By Jeremy Gottlieb
Cold, Hard Football Facts guardian of the truth
The 2008 season proved the year of the unpredictable. If you expected it to happen, it probably didn't.
Two AFC playoff participants from 2007 failed to return in 2008, one of them a year removed from a perfect regular season (New England) and the other buried in last place amidst a litany of high hopes (Jacksonville). Four of the NFC's 2007 postseason teams failed to return, replaced in part by one team that finished the previous campaign dead last and dogged by controversy (Atlanta) and another that hadn't hosted a playoff game in 61 years (Arizona).
The surprises continued on into the second season.
Carolina didn't lose at home in the regular season, but was then blown out at home in the playoffs. San Diego won its division with an 8-8 record and then won its wildcard game – buoyed in large part by the fact that it was the first .500 team in history to host a playoff game, thanks to the dysfunctional playoff system that caused so much controversy this season.
Both No. 1 seeds (Tennessee, N.Y. Giants) were bounced from the playoffs without a win, while both No. 6 seeds (Philly and Baltimore) made it to their respective conference championships. Arizona, meanwhile, was the biggest surprise of all, winning three straight playoff games to reach the Super Bowl – after an 88-year history that included just two postseason victories.
The only predictable outcome came from Pittsburgh – a franchise synonymous with reaching the playoffs (24 times since 1972) and winning Super Bowls (a record sixth this year).
What does it all mean?
It means that when next we meet for our 2009 preseason Power Rankings in August, don't pay much attention. 
1. PITTSBURGH (15-4, previous rank: 5)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 6-4 (19.3 PPG – 18.0 PPG)
Last game: The Steelers beat Arizona in the Super Bowl, 27-23, thanks to one of the most remarkable clutch drives in NFL history. Any arguments? In CHFF tradition, they remain No. 1 in any and all rankings until events on the field next season prove otherwise.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Steelers played in a lousy division (cumulative record of 8-26 vs. Quality Opponents) and will hardly go down as one of the dominant Super Bowl champions. But they managed to lead our all-important Defensive Hog Index, with an unprecedented No. 1 ranking in every category that makes up the indicator, they also topped our Relativity Index, and they fielded what was probably the best defense Pittsburgh has produced since the Steel Curtain.
Team MVP: LB James Harrison
2. ARIZONA (12-8, previous rank: 13)
Preseason rank17th 
Record vs. Quality Teams: 5-7 (25.6 – 31.1)
Last game: A stirring fourth-quarter comeback wasn't quite enough for the Cards, who fell to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl, 27-23.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Arizona finished the season dead last in rushing YPG (73.6) and 31st in rushing YPA (3.46) but managed 95+ yards on the ground in all three of its playoff wins en route to the Super Bowl. More importantly, the Cardinals played shutdown pass-defense in the playoffs after a season in which they ranked 30th with a 96.9 Defensive Passer Rating. But when it mattered most, on Pittsburgh's last offensive possession, they reverted to regular-season form, allowing Big Ben to light them up.
Team MVP: QB Kurt Warner
3. BALTIMORE (13-6, previous rank: 7)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 5-6, (18.4 – 17.8)
Last game: The Ravens were game but couldn't extend their playoff run, losing a brutal AFC championship game at Pittsburgh, 23-14.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco posted a very solid 60 percent completion rate and 80.3 passer rating in his maiden NFL voyage, but crashed to earth in his first three playoff games, completing just 44 percent of his throws and tossing three picks against just one TD.
Team MVP: S Ed Reed
4. TENNESSEE (13-4, previous rank: 2)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 5-3 (18.6 – 18.3)
Last game: The Titans nearly doubled up the Ravens in total yards (391-211) and dominated time of possession (34:07-25:53) in their AFC divisional round matchup, but couldn't hang onto the ball when it counted, committing three turnovers to Baltimore's one in a 13-10 home loss.
Cold, Hard Football Facts:  Kerry Collins played clutch football in 2008, posting a passer rating of 88.8 in the fourth quarter and 92.8 when Tennessee trailed by seven points or less (compared with 80.2 overall). His greatest contribution was limiting mistakes in the passing game: the Titans suffered a negative pass play on just 4.5 percent of dropbacks – only Peyton Manning and the Colts were better.
Team MVP: Chris Johnson
5. PHILADELPHIA (11-7-1, previous rank: 10)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 7-5 (16.9 – 21.2)
Last game: The Eagles came back from an 18-point halftime deficit, scoring 19 straight points to take a 25-24 lead over Arizona, before succumbing to the powerful Cardinals offense in a 32-25 loss in the NFC championship game.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: In eight games (including playoffs) following his benching, Donovan McNabb passed for 2,038 yards and 14 TDs, likely extending his stay in Philly.
Team MVP: QB Donovan McNabb
6. NEW YORK GIANTS (12-5, previous rank: 1)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 6-4 (24.5 – 20.9)
Last game: On a windy day in the Meadowlands (is there any other kind?), the Giants couldn't get their passing game together, with Eli Manning completing just six passes to wide receivers in a crushing, 23-11 NFC divisional game loss to the Eagles.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Giants were 1-5 in December and January and Manning failed to throw for more than 200 yards in a single time over that stretch. Not coincidentally, all six games came after Plaxico Burress shot himself.  
