The 2008 NFL season was a transition year for the league in many ways. Hall of Fame quarterbacks changed teams or got hurt. New coaches arrived on the scene and old ones moved on. The year itself was a wild roller-coaster ride that concluded with a wide-open postseason. But when all was said and done, a familiar face was on top of the heap—the Pittsburgh Steelers won their second Super Bowl title in four years and sixth in franchise history.
Pittsburgh’s defense was the best in the league, led by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison at outside linebacker. LaMarr Woodley was the other outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme and the pair combined for 27 ½ sacks. Troy Polamalu was a big-play strong safety with seven interceptions. The great defense was enough to overcome a year where the offense wasn’t very good—Ben Roethlisberger struggled, and the Pittsburgh offense ranked 20th in the league. But they scored enough to win.
Baltimore made a coaching change in the offseason, saying goodbye to Brian Billick and bringing in John Harbaugh. Harbaugh drafted a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco and immediately gave him the keys to the offense. Like Pittsburgh, the Baltimore offense didn’t need to score a lot. An elite defense, led by All-Pros in Ray Lewis at linebacker and Ed Reed at safety ranked third in the league. Reed intercepted nine passes and seemed to be everywhere with big plays.
The Steelers and Ravens played two hard-fought games during the regular season, starting a hard-hitting rivalry that would soon become one of the most heated in all sports. Pittsburgh won an early Monday Night game at home 23-20. In December, they won an even tougher game on the road, 13-9. That was the difference in the AFC North. Pittsburgh finished 12-4 and got the 2-seed. Baltimore ended up 11-5 and came in as the 6-seed.
Another intense, high-level race came in the AFC South. The Tennessee Titans had the league’s second-best defense, led by Albert Haynesworth up front and Cortland Finnegan on the corner. Michael Griffin roamed the field at free safety and intercepted seven passes. Tennessee could run the football, with Chris Johnson going for over 1,200 yards behind offensive tackle Michael Roos and center Kevin Mawae. Kerry Collins gave them a veteran presence at quarterback.
Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning racked up an MVP award, with a 67 percent completion rate, 27 touchdown passes and 7.2 yards-per-attempt. The Colt offense as a whole did slip somewhat this year, and only ranked 13th in the league in points scored. But the defense picked up the slack. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney each had Pro Bowl seasons at defensive end and the Indy D finished seventh in the league.
Both the Titans and Colts got September wins over the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings. They each beat the Ravens in October. The first head-to-head battle came on a Monday Night at the end of October and Tennessee won 31-21. Indianapolis stayed in the race with clutch November wins over New England, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. But Tennessee held off the charge. They beat Pittsburgh 31-14 in the season’s penultimate game and rendered the season finale with the Colts meaningless. The Titans finished 13-3 and were the #1 seed in the AFC. Indy’s 12-4 mark left them as the top wild-card and the 5-seed.
The New England Patriots had come just a hair short of a perfect season in 2007. But 2008 immediately took a turn for the worse. Tom Brady tore his ACL in the season-opener and was lost for the year. Untested Matt Cassell took over. Cassell played pretty well, with both Wes Welker and Randy Moss having 1,000-yard receiving seasons. But the Patriots were suddenly very human.
The New York Jets had gone all-in during the offseason, acquiring Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre from Green Bay. And in a surprise twist, the Miami Dolphins jumped up into contention. Chad Pennington played mistake-free football and finished second to Peyton in the MVP balloting.
Favre won his Jets’ debut in Miami, but then turned around and lost to New England a week later. A week after that, the Dolphins crushed the Patriots. The three-way circular results underscored what this race would be like all year. The Jets dropped 56 points on the Arizona Cardinals at the end of September in a big win. New England and Miami each beat contending Denver .
When the Jets won a Thursday night thriller in Foxboro, and then blew out Tennessee ten days later, it looked like they were headed for big things. But Favre’s sore arm gave out and even though he made the Pro Bowl at age 39, his final TD-INT ratio was a meager 22/22. New York finished 9-7 and stayed home.
The Patriots pounded the Dolphins 48-28 and later dropped 47 points in a win over the Cardinals. But it was Miami, always lurking, who finally emerged. In the season finale, the Dolphins beat the Jets 24-17. Miami and New England finished 11-5, but the Dolphins had the tiebreaker. The Patriots also lost the tiebreaker with the Ravens and became a rare 11-5 team that would miss the postseason entirely.
The reason New England’s 11-5 left them at home, was that room had to be made for the champion of the mediocre AFC West. The San Diego Chargers started poorly and were sitting on a 4-8 record. But Denver couldn’t put the division away. Phillip Rivers was having a big year—34 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, 8.4 yards-per-attempt and a 65 percent completion rate. Rivers should have gotten a longer look in the MVP balloting.
San Diego came on down the stretch, got to 7-8 and their season finale against 8-7 Denver was winner-take-all. The Chargers put on a show for the Sunday Night audience, scoring 52 points and ending Mike Shanahan’s illustrious coaching career in the Rocky Mountains.
The New York Giants were the defending Super Bowl champions. Eli Manning had a Pro Bowl season in 2008, but it was the trenches where Big Blue really won games. Chris Snee was All-Pro at guard, and Justin Tuck was the same at defensive end. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward both rushed for 1,000 yards. The Giants were a top-5 team in both points scored and points against.
New York really started to gain steam in late October. They went to Pittsburgh and won a good late Sunday afternoon battle. They took control of the NFC East over the next two weeks by scoring a combined 71 points in wins over Dallas and Philadelphia. The Giants followed that up by blowing out Baltimore and Arizona. On the penultimate Sunday Night, they beat playoff-bound Carolina.
