NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Season Wrap

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
2/05/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.

Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.

Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.

Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.

 

Seattle Seahawks season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
2/05/14
2:00
PM ET
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Final power ranking: No. 1
Preseason power ranking: No. 1

Biggest Surprise: Cornerback Byron Maxwell. Considering the fact that he started the year as a third-string backup and ended the season as an impressive starter in the Super Bowl, that's about as surprising as it gets.

When right corner Brandon Browner was injured early in the season, Walter Thurmond stepped in as the starter. When Browner and Thurmond were out with suspensions, Maxwell took over and never looked back. He intercepted four passes, playing so well that Thurmond couldn't get the job back when he returned. And Browner probably wouldn't have either.

Biggest disappointment: I would have said receiver Percy Harvin, through no fault of his own, until his spectacular performance in the Super Bowl, proving he was worth the $67 million the Seahawks spent on him.

This is an extremely tough pick because most starting players lived up to expectations or exceeded them. If I have to pick one, I would say left guard James Carpenter. He played better down the stretch, but he's never lived up to the expectations of a first-round draft choice.

Biggest need: Offensive line, which should be obvious after what I said above. But Carpenter isn't the only issue.

In its defense, the line had major issues this season with injuries, and it's a minor miracle quarterback Russell Wilson made it through the season without a serious injury as much as he had to run from trouble. But there wasn't one man on the front five who played as well as expected. That includes left tackle Russell Okung, who missed eight games and was nursing a torn ligament in a big toe all season.

Right tackle Breno Giacomini, who missed seven games with a knee injury, is a free agent and may not return. The Seahawks like their rookie tackles, Alvin Bailey and Michael Bowie, but they need a difference-maker up front, either through the draft or by trade.

Some people think the Seahawks should look for a big receiver as a top priority. How much more do their receivers have to do to prove they are vastly underrated, especially with Harvin healthy? However, Golden Tate is a free agent and Doug Baldwin is a restricted free agent.

Team MVP: You certainly could make a strong argument for free safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman or running back Marshawn Lynch, but this team would not be Super Bowl winners without Wilson.

It never ceases to amaze me how some experts still criticize Wilson and label him as nothing more than a game manager, a subtle dig that he isn't that good. Well, he just managed this offense all the way to a blowout victory in the Super Bowl, including two touchdown passes.

Throw all that analytic nonsense out the window. Wilson won't throw for the most yards, complete the most passes or have the highest QB rating. By the way, is there any stat sports people understand less than QB rating?

You know what Wilson is? He's a winner, he's a gamer, he's a leader of men -- a guy who inspires others to run through walls for him. Give me 40 men with Wilson's attitude, intelligence, athletic skills and determination and I'll win the Super Bowl every year.


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Final Power Ranking: 4
Preseason Power Ranking: 2

Biggest surprise: The impact that Michael Crabtree's injury and then his return had on the team. When Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles in May, the 49ers knew it would affect their offense. But his absence was felt dramatically during the 11 games he was out. The 49ers had essentially nothing behind receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis in the passing game. However, when he returned Dec. 1, the 49ers were instantly a better, more varied, dangerous offense. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was more confident. The difference was stark.

Biggest disappointment: The loss at New Orleans on Nov. 17. The 49ers appeared to have sealed the game when linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked and forced New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to fumble late. But Brooks was called for a questionable personal foul. The Saints rallied to win. It was a major storyline in the NFL that week. Had the 49ers won, they would have finished 13-3, won a tiebreaker over Seattle in the NFC West and would not have had to play at Seattle in the playoffs.

Biggest need: The 49ers are deep. They don't have many holes. But they can use another young receiver. Boldin is 33 and a free agent. Fourth-round pick Quinton Patton looks promising, but San Francisco will likely take a speed receiver early in the draft. Expect the team to take a cornerback fairly early as well. The 49ers need to develop a young player there.

Team MVP: Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. The 25-year-old had an amazing season. He is an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He was dominant in virtually every game. He is a special playmaker. It was a sad sight seeing him being carted off in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss at Seattle with a major knee injury. Bowman is expected back next season. The 49ers need him.

