NEW ORLEANS — Linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina’s tackling machine, was named the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year on Saturday night.
Kuechly, a first-round pick from Boston College, led the league with 164 tackles. He moved to middle linebacker five games into the season and the Panthers went from 24th in the league in defense to 10th.
He earned 28 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the league. That easily outdistanced Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner with 11.
Kuechly is the second Panther to win the award; Julius Peppers got it in 2002.
Kuechly accepted his award at the ‘‘2nd Annual NFL Honors’’ awards show, saluting the NFL’s best players, performances, and plays from the 2012 season.
Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, called his career-threatening knee injury a blessing in disguise.
The Vikings star came back better than ever, just missing Eric Dickerson’s longstanding rushing record and closing out the season with two of the top NFL awards: Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.
As sort of an added bonus, he beat Peyton Manning for both of them.
‘‘My career could have easily been over, just like that,’’ Peterson said. ‘‘Oh, man. The things I’ve been through throughout my lifetime have made me mentally tough. I’m kind of speechless. This is amazing.’’
Manning’s own sensational recovery, from four neck surgeries, earned him Comeback Player honors.
‘‘This injury was unlike any other,’’ said the only four-time league MVP. ‘‘There really was no bar or standard, there were no notes to copy. We were coming up with a rehab plan as we went.’’
Before sitting out 2011, Manning had never missed a start in his first 13 seasons with Indianapolis. But he was released by the Colts last winter because of his neck issues, signed with Denver, and guided the Broncos to the AFC’s best record (13-3).
‘‘Certainly you have double variables of coming off injury, not playing for over year, and joining a new team. That certainly added a lot to my plate, so it was hard to really know what to expect,’’ Manning said. ‘‘I can’t tell you how grateful and thankful I am. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be playing the game of football we all love so much.’’
Peterson returned better than ever from the left knee surgery, rushing for 2,097 yards, 9 short of breaking Dickerson’s record. He also sparked the Vikings’ turnaround from 3-13 to 10-6 and a wild-card playoff berth.
He received 30½ votes to 19½ for Manning.
‘‘I played my heart out, every opportunity I had,’’ Peterson said. ‘‘The result of that is not what I wanted, which is being in the Super Bowl. But I have a couple of good pieces of hardware to bring back and [put] in my statue area. So, it feels good.’’
Was the knee injury the toughest thing he’d ever overcome?
‘‘Losing my brother at 7, seeing him get hit by a car right in front of me, that was the toughest,’’ he said. ‘‘But as far as injuries, yes.’’
Patriot Tom Brady was the last winner of MVP and Offensive Player, in 2010.
‘‘Trying to get two or three like Peyton, trying to get to your level,’’ Peterson said of his first MVP award. ‘‘But I won’t be there to accept it because I’ll be winning with my coach, the most important award, the team award, the Super Bowl.’’
Washington’s Robert Griffin III beat out fellow quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Griffin, who underwent knee surgery last month, said, ‘‘It’s truly a blessing to be up there — to be able to stand, first and foremost.’’
Houston end J.J. Watt was named Defensive Player of the Year, missing a perfect ballot by one vote. The NFL’s sacks leader with 20½ and a pass-blocking fiend, Watt earned 49 votes. Denver linebacker Von Miller received the other vote.
Watt, a versatile second-year player with a tremendous burst off the line, also forced four fumbles and recovered two in helping the Texans to their second straight AFC South title. With his long wingspan, he blocked a stunning 16 passes.
Bruce Arians became the first interim coach to win Coach of the Year honors. Arians, now the head coach in Arizona, replaced Chuck Pagano in September when the Colts coach was diagnosed with leukemia. Arians went 9-3 before Pagano returned, and Indianapolis made the playoffs at 10-6.