There's a new sheriff in town.
Or is there?
Did Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer surge ahead of Newton and the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the MVP battle by leading the Cardinals to their ninth straight win on a day when both of his competitors lost?
NFL Nation reporters David Newton (Panthers), Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Josh Weinfuss (Cardinals) debate:
Newton: I won't say Palmer passed Newton, but he at least pulled within striking distance and kept this interesting. Newton still is the best player on the team with the best record (14-1). That he was having a career year with an undefeated team -- with emphasis on the undefeated part -- was a big reason he initially surged into the lead and overshadowed the great seasons that Palmer and Brady were having.
If Newton has a bad day against Tampa Bay like the one he had against Atlanta and the Panthers lose the top seed in the NFC to Arizona, the vote likely will swing to Palmer. And to say Newton had a bad day against Atlanta isn't completely fair. There were at least three big drops that contributed to the Panthers' 20-13 loss and his passer rating of 69.0. None was bigger than the one that went off the fingertips of tight end Greg Olsen, the most sure-handed receiver on the team, with Carolina driving at the Atlanta 29-yard line in the final minutes.
The drops contributed to Newton going 0-for-7 on third- and fourth-down plays; it was the first time in his career he failed to complete a pass on third down. Newton also had one of the toughest runs I've seen him make when he spun and bounced off tacklers for eight yards on a third-and-8 play. But ultimately people are going to remember that Newton was less than spectacular in a loss and Palmer was spectacular in another win. This could go down to the wire.
Reiss: No, David and Josh, they won't have to change the engraving on the MVP trophy. That was ordered a few weeks ago with Newton's name on it, and one blip in Week 16 isn't going to change that. If anything, I would say the Week 16 developments might have helped Palmer leapfrog Brady -- and that has less to do with what Brady did than what Palmer did. I said this to a good pal on Sunday: Arizona might be the best team in the NFL that few talk about. Palmer is a big reason for the Cardinals' success.
But 2015 is Newton's year when it comes to the regular season; his presence has helped lead Carolina to a great season, despite losing No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the preseason and playing behind an offensive line that entered the campaign as a major question mark.
Weinfuss: I tend to agree with Mike, but at the same time, if Newton loses again on Sunday and Palmer wins -- especially if Palmer wins big -- then I think we need to think about Palmer as the favorite. I have thought for a few weeks now that Palmer was second in the race. I haven't been overly impressed with Brady this season, especially compared to what Palmer has done. Mike, you are 100 percent correct, but I'll take it one step further: The Cardinals are the best team in football and no one talks about them. The gap between Palmer and Newton was narrowed considerably in Week 16, but I still think Newton's 14-0 start was enough to keep him as the front-runner.