Mike Sando, the outstanding proprietor of our NFC West blog, has a weekly feature called "MVP Watch" in which he rates the top 10 candidates for that award on a week-to-week basis. Each week, Mike solicits input on this before putting it together, and although I've thrown a couple of names at him here and there (including Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy), the NFC East has largely been shut out in MVP Watch this year. There just haven't been that many strong candidates.
That has changed, however, and when that email comes in from Mike this week I plan to direct him right here. Because New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning belongs in the NFL's MVP discussion right now.
"He's playing awesome," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck told reporters after Manning engineered a comeback victory against the Dolphins on Sunday. "He told you all, I don't know how long ago, at the beginning of this year, that he was elite. I feel like he's proving that right now."
Manning did cause a stir when he went on 1050 ESPN Radio in New York before the start of the season and said that he considered himself among the elite quarterback's in the league -- in the class of New England's Tom Brady. But the way he's played in the Giants' first seven games has made that boast sound far less silly than it did at the time.
Manning ranks a middling ninth in Total QBR at 64.9 this season, his ranking apparently dragged down by the 15 sacks he's taken. Using the old traditional passer rating stat, he ranks third, at 102.1, behind only Brady and the incomparable Aaron Rodgers. He is fifth in the league in completion percentage, fourth in passing yards per game and second behind only Rodgers in yards per attempt. He's thrown 13 touchdown passes and, more importantly, only five interceptions.
The 25 interceptions Manning threw last season were a black mark on his career record, a big problem for the Giants and a main reason people were reluctant to accept his assertion that he should rank among the best quarterbacks in the league. Three of this season's five came in one game -- the ugly home loss to Seattle -- and he's had four games in which he didn't throw any.
"We threw the ball a lot today," Giants coach Tom Coughlin told reporters after Manning put 45 passes in the air and completed 31 of them Sunday. "No turnovers, no interceptions and big plays when we had to have them. He once again did a very good job."
And once again, he had to. An MVP award is about more than stats, as we all know, and so Manning has been this season. The Giants are 5-2 despite quite a number of flaws from which Manning's play has managed to save them. Many of the traditional elements on which the Giants have long been able to rely are failing them this season. They are a terrible running team, their 85.6 rush yards per game ranking ahead of only Seattle and Tennessee. They are poor at stopping the run, as only four teams -- Carolina, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis -- have allowed more yards per game on the ground. They have scored only 10 more points this season than they have allowed, which makes the 5-2 record almost impossible. There are 13 teams in the league with better point differentials, and each of the other 10 teams that has at least five wins has a point differential of +40 or better.
Yet the Giants sit at 5-2 and comfortably in first place in the NFC East. What have they done that's legitimately exceptional? At what position or positions do they excel, week in and week out, at a level beyond that of their opponents? I can come up with two -- defensive line, where their deep rotation of pass-rushers makes the lives of quarterbacks miserable, and quarterback, where Manning is winning games by himself on offense. The offensive line has been awful and the run game absent. (Those two things are closely connected, by the way.) In training camp, Manning watched two of his favorite targets sign with other teams and has responded by helping make Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard into reliable passing-game options. Sure, those guys deserve a share of their own credit, but they're not having the seasons they're having if Manning isn't doing a great job of getting them the ball.
The argument against all of this is that the Giants have, to this point, played one of the softest schedules in the league. From here on out, as we've been discussing for weeks, the Giants' schedule turns hairy. If Manning can navigate the New Englands and the Green Bays and the San Franciscos and the New Orleanses the way he's handled things through the first seven games, this point of view is going to catch fire and become conventional wisdom. But so far we can only judge based on what we've seen. And what I've seen so far from Manning is an MVP-caliber performance in 2011.