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CLAY MATTHEWS, LB, GREEN BAY _ Sure, the Packers are only 6-3, which some consider underachievement for one of the preseason NFC favorites. But they have been ravaged by injuries, particularly on defense, which makes Matthews‘ work even more impressive.

The second-year linebacker from Southern Cal has 31 unassisted tackles, 15 assists, an interception return for a touchdown, one forced fumble _ and 10 1/2 sacks.

It’s not only the numbers that stand out. It’s Matthews‘ dominant presence and unmitigated passion for what he’s doing.

“He really is a special outside linebacker in the history of outside linebackers playing the 3-4 defense,” says Packers assistant coach Kevin Greene, who had 160 career sacks and is seen as a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker. “I’ve not seen another outside linebacker possess the all-around quality of abilities that he has. And I’m talking about the best ones that have ever played the position.”

PHILIP RIVERS, QB, SAN DIEGO _ Like Manning, Rivers is posting superb numbers with a cast of retreads and wannabes. He’s close to a record pace for yards passing and might finally have the Chargers headed upward, even if he’s not sure who will line up at receiver and tight end these days. He threw for 295 yards with Randy McMichael and Seyi Ajirotutu his main targets Sunday.

LADAINIAN TOMLINSON, NEW YORK JETS _ Perhaps more of a candidate for Comeback Player of the year. Still, with a quarterback in the developmental stage and an offensive line that is built to block for the run, LT has taken off as a Jet. He’s not a record-breaker any more, but he sure is valuable.

RODDY WHITE, WR, ATLANTA _ The NFL’s most productive and dangerous receiver thus far, ahead of Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and other more-heralded wideouts. White gets free deep, breaks tackles to turn short catches into long ones, and made one of the biggest heads-up plays of the half-season when he ran down San Francisco CB Nate Clements on the 49ers’ return of an interception and knocked the ball loose. The Falcons, now 6-2, recovered and marched downfield for the winning field goal.