Week 17 in the NFL looms, and that means it's time to prepare my ballot as one of the 50 media members who vote on the Associated Press individual awards. Here's my call on who should get the hardware, along with a few bonus categories to boot:
Tom Brady, QB, New England
No quarterback in the league makes do with a lower-profile supporting cast, and makes them look better than Brady does his fellow Patriots. Despite an offensive scheme that shifted rather dramatically to a share-the-wealth approach once Randy Moss was traded in early October, the Patriots have not only survived but thrived. Brady does everything you could possibly want from a quarterback, in all kinds of weather, and in some ways this year's record-breaking season is even more impressive than the one he assembled in 2007, when he won his first and only MVP.
Brady has an NFL-best 34 touchdown passes and an NFL-low four interceptions, with his last pick coming on a Hail Mary pass in Week 6. That was 10 full games and 319 passes ago, and that broke the record that Bernie Kosar set in Cleveland in 1990-91. And did we mention that Tom Terrific has now had eight consecutive games of at least two touchdowns and no interceptions, breaking Don Meredith's league record of six?
Kudos to: Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia.
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia
Vick has undoubtedly electrified the league with his renaissance season for the Eagles, and in the process given us some breath-taking performances. Like that tour de force 59-point destruction of the Redskins on Monday night, and a comeback for the ages against the Giants two weeks ago. He's a quarterback and a runner this season, consistently bedeviling defenses with both his arm and his legs.
Vick's thrown for 3,018 yards, with 21 touchdowns, just six interceptions, and a career-best 100.2 passer rating, and rushed for 676 yards and nine more touchdowns. That's 30 touchdowns he has had a hand in, not a bad showing for his 12 games of action, a total that includes only 10 games that he both started and finished (the Eagles are 8-2 in those). And Vick is one of the league's preeminent big-play threats this year, with 12 passes of 40-plus yards, second in the league behind Philip Rivers' 13.
Kudos to: Roddy White, WR, Atlanta.
Haloti Ngata, DL, Baltimore
The big-bodied Ngata is the beast of Baltimore's defense, and he has been the one tone-setting constant for the Ravens this season. He elicits a pair of blockers on the majority of snaps, which allows Ray Lewis to roam around and be Ray Lewis, and also affords Baltimore's cornerbacks the ability to take more chances in coverage. He's a force, and impacts nearly every play in some way or another.
Ask players and coaches around the NFL who the best player on the Ravens defense is and they won't say Lewis, Terrell Suggs or Ed Reed. They'll tell you it's the unsung Ngata, and everyone in the Baltimore locker room recognizes he's the team's defensive MVP. His 5½ sacks, 62 tackles and four passes defensed don't begin to tell the whole story of his value to the 11-4, playoff-bound Ravens.
Kudos to: Clay Matthews Jr., OLB, Green Bay.
Bill Belichick, New England
Just because you've long been acknowledged as the best in the business doesn't mean you can't better your game, and then get the deserving accolades. Belichick really is doing his best work ever this season, and that's a mouthful for the future Hall of Famer who's consistently a step ahead of the competition.
The Patriots literally re-invented themselves on offense in midseason, following the Moss trade, and a youth-infused New England defense has also made strides as the year has unfolded, turning into a unit that makes big plays when the moment demands. Here's all you really need to know: The Patriots are 13-2, own the No. 1 seed in the stacked AFC, and have beaten the Ravens, Chargers, Steelers, Colts, Jets, Packers and Bears. In the course of its current seven-game winning streak, New England has won by an average margin of almost three touchdowns per week (20.4 points).
Kudos to: Todd Haley, Kansas City.
Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis
Funny, but no one seems worried about his surgically repaired shoulder or his history of playing in the shotgun formation any more. Bradford has had one of the finest rookie seasons at quarterback in recent memory, and he's a win away from taking the Rams to the playoffs after St. Louis endured 2009's 1-15 finish. His stats are impressive, but most importantly he gave the Rams a chance to win the moment he walked through the door.
Bradford has 18 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions, but he's thrown a whopping 554 passes, an interception ratio of just 2.52. For comparison sake, Peyton Manning threw 28 picks in 575 attempts as a rookie in 1998, a 4.86 interception ratio. Bradford is so good at taking care of the football that in one six-game stretch this season he threw just one interception, to go with 11 touchdowns. Add it all up, and Bradford is a no-brainer as the league's best offensive rookie.
Kudos to: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Pittsburgh
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit
Speaking of no-brainers, the Lions' rookie defensive tackle has seemingly had a hammerlock on the defensive rookie award since mid-September or so. Or was it August? Suh leads all rookies with nine sacks, but he's yet another player whose stats don't do him full justice. Suh is such an impact presence that opponents began quickly accounting for him in their game planning, feeling that if they could minimize the disruption he causes, they go a long way towards beating the Lions defense.
