32 Questions  

 

Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos season makes him easy MVP

When Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos 21 months ago, he was a fallen star with an uncertain future. Coming off four neck surgeries and coming to grips with the possibility that his career would end prematurely, Manning seemed to be coaxing every last throw out of his once-golden right arm.

As it turned out, he was simultaneously getting well and, against all odds, getting better: Two seasons into his awe-inspiring career renaissance and three months shy of his 38th birthday, Manning is slinging the ball with peerless precision.

You've got to hand it to him -- and by it, I mean a record fifth NFL MVP trophy, which he'll almost certainly seize after completing one of the great regular seasons in league history.

"Absolutely," Broncos executive vice president John Elway said Sunday evening, in reference to Manning's impending coronation.

"Let's do that," agreed coach John Fox after the Broncos (12-3) crushed the Houston Texans, 37-13, to move within a final-week victory over the Oakland Raiders of clinching the AFC's top playoff seed for the second consecutive season.

Elway and Fox are obviously biased, but they're not wrong: Manning, despite the challenges posed by relocation and rehabilitation, has been the best player in football during his two seasons in Denver. Decreeing him most valuable is like calling Justine Sacco the most clueless PR executive of 2013.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air Peyton Manning's record-setting performance in the Denver Broncos' 37-13 victory over the Houston Texans from Week 16 on Tuesday, Dec. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET. It will re-air as an "NFL Replay Game Of The Week Special" -- with Peyton Manning wired for sound by NFL Films -- on Thursday, Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

Realistically, Manning, who became the league's only four-time MVP during his phenomenal stretch with the Indianapolis Colts, could already have nabbed the award once as a Bronco. Only an extraordinary 2012 season by Adrian Peterson kept Manning from capturing his fifth MVP; this year, of course, Manning is the one putting up freakish numbers.

On Sunday, Manning completed 32 of 51 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns, breaking Tom Brady's single-season record with his 51st scoring throw. TDs No. 50 and 51, which came during a two-and-a-half minute stretch in the fourth quarter, were equally gorgeous: a 20-yard floater to receiver Eric Decker in the left corner of the end zone and a 25-yard dart to tight end Julius Thomas near the right pylon.

While running backs LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles have had nice individual seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, and while a case can certainly be made for Manning's chief rival, Brady, who has helped push the New England Patriots to an 11-4 record despite a pronounced dearth of offensive weapons, Manning is going to run away with the MVP vote. In fact, he's a threat to win it unanimously.

Consider that he has presided over a record-setting offense, the first in NFL history to have five players (Decker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Knowshon Moreno) score at least 10 touchdowns, with all but Moreno reaching double digits as the recipients of Manning's throws. Given Manning's mastery of his craft and comprehensive involvement in all facets of the operation, it's fair to argue that he's taken the passing game to an unprecedented level of excellence.

Put it this way: When Wade Phillips, the Texans' interim coach and decorated defensive strategist, told reporters who cover the Broncos last week that Manning was having "just the best year ever of any quarterback," he wasn't blowing smoke -- he was simply spitting truth, or at least something very close to it.

Manning, of course, cares far more about the prospect of pushing his team to postseason glory -- and come January, we'll have plenty of opportunities to explore his previous playoff frustrations and assess the Broncos' chances of reaching their first Super Bowl since Elway's swan song 15 years ago.

However, given that this is the final 32 Questions column of the 2013 season -- next week, as per custom, we'll trim our query-laced pecking order to include just the dozen teams that reach the postseason -- I'm going to focus, for now, on the 16-game slate that will conclude next Sunday night, when the Dallas Cowboys (by the grace of a dramatic comeback victory over the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md. -- the day's most exciting finish) play host to the Philadelphia Eagles in the third annual NFC East Championship Game.

As we close in on a weekend that will see 11 squads fight for five remaining playoff spots, here's how some of the other regular-season award races are shaping up:

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Carolina Panthers' 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints from Week 16 on Tuesday, Dec. 24 at 2 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

» Defensive Player of the Year: An excellent case can be made for a pair of Seattle Seahawks defensive backs, safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, though there's always a risk that two teammates might cancel one another out in the voting. And a couple of sack-happy Roberts -- the Rams' Quinn and the Colts' Mathis -- also have strong credentials. However, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly might have vaulted to the top of the list with his eye-popping performance in Sunday's showdown with the New Orleans Saints (10-5) for NFC South supremacy, a 17-13 victory that pulled Carolina (11-4) within a game of clinching a first-round playoff bye. While stats for total tackles tend to be somewhat uneven and arbitrary, the fact that the second-year pro was credited with 24 stops in a game of such magnitude is not trivial. Throw in the defensive signal-caller's third-quarter interception of Drew Brees, and it's clear this was the kind of indelible performance that can push a player over the top. Whatever happens, the fact that the Panthers are going to the playoffs for the first time in five years ensures that Kuechly will have further opportunities to impress on the big stage.

