Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 17 that offered a fitting and thrilling conclusion to 2012...
? It took until the penultimate game of the NFL's 256-game regular season, and then until the final dramatic seconds of that, but I finally know who gets my vote in the league's ridiculously close MVP race. It may be difficult at times to define or describe what an MVP is or should be, but you know it when you see it. And Sunday afternoon in the Metrodome, the entire football nation saw it -- in spectacular fashion.
When my Associated Press ballot is filled out on Monday, it'll have Peterson's name in the MVP blank, and I imagine I'll be far from alone in making that choice. On the one-year anniversary of his major knee reconstruction, in a game the Vikings had to win to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years, Peterson was his super-human self, rushing a career-high 34 times for 199 yards, with one score on the ground and another through the air in Minnesota's thrilling 37-34 defeat of visiting Green Bay.
It was a heroic end to a heroic regular season for the sixth-year Vikings running back, and even though he came up nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's 1984 record of 2,105 rushing yards -- a mere first down away from history -- Peterson's MVP credentials couldn't be any stronger. He didn't quite reach the record, but he wasn't stopped by anything but time.
It's a game that will go down as one of the greatest clutch performances in NFL history, and for me it's the final tiebreaking factor in an MVP race that might be remembered as the deepest field ever. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady were all incredibly worthy candidates, but as great as they all were in 2012, Peterson's season was epic.
Taking a team that absolutely no one predicted would finish higher than third in NFC North, Peterson put the upstart Vikings (10-6) on his determined shoulders and carried them all season long. Minnesota looked stalled a month ago at 6-6, trailing Green Bay and Chicago in the division, but the Vikings won their final four games, knocked off the Packers for the first time in six meetings, and ended Green Bay's dominating 12-game winning streak within the division.
And when Sunday's game against the Packers was hanging in the balance, Peterson again proved that the game's best players can't be stopped, even when everyone in the stadium knows they're going to get the ball. Peterson's 34th and final carry was a pivotal 26-yard burst that gave the Vikings the needed field position for kicker Blair Walsh's game-winning 29-yard field goal at the gun. If that's not the definition of what a most valuable player does, then we view the award from different vantage points.
That last crucial play by Peterson capped the second-best rushing season in NFL history, and came just 53 weeks after he tore two knee ligaments in a win at Washington in December 2011. It all but put the Vikings into the playoffs, and set up a rematch with Green Bay in next week's first round at Lambeau Field.
It swayed my vote. Quarterbacks were again phenomenal in 2012, and Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have combined to win the league's last five MVP awards. They all have great shots to add to their Super Bowl ring collections this season as well. But the season Peterson just turned in was singular, special and as valuable as they come.
? So now we know what the Week 3 victory they had stolen from them in Seattle cost the Packers: the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and a first-round bye. No small matter there.
With Green Bay's loss at Minnesota, the Packers ended the season 11-5, a half-game behind San Francisco (11-4-1) in the battle for the No. 2 seed. At 12-4, without the replacement refs' game-ending fiasco on that Monday night in CenturyLink Field, Green Bay theoretically would have been in position to lose Sunday to the Vikings and still earn a much-desired week off to start the playoffs.
It's spilt milk, to be sure, but for the team from the nation's dairy land, it was a significant mistake. Teams with first-round byes are one homefield win away from playing for the conference championship. Instead, Green Bay will have to win twice to get to the NFC title game, with at least one of those games coming either at Atlanta or San Francisco.
Here's the good news. Green Bay won a Super Bowl at the end of the 2010 season facing tougher conditions. The Packers were a No. 6 seed that year and had to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl. Last year, as the NFC's No. 1 seed, with that first-round bye, Green Bay went one-and-done, losing big at home against the Giants in the divisional round.
So there's that.
? The Vikings' victory, of course, eliminated the Bears, who won a now meaningless 26-24 contest at Detroit earlier on Sunday afternoon. Chicago becomes the first team since the 1996 Redskins to start the season 7-1 and miss the playoffs. Washington went 9-7 that season, while the Bears finished 10-6 this year.
