The 2012 season playoff picture wasn't decided until the final regular-season game Dec. 30 when the Washington Redskins, led by No 2-overall draft pick Robert Griffin III, beat the Dallas Cowboys and claimed the 12th and last playoff berth.
Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos, in the AFC, tied the NFC's Atlanta Falcons for the best records in the NFL at 13-3 with the New England Patriots and Houston Texans both 12-4 and the San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) with the next-best marks.
Also in the playoffs were the Green Bay Packers (11-5), Redskins (10-6), Seattle Seahawks (11-5) and Minnesota Vikings (10-6) in the NFC and Baltimore Ravens (10-6), Indianapolis Colts (11-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) in the AFC.
The Colts opened the year before No. 1 overall draft choice Andrew Luck at quarterback but suffered a big emotional loss when Coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. He took a leave of absence but, after being cleared by doctors in November, was able to visit the team. He returned to the field for the final game of the season.
2012 marked the first season since 1987 that the Colts will have qualified for the playoff without Manning -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft -- at quarterback.
Manning missed all of last season after a series of neck surgeries. He said before the 2011 season he would miss the Colts probably more than they would miss him. But Indianapolis, which went to the playoffs the previous nine seasons behind Manning, sagged to a 2-14 record, reaping the overall No. 1 draft choice in the process. They used it on Luck, from Stanford, and weren't disappointed.
Luck set an NFL record for passing yards by a rookie (4,374 yards); the Colts improved nine games in the standings and returned to the playoffs.
Taken right behind Luck in the draft was Baylor's Robert Griffin III, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner. The Redskins, long quarterback-hungry, traded up for the chance to draft Griffin and the move turned out to be an instant success.
Griffin helped Washington to a seven-game winning streak and a 10-win season. He completed nearly two-thirds of his passes and rushed for 815 yards -- setting a rookie quarterback record in that category.
(The rookie quarterback records by Luck (passing) and Griffin (rushing) were both set in 2011 by Carolina's Cam Newton, also a No. 1 overall selection.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson -- relatively low in the draft order as the No. 7 pick in 2007 -- had surgery Dec. 30, 2011, after suffering torn anterior collateral and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. This is often a career-ending injury but Peterson was given the nickname "A.D." -- for "All Day" -- because of his work ethic and was back when the 2012 regular season began.
Peterson became the focus of the Vikings' pass-poor offense and, even when opponents' defenses focused on him, he was pretty unstoppable. One year to the day after his knee surgery, Peterson rushed for 199 yards with a late 26-yard gain setting up a field goal that gave Minnesota a playoff berth.
He became the seventh player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, finishing with 2,097 yards. That figure is second only to Eric Dickerson's record 2,105 yards.
He will be battling Manning for Comeback Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors.
Manning was released by the Colts March 7 and within two weeks joined the Broncos. He passed for more than 4,000 yards for the 12th time in 14 years on the field (not counting 2011) as the Broncos won 11 consecutive games in building a 13-3 record.
Other records include New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees who had nine consecutive games of passing for at least 300 yards and 48 with at least one touchdown pass.
The 2011 season wrapped early in 2012 with the playoffs heading to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. Top-seed New England beat second-seeded Baltimore 23-20 in the AFC title game while the fourth-seeded New York Giants defeated second-seeded San Francisco 20-17 in overtime to win the NFC Championship game.
The Giants were down 17-9 in the third quarter before mounting a comeback, pulling within two points with two Lawrence Tynes field goals and took the lead in the final minute when Ahmad Bradshaw scored on a 2-yard run.
Eli Manning completed 30-of-40 passes for 296 yards and the Giants' first touchdown and was voted the game's Most Valuable Player.
The NFL, except for the draft, really doesn't like making news off the field but did so in 2012 with one of those issues having a big effect on the field.
The league said it received information that coaches and players with the New Orleans Saints were involved with a program in which players were paid bounties for injuring or knocking opposing players out of games.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, New Orleans Coach Sean Payton for a year and other team officials for short periods. The Saints were also fined $500,000 and second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
In addition, Goodell suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma for their 2012 season with defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove barred for eight games; defensive end Will Smith for four and linebacker Scott Fujita for three.
While the front-office personnel soon started serving their punishments, the players appealed, claiming they hadn't seen evidence of their alleged involvement. In December, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, acting as an arbiter, threw out the players' suspensions. He said they were following orders from coaches and should have been fined rather than suspended.
On back-to-back weekends, the NFL had to deal with deaths of players.
On Dec. 1, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend. He then went to Arrowhead Stadium where he asked to talk with team officials, including Coach Romeo Crennel. Belcher admitted to shooting his girlfriend and then turned a gun on himself, suffering a fatal wound.
The following week, Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent was allegedly driving under the influence when he was involved in a traffic accident. Jerry Brown, a linebacker for the Cowboys, was killed in the accident. Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter.
The league turned to a labor issue that involved game officials rather than players. The teams' owners locked out the referees, who were seeking to stop changes to their retirement plan. The league also wanted to increase the number of referee teams and reduce the number of games worked by a given team. Referees are paid by the game; this would result in reducing annual salaries for individual refs.
With the regular season looming, the league turned to replacement referees, most of whom only had experience with high school or lower college division games. Games were marked with delays as referees sorted out rulings -- sometimes incorrectly -- or made on-field mistakes.
The Seattle Seahawks came out the beneficiary of a questioned call in which one referee ruled an interception and another called a game-winning touchdown on the final play of the third week's Monday night game.
Officials on that play earlier missed a pass interference call against Seahawks' receiver Golden Tate, who was wrestling with Green Bay's M.D. Jennings as the officials were making their opposite calls. The photo of two referees standing over the players with one official singling touchdown and the other touchback became emblematic of the lockout.
A replay review ended up with the catch being awarded to Tate and the win to the Seahawks. Green Bay made the playoffs despite the loss. Seattle also made the playoffs but -- if the call had gone the other way -- with one less win and another loss would have been tossed into the final week mix for a playoff spot.
Within three days of that game, the regular refs were back on the field, cheered -- at least at first -- at the Cleveland-Baltimore game Sept. 27. The confusion at the end of the Green Bay-Seattle game was seen as the catalyst that spurred the labor settlement.
Under the agreement, game officials protected their pension plan and got raises while the NFL will be allowed to hire additional referees for training and assignment to games.
The playoffs were scheduled to begin with the wild-card games Jan. 5-6. The conference titles games were to be played Jan. 20 and Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
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