NFL Nation: 2011 Season Wrap AFC

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
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: 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.

Raiders regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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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.

Browns 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

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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.

Texans 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

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Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 11

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireIn one season Wade Phillips turned one of the NFL's worst defenses into the league's second best unit.
Biggest surprise: An impressive degree of resolve. Along the way to the AFC South title and the franchise’s first playoff berth, the Texans lost outside linebacker Mario Williams and quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. They were without receiver Andre Johnson for a good stretch of the season because of two separate hamstring injuries. They suffered a bunch of other injuries that tested their depth. And they answered resoundingly. Take away a team’s best player on both sides of the ball -- Williams and Johnson wear those crowns -- and anyone is going to struggle. But the Texans forged on and played well enough to secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff field. I questioned the team’s mental makeup heading into the season, but the staff and roster turned a major corner in erasing such concerns.

Biggest disappointment: The Colts were terrible, the Jaguars were way down and the Titans ultimately didn’t threaten for the division crown. The best teams in the AFC are hardly dominant. They all have holes. Had the Texans not lost Schaub to a foot fracture in Week 10 at Tampa Bay, it’s fair to think they could have made a bid for one of the top-two seeds. With a bye and home field deeper into the playoffs, they may well have entered the postseason as a favorite to advance to the Super Bowl. It’s disappointing that in a year when things lined up for them, they’ve lost so much that they’d have to be somewhat of a Cinderella to make a big run deep.

Biggest need: There is nothing giant looming. Williams is not under contract for 2012, so he’ll be an issue. Do they need to sign him long term? Or have they shown they can thrive on defense without him? A franchise tag is prohibitive as it would cost more than $16 million. The next great receiver for the system who will complement and, perhaps eventually replace, Johnson would be nice. But personnel-wise this team will have great flexibility in the draft, enjoying the luxury of taking the best players it sees, rather than being driven by a weak position group or two.

Team MVP: We can make a strong case for cornerback Johnathan Joseph, inside linebacker Brian Cushing or outside linebacker Connor Barwin. With such a wealth of candidates, we’ll cop out and shift to the guy who schemes for them, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In the span of one season, the Texans went from being one of the league’s very worst defenses to being one of the very best. Guys have a swagger that comes from Phillips' confidence that he will accentuate strengths and mask weaknesses and that he can find the weak spot in an offense to attack. The pass rush has constantly harassed quarterbacks and the secondary contests a large percentage of passes.

New security: Gary Kubiak stayed the course and stuck with the things he believed would work in time. It all may have taken longer than he’d hoped, and his team certainly enjoyed some good fortune in the Colts’ fall and the availability of Phillips. But the head coach who came into the season with the very real possibility of being fired if he didn’t take his team to the postseason has delivered. He and his staff have earned new deals that ensure they’ll be overseeing an excellent core going forward.

Colts 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

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Final Power Ranking: 32
Preseason Power Ranking: 9

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesWithout Peyton Manning the Colts went from playoff contender to the worst team in the NFL.
Biggest surprise: Even without rehabilitating Peyton Manning (neck), few figured the the Colts could go 0-13 and wind up 2-14 with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. We can’t say how much better these Colts could have been with their four-time NFL MVP in the huddle, but he clearly masked a lot more issues than many knew. The offense tried to be more run-based but didn’t make it work well enough. Typically allergic to fullbacks, they used three different ones but ran worse with a fullback on the field than without one. The secondary was poorly constructed and couldn’t endure injuries and it became clear how bad a fit Jim Caldwell’s hand-picked coordinator, Larry Coyer, had become for the Cover 2 scheme the Colts like to run.

Biggest disappointment: Quarterback play was awful. Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky were terrible as the alternatives to Manning at quarterback. They combined to average 6.04 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, while absorbing 35 sacks. A lot of the good numbers were compiled late in blowouts. The Colts' 26.9 combined QBR was better than only the Jaguars and Rams. The team tied an NFL record by going eight full games without ever holding a lead.

