NFC West: J.J. Watt

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- They were selected three spots apart in the 2011 NFL draft. In the time since, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn have developed into two of the league's most dominant defensive players, regardless of position.

Watt, who checked in at No. 1 amongst defenders in our most recent #NFLRank project, was rewarded for his outstanding body of work early Tuesday morning. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Watt agreed to a six-year, $100 million contract extension with the Texans. Mortensen reports the deal includes $51.8 million guaranteed, the most for a defensive player in the history of the NFL.

Soon after that news broke, Quinn offered his congratulations to his fellow 2011 draftee via Twitter.

It's left unsaid here but Quinn also might as well have tossed in a hashtag with the words "thank you" after it. That's because with Watt now officially setting the bar in uncharted territory for a defensive player, Quinn has a pretty good idea of what his next contract is going to look like. Luxurious, indeed.

Clearly, Watt's value to the Texans makes him a player they know they can't replace. He's a dominant run-stuffer and an incredibly productive pass-rusher while playing a position where it's hard to get sacks.

The Rams should view Quinn the same way after his breakthrough 2013 season. In posting 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles, Quinn proved beyond a doubt that he's the Rams' best and most valuable player. Beyond his pass-rush production, Quinn also made great strides as a run defender and, for whatever it's worth, earned record-high grades for a 4-3 defensive end from Pro Football Focus.

The scary thing about Quinn is that he's only 24 years old and just scratching the surface of what he can do in the NFL. Working with defensive line coach Mike Waufle, one of the best in the league at his craft, there's almost no ceiling to what Quinn could become.

The Rams have Quinn under control for the next two years at the reasonable cap charge of a combined $9,971,381, which includes the bargain rate of just over $3 million this season. In theory, they could wait it out and use the franchise tag if they wanted but it seems unlikely they'd go that route since there's no reason to potentially anger the easy going Quinn.

Instead, my expectation is the Rams will wait until after this season to begin talks on extending Quinn. After the year, the Rams will free plenty of cap space (a number which could be even bigger if they part ways with quarterback Sam Bradford) and Quinn will have a chance to add another dominant year to his overall body of work.

There's little doubt the Rams will work to ensure Quinn remains a franchise fixture well into the future. Now that the bar has been set, it's not really a matter of if but when.
This makes sense.

Patrick Willis is one of the most feared players in the NFL.

Even a casual NFL observer can tell you the San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker is a vicious playmaker on the field. His peers feel the same way. Willis finished fourth in the survey of 320 players who were asked about the most feared player in the NFL.

He received 23 votes. Detroit defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh received the most votes (61). Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson was second, Houston’s defensive end J.J. Watt was third. Forty-eight players in total received votes.

What are your thoughts? Should Willis be ranked higher? Lower? Fill up the comments section below.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's not just the Houston Texans who'll have to adjust to a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator on Sunday when they play the Arizona Cardinals.

Without head coach Gary Kubiak, who suffered a mini-stroke at halftime of Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Texans aren't the same team. Interim coach Wade Phillips will continue to run the defense from the sideline but now offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will take over the play-calling duties. But it goes beyond the coaching personnel.

"Once you have a different playcaller, that's a change," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "There are no tendencies. You have to throw all of that out the window and just play the offense the way it's designed to be played. Defensively, you play your defense.

"There's nothing that we have on Rick Dennison other than a half of football."

While the Cardinals scrambled to adjust their game plan and watch their game film, the Texans are trying to focus on Sunday. Fortunately for them, Kubiak left the hospital Tuesday morning and returned home, putting their minds at ease for the time being.

But halftime Sunday was nothing short of chaotic.

Phillips, whose coaching resume now includes three stints as an interim coach to complement his three head coaching jobs, said immediately after the Texans' loss that he didn't think halftime had an impact on Houston's second half. But as he spent more time thinking about it, Phillips now believes it did.

"Even I, along with everybody else, was kind of at halftime [wondering] ‘What's going on? What happened? Where is he? Is he OK?'" Phillips said. "We didn't even know those things during the ball game in the second half. You always certainly have concerns for people that you care about and that's one that everybody cares about with our football team, our head coach.

"There were a lot of unknowns. You still have to play football and you have to do what you have to do, but there was certainly kind of a haze there as far as what was going on."

