By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Most Valuable "Pundit"
The 1-2-3 teams in the rankings this week are also led by the 1-2-3 candidates for MVP: Colts (Peyton Manning), Chargers (Philip Rivers) and Saints (Drew Brees).
All three quarterbacks have led their teams to spectacular seasons, the kind that fans can only dream about.
Yet for some reason, Peyton Manning seemed to be anointed as the slam-dunk MVP by the national media this week after the Colts looked like a JV team upon his removal vs. the Jets.
Of course, the rest of Indy's skill players were also on the sidelines, and Curtis Painter was as raw as a slaughterhouse steak. But why let facts get in the way of a good argument, especially when the argument props up the Chosen One?
However, it's fairly clear by a clear and bias-free review of the numbers that Manning is the least deserving of the three deserving candidates.
Start with the raw numbers:
  • Manning: 101.0 passer rating, 8.0 YPA, 27.3 PPG (team)
  • Rivers: 104.5 passer rating, 8.8 YPA, 28.7 PPG
  • Brees: 109.6 passer rating, 8.5 YPA, 33.3 PPG (team).
Advantage: Brees, slightly, over Rivers. Manning is a clear No. 3. The award was conceded to Brees after his five TD performance against the Patriots. But he hasn't exactly stunk since then, even though the team has suddenly struggled. He's thrown 171 passes since then, in fact, and has thrown exactly two interceptions.
As to Rivers, he hasn't had a single game with a passer rating under 80 all year. That's consistency. His Chargers have scored at least 21 points in all 15 games, and in their three losses the defense allowed 31, 38 and 34 points.
Manning, on the other hand, has 10 picks over his last seven games, more than either Brees or Rivers have thrown all season.
Manning is getting a lot of credit for making do with less, even though the only injury of any long-standing note on his side of the ball was No. 2 receiver Anthony Gonzalez. Meanwhile, Rivers has played almost the entire season without his center, Nick Hardwick, and Brees without his left tackle, Jammal Brown. At the very least, that's a wash.
Look, we can certainly understand why Manning is in the conversation. But if he does beat out Brees and Rivers it'll be a minor travesty in our book.
But, as the Colts are trying to prove, none of this regular-season garbage matters unless you win a Super Bowl.
We whole-heartedly agree.
On to the rankings!
1. INDIANAPOLIS (14-1). Last week: 29-15 loss vs. Jets. Curtis Painter is now just 49,989 passing yards shy of the team's all-time record held by Peyton Manning. At his current pace, he'll pass Manning by the year 3145.
2. SAN DIEGO (12-3). Last week: 42-17 win at Tennessee. Left tackle Marcus McNeill has started 61 games in his four-year career protecting Philip Rivers' blind side. He's been called for holding only twice.
3. NEW ORLEANS (13-2). Last week: 20-17 loss vs. Tampa Bay. There's a joke here about levees breaking, but we'll take the high road. Blame the Saints' slide on the defense (431.3 YPG over the last four contests).
4. GREEN BAY (10-5). Last week: 48-10 win vs. Seattle. The Packers are playing some excellent football and look great in many of our Quality Stats, including No. 1 in our Defensive Hog Index. But a 2-4 record against Quality Opponents is a pretty big red flag.
5. MINNESOTA (11-4). Last week: 36-30 loss at Chicago. Blame BrettFavre if you'd like. But don't forget to slam a defense that's allowed 26+ points in six of the last 10 games and that now ranks a woeful No. 28 in Defensive Passer Rating.
6. PHILADELPHIA (11-4). Last week: 30-27 win vs. Denver. If CB Asante Samuel has an INT in the finale (nine so far), he'll be the first with 30 interceptions over a four-year span since Deron Cherry (1983-86). Samuel is among three players tied for the NFL lead with nine picks entering Week 17 (Darren Sharper, Jairus Byrd).
7. NEW ENGLAND (10-5). Last week: 35-7 win vs. Jacksonville. The Patriots' average drive starts at the 23.4 yard line, second-worst starting field position in the NFL behind Oakland. They are also the only team in the league in the top 11 in all four major yardage categories (rushing, passing, rushing allowed, passing allowed).
8. DALLAS (10-5). Last week: 17-0 win at Washington. Why are the Cowboys suddenly on the verge of the No. 2 seed in the NFC? It all starts on first down, where they average a league-best 6.55 yards per try – just ahead of No. 2 Philly (6.54). Defensively, the Cowboys are No. 1 in Bendability.
9. ARIZONA (10-5). Last week: 31-10 win vs. St. Louis. Larry Fitzgerald has at least 90 catches (94), 1,000 yards (1,075) and 10 TDs (12) for the third straight year and the fourth in the last five.
10. CINCINNATI (10-5). Last week: 17-10 win vs. Kansas City. The Bengals haven't topped 24 points in any of their last eight games.
11. BALTIMORE (8-7). Last week: 23-20 loss at Pittsburgh. The Ravens are third in the league in penalties. But it seems like all of them have come in the closing minutes of winnable games. Baltimore has lost five games by a TD or less, four of them to playoff teams and the fifth to Pittsburgh.