Biggest need: The Colts need help at all sorts of positions, starting in the secondary. Before team vice chairman Bill Polian was dismissed he was saying the team needed an infusion of youth that could contribute to converting third downs on offense and stopping them on defense. But until a new general manager is in place and we know the coaching staff and scheme, we won’t know which veterans they should aim to keep and which ones they should let go. So new leadership at the management level is the top need following the dismissal of Polian and GM Chris Polian. From there, a verdict on Manning’s health and future and a decision on whether to keep the No. 1 pick and what to do with it will hang over the franchise.

Team MVP: Pat Angerer slid to middle linebacker from the strong side after Gary Brackett suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the season opener in Houston. Angerer proved to be a tackling machine who consistently shed blockers and covered ground despite the fact that the defensive line in front of him and the secondary behind him often didn’t play reliably enough. He made a team-high 148 tackles. Brackett now appears dispensable.

System status: For the Polian-Manning era the Colts built a Manning-centric, fast-moving, no-huddle offense that caught defenses in bad personnel groups and regularly scored in the final two minutes of the first half of the game. It was paired with a bend-don’t-break Cover 2 defense that aimed to limit big plays and produce situations that allowed a duo of premier pass-rushers to tee off on quarterbacks who had to drop back. With regime change coming, will system change come too? The odds seem low that Bill Polian’s successor will put a similar premium on smaller, speedier defenders.

Broncos 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: 14
Preseason Power Ranking: 27

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Jake Roth/US PresswireWillis McGahee had a career resurgence during his first season with the Broncos.
Biggest surprise: The Denver Broncos are the AFC West champion. Denver became the eighth team in NFL history to make the playoffs with three straight losses to end the season. Say what you want about them backing into the playoffs, but the truth is no one expected the Broncos to make any sort of noise in the first year of the John Elway-John Fox era. The fact that this team went from 4-12 to qualifying for the playoffs in one season is impressive. The future is bright in Denver.

Biggest disappointment: It has to be the late-season setback of quarterback Tim Tebow. He was making strong strides as an NFL quarterback until the past two games where he has regressed badly. He was 6 of 22 for 60 yards in the Week 17 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Tebow has thrown five interceptions in the past three games and he has also lost a fumble in each of the past five games.

Biggest need: Despite the progress, Denver's biggest area to improve is its defense. It needs another impact player, either in the secondary or at defensive tackle. It was ranked No. 32 in the NFL in nearly every statistical category in 2010, so the unit has clearly improved. There is no way Denver would have made the playoffs without its defense, but at the least, one more stud is needed.

Team MVP: Running back Willis McGahee. He was one of the best free-agent signings of the summer. Signed to be a complementary back, the 30-year-old turned out to be a star. After running a combined 209 times in the past two seasons in Baltimore, McGahee had 1,199 yards on 249 carries this season. He made the Denver offense a threat.

QB future is still unclear: It is strange for a playoff team to be unsettled for the future at quarterback. But after the past few weeks, you have to think that Tebow is no sure thing to be Denver’s starter in 2012. The Broncos probably will give him a full offseason and a full season (plus an improved supporting cast) to show he can be the long-term starter. But if he stumbles in the playoffs, all bets are off.

Chiefs regular-season wrap-up

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

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Final power ranking: 22
Preseason Power Ranking: 18

[+] EnlargeRome Crennel
AP Photo/Reed HoffmannThe Chiefs went 2-1 under interim coach Romeo Crennel, who appears likely to get the job permanently.
Biggest surprise: The Chiefs’ resiliency. Some may be surprised a team that went 10-6 last year and won the AFC West title and followed it up with a 7-9 season is trending up. But the Chiefs showed a lot of guts. First, they fought back from an avalanche of injuries and an 0-3 start to become competitive. Then, after coach Todd Haley was fired following the Week 14 loss, the Chiefs responded by going 2-1 under interim coach Romeo Crennel, including giving Green Bay its only loss of the regular season. Kansas City was a blocked field goal at the end of regulation in Week 16 against Oakland from repeating as division champion. Crennel is expected to be the permanent head coach. This is a young team getting key players back. The future is bright.

