Once Minnesota foiled Green Bay's money play and knocked down Aaron Rodgers' Hail Mary attempt to win the NFC North on Sunday night, another NFL regular season came to an end. While few people expected the Vikings to claim an unlikely division title and there were a variety of surprising drop-offs from perennial contenders such as the Colts and Ravens, 2015 actually ended up remarkably similar to 2014. Eight of the 12 playoff teams from a year ago will make a return trip to the postseason in 2015, with Baltimore, Indianapolis, Dallas and Detroit replaced by Kansas City, Houston, Washington and the aforementioned Vikings.
There's still plenty of playoff football to break down, but before the crucible of the postseason changes our opinions, now is a good time to look at both Week 17 and the regular season as a whole and hand out some awards for what we've seen. Some of them will coincide with actual NFL awards to be handed out in the months to come; others are, sadly, figments of my imagination. All of them are one football-addled man's opinion.
Let's start with a simple one, OK?
Comeback Player of the Year
Winner: Eric Berry, Chiefs. This seems like a simple rule. If you beat cancer and come back from offseason chemotherapy to re-establish yourself as one of the best players at your position in football, you deserve to win Comeback Player of the Year. With all due respect to Carson Palmer, Tyrann Mathieu and nearly half of the Cardinals' roster, this should not be up for debate. All agreed? Good.
Comeback Player of the Week
Winner: Peyton Manning, Broncos. Well, who saw that one coming? In the midst of a frustrating game against one of the worst teams in football, Gary Kubiak suddenly decided that his team "needed a spark" and benched Brock Osweiler for the previously deposed Manning. Manning promptly led the Broncos to 20 points over their next five drives, which was just enough to push Denver to a 27-20 victory and the top seed in the AFC.
The timing of Kubiak's decision is bizarre. Denver's offense had been moving the ball against a dismal San Diego defense, only to be stopped in its tracks by no fewer than five turnovers. Osweiler was involved with three of the giveaways, but it's hard to make a strong case that they were his fault. One was an interception that went through his receiver's hands. His second interception saw a defender strike Osweiler's arm as he was following through. You can make a stronger case for the fumble Osweiler lost when he failed to set his protection properly or feel blindside pressure, but even that happened early in the second quarter. Osweiler was taken out only after a C.J. Anderson fumble on Denver's opening possession of the second half.
It's difficult to understand why Kubiak would turn to Manning for a respite from turnovers, given how Manning threw 17 interceptions in nine games before missing the past six contests because of injury. The Broncos did manage to go the rest of the way without turning the ball over, but I would be careful to avoid mistaking correlation with causation. Chances are that the Broncos were going to stop turning the ball over either way against a San Diego defense that was the fourth-worst unit in the league in terms of creating takeaways heading into the game.
Manning didn't play notably well in his return to the lineup, going 5-of-9 for 69 yards while showing the same pronounced lack of arm strength he exhibited earlier in the campaign. What was interesting is that Kubiak kept Manning under center and had him hand the ball off that way, similar to the preseason plan and the way Kubiak employed Osweiler once the fourth-year man entered the lineup. The pistol, which Kubiak installed to try to suit Manning while he struggled in September, appeared to be scrapped.
The short- and long-term futures of Manning and Osweiler seem entirely up in the air now. Osweiler was one week removed from a triumphant comeback victory over the Bengals; now, can Kubiak go back to him as a starter in the postseason two weeks from now, knowing that the fans will call for Manning if Osweiler so much as misses a pass on the opening drive? Will the Broncos still make an effort to re-sign Osweiler this offseason, or does this amount to giving up on their young quarterback?
Perhaps more important, can Kubiak really trust that Manning -- who was written off as too injured to play as recently as Sunday morning -- is the better option of the quarterbacks on his roster? Manning would likely end up facing the dominant pass rush of the Chiefs or the unbearable pressure of J.J. Watt at home in cold weather, and Kubiak would have only two weeks to get his previously benched starter up to speed. Manning might not have shown enough to win the job, but Kubiak's decision-making might have left the Denver coach with no other choice.
Collapse of the Year
Winner: Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons finished their fall from the 5-0 ranks with a loss to the Saints on Sunday. It's one thing to note that Dan Quinn's team failed to make the playoffs, remarkable given that 66 of the previous 72 teams (91.7 percent) to start 5-0 since the merger managed to reach the postseason. It's even worse when you consider that Atlanta's 20-17 loss to New Orleans dropped it to 8-8, making the Falcons just the sixth team since the merger to start 5-0 and subsequently fail to post a winning record.
