Other spots, such as wide receiver and offensive line, presented a little more of a challenge.
Quarterbacks:Peyton Manning, Indianapolis; Philip Rivers, San Diego; Matt Schaub, Houston
Comment: In carrying the Colts to a top playoff seed, Manning managed to take his extraordinary game to an even higher level. He has achieved a career best for 300-yard passing games in a season (nine). And he did it while breaking in two new receivers, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, and playing for a new head coach, Jim Caldwell. For all of those reasons, he is the favorite to become the league's MVP.
Running backs:Chris Johnson, Tennessee; Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville; Thomas Jones, N.Y. Jets
Comment: Johnson is the most obvious Pro Bowl pick of them all. No one else comes close at any position. He is in the MVP discussion, although overtaking a quarterback is asking too much, especially for a player on a team out of the playoffs.
Fullback: Lousaka Polite, Miami
Comment: He is a short-yardage conversion machine and a tremendous blocker. With slim pickings at this position, Polite is pretty much a slam dunk.
Tight ends: Dallas Clark, Indianapolis; Antonio Gates; San Diego
Comment: Clark essentially became the new Marvin Harrison, catching a good portion of the passes that once had gone to the former Colts receiving great. Gates continues to be one of the very best in the game and does so much to help give Rivers more room to throw on the perimeter.
Tackles:Ryan Clady, Denver; Michael Roos, Tennessee; Joe Thomas, Cleveland
Comment: Another position with multiple candidates. Tennessee's David Stewart and Miami's Vernon Carey are worthy candidates. Clady just seems to be a bit more consistent than the others. Roos makes it because with Johnson's success, there has to be at least one Titan here. It was pretty much a flip of the coin with Roos and Stewart.
Guards: Chris Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh; Bobbie Williams, Cincinnati; Ben Grubbs, Baltimore
Comment: Kemoeatu has proven to be an outstanding player on a poor line. Williams has played extremely well on a unit that played a big part in allowing running back Cedric Benson to salvage his career and the Bengals to win the AFC North. Grubbs was a key in a strong year by running back Ray Rice.
Ends:Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis; Mario Williams, Houston; Robert Mathis, Indianapolis
Comment: Opponents constantly struggle with Freeney's speed. Williams remains a terror. As much as I hesitate to place two players from the same team at one position, it's unavoidable here; Mathis is a major pass-rushing force.
Outside linebackers:Elvis Dumervil, Denver; James Harrison, Pittsburgh; Brian Cushing, Houston
Comment: Dumervil has made an amazingly successful transition from end in a 4-3 scheme to OLB in a 3-4. Harrison might not be the force he was in winning 2008 Defensive Player of the Year honors, but he's still a difference-maker. Cushing isn't merely a leading candidate to become the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year; he's one of the best at his position.
Cornerbacks:Darrelle Revis, N.Y. Jets; Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland; Leon Hall, Cincinnati
Comment: Revis might very well be the best cornerback in the NFL. That's a distinction Asomugha has held for a while, and he still is a one-of-a-kind talent. Hall and fellow Bengals CB Johnathan Joseph have had Pro Bowl seasons, but only one is going to make it, so Hall gets there by a slim margin.
Free safety:Jairus Byrd, Buffalo
Comment: The rookie sensation relied on tremendous instincts and good study habits to come up with nine interceptions, giving him a share of the NFL lead.
Kicker: Nate Kaeding, San Diego
Comment: He's reliable from all distances, but the guy earns his money by being clutch from long range.
Punter:Shane Lechler, Oakland
Comment: He is having an amazing season with a net average of 44 yards and 28 kicks inside opponents' 20-yard line.
Kick returner:Josh Cribbs, Cleveland
Comment: One of the most dangerous returners the game has ever seen, Cribbs has returned three kicks and one punt for touchdowns this season.
Special teams: Montell Owens, Jacksonville
Comment: He does an exceptional job in coverage. He has tremendous speed and packs a wallop with his hits.
Quarterbacks:Drew Brees, New Orleans; Brett Favre, Minnesota; Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Comment: Brees was the primary reason for the Saints' 13-0 start and has been prominent in the NFL MVP conversation. Favre has enjoyed an incredible revival at 40 years old, and he, too, is a strong MVP candidate. Rodgers, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons as a starter, has had an amazing season, especially considering the poor pass protection with which he has dealt for much of the year.
Running backs:Steven Jackson, St. Louis; Adrian Peterson, Minnesota; DeAngelo Williams, Carolina
Comment: Jackson has been the lone bright spot on a dreadful team. Peterson, who hasn't been consistently dominant, is still capable of taking over a game at any time ... he just has to shake that nasty fumbling habit. Williams is very much at home with the elite players at his position.
Fullback: Ovie Mughelli, Atlanta
Comment: You won't find a better blocker at the position, which is the primary job of a fullback.
