NFL season full of surprises

The 2010 NFL regular season was filled with plenty of excitement and intrigue that included events ranging from a Brett Favre sexting scandal to Peyton Manning developing a turnover problem.

The main story outside of the norm this season was the NFL’s emphasis on player safety. It has been a controversial policy that has sparked outrage from many fans, taking the form of countless penalties and fines, with players being disciplined for helmet-to-helmet hits and hits on defenceless players. This focus is directly related to recent research on the effects of concussions, which painted a dark picture for life after retirement for those involved in contact sports like football. This concern resonated with NFL coaching staffs as well, as the season saw more players than ever sitting out games as a precautionary measure after sustaining a concussion.

The year wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. There was plenty of entertainment, and a great deal of it came from teams that very few expected to succeed. This list of surprise teams includes the Chiefs, Bears, and Buccaneers.

In Kansas City, Matt Cassel finally reached his potential as a franchise quarterback. The Chiefs emerged as a contender in Todd Hailey’s second season as the head coach thanks to Cassel’s emergence, a strong running game, and a defence that is no longer a punchline.

The Bears were able to put it all together in 2010. The egos of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Jay Cutler did not collide as many had predicted. In fact, Martz was able to simplify the offensive approach, minimizing Cutler’s mistakes in the process. Combined with the resurgence of a defence and special teams unit that we hadn’t seen playing to its full potential since their 2006 Super Bowl run, this resulted in the Bears’ first playoff appearance since that season.

The Buccaneers may have narrowly missed the playoffs this season but they are more than deserving of the title of “surprise team”. After going 3-13 in 2009, most experts expected the Bucs to remain in the bottom of the NFC in 2010. Instead, Tampa Bay shocked the NFL world with a record of 10-6. Ony one of the teams they were able to defeat had a winning record, tainting their position in the NFC to some observers, but the Bucs did precisely what no one expected them to do by beating bad teams.

There were also some shocking teams that were far more painful to watch. “Painful” only scratches the service of the 2010 season for the Vikings. No one envisioned that the team would follow up a 12-4 season that included a close loss in the NFC Championship game with a 6-10 record in 2010. Whether the culprit was Brett Favre, Brad Childress, Randy Moss, or a combination of several Vikings players and coaches, one thing remains clear: the season was a complete disaster.

The Chargers also had a disappointing season. Unlike the Vikings, the blame is considerably easier to place in San Diego. The special teams were atrocious and have been identified as the reason the Chargers only finished with nine wins despite ranking first in the NFL in both yards allowed and yards gained.

While there were multiple Cinderella stories as well as some falls from grace, many of the usual suspects once again remained at the top of the standings this season. In the AFC, the Patriots, Jets, Colts, Steelers, and Ravens once again lived up to the hype.

For the Patriots, 2010 was nearly flawless. Skeptics wondered if the defence would be good enough to keep the Patriots in the AFC elite. The Patriots were below average on defence, but it simply didn’t matter with Tom Brady putting up MVP numbers that helped the team lead the league in points scored.

The Jets, with a surprisingly efficient albeit inconsistent Mark Sanchez at the helm, were able to reach the playoffs for a second straight season behind another strong defensive performance. Despite some controversy along the way, including a Peyton Manning interception streak, the Colts were once again division champions.

The Steelers overcame an early season-long suspension of Ben Roethlisburger on their way to a division title. The defence remained stingy while the offence combined a solid running game with a vertical passing game to generate points. The Ravens also parlayed a strong defence into a playoff birth, a strategy that has been successful for them throughout the decade.

In the NFC, the Falcons, Saints, and Packers are once again in a powerful position. The Falcons were able to virtually run away with the conference after a fast start, with Matt Ryan cementing himself as an elite quarterback in the process.

The Saints still look like a threat to repeat their 2009 Super Bowl season. Drew Brees has put the Saints in that position despite a running game plagued by injuries and a defence that was no longer able to generate turnovers consistently this season, finishing last in interceptions after having had the third-most a season ago.

The Packers overcame a plethora of injuries to key players this season by allowing Aaron Rodgers to spread the ball around on offence, and with a strong pass rush on defence from Clay Mathews.

The Eagles have surprised some observers with a playoff birth this year in what was expected to be a rebuilding season. Philadelphia has been led by Michael Vick, who, despite being just two years removed from a federal penitentiary, shattered all of his previous passing records and sparked MVP consideration in the process.

The 2010 season was one packed with controversy, disappointment, and satisfaction for NFL fans. This wide range of storylines has made for a tremendous ride.

The playoffs have begun the same way the regular season ended: with shocking upsets. The Seattle Seahawks limped into the playoffs and took on the defending Superbowl champions, the New Orleans Saints. Despite a sub-.500 record, the Seahawks surprised the football world with a shocking victory over the champs. A stunning run by Marshon Lynch eventually sealed the victory for the Seahawks and sent the Saints into an early off-season. Another surprise was the New York Jets’ victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The Jets came into the playoffs losers of three of their last five games and the Colts on the opposite end as they were on fire entering the playoffs. Anything can happen in the playoffs and the Jets and Seahawks proved that with their upsets of the Colts and Saints. The season was full of surprises and the playoffs seem to be continuing the trend of shocking upsets. If nothing else, it should make for an exciting finish to the season.

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