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The Narrative Of The 2015 NFL Season

In 1998, the Denver Broncos were led by a legendary quarterback in John Elway, who ended his career by winning a Super Bowl title. In the 2015 NFL season, the Broncos woke up those echoes. With Elway now general manager, and the great Peyton Manning behind center, Denver won the Lombardi Trophy and sent Peyton into retirement as a champion.

Peyton’s regular season was marred by a struggle with plantar fasciitis. He had to split time with Brock Osweiler and the Denver offense often struggled. They still had quality receivers, with Demaryius Thomas catching 105 passes and making the Pro Bowl, while Emmanuel Sanders went over 1100 yards. But the Bronco offense ranked just 19th in the league in points scored.

It was the defense that lifted Denver. Von Miller was an All-Pro at outside linebacker with 11 sacks. DeMarcus Ware was a good pass rusher at the other OLB spot. Lockdown corners in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. keyed a terrific secondary. The defense as a whole was fourth-best in the NFL and they played their best football when it mattered the most.

Kansas City was a strong challenger in the AFC West and had an excellent defense themselves. Their outside linebacking duo was the Pro Bowl combo of Justin Houston and Tambi Hali. Their cover corner was Marcus Peters, who intercepted eight passes, and the Chiefs had the game’s best free safety in Eric Berry. The offense had quarterback Alex Smith playing mistake-free football and throwing to 1,000-yard receiver Jeremy Maclin and Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce, just starting to come into his own.  

Denver beat Kansas City 31-24 on a Thursday Night in Week 2 and went on to get key wins over future playoff teams in Minnesota and Green Bay. The Broncos derailed the undefeated New England Patriots at the end of November, with a 30-24 overtime win on Sunday Night Football. Even though the Chiefs won the rematch with the Broncos, Denver still secured the division title at 12-4, while KC took the top wild-card and 5-seed at 11-5. And the Broncos’ victory over the Patriots would loom large.

New England was the defending Super Bowl champion. Tom Brady, at the age of 38, threw 36 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Rob Gronkowski was the NFL’s best tight end, catching 72 passes and averaging better than 16 yards a pop. Chandler Jones led a top-10 defensive unit with 12 ½ sacks from his defensive end spot. The Patriots opened the season by beating the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers 28-21 on Thursday Night and were off and running.

The New York Jets gave Brady and head coach Bill Belichick a challenger in the AFC East this year. Head coach Todd Bowles orchesterated a defense that ranked ninth in the league, led by Pro Bowl end Muhammad Wilkerson. While quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick coud be mistake-prone, he had a 1,500-yard receiver in Brandon Marshall, a good second target in Eric Decker and a 1,000-yard rusher with Chris Ivory. The Jets made a big Week 2 statement when they went into Indianapolis and shut down a highly regarded Colt offense and Andrew Luck, 20-7 on Monday Night.

New England won their first ten games and were 12-2, seemingly in command to get the 1-seed in the AFC bracket. But they came into the Meadowlands and lost to the Jets in overtime, 26-20. Then the Patriots went to mediocre Miami and lost the finale. The end result was a 12-4 record, and the aforementioned loss to Denver was the difference in homefield advantage. The Broncos and Patriots would each get what were then two first-round byes. But the road to the Super Bowl would go through Denver, rather than New England.

And the Jets? That clutch win over the Patriots gave New York control of their playoff destiny at 10-5. But the Jets dropped the finale to the Bills 22-17 and were left at home.

Cincinnati set the tone in the AFC North. The Bengal defense ranked second in the league for points allowed, thanks primarily to a tough defensive front. Geno Atkins was an All-Pro at tackle, while Carlos Dunlap made the Pro Bowl on the edge, with 13 ½ sacks. Reggie Nelson roamed behind them at free safety and picked off eight passes. The offense featured Andy Dalton throwing to 1,300-yard receiver A.J. Green, and the great All-Pro Andrew Whitworth anchoring the left tackle spot.