Phillips listed the types of decisions a head coach has to make compared to a coordinator, and it could be overwhelming to someone who hasn't been in that position before. A lot of the decisions made by a head coach are based on situations, Phillips said, and most of those are based on offensive strategy. There's deciding whether to go for it or kick a field goal or punt, when to use time outs, or when to slow down or speed up.

But if there's one person to assume those responsibilities, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt feels comfortable with it being Phillips.

"You never want to be in a situation like this but when you are put in a situation like this, it's good to have a guy who has head coaching experience and a guy like Coach Phillips, who has been around the game for a long time and is knowledgeable and knows how to handle the situation," Watt said.

Watt has texted with Kubiak, who's stayed in touch with Phillips and Dennison.

Even without Kubiak, it's business as usual in Houston. The Texans are trying to snap a six-game losing streak, which means more practice, more film study, trying to find a way to "get the ball rolling," Watt said.

And while the Cardinals are spending their time figuring out a way to defend a Dennison-coached offense, the Texans are just as focused.

"Obviously, you think about your coach and it will always be on your mind but we're professionals," Watt said. "We come in here and we know we have a job to do."
EARTH CITY, Mo. – The St. Louis Rams play San Francisco’s Justin Smith twice every season, so they have at least some idea of what a nonstop motor combined with strongman power and elite skills can do to wreck an offensive game plan.

This week, the Rams will get a formal introduction to the next step up the evolutionary ladder for defensive ends when they meet a player with all of the same traits as Smith -- only taken to another level.

Since he entered the league in 2011, J.J. Watt has yet to line up opposite the Rams, but he’ll get his first chance Sunday when they pay a visit to Houston to face the Texans.

In a season full of challenges, the Rams likely won’t find a more difficult, hard-charging one than Watt.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNo matter where J.J. Watt lines up on a play, he tends to end up in the opponent's face.
“If he’s not the best defensive lineman in the league, he’s certainly in the top two or three,” Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “Just watching him on film, he’s everything you hear about.”

Not many individual players are capable of taking over a game, particularly ones who generally don’t have the ball in their hands. But Watt can.

For the Rams to have a chance to steal their first road victory of the season, they’ll have to find an answer for Watt and the many things he can do to dominate a game.

In 2012, Watt was named the NFL defensive player of the year after amassing 20.5 sacks, 81 tackles, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 16 batted passes. All of that production came from a man playing a position that normally asks whoever is playing it to be stout against the run, take on multiple blockers and allow others to make the splashy plays.

Watt isn’t holding down the same pace so far this season, but he’s been no less effective as Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is moving him all over the field. He lines up on the edge, inside, on the right, on the left -- you never really know where he’s coming from.

Throughout this week the Rams have had practice-squad lineman Mason Brodine wearing the red No. 99 jersey in an effort to mimic Watt’s many machinations.

“We’ve got a red jersey on every snap at practice, because you’ve got to know where he lines up,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “[Watt is] one of the better defensive players you’ll face. He’s very disruptive, quick, relentless. If he can’t get there, he bats the ball down, but most of the time he gets there with consistent pressure. So we’ve got our hands full with him.”

From a pass-rushing perspective, the Texans have deployed Watt on the interior a bit more this season than in his first two years in the league. There, he’s able to take advantage of his speed and athleticism a bit more, but he also doesn’t hesitate to use his power to run over blockers. He also has the ability to shed blockers and chase down ball carriers.

Rams left tackle Jake Long will probably get a chance to square off with Watt at least occasionally Sunday, and he said that from past experience the best way to battle Watt is to be as fundamentally sound as possible.

“You have just got to trust your technique,” Long said. “You’ve got to go out and match his intensity, play through the echo of the whistle because that’s what he’ll do. But mainly just play with technique, be confident in what you do and go out and let it all go.”

Complicating matters further is Watt’s 82-inch wingspan and his uncanny ability to know when to continue his pass rush and when to raise his arms to bat down passes. This skill, one Watt said he’s worked on and developed since his college days at Wisconsin, has earned him the nickname J.J. “Swat.”

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has had his share of issues with batted passes in his career and leads the league with eight this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

“You can’t worry about that too much,” Bradford said. “Obviously, he has made a lot of plays that way, but I think if you start looking for him and expecting him to do that, then you take your eyes off of where they need to be down the field.”

Schottenheimer says the concern about Watt’s ability to knock down passes should fall on the offensive line, not the quarterback.

