In twenty total games this season, the New York Giants defense faced a total of 1,072 plays including 637 pass plays. 48 of those plays were ended with a thunderous sack of which thrice-first-named Jason Pierre-Paul had 16. 20 of those 637 pass plays ended with New York interceptions – Corey Webster paced with six while Kenny Phillips and Aaron Ross each grabbed four. A sack or an interception can change the course of a game and a season. But a defensed pass play in Week 14 that was far more innocuous-looking on the play-by-play was the one that allowed the Giants to even get in the tournament, much less win the Super Bowl:

3rd and 5 at DAL 25 (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete deep right to M.Austin. Pass incomplete on a “go” route.

Coming into Week 14, the Cowboys, not the Giants, were in the driver’s seat in the NFC East. They were in the ascendancy having won 4 of their last 5 and sitting at 7-5 with a chance to put the division to bed. The Giants were reeling. After a 6-2 start, they’d lost four in a row to San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Green Bay. The two teams seemed to be going in opposite directions at kickoff, and in the 4th quarter Dallas had a chance to distance themselves from their division rivals. A Dallas victory puts them at 8-5, with 8-8 likely good enough to win the division at that point. A loss for the Giants is catastrophic for their playoff hopes, putting them at 6-7 and likely needing to beat the Cowboys again and get a lot of help to get in.

Holding the ball with 2:25 left, leading 34-29, and with New York down to a single timeout, a Cowboys first down makes a comeback nearly impossible. The Cowboys came out in shotgun with three receivers, and the Giants countered by showing cover 0 coverage with seven rushers. Of any coverage for a quarterback and receiver to read, cover 0 is the easiest. It’s schoolyard football – defenders have no help at all and everyone is in 1-on-1 coverage across the field. Miles Austin, Tony Romo’s favorite target for 2+ seasons, is lined up in the slot against Giants corner Aaron Ross. Ross is a serviceable NFL corner, but that’s a matchup that Austin should win more often than not.

On the snap, Austin gets a great release and blows by Ross. Romo sets his back foot and realizes quickly that the ball has to come out. He knows that against cover 0, there’s always one less blocker than there are rushers. If the ball’s not out, he’ll quickly find out who was unblocked in a very painful way. Romo never looks at anyone but Austin, and when he sees the separation he lays out what looks for all the world like a surefire first down and probably a touchdown. It’s a pass that Romo has completed to Austin dozens of times in a game and probably hundreds or thousands of times in practice, but something went wrong on this particular throw. It was almost as if the collective gasp of Cowboys fans on one end of their billion dollar stadium brought the ball just out of Austin’s reach.

The Giants got the ball back, and Eli Manning led the first of a few game-winning drives all culminating in a Super Bowl MVP and a ticket to an elite club of two-time Super Bowl winners. In a season full of perfect throws, amazing catches, clutch sacks and winning field goals, an incomplete pass by the Cowboys ended up a pivotal play in the Giants’ season.

One of the things that makes the NFL so unique in the sporting world is that one play in one game truly can change the entire look of a season. The sample size is so small, the games so disproportionally meaningful compared to other sports, that to look away for a play can mean missing a crucial turning point. The Giants were all but written off before that game, and had the pass fallen on Miles Austin’s fingertips instead of beyond them we could’ve seen the Patriots hoisting the trophy last night. Or the Packers. Or the 49ers. Or the Cowboys. But the pass was just long, and the ensuing drive set forth a chain of events that ended last night with Eli Manning holding his prize in a shower of red and blue confetti.

Confetti is key to celebrating any victory, but the accuracy of my pre-season predictions means I should probably hold off on that run to the party store. Humbly putting forth predictions for the coming season can make the predictor look like a genius or a dope. In my case, I think there’s a bit of both. What follows is a postmortem of both my picks and the season itself. Remember, as I promised back in September, all records were guaranteed to be 100% accurate or your money back. Luckily you don’t pay for this thing so I’m off the hook. I’m going to categorize every team in one of three ways, with an associated inspirational quote:

GREEN: “They are who we thought they were.” – a nod to my former coach Dennis Green. Teams that generally performed at expectations.

