TAMPA — The NFL’s regular season was highlighted by record scoring, five new playoff teams and late drama as 13 of the 16 games last weekend featured matchups with playoff implications.
With the postseason underway, here’s a look back at some key performers who ran away from the pack in a league where 48 percent of games are decided by seven points or less:
Most Valuable Player QB Peyton Manning, Broncos
He announced himself by throwing for 462 yards and seven TDs against the defending champion Ravens in Week 1, and Manning never stopped bludgeoning opponents. By the time he was finished carving up secondaries, Manning had set NFL single-season records for TD passes and passing yards while leading Denver to the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
Coach Of The Year Bruce Arians, Cardinals
There are plenty of worthy candidates like Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Ron Rivera and Chuck Pagano, but Arians is worthy of becoming the first coach to capture this award in consecutive years since Washington’s Joe Gibbs three decades ago. To win 10 games with Carson Palmer under center in a division crammed with the Seahawks and 49ers is an extraordinary feat.
Offensive Player QB Peyton Manning, Broncos
At the age of 37, Manning finished second to Philadelphia’s Nick Foles in passer rating, but that was about the only goal he failed to accomplish as the Broncos set an all-time scoring record with 606 points. Manning threw 14 of his record 55 TD passes on third down and 14 in the fourth quarter. In short, he was unstoppable while closing in on his fifth league MVP award.
Defensive Player S Earl Thomas, Seahawks
Edge rushers Robert Quinn of the Rams and Robert Mathis of the Colts enjoyed stellar seasons while Carolina MLB Luke Kuechly appeared to be everywhere at times, but Thomas is the glue holding the NFL’s No. 1 defense together. Teammate Richard Sherman makes more splash plays, but even the NFL’s interception leader admits Thomas deserves this honor.
Comeback Player OLB Thomas Davis, Panthers
A study in perseverance, Davis has overcome three ACL tears in the same knee to excel for the NFL’s No. 2 defense. Every time Davis wanted to quit the game he loves, he refocused and dedicated himself to a painful rehabilitation process once again. Now, he’s playing the best football of his nine-year career.
Most Improved Player WR Alshon Jeffery, Bears
Chicago coaches were disappointed in Jeffery’s production in 2012 as the second-round draft pick out of South Carolina posted only 24 receptions for 367 and three TDs. When Jeffery reported to training camp last summer, he was a more polished and confident player. He finished with 89 catches for 1,421 yards and seven TDs, shielding off defenders adroitly with that 6-foot-3 frame.
Offensive Rookie RB Eddie Lacy, Packers
Green Bay’s ground game had been dormant for years until Lacy arrived from Alabama and ran for 1,178 yards and 11 TDs. Armed with the NFL’s No. 7 rushing attack, the Packers were able to remain in the playoff chase until QB Aaron Rodgers returned. Chargers WR Keenan Allen was also very impressive as a rookie.
Defensive Player LB Kiko Alonso, Bills
Playing in obscurity for a bad team, Alonso made an impact from the start for a Top 10 defense. This tackling machine out of Oregon proved to be a second-round steal with instincts for the game that can’t be taught.