LOS ANGELES — The Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs is always the most exciting. The final eight teams. The truly best eight of a long, arduous season left standing. And if you break down who’s remaining as we enter Week 19 there’s no question these are the elite eight: Patriots, Texans, Broncos, Ravens in the AFC, and Falcons, Seahawks, Packers and 49ers in the NFC. My preseason Super Bowl pick is still alive and we’ll see if Green Bay and New England make it through the weekend. I know I’m pretty excited after a lackluster Wild Card Weekend.
With the end of the season comes the end-of-the-year awards. Here are my picks:
MVP — Adrian Peterson: carried Vikings to the playoffs and averaged more yards per carry than Christian Ponder averaged per pass. Oh yeah, he blew out his knee just over a year ago and didn’t miss a single snap due to injury this season.
Comeback Player of the Year — Peyton Manning: missed the entire 2011 season and made most who said he should have retired or wouldn’t be the same eat crow with a remarkable 2012.
Offensive Rookie of the Year — Russell Wilson: didn’t get injured or turn the ball over as much as the other rookie candidates, and led the Seahawks to 11 wins and a playoff triumph. Good enough for me.
Defensive Player of the Year — J. J. Watt: 20.5 sacks and another 15 pass deflections. A must-double team on every play or risk him blowing up your whole offensive game plan.
Coach of the Year — Pete Carroll: with all due respect to Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians, the Colts got some fortunate in-game luck this season (no pun intended) while Seattle played in a tough division, went with a rookie QB and finished undefeated at home. Always compete.
This will double as my end-of-the-regular season You’re The Man Rankings column as well as recapping my preseason Burning Questions for each of the 32 teams. Check that out here to see how I did.
Been an awesome season and it’s only gonna get better the next 3 weeks. Enjoy and thanks for coming along for the ride with me.
32.) Jacksonville Jaguars (final record: 2-14) (preseason YTM rank: 28) – Back before the season started, one of the cornerstones of my fantasy team was Maurice Jones-Drew and one of my questions was what week do I start him in fantasy after his offseason holdout? Well the answer should’ve been NEVER. Like never start him ever. Or trade him immediately. Or how about this: don’t keep him AT ALL. Don’t even consider keeping him. He ruined my fantasy season. Also, me not executing a trade the same week he got injured forced me into scramble mode the entire second half of the year; 418 yards and a TD from my keeper!!?! Sigh. And as for Justin Blackmon, he thrived with Chad Henne at QB and finished the season strong with 38 grabs and 5 TDs in the last 7 games. Certainly something to build on heading into 2013 and on his way to living up to my Anquan Boldin comparison.
31.) Kansas City Chiefs (2-14) (17) – Clearly, I missed pretty bad on my preseason prognostication of the Chiefs; like 14 spots bad. Though, I wasn’t alone. The Chiefs had all the tools to be a contending team this season and it just never got together. And it started with the quarterback. Matt Cassel was atrocious. Like got-his-coach-fired atrocious. I asked if Cassel was the man like people thought he was, well those who thought that are clearly idiots. He turned the ball over at Sanchezian rates – 12 interceptions and 7 lost fumbles – before he was benched in Week 10 and it appears his career as a starting QB are over. Hope he invested his large signing bonus wisely. I’m not sure where Cassel ends up next season, but wherever it is, it’ll be as a handsome backup.
30.) Oakland Raiders (4-12) (22) – Could the Raiders defense carry its weight; that is what I asked to start the season, guessing the offense would be in good shape. Well, let’s take a look at the numbers, shall we. Oakland finished 18th in total offense (8th in passing yards, 28th in rushing), 26th in points scored and 27th in 1st downs. Defensively, the Raiders were 15th in total yards (13th in passing yards allowed, 15th in rushing) and 28th in points allowed. So, in a way, you could say the the defense out-performed the offense but it just gave up too many points, which translated to only 4 wins. Oh, and Darren McFadden getting hurt AGAIN didn’t help anything. Wait, Carson Palmer just threw another interception.
