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Can Manning and Brees rest on their laurels and still be MVP?

The pursuit-of-perfection debate will rage on for another week, but it really isn't the most interesting argument in the NFL.

That distinction belongs to the voting for league MVP, which involves as large and as wide open a field of candidates as the honor has seen in quite some time.

Discussing whether the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints should devote the final three weeks of the season to going for 16-0 rather than trying to stay as healthy as possible for the playoffs has grown a little tiresome. It's hard to get too passionate over something that is easily forgotten once the postseason begins. The 2007 New England Patriots provided the most lasting example of the "value" of a perfect regular season when it became an afterthought to their stunning loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

A far more fascinating topic of conversation is how the next three weeks will impact the MVP race.

Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Chris Johnson and Philip Rivers comprise what is widely viewed as the list from which a winner will be chosen by a national media panel. And like the recent ultra-close Heisman Trophy voting, what the candidates do in their final games figures to greatly influence the outcome.

Here's a closer look at how the battle among the NFL's "fab five" shapes up entering the final three weeks of the schedule:

Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis

How he'll win votes: This is a tough one, because there's no telling exactly how much Manning will play. Colts coach Jim Caldwell said Monday that he would treat Thursday night's game at Jacksonville the same as the previous 13 games, meaning that Manning and other starters will play. That makes sense, because with only two full days of practice, the front-liners would presumably be better prepared to play in a short week than less-experienced backups. But what will happen in the final two games? Caldwell isn't ready to address those plans yet. In all likelihood, Manning will have one final chance to make his case against the Jaguars. Look for him to do some damage to one of the NFL's worst pass defenses, which, in turn, should help his cause. Voters also are likely to be impressed that Manning's success has come despite the departures of Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison, the NFL's 30th-ranked running game, and a multitude of injuries on both sides of the ball. Where would the Colts be without Manning? Probably nowhere near the playoffs, let alone 13-0.

How he'll lose them: Manning wasn't particularly sharp in Sundays' victory against Denver. He misconnected on several passes and threw three interceptions, although they weren't all his fault. At least one national writer on press row at Lucas Oil Stadium repeatedly raised questions about Manning's play, saying that he "didn't look right." And this was during a game that would end with Manning throwing four touchdown passes. It would be an overstatement to suggest that he desperately needs to play well Thursday night to gain votes, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. And a poor last impression could very well linger because Manning might not have a chance for redemption against the New York Jets in Week 16 or the Buffalo Bills in Week 17.

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans

How he'll win votes: Unlike Manning, Brees is likely to play in most, if not all, of the remaining games. For one thing, the Minnesota Vikings are only two games behind the Saints in the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. For another, the Saints, who are new to the world of dominance, are more fascinated by the prospect of going 16-0 than the Colts. It would make sense that if Brees plays a key role through a 3-0 run, he would be hard to top for MVP. The Saints have been living on the edge the past two weeks, but Brees continues his prolific ways. He has remarkable chemistry with his wide receivers. Brees also has firmly established himself as the Saints' strongest team leader.

How he'll lose them: If Brees has more chances to play, he has as many opportunities to struggle as he does to maintain his hot hand. The good news is that the Cowboys are the toughest team the Saints have left. Another potential problem for Brees is the notion that, as important as he is to the Saints' success, he is not a one-man show. His receivers deserve plenty of credit. New Orleans' defense also has played well and has been highly opportunistic. It's possible that voters might say Brees is a little bit more of a product of a total team effort than Manning and perhaps the other candidates.

Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota

How he'll win votes: Like Brees, Favre can earn major points with voters by leading the Vikings to three consecutive victories. If the Vikings were to overtake the Saints for the No. 1 seed, that would figure to bode extremely well for Favre's MVP candidacy. The fact he continues to have the best season of his career at age 40 is a huge plus. (I'm on record as saying that the age argument for Favre trumps all arguments for everyone else. I still stand by that.) The fact he continues to stand up to the pressure of doing precisely what Brad Childress expected him to do when he took the private jet to Mississippi to pull him out of another "retirement" and into a Vikings uniform is yet another factor in Favre's favor. He has shown skeptical voters that he is capable of reinventing himself, going from a passer who made big plays while often making big mistakes to one who is highly efficient and still capable of consistently delivering game-breaking throws.

How he'll lose them: Another late-season implosion like the one he had with the Jets last year would figure to greatly damage Favre's MVP hopes. So would a Vikings collapse, which probably would result in large part because the quarterback struggled badly. If voters are convinced that Favre is more of a complementary part of the Vikings' 11-2 record rather than the primary reason, there might very well be nothing he can do to win enough of them over to capture the honor. And if the age argument becomes a case of Favre being viewed as more of a sentimental choice than a deserving one, that, too, could hurt.

Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee

How he'll win votes: By keeping up the staggering pace that would allow him to become only the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards. He still has a chance to break the all-time single-season record set by Los Angeles Rams RB Eric Dickerson who rushed for 2,105 yards in 1984. It won't be easy; the worst run defense he faces is San Diego's, which ranked 21st entering Week 14. A 100-yard rushing game against Miami in Week 15 would allow Johnson to become one of only eight players in league history to hit that mark in nine consecutive games. Here's a bulletin: Take away Johnson's rushing and receiving (he's already set a franchise record with 2,017 yards from scrimmage) and the Titans, who began 0-6, would have long been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.

