Who knew? No. 4 is my No. 1

Three things I never thought I'd say this NFL season:

1. My, what a lovely smile Bill Belichick has.

2. Welcome back to a starting quarterback job, Bruce Gradkowski!

3. Brett Favre is the NFL MVP.

I suppose the first two were always a possibility, but I would have sooner believed Bernie Madoff was returning the billions he stole before believing that Favre, after giving us endless drama and signs his skills had declined, would be the clear-cut MVP in 2009.

I've been extremely critical of Favre in recent years simply because I thought he was as much to blame for his ugly divorce with the Packers as GM Ted Thompson was. He also was disingenuous in his failed comeback with the Jets last season. He went from telling the Jets he was retiring to having corrective shoulder surgery to showing up at the Vikings' practice facility.

But even I can appreciate the special stamp Favre is putting on this NFL season. He deserves high praise for the way he's competed and for elevating the Vikings into serious Super Bowl contention. At 40 years old, Favre is playing better than he ever has.

And by better, I mean he's been more impressive in guiding the Vikings to a 9-1 record and control of the NFC North than when he went to back-to-back Super Bowls and won three straight MVPs as an icon in Green Bay. He's also better now than when he took Green Bay to the NFC championship in 2007.

To Favre/Green Bay fans, that probably sounds crazy, but Favre has never been this poised, this sure of himself and -- you can bet -- this motivated. The difference between the Favre we once knew and the Favre we see now is that Favre 2.0 is playing with an amazing amount of control. Throughout his career, Favre has been known as the quarterback who has tried to do too much, or tried too hard to prove he could make every throw. That anxiousness appears to be gone.

Unless the Vikings completely derail like the Jets did a year ago, Favre will put up numbers he couldn't have imagined at the peak of his career. As of today, Favre has 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. As a full-time starter, Favre has never finished a season with single-digit interceptions; and when you think about the strength of his overall team and the way he's playing, it's entirely possible that he will now.

At 40.

No NFL player entered this season with as much to lose as Favre. Favre's year in New York was a complete bust. And once he orchestrated a return with the Vikings, common sense said he was on track for another colossal failure.

I've been waiting for the other cleat to drop, so to speak, but that hasn't happened. Now I just hope Favre's arm isn't too sore from throwing daggers around the football field, while simultaneously serving crow to folks like me.

Certainly, I don't mean to disregard the MVP campaigns of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, who have been absolutely brilliant in leading their teams to unblemished records. And if you're among those thinking outside the box and believe Tennessee's Chris Johnson or New Orleans' Darren Sharper should be in the MVP conversation, I won't dispute that, either.

But I still consider what Favre has done to be more substantial. Against the Seahawks last week, he recorded a career-best 88 percent completion rate, threw four touchdowns and put up a bagel in the interception department. I realize the Seahawks have struggled all season, but Favre just shredded them.

He's throwing the ball better at 40 than he did when he was 25. And if you watched the Seahawks game, you realized just how much has changed for Minnesota in a year's time. Adrian Peterson is a once-in-a-lifetime player, but not even he could single-handedly make the Vikings into the intimidating force they are now.

Truly great quarterbacks make everyone around them better. Pre-Favre, Sidney Rice was just another player with more potential than actual results. With Favre, Rice is developing into one of the league's best and is on pace to have his first 1,000-yard receiving season. Same goes for tight end Visanthe Shiancoe -- who already has matched his touchdown total from last season -- and virtually every offensive player on the Vikings.

This isn't to say Manning, Brees, Sharper and Johnson haven't meant as much to their teams as Favre has meant to the Vikings. Each has been impressive in his own way. Manning is in the throes of another brilliant year, and it's even more impressive when you consider he entered this season with a new head coach and a bevy of inexperienced wide receivers. Brees and Johnson are putting up ungodly numbers also, and Sharper has an unbelievable seven interceptions, which is second best in the NFL.

But if you're going to give Favre a deduction for having Peterson and a defense ranked among the best in the league, then certainly you have to give his competition's accolades the same wary eye, too. The Colts may have lost arguably their best defensive player in Bob Sanders, but defensive bookends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are hardly slouches -- they've combined for 18 sacks this season -- and neither is the rest of the Colts' opportunistic defense. Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis was ill-advised, but one primary reason that play wasn't successful is because Mathis pressured Tom Brady into throwing to Kevin Faulk before he was ready.

Brees put up more than 5,000 yards last season and threw an astonishing 34 touchdowns, but the Saints finished 8-8. Know what that says? The difference in this Saints team is defense, not offense. That's why you have to consider Sharper's presence just as impactful as Brees'. And while Johnson has been on fire recently -- five straight 100-yard games, including a 228-yard effort in a win over Jacksonville -- Vince Young's re-emergence also should be credited for the Titans' awakening.

The point is, Favre isn't the only one benefiting from a little help. But of all the candidates, Favre is both the oldest and the one whose MVP campaign comes as a complete surprise.

And because of that, he should be the one holding the trophy.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.