NFL Awards Watch, Week 14

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"Best player in the league."

With that simple statement, Bears coach Lovie Smith has summed up what many observers are saying about Adrian Peterson after watching the Vikings' star rally his team to the top of the NFC North with a series of outstanding rushing performances.

"Oh, man, the kid's a stud," Bucs' defensive tackle Chris Hovan told the St. Petersburg Times prior to facing Peterson."You talk about the top backs in the league and I'll put him at No. 1 right now. His explosion, running ability, the way he breaks tackles. The kid is special, man."

Peterson, the league's leading rusher with 1,311 yards, has been outstanding since putting the team on his back after a disappointing 1-3 start. The Pro Bowl back has rushed for 891 yards in the Vikings' last eight games, leading the team to a 6-2 record since the woeful beginning. Although defenses have been gearing up to stop the electrifying runner with an assortment of eight- and nine-man fronts, Peterson has produced five 100-yard games during the eight-game span and averaged nearly five yards a carry while steadying the Vikings' offense.

Remarkably, Peterson has been able to post his outstanding production with the Vikings' passing game ranking near the bottom of the league. The Vikings only average 184.8 passing yards a game, and veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte has thrown 13 interceptions, tied for the second-highest total in the league.

With the team unable to move the ball consistently through the air, Brad Childress has called on his star runner's number more often and Peterson has responded. In the seven games that Peterson has received 20 or more carries, he has averaged 126.5 yards and the Vikings have won six of those seven.

With the division title within reach, the reigning MVP relishes the opportunity to put the team and its postseason hopes on his back.

"I feel like I'm getting stronger," Peterson told the St. Petersburg Times. "That can be scary... I do see myself getting strong and faster and my game is picking up."

Peterson has earned the nickname "All Day" due to his tireless endurance as a runner, but his scintillating performance this year may earn him another moniker at season's end: MVP.

1. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (Ranking last week, 5): If a quarterback is ultimately measured by his ability to win games, then Manning's ascension to the top of the MVP race should not be a surprise. The reigning Super Bowl MVP has guided the Giants to the league's best record (11-1) while producing career-best totals in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt.

2. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2): He has earned the respect of the league with his gutty play this season. Though he has been plagued by a balky knee for most of the year, Portis has reeled off six 100-yard games and tallied his best yards-per-carry average (4.8) since becoming a Redskin in 2004.

3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (NR)

4. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (1): The former two-time league MVP suffered his worst performance of the season at the hands of the Eagles. With the team in the midst of a two-game losing streak, Warner will need to raise his level of play to keep the Cards from falling apart down the stretch.

5. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys (NR): The return of the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback has energized a Cowboys' offense that sputtered in his absence. Romo has guided the team to a 7-2 mark this season and has topped the 300-yard passing mark in six of his nine games. If Romo can successful guide the Cowboys through a rough December schedule, he may wind up stealing the trophy at season's end.

1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (1): The two-time Pro Bowl QB shredded the Bucs' second-ranked pass defense for 296 yards and two touchdowns, but his three interceptions proved to be the difference in the Saints' narrow loss. With the Saints' playoff hopes all but gone, Brees' impressive run at history may be all for naught.

2. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (2)

3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (NR)

4. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (4)

5. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (5): The Falcons' star has been instrumental in the team's surprising surge. With back-to-back 100-yard rushing days in the Falcons' last two wins, Turner has topped the century mark six times on the season. He is currently the league's third leading rusher (1,208 yards).

1. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (2): The Steelers' star is the league's top stat stuffer off the edge. Harrison has 14 sacks, six forced fumbles, an interception and a safety. He is the only player in the league to register a stat in each of those respective categories.

2. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (1): He continues to dominate the middle with his size and strength. Haynesworth leads all defensive tackles in sacks (8.5) and has three forced fumbles.

3. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers (5): The three-time Pro Bowl safety has terrorized the opponents in the middle of the field. Polamalu has a league-high six interceptions and has made 15 breakups for the league's top-ranked pass defense.

4. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys (NR): The league leader in sacks (15) has been instrumental in the Cowboys' improved defensive play. Ware has sacks in all but one of the Cowboys' games, including three-sack performances against the Rams and Seahawks.

5. Justin Tuck, DT, Giants (NR): The Giants' top playmaker spearheads a defense that routinely pummels quarterbacks into submission. Tuck's 11.5 sacks lead the team and rank fifth highest in the league.

1. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2): The Giants maintain their winning ways amid the intense scrutiny of the Plaxico Burress' saga. The defending champs' dominance has the possibility of "back-to-back" titles looking like a reality in New York.

2. Jeff Fisher, Titans (1): The Titans are still not regarded at serious title contenders by some, but critics should not underestimate their potent combination of a punishing defense and smash mouth running game. Fisher rode the combination to an AFC Championship in 1999, and he appears to be up to his old tricks with this year's team.

3. Mike Smith, Falcons (3): No one expected this team to enter December with a division title within reach.

4. John Harbaugh, Ravens (4): The Ravens are not only winning games, but also dominating opponents on both sides of the ball. Though their final stretch of the season is littered with heavyweights (Redskins, Steelers, and Cowboys), they have a legitimate shot to enter the postseason in Harbaugh's first year.

5. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (NR): While many will cite Bill Parcells' influence as the reason for the Dolphins' dramatic turnaround, the rookie head coach deserves kudos for helping transform the 1-15 squad into winners.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (1): His play has been so exceptional this season that he should garner some consideration as the league MVP.

2. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (3): The Bears' star is one of the most complete backs to enter the league in recent years. Forte is the league's fifth-leading rusher (1,012 yards) and his 48 receptions are the most of any running back.

3. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (2): The electrifying runner broke out of his recent slump with his big performance against the Lions (16 carries, 125 rushing yards). Johnson is second in the AFC with 958 rushing yards.

4. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (4): He is maturing from game manager to playmaker in the Ravens' offense. Flacco has thrown at least one touchdown in the Ravens' past seven games and only two interceptions during that span.

5. Steve Slaton, RB, Texans (5): The sensational playmaker has come on strong during the past few weeks. He has topped the century mark in two of the last three games and is averaging five yards per carry.

1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (1): The Patriots' leading tackler continues to set the standard for rookies with his stellar play. Mayo has racked up 96 total stops and is ninth best in the league in tackles.

2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): He has keyed the Falcons' unheralded defense. Lofton ranks as the team's third-leading tackler and is second among all rookies.

3. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (4): The 'Skins' dynamite safety has shown an unbelievable knack for getting to the ball. Horton is one of the team's top tacklers, and leads Washington with three interceptions.

4. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Cards (3): The Cards' top pick has upgraded the team's inconsistent secondary. Though the team has suffered back-to-back losses, Rodgers-Cromartie's play has been solid in both contests.

5. Kenny Phillips, S, Giants (NR): The Giants have slowly integrated Phillips into the lineup, but that hasn't stopped him from making an impact as a punishing tackler. Phillips is the team's second-leading tackler and is starting to be the difference-maker New York envisioned when it picked him in the first round.