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): This race, barring a catastrophic collapse down the stretch, is over. Denver's potent aerial assault of Kansas City was a sight to behold, especially as Manning rejuvenated the once-forgotten Eric Decker. Furthermore, the Broncos finish with Tennessee, San Diego, Houston and Oakland, hardly a murder's row of elite defensive teams. That is essentially the only difference now between Manning and Brees: Manning doesn't have any big-game opportunities left to showcase his credentials -- not that he needs them -- but Drew Brees has two matchups with division foe Carolina to brandish his own resume.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2): If there was going to be a time for Brees to make a race of this, it was Monday night and instead, things got ugly. Brees and the Saints offense were stymied by a suffocating Seattle defense, and although no one seems to win on the road against Seattle, that is precisely why this was a golden opportunity for Brees squandered. Not only did his team get blown out, but Brees manages just 147 yards and a touchdown. If you're going to go down in Seattle -- most teams do -- at least go down swinging. Brees failed to come through, and in doing so, blew his best chance to close the gap with Manning.
3. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (3): You could make a legitimate case Cam Newton belongs in this conversation as well, but after Wilson torched the Saints on Monday night, he solidified his standing among the elite playmakers in the NFL this season -- not that anyone ought to have questioned that. Wilson went 22-of-30 for 310 yards and three touchdowns against the Saints while rushing for another 47 yards. While Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick are battling through sophomore slumps (this is Kaepernick's third year in the NFL, but second as a starter), Wilson has elevated his game and now leads the NFC's clear-cut Super Bowl favorite.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (1): This race, much like the MVP, is now over as well. The numbers for Brees would have to be essentially record-breaking every week in order to catch Peyton. All Manning needs is nine touchdowns and 1,351 yards over his final four games to break the single-season passing records. The only thing separating him from those records, particularly the yards mark, is the easy schedule down the stretch, as the Broncos could opt to rest their star QB. Even so, Manning already has over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdown passes. It's possible only one or two other players get to that level by the end of the season. In other words, Manning could stop playing right now, sit for the rest of the year and still have the best statistical offensive season in the league.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2): It's almost not even worth discussing this category beyond Manning. And yet, Brees is having a remarkable season, completing 67.7 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He and Matthew Stafford are the only other quarterbacks with a realistic chance to get to 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, but Manning is just on another level this season. It doesn't even seem fair to be playing for second behind him in this category.
3. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (3): All Calvin Johnson has done the last three weeks is pass the century mark in every game, catch 20 balls and score three times. Seems old hat for him at this point. He won't catch Peyton, but if he keeps throwing up seven-catch, 100-yard days with a score every week, he could easily finish as runner-up.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans (1): It was a rough week for DPOY candidates as Watt's Texans were torched by Tom Brady. Houston's pulverizing defensive end was held without a sack for the first time since early October and the Texans' slide in the win column continued. But for the season, Watt leads interior linemen in MMQB's Pressure Points metric by a wide margin, he's the third-best edge rusher in terms of efficiency, all while being one of the stoutest run defenders in the league. (http://mmqb.si.com/2013/11/27/robert-quinn-st-louis-rams-racks-up-pressure-points/)
2. Robert Quinn DE, St. Louis Rams (3): Quinn had an uncharacteristically quiet game against the 49ers, who were without Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley for much of Sunday's game. This, after Quinn single-handedly destroyed the Bears in Week 12. Quinn still leads the league in forced fumbles and has become a master of coming off the corner and swiping at unsuspecting quarterbacks. He leads the league in total Pressure Points for the season by a pretty considerably margin -- Watt is second-best and would have to play an extra three games to catch Quinn if he put up season-average numbers. This race gets closer every week.
3. Karlos Dansby, LB, Arizona Cardinals (NR): While the pass rushers get all the headlines, Dansby is quietly putting together one of the best seasons in the league at any position. He leads the league in solo tackles, to go along with five sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a whopping 15 passes defended. The Cardinals have become a potential playoff team thanks to a stifling defense, and Dansby has been the leader and catalyst.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers (1): An off-day against the Lions -- when the Detroit front seven mauled the Green Bay offensive line -- has allowed Lacy's competitors to creep closer. A favorable matchup with the Falcons looms Sunday and with extra rest, Lacy should be able to get back on track. Getting Aaron Rodgers back ASAP would be a big boost as well.
2. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers (3): Allen has proven his bona fides as a No. 1 receiver with back-to-back 100-yard games. Allen also leads the league in catch percentage among receivers with a minimum number of targets. But let's not be prisoners of the moment: before Allen's terrific pair of games, he'd failed to crack 50 yards the previous two weeks. He's now just behind Lacy in this race, and the stretch run will determine the winner.
3. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals (2): The shine has worn off for Bernard, who was scintillating at times this season. Sometimes the Bengals seem to understand how to best utilize him, other times they don't. (Hint: They ought to be watching how the Lions use Reggie Bush.) It won't be easy for Bernard to make up ground either, as the Bengals close the season with Indy, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Baltimore.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Sheldon Richardson, DL, New York Jets (1): Richardson had his best game of the season against the Dolphins, despite his team getting blown out. Pro Football Focus' grading system has him as the No. 1 rookie in the league and one of the best defensive linemen overall. The way the Jets defense has played most of the season, it's easy to see why.
2. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers (2): The Honey Badger is gaining ground, but Lotulelei had one of his best games of the year against the Buccaneers, anchoring against the run and evening getting pressure on Mike Glennon. The Panthers face their biggest tests of the season heading down the stretch with two games against the Saints, but Lotulelei has risen to the challenge in some of Carolina's biggest games already this year. It was a trademark of his time at Utah as well: he'd be silent for a while, and in big games take opposing offensive linemen to the woodshed.
3. Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals (NR): Kiko Alonso is like the scorer on a bad NBA team who racks up gaudy point numbers, but doesn't affect the game in important ways or help his team win. Mathieu, on the other hand, makes big plays every week and helps make a really good defense click. He plays safety and corner for the Cardinals, and has been one of the best coverage men in the league playing in the slot. He plays a position where it's easier to make splash plays, and that may end up giving him the best chance to win this award.
Coach of the Year
1. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs (1): A close loss to the best team in your conference won't kill your COY chances, but three-straight losses is cause for concern. Reid now hangs tenuously from the pole position as Chip Kelly and Ron Rivera nip at his heels, both still with chances to win their respective divisions. Reid needs to secure double-digit wins and a playoff spot to stave off his challengers here.
2. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles (2): The Eagles' upcoming game against the Lions is a critical one for Chip Kelly's chances and both teams' playoff hopes. If Philly wins, the Packers and Bears gain ground on Detroit in the NFC North race, while the Eagles draw closer to the Cowboys in the NFC East.
3. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers (3): Rivera lurks here, waiting to pounce. If the Panthers overtake the Saints and win the South, he can leapfrog both Kelly and Reid. Ten wins and a playoff berth, regardless of the division, would be enough to make him a legitimate contender.