A combination of factors have sunk Atlanta. It has posted the league's second-worst turnover ratio (minus-12) since Week 6, topped only by the Cowboys, who were starting people out of the party pit at quarterback by the end of the year. The Falcons were tied for the league lead in lost fumbles over that time frame while recovering only four opposition fumbles, the second-lowest total in the league. Their pass defense was 24th in QBR and 31st in sack rate, leading only the Bills, who ... actually ...
Collapse of the Week
Winner: New York Jets. Having done the hard work in beating the Patriots last week, the Jets laid an egg against a Bills team that had been whipped into a frenzy by Rex Ryan. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw interceptions on each of New York's three fourth-quarter possessions, including a devastating pick in the end zone on a drive when the Jets could have taken the lead with a field goal. It was a brutal return to form for the journeyman gunslinger, who had thrown just one interception during Gang Green's five-game winning streak.
It wasn't just Fitzpatrick, though. The Jets played sloppy football for most of the day. The Bills substituted in EJ Manuel on a fourth-and-3 in the second quarter, and the backup promptly drew the Jets offsides on a hard count, bizarre given that the Jets surely would have been thrilled to actually see Manuel snap the ball. Kicker Randy Bullock missed a 40-yarder that could have changed the course of the game as it stayed tight in the second half. And Darrelle Revis was lit up by Sammy Watkins, who had 11 catches for 136 yards. Who knew Revis Island was an all-inclusive?
Victory was enough to knock the Jets out of the postseason for the Steelers, who comfortably handled the Browns during Mike Pettine Farewell Day in Cleveland. Let's hope this win over a would-be playoff team at the end of the year absolves the Bills of their own curse. The last time the Bills were bound for the playoffs was 2004, when they needed to beat a Steelers team with nothing to play for in Week 17 to clinch a playoff berth. The 14-1 Steelers ran out their backups and beat the Bills anyway. Buffalo hasn't sniffed the postseason since, but after doing Pittsburgh a solid, any curse should now be lifted.
Of course, that almost wasn't the case ...
The Disaster Averted Award
Winner: Mario Butler, Bills. As the Jets were driving, down five with no timeouts and 24 seconds left, they nearly pulled out a miraculous touchdown. Ryan Fitzpatrick saw an open Kenbrell Thompkins streaking down the right sideline and hit him, only for Butler to frantically knock the pass away at the last moment with his helmet as he sprinted past Thompkins, saving a touchdown and keeping his name out of Pittsburgh lore as the man who cost the Steelers a postseason berth.
Make no mistake: This was a desperate play, not a good one. It's inexplicable that Thompkins managed to get so open down the sideline when the Jets were trying to throw deep and to the sides of the field. It's the closest thing we've seen to the Rahim Moore playoff disaster against the Ravens since that game, and it would have defined Butler's career. Instead, by the narrowest of margins, he went from goat to hero.
Unlikeliest Touchdown of the Year
Winner: Ryan Lindley to Andre Johnson, Colts. Perhaps it's recency bias, but this is an awful tough one to imagine. Lindley was the fifth quarterback to take snaps for the Colts this year, with fourth starter Josh Freeman on the sideline during Indy's two-minute drill. He was signed just last week because the Colts needed warm bodies at quarterback; Lindley was so far out of the league that his Twitter profile advertised his real estate business. How many top-level professional players in other sports -- let alone NFL quarterbacks -- leave their cellphone number on the Web so you can rent a house from them?
If this is how Lindley's football career comes to a close, it's a much happier ending than last season's playoff debacle for Arizona.
Most Impressive Victory of the Year
Winner: Seahawks 36, Cardinals 6. Again, it might be unfair to go with this game because it just happened, but is there any single-game performance that really compares to what the Seahawks just did? Start with the top two teams in each conference -- Arizona, Carolina, Denver and New England -- and none of those four had lost by anything resembling this sort of margin until this week. The closest thing was Kansas City's 29-13 win over Denver in Week 10. This was nearly twice the margin of victory, and it didn't involve a clearly injured Peyton Manning. Beating a team this good on the road by this much just doesn't happen very frequently. Per PFR, this is just the fourth time that an underdog of seven points or more has gone on the road and beaten a playoff team by 30 points or more.
The Seahawks bombed the Cardinals with their newly dominant passing game. Russell Wilson was 19-of-28 for 197 yards and three touchdowns in a wildly efficient day. He finished the second half of the season with an 84.7 QBR, the league's best figure, completing 67.5 percent of his passes while throwing 25 touchdowns against two picks. He became the latest quarterback to pick on struggling Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel, a special-teams dynamo who is taking more defensive snaps after Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL. Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse with a beautiful fade over Bethel for a 25-yard touchdown Sunday.
