A splendid 2014 regular season is in the books. But the games have just begun.
This week, drama will ensue. There will be major coaching changes. There will be substantial debate on who should capture individual awards. Did I mention that the playoffs start in five days? There will be upsets. Oh, and it's never too early to talk NFL draft and free agency, right?
With all that in mind, we provide nine wide-ranging arguments across the NFL.
HERE'S THE CASE FOR ...
1) ... Bill O'Brien as Coach of the Year
Back in January, the first-time NFL head coach took over a lifeless, two-win outfit that needed a new identity. He instantly changed the team's tone and tempo. O'Brien held the players accountable.
Houston spent the No. 1 overall pick on Jadeveon Clowney and he barely played this year due to injury. Yet, Houston somehow was able to still win nine games.
O'Brien is rightly praised as an offensive guru. Well, he maximized and squeezed every last ounce out of three quarterbacks who have no business starting in the NFL: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett and Case Keenum. If you think about it, the quarterback group in Houston was the worst in the league this year. It's a minor miracle the Texans had a chance to make the playoffs at 3 p.m. ET in Week 17. That's preparation. That's coaching.
J.J. Watt was seemingly a one-man wrecking crew for the Texans, which is a credit to him in one of the all-time great seasons by a defensive player. And some would argue that Watt's MVP candidacy was bolstered by his ability to catch touchdowns on the offensive side of the ball. Well, who hatched that idea and put him in red-zone packages? Bill O'Brien.
In every way you judge a coach, O'Brien came up aces. The Texans are in fantastic hands. He deserves to be recognized.
2) ... the Ravens as a sleeper playoff team
Consequently, John Harbaugh's team is back in the playoffs. And I don't think it will be a one-and-done.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh will clash for the third time this season. And it will be great to see these arch rivals locking horns in the playoffs. The teams -- and the fans -- share rare hatred and pure disdain for each other.
Justin Forsett got back on track in Week 17, eclipsing 100 yards rushing for the first time in a month. Joe Flacco is well experienced in playoff football. (Remember that Super Bowl run two seasons ago, when Flacco racked up an 11:0 TD-to-INT ratio?) Baltimore won't be intimidated going to Pittsburgh. And while Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will have a major advantage against the Ravens' defensive backfield, Flacco should be able to exploit the same issue for Pittsburgh's defense. Plus, Le'Veon Bell's hyperextended knee will need to be monitored all week long.
3) ... Hue Jackson to replace Marvin Lewis -- if Cincy loses again in Round 1
On the other hand, there are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the Bengals losing in the opening weekend of the playoffs.
When the Colts and Bengals meet this weekend, Cincy will have the more talented roster, along with the better defense and better run game. This is a game that the Bengals should win. But I won't pick them. Cincy consistency falls short at head coach and quarterback, with Andy Dalton saving his worst for when it matters most.
4) ... Marcus Mariota to Tampa Bay with the No. 1 overall pick
The Buccaneers won by losing Sunday, clinching the top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. They need a franchise quarterback. Mariota is special -- on and off the field. Jameis Winston cannot be trusted as the face of an NFL franchise. This is a no-brainer. Congrats (... I guess) to Jason Licht and the Bucs. Don't overthink it.
5) ... Ndamukong Suh to be disciplined for stomping on Aaron Rodgers
If you make a mistake when walking -- take an inadvertent step, stumble on something in your way -- what's the natural reaction? You stop in your tracks and take stock of the situation. It's an instant reflex.
Suh stepped on Rodgers' injured leg twice. Coincidence? Well, this is Ndamukong Suh we're talking about -- the guy has a well-earned reputation as a dirty player. This fit right in with prior behavior.
It's unfathomable that Suh didn't learn from his prior Thanksgiving Day stomping of Evan Dietrich-Smith or Dominic Raiola's one game-suspension for his own trampling in Week 16.
And now, the league needs to act again. That was classless.
6) ... Aaron Rodgers as MVP
This isn't hard. Associated Press voters, like myself, get one vote for the NFL's biggest individual award. And the most valuable player in the league is Aaron Rodgers.
Sunday's Willis Reed-esque return -- and the one-legged domination that ensued -- sealed the deal on an award that, in my mind, wasn't up for grabs anyway. Did you see Rodgers go 11-for-13 passing after the injury, deftly guiding Green Bay to a division title and first-round bye?
Rodgers is the MVP going away.
7) ... Rex Ryan not getting another head coaching gig in 2015
I chuckle upon hearing folks talking about Rex offering fire and swagger to seemingly-dead situations like Atlanta and Chicago.
Oh, he will bring energy. But how about the wins?
For the second year in a row, Rex had a bucket of Gatorade dumped on his head at the end of a non-playoff season. The love affair his players -- and some members of the media -- had with him routinely overshadowed how bad of an in-game coach Ryan was. As I wrote two years ago, the coach should've been fired with the GM who hired him (Mike Tannenbaum).
Now there's a lot of buzz about Ryan ending up in Atlanta, in the wake of the Falcons' firing of Mike Smith. Don't get me wrong: Smith needed to go. I wrote that two months ago. But why would Atlanta now hire an inferior head coach? Rex mismanaged the quarterback position throughout his Gang Green tenure. Why would the Falcons -- or especially any team without an established stud under center -- see this guy as the answer.
8) ... the Cardinals to advance in the playoffs
9) ... the Browns to bring back Brian Hoyer
Johnny Manziel's rookie season was a total waste. He couldn't beat out a quarterback who couldn't complete the forward pass. When he finally got his shot, Manziel looked horrible before suffering a season-ending injury. And even on injured reserve, Johnny Football couldn't escape trouble, as he was fined for being late to treatment on Saturday.
Manziel needs to grow up. What did he just tell us last week? Oh, yeah: "I have to take this a lot more seriously. It's a job for me now." It's tough to hand him the keys to the car when he immediately contradicts himself.
Hoyer makes the most sense as a guy to compete with Manziel. His value on the open market crashed back down to Earth once his completion percentage nosedived and he lost the starting job.