New England Patriots season wrap-up

January, 22, 2014
1/22/14
1:50
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Final power ranking: 4
Preseason power ranking: 6

Biggest surprise: How about a murder charge to a tight end who had previously been thought of as a centerpiece of the team? Aaron Hernandez's murder charge threatened to sink the Patriots' season before it even started, but in a credit to Bill Belichick, his staff and the players, it was hardly a distraction as they once again advanced to the AFC Championship Game. There were no on-field surprises that could come close to topping that.

.Biggest disappointment: Rob Gronkowski's knee injury Dec. 8. This falls into the wider-ranging category of “season-ending injuries to top players” and the Patriots had their fair share early in the season -- defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6), linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13), and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 27). But Gronkowski’s felt like a season-changer in some respects, deflating some of the optimism that had been built up at that point because the offense looked markedly different with him back on the field.

Biggest need: Re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib. The four-game stretch of football he played from Sept. 22 to Oct. 13 was as impressive as we’ve seen from a Patriots cornerback in recent memory, the highlight coming when he was matched up against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and held him without a catch before leaving in the third quarter with injury. The 2013 season showed how the Patriots’ defense is different with a healthy No. 1 matchup option like Talib, with the final piece of evidence coming in the AFC Championship Game when he left with a knee injury in the second quarter.

Team MVP: It has to be quarterback Tom Brady, with Talib, receiver Julian Edelman and kicker Stephen Gostkowski the other strong candidates. This was a “do more with less” type season for Brady, similar to 2006, and he willed the offense to productive results despite almost a complete overhaul. He’s the consummate leader, almost like another coach, and the Patriots don’t advance to the conference championship without him.

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Carolina Panthers season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
1/15/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: "Riverboat Ron." Not often does a coach admit he needs to change, but Ron Rivera did after a 24-23 loss to Buffalo dropped Carolina to 0-2. He admitted he should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining and leading by three. He admitted he needed to show more confidence in his offense to make a yard and his defense to make stops. He went from one of the league's most conservative fourth-down coaches to one of the most aggressive, and added a nickname. He successfully went for it twice on the opening drive against Minnesota to start an eight-game winning streak. He went for it late on fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory to set up the winning touchdown against Miami. Carolina finished the regular season 10-of-13 on fourth-down attempts. Ironically, it was a failed attempt in the playoff game against San Francisco that led to the Panthers' 23-10 loss.

Biggest disappointment: The inability to win a home playoff game once again, which came in large part because of the team's late-season inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line in Sunday's playoff loss, and came away with no touchdowns. Four times they had an opportunity to score from the 1 and failed. Had they converted even one, it would have been a one-score game at the end, leaving open the possibility for a comeback. I'm still wondering why 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton didn't get the call on third down and less than 2 feet. You would think he could have jumped up and thrust the ball over the goal line.

Biggest need: If Newton is to have success as the team's franchise quarterback he needs to have more weapons. Outside of the aging-but-still-effective Steve Smith, and occasional moments from Ted Ginn Jr., he has none at this position. Brandon LaFell did little over the final three games to prove he should be re-signed as the team's No. 2 receiver. He could have been selected for the season's biggest disappointment. Don't be surprised to see the team address this position in free agency and the draft, which is heavy with receiver talent. It was obvious in the playoff loss against San Francisco that a major difference between Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was talent at receiver.

Team MVP: This is a tough one. Part of me says Greg Hardy, whose team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures were key to what the team does on defense. Not to mention he played every position along the defensive front at some point. But I have to go with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the league's second-ranked defense in tackles with 176. He is the brains and leader of this unit. His ability to cover some of the league's top tight ends as well as set the tone for stopping the run was invaluable. His 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against New Orleans in Week 16 helped keep the Panthers close enough to pull off a win that helped them clinch the NFC South title.

