AP Pro Football Writer
Roger Goodell and the 32 owners of NFL teams surely smile when they see continued massive TV ratings, huge fantasy football participation and merchandise flying off the shelves.
Fans love scoreboards turning into tote boards, and rules passed over the years benefiting offenses have opened up the game so much that teams scoring 40 points are greeted with shrugs. Peyton Manning opens the season with seven touchdown passes -- against the defending Super Bowl champs, no less -- and unheralded Nick Foles later matches the feat, to loud acclaim.
Yet the headlines haven't always belonged to Manning and his record 51 touchdown passes or Matt Prater's longest field goal ever, from 64 yards. Plenty of stories have erased those smiles at league headquarters during a wild regular season that concludes Sunday.
--Manning won the AP's Comeback Player of the Year last season, moving from Indianapolis to Denver after four neck surgeries and barely missing a beat. He's been better than ever this year, with those 51 TD throws and closing in on the mark for yards through the air while leading the Broncos to the AFC's best record.
--Prater surpassed the 63-yard field goal by four others with his 64-yarder in the bitter cold mile-high air on Dec. 8 vs. Tennessee.
--Turnarounds saw the Chiefs (2-14 to 11-4), Eagles (4-12 to 9-6) and Cardinals (5-11 to 10-5), all with new coaches, and the Panthers (7-9 to 11-4) move up.
--There were breakout years for receivers Josh Gordon of Cleveland, Alshon Jeffery of Chicago and Julian Edelman of New England; RBs Ryan Mathews in San Diego and rookies Eddie Lacy in Green Bay and Zac Stacy in St. Louis; Foles in Philadelphia; and defensive standouts Robert Quinn of the Rams, Cam Jordan of the Saints, Jurrell Casey of the Titans, Brandon Boykin of the Eagles, Alterraun Verner of the Titans, Vontaze Burfict of the Bengals, and Lavonte David of the Buccaneers.
--Memorable days came from Calvin Johnson with 329 yards receiving in Detroit's 31-30 win over Dallas; Jamaal Charles' five TDs, four receiving, in Kansas City's 56-31 romp past Oakland; and Luke Kuechly's 24 tackles in Carolina's 17-13 victory against New Orleans.
--Health problems for coaches John Fox of Denver and Gary Kubiak of Houston. Fox underwent heart surgery in midseason and returned to the sideline five weeks later. Kubiak had a mini-stroke at halftime of a loss to Indianapolis, returned to work 10 days later, but was fired soon after.
--No injury was more impactful than the Packers losing Aaron Rodgers early in their eighth game. They slid from 5-2 to 7-7-1 while using three other starting QBs.
Other major injuries included Rodgers' teammates LB Clay Matthews, TE Jermichael Finley and WR Randall Cobb; Denver OT Ryan Clady; New England TE Rob Gronkowski, LB Jerod Mayo and DT Vince Wilfork; Cincinnati DT Geno Atkins and CB Leon Hall; Atlanta WR Julio Jones; Indianapolis WR Reggie Wayne; Chicago CB Charles Tillman; Houston LB Brian Cushing and RB Arian Foster; Tennessee QB Jake Locker; Philadelphia WR Jeremy Maclin; Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey; St. Louis CB Cortland Finnegan; and Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin and G Carl Nicks.
--Collapses by 2012 playoff teams befell Atlanta, Houston, Washington (all division winners) and Minnesota. A loss Sunday gives the Texans the top overall draft pick for the new coaching staff.
--In some games, observers wondered if the replacement officials had returned. Among the gaffes were moving the down chains at the wrong time; overruling (or not) through video replays at the wrong time; throwing flags and then picking them up, with strange (even creative) explanations; and lots of missed penalties that later resulted in fines for players.
Somehow, referee Jeff Triplette's crew seemed involved in many of the controversies.
--Concussions, both current and in the past, remained a divisive topic even after the NFL's settlement with thousands of former players for $765 million. Is the league proactive enough? Has it gone overboard regarding rule changes to protect the head and neck? Was the payout to the retirees too little or too much?
--Start with Miami's bullying mess in which second-year tackle Jonathan Martin left the team because of hazing from veteran guard Richie Incognito. The Dolphins suspended Incognito, who missed the last eight games. Martin did not return, and locker room behavior became a hot topic outside of all team headquarters.
--The nickname of the Washington team came under heavy fire from Native Americans and many others decrying the use of Redskins as derogatory, insulting, even racist. President Obama chimed in that he would consider a change if he owned the club.