Poll some league coaches and general managers, ask them to name their personal odds-on favorite for the NFL's most valuable player this season, and many would probably cite one of two splendid tailbacks: San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson and Seattle's Shaun Alexander.
But let's toss another helmet, and a pretty familiar one, into the ring, too: How about Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning? He has either shared (with Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair in 2003) or won outright (last year) two MVP awards, and figures at some point in his remaining Hall of Fame career to join Brett Favre as the only three-time MVP recipients in league history.
Manning again for MVP, you say? To which we counter: Why not?
After his performance Sunday, winning on the road and in front of a stoked crowd at Paul Brown Stadium in what was advertised as the biggest contest the Cincinnati Bengals have hosted in years, it's time to stop taking Manning for granted and start seriously considering him a very viable MVP candidate.
Sure, we know, this is allegedly a "down" season for Manning, coming after his record-setting performance of 2004, when he tossed 49 touchdown passes. But how "down" has this season really been? Well, most quarterbacks would sell their soul for just one season like the supposedly ordinary year that Manning is authoring.
Yeah, poor ol' Peyton, he's really been pretty mundane, hasn't he? I mean, you've really got to feel for the guy, don't you? Yeah, right.
Projecting his current numbers over a full season, Manning would finish with 347 completions in 506 attempts for 4,054 yards, with 32 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions and a 104.5 efficiency rating. Obviously, the 32 touchdown passes pale in comparison to last year's 49, but it would still be the third time in Manning's celebrated career that he went over 30 scoring passes. It would also be his seventh straight season with 4,000 or more yards. The 68.6 completion rate would be his best and the 104.5 quarterback rating would be his second-best ever, trailing only last season's 121.1 monster number.
Bengals defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, who has done a remarkable job with the unit this year, had the temerity last week to suggest that Cincinnati wanted to stop the runs of Edgerrin James first, and then force Manning to throw. There's an old adage, Coach Bresnahan, which cautions that you need to be careful what you wish for. 'Cause here's what the No. 10-rated pass defense got for all its wishing: Manning completed 24 of 40 passes for 365 yards, with three touchdown passes and one interception, and led his offensive into the end zone on each of its first five possessions. Not bad, considering that the Bengals entered the game having surrendered an average of just 187.1 passing yards and seven touchdown passes in nine games.
Putting up 365 big ones, well, there's not much ordinary about that, now, is there? (Note to Bengals defenders: Sunday marked the second so-called "statement" game you've played this season. In those two losses, to the Steelers and the Colts, you surrendered a total of 72 points.)
It's more than simply numbers, though, that set Manning apart and could earn him a third straight MVP nod. No one prepares like the Colts' quarterback. No one is less affected by the bull's-eye that is on his chest every week. He's a marked man every game, and most times, he's right on the mark. Sunday's sterling performance, at first blush, seemed like just another Manning game because, frankly, we've seen so many of them now that they've just started to blur together.
In the first three games of this season, Manning had but two touchdown passes, and an equal number of interceptions. The popular question was: "What's happened to Peyton Manning?" Second-most popular: "How have defenses finally caught up to him?" The answer to the first query is "Not much," and to the second, "Not very well." Over the last seven games, Manning has 18 touchdown passes and five interceptions. But people take Manning's brilliance so much for granted, they've barely noticed the torrid pace that he's set in that five-game stretch.
Remember how things were after the first five games of this '05 season? The Colts were permitting only 5.8 points per game, the offense was averaging a relatively paltry (based on last season) 21.2 points, and the popular perception was that Indianapolis might have to win some contests with defense. Well, in the last five games, the Colts have allowed 24.6 points per outing, and all but one opponent in that period scored 20 points or more. No big deal, though, because Manning and the offense have averaged 39.8 points in the last five games, scoring more than 31 points in every contest, with 40 or more points in three of them.
It seems, not too surprisingly, that Manning has figured things out again. It seems, too, that the NFL should figure out he belongs on the MVP short list again.
Of the eight current division leaders (factoring tiebreakers), all but two, Seattle and Denver, feature head coaches whose primary orientation is on the defensive side of the ball. That certainly bodes well for potential head coaching candidates such as current Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. What bodes even better for Rivera and his résumé, however, is how well his unit is playing right now.
Watching the Bears manhandle the Carolina Panthers (the best NFC team we had seen in person heading into this weekend) Sunday, we weren't quite prepared to start drawing comparisons to the 1985 Chicago defense that won Super Bowl XX, as were some people at Soldier Field, like Panthers veteran defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. But make no mistake, this is an excellent defense, one constructed for the long haul. We noted in this space just a couple weeks ago how good a job general manager Jerry Angelo has done cap-wise with the Bears' defense, so there is little sense in revisiting that. But Rivera has the defense playing with an intensity and quickness that was breathtaking at times on Sunday.
There are veteran players (ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, and safety Mike Brown) who have benefited from the aggressive scheme, emerging stars (cornerback Nathan Vasher and tackle Tommie Harris) and guys who are a ton better than most people in the NFL seem to realize (weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs). The unit has certainly melded nicely.
