As yet another regular season closes its books on Sunday, it’s time to take a look at the 16 biggest surprises of the NFL year:
16) Gurley grounded in Los Angeles
Todd Gurley was supposed to become the new face of Los Angeles. Instead, after a breakout rookie season, he stumbled as a sophomore and looked below average. Can Gurley regain his footing with (hopefully) a more stable quarterback situation in 2017?
15) The Luck stops here
After yet another middling season, is it time to start questioning Andrew Luck? Luck had arguably his best season for Indianapolis — and it wasn’t all that eye-opening. Not with Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan showing how things can be done. We’re all waiting for Luck to take the league over, and he hasn’t.
14) What’s (and where’s) the rush?
Sack numbers have dropped dramatically in 2016, and that can’t all be blamed on the absence of J.J. Watt. The old standbys have fallen by the wayside, and now your league leader is Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, with Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter and Buffalo’s Lorenzo Alexander in the mix.
13) A-Bort! A-Bort!
Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles reverted in a big way this year, after a standout sophomore season. The near-consensus pick for next Breakout Fantasy QB floundered, his touchdowns dropping from 35 to 22 (through 15 games, but here’s doubting he throws 13 touchdowns on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts), but more alarmingly, his yards per attempt dropped from 7.31 to 6.15.
12) Are the backs back?
Last year, two players had more than 1,106 rushing yards. That number could be as high as a dozen this year, led by Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell. It’s fair to wonder if the league is shifting back toward the ground game.
11) Out route blackout
Last season, the NFL had two players above 1,800 receiving yards (Julio Jones, Antonio Brown), and two more above 1,500 (DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Marshall). This year, with no one above T.Y. Hilton’s 1,353 yards, there is a realistic possibility no one goes above 1,500.
10) The East is beast
Forget Dallas — the entire NFC East has taken major strides this season. The New York Giants found a defense, the Washington Redskins found a quarterback and the Philadelphia Eagles found a way to move on from former coach Chip Kelly, even if they are 6-9. Consider: The Eagles’ plus-22 point-differential ranks sixth in the NFC, tied with the Redskins and better even than the 10-5 and playoff-bound Giants.
9) Quarterbacks beat Father Time
Maybe it’s on us for expecting a drop-off, but the NFL’s elder statesmen made it clear that they’re still here and still amazing. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers; of the nine starting quarterbacks drafted before 2005, only Ryan Fitzpatrick (and maybe Eli Manning?) suffered a steep decline.
8) Catching Kelce catches on
In the vacuum that tight end Rob Gronkowski left with his season of injuries (Madden Curse!), Travis Kelce stepped up, and in a big way. Give this man (another) TV show: Kelce had 1,117 yards on 84 receptions heading into Week 17, with five 100-yard games in his last six outings.
7) Vikings, Jaguars, Giants make defensive strides
Last year, the aforementioned trio finished 13th, 24th and dead-last, respectively, in total defense. This year, they rank 2nd, 4th and 11th, as savvy early draft decisions have paid off for Minnesota (Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr), Jacksonville (Jalen Ramsey) and New York (Landon Collins).
6) Julio’s big day
Julio Jones torched the Carolina Panthers not once, not twice, but 12 times, en route to 300 yards, in a Week 4 matchup, just the second time the barrier has been broken in 26 years. Jones, whose mammoth day accounted for almost a quarter of his yards this season, also has a 259-yard game under his belt.
5) A new wave of QB talent
It’s not just Derek Carr. Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott all look ready to lead their teams into the next decade and beyond. There hasn’t been such a surge of young gunslingers in a dozen years.
4) Carr, Mack lead Oakland back
The last time the Oakland Raiders were relevant, Carr and Khalil Mack were 11 years old. But the two gems of the 2014 Raiders draft class have made the team a force. Even if Carr is now sidelined for the season, that doesn’t erase what he’s done with this team.
3) The Patriot way
Really, is there a better coach in any of the four major sports than Bill Belichick? New England has at least a dozen wins for the seventh straight year, and ninth in 12 seasons. Despite injuries on both sides of the ball, the Patriots could win 14 regular-season games for the first time since 2010.
2) Falls from grace
Carolina and Cam Newton flamed out. Denver and that vaunted defense? Doomed by a dearth of offense. Even Seattle took a big step back this season.
1) Dallas Rises Again
Could it be anything else? The Cowboys’ meteoric rise behind an all-rookie backfield has been nothing short of sensational. Prescott and Elliott are rewriting the rookie record books, and Dallas fans appear to have things set for years to come.