As the NFL reaches the midway point, the list of legitimate MVP candidates seems to be growing. Players from teams that were initially considered afterthoughts seem to be emerging as contenders, such as the Raiders' Darren McFadden and Josh Freeman of the Buccaneers.
McFadden is leading the league with 111.3 rushing yards per game and has been on a tear lately, gaining 331 yards total in Oakland's last two games, which were both blowout victories. The Raiders haven't had a legitimate MVP candidate since Rich Gannon took home the award following the 2002 season, but if they continue their winning ways behind the running back's big performances, some voters could consider McFadden.
The youngest player being considered is Freeman, who should be studying for college exams, not leading a surprise team to a tie of the NFC South lead at just 22 years old. Five of Freeman's eight career wins as a starter have come through fourth-quarter comebacks, and he has thrown only three interceptions on the year.
Will both players stick around on the Meter for the remainder of the season? The Raiders have a huge game in the AFC West this weekend vs. the division-leading Chiefs, while the Buccaneers travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons with first place in the NFC South on the line. A pair of wins, led by strong performances by McFadden and Freeman, could elevate both players on the Meter.
(Last week's rankings in parentheses)
1. Colts QB Peyton Manning (No. 1) — On Monday night, TE Jacob Tamme caught his first career touchdown, courtesy of Manning. Later in the game, WR Reggie Wayne caught his 66th career touchdown, courtesy of Manning. It doesn't matter how long a player has been around — if he's open, Manning will find them and put the Colts in the endzone.
2. Patriots QB Tom Brady (No. 2) — Playing against the Vikings' Brett Favre in Week Eight, it was Brady, with a Favre-esque play, that emerged from their showdown as the winner. Blitzed from his right, Brady backpedaled and launched a ball down the left sideline to a wide open Brandon Tate, who took the ball the final 42 yards to the endzone. The TD gave the Patriots a lead they'd never relinquish, while the win gave New England the league's best record.
3. Saints QB Drew Brees (No. 6) — Some teams like to play it safe with a late lead. Not Brees and the Saints. Holding a three-point lead vs. the Steelers with 6:24 remaining, Brees completed all six of his passes to drive New Orleans 55 yards, the final eight of which came on a TD strike to Lance Moore. Brees finished the game 34-of-44 for 305 yards against one of the league's toughest defenses.
4. Titans RB Chris Johnson (No. 3) — Johnson is third in the league in rushing (721 yards), first in rushing TDs (eight) and is tied for the lead in rushes of 40 yards or longer (three). Rushing for 2,000 yards seems unlikely, but he is still the clear No. 1 offensive threat for the 5-3 Titans.
5. Giants QB Eli Manning (No. 5) — It's a good thing Manning is familiar with his divisional rivals. After a Week Nine trip to Seattle to face the Seahawks, five of the Giants' final eight games are against NFC East opponents. In his career, Manning is 21-14 vs. the Cowboys, Redskins and Eagles, throwing 51 touchdowns to 34 picks.
6. Jets RB LaDainian Tomlinson (No. 4) — Both Tomlinson and the entire Jets' offense had their worst performance of the year in Week Eight, as the running back averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, which is well below his season average of five yards. Expect him to get back on track this week, when the Jets will look to make a statement against a Lions squad that ranks 27th in run defense.
7. Raiders RB Darren McFadden (NR) — He's still fairly one-dimensional, but nobody can doubt that when it comes to the one dimension McFadden excels in — running the ball — he is an extreme talent. The man known as Run DMC has also walked his way into the endzone six times this season.
8. Falcons WR Roddy White (No. 10) — No longer a secret weapon for the Falcons, it will be interesting to see if teams adjust to stop White, which could open up running lanes for Michael Turner. Even with double or triple coverage, defenders may not be able to slow down the receiver, who has gained 100 yards or more in four games this season.
9. Steelers S Troy Polamalu (No. 7) — The Steelers have had their star safety play close to the line of scrimmage for much of 2010, as he helps take away opponents' running games and also pressures quarterbacks. While his stats aren't amazing, Polamalu makes an impact on every play, as blockers and ball carries are always aware of where the big hitter is on the field.
10. Packers OLB Clay Matthews (NR) — Matthews had five tackles, and a sack as the Packers shutout the Jets in Week Eight. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers likes to shift Matthews all around the field, not allowing the offense to gameplan on where the feared pass rusher is going to line up. The strategy has worked, as Matthews leads the NFL in sacks (9½) despite missing a game earlier this season with a hamstring injury.
Five on the cusp (In alphabetical order) — Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman, Ravens QB Joe Flacco, Redskins S LaRon Landry, Texans WR Andre Johnson.