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The top 5 NFL MVP candidates at the halfway point, ranked

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is on pace to throw for more than 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards. (AP Photo/David Richard)
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Week 9 was a fitting capper to the first half of what has been an exciting NFL season so far, and it once again proved just how much of a quarterback-driven league it is.

Drew Brees and the Saints outscored Jared Goff and the Rams in a thrilling matchup of NFC powerhouses, and in the late game, Tom Brady edged out Aaron Rodgers as the Patriots collected a 31-17 home victory over the Packers.

At 3-4-1, it’s starting to look like this Green Bay team could actually miss the playoffs. The Packers certainly aren’t out of it yet, but something seems to be missing from this year’s team and it must have Rodgers frustrated. He seems to be close to full health as he recovers from the knee injury he suffered Week 1, but it’s clear he’s been limited in the first half.

That keeps him out of our list of the top five MVP candidates at the halfway point of the season — which includes four quarterbacks, and one running back.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

This is the most remarkable story in the NFL. A year ago, Alex Smith played at an MVP level for Kansas City while the rookie Mahomes watched from the sidelines. Many, including yours truly, assumed it would take at least a full season for Mahomes to match Smith’s level of play.

At the NFL’s midpoint, there are these four teams and then there’s everybody else

Instead, Mahomes has exceeded it, and is the front-runner for the MVP award halfway through the season. Running one of the most creative offenses in the league, Mahomes has thrown for 2,901 yards and 29 touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 8-1 start. His quarterback rating is a staggering 116.7, and he’s on pace to a 52-touchdown, 5,157-yard season. That is simply incredible.

Coach Andy Reid did it the right way by letting Mahomes sit and learn during his rookie season. But Mahomes’s ability to pick up and execute the entire offense in his second season has exceeded even the expectations of the coaching staff.

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

At the age of 39, Brees has been outstanding this season, including Sunday’s 45-35 home win over the Rams, when the Saints jumped out to a 35-14 lead, the Rams came all the way back and Brees took control at the end.

Over the previous two years, Brees had completed 70 and 72 percent of his passes, respectively. This year’s his completion percentage is up to 76. His quarterback rating is a remarkable 120.6. He’s only been sacked nine times.

There have been plenty of changes over the past couple of years in the Saints offense, but it’s now at its best. As long as Brees can throw to Michael Thomas and get great production from Alvin Kamara, the Saints can be the NFC’s top team.

Saints and Rams show off the best the NFL has to offer

That’s why Sunday’s win against the Rams was so important. Even though the Rams have the 8-1 record, the 7-1 Saints own the tiebreaker. The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC now goes through New Orleans.

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

He was the league’s MVP at the age of 40. Sure, there is a little drop-off in his game at 41. Some of the throws he would make two or three years ago might not be there.

But think about what he’s done this year. Julian Edelman missed the first four games with a suspension. The Patriots had to trade for Josh Gordon and now Brady has him recording 100-yard receiving games.

Sunday night’s win over Rodgers and the Packers was the classic example of what Brady means to the Patriots. He does enough to win. Brady is completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Aaron Rodgers did all he could but Tom Brady won. Did anyone expect anything different?

The win over the Chiefs earlier this season gives the Patriots the chance to claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

Rivers is having the best season of his career so far. On Sunday, in Rivers’s 200th consecutive start, the Chargers ended any criticism about not beating a good team. They went to Seattle and pulled out a 25-17 win, and at 6-2, the Chargers are arguably the third-best team in the AFC and one of the top five teams in the NFL.

Coaches call Rivers a quarterback savant. His ability to take in information and turn it into successful plays is remarkable. What’s best about what he’s doing this year is he’s not forcing anything. Rivers has one of the deepest receiving corps in football, so there is no need to take unnecessary chances. Rivers is completing 67.1 percent of his passes and has a 116.5 quarterback rating. He’s thrown only three interceptions and has been sacked only 11 times.

The Chargers might have to settle for a wild-card spot, but still have a chance to push the Chiefs for the AFC West title.

Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

An MVP candidate a year ago, Gurley is having an even better season — he just happens to be doing so during perhaps the greatest quarterback year in NFL history. In fact, it’s fair to question whether Rams quarterback Jared Goff is actually a more deserving MVP candidate, given that he ranks second in the NFL with 2,816 passing yards and has been excellent in leading the team’s 8-1 start.

Still, the Rams’ offense revolves around Gurley. Coach Sean McVay forces defenses to respond to Gurley’s ability to run and catch the football. Gurley leads the NFL with 868 rushing yards, while adding 37 catches for 362 yards. Gurley has 16 total touchdowns, as the centerpiece of an offense that is nearly impossible to stop.

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More story lines:

— It’s fair to assume that Sunday’s report about Ravens Coach John Harbaugh being in trouble is valid. Sunday’s 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped the Baltimore Ravens to 4-5. They’ve lost three in a row and four of the past five. They trail the Steelers by a game-and-a-half in the AFC North and trail division rival Cincinnati in the wild-card race.

Ownership considered firing him last year, but wisely stood by him because he is a good coach. But the front office gave him his best receiving corps in years. The defense is one of the best in football. At 4-2, the Ravens had the look of a playoff team. Things have fallen apart since.

— Monday’s MRI reports could determine whether the Washington Redskins are a playoff team. The offensive line is in worse shape physically than last year. Guard Shawn Lauvao may have a serious knee injury. Guard Brandon Scherff is having his shoulder checked out. Right tackle Morgan Moses suffered what might be an MCL injury. Trent Williams is out following thumb surgery.

The Redskins still lead the NFC East, even after Sunday’s blowout loss at home to the Falcons. But if these injuries are bad, it’s going to be very difficult for Alex Smith and the Washington offense to hold off the Eagles for the division title.

— The drop-off in the Detroit Lions' offense without Golden Tate was noticeable Sunday. Getting a third-round pick for him was nice, but the Lions couldn’t execute their three-receiver offense with any consistency. For a third receiver, Matt Patricia had to use running back Theo Riddick in the slot. Matthew Stafford was sacked 10 times in a 24-9 loss to Minnesota that dropped them to 3-5.

“I don’t think any one person would have made a difference,” Patricia said of Tate’s absence. “It’s got to be different all the way across the board as a team.”

— There seem to be mixed signals about what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to do with Jameis Winston. If Winston suffers an injury in the second half of the season that carries into March, the Bucs would be stuck with paying him his $20.2 million fifth-year option bonus. After a 42-28 loss to Carolina on Sunday, Koetter said he’s going to start Ryan Fitzpatrick next week versus Washington.

— It’s still amazing that the Buffalo Bills are stuck with Nathan Peterman at quarterback. The Bills lost to Chicago, 41-9, and Peterman threw three more interceptions. With only eight offensive touchdowns, the Bills have one of the worst offenses in the NFL history after nine weeks. In 130 career throws, Peterman has 12 interceptions.

— Jets quarterback Sam Darnold continues to struggle, but he’s not close to being benched. Darnold threw four interceptions in Sunday’s 13-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins, as he continues to work with a lack of top receiving options. For the season, he’s completing 55 percent of his pass, has 11 touchdowns and 14 picks.

Meanwhile, Jets players are getting frustrated with the 3-6 start.

“We got to find an answer,” wide receiver Robby Anderson said. “It’s got to change. It’s my third year. I understand the emphasis on restructure, rebuild, but I think everyone’s tired of that. I think that’s an excuse. We’ve got to challenge ourselves and improve and make it happen.”