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Playoff outsiders start in on 2011

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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Hindsight is 20-20. So is the view now being taken by the 20 non-playoff teams that are reflecting upon the end of the 2010 regular season.

Preseason Super Bowl favorites Minnesota and Dallas fell woefully short of expectations and fired their head coaches in November. Three other 2009 playoff teams – Cincinnati, San Diego and Arizona – didn’t return to the postseason. St. Louis and Tampa Bay made surprising playoff runs that fell just short, while the bottom fell out in Carolina and Denver, which now have the top picks in April’s draft.

Here’s a top-20 countdown of the non-qualifiers in the order in which they will be drafting and an early forecast for 2011:

20. Tampa Bay (10-6)

What went wrong?: Each of Tampa Bay’s final four losses came by a touchdown or less. Had the Buccaneers won one of those games – a 23-20 overtime home loss to Detroit in Week 15 was especially disheartening – Tampa Bay would be in the postseason at 11-5 rather than Green Bay clinching the final wild-card spot at 10-6.

What went right?: The youth movement initiated in 2009 by general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris has quickly paid dividends. QB Josh Freeman, who turns 23 on Jan. 13, showed skills beyond his years with 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. The Bucs also found long-term answers at running back and wide receiver with an undrafted college free agent claimed off waivers (1,000-yard rusher LaGarrette Blount) and a draft-day steal in Mike Williams (964 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns).

What’s next?: Even in a division with two bona fide Super Bowl contenders (Atlanta and New Orleans), Tampa Bay will enter next season as a playoff favorite. A baby-faced roster now must show maturity by ignoring such hype and proving this season’s success wasn’t the result of a weak schedule. Only one of Tampa Bay’s victories came against a team that finished above .500 – a 23-13 victory over New Orleans in the season finale when the playoff-bound Saints pulled starting QB Drew Brees early in the fourth quarter.

19. New York Giants (10-6)

What went wrong?: The defense and special teams suffered a late-season collapse. Philadelphia and Green Bay scored a combined 83 points in Week 15 and 16 losses. QB Eli Manning became sloppy in his ball protection and decision-making, especially when under heavy pressure. Manning threw an NFL-high 25 interceptions.

What went right?: Although there were too many dropped passes and fumbles, the Giants still got strong production from their skill-position players. RBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combined for 2,058 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. WRs Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham – who finished 4 yards short of a combined 2,000-yard campaign – are just entering their primes. Thanks to a healthy Kenny Phillips and newcomers Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant, the Giants had much better safety play than in 2009.

What’s next?: Not only did Giants ownership retain Tom Coughlin after a third straight season without a playoff victory, but the longtime head coach also reportedly will be given a contract extension. Coughlin already has indicated the top 2011 priority is reducing the 42 turnovers that essentially negated the 39 fumble recoveries and interceptions by his defense. Coughlin said he doesn’t plan staff changes, although he may need to find a replacement for defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who is drawing interest to potentially fill head coaching vacancies in Carolina, Cleveland and San Francisco. The Giants also have to decide whether to re-sign Bradshaw, whose contract has expired, and to keep Jacobs and his $4.65 million base salary in 2011.

18. San Diego (9-7)

What went wrong?: Injuries, horrific special teams and the lengthy absence of two standout players embroiled in contract disputes (WR Vincent Jackson and LT Marcus McNeill) contributed to a 2-5 start. Unlike in two of the past three seasons, San Diego dug too deep a hole to rally for an AFC West crown.

What went right?: The Chargers finished atop the league in both offensive and defensive rankings yardage-wise. QB Philip Rivers was second in passer rating at 101.8. A successful youth movement helped the defense weather the 2010 departures of three former standouts – LB Shawne Merriman, CB Antonio Cromartie and NT Jamal Williams.

What’s next?: The Chargers won’t change the way they do business with head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith returning in 2011. There will be a new special teams coach with Steve Crosby already fired. Turner also may have to replace defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who will be a candidate for head-coaching vacancies elsewhere. Jackson, who is one of the NFL’s top young wideouts, faces just as uncertain a future in San Diego as he did entering the 2010 offseason because of his contract situation. Smith must handle this kind of situation better than in 2010, when his hard-line approach with Jackson and McNeill had a negative trickle-down effect on San Diego’s on-field performance.

17. Oakland (8-8)

(Note: New England will receive Oakland’s first-round pick as part of a 2009 trade that sent defensive end Richard Seymour to the Raiders.)

