For weeks the catchphrase with the Carolina Panthers has been "if the season ended today" the defending NFC champions would be in the playoffs.
Well, the season ends today.
The regular season, that is.
And if the Panthers defeat New Orleans, and Seattle wins the NFC West or Minnesota loses, Carolina will be in the playoffs for the second consecutive
season, which would be a first for the 10-year-old franchise. That also would make them arguably one of the top stories of the season, because no team
in the history of the NFL has gone from 1-7 to the playoffs.
They could fall into several categories if we were passing out awards. In the time it has taken them to win six of their past seven games, they have
gone from the biggest disappointment of 2004 to the comeback team of the year. Having said that, let's pass out some rewards, unofficial as they
Most valuable player:
Everybody is jumping on the Peyton Manning bandwagon because he broke Dan Marino's single-season touchdown record (48) and has a quarterback rating of
121.4, which will shatter Steve Young's single-season record (112.8) set in 1994.
But the vote here goes to Drew Brees of San Diego. He has led a supposedly last-place team that was to be the property of first-round draft pick
Philip Rivers to an 11-4 record and the AFC West title. He has done so by compiling a quarterback rating of 104.8 - third-best in the NFL - that
includes 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. You can't get much more valuable than that.
There is no denying Manning here. His 49 touchdown passes and quarterback rating are standards that might never be surpassed - unless he does it next
season. Had he not had Edgerrin James, the AFC's leading rusher with 1,550 yards, he wouldn't need 533 yards to break Marino's single-season yardage
Again, the popular vote is Baltimore safety Ed Reed, who leads the league with eight interceptions. But this award goes to Carolina defensive end
Julius Peppers, who is fast becoming more of a "Freak" than Philadelphia's Jevon Kearse. Peppers has 10 sacks, 30 quarterback pressures and two
interceptions, one returned for a touchdown and another returned 97 yards. He also has returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown.
Offensive rookie of the year:
By now you should know how to pronounce and spell the name of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He is 13-0 as a starter, which says all you
need to know. If you need more, he is the fourth-rated passer in the AFC with a rating of 98.1. That is higher than the Giants' Eli Manning and
Rivers, selected ahead of him in the draft, have combined.
Defensive rookie of the year:
This name should sound familiar. It's Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, the 10th pick of the draft out of South Carolina. He has six interceptions,
tied for third in the NFL. Had he not been a rookie, he likely would be headed for the Pro Bowl.
Coach of the year:
This might be the toughest one. It's hard to ignore what John Fox has done with the Panthers, who have more star players on injured reserve than some
teams have star players. Ignoring what Jim Mora has done in Atlanta, taking a last-place team to the NFC South title, also is difficult.
Then there is Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who has put together the league's best record (14-1) a year after his future as the NFL's top tenured
coach seemingly was in jeopardy. New England's Bill Belichick would get more votes except everybody expects his teams to be good.
So the vote goes to San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer. He was part of the decision to trade Eli Manning for Rivers. He made the tough decision to go
with Brees as his quarterback when Rivers was the popular choice. He has proved he is not washed up, as Washington owner Daniel Snyder apparently
thought when he let him go to hire Steve Spurrier a few years ago.
Worst coaching job:
This has to go to Kansas City's Dick Vermeil. He fired his defensive coordinator after the 2003 season and promised to improve that side of the ball.
The Chiefs rank 30th in the NFL in total defense, and at 7-8 a team many picked to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl is going nowhere.
With apologies to Peyton Manning, this goes to Willis McGahee and the Buffalo Bills. They have turned around a season that appeared as lost as
Carolina's and at 9-6 have a chance to make the playoffs. McGahee, whose career appeared over when he suffered a major knee injury in the 2002
national championship game with the Miami Hurricanes, is a big reason. Since taking over for Travis Henry at midseason, he has rushed for 1,049 yards
and 11 touchdowns, which also makes him the comeback player of the year.
No team lost more than the San Francisco, which at 2-13 is on the clock for the first pick of the April draft. But no loss was bigger than the recent
death of former Philadelphia/Green Bay/Carolina defensive end Reggie White. Although he ranks second in career sacks to Bruce Smith, the "Minister of
Defense" always will be the sack king here. White spent his final season in the NFL with the Panthers in 2000. Although it was disappointing as a
player, he never let it show. He told many teammates in his oh-so-familiar raspy voice that it's more important to be remembered for the kind of
person you are than the kind of player you are.
In a couple of years White will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. He already is in the people Hall of Fame.