1 of 29Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Bud Lite
Trepidation that the NFL season would start late -- or not at all -- ended around the time training camps were scheduled to begin. On July 25, the NFL players approved a deal tentatively reached days earlier, putting an end to the four-and-a-half month work stoppage, the longest in league history. The Aug. 7 Hall of Fame game between the Bears and Rams was the only casualty as the rest of the preseason and regular season went off as planned.
2 of 29Andrew Hancock/SI
The Colts' iron man quarterback had 208 consecutive regular-season starts but never saw the field in the 2011 season because of a neck injury. Without Manning, the Colts lost their first 13 games and finished with a 2-14 record. Indianapolis earned the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and is expected to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck -- who may be Manning's backup and heir apparent, or who may be the impetus for the Colts to trade or release the future Hall of Famer this offseason.
3 of 29John Biever/SI
A rule changed moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard-line, and while touchbacks were at an all-time high, it didn't take long for someone to take a kickoff to the house. Green Bay's Randall Cobb had a 108-yard return in the NFL's Thursday night opener against the Saints, tying an NFL record.
4 of 29Cliff Owen/AP; David Bergman/SI; Scott Boehm/Getty Images; Henny Ray Abrams/AP
Teams unfurled field-size flags. The NFL curtailed its uniform policy to allow players, such as the Bears' Lance Briggs, to wear special spikes or gloves. And although football eventually took center stage, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks -- the opening Sunday of the NFL season -- the league offered a national remembrance for those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks
5 of 29Rick Osentoski/AP(2); Jim Brown/US Presswire
Top-flight fantasy players Jamal Charles and Kenny Britt both tore their ACLs early in the season. Britt played in three games for the Titans while Kansas City's Charles went down in Week 2.
6 of 29John W. McDonough/SI
The No. 1 overall pick needed one week to prove he could play quarterback at the NFL level. And if a rookie-debut record 422 passing yards in Week 1 was not enough for skeptics, Newton topped himself the following week with 432 yards. The Panthers' quarterback threw for a rookie-record 4,051 yards this season. Newton tossed 21 touchdowns and ran in 14 more.
7 of 29Bob Rosato/SI
Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick made his first start in Atlanta since he went to prison for his role in a dogfighting ring, but the former Falcons' star was not on the field as Atlanta came back to win 35-31. Vick left with a concussion in the third quarter after throwing for 242 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons then outscored Philadelphia 14-0 in the fourth quarter as Matt Ryan tossed a career-best four touchdown passes in the game.
8 of 29David Bergman, John Biever/SI
They were the darlings of the early NFL season after hot starts, but Detroit and Buffalo's seasons diverged sharply by the end of 2011. The Lions leveled off after a 5-0 start but still made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The Bills, after a 5-2 start, lost seven straight and finished 6-10.
9 of 29David Bergman/SI; Lynne Sladky/AP
The former Division III star at Coe College in Iowa became the Buffalo Bills best offensive player. Jackson, a career backup, was on track for his first Pro Bowl at age 30 before he was placed on IR with a broken leg.
10 of 29Ray Carlin/Icon SMI
The Cowboys' rookie running back hit his stride in a Week 6 blowout of the Rams when he exploded for 253 yards on 25 carries, breaking a franchise record previously held by Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett. Murray started early, with a 91-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and kept running well until Week 14, when an ankle injury ended his season.
11 of 29Peter Read Miller/SI
Which Tebow comeback was the best? Was it throwing two touchdowns in the final 2:44 to tie -- and eventually beat -- the Dolphins in his first start? Or maybe his 20-yard touchdown run to beat the Jets? Or marching past the Bears' defense en route to another overtime win? Whatever you're choice -- and whether you're Tebow-liever or not -- the Broncos quarterback stole headlines all season long.
12 of 29Rick Osentoski/AP
After the 49ers defeated the then-undefeated Detroit Lions in Week 6, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was a little too enthusiastic when he slapped Detroit coach Jim Schwartz on the back. Schwartz took it personally and a fight nearly ensued.
13 of 29Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Harbaugh family's Thanksgiving football game wasn't two-hand touch in the backyard. On national TV, older brother John got the best of Jim in the first NFL matchup between the coaches. Baltimore's defense shut down Alex Smith and the San Francisco offense in a 16-6 victory.
14 of 29Ric Tapia/Icon SMI
After Raiders' quarterback Jason Campbell was sidelined for the year with a broken collarbone in Week 5, Oakland traded a first and second round pick to get Cincinnati's semi-retired Carson Palmer, who quickly became the Raiders new starting quarterback.
15 of 29Stephen Morton/AP
After years of mild success, Jacksonville parted ways with ninth-year coach Jack Del Rio after a 3-8 start virtually assured the team would miss the postseason. Del Rio went 69-73 in the regular season and won one playoff game in his two appearances. Kansas City's Todd Haley and Miami's Tony Sparano also lost their jobs during the season.
