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Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson headline our list of 10 finalists for NFL MVP 12.18.13 at 7:47 pm ET
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Tom Brady

Tom Brady

FOXBORO — As the 2013 regular season nears the end of the road, the MVP race is starting to come into sharper focus. With two games remaining, here are our top 10 candidates — in no particular order — to take the honors.

Tom Brady: After a relatively slow start — he completed 56.6 percent of his passes over the first five games of the season, and in two of those games he threw for less than 200 yards — the quarterback has nudged his way back to the forefront of the MVP debate. Over the last six games, he’s gone 181-for-271 (67 percent) for 2,225 yards, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, all while dealing with serious personnel losses. He’s received a boost in that time from wide receiver Julian Edelman (who could be the first Patriots wide receiver other than Wes Welker to catch 100 passes from Brady since Troy Brown broke the 100-catch mark in 2001) and Shane Vereen (who could be the first 50-catch/50-carry running back in New England since Kevin Faulk turned the trick in 2008). He needs a strong finish to really put a capper on his candidacy, but is every bit the equal as most of the people on this list.

Calvin Johnson: Johnson is enjoying another terrific season, and with 81 receptions through 14 games, appears to have an outside shot at another 100-catch year. (If he does reach 100, it would be the second time in three seasons he’s hit that mark.) He’s tied for eighth in the league in catches, but is second in the league in receiving yards (1,449) and touchdown grabs (12, tied with Vernon Davis). The 6-foot-5, 236-pounder is the prototypical big receiver, one who can only be stopped if he drops the ball (he has eight drops on the season) or someone gets to his quarterback before he can get the ball out to him. If he’s able to crack 100 catches and the Lions reach the postseason (right now, they’re 7-7), Johnson should be considered a candidate.

Peyton Manning: In the eyes of many people, the default choice for the award, based primarily on his performance over the first half of the season. (He hit on 60 percent or better of his passes over the first six weeks of the season, and didn’t throw a pick until Week 5.) Manning stands poised to breaks Brady’s single-season mark for touchdown passes in a season (50, set in 2007), and it appears the Broncos will capture the No. 1 seed in the AFC while possibly setting a handful of new offensive records. That could be enough to lift him above the rest of the field in the eyes of the voters.

Robert Quinn: Probably an outside candidate at this point for several reasons, including the fact that defensive players almost never get their proper due when it comes to MVP voting. But the St. Louis defensive lineman has really come on down the stretch. He’s second in the league in sacks with 15, and leads the league with seven forced fumbles. You can argue whether or not a defensive player on a team that will struggle to reach .500 deserves a shot (the Rams are 6-8 heading into the final two games of the season), but Quinn’s overwhelming dominance at times certainly suggests he should earn a spot in the Top 10 — at the very least, he’ll certainly receive Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

J.J. Watt: Another defensive lineman who deserves to be on this list despite the fact that his team has had a bad year, the Houston defensive lineman remains a transformative defensive presence. Rated as the No. 1 3-4 defensive end in the league by Pro Football Focus, PFF also has him graded out as the leading pass rusher and run stopper at his position. He has 9.5 sacks through 14 games, and while he’s not batting down passes as the same rate he did last season (he has six this year, as opposed to 16 last season), but he’s someone you have to always account for on every play. Probably not in the running for the top spot this year, he’ll almost certainly garner serious consideration (along with Quinn) for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Josh Gordon: He’s the best wide receiver the Patriots have faced to this point in the season, and while he’s probably more in the running for something like “Best Offensive Player” as opposed to MVP, it’s still worth mentioning that the Cleveland pass catcher leads the league with 1,467 receiving yards, and is 15th overall with 74 catches. His epic streak of four straight games with at least 125 receiving yards included a memorable seven-catch, 151-yard effort against New England — that came on the heels of back-to-back performances of at least 200 receiving yards. Like Quinn, you can argue the merits of handing out the MVP to a player on a team that won’t make the postseason, but his numbers are undeniable, and that should be enough for him to warrant consideration.