29.) Philadelphia Eagles (4-12) (16) – Debacle. Disaster. Deserving. An overrated player didn’t use any of these D-words to describe the Eagles but they would’ve fit pretty much from Week 1 through their Week 17. This year didn’t just cost Andy Reid his job but it might’ve cost him his sanity. He had LeSean McCoy but barely used him. He benched Michael Vick for Nick Foles. And he thinks he can coach up the Chiefs into a playoff contender. After what Reid went through in the preseason he probably should’ve sat out this season. Then again, I said Peyton Manning should’ve retired. What do I know?
28.) Arizona Cardinals (5-11) (30) — I nailed this one right on the head this preseason. I wondered if I was up next on the Cardinals QB Carousel and as it turned out, they trotted out four different jamokes. FOUR!!?! Kurt Warner changed his phone number at least that many times this year ducking Ken Whisenhunt’s calls. Poor Wiz got canned, too. That was a theme this offseason.
27.) New York Jets (6-10) (26) – So as it turned out, Tim Tebow got used as much by the Jets as much as I did. I wondered how bad their offense was going to be this year and let’s find out: 30th in total offense; 30th in passing yards per game; 12th in rushing yards per game. Mark Sanchez was 31st in passer rating, ahead of only Matt Cassel, 26th in passing yards, 2nd in interceptions and 1st in turnovers. Yup, that’s pretty terrible.
26.) Cleveland Browns (5-11) (32) — So, the running game ended up being pretty decent in Cleveland, this fall. Trent Richardson ran for 950 yards and the 5th most rushing TDs in the league with 11. I may have cut Greg Little from my fantasy team in Week 4 or 5 (I’ve really tried to forget this season already) but Brandon Weeden (3,385 yds, 14 TD, 17 INT) wasn’t as bad as Mark Sanchez, so that’s a win. Sort of. The Browns were 30th in First Down Percentage, and whatever that means, I’m guessing it’s not good.
25.) Tennessee Titans (6-10) (24) – I figured the Titans would go as far as Chris Johnson took him, what with Jake Locker being the consistent starter for the first time, and I wasn’t exactly wrong. Surely, they expected more than 6 wins, but after a disappointing 2011 campaign, CJ bounced back with 1,243 yards and 6 TDs this season. Locker was again hurt and questions should be asked about his durability.
24.) Detroit Lions (4-12) (11) – Matthew Stafford finished 2nd in the NFL in passing yards this season, which we all kind of figured; he just missed a second straight 5,000-yard season by 33 yards. But 2012’s 4-win effort was definitely a disappointment especially after being a playoff team in 2011. I wondered if the secondary would let them down and it wasn’t terrible. Their unit allowed the 19th most passing yards per game but the 13th most touchdown passes. Still, how do you go from the playoffs to 4 wins in just one year?
23.) Buffalo Bills (6-10) (18) – Mario Williams did his part this year, registering 10.5 sacks and the Bills defense gave up the 23rd most passing yards per game. However, the offense was mediocre at best: 19th in total yards and you could argue C.J. Spiller was underutilized. Either way, it’s now former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone’s problem. Rumored to be replacing Chan Gailey on Sunday, Marrone led my beloved Orange to its second bowl win in 4 years.
22.) San Diego Chargers (7-9) (19) – Again, I nailed this one. There’s no way the Chargers weren’t finishing out of the playoffs and there’s no way Norv Turner and A.J. Smith weren’t getting fired and there’s no way I’m speaking proper English right now. Regardless, the Chargers were a disaster from the second half of the Denver game, on. Why? Who knows. Was Philp Rivers the problem? Beats me. Is Ryan Mathews a bust? I mean, it looks that way. Who’s gonna be the coach? Can they catch the Broncos next season? Should they just wear the powder blues all year? Probably.
