(NRG Stadium in Houston, site of Super Bowl LI/Photo by Agustindelosdolores2002. Wikimedia Commons)
By MIKE HERNDON
The Browns finally won a game. The Cowboys finally lost again. The Patriots were the Patriots. And with that, the NFL’s regular season has come to a close.
It’s been a memorable season that’s given us a new hero in Dak Prescott; a weekly soap opera in Buffalo; comic relief in Cleveland, San Francisco and L.A.; roller-coaster rides in Minnesota and Philadelphia; and what is likely and blessedly Jay Cutler’s last season in Chicago.
With the playoffs set to start on Saturday, some regular-season superlatives and playoff predictions for your reading leisure:
Best team entering the playoffs: New England Patriots
LeGarrette Blount is having a career year and Tom Brady is Tom Brady. The defense remains solid even after trading away one of its most talented players in Jamie Collins. They are the Super Bowl favorites even with Rob Gronkowski on the shelf. Love him or hate him, Bill Belichick is the best coach in the game.
Underachievers of the year: Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers
They were the last two teams standing in the NFC last year. The Cardinals had one of the better defenses in the NFL, one of the top running backs in the game and a quarterback who was coming off a 4,600-yard, 35-TD season — the best of his career. The Panthers had the reigning league MVP and a defense led by perhaps the best middle linebacker in the game.
They were two of the NFC’s Super Bowl favorites heading into the season. Instead, the Panthers finished 6-10 and Cardinals went 7-8-1. Cam Newton regressed and Carson Palmer looked spent. John Brown had health issues and Michael Floyd got cut. Kelvin Benjamin didn’t give Carolina the lift they expected, and the Panthers’ defense couldn’t overcome Josh Norman’s departure and Luke Kuechly’s concussion.
It’s still amazing that these two teams couldn’t make the playoffs in a conference where the Lions did.
Overachievers of the year: Detroit Lions and Houston Texans
When Calvin Johnson retired, Matthew Stafford said the Lions’ offense might actually get better and most of us rolled our eyes and laughed (guilty). Fast forward a few months and the Lions are in the playoffs for only the third time since 1999. They did it with practically no running game, no legitimate No. 1 receiver and a secondary whose only strong cover corner, Darius Slay, battled injury throughout the second half of the season.
Houston, meanwhile, made the playoffs with J.J. Watt sidelined and with Brock Osweiler at quarterback. If you’ve watched Osweiler play this season, you know that’s all that really needs to be said.
My pick for MVP: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
He threw for nearly 5,000 yards — second only to Drew Brees — and led a Falcons team with a still-suspect defense that played the second half of the season without its best corner to a division title and the second seed in the NFC. And he didn’t just lean on Julio Jones, turning players with names like Taylor Gabriel, Mohammed Sanu and Jacob Tamme into productive members of the passing game. Strong cases can be made for Tom Brady, Ezekiel Elliott and Aaron Rodgers, but based on the regular season, I’ll lean to Matty Ice.
But only because the MVP must go to one player and not a unit. Because the real most valuable players in the league were the five members of the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line.
Rookie(s) of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott lived up to his billing, leading the NFL in rushing with 1,631. But Prescott is the story of the year in the NFL, a fourth-round pick dismissed by some as a Tim Tebow clone who instead became the picture of efficiency in leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record. He was so good, Tony Romo didn’t get his job back when he came back from injury. When Romo got hurt last season, the Cowboys were a train wreck. This year, Prescott led them to the top seed in the NFC.
On to the predictions:
Oakland at Houston, Saturday
Can they both lose? Matt McGloin and Connor Cook were terrible in relief of the injured Derek Carr last week and Brock Osweiler has been terrible all season long. This game could set quarterbacking back 50 years.
Who will be worse? The Raiders are the better team, but the Texans’ defense is good enough to make McGloin and/or Cook look like the backups they are. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but give me the Texans, 17-12.
Detroit at Seattle, Saturday
Did I mention the Lions have essentially no running game? And that throwing on the Seahawks carries roughly the same level of difficulty as making a case for Nickelback in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Matthew Stafford has been wizard-like this season, but he is a human. Oh yeah, the Lions haven’t won a playoff game in 25 years. Seahawks, 31-17.
Miami at Pittsburgh, Sunday
These same two teams met in October and Jay Ajayi ran all over the Steelers in a 30-15 Dolphins win. But Ryan Tannehill’s status is highly questionable, the Steelers have been playing better in the last month and the temperature at Heinz Field isn’t supposed to get out of the 20s. Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown get it done. Steelers, 27-21.
New York Giants at Green Bay, Sunday
This should be the best game of the weekend. Odell Beckham, Jr., spent his off-day partying with Justin Bieber this week, which doesn’t mean anything. Green Bay is the hottest team in the NFL not named New England, which does. The Packers have won six straight to snatch the NFC North away from Detroit and Minnesota, and they’re playing at Lambeau. The Giants have the better defense, but I’m not betting against Aaron Rodgers at home. Packers, 28-24.