MORA: “Playoffs? Don’t talk about Playoffs? PLAYOFFS?!” – the famous Jim Mora Quote. Teams with high hopes that crashed and burned.

COSTANZA “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” – wise words from George Costanza. Teams that rose up to achieve great things and proved low-balling dopes like me wrong.

NFC East

New York Giants, COSTANZA, predicted 8-8, finished 9-7, Super Bowl Champions: If they bounced out in the first round against Atlanta, or were even beaten by heavily favored Green Bay, the Giants would be in the “As Expected” category. But goofy-faced Eli Manning led the Giants to 7 wins in their last 8 games (losing to the Redskins? Really?) and celebrated in Indy. No one could’ve thought this possible with the G-Men sitting at 6-6 and staring defeat in the face in Dallas.

Philadelphia Eagles, MORA, predicted 13-3, finished 8-8: Mike Vick’s nagging injuries and an under-performing defense were the stories in Philly. Statistically the Eagles were fairly good, but it took winning their last four games to even make it to .500. They played incredibly well in-division, going 5-1 against the NFC East. Unfortunately, they were 3-7 against everyone else.

Dallas Cowboys, GREEN/MORA, predicted 11-5, finished 8-8: The ‘Boys lost four of their last five to skid in at 8-8 and miss the playoffs after looking like a lock. The aforementioned loss to the Giants was killer, but it’s hard to win a division when the only team you beat is the doormat Redskins. It was a tale of two seasons, as it always seems to be for the Cowboys.

Washington Redskins, GREEN, predicted 2-14, finished 5-11: I was sweating this prediction HARD in October. One of my friends from the DC area gave me some crap for only predicting 2 wins when they were sitting at 3-1 after four games. Thankfully Dan “Lord Voldemort” Snyder and his merry band of overpaid misfits came to my rescue losing six in a row followed by four of the last six. Amazingly, the team’s only two wins in division came against the Super Bowl Champs. What a country!

NFC North

Green Bay Packers, GREEN, predicted 12-4, finished 15-1: No one can reasonably call a 15-win season a disappointment, but this might be on that track. The Packers looked like world beaters in the regular season, but cracks began to expose themselves on defense in the latter weeks. Even with an extra week to prepare, the Packers D couldn’t stop Manning and the Giants and the Packers had nothing even remotely resembling a running game.

Detroit Lions, GREEN, predicted 10-6, finished 10-6: The Lions are the epitome of “We are who we thought they were” – a tremendously talented team that’s still too young to find the right balance. The Motor City Kitties had flashes of pure brilliance starting 5-0 and looking like a juggernaut. In the end, they beat the teams they should’ve beaten without pulling out any key victories against better teams. Inconsistency, the hallmark of young players in the league, did them in.

Chicago Bears, GREEN, predicted 7-9, finished 8-8: The Bears looked in the mix heading into a week 11 match-up with Oakland at 7-3. That loss started a run of five straight L’s that ended any playoff chances the Bears had. The team was good running and stopping the runs, but inconsistent play from Jay Cutler and a young, inexperienced secondary gave away some games.

Minnesota Vikings, MORA, no prediction, finished 3-13: To say that Donavan McNabb was a failure in Minnesota doesn’t quite do it justice. Bringing him in was expected to be a stopgap measure to allow rookie Christian Ponder a season (or at least most of one) to familiarize himself with an NFL offense after a shortened off-season. He was out after six weeks and Ponder was thrown to the wolves. The injury to Adrian Peterson compounded Minny’s problems, and three wins were about the best they could do.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints, COSTANZA, predicted 11-5, finished 13-3: The Saints showed in week 1 that their offense could hang with the best in football. The shootout with Green Bay almost tempted me to hack into the CT mainframe and change my predicted record. The Saints played incredibly well at times, with Drew Brees setting once-thinkingly-unbreakable passing records, but the expectedly porous defense made Alex Smith look like, well, Drew Brees in route to a second round exit.

Atlanta Falcons, MORA, predicted 13-3, finished 10-6: 2011 was supposed to be the year the Falcons won the South and threatened to run deep into the playoffs. Instead, the team suffered a few strange losses – getting blown out by Chicago week 1, losing to Tampa Bay and TJ Yates-led Houston – and petered out with nary a whimper to the Giants in the Wild Card round. Julio Jones had a good season for a rookie receiver, but 54 catches probably have the Falcons wondering if they gave up too much to get him.

Carolina Panthers, COSTANZA, predicted 4-12, finished 6-10: Cam Newton came into the NFL under a chorus of haters, but he leaves this season with ROY honors and the reputation to keep defensive coordinators awake at night. Yes the Panthers lost ten games, but four of those were against the Saints and Falcons and five more were close games that could’ve been wins. Carolina’s record doesn’t do their season justice, and I think many fans would consider this campaign a relative success.

Tampa Bay Bucaneers, MORA, predicted 9-7, finished 4-12: After beating the SAINTS in week six, the Bucs sat at 4-2 and atop the South. It looked for all the world like New Orleans and Atlanta had another contender as they did in 2010. Tampa wouldn’t win another game, and a nine-point loss to Green Bay would go down as the “best” game they played afterwards. What went wrong? Everything. Locker room revolt, poor performance, and an organization in free fall.

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers, COSTANZA, predicted 5-11, finished 13-3: This had to be one of the most out-of-the-blue, scarcely predicted turnarounds in sports history. The 9ers, coming off a feckless 6-10 season and adding no new skill personnel excepting the coach, went 13-3 and had a great chance to go to the Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh shouldn’t win coach of the year for this performance, he should win coach of the decade. Such a limited space cannot do justice to the 49ers turnaround.

Arizona Cardinals, GREEN, predicted 8-8, finished 8-8: The Cards started a dismal 1-6, but had some quality wins – against Dallas and San Fran among them – to finish at 8-8. Larry Fitzgerald was magnificent regardless of who the quarterback was, and if anything came out of this campaign it’s that Kevin Kolb is probably not ready for prime time.

Seattle Seahawks, GREEN, predicted 6-10, finished 7-9: You can almost copy and paste the Cards blurb here. Started poorly, then played better as the season progressed. Tavaris Jackson did look more comfortable as the season went on, and Doug Baldwin might be a young star in the making. Marshawn Lynch was a stud as always, but holes on the O-line and defense kept Seattle from challenging in the NFC.

St. Louis Rams, MORA, predicted 10-6, finished 2-14: The prediction I’d rather not revisit. For as much of a pleasant surprise San Francisco was, this team’s under performance almost overshadowed it. The Rams were easily the league’s worst team in 2011. There will be questions asked of Sam Bradford in the off-season, but at this point the franchise is too heavily invested in him to look elsewhere.

AFC East

New England Patriots, GREEN, predicted 13-3, finished 13-3: Tom Brady had one of the great quarterbacking seasons in NFL history, yet many considered him 3rd best in 2011 behind MVP Aaron Rodgers and OPOY Drew Brees. For as weak as everyone claimed the Pats’ defense to be, they gave up just 17 ppg in the playoffs. Brady & co. would certainly have bet on a championship given that stat, but, as one incredibly influential football expert said, “Tom couldn’t throw and catch the (flippin) ball.”

New York Jets, MORA, predicted 12-4, finished 8-8: The Jets started the year with a championship defense, a confident young quarterback, and a giant coach who makes videos of his wife’s feet. When the season ended on New Years Day, only the latter was (probably) still true. Three straight losses to Oakland, Baltimore, and New England, all giving up 30+ points, broke the normally stout defense, and Sanchez never really got going with some now questioning if he’s the long-term answer in New York.

Miami Dolphins, MORA then COSTANZA, predicted 6-10, finished 6-10: A team that finishes exactly as predicted would normally get the Denny Green treatment, but this truly was a tale of two seasons for Miami. They lost their first seven games, but a 31-3 trouncing of then 4-3 Kansas City propelled the team to close 6-3. Matt Moore became a serviceable NFL QB (Paging Mr. Manning) and Reggie Bush logged 200+ carries showing he could be an every-down back.

Buffalo Bills, MORA then GREEN, predicted 3-13, finished 6-10: The Bills were the darlings of the NFL after a huge week 3 win over the Patriots. They started 6-2, in sole possession of 1st in the East after eight weeks. A combination of injuries and back-to-earth quarterback play from Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick saw them lose 8 of their last 9 and limp in at 6-10. The week 15 shellacking of Tebow’s Broncos might have very well provided Coach Belichick the blueprint he used in the Divisional round.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens, GREEN, predicted 13-3, finished 12-4: The aging defense, headed by future HOFers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, was expected to begin a decline. They ranked 4th against the pass, 2nd against the run, and 3rd in points against in 2011. Joe Flacco struggled at times, and he looked out of sorts in the two playoff games. Ravens fans are quietly wondering if Flacco may have hit his ceiling as an NFL QB after four full seasons in the league.

Pittsburgh Steelers, GREEN, predicted 12-4, finished 12-4: Even with the NFL’s best defense, the Steelers couldn’t overcome a hobbled quarterback and an injured running back to make a deep playoff run. The new Steel Curtain gave up 14 yards per game less than the second-ranked 49ers, and surrendered just 14.2 points per game. This season might have Steelers fans wondering what could’ve been had all their weapons on offense been healthy.

Cincinnati Bengals, COSTANZA, predicted 3-13, finished 9-7: If not for San Francisco’s huge turnaround, this would’ve easily been the comeback story of the year. 4-12 in 2010, the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton in the off season as a quarterback project. Carson Palmer bolted (even before he was officially traded) and Dalton had a great rookie year. He and receiver AJ Green developed more as a pair in 2011, and may be the NFL’s best young QB/WR tandem.

Cleveland Browns, GREEN, predicted 4-12, finished 4-12: It’s hard to believe that the Browns were in a three-way tie for the division after week 3. Considering those two wins were against Indy and Miami focuses the picture a bit more. The Brownies went 2-11 from there, but they did have the distinction of snagging the NFL’s two most boring wins of the season: a 6-3 shootout win over Seattle in week 7 (more on that later) and a 14-10 thriller over Jacksonville in week 11.

AFC South

Houston Texans, GREEN, predicted 10-6, finished 10-6: When Matt Schaub and then Matt Leinart both went down with injuries, Houston had one eye on the present and one on the future. But TJ Yates, a guy who I swear played for 8 years at the University of North Carolina, led the team into the playoffs and within a drive of beating the Ravens in the AFC Divisional round. Arian Foster played well, but his fantasy owners may say otherwise.

Tennessee Titans, COSTANZA, predicted 6-10, finished 9-7: Matt Hasselbeck was brought in for two reasons: to win some games and to groom rookie Jack Locker for the NFL’s big time. He was not expected to get the team within a game of reaching the playoffs without any semblance of a consistently effective running game. Crushing losses to the doormat Jaguars and the sub-foundation Colts were all that kept Tennessee from the playoffs.

Jacksonville Jaguars, GREEN, predicted 5-11, finished 5-11: They weren’t expected to so much with a rookie QB, holes on the offensive line, and a coaching staff in complete chaos. Blaine Gabbert struggled, and the Jags were dead last in the league in passing. If not for sharing a division with the Colts, the Jags might have a top 3 draft pick in 2012. Alas those two wins only pushed Indy further down while propping up a team not nearly as good as its 5 wins.

Indianapolis Colts, MORA, predicted 8-8, finished 2-14: It was hard to watch a proud franchise with a dedicated fan base struggle like the Colts did in 2011, and this season should be enough to retroactively award Peyton Manning 5 or 6 more MVPs. There were some hard-fought losses early, but after losing to Jacksonville in week 10 the prospects for even a single win looked minimal. The Colts beat the two best teams in the division back-to-back to finish with two wins.

AFC West

Denver Broncos, COSTANZA, predicted 5-11, finished 8-8: This team and this quarterback probably deserve their own 1,000 word post, but after starting 2-5 the team reeled off 6 straight wins all in dramatic fashion. John Fox ditched a lot of the playbook, and the result was the league’s best rushing team and one that put unique pressure on defenses. It remains to be seen how effective it can be in the long run, but no one would’ve expected a playoff win out of this group heading into 2011.

San Diego Chargers, MORA, predicted 11-5, finished 8-8: I said for years that Donte Stallworth, formerly WR for the Saints and now w/the Redskins, was the ultimate Madden player. He had size, speed, strength, hands – all the things that should make a receiver great – but he never quite put it together. The Chargers are the team version. They have the QB, they have the offense, they have the defense, and seemingly have the coach. 2011 seemed like a repeat performance of so many in recent years.

Oakland Raiders, GREEN, predicted 7-9, finished 8-8: The mid-season trade for Carson Palmer momentarily shocked the Raiders back into life. Successive wins against the Chargers, Vikings, and Bears had the Giants at 7-4 and looking ahead toward the playoffs. They closed 1-5 and ended up in the bottom five in most major defensive categories. The passing of omnipresent owner Al Davis was a somber note and effectively left the entire franchise in flux.

Kansas City Chiefs, MORA, predicted 10-6, finished 7-9: A team losing its best player at any point during the season makes winning tough. A team losing its best player in week 2 can be a disaster. After Jamaal Charles was carted off in a blowout loss to Detroit, the Chiefs faced an uphill battle to win every game on the schedule. Matt Cassell (and then Tyler Palko) managed to win 7, the biggest of which was the week 15 upset of then-undefeated Green Bay. Considering everything they went through this year, seven wins is quite an accomplishment.

 

Biggest Surprise: San Francisco. The re-birth of Alex Smith is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in sports.

Biggest Disappointment: Tampa Bay. Same team, same coach, no major injuries, absolutely fell apart.

Best Game: Packers over Saints 42-34 in Week 1. What better way to start off the season than with the game’s two best quarterbacks on national TV.

Worst Game: Cleveland over Seattle 6-3 in week six. The score really doesn’t even relay how boring this game actually was.

Best Individual Performance: With so many quarterback numbers to choose from, I’ll go defense. Jason Pierre-Paul’s performance in the week 14 game described at length above was one of the best I’ve ever seen. He had 8 tackles, two sacks, forced a fumble, and blocked a last-second kick that could’ve tied the game.

Important Background for the Next Three Items: A perfect NFL QB rating is 158.3. If a quarterback throws 1000 times and each is incomplete, his rating is 39.6.

Statline that I Thought was a Misprint, HOLY CRAP!!! Edition: Drew Brees, week 15, against my battered Vikings: 32-40, 412 yards, 5 TDs, 149.2 rating.

Statline that I Thought was a Misprint, Cover Your Eyes Edition: Luke McCown, week 2, against the Jets: 6-19, 59 yards, 0 TDs, 4 INTs, 1.8 rating.

Statline that I Thought was a Misprint, Honorable Mention Tebow Edition: Tim Tebow, week 17, against the Chiefs: 6-22, 60 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 20.6 rating.

Storylines I’m Most Looking Forward to Looking After in the Off season:

  • Seeing which team will acquire Peyton Manning in the twilight of his HOF career.
  • Movement at draft spots 2-6. Andrew Luck will be the first overall pick, but it’s game on after that. Look for selections, trades, and all manner of shenanigans.
  • Not hearing lawyers talk about a lockout, or players talk about a lockout, or coaches talk about a lockout, a potential lockout this year, or how we’re all just heading to a lockout in the next few years.
  • The continuation of concussion studies and new helmet technologies to better protect players at all levels. (ALMA MATER PLUG. HOKIE HI)
  • If any teams take the LA bait and jump ship to the nation’s second biggest television market.

For now, go enjoy your Sundays with loved ones. Take the extra time you’ve spent over the last six months reading or socializing with friends. Take a walk, ride a bike, or do some hot yoga or something. Enjoy all the benefits of the beautiful world around us. Take those extra hours and meet a new friend or volunteer at a local animal shelter. Think of everything that football has given to you since August and try to give some of that back to the world.

Or do what I do – bide time and wait for the draft on April 26 and then start studying for fantasy football. The season starts on September 6 and that leaves just four months to get your draft strategy in place. No time to waste.

Image: Flickr