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With two months of football left, the NFL MVP race is going down to the wire

Isn’t this the most wide-open NFL MVP race in recent memory? With seven weeks to go, I think you could poll 100 football fans and get 15 different legitimate answers for league MVP. Last year, Aaron Rodgers was just about the odds-on favorite from start to finish, but this year, there’s been three or four different players atop the MVP leaderboard at different points of the season. We may actually get a relatively split ballot for the first time in five years. It’s going to be a fun race to track over these next two months.

Of course, I want to get in on the ground floor before those next two months play out; there’s a foolish prediction to be made, so it’s my duty to stick my neck out and make it. In the past, I’ve gone through the history of MVP races since 19831 and tried to identify the trends that consistently identify who will win the Associated Press–sponsored trophy. As it turns out, there are three basic criteria that serve to identify a sole winner in virtually every season:

1. Your team has to win the division title. It helps to finish as a no. 1- or no. 2-seed in the conference, of course, but only two players since 1983 — Marshall Faulk in 2000 and Peyton Manning in 2008 — have won the MVP without their team claiming the division title. A lot can change between now and the end of the season, but that rule would seem to eliminate important, deserving players on teams who aren’t likely to win their divisions like Andrew Luck and Adrian Peterson. I’m not going to rule out those guys, but it’s a knock on their likelihood of winning the prize.

2. It’s important to win the fantasy points title. Since 1991, only Peyton Manning (2008 and 2009) has managed to win the MVP title without also simultaneously leading the league in fantasy points scored by a player at his position. A boon, undoubtedly, to the MVP chances of league-leading kicker Lawrence Tynes and his 113 fantasy points from this season. This one would cast aspersions on the campaigns of candidates like Joe Flacco (14th in fantasy points) and Eli Manning (18th).

3. If you’re not a quarterback, you have to be transcendent. Being merely the best running back, wide receiver, or pass rusher in the league simply isn’t enough to win MVP. Four non-quarterback winners of the MVP set a touchdown record at their given position during their fateful seasons. Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis each hit the gaudy 2,000-yard figure during their MVP years. And if you can’t do any of that, you’ll need to be Lawrence Taylor, the destructive force who produced 20.5 sacks on the league’s best defense while (arguably) changing the game forever. J.J. Watt has been fantastic this year, but will people still be talking about his season 25 years from now in the same way they talk about that version of LT?

The other tricky part is that, because this race is so close, you can’t just pick a player as a likely winner based on what he’s done so far; you have to project each candidate through the rest of the season and guess how he’s going to perform over those final seven weeks.

In the end, I found seven candidates who I think have a reasonable shot of making a run at the MVP award, with Flacco, Eli Manning, and the injured Ben Roethlisberger coming up just short of viability. The candidates are spread across six different teams, and the only teams that rate among the league’s best without a listed candidate are Chicago (whose best candidate, Charles Tillman, won’t get a vote), San Francisco (Frank Gore, whose brilliance is on a per-carry basis without having the cumulative impact needed to attract attention), and the New York Giants (Eli Manning, who is in the middle of a cold streak and won’t have the numbers to hang).

You will probably disagree, but just remember one thing: At least it’s not Mark Moseley. From least likely to most …

7. Tom Brady

It’s hard for me to rule Tom Brady out of any MVP race, if only because the Patriots are consistently going to be very good and Brady is going to always put up numbers. Quietly, Brady has been creeping up to the top of the quarterback charts again; he’s got Rob Gronkowski (five touchdowns in his last three games) cooking again, and he’s completing 64.8 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns for each of his three interceptions.

Brady also has a schedule that’s seemingly built for him to get anointed as the king of the second half: He plays the Colts, Jets, and Dolphins the next three weeks, and then he has two tough back-to-back matchups against the Texans and 49ers. If he puts up huge numbers against the first three teams and then manages to win both the Houston and San Francisco games with a big play or two, the narrative might be enough to swing Brady up into the MVP hunt. It wouldn’t be much different from his run to the MVP in 2010, when he followed that terrible game against the Browns with an eight-game winning streak that saw him go 158-for-231 (68.4 percent) with 2,074 passing yards and 22 touchdowns while avoiding even a single interception. If he does that again, Brady is the MVP.

6. Adrian Peterson

Right now, Adrian Peterson’s probably second or third in the MVP voting. You know the story: Ten months after ripping his knee to shreds, AD has come back and become the best running back in football. Again. After we cringed and worries about him with every cut and juke during the first few weeks of the season, Peterson is a joy to watch again. He leads the league in rushing yards (1,128) and is averaging a robust 5.8 yards per carry despite playing in an offense with a below-average passing game that doesn’t threaten anybody deep.

My biggest concern for Peterson’s MVP candidacy is strength of schedule. After making his way through an easy slate at the beginning of the year, Peterson and his Vikings will return after their bye this weekend and face two games each against the Bears and Packers, plus matchups with the Texans and Rams. Even if Peterson manages to get his yards in those games, the Vikings are likely to be losing their fair share of those matchups, and it’s going to be hard for the electorate to pick the running back on a third-place team, even if he leads the league in rushing yardage. And while Peterson’s remarkable comeback undoubtedly helps his chances some, he’s also stuck playing in a year where an even more notable player is impressing after a comeback from a scary injury, which takes away some of his vote. Then again, I know I certainly didn’t expect this Adrian Peterson to be back this early, so it might very well be stupid to count him out.