How he'll lose them: If voters conclude that, as valuable as Johnson might be, he hasn't been valuable enough for the 6-7 Titans to own a winning record. Another strike is that quarterbacks dominate the award, and there are four excellent ones from which to choose.

Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego

How he'll win votes: By doing his part to help maintain the Chargers' winning streak, which is at eight games, through the balance of the season. He can greatly enhance his chances with a big game Sunday in a victory against Cincinnati, the Chargers' closest challenger in the race for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. He no doubt has impressed voters with his consistent effectiveness and efficiency, despite key injuries on both sides of the ball.

How he'll lose them: If the Chargers don't wrap up the No. 2 seed, Rivers likely will have faltered somewhere along the line. Otherwise, his case is strong, even if he probably is at the bottom of the list of most voters.

Observation points

» The case for Jim Caldwell being named NFL Coach of the Year is open and shut. It opened when the Colts faced Denver Sunday, as Caldwell stood across the field from the other top candidate for the honor, the Broncos' Josh McDaniels. Two rookie coaches with their teams in a game with major postseason ramifications. The case shut when the game ended with a 28-16 Indianapolis victory.

After the game, I asked some people in the Colts' locker room what they've admired most about Caldwell's performance.

From team president Bill Polian: "The transition (from Dungy) has been seamless because of (Caldwell). He just came in, took over, did the job. We haven't missed a beat. You can't do any more than he's done, really. He's much more direct than Tony, he's much more immediate than Tony. But his essence is the same as Tony, which is accountability, focus, expectations, execution, no excuses, no explanations. That hasn't changed one iota."

From cornerback Kelvin Hayden: "He keeps us focused. Guys can easily lose focus with us being 12-0, 13-0, and having home-field advantage now and not really having anything to play for. And he tries to keep us fresh, keep us wanting to do better. During the week, when guys are still banged up, he takes the weight off our shoulders (by reducing practice time). He's doing a tremendous job of game-planning us to keep us fresh and keep us focused during the week."

From linebacker Clint Session: "He's very demanding. He wants you to get your job done; no excuses, no explanations. It's the same motto as Coach Dungy, but he allows players to have individuality while still playing in the scheme. That's how you know that the coach understands you."

» OK, so it was against the hapless Detroit Lions, but you still have to admire the way Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco bounced back from his poor showing against the Green Bay Packers in Week 13. In the rout of the Lions, Flacco was solid, completing 13 of 20 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. How important is it to the Ravens that Flacco plays well? In their last 16 victories, he has thrown 21 touchdown passes and a mere three interceptions.

» How about some offensive rookie of the year consideration for Michael Crabtree? An impressive showing by the San Francisco 49ers receiver Monday night makes you wonder what he would have been able to do if he hadn't staged a silly holdout that lasted into October.

» With a pair of successful carries on third-and-1 and one on fourth-and-1 in Miami's victory against Jacksonville, Dolphins fullback Lousaka Polite now is 13-for-13 this season in converting on short-yardage runs.

» The Cardinals' performance was downright atrocious Monday night. Maybe it does contradict what coach Ken Whisenhunt was telling me last week about his team being more "mature" and able to better overcome adversity than it was last season. But we all know the Cards are going to wrap up the NFC West crown when they travel to Detroit in Week 15.

» The Colts' continued strong play from their defensive tackles had plenty to do with their ability to bring a screeching halt to what had been a strong Denver rushing attack. The Broncos were limited to 3.2 yards per carry, with rookie Knowshon Moreno gaining 63 yards and averaging only 2.7 yards per rush. But starters Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir are only part of the story. Backups Eric Foster and Fili Moala have contributed as well. "We've had great D-tackle play throughout the year, regardless of who's out there," Colts end Dwight Freeney said. "We have a great rotation going on."

They've got answers …

» The Minnesota Vikings, because rookie Jamarca Sanford did a nice job in his first career start, in place of injured Tyrell Johnson, at strong safety against the Bengals. He was credited with nine tackles, including nine initial hits.

» The Green Bay Packers, because rookie Brad Jones has mostly been holding his own in place of injured Aaron Kampman at outside linebacker. Jones seems to be a more effective pass-rusher, a role with which Kampman has hardly found natural since being converted from defensive end in the Packers' 3-4 scheme.

» The New York Jets, because with starting quarterback Mark Sanchez out with a knee injury, they were able to get a very solid performance from backup Kellen Clemens, who had no turnovers while completing 12 of 23 passes for 111 yards against Tampa Bay. The numbers weren't impressive, but the fact he took such good care of the ball could help his chances to return to the Jets next season as Sanchez's understudy or land elsewhere.

They've got questions …

» The Dallas Cowboys, because it's December, and they're 0-2. It's probably safe to say this truly is a psychological barrier the Cowboys simply can't clear.

