What each man has done to come back from injury is nearly unfathomable. Peterson wasn't even sure he would start the season on the field and is in reach of 2,000 yards rushing, more than 400 yards ahead of the league's second-leading rusher.
Manning wasn't even sure he would be 100 percent ready to play when he signed with Denver after missing an entire season due to injury, and he has led the Broncos to a 12-3 record and a chance at a first-round bye and maybe home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Both comebacks are truly remarkable. Trying to determine which comeback—and therefore which season—was slightly more remarkable will go a long way to determine which player will win the NFL MVP.
Both players would make fine choices as MVP, and there are a few other names who should be added to the conversation, but before any of that is decided, it's important to figure out what the award actually is.
What is value, and how can we truly determine who has the most of it?
This isn't a new conversation, but year after year the award seems to evolve in definition without ever changing in name. Sure, Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards are handed out each season, but a winner of one of those awards—be honest, the offensive award—is named MVP less often than one may think.
In the last 12 seasons, the MVP and Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year were different players six times. Picking a different player for each award in seasons where two are deserving candidates has become a way of splitting the baby perhaps—if the baby was a shiny football trophy.
To compare Peterson with Manning requires comparing a running back with a quarterback—not an easy task.
Peterson's numbers are so much better than every other running back, it seems clear that his season—for that position—was better than any quarterback's year when compared with other quarterbacks. If Peterson is clearly the best apple in the barrel, does that make him better than four really good oranges?
The fact is, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are having as good or better seasons than Manning from a statistical standpoint. The argument that Peterson doesn't have a clear competitor for the best running back in the league makes him more likely to win Offensive Player of the Year over Manning.
But what about the MVP? Do Peterson's numbers make him more valuable to the Vikings than Manning has been to the Broncos? Is Peterson more valuable than Brady has been for the Patriots, Rodgers for the Packers or, for that matter, Ryan for the Falcons?
The Vikings are 9-6 on the season (a clear improvement from the 3-13 campaign in 2011), but Peterson's numbers were rather pedestrian this year before his Week 7 explosion against Arizona.
The Vikings started the season 4-2, and Peterson was averaging just 83.2 rushing yards* and 104.7 total yards per game. Through six games, Peterson had just one game of more than 100 yards rushing and only two touchdowns on the season, both coming in the season-opening win over Jacksonville. For much of the first half of the season, it was actually Percy Harvin who had people talking about an MVP season in Minnesota, not Peterson. (*Note: Had Peterson averaged 83.2 yards per game all season, he would still be sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game this year.)
Peterson's season changed in Week 7, as he rushed for 153 yards and a touchdown in a win over Arizona. Starting with that performance, Peterson has amassed 1,399 rushing yards in nine games (155.4 yards per game) and has scored nine touchdowns, scoring in all but two of the last nine contests. The second-half numbers have been staggering but have been tempered by a 5-4 record for Minnesota in those games.
Sure, Peterson carried the Vikings to four of those five wins, and it certainly wasn't his fault the defense gave up 30 points when he lit up Seattle for 193 total yards and two scores on the road in Week 9. It's just that two of his best three games came in losses this year, and while the Vikings' record in games Peterson rushed for more than 150 yards is a stout 4-2, they are also 4-2 in games he rushed for under 90. Minnesota is 2-1 on the season when Peterson scores two touchdowns and 4-3 when he doesn't score at all.
Clearly his numbers have been outstanding, especially in the second half of the year. It's just difficult in a team game to compare how valuable they really were if his team ends up missing the playoffs. Heck, what if, like in last week's win over Houston, Peterson has pedestrian numbers and his team wins anyway? What would that say about his value?
(None of this is to suggest that Peterson's value wasn't just as high in games where his actual numbers weren't great. Christian Ponder's use of play-action alone illustrates how valuable Peterson can be when he doesn't touch the ball.)
The same statistical breakdown can be done for Manning, and those numbers can tell a host of different stories as well.
In Denver's three losses, Manning has just one really bad game. In Week 2 against Atlanta, Manning threw for 241 yards and one touchdown to three interceptions in the 27-21 loss. In the other two losses, to Houston in Week 3 and New England in Week 5, Manning averaged 333.5 yards per game and totaled five touchdowns to no interceptions. Manning completed just 50 percent of his passes against Houston but linked up on more than 70 percent against New England and still lost. In both games, the Denver defense allowed 31 points, the most it has given up all season.
The NFL average for points this year is 22.7 per game. Denver is 4-3 when it gives up more than the league average in points, an indication the offense carried the defense for at least one quarter of the season. Looking closer, Denver is 0-3 when giving up more than 25 points and 12-0 when the defense holds the opponent to 24 or less.
When Denver scores less than the league average, the Broncos are 1-2, meaning the Broncos offense has scored less than the league average just three times this year (two of those scores were 21 points, and the other, a win, was 17), while the defense has given up more than the league average seven times.
What does any of this say about Manning's value? It's hard to know, really. The Broncos are 2-2 when Manning attempts more than 40 passes and 10-1 when he throws fewer than 40 times. Denver is 6-2 when Manning throws for more than 300 yards and 6-1 when he throws for less than 299 yards. The Broncos are 1-1 when he throws two or more interceptions and 5-2 when he throws none.
