It's only fitting that for an NFL season punctuated by such a scramble at the regular-season finish line, settling on picks for the annual awards is a wide-open affair.
A quick example: Who's the Coach of the Year? You can make a strong case for at least a half-dozen candidates — and none would be a wrong answer. It's the deepest competition for that honor in years.
POWER RANKINGS: Who's No. 1 ... and 32?
The mission to recognize excellence includes the nod to historical greatness in naming the awards.
The envelopes …
Johnny Unitas Award: For league MVP, it's tough to argue against a 37-year-old who set single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and TD passes (55). And soon enough, Peyton Manning will officially earn his record fifth MVP award. Unitas was the first quarterback to win multiple MVP honors after the award was established in 1961. And Johnny U still holds a share of the record for leading the NFL for TD passes four times — a mark that Manning now holds a slice of, too.
Jackie Slater Unsung Hero Award: Props are well-deserved for Chip Kelly, Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy for the Philadelphia Eagles' turnaround, but beyond the big names, hail to left tackle Jason Peters. What a comeback. He missed the 2012 season after tearing an Achilles tendon. Now he's back on an all-pro level anchoring perhaps the NFL's best offensive line – crucial to Philly's NFL-best 5.1 yards per rush.
Bill Polian Award: For NFL Executive of the Year, kudos to new Arizona Cardinals general manaer Steve Keim, who worked his way up the ladder over 15 years in the team's personnel department. Teaming with new coach Bruce Arians, the Cards made 193 roster moves in improving from 5-11 in 2012 to a 10-6 squad that nearly made the playoffs. The hits included: Karlos Dansby, John Abraham, Tyrann Mathieu, Andre Ellington, Eric Winston and Carson Palmer. Polian, by the way, won The Sporting News' highly-respected version of the award, based on a poll of peers, a record six times.
Tom Dempsey Award: You'd think that Denver's Matt Prater would be a shoe-in here. He set at NFL record first established by Dempsey with a 64-yard field goal and had an NFL-best .962 field-goal-success rate (25 of 26). But I'll go with Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who was under much more pressure to repeatedly bail out a team with an underachieving offense. At one point, Tucker had a streak of 33 consecutive field goals that included his 6-for-6 night at Detroit in Week 15, when he won the game with a 61-yard kick.
Prime Time Award: Seahawks star Richard Sherman, like Deion Sanders did during his heyday, talks the talk and walks the walk. He gets the nod as the league's best shutdown corner. That Sherman led the NFL with eight interceptions is more impressive when considering how opponents often shy away from throwing his way. Since entering the NFL as a fifth-round pick in 2011, Sherman has collected 20 picks — most during that span.
Barry Sanders Lifetime Achievement Award: Raw numbers only begin to define the impact of Tony Gonzalez: 17 seasons, two missed games, 1,325 receptions, 15,127 yards, 111 TDs. Like Sanders, the former Lions megastar, Gonzalez never won a Super Bowl ring — and stands as proof that it doesn't matter in measuring his greatness. Canton calls in five years.
Jeff Hostetler Award: Josh McCown, take a bow. The Bears backup quarterback was phenomenal in the absence of an injured Jay Cutler. And now with Chicago left to watch Green Bay advance in the playoffs as NFC North champs, the debate of whether coach Marc Trestman erred in keeping his word and putting Cutler back into the lineup upon his return will add spice to the offseason. Who knows? Maybe McCown could have been another Hostetler, who once replaced an injured Phil Simms and quarterbacked the Giants to the Super Bowl. Then again, those G-men had a defense that was so different than the injury-stung unit that let down the Bears.
Eric Dickerson Award: Close call. Packers running back Eddie Lacy gets the nod as offensive rookie of the year, having set the franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie with 1,178 yards. Yet San Diego's Keenan Allen set franchise rookie marks, too, with 1,046 receiving yards on 71 catches. Allen, chosen 76th overall, has proved to be quite the bargain as he led all rookies in receptions and TD catches. Yet Lacy had to help carry an offense down the stretch that was without an injured Aaron Rodgers, and led all rookies with 11 TDs.
