Washington took a lot of oomph out of the last regular season game of the season. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions NFC North title showdown was flexed to Sunday night because it was not only a game between division rivals, it not only would determine a division, but it could have been sudden death — winner going to the playoffs, loser going home — a game of absolute stakes that is easy billable marquee viewing for a sports league.
But Washington needed to beat the New York Giants first. Washington lost. So Packers-Lions was only a division title game. A game we had to appreciate for its own sake, between two teams full of cuss playing for pride and playoff seeding.
It wasn’t bad. Actually, it was pretty good! But it wasn’t what it could have been, and that’s a fitting note to end the 2016 regular season. Last year, Aaron Rodgers threw a high-arcing Hail Mary pass to beat the Lions at Ford Field and save the Packers’ season. This year, Matthew Stafford also completed a Hail Mary, but it was too late and meant almost nothing.
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It took a long time for the 2016 NFL season to feel consequential. For me, it wasn’t until Week 10 — the first week after the presidential election ended — that teams established themselves as contenders from out of the muck. There were good division races — the weird, gnarly AFC West perhaps the best — and surprise teams like the Cowboys, Raiders, and Falcons that were entertaining and legitimately good against a backdrop of teams that were mostly just goofing around.
But where it all went, I can’t really say. Something that maybe made the season feel weird was how many teams stayed on their trajectories. The Broncos lost four of five games after their bye to miss the playoffs. The Vikings lost eight of 10 following their 5-0 start. The Colts alternated wins and losses from Week 2 onward to lose the division to a team quarterbacked primarily by Brock Osweiler. The season lacked an erratic nutrient, something that might solidify the potential chaos that was extant as the season tipped past the midway point.
Not a whole lot happened in the final weeks. The Titans, Ravens, and Buccaneers bubbled up then were repressed. Only Washington was positioned for Week 17 drama, but their effort against the Giants was wheezy and punter-ly. The Lions and Packers played maybe the best game of the week, but Rodgers at no point seemed like anything other than an inevitability. He thwarted disaster as much as he thwarted the Lions, which made his brilliance feel perfunctory.
The rest of the slate was a poot or pfft, a week that occurred only because there had to be closure. Five of the early games were decided by two touchdowns or more. Two teams benched starters. The Falcons built a 22-point lead over the Saints before relinquishing two late scores for a six-point win. The Raiders, Texans, and Dolphins lost by a combined 46 points in previews of the Carr-less/Tannehill-less/Texans-filled AFC Wild Card round.
Last year I also wrote that NFL season was bad, but in a redeeming way. There was a lot of weirdness then, like rampant marquee officiating errors, pearl clutching around a phenomenal Panthers team, and a legitimate Andy Dalton MVP bid.
The theme of 2016 was endurance. Some of the best teams were hodgepodges like the Giants, Lions, and Chiefs that seemed designed to win on turnover luck, injury management, and fourth-quarter comebacks. They made it to December, flicked their abacus beads to count their wins, and realized they were playoff contenders.
The league MVP will be an efficient yardage horse like Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Ezekiel Elliott, or Rodgers, and not an intermittent hero like Cam Newton. The best game of the season was arguably October’s bewildering 6-6 tie between the Cardinals and Seahawks, which wasn’t so much “good” as it was long and strange, especially to end a day of football that began at 9:30 a.m. ET when the Giants and Rams kicked off a game in London.
The best part about it was saying you made it to the end. It wasn’t the game but what it said about you, the customer/human being.
Following the NFL commands a lot of bandwidth on a regimented schedule. You know where to be and when. You pay attention to it waiting for something to happen. But really this season has been an unceasing fart, silencing the room, taking up oxygen, and paying off duly and predictably. And in the end you can either laugh or hold your nose and run out of the room.
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There will be six new teams in the playoffs this year, which is an improvement over the four that appeared last year, and the five the year before that.
Parity is one of the most enduring myths perpetuated by the NFL. It’s rare that most of the playoff field doesn’t look more or less like the previous season’s, so it should feel like a blessing that there will be so much new blood this January. The Raiders’ last playoff game was the 2003 Super Bowl. The Dolphins have gone 16 years without a playoff win. The Lions have gone 25 years.
The playoffs will be great. They always are. There are some legitimately good teams taking part, especially once the wild card ends. Sudden-death sports is never not compelling. I can’t wait to see Giants defense size up the Packers offense, or a Steelers-Chiefs haymaker bout, or a Falcons-Cowboys championship points sprint. Best of all, it will assuredly be different from the 2016 regular season.
This was a season without meaning or reward. It was bad primetime games that fewer people wanted to watch than in years past, big injuries to beloved players at terrible times, and what felt like an overall meh-er game. Teams endured more than they dazzled, and the best thing to say is that the air cleared up, finally.