A seemingly infinite number of decisions and outcomes conspire to piece together the reality we see in an NFL season. There are the obvious, big-picture choices, like trading a player or calling a play. The decisions can get microscopically small, but they still can turn an entire campaign on its head. One false step can roll an ankle or tear an ACL. A weather system initially formed thousands of miles away can turn a game-winning field goal into a season-destroying miss. A player added as an afterthought over the summer can save an entire season.
The 2017 season has delivered a reality few of us could have predicted or expected. Let's tweak that reality slightly and see how even minor changes could turn the NFL season we've witnessed on its head. In some cases, I'll change the time frame of events; in others, I'll shift injuries around or imagine different outcomes in the closest games. If I don't mention a team, assume that its season in this alternate universe was relatively similar to its performance in the real 2017, with a win or two shifted here or there. It is, to be clear, totally arbitrary.
Our alternate timeline for the 2017 season starts in August, when the Patriots made a fateful decision that ended up shifting the course of several teams in the opposing conference:
An alternate universe in the NFC
The Patriots fail to come to terms on an extension with Jimmy Garoppolo and trade him to the 49ers in August.
In the real world Bill Belichick waited until the week of the trade deadline before giving up on signing Garoppolo, but in this universe he makes his decision earlier and sends Garoppolo to the Niners a month before the season begins, this time getting a second- and fifth-round pick in return. More on Garoppolo a little later.
Teddy Bridgewater's knee shows signs of unexpected improvement over the summer.
That accelerates the quarterback's recovery timeline and allows the Vikings to keep their former starter off the physically unable to perform list. Minnesota subsequently cuts third-stringer Case Keenum, which saves the team $1 million. Keenum ends up in Houston, where he fills in for Tom Savage at the end of the season. He's written off as an otherwise-unimpressive quarterback and turns down a couple of camp invitations to retire during the summer of 2018.
Things quickly go south for the Vikings to begin the season when Sam Bradford experiences unexpected knee pain after the opener, and when the Vikings rush Bridgewater back into the lineup, he also experiences a setback and has to sit for three weeks. Minnesota rushes retired veteran Shaun Hill back into the building, and Hill loses to the Bears and Packers before Bridgewater can return. The Vikings go on a second-half tear with a healthier Bridgewater, but they lose out on a home playoff game by virtue of an inferior record within their division. That means the Packers win the NFC North when ...
Playing typically brilliant football before the injury in mid-October, Rodgers is a little shaken up after Barr's big hit but comes back onto the field and leads the Packers to a win over Minnesota. They lose to the Saints amid offensive line problems the following week, but Rodgers beats the Lions and overcomes the Steelers in a classic three weeks later. A December loss to the Vikings opens up the race in the NFC North, but the Packers sweep the Lions in Week 17 to secure the 4-seed in the NFC.
Two weeks later, Glennon does just enough to beat the Steelers in Chicago's next home game, which grants the former Bucs backup quarterback enough rope to make it to the bye before the Bears turn to Mitchell Trubisky. Wins over the Falcons, Steelers, Panthers and Ravens are enough to keep Glennon bouncing around the league as a backup for the next decade.
Two weeks after their loss to the Bears, Atlanta's season gets worse when Golden Tate's catch is ruled a touchdown on the field and left unchanged on review, giving the Lions a 33-30 victory over the Falcons. When the Falcons lose in New England three games later, they fall to 1-5 and fire offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Replacement Raheem Morris rights the ship in time for a midseason run, but a loss to the Vikings drops Atlanta to 5-7 and essentially eliminates the Falcons from the playoffs, as Dan Quinn decides to rest an ailing Julio Jones over the final month of the year in preparation for 2018.
Likewise, the Panthers struggle through a frustrating season.
