The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. In the 31-24 division-clinching win at Detroit on Sunday night, Rodgers was his great self: 27 of 39, 300 yards, four TDs, no picks, a 126.0 rating. Mediocrity seems like so long ago. Six weeks ago Green Bay was 4-6, and Rodgers had played his share of uncharacteristically shaky games. But he said that week he thought they could run the table and win the division, and who are we to doubt this crystal-balling genius? Since then the Packers are 6-0, and Rodgers has thrown 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions … and the Packers are making their sixth straight trip to the playoffs, and Rodgers has forced himself into a very tight race for the MVP.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. How incredible is it that Brady has created a contest for the MVP after missing the first four games? He may not be able to overcome missing a quarter of the season, but I doubt he cares much about that right now—not after capping one of the most memorable regular seasons of his life. Brady (25 of 33, 276 yards, three touchdowns, no picks) and the Patriots sprinted to a 20-0 lead at Miami on Sunday, and the only team in the AFC East fit to challenge them this year went down meekly again. For the season, Brady set the league record for best TD-to-interception ratio (28-to-2) and, at age 39, got set to put the team on his back for another postseason run.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Damon Harrison, nosetackle, New York Giants. All season, Harrison has shown how valuable he’s been to the Giants as a free-agent addition to a vastly improved defense. Sunday, in the 19-10 win at Washington that knocked the home team out of the playoffs, Harrison had four tackles plugging the middle of the line, helped limit Washington to 38 rushing yards, had a sack of Kirk Cousins, and even knocked a pass away in a surprisingly nimble pass-coverage play. What a great signing in free agency he was last March.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, cornerback, New York Giants. Fooling Washington on a disguised blitz and in coverage, Rodgers-Cromartie played a superb game, picking off Kirk Cousins twice and sacking him once in a game the Giants dominated on D. Rodgers-Cromartie, at 30, is showing no signs of wear or slowing down, and he’ll be vital for the Giants if they’re going to have a good shot to win in Green Bay on Sunday afternoon.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Tyreek Hill, punt returner/wide receiver, Kansas City. I’ve said it several times in the last half of the season: Kansas City will have a chance to beat anyone—even the Patriots in Foxboro—if Tyreek Hill can make a couple of difference-making plays, like the 95-yard punt return through traffic to ice the victory in San Diego on Sunday. What a weapon. Hill finished the season by winning the punt-return crown at 15.2 yards per return, a 3.6-yard edge on second-place returner Brandon Tate of the Bills.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Gary Kubiak, head coach, Denver. There is an adult in the room. Kubiak wasn’t forced to quit his dream job, coaching the Broncos in partnership with GM and former teammate John Elway. But at 55 he knew he had some health issues he needed to watch—and he knew a job less all-controlling than this one would be best for his long-term well-being. He was unusually emotional with his players on Saturday night in his weekly pregame speech, and then when they woke up Sunday morning and saw Adam Schefter’s report that this would be it for Kubiak, they went out and played the kind of game they knew would make him proud. The Broncos throttled the rival Raiders, 24-6. For his two-year run in Denver, Kubiak finishes 24-11, including a 3-0 playoff record and a Super Bowl title in Peyton Manning’s last game. Yes, it was a very good run for Kubiak, who managed his Denver career at the end of it as well as he managed the team during it.
GOATS OF THE WEEK
Graham Gano, kicker, Carolina. Fitting. In game one this year, Carolina got off to a bad start in what would become a lost season: Gano missed a 50-yard field goal with four seconds left, and Denver held on to beat Carolina 21-20 in a Super Bowl 50 rematch. On Sunday, in game 16 at Tampa Bay, he missed field goals of 45, 58 and, with six minutes left, 36 yards. Bucs 17, Panthers 16.
The Buffalo kickoff return team.I have never seen this before. Has anyone? Seriously, has it ever happened that a team kicks off, the ball bounces and bounces and lands a yard deep in the end zone … and the return team stands over it watching as the kicking team recovers it for a touchdown? That’s what happened when running back Mike Gillislee of the Bills decided not fall on the live ball on a New York kickoff, and the Jets flopped on it for a score.The lack of awareness by the Bills’ return unit is the most startling faux pas by a team I’ve seen this year.
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Right Combination of the Week
Mike McCarthy, coach, and Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. A month ago, when in Wisconsin for Green Bay Week at The MMQB, I had McCarthy on my podcast and suggested that there might be a mechanical flaw or something else wrong with Aaron Rodgers. It looked to me that Rodgers just wasn’t playing at his typical high level of consistency this season, and he wasn’t throwing the ball downfield as well as he usually did. There was a split second of a look from McCarthy, like, Man, you’re crazy, and then he answered the question politely, while disagreeing firmly. That’s the relationship with these guys—they’ve got each other’s backs, as the saying goes. And though Rodgers’ wasn’t throwing the deep ball as accurately as usual, you’d never get a critical word publicly from McCarthy after all the greatness he’d seen from Rodgers. The right combination for Green Bay missed the playoffs in Rodgers’ first year playing (2008) and never again. The Pack has made the postseason eight years running with McCarthy and Rodgers leading the way, capped by a 31-24 win at Detroit on Sunday night in the final game of the NFL’s regular season that gave Green Bay another division crown.
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Stats of the Week
Todd Gurley didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game in 2016.
In his last 24 games, Gurley has exceeded 90 yards once.
The distance between the Patriots and the rest of the AFC East is not narrowing. It’s not rare that this season’s Patriots won the division they’ve dominated for 16 years (14 titles in that span), nor that they won it by four games. The aggregate two first halves between New England and second-place Miami this year: Patriots 44, Dolphins 10.
Quick: Name the player who had the best year of any player in the league at his position in 2016. It’s subjective, obviously, because how can you tell whether the best guard was better than the best wide receiver or best cornerback? You can’t. But it’s my column, and I’ll make this claim: Rams punter Johnny Hekker was the best player at his position in the NFL this year. Compare him to his peers.
• Net punting average: 46.1, and a huge edge over number two Sam Martin of Detroit (43.7).
• Punts inside the 20: 50. Number two: Dustin Colquitt of Kansas City (37).
• Average yards per return (on all punts, not just returned punts): 1.32. No other punter with at least 50 punts had less than 2.0 yards per return.
So we’ve told you about the no-doubt best punter in the NFL. Now for the best placekicker.
Justin Tucker of the Ravens missed one kick all season—that well-timed leap over center and block of a field goal by Shea McClellin of the Patriots in Week 14. Tucker’s other 37 field-goal tries and 26 extra-point kicks … good.
While Tucker was missing one kick all season, the rest of the AFC North missed 24.
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Factoids That May Interest Only Me
Horseshoe Twins Forever Dept.:
At 17 and 18 on the NFL’s sack list are fitting names.
Seasons as Colt
17. Dwight Freeney
18. Robert Mathis
Also: Forced fumbles has been an official stat for just the past 25 years. According to StatsPass, Mathis (49) and Freeney (47) are numbers one and four on the forced-fumbled list since 1991.
Mathis retired after Sunday’s game against Jacksonville. Freeney, now a Falcon, hasn’t hinted at retirement.
Someone’s going to have to coach Cam Newton hard in the offseason.
Last seven games: Newton was a 46.8 percent passer (109 of 233), with five touchdowns and 11 interceptions.