Don't look now, but a two-time league MVP has thrust himself squarely into the conversation for the league's top individual honor.
Peyton Manning, the league's MVP winner in 2003 and 2004, has led the Colts' to the league's fifth-best record (10-4) while ranking in the top seven in passing yards (3,543), touchdowns (23), and completion percentage (65.2). Though we have come to expect this kind of production from the future Hall of Famer, the way Manning has overcome adversity throughout this season has made him worthy of recognition for his play.
After getting off to an uncharacteristic 3-4 start, the Colts have reeled off seven consecutive wins and placed themselves back into title contention behind the superb play of Manning. The eight-time Pro Bowler has completed over 69 percent of throws and connected on 13 touchdown passes with only three interceptions during the streak. While those numbers would lead most to believe the Colts' offense has displayed its normal explosiveness, the fact the team has morphed into a ball control unit makes Manning's stellar play more impressive.
The Colts rank sixth in the league in passing offense, but the team has only recorded 33 completions of 20 yards or more, and only averages 6.9 yards per attempt. That represents a significant drop from the 53 completions of 20 yards or more and the 7.6 average yards per attempt the team produced season ago. In addition, the Colts' running game ranks 30th in the league and has failed to provide the balance Manning has enjoyed throughout most of his illustrious career.
While Manning's ability to produce in a workman-like offense has been impressive, it has been the leadership he has displayed while guiding the Colts through numerous injuries to their top players that makes him deserving of the league's top honor. Pro Bowlers Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday are a few of the key offensive starters that have missed time this season, and Manning has played behind an offensive line that has been reshuffled repeatedly to compensate for injuries to other starters. Throw in the fact Manning has guided the team to their seventh consecutive season with 10 wins or more while recovering from his own career threatening knee injury, and his play is praiseworthy in every regard.
1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (1): The league's leading rusher has carried the Vikings to the top of the NFC North by topping the century mark in nine games. Although opponents are loading the box with eight-and nine-man looks, Peterson continues to shred defenses by breaking off big runs up the gut. Peterson's 22 runs over 20 yards led the league and are a major reason he has amassed 1,581 yards in only 14 games.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (2)
3. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (5): Characterizing the disruptive playmaker as a one-dimensional pass rusher would diminish his value to the league's top defense. Though Harrison leads the Steelers in sacks (15) and forced fumbles (7), he also ranks as the team's second leading tackler with 94 stops.
4. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys (NR): The two-time Pro Bowler has earned the right to be mentioned in MVP talks by putting the Cowboys' D on his back in recent weeks. Ware's three-sack performance against the Giants was his second three sack game in three weeks, and his third such performance of the season. The league-leader in sacks (19) is closing in on Michael Strahan's single-season record (22.5) and spearheading the league's top pass rush.
5. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (3): The Cardinals' poor performances against legitimate playoff contenders will hurt his candidacy, but Warner's outstanding numbers and the team's division title make him a viable candidate.
1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (1)
2. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (2): The Saints' triggerman has cooled considerably since starting the season with eight 300-yard plus passing games in the team's first 11 outings. In spite of the drop off, Brees still ranks as the league-leader in passing yards (4,332) and touchdowns (28) with two games remaining.
3. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (3)
4. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (4): For all of the talk of Matt Ryan deserving MVP consideration, it has been the superb running of Turner that has carried the Falcons to a surprising 9-5 record. With seven 100-yard rushing games and a league-high 15 rushing touchdowns on the season, Turner should garner some consideration for the league's most valuable offensive player.
5. DeAngelo Williams, RB, Panthers (NR): The dazzling playmaker has come on strong during the second half of the season with five of his six 100-yard rushing games coming in the team's last seven contests. As the league's fourth-best rusher (1,229), Williams leads the league in yards per carry (5.5) and runs over 40 yards (five). He also has tallied 16 touchdowns, which ranks as the highest total of any non-quarterback this season.
1. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (1)
2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys (NR): A temporary bout of insanity caused me to drop the two-time Pro Bowler from the list last week, but the league's top sack artist made a resounding statement regarding his candidacy against the Giants. Ware recorded his third three-sack game of the season, and forced two fumbles as he harassed Eli Manning constantly off the edge.
3. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (2): The league's top interior defender has been outstanding in the middle of the Titans' fourth-ranked defense. Haynesworth's superb play inside has helped the team hold opponents to only 14.1 points a game, which ranks as second-lowest total in the league.
4. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (4): The Dolphins' surprising resurgence has been keyed by energetic pass rusher's dominating play. Porter ranks second in the league with 17.5 sacks and has recorded at a least a partial sack in 12 of the Dolphins' 14 games.
5. Ed Reed, S, Ravens (5): The league's premiere ball hawk showed off his versatility with a sack and a fumble recovery against the Steelers. Though Reed doesn't have a high number of tackles, his uncanny ability to come up with timely turnovers makes him a viable candidate for the league's top defensive honor.
1. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (3): The rookie head coach has the team playing well in all three phases. With only two weeks to play, the Dolphins are in a three-way tie for the AFC East and eyeing their first division title since 2000.
2. Mike Smith, Falcons (3): The ever-optimistic coach has guided the surprising Falcons to a winning record in his first season at the helm.
3. Jeff Fisher, Titans (1): The decision to eschew a field goal attempt late in the Texans' game backfired, but it is one of the few gambles that hasn't paid off for the veteran coach this season.
4. Mike Tomlin, Steelers (NR): The team has bullied its way to an 11-3 record in spite of numerous injuries on both sides of the ball behind the urging of their no-nonsense coach. With a looming showdown with the Titans on the horizon, the Steelers may sneak into the AFC's No. 1 seed.
5. Bill Belichick, Patriots (NR): How many teams could withstand the losses of a league MVP (Tom Brady), a defensive captain (Tedy Bruschi), and a top ball carrier (Laurence Maroney) to win a division title?
1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (1): Ryan has been amazingly consistent as a first-year starter. Although he still suffers from an occasional rookie mistake, Ryan is on the verge of becoming an elite quarterback in his first season.
2. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (2): The Bears' star has found it more difficult to find running room in recent weeks, but continues to make contributions as a multi-purpose threat out of the backfield. Forte's 1,115 rushing yards rank eighth in the league, and his 58 receptions lead all running backs.
3. Steve Slaton, RB, Texans (5): The electrifying runner has been on fire since mid-season with four 100-yard games in the past five weeks. Slaton's five 100-yard rushing games lead all rookies, and his 1,124 rushing yards are the seventh-highest total in the league. After getting off to a slow start, Slaton may prove to be the top runner in a talented rookie class.
4. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (3): The Titans' speedster has been as good as advertised as a playmaker. Johnson has produced 11 runs over 20 yards, including four longer than 40 yards and found the end zone eight times as a runner on the way to racking up to becoming the league's seventh ranked rusher (1,159).
5. Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos (NR): While it is highly unlikely that offensive lineman would win an award that typically goes to skill position players, Clady's play has been so exceptional this season that he deserves consideration for the honor.
1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (1): The rookie stalwart has been outstanding in the middle of the Patriots' defense. With Bruschi out of the lineup, Mayo has picked up the slack as the team's top playmaker.
2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): The Falcons' unheralded star has been solid in his first season. Lofton is the team's leading tackler with 87 stops and ranks as the second-leading tackler among rookie defenders.
3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Cards (3): Since stepping into the starting lineup in the middle of the season, Rodgers- Cromartie has emerged as the Cardinals' most dynamic defender. The rookie has recorded three interceptions and added a blocked kick on special teams.
4. Kenny Phillips, S, Giants (5): The Giants' top pick has been superb manning the middle of the field. Though Phillips has only five break-ups and one interception, the rookie's penchant for delivering bone-jarring hits has made him feared defender in the Giants' lineup.
5. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (4): The Redkins' rookie ball hawk has been a key contributor to the league's fifth-ranked defense. Though his production has been hampered in recent weeks due to an injury, Horton's stellar play has been a vital addition to their aggressive defense.