Sunday's game between the Texans (12-2) and Minnesota Vikings (8-6) at Reliant Stadium features two bona fide NFL MVP candidates in the midst of historic seasons.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is tied for the NFL lead with 19.5 sacks, three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season NFL record (22.5) set in 2001. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson leads the NFL with 1,812 rushing yards, 293 away from Eric Dickerson's record (2,105) set in 1984.
Watt may be a long shot for the MVP award because only two defensive players have ever won it, but he's the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year honors. Peterson is probably behind quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the MVP race because more than twice as many quarterbacks (37) have won the award than running backs (17) historically, but he's firmly entrenched in the running and is among the favorites for Offensive Player of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year honors.
"You're talking about two heckuva players," Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson said. "What J.J. has done this year, to me, I know a lot of times MVP awards go to quarterbacks and whatnot, and I'm not just saying this because he's on my team – I think what he's done is amazing, especially from his position. He's affected the game. Knocking down balls, what D-lineman had that many passes defended? To me, he's the MVP of the league, either him or AP (Peterson). Those two guys, what they've done this year, it's been amazing."
Watt, a second-year pro from Wisconsin, is the first player in NFL history with 15 sacks and 15 passes defensed in a season. He leads the Texans in tackles, tackles for loss (33) and quarterback hits (38).
Peterson has 1,313 rushing yards over the last eight games, the best eight-game stretch in a season in NFL history. He has 100-plus rushing yards in eight consecutive games, including two 200-yard games in the last three weeks. And he's doing it all despite tearing his ACL and MCL late in the 2011 season.
There has been no shortage of praise heaped on both players by players and coaches from both teams this week. Here's a sampling of the comments:
On Adrian Peterson
Watt: "He's a hard runner, very skilled, and he's playing as good as anybody in the league this year... He looks like a great running back to me. He's definitely playing at the top of his game. It doesn't look like he's slowed down whatsoever. If anything, it looks like he's gained a step, so he's an impressive player."
Texans HC Gary Kubiak: "He's just phenomenal. So hard to tackle. I remember when he came out (of college in 2007) and had the shoulder issue and there was a question of would his shoulder hold up. That was never a problem. Then he goes and has this knee issue, and what he's done coming off of a knee, I don't know if it's ever been done. He's not human in a lot of ways. He's proven that each and every week."
Texans DC Wade Phillips: "He's having an amazing year, obviously. Great talent, good guy. He's a Texas guy, a state of Texas guy. A real talent. Everybody is amazed, and I think you have to be, that he came back from injury like that. I saw him in the Pro Bowl that one year where nobody could tackle him – he looks like that now again. You put on the game film from almost any week, but really the last six or seven weeks, and you take out each play he ran the ball and it looks like a highlight film rather than just a game film. It looks like you made up a highlight tape of some guy. That's how good he is."
Texans NT Shaun Cody: "He's a great back. You leave a guy one-on-one on him, they don't have much of a chance, so you've got to get a lot of hats there to bring him down."
Texans OLB Connor Barwin: "He's playing like an animal. He'll be the best running back that we have faced all year. He's hard to bring down, and when he gets in the open field, he is running by everybody."
Texans DE Antonio Smith: "He always runs with a sense of urgency, with passion. This year just seems to be one of those years where everything seems to be flowing for him. I've played against some good running backs in my day, and he's pretty far up there. He's one of those special guys."
Johnson: "When we played in the preseason, that was the last time I had talked to him and I was just like, 'How are you feeling? How is the leg feeling?' And he looked at me and said, 'Give me three or four games and I'll be back to myself.' I was like, 'Ok.' But coming off of an ACL (injury), you wouldn't think that he would… what he has done, coming off that injury, it's amazing."
Vikings HC Leslie Frazier: "I know there are some other guys that are coming back from major injuries and guys that are having great seasons, but an ACL injury for a running back, you don't see what we're seeing. It's not like we have a lot of things around him. We have an offensive line that is doing a great job, but this is a new offensive line for the most part. We have a new left tackle, a new left guard, a returning center, a new right guard, a returning right tackle and a new fullback. For Adrian to be doing what he's doing with the pieces around him, he's comeback player, MVP for sure."
On J.J. Watt
Peterson: "I don't know how to describe this guy. He's unbelievable to watch on tape. How do they scheme this guy? What kind of schemes do they use? There's no schemes; you line that guy up and he's dominating who's in front of him. He's an amazing athlete, amazing player… He's definitely a football player. God created him to play this game… J.J. is that relentless, just muscle, this force coming at you nonstop every play. A young guy, so he's got high energy and his engine is always rolling."
Frazier: "He's a special player, now. He's special and so young to be doing what he's doing. I don't know if there are many guys that are dominating games the way he is dominating games, whether it be pass rush or playing the run or batting balls down. He's very, very impressive – very impressive… If there were ever some (terms) that would describe a great player, he deserves them because he's a great player. He's dominant. He's going to have a long career in this league staying healthy, a great career."
Kubiak: "I don't have enough time to talk about what he's done this year. Obviously, there are a bunch of players that have had some great years, but I'm sitting here watching this one every week. Some of the Monday conversations I've had with the team about, 'OK, here's what J.J. did this week,' it just seems like the legend grows. He's just been getting better and better. He definitely should be in that (NFL MVP) conversation. We know what he's done for our team and our defensive football team, not only at the end of last year, but all this year. The recognition, those things will come his way. He's just a very humble kid working. I watched him practice today, watched him chase the ball down the field. That's why he's a great player. Every day is the same. Every day looks the same."
Phillips: "Obviously, in my opinion, he is (an MVP candidate). I've had Reggie White and Bruce Smith, two of the all-time Hall of Fame players, along with Elvin Bethea and some other guys I've had, they're in the Hall of Fame. But he's playing at that level. I don't think they got the MVP of the league or anything, but they were certainly deserving of it, and I think he is, too. And even more so than those guys, he's knocked down more passes, he had more tackles for loss in the running game. Both of those guys were tremendous players, and this guy is playing at that level."
Smith: "He is the most valuable player. Not just because he's my friend, neither; because he's the most valuable player. For one, we're one of the best teams in the league record-wise. Obviously, what he's doing is contributing to a year that this team has never had. Two, he's doing something never heard of in football before… not just in sacks but tackles for a loss, tackles for a D-lineman. He's just having one of those magical years, and as a tackle, at his position, it's hard to come by… Frankly, I'm just tired of everybody thinking that only offensive players can be MVP. Why is that? Get out of the old. Step into the new. Vote J.J. Watt."