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Time for NFL awards

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

The wild-card scrambles are delicious. So is the intrigue in the coaching ranks.

And just after the regular season concludes Sunday, ballots will be cast for The Associated Press NFL awards by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the league. Such honors as most valuable player, offensive and defensive players and rookies of the year, coach of the year and comeback player will be decided.

How about taking a look at some very unofficial awards for which no trophies will be handed out?

MOST MEMORABLE GAME

If you like offense, can't beat Steelers 37, Packers 36, won on the final play. If it's defense you prefer, how about the bruising 17-15 win by the Colts over the Ravens?

But the most-talked-about game has to be Colts 35, Patriots 34 on Nov. 15. New England led nearly all night, sputtered at the end, then fell after Bill Belichick's much-discussed (and usually maligned) decision to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Patriots 28 in the final minutes. Tom Brady threw, Kevin Faulk caught and bobbled, Melvin Bullitt tackled. New England came up short, and Peyton Manning guided the Colts to a touchdown and the win.

Sure makes for something to look forward to if the Pats and Colts meet up in January.

MOST FORGETTABLE GAME

Not a lot of yawners to choose from in what has been an exciting and topsy-turvy season. The, uh, standout among the stinkers remains Cleveland 6, Buffalo 3 on Oct. 11, just as it was for the first half of the schedule.

In snapping a 10-game losing streak, the Browns won even though Derek Anderson went 2 for 17 for 23 yards and they picked up just nine first downs. So how did they win?

Dave Zastudil put seven of nine punts inside the Bills 20. When Roscoe Parrish muffed one, it set up the winning score. A field goal, naturally -- expecting touchdowns in this game was fantasy football.

BEST TURNAROUND

No matter how it turned out, the Titans' rise from 0-6 to playoff contention was remarkable. Most teams that begin with six losses are lucky to finish 4-12. Jeff Fisher, with more than a little prodding from owner Bud Adams, then turned to Vince Young to replace struggling Kerry Collins at quarterback. A well-timed bye week made the transition easier, the defense got healthier, and suddenly the Titans looked like the club that went 13-3 a year ago. At least until Christmas night.

WORST TURNAROUND

Someone could argue the Steelers, whose fall from champions to middle of the pack included losses to the Raiders, Chiefs, Browns and Bears. We'll go with the Buccaneers, whose plummet began with four straight defeats to end the 2008 season, then a housecleaning that has not looked particularly planned out.

While the Steelers' future isn't murky, it's questionable if Johnny Depp could sail in on the Black Pearl and save the Bucs, despite their upset of the Saints last Sunday.

BEST FREE AGENT SIGNING

Brett Favre, anyone? Not at all a bad selection, although not the best selection. That would be either Brian Dawkins or Darren Sharper.

Dawkins has spearheaded the defensive turnaround in Denver as one of those game-changing safeties who have become almost commonplace in the league. He's been a difference maker, though not as much as Sharper has. The Saints have learned to make big plays on defense, even if their stats aren't tremendously different from 2008. Their record (13-2) is, of course, and Sharper with his nine interceptions and three TD returns is a major reason.

WORST FREE AGENT SIGNING

Tampa Bay signed kicker Mike Nugent in the offseason and his fifth pro season was cut short a month later when the Bucs cut him after he missed two field goal attempts in a 16-13 loss to the Redskins. He began the schedule by missing his first four tries.

Nugent hooked on with Arizona in December; doesn't help the Bucs any.

BEST NFL BROADCASTS

Yep, Monday nights are fun again, thanks to the trio of Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden. It's almost like watching a game with a group of friends -- well-informed friends, naturally -- who not only get along nicely, but entertain as they educate. No one is better with Xs and Os and inside football information than Jaws. Gruden's humor and infectious personality add spice, and ESPN has benefited from some strong games, beginning with an opening doubleheader that went down to the wire and concluding with that gripping Bears win over Minnesota.

BEST TV PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER

Tirico might sometimes feel like a traffic cop directing the cross-intersection flow between Gruden and Jaworski. But he's also a major reason the telecasts work, from his smooth delivery to setting up his analysts for commentary. Knowledgeable about his craft as much as about league goings-on, Tirico will interject some pointed observations of his own, spicing up the broadcast even more.

BEST TV ANALYST

He doesn't get the top games on Fox each week, which is a shame. A former NFL defensive tackle, Tim Ryan has a fluid way of describing every nuance of football that makes a very complicated sport much more simple to understand. Want to know about the A-gap, B-gap, red dogs and stunts? He's your guy. Want to know about everything else to do with the NFL? He's also your guy.

BEST RADIO ANALYST

For clear-headed critiques tinged with humor but ripe with opinion, nobody beats Boomer Esiason on Monday night broadcasts on Westwood One. He works with a combination of play-by-play men, and seems to have a winning rapport with each of them. Esiason has a wealth of entertaining anecdotes he can fall back on, even making dull games tolerable. His best work comes in the tight contests, and his explanations for what happened and why are unbeatable.