» Offensive Rookie of the Year: As a Cal guy, I should be beating my chest for Chargers wideout Keenan Allen, whose 4-yard touchdown catch pushed San Diego ahead for good in a victory over the Oakland Raiders that kept the Bolts' playoff hopes alive. And Allen, a third-round draft pick, has put up some nice numbers, catching 66 passes for 957 yards and eight scores. Yet, at this point, I'd lean slightly toward the instant impact of Green Bay Packers halfback Eddie Lacy (263 carries, 1,112 yards, 10 touchdowns), whose ferocious running has helped keep the Pack afloat while star signal-caller Aaron Rodgers (the only man alive who can approximate the transcendent quarterbacking style of Manning and Brady) remains out with a broken collarbone that apparently carries too much risk of re-injury to allow for his return. Remarkably, the Packers -- even after a heartbreaking 38-31 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers that dropped them to 7-7-1 -- remain alive in the NFC North, thanks to losses by the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. With the Lions now eliminated, the Bears will host the Packers on Sunday afternoon with the division title at stake -- a game for which Rodgers might or might not return.

» Defensive Rookie of the Year: Sunday began with the Miami Dolphins in control of their playoff fortunes. It ended with the 'Fins (8-7) still alive but reeling after a 19-0 gut punch of a defeat to the previously eliminated Buffalo Bills. The Bills' defensive effort included eight tackles by rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has been an instant playmaker and leader. The former Oregon standout is a great story -- I had a chance to spend some time with him before he was selected by the Bills in the second round of last April's draft -- and I look forward to watching him help Buffalo end its league-worst playoff drought at some point in the near future. No other defensive rookie has made an impact as great as Alonso's.

» Coach of the Year: Before Sunday's egg laying of massive proportions, the Dolphins' Joe Philbin was being talked up as a strong candidate. Really? Miami has had too many faceplants in 2013 for my tastes. I'm similarly unmoved by the support for Bruce Arians (the Arizona Cardinals are 10-5 after an impressive 17-10 upset of the Seattle Seahawks, who lost at home for the first time in two seasons -- still, Arians' squad are major longshots to reach the playoffs) and Bill Belichick (he's great every year, so I guess I've been desensitized). I'm definitely down with Riverboat Ron Rivera, who fought through rumors of his impending dismissal and coaxed the Panthers back from a 1-3 start to their first playoff appearance since 2008. And yet, a voice in my head keeps telling me that we're overthinking this award: How, exactly, is the Chiefs' Andy Reid not taking this one home in a runaway? Having flamed out in Philly last December following a mostly successful 14-year run, Reid took over a Kansas City Chiefs team that was a league-worst 2-14 in 2012. Let me repeat: The Chiefs were 2-14. Under Reid's culture-changing revival, K.C. won 11 of its first 14 games, clinching a playoff spot in advance of Sunday's 23-7 defeat to the Indianapolis Colts, its potential first-round opponent. Yes, I'm aware that the Chiefs were a trendy postseason pick before the season -- it's true that many of us foresaw the possibility -- but aren't we taking this dramatic turnaround for granted, and underplaying its improbability? If I had a vote, I'd cast it for Big Red and sleep soundly at night.

For now, I'm awake and inquisitive and ready for Week 17:

The playoff picture
How would your team's prospects look if the season ended today? See where each team stands in the playoff picture midway through the season. More ...

1) Seattle Seahawks: When Pete Carroll suggested that the team's 19-17 defeat to the 49ers earlier this month "could be the best scenario," is it fair to conclude he wasn't counting on losing to the Cardinals?

2) Denver Broncos: When Manning said of his touchdown-pass record, "Brady will probably break it again next year," was he tempted to add, "Oh, wait -- all of his good receivers are either gone, injured or in jail? Never mind ..."?

3) Carolina Panthers: If the Saints had prevailed against the Panthers on Sunday, which one of their defensive backs would have told Steve Smith to "ice up, son" after the game?

4) San Francisco 49ers: Should Jim Harbaugh and Judge Judy get a (court)room already or what?

