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For two years, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson easily dominated the conversation. Gifted with the devastating power of nuclear fission and the grace and speed of a gazelle, Peterson spent two largely unquestioned years as the NFL's best running back.
But 10 games into 2009, his throne is being challenged.
At the very least, Peterson's filibuster of greatness has become more of a three-way dialogue. Thanks to the spectacular rise of the Titans' Chris Johnson and the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), the title of the NFL's best running back is more of a debate. That much might have become clear on Nov. 1, when Johnson and Jones-Drew went head to head and produced a spectacular 405 rushing yards and four touchdowns. It was a classic faceoff, somewhat reminiscent of a Detroit Lions/Dallas Cowboys tilt in 1994 when Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith combined for 337 yards.
And with Dallas and Detroit about to take part in the annual Thanksgiving games, it made me realize one of the great things NFL fans should be thankful for. Much like the early 1990s, when Sanders and Smith and the Bills' Thurman Thomas were battling it out for running back supremacy, 2009 has delivered a golden year for running backs. While much of the league's attention has been focused on the impact of young quarterbacks, Peterson, Johnson and Jones-Drew – all 24 years old – are churning out yards and touchdowns at an electric pace. All three have a solid chance to surpass 2,000 yards from scrimmage, while Johnson also has a realistic shot at the coveted 2,000-yard rushing mark.
That's why the trio is among the many reasons for NFL fans and teams to be thankful on the league's most prized holiday. In that spirit, here are reasons for every franchise to give thanks …
AFC EASTBuffalo Bills
Be thankful that you ousted Dick Jauron now and got a jump on the head coaching search. It might not land you Mike Shanahan or a big name out of the deep pool of guys out there, but it will give you the best possible shot. Even the second- or third-best candidate in this crop of available coaches would be a coup for you. Miami Dolphins
Be thankful that Ricky Williams(notes) turned his career around and became a dedicated player again. He looked like he was playing some of the best football before Ronnie Brown(notes) went down with a knee injury, and he'll show the rest of the season that he can be a centerpiece running back, even at the age of 32. He's one of the NFL's overshadowed stories. New England Patriots
Be thankful Laurence Maroney(notes) is looking more and more like the guy from 2007. The ability to run the football and control the tempo of games in the fourth quarter of AFC playoff games will be huge. Every big game from Maroney isn't gravy – it's necessity. New York Jets
Be thankful that Darrelle Revis(notes) is only 24 years old, and has already surfaced as arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. He's got a chip on his shoulder and wants to be assigned to the best wideout every time he steps on the field. And he takes it personally when he thinks he's not being respected by opponents. That's a wonderful quality in a cornerback.
AFC NORTHBaltimore Ravens
Be thankful for the foolishness of so many teams that passed over offensive tackle Michael Oher(notes) in the 2009 NFL draft. If the draft was held again today, Oher might not make it past the Chiefs at No. 3 or the Seahawks at No. 4. He definitely wouldn't make it past Green Bay at No. 9. What a steal. Cincinnati Bengals
Be thankful for the inability of the Bears to get Cedric Benson's(notes) head screwed on straight. No player has been a more consistent balancing force for the Bengals this season. Nor has there been a bigger contract bargain given to offensive free agents last offseason. Cleveland Browns
Be thankful that owner Randy Lerner is clearly hearing the criticism. It might not sound like much, but ask Lions fans what it was like when Matt Millen was driving the team into the ground and the Ford Family virtually vanished for the last few years of the debacle. At least Lerner is talking and listening. That's a positive sign. Pittsburgh Steelers
Be thankful for general manager Kevin Colbert and the scouting department. The jury is out on Ziggy Hood, but with Rashard Mendenhall's(notes) emergence, it looks like this franchise has scored on nine straight No. 1 draft picks. That's an absurd run of first-round success that has been unequaled anywhere in the NFL.
AFC SOUTHHouston Texans
Be thankful for offensive tackle Eric Winston(notes). He gets overshadowed by all the other offensive pieces, but he has quietly become one of the best right tackles in the NFL. He has some nastiness to him, too. He should get more national recognition than he does. Indianapolis Colts
Be thankful for every moment Peyton Manning(notes) gives you until the end of his career. Someday you'll look back and fully realize how special it was to have almost two decades with one of the greatest players in the history of football. Jacksonville Jaguars
Be thankful that Jones-Drew has not only worked out as the No. 1 running back, but has surfaced as one of the three best running backs in the NFL. At 24, he should rival Peterson and Johnson for league supremacy for years to come. Tennessee Titans
Be thankful for … come on, is there any doubt? Chris Johnson, Chris Johnson and Chris Johnson. He may not have the brutish physical running style of Peterson, but he's every bit as explosive. He's the next name in the ''best NFL running back'' argument.
AFC WESTDenver Broncos
Be thankful Elvis Dumervil(notes) has fit so well in Mike Nolan's 3-4 defense. Rarely do defensive ends move to outside linebacker and actually become more effective as pass rushers, but Dumervil has done just that. He's one of the best hybrid defensive ends/linebackers in the game today. Kansas City Chiefs
Be thankful the Chargers cut Chris Chambers(notes). He was the consistent piece this offense and quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) badly needed. He might not be a long-term force, but he came into the fold when this team needed a win and some positive reinforcement that the franchise was turning into the right direction. And he came from a division rival, no less. Oakland Raiders
Be thankful Tom Cable finally turned away from JaMarcus Russell(notes). It was time for someone to give this team a chance to win some games. The move will ultimately be better for Louis Murphy(notes) and the stable of running backs. It might be better for Russell, too, if it translates into sustained work and study. San Diego Chargers
Be thankful for Philip Rivers(notes). Statistically, his first four years as a starter compare very favorably to those of Manning. His leadership ability is similar, too. Only a Super Bowl win is keeping him from ascending to the level of Manning, Tom Brady(notes) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes).
