By Jim Trotter
September 18, 2012

The pulse of the NFL season changes weekly. Every Tuesday, will break down the front-runners for the major NFL awards.

1. Matt Ryan, Falcons. The fifth-year QB is playing with a noticeable edge this season, acknowledging his desire to not only take his game to the next level, but also lift the Falcons to their first playoff win after going 0-3 in his previous three appearances. Ryan looks completely at ease in new coordinator Dirk Koetter's up-tempo passing attack. He's completing 70 percent of his passes for 518 yards, a league-high five touchdowns and no interceptions.

2. C.J. Spiller, Bills. The speedy third-year pro leads the league with 292 yards rushing and is averaging an astounding 10.1 yards per carry. His four carries of 20 yards or longer are double the next player, as are his two carries of at least 40 yards. He also has 72 yards on five receptions. Spiller didn't open the year as the starter, but don't look for him to give up the job when incumbent Fred Jackson returns from injury.

3. Alex Smith, 49ers">49ers. The people who like to call him a game manager probably haven't seen him play the past two seasons. Smith has been a game changer for undefeated San Francisco this year. He is tied for second in the league with four TD passes and ranks second with a 115.9 rating. Also, of the nine QBs who've thrown for at least four scores, he is one of only two who has yet to be picked off.

1. Cam Newton, Panthers. The second-year QB started slowly in the opener, but raised the bar with a stellar performance in Week 2. He leads all passers with 12 completions of at least 20 yards, and his 75 yards rushing trail only Griffin among signal-callers.

2. Arian Foster, Texans. The running back is the backbone of the Houston offense. He ranks seventh in rushing with 189 yards and is tied for first with three ground scores. He will be in contention all season, because the Texans' plan is to feed him the football early and often.

3. Vernon Davis, 49ers. Yes, I know tight end will never win this award, but Davis deserves the recognition. Playing for an offense that spreads the ball, all he does is make big plays in key moments. He scored four touchdowns in two playoff games last season and has picked up where he left off, with three in the first two weeks this year. His career-high is 13 scores in a season. Look for him to challenge that mark.

1. Clay Matthews, Packers. He won the award two years ago and is well on his way to claiming it again. The outside linebacker has six sacks through two games, matching his total for all of 2012. The quickness and relentless that were evident two years ago when he ranked fourth with 13.5 sacks and was voted NFC DPOY have contributed to his fast start.

2. J.J. Watt, Texans. The second-year defensive end is making a case for not only being the best player on the league's stingiest defense, but also the best player on any defense. In limited action because of a time-eating offense and big leads late in games, the defensive end has three sacks (1.5 in each of the two games), a fumble recovery, five defensed passes and eight tackles. More than numbers, however, is the disruption Watt consistently creates for opposing lines.

3. Von Miller, Broncos. The outside linebacker tallied 11.5 sacks as a rookie last season and now has three in two games. Playing with Peyton Manning should provide the defense with more fourth-quarter leads, which means Miller consistently will be able to unleash his quickness and athleticism as opponents play catch-up.

1. Robert Griffin III, Redskins. The former Baylor QB has been outstanding, averaging 263 yards passing with three touchdowns and one interception. He also has run for 124 yards and two scores.

2. Andrew Luck , Colts. The former Stanford standout has been as good as Griffin, averaging 266 yards passing while throwing for three touchdowns. He has thrown two more picks and has 94 fewer rushing yards, but on Sunday he drove the Colts on a game-winning drive in the final minute, moving the offense 45 yards in four plays to set up the decisive field goal.

3. Alfred Morris, Redskins. The seventh-round pick ranks eighth in rushing with 185 yards and is tied for third with three ground scores. Five of his carries have been at least 10 yards, tying for eighth-most in the league.

1. Zach Brown, Titans. The linebacker from North Carolina was drafted in the second round and has been a solid performer with 13 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

2. Chandler Jones, Patriots. The defensive end has two forced fumbles, a sack and 10 tackles. He comes from a family of athletic achievers -- one of his brothers, Arthur, is a defensive end with the Ravens, and another, Jon, is a mixed-martial artist champion -- so we should not be surprised that Chandler is making a name for himself.

3. Lavonte David, Bucs. A weakside linebacker, Lavonte has impressed with his intelligence and maturity. So much so that the coaches entrusted him to make the play calls in Week 2. Lavonte is soft-spoken, but his game speaks loudly for the Bucs.

1. Jim Harbaugh, 49ers. His team opened the season with convincing wins over 2012 playoff participants Green Bay and Detroit. He is supported by a strong group of assistants, notably coordinators Greg Roman (offense) and Vic Fangio (defense). But it's clear Harbaugh sets the tone.

2. Mike Smith, Falcons. One of the game's true gentlemen, Smith oversees a team that's efficiently nasty on the field. The Falcons play fast and aggressive on both sides of the ball. Big road test Sunday in San Diego.

3. Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals. Seemingly every year outsiders predict doom and gloom for Arizona, yet Whisenhunt often has his team in the hunt for the division title. Arizona was predicted to be among the league's worst this year because of its unstable QB situation, but thanks to Ray Horton's defense and solid ball security on offense the Cardinals are 2-0, including a stunning victory at New England.

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