Handicapping the MVP race

BY Alex Marvez • December 16, 2009

There is a four-horse race between Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Chris Johnson for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. And the aptly named Indianapolis Colts may hold the key to the winner.

Could Colts president Bill Polian’s philosophy toward the postseason cost Manning a chance at his record-setting fourth MVP crown? With home-field advantage throughout the playoffs already clinched, Polian has said key starters will be rested down the final stretch of the regular season because of health concerns (either recuperative or preventative). After Thursday night’s game in Jacksonville, the only time we will see Manning in Weeks 16 and 17 is during token appearances to keep his career-long starting streak alive.

This could put the Associated Press’ 50 MVP voters (including me) in a tough spot. Should Manning be given a mulligan because he put Indianapolis (14-0) in position for a break through his superlative play? After all, he did lead the Colts to home-field advantage in AFC playoffs, taking only 13 games to accomplish that feat. Or will a strong effort from another MVP candidate in the final two regular-season games push support away from Manning?

The same applies to Favre. He is probably heading straight to the stalls should the Vikings (11-2) secure a first-round playoff bye. That can happen as early as Sunday with a Minnesota victory over Carolina and a Philadelphia loss to visiting San Francisco. Voters, though, may be more sympathetic to Favre resting his 40-year-old bones than an able-bodied Manning doing the same.

Here’s a breakdown of where the MVP race stands between the top  candidates and odds predicting who will cross the finish line first.

Colts QB Peyton Manning

Pros: While enjoying plenty of other brilliant seasons, Manning has never made quarterbacking seem as effortless as in his 12th NFL campaign. He didn’t skip a beat while adjusting to a new head coach (Jim Caldwell), two unproven wide receivers (Pierre Garcon and rookie Austin Collie) and the lack of a consistent running game for support.

Manning came through in the clutch by guiding Indianapolis to an NFL-record five consecutive victories despite trailing when entering the fourth quarter. The 35-34 comeback over New England was particularly noteworthy because of the respect Patriots coach Bill Belichick showed Manning. By going for it on fourth down deep inside Patriots territory despite holding a late fourth-quarter lead, a defensive genius like Belichick showed he had less faith in his unit stopping Manning than his offense picking up a first down.

Manning has 33 touchdown passes and a career-best completion percentage of 68.6. He has thrown just 15 interceptions and taken an NFL-low 10 sacks on a league-high 532 pass attempts. The Colts also have extended their regular-season winning streak to a league-record 23 games.

Cons: Because he has excelled for so long, there may be a tendency to take Manning’s accomplishments for granted. Manning’s work from this season is the only thing that should be considered, but I wonder whether Indianapolis’ postseason failings this decade will creep into the subconscious of voters.

Intangibles: Manning is on track to finish with roughly the same passing numbers that helped him win MVP honors in 2003 and 2008, but the Jaguars game will be his last bona fide chance to make an MVP statement.

Odds: 2-to-1

Saints QB Drew Brees

Pros: Opposing defenses have felt the Brees all season. He is on pace to finish with the third-highest quarterback rating (109.4) this decade. The players who posted higher marks – Manning (2004) and New England’s Tom Brady (2007) – both won MVP honors.

Brees also leads the league in completion percentage (69.9), touchdown passes (33) and average gain per attempt (8.87) on what could ultimately be remembered as one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. Brees also was at his best during the two games that proved the Saints were for real. He threw for 740 yards with nine TDs and no interceptions during routs of the New York Giants and New England, respectively, in Weeks 6 and 12.

Cons: For whatever reason, some voters may simply not hold Brees in the same high regard as Manning. Last year, Brees had one of the more spectacular passing seasons in NFL history but didn’t receive a single MVP ballot.

Intangibles: Although his playing status is up in the air for the season finale at Carolina, Brees should have the chance to pad his stats in a Week 16 matchup against visiting Tampa Bay. Brees threw three TD passes in a 38-7 road rout of the Bucs last month.

Odds: 2-to-1.

Vikings QB Brett Favre

Pros: Old and in the way? Hardly. Favre has disproved every critic with one of the best seasons of his 19-year pro career. With his torn right biceps tendon fixed through offseason surgery, Favre is on track for his highest quarterback rating (106.0) and lowest interception total (six through 13 games) since becoming an NFL starter in 1992. His plus-21 differential of touchdowns to interceptions is second in the NFL behind Brees (plus-22). Favre also excelled in two of the most high-pressure games an individual player has ever faced. Favre completed 41 of 59 passes for 515 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in victories over Green Bay.

Cons: The strong supporting cast surrounding Favre at running back and on defense could be a detriment. Voters may believe Manning and Brees are more “valuable” to their respective teams considering what Favre has to work with. Favre was considered more of a “game manager” earlier in the season before finding his groove. Favre’s one poor game – a three-interception outing against Arizona in prime time earlier this month – greatly contributed to a Vikings loss. While Brees and Manning have had three-interception games, those struggles weren’t enough to knock New Orleans or Indy from the unbeaten ranks.

Intangibles: Graybeards tend not to win the MVP award. The oldest honoree by the Associated Press was 37-year-old Y.A. Tittle in 1963. New York Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly won another recognized version of the award from another voting group in 1959 at the age of 38.

Odds: 4-to-1. Because of how well Brees and Manning have played, Favre might be a more viable contender for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, especially with Brady cooling off down the stretch.

Titans running back Chris Johnson

Pros: In only his second NFL season, Johnson could set two major NFL records. With a league-high 1,626 rushing yards, Johnson has a legitimate shot at breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season mark of 2,105. Johnson also has 2,017 scrimmage yards, putting him in great position to eclipse Marshall Faulk’s record of 2,429 set in 1999. Johnson enters Sunday’s game against Miami with eight consecutive 100-yard games. He also is the scariest big-play threat at his position.

Cons: Tennessee’s disappointing 6-7 season greatly affects Johnson’s candidacy. The last MVP winner from a non-playoff team was Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson in 1973.

Intangibles: Johnson will receive a major boost if Tennessee overcomes an 0-6 start to reach the postseason. He can make a big impression on voters Christmas night when Tennessee hosts San Diego (10-3).

Odds: 10-to-1

Packers CB Charles Woodson

Pros: Woodson is making the same kind of defensive impact as his aforementioned offensive peers. He is only the third player in the past 38 seasons to notch at least eight interceptions and two sacks. Woodson also has four forced fumbles on a defense that ranks in the Top 10 against the run, pass and scoring. He has achieved this while adjusting to defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ new 3-4 system. Woodson, 33, also is thriving at an age when most cornerbacks begin to slow down.

Cons: Woodson – as well as his teammates – were picked apart in the two games that mattered most. He had no impact plays in either of the Favre Bowl losses to Minnesota.

Intangibles: A defensive player hasn’t won the award since Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

Odds: 100-to-1. But winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors would be a nice consolation prize.

share story