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Peterson's record chase for Vikings brings MVP into play

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Most people want to see if Adrian Peterson breaks Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record, but I'm more interested in his MVP chances. Once I thought Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were slam dunks as the first two choices.

But now I don't.

That's because I polled a significant portion of MVP voters, and while I still believe the award is a two-horse race, I don't believe it's between Manning and Brady. It's between Manning and Peterson, with Manning the front runner, Peterson closing on the outside and Brady third.

That Manning is ahead is no surprise. He has won a league-record four MVPs, has Denver on track to finish with the AFC's second-best record and is one of the NFL's top-ranked passers -- and all that after getting released by Indianapolis following four neck surgeries.

More important, he's a quarterback, and tell me the last time someone other than a quarterback won the award. It was 2006, with LaDainian Tomlinson.

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Quarterbacks were named league MVP the past five seasons -- two by Manning -- and 37 times since the Associated Press first launched the award in 1957. Running backs are second at 17. Nevertheless, there's a strong case to be made for Peterson as he carries the Vikings, and voters apparently are listening.

Most everyone knows he's within 293 yards of Dickerson's record, has 500 more yards rushing than No. 2 back Marshawn Lynch and 356 more yards from scrimmage than Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson. What you may not know is the guy has run for an astonishing 1,313 yards the past eight games, has accounted for 44 percent of the Vikings' offense and produced a third of their touchdowns.

The Vikings were 3-13 a year ago; they're 8-6 today. One reason: Adrian Peterson.

It's not quarterback Christian Ponder. He's the league's 25th-ranked quarterback with as almost many interceptions as touchdown passes. It's not star receiver Percy Harvin, either. He hasn't played since the Vikings' ninth game. And it's not defensive end Jared Allen, who last year had a league-leading 22 sacks. He has nine now, only 1.5 more than teammate Brian Robison.

Nope, it's one guy, and you're looking at him.

In terms of most valuable you can make the argument that Peterson is more qualified than Manning because Manning has a better supporting cast. You can also make the argument that Manning plays in a weak division where Denver's three partners are a combined 11-31. And you can even make the argument that Manning is doing what Tim Tebow did just last year ... namely, taking the Broncos to a division championship.

What you can't argue is that neither deserves the award.

Two weeks ago I polled Twitter followers on the subject, and the popular response was to split this year's MVP, and while that's rare it has happened twice -- in 1997 with Brett Favre and Barry Sanders; again in 2003 with Manning and Steve McNair.

I don't expect that to happen now. What I do expect is that Manning wins a fifth time. But Peterson isn't all that far behind with two more games to be played.

"For me," said one voter, "it's between Manning and Peterson. But if Peterson finished with two more strong games, I'm leaning toward him. Not taking anything away from Manning or Brady or any other quarterbacks, but with a running back to be having this kind of season ... with a quarterback as bad as Ponder ... and now with Harvin gone, too ... is something very special to me."

The key for Peterson making this a photo finish is two-fold. First, he probably has to break Dickerson's record. Second, the Vikings must reach the playoffs. The last MVP who was not part of a playoff team was O.J. Simpson in 1973, the year he set the then single-season rushing record -- and that's significant.

Because when Tomlinson won the award he set single-season records for touchdowns and rushing TDs. And when Seattle's Shaun Alexander won it the year before that, he set an NFL record for TDs and tied the record for rushing scores. Tomlinson led the Chargers to the NFL's best record in 2006. Alexander led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

I think you get the picture.

It's a quarterback-driven league, and if the vote is close between a quarterback and running back, the runner better bring something more to the table than gaudy numbers. Even then, there are no guarantees, and Dickerson knows. When he set the rushing record in 1984, he wasn't the league MVP; Dan Marino was, and consider that a lesson.

"If the Vikings make the playoffs it will be hard not to vote for [Peterson]," said one voter.

Agreed. And if they don't? Peyton Manning, come on down.

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