The race for The Associated Press Most Valuable Player has drawn plenty of attention in recent weeks, with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre creating plenty of buzz about the NFL's most prestigious individual award.
But there's an equally interesting race for Defensive Player of the Year, and the outcome could be just as compelling. And just as unpredictable.
The way I see it - and I take this vote very seriously when it comes to these awards - it's a six-horse race, with two clear front-runners: cornerbacks Darrelle Revis of the Jets and Charles Woodson of the Packers.
Charles Woodson, CB, Packers: This might be his most dynamic season yet. Woodson, 33, is tied for second in the NFL with eight interceptions, tied for his career high. He also has two interception returns for touchdowns. And there's more - four forced fumbles, two sacks, 61 tackles and 14 passes defensed. His athleticism is unquestioned, and his ball-hawking skills have never been better.
Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets: Enjoying a breakout season at age 24, with six interceptions that include one TD return. "Nobody, and I mean nobody maybe in the history of the game, has had the challenges that he's faced week-in and week-out," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "You look at the top receivers in this game now that he's gone out and matched with and literally almost shut down." Ryan's right. From Andre Johnson to Randy Moss to Marques Colston to Terrell Owens, Revis has been the best shutdown corner in the game. One thing that might work against him in a head-to-head competition: He isn't used as a blitzer and doesn't have any sacks or forced fumbles. He does, however, have a whopping 27 passes defensed.
Darren Sharper, S, Saints: Even if he doesn't win Defensive Player of the Year, Sharper has to be the best free-agent acquisition of the year after joining New Orleans from the Vikings. He has solidified a pass defense that was the team's Achilles' heel in recent years and is tied with Woodson with eight interceptions, including a career-high three TD returns.
Jared Allen, DE, Vikings: With pass rushers at a premium, the Vikings pulled off a major coup by acquiring Allen in a trade with the Chiefs last year. He leads the Vikings with 12 ½ sacks and has three forced fumbles and an interception. He might not have quite enough sacks to convince voters to select him over Revis or Woodson, but his contributions to the Vikings' much-improved defense can't be overlooked.
Elvis Dumervil, LB, Broncos: The Broncos made him a pass-rushing outside linebacker in Mike Nolan's 3-4 defense, and it is the perfect spot for the undersized (5-11) Dumervil. He has responded with a career- high 15 sacks to go with three forced fumbles. Dumervil's sack production has slowed after a torrid start; he had 10 sacks in his first six games but only five in his last seven.
Patrick Willis, ILB, 49ers: About the only way Mike Singletary could have a better middle linebacker is if he could turn back the clock 25 years and put himself in the lineup. Willis is a tackling machine; he leads the NFL with 131 tackles. He's also tied for his career high with four sacks and has three forced fumbles and two interceptions, including one TD return.