If 2007 had seen the Giants barely sneak into the playoffs and then go on a miracle run, 2008 would see them going in as the team to beat in the NFC. They were 12-4 and held the #1 seed.
Philadelphia and Dallas fought to the very end for a playoff spot. The Eagles got a nice year from Donovan McNabb, who had versatile Brian Westbrook in the backfield and big-play Desean Jackson on the outside. Darren Howard and Trent Cole were a pass-rushing force at the defensive ends and Asante Samuel was a Pro Bowl corner.
The Eagles got a pair of big late-season wins. One came on Thanksgiving Night when they blew out Arizona. Another came over the Giants. They reached the season finale with a record of 8-6-1. Dallas was 9-6, led by the passing combination of Tony Romo-to-Terrell Owens and the pass rushing skills of All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Dallas and Philadelphia went head-to-head for the 6-seed in the NFC. The Eagles seized the moment with a stunning 44-6 blowout that punched their playoff ticket.
Another good three-team division race went down in the NFC South. Carolina had a potent running game, with DeAngelo Williams rushing for over 1,500 yards and Jonathan Stewart adding over 800 more. Offensive tackle Jordan Gross led the way and also protected quarterback Jake Delhomme. Steve Smith had a Pro Bowl year at wideout. Julius Peppers was a Pro Bowl defensive end. The Panthers got close early wins over the Chargers and Bears and were in the hunt.
Matt Ryan broke into the league in 2008 and the Atlanta Falcon quarterback won Offensive Rookie of the Year. But the real star of the show was Michael Turner—rushing for just a hair short of 1,700 yards, Turner finished third in the MVP voting. John Abraham was a big-time pass rusher.
Tampa Bay was led by a good defense, and the Bucs beat the Falcons in Week 2 and blew out the Panthers in the first part of October. All three teams raced down the stretch. A decisive moment came on Monday Night Football in early December. Carolina beat Tampa Bay 38-23. Six days later, Atlanta knocked off Tampa 13-10.
The Bucs faded to 9-7, missed the playoffs, and the excellent coaching tenure of Jon Gruden was over. Carolina won the division and the #2 seed at 12-4. Atlanta finished 11-5 and held the 5-seed.
With Green Bay having parted ways with Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers still finding his feet as a first-year starter, the NFC North was open. The Vikings and Bears fought it out to the final week of the season.
Adrian Peterson won the rushing title in Minnesota and the Vikes had All-Pro talent in the trenches with offensive guard Steve Hutchinson and defensive lineman Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. Minnesota and Chicago split head-to-head. The Vikings got a key December win over the Cardinals, and ultimately pulled out the North at 10-6. The Bears’ 9-7 season wasn’t good enough to get in.
We’ve mentioned Arizona several times as a notable win that other teams got. The Cardinals did win a few games of their own. Kurt Warner, now 37-years-old, had a renaissance season, throwing 30 touchdown passes. The great Larry Fitzgerald led a three-pronged receiving attack that included Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. The Cardinals couldn’t play defense, but they could put up points—third in the league in total scoring. Arizona beat Miami 31-10 and Dallas 30-24. In a weak NFC West, their 9-7 record was good enough to win it easily. They were the 4-seed—and once in the playoffs, anything could happen.
And did “anything” ever happen across the league during the first two rounds. Arizona hosted Atlanta and pulled out a 30-24 win. Then the Cardinals went to Carolina. In a stunning development, Delhomme melted down and threw five interceptions. Arizona coasted to a 33-13 win.
Almost as improbable was that the Eagles, after going to Minnesota and winning 26-14, went on to the Meadowlands and efficiently took apart the red-hot Giants. Philadelphia won 23-11. So, against all odds, Arizona was not only in the NFC Championship Game, they were hosting it.
More upsets came in the AFC. San Diego’s late surge continued. They won an overtime thriller over Indianapolis, 23-17—the second straight year the Bolts sent Peyton home in the postseason. Baltimore went on the road and buried Miami 27-9. That result wasn’t particularly surprising. But the 6-seed Ravens kept the magic going by traveling to Nashville and upsetting Tennessee 13-10.
By the time the final game of Divisional Round weekend arrived, favorites were crashing, and the Steelers were the only team left that was seeded 2 or higher. Pittsburgh beat San Diego 35-24.
Championship Sunday started in the desert, and Arizona won a good 32-25 shootout over Philadelphia. Warner’s revival story would conclude in the Super Bowl. And in Round 3 of Steelers-Ravens, a taut defensive battle saw Pittsburgh leading 16-14 in the fourth quarter. Baltimore had the ball. Polamulu made the play of the game—a Pick-6 that sealed a 23-14 win.
It was a fitting that a roller coaster season and a wild playoff would be capped by a Super Bowl that had more than a few strange plot twists. Pittsburgh clung to a 10-7 lead at the end of the first half. Arizona was driving. Harrison intercepted a pass on the goal line and returned it 100 yards for a score on the final play before halftime.
The league’s best defense had a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter. But Warner and Fitzgerald stepped up. They connected on a pair of touchdown passes, including a 64-yard strike with 2:37 to go. With a safety sandwiched in between, the Cardinals led 23-20.
But after a season where his stats weren’t up to snuff, Big Ben Roethlisberger shaped his legacy. He led Pittsburgh on one last drive. A short touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the final minute gave the Steelers a 27-23 win.
Thus, did a crazy year end with a familiar finish.