For the first 10 weeks of the season, Peyton Manning ranked No. 1 on the Meter. By posting strong passing numbers for an elite team, it looked like the Colts quarterback might cruise to his third consecutive MVP trophy and an unprecedented fifth award overall.
But in the middle of the season, Manning hit a bump in the road. Injuries to several of his top targets limited his options downfield, and opponents pressured him into making poor throws. The Colts lost four games in five weeks as the QB's interceptions and sack totals rose, including back-to-back games where Manning threw four interceptions in each. By early December, just weeks after he'd been at the top, the Indy signalcaller was completely out of our top 10.
Since then, however, Manning has quietly re-emerged as a legit candidate and has reclaimed his spot on the Meter. Three consecutive victories has the Colts back in first place, and a win in Week 17 will clinch the team's ninth consecutive postseason berth, tying a modern-era NFL record. The QB has helped the Colts score 30 or more points four weeks in a row despite a subpar rushing attack and banged-up defense. He also has taken over the league lead in passing yards from the Chargers' Philip Rivers, which would be the third single-season yardage title of his career if he holds on in the final week.
(Last week's ranking in parentheses)
1. Patriots QB Tom Brady (No. 1) — Speaking Monday on a Boston radio show, Brady said he didn't understand why there even was an MVP award in the NFL. "My feeling always is, the most valuable player award in a team sport doesn't make a lot of sense. I can understand the most valuable golfer or something like that," the QB said. "But the only award I ever cared about is a Super Bowl ring." By mid-February, the Pats star might have both the honor he wants and the one he doesn't care about.
2. Eagles QB Michael Vick (No. 2) — An off night for the QB resulted in a shocking Tuesday loss to the Vikings, pushing them down to the third seed in the NFC playoffs. With nothing to gain vs. Dallas this coming week, it wouldn't be surprising if Andy Reid let backup Kevin Kolb take some snaps, as Vick took a lot of hits in the Minnesota game (including six sacks) and won't have much time to recover.
3. Falcons QB Matt Ryan (No. 3) — Matty Ice went cold on Monday night, as Ryan and the Falcons weren't able to come through with a game-winning drive at the end of the game to knock off the Saints. The team still controls its own destiny for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs thanks in large part to Ryan, who already has set a career high in TD passes and should set a personal best for fewest interceptions as well.
4. Chiefs QB Matt Cassel (No. 7) — Kansas City has been a run-first team all season long, but on the afternoon when they clinched their first AFC title in seven years, it was their QB who led them to the division crown. Cassel threw for 314 yards, his most in a Chiefs victory, and three TDs in the 34-14 victory. He has been amazingly consistent all season long and has avoided mistakes for a team that went from worst to first.
5. Saints QB Drew Brees (No. 5) — A pair of fourth-quarter interceptions by Brees — one of which was returned for a TD — almost cost the Saints a victory. But when it mattered most, the New Orleans captain was flawless, completing 7-of-8 passes, including a six-yard TD strike to rookie TE Jimmy Graham, on the game-winning 13-play, 90-yard drive. The score gave the Saints a lead they'd never relinquish and clinched a playoff berth for the defending champs.
6. Colts QB Peyton Manning (No. 6) — Manning completed 16 passes vs. the Raiders last Sunday, including three touchdowns. But his best play may have been a 27-yard run by the not-so-fleet-footed QB in the game's final minute and a half, clinching the victory. Always thought of as one of the sport's smartest players, Manning showed off his intelligence again, sliding a few yards shy of the endzone, allowing him to take a knee and end the game.
7. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers (NR) — The Green Bay signalcaller spent a few weeks off the Meter, as injuries have limited his production. On Sunday against the Giants, however, Rodgers appeared to be in perfect health. Starting with an 80-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, the Packers' offense, led by their QB, was dynamic in a must-win game. They need one more victory to clinch a postseason appearance.
8. Steelers OLB James Harrison (NR) — Opponents double-team Harrison often, yet nobody ever seems to slow him down. The Panthers had two blockers on the Steelers' outside ’backer often last Thursday and the dominant defender still registered five tackles, a sack and a pass defensed. If he plays most of the regular-seasonfinale vs. the Browns, he'll likely finish with 100 or more tackles for the second time in his career.
9. Chargers QB Philip Rivers (No. 9) — It wasn't Rivers' fault that the Chargers will miss the playoffs this season, as he was saddled with a banged-up roster that missed two key components (WR Vincent Jackson, OLT Marcus McNeill) to holdouts for much of the season. Still, he has dropped down the Meter for playing for a non-playoff team, as MVP candidates almost always come from winning squads.
10. Falcons RB Michael Turner (No. 9) — Every few weeks, it seems, Turner has an off week. Forty-two rushing yards in Week One, 45 rushing yards in Week Six, 39 rushing yards in Week 10 and now 48 in Week 16. Not surprisingly, the Falcons have lost three of those four subpar outings. He's still an elite MVP candidate based on what he has done the other 12 weeks of the season, which is help the Falcons reach the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Five on the cusp (in alphabetical order) — Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe, Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall, Bears DE Julius Peppers, Falcons WR Roddy White.