It has been a special season in Denver thus far. Could it also be historic?
The Broncos, who clinched the AFC West on Dec. 2, are 11-3, have won nine consecutive games and are on pace for a first-round bye in the playoffs. They are widely considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Denver has been dominant on both sides of the ball. Although Denver’s season has been a team effort, the work of two players, in particular, stands out: quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker Von Miller.
Manning and Miller have arguably been the best offensive and best defensive players in the NFL this season. Both are leading candidates for major hardware: Manning is in the mix for the NFL MVP award; Miller is a top candidate for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award.
If both players win, it will, according to ESPN Stats & Information, be just the second time in league history that teammates have won the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season. San Francisco’s Steve Young won the NFL MVP and cornerback Deion Sanders won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1994. The 49ers went 13-3 and ended up winning the Super Bowl.
Let’s look at Manning’s and Miller’s candidacies:
Manning: This is shaping up as a close, intriguing race. There is no runaway MVP choice; Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and New England quarterback Tom Brady are competing hard with Manning. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers could also make a case.
Still, there is reason to think Manning -- in his first season with the Broncos -- has a chance to win his fifth MVP award.
Brady is having a strong season, but the Broncos are 11-3 and the Patriots are 10-4. If the Broncos finish with a better record, Manning could have the edge. Coming back at age 36 from a neck injury that kept him out last season, he's had an immense impact on his new team.
Like Manning, Peterson is coming off a major injury, so the two will fight it out for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award as well. Peterson needs 294 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984.
Interestingly, Dickerson was not the MVP that year. Miami quarterback Dan Marino won the award. Marino had a monster year, breaking six NFL season pass record, including most touchdowns and most passing yards.
Manning is not having quite that type of season. But his team is having a much better season than Peterson's, and Manning’s stats are strong.
Consider these numbers supplied by ESPN Stats & Information: This is Manning's 12th season with 4,000 yards; he leads NFL in Total QBR, which measures the all-around impact of quarterback play; and his 11 wins are most by a player after missing an entire season. Denver hasn’t won this many games since 2005. If the season ended today, Manning would be the fifth player ever with at least 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns and a 67 percent completion rate while throwing 10 or fewer interceptions. Three of the four previous players won the MVP award.
Again, the vote will be close, but there is no doubt Manning will be in the MVP conversation. If history is any indication, it could come down to Manning and Brady. The last time a non-quarterback won the award was in 2006, when San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson won. A quarterback has been shut out just four times in the past 20 years.
Miller: Denver took Miller with the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011. Last season, he was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He could easily win the Defensive Player of the Year award in his second season.
Miller was considered a top-flight pass-rusher as a rookie. However, he has worked to improve his overall game. He is now strong in coverage and against the run in addition to being a complete terror as a pass-rusher.
“To me, Miller is the best defensive player in football,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.
Still, the chase for top defensive honors this year is as close as the MVP race. Miller is competing with a pair of fellow 2011 first-round picks -- Aldon Smith of San Francisco and J.J. Watt of Houston -- and Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
When asked about his chances of winning the award, Miller said he wants it, but his plan is this: “I’m just going to keep on playing with a fanatical effort and a relentless pursuit to the ball.”
Miller has 16 sacks, 3.5 off the pace set by Smith and Watt.
Watt is leading the league with a combined 37 sacks and tackles for losses. Miller is second with 29; Smith is third at 21.5.
Because Watt has made several big plays and is the best player on a strong defense on a winning team, he is probably the leading candidate for the award. But Miller has his supporters, too. In the end, I think Manning’s chances of winning may be higher than Miller’s, but both have made major impacts in Denver’s success in 2012.