While I'm trying to distract myself from the Pittsburgh Penguins' latest woes, I thought I'd go ahead and do the column I promised a couple of weeks ago, the year-beginning "best of" the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers didn't make the playoffs, but they did make a great decision in hiring Mike Singletary as interim head coach. The 49ers were having a dismal season before they fired Mike Nolan, and Singletary's chances at keeping the head coaching job were far from guaranteed, but he sparked them to finish 7-9, and second in the NFC west. Look for the 49ers to be a force in upcoming seasons.
The Atlanta Falcons seemed to be headed for a multi-season skid after the whole Michael Vick debacle but they managed to come out strong with a playoff trip capping an 11-5 overall record. Quarterback Matt Ryan seems to have a good future, if they can keep him healthy with a good running back to take pressure off the throw. Mike Smith has secured his job there, for now, with AP Coach of the Year honors and exceeding expectations in a big way for Atlanta's football fans.
The Miami Dolphins went 1-15 last year. This year they made the playoffs with a division win before running out of gas against the Baltimore Ravens. Watch for GM Bill Parcells to continue to be head coach Tony Sparano's man behind the curtain. I expect Miami will continue to be a contender, especially if they can build a decent receiving corps that is worthy of 2 time Comeback Player of the Year, Chad Pennington.
Of course, what kind of Pittsburgh Native would I be if I didn't mention the Pittsburgh Steelers among teams that exceeded expectations? After an 07-08 season that could only be described as "meh", head coach Mike Tomlin came back this year to run roughshod over the conference at 6-0 and over the division at 10-2. With perennial foes New England and Indianapolis eliminated from contention, the Steelers biggest worry will be the Tennesee Titans if they manage to beat a strong Baltimore Ravens team this afternoon. Of course, the Steelers will have to prevail against an LT-less San Diego Chargers team and hope they get better officiating than last time they played the Bolts.
Everyone, enjoy watching the games this weekend and GO STEELERS!