THE CLASS of the NFC, the Eagles, dominate my 2004 All-Pro team, with four players selected. The Chargers, Colts, Jets and Steelers, all playoff-bound AFC teams, have three each. And the Patriots' Bill Belichick, who again overcame major injuries to keep his team on top, is my Coach of the Year.
Wideout Terrell Owens changed the Eagles in four ways: He gave them a serious downfield threat, ate up double teams, took the heat off the other receivers and, simply with his presence, rehabilitated the bruised psyche of quarterback Donovan McNabb. Muhsin Muhammad was the big-play guy in Carolina's attack. At tight end, production in the red zone gave San Diego's Antonio Gates the edge over the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez.
In any other year Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper would be an easy choice, but this was Peyton Manning's landmark season, when everything came together for him as he ran the Indianapolis offense. And the man whom Colts coach Tony Dungy named as his choice for team MVP is my pick at running back, Edgerrin James. The Jets' Jerald Sowell caught more passes (45) than any other fullback in the NFL.
The Seahawks' Walter Jones is the NFL's premier pass-blocking tackle, while Pittsburgh's Marvel Smith provides great drive-blocking power. Guard Pete Kendall's arrival brought the Jets line together and gave New York's offense some punch. Kansas City's Will Shields gets the other guard spot for long and meritorious service. It's also been a landmark year for Jets center Kevin Mawae, who has been hustling like a madman to get in front of sweeps and screens.
No player did as much for a defense as end Dwight Freeney, the demon pass rusher, did for Indianapolis. The Steelers' Aaron Smith was that rare 3-4 end who not only absorbed blocks but also stormed into the backfield. At tackle I thought the Jaguars' John Henderson was better than his Pro Bowl teammate, Marcus Stroud, and the Redskins' Cornelius Griffin was the front man for one of the NFL's best defenses. Pittsburgh's James Farrior has always been a steady inside 'backer, and this season he made a frenzy of big plays. For my outside 'backers I took pass-defense specialists over sackers: the Titans' Keith Bulluck and the Chargers' Donnie Edwards.
The era of the shutdown cornerback is over. The tightened pass-defense rules have seen to that. My twosome of Sheldon Brown--the only Philly DB who's not going to the Pro Bowl, but the best in that secondary, according to coordinator Jim Johnson--and the Bills' Nate Clements have stood out. The Ravens' Ed Reed and the Eagles' Brian Dawkins are playmakers par excellence at the safeties.
One kick gives Philadelphia's David Akers the nod over the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri: a 50-yarder that beat the Browns in overtime. San Diego's Mike Scifres had the lowest percentage of nontouchback punts returned this season. Detroit's Eddie Drummond, unfortunately injured in the 11th game, still finished as the league leader in combined return yards, and the Saints' Mel Mitchell is living proof that it's possible to pick a special-teamer other than the Pats' Larry Izzo. -- Paul Zimmerman