Best Overall Player: Peyton Manning/QB/Indianapolis Colts
This was a tough one. I literally could list 9-10 players here.
While Manning had an up and down first half, he put together a big run late in the season and really put the offense on his back.
His performances against Cincinnati, Detroit, and especially Jacksonville were ones for the ages.
To think of what he had to go through to get his surgically repaired knee right in order to just be able to play this season is quite a feat and to put up the numbers he did is pretty amazing.
And he did it all with various changes to his offensive line along with little from the running game.
This season was clearly Manning's biggest challenge of his 11-year career and it might have been his best when you take all of the issues facing him.
He's Better Than Anyone Thought: DeAngelo Williams/RB/Carolina Panthers
When a team drafts a running back with one of their first-round picks (Jonathan Stewart), that's usually a signal that the player will become a starter very soon.
With that said, could anyone have predicted the success (20 total touchdowns, 1,515 yards rushing, and a whopping 5.5 yards per carry average) from Williams this season?
The coaching staff probably thought Stewart would eventually take over the starting job this season, but Williams' performance over the course of the season certainly gave them no cause for concern.
Despite his success, the third-year pro didn't even make the Pro Bowl. It's time to give the voting strictly to the coaches.
Best Overall Rookie: Matt Ryan/QB/Atlanta Falcons
They don't call him "Matty Ice" for no reason.
There hasn't been such a polished rookie quarterback since Peyton Manning and even Manning struggled for at least the first half of his rookie campaign.
Ryan has tremendous poise, footwork, and balance along with a great feel when to step in the pocket to avoid pressure.
After watching every snap he's taken this season, I really wonder how much better he can be in future years.
I Told You So: Joe Flacco/QB/Baltimore Ravens
Here's my advice to anyone who tries to write or talk about players before they're drafted, actually watch the guy play first. Don't go by what someone else has written or by what you hear. Go by what you actually see.
Flacco took an enormous amount of criticism prior to 2008 draft for having slow feet, not having much experience as a starter, and not facing quality competition in college.
All you have to do is actually watch him throw the football for just a few minutes to see that he has plenty of talent.
He has two things that are unmistakable--a great arm and the willingness to throw the ball under duress.
Isn't it amazing how WR Mark Clayton, given up for dead last season, has revived his once promising career with Flacco throwing to him?
What Was I Thinking?: Michael Turner/RB/Atlanta Falcons
I wasn't really sure if he could handle being the main ball carrier and I really didn't think he could come close to what he's done this season. It certainly helps that a running game proponent such as offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey, is calling the plays.
But Turner has surpassed anything that I could have imagined in his first year as a full-time starter with 1,669 yards on the ground and 17 rushing touchdowns.
As the saying goes, you never really know about a guy until he's asked to carry the load and Turner did and then some.
Comeback of the Year: Antonio Bryant/Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I know everyone wants to give Chad Pennington this award (he did win the Associated Press award for this category) and I can see that, but look at what Bryant did this season.
He was out of the league in 2007 due to suspension, but all the 27-year old receiver did is post career highs in receptions (83), yards (1,248), and touchdowns (7).
Bryant could actually be one of the most sought after receivers in free agency this year.
Best Overall Defender: Ed Reed/FS/Baltimore Ravens
James Harrison came close to winning this one, but Reed stands out more for all that he does.
Whether it's his 16 passes defensed, 9 interceptions, or 2 touchdowns, Reed is a rare breed of player--he makes an impact in some way or form in just about every game.
There's not a more instinctive player than Reed and he's a game changer of the highest degree.
Best Rookie Defender: Jerod Mayo/ILB/New England Patriots
Greg Cosell, executive producer of the State Farm NFL Matchup Show on ESPN, told me about this guy before the draft.
Cosell said he's a smart player who could be an impact player as a rookie and that's exactly what has transpired. Mayo won the Associated Press defensive rookie of year award and clearly looked like a Patriot type of player--smart and tough.
He'll Be an All-Pro Soon: Stewart Bradley/MLB/Philadelphia Eagles
Many fans have no idea who this guy is, but you will soon enough.
In his first full season as a starter, Bradley posted 108 total tackles. But team insiders say Bradley is one of the biggest reasons why Philadelphia has been so solid against the run this season and he's not bad in coverage, either.
I Told You So: LaMarr Woodley/OLB/Pittsburgh Steelers
He was my breakout player of the year for 2008 and my statement was pretty clear. He will eventually be better than Joey Porter ever was for the Steelers.
