Thursday November 5th, 2015

We go into every NFL season with a host of preconceived notions and perceptions, and then the games begin and everything gets scrambled. Injuries, surprising ineffectiveness and unexpected breakthrough performances quickly re-write the narrative of the season. Things don’t go as predicted.

Two months ago, we didn’t think we’d be focused on Andrew Luck’s career-worst struggles, or whether Dallas will ever win a game without Tony Romo in the lineup. We presumed Baltimore was once again a Super Bowl contender, the Colts had loaded up for an even longer postseason run, and clubs like the Bills, Texans, Dolphins, Chargers and Chiefs were optimistic with good reason.

NFL
NFL Midseason Predictions: Super Bowl picks, awards discussion, more

But it’s the surprise factor that keeps things interesting. The NFL is never static, and by the time we think we know what to expect, the next wave of change has usually begun to already break. With eight of 17 weeks in the books, the regular season’s first half is roughly finished. But there’s no doubt we’ll get another dose of curveballs and out-of-nowhere developments between now and the start of the playoffs.

But before we look ahead, let’s take one long look back at what has already unfolded in the NFL’s 2015 season. It’s midseason review time:

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Story of the year

The Big Hurt: Forget about trying to dive into the long list of headline-name players who have been shelved for all or part of the season’s first half; that would take all day. Just look at how many teams have had their rosters dramatically altered, and in some cases decimated, by the physical toll of the game: Baltimore, Dallas, San Diego, Buffalo, the Giants, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Washington and Chicago have all suffered repeated body blows to their depth charts, and that doesn’t even really begin to tell the story of how widespread the injury plague has been.

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Blanket Coverage: A not-quite-complete midseason All-Pro team

I count eight teams that have started at least two different quarterbacks due to an injured starter, and the injury troubles started in the preseason, when high-profile receivers like Jordy Nelson, Kelvin Benjamin and Kevin White were sidelined before things really got started. Last Sunday in Baltimore, the Chargers had 12 different players leave the game with injuries, taking the NFL’s “Next man up” mantra to ridiculous extremes. From Terrell Suggs and Dez Bryant in Week 1 to Steve Smith, Le’Veon Bell and Cameron Wake in Week 8, it has been pain-filled first two months of the regular season.

-- Kudos to: The Patriots’ 2015 Revenge Tour. This was launched in the wake of the Deflategate saga that inanely stretched through month after tedious month this offseason and preseason. The Patriots and their uber-loyal fans love a good cause to rally around, and the NFL office handed them a perfect motivational tool to wield against the rest of the league this season. So far, so effective, with New England starting 7–0 and conjuring up comparisons to its 2007 club of 16–0 fame. The Patriots are averaging a league-high 35.6 points per game and are on pace for 569 points this season, which would be third-most all time.

Trend of the year

• ​The Haves and Have-Nots: The NFL has never seen such a disparity between its elite class and the rest of Roger Goodell’s personal fiefdom. There are four 7–0 clubs—New England, Cincinnati, Denver and Carolina—for the first time in league history, but there’s also a boatload of bad football being played. The AFC features only five teams with winning records, and the NFC has just six. Two entire divisions (the lackluster AFC South and middling NFC East) have no one north of .500. Six of the 12 teams that made the 2014 playoffs are at break-even or worse at midseason (Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit and Seattle), and of that group, all but the Steelers already have equaled or topped their '14 loss total. All told, of the 16 teams that finished with winning records a year ago, a whopping 11 of those have losing or .500 records, with only the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, Cardinals and Packers bucking the trend.

-- Kudos to: The Seahawks can’t hold a fourth-quarter lead. After six games this season, the two-time defending NFC champions found themselves at 2–4, despite leading every game in the fourth quarter. And that came after blowing that 10-point fourth-quarter lead in spectacular fashion in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks actually were saved from yet another blown late lead in Week 4 at home against Detroit, on that non-call of an illegal bat in the end zone by Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright. If Seattle’s Super Bowl hopes are finished this year, it’s because it can’t finish.

Game of the year

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Saints outlast Giants for 52–49 win in historic touchdown festival

• ​Saints 52, Giants 49, Week 8: This one is obviously still fresh in our memory from last Sunday, but what an instant classic it was. Drew Brees throws an NFL-record-tying seven touchdown passes. Eli Manning chucks six and loses. The 101 combined points is the third highest total in league history, and no two quarterbacks had ever before combined to toss 13 touchdowns in a game. And still the game came down to Kai Forbath, the new Saints kicker who nailed a 50-yard field goal as time expired, on the first attempt he ever had for New Orleans.

