SAN DIEGO – With four weeks left in the season, it's anybody's race. In one of the most wide-open campaigns in recent memory, there is still no overwhelming favorite for the league's Most Valuable Player award.
As many as a dozen players have an argument heading into the final month of the regular season. And they are coming from all over the place, threatening to splinter the vote. From quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Tony Romo and Eli Manning), to running backs (Clinton Portis and Adrian Peterson), to a host of defensive players (James Harrison, Kris Jenkins, Albert Haynesworth, DeMarcus Ware and Joey Porter) – there is a wealth of talent putting up staggering numbers. That makes the league's caché of stars this week's biggest winner.
With Favre and Warner suffering setbacks in Week 13, guys like Manning, Harrison and others are tightening up the race. But one intriguing candidate, Tony Romo, might pick up some serious steam over the next four weeks.
We've seen what the Dallas Cowboys look like without him – a 1-2 disaster in which the team averaged almost 14 points. And we know what Dallas looks like with him – a 3-0 juggernaut since his return and likely playoff team that suddenly looks like a frightening draw for one of the NFC's division winners.
Despite missing three games, Romo has put up immaculate stats, throwing for 21 touchdowns and eight picks (including three touchdowns in six of his nine games), while amassing a 7-2 record and averaging more than 284 passing yards per game. And he's got an ace in the hole that the other candidates don't: the knowledge that a tremendously talented Dallas team can't seem to function without him. With a difficult schedule still left – the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles – he's got the prefect stage in front of him to prove he's the league's best player.
Here are some of this week's other winners and losers …
• Baltimore Ravens wideout Mark Clayton
One of the bigger disappointments the last two seasons, Clayton has finally turned it on after putting up 98 yards and no touchdowns in his first seven games of the season. With his 164-yard, two-touchdown effort (one of them passing) against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Clayton has 377 yards and three touchdowns in his last five games.
• The Ravens' playoff hopes
Sitting at 8-4 and with three of their final four at home, the question isn't whether this can be a playoff team – it's whether it can take the division lead with the pivotal Dec. 14 game against Pittsburgh.
• The San Francisco 49ers
They get out-gained by the Buffalo Bills 350-195, surrender 156 rushing yards and notch only 12 first downs – and still win … in Buffalo, no less. Since the bye week, this has been a consistently competitive team.
• Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith
There may not be a better NFL player at going up and fighting for a ball than Smith, and he showed it with his 54-yard catch against Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson. That catch, with 1:48 left, was the difference between a win and a loss – not to mention maintaining the division lead alongside Tampa Bay.
• Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams
His four touchdowns against Green Bay give him 13 total touchdowns through 12 games. Guys like Brian Westbrook and Maurice Jones-Drew have gotten more acclaim, but Williams is the best "small" runner in the NFL right now.
• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With the New Orleans offense rolling, the Bucs did the one thing you have to do to beat Drew Brees: force him to turn over the ball. Two of Brees' three picks either killed a scoring drive or led to Tampa Bay points, while the third iced a Buccaneers win.
• New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning
Coming into this season, Manning was a withering flower in the second half of campaigns, throwing 41 interceptions in 31 starts after the season's midway point from 2004-07. But his persona has done a 180-degree rotation this year, with only three picks in New York's four wins since this year's second half began, including Sunday's victory over the Washington Redskins.
• The Giants' passing game
Once again, no Plaxico, no problem. Eli Manning still threw for 305 yards, thanks to workmanlike efforts from Amani Toomer (85 receiving yards), Derrick Ward (75), Domenik Hixon (71) and Kevin Boss (45).
• The Atlanta Falcons
They refuse to go quietly in the playoff race, beating the San Diego Chargers and keeping pressure on Carolina, Tampa Bay and the Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons have a tough row to hoe with their remaining schedule, but after seeing them defeat San Diego despite not playing their best, this is starting to feel like a team of destiny.
