For the record, the 2012 Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America All-NFL team could be unrivaled in terms of big-time, star-studded record breakers.
Start with Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who broke Jerry Rice’s single-season league record for receiving yards with room to spare (1,964 — 116 more yards than Rice registered for the Niners in 1995).
Completing the core of a team overflowing with megawatt star power are Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who finished the season just nine yards short of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record (2,105 for the Rams in 1984); Broncos QB Peyton Manning, who it seems sets a new league passing record every time he cocks his arm; and the trio of Texans DE J.J. Watt and OLBs Aldon Smith (Niners) and Von Miller (Broncos), each of whom made a serious run at Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record (221⁄2 for the Giants in 2001).
On a squad almost evenly split between 14 AFC selections and 13 NFC selections, one other characteristic sticks out: It’s a team also overflowing with winning players, as evidenced by the fact 21 of the 27 selections participated in this year’s playoffs.
Broken down by team, the 49ers set the pace with four selections, followed closely by the Broncos, Patriots, Seahawks and Vikings, each with three representatives. The Texans, Ravens and Bears each added two players to the mix, with five other teams providing one selection each — the Lions, Dolphins, Bengals, Chargers and Bills.
Broken down by draft round, there are 14 first-round picks, three second-round picks, two third-round picks, two fourth-round picks, two fifth-round picks, three sixth-round picks and one undrafted free agent (Dolphins DE Cameron Ware).
Peterson, Johnson and Watt were unanimous selections.
There are five players on the team who were not voted to the Pro Bowl — Vikings C John Sullivan, Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, Chargers S Eric Weddle, Niners P Andy Lee and Bills PR Leodis McKelvin, who was aced out because the Pro Bowl acknowledges only one kick returner from each conference.
QB Peyton Manning / Broncos Tightening his lock on a first-ballot ticket to Canton, the 36-year-old Manning was brilliant in his first season in Denver. Directing his team to at least 12 wins for the eighth time in his last nine seasons with the Colts and Broncos, he tied for the league lead with 10 100-plus passer ratings, tied for second in completion percentage (68.6) and became only the second player in league history (Steve Young, 1998) to throw for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in four consecutive games.
RB Adrian Peterson / Vikings Defying modern medicine with his remarkable comeback from both a torn ACL and MCL suffered on Christmas Eve in Washington last season, PFW/PFWA’s league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year kept getting tougher to stop as the season wore on. Widely considered the NFL’s best pure runner in years, Peterson was a man on a mission in pursuit of a 2,000-yard season and Eric Dickerson’s treasured rushing mark. With Peterson setting a goal of 2,500 rushing yards for 2013, it would be a big mistake to rule out that possibility.
RB Marshawn Lynch / Seahawks Finishing third in the league with a career-high 1,590 yards on a career-high 315 carries, Lynch tied Peterson for the league lead in 100-yard games (10) and has reached the century mark in 17 of his last 26 games (including playoffs). Possessing a beastly talent for picking up extra yards after contact, Lynch became increasingly dangerous operating alongside rookie QB Russell Wilson in the read-option offense the Seahawks so successfully unveiled down the stretch.
WR Calvin Johnson / Lions Before he’s done playing, the odds are great the man they call “Megatron” could shatter every receiving record imaginable. In addition to breaking Jerry Rice’s record for most receiving yards in a season, Johnson set records for consecutive 100-yard receiving games (eight) and consecutive games with 10-plus receptions (four) and tied Hall of Fame WR Michael Irvin’s single-season record for most 100-yard games (11).
WR Brandon Marshall / Bears First-year GM Phil Emery hit the jackpot, as Marshall, obtained in a trade with Miami last March, provided a lion’s share of the Bears’ offense as Jay Cutler’s primary receiving weapon. Marshall tied for second in the league in catches (118) behind Johnson while scoring six more TDs (11), and he increased his value by making a concerted effort to be on his best behavior — both on and off the field.
