Happy Last Day of 2014! I hope each of you has a wonderful New Year’s Eve (and that you aren’t too hung over tomorrow…remember, there’s this thing called the College Football Playoffs going on…no big deal.) In today’s NFL top ten, we’re going to take a look at the biggest surprises of the 2014 regular season.
1. I’ve got to start today’s list with the Dallas Cowboys. Never in a million years did I think they’d become legitimate Super Bowl contenders, smashing nearly every team they meet. Tony Romo has shown more grit than, well, ever (the man played through a broken back) and I’m left astounded by how well their DeMarcus Ware-less D has performed. Good show so far, boys.
2. The New Orleans Saints, a pre-season Super Bowl favorite, finished the year with a 7-9 record (which wasn’t even enough to win the dismal NFC South.) The Saints lost 5 home games in a row this year and wound-up with the league’s 31st ranked defense. Being forced to send Jairus Byrd to IR after just 4 games (and no interceptions) didn’t help anything on that front.
3. The Arizona Cardinals, who were expected to be decent, but not great, amazed fans around the league by continuing to contend after they lost not one, but two, quarterbacks along with a host of other starters. Bruce Arians and his team lived out the adage “next man up.” I’m interested to see if they’ll be able to make anything happen in the postseason.
4. While I’ve already mentioned the Saints’ horrible season as a big shocker, the entire NFC South deserves a spot on today’s list too. Every team in the division finished the season with a losing record (Can you believe the Atlanta Falcons just recently contended for the NFC title? How quickly things change.) In the end, the Carolina Panthers won the right to represent the division nobody wanted to win in the postseason.
5. The Chicago Bears’ regression from the 2013 season was tremendously surprising. They fell, for instance, from 2nd to 20th in yards per game and their famous D was literally nonexistent. The benching of QB Jay Cutler (the league’s highest paid player in 2014) was the icing on a very bitter cake. The Bears have already axed their head coach and their GM, so we’ll see where they go now. It’s pretty bad when Chicago fans have had to turn to the Cubs for relief. How about that Jon Lester, though?
6. The Washington Redskins’ continued indecision at the QB position was a little bit surprising given the coaching changes they made during the off-season. Although injuries did play a role (Colt McCoy’s neck just couldn’t stay healthy), I still wasn’t expecting Jay Gruden to jump around the way he did. I’ll be shocked if RGIII is still on the roster come training camp.
7. Even though the Cleveland Browns ultimately failed to make the postseason, there was a point in time this season (as late as Week 10) when they sat atop the ultra-competitive AFC North all by themselves. As Brownies fans are fond of saying, “There’s always next year.”
8. Coming off of a 2-14 season and losing their No. 1 overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney, just a few weeks into the season, the Houston Texans went on to become a 9 win team (without having a quality starting QB) in 2014. Credit largely belongs to defensive phenom JJ Watt and head coach Bill O’Brien. It pains me to say this (I like the Colts being a lock to take the AFC South year-in and year-out), but I’m scared to see what they do next season.
9. The Seattle Seahawks mediocre start to the 2014 season shocked fans and analysts alike. The term “dynasty” was thrown around during the off-season, so the team’s less-than-stellar first half left everyone confused. After releasing Percy Harvin, the ‘Hawks starting getting it together and, eventually, managed to clinch a first round bye. They may be peaking at just the right time.
10. After two consecutive years without making the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have finally found themselves again. Big Ben set records left and right in 2014 and Le’Veon Bell (who may or may not play in Saturday’s match-up) lit it up against nearly every team on the schedule. I think the Steelers may have what it takes to make a deep playoff run.