For 87.5 percent of the NFL, the 2012 season is 25 percent over.
Twenty-eight of the league’s 32 teams have now played four games with varying results. While there’s plenty of football remaining, some players and coaches have already emerged as frontrunners for the NFL’s year-end awards.
If I had to submit my Associated Press ballot today, here’s how it would look:
Most Valuable Player: Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
How chilled is “Matty Ice?” With his team pinned on its 1-yard line trailing Carolina by one point and 59 seconds remaining, Ryan calmly dropped back into his end zone and heaved a 59-yard strike to wide receiver Roddy White. Two more completions and a Panthers pass interference penalty followed, putting the Falcons in position for Matt Bryant’s game-winning 40-yard field goal Sunday in a 30-28 home victory.
The sequence marked Ryan’s 17th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. It also is reflective of just how well he has played in 2012.
Ryan has completed 69.44 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in Atlanta’s 4-0 start. New coordinator Dirk Koetter has shifted Atlanta’s offensive focus from being a run-first team under predecessor Mike Mularkey to emphasizing a passing game that is flourishing thanks to Ryan and three outstanding targets — White, Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones.
As every Falcons fan is painfully aware, Atlanta’s regular-season success with Ryan under center the past four seasons hasn’t translated to a single playoff victory. The way he and the Falcons are playing, that should change in January.
Coach of the Year: Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt.
The Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs the past two seasons and looked so bad offensively in the preseason that it was fair to wonder whether a losing record in 2012 could put Whisnehunt’s job in jeopardy. Instead, the proverbial hot seat never even got warm. Arizona (4-0) proved a stunning road win at New England in Week 2 wasn’t a fluke with subsequent home victories over Philadelphia and Miami.
Although the offense still has issues — quarterback Kevin Kolb remains erratic, the running game is weak and the offensive line surrendered eight sacks in Sunday’s 24-21 overtime triumph over the Dolphins — the Cardinals are the NFL’s biggest early-season surprise under Whisenhunt’s guidance.
Much like 2011 award-winner Cam Newton, Griffin has proven capable of making breathtaking plays with his arm and legs. He enjoyed what statistically was the greatest debut for a rookie quarterback in NFL history in a Week 1 upset at New Orleans. RG3 now has his first NFL comeback victory under his belt after Sunday’s 24-22 win at Tampa Bay. Griffin had a hand in all 61 yards of offense the Redskins gained on what proved the game-winning drive, completing all four of his pass attempts for 45 yards and scrambling for 16 more.
With how quickly Griffin is growing up, some of Newton’s NFL rookie passing records may be in jeopardy come December.
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: New England defensive end Chandler Jones.
Largely unheralded by the media until just before last April’s draft, Jones has proven Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knew what he was doing with the No. 21 overall pick. Already a starter, Jones posted three sacks, two forced fumbles and 17 tackles in September. His strong play continued in Sunday’s 52-28 thumping of Buffalo. Jones forced Bills punts on two first-quarter drives when dumping running back Fred Jackson (three-yard loss) and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (sack) on third-down plays.
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt.
While neck-and-neck with Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews for front-runner status, Watt’s production is unparalleled by any other 3-4 end in only his second NFL season. A constant threat to deflect passes at the line of scrimmage, Watt is the first NFL player since 1998 to register at least 1.5 sacks in each of the first four games of the season. The last one who did it — Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene, who, coincidentally enough, is now Matthews’ position coach in Green Bay.
NFL Offensive Player of the Year: Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch.
No NFL rusher has gained more yards since Week 9 of last season than Lynch, who has kept that momentum going in 2012. Lynch posted his second 100-yard game of the season in Sunday’s 19-17 loss to St. Louis and stands as the league’s rushing leader with 423 yards. His efforts have helped take some of the load off Russell Wilson’s shoulders as Seattle’s rookie quarterback settles into the starting role.
Based upon how this season is unfolding, this should come down to the wire between Peterson and Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. Even during the preseason, there were questions about whether Peterson would be sufficiently recovered from a major knee injury suffered last December to play in Week 1 against Jacksonville. Not only did he return with a strong performance against the Jaguars, Peterson is looking better each week. Peterson broke the century mark for the first time this season with a 21-carry, 102-yard performance in Sunday’s 20-13 win at Detroit.
