NFL. The unit has plenty of talent, but they didn’t play well together. Oakland gave up way too many big plays on defense. It ranked near the bottom of the league in several defensive statistics and faltered down the stretch, including Sunday in a home loss to San Diego in a game in which the Raiders could have clinched the division title. It will not be a shock if defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan is sent packing. Oakland also could consider becoming a 3-4 defense.

Biggest need: There is a lot of talent on this team. There are areas where improvement is needed, including cornerback, linebacker and on the offensive line. I’d say a top cornerback would be the Raiders’ biggest need, although safety Michael Huff is reportedly moving to cornerback. They missed Nnamdi Asomugha, who signed with Philadelphia as a free agent. Stanford Routt is a nice player, but he’s not a top-flight No. 1 cornerback. If Huff does move, safety becomes a big need. The Raiders will likely have to address most of their needs through free agency, since they don’t have many draft picks.

Team MVP: Kicker Sebastian Janikowski. There were some nice performances by many Raiders this season, but Janikowski was dominant. He has the strongest leg in the league and he has become deadly accurate. He is a true weapon. Janikowski tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in Week 1. He made 31 of 35 field goal attempts and made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his 12-year career.

What will the future leadership look like?: Much of the offseason will be dedicated to regrouping the front office after the death of owner Al Davis. He died at the age of 82 on Oct. 8. Now that the season is over, Oakland can move on. There have been plenty of reports linking the Raiders to general manager candidates, including Reggie McKenzie and Eliot Wolf of Green Bay. Sunday, in an angry postgame press conference, Oakland coach Hue Jackson vowed to take a bigger role in the organization. That could turn off potential general managers. Jackson is expected to have his share of power, but some of the top front-office candidates may not be interested in sharing power with a young coach.

Cardinals regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
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Final Power Ranking: 18
Preseason Power Ranking: 21

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesRookie Patrick Peterson's special teams play earned him a spot on the Pro Bowl roster.
Biggest surprise: The Cardinals recovered from a 1-6 start to finish 8-8 despite never getting consistently improved play from their quarterbacks. Arizona appeared dead after blowing a 24-6 halftime lead at Baltimore in the seventh game of the season. The Cardinals were trailing the 1-6 St. Louis Rams at home the next week after quarterback John Skelton took two safeties in the third quarter, absurdly producing the first four-point quarter in league history. This was how the Ken Whisenhunt era was going to unravel? No. Patrick Peterson's 99-yard punt return in overtime turned around the season. The Cardinals won at Philadelphia the next week and later put together a four-game winning streak -- the team's longest since 1999. Beating Seattle in Week 17 capped the season appropriately.

Biggest disappointment: Arizona's big play for quarterback Kevin Kolb failed to produce the desired results. Kolb missed seven-plus games to injury and struggled when he was in the lineup. Those blaming the Cardinals' offensive line for protection issues should not overlook Kolb's role in the negative plays. Kolb was nearly 30 percent more likely than Skelton to take sacks. He took more in nine starts (30) than Kurt Warner ever took during a full season with the team. Warner was not playing behind Pro Bowlers, either. Kolb was frequently quick to bail on plays, often with negative results. He completed 13 of 37 passes (35.1 percent) for 167 yards from outside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Missing the final three games to a concussion amplified durability questions.

Biggest need: Offensive tackle has to be up there. Brandon Keith broke down physically at right tackle, ending the season on injured reserve. Levi Brown might have played his final game for the team at left tackle. His contract becomes untenable in 2012. The Cardinals could bring him back at a reduced rate. Upgrading the position might be a better option. Two teams, Arizona and Tennessee, have not selected an offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the last four drafts. The Cardinals will need better pass protection even if Kolb improves his pocket awareness.