Biggest disappointment: The injuries. The Chiefs played the entire season with standout second-year tight end Tony Moeaki. They lost star second-year safety Eric Berry in Week 1 and star running back Jamaal Charles in the second week. Quarterback Matt Cassel suffered a season-ending injury in November. It could have been a much different season.

Biggest need: Kansas City still needs some help in many areas, including the defensive line, linebacker and at safety. But I think it needs to look at a tackle. Right tackle Barry Richardson is the type of player you look to upgrade from; I think tackle will be a focal point for the Chiefs in the first round, where they will have either the 11th or 12th pick in the first round. That will be decided by a coin flip with Seattle.

Team MVP: Linebacker Derrick Johnson. He is an underrated player and deserved his Pro Bowl berth. He is a playmaker and is always around the ball. Kansas City finished the season strong on defense and it began with Johnson.

Who’s the quarterback? After Sunday’s game, Kyle Orton, who started the final three games of the season after being claimed off waivers from Denver, said he believes it is Cassel’s team. I agree. I think the Chiefs will move forward with Cassel and Orton will look for a starting job elsewhere as a free agent.

Jets 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

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Final Power Ranking: 19
Preseason Power Ranking: 7

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez was unable to make progress in his third NFL season.
Biggest surprise: Guess who led the Jets in sacks this season? Aaron Maybin. Yes, that Aaron Maybin. The same Maybin who was a draft bust for the Buffalo Bills and cut before training camp. The Jets saw potential in Maybin and invited him to training camp. With a change of scenery and scheme, Maybin showed some of the things in New York that he showed in college to make him a first-round pick. Maybin briefly made New York's 53-man roster out of training camp. Then, he was released. When the Jets picked Maybin up again during the season he was ready. Maybin helped the Jets with a team-high six sacks, which should put him in consideration for the NFL's Most Improved Player.

Biggest disappointment: This was the year New York's coaching staff thought quarterback Mark Sanchez would make major strides. This was the year the offense would be put in Sanchez's hands and would finally catch up to New York's talented defense. But that plan didn't pan out. Sanchez wasn't ready to take the next step in his third season and coach Rex Ryan pulled back the reigns. The Jets went back to their ground-and-pound offense and tried to protect Sanchez. The offense was bland, predictable and Sanchez struggled. New York's offense was ranked No. 25 in the NFL. Sanchez's numbers slightly improved. But the team still had to protect him in his third season, and that's not acceptable for a top-five draft pick. Sanchez needs to make a lot of improvements next season to be considered among the upper-echelon quarterbacks in the NFL.

Biggest need: There are several reasons the Jets were inconsistent, but the biggest reason was the offensive line. The Jets need to upgrade the right tackle position immediately. Wayne Hunter draws too many flags and struggles in pass protection. The front office needs to find a better front-side protector for Sanchez. The offensive line as a group played a notch or two lower than it was capable of. The Jets need to add depth and competition at guard. Center Nick Mangold was fine, but D'Brickashaw Ferguson wasn't as good as previous years. Both made the Pro Bowl, although Ferguson made it more on name recognition.

Team MVP: I know it's early. But I feel pretty safe in saying that Darrelle Revis will be an all-time great. Revis put together another Pro Bowl year and is easily the team's MVP. Revis is dominating a position that is nearly impossible to dominate. The rules are tilted in favor of the offense and receivers to promote scoring. But Revis has found a way to consistently shut down opponents from the cornerback position. His ability to stick to and frustrate receivers is fun to watch. His hand-eye coordination is the best in the NFL. It's considered an event when a receiver catches a couple passes on Revis. Perhaps the biggest shame is that Revis, 26, is a unique talent in his prime, and the Jets are wasting those prime years by fumbling around in other areas.