It was more surprising that the Seahawks gave Carson Palmer such fits; even knowing how good the Seattle defense can be when it's on its game, Palmer has been incredible this season, as he finished the season with a league-best QBR of 82.1. The Seahawks frustrated Palmer on Sunday with a different look. In obvious passing situations, they overloaded one side of the line with three defensive linemen, which isn't in itself uncommon. Then, though, the Seahawks repeatedly dropped one of those linemen back into coverage to try to take away shallow crosses and other underneath routes, with the hope of subsequently dropping their linebackers deeper into coverage than their hook zones would typically allow. It's not a revolutionary strategy, but every little nuance helps when you're trying to stop an offense as good as Arizona's. Seattle will hope to get a shot at winning a rubber match against Palmer in the NFC Championship Game.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Marcus Peters, Chiefs. Let's run through some of the traditional awards and start with another no-brainer. Peters isn't quite yet a shutdown corner, as he has been beaten plenty, but as a takeaway machine for what has quietly been the league's best defense since the end of September, he has been a wildly valuable player in his debut season. His eight interceptions marks just the third time since 1996 that a rookie defensive back has recorded eight or more picks in a year, with Peters the first since Jairus Byrd in 2009. He finishes comfortably ahead of Ronald Darby, Leonard Williams and Damarious Randall.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Todd Gurley, Rams. This, on the other hand, is far more agonizing. You can make a case for as many as five winners, and even that is leaving out Marcus Mariota because he missed the better part of five games with injuries. Gurley missed four games, but there also was a stretch when he looked like the best player at his position in all of football. Despite playing without much of an offensive line and with virtually no passing game to speak of, Gurley still managed to average 4.8 yards per carry on his first 229 rushing attempts.
And, really, you can pick any of the four other players. Jameis Winston put the Bucs on his back on a weekly basis and tripled their win total from a year ago. David Johnson scored 13 touchdowns and was a more versatile player than Gurley. Amari Cooper was second in the league in drops (10), but he also bailed out Derek Carr with a number of contested catches throughout the campaign. Tyler Lockett did just about everything this year before tearing up the Cardinals on Sunday for 139 yards across four punt returns. None of them hit Gurley's ridiculous, position-defining ceiling, though, and that's why I tip the award ever so slightly in his favor.
Coach of the Year
Winner: Ron Rivera, Panthers. I think Rivera might have had it a little tougher during his first Coach of the Year run in 2013, the season when he had to reinvent himself to become Riverboat Ron, but this is another remarkable coaching job with a very limited roster. He has helped bring along a true No. 1 cornerback in Josh Norman, which helped weather Carolina's issues up front when the Panthers went without Luke Kuechly and Charles Johnson at different times this season. Carolina's other starters in the secondary are Charles Tillman, Kurt Coleman and 33-year-old Roman Harper, and Rivera (in concert with Sean McDermott) has managed to build a dominant defense with those parts. And that's without considering how good the offense looked despite having Ted Ginn as a No. 1 wideout and question marks all along the offensive line heading into the year.
Non-QB Coach of the Year
Winner: Bill O'Brien, Texans. Here's a variant on Coach of the Year. While attempting to remove quarterback play from the discussion as much as possible, who did the best job with the rest of his roster? O'Brien deserves to at least be in that discussion. Granted, the former Penn State coach nearly screwed things up royally by benching Brian Hoyer for Ryan Mallett in Week 1 in the hopes of finding that aforementioned "spark," then going back and forth before finally settling on Hoyer for good. (In part because Mallett, of course, famously missed a flight.)
The Texans have been hit hard by injuries, including the likely season-ender suffered by left tackle Duane Brown just days before he was going to meet up with a returning Justin Houston in the playoffs, but O'Brien has done a great job of relying on his defense and rebuilding his running game around no fewer than four starting quarterbacks this year. Houston turned the ball over 10 times in its first five games, but since going back to Hoyer for good as the starter in Week 6, the Texans have just 10 giveaways in their ensuing 11 games. You can squeeze the Texans and nothing comes out.
Traditionalist Narrative of the Year
Winner: Adrian Peterson, Expensive Famous RB. All Day is the one veteran running back who has managed to lift his offense to another level this year by returning to the lineup. He has gone against the grain of traffic in the other direction, where teams around the league have seen star running backs disappear with injuries and carried on -- or even gotten better on offense -- without missing a beat.
