It is award season in the National Football League. Ballots are due to The Associated Press for All-Pro and individual honors on Jan. 3. With one week to go, there are several hot races.
Which second-year player will win defensive player of the year? Can an interim coach take home coach of the year? Which dazzling quarterback will win rookie of the year? And can Adrian Peterson snap the string of five straight quarterbacks taking home the most valuable player hardware?
Here is how one voter's ballot is shaping up:
Coach of the year: Indianapolis' Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians. There will be a lot of competition in this category, including Mike Shanahan, Mike Smith, Mike McCarthy, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, but no one endured what Pagano and Arians did. Few expected much from the Colts, who finished last season with two wins and the No. 1 overall draft pick. Pagano made the brilliant decision to hire Arians, whom Pittsburgh had cast aside, as offensive coordinator and then relied on him to coach the Colts while Pagano took a sabbatical to fight leukemia.
Indianapolis went 9-3 under Arians and is 10-5 and locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs. Before the season, the talk was that the Colts might have the first overall pick in the 2013 draft. They were thin. They had a rookie quarterback. Their offensive line was a mess.
Now, they're in the playoffs, Andrew Luck could be offensive rookie of the year and Pagano returns to the sideline this week.
Offensive rookie of the year: Luck. There was ample competition here, with Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson each leading their teams to winning records with a chance to win their respective divisions.
But look at Luck's numbers running a pro-style offense. In 15 games, he set the rookie record with 4,183 passing yards. He set the single-game rookie record with 433 passing yards against Miami in Week 9. He set the rookie record for attempts (599) and is within 29 of Sam Bradford's rookie record for completions. Luck's six 300-yard passing games are two better than Peyton Manning's previous rookie record of four, and his 10 wins are the most ever by a No. 1 overall pick, three better than Bradford's seven.
Plus, Luck has seven game-winning drives this season, and the Colts are in the playoffs. Detractors will point to Luck's 18 interceptions and 54.3 completion percentage as reasons not to vote for him, but he has thrown a lot of interceptions because the Colts have asked him to make a ton of throws. No team has asked more of its rookie quarterback.
Defensive rookie of the year: Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. It is going to be tough for a player on a losing team to win this award, particularly when Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner and Green Bay cornerback Casey Hayward have played so effectively.
But Kuechly has made virtually every play since the Panthers moved him from outside to middle linebacker in Week 5. He went from averaging 6.25 tackles over the first four games to 11.5 tackles over the next 11 games. Kuechly is big and physical and able to recognize plays and read and react quickly. He is underrated because he plays on a team that is 6-9, but he is very talented.
Offensive player of the year: Manning. He very well could win his fifth MVP award, but at the very least, Manning should be offensive player of the year. Through 15 games, he leads the AFC with 34 touchdown passes and a 103.7 passer rating, and he leads the league in Total QBR (82.7), a statistic ESPN developed to track a quarterback's overall performance.
With Manning directing the offense, the Broncos rank second in the NFL in scoring at 29.5 points per game and are on the verge of their second-ever undefeated division record. Denver has won 10 straight games by at least seven points, the fourth-longest such streak in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Broncos can clinch a first-round bye with a win over Kansas City and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win and a Houston loss at Indianapolis.
The Broncos made the playoffs in 2011 with Tim Tebow. They will challenge for the Super Bowl with Manning in 2012.
Comeback player of the year: Peterson. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Christmas Eve 2011, a killer injury for running backs. But Peterson was ready for the season opener less than nine months later and is 208 rushing yards from breaking Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old single-season rushing record. Amazing.
Defensive player of the year: Denver linebacker Von Miller. This is an extremely tight race between Miller, Houston's J.J. Watt and San Francisco's Aldon Smith. All three deserve it. All three are impact performers at premier positions who can do more than one thing really well.
But Miller, to me, is the most complete of the three. He joins Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware as the only players since 1994 with at least 15 sacks, 25 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles in a season. Miller is third in the NFL in sacks (17.5), second in tackles for a loss (26) and tied for third in forced fumbles (six). He also has an interception return for a touchdown. He is the centerpiece of the Broncos' defense, has improved his run defense and is a handful when rushing the edge.
