After a tough stretch earlier this season, where they lost three times in five weeks, people seemed to forget about the New Orleans Saints. Passed in the standings by the Falcons, the reigning Super Bowl champs were also passed over in a lot of people's minds as legit contenders to win the NFC. Teams like the Giants, Packers, Eagles, Bears and Falcons have all been labeled the conference's "it" team at different points, leaving the Saints on the fringe of the discussion.
Yet with five weeks left in the regular season, the Saints are 8-3 and in position to return to the postseason. Drew Brees has led the team to four consecutive wins, including a comeback victory at Dallas on Thanksgiving. New Orleans has scored 30 or more points in three straight games and the offense has looked a lot like the high-powered attack that helped the team capture the Lombardi Trophy a season ago. With winnable games upcoming against the Bengals and Rams, Brees and the Saints will be in position to capture the NFC South title and possibly home-field advantage in the playoffs heading into a tough stretch: at Baltimore, at Atlanta, vs. Tampa Bay.
While Brees' team is rising, so too is his MVP candidacy. He is tied for the league lead in touchdown passes with 23 and has survived without his top two running backs for much of the season. In the past two weeks he's thrown for 734 yards and seems to be heating up at just the right time for the Saints.
(Last week's ranking in parentheses)
1. Patriots QB Tom Brady (No. 1) — If Brady is the league's most valuable player, then Lions CB Alphonso Smith is the least valuable. In the second half of the Patriots-Lions game on Thanksgiving, Brady targeted Smith time-and-time again, resulting in a pair of long touchdowns to WR Deion Branch. The QB finished with 341 yards and four TDs, and afterward Smith said he "pretty much gave the Patriots the whole game."
2. Chargers QB Philip Rivers (No. 2) — Rivers has had his two least productive games of the season in the past two weeks, throwing for 233 and 185 yards. So is he slowing down? Not exactly. The Chargers have scored 35 and 36 points in those two games, and the offense has been effective. Rivers will need to keep it up with divisional home games vs. the Raiders and Chiefs the next two games.
3. Saints QB Drew Brees (No. 4) — Brees was named the 2010 'Sportsman of the Year' by Sports Illustrated, an honor that's well deserved for the Super Bowl MVP. Now in his fifth season in New Orleans, it's hard to think of a better free-agent signing in NFL history than the Saints' decision to ink Brees in the 2006 offseason. In his 74 regular-season games as the team's starter, Brees is 46-28 and has thrown 145 touchdown passes.
4. Eagles QB Michael Vick (No. 3) — The Eagles' loss to the Bears in Week 12 was their first defeat in a game that Vick started and finished. The QB also threw his first interception of the year, leading some to wonder if opponents had finally figured out a way to stop No. 7. Not so fast. Vick still managed to throw for 333 yards and two TDs playing against one of the few defenses that can match Philly's offense in terms of speed and athleticism. Expect a huge game from him this Thursday, when the historically-bad Texans secondary tries to slow down Vick and Co.
5. Falcons QB Matt Ryan (NR) — Ryan's stat line from Week 12 vs. Green Bay: 24-of-28, 197 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT. One of those incompletions was a drop by WR Michael Jenkins, another was a throw-away at the end of the game to prevent a sack. So Ryan basically made only two poor throws against one of the top teams in the league, improving his career record in the Georgia Dome to 19-1.
6. Falcons WR Roddy White (No. 6) — His teammate may have passed him on the Meter, but it's hard to say if Ryan would be on the Meter without White and vice versa. The receiver has been seeing more double-teams lately, and the team's running game has kicked into high gear, although he still finished with five catches for 49 yards against the Packers.
7. Packers OLB Clay Matthews (No. 7) — The current PFW cover boy is the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, but a couple other candidates are gaining on him in that race. Still, 11½ sacks, three passes defensed and an interception return for a TD are pretty impressive through 12 weeks of the season.
8. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers (NR) — Lost in the talk of Ryan's performance and the Falcons' big win was how well Rodgers played in defeat. The QB completed 26-of-35 passes for 344 yards and a TD while also running for 51 yards for another score. His fumble on Atlanta's 1-yard line was costly, however. The Packers' running game hasn't been very good in recent weeks (other than Rodgers' scrambling), meaning more pressure than ever is on the quarterback's right arm.
9. Colts QB Peyton Manning (No. 5) — Manning and the Colts are sliding fast, having lost three of their past four games, with Manning tossing nine interceptions in the three losses. He'll need to improve if Indy wants to extend their streak of playoff appearances. There are winnable games on the schedule, with matchups vs. the Cowboys, Raiders, Jaguars and two games against the reeling Titans remaining.
10. Ravens QB Joe Flacco (NR) — Defense will always be the side of the ball associated with Baltimore, but the offense is getting more recognition, however, as Flacco leads one of the league's most-balanced attacks. The Ravens can both run and throw, and Flacco has only thrown two interceptions in the past five games.
Five on the cusp (in alphabetical order) — Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman, Texans RB Arian Foster, Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Bears DE Julius Peppers, Jets QB Mark Sanchez.