Halfway front-runners for NFL awards

Updated: 11/11/2012 12:35 PM KSTP.com

It’s been a terrific half-season for Matt Ryan, Marshawn Lynch, J.J. Watt and Charles Tillman.

For Andrew Luck, Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Luke Kuechly, too.

And for Mike Smith, Leslie Frazier and, in a bittersweet way, Bruce Arians.

The AP NFL awards won’t be handed out until the night before the Super Bowl. Halfway there, here are the men who have stood out for each of the seven honors. Bear in mind, though, that the only four-time MVP, Peyton Manning, barely was a contender through eight games in two of those MVP seasons.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP voting the last five years and if the Falcons continue beating everyone with Ryan performing so brilliantly, he has the inside track to become the first Atlanta player selected for the award.

"We are halfway through the season and I think everybody’s focus is just to keep their head down, keep working hard and not worry about anything more than that," Ryan said.

If Ryan does look around, he’ll see the likes of Seattle running back Lynch and Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson, Vikings receiver Percy Harvin, Houston defensive end Watt, Chicago cornerback Tillman, and, oh yes, that guy who already owns four such trophies.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Obviously, Watt, the pass-swatting, QB-trapping terror for the Texans, and ball-hawking Tillman are among the leaders for this award, which often goes to guys who pile up the sacks. Watt certainly is doing that with a league-leading 10 1/2.

"I am amazed that he can continue to just dominate people the way he has," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "He has a great knack for football ..."

Tillman has never played it better, either. He forced four fumbles in Chicago’s victory at Tennessee, and has two picks, both returned for scores. He is as much of a shutdown cornerback as anyone in the NFL, and an irreplaceable part of the Monsters of the Midway.

Their top competition so far includes Green Bay’s Clay Matthews, Arizona’s Daryl Washington, San Francisco’s Patrick Willis _ all linebackers _ Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud and Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER

This award sometimes goes to the MVP, so Ryan, Peterson, Harvin and Lynch deserve halfway consideration. Peterson has been an amazing story as he came back off major knee surgery late last year and now leads the NFL in rushing, just in front of Lynch. He’s also operating with a second-year quarterback _ but Lynch has a rookie QB.

"With Adrian Peterson, from the very first game it looked like he was back to 100 percent," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "You’ve seen none of the effects of that ACL with anything. He’s better than he’s ever been. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s got great instincts."

Other standouts so far: QBs Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Manning; RBs Frank Gore of San Francisco and Arian Foster of Houston; WRs Harvin, Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis, A.J. Green of Cincinnati and Brandon Marshall of Chicago; and tight ends Rob Gronkowski of New England and Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta.

COACH

Here’s something unprecedented: an interim coach could get the nod.

If the Colts continue their turnaround, Bruce Arians will receive strong consideration for the honor. Arians took over for Game 4 when Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. Indy has gone 4-1 since then, including a victory over Green Bay, and Luck has taken huge strides in his development. A split vote for Pagano and Arians also might be considered should the Colts surge all the way into the playoffs.

Of course, should the Falcons replicate their 8-0 record with another eight victories, well, coaches of undefeated teams (Don Shula in 1972, Bill Belichick in 2007) have been impossible to ignore.

Other solid candidates thus far: Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, Pete Carroll in Seattle, Joe Philbin in Miami, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay, and Lovie Smith in Chicago.

COMEBACK PLAYER

A two-man race thus far between Manning and Peterson. In fact, barring more injuries or a totally unexpected drop-off in production, this figures to be between these two perennial stars and no one else.

"In his case, every time he goes out there, he’s got a chance to do something special," Broncos coach John Fox said of Manning.

As for Peterson: "I don’t know if words can describe how impressed myself and everyone is with what Adrian has accomplished," Frazier said. "He’s just an amazing athlete, a guy with so much determination."

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE

Quarterbacks never won this award until Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, when the Steelers went 15-1. Indy’s Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson are the signal-callers who have made their freshmen seasons special already. For any of them to win it, getting their teams to a winning record or into the playoffs could be the decider, which gives Luck and Wilson and edge on RG3.

For excitement, though, it’s hard to match what Griffin does for the Redskins.

Same thing for Martin, who comes off two sensational games for the Bucs: 135 yards rushing, 79 receiving in a win at Minnesota, then 251 yards rushing and four touchdowns in a victory Oakland.

But don’t ignore RBs Alfred Morris of Washington and Trent Richardson of Cleveland, and WR Kendall Wright of Tennessee.

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE

Tampa Bay’s Barron has played safety the same way he did at Alabama, with aggression, decisiveness and strong fundamentals.

Carolina’s Kuechly has played the same way and been a tackling machine, perhaps the only bright spot on a bad defense.

Seattle LB Bobby Wagner has been impressive, making a good unit even better. New England DE Chandler Jones leads the team with six sacks, while safety Tavon Wilson has three picks.

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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)