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Remember the opening night game between the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, two teams destined to be part of the NFL elite. Both ended up not making the playoffs. It might have been the hardest season in a long time for gamblers. The unpredictable seemed to come true and common knowledge was thrown out the window.
MVP: Drew Brees, QB New Orleans Saints. Many will make the case for San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. But is there any question that without Brees the Saints probably would not have made the playoffs, never mind finish with the second-best record in the NFC.
Brees helped lead a Saints team that many thought had no future in New Orleans. Instead the Saints became a story of hope and one of the most exciting teams to watch.
Best Player: Tomlinson might not be the MVP , but his speed and agility make him one of the best running backs the NFL has seen in some time. Just ask Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, who says Tomlinson is the best running back he has seen.
Coach of the Year: A quarterback returning after suffering two rotator cup injuries, the loss of running back Curtis Martin, a brand new offensive line and a defense that had many question marks. That was the situation first-year Jets coach Eric Mangini inherited when he took the job. Many argued that Mangini should take a quarterback in the draft. He went against conventional wisdom and selected two offensive lineman. His faith in QB Chad Pennington paid off with Pennington leading the Jets to their first playoff birth in two seasons. Also, how about taking a Jets defense with suspect talent and making it into one of the stingier units in football.
General Manger of the Year: San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith for making one of the more courageous moves of the offseason: letting Drew Brees go in favor of Phillip Rivers. The Chargers went 14-2 with a group that has more Pro Bowl players than any other team. Perhaps Smith deserves this award for his body of work in building the Chargers over the past few seasons. The Chargers also have a member of the tribe on their team in defensive tackle Igor Olshansky.
Runner up: Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, for signing quarterback Steve McNair and continuing to be one of the best on draft day.
Best Draft Pick: When the New England Patriots selected Laurence Maroney from Minnesota, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan admitted that Maroney was one of the most talented players in the draft and if he did not need a quarterback he would have selected Maroney. Luckily, for the Pats, Maroney was still around when it came time for their pick, and what a difference he made in their offense. With wide receivers like Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Kelvin Kight and Bam Childress, QB Tom Brady was probably more than thankful to have a running back like Maroney in his backfield.
Most Disappointing Team:
This is a tie between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins, with a slight edge to the Dolphins. The Giants were supposed to be one of the top teams in the NFC East, and through the first-half of the season they lived up to expectations going 6-2. But the Giants went 2-6 over the final eight games. Sports Illustrated said the Dolphins would go to the Super Bowl. Instead they won only six games. Also, signing QB Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees should haunt Miami for years.
Teams on the Right Track:
The Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans are all rebuilding. One of the good signs for each franchise is that they have quarterbacks who should be very good for a long time. J.P. Losman (Bills), Alex Smith (49ers) and particularly Vince Young (Titans) could be top quarterbacks within a few years. All three teams played well down the stretch.
Comeback Player of the Year: Jets quarterback Chad Pennington. After suffering two rotator cup injuries, Pennington started 16 games for the first time in his career.
Super Bowl prediction: Let the record show that my original prediction was the Broncos over the Dallas Cowboys. Well, the Broncos did not make the playoffs and the Cowboys just lost to the Detroit Lions. The Saints will represent the NFC, while Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer will finally get a shot in the the big game. Chargers 28, Saints 27.
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