The 20 Biggest Surprises from the 2012 NFL Regular Season
In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons secured home-field advantage in a conference where every playoff team has shown the ability to be a viable threat for a playoff run.
The regular season has come to a close, which is a good time to look back at the 20 biggest surprises of this NFL year.
20. Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions Endure Setbacks
The Detroit Lions were viewed as a team on the rise after their 10-win season in 2011, which included a postseason appearance.
However, the team struggled mightily in 2012 due in large part to a lack of discipline and maturity under head coach Jim Schwartz.
Ndamukong Suh has not lived up to his top draft selection as a whole due to his inability to be a consistent pass-rusher and anchor a veteran defensive front that struggled this year.
The development of Matthew Stafford is a cause for concern, as he threw for 20 touchdowns after throwing for 41 the previous year. Concerns about him throwing off his back foot, along with his knack to throw costly interceptions, came to fruition for the Lions this year.
Calvin Johnson had a splendid season, but his success was overshadowed by the fact that he is a part of a 4-12 team.
19. Kansas City Chiefs Are a Major Disappointment
It would be an understatement to say that the Kansas City Chiefs were a disappointment this season. With two wins in 2012, their season proved to be a disaster from the start.
Once considered to be a potential division winner in 2012, the Chiefs started off slow and ultimately never recovered.
Matt Cassel was a major problem at the quarterback position, and he is proving that he should be nothing more than a career backup.
However, the defense deserves blame as well, as notable young stars such as Tamba Hali and Eric Berry should have made a difference for this team.
It appears that the Chiefs will be leaning toward quarterback Geno Smith with the first pick in the 2013 draft, but a lot of big decisions will be made in the offseason beginning this week.
18. Philip Rivers Regresses
The San Diego Chargers endured another difficult season, which included a third straight season without appearing in the playoffs. Changes are expected on the coaching staff, but the Chargers need to take a hard look at the quarterback situation after Philip Rivers' sudden decline in 2012.
When mentioning Rivers' overall play, it's easy to look at the alarming number of turnovers over the past two seasons. However, his lack of arm strength and his inability to be an accurate quarterback are major concerns, especially since he had this team just short of a Super Bowl appearance a few years ago.
Ultimately, the opportunity for Rivers to be an elite quarterback is long gone. The question remains how long will he remain a starting quarterback in this league.
17. Rookie Running Backs Shine in 2012
As the NFL continues to become a quarterback-driven league, rookie quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck gain the most notoriety for their teams.
However, the number of successful rookie running backs was just as impressive.
Trent Richardson lived up to his high draft choice in his rookie year, becoming the most consistent offensive threat for the young and surging Cleveland Browns.
Doug Martin benefited from playing in Greg Schiano's offense, amassing over 1,000 rushing yards by the middle of the season and drawing comparisons to Ray Rice.
Meanwhile, Alfred Morris was a sixth-round pick who contributed mightily all season. His latest success came in the de facto NFC East championship against the Cowboys.
16. New Orleans Saints Struggle in Sean Payton's Absence
There was no question that the New Orleans Saints weren't going to be the same team without head coach Sean Payton at the helm for an entire year.
However, the 7-9 finish came as quite a surprise, especially considering Drew Brees was the quarterback and many veteran players were still in place.
Nevertheless, Brees showed his struggles at times in big games this season, and the lack of Payton on the sidelines led to a question of offensive balance early on in the season.
The struggles on offense combined with one of the worst defenses in NFL history led to a losing record for the Saints, who are able to finally put this dreadful year behind them.
15. Dez Bryant Shines Despite Dallas Cowboys' Disappointing Season
Dez Bryant has received his fair share of criticism for his actions off the field and his lack of performance on the field.
However, Bryant showed his worth as one of the more talented receivers in the game this season, as his play down the stretch kept the Cowboys relevant in December.
Bryant was the go-to target of Tony Romo, who was excelling in 2012 before the debacle in Week 17.
His ability to stretch the field effectively for the Cowboys and display the potential to become an elite receiver in the league is a positive development heading into next season.
14. Houston Texans Suffer Late-Season Collapse
The Houston Texans were highly regarded as a Super Bowl favorite in the offseason due to the young plethora of talent on both sides of the football.
For the majority of the season, the Texans were in the driver's seat and controlled their own fate to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Unfortunately, Houston lost three of its last four games and lost out on a first-round bye altogether.
A first-round exit in the playoffs is very possible, which would be the end to a major collapse by a franchise trying to become a legitimate title contender.
13. Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis Make Miraculous Comebacks from Serious Injuries
The veteran leadership of the Baltimore Ravens continues to be a key force in the team's success this year.
It starts with toughness, and both Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis displayed that toughness over the course of the season.
After tearing his Achilles back in April, Suggs was expected to miss the entire season. However, he proved the doubters wrong by returning after six games and instantly improving the Ravens pass rush.
Lewis suffered a torn triceps in Week 6 but will return next week to the postseason for the Ravens.
Whether or not Baltimore goes far in the playoffs is a different story. However, the speedy recoveries from both men certainly kept the Ravens' season alive, as they once again find themselves in the postseason.
12. New York Giants Fail to Make the Playoffs
The NFL will have a new champion for the 2012 season after the New York Giants proved to be a major disappointment by missing the postseason.