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As it turns out, J.J. Watt did spit on Patriots logo in pregame 01.13.13 at 10:27 pm ET
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J.J. Watt. (AP)

J.J. Watt (AP)

FOXBORO — Before Sunday’s Patriots-Texans divisional-round matchup, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt was spotted spitting on the Gillette Stadium center logo and wiping his feet off on the Flying Elvis before sitting down to stretch.

Twitter began circulating the news after this original tweet from WEEI.com’s Mike Petraglia. It was unclear if Watt meant to disrespect the organization or to fire his team up. Watt confirmed after the game that he did spit on the logo, but he said it isn’t an uncommon routine for him, and he meant no disrespect.

“I do that every game, home or away,” Watt said. “I go out to midfield, I jog out there, spit a little bit, wipe my feet off, and then I go through my stretches. No drama there, that’s 100 percent what I do every game, home or away.”

After the game, Watt said that the Texans entered the locker room at halftime feeling pretty good about scoring 10 unanswered points, but the momentum didn’t carry over to the second half.

“We didn’t play a good game, and they played a very good game,” he said. “They are moving on and we are not. We came in here at halftime feeling pretty good; obviously the long field goal by Shayne [Graham] was a heck of a kick. We came out in the second half and didn’t perform and it is plain and simple. We just didn’t do the things we needed to to do to win.”

Watt finished with four total tackles on the night (one solo), with half a sack, one tackle for loss, and one quarterback hit.

The inability to get pressure on Tom Brady frustrated the Texans defense, especially Watt, who has a total of eight total tackles against the Patriots this season in two games, and no passes defensed.

“He is a very good football player, and a heck of a quarterback,” he said. “Obviously he is one of the best for a reason. We needed to hit him and we needed to knock some balls down, and we didn’t do that and we lost. Obviously all we can do is move forward.”

Watt and the Texans end their season for the second straight year in the divisional playoff round.

“It is really frustrating, because have been here before and you don’t want to get back to where you have been before,” he said. “You want to move on and you want to get better and move forward, and we didn’t do that. We are going to come into next season extremely strong and we are not going to wait to get back to work.”

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J.J. Watt quiet vs. Patriots, but reminds that Texans still control AFC playoff race 12.11.12 at 1:34 am ET
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J.J. Watt was rendered ineffective vs. the Patriots. (AP)

FOXBORO — Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt entered Foxboro as one of the more feared defensive players in the NFL, and had his name tossed around very early as a defensive player of the year candidate. He leads the league in passes batted down with 15, and has 16.5 sacks on the year with three games left to play.

But on the Monday Night Football stage, Watt went silent against right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, posting just four total tackles (two solo, two assisted) and a forced fumble that actually hurt the Texans when it resulted in a Brandon Lloyd touchdown.

Though he wasn’t a no-show on Monday, by the time his presence was felt, the Patriots had such a commanding lead that his play wasn’t the game-changer it usually is.

“We played a very good football team and they executed everything very well and had a great game plan,” Watt said after the 42-14 Patriots win. “They came in and played a great game, and we didn’t play a great game, and they won.”

The forced fumble occurred at the start of the fourth quarter when the Patriots already held a 28-7 lead. Brady completed a dump pass to Danny Woodhead on a second down and 10. Woodhead scrambled for 16 yards before Watt caught up to him and punched the ball loose.

The bounce the ball took was fitting for the Texans’ night, as Lloyd easily fell it several yards past the goal line.

“A play like that is just tough luck,” Watt said. “I came from the back side and forced a fumble and they get a touchdown out of it. Just a tough night.”

The Patriots now sit a single game behind the Texans in the AFC standings with three games left in the regular season. Both Denver and New England have records of 10-3, while Houston is 11-2. And the Pats have the tiebreaker against both teams.

Watt said that, with two games left against the (now) 9-4 Colts, the focus is more on winning the division more so than taking the top seed in the conference. There are now three teams that could viably win the AFC and receive a first-round bye plus home field advantage.

“We’re 11-2 and we still control our destiny,” he said. “We control everything. We are going to go back and focus on winning the division and locking that up. Everything is in front of us.”

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