The NFL season has only one week left, so it seems safe to start handing out some of the big end of season awards (at least it's more timely than the awarding of Pro Bowl spots).
There was plenty to like about the 2011 season, as the league reconvened after a lengthy summer lockout. Fortunately for fans, a deal was struck and the league was able to reconvene with the preseason Hall of Fame game as its only casualty (in comparison to the much more painful resolution to the recently-ended NBA lockout).
With games resuming, we've been treated to one of the more fun seasons in recent memory, with plenty of fresh teams rising up to become competitive for the first time in years. It may be the lockout talking, but it's also been one of the best years for great highlight moments as well.
Here are the awards for the 2011 season.
New York Giants' quarterback Eli Manning is clutch, and any doubters of this fact can be pointed to his huge performance as the New York Giants dropped the New England Patriots in Week 9, 24-20.
The Patriots may have figured the game was over, after taking a three point lead with 1:36 left in the game. However, that margin was just enough for Manning to lead the game-winning drive. Moving his team 80 yards in about a minute, Manning's touchdown pass to tight end Jake Ballard with only 15 seconds left would give them the win.
The Giants now must beat the Dallas Cowboys in the final game of the season if they plan on making another run for the Super Bowl.
Honorable Mention: Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots, Week 3; San Francisco 49ers vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Week 4.
In a miserable matchup, the Seattle Seahawks vs. the Cleveland Browns in Week 7 turned out to be as bad as projected. Neither side scored a touchdown, both sides committed turnovers and the victorious Browns had multiple blocked field goals (nice work Red Bryant).
The Seahawks couldn't produce 150 yards of offense, while the Browns struggled to get near 300 yards despite having position of the ball for nearly three-fourths of the game (42:56).
Surely this will be remembered as a game for all to forget.
Honorable mention: Almost any game on Monday Night Football, almost any game with the Indianapolis Colts.
The football gods were not pleased with the New Orleans Saints running up the score on the lowly Indianapolis Colts, and were brought down to earth in a humbling loss to the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams, for their part, struggled the entire year. Sam Bradford regressed and got hurt, and injuries ripped up their defense.
However, a stellar day from Steven Jackson was the difference, as his 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns were the boost the Rams needed. Saints' quarterback Drew Brees was not his best, chucking two interceptions and getting out-quarterbacked by the Rams' A.J. Feeley.
The Rams would take the win 31-21.
Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver Jerome Simpson had made a big splash in my awards column, but in the worst possible way (with a hilarious flop against the Cleveland Browns).
However, that should be forgotten after this once-in-a-lifetime touchdown this past Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Taking the Andy Dalton pass, he worked his way to the left, before completing a full front flip over a defender into the end zone. Sticking the landing, I'm sure he received high marks from the judges.
The positive story of the 2011 season has been the turnaround for several teams that had been out of the running for years.
As examples, the Detroit Lions will make their first playoff appearance since the 1999 season, and the San Francisco 49ers qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2003. The Houston Texans qualified for their first playoff spot in franchise history, all while blowing through starting quarterbacks.
The NFL isn't always the shining example for parity, but successes like these show that turnarounds may never be too far away.
The story that both fans and the NFL will both have to come to terms with are the dangers of brain injuries to the players that play the game.
In addition to several deaths of prep players who had concussion-like symptoms, one of the most disheartening stories over the offseason was the suicide of Dave Duerson.
Duerson, the former Chicago Bears great, committed suicide over the offseason, but directed gunshots to his chest, in order to donate his brain to science. As he had suspected, he had developed C.T.E. over the course of his career, the debilitating brain condition that is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia.
Sadly, it seems that the lessons on concussions aren't going around fast enough. Most disappointingly, the Cleveland Browns sent in quarterback Colt McCoy almost immediately after he took a devastating shot. Even worse, they did so without having an outside doctor screen him appropriately.
While the league has reacted with some rule changes on the matter, it's a sad sign that there is much to be settled in ensuring player safety.
Detroit Lions' defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is not afraid to go for the big hit, but his play on Thanksgiving Day against the Green Bay Packers was inexcusable.
Caught in a small scrum at the line, video cameras caught him stomping on the Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith, prompting his immediate ejection.
For the move, he was suspended for two games.
I'm not sure there's any logical explanation for how the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones came down with this diving catch in triple coverage against the Indianapolis Colts.
The refs couldn't believe it either, and initially ruled the play an incompletion. Going to the replay, it's clear that Jones cleanly made the grab, which was good for a 50-yard touchdown.