Suh has slowed down some in terms of sacks in the season's second half -- he has just one in his past four games, and 2½ in his past eight -- but he has learned to make opponents pay in other ways. He's already a formidable run stopper, and in addition to his 60 tackles, he's got four passes defensed, one interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. In short, league personnel men already consider him one of the game's best defensive tackles, and he plays with a well-known mean streak that has added much a much-needed intimidation factor to the Detroit D.
Kudos to: Devin McCourty, CB, New England
E.J. Henderson, LB, Minnesota
As I detailed in a story last week, the comebacks come in all shapes and sizes this NFL season, but Henderson's return from the devastating broken femur he suffered in a game at Arizona in early December 2009 is the stuff of storybooks. Henderson seemed to be the only one who thought he'd play in the NFL again after the gruesome injury, and maybe a bit of his confidence sprang from the fact that doctors and trainers had such little experience rehabilitating a football player from his kind of injury that he didn't know the long odds he faced.
But not only did Henderson come back, he came back from day one this season, and played better than ever. Though the Vikings defense has not lived up to expectations, the eighth-year veteran has been a solid and reliable presence in Minnesota's middle, leading the team with three interceptions (tied for most among NFL linebackers) and recording 130-plus tackles in his 15 starts. And he's done it all with a titanium rod in his leg where his femur once was, inspiring teammates and opponents alike.
Kudos to: Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia
Charlie Weis, offensive coordinator, Kansas City
This isn't an official AP award, but if it was, how could it go to anyone but Weis, the former Notre Dame head coach who returned to the NFL assistant ranks this season after five years and immediately began recreating the kind of success that landed him the Irish job in the first place? Weis's impact on quarterback Matt Cassel's game has been obvious, much as it was in New England early in Tom Brady's career. After a shaky first season in K.C., Cassel has blossomed into one of the league's most accurate and productive passers this year, with 27 touchdowns, five interceptions and a sterling 98.8 rating.
Led by running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, Kansas City's offense fields a league-best rushing attack, averaging 167.5 yards per game, 15 yards more than the No. 2-ranked Raiders. Overall the Chiefs offense jumped to ninth this season (359.6 yards), and Kansas City's 23.7 points per game ranks 11th in the league, a jump of 12 spots from 2009 (18.4). Weis's reputation might have taken a hit at Notre Dame, but his work in Kansas City, even while he was suffering from health issues, has again elevated him to the ranks of the NFL's elite offensive coordinators.
Kudos to: Mike Martz, offensive coordinator, Chicago
Mike Tice, offensive line coach, Chicago
I don't know anyone in the NFL who has earned their money this season more than Tice, the former Vikings head coach who jumped from Jacksonville to Chicago last offseason in order to take on one of the most challenging projects in the league: rebuilding a Bears offensive line that was in tatters. My choice of Tice comes with the acknowledgement that he has not been a miracle worker in Chicago. The Bears offensive line started the season horribly, and quarterback Jay Cutler was running for his life on a weekly basis.
But like any good coach, Tice made necessary adjustments, kept coaching his guys on how to get better, and finally cobbled together a pretty decent unit that has shown improvement as this surprising 11-4 division-winning season in Chicago has unfolded. The raw statistics aren't flattering: the Bears offensive line has allowed a league-worst 50 sacks and its 85 QB hits ranks among the most in the NFL. But I see the essence of good coaching in Tice's performance this season. He took chicken-you-know what, and ended up making chicken salad.
Kudos to: Brian Ferentz, offensive assistant, New England. (A quick footnote: New England doesn't have anyone on staff with the title of tight ends coach, but Ferentz, the son of University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, works mostly with the segment of New England's offense that has produced standout rookie seasons from both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.)
Scott Pioli, general manager, Kansas City
There's nothing more difficult in the NFL than the task that faced Pioli upon being hired to run the Chiefs in early 2009: effecting a dramatic change of culture on a losing and moribund franchise that had grown almost comfortable with defeat. But the ex-Patriots personnel guru has done exactly that, and quickly. After a four-win season last year, the Chiefs are the turnaround story of this NFL season, going 10-5 and earning their first division title since 2003.
Pioli gets props for Kansas City's stellar, cornerstone-type 2010 draft class, for his work in free agency (see Thomas Jones, Ryan Lilja and Casey Wiegmann), and for being smart enough to have helpful, former associations in New England with new Chiefs coordinators Romeo Crennel and Weis. Pioli will admit the pieces have come together in K.C. even more rapidly than he thought possible, but he and second-year head coach Todd Haley have brought a new and demanding attitude to the Chiefs, and winning is now the expectation.
Kudos to: Mark Dominik, Tampa Bay general manager