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The Narrative Of The 2011 NFL Season

In 2007, the New York Giants had done the improbable—after scraping their way into the playoffs, the Giants went on a miracle journey through the playoffs that concluded with an upset of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Until it happened again in the 2011 NFL season.

The season may have ended with the Giants on top, but for most of the way it was defined by the Green Bay Packers. After winning the Super Bowl in 2010 as a 6-seed, the Packers had a dominant regular season in ’11. Aaron Rodgers had a stunning 45/6 TD-INT ratio, averaged 9.2 yards-per-attempt and won the first of would be four MVP awards in his illustrious career.

Rodgers’ targets included 1,200-yard receiver Jordy Nelson, and Greg Jennings, who made the Pro Bowl. The Green Bay offense was the most prolific in the NFL. The defense was a little spottier, ranking 19th. But they had a big-time playmaker in All-Pro corner Charles Woodson, who intercepted seven passes.

Green Bay’s NFC North rival in Detroit had a similar profile. The Lion offense ranked fourth in the league for points scored. Calvin Johnson was an All-Pro receiver, catching 96 passes for nearly 1,700 yards. Matthew Stafford had a 41/16 TD-INT ratio. Like the Packers, Detroit was shaky on defense, ranking 23rd. But, like Green Bay, the Lions had a playmaker—pass-rusher Cliff Avril recorded 11 sacks.

The Packers got the season off to a rollicking start, with an fun 42-34 win over Drew Brees and the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints on the opening Thursday Night in Lambeau Field. Green Bay was off and running. They hammered Denver in early October, dropping 49 points on the Broncos. They blew out the Chargers in early November. On Thanksgiving Day, the Packers beat the Lions 27-15. Over consecutive weeks in December, Green Bay’s offense scored a combined 84 points in wins against the Giants and Oakland Raiders.

Green Bay reached 13-0 before finally losing a game. Detroit got key wins over Oakland and San Diego down the stretch to get to 10-6. The Lions grabbed the final playoff spot and were the 6-seed. The Packers were flying high at 15-1, the #1 seed, and looking destined to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

The New England Patriots had another vintage season with Tom Brady behind center. Now 34-years-old, Brady had a Pro Bowl year throwing to All-Pros in wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Welker and Gronk combined to catch 212 passes for nearly 2,900 yards. The Patriot offense was third-best in the NFL. A middling defense ranked 15th, with defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson each recording ten sacks and corner Kyle Arrington picking off seven passes.

After a painful playoff loss to their division rival, the New York Jets, ended 2010, New England got some revenge. They beat the Jets twice, 30-21 in October and 37-16 on a Sunday Night in November. The Jets faded down the stretch and missed the playoffs. The Patriots gained steam, finished 13-3 and were the top seed in the AFC.  

The AFC North was loaded, and it started with the rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, as hot as any feud in sports.

Baltimore’s defense, the third-best in the NFL, was led by Defensive Player of Year Terrell Suggs. A combination defensive end/outside linebacker, Suggs had 14 sacks. Haloti Ngata was an All-Pro defensive tackle. The lineup included all-time greats at middle linebacker with Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed. Lardarius Webb intercepted five passes in the secondary. Offensively, the Ravens were led by the great all-purpose back, Ray Rice, who rushed for over 1,300 yards and caught 76 passes. Rice was led into the hole by Vonta Leach, the All-Pro fullback.

Pittsburgh’s defense was the stingiest in the league, with All-Pro safety Troy Polamulu roaming the secondary. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison pressured the quarterback from their outside linebacker spots and picked up nine sacks each. The offense was an interesting story. The Steelers ran the ball, with 900-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall running behind All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown were each 1,100-yard receivers. But Ben Roethlisberger was a little mistake-prone this season and despite the star power, the Pittsburgh offense was a mediocre 21st in the NFL for points scored.

Cincinnati wasn’t quite on a par with Pittsburgh or Baltimore, but the Bengals got into contention. Andy Dalton, their 24-year-old quarterback, made the Pro Bowl. Cedric Benson and A.J. Green were each 1,000-yard performers, rushing and receiving respectively. Geno Atkins was an elite defensive tackle. The Bengals got a key win in early November—24-17 over the Tennessee Titans. That was the difference in a race where those two teams tied for the 6-seed at 9-7. With the head-to-head tiebreaker, Cincy was going to the playoffs.

The Ravens and Steelers had their eye on more. Baltimore struck first when they blew out Pittsburgh 35-7 in the season opener. The Ravens then won the rematch on the first Sunday Night in November, 23-20. Pittsburgh hung in there. They beat New England 25-17 at the end of October and knocked off Cincinnati twice down the stretch. On the season’s final game, the Ravens and Steelers were both 11-4, and Baltimore had to play Cincinnati. Pittsburgh kept the pressure on by beating Cleveland 13-9. But the Ravens answered with a 24-16 win. They won the division title, got the 2-seed and a first-round bye. The Steelers would go on the road as the 5-seed.

The Indianapolis Colts had mostly dominated the AFC South since its inception in 2002. But a season-ending neck injury to Peyton Manning left the Colts reeling and the division wide-open. It was the Houston Texans who stepped up. A well-balanced team, their offense had a 1,200-yard rusher in Arian Foster. The defense was keyed by some good pass-rushers—Connor Barwin at linebacker, Pro Bowl defensive end Antonio Smith, and an emerging rookie by the name of J.J. Watt.

Houston blew out Tennessee, their prime competition for the AFC South title, 41-7 in October. The Texans got consecutive big wins in December, 17-10 over the playoff-bound Atlanta Falcons, and 20-19 over the Bengals. It was enough to get Houston to 10-5 and have the division, and the 3-seed wrapped up before they lost to the Titans in the season finale.

The AFC West was marked by mediocrity. The Denver Broncos started off 1-4, but then made a quarterback change. Tim Tebow took over. Even though his passing statistics were remarkably pedestrian—and that’s being kind—something clearly changed about the Broncos. They had some talent—Willis McGahee rushed for nearly 1,200 yards. Von Miller won Defensive Rookie of the Year with 11 sacks. Elvis Dumervil was another quality pass-rusher. Tebow at least played mistake-free, and his team won a series of close games. In a race that saw Denver, San Diego and Oakland all finish 8-8, the Broncos had the tiebreaker—and with it the 4-seed in the playoffs.

Jim Harbaugh came to San Francisco and immediately turned the 49ers into a winner. The biggest reason was the league’s second-best defense. And the biggest reason for that D’s success, was a front seven stacked with stars. Justin Smith at defensive tackle, along with inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman all made All-Pro. Frank Gore was a 1,200 yard rusher. The special teams had both the All-Pro kicker and punter, in David Akers and Andy Lee. All quarterback Alex Smith had to do was play mistake-free football. He did, and the 49ers took off.

San Francisco won a tough 13-8 decision over Cincinnati in September. They knocked off Detroit, 25-19 in October. They beat the Giants 27-20 in November. And in a Monday Night showcase in December, they handled Pittsburgh 20-3. When all was said and done, the 49ers were 13-3, they ran away with the NFC West, and took home the 2-seed.

New Orleans was only two years removed from a Super Bowl championship. Atlanta was only one year removed from being the 1-seed in the NFC playoffs. The Saints and Falcons both got into contention again this year.

Drew Brees led an offense that trailed only Green Bay’s in scoring. Brees threw 45 touchdown passes. Tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston each had big years. So did all-purpose running back Darren Sproles. The offensive line had the two best guards in the league in Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. The New Orleans offense was supported by a defense that ranked a respectable 13th in points allowed.

Atlanta’s own potent attack was built around the tandem of running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White. Turner rolled up over 1,300 yards on the ground. White caught 100 balls for 1,296 yards. Tony Gonzalez was in the mix as a Pro Bowl tight end, with Matt Ryan orchestrating everything.

The two rivals played both head-to-head games in the second half of the season. New Orleans won the first meeting 26-23. The Saints went on to hang 49 points on the Giants, and then beat the Lions 31-17. The Falcons had also beaten Detroit earlier in the year. The second Saints-Falcons game was on Monday Night, the day after Christmas. New Orleans racked up a 45-16 blowout. The Saints finished 13-3 and would be the 3-seed. Atlanta was 10-6 and going in as the 5-seed.