"Nice catch, guy!"
It may not be apparent in the voice of announcer Joe Buck, but this is a fake-out of a lifetime.
Returning a punt, Chicago Bears' wide receiver Devin Hester (one of the best punt returners in NFL history) stepped up as if he were going to make the play. However, the ball was actually on the other side of the field, in the hands of fellow wide receiver Johnny Knox. Knox moved the ball the length of the field untouched, rolling in for an easy score.
However, the play was called back due to a (very questionable) holding call. Despite the penalty, it is by far one of the most complete fake-outs ever to take place on a football field.
The so-called "Dream Team" were anything but as they failed to make the playoffs with one of the most talented squads in the league.
Adding several big names in the offseason, including cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive lineman Jason Babin, the team was expected to be an instant title contender. However, injuries (along with a complete lack of a linebacking corps) proved to be the team's downfall. It could never build the right momentum, and by the time the team played its best, it was too late.
Despite the overall rocky season, the team was somehow able to hang in the race for the NFC East crown until being eliminated from the playoffs this week with the New York Giants' win over the New York Jets.
A 2010 record 6-10 to a possible 13-3 record in 2011 and the team's first playoff appearance since 2003. The San Francisco 49ers have experienced a complete turnaround this season, and a lot of the credit for this success has to fall to head coach Jim Harbaugh.
In addition to getting smart play from his men, Harbaugh got the best out of quarterback Alex Smith. Taking the pressure of winning games on his own off his shoulders, Smith has had the best season of his career.
Harbaugh's excellent coaching this season has fans (many who had gone dormant during the dark years of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary) excited to see what this team can do in the playoffs.
Honorable Mention: Mike McCarthy, Gary Kubiak, Jim Schwartz.
He may not have the wins of the Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton, but there is no denying the talent that is Carolina Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton.
Given the reins to a franchise in a complete state of disarray, Newton has blown up the stat sheet, putting his team in games that they really should have no business being in due to their defense (see their close loss to the Green Bay Packers).
He has a lot to learn for next season, particularly in figuring out how to score in the red zone without sacrificing himself, but the Panthers' organization should be thrilled that they have this guy on their side. He's an absolute beast, and will terrorize opposing defenses for years to come.
Honorable Mention: Andy Dalton, Aldon Smith (a half sack away from tying Javon Kearse's rookie sack record), Patrick Peterson, DeMarco Murray, A.J. Green.
Things got a little testy for the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh and the Detroit Lions' Jim Schwartz in a postgame handshake.
Harbaugh, a little over-excited after the team's win, slapped Schwartz's back, prompting a near fight between the two. The coaches were separated, and after the game Harbaugh apologized for the initiating slap.
I'd say they should shake hands and make up, but that may not be the best idea at this point.
This award, for the player generating the most ink in print and digitally, goes to Denver Broncos' quarterback Tim Tebow.
Tebow has been inescapable, if not for his winning ways then for his devout religious principles (which are a major part of his public persona). This attention has only risen as Tebow helped the Broncos win several games with clutch fourth quarter play.
His constant media presence may be annoying to some, and his lack of fundamentals may annoy others, but Chuck Klosterman's write-up about Tebow may have nailed this point succinctly: He challenges us to believe things we don't fully believe.
While losses to the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills have been humbling, there's no questioning there is much more to be said about the prospects of Tebow down the road.
One of the major disappointments for the 2011 season has been the lousy play of the Arizona Cardinals, particularly after the signing of quarterback Kevin Kolb (for a painfully high price). Since arriving, Kolb has failed to stay healthy and produce in a way that can bring hope to Cardinals fans.
Though many of the team's losses can't be blamed on Kolb, it's clear that he didn't carry his weight. Even worse, he may find his time to shine running short. With backup John Skelton now winning games to close out the season, he may find some tight competition for the starter role next season.
Dishonorable Mention: Donovan McNabb, Chris Johnson.
With the exception of the team's (only) loss against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers have been nothing short of phenomenal.
Running one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the league, it seems like he always has a way to stretch the field and make opposing defenses pay for giving him the slightest hole to throw into. One of three quarterbacks on track to break Dan Marino's passing record, he has proven himself invaluable to his team's success.
The Packers will enter the playoffs with the NFC's No. 1 seed, and will need even more great play from Rodgers as they hope to repeat as NFL champions.
Honorable Mention: Drew Brees, Tom Brady.