— Some votes are easy to cast.
High-school homecoming queen? In our class, a long time ago, it was a no-brainer — a brown-haired beauty named Jacqueline.
Local school-board elections? Friends and relatives, no matter what.
NFL Most Valuable Player, 2007? Tom Brady. He shattered records and was the best player on a team that went 16-0.
MVP, 2008? This, I’m afraid, will take considerable thought.
Brady is injured, the Patriots are human and the only player having an off-the-charts season plays for a team on the periphery of playoff contention — Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
So, in essence, the MVP race has turned into a BCS-like event — full of heated debate. With three games to go, the leading candidates are:
1. Kurt Warner, Cardinals quarterback
Warner’s Hollywood-worthy career has taken more twists and turns than an Oliver Stone movie. He won two MVPs with the Rams, but was kicked to the curb by the Rams and Giants, landing in the desert, where he has taught perennial losers how to win.
With Warner serving as the triggerman in their pass-happy attack, the Cards have emerged as one of the year's best stories. They secured just their second winning season since 1984, their first division title in 33 years and they will play their first home playoff game since 1947. That was two cities ago, when they were known as the Chicago Cardinals.
The Cards are built around their passing game, featuring stud receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. But make no mistake, Warner is the catalyst. He has a touchdown pass in 21 straight games, the longest active streak in the league. He has passed for 4,020 yards and he’s second with a 99.1 passer rating. The Cards don’t have enough balance to be a serious threat in the postseason, but without Warner, they’d be a .500 team (at best) following the lead of party boy Matt Leinart. Yeesh.
2. Eli Manning, Giants quarterback
Has there ever been a more under-appreciated Super Bowl MVP? Manning’s stats don’t jump off the page, but he deserves to be in the MVP conversation because he’s the most important player on the league's best team.
Since their Super Bowl championship, the Giants have lost Michael Strahan (retirement), Osi Umenyiora (knee injury), Jeremy Shockey (traded) and Plaxico Burress (stupidity) — more talent than some teams can dream about. But the Giants haven’t slipped. If anything, they’ve gotten stronger, in large part, because of Manning’s quiet leadership and steady production — not to mention one heck of a coaching job by Tom Coughlin.
Many years ago, Bill Parcells said a quarterback’s primary job is to get his team in the end zone. Manning does that. The Giants have scored 366 points, second-best in the league. No doubt, he will be challenged over the next few weeks. Without Burress around to draw two defenders, the Giants will see more eight-man fronts to stop their vaunted rushing attack. More than ever, the ball will be in Manning’s hands. For the Giants, that’s not a bad thing at all.
3. Peyton Manning, Colts quarterback
Eli’s big brother singlehandedly saved the Colts’ season from ruin. Decimated by injuries, the Colts were 3-4, staring at the possibility of falling into the darkness. (Actually, they could’ve been 1-6 if it hadn’t been for two Manning miracles against the Vikings and Texans.)
With a patchwork line, with no Joseph Addai for basically three games and with a gimpy Marvin Harrison (until recently), Manning willed the Colts back into contention. He did it with his own health concerns, a surgically repaired knee that clearly affected his performance early in the season.
Since the 3-4 start, the Colts have won six straight, making them one of the league's hottest teams. In that span, Manning has 12 touchdown passes, only three interceptions, with a 68 percent completion mark. Barring a collapse — which won't happen — the Colts will claim a wild-card berth. And you don’t want to be the team that has to face them in the first round.
4. Adrian Peterson, Vikings running back
He’s coming on strong in the homestretch. The Vikings have won five of their last six to take a one-game lead in the NFC North, and the primary reason is, of course, Peterson. Pound for pound, he might be the league's best player. What he does is remarkable. Opposing teams spend an entire week devising ways to stop him — you think they’re worried about Gus Frerotte? — and he still makes them look bad.
Peterson has averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry in eight straight games, tremendous consistency, and his league-leading rushing total is up to 1,413 yards.
If the Vikings win the division, Peterson will have a legit claim for MVP.