ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Mother Nature decided to add a little more drama to this anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better competition that Tom Brady and Michael Vick are waging for NFL MVP, but it wasn't necessary.
This battle is over. Brady wins. Unofficially, for now, but that's how the voting by the Associated Press' national media panel is likely to go.
Brady wins because he has done more with less. He wins because he is incredibly efficient, while being incredibly productive. He wins, because ... well, let one of his tight ends, Alge Crumpler, explain.
Even after the Pats had clinched home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs, rendering their Week 17 season finale against the Dolphins meaningless, Crumpler knew his teammate's attention would be focused exactly where it always is after a game: On the next opponent.
Yes, what Vick has done this season is every bit as valuable to another strong team, the Philadelphia Eagles. It is flashy, dynamic and unlike what any quarterback, or player for that matter, does and probably will do for a long time. Thanks to the blizzard that rocked the East Coast, his next game, against Minnesota, won't be until Tuesday night. Vick might very well have a spectacular prime-time showing, adding yet another chapter to his comeback story for the ages. But it won't matter.
There is no topping the fact that Brady's off-the-charts season has come without the same sort of support that has allowed Vick to consistently add big plays with his passing arm to a repertoire that once mostly included (but still features) highlight-reel runs. Brady doesn't have a receiver the same caliber as DeSean Jackson or a running back comparable to LeSean McCoy. He is working with an offense that reinvented itself after Week 4 when his lone deep threat, Randy Moss, was traded and there was no longer the ability to stretch opposing defenses.
The critics said that the Patriots were in trouble because it was too easy for other teams to clamp down on Wes Welker running those patented short and intermediate routes. But Brady pulled together a new scheme that relied heavily on a pair of rookie tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and running back Danny Woodhead, whom the Patriots acquired after he was cut by the New York Jets. Putting greater emphasis than ever on precision, Brady maximized the production of his supporting cast with throws that moved the chains and generated touchdowns while avoiding enemy hands. Against the Bills, in cold and blustery conditions that aren't conducive to accurate passing, he set an NFL record by pushing to 309 his streak of consecutive throws without an interception. Brady's three touchdown passes, all to his tight ends (two to Gronkowski and one to Crumpler), pushed his season total to 34. But even more impressive are his mere four interceptions, the last of which he threw in Week 6.
Six from Sunday
This is where that considerable work ethic comes in. This is the byproduct of the standard of excellence, which doesn't merely do plenty to help others to succeed but inspires them to raise their performance level.
"He leads by example," said Gronkowski, who knows that his full buy-in to the Brady approach has gone a long way toward allowing him to catch nine touchdown passes and tie a Patriots record for most TDs by a tight end in a season (Ben Coates, 1996) and also move into second place for touchdown receptions by a rookie tight end in NFL history behind Mike Ditka, who had 12 in 1961.
Still, votes for this year's award will be collected on Jan. 7, and Brady's case for winning it shouldn't be impacted by how little he might play (if at all) against the Dolphins. Nor should it be hurt by his mere 140 passing yards against the Bills. As guard Logan Mankins pointed out, "He is a quarterback, half his job is to hand it off, so he can't throw it every time. That's not going to be any good for the team. Days like today, when he's handing it off a lot (41 rushing attempts compared with 27 passes), he's making the right checks. There's more to quarterback than just throwing it."
Or running with it.
And when you look at the entire package, you have the more convincing argument for Brady as the MVP.
They've got answers
» The Kansas City Chiefs, because in addition to their tremendous running game, quarterback Matt Cassel -- having recovered from the appendectomy that sidelined him in Week 14 -- has found his groove in Charlie Weis' offense. The Chiefs, who also have a solid defense, are going to be dangerous in the playoffs.
» The Chicago Bears, because they have done an impressive job of picking up the pieces after that Week 14 debacle against the Patriots. Give Jay Cutler credit for not crumbling after a rough first half against the Jets that included an interception that was returned for a touchdown. His three scoring throws and Matt Forte's 113 rushing yards are reasons to think that the Bears have some pretty good momentum entering the postseason, assuming that their defensive struggles against the Pats and the Jets aren't a sign of trouble in what had been an area of strength.
» The Baltimore Ravens, because they are showing the strengths that traditionally serve them well -- power running and strong defense -- at the best possible time.
They've got questions
» The New York Giants, because they clearly never recovered from that devastating second-half collapse against the Eagles and, on top of that, seem to have no energy left. Not surprisingly, that has raised suspicions about whether Tom Coughlin has been pushing his team so hard in practice that is has nothing left for the games.
» You had the feeling that Week 16 could have been particularly damaging to coaches who were either already in jeopardy of losing their jobs or who figure to need plenty of help to keep them.
