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NFL

J.J. Watt and Defensive Player of the Year. Andy Reid and Coach of the Year. Drew Brees and Offensive Player of the Year. Each was a legitimate preseason favorite for the award and remains a front-runner as the NFL approaches Week 12. The argument could be made that Peyton Manning has already locked up the MVP award.

But the hardware hasn’t been given out yet, so the winners are very much still up for discussion. Rather than focus on those who were expected to be in the conversation, here’s a look at the guys nobody saw coming.

Coach of the Year:

Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers

ron rivera

THE CASE FOR: Just six weeks ago reporters were calling for Ron Rivera’s head. Now, Carolina is 7-3 and the hottest team in the NFL. Since falling to 1-3 in the first month the Panthers have reeled off six straight wins by an average of 14.5 points—including huge back-to-back victories over San Francisco and New England.

With Kansas City’s loss this past week, Carolina owns the league’s longest current winning streak. Their three losses to Seattle, Buffalo, and Arizona were by a combined 22 points. The Panthers own the best third down and fourth-best fourth down conversion rates, and have committed the fifth fewest penalties in the league.

The obvious place where Rivera deserves credit is defense, his specialty. His guys are the stingiest in points allowed per game and second to Houston in yards allowed and Seattle in turnovers forced.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: Barring a serious meltdown, Reid likely has this race wrapped up. You don’t make history by taking a two-win team to Super Bowl consideration in your first year—lacking a star quarterback to boot—without being honored as the best.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: 

Kiko Alonso LB, Buffalo Bills

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3O9ynRJml4

THE CASE FOR: Kiko Alonso was the 46th player overall and sixth linebacker to have his name called in April. Kendrell Bell (2001) and DeMeco Ryans (2006) are the only players in recent history to win the award after slipping past the first round, yet Alonso’s hot start has him in many writers’ driver’s seat.

The Oregon product has cooled off somewhat since ringing up four interceptions, one stuff, one sack, and a forced fumble to win Defensive Rookie of the Month in October. Right now he sits second in total tackles with 112 and those four picks are still the second best to Alterraun Verner and DeAndre Levy.

He recorded an incredible 22 tackles in an overtime loss to Cincinatti! Most importantly, he’s emerged as the Bill’s defensive leader and has displayed excellent vision as a run-stopper.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: Sheldon Richardson’s stat line is rock solid but not out of this world. His six stuffs and 50 combined tackles are both among the league leaders, to go along with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Richardson has revitalized a star-studded but lackluster defensive line that now leads the NFL allowing just 73.2 rushing yards per game.  His high level of play has been consistent throughout the year, something Alonso can’t match yet.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: 

Keenan Allen WR, San Diego Chargers

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jys67u3Ldns

THE CASE FOR: Like Alonso on defense, Keenan Allen is fighting to be the first player drafted outside of the first round to win the ROTY award on offense. The last player to do so: Anquan Boldin in 2003. Allen needed just three weeks to start putting up big numbers at a position that normally takes a few seasons for players to grow into; his performance was instrumental in victories over Dallas and Indianapolis.

Allen has been as sure-handed as anyone in the league with just two dropped passes all season. Twelve receivers have more 100-yard receiving games this season—Allen has at least 21 fewer targets than any of them. The third round pick from Cal has the fourth highest percentage of catches for first down (80.5) out of all receivers with at least 30 receptions despite receiving just four targets of 20 yards or more downfield.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: With Gio Bernard and Eddie Lacy in competition for the award, and Antonio Gates and Danny Woodhead getting more targets, Allen has his work cut out for him. It will take a monster run in the Chargers’ final six games for Allen to have a shot at taking the hardware. A drive-ending taunting penalty in San Diego’s loss to a struggling Miami team won’t help his case either.

Defensive Player of the Year: 

Robert Mathis LB, Indianapolis Colts

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2n8mPvYBsI

THE CASE FOR: The AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October is playing like a man possessed in his 11th season. Mathis went the last two seasons without posting double-digit sacks. He already has 13.5 through ten games, including the 100th of his career that killed a Seattle drive in the Colts’ Week 5 victory.

Mathis is on pace to post his second highest total in tackles and was almost solely responsible for the Colts’ disruption of the Denver Broncos’ record-setting offense in Week 7. He is the lone consistent performer on a shaky but playoffs-bound Colts’ defense.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: The award is Watt’s to lose based on an historic 2012 campaign, and he’s doing well to secure the first back-to-back wins since Lawrence Taylor. Richard Sherman and Justin Houston are close on his tail and their teams are the two winningest in the league. There’s just too much competition for Mathis.

Offensive Player of the Year: 

Jimmy Graham TE, New Orleans Saints

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cnIxeMdsnc

THE CASE FOR: Jimmy Graham’s inclusion in this post doesn’t suggest that his emergence as the game’s best tight end is a shocker. A tight end making a case for OPOTY is unexpected and practically unprecedented. Second in touchdowns (10), seventh in receptions (60) and first down receptions (43), ninth in yards (846), and 10th in catches of 20+ yards (12); this despite playing part of the season with plantar fasciitis. Rob Gronkowski’s record of 17 TDs by a tight end remains in sight, as does Randy Moss’s record of 23 for all players. Only the Patriots have been able to hold him without a catch, but he is virtually unguardable, even on one foot.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: Jimmy Graham’s inclusion in this post doesn’t suggest that his emergence as the game’s best tight end is a shocker. It’s repetitive, but it’s true. The only pass-catcher to win the award was none other than the legendary Jerry Rice.

Graham is hauling in passes at a prolific rate, but those throws have to come from somewhere. Enter Drew Brees, who is making a strong bid to become the third three-time winner in the award’s history. And if for some fluky reason Manning doesn’t come away with MVP, you can bet he’ll be shining his second OPOTY trophy.

MVP: 

Jamaal Charles RB, Kansas City

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmfe2Y0ct3s

THE CASE FOR: Despite having an average fantasy draft position in the first round, few people could have predicted Jamaal Charles’ stats translating into so much success for Kansas City. Charles has the fifth most rushing yards despite going over the century mark just once this season.

He’s averaging 23.5 touches per game for a ridiculously high 41.4 percent usage rate. Not only does he carry the load on the ground but also he’s vital in the air. Charles leads the Chiefs in targets and receptions. He has eight of the team’s 18 touchdowns and 35.3 percent of their yards. In fact, Alex Smith has only thrown touchdowns in half of this season’s games. Only a handful of backs (re: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy) could take Charles’ place and maintain the team’s success.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: Manning, Peyton.

Each of these dark horse candidates needs a significant breakout in the final third of the season to leapfrog the frontrunners in their respective races. Alonso and Allen have the best shots; it’s entirely possible that even a Kansas City Chiefs collapse from here on out won’t be enough to give Rivera coach of the year. Who not already mentioned here might be in the discussion come Week 17?

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