A quick glance at items of interest as Week 14 rolls on …
Who’s hot: Aaron Donald. In this season of record-setting offensive fireworks in the NFL, it would be quite the irony if a defensive player somehow winds up as the league’s MVP. Sure, gunslinger QBs Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes are considered the frontrunners, and Todd Gurley is in the mix, too. But there are legitimate reasons to consider the Rams’ remarkable D-tackle for an honor that only Lawrence Taylor (1986) and Alan Page (1971) have won from that "other" side of the ball. First: Gurley might even suggest that Donald is the best player on the best team, as the Rams (11-1) take the NFL’s best record into the Sunday night showdown against the Bears at Soldier Field. Also: With an NFL-high 16½ sacks, Donald could break Michael Strahan’s NFL-record 22½ sacks from 2001, a mark aided by a Brett Favre flop in the waning stages of the finale. If Donald (with six multi-sack games this season) gets the record, let’s hope there are no such assists. That he has a shot at it while playing on the interior line is a testament to his greatness, bolstered by speed, strength and fire. And you want valuable? No other Rams defender has more than four sacks. Donald also leads the league in tackles for loss, quarterback hits and naturally, sack yardage. True wrecking-ball stuff. And his case rests on this fact: The Rams have allowed zero touchdowns this season on drives when Donald has notched a sack.
Pressure’s on: Ron Rivera. After watching franchise quarterback Cam Newton throw four interceptions at Tampa, the Panthers coach opted for drastic measures: He fired two defensive assistants (Brady Hoke, Jeff Imamura) and stripped D-coordinator Eric Washington of play-calling duties. What, maybe a tighter defense with Rivera calling the plays will help Newton better protect the football? At least it might create more chances for shorter fields. During the four-game losing streak that Carolina (6-6) takes to Cleveland, the defense produced its lone takeaway last weekend, while the secondary was stung for big plays in too many key situations. Rivera is a two-time NFL Coach of the Year who once rallied the Panthers from a six-game losing streak to win a division title, so he’s had teams before catch fire down the stretch. But still, turning a 6-2 start into .500 can’t be a good way to impress Carolina’s new owner.
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