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Ron Rivera tops list of Coach of the Year candidates

Every week in this space, Chris Wesseling will roll out the power rankings for one specific NFL position, attribute or award.

As we turn our attention to the stretch run, it's time to start thinking about NFL Honors. So far, we have covered the top candidates for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Now it's time to examine the top candidates for Coach of the Year.

On to the list:

1. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers: You're not alone if you wrote the Panthers off as a legitimate Super Bowl contender when No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL in August. Rivera hasn't missed a beat, guiding his well-balanced team to the league's lone undefeated record while winning every regular-season game over the past calendar year. Whereas schisms divide front offices in other cities, Rivera works hand-in-glove with shrewd general manager Dave Gettleman to turn under-the-radar free agents and afterthought rookies into key contributors.

Every NFL coach was once some other coach's protégé. A head football coach does not come by his philosophy casually, particularly one with a conservative bent learned at the knees of "Iron" Mike Ditka, Norv Turner and Lovie Smith. To Rivera's everlasting credit, he was open-minded enough to welcome a mid-career football epiphany that embraced an expanded understanding of probability in determining the outcome of football games. No longer playing it by the proverbial book, Rivera has emerged as one of the NFL's best strategists on fourth downs and in close games.

Prior to last season, no team had ever won back-to-back NFC South titles. Rivera's Panthers have reeled off three consecutive titles, building on his well-timed epiphany.

2. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots: Belichick has won the award three times, just one shy of Don Shula's record. He could have collected another half-dozen awards if we didn't take his mastery for granted. Belichick is in a class of his own as the best coach of the 21st century and a worthy successor to Paul Brown in his relentless search for competitive advantages.

What is Belichick's scheme? He resists classification. More than any NFL coach, Belichick uses his unparalleled knowledge of football tactics to build a scheme specifically designed for each opponent. The Patriots have repeatedly stayed ahead of the curve, effortlessly shifting philosophies just as other teams begin to catch on.

Recent injuries and special teams gaffes aside, this team remains a powerhouse as long as Belichick is directing Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

3. Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals: While Belichick resists being locked into a singular ideology, Arians coaches under the influence of one infectious guiding philosophy: "No risk it, no biscuit." Whether he's relentlessly attacking defenses down the field, dialing up big plays to beat the clock entering halftime or going for the kill shot with a fourth-quarter lead, Arians personifies aggressive coaching.

The flip side of that aggressive on-field approach is an avuncular off-field style, borrowed in part from mentor Bear Bryant: "Coach 'em hard, hug 'em later." As long as the players understand how much he cares, Arians once explained, he can call them anything.

As a result, Arians has as much buy-in from the players as any coach in the league. This is a true team -- 53 deep -- anchored by selfless leaders such as Larry Fitzgerald. The best Cardinals outfit most of us have ever seen also boasts a handful of Comeback Player of the Year candidates, which suggests Arians also harbors an advantageous soft spot for the redemption story.

4. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals: Including Lewis' 2009 win, the top four names on this list are responsible for five of the past six and six of the past eight Coach of the Year awards. Having "raised the Titanic" early in his Cincinnati career, Lewis now oversees a model organization in Cincinnati. The Bengals have drafted and developed as well as any team in the league since Lewis and director of player personnel Duke Tobin began pulling the strings on the football side of the operation.

Lewis' patience with beleaguered franchise quarterbackAndy Dalton has paid off in a big way. A top-10 MVP candidate, Dalton has taken full advantage of a loaded roster, pushing the Bengals into the upper echelon of the AFC alongside the perennial superpowers in New England and Denver.

Lewis' vow to walk off into the sunset if the Bengals win the Super Bowl no longer seems like a pipe dream.

5. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs: How bleak was Reid's outlook in mid-October? The Chiefs were 1-5, coming off five consecutive losses, when offensive focal point Jamaal Charles was lost for the season. Alex Smith was throwing short of the sticks and failing to come through in two-minute drills. The offensive line was a mess. A talented defense had allowed at least 30 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1987.

Since then, however, the Chiefs have been one of the NFL's most dominant clubs, reeling off six consecutive wins with an average victory margin of 18 points. While the swarming defense has garnered a larger share of the accolades, Reid's offense has generated 32 points per game with third- and fourth-string tailbacks routinely grinding out 100 yards. Reid couldn't dream up a softer remaining schedule (Chargers, at Ravens, Browns, Raiders), which means his white-hot team is a virtual shoo-in for the postseason.

6. Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos: This one is tricky. Do we give Kubiak a pass for attempting to shoehorn Peyton Manning into a bastardized pistol/boot-action mashup, satisfying neither the coach nor the quarterback for 10 weeks? Even if we hold that against Kubiak, we have to concede points for winning with two different offenses and two different quarterbacks this year. To Kubiak's credit, he also had the foresight to hire defensive mastermind Wade Phillips, who was somehow out of a job in 2014.

Honorable mention: Lovie Smith, Pete Carroll, Todd Bowles, Mike Zimmer, John Fox

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