Carson Palmer Cardinals 2015
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer could steal the MVP award from Carolina's Cam Newton in the final week of the regular season. Getty Images

Time again the NFL MVP race has started off with one clear-cut favorite, only to have that favorite wither down the stretch and fall to a most unlikely candidate. Before this season, the most recent example came in 2012 when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning seemed a shoe-in to claim the NFL’s highest individual honor before Vikings running back Adrian Peterson slapped together one of the most dominate rushing seasons ever and literally carried Minnesota into the postseason.

This season, no one’s on a record-setting or historic pace, but we have seen plenty of ebbs and flows in the MVP race and it very well could come down to the wire. At first it appeared to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s award to lose, then it was Carolina’s Cam Newton, and now Arizona’s Carson Palmer is making a late push as the league enters the final week of the regular season.

Here’s our rankings of the MVP race, including several dark horse candidates who probably won’t win, as well as a prediction.

1.Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

After Week 16’s loss to Atlanta snapped Carolina’s bid for a perfect regular season, Newton’s MVP candidacy has taken a hit but he’s still a heavy favorite. The typical MVP test of removing the 26-year-old dual threat from Carolina’s starting lineup still holds up, especially when Newton’s passer rating climbs when the Panthers need him in the fourth quarter. In the final stanza Newton’s posted a 102.4 rating and if the game is within a touchdown it’s even higher at 110.8. Another victory in Week 17 over Tampa Bay guarantees Carolina the NFC’s No. 1 seed, home-field advantage throughout the postseason, and Newton his first MVP.

2.Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals

Palmer’s always been capable of putting up MVP numbers, but this year he’s been able to pair those numbers with a career-high win total. The 36-year-old had never won more than 11 games in a single season and now he can pad his career mark with a 14-win season by besting Seattle in Week 17 for the NFC’s No. 1 seed should Carolina also lose. Palmer can also best Newton with a 109.6 passer rating in the fourth quarter, and it only dips to 101.5 when the score’s within a touchdown because Arizona wasn’t in too many close games this season thanks to Palmer’s dominance.

Many MVP voters will look to Palmer’s recovery from yet another major knee injury, and should he manage to steal the NFC’s top playoff seed Palmer could upend Newton just like Peterson did to Manning three years ago.

3.Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

Brady entered the season with the best possible MVP storyline that voters crave and are usually swayed by and it only got stronger as the season wore on. He went through the NFL-investigation wringer with “Deflategate,” overcame injuries to his receiving and running back corps, as well as his offensive line, and still ranks first in the NFL with 4,636 passing yards and 36 touchdown passes. However, since starting the season 10-0, the Patriots have tailed off with a 2-3 mark and are in danger of losing the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

Before it seemed impossible for Brady to lose, and he might still garner some first-place votes, but he’ll instead watch Newton or Palmer lift the MVP.

Dark Horses

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks; Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins; Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, New York Jets

From Week 11 on, Wilson’s arguably been the most dominant quarterback other than Newton with 21 touchdown passes to just one interception and Seattle going 5-1 in the process. Wilson’s also dealt with numerous injuries at running back and tight end, and he has a second-tier batch of wide receivers at his disposal. Cousins completely turned around the Redskins fortunes with excellent performances in the last three weeks and nine touchdowns to just one interception. He also pulled off an incredible comeback in Week 7 against Tampa Bay, and now Washington’s in the postseason when everyone believed it would wind up last in the NFC East. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick’s on pace to post a new career mark in passing yards and he’s already blown past his career-record for touchdown passes in a single season with 29. Not to mention the five-game winning streak he’s slapped together for New York and its playoff hopes resting in his hands.

Prediction: Newton’s the pick for now, unless he loses control of the Panthers No. 1-seed bid and Palmer and the Cardinals rise in the postseason standings.