NFC West: 2011 MVP Watch

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

January, 4, 2012
Drew Brees, Aaron RodgersAP PhotoQuarterbacks Drew Brees, left, and Aaron Rodgers have been at the forefront of the NFL MVP conversation for the majority of the season.
Aaron Rodgers did not lead the NFL in passing yards, touchdown passes or completion percentage. What he did do was lead the Green Bay Packers to a 15-1 record while posting a ridiculous 45-6 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions.

Rodgers was the slam-dunk MVP choice all season until New Orleans' Drew Brees closed with a flourish and Rodgers, having earned a rest in Week 17, watched Packers backup Matt Flynn toss six touchdown passes to beat Detroit.

The debate was on.

A challenge issued via Twitter invited strong responses backing each man.

A sampling from the Rodgers crowd, paraphrased for grammatical and content reasons:

  • @colbydub11: Rodgers was offensive player of the month for September, October and November, while "all Brees has done is break Marino's record" for passing yards. Rodgers also won the award in December 2010, making him the first player to win it four months in a row.
  • @RamsHerd: "I would go with Rodgers, if only because he didn't let his team nap vs the Rams like Brees did."
  • @SoCalMindset: Rodgers had no games with more than one interception. He had one touchdown, no picks and four sacks in his lone defeat. Brees had five touchdowns, five picks and nine sacks in three defeats.
  • @49ers_21: Rodgers for NFL MVP, Brees for Arena League MVP after the Saints played 11 games indoors this season.
  • @SeahawkSammy: Rodgers was far superior in yards per attempt and more consistent over the season. Unlike Brees, he didn't lose to teams that finished 2-14 or 4-12.
  • @caseyrichey: Rodgers would top 6,000 yards if he had to throw as frequently as Brees did this season.

From the pro-Brees contingent:

  • @adamweber3: Why couldn't Rodgers set records his backup set?
  • @nmunoz52: "Numbers aren't the issue. It's value. This knocks off Rodgers and makes Brees a no-brainer: Matt Flynn."
  • @johnallender: "You have to go Brees for MVP. He carried that team and broke Dan's record. Packers insert Flynn and they look like same team."
  • @booverschmidt: Rodgers might be the best quarterback, but after watching the Packers excel against the Lions, Brees' value was clear.

It's interesting to see the cases "for" one player take aim at the other. Rodgers was deserving because Brees lost to the Rams, or because Brees played 11 games indoors, or because it's not his fault Brees had to throw all those passes. Brees was deserving because the Packers set records when Rodgers missed a game.

What happened in Week 17 wasn't going to steer me away from Rodgers. If a backup such as Flynn could throw six scoring passes against the Lions, imagine how many Rodgers might have thrown. Does anyone think Flynn would sail through the regular season with 45 touchdowns and six picks?

"Rodgers, off a Super Bowl win, clinically took apart every team they played until it did not matter," @lhillberg wrote.

That was good enough for me.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 28, 2011
Drew BreesDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireDrew Brees broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old single-season passing record Monday night.
Breaking Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yardage enhanced Drew Brees' MVP credentials even if Aaron Rodgers remains the favorite on your imaginary ballot.

The manner in which Brees broke the record shouldn't matter too much in the end because Brees needed only 15 games to break it. Yes, the Saints kept passing during their blowout victory over Atlanta solely because they wanted Brees to get the record. But if the record hadn't fallen Monday night, Brees likely would have claimed it against Carolina in Week 17 -- a game the Saints must win for any shot at the NFC's second seed in the playoffs.

One thing I wanted to know, however, was to what degree Marino chased Dan Fouts' previous record with the same sense of purpose. A trip back into 1984 showed Marino taking a different, more organic path to the record.

Marino entered the 1984 regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys with a chance to clinch home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs.

