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five gifts the NFL gave us in 2021

<span>Photograph: Joshua Bessex/Getty Images</span>

Photograph: Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

Upsets, underdogs and the unpredictable

Picking results on a Sunday has been impossible at times with the 2021 season giving every fan at one stage or another a left-field result to revel in. Schadenfreude is very much included in your stocking this year. Detroit’s 30-12 upset thrashing of the Arizona Cardinals last week, the league’s worst team at kickoff beating the joint-best, last may be the finest, freakish morsel to be dissected ad infinitum with us forever shouting: ‘But how Jared Goff?’ into the void. But ‘tis the season so treat yourself to the one-win Jaguars beating the Super Bowl-chasing Bills 9-6 in week nine, or seek out Tennessee’s quintuple turnover tire fire from 21 November as they lost 22-13 to the … Texans. You would prefer something a little more exquisite? Stay put in week 11 for the anti-vax bowl featuring Minnesota’s upfront pseudo-scientist Kirk Cousins going toe-to-toe with Joe Rogan’s Igor, Aaron Rodgers, in a deliciously painful shootout for the Packers. The greatest joy is the strangest results may still be waiting for us in the lead up to the expanded playoffs. The bubble still shockingly includes Seattle, Atlanta and Washington in the NFC. Stay indoors this Christmas and stare into the abyss, it looks like Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement tour added an extra date in February.

Related: Depleted Tennessee Titans rally past 49ers on Bullock’s late field goal

A more conventional delight in 2021 has been the Indianapolis Colts’ breakout star running back, Jonathan Taylor. The fantasy football behemoth’s stellar season has led him to be selected to the Pro Bowl in only his second year after receiving the most votes out of anyone. You name the statistic and Taylor has it locked down. Most yards from scrimmage, check, 1,854. Most touchdowns, 19. Most rushes of 10 or more yards, 42. Twenty or more yards, 11. I could go on, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 or more yards in a single jaunt down the field and Taylor is your man. He now holds the Colts’ franchise record for rushing touchdowns in a single season and will break the record for total touchdowns as he is tied-first at present. He has even made the MVP race quasi-exciting with an outside chance to be the first running back to win since Adrian Peterson in 2012. Taylor’s season-defining display came against New England on Sunday. Bill Belichick’s skill in stopping the opposition’s biggest threat is legendary but could he slow down Taylor? Well, he only scored one touchdown compared to five against the Bills, but his total 170 yards were vital and his tackle-breaking 67-yard scoring dash to clinch the game puts the Colts in a strong position to make the playoffs again this season. They still could surpass Tennessee and win the AFC South, an impossible feat without Taylor.

Surprise package? The Chiefs’ defense

Super Bowl favorites Kansas City had a rough start to the season. Tennessee torched them 27-3 in week seven leaving the Chiefs with a 3-4 record. Two problems were evident: Patrick Mahomes was not at his usual divine level and more pertinently the defense was a complete mess. Cut to seven successive wins later and Mahomes has improved but the opposing unit has been the defining factor in Kanas City’s rise back to the top of the AFC. The defense allowed 17 points or fewer in the six victories leading up their 34-28 win over the Chargers on Sunday. And against LA they were dominant when it mattered most. The Chargers succeeded on only two attempts from five on fourth down and turned the ball over twice. Mahomes linked up with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to serve up a reminder of just how explosive this offense can be when it is in sync. Finally Kansas City are playing like a complete team just in time for Kelce, Hill, kicker Harrison Butker and six other starters to be placed on the reserve/Covid-19 list. How they deal with any potential adversity now could define their season.

Related: Will Omicron drive America’s sports leagues to their knees?

Micah Parsons: a rookie ahead of his time

The Dallas Cowboys look like a different prospect this year and the reason is rookie Micah Parsons. The explosive offense still causes opponents huge problems but only when it’s at full strength. Running back injuries have followed Covid-induced receiver absences, and the line has had problems with all being on the field at once, too. But now, they have a defense that can pick up the slack when the offense is not quite firing on all cylinders. Parsons’ versatility is what has transformed the defensive unit. He can line up at any linebacker position or as an edge rusher and significantly change the outcome of a game. A punchy Washington team gave Dallas a run for their money in Week 14 but Parsons kept the Cowboys on top with two sacks and a forced fumble that resulted in a touchdown. Washington never saw him coming as he crept up to the line, blew past four-time Pro Bowler Brandon Scherff and blasted the ball from Taylor Heinicke’s grasp. The league has not seen anything like this for a long time as he shutdown the race for Defensive Rookie of the Year a month ago. Parsons has jumped up a class and is running TJ Watt and Myles Garrett to the wire for Defensive Player of the Year now, an award only Lawrence Taylor has won in his first season.

New England’s terrifying turnaround

As Santa will attest, coal, technically, is still a present. Not one anyone wants but you get what you are given and the NFL has been hand-delivered a sack-full from Scrooge in residence, Bill Belichick. Momentarily, New England looked like they could fall further in 2021 after the expensive roster retooling led to a 2-4 start but a painful overtime loss to the Cowboys sparked a streak of seven wins, proving you cannot keep the league’s best football mind down for long. The Patriots are back vying for supremacy in the AFC thanks to striking gold with Mac Jones in the draft. The rookie quarterback is managing games like a seasoned veteran while those touted above him have paled in comparison. Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Zach Wilson have a collective six wins to Jones’s nine. But where is this all leading? It would take a total collapse for the Patriots to miss the playoffs. Belichick will really be demanding his team take back the No 1 seed in the conference and earn a hugely-significant first-round bye. New England should beat the Bills, Jaguars and Dolphins, sealing a 12-5 record and chance of being the AFC’s top billing. A true nightmare before Christmas.

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