Team MVP: RBs Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward
7. SAN DIEGO (9-9, previous rank: 11)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 4-6 (24.6 – 21.4)
Last game: The Chargers went on the road to frigid Pittsburgh and were sunk in the pivotal third quarter, running just one offensive play and holding the ball for only 17 seconds. The 35-24 loss in the divisional round ended their five-game winning streak and their season.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: San Diego was much better statistically than their 8-8 record indicated: they were No. 1 in the NFL in the normally critical Passing Yards Per Attempt category and tops among playoff contenders in Scoreability (No. 2 overall).
Team MVP: QB Philip Rivers
8. INDIANAPOLIS (12-5, previous rank: 3)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 5-2 (21.1 – 16.1)
Last game:  The Colts propensity to lose to San Diego held firm as they allowed San Diego back Darren Sproles to run all over them to the tune of 328 total yards and the winning TD in overtime in a 23-17 wildcard loss, the final game of Tony Dungy's career.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Indy was dead last in rushing in 2008 (3.44 YPA) and was outgained by its opponents on the ground 1,966-1,274 in the regular season.
Team MVP: QB Peyton Manning
9. CAROLINA PANTHERS (12-5, previous rank: 4)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 4-5 (21.2 – 25.7)
Last game: Playing a postseason game at home, where they hadn't lost all season, the Panthers were completely undone by Jake Delhomme's six turnovers in a stunning, blowout loss to the eventual NFC champion Cardinals. Delhomme had entered the game with the highest average per attempt (8.55) and third highest passer rating (95.0) in NFL postseason history.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Delhomme threw a total of three INTS in his last seven regular season games, and then five in the playoff loss to Arizona.
Team MVP: RB DeAngelo Williams
10. ATLANTA (11-6, previous rank: 6)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 4-4 (20.0 – 22.5)  
Last game: Atlanta's surprising and magical season came to an end in a 30-24 NFC wildcard loss at Arizona.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Michael Turner led the league in rushing attempts (376) and was second in yards (1,699) in 2008, but picked up just 42 yards on 18 carries in the playoff loss to Arizona.
Team MVP: QB Matt Ryan
11. NEW ENGLAND (11-5, previous rank: 9)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 3-4 (26.1 – 24.0)
Last game: Needing a win in their season finale, as well as some help, the Pats did their part, shutting out the Bills 13-0 in windy Buffalo.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Matt Cassel passed for 425 yards and four TDs with a 98.8 passer rating in the last two minutes of the half.
Team MVP: WR Randy Moss
12. MIAMI (11-6, previous rank: 8)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 2-5 (19.4 – 26.1)
Last game: After one of the most stunning turnarounds in NFL history, the Dolphins ran into Baltimore, their most powerful opponent in weeks, and were rolled 27-9 in an AFC wildcard game.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Prior to beating the 9-7 Jets in Week 17, Miami's only win over a Quality Team all season was at New England in Week 3 – a victory which ended New England's record 21-game regular-season win streak.
Team MVP: QB Chad Pennington
13. MINNESOTA (10-7, previous rank: 12)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Minnesota ranked fifth in rushing (146.1 YPG) but just 25th in passing (184.8 YPG).
14. CHICAGO (9-7, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: In his first 10 games, QB Kyle Orton threw just four INTs. In his last six games, Orton threw eight INTs. Passing effectively remained a problem throughout the season – as it has since the days of Sid Luckman. The Bears averaged just 5.49 Passing Yards Per Attempt (25th).
15. TAMPA BAY (9-7, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: A promising 9-3 season collapsed in the clutch, as Tampa lost its last four games – including a dismal defeat to Oakland in the finale – and missed the playoffs. The Buccaneers were mediocre by almost any measure, from their 9-7 record to the fact that they ranked between 11th and 20th in almost all of our Quality Stats. The lone exception was Defensive Passer Rating, a traditional Tampa strength, in which the Bucs ranked No. 6. 
16. NEW ORLEANS (8-8, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Two years removed from the NFC championship game, the closest the Saints got to the playoffs in 2008 was having reserve defensive back Usama Young star in the league's official "Super Ad." The lack of balance was a problem: the Saints averaged 311.1 YPG through the air, but just 99.6 YPG on the ground.
17. HOUSTON (8-8, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Despite missing five games for the second consecutive year, QB Matt Schaub still passed for over 3,000 yards for the first time in his career and averaged a healthy 8.0 YPA. The trouble for Texans remain on defense, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts discussed in an interview with Houston Chronicle blogger "Texans Chick" back in January.
18. DALLAS (9-7, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Terrell Owens' 69 catches for 1,052 yards added up to his worst statistical season since 1999, when he caught 60 passes for 754 yards for the 49ers. The Cowboys continue to show the greatest disparity in NFL history between the hype they generate in the media and the results they actually produce on the field.