Free-agent watch: The Jets have several interesting free agents. Offensively, New York has to decide whether to bring back starting receiver Plaxico Burress and/or backup tailback LaDainian Tomlinson. Burress was signed on a one-year rental to see if he has anything left after spending time in prison. Burress showed flashes, particularly in the red zone. But he will be 35 in August and struggles to get vertical. The Jets may need an upgrade opposite receiver Santonio Holmes. Tomlinson's role was reduced this year and he is considering retirement. Defensively, New York has to decide what to do with starting safety Jim Leonhard. He's an underrated player. It's evident as the defense fell apart this season when he was out of the lineup. Leonhard suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the year and has a long rehabilitation process ahead. That could impact and delay whether the Jets pursue him.

Bengals 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: No. 11
Preseason Power Ranking: No. 32

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesRookie quarterback Andy Dalton has led the Bengals back to the playoffs after Cincinnati finished 4-12 in the 2010 regular season.
Biggest surprise: When the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton in the second round, many thought he could develop into a starting quarterback despite his lack of ideal size and arm strength. Few expected a rookie out of Texas Christian to help turn around the four-win Bengals into a playoff team. He also became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 touchdowns while winning eight or more games. Dalton's success led to a bigger surprise -- the Bengals were able to trade Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-rounder in 2013.

Biggest disappointment: The Bengals made no secret how important Leon Hall was to their defense when they signed the former first-round cornerback to a four-year, $39 million extension before the season began. So, it was a devastating blow when he tore an Achilles tendon and was done for the season in Week 10. One of the more underrated corners in the NFL, Hall could be counted upon for tight man-to-man coverage. In seven games without Hall, the Bengals have allowed 12 touchdowns through the air and have made six interceptions.

Biggest need: The glaring need on offense is at guard, where Cincinnati is currently starting an undrafted player on the left side (Nate Livings) and an Eagles cast-off on the right (Mike McGlynn). It doesn't look like long-time anchor on the interior, Bobbie Williams, will return after a season-ending ankle injury. The Bengals are set at tackle with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, who was the most improved player on the team. Both are former high picks by the Bengals, which shows they can build an offensive line through the draft.

Team MVP: While some might point to Dalton, the most important -- as well as most feared -- player on the field for the Bengals has been wide receiver A.J. Green. He led all NFL rookies with 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. His 11 catches of 35 yards or more are the most in the league and the most by an NFL rookie since Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14 in 1998. As a result, Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003.

Tough decision: With Cedric Benson as the running back, Cincinnati could always expect 1,000 yards rushing and six touchdowns. But you got the sense that the Bengals and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden were relying less and less on Benson by giving more carries to Bernard Scott. Cincinnati could continue its youth movement on offense and draft a starting running back or it could look at the free-agent market. It's a little bit of a gamble because Benson has been so consistent. It'll become apparent whether Benson is in the Bengals' future plans this offseason, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Steelers 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: 6
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

[+] EnlargeAntonio Brown
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAntonio Brown emerged as Pittsburgh's biggest playmaker -- notching more than 1,000 yards in both returns and receptions.
Biggest surprise: The Steelers hoped to get an occasional spark out of Antonio Brown as the No. 3 receiver after he had 16 catches for 167 yards as a rookie. By the end of the season, he ended up being the team's hottest playmaker. A threat as a receiver and returner, Brown became the first player in NFL history to get 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season, which is why his teammates named him the Steelers' Most Valuable Player. Brown returned a punt for a game-clinching touchdown against Cincinnati and scored on a 79-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the fourth quarter against Cleveland. His breakout season ended with 69 receptions for 1,108 yards.

Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh has one of the best pass rushing combinations in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The problem is, they weren't on the field together for most of the season. An eye injury and an NFL suspension sidelined Harrison for five games, and a hamstring injury has caused Woodley to miss six. These edge rushers haven't completed a full game together since Sept. 25 at Indianapolis. The lack of a consistent pass rush and turnovers has been the weakness of the NFL's top-ranked defense. In Pittsburgh's four losses, the Steelers have totaled four sacks and one takeaway.