Most valuable player: Peterson. Like defensive player of the year and offensive rookie of the year, this race will be extremely close. Manning, New England quarterback Tom Brady, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan will be in the race. One might actually win it.
But what Peterson has done, however, is historic. It might be the single greatest season-long individual performance in NFL history. On a reconstructed knee with every defense knowing he is going to carry the ball because quarterback Christian Ponder is not much of a threat and Percy Harvin has been out since midseason, Peterson has put up monster numbers. In the past nine games, Peterson has rushed for 1,399 yards, more than the season total for all but three other running backs. That's an average of 155.4 rushing yards per game. Peterson is stronger still after getting hit, with an absurd 932 yards after contact. He has nine 100-yard rushing games, including two in which he topped 200 yards.
No one expected the Vikings to contend for the playoffs this season. Few thought Peterson would be the Peterson of old. In fact, he has been better. If Minnesota beats Green Bay at home on Sunday, the Vikings will clinch a playoff spot. If Peterson gains 208 rushing yards against the Packers, he will become the single-season record holder. Peterson had 210 rushing yards in a Week 13 loss to the Packers. He could do it again. Regardless, he should be MVP.
No player will have more on the line Sunday than Tony Romo. Fair or not, Romo's season and quite possibly his career will be evaluated based on whether he can lead Dallas to a win against Washington at FedEx Field.
Romo is having a very good season. After starting 3-5, the Cowboys have won five of their past seven games and can win the NFC East by beating the Redskins. Romo is third in the NFL with 4,685 passing yards, sixth with a 66.3 completion percentage, sixth with 26 passing touchdowns and 11th with a 64.9 Total QBR.
But none of it will matter if the Cowboys lose. This will be Dallas' third opportunity since 2008 to earn a playoff berth on the final Sunday of the regular season with Romo as the quarterback. All three times, the game has been on the road. In 2008, Philadelphia ran Dallas out of Lincoln Financial Field with a 24-point second quarter that led to a 44-6 win. Last season, the Giants held the Cowboys to six first downs and one third-down conversion in the first half en route to a 31-14 win that catapulted New York into the playoffs and on to a second Super Bowl title in five seasons.
Romo didn't play great in either game, adding to his reputation of not being a big-game quarterback. He has won one playoff game in his career. Quarterbacks ultimately are judged on their postseason performances. Romo, who leads the NFL with five come-from-behind wins this season, needs to win against Washington to have a chance to build his postseason résumé and show that he can be clutch when the stakes are the highest.
• • •
Although Andy Reid insists he hasn't considered the likelihood that Sunday will be his final opportunity to coach the Philadelphia Eagles, that indeed is most likely the case.
Reid will go down as the winningest coach in Eagles history. He won six division titles and took the franchise to the postseason in nine of his 14 seasons, reaching the NFC Championship Game five times and the Super Bowl once. Most fan bases and franchise owners would take that, which is why Reid lasted as long as he did and got a pass after finishing 8-8 a year ago. But this is Philadelphia, and the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl. The fan base wants more. Reid's past two teams are 12-19, and the Eagles haven't won a playoff game since 2008.
It is time for a change. But that shouldn't diminish how successful Reid's tenure has been. He made the Eagles relevant year after year. The question never was "Will the Eagles make the playoffs?" but "How far will they go?" Expectations were high because Reid's teams succeeded. He was even-keeled, a player's coach, consistent and fair and real. Players wanted to come to Philadelphia because of him.
Yes, Reid failed in two attempts to replace the irreplaceable Jim Johnson, one of the best defensive coordinators of the past 20 years. He never was the best in-game manager. He was inflexible and shied away from running the ball even with talented, capable backs. And he revealed little of himself to the public and gave numbingly bland answers to reporters' questions, taking the blame for mistakes but never explaining what exactly that meant.
But Reid's tenure in Philadelphia was a good one and should be remembered as such by fans who understandably yearn for just a little more.
• • •
After beating Philadelphia last week, Washington wide receiver Santana Moss talked about his team having "swag," the abbreviated term for swagger. Moss explained that the Redskins have so much confidence from winning six straight games to claw into contention in the NFC East that they believe they can win any game regardless of the opponent.
