NFC West: MVP Watch

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?

Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.

Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?

Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.

Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?

Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.

Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?

Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.


Mike Sando's MVP Watch

January, 2, 2013
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, 19, 2012
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?

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 12, 2012

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.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 28, 2012
Jay CutlerDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireDoes Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler have a case for being in the MVP conversation? The numbers don't necessarily back it up.
The Chicago Bears have a 13-2 record in Jay Cutler's past 15 starts.

They have a 1-6 record in the games he has missed during that time.

That has to make Cutler a prime candidate for MVP Watch, right? His presence must mean everything for the Bears. We all know quarterbacks are usually the most important players on their teams. And we've all heard about what a gunslinger Cutler can be with that strong arm and defiant nature.


Now comes the hard part: proving Cutler is indeed such a key player for the Bears.

Let's take a closer look at the Bears' 1-6 record without him.

That record includes a defeat at San Francisco this season. Cutler wasn't going to stop Aldon Smith from getting 5.5 sacks. He wasn't going to stop Colin Kaepernick from lighting up the Bears' defense. He wasn't going to win a game the Bears lost 32-7 without him.

Cutler missed the final six games last season, five of them losses. Running back Matt Forte missed the final three-plus games. Having Cutler available probably would have enabled the Bears to finish better, but Chicago wasn't going to win at its usual clip without Forte. Lots of starting quarterbacks improve their teams' chances for winning relative to what a backup would provide. That doesn't make them MVP candidates.

The one game Chicago won without Cutler during the 1-6 stretch in question came during Week 17 last season, against Minnesota. The Bears picked off three passes from Joe Webb and Christian Ponder, returning one for a touchdown.

In 2010, the Bears won the lone game Cutler missed, defeating a horrendous Carolina team on its way to winning the Cam Newton sweepstakes. Bears backup Todd Collins threw four picks in that game. Forte carried 22 times for 166 yards. The Bears won 23-6.

Doesn't exactly enhance those MVP credentials for Cutler, does it?

Neither do the stats.

Cutler ranks 20th in Total QBR at 50.4 this season; 50 is average. Tom Brady is in the low 80s. Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks usually score in the mid-60s or higher. Cutler ranks a distant third among NFC North quarterbacks by this measure. He isn't all that far ahead of Minnesota's Christian Ponder (47.7).

Cutler ranks 26th in NFL passer rating at 81.1, which is below the 86.9 figure covering every pass thrown in the league this season. He has 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

But Cutler comes through in the clutch, right? Yes and no.

Cutler has a 92.9 QBR score (out of 100) on 16 fourth-quarter plays when the score was within eight points. That ranks second to MVP Watch leader Peyton Manning and right ahead of St. Louis' Sam Bradford. That's fine, but all 16 of those plays were against the Rams and Panthers. Cutler completed 10 of 14 passes with no touchdowns. He also rushed twice for 20 yards in those situations.

To further explore the clutch theory, I filtered ESPN's charting database for higher-leverage situations, defined as those when play results have above-average impact on win probability.

It's a more complicated way to measure what the vernacular calls clutch situations, but the math is sound. Ten years of charting information says teams are either more or less likely to win based on the results for each play. Some situations are more pivotal than others.

Cutler's QBR score falls to 44.4 with two touchdowns, five picks and 14 sacks in higher-leverage situations, meaning situations when the stakes were above average. That compares to a 63.3 QBR score with four touchdowns, one pick and nine sacks in lower-leverage situations.

Overall, Cutler has three touchdowns, six picks and a 47.0 QBR score in one-score games, defined as those when the margin is within eight points.

Perhaps someone else can build the MVP case for Cutler. I'd like to hear it.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 21, 2012
Aldon Smith and Von MillerUS Presswire, Icon SMIAldon Smith, left, and Von Miller have moved into the MVP discussion with dominant play.
No defensive player has won MVP honors in the NFL since Lawrence Taylor following the 1986 season.

The 2011 draft is doing its part to change the trend. That draft has produced the top three sack leaders in the NFL through Week 11.

J.J. Watt, who has been on our MVP Watch list nine times in 12 weeks, trails only Aldon Smith and Von Miller among NFL sack leaders to this point in the season. Denver made Miller the second overall choice in 2011. San Francisco made Smith the seventh pick. Houston took Watt 11th.

That is a great pass-rushing draft.

Smith has a league-leading 15 sacks after setting a "Monday Night Football" record with 5.5 against Chicago. Miller ranks second with 13 sacks after collecting three for Denver against San Diego.

I've added Smith and Miller to the MVP Watch list heading into Week 12. They have combined with Watt for 39.5 sacks this season. It's still unlikely any of them will take down the top quarterbacks in the MVP race, but they are doing their best on the field.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 7, 2012
How nice of Peyton Manning to throw a couple of interceptions last week, just to change up things.