A week earlier, Marino had thrown four second-half touchdown passes to turn a 17-7 deficit into a 35-17 victory over Indianapolis. Needing just 19 yards against the Cowboys to break Fouts' record, Marino closed the season with a 340-yard effort featuring the winning 63-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clayton with 51 seconds remaining.

The Cowboys had tied the game with 1:47 remaining on a deflected 66-yard pass that Tony Hill caught off the rebound.

"The final moments were as stunning and sensational as in any game this season," the New York Times' Michael Janofsky wrote at the time.

Marino was the MVP, of course. Brees, despite his record-setting ways, stands second on our list again this week. Rodgers has more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions for a team with a better record and a Week 1 victory over Brees' Saints. But if Green Bay rests Rodgers and its starters while Brees outduels Cam Newton in Week 17, then what?

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 21, 2011
Brady, Brees, Rodgers US PresswireGreen Bay's Aaron Rodgers (right), New Orleans' Drew Brees (center) and New England's Tom Brady remain the focus of the MVP conversation.
The MVP Watch list heading into Week 16 is half new and, hopefully, not half bad.

The Big Three haven't changed for weeks. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady have earned their spots at the top. The other seven spots are largely negotiable from week to week.

Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Terrell Suggs, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker appeared last week. All five are sitting this one out for various reasons:

  • Manning: Blame a 1-5 record over the Giants' last six games even though Manning remains supremely valuable to his team.
  • Roethlisberger: A nasty ankle injury and the San Francisco 49ers' defense doomed Roethlisberger to a three-interception performance while raising questions about his status for the near future.
  • Suggs: Great player, horrible defensive performance from Baltimore against San Diego.
  • Gronkowski: How dare the Patriots target other players for a week. Gronkowski went without a touchdown after scoring 11 in his six previous games.
  • Welker: Had four receptions for 41 yards, his second-lowest totals of the season.

Those five remain in the conversation outside The Conversation. In other words, none is going to seriously challenge for MVP honors while Rodgers, Brees and Brady are rewriting record books, but all five remain worthy of a mention.

The same was true for the five players new to the list from last week.

Good seeing you again, Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. You, too, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers. There was also room for Justin Smith in the No. 10 spot after his 49ers held the Pittsburgh Steelers to three points Monday night. Smith is the best player on arguably the NFL's best defense, and one reason the 49ers have not allowed a rushing touchdown in 15 games or a 100-yard rusher in 36.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 14, 2011
Eli ManningJim Cowsert/Icon SMITim Tebow isn't the only quarterback gaining ground in the MVP Watch discussion. Eli Manning (above) appears close to joining Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady near the top of the list.
Few players can realistically contend for MVP honors in the NFL with only 11 starts in a full season.

It's just not feasible.

Of course, few can do what Tim Tebow is doing in Denver.

Tebow, who's on pace for 11 starts by season's end, still has not cracked the weekly MVP Watch list. He is coming close, however, and a Tebow-led Denver Broncos victory over New England in Week 15 would be impossible to overlook no matter how inartistic the performance appears through three quarters.

The way the Broncos' second-year quarterback and all-purpose threat suddenly becomes dominant in fourth quarters continues to confound, as does Tebow's unconventional playing style.

I found Trent Dilfer's column helpful in making sense of the madness. The way Dilfer sees things, Tebow and Cam Newton threaten defenses far more than typical scrambling quarterbacks because defenses must respect them as primary runners, not just occasional ones.

"Defenses find themselves in the almost impossible situation of entering a three-reaction mode," Dilfer wrote. "They can't just react to the fake handoff, and they can't just second react to the threat of the pass. They have to react a third time to threat of the run by the quarterback."

As a result, coverages break down badly enough at times to leave receivers not just open, but completely uncovered. Even unrefined passers can complete passes in those situations. Tebow figures to have additional opportunities against the Patriots' weak pass defense. Count me among those who thinks the Broncos have a chance.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 7, 2011
Rob Gronkowski Charles LeClaire/US PresswireRob Gronkowski has scored at least two touchdowns in five of the Patriots' 12 games this season.