They lose in Garoppolo's shockingly efficient debut for the 49ers in Week 1. A back-and-forth victory over the Patriots gets Carolina back on track, but its season falls apart in December. Cam Newton throws a disastrous fourth-quarter interception to Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo, setting up Bridgewater with a short field for the eventual game-winning touchdown. A week later, the Panthers get ripped apart by Rodgers at home, as the breaking news of the Jerry Richardson scandal seems to distract the team in a demoralizing defeat.
A three-point win over the lowly Buccaneers keeps Carolina alive, but serving as spoilers, the Falcons defend their home turf and upset the Panthers in Atlanta to knock Carolina out of the postseason. The Panthers go from a possible 2-seed to eliminated at 9-7 in a matter of a month.
Ezekiel Elliott serves his suspension over the first six games of the season.
He returns in Week 7 and plays the rest of the season. Nothing changes from our real 2017, though: The Cowboys get off to a slow start and then struggle through the middle of the season with Tyron Smith ailing and Sean Lee out of the lineup, going on a three-game losing streak in November. Dallas eventually bows out of the playoff picture after losing to the Seahawks in Week 16.
The Giants hold out Odell Beckham Jr. for the first two weeks of the season after he suffers a high ankle sprain during the preseason.
Beckham finally makes his way back to the lineup in Week 3 and delivers a dramatic performance, catching a pair of touchdown passes in regulation. When Eagles kicker Jake Elliott narrowly misses a 61-yarder at the end of regulation, Beckham burns Philly corner Jalen Mills on a double-move to give the Giants an overtime win over their hated rivals.
Beckham helps keep the Giants' offense afloat, but he doesn't solve their problems with depth and culture on defense. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is scapegoated for a 6-10 season and loses his job, but the moderately unpopular Ben McAdoo never benches Eli Manning and manages to keep his job for another year.
Likewise, the Seahawks opt to err on the side of caution with Richard Sherman.
They place him on the physically unable to perform list after his Achilles gives him trouble during the preseason. Sherman misses the first six weeks of the season, and the surging Rams take advantage of replacement Jeremy Lane in a Week 5 victory, but the future Hall of Famer comes back for the final three months and solidifies a defense missing Cliff Avril and with injury issues at linebacker.
The Rams enjoy a breakout season, but things go painfully wrong in the middle of an instant classic in Week 14 against the Eagles.
Philadelphia chooses to defend the east goal to start the second half, and Jared Goff takes an awkward step and tears his ACL when he tries to scramble into the end zone for a touchdown. The Rams fall just short and lose, but things rapidly get worse.
A week later, with Sean Mannion under center, the Seahawks focus all of their efforts on stopping Todd Gurley. With Sherman and Earl Thomas controlling the secondary, coach Sean McVay can't muster up enough magic to get Mannion into the end zone, and the Seahawks win a 7-6 slugfest. Mannion does enough to pull out a narrow victory over the Titans, which sets up a winner-take-all game in Week 17 for the sixth seed in the NFC with ...
The 49ers, who get a breakout season from Garoppolo.
While he doesn't win every game, Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan instantly click, leading San Francisco to a 4-1 start when the Niners pull out a series of close games against the Rams, Cardinals and Colts. An injury to Garoppolo forces Brian Hoyer back into the lineup for a pair of ugly losses against the NFC East, and the 49ers seem out of the race after losing to the Seahawks and falling to 5-6, but Garoppolo returns and torches the AFC South as part of a four-game winning streak.
Week 17 delivers Garoppolo vs. Gurley (and Mannion) for a much-needed 10th win and a spot in the postseason. With a sold-out crowd making Levi's Stadium sound more like the Candlestick of yore, Garoppolo leads the 49ers to a 24-13 win, returning the 49ers to the postseason. After a stunning season, everything goes awry for the Rams and they miss out on what would have been their first postseason berth since 2004.
That leaves the Eagles, who don't lose Carson Wentz to a knee injury in Week 14 vs. the Rams in this scenario.
Wentz seals the MVP race with a 300-yard performance on Christmas night against the Raiders and leads Philadelphia into the postseason at 13-3. The Saints join them with a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed.
