Here are the five stories that made the biggest headlines in 1997:
1. THE COWBOYS' COMA
Nineteen teams won more games than Dallas did. Chris Chandler outplayed Troy Aikman. Corey Dillon outrushed Emmitt Smith. Jerry Jones could fire Barry Switzer any minute, but don't expect magic from the new coach—not unless he brings a tight rein, salary-cap relief and an offensive fountain of youth to a team that lost its last five games.
Sanders, the Lions' phenom, became the third player in league history to crack the 2,000-yard mark in rushing, finishing with 2,053. Sanders didn't even need a full season to reach the milestone. After running for only 53 yards in his first two games, he ran for an even 2,000 over the next 14 while leading the Lions into the playoffs. "I don't know how it's possible for a 29-year-old runner to be better than he's ever been in his life," Bears coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But Barry is."
3. STEAMED RICE
Alas, the Comeback lasted nine plays and ended in an end zone bog. Jerry Rice returned 15 weeks after undergoing major surgery on his left knee, then cracked his left kneecap in his Dec. 15 coming-out party against the Broncos. Coincidence, the Niners say. A weakened knee shouldn't have been tested so quickly, others retort.
4. NEW YORK FOOTBALL
The men of the Big Apple, a combined 7-25 last season, finished a stunning 19-12-1. The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! "I'm looking for pioneers," Giants rookie coach Jim Fassel said earlier this season. He has them, plus the best young defense in football. The Jets, meanwhile, got a total makeover from despotic coach Bill Parcells and came within a whisker of making the playoffs one year after going 1-15.
5. RUSH HOUR
Rushing average was up from 1996 (4.0 per carry to 3.8), and league records were set for most 200-yard (seven) and 100-yard (121) individual rushing performances in a season.