NFL individual awards will be announced beginning Jan. 2 and two of the categories, Comeback Player and Coach of the Year, are particularly intriguing.
In the history of the comeback award, first handed out in 1998, rarely has there been such an impressive collection of front-runners: Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger and Randy Moss.
Favre, who also will get consideration for a fourth Most Valuable Player award, has staged quite a revival this season. The unquestioned leader of the Packers and an icon in Green Bay - not to motion most of the football world - Favre ranks second in NFC passing, has thrown for 24 TDs and has the Packers (11-2) in the playoffs as NFC North champions. He's started 250 straight regular-season games, an unfathomable number for a quarterback.
Last season was not the worst of his 17-year career, but it didn't come close to his high standards. The Packers went 8-8, Favre threw as many interceptions (18) as touchdowns, and his 56 percent completion rate was his lowest. He didn't do much the previous year, either.
Roethlisberger has better overall passing numbers than Favre and is fourth in league quarterback ratings. He's also seemed more spry than when he was the first quarterback to win Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2004.
For Big Ben, 2006 was ruined by a motorcycle crash, appendectomy and multiple concussions. The Steelers slipped from Super Bowl champions to 8-8, needing a strong late-season push to get to .500.
Moss, of course, has been the major difference in the New England offense and a key reason the Patriots are 13-0. He has 19 touchdown receptions, three short of Jerry Rice's single-season record, and 82 catches.
Moss is coming back from two so-so seasons in Oakland and has not had a truly sensational year since 2003 with Minnesota. Some of his struggles were self-inflicted, of course, including admitting while a Raider that he didn't always go all out.
Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck, a Favre protege; teammate Marcus Trufant, a cornerback who leads the NFC with seven interceptions; and Dallas linebacker Greg Ellis also are expected to get strong consideration.
The top candidates for coach of the year are even more widespread.
n Shula.
What about the Packers' Mike McCarthy, who has guided a .500 team of 2006 up to the highest echelon of the NFL? Or Wade Phillips, whose Cowboys could go 15-1 after being a wild-card playoff team a year ago?
Romeo Crennel has the previously bedraggled Browns at 8-5 and within reach of a wild-card spot after going 6-10, then 4-12 in his first two seasons in Cleveland. The Browns, with a potent offense and several young stars, have responded to Crennel's approach.
Dick Jauron has an injury-ravaged Buffalo team at 7-6 and in the wild-card chase one year after they went 7-9. He's been forced to change his starting quarterback from J.P. Losman to Trent Edwards, back to Losman and now back to Edwards, and the team could have been haunted by the nearly paralyzing injury suffered in the opener by tight end Kevin Everett. Jauron didn't let that happen.
Brad Childress' Vikings are among the hottest teams in the league and, at 7-6, also are an NFC wild-card player. Jon Gruden has brought Tampa Bay back from moribund to leaders of the NFC South, and the Bucs defense has been revitalized.
And what about Tom Coughlin? Listening to Giants fans and the crazed New York media after the team went 0-2, Coughlin had one foot and four toes on the other foot out the door. Now, the Giants are on the verge of a third successive postseason berth.
NO BUBBLE: The Bengals and the University of Cincinnati have talked about building a covered practice facility they could share.
Unlike the other northern NFL teams, the Bengals don't have regular access to a sheltered field, forcing them to practice in the rain and cold during the week. It's a longstanding sore spot.
Coach Marvin Lewis would like a covered field, but has been diplomatic about it because ownership has the final say. He noted that practicing in the elements can be helpful, such as during Cincinnati's 19-10 win over the St. Louis Rams last Sunday.
The Bengals worked out in the rain leading up to the game, which was played in a downpour. Lewis thinks that worked in Cincinnati's favor.
Quarterback Carson Palmer acknowledged that practicing in bad weather can be helpful in some ways, but it's not the best way to go about it.
``It would definitely be nice to practice indoors, especially during the week when it's freezing cold outside and you're out there for a long time and guys are getting sick,'' Palmer said.
The Bengals' lease gives them the option of adding a covered field at their practice site, but they would have to pay for it.
'MR. INTERIM': Cowboys coach Wade Phillips thinks highly of Emmitt Thomas, the new interim coach of the Atlanta Falcons. He also can sympathize quite well with his pal's plight.
