By Flint Wheeler

The annual discussion about who is the NFL’s MVP is heating up, but this season features a group of players with plenty of imperfections. Through all the imperfections, one must look at the player who has done the most to improve these faults and lead his team forward. That player is Matthew Stafford.

Stafford has always been a gunslinger with a rocket arm, but his decision-making was routinely questioned. For years, he had Calvin Johnson to lean on and get him out of some bad spots, but the Detroit Lions quarterback has flourished without the six-time Pro Bowler.

Stafford’s numbers are basically on course to finish the same as last season in every category except interceptions. The signal-caller has realized that his receiving core isn’t full of sure things like Johnson and has learned to protect the football instead of just heaving it. Through 13 games, Stafford has thrown seven interceptions, which puts him on pace to throw just nine this season. Stafford has never thrown fewer than 12 picks in any season he has played, outside of 2010 when he made just three appearances.

Stafford has also accomplished this with an anemic rushing game that provides him next to no support. This lack of runners has meant that teams have been able to pin back their ears and rush Stafford, which has been a huge mistake. Stafford has a 63.6 completion percentage with seven touchdowns and no interceptions while being blitzed this year.

Maybe the most pivotal number? Eight. Stafford has led the Lions to eight fourth-quarter comebacks this season. Detroit has nine wins. When the game is on the line and you need someone to put the team on his back, Stafford is above everyone else.

The theoretical MVP field basically consists of quarterbacks and Ezekiel Elliott, which means that attention could be diverted away from Stafford, as voters who prefer QBs could be split between the likes of Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, etc.

Ezekiel Elliott has been the best running back in the NFL and it hasn’t even been close. Despite being a rookie, Zeke leads the league in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, rushes of 20-plus yards and first downs. Elliott has been a big reason why the Dallas Cowboys went from 4-12 with the 22nd-ranked offense in 2015 to 12-2 and the fifth-best offense this season.

Elliott has cemented himself as the favorite to win the NFL MVP, as the running back is currently +190 to claim the prize. The +190 line makes him the biggest favorite any player has been this season to win the MVP.

The only other player that is seemingly within striking distance of Elliott is Tom Brady. Despite missing the first four games of the season, the New England Patriots quarterback ranks in the top five in the NFL in yards per attempt, passer rating and passing yards per game. It is Brady’s efficiency that is otherworldly, as the 39-year-old has thrown just two picks in 372 passing attempts.

The real darkhorse is Le’Veon Bell. In all honesty, Bell may be the most dominant player in the NFL when he is fully healthy and on the field. In Bell’s 11 appearances for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, he is averaging 158.8 yards of offense. His lack of touchdowns (7) and his lack of games played make it hard to justify Bell winning the MVP, but he dominates like few other players in recent memory.

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