Sometimes life gets in the way. That’s certainly the case here at Bo Jackson’s Hip, where I haven’t put up new words since the tail end of August. I never like to take this long between posts, no matter the reason, but in a strange way it’s been good to take a break from writing about sports. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and watch. To take in the action, enjoy the games, and not feel like the thoughts and opinions scurrying through my brain have to be typed out on a keyboard. I like to take a little time away, but not even at the end of typing out this initial paragraph, it feels even better to be doing the damn thing once again. It’s a hobby, Bo Jackson’s Hip, but it’s also something that I’m rather proud of when it comes right down to it. I love sports, I love to write, and this is the place where there is no editor or deadline to get in between those two things. 

I guess it’s just good to be back.

When I was trying to decide what to write about after my long hiatus, I realized that a lot has happened in sports in the interval between September of 2012 and now the beginning of 2013. The World Series was played, where my Detroit Tigers were swept by the San Francisco Giants, the NBA season has started, the hockey season hasn’t, the college football season reached its culmination Monday night, and the entirety of the NFL season is finished, with the first round of the playoffs also in the books.

And it is that last bit of the sporting world that I wish to focus on in this post. I don’t think I’ve gone through an entire NFL season without writing a post since I started to write things that appear on the internet lo those many years ago. I picked a hell of a season to take off, one of the strangest and most intriguing I can remember, so I think it’s fitting to go ahead and break down the NFL regular season as we jump into the playoffs. If we’re lucky, they’ll be filled with just as many of the unique circumstances and off-kilter happenings that characterized the 2012 season from start to finish. 

The dominant 2012 NFL headline for me, and the place I will start, is with the starting running back for the Minnesota Vikings. Adrian Peterson’s knee exploded in the second to last game of the 2011 season, and while Vikings’ fans were thunderstruck and the entire league gasped at what might have been a career ending injury, I don’t think anyone on planet earth would have believed you if you had told them how things were going to play out for mister “All Day.”

Just picture it. You hop in a time machine that leaves today and head back to the locker room after that fateful day last December. You track down Peterson, who is clearly crestfallen and heartbroken, questioning what’s next not only for his knee, but possibly his career. Here’s what you tell him:

“Adrian, I know it looks bad now. I know you’re in physical and emotional pain right now and I don’t know how to console you. Actually, wait a minute, I’m from the not-so-distant future and I know exactly how to console you. Less than a year from now, you will defy all odds and expectations and start the first game of the 2012 season. Not only will you be ready day one, but you will end up rushing for more than 2,000 yards on that surgically repaired knee. Your torn ligaments will become a distant memory in short order as you come up 9 measly yards short of Eric Dickerson’s seemingly unbreakable single season rushing record, lead the Vikings to the playoffs, and are the odds-on favorite to be the league’s Comeback Player of the Year, and also its Most Valuable Player. In short, you will act like a super-human and achieve physical feats that will have some questioning your humanity. I mean seriously, you can tell me, are you an android?”

I have a feeling AP may have punched said time-traveler into next week with such a cockamamy story, but that’s exactly what happened. I’ve never seen anything like it. I hate to bring the world of Fantasy Football into reality football, but on draft day I avoided Peterson like the plague. I refused to believe that a man could come back for the better part of the following season after what Peterson did to his knee, and I sure as hell wouldn’t have given that man a chance in hell at setting the single season NFL rushing record. Not only does Peterson deserve the aforementioned awards that our time-traveler mentioned, but this season will go down as one of the most legendary in any sport, in any generation. It will turn this man, who was already among the most talented in the NFL, into the kind of legend that any young athlete dreams of becoming. I don’t even want to hear about Peyton Manning competing for the MVP award, although his nearly-as-miraculous comeback is my next topic of conversation.

Manning’s return from the neck injury that threatened to derail his career and an entire season spent away from the game is nothing short of extraordinary, but Manning is nothing short of an extraordinary athlete. Many questioned whether PM would be the QB he used to be, yours truly included. Some even questioned whether he would return to an NFL sideline at all, ever, yours truly included. Coming back from neck surgery, a year off, and joining a new team did not seem to be any way to revitalize what may be the greatest career that any NFL quarterback has ever had, but that’s what we get for questioning Manning’s ability, heart, and competitive edge. 

He lifted the Broncos to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, changed a decent team into a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and erased any of the doubts that swirled around him for the better part of the last year and a half. If he is not the greatest quarterback who has ever lived, he certainly has a solid footing in the debate. No matter what happens in the playoffs, no matter where the Broncos finish, Manning’s 2012 season, like Peterson’s, will be among the most talked about in the history of sport. If not for Peterson, Manning would be the clear-cut MVP and Comeback Player of the Year. That’s how incredible this season has been for these two athletes. They have done so much and proved so many wrong, and yet must share the spotlight when it comes to the individual awards that the NFL has to offer. 

