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Friday, November 30, 2012
Updated: November 29, 7:38 PM ET
A surprise that we've seen before

By Adam Schefter
ESPN.com

So this year is like, and unlike, so many others. Please follow along.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are turning in vintage performances in a vintage year, as they have in so many other seasons. Only this time it feels unique, more unexpected, with each player that much further along in his career.

Thirty-six-year-old Manning is returning from a season lost completely to a neck injury just as 35-year-old Brady once returned after losing a full season in 2008 to a knee injury. Despite their setbacks, they are back as the game's two marquee and most productive players.

As good as Manning was as a four-time most valuable player, he has been just as good this season as Denver prepares to host Tampa Bay on Sunday. His 67.7 completion percentage is just off his career-best 68.8 in 2009, when he won his most recent MVP award. More impressive, Manning is on pace to throw for 4,742 yards, which would be a career high. And he has led Denver to eight wins -- as many as the other three AFC West teams combined.

Brady's statistics do not compare to those of his MVP seasons in 2007 and 2010. He has completed 65.1 percent of his passes compared with his career-best 68.9 in 2007 and is on pace to throw for 4,798 yards, fewer than the career-best 5,235 he threw for last season. But as New England travels to Miami for Sunday's game against the Dolphins, Brady is getting better. In his past five games, Brady has thrown 14 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

In the twilights of their careers, Brady and Manning are giving football and their followers career years. No one would be surprised if it resulted in one more postseason matchup, one more chance for these men to cement their legacy as two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. But there's still plenty to settle this regular season.

As friendly as the two quarterbacks have become, they are competing against each other for MVP honors. Already they have combined to win the award six times, including four straight years from 2007 to 2010. It's Brady and Manning, Manning and Brady, as it was in 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, the six previous seasons they won the MVP.

Should one win it this season -- and, right now, no one else is more deserving -- it will be the fifth time in six years Manning or Brady has won the award. They have practically owned it, just as they are owning this season. They are the story, again.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

Tim Tebow
The Jets' Dec. 9 trip to Jacksonville could provide a glimpse of the future for Tim Tebow.

1. Next wave of Tebow intrigue: Tim Tebow nearly returned to Jacksonville this offseason before the Jaguars' coaching staff and front office got their way in not finalizing a deal for the former Broncos quarterback. But Tebow is returning to Jacksonville a week from Sunday, and it's not too early to start the hype and speculation.

Last offseason, Jaguars owner Shad Khan was essentially the lone team employee who wanted to trade for Tebow. People around the league believe he still will, which will create an intriguing situation this offseason. If Khan wants to exercise his rights as owner, he could veto anyone in his path and pull off a trade for Tebow.

There still will be some in the Jaguars' organization who would be leery, knowing the type of issues Tebow brings. But no team in the league needs Tebow's presence, and possibly his play, more than Jacksonville, which has struggled this season to win games and draw fans. It will be up to Khan to change that. But, in the course of the next week, there will be endless speculation about whether Tebow's trip to Jacksonville on Dec. 9 is only the prelude of more trips to come.

2. Henne faces his past: Just when Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne is playing well and escaping his past, he will run smack into it. Over the next four weeks, Henne is scheduled to face the four teams of the AFC East, the division that caused him issues in his time as the Dolphins' quarterback. The Jaguars play at Buffalo on Sunday before hosting the Jets in the Tebow homecoming. Jacksonville then plays at Henne's former employer in Miami and finishes the stretch by hosting New England.

In the past two games, Henne has thrown six touchdown passes and one interception and has made Jacksonville a more competitive team. Now, to take the lead in the race to be the Jaguars' starting quarterback next season, Henne will have to beat the teams that haunted him in previous seasons.

3. Parity takes a hit: One reason the NFL has been so incredibly popular is because it is so wildly unpredictable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that at least five new teams have advanced to the playoffs every year since 1996. But this is the year that parity-proud streak is about to end.

Last year's AFC playoff teams were New England, Baltimore, Houston, Denver, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. This year, the division winners will be the same and Indianapolis looks as if it will be the only new wild card. Last year's NFC playoff teams were the Giants, Packers, Falcons, 49ers, Saints and Lions. This year, at least three of those teams, and maybe all four, will win their division again, and the NFL could get two new NFC playoff teams. So, at best, the league is looking at three new playoff teams, snapping a streak that is just about as improbable as Brett Favre's streak of 297 straight starts.

Late November and early December is supposed to be separation time in the NFL. But the good teams already have separated themselves, taking some of the suspense out of the season.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger's value to the Steelers has been magnified by his absence.

4. Big Ben for MVP? In his absence the past three games, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed why he deserves consideration for the NFL's MVP award. In the 10 quarters since Roethlisberger exited the Monday night game versus the Chiefs with rib and shoulder injuries, the Steelers have failed to throw a single touchdown pass. Byron Leftwich threw for 199 yards in his start against Baltimore, Charlie Batch threw for 199 yards in his start against Cleveland, and the two quarterbacks have combined to throw four interceptions and no touchdown passes.

But Pittsburgh still is well positioned to withstand the loss of Roethlisberger, even if it loses its third straight game Sunday at Baltimore. The Steelers' final four games are against San Diego, at Dallas, and at home against Cincinnati and Cleveland. By the time Roethlisberger returns, this team should be poised to pluck one of the AFC's wild-card spots.

5. Rookie QB history: From the moment this season kicked off until it ends, one of the central storylines has been and will continue to be the ascension of rookie quarterbacks. Five rookie quarterbacks -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson -- have led their teams to a combined 26 wins, the most in a season since the 1970 merger.