12. ATLANTA (8-7). Last week: 31-3 win vs. Buffalo. A win at Tampa this weekend and the Falcons will have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time ever. The team needs a lot of defensive help in the off-season to become a contender: No. 26 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 30 in third-down defense
13. HOUSTON (8-7). Last week: 27-20 win at Miami. Matt Schaub had a great season, at least early on in the year. But his nine TDs against eight INTs in the second halves of games this year is one of the reasons his Texans likely won't be in the playoffs.
14. N.Y. JETS (8-7). Last week: 29-15 win at Indianapolis. The most impressive stat for the Jets is their average of 16.0 PPG allowed vs. Quality Teams, which would be the best since 2006, a year when several teams topped that mark.
15. PITTSBURGH (8-7). Last week: 23-20 win vs. Baltimore. Why are the Steelers in danger of missing the playoffs? In addition to their poor kick coverage, blame third-down defense – they were first at 31.4 percent allowed last year, 26th at 41.4 percent this year.
16. SAN FRANCISCO (7-8). Last week: 20-6 win vs. Detroit. A win at St. Louis Sunday gives the 49ers their first non-losing season since 2002, when they went 10-6, won the NFC West, lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs from Tampa in the playoffs ... and then fired head coach Steve Mariucci.
17. MIAMI (7-8). Last week: 27-20 loss vs. Houston. For a team one game under .500, the Dolphins are incredibly tough on the lines; 4th on the Offensive Hog Index, tied for third on the Defensive Hog Index. Miami could probably use a great offensive weapon ... like, we don't know, Wes Welker.
18. CAROLINA (7-8). Last week: 41-9 win at N.Y. Giants. The Panthers' defense came to life too late: they've given up only 11.8 PPG over their last five, four of which came against Quality Opponents. And they forced a remarkable 17 turnovers to boot. Can't help thinking that a season of Matt Moore (98.9 passer rating) instead of Jake Delhomme (59.4) would have had them in the playoffs.
19. DENVER (8-7). Last week: 30-27 loss at Philadelphia. Note to Broncos: the season is 16 games long, not 13. Barring a miracle, this will be the second straight year going from 8-5 and in charge of their own destiny to out of the playoffs.
20. N.Y. GIANTS (8-7). Last week: 41-9 loss vs. Carolina. The loss to the Panthers was the worst burial at Giants Stadium since Jimmy Hoffa. New York can thank red-zone defense (NFL-worst 68.5 percent TDs allowed) for their early winter vacation.
21. TENNESSEE (7-8). Last week: 42-17 loss vs. San Diego. If Chris Johnson produces another 150+ yards from scrimmage Sunday, he'll be the first player in NFL history with 10 such games in a single season. He'll also break Marshall Faulk's single-season record (2,429 in 1999). Johnson, with 2,355 yards from scrimmage, is just 74 yards shy of the mark.
22. JACKSONVILLE (7-8). Last week: 35-7 loss at New England. Tickets to Sunday's Jacksonville at Cleveland start at $3 online. Don't pay a penny more than $2.50.
23. CHICAGO (6-9). Last week: 36-30 win vs. Minnesota. If Johnny Knox can catch five balls and Matt Forte can reach 52 receiving yards, the Bears will have five different players with 50 catches and 500 yards. That and four or five more wins and they'd be playoff bound.
24. OAKLAND (5-10). Last week: 23-9 loss at Cleveland. Coach Tom Cable thinks this was aplayoff team if it had good QB play; being ranked 23rd in scoring defense (23.9 PPG) and 24th in yards per play allowed (5.7) tends to refute that.
25. TAMPA BAY (3-12). Last week: 20-17 win at New Orleans. Cadillac Williams should get consideration for Comeback Player of the Year. He's only 35 yards shy of 1,000 from scrimmage after two seasons beset with injury.
26. SEATTLE (5-10). Last week: 48-10 loss at Green Bay. With a passer rating under 80 for the third time in four seasons, the Matt Hasselbeck era figures to be over in Seattle.
27. BUFFALO (5-10). Last week: 31-3 loss at Atlanta. The Bills are supposed to be a grind-it-out bunch, but they're 31st in the NFL in time of possession (Seahawks 32nd)
28. WASHINGTON (4-11). Last week: 17-0 loss vs. Dallas. The Redskins' back-to-back national TV defeats represented the worst television series since "Cop Rock."
29. CLEVELAND (4-11). Last week: 23-9 win vs. Oakland. Anyone who saw a three-game winning streak coming for the Browns, please raise your right paw.
30. KANSAS CITY (3-12). Last week: 17-10 loss at Cincinnati. Over their last four games (all losses), opponents have run the ball 165 times for 940 yards and 5.7 YPA, while throwing 93 passes for 475 yards and 5.1 YPA.
31. DETROIT (2-13). Last week: 20-6 loss at San Francisco. After noting that the Lions are in the bottom five of all of our Quality Stats, we went on a mission to find one stat where the Lions are even above average. Finally, we found one – they are tied for second with 14 fumble recoveries. So, keep those strip-drills sharp, add about 10 more good players, and it's playoffs or bust!
32. ST. LOUIS (1-14). Last week: 31-10 loss at Arizona. Last in scoring (11.3 PPG) and wins (one), 31st in scoring defense (27.2 PPG) and turnovers (-13), 30th in Passing YPA (4.83) and Defensive Passer Rating (96.85). Yep. The Rams are plenty bad.