By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There are no guarantees that those who have been the best players in the league through the first half of the season will be there at the end of the season.
The cream, as they say, will rise to the top.
However, as the 2012 season has reached its midpoint, the top five candidates for MVP have all helped their teams play well above expectations.
This year, names like Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are nowhere to be seen. Some of them may get there by the end of the season.
Some of the names may be shocking when you look at where they were when they started the season, but they have all made major contributions to first-place teams with serious postseason aspirations.
CB Charles Tillman, Chicago – It seems like the Gods are smiling on Tillman for all of his statistical accomplishments this year with a superb Chicago defense that is head-and-shoulders the best in the league. Tillman's famed ball punch has resulted in seven forced fumbles and he has also recovered one. Tillman has returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns and he also has 43 tackles. But numbers aren't the full story with Tillman. He is a skilled shutdown corner who uses his physical strength and knowledge to take top receivers out of their game. All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson caught three passes for 34 yards in the Lions Week 7 Monday night loss to the Bears. If Tillman can shutdown Johnson, he should be able to slow down nearly every receiver he will face.
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh – The Steelers seemed like just another team at the start of the season. The AFC North seemed to be in the pocket of the Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers looked like they were going to have a hard time holding off Cincinnati for second place. The Steelers had injuries at the running back position and the defense didn't look good enough to get it done. But in the last few weeks, Roethlisberger has looked at all of those factors and has laughed. He has completed 200-of-298 passes for 2,203 yards with 16 TDs and 4 interceptions. When Roethlisberger can stay away from the picks, good things are going to happen for the Steelers. He remains the massive mountain in the pocket that he's always been, but he's avoiding the turnovers. Last year he threw 14 interceptions and he is playing much better football and his team is responding.
QB Peyton Manning, Denver – No doubt that we were skeptical about Manning in the first few weeks of the season. Even when he was completing passes, the timing looked just a bit off and his passes were no longer zipping down the field the way they had when he was with the Colts. There were apparently issues with arm strength and his grip on the ball. Those issues have been solved. Manning is the highest-rated passer in the league, having completed 203-of-292 passes for 2,404 yards with 20 TDs and just 6 interceptions. Demaryius Thomas is becoming one of the most dangerous big-play threats in the league and Eric Decker is workable. Manning gets the support from his ground game with Willis McGahee, so he should remain a candidate for MVP through the rest of the season.
QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta – Ryan has led the Falcons to an undefeated first half of the season and his numbers have been superlative. He has completed 206-of-299 passes for 2,360 yard with 18 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. What makes his performance even more eye opening is that the Falcons have struggled on the offensive line. Ryan has been under pressure throughout the season. He has been sacked 18 times for 135 yards, but he's been on the run far more than that. If you think the Bears have problems with their offensive line, you're right. But Tyson Clabo and Sam Baker at the tackle spots are a liability. It's going to be difficult for Ryan to remain in contention for the MVP if the offensive line doesn't improve, because he's going to take a monstrous hit that impacts his ability to play.
DE J.J. Watt, Houston – Watt has become everyone's darling this year because of the massive statistical impact he has had on the Titans defense. If the season ended today, Watt would have great numbers with 10.5 sacks, 10 pass deflections, 2 fumble recoveries and 39 tackles. But more than the numbers, Watt combines eye-opening athletic ability with studied intelligence. He comes into each game with a significant idea of how to attack opposing blockers based on his film study. He figures out how to beat the blocker and he will make adjustments if Plan A does not work. While the Texans have been superb this season, they don't have a lot of mean guys who will intimidate opponents. Watt has that ability and that's one of the main reasons the Texans are in prime position to end up with the top seed in the AFC.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who's Better, Who's Best in Football -- The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.
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