An alternate universe in the AFC
The Colts never get Jacoby Brissett.
The Patriots need Brissett after dealing Garoppolo, so they promote their third-stringer to serve as Tom Brady's primary backup. Indy enters the season with Scott Tolzien under center and loses its first four games, including a 31-28 defeat at the hands of the Browns. Andrew Luck rushes back from shoulder surgery in an attempt to salvage the season and aggravates his injury, ending his season without ever taking a meaningful snap. The Colts trade with the Titans for Brandon Weeden, who played under Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, and Weeden plays out the season as the starter on a 2-14 Colts team. Indy ends up with the first pick in the 2018 draft.
Cleveland also makes a trade for a quarterback.
Unlike the real 2017 season, however, the Browns actually succeed. After a 1-3 start and a 31-7 loss to the Bengals, Hue Jackson convinces the front office to trade second- and third-round picks to Cincinnati for backup AJ McCarron. A week later, McCarron is expected to sit, but he enters the game in the second half and leads the Browns to a comeback victory over the Jets.
The former Alabama star eventually leads the Browns to a 5-11 record, exhibiting just enough improvement for both Jackson and Sashi Brown to keep their jobs. On the other hand, the Browns get the seventh overall draft pick, preventing them from grabbing the franchise quarterback of their choice. McCarron enters 2018 as the starter.
Miami finds itself desperate for a quarterback after Jay Cutler resists the Dolphins' advances.
He turns down the Dolphins' $10 million offer and elects to stay in the broadcasting booth. The magic that surely would have resulted from Cutler teaming up with Adam Gase for another year is left to wither in the imagination of Dolphins fans. With Ryan Tannehill laid up for the season, the Dolphins surprisingly don't have to look far for an alternative when ...
The Jaguars trade Blake Bortles to avoid triggering his fifth-year option.
After Bortles struggles mightily during an offseason that includes a five-interception practice and a dreadful preseason appearance, the Jags demote him and promote Chad Henne to play in the critical third week of the preseason. Henne lights up the Panthers, going 12-of-14 for 127 yards with two touchdowns, and Doug Marrone makes the promotion permanent after the game.
Bortles instantly becomes a liability as a backup, given that the Jaguars don't want to be on the hook for his fifth-year option at $19.1 million. Most teams share their concerns, but the Dolphins are more comfortable with assuming future salary than any team in the league. They trade a conditional seventh-round pick to the Jaguars for Bortles in mid-August, and while it takes him several weeks to get ready, he takes over for Matt Moore after an 0-3 start and proceeds to go on a three-game winning streak. The rest of the season is uneven, and Miami stays out of the playoff picture at 6-10, but Bortles stays healthy and gives the Dolphins something to think about heading into 2018.
The Jaguars actually miss Bortles.
Henne seems like the more appealing option of the two, but he struggles to make plays downfield and lacks Bortles' upside as a runner. Once Allen Robinson tears his left ACL in Week 1, the Jaguars are essentially dependent upon Leonard Fournette, and while they announce themselves as contenders by blowing out the Steelers, they fade as Fournette tires during the second half of the season. Heartbreaking losses to the Chargers and Seahawks leave Jacksonville tantalizingly close to the postseason, but the Jags come up short against the Titans in Week 17 and cede their spot atop the AFC South to Tennessee, with the 9-7 Titans winning the division.
Bill O'Brien sticks to his Tom Savage plan.
Despite fans clamoring for O'Brien to bring in Deshaun Watson, O'Brien leaves his first-round pick on the bench through the first four and a half games of the season. He refuses to bench Savage after a win in Week 2 and then decides against debuting Watson on the road in New England in Week 3. A big win against the Titans in Week 4 buys Savage another week, but when he struggles in the first half against Kansas City, O'Brien makes the halftime change to Watson, who very nearly leads the Texans back to beat the undefeated Chiefs.
