There is nothing like the national spotlight when it comes to making a case for the MVP award. With the entire country watching, a player has the ability to show how valuable he truly is by posting terrific numbers in a primetime game.
In Week 16, all three of the leading candidates for the league's top individual award had a day to themselves to prove their worth, and two of them played in primetime games. Starting on Saturday afternoon and going through Monday night, all three produced huge numbers and strengthened their candidacy, making the task of ranking the trio even tougher than it was before.
Saturday: He wasn't playing under the lights, but Patriots QB Tom Brady sure was in the giving mood on Christmas Eve. He completed 27 passes — including a touchdown — in the team's 27-24 victory over the Dolphins, which clinched a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. Brady also eclipsed 300 passing yards for the 10th time this season.
Sunday: He may spend Week 17 watching from the sidelines with the No. 1 seed in the NFC in hand, but if Week 16 was Packers QB Aaron Rodgers' last performance of the regular season, he made a pretty good final impression. Facing the Bears on "Sunday Night Football," Rodgers bounced back from his shaky play against the Chiefs the week before, completing 72.4 percent of passes and throwing a career-high five touchdowns. To make things even better, the Rodgers' 'Discount Double-Check' commercial was shown approximately 685 times during the weekend.
Monday: Like Derek Jeter making his 3,000th career hit a home run earlier this year, Saints QB Drew Brees set a record in scoring fashion. With a nine-yard touchdown pass to RB Darren Sproles in the fourth quarter of New Orleans' victory over the Falcons, Brees broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for the most passing yards in a single season. His 5,087 yards this season edges the Dolphins' Hall of Famer by three yards, and Brees still has one more game to go.
With one more week of play, and no more national spotlight games for any of them, the MVP race is coming down to the wire. It's unknown what the final order will be, but it's a safe bet that Brady, Rodgers and Brees will be 1-2-3 in some order when the final rankings are unveiled next week.
(Last week's ranking in parentheses)
1. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers (No. 1) — New Year's Eve is usually a festive occasion, but nobody would fault Rodgers if he were a bit gloomy on Saturday night. Why would he want 2011 to end? In the past 52 weeks, Rodgers has played in 20 games and gone 19-1. He's thrown 55 touchdowns and only nine interceptions in the calendar year, and won Super Bowl MVP.
2. Saints QB Drew Brees (No. 2) — The nine-yard pass from Brees to RB Darren Sproles not only pushed Brees past Marino for the single-season passing yardage mark. It also moved Brees into a tie with Rich Gannon, Kurt Warner and Steve Young. The throw gave him 307 yards for the game and was his sixth-straight game with 300 yards or more, tying those other three signalcallers for the longest streak in NFL history.
3. Patriots QB Tom Brady (No. 3) — Many assumed that without Randy Moss for a full season, the Patriots would scrap the vertical passing game and opt for more safe throws. Instead, Brady is averaging 8.5 yards per attempt and 13 yards per completion, both career highs.
4. Giants QB Eli Manning (No. 4) — The last time the Giants faced the Cowboys (in Week 14), Manning led Big Blue on two touchdown drives in the final 5:41 of the game for a stunning victory. With the NFC East on the line this Sunday, does anyone doubt that this game will be won by the team that makes more plays late in the fourth quarter once again?
5. Lions WR Calvin Johnson (No. 10) — This week both Johnson and the quarterback throwing to him make the list (See No. 8), but Johnson is the key to the Lions' attack. With 4-102-1 last Saturday vs. the Chargers in a 28-point win, the receiver led the Lions to their 10th win of the season and their first playoff berth since the 1999 season.
6. Cowboys QB Tony Romo (No. 5) — A hand injury forced Romo to the bench in the first quarter of Dallas' Week 16 game against the Eagles, but he is expected to be ready to play in the NFC East title game on Sunday night. MetLife Stadium, home of the Giants and Jets, became a house of horrors for Romo in Week One, when he threw a costly interception that helped set up the Jets' game-winning field goal in the final minute.
7. Texans RB Arian Foster (No. 7) — The Texans came up short for the second week in a row, falling to the Colts, 19-16, in Week 16. Little of the blame for the defeat could go to Foster, however, as he rushed for a season-high 158 yards and scored the team's only touchdown in the game.
8. Lions QB Matthew Stafford (NR) — Making his first appearance on the Meter since Week Six, Stafford has been outstanding in recent weeks for the surging Lions. In his last three games, the quarterback has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes, tossed nine touchdowns and has no interceptions. It's no coincidence that Detroit won all three games.
9. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (No. 6) — Roethlisberger did not play in Week 16 and it's not yet clear whether he'll take any snaps against the Browns on Sunday. It was a Week 14 game against Cleveland in which Big Ben sustained the ankle injury that is still bothering him. Pittsburgh would much rather have a healthy quarterback for the playoffs than risk him aggravating the injury in Week 17.
10. 49ers RB Frank Gore (Cusp) — He's no longer running for 100-plus yards like he was earlier in the season, but Gore's ability to gain tough yards and take time off the clock are the keys to the 49ers' attack. In yet another fourth-quarter comeback win Saturday vs. the Seahawks, Gore gained 83 yards on 23 carries and scored the team's only touchdown.
Five on the cusp (in alphabetical order) — Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch, Panthers QB Cam Newton, Ravens RB Ray Rice, Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs, Patriots WR Wes Welker.
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