The regular season has come to the close, and now it's time to recognize the best players of the season. These players made their team better and games more exciting for fans to watch when they hit the field.
The list, created through a complex methodology of stats, wins and criteria that made perfect sense to me as this was being written, will attempt to break down the top 50 in the game this season. These guys did their thing on the field, and now it's time for them to be recognized.
Here are the top 50 players of the 2011 NFL regular season.
When it comes to kicking, the San Francisco 49ers' David Akers has a major leg on the competition.
Breaking Neil Rackers record for most completed field goals in league history, with 42 completed field goals, Akers has been a steady hand (or should I say foot) for one of the league's biggest turnaround stories.
Look at this booming 80-yard punt and tell me there is anybody else that can do what Oakland Raiders punter Shane Lechler can do.
Arizona Cardinals cornerback/punt returner Patrick Peterson was able to distinguish himself from Chicago Bears wide receiver Devin Hester with some major returns for touchdowns this year.
Perhaps his most exciting was this one, a 99-yard return for a touchdown in overtime that gave the Cardinals the win over the St. Louis Rams.
The league's leader in combined tackles this year, Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher has a nose for the ball. He was one of the few bright spots for a Redskins team that will need to do some rebuilding in 2012.
It's easy to be down on Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, especially after the team's Week 17 playoff fate-sealing loss to the New York Giants, but the team is better with Romo under center.
While injuries and some growing pains among his receivers took some of the pop from the offense's passing game, this team does not get to where they did without Romo.
One of the biggest surprises of the first half of the season was Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson. Holding off the young prospect C.J. Spiller, Jackson was among the best in the league until an injury ended his season.
While the Bills' season began to implode after his departure, it can only be expected that Jackson will be ready next season to try to recreate the team's early season magic of 2011.
A lone bright spot in the Seattle Seahawks offense, running back Marshawn Lynch made himself effective with his rough and tumble play, better known as going "Beastmode."
Not afraid to eat some Skittles on the sidelines, he's also one of the league's most eccentric players (or at least one its bigger sweet tooths).
The Dream Team Philadelphia Eagles may have fallen short of the playoffs, but they received some solid play from their tackle Jason Peters.
While he, along with the rest of the line, struggled to adjust early in the season, Peters showed some remarkable late season form as the team hung in playoff contention until the end of the season.
The elder statesman (at 33 years old) of the Denver Broncos defense, Champ Bailey continued his effective playmaking in the 2011 regular season.
Named to his 11th Pro Bowl in as many years (along with the very talented rookie Von Miller), Bailey will be relied on heavily as they play the overpowering Pittsburgh Steelers this coming weekend.
The league's leader in interceptions returned for touchdowns (and one of the largest at his position), Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner has proven himself to be a big contributor to this defense.
He's also one of the cool stories of the year, having spent the past four years playing in the Canadian Football League.
Go get yourself a trainer Brandon. You can afford it now.
The New Orleans Saints offense has been boosted majorly by their interior offensive line, and that success comes primarily because of guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks.
Securing one of the highest powered quarterbacks in the league, the pair have led a unit that has only allowed 24 sacks of quarterback Drew Brees.
One of the most exciting talents in the NFL today, Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton has been nothing short of electrifying.
Though the Panthers haven't been winning that many games, Newton has not been the problem. Blowing up the record book on what appears to be every week, he has shown he will do great in the pros (much to the chagrin to the many who doubted him).
He should win this year's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, albeit in a very close race with fellow rookie sensation, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
One of the resurgent players of 2011, San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore has been a major catalyst for the team's playoff birth.
Limited through his pro and college career with injuries, Gore has done a good job for the most part staying away from the injured list.
The Niners will need him next week, as the team currently has a first round bye to the NFC Divisional Round.
From unenthusiastic teammate to one of the premier receiving targets in the league, it's amazing how much things have improved for Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.
Fifth in the league in receiving yards this season, Smith should be thrilled to continue to play with quarterback Cam Newton, who has been a major benefactor of Smith's turnaround.
One of the most dangerous players in the game today, Jason Babin had a knack this season of plowing his way to opposing quarterbacks.
Third in the league in sacks with a career high 18 sacks, Babin has levied the pain and made opposing coordinators have to plan against him.
Look for him to continue his positive play next season.