“There’s not much you can do,” Schottenheimer said. “The emphasis goes more to the linemen. If you have got him stopped and he’s kind of standing there trying to feel his way through, you have just got to try to get your hands on him to keep his hands down.”

Watt doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses in his game, but he does occasionally freelance or overpursue and finds himself out of position. There isn’t an obvious solution for keeping Watt in check, and focusing too much on him can allow one of his talented teammates, such as Antonio Smith or Brian Cushing, to have a big day.

For the Rams, the goal can’t be to stop Watt. It has to be finding a way to keep him from completely taking over.
Arian Foster and Frank GoreGetty ImagesTwo of the NFL's top rushers, Arian Foster and Frank Gore, will try to carry their teams Sunday night.

The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.

After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.

San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?

Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.

Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?

Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.

How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?

Williamson: It would be inaccurate and nave to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.

Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?

Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.

Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?

Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.

This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?

Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.

 
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Yes, the Houston Texans have a fierce pass rush led by J.J. Watt, but the San Francisco 49ers may have an answer for it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no team has used five or more pass-rushers (which is considered a blitz package) than Houston this season. The Texans have come hard on 52 percent of their opponent's dropbacks.

However, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had strong success against such pressure. Four of his five touchdown passes have come while being blitzed. None of his four interceptions have been thrown when being heavily pressured. His total QBR is 96.2 (on a scale of 100) as opposed to 41.0 when he faces a normal four-man pass rush.

It will be interesting to see if the Texans dial down their pressure or stay true to what they do and hope for better blitzing success against Kaepernick.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – J.J. Watt is on a lot of minds at the San Francisco 49ers’ facility this week.

Trying to contain the Houston pass-rusher is Job One for the entire San Francisco offense. The reigning NFL defensive player of the year is off to another hot start, and the 49ers are bracing for their first meeting against him.

“He can ruin a game. He can ruin a game for his opponent,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “J.J. Watt is one of the top players in this league. Strong, great ability to rush the passer, gets past blocks and then on the quarterback almost immediately when he’s able to that. He’s able to run and use his length. A lot of really good things to his game.”

Watt is famous for swatting passes. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knows he must be prepared for Watt this week.

“He’s someone, if he doesn’t feel like he’s going to get to the quarterback, he’s going to jump up and try to block a pass, try to make a play any way he can,” Kaepernick said. “He’s a great effort player. So he’s going to try and make a play anywhere on the field any chance he gets.”

Double Coverage: Seahawks at Texans

September, 27, 2013
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Matt Schaub and Russell WilsonGetty ImagesMatt Schaub and Russell Wilson have combined to throw 12 touchdowns through Week 3.
When they saw each other at the Pro Bowl earlier this year, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt told Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson that if Watt had just stayed another year at Wisconsin, they might have won a national championship together.

“I wish I knew he was coming,” said Watt on Wednesday, who left Wisconsin after his junior year, just as Wilson arrived.

Sunday at Reliant Stadium, they might see a lot of each other. The matchup between the Texans and Seahawks will pit the league’s two best defenses against each other. But Wilson won’t be easy to contain for a Texans’ defense that gave up only 236 yards in last week’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are coming off such a dominating win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that Wilson didn’t need to finish the game.

Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a look at the matchup.

Ganguli: So Terry, what makes Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman special?

Blount: Preparation, enormous athleticism and confidence are what makes him special. I know many people outside of Seattle just see Sherman as a arrogant guy with a big mouth. That's a big mistake. Sherman is an extremely hard worker who spends hours studying film of every receiver he faces. Consequently, he rarely gets fooled on a play, and the few times when he does, he has the athletic ability to react quickly, overcome it and get back to the ball.

Tania, how do you think Andre Johnson will do against the talented Seattle secondary, and especially a head-to-head matchup with Sherman?

Ganguli: The Texans are considering Johnson day-to-day right now. He didn’t look right when he tried to play Sunday after suffering a shin bruise in Baltimore and ultimately recognized that it was better for him to leave and heal than play hindered by the injury. If they don’t have him, the Texans will look to rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a budding star who has shown talent from the moment he arrived in Houston, but also improved steadily as a rookie.

And speaking of young players, how has quarterback Wilson changed in his second year?

Blount: Wilson is willing to take a lot more chances on difficult throws now because he understands what his receivers are going to do and where they will be. In the Jacksonville game, he made what appeared to be a dangerous throw in the middle of the end zone when Sidney Rice had three defenders near him. But Rice had signaled Wilson to toss it up high and Rice would get it, which he did. Wilson knows the offense now and has complete confidence to make plays at clutch moments, and his teammates believe in him.

