Of course, if Brees or Rodgers had not made the playoffs, they might have given way to Tom Brady.
The NFL MVP award has been dominated by quarterbacks in recent decades, with running backs dotting the landscape from time to time and the rare outlier elsewhere. Who are the big players going into the preseason?
25. Andy Dalton
The darkest of dark horses has red hair.
Dalton had a pretty good season from a statistical standpoint, but leading his team to the playoffs was much sweeter. He threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns as a rookie, and he has budding superstar A.J. Green to throw to.
The Bengals play in a tough division, making a return to the postseason a tall task.
24. Alex Smith
Hear me out.
The 49ers quarterback has been a major disappointment after being the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, yes. He does not particularly care for statistics. Even last season, his first good one in the NFL, he threw for just 3,144 yards and 17 TDs. (He did, however, throw just five interceptions.)
Here is what is key for Smith going into 2011 versus any other season: consistency and quality in coaching, and good receivers. Smith is on his sixth offensive coordinator, and this will be just the second time in his career that he has a returning coordinator.
Is it beyond the realm of possibility that Smith could build on a good season and have a fantastic one? He is, after all, 28 years old and just entering his prime.
23. Robert Griffin III
Boy, would this be a fun year if Griffin was a serious MVP contender. The dynamic quarterback has high expectations placed on his shoulders, and not just because he is Washington's would-be franchise savior.
Cam Newton exploded onto the scene last season as a rookie, running away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. If he had been on a playoff contender, he might have been high up on some MVP ballots.
To expect Griffin to duplicate Newton's success would be optimistic. Not only was Newton's performance extraordinary, but the two are different players. Griffin is not the 6'5" monster that Newton is, and he is more of a pocket passer than Newton was coming out of college.
Still, if RG3 can live up to the hype and lead the Redskins to an unexpected playoff berth, he might find himself in the MVP conversation just a year removed from winning a Heisman.
22. NaVorro Bowman
Lawrence Taylor was the last defensive player and one of just two in modern history to win the MVP award. With the gaudy statistics some of the offensive players put up nowadays, it is becoming increasingly difficult to win one on defense.
It might be tempting to put Bowman's running mate and mentor Patrick Willis here, but the apprentice may have already become a master.
According to Pro Football Reference, Bowman was second in the league with 150 tackles last season. Is 150-plus out of the question?
21. Maurice Jones-Drew
Yes, MJD led the league in rushing last season despite having a passing attack resembling two Tyrannosaurus Rex playing catch. But can he do it again at 28 years old and with 1,151 carries under his belt over the past four seasons?
Jones-Drew has bucked his critics in the past, but wear and tear eventually catches up to the best of them.
Of course, there is the little matter of performing well on a competitive team. The Jaguars are not exactly playoff material right now. If they do stage a surprising turnaround, however, Jones-Drew will likely be leading the charge.
20. Chris Johnson
Yes, we all cried wolf the past two preseasons—particularly in the fantasy football realm—when it came to Chris Johnson. He had a disappointing 2010 campaign after earning the nickname "CJ2K," then followed that up with an encore of disappointment in 2011 after holding out during camp.
All of that is behind him now, and the talented running back is committed to regaining his form this summer. It will be interesting to see how the MVP race shapes up if he lives up to his nickname and the Titans make the playoffs.
19. Jared Allen
Allen was a half-sack away from tying Michael Strahan's record last season. He is one of the league's most dominant pass-rushers, and he could threaten the record again.
The Vikings would, of course, need to improve upon their 3-13 record. Their prospects might hinder his MVP stock.
18. Matt Schaub
Schaub was on pace for nearly 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns through 10 games before a Lisfranc injury shelved him for the season.
The Texans are a playoff contender once again, but they feature an offense predicated on the run. He does have Andre Johnson, one of the league's best receivers when healthy.
Schaub also must stay healthy himself, however.
17. Philip Rivers
For all the hand-wringing over Rivers' "terrible" season, he sure wound up with a respectable statistical output.
His 4,624 passing yards were the second most of his career, and the 27 touchdowns he threw were on par with his career average.