But give Rivera, who played on the '85 Super Bowl team, credit, too. The Bears not only played a great game Sunday, but Rivera also coached a great game. For all the talk of in-game adjustments, many coaches aren't really very good at them, but Rivera made changes on the fly Sunday that paid off handsomely for the Chicago defense. Early on, he brought a lot of bodies at Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, forced him into two big turnovers, and forced the Panthers into "max" protection schemes. At that point, Rivera went to more cover looks, which meant Delhomme had to hold the ball longer, and that allowed the Chicago front four to attack the pocket without the Bears having to commit an extra pass-rusher. The result: Eight sacks of Delhomme, complete domination of the Panthers' offense, and an inkling on the part of those who witnessed the trashing that the Bears' defense could be special.
The Bears organization, by the way, might want to consider itself fortunate, in a rather convoluted way, for the neck injury that sidelined cornerback Jerry Azumah at the start of the season. That probably sounds cruel; but honestly, we don't mean it to be. But the injury meant that the Bears had to elevate Vasher, one of the NFL's top nickel cornerbacks in 2004, into the starting lineup. A steal in the 2004 draft as a fourth-round pick, Vasher now has six interceptions (he had five as a rookie), and seems to make at least one big play every week. "I say there aren't many guys playing as well as me right now, and there aren't many defenses playing as well as we are," Vasher said after the Bears routed the Panthers. Hard to argue with him on either point.
Don't blame Vick
For the first time ever, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has registered three straight starts with passer efficiency ratings of 95.0 or better, as he completed 21 of 38 attempts for 306 yards against Tampa Bay Sunday in an outing in which he continued to make progress throwing from the pocket. But, oops, for the first time since December of 2002, Vick lost consecutive starts, with the defeat to the Bucs following the ugly loss to the Green Bay Packers.
For once, Vick bashers (and, admittedly, when it comes to his passing prowess, we've been one of them), don't blame it on the quarterback. Yes, the Falcons star still needs to take better care of the football, as his late-game fumble set up Tampa Bay's winning field goal Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Sometimes, it seems that if someone just sneezes on Vick, he coughs up the ball. But the Falcons' current woes aren't so much on offense, as they are on the once-dependable defensive side of the ball. For a third straight week -- a close win at Miami and then the home losses to the Packers and the Bucs -- the Atlanta defense surrendered 100-plus rushing yards. For a third straight week, the Falcons registered just one takeaway, and for the third week in a row, the pass rush was nonexistent against an inferior offensive line.
The Atlanta defense, admittedly smallish but nonetheless known for its toughness, was the elixir that Bucs tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams needed to get well again. His 116 yards on Sunday, when he found some big creases he hadn't been able to locate lately, were 34 more yards than he managed in his previous four outings combined. The Atlanta defense, which ranked eighth in the league versus the rush a year ago, entered Sunday's game rated No. 20. Too many opponents are finding too much running room against the Atlanta front. Some apologists might point out that the Falcons were forced to reshuffle after middle linebacker Ed Hartwell went down with a season-ending Achilles injury. Sorry, folks, but that doesn't fly, since Hartwell wasn't exactly stuffing the run with regularity, either.
It's not only the run defense, however, that has been absent. The Falcons have one sack -- playing against pocket-passing statues like Favre, Gus Frerotte (Miami) and Chris Simms (Tampa Bay) -- in the last three games. We had Sunday pegged as a big day for Falcons end Patrick Kerney and tackle Rod Coleman, the team's best outside and inside rushers, respectively. But playing against a Bucs line that often resembles a sieve, the Falcons got to Simms zero times. Once the league leader in sacks among interior defenders, Coleman has now gone three straight outings without a quarterback body slam. Kerney has one sack in his last four games.
Of late, coach Jim Mora and coordinator Ed Donatell have decried the Falcons' poor tackling. That remains a problem. But there are other components of the Atlanta defense that need remedying, and fast, if the Falcons are to stay in the hunt in the tight NFC South. And unless Vick is going to become a two-way player, there isn't a lot he can do to help on that side of things.
Father and son story
Condolences to New England coach Bill Belichick, a man I've long considered a good friend, on the recent passing of his father. I first met Steve Belichick -- who died Saturday at age 86 following a long and storied career as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy -- in the week preceding Super Bowl XXXI at New Orleans in 1997. At that time, Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator for the Patriots, with Bill Parcells as head coach, and I was assigned to serve as "pool reporter" for the New England practices. Translation: I was the lone scribe permitted to watch practice and I then filed a pool report for everyone else after the sessions. Bill made it a point to introduce me to his father, a very proud dad, and I spent time chatting it up pretty good with Steve Belichick on the sidelines as the practices took place at Tulane University.
As author David Halberstam describes in his current best-seller, "The Education of a Coach," the apple didn't fall very far from the tree at all in terms of the Belichick family. Only 10 months ago, Steve Belichick shared a Gatorade shower with his son on the Patriots' sideline as New England claimed a third Super Bowl title in four seasons. A neat scene, indeed, for anyone who understood even a little about the father-son relationship.