What went wrong?: The Raiders were 5-4 entering their bye and never got over .500 again. Oakland surrendered an average of 34.3 points in subsequent losses to Pittsburgh, Miami, Jacksonville and Indianapolis. The Raiders became the first team in NFL history to finish with a perfect division record (6-0) and miss the playoffs.

What went right?: RB Darren McFadden finally earned his keep as the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft. He accumulated a combined 1,664 yards rushing and receiving along with 10 total touchdowns. The Raiders received outstanding yield from a rookie class that included immediate contributors in MLB Rolando McClain, DE Lamarr Houston, LT Jared Veldheer and WR/KR Jacoby Ford.

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What’s next?: They wouldn’t be the Raiders without dysfunction. The latest drama: Deciding not to pick up the option on head coach Tom Cable’s contract. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is a strong candidate for promotion provided he isn’t hired as a head coach elsewhere. Jackson’s addition helped the Raiders finish in the top 10 in scoring (25.6 points) and total yardage (354.6). Whoever is running the show next season, Oakland must decide whether Jason Campbell is good enough to lead a serious postseason run or if quarterback is still a need position.

16. Jacksonville (8-8)

What went wrong?: A late collapse for the second straight year. The Jaguars could have clinched a playoff berth with a Week 15 victory over Indianapolis. Instead, Jacksonville ended the season with losses to the Colts, Washington and Houston.

What went right?: QB David Garrard enjoyed his best season since 2007. RB Maurice Jones-Drew made a strong push for the NFL rushing title until missing the final two games with a knee injury. Tyson Alualu proved he wasn’t a reach with the No. 10 pick in last year’s draft by forming a formidable defensive-tackle combination with fellow youngster Terrance Knighton. The Jaguars sold out all eight of their home games, a huge achievement for a team whose ticket woes were threatening the franchise’s long-term viability in Jacksonville.

What’s next?: If there isn’t a playoff appearance by the Jaguars next season, head coach Jack Del Rio won’t be back in 2012. Team owner Wayne Weaver said so during a news conference Monday. The Jags must upgrade both safety spots and a pass rush that produced 26 sacks, which was tied for the NFL’s second-lowest total behind Denver (23).

15. Miami (7-9)

What went wrong?: Eleven years removed from Dan Marino’s retirement, the Dolphins still haven’t found an adequate replacement at quarterback. Chad Henne threw more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (15) and lost the confidence of star WR Brandon Marshall. The rest of the offense had no punch under outgoing coordinator Dan Henning. Special teams were just as brutal.

What went right?: OLB Cameron Wake (14 sacks) proved a worthy heir to ex-Dolphin Jason Taylor as Miami’s best pass rusher. Mike Nolan did a nice job in his first year as defensive coordinator, especially considering the offensive and special-teams woes.

What’s next?: Dolphins owner Stephen Ross began deliberating the fate of head coach Tony Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland after a second consecutive 7-9 campaign. Even if changes are made, the Dolphins still need to address the quarterback and interior offensive line positions and pick a Henning replacement with a more creative system. Miami also needs more speed at running back regardless of whether Ronnie Brown and/or Ricky Williams leave in free agency.

14. St. Louis (7-9)

What went wrong?: The Rams picked a bad time to play one of their worst games of the season. St. Louis squandered an opportunity to win the NFC West with Sunday’s 16-6 road loss to Seattle (7-9).

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What went right?: Other than Kansas City, no team had a greater increase in wins (six) from the previous season. The key was QB Sam Bradford immediately justifying his selection as the 2010 draft’s No. 1 pick. Bradford had an excellent rookie season despite injuries that gutted his receiving corps. Another high selection – defensive end Chris Long (8.5 sacks) – enjoyed a breakout campaign on one of the NFL’s most improved defenses.

What’s next?: If the Rams can give Bradford a bona fide playmaker at wide receiver, St. Louis will enter 2011 as the clear-cut NFC West favorite. The Rams also must learn how to win on the road after posting a 2-6 mark this season.

13. Detroit (6-10)

What went wrong?: The Lions already had eight losses by Week 11. QB Matthew Stafford’s shoulder problems continued, forcing him to miss 13 games in his second NFL season.

