Biggest NFL stories of 2011
Without Manning, Indy bravely tried to take a "next man up'' approach to the season, but the problem was, it wasn't a case of the "next Manning up.'' First veteran Kerry Collins came out of retirement and flailed about for a few weeks as the Colts' starter. Then the ill-fated Curtis Painter era began. Finally Dan Orlovsky took over, but it wasn't until Week 15 that 0-13 Indianapolis staved off infamy and won a game, the Colts' first with anybody but Manning under center since 1997 (they added a second win in Week 16). Two years after making a run at a perfect season in 2009, Indy threw it into reverse and nearly lost them all, definitively answering the question of Manning's worth.
Making the Texans' feat all the more impressive is the way they did it, persevering and winning despite a string of injuries to front-line players like outside linebacker Mario Williams, quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson. In Detroit, the long-downtrodden Lions had their own dramas to endure, mostly of their own making. But third-year coach Jim Schwartz has his Lions playoff bound for the first time since 1999, when Bobby Ross was still their coach and Matt Millen just a former player and color analyst on TV.
Added to that issue were the long lines and hours-long waits that some fans endured to get in, delays caused when a decision was made to close four of the stadium's 10 gates in order to avoid the risk of more falling ice. It was that kind of day, deep in the heart of Texas. By the time national anthem singer Christina Aguilera blew a few lyrics in the song most of us know by heart, it was only the third-biggest mistake of the day.
At one point, all of those quarterbacks were on pace to take down Dan Marino's 1984 single-season record of 5,084 yards, one of the game's most enduring marks. Brees broke that record Monday night against the Falcons; his 5,087 yards through 15 games puts him on pace to set the new bar at 5,426. Brady (187 yards away, on pace for 5,223) should also top Marino's old mark this season. Before this season, only two passers had ever been on pace to break that record with even four or fewer games left on the schedule: Oakland's Rich Gannon in 2002, and Brees in 2008. Without a doubt, the recent rule changes to further protect the quarterback in the pocket, as well as the defenseless receiver downfield, have favored the offense and contributed to the huge passing numbers. But another factor can't be overlooked either: With Rodgers, Brady, Brees, the Mannings, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo, we might be witness to one of the league's golden eras of passing.