Bill Belichick Award: Many have suggested that this has been Belichick's best coaching job yet. Maybe so. The season started with the sad saga of Aaron Hernandez and murder charges. Then add the football-related losses of Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski and Jerrod Mayo. And New England still won its 10th AFC East title in 11 years. But his best job yet? That's fashionable enough, but don't forget 2001, when Belichick took a team loaded with free agents that lost its quarterback (Drew Bledsoe), then shocked the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. So I'll just name the award for Belichick, and go with Carolina's Ron Rivera, who got off the hot seat as his team won the NFC South after starting 1-3. Arians. Kelly. Belichick. Andy Reid. Pete Carroll. Marvin Lewis. Mike McCarthy? If there were odds for NFL Coach of the Year about now, it might read: Pick 'em.
Alan Page Award: Maybe this honor, for the defensive player of the year, should be tabled until the playoffs are completed. So many of the candidates — linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Luke Kuechly and Vontaze Burfict, and safety Earl Thomas among them — are in the playoff mix. So, too, is my pick, Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 191/2 sacks. Mathis won the sack crown by edging out emerging Rams defensive end Robert Quinn by a half-sack. But Mathis' impact is also impressive when considering his switch last season to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme after playing defensive end — and in the shadow of Dwight Freeney — for nine years. Page, by the way, was the first of only two defensive players (the other being Lawrence Taylor) to win MVP honors, as leader of the Vikings' Purple People Eaters in the '70s.
Fritz Shurmur Award: For excellence by an assistant coach, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer produced another top-10 defense. But it's deeper than that. He had to mix and match through an assortment of injuries, including the season-ending losses of the unit's best player, Geno Atkins, and best cornerback, Leon Hall. Despite that, the Bengals ranked third in the NFL for yards allowed — the best ever for a Zimmer unit — and tied for fifth in allowing 19 points per game. Zimmer's name will again surface this year to get his crack for his first NFL head coaching job. Shurmur, who won a Super Bowl XXXI ring with the Packers, never became an NFL head coach but was respected for innovation during the 1980s and '90s that included the "Big Nickel" package.
Jim Brown Award: For offensive player of the year (non-quarterback division), McCoy makes such a strong case after becoming the first Eagles running back to win the NFL rushing title since Steve Van Buren in 1949. McCoy rushed for 1,607 yards and led the league with 2,146 yards from scrimmage. That's enough to win almost any award. Then consider where the Chiefs would not be without Jamaal Charles. Not in the playoffs. Charles ranked second to McCoy with 1,980 yards from scrimmage and led the league with 19 TDs. And no player had a larger share of his team's yards from scrimmage this season than Charles, who accounted for 36.7% of the Chiefs' total — which is what ultimately separated him in this case.
Dick (Night Train) Lane Award: Choosing the top rookie defender could come down to a matter of taste. Like a tackling machine linebacker? Buffalo's Kiko Alonso is your guy. A centerfield safety to flow seamlessly with one of the NFL's best defenses? San Francisco safety Eric Reid, behind that wonderful front seven, surely made his mark. A comeback player? Tyrann Mathieu, once known as the "Honey Badger," came with some key questions after missing his final year at LSU due to a drug-related suspension. But there were no off-the-field issues as he made the jump, only a knee injury that cut short an otherwise splendid debut season. My pick, though, leans with a stud in the trenches, New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson — whose athleticism was also demonstrated as a goal-line plunger who scored two TDs. The mark Lane left as a Rams rookie in 1952, though, still deserves appreciation. His 14 interceptions remains the league's single-season record.
Jim Thorpe Award: For rookie versatility, let's hear it for Minnesota Vikings receiver and returner Cordarrelle Patterson, whose nine TDs ranked second to Lacy (11) among rookies. Yet consider how Patterson scored: He produced three rushing TDs, four receiving TDs and two kick-return TDs — including a 109-yarder that was the longest in NFL history.
GALLERY: MVPs for each team