Rodgers again in pur­suit of Smith

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Nate Davis @ByNateDavis USA TO­DAY Sports

From Week 1 through Week 17, USA TO­DAY Sports’ NFL staff will be hand­i­cap­ping the race for league MVP. A first-place vote is worth five points, a sec­ond-place worth three and a third-place worth one. Our MVP tracker after Week 5’s games.

1. QB Alex Smith, Chiefs (30 points): He’s been our fron­trun­ner all sea­son. Now in his 13th cam­paign, Smith’s sub­lime per­for­mance raises the ques­tion, can ev­ery player crash through his “ceil­ing” and shed long-held la­bels such as “game man­ager”? Matt Ryan had an MVP break­through last year, his ninth NFL sea­son, when the stars aligned for a show­ing that far out­stripped his his­toric ré­sumé (and, it’s worth not­ing, Ryan seems to be re­vert­ing to his pre­vi­ous lev­els in 2017). Smith ap­pears to be en­joy­ing his own “ca­reer year” now, sur­rounded by play­mak­ers (break­out rookie RB Ka­reem Hunt, TE Travis Kelce, WR Tyreek Hill) and fu­eled by the knowl­edge that his suc­ces­sor, first-round pick Pa­trick Ma­homes, is in the build­ing and likely to force him into job search mode in 2018. At least Smith should be armed with a strong dossier. He con­tin­ues to lead the league in com­ple­tion per­cent­age (76.6%), passer rat­ing (125.8) — both fig­ures are on record pace — and yards per at­tempt (8.8). He’s thrown 11 touch­down passes and not a sin­gle in­ter­cep­tion among his 158 at­tempts.

Last week: 1 2. QB Aaron Rodgers, Pack­ers (14 points): The man in­fa­mously se­lected after Smith in the 2005 draft is again try­ing to over­take him. If Rodgers got to play the Cow­boys ev­ery week, that might be a real pos­si­bil­ity. After an­other stel­lar come­back in Jerry-World on Sun­day, Rodgers now has a league-high 13 TD passes and two fourth-quar­ter come­backs de­spite op­er­at­ing an in­jury-rid­dled of­fense that has con­trib­uted to the 19 sacks he’s ab­sorbed, most in the NFL. If his pro­tec­tion im­proves and the run­ning game flour­ishes with rookie Aaron Jones’ in­clu­sion, Rodgers might re­ally take off in the com­ing weeks. LW: 4

3. RB Ka­reem Hunt, Chiefs (9 points): One could cer­tainly ar­gue he’s ev­ery bit as im­por­tant to Kansas City, the NFL’s lone un­beaten squad, as Smith. Hunt’s per­for­mance has slowed from his­toric lev­els to merely ex­cel­lent the last two weeks, when he has av­er­aged “just” 118.5 scrim­mage yards and hasn’t reached the end zone. But his NFL-high 609 rush­ing yards are 143 more than sec­ond-place Leonard Four­nette has, and his 775 yards from scrim­mage are 129 more than Todd Gur­ley has. If Hunt keeps it up, which won’t be easy given he’s av­er­ag­ing 6.3 yards per rush, he could threaten 2,000 rush­ing yards and Eric Dick­er­son’s rookie record of 1,808. LW: 2

4. QB Cam New­ton, Pan­thers (1 point): The league’s 2015 MVP seems to be re­cap­tur­ing that form after a dis­ap­point­ing 2016 sea­son and slow start to this one after re­con­struc­tive surgery to his throw­ing shoul­der. New­ton has thrown for 671 yards and six TDs the last two weeks, help­ing the Pan­thers again emerge as a le­git­i­mate Su­per Bowl threat. He isn’t run­ning like he once did but is com­plet­ing a ca­reer-high 68.3% of his passes in an evolv­ing of­fense. LW: Un­ranked

MATTHEW EMMONS, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The Pack­ers’ Aaron Rodgers is a two-time NFL MVP.

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