How the Broncos and Panthers got here, what was Terry Bradshaw thinking and the unbelievable Bill Belichick.
1. What Went Wrong in Denver and Carolina?
A lot. And in many ways, the pasts, presents and futures of each club are intertwined.
The Broncos didn't make it back to the playoffs because they had a talent problem. The Panthers (according to some players on other teams) didn't make it back because of a possible attitude problem. (I disagree with this, which I'll explain in a moment.)
Neither team faces easy fixes.
In Denver, the problem was poor offensive line play (40 sacks allowed, tied for 24th in the NFL), which led to a lack of a running game (3.6 yards per rush, 28th in the NFL) that didn't help prop up the often poor play of quarterback Trevor Siemian (83.9 passer rating, 24th in the NFL), who may not be all that good. That's the trifecta of issues John Elway will face when he tries to repair this offensive mess.
There has been a lot of talk that deposed Dallas starter Tony Romo wants to play for the Broncos, and that is indeed accurate. He wants off the Cowboys, several Dallas players said, because he believes he can play another two to three years, at least. And Romo believes he could turn the Broncos into instant Super Bowl contenders.
He isn't wrong.
But if you believe the Broncos want Romo, well, that may be a totally different story. I'm told by one Denver team source that interest in Romo from the Broncos is "limited at best for right now." We'll see if that changes in the near future.
In Carolina, the problem is different.
In my almost daily survey of players around the league in search of news, tidbits and good places to buy Star Trek comics, one player said something that struck me about the Panthers.
"That fire was gone," he said.
Now, this player is in Carolina's division and often has expressed great respect for the Panthers. Still, he noticed something was missing when he played them this season.
"They weren't as tough," he added. "We could push them around easier."
In other words, Carolina lost its edge.
That wouldn't be unprecedented for a team coming off a run to the title game. And it illustrates just how difficult it is for Super Bowl runners-up to not only toake it back to the Super Bowl, but also to even make it back to the playoffs.
When I wrote about the challenge Carolina faced earlier this year, I heard veteran players on opposing teams say they didn't think the Panthers fully understood just how difficult it would be to return.
Compounding the task, the player in the Panthers' division said, was the animosity Carolina engendered. Some teams, the player explained, hated the antics of Cam Newton and played harder when they faced the Panthers. (Although it should be noted Newton stopped dabbing this year—that's not a sentence I thought I would ever write in my journalism career.)
That may be a belief on the part of some, but when I watched the Panthers, what I saw was an injured team that faced the best shot of every opponent. To me, more than anything, those injuries were the biggest factor, including the loss of linebacker Luke Kuechly to a concussion as the Panthers were fighting for their playoff lives.
Carolina was also up against history. Few teams make it back to the Super Bowl, let alone win it, and a surprisingly high number fail to make the playoffs.
Were the Panthers too satisfied after they made it to the Super Bowl? I don't buy it, but there are players who do. I just think it was the curse of the Super Bowl loser.
But the Panthers have company this time in their disappointment, and for both Carolina and Denver, it will be a tumultuous offseason.
2. On the Bright Side for the Panthers
With 1,051 receiving yards through Week 16, Greg Olsen became the first tight end in NFL history, the league said, to post three straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards.
This is obviously a different era, in which teams throw the football far more than they did in past decades, when great players like Ozzie Newsome and John Mackey played the position. And Olsen isn't the class of Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez. Yet his mark is still impressive and speaks not just to his talent but also his ability to stay healthy.
3. For Sale: One Playoff-Tested Veteran QB
I've heard from several front office executives that the interest in Romo from teams is "high but guarded." It's not extensive, I'm told, but it's solid.
The concern these teams have is obvious. Romo gets hurt a lot, and he'll be 37 in April. While teams recognize his talent, none seem eager to invest big money in him should he part ways with Dallas.
4. An Appreciation of Aaron Rodgers, Abridged Edition
I continue to be amazed by how much coaches and players tell me they've been captivated by what Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is doing. These are normally cynical men (like most journalists) who have watched great players for decades, but they have freely admitted Rodgers is doing things they haven't seen.
