2016 NFL MVP Watch: Tom Brady leads the race despite early suspension

After three straight years where the NFL MVP award was basically wrapped up by the time we reached mid-December, we're getting something drastically different this year: An actual race.

With just three weeks to go in the regular season, the race for the NFL's most prestigious individual award is wide open, and it only takes one look at CBSSports.com's weekly MVP vote to see that.

Our five writers were asked to turn in a ballot that listed a top five, and on those ballots, there were a total of nine names. Despite the variety in names, there wasn't a lot of variety when it comes to position. Of the nine players who received at least one vote this week, all of them were either a quarterback or a running back.

Sorry defensive players, it doesn't look like your 30-year drought without an MVP award is going to end this year. Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who won the award in 1986, was the last defensive player to take home the MVP.

That being said, if a running back wins the award, that would be mildly surprising. Only one back -- Adrian Peterson in 2012 -- has won the award since 2007.

The leader on this week's ballot is Tom Brady, who has a slim lead over Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Brady has been on top in each of the three weeks that we've been voting here at CBSSports.com.

Apparently, we don't mind suspensions too much here because two players who started the season suspended both made this week's list.

2016 MVP vote heading into Week 15

1. Tom Brady, Patriots -- 23

2. Matt Ryan, Falcons -- 20

3. Matthew Stafford, Lions -- 12

4. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys -- 7

T-5. Derek Carr, Raiders -- 5

T-5. Le'Veon Bell, Steelers -- 5

T-7. Aaron Rodgers, Packers -- 1

T-7. David Johnson, Cardinals -- 1

T-7. Dak Prescott, Cowboys -- 1

Le'Veon Bell and Aaron Rodgers are both newcomers to the list this week. Neither player received a single vote in either of our previous two polls. The biggest mover heading into Week 15 was Matt Ryan, who shot up from sixth place to second place in our voting. Ryan tallied 20 points this week after receiving just five points last week. The Falcons quarterback threw three touchdown passes in Atlanta's 42-14 victory over the Rams on Sunday.

Russell Wilson was the only player who dropped off from last week. He had a disastrous five-interception game in a 38-10 loss to the Packers on Sunday.

This week's ballot included a total of nine names, which is the most of any week this season.

You can see the individual breakdown of each writer's ballot below.

John Breech's top 5

1. Brady

2. Elliott

3. Ryan

4. Bell

5. Stafford

My MVP ballot has basically turned into the all-suspension team, as I'm including both Brady and Bell. The most impressive thing about Bell's stats is that he's the NFL's fourth-leading rusher despite the fact that he sat out the first three games of the season due to suspension. Although Bell isn't receiving very much MVP hype, that will likely change over the next two weeks if he has another one or two big games. The Steelers running back is averaging 161.6 scrimmage yards per game this season, which is just barely off the pace of Priest Holmes' NFL record of 163.4. As for Elliott, he stays put at No. 2 after an impressive game against the Giants. The running back's numbers probably could've been even better, but the Cowboys decided to stop giving him the ball.

Brady is on top though because he took out his brass knuckles and beat down the Ravens defense Monday to the tune of 406 passing yards and three touchdowns. The most impressive part is that he did that against the NFL's No. 1 defense. The Patriots quarterback is inching toward his third career MVP.

Will Brinson's top 5

1. Ryan

2. Stafford

3. Brady

4. Carr

5. Rodgers

Time to give this Ryan dude his due after another Atlanta shellacking of a lesser team, only this time he did it without Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. He is playing superb football and is second only to Brady in passer rating. As for Stafford, Detroit is 9-4, has the second-best record in the NFC and is wildly over-performing expectations. It's largely because of Stafford, who has matured into a totally different QB under Jim Bob Cooter.

On Brady's end, although he is playing with limited weapons and he missed four games, he is still dominating. If excellence weren't the norm and he hadn't missed time he would be No. 1. Derek Carr tumbled in my rankings. It was a precipitous fall here after a horrible Thursday night against the Chiefs. Carr is still having a great year but the Raiders need to close strong. Finally, welcome to the party, Aaron Rodgers! With Green Bay surging, Rodgers is going to attract attention. If the Packers win out and take the NFC North, he will be the reason why and he will get credit for it.

Ryan Wilson's top 5

1. Brady

2. Ryan

3. Stafford

4. Carr

5. Johnson

Brady has 2,470 yards, 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions in nine games, and looks nothing like a 39-year-old-old, 17-year veteran. Ryan, meanwhile, has 4,050 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 13 games to go along with a 113.2 passer rating. And if you're into the whole advanced stats thing, Brady is No. 3 in value per play among passers, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, and Ryan is No. 2. And according to Pro Football Focus, Brady grades out as the league's best quarterback while Ryan is second.

And in case you're wondering, I left Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott off this list for a simple reason: The Cowboys' offensive line is arguably more deserving than the two guys who line up behind them. This isn't a slight against the rookies, or ignoring the fact that Prescott and Elliott have been good (look, I acknowledge that Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Darren McFadden were slightly less successful in the roles last season), but it's also hard to overlook what the other names on this list have accomplished.

Sean Wagner-McGough's top 5

1. Brady

2. Ryan

3. Bell

4. Stafford

5. Prescott

I dropped Carr after his putrid outing and added Ryan, who deserves some love after throwing three touchdowns in three quarters without his top two receivers. I'm including Bell for the first time because, like David Johnson, he's so important to his offense -- not just as a runner. His 298-yard game (total yards) against the Bills is a decent example of that. And unlike Johnson, Bell's team is good enough to make the playoffs. Brady remains atop my list because he just tore up one of the league's best defenses with more than 400 yards and three touchdowns. In my mind, he wrapped up the award.

Jared Dubin's top 5

1. Brady

2. Ryan

3. Elliott

4. Stafford

5. Carr

Brady is 8-1, completing 69 percent of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt, and has a 22-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That transcendent performance I've been saying I was waiting for before elevating one of the quarterbacks over Elliott? That's it, right there.

CBS Sports Writer

John Breech has been at CBS Sports since July 2011 and currently spends most of his time writing about the NFL. He's believed to be one of only three people in the world who thinks that Andy Dalton will... Full Bio

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