NFL’s biggest stories of 2015

Brady avoids suspension

The whole off-season was spent discussing the 'Deflategate' scandal of last January in which New England Patriots quarterback  Brady stood accused of deliberately letting the air out of the footballs ahead of an AFC Championship Game win over Indianapolis.

Although he avoided a four-game ban that could yet come down the road in 2016 following an NFL appeal, Brady was clearly not distracted at the start of the 2015 campaign and began the season like a house on fire.

Despite losing some key offensive weapons along the way, Brady has remained at an elite level all year long and it should come as no surprise that he is positioned for a run at a fifth Super Bowl ring. The extremely driven quarterback will not be softened by the fact he has already won four NFL crowns.

Panthers roar

Led by a genuine league Most Valuable Player candidate in quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers have been the biggest story of this campaign. They delivered a statement win at Seattle in Week 6 as Newton threw a last-minute touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen and they've backed that up with strong play ever since.

Offensively, the Panthers used to be about Newton, Olsen and not a whole lot more. But the offence has produced a number of contributors all season long and scoring points for fun has not been a problem for Carolina.

And with stars like Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Josh Norman on defence, these Panthers are a complete team and strong Super Bowl contenders as we prepare to head into the play-offs.

Manning's final lap

The demise of the great Peyton Manning has been one of the biggest stories of the season and there will probably be a full-time handing of the reins to Brock Osweiler in 2016.

With his body letting him down each week, Manning was becoming a pick six waiting to happen. His season was summed up in Week 10 when he passed Brett Favre for the league's all-time passing yards mark. It happened on a day when Manning produced the worst performance of his career, throwing up four interceptions and getting benched for Osweiler in a 29-13 home defeat to Kansas City.

There have been some reports suggesting that Manning could return for one more season in 2016, even if he is not with the Broncos. The tank is running pretty empty for Manning now, though, and it would be a bad idea for him to return. He should go out now before he completely embarrasses himself with even worse play than we have seen thus far this season.

In-season firings

There is an infamous day that comes to all NFL coaches on the hot seat on the Monday after the final set of regular season games – and Black Monday is not a day to be celebrated around the league.

But it appears some coaches no longer have to wait until Black Monday to find out their fate has been sealed. More and more we are seeing frustrated and impatient owners making in-season firings, with the bye week becoming the new danger time for NFL head coaches and their assistants.

During the season we have seen Joe Philbin get canned by the Miami Dolphins as early as post-Week 4 and their hammering at the hands of the New York Jets. Ken Whisenhunt also lost his job with the Tennessee Titans.

But there have been other moves. Miami fired both their offensive and defensive coordinators, the Lions fired three offensive coaches, a general manager and a team president, the Chargers fired their special teams coordinator, the Saints got rid of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the Rams parted company with their offensive coordinator. The NFL really has become a 'what have you done for me lately?' league when it comes to production from its coaches.

Injuries

It has been a nightmare of a season from an injury point of view with so many high-profile players going down for extended periods of time. And it started with one of the very first matches, when Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Terrell Suggs was wiped out for the year with an Achilles' injury.

There is no way to remember all the high profile injuries off the top of our collective heads because it has been that bad this year, but here is a little indication of the kind of talent that has been missing for large periods of the season or for the remainder of the campaign with season-ending injuries…

Dallas QB Tony Romo, Dallas WR Dez Bryant, Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck, Baltimore WR Steve Smith, Baltimore QB Joe Flacco, Baltimore OLB Terrell Suggs, Kansas City RB Jamaal Charles, Miami DE Cameron Wake, New England RB Dion Lewis, New England WR Julian Edelman, New England OT Nate Solder, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger, Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch… not to mention those lost in the pre-season for the entire year in Green Bay WR Jordy Nelson and Carolina WR Kelvin Benjamin.

Continued growth in the UK

The further growth and development of the NFL in the United Kingdom has, once again, been one of the American football stories of the year. The fan numbers continue to grow and we enjoyed another three sold out games at Wembley Stadium.

In 2016, the NFL will further broaden their international project – there will be three more games in London (two at Wembley Stadium and one at Twickenham) but it has also been widely reported that a contest could return to Mexico.

In terms of the UK, more stadium options – the NFL has also signed a deal to use the new Tottenham Hotspur FC stadium – will result in more games in the future. There may yet be a British franchise in the not-too-distant future, but even if there isn't, chances are five or six matches will be played in the British Isles annually in the coming years.

And that is worth raising a glass of something in celebration as the New Year approaches.

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