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Bills RB C.J. Spiller:He's finally synchronized his game to the speed of the NFL. The ninth overall pick in 2010, Spiller struggled to read blocks and hit the right holes early in his career and spent much of his serving as Fred Jackson's understudy. But with "FredEx" sidelined by injury for much of 2012, Spiller capitalized on the opportunity to flourish. He broke off 6 yards per carry, trailing only Adrian Peterson among NFL running backs, and Spiller's 1,244 rushing yards more than doubled his previous career high. Among Buffalo players, only WR Stevie Johnson caught more passes. With Jackson turning 32 this year, expect the Bills' next coaching staff to feature Spiller even more in the future. Honorable mention: Johnson

Dolphins DE Cameron Wake: It's hard to believe this guy went undrafted out of Penn State in 2005 and had to go the reluctant-mortgage-broker-turned-Canadian-football-star route to get his shot in the NFL. But Wake has established himself as a quarterback-hunting force even though the Dolphins shifted him from linebacker to defensive end in 2012. All Wake did was turn in 15 sacks, most of his four-year career, while his generously listed 258-pound frame held up well against the run. Rookie coach Joe Philbin's troops trended up as the year progressed. A few more talents of Wake's caliber, drafted or not, could mean the Dolphins will soon leave losing seasons in their wake. Honorable mention: Mike Pouncey Robert Mayer,

Patriots QB Tom Brady: Duh, right? Yet we seem to almost take him for granted. He offered yet another sublime performance that seemed to go virtually unnoticed as Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson stole the headlines. Even Stevan Ridley, who had the best year by a New England running back in nearly a decade, seemed to garner more attention than the only man who remains from all three of Bill Belichick's Super Bowl-winning crews. But make no mistake, the Patriots can't run their fast-break (but occasionally depleted) offense and deconstruct the best defenses without their matinee idol of a triggerman. Brady won't win a third league MVP this year, but he might deserve it. Honorable mention: Vince Wilfork

Jets CB Antonio Cromartie: History wouldn't suggest that Cromartie would be the guy to flourish under adverse circumstances since he seemed more prone to creating them; reference his training camp proclamation that he was the Jets' second-best receiver after Santonio Holmes even though Cromartie has caught one pass in seven NFL seasons. But give him credit for stepping into the breach as the Jets' No. 1 cover man after Darrelle Revis tore up his knee in Week 3. Cromartie Island was often on the map as he regularly contained and even erased star wideouts Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker and Larry Fitzgerald over the course of the season. Perhaps more surprisingly than flashing his talent, Cromartie was lauded for displaying leadership skills that weren't previously evident. Honorable mention: Muhammad Wilkerson

Ravens RB Ray Rice: Would former Ravens coordinator Cam Cameron still have his job if he'd mixed a little more Rice into the offensive diet? No way to know, but it's worth noting Cameron hit the unemployment line after the star back was given nearly 50 fewer touches than he had in 2011 when he led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. Perhaps no play better epitomized Rice's value than the fourth-and-29 he converted off a dump-off pass in Week 12 at San Diego, perhaps a season-saving play in retrospect. If the Ravens are to capture an elusive second Super Bowl, their fortunes will depend more on this 5-9 dynamo than a decaying defense. Honorable mention: Jacoby Jones

Bengals DT Geno Atkins:
WR A.J. Green and his 1,350 receiving yards and team-best 11 scores is the guy who jumps off the stat sheet. But the Bengals were a middling team when he was doing most of his damage in the season's first half. This team got hot when the Atkins-fueled defense jelled to spearhead a 7-1 finish culminating with the franchise's first back-to-back playoff berths in three decades. Atkins has an atypical frame for an interior defender (6-1, 300 pounds), but he offers unique production (53 tackles, four strips, career-high 12.5 sacks), too, and opens up lanes for pass rushers Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry; Cincinnati's 51 sacks ranked third. Think Atkins, and think John Randle 2.0. Honorable mention: Green

Browns MLB D'Qwell Jackson:
The terms "stability" and "Cleveland Browns" have rarely been synonymous over the last quarter century. But Jackson provides the steady voice and production that anchor a team that may finally be poised for a breakthrough in 2013. When healthy, Jackson gobbles up ballcarriers to the tune of 276 tackles over the past two seasons. But even when he's not ? Jackson had to overcome a pair of career-threatening pectoral tears in 2009 and 2010 ? he's been a model of fortitude and embodiment of inspiration for a team that's been lacking in those areas. He may not have the Q rating or talent of Ray Lewis in his prime, but Jackson is that kind of leader for this team. Honorable mention: Phil Dawson

Steelers CB Ike Taylor: He's generally one of the least heralded players on a perennially dominant defense, one that ranked No. 1 again in 2012, a distinction achieved four times in the past six years. But something was clearly missing after Taylor went down with a fractured ankle Dec. 2. The Steelers lost their next three games, eliminating them from the postseason field. Why? Look no further than a Taylor-less secondary that was dissected in turn by Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Andy Dalton. Taylor may be infamous for hands of stone (just 14 interceptions in 10 seasons), but his ability to check most Tier 1 receivers is nearly as important to Dick LeBeau's gameplans as any fire-zone blitz. Honorable mention: Heath Miller.

