"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon."
That phrase is often used by coaches to describe the long and arduous regular season, but it also accurately illustrates this season's MVP race.
In a rare year in which there was never a clear-cut frontrunner, the race for MVP has resembled the presidential primary, with candidates emerging and then fading a few weeks later.
Jay Cutler opened the season as an unlikely favorite after leading the Broncos to a surprising 3-1 start on the heels of three 300-yard passing days. He quickly fell from grace when the Broncos lost three of their next four.
Clinton Portis took over as the favorite by tallying five consecutive games with over 120 yards rushing. However, a series of nagging injuries slowed him in the second half of the season.
Kurt Warner took over the top spot after leading the Cardinals to the top of the NFC West with five consecutive 300-yard passing games. The two-time MVP was on fire as the league leader in passer rating and passing touchdowns at that point. But a series of poor performance against playoff caliber opponents (Eagles, Vikings and Patriots) derailed his bid for a third award.
That left the door open for an old favorite to jump back into the mix in the season's final month.
Peyton Manning, a two-time league MVP, was simply at his best when his team needed him the most. He completed over 71 percent of his passes during a nine-game winning streak, and tossed 17 touchdown passes with only three interceptions during the span. The scintillating finish to the season gave Manning his league-record ninth 4,000-yard passing season, and put the Colts into the playoff for the seventh straight year.
While Manning's numbers (4,002 passing yards, 27 passing touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 95.5 passer rating) don't rank at the top of the league's passing list in any category, the argument could be made that this is his finest season of his career given the circumstances. The veteran overcame his own career threatening injury to direct an offensive unit that has been plagued by numerous injuries to starters and key personnel. Despite a reshuffled lineup, the nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback adapted his game to maximize the unit's potential. The results were outstanding as the offense scored over 30 points in five of the team's last eight games and re-emerged as one of the frontrunners to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLIII.
The league's MVP award goes to the player who is most instrumental to the success of his team, and I think the consistency, leadership and perseverance that Manning displayed makes him deserving of the league's top individual honor.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (last week's ranking, 1)
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (2): The league's leading rusher carried the Vikings to their first-ever NFC North title. Though defenses were intent on stopping the Vikings' potent running game, Peterson finished with 1,760 rushing yards and led the league with 10 100-yard rushing games.
3. Chad Pennington, QB, Dolphins (4): After being unceremoniously dumped by his previous team, Pennington orchestrated one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in league history by guiding the Dolphins to an 11-5 record and the AFC East crown. The nine-year veteran finished ranked in the top 10 in several passing categories (completion percentage, passer rating and passing yards), and has been singled out by those within the organization as the biggest reason for the team's dramatic reversal of fortunes.
4. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (NR): Though the Pro Bowler's outstanding season has been overshadowed by the superb play of his rookie teammate (Matt Ryan), the argument can be made that Turner has been the biggest catalyst to the team's dramatic resurgence. He finished as the league's second-leading rusher (1,669 yards) and tallied 17 touchdowns on the ground. While those numbers are impressive, it's the team's 8-0 record when Turner has rushed for over 100 yards that truly reveals his impact.
5. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (NR): The fifth-year pro's greatness was revealed as he led the Chargers to their third consecutive AFC West title with his sizzling play down the stretch. Rivers completed over 66 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and only one interception during the team's critical four-game winning streak. Although Rivers was inexplicably left off the AFC's Pro Bowl roster, he finishes the season as the league leader in passing touchdowns (34) and passer rating (105.5).
1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (2): The Saints' signal caller joined Dan Marino as the only passers in league history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season. Brees' remarkable year included 10 games with over 300 yards passing, and six games with at least three passing touchdowns.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (1)
3. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (4)
4. DeAngelo Williams, RB, Panthers (5): The electrifying runner capped an impressive second half stretch by topping the century mark for the seventh time in nine games. As the league's third-leading rusher, Williams finished the season with 1,515 rushing yards and a league-high 20 touchdowns.
5. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans (NR): The three-time Pro Bowl receiver enjoyed a sensational season while leading the league with 115 receptions. Johnson established a new league record with seven games with 10 or more receptions, and amassed 1,575 receiving yards, the highest total of any receiver since 2003.
1. Ed Reed, S, Ravens (3): The former Defensive Player of the Year led the Ravens to nine victories in their last 11 games by coming up with turnover after turnover down the stretch. Reed made eight of his league-leading nine interceptions in the Ravens' last six games and produced 11 turnovers on the season. With three defensive scores on the season, Reed continues to prove that he is the league's quintessential playmaker on defense.
2. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (1): The most disruptive player on the team's top defense has been outstanding in all areas. Harrison recorded 16 sacks and forced a league-high seven fumbles while amassing over 100 tackles. In addition, Harrison added a safety and an interception. If those numbers weren't impressive enough, the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker continued to make contributions on the Steelers' special teams as one of their top cover guys.
3. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (4): The three-time Pro Bowl linebacker silenced his critics with his stellar season. After tallying only 5.5 sacks a season ago, Porter bounced back to record 17.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. His re-emergence as a top flight pass rusher keyed the Dolphins' surprising run to the AFC East title.
4. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys (2): The Cowboys' star terrorized opponents off the edge on the way to a league-high 20 sacks. Though Ware's Herculean effort was unable to salvage the team's disappointing season, it ranks as one of the top single-season performances in league history.
5. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (NR): The two-time Pro Bowl tackle was a favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award before an injury forced him to the sidelines during the final weeks of the season. At the time, Haynesworth was leading all defensive tackles in sacks (8.5), and anchoring the Titans' ferocious defense with his dominating play in the middle.
1. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (1): Some would suggest that Bill Parcells is the biggest reason for the Dolphins' surprising turnaround, but such chatter would diminish the outstanding coaching job that Sparano has done in his first season. From the implementation of the "Wildcat" formation to the fundamentally sound execution exhibited on both sides of the ball, Sparano deserves recognition for transforming the Dolphins into division winners this year.
2. Mike Smith, Falcons (2): The rookie head coach was the right man to guide the Falcons past the darkest period in their team history. The ever-optimistic coach has been outstanding as a tactician, and his impressive leadership skills sparked the team to a surprising 11-5 record.
3. Bill Belichick, Patriots (3): While Belichick has long been recognized as one of the game's best coaches, the remarkable job he did this season puts him in a class by himself. Working with an unproven quarterback (Matt Cassel) and an injury-plagued roster, Belichick still led the Patriots to an 11-win season.
4. John Harbaugh, Ravens (NR): The blue-collar Ravens have the look of a title contender behind a dominating defense, a smash-mouth running game and an emerging rookie quarterback. With the team clicking on all cylinders, the Ravens have reeled off five wins in their last six games.
5. Mike Tomlin, Steelers (NR): The second-year coach guided the Steelers to 12 wins and the AFC North title while facing the most difficult schedule in the league.
1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (1): The ultra-cool quarterback had the trophy wrapped up by midseason and received official notice Tuesday. With the Falcons making the playoffs behind the stellar play of the rookie sensation, some are saying that Ryan may be the best rookie quarterback ever.
2. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (2): The versatile runner anchored the Bears' offense with his multi-faceted skills. Forte finished the season as the league's seventh-leading rusher (1,238) and led all running backs in receptions (63).
3. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (3): The flashy runner added an explosive element to the Titans' offense with his exceptional speed and quickness. Johnson produced 12 runs over 20 yards and finished with an impressive 4.9 yards per carry average. With 1,228 rushing yards, Johnson was the AFC's third-leading rusher and ranked as the eighth-best rusher overall.
4. Steve Slaton, RB, Texans (4): The diminutive playmaker has been outstanding as the Texans' feature back. Slaton amassed over 100 yards from scrimmage in nine games and finished as the league's sixth-leading rusher (1,282 yards).
5. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (NR): The rookie's transformation from "game manager" to playmaker has been essential to the Ravens' surprising offensive success. After getting off to a shaky start, Flacco guided the team to nine victories in its last 11 games by connecting on 58 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. Though Flacco didn't rank in the top 10 in any passing statistic, the rookie's uncanny ability to direct his team to 11 wins merits his inclusion on the list.
1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (1): The Patriots' star linebacker has been outstanding. Not only does Mayo lead the team in tackles, but also he has more total stops than any other rookie defender (128) and ranks as the league's tenth-leading tackler.
2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Cards (3): The athletic cover corner has made quite an impression since stepping into the starting lineup. Although he didn't crack the starting lineup until midseason, Rodgers-Cromartie has proven to be a big time playmaker by tallying four interceptions and 19 breakups in 11 starts.
3. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): He has been a rock in the center of the Falcons' defense. Though he hasn't generated many splashy plays, his consistency at the "Mike" position has enabled Keith Brooking and Michael Boley to become playmakers.
4. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (NR): He was a key contributor on the league's fourth-ranked defense. The savvy playmaker excelled as the team's "free hitter" in eight-man fronts, and flashed impressive ball skills while manning the middle of the field in passing situations. His three interceptions were the second-most of any rookie defender.
5. Jason Jones, DT, Titans (5): Although critics will say that Jones' production was mostly generated in one standout performance (he had 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles against the Steelers), the fact that the promising interior rusher finished the season as the rookie leader in sacks (5) makes his inclusion on the list a must.