Like so many other sports, football is at its heart a team sport.
The successful teams that win a lot of games and contend for championships are usually the ones with great balance on offense, defense and special teams.
Despite football's reputation as a team sport, most fans wonder who is the best player on the team. Which player is so important to the team's success that he is the difference between a #1 seed or a losing record?
That's why every year there are always people that closely follow the NFL's MVP race.
The AP rewards, which are released during the playoffs, are about more than MVPs. They also highlight the year's best rookies, best coaches and best comeback player.
Although it's not even close to the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl, being recognized for an outstanding season can still feel very good.
Here are some NFL players and coaches that at the beginning of 2011 have reason to think this is the year they win an AP award.
Over the last few years, the MVP award has basically turned into the quarterback of the year award. For four years running, quarterbacks have won the award, with Peyton Manning winning it twice and Tom Brady winning it twice during that span.
The last non-quarterback to win the MVP was Ladainian Tomlinson during his record breaking 2006 season, and unless a non-quarterback on a playoff contender has an unbelievable season like Tomlinson's, we'll be seeing another quarterback win it this year.
Interestingly enough, the only current quarterbacks with MVP awards are Manning with four and Brady with two. Both quarterbacks are clearly among the greatest of this generation and even of all time. But they are getting older and there are lots of young quarterbacks full of promise in the league today.
Philip Rivers is one of the best candidates to replace them. He finished first in passing yards last year with 4,710 and he has thrown for over 4,000 yards each of the last three seasons. He has also consistently led the San Diego Chargers to the playoffs, the only exception being last season where they missed out with a 9-7 record.
The AFC West looks to be a weak division again this year and the Chargers have an easier schedule. It is extremely rare for a team with both the #1 offense and #1 defense to miss the playoffs, so with some additions made to their special teams, the Chargers have reclaimed favorite status in the AFC West.
If the Chargers can deliver on this potential and Rivers continues throwing the ball to whoever's out there, he should do enough to win his first MVP award.
In many years, the offensive player of the year award is nearly identical to the NFL MVP. The difference is that this award focuses on outstanding performance on offense, not just the quarterback position.
A lot of times this award is used to recognize the game's best running backs, but quarterbacks are also known to win it, especially in years where there are several great quarterbacks.
Aaron Rodgers came on extremely hot at the end of last year with his phenomenal postseason run. His Super Bowl win has established him as one of the league's premier quarterbacks, and yet he still has not won either the offensive player of the year award or the MVP award.
Although the Green Bay Packers won't be sneaking up on anyone this year, they have the potential to be better than last year's 10-6 team that barely made the playoffs. Last year, the Packers had many players on IR while this year they have started the season mostly healthy.
Rodgers does have some injury concern as he had some concussion problems. But with a full season of throwing to the Packers talented receiving corp, Rodgers should put up the kind of numbers that merit OPOY consideration.
Since defensive players have almost no shot at winning MVP, the defensive player of the year award is sort of like their MVP. Like the MVP award, this award is usually given to a player who contributes a lot to a playoff team.
Although last year was a disaster for the Dallas Cowboys, things are looking up for them. Jason Garett helped savage last year by coaching them to a 5-3 record at the end of the year and Tony Romo should be back to lead the offense.
The Cowboys still have weaknesses on defense but DeMarcus Ware is not one of them. Ware has led the NFL in sacks two times in the last three seasons and he has become a Pro Bowl regular. Although he has been nominated, he has never won the DPOY award.
If the Cowboys can return to their playoff form from 2009 and Ware keeps up his normal stats, there are very few defensive players that can outperform him.
For both the offensive and defensive rookie of the year awards, it isn't necessary for the winner's team to make the playoffs. Past winners like Vince Young and Adrian Peterson played on average teams that did not make the playoffs, so this gives players like Miami Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas a chance to win.
Most people seem to think the Dolphins won't make the playoffs due to being in the same division as the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. However, the Dolphins have the potential to at least be average due to their underrated defense and talented offensive players not at the quarterback position.
Naturally being a rookie, Thomas hasn't proven anything yet. But with the Dolphins' horrible quarterback situation, they will very likely go back to running the ball a ton like they did in 2008 and 2009 when they had one of the league's best rushing attacks.
Thomas' only real competition for carries in the Miami backfield is Reggie Bush, who doesn't inspire much confidence as a starting running back. Thomas could surprise a lot of people if he is able to secure the starting running back job.
The defensive rookie of the year award typically goes to linebackers and defensive tackles. Sacks and tackles are usually the numbers that voters look at for this award. Defensive superstars can be hard to predict during their rookie years so for now there's no real favorite.
I've taken a lot of heat for saying the Cleveland Browns will do good this year. Nevertheless, I stand by my prediction that they are a playoff team and I think that the play of Phil Taylor will be a large part of that.
Taylor adds some much needed depth to Cleveland's defensive line. Although he is a huge man, he also has some rare speed for his size. He should be invaluable in helping the Browns defense stuff the run and pressure the quarterback this year.
The coach of the year winner is either the coach of the NFL's best team or a coach of an upstart team that surprised people by making the playoffs.
The only current NFL coach with multiple wins is Bill Belichick, who has won the award three times. Most of the other winners have been new coaches with early success, such as Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons and Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints.
This year, the coach of the year award should go to the underrated Ken Whisenhunt of the Arizona Cardinals.
Just three years ago, the Cardinals shocked everyone by playing in the Super Bowl and coming very close to winning it. That Cardinals team only had two years of greatness before Kurt Warner retired and after that, they promptly fell apart resulting in a dismal 5-11 season last year.
But there is still hope in the desert.
Promising young quarterback Kevin Kolb could be the answer at quarterback and even if he's not, the NFC West is extremely weak. The Cardinals will very likely only need to be around .500 to take back the division title and right now that looks possible.
Hopefully then Whisenhunt can win coach of the year and finally receive recognition for the job he has done, turning around a franchise that used to be one of the NFL's biggest jokes.
There are a lot of players that are eligible for the NFL's most inspiring award. To win this, a player needs to come back from either a serious injury or play at an elite level after experiencing some time playing worse than usual.
This year, players like Plaxico Burress and Tony Romo are early favorites to win the award.
I think a player that has a good shot of winning this award is Ryan Grant, although running backs don't win this award too much with the last one being Willis McGahee back in 2004. But there are several reasons why Grant makes a good candidate.
Last year during the season opener, Grant suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
Although the Packers won the Super Bowl, their running game was perhaps one of their only weaknesses. And even with James Starks stepping up in the postseason, Grant still has the ability to return and get back to the dominant running form he had in 2007 and 2009.