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Only a cast can stop J.J. Watt (and even that's iffy)

It looked like the Texans' all-universe defensive lineman was a lock for the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year award until he broke his hand and went two straight games without a sack. Does that open the door for another defensive player to take home the award?

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Danny Kelly: J.J. Watt absolutely owned the month of November. He had an NFL-best 7.5 sacks, 26 quarterback hits and nine tackles for loss, along with a forced fumble and 20 total tackles on his way to being named the Defensive Player of the Month as the Texans won four in a row. Things kind of went off the rails since then, though. Watt broke his hand, hasn't had a sack in two games (the first time since he was a rookie in 2011), and he hasn't practiced this week yet.

In what had looked to be a runaway race for the Defensive Player of the Year award, has anyone closed ground on Watt and/or do you think that anyone could push past him if his hand injury continues to impede his ability to get after opposing quarterbacks?

If not Watt, who do you like for that award this year?

Stephen White: I think the fact that Watt has been hindered with that broken hand of late definitely gives an opening for some other guys to kind of leap frog him right here at the end in Defensive Player Of The Year voting. We saw Rams second-year defensive tackle Aaron Donald, for instance, put on an absolute show Thursday night against Tampa for a nationwide audience, and he leads all interior defensive linemen in sacks this season. Tons of people also saw Raiders second-year rush linebacker Khalil Mack put up five(!) sacks last week against the Broncos in a heavily watched late afternoon game to take overtake Watt for the season lead in sacks this year. Then you have a guy like Tyrann Mathieu who just does everything for the Arizona Cardinals that you can think of on the back end and does it all pretty damn well. Another guy who you can't count out is Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is very popular in his own right and is the leader of the unit that many people believe is the real driving force behind Carolina's undefeated start so far.

Watt could pick it up even with the broken hand, which would probably challenge all of the rest of them to step their games up as well. With him hurting, however, those other players definitely have the opportunity to finish the season strong and not only gain ground on him, but maybe even leap frog him if he continues to struggle a little bit these last three weeks. The question, of course, is who has the best chance to pull that off?

For me I feel like people tend to be swayed by big numbers. Whether it's big tackle numbers, big sack numbers or big interception numbers, there just aren't enough people who make these kinds of decisions after watching hours of films vs. skimming a few minutes of stat sheets. For that reason a guy like Mack, to me, has an excellent chance to pull off the upset.

Mack has an incredible nine(!) sacks in the last three games and you just can't overestimate the impact of people seeing and/or hearing about his huge game last week that helped Oakland beat Denver in Denver for the first time in forever. If Mack can come close to continuing on this hot streak of sacks and ends up winning the sack crown this year, after the hype that surrounded him heading into this his second season in the first place, he may just have enough juice to snatch that DPOY right out of Watt's hands.

If there is going to be someone other than J.J. Watt named DPOY this season, who would you say has the best chance at this point, Danny?

Danny: Well, first of all, I definitely agree with you that eye-popping stats -- and more importantly, the sexiest stats like sacks and interceptions -- are typically a big influencer in awards like this. Bigger and better play toward the end of the season also tends to be a factor.

For those reasons, though he very well may deserve it, I wonder if Tyrann Mathieu will get serious consideration. He's got 84 tackles and four picks, and plays a really cool hybrid position that's a combination of corner, safety and linebacker, but he might not get serious looks unless he grabs a few more interceptions before it's all said and done. There is some history of safeties winning this award -- Troy Polamalu did it in 2010, Charles Woodson did it in 2009, Bob Sanders in 2007 and Ed Reed won it in 2004. Apart from Sanders in 2007 though (who had two picks), those guys have had pretty gaudy interception numbers (seven for Polamalu, nine for Woodson, and nine for Reed). Picks aren't everything, but like you said, when you're scanning stat sheets they look pretty nice. I think that Josh Norman would be another potential candidate for the award but may need to get his interception totals up before the year is over to make a real run at it.

It doesn't help Norman or Mathieu's case that another legit candidate in Luke Kuechly has four interceptions of his own while doing all the things we've come to love about him. He's got an unreal ability to diagnose plays and always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. He's a crushing tackler, good in coverage, is a strong leader and has done much to give the Panthers a real shot at going undefeated this year. I do think it kind of hurts his case a little this year that he's got Norman behind him doing the shutdown corner thing, otherwise Kuechly might be a bigger contender behind Watt.

At the end of the day, I think it's going to come down to Aaron Donald or Khalil Mack needing to finish strong and overtake J.J. Watt for this thing. Donald has been nearly as disruptive as Watt this year and put that on full display against the Bucs this week.

He's got a good chance over the last two weeks of the season to really go out with a bang too, which will sway votes in my opinion. The Rams are finishing up against the Seahawks and 49ers, who both have pretty terrible pass blocking groups this year respectively. Seattle's improved a bit over the last couple weeks but I still wouldn't say they're "good" per se, and holy shit, the Niners' offensive line is a complete mess. It would not be shocking to see Donald rack up three or four sacks in Week 17, honestly, considering the fact that they gave up NINE sacks to the Browns last week -- the Browns, a team without any one elite pass rusher. If Donald can go out with a bang, writers will be voting in the week between the end of the season and the Wild Card round, and that could help give him the push he needs.

Is there any way that Mack can do the same? Was the five sacks thing a fluke or could he put up some big numbers against the Chargers and Chiefs to finish out the year? Who will he be rushing against?

Stephen: Considering the Chargers' tackles have been banged up and they are the team Von Miller won his Hoss of the Week award against two weeks ago, I'm going to go ahead and say yes, it's a definite possibility that Khalil Mack can continue his torrid pace ... probable, even.

One thing I did want to circle back to was all those sacks the 49ers, or should I say Blaine Gabbert, gave up to the Browns last week. On several of those Gabbert had every opportunity to throw the ball away, but instead stepped out of bounds taking a sack. I don't want to cast aspersions on the guy, but I did find that very curious. Who knows if he continues to do that or not when they play the Rams, but if he does, Aaron Donald might get to 15 sacks in that game alone.

I'm not counting out J.J. Watt, however. He has three division games to end the season with the Texans still contending for the crown and a playoff berth. I wouldn't at all be surprised if he was able to adjust to the cast over the next three games and get back to sacking the quarterback. As a matter of fact, I have a funny feeling he has been hearing all this commentary about him not recording a QB hit the last couple weeks and he's about to take it out on the Colts this weekend. If he has a big game he may well put this race to bed before it even officially finishes.