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The Narrative Of The 2014 NFL Season

For ten years, the New England Patriots had been seeking their fourth Super Bowl title of the Tom Brady era, a threshold that would pull Brady even with Joe Montana and Tom Bradshaw as quarterbacks with the most rings. In a thrilling end to the 2014 NFL season, Brady’s Patriots got that coveted fourth Lombardi Trophy.

Brady was 37-years-old, and after a spotty opening to the year, delivering a Pro Bowl season with a TD-INT ratio of 33/9. Rob Gronkowski, the league’s best tight end, was his prime target, catching 82 passes for over 1,100 yards. And Bill Belichick’s defense got a lift when they added All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis.

New England was blown out on a Monday Night in Kansas City at the end of September, intensifying speculation that maybe Brady was finished. But the Patriots were just “on to Cincinnati,” as Belichick put it. The following Sunday Night, New England dropped 43 points on the playoff-bound Bengals. Then the Patriots scored 37 against Buffalo, the only other AFC East team to finish with a winning record.

In November, the Brady-led offense destroyed their top competition in the AFC, Denver, and Indianapolis, scoring a combined 85 points. A 34-9 win over another playoff team in Detroit continued the surge. There was nothing wrong with Tom Brady. Nor with the New England Patriots. They closed the regular season at 12-4 and held the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Peyton Manning was continuing to put up big numbers in Denver. At the age of 38, Peyton threw 39 touchdown passes and went for over 4,700 yards. He had Pro Bowl receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders who combined to exceed 3,000 yards. The defense was more middling, but they had a great pass-rushing combo in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and excellent cover corners with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. All four were Pro Bowlers and they made the Denver defense good enough to win.

The Broncos won the opening Sunday Night game over the Colts 31-24. In early October, Denver blew out playoff-bound Arizona 41-20. The Broncos had competition in the AFC West—the Chiefs and San Diego Chargers had each made the playoffs in 2013, and both were contenders this year. Denver swept all four games with their key divisional rivals, finished 12-4 and took home the 2-seed. KC and San Diego both narrowly missed the postseason.

Seattle was the defending Super Bowl champion, and their great “Legion of Boom” defense was back for more. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas were both All-Pros and led up the hard-hitting secondary. Bobby Wagner was another All-Pro at inside linebacker. The Seahawk defense was the stingiest in the league. And the offense, with Marshawn Lynch running for over 1,300 yards and Russell Wilson a Pro Bowl dual-threat quarterback, was pretty good too.

San Francisco had been Seattle’s top challenger in 2013, but the 49ers faded, and head coach Jim Harbaugh eventually left to go back to his alma mater at Michigan. In the NFC West, it would be the Arizona Cardinals who rose up. The Cards had the NFL’s fifth-best defense, with Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie having Pro Bowl years on the corners. It was enough to compensate for an offense that had serious injury problems at quarterback which extended all the way into the playoffs.

The Seahawks set an early tone in September. Their season-opening Thursday Night home game was a resounding 36-16 victory over Green Bay that proved vital in the broader race for NFC playoff seeding. Seattle beat Denver 26-20 in a Super Bowl rematch.

The Seahawks won both games with the Cardinals, allowing a combined nine points. The second win, a 35-6 thrashing on Sunday Night Football right before Christmas, was decisive in the division race. Seattle finished 12-4 and was the #1 seed in the NFC. Arizona, on the strength of big wins over Dallas, Detroit, and Kansas City in the season’s second half, still went 11-5 and was the 5-seed.

Green Bay rang up a 12-4 season themselves, led by an MVP year from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He threw for over 4,300 yards, averaged 8.4 yards-per-attempt and had an off-the-charts TD/INT ratio of 38-5. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb were both Pro Bowl receivers and combined for over 2,700 yards receiving. Eddie Lacy gave the running game punch, going over 1,1100 yards and getting his path cleared by All-Pro fullback John Kuhn. The Packer offense scored the most points in the league. Pass-rushing outside linebacker Clay Matthews led a defense that was good enough to win.

