With Aaron Rodgers moving toward the league MVP award and Drew Brees penciled in for offensive player of the year, things get a little more dicey when trying to discern the defensive player of the year.
The outcome of the 50-person Associated Press vote typically hinges on a vague blend of statistical performance, team performance, name recognition, and reputation. This year, 16 weeks of football have produced no clear-cut favorite. And so the outcome will hinge on the performance of the top contenders in Week 17.
With no big-name players near the top of the league-leading interception list (seven is the high-water mark), the sackmasters will get primary consideration. Currently, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has 18.5, Eagles defensive end Jason Babin and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware have 18, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has 15.5, and 49ers rookie linebacker Aldon Smith has 14.
If Allen or Babin can match or beat Michael Strahan’s all-time record of 22.5*, that guy (not to be confused with Jon Gruden’s “this guy”) will be the most likely winner of the award. But if they fall short of the record, the recognition could fall to Ware or Pierre-Paul, based on whether the Cowboys or Giants win on Sunday night and secure the NFC East crown.
With Babin and Allen playing for non-playoff teams, a berth in the postseason could provide the final nudge for Ware or Pierre-Paul — especially since they’ll be playing in the highest-profile nationally-televised game on the eve of the casting of the ballots by the AP voters.
Pierre-Paul, drafted in 2010 as a project for a team that didn’t technically need another defensive end, has exploded down the stretch, winning the NFC defensive player of the week award twice in the last three weeks and making it to the Pro Bowl without being on the ballot.
With two sacks, Ware would become the first player with 20 or more sacks in two separate seasons.
Other candidates could come from the Ravens’ defense, which has gotten 13 sacks and a great Thanksgiving night performance from linebacker Terrell Suggs. His votes could be diluted by nose tackle Haloti Ngata.
49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith could get serious consideration, despite not having high-end stats, given his key role in the dominance of the San Francisco defense.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller also could get votes, even though he’s more likely to contend for the defensive rookie of the year award, if Aldon Smith (14 sacks) doesn’t break Jevon Kearse’s rookie record of 15.
Regardless, this award is coming down to the final week — and possibly the final game — of regular-season action.