Phillips did the same thing in 2003, becoming interim coach of the Falcons for the final three games after Dan Reeves left. He also carried the interim label the final four games in 1985, replacing his dad, Bum Phillips, with the New Orleans Saints. He actually did it for a third time, too, filling in one preseason game for Reeves in Denver. In all three instances, Phillips stepped up from defensive coordinator.
``I think I'm the all-time interim coach, as far as numbers,'' Phillips cracked.
Even if he's not, Phillips has a good idea what it's like.
``It's a tough situation,'' Phillips said. ``The reason you're the interim coach (is) something has gone wrong. The team isn't doing well. To turn them around is hard to do. You can't do much different than what you've been doing all year. You try to get the attitude back, fresh new start, if you can say that.''
Phillips went 1-3 with the Saints in '85, then 2-1 with the '03 Falcons.
``I thought I was doing a heck of a job,'' he said, smiling. `` I learned a lot from the first time I did it.''
CALLING ON MR. MOM: The Seahawks have tried two, failed long snappers already this season. Now, on to Mr. Mom.
This week, Seattle signed 37-year-old Jeff Robinson, a former snapper and tight end with the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys, to become their third trigger man for placement kicks and punts this season.
Robinson was at his Seattle home with his wife, caring for 8-month-old daughter May Louise, and working at the couple's health-and-wellness business when the Seahawks asked him to try out. Seattle's special teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, had Robinson snapping for him in Dallas in 2003 and '04.
Robinson hadn't been snapping recently. He was only staying in shape by working out the way most 37-year-old new fathers and businessmen with a few gray hairs work out - in spurts whenever possible. Yet the Seahawks signed him on the spot.
That's how tired they were of long snapper Boone Stutz's powerful but erratic snaps, which had shaken the confidence of kicker Josh Brown and punter Ryan Plackemeier. Stutz was replacing Derek Rackley, who Seattle cut months ago.
When asked if his wife was fine with him leaving for this unique temp job, Robinson said, ``She's good. She's supportive ... (and) her mom's in town. So it's OK.
``It's a short stint, right?'' he said, looking around and feigning concern.
Short and profitable. As a 14-year veteran, including as a Super Bowl winner with the 1999 Rams, Robinson gets $135,882 - the prorated, three-game portion of the minimum season salary of $770,000 for a player with at least 10 years of service. That doesn't include the playoff share of at least $17,000 per game he will get once the NFC West champions enter the postseason next month.
Brown said he already noticed, after 35 snaps in one practice, the difference in having Robinson - just in time for the playoffs.
``Every snap, it's the same. It never changes. Laces are out of the way,'' said Brown, the normally automatic kicker who went into a mini-slump with Stutz snapping high, wide and low to holder Plackemeier.
``It really eases your mind,'' Brown said. ``You've got to regain that confidence.''
RING IT UP: Edgerrin James helped turn Indianapolis from also-run into Super Bowl contender.
So last week Colts owner Jim Irsay rewarded the franchise's career rushing leader by having Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne hand-deliver James' belated gift - a Super Bowl ring - at Sean Taylor's funeral.
``He was the only nonparticipating player who received one, but he's a guy who embodied what we're about,'' Irsay told The Associated Press this week. ``He was a selfless player, who really helped turn this franchise around.''
When James arrived as the Colts' top draft pick in 1999, the Colts' fortunes changed instantly. They went from 3-13 in '98 to 13-3 and AFC East champions in '99. They made the playoffs six times in the seven seasons James played in Indy, missing only in 2001 when James sat out the final 10 games with a torn ACL.
But the Arizona Cardinals offered James a four-year, $30 million contract in March 2006, and James took the money and ran. Irsay reluctantly let one of the team's cornerstones, and one of his favorite players, walk away just as the Colts were about to make their Super Bowl run.
Now James has his reward.
``How did you hear about that. I was trying to keep it a secret,'' James said. ``It's a nice gesture. There was a lot of hard work put in there.''
James praised Colts coach Tony Dungy, who he considers ``like a father figure.''
``I wish we had a lot more people like Tony Dungy, especially in the black community,'' James said. ``We need them.''
Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Stephen Hawkins in Dallas, Greg Bell in Seattle, Michael Marot in Indianapolis and Bob Baum in Phoenix contributed to this story.

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