-- Kudos to: Cowboys 27, Giants 26, Week 1. Eli Manning and New York displayed the worst clock management skills in recent NFL memory, allowing the Cowboys to mount a late touchdown drive and steal the one-point win over their division rivals. Manning threw the ball on third down from the Dallas 1, inexplicably stopping the clock and giving the Cowboys hope. And those miscues came after he told Giants running back Rashad Jennings not to score on a second down carry at the Dallas two-yard-line, because who needs a 10-point lead with under two minutes to play?

Play of the year

​A full-body grab: In Week 5 at Baltimore, Browns TE Gary Barnidge decided to show off a new technique he had been working on in practice, securing a 18-yard touchdown pass with the use of his left ankle, calfs, knees and thighs, while lying prone on the ground. It was almost too easy, and kids everywhere are mimicking his signature reception, as if Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed act is so 2014.

We jest, of course. Barnidge’s improbable lower-body scoring reception was the fourth-quarter highlight of Cleveland’s 33–30 comeback victory over the Ravens, helping the Browns fight out of a 21–9 hole and win in Baltimore for the first time since 2007. But it’s been that kind of year for the unsung eighth-year tight end, who has broken out in a big way with 40 catches for 567 yards and six touchdowns—obliterating his previous career highs—in the Browns’ eight games.

• KAPLAN: Gary Barnidge has emerged as 2015's most unlikely star

-- Kudos to: Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins goes all David Tryee on us in Week 4 at Arizona, with the Rams cornerback making a spectacular end-zone interception of a Carson Palmer bomb, thanks to being able to trap the ball against the back of his helmet as he’s falling to the ground.

Brain cramp of the year

The Colts' trick play attempt: The Colts might have this one retired in their honor after their Week 7 special teams trickeration attempt against the Patriots went down in a meteor-sized ball of flames. The swinging-gate formation that spawned a thousand jokes might wind up being the moment when the Colts season officially went off the rails, but the biggest question will always be whatever possessed WR Griff Whalen to snap that ball, once he saw he was more out-numbered than Custer.

-- Kudos to: Brandon Marshall’s lateral against the Eagles in Week 3. This play was the very definition of ill-advised. Marshall himself labeled it “probably the worst play in NFL history,” and we’ll at least give him points for contrition in this case. With four Eagles defenders closing in on him, Marshall tried to lateral to tight end Jeff Cumberland, but instead bounced it off linebacker Connor Barwin’s facemask, with the ball then being recovered by Philly’s Jordan Hicks. Shortly thereafter, a 17–0 Eagles lead became 24–0, and the Jets wound up losing 24–17, by the margin of Marshall’s boneheaded play.

Quote of the year

Score one for the History Channel: Every night, everyone who covers the NFL for a living should drop to their knees and say a word of thanks for Michael Bennett, the Seahawks’ free spirit of a defensive end and author of many colorful and bizarre insights. Before Seattle’s Week 4 home game against the Lions, Bennett was asked his opinion of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. To say Bennett went in an unexpected direction would be the understatement of the year:

“I don’t like Matt Stafford much. He’s from Dallas. They killed the President [meaning JFK]. ... I hold it against him.”

At least he didn’t just go formulaic and claim to hate the Cowboys.

-- Kudos to: Kirk Cousins. Channeling Howard Dean in 2004, Cousins added a full-throated “You like that?!! You like that?!!” to the lexicon in an unhinged post-game gloat, aimed at some media members moments after he led Washington to a dramatic 31–30 comeback win over visiting Tampa Bay in Week 7.

Sideshow of the year

The Colts are broken: Remember that Super-Bowl-or-bust mentality that the Colts took this offseason? Well, does this team look like Super Bowl material so far this season, or does it look busted? The level of melodrama in Indianapolis this season could possibly be over-stated, but something’s clearly amiss in the working relationship between coach Chuck Pagano, general manager Ryan Grigson and owner Jim Irsay. Throw in the mystery that is Andrew Luck this season, the firing of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, and questionable on-field decision-making (see Patriots, fake punt), and you have the makings of a steaming hot mess.

NFL
Stafford, Thomas headline SI’s 2015 NFL Midseason All-Overrated Team

The Colts are 3–5, have yet to beat anyone outside the woeful AFC South, and have already tied their loss total for each of the past three seasons, when they went 11–5 and made the playoffs. Yes, Indianapolis is somehow still in first place in the division, but let’s see the Colts hang a banner for winning this train wreck of a four-team race at 6–10 or 7–9.