In his first full season as a starter, Woodley posted 11.5 sacks, but more importantly, he had at least one sack in eight games.
While Woodley isn't quite there yet, he's going to be a really good player--he's certainly on his way.
What Was I Thinking?: Seattle Seahawks Defense
I picked them to be a top-three defense this season and I'm still scratching my head on this one.
Other than the season-ending injury to DE Patrick Kerney, I don't see why they were so bad this season. Their secondary was atrocious and even their usually solid run defense dropped off some.
Toast Award: Rod Hood/CB/Arizona Cardinals
Arizona gave this guy a five-year, $16.5 million contract. Why?
The reason why he has 37 passes defensed over the last two seasons is because teams pick on him and he continues to give up big plays.
No team gave up more touchdown passes than Arizona and Hood is a big reason why that total is so robust.
I'd imagine Atlanta Falcons WR Roddy White will be salivating when he gets to against Hood this weekend.
Coach of the Year: Mike Smith/Atlanta Falcons
Here's a guy who clearly wanted to be in Atlanta--unlike Bobby Petrino.
Smith was just the guy that they needed to get things turned around. He's a positive guy who relates to the players well and he lets his coaches actually coach-a novel idea these days.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Cam Cameron/Offensive Coordinator/Baltimore Ravens
You'll have hard time finding anyone who did a better job with the talent that he had to work with than this guy.
Cameron did a wonderful job this season of understanding the personnel he had to work with and he got everything out of them.
Whether it was molding his rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, into a polished passer or using his three offensive tackle formation of late, Cameron seemed to have the magic touch this season.
Mike Mularkey, who did a great job with the Atlanta Falcons in running their offense, also got strong consideration here.
Coach That Came up Short: Wade Phillips/Dallas Cowboys
Have you ever seen anyone who looks so lost on the sidelines? Seriously. How could they not make the playoffs with that talent on both sides of the ball?
Better yet, why did owner Jerry Jones feel the need to proclaim Phillips would be back for sure prior to the Philadelphia game?
Yeah, that worked. It sure seems like the pressure was off the players--literally.
Executive of the Year: Tom Dimitroff/Atlanta Falcons
Sorry, I refuse to call him Thomas like seems to be in vogue these days.
Dimitroff is a different guy. He's very unassuming and you probably couldn't pick him out of a crowd. But look at his success.
His first five draft picks are all making significant contributions. The first of his two first-round picks, Matt Ryan, won the rookie of the year award.
Dimitroff also had the most significant free agent signing with RB Michael Turner.
Biggest Surprise Team: Miami Dolphins
Remind me to stop participating in preseason polls that requires you to pick each team's record--back in May.
Magazines need at least two months of lead time so anyone who picks the record of each team has to guess how they'll do well before training camps open.
Talk about blind stabs in the dark.
I picked Miami to finish 3-13, Atlanta to finish 6-10, and Baltimore to finish 7-9. Yikes. Nice job, Caplan.
Biggest Disappointment: Jacksonville Jaguars
The San Diego Chargers would have been on this list had they not made the playoffs, but Jacksonville's regression this season has been surprising when you consider how well the did in 2007.
Sure they had their share of injuries, but they struggled to find any consistency on either side of the ball.
Luckiest Team to Make the Playoffs But Could go Far: Philadelphia
Talk about getting lucky.
When they lost to the Washington Redskins in Week 16, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought they'd be making the playoffs.
And they needed a rabbit's foot kind of luck to happen in the next in order to play in January.
But here they are and you can make a case for them having the most upside of any NFC team that's still playing.
They have one of most underrated defenses in the NFL and have an offense that's capable of putting up big numbers against anyone.
Biggest Collapse: New York Jets
Raise your hand if you thought they were on their way to greatness after beating the Tennessee Titans in Week 12.
I certainly didn't think they would collapse as they did. Their head coach was canned and now various players are taking shots at QB Brett Favre. Ugly.
I'd put the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right next to the Jets as this season's biggest collapse. How in the world they could lose to the Oakland Raiders in Week 17 is one of the biggest mysteries of the season--of course other than trying to find the Yeti.
Watch Out For Them Next Year: Houston Texans
I really enjoy watching their offense. Who wouldn't? Look at the talent they have.
But the defense is very hard to watch--just short of having a root canal, I don't know what's worse.
They lack big-time playmakers and overall talent on the defensive side of the ball so general manager Rick Smith has a big job on his hands if he wants to get the team to the playoffs next season.