What went right?: The Lions joined playoff qualifiers New England, Baltimore and Indianapolis as the only teams to win their final four regular-season games. The strong finish is important in helping head coach Jim Schwartz break the perpetual cycle of losing that began in Detroit a decade ago. DT Ndamukong Suh is the likely NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after a 66-tackle, 10-sack season.

What’s next?: The Lions will be a fashionable playoff pick heading into the 2011 season. Detroit, though, needs Stafford to recover and stay healthy – as well as cornerback help – to challenge Green Bay and Chicago in the NFC North.

12. Minnesota (6-10)

What went wrong?: Minnesota's Super Bowl hopes collapsed long before the Metrodome roof did. QB Brett Favre couldn’t recapture the same magic as in 2009 before his ignominious departure into retirement. Head coach Brad Childress’ heavy-handed ways cost him the support of virtually everyone inside Vikings headquarters until his firing. WR Percy Harvin’s migraine problems continued. Minnesota’s vaunted pass rush also failed, exposing an overmatched secondary.

What went right?: The Vikings found a Childress replacement on staff in Leslie Frazier. He was named permanent head coach Monday after a 3-3 stint on an interim basis. QB Joe Webb showed flashes of being a future starter, RB Adrian Peterson solved his fumbling problem and DE Jared Allen finished the season strong.

What’s next?: A new head coach won’t be the only major change in Minnesota next season. The Vikings must find a new starting quarterback and have 21 players who could become unrestricted free agents. Re-signing WR Sidney Rice and WLB Chad Greenway should be atop the list.

11. Houston (6-10)

What went wrong?: After giving Texas-sized talk about being a playoff team heading into the season, Houston players never backed their words. Houston’s biggest problems came on defense. The Texans fielded the NFL’s lowest-ranked pass defense and never could compensate for the Week 6 loss of MLB DeMeco Ryans to a season-ending knee injury.

What went right?: With 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns, RB Arian Foster became the first undrafted player to win an NFL rushing title. WR Andre Johnson posted his third consecutive season with 1,200-plus receiving yards despite a lingering ankle injury that sidelined him for three games.

What’s next?: Texans owner Bob McNair is still showing faith in head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith, bringing the duo back for a sixth season despite Houston’s ongoing failure to reach the postseason. The Texans already have fired four defensive coaches and reportedly have interest in hiring ex-Dallas head coach Wade Phillips as coordinator. That would be an interesting move considering Phillips is a proponent of the 3-4 defense and the Texans have made talent acquisitions for a 4-3 scheme.

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10. Washington (6-10)

What went wrong?: Mike Shanahan’s first year as head coach didn’t go as smoothly as expected. Shanahan butted heads with the two biggest names on the roster: DT Albert Haynesworth and QB Donovan McNabb. Haynesworth was suspended for the final four games; McNabb rode the bench as a third-stringer in the final two contests after being replaced by Rex Grossman. The distraction caused by the public falling out with Haynesworth and McNabb overshadowed the awful performance by a defense with personnel ill-suited to play a 3-4 scheme.

What went right?: CB DeAngelo Hall enjoyed a stellar season with 95 tackles, 16 passes defensed, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. First-round pick Trent Williams became an instant starter at left tackle and will serve as Washington’s cornerstone offensive lineman for years to come.

What’s next?: It’s stunning how much less optimism surrounds the Redskins now than when Shanahan was hired last January. The Redskins still have an aged roster and no answers at quarterback. The situations with Haynesworth and McNabb are so toxic that the Redskins ultimately may be forced to release both without receiving draft-pick compensation. Bring back Jim Zorn?

9. Dallas (6-10)

What went wrong?: The Cowboys stuck too long with Wade Phillips as head coach. Dallas was 1-7 when owner Jerry Jones finally pulled the plug after a listless effort in a 45-3 loss at Green Bay. The Cowboys were forced to play backup quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee for the final seven games after Tony Romo suffered a season-ending clavicle injury in mid-November. K David Buehler’s inconsistency proved costly.

What went right?: WR/returner Dez Bryant was proving to be a 2010 first-round steal before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury. OLB DeMarcus Ware won his second career NFL sack title with 15.5. Even with Romo missing, Dallas averaged more points (27.4) in its final eight games with Jason Garrett as interim head coach than in the first eight under Phillips (21.9).

What’s next?: The Cowboys showed far more fight under Garrett, who stressed a more disciplined approach than his predecessor. Garrett is likely to get named as the team’s head coach for 2011. The Cowboys, though, still have personnel issues to address in the secondary, kicking game and along a fading offensive line.

