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Winner Takes All

Tommy had them all, so who's next? Getty Images

Trying to handicap the MVP race? Well, virtually every top vote-getter since the 1982 strike season has shared three key attributes. Let's go through them one-by-one and eliminate any of this year's leading candidates who come up lacking. Last man standing gets the goods.

YOU GOTTA BE A WINNER
Only three of the 27 MVPs since 1982 didn't win a division title. One of this trio—Marshall Faulk in 2000—lost the division on a tiebreaker. The other two—Barry Sanders in 1997 and Steve McNair had to share the award. Meanwhile, Sanders is the only MVP since 1982 who played on a team that failed to win 10 games.

Goodbye: Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Clinton Portis, DeMarcus Ware, Philip Rivers

YOU GOTTA LIVE THE FANTASY LIFE
Since 1991, McNair is the only MVP who didn't score the most fantasy points at his position. Go back to '82, and McNair is the only MVP who didn't finish in the top three at his position. Yep, the numbers matter.

Adios: Brian Westbrook, Eli Manning, Kerry Collins, Jay Cutler, Kurt Warner, Adrian Peterson

IF YOU'RE NOT A QB, YOU GOTTA BE BEYOND GOOD
Running backs and receivers don't win the MVP merely for being tough and durable. LT (2007), Shaun Alexander (2006) and Marshall Faulk (2000) each set the touchdown record, as did Jerry Rice in 1987. Terrell Davis (1998) and Barry Sanders (1997) were both members of the 2,000-yard club. Meanwhile, Lawrence Taylor (1986), the only non-skill position player to win since 1982, set a sack record for linebackers and changed the way the game was played. In other words, the non-transcendent need not apply.

Sayonara: Thomas Jones, James Harrison, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu

That leaves precisely one candidate: Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams. He leads all running backs with 265 fantasy points, has a league-best 20 touchdowns, and plays for a team that leads the toughest division in football, the NFC South. Unlike Peterson, Williams hasn't fumbled the ball once this year, and took advantage of his late-season opportunities on the national stage with 294 yards and six TDs in games against the Buccaneers and Giants.

Whither Peyton Manning? It would be the first time in 25 years that a player with Manning's profile won the award. His team's a Wild Card, not a division winner, and he's somewhere between third and sixth in every available statistical measure of quarterback performance. Manning's argument for candidacy ironically looks like Steve McNair's resume from 2003; McNair split the award with Manning that year, but he had a much stronger reputation then as a one-man team and fearless leader than Manning does now.

Check out espnthemag.com's gallery of the candidates' "MVP Moments"