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Manning's case is unassailable, which is saying something, because assailing appears to be the new national pastime. People will try to poke holes, but there hasn't been a clearer winner of anything since the day Michael Corleone stood godfather to Connie and Carlo's baby. In rewriting the NFL record book, Manning took out Brady, Brees, Marino, Stracci, Cuneo all the heads of the five families. The chatter about his playoff record won't stop unless he wins his next three games, but that's only because of the aforementioned national assailing obsession. This is the best player ever to play this position, and he just had his best year.
The day McCoy first met Chip Kelly has a chance to go down in universal history. In terms of long-term gravity and significance, it could be a lot like the day Obi-Wan Kenobi stumbled across young Anakin Skywalker in a junk store on Tatooine. Ideally, this arrangement won't blow up into some spectacularly bloody intergalactic struggle between good and evil involving gargantuan spherical battle stations capable of destroying entire planets. But, given the way Kelly's and McCoy's first year together has gone so far, you really can't rule it out. The 2013 NFL rushing champion is the player of Kelly's dreams, and those dreams are all about yards and points. Runner-up: Jamaal Charles. Honorable mentions: Drew Brees, Josh Gordon, Philip Rivers, Calvin Johnson).
The Texans lost 14 games in a row to close out the season and thus secured the No. 1 pick in the draft, with which there's a chance they could select South Carolina pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. Upon reading that sentence, Andrew Luck dropped his iPad and immediately called all of his offensive linemen to ask whether they were (a) feeling OK and (b) planning to get much better this offseason. Clowney and Watt together for the next decade is a terrifying thought. Others had more sacks this year and more interceptions, but NFL offensive coordinators will tell you there's no player as consistently disruptive as Watt is. He recently said he might get plastic surgery to fix that horrible cut on his nose so he looks less like a monster. Nothing about playing less like a monster, though. He's going to keep doing that. Runner-up: Robert Quinn. Honorable mentions: Richard Sherman, Robert Mathis, NaVorro Bowman, Karlos Dansby, Luke Kuechly.
Having lost Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander to injury or free agency in the previous year and a half, Rivers was sitting there in late September with a 1-2 record and feeling kind of glum. He decided to watch a movie, but the DVD he thought was "Step Brothers" had gotten mixed up with some old film of Cal games the Chargers coaches were using before the draft. Rivers was mesmerized watching Allen, and, when offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt came in, Rivers asked why the Chargers hadn't drafted anyone like that. Whisenhunt said they had, in fact, drafted that very guy. Rivers shouted, "He's on our team? Right now? And he's not hurt?!?!?!" then raced out of the room to fix everything. Allen finished the season with 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Runner-up: Eddie Lacy. Honorable mentions: Le'Veon Bell, Larry Warford.
Sure, September was his best month. But just because the interceptions dried up doesn't mean Alonso wasn't a high-impact, fly-around-and-make-plays type of linebacker. A critical element to a better-than-you-think-it-was Bills defense, Alonso is a tackling monster in the Kuechly mold, and his athleticism should help him get better as he goes along. Runner-up: Sheldon Richardson. Honorable mentions: Tyrann Mathieu, Star Lotulelei.
Too often, this award goes to the coach whose team was better than the consensus preseason opinion thought it would be. It should go to the coach of the team whose success most clearly bears his imprint. This year's Patriots are the sawed-off gray hoodie of 12-4 teams. Only six of his 11 offensive starters Sunday were drafted at all, and his top wide receiver was drafted in the seventh round. (Heck, the quarterback was a sixth-rounder, but you know that story by now.) You don't have to like him. You can call him a grouch, a sore loser, a crummy dresser, a sneak or a know-it-all with ample evidence to back you up. But the dude can coach. Runner-up: Chip Kelly, Eagles. Honorable mentions: Bruce Arians, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid, Ron Rivera.
Sure was easy to fire Rex in August and September. He only knows one side of the ball, didn't have a quarterback and was working for a new GM who, it was widely assumed, would hire his own coach once Ryan's deal was up. But, once you live with Rex for a few months and he goes 8-8 with only one side of the ball and you realize he's a great big teddy bear of a guy you just love being around ... well, why not bring him back? Also, the owner said you had to. Whichever coach John Idzik was telling, "Just hang in there for a season and we'll be good" is probably disappointed, but he probably loves Rex, too. Runner-up: Ron Rivera. Honorable mentions (if they survive the day): Jason Garrett, Joe Philbin, Greg Schiano.
