Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
09 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's midseason Pro Bowl teams. -- Aaron Schatz)
With the elections finally ending, football fans can shift their voting focus back to the NFL. Pro Bowl ballots opened a few weeks ago. With most of the teams having played exactly half their schedule, it’s time for a look at midseason honors. This AFC Pro Bowl roster represents one man’s opinion (mine), based on what the film has shown this season. (Players are listed in order of merit.)
Peyton Manning, Broncos
Much further along than anyone would have guessed in making the Broncos the new Colts. Just as impressive as his conference-leading passing numbers is what he’s done at the line of scrimmage to help Denver’s run game.
Tom Brady, Patriots
Orchestrating an updated no-huddle offense at his usual top-shelf level.
Andrew Luck, Colts
With a system built around his strengths (ball-handling and pocket movement, decision-making and accuracy at the intermediate levels), he has the Colts at 5-3 and fourth in total offense. He has regularly elevated his play in critical moments (like third-and-long or late drives in close contests).
Arian Foster, Texans
The smoothest power-runner in the NFL. He's also stellar, if not spectacular, in the passing game. Houston’s misdirection zone offense wouldn’t be nearly as potent without him.
Stevan Ridley, Patriots
Has been as effective as his surprising AFC-leading numbers indicate. Good short-area burst, including laterally.
Reggie Bush, Dolphins
With Ray Rice uncharacteristically struggling in pass protection this year, the final nod goes to this veteran finesse back who has learned to run between the tackles. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but the balance and stability he lends to the Dolphins young offense is a big reason why they’re a surprising 4-4.
A.J. Green, Bengals
Without his acrobatic downfield prowess, Cincy’s offense would look like Jacksonville’s.
Reggie Wayne, Colts
Has basically learned a whole new position in Bruce Arian’s system and, at nearly 34 years of age, is responding with arguably the best season of his illustrious career. Technique-wise, there isn’t a better one-on-one route runner in game.
Demaryius Thomas, Broncos
Continues to hone his newly fine-tuned fundamentals. He has been Denver’s key big-play and possession target ... which sounds a lot like how one might describe a "true No. 1."
Antonio Brown, Steelers
Other guys have better numbers, but no one is tougher to match up against on the outside. His quickness off the line and in and out of breaks is the best in pro football right now.
James Casey, Texans
Essentially a second tight end -– and catches passes like one. Casey consistently capitalizes on the favorable one-on-one run-blocking matchups that Gary Kubiak’s system presents him.
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
The fulcrum of New England’s elite passing attack.
Heath Miller, Steelers
The do-it-all piece of Todd Haley’s offense. His run-blocking has always been outstanding, but this year he has assumed a bigger role in the passing game, primarily at the intermediate levels.
Ryan Clady, Broncos
Not many guys turn down a five-year, $50 million contract before the season and then play well enough to be lauded for their foresight and negotiating acumen because of it.
Duane Brown, Texans
An athletic run-blocker and reliable one-on-one pass-protector who highlights what might be the best offensive line in football.
Nate Solder, Patriots
His athletic mobility is a big reason why New England’s renewed commitment to the run has paid off so well.
Logan Mankins, Patriots
He's only played five of eight games, but ive games are enough when they’re mistake-free.
Willie Colon, Steelers
Colon has overcome early-season issues with lateral movement in pass protection. More importantly, he's been the most powerful interior run-blocker in the NFL. (And to think, he’s doing this while learning a new position after missing the past two years with various injuries.)
Zane Beadles, Broncos
He's been impressive with pull-blocks in the run game while also keeping his superstar quarterback clean on a regular basis.
Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers
A tremendous combination of raw talent and polished mechanics have made him, by far, the best all-around center in football this season.
Chris Myers, Texans
With Nick Mangold having an uncharacteristically down year, there’s room for the veteran anchor from the league’s most cohesive front five. Myers has always been adept as an on-the-move blocker, but savvy technique has allowed him to overcome his limited strength in phone booths in more recent years. He’s now able to stalemate bigger nose tackles one-on-one.
J.J. Watt, Texans
No explanation required.
Cameron Wake, Dolphins
Tireless against the run and pass, and plays with an unstoppable blend of leverage and explosiveness on every down.
Chandler Jones, Patriots
Sinewy athlete who can penetrate inside or outside. He's arguably been even more impressive in run defense, where he uses his lateral agility and strength well.
Geno Atkins, Bengals
The most dominant all-around interior force in the NFL this season. No need to elaborate -– whatever football move it is, he does it extremely well.
Vince Wilfork, Patriots
Humans this big shouldn’t be allowed to move this well.
Randy Starks, Dolphins
A handful to deal with in the run game, especially when he’s getting penetration. A big reason why Miami ranks third in total run defense.
Donald Butler, Chargers
Improved football IQ mixed with his initial quickness and fluidity has made him into a dynamic run-stopper. He's also shown a knack for big plays.
Paul Posluszny, Jaguars
Does everything for his defense, including patrolling passing lanes between the numbers.
Von Miller, Broncos
Every opposing offensive coordinator builds his game plan around simply containing this guy. (Usually to no avail, by the way.)
Tamba Hali, Chiefs
The Chiefs are awful, but their defense –- and especially its tenacious front seven attacker –- is not the reason why.
Wesley Woodyard, Broncos
Woodyard has done a more-than-admirable job filling in for the suspended D.J. Williams. Agility in space has been a key to Denver’s run defense. More importantly, he’s made Denver’s nickel defense -– which is youthful at safety -– formidable in underneath coverage.
Ike Taylor, Steelers
Taylor has successfully shadowed opposing No. 1 receivers week in and week out for a defense that, even without Troy Polamalu or much pass-rush pressure generated this season, ranks No. 1 in the air at the midway point.
Johnathan Joseph, Texans
His man-to-man prowess is key to Wade Phillips’ swarming defense, particularly in the dime packages.
Bernard Pollard, Ravens
Extremely active and disruptive near the line of scrimmage. Pollard has taken a leap since fixing many of his once-crippling weaknesses in coverage.
Eric Weddle, Chargers
Weddle has fully blossomed into the multi-tooled Polamalu-styled safety that San Diego originally thought he’d be. His diversity is showing up in the pre-snap phase, as well, which has given the Chargers a much-needed element of unpredictability.
Sebastian Janikowski, Raiders
Janikowski has made 19-of-20 field goals and still has one of the most powerful legs in the game.
Shane Lechler, Raiders
Because he’s earned the benefit of presumption.
Leodis McKelvin, Bills
Has been a home-run hitter on punts and at least a "doubles" hitter on kicks.
31 comments, Last at 13 Nov 2012, 11:00am by bengt