It is simply stunning. But again, this has been a flabbergasting year in the NFL. Beyond what Manning and Peterson have accomplished, there has been even more fodder for discussion and opinion than the usually compelling NFL season typically offers. The Steelers missed the playoffs, the Bengals made it again, the Lions self-destructed, the Jets were a drama on par with any of the Bard’s best work, and three rookie quarterbacks turned teams that missed the playoffs into teams that made the playoffs. And those three rookie QB’s succeeded in terms that are nearly as impressive as Manning and Peterson. Andrew Luck, the number one overall selection of the Indianapolis Colts and Manning’s heir apparent, turned the Colts from a two win team into an eleven win team in the span of one season. 

Though his voice sounds like he swallowed a frog who swallowed a bag full of cotton balls on most occasions, Luck’s feat should not be underestimated. Even with Manning, many wouldn’t have pegged the Colts as a playoff team considering how many other moving parts left Indy, both on the sideline and on the field. Yet Luck turned in one of the most impressive rookie seasons by any quarterback in history, and though the Colts were bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens, Luck’s potential manifested itself in immediate results, turning a rebuilding process into a slight remodel that might add some pressure, but more so brings confidence to a team sorely lacking in that department only a year ago.

In Washington D.C., the second overall pick found similar success. Robert Griffin III combined his athletic ability, strong arm, and a level of leadership that belies his age to power the Redskins into the playoffs with the help of another fantastic rookie, running back Alfred Morris. Sure, the Skins were in much better shape entering the season than the Colts, but RG3’s accomplishments are nearly on par with Luck’s. Both faced an ungodly amount of pressure to succeed immediately and met it with a steely resolve, taking teams that looked a couple years away from the postseason and propelling them past playoff incumbents that seemed sure to leave them in the dust. The Skins won a division shared with the defending Super Bowl champions in the Giants, and the Colts beat out former champs the Pittsburgh Steelers for one of the last remaining playoff births in a similar fashion.

The third rookie QB to lead his team to the playoffs, Russell Wilson, may not be the most impressive of the three considering the talent on defense that the Seattle Seahawks already possessed and established big-time running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch, but he is surely the most unexpected success of the trio. Wilson is undersized, was picked a full two rounds behind Luck and Griffin III, and wasn’t even the assumed starter in Seattle at the onset of training camp. Wilson should have backed up free agent acquisition Matt Flynn, who signed a sizable contract after apprenticing under one of the premiere QB’s in the NFL, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Wilson not only leap-frogged Flynn on the Seahawks’ depth chart, but led Seattle to the playoffs, on his way scoring 50+ points in three consecutive regular season games. He also tied Peyton Manning’s rookie passing touchdown record, no easy feat on a team that doesn’t have a true No. 1 wide receiver on its roster.

And that’s not to mention what another neophyte QB, second-year chucker Colin Kaepernick, has done in San Francisco, stepping in to replace Alex Smith under center for one of the best teams in the league. His arrival in the Bay has given the 49ers added firepower on offense and served as a dynamic complement to Frank Gore at running back, only adding to a clearly dominant defense. 

As in the case of MVP and Comeback Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year honors are just as debatable considering the performances of each of these three signal callers. Debate has raged about who deserves the award, and if you look at the three situations I just laid out, it’s easy to see why. At the end of the football day, I give the award to Luck. As I said, he turned a two win team into a playoff team, was statistically better than most of the QB’s who have been in the league for years, and did so with the specter of the departed Peyton Manning, perhaps the greatest player to ever play the position and an institution in the city of Indianapolis, hanging above him all the way. Luck gets the nod, but not by much, and all three young men make what Cam Newton did as a rookie last year in Carolina look like child’s play in comparison. 

Despite all of these unexpected performances and unlikely heroes, both the AFC and NFC have seen that while so much changes, so much also stays the same. Tom Brady and the Patriots still sit near the top in the AFC going into the divisional round of the playoffs, a Peyton Manning led team is locked into home field advantage throughout, the Texans still seem just below that upper echelon of NFL teams, the Atlanta Falcons once again had a dominant regular season but remain playoff unknowns, and the 49ers and Packers still seemed poised to make a Super Bowl run. The consistent teams have remained so, while the up and coming franchises look like Jim breaking down his mitts in Blazing Saddles: steady as a rock, but still shaky in the face of playoff pressure and unknown territory. This weekend will decide whether or not the upstarts can finally break the hold that the elite teams and the men who lead them (calling doctor Rodgers, doctor Manning, doctor Brady) have on a chance at the Lombardi trophy.

The unexpected events that have ruled the NFL season remind me of an age old sports adage: That’s why they play the games. If everything turned out how preseason prognosticators predicted, Las Vegas lines would lead us to believe, or how things looked statistically on paper, all of the charm and entertainment value of the sporting life would fade away faster than a lineman who gets beat on every snap or a QB who can’t hit the fade route. Despite its PR battle with the increasing brutality of the game itself, the now undeniable affect that concussions have on its players, and recent missteps by commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL refuses to relinquish it’s crown as the most popular American sport.

Indeed, that’s why they play the games, and more importantly, that’s why we watch.

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