'Madden NFL 18' review, simulation: Dak wins MVP without Zeke, Patriots don't win AFC East

The true beauty of "Madden" -- or any other video game -- is the escape to an alternate reality where bizarre timelines unfold. Sometimes you find yourself in the darkest timeline. A great video game offers multiple portals to the unknown, and "Madden NFL18" is a great video game. 

The introduction to this year's edition of the popular video game is a simulation. Instead of opening up immediately on an intro video, I was taken straight to the Super Bowl for a little Falcons versus Patriots action. That's fitting, what with Tom Brady serving as the face of the game on the G.O.A.T. Edition.

The beauty of modern video games is avoiding "Play Now" when it's rarely available; it's just easier to connect online than in real life these days. And Madden has a slew of ways you can play for the long haul by logging on. 

Let's run through them and then get to our annual CBSSports.com season simulation. Or you can just skip ahead and scroll to the bottom.

Long-shot mode

This year's Madden features a new version of simulation, the "Long shot," in which you play the role of Devin Wade, a former high school star who is trying to make the NFL. It is not "football first," per se, but it is unique to the game. You start out in Devin's backyard and have to make a decision about whether to run the ball or pass to your buddy, Colt Cruise (played by Scott Porter of "Friday Night Lights" fame) with your dad playing defense. 

Fast forward 16 years and it's time to take a ride ... in a broken down pickup truck. To the NFL scouting combine! The trip starts with some moral choices and ends with some on-field choices involving the actual combine.

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via EA Sports

Essentially it's a multi-hour storyline where the goal is to get Wade to the NFL. The concept is cool, the execution is strong and if you dig that sort of thing, it'll be an incredible feature of the game. You can end up meeting Dan Marino if the right choices are made. 

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via EA Sports

For  me, it's a little cheesy. But I got briefly lost in the moment of slinging the ball around the combine in a big spot. It's not hard at all to imagine this as a hat-hanging feature for EA that can bring in new players who don't want to just play football but instead get immersed in a storyline. Here's an in-depth look at the work that went into creating a Long shot. 

The Making of Longshot

Posted by EA SPORTS MADDEN NFL on Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Madden Ultimate Team

Despite being an old-school Franchise Mode guy, it's hard not to drift toward the real vehicle of the game, Madden Ultimate Team. "MUT," as the mode is known, serves as the lynchpin for the blossoming world of eSports that EA and the NFL have found themselves involved in. One of the strongest pulls to Madden in the early days for me was resetting the rosters and drafting a team to play against one of my college roommates. I've mentioned this in these reviews before, but we would skip class (we were/are idiots) and spend a couple hours building the best possible team to compete against one another. 

MUT gives you that: You start by selecting a franchise and getting two cornerstone players (Melvin Gordon/Joey Bosa are the Chargers, DeAndre Hopkins/J.J. Watt are the Texans, etc.) and then playing challenges or going head to head to earn coins and packs of cards, which adds another level of excitement if you, like me, prefer never to grow up. You open up football cards to find out what players you get and build out your roster from there. 

It's basically Franchise Mode plus the old skills challenges version plus football cards plus head-to-head online. The key is to get in early and play regularly. If you show up after the season and try to develop a squad you won't be very good.

Franchise Mode

The crown jewel of Madden for real football junkies, Franchise Mode, is still very much in play. You take over your favorite team and you run said team for years and years and years and years. Or until your wife reminds you that you're 36 and it's time for dinner. It's an improved version too, with all kinds of offseason nuggets available to owners, including detailed scouting reports for draft time. This is a drastic improvement over the old "pick what food your stadium serves" option from about eight years ago. (Although it was always fun to jack up the price of crab cakes. No, I don't know why I owned the Ravens then either.) 

Free agency is tougher than usual -- you can't just make the "fair offer" the player wants and expect them to sign. Once a player rejects an offer, he is gone too. The only option becomes the franchise tag. 