Team MVP: Larry Fitzgerald. The perennial Pro Bowl choice dropped only one pass despite finishing the season with 150 targets, fourth-most in the league. The three players with more targets than Fitzgerald -- Roddy White, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson -- combined for 22 drops (14 by White). Fitzgerald upped his yards per reception from 12.6 in 2010 to 17.6 this season. His play bordered on heroic against Seattle in Week 17. Fitzgerald played through a bruised lung, spitting up blood, and still dominated with the game on the line. His grace and sportsmanship also stood out. While other players jawed back and forth, occasionally scuffling, Fitzgerald helped up the men blanketing him in coverage. He joined Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss as the only players with 1,400 yards in four seasons.

What could have been: Peterson's four touchdowns on punt returns and improved play at cornerback gave the Cardinals outstanding return on their first-round draft investment. Imagine if second-round choice Ryan Williams hadn't suffered a season-ending knee injury during preseason. Williams showed big-play ability during camp. Without him, the running game faltered some as starter Beanie Wells fought through a knee injury. Wells topped 1,000 yards, but he averaged 3.1 yards per attempt with a long run of nine yards over Arizona's final four games.

Eagles regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 15
Preseason Power Ranking: 4

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
Dale Zanine/US PresswireLeSean McCoy was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing Eagles season.
Biggest surprise: Michael Vick's step backward. There is a lot of blame to go around for what went wrong with the Philadelphia Eagles this year, and we'll get to it all. But coming off a season in which he ran second in the MVP voting to Tom Brady, and continuing under the tutelage of Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg, Vick was expected by many people to continue to build on and develop the brilliance of 2010. Instead, he was shaky and unreliable, turning the ball over way too much during an early-season swoon that knocked the Eagles out of playoff contention almost before they even started. Injuries to Jeremy Maclin and the weird year DeSean Jackson had pouting about his contract situation didn't help, but this isn't on the wide receivers. Vick must come back next season determined to be more responsible with the ball and continue the growth and maturation as a quarterback that he was showing in 2010.

Biggest disappointment: The team's inability to finish games early in the season cost it dearly. Blown fourth-quarter leads in losses to the Falcons, 49ers, Giants, Bears and Cardinals left the Eagles 3-6 after nine games and put them in too deep a hole from which to climb out. The defense took way too long to jell, with all of its new players, new coaches and new schemes. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the prize free agent of the 2011 offseason, showed up on other teams' highlight reels a lot more than he did on Philadelphia's. And the Eagles head into the offseason wondering if the strong finish their defense had under first-year coordinator Juan Castillo and new defensive line coach Jim Washburn was a mirage or a sign of what might have been and what could be to come.

Biggest need: The Eagles need linebackers in the worst way. Washburn's "Wide 9" defensive scheme was very effective at pressuring quarterbacks, and the Eagles led the league with 50 sacks. But they ignored linebacker when they were doing all of their signings last summer, and it showed up. The corps of rookies and young players they used at linebacker was unable to support the defensive line and left the team vulnerable not just to big passing plays but also to the run.

Team MVP: Running back LeSean McCoy. He didn't play in the final week of the season, and he got knocked out early the week before against the Cowboys. But he still ended up fourth in the league with 1,309 rushing yards and had 20 touchdowns, including a league-leading 17 on the ground. McCoy was the Eagles' best, most consistent and most dynamic player on either side of the ball. If anything, they leaned too hard on the pass and didn't use him enough late in games to help salt away those leads.

Front line legit: Two of the biggest free-agent signings were defensive end Jason Babin and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, each of whom had outstanding years. Jenkins was a force inside and was even able to move outside and play some end when needed. And Babin, who followed Washburn to Philadelphia from Tennessee, continued to flourish under Washburn's direction. He finished the season ranked third in the league with 18 sacks and now has 30.5 the past two years with Washburn as his position coach.