Watson then beats the Browns and grows more comfortable during the bye, as his offense generates more than 500 yards in a remarkably high-scoring game with the Seahawks. Sadly, Houston's new superstar tears his ACL during practice the following week, and the Texans go 1-8 the rest of the way. O'Brien is then fired during the offseason for waiting more than a month before handing the reins to Watson.
Andy Reid puts Hunt on ice and turns over the job to Charcandrick West, and when West subsequently racks up 240 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a stunning upset victory, West finds himself to be the hottest fantasy football pickup of the season.
The Abilene Christian product holds the job until he appears to hit the wall in midseason, when the Kansas City offense slows down and the Chiefs lose five of six games. Looking for a spark, Reid turns over playcalling duties to Matt Nagy and inserts Hunt into the starting lineup. Hunt promptly busts off consecutive 100-yard games as the Chiefs go on a three-game winning streak to lock up the AFC West title. Fantasy owners who gave up on Hunt after the beginning of the season curse their luck.
Denver coach Vance Joseph decides against icing Younghoe Koo.
The Chargers rookie kicker hits the game-tying field goal in Week 1, and a Trevor Siemian interception sets up Koo for a game-winning kick in overtime. A week later, a confident Koo hits a 44-yard field goal with nine seconds left to give the Chargers a 20-19 victory over the Dolphins, giving Los Angeles a surprising 2-0 start.
Koo proceeds to deliver a much-needed solid season for the Chargers at kicker, including a third game winner against the Raiders in Week 6. Los Angeles gets swept by the Chiefs, which costs it a shot at the AFC West, but a win over the Jets secures the Chargers -- not the crosstown rival Rams -- a playoff spot.
The Bills decide against benching Tyrod Taylor in Los Angeles.
Fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman isn't quite prepared to start. Taylor delivers a workmanlike performance, avoids giveaways and contributes to a heavy dose of the ground game against a run defense that would eventually rank 27th by DVOA. The Bills don't do anything rash like turn the ball over five times in a half, which gives their defense some breathing room and keeps them out of short fields. A late Philip Rivers interception sets up Stephen Hauschka for a field goal, and the Bills come away with an upset win in Los Angeles.
When Buffalo follows that up with a win over the slumping Chiefs the following week, the Bills suddenly look like playoff contenders. The win over the Chargers eventually pushes Buffalo into a laborious tiebreaker process with the Ravens, with the two teams tied on both conference record and record in common games. The Bills prevail with a superior strength of victory, locking it up with a win over Miami in Week 17 for their first playoff berth since the Music City Miracle.
The top seed in the AFC comes down to the Patriots-Steelers game in Week 15.
With Antonio Brown injured, Jesse James's infamous would-be touchdown is wiped off the board on review. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley uses the break to send two plays into the huddle for Ben Roethlisberger, with instructions to call the second if Pittsburgh fails to score or get out of bounds on the first. After Darrius Heyward-Bey is stopped before getting out of bounds, the Steelers line up and run a fade to JuJu Smith-Schuster, which is knocked away.
Chris Boswell then kicks a field goal to push the game into overtime, where the Steelers promptly win the coin toss and get Martavis Bryant streaking past an exhausted Patriots defense for the game-winning touchdown on the opening drive. The win and subsequent results hand Pittsburgh home-field advantage in the AFC throughout the playoffs.
What the playoffs might have looked like
Home-field advantage comes in handy for the Steelers. The Bills upset the Chiefs in the wild-card round behind a huge day from LeSean McCoy against the league's second-worst run defense, with a screaming match between Travis Kelce and Alex Smith on the sidelines punctuating the end of Smith's tenure in Kansas City. Pittsburgh dispatches McCoy & Co. a week later.
The Titans use the threat of Marcus Mariota as a runner to slow down the Chargers' pass rush and beat Los Angeles, but they are easily defeated by the Patriots in New England.
