When the Associated Press named its NFL Most Valuable Player last year, it had about as much suspense as a "Law & Order" repeat.
Record-setting Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was going to be the choice. The only question was by how much, which turned out to be 49-1.
This year, however, things have taken on a different shape.
With five weeks remaining in the regular season, there is no clear-cut front-runner. The MVP question was posed to various players and personnel folks around the league over the last week, and one thought stood out: Why not the Giants' offensive line?
The idea came from former Raiders personnel executive Mike Lombardi, who believes the line has controlled games, paving the way for the NFL's most powerful, consistent team.
It's a brilliant thought. Unfortunately, it's also unlikely to receive a shred of consideration.
This year will mark the 40th time the Associated Press selects the MVP, and history indicates it will be a skill-position player. There have been 24 quarterbacks, 12 running backs, one defensive lineman (Alan Page, 1971), one linebacker (Lawrence Taylor, 1986), and one kicker (Mark Moseley, strike-shortened 1982) honored as MVP.
The current voting process has 50 media members from across the country casting a single vote. The vote does not have to go to a specific player, but could be designated to a position group.
Given the focus on statistics in sports today, it would be unprecedented for the Giants' offensive line, or even their powerful defensive line, to land on just a few ballots.
Yet it would also be a great message, not just about the value of team play, but about consistency and showing up to work each day and performing at a high level. Such opportunities - years in which there is no clear-cut front-runner - are rare.
Consider that the members of the Giants' line - left tackle David Diehl, left guard Rich Seubert, center Shaun O'Hara, right guard Chris Snee, and right tackle Kareem McKenzie - have started every game this season, and, although it doesn't matter for MVP consideration, 31 of the last 32 (including playoffs).
The Giants are averaging 5.1 yards per carry, the best mark in the NFL. The team's quarterbacks have been sacked 13 times in 351 pass plays, which ranks sixth in the league.
Watch a few Giants games, and it's immediately clear the impact they have on the game. Big, tough, and physical, they most often own the line of scrimmage. As coach Tom Coughlin recently noted, "They are the heart and soul of this team."
Lombardi acknowledges it would be an unconventional pick. In a conventional world, he believes Saints quarterback Drew Brees would be the choice at this point.
Brees, with 3,574 passing yards, is on pace to break Dan Marino's season record of 5,084, set in 1984. But with the Saints at 6-5 and in last place in the NFC South, Brees's candidacy figures to hinge on how New Orleans finishes over a five-game stretch that includes games against Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Carolina.
Others mentioned in discussions of the MVP race were Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, Redskins running back Clinton Portis, Titans defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, and Jets quarterback Brett Favre.
All come with some question marks, though.
Warner is having a remarkable turn-back-the-clock year, although he hasn't played well in the biggest games - against the Jets, Giants, and Eagles.
Portis, who leads the NFL with 1,206 rushing yards, is battling a knee injury that could affect his finishing kick.
Haynesworth has been unblockable at times (8 1/2 sacks) for one of the NFL's best defenses, although his low tackle total (44) figures to hurt him.
Favre is completing a career-high 70.6 percent of his passes, and his presence has sparked the Jets' 8-3 season, although some argue that he isn't even the MVP on his own team - that run-stuffing defensive tackle Kris Jenkins would get the nod.
Add it all up, and it sets up as a bit of a race to the MVP finish line.
Ironically, the MVP candidate that has the fewest holes is the one that opens them and probably won't receive serious consideration: the Giants' offensive line.
Beneficiary of aftereffects
The emergence of Matt Cassel has been a remarkable story for the Patriots this season, although not to be overlooked is how those on the receiving end of his passes have played a significant part in his statistical output - especially Wes Welker.
Of the Patriots' 2,714 gross passing yards through 11 games, 1,458 of them came after the initial catch, according to Stats Inc. With 53.7 percent of their passing yardage coming after the catch, the Patriots lead the NFL. The league average is 45.3 percent.
Some credit should go to Cassel for his accuracy and putting the pass-catchers in position to make yardage after the catch.
At the same time, a key play like Welker's 64-yard reception last Sunday against the Dolphins - coming late in the third quarter - is a classic example of how YAC can make a quarterback's stat line more impressive.
Welker gained 60 of the 64 yards after the catch, yet the 64 yards show up as passing yards for Cassel. That is seldom mentioned when it is pointed out that Cassel has thrown for more than 400 yards in each of his last two starts.
Welker, whose 80 receptions rank second in the NFL, has totaled 544 yards after the catch. That easily leads the NFL, highlighting the Pro Bowl-caliber season he's having. Arizona's Anquan Boldin (489) is No. 2.
Running back Kevin Faulk (321) and wide receiver Randy Moss (261) are the Patriots' other two top YAC-ers.
The top five YAC teams in the NFL are the Patriots (53.7 percent), Ravens (51.7), Redskins (51.1), Jets (51.0), and Titans (50.7).
