Bills in the playoffs? Browns 0-16? The most captivating storylines from the NFL season

After seventeen fun-filled, exciting, memorable weeks, the 2017 NFL regular season is in the books and only twelve teams remain alive. To recap the regular season, I’ll tackle the seven captivating storylines that caught my attention this fall, plus reveal my playoff predictions.

Playoff droughts end in Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo

2017 was marked with shocking turnarounds by franchises that hadn’t tasted success in years. The Rams and Jaguars, who won a combined seven games in 2016, took the third seed in their respective conferences and ended playoff droughts over a decade long. The Jags’ AFC foes, the Titans, squeaked into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. And most shocking of all, the Buffalo Bills made it to the postseason for the first time in the 21st century in a season in which one of their quarterbacks threw five interceptions in one game. These teams transformed from cellar dwellers into serious contenders and took the NFL by storm.

Ex-Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo leads woeful Niners to 5-0 finish

The most surprising individual development during the season, however, goes to San Francisco, where the 49ers may have pulled off the best in-season trade in NFL history. In late October, San Francisco rookie general manager John Lynch sent a second rounder to the Patriots for their backup quarterback and Tom Brady understudy, Jimmy Garoppolo, though Garoppolo would be a free agent at the end of the season. After a couple weeks on the bench for a 49ers team that lost its first nine games, Jimmy G took the field as a starter against the Chicago Bears and the team went on an unbelievable five-game winning streak to end the season (with wins against the Titans, Jags, and Rams, all playoff teams). Garoppolo showed that he is the franchise quarterback San Francisco is looking for and could turn them into a playoff team as soon as 2018.

Injuries alter course of the season

Green Bay, Houston, Seattle, Arizona and Indianapolis entered the season as playoff contenders but suffered disappointing seasons ravaged with injury. The list of Pro Bowl-caliber players on injured reserves across the league were staggering. In Green Bay, All-World quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in the sixth game and the team proceeded to lose eight of their final 11 games, including shutouts at the hands of Baltimore and Minnesota. Rookie of the Year favorite Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending torn ACL for the playoff contending Texans, not long after the team lost All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. Arizona saw its quarterback and running back go down and limped to an 8-8 record. And that doesn’t even count the Eagles, who finished with the best record in the NFC but took a devastating hit when quarterback and MVP candidate Carson Wentz tore his ACL, ending his season and possibly Philly’s Super Bowl hopes.

Browns second team to finish 0-16

After a terrible 1-15 campaign last season, Browns coach Hue Jackson promised to jump in Lake Erie if the team finished 1-15 again. Sixteen games later, Cleveland didn’t finish 1-15 again- they lost every single game to become the second team to finish 0-16. The Browns couldn’t even get the job done against the Steelers backups in the last game of the season and haven’t won on a Sunday since Johnny Manziel was the backup. The good news? Cleveland has the rights to the first and fourth picks of the draft, meaning a couple of super talented players will be headed up north for next season. The bad news? It’s going to be a long road back to relevance for the Browns.

Prescott, Carr, Mariota, Winston take step backwards

Prior to the season, the Cowboys, Raiders, TItans, and Buccaneers were viewed as serious playoff contenders, in part due to their stellar young quarterbacks. But those four teams took a step back and quarterback play was a big reason why. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott more than tripled his interceptions in year two and lacked the composure he showcased in his Rookie of the Year 2016. Jameis Winston of the Bucs and Derek Carr of the Raiders floundered as their teams dropped to the bottom of their divisions despite loaded supporting casts. And though Tennessee made the playoffs, it was in spite of Marcus Mariota’s subpar season, which included more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13). Thankfully for these talented players, 2018 will give them another chance to turn things around.

Los Angeles returns to NFL map with resurgence of Chargers and Rams

Two years ago, Los Angeles, the second-largest city in America, didn’t have any football teams. Not only do they currently have two football teams, but both teams outperformed expectations. The Chargers battled back from an 0-4 start to finish 9-7 and just out of the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs, while the Rams improved from four wins to eleven and took the NFC West crown from the Seahawks. Maybe next season we could see a LA vs. LA Super Bowl.

Ravens, Cowboys fall short of Wild Card bids

This is a most captivating storylines list, and my list wouldn’t be complete without including my two favorite teams. Sadly, both teams were eliminated from the playoffs in the final weeks and will be watching from home this January. The Ravens had an anemic passing offense and shutdown defense for the first half of the season, then switched the two in the second half of the season as they emerged as favorites for the last wild card bid. Going into the final week, all they had to do was A) beat the then-6-9 Bengals or B) have the AFC South champ Jaguars beat the Titans or C) have the Dolphins beat the inconsistent Bills. Well, the Titans and Bills won their games, but with minutes left in the Ravens-Bengals game, Baltimore had the Bengals pinned at their ten-yard line and held a 27-24 lead. Andy Dalton’s 4th down touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd gave Cincy the win and eliminated the Ravens in heartbreaking fashion. The Ravens should be in playoff contention next year, but there is no clear direction for the franchise moving forward.

I predicted that Dallas would represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII. That prediction was a bit off. Plagued by injuries to linebacker Sean Lee and tackle Tyron Smith and the never-ending controversy surrounding running back Ezekiel Elliott and his suspension, the Cowboys couldn’t replicate the magic of last season’s 13-3 run. The Cowboys were eliminated in a Week 16 loss to the Seahawks at home, mercifully ending a forgettable season. I take solace in that the Cowboys beat the Redskins twice, Giants twice, and split with the Eagles. Dallas should be back in the mix next season with Ezekiel Elliott (hopefully) in for a full season.

 

My Playoff Picks

AFC Wild Card

(3) Jacksonville Jaguars 27, (6) Buffalo Bills 13

(4) Kansas City Chiefs 17, (5) Tennessee Titans 14

NFC Wild Card

(3) Los Angeles Rams 31, (6) Atlanta Falcons 20

(4) New Orleans Saints 20, (5) Carolina Panthers 10

AFC Divisional

(1) New England Patriots 35, (2) Kansas City Chiefs 28

(2) Pittsburgh Steelers 23, (3) Jacksonville Jaguars 7

NFC Divisional

(4) New Orleans Saints 38, (1) Philadelphia Eagles 17

(2) Minnesota Vikings 17, (3) Los Angeles Rams 10

AFC Championship

New England Patriots 41, Pittsburgh Steelers 34

NFC Championship

New Orleans Saints 24, Minnesota Vikings 21

Super Bowl LII

New England Patriots 28, New Orleans Saints 23

MVP: Rob Gronkowski, 120 yards, 2 TD

 

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