Over the past two weeks, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu has essentially beaten the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals single-handedly. Okay, okay, okay...football is the ultimate team sport and great coaches make great players, but I don't think it's controversial to say that Polamalu contributed to these victories as much as any non-quarterback could hope to.
Two weeks ago, with about three minutes left in a tightly-contested divisional matchup, Polamalu lined up outside Baltimore left tackle Michael Oher and went in untouched to strip-sack quarterback Joe Flacco, ultimately setting up a late-game Pittsburgh touchdown. Steelers win.
This past Sunday, Polamalu one-upped himself, accounting for two of the Pittsburgh's three interceptions against his former USC roommate, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. His 45-yard touchdown return was crucial in a game in which Ben Roethlisberger and company couldn't muster an offensive touchdown. Steelers win.
So it's not just that Polamalu is making the highlight reel - we've come to expect that. It's that his big plays are coming at crucial points in tooth-and-nail games, directly leading to Steelers victories. That's what makes him as much of a slam dunk for Defensive Player of the Year as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is for league MVP.
Granted, Polamalu went through a bit of a "slump" during midseason, at least by his standards. After recording four interceptions in the first three games - all the more crucial when you recall the absence of Roethlisberger at the time - Polamalu failed to register a pick in seven straight contests. Now, he has four in his last four games and is on pace to cruise past his career-best mark (seven).
So, if you'd asked me about a month ago who would win Defensive Player of the Year, I probably would've said sack leader Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, who has been disruptive all year. (That seems unlikely at this point, given the Pack's record. I don't think that should matter when evaluating an individual player, but alas - that's how most sportswriters think.) Or perhaps even fellow Steeler Lawrence Timmons, who was an absolute terror early in the season. (I've said elsewhere that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau employing both Polamalu and Timmons in a zone blitz scheme is almost unfair - like playing chess with two queens.)
Now, however, it feels like the award is Polamalu's to lose. Of course, he'd be just fine with that, so long as his Steelers wrap up the AFC North crown. That's the other thing - Polamalu's a tremendously humble, immensely congenial player. It'd be hard to not like the guy even if you weren't a fan of the Black & Gold.
In fact, it feels a little absurd to even be writing about him at this point. Deeming Polamalu worthy of Defensive Player Of The Year is a little like giving a trophy to the sky for being blue. Or to DeSean Jackson for being pathological showboater (video). Everyone knows Polamalu can play. I have a feeling that even in an Encino Man situation, where we defrosted some Neanderthal and pushed him in front of the TV on Sunday, he'd find some primitive way of conveying that that guy with the hair is pretty good at this whole football thing. (And if bodily harm should befall Pauly Shore in the process, well, I could live with that.)
Of course, awards are just icing on the cake. What Polamalu (and Steelers fans) really want is a first-round bye and a seventh Super Bowl title. In the meantime, we'll just have to see how everything plays out.
I'll leave you now with my favorite Polamalu moment from the season. It's an artifact from Week 2 I had extracted from the archives - don't mind the dust. Polamalu has made so many plays in the interim that it we nearly lost this one in the vault.
Enjoy the ride, Steelers fans.