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Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt headline MVP race

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Like seemingly everything in the NFL, the MVP race is fluid, taking shape over the course of a season with fluctuating fortunes and surprising hot streaks. At the outset of the regular season's final month, I thought I'd take stock of this race and put forth my top candidates for the award based on the past 13 weeks of play:

1) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

Rodgers clinched this spot on my list with the way he led the Packers right down the field after the Patriots cut Green Bay's lead to 23-21 in the fourth quarter Sunday. That was crunch time, and how someone reacts in crunch time tells me a lot. If Davante Adams had not inexplicably dropped a would-be touchdown pass, the drive would have been a decisive dagger; as it was, the Packers were able to pick up an important field goal. Drives like those -- the scoring drive he engineered in the Packers' last-second comeback win over the Dolphins in Week 6, when he was wearing that dark green jersey in the Miami heat, also stands out -- are why Rodgers is my choice as the MVP thus far.

The 10th-year pro has attempted 360 consecutive passes and thrown 31 straight touchdown strikes at home without throwing an interception (both NFL records). He has the best passer rating in the league in 2014 (118.6) and the best interception percentage, both this season (0.8) and all-time (1.6). He can move around when he has to and throw the ball with accuracy to the correct receiver. He also excels at yards per attempt (an NFL-best 8.75 this season), a stat that Bill Parcells says is one of the most important indicators of successful quarterback play. He's just come so far since that Week 1 loss to the Seahawks, with rookie center Corey Linsley settling in and the rest of the line staying healthy and together.

2) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

Luck is the reason the 8-4 Colts are winning the AFC South and leading the NFL in both total offense and passing offense. He has the most passing yards in the league (4,011) and is on pace to finish with 5,348 (which would be the third-highest single-season total all-time) and 45 touchdowns (which would tie him for sixth all-time). And then there's the number of sacks he's taken (21), which might not seem that impressive -- until you consider that he's playing behind an offensive line starting two rookies (center Jonotthan Harrison and guard Jack Mewhort).

That he's producing at that level on a team that lacks so many things makes it very difficult to choose between him and Rodgers at No. 1. Yes, there's talent for Luck to work with in the passing game -- T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Donte Moncrief, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener -- but Indy doesn't have much of a running attack to speak of. Between that and the Colts' young line, it's amazing that Luck is completing nearly 64 percent of his passes. I think it helps that Luck seems to be playing with a bit more control than he did in his first two years in the NFL.

3) J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

Opponents do everything they can to stop Watt, double- and triple-teaming him. And yet, he easily has the most combined quarterback hits and hurries in the NFL (57), and he's tied for fifth (with Von Miller) in sacks with 11.5. He is simply dominant. He is also the first player since 1948 to score two or more defensive touchdowns and three or more offensive touchdowns in a season, collecting one score on a pick, one on a fumble recovery and three as a receiver. He plays loose, but he plays extremely well, exerting about as much individual influence on the game as any non-quarterback can.

Of course, the fact that he's not a quarterback is an issue when it comes to Watt's MVP candidacy. The quarterback is the one player who can really put Ws up for a team. As good as Watt is, the Texans are 6-6 and barely hanging on in the playoff race.

4) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

After a Week 4 blowout loss to the Chiefs, some thought the Patriots were in danger of losing their longtime grip on the AFC East. Then New England proceeded to rip off seven straight wins, averaging nearly 40 points per game over that span -- with Brady throwing 22 touchdown passes against just four picks.

Boosted by the stabilization of the offensive line, the emergence of Brandon LaFell and Timothy Wright and the elite production of Rob Gronkowski, the quarterback made his relatively slow start to the year a distant memory. He seems to be playing with more confidence than he did last year, feeling pressure better (his sack percentage is down considerably, from 6.0 to 3.2) and locating his receivers more effectively. To come back from that tough defeat in Week 4 and accomplish what he has just shows you how well he's playing; the 37-year-old Brady is operating at an amazing level for his age.

5) Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos

The reigning MVP is still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, and he still has the same amazing sense of anticipation and intelligence that has allowed him to stay a step or two ahead of opposing defenses for years. But he doesn't throw the ball with the velocity he once did, and the spiral is not as tight as it once was. In Sunday's win over the Chiefs, Denver turned to its ground game, riding 168 yards from C.J. Anderson while Manning was limited to a quiet 179 yards, or 5.26 yards per attempt.

Manning just hasn't seemed as strong as he did in Week 1 of the season. His last four games this year will be watched closely for signs that he's potentially wearing down. Of course, I would by no means underestimate him at this point, either; as much as we talk about his arm strength, he'll still occasionally wind up and uncork a pass 40 to 45 yards downfield. And he is, after all, Peyton Manning.

6) Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys

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Before the Cowboys were steamrolled by the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving, Romo was right in the MVP mix -- and he could get back there if Dallas wins three of its last four to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. His performance in the loss -- 199 yards, zero touchdowns, two picks and a passer rating of 53.7 -- was not pretty, but I think you might be able to blame that a bit on how the short rest impacted the veteran, who has dealt with a back ailment this season. Entering Week 13, he'd posted 22 touchdowns, and he still has a passer rating of 106.2.

Some might object to Romo being on this list over running back DeMarco Murray, the NFL rushing leader who's been piling up yards at a prodigious clip. But the quarterback position is simply more important than the running back position. Think of the comeback drive Romo led late in a Week 12 victory over the Giants: With his team down by four and time running out, Romo was able to put the winning points on the board in less than two minutes. You won't find many running backs who can singlehandedly impact the game that way.

7) Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers

After leading the Bolts to a 5-1 start -- in which he threw 15 touchdown passes against two picks -- Rivers seemed to fall off, averaging less than 200 yards per game in a three-game losing skid from Week 7 to Week 9. Whether or not that rough stretch was related to his health -- Rivers wouldn't admit to being hurt after Antonio Gates suggested he had a rib injury, a suggestion Gates himself later downplayed -- is unclear, though he didn't look to be 100 percent. Rivers seemed to be in better shape the past two weeks, completing 82.9 percent of his passes in a Week 12 win over the Rams and notching a passer rating of 113.5 in Sunday's last-minute comeback victory over the Ravens.

The thing with Rivers -- and this is true of Romo, too -- is that it's not outside the realm of possibility that he'll re-insert himself into the MVP race by season's end. It's highly unlikely, given San Diego's tough schedule, but if Rivers were to somehow get the Bolts to win out or even capture three of their last four games, and if Rodgers or Brady were to simultaneously stumble a bit, Rivers would be right back in the conversation. Don't forget that Rivers has a career mark of 29-3 in the final four weeks of the season.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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