8. Tennessee (6-10)

What went wrong?: Vince Young. After the quarterback showed signs of a resurgence in 2009, Young once again went astray and now is engaged in a he-goes-or-I-go struggle with head coach Jeff Fisher. Tennessee’s quarterback woes allowed defenses to focus on stopping RB Chris Johnson, who fell 1,136 yards short of his stated rushing goal of 2,500 yards. The midseason acquisition of WR Randy Moss did nothing to help the offense.

What went right?: Even in an injury-hampered season, Kenny Britt flashed the big-play skills that Tennessee has sorely lacked at wide receiver. DE Jason Babin was one of the NFL’s best bargain-basement signings. Signed to a one-year, $1 million contract offer last March that Philadelphia declined to match, Babin registered 12.5 sacks to earn a Pro Bowl berth.

What’s next?: Titans owner Bud Adams initially said he fully expected Fisher and Young to patch up their differences. It’s even more obvious now that isn’t happening. If Fisher returns, the Titans must find a new quarterback to groom as a starter. Otherwise, Fisher’s replacement must hope that Young begins showing the professionalism sorely lacking the past few seasons, or he, too, will be unemployed soon enough.

7. San Francisco (6-10)

What went wrong?: 49ers ownership didn’t pay attention to the signs last year that Mike Singletary was overmatched as head coach. Singletary did a terrible job managing his quarterbacks and offensive staff before being fired in Week 16. The fact Singletary lasted that long stemmed only from San Francisco still being in the running to win a lousy NFC West.

What went right?: Two members of the front seven (LB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith) earned Pro Bowl selections. The 49ers solidified two spots on their offensive line by using first-round picks on LG Mike Iupati and RT Anthony Davis, both of whom became immediate starters.

What’s next?: Along with the 49ers having three different head coaches (excluding recent one-game interim Jim Tomsula), five different quarterbacks have led the team in passing in the eight seasons since San Francisco last reached the playoffs. That instability must end if the 49ers are going to stop that streak. The six-year Alex Smith experiment has mercifully ended, so don’t be surprised if the next head coach makes a push to select a new quarterback with the draft’s No. 7 pick.

6. Cleveland (5-11)

What went wrong?: Browns head coach Eric Mangini already was going to have a difficult time convincing new team president Mike Holmgren that he was the right man for the job. Mangini had no shot when injuries forced Cleveland to use three different quarterbacks while sputtering to a 3-7 start. A four-game losing streak to end the season punctuated by Sunday’s embarrassing, 41-9 home loss to Pittsburgh sealed Mangini’s fate.

What went right?: Despite his 2-6 record as a starter, QB Colt McCoy showed enough promise to get another crack in 2011 unless the Browns fall in love with a highly touted college prospect. RB Peyton Hillis emerged from obscurity to rush for 1,177 yards before being slowed by injuries. CB Joe Haden, the draft’s No. 7 pick last year, quickly became an impact player.

What’s next?: The Browns are conducting a head-coaching search, but Holmgren hasn’t completely shut the door on a return to the sideline. Cleveland must find an impact pass rusher for its front seven. No Browns defender has logged more than 7.5 sacks in a single season since 2006.

5. Arizona (5-11)

What went wrong?: The Cardinals made a costly personnel decision at quarterback by believing in Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson as potential replacements for the retiring Kurt Warner. Leinart didn’t make it out of the preseason before being cut; Anderson was brutal before being benched. RB Chris “Beanie” Wells has yet to prove deserving of being a 2009 first-round pick. The offensive line also underperformed. Those factors combined to keep a mediocre defense on the field for an average of 33:57 per game, the NFL’s second-highest total behind Tennessee (34:17).

What went right?: K Jay Feely had one of his best seasons by making 24 of 27 field-goal attempts and booting 16 touchbacks. The Cardinals had 12 defensive and special-teams returns for touchdowns, which was just one score shy of the NFL’s single-season record.

What’s next?: The Cardinals must find an answer at quarterback, especially with star WR Larry Fitzgerald having the ability to leave the franchise in free agency after the 2011 season. WR Steve Breaston may be gone sooner than that in free agency this offseason. Tight-fisted ownership must make some significant personnel upgrades for the Cardinals to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender again.