The Houston Texans have made their first playoffs, and a lot of credit for that success should go to quarterback Matt Schaub.
Putting up solid numbers before a season-ending injury, Schaub gave the Texans a cushion in the AFC South that was enough for the team to win even while going with highly untested rookie quarterback T.J. Yates under center.
Look for Schaub to continue right where he left off next season (hopefully with a more healthy wide receiver Andre Johnson, who struggled to stay healthy all year).
A constant threat to opposing offenses, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was one of the main reasons for the team's success and playoff birth this year.
However, for his game to truly rise to the next level, Suh will need to avoid some of the cheap plays and hits that have gotten him suspended and fined from the league.
He has burned through all of his good will with the league, so he will need to be on his best behavior to ensure he stays in this weekend as the Lions play against the New Orleans Saints on the road.
Even in his worst game of the season, there's a lot to like about the play and grittiness of PIttsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Throwing multiple interceptions and failing to move the offense against the San Francisco 49ers, Roethlisberger continued to play on a hobbled ankle. A consummate competitor, he showed that he will give his team beyond whatever "giving 110%" is supposed to mean.
He should be a little more rested this coming weekend, as they enter as favorites in their opening round playoff game against the Denver Broncos.
His numbers may have dropped slightly, but the Atlanta Falcons passing attack this year has been centered around wide receiver Roddy White.
A legitimate speedster and constant deep threat, he has found some major benefits in being paired with rookie receiver Julio Jones.
The Falcons will need a good showing from their passing attack as they go against the New York Giants this coming weekend to start their playoff campaign.
One of the fiercest competitors in the league, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is nothing short of a monster. An aggressive tackler and ball hawk on the defensive side of the ball, Polamalu is the heart of the Steelers defense that continues to confound opposing offenses.
Look to see Polamalu and the Steelers defense have some fun with Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow this weekend as the two teams battle to start their playoff campaigns.
One of the most exciting young quarterbacks to watch, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been very solid this year for a team primed to make a strong playoff push.
Aided by new wide receiver Julio Jones along with the steady Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, Ryan has put together the best statistics of his young career, throwing for over 4,000 yards and adding a career high 29 touchdowns.
Regardless of how the team performs against the Giants, watch for him to continue his excellent play next season.
A brick wall on the Cleveland Browns line, tackle Joe Staley is a solid part of an offense that unfortunately did not find its way in the 2011 season.
Regardless, he has been effective in both the running and passing games, and he has shown himself to be one of the most efficient blockers in the league.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis appears to have found the fountain of youth, as he continues to show he can still play.
Fighting through several injuries midway through the season, which forced him to miss time, he has shown a level of intensity that few others in the league can match.
Look for Lewis to continue his dominance, as the Ravens await their divisional round opponent.
He may not have won yesterday against the Green Bay Packers, but Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford showed he could sling the rock against any defense in almost any type of inclement conditions.
Healthy for really the first time of his career, Stafford has been very effective in leading an offense directed around his ability to connect to his receivers. His pairing with Calvin Johnson has been one of the most fun to watch.
Watch for a scoring bonanza this weekend, as the Lions take on the high-flying New Orleans Saints.
One of the regrets I have putting together this list is how poorly I've ranked New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles.
The free-agent acquisition of the offseason, he has rewarded his new team by breaking the record for all-purpose yardage in a season, with 2,696.
Watch for Sproles to continue his effectiveness moving the ball on the ground and in the team's special teams as the Saints look to march in to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl.
The spiritual and physical successor to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis is nothing short of a terror for opposing offenses.
A textbook tackler with intimidating physicality, Willis has been the leader of a defense that has surprised many to be one of the highest rated units in the league.
Look for Willis to be in prime form in time for the playoffs after the Niners first round bye this weekend.
With quarterback Matt Schaub (and Matt Leinart) sidelined, the Houston Texans have relied on the ground attack led by Arian Foster and Ben Tate to keep them moving this season.
Despite his injuries, Foster put together a very impressive stat sheet this year in the time he was on the field, continuing his effectiveness that he displayed in 2010.
Likewise, Tate has established himself as a threat in only his second season, adding another 1,000-plus yards to the team's stat sheets.
The team's ground game will be the focus as the Texans prepare to face the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend.
Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson has aged like fine wine, leading the team's defense in interceptions.
