Mark Craig
See more of the story

Adrian Peterson’s worth was undeniable five years ago when he won the NFL Most Valuable Player award while carrying the Vikings into the playoffs. Sadly, his value today is equally unmistakable because of the ways in which his former teams have catapulted into the top four spots in the NFC while he quietly fades away in the desert.

The Vikings’ offense looks liberated without him, while the Saints’ running game continues to soar since his trade to Arizona turned a clunky, disgruntled three-man backfield into one of the more productive two-man backfields the league has seen.

With a quarter of the season left, rookie Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have combined for 2,397 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage. That means Kamara (1,220) and Ingram (1,177) are on pace for 3,196 yards, which, according to FiveThirtyEight, would be the second-highest total in a 16-game season by a tandem in which both players have at least 1,200 yards.

The Vikings are 10-2 and atop the NFC in their first full season without an offense built to feed Peterson first. The Saints, meanwhile, were 2-2 with Peterson and are 7-1 without him. With Peterson, they averaged 94 yards rushing per game. Without him: 167.

Sunday, Peterson, 32, was inactive because of a neck injury. His backup, Kerwynn Williams, 26, had 97 yards rushing with a 6.1 average. Peterson’s season average: 3.4.

The best running back tandem I can remember watching since the league went to 16 games in 1978 is Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner in Cleveland in 1985. Unlike New Orleans, the Browns had an archaic passing attack, but still managed to become the league’s first 8-8 playoff team as Byner (1,462) and Mack (1,401) combined for 2,863 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage.

According to FiveThirtyEight, that total yardage is the second highest in a 16-game season. No. 1 is 3,207 by Chicago’s Walter Payton (1,875) and Roland Harper (1,332) in 1978.

That means the pace set by Ingram and Kamara is only 19 yards behind Sweetness and Harper. So just imagine where they’d be if Peterson hadn’t been signed.

In four games together, the Saints’ three-headed backfield averaged 152.2 yards while scoring only two touchdowns. Without Peterson, the two-headed backfield has averaged 233.3 yards while scoring 18 times.

The Saints, however, aren’t looking back. After three consecutive 7-9 seasons raised doubts about coach Sean Payton, they’re 9-3 and currently the fourth seed in the NFC.

Of the 12 teams on pace to make the playoffs, eight of them didn’t make the postseason a year ago. That includes five of six seeds as of now in the NFC.

The NFC newbies and their current seeds: Vikings (1), Eagles (2), Rams (3), Saints (4) and Panthers (6). At 9-3, the Rams already have five more wins than last season.

The AFC newcomers and their seeds: Titans (3), Jaguars (5) and Ravens (6). Jacksonville, at 8-4, also has five more wins than last season.

The Saints are a long shot to earn a first-round bye. But they’re not a team anyone wants to face, including the Vikings, who smashed them in Week 1.

In that game, the Saints couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t play defense and relied too heavily on Drew Brees. In their past eight games, they’ve played solid defense, leaned on their running game and enjoyed the comfort of knowing 38-year-old Brees hasn’t lost the ability to take over a tight game.

Sure, his streak of nine years with at least 30 touchdown passes is in danger. No, he won’t top 5,000 yards passing for a fifth time.

But his career-high 71.5 completion percentage leads the league. He’s also third in passer rating (104.2) and yards per attempt (8.1).

When the Saints added Peterson, the idea was to finally build a running game to complement Brees and help the defense. Sadly, it took subtracting Peterson for them to put together one of the most productive tandems the league has seen.