The expiration of the regular season is nearing as Week 12 has already begun and the chants for NFL Most Valuable Player have already started. There's a longer list of candidates than usual it seems, including non-quarterbacks such as Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. However, as we all well know, the NFL tends to be biased to quarterbacks when it comes to voting for awards and that position will be the focus here.
Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers), Tom Brady (New England Patriots), Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) and Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos) are likely to be the final four contestants for the NFL's most prestigious award and they all have a strong case with several big plays this season, including one signature play by each. Their teams are winners, they all have been excellent this season and without them, their teams are nothing.
Can you imagine if Graham Harrell started in Green Bay while Ryan Mallett took over in New England and Luke McCown threw on behalf of Atlanta and Brock Osweiler was starting in the Mile High City?
They wouldn't be candidates for the NFL MVP award nor would their teams be of the same quality — that's for sure.
Aaron Rodgers—Green Bay Packers
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers is throwing the ball at a blistering pace once again, averaging more than two touchdown passes and 0.6 interceptions per game for a total of 27 touchdowns and a mere six interceptions.
Rodgers has carried his team this year and strung together big games against tough opponents, such as the Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals. In two games against the two teams, Rodgers has thrown an incredible 10 touchdowns and only one interception. But it wasn't during either of the games where he made a signature throw this season: it was in Week 11 against the Detroit Lions.
Down in Detroit, Rodgers had to construct a game-winning touchdown drive to beat the NFC North rivals. On 3rd-and-1 on the Lions' 22-yard line, he stood in shotgun and scanned the defensive secondary before the snap.
The Lions showed two deep safeties, suggesting some form of an even coverage (Cover 2 or Cover 4, for instance) and Rodgers had "Doubles" sets to each side, with two receivers to his left and a tight end and wide receiver to his right.
One of the receivers, slot Randall Cobb was going to be the intended target. He was going to be running a corner route with an inside release and was manned by the nickel cornerback. Detroit's aforementioned two deep safeties would become one when there was a double rotation by the two defenders. However, it wouldn't affect Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers, calm and collected as always, took the snap, leaned back and floated a pass in between the single deep safety and the nickel cornerback, turning Cobb to the inside and throwing him open for a touchdown.
It would prove to be the game-winning touchdown and when it comes to Aaron Rodgers, proper footwork doesn't always matter. Regardless of the platform and situation, Rodgers comes up big with great accuracy and a strong arm. This was vintage Aaron Rodgers.
Tom Brady—New England Patriots
There are more than a handful of signature plays that could be selected for New England's Tom Brady. He's one of the league's best quarterbacks every year. One of his better throws this season was a touchdown strike to Rob Gronkowski against old rival Indianapolis Colts.
Standing under center with two tight ends and one running back, Brady surveyed the field and then called for the snap, receiving it and executing a play-action fake. While he did this, the two tight ends to his left worked on a two-man route combination of their own. It was going to be a wheel route by tight end Daniel Fells to the far left and an out-and-up by the second tight end, Rob Gronkowski.
The key to finding Gronkowski were Brady's eyes. He had to manipulate coverage, eyeballing the free safety in the middle of the field. Once Brady turned around after the play fake, he immediately identified the safety and froze him for a quick second, allowing Gronkowski to run up the field freely and get open for the touchdown pass.
This was Brady at his best. Play action fakes, controlling coverages and finding open targets. After all, the saying with Brady has long been that his favorite receiver is the open one, and once again, he showed he can find him.
Matt Ryan—Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan has had somewhat of a roller coaster season. He hasn't had the big four or five touchdown game but he's been very good nearly every week. In the weeks he wasn't very good, he has struggled, throwing three and five interceptions against the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals. Despite the couple of struggles, it's hard to exclude Ryan from the MVP argument.
Earlier this season, after a Week 9 win to be exact, I chronicled Matt Ryan's success off of play action against the Dallas Cowboys, where he found Roddy White in between several defenders at the top of left numbers.
Upon executing the fake to running back Jacquizz Rodgers, Ryan looked to his left where wide receiver Julio Jones was running a go route. The goal of Jones' route and Ryan's was to clear out the deep safety, disabling him from coming downhill to pick up Roddy White's dig route from the opposite side of the field.
Ryan next looked to his check down, Jacquizz Rodgers, to make sure that the safety covering him stayed there so he couldn't drop back and fill the gaping hole in the pass defense. Once Ryan was finished there, he drilled a pass to White for a 20-yard gain.
Matt Ryan's play-action pass doesn't seem like a significant one but it was just another big throw off of play action from the former Boston College quarterback. He's been one of the most aggressive passers on early downs this year and has consistently found his intended targets as indicated by his phenomenal 67.5 completion percentage.
Peyton Manning—Denver Broncos
He's back again. Peyton Manning is once again in the voting for MVP of the NFL. One could argue he deserved to win it last year when he didn't suit up for a single game as his Indianapolis Colts slumped to an uncharacteristic 2-14 record. This year, there is definitely an argument to be made for Manning because he has rejuvenated his new team, the Denver Broncos, and made them—and almost everyone else—forget about Tim Tebow in the Mile High City.
There are endless plays that Manning has made this season but none are more impressive than the touchdown to Brandon Stokley that capped off a 24-point comeback and 35 consecutive points against the San Diego Chargers.
It was a typical play from Manning. Before it even got started, he was in high gear, making sure everyone had the right play call and/or audible as the seconds of the game clock winded down. After finally finishing instructing, he was ready to demolish the Chargers.
To his right stood two receivers, "Twin" sets, and one of them was old teammate Brandon Stokley. Stokley was lined up in the slot and preparing to run an outside breaking pattern akin to a wheel route. The key on this play wasn't going to be Stokley's route, however; rather, it would be the dig route of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who had to run it at the correct depth to occupy the single deep safety in the middle of the field so Stokley could receive isolation coverage outside.
Thomas did just that, controlling San Diego's safety, and Stokley got open vertically. Per usual, Peyton Manning found his ex-Colts teammate, launching a pass that was placed in between Stokley and the defensive back. The pass had to be perfect—only where Stokley could get it—and it was, as Manning put it high and slightly inside of Stokley, allowing him to bring it in and complete the miraculous and memorable comeback.
So, who to vote for?
All four quarterbacks—the league's most important and favored position—have made a strong case for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. They have made signature plays that will forever be embedded in the brains of their fans, such as Aaron Rodgers' fade-away throw to receiver Randall Cobb to sink the rival Detroit Lions and Peyton Manning's brilliant lob to longtime friend Brandon Stokley against the hated San Diego Chargers.
If the most important criteria is wins, the award undoubtedly goes to Atlanta's Matt Ryan. However, if it's based off of statistics, New England's Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay have a strong say. And if it's about rejuvenation, Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos tops his competitors.
I know one thing: I'm glad I don't have to decide the winner.