We’re entering the biggest football weekend of the year, and all signs point to an all-time classic Super Bowl LVI. After divisional and conference championship rounds that had all six games decided by a field goal, the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals survived and will have the opportunity to win their first Super Bowl titles of the 21st century. But that’s not all that has happened in the NFL recently, with everything from awards to retirements to team name changes shaking up the football landscape. Let’s get to it!
OPTION ONE: Los Angeles Rams stay home to take on underdog Bengals in Super Bowl LVI
As a Baltimore Ravens superfan, I have been directing all my rooting interests toward the Cincinnati Bengals’ opponents this playoffs, and I’m 0-3. The AFC North champion won its first playoff game in decades, then knocked off the “1” and “2” seeds in the AFC on the road in consecutive weeks. It pains me to say it, but the Bengals have earned their way out of the “underdog” title.
On the flipside, the Los Angeles Rams’ journey to the top is propelled by some of the most outside-the-box thinking the league has seen, and with marvelous results. Just a couple years ago, the Rams were in the Super Bowl against the Patriots with Jared Goff under center and Todd Gurley in the backfield. Now, both of those guys are gone, though the roster has no lack of firepower. The Rams have been as aggressive as a third grader on Madden franchise mode in their trade acquisitions, acquiring big names like Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey and, of course, quarterback Matthew Stafford in the seasons since winning the NFC crown. Stafford aside, the Rams have the best two players in this game and possibly in the league this year — NFL Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp at wide receiver and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald on the defensive line.
When it comes to making a prediction, I’ve found it difficult to shake the aftermath of Super Bowl LV from my head, the one in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense absolutely routed the seemingly impervious Kansas City Chiefs thanks to an elite pass rush and a battered KC line. Protection woes nearly doomed Cincinnati in the divisional round against Tennessee, and it took Ryan Tannehill’s horrendous performance to put the Bengals over the top in that one. While I could see Stafford failing to live up to the big stage, I’m taking the Rams to win 31-20 with Aaron Donald as the MVP and the offense doing just enough to keep Comeback Player of the Year Joe Burrow at bay. I don’t think this game will go down to the final play, but I could hardly be more excited to watch it this Super Bowl Sunday.
OPTION TWO: Tom Brady calls it a career after seven Super Bowl titles
After 22 seasons of dominating the National Football League, Tom Brady has called it a career. It’s an unparalleled career that includes seven Super Bowl trophies, five Super Bowl MVPs, three regular season MVPs, 15 Pro Bowl appearances and the all-time records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. Growing up in California, Brady looked up to Joe Montana and the 49ers. Now, he’s left Montana, and every other quarterback, in the dust in the Greatest of All-Time conversation.
I’ll put this out there — I really hated Tom Brady on the Patriots. The Ravens’ playoff victories over New England in 2009 and 2012 were two of the greatest moments of my fandom, and the combination of Brady and coach Bill Belichick was the ultimate villain for the league. Brady always made the right play at the right time and was rarely off his “A” game. I’ve never been more aggravated during a Super Bowl than when he battled back from a 28-3 deficit against the Falcons, and by the waning minutes of the fourth quarter — when he still needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie — the outcome already seemed sealed.
There’s something to be said for appreciating greatness, too, and thankfully I had a couple of seasons to watch him on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a franchise steeped in mediocrity that offered him the exact anti-New England. Brady thrived in Florida, even topping the league with 5,316 passing yards as a 44-year old quarterback and taking the Lombardi Trophy in the Bucs’ home stadium, Raymond James. Brady may have dipped out on the sour note of a Divisional Round loss, but his career is a testament to excellence at the highest level.
OPTION THREE: Cowboys, Eagles and Giants get a new division rival — the Washington Commanders
I grew up in Washington Football Team territory and aggressively root for the reigning NFC East champion Cowboys, so I have to opine on the newest name change. On February 2, Washington announced its new name would be the Commanders, while keeping the burgundy and gold color scheme that the franchise has worn for decades. The Commander name replaces the placeholder of “Washington Football Team,” which the franchise used for two seasons after moving on from its previous name.
