Identifying a single 49ers player as an MVP candidate isn't so easy. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis makes his debut on the MVP Watch list this week because he has stepped up his already dominant play in recent weeks, becoming the player most qualified to represent the 9-1 49ers this week. Harbaugh has called Willis the "least talked about great player" in the league. With the 49ers visiting Baltimore on Thanksgiving and facing Pittsburgh in a Monday night game three weeks later, perhaps that will start to change.
"He’s the five-tool linebacker," Harbaugh said. "Plays downhill, I think, better than any linebacker in football, but he can also cover. ... He can run sideline to sideline. He can run plays down from the backside. He’s got the speed to shoot a gap and make a play from behind and you see that many times. Excellent blitzer."
Year of the Quarterback
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No defensive player has won MVP honors since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Willis isn't going to end that streak in a league increasingly dominated by quarterbacks, but the 49ers needed representation here, and Willis gets the call.
Running back Frank Gore has frequented the MVP Watch list recently, peaking at No. 2 after a string of five consecutive games with at least 107 yards rushing. A six-carry, zero-yard performance against the New York Giants in arguably the 49ers' most impressive victory undercut his candidacy. His overall stats aren't in line with those for MVP running backs.
Quarterback Alex Smith deserves credit for avoiding mistakes and chipping away at the negative connotations surrounding the term "game manager," but 14 quarterbacks have more touchdown passes than Smith this season. Three have at least twice as many. Smith has been valuable to the 49ers, no question, but not that valuable.
Quarterback | Green Bay Packers ... Next Game: 11/24 at DET ... Last Poll: 1
The most impressive statistical marker for Rodgers, in my view, continues to be yards per attempt. His 9.6-yard average in this category stands 1.2 yards above his nearest challenger, Matt Schaub. And with a 72.3 completion percentage for an offense that doesn't lean heavily on the ground game, coupled with a 31-4 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, Rodgers remains the runaway favorite for MVP honors. His lowest single-game NFL passer rating of the season was 111.4 against Chicago. When Peyton Manning won MVP honors following the 2003 season, he posted ratings below 111.4 in 12 of 16 games.
Quarterback | New Orleans Saints ... Next Game: 11/28 vs. NYG ... Last Poll: 2
Three of the top five players in MVP Watch this week are coming off bye weeks. Brees is one of them. The Saints play four of their final six games at home. One of their two remaining road games is at Minnesota. That means Brees will play five of his final six regular-season games indoors. He won't have to worry about wintry weather conditions, putting him in position to finish the season strong. And with Atlanta only one game back in the NFC South, the Saints likely won't be coasting to the finish line, either.
Quarterback | Pittsburgh Steelers ... Next Game: 11/27 at KC ... Last Poll: 3
Not all broken thumbs are the same. The one Roethlisberger suffered wasn't as serious as the one Jay Cutler suffered. That means Roethlisberger should remain in the lineup. The Steelers play only two teams with winning records over the course of their final six games. One of those games, against Cincinnati in Week 13, is at home. The other, at San Francisco on Monday night in Week 15, provides a national stage for Roethlisberger to measure himself against one of the NFL's top defenses. One concern: Roethlisbeger has taken five sacks in two of the Steelers' last three games.
Quarterback | New England Patriots ... Next Game: 11/27 at PHI ... Last Poll: 4
Nothing was going right for Brady and the Patriots' passing game during the first half of their Monday night game against Kansas City. Brady lost a fumble for the second time in three games. He has fumbled once in four consecutive games after suffering none in the first six games. Brady nonetheless has nine touchdowns with only two interceptions over that four-game stretch. None of the Patriots' remaining opponents has a winning record, so New England should post double-digit victories for a ninth-consecutive season.
Running Back | Houston Texans ... Next Game: 11/27 at JAC ... Last Poll: 5
Foster gets a chance to showcase his value while the Texans head into their final six games without the injured Schaub. The team has proven to be strong on defense. That could allow the Texans to lean more heavily on the ground game as they try to grind out victories, protecting Matt Leinart. At his current per-game pace, Foster would finish the season with 1,295 yards rushing and 779 yards receiving, especially strong production given that Foster missed two of the Texans' first three games to injury.
Quarterback | Dallas Cowboys ... Next Game: 11/24 vs. MIA ... Last Poll: 9
Romo was coming off a three-pick game against Detroit when the Cowboys went into their Week 5 bye. He has 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions in six subsequent games, including an 8-0 ratio during the Cowboys' current three-game winning streak. Romo hasn't fumbled since Week 3 and recently moved past Brady into third place behind Rodgers and Brees in Total QBR for the season. That is impressive company.
Quarterback | Detroit Lions ... Next Game: 11/24 vs. GB ... Last Poll: NR
Five touchdown passes against Carolina revived Stafford's candidacy following a brutal performance in the wind at Chicago. A strong performance in a victory against Green Bay on Thanksgiving would send Stafford shooting up the list. There would be no shame in losing to the Packers, of course, but the stakes would rise for Stafford were Detroit to fall short. The Lions face a trip to New Orleans the following week.
Running Back | Chicago Bears ... Next Game: 11/27 at OAK ... Last Poll: 6
Forte and Foster are facing similar situations over the final six games. Both running backs have demonstrated strong value to their teams. Both now must continue to do so after losing their starting quarterbacks. Forte has averaged 3.6 and 2.9 yards per carry in his last two games after averaging between 5.1 and 8.2 over his previous five. The Bears have kept winning, anyway. Vulnerable run defenses await on the schedule. Defenses will be loading up to stop Forte, more than usual.
Linebacker | San Francisco 49ers ... Next Game: 11/24 at BAL ... Last Poll: NR
Willis picked off a pass against Arizona last week. He collected a sack against the Giants a week earlier. The NFL credits Willis with 11 passes defended, a career single-season high after only 10 games. The increased production in that area reflects the additional time Willis has spent in coverage this season. He has played at an elite level in all areas, combining with defensive end Justin Smith to lead one of the NFL's best defenses.
Quarterback | New York Giants ... Next Game: 11/28 at NO ... Last Poll: 8
Manning remains the primary reason the Giants have a winning record despite serious problems on their line and elsewhere on the roster. The team continues to run its offense through Manning, but he'll need a bounce-back week to remain on the list. The Giants, though weary of constant questions about their inability to finish seasons strong, have nonetheless done little to change perceptions. Manning has four picks in his last three games after throwing five in his first seven.