The NFL playoffs have an unexpected line-up after pre-season favourites fell by the wayside – while three coaches have already lost their jobs in the wake of the regular season.
|Pennington has got one over on his former employers [GALLO/GETTY]
Eric Mangini of New York Jets, Rod Marinelli of Detroit Lions and Romeo Crennel of the Cleveland Browns were all sacked at the end of a term that sees fresh faces gunning for the Super Bowl.
The New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys were the two favourites to make this year's Super Bowl Sunday 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 American Football Conference (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.
Chad does Dolphins a Favre
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).
In the National Football Conference (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.
The Jets' Mangini, whose team crumbled down the stretch of a once-promising season, was among three NFL head coaches fired on Monday.
|Taxi for Mangini [GALLO/GETTY]
Marinelli of the woeful Detroit Lions and Crennel of the Cleveland Browns were also sacked one day after the regular season ended.
While the Lions became the first team to lose all 16 games in a season, the Jets lost four of their final five games to finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs for a second straight year.
The Jets, despite acquiring future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre during an offseason spending spree, lost their chance for a postseason berth by losing to the Miami Dolphins 24-17 on their home field on Sunday.
"We don't take this decision lightly," Jets owner Woody Johnson IV said.
"We respect Eric for what he's done. But we want to build on the successful foundation that he's laid."
Mangini, 37, was 23-26 during his three seasons on the Jets' sidelines.
The club opened the 2008 campaign 8-3 under the 39-year-old Favre before their late-season collapse.
None of the teams named successors to their fired coaches.
Lions owner William Clay Ford axed the 59-year-old Marinelli one day after Detroit's 31-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers sealed their ignominious place in the record books.
Detroit replace the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 0-14 in their inaugural season, as the NFL's benchmark for futility.
In three seasons in Detroit, Marinelli posted a 10-38 record and departs having won one just once in his last 24 games.
Crennel, 61, was 24-40 during four seasons with Cleveland.
The Browns were 10-6 a year ago but slumped to 4-12 in 2008, ending the season with six straight losses.