Buccaneers regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 29
Preseason Power Ranking: 12

[+] EnlargeFreeman
Chuck Cook/US PresswireAfter a breakout year in 2010, Josh Freeman took a step back in 2011.
Biggest surprise: In a season in which almost nothing went right, it at least looked like the Buccaneers got it right with their first-round draft pick. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was a starter from the beginning and was solid all around. He played the run well and finished with 7.5 sacks. That sack total is more impressive than it sounds when you consider that the Bucs spent most of the season trailing and other teams didn’t have to throw a lot against them. Clayborn and second-round pick Da'Quan Bowers both showed plenty of potential and that bodes well for whoever ends up coaching this team. Clayborn also was able to put together an impressive rookie year despite the fact that defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price both were injured much of the season and there wasn’t a lot of help in the middle. If Clayborn and Bowers continue to develop and McCoy and Price can stay healthy, the Buccaneers have the ingredients for a good defensive line.

Biggest disappointment: The total collapse of this once-promising team was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen. In October, the Bucs beat the Saints. That wasn’t a fluke. The Bucs flat-out were better than the Saints that day. They left the next morning for a game with Chicago in London and they never won again. As the losing streak grew, eventually to 10 games, the games became less competitive even against mediocre teams. Tampa Bay’s youth, a point of pride in 2010, was apparent in 2011. Former coach Raheem Morris was never known as a great disciplinarian or organizer, and the Bucs weren’t even operating like a legitimate NFL team by the end of the season. Quarterback Josh Freeman, running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Mike Williams all had great years in 2010, but each of them regressed in 2011.

Biggest need: There are many needs for a team that finished 4-12. But if I had to go with just one, I’d say the Bucs need to solidify their backfield situation. Although he’s a good power runner, Blount never could convince the coaching staff that he could catch passes out of the backfield or provide protection for Freeman in the passing game. That made it obvious to defenses that the Bucs were running if Blount was in the game or passing when he wasn’t. Blount also had problems with fumbles, so it’s possible the Bucs could be looking for an all-around feature back to replace him. Even if the new coach wants to keep Blount as the primary runner, the Bucs will have to go out and get a third-down back more dynamic than Earnest Graham or Kregg Lumpkin. It also would help Freeman a lot if the Bucs add a speed receiver because the current crop of receivers struggled to get separation.

Team MVP: There’s not a lot to choose from here, so we’ll go with guard Davin Joseph. Cornerback Ronde Barber and left tackle Donald Penn also got consideration. But I’m going with Joseph because, even in a year when the rest of the league was laughing at the Bucs and fans weren’t voting for them to go to the Pro Bowl, coaches and players from other teams had enough respect for Joseph to put him on the NFC all-star squad. The guy is a pro and one of the few veteran leaders in the locker room.

What about Freeman? In 2010, his first full season as a starter, Freeman looked like the first true franchise quarterback in team history. He kept mistakes to a minimum and seemed to have a knack for pulling off fourth-quarter comebacks. All of that suddenly disappeared this season and Freeman didn’t look like the same quarterback. There’s no doubt he deserves some of the blame. But I think the bigger factor in his regression was his supporting cast. Blount’s deficiencies made the offense predictable, Williams showed he’s not a No. 1 wide receiver and tight end Kellen Winslow had a disappointing year. It also didn’t help that the defense was giving up a ton of points and Freeman almost always was playing from behind. I still believe Freeman is a big-time talent. But it’s going to be up to the new coach and his staff to get Freeman’s career back on a positive track.