Maybe the 10th win, however, was important after all. At least to Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who is thought to be in jeopardy of being replaced in light of the team missing the playoffs a second consecutive year after a strong first half (the Bears were 7-3 in 2011, and finished 8-8). At 9-7 without a playoff berth, Smith was considered a likely goner. A 10-6 record, without a spot in the postseason, might save him, but it's far from a guarantee. Sources I talked to within the league last week thought Smith's chances of staying in Chicago were 50-50 with a 10-6 record but no playoff berth.
? We know what the NFL's official standings say. The Houston Texans won the AFC South and the Indianapolis Colts finished as the wild-card-qualifying runner-up in the division. But it sure doesn't feel that way as the 2012 regular season comes to a close, does it? It might be the first time in league history where the first-place team is looking with envy at the second-place club.
Week 17 proved decisively that no playoff-bound team is leaking more oil as January arrives than Houston, not even the Baltimore Ravens, losers of four of their last five. The Texans, once 11-1 and a virtual lock to earn a first-round bye, if not the AFC's No. 1 overall seed, will instead be playing the red-hot Bengals (10-6) at home in next weekend's first round. That's because Houston (12-4) dropped its third game in four weeks Sunday in Indianapolis, losing 28-16 to a Colts team that had nothing to gain in the standings, but everything to prove on behalf of its returning head coach, Chuck Pagano, whose triumphant battle against leukemia set the tone of his team's remarkable season.
This Colts' story just keeps getting better and better by the week. It's beyond even fairy-tale status, because no one could have dreamed it up in the first place. No. 5-seeded Indianapolis now must likely do its work entirely on the road in the playoffs, but don't tell the Colts they're not up to the task, not after winning nine of their past 11 games and putting an exclamation point on their 11-5 regular season with that resounding victory over the Texans.
The Colts head for No. 4-seeded Baltimore next weekend, and I have a feeling they're going to be the most popular upset pick in the opening round of the NFL's 12-team Super Bowl tournament. Whatever category is a step or two beyond late-season mojo, that's what Indianapolis carries into the playoffs.
Such is not the case for Gary Kubiak's Texans, who looked lost and a bit dispirited on Sunday, when Houston as a franchise dropped to 0-11 all-time in Indianapolis. In the course of a few damaging hours, the Texans dropped from the No. 1 seed to No. 3 in the AFC, with both Denver (13-3) and New England (12-4) leap-frogging them in the playoff bracket and earning a coveted first-round bye in the process.
The Texans have some obvious issues as the playoffs approach. Quarterback Matt Schaub did nothing to tamp down his reputation for coming up small in big-game settings, throwing two costly interceptions to Colts cornerback Vontae Davisnd offering little in the way of difference-making in a 24 of 36, 275-yard, no-touchdown passing day. Houston isn't going to scare anyone in the AFC playoffs with the way its offense has been performing. Even offensively challenged Cincinnati might give Houston all it wants next week at Reliant Stadium, in a rematch of last year's first-round playoff, won by the Texans.
And what exactly has happened to Wade Phillips' vaunted Houston defense? Ever since that Week 14 Monday-night butt-kicking it absorbed at New England, the Texans defense hasn't been the disruptive and playmaking unit of the season's first 12 games. Houston's air of invincibility got punctured that night in Foxboro, and it has not returned.
The Texans have been outscored by 45 points in their past four games, getting beat decisively by New England, Minnesota and Indianapolis. And stop us if you've heard this one before, but the Houston secondary, in particular, has been brutal the past month.