19. WASHINGTON (8-8, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Redskins allowed just 288.8 YPG and 18.5 PPG, but gained only 320.0 YPG and scored 16.6 PPG.
20. SAN FRANCISCO (7-9, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: If they want to take the next step in 2009, the 49ers need to take better care of the ball. They finished 2008 with a turnover ratio of -17, tied for last in the league with Denver.
21. N.Y. JETS (9-7, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: League INT leader (22) Brett Favre didn't discriminate when he threw his picks. He tossed nine when the Jets led and nine when they trailed (four when they were tied). He also threw 13 picks at home and nine on the road, and 12 in the first half vs. 10 in the second half.
22. BUFFALO (7-9, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: During the four-game losing streak at midseason that proved to be Buffalo's undoing, QB Trent Edwards threw eight INTs against just three TDs and failed to post a passer rating higher than 79.3
23. DENVER (8-8, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Can somebody in Denver get a clue? The Broncos ranked second in total offense (395.8 YPG) but just 16th in scoring offense (23.1 PPG), which helps explain they went out and hired former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who oversaw the top-scoring offense in league history in 2007. But Denver should have been more concerned with the other side of the ball, where it ranked 29th in total defense (374.6 YPG) and 30th in scoring defense (28.0 PPG).
24. GREEN BAY (6-10, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The demise of the Packers had little to do with Favre replacement Aaron Rodgers, who spearheaded the league's fifth-ranked scoring offense (26.2 PPG) with 4,038 yards passing, 28 TDs, 7.5 YPA and a passer rating of 93.8 while hooking up two 1,000-yard receivers in Greg Jennings (1,292 yards, 9 TD) and Donald Driver (1,012, 5 TD). The problem, instead, was a defense that surrendered 380 points (22nd) – a massive drop for a unit that surrendered just 291 points in the 13-3 season of 2007 (6th).
25. OAKLAND (5-11, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: New coach Tom Cable, Oakland's fifth in seven years, proclaimed his team to be playoff worthy at his introductory press conference, a tall order given that they have lost at least 11 games for the past six years with a record of 24-72 (.250) over that period. It's arguably the worst six-year stretch by any team in NFL history.
26. CINCINNATI (4-11-1, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Cincy was a respectable 4-3-1 in the second half of the season, including victories in its last three games. The wins didn't keep the Bengals from their worst record since 2002, but it did barely keep them out of the AFC North basement thanks to the pathetic Browns (4-12).
27. JACKSONVILLE (5-11, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Jaguars led the league in failed expectations in 2008. They were 11-5 in 2007, beat up the Steelers twice, and battled toe-to-toe with the undefeated Patriots in the divisional playoffs, leading to Super Bowl expectations this season. Instead, the Jags finished dead last in the AFC South, ranked 24th in point differential (-65) and 25th in turnover ratio (-7).
28. SEATTLE (4-12, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Perhaps thanks to the yearlong injury problems of QB Matt Hasselbeck and the lack of a consistent running game (110.5 YPG), Seattle sent coach Mike Holmgren off into the sunset with the worst scoring offense (18.4 PPG, 25th overall) of his career. Injuries to Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and a poor offensive line (25th in our Offensive Hog Index) were big reasons why.
29. CLEVELAND (4-12, previous rank: 31)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Don't expect the Browns to live up (or down) to expectations. In 2007, picked by many to finish last in the AFC North, they won 10 games and barely missed the playoffs. In 2008, picked by many to earn a postseason berth, they won four games, lost eight of their last nine including their final six, and failed to score a TD on offense over that stretch.
30. KANSAS CITY (2-14 previous rank: same) 
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Outgoing coach Herm Edwards oversaw one of the most gruesome destructions of an organization in modern NFL history. The team he inherited from Dick Vermeil went 10-6 in 2005 and ranked 6th in scoring offense and first in total offense. The team he leaves behind went 2-14 in 2008 and ranked 26th in scoring offense and 24thin total offense. Edwards' reputation as a defensive specialist also suffered: they 2008 Chiefs ranked 29th in scoring defense and 31st in total defense. Other than that, he did a nice job.
31. ST. LOUIS (2-14, previous rank: 29)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Steven Jackson missed four games and left a fifth with an injury but still provided some life for the lousy Rams, rushing for 1,042 yards and seven TDs. Otherwise, the Rams were a disaster. In fact, statistically speaking, they were the worst team in the league. St. Louis ranked between 27th and 32nd in all but one of our Quality Stats (they were 21st in Defensive Hog Index). Including in the statistical disaster was a No. 32 ranking in our Relativity Index. In other words, relative to the quality of the opponents they played, the Rams were the worst team in football.
32. DETROIT (0-16, previous rank: same)
Cold, Hard Football Facts: What more do we need to tell you, dear, faithful readers of CHFF, than 0-16. The most disturbing fact for Lions fans was the unit that surrendered a record 110.8 Defensive Passer Rating – the worst pass defense in NFL history.