Bucs, Rams surprise; Cowboys, Vikings disappoint

Associated Press
Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher (54) looks down as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre (4) lies on the ground after being hit during the first half an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 20, 2010, in Minneapolis. The game is being played at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium because of damage to the Metrodome roof. (AP Photo/Andy King)
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Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher (54) looks down as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre (4) lies on the ground after being hit during the first half an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 20, 2010, in Minneapolis. The game is being played at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium because of damage to the Metrodome roof.

It's cold, windy, maybe snowy outside, and your football team stinks. Hardly a way to enjoy the end of the NFL season.

That's how folks feel in Minneapolis and Cincinnati and Denver.

Take away the bad weather and the feelings aren't any brighter in Dallas, Charlotte and Phoenix. Disappointment abounds in those cities — and throw in Nashville, Houston, Miami and San Francisco, where there were big hopes for 2010 when everybody kicked off in sunshine and balmy breezes 3½ months ago.

For every flop, there's an ascension, though, and the smiles fans expected to wear in the cities above now are being sported by people who root for the Bears, Bucs, Jaguars, Chiefs and even the Rams at 6-8.

The NFL's biggest failures and success stories, and why their seasons went that way:

No team has risen toward the NFL's elite in more stunning fashion than the Bears. Chicago was considered a .500 or worse squad heading into 2010, a likely third-place finisher in the NFC North — if the Bears could hold off the Lions.

Then Lovie Smith turned his personal hot seat into a torrid team whose defense and special teams have been so formidable that mistakes by the offense generally have not been critical. Having a healthy Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs at linebacker has been critical, and the secondary has developed nicely.

Doubters will be vocal when the playoffs begin and the Bears could be an underdog at home even if they earn a bye, because the Eagles, Saints, Falcons and Giants seem to have more supporters. That shouldn't taint what has been a terrific turnaround season.

Two other coaches supposedly needing to prove themselves this year were Raheem Morris in Tampa and Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. Must be something about the sunshine, but both have done admirable jobs with so-so rosters.

The Bucs have the league's youngest team, one filled with playmakers such as WR Mike Williams, DT Gerald McCoy, CB Aqib Talib, RB LeGarrette Blount and QB Josh Freeman. That certainly bodes well, even if Tampa hasn't defeated an opponent with a winning record this year.

Not only have the Jaguars been in contention in the AFC South — albeit a weakened division in 2010 — but they haven't been blacked out all season. Maybe that's their biggest achievement.

Maurice Jones-Drew has emerged as a superior running back, the unheralded trio of TE Marcedes Lewis and WRs Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker have combined for 19 touchdowns receiving, and the defensive has some rising stars in Terrance Knighton, Jeremy Mincey and Tyson Alualu.

St. Louis, meanwhile, could become the first sub-.500 division winner in league history. The Rams have become competitive in Steve Spagnuolo's second year as coach with a vastly improved defense led by youngsters DE Chris Long, LB James Laurinaitis and CB Bradley Fletcher. Helped by superb RB Steven Jackson, top overall draft pick Sam Bradford has been better than anyone could expect from a rookie quarterback throwing to an obscure group of receivers.

How many people know Danny Amendola? Well, he leads the Rams with 75 receptions, more catches than Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings or Brandon Marshall.

More names to get accustomed to among the winners reside in Kansas City: Dwayne Bowe, Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Branden Albert, Tamba Hali and Eric Berry. Todd Haley will get strong consideration for coach of the year.

Cincinnati won the AFC North and swept its six divisional matchups in 2009. This year? The Bengals blew a great chance for the top overall draft pick last Sunday by doing something strange: winning. They are 3-11 after tying a team record by dropping 10 in a row. Coach Marvin Lewis is a goner.

Jeff Fisher, with by far the longest tenure of any coach with the same franchise, also might want out of Tennessee after the Titans fell from 5-2 to 6-8 and QB Vince Young became disruptive.

Former Titan Albert Haynesworth was disruptive all season in Washington, where Mike Shanahan's first year has been filled with disappointment and turmoil. Now, Shanahan has created a quarterback controversy.

Shanahan protege Gary Kubiak could be out of a job in Houston, where expectations were the Texans would get their first playoff berth. Instead, they have one of the league's leakiest defenses and a penchant for making horrendous plays at the worst time.

San Francisco had designs on its first playoff since 2002, then began the season 0-5 amid communication problems and underachievement. Even with two of the NFC's best players, LB Patrick Willis and RB Frank Gore, the Niners are a nonentity.

Tony Sparano should survive in Miami, but explain how a team can be as good as anyone on the road — the Dolphins are 6-1 — and go 1-6 at home. And can they possibly lose this week to the Lions, whose last road victory before their win this past Sunday at Tampa seemingly came with Bobby Layne at quarterback?

We are talking hideous here.

Arizona, a Super Bowl loser after the 2008 season and NFC West winner in 2009, couldn't replace retired quarterback Kurt Warner or defensive defectors Karlos Dansby and Antrell Rolle, and traded receiver Anquan Boldin. The Cardinals' QB follies were among the biggest jokes in the NFL.

Carolina showed no interest in re-signing coach John Fox — watch him show up quickly in another job in 2011 if he wants — and then the team showed no interest in the season.

Jerry Jones trumpeted his Cowboys' chances for playing in a Super Bowl they are hosting. He was blowing the wrong horn.

All of Josh McDaniels' bad decisions and poor rapport with just about everyone cost him his coaching spot in Denver, and saw the Broncos sink to the depths of the league.

But for all-time ugly, need we say more than the Minnesota Vikings and Brett Favre?

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