NFL teams on the rebound

MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:46 AM ET

Earlier this week, we gave you the top five under-achieving teams for the 2010 season.

Today we’ll rate how the dogs of 2009 performed.

Overall, the dregs of 2009 picked up their collective socks and made strides, some teams such as the St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers making giant ones.

The tone for the season, especially in the early going was that ‘on any given Sunday ... ’ as a bunch of upsets prevailed, led by the doormat Cleveland Browns who provided upsets over both the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots. That’s a daily double nobody else has matched.

It’s good for the league, any league, when those at the bottom can make moves back to respectability.

Without any further ado, here’s how the ’09 road kill shaped up in the order of biggest improvement:

1. ST. LOUIS RAMS (1-15 in 2009)

Yes, we know that the Rams haven’t won a thing yet and the Chiefs are division champs, but when a team goes 1-15 one year and is knocking on the division title with an 8-8 record the next, with a rookie quarterback starting every game, you have to give them the award for most improved. Sam Bradford of Oklahoma was the No. 1 player selected in last spring’s draft and the plan was not to rush him along. But as the saying goes, stuff happens, and Bradford will make every start. He has met or exceeded all expectations and proven he can carry a team on his shoulders. Wait until he gets some quality receivers in the coming years.

2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (4-12 in 2009)

Given the quality of the San Diego Chargers, nobody expected the Chiefs to emerge with the title and with a final victory, forge an 11-5 season. The Chiefs, though, had three weapons that they leaned on — quarterback Matt Cassel, running back Jamaal Charles, and most importantly, head coach Todd Haley who knew how to get the most out of them. That along with the hiring of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, as offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, put the Chiefs ahead of schedule and on top. No team wants to face these guys with their punishing running game on their home turf. This team is just getting started.

3. TAMPA BAY BUCS (3-13 in 2009)

Kudos to head coach Raheem Morris for keeping this team on track, focused and disciplined despite having 10 rookies in starting positions. The goal of the Bucs was to win 10 games, which seemed a pipe dream, and unless they shock the Saints in New Orleans in the finale, they will fall a game shy with a 9-7 record. The biggest improvement came in the steady play of QB Josh Freeman. The Bucs will face a more difficult task next season with a tougher schedule but Morris is building a solid foundation.

4. DETROIT LIONS (2-14 in 2009)

With a win at home Sunday over Minny, the Lions could finish on a four-game roll and end with a 6-10 record. Along the way they finally beat a division opponent and even won on the road ending a couple of embarrassing streaks. They have also earned something more important — respect. The Vikings’ Jared Allen, a noted Lions hater, had this to say about Detroit: “Honestly, I think they’re a scrappy team. I’d say that about them. I’d say absolutely a scrappy team and they’re going to give it all they got, a little extra. You go into a game facing Detroit, you know you’re in for a fist fight and I think that’s a cool reputation to have. It’s better than being known as a soft, pushover team.” The big worry for the Lions concerns the health issues surrounding oft-injured QB Matthew Stafford.

5. CLEVELAND BROWNS (5-11 in 2009)

Okay, we know that the ’09 Redskins went 4-12 but we’re making a special case to include the Browns, who had a better record. You have to remember that the Browns were 1-11 over their opening 12 games a year ago but then, miraculously, won their final four games to blow themselves out of the running for either Sam Bradford or Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh and save head coach Eric Mangini’s job. There are plenty of folks in Cleveland that still lament that late-season win streak. The Browns are 5-10 and will play host to Pittsburgh Sunday so another 5-11 season is likely. On the plus side they have found a horse in RB Peyton Hillis and what looks to be a quarterback of promise in Colt McCoy. Mangini probably won’t survive the axe this time around. Overall, things are looking up.

A RUSHING TITLE IS ON THE LINE

There’s more than playoff spots at stake on the final Sunday of the season. While the post-season is numero uno, the rushing title is also up for grabs.

Of all the individual stats, the rushing title is No. 1 on most fans’ hit parade, the one that carries the most prestige, the most glamour. It is like the 100-metre dash of the Olympics.

So, heading into Week 17, the rushing title comes down to two participants — Houston Texans running back Arian Foster has 1,436 yards and the Kansas City Chiefs Jamaal Charles, who has 1,380.

Although Foster holds a 56-yard advantage, it’s not big enough that it can’t be overcome.

On the final Sunday, neither team has anything to play for.

The Chiefs have won the AFC West and play host to Oakland. With a victory and losses by both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they could zoom to the No. 2 seed — but that prospect is highly unlikely.

The Texans, meanwhile, close out at home against Jacksonville and about all they have left to play for is to ensure that Foster nails down the rushing title.

“I think it’s important to the team,” said Texans coach Gary Kubiak.

“I think it’s important to the offence. Not me personally, but I think it’s something that’s hard to get in this league.”

It’s a title that Charles covets.

“I might play a lot this week and I’m still trying to get the rushing title,” Charles said earlier this week.

The fact that the Chiefs play at 1 p.m. and the Texans at 4:15 p.m., gives Foster an edge as he’ll know how many yards he needs, if any, before the kickoff.

“We’re going to try to finish out with a win and the rushing title,” Foster said. “It’s an accomplishment that every running back wants at least one under their belt when their career is finished. Winning the rushing title would mean a lot. It means that hard work pays off.”

Plenty of hard, tough work by both.


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