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): Had Drew Brees gone off against the Falcons the way some predicted, this could have really become interesting. Still, Manning was uncharacteristically out of rhythm against the Patriots, who essentially dared the Broncos to run the ball -- and run it they did; Knowshon Moreno had 224 yards against the Pats. The wind and cold were clearly a factor, and although Manning engineered the game-tying drive into a strong headwind, it's obvious his lack of velocity is exacerbated by the cold. Manning gets a break this week against the Chiefs with Justin Houston out and Tamba Hali hurting.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2): Brees, much like Manning, wasn't particularly sharp in a week when he could have made an MVP statement against a struggling Falcons team. This week he heads to Seattle for a battle of the best teams in the NFC. A solid performance against the Seahawks meat-grinder defense would go a long way to closing the gap between Brees and Manning, although a win alone could be enough.
3. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (3): Seattle got an extra week of rest before facing Brees and the NFC South division leaders. The headlines will be Seattle's defense against Brees and his high-powered offense, but the Seahawks have quietly been much better on offense the last month, and Percy Harvin gave us a glimpse of what he can do against the Vikings. If the Seahawks keep winning, Wilson will stay in the mix here. A solid performance in a marquee game against his main competition in the NFC could go a long way in boosting his credentials.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (1): Against the Patriots, Manning threw the ball 36 times and managed just 150 yards. He did throw two touchdowns, which means he needs 14 to get to Tom Brady's single-season mark and with five games left, that number seems very much in play. Going forward though, it's reasonable to wonder if Manning can keep up this pace in the cold, especially given the way New England defended Denver's offense. If teams dare Manning and the Broncos to run with soft boxes, they're fine handing it to Knowshon Moreno. Much like the MVP race, this race could only get tighter as the season winds down, particularly given that the Saints play indoors and have just one cold-weather game left on the schedule.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2): Light up the Seahawks' vaunted defense and suddenly this conversation undergoes a tectonic shift. New Orleans also plays the Panthers twice in December and their defense is as good as it gets in the NFL. That has two-fold repercussions for Brees because the greater the challenge, the greater the reward if he succeeds. On the other hand, it's going to be tough to get numbers when in the final few games you have to play two top-five defenses; the Rams, who have a vicious pass rush; and the Buccaneers, who boast a Darrelle Revis-led secondary. If Brees can just put up his average numbers against these defenses, the Saints will win most of these games and he'll deserve this award and the MVP as well.
3. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (3): Brutal week for Megatron because he was, for the second week in a row, essentially shut out for an entire half by Darrelle Revis, and his drop with under a minute to go cost the Lions the game. Even so, Johnson broke the century mark in receiving for the sixth time this season and is on pace to catch 96 passes for 1,742 yards and 16 touchdowns. Those marks would give Johnson three of the 10 best seasons ever by a receiver. He won't win this award in all likelihood, but let's not forget to appreciate the historic level at which Johnson is playing.
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Defensive Player of the Year
1. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans (1): Don't overlook Watt simply because he plays on a bad team. What he's doing as a 3-4 defensive end is nothing short of spectacular. At this point, the Pro Football Focus guys have essentially run out of superlatives to describe Watt's stellar and consistent play. He's top-10 in the league in sacks and a force of nature against the run as well. Heading into this week, Watt has dominated The MMQB's Pressure Points stat, particularly on the interior where he's essentially 30 percent more efficient than any other interior rusher in the league. And he's the third most efficient pass rusher in football at a position that doesn't allow a player to just pin his ears back and attack the quarterback.
2. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (2): Houston has been at the top of this list much of the season, but he's at risk of falling to third now that he has an injured elbow. His numbers continue to be impressive, but the Chiefs defense has sputtered lately and now the outstanding outside linebacker could be sidelined. The momentum is waning and players like Robert Quinn are gaining in a hurry.
3. Robert Quinn DE, St. Louis Rams (3): The St. Louis defense has dominated games this season and it's mostly thanks to a ferocious pass rush spearheaded by the freakish athletic talents of Quinn. Against the Bears, Quinn forced his league-best sixth fumble on a strip sack of Josh McCown and then picked it up and took to the house. Quinn had 11 hurries against Chicago and as Greg Bedard notes in his Pressure Points column (linked above), Quinn is a legitimate contender for DPOY.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers (1): The only thing that could stop Eddie Lacy against the Vikings was asthma -- Lacy had to leave the game for several possessions late because the cold exacerbated his breathing problems. After a slow start, Lacy began to bully the Vikings, bouncing off tacklers and unloading on unsuspecting defensive backs. He finishes with 158 yards and a touchdown on a whopping 31 touches, including six catches, his most this season. He's rushed for 100 yards twice in the absence of Aaron Rodgers.
2. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals (2): Bernard and the Bengals were off in Week 12, and while Keenan Allen shined against the Chiefs, none of the other closest competitors for this award showed much. The question for Bernard is, and always has been, touches. Will the Bengals feature him enough to wrestle the top spot from Lacy? Right now, the answer is no.
3. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers (NR): Zac Stacy has been stellar for the Rams, but he's been banged up and the running game didn't miss a beat with fellow rookie Benny Cunningham taking the reins late last week. On the other hand, Allen has become the lead receiver for a Chargers offense that relies heavily on the passing game to score. Allen dominated an excellent Chiefs secondary for nine catches on 12 targets for 124 yards. In the two best wins for the Chargers this season, Allen was targeted a season-high 12 times.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Sheldon Richardson, DL, New York Jets (2): Richardson doesn't flash like his counterpart Muhammad Wilkerson as a pass rusher, but he's as good against the run as any 3-4 defensive end in the game. Richardson is a tremendous athlete for a player his size, and was a terror for opposing quarterbacks in the Big-12. It's surprising to see him consistently struggle to generate pressure in the NFL.
2. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers (1): One of the knocks on Lotulelei at Utah was that he disappeared too often for someone with his estimable talent and skill. That has been the case in the NFL as a rookie as well; he had a disappointing performance against Miami after dominating the game against New England. This is the most fluid race on the board and at this point, that means Lotulelei can't go through many more down weeks.
3. Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills (3): Alonso's hold on the top-three is tenuous at best right now. He is playing on borrowed time given the kind of impact Tyrann Mathieu is having in Arizona for a defense that has been playing lights out lately. The Bills were off last week so Alonso didn't have a chance to get back to his early-season form. He's still racking up tackles, but the numbers belie his impact on the game, which lately has been minimal.
Coach of the Year
1. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs (1): Two losses in a row doesn't mean it's time to pull the rip cord on Reid for Coach of the Year. That being said, a tailspin to end the season would allow his competitors to catch up, especially if the Eagles or Panthers sneak into first place in their respective divisions. Reid can lock up this award with a win over Denver.
2. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles (2): The remaining schedule will be difficult to maneuver, but it could be a Week 17 matchup with the Cowboys that decides the NFC East. If that's the case and the Eagles get a victory, Kelly could pass the man he replaced in Philly for top honors. The Eagles have to get there first though, and they play the Cardinals this week, follow by the Lions coming off 10 days to prepare. Plus, in Week 16, they'll get the Bears with a presumably healthy Jay Cutler. Navigating this home stretch would be a feat worthy of a Coach of the Year.
3. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers (3): Rivera is really 2b. to Kelly and the margin is razor thin. The Panthers avoided a letdown after the Patriots game with a slim win over the Dolphins, but a monstrous run of games in December will prove if Carolina has arrived as contenders and if Rivera truly has evolved as a coach. A 10-6 or 11-5 record and a wild-card berth are very much in play and that could be enough to get him votes.