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The top 10 stories in 2011

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

Could there be any doubt about the most significant story line of the 2011 NFL season?

That there actually was an unimpeded season following the longest labor stoppage in league history (136 agonizing days to be exact) has to take top honors on this year's top-10 list.

For more than four months, with the sport's normal offseason routine all but obliterated, the prospect of a possibly dramatic alteration of the regular season certainly seemed real enough.

But once a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached at the end of July, it didn't take long for the action on the pro football front to heat up big-time, beginning with a frenzied free-agent period that quickly moved the sport back to the forefront.

As it turned out, the product on the field showed no signs of being adversely affected by the lockout-induced shutdown.

Starting off with a scintillating Saints-Packers shootout on a national stage — with Green Bay trigger man Aaron Rodgers just barely outdueling Saints gunslinger Drew Brees — the action was fast and furious on a weekly basis, with the usual array of eye-popping surprises and eye-dropping disappointments that have become par for the NFL course.

Based on votes from the PFW editorial staff, here are the 10 most important stories from the 2011 campaign: 

1. New CBA guarantees labor peace for next decade

Did the league owners benefit from the new CBA more than the players? Probably. Among other things, they got about a 4 percent increase in their share of all revenues the game will produce over the next 10 years, retained the ability to restrict the movement of the game's top free agents for up to three years with franchise tags and received a new rookie salary cap, creating a savings that will go to fund improved benefits for retired players that otherwise would have come out of their own pockets. But the players were able to ward off a move to an 18-game regular season — at least for now — and got the floor raised on the salary cap, as well as achieving significant reductions in offseason activities and training-camp practices and dramatically enhanced health benefits. With monstrous TV contracts fueling what is projected to be a steadily growing revenue stream of major proportions, both sides figure to make out like bandits in a sport likely facing 10 years of unprecedented prosperity.  

2. Tebow leads Broncos to postseason promised land

Despite a style that couldn't be more unorthodox and a ghastly 46.5 percent completion rate, Tim Tebow somehow managed to spearhead a miraculous revival in Denver after replacing Kyle Orton as the starting QB at halftime in Week Five with the 1-4 Broncos struggling mightily to make ends meet. He registered six come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter or overtime in 11 regular-season starts. Plus, he stunned the Steelers in a wild-card victory by tossing an 80-yard TD pass to WR Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime that triggered an unprecedented Twitter firestorm. As a result, the devoutly religious Tebow did indeed come off like God's gift. But it remains to be seen whether Broncos executive V.P. of football operations and former star QB John Elway can turn Tebow into an honest-to-God NFL signalcaller. That will be a process guaranteed to continue captivating even the most casual pro football fans in 2012 because of the undeniably magnetic aura that Tebow projects — both on and off the field.

3. Eli looks elite in triggering Giants' super Bowl run

Following in the lofty footsteps of the 2010 Packers, the 2011 Giants got red-hot at just the right time, storming into the playoffs in great part due to the mastery under center of Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning, who managed to maneuver his way to the top rung of the NFL QB ladder with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Manning was far from being a one-man band, though, as a vastly improved defense late in the season, led by DEs Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, and a deep WR corps, featuring Hakeem Nicks and super sophomore Victor Cruz, also made giant contributions.

4. Passers keep setting records as offense rules

No better proof was provided that the NFL has become a QB-driven league than the numerous noteworthy league passing records that were broken in 2011. Start with league MVP Aaron Rodgers, who upended Peyton Manning's passer-rating record set in 2004 (121.1) with a 122.5 rating (45-6 TD-interception ratio). Continue with Drew Brees and Tom Brady, who both surpassed Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage mark (5,084) with totals of 5,476 and 5,235, respectively. For good measure, add Panthers rookie phenom Cam Newton to the mix for setting records for most passing yards by a rookie (4,051) and most rushing TDs by a QB (14) and becoming the first player in league history with 4,000 or more passing yards and 500 or more rushing yards in the same season. Ten QBs threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2011 (including seasons of 5,000-plus yards from Brees, Brady and Detroit's Matthew Stafford). Five QBs hit the 4,000-yard mark the previous season. 

5. Patriots overcome shaky 'D' to reach the Super Bowl

The cream rose to the top of the AFC courtesy of Tom Brady, who relentlessly attacked the middle of the field with precise darts to prolific WR Wes Welker and the dynamic TE duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and head coach Bill Belichick, who true to form frequently devised resourceful wrinkles when the need developed. PFW's preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl left a lot to be desired on the defensive side of the ball, although they did register an AFC-leading 23 interceptions and plus-17 turnover differential and were consistently stingy in defending in the red zone.