What they see with Rodgers is his ability, almost on a dime, to uplift the entire team. Unlike a Joe Montana or a Troy Aikman, who had Hall of Fame talent around them, Rodgers is viewed as almost a lone figure, putting the franchise on his back and carrying it forward in ways few great quarterbacks ever have.
Of all Rodgers has proved, nothing may be more impressive than his ability to get even the most cynical of us to go, "wow."
5. Deciphering the Furor Over Terry Bradshaw's Comments
First, it has to be said that Terry Bradshaw is a good man. Good heart, funny, supportive of his friends, not a mean bone in his body.
Bradshaw is also opinionated. As someone in the opinion business, I love this, yet what he said recently about Mike Tomlin was nonetheless puzzling. It wasn't a hot take. It was a warp core explosion—like the sun and an H-bomb had a baby.
Bradshaw said Tomlin wasn't a good coach and was more of a cheerleader.
To many black coaches, Bradshaw's critique was something they've heard for a long time. And in Tomlin's case—a man who has won 10 games a year for a decade and also a Super Bowl—it's without merit.
This gets pretty deep, so please hold tight.
For years, black assistant coaches have told me about their frustrations that they are not viewed as tacticians but more as supermotivators. (And just to clarify, these are long-running concerns, not in response to Bradshaw.)
Historically, these coaches have said, that type of thinking was one of the biggest reasons why it took so long for black coaches to get head coaching jobs. They weren't seen as smart X's and O's men.
In reality, the opposite was true. Black assistants, then and now, will tell you they had to work harder in the film room and classroom than their white counterparts to avoid the perception they're only players' coaches.
Tomlin's coaching acumen is extensive and formidable. And going back a bit further, one of the most strategic coaching minds I've ever covered was Tony Dungy. The list goes on from there.
Bradshaw's comments, as uncharacteristic as they are of the man, still drew a sigh among some black assistants who continue the struggle to prove their value.
6. Not All Is Well in Dallas
The Dallas defense has generally been solid this season, but the ease with which Detroit moved through the Cowboys in the first half Monday night had to raise the collective blood pressure in the Dallas coaching offices.
Only two teams this season, according to the NFL Network's research arm, had three rushing scores in the first half of a game this year. The first was Dallas in Week 3 against Chicago. The second was Detroit against Dallas on Monday. Zach Zenner isn't a villain from Flash Gordon. He's a running back for Detroit.
Maybe the Cowboys defense just needed rest, but there have to be concerns that if the Lions can exploit that unit, even if only for a half (the Dallas defense played a lot better in the second half), what would Atlanta do? Or the Packers?
It's not an unfair worry.
7. A Stat Probably Only I Care About
Hats off to the NFL Network's research arm for uncovering one of the more incredible oddities of the season. Week 16 was the first week with three passing touchdowns by non-quarterbacks (Marqise Lee, Dontari Poe and Dez Bryant) since Week 3 of 1984. That's pretty amazing.
Why all of the non-quarterback touchdowns now? There's no real reason. Those types of plays are run not just to trick the current opponent, but also to give future defenses something to worry about. It's a chess match. It just so happens that this year, like in 1984, teams are playing a little more chess than they have in recent years.
8. Might This Be the Best Video Ever?
OK, maybe the clip isn't all that, but it's close. I watched this video probably 40 times. Damn hypnotizing. Worth a mention and worth watching.
Biggest question I have is how long did it take for them to practice all this?
9. Matt Ryan's Charitable Giving
The Falcons, in many ways, are under the radar. Most people in football get that they're good, but there are players and others in the sport with whom I've spoken who expect Matt Ryan to get into the playoffs and then choke.
This is my expectation, too, but is it fair? Possibly not, but that is a debate for another day. What isn't debatable is the season Ryan is having.
Perhaps the best indicator is something Ryan did this past weekend. Like the performance of his Falcons, it went slightly unnoticed. With his touchdown passes to Josh Perkins and D.J. Tialavea, Ryan has thrown a scoring pass to 13 different players this season. The NFL said that is the greatest number of touchdown targets by a single quarterback in a single year in league history.
10. The Unbelievable Bill Belichick
On occasion, a statistic comes across the interwebs about Bill Belichick that hits you like a Vulcan nerve pinch (there's also a Vulcan death grip, but I digress). This is one of those times.
That's pretty remarkable.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.