The play that broke the Texans' back against the Colts was a 70-yard, fourth-quarter laser strike from quarterback Andrew Luck to fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton, giving Indy its final 12-point margin of victory. Even the Houston special teams had a major breakdown, allowing Colts return man Deji Karim to streak 101 yards with a kickoff return in the third quarter, after the Texans had taken their first and only lead of the game at 16-14. Houston never recovered from that solar plexis blow, and now we have to look at these two teams differently than we had been all
The standings say Houston is the AFC South division champ and the Colts are second best. But our eyes say otherwise.
? I'm starting to think there should be more than one Offensive Rookie of the Year awarded this season, because while deciding between the big three quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) is ridiculous enough, then there's the whole Alfred Morris, Doug Martin and T.Y. Hilton second tier of candidates. Hilton seems like he has come up big every time the Colts really needed him this season, and he was at it again Sunday against the Texans with his 70-yard touchdown reception, capping a four-catch, 111-yard day in the Indy win.
But the truth is, almost every award category is a difficult call this year, and I'm going to need all the study time I can get until I have to hand in my Associated Press ballot on Monday.
1. I looked it up. The Colts used to play in Baltimore. And there are those Baltimore fans, believe it or not, who are still not over the way Colts owner Bob Irsay stole their beloved team away in that convoy of Mayflower moving trucks in the middle of the night. Current Colts owner Jim Irsay, Bob's son, remembers it all too well.
And even the modern-day Colts are hated in Baltimore from their last playoff trip to town. In the 2006 playoffs, the No. 2-seeded Ravens lost their divisional round opener to the No. 3-seeded Colts, 15-6, when Peyton Manning and Co. ended Baltimore's 13-3 season. The Colts went on to win the Super Bowl that season. In 2009, another Indy Super Bowl run was fueled in part by a 20-3 conquest of the visiting Ravens in the divisional round.
2. Chuck Pagano is coming home, of sorts, having coached with the Ravens from 2008-2011, the last season as the team's defensive coordinator. There are a lot of people in the Baltimore locker room who love Pagano, and that just adds more drama to his playoff debut with the Colts.
3. Jim Caldwell is on the other side this time. Baltimore's Caldwell, recently elevated from Ravens quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, was Indy's head coach from 2009-2011. Caldwell spent a total of 10 years coaching for the Colts, and took the team to the Super Bowl as a rookie head coach in 2009, beating the Ravens in that divisional round game during that run.
? I'm not making my first-round playoff picks just yet, but I'm thinking three wild-card teams have a pretty good shot to win on the road next weekend: Indy at Baltimore, Cincinnati at Houston, and wherever Seattle winds up playing (either Washington or Dallas). Going with the hottest teams is usually a good rule, although the Redskins would enter January with an NFC-high seven wins in a row, and that might prompt me to lean toward Washington.
And for the record, Sunday really put in motion the likelihood of a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady showdown in the AFC title game, in Denver. With the Broncos the AFC's top seed, and the Patriots sneaking past Houston for the No. 2 seed, Manning and Brady will be just one divisional-round homefield win away from meeting in the AFC Championship Game for the third time (2003, 2006 and 2012).
Brady and the Pats won in 2003, and Manning and his Colts staged that 18-point second-half comeback to win in 2006. Rubber match anyone? New England isn't as hot as the Broncos, but who is? Denver has won an NFL-high 11 in a row, and all of them were by seven points or more.
? I remember talking to Eli Manning just before training camps opened, and he said the defending Super Bowl champions this year wouldn't be able to rely on the same blueprint that worked so well for them in 2011: dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks and a late-season rush to squeak into the playoffs.
And then the Giants went out this season and tried to rely on that same blueprint. But the magic wasn't there this time, and that's not surprising. If it happened the same way every year, it wouldn't be magic.
New York has only itself to blame for this 9-7, non-playoff finish. It wasted another superb first half, turning a 6-2 record at the break into a 3-5 down-the-stretch slide. And with a tough second-half schedule this year, the Giants lost at Atlanta and at Baltimore by a combined 67-14 in Weeks 15-16, making New York's 42-7 thrashing of the listless Eagles on Sunday nothing more than a little window dressing on an otherwise downer of a season.