It seems excessive to have three New England Patriots on the MVP Watch.

Could be that dreaded East Coast bias, except the MVP Watch guy (yours truly) is a West Coast lifer and the NFC West delegate to the ESPN blog network.

Tom Brady certainly belongs on the list. The case for Brady's top receiver, Wes Welker, is an easy one to make. What's one more Patriot?

Tight end Rob Gronkowski appears in the No. 10 spot this week for two basic reasons.

One, he's been phenomenally productive. Gronkowski has scored nine of his 14 touchdowns this season over the Patriots' past five games. New England is 4-1 during that stretch and 9-3 overall.

Two, some of the other viable candidates aren't so viable at this point in the season. Matt Forte's injury likely removes him from the discussion. Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions have cooled considerably over the past month.

Still, even AFC East blogger James Walker thought three Pats were too many.

"They're not undefeated," Walker said. "Gronkowski and Welker are both stellar, but between the two, I would choose Welker by definition of 'most valuable.' The Patriots would do fine on offense with Aaron Hernandez starting at tight end."

Walker wasn't quite finished.

"Maybe Tim Tebow should be considered at No. 10 for what he's doing in Denver," he added.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 30, 2011
Tim TebowJason O. Watson/US PresswireThe Denver Broncos are 5-1 this season with quarterback Tim Tebow in the starting lineup.
Great efforts to more fully appreciate quarterback contributions should, in theory, reward Tim Tebow for leading the Denver Broncos to repeated victories despite weak passing stats.

The opposite has been true.

Tebow ranks 31st out of 35 qualifying players in Total QBR, the ESPN stat measuring how quarterbacks affect win probability across a wide array of categories. Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, a founding father of such metrics, recently tried hard to find additional ways to appreciate Tebow's contributions, but it was an uphill fight.

"The best case you can make for Tebow is that, in his wins, he's usually helped his team slightly more than he has hurt it," Burke concluded.

Tebow has never appeared on our weekly MVP Watch list.

But with four consecutive victories and a 5-1 starting record, Tebow must be doing something right in the context of what his team needs from him. And so I wondered what it would take for Tebow to become a viable third-tier MVP candidate -- someone worthy of consideration after the rock-solid candidates topping the list each week.

If Tebow were to continue on his current course and the Broncos were to win the remainder of their games to finish 11-5, would that be enough?

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 16, 2011
Tony RomoAP Photo/Tony GutierrezA strong performance against Buffalo helped land Tony Romo a spot on the MVP Watch list for the first time since September.
Tony Romo's impeccable first-half performance for Dallas against Buffalo moved him onto the MVP Watch list at No. 9.

Aaron Rodgers remains the prohibitive favorite, of course, and to demonstrate the surety of his footing atop the MVP mountaintop, I considered whether he would remain No. 1 even if Romo impossibly duplicated his recent first-half performance in every half for the remainder of the NFL season.

The answer: he might, thanks to the stats and the Packers' undefeated record. But let's do the math.

Romo completed 18 of 19 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns in the first two quarters of the Cowboys' 44-7 victory.

No quarterback could ever produce such numbers in every half, of course, but if Romo did so for the final seven games, his stat line at season's end would look like this: 452 of 575 passing (78.6 percent) for 5,826 yards with 58 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 137.4 NFL passer rating.

Rodgers is currently on pace to finish the season with these numbers: 382 of 524 passing for 5,100 yards with 50 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 131.2 NFL passer rating.

That means the dream-land projections for Romo would produce relatively small advantages for the Dallas quarterback in yards per attempt (10.1 to 9.7) and touchdown percentage (10.1 to 9.5), but Rodgers would still have a lower interception percentage (9.5 to 12.2). And the Packers would finish the season 16-0, which would make Rodgers the MVP favorite, in my view.

Look, I'm not sure how many more ways we can break down Rodgers' dominance, but if you've got ideas, please do share them.