-- Kudos to: The Houston Texans. Bill O'Brien and the Texans were pretty interesting in the preseason, giving us some quality episodes of HBO’s Hard Knocks reality series to chew on. Then the regular season started and the real hard knocks began. If you’re scoring at home, Houston’s bungled quarterback situation went Brian Hoyer for Week 1, then Ryan Mallett in Week 2, back to Hoyer in mid-game of Week 4, back to Mallett for the start of Week 5, with Hoyer again replacing Mallett mid-game that week. And who can forget Mallett missing a team flight to Miami and getting himself cut after Week 7? Tied with Colts at 3–5, Houston and Indianapolis are two rather dysfunctional peas in a pod.

Stat of the year

The long and short of it: The NFL moved the point-after spot from the two-yard-line to the 15-yard-line this year, creating a 33-yard extra point in an effort to put a little drama in the game’s most anticlimactic play. How’s that going? Glad you asked. Only eight extra points were missed all of last season, or about one every two weeks. But this year, there have already been 30 PATs missed through eight weeks, or almost four per week. Kickers have made 543 of 573 of the longer point-afters, for a 94.8% success rate. That’s not a huge drop compared to 2014, but kickers made 99.3% of the shorter kicks last season.

The PAT conversion rate this year is in line with how kickers handled 33-yard field goals last season, when they were 39 of 41, for a 95.1% success rate. And if you’re wondering, two-point conversions are holding steady as well. Teams have converted 23 of 47 attempts, or 48.9% of the time. Last season, two-pointers were successful 47.5% of the time, roughly the same as the league’s recent five-year average of 48.1%.

-- Kudos to: DeMarco Murray's lack of yardage vs. the Cowboys. In Week 2 at home against Dallas—the team the Eagles' running back left this offseason after leading the league in rushing last year—Murray didn’t quite exact a measure of revenge. He ran 13 times in Philadelphia’s 20–10 loss, gaining all of two yards. That’s an 0.2 average rush, and that’s with a nine-yard long gain mixed in. Up to that point through two games, Murray had rushed 21 times and gained 11 yards, a pace that projected to an 88-yard rushing season, or a scant 1,757 fewer than he collected last year with the Cowboys.

Most overhyped storyline

Reports of No. 18’s demise have been greatly exaggerated: The Peyton Manning is done theme has been all the rage, and I’m as guilty of buying into it as anyone. But ugly season statistics and what our eyes tell us aside, his Broncos are 7–0 and he just dropped a 340-yard passing performance on Green Bay in Week 8, so maybe we should all just wait to see how this story turns out at the end of the season before we repeatedly eulogize his career as an elite NFL quarterback. Not that I think anyone will listen to what I think at this point. I had Manning finished after Week 1.

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NFL Power Rankings Week 9: Grades for every team at midway point

​-- Kudos to: Rex Ryan is at last the savior the Bills have been seeking has quickly morphed into the same old Bills are tied for last—again. Buffalo is 3–4, with four losses in its past six games, and coming off an embarrassing defeat in London at the hands of Jacksonville, a team that has won seven games over the past two seasons. The Bills superb defense has actually regressed under Ryan, his own players have grumbled openly about how they’re being used, and the only trademark his “bullies” have been known for this season has been a penchant for incurring both penalties and injuries.

Best argument for relocation

We didn’t start the fire. Wait a minute, yes we did: The Rams aren’t just burning their bridges in St. Louis, they set their own Edward Jones Dome field on fire during pre-game introductions fireworks in Week 3 against Pittsburgh, delaying the game for about a half hour. Between that and the whole area of exposed concrete near the stands that keeps taking out opposing players, maybe it is time to re-visit the rationale for the Rams remaining in Missouri.

-- Kudos to: The 2–6 San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have been so pathetic defensively that they made even the Detroit Lions look capable on offense in Week 1, and then somehow lost to a Michael Vick-led Steelers team in Week 5. I think if the Chargers slip away quietly to Los Angeles right about now, no one in San Diego is going to make a huge fuss.

Confusing officiating screw-up of the year

An illegal bat in Seattle: But the Mariners had nothing to do with it. Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright was the culprit, in the final seconds of that wild Monday Night Football finish against Detroit in Week 4. With the back judge staring right at the play, the Lions got jobbed out of a penalty call that probably would have won them the game. Not that many folks even knew the rule or understood what had happened after Kam Chancellor stripped Calvin Johnson of the ball just shy of the Seattle goal line. It’s always something in that particular end zone at CenturyLink Field, isn’t it?