Manning has 34 touchdown passes on the season to 11 interceptions and has orchestrated three fourth-quarter game-winning drives. Denver was 8-8 without Manning last year, a four-win or potentially a five-win improvement over 2011. Only the Colts, Rams, Redskins and, yes, Vikings have a chance for a five-or-more-win improvement over last year.
None of this means anything. Or does it mean everything?
Lots of opinions, lots of numbers
Really, who the hell knows who is the most valuable? With the case laid out above, it sure looks to me that Manning has been more valuable to Denver than Peterson has been to Minnesota. But don't tell that to Vikings fans.
Don't tell that to Patriots fans or Packers fans or Falcons fans either. A case can be made that all three of their quarterbacks have done just as much to earn their teams their respective division crowns as Manning.
Brady is the only one of the four quarterbacks who plays on a team with a defense not ranked in the top seven in points against. The Patriots have the 17th-best scoring defense and the 27th-best (or sixth-worst) in yards per game. Does that mean Brady has done more for his team—he has more value—than the others?
And last, if Peterson wins the Most Valuable Player award without the Vikings getting to the playoffs, without breaking the single-season rushing record or perhaps even without eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark on the season, what does that say about Calvin Johnson?
The Detroit Lions are horrible, but Johnson did break the single-season receiving record with 1,892 yards through 15 games. The record was set by Jerry Rice in 1995, breaking the previous record set in 1961. (Actually, Isaac Bruce also surpassed that 1961 record in 1995 but had 67 fewer yards than Rice.) Johnson has shattered a number that had only been eclipsed twice in more than 50 years.
With a game to go, Johnson could become the first receiver in NFL history to go beyond the 2,000-yard barrier, an unthinkable threshold until this season. Where's his trophy? (To be fair, he could still win NFL Offensive Player of the Year, especially if Peterson doesn't break the rushing record.)
Sure, as B/R NFL Lead Writer Matt Miller pointed out on Twitter, the NFL has become a passing league, but that's all the more reason to look at Johnson's numbers with a parallel slant. While Peterson enters Week 17 some 408 yards ahead of his next closest rusher, Johnson enters Week 17 of a passing league more than 425 yards ahead of his closest receiver.
Miller pointed out that Johnson doesn't have a lot of touchdowns, which clearly hurts his numbers (and the Lions' success in the red zone). Johnson has just five touchdowns in 117 receptions, good for a score every 23.4 catches. Peterson has 11 rushing touchdowns (tied for second in the NFL) on 314 carries, or a score every 28.6 rushes.
Even those numbers don't tell the whole scoring story. Peterson has 11 of his team's 35 total touchdowns (31.4 percent), including 11 of 30 offensive tallies (36.7 percent) for Minnesota and 11 of their 15 rushing scores (73.3 percent). Johnson, on the other hand, has been double- and triple-teamed most trips to the red zone, scoring just five of his team's 36 offensive touchdowns and five of Detroit's 19 passing scores (26.3 percent).
Sometimes numbers work for you, and sometimes they work against you. It just depends no which numbers you choose to use—which numbers you think have more value.
That's precisely why assessing value based on numbers is so difficult in football. Heck, even in a sport like baseball, where numbers are far easier to attribute to individual players, the debate for the American League MVP between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout is something sports fans may never agree on, or forget.
Imagine if Cabrera had an offensive line creating holes him and Trout needed receivers to get open every time he got on base. It's actually much harder to assess value in football than baseball, which makes this MVP debate even more difficult to conclude than the most hotly debated MLB Most Valuable Player race in recent memory.
Will MVP vote come down to Week 17?
The worst thing is that after all these numbers and all this breakdown, there is no grand sweeping conclusion to this debate in my opinion. At least not now.
However, for some the debate is settled.
My colleague Miller and I had a tete-a-tete on Twitter about voting for the MVP award (he has a PFWA vote) before Week 17's games. He suggested that Peterson deserves the award no matter what happens in the season's final game. My point was that voting for a season-long award with still six percent of the year left is an incomplete assessment, reaching a verdict without waiting for all the evidence to be presented.
What if Peterson goes out in a must-win game for the Vikings and rushes for 40 yards and has two fumbles? What if Manning throws for 350 yards and three touchdowns this week and the Broncos secure a first-round bye? Would that change the decision at all?
For Miller, it obviously wouldn't, but for others it might.
I think it's crazy for people to choose the MVP when the top candidates are still playing meaningful games. To pick an MVP—hell, to pick the players selected to the Pro Bowl—with six to 12 percent of the season still to go seems somewhat irresponsible, especially in a year like this.
If I had to tell you right now who my MVP is, I'd probably go with Manning. Or maybe Peterson. Or Brady. Yeah, probably Brady. Well, one of those three. Oh, shoot, Rodgers. Or maybe a defensive player like J.J. Watt or Aldon Smith...
Good thing for me, and the NFL, and those candidates with a chance to win the MVP, there are still important games to play. Assuming everyone with a vote didn't decide already.