Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, seen here against Buffalo, led the Broncos to the two most spectacular comebacks this season, beating Miami in OT in his first start, and winning a bizarre overtime game against the Bears, who fell apart in the stretch.
The official NFL awards will be handed out during Super Bowl week. The offbeat ones are being handed out now.
MOST MEMORABLE GAME
The season began with some sensational, down-to-the-wire matchups, including the overall opener, Green Bay’s 42-34 win over New Orleans. It’s also hard to forget Buffalo’s wild 34-31 victory against New England in Week 3, or Detroit’s stunning rally for a 34-30 win at Dallas in Week 4.
But for sheer impact, we have to go with two Tebow moments: Denver’s 18-15 win at Miami in its sixth game and, seven weeks later, the 13-10 win over Chicago — both in overtime.
Against the Dolphins in his first start of 2011, Tebow was awful until it mattered. He sparked the Broncos by throwing two TD passes in the final 2:44, though, and ran in a 2-point conversion with 17 seconds to go, forcing OT. Denver won on Matt Prater’s 52-yard field goal.
That ignited Tebowmania, and Denver kept delivering frantic rallies. But the magic seemed to run out against the Bears.
Not quite. After failing to score on their first dozen possessions, the Broncos erased a 10-0 deficit in the final 2:08 of regulation.
Tebow’s 10-yard TD pass to Demaryius Thomas got them closer, and with Chicago trying to run out the clock, Marion Barber inexplicably went out of bounds.
That saved enough time, 53 seconds, for Tebow to guide them in range for Prater’s 59-yard kick to force overtime.
And with the Bears in field goal range in the extra period, Barber fumbled. From there, it was simply a matter of time before Tebow got Prater close enough, and Prater’s 51-yard field goal won it.
We’re still trying to catch our breath.
MOST FORGETTABLE GAME
Few games are more energizing to watch than great defensive battles. Cleveland’s 6-3 victory over Seattle in October was not one of those.
Instead, it was virtually unwatchable.
Seattle was without QB Tarvaris Jackson, then lost RB Marshawn Lynch to a back injury — during pregame warmups. That the Seahawks even managed to score with 1:37 yards of offense was remarkable.
The teams combined for 15 penalties, three turnovers, and only Phil Dawson’s two field goals of over 50 yards stood out.
g PLAY OF THE YEAR
Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, among the most exciting rookies to enter the league in a long time, has run back four punts for touchdowns, tying an NFL record. His 99-yarder to beat the Rams in overtime tops them all.
Peterson fielded the ball at the 1, avoided and then bounced off tacklers over the next 30 yards, then sped past everyone.
“I was like ‘This team needs a play,’” Peterson said. “I decided to catch the ball and just run for my life.”
The shift from also-ran and nonplayoff team since 2002 began when the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh from Stanford. He brought a fresh, competitive attitude, found a way to make QB Alex Smith more than functional, and had San Francisco believing in itself from Day 1 of training camp.
Runner-up: Denver, at 2-5 and headed for oblivion, revamped the offense to fit Tim Tebow’s skills, and surged to the top of the AFC West.
Tampa Bay went from 10-6 as the youngest team in the league to still young, but 4-11 and in total disrepair. Even the Bucs’ best players regressed this year.
Runner-up: Indianapolis. Of course, Peyton Manning’s absence put a huge disclaimer on this one.
BEST FREE AGENT SIGNING
Contract values aside, the choices are two 49ers, kicker David Akers and CB Carlos Rogers, Eagles DE Jason Babin, Saints RB-KR Darren Sproles and Texans CB Johnathan Joseph.
We’ll go with Akers, who has set a league record with 42 field goals, has shown range as well as accuracy (7 for 9 from 50-plus yards) and has helped the league’s worst red-zone team go 12-3.
WORST FREE AGENT SIGNING
See next award.
MOST OVERRATED TEAM
The Eagles “won” free agency with the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Steve Smith and Vince Young. That had them, uh, dreaming of big things.
