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Chargers' win streak, gaudy numbers push Rivers into MVP race

The race for the Most Valuable Player award has seemingly morphed into a two-horse race between Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but when you poll league executives there is another quarterback worthy of inclusion.

Philip Rivers has quietly enjoyed a sensational season directing the Chargers' aerial attack, and the scouting community can't stop singing his praises.

"He is a very underrated quarterback in this league," said an AFC personnel director. "Tough, competitive and productive. ... He has shown up when others haven't in big games."

Rivers, who has guided the Chargers on a nine-game winning streak, has put up numbers that rival the aforementioned frontrunners for the award. The fifth-year pro is averaging 277.9 passing yards per game while completing 64.6 percent of his passes. His 102.8 passer rating ranks third in the league, and he has thrown the sixth-most touchdowns (25) in the league.

While those gaudy numbers would satisfy the most ardent stat cruncher, it is Rivers' leadership and poise that have pushed him into contention.

He has guided the Chargers to three game-winning drives in the fourth quarter this season and repeatedly shown a penchant for making clutch plays with the game on the line. Against the Bengals, Rivers continued that trend by connecting on three of four passes (not including a spike that killed the clock) during the team's final drive while moving the Chargers 46 yards in only 51 seconds without a timeout at his disposal.

Rivers' superb play in crucial moments is part of the reason Norv Turner has increasingly allowed his young signal caller to be the driving force behind the offense. In the past, the Chargers relied on the mercurial talents of LaDainian Tomlinson to serve as the foundation of the team's attack. However, the team's running game has struggled this season (the Chargersrank 30th in rush offense), and the onus has fallen on Rivers to guide the team's one-dimensional attack.

Rivers, who has three 300-yard games this season, has responded in outstanding fashion with more responsibility on his shoulders.

Although the Chargers' scattershot running game has allowed defenses to drop extra defenders into coverage, Rivers has found a way to successfully push the ball down the field. Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates have repeatedly gotten past defenders on deep routes, and Rivers has been on point connecting with the trio on vertical throws.

The Chargers' 57 completions of 20 yards or more ties them with the Colts and Saints as the league leaders, and the bevy of deep throws have keyed the team's current nine-game winning streak.

With wins serving as the biggest barometer of a quarterback's success, Rivers has compiled a resume that warrants serious consideration as a MVP candidate. He is still unbeaten in the month of December for the fourth season in a row (17-game winning streak), and his remarkable ability to close out games under pressure has undoubtedly been one of the reasons the Chargers repeatedly enter the postseason as one of the league's hottest teams.

Given the sizzling play of Rivers and the Chargers this season, voters should pause before automatically punching the names of Brees or Manning on their ballots.

Purple haze

Lost in the aftermath of the Brett Favre sideline controversy has been the slumping performance of the Vikings' offense in recent weeks. The unit has fallen off dramatically during the team's recent slide, and the underachievement can be attributed to a myriad of factors.

Brett Favre, who was under consideration for the MVP award after guiding the team to a sizzling 10-1 start, has started to turn the ball over regularly. His penchant for taking sacks is killing drives. When the Vikings rolled earlier in the season, the aerial attack functioned as a complement to Adrian Peterson, with a quick, rhythm passing game acting as the basis.

Brad Childress' scheme features a host of three- and five-step drops that requires the quarterback to get rid of the ball on time. Favre, on the other hand, is at his best when improvising in the pocket and making plays in a "sandlot" fashion. Though he stayed within the confines of Childress' disciplined scheme early in the season, he has reverted back to his maverick ways. Favre has increasingly started to force the ball up the field, which has resulted in more throws into tight coverage and an increase in interceptions.

In addition, the team's reliance on Favre has diminished Peterson's role in the offense. The two-time Pro Bowler has been held to less than 100 yards in each of the team's past three games, failing to surpass 35 yards in two of those contests. While defenses have success using eight- and nine-man fronts to slow down Peterson, it has been the lack of touches that has been the bigger reason for his subpar production. In the team's two recent losses, he has only carried the ball 25 times combined. The team's refusal to commit to the running game has allowed defenses to aggressively come after Favre in the pocket.

Although it is easy to single out the performances of the Vikings' biggest stars, it is the suspect play of the Vikings' highly priced offensive line that has contributed to their struggles. Bryant McKinnie's struggle to block Julius Peppers underscores the issues that have resurfaced for the unit. The offensive line was designed to road grade, but the Vikings' increased emphasis on the passing game has exposed their vulnerabilities. Without being able to come off aggressively on play action, the unit lacks quickness and agility to handle speed rushers off the edge.

Until the Vikings get back to utilizing the formidable combination of a powerful ground attack complemented by a quick, rhythm passing game, their offense will suffer from inconsistency, and the fingers will start to point at Childress for an inexplicable shift in his offensive approach.

Look familiar?

Raheem Morris' first season as a head coach has included its fair share of mishaps, but his decision to take over the team's defense has been one of his best moves.

Since Morris replaced Jim Bates as the team's defensive play caller, the Buccaneers have started to look capable of upholding the legacy of Tampa Bay defenses of old. And Morris has reverted back to the Tampa-2 philosophy that made those units great.

For most of the decade, the Bucs dominated the league using a one-gap scheme with an assortment of zone-based coverage principles to stuff running games and suffocate aerial attacks. The system was designed to limit big plays, so that opponents were forced to drive the length of the field on a series of short gains to score. Ideally, opponents would lack the patience to methodically move the ball down the field, and commit turnovers or miscues before scoring touchdowns. With opponents routinely forced to settle for field goals, the Bucs perennially ranked among the league leaders in points allowed.

Morris' installation of Bates as the defensive coordinator led to a dramatic shift in defensive philosophy, and the change didn't yield great results initially. Bates' preference for using a host of blitz pressures with bump-man coverage on the outside resulted in numerous big plays surrendered by the Buccaneers defense. At the time of his demotion, the Bucs ranked last in run defense and 31st in scoring defense.

Although Morris has downplayed the return back to the Tampa-2 scheme, it is apparent that the team has returned to the principles that allowed the defense to finish in the top 10 in 10 of the 12 previous seasons.

Against the Seahawks, the Bucs mixed in their traditional two-deep coverage on long yardage passing downs and threw an assortment of looks at Matt Hasselbeck on early downs. Morris used conventional three-deep zone coverage, some zone-blitz pressures and "quarters" coverage to keep Hasselbeck off balance.

While the disruption of Hasselbeck's rhythm was a factor, most important part of Morris' game plan was keeping the ball in front of the defense. By not allowing the ball to fly over their heads, the Bucs are capable of holding offenses down.

With the defense finally headed in the right direction, Morris has not only proven that he has the potential to be a masterful defensive architect, but he has likely saved his standing as the Bucs' head coach.

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