Eli Manning wasn't in elite form compared to last season, but everyone across the board is to blame for the team's struggles.
The Giants showed clear signs of age, especially on the defensive front, where Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck regressed dramatically.
Despite controlling their destiny in the month of December, the Giants ultimately missed the postseason after starting 6-2.
11. Tim Tebow Doesn't Start a Game at Quarterback for the New York Jets
The drama also known as the New York Jets came to an abrupt end after a subpar 6-10 finish to a season filled with its disappointments.
It was evident that Sanchez was set up to fail, given the high expectations combined with the glaring presence of Tebow sitting in the background.
However, I didn't envision Rex Ryan sticking with Sanchez instead of starting a guy whom he pushed to have on the roster.
Ultimately, it's best that all parties involved are moving in a different direction after the circus act in New York comes to a close.
10. No Coaches Are Fired During the Regular Season
There appears to be a very high number of NFL head coaches who will receive the pink slip on "Black Monday."
However, it was quite a surprise to see that there were no head coaches fired during the regular season.
9. Russell Wilson Emerges as the Starter for the Seahawks
Russell Wilson has been a feel-good story in the NFL, proving that hard work does indeed pay off.
The former Wisconsin quarterback outperformed Matt Flynn in training camp and ultimately earned the trust of Pete Carroll to orchestrate the Seahawks offense.
As the season went along, Wilson gained more freedom in the offense and was utilized through the read option along with more passing opportunities down the field.
With wins over the 49ers and Patriots, Wilson's play on the field warranted him entering the discussion for Rookie of the Year.
8. The Philadelphia Eagles Collapse
The Philadelphia Eagles appear ready for a major overhaul of both the roster and coaching staff after a disastrous 2012 season that included four wins, a second straight disappointing year.
Michael Vick proved to be the ultimate demise of head coach Andy Reid, as his play early in the season doomed the Eagles from the start.
Their high-paid defense proved to be a shell of itself, with Nnamdi Asomugha most notably embarrassing himself on the football field against quality wide receivers.
Changes are coming in Philadelphia, but will Jon Gruden or Chip Kelly be the next guy in charge?
7. San Francisco 49ers Switch to QB Colin Kaepernick in Midseason
It's not too common to find one of the league's elite teams changing its starting quarterback midseason.
The San Francisco 49ers challenged that theory by benching Alex Smith in favor of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Smith sustained a concussion and ultimately never received the opportunity to become the starting quarterback again for the 49ers.
While Kaepernick still needs to prove his worth in the playoffs, his ability to make enough big plays late in games resulted in the 49ers locking up a first-round bye in the playoffs.
6. Calvin Johnson Breaks Jerry Rice's Record
If there was any question of who the NFL's best wide receiver was coming into 2012, Calvin Johnson silenced the critics with a brilliant season.
Johnson continued to display his great work ethic and put on a show for Lions fans who didn't have much to cheer about.
In Week 16, he passed Jerry Rice for the most receiving yards in a single season in prime time against a quality Falcons defense.
At age 27, Johnson will continue to cement his legacy as one of the better players in Lions history. For his sake, it would be best if his successful seasons didn't go unnoticed his entire career due to playing on weak football teams.
5. Green Bay Packers Actually Lose a Game Due to the Referees
A game played in early September between the Packers and Seahawks created one of the more bizarre events in league history.
The infamous touchdown "catch" by Golden Tate disgraced the NFL and the replacement refs, who were calling games as a result of the referee lockout.
Three months ago, questions were looming about how this loss for the Packers could impact the playoff picture. The result was very clear: They missed a first-round bye by one game.
4. Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins Emerge as Contenders
Robert Griffin III has not only transformed the Washington Redskins back into a winning franchise but has also begun to change how NFL football is played through the read option formations.
Griffin faced high expectations from the start, as the Redskins mortgaged plenty of their future to secure a franchise quarterback, which has not existed for quite some time in Washington.
He led the Redskins to an improbable seven straight wins after starting 3-6, and the team will begin a playoff run behind the signal-caller who has quickly changed the culture of the organization and this city.
3. Indianapolis Colts Make a Magical Run
The Indianapolis Colts capped off a remarkable 2012 season by reaching 11 wins and making the postseason under rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
More importantly, the Colts accomplishing this tall order in the midst of head coach Chuck Pagano suffering from leukemia makes this a heartfelt story for all fans around the league.
Ultimately, no matter the Colts' fate in the postseason, their accomplishments in 2012 are hopefully the beginning of a new era of success in Indianapolis.
2. Peyton Manning Returns to All-Pro Form
The future of Peyton Manning was uncertain when he signed with the Denver Broncos in the offseason. Could he ever return to playing at the level that made him one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history?
Through the regular season, the Broncos have greatly benefited from Manning's improving play. In arguably one of the top three seasons in his career, Manning led the Broncos on an 11-game winning streak, and the team is guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The only question remaining is whether Manning can cap it off with his second championship.
1. Adrian Peterson Returns to Dominant Form
Adrian Peterson's run from knee surgery to arguably the league's most valuable player in one year is the most exciting and surprising story of 2012.
Peterson finished nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's rushing record, but the circumstances under which he returned and ultimately excelled create plenty of hope for his play during the coming years.
He was ultimately the biggest reason for the Vikings' turnaround, as they went from a mere three wins in 2011 to 10 victories and the postseason this year.