CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and the Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz weren't exactly hot topics in the MVP conversation before the season.
Wentz wasn't on the radar at all, coming off a rookie season in which he threw 14 interceptions to 16 touchdown passes for a 7-9 team.
Newton, coming off shoulder surgery in March, disappeared from the radar three weeks ago after throwing three interceptions at home in a 34-13 loss to the then-winless New Orleans Saints.
Keep in mind it's early, but Newton and Wentz are legitimate contenders for the MVP award that Newton won in 2015 in part because of their statistics and in part because their teams are off to 4-1 starts heading into Thursday night's matchup at Bank of America Stadium here.
You can't call them MVP favorites. Alex Smith has 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions for Kansas City, the NFL's only undefeated team. Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt is making a strong case for the award, as well, with an NFL-best 609 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
Don't forget Aaron Rodgers. He has the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North at 4-1 with 13 touchdown passes and three interceptions.
And as Tom Brady proved in the Super Bowl in February, you can never count him out. Although New England is 3-2, Brady has thrown 11 touchdowns to one interception and leads the league with 1,702 passing yards.
But Newton and Wentz are right there on the periphery, and both will have an opportunity to impress voters in front of a national TV audience on Thursday.
NFL Nation Panthers reporter David Newton and Eagles reporter Tim McManus are here to break down why each is deserving at the moment and whether their play is sustainable:
The good: Newton had his MVP form of 2015 over the past two weeks in wins against New England and Detroit. He threw six touchdown passes and only one interception, completing 77.4 percent of his passes. The latter jumps out because Newton has a career completion percentage of 58.9. His 68.3 completion percentage on the season is up there with Drew Brees (69.1) and Tom Brady (68.2). Newton also surpassed 300 yards passing in each of the past two games, the first time that has happened since the first two games of his rookie season in 2011. And oh, by the way, he's showing his legs still are a weapon, with 15 rushes for 44 yards and a touchdown in the past two contests, after running only 14 times in the first three games. He's still, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "Public Enemy No. 1" as a running quarterback.
The bad: Easy. The first three games. Newton had two touchdown passes and four interceptions. Although Carolina coach Ron Rivera insisted his quarterback was making good decisions, Newton was out of sync with his receivers. He was badly missing wide-open targets. He was at his worst against New Orleans, with two of his interceptions coming without any pressure. That Newton was practicing on a limited basis, still experiencing fatigue in his shoulder, which appeared to be a red flag that he wouldn't get better any time soon. His health was impacting the way offensive coordinator Mike Shula called the game too, with deep passes and called runs all but eliminated from the game plan. It wasn't until Newton increased his practice time before the New England game that things turned around.
Can he sustain it? Here's a stat for you. Newton has eight touchdown passes and five interceptions this season. He had eight touchdown passes and four interceptions after five games in his rookie season; he then threw three interceptions to one touchdown pass in a Week 6 win against Philadelphia. Newton didn't get hot until the final nine games of his first campaign, when he threw 24 touchdowns to two interceptions. That season, Newton began spreading the ball around more after Kelvin Benjamin suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. He has a more talented receiving corps this season with Benjamin, an emerging Devin Funchess and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, who leads the team in catches with 27. McCaffrey, in particular, makes Newton's job easier now because opposing teams have to pay so much attention to the rookie playmaker. The offensive line also is playing more like it did in 2015. Remember, that group was decimated by injuries a year ago, when Carolina lost six games by a field goal or less. So yes, Newton can sustain this productivity as long as his shoulder continues to improve. -- Newton
The good: Wentz ranks in the top 10 this season in just about every major statistical category, including yards (1,362), touchdowns (10) and quarterback rating (97.7). He has shown growth across the board from his rookie season. Nowhere is that more evident than on third down. He now leads the NFL as a third-down passer (71 percent completion rate, 6 touchdowns) after showing inconsistencies in that area in 2016. Wentz wanted more pre-snap control, and he has used it to put the offense in favorable positions with checks at the line of scrimmage. With better weapons such as receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith at his side, and supported by a strong running game over the past several weeks, Wentz has taken the Eagles' attack to another level in Year 2.
The bad: One area that had been a trouble spot for Wentz -- downfield passing -- is showing signs of improvement. Entering last week's game against the Arizona Cardinals, Wentz had completed just 33 percent of passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield -- 28th in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. The long ball game got real healthy real quick on Sunday, as Wentz connected on 57 percent of his downfield throws with three touchdowns. He tossed a career-high four touchdowns in all versus Arizona. There's not a whole lot to pick apart in Wentz's game at the moment. His completion rate (62 percent, 21st in the NFL) could be a bit higher, and he has left some plays on the field -- particularly on deep balls earlier in the season. But overall, he is playing like an elite QB -- just 21 games into his career.
Can he sustain it? There's little reason to think he can't. It won't always look like it did on Sunday, and there are sure to be some stumbles along the way, but Wentz is still very young in his career and should only get better with experience. He has a good supporting cast around him. While he's expected to be without right tackle Lane Johnson on Thursday against Carolina (concussion), Wentz plays behind a quality offensive line and has plenty of capable targets to choose from in the passing game. His style of play does lead to a good amount of hits (35 QB contacts through five games, tied for eighth in NFL), but so long as he stays healthy, Wentz's ascension should continue. -- McManus