NFL Midseason Awards: DeMarco Murray, Peyton Manning and J.J. Watt lead the way

There was plenty of change in the NFL over the past four weeks, but a lot has stayed the same at the season’s midway point.

Six of the teams that had at least a share of first place in their respective divisions at the quarter pole — Cincinnati, Arizona, Detroit, New England, and the NFC East combination of Dallas and Philadelphia — remain on top. The divisional races also remain close with only the Cardinals (6-1) and Denver (6-1) two games ahead of the pack in the loss column.

Here is a look at some of the biggest winners and losers through Week 8 as well as the midseason frontrunners for the NFL’s year-end awards. My quarter-season picks are also included:

Most Valuable Player: Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (Quarter-season pick: San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers)

I never thought I would be writing the oft-injured Murray’s name alongside the greatest running backs to ever play. But the heights he has hit are those that the likes of Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith and the late Walter Payton never reached. Murray’s NFL-record string of consecutive 100-yard rushing games to open a season is at eight and counting following his 141-yard effort Monday night against Washington. Murray has 1,054 rushing yards, putting him on pace to eclipse Eric Dickerson’s single-season mark of 2,105 set in 1984. Murray also has a shot at Barry Sanders’ overall NFL record of 14 consecutive 100-yard games. Obviously, this won’t be easy. Murray must prove he can stay healthy for an entire 16-game season, which he hasn’t done since entering the league in 2011. Murray also faces his toughest test to date Sunday in visiting Arizona, which fields the NFL’s No. 3 run defense. But his accomplishments so far have helped the Cowboys cover for a suspect defense and put Murray in line for a nice payday as he heads toward free agency in the 2015 offseason.

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Offensive Player of the Year: Denver quarterback Peyton Manning (Quarter-season pick: Murray)

Is Manning playing better at age 38 in Denver than during his 14 seasons in Indianapolis? Just the fact some fans and media are posing that question speaks volumes about how well Manning is performing in 2014. Manning has 22 touchdown passes and just three interceptions this season while surrounded by what is proving his best supporting cast at wide receiver and tight end since joining the Broncos in 2012. A strong case for this award also could be made for New England quarterback Tom Brady, who rebounded from a shaky start with 14 TD passes and zero turnovers in four October games. And of course, there is the chance Murray could win this honor and NFL MVP like Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson in 2012.

Defensive Player of the Year: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (Quarter-season pick: Watt)

Watt had some fun at the expense of Tennessee quarterback Zach Mettenberger by taking a mock "selfie" during his two-sack performance in last Sunday’s 30-16 win. Efforts like this give Watt the inside track to pose with the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award for a second consecutive season. Winning that award would put Watt in elite company. The only other defender to ever capture the honor for two straight years was New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1981 and 1982.

Biggest surprise (team): Detroit (Quarter-season pick: Arizona)

Yes, the Lions (6-2) had almost the same record last season before losing six of their final seven games to get head coach Jim Schwartz fired. But with improbable late comebacks the past two weeks against New Orleans and Atlanta, this Detroit squad under Jim Caldwell has shown the fortitude that was too often lacking in the Schwartz regime (which, it should be noted, wasn’t entirely his fault considering some of general manager Martin Mayhew’s personnel decisions involving players with character issues). The Lions also have succeeded despite injuries that have decimated the offensive skill positions – most notably the absence of wide receiver Calvin Johnson (ankle). Detroit should be much healthier after this weekend’s bye, which is welcome news considering the next three games are against Miami (4-3), Arizona (6-1) and New England (6-2).

Biggest surprise (player): Buffalo quarterback Kyle Orton. (Quarter-season pick: New York Giants tight end Larry Donnell)

When the preseason began, Orton was out of the NFL and E.J. Manuel was Buffalo’s starting quarterback. Orton isn’t spectacular — he never was during his previous nine NFL seasons — but has provided stability at the position after replacing the sputtering Manuel. Orton has a 3-1 record as a starter to put the Bills (5-3) squarely in the playoff race.

Biggest disappointment (teams): NFC South (Quarter-season pick: New Orleans)

I can’t single out just one club. This entire division has proven a disaster with a combined 8-20-1 mark, and no team has a winning record. Even the winner of Thursday night’s game between Carolina and New Orleans for first place won’t be above .500. As I chronicled last week, the connecting thread between all four squads is poor defensive play.

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Biggest disappointment (player): St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn (Quarter-season pick: Quinn)

Maybe the two sacks Quinn registered in last Sunday’s 34-7 loss to Kansas City are a sign of good things to come. But so far, Quinn’s performance exemplifies what is the NFL’s most underperforming defense considering the talent level. He has just three sacks — after notching 19 last season — while starting on a unit surrendering an average of 30 points a game.