TE Rob Gronkowski / Patriots They don’t make receiving tight ends any better than Gronkowski, whose red-zone chemistry with Patriots QB Tom Brady is a key element in the league’s most productive offense. With 11 TDs in his third season — despite missing five games with a broken forearm — Gronkowski became the first tight end in league history to register 10-plus TD catches in three consecutive seasons.
C John Sullivan / Vikings Peterson’s amazing season was far from a one-man effort, with the greatly underrated Sullivan throwing key blocks on many of Peterson’s big runs, the majority of which were right up the middle and to the right side. Playing next to a converted tackle (OLG Charlie Johnson) and a first-year starter who played his college ball at Division II Slippery Rock (ORG Brandon Fusco), Sullivan was the Vikes’ glue up front.
OG Mike Iupati / 49ers A starter in every game since being drafted with the 17th pick in the 2010 draft, this mellow Samoan is a much different breed of cat on the field, displaying a natural nasty streak that makes his physically imposing stature even more menacing on arguably the league’s best run-blocking O-line.
OG Marshal Yanda / Ravens Skilled and versatile, Yanda allowed zero sacks, according to STATS LLC. He also was a very effective run blocker — the Ravens averaged 4.83 yards running off right guard in the regular season, the eighth-best average in the NFL.
OT Duane Brown / Texans Equally good as a pass protector and run blocker, the extremely athletic Brown excels at getting to the second level for a Texans offense that ranked seventh in the league and produced a 1,000-yard rusher for the third consecutive season. In his five pro seasons, Brown has been penalized for holding only twice.
OT Ryan Clady / Broncos Clady had his best season statistically, and he did it in his contract year. Selected to his third career Pro Bowl, he allowed the fewest sacks (one) among tackles who started every game for their team this season. Like Iupati, Clady has yet to miss a game in his pro career.
DE J.J. Watt / Texans The numbers don’t lie in the case of PFW/PFWA’s Defensive MVP — most notably Watt’s league-leading and franchise-record 20½ sacks. The only player in league history with 15 sacks and 15 passes defended (16 total) in the same season, the relentless Watt also led the Texans with a career-high 81 tackles (including a team-high 39 for loss), four forced fumbles and had two fumble recoveries.
DE Cameron Wake / Dolphins Standing a very narrow tier below the top-three sack trio of Watt, Aldon Smith and Von Miller, Wake finished third in the AFC behind Watt and Miller with 15 sacks and has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the league’s most feared edge rushers.
DT Geno Atkins / Bengals In his third season, Atkins blossomed into the league’s most intimidating interior defender, as well as the primary force in one of the league’s most potent pass-rush units. Atkins registered 12½ sacks (fourth most in the AFC) — 4½ more than the league’s second most productive interior sacker, Lions DT Ndamukong Suh. Atkins also tied for the team lead with four forced fumbles.
DT Vince Wilfork / Patriots Arguably New England’s best defensive player, Wilfork commands the trenches and provides an extra dimension with his ability to play both inside or on the edge, when the Pats employ a “30” front. Wilfork makes his share of big plays (three sacks, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles) and has served as a defensive captain for the Patriots for five seasons in a row.
OLB Von Miller / Broncos The first player in team history to earn a Pro Bowl berth in each of his first two seasons, Miller has wasted no time becoming one of the league’s most dominant defenders, ranking in the top five in sacks (18½, third in the league), QB knockdowns, QB hurries, tackles for loss (28), run stuffs and forced fumbles (six). In 2012, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft became only the league’s second player since 1994 to record at least 15 sacks, 25 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles in a single season.
ILB Patrick Willis / 49ers Like Miller, Willis was an instant sensation at the NFL level, earning Pro Bowl berths in each of his six seasons. Working alongside ascending star NaVorro Bowman, Willis is considered “a five-tool linebacker who plays downhill better than any linebacker in football” according to head coach Jim Harbaugh. One of the league’s surest tacklers, Willis (120 tackles) continues to make big strides as a pass defender (two interceptions, nine passes defensed in ’12).