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Indianapolis Colts season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
1/15/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 8
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: The questions were valid. Was linebacker Robert Mathis' production a product of having sack-machine Dwight Freeney playing on the other side? Could Mathis still be an impact player without Freeney? Mathis silenced the naysayers when he led the league in sacks with 19.5, including seven strip sacks. Mathis didn't hide the fact that he wanted to quiet the doubters. What made his season even more special is that he did it without much help elsewhere, as the Colts had only 42 sacks as a team. Mathis is one of the front-runners to be the league's defensive player of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Safety LaRon Landry was supposed to have the same kind of impact Bob Sanders had when he played for the Colts. That's why general manager Ryan Grigson signed him to four-year, $24 million contract. Landry was good when he was able to come up with the big hits or touchdown-saving tackles, but it was too often that he ended up whiffing on a play. The plays on which he missed running back Jamaal Charles on a touchdown run in the regular-season game against Kansas City and New England's LeGarrette Blount on his touchdown run last weekend are two examples that quickly come to mind. It also doesn't help that Landry missed four games because of injury this season.

Biggest need: Help on both lines -- offensive and defensive -- should be at the top of Grigson's list during the offseason. The Colts are set at offensive tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus. Donald Thomas will be back to take one of the guard spots after he missed most of the season with a quad injury, but the other guard spot and center could use upgrades. The Colts need a defensive tackle who can clog the middle of the line.

Team MVP: This is a no-brainer. Quarterback Andrew Luck was mentioned as a league MVP candidate at one point in the season. The second-year quarterback overcame injuries to five key offensive starters -- including future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne -- to cut his interceptions in half, increase his completion percentage and throw the same number of touchdown passes despite 52 fewer attempts. Take Luck out of the lineup and the Colts would have won maybe six games this season.

 
 
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Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: The production from rookie receiver Keenan Allen is the headline here, with the turnaround of quarterback Philip Rivers a close second. The rookie season of Allen, picked in the third round of 2013 draft, was supposed to be a redshirt year. But season-ending injuries to Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander forced the Cal product to play sooner rather than later. After a sluggish start, Allen responded. He finished the regular season with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with eight. Allen finished with eight catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, emerging as an offensive rookie of the year candidate and San Diego's No. 1 receiver.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Derek Cox signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Chargers in free agency as the team's top cornerback but failed to live up to that expectation. Cox gave up several big plays and was one of the reasons San Diego's secondary struggled during the first half of the season. Cox ultimately was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran Richard Marshall in Week 13.

Biggest need: More talent in the secondary, with a pass rush help and beefing up the interior of the offensive line a close second. The Chargers gave up 23 passing touchdowns this season, No. 12 in the NFL, but 18 of those came in the first 11 games of the season. And San Diego also finished with just 11 interceptions on the season, No. 26 in the league. Veteran safety Eric Weddle played solid, mistake-free football for the most part in earning his second Pro Bowl berth, but he needs help. Shareece Wright gradually played better in his first season as a starter, but overall San Diego needs to add more young talent in the secondary.

Team MVP: Rivers elevated the play of the entire offense and deserves to be part of the conversation of league MVP. In his 10th season, Rivers benefited from former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's conversion of San Diego's offense to a short passing game. Rivers finished in the top five in completion percentage (69.5 percent), yards per pass (8.23), passing yards (4,478), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). At 32 years old, Rivers looks like he still has the ability to play a few more years at an elite level. The Chargers need to add a couple of more pieces on offense to make his job easier.

 

New Orleans Saints season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
1/15/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 6
Preseason Power Ranking: 14

Biggest surprise: Definitely the defense. Heading into this season, I was one of many who wrote that the Saints would be contenders this year if their defense could just get back to being a middle-of-the-pack unit after a disastrous 2012 performance. Instead, they were one of the NFL's best -- and they were the driving force behind several victories. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was as valuable as any coach in the league, bringing energy and innovative schemes that became especially important in the wake of several injuries. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was among the NFL's top free-agent additions. And young players such as end Cameron Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Kenny Vaccaro had breakout seasons that helped to instantly transform this unit.

Biggest disappointment: The road losses. OK, so we beat this storyline into the ground by the end of the season. But any other candidate you'd want to consider for this category (the run game, the turnover ratio, the pass protection, the run defense) only seemed to be a problem when the Saints played away from home. The dreary performances at the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams were especially disappointing. And it was so maddening to watch because every time the Saints played inside the Superdome, they looked like the new "Greatest Show on Turf." Ultimately, the Saints did prove they could win a big game on the road in the first round of the playoffs at Philadelphia. But their season ended a week later across the country in Seattle.

