As the NFL playoff picture sorts itself out over the final two weeks of the season, there’s still much be decided.
The league’s top players, however, have made their presence felt and are in the running for the league’s MVP award.
In this ultra-competitive season where a 10-6 or 11-5 record might not be enough to make the playoffs, winning a division title is the only sure way to guarantee a berth.
Let’s take a look at each NFL division’s MVP of the 2014 season. Each of these eight players is a big reason why their respective teams are either currently in the playoff hunt or can already look forward to playing in January.
AFC East: Tom Brady
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
New Englanders can count on their clam chowder being white and the Patriots going to the playoffs as long as Tom Brady is starting under center and Bill Belichick is the team’s head coach.
The (11-3) Patriots are set to make the playoffs for the 11th time in the last 12 years, and they will likely have the benefit of home-field advantage up through the Super Bowl. The one time they didn’t make it was 2008, when Brady went down in Week 1 with a left knee injury and missed the remainder of the season.
Brady didn’t look MVP-like in the first quarter of the season. He threw one touchdown pass in each of the team’s first four games and closed out September by throwing two interceptions in a 41-14 loss on a Monday night in Kansas City, which dropped the Patriots to 2-2.
Since then, Brady has thrown at least two touchdown passes in every game and now has 32 for the season, which ranks fourth in the NFL. And he’s tossed only eight interceptions. The Patriots’ only loss in the last 10 games came at Lambeau Field in Week 13.
A case can be made for tight end Rob Gronkowski here as well. He’s second on the team with 76 catches, and is tied for fourth in the league with 11 receiving touchdowns. The Patriots’ offense isn’t as dynamic when Gronkowski isn’t on the field, but it would be unrecognizable without Brady.
AFC North: Le’Veon Bell
The two MVP candidates in this division play for the two teams breathing down the first-place Bengals’ neck.
The (9-5) Ravens have survived life without Ray Rice because of Justin Forsett, who is fifth in the NFL with 1,128 rushing yards. Elvis Dumervil’s league-leading 17 sacks help cover for an injury-ravaged secondary.
But the star power in the division shines brightest in Pittsburgh. Antonio Brown tops the league with 115 receptions and is one of the quickest and most dangerous players after the catch in the NFL.
That’s not enough to be the MVP of this division, however. He’s not even the best player on his own team.
Le’Veon Bell is the biggest reason the (9-5) Steelers can win the AFC North with victories in their last two games. His 2,043 yards from scrimmage is a Steelers record. He’s rushed for 1,278 yards and he’s the team’s second-leading receiver with 76 catches for 765 yards.
Bell has scored 10 touchdowns, rushing for seven of them. After getting stymied by the (3-11) Jets in Week 10, the Steelers have won three of their last four games—with Bell rushing for 531 yards and scoring seven touchdowns during that span.
AFC South: Andrew Luck
Sure, J.J. Watt is a Swiss Army Knife of a player. He’s third in the league with 16.5 sacks, and he has recorded a pick-six this season as well. He’s caught three touchdown passes and even blocked an extra point.
But the Texans are only 7-7. As versatile as he is, Watt can’t get his team into the playoffs by himself.
Andrew Luck has led his team to the playoffs every year since he came into the league. The third-year quarterback is having a breakout season, and he continues to impress fans and analysts alike every week with his ability to read the defense and make throws with pinpoint accuracy.
Luck leads the NFL in touchdown passes (38) and passing yards (4,492). He has been the driving force behind the (10-4) Colts clinching their second consecutive AFC South title. Indianapolis hasn’t lost to a team with a record worse than 9-5.
The Colts’ superior record isn’t the only reason Luck gets the nod over Watt as the division’s MVP. Luck’s value to the Colts resonates beyond the stat sheet. Who’d have thought the Colts would still be a Super Bowl contender so soon after Peyton Manning departed for Denver? Thanks to Luck, the Colts have managed to start two once-in-a-generation quarterbacks under center in this generation, if that’s even possible.
AFC West: Peyton Manning
The NFL’s reigning MVP would normally be an automatic choice, especially since he’s led the Broncos to a division title for the third straight year.
But Manning has cooled off lately, and that’s opened the door for several other candidates. C.J. Anderson has commandeered the Broncos’ rushing duties on an injury-plagued running back corps. He’s rushed for 597 yards in the last six games. Demaryius Thomas is second in the league with 96 receptions.
Over in Kansas City, Justin Houston is tied for the league lead with 17 sacks, and Jamaal Charles has accounted for 14 of the (8-6) Chiefs’ 39 touchdowns.
But the most convincing evidence of Manning’s value is Emmanuel Sanders, who never caught more than 67 passes with Ben Roethlisberger throwing to him in Pittsburgh. Antonio Brown was the primary option in the past, and now Thomas is the man in Denver. But even in the same role that he served in Pittsburgh, as a No. 2 receiver, Sanders is sixth in the league this season with 89 receptions. Manning makes everyone around him better.