6. Harbaugh molds 49ers into instant contenders

Under the direction of runaway PFW/PFWA Coach of the Year selection Jim Harbaugh, the Niners made a quantum leap. Thriving behind an exceptional defense that led the league in rushing yards allowed and turnover differential, an offense that kept mistakes to a minimum and did just enough to win and the best special teams in the league, San Francisco  took charge early in the NFC West and finished 13-3, its best record since 1997. In addition, the Niners' divisional-playoff victory over the high-powered Saints was deemed an instant classic, with TE Vernon Davis's 14-yard TD catch with nine seconds remaining capping a back-and-forth masterpiece that featured four lead changes in the final 4:02. Harbaugh made extra headlines in Week 12 on Thanksgiving night, when he and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh became the first brothers to face off on opposite sidelines as head coaches in a pro game, and Week Six, when he mixed it up in a very animated fashion with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz while walking off Ford Field following a tense, come-from-behind 25-19 victory. 

7. Tight ends make presence felt in major fashion

Vernon Davis, who set a postseason record for a tight end with 180 receiving yards and scored the first and last TDs in the playoff victory over New Orleans, was not the only player to excel at his position in 2011. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski and Saints TE Jimmy Graham were high-octane weapons of the highest order, finishing second in catches in the AFC and NFC, respectively, while combining for 28 receiving TDs and breaking Kellen Winslow Sr.'s record for most single-season receiving yards by a tight end (1,290) on the same day. Gronkowski had a league-high 17 receiving TDs, which set a record for most TD receptions in a season by a tight end. Teammate Aaron Hernandez finished fifth in the AFC with 79 catches and had seven TDs. In the NFC, five of the top 14 pass catchers were tight ends (Graham, Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, Dallas' Jason Witten and Tampa Bay's Kellen Winslow Jr.). In total, 17 tight ends caught more than 50 passes.

8. Life without Peyton proves deadly for Colts

It was widely expected that things would change dramatically for the Colts in 2011 with future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning forced to the sideline after undergoing three surgical procedures on his neck in a 19-month span. But few league observers expected a team coming off nine consecutive postseason appearances to finish 2-14, its worst record in two decades. Team owner Jim Irsay didn't take long to clean house, raising eyebrows with the firing of vice chairman Bill Polian, the team's longtime top front-office exec, and his son, Chris, the team's GM. In short order, Irsay hired former Eagles director of player personnel Ryan Grigson as the new GM, replaced head coach Jim Caldwell with former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and began sending strong signals that the Colts' historic connection with Manning, who is due a $28 million bonus on March 8, could end in the not-too-distant future.

9. League loses unique pioneer in Raiders boss Davis

Like him or not, Al Davis, the rebellious Raiders owner who was a central figure in the merger with the upstart AFL, was one of the game's true giants. One day after his death on Oct. 8 at the age of 82, Davis' team paid him a tribute that he most definitely would have considered the best of the many deserved accolades issued after his passing — a highly emotional 25-20 road victory over the Texans. Thriving as a coach, GM and owner in a career with the Raiders that spanned nearly 50 years, Davis' Raiders teams made it to five Super Bowls, winning three of them (SB XI in 1977, SB XV in '81 and SB XVIII in '84). He also feuded for decades with former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and sued the league in the early '80s, but was at the same time a major force responsible for eventually making pro football the country's preeminent sport. A staunch supporter and treasured friend of Pro Football Weekly, with whom he had a business relationship for a spell in the late-1970s and early-1980s, Davis' impact on the game was truly monumental.

10. Packers' near-perfect season ends on sour note

With a record-setting offense directed by Aaron Rodgers leading the way, the Packers' 15-1 season was impressive enough to probably make them the preseason favorite to win SB XLVII in the eyes of many observers. But a subpar effort on both sides of the ball in a divisional-playoff loss to the Giants was a giant disappointment that made the team's serious flirtation with perfection much of the season seem like a distant memory. However, three of Green Bay's victories — Week One over New Orleans (42-34), Week 13 over the Giants (38-35) and a 45-41 win over the Lions in the regular-season finale featuring a sensational performance under center by Matt Flynn in place of Rodgers - were among the most entertaining games the league had to offer in 2011.

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