Actual free agency is fun, with a list of players sorted by overall skill and a detailed breakdown of how one team's bid stacks up against another. Just like real life, pass rushers and quarterbacks are going to get paid. To get Drew Brees on the open market required a two-year deal worth $46 million in total. That ... seems pretty accurate. Good luck on Ezekiel Ansah, because the Redskins are spending WAY more than anyone else to land the pass rusher in free agency. Also accurate. 

On the draft front, combine statistics are now available. GMs get 349 scouting points to scout players and as you unlock guys you can see how this actually works like a functional NFL Draft. Jarred Stamer, a speed rush defensive end from Clemson (Vic Beasley clone?) is a "projected early second rounder" but when you unlock his scouting profile and compare his combine report (he starred at the 40, the 3-cone and the shuttle) he gets tagged as an "early first-round talent." 

This is a big jump from the past when there was a ton of guesswork about who you would need to draft. Points are deducted when not used on a given week, and there are some seriously scheme-specific things to focus on when looking at certain players. The game rewards being patient with scouting and trying to find gems in the process. It's probably a bit tedious unless you love playing offseason football video games. Then it's heaven. 

The scenic views

Also worth noting here is the improvement in the stadiums. EA did some pretty incredible work creating these things. The Falcons' new stadium looks fantastic on the inside:

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via EA Sports

The Seahawks' stadium at sunset is sublime. 

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via EA Sports

And the Steelers have a beautiful view of Pittsburgh.

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via EA Sports

The Official 2017 Simulation 

Well, official only in the sense that it's the official one for CBSSports.com. But last year got me laughed at for the Falcons making the Super Bowl. Turns out that was a pretty good prediction, even if the Falcons couldn't seal the deal. Madden looked a lot more Nostradamus at halftime -- and at 28-3. Alas, then it did voodoo doctor

This year my biggest concern was taking control of the Cowboys, in order to enforce Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension (appeal pending) to see how Dallas would respond. So I grabbed the Cowboys as my team and set sail for what surely would be a paradise of star-filled riches for America's Team. Things started very well, with the Cowboys going undefeated in the preseason. Huzzah!

One delightful feature as I put Elliott on the backburner before Week 1 -- moving around your depth chart is noticeably easier in Franchise Mode. You can hold down the A button and re-order very easily.

The Cowboys didn't flinch when it came to the first week, toppling the Giants 27-21. A matchup against the Broncos went less smoothly, with Dallas losing 36-17. The Cowboys would beat the Cardinals in Week 3 and take care of business against the Rams the following week as well, jumping out to 3-1 despite no Elliott. Through four weeks, Dak Prescott led the NFL with 10 passing touchdowns, while Darren McFadden had 82 carries, fourth in the NFL. That's a nice nugget for those of you keeping track of a possible appeal victory for Elliott.

The Cowboys would lose to the Packers before facing the 49ers for the final game of Elliott's video-game suspension. The 49ers were, magically, 2-2-2 heading into that game. Dallas won, natch.

After plugging Elliott back into the lineup after Week 6, I simmed to the end of the season and, oh my goodness: Dak Prescott is your 2017 NFL MVP. Prescott finished with 4,872 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. Dez Bryant finished with 1,515 receiving yards and 13 receiving touchdowns. Alfred Morris led the Cowboys in rushing yards with 522.

Elliott would finish the season with just 109 carries, 447 yards and 4.1 yards per carry. And along with that, Elliott suffered an injury. He had a choice as to whether he would play through it in the playoffs. Please. Oddly enough, the Cowboys did not even win the NFC East despite having the NFL MVP on the roster. The division crown went to the Eagles, who went 11-5. Fake Jerry Jones doesn't care.

"Wild-card teams win championships all the time," fake Jerrah quipped. "Look it up. It happens all the time."

Look it up! That sounds like something Jones has actually said before. 