21.) St. Louis Rams (7-8-1) (27) – I was really at a loss when it came to words for this Rams team in 2012, but back in the preseason I wondered who would emerge as a legitimate pass-catcher for Sam Bradford. This no-name group of receivers needed someone to emerge and that man appeared to be Danny Amendola, who despite missing 5 games and parts of two others, had 63 receptions. As a team, the Rams had 7 guys catch TD passes so we’ll see if anyone steps up next season. As for Steven Jackson, he did take a pounding this year but managed to gain 1,000 yards for the 8th consecutive season.
20.) Miami Dolphins (7-9) (31) — At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you thought, watching Hard Knocks, the Dolphins were going to win 7 games, you’re the big winner at the casino tonight, Mikey. I was hoping Mrs. Tannehill would suit up at WR this year, but the Dolphins’ band of no-names led by Brian Hartline wasn’t terrible catching the ball. Sure, Reggie Bush didn’t lead the league in rushing or even 1,000 yards (he was 14 short), but this team was one of the surprises in the league and will contend for a playoff spot next year. Oh, and Mrs. Tannehill will be around A LOT.
19.) New Orleans Saints (7-9) (7) – Turns out the head coach is pretty darn important. Turns out the interim coach is pretty important, too. Turns out you can’t start the first 4 weeks winless and expect to have it be in the Super Bowl game being played in your stadium. The Bounty Gate situation was a black cloud over the team, city and league for what seemed like the entire season. New Orleans would love nothing more than to put 2012 behind it. Sure, Drew Brees signed a bajillion dollar contract, his coach did, too, and he threw for more than 5,000 yards (again), but he surely would’ve given it all up (and those terrible Pepsi commercials) to have made the playoffs. Next year.
18.) Dallas Cowboys (8-8) (21) – One of the big Cowboys stories heading into this season was Jerry Jones giving Dez Bryant his own set of bodyguards. Well those guys did their job as Dez had one of the more memorable receiver seasons by someone not named Calvin or Johnson. All Dez went out and do was haul in 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns, including 10 scores in the last 8 weeks and doing it with a broken finger. He balled out. No question about it and really answered the bell when many were questioning him throughout the year. He’s an elite receiver. Wish the Patriots had him.
17.) Carolina Panthers (7-9) (15) – If you have a younger sibling, you remember what it was like when they were born and suddenly you weren’t the toast of the town anymore. I get the feeling Cam Newton’s feelings were hurt by all the buzz around Andrew Luck and My Good Friend Robert. Look at the season splits; in the first 10 weeks the Panthers were 2-7 and came had 10 INTs and only 8 TDs. Down the stretch, Cam lit it up as Carolina saved not only its miserable season but Ron Rivera’s job, throwing for 11 TDs and only 2 INTs. Sophomore slump? Sure. But I’d be back on that Camwagon next season, if I was you.
16.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9) (13) – I thought this Bucs team was going to make the playoffs; even said so when they started 2-4. I believed. And was looking even better after rattled off 4-straight wins to get to 6-4 and were in the drivers seat for the Wild Card. Josh Freeman was in shape, making plays and Doug Martin was running rampant. Then … yeah, I don’t know. Then the wheels came off and the Bucs lost 5 in a row and Freeman threw 10 picks. It was brutal. 6 and 4 became 7 and 9 with lots of questions heading into the offseason.
15.) Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8) (12) – Nailed this one, too, and I don’t feel good about it. Mike Wallace couldn’t have been more terrible; don’t know the exact number but he had to have led the league in drops while killing my fantasy team in the process. Ben Roethlisberger nearly got himself killed by playing with fractured ribs and Rashard Mendenhall probably won’t even be on the team next year. Oh, and Todd Haley is talking to the Cardinals about their coaching vacancy. Yup, a season to forget in Pittsburgh.
14.) New York Giants (9-7) (1) – Normally it’s the Super Bowl loser who struggles the following season but the Giants gave Tom Coughlin little to smile about this season. I’m not sure if it was the 3-5 collapse after a 6-2 start or if it was watching the hated Redskins win the division for the first time in 13 years or if it was just he constantly has a sour puss look on his face. Actually, his A Football Life was one of the more enjoyable this year and gave some insight as to why Coughlin is who he is. Check it out if you haven’t had the pleasure.