Despite the unit's overall struggles, the defense has found ways to help its offense, primarily because of the ball hawking ways of its star corner, who has produced seven interceptions and a forced fumble.
Look for the Packers to continue to rely on Woodson, as they now await their divisional round opponent.
Another tremendous piece of the terrifying San Francisco 49ers defense, defensive lineman Justin Smith has been devastating opposing offenses, getting to the quarterback 7.5 times for sacks this season, and forcing three fumbles. The numbers may not always be sexy, but the effectiveness cannot be questioned.
He (along with rookie Aldon Smith, who is fifth in sacks with 14) have made life tricky for any quarterback looking for time to pass.
Few things have gone well for the Philadelphia Eagles offense, but running back LeSean McCoy has been a solid contributor to the team's efforts.
A rare combination of speed and physicality, he has continued the progress made in his breakout 2010 season.
Fourth in the league with 1309 rushing yards and 20 overall touchdowns, McCoy will continue to be a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, he won't have a venue to display these talents, as the Eagles failed to make the playoffs.
A man who knows how to celebrate a touchdown, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz has been tremendous as he has risen to the top-tier of the league's receivers.
Undrafted out of the University of Massachusetts, Cruz has used his speed to race past opposing defenders, breaking a team record of receiving yards in a season, with 1,536 yards.
That speed was on display in a major way, as he burned the New York Jets for a team-record 99-yard touchdown only weeks ago.
Both Cruz and the Giants are in top form, and they'll need to be as they face the Atlanta Falcons this weekend.
A beast in the open field, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has been a major part of the team's defensive unit. The unit's numbers have been far from flattering, but Matthews play has been nothing short of electrifying.
In addition to his 50 tackles this year, he's added three interceptions and three forced fumbles.
If the Packers plan on repeating their Super Bowl championship this season, they will have to rely on Matthews efforts and strong tackling ability.
He may have ended 2011 in the worst way possible, but running back Adrian Peterson is still a force to be reckoned with. Though his numbers weren't as good as years before, that could be blamed on the team's lack of passing attack and struggles at the line.
Despite these worries, Peterson showed flashes of his excellent form at times during the year, particularly the Viking's game against the Green Bay Packers, where he totaled 175 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Pending his recovery, look for Peterson to be back on track in 2012 (as long as Christian Ponder and the line can improve even slightly).
Better known as the Burner, Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner has been a real workhorse for the team as it prepares for another playoff run.
Though the team took some of his carries to ensure his longevity, Turner still put together a pretty impressive stat sheet for the season, compiling 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Even more impressively, 172 of those yards came in the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past weekend.
A terror to opposing quarterbacks, Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware was intimidating as he finished second for sacks, with 19.5 for the year. In addition to his sack totals, he also forced two fumbles.
Look for Ware to continue his reign of terror next season, as the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs following a loss this past weekend to the New York Giants.
The primary target for the most effective quarterback statistically this year, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was impressive this year as he pulled in 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
One of the surprise stars of the league this year, he follows in the steps of fellow star, San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who also made the transition from college basketball player to pro football star (Graham played at University of Miami (Florida)).
The Baltimore Ravens are a major title contender this year, and a large part of that is the offensive balance that comes from its running back Ray Rice.
Putting up 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground this year, Rice used his speed and agility to find openings in the defense, for which he would take full advantage of.
He was also crucial as the Ravens locked up its second seed this past weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals, putting up two long touchdown runs.
He may not be in the conversation for the best quarterback in the league, but New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has silenced all critics. His Super Bowl win wasn't a fluke, he can be a leader for the offense, and most importantly, he can win games.
In addition to fostering the team's success, he's also had a career year statistically, throwing for 4,933 yards, blowing away his previous career marks of just over 4,021 yards in 2009.
Leading the Giants to the NFC East title in the last week of the year, Eli has shown he isn't just a younger brother of Peyton. He's the Man(ning) until further notice.
In addition to the rise of quarterback Eli Manning, the New York Giants have been boosted by the strong play of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
At one point the winner of the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week award in two of three weeks, Pierre Paul has found success in pressuring opposing offenses. He has a knack of working his way into opposing backfields.
The strength of his play may also be seen in the fact his ascension has allowed the team to make fellow defensive end Osi Umenyiora the team's backup at the position.
To say New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is dominant is to say the sky is blue or the Jacksonville Jaguars are a terrible team this year.