The Denver Broncos quarterback had posted a 14-1 ratio of touchdowns to INTs over his previous five games. His odds for winning a fifth MVP award now appear considerably shorter.

Manning, in leading the Broncos to their third consecutive victory, became the first player all season to toss more than one INT and still emerge from a game with an NFL passer rating north of 105.

This is his fourth consecutive week atop the MVP Watch list.

We're 10 weeks into this and have listed 32 players at various points. Tom Brady is the only player to appear on the list every week. Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan have made it nine times. Eli Manning (eight), Peyton Manning (eight) and J.J. Watt (seven) are the only other players to appear more than five times.

Forty percent of the list turned over from last week.

Eli Manning, Tim Jennings, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith get the week off. Andrew Luck and Josh Freeman make their first appearances. Charles Tillman and Marshawn Lynch are back after one-week absences.

The top four spots remain unchanged.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 31, 2012
ManningAP Photo/Greg TrottDenver quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown three touchdown passes in four consecutive games.
Let's just say some were a bit skeptical upon seeing Peyton Manning atop the MVP Watch list a week ago.

"I totally disagree," wrote a colleague who shall remain nameless.

Looks like Manning might be staying awhile in the No. 1 spot.

The Denver Broncos' 36-year-old quarterback posted another statistical gem Sunday with 305 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions during a 34-14 victory over New Orleans. He leads the NFL in Total QBR (82.5) and NFL passer rating (109.0).

Manning thus became the second player in NFL history to reach 300 yards passing and three touchdowns in four consecutive games during one season. Steve Young did it five consecutive games during the 1998 season. That info comes from Elias Sports Bureau.

Terrell Davis won MVP honors for his 2,008-yard season back in 1998, a reminder that a few strong weeks in a row does not secure the hardware automatically. But with Manning and the current Broncos facing the NFL easiest schedule from this point forward, we have a midseason favorite, at least.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 24, 2012
Charles TillmanJohn J. Kim/Getty ImagesChicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman makes his first appearance on our MVP Watch list.
The Chicago Bears have owned one of the NFL's best records, backed by a dominant defense. They haven't had an obvious MVP candidate.

How about Charles Tillman?

The 10th-year cornerback earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time last season. He blanketed the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson during a 13-7 victory Monday night.

With two forced fumbles against the Lions, Tillman has 32 for his career. That ranks tied for third since Tillman's rookie season (2003) and the most for a defensive back, according to the Bears. Tillman has two picks and scored on both.

Tillman is playing very well. He's playing for a dominant defense. His team is winning. He makes the MVP Watch list this week, his first appearance.

Tillman joins MVP Watch mainstay J.J. Watt as the only defensive players to appear on the list this season. Lawrence Taylor was the most recent defensive player to win the Associated Press version of the award. He won following the 1986 season.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 17, 2012
Peyton ManningJeff Gross/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning and the Denver Broncos enter their bye week in first place in the AFC West.
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have played the fifth-toughest schedule in the NFL to this point, defined by opponents' won-lost percentage (.588).

They have what stands as the easiest remaining schedule by the same measure (.339).

Manning's MVP credentials should only improve, as the Broncos, blessed with a Week 7 bye to tune up their passing game, better their 3-3 record as the season plays out. Those MVP credentials aren't exactly hurting at present, either. The comeback Manning led from a 24-0 deficit to beat San Diego on Monday night had a defining feel to it. Denver looks like the AFC West favorite. Manning has moved atop our MVP Watch list.

"In a stunning 30-minute whirlwind, Manning (who thrust himself into the MVP race Monday night) and his improving Broncos scored 35 unanswered points to shock San Diego," Bill Williamson wrote.

Manning has a league-high 984 yards over his past three games. He has nine touchdowns with one interception over that span. He's looking more like a four-time MVP than an aging player trying to regain past form following career-threatening neck surgeries.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 10, 2012
Harvin/Lynch/WayneUS PresswirePercy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch and Reggie Wayne are on our list for the first time this season.
Three non-quarterbacks are making their 2012 MVP Watch debuts.

Minnesota's Percy Harvin, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne did not suddenly become excellent players. They've been strong producers. The fact that their teams have nine combined victories through Week 5, up from 12 all last season, makes their contributions more meaningful.

"Show me a better player in the NFL right now that's doing more for his team," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said about Harvin after Minnesota's latest victory. "You just can't find one."

While the Vikings were improving to 4-1, Wayne's Colts were shocking the Green Bay Packers to reach 2-2, matching their victory total for 2011. Wayne was the catalyst. As Paul Kuharsky pointed out, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck averaged 10.6 yards on 20 attempts when targeting Wayne in that game, compared to 4.3 yards on 35 attempts targeting other players.