Texans DE J.J. Watt: Linemen in base 3-4 defenses are typically supposed be stout against the run while tying up blocker so outside linebackers can make the highlight-reel plays. But don't dare typecast Watt, who, like Bruce Smith, has been a game-wrecker under coordinator Wade Phillips. Watt's 20.5 sacks were the most ever for a 3-4 end since the stat became official in 1982. Even more impressive, his 16 batted balls (Watt swats) is an unheard of figure for a lineman and ranked in the top 10 this season in a category dominated by cornerbacks; many of those deflections resulted in Houston interceptions. There may not be a more valuable or unique defender in the league. Honorable mention: Arian Foster

Colts WR Reggie Wayne: There's no arguing that Andrew Luck breathed fresh life into the Colts just months after iconic Indianapolis hero Peyton Manning was told to pack his bags. But Luck and the rest of the team's new blood might not have experienced nearly the same success without an old hand on deck. Wayne shocked many by re-signing with the reloading franchise. Then the 34-year-old turned in one of the best years of his 12-year career while quickly becoming the security blanket for Luck, who deemed Wayne the best player he'd ever played with. All those double-teams Wayne commanded also allowed the younger wideouts to blossom as the season progressed. Honorable mention: Luck

Jaguars LB Paul Posluszny: No disrespect to the man known as "Poz," but deeming anyone on the Jaguars as "most valuable" might seem a stretch. Still, Posluszny embodies the type of player head coach Mike Mularkey referred to when talking about a group that showed up and fought week in and week out, especially late in the season as the defeats seemed to inevitably mount. Posluszny intercepted three passes, and his 139 tackles ranked eighth in the NFL. He also never ducked reporters and an endless stream of questions about the club's deficiencies. Posluszny may never be a game-breaker, but he's certainly the type of stalwart most locker rooms would embrace. Honorable mention: Cecil Shorts III

Titans RB Chris Johnson: He had a rather remarkable year, especially considering how poorly it started. Johnson had 45 rushing yards through three weeks, inviting a fresh round of criticism from those skeptical of his skills and dedication. But he averaged 92 yards over the final 13 games even though the Titans lost 80% of their starting offensive line to injured reserve while opponents frequently dared greenhorn QB Jake Locker to beat them through the air. Yet just one Johnson bolt ? like his career-best 94-yard gallop against the Jets ? can be enough to win a game. Given healthy sidekicks, and maybe an increased role in the passing game, and better things may lie ahead for CJ2K. Honorable mention: Kendall Wright

Broncos QB Peyton Manning: Maybe he is a robot. Has anyone done a better job of knocking off 18 months worth of rust? Once Manning proved his neck was healthy enough to withstand the rigors of an NFL season, there was little doubt he'd play well. But who would've expected him to post the second-best statistical season of his 15-year career while adjusting to a new playbook and a less heralded supporting cast than the one he typically enjoyed in Indianapolis? Manning erased most of the Broncos' single-season passing standards ? obliterating the previous mark of 27 TD passes set by John Elway ? and led the team to its first No. 1 playoff seed since Elway's final season in 1998. Honorable mention: Von Miller

Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles: He doesn't command the glaring national spotlight Adrian Peterson does, but Charles, too, was on the road back from an anterior cruciate ligament tear, about the most devastating injury a tailback can suffer. Yet like Peterson, Charles led his conference in rushing yards (1,509) while carrying an offense essentially devoid of a legitimate passing game. And he remained a home-run hitter: Charles' career average of 5.8 yards per carry now qualify as tops in NFL annals, surpassing a guy named Jim Brown. And Charles' performance this season remarkably didn't suffer even though his wife's cousin was the victim of the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide. Honorable mention: Dustin Colquitt

Raiders QB Carson Palmer:
Silver linings were in short supply for the Silver & Black in 2012. But consider Palmer one. Though he and the team didn't seem necessarily suited to now departed offensive coordinator Greg Knapp's scheme, Palmer produced some of the best numbers of his career. And he did it despite lacking a true No. 1 receiver and with game-breaking RB Darren McFadden again spending a ton of time in street clothes. Had Palmer not been felled by a crushing hit in the penultimate game, he would've established a new career-high in passing yards. As it is, he may have established to everyone that he's still got some years left as a bona fide NFL quarterack. Honorable mention: Brandon Myers