Thrown to only 33 times this year, he has allowed only ten catches. All season.
Needless to say, be very afraid of your favorite receiver finding themselves anywhere near Revis Island.
The 2011 season was one for tight ends, as New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (like teammate Aaron Hernandez and the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham) dominated the passing game.
Catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns, Gronkowski has found himself creating constant mismatches for opposing defenders.
Look for Gronkowski to be a continual target of both his quarterback Tom Brady and defensive coordinators, as the Patriots await their opponent in the Divisional Round.
Few people can make the catches that Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald can make, yet even putting him just in the top ten in the league still feels like an insult.
Coming close to his best numbers for receiving yardage (1,411 yards and eight touchdowns), Fitzgerald somehow does this while finding himself time and time again the victim of bad quarterbacking.
Fortunately for Cardinals fans, the long-term deal he signed at the start of the season ensures that no matter what clown they put under center, they will be finding Fitzgerald on the receiving end of their completions.
Lost in the excitement of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's pairing with tight end Rob Gronkowski was the fact that wide receiver Wes Welker was having quite the year himself.
On pace for much of the year to break Jerry Rice's single season receiving yardage mark, Welker was a force to be reckoned with, ending with 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite his small size, he was able to use his speed and agility to find plenty of open space to catch passes.
He should be one to watch for as the Patriots ready themselves for the Divisional Round playoffs next weekend.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has been a constant statistically as he has put together a spectacular year for the stout (yet aging) Ravens defense.
Assembling one his best sack totals for his career, he has been most effective playing against the Ravens rival and playoff hurdle Pittsburgh Steelers, putting up three sacks in the teams' first meeting early in the year.
Look for Suggs to continue his dominance, as the Ravens await their divisional round opponent.
There are receivers. Then there is Megatron.
In addition to leading the league in reception yardage, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has proven himself to be a terrifying scoring threat in the red zone.
Compiling 1,681 yards during the regular season, he achieved the seventh highest total in league history, surpassing numbers achieved by Michael Irvin and Jimmy Smith.
Only one-half sack short of the record set by Michael Strahan, ending with 22, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen was nothing short of incredible as he exploded on opposing offenses.
A rusher who can both speed past and overpower blockers, Allen is the ultimate defensive weapon, and one that every opponent has to account for.
While his achievements may have been overlooked by the team's faults, there's no doubt that Allen deserves the league's Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Things weren't easy for Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, as he was figurately and at some points literally the team's entire offensive attack.
While that led to some interesting defenses, including the stacking of ten defenders near the line, Jones-Drew was able to overcome those struggles, leading the league with 1,606 rushing yards and adding eight touchdowns.
While the rebuilding process is sure to be long and slow in Jacksonville, there's no doubt that Jones-Drew will be a constant offensive threat.
With the battle at MVP between Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers going on, many forgot how well New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was doing.
He was good. Really good.
Putting up 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns, Brady was about as close to his record breaking 2007 form as he possibly could. Pairing with wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski, the passing game showed no signs of stopping (a good sign given the Pats porous defense).
Look for Brady to continue to shine, as the No.1-seeded Patriots try to make another deep playoff run.
There's not enough good things to say about how well New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees played this season.
In addition to breaking multiple records with his passing, most prominently Dan Marino's mark for most passing yards in a season, Brees led the Saints to yet another playoff appearance.
These numbers aren't just for the record books. They're for the wins columns as well.
While it's easy to get caught up in the MVP discussion, the numbers and the team's success speak for themselves. Brees had an unmatchable year statistically, and for that he should be very proud of himself and his teammates.
In an impossible choice for the number one player of the year, I have to fall on the side of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
While the numbers weren't as sexy as Brees, Rodgers dominated in the one category that really matters: the wins column. Despite a defense that at times made things tricky, Rodgers command of the offense made a lot of the team's success possible.
I'm also amazed at Rodgers' leadership and his mentoring of his backup Matt Flynn. After Flynn made an early turnover, Rodgers was immediately giving him some positive encouragement, something that wouldn't be seen from his mentor, Brett Favre.
Following that encouragement, Flynn powered the Packers offense the rest of the day, throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns, both franchise records.
With that in mind, the Packers are odds-on favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions this year. However, they'll need plenty of good play from Rodgers if they hope to make it happen.