Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, defensive players part of wide-open NFL MVP race

Jason Cole

The race for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award has a twist this year:

There's actually an interesting late-season discussion for the first time since 2005.

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In a survey of five team executives, Tom Brady was the only player who got more than one vote. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt were the other players mentioned and it's fair to say that support for all of them was tepid at best.

"I like a lot of players, but nobody jumps off the page," one of the executive said.

Aaron Rodgers isn't putting up the same mind-boggling numbers that he posted last season. (AP)
Aaron Rodgers isn't putting up the same mind-boggling numbers that he posted last season. (AP)

Look around the league and a decent case could be made for upward of a dozen players. While there are five games left and one of those players could easily distance himself from the crowd, that doesn't seem likely.

The race could take an even more unlikely turn if one of several defensive players gets serious consideration. No defensive player has won it since 1986, when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor captured the prize. Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page (in 1971) is the only other defender to win the award since the Associated Press started keeping track in 1957.

At the current rate, what's likely to happen is similar to what occurred in five of six years from 2000 to 2005. With the exception of 2004, when Manning received 44 votes, no eventual MVP earned even half of the 50 votes. On three occasions, the MVP won with less than 20 votes. In 2005, Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander won the award capturing just 19 votes compared to 13 for Manning and 10 for Brady.

[Related: Jay Cutler deserves consideration | Closer look at candidates]

Conversely, each of the past six MVP winners has gotten at least 32 votes and four have gotten at least 44.

With that in mind, here's a look at the strongest candidates:

QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers – The defending MVP leads the league with a 105.6 rating. However, before I elaborate, consider that …

QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots – Is second in the league with a 105.0 rating and has led the Patriots to a better record (8-3) than Rodgers' Packers (7-4) and earlier this season beat …

QB Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos – Who is also locked in a splendid battle with running back Adrian Peterson for comeback player of the year after missing all of the 2011 season. Manning has bounced back to post a rating of 104.8, which would be the second best of his career.

On the Road
On the Road

Andre Johnson at Detroit

The Houston Texans spent Thanksgiving away from home but enjoyed a happy holiday thanks to wide receiver Andre Johnson.

Johnson had nine receptions for 188 receiving yards and came through when Houston needed him most in a 34-31 overtime win. He caught four passes for 64 yards – converting on third down twice and on fourth down once – on a 97-yard touchdown drive that tied the game and forced OT.

In the overtime period, Johnson grabbed two more passes for 37 yards. His 23-yard reception in the Texans' final possession helped set up the game-winning field goal by Shayne Graham.

Johnson's big road show helped Houston improve to 10-1 – the best record in the AFC.

– Mike Patton

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This is to say nothing of fellow passers such as:

QB Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins – Who is fourth in the league in quarterback rating (104.6). Fox analyst Jimmy Johnson said last Thursday that he would vote for Griffin as MVP. Washington's 5-6 record probably nixes that, for now.

QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers – Pittsburgh's offense has fallen apart without Roethlisberger, who was well on his way to MVP consideration with his 17 touchdown passes to four interceptions. There's still enough time for him to climb back in the race.

QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons – Seven interceptions in the past three games (and 13 for the season, tied for third in the league) aren't going to help Ryan. But think about it this way: Atlanta is tied for the best record in the league at 10-1.

And let's not forget about the other MVP staple, running backs:

RB Arian Foster, Houston Texans – Just like Atlanta, Houston is 10-1 and doing it with a strong offense that is centered around Foster. He's second in the league with 1,064 yards and has a league-leading 14 touchdowns (four more than A.J. Green and Rob Gronkowski). In the pass-heavy NFL of today, no running back has won MVP since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Then again, it could be argued that …

[More: Cowboys fan petitions White House for Jerry Jones' removal]

RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings – Has returned to being the best running back in the league, leading everybody with 1,236 yards, another 35 receptions for 185 yards and seven TDs overall. All of that while coming back from a torn ACL in December.

But what about those defensive guys who have gone more than 25 years without getting the ultimate respect?:

DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans – Between his 14 ½ sacks, 12 stuff plays (tackles for losses) and 13 passes knocked down, Watt may be the real reason why Houston has gotten off to a 10-1 start and survived the loss of linebacker Brian Cushing. Now, all the points given up in the past two games against Jacksonville (37) and Detroit (31) are worrisome, but Watt still gets consideration along with …

LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos – The Denver linebacker is just behind Watt with 14 sacks and has made Elvis Dumervil (eight sacks, six forced fumbles) continue to look good even as Dumervil declines physically. Miller also has 12 stuff plays, but only has one deflected pass. At the same time, neither Watt nor Miller has rushed the passer as well as …

LB Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers – The second-year defensive end from San Francisco has 16 ½ sacks, putting him six short of Michael Strahan's record of 22 ½ in 2001. In addition, Smith has been great under the spotlight, getting 5 ½ sacks in the Monday night game against Chicago. Then again, Smith (zero pass deflections and two stuffs) is not as diverse and owes an awful lot to the guys around him, such as Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Wills. And this is not to forget …

CB Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears – The 10th-year defender is playing some of the best football of his life with two interceptions (both returned for scores) and seven forced fumbles. Some adjustment needs to be made for the fact that four of the fumbles came against Jacksonville and that the Bears have struggled recently in losses to San Francisco and Houston. Still, it's a great season and Tillman is in the discussion.

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