Editor's note: Because so many teams are already in shutdown mode, Cold, Hard Football Facts is ready to hand out its 2007 NFL fake awards over the next three days. We start with Defensive Player of the Year.
 
By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts defender of goodness
 
The field for the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2007 is overcrowded, like one of those Kentucky Derbys where they have to bring in extra starting stalls and you're worried that there's going to be a mass pileup when the gun sounds.
 
And, in addition to a list of legitimate candidates that goes at least 10 deep, there's the extra handicap: defensive players' stats are only a small part of their overall contribution.
 
So, how do you pick one Defensive Player of the Year, based as much as possible upon the Cold, Hard Football Facts?
 
We decided the best way to approach the issue was to thin the field with a few obvious (to us) criteria, until there's one man standing.
 
It works for TV reality shows, so why not NFL awards?
 
Let's get to it:  
 
Criteria No. 1: Do they play on a top defense?
Can a dominant defensive performer play for a bad or mediocre defense?
 
Not in our book.
 
Even when Jason Taylor took the trophy last year for a poor Miami team, he did it with a unit that ranked fifth in scoring defense and fourth in total defense. So being on a top defense is a must. Those big fish in sieve-infested waters just don't make the cut.
 
We'll judge a "top defense" as one that finishes in the top 12 in scoring defense and yards per play allowed (12 for the number of playoff teams, seems fair to us).
 
This narrows the field significantly, shutting out 24 of the 32 teams and leaving eight sturdy teams that should all be playing football in January:
  • Tampa Bay (t-1st in scoring defense, 1st in YPP)
  • Pittsburgh (3rd, 3rd)
  • Indianapolis (4th, 2nd)
  • New England (t-1st, 7th)
  • Seattle (5th, 8th)
  • Tennessee (9th, 4th)
  • Dallas (12th, 6th)
  • Minnesota (10th, 12th)
This criteria nudges out some guys having great seasons, like Aaron Kampmann of Green Bay, Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans of Houston, Antonio Cromartie of San Diego, Jared Allen of Kansas City, Patrick Willis of San Francisco and Ray Lewis of Baltimore (yes, Ray Lewis).
 
Criteria No. 2: Did they make the Pro Bowl?
Say what you want about the Pro Bowl (and we have), but if you can't demand enough attention to be in Hawaii when two-thirds of the vote comes from players and coaches, you can't be Defensive Player of the Year.
 
So, sorry, Derrick Brooks, Barrett Ruud and Ronde Barber of Tampa. No hardware for you. Sorry, Gary Brackett in Indy. Sorry, James Farrior and Casey Hampton of Pittsburgh.
 
Now we're cooking with gas! Our list of legitimate candidates is shrinking faster than Little Willy on our annual New Year's Day polar bear swim.
 
Criteria No. 3: Do they make a compelling statistical impact?
Individual defensive stats are not always the best indicator of effectiveness. But even if a player's individual numbers aren't strong, they could make a clear impact in other areas of the defense.
 
But two of those players on our shrinking list fall short in both areas: Patriots DT Vince Wilfork has no significant stats and is the anchor of a poor Patriots run defense (4.38 YPA allowed, 26th). Minnesota's Kevin Williams has only three sacks as a hybrid DE-DT for the Vikings and their No. 15-ranked Defensive Hogs.

Criteria No. 4: Are they the best player on their defense this year?
Seems logical that you can't be the best defensive player in the league if you're not clearly the best defensive player on your team.
 
Seahawks Marcus Trufant, Julian Peterson, Lofa Tatupu and Patrick Kerney are all having great seasons, but who stands out above the other? Plus, Seattle's defense is a step behind the leaders and the 'Hawks have played an incredibly weak schedule (league-low three games vs. Quality Teams, with just one victory). It's easy to look good when you're playing a JV slate.
 
New England's Asante Samuel and Mike Vrabel have had excellent seasons, but no individual on the Patriots defense really jumps out over the others (and Vrabel's big numbers have almost all come against weak sisters).
 
Same goes for Pat Williams of Minnesota, who is a great run-stuffer but comes off the field on passing downs and is considered No. 2 to Kevin Williams. As for safety Darren Sharper, we're not sure why he was a third Pro Bowler on a Vikings D that is good but not great.
 
Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu is great player. But the Steelers pitched two shutouts this year (21-0 over Seattle and 3-0 over Miami) and Polamalu missed both games.
 