• The Miami Dolphins
Sunday's win over the St. Louis Rams was anything but pretty, but the New York Jets' loss to Denver keeps the division up for grabs and Miami's playoff hopes alive. That season finale between the Jets and Dolphins still looks like it will be huge.
• Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison
With two sacks against the New England Patriots, Harrison now has 14. You can call him a product of Pittsburgh's system all you want, but the reality is he's a handful for every team the Steelers play. He's got a shot at 20 sacks this season, a number that only two other linebackers have ever hit: Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas.
• The Denver Broncos' playoff aspirations
This might be the hardest team in the league to figure. They win on the road against Atlanta and then lose at home to Oakland – then win Sunday on the road against the Jets. Whatever their true identity, they practically iced the AFC West title with the win over the Jets, opening a three-game lead over San Diego. Only a complete collapse would stop a postseason bid now.
• The Broncos offense' and secondary
The offense offered balance while the secondary held Brett Favre without a touchdown pass. It was impressive to see quarterback Jay Cutler spreading the ball around. Five players had at least 44 yard receiving Sunday. The secondary broke up seven Favre passes and intercepted him once, and was lights out in the pivotal fourth quarter.
• Jets running back Thomas Jones
Don't look now, but with his 1,088 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, Jones is making a strong push for the league's rushing title. He's clearly the AFC's best running back at this point and undoubtedly in the midst of the best season of his nine-year career.
• Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez
Gonzalez put up 110 yards in Kansas City's second win – his third 100-yard effort in his last four games. With 806 yards, he's on pace for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and making people realize why general manager Carl Peterson wanted so much for him at the trade deadline. At 32 years old, Gonzalez looks like he's got several good seasons left in the tank.
• Giants receiver Plaxico Burress
I can't think of a time when I've seen someone universally raked over hot coals on a Sunday morning. Virtually every pregame show kicked Burress to the curb, with the exception of ESPN's Keyshawn Johnson, who suggested the Giants should reach out and try to help Burress get his life in order. For a guy who was roundly applauded last season for playing injured all year, Burress' stock couldn't have fallen more dramatically than it did this week.
• The Buccaneers
All indications are that defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee. Other than Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau, there isn't a more knowledgeable and consistently great coordinator in the league. The likely replacements would be Detroit's Rod Marinelli (assuming he is fired after the season) or cornerbacks coach Raheem Morris. But no matter who steps in, losing a cornerstone coordinator like Kiffin is devastating.
• Viewers of the Cleveland-Indianapolis game
With two battered defenses, the points should have piled up like scoring on a pinball machine. Instead, fans got 408 yards of total offense, five turnovers, 16 combined points and zero touchdown passes. And three hours of your life you can never get back.
• The Bills
Stick a fork in their playoff hopes. And on top of that disappointment, Trent Edwards suffered a groin injury that will likely be an aggravation the rest of the season. Oh, and next week's "home" game in Toronto will basically be a preview of a potential relocation. Could Bills fans feel any worse at this point?
• The Green Bay Packers
Outgaining the Carolina Panthers by 138 yards and holding a 15:44 edge in time of possession leaves no doubt Sunday's loss was solely a defensive letdown. With four winnable games left on the schedule and the division still up for grabs, the playoffs aren't gone just yet. But if Green Bay misses the postseason by one game, fans can look back on this one and cringe.
• The Redskins' offense
Sunday was a prime example of where this team is at when Clinton Portis isn't putting up 120 yards and scoring touchdowns. The No. 1 priority this offseason should be working on Jason Campbell's consistency, and working the bigger, young receivers into Jim Zorn's system.
• The New Orleans Saints
With games against Atlanta and Carolina still on the slate, New Orleans' playoff hopes may have gone down in flames Sunday. Considering the state of the playoff race, New Orleans has to run the table and catch a few breaks to make the postseason.