The Pack’s 19-7 loss to Detroit in September was a tipoff that the Lions would be the prime challenger in the NFC North. The league’s third-best defense was anchored by All-Pro tackle Ndamakong Suh and ballhawking free safety Glover Quin. The offense was subpar, but still had an explosive quality. Matthew Stafford threw for over 4,200 yards and made the Pro Bowl along with wide receiver Golden Tate. Calvin Johnson continued to be a 1,000-yard receiver.

After a 1-2 start Green Bay was able to get control of the division race and later won a big 26-21 decision over New England in a late afternoon classic from Lambeau Field. The Packers finished 12-4. That was good enough for the 2-seed—and the first-round bye that then came with it. Detroit went 11-5 and settled in as the 6-seed, which was then the final playoff spot.

The AFC South had star power. Andrew Luck was coming into his own as the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback, throwing 40 touchdown passes, producing over 4,700 yards and making the Pro Bowl. The Houston Texans had the Defensive Player of the Year in J.J. Watt. Both teams got into contention.

Indy took the first head-to-head battle, a 33-28 win on a Thursday Night in October. The Colts then won the second game with the Texans, 17-10 in mid-December. These close wins were the difference in the race. Indianapolis finished 11-5 and got the 4-seed. Houston, at 9-7, narrowly missed the playoffs.

An exciting three-team race went down in the AFC North between Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. The Steelers had a potent offense led by the Big Three of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Big Ben went over 4,900 yards passing, while Bell and Brown were both All-Pros. So was center Maurkice Pouncey. They covered for a middling defense.

Baltimore was well-balanced, finishing in the league’s upper quarter for both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Ravens’ got All-Pro years from guard Marshal Yanda and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, the latter recording 17 sacks. Terrell Suggs added 12 more sacks at the other outside ‘backer position. Justin Forsett keyed the running game with over 1,200 yards, while the Joe Flacco-to-Steve Smith combo led the passing game.

Cincinnati relied on Jeremy Hill to run the ball, and Hill exceeded 1,100 yards. A.J. Green was a Pro Bowl receiver that consistently bailed out erratic quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals also had the league’s best return man in Adam “Pacman” Jones. And Cincy drew first blood in this division race when they beat Baltimore 23-16 to start the season. The Bengals completed a sweep of the Ravens with a 27-24 win in late October.

Baltimore had made their own early statement with a 26-6 thumping of Pittsburgh in Week 2. It wasn’t until October that the Steelers started to roll. They beat Houston 30-23 on a Monday Night. Pittsburgh won a 51-34 shootout with Indy in late October. A week later, the Steelers racked up a 42-23 blowout of the Ravens on Sunday Night Football.

Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati all raced down the stretch. Cincy’s 22-13 win over Houston just prior to Thanksgiving proved decisive for the final playoff spot. But the Steelers got the last word—they swept the Bengals in December, the latter being a flexed Sunday Night finale that settled the division title. Pittsburgh was 11-5 and the 3-seed. They would host 6-seed Baltimore, who ended up at 10-6. Cincinnati, at 10-5-1 and the 5-seed, was going to Indianapolis.

After three straight years of losing the NFC East title in the final week, the Dallas Cowboys finally broke through in 2014. A top-five offense was built around running the football—DeMarco Murray was an All-Pro who rolled for over 1,800 yards behind two more All-Pros up front in Zack Martin and Tyron Smith. And when the Cowboys had to throw, Tony Romo was having one of his best seasons at the age of 34. Romo completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 8.5 yards-per attempt. Yet another All-Pro was the prime target, Dez Bryant, who averaged 15 yards a catch.

The Cowboy offense covered for a mediocre defense. They got into a good race with the Philadelphia Eagles, who had a similar profile—the 3rd-best offense, led by running back LeSean McCoy—carrying a defense that ranked just 22nd. When Philly went to Dallas on Thanksgiving and produced a 33-10 blowout, it looked like the Eagles were going to take control. Instead, Philly collapsed. Dallas won a Sunday Night rematch two weeks later. Philly blew a game to the lowly Washington Redskins. The Cowboys crushed the Colts 42-7 down the stretch. Dallas ended up 12-4 and was the NFC’s 3-seed. Philadelphia’s 10-6 record wasn’t enough to make it.