» The New Orleans Saints, because for as great a season as they've have had, here's a head-scratching stat: They've allowed a score on the opening drive of six of their past seven games. The Falcons marched 57 yards to a field goal on the opening series Sunday. The five other scores the Saints allowed on opening series were touchdowns, with each drive covering at least 75 yards.

» The Jacksonville Jaguars, because Maurice Jones-Drew's rushing slump extended to four consecutive games with his 59-yard outing against Miami. In his last four outings, he has averaged 3.36 yards per carry.

Four intriguing games for Week 15

» Dallas at New Orleans: This isn't going to be pretty for the Cowboys. They have lost two games in a row and are seemingly at a loss to figure out how to win in December. That answer doesn't seem likely to be found in the Big Easy. After some close wins, the Saints are ready for a breakout game. And they love doing that under the lights of the Superdome.

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» Cincinnati at San Diego: With eight consecutive victories, the Chargers are roaring to the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. It's hard to imagine the Bengals, after being pushed all over the field in Minnesota, traveling to the West Coast and halting that streak. Carson Palmer felt compelled to set the record straight that his elbow is fine, even though his play indicates otherwise. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers is in the MVP conversation, and he should be ready for another big game.

» Green Bay at Pittsburgh: If the Steelers try sleepwalking through this one, they are in for even more embarrassment/frustration/depression. That is, if we can assume they care enough to have those feelings. The Packers' defense could very easily bring more misery to Ben Roethlisberger.

» Miami at Tennessee: The Dolphins have done an impressive job of keeping themselves in the hunt for the AFC East crown. But as bad as the first-place New England Patriots have played in recent weeks, catching them won't be easy. The Dolphins are facing a Titans team that's performing many times better than it did when it was blown out in Foxborough, Mass., during an 0-6 start. The Pats have a trip to Orchard Park, N.Y., but the Bills still haven't figured out how to generate any offense. Of course, knocking off their long-time nemesis would make their woeful season and be a gift to the Dolphins and Jets (who face Atlanta), both of whom trail New England by a game.

Top five teams

1. New Orleans: Another week, another close one. But winning such games is a reflection of their ability to maintain composure, something that should serve them well in the postseason.
2. Indianapolis: After disposing of the last team that figured to have a chance to hand them their first loss, the Colts have set the table for perfection. But no one expects them to sit at it.
3. San Diego: The Chargers' incredible hot streak is a reason to consider that this might, in fact, be the best team in the AFC ... if not the NFL.
4. Minnesota: That pounding of the Bengals should quiet the critics … at least for a week.
5. Green Bay: The Packers' defense looks ready for the postseason, which this team seems destined to reach as a wild card.

Top five offensive players

1. Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver: A player on a losing team doesn't normally end up on this list, but it was impossible to avoid putting Marshall and his NFL-record 21 receptions against the Colts at the top. Another reason he's here: He gave each of the two footballs he caught for touchdowns to Bronco fans in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands.
2. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore: His dominant showing against Detroit included a pair of 50-plus-yard runs and a 30-yard catch. His 204 yards from scrimmage through the first two quarters was the fourth-best half by an NFL player since 1991.
3. Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco: In keeping with the 49ers' overall performance, he ran with a vengeance against the Cardinals.
4. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: He delivered a typically strong performance to move the Saints closer to a No. 1 seed and himself closer to being the league's MVP.
5. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee: His quest for a 2,000-yard season remains very much alive.

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Top five defensive players

1. Brian Orakpo, DE, Washington: The rookie's franchise-record-tying four sacks against Oakland are yet another indication of his steady growth into a game-changing force.
2. Dashon Goldson, S, San Francisco: His sledgehammer style of play allowed him to force two fumbles to go along with an interception as the 49ers came up with a whopping seven turnovers against Arizona.
3. Jonathan Vilma, LB, New Orleans: In the final four minutes against Atlanta, he intercepted a pass and made a stop that forced the Falcons to turn the ball over on downs on the next series.
4. Keith Bulluck, LB, Tennessee: He had two interceptions and was credited with 10 tackles, including seven initial hits, against St. Louis.
5. Antoine Winfield, CB, Minnesota: In his first game back since suffering a fractured bone in his right foot, he was credited with nine tackles and forced a fumble against Cincinnati.

Top five coaches

1. Mike Singletary, San Francisco: He got his team back on track to give a physical, dominating performance against the NFC West-leading Cardinals. That was an impressive season sweep by a team that seemingly was fading out of sight.
2. Eric Mangini, Cleveland: He revived a corpse, a.k.a. the Browns, and led it to a win that the team and the city will savor for a long time.
3. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis: With a No. 1 playoff seed on the line, he kept the Colts focused and ready to take care of business.
4. Brad Childress, Minnesota: After a devastating loss at Arizona, he had the Vikings ready to make a convincing rebound against Cincinnati.
5. Gary Kubiak, Houston: He delivered a long, impassioned speech to his players the night before they took on Seattle. Their 34-7 victory was a clear sign that, despite his tenuous job status, he still has his team's attention.

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