Biggest need: I'm torn between cornerback and offensive line. The Saints could use another top corner because Jabari Greer's future is uncertain after a major knee injury. But maybe that's their top want. They need to address the offensive line, because right tackle Zach Strief and center Brian De La Puente are unrestricted free agents. I actually think the Saints would be fine if they brought back the same starting five (they played much better down the stretch than people may realize). But I'm not sure the Saints can afford to bring both guys back. I could possibly see backups Bryce Harris or Tim Lelito stepping into those roles. But the Saints need to start restocking with young talent.

Team MVP: Sorry to be so obvious, but it's Drew Brees, who actually had one of the best seasons of his 13-year career. Everything from his yards (5,162) to his touchdowns (39) to his completion percentage (68.6) to his passer rating (104.7) to his low interception total (12) ranked among his three best performances since he has been in New Orleans. Behind him, I'd go with tight end Jimmy Graham. Even though he was kept quiet in the playoffs, his monster start was a huge reason the Saints started 5-0, and he barely let up after suffering a significant foot injury. Then it would be a tie between end Jordan and cornerback Lewis for leading the defensive revival.

Kansas City Chiefs season wrap-up

January, 8, 2014
1/08/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 19

Biggest surprise: The Chiefs plucked rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper, a seventh-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, off waivers to start the regular season. Cooper played better than the Chiefs had a right to expect for a long stretch of the season as the third cornerback. He had a rough stretch late in the season before bouncing back at the end. At 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, Cooper has the size to match up with the league's bigger receivers. Cooper projects as nothing less than the Chiefs' third cornerback next season and could eventually become a starter.

Biggest disappointment: Offensive tackle Eric Fisher was the first overall pick in the draft last year but rarely played like it. The Chiefs used Fisher on the right side, and he initially had trouble making the transition. He also had trouble avoiding nagging injuries, which caused him to miss four games, including the playoff loss to Indianapolis. Fisher should eventually develop into the kind of player the Chiefs envisioned. He showed great athletic skills that will help him reach his potential. Fisher was usually unable to anchor against a strong pass rush and that's where many of his problems occurred. A year in Kansas City's strength program will benefit Fisher greatly.

Biggest need: The Chiefs need a fast wide receiver to energize their passing game. They gambled by giving Dwayne Bowe a lucrative long-term contract last offseason, but Bowe didn't play like a No. 1 wide receiver until the playoff loss to the Colts. Bowe will turn 30 next season, so if nothing else, it's time for the Chiefs to plan for someone else to step into that top receiver's role. The Chiefs have a couple of fast wide receivers in Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins. While Avery delivered some big plays, he dropped too many passes and disappeared too many times. Jenkins hasn't been able to establish himself as a consistent threat.

Team MVP: The Chiefs have at least a couple of defensive candidates but the better choice is running back Jamaal Charles. He supplied much of Kansas City's offensive production, particularly early in the season when the offense around him frequently sputtered. Charles led the league in touchdowns and expanded his game to become a much more dangerous pass-catcher. Coach Andy Reid and his offensive staff did a much better job of getting Charles matched up against linebackers in the open field, and he rewarded them with a number of big plays. If the Chiefs had not lost five of their final seven regular-season games, Charles would have been a strong candidate for league MVP.

Cincinnati Bengals season wrap-up

January, 8, 2014
1/08/14
2:00
PM ET
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Final power ranking: 7
Preseason power ranking: 9

Biggest surprise: Giovani Bernard. When the Bengals drafted Bernard in the second round of April's NFL draft, there was a belief that -- in time -- he would be the answer to the franchise's long-documented playmaking troubles. It had been decades since the Bengals had a dynamic player who had fans buzzing the instant he touched the football. That's who Bernard was this season. While the hope was that the shifty, speedy ball carrier would be an adequate counter to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' bruising style, few anticipated just how much he would take over. He had more than 1,200 total yards to go along with eight touchdowns. He was tied for second in scores among rookie running backs. Also a surprise? Bernard's ball insecurity. After fumbling just once in the regular season, he was stripped near the goal line on a pivotal reception late in the first half of Sunday's AFC playoff loss.

