Peyton Manning already has done enough this season to win the MVP award, unless he and the Colts stumble badly.

Or unless Philip Rivers, Steve McNair or Drew Brees repeats Sunday’s performance for the next seven games. Hey, even 37-year-old Brett Favre finally had a Favre-ian game in the Metrodome, where he had been 4-10 before throwing for 347 yards and two touchdowns.

In any case, this week demonstrated again that the NFL is all about quarterbacks. It also proved that there quite a few good ones out there, including enough up-and-comers to provide an ample supply for the near future.

Exhibit A this week is Rivers, who entered this season No. 3 among the three quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2004 draft, simply because he’d been sitting behind Brees in San Diego. Off this week’s (and this season’s) performance, he looks like No. 1 now, ahead of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger – both as a thrower and a leader.

“As he grows as a player, he’s unbelievable,” Antonio Gates, the Chargers’ tight end, said after Rivers, with a lot of help from the dazzling LaDainian Tomlinson, led his team from a 28-7 halftime hole to a 49-41 win in Cincinnati.

“He’s doing a tremendous job leading this team. He was on the sideline saying they were going to need to score more than 28 points to beat us. What more could you ask for in a leader?”

In this case, Rivers is more relevant than the aging McNair and Favre because he’s part of a very promising new generation of quarterbacks to join the guys in their prime: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Delhomme, Marc Bulger and Brees, who was allowed to leave for New Orleans to give the youngster his shot.

You could even include the Jets’ Chad Pennington, making a remarkable recovery from two rotator cuff operations.

But consider the up-and-coming generation, led this week by Rivers, who threw for 337 yards and two touchdowns in the San Diego comeback.

• Carson Palmer, Cincinnati, fourth year. Written off in this “what have you done for me lately” media environment by people who forget that 10 months ago he had the most serious of knee injuries. Sunday’s stats: 31-of-42 for 440 yards and three touchdowns, making it hardly his fault the Chargers came back. OK, he was sacked and fumbled to set up one of San Diego’s scores, but that’s more on his banged-up offensive line than on him. He was second in the league in passer rating last season, but is only eighth this season even after Sunday’s performance, primarily because the injury cost him some mobility.

• Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh, third year. Motorcycle accident, appendectomy, a league-leading 14 interceptions in his first seven games. But Willie Parker ran for 213 yards Sunday, allowing Big Ben to be as efficient in a 38-31 win over the Saints as he was in his first two seasons, including last year’s Super Bowl-winning year. He threw for 264 yards with no INTs against New Orleans.

• Eli Manning, New York Giants, third year. Still inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate, as he was in Sunday night’s showcase against the Bears. He’ll never be his brother, and is still learning to play in his windy home stadium. But he engineered two of the better late-game comebacks of the last two seasons, against Denver (down 13 in the fourth quarter) and Philadelphia (down 17) and seems to have the knack of performing well under pressure. Still, he throws too often into double coverage and his 11 interceptions are tied for third most in the league, a bad stat on a team that runs so well

• Rex Grossman, Chicago, fourth year. Remember that because of injuries, he’s started only 16 games. That makes his turnover problems at Arizona and against the Dolphins almost excusable. He was just as bad in the first half against the Giants, then outplayed Manning, albeit against an injury-ravaged New York defense. The verdict still is pending, but he doesn’t have to do much on a team that is carried by its defense and special teams.

• Tony Romo, Dallas, fourth year. Yes, fourth year, even though he never got off the bench for three-plus. He’s played three pretty good games, but still has to get by the “three-tape rule” – opponents with three game tapes of a new QB sometimes can find the weaknesses.

Then there are the youngsters.

Matt Leinart and Vince Young have been predictably erratic starting as rookies on bad teams.

Young was pretty impressive Sunday as Tennessee ran up a 26-7 lead before losing 27-26 to Baltimore. He demonstrated his improvisational skills when he was trapped and lateraled the ball to tight end Bo Scaife for a 13-yard touchdown.

He also scrambled for 17 yards in a drive that led to what could have been a game-winning field goal by Rob Bironas, but it was blocked by the Ravens’ Trevor Pryce.

Which leads to two more young QBs.

One is Jason Campbell, who was finally chosen as Washington’s starter Monday after not taking a snap in 25 games as a third stringer. With the Redskins at 3-6, it’s about time, considering the team surrendered three draft picks to move into the first round and take him in 2005.

The other is Jay Cutler. Quarterbacks-savvy Denver coach Mike Shanahan traded up to get him with the 11th overall pick in April’s draft, right after Leinart went to Arizona. Cutler is the Rivers of this year, sitting on a good team while the other two first-rounders play on bad ones. But he might emerge as the better for it.

That is, if he continues to sit.

The Broncos are contenders despite Jake Plummer’s play, not because of it. His three interceptions Sunday almost allowed dismal Oakland to beat the Broncos. Could Cutler be any worse on a team that is carried by its defense and running game?

Probably not this week or next – Denver plays San Diego and Kansas City, the teams chasing it in the AFC West, the next two Sundays and Shanahan may opt for experience.

After that, it might be Cutler time.

AP-ES-11-13-06 1717EST



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