5. Arian Foster

4. J.J. Watt
It seems likely that the Texans will finish with the league’s best record. Football Outsiders projects them to finish with a league-high 12.7 wins, a 65.5 percent shot at taking the top seed in the AFC and a 4.3 percent chance of going 15-1. They still have four games left against the AFC South along with matchups versus the Lions, Patriots, and Vikings, so their schedule isn’t exactly insurmountable. Of all the players on this list, Foster and Watt2 have the best shot of ending up playing on the league’s most decorated team at the time when voters are sending in their ballots.

So why aren’t they higher? Well for one, they’re each going to cannibalize some of the vote from the other. Foster has been a workhorse for the Texans with Ben Tate injured and Andre Johnson struggling for most of the year, but he hasn’t been a dominant back. He’s averaging a mere 3.9 yards per carry, down a full yard from his average during his breakout season, and he’s on pace to finish with 1,550 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers, but not so impressive that they attract MVP votes. DeAngelo Williams had 1,515 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns for the Panthers in 2008, and he didn’t get a single MVP vote.

Watt’s production and ascension have been more notable. He’s almost unquestionably going to be regarded as the Defensive Player of the Year, and being the best player on that side of the ball is a good thing to have on your résumé if you’re going to win MVP without taking snaps under center. The problem, sadly, is that Watt’s production has tapered off a bit from the absurd levels he was at in September and October. He had 9.5 sacks and 10 passes defensed in seven games before Houston’s bye; since then, he has a single sack and no passes defensed in two games. He’s undoubtedly getting more attention from the hopelessly overmatched blocking schemes that face the Texans, but voters don’t give out awards for double-teams drawn. For Watt to get serious MVP consideration, he probably has to get back to that level of pre-bye production and maintain it over the rest of the year.

3. Aaron Rodgers

For fun, let’s split out Rodgers’s performance in 2012 by the end of that disastrous Seahawks game and compare his performance in those splits to how he performed in 2011.

He’s not quite all the way back to his 2011 level, because the issues with his offensive line and injuries to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson have mostly taken the big play out of Green Bay’s arsenal, but Rodgers has been nearly as deadly this year after the Seahawks game as he was a year ago. Of course, that’s also cheating: Those first three games count, they came against a set of excellent pass defenses (Seahawks, Bears, and 49ers), and Rodgers wasn’t all that effective in them.

With that being said, Rodgers is going to be facing some porous secondaries over the next six games, as he gets two games against the Lions, a matchup with the Titans, and even one against the Giants. For what it’s worth, I think Rodgers is playing at roughly the same level that he was a year ago. Voters for awards in all sports have a built-in bias against picking the same guy in consecutive seasons, though, and the injury issues around him have caused Rodgers’s numbers to drop from the lofty heights of 2011. Voters aren’t slaves to the numbers (unless they’re looking at RBIs), but it’s hard to pick a guy to win MVP again when his numbers fall.

2. Matt Ryan

Unlike Matt Schaub, who gets very little attention as a possible MVP candidate in Houston, Ryan is basically seen as the only electable candidate on his team, despite the presence of his three star receivers. He has late game-winning drives against the Panthers, Raiders, and Redskins on his résumé this year, and had the Falcons remained unbeaten for just a couple more weeks, Ryan’s MVP candidacy might have gained so much momentum that it would have been impossible to ignore, even with a loss or two during the second half of the season. He’s also the best new candidate for the award, which makes him an exciting possibility for a voting pool that consists of journalists who love narratives more than, say, players or coaches.

The case against Ryan rests on the idea that he has never really had the blow-you-away, you-have-to-pick-me game against a contender that can make an MVP case. His 22-for-29, 262-yard game against the Eagles might qualify if the Eagles were better. Ryan has also had at least one obvious stinker of a game, the three-pick performance against the Raiders that he eventually bailed the team out of with a great final drive. And much of Ryan’s candidacy was built on the performance of his team; if the Falcons are merely a very good team that finishes 11-5 or 12-4 as opposed to a dominant 13-3 or 14-2 team, Ryan seems like a less special candidate who belongs in the same space with Brady.

Ryan’s remaining schedule is relatively generous, though, and it might help boost his numbers up to the point where he actually does finish with the best statistics in the league. He still has two games to go against the dreadful secondary of the Buccaneers, a matchup each with the Saints and Panthers, and games against the Cardinals, Lions, and Giants, who each fluctuate from very good to very middling depending upon the week. He still has four of his seven games left at home, too, which helps during the winter months.

I think, barring a 15-1 record from the Falcons, Ryan will come up just short. There’s a candidate who will appeal to a very sentimental side of the voters in January, one that they’ll find hard to resist. Of course, he’ll also back it up with his numbers, too.

1. Peyton Manning

Doesn’t this seem likely by now? Peyton goes from out of the league to league MVP in the course of a year? Who wouldn’t want to vote for that if Manning made it relatively easy for them? And isn’t his production doing that by now? Since that loss to the Texans in Week 3, Manning’s performance over his next six starts has been otherworldly: He’s completing 74.5 percent of his passes and averaging nearly 8.8 yards per attempt while throwing 16 touchdowns against just three picks. 74.5 percent! Mark Sanchez might struggle to complete 74.5 percent of his passes warming up on the sidelines, and he beat Peyton in a playoff game two years ago.

Critically, Manning’s numbers should also stay strong because he’s done with the difficult part of his schedule. Now the fun begins. The Broncos have two games left against the Chiefs, one against the Chargers and Raiders each, and appearances against the Buccaneers and Browns. The Ravens are the only difficult matchup left on his dance card, and they’re falling apart on defense with injuries right now. A second-half surge — or the mere ability to maintain his stunning performance from these past six games — should be enough to earn Manning the MVP trophy for a fifth time.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell