Mixed fortunes for the Mannings, rookie quarterbacks and crossing the pond.. Neil Reynolds talks gridiron.
Neil reflects on the biggest stories and players of 2012
As this is my final Pick Six column of 2012, I find myself in a reflective mood while pausing for breath before the remaining 12 teams battle for a place in the Super Bowl.
So here are the six major storylines that have caught my eye during this exciting 2012 NFL season...
Rookie passers have entered the NFL and not missed a beat in 2012. Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson have enjoyed starring roles for their teams and the likes of Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden have also enjoyed some strong moments for the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns, respectively.
But it is the trio of Griffin (Washington Redskins), Luck (Indianapolis Colts) and Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) who have played like multi-talented veterans while leading their previously down-trodden teams to the playoffs.
This fast development of young quarterbacks is becoming more normal in today's NFL and the abundance of the passing game in college is helping these guys adapt quickly. Notably, four of the five quarterbacks I mentioned above can really move and that is also something we will see more of in the coming years.
Manning still has it
By the time he trotted onto the field to start the 2012 season as a member of the Denver Broncos, four-time NFL Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning had not thrown a pass in anger for 610 days. We should also point out that he also underwent four career-threatening neck injuries and had plenty of question marks heading into the new campaign.
It turns out we shouldn't have worried - Peyton has not missed a beat and remains as good as ever. He has dramatically improved the Denver Broncos and they look very capable of producing a serious Super Bowl challenge as the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
The young passers are rightly gaining a great deal of attention in 2012 but we should not forget about the old fella still getting the job done. Enjoy watching Manning at work in the playoffs - you'll be seeing one of the league's all-time greats operating at the very top of his game.
Continued UK growth
The NFL played out another game in front of a sell-out crowd at Wembley Stadium in October as the New England Patriots hammered the St. Louis Rams. The 84,000-plus crowd surprised no one but I had to admit to being impressed with the 45,000 fans who braved the cold weather the day before for the Fan Rally in London's Trafalgar Square.
But that kind of fan support should not surprise us any longer. British fans are among the most passionate and knowledgeable in the entire world and they deserve their regular season games each year. And now the British fans will get two contests in 2013 as the Minnesota Vikings host the Pittsburgh Steelers in September before the San Francisco 49ers take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in October.
The NFL continues to grow from strength to strength in the United Kingdom - across many levels - and that has been one of the best stories of this 2012 season, for me personally. And given how ticket sales have already gone for the two games in 2013, we should be able to enjoy more success stories in the coming year.
Peterson back to his best
Adrian Peterson has proven himself to be an absolute stud during the 2012 NFL season, rushing for 2,097 yards (second-highest effort in NFL history) in his first season back from torn knee ligaments suffered last Christmas Eve.
With the entire NFL knowing AP is the main weapon for the Vikings, Peterson has been simply unstoppable. That is what has made his performances so special. The opposition has been expecting number 28 to get the football each week and they still cannot slow him down.
Peterson has been too strong, too powerful and too shifty to be held in check this season. Imagine how good he can be in 2013 as they often say players are better in their second seasons back from knee operations? That thought is just plain scary!
Given the way he has performed on the field this season, Peterson deserves to be in the NFC playoffs and deserves MVP consideration.
Champs miss playoffs
The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants enjoyed a big win on Sunday night, rounding out their regular season with a 42-7 thrashing of the Philadelphia Eagles. But the Giants still missed out on the playoffs this season with a record of nine wins and seven losses.
To put it simply, the Giants were just not consistent enough this season. There were too many times when they came out flat in big games, their normally-dominant pass rush went missing for too long and even star quarterback Eli Manning went through too many periods of inconsistency.
The Giants looked a lot like a team comfortable with winning the Super Bowl last season - they just never looked as hungry as they were in 2011. Speaking of disappointing teams, you can add the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs to that group.
Colts complete quick turnaround
This time last year we were talking about the 2-14 Indianapolis Colts being the worst team in the NFL. What a difference a year makes! On the field, the Colts have been sensational and won 11 games to secure a place in the playoffs. Off the field, they have seen their head coach Chuck Pagano become a source of inspiration to millions.
With rookie quarterback Andrew Luck looking and playing like a five-year veteran, the Colts have been exciting to watch and have surrounded their young passer with playmaking talent in the form of fellow rookies such as wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and running back Vick Ballard.
On the field, the Colts are going to be exciting and competitive for the next decade and more. And we can only hope that Pagano is there to oversee all their future success - he was diagnosed with leukemia in the early weeks of the regular season but successfully returned to his coaching duties last night.
The way he inspired his players with visits to the locker room in between gruelling bouts of chemo-therapy are among the most memorable moments I have ever seen in covering the NFL since 1991. The Colts are suddenly a team everyone wants to root for and they are one of the stories of this campaign.
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