I predicted the Giants wouldn't make the playoffs this season, because I figured a case of post-Super Bowl syndrome might descend on Tom Coughlin's always puzzling team, be it a rash of injuries or just the toll a brutal schedule would take. But for a while there, with the rest of the NFC East going to heck in a handbasket, I didn't think New York would be able to avoid the postseason. Alas, I underestimated the Giants in that regard. They still can't stand prosperity, and love to do things the hard way.
This time around, the hard way wasn't the way forward.
? The onside kick to open the game was nicely done, and daring in that what-have-we-got-to-lose sort of way. But after that spark of life, we've rarely seen a team mail it in like the Eagles did against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.
So much for all that sentiment coming out of the Philly locker room last week, about playing hard for embattled head coach Andy Reid in what everyone knew was his Eagles swan song. It was just a bunch of hot air that meant nothing.
And speaking of nothing, that's what has gone right for the Eagles ever since that memorable and historic 2010 Week 15 comeback against the Giants in what was then called the New Meadowlands. DeSean Jackson's final-play punt return that day capped a 28-point fourth-quarter for Philadelphia and essentially won the NFC East for the Eagles. But Jackson hasn't really shown up since, and neither has Reid's team.
The Eagles improved to 10-4 with that improbable win over the stunned Giants, but then lost their final two games of the season, and then went one-and-done at the hands of visiting Green Bay in the first round of the playoffs. Then came the disaster of the "dream team'' free agent signing spree in 2011, and this year's full-blown 4-12 embarrassment after a hopeful 3-1 start.
So, yes, Reid is finally fired and done in Philadelphia, a departure that seemed inevitable starting in late October or so. It was a good long run for Reid with the Eagles, but in the final chapter, his misconstructed team and coaching staff barely broke a sweat in defending their veteran coach where it would have done the most good -- in the won-loss column.
? It only took 15-plus games, but the Eagles seemed to finally concede that they might have a Nnamdi Asomugha problem. Philly finally benched the worst free-agent signing in recent memory in the second half against the Giants, and the only question that comes to mind is the obvious one: What were you waiting for?
? San Diego said farewell to head coach Norv Turner on Sunday with a rainy-day 24-21 win against visiting Oakland, and some would say Turner got about three years longer than he deserved. In his first three years with the Chargers, Turner saw his teams go 32-16 in the regular season, make the playoffs each year and play in the 2007 AFC title game.
But in his final three years on the job, Turner was a mediocre 24-24, and missed the playoffs each season. For Turner and the Chargers, the squandering of 2009's 13-3 record and No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs with a one-and-done divisional-round loss to the wild-card Jets was the turning point they never recovered from.
Turner and Chargers general manager A.J. Smith are expected to be sent packing any minute now, a fate they have both known was coming for weeks.
? Wrote this as a maybe scenario Thursday in my Black Monday preview, but my hunch is Tennessee's resounding Week 17 win at home against Jacksonville probably gives head coach Mike Munchak another year with the Titans. But I'm not so sure overmatched Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is back in 2013. I'm not hearing glowing accounts of Gray's coaching with the Titans, as the franchise-record 471 points allowed would seem to suggest.
What a wild turn of events for Tennessee against the Jaguars, scoring 28 unanswered points, all on either interception or punt returns, without the benefit of running an offensive snap. That's the most unimaginable way to turn a 14-7 deficit into a 35-14 lead I've ever heard of. Darius Reynaud's two punt returns and Zach Brown's two pick-6s made the Titans the first team to ever have two players with two return scores in the same game.
Combined with that wild 44-41 Titans win in overtime at home against Detroit in Week 3, when Tennessee had an NFL-record five scoring plays of more than 60 yards, it has been an occasionally bizarre season in Nashville.
