(1) Who has been the defensive MVP of 2011? In a midseason Sporting News poll of 111 players from 31 teams, Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen received by far the most votes (35), followed by Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware (20), Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson (15), New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis (13), Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu (five), Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (four), and San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis (four). I’d be inclined to place Willis above everyone on that list save perhaps Ware (who leads the NFL in sacks with 14) and Allen (who is right behind with 13.5 sacks). After all, the 49ers continue to boast the league’s top-ranked run defense; they have yet to concede a rushing touchdown; and they have allowed the fewest points overall. For that matter, veteran San Francisco defensive tackle Justin Smith (who knocked down Eli Manning’s last-minute fourth-down pass in Week 10) deserves defensive-MVP consideration as well.
(2) Is Rob Gronkowski now the league’s best tight end? In many ways, this is a golden era for the position. “I don’t know that we’ve ever seen as many athletic tight ends as we see right now,” former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said over the summer. The NFL’s top tight ends include two guaranteed Hall of Famers (Antonio Gates of the Chargers and Tony Gonzalez of the Falcons), one potential — maybe even probable — Hall of Famer (Jason Witten of the Cowboys), and a host of young stars who have been filling the highlight reels. Three of the premier tight ends in the 27-or-younger category are Vernon Davis of the 49ers, Jermichael Finley of the Packers, and Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots. Of those three, Gronkowski may well be the best. His recent performances against the Jets (eight receptions for 113 yards and two TDs) and Kansas City (four receptions for 96 yards and two TDs) helped him break a Mike Ditka touchdown record, and also affirmed that he is spectacular in the red zone. Indeed, over the past two seasons, Gronkowski has more red-zone TD receptions (17) than any other NFL player, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
(3) Are the Buffalo Bills this year’s version of the 2009 Denver Broncos? You remember the ’09 Broncos, right? The team coached by Bill Belichick protégé Josh McDaniels, who celebrated a Week 5 overtime victory against his mentor with an exuberant fist-pumping routine? The team that galloped out to a 6–0 start, only to finish 8–8 and miss the playoffs? Much like those Broncos, the 2011 Bills opened their season with a string of impressive wins, including a comeback over New England in which they picked off Tom Brady four times. The team was 3–0, then 4–1. Now it is 5–5, having dropped three straight. Over the past two weeks, it has been outscored 79–15. This Sunday, Buffalo will visit another 5–5 team hoping to save its season (the Jets).
(4) Will the Harbaugh Bowl come down to turnovers? As you’ve been hearing all week, Thanksgiving night will witness the first brother-versus-brother head-coach matchup in NFL history. There is no question that the topsy-turvy Ravens (7–3) need this game more than the 49ers (9–1). Like San Francisco, which leads the league in takeaways, Baltimore has a stingy defense with a knack for forcing fumbles and snagging interceptions. Yet whereas the 49ers boast the NFL’s best turnover differential (plus-17) and have committed only nine giveaways (tied for fewest in the league), the Ravens have committed 18 giveaways. Baltimore’s combined turnover differential in its three losses is minus-six.
(5) Will the Miami Dolphins become a playoff spoiler? Just a few weeks ago, the Dolphins were a winless laughingstock. Now they have racked up three consecutive victories, outscoring their opponents 86–20 in the process. (Had they not blown fourth-quarter leads against the Broncos and the Giants, they could be riding a five-game win streak.) For the season, Miami has allowed fewer points per game (18.6) than all but five other NFL teams, and its run defense is ranked seventh. The Fins’ remaining schedule includes a Turkey Day visit to the Jerry Dome in Dallas, followed by home games against Oakland and Philadelphia, trips to Buffalo and New England, and a regular-season finale at home against the Jets. While it may be too late for Reggie Bush & Co. to salvage a playoff berth, they could easily become a playoff spoiler.