Of course, he also had a career-high 20 interceptions, which is the real reason some thought there was something wrong with the gunslinger out west.
One of his problems was a terrible blindside protector for most of the year. When Jared Gaither arrived and solidified the left tackle position in Week 12, however, Rivers saw a significant uptick in production. He was also sacked just five times from that point forward.
He may not have favorite target from a season ago in Vincent Jackson anymore, but Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal will try to fill that void. There is also a man named Antonio Gates, who can be a big help if he can stay healthy.
16. LeSean McCoy
It is difficult to trust that McCoy will match or exceed his 20-touchdown performance from 2011, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility.
The problem with his MVP candidacy is that he will have another prominent Eagles offensive player to contend with whose name rhymes with "sick."
15. Jay Cutler
This is crazy talk, right?
You would think so when discussing the mercurial, turnover-prone quarterback as a potential MVP candidate. You would also be sleeping on him in that case.
Cutler has not exactly lit up the scoreboard since joining the Bears after throwing for over 4,500 yards and 25 touchdowns in his final season in Denver. Take one good look at his receivers and offensive line, however, and it is easy to see why his production has declined.
Well, now he has his good buddy Brandon Marshall, with whom Cutler teamed up with to throw many of those 4,500-plus yards back in 2008. The offensive line was not addressed in the offseason, but the Bears hope their second-year players can improve by virtue of development.
What will Big Ben do with all the extra time his revamped offensive line will give him this year? Get himself into the MVP mix, perhaps?
The Steelers quarterback has Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to throw to, and Isaac Redman is a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
It depends on how run-heavy the offense that comes with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley will be. Whatever "versatile" means when describing Haley's playbook, it sure sounds like it could play into Roethlisberger's hands in a MVP race.
13. Tony Romo
Lost in Dallas' mediocrity last season was a fine season for Tony Romo: He threw for 4,184 yards and 31 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions.
He has lost surprising Laurent Robinson, but Romo still has Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten to throw to, not to mention pass-catching threats DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones out of the backfield. If he can stay healthy and the Cowboys make a run at the playoffs, Romo could photobomb the MVP picture.
12. Calvin Johnson
Jerry Rice is the only receiver to win the MVP award in the modern era. With Randy Moss well past his prime, "Megatron" is today's best bet to win for wide receiverdom.
The hitch in this lies in the inherent quality of his quarterback's play—if Johnson has an MVP season, it is likely his quarterback did too. That automatically puts the receiver behind the eight ball. The Deceptacon would have to haul in an absurd number of touchdowns to overcome the bias—at a very minimum, he would have to match Moss' 22 for the record.
That may be far-fetched, but not impossible from a receiver with that freakish combination of size, speed and talent.
11. Arian Foster
The top fantasy football pick in 2012 is almost the top running back here, but Ray Rice wins out because he is more integral to that offense.
That is not to say Foster is not, however. After all, he is just two spots behind Rice in this discussion.
Foster should put up big numbers in that offense.
Not Quite There
10. Matt Ryan
Signs point to a breakout season from Matty Ice, who, aside for a sophomore hiccup, has gotten better each season.
The fifth-year star eclipsed 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his career last season, and he could soar to new heights as Julio Jones continues to develop. He still has fail-safes Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, and Jacquizz Rodgers figures to play a bigger role catching passes out of the backfield.
It could finally come together for the Falcons this season in an NFC South ripe for the picking. If Ryan continues his ascent as well, his numbers will become hard to ignore.
9. Ray Rice
Now that he has been satiated with a big, long-term contract, Rice can focus on getting back to what he does best: run and catch the football.
The fifth-year man out of Rutgers is the engine that makes the Ravens offense go, despite what Joe Flacco might think of himself. If Cam Cameron can be bothered to utilize Rice to his fullest abilities, he could surpass 2,000 yards this season. He scored 15 total touchdowns last season—a healthy total—but will need to increase that number to solidify his MVP candidacy.
The four-time MVP might be past his prime and coming off four surgeries to his neck that knocked him out of the 2011 season entirely. What business does he have in this list?