49ers regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 26

Biggest surprise: Alex Smith threw only five interceptions while finishing the season with a 90.7 NFL passer rating, ninth-best in the league. In 2010, he threw twice as many picks in five fewer games. Smith also held up better physically than he had in past seasons. He made 16 starts without suffering much more than a mild concussion that forced him to miss no meaningful time. Smith, a participant in zero fourth-quarter comeback victories from 2008- 10, put his signature on five of them this season. That was tied for most in the league. Coach Jim Harbaugh pushed Smith for the Pro Bowl.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIn 2011, San Francisco QB Alex Smith had his best season of his six-year pro career.
Biggest disappointment: Injuries to Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Delanie Walker and the since-released Braylon Edwards have left the 49ers thin on pass catchers heading into the playoffs. The team will need more from Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree to compensate for what Morgan, Walker and Edwards would have provided at their best. Getting back Ginn and Williams also should help. Davis reemerged as a primary threat in recent weeks. He had 18 catches for 244 yards over the 49ers' final three regular-season games. That is the most productive three-game stretch of the season for Davis. Crabtree is also producing at a higher level lately. Still, this group could have been stronger.

Biggest need: Additional help in the secondary could make sense. The 49ers, despite ranking among the league leaders in most defensive categories, allowed 12 pass plays of at least 40 yards, tied for fifth-most in the league. Long pass plays were a factor in defeats to Dallas and Arizona. The 49ers will have to decide how much to pay cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson. Both earned Pro Bowl honors. Neither has a contract for next season. It's unclear how aggressive the 49ers might be in retaining them. Chris Culliver, a third-round choice in 2011, had an interception and seven passes defensed as a rookie. He factors into the equation at corner.

Team MVP: Defensive end Justin Smith gets the call over inside linebacker Patrick Willis because Smith started every game and dominated. Smith can occupy two blockers and still get free to make a tackle. He's a threat to sack the quarterback. His presence was also a leading factor in setting up teammates. Rookie Aldon Smith had 14 sacks in part because Smith forced favorable matchups. A knee injury slowed Justin Smith during the final two games, but he fought through it and even sneaked back onto the field when the Rams were rallying in Week 17.

Special season: No team in the league could top the 49ers on special teams. San Francisco led the league in field position. Ginn averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 12.3 yards per punt return, scoring two touchdowns in the opener. Kicker David Akers set a league record for made field goals. After the 49ers downed Andy Lee's 64-yard punt at the St. Louis 1-yard line in the fourth quarter Sunday, Lee emerged with the highest single-season net average (44.0) since at least 1976, according to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information.

Packers regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: 1
Preseason Power Ranking: 1

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesJordy Nelson became one of Aaron Rodgers' favorite targets in an offense filled with many weapons.
Biggest surprise: Wide receiver Jordy Nelson had a standout performance in Super Bowl XLV, but few were expecting the kind of breakthrough season he produced in 2011. On a team stocked with elite talent from receiver Greg Jennings to tight end Jermichael Finley, it was Nelson who led the Packers with 68 receptions for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. Only two players in the league, Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, caught more touchdowns. Nelson continually got behind defenses who either misjudged his speed or were drawn elsewhere. He deftly handled a midseason discussion about race and his position, and ultimately proved to be one of the league's top downfield threats. He averaged 18.6 yards per catch, and his touchdowns included distances of 93, 84, 58, 55, 50 and 40 yards.

Biggest disappointment: There aren't many options for a team that won 15 regular season games, the sixth time that's happened in NFL history. But few people in the Packers organization were thrilled by the performance of the pass defense, which allowed an NFL-record 4,796 yards and pushed the Packers to the bottom of the NFL in total defense. (They ranked No. 5 in 2010.) It didn't cost them a game in 2011, partly because they mitigated the yardage total with a league-high 31 interceptions and partly because their offense was one of the league's best. The big concern, of course, is that a hot quarterback could capitalize in the playoffs and end the Packers' dreams for a repeat Super Bowl.

Biggest need: The Packers tried to piece together their right outside linebacker position this year with 2010 street free agent Erik Walden, second-year player Frank Zombo and reserve Brad Jones. Walden didn't make much of an impact as a pass rusher, managing three sacks in 16 games. Zombo was hurt most of the season and Jones was ineffective. Previously, we figured the Packers could skate by as long as All-Pro Clay Matthews was on the opposite side. But offensive attention shifted to Matthews this season, limiting him to six sacks, and no one picked up the slack. The Packers finished tied for No. 27 in the NFL in sacks (27) and it might be time to devote another high draft choice to the position to provide a pass-rushing alternative.