Chargers FS Eric Weddle: It may generally be sunny in San Diego, but Weddle has been one of the few rays of hope at Chargers Park lately. The team's leading tackler ? not necessarily a good sign for a safety ? helped lead the charge for a defense that showed substantial improvement from 2011, finishing in the top half of the league in points and yards allowed. Weddle also pilfered three passes, one returned for a touchdown, and was credited with the first forced fumbles of his six-year career. The Chargers' foundation may not be what it once was, but Weddle appears to be a cornerstone who probably deserved a Pro Bowl nod. Honorable mention: Danario Alexander

Cowboys WR Dez Bryant: He entered training camp on the heels of an unfortunate incident involving his mother which renewed questions about Bryant's character. But he ended the year with 10 TD catches in the season's second half and earned newfound respect from his teammates by playing the final three contests with a broken finger as the Cowboys' bid for a playoff berth didn't peter out until the season finale. If Bryant can successfully continue his maturation process and mastery of the playbook, he'll prove well worth the roll of the dice Jerry Jones took on him. Honorable mention: Anthony Spencer

Giants S Stevie Brown: The Giants didn't have much to smile about in the wake of a failed title defense, but Brown did his part. Rescued off the scrap heap from the rebuilding Colts in the offseason, he became a valued member of the three-safety alignment favored by defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. All the previously unheralded defensive back did ? Brown, a seventh-round selection of the Raiders in 2010, started one game in his first two seasons ? was tie for second in the NFL with eight interceptions and made the most of those takeaways with a team record (and league-high) 307 return yards. Honorable mention: Ahmad Bradshaw

Eagles MLB DeMeco Ryans: The Eagles have made plenty of personnel blunders in recent years, but trading for Ryans is one move since-departed coach Andy Reid shouldn't regret ... though the suddenly spiraling Texans probably wouldn't mind having the steady play and renowned leadership of their former defensive captain back in their lineup. Early in the season, Ryans helped plug the running lanes that frequently victimized the team's now scrapped Wide 9 scheme while stabilizing a linebacking corps that's long been suspect and mentoring youngsters such as sidekick Mychal Kendricks. Though Philly ultimately became unglued, recruiting more players of Ryans' ilk would certainly benefit Reid's successor. Honorable mention: Evan Mathis

Redskins QB Robert Griffin III: RGIII is a rare cat. It's not often that a rookie quarterback becomes his team's offensive lynchpin. Yet the whip in Griffin's arm and burst in his legs made a once-toothless attack potent, and he vexed defenses with his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't ball handling from his preferred pistol formation. Veteran defenders throughout the NFC East bemoaned the prospects of seeing him twice a year. But how many NFL freshmen have earned captaincy and bred winning on a roster accustomed to failure? Griffin did it, employing his magnetic leadership style to spur a team on a season-capping seven-game winning streak that culminated with the franchise's first division title of the century. Honorable mention: Alfred Morris

Bears WR Brandon Marshall: Chicago's offense failed to help the team's sterling defense on several occasions this season, but don't blame Marshall. After being acquired from the Dolphins, it didn't appear that he and QB Jay Cutler missed a beat four years after they last played together in Denver. Marshall turned in the best performance of his seven-year career not to mention the best showing by a wideout in the Bears' 93-year history. His 118 receptions and 1,508 yards were personal bests and single-season franchise records, and his 11 TD were also a career-high. Now if he could just get some help elsewhere in the passing game ... Honorable mention: Charles Tillman

Lions WR Calvin Johnson: Few would argue that Megatron isn't the best player on his team or the best receiver in the NFL. But he just may be the league's most talented performer, period. He set the new single-season receiving record with one game to spare and fell 36 yards shy of becoming the first-ever 2,000-yard receiver. But throw out the mind-boggling numbers for a minute. Consider Johnson managed such production even though defenses were designed to limit him ? hence his paltry five-touchdown total ? a task made easier given the next three wideouts on Detroit's depth chart landed on injured reserve. Honorable mention: Ndamukong Suh

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: He may not retain league MVP honors after this season, but there's no doubt he's still Green Bay's best player ... and perhaps the prototype of the 21st-century quarterback. Rodgers continues threading the ball through the smallest passing windows, shows uncanny escapability in the pocket thanks to brilliant footwork ? though he did absorb a league-high 51 sacks ? and held on to his passing crown (NFL-best 108.0 passer rating) even though his No. 1 and No. 1A receivers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, missed significant chunks of time. And in a league that often features dink-and-dunk passing, 8% of A-Rod's throws the past two seasons have resulted in TDs. Honorable mention: Randall Cobb