? The other head coach who did himself some good in Week 17 was Carolina's Ron Rivera. It was a disappointing season in Charlotte, but his club won its final four games in a row, and five out of six. The 7-9 mark might still get Rivera fired, but at least it represents progress, after his 6-10 record as a rookie head coach in 2011. The Panthers beat New Orleans 44-38 in the Superdome on Sunday, winning a three-way tie with the Saints and Bucs for second-place in the NFC South.
If Carolina has its sight set on landing a big fish, like Oregon's Chip Kelly, maybe Rivera becomes the fallback plan. But that's a tricky dance, because once you've inquired about Kelly, and word gets out, you've effectively undercut Rivera's authority with his own players. Maybe the Panthers hire a new general manager first and let him make the call on Rivera, but the timing of that scenario can be difficult as well, unless the new GM is ready to be rolled out on Monday and has already spent time mulling his decision.
Just a little reading of the tea leaves, but I think Rivera has got a decent shot to stick around in Carolina.
? That Ravens-Bengals game was a thriller, eh? I understand neither team had much to play for, and rested plenty of starters, and that's fine. But it's just weird to see an NFL regular season game played out with all the urgency of an intramural spring game in college. And that's probably being unfair to quite a few spring games.
But it was nice to see what the Gradkowski Bowl would look like. In the second half, Bengals backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski took over for Andy Dalton, and Ravens rookie center Gino Gradkowski replaced veteran starter Matt Birk.
? At least the Saints won the game that really counted this week, locking up head coach Sean Payton with a multi-year deal that will pay him a reported $8 million a year -- the highest salary among NFL head coaches (wonder what Bill Belichick makes of that?)
With the shootout-style loss to the Panthers, the Saints long nightmare of 2012 can at last come to an end. The bounty story is effectively over -- save for Jonathan Vilma's legal efforts -- Payton is set to return, and New Orleans' disappointing 7-9 record is in the books.
Not sure an organization has ever had an uglier year than the Saints in 2012. Unless it would be the Saints in 2005, when they basically spent the season on the road due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
The Saints rolled up 441 yards of offense against Carolina, and quarterback Drew Brees threw for 396 to become the first NFL quarterback to top 5,000 yards in three different seasons. Brees is also the first passer with 40 or more touchdowns in back to back seasons, racking up four against Carolina to finish with 43 in 2012.
But you have to tell the defensive side of the story, too, in New Orleans, and it wasn't pretty under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. New Orleans alllowed 530 yards to the Panthers, and that raised their season total to 7,042. Someone tell the 1981 Baltimore Colts they're off the hook. Their record of 6,793 yards surrendered had stood for three decades.
? Matt Millen gets killed in Detroit and everywhere else, and rightfully so, for selecting the likes of receivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams in the first round of three successive drafts. But what if those well-chronicled misses had made the ex-Lions team president too gun-shy to step up and take Calvin Johnson second overall in 2007?
All I'm saying is that if Millen is going to be justly pillored for over-valuing those receivers in the middle of the last decade, at least he should get some credit for Johnson's presence in Detroit. Millen didn't go 0 for 4 by being too timid to take Johnson, who was seen as a can't-miss prospect. And given his track record, it could have happened.
Then where would this lost season in Detroit rate? At least Johnson made the Lions watchable at times this year, even if he did finish out Sunday in the loss to Chicago with just five catches for 72 yards, coming up 36 yards shy of becoming the NFL's first 2,000-yard receiver. Putting up 1,964 yards in a single record-breaking season is special enough.
? Just doing some quick math here, but the Jets beat the Bills 48-28 in New Jersey in Week 1 (those were the days, or day), and lost to them in Orchard Park 28-9 in Week 17. That's a 20-point win, a 19-point loss, and a 39-point swing in the wrong direction. Sounds like the right summation for this debacle of a season in New York.
And for that one Jets fan out there who repeatedly told me I was an idiot for writing and saying all preseason that Rex Ryan's team had seven-win talent -- at best -- I'm thinking maybe we should talk now.