13.) Chicago Bears (10-6) – Brandon Marshall was tied for 2nd in targets (195) with Reggie Wayne and receptions (118) with Wes Welker, trailing only Calvin Johnson in both. Marshall was 3rd in receiving yards (1,508) behind Megatron and Andre Johnson. BM15 also scored 11 touchdowns. So, yeah, I’d say he and Jay Cutler made sweet music this season on the Midway and should be a great combo moving forward. Though we’ll see who the Bears new coach is what he has to say about it.
12.) Minnesota Vikings (10-6) (29) — Remember all those ones I said I nailed earlier? Well I definitely screwed the pooch on this one. Here’s exactly what I said again about Mr. Adrian Peterson before the season: “If I’m Adrian Peterson, for starters I’d probably spend an uncomfortable amount of time staring at myself in the mirror, but I also wouldn’t be in any rush to get back on the field in Minnesota.” Yeesh. So 2,097 yards later, how’s that taste, Brockman? But my real preseason question was about the Vikings defense, so a quick statistical analysis tells me that it was it gave up the 9th most passing yards in the league, and worst in the NFC North.
11.) Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) (8) – The 2011 Bengals went 9-7 and were the AFC Wild Card. Andy Dalton threw for 3,398 yards, 20 TD and 13 INT and made the Pro Bowl, while rookie wide receiver A.J. Green caught 65 balls for 1,057 yards and 7 TDs. But they ultimately lost in the opening round of the playoffs to the Texans. The 2012 Bengals went 10-6 and were the AFC Wild Card, Dalton threw for 3,669 yards, 27 TDs and 16 INTs, Green caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 TDs but lost to the Texans in the AFC Wild Card. So yeah, I’d say they equaled last year.
10.) Washington Redskins (10-6) (20) – What went on in the NFC Wild Card aside, there’s no question that My Good Friend Robert (as he’s been known as this season in this very column) was one of the chief stories of the 2012 NFL Season. What he did to shock to life the football-crazed DC area was nothing short of a miracle and to call him a Cam Newton-lite, like I tried to do in the preseason was a vast understatement. Here’s Cam’s 2011 season numbers: 4,051 passing yards, 21 TDs, 17 INTs, 706 rushing yards, 15 TDs. Here’s Robert’s 2012 season stats: 3,200 passing yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs, 815 rushing yards, 7 TDs, AND he was 3rd in the league in passer rating behind two guys named Rodgers and Manning. Ho hum. Unreal. And Mike Shanahan went the other direction used just one main running back this year, another rookie, who only rushed for 1,600 yards in Alfred Morris. Football is back in Washington.
9.) Indianapolis Colts (11-5) (25) – What an amazing season in Indianapolis from the play of their rookies, a rejuvenated Reggie Wayne and the story of Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians, who deserve to share Coach of the Year honors. I had the Colts 25 in the preseason and predicted that would be their lowest ranking of the year. Turns out I was more than correct. I didn’t envision a playoff team, but thanks to Luck’s astounding rookie season (4,374 passing yards, 23 TDs, 17 INTs, 5 rushing TDs) and some timely big plays, the Colts won 11 games and should be again contenders for the next decade or so.
8.) Baltimore Ravens (10-6) (4) – The Ravens began this year with an undrafted, 22-year-old rookie kicker from Texans named Justin Tucker, who replaced Billy Cundiff, who if you remember, missed from 32 yards in last year’s AFC Championship game and cost Baltimore a trip to the Super Bowl. So I wondered if its new kicker could indeed make a 32-yard field goal. And while Tucker had a fine 2012 season in which he only missed 3 field goals the entire year, he did not make one from 32 yards out. He was 8-for-8 on kicks between 30 and 39 yards, including three each from 38 and 39 yards, but not from 32. Tucker was perfect from 50-plus yards, but none from 32. So we’ll see this weekend and beyond if he is called upon can he deliver from that distance.