NFL
Definition of catch still unclear after Golden Tate's touchdown vs. Bears

-- Kudos to: Golden Tate scores a touchdown against the Bears in Week 6, even though it didn’t look like a catch judging by today’s almost indecipherable catch rule. Even if the officials technically got this call right, we’re considering it wrong on principle. Tyler Eifert’s non-touchdown in Week 3 for the Bengals in Baltimore looked more like a touchdown than Tate’s, but Eifert didn’t complete the process of the catch as he went to the ground. Tate didn’t go to the ground and was awarded the score. Let that be a lesson to you kids out there: Stay off the ground.

Potential public flatulence of the year

Mike Ditka: In a sign of something that must have to do with the impending apocalypse, the legendary Bears Hall of Famer was accused of passing gas live on ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown pre-game show. Ditka denied doing the deed, issuing an unforgettable quote to the Chicago Sun-Times: “It wasn’t me,” Ditka said. “Believe me, I’m to the point in my life where it doesn’t matter. One day I’ll be happy if I can leave a fart.”

And another line has been crossed in today’s never-ending news cycle.

-- Kudos to: Jim Tomsula. Even before Ditka’s star turn, the 49ers coach was accused of passing gas from the podium at an early October press conference. The story was quickly deflated (ideal gas law anyone?) when San Francisco Chronicle 49ers beat writer Eric Branch reported the following: “Sources: Jim Tomsula did not pass loud gas during his presser Wednesday. The sound came from a reporter sitting in leather seat near mic.”

In this case, I really don’t want to know who his sources were.

Best division

NFL
Panthers remain undefeated after fending off Colts' furious comeback

NFC South: And the last shall be first. Mocked and scorned just a year ago, when the division was a race to the bottom, with Carolina going from 3-8-1 on the morning of Dec. 7 to a division title four weeks later, look at the NFC South now. The Panthers are a franchise-best 7–0 and feature the best record in the conference. The Falcons started 5–0 and at 6–2 have already matched last year’s win total. The Saints have gone from 0–3 to 4–4, winning four of five, and beating the Giants in historic fashion, 52–49, in Week 8. And even the last-place Bucs are coming on at 3–4, with two wins in their past three games and improving play from rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. At 20–10, the NFC South has the best combined record by a good margin, and it’s a sterling 15–5 outside the division.

-- Kudos to: The AFC East. This division features the best team in the NFL in the 7–0 Patriots, plus the improved Jets (4–3), the better-off Dolphins (3–4) in the wake of Joe Philbin’s firing, and a Bills (3–4) team that has more potential than current production. The AFC East is 17–11 combined, the only other division besides the NFC South to be more than two games above the break-even mark.

Worst division

AFC South: If this division was a horse (sorry, Colts), they’d shoot it to put it out of its misery. No team(s) have ever topped their division with a worse record through eight games than the 3–5 co-leading Colts and Texans, and it’s nothing to be proud of. The division is a combined 9–21 this season, and AFC South teams own just four wins when they’re not playing against each other. And half of those four victories came at the expense of Tampa Bay, who was 2–14 a year ago. The Colts’ only three wins are against division foes. The Texans have twice trailed in a game by more than 40 points. And those are your first-place teams. Jacksonville (2–5) and Tennessee (1–6) are consistent bottom-feeders, with the Titans just firing coach Ken Whisenhunt the Tuesday after Week 8, and the Jaguars owning non-AFC South wins over Miami and Buffalo.

• ​WATCH: Was Ken Whisenhunt the problem in Tennessee?

-- Kudos to: The NFC East. Beside the AFC South, this is the only other division that boasts no winning teams, with the 4–4 Giants leading the way, fresh off that trip to New Orleans in Week 8, when New York’s defense got dented for 52 points. The Cowboys have dropped five in a row since Tony Romo cracked a clavicle, and don’t even try to figure out who Philadelphia and Washington are after seven games. Both are 3–4 and show signs of having multiple personalities. All told, this division is a combined 12–17, with no team showing more than eight or nine-win potential.