A couple more notes on Romo, courtesy of NFC East blogger Dan Graziano:

  • Sunday was the first game since Week 2, when Romo broke his ribs, that he played without the Kevlar vest. He is finally fully healthy.
  • Also, rookie DeMarco Murray has rushed for 601 yards in the last four games since taking over as the starter for the injured Felix Jones. The emergence of a running game has provided a major boost to Romo, whose big game Sunday came despite Miles Austin's injury-related absence.

Now, our weekly look at Rodgers and nine players I've singled out for consideration should something change unexpectedly.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 9, 2011
Aaron Rodgers deserves his own special MVP Watch category as the prohibitive favorite for the annual NFL award.

The rest of the field shouldn't even inhabit the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence.

Out of respect for Rodgers, I'll stall a little longer before addressing the other candidates.

Rodgers could conceivably take off the month of December and still command more votes than the others. Seriously.

Take away the Green Bay Packers' four December games and Rodgers' projected season totals would include 12 victories and nearly 4,000 yards, with 36 touchdowns and less than five interceptions. Brett Favre averaged 12 victories and about 4,000 yards during his three MVP seasons, with 37.7 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

OK, enough stalling. On to the rest of the MVP Watch list heading into Week 10.

I moved up the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore to No. 2 after Gore set a franchise record with his fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. With arguably the NFL's best defense and special teams, the 49ers haven't needed or even sought to field a dynamic offense. Gore's tough, consistent running has largely been enough. He's averaging a career-best 19.9 rushing attempts per game despite dealing with ankle injuries that have limited his playing time occasionally.

There is still no viable comparison between the season Gore is enjoying and the seasons put forth by the two running backs to win MVP honors most recently.

Shaun Alexander was the 2005 MVP with 370 carries for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns for a 13-3 team. LaDainian Tomlinson was the 2006 MVP with 348 carries for 1,815 yards and 28 scores, breaking Alexander's record for touchdowns in a season. Both played for dynamic offenses featuring Pro Bowl quarterbacks. They carried their offenses and also benefited from them.

As impressive as Gore has been lately, he's on pace to finish with 318 carries for 1,564 yards and 10 touchdowns. That would constitute a very good season, not a great one. He's largely carrying the offense, but there's a lot less offense to carry.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 2, 2011
Eli ManningRich Kane/Icon SMIEli Manning returns to the MVP Watch list after leading the New York Giants to a 5-2 record.
Sorry, Peyton Manning fans.

The Indianapolis Colts' injured quarterback won't be appearing on the MVP Watch list following a spirited debate on the subject last week. His team has gone from perennial double-digit winner to 0-8 without him, but the award will ultimately go to someone demonstrating value by his presence, not absence.

Speaking of absences, there are a few notable ones this week.

Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy stands out as the most obvious one. He's gaining as an MVP candidate as long as the Eagles continue their rise from a 1-4 start to the season.

The MVP Watch list this week features only players from teams with winning records. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson was the lone exception last week, ranking 10th despite the Vikings' 1-6 record (now 2-6).

NFC East blogger Dan Graziano nominated McCoy and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning for consideration this week. I went with Manning at No. 10 for now, bumping Peterson from the list and leaving McCoy on deck. McCoy's Eagles can get to 4-4 with a victory over Chicago on the Monday night stage.

It's always tough balancing individual and team performance.

Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware are on pace to set the single-season record for sacks. Their teams aren't doing as well, however, and that hurts their MVP candidacies.

The last 25 MVPs have played for teams that averaged 12.8 victories and 3.2 defeats. Only one team during that time, the 9-7 Detroit Lions with Barry Sanders in 1997, produced an MVP with fewer than 10 victories. And Sanders was co-MVP with Brett Favre that year, not an outright one.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 26, 2011
Peyton ManningAP Photo/Tom UhlmanPeyton Manning hasn't been able to do anything but watch as the Colts have struggled this season.
Aaron Rodgers has topped the MVP Watch list five weeks in a row.

