Awards Watch: Week 9
Thanks to 8-0 record, Matt Ryan leads MVP race, Mike Smith coach of the year
J.J. Watt, Charles Tillman, DeMarcus Ware at top of defensive player of year list
Andrew Luck's record-setting day catapults him over RGIII for top offensive rookie
The pulse of the NFL season changes weekly. Every Tuesday, SI.com will break down the front-runners for the major NFL awards.
1. Matt Ryan, Falcons (last week: 1). Ryan is flourishing under new coordinator Dirk Koetter. Among passers he ranks third in rating, fourth in touchdowns and ninth in yards. Others have better individual stats, but no one else can say they're quarterbacking the league's only undefeated team. Ryan can. He's doing an excellent job of getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers and has been unflinching in pressure situations.
Says Falcons coach Mike Smith: "The biggest thing that stands out about Matt this year is his decision-making. A lot of responsibility has been placed on his shoulders, and he's getting us into the right spots and making the correct reads."
2. J.J. Watt, Texans (2). The second-year defensive end has had at least a half sack in every game but one -- think about that for a minute -- and also has 10 deflected passes. He also talks good smack, like when he said he's eaten burritos that were bigger than Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Says an AFC scout: "He's the most disruptive defensive player in the game. He rushes the passer, he drops in coverage, he knocks down balls at the line, he plays the run. There's really nothing he doesn't do."
3. Peyton Manning, Broncos (3). Remember when we said it would take time for Manning to get on the same page with his teammates? Well, through the first half of the season he ranks first in rating and completion percentage, and is third in touchdowns and yards passing per game. If we've yet to see the best of him we might as well rename the MVP award after him because he'll walk away with his fifth overall.
Says an AFC defensive coordinator: "People questioned if he could be as good as he was before the neck surgeries. S--t! He's been better. There's nothing he hasn't seen. You can't fool him."
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers (1). The reigning MVP ranks No. 1 with 25 TD passes and is second in rating. He has led Green Bay to four consecutive wins and five in their last six games. He has done it despite the Packers having virtually no running game and their top wideouts missing games because of injuries.
Says an NFC scout: "When he's on his game he's the best quarterback in the game, period."
2. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (3). Pittsburgh has won three in a row and four of five, and their burly QB is a big reason. He's having a career year under new coordinator Todd Haley, completing a personal-best 67.1 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions. The Steelers have had injuries along their offensive line and at running back, but they continue to win largely because of the play of Roethlisberger.
Says an AFC defensive coordinator: "He made some comment about the offense being more dink and dunk, but I don't see it. He's getting the ball out quicker, which is smart because of their issues up front. It not only makes him a more effective player, but the Steelers a better offense."
3. Adrian Peterson, Vikings (NR). Less than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, he's leading the league in rushing and is the only back averaging more than 100 yards a game. The Seahawks had allowed only one team to rush for more than 87 yards in a game this season; Peterson had 182 on Sunday, including 144 in the first half.
Says an NFC scout: "He's just a freak, a physical freak. What he's doing is incredible."
1. J.J. Watt, Texans (1). See MVP.
2. Charles Tillman, Bears (2). His position is cornerback, but his role is playmaker. He is tied for the league lead with two defensive touchdowns and has forced a mind-boggling seven fumbles. Seven! His previous season-high was six. He also has been strong in coverage, leaving Lions standout Calvin Johnson MIA in their head-to-head matchup.
Says a Hall of Fame offensive player: "He might be the best I've ever seen at forcing fumbles. It's uncanny how he's able to do it."
3. DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys (NR). I thought long about keeping Bears cornerback Tim Jennings in this spot, but in the interest of sharing the wealth the nod goes to Ware, who's tied for second in the league with nine sacks and trails only Tillman with four forced fumbles. Dallas may be having its issues, but Ware is not the reason.
Says an NFC coach: "He just quietly goes about his business, but you better account for him or it's going to be a long afternoon."
1. Andrew Luck , Colts (2). The No. 1 overall pick continues to improve. He has helped Indianapolis to three straight wins and four in five games. On Sunday he broke the rookie record for passing yards in a game, and his four wins by comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime match the combined total for all of this year's other rookie starters.
Says teammate Dwight Freeney: "What I like about him is his accountability. If he makes a mistakes he says, 'It's on me.' That's big because he rarely makes the same mistake twice."
2. Robert Griffin III, Redskins (1). He was my runaway winner for the award through the first quarter of the season, playing at a level worthy of league MVP consideration. However, he has accounted for only one passing touchdown the past two weeks, and has not scored on the ground in three successive games.
Says an NFC scout: "He can't do it alone, and suspect protection and an inconsistent running game are hurting him."
3. Doug Martin, Bucs (NR). In his last two outings he has run for 135 yards against the Vikings and a Bucs-record 251 against the Raiders. The man nicknamed "Muscle Hamster" leads all rookies in rushing yards per game and is second among all backs.
Says Raiders coach Dennis Allen: "When you miss tackles on him, he takes them for big gains."
1. Chandler Jones, Patriots (1). No first-year player has been as consistently disruptive as Jones, who leads all rookies in sacks (six) and forced fumbles (three).
Says an AFC scout: "He's going to be a player for years to come. Bill got it right with this one."
2. Bobby Wagner, Seahawks (3). Seattle is ranked seventh in total defense, and Wagner, a starter at middle linebacker, is second among all rookies with 72 tackles and tied for seventh with two sacks.
Says an NFC personnel exec: "He's not flashy, but he's steady. He's going to help them for a while."
3. Casey Hayward, Packers (2). Green Bay regularly seems to find a young corner who steps in as a rookie and performs well, and Hayward is the latest. The Vanderbilt alum leads all rookies and is tied for third in the league with four interceptions. He also has 32 tackles.
Says an NFC wideout: "He's raw, but you see the ability. The key is for him to stay humble and keep working."
1. Mike Smith, Falcons (1). Atlanta (8-0) is off to its best start in franchise history, and Smith is a big reason. He's tough yet fair, demanding yet understanding. His players love playing for him, and his coaches appreciate his willingness to give them great freedom.
2. Lovie Smith, Bears (2). His team is tied for the league's second-fewest losses (one), and his defense scores seemingly as often as his offense. He has the franchise poised for a playoff run.
3. Mike Tomlin, Steelers (NR). He preaches to his players that "the standard is the standard," and regardless of injuries, roster turnover or holdouts, he has his club ready to play at a high level.