And now, a look at each of Sunday’s games:
San Diego 37, Kansas City 20: If an award was given for being the NFL’s most disappointing team, the Chiefs (1-3) and New Orleans (0-4) would be in a dead heat. The Saints at least have the excuse of being without suspended head coach Sean Payton and other fallout from the franchise’s bounty scandal. There is no justifying why the Chiefs have played so poorly on defense and sloppily on offense. Six turnovers against the Chargers continued the slide and increase the heat on embattled head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli.
Green Bay 28, New Orleans 27: Packers wide receiver James Jones entered the preseason as a subject of trade rumors because of Green Bay’s depth at the position and his penchant for dropped passes. But as evidenced by his two-touchdown performance against New Orleans, Jones hasn’t let the chance to become a key part of Green Bay’s offense slip through his fingers. The Saints enjoyed their best outing of the season, but an 0-4 start will probably prove insurmountable for a postseason berth. Since the NFL adopted a 12-team playoff format in 1990, only the 1992 San Diego Chargers have rebounded to reach the playoffs after opening with four losses. Saints quarterback Drew Brees will have the chance to break Johnny Unitas’ NFL record with a touchdown pass in 48 consecutive games next Sunday night against San Diego.
Cincinnati 27, Jacksonville 10: Even a mediocre passing offense should have been able to take advantage of a Bengals defense forced to field only three healthy cornerbacks and an undrafted rookie weak-side linebacker (Vontaze Burfict) because of injuries. The Jaguars couldn’t even do that. Blaine Gabbert was sacked six times and didn’t complete a pass longer than 23 yards. His NFL-high streak without an interception also ended at 131 attempts. Andy Dalton — who was selected 25 slots later than Gabbert at No. 35 in last year’s draft — reaffirmed how much further advanced he is with a 244-yard, two-touchdown outing.
Denver 37, Oakland 6: Yes, talk of Peyton Manning’s demise was premature. He became the latest quarterback to exploit Oakland’s permeable pass defense by completing 30 of 38 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns without getting sacked or throwing an interception. Toss in a 112-yard rushing performance by Willis McGahee and the Broncos never had to punt. One of the many issues first-year Raiders head coach Dennis Allen must address during the team’s upcoming bye week is a penchant for second-half swoons. Excluding a Week 3 victory over Pittsburgh, the Raiders have gotten outscored by a 67-11 margin in the final two quarters of losses to San Diego, Miami and Denver.
San Francisco 34, New York Jets 0: Not to diminish a great bounce-back for the 49ers following last Sunday’s loss in Minnesota, but the story of this game was how badly the Jets played. Mark Sanchez has invited a quarterback controversy with Tim Tebow after his struggles continued with a dreadful 13-of-29, 103-yard performance. The “ground-and-pound” running game generated 45 yards. The 49ers executed Wildcat-style plays with backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a successful fashion — something the Jets have yet to accomplish with Tebow. Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson was lousy in his first start replacing the injured Darrelle Revis. The pass rush was so unproductive that former Jets defensive lineman Kris Jenkins ripped two ex-teammates on Twitter when writing, “Can't hold my tongue anymore, (outside linebackers) Calvin Pace, Brian Thomas are just taking up space.” Wide receiver Santonio Holmes suffered what may be a serious foot injury. And one more thing: There is a strong likelihood that things will only get worse next Monday night against undefeated Houston.
New England 52, Buffalo 28: Talk about your momentum swings. The Patriots went from trailing 21-7 to scoring 35 unanswered points while becoming the first NFL team since 2008 to field two 100-yard rushers (Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden) and two 100-yard receivers (Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski) in the same game. Buffalo thought it was getting an elite pass rusher when signing defensive end Mario Williams to a $96 million contract in the offseason. The Bills are still waiting. Williams never got to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a two-tackle outing and has only 1.5 sacks on the season, all of which came in a Week 3 win over lowly Cleveland (0-4).