He's the clear, obvious favorite heading into the Green Bay Packers' bye week.

Without him, the Packers might be 3-4 or 2-5 instead of 7-0. But would they be as bad as the 0-7 Indianapolis Colts have been without Peyton Manning? Would they be getting blown out 62-7 the way Indy got blown out at New Orleans?


If the MVP award honors true value, then, surely Manning must factor into the discussion somewhere, no? I opened up the question Wednesday and promised to publish the most compelling responses here.

"Honestly, yeah, his absence from the Colts has done more harm to them than any other player has helped their own team," Steve Ebner wrote.

That opinion was in the clear minority.

"Ridiculous counter-factual," Karl McDonald wrote. "Is Dan Marino the MVP because of how bad the Dolphins are doing without him?"

Not bad.

"It's the Most Valuable PLAYER award," John M. Nicoletta wrote. "Peyton hasn't PLAYED. Thus, he's ineligible. No doubt his absence is significant, but if that were the criteria, Steve Hutchinson would have been named Seahawks MVP for the past six seasons!"


"If Peyton Manning merits MVP consideration, then I nominate Mike Singletary for Coach of the Year for not being in San Francisco," Jason Nawahine added. "Manning under center wasn't going to stop Drew Brees and the Saints from putting up a fifty-burger on that defense."

Even Paul Kuharsky, our AFC South representative, shot down the notion of Manning entering the MVP conversation.

"If Aaron Rodgers finishes the season with numbers anything close to what he’s on pace for, if the Packers roll to the top seed in the NFC, how could anyone in good conscience cast a vote for Manning over Rodgers?" he asked.

I get it and agree. There could be no justification for voting Manning over Rodgers. But I could see listing Manning, say, third on a ballot as a testament to his value.

The Patriots went 10-5 with Matt Cassel starting in 2008. The Packers nearly won at New England in Week 15 last season with Matt Flynn tossing three touchdown passes in his only start of the season. Manning's absence from the Colts' lineup has turned a perennial playoff team into a laughingstock. That might make him more valuable than any player in the league, whether or not he deserves consideration for the MVP award itself.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 19, 2011
ForteDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireMatt Forte's all-around contributions helped land him on the MVP Watch list for the first time in 2011.
A quarterback-driven NFL will tend to produce a QB-driven MVP Watch list.

Let's not overlook the running backs.

Five earned spots on the list this week, the largest number I can recall in two-plus seasons maintaining MVP Watch. Four appeared one year ago, but none of the four -- Chris Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Arian Foster and Steven Jackson -- appears this time. Perhaps that's just the fleeting nature of the position.

San Francisco's Frank Gore and Chicago's Matt Forte are the running backs charging into consideration with the most momentum in 2011.

Forte has 408 yards rushing over the Bears' past three games. No player over the past five seasons had reached 400 yards over his team's fourth through sixth games. Only five others have done so since 2000. Gore has 393 yards on a modest 50 carries over the same period. His team has increasingly relied on his production while building a 5-1 record, the 49ers' best through six games since 1998.

We discussed last week which 49ers player, Gore or Alex Smith or someone on defense, deserved strongest consideration for MVP honors.

"I would just wait for one more week before I nominate," 4949centennial wrote. "My early candidate is Alex Smith, but I'm not ready to vote on him yet."

I was surprised to see more than twice as much support for Smith than for Gore in our SportsNation polling, and in spite of this, Gore was my choice for inclusion at that time. In my view, the 49ers were doing more to support Smith than the other way around. I moved up Gore from 10th last week to third this week after his 141-yard performance against previously 5-0 Detroit.

Smith played his worst game of the season until tossing the winning touchdown pass. Gore didn't get the ball as frequently as anticipated, but when he did, great things happened. He had two carries longer than 45 yards, and his late-game running helped sustain the winning drive.

