There typically is no more heated debate -- in any sport -- as to who is the Most Valuable Player. Not just because there are usually at least a half dozen deserving candidates, but also because of this argument: Is he or she the best player in the league or is he or she the most valuable to his or her team?
After 10 games, New Orleans and Indianapolis are the only undefeated teams. There is no doubt that Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning would be front-runners for the MVP based on both criteria. They are toying with defenses with such ease, it's mind-blowing. If you took either off his respective team, New Orleans and Indianapolis would be in trouble.
You could make that argument for most quarterbacks on most teams, but when you really break things down, losing Manning and/or Brees would probably prove more catastrophic than Minnesota not having Brett Favre (it did win the NFC North without him last season) or New England losing Tom Brady (the Patriots won 11 games with Matt Cassel taking snaps in 2008).
I'd probably hand the trophy to Brees if the season ended today, just because he is equal parts spirit, leader and productive player for a team that's arguably the best in the league. Guys feed off of him like no other quarterback -- maybe even player -- in the league.
They'll also be in the argument for MIP -- Most Invaluable Player. That list, however, is much longer, and perhaps more interesting.
It's a list that includes players who are instrumental to what their teams do. Their teams are what they are because of the heavy lifting these guys have done.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego
There is a good shot he could get snubbed from the Pro Bowl again, as crazy as that sounds, but Rivers is the Chargers' heart and soul and their greatest weapon. He's completed 203 of 321 passes for 2,621 yards, 17 touchdowns with six interceptions. He is tough, becoming clutch, and seems to have matured. San Diego has seized the lead in the AFC West and it should win the division title again, in large part because of its quarterback.
Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis
Has anybody noticed that Indy's defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL (15.7 per game)? That has a lot to do with this high-motored pass rusher who has 9.5 sacks. There are only a handful of defensive linemen in the NFL who occupy a significant amount of the opponent's game plans each week and Freeney is one of them. No slight to Colts DE Robert Mathis, one of the most underappreciated players in the league, but seriously, do the Colts lead the NFL in scoring defense without Freeney?
Making a case for Minnesota
Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
Allen, along with Freeney, might be the hardest-working defender in the league. Neither take a play off. Allen is not only a great pass rusher (second in the NFL with 10.5 sacks), but he's also a stud against the run. His energy is ridiculous. On the rare occasion an opposing player breaks off a run downfield, odds are you'll see No. 69 chasing him. By the end of the season, a serious argument might be made for Allen being the best player in the NFL.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
While Tennessee might still be a ways away from seriously garnering playoff consideration, Johnson is the guy who could get them there. The second-year speedster leads the NFL with 1,242 rushing yards (211 ahead of the Rams' Steven Jackson), eclipsing his rookie season total (1,228) with six games still left. Even more eye-popping is his 6.2 yards per carry. He also has 30 receptions for 262 yards. There isn't a bigger offensive threat with the ball in his hands, and the Titans are attempting to ride him to the postseason.
Darren Sharper, S, New Orleans
An unwanted free agent in the offseason, Sharper has once again shown his value. Production-wise, he is magic. Seven picks, three returned for touchdowns; 40 tackles, and a half sack. He also has re-invigorated a defense that had been the Saints' Achilles' heel. Sharper has been the Brees of the defense, making other players better, including standout MLB Jonathan Vilma.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville
Did someone say decoy? Since MJD demanded the ball, he has delivered behind an offensive line that's taken some time to come together. Pocket Hercules is 74 yards rushing from his first 1,000-yard season, and his 13 touchdowns lead the league. Winners of three straight, the Jaguars are on track to make the playoffs, thanks to their MIP.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
He is rarely mentioned among the best quarterbacks in the league because he hasn't been asked to win games. He drove some crazy by hanging on to the ball too long, causing unneeded sacks. This season, though, the two-time Super Bowl champ is flat-out balling. Pittsburgh's offense runs through Big Ben, who has completed 69 percent of his passes with an 8.3-yard average -- second only to Brees.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts
Wayne has not only shown everyone what a No. 1 receiver is (Roy Williams, please take note), but he's done it with his No. 2 receiver being a tight end (Dallas Clark) and a group of other wideouts most of us would need a GPS to locate. Wayne (76 catches, 968 yards, eight touchdowns) is clutch, routinely makes the difficult grabs in traffic, and leads the NFL with 15 catches of 20 or more yards.
Randy Moss, WR, Patriots
Moss is back to his usual self, tormenting defenses with the deep ball. He ranks second in the league in receiving yards (925), touchdown catches (8), and plays of 20 or more yards (14). And 45 of his 63 receptions have gone for first downs. As good as he's been, the 32-year-old Moss will have ample opportunity to show he's not washed up as New England closes out the final six weeks with four teams vying to get into the postseason.
Steven Jackson, RB, Rams
Jackson won't get any consideration for MVP because the Rams are so bad. You also could make the case that if he went down, his team wouldn't be any worse. Still, how many players -- especially running backs who take indescribable weekly poundings -- have put it out there like Jackson has? He is all St. Louis has, every opponent knows it, yet he still has 1,031 rushing yards and 1,262 total yards from scrimmage.