Winners and Losers from NFL's Final Regular Season Sunday
There's good news and bad news, NFL fans.
First, the good news: the playoffs start next week.
Now, the bad news: we can't watch 10 consecutive hours of football for eight months.
Week 17 is always the most bittersweet day of an NFL season, but at least this one brought an abundance of drama, playoff implications, record chasers, coaches vying for jobs and players vying to retain their football integrity.
Which players emerged winners, and which emerged as losers?
Here's a look.
Winner: Alfred Morris
The Washington Redskins will forever remember 2012 as the year Robert Griffin arrived.
After Sunday night's game, it might be remembered as the year Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris arrived.
While RGIII has soaked up the spotlight in Washington, Morris has quietly rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns in a sensational rookie season. With Griffin hindered by a knee injury, the tables turned and Morris finally got his chance to take center stage—and oh, did he deliver.
Morris rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns, shredding a hapless Cowboys front seven. This performance lends some credence to Marcus Spears' comments:
"[Morris] is probably the most dangerous guy on [the Redskins'] offense...RGIII is the phenom that everybody loves, but [Morris] has been killing people. If you watch from a football game plan, as a player in the game, this running back is the most dangerous guy on the offense."
It's clear that Morris deserves far more credit for Washington's success.
Loser: Tony Romo
As the inevitable media firestorms ensues from the Cowboys loss, you'll hear plenty of talk about how he caved. While Romo's ill-advised fourth quarter interception may have sealed Dallas' fate, you cannot put this game squarely on his shoulders.
Did Tony Romo let the Alfred Morris run for 200 yards?
Is he responsible for Dallas' subpar rushing attack, or its defense's inability to slow down the Redskins offense?
How about injuries to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant?
Romo will take the fall and he undoubtedly deserves a large share of the slack. He's the quarterback and he's now 1-6 in games when facing elimination. But, he should not be pinned as the sole scapegoat for this loss.
Winner: Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson finished the 2012 season just nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing yards record, but he accomplished something far more impressive. He carried the Minnesota Vikings into the playoffs.
Peterson rushed for 199 yards in Minnesota's Week 17 win over the Green Bay Packers, which secured the franchise's first playoff berth since 2009. Peterson capped off a four-week stretch of utter dominance, during which he rushed for 651 yards.
The Vikings were .500 four weeks ago, and their playoff hopes were waning rapidly. Despite subpar play from Christian Ponder, Peterson put the team on his back and carried it into the sixth seed.
And, oh yeah, he's only one year removed from a torn ACL.
Serious question: Are we sure AP is human?
Loser: Aldon Smith
Speaking of individual records, Aldon Smith entered Week 17 with a chance to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record.
Even though Smith needed a 3.5-sack game to do it, he couldn't have asked for a better matchup. The 49ers faced a Cardinals team that not only surrendered more sacks than any other NFL team, but also gave quarterback Brian Hoyer his first NFL start.
Despite this dreamlike setup, Smith was a non-factor on Sunday. In fact, he accrued only two tackles and one quarterback hit. This might not sound like a big deal—after all, the guy did just have an 18.5 sack season—but consider this:
Aldon Smith completely sack-less in 10-ish quarters since Justin Smith left with injury. Hmmmmm.— Will Brinson (@willbrinson) December 31, 2012
Is it possible the 49ers' other Smith is the most vital ingredient to their dominant pass rush?
Winner: Chuck Pagano
The 2012 NFL season will forever be remembered for its uncanny comebacks.
Peyton Manning quarterbacked the Denver Broncos to 13 wins after a neck injury threatened to end his career. Adrian Peterson challenged the NFL's single-season rushing record after making an impossibly fast return from a torn ACL.
But, both of these comeback stories pale in comparison to that of Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with leukemia in October. When news of his diagnosis broke, team owner Jim Irsay said, "I think it's unlikely he'll be all-in as the head coach the rest of this season. He may be able to come back and be in the press box or something."
Roughly three months after he left the team, Pagano didn't just return to the press box—he returned to the sidelines. Inspired by their coach's miraculous return, the Colts capped off an incredible season with a victory over the Houston Texans.
Loser: Mike Mularkey & Lovie Smith
At least 10 NFL head coaches entered Week 17 on the hot seat, but two of them—Chicago's Lovie Smith and Jacksonville's Mike Mularkey—entered it in particularly precarious positions.
The Bears got off to a scorching hot 7-1 start this season, but proceeded to lose five of their next eight games. Even though Chicago finished the year with a respectable 10-6 record, it failed to make the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
To further complicate matters, Smith's contract expires after next season and the Bears have not initiated extension talks. This late-season stumble could bring the end to his nine-year tenure in Chicago.
While the Bears practiced great patience with Smith, the Jacksonville Jaguars may take an alternative avenue and cut ties with Mike Mularkey after just one season. The Jaguars just completed another dismal two-win season, and there's a good chance whoever replaces general manager Gene Smith will clean house.
Losing Sunday's season finale to a dreadful Titans team will make Mularkey's chances of retaining his job even slimmer.
Winner: John Elway
This is an actual headline from a story that ran on FOX Denver's website in March: "Many Tebow fans not happy Manning coming to Broncos."
John Elway was maligned by those fans for signing the best quarterback of our generation (because that's totally rational), but it turns out signing Manning may pay immediate dividends in the form of a 2012 Super Bowl title.
On Sunday, the Broncos continued their 11-game winning streak and clinched home-field advantage by annihilating the Chiefs 38-3. This team clearly has championship potential, and it's not solely because of Manning. John Elway has quietly constructed a deep roster seething with talent thanks to the acquisitions of players like Von Miller, Orlando Franklin, Chris Harris, Tony Carter, Joel Dreessen and others.
Loser: Michael Vick
With Nick Foles sidelined by a broken hand, Michael Vick got one final start as a Philadelphia Eagle.
Vick is expected to be the most sought after veteran quarterback on the free agent market this offseason. Yesterday's game gave him a chance to audition for future suitors, and a solid performance could've boosted his value.
Unfortunately for Vick's bank account, things got predictably ugly.
He completed 19 of 35 passes for 197 yards and tacked on a touchdown and an interception. Those numbers aren't terrible by any means—especially when you consider he played behind a futile offensive line and uninspired team—but a 35-point loss reflects poorly upon him.
Given how much NFL teams value quarterbacks, Vick is bound to receive a nice payday, anyway. And, hey, maybe if he goes to a team with a competent offensive line, then he'll prove us all wrong.
Winner: Jordy Nelson
Remember when Jim Schwartz inadvertently awarded the Houston Texans a touchdown when he tried to challenge a play on Thanksgiving?
Well, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy did the same exact thing on Sunday, but wide receiver Jordy Nelson came to the rescue with one of the smartest, most heads-up plays of the year. Nelson technically out-coached his own coach by immediately recognizing McCarthy's illegal maneuver. He quickly scooped the flag up and tried to conceal.
Although the officials noticed and penalized the Packers anyway, how many players have the awareness to do that?
Nelson also caught a gorgeous 73-yard touchdown pass, so that was pretty cool too.
Loser: Mark Sanchez
Somehow, someway, things keep getting worse for Mark Sanchez.
With just 60 minutes remaining in his nightmarish season, he had a chance to end his year on a high note against a Bills defense that gave up 50 points to the Seattle Seahawks three weeks ago.
Instead, Sanchez turned in another offensive performance, completing just 17 of 35 passes for 205 yards. He also threw a pick-six and coughed up two fumbles. Sanchez finished the game with a 55.1 quarterback rating.
Gang Green's next general manager will immediately be tasked with determining which quarterback to reach for in the draft.