I’m in favor of the changes — the D.C. identity is more woven into this team’s visual identity and the Cowboys vs. Commanders rivalry has a sweet ring to it. Aside from the tacky black alternate uniform, the new uniforms also have a modern yet classic feel that keeps the primary colors at the forefront. It’s also great to have resolution after so many years of back-and-forth. Now, if only the Commanders could get the ownership problem figured out…
OPTION FOUR: Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores takes it to the problematic head coach hiring cycle through lawsuit
My takeaways from this year’s head coaching carousel: the Cowboys lucked out in returning offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the Saints are launching into an uncertain future now without longtime coach Sean Payton and the Texans’ franchise is truly rudderless. Of the new hirings, I’m most excited to see Mike McDaniel work with Tua Tagovailoa in Miami, while I’m very skeptical of Josh McDaniels’ chances of success with his second AFC West team, the Las Vegas Raiders, after a season in which the Raiders nearly made the Divisional Round.
But the major news from the cycle was a lawsuit against the league from former Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who was fired by Miami after consecutive winning seasons. The lawsuit alleges that Miami owner Stephen Ross offered to pay Flores for losses and unfair practices in head coaching hiring processes the past couple years, specifically with the New York Giants and Denver Broncos. Flores has said that change needs to happen and is willing to take the personal hit to create meaningful change in a league that needs it — there are only five minority head coaches in the league and two Black head coaches. Flores is a great coaching candidate with a track record of results in a hard situation (seriously, who posts winning seasons in Miami?) and deserves another go-around. As for the lawsuit, this situation should be one of the foremost discussions in league offices the next couple months.
CHECKDOWN: My Awards Ballot
Los Angeles has hosted a lot this past week, and the NFL awards were a definite highlight. Now that the league’s top honors have already been named (aside from Super Bowl MVP, of course), I’m going to give my picks on how I would have voted for awards. Since I’m not a writer and have some rooting interests, I’m willing to admit I have some bias on these picks, but each of the candidates I chose that deviated from the original picks have a strong case for them and are worthy of the honor.
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
My MVP: Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MVP always seems to be a battle between these two quarterbacks. This year, Brady ranked first in the league in touchdown passes and yardage, while Rodgers nabbed the top seed in the NFC and led qualified passers in passer rating. Both cruised through easy divisions and endured injuries in their loaded receiving corps. I’ll give Brady the nod here.
Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
My Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
There’s a great case to be made that, regular season and playoffs included, Cooper Kupp has had the greatest single-season performance of any receiver in NFL history. Kupp recorded 145 receptions (22 more than second-place Davante Adams), 16 receiving touchdowns (two more than second place Mike Evans) and 1947 receiving yards (331 more than second-place Justin Jefferson). He wins this award by a landslide and is a major reason the Rams will be playing on Super Bowl Sunday.
Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
My Defensive Player of the Year: Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys
T.J. Watt did something the league has only seen once before by posting 22.5 sacks (four ahead of second-place Robert Quinn), but Micah Parsons did something the league had never seen before, and did it as a rookie! Parsons shifted between linebacker and defensive end — a shift he hadn’t made at the college level — and transformed a defense that ranked worst in the NFL in 2020 to one that was actually winning games in November and January. The 22-year-old finished the year with 13 sacks, three forced fumbles and 79 total tackles and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses’ game plans all season long.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: JaMarr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
My Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Chase broke the rookie receiving record (just a year after college teammate Justin Jefferson did the same in Minnesota), but I’m giving the nod to Mac Jones here. While Chase’s production was impressive, his quarterback was a major reason why. Jones was the best rookie quarterback by a mile in 2021, leading the Patriots to a Wild Card berth and nearly the AFC East title and quieting doubters that placed all of his collegiate success on his Alabama receiving corps. Chase had a sizzling highlight reel, but Jones meant more to his team and deserves the nod (and I say that as one of the most anti-New England people out there!).
Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
My Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
My guy Dak Prescott finished a very close second in the actual voting, but I have to concede the award to Burrow on this one. Burrow had the actual better season between the two players and came back from a grueling rehab process to lead the Bengals from the AFC North cellar to the top. Even taking out the playoffs, Burrow has shined in 2021, ranking sixth in passing yards, eighth in passing touchdowns, second in passer rating and first in completion percentage. CPOY is a weird award in comparison to the NBA’s Most Improved Player, but Burrow’s season has encapsulated both those definitions and was truly a super sophomore campaign.
Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans
My Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Las Vegas Raiders
I feel a little bit strange awarding this honor to an interim coach, and an interim coach who hasn’t been retained at that. But who did more with less than Bisaccia, a special teams coach who stepped into the post-Jon Gruden morass at midseason and led the Raiders to their first playoff appearance in half a decade? Bisaccia helped Vegas find its footing despite controversy after controversy, and his team played its best football in the final weeks. The Week 18 classic between the Chargers and Raiders, in which Bisaccia’s Raiders found a way to eke out the win in the final seconds of overtime, sealed this coaching job as one of the best of the past decade in my book.