Despite missing four games, the Patriots QB has his team on the verge of the AFC’s top seed, giving him the best case for NFL MVP.

By this point in an NFL season, there usually is a clear front-runner or two for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

Not so this season.

A reasonable MVP case can be made for about a half-dozen players. The candidacy of prospective favorite Tom Brady is complicated by the fact that he missed the first four games of the season while serving his Deflategate suspension. Dallas Cowboys rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott could take votes from one another. Quarterbacks Matthew Stafford of Detroit and Derek Carr of Oakland will attempt to finish off their MVP-caliber seasons with each now playing with a dislocated finger on his throwing hand.

Here is how one ballot would look at this point:

1. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: He will play, at most, 12 games during the regular season. The Patriots went 3-1 during his suspension with Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett filling in at quarterback. So how valuable can he be?


He is the league’s top-rated passer, just ahead of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, with a passer rating of 113.6. He has thrown 22 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He has the Patriots, even minus game-changing tight end Rob Gronkowski, in line to be the top seed in the AFC playoffs.

Good arguments can be made in favor of other candidates. But the best argument can be made for Brady.

2. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions: There was room to wonder, when Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford began a housecleaning last year by firing Tom Lewand as team president and Martin Mayhew as general manager, how Coach Jim Caldwell, Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson would fit into the team’s future plans.

Johnson removed himself from those plans, retiring in the offseason. But Caldwell was retained and Stafford stayed put, and Stafford has had a terrific season even without Johnson in his receiving corps.

Stafford has thrown for 3,447 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he has made one big play after another in crunch time as the Lions have overcome a series of fourth-quarter deficits on their way to first place in the NFC North.

They could be the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, and Stafford’s play is the main reason for that.

3. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys: Yes, Dak Prescott has been excellent. And yes, the offensive line has been dominant as the Cowboys have managed to recapture their winning formula from 2014 when Tony Romo was at quarterback and DeMarco Murray was the centerpiece runner.

But that doesn’t diminish what Elliott has accomplished. He has run for 1,392 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has been a productive receiver out of the backfield and a willing blocker when needed. The offensive line has made him look good. But he also has helped the offensive line to look good. He has put Prescott into positions to succeed. And he has been the league’s most valuable non-quarterback this season.

4. Derek Carr, QB, Raiders: The Raiders are headed back to the playoffs, and they have Carr primarily to thank for that.

He has thrown for 3,492 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. He did not resemble an MVP candidate in the Raiders’ last game, a loss at Kansas City, while dealing with the dislocated pinky on his right hand. The Raiders looked nothing like a Super Bowl contender that night. But that was an aberration for both.

The Raiders are a very good team, and Carr is their on-field leader. He has been, like Stafford, reliable in crunch time this season. The Raiders trust him implicitly, and with good reason.

5. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: Ryan seemed to have fallen from the league’s upper tier of quarterbacks last season, when he had issues adapting to the offensive system of coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

But Ryan and Shanahan’s offense have been a good match this season. Ryan’s passer rating of 113.2 puts him behind only Brady. The Falcons thus far have avoided unraveling in the second half of the season as they did a year ago, and they’re attempting to hold off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the NFC South title.

That is because of Ryan’s resurgence.

6. Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys: The Dallas offense has struggled for two games in a row, and the Cowboys lost to the New York Giants for the second time this season Sunday at the Meadowlands. That has produced talk that perhaps the Cowboys will turn back to Romo at some point before season’s end. Such intrigue will be the primary storyline when the Cowboys host the Buccaneers this Sunday night.

But no one should forget what Prescott has done, as a rookie fourth-round draft pick, since taking over as the starter after Romo suffered a fractured vertebra in his back during the preseason. Prescott orchestrated 11 straight victories between the two losses to the Giants. He has the Cowboys in the playoffs and well positioned to be the NFC’s top seed. He played with calm. He made the big plays when needed. He avoided mistakes. He threw the football accurately and he improvised successfully when the circumstances dictated that.

It’s possible that Prescott is not even the MVP of his own team, or the best rookie on his own offense. But he and Elliott both belong in the MVP discussion. Prescott has earned that, no matter what happens from this point onward.

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