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Newton, Watt work their way into MVP mix

At one point, it seemed easy, almost automatic.

NFL MVP? Tom Brady, of course.

Playing with a vengeance in response to the league targeting him in its relentless Deflategate investigation, the greatest quarterback of all time tore through the New England Patriots’ schedule to the tune of a 10-0 start.

Now, I’m not nearly as sure about the name I’ll insert for that category when I fill out my NFL postseason awards ballot for the Associated Press.

Brady remains a leading candidate, but he has company from at least two players who are every bit as worthy of the honor: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Houston Texans defensive end/tackle (and pretty much any position of his choosing) J.J. Watt.

It’s customary to have multiple quarterbacks in contention. Some might want to make a case for Arizona’s Carson Palmer, although it doesn’t seem as strong as the ones for Brady and Newton. It’s customary to have a running back in the mix, too. Some might want to make the case for Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, although he seems like a longshot as well.

It isn’t customary for a defensive player to be considered. Only two have ever won it, and the most recent was Hall-of-Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

Watt, who enters Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills with a league-leading 13.5 sacks, is a slam dunk to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the third time since he joined the Texans as a first-round draft pick in 2010. His prospects of becoming MVP aren’t close to being as certain.

Watt insists he isn’t allowing himself to even ponder the possibility that he could become only the third defensive player to capture the award whose recipients have overwhelmingly been quarterbacks. But you get the feeling he isn’t entirely in love with the idea that the voters might, as usual, be inclined to go with a quarterback for the third year in a row and the eighth time in the last nine years.

“The thing about accolades is that they are voted on by people with opinions and people can have any opinion they want, and that’s fine,” Watt said during a conference call this week with Western New York media. “I can’t control anyone’s opinion and what I say isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion, so all I can do is go out there and play as well as I can possibly play, put the best film out there, and then those people will vote however they want.

“I’ve only been on this earth 26 years, but I realize everyone has their own opinion, no matter what you say. So it doesn’t matter a whole lot to me. All I do is play for the respect of my teammates and coaches, make my family proud and then try and put on a good show for the fans.”

Watt’s take is understandable.

For the record, I am wide open to the possibility of making him the choice. I am among the many who have marveled at his incredible talent and non-stop effort throughout his career. Was he unfairly passed over for MVP in the previous five years? I have a hard time thinking as much, because the winners (Brady in 2010, Aaron Rodgers in 2011, Peterson in 2012, Peyton Manning in 2013, and Rodgers again last year) were absolutely deserving.

But this year, the quarterback discussion isn’t as open and shut. Therefore, it’s easier to pay closer attention to a player such as Watt, especially with the Texans having stormed back from a slow start with a four-game winning streak that puts them at 6-5 and makes them an opponent the Bills must beat to stay alive for the playoffs. And Watt has been mostly responsible for the Texans’ surge with 9.5 sacks in his last five games.

Talk with any Bills player or coach, and the respect for Watt is unmistakable. Watching video of him play, Buffalo’s offensive linemen are left shaking their heads when they see him work from a variety of positions – outside, inside, hand on the ground, standing up – and seemingly always find a way to do damage against every blocking scheme imaginable. Of course, one thing they almost never see Watt do (unlike their defensive-line teammates) is drop into coverage.

“It’s not something major in my job description,” he said.

Brady has been sensational and he is mostly responsible for the Patriots residing in their usual spot among the league’s elite teams. But we’ve seen just how vulnerable he and the rest of the team can look when he’s missing key members of his supporting cast.

Without his top receiver, Julian Edelman, and running back Dion Lewis, he had far more trouble coping with the Bills’ defense than he had when both were in the lineup for the Sept. 20 game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. And when he didn’t have his second-best receiver, Danny Amendola, last Sunday night at Denver, the Patriots suffered their first loss of the season.

In the last two games, Brady has looked uncharacteristically sloppy with some of his passes, with interceptions and near interceptions that weren’t seen through New England’s first nine games. That’s largely a function of his missing targets. And, on Sunday, the Patriots are going to try to beat the Philadelphia Eagles without their most talented player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was injured against the Broncos.

Lost in all of the talk about Brady’s “revenge tour” is the fact the Patriots’ defense has done more than its share to contribute to the team’s current position atop the AFC playoff seeding. The unit ranks in the middle of the NFL in yards allowed, but it has consistently made big stops at crucial times.

Unlike Brady, Newton doesn’t have spectacular numbers. That, alone, might be enough to end any comparison conversations before they begin.

But it shouldn’t. At 11-0, the Panthers are the lone unbeaten team in the NFL. Newton is a major reason for their perfection. Like Brady, he has made the most of a receiving corps that is far from supremely talented. Like Brady, his best target is a tight end, Greg Olsen, although no one will confuse him with Gronkowski.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for Newton is the fact he has the added dimension of making as many big plays with his feet as he does with his ultra-strong throwing arm. Through passing and rushing, Newton has accounted for 26 of the Panthers’ 32 offensive touchdowns, compared to Brady’s 27 of 36.

At the moment, I’m torn on the MVP vote. Hopefully, there will be some separation in the coming weeks.

Don’t be surprised if …

… The Pittsburgh Steelers do a better job of stopping third-down conversions when they face the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night than they did when they allowed the Seattle Seahawks to convert seven of 13 last week. Defensive-minded coach Mike Tomlin made tackling, the main problem the Steelers have had in that situation, a focal point of practice this week. The Colts are tied for ninth in the NFL with a third-down conversion rate of 42.9 percent, but they’ll probably have a much tougher task of succeeding with their fifth different offensive line combination of the season working under the din of a sellout crowd at Heinz Field.

… The Atlanta Falcons, who have lost their last four games, end up losing most or even all of their remaining five games. They have a tough one Sunday at Tampa Bay, followed by a trip to Carolina, then a trip to Jacksonville (the best opportunity for a win), then face the Panthers and New Orleans Saints at home. Quarterback Matt Ryan has been awful, proving to be a terrible fit in the scheme of first-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.