Wilson is at his best when he scrambles and improvises, often resulting in big plays downfield. Can the Texans defense contain him?

Ganguli: The most mobile quarterback they faced so far this season was Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who threw two touchdown passes but had a QBR of 44.3 against the Texans. They haven’t faced a quarterback who is such an accurate passer while having the ability to use his legs and improvise. Wilson’s numbers have been among the best in the league this season. That will be a challenge for a defense that wants to be the best in the league.

You wrote that the loss of left tackle Russell Okung didn’t hurt much against the Jaguars, but how do you see it impacting the Seahawks going forward?

Blount: Tania, this has to be Seattle's biggest concern entering the Texans game. The Seahawks may be the deepest team in the league, but the offensive line, and particular the tackle spots, is a thin area. They are no match for J.J. Watt. Paul McQuistan moved from guard to left tackle to replace Okung, but the team is weaker without Okung on the field. Right tackle Breno Giacomini probably won't play because of a knee injury. That means rookie Michael Bowie, a seventh-round draft choice, will have to go head-to-head with Watt. Bailey is talented, but he has a lot to learn. Throwing him out there this week against Watt is truly scary for the Seahawks.

I know the Seahawks have major concerns about trying to stop Watt and keeping him off Wilson. Do you see Watt having a big game Sunday?

Ganguli: Watt has a keen ability to exploit weaknesses in inexperienced players. And if he doesn’t know it right from the start, he figures it out eventually. He’s a player with work ethic to match his talent, which isn’t always the case with athletes of his caliber. Watt has been the third most effective player at disrupting opponents’ passes since he entered the NFL. He ranks behind San Francisco’s Aldon Smith and Minnesota’s Jared Allen. Watt has played very well this season and he’s determined to have a better year than he did last year when he led the league with 20.5 sacks and 16 batted passes.

The Seahawks secondary gets the most attention, but how has their defensive front played and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

Blount: This was an area of needed improvement at the end of last season, so the staff made a major effort to bring in veterans who could help with the pass rush. It worked. Defensive linemen Michael Bennett, a free agent Seattle signed after he spent four years in Tampa Bay, has been a force up front. Cliff Avril, the biggest offseason acquisition, was hurt all preseason, but is back now and just starting to contribute. Defensive end Chris Clemons, the team's top pass-rusher last season, returned last week after offseason ACL surgery. And O'Brien Schofield, who was released at Arizona, has been strong at linebacker and defensive end. This is a much stronger, deeper and quicker group than it was a year ago, and it still doesn't have Bruce Irvin. He returns next week after a four-game suspension for PEDs.

Tania, these teams have two of the best running backs in the NFL in Arian Foster in Houston and Marshawn Lynch at Seattle. Which running back do you think will have the upper hand on Sunday?

Ganguli: The running back situation has been interesting in Houston this season. The Texans eased Foster into the season after he missed the entire preseason and in the meantime backup Ben Tate has played very well. Tate is in a contract year and if he keeps up the way he’s started, he’ll be making some money after the season. His yards per carry have been strong and even better have been his yards after contact, 4.5 yards, the best in the NFL. If we’re talking fantasy numbers, Lynch will definitely have the upper hand on Sunday. Foster will be sharing his load with Tate.

Last question from me: What is one name Texans fans might not know that they will after Sunday’s game?

Blount: Great question. I'll pick a couple. First might be middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a second-year player who is growing into one of the best linebackers in the league. Another is slot receiver Doug Baldwin, an exceptional possession-type receiver who has a knack for making the big catch on third down.

And finally, everyone talks about how the Seahawks have the best home-field advantage in the NFL, but I’m a Houston native who has seen some pretty rabid fans down there, as well. How much of a factor can the crowd be Sunday at Reliant Stadium?

Ganguli: They are a rabid bunch and have the added benefit of a perpetually closed roof that keeps their rabidity trapped like a greenhouse gas. They’ve been frustrated recently, but if their team plays well on Sunday, it will be loud.

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The St. Louis Rams finished tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 52 last season.

William Hayes collected seven of them while playing on a one-year deal worth $900,000. That was a bargain by NFL standards.