7.) San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) (5) – Maybe the real question I should’ve asked was whether or not someone OTHER than Alex Smith will make everyone forget Jim Harbaugh tried to woo Peyton Manning last offseason. Man. Poor Alex Smith. Who saw his benching coming? Guy was leading the league in passer rating, got knocked out, and then Wally Pipp’ed. Colin Kaepernick has come in and gone 5-2-1 as a starter and looks explosive and unguardable at times. He has a cannon and runs like a gazelle. He beat the Saints and Patriots on the road and the Bears at home. Battle tested? Not exactly. We’ll find out very, very soon against Green Bay. But remember, Smith got them to within a few minutes of the Super Bowl last year, anything less is a disappointment out of CK1.
6.) Seattle Seahawks (11-5) (23) – This will be my shortest response of the column. I asked if Russell Wilson could make the Seahawks a contender when the games counted for real: YES. YES. YES. I’m a believer. He did it. And he kills it on this week’s Eisen Podcast, listen for yourself and tell me you’re not all-in on this kid.
5.) Houston Texans (12-4) (6) – Arian Foster continues to dominate NFL defenses and the Twitterverse, while the bow is catching on as a favorite end zone celebration. He bowed a total of 17 times this season and led the league with 351 rushing attempts, so clearly Gary Kubiak was a fan of the bow, as well.
4.) Green Bay Packers (11-5) (3) – Well, as it turned out, Cedric Benson wasn’t the answer for the Packers running game, and in reality, there have been a few answers to that question this season. In all, the Packers used 6 different running backs (including fullback John Kuhn) with Benson being the go-to guy before his Week 5 injury. From there, James Starks picked up on his 2011 postseason run, then Alex Green and now DuJuan Harris appears to be the featured back. Still, when you have Aaron Rodgers, you’re offense is in good shape.
3.) New England Patriots (12-4) (2) – Lost in the amazingness that was Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson’s 2012 seasons was the once again masterful season-long campaign of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. A strong case could be made Brady should win this third MVP award. All he did was lead the Patriots to another ho-hum 12-4 season by throwing for 4,827 yards, 34 TDs and only 8 INTs; his third career season of single-digit interceptions. I wondered preseason if Brady could get better looking and the answer is, duh. Look at him. Whenever I see his Uggs billboards I scream “TOMMY!!” at them. People look at me like I’m nuts. They’re not wrong. I also asked if the dreadful 2011 Patriots defense could be better than 31st and they improved slightly to 25th. Hey, offense (and being attractive) wins games, right? (reminded of Super Bowl 42 and 46) Sigh.
2.) Atlanta Falcons (13-3) (9) – For the first few weeks of the regular season, probably up until he threw 5 picks against the Cardinals, Matt Ryan was a legitimate MVP contender. The Falcons were rolling everyone in their path and while they stumbled going 2-2 the last month of the year, they still finished 13-3 and the top seed in the NFC. Ryan, my fantasy QB I might add, accumulated 4,719 passing yards, 32 TDs and 14 INTs; all career highs. Still, if they don’t beat the Seahawks this weekend it’ll be considered an unmitigated disaster year and both Mike Smith and Ryan will take an enormous amount of offseason heat for failing, once again, to win a playoff game. Not to mention, Tony Gonzalez will retire winless in the playoffs.
1.) Denver Broncos (13-3) (14) – In a way, it’s fitting that my biggest whiff of the preseason predictions would go on to become the top team the NFL as we enter the Divisional Playoff Round. Peyton Manning had a throwback season for the ages after missing 2011 in its entirety following four neck surgeries, and most think he’s at least a 50/50 shot at winning his record 5th MVP. Hard to say he transformed the Broncos since they were a playoff team (and winner) a year ago, but he gave them a true identity and a definitely attitude and swagger they haven’t had since John Elway roamed the backfield. Riding an 11-game winning streak, I wouldn’t want to come anywhere near them in the playoffs. That’s good enough to earn you billing as The Man.
Stay tuned for my final 2012 NFL Season You’re The Man rankings which will come after the Super Bowl, where I’ll focus on the one thing each team has to look forward to or be concerned with heading into the 2013 offseason.