The Associated Press will hand out its individual NFL awards on the night before the Super Bowl in Tampa. Until then, here are some off-the-beaten track honors to consider.
BEST GAME: In Week 9, the first professional matchup of Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray lived up to the hype. The two young quarterbacks traded pinpoint passes, timely scrambles and other big plays in a dazzling show of the league’s future. Miami won 34-31. Tagovailoa led a 93-yard drive to tie it before Jason Sanders made a 50-yard field goal. Arizona's Zane Gonzalez missed a 49-yarder that would have tied it.
Runner-up: There's lots of support for Baltimore's last-second shootout win at Cleveland in Week 14. For drama, it's a good choice. For football, not so much. Was it the Big 12 we were watching? Or simply touch football with no defense? Exciting, yes. Classic, nope.
WORST GAME: Some day, the league will learn to keep the Lions off national TV. In Week 16, they got a Saturday afternoon matchup with Tampa Bay. Lowly Detroit lost to Tampa Bay 47-7 — the game wasn’t that close. If the Buccaneers showed no mercy and left Tom Brady in after he threw four touchdowns in the first half, they might have broken the NFL record that Washington scored, 72 points against the Giants in 1966.
Runner-up: Pretty much anything involving the Jaguars.
BEST CELEBRATION: Get a look at the Colts' Nyheim Hines doing his best Simone Biles imitation, not only in the end zone but on his way to it, against Detroit.
Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers' simple “I LOVE GOLD” declaration after running for a touchdown against Carolina.
WORST CELEBRATION: New York Jets fans' reaction to their team breaking its winless string by beating the Rams in Week 15 — removing any chance to draft Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.
Runner-up: All of those preening for the sideline videoboard shows when a penalty erased the big play.
BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR: HAIL MURRAY, naturally. When it comes to desperation heaves, so much must go right. Some of it didn't on this one at the end of Arizona's “miracle” victory over Buffalo. Kyler Murray nearly got knocked down. He had to scramble left. And DeAndre Hopkins had to outjump three defenders — all in as good a position to grab the ball as he was. He did, and the highlight will be shown forever.
Runner-up: Not everything that happens in Vegas stays there. Ryan Fitzpatrick's 34-yard pass to Mack Hollins while being dragged down by his facemask set up a winning field goal in Week 16 with 1 second remaining, putting Miami on the verge of playoff qualification.
WORST PLAY OF THE YEAR: Of course this category includes the awful Jets. With New York on the verge of its first victory on Dec. 6 against Las Vegas, ahead 28-24 lead with 15 seconds left, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams inexplicably called an all-out blitz. Derek Carr read it, lofted a pass for Henry Ruggs III, who zipped passed rookie cornerback Lamar Jackson — who had no safety help — for a 46-yard touchdown and the win. Williams was fired the next day.
Runners-up: Dallas' fake punt on fourth-and-10 at its 24 down four points early in the fourth quarter against Washington. It flopped, Washington scored on the next play to trigger a 21-point quarter on Thanksgiving.
And Giants QB Daniel Jones tripping over his own feet at the end of an 80-yard run.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (OFFENSE): Packers tight end Robert Tonyan.
It would be fair in September to say, “Who?” Tonyan made his third season a breakout year. Through 15 games, he has 50 receptions, 568 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's been an added piece Rodgers desperately needed. Tonyan previously had 14 catches.
Runners-up: Las Vegas WR Nelson Agholor, Buffalo QB Josh Allen, Carolina WR Robby Anderson, Arizona TE Dan Arnold, Indianapolis RB Hines, Detroit TE T.J. Hockenson, Dallas TE Dalton Schultz, Cleveland G Wyatt Teller, Washington TE Logan Thomas.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (DEFENSE): Arizona LB Haason Reddick, finally placed in the right position on the outside, has become a force and has 12 1-2 sacks as well as playing the run well. Good timing for the 2017 first-round draft pick who becomes a free agent after the season.
Runners-up: Carolina DE Brian Burns, New Orleans DE Trey Hendrickson, New England CB J.C. Jackson, Atlanta LB Foye Oluokon, Tennessee DT Jeffery Simmons, Rams CB Darious Williams.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER (OFFENSE): We're being harsh here, perhaps, but after a record-setting 2019 in which Saints receiver Michael Thomas won top offensive player honors, he has been hurt, testy, even uncooperative and seemingly disinterested at times. We get the feeling Thomas, if healthy, could make this choice look foolish in the postseason.
Runners-up: Houston WR Randall Cobb, Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott, Atlanta RB Todd Gurley, New England QB Cam Newton, Philadelphia QB Carson Wentz (Eagles O-line, too).
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER (DEFENSE): Jadeveon Clowney signed with Tennessee on Sept. 7, reuniting with Titans coach Mike Vrabel after having his best season with Vrabel as his defensive coordinator in Houston in 2017. The contract gave Clowney a chance to earn up to $15 million, far less than what he wanted in free agency. But Clowney never came close to maxing out that deal, played eight games before going on injured reserve. He never had a single sack.
Runners-up: San Francisco DT Arik Armstead, Las Vegas LB Vic Beasley Jr., Arizona CB Patrick Peterson, Minnesota S Harrison Smith (and the entire Minnesota secondary).
MOST SURPRISING TEAM: For a while, it appeared Cleveland or Washington would take this award, but we'll praise the talents of the football team down near South Beach.
What Brian Flores has done in two years with the Dolphins (10-5), who will make the playoffs with a win Sunday, is monumental. Think where this team was back in September, never mind heading into the 2019 season with predictions of a potential winless season.
Runners-up: Even though both could fall short of the postseason, the Browns and the WFT get the nod.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM: So many flops this year, some of which can be blamed on COVID-19 issues, some on injuries. It's impossible to ignore the fiasco that has been the Texans. From perennial AFC South power to a fired coach/GM, its best player slamming the organization and teammates, and a high draft choice — oh wait, that was dealt to Miami — it has to be Houston.
Runners-up: Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New England.
WEIRDEST INCIDENT: The Broncos were forced to face the Saints without any of their four quarterbacks. Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles were maskless around Jeff Driskel, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Thanksgiving. Practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton completed one pass to a teammate and two to the Saints — his wristband wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was the first non-QB to start at the position since 1965.
Runners-up: Ravens CB Marcus Peters spitting behind the back of Browns WR Jarvis Landry; QB Dwayne Haskins, a first-round selection in 2019, cut by Washington just after Christmas.
BEST PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER: What a pleasure getting to see more of Mike Tirico, who added a bunch of NBC prime-time games to his myriad duties. Smooth, informational, funny and opinionated when needed, Tirico simply is the best no matter what sport he is announcing. The more Tirico the better.
Runner-up: We laud him ever year and he is great every year: Kevin Harlan, by far the best play-by-play guy on radio (Westwood One's Monday night broadcasts) and the should-be anchor of CBS' Sunday lineup. His descriptions of plays are like an artist painting a masterpiece.
Very honorable mentions to Ian Eagle (CBS), Kenny Albert and Kevin Kugler (Fox).
BEST ANALYST: CBS has a monopoly on these, particularly with the addition of Charles Davis, who came over from Fox to bring insight, intelligence and fun to his assignments with Eagle. But the network also boasts some very listenable and knowledgeable analysts, from Rich Gannon to Trent Green to Tony Romo to Adam Archuleta to our favorite, Hall of Famer James Lofton.
Runners-up: Louis Riddick and Brian Griese (ESPN), Kurt Warner (Westwood One), Troy Aikman (Fox).
AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton, Dennis Waszak Jr. and Teresa M. Walker, and Sports Writers David Brandt and Larry Lage contributed.
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