Most familiar storyline

You again?: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but the undefeated Patriots, Broncos and Bengals all look like a lead-pipe cinch for the playoffs. They’re all 7–0 and in first place, which would make it seven straight AFC East titles for New England, five consecutive AFC West crowns for Denver and five consecutive playoff trips for the Bengals. And if the Colts can win the sorry AFC South, that’ll be four straight playoff trips for Indy. That’s four of the AFC’s six-team playoff field remaining unchanged for four consecutive seasons, and that would be astounding in the so-called parity-happy NFL.

NFL
Saints special teamer Michael Mauti reflects on history-laden punt block

-- Kudos to: Mike Mauti's blocked punt. In a Week 6 prime-time game at home in the Superdome, the Saints special teamer tore through the Atlanta line and blocked a Falcons punt, recovering the ball for a touchdown to spark both a New Orleans’ win over their division foe, and what is now a three-game Saints winning streak. It was eerily similar to the play that former Saints special teams ace Steve Gleason made in a primetime game at home in the dome against Atlanta in September 2006, in the emotion-laden first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. And when you add in that Gleason, who suffers from ALS, was in the dome to be honored the night of Mauti’s play, just as Mauti witnessed Gleason’s play as a New Orleans-area high schooler in 2006, it doesn’t get much more remarkable than that.

Most Valuable Player

• ​Tom Brady, QB, New England: I could make cases for two other undefeated quarterbacks in Carolina’s Cam Newton and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, and perhaps Arizona’s Carson Palmer and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers as well. But it would be just for the sake of argument. Brady, no matter what motivates him after his offseason from hell, has been other-worldly. You’ve seen it. You know of which I speak. At age 38, Brady is playing like it’s 2007 again: 2,410 yards passing, with 20 touchdowns, an NFL-best passer rating of 115.8, with one lone interception (that bounced off Julian Edelman’s hands). So far in 2015, there’s No. 12, and then there’s everybody else.

-- Kudos to: Cam Newton, Carolina, QB, Carolina
-- My preseason pick: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis

• ​VRENTAS: Should we believe in Cam Newton?

Offensive Player of the Year

• ​Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta: I detest simply mimicking my MVP choice with my OPOY selection (or DPOY in theory), so I’m not going to do it. Instead I’ll throw this one in the direction of Jones, who will no doubt snare it, since he has caught everything else this season. In eight games Jones has 70 receptions for 892 yards with six touchdowns and 12 grabs that went for 20-plus yards. He has been an uncoverable beast and has helped Atlanta go 6–2 and match their season win total of 2014 in the first two months of the season.

-- Kudos to: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
-- My preseason pick: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota

Defensive Player of the Year

• ​Josh Norman, CB, Carolina: It has been impossible to miss the emergence this season of Norman as the game’s premier cover man, and his four interceptions, two pick-6’s, 16 passes defensed and NFL-best 25.5 opponent passer rating (according to Pro Football Focus) are a major reason why the Panthers are 7-0 for the first time in their history and cruising back to the playoffs for a third year in a row. Norman has drawn the other team’s No. 1 receiver in most cases, and his work has been positively Revis-esque in that opponents now must account for his presence in drawing up their plan to attack via the pass.

-- Kudos to: Aqib Talib, CB, Denver
-- My preseason pick: J.J. Watt, DL, Houston

Offensive rookie of the year

NFL
Todd Gurley proving he’ll join NFL’s elite RBs sooner rather than later

• ​​Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis: No offense to either Amari Cooper or Stefon Diggs, the rookie receivers who have been fabulous for the playoff-contending Raiders and Vikings, respectively. But Gurley’s four- start stint in the Rams’ lineup has been a revelation and everything St. Louis could have hoped for when it sank the 10th overall pick of the draft into a running back in the midst of an ACL rehabilitation. After a nine-yard, six-carry debut in Week 3 against Pittsburgh, Gurley has ripped off four consecutive games with at least 128 yards rushing, and his 566 yards in that span make him the most prolific rusher ever over his first four starts since the 1970 merger. He’s also a home-run threat, with a long gain of at least 48 yards in each of his starts, leading the NFL in that department and helping pace the Rams to a 3–1 record since he joined the lineup.

-- Kudos to: Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland
-- My preseason pick: Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee

Defensive rookie of the year

• ​​​Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City: Buffalo’s Ronald Darby is having a strong first season as well, but Peters gets the nod based on him never leaving the field (he has played 96 percent of Kansas City’s snaps), exhibiting great instincts for the ball (three interceptions, 38 tackles) and the absence of any pattern of making rookie mistakes (Darby has four penalties). The Chiefs took a bit of a first-round risk on Peters, who had character red flags coming out of Washington, and he has delivered a consistent, play-making performance amid Kansas City’s disappointing start.

