SPORTS> North America
2009: Year of the underdog
(China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-31 09:48

MIAMI: The pre-season favorites did not make it and rookie-led teams did, leaving the NFL playoffs with an unexpected and fascinating line-up featuring plenty of fresh faces.

Miami Dolphins cornerback Nathan Jones (33) and safety Courtney Bryan celebrate after the Dolphins beat the New York Jets 24-17 in an NFL game on Sunday at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. AP

The New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys were the two favorites to make this year's Super Bowl but neither managed to even make it out of their division.

In contrast, the Miami Dolphins and the Atlanta Falcons began the campaign as rank outsiders but both take their places in the post-season.

Defending champions the New York Giants are being widely tipped to retain their title while the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans, on regular season form, look the most likely challengers.

The AFC was a story of two first-year coaches - Tony Sparano turning the Miami Dolphins around from a 1-15 embarrassment into the AFC East champions, a status sealed with Sunday's 24-17 victory over the New York Jets at Meadowlands.

The Dolphins finished above the Jets and the Patriots in the competitive division largely thanks to the reborn quarterback Chad Pennington, who made the Jets' decision to release him for Brett Favre look very questionable.

In next week's wildcard round, Sparano's team will face a Baltimore Ravens outfit which, led by first year coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, completed an 11-5 campaign to grab a wild card slot in the AFC North.

If paper form is a guide then the AFC Championship game should see a clash between the Tennessee Titans, who made such an explosive start to the season to beat the Indianapolis Colts to the top of the South, and the Steelers (12-4).

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In the NFC, the Giants are the top seed, sharing a 12-4 record with the Carolina Panthers, who look to have all the elements in place for a shot at the playoffs although the champions' biggest threat might come from divisional rival Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles put pay to the Cowboys' last playoff hopes with a 44-6 drubbing of 'America's team' on Sunday with quarterback Donovan McNabb hitting top form at just the right moment.

Atlanta, 4-12 last season, have been inspired by rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and will come up against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday in confident mood.