As the NFL enters Week 12, much of the buzz around the league has been around the bumper crop of sensational rookie quarterbacks, led by standouts Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins.
Luck and RGIII will certainly compete down the stretch for Rookie of the Year honors, but it appears that the MVP race could come down to two men who between them have lifted the hardware six times.
It would also signal the renewal of a storied rivalry, though one which now sees both men entering their twilight years, between the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning.
Brady, 35, has been his usual self this season at the helm of New England's high-octane offense. Including last night's game, a destruction of the rival New York Jets, he has thrown for 24 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
He's on pace to surpass his numbers in passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions from 2010, the last time he captured an MVP award.
On the other hand, Manning, 36, has not skipped a beat since returning to the NFL from a serious neck injury. His transition to a new team has been seamless, and like Brady he has thrown for 24 touchdowns but with seven interceptions.
This is made all the more impressive under the circumstances of his arrival in Denver. Many felt he would never play in the NFL again, much less at this level and with a new team in a new environment.
The Patriots (8-3) are an all but certain lock for a playoff spot. None of their rivals in the AFC East has more than four wins, and they have twice defeated the Jets and Buffalo Bills.
The same rings true for the Broncos (7-3), who, like the Patriots, have benefited from less-than-spectacular performances from their divisional opponents. Barring an epic collapse, they too should make the postseason.
The two quarterbacks also lead the NFL's most prolific scoring offenses, with Brady's Patriots tops in the league, averaging 37 points per game, while Manning's Broncos are second with just a shade over 30 points per game.
It's just like old times, and both men have legitimate cases to be considered for the MVP award at this stage in the season.
Let's take a minute to evaluate each man's respective case.
Brady is the consummate winner. It's basically all he does, as evidenced by his 132-38 career record as a starter during the regular season.
He has many weapons around him, including Wes Welker—who, despite a slow start is on pace for 100 receptions and 1,000 yards again—and stud tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
However, Brady has also had to deal with significant injuries to big parts of his offense scheme, including Hernandez, who missed five games earlier this season; and left guard Logan Mankins, who has also missed five games.
He will also be without Gronkowski, his favorite red-zone target, possibly for the rest of the regular season with a broken forearm.
One thing that has helped take some pressure off has been the emergence of second-year running back Stevan Ridley, who is on pace for a 1,000-yard season. With both run and pass being strengths, for the first time in a while the Patriots are able to create matchup problems.
One factor that adds pressure on Brady, though, is his lack of a shutdown defense. The Patriots rank just 27th in the league in yards allowed per game and 20th in points per game allowed.
By comparison, the Broncos sport the fifth-best defense in the league in terms of yards per game and rank 11th in points per game.
Brady simply needs to outscore most of his opponents, and thus far he's been able to do just that. The Patriots offense has dropped more than 40 points four times this season, with two of those performances being over 50 points.
Their three losses have come by a combined four points.
For his part, Manning also has some impressive weapons on the offensive side of the ball in receivers Eric Decker and Demariyus Thomas.
You can reasonably make the argument that those two receivers have benefited greatly from Manning's presence, and who wouldn't, but both also showed potential last year under a signal-caller who may be a lot of things but isn't near Manning's level.
And while Manning has more interceptions than Brady, it's worth noting that three of them came in the first half of the Broncos Week 2 loss to the Falcons, when he was still learning the Denver system.
Brady's Patriots have also lost close games that they were expected to win—most notably at home against Arizona and in Seattle. In both games Brady put up big numbers, but it wasn't enough for the win.
It's an extremely close race between the old rivals.
Their Week 6 game was crucial for both teams, who entered at 2-2. The final score, 31-21, was closer than much of the game, as the Patriots roared to a 31-7 third-quarter lead before the score narrowed late.
In a matchup that's this close, with statistics that show little separation, this should give Brady a slight advantage at this stage. Head-to-head does matter in these debates.
As does the fact that Brady is under more pressure to put up points than Manning due to the defensive liabilities he faces.
Obviously, there's a lot of football left between now and the announcement of league MVP. It's just interesting that in a year dominated by the talk of young quarterbacks, two old war horses are still showing them how it's done.
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