With some of the other candidates suffering through down weeks -- Drew Brees and the no-longer-listed Wes Welker come to mind -- there was plenty of room for Gore closer to the top. The Lions' Calvin Johnson even moved up a spot, more by default than through performance, although he did exceed 100 yards receiving against San Francisco.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 12, 2011
GoreJason O. Watson/US PresswireSan Francisco's Frank Gore has rushed for at least 125 yards in back-to-back games.
The best running backs are patient when they need to be, waiting for openings to develop before running into the clear.

Frank Gore waited three weeks for his opening with the San Francisco 49ers this season. He's rushed for 252 yards over his past two games, a leading reason the 49ers have improved to 4-1 with victories over Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The recent surge has landed Gore in the No. 10 spot on the weekly MVP Watch.

"He had his burst back," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said after Gore gashed the Bucs for 125 yards on 20 carries. "He looked like Frank. He’s having fun out there. That’s the thing I see in Frank most of all right now, is that he’s enjoying football."

Gore did it all against the Eagles as well. He broke a 40-yard run on his first carry. He added a 25-yarder during the drive to his winning 12-yard scoring run. And when the 49ers needed to run out the clock on their final possession, Gore carried five times in a row, getting at least 4 yards every time, as the Eagles burned through their timeouts.

For the season, Gore's 400 yards and three touchdowns put him on pace for 1,280 and 10, respectively. But if the last two games provide a more meaningful representation of Gore's projected production, the two-time Pro Bowl choice would be on his way to nearly 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Gore isn't the only newcomer to the MVP Watch list this week. The New England Patriots' Wes Welker makes a belated 2011 debut, while the Buffalo Bills' Fred Jackson returns to the list. Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Philip Rivers dropped from the top 10.

Welker's omission a week ago produced quite a few complaints, and justifiably so. He's on pace to finish with 144 receptions for 2,368 yards and 16 touchdowns. I'd left him off previously under the assumption no one but Tom Brady would win the award for New England, but if Welker keeps up this pace, he's going to get more votes than some of the other listed players.

Not that it likely matters if the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers keeps raising the bar.

Which NFC West player joins MVP Watch?

October, 12, 2011
The next MVP Watch includes an NFC West player for the first time this season.

Which one would get your vote?

I'll reveal my thoughts when the MVP Watch item publishes at noon ET. In the meantime, let's consider a few potential candidates from the first NFC West team to post a 4-1 record since the 2006 Seattle Seahawks.
  • Alex Smith: The 49ers' quarterback makes for an unlikely candidate given his career trajectory before this season, but with a 7-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, he's a big reason for the team's success to this point. Smith's performance during a 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay was among the most impressive by a quarterback in the NFL this season. Smith now has 15 touchdown passes with only two interceptions in his last 10 regular-season starts. The 49ers are 7-3 in those games.
  • Frank Gore: For the season, Gore’s 400 yards and three touchdowns put him on pace for 1,280 and 10, respectively. But if the last two games represent a more meaningful representation of Gore’s projected production, the two-time Pro Bowl choice would be on his way to nearly 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns. The 49ers have leaned on him heavily during victories over Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. He has 252 yards rushing over last two games, bouncing back from a slow start.
  • Patrick Willis: The 49ers' defense is among the best in the NFL. Willis is the best player on that defense, although Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Carlos Rogers have also been outstanding this season. No defensive player has won MVP honors since Lawrence Taylor back in the 1980s. No defensive player is likely to win the award without lots of sacks or interceptions.

I've focused on 49ers players exclusively because they're the only team with a winning record in the division. There isn't a player from another team in the NFC West enjoying the right mixture of individual and team success for serious consideration.

That tells you we'll have a 49ers player on the MVP Watch list this week. But which one?

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 5, 2011
Aaron RodgersBrace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireAaron Rodgers accounted for six touchdowns in the Packers' Week 4 win over Denver.
Larry Fitzgerald answered the MVP question before I could finish asking it.

