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|Peyton Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first season in Denver.|
The only four-time winner in the award's history, Manning finished second last year and is set up to make a run at it again in 2013. Denver looks like a top AFC team in a soft division with a relatively easy path to the playoffs. Elvis Dumervil's departure and Von Miller's suspension have banged up the defense, meaning it may fall to Manning and the offense to put up even more points this year. But the addition of longtime Tom Brady favorite Wes Welker to the wide receiver corps should put Manning in position to do just that. The numbers, the pedigree and the team's likely success should conspire to make Manning a leading candidate all season long.
He's the best in the game right now at the position that's won the award nine of the past 12 years. Rodgers has to contend with changes in his receiving corps, as Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are gone (and ripping him publicly) and Jordy Nelson is dealing with physical issues. And the Packers seem to want to incorporate the run game more. But there's no quarterback more accurate than Rodgers, and the 2011 MVP is Green Bay's best bet if it needs to rely on someone to get the Packers back into the playoffs.
Huge things are expected of the Falcons, who finally won a playoff game but fell a game short of the Super Bowl. They are loaded up for a run at it all, having bolstered the run game around Ryan and his brilliant receivers. Ryan and the Falcons were the top team in the league, record-wise, throughout the 2012 regular season, and when you are the quarterback of a team that makes that claim, you are a candidate. Ryan is 28, in his prime and has increased his passing yards, touchdowns and passer rating in each of the past three seasons. The offense is built around him to make him an MVP candidate.
Like the Broncos, the Patriots should build a strong record and coast into the playoffs in an easy division. Brady, who won the award in 2007 and 2010, has a serious challenge ahead of him with Welker, Aaron Hernandez and so much of his 2012 receiving corps gone. But he's made magic before when things changed around him, and if he has a big year throwing to Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, it's going to be hard to convince anyone he's not the most valuable player in the league.
The defending champ. Peterson broke a five-year quarterback stranglehold on this award with a historic year that saw him nearly break the NFL's single-season rushing record. He WAS the Vikings' offense as Minnesota made a surprise run to the playoffs. And he did it all on a rebuilt knee, which added an aura of mysticism to the whole thing that likely helped his case. For Peterson to win the award again, all of those things (minus the knee thing) would probably have to happen again. I wouldn't be surprised to see him repeat what he did. The bigger question may be whether the Vikings can really be a playoff team again.
The best defensive player in the league plays on the AFC's version of the Falcons -- a team that has been feeling very close for a couple of years now but can't knock down that door to serious Super Bowl contention. Houston should roll in yet another weak-looking AFC division, and Watt should be right in the middle of it. But the last defensive player to win this award was Lawrence Taylor in 1986. That's a lot of history to swat down.
The return of coach Sean Payton should invigorate the Saints, and Brees is at his best when the two of them are working together. But even without Payton last year, and with his lowest completion percentage since 2003, Brees went over 5,000 yards passing for the third time in his career and over 40 touchdown passes for the second year in a row. On the numbers, Brees will always be an MVP candidate. The issue in New Orleans is whether the Saints' historically awful defense can improve enough to make them contenders. Non-contenders have a hard time chucking their way into MVP contention.
You think it's tough for a defensive player to win the award? No wide receiver has EVER won it. And truth be told, if Johnson has a big enough year to win it, the more likely candidate is Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. Johnson's presence on this list is a testament to his personal greatness. He set the NFL's single-season record last year for receiving yards, and as any fantasy writer will tell you, he was tackled or pushed out of bounds inside the 5-yard line 10 times. If he can convert those, and if the Lions rebound to their 2011 playoff form, you'll have a wide receiver making a strong case.
His biggest obstacle is health. Griffin is coming off of January knee surgery and hasn't practiced much or played at all since then. Even if he's 100 percent to start the season, which seems unlikely, questions remain about his ability to make it all the way through the season fully healthy and as effective as he was last year. Questions remain about how much he'll run compared to last year. Lots of questions. But if the Redskins win the NFC East again, it'll be because Griffin had an MVP-worthy season.
Yes, I could have put any number of less controversial names here. But where's the fun in that? I just think the Cowboys have a chance to be very good this year. Romo himself was very good last year... until he threw three interceptions in the division-deciding Week 17 game in Washington. One of these years, he's not going to screw up that big game. And with an emerging Dez Bryant to throw to, his numbers are going to be MVP-caliber. If this is the year Dallas delivers, Romo is going to be a big reason, and a worthy candidate for MVP.