When he looks around his huddle these days and barks out the play call, could you blame Tom Brady for wondering, "Who are these guys?'' Here's a quick check of who the Patriots' franchise quarterback sees staring back at him in New England as Week 7 of the NFL's regular season looms:
• His running backs at the moment are the little-known or relatively unheralded Danny Woodhead (undrafted free agent), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (undrafted free agent) and Sammy Morris, an 11th-year veteran and former fifth-round pick who has made a fine career out of being a role player. Kevin Faulk is rehabbing a season-ending knee injury, and Fred Taylor can't seem to stay healthy and in the lineup.
• His receiving corps, now minus future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, is led by slot man Wes Welker (undrafted and coming off ACL surgery), and includes other smallish pass-catchers like converted collegiate quarterback Julian Edelman (7th rounder), the unproven Brandon Tate (who played just two games last year as a rookie), and the recently reacquired Deion Branch (who is 31 and hasn't logged a 750-yard receiving season since 2005). Promising rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski round out his collection of targets.
• His offensive line isn't exactly a fortress, either. Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins continues to hold out, and his expected replacement, former starting right tackle Nick Kaczur, underwent back surgery in August and won't play this season. Left guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer entered this season with a combined 13 starts worth of experience in the NFL, and left tackle Matt Light is now in his 10th year of service as a Patriot.
And still, Brady and the Patriots are enduring and prospering, sitting 4-1 and in second place in the AFC East after grinding out that tough, 23-20 overtime defeat of visiting Baltimore on Sunday. Is there any other elite quarterback in the league doing more with less at his disposal this season? And don't try comparing the weapons Peyton Manning gets to use in Indy, where Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai would all instantly upgrade the Patriots roster. Let Brady and Manning switch rosters and see whose numbers rise and whose fall. As his work with the just-arrived Branch on Sunday showed, Brady makes his receivers relevant.
Yep, we're starting the MVP debate as October winds down, and my vote at the moment belongs to Brady. He may not be at the statistical head of the pack among NFL quarterbacks, but when it comes to deciding his team's fortunes, he's the biggest difference-maker there is. Take him out of the lineup, and New England is a third-place team in its division, miles behind both the Jets and Dolphins.
1. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots -- Again, it's not the raw numbers with Brady this season. He's only throwing for 240 yards per game on average, and his 10 touchdowns and four interceptions aren't eye-popping. It's what he's doing with what he has to work with that's notable. And his 98.5 passer rating isn't too shabby either.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts -- True, the Colts have lost a couple games, but not because No. 18 is letting them down. His 13 touchdowns, two interceptions, and NFL-best 103.4 passer rating (at least 100 attempts) demand he be in the MVP discussion. And last I checked, the Colts are 4-2 and tied for first in the ultracompetitive AFC South.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Jets -- New York has the best record in the league at 5-1, and at 31, the rejuvenated L.T. has been everything he said he would be. I'm most impressed with his 5.3-yard average carry (he had a 3.3 and 3.8 in his last two years in San Diego), his five runs of at least 20 yards, and his five touchdowns in six games (all five coming in his past four games). He told us his legs were back, and so far, he's proved the doubters were wrong.
1. Arian Foster, RB, Texans -- In a quarter less than six full games, Foster has been a force for first-place Houston (4-2). His 635 yards rushing leads the league, he's had three 100-yard games (including one for 231 yards to help beat the Colts), and his 5.5 average gain is second among backs with at least 50 attempts. Foster also has scored seven touchdowns, has eight runs or catches of at least 20 yards, and has totaled 19 receptions for 180 yards. Little wonder Houston has scored between 30-35 points in all four of its wins.
2. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers -- San Diego's season has been a huge disappointment thus far, but what's not to like about Rivers' statistics? He's thrown for a league-best 2,008 yards, putting him on pace to break Dan Marino's 1984 single-season passing record by 271 yards, and he's averaging a sick 9.1 yards per attempt. Twelve touchdown passes, five interceptions, a 100.7 passer rating and 35 completions of at least 20 yards round out Rivers' case for OPOY.
3. Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts -- With an NFL-high 45 catches for 602 yards (13.4 average) in six games, Wayne is on pace for a career-best 120-catch, 1,605-yard season. His touchdowns have been few (just two, in the first two games of the year), but he has seven receptions of at least 20 yards and has been very consistent from week to week.
1. James Harrison, LB, Steelers -- Picking which Steelers defender to put at the top of this category is almost comically hard. Safety Troy Polamalu's impact and presence doesn't even begin to show up entirely on the stat sheet, and there's also a case to be made for outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Despite this week's developments regarding his finable hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, Harrison is the player who personifies a Pittsburgh defense that is dominant once again. His 4½ sacks, four fumbles forced, and bone-jarring tackles have helped the Steelers to a 4-1, first-place getaway in the AFC North.
2. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants -- After his lost season in 2009, Umenyiora is back, and so is the Giants pass rush. I can hardly believe this as I write it, but Umenyiora in the past three games has seven sacks and six forced fumbles. He has eight sacks and seven forced fumbles on the year. In a related development, the Giants are on a three-game winning streak and tied for first place with the Eagles in the NFC East.
3. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers -- In just five games, Matthews has a league-best 8½ sacks, with a pair of three-sack performances in leading Green Bay to a then-2-0 start. Not bad for the former USC walk-on, even if he is currently struggling with another hamstring injury.
1. Todd Haley, Chiefs -- The overmatched Chiefs won a combined 10 games in the past three seasons, but Haley has them a blown interference call away from being 4-1 and comfortably ahead in the AFC West. Kansas City, in reality, is 3-2, on a two-game losing streak and just 1½ games ahead of everyone in the division. But a 3-0 start has changed the entire landscape in Chiefs-dom, and Haley has a good, young team that has been 2010's top turnaround story thus far.
2. Rex Ryan, Jets -- Sure, he has the horses, but Ryan also has the bull's-eye plastered on his ample backside, and coaching while you're wearing that is no small feat. He talked his team up big, but so far it has backed up his brash words with an NFL-best 5-1 record and a five-game winning streak. The pressure was never greater than when 0-1 New York trailed visiting New England at halftime in Week 2, but since then, the Jets have been rolling.
3. Mike Tomlin, Steelers -- He certainly didn't do his best work at the end of last season, when he couldn't seem to find the right motivational buttons to push as the Steelers faded down the stretch. But how can you not be impressed with Tomlin's early work in 2010, when Pittsburgh not only survived Ben Roethlisberger's month-long suspension, but also prospered?
1. Sam Bradford, QB, Rams -- His statistics won't dazzle you, but winning games as a rookie quarterback is never easy in the NFL, especially for a franchise that has been as downtrodden as the Rams. St. Louis is getting some fine defensive play this season, but Bradford gave the franchise instant credibility the minute he took the field this season. His seven touchdown passes, eight interceptions and 69.3 passer rating just doesn't tell the whole story.
2. Jahvid Best, RB, Lions -- Best hasn't been able to keep up the ridiculous pace of having scored five touchdowns in his first two games -- he has none in his most recent four games -- but he has produced 542 yards of combined rushing and receiving this season, with those five scores. He's third among rookie rushers with 257 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries (3.2), and his 31 receptions for 285 yards and one score leads all rookie pass-catchers.
3. Mike Williams, WR, Bucs -- Williams has provided some much-needed big-play impact to Tampa Bay's offense, notching a touchdown reception in each of the surprising Bucs' three wins. His 23 catches for 283 yards (12.3) and three touchdowns rank first among all NFL rookie wide receivers.
1. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions -- What can't Suh do? The Lions first-round pick leads all rookies with 4½ sacks, and he even tipped a pass and intercepted it in Detroit's Week 5 win at home against St. Louis. He's had either a sack or an interception in all but one of the Lions' six games, and he already gets game-planning attention from opposing offenses.
2. Nate Allen, FS, Eagles -- Philadelphia's second-round pick intercepted a pass in three of his first four games, tying for the rookie lead in that department. The University of South Florida product has started all six games for the first-place Eagles, and with nine passes defensed, he has provided a steady, consistent presence in his centerfielder role.
3. Earl Thomas, FS, Seahawks -- Like Allen, Thomas already has picked off three passes this season, and he has done it in just five games for the 3-2, first-place Seahawks. The former University of Texas star is a force against both the run and the pass, and has quickly upgraded a Seattle defense that was devoid of playmakers last season.
1. E.J. Henderson, LB, Vikings -- You can come back from injury, ineffectiveness, irrelevancy or a voluntary/involuntary hiatus and win this award, but I don't know if anyone will ever return from a more gruesome looking setback than Henderson's broken femur last December in Arizona. That he's back playing and playing so well -- 37 combined tackles, two interceptions, one fumble forced, one fumble recovered -- is a remarkable accomplishment.
2. Mike Williams, WR, Seahawks -- I like the comeback stories that absolutely no one saw coming, and in that category, Williams dominates. The former Detroit first-round pick was out of the league for two years, and had all of 15 catches since his rookie season of 2005. But in five games with Seattle, under his former USC coach in Pete Carroll, Williams leads the team with 21 catches for 261 yards, including a 10-catch, 123-yard day in Seattle's 23-20 upset at Chicago on Sunday.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Jets -- With a nod toward the divergent comeback efforts being put together by both Michael Vick and Wes Welker, I'm going with the renaissance season being enjoyed by Tomlinson in New York in my third spot. He looked washed up in San Diego last season, but he's on pace for a 1,306-yard rushing season with 13 touchdowns and 51 catches, to boot.