St. Louis 19, Seattle 13: Talk about karma. Six days after a replacement referee’s error gave Seattle a 14-12 victory over Green Bay, the Seahawks lost in just as unusual a fashion. St. Louis still hasn’t scored a traditional offensive touchdown since the fourth quarter of a Week 2 win over Washington. But the Rams compensated Sunday by tallying all of their points through special teams — a touchdown on a fake field goal and four successful attempts by rookie Greg Zuerlein that included kicks of 60 and 58 yards. The Seahawks also whiffed when unsuccessfully attempting an onside kick to open the second half. Russell Wilson (three interceptions) and right tackle Breno Giacomini (two personal fouls) didn’t help matters with their gaffes.
Minnesota 20, Detroit 13: Speaking of special teams, the Lions became the first team since at least 1940 to allow touchdowns on a kickoff and punt return in two consecutive games. Some of the problems likely stem from personnel juggling caused by mass injuries in the secondary. Just like last season, Detroit has proven fiery until the end but this loss marks the third time this that the 2012 Lions were unable to overcome an early deficit caused by mistakes like dropped passes and turnovers. Vikings wide receiver Jerome Simpson, debuting after a three-game NFL suspension, provided a boost to Minnesota’s deep passing game by drawing two pass-interference penalties on Lions rookie cornerback Bill Bentley. Minnesota’s defense is playing much better than expected in the team’s unexpected 3-1 start.
Atlanta 30, Carolina 28: In what should be taken as encouraging for Carolina and a potentially dangerous harbinger for Atlanta, the Panthers registered six sacks and plenty of hits on Matt Ryan against an offensive line that had done a solid job protecting its quarterback in the first three games. The Panthers, though, continue to have problems with their run defense. Opponents have averaged 135 rushing yards, with Atlanta’s Michael Turner (103 yards on just 13 carries) the latest to gouge Carolina.
Washington 24, Tampa Bay 22: Billy Cundiff didn’t just make the game-winning field goal. Washington’s kicker may have salvaged his NFL career. Cundiff, who was released by Baltimore in the preseason seven months after his infamous miss in the AFC championship game loss to New England, was 0 for 3 on Sunday before connecting on his 41-yard attempt in the waning seconds. The Buccaneers (1-3) have now lost three consecutive games by just one score but should feel encouraged by a strong second-half performance by quarterback Josh Freeman.
Arizona 24, Miami 21 (OT): Nobody could have expected record-setting performance by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (franchise rookie-record 431 passing yards) and wide receiver Brian Hartline (franchise-record 253 receiving yards) on the road against a defense as stout as Arizona’s. Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake also had a career game with 4.5 sacks while matched against Cardinals rookie right tackle Bobby Massie. All of those individual accomplishments were diminished by a second consecutive overtime loss.
Houston 38, Tennessee 14: The Texans’ secondary should take a bow. Start with strong safety Glover Quin, who knocked Titans quarterback Jake Locker out of the game with a potentially serious injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder on a blitz. Free safety Danieal Manning and cornerback Kareem Jackson later scored on interception returns off backup Matt Hasselbeck. The Titans remain disgraceful on defense, especially against the pass. Tennessee didn’t generate a sack or turnover as Houston’s Matt Schaub completed 20 of 28 passes for 202 yards with two touchdowns. About the only good news for Tennessee (1-3): Running back Chris Johnson finally looked like his old self with 25 carries for 141 yards.
Philadelphia 19, New York Giants 17: Tom Coughlin is making a Hall of Fame push, but his late-game coaching strategy Sunday night was poor. Even without a timeout available, the Giants had enough time (15 seconds) to run a third-down pass play near the sideline — especially with an outstanding decision-maker at quarterback like Eli Manning — rather than send in Lawrence Tynes for a 54-yard field goal attempt that fell short. Philadelphia’s offensive line did a much better job in the second half protecting Michael Vick and creating holes for running back LeSean McCoy, who gained 104 of his 123 rushing yards in the final two quarters. The Eagles (3-1) have taken the NFC East lead by winning their three games by a combined razor-thin total of four points.