Another common thread: All are in the playoff chase.
Steelers have an NFL iron man on their sideline
When the Steelers visit the Patriots this afternoon, the focus will be on hard-hitting action on the field, as it should be. Yet there is also a nice story on the Steelers sideline, as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is in his 50th NFL season - 14 as a player, the last 36 as a coach.
At age 71, he is the NFL's oldest coordinator, edging Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore (70) and Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin (68) by a few calendar pages.
Proving that wine isn't all that gets better with age, LeBeau coordinates a defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed (14.5), passing yards per game (168.8), rushing yards per carry (2.9), rushing yards per game (66.5), and red zone production (just 11 touchdowns in 32 possessions).
"I think he is as well-respected as anybody in the game defensively," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "His overall career accomplishments - I can't imagine there would be more than a handful of people that would really be able to compare with what he has done in the National Football League throughout his entire career."
LeBeau played cornerback for the Lions from 1959-72 - he holds the record for consecutive games played at the position (171) - before moving immediately into the coaching ranks. He has spent the majority of his coaching career with the Bengals and Steelers, and some consider him the architect of the zone blitz scheme.
LeBeau's impact is far-reaching, both on the field and on the sidelines. Current Bills head coach Dick Jauron, for one, has long admired him. Jauron played under LeBeau in 1980 with the Bengals.
The Steelers recognized LeBeau's 50th NFL birthday this season, honoring him before their last game, a 27-10 win over the Bengals.
Running up the score
Points are being scored at a record pace this season. A record 837 were scored last week, the first time in history that NFL teams scored 800 points in a weekend. Overall, games are averaging 45.0 points, the highest mark through 12 weeks of a season since 1970. Meanwhile, the four highest-scoring teams - Giants (329), Jets (323), Cardinals (318), and Saints (317) - are on pace to set franchise records.
All in one place
With the Giants rolling at 10-1, and the Jets soaring at 8-3, the NFL could be in for a logistical problem if both teams wind up hosting conference championship games. The AFC and NFC title games are traditionally held on the same day, but with the Giants and Jets sharing the same stadium, the schedule would have to change. Commissioner Roger Goodell told WFAN last week that in the event it happens, one game would be played Sunday night, the other Monday night.
At least Chiefs coach Herm Edwards hasn't lost his sense of humor. Kansas City is 1-10, although that didn't stop speculation from swirling that Edwards could be a candidate for the San Diego State coaching job. Edwards's response: "I've got a college team right now and I'm coaching it."
Meeting the elite
Now in his fifth season, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a 47-19 regular-season record. With a win today over the Patriots, he can tie Pro Football Hall of Famers Otto Graham and Dan Marino, as well as Tom Brady, for most wins by a quarterback in his first five seasons (since 1950). Roethlisberger passed Denver's John Elway (46) with last week's 27-10 win over the Bengals.
Among league leaders is new jersey
Former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan is producing results - on and off the field. Ryan's steady hand has led the Falcons to a 7-4 record, and his jersey has become one of the league's top sellers. Ryan ranks 18th among jerseys sold on the NFL's website from April 1-Nov. 25. Jets quarterback Brett Favre is No. 1. Brady (11th) and Randy Moss (23d) are the top Patriots.
Better than Super
The Giants posted a 10-6 record before charging through the playoffs last year to win the Super Bowl. With a win today over the Redskins, they can become only the fifth defending Super Bowl champion to win more games the following season (not including the 1982 strike-shortened season). The others are the Colts (2007), Broncos (1998), 49ers (1989), and Steelers (1975).
Making winners into losers
The Giants have a chance to match an impressive NFL record. Having won their last five games over winning teams, they visit the Redskins (7-4) and host the Eagles (6-5-1), and with wins over both, they would tie the record for consecutive wins over winning teams. The 1970 Vikings hold that mark, having beaten seven in a row.
The Fisher king
Tomorrow night's game between the Jaguars and Texans is the first "Monday Night Football" contest in Houston since 1994, when the Oilers hosted the Giants. It was Houston's first game after defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher had been elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach, replacing Jack Pardee. Fisher moved on to Tennessee when the Oilers fled town in 1997, and he remains head coach there. Including his interim status, Fisher is the NFL's longest-tenured head coach.
Too many men on the field
Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer offers up this statistic to highlight the contrast in quarterback play in today's game between the Browns and Colts: Since 1998, the Colts have had one starting quarterback, Peyton Manning. Since 1999, the Browns have had 11. No need to debate which franchise has been more successful over that span.
Going in the wrong direction
When the 49ers visit the Bills today, they're hoping to reverse a trend that hasn't been kind to West Coast teams traveling to the East Coast. This season, teams making that West-to-East trek are 0-15. Part of that, of course, is that the AFC West and NFC West are easily the two worst divisions in football.
Did you know?
If the Bears win tonight against the Vikings, they will become the first NFL franchise to reach 700 victories, including playoffs.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.