Coach of the Year: Arizona’s Bruce Arians (Quarter-season pick: Arians)

In a division that features the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks and 2013 NFC runner-up 49ers, it’s the Cardinals who are sitting alone atop the NFC West. Arizona is off to its best start in 40 years despite injuries that have hit the defensive front seven and sidelined quarterback Carson Palmer for three games. That speaks volumes about the job Arians and his staff have done.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (Quarter-season pick: Marinelli)

Let’s be honest: Though there are teams playing far better defense than Dallas, no unit has exceeded preseason expectations to such a high degree. But there’s another reason Marinelli deserves this nod besides making more with less. A number of Cowboys defenders — middle linebacker Rolando McClain, cornerback Orlando Scandrick and defensive end Tyrone Crawford among them — are playing the best football of their NFL careers. That is the byproduct of sound coaching and scheme by Marinelli and his coaches.

Hottest seat: Tie between Atlanta head coach Mike Smith and the New York Jets head coach/general manager tandem of Rex Ryan and John Idzik (Quarter-season pick: Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie)

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Smith and Ryan both received contract extensions during the 2014 offseason, but that may not matter with how badly their teams have tanked. The late collapse in last Sunday’s 22-21 loss to Detroit was the latest disaster for a Falcons squad that has now lost 18 of 24 games since the start of the 2013 season. The Jets (1-7) on Sunday dropped their seventh straight as quarterbacks Geno Smith and Mike Vick each committed three turnovers in a 43-23 loss to Buffalo. Idzik’s droning Monday news conference about the state of the 2014 Jets did nothing to inspire confidence that he has the answers to fix this mess.

As for McKenzie, the seat hasn’t gotten any cooler. Oakland (0-7) remains winless even after firing head coach Dennis Allen following a Week 4 loss to Miami.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Buffalo wide receiver Sammy Watkins (Quarter-season pick: Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin)

Since the Bills switched to Orton at quarterback, Watkins’ production has skyrocketed. He has 21 catches for 398 yards and three touchdowns in the past four games. Watkins would have four scores if he weren’t caught from behind while hot-dogging on the way to the end zone on what proved an 84-yard reception in last Sunday’s rout of the Jets.

Watkins, though, does have reason to celebrate for what he has already accomplished. An outstanding new book — Fourth Down in Dunbar by David A. Dorsey (University Press of Florida; $24.95) — chronicles the challenges Watkins and a slew of other future NFL stars like Deion Sanders and Jevon Kearse had to overcome while being raised in an impoverished part of Fort Myers, Fla.

Dorsey notes that there were others from that area with ample athletic talent who couldn’t rise above their surroundings. He writes that Watkins did it despite living in an environment where "drugs could be seen dealt and gunshots could be heard fired from the picnic table outside his home."

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley (Quarter-season pick: Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller)

Ray Lewis set the bar sky-high for any inside linebackers who follow in his footsteps with the Ravens. Mosley, though, is off to a great start. He leads all rookies in tackles (76) and ranks second in passes defensed (eight) for the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense.

Comeback Player of the Year: Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (Quarter-season pick: Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.)

Although I’m still impressed by what Smith has achieved since a change of scenery from Carolina, Foster is starting to run away with this award. Foster, who missed the final half of last season following back surgery, has rushed for 100-plus yards in four straight contests. He now has 31 career games in which he has eclipsed the century mark, tying him with Priest Holmes for the most in NFL history by an undrafted running back. Foster’s 766 rushing yards also lead the AFC.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW: Brady, Manning, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers are considered the current Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks. But it’s time to chisel some space for the visage of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. There are valid reasons Roethlisberger had fallen off the national QB radar. He isn’t a media darling. He isn’t all over television with commercial endorsements. His reputation is still tarnished from a 2010 NFL suspension stemming from accusations of lurid off-field behavior. And most important, the Steelers posted middling 8-8 records the past two seasons to miss the playoffs.

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Roethlisberger, though, delivered a reminder about his quarterbacking greatness with a feat that Brady, Manning, Brees and Rodgers have never accomplished — a second career passing performance of 500-plus yards in last Sunday’s 51-34 win over Indianapolis. Combine that with two Super Bowl championships, a third Super Bowl appearance and a 160-54 career record (including the postseason) and there’s little doubt Roethlisberger will someday be joining that quartet in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

NUMBERS TO NOTE: On the night before scoring the game-winning touchdown against Baltimore, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was keeping a close eye on his alma mater lighting up the scoreboard. Dalton told co-host Solomon Wilcots and me on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he followed Texas Christian’s 82-27 pasting of Texas Tech. A cheery Dalton said when the Horned Frogs passed the 60-point mark in the third quarter that "I thought they had a good chance for 80." Dalton left TCU in 2010 as the most prolific quarterback in that school’s history, but none of his teams ever scored that many points. The highest total came during a 67-7 rout of Stephen F. Austin in 2008.

THURSDAY NIGHT PICK: New Orleans 31, Carolina 20. The Saints finally get their act together on the road against a Panthers squad that is 1-4-1 in its last six outings.