Biggest need: The offensive line has been a need for several seasons. Pittsburgh should be commended for patching up the line when it looked like it was falling apart earlier in the year. The re-signing of Max Starks stabilized the unit and moved struggling Jonathan Scott to the sideline. The Steelers also replaced penalty magnet Chris Kemoeatu with Doug Legursky. There's plenty of work to do if the Steelers want to improve the protection for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The only two starters that you can see being here for the next five seasons are Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has steadily improved throughout his rookie season.

Team MVP: The Steelers voted Brown as their MVP, but the most irreplaceable player on the team is Roethlisberger. He carried the Steelers' pass-first offense with 4,077 yards, 21 touchdowns and a 63.2 completion rate. The impressive part is that Roethlisberger did this in pain, even surpassing his usual standard for playing with injuries. He sprained his foot (which required a metal plate in his shoe), broke his right thumb and then suffered a high-ankle sprain. This could go down as his best season in terms of heroics. Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueled Tom Brady and beat Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg.

Big decision: The most intriguing question is whether the Steelers will part ways with Hines Ward after he became the eighth receiver in NFL history to reach 1,000 catches. He lost his 13-year starting job to the next generation of Pittsburgh wide receivers (Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders) and the 35-year-old receiver carries a big price tag over the next two years, when he is scheduled to make $4 million each season. Ward has made it clear that he doesn't plan to retire.

Dolphins 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: 24
Preseason Power Ranking: 24

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
AP Photo/Gregory BullMiami had a surprising 6-6 record with Matt Moore starting at QB.
Biggest surprise: Who knew career backup Matt Moore would be the best quarterback on Miami's roster and the second-best quarterback in the AFC East (courtesy of the "Sanchez-Fitz-Moore Watch")? He proved it by taking over for the injured Chad Henne and leading the Dolphins to a respectable finish. Moore started 12 games and threw for 2,497 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He had an 87.1 passer rating and was 6-6 as a starter. Moore made his best case to be Miami's starter in 2012, but expect the team to see if it can find an upgrade via the draft or free agency in the offseason.

Biggest disappointment: Henne, a former second-round pick, is officially a bust. Dolphins fans were ahead of the curve and knew it before the team did. Miami supporters were already down on Henne and booed him last summer. The Dolphins were willing to give Henne one more shot, and he started 0-4 and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Henne says he wants to stay, but that's unlikely. He's an unrestricted free agent and wants a chance to start. That won't happen in Miami next season.

Biggest need: It starts at the top for Miami. The Dolphins need a head coach to establish the future direction of the team. Former coach Tony Sparano was fired during the season and replaced by interim coach Todd Bowles. The Dolphins interviewed Bowles, who went 2-1, for the job. But the team most likely will hire from the outside. The Dolphins reportedly will interview Jeff Fisher this week. That's the best-case scenario. But Miami might have trouble landing a big-name coach to work under general manager Jeff Ireland, who will call the shots in Miami.

Team MVP: This is a tough call. Miami's solid finish was truly a team effort. But if we have to name one player, starting tailback Reggie Bush was the most consistent. Bush finished strong and had his first 1,000-yard season. He finished with 1,086 yards and six touchdowns. What was even more impressive is he stayed healthy enough to start 15 games. Durability has always been one of Bush's biggest questions because of his lack of size. But he proved in 2011 that he can be a feature back.

Free-agent watch: The Dolphins are pretty solid with contracts. One of the few big questions involves starting defensive tackle Paul Soliai. He is an underrated defensive tackle, but not by Miami. The Dolphins thought enough of Soliai to give him a one-year franchise tag. He doesn’t put up big numbers but helped anchor Miami’s fifth-ranked run defense. Now, the team has to decide whether to work out a long-term extension, use another tag or let Soliai walk.

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