Michael Wilbon on the NFL

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, December 26, 2008

A year ago today, the NFL was dominated by one story: the New England Patriots. They were the toast of pro football for those who didn't care about Spygate and the scourge of the league for those who thought they were cheats. Either way, the Patriots eclipsed everything else in football, to the point we never much examined all that had developed over the course of the season.

But with one game remaining in the regular season of 2008, we can look back at a football smorgasbord that has delivered one absurd and unpredictable treat after another. It's so vast that not even the threat of Brett Favre threatening to retire (again) can distract us.

Who, for example, has given us the top feel-good story of the year?

The Atlanta Falcons, whose entire program was in shambles this time last year, or the Miami Dolphins, who on Sunday might just finish off the greatest turnaround in NFL history? Who's done the better job as a rookie coach? The Falcons' Mike Smith, the Dolphins' Tony Sparano or Baltimore's John Harbaugh, who might be taking the Ravens back to their bullying defensive ways of the beginning of the decade?

Who most deserves MVP? Peyton Manning after coming back from preseason surgery to be, well, Peyton Manning? Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, who has averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored 20 touchdowns for a Panthers team that came within a windblown field goal attempt last week of claiming the top seed in the NFC?

Brandon Jacobs for trampling defenders all season and carrying the Giants to home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs? Saints quarterback Drew Brees if he breaks Dan Marino's league record for passing yards in a season? What about a defensive player, Baltimore's Ed Reed, for being the greatest ballhawking nuisance the league has seen in many years?

Despite the video game-like numbers put up by Brees and San Diego's Philip Rivers, my vote for MVP would go to one of the usual suspects who had quite an unusual season: Manning -- as in Peyton. Instead of their usual fast start that sort of grounds to a crawl late in the season, the Colts have done just the opposite.

Manning and Indy were 3-4 and looked hopelessly out of it nearing midseason, but have ripped off eight straight victories largely because Manning does pretty much what he usually does: complete two-thirds of his passes and throw touchdown passes in bunches. Manning has had higher passer ratings than his current 93.8, but he's never been this hot this late in the season.

The Colts, having won one Super Bowl with Manning, appear to be playing more freely than they ever have. If you prefer to have your MVP pick definitely be in the playoffs, you might go with Manning over Brees (95.5, 30 touchdown passes, 4,683 yards), whose Saints are 8-7 and not in the postseason, and Rivers (104.0 rating, 32 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions compared to Manning's 26 touchdowns and 12 picks). Rivers's Chargers will probably win their awful division with a record of 8-8.

The person who's being left out of this discussion, ironically, is the guy who has kept the Patriots afloat: Matt Cassel. If the Yankees could bid on him he'd get $200 million. Two weeks into the season folks wondered if the Patriots needed to bring in a veteran quarterback to play the position in relief of injured Tom Brady. Cassel, it was often pointed out, was a bench-riding, clipboard-toting caddie to Heisman Trophy-winning teammates Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at Southern California.

With a week to go and a playoff spot still a possibility, Cassel has thrown 21 touchdown passes to only 11 interceptions, turned in two 400-yard passing games, and will likely lead the Patriots to an 11-5 record. I'd vote for Cassel runner-up, yet I'd have a difficult time making the case that Cassel is more valuable this season than the discarded Chad Pennington (17 touchdown passes, seven picks, 96.4 rating for the Dolphins).

Suppose Miami beats the Jets in New Jersey to give the Dolphins a division title and an 11-5 record one season after they went 1-15 and cleaned house? Between Pennington and Sparano at least one should get some regular season hardware, though my coach-of-the-year vote would go to Atlanta's Smith, whose Falcons are already in the playoffs and could be the No. 2 seed in the NFC by the time the madness is sorted Sunday night.

Why Smith over Sparano? Because the Falcons, with Michael Vick in jail and Bobby Petrino having bailed, appeared to have been dealt the pro equivalent of the NCAA death penalty. It could have taken the Falcons years to come back. Yet, here they are in the playoffs with a rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan (who should be the unanimous rookie of the year) and a running back, Michael Turner (1,491 yards, 16 touchdowns), who was an afterthought when the season began.

The running back position alone is stocked with fresh faces, beginning with the aforementioned Williams of Carolina (1,337 yards), Chicago's Matt Forte (1,188 yards, eight touchdowns) and Tennessee's Chris Johnson (1,228 yards, nine touchdowns), who has helped keep the Titans going when early-season MVP candidates Kerry Collins and Albert Haynesworth slowed just a bit.

The Giants, Titans, Steelers, Panthers and Colts are all teams with double-digit win totals and legitimate championship aspirations, but there is no dominant team, not even a prohibitive favorite. Rarely, in fact, does the NFL go into the final week of the season with half of its division champions (NFC North and South, AFC East and West) yet to be determined.

The developments of this season aren't necessarily covered by the word "parity" that the NFL so dearly loves, but it certainly fits any sport's definition of entertaining. And with the playoff scramble continuing until the final game (Denver at San Diego) of the final night of the regular season, the NFL shouldn't dare ask for anything more.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company