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DEFENSIVE PLAYER: LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers.

Woodley is dealing with a left hamstring problem, about the only thing to slow him this season. Forget James Harrison or Troy Polamalu, Woodley has been the best and most influential player on the Steel Curtain. It’s amazing how Pittsburgh always seems to find the perfect linebacker for its system.

Woodley is dynamite as a pass rusher, in coverage and, especially, against the run. He has become a leader on a defense not lacking for them, and he’s only in his fifth year.

Runners-up: Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota; Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets; Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore; DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas; Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco.

COMEBACK PLAYER: Steve Smith, WR, Carolina.

Nobody has been recharged more than Smith, who was expecting to ask out of Carolina after last season’s two-win season. He even contemplated retirement.

Now, energized by the addition of Newton and a new coaching staff, Smith is as dangerous and dynamic as ever. He is averaging 20 yards a reception for his 46 catches, has scored four times, and also has provided guidance for Newton and several other younger Panthers in what could be his fifth Pro Bowl season.

Runners-up: Will Smith, DE, New Orleans; Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit; Chris Houston, CB, Detroit; Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco; DeMeco Ryans, LB, Houston.

COACH: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco.

A valid argument can be made for a handful of coaches whose teams have either surged unexpectedly in the standings (Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati), improved exponentially from a very good to great team (Green Bay), or overcome a slew of injuries and some locker room tension to be in first place (New York Giants).

The best job has been done by a rookie. Harbaugh not only has changed the mindset and attitude in the Bay Area with his enthusiasm, but he’s turned Alex Smith into a serviceable and, more significantly, winning quarterback.

“When there’s somebody who brings something like that to the table, it gives you, I don’t know if it’s confidence or if it just gives that joy in going out and playing that hard,” punter Andy Lee said. “You want to go out and play for this guy.”

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