Team MVP: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the favorite to win the NFL MVP, making him a pretty decent candidate for the team award. In a year of obscene yardage totals from Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford, Rodgers was the league's most efficient and least mistake-prone quarterback. He set an NFL record with a 122.5 passer rating and became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 4,000 yards while also throwing six or less interceptions. It's true that the Packers' offense continued humming along when Rodgers sat out the regular season finale, but those who saw large chunks of his season know that he was operating on a never-before-seen plane for the first two-thirds of the season. Rodgers has perfected the art of the back-shoulder throw and helped deliver the phrase "throwing open" into the public NFL lexicon.

Penalty watch: We could devote an entire post to the milestones surpassed and records set for this team. Two that didn't get nearly enough attention: 14 turnovers and 76 penalties, both of which qualified as the lowest figures in a 16-game season in franchise history. Penalties don't always correlate with wins and losses. But viewed together, we can say with some confidence that the Packers didn't make many mistakes this season.

Browns regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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Final Power Ranking: No. 28
Preseason Power Ranking: No. 29

[+] EnlargePeyton Hillis
Jason Bridge/US PresswirePeyton Hillis' contract drama affected his play all season and his return to Cleveland is in doubt.
Biggest surprise: Cleveland changed defensive coordinators last offseason, going from the maverick ways of Rob Ryan to the calming influence of Dick Jauron. The style changed as well, from Ryan's frenetic schemes to Jauron's emphasis on fundamentals. The result: the Browns went from the 22nd-ranked defense in 2010 to the 10th-ranked this year. The yards and points went down and the sacks went up. The Browns allowed just 307 points this season, which is their lowest figure since allowing 301 in 2005. In Cleveland's four wins, the defense allowed an average of 12 points.

Biggest disappointment: Peyton Hillis went from being on the cover of the Madden video game to being the perfect example of what not to do in a contract season. The running back's frustrations over the lack of a new deal spilled onto the playing field, where his total yards dropped 56 percent from a year ago (1,654 to 717). It became a soap opera with Hillis this season when he missed a game on the advice of his agent because of strep throat, failed to show up for a scheduled appearance at a Halloween party for children, and got married in Arkansas instead of getting treatment at the Browns facility for his injured hamstring. It would be surprising to see the Browns invest a contract in Hillis after this year's antics.

Biggest need: The Browns desperately need offensive playmakers and lots of them. Their list includes: a strong-armed quarterback, a No. 1 receiver, a game-breaking running back and a big-play threat at tight end. It's easy to see why the Browns scored the third-fewest points in the NFL (13.6 points per game) under first-year coach Pat Shurmur. Cleveland produced only six pass plays for more than 40 yards (third-fewest in the league) and one run for that same distance. It seemed like the Browns ended up with more concussions than touchdowns this season.

Team MVP: The backbone of the NFL's second-ranked passing defense was cornerback Joe Haden. It was a breakout year for the seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft. He finished sixth in passes defensed and has the potential to be a shutdown corner. He didn't have an interception, but that will come if the Browns can increase the pressure on quarterbacks. Some would argue that linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is the Browns' MVP because he finished second in the NFL in tackles. But Cleveland allowed the third-most rushing yards in the league, which is a reflection of the middle linebacker.

Big decision: Look for the Browns to add a quarterback in the draft or free agency after Shumur said Colt McCoy will have to win the job next season. In his first full season as the starter, McCoy ranked 26th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 32nd in yards per attempt (5.9) and 25th in passer rating (74.6). Some argue that McCoy's statistics are low because the Browns are tied for the most drops in the NFL (33), according to ESPN Stats & Information, and have struggled to protect him. Others say McCoy isn't a starting quarterback at this level because he lacks arm strength.

