Since I didn't get to hand out any game balls this year for the first time in ages, I would at least like to hand out a few honors to the top players and coaches in the NFL.

NFC OFFENSIVE PLAYER: It should come as no surprise that Detroit's Barry Sanders gets the award. He needs 169 yards rushing against Miami on Sunday to become only the third back ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Even if he doesn't make it, he has had a phenomenal year against defenses that are always stacked against him. He has also performed well against teams that traditionally stop the run.Early in the year, Minnesota held Sanders to 16 yards. Last Saturday, in the big game of the year for both clubs, Sanders ran for 110 and scored the back-breaking touchdown. Some of his best runs only go for seven or eight yards, but they are things of beauty.

Obviously, the 49ers' Steve Young has had a remarkable season with 34 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions. I think his performances year in and year out in that offense have led us to expect numbers along those lines. But this year he has been exceptional.

NFC DEFENSIVE PLAYER: I have to go with the 49ers' Deion Sanders but not so much for his five interceptions, which have included three long touchdown returns. I give Sanders the award because of what he allows the 49ers' defense to do with the other 10 players. While Deion locks up man-to-man on a top receiver, they can double on the other side and play eight men against the run if they choose.

Contrary to some people's opinions, I like the way he plays with a flair. I like the way he injects confidence into the rest of the team.

One player I would consider strongly here is Cowboys tackle Leon Lett. I know a lot of opposing offensive line coaches know what I'm talking about. They are probably the ones, along with opposing players, who voted Lett a Pro Bowl starter. Because he plays inside and because of the Cowboys' occasional rotation of players, he's not going to get the great stats. But he is a dominant force.

NFC COACH: You can look at all the Bears going to the Pro Bowl (none) and tell what kind of job Dave Wannstedt and his staff have done in Chicago. They are still suspect when they go up against a really talented team. But they win the games they're supposed to win and occasionally sneak up on a Miami or a Buffalo. That's given them a chance to win the Central Division this week.

Dave coaches all three phases of the game . . . disciplined offense, aggressive defense and superior special teams.

The runner-up here would be the 49ers' George Seifert. He never gets the credit he deserves because of his team's talent, but Seifert is as good a coach as there is in the NFL.

AFC OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Although on a few occasions Dan Marino has been inconsistent, he remains the most dangerous quarterback in the league. No one in the AFC comes close to his 30 touchdowns, and he has had to carry the Dolphins, who have been without a running game since losing Terry Kirby and Keith Byars.

In my opinion, the Dolphins have not always taken advantage of Marino's skills. If a team doesn't have a running game, why try to force the run? Let Marino throw it.

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AFC DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Pittsburgh linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene have to finish in a tie here. They have 24 sacks between them. It's their style of play that is going to make the Steelers a real force in the post-season. This team has an innovative style, created by coordinator Dom Capers. More than anything, he is utilizing the quickness and aggressiveness of his players, and Lloyd and Greene fit right into the scheme.

The runner-up here would be Bruce Smith. In a down year for Buffalo, he again proved himself the most talented defensive lineman in the NFL.

AFC COACH: In Cleveland, Bill Belichick has quietly (fitting his personality) taken a poor team and transformed it into one of the better clubs. They remain inconsistent on offense but now have a dominating defense. Their overall philosophy is patterned after the winning Giants teams for which Belichick served as defensive coordinator.

I do still feel it is a shame that Bernie Kosar and Belichick were not on the same page and could not work together. I believe Bernie Kosar could have helped the Browns in the playoffs this year.

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