Manning has thrown eight interceptions in the last seven games, and his streak of 51 games with a touchdown pass ended in Week 14. But he’s second to Andrew Luck with 37 touchdown passes on the season, and the (11-3) Broncos are Super Bowl contenders because of him.
NFC East: DeMarco Murray
“Doomsday Defense” was supposed to take on a whole new meaning this season in Dallas.
On paper, the Cowboys seemed doomed because of their atrocious defense. And it looked like the Eagles were going to run away with the NFC East title.
But another Big D has shifted the balance of power in the division. DeMarco Murray rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the team’s first eight games to carry the Cowboys to a 6-2 record at the midseason mark. He’s rushed for at least 73 yards in every game, and he leads the NFL with 1,687 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
Murray’s two best performances this season have come after losses. He rushed for 167 yards in a 26-10 win at Tennessee in Week 2, preventing an 0-2 start. Then, after the Eagles knocked the Cowboys out of first place with a 33-10 Thanksgiving Day win at Dallas, Murray ran for a season-high 179 yards and caught a season-high nine passes in a 41-28 win at Chicago.
The (10-4) Cowboys are back in first place after Sunday’s 38-27 win at Philadelphia. Murray rushed for another 81 yards and two touchdowns, but he broke a bone in his left (non-carrying) hand in the game and had surgery Monday.
Murray could play Sunday in the team’s upcoming game against the Colts, but there’s a chance the Cowboys will be without the division’s best player for at least one game as they try to attain their first playoff berth since 2009.
NFC North: Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers is a strong contender to win his second MVP award in four seasons. He outdueled another possible candidate, Tom Brady, in a 26-21 win at home in Week 13.
Rodgers threw two of his 35 touchdown passes in that game. He’s thrown just five interceptions and leads the league with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7.0. Brady is a distant second at 4.0.
Rodgers and the (10-4) Packers are tied with the Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North. Lions wide receiver Golden Tate is fifth in the NFL with 91 receptions, 24 of them coming in the three games Calvin Johnson missed with an ankle injury. But the Lions’ defense has had a lot to do with their success this season.
The Packers? Not so much.
Jordy Nelson has been a valuable Packer this season. He’s second in the NFL with 12 receiving touchdowns. But he’s dropped eight passes, including one that would have been a touchdown in Sunday’s 21-13 loss at Buffalo.
The Packers will ride Rodgers’ arm—not Nelson’s hands—as far as it will take them.
NFC South: Drew Brees
Well, someone has to be the MVP of this forsaken division. The (6-8) Saints are the best of the worst thanks to Drew Brees.
Just three weeks ago, the Saints finished a three-game homestand without any wins. Since then, they’ve won two of their last three with Brees throwing nine touchdown passes and only one interception. That includes three touchdowns with no picks in Monday night’s 31-15 win at Soldier Field, which vaulted the Saints into a half-game lead over the (5-8-1) Panthers.
Brees has completed 70 percent of his passes, the best mark in the league among starting quarterbacks. He boosted that mark in Week 8 when he completed 27 of 32 passes and threw three touchdown passes in the Saints’ 44-23 home win over the Packers.
The Saints may host a playoff game without possessing a winning record in January, but much of that has to do with the team’s inconsistent play on defense—not Brees.
NFC West: Russell Wilson
The (11-3) Arizona Cardinals have punched their ticket to the playoffs despite losing Carson Palmer and his backup, Drew Stanton. They’ve done it without any MVP candidates, which is why Bruce Arians is in the running for the Coach of the Year award.
Richard Sherman may put together dominant performances from time to time, but the Seattle Seahawks defense doesn’t feature any strong MVP candidates this season—even with the defensive unit carrying the team to a four-game winning streak while allowing only 27 total points combined in that span. It’s important to point out that streak has coincided with the return of Bobby Wagner, the middle linebacker in Seattle’s 4-3 defense who missed the previous five games with a toe injury.
But the (10-4) Seahawks do have a chance to take over first place in the NFC West with a win at Arizona on Sunday night. And unlike the Cardinals, their franchise quarterback is healthy.
Marshawn Lynch currently holds the bronze medal among running backs with 1,133 yards, third in the league. He’s rushed for 320 yards during the Seahawks’ four-game winning streak. And while the defending champions looked suspect for a spell after dropping to 6-4 with a 24-20 loss at Kansas City, Wilson’s accuracy and smart decision making since then have been vital to the team’s resurgence.
Wilson completed 17 of 22 passes in a 19-3 home win over Arizona, and 15 of 22 in a 19-3 Thanksgiving Day win at San Francisco. He threw a touchdown pass in each game. Then, in a clash of NFC heavyweights at Philadelphia, Wilson threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score in a 24-14 win. It was his third straight game without an interception.
There may be a few better pocket passers currently in the league, but Wilson more than makes up for it with his legs and ability to extend plays. He’s 15th overall with 754 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground, to go along with his 18 touchdown passes. His six interceptions are tied for second-fewest among quarterbacks who have played at least half of their team’s snaps.
The Seahawks’ strength may be its defense, but they won’t repeat as champions without Wilson playing at an MVP level.