A bad NFC South division where everyone finished under. 500 filled out the playoff field. Carolina got an All-Pro year from inside linebacker Luke Kuechly. New Orleans had the league’s ninth-best offense, with Drew Brees still going strong at age 35. But both teams had their share of flaws. New Orleans beat Carolina 28-10 on a Thursday Night at the end of October. But the Panthers won a 41-10 blowout in the December rematch. Carolina, at 7-8-1, took home the division, the 4-seed and the home playoff game that came with it.

The Panthers took advantage of that home date by beating the Cardinals 27-16 in the wild-card round. Arizona was down to their third-string quarterback and no longer able to generate much in the way of offense. Later that night, Baltimore took their revenge on Pittsburgh by going into the Steel City and coming out with a decisive 30-17 triumph. Indianapolis dispatched Cincinnati with a workmanlike 26-10 win on early Sunday afternoon.

Dallas and Detroit played the best game of Wild-Card Weekend. The Lions jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the road, and still led 20-7 deep into the third quarter. A series of debatable calls in the fourth quarter swung momentum towards the Cowboys, who pulled out a 24-20 win.

But the “debatable” call dynamic worked decisively against Dallas a week later in Green Bay. A terrific game saw the Packers holding a 26-21 lead late in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys faced a 4th-and-2 near the Green Bay 32-yard-line. Romo let it all hang out with a deep sideline pass to Bryant. The receiver appeared to have caught it, rolled, and the ball jostled. It was initially ruled a catch…then overturned and called incomplete. The play lives in Dallas infamy. Green Bay was moving to the NFC Championship Game.

Another thriller went down in Foxboro, where Baltimore had New England on the ropes. The Ravens led 14-0, and then 28-14. The Patriots tied it at 28-all when wide receiver Julian Edelman threw a touchdown pass off a trick play. Then, trailing 31-28, Brady came through one more time with a TD pass in the final six minutes. New England survived 35-31.

The other games were decided more comfortably. Seattle’s 31-17 win over Carolina was no surprise. But what happened in Denver was. Indianapolis went into the Rocky Mountains and dispatched the Broncos with surprising ease, 24-13. It would be the rising star in Luck, rather than the time-honored veteran in Peyton, who would go on to face Tom Brady for the AFC Championship.

Indy had run out of steam by this point and the Patriots hammered the Colts 45-7. It’s a game remembered more for the fact that Indianapolis players would allege that a football was deflated slightly below the required level, creating a scandal and investigation that reverberated until Brady ultimately served a four-game suspension in 2016.

Earlier that day was a more compelling football game. Green Bay went into Seattle and played outstanding football for over three quarters. But the Packers left opportunities on the table and the lead was still just 19-7 early in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks closed to 19-14 as the clock reached the two-minute warning. They tried an onside kick. It was flubbed Green Bay cover man Brandon Bostick.

Seattle drove for the go-ahead touchdown and took a 22-19 lead. Rodgers led Green Bay back to a tying field goal. But in overtime, the Seahawks only needed one possession for Wilson to throw a game-winning 35-yard touchdown pass to Jevon Kearse. With a 28-22 win, Seattle’s drive to repeat was still alive.

The playoffs had seen an interesting pattern develop. Dallas had beaten Detroit in a game that ended under strange circumstances, only to lose to Green Bay the same way. Then the Packers lost to the Seahawks with a weird ending. For the pattern to continue, Seattle would have to lose to New England in an ending that could be any mix of strange and hotly debated. So it would be.

A defensive game had started to open up late in the second quarter and Seattle took a 24-14 lead. Brady, in arguably the most clutch performance in a career filled with them, calmly led two consecutive touchdown drives against the best defense of the era. New England was ahead 28-24. Seattle drove right back to the two-yard line in the closing seconds. The Patriots were on the verge of a Super Bowl heartbreak that would match those that ended 2007 and 2011.

But a no-name defensive back named Malcolm Butler stepped up. The Seahawks called for a short pass over the middle. Butler got in front of it with a stunning interception. Seattle coach Pete Carroll would be crushed for not simply giving the ball to Lynch, who was having a big day. New England and Brady had their fourth Super Bowl championship.