It is an important concept this time of year. One player who has never lacked for swagger or confidence is Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel, who played in three Super Bowls for New England, winning two. He is a four-time Pro Bowler and has 56 career interceptions, including seven in the postseason.
Samuel has been a valuable acquisition for the Falcons, who traded for the 31-year-old in the offseason, and never more so than now. Atlanta has wrapped up the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC with a 13-2 record; however, there is a huge "but" associated with the Falcons: They are 0-3 in the postseason in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era.
There is no escaping it. That can wear on an organization, on coaches and on players. It can lead players and coaches to try too hard and to get tight. Samuel can change all of that. He's been there and done that. He has won at the highest level. He has the utmost confidence in himself, and confidence can be infectious. The Falcons might not win it all, but this season feels like the season they break through. Samuel can make that big of a difference.
• • •
Tom Coughlin doesn't toss the words around loosely. Pride, honor, dignity -- they all mean something to Coughlin, as old school a coach as there is in the NFL. This week, he told his New York Giants players that he wanted them to exhibit honor and "play the game that we are capable of playing. Finish the season with a game we can all be proud of."
Even that might not be enough. Thanks to dropping consecutive games to Atlanta and Baltimore, the Giants lost control of the NFC East and of their playoff fate. It hasn't been pretty. The Falcons shut out New York and combined with the Ravens to outscore the Giants 67-14.
Like the Steelers, the Giants were too inconsistent this season. They have played like Super Bowl champions at times, such as during a 38-10 win over Green Bay in Week 12 and a 52-27 win over New Orleans in Week 14, but they've also looked average, such as in a 31-13 loss at Cincinnati in Week 10. Every game in the NFL matters, and the Giants played like a team that thought it could simply turn it on when it counted.
It was risky when San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stick with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith as his starting quarterback in November. The 49ers are a team built to make a Super Bowl run, and that will be tough to do if they can't decide what their identity is.
Greg Cosell, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup," said that San Francisco has "a tough balancing act right now" because it is built to be a running team but is tempted to use pistol formations because Kaepernick is comfortable with them. Last week against Seattle, Kaepernick was 19-of-36 for 244 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. Cosell said the film of Kaepernick showed a quarterback who did not play well.
"He was far too over-reactive early in the game," Cosell said. "He perceived pressure and moved when it wasn't necessary. He had footwork issues in the pocket. I didn't think he stepped into throws, and [he] lost velocity. He wasn't getting a clear picture. When your mind is working slowly, your body works too fast. He was playing fast and not comfortable. His movement became frenetic as opposed to poised and composed."
San Francisco plays Arizona on Sunday, and Cosell said he thinks the Niners will try to establish dominance up front early, run the ball and control the tempo.
"The 49ers have to decide if they want the pistol to be truly meaningful and put more on Kaepernick, or is it a changeup and base the offense on Frank Gore and the play-action that works off of that," Cosell said. "It wouldn't surprise me this week to see them go back to basics because they need a win. When they get to the playoffs, you wonder what's next."
STATS & INFO
Jay Cutler wants Mike Tice to remain the Bears' offensive coordinator, in part because Tice is Chicago's third offensive coordinator in the past four seasons. Cutler wants stability, but with the Bears now 9-7 after starting the season 7-1, he might not get it.
Someone will get fired if Chicago fails to make the playoffs, and deservedly so. According to ESPN Stats & Information, under the current playoff format instituted in 1990, 52 teams have started 7-1 or better. Only one, the 1996 Redskins, failed to make the postseason.
Chicago needs to beat Detroit and get a Green Bay win over Minnesota in order to qualify for the postseason. The good news for the Bears is Cutler is 6-1 against the Lions with 11 touchdowns and just one interception. Better news still: Vikings running back Peterson has a strained abdominal muscle.
The Christmas edition ...
"Merry Christmas to everyone! Be thankful for what you have in your life. Especially your family and friends"
The Carolina Panthers tight end knows of what he tweets.
"All i want for Christmas is to win ground player of the week."
Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles by far led all rushers in Week 16 with 226 yards on 22 carries. With 13 rushing yards Sunday against Denver, Charles will set a career high, surpassing the 1,467 yards he gained in 2010.
