|Seth Wenig / Associated Press|
|The Jets are known for their top-notch defense, but Mark Sanchez is playing his way into the MVP conversation.|
In a season where the league has been as topsy-turvy as ever, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish candidates for the NFL's top individual honor.
While we know that the Most Valuable Player award typically goes to a quarterback or running back from a title contender, the growing parity in the league has made it tough to tab a frontrunner.
Tom Brady will also garner serious consideration, but the departure of Randy Moss has the potential diminish the quarterback's statistics while also hurting the Patriots' chances at reaching the postseason. However, the recent addition of Deion Branch could help the Patriots' recreate some of the magic of their championship runs.
Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers are also strong candidates, if they can maintain their sizzling pace and guide their teams to the playoffs. Although a postseason appearance isn't a requirement, it certainly solidifies an MVP's résumé and makes individual production appear worthwhile.
In looking at running backs capable of winning the award, it is important to note that previous MVPs at the position typically enjoyed record-breaking seasons. Given that premise, Arian Foster and Chris Johnson are the only contenders for the honor.
Foster, who is the league's current rushing leader, is on track to finish with over 2,200 yards from scrimmage. Though that isn't on pace to surpass Johnson's record (2,509) from a season ago, it would place him in the conversation if the Texans are able to finish with a division crown or postseason berth.
Johnson was snubbed a season ago after becoming the sixth player in league history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, but is a viable contender. Though he is not on pace to post back-to-back record-breaking years, the Titans are tied for first in the AFC South and he is a threat to reel off a few big games that could put him back into serious contention to make a run at the record book.
Although a defensive candidate hasn't won the award since Lawrence Taylor claimed the honor in 1986, it is not out of the realm of possibility in a year where an offensive player has failed to step to the forefront. Of course, it would take an exceptional effort to accomplish the feat. Taylor won the award after tallying 20.5 sacks on the way to leading the New York Giants to a victory in Super Bowl XXI.
Clay Matthews' sizzling start has thrust him into contention. He has 8.5 sacks, which is tied for the fourth-highest total after five games since 1982. While he must maintain that torrid pace to remain a candidate, Matthews has a legitimate shot to end the string of offensive players winning the award.
With five weeks in the books, the race for the MVP award remains wide open. Given the unpredictable nature of this season, it will be interesting to see which contenders remain for the long haul.
Most Valuable Player
1. Peyton Manning, Colts, QB (Week 4 ranking, 1): The four-time MVP didn't have his "A" game against the Chiefs, but still flashed surgeon-like precision while picking apart their secondary in key moments.
3. Aaron Rodgers, Packers, QB (2): The lack of an efficient running game has forced the Packers to rely exclusively on Rodgers. Although the team has lost two of their past three games, he has kept them in games.
4. Matt Ryan, Falcons, QB (NR): He might not rank statistically with some of his counterparts, but Ryan's knack for making big plays in critical moments has fueled the Falcons' run to the top of the NFC South.
5. Mark Sanchez, Jets, QB (5): Although he plays in the shadows of a sensational defense, he is starting to earn kudos for his play. In a year where no one has stood out individually, Sanchez could sneak into contention as the leader of a title contender.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Kyle Orton, Broncos, QB (3): He has emerged as the surprise candidate to win the award after posting four straight 300-yard games. Orton's 1,733 passing yards is second in the league, and puts him on pace to challenge Dan Marino's single-season mark of 5,084 yards.
2. Philip Rivers, Chargers, QB (5): He was unable to guide his team to another come-from-behind win against the Raiders, but his sensational display included a 431-yard effort with two touchdowns. Rivers has topped the 400-yard mark in two of his last three outings.
4. Michael Vick, Eagles, QB (2): A set of sore ribs sidelined the league's most electrifying playmaker against the 49ers, but his impressive start will keep his name in the conversation until he returns.
5. Arian Foster, Texans, RB (4): The league's top rusher fell off the pace with his pedestrian performance against the Giants, but his outstanding play during the opening quarter of the season gives him a shot at the 2,000-yard mark.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Clay Matthews, Packers, OLB (1): He has been sensational as the team's designated rusher off the edge. His 8.5 sacks lead the league, and his knack for creating disruption helps the Packers field one of the NFL's most dynamic pass rushes.
2. James Harrison, Steelers, OLB (2): He didn't get a chance to add to his stats due to the bye, but his game-changing skills are a big reason why the Steelers are in serious contention in the AFC despite Ben Roethlisberger's suspension to start the season.
4. Shaun Phillips, Chargers, OLB (3): The team is off to a slow start, but Phillips has come out of the gates strong. Only Matthews has more sacks, and Phillips' ability to get his hands on the ball in the passing game has led to several turnover opportunities.
5. Julius Peppers, Bears, DE (5): He has rejuvenated the Monsters of the Midway with his outstanding play. Peppers' athleticism has overwhelmed opponents, and allowed him to dominate games without big numbers on the stat sheet.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
3. Ryan Mathews, Chargers, RB (4): He bounced back from his nagging ankle injury to tally 59 rushing yards on only nine carries against the Raiders. Although he has yet to top the 100-yard mark in a game, he ranks second among rookies in rushing yards.
5. Dez Bryant, Cowboys, WR (3): He has shown glimpses of being a difference maker as a receiver/returner. Although Bryant has yet to hit pay dirt in the passing game, he will likely play a bigger role with the team searching for answers following a disappointing start.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Ndamukong Suh, Lions, (1): Rarely does a highly coveted rookie live up to expectations, but Suh has been an immediate difference maker. His three sacks are the most of any rookie, and he leads all rookie defensive linemen with 18 stops.
3. Earl Thomas, Seahawks, S, (3): He has transformed the defense into one of the most opportunistic. Thomas has picked off three passes in the team's past two games, and shown Pro Bowl potential as a first-year starter.
Coach of the Year
1. Mike Tomlin, Steelers (2): The Steelers are surprisingly atop the AFC North even with Roethlisberger missing four games due to suspension. With the quarterback back this week, the Steelers could leapfrog to the top of the AFC.
2. Todd Haley, Chiefs (1): The Chiefs fell to the Colts, but still have the look of a dark-horse playoff contender. Not a bad transformation for a squad that sported a 6-26 record the previous two seasons.
3. Raheem Morris, Buccaneers (NR): Few expected the team to make a run at the NFC South crown, but Morris has his squad believing that it can pull off a stunner in spite of its youth and inexperience.