The Associated Press will hand out its individual NFL awards on the night before the Super Bowl in Atlanta. Until then, here are some off-the-beaten track honors to consider:
BEST GAME: Eagles 32, Texans 30. Aside from the meaning for both teams — the defending champs desperately trying to find a way into the postseason, the visitors seeking an AFC South title and to hold onto a wild-card bye — it was a tremendously dramatic, well-played Week 16 contest with twists and turns galore.
And it ended on a last-second winning field goal by one of Philly’s heroes from last season, Jake Elliott.
Runners-up: Chargers 29, Chiefs 28 in Week 15 — too many flying flags to make it a classic; Rams 54, Chiefs 51 in Week 11 for anyone who likes video-game shootouts; Cowboys 13, Saints 10 in Week 13, if your tastes tend toward defense.
WORST GAME: Go all the way back to the season opener for Miami’s 27-20 victory over Tennessee in, yawn, the longest game ever played. Two weather delays not only stretched out the day, it also led to CBS going in and out of the telecast. At least it featured a tiebreaking 102-yard kickoff return by Jakeem Grant. The game took 7 hours, 8 minutes to play.
Runners-up: Lots of Cardinals games, maybe their 17-3 loss to Detroit the worst; a Thursday night 6-0 win for Jacksonville over Indianapolis in Week 14 marked not so much by stingy defense as inept offense.
BEST GAME SCENE: When Drew Brees became the NFL’s all-time leader in yards passing — with a 62-yard TD throw to rookie Tre’Quan Smith in Week 5 — officials stopped the game at the Superdome and the game ball was handed to Pro Football Hall of Fame officials on the sideline while the crowd offered a loud and loving ovation. Brees removed his helmet, held out his arm to salute the crowd and hugged his wife, Brittany, and children on the sideline.
“I love you guys so much,” Brees said while hugging his three boys as Brittany held their daughter nearby. “You can accomplish anything in life if you’re willing to work for it.”
BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR: No surprise here, except perhaps to the Patriots trying to defend Miami’s final-seconds play in Week 14. Ryan Tannehill threw a 14-yard pass to Kenny Stills, who lateraled to DeVante Parker, who quickly lateraled to Kenyan Drake along the sideline. He cut toward the middle and found a seam, helped by a block from guard Ted Larsen at the 30. Drake beat two Patriots to the corner of the end zone — defensive back J.C. Jackson and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was on the field as part of New England’s prevent defense. Touchdown, and a 34-33 victory.
“I mean, honestly, I’m sitting before you all and I still don’t believe it,” Drake said during interviews after the improbable conclusion sent New England to its fifth loss in the past six visits to South Florida. “I just saw it was Gronk in front of me and I was just like, ‘Look, I’ve got somewhere to be.’ So I had to get in the end zone.”
Runners-up: Hard to find anything close to that. Try Derrick Henry’s 99-yard TD run for Tennessee against Jacksonville, also in Week 14, to tie the NFL record set by Tony Dorsett in 1983. Or Donte Jackson’s pick-2 in which he intercepted Brees’ 2-point conversion pass and sped 100 yards the other way to give Carolina the deuce in Week 15. Or Dwayne Harris’ 99-yard punt return in Oakland’s Week 16 win over Denver.
WORST PLAY OF THE YEAR: The Lions let Seattle rookie punter Michael Dickson run for a first down when he actually was trying to take an intentional safety in the Seahawks’ 28-14 victory in Week 8. Dickson took the snap in his end zone and was supposed to give up the safety, but Detroit reacted so poorly that after drifting across the back of the end zone, Dickson figured he had a chance for a first down and took off running, gaining 9 yards. Mission accomplished.
Runners-up: Roughing-the-passer call on Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews when he made a textbook sack of Alex Smith in Week 3. Officials soon backed off on the overemphasis on such mistaken flags.
As part of an outstanding play, when San Francisco’s Richie James Jr. returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in Week 15, Seattle kicker Sebastian Janikowski’s feeble (to be kind) attempt to make a play.
BEST CELEBRATION: Just allowing more intricate and creative celebrations was a positive. And positively the best of a strong group, individually, was Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill catching a TD pass against Arizona in Week 10, then jumping into the stands to operate the CBS TV camera.
The group trophy goes to the Vikings for their limbo dance , using Adam Thielen as the bar, in a Week 12 victory against Green Bay.
BEST COACHING MOVE: The gutsiest calls usually wind up as the best — or worst — coaching moves. What Anthony Lynn did at the end of the Chargers’ visit to Kansas City in a pivotal Week 15 game stamped LA as a championship-caliber squad. Trailing 28-27, he ordered a 2-point conversion try with 4 seconds remaining. In other words, do or die. And the play worked so stunningly well that Mike Williams was absolutely uncovered in the end zone.
Runners-up: Any team that eschews the prevent defense late in a game; Pete Carroll emphasizing old-time football, defense and the run game, to complement Russell Wilson’s brilliant quarterbacking.
WORST COACHING MOVE: Some critics will say anything Jon Gruden tried in his return to the NFL with Oakland. We’ll stick with trading away Khalil Mack and then Amari Cooper, sending the Raiders spiraling down the Black Hole.
Runners-up: Bill Belichick using Gronkowski at safety to defend a Hail Mary pass that never figured to happen; Hue Jackson keeping Baker Mayfield on the bench to begin the Browns season.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (OFFENSE): We’re looking for guys who played enough in 2017 to be able to judge their improvement in 2018. So a Patrick Mahomes doesn’t quite fit after one game last season. But Steelers RB James Conner, placed in such a difficult situation replacing holdout Le’Veon Bell, is the right choice.
Runners-up: Bengals RB Joe Mixon and WR Tyler Boyd; Seahawks RB Chris Carson; 49ers TE George Kittle; Giants K Aldrick Rosas; Lions WR Kenny Golladay; Colts RB Marlon Mack; Rams G Austin Blythe.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (DEFENSE): Kansas City DT Chris Jones has become a sacks machine, force against the run, and one of the few Chiefs earning his keep all season on defense. He’s not quite at the Aaron Donald level, but he’s getting closer.
Runners-up: Jets S Jamal Adams; Seahawks DT Jarran Reed; Saints DT Sheldon Rankins; Rams LB Cory Littleton; Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith; Bills LB Matt Milano; Falcons S Domantae Kazee.
BEST PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER: Close your eyes and listen to a game being done by Kevin Harlan of CBS on television, Westwood One on radio. You get a description like none other on the airwaves, so much so that you needn’t be watching to have a clear vision of the action. Explanatory, passionate and humorous, Harlan is simply the best.
Runners-up: Mike Tirico — sure he does limited games for NBC, but he’s elite and deserves more; Ian Eagle (CBS); Kenny Albert (Fox); Kevin Kugler (Westwood One).
BEST ANALYST: We recognize that 2002 NFL Most Valuable Player Rich Gannon partners with Harlan on Sunday afternoons, which no doubt raises his level of performance. Not that Gannon needs the help. No one gives a better breakdown of what’s happening and why, who is deserving credit and who gets blame, and what game situations call for. Another MVP showing for the former quarterback.
Runners-up: Troy Aikman has had a very strong season on Fox with his frank and fair appraisals and criticisms; James Lofton, Dan Fouts and newcomer Bruce Arians (all CBS); Kurt Warner (Westwood One).
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