Luck is leading the way with seven wins, and he has a chance to make some significant history of his own when the Colts play at Detroit on Sunday. No quarterback drafted No. 1 has won more than seven games as a starter in his rookie season, and none has finished the year with a winning record. Luck is on the verge of doing both. And consider this: In the modern draft era since 1967 until the start of this season, all rookie quarterbacks combined to win only 55 games. This year's class will wind up coming close to matching that total in one year.

6. Dallas' RG3 problem: It was one thing for Griffin's Redskins to humiliate Jerry Jones' Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. But the worst part had to be contemplating the prospect of its happening again in the future. Although 32-year-old Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is headed into the last year of his contract, 22-year-old Griffin is under contract to Washington for years to come, and the Redskins won't let him go anywhere.

As long as Griffin stays healthy, he could be facing off against Jones' Cowboys for the next 12 to 15 years. Unless Dallas can develop consistency, it is going to struggle to beat Griffin later this year as well as in future years. Just last week, Jones admitted that he didn't know whether the Cowboys could get to 8-8 this season. But the real issue is how to catch and overtake Griffin in future seasons.

7. Built to last: When San Francisco and St. Louis square off Sunday, they will do so with the idea that both organizations are set up to succeed for seasons to come.

San Francisco has only two starters not under contract for next season, safety Dashon Goldson and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who is not an every-down player. Other than that, every 49ers starter is locked and loaded for at least the next two seasons, and some for plenty more. Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Chris Culliver and Frank Gore are signed through 2014. Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, Vernon Davis, Alex Boone and Carlos Rogers are signed through 2015. Patrick Willis and A.J. Jenkins are signed through 2016. Joe Staley and Ahmad Brooks are signed through 2017. And NaVorro Bowman, who was awarded a five-year extension this week, and Andy Lee are signed through 2018. Even 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has three more seasons after this year. These 49ers are not just good. They're good for years to come.

But the Rams should be, too. St. Louis has double first-round draft choices in each of the next two years, compliments of its blockbuster trade with Washington for the right to draft quarterback Griffin. The Rams are positioned to build the type of success San Francisco is enjoying.

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick has rewarded the 49ers' faith in him through two starts.

8. Case for Kaepernick: After San Francisco beat New Orleans on Sunday, the 49ers' team plane landed in the Bay Area at 1 a.m. local time. Fortunately for the players, they were given Monday off -- Victory Monday. Yet when some 49ers employees rolled into the parking lot at 8 a.m. Monday, dreary from the late-night flight from New Orleans, they noticed a solitary figure on the practice field, running sprint after sprint, with what appeared to be 45-pound plates attached to his back. The employees got a little closer to see who it was doing this extra work. And when they got close enough to see, they noticed it was quarterback Colin Kaepernick, getting in more work on what was supposed to be his day off.

If there's another reason the 49ers are drawn to Kaepernick, this is it. The man loves to work. It has been only two starts, and there's a long way to go before anyone puts him in Canton. But Kaepernick is beginning to make Alex Smith look as expendable as Tom Brady once made Drew Bledsoe look. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only quarterback to post a higher QBR in his first two NFL starts than Kaepernick's 85.0 is the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. It is the purest numerical evidence of how effective Kaepernick has been.

He adds an element of explosiveness to a 49ers team that looks like the toughest in football. Smith's most impressive numbers are the 20-6-1 record he has compiled over the past year and a half. He has been strong, better than the 49ers expected. But as long as Kaepernick plays the way he did in his first two NFL starts, Smith could be looking for work after this season.

9. Trading places: Two division rivals that square off Sunday, New England and Miami, have had something of a role reversal. Usually the Patriots are overloaded in draft picks and the Dolphins have traded them away for players such as Daunte Culpepper, A.J. Feeley and Brandon Marshall. But this offseason, for the first time in a long time, the Patriots are scheduled to be without draft picks and the Dolphins have a surplus of them.

The Patriots are missing their fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks (although they do have an extra in the seventh) thanks to trades for cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Chad Johnson and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have extra picks in the second, third, sixth and seventh rounds thanks to trades with the Colts, Bears and Cowboys for cornerback Vontae Davis, Marshall and center Kyle Cook. New England usually is a team to watch in January and again in April. But this spring, the Dolphins are a team to monitor.

10. Road relief for Browns? Coming off its biggest win of the season, Cleveland would like to snap one of its most ignominious steaks. As the Browns travel to Oakland for Sunday's game against the Raiders, Cleveland has not won a road game since Week 2 … of last season. The stretch of 12 straight road losses ties a franchise record set in 1974-76 and is the longest active road losing streak in the NFL.

It's still well short of the road futility record Detroit set when it lost 26 straight away games from Week 8 of the 2007 season through Week 15 of the 2010 season. But if Cleveland wants to snap its streak this season, this would be the time. The Browns' final two road games are at Denver and Pittsburgh.

The Schef's specialties

Game of the week: Pittsburgh at Baltimore -- The Ravens would like nothing more than to clinch a playoff spot and deal Pittsburgh's playoff hopes a blow.

Player of the week: Lions wide receiver Ryan Broyles -- Detroit gets a glimpse of why it used its second-round pick on a wide receiver.

Upset of the week: St. Louis over San Francisco -- The 49ers have looked unbeatable the past two weeks, but the team that almost beat them was the Rams, who now get San Francisco at home, in an early game.