NFL Awards Watch, Week 17

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That's all that separates Drew Brees from taking down one of the league's most hallowed records.

Dan Marino's single-season passing mark (5,084) has stood since 1984, but Brees has emerged as the latest challenger to threaten the seemingly unattainable achievement. He has passed for 4,683 yards through 15 games and is a scintillating performance away from eclipsing the Hall of Famer's single season record.

While surpassing Marino's mark would be an astonishing accomplishment, Brees' 2008 season is praiseworthy on its own merit. The Offensive Player of the Year candidate has a league-high nine 300-yard passing games, including two games with more than 400 passing yards, and has thrown at least three touchdowns in five games this season. In addition, Brees has compiled a lofty 95.5 passer rating while completing over 65 percent of his passes, with 30 passing touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Those numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that Brees leads the league with 59 completions of more than 20 yards and 16 passes of more than 40 yards.

In normal circumstances, Brees' outstanding play would make him a frontrunner for the league's MVP award, but the Saints' mediocre record (8-7) prevents that. Critics attempt to dismiss Brees' astonishing numbers as byproduct of a passer compiling gaudy statistics in a series of losses, but closer examination reveals that he led the Saints to a 6-3 record when passing for 300 or more yards in a game.

Furthermore, Brees' standout passing production was compiled while the Saints dealt with the midseason absences of their three top targets (Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and Marques Colston) due to an assortment of injuries. Thus, the fact that Brees is on the verge of joining Marino, Kurt Warner (4,830 in 2001), Tom Brady (4,807 in 2007), and Dan Fouts (4,802 in 1981) as the only quarterbacks in league history to pass for more than 4,800 yards in a season, despite playing with a cast of backups for the majority of the year, makes his 2008 season stand out as one of the greatest individual performances in league history.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (last week's ranking, 2): The league's hottest team is rolling into the playoffs, sparked by the scintillating play of Manning. The perennial Pro Bowl QB has completed more than 71 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions while guiding the Colts to eight straight wins.

2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (1): The Vikings are poised to win their first division title in eight years behind the efforts of the league's rushing leader. Peterson has rushed for 1,657 yards and topped the century mark a league-leading nine times. Although his eight fumbles lead the NFL, the miscues are partly the result of Peterson's "go-for-broke" running style that has produced an astonishing 22 runs of more than 20 yards.

3. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (4): The league's top stat stuffer continues to terrorize opponents with his versatile skills. Harrison has amassed 101 tackles, 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles, one interception and a safety for the league's best defense.

4. Chad Pennington, QB, Dolphins (NR): The Dolphins' plucky quarterback has the team on the cusp of winning its first division title since 2000. Although Pennington ranks in the top 10 in passing yards, passer rating and completion percentage, his leadership has been the real key to the team's dramatic turnaround.

5. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys (3): The sack master has been exceptional this season, getting a sack in all but one of the team's games. He's bearing down on Michael Strahan's single-season sack mark.

1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (2)

2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (1)

3. DeAngelo Williams, RB, Panthers (5): The league-leader in touchdowns (20) has enjoyed a coming out party in his third season. Williams has topped the century mark seven times this season and ranks as the league's fourth-best rusher (1,337 yards).

4. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (NR): Lost in the Chargers' up-and-down season has been the outstanding play of Rivers. The brash gunslinger has resurrected the team's improbable playoff hopes by sparking a three-game winning streak. He's the league-leader in passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (104.0).

5 Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (3): Atlanta's workhorse has carried the team into the postseason by rushing for more than 100 yards in seven games. Turner is the league's second-best rusher (1,491) and has 16 touchdowns on the ground.

1. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (1)

2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys (2)

3. Ed Reed, S, Ravens (5): One of the best defensive playmakers in the history of the game continues to come up with timely turnovers for the Ravens' menacing defense. Reed's two interceptions against the Cowboys upped his season total to seven, which makes him the league's co-leader in picks.

4. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (4): The Dolphins' top rusher has been a disruptive force off the edge. Although he was shut out against the Chiefs, Porter ranks second in the league with 17.5 sacks.

5. John Abraham, LB, Falcons (NR): The Falcons' top rusher has been a dominant force off the edge despite occupying a role as a part-time player. Though many have painted Abraham as a one-dimensional pass rusher, few can argue that his 16 sacks have been pivotal to the Falcons' surprising ascension to the ranks of the elite.

1. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (1): From worst to first? The Dolphins have done it under the guidance of Sparano and his veteran coaching staff. With a win over the Jets in the season finale, the Dolphins can capture their first division title since 2000.

2. Mike Smith, Falcons (2): The Falcons have gone from the laughingstocks to a playoff team in Smith's first season.

3. Bill Belichick, Patriots (5): This is Belichick's best coaching job. His ability to guide the Patriots to 10 wins with a quarterback (Matt Cassel) who hadn't started a game since his senior season in high school is remarkable.

4. Jeff Fisher, Titans (3): Some critics still refuse to tab the Titans the best team in the league, even though their 13-2 record is the NFL's best. However, the resounding victory over the Steelers should silence the doubters for at least a week.

5. John Harbaugh, Ravens (NR): At first sight, the Ravens appear to be the same ol' defensive-oriented squad that dominated foes in the early part of the decade. But closer examination reveals a sensational offense that is capable of putting up 30-plus points on anyone. With Harbaugh doing what his predecessor (Brian Billick) failed to do, the Ravens have the potential to make a deep postseason run.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (1): The unflappable Ryan has been so good in his debut season that some consider him an MVP candidate.

2. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (2): The sensational rookie has single-handedly carried the Bears' offense with his vast array of skills. While Forte's 1,187 rushing yards are impressive, it is his team-leading 60 receptions that showcases his ability as an "every down" back.

3. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (4): The dazzling playmaker continues to add sizzle to Titans' offense with his blinding speed. Johnson has gained more than 100 yards on the ground in four games and ranks as the AFC's second-leading rusher with 1,228 yards.

4. Steve Slaton, RB, Texans (3): The electrifying multi-purpose threat has tallied over 100 yards from scrimmage in six of the Texans' last eight games. Slaton is the AFC's third-best rusher with 1,190 rushing yards.

5. Jake Long, OT, Dolphins (NR): The Dolphins' improved offense has been keyed by Long's solid play on the edge.

1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (1): The Patriots' standout has been phenomenal as the "free hitter" in the team's 3-4. Mayo leads all rookies in tackles (121) and ranks ninth in total stops.

2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): It's rare that a rookie can man the middle of the defense with consistency, but Lofton has been surprisingly steady. He's the team's third-leading tackler with 92 stops.

3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Cards (3): The Cards' top pick is showing promise as a "shut down" corner. Despite starting only 10 games, the sensational rookie has three interceptions, 17 breakups and one blocked kick.

4. Aqib Talib, CB, Buccaneers (NR): The Bucs' dynamite nickel back has been outstanding as a part-time player. Talib leads all rookies with four interceptions and has nine breakups.

5. Jason Jones, DT, Titans (NR): One game doesn't make a season, but Jones' eye-opening performance against the Steelers (3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles) makes you wonder how good he would be with more opportunities. Jones leads all rookies with five sacks, despite playing as part of a rotation behind Pro Bowl tackle Albert Haynesworth.