Rams regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 31
Preseason Power Ranking: 17

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jay Drowns/Getty ImagesSam Bradford could not build on a promising rookie campaign and struggled in his second season.
Biggest surprise: The Rams ranked eighth in sacks per pass attempt, one spot ahead of the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers, even though they rarely forced opponents into obvious passing situations. Chris Long broke out with a career-high 13 sacks. Long had been improving since moving to the left side. There were indications he might hit double digits for sacks if the Rams forced opponents into obvious passing situations frequently enough. Long came within a half-sack of matching his combined total for the 2009-10 seasons.

Biggest disappointment: Failing to build on Sam Bradford's promising rookie season. Bradford was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year after setting rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590). Only Peyton Manning had thrown for more yards than Bradford as an NFL rookie. There were challenges this season with the lockout, a tough early schedule and all that goes with learning a new scheme. Bradford and first-year coordinator Josh McDaniels liked their chances, but the offense suffered huge setbacks when injuries sidelined Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola in the season opener. The Rams approached the season eager to see how Jackson, Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Mike Hoomanawanui and Lance Kendricks functioned together. That group never took a snap together. Bradford completed only 53.5 percent of his passes. He took 36 sacks in 10 starts and threw for only six touchdowns.

Biggest need: Offensive playmakers. Bradford completed only 1 of 16 attempts in goal-to-go situations. For perspective, consider that Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, another young quarterback facing struggles in 2011, completed 14 of 20 passes with eight touchdowns in these situations. Picking up Brandon Lloyd by trade helped, but the veteran receiver might wind up being a one-year rental. Lloyd's contract expires in March. The man influential in bringing him to St. Louis, McDaniels, might not be back. The Rams need to draft a difference- maker at receiver. That could be tough to justify with so many needs elsewhere on the roster.

Team MVP: Jackson was an obvious choice. If only he hadn't strained a quadriceps while breaking a 47-yard touchdown run against Philadelphia on his first carry of the season. That injury limited Jackson to six carries over the first three games. Jackson still topped 1,100 yards for the season. He joined Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He rushed for 159, 130 and 128 yards during a three-game stretch when the Rams went 2-1.

Starting over up front: The offensive line was supposed to be a strength for St. Louis after the team signed guard Harvey Dahl in free agency. Dahl held up his end, but the rest of the line fell apart. Rodger Saffold will be back at left tackle or somewhere along the line. Dahl will return. Right tackle Jason Smith, chosen second overall in 2009, will not return at his current salary. Center Jason Brown lost his starting job during the season. Left guard Jacob Bell took a pay reduction and a one-year deal right before the season. The team has not developed young depth on the line. How will the team protect Bradford?

Giants regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 9
Preseason Power Ranking: 15

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireVictor Cruz had a breakout season for the Giants in 2011.
Biggest surprise: Second-year wide receiver Victor Cruz. One of the big questions back in training camp was how the Giants would replace key passing-game targets Steve Smith and Kevin Boss, who had left in free agency. Quarterback Eli Manning even expressed his concern on that very subject. But Cruz had been working with Manning during the lockout and was ready to burst onto the scene more brilliantly than anyone could have expected. He caught 82 passes, nine for touchdowns, and set a Giants team record with 1,536 receiving yards -- a figure that ranked third-best in the NFL. He surpassed Hakeem Nicks as the team's best big-play threat and helped the Giants be able to basically ignore a down year from Mario Manningham.

Biggest disappointment: Has to be a run game that ranked 32nd in the NFL. People want to point out that it seems to have gotten better in recent weeks with both running backs -- Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs -- finally healthy together. But all season, the problem with the Giants' run game was not the backs but rather a poor run-blocking offensive line. Things did get better once Will Beatty got hurt, David Diehl moved to left tackle and the surprising Kevin Boothe got into the mix. But these Giants are more a passing team than ever, and have been unable to put games away on the ground with very few exceptions.

