There's something special about football in December. In 2019, the stars aligned to allow five games played in the month of December, and while the regular-season fates of teams have been decided, standout individual efforts were recognized by the league on Thursday.
AFC Players of the Month
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry spearheaded a late-season run at the playoffs for his team to earn the AFC Offensive Player of the Month honor. The third-year back was tabbed to pick up the slack of an offense that was hobbled by an ailing Marcus Mariota, and prompted a surge in Week 13 with a historic game on "Thursday Night Football." A remarkable 99-yard touchdown run highlighted a night where Henry ran for 238 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries (14 YPC!), which made him the first player in the Super Bowl era to eclipse 200 yards on fewer than 20 rushing attempts. Henry went on to carry the load for the Titans during their December run, amounting 625 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the month, which was more than half of his 2018 season totals (1059 yds; 12 TDs). Although the Titans fell short of the playoffs after a Week 17 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Henry reminded Tennessee what it had exactly once the team committed to him after a slow start, and befittingly enough, his late-season success was reportedly prompted by some advice from an all-time great Titan running back in Eddie George.
Helping the Indianapolis Colts beat the Tennessee Titans in the final game of the 2018 regular season to clinch an AFC Wild Card berth was none other than Darius Leonard, the AFC Defensive Player of the Month. No. 53 for the Colts has been a constant presence for a defense that improved greatly compared to last season, and the rookie from South Carolina State is sure to become an impactful leader for the years to come. Leonard iced the Colts' division-clinching victory over Tennessee with a late-game interception that helped protect an early lead and keep the AFC Offensive Player of the Month out of the endzone. Nicknamed 'Mainiac', Leonard's sideline-to-sideline play is as composed as it is frenzied, and the sure-handed ability to tackle has made him a bona fide Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate after leading the league in tackles (163), despite being a Pro Bowl snub. Leonard averaged 9.8 tackles a game in the month; sprinkling in a sack, five pass deflections, and three tackles-for-loss, but it's the leadership he presents that can't be measured in numbers.
Houston Texans kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month to round an AFC South trifecta of late-season honors. Fairbairn made all 13 of his field-goal attempts in December. Despite missing one of 13 PATs in December, the native Hawaiian ended up breaking Nick Novak's franchise record of 35 FGs made in the regular season by getting to 37 down the stretch.
NFC Players of the Month
Seattle Seahawks running back Chris Carson earned the NFC Offensive Player of the Month award with a reliable rushing role that averaged 103.2 yards and one touchdown per game (5.01 YPC) in December. Carson emerged from what started out to be a running back committee in Seattle to start the year, but the determined second-year man from Oklahoma State earned a leading part that made him the first Seahawk to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season since Marshawn Lynch's 2014 campaign. Similar to Beast Mode, Carson has had a knack for breaking tackles to extend drives and virtually every one of his big plays or touchdowns have come after contact. The hard-nosed running of Carson has not only helped the offense in the play-action pass, but has been a catalyst at relieving the pressure off a Seattle defense that has seen better days. Time of possession was proven crucial for Seattle in their Week 16 win over the Kansas City Chiefs behind Carson's 116-yard two-touchdown night that clinched his team a playoff berth.
Although he fell short of breaking Michael Strahan's single-season sack record, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald did enough to earn the NFC Defensive Player of the Month honor. Donald accrued six sacks in the final month of the season -- bringing his total for the year to a career-best 20.5 -- but with 13 official QB hits in that same span, he was certainly breathing down the neck of Strahan's mark, not to mention the quarterbacks themselves. Donald also added nine tackles for loss in the month to add to another career-best of 25 for the season. It has been a career year for the fifth-year veteran, and it comes after winning the Defensive Player of the Year award last season. Donald capped off the regular season as another sure-fire candidate to win that honor in consecutive years, which would be another earmark for a player already considered a generational talent at just 27 years old.
San Francisco 49ers kickerRobbie Gould was perfect in the month of December to earn the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month. To end his 14th season in the league, Gould was true on all 10 of his field-goal attempts and all five of his PATs. The 36 year old highlighted his month with a four-FG performance in Week 15 that ended with him kicking one through in overtime to upset the Seattle Seahawks. Gould ended the year with a league-best 97.1 FG percentage.
NFL Rookies of the Month
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was named the Offensive Rookie of the Month after putting the finishing touches on an AFC North title run. Jackson didn't put up staggering numbers through the air, averaging only 157.2 yards, but his 73.2 yards per game on the ground solidified a dynamic attack that kept defenses guessing. In Week 14, Jackson gave Kansas City a scare on its home turf in what was his only loss as the starter, but proceeded to make big throws during the Ravens' biggest win over the Los Angeles Chargers on the road in Week 16. Jackson totaled four touchdowns through the air and three on the ground to help lift the Ravens down the stretch toward a division championship. Having now saved the Ravens' season after a 4-5 start before he took the helm under center, Jackson has revitalized Baltimore. A day before his 22nd birthday, Jackson will become the youngest QB ever to start a playoff game.
Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds earned the Defensive Rookie of the Month honor to help bolster the growing excitement of the young roster in Buffalo. Edmunds had a stat line of 43 tackles, two interceptions and a sack over the final five games of 2018, but it's been the leadership role the 20-year old has realized that has resonated with the Bills team and coaching staff. In the Bills' blowout home win against the Dolphins in the final game of their season, Edmunds had the best game of his inaugural year; recording a pick, a sack, and a season-high 12 tackles in the game. The Virginia Tech alum has been raved about by coaches and veteran leaders on the team since he began the year as a starter, and it's perhaps the start of a new culture in Buffalo along with another first-round draftee in 2018 on the other side of the ball.