Scoring at a 46-year high…comebacks galore…new teams making the playoffs and winning divisions...consistent teams excelling once again…passing records falling…rookies making their mark…and so much more!
The 2011 season really did have it all.
For those clubs who made it through the rigors of the regular-season, they can look back and appreciate the closeness of the competition for a postseason berth. For the 16th consecutive season, at least five teams made the playoffs that did not advance the year before. Six clubs – Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, the New York Giants and San Francisco – accomplished the feat this year.
"We are excited about being in the field of 12," says Pittsburgh head coach MIKE TOMLIN, who led the Steelers to a 12-4 record and a Wild Card berth. "We turn the page now, we move forward into the single-elimination tournament. That's what this journey is about. We want to finish strong and then move onto the new challenges."
Seven of eight divisions were won by new teams in 2011 – Baltimore, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, New Orleans, the New York Giants and San Francisco – the most such clubs since realignment in 2002.
The only repeat division champion in 2011 was the New England Patriots, who finished 13-3 and secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC. In the process, the Patriots also became the third team in NFL history to win at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons. New England joined the 1983-98 San Francisco 49ers (16 consecutive seasons) and 2002-10 Indianapolis Colts (nine) in accomplishing the feat.
BILL BELICHICK also became the first head coach ever to win at least 13 regular-season games in five separate seasons (14 in 2003; 14 in 2004; 16 in 2007; 14 in 2010).
Green Bay became sixth team in NFL history to win 15 regular-season games in a season and the second defending Super Bowl champion to start a season 13-0, joining the 1998 Denver Broncos, who started 13-0 en route to a Super Bowl XXXIII victory. Dating back to last season's title run, the Packers won 19 consecutive games including the playoffs, the second-longest such streak in NFL annals (New England, 21 consecutive games in 2003-04).
And two of the NFL's most significant single-season passing records fell in 2011. DREW BREES of New Orleans passed for 5,476 yards, besting Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO's previous mark of 5,084 yards in 1984. Green Bay's AARON RODGERS led the NFL with a passer rating of 122.5, topping PEYTON MANNING's record of 121.1 set in 2004.
The NFL is never short on surprises, and that leads to the excitement we witnessed in 2011:
- A record 11,356 points were scored, with games averaging 44.4 points, the highest average in 46 seasons (46.1 in 1965).
2011 marked the first season in NFL history in which three different teams scored at least 500 points – Green Bay (560), New Orleans (547) and New England (513). Those three clubs finished with a combined record of 41-7 (.854).
- Houston (AFC South) and Denver (AFC West) both rebounded to win their respective divisions after finishing in last place or tied for last in 2010. This marked the NFL-record ninth consecutive season that at least one team went from "worst-to-first" in its division.
- A record-tying six teams won 12+ games – Green Bay (15), New England (13), New Orleans (13), San Francisco (13), Baltimore (12) and Pittsburgh (12). Six teams also won at least 12 games in 2003.
- Six of this season's 12 playoff teams have won at least one Super Bowl since 2000, capturing nine of the past 11 Vince Lombardi Trophies. Those teams are Baltimore (XXXV), Green Bay (XLV), New England (XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX), New Orleans (XLIV), the New York Giants (XLII) and Pittsburgh (XL and XLIII).
- Games continued to be thisclose, as 125 of 256 games (48.8 percent) were decided by seven points or fewer, the second-most such games in a season in NFL history (126 games in 2002).
Nearly 67% were within one score in the fourth quarter:
GAMES DECIDED BY ONE SCORE
GAMES WITHIN ONE SCORE
AT ANY POINT IN 4TH QUARTER
8 or Fewer
132 of 256
8 or Fewer
171 of 256
7 or Fewer
125 of 256
7 or Fewer
166 of 256
3 or Fewer
50 of 256
3 or Fewer
110 of 256
- Comebacks were another 2011 theme, with teams erasing large deficits seemingly every week.
There were 18 games in which a team overcame a deficit of at least 14 points to win, the most of any season in NFL history. The previous high was 17 (1979, 1983, 1987 and 1996). * There were six games in which a team trailing by at least 20 points rallied to win, including two by Detroit, the most such games in any season in NFL history.
With comeback wins of 20 points in Week 3 and 24 points in Week 4, the Lions became the first team in NFL history to win consecutive games in which it trailed by at least 20 points in each contest.
- 2010 was considered by many to be the Year of the Quarterback, but NFL QBs put together a historically proficient and prolific year in 2011.
The league-wide passer rating (84.3) and touchdown-interception ratio (1.472:1) were both at historic levels, topping the previous records set in 2010 (84.1 passer rating; 1.470:1 TD:INT ratio). * Games averaged an all-time high 693.7 total net yards per game, surpassing last year's record (672.0). Explosive passing offenses fueled that trend, with an average of 459.4 net passing yards per game, also an all-time high (443.1 in 2010). * There were 121 individual 300-yard passing games in 2011, the most of any season in NFL history (104 in 2009).
There were also a record number of individual 400-yard passing performances (18), surpassing the previous record of 13 (1986 and 2004).
- Three quarterbacks – Drew Brees (NFL single-season record 5,476 yards), TOM BRADY of New England (5,235) and MATTHEW STAFFORD of Detroit (5,038) – reached the 5,000-yard mark this season, more than the previous combined total in NFL history. Entering 2011, only two quarterbacks in NFL history had ever passed for at least 5,000 yards in a season (Dan Marino, 5,084 in 1984 and Brees, 5,069 in 2008).
- A record three quarterbacks threw 40+ passing touchdowns – Brees (46), Aaron Rodgers (45) and Stafford (41). No other season had more than one quarterback with 40+ passing TDs.
