By Keith Antigiovanni
After 17 weeks the 2011 Regular Season came to an end this week for all eight of the Pro Football's eight divisions.
The New Orleans recaptured the NFC South title with a 13-3 record as quarterback Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's single season passing record (1984) this year. The Saints are also in the playoffs for the fourth time in six years since the franchise began its' resurgence in 2006 following the Hurricane Katrina disaster and an near move out of the city.
The Atlanta Falcons (10-6) are also returning to the postseason for the first time in their 46-year history. Atlanta has also posted four straight winning seasons for the first time in franchise history under Head Coach Mike Smith. Smith is now 43-21 in four years with an NFC South title (2010) but hopes to make progress in the postseason this year after early playoff exits in 2008 and 2010.
The Carolina Panthers (6-10) made tremendous strides this year with rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Newton broke the rookie single season passing record but the Panther defense will have to improve by next season if Carolina hopes to challenge either New Orleans or Atlanta next year.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers(4-12) began the year with promise starting 4-2 but the bottom fell out as the Bucs' dropped 10 straight games which lead to Head Coach Raheem Morris' dismissal last week. Morris had an up down three years in Tampa going 3-13 in 2009, then 10-6 in 2010 and 4-12 in 2011. It is unclear who will replace Morris and what the overall direction of the franchise will be.
The Houston Texans (10-6) clinched their first division title in the 10-year history of the club. Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips helped the league's last-ranked defense in 2010 become one of the best defenses in 2011. Unfortunately for Houston, their top two quarterbacks and top pass rusher are out for the season. Houston also dropped its' final three games after the defense carried the team down the stretch. The Texans will play in their first playoff game with third-string quarterback TJ Yates with former Carolina Panther as the backup.
The Tennessee Titans (9-7) had a successful year with first-year Head Coach Mike Munchak. The Titans played well down the stretch winning three of their final four games but a loss to the Colts in Week 15 was enough to knock the team out of playoff contention. Quarterback Matt Hasselback did a fine job for the Titans and will be the starter until rookie Jake Locker is ready to play.
The Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) were one of a few teams that had a turbulent 2011 season. They began the year by waiving longtime starter David Garrard and then starting rookie Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert predictably struggled as the offense ranked near the bottom of the league. The Jags original owner Wayne Weaver sold the team near the end of the year but not before he fired longtime Head Coach Jack Del Rio. The Jags won 2 of their 3 games after Del Rio and showed some promise under Interim Head Coach Mel Tucker.
The Indianapolis Colts (2-14) had their worst season since 1991 when the team went 1-15. Without Peyton Manning behind center this 2000's dynasty was woeful and inept. The Colts used three different starting quarterbacks :Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. None of which came close to replacing P.M. and the Colts almost blew the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft with back-to-back wins over Tennessee and Houston. Manning's future with the club is uncertain now that General Manager Bill Polian was fired the day after the season.