The pulse of the NFL season changes weekly. Every Wednesday, SI.com will break down the front-runners for the major NFL awards.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (last week: 1): Sunday night's performance against the Chiefs wasn't the kind of dominating, MVP-sealing performance that would render the rest of this list essentially meaningless, but Manning took care of business for his team. A loss, coupled with a compelling performance by Drew Brees against the 49ers could have fundamentally altered the complexion of this debate.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2): The questionable call on Ahmad Brooks aside, Brees was nothing short of brilliant Sunday against a relentless 49ers defense. Coincidently, Brees and Manning finished with essentially identical numbers in the box score, but Brees came up with a clutch drive when his team needed it, lifting the Saints to a 23-20 victory and putting them in the driver's seat for the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a matchup in Seattle looming. He'll need some help from Manning, but Brees remains very much in the mix at the top of this list and has the marquee games left on the schedule needed to close the gap.
3. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (3): Wilson shouldn't be ashamed to be a place-holder behind Manning and Brees given the way they have played, but he deserves credit in his own right. At the helm of the conference-leading Seahawks, Wilson has a passer rating only behind Manning and Brees among QBs who have started every game, and his per attempt average is higher than that of Brees -- a testament to his efficiency. All this despite an offense line that is a disaster -- Wilson has been sacked more than twice as many times as Manning despite being infinitely more elusive.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (1): Manning needs 16 touchdowns in his final six games to get to Tom Brady's single-season mark of 50. That's about 2.7 per game, which happens to be below what Manning is already averaging this season (3.4 per game to be exact). In other words, an average Manning stretch -- which, to be fair, would be extraordinary for most anyone else -- should get him there. And to give you an idea of how other-worldly Manning has been this year, he actually can throw for 40 yards fewer per game than his average this season over the final six games and still catch Drew Brees for the single-season yardage mark.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2): Drew Brees' remarkable season would be tops in this category most any other year. He's probably going to throw for 5,000 yards and around 40 touchdowns with a passer rating of 100+ and a competition percentage close to 70 and yet, in all likelihood, has no shot to win this award. Tells you just how good Peyton Manning has been this year.
3. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (3): Johnson finds himself in a similar position to Russell Wilson on this list. You can't single-cover him or he'll demolish you, as the Steelers learned on Sunday. But if you double him, the Lions offense is suddenly predictable and eminently defendable. That speaks to Johnson's impact on the game and his importance to the Detroit offense.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans (2): The first big shakeup on the board belongs to the most dominating defensive player in football. While Justin Houston was flailing around in Mile High, unable to get after Peyton Manning, Watt was in Oakland being his usual monstrous self, finishing with two sacks and five tackles. Watt leads the No. 1 unit in pass defense and overall yards -- their poor rank in scoring defense has, at least in part, to do with Houston quarterbacks and their affinity for pick-sixes. Watt is the heart and soul of this team, and has kept a really good defense together even in a difficult season.
2. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (1): The Pro Football Focus grade belies Houston's impact (or lack thereof) on last Sunday's game. Houston was outstanding against the run, but he was, after all, playing Peyton Manning. Not being able to impact the game as a pass rusher in a game where your team needed you to do just that is disappointing, and with the way Watt has been playing this season, even one down week is too much to overcome. That being said, the margin between the two remains small. Another big week against the Chargers could put Houston right back at the top.
3. Robert Quinn DE, St. Louis Rams (3): Quinn sat in Week 11, yet remained second in sacks and tops in the league in forced fumbles. The St. Louis defense has won games on its own this season and Quinn is the biggest reason why.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers (1): With the top contenders all struggling in Week 11, Lacy remains here by default. His 14 carries for 27 yards and a touchdown were nothing to write home about, but it was clear the Giants were intent on stopping the Green Bay running game, forcing third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien to try and beat them. Considering how stingy the Giants have been on defense lately, particularly on the ground, it's hard to fault Lacy.
2. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals (2): There was nothing spectacular about Bernard's game against the Browns and although his stat line -- 86 yards on 14 touches -- was better than Eddie Lacy's, Bernard's impact on the game was about the same. Furthermore, his overall body of work remains slightly below that of the Packers' rookie back.
3. Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams (3): Keenan Allen and Jordan Reed both had opportunities to grab the spot here with Stacy on a bye, but neither stepped up. If Stacy's ankle is healthy coming off a week of rest, he should continue to be the impact feature rusher the Rams need.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers (3): I know what the Pro Football Focus grades say about this race but I also know what I see when I watch the Panthers: a punishing, pulverizing, meat-grinding front seven lead by Star Lotulelei. Ask Tom Brady, who met the former Utah standout up close and personal Monday night. Lotulelei has been a key factor in the Panthers' transformation into one of the league's best defenses.
2. Sheldon Richardson, DL, New York Jets (1): Richardson has been solid for the Jets, but because he doesn't affect the game as a pass rusher and run-stopper yet, it's hard to put him ahead of Lotulelei the way he and the Panthers are playing.
3. Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills (2): Alonso is a tackling machine who excels in coverage and can cover a lot of ground. Buffalo's defense has been much improved and Alonso has certainly been an impactful force in effecting that change. Lately though, he's just been a guy around the ball all the time, not necessarily someone forcing the action and making plays the way other players can.
Coach of the Year
1. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs (1): A loss to Denver on the road is hardly something to fret over, and the Chiefs were just a play here or there away from being in the thick of that game. If the Chiefs can avoid a major late-season collapse, Reid remains the front-runner for this award.
2. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles (3): Worst-to-first, that's what Chip Kelly could bring to the Eagles. Kelly's up-tempo offense hasn't revolutionized the NFL, but it's put them in the thick of a playoff race, and he has Nick Foles playing as well as any quarterback not named Manning or Brees right now.
3. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers (NR): Rex Ryan had been on this list, but a team who can't put two wins in a row together is hardly praise-worthy at this point. The Panthers, on the other hand, just got wins in back-to-back weeks against the 49ers and the Patriots, probably the most impressive two-game stretch anyone has played this season. Rivera's newfound aggressive mindset has permeated throughout this team, and it now believes, rightfully so, that it can beat anyone in the league.