Every Monday, SI.com's Ross Tucker will hand out letter grades to deserving NFL parties...
Tampa Bay Bucs. This has been the year of the monumental collapse. The Denver Broncos lost control of the AFC West in historic fashion. The Jets went from the top of the mountain after their win in Tennessee to third place in the AFC East. But no team dropped off as surprisingly as the Bucs.
Losing four in a row was bad enough, but the manner in which they lost is especially troubling. A prideful defensive unit built on veterans like Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks came unglued over the last month of the season. Teams seemed to run at will against a Bucs squad that never recovered from a Monday Night drubbing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers. Even after that debacle, the thought of the Bucs losing three in a row, including the last two at home to San Diego and Oakland, was hard to fathom.
Sunday's game against the Raiders was more of the same as the Bucs allowed JaMarcus Russell to effectively manage the team while Michael Bush came out of nowhere to rush for 177 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, an astounding 6.6 yards a pop. Even the best of the Bucs were left scratching their heads.
"Everybody is searching, and we'll be searching for an answer all offseason. We played really well for twelve weeks and then the last four we were bad," Barrett Ruud told me last night on Sirius NFL Radio, "We absolutely expected to get a win, yet the Raiders scored 31 points on us. I am shocked."
There is only one plausible answer to the Bucs downfall: the team was distracted by the news that Monte Kiffin would be joining his son Lane at Tennessee next season. It is a notion that Ruud quickly dismissed.
"You don't even think about that as a pro football player. You just go to work and prepare your best every day. The defense was never in another place [mentally], we just didn't execute," said Ruud.
If the Kiffin departure is not the answer to the question, the Bucs better find a solution before the trend continues in 2009.
Houston Texans. Can somebody say "team to watch" for 2009? The Texans started out 0-4 and suffered a plethora of heartbreaking losses, not to mention the injury to Matt Schaub, yet still finished strong at 8-8. Though they didn't make any strides in the win-loss column from a year ago, the Texans proved they have the firepower to compete with the big boys in the AFC South next season.
Andre Johnson is simply the best wide receiver in football. He proved it again on Sunday by grabbing 10 balls for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Add Owen Daniels and Kevin Walter to the mix and you have an outstanding receiving corps.
The Texans found a young runner they can count on in rookie Steve Slaton, a diamond in the rough who was drafted in the third round out of West Virginia. He finished his season with a touchdown and a steady 4.6 yards a carry against a solid Bears run defense.
Most importantly, the Texans have solidified the quarterback position. Sage Rosenfels is a top-flight back-up, but Schaub proved down the stretch why he was worthy of the big contract and starting job. Schaub went 27-36 against the Bears for 328 yards and two touchdowns.
If the Texans can make a couple of upgrades on defense, they will be in the postseason for the first time in franchise history next year.
Tony Romo and Wade Phillips, Dallas Cowboys. I know there is no such grade as an F minus but I am giving Romo and Phillips one anyway. Neither performed when it mattered most.
Romo played poorly again down the stretch in crunch time with his preposterous interceptions in the first half against the Ravens and his inability to hold onto the football against the Eagles. Only time will tell if he can recover from yet another collapse. It won't be easy. He needs a breakthrough win in the worst way. Problem is, he just went 0-2 in those situations the last two weeks, which makes him 0-4 for those scoring at home.
Meanwhile, Jerry Jones said last week that Phillips was safe. I hope he was kidding. The Cowboys are going in the wrong direction quickly. But I guess that is what happens when you play a guy like Pacman Jones, who singlehandedly aided two Eagles scoring drives with an unnecessary roughness penalty and fumble. There's another move that really paid off.
If only they had a disciplinarian who could right the ship and make sure the team didn't have critical turnovers in important situations. Oh, right, they had two of them and they both reside now in South Florida and work for the Miami Dolphins. Wonder how they did this year.
Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons. Talk about Murphy's Law for the Falcons. Only the opposite, as in, everything that could go right, did go right for a franchise that so desperately needed it. Mike Smith was a tremendous find as an unknown head coach. Thomas Dimitroff brought the Patriot way to the front office, which helped him draft Matt Ryan, who will be nothing less than the NFL Rookie of the Year. John Abraham returned from his usual stints in the sick bay to become a consistent force. But no Falcon had the year that Turner did.
He was simply the best free-agent acquisition in 2008 and he finished the regular season with a bang, rushing for 208 yards on 25 carries to will his Falcons to their 11th win. Nobody was exactly sure how LaDanian Tomlinson's former apprentice would do as a starter. All he did was rush for 17 touchdowns and 1,700 yards behind an underrated offensive line blocking eight man fronts that dared the rookie QB to beat them.
Roddy White told me after the game that Turner's effort Sunday was no surprise. "He was running well all day, busting big runs, but really, he has been doing that all year."
Just like this whole Falcons team.