GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The NFL has reached the pinnacle of its season with the Super Bowl just around the corner. Although it’s the most popular sport in the U.S., for many Americans and millions around the world, the Super Bowl is the only football game they will watch all year.
Some people know more about the NFL’s domestic violence policy or the way the league inflates footballs than about the actual teams – the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots – playing in the big game on Feb. 1.
A lookback at an NFL season that will be long remembered more for things that happened off the field:
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Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for the season and released by the team after video surfaced of him punching his fiance in an elevator.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson missed every game but one after being arrested on charges of child abuse for striking his son with a wooden switch.
The San Francisco 49ers also released defensive end Ray McDonald after a series of missteps, including a domestic violence accusation, and Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy was placed on the league’s exempt list stemming from a domestic violence conviction.
NFL owners approved changes to the league’s personal conduct policy in December, though the players union has yet to respond.
Denver’s Peyton Manning broke Brett Favre’s career record of 508 touchdown passes.
Atlanta’s Devin Hester broke Deion Sanders’ all-time record of 20 total returns for touchdowns.
New England’s Jonas Gray became the first player since 1921 to rush for four touchdowns in a game – his first career touchdowns – against Indianapolis on Nov. 16. The next week, he was benched after he overslept and was late for practice.
The Cleveland Browns rallied from a 28-3 deficit to beat Tennessee 29-28 on Oct. 5, the largest comeback by a road team in NFL history.
New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham pulled down what has been called one of the greatest catches in NFL history against Dallas on Nov. 24, somehow snaring the ball with just three fingers.
Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt, a favorite to win league MVP, had three of his five tackles for a loss, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and caught a touchdown pass against Cleveland on Nov. 16.
Numerous players made headlines for political expressions.
Five St. Louis players raised their hands in the ”Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture before a game against Oakland in a show of solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer.
A week later, several players across the league wrote the message ”I Can’t Breathe” on their equipment, after a grand jury did not charge a New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt during warmups before a game against Cincinnati to protest police shootings in Ohio.
Jets center Nick Mangold wore an NYPD hat before a game against New England in honor of two New York police officers who were shot and killed in Brooklyn.
The Arizona Cardinals lost their top two quarterbacks and had a string of other key players go down. The best team in the league in the first half of the season, they limped into the playoffs and lost in the first round.
Receiver Victor Cruz, one of the New York Giants’ most popular players, had one of the season’s more heartbreaking moments, sobbing into his hands after tearing his patellar tendon in a loss to Philadelphia in October.
Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was diagnosed in December with Hodgkin’s lymphoma after doctors discovered a mass in his chest.
Many starting quarterbacks missed games, including Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Sam Bradford of the Rams.
The NFL was involved in two large lawsuits during the season.
After years of facing individual lawsuits over its handling of concussions, the league reached a class-action settlement of at least $765 million in 2014 that could affect more than 20,000 former players. Fewer than 1 percent of the retirees covered in the deal opted out and still have the option of suing the league.
In December, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by 1,300 former players who had claimed NFL teams acted without regard to players’ injuries and doled out painkillers without prescriptions to mask pain and minimize loss of playing time.
NFL coaches went on a wild ride of firings and hirings in 2014.
John Fox and Denver parted ways after the Broncos playoff loss, and he had a job two days later with Chicago, which fired head coach Marc Trestman after a 5-11 season. Fox was replaced by Gary Kubiak, a former Broncos player and assistant coach.
Jim Harbaugh led San Francisco to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, but he and the team made a `mutual decision’ to split. Harbaugh became the coach at the University of Michigan and was replaced by 49ers assistant Jim Tomsula.
The New York Jets fired entertaining coach Rex Ryan after the season and he simply moved across the state to coach in Buffalo, where Doug Marone unexpectedly opted out of his contract. Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles became the Jets’ new coach.
In Oakland, Dennis Allen was fired four games into his third season, and Denver assistant Jack Del Rio took over after the season was over.
Atlanta also fired Mike Smith after seven seasons. The job is open and will likely be offered to Seahawks assistant Dan Quinn after the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles, the second-largest media market in the U.S. may finally get an NFL team again.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke joined a development group that’s planning an 80,000-seat stadium in the Los Angeles suburbs, sparking speculation that he will return the team two decades after it left for St. Louis.
Not satisfied with the team’s dilapidated stadium in Oakland, Raiders owner Mark Davis began talks with officials in San Antonio and has monitored the situation in Los Angeles. The Raiders are close to signing a deal to stay in Oakland, but it’s only for one year.
The Buffalo Bills also were rumored to be moving Toronto when the team went up for sale, but new owner Terrence Pegula said he intends to keep the franchise in Western New York.
Just as the league was preparing for a Super Bowl between the league’s top two teams, another controversy exploded.
The NFL is investigating how footballs used by the New England Patriots lost significant air pressure during their AFC Championship game win over the Indianapolis Colts. Some players think a flatter ball is easier to catch or throw.
The Patriots said they didn’t manipulate the footballs, and the investigation continued as the NFL prepared for the Super Bowl.