Vikings RB Adrian Peterson: Has any running back ever performed better? Peterson's 2012 began with the pain of grueling rehab as he recovered from not one but two torn knee ligaments, a career killer for many. But exactly one year after the joint's surgical reconstruction on Dec. 30, 2011, Peterson was in the process of falling 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old single season rushing record (2,105) yards. Like Lions WR Calvin Johnson, Peterson's exploits are all the more impressive given every one on the defensive side of the ball was spending most of their Sundays selling out to stop him given Minnesota's dearth of other reliable weapons. Honorable mention: Chad Greenway

Falcons QB Matt Ryan:
He set team records for passing yards (4,179), TDs (32) and completion rate (68.6%), the latter figure pacing the NFL, as new coordinator Dirk Koetter hitched the Falcons offense more on Ryan's arm than Michael Turner's aging legs. The result was an NFC-best 13-3 record and No. 1 seeding in the playoffs, where Ryan still has to prove his mettle after failing to notching a postseason win in his first three trips. Given his propensity for fourth-quarter heroics, don't be surprised if the breakthrough comes this month. Honorable mention: Tony Gonzalez

Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly: The Panthers will likely have a rookie of the year on their roster for a second straight season with Kuechly a leading candidate for defensive honors after QB Cam Newton won the offensive hardware in 2011. After a spotty first half, Newton again played like a transformational star down the stretch. But Kuechly settled in from the start as the centerpiece of a quietly decent defense, and he finished with a rush to lead the league with 164 tackles. Kuechly has seemingly wrested the middle linebacker post from oft-injured veteran Jon Beason, who could shift to the weak side if he's back at all. Honorable mention: Newton

Saints QB Drew Brees: Few folks in New Orleans, Brees among them, will want to reminisce about a season marred by the bounty scandal. But, despite some turbulence and inconsistency early on without suspended coach Sean Payton, Brees again triggered the league's most prolific passing offense and frequently covered the tracks of a historically poor defense. He led the NFL in passing yards (5,177) and TDs (43) and become the first player with three seasons with at least 5,000 yards through the air and the first with consecutive campaigns with 40-plus TD strikes. Honorable mention: Thomas Morstead

Buccaneers WR Vincent Jackson: He joined the Bucs in the offseason courtesy of a five-year, $55.55 million contract that symbolized the value Jackson planned to bring QB Josh Freeman, whose jersey is No. 5. Suffice it to say Jackson delivered. His field-stretching ability not only helped Freeman strike opponents deep, it provided room for breakout rookie RB Doug Martin. V-Jax's 19.2 yards per catch were the league's best, and his 72 grabs for 1,384 yards were personal bests. Oh, and Jackson quickly established himself as a team captain in his new environs as his work ethic rubbed off on a young squad. Honorable mention: Gerald McCoy

Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson: He claims to be the best corner in the league, and he might have a legitimate case (at least until Darrelle Revis' reconstructed knee returns to health). Peterson picked off seven balls and knocked down 17 more for the league's fifth-ranked pass defense, and his lockdown presence outside freed up the pass rush. Opponents successfully short-circuited him as a punt returner a year after he scored four times on special teams, but his talents as an open-field runner also earned him five touches on offense, where he gained 24 yard from scrimmage. Honorable mention: ILB Daryl Washington

Rams DE Chris Long: He and MLB James Laurinaitis remain the heartbeat of a steadily improving defense that benefited from the additions of CBs Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, rookie DT Michael Brockers and the emergence of sophomore DE Robert Quinn (10.5 sack) not to mention the swagger infused by first-year coach Jeff Fisher. But fiery Long continues to anchor the front four from his left end spot while making plenty of splash plays as his 11.5 sacks attest. Honorable mention: Laurinaitis

Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch: Sure, Seattle's second-half surge coincided with rookie QB Russell Wilson's ascendance. But Lynch was a rock throughout, averaging 21 carries through the first 10 games as the offense relied on him to grind down the opposition while playing keepaway. He still rushed for 100 yards in the last four games despite a reduced workload, finished with a career-best 1,590 (third in the NFL) and remains the battering ram for an offense that has developed just as much swagger and physicality as the team's more established (and chattier) defense. Honorable mention: Wilson

49ers DL Justin Smith: Several members of the Niners' star-studded defense are worthy of consideration as team MVP. But the unit faltered noticeably after Smith went down with a Week 15 triceps injury. The Patriots scored 31 second-half points thanks largely to his absence, and the Seahawks hung 42 on the scoreboard the following week. Aldon Smith didn't add one sack to his total (19.5) with Justin Smith out. It's difficult to quantify the performance of a pocket-collapsing lineman who digs in all over the line of scrimmage, but Justin Smith's value is, well, priceless. Honorable mention: Frank Gore

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