No one should have been very much surprised that Bill Belichick waited until after Sunday's victory over New Orleans -- the first time this season that New England has won consecutive games -- to apprise his team of his father's death. There's no doubt, I feel, even with my brief encounter with Steve Belichick, that he would have wanted it done no other way. A tough season for Bill Belichick just grew considerably tougher. But the bet here is that he'll find a way to soldier on even without the person whose counsel he most trusted.
The Pats, by the way, suddenly have a two-game lead in the AFC East, even with all their woes. It's chic to conclude that New England will be the latest franchise to fail in its pursuit of a Super Bowl threepeat, and that is probably the case. But if the Pats win their division, they'll get at least one home game, and no one is apt to bet against them in Gillette Stadium. And they've still got Tom Brady, a quarterback who, the last time we checked, was pretty good in big games, even on the road.
The odds are long that Bill Belichick can cap off this most challenging season with a Super Bowl win to honor his dad. Whether he does or not matters little, of course, to what they shared.
Browns off and running
The league doesn't dole out a rookie head coach of the year award. Although, if some big corporation seeking even higher profile and newfound coziness with the NFL wants to attach its name to such an honor, and fork over some cold, hard cash to do so, it can probably be arranged. If there was such an award, Romeo Crennel of the Cleveland Browns would certainly be a runaway favorite at this point of the season.
At 4-6, the Browns have already equaled their victory total from last season. And the four victories are as many as the team managed in three of its previous six seasons since being reincarnated in 1999. No reason to believe that Cleveland, and Crennel, won't add a few more notches in the left-hand column before the season ends.
The shutout victory over Miami on Sunday, the second blank job the Browns have authored in 107 games since being reborn, was anything but aesthetic. But Crennel knows you don't have to be pretty to be good. The Browns, in truth, are neither, at least not yet. But under Crennel, and first-time general manager Phil Savage, the storied franchise is on its way back to respectability.
I told good-guy owner Randy Lerner this summer I thought his team could win six games, watched practice in training camp, then felt awful about setting the bar too high. But six might be doable after all, because Crennel knows what he is doing, and because he keeps the frills to a minimum. The Browns, nearly every week, play hard. And tailback Reuben Droughns, a real heist in the trade in which the Browns sent superfluous defensive linemen Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers to Denver, runs hard every time out.
Watching Droughns, even just one highlight video, you can't help wonder why it took all those injuries to the Broncos' tailbacks last year for someone to afford the guy some carries. Remember, he had only 40 rushes for 97 yards his first four seasons (2000-2003) in the league. And then, because he was desperate, Mike Shanahan played him at tailback in 2004, and Droughns responded by running for 1,240 yards. Through 10 games this season, he has 868 yards and is on pace for a nearly 1,400-yard season. His 166 yards Sunday were a season high and Droughns now has 100 yards or more in three of the last five games. Droughns is the perfect, no-nonsense kind of power back Crennel envisioned for his offense, and he has fit the role exceedingly well.
We're not pushing for Droughns, but management might want to consider that contract upgrade he wanted this summer. And people around the league would do well to consider the nifty job Crennel has done in his debut season.
The Carolina Panthers had scored at least 20 points in every game this season, the lone team in the NFL to do so, before being held to 13 points by the Bears. Under coach John Fox, the Panthers are 6-14 against opponents with winning marks. Saints defensive end Will Smith had quite a hat trick, with three penalties on one sequence Sunday, as he was flagged for kneeing a Patriots player, throwing his helmet and unsportsmanlike conduct. New England linebacker Mike Vrabel now has six catches when playing tight end in regular-season and postseason games. All six receptions have been for touchdowns. Just for the heck of it, Vrabel also added 11 tackles Sunday while performing his full-time job. Denny Green now has nine wins as the Arizona head coach, and he finally got one with a quarterback other than Josh McCown starting. Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers has now converted 31 straight field-goal tries this season. Just one day after re-signing him, kicker Billy Cundiff nailed a franchise-record 56-yard field goal for the Dallas Cowboys. Cundiff had been released in late August with an injury settlement after suffering a severely strained quadriceps. Because of rules involving an injury settlement, Dallas was precluded from re-signing Cundiff until after the 10th week of the season. How bad have things gotten for the New York Jets? Their leading rusher Sunday was wide receiver Justin McCareins, with 8 yards. Tailback Curtis Martin had only 7 yards on four carries. New York was shut out for the first time since 1995. After going 58 straight games without scoring 30 points, the Jacksonville Jaguars have now scored 30-plus in two straight outings. Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich had the first three-touchdown passing game of his career in the Sunday victory over Tennessee. Buffalo is now 0-5 on the road in 2005. Rookie defensive end Trent Cole of Philadelphia, a fifth-round draft pick, has four sacks in the last two games and five for the season. The way he is playing, he may be tough to dislodge from the starting job at right end. All three Atlanta losses have been by three points. There were 23 possessions in the Indianapolis-Cincinnati game, and 14 of them produced scores. Oakland defensive end Derrick Burgess, who secured the win Sunday with a sack and strip of Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell, now has nine sacks for the year. That exceeds his career total of 8½ sacks in his first four seasons.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.