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Handicapping the field of NFL MVP candidates

With the NFL season in its final three weeks, talk has heated up about the NFL MVP Award. As they do every year, some in the media have anointed Peyton Manning as the favorite. But several others have a good shot at the award. While he's not my pick right now, I think Tom Brady's performance on Monday night, and the fact that today's date is Bradysnumber-Bradysnumber-Bradysnumber, give him the best shot of winning it right now.

I have one litmus test for consideration: Your team has to be at least .500. If you've lost more games than you've won, how can you possibly say you're the most valuable player of anything? The most valuable loser, maybe. But the most valuable player? No. So while Calvin Johnson may break Jerry Rice's 17-year-old record for receiving yards in a season (he needs 303 yards in the next three games), his team is 4-9, so he's automatically disqualified.

But an MVP goes beyond stats anyway. My current ballot, along with my predicted odds of winning the award:

1) Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts (5-1)
Several years ago I wrote about a rising star quarterback at Stanford named Andrew Luck. "Chances are this is the first time you’ve heard of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck," I wrote in 2009. "But it won’t be the last." Why is he the first quarterback to win eight games the same year he was the No. 1 pick in the draft? Because those No. 1 picks always go to terrible teams. Luck was no different. At 9-4, the Colts are the shocker of the season (even those who thought they'd do well didn't think they'd do this well) and can clinch a playoff spot with a win this week. While Luck's stats aren't fantastic (3,792 yards, 18 TDs, 18 INTs), the way he's played at the end of games -- leading six fourth-quarter comebacks -- is garnering him a lot of support. If I had a vote, Luck would be my pick.

2) Tom Brady, quarterback, New England Patriots (5-2)
While Brady isn't my choice, that performance on Monday Night against the Houston Texans was the kind of showcase you need to win this award. Like Johnny Manziel's performance against Alabama, Brady's dismantling of (an over-hyped) passing defense (4 TD passes) leapt him over a couple guys. But let's be fair -- It's not just this one game. He has the Patriots on the brink of breaking their own record for most points scored in a season. He's also thrown 29 TDs to 4 INTs. That better than 7-to-1 ratio, if it stands, would go down as one of the best of all time. And consider this: While he has to face the stout Niners defense at home this week, he gets Jacksonville and Miami after that....

3) Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota Vikings (6-1)
If the Colts are the shocker of the season, the Vikings are right up there. And a big part of that is Peterson. The man had a major knee injury just nine months before the season started. He now leads the league in rushing by over 300 yards, and his 1,600 yards puts him on pace for one of the greatest rushing seasons in NFL history. The Vikings are 7-6, so they'll have to beat St. Louis, Minnesota or Green Bay for Peterson to qualify for the award, which may ultimately disqualify him from the award IMHO.

4) Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver Broncos (3-1)
Manning is having a very good season. Not a great season. Not a spectacular season. But a very good one. He's competed 68% of his passes and has a QB rating of 104.0 (third and fourth in the NFL with min. 200 attempts). Three things have catapulted him toward the top in this race. First, his last name is "Manning," and many voters want to give him the award every time he's on the ballot; If he wins the award, ultimately this will be why. Second, he came back from a possible career-ending injury. That speaks well of him. Third, he took over for Tim Tebow, who can't even beat Mark Sanchez for the Jets starting spot. So the improvement in the Broncos' offense looks like some magical turnaround. But Manning still has the luxury of a top-10 defense, which Tebow also rode into the playoffs. Incidentally, Manning has thrown an interception in four straight games (and counting). The last time he did that was 2007... when the Patriots set the single-season scoring record and Tom Brady won the NFL MVP Award.

5) Robert Griffin III, quarterback, Washington Redskins (10-1)
The race for Offensive Rookie of the Year is as competitive as NFL MVP, with Luck, Tampa Bay's Doug Martin and Griffin all having stellar seasons. Griffin's QB rating of 104.2 is tied with Brady for tops in the league. His four interceptions is also tied for tops in the league with Brady (minimum 200 attempts), though that is with 140 fewer attempts than Brady. His 748 rushing yards leads all QBs, and he has six rushing touchdowns. The fact that he plays in the media-heavy market of Washington helps; The fact that his last name isn't Manning hurts.

While I know a lot of people put J.J. Watt in the top five of this race, that shellacking at the hands of the Patriots hurt badly.

PHOTO: Dec 2, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) at mid field after defeating the Miami Dolphins 23-16 at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports