The Associated Press will hand out its individual NFL awards on the night before the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. Until then, here are some off-the-beaten track honors to consider.
BEST GAME: Patriots 27, Steelers 24. It was ballyhooed for weeks, and in most ways it lived up to the billing. Seesaw contest matching the AFC’s best teams (by far), filled with big plays and controversy — don’t ask Steelers fans about the “catch rule.”
That Pittsburgh nearly won without Antonio Brown, probably the NFL’s best player, was a testament to the Steelers’ grit. But Ben Roethlisberger throwing an interception in the end zone at the end could be the most damaging play for one team.
Runners-up: Seahawks 41, Texans 38; Raiders 31, Chiefs 30.
WORST GAME: Lots of candidates here. You would think the Browns, at 0-15, would have a lock, but their main stinker is a runner-up to Buffalo’s 9-3 loss to Carolina in Week 2. Even the game’s broadcasters seemed to be yawning their way through the “action.”
Runners-up: Titans 12, Browns 9, which at least had some cachet because it went to overtime; Bears 33, Bengals 27, when Cincinnati didn’t show up; Broncos 23, Jets 0, when New York didn’t show up.
BEST GAME SCENE (special award): Buffalo’s home win in the snow vs. Indianapolis . Punts landing and sticking in the snow. The inability to see across the field because the snow fell so hard. Little semblance of a passing game. More than 2 inches of snow crusting the field. And a fan base that celebrated by making snowmen in the stands.
Give us more of that!
BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR: Tyreek Hill vs. Cowboys. The Kansas City receiver, as dangerous as anyone in the league when he has the ball, took a short pass from Alex Smith at the end of the first half and weaved through pretty much the entire Dallas defense to somehow beat the prevent D for a touchdown.
Runners-up: Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s interception vs. the Falcons in Week 16. If you recall Julian Edelman’s sensational grab in the Super Bowl in February, also victimizing Atlanta, this one was similarly magical.
And don’t forget — how could you if you saw it? — DeAndre Hopkins tapping the ball with his right hand to himself over a Pittsburgh defender in the end zone, then grabbing the ball with the left hand as he barely came down inbounds.
WORST PLAY OF THE YEAR: Seattle opted against a 35-yard field goal attempt by Blair Walsh at the end of the first half against Atlanta, even though the kick would have pulled the Seahawks within 24-20. Instead, holder Jon Ryan completed a shovel pass to tight end Luke Willson, but Grady Jarrett read the play and tackled Willson for a 4-yard loss.
The Seahawks lost the game, giving the Falcons a key tiebreaker edge for a playoff berth.
Runners-up: Marcus Cooper’s showboating at the end of a blocked kick that should have been a touchdown, turned into a touchback. Leon Lett II.
BEST COACHING MOVE: In a victory that set them up for a superb season, the Eagles positioned unheralded kicker Jake Elliott, new to the team, for a potential winning field goal. Doug Pederson showed faith in the rookie, who nailed a 61-yarder for the first of nine consecutive wins.
Runners-up: Mike Zimmer sticking with Case Keenum as his quarterback; coaches who entrusted their running game to rookies.
WORST COACHING MOVE: Has to be a tie here, though one move cost a coach his job.
Ben McAdoo benched Giants icon Eli Manning and somehow management was on board. The backlash was loud and nasty, and a week later, it was McAdoo who was out as coach. Manning was back behind center, too.
At the Chargers in November, Bills coach Sean McDermott benched starting QB Tyrod Taylor in favor of rookie Nate Peterman. The kid was in way too deep: Peterman threw five interceptions in the first half. IN THE FIRST HALF!
Runner-up: Denver’s Vance Joseph insisting on sticking with Isaiah McKenzie as his punt returner. Results included fumbling six times, including a punt for a safety against Miami.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (OFFENSE): Adam Thielen, Vikings. The Minnesota State product began his breakout last season. This year, he’s moved into the elite level peopled by the likes of Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.
Runners-up: QBs Carson Wentz, Eagles, Case Keenum, Vikings, and Jared Goff, Rams; RB Alex Collins, Ravens; WRs Nelson Agholor, Eagles, and Robby Anderson, Jets.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (DEFENSE): DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys. Dallas has pegged him as its next great pass rusher, and he came through in style this season with 14½ sacks. He’s the kind of player to build a defensive line around.
Runners-up: Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue, who somehow didn’t get voted to the Pro Bowl; teammate CB Jalen Ramsey; Titans safety Kevin Byard, also a non-Pro Bowler.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (PLAYER): Amari Cooper topped 1,000 yards receiving in his first two seasons with the Raiders and appeared poised for a breakout season. But the drops that plagued Cooper early in his career returned, and outside of a 210-yard game against Kansas City in October, Cooper provided little.
Runner-up: Texans linebacker Brian Cushing for yet another suspension (10 games) for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancers policy.
BIGGEST SURPRISE (TEAM): Take your choice among these 2016 tailenders that soared: Eagles, Rams, Jaguars, Saints. We’ll go with Jacksonville, where a culture change was needed as well as an improved roster and better performances. The Jags got all of that .
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (TEAM): So many, but the Giants, uh, top this list. After making the playoffs under first-year coach Ben McAdoo, led by a staunch defense, they turned into a sieve. Too much tumult, and soon they were contending for a super-high draft choice, McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese were canned.
Runners-up: Raiders, Buccaneers, Packers, Cowboys, Broncos.
BEST PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER: Splitting this into two sections, TV and radio.
With the always-prepared and often-opinionated (but fairly) Mike Tirico back in a pretty regular gig on NBC, he grabs this honor once more. Tirico is the epitome of a professional play-by-play man and a rare voice who brings some journalistic chops to the job.
Our radio voice, also an oft-repeater, is Kevin Harlan. He also does CBS games on Sunday, but his work on Monday nights is perfection. Driving in your car, listening on your mobile device, whatever — Harlan is the man.
Runners-up: Ian Eagle (CBS), Spero Dedes (CBS), Sean McDonough (ESPN), Kenny Albert (Fox).
BEST ANALYST: Another repeater. Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton, now ensconced at CBS, brings humor and insight to the role. Few former players present as well-rounded an analysis, and even when Lofton seems headed on a tangent, he brings the viewers right back where they want to be.
Runners-up: Troy Aikman (Fox), Rich Gannon (CBS), Dan Fouts (CBS), Tony Romo (CBS).