NEW ORLEANS – Adrian Peterson called it a blessing in disguise.

Strange way to describe a career-threatening major knee surgery.

The Minnesota 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 from The Associated Press: Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.

As sort of an added bonus, he beat Peyton Manning for both of them Saturday night.

“My career could have easily been over, just like that,” the sensational running back 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, ” he said in accepting his awards during a show on CBS saluting the NFL’s best players, performances and plays from the 2012 season. The awards were based on balloting from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the NFL.

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 a 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.”

Also honored were:

Houston end J.J. Watt, who 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 of 50 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, who became the first interim coach to win Coach of the Year honors. Now the head coach in Arizona, he 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, making Arians an easy winner.

“It’s hard to put into words the feelings of this past year,” said Arians, who was hired by the Cardinals in late January. “This was kind of the cherry on the top, whipped cream and everything else you put on top.”

Arians received 36½ votes. Pagano finished second with 5½, while Pete Carroll of Seattle received five and Leslie Frazier of Minnesota got three.

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who beat out fellow quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Griffin earned 29 votes. Luck was next with 11 and Wilson got 10.

“All the competition for this award is extremely good,” said Griffin, who rushed for 815 yards, and threw for 3,200 yards with 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions. “It seems like the league’s in good hands with the young quarterbacks.”

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, chosen as Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Kuechly, a first-round pick from Boston College, led the league with 164 tackles. He began the season on the outside but moved to middle linebacker five games into the season, and Carolina went from 24th in the league in overall defense to 10th.

He earned 28 votes, easily outdistancing Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner (11). Green Bay cornerback Casey Hayward got six votes, while St. Louis cornerback Janoris Jenkins got three. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David got the other two votes.

49ERS: Cornerback Chris Culliver will begin sensitivity training and education immediately after the Super Bowl following his anti-gay remarks this week, then start volunteer work with at-risk homosexual youth nationwide.

Culliver is scheduled to begin working with “The Trevor Project,” an organization that provides crisis and suicide intervention to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, according to his public relations representative, Theodore Palmer.

“It’s just an opportunity for him to learn about his comments and educate himself about the LGBT community, and grow,” Palmer said. “It’s the first step in learning about his words.”

During Tuesday’s Super Bowl media day, the second-year defender responded to questions from comedian Artie Lange by saying he wouldn’t welcome a gay player in the locker room. He also said the 49ers didn’t have any homosexual players and, if they did, those players should leave. He later apologized, facing a large group of media members for nearly an hour Thursday.