Strong finish could push Matt Ryan to MVP honors

After three straight non-playoff seasons, after struggles in a new offense that furthered questions about his future in Atlanta, after his worst touchdown-interception differential since his rookie season, Matt Ryan is sitting in an unexpected position today: atop a pile of statistics that shimmer like gold.

The Falcons (9-5) haven’t clinched a playoff berth or the NFC South Division yet but they can do both Saturday at Carolina. Another video game performance by Ryan would strengthen his candidacy to win the league’s MVP award.

Potential sweet punctuation: The game comes against the Panthers, who last season rode MVP Cam Newton to the Super Bowl.

Nobody, least of all Ryan, is thinking about postseason honors right now. His Belichick-like “We’re onto Carolina” focus has been one of his strengths this season. But watching him and the Falcons’ offense put up cartoon numbers this season in the same offense that led to weekly meltdowns a year ago has been stunning.

Ryan was open about his mistakes in 2015 in a candid offseason interview while watching film. Not everything that happened last year was his fault. Signing center Alex Mack helped create calm in front of the quarterback. But Ryan's improved foot work in play-action, anticipation, precision and attention to detail has never been better.

“I think people don’t understand the level of work required to be good in this league,” Mack said. “I think people have this notion that you just show up and jump onto the field for two hours and go home. In reality it’s a full day with tons of meetings and practice and beyond that, you have to do your own work, your own study and get your body right.”

Julio Jones has missed the last two games with a toe injury but a sideline view has given him a new appreciation for Ryan.

“Just watching him going through his progressions — I never really (realized it) because when you’re on the field, you can’t see what Matt’s doing,” Jones said. “But on the sideline you can see him and you know the play and you see the coverage and he goes through it — boom, boom, boom. It’s unbelievable.”

Ryan says little about the MVP talk when asked. “Honestly, I don’t think about it all that much,” he said this week.

But everybody else is talking about it, so here goes. In my view, there are seven candidates. Three rise above the rest: Ryan, Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott. Here’s how I would rank them going into the season’s final two weeks:

1. Quarterback Tom Brady (New England)

Vote for: He's 9-1 and, at the age of 39, has an absurd touchdown-interception ratio of 22-2. He also ranks second (behind Ryan) in yards-per-attempt and efficiency rating. The only loss came to Seattle 31-24 when New England was stopped at the 2-yard-line in the final seconds. Brady is again succeeding without great weapons around him, other than Rob Gronkowski, who's now hurt.

Vote against: He missed the first four games because of a suspension for Deflategate. The Patriots went 3-1 in those games. This is where the "most valuable" vs. "best performer" debate comes in. Some voters may diminish Brady's value because of the Patriots' record without him. Not me.

2. Quarterback Matt Ryan (Falcons)

Vote for: He leads the NFL in almost every significant passing statistic for the NFL's best offense. The Falcons' have already set a franchise record with 469 points and there's still two games left. Ryan's plus-25 touchdown differential (32-7) leads the league, although he's played four more games than Brady (plus-20).

Vote against: He has weapons that Brady doesn't, starting with Jones. I also can't dismiss the pick-6 and pick-2 that led to the Falcons' loss against Kansas City and costly mistakes against San Diego and Philadelphia.

3. Running back Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas)

Vote for: He leads the NFL in rushing with 1,551 yards, including 13 carries of 20-plus yards and 13 touchdowns. That and the fact the Cowboys are a constant talking point in the national media could win him the award. Well, plus Dallas is 12-2.

Vote against: Elliott could lose votes to teammate Dak Prescott. There are those who tend to value a quarterback over a running back because he has the ball in his hands every snap. Dallas also has the NFL's best offensive line. Many running backs would put up good numbers.

4. Quarterback Derek Carr (Oakland): The Raiders are 11-3 and, like the Falcons, it's because of their offense and quarterback (25 TDs, 6 ints.). But Carr was dreadful against Kansas City (17 for 41 passing) and unimpressive last week against San Diego. He also lost to Ryan head-to-head.

5. Quarterback Dak Prescott (Dallas): Nobody could have expected a fourth-round draft pick to take Tony Romo's job and have this kind of rookie season: 20 TDs, four interceptions, plus six rushing TDs and the third-best rating (103.2) behind Ryan and Brady. But having the luxury of Elliott and that offensive line may lose him votes.

6. Quarterback Matthew Stafford (Detroit): He appears to have become a leader more than at any time of his career — and his greatest success is coming after Calvin Johnson's retirement. Numbers: 22 TDs, 8 interceptions, eight fourth-quarter comebacks. But he has struggled the last two weeks against the Bears and Giants (three interceptions after throwing one in the previous eight games).

7. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay): A lot of folks are jumping on his bandwagon again after a recent four-game stretch during which he threw 10 touchdowns with no picks and the Packers rose from the dead. But nobody should dismiss some earlier performances that contributed to Green Bay's 4-6 start.