John Smallwood: Two-Man Race for Top Prizes

Peterson, Manning worthy candidates as the NFL's Comeback Player and MVP

I'm not sure which will be the more impressive NFL award for the 2012 season - the Associated Press Most Valuable Player or the Comeback Player of the Year. Even more amazing: One of two guys could win both of them.

Somewhere in the annals of NFL history, I'm sure another player has had a remarkable comeback on par with that of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. I just can't readily recall one.

As far as NFL careers go, this was Lazarus - a double-dose of resurrections that have astounded because of their rapid return to dominance.

When training camp opened, you could have gotten better odds that neither Manning nor Peterson would play a full season than play to a level that makes them worthy of being the MVP.

It's fair to say that no one, except for perhaps themselves, was sure whether Peterson or Manning would make it through the first few games, much less that both would return to their previous Pro Bowl form.

But that's what happened on Wednesday, when Manning was named to the AFC team and Peterson was named to the NFC team. It is the first of what is expected to be a bevy of postseason honors for the duo that will culminate in two of the more hotly debated announcements: the Comeback Player and the MVP.

Is it Manning, who missed the entire 2011 season while recovering from neck and back problems that required several operations?

Manning was cut by the Indianapolis Colts to make room for rookie Andrew Luck and then signed by the Broncos, based more on hope than logic.

All Manning has done is rank fourth in the NFL in passing, break the Broncos record for touchdown passes in a season previously held by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and led Denver to the AFC West title.

"My goal has always been to go out and help the team win and play at a high level," said Manning, who sets a record for quarterbacks with his 12th Pro Bowl. "Anything that comes along with that, like being honored as a Pro Bowl selection, is very humbling."

Or is it Peterson who shredded his left knee in a game on Dec. 24, 2011, and underwent major reconstructive surgery that usually has a recovery time of about a year. He was back on the field for the season opener.

Most running backs are never quite the same after major knee surgery. Peterson has been better, rushing for a career-high 1,898 yards and putting Minnesota in position to have a chance at a NFC wild card.

"Coming into the season after going through the rehab process, I just told myself that I wanted to lead my team to a championship and make sure that I contribute and do my part," said Peterson, who earned his fifth Pro Bowl honor.

Just making it back from career-threatening situations as Peterson and Manning did is incredible, but, again, both immediately went back to the top of their games.

Peterson ran for 970 yards in 12 games in 2011 before tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee on Christmas Eve. Eight months later, he rushed for 84 yards and two touchdowns in the 2012 season opener.

Now he needs 102 yards on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers to become just the seventh player to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season.

If he goes crazy and runs for 208 yards, he'll break the single season record total of 2,105 set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.

Peterson's Comeback Player credentials are obvious. His MVP ones are based on the fact that everyone knows he is the only credible offensive threat the Vikings have, yet no one can stop him.

In today's pass-happy NFL, it is almost impossible for a team whose quarterback struggles the way Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder has to still make a strong playoff run, but if the Vikings beat the Packers, they clinch a playoff spot.

The Vikings rank last in the league in passing yards but are third in rushing. Peterson averages only about 42 fewer rushing yards per game (126.5) than Minnesota passes for (168.3).

Manning, who is challenging for a record fifth AP MVP award, needed only one game to make "Tebowmania" a distant memory in Denver. In his first game since 2010, Manning completed 73.1 percent of his passes threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns in a season-opening win over Pittsburgh.

Denver was 2-3 when Manning took the Broncos on their current 10-game winning streak. During that streak, Manning has thrown 23 touchdowns.

Manning ranks fourth in quarterback rating (103.7), third in completion percentage (68.1), third in touchdowns (34) and sixth in yards (4,355).

The Broncos (12-3) who snuck into the 2011 playoffs at 8-8, clinch a first-round bye with a win on Sunday and clinch the AFC top seed with a win and a loss by Houston.

You can put New England quarterback Tom Brady, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the mix for the MVP, but the Comeback Player contest is strictly between Peterson and Manning.

And who could argue if either one of them won both?


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com