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By Mark Gaughan

The fact that quarterback is the most important position on the field gives Denver’s Peyton Manning an inherent advantage in the race for NFL most valuable player.

Yet I’m leaning toward Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson as the choice in what is a remarkable battle for the league’s top individual honor.

Peterson is having one of the great rushing seasons in NFL history despite miserable passing-game support and the fact he began the season less than nine months removed from major knee surgery.

Peterson leads the league with 1,812 rushing yards. He needs 294 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984.

He has kept the Vikings (8-6) in the playoff race despite the fact their passing attack ranks last in the NFL. Their defense is 20th in the league in yards allowed and 14th in points allowed.

Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder is the ultimate dink passer. He’s 25th in passer rating and 35th in the length of his average completion (4.0 yards). The past two weeks, Ponder threw for 91 yards against the Bears and 131 yards against the Rams. Peterson ran for 154 and 212 yards, respectively, in those games and the Vikes won both. In a win over Arizona, Ponder passed for 58 yards. Peterson ran for 158. The Vikings played Seattle close despite 63 yards from Ponder. Peterson ran for 182.

The Vikings probably are not going to make the playoffs, because their last two games are against Houston and Green Bay. Without Peterson they would be 3-13.

Manning, coming back from a season-long neck injury, took an offense that ranked 25th in points last year and turned it into the No. 2 scoring team in the league. Wow. Denver was 23rd in yards last year, first in rushing and 31st passing. This year the Broncos are fifth in yards, 18th rushing and sixth passing.

Denver was 8-8 last season and squeaked into the playoffs. This year the Broncos are 11-3 and likely will land the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Denver closes with Cleveland and Kansas City.

We’ll see how much the results the last two weeks impact the race between Peterson and Manning.

This has to be the first time ever that both of the top two candidates for MVP also are the top two candidates for comeback player of the year.

Slap in Tebow’s face

How bad of a quarterback is Tim Tebow in the eyes of Jets coach Rex Ryan? Terrible. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from Ryan’s decision to start third-stringer Greg McElroy over Tebow for today’s game against San Diego.

It’s a humiliation for Tebow, who had too much class to speak out against it. Reports out of New York say Jets owner Woody Johnson was the driver behind the decision to trade two draft picks to acquire Tebow from Denver. When Tebow picked the Jets over Jacksonville as his landing spot, he said a big part of the reason was Ryan gave him such a persuasive recruiting pitch. Ryan might have been disingenuous at the time, but I don’t think so. I think Ryan and coordinator Tony Sparano thought they could make Tebow a dual-threat weapon. But when they got Tebow into spring and summer practice, they decided they liked his passing ability even less than they originally thought.

From the start of the season, Ryan and Sparano viewed Tebow strictly as a Wildcat option weapon, not a quarterback. Their utilization of him in the Wildcat has flopped, partly because they won’t let him throw enough out of it. Tebow has only 32 carries for 102 yards. He’s 6-of-8 passing for 39 yards.

Tebow has every right to be angry. He was misled, and the Jets should be playing him now (even though McElroy may prove to be a competent backup quarterback).

I never have liked Tebow as a passer and have said so often. But you have to have some respect for his production in Denver last year. He rushed for 660 yards and six touchdowns. He completed a paltry 46 percent of his passes, but he avoided mistakes, throwing for 14 TDs and six interceptions. He went 8-6 as a starter and directed a playoff win over Pittsburgh. Denver coach John Fox molded the offense around Tebow’s ability last year. Ryan should be willing to try to do the same, now that Mark Sanchez has played his way onto the bench.

A lot of teams are doing worse at backup quarterback than Tebow. It will be interesting to see how many teams bid for him as a backup once the Jets cut him loose. I suspect it won’t be many.

Heat on Lovie

It never ceases to amaze how many head coaches have trouble with the “opposite side of the ball” from their area of expertise.

The head coaching seat of Chicago’s Lovie Smith is getting hotter due to his offense’s struggles. The Bears were 7-1 on Nov. 4 but have lost five of their last six. Chicago (8-6) probably needs to win its last two (at Arizona and at Detroit) and get a little help to make the playoffs. The Bears should beat the Cardinals but the season finale in Detroit is no slam dunk because the Lions can score.

Chicago has averaged just 11 points a game in its last five losses. The Bears rank 29th in yards. In Smith’s first eight seasons, in fact, Chicago’s offense ranked 32nd, 29th, 15th, 27th, 26th, 23rd, 30th and 24th (last year).

Smith has had three offensive coordinators – Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice – in the last four years. Tice has done a good job playing to the strength of his defense. But he needs to be getting more firepower out of quarterback Jay Cutler, a playoff-caliber talent. Cutler was a 4,500-yard passer under Mike Shanahan in Denver.

Mistakes in hiring at the coordinator spot have put Smith in this bind. Martz is a good coach who never was a fit for Smith’s defense-first approach. The pressure to make a change will be great if the Bears miss the playoffs for a fifth time in six years. I think the Bears should bolster the offensive line and give Smith and Tice one more year.

Repping it up

Every year a handful of players skate by on reputation in Pro Bowl voting.

Two main examples this year are Green Bay strong safety Charles Woodson and Packers center Jeff Saturday. They finished atop their respective positions in fan voting. Woodson, however, only has played seven games, and he hasn’t been great. Much more deserving in the NFC are two safeties who played well against the Bills the past two weeks – St. Louis’ Quintin Mikell and Seattle’s Kam Chancellor.

Saturday has had a great career and still is a capable center. But Green Bay’s line has been a problem much of the season. Better centers in the NFC this year include Minnesota’s John Sullivan, Washington’s Will Montgomery, Seattle’s Max Unger and San Francisco’s Jonathan Goodwin.

There’s no problem with letting the fans be involved with the voting. But hopefully the players and coaches will vote less on reputation. The votes of the fans, players and coaches each count one-third toward the decision on each roster spot.

Here were the top 10 finishers in the fan voting: 1, QB Peyton Manning, Broncos. 2, QB Tom Brady, Patriots. 3, RB Arian Foster, Texans. 4, Adrian Peterson, Vikings. 5, Aaron Rodgers, Packers. 6, QB Robert Griffin III, Redskins. 7, WR A.J. Green, Bengals. 8, TE Rob Gronkowski, Patriots. 9, QB Drew Brees, Saints. 10, RB Ray Rice, Ravens.

Onside kicks

• The Buffalo television market ranked 21st in the country last Sunday in terms of percentage of TV sets tuned to the local team’s football game. The Bills-Seattle game garnered 34 percent of the TVs in the market. The top share in the country was in Milwaukee, where 78 percent of the sets were tuned to the Packers-Bears game.

• Eight rookie quarterbacks have started and won a game this year, the most ever. Seven did so in 2010. The eight: Washington’s Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Arizona’s Ryan Lindley.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com