Week 15 set the table. With a slate of games that positioned nearly all the seeding in both conferences to be decided in the final two weekends, this was the late-season episode that laid the groundwork for the fireworks ahead.
Gilmore has the more difficult challenge in convincing voters because of the position he plays. Charles Woodson was the last cornerback to win DPOY in 2009, doubling the votes of Darrelle Revis in the Island's best season ever. (In hindsight, Revis probably deserved it.) Deion Sanders in 1994 was the last cornerback before that.
Unlike Woodson or "Prime Time," Gilmore doesn't have a lot of flash to his game. That's why his performance on Sunday in Cincinnati should go a long way to boosting his case. He picked off two passes (scoring his second touchdown of the year on the second) and jumped to the league lead in interceptions (six) and passes defensed (18). Cornerbacks are a tough sell because they often do their best work outside the edges of a television screen. Pass-rush production is easier to spot and quantify. To best appreciate Gilmore's brilliance, you'd have to watch him snap after snap on All-22 Coaches Film, a luxury that only Steve Belichick and a few zealous beat writers pull off. The numbers, however, are hard to argue with.
Jeff Howe of The Athletic tracks Gilmore's coverage numbers when he's lined up in man. On the season, quarterbacks have completed 24 of 66 passes for 280 yards. He has nearly as many interceptions and passes defensed (20 combined) as he has completions allowed in man. Quarterbacks targeting him in man coverage have a 12.2 passer rating! It's as dominant a cornerback season as I've seen since Peak Revis.
The stats when Gilmore is in zone coverage are harder to agree on, but Gilmore is primarily in man coverage on the team that plays the most man coverage in football: 59.8 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. It can only help Gilmore's case that he's the best player on a Patriots defense ranked first in points allowed, yards allowed and turnovers forced.
At this late stage of the year, I have Gilmore atop my fictional ballot for DPOY, slightly edging out T.J. Watt and a host of other players. This week's Debrief will be dedicated to looking at the biggest award races with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Defensive Player of the Year
Watt's week-to-week impact is undeniable. Sunday night's performance against the Bills was a reminder of how much Watt changes nearly every snap for the opponent, whether it's a run or a pass. He ranks in the top five in sacks and tackles for loss. He's tied for first in forced fumbles with Barrett and Chandler Jones. Like his older brother, Watt gets his hands up in a quarterback's face and has seven passes defensed. Unlike his brother, Watt has two interceptions. I'd listen to an impassioned case for any of the names above, but Watt's would be strongest because of his week-to-week impact. He rarely has quiet games.
I give Gilmore the slight edge because I've seen a lot more seasons like the one Watt is enjoying than the one Gilmore is having. I've definitely seen those seasons rewarded with hardware more often. I don't want DPOY to turn into the "best edge rusher" award, which is why it's been so cool to cover Aaron Donald's run at three straight awards from the interior. He's still the defender almost any general manager would take to start a defense with, and he's lapped his interior competition in PFF's grading system. I don't think this is a situation where we would be giving Karl Malone an MVP over Michael Jordan just because everyone is tired of voting for Donald, but 67 pressures (per PFF) and 11 official sacks is outrageous considering the double and triple teams Donald sees.
The crazy part of this list is that it could have been longer. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has his supporters, while both Bosa brothers have enjoyed dominant stretches. I wouldn't be surprised if more players get votes this year than ever before, but Gilmore and Watt have the best chance to close strong and win a plurality -- if not the majority -- in a fractious year.
Coach of the Year
1) John Harbaugh, Ravens
2) Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
3) Sean Payton, Saints
4) Mike Tomlin, Steelers
5) Pete Carroll, Seahawks
I had the first three names listed above in every possible order until settling on this one. Ultimately, not listing Harbaugh first felt like overthinking the dilemma. The Ravens are one of the best regular-season teams since 1985 according to DVOA. They are doing it with an offense that looks like no other and took genuine vision to even attempt. The defense is similarly unique, valuing the secondary over the pass rush and blitzing like crazy. Harbaugh put this staff in place. If they are the most creative team and the most effective team, how can you not reward Harbaugh?
Then again, no coach has overachieved and overcome obstacles as impressively as Shanahan. Routinely picked third in the NFC West before the season, the 49ers are 11-3 with all three losses coming in the final seconds. More impressively, they've achieved that mark with an unceasing avalanche of injuries that has forced Shanahan to adjust roles and find solutions on the fly. No coach has done a better job adapting to what he has -- and who he's facing -- week in and week out.
Payton gets major kudos for going undefeated with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, and the uptick in the Saints' recent offensive play bodes well for their title hopes. Tomlin has finally coached up the Steelers defense we've been waiting years for, helping to cover up an incredibly inexperienced skill-position group. The Seahawks are much more of a veteran team and I can't quite decide if Carroll gets extra credit for already tying the NFL record for one-score wins or knocked for only having one win all season by more than one score. Like most mysteries surrounding Carroll, there is no right answer.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Murray has had more than enough superb Sundays to convince Cardinals fans that there are brighter days ahead. He might just win this award because comparing a quarterback's value to any other position is inherently unfair, but I'm rolling with Jacobs because he's one of the best at his job while Murray is still near (or below) league average for a starting quarterback. Jacobs leads the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "elusiveness" rating, a measure of how a runner performs independent of his blocking. No player has forced more missed tackles and no rookie has carried his offense like Jacobs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
This was the easiest award to give out, despite Allen and Crosby's impressive seasons rushing the passer. Bosa has been a more consistent every-down force than any other rookie defender by a good amount. Rapp stepped in for John Johnson to immediately be an above-average starter as a rookie safety, which is not easy to do. Thornhill and Packers S Darnell Savage have also played well during a standout year for rookies at the position.
Put Lamar Jackson in prime time and he's going to put on a show. Perhaps the greatest red zone weapon I've ever seen, Jackson also has a deep ball that really sets him apart. The Ravens are confident enough in Jackson's ability to create that it's almost routine when he throws for 36 yards on fourth-and-1 from his own 29-yard line, like he did against the Jets. There's simply never been a season quite like this, with a record-breaking rushing campaign supported by a league lead in touchdown passes. Wilson's fantastic season has steadily lost a little ground to Jackson's each week, to the point where it's hard to imagine Russ now making up the difference.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
The rest of the AFC should be frightened by what Mahomes put on tape Sunday in the snow against Denver. Even if the Chiefs have enjoyed bigger statistical days, this was the best performance by the 2018 MVP all season. Despite the difficult conditions, Mahomes' accuracy, arm strength, touch, anticipation and decision-making were all perfectly on point throughout his 340-yard performance. No one makes quarterbacking look easier. I would pay serious money to watch Mahomes play football in the snow every Sunday, perhaps even on weekdays and special offseason dates for premium subscribers.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: On an offense that badly needs explosive players, Eagles running back Miles Sanders is turning into a game changer. He looked very comfortable as a true lead back, piling up 172 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches. In the same game, Washington rookie wideout Terry McLaurin caught all five of his targets for 130 yards. He has a chance to reach 1,000 yards in Year 1, which would be an incredible feat on this Redskins team.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.