Biggest disappointment: The entire team. Once again, the Bengals couldn't close out a playoff appearance with a playoff win, thereby extending their postseason victory drought to 23 years. They had a real chance to snap that streak this year, too. The talent was there. The coaching, for the most part, was there. The schemes were there. The buzz was there. The internal confidence seemed to be there, as well. But when the lights got bright and the stage got big again, the Bengals, like so many times before, simply couldn't get it done. Even though they went 11-5 and won the AFC North, this was supposed to be a Super Bowl season, not another one-and-done year.

Biggest need: Aggressive postseason play calling. For the third consecutive playoff game, the Bengals ran the ball significantly fewer times than their preseason average. Yes, late in games when a team is trailing by wide margins, it has to pass. But Cincinnati was only down four at the start of the third quarter in Sunday's game against a team it had been successful running against in the previous six quarters (the Bengals and Chargers had met just 35 days before). The Bengals got too conservative too early, and it arguably cost them the game. Other than that, they still have the pieces in place for true success. Even with possible losses in free agency or in the coaching ranks, they have the talent to be great next year. They just need to make sure they stay aggressive and hungry when they get back in the playoffs.

Team MVP: Vontaze Burfict. The linebacker led the league in tackles with 171, and contributed to a series of turnovers throughout the year. A fearless defender who rarely took plays off, Burfict's passion spilled over into the rest of the defense. While others may have been more vocal than the second-year linebacker, he was the unquestioned on-field leader of the NFL's No. 3 defensive unit. Not only did he call plays, but he was part of virtually every one, it seemed.

Philadelphia Eagles season wrap-up

January, 8, 2014
1/08/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 11
Preseason Power Ranking: 25

Biggest surprise: Easy. Nick Foles. He started six games as a rookie in 2012, winning one of them and pretty much disappearing amid the debris of a 4-12 season. He seemed like a terrible fit for new coach Chip Kelly's offense, especially in contrast to the mobile Michael Vick. When Vick pulled a hamstring, Foles seized the starting job with epic numbers: 119.2 passer rating (third best all time), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions (best ratio ever). Foles won eight of his 10 starts and led the Eagles to the NFC East championship. Anyone who says they saw Foles' season coming is fibbing.

Biggest disappointment: The outcome of Saturday night's playoff game against New Orleans -- which says something about how thoroughly Kelly changed the culture here. No one expected the Eagles to win their division and reach the playoffs, but once they did, plenty of people expected them to win the first-round home game. But LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, didn't have his best game, and the Saints caught the Eagles off guard by running the ball so much themselves. The Eagles appeared capable of beating almost anyone, including the Saints, which made the loss hard to swallow.

Biggest need: Defensive difference-makers, especially in the secondary. The cornerbacks were solid and improved steadily by season's end, but a shutdown corner or legitimate playmaking safety would help a lot. A close second would be a pass-rushing threat, preferably from the outside. Trent Cole had a good year making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, but he's not going to play forever. Funny: For the midseason version of this, I listed quarterback as the biggest need. That's how shocking Foles' performance was.

Team MVP: LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and in total yards from scrimmage, setting Eagles franchise records in both categories. No one could argue with you if you named McCoy MVP of the team, or even of the NFC. But McCoy was the running back when the Eagles were 3-5 at the midway point. It wasn't until Foles took over the starting quarterback spot that the Eagles began winning games. That seems like the very definition of "most valuable." Nevertheless, the Eagles' first NFL rushing title since Steve Van Buren probably earns McCoy the team MVP award.

 

Green Bay Packers season wrap-up

January, 8, 2014
1/08/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 13
Preseason Power Ranking: 5

Biggest surprise: How many people would have believed the Packers could win the NFC North without the services of Aaron Rodgers for seven-plus games? Maybe it was an indictment on the rest of the division but the fact that the Packers used four different starting quarterbacks this season and went 2-5-1 after Rodgers broke his collarbone on Nov. 4, and they still won the division by beating the Chicago Bears in Week 17, when Rodgers returned, could not have been expected. The saga of when Rodgers would return from his injury dominated the second half of the season.

Biggest disappointment: When general manager Ted Thompson drafted Datone Jones with the 26th overall pick in April, he thought he was getting a defensive lineman who could play on all three downs and would be equally effective against the run and rushing the quarterback. In training camp, Jones looked the part. He stood out in practices, but when it came time to produce, he couldn't deliver. By the end of the season, Jones' playing time was reduced to almost nothing. Fifth-round pick Josh Boyd was playing more snaps than Jones late in the year. Jones finished with 3.5 sacks but two came in one game.