NFC EASTDallas Cowboys
Be thankful for three healthy running backs who all might be able to start somewhere in the NFL. If this offense was built like the Giants were last season, the trio of Marion Barber(notes), Felix Jones(notes) and Tashard Choice(notes) could replicate the production of Brandon Jacobs(notes), Derrick Ward(notes) and Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) in 2008. New York Giants
Be thankful for the wealth of young offensive talent. All of the skill position pieces surrounding Eli Manning(notes) and Brandon Jacobs are in their early to mid 20s, assuring this offense will maintain its punch for years to come. That kind of continuity is vital for championship runs. The defense can be tweaked as the offense matures.
Be thankful for wide receivers coach David Culley. It's hard for teams to keep top-notch positional coaches in place for an extended period, but you've managed to keep Culley since he arrived with Andy Reid in 1999. He's a big reason why DeSean Jackson(notes), Jeremy Maclin(notes) and Jason Avant(notes) have matured into their roles so well. Washington Redskins
Be thankful that, if Jim Zorn is indeed fired, you're looking for a head coach in one of the richest crops of available talent in years. And in a year when the likely competing markets (Buffalo, Cleveland and possibly Houston) aren't nearly as attractive. With owner Dan Snyder's deep pockets, you should have the pick of the litter.
NFC NORTHChicago Bears
Be thankful you extended Jay Cutler's(notes) deal only through 2013, and didn't give him one of those ridiculous $100 million contracts that were handed out like candy a few years ago. Imagine being saddled with $40 million in guaranteed money and 40 million turnovers. Detroit Lions
Be thankful for the depth at vital positions in the 2010 draft. You could use help on both the offensive and defensive lines, and there will be some studs at the top of the draft board, including defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska) and Gerald McCoy (Oklahoma) and Oklahoma State offensive tackle Russell Okung. Green Bay Packers
Be thankful for Charles Woodson(notes). Amazingly, you've gotten the best four-year run of his career. And he looks like he's got at least a few more left in him. Minnesota Vikings
Be thankful for Brett Favre's(notes) waffling nature, and Brad Childress' ability to stomach it. That patience produced the best storyline in the entire NFL this season. And if Favre wins a Super Bowl in Minnesota – capping the best season of his entire career – you get to spend eternity arguing with Green Bay over whether Favre should be remembered as a Packer or a Viking.
NFC SOUTHAtlanta Falcons
Be thankful for the defensive talent that will be available in the draft. The Falcons could still use more depth on defense, particularly on the line and in the secondary. The first round will be thick with quality defensive linemen. As many as 14 defensive tackles and ends could go in the first round. If Atlanta is looking for pass-rushing help, it will have plenty of candidates. Carolina Panthers
Be thankful DeAngelo Williams(notes) is finishing strong for the second straight year. Williams' slow start gave some pause about last year's performance, which was just too good to be a fluke. But until Williams starting clicking again, it raised some concern about his ability to be consistent. His last six weeks have lit the fire again. There's no more questioning his status among the league's elite. New Orleans Saints
Be thankful for the Vikings' shortsightedness. The Vikings thought safety Darren Sharper(notes) had lost a step and was on a ledge of steep decline after posting only one interception in 2008. Whoops. And should you meet the Vikings in the playoffs, guess who will have all kinds of inside info on Minnesota's personnel. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Be thankful that Josh Freeman(notes) has only two tough defenses (the Jets and Saints) still on the schedule. Even with last week's bumpy performance against the Saints, Freeman has handled his first few weeks as a starter extremely well. And now he's got a chance to finish out the season building his confidence against some teams that are hurting defensively. Hey, you take the encouraging signs where you can get them.
NFC WESTArizona Cardinals
Be thankful other teams were scared off by the injury history of Beanie Wells(notes). His rare combination of size and explosive agility has translated well to the NFL. Barring injury, he'll be a bell-cow back and give NFC West opponents fits for years. St. Louis Rams
Be thankful for the wide array of talented prototype quarterbacks in the '10 draft. There are few years that promise such a wealth of options at the position, from Washington's Jake Locker to Oklahoma's Sam Bradford to Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen and Texas' Colt McCoy. Florida's Tim Tebow should be sitting there at the top of the second round as well. Your coaching staff will be logging a lot of frequent flyer miles watching these guys work out. San Francisco 49ers
Be thankful the Raiders did the unthinkable and passed on Michael Crabtree(notes). Now that the world has been able to see Crabtree on the field, it's incomprehensible that the Raiders could have thought Darrius Heyward-Bey would be a better NFL player. In hindsight, all the pain of the Crabtree holdout will be worth it. Seattle Seahawks
Be thankful that injuries gave linebacker David Hawthorne(notes) a chance to shine. It's not uncommon for undrafted, backup players to go struggle for years to get an opportunity, who then end up getting cut and flourishing elsewhere. Look at Green Bay's Ryan Grant(notes), who never got his shot with the Giants. The Seahawks found a quality starter they never knew they had.