- Associated Press - Thursday, November 11, 2010

Scoff as you might, probably the best player in the NFL halfway through the season doesn’t throw passes. He doesn’t catch them, either, nor kick the ball. The only time he runs with it is when an opponent has messed up.

Yet the odds of Clay Matthews being voted the league’s Most Valuable Player are longer than the dishwater blond hair that flows from his helmet.

Linebackers rarely get considered for the award, let alone win it. Of the 49 times The Associated Press has awarded MVP honors, one linebacker, Lawrence Taylor in 1986, has taken the prize. Minnesota end Alan Page in 1971 is the only other defensive player to win it.

The leading contenders, in alphabetical order:

TOM BRADY, QB, NEW ENGLAND _ Brady is the biggest reason the Patriots are 6-2 in what some consider a transitional year. Fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him the 2008 season, he’s so versatile that he’s overseeing a switch from a deep passing style to a more conservative mode. But he’ll also burn you with the long throw, as he did to the Vikings two weeks ago. His leadership is unquestioned.

DAN CARPENTER, PK, MIAMI _ OK, if you scoff about a defender, then what chance does a kicker have? Well, if Carpenter can keep kicking five field goals each week, winning games for the Dolphins, especially on the road, why not a kicker?

ARIAN FOSTER, RB, HOUSTON _ The rare outsider in an MVP race, yet it’s impossible to ignore his impact in his first full season as a starter and second year in the NFL. Foster tops the NFL in rushing, bringing a dimension missing from Houston’s attack. He’s scored 10 touchdowns.

RAY LEWIS, LB, BALTIMORE _ Don’t look at this as a career achievement honor. Lewis has been a regular wrecking crew for the Ravens, distinguishing his work with a series of bone-rattling legal hits that the NFL refers to as “a great player making a great play.” The best might be yet to come heading down the stretch.

PEYTON MANNING, QB, INDIANAPOLIS _ Ho-hum, another MVP-caliber eight games for No. 18 in Indy.

How unfair has it become that Manning’s greatness has become almost commonplace for NFL fans? Consider that in his 13th pro season, Manning is doing just as much as always, maybe more, with much less around him. Injuries have depleted his surrounding cast, so he merely makes sure the newcomers step up. No Dallas Clark? OK, he says, we’ll just make Jacob Tamme a star tight end.

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.

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