You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
The great thing about sport is that it’s the ultimate drama because even the players don’t know the ending. But sometimes a football season gives us that perfect ending that would have seemed contrived if it came from a Hollywood screenwriter. And that’s what happened with the Green Bay Packers this year.
After the Packers’ star quarterback got hurt against the rival Bears, after the Packers went to their second-string quarterback and then their third-string quarterback and their fourth-string quarterback in an effort to save the season, the star came back and — after shaking off some rust — threw the incredible touchdown pass in the game’s final minute to deliver his team the division title.
Aaron Rodgers’ return to the Packers wasn’t perfect. He had two early interceptions and the Packers’ offense struggled to get into a rhythm. But the best moments in an athlete’s career are the ones in which he overcomes adversity, and when Rodgers shook off the rust of missing two months with a broken collarbone and made his biggest play at the biggest time, that’s what made this one of the great moments in NFL history.
It was heartbreaking for Bears fans, exhilarating for Packers fans, and a perfect culmination of a wonderful NFL season.
Now we bring on the playoffs. But first, some final thoughts on the final Sunday of the regular season:
Nice touch. The Falcons sent Tony Gonzalez to midfield alone, as the only captain representing the team for the pregame coin toss. It was a great way to give Gonzalez a moment of recognition before the final game of his Hall of Fame career. Gonzalez finished his career with 1,325 catches for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns.
Sheldon Richardson joins Refrigerator Perry. Richardson, the Jets’ rookie defensive tackle, ran for a one-yard touchdown on Sunday against the Dolphins. Richardson and Perry, the former Bears defensive tackle, are the only players in NFL history to have three sacks and two rushing touchdowns in the same season. Perry played under Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan when he did it in 1985, and perhaps Jets coach Rex Ryan is paying tribute to his dad by using Richardson on offense.
Eli Manning concluded a miserable season. Manning completed 10 of 24 passes for 152 yards, a touchdown and an interception before leaving Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. That gave Manning a whopping 27 interceptions on the season. Only Brett Favre, who threw 29 interceptions in 2005, had more interceptions in any season in the 21st Century. In the same year that his big brother Peyton clinched his fifth MVP award, Eli had a year to forget.
Cordarrelle Patterson is something special. Patterson had a two-touchdown game in Sunday’s win over the Lions and became the first player in NFL history to have four receiving touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and two kickoff-return touchdowns in NFL history. Patterson also became the first player in NFL history to have a 100-yard kickoff-return touchdown, 75-yard receiving touchdown and 50-yard rushing touchdown in a season. Patterson had a whopping 2,020 all-purpose yards in his rookie year. What a weapon this guy is going to be in Minnesota for years to come.
Anquan Boldin will have a major impact on the playoffs. Boldin had an outstanding game in the 49ers’ win over the Cardinals on Sunday, catching nine passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. And Boldin also had a huge game in the 49ers’ Week One win over the Packers. Now that the 49ers are preparing for a playoff rematch against the Packers, I fully expect Boldin to have another big game. Even though there were salary-cap issues, if the Ravens had it to do all over again, I think they would have made the necessary roster moves elsewhere to keep Boldin under the cap, rather than ship him to San Francisco. That trade made the 49ers better and the Ravens worse.
Drew Brees had a great game to cap a brilliant season. Brees threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns as the Saints clinched a playoff berth on Sunday, and I can’t help but think that Brees didn’t get enough credit for his great season simply because everyone was so in awe of the season Peyton Manning was having. This was Brees’s third straight year with more than 5,000 yards passing. Overall, there have been eight 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history, and Brees has four of them. That’s incredible.
Robert Mathis wraps up his best year. The 32-year-old Mathis spent most of his career as the “other” pass rusher in Indianapolis, generally overshadowed by Dwight Freeney. But this year Mathis led the league with 19.5 sacks and played the best he’s ever played. I actually think Mathis is an even better fit in the 3-4 scheme of Colts coach Chuck Pagano than he was in the 4-3 scheme when he played for Tony Dungy — and Mathis was plenty good in that scheme, too. Mathis is my choice for defensive player of the year.
Joe Flacco was this season’s biggest disappointment. After his outstanding postseason run that culminated in a Super Bowl MVP 11 months ago, the Ravens rewarded Flacco with a six-year, $120 million contract. And Flacco did not reward the Ravens with a year worthy of that kind of money. Flacco finished his season completing just 59.0 percent of his passes, with 19 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and eight fumbles, and the Ravens missed the playoffs. If Flacco isn’t a whole lot better next year, that contract is going to start to look like a millstone around the Ravens’ necks.
It felt like the postseason started a week early. Wasn’t that a thrilling NFL Sunday? Packers-Bears and Eagles-Cowboys were essentially playoff games, and several more games had a playoff feel to them. It’s been a great NFL season. Let the playoffs begin.