The Rams rewarded Hayes on Tuesday with a three-year contract worth $10.5 million, ESPN.com's John Clayton reported. So, while other NFC West teams seek pass-rush help, the Rams can generally feel good about their abilities in that critical area.

Hayes, who played 34 percent of the defensive snaps last season, returns to a group already featuring 2008 first-round draft choice Chris Long and 2011 first-rounder Robert Quinn.

Long has 42 career sacks, more than any player from the 2008 draft class. Cliff Avril (39.5), Calais Campbell (27.5), Lawrence Jackson (19.5) and Jason Jones (18.5) are next on that list. Hayes, a fourth-round choice in Tennessee that year, ranks eighth on the list with 15 sacks. Rams teammate Kendall Langford is 10th with 9.5 sacks since 2008.

Quinn's 15.5 sacks in two seasons rank fifth on the list of 2011 draft choices. San Francisco's Aldon Smith tops that list with 33.5 sacks. Von Miller (30), J.J. Watt (26) and Ryan Kerrigan (16) also outrank Quinn.

Quinn's 10.5 sacks last season ranked fourth among 2011 draft choices.
The Associated Press and Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America have announced their all-NFL first teams for the 2012 season.

I've compiled the results here and compared them against our all-division team.

As expected, Seattle's Richard Sherman earned all-league honors from both the AP and PFW/PFWA despite failing to land on the NFC's Pro Bowl squad. Pro Bowl voting took place before the NFL overturned a four-game suspension against Sherman for alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The NFC West is heavily represented on all-league teams despite no representation for the St. Louis Rams or Arizona Cardinals on these first teams (I did not list the AP second-team honors). The 49ers (six) and Seahawks (four) gave the NFC West 10 of 27 representatives on the AP first team.

I used slightly different position names for some spots on the all-division team. Those are noted parenthetically next to the players' names.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

January, 2, 2013
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Peyton ManningDenny Medley/US PresswireIn his first season in Denver, Peyton Manning has thrown for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Peyton Manning's 11-week run atop the MVP Watch list wasn't going to end after the Denver Broncos quarterback closed the season with 304 yards and three touchdowns during a 38-3 victory.

Manning completed 79.3 percent of his passes while finishing with his highest single-game Total QBR score (98.7) in the five-year history of the quarterbacking metric.

And if recent history holds, Manning will emerge as a five-time MVP when the Associated Press reveals the winner one day before the Super Bowl. The four previous season leaders in Total QBR became MVPs, including Manning twice.

Ballots are due Thursday. I am not among the voters.

Manning stands as a clear MVP choice, in my view, based on how his play has affected the Broncos' chances for winning.

Quarterbacks are more important to game outcomes than players at other positions. Passing trumps running in the NFL. What stands as a horrible game for a QB -- say, 110 yards on 20 attempts -- would qualify as a top-flight effort for a runner.

Minnesota's Adrian Peterson would get my vote as the top offensive player or as the most impressive player after topping 2,000 yards rushing for a playoff team. No player in the NFL was more compelling to watch this season, at least from this angle.

But there is a reason QBs keep winning the award. They're more valuable.

Playing the NFL's fourth-easiest schedule certainly helped Manning this season. That might have come into play if the Broncos struggled to pull out victories this season. Instead, they won each of their final 11 games by at least seven points. They earned a first-round playoff bye, meaning they've already gotten as far in the playoffs as the 8-8 Broncos advanced last season.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 26, 2012
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Matt Ryan has charged up the MVP Watch list after two sensational performances helped his Atlanta Falcons clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Ryan's seven touchdown passes against the New York Giants and Detroit Lions earned him a meaningless game in Week 17. That should enhance Ryan's MVP credentials, but with nothing on the line, the Falcons could wind up resting starters to some extent. It's tougher maintaining momentum when the parachute has already been deployed.

Ryan
Ryan
Ryan is the only member of our MVP Watch with a meaningless game on the schedule. His Falcons face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have allowed 29 touchdown passes, second only to New Orleans (31) this season. Ryan completed a season-high 81.3 percent of his passes for 353 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay in Week 12.

Ryan's development has allowed the Falcons to flourish as more of a pass-oriented team. Their identity has changed. This is now Ryan's team, not a team that tries to grind it out on the ground. Ryan has 4,481 yards passing and 31 touchdowns. He ranks third behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in Total QBR. He's one of five qualifying quarterbacks with a passer rating in triple digits.