Kind of sad for Suggs, really. Guy played hurt last year and obviously wasn't himself, but the team won the Super Bowl, so he was all pumped up to come back this year and do it again with the same crew. But Joe Flacco took all of the cap space, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed bailed, Ray Rice replaced himself with a slow, uninterested twin of some sort and the Ravens went 8-8 in spite of Suggs' 10-sack season. Perhaps he can comfort himself with this award. Runner-up: Philip Rivers. Honorable mentions: Thomas Davis, Terrell Thomas.
You know the scene where Roy Hobbs is in his hospital bed and the Judge is trying to blackmail him into throwing the game and Hobbs says, "They'll beat you without me," and the Judge says, "Without you, they lost three in a row." Rodgers' injury gave that vibe. The Packers were 5-2 when Rodgers broke his collarbone. They lost that game and went 0-3-1 over their next four. A couple of one-point victories over the Falcons and Cowboys kept them alive, and somehow not even a Week 16 loss to the Steelers killed them. But they needed Rodgers back, and his long touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on Sunday in Chicago was the equivalent of Hobbs hitting the pennant-winning homer into the light stands with a spot of blood on his jersey. We never get to see whether the Knights go on to win the World Series. We're all looking forward to finding out.
One of the great things in sports, or in life, is when people do insane things for well-considered reasons and they work out. So, although this game could easily be remembered as another Manning-Brady duel, or for New England's comeback from a 24-0 halftime deficit, or for Knowshon Moreno's 224 rushing yards or the fact that Manning actually had to tie the score in the final minutes to even get it to overtime, you all know that none of those is the true enduring image. This is the game in which Belichick won the overtime coin toss and decided to kick instead of receive, delivering the ball to the game's best quarterback because he thought the wind was strong enough to win (or at least tie) the game for him. The Patriots won, setting up a potential playoff opportunity (in Denver, granted) for Belichick to freeze Manning with an evil stare that says, "I see you, Superstar, but it's windy, and I don't think you can handle it." You can't put a price on something like that.
A step back from last year's miracle finish was expected, but to melt down on this level would have seemed nearly impossible. To recap: Coach Mike Shanahan had a problem with the closeness of the relationship between owner Dan Snyder and quarterback Robert Griffin III. Shanahan benched Griffin, the franchise quarterback for whom Washington had traded three first-round picks, for performance reasons. Stories surfaced about discord between members of the organization and Kyle Shanahan, who is Mike's son and the offensive coordinator. Griffin's father and college coach are apparently part of the issue. The Redskins lost their final eight games and finished with a worse negative point differential than anyone but Jacksonville and Houston. That's disintegration on an epic level, and it culminated with the firing of Shanahan on Monday morning. Ego is a destructive thing, and there's been way too much ego in Washington lately. Hard to imagine how it'll get fixed.
They were 6-3 with Rodgers and Jay Cutler both hurt. Four of their final seven scheduled games were against losing teams, and another was a home Thanksgiving game against the Rodgers-less Packers. The NFC North was theirs. They didn't win it. The Lions went 1-6 with losses to the Steelers, Buccaneers, Giants and Vikings, and, as punishment, must watch not only all of the Packers' playoff games but all of Rodgers' horrible State Farm commercials on an endless loop in between the games. They're getting off easy.
Seriously, how did it take the NFL 20 years to figure out that Arians was its best coach? He won the 2012 Coach of the Year award as an interim coach, then put together one of the great second-half runs in the league with a brand-new team in 2013. You think the Seahawks aren't thrilled this team didn't make it into the postseason field? The Cardinals surely would have taken the NFC North if the Lions hadn't wanted to hand it to one of their rivals. And, although they're thrilled with Arians and will keep him, you have to admit it would be fun to hand Arians a completely different team next year and see whether he could win 10 games with that one.
Just have this sense that Brady will mess it up for Manning one more time, then win the thing in the home stadium of Peyton's kid brother, who messed it up for him twice. That all just seems to make sense. Which is why it'll probably be Eagles over Chiefs. Which would be pretty hilarious, actually.