Biggest need: Even if cornerback Terrell Thomas and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff come back from the season-ending injuries they suffered in preseason, the Giants will need to beef up in the secondary and linebacking corps. Just too many coverage problems this year. No matter how good the pass rush is, you need to be able to cover opposing receivers or you're going to keep being vulnerable to the big play.

Team MVP: Manning. With no run game to speak of, a shaky offensive line and a leaky defense for much of the year, Manning elevated the Giants over and over again in games they seemed to have no business winning. His five fourth-quarter comebacks are as big a reason as any that they're still playing. Manning finished the season with 4,933 passing yards, which ranked fourth in the league in this pass-happy season, and established himself as one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the league.

Down with JPP: A close second in that team MVP race is second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 16.5 sacks, won the first Cowboys game almost by himself and kept the pass rush viable in spite of injuries to Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. He's the Victor Cruz of the Giants' defense.

Titans regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Don McPeak/US PresswireThe Titans became a passing team this season behind the solid play of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Biggest surprise: The 9-7 record. The team was expected to suffer from the lockout and resulting lack of offseason work, but it came together and outperformed expectations given a new coach, new staff and new quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck had the best passing season in franchise history by anyone not named Warren Moon despite losing WR Kenny Britt early to a torn-up knee and not getting consistent production from running back Chris Johnson. Coach Mike Munchak set a tone and showed himself to be a straight-forward, well-measured coach who won the respect of his players. With a big contribution from their rookie class, the Titans started off well under a new regime.

Biggest disappointment: Johnson secured a big new contract after he billed himself as a playmaker, not just a running back. But he and the run game were so ineffective that the Titans became a passing team even with Britt on IR. Over half of Johnson's yards came in four wins over bad teams. And although the team consistently defended him, it was completely fair to question his effort. He often went down too easily, he didn’t make a guy miss when he wound up one-on-one and he didn’t work hard enough at his responsibilities without the ball in his hands. The team is hopeful it can get him back on track with an offseason in which he’s expected to be in Nashville far more often.

Biggest need: Defensive pieces. Rookie middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, who was not part of the plan at the start of the season, was probably the best defensive player on the team at season’s end. That indicts a lot of other guys. The Titans have to rush the passer better to be more consistent on defense and they need more than Derrick Morgan, Jason Jones (who should go back to tackle), Dave Ball and William Hayes. Three safeties are heading toward free agency, so the Titans have a lot to sort through there, too.

Team MVP: Hasselbeck is the easiest choice. He played better than many of us expected and brought just the sort of leadership the Titans needed. But I’ll go with receiver Nate Washington, who became the No. 1 receiver with Britt’s injury and delivered a 1,000-yard season even with a bad ankle for the last part of the season. Washington thrived with the new coaching and new quarterbacks. His maturation serves as a symbol of what the Titans need from a lot of other guys at a lot of other spots.

Sorting out the secondary: Safeties Michael Griffin, Chris Hope and Jordan Babineaux and cornerback Cortland Finnegan all have expiring contracts. Finnegan probably draws an offer in free agency beyond what the Titans would give him. The team cannot make a long-term commitment with big money to the inconsistent Griffin. Hope is likely done. Babineaux played well and would be nice to retain. That’s a lot to decide on just in the secondary, but I’d expect a big infusion of new guys to work with young corners Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner.

Bills regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 25
Preseason Power Ranking: 30

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Tim Heitman/US PresswireRyan Fitzpatrick struggled after signing a contract extension.
Biggest surprise: Bills fans were almost ready to write off former first-round draft pick C.J. Spiller. The 2010 No. 9 overall pick didn't do much in his rookie season with limited playing time. This year, Buffalo tried to find ways to get him involved as a returner and part-time receiver and running back. But that wasn't enough. Spiller received a golden opportunity late in the season when starting running back Fred Jackson suffered a season-ending leg injury. Spiller showed explosiveness as an every-down back and set career highs with 561 yards and 5.2 yards per carry.