In one case, the damage already is done: Mike Singletary is out in San Francisco. Other coaches who might very well have been nudged closer to the door include: Coughlin, for that aforementioned collapse and his inability to get his team to rebound against Green Bay; Tony Sparano, whose Miami Dolphins keep losing and no longer show any spark under his leadership; Eric Mangini, whose Cleveland Browns have gone into a tailspin and seemingly crushed his hopes of keeping his job for a second season under team president Mike Holmgren, who didn't hire him and figures to want his own choice for the job; and Jason Garrett, whose chances of remaining interim coach in Dallas seemingly took a hit with the Cowboys' loss at Arizona.
Also, Jack Del Rio, whose Jaguars are in the process of squandering what once was an excellent chance to win the AFC South; Gary Kubiak, whose Houston Texans continue to slide and just lost to a rookie quarterback (Denver's Tim Tebow) in only his second start; Jeff Fisher, whose Tennessee Titans have seemingly quit and who still has the matter of likely being unable to co-exist with a quarterback (Vince Young) that team owner Bud Adams wants to keep.
» After yet another tumultuous week that ended with a loss, the Jets actually have some reason for optimism. For one, Mark Sanchez, playing with a bad shoulder, held up well against the second solid defense he has faced in two weeks. For another, the Jets' offensive line provided good pass protection for its battered quarterback. For yet another, there wasn't a single sign of distraction from the controversy stemming from an embarrassing video of Rex Ryan's wife's bare feet showing up on a foot-fetish web site. And the best part is, because the Jaguars lost, the Jets clinched a wild-card berth and could rest or limit the playing time of Sanchez and other starters for their season-finale against the Bills.
Who would have thought that was possible after those back-to-back losses to New England and Miami?
» The one reason to think the Detroit Lions' three-game winning streak has some merit for next year: The defense is performing at an exceptionally high level. Not only should the dominance of tackle Ndamukong Suh make him the runaway choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year, it also should give him strong consideration for Defensive Player of the Year as well.
During a flag football game with soldiers, Reed suffered a torn Achilles that will require surgery. Thomas intercepted a Kelly pass, and told me that he intends to remind Kelly of that every chance he gets for the rest of his life. Kelly did, however, get some bragging rights of his own by connecting on a Hail Mary throw for the winning touchdown.
» During an interview with me on Sirius NFL Radio, Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington addressed his path to the starting lineup (since Week 3) of a Super Bowl contender (2008 practice squad with the Eagles after signing with them as a rookie free agent from Hofstra and one game on Tampa Bay's active roster in 2009 before being waived) as follows: "It still feels surreal. I've almost got to pinch myself every day I wake up. But I'm just enjoying the ride, trying to live in the moment and definitely fortunate for all my blessings."
» Nothing personal against Dolphins wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess, but when you consider how little their team has accomplished and how unspectacular their offense really is with Chad Henne at quarterback, it's hard to imagine they now are the team's most prolific pass-catching duo. That distinction just seemed to carry a whole lot more weight when it belonged to Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, with Dan Marino at quarterback.
Four intriguing games for Week 17
Tennessee at Indianapolis: The return of running back Joseph Addai gave the Colts a huge boost at Oakland. After taking care of business against the Raiders -- even after learning that Jacksonville had lost to Washington and, therefore, they would be in position to win the AFC South with a victory in this game regardless of the outcome vs. Oakland -- the Colts should be able to close the deal and lock up a playoff spot. As Peyton Manning continues to find comfort in having tight end Jacob Tamme as his go-to receiver, the Colts shouldn't be an easy out for anyone in the postseason.
Jacksonville at Houston:Jack Del Rio's job security could very well depend on the Jaguars finishing the season strong, even if it doesn't result in a playoff berth (which would only come via a division title that would require a Jacksonville win and a Colts loss). The Jags simply would have no excuse for losing to the lowly Texans.
Chicago at Green Bay: There is plenty at stake in this fierce rivalry game. The Bears, who already have captured the NFC North title, have a chance to get a first-round bye, which would only figure to improve their hopes for a long playoff run. The Packers, the preseason favorite to win the division, need to win to make the playoffs. Given how well both teams are capable of playing on both sides of the ball, this also figures to be a great way for them to tune up for the postseason.
St. Louis at Seattle: Unfortunately, the NFC West is still going to be allowed to send a representative to the playoffs. And that team, at best, will have an 8-8 record (if the Rams win) or a 7-9 mark (if the Seahawks win). Pathetic, to say the least, especially with three nine-win teams (Green Bay, the Giants, and Tampa Bay) in contention for an NFC wild-card spot.