Well, winning the MVP award four times has something to do with it. Vindication is another. Even though he is 36 years old, Manning will be a danger to defenses around the league if he is back to form.
He may have a better shot at winning Comeback Player of the Year than the MVP, but never count a Manning out. Unless he is out.
7. Cam Newton
He is the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Can he add an MVP trophy to his collection in just his second season?
Truth be told, Newton was an average passer last season. He threw for 854 yards in his first two games in the NFL, but averaged just 228 yards and 1.36 touchdowns per game on less than 60 percent after that. While not unimpressive for a rookie, those numbers will not get it done in a MVP race.
Of course, there is the small matter of 14 rushing touchdowns he had as well—a league record.
He will need to improve as a passer—and he should—and maintain a high level.
On the Cusp
6. Eli Manning
The younger Manning nearly surpassed 5,000 yards passing himself last season, though having the league's worst rushing attack might have had something to do with that.
After winning his second Super Bowl MVP trophy, is Manning primed for a run at the NFL MVP trophy? He has entered the "elite quarterback" conversation, and he has the talent around him to help get him there.
Mario Manningham may be gone, but Rueben Randle will be a more-than-suitable replacement. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz return to star for Manning at receiver as well. If Manning can fend off the challengers in the NFC East and increase his touchdown total, he will be a serious dark horse to win the award.
Due to injuries, 2011 was Stafford's first full season as a starter in his third year in the league. He was the fourth quarterback in history to eclipse 5,000 yards passing, squeezing in there with a 520-yard performance in the regular-season finale against Green Bay.
He was 23 years old.
Stafford may have help from the best receiver in the league, Calvin Johnson, but the big receiver only accounted for 1,681 of those 5,000-plus passing yards. The offense remains intact, and it looks increasingly likely that the defense will force the offense to put up big numbers to win games.
4. Michael Vick
A season of high expectations quickly crashed back down to Earth for Vick and the Eagles in 2011. Though a disappointing defense had a big hand in the lost season, the dynamic quarterback was not sharp. After completing 62.6 percent of his passes in 2010—cracking 60 percent for the first time in his career—Vick's average dipped back below that threshold last season, hitting on 59.8 percent of his passes.
He has vowed to improve his accuracy this offseason.
Not only did his accuracy falter, but injuries plagued Vick last season as he played just 13 games. He also scored just one touchdown rushing, a far cry from the nine he had scored the season before.
If he can get back to his 2010 form and lead the Eagles to a playoff spot and perhaps the NFC East crown, he will be in the MVP conversation. Of course, as president Barack Obama put it, Vick must be willing to slide.
3. Drew Brees
New Orleans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Saints gave Brees a massive contract at the last possible minute, though the drama may have been overblown.
Brees' assault on the record books got him close last season, ultimately winning him the Offensive Player of the Year award. He is back, and his team is still ticking. It will be interesting to see how he overcomes the loss of Sean Payton—Brees had his two worst games of the season within the three Payton missed last year—and Robert Meachem.
Having Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles helps.
2. Tom Brady
The 35-year-old veteran is coming off a MVP-like season that was simply overshadowed by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. His offense returns every key skill position player save BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who moved on to practice law in Cincinnati, and they added Brandon Lloyd.
The Patriots' porous defense gave Brady plenty of reason to put up big numbers, in part because he needed to keep up. Of course, putting up huge numbers is nothing new for Brady, and he should do more of the same this season.
1. Aaron Rodgers
Who else but Rodgers? The reigning MVP was far more efficient last season than his closest competitor, Drew Brees. To put it simply, if Rodgers had thrown as many passes as Brees, he would have thrown for 6,094 yards and 59 touchdowns based on his averages.
Let that sink in for a bit.
His offense remains largely intact, and Rodgers is heading into his prime. Talk about a scary thought for opposing defenses.
Green Bay did make a marked effort to improve a defense that ranked dead last in the league last season, meaning Rodgers might not not need to put up those numbers. They also might not be so far ahead in the standings that they can afford to sit Rodgers.