They wound up being big busts, by far the most underachieving squad in the league — and in Andy Reid’s tenure.
MOST UNDERRATED TEAM
A rookie quarterback (Andy Dalton) throwing to a rookie wideout (A.J. Green) after much offseason turmoil is not the recipe for success in the NFL. Yet, if the lowly regarded Bengals beat Baltimore on Sunday, they head to the playoffs. Give a ton of credit to the coaching staff led by Marvin Lewis.
MOST MEMORABLE POST-GAME HANDSHAKE
Harbaugh might have done a sensational coaching job, but his postgame greeting style could use some work. The blowup with Lions coach Jim Schwartz provided the best (and worst) handshake moment since Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini.
The NFL and NFLPA finally getting together on a new collective bargaining agreement, ensuring 10 years of labor peace.
Falcons coach Mike Smith going for a fourth-and-inches at Atlanta’s 29 in overtime. Michael Turner’s run was stuffed by the Saints, who then kicked a winning field goal.
LAW AND DISORDER
Barring a complete reversal of conduct, the Raiders will break the NFL mark for penalty yards, needing 12 against San Diego — which they could get on the coin toss if they misbehave.
Individually, it’s hard to distinguish between Steelers LB James Harrison, the first player suspended (one game) for an illegal hit (on Browns QB Colt McCoy) under the NFL’s stricter guidelines, or Lions DT Ndamukong Suh (two games) for his stomping on Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving Day.
BEST ASSISTANT COACH
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips again proved why he is among the best at coaching one unit. Houston’s defensive improvement, even without Mario Williams for much of the season, has been sensational. And when Phillips was sidelined for kidney/gall bladder surgery in December, Houston promptly lost two straight.
g BEST MOVE INTO END ZONE
Making like an Olympic gymnast, Bengals WR Jerome Simpson vaulted over Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington, landed on his feet for a touchdown, then raised both arms for sticking the landing.
“A lot of the guys gave me a 10 on it,” Simpson said.
“I think it was like a 9 maybe, because I touched the ground (with the hand) a little bit.”
WORST MOVE INTO END ZONE
Tony Romo going back to pass against the Giants, avoiding Jason Pierre-Paul’s sack attempt near the goal line, then going down to all fours and sprawling into the end zone for a New York safety.
BEST NFL BROADCAST CREW
Since ESPN put together its Monday night trio of Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski, this has been no contest. Tirico is the smoothest of play-by-play announcers who also offers some insight and raises controversial issues. He brings out the best in his highly opinionated and insightful partners, and their sense of humor isn’t forced.
Gruden’s best moment: toying with crutches in the booth and threatening Jaworski with them as Gruden tried to figure out how Sean Payton could coach while using them.
BEST NFL STUDIO SHOW
NBC’s “Football Night in America,” in part because it’s no yukfest, as are nearly all the other shows, but mainly for its willingness to tackle tough topics. Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison have no peers as commentators about the games and the sport itself.
Every one of these guys was a major contributor this year, even without much fanfare. In alphabetical order: PK David Akers, 49ers; T Jeff Backus, Lions; WR Doug Baldwin, Seahawks; TE Jake Ballard, Giants; LB Connor Barwin, Texans; WR Antonio Brown, Steelers;
CB Brandon Browner, Seahawks; G Chris Kuper, Broncos; P Andy Lee, 49ers;
DE Chris Long, Rams; RB Ryan Mathews, Chargers; LB Jerod Mayo, Patriots; PK-RB Joe McKnight, Jets; C Chris Myers, Texans; C Dominic Raiola, Lions; WR Nate Washington, Titans.
“It’s chaos out there. A lot is going on more than you see. It’s like ‘The Matrix’ out there with a little bit of ‘Inception.’ It’s a little bit crazy.” — Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, a movie buff, describing the action after he had three sacks in a 24-10 win over Indianapolis.