Centers: Jason Brown, St. Louis; Jamaal Jackson, Philadelphia
Comment: Brown had plenty to do with allowing Steven Jackson to rank as the top back in the NFC. Before his season-ending knee injury against Denver, Jamaal Jackson had been the lone constant on an Eagles offensive line that had seen constant change throughout the season.
Outside linebackers:DeMarcus Ware, Dallas; Clay Matthews, Green Bay; Lance Briggs, Chicago
Comment: Ware is a dominant force and incredibly tough. Although Matthews is a rookie, he has performed like a seasoned pro and makes himself a strong candidate for defensive rookie of the year. Briggs is a consistent playmaker on an inconsistent defense.
Free safety: Darren Sharper, New Orleans
Comment: He went from a castoff to a major contributor in the Saints' dominant season -- and a candidate for defensive player of the year.
Punter: Ben Graham, Arizona
Comment: Here's an eye-opening stat: 39 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Kick returner:DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia
Comment: This was a tough call, because Minnesota's Percy Harvin merited strong consideration as well.
Special teams: Sean Morey, Arizona
Comment: When it comes to tackling kick returners, he has no peers.
» The buzz I hear during my NFL travels is that Peyton Manning is a lock for the league's MVP award. Maybe so. But after watching what Brett Favre did to allow the Vikings to tie Monday night's game against Chicago in the final seconds and force overtime, I think he should still get serious consideration. The fact he is doing what he is doing at his age should hold up well against all of the reasons Manning should be the choice.
» The Carolina Panthers' coaching situation is something to watch. It isn't because the Panthers want to dump John Fox, as many in the media have speculated. As I'm hearing it from various NFL sources, it could very well be a case of Fox not wanting to remain with an organization that might not necessarily provide him with the resources to turn things around.
Weekly Top 20
» A defensive end in a 3-4 scheme is supposed to be one of the guys who sacrifices his individual accomplishments to help linebackers make all the plays. However, that isn't the case with Green Bay's Cullen Jenkins. Sure, he's a team guy who plays the scheme as it is designed, and, consequently, does his part to keep blockers away from the Packers' linebackers. Yet, Jenkins also is a playmaker himself. For the season, he has 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and an interception.
» This stat pretty much says it all about why the Buffalo Bills are missing the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season: Their defense has been on the field 192 plays more than their offense.
Top five teams
1. San Diego: There isn't a hotter team in the league. Period.
2. Indianapolis: The decision to pick health over perfection has caused a commotion, but it's consistent with the way the Colts do business.
3. New Orleans: Are the Saints offering a preview of a quick playoff exit?
4. Philadelphia: The Chargers are the hottest team, but the Eagles aren't far behind.
5. Green Bay: After a devastating, last-second loss at Pittsburgh, the Packers rebounded nicely with a blowout victory vs. Seattle.
Top five offensive players
1. Devin Aromashodu, WR, Chicago: You might not be able to pronounce his name now, but if he continues to perform as he did Monday night vs. the Vikings (seven catches for 150 yards and the game-winning TD in OT), you soon will.
2. Donovan McNabb, QB, Philadelphia: He showed he is ready for the postseason with his dominant showing vs. Denver.
3. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina: His 206 rushing yards and TD did plenty to help the Panthers bury the Giants. It also allowed him to join teammate DeAngelo Williams in the 1,000-yard club this season.
4. Wes Welker, WR, New England: His 13 catches for 138 yards were a large part of why the Patriots pummeled Jacksonville.
5. Carnell Williams, RB, Tampa Bay: His 129 rushing yards and TD helped the Buccaneers upset the Saints.
Top five defensive players
1. Hunter Hillenmeyer, LB, Chicago: He was a major difference-maker vs. the Vikings, registering 15 tackles and forcing a fumble by Adrian Peterson that set up the winning TD in OT.
2. Atari Bigby, SS, Green Bay: He had two INTs and seven tackles to help the Packers blow out Seattle.
3. Jon Beason, LB, Carolina: He had 13 tackles, including a sack, and a forced fumble to help the Panthers with their humiliation of the Giants.
4. Jerod Mayo, LB, New England: Steadily improving from the knee injury that slowed him early in the year, he had 15 tackles to help the Pats overwhelm Jacksonville.
5. Jay Ratliff, DT, Dallas: He had two sacks to help the Cowboys shut out Washington.
Top five coaches
1. Norv Turner, San Diego: He continues to do an outstanding job of keeping the Chargers consistently sharp and unified.
2. Wade Phillips, Dallas: Despite constant media discussion about his job security, all Phillips does is guide his team into the postseason.
3. John Fox, Carolina: Despite constant media discussion about his job security, Fox has the Panthers on the roll. After leading them to a lopsided victory vs. his former team, the Giants, he should have no worries about his future with the Panthers.
4. Bill Belichick, New England: That was a statement victory over Jacksonville, and the statement is that Belichick's team could be very dangerous in the playoffs.
5. Eric Mangini, Cleveland: Maybe he can't do anything to save his job, but leading the Browns to three wins in a row is worthy of recognition.