"AP blew his knee out in Wk 15 and back for 2000yd. D. Rose is doing what!? #GuaranteedMoney"
It is impossible to get inside the body of Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, but it is also true that Peterson defied what we believed we knew about severe knee injuries and that his contract, like his NFL brethren's and unlike those of NBA players, is not guaranteed. Peterson tore his ACL on Christmas Eve last year and needs to rush for 208 yards Sunday against Green Bay to break Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards set in 1984.
"Reid on this possibly being his last game as #Eagles coach: I haven't gone there and I won't go there."
-- Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) December 26, 2012
As the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane reported, Andy Reid said he hasn't considered that Sunday's game against the Giants might be his last as the Eagles' head coach. At least that's what he said publicly. Reid is a smart man. He knows his time in Philly is up. He is the winningest coach in Eagles history, but he failed to win a Super Bowl and got the Eagles to the big game only once.
All games Sunday. All times ET.
New York Jets (6-9) at Buffalo (5-10), 1 p.m. Could even Bill Parcells fix the Jets' mess? Bills 17, Jets 10.
Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (7-8), 1 p.m. The Panthers have won four of their past five games and might have saved Ron Rivera's job. One more win would help. Saints 24, Panthers 23.
Tampa Bay (6-9) at Atlanta (13-2), 1 p.m. Atlanta coach Mike Smith would be wise to approach this game like it matters, even though it really doesn't. Falcons 27, Buccaneers 20.
Baltimore (10-5) at Cincinnati (9-6), 1 p.m. With the six AFC playoff berths locked up, these teams are playing for momentum. It is an important game for both. Bengals 21, Ravens 17.
Cleveland (5-10) at Pittsburgh (7-8), 1 p.m. The Steelers have work to do to get back where they're used to being. A non-winning season isn't acceptable in Pittsburgh. Steelers 27, Browns 20.
Houston (12-3) at Indianapolis (10-5), 1 p.m. All things being equal, Houston should win this game. But things won't be equal, not with the enormous lift Pagano's return will bring. Colts 24, Texans 21.
Jacksonville (2-13) at Tennessee (5-10), 1 p.m. Can Tim Tebow be the savior in Jacksonville? It is worth finding out. Titans 17, Jaguars 6.
Philadelphia (4-11) at New York Giants (8-7), 1 p.m. Michael Vick gets to start and will be highly motivated to prove he deserves a starting job somewhere in 2013. Eagles 27, Giants 17.
Chicago (9-6) at Detroit (4-11), 1 p.m. Five losses in the past seven games do not point to a team streaking into the playoffs. Still, Chicago will be in with a win and a Minnesota loss or tie. Bears 28, Lions 17.
Miami (7-8) at New England (11-4), 4:25 p.m. The Patriots have had two shaky first halves in the past two weeks, but they've still won eight of their past nine games. Patriots 42, Dolphins 21.
Green Bay (11-4) at Minnesota (9-6), 4:25 p.m. The Packers clinch a first-round bye with a win, something they likely would have done already if the refs had gotten the Fail Mary call right in Week 3. Can't forget that. Packers 30, Vikings 28.
Oakland (4-11) at San Diego (6-9), 4:25 p.m. These are two franchises that must seriously assess what they are doing after the season ends. There will be changes. Chargers 17, Raiders 12.
Kansas City (2-13) at Denver (12-3), 4:25 p.m. The Broncos know nothing short of a Super Bowl this season will be acceptable. They will begin the second season on an 11-game winning streak, possibly with home-field advantage throughout. Broncos 41, Chiefs 14.
Arizona (5-10) at San Francisco (10-4-1), 4:25 p.m. With a win and a Green Bay loss, the 49ers would clinch a first-round bye, a much-needed luxury for a team suddenly with injury issues. Niners 27, Cardinals 17.
St. Louis (7-7-1) at Seattle (10-5), 4:25 p.m. The Seahawks are playing for gravy now. A fifth consecutive win would make them the hottest team in the NFC. They're 7-0 at home this season. Seahawks 31, Rams 20.
Dallas (8-7) at Washington (9-6), 8:20 p.m. The Redskins have won six straight games and feel they can beat anyone. They might be right. A win over Dallas, and the NFC East improbably is theirs. Redskins 24, Cowboys 23.
Last week: 12-4. Season: 157-77.