The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Carson Palmer or Cam Newton MVP? Why not both?

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is a deserving MVP, but so is Cam Newton. (Rick Scuteri/AP Photo)

Nearly 11 of the 12 playoff participants have been determined. The Jets and Steelers are fighting for the final Wild Card spot in the AFC, while the only way the Colts could win the AFC South over the Texans is if a wacky 9-team parlay somehow hits. So that makes now a good time to look at who should be bringing home the hardware at the end of the season.

Most Valuable Player: Tie (Cam NewtonCarson Palmer)

Choosing between Newton and Palmer is an exercise in pickin’ nits. The two have drastically different styles and playing in very different offenses, making it difficult to compare the two players. Arizona would be worse with Cam Newton, and Carolina would be worse with Carson Palmer, so both teams should be happy that they have the co-most valuable players of the 2015 season.

Power Rankings: Cardinals are NFL’s best team right now

With Palmer, the reasons for picking him are obvious. He leads the NFL in most major efficiency categories, including yards per attempt, Adjusted Yards per Attempt, Yards per Completion, Net Yards per Attempt, and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. He has the best Total QBR, as calculated by ESPN, and he is lapping the field in first down rate. He’s having a dominant season, the Cardinals lead the league in points scored, and his team is 13-2.

Then, there’s Newton. He leads the league in total touchdowns (41) and is second in total first downs (235, to Tom Brady’s 239, but on about 50 fewer plays). Newton has been the star and the face of a Panthers team that began the season 14-0 and will likely finish with the best record in the NFL. Removing kneel-downs, Newton has rushed for 639 yards on 113 carries, a 5.65 yards per carry average, while producing above-average passing numbers.

On paper, Palmer has the better case, but then there’s the issue of supporting cast. Palmer certainly benefits from a great one, while Newton’s is … more complicated to evaluate. His top two wide receivers are Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery, two players who would struggle to make some NFL rosters, much less starting lineups. On the other hand, Carolina sent six offensive players to the Pro Bowl! In addition to Newton, tight end Greg Olsen is having an All-Pro caliber season, while running back Jonathan Stewart, fullback Mike Tolbert, center Ryan Kalil and guard Trai Turner are all deserving Pro Bowlers. Newton’s supporting cast, like his numbers, are less sexy than Palmer’s, but that doesn’t necessarily make them worse. Palmer has just two teammates going to the Pro Bowl: wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and guard Mike Iupati.

Offensive Player of the Year: Tie (Antonio BrownJulio Jones)

Nobody really understands the difference between this award and the MVP award, which just about always goes to an offensive player. The Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year award was instituted in 1972, after defensive tackle Alan Page won the AP Most Valuable Player award the prior year. The Associated Press handed out both awards to the same player the first six years, but in recent times, only about half of the time does one player scoop up both awards.

Julio Jones is having an all-time great season

In reality, the runner-up between Palmer and Newton for the MVP award may wind up winning this one, so instead, let’s show some love for a pair of elite wide receivers in Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. The Steelers wide receiver has 123 receptions for 1,647 yards and 9 touchdowns. Jones has slightly better raw numbers – 127; 1,722 and 8 — but the Falcons have also been a little more pass-happy than Pittsburgh, making it easier for Jones to put up bigger numbers. Then again, Jones has a whopping 84 first-down receptions (Brown has 74), so this is another one that is too close to call.

Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt

Watt has 14.5 sacks, just a half sack behind Oakland’s Khalil Mack for the league lead. The Texans star had six sacks in two games against the Jaguars last year — Houston’s week 17 opponent — so there’s more than a fighting chance that the league’s best defensive end winds up leading the NFL in sacks. Watt has 26 tackles for loss (Aaron Donald is second with 22), 46 quarterback hits (Donald is second with 33), and has six passes defensed. Even excluding sacks, 23 of Watt’s solo tackles have come at or behind the opponent’s line of scrimmage, also the most in the league. He’s the best defensive player this year, just like he is most seasons.

Head Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera

Rivera’s Panthers were not supposed to be very good this year, much less 14-1 good. Carolina has improved its points differential by 199 points over last season, just a hair ahead of the improvement by the New York Jets (196) and Arizona (195). New York is coached by Todd Bowles, who was the 2014 AP Assistant Coach of the Year, while Arizona is coached by Bruce Arians, the 2014 AP Head Coach of the Year. In other words, Rivera is in pretty good company, and both Bowles and Arians are having remarkable seasons.

Coaches that could soon be fired

Rivera over Arians, in particular, will be a close call. Like with Newton and Palmer, Carolina’s loss to Atlanta mitigates the record advantage Rivera has over Arians. But, rightly or wrongly, Carolina is seen as a less-talented team than Arizona, making it just slightly more impressive that Rivera has brought this team to a 14-1 record.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Jameis Winston

The No. 1 overall pick has thrown for 3,717 yards and 22 touchdowns, while rushing for 196 yards and five scores. He’s thrown only 13 interceptions, despite operating in a vertical, high-risk offense. St. Louis running back Todd Gurley has been better at his position, but Winston has helped transform the Bucs from laughingstock to respectable. Over 64 percent of Winston’s passing yards this year have come through the air (as opposed to relying on yards after the catch). That’s the most in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts this season.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Marcus Peters

The Kansas City cornerback is tied for the league lead in both interceptions (8) and interceptions returned for touchdowns (2), and his 280 interception return yards are more than double that of any other player in football. The Chiefs defense ranks second in passer rating against, and Peters is a big reason why. And his 25 passes defensed are the most among all players. It hasn’t been all good for the rookie, but has improved enough during the second half of the season to win this award.

Comeback Player of the Year: Eric Berry

In December 2014, the Kansas City safety was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In December 2015, Berry was named to the Pro Bowl. It doesn’t get much better than that. Berry wasn’t just a popular vote or a sentimental selection: he’s playing outstanding football and, along with Peters, is leading a Chiefs defense that has made Kansas City the hottest team in football.

More NFL

What’s next for Chip Kelly and the Eagles?