Analysis: Fun, flops, frustrations of offbeat NFL season
The Associated Press will hand out its individual NFL awards on Feb. 10 at NFL Honors in Los Angeles. Until then, here are some off-the-beaten track honors to consider.
BEST GAME: Week 8, Packers 24, Cardinals 21.
Overcoming injuries, COVID-19 issues and the absence of top receivers Davante Adams and Allen Lazard, Green Bay held on. Rasul Douglas, who has had a terrific comeback season, closed it out by picking off Kyler Murray in the end zone with 12 seconds remaining after the Cardinals had a goal-line stand and began a final drive from their 1. Arizona receiver A.J. Green never turned around to see the pass.
Runner-up: Week 11, Chargers 41, Steelers 37. Mike Williams’ 5 3-yard TD reception after Los Angeles blows a 17-point fourth-quarter lead won it.
WORST GAME: Week 9, Jaguars 9, Bills 6.
You knew the Jaguars would be involved, but this was in a very rare victory. Who loses to Jacksonville? The Bills did by turning over the ball three times and settling for two field goals, becoming the first team to lose to the Jaguars in a game played in North America this season.
Runner-up: Week 8, Patriots 54, Jets 13. The Patriots ran up the score in a non-competitive game from the first snap. Bad message. New York lost first-round QB Zach Wilson to injury.
BEST CELEBRATION: Week 12, Bengals 41, Steelers 10.
Motown, Baby, thanks to Joe Mixon. Mixon ran for 165 yards and two TDs.
Runner-up: Week 15, Dolphins 31, Jets 24. Miami’s Christian Wilkins. The 310-pound defensive lineman caught a TD pass, jumped into the stands and then did “The Worm” to celebrate.
WORST CELEBRATION: Week 14, Chiefs 48, Raiders 9.
The Raiders danced on the Chiefs logo before the game, fumbled on the first play from scrimmage for a Kansas City touchdown, and disappeared.
Runner-up: Week 5, Packers 25, Bengals 22.
Hey Evan McPherson, don’t celebrate when you miss the big kick.
BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR: Week 3, Ravens 19, Lions 17.
Special teams get the nod. Not only did Justin Tucker set an NFL record with his 66-yard field goal — so appropriate for perhaps the greatest kicker the game has seen — but it won the game.
Runner-up: Ever see someone actually slap down a punt like blocking a shot in basketball? Try Corey Clements in Dallas’ 56-14 romp past Washington in Week 16.
WORST PLAY OF THE YEAR: Week 3, Cardinals 31, Jaguars 19.
Surprised it’s the Jags? No you aren’t. The Jags led 19-17 late in the third quarter when they tried a flea-flicker that included a “whirlybird” move by left guard Andrew Norwell. J.J. Watt blew up the too-cute play and forced an errant throw that Byron Murphy intercepted and returned for the go-ahead touchdown. Pretty much sums up Jacksonville’s dysfunctional season.
Runner-up: Week 16, Colts 22, Cardinals 16. Kyler Murray couldn’t handle a low snap from the Arizona 11, picked it up in the end zone and hurled it. Unfortunately for Arizona, grounding was called, resulting in a safety.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (OFFENSE):
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The team’s turnaround has been built on the running game, but Hurts’ running and passing in his second season also have been key.
Runner-up: Falcons RB/WR Cordarrelle Patterson, whose previous eight seasons were built on special teams contributions. He’s been a dynamic presence in Atlanta.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (DEFENSE):
Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, an interception and coverage specialist in his second pro season.
Runner-up: Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, finally healthy in his third NFL campaign.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER (OFFENSE):
Giants running back Saquon Barkley, who can’t stay healthy for a full season and has been unproductive when in the lineup. Blame the Giants’ offensive line, too, but Barkley was considered a generational player and won the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Runner-up: Cam Newton. He was hailed as a potential savior in Carolina, where he won the 2015 NFL MVP award. Instead, the quarterback’s return was a failure.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER (DEFENSE):
Linebacker Von Miller, Rams. The perennial All-Pro candidate had little impact in 2021 in both Denver and Los Angeles, though his best game came last weekend. Maybe he will continue that and make his mark in the playoffs.
Runner-up: DE Ryan Kerrigan, Eagles. Signed to bolster a defense in need of his skills on the edge, Kerrigan barely contributed in Philly’s turnaround season.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM:
Has to be Cincinnati, no matter where it ends up at season’s end. Bungles no more.
Runner-up: Philadelphia, which got things headed in the right direction when it devoted the offense to the ground game.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM:
A slam dunk for the Seahawks, a perennial playoff team and AFC West winner who never were in contention in 2021.
Runner-up: So many teams underachieved due to injuries and COVID-19. The next-biggest flop probably was Cleveland, which hasn’t built on last season’s rare playoff appearance.
WEIRDEST INCIDENT: How about Mac Jones throwing all of three passes in an entire game, the Patriots’ 14-10 win in the swirling winds at Buffalo in Week 13?
Runner-up: The Panthers’ Zane Gonzalez got hurt an hour before the Bills game in Week 15, leaving Carolina with no placekicker in a Week 15 defeat.
BEST PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER: We know he doesn’t do too many NFL games -- hopefully soon he will -- but NBC’s Mike Tirico is as good as it gets. Insightful, informative, 100% prepared, able to play off his analysts, plus a nice touch of humor.
Runner-up: Among the “regulars” who do games weekly, no one touches Kevin Harlan (CBS on television, Westwood One on radio). He paints a perfect picture of the game for listeners, and he adds nuance and plenty of humor for viewers.
Very honorable mentions to Ian Eagle (CBS), Kenny Albert and Kevin Kugler (Fox).
BEST ANALYST: If we want to go the funny, at times outrageous and at times profane route, how about Peyton and Eli on Monday nights? A session with the QB Bros. is like sitting on the couch with a couple of brews and talking football with real experts. And other stuff with fun guys.
Runners-up: Taking the more traditional route, CBS adding Charles Davis in 2020 to team with Eagle for the best pairing on the network was smart. Davis not only dives deep into the games he covers, he’s ahead of everyone with his analysis and expectations.
Honorable mentions to newcomer Greg Olsen (Fox), Louis Riddick (ESPN) and Kurt Warner (Westwood One).
AP Pro Football Writers Teresa M. Walker, Mark Long, Dennis Waszak Jr, Josh Dubow, Arnie Stapleton, Dave Campbell, and Sports Writers John Wawrow, Steve Megargee and Steve Reed contributed.
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