16 of 29Tony Tribble/AP
Houston had become a yearly sleeper pick to make the playoffs, but the franchise had yet to qualify for the postseason. So maybe it makes sense in some strange way that the Texans finally did it with its best players battling injuries and a third-string rookie quarterback leading the playoff-clinching drive. Star defensive end Mario Williams and quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart were all lost for the year. That left fifth-round pick T.J. Yates to pilot a late-second victory over the Bengals that secured the elusive postseason bid.
17 of 29LM Otero/AP
Shahid Khan became the NFL's first minority owner with his purchase of the Jaguars from Wayne Weaver. Khan, who moved to America from Pakistan at age 16, tried to buy the Rams last season before his success this year. The biggest question for the Jaguars remains whether the team will continue to call Florida home, or if a move to Los Angeles -- or another location -- is in the near future.
18 of 29Charles Rex Arbogast/AP; MRQ/Icon SMI
Chicago lost two of its offensive stars for the stretch run of the season. Matt Forte went down with a knee injury in Week 13 and Jay Cutler underwent finger surgery after a Week 11 incident.
19 of 29David J. Phillip, Tom Gianni/AP
The Bears' 26-year-old wide receiver was arrested Dec. 14 on federal drug charges after allegedly attempting to purchase large amounts of cocaine and marijuana from undercover agents, stunning teammates and leading to the receiver's release.
20 of 29David E. Klutho/SI; Charlie Riedel/AP
The dream of an undefeated season ended on a rare off-day for Aaron Rodgers, who was outdueled by Kyle Orton in his Chiefs' debut. Rodgers went 17-for-35 passing while Orton completed 23 of 31 for 299 yards in a 19-14 victory. Green Bay had a chance late in the game but failed to recover an onside kick. Kansas City iced the game by picking up a pair of first downs.
21 of 29Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
The Steelers' quarterback left the first half of a game against the Browns with a left ankle injury, but he came back to lead Pittsburgh to an important victory. The severity of the injury showed in the following weeks as Roethlisberger struggled and ultimately sat in favor of Charlie Batch. How Pittsburgh fares in the postseason will depend a lot on how well the quarterback has healed.
22 of 29Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI
In a win-and-you're-in primetime matchup with the Cowboys, Eli Manning came up big by throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys fell behind early after missing tackles on each of New York's first-half touchdowns and failed to recover a pair of fumbles that could have swung the game's momentum in their favor. As a result, New York cruised to a 31-14 win and an NFC East title.
23 of 29Michael Conroy/AP
Less than 24 hours after concluding a miserable 2-14 season with injured quarterback Peyton Manning on the bench, Colts owner Jim Irsay began rebuilding the front office by firing longtime executive Bill Polian and his son Chris, the team's GM. The elder Polian was the architect of the Colts' success, drafting Manning in his first year on the job in 1998 and assembling the squad that won the 2007 Super Bowl.
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Tim Tebow threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 50 yards and another score in the Broncos' 29-23 overtime defeat of Pittsburgh in the Wild-Card playoffs. It was the first game that used the NFL's updated playoff overtime rules -- though Tebow and receiver Demaryius Thomas rendered them meaningless by hooking up for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the extra period.
25 of 29Paul Sakuma/AP; Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Who would've thought Alex Smith could outgun Drew Brees? The embattled 49ers quarterback went toe-to-toe with the record-setting Saints QB in the Divisional round, trading a pair of lead-changing touchdowns with Brees in the final four minutes to give San Francisco a dramatic 36-32 victory. The lasting image: Smith hitting tight end Vernon Davis left for "The Catch III" -- a game-winning, 14-yard touchdown that came with just nine seconds left.
26 of 29Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would've tied the game to give the Patriots a 23-20 win and send New England back to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years.
27 of 29Robert Beck/SI; Paul Sakuma/AP
49ers punt returner Kyle Williams lost two late fumbles -- one off of his knee -- to allow the Giants to tie the NFC Championship in the fourth and then win it 20-17 in overtime. The New England-New York Super Bowl matchup is a rematch of the 2008 classic that saw Eli Manning, David Tyree and the Giants beat the previously undefeated Pats 17-14.
28 of 29Darron Cummings, Jeffrey Phelps/AP; John Biever/SI
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers turned in a stunningly sloppy performance against the Giants in the Divisional Round, dropping eight passes and turning the ball over four times en route to a 37-20 loss at Lambeau Field. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn't his usual stellar self, raising questions about whether the MVP-to-be -- who had last played in Week 16 -- had too much time off.
29 of 29David Bergman, Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
Eli Manning and the Giants upset the Tom Brady-led Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years, getting a late touchdown from running back Ahmad Bradshaw to beat New England 21-17. A dramatic late reception again keyed the Giants victory, with Mario Manningham following up David Tyree's 2008 helmet catch with an acrobatic snag of his own. A Hail Mary attempt by the Patriots fell short on the final play of the game.
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