Given their histories, the Texans and Falcons had successful seasons in 2009. Houston posted a winning record for the first time in its eight NFL seasons. Meanwhile, Atlanta posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in the franchise's 44 years.
One of the threads linking both clubs is that they were the seventh-best team in each conference last season — that is, the highest-seeded team not to make the playoffs. The Falcons finished one game out of the final NFC playoff spot, and the Texans' postseason hopes in the AFC were crushed when the Jets won their season finale against the Bengals.
Another thread linking both teams is that the Texans' top cornerback in 2009, Dunta Robinson, departed in free agency and joined the Falcons.
With Atlanta and Houston on our minds, let's look at how the other "near-miss" teams fared the season after failing to make the playoffs since divisional realignment in 2002.
The teams examined are those that would have been the seventh seed in each conference were the NFL's playoff system to include more than six teams out of both the AFC and NFC and the current system for the selecting and seeding of division winners and other playoff entrants remained in place. When needed, the NFL's postseason tiebreaking rules were applied.
Denver Broncos (9-7)
New Orleans Saints (9-7)
In a wacky AFC playoff race that wasn't sorted out until the final day of the '02 season, the Jets, Patriots, Dolphins, Browns and Broncos all finished with 9-7 records, but Denver, New England and Miami were left out of the postseason. The Broncos, who win the tiebreaker for the mythical No. 7 seed over New England after beating the Pats head-to-head in October '02, won 10 games in '03 and captured the No. 6 seed in the AFC. Meanwhile, the Saints, who fell apart at the end of the '02 season, could manage only an 8-8 mark in '03.
Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
It isn't often that a club wins 10 games and misses the playoffs, but such was the fate of the Dolphins, whose fortunes would turn even worse in '04. Miami won just four games, and head coach Dave Wannstedt resigned in November. The Vikings, eliminated from postseason contention in '03 on a Josh McCown-to-Nate Poole TD pass as time expired at Arizona in the season finale, also struggled late in the '04 season. A loss at Washington in Week 17 seemed likely to seal their playoff fate, but the Saints' victory over the Panthers put the Vikes in the postseason. Minnesota responded by upsetting the Packers in the wild-card round before losing to the Eagles in the divisional round.
Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)
New Orleans Saints (8-8)
The Saints faltered in 2005, winning just three games, but they would make sweeping changes after the season, hiring Sean Payton to replace Jim Haslett as head coach and signing QB Drew Brees. The Saints would win the NFC South in 2006. The Jaguars improved in '05, winning 12 games and earning a wild-card berth.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
The Chiefs, with Herman Edwards replacing the retired Dick Vermeil as head coach, made the playoffs in '06. However, the Vikings, who fired Mike Tice soon after missing the playoffs in '05, would slump to 6-10 in Brad Childress' first season at the helm.
Denver Broncos (9-7)
Green Bay Packers (8-8)
The Packers finished the '06 season by drilling the Super Bowl-bound Bears in Chicago — and with speculation about Brett Favre's future running rampant. Well, Favre would play another season with Green Bay, leading the Packers to the NFC North title in 2007. The Broncos slid to 7-9 in '07.
Cleveland Browns (10-6)
Minnesota Vikings (8-8)
The optimism from the Browns' best regular season in club history faded quickly in '08 as Cleveland posted a 4-12 record and fired head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage. The Vikings, who outscored opponents 365-311 in '07, built off that effort the following season, winning the NFC North.
New England Patriots (11-5)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Sometimes a late-season collapse tells you all you need to know about a club's outlook for the following year. Such was the case for an aging Bucs team that fell apart at the end of '08, fired head coach Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen and plunged into full-scale rebuilding mode in '09. The Patriots, who overcame a season-ending knee injury to Tom Brady in Week One to win 11 games, could not overcome five losses to AFC rivals — and losing a tiebreaker kept them out of the postseason. But New England, with Brady back under center, captured the AFC East in '09.
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