Biggest need: The Packers have many, and they're most on the defensive side of the ball. Their entire starting defensive line -- B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly -- will be unrestricted free agents. Other than A.J. Hawk, they are weak at inside linebacker. And their safety play was atrocious at times. They don't just need contributors; they need playmakers on that side of the ball. Other than outside linebacker Clay Matthews and perhaps cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, they didn't have many big-play players on defense. Their needs are so great that Thompson, the free-agent averse GM, might not be able to rely solely on the draft to fill them all.

Team MVP: Rodgers is clearly the Packers' most important player, but this honor should go to someone who played the majority of the season. In that case, it has to be running back Eddie Lacy. It has to be rare for a rookie to be a team's MVP, but then again the second-round draft pick from Alabama proved to be a rare talent. Despite missing nearly two full games because of a concussion and half of another game because a sprained ankle, Lacy finished eighth in the league in rushing with 1,178 yards (a Packers' rookie record) and had the second-most rushing touchdowns with 11.

 

Buffalo Bills season wrap-up

January, 2, 2014
1/02/14
2:00
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Final power ranking: 25
Preseason power ranking: 30

Biggest surprise: Looking back on our season preview in August, there wasn't much that unfolded wildly differently from what was expected. We predicted the Bills to finish with a 6-10 record, which they did. We predicted a third-place finish in the AFC East; they finished fourth but had a shot at third going into Week 17. We expected some struggles out of rookie EJ Manuel; he had plenty of bumps in the road. We expected an improved defense under Mike Pettine; they jumped from 22nd in yards allowed per game to 10th. But the Bills may have surprised some by setting a team record with 57 sacks this season. As expected, Mario Williams led the charge with 13 sacks, but if there were preseason question concerning Williams, those were quickly erased. Jerry Hughes had a career-high 10 sacks, while Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus also set career marks.

Biggest disappointment: We knew entering the season that it would be tough sledding for the Bills in the passing game. But even with a rookie quarterback (Manuel) and an inexperienced fill-in (Thad Lewis), the Bills likely had higher expectations for their air attack this season. The Bills wanted a fast-paced, no-huddle offense with big-play ability. They showed flashes of it, but ultimately offensive coordinator Nate Hackett had to scale things back as the Bills went through growing pains with a young offense, especially on the road. At receiver, Buffalo dealt with injuries to three of its top four options -- Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin -- and didn’t get the most out of its talent at the position. Perhaps that’s why receivers coach Ike Hilliard will not return to the team next season.

Biggest need: Initially, the Bills don’t have any glaring holes on their roster. Safety could become a concern if Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd leaves through free agency, but the Bills found a capable option at their other safety spot this season in Aaron Williams. The bigger issue, it would seem, could be tight end. Their leading receiver this season was tight end Scott Chandler, but there is still a feeling that the Bills could get more out of that position, especially in the red zone. If Chandler departs through free agency, the Bills are in dire need of an athletic, dynamic option at that position. They would be down to Lee Smith, Chris Gragg and Tony Moeaki if Chandler does not return.

Team MVP: It may not have been statistically the best season of Fred Jackson’s career, but it’s hard to imagine the Bills being able to win six games without their offensive captain this season. Jackson is a veteran presence in the locker room, a leader whose toughness -- he played through a knee injury and, later, a rib injury -- set the tone even when the team stumbled through parts of this season. The Bills had a basement-dwelling offense, but that wasn’t Jackson’s fault. He combined for 1,283 rushing and receiving yards, as well as 10 total touchdowns. Jackson turns 33 in February, but he looked ageless this season.

 

Miami Dolphins season wrap-up

January, 2, 2014
1/02/14
2:00
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Final Power Ranking: 18
Preseason Power Ranking: 20

Biggest surprise: Tight end Charles Clay was not expected to be a starter when training camp began. The Dolphins signed proven tight end Dustin Keller in free agency and had big plans for the former New York Jets veteran. In contrast, Clay started in a backup/hybrid role at tight end and fullback. But Keller's season-ending knee injury in the preseason opened the door for Clay to take over the starting job at tight end. He immediately flourished and became one of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill's most reliable weapons. Clay set new career highs this season with 69 receptions for 759 yards and seven total touchdowns. Clay will enter next season as the unquestioned full-time starter.

