1. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers (3): I know what the Pro Football Focus grades say about this race but I also know what I see when I watch the Panthers: a punishing, pulverizing, meat-grinding front seven lead by Star Lotulelei. Ask Tom Brady, who met the former Utah standout up close and personal Monday night. Lotulelei has been a key factor in the Panthers' transformation into one of the league's best defenses.
2. Sheldon Richardson, DL, New York Jets (1): Richardson has been solid for the Jets, but because he doesn't affect the game as a pass rusher and run-stopper yet, it's hard to put him ahead of Lotulelei the way he and the Panthers are playing.
3. Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills (2): Alonso is a tackling machine who excels in coverage and can cover a lot of ground. Buffalo's defense has been much improved and Alonso has certainly been an impactful force in effecting that change. Lately though, he's just been a guy around the ball all the time, not necessarily someone forcing the action and making plays the way other players can.
Coach of the Year
1. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs (1): A loss to Denver on the road is hardly something to fret over, and the Chiefs were just a play here or there away from being in the thick of that game. If the Chiefs can avoid a major late-season collapse, Reid remains the front-runner for this award.
2. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles (3): Worst-to-first, that's what Chip Kelly could bring to the Eagles. Kelly's up-tempo offense hasn't revolutionized the NFL, but it's put them in the thick of a playoff race, and he has Nick Foles playing as well as any quarterback not named Manning or Brees right now.
3. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers (NR): Rex Ryan had been on this list, but a team who can't put two wins in a row together is hardly praise-worthy at this point. The Panthers, on the other hand, just got wins in back-to-back weeks against the 49ers and the Patriots, probably the most impressive two-game stretch anyone has played this season. Rivera's newfound aggressive mindset has permeated throughout this team, and it now believes, rightfully so, that it can beat anyone in the league.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has stepped up his game and scored in double figures in four of the last seven games. During the seven-game stretch, he is averaging 12.9 points on .593 shooting from the field (35-for-59) and .769 shooting from the free-throw line (20-for-26), to go with 6.0 rebounds, 1.4blocks and 1.0 assist.
When it comes to the gold standard of NFC defenses, it’s 28 years later and we’re still talking about those 1985 Chicago Bears.
You remember, right? They dominated and shuffled their way to a 15-1 season and 46-10 rout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
A member of that defense who helped beat the Patriots was a young linebacker named Ron Rivera. Now about to face the Patriots for the first time as head coach, his current team, the 2013 Carolina Panthers, stacks up well statistically to those ’85 Bears.
Obviously, at 6-3, the Panthers won't match the Bears’ record. But given their play, they should already be inspired by the top AFC defense of all time, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who went all the way to win Super Bowl XXXV as a wild card. Like the Bears and Ravens, with Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis respectively, the Panthers have that necessary do-everything, hardnosed anchor at middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly.
When it comes to passing challenges, what Marino was to the Bears, Tom Brady is to the Panthers. With Drew Brees also around the corner for a pair of games, we’ll soon find out if Carolina could be finer than even the legendary Monsters of the Midway.