That brings us full circle, back to the NFC East, where the race for the final spot in the playoffs ensued. The Giants got a Pro Bowl year from Eli Manning. They had a terrific receiver combo, with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks combining to exceed 2,700 yards receiving. New York’s offense ranked ninth in points scored. Defense was an issue though. There were playmakers. All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul finished with 16 ½ sacks and cornerback Corey Webster intercepted six passes. But the Giant D was only 25th in points allowed.

As a result, the NFC East was one marked by mediocrity, with New York, Philadelphia, and Dallas all hovering around .500. The first big moment down the stretch came when the Giants beat the Cowboys 37-34 on Sunday Night Football in December. Two weeks later, in an intra-city showdown against the Jets that was must-win for both teams, the Giants racked up an impressive 29-14 win.

It all came down to the final Sunday Night. Dallas and New York were playing again, It was winner-take-all for the NFC East. And it was no contest—the Giants rolled to a 31-14 win. They were in the playoffs, and it felt like they were on the upswing.

Most of Wild-Card Weekend was marked by blowouts. Houston cruised past Cincinnati 31-10. New Orleans and Detroit put up a lot of points, as expected—but the Saints’ 45-28 win was rarely in doubt. On Sunday afternoon, Atlanta went to the Meadowlands and completely laid an egg. The Giants won 24-2 and kept their hot streak going.

Pittsburgh and Denver salvaged the weekend for fans. A thriller went to overtime tied 23-23. On the very first play of the extra session, Tebow stunned everyone by throwing an 80-yard touchdown strike to Demaryius Thomas. Even though Denver was the home team, the 29-23 final was still a big upset.

The Saints’ visit to San Francisco opened the Divisional Round on Saturday. The 49ers led 20-14 after three quarters. At which point, a good game turned into an all-time classic. The two teams traded blows back and forth, combining to score 34 points in the final period. San Francisco got the last blow, a touchdown with nine seconds left to secure a 36-32 win.

New England brought Tebow’s magic ride to an end with a 45-10 thumping of Denver on Saturday night. Baltimore built up a 17-3 lead on a Houston team playing with third-string quarterback T.J. Yates. The Ravens ultimately chiseled out a 20-13 win.

No one was prepared for what happened in the late afternoon game on Sunday to end the weekend. The Packer offense was flat and their defensive weaknesses became exposed. Green Bay trailed 20-13 after three quarters, and New York really unloaded in the fourth quarter—the final was 37-20. In a stunning development, the top-heavy favorite was going home early.

Championship Sunday would produce a pair of thriller. New England clung to a 23-20 lead over Baltimore, nearing the end of a well-played AFC Championship Game. The Ravens were driving and got inside the 10-yard line in the closing seconds. What looked to be a winning touchdown pass was knocked out at the last moment. Everyone prepared themselves for overtime…until Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a field goal. The Patriots were going back to the Super Bowl.

Another well-played riveting affair went down in San Francisco. The 49ers struck quickly with a 73-yard touchdown pass, but the Giants played their way back into it and led 17-14 in the fourth quarter. San Francisco tied it with a field goal. The 17-17 game went to overtime. Just like they had in 2007, New York won an overtime NFC Championship Game. A 31-yard field goal gave them the 20-17 win.

So, four years later, here we were again. The Patriots weren’t undefeated and seen as unstoppable, the way they had been in ’07. But they were still a 1-seed and still a three-point favorite. The Giants were again on a magical ride.

It was a game of momentum. The Giants took a 9-0 lead, before the Patriots scored 17 straight points to lead 17-9 in the third quarter. A pair of field goals from New York chopped the lead back down to two in the fourth quarter. The Giants got a key defensive stop but were backed up on their own goal line. Then Manning threw a long pass down the left side to Mario Manningham who made a catch in a tight window near midfield. New York was in business. They drove for the winning touchdown. The final was 21-17.

New York had scraped into the playoffs, beaten the top two sees in the NFC, and beaten New England. It was a sequel that, at least for Giants fans, was every bit as good as the original script.