-- Kudos to: Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo
-- My preseason pick: Frank Clark, DE, Seattle

Comeback player of the year

Chris Johnson, RB, Arizona: Carson Palmer has been phenomenal, but he basically has picked up where he left off last season, before his ACL injury. Ditto for Adrian Peterson, before his lost season of 2014. Eric Berry’s return from a battle with lymphoma has been the definition of inspirational. But Johnson? Who saw this coming? He was a late preseason signing after going unwanted all summer, and now he’s second in the league in rushing yardage with 676, trailing only Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman (709). Johnson has already topped his season-long production with the Jets last year, and has somehow turned back the time machine to 2008-10 in Tennessee.

-- Kudos to: Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona
-- My preseason pick: Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia

Coach of the year

​​Ron Rivera, Carolina: If I told you in late August that New England, Denver or Cincinnati were about to rip off 7-0 starts, would there have been any real shock to that news? But when I added the Panthers to that list, a team that some how won its division at 7-8-1 last year, after starting December with a record of 3-8-1, that might have turned some heads and raised some eyebrows. Credit where credit is due. Carolina is a very tough out this season, and the Panthers are now on a ridiculous 12-1 run including playoffs since the final month of the 2014 regular season. And to think Rivera was on a bit of a hot seat at times last fall.

-- Kudos to: Dan Quinn, Atlanta
-- My preseason pick: Mike Zimmer, Minnesota

• ​​FARRAR: How interim coach Dan Campbell is driving a new, tougher Dolphins

 

Offensive breakout player of the year

​​Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta: The second-year rusher had just 43 yards on 22 carries (less than a 2.0 average) in the season’s first two games, playing behind rookie Tevin Coleman. Then Coleman was injured and Freeman exploded, posting four 100-yard games in the span of five weeks and having a pair of three-touchdown games. Through eight games, Freeman leads the NFL in rushing with 709 yards, with a 4.7 average and nine touchdowns on the ground, in addition to 40 receptions for 353 yards and another score. He had logged three games with multiple touchdowns, and keyed a resurgent Falcons running game.

-- Kudos to: Gary Barnidge, TE, Cleveland

Defensive breakout player of the year

​​​Kawann Short, DT, Carolina: I could easily go with Norman for this honor, too, but why not spread the love around when it comes to Carolina’s stout defense? A third-year veteran, Short has been a stud in the middle of the Panthers’ defensive line, capable of both clogging up the running lanes and putting consistent pressure on the quarterback. His five sacks are a career high in just seven games, and he has chipped in with four passes defensed, a forced fumble and three tackles for loss.

-- Kudos to: Fletcher Cox, DL, Philadelphia

Offensive coordinator of the year

• ​​​Mike Shula, Carolina: The Panthers don’t have the gaudy statistics of a New England, Arizona or Cincinnati. But they also don’t have a true No. 1 receiver either, and that hasn’t stopped Carolina from winning every game it has played. Shula has done a masterful job of creative play-calling and staying true to the offensive blueprint in Charlotte, which is built around Cam Newton’s dual-threat talents and a diverse, Jonathan Stewart-led running game. The Panthers know who they are on offense this season, and it’s working.

-- Kudos to: Josh McDaniels, New England

Defensive coordinator of the year

• ​​​​Wade Phillips, Denver: That son of a Bum, he can really coach defense. I’m not really going to try and explain this pick, I’m just going to throw the game film of Denver holding Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing last Sunday night on the table and walk away. Green Bay had 140 yards of offense in the 29-10 Broncos win, and when you consider how anemic Denver’s offense has been for most of the season, well, guess which side of the ball has the most to do with that 7-0 record?

-- Kudos to: Bill Davis, Philadelphia

Executive of the Year

John Elway, Denver, GM/Executive VP of football operations: He might be one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks ever, but it was Elway who had a big hand in building the unit that has become the NFL’s most dominant defense this season. He had the guts to part ways with head coach John Fox just a year removed from a Super Bowl berth, and Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips have both been hires that worked out so far in the win-loss column. Shoot, even the Peyton Manning pay cut looks pretty prescient given No. 18’s struggles in 2015. Denver’s Super Bowl window of opportunity was presumed to be closed after last season ended so drearily, but perhaps those beliefs were premature.

-- Kudos to: Mike Maccagnan, New York Jets, general manager

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