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Stafford, Cruz highlight list of players Pro Bowl left behind

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Matthew Stafford (left) and Victor Cruz will be watching the Pro Bowl from home, not in Honolulu. (AP)  
Matthew Stafford (left) and Victor Cruz will be watching the Pro Bowl from home, not in Honolulu. (AP)  

Guaranteed, there are people out there wondering why Detroit's Matt Stafford didn't make the Pro Bowl. He has more touchdown passes than anyone not named Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, and he put the Lions into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. So what held him back?

Eli Manning, that's what.

I know, Manning's numbers don't match Stafford's. He doesn't have as many touchdown passes, and he has more interceptions. He doesn't have as many victories, either. Nor is his completion percentage as high. What he does have is a remarkable record based on what he had to play with -- which wasn't much -- as he put the Giants in position for the NFC East title and a possible playoff berth.

He lost wide receivers. He lost running backs. His center bowed out. His left tackle bowed out. His tight end exited. And the vaunted Giants' defense? Well, let's just say it wasn't so vaunted. Nevertheless, Manning threw for 14 fourth-quarter touchdown passes, has the league's second-best fourth-quarter rating, leading the Giants to six fourth-quarter comebacks. That should count for something.

It counts for third among NFC quarterbacks, and it's deserved. Sure, Stafford qualifies. He just happens to play in a conference loaded with good quarterbacks. Maybe you consider him an omission. I don't because of what he was up against. But there are others I do. Here are some of my most noteworthy:

Brian Cushing, linebacker, Houston: He leads the Texans defense that is second overall in the NFL in tackles. He makes sacks. He has interceptions. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips describes him as a "holy terror" on the field, but apparently nobody got the memo. One reason the Texans didn't slip after Mario Williams exited is because Cushing's season is reminiscent of 2009 when he was the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year. My take: He should have made it over Ray Lewis.

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Victor Cruz, wide receiver, N.Y. Giants: I guarantee the New York Jets know who this guy is now. After Darrelle Revis said he hadn't heard of him, Cruz went out and blistered the Jets' secondary for 164 yards -- including 99 on one touchdown reception. He leads the Giants in catches. He leads the Giants' receivers in touchdowns. He has an average of 17.9 yards per catch. And he has more yards receiving than everyone but Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson. It's time someone remembered his name.

Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati: Philip Rivers is one of my favorite quarterbacks, but, no, he did not have a Pro Bowl season. I don't care that he has over 4,000 yards passing. He is tied for the league lead in interceptions and his team is a disappointing 7-8. Dalton, on the other hand, won more games (9) than Carson Palmer in his first season and has the Bengals on the cusp of a playoff spot. So his numbers aren't gargantuan. He wins.

David Harris, linebacker, N.Y. Jets: When I surveyed ex-coaches last week about the Jets, one of them told me Harris was a lock for the Pro Bowl because he does everything you want from an inside linebacker. He was right. Harris is the Jets' leading tackler, he has five sacks and four interceptions. But he was wrong, too. Somehow, he got left off this team. Are you kidding me? First it's Cushing. Then it's Harris. Someone call Missing Persons.

London Fletcher, linebacker, Washington: I have no idea how this guy continues to get overlooked. He is, was and always has been a tackling machine. The guy leads the league in tackles, for crying out loud, with 146, according to NFL GSIS. Then again, he led the league in tackles last year, with this season his 13th straight with 100 or more tackles. Since joining Washington, he has led the team in tackles all five years and was named its defensive MVP three times. What more must he do to get noticed?

Tyron Smith, offensive tackle, Dallas: Smith is the Cowboys' best offensive lineman, and that's an achievement. The guy's a rookie. Normally, it takes offensive linemen a year to work out the wrinkles in their game, but Smith wouldn't wait. He's been terrific from the beginning -- a find for the Cowboys who don't normally take offensive linemen in the first round. Dallas was rolling when DeMarco Murray was healthy. One reason for that success was Murray. Another was the guy he ran behind, Tyron Smith.

Geno Atkins, defensive tackle, Cincinnati: He has eight sacks, tying him for the Bengals' record by a defensive tackle. Quick now, how many defensive tackles in the NFL have more this season? I'll tell you: None. There's a reason the Bengals remain in the playoff picture. Part of it has to do with their rookie quarterback and wide receiver, and part of it is the league's sixth-ranked defense, with Atkins playing a significant role.

Aaron Hernandez, tight end, New England: I understand the reluctance to vote in another guy from the Patriots. I mean you already have Welker, and you already have a tight end. So how can you have two tight ends from the same team? Just watch them. The Patriots use their tight ends like wide receivers, and the numbers reflect it. Hernandez has 72 catches and six touchdowns. Only one other AFC tight end has more catches, and, no, it's not Antonio Gates.

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