With just one more week left in the regular season, there's not a lot of suspense remaining in terms of the playoff races. Seven of the eight division titles have already been secured. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, battling for the NFC East crown, have locked up at least a wild-card spot regardless of what happens this weekend. And of the remaining three other berths, the Denver Broncos and New York Jets control their destiny in regards to clinching the AFC wild-card spots. The fact that they play the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders at home, respectively, strongly suggests that all other contenders shouldn't get their hopes too high.
Oh, I guess I would be remiss in talking about the five 7-8 teams vying for the NFC's final wild-card spot. As I said last week, these teams have no chance of advancing. Enough said. So instead of breaking down this weekend's contests, I decided to get a jump on what will be a hot topic next week – this year's postseason honors.
San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is a no-brainer for this award. Anytime the team with the best record has a player with record-breaking stats such as Tomlinson, you have to put him at the forefront. Ever since he's come into the league, he's been a good player, but to see him elevate his game to a level that we've never seen from a running back in the NFL, that is impetus enough to make him MVP.
There's a lot of sentiment for Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, but we've seen quarterbacks throw for those type of yards (4,372) before and not win MVP. The year Brees has had reminds me of the year Daunte Culpepper had two years ago when he put up fantastic numbers, but lost out to record-breaking Peyton Manning.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
This pick will shock a lot of folks because most of the sentiment has been for Miami's Jason Taylor or San Diego's Shawne Merriman. However, I’m going with Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey.
After an Un-Champ-like season in which he was frequently targeted and beat by opposing offenses, Bailey has adjusted to the NFL rule changes and emphasis (no contact five yards past the line of scrimmage) and gotten back to dominating one half of the field. He is the only true shutdown corner in football.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Every year, there are several coaches that stand out and do an incredible job. This year is no different. You have a couple of upstart coaches – New Orleans' Sean Payton and Eric Mangini of the New York Jets – who have done some exceptional things with teams that had no real expectations to succeed. A lot of times, we overlook the teams that are successful. And I think it's easy to overlook San Diego's Marty Schottenhiemer, but he's done a wonderful job of putting this team together and is my choice for coach of the year.
The Chargers have a first-year quarterback starting in Philip Rivers who's effectively replaced Brees – the likely runner-up to Tomlinson for MVP. Marty's had to deal with adversity. The team lost dynamic linebacker Shawne Merriman to a four-game suspension and has played all season without linebacker Steve Foley. Even more, Marty's made adjustments to his coaching style. After a close loss early in the season at Baltimore in which he got too conservative down the stretch, he's turned over the play calling and allowed for more creativity in the offense.
Again, what he's accomplished easily gets overshadowed because we knew going into the season that San Diego had a lot of talent, but that shouldn't take away from Marty having the best year of his career.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Like MVP, this one is fairly easy – Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young. You're talking about a rookie quarterback that has won eight games with that team. If Tom Brady or Peyton Manning played for the Titans, how many games would they win? Nine? The Titans definitely aren't a 10-win team.
Perhaps just as impressive, Young didn't sneak into the spotlight. He came into the league with top billing and hasn't disappointed.
Yes, the case can be made that he benefits from playing on a defensive line that included Tommie Harris, Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye. However, as we've seen with Mario Williams in Houston, it's not always easy for a rookie DE to step in and make an immediate impact.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
OK, this might raise some eyebrows, but I'm going with Brees for this honor. Yes, his injury (torn right labrum) didn't occur until the final game of the 2005 season, but we didn't know when he would be able to play again. New Orleans didn't know if he was going to be healthy. That's why there was so much uncertainty with Miami and other teams when he was on the market. Yet, he was able to come back and produce the best year of his career.
Some people would say the Jets' Chad Pennington because he overcame a second rotator cuff injury. He has 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. That's not a great year.
Bonus: BIGGEST SURPRISE OF 2006
What Payton has been able to do with the Saints is incredible. Not just the wins, but how he's really embraced the Gulf Coast.
We knew he was a good coordinator, but we had no idea he'd be able to step into such a complex situation and get positive results from the start. He took the chance with Brees. He's somehow made that backfield work with both Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. And the enthusiasm that he's brought back to New Orleans is inspirational. He's brought pride back among the fan base. New Orleans is now a tough place to play and win.
Sean Payton has created enthusiasm and an exciting environment.