We get a Patriots-Steelers AFC Championship Game, and it ends up a four-point win for the home team. Brown gets his revenge after going down injured the first time these two teams played, as he racks up 147 receiving yards in Malcolm Butler's farewell from the Pats. The Steelers still have no answer for Rob Gronkowski, who scores two touchdowns in the second half, but the returning Joe Haden slows down Brandin Cooks and allows the Steelers to give extra help on Gronk. The final Patriots drive inside of two minutes ends with an incomplete lob to Gronk, who argues for a pass interference call to no avail.
Two divisional rivalries produce a pair of fun games on the NFC side of the bracket, with Garoppolo giving the Seahawks a scare before Russell Wilson exhausts the San Francisco defensive line and starts creating big plays in the second half, leading to a Seahawks victory.
The Vikings pull an upset in Green Bay, smothering the Packers' bevy of receivers and taking advantage of a disintegrating Packers offensive line to sack Rodgers six times. Minnesota closes out its win with a seven-minute drive from Bridgewater, and Kai Forbath kicks a field goal to put the Vikings up four, although they still have to knock away a second Rodgers Hail Mary attempt after he draws the Vikings offside for a free play on the first attempt.
Minnesota's run comes to an end during a heartbreaking divisional round, however. Both Bridgewater and Wentz leave the game with injuries, which leads to a pair of quarterbacks once traded for one another -- Bradford and Nick Foles -- competing for a trip into the NFC Championship Game. Forbath misses a 52-yarder to win the game at the end of regulation before a screen pass from Foles to Darren Sproles gives the Eagles a game-winning touchdown in the bitter cold in Philadelphia.
Drew Brees then comes away with an upset victory in Philadelphia over Wentz in the NFC Championship Game, as two early turnovers from the Eagles and 235 combined yards from scrimmage for Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are enough to keep the Saints on top and send New Orleans back to the Super Bowl for the second time under Sean Payton.
Bizarro Super Bowl LII: Steelers vs. Saints
The "Super Old," as it quickly becomes known, features the oldest duo of starting quarterbacks in league history when the 39-year-old Brees takes on the 35-year-old Roethlisberger. Both passers hint at their impending retirement before the game without revealing their plans. The game kicks off with the Steelers as 3.5-point favorites, which is just fine for the Saints, who won as 4.5-point underdogs against the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
Without star linebacker Ryan Shazier, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler cribs from Bill Belichick's famous game plan against Marshall Faulk's Rams and instructs his team to hit Kamara any chance it gets. Marshon Lattimore, the best rookie corner in the league, gets a national stage against Brown, the best receiver in football.
Eventually, the game's difference-maker becomes Le'Veon Bell. The Saints don't have anyone who can handle Pittsburgh's star running back in the passing game, and while they sniff out an early screen or two to Bell, the Steelers begin to turn things to their advantage by splitting Bell out and having him abuse Manti Te'o and then Kenny Vaccaro. The Saints try transitioning to zone to take away Bell, but when they do, Brown gets open for a long catch and run to set up Bell's second touchdown of the day.
Meanwhile, the Steelers represent a difficult matchup for the Saints to crack on the other side of the ball. With Brees throwing shorter passes than ever before, he struggles to unlock a Steelers defense which ranks fourth in DVOA against short passes and 28th against deeper throws. The Saints get an early score after a blown coverage frees up a big gain for Willie Snead and gives way to an Ingram TD run, but the Saints go only 4-for-14 on third down, and their defense eventually gasses out.
A 1-yard plunge from Roosevelt Nix gives the Steelers a 24-10 lead, and while a late touchdown pass to Kamara tightens things up inside the final minute, Bell recovers the ensuing onside kick to wrap things up for Pittsburgh's seventh Super Bowl victory.
After the game, the 25-year-old Bell poses for a famous photo with Roethlisberger and Brown. By the time August rolls around, Brown is the only one left. Roethlisberger retires, while negotiations with the unrestricted free agent Bell fail before Pittsburgh's star halfback signs with ... well, that's one for the alternate history of 2018.