As the NFL season draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to play a game of what if? So we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison to see which of these what-ifs could have impacted the fates of their teams the most this season.
10 – What if Troy Polamalu hadn’t gotten hurt? You could argue that no player more impacted a defense than Polamalu, the do-everything free safety who added a free-ranging scary element to Pittsburgh’s defense. But in Polamalu’s absence, the Steelers gave up late passing touchdowns and lost games to Chicago (Week 2), Cincinnati (Week 3), Kansas City (Week 11), and Oakland (Week 13). It’s impossible to say how many of those games the Steelers would have won with Polamalu in there, but there’s no way they would have surrendered leads in all of those games with 43 playing. Polamalu’s injury was a huge reason that the Steelers’ Super Bowl defense was so mediocre and ultimately ended with the team missing the playoffs.
9 – none
8 – What if Falcons QB Matt Ryan had been healthy for home games vs. Eagles and Saints in Weeks 13 and 14? The Falcons finished 9-7, and they were a terrific home team with the exception of the two games Ryan missed against Philly and New Orleans. Both were tough games, but if the Falcons pulled off a win in one or both of those games, they could have easily been a playoff team. (Beating Philly would have put both teams at 10-6 and given Atlanta the tiebreaker.) Those two home games were Atlanta’s playoff push, and not having Ryan for them ultimateky ended up being a killer.
7 – What if the Panthers had gotten simply average quarterback play instead of the multiple stinkers that Jake Delhomme gave them this season? If you had to pick the player who had the worst season, it might well have been Delhomme, who threw 18 interceptions in just 11 games and finished with an abysmal passer rating of 59.4. But if Delhomme had avoided just a couple of meltdowns – three interceptions vs. Buffalo in Week 7 or four interceptions vs. the Jets in Week 12 – perhaps the Panthers would have a couple more wins and would be in the playoffs instead of finishing 8-8.
6 – none
5 – What if the Titans had won in overtime in Pittsburgh in Week 1? The season opened on a Thursday-night in Pittsburgh with the Titans putting up a valiant effort against the Steelers, only to fall short and lose 13-10 in overtime. But that loss started a slide that didn’t end until the Titans found themselves 0-6. Tennessee staged a valiant comeback, and fought back to finish at 8-8, but the early-season hole was too deep to dig out of, and Tennessee missed the playoffs. But a Week One win might have helped Tennessee pull out a couple more close games early on, and that would have been enough for this talented team to become a scary opponent in the playoffs.
4 – none
3 – What if Cleveland took Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in the draft? Instead of taking Sanchez, the Browns traded down twice, gaining two marginal starters and a sixth-round pick in the process. But the Browns’ future might look better with Sanchez playing with Braylon Edwards, Jerome Harrison, and Josh Cribbs around him (not to mention Joe Thomas protecting him). They could have gained almost as much as the pittance they got in exchange for moving down by trading Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, or both. Instead, the Browns’ future roster is a big question mark. Meanwhile, the Jets would have played with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. Would they still be a playoff team? (Thanks to Chase for this idea.)
2 – What if the Broncos hadn’t gotten a miracle win in Week 1? Few teams had as much offseason controversy as the Broncos, who traded away QB Jay Cutler after a spat with head coach Josh McDaniels and then weathered plenty of petulance from WR Brandon Marshall. But in Week One, the Broncos caught a huge break when Brandon Stokley caught a deflected Hail Mary pass around midfield and took it for an 87-yard touchdown in the game’s final minute for the Broncos to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati 12-7. That win loomed large as the Broncos started 6-0. Without that early success, it’s quite possible that McDaniels could have lost his team early, and a bad start would have led to huge questions about the decision to trade for Kyle Orton instead of hanging with Cutler. Instead, the Broncos had a solid first season under McDaniels despite a slow finish, and McDaniels’ gruff ways didn’t lose all of the locker room (only part of it).
1 – What if the Ravens had kept Matt Stover at PK instead of trusting Steven Hauschka? – Hauschka, whom the Ravens moved up from kickoff specialist to full-time kicker at the start of the 2009 season, missed a 44-yard potential game-winner in Week 6 at Minnesota and a 38-yarder in that would have gotten Baltimore within one score against Cincinnati the next week. The Ravens still snuck into the playoffs, but one more win would have made them more comfortable and also given them a playoff game in Cincinnati instead of Baltimore.