- Brees set NFL-single season records for passing yards (5,476), completions (468), completion percentage (71.2 percent), 300-yard passing games (13) and consecutive 300-yard passing games (seven). His active streak of 43 games with at least one touchdown pass is the second longest in league annals, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famer JOHNNY UNITAS (47 games).
- Tom Brady became the sixth quarterback in NFL history with 300 career touchdown passes, joining BRETT FAVRE (508), Marino(420), P. Manning(399) and Hall of Famers FRAN TARKENTON (342) and JOHN ELWAY (300).
RUSHING & RECEIVING
- Several running backs enjoyed standout seasons in 2011. Jacksonville's MAURICE JONES-DREW became the first player in club history to lead the NFL in rushing yards (1,606).
- RAY RICE of Baltimore led the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,068), amassing 1,364 rushing yards and 704 receiving yards in 2011, joining Pro Football Hall of Famer MARSHALL FAULK (four times) as the only players in league history to register at least 1,200 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards in multiple seasons.
- And LE SEAN MC COY of Philadelphia led the NFL with 20 total touchdowns (17 rushing, three receiving), surpassing the 66-year-old team record formerly held by Pro Football Hall of Famer STEVE VAN BUREN (18 in 1945).
- 2011 also marked the second season in NFL history in which three players posted at least 1,500 receiving yards – CALVIN JOHNSONof Detroit (1,681), WES WELKERof New England (1,569) and VICTOR CRUZ of the New York Giants (1,536) – trailing only the 1995 season (four).
With an NFL-best 122 receptions, Welker also became the second player in history with at least 120 catches in two different seasons (123 in 2009), joining CRIS CARTER (1994 and 1995). * It was also a banner year for tight ends, headlined by ROB GRONKOWSKI of New England and JIMMY GRAHAM of New Orleans. Gronkowski (1,327) and Graham (1,310) are the only tight ends in NFL history with at least 1,300 receiving yards in a season, surpassing the previous record for the position held by Pro Football Hall of Famer KELLEN WINSLOW (1,290 in 1980).
Gronkowski also became the first tight end in NFL history to lead the league in touchdown catches outright with 17, also a single-season record for TEs. And Graham (99) is now the third NFL tight end with at least 99 catches in a season, joining TONY GONZALEZ (102 in 2004, 99 in 2007) and DALLAS CLARK (100 in 2009). * Tony Gonzalez ranked fourth among NFL tight ends with 80 catches in 2011 and now has 1,149 in his career, the second most among all NFL players (Pro Football Hall of Famer JERRY RICE, 1,549). Gonzalez has at least 60 catches in 13 consecutive seasons, the longest such streak in NFL annals.
- There were eight 100-yard kickoff-return touchdowns this season, the most of any season in NFL history.
- Chicago's KR-PR-WR DEVIN HESTER continued to befuddle opposing coverage units posting three combined kick-return touchdowns in 2011 (two punts, one kickoff). Hester, already the NFL record holder for most punt-return touchdowns (12), now has 18 overall return touchdown in his career, the second-most in NFL history. Pro Football Hall of Famer DEION SANDERS (19) holds the record for the most all-time.
- And DARREN SPROLES of the Saints showcased his unique versatility, setting the single-season NFL record for combined net yards in a season with 2,696 (1,089 kick return, 710 receiving, 603 rushing, 294 punt return), surpassing the mark previously held by DERRICK MASON (2,690 in 2000).
- With all that offense, defenses were heard from as well. The Pittsburgh Steelers yielded an NFL-low 271.8 yards per game, becoming the first team to lead the league in net yards allowed in nine different seasons.
- San Francisco became the first club in NFL history to not allow a rushing touchdown in 14 consecutive games to start a season.
- Minnesota's JARED ALLEN led the NFL with 22.0 sacks, tied with MARK GASTINEAU (1984) for the second most of any player since the stat became official in 1982 (MICHAEL STRAHAN, 22.5 in 2001).
- And Miami's JASON TAYLOR posted seven sacks in his final NFL season, finishing sixth on the all-time leaderboard (139.5).
- Many rookies excelled in 2011, highlighted by the standout performances of quarterbacks CAM NEWTON of Carolina and ANDY DALTON of Cincinnati. Newton (NFL rookie-record 4,051 passing yards) and Dalton (3,398) became the first pair of rookie passers to throw for at least 3,000 yards in the same season. Newton's 21 touchdown passes are the third-most ever by a rookie QB, while Dalton's 20 TDs are tied with Dan Marino for fourth on the all-time rookie list.
- Cam Newton accounted for 35 total touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing), surpassing the rookie record formerly held by CHARLEY CONERLY (27 in 1948). His 14 rushing touchdowns were the most in a single season by any quarterback in NFL history (rookies and veterans).
- Andy Dalton's most frequent target this season was fellow rookie A.J. GREEN(1,057 receiving yards). Dalton and Green are the first rookie QB-WR teammates in NFL history with 3,000+ passing yards and 1,000+ receiving yards in the same season.
- Two rookie pass rushers – San Francisco's ALDON SMITH (14.0 sacks) and Denver's VON MILLER (11.5 sacks) – also excelled. Smith's 14 sacks were the second most of any rookie in NFL history, trailing only JEVON KEARSE (14.5 in 1999), while Miller set a franchise rookie record for sacks.
- Arizona's CB-PR PATRICK PETERSON became the first player in NFL history with four punt-return touchdowns of at least 80 yards in a single season. His four punt-return touchdowns also tied for the most in a single season with Pro Football Hall of Famer JACK CHRISTIANSEN (1951), RICK UPCHURCH (1976) and Devin Hester (2007). Peterson and Christiansen are the only rookies to accomplish the feat.