• The Chargers' rushing offense
There's no way to sugarcoat it anymore: After seeing LaDainian Tomlinson rush for a paltry 24 yards on 14 attempts, this just isn't a power running team anymore. Even the San Diego optimists have to be sulking after watching former Charger Michael Turner go for 120 in Atlanta's win. The soft remaining schedule ensures Tomlinson will get his eighth straight 1,000-yard season, but just barely. Sure makes you appreciate Barry Sanders' record of 10 straight 1,000-yard campaigns.
• Chargers coach Norv Turner
Expect that he'll get 2009 to prove that Shawne Merriman's absence was the overriding problem this season. But the more you watch San Diego – with its unbalanced offense and punchless defense – the more it seems like this team has lost its direction and consistency under Turner.
• New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel
Sunday's performance against Pittsburgh probably illustrated the reality of Cassel – he's not as good as his best games and he's not as bad as his worst. Indeed, he's somewhere in the middle, and he showed that with a tough outing against the Steelers' elite pass rush, suffering five sacks and throwing a pair of interceptions with no touchdown passes.
• The Jets
Just when everyone was ready to stamp them as the best team in the AFC, they take a hard fall against the Denver Broncos. And it was a loss that exposed the Jets' Achilles' heel: a defense that has trouble defending the pass when it can't apply ample pressure on the quarterback.
– Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, on failing to make a play on Steve Smith's pivotal 54-yard fourth quarter reception against Green Bay. The Panthers scored from the 1-yard line after Smith's catch and notched a 35-31 win.
The number of times in Matt Ryan's first 12 starts that the rookie quarterback has finished a game with a quarterback rating of 116.1 or better. He also had two ratings of 94.1 and 94.5 this season.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The "Cheddar Bob" nickname for Plaxico Burress that surfaced this week after his self-inflicted shooting. It's not a funny story, but it is a funny nickname.
Loathed: The NFL Network and Marshall Faulk forwarding the idea that the Patriots could keep Matt Cassel permanently and trade Tom Brady. I wanted to throw the remote at the TV. It was the most idiotic idea of the season, and shows how bandwagons can get out of control fast. It's Week 13 of Cassel's NFL life. He's in the midst of a hot streak against a run of middle-of-the-pack defenses. Brady entered this season as arguably the best player in the NFL. Get some perspective for goodness sake.
Loved: ESPN's feature on the quarterback sack and Chuck Smith's pass rushing camp. The comments from Deacon Jones were hilarious. And Smith's camp has been one of the best kept secrets in the NFL. It's not just the wide receivers and the quarterbacks spending the offseasons in camps fine-tuning their games.
Loathed: Hearing ESPN's Chris Berman suggest that Clinton Portis has had a great season rushing the football despite his friend Sean Taylor's murder last year. With all due respect to Taylor's memory, that's not what Portis is thinking about with every carry. Talking about Portis' performance in relation to Taylor's death is an insult to both men.
Loved: Seeing Aaron Rodgers get up and show some toughness after getting obliterated by Carolina's Julius Peppers late in Green Bay's loss. The nasty hit drew a personal foul on Peppers, but Rodgers showed some grit by getting up, pounding his chest and staying in the game.
Loathed: CBS bringing on Victoria's Secret model Selita Ebanks to make picks and pump the fashion show the network will be airing later this week. I don't care what a supermodel has to say about this week's games, or her thoughts on the fashion sense of the studio talent. The sexual pandering is beyond annoying.
Loved: Watching a Baltimore offense that is getting scary fast. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is showing why he's such a respected mind in the NFL. The Ravens are averaging 33 points in their last six wins – nothing short of brilliant with a rookie quarterback.
Loathed: Seeing Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett leave the field on a cart with a lower leg injury. With Bob Sanders already ailing, an injury to Brackett could spell disaster for the Colts' playoff chances.
Loved: Seeing San Francisco break the West-to-East hex and beat Buffalo. Mike Singletary isn't making the 49ers' job easy when it comes to deciding on the next head coach.
Loathed: Watching a Green Bay defense that has given up an absurd 114 points in its last three losses. The lack of a pass rush has destroyed this team's shot at the playoffs.
- Eli Manning
- Green Bay