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Cam Newton, Tom Brady lead MVP candidates down the stretch

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The MVP race has shifted dramatically over the course of the past 13 weeks. How do things stand with four weeks left in the 2015 NFL season? Below, you'll find my top five candidates for the MVP award heading down the stretch, based on what they've done to this point -- including a snapshot of what each candidate has to do going forward to take home the hardware.

1) Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

By the numbers: 58.4 percent completion rate, 2,797 passing yards, 7.5 yards per attempt, 25 passing TDs, 10 INTs, 93.2 passer rating, 476 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs.

I've liked Newton for this award since September, when many were ready to hand it to Tom Brady. Newton's definitely exceeded expectations in 2015, driving the Panthers to perfection -- and their third straight NFC South title -- despite having to work without a true No. 1 receiver. His numbers might not stand out, but you have to take into account his supporting cast; if a few of his receivers' drops had been caught instead, he'd have a healthier completion rate. The bottom line is, he has a special ability to make plays when they count. Plenty of guys can complete tons of passes when the score is 35-7, but Newton truly shines when the chips are down and the pressure is on. Just think of that game-saving fourth-down play he made against the Saints last Sunday, going to his left and connecting with Greg Olsen to pick up the first. And don't forget about his ability to beat you with his legs.

How he can win it: This is Newton's race to lose at this point. Securing homefield advantage throughout the playoffs will help, but honestly, he could put up a clunker of a game and still win. Any time you've emerged victorious from Seattle and New Orleans -- and come from behind in both games -- that's significant. And I don't think he'll have to go 16-0. In fact, it might be good for the Panthers to lose one, just to take a bit of the pressure off.

2) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

By the numbers: 63.7 percent completion rate, 3,912 passing yards, 7.7 yards per attempt, 31 passing TDs, 6 INTs, 102.8 passer rating, 3 rushing TDs.

It's hard to criticize a guy who's having the season the 38-year-old Brady's having, especially when you consider all the injuries he's dealt with among his offensive weapons and the Patriots' lack of a running game (New England's rushing attack ranks 28th). Of course, the Patriots are on a bit of a downturn, having lost two straight, with Brady throwing a pair of interceptions in the Week 13 loss to the Eagles, including a crucial pick-six that stemmed from an ill-advised pass. Still, if it weren't for Newton -- who has beaten better teams than Brady's beaten, on the road, and can make more plays with his feet -- it would be easy to see Brady capturing this award.

How he can win it: In addition to benefitting from a significant collapse on Newton's part, Brady wins out and secures one of the top two seeds, at least. If the playoffs started today, the Pats wouldn't even have a first-round bye, and that's such a crucial thing to have when it comes to ensuring postseason success.

3) Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals

By the numbers: 63.9 percent completion rate, 3,693 passing yards, 8.8 yards per attempt, 29 passing TDs, 9 INTs, 106.3 passer rating.

Palmer makes the Cardinals go, as we saw in 2014, when an otherwise promising campaign was limited by Palmer's season-ending ACL injury. With Arizona returning basically the same passing weapons in 2015, a healthy Palmer has made all the difference for this 10-2 squad. That said, he does have a loss to the Rams -- which looks bad, given St. Louis' subsequent struggles -- on his résumé, and he's obviously not nearly the ground threat that Newton is.

How he can win it: Newton and Brady fall off and Palmer wins out, starting with his upcoming showdown with the Vikings on "Thursday Night Football" and finishing with a victory over the Seahawks at home, all while continuing to put up big numbers.

4) Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

By the numbers: 68.5 percent completion rate, 2,997 passing yards, 8.5 yards per attempt, 21 passing TDs, 7 INTs, 106.2 passer rating, 450 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD.

Wilson's something of a long shot, given that the Seahawks started the season 4-5 and didn't break the .500 mark until Week 12. That said, he's played a large part in pulling them back from the brink, dragging them from the fringes of playoff contention to a favorable spot in the race for a wild-card berth. Consider that over Seattle's three-game winning streak, Wilson has completed 76.8 percent of his passes for 879 yards, 11 touchdowns, zero picks and a 148.2 passer rating. As the team's second-leading rusher (450 rushing yards), Wilson also does so much to open up the Seahawks' ground game.

How he can win it: Newton, Brady and Palmer all fade badly, and Wilson gets the Seahawks to 11-5 -- and improbably captures the NFC West crown, capped off with a win over the Cardinals in the regular-season finale.

5) Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings

By the numbers: 245 attempts, 1,182 rushing yards, 8 rushing TDs.

CHARGERS AT RAIDERS

It is tough for non-quarterbacks to win this award. Still, Peterson -- who is, after all, the only non-QB to be named MVP (in 2012) in the past eight seasons -- has the best chance of anyone to pull it off in 2015. True, he's got a better supporting cast this year than he did in 2012, when he basically lifted the Vikings (with Christian Ponder at QB and no one capable of topping 700 receiving yards) to the playoffs by himself. But while Teddy Bridgewater is a clear upgrade over Ponder and Stefon Diggs is on pace to finish with 900-plus receiving yards, the fact remains that the Vikings are 8-4 and tied for first in the NFC North despite having the second-worst passing attack in the NFL. And Peterson -- the league's leading rusher -- is a huge reason for that. If you doubt Peterson's value, just ask Minnesota's opponents; all four Vikings losses this year have come when Peterson has been held to 81 rushing yards or less -- while the Vikings' average margin of victory when Peterson rushes for 125 yards or more is 11.2 points.

How he can win it: Newton, Brady, Palmer and Wilson all drop, and Peterson puts the Vikings on his back again à la 2012 to carry them to the playoffs -- only this time, they also capture their first division title since 2009.

What about the reigning NFL MVP?

Aaron Rodgers is not really in the discussion in 2015, given that he's on track to finish with his lowest full-season marks in passing yards (3,943) and touchdown passes (35) since 2010, and his lowest passer rating (97.3) since 2008, when he first became Green Bay's starter. Plus, the Packers' offense is ranked 22nd overall and 23rd in passing. Though he's not really responsible for all of Green Bay's struggles, those numbers obviously don't spell MVP. That said, Rodgers did save the Packers' season with his miraculous Hail Mary to beat the Lions last Thursday, and that could springboard him back into the conversation, provided he also plays at a crazy high level -- for example, recording 14 touchdowns against zero interceptions -- in getting his team to 12-4.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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