Really, think about it. The Texans haven't missed Arian Foster. Buffalo's young backups have outplayed LeSean McCoy. The Steelers have had one of the league's best offenses without Le'Veon Bell, although they might be tested in the postseason if DeAngelo Williams has a high ankle sprain. The Chiefs have gotten better without Jamaal Charles. Seattle's offense kicked into high gear without Marshawn Lynch and even looked fine these past two weeks without Thomas Rawls. Arizona has gotten contributions from Chris and David Johnson. Jeremy Langford is allowing the Bears to let Matt Forte leave. All of Philadelphia's cheaper backs look better than DeMarco Murray. Even the Saints have managed to improve while replacing Mark Ingram with Tim Hightower. Teams around the league have been stuck going to the well at running back but have come away without losing much at all.
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: J.J. Watt, Texans. Both Watt and fellow top contender Josh Norman slipped over the final month of the year, with Norman posting subpar games against Odell Beckham Jr. (it wasn't to Norman's credit that Beckham dropped that first-quarter TD) and Julio Jones, while Watt struggled to make his usual impact while wearing a cast on his broken hand. Watt took the cast off Sunday and went back to his usual self, ripping apart the hapless Jaguars offensive line for 3.5 sacks, 4 hits and 2 pass deflections.
Norman was the best cornerback in football in 2015, but Watt is the best defensive lineman in football by a far greater margin. It's not that Watt won the sack title by 2.5 sacks; it's that he knocked down quarterbacks 50 times when second-place Aaron Donald, at 37 hits, was as close to 11th as he was to first. Watt also led the league in tackles for loss on running plays for the third consecutive year. He's playing a different game than everybody else is.
Offensive Player of the Year
Winner: Russell Wilson, Seahawks. If you want to give this award to a non-quarterback, which is a totally reasonable thing to do, I think you give it to Antonio Brown over Julio Jones or DeAndre Hopkins. It just seemed as though there should be a place to honor Wilson, who has been remarkably good over the second half of the season. He has 25 touchdowns against two picks! Wilson's receivers have even dropped 5.2 percent of his passes over that time frame, the sixth-highest rate in the league. He was dominant against a truly great Cardinals defense yesterday with his best lineman (Russell Okung) injured while throwing to a receiving corps of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Cooper Helfet, Chase Coffman, Tyler Lockett and Kevin Smith.
Moneymaker of the Year
Winner: Kirk Cousins, Washington. For the player who raised his stock more than anybody else in football this season. Cousins came into the year as a quarterback prone to fits of giveaways that eroded virtually all of his value as a passer. After adjusting for era, Cousins threw interceptions more frequently than anybody else in NFL history heading into this season.
And then, somehow, after posting four two-interception games in the first six weeks of the year, Cousins simply stopped throwing picks. Ever since launching Washington's comeback win over Tampa Bay in the now-famous "You like that!?" game, Cousins has been a different quarterback altogether. Split his career across that game and you can see the staggering change:
Before the season, if Cousins had played at his previous level, he would have been in line to receive money commensurate with the Brian Hoyers of the world, something in the $5-6 million per year range on a two-year deal with the first year guaranteed. Let's say $6.5 million guaranteed. That's not bad whatsoever, but it's a relatively low ceiling, and Cousins' path to playing time likely would have been for a franchise like Cleveland.
Now? Given how well Cousins has played the past two months, it's almost impossible to imagine Washington letting him go, given how limited its options are at quarterback elsewhere. That leaves Cousins with enormous amounts of leverage, which should allow him to extract a very meaningful deal. It wouldn't be out of the question for Washington to cut Robert Griffin III and use the $16.1 million cap hold assigned to RG III to franchise Cousins, which would guarantee Cousins something in the $19 million range for one year.
If Washington somehow let him test free agency, Cousins could very well be the best free-agent quarterback option available since Drew Brees in a market full of potential suitors. Let's just pick a team as an example. The Browns could get to $31 million in cap space with a few obvious moves. We don't know what their GM will do, but could Cleveland really resist offering Cousins $50 million guaranteed as part of a deal resembling the Jay Cutler contract? And if Washington knows that the Browns are that desperate, can it make Cousins a similarly impressive offer to stay in town? It's possible the league might decide to collectively pass and make Cousins prove he can do this again, but it's more plausible that he'll settle for -- at minimum -- the franchise tag. That's an awful nice raise for a guy who was third on the depth chart this time last year.
Most Valuable Player
Winner: Cam Newton, Panthers. After everything, though, the most important individual award isn't much of a fight at all. Cam already got the big deal when the Panthers locked him up to a five-year, $103 million extension this summer. What's truly impressive is that, after four years of grossly outperforming his rookie contract, he's doing the same thing now with his big-money extension. Now, all he's got to do is lead the Panthers to their first Super Bowl in 12 years.