OLB Aldon Smith / 49ers Benefiting immensely from the dominant inside presence of teammate Justin Smith, whose beautifully choreographed stunts are often the keys to him getting to the opposing passer, Aldon Smith picked up this season where he left off last season, when his 14 sacks were the second most by a rookie in league history. Particularly effective in prime-time games, Smith finished second in the league and first in the NFC with 19½ sacks in his first season in an every-down role.
CB Richard Sherman / Seahawks A physical big-play defender adept at press coverage who plays with an edge and has a knack for getting under the skin of opposing receivers, the flashy Sherman tied for second in the league in interceptions (eight) and led the league in passes defensed (24). He was particularly effective in the last two regular-season games with a potential four-game suspension for allegedly testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, which he successfully appealed, hanging in the balance.
CB Charles Tillman / Bears A legitimate Defensive MVP candidate, Tillman spearheaded one of the league’s most opportunistic defenses, taking his well-documented ability to punch the ball out of offensive players’ hands to a new level with a league-high 10 forced fumbles. In addition, he tied for the league lead with three interception returns for TDs and twice was the key to holding Lions WR Calvin Johnson to fewer than 100 yards in Detroit’s two losses to the Bears.
S Earl Thomas / Seahawks While his numbers aren’t nearly as imposing as those of his secondary mate Sherman, the lightning-quick Thomas’ ability to provide consistent blanket coverage from sideline to sideline is one of the biggest reasons behind the Seattle defense’s great success.
S Eric Weddle / Chargers A subpar San Diego team overshadowed another solid season for Weddle, a ballhawk (three interceptions, two forced fumbles) who is also excellent against the run (team-high 97 tackles plus four tackles for loss).
PK Blair Walsh / Vikings After fixing an error in technique with Vikings special-teams coach Mike Priefer before the season, PFW’s 2012 Golden Toe Award winner as the league’s most outstanding kicker quickly became a potent scoring weapon, particularly from long distance (league-record 10-of-10 on FG attempts from 50 yards and beyond).
P Andy Lee / 49ers The co-winner of the Golden Toe Award last season, Lee had another banner season in ’12. In addition to tying for the league lead with a 43.2-yard net average, he ranked third in the league with 36 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
KR Jacoby Jones / Ravens Granted a badly needed fresh start after struggling at the end of his stint with the Texans, Jones led the league with a franchise-record 30.7-yard kickoff-return average and had three kick returns (two kickoffs, one punt) for TDs, including a 108-yarder that tied the league record shared by Randall Cobb (Packers) and Ellis Hobbs (Patriots).
PR Leodis McKelvin / Bills The speedy former first-rounder blossomed into an electric punt returner with a league-high 18.7-yard punt-return average and two TDs.
ST Matthew Slater / Patriots A solid gunner, Slater is headed to Honolulu for the second time after leading the Pats in special-teams tackles for the second straight season.
2012 PFW/Pro Football Writers of America All-NFL team
QB Peyton Manning / Broncos
RB Adrian Peterson / Vikings
RB Marshawn Lynch / Seahawks
WR Calvin Johnson / Lions
WR Brandon Marshall / Bears
TE Rob Gronkowski / Patriots
C John Sullivan / Vikings
OG Mike Iupati / 49ers
OG Marshal Yanda / Ravens
OT Duane Brown / Texans
OT Ryan Clady / Broncos
DE J.J. Watt / Texans
DE Cameron Wake / Dolphins
DT Geno Atkins / Bengals
DT Vince Wilfork / Patriots
OLB Von Miller / Broncos
OLB Aldon Smith / 49ers
MLB Patrick Willis / 49ers
CB Richard Sherman / Seahawks
CB Charles Tillman / Bears
S Earl Thomas / Seahawks
S Eric Weddle / Chargers
PK Blair Walsh / Vikings
P Andy Lee / 49ers
KR Jacoby Jones / Ravens
PR Leodis McKelvin / Bills
ST Matthew Slater / Patriots