5) New England Patriots: When the dust settles in the AFC, will Bill Belichick's team be the Lone Survivor?

6) New Orleans Saints: When Sean Payton caught the Panthers off guard with a successful onside kick in the second quarter of Sunday's game, was he paying homage to himself?

7) Arizona Cardinals: Should Cardinals general manager Steve Keim send Dolphins counterpart Jeff Ireland a thank-you card for making Karlos Dansby's return to the desert possible?

8) Cincinnati Bengals: How sick was this catch by Andrew Hawkins -- and how wild is it that Andy Dalton has thrown 15 touchdown passes in his past four home games?

9) Indianapolis Colts: How tempted was Jimmy Irsay to refer to his players as "gamers" after their 23-7 victory in K.C. on Sunday?

10) Kansas City Chiefs: Should Dontari Poe download this 'Til Tuesday tune on his iPod or what?

11) Philadelphia Eagles: If running backs coach Duce Staley had suited up for the Eagles on Sunday night, don't you get the feeling he'd have run for 80 yards and a touchdown?

12) Chicago Bears: So, um, how atrocious would the Bears' run defense have been against the Eagles had Lance Briggs not returned to the lineup?

13) San Diego Chargers: Doesn't it kind of seem like Ryan Mathews jinxed himself by talking about his newfound durability?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Dallas Cowboys' 24-23 win over the Washington Redskins from Week 16 on Wednesday, Dec. 25 at 9 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

14) Dallas Cowboys: How grateful are Cowboys fans that Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray at least saw eye-to-eye on this season-saving play?

15) Baltimore Ravens: How can Ravens fans not be frustrated after Sunday's debacle against the Patriots -- although, even after his missed 37-yard field goal, how can I be anything but elated about Justin Tucker's past seven days?

16) Green Bay Packers: Which sight was more maddening for Lambeau Field fans on Sunday: Nick Perry's encroachment penalty, Don Barclay's false start or Aaron Rodgers' ski cap?

17) St. Louis Rams: Is any NFL defensive lineman better than Robert Quinn -- and how scary would the Rams' defense be if they were to land this guy in 2014 with the first-round pick they obtained in the RGIII trade?

18) Miami Dolphins: Upon further review, did the Dolphins need a follow-up wakeup call in Buffalo?

19) Pittsburgh Steelers: How dubious was this illegal-batting penalty on Ziggy Hood -- and how silly is this rule in the first place?

20) New York Jets: Will Rex Ryan's word on the street speech prove to be as premature as his "we're obviously out of the playoffs" news conference four years ago?

21) Detroit Lions: In retrospect, is this a debate that Jim Schwartz would prefer not to have with 63,996 frustrated fans?

22) Buffalo Bills: Are you as surprised as I am to learn that the Bills are the first team since the 2000 Saints to have three players with at least 10 sacks -- and how many of you could name two of those three players?

23) Tennessee Titans: There's no way Ryan Fitzpatrick won't put on a red suit, emerge from his fireplace and put presents under the tree come early Wednesday morning, right?

24) New York Giants: Who felt sicker to his stomach -- Jerrel Jernigan on Saturday or Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham after failing to contain him Sunday?

25) Cleveland Browns: After this bold Bob Marley tribute, is it any wonder that Davone Bess added his Instagram account to his league-leading drops tally?

26) Minnesota Vikings: How awesome would it be if Leslie Frazier and Jim Schwartz snuck out at halftime of their teams' Week 17 meeting at the Metrodome, hopped into a rented Dodge Charger and went on a weeklong bender in New Orleans?

27) Jacksonville Jaguars: How cool is this?

28) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is it just me, or with a new coach (and, possibly, a new quarterback), couldn't you see the talented Bucs becoming next year's version of the 2013 Chiefs?

29) Oakland Raiders: If Dennis Allen loses to the Broncos next week -- and ends up with as many victories in two seasons as predecessor Hue Jackson had in one -- how surprising would it be if Allen were to remain employed?

30) Atlanta Falcons: If the Falcons somehow defeat the 49ers on Monday in what will likely be the final game at Candlestick Park, will the Cardinals offer all 53 Atlanta players a full playoff share?

31) Washington Redskins: When London Fletcher suggested to Robert Griffin III that the young quarterback "exhale," was he paying tribute to another ex-D.C. darling?

32) Houston Texans: Hey guys -- whaddaya say we bust out those letterman jackets in Nashville next Sunday for kicks and giggles?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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