In the first part of October, Cincinnati knocked off Kansas City, and two-time defending NFC champion Seattle in consecutive weeks. They got a clutch 16-10 win over their prime division challengers from Pittsburgh on November 1. Even though the Bengals settled for the 3-seed, their 12-4 record matched the Broncos and Patriots. Hopes were high in Cincy for this postseason.

As for Pittsburgh, the Steelers got a spectacular year from All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, who racked up 136 catches for over 1,800 yards. He was one part of a passing attack that saw Ben Roethlisberger throw for nearly 4,000 yards. David DeCastro was an All-Pro up front and the Steeler offense was top-5 in scoring.

Pittsburgh’s key wins came over playoff-bound Arizona in October, and the Steelers crushed the Colts’ 45-10 on a Sunday Night in early December. With their backs to the wall down the stretch, Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati 33-20, and then knocked off Denver 34-27. It kept the Steelers alive, and when the Jets stumbled in the final week, Pittsburgh was able to grab the 6-seed and a playoff date with the Bengals.

A mediocre AFC South filled out that side of the bracket. Indianapolis didn’t live up to expectations and finished 8-8. The Houston Texans weren’t much better, but they had the great J.J. Watt on the defensive line. Watt was Defensive Player of the Year. Whtiney Mercilus had 12 sacks at outside linebacker. Even with major instability at quarterback, DeAndre Hobkins caught 111 balls for over 1,500 yards. In this division’s key game on December 20, Houston beat Indy 16-10 to capture first place and the 4-seed.

It was Carolina’s time in the NFC. The Panthers got an MVP year from quarterback Cam Newton, who ran for over 600 yards, in addition to his strong passing numbers. Newton was one of several players who made 1st-team All-Pro in 2015. That included fullback Mike Tolbert and center Ryan Kalil on offense. It included defenders like linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, and corner Josh Norman.

That alone would have made the Panthers a force. But there was also tight end Greg Olsen racking up over 1,100 yards receiving. Jonathan Stewart got close to the 1K mark running the ball. Defensively, tackle Kawann Short recorded 11 sacks and free safety Kurt Coleman intercepted seven passes. The Carolina offense was the NFL’s most proficient and the defense ranked sixth. As a whole, the Panthers went into December undefeated, they ran away with the NFC South, and ultimately finished 15-1. Carolina was going into the playoffs as the team to beat.

Arizona and Seattle were the contenders in the NFC West. The Seahawks were aiming for a third straight Super Bowl trip and they got a terrific year from Russell Wilson. The versatile quarterback completed 68 percent of his passes at 8.3 yards-per-attempt, while also running for over 550 yards. Wilson carried an offense that missed physical runner Marshawn Lynch for half of the season, and Seattle finished fourth in points scored. And the Legion of Boom defense continued to be the NFL’s best, led by the Pro Bowl trio of Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman in the secondary.

But the Cardinals were coming on. Carson Palmer had a Pro Bowl year at the age of 36, throwing the ball to the great Larry Fitzgerald and another 1,000-yard receiver in John Brown. Palmer could stretch the field, averaging 8.7 yards-per-attempt, and the Arizona attack finished second only to Carolina in points scored. A strong defense had their own great secondary, with All-Pros in corner Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu.

Arizona’s offense showed what they could do on a mid-November Sunday Night against Seattle, winning 39-32. A week later, also on Sunday Night, the Cardinals outgunned the Bengals 34-31. Arizona nipped Minnesota 23-20 and blew out Green Bay 38-8. With a 13-3 record, the Cardinals pulled away in the NFC West and secured the 2-seed. The Seahawks with big wins over the Steelers and Vikings on their resume, still made the playoffs at 10-6 and were the 6-seed.

The Vikings and Packers shaped the race in the NFC North. Green Bay got another Pro Bowl year from Aaron Rodgers. But even though Rodgers finished with a 31/8 TD-INT ratio, he didn’t have the same kind of downfield attack that Packer fans had been used to seeing. After a 6-0 start, Green Bay was shut down on a Sunday Night in Denver and then began to show flaws. They lost at home on Thanksgiving Night to lowly Chicago. They nearly lost at Detroit the following Thursday Night until a desperation heave by Rodgers saved them. The Packer record slipped to 10-5 by the time their season finale with the Vikings arrived.