Why not Ryan for MVP? Pat Yasinskas answered that question on the NFC South blog. Check it out.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 19, 2012
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Adrian PetersonBrace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireVikings running back Adrian Peterson has averaged 164.1 yards per game over his past eight games.
Adrian Peterson is making our weekly MVP discussion more compelling all the time.

The Minnesota Vikings' ligament-defying running back has rushed for 212, 210, 182, 171, 154, 153, 123, 108 and 102 yards in games this season. His total for those nine games would rank 11th among single-season totals over the past five years. His 1,812-yard total through 14 games this season already ranks 19th in NFL history.

Peterson, who suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee last Christmas Eve, would top my list for most impressive player in the NFL this season. He would get my vote for comeback player of the year.

Yet, if the Vikings could trade Peterson for a top quarterback, they would be getting superior value in return. That is a primary reason quarterbacks continue to fill the top three spots in MVP Watch this week.

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers upgrade their teams in ways even the greatest running back could not. That is the nature of the NFL.

I reach out to colleagues each week before compiling this list. This time, our NFC North man, Kevin Seifert, advocated Peterson for the No. 2 spot behind Manning. He explains his position further on the NFC North blog. AFC South counterpart Paul Kuharsky takes a different tack, noting that Tennessee's Chris Johnson commanded zero MVP votes while topping 2,000 yards rushing in 2009.

"If Johnson wasn’t worthy of a single vote just three seasons ago, what’s changed to make Peterson a bigger contender this year?" Kuharsky asks. "And considering the season J.J. Watt is having, if the Texans' defensive lineman can’t win it, I’m left wondering if, when and how a defender will ever win it again."

The more we learn about how games are won and lost in the NFL, the more we realize quarterback play is the key. As great as Peterson has been, the Vikings have generally won and lost based on how quarterback Christian Ponder has played.

Perhaps the "V" in MVP is carrying too much weight. Are we really talking about pure value, or should MVP honors simply go to the player posting the best season?

Which defenders get hands on the football

December, 16, 2012
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Sacks, passes defensed and interceptions carry different values depending on situations.

A pass defensed to stop the opponent's fourth-down play in the final seconds could mean much more than an interception on a Hail Mary as the second quarter concludes.

I offer that disclaimer before passing along NFL leaders in pass disruptions, defined as total number of sacks, passes defensed and interceptions through Week 14. Some cornerbacks doing excellent work aren't going to have as many opportunities to defend passes, of course. But we still might loosely refer to the totals as reflecting how frequently defenders get their hands on the football to disrupt opposing pass offenses.

The players are ranked by total disruptions as a percentage of their opponents' pass dropbacks.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 12, 2012
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Five of our eight NFL divisional bloggers think Peyton Manning stands as the favorite for league MVP through Week 14.

Two of the bloggers favoring Tom Brady have something in common: Both were at Gillette Stadium for Brady's four-touchdown performance during a 42-14 victory over the previously 11-2 Houston Texans on Monday night. Sometimes, seeing in person is believing.

"Peyton Manning's comeback story is amazing," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said, "but Brady's been a small notch better in my eyes."

Those eyes saw firsthand what Brady wrought against the Texans' defense. Our AFC East blogger, James Walker, was there as well.

Brady posted his fifth game of the season with a Total QBR score in the 90s. Only Manning has more of them (seven). Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are next with three apiece.

Brady has 29 passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and only four picks.

"I will go with Brady," AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley said. "Manning is a better story, but Brady's spectacular year shouldn't be downgraded because of it."

The gap between the elder Manning and Brady might be small, but the gap between those two and everyone else continues to grow. Manning (82.4) and Brady (80.6) have a commanding lead over Matt Ryan (73.7) for the QBR lead. They are on pace to post the sixth and seventh full seasons in the 80s since 2008. Manning has done it twice previously, Brady once.

"I'll go with Peyton Manning," NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas said. "John Fox has an elite quarterback for the first time in his career and that could mean a Super Bowl title for the Broncos."

Manning's Broncos have won eight in row after winning eight games all last season.

"Brady did this last year too," NFC East blogger Dan Graziano said. "And the year before. Last year's Broncos were 8-8. This year's may be the best team in the league. Valuable."

What makes an MVP candidate? NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and I will discuss that subject during our "Inside Slant" podcast later Wednesday. You'll be able to find it at the Podcenter. First, let's take a look at the MVP Watch list through Week 14.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

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