"That's a no-brainer," he said from the Arizona Cardinals' locker room this week. "Is it even close right now?"

Not really.

Aaron Rodgers tightened his grip on the top spot by becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 400 yards passing, four passing touchdowns and two rushing scores in the same game. By comparison, the entire Jacksonville Jaguars team has 550 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and one rushing score in its first four games.

Tom Brady remains the biggest threat to Rodgers for the long term, but the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford has gained ground.

"If the Patriots didn't lose one game, you might say Tom, but Aaron is playing lights out," Fitzgerald said. "And they're kind of doing it under the radar, too. It's as under the radar as you can be as a Super Bowl champion. You don't see them all over ESPN. You just see them going about their business."

Fitzgerald pointed to the Lions' Calvin Johnson as the wide receiver most likely to break the quarterback-running back stranglehold on MVP honors. And he said the Baltimore Ravens' Ed Reed and the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware have the potential to make a run at MVP from the defensive side.

"Ed Reed is as important to that Ravens defense as a good quarterback is to any team," Fitzgerald said. "He has been playing great."

There wasn't quite room for defensive representation on the list this week. The Lions' Johnson joined Eli Manning and Philip Rivers as new from last week, pushing aside Buffalo's Fred Jackson, Dallas' Tony Romo and Houston's Matt Schaub. Jackson has not exceeded 74 yards in his past two games. Schaub's status took a hit with Andre Johnson's injury, and it was tougher finding room for teammate Arian Foster after the Texans' backup running back, Ben Tate, produced so well when Foster was out.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 28, 2011
RodgersDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireAaron Rodgers has thrown eight touchdown passes and just one interception for the 3-0 Packers.
Aaron Rodgers' ascension to the top spot in the weekly MVP Watch requires no rationalization.

The Green Bay Packers are the undefeated reigning Super Bowl champions. Rodgers is their best player, the Super Bowl MVP.

Esquire has taken note by declaring, "In fact, what distinguishes Aaron Rodgers is not his decision making, which, though impeccable, is in the mortal realm. It's his sheer giftedness -- his economic brand of elusiveness matched with a talent for throwing the damned ball that is the equal of Dan Marino's, Warren Moon's, or (hey, why not?) Brett Favre's."

That is good enough for us after Tom Brady, the MVP Watch leader through Week 2, inexplicably tossed four interceptions in losing to Buffalo. Brady lost ground to Rodgers, who is now on pace for 43 touchdowns with three interceptions, and Drew Brees, whose only defeat came against Rodgers' Packers in a memorable season opener.

Seeing some combination of Rodgers, Brees and Brady atop an MVP list comes almost as a matter of course. Matthew Stafford's inclusion at No. 4 was at least remotely foreseeable given heightened expectations for the Detroit Lions this season. But three names on the list this week -- Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson, plus Tennessee's Matt Hasselbeck -- once would have seemed utterly unfathomable as candidates to anyone outside (and probably inside) their immediate families.

There are as many Buffalo Bills in the running as Packers, Patriots and Steelers combined. And the best quarterback in the AFC South right now plays in Nashville, not Indy. Hasselbeck, never known for sheer arm strength, is improbably among the NFL leaders (first in QBR, third in NFL passer rating) on throws delivered outside the yard-line numbers.

"It's early, of course, but Hasselbeck's playing like a guy capable of transforming a franchise," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky observed.

With Hasselbeck, Fitzpatrick, Dallas' Tony Romo and Oakland's Darren McFadden emerging as MVP Watch-worthy, there wasn't room for every qualified candidate.

NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert rightfully asks whether any non-quarterback has had a greater impact on his team than Detroit's Calvin Johnson. Anyone watching the Cowboys knows the same could be said for the incomparable DeMarcus Ware. The way Joe Flacco lit up the St. Louis Rams caught my attention as well.