Biggest disappointment: This category is two-fold, because you can't separate one linebacker from the other. Miami spent a combined $61 million on free agents Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. The goal was to get younger and faster at linebacker and, as a result, the Dolphins cut older veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. But Wheeler and Ellerbe didn't provide the immediate upgrade the Dolphins expected. Both struggled in coverage and against the run this season while learning a new defense. Still, both players recorded more than 100 tackles and should be better in their second year together in Miami's system.

Biggest need: Without a doubt, expect a huge makeover on Miami's offensive line in 2014. The Dolphins set a new franchise record with 58 quarterback sacks allowed and were 26th in rushing. Lackluster offensive-line play was the main culprit in both instances. Miami has four pending free agents with starting experience. Tackles Tyson Clabo and Bryant McKinnie, as well as guards John Jerry and the suspended Richie Incognito are all unrestricted free agents in March. Most, if not all, are not expected to return. In the wake of the bullying scandal, Jonathan Martin could become the fifth starter who won't return. This provides a perfect opportunity for the Dolphins to have a major overhaul on the offensive line by using resources in the draft and free agency.

Team MVP: The Dolphins took somewhat of a flier on cornerback Brent Grimes this past offseason. Grimes was coming off a season-ending Achilles injury with the Atlanta Falcons in 2012. Miami signed him to a one-year contract in order to see how he would bounce back and if he could play a full season. Not only did Grimes play all 16 games, he was Miami's best and most consistent defensive player. Grimes tied for the team lead with four interceptions and made his second Pro Bowl. Grimes said he believes he played the best football of his career this season. Grimes, a pending free agent, will be a huge priority in the offseason.


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Final Power Ranking: 29
Preseason Power Ranking: 29

Biggest surprise: When the Jaguars signed defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks to a one-year, $1.5 million contract last April, they thought he’d be a good fit in coach Gus Bradley’s system. Turns out he was a perfect fit. Marks plays the three-technique, which means he lines up on the guard’s outside shoulder, and that position is supposed to provide interior pass rush. Marks finished with four sacks, nine quarterback pressures and eight pass breakups -- all numbers that equaled or surpassed the totals from his first four seasons. He seemed to make at least one impactful play every game and he accounted for two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. His play earned him a four-year contract extension as one of the building blocks of the defense.

Biggest disappointment: The Jaguars’ inability to consistently run the ball, especially early in the season, was vexing. The Jaguars switched from a predominantly man-blocking scheme to a zone-blocking scheme, and the offensive line had trouble with the transition. Four of the five starters at the beginning of the season also started in 2011, when Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing. The Jaguars mixed in more man-blocking schemes as the season progressed and things got better, but the problem wasn’t “fixed.” In addition, Jones-Drew clearly was not the same player he was two years ago. He missed all but six games last season with a Lisfranc injury and also battled ankle, knee and hamstring issues this season.

Biggest need: The Jaguars have a pretty long list of needs, but two stand out above all others: quarterback and pass-rusher. Quarterback is the top need because former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert isn’t the answer and neither is Chad Henne, who will be a free agent but wants to return to Jacksonville in 2014. The Jaguars haven’t had a bona fide threat at quarterback since coach Jack Del Rio put Mark Brunell on the bench for Byron Leftwich in 2003. New general manager David Caldwell and Bradley need a player around which to build the franchise, and the Jaguars will have the opportunity to possibly find one when they pick third overall in May’s draft.

Team MVP: The first impulse is to go with middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, whose 161 tackles ranked second in the NFL. He was clearly the team’s best defensive player and arguably the best overall player. However, what Henne did to stabilize the offense earns him MVP honors. Gabbert had played terribly in the first part of the season (seven INTs, one TD) and Henne stepped in and played the most consistent football of his career. He didn’t always light it up and he made some poor decisions and mistakes, but he kept the Jaguars in games in the second half of the season and made enough plays to go 4-4 after the bye. He threw nine touchdown passes -- including the game winner against Cleveland with 40 seconds to play -- and five interceptions over the final five games.

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