In much less surprising news than during last year's sim, the Atlanta Falcons went 13-3 to secure the best record in the league. The second-best record belonged to ....... (wait for it) .... the Buffalo Bills! The Bills, Titans, Ravens, Patriots, Chargers and Raiders made the AFC playoffs -- in that order. On the NFC side of things, the Falcons secured the No. 1 seed, while the Seahawks were No. 2. The Eagles, Saints, Packers and Cowboys followed in order.

Confused about, you know, the Bills beating the Patriots, I did some statistical investigation. LeSean McCoy was No. 7 in the MVP voting (although Blake Bortles was No. 8, so red flags are flying everywhere). 

Sean McDermott finished second in Coach of the Year voting to Dan Quinn, which is weird since the Falcons should be good, but it's a huge victory for muscular, bald former defensive coordinators everywhere.

The Bills-Patriots thing is just impossible to understand. If I told you the Bills won 11 games and the Patriots didn't win the division, you would assume both Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo were kidnapped by a crazed Rex Ryan and held hostage for months somewhere in Bristol. Nope. Brady threw for 5,355 yards and 34 touchdowns while completing 75 percent of his passes. Even wilder? Tyrod Taylor had 2,069 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. Nate Peterman had 2,051 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Worth noting: Patrick Mahomes attempted 419 passes. That's too many for real life. I think. Maybe. Mitchell Trubisky attempted 500. That might not be enough. Deshaun Watson had 578. Just right.

Rushing-wise, Shady led the league with 1,614 yards. LeGarrette Blount was next with 1,497 yards. OK SURE. Jonathan Stewart was fourth (1,365) while Frank Gore spit in Father Time's face once again (1,228) and Shane Vereen came out of nowhere for 1,141 yards. The rookie running backs weren't impressive. Leonard Fournette led the way (1,103 yards), followed by Dalvin Cook (668 yards), Samaje Perine (586 yards) and James Conner (411 yards).

Julian Edelman led the league in receiving yards (1,681), followed by Bryant, Julio Jones (1,472), Antonio Brown (1,355), A.J. Green (1,327) and a pair of surprises: Martavis Bryant (1,295 on a league-leading 123 receptions) and Titans rookie Corey Davis (1,287). Allen Robinson (1,225) and DeAndre Hopkins (1,224) got right back on track. Did I mention Blake Bortles was No. 8 in the MVP vote?

Demario Davis led the league in tackles (145) followed by Eric Kendricks (144) and Kwon Alexander (141). Brandon Graham led the league in sacks with 21.5 (hello!), while Joey Bosa (18) was right on his heels and closely followed by ... Sharrif Floyd with 16.5? Sure. Melvin Ingram had 13, which would solidify the Chargers duo's claim.

Playoffs

Things ended poorly for Dallas in the wild-card round, with the Cowboys losing to the Eagles 38-3. Ouch. The Ravens beat the Patriots 28-14, the Chargers beat the Raiders 35-26 and the Packers beat the Saints 41-38. That's three more good games than we got in the entire playoffs last season.

The Falcons would sneak out a divisional-round win against the Packers 34-31. The Chargers hammered the Bills 38-14. The Eagles fell to the Seahawks 42-38. And the Titans lost to the Ravens 38-24.

In the conference championship round, the Falcons thumped the Seahawks 52-28, while the Chargers snuck past the Ravens 20-13 to set up a Falcons-Chargers Super Bowl. Yes, you read that right. 

And Atlanta redeemed itself 30-24, winning the franchise's first title. Which, to be honest, would be amazing if the Falcons hadn't won the freaking Super Bowl in this very sim LAST YEAR. Also weird: Matt Ryan threw zero touchdowns and three interceptions in the win. Philip Rivers tossed three touchdowns and four picks. It was the running game that secured the day (along with the defense), as Devonta Freeman ran for 104 yards and two scores and Tevin Coleman added 57 yards and a pair of scores as well.

Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Ricardo Allen all recorded a pick in helping the Falcons avenge their Super Bowl loss last year. Maybe my XBox was built in a Home Depot. Or maybe Quinn is building something special after all. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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