Matchups between teams featuring top quarterbacks aren't always main events, of course. The NFL has increasingly become a game of high-stakes power plays off the field: the lockout, the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal, concussion lawsuits and even officiating.
The ongoing power play between the NFL and its regular officials has vaulted longtime referee Ed Hochuli onto the MVP Watch list. Consider it a protest vote after replacement officials upstaged recent prime-time games featuring Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers and the Seattle Seahawks' swarming defense. Hochuli is no longer president of the NFL Referees Association. Scott Green has that distinction at present. Few would recognize Green if we ran his mug shot, so Hochuli gets the call. He's one replacement fans wouldn't mind seeing again.
Quarterback | Atlanta Falcons ... Next Game: 9/30 vs. CAR ... Last Poll: 1
The Falcons' franchise QB is on pace for 42 touchdown passes with only five interceptions. He has never had more than 29 TD passes in a season. Only two QBs in NFL history have finished a season with at least 40 TD passes and fewer than 10 INTs. Tom Brady had 50 and eight, respectively, during his 2007 MVP season. Aaron Rodgers had 45 and six during his 2011 MVP season. Ryan is also leading the NFL's 33 qualifying QBs in completion percentage.
Quarterback | New York Giants ... Next Game: 9/30 at PHI ... Last Poll: 5
That 510-yard passing performance against Tampa Bay has Manning on pace for more than 5,300 yards this season. Manning is one of six QBs with three fourth-quarter TD passes. He has 30 fourth-quarter passing attempts compared with only eight for Ryan and nine for Matt Schaub. The Giants needed him to produce late in games until a Week 3 blowout against Cam Newton and Carolina.
Quarterback | Baltimore Ravens ... Next Game: 9/27 vs. CLE ... Last Poll: NR
I'll admit to stepping away from the TV when Baltimore trailed New England by nine points in the fourth quarter Sunday night. Flacco completed 12 of 15 passes for 161 yards and a TD during the pivotal period. His fourth-quarter play in that game produced league highs for points above replacement (8.4) and points above average (6.8), according to ESPN's analytics department. The Ravens' eight fourth-quarter passing first downs also led the NFL in Week 3.
Week 3 vs. NE
4. ED HOCHULI
Referee | NFL ... Next Game: TBD ... Last Poll: NR
The regular officials and their muscle-bound leader have never looked better than they did when the replacements were botching the Monday night game in Seattle. The officiating was so poor for the Seahawks and Packers that Bill Belichick's tirade following the Sunday night game instantly became a footnote of media coverage. Yes, it's a joke to include a sidelined referee on an MVP list. At the very least, however, players and fans have gained appreciation for the job officials have to do.
Quarterback | Houston Texans ... Next Game: 9/30 vs. TEN ... Last Poll: NR
The Texans have a stout defense and productive running game. They're generally not asking Schaub to carry the offense from week to week. They still have to love the 5 to 1 ratio of TDs to INTs (Schaub had a 4-1 ratio against the Broncos). The Texans also have to love the toughness and leadership Schaub displayed in returning from that devastating hit against Denver. It's not every week a QB loses a chunk of his ear.
Quarterback | Green Bay Packers ... Next Game: 9/30 vs. NO ... Last Poll: 3
We're to the point in the list where reputation and potential starts taking over for what has actually happened on the field, at least for this week. Rodgers ranks only 23rd in Total QBR, one spot ahead of Blaine Gabbert. He took eight sacks against Seattle and finished that game with only one pass play longer than 15 yards, matching a career low. The feeling here is that lingering frustration from Monday night and a date with New Orleans in Week 4 should get Rodgers back on his usual MVP track.
Quarterback | New England Patriots ... Next Game: 9/30 at BUF ... Last Poll: 6
Brady was very, very good against the Ravens when New England needed nothing less. Only a sensational finish from Flacco and the Ravens prevented him from enjoying the payoff. The Patriots have now lost tough ones in back-to-back weeks. Brady has only four scoring passes with seven sacks. He had 11 TDs with three sacks to this point a year ago. He had eight and two, respectively, through three games in 2010. He draws Buffalo this week. Remember Brady's wild four-TD, four-INT game against the Bills last season?
Receiver | Detroit Lions ... Next Game: 9/30 vs. MIN ... Last Poll: NR
Johnson leads the NFL in receiving yardage with 369 and in receiving first downs with 18. He's on pace for 1,968 yards without doing anything out of the ordinary by his standards. The Lions' record stands at only 1-2, but it's early in the season. Johnson faces the Vikings in Week 4. He has averaged 4.5 receptions for 63.4 yards in nine career games against Minnesota. That includes a seven-catch, 108-yard game with two TDs last season, his lone 100-yard game against Minnesota.
Defensive End | Houston Texans ... Next Game: 9/30 vs. TEN ... Last Poll: NR
The only defensive player on the list has disrupted every offense he's faced this season. "After beating Broncos right guard Manuel Ramirez for three sacks to bring his season total to six, Watt now boasts a ridiculous plus-15.7 pass-rush grade after three games this season," Pro Football Focus wrote following the Texans' victory at Denver. "He added three more hurries, as well as excellent play against the run, notching four stops in the process."
Running Back | Kansas City Chiefs ... Next Game: 9/30 vs. SD ... Last Poll: NR
The Chiefs are only 1-2 and haven't looked like a team likely to produce a legitimate MVP candidate. Charles does lead the NFL in rushing yardage after carrying 33 times for 233 yards and a TD against New Orleans. He now faces a San Diego defense allowing 3.6 yards per carry. The Chargers have allowed nine rushing first downs, tied for the second-lowest total in the NFL this season. We'll continue to rotate players through the bottom of the order in the absence of more clearly defined candidates.