Minnesota relied on the league’s fifth-best defense, with Everson Griffen leading the way with 10 ½ sacks and a Pro Bowl ticket from his defensive end spot. The Vikings could also run the ball, with All-Pro Adrian Peterson nearly reaching the 1,500-yard plateau. Minnesota won a key October game with Kansas City and kept inching up in the NFC North.

By the time Week 17 arrived, the Vikings were also 10-5. Their trip to Lambeau Field had been flexed into the Sunday Night spot. And they went into Green Bay and handed the Packers a 20-13 loss. Minnesota was the 3-seed and would get to host Seattle. Green Bay had to go on the road for the postseason.

The final spot went to a surprising team out of the NFC East. Kirk Cousins got his first chance to be a regular starter in Washington, and he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. In a division that no one could stand up and grab, the Redskins were still in it with a 5-7 record. Then they won their final four games. The biggest one was a prime-time Saturday Night affair in Philadelphia on December 26. The ‘Skins won 38-24 to clinch the NFC East. As the 4-seed, the would host the Packers in the playoffs.

Wild-Card Weekend opened with both AFC games on Saturday. Kansas City took care of business with a 30-0 whitewash in Houston. The prime-time game in Cincinnati was played in the rain. The Steelers led 15-0. Bengal backup quarterback A.J. McCarron rallied his team to a 16-15 lead. Roethlisberger, knocked out at the end of the third quarter, came back on. Aided by a couple of key defensive penalties, Big Ben led Pittsburgh to a field goal and a dramatic 18-16 win.

More end-of-game drama went down in Minnesota. A physical game was played outdoors in the cold in a year when the Vikings were “between domes” and playing in the University of Minnesota’s stadium. In the frigid temperatures, the Seahawks led 10-9, but Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led his team into position for what looked like a chip-shot field goal in the closing seconds. It missed. Seattle was moving on.

So far, all of the road teams were winning, and it was no surprise to anyone when that continued in the nation’s capital. The Packers spotted the Redskins an 11-0 lead and then took over, cruising to a 35-18 win.

New England opened up the Divisional Round by churning out a 27-20 win over Kansas City that wasn’t as close as the score makes it appear. That night, a dramatic finish went down in the Arizona desert. The Cardinals had the Packers put away, ahead 20-13 and Green Bay backed up deep in their own end. Rodgers completed one desperation pass to get to midfield. Then he completed another one to tie the game. In a stunning turn of events, Arizona was on the brink of an epic collapse. But they got the ball to start overtime, marched down and got the game-winning TD.

Carolina hosted Seattle in the early Sunday time slot and stormed out to a 31-7 lead. Wilson tried to rally the Seahawks, but his comeback bid came up short. The Panthers advanced, 31-24. And later that afternoon, while Peyton’s physical shortcomings were evident against the Steelers, so was his clutch mojo. The Denver quarterback played his best in the fourth quarter, turning a 13-9 deficit into a 23-16 win.

Championship Sunday would begin with one last showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Denver led 20-12 in the fourth quarter. A missed extra point by the Patriots’ All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski would prove enormous. Because Brady led a late drive, marked by several clutch, do-or-die throws, that got a touchdown with 0:12 left. But he couldn’t get the two-point conversion. The Broncos prevailed 20-18.

There was no drama that night in Charlotte. In front of a raucous crowd, the Panthers unloaded early and often. They had a 17-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and it never got close, ending 49-15. Carolina looked unstoppable.

But the Denver defense was stopping most everyone in sight right now. They had Miller leading an aggressive pass rush. The great corners were locked in on coverage. Newton was shut down and the Bronco defense produced a touchdown that built an early 10-0 lead in the Super Bowl. With Peyton managing the game and the Denver D dominating, the Broncos chiseled out a 24-10 win.

Peyton rode off into retirement. Denver was back on top of the NFL world.