4. Cincinnati (4-12)

What went wrong?: Injuries decimated the defense, and Cincinnati lost the run-first offensive mentality that helped lead to a division title in 2009. QB Carson Palmer was too erratic, raising questions about whether he still should be considered a franchise player or if Cincinnati needs to seek his future replacement in April’s draft.

What went right?: WR Terrell Owens had far better production than expected (72 catches for 983 yards and nine touchdowns), but his comments knocking the team probably ruined any chance of his getting re-signed. LT Andrew Whitworth played at an All-Pro level. Jermaine Gresham led all rookie tight ends in receptions with 52.

What’s next?: Probably more of the same. The Bengals re-signed Marvin Lewis despite the fact he hasn’t won a playoff game in eight years as head coach.

3. Buffalo (4-12)

What went wrong?: Although the Bills were a .500 team in the second half of the season, an 0-8 start guaranteed an 11th consecutive year without a playoff berth. Buffalo wasted an offseason giving the bulk of first-team snaps to Trent Edwards before deciding to cut him after Week 3. The defense struggled to generate a pass rush with 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin proving a major bust and fellow OLB Shawne Merriman landing on injured reserve after being claimed off waivers from San Diego. RB/KR C.J. Spiller, the No. 9 overall selection in last year’s draft, also didn’t make the kind of splash that was expected.

What went right?: With 23 touchdowns and 3,000 passing yards, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick enjoyed the best season of his six-year NFL career under Chan Gailey’s tutelage. Undersized DT/NT Kyle Williams (77 tackles, 5.5 sacks) was Buffalo’s best defensive player.

What’s next?: With such a high first-round pick, the Bills have the chance to land a potential franchise quarterback. That means Buffalo must make a talent assessment about whether Fitzpatrick can become a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.

2. Denver (4-12)

What went wrong?: Second-year head coach Josh McDaniels got in way over his head with another round of poor personnel decisions. McDaniels also mishandled a Spygate-type incident that resulted in NFL fines for him and the Broncos. McDaniels, 34, was fired in early December. A defense missing injured pass rusher Elvis Dumervil (torn pectoral muscle) finished last in the league in yards (390.8 average) and points (29.4) allowed.

What went right?: Although QB Kyle Orton was enjoying his best season, Denver’s struggles allowed the Broncos to get a long look at rookie Tim Tebow by starting him the final three games. Tebow did well enough to keep the job in 2011 unless new director of football operations John Elway has different plans for who he wants at the position. WR Brandon Lloyd will garner strong consideration for NFL Comeback Player of the Year. The eight-year veteran led the NFL with 1,448 receiving yards and an 18.8-yard average per catch.

What’s next?: That’s what the rest of the league wants to know with Elway – who has no previous NFL administrative experience – now running the show. Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is set for a head coaching interview on Friday.

1. Carolina (2-14)

What went wrong?: Do the math. Cheap ownership + young roster + sitting-duck head coach = the NFL’s worst record.

What went right?: The Panthers were able to get an extended look at QB Jimmy Clausen, a 2010 second-round pick, when Matt Moore went on injured reserve early in the season. At least that gives the Panthers a feel for what they have in Clausen entering this year’s draft. DE Charles Johnson isn’t the same caliber player as the departed Julius Peppers, but he did log 11.5 sacks.

What’s next?: The Panthers have to find a replacement for outgoing head coach John Fox. Carolina is hoping that Stanford QB Andrew Luck decides to turn pro early. The Luck selection would give hope to a franchise that team owner Jerry Richardson allowed to disintegrate over the past two seasons. If the Cardinal quarterback returns for his senior season, good luck getting this franchise turned around any time soon.

Tagged: Bills, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Titans, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Saints, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Cardinals, Chargers, Texans, Jon Kitna, Justin Smith, Ricky Williams, Donovan McNabb, Jamal Williams, Drew Brees, Mike Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Johnson, Chris Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Tony Romo, DeAngelo Hall, Jason Babin, Eli Manning, Jared Allen, Shawne Merriman, Jason Campbell, Vincent Jackson, Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Ronnie Brown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Jacobs, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Marcus McNeill, Brandon Marshall, Kyle Williams, Charles Johnson, Patrick Willis, Matt Moore, Chris Johnson, Kenny Phillips, Chris Long, Kyle Williams, Lamarr Houston, Tim Tebow, Jacoby Ford, Mike Iupati, Trent Williams, Sam Bradford, Mike Williams

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