And Dallas' three secondary Pro Bowlers (Ken Hamlin, Roy Williams, Terence Newman) are also in the same leaky boat: good players who haven't distinguished themselves from the other performers around them. Plus, CB Anthony Henry might have been better than any of them. The man to be feared in Dallas, clearly, is hybrid LB DeMarcus Ware (78 tackles, 13 sacks).
 
THE FINAL FOUR
OK. We're down to the nitty gritty now, with four great candidates who meet all the above criteria:
  • Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison
  • Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth 
  • Indy safety Bob Sanders
  • Dallas linebacker Demarcus Ware
All four have distinguished themselves as the leading defenders on top-ranked units, all four made the Pro Bowl and all four have made compelling statistical impacts.
 
Pittsburgh's Harrison has chalked up 91 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 1 INT for a 10-5 team ranked No. 3 in scoring D and No. 3 in YPP.
 
Tennessee's Haynesworth boasts a hefty 40 tackles, 6 sacks and 4 batted passes from the crowded middle of the defensive line for a 9-6 team ranked No. 9 in scoring D and No. 4 in YPP.
 
Indy's Sanders has made 90 tackles with 2.5 sacks, 6 passes defended  and 2 INT for a 13-2 team ranked No. 4 in scoring D and No. 2 in YPP.
 
Dallas's Ware has recorded 78 tackles, 13 sacks and 2 forced fumbles for a 13-2 team ranked No. 12 in scoring D and No. 6 in YPP.
 
Hard to single out one of the other, so we go to our usual differentiator of last resort ...
 
Criteria No. 5: Performance against Quality Opponents
All four of our finalists play for good teams with (except possibly for Tennessee's Haynesworth) big games ahead against tough competition. How they perform in big games matters at the end of the day.
 
Here's how each has fared against Quality Teams:
  • Harrison (5 games): 25 solo tackles, 0.5 sacks, 0 FF, 19.6 PPG allowed
  • Haynesworth (4 games): 12 solo tackles, 2.0 sacks, 17.0 PPG allowed
  • Sanders (5 games): 25 solo tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 19.8 PPG allowed 
  • Ware (6 games): 22 solo tackles, 4 sacks, 27.8 PPG allowed
That's enough to unload Pittsburgh's Harrison, who clearly amassed his big numbers against weaker foes. A full 5.5 of his 8.5 sacks came in three games against three of the worst teams in football: the Ravens, Jets and Dolphins, including 3.5 in the Baltimore game alone. In big late-season games against Quality Teams New England and Jacksonville, both losses, Harrison came up with just 9 solo tackles and not a single sack. 
 
And while Ware played fairly well against the big boys, his team's defense has been a complete disaster against Quality competition, surrendering an Oakland-esque 27.8 PPG.
 
So, Sanders or Haynesworth?
 
Both have missed games with injury. But both have put up excellent numbers for their positions, both have played well against Quality Opponents and both have served as the centerpiece performer of excellent defenses.
 
AND THE WINNER IS ...
 ... Bob Sanders!
 
Why? First, Indy's defense is better across the board than Tennessee's defense. And Sanders, the run-stuffing missile and play-maker on pass defense, is a big reason why.
  • The Colts are 4th in scoring defense (16.4 PPG); the Titans are 9th (19.1 PPG)
  • The Colts are 8th vs. the run (3.89 YPA); the Titans are 14th (3.99 YPA)
  • The Colts are 3rd in Defensive Passer Rating (71.3); the Titans are 5th (74.1)
The Titans were lost without Haynesworth in the four starts he missed (28.5 PPG allowed). But, as we reported earlier this, year the Colts have also been a collective wreck without Sanders over the past two seasons.
 
And Sanders is clearly the No. 1 guy on that defense. The Colts didn't miss a beat without Dwight Freeney (6-0 since he went out and their defensive line play has actually improved without him), and Indy's very young secondary has been spectacular thanks largely to Sanders' impact: they allow a league-low 5.7 yards per pass attempt and stand second in the NFL with 22 INT.
 
Haynesworth has more help in Tennessee, with proven veterans like Pro Bowl DE Kyle Vandenbosch, LBs Keith Bulluck and David Thornton and S Chris Hope around him.
 
Will Sanders win when the "official" league awards are issued? Probably. He has name recognition, good numbers and a very successful team – and memories of Indy's defensive run to glory last year might still be fresh in voters' minds.