Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos: When Peyton Manning signed a five-year, $96 million deal with the Denver Broncos in March, it was thought that the best-case scenario would be that Manning could take a team that sort of won an AFC West that nobody else wanted in 2011, and push things forward a bit. The actual result has exceeded most expectations -- most likely, even Manning's. After four shoulder surgeries in the last two years, and overcoming a nerve impingement that would have ended the careers of lesser men, Manning has come back to enjoy perhaps his most amazing season. When he finished his day against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 27 completions in 38 attempts for 242 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, Manning had also amassed the Broncos' single-season record for touchdowns with 29. That put him ahead of John Elway, the guy who signed him, and who was a pretty decent quarterback himself.
Manning is also running the ninth winning streak of seven games or more in his estimable career, and only Tom Brady ranks ahead of Manning in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. What Manning's done this season would be impressive if he simply switched teams without the injury narrative. Given the full story, it's easy to argue that Manning is enjoying his best and most special season in a career that already had people wondering if he was the greatest quarterback of all time.
Brady Quinn, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: Quinn's stat line was pretty decent and nothing more, for a quarterback who really hasn't done much in his NFL career -- 19 of 23 for 201 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. It was what Quinn did and said before and after Kansas City's 27-21 win over the Carolina Panthers that made him an MVP. Not to get all Tom Rinaldi here, but Quinn's inner strength in the wake of the Jovan Belcher incident showed that when things were really tragic, he could be a leader of men. Quinn was the one who faced the media when other players could not yet do so before the game, and he was the one who most eloquently summarized the pain and confusion his teammates were feeling after Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins, and then took his own life.
"When it happened, I was thinking, 'What could I have done differently?'" Quinn said after the game. "When you ask someone how they're doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, and Twitter pages and Facebooks, and that's fine. But we have contact with our work associates, our families and friends, and it seems sometimes that we're more preoccupied with our phones than the relationships going on in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to figure out that somebody's battling something deeper on the inside than maybe they're revealing on a day-to-day basis."
Belcher's actions left a lot of questions unanswered -- and perhaps unanswerable. But Quinn showed all the strength, heart, and courage you could ever expect from a marquee quarterback on this day.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: What did the third-round rookie from Wisconsin have to do to beat the Chicago Bears in overtime and move the Seahawks to 7-5 on the season? Oh, not much. At Soldier Field, and against one of the best defenses in the NFL, Wilson had to lead a drive of 97 yards to put the Seahawks up, 17-14, late in the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass to Golden Tate.
When the Bears countered with a tying field goal, Wilson then led the Seahawks on an 80-yard drive, concluding with a touchdown pass to Sidney Rice, to take the game home with him. In his last four games, Wilson has completed 72 passes on 107 attempts (67.2 percent) for 878 yards (8.2 YPA), nine touchdowns, and no interceptions. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin have justifiably taken the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and made it their own personal volleyball, but when it comes to sheer bang for the buck, Wilson might be the NFL's best rookie value this season.
Morgan Burnett, S, Green Bay Packers: Over the last two seasons, Green Bay's defense has generally lagged behind its offense when it comes to reasons for victories. But in a tight game with the Minnesota Vikings that turned into a 23-14 win for the Packers despite Adrian Peterson's ridiculous 210-yard day, Burnett was the difference-maker. He picked off Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder in the end zone early in the third quarter, when the Vikings already had a 14-10 lead, and another touchdown would have put the Pack in a serious hole. And late in that same quarter, when Ponder tried to hit tight end Kyle Rudolph at the Green Bay 13-yard line, Burnett came up big again.
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