2018 NFL MVP Watch: Philip Rivers mounts late push after iconic win over Patrick Mahomes

One final challenger stands between Patrick Mahomes and the MVP throne.

Drew Brees is fading away along with the trio of MVP candidates on the Rams' roster after a lackluster three-week stretch for all four players. It's virtually impossible for a defensive player, even one as dominant as Khalil Mack, to claim MVP regardless of how many times he sacks Aaron Rodgers with his back. Andrew Luck is making noise at the bottom of some ballots, but the climb from the bottom to first place is far too steep to take him seriously as a legitimate candidate. Meanwhile, Mahomes is holding steady atop the leaderboard, setting up what will probably be a lackluster final two weeks of what once was a competitive MVP race. Unless Philip Rivers has something to say about it. 

Rivers has emerged as the final challenger to Mahomes' reign with two weeks remaining in the season. 

It's fitting. To put himself into the MVP conversation to the point where, for the first time all season, he topped one of the five MVP ballots you'll find below, Rivers beat Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City in a game the Chargers never led until four seconds were all that remained on the game clock. He also did it without both Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon on a short week. It might be the most impressive fourth quarter performance of the season.

Down 14 points, Rivers led the Chargers to 15 points in the final eight minutes to steal a win, putting the Chargers in a position to steal the AFC West and the top seed away from the Chiefs. Rivers might not have the statistics that Mahomes has, but he has a signature MVP moment that voters can latch onto, and if the Chargers surpass the Chiefs in the standings, voters will look back at that final eight-point drive as the moment Rivers emerged as a viable usurper. 

He's still got a ton of ground to cover. Mahomes has been the better quarterback all season long, which is reflected by their stat lines. Mahomes has thrown for 592 more yards and 14 more touchdowns than Rivers. He also has his own MVP moment, which came two weeks ago in a come-from-behind win against the one of the league's best defenses. In order for Rivers to win MVP, he won't just need to play out of his mind down the stretch. He'll also need Mahomes to struggle, which hasn't even happened all season long. Expecting Mahomes to stumble in Weeks 16 and 17 is expecting to see something we haven't seen yet. Rivers' late charge is fun and all, but it's probably going to amount to nothing more than that. 

But if Mahomes does finally slip up, it's Rivers who is positioned to steal some MVP votes away from him and it's Rivers' team that is positioned to steal the division crown and top seed away from Mahomes' team. With two weeks remaining in the race, Rivers has emerged as Mahomes' only serious challenger after Mahomes vanquished every other challenger that has sprouted up along the way. 

Below, you'll find our cumulative MVP ballot based on the five individual ballots, all of which you can find further down below. What's notable is that this is the first time since our first installment of this series back before Week 11 that we don't have a unanimous selection. Finally, heading into Week 16, someone went rogue. That someone is Will Brinson, who gave his first-place vote to Rivers. Still, it's Mahomes who topped the leaderboard once again, earning four first-place votes. Also notable is that Brees lost four points while Rivers gained nine points from last week to this week.

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MVP vote heading into Week 16

1. Patrick Mahomes -- 24 points
2. Philip Rivers -- 20 points
3. Drew Brees -- 16 points
T-4. Khalil Mack -- 5 points
T-4. Aaron Donald -- 5 points
T-4. Andrew Luck -- 5 points

Below, you'll find the five individual ballots followed by brief explanations defending the selections. 

John Breech's ballot

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Philip Rivers
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Andrew Luck
  5. Khalil Mack

Drew Brees has taken a giant tumble down my ballot. Three weeks ago, I had him in the top spot, but now he's down to three because the Saints offense has completely fallen apart since Week 13. Over the past three weeks, the Saints are averaging just 16.7 points per game -- they averaged 37.2 points in the 11 games before that -- and a big reason the offense has been struggling is because of Brees, who's thrown more interceptions (3) than touchdown passes (2) since Week 13. 

As for my top two spots, although Rivers won the head-to-head showdown with Mahomes in Week 15, I thought the Chiefs quarterback played slightly better. Remember, Rivers had two absolutely ugly interceptions against the Chiefs before his late-game heroics in the 29-28 win. Also, if you look at the season as a whole, Mahomes has just been better. Of course, Mahomes could lose his grip on the top spot if he has a meltdown in Seattle, which is completely possible because AFC teams are just 1-12 at CenturyLink Field since 2012. 

I have Luck and Mack on my ballot because I'm required to list five names. However, for all intents and purposes, this is a three-horse race heading into the final two weeks of the season. 

Will Brinson's ballot

  1. Philip Rivers
  2. Patrick Mahomes
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Andrew Luck
  5. Aaron Donald

I have a new No. 1: this is not who I think WILL win the award, but who I think should be getting more recognition as a possible winner. Philip Rivers has been playing lights out all season long, he doesn't have a misstep this season and he just beat the Chiefs without Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen. Patrick Mahomes has more support, as does Drew Brees. Andrew Luck has been really underrated all season long. The offensive Rams are off the board now, with their struggles and injuries and whatnot, but give me Donald in this group for the way he's played. 

Jared Dubin's ballot 

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Drew Brees
  3. Philip Rivers
  4. Aaron Donald
  5. Khalil Mack

Something pretty out of the ordinary would have to happen during the final two weeks of the season for this order to change at all. Mahomes leads the NFL in passing yards, touchdowns, touchdown rate, adjusted yards per attempt, and Football Outsiders' DYAR and DVOA. He's ever so slightly behind Brees in passer rating and QBR, but the gap is not nearly big enough for it to outweigh the other areas where Mahomes has an advantage. He has been the best player at football's most important position for pretty much the entire season. Brees is close, but ultimately just short. 

Sean Wagner-McGough's ballot

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Philip Rivers
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Khalil Mack
  5. Andrew Luck

And with that, Brees has fallen out of my top two for the first time all season. Over the past three weeks, Brees has completed 69 percent of his passes, averaged 5.7 yards per pass, thrown two touchdowns and three picks, and accumulated a 77.0 passer rating. He no longer has any chance of unseating Mahomes atop my ballot. The only player with a slim shot of surpassing Mahomes is Rivers, who just went into Kansas City and pulled off an incredible comeback. That's not enough for Rivers to jump to the top of the list, but he's the only player capable of stealing MVP away from Mahomes if Mahomes struggles in the final two weeks and Rivers lights it up. 

Ryan Wilson's ballot 

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Philip Rivers
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Aaron Donald
  5. Khalil Mack

Yes, Patrick Mahomes threw for just 243 yards (a season low) and two scores in the loss to the Chargers but he's still the NFL's best player. You may have heard something about Drew Brees never winning an MVP. Guess what? Neither has Philip Rivers, who was drafted to replace Brees in San Diego back in 2004. Neither will win it this season but Rivers leapfrogs Brees in my rankings. Aaron Donald is again the league's best defensive player and a top-5 player overall (a career-best 16.5 sacks, four forced fumbles) while Khalil Mack's 12.5 sacks (including 2.5 against the Packers on Sunday) is a half-sack more than the entire Raiders defense.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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