Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings: The “Adrian Peterson destroys opposing defense set to stop him and nobody else” headline seems like the ultimate copy/paste scenario, but after AD’s 154-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, it’s probably time to put this in perspective: On New Year’s Day, Peterson had the kind of major knee surgery that lessened or ended the careers of many great running backs. He now leads the NFL in rushing yards with 1,600, and his 6.0 yards-per-carry average — if he’s able to maintain it — would be one of the best in a single season in NFL history. The Vikings are 7-6, and were they to make the playoffs, and Peterson could hit 2,000 yards for the season, he’d have a real shot at the NFL MVP award. As it is, we’ll just continue to express amazement and admiration as Adrian Peterson continues to defy all available logic. Human beings just aren’t supposed to do what this guy is doing.
Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles’ season is a disaster at best, and we don’t know who will be coaching rookie quarterback Nick Foles next year, but one thing’s for sure — the third-round rookie from Arizona has some real talent to be built upon. The third-round pick became the third rookie in NFL history to throw for more than 350 yards, throw for at least two touchdowns, and give up no interceptions. He also improvised the design on the game-winning touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin, and threw both of his touchdowns with less than four minutes left in the Eagles’ 23-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Eagles will be rebuilding from the studs starting next year, but they appear to have the game’s most important position in hand.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: We can talk about Cam’s attitude, but the guy’s pure football talent is very obvious, and it was in full bloom against an Atlanta Falcons defense that seemed to have no answer for him. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Newton became the first player in NFL history with at least 250 passing yards, 100 rushing yards, a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown in a single game. He riddled Atlanta’s defense with a 72-yard touchdown run off a zone read option, the longest such run of his career, The Panthers converted nine of 15 third-down attempts, and completed 75 percent of their play-action passes (12 of 16) for 10.4 yards per play after completing 59.3 percent of those passes for 7.5 yards per play in their first 12 games. It was a brief glimmer of hope for a team that wanted more this season, but Cam Newton was all he could be on Sunday. As for the Falcons … well, they’d better hope they get safety William Moore back sooner than later. Their pass defense concepts are far less effective without him.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks: Yes, the Arizona Cardinals are sucking at an historical rate right now, but it’s important to remember that their defense is actually pretty good. Per Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, the Cards came into this game with the NFL’s second-best pass defense and 12th-best run defense. In the Seattle Seahawks’ 58-0 demolition of that defense, Lynch (who we’d be talking about a lot more this year were it not for Peterson’s amazing season) blew up for three touchdowns, and proved to be nearly impossible to tackle when he got close to the end zone. Lynch put up 128 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries, because the game got out of hand quickly enough for backup Robert Turbin to come in and gain over 100 yards himself. But the Seahawks go as Lynch goes — like Peterson, he sets the tone for his entire team with his physical style and utter refusal to give up on any play.
David Wilson, RB, New York Giants: Less established was Wilson, the Giants’ first-round pick in 2012, and a kid who had spent a lot of this season in Tom Coughlin’s doghouse after some rookie awareness moments earlier this season. But in the Giants’ 52-27 win over the New Orleans Saints, Wilson became the first player in NFL history with at least 200 kickoff return yards and 100 rushing yards in a single game. He hit a97-yard kick return for a touchdown early in the first quarter, and kept the pressure up with touchdown runs of six and 52 yards. Just in time for their usual late-season uptick, the Giants now have a new weapon in the talented rookie.