Biggest disappointment: Is Ryan Fitzpatrick the long-term solution at quarterback, and can he lead the Bills to a Super Bowl? The Bills believe that's the case after giving Fitzpatrick a six-year, $59 million extension in late October. The early returns weren't good. Fitzpatrick's play fell off after the big contract. He was 1-8 as a starter in his final nine games and had six multi-interception games in that stretch. Overall, Fitzpatrick set career highs for yards (3,832) and touchdowns (24). But he also set a career high for interceptions (23). Fitzpatrick needs to put an end to the streakiness and become more consistent in 2012. Expectations are higher now that he's officially the face of the franchise and a $10-million-a-year player.

Biggest need: Buffalo's defense needs a lot of help, as evidenced by giving up 49 unanswered points in the regular-season finale to the New England Patriots. But the Bills could most use a pass-rusher. They were counting on Shawne Merriman to be that guy. But at this stage in his career, he's not as explosive and too injury prone. Don't be surprised if Buffalo upgrades outside linebacker early in the draft or in free agency.

Team MVP: Despite playing just 10 games, Jackson is the easy choice for MVP in Buffalo. He was on pace for a Pro Bowl season, recording 934 rushing yards and an additional 442 yards receiving. Jackson was the biggest piece of Buffalo's offense. Despite Spiller's efforts, the team was never the same after Jackson went down. The Bills finished the season 1-5 following Jackson's injury. Buffalo said it would take care of Jackson this offseason. It will be interesting to see how the team handles the situation following Spiller's emergence and Jackson coming off a season-ending leg injury.

Free-agent watch: Keep an eye on receiver Steve Johnson in free agency. This is Buffalo's most polarizing offseason story. There are a ton of questions surrounding Johnson. Is he an elite No. 1 receiver? Does Johnson deserve $7-$8 million per season? Are his antics too much? What about the one-year franchise tag? The Bills can go in a lot of different directions. But Buffalo lacks playmakers at receiver and needs to find a replacement if the team lets its only impact receiver walk.

Chargers regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 16
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

[+] EnlargeEric Weddle
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesSafety Eric Weddle's seven interceptions were a bright spot for the Chargers' lackluster defense.
Biggest surprise: The slow start by quarterback Philip Rivers. There is no doubt Rivers, who turned 30 last month, is still an elite player. But he had a rough first 10 games in which he threw 17 of his 20 interceptions. Rivers made crucial fourth-quarter mistakes during the six-game losing streak that doomed San Diego’s season. Will anyone forget the dropped snap in Kansas City on Halloween night with the Chargers about to kick a game-winning field goal? That was the difference in the Chargers not winning the division title. But Rivers settled down late in the season and finished strong. Quarterback is not a problem in San Diego.

Biggest disappointment: The Chargers were not happy with the performance of defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. They had a dominant unit under Ron Rivera, whom Manusky replaced after Carolina hired Rivera as head coach. Manusky promised an aggressive defense, but the players never really adapted to his way — and the Chargers were far from a special defense this season.

Biggest need: There are plenty of needs in San Diego. It needs help at every level of the defense and it may need three new starters on the offensive line with guard Kris Dielman (concussion), tackle Marcus McNeill (neck) and center Nick Hardwick as possibilities for retirement. While it’s difficult to pinpoint this team’s greatest need, a top safety could help the process on defense.

Team MVP: Safety Eric Weddle. He had seven interceptions and made several big plays. Weddle followed up his signing of a monster contract to stay in San Diego this summer with his first Pro Bowl. He is the quarterback of the defense and a clutch performer.

Future starts on defense: Expect a bunch of changes on defense. Every layer of the unit will likely see additions, and there could be big changes on the defensive coaching staff. The Chargers like their core on offense, but tweaking is needed on defense.

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