Lynch nearly appeared on the list a week ago, but the Seahawks were coming off a 19-13 defeat at St. Louis. Coach Pete Carroll is leaning heavily on Seattle's defense and ground game to carry the team while rookie quarterback Russell Wilson develops. Lynch keeps delivering. He has 1,449 yards rushing in the Seahawks' past 14 games, most in the NFL by 155 yards.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 3, 2012
Marshawn LynchSteven Bisig/US PresswireDespite leading the league in rushing, Marshawn Lynch hasn't been able to crack our MVP Watch list.
The NFL's leading rusher, Marshawn Lynch, came oh-so-close to landing on the MVP Watch list this week.

It was striking, however, that his dominant rushing performance in Week 5 failed to produce a victory over St. Louis. The Seahawks ran the ball almost at will in that game, but without a marginally productive passing game, they fell short.

That is the way of the NFL and probably explains why no running backs appear on the list this week.

Arian Foster ranked fourth heading into opening week. Jamaal Charles appeared at No. 9 last week after topping 200 yards rushing. No other running backs have appeared on the list at any other time. That wasn't by design. It has just worked out that way.

Sixteen quarterbacks, two receivers and two defensive players have appeared. We've had nearly as many referees as running backs, with Ed Hochuli making a just-for-fun appearance before the NFL and its officials finally settled their labor impasse.

Lynch has a good shot at appearing next week, particularly if the Seahawks win. He's facing a Carolina defense that has allowed a 100-yard rusher for three games running. Lynch has eight 100-yard games since Week 9 last season, most in the NFL by two games.

Editor's note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 12, 2012
Alex SmithBenny Sieu/US PresswireThe 49ers' Alex Smith showed again in Week 1 that he can do more than just manage a game.
The NFL has become a game of frequent substitutions.

Some of them don't make much sense on the surface.

For example, the San Francisco 49ers removed from the field Patrick Willis, arguably the NFL's best linebacker, for roughly one-third of the defensive snaps against Green Bay in Week 1. That will not be the norm for the 49ers, but it made sense for one game.

The MVP Watch list is making a few short-term substitutions this week. The list, always part snapshot and projection, leans toward the snapshot side at this early point in the season.

Arian Foster, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Michael Vick are getting the week off. We'll see most of them again this season. Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith could not be denied.

Drew Brees earned the benefit of the doubt following a rough opener. That is one reason the current list favors quarterbacks to an unusual extent. Here is another: Buffalo's C.J. Spiller was the only running back or receiver to exceed 135 yards in an opener. His team lost big.

Non-quarterbacks have a tough time measuring up even when they dominate.

Peyton Manning won MVP honors for the 2009 season even though Chris Johnson topped 2,000 yards rushing. Speaking of Manning, he's moving up the list and should only improve as he shakes off the rust and gets more familiar with his new teammates. How will his aging bones fare when the weather turns? Manning plays his only dome game of the season in Week 2, when the Broncos visit Atlanta.

Editor's note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this post.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 5, 2012
ManningRon Chenoy/US PresswireThe Denver Broncos are expecting big things from quarterback Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning stands right where he did one year ago: a cautious 10th on our MVP Watch list to open the regular season.

This time, we know he's going to play. We just aren't sure how well.

The four-time MVP is back. But is he really back?

"Mentally? Yes, and better than ever,"'s Matt Williamson said. "Physically? No. The timing and accuracy is there, but not the ability to drive the ball."

Another Williamson, Bill of the AFC West blog, expects to see a very good Manning in Denver, but not necessarily a vintage one.

"The reality is he had multiple neck surgeries, he missed a year and he is 36," Bill Williamson said. "A decline has to be expected. But he is an all-time great and I expect him to be [among the] top 5-8 quarterbacks for the next three years. He will make a big impact in Denver."

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers opened last season second to Tom Brady on this list. He's the favorite now. But a strong season from Manning, whose 227-game starting streak ended when he sat out last season, could qualify him for an unprecedented double.

"If Peyton Manning returns to form and leads the Broncos to a division title, I'd expect he'd be the unanimous comeback player of the year," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said. "How many times has the comeback player of the year been MVP?"

Never. The comeback award dates only to 1998. Its three most recent winners -- Brady (2009), Michael Vick (2010) and Matthew Stafford (2011) -- came a lot closer to having MVP-type seasons than previous comeback players. Chad Pennington (twice), Greg Ellis, Tedy Bruschi and Steve Smith were the previous five winners. Manning fits the Brady-Vick-Stafford profile.

"For him to make it back from the serious injury and take his act on the road to Denver, making it go with a new team, would qualify as remarkable and garner a slew of votes for an unprecedented fifth MVP," Kuharsky said. "I rank Aaron Rodgers as a clear favorite to repeat. But a storybook year for Manning could change all that no matter what unfolds in Green Bay. I think we'd have a double-dip situation."

Quarterbacks have won the past five MVP awards. Running backs Shaun Alexander (2005) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) are the only non-QBs to win since Marshall Faulk following the 2000 season. No defensive player has won since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

Editor's note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this post.

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?