With Cardinals flying high, Warner soars to front of MVP chase

Kurt Warner has gone from Matt Leinart's backup to potential MVP favorite in less than three months.

With Tom Brady on injured reserve and Peyton Manning's individual numbers down this season, Warner became the runaway favorite for MVP in a poll of ESPN's eight divisional bloggers.

Warner, the quarterback who has led the Arizona Cardinals to their first division title since 1975, received five of eight first-place votes. He was the only player to appear on all eight five-player ballots.

Warner finished with 32 points in balloting, followed by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (19 points), New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (16), Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (14), Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner (9) and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (6). Scoring was on a 5-4-3-2-1 points system, with five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place vote and so on.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson, AFC North blogger James Walker, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and NFC West blogger Mike Sando listed Warner atop their ballots. NFC East blogger Matt Mosley listed Peterson first. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky listed Turner first. AFC East blogger Tim Graham went with Eli Manning.

Also getting votes were Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (5 points), New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre (4), Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler (3), Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (3), Washington Redskins running back
Clinton Portis (3), Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington (3), Steelers linebacker James Harrison (2) and Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (1).

The MVP award is determined by voting of a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the league. (None of the ESPN.com bloggers has a vote this year.) The winner is announced the week after the regular season ends.

A look at ESPN.com's top six MVP candidates:

Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals

Warner is putting up MVP-caliber numbers without a dynamic running back to keep defenses off balance. That makes this season different from his 1999 and 2001 MVP seasons in St. Louis, where the Rams' Marshall Faulk remained the focal point of opposing game plans.

Warner is on pace to complete 427 of 621 passes (68.7 percent) for 4,947 yards with 31 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 99.1 passer rating. Those numbers are mostly in line with those from his previous MVP seasons. For reference: Dan Marino threw for more yards in a season once. Marino threw for more touchdown passes twice. Marino averaged more yards per attempt twice. He posted a higher passer rating once.

Unlike last season, when Warner led the NFL in touchdown passes over the final eight games, the Cardinals are racking up stats while winning regularly. Warner has led them to their first division title since 1975 and their first home playoff appearance since 1947, when the team was based in Chicago.

According to Stats LLC, Warner leads the NFL with a 116.0 passer rating when opponents blitz. He has 13 touchdown passes with only two interceptions and four sacks against 170 blitzes. His ability to get rid of the ball quickly has been a key to sustaining drives. Arizona ranks tied for 10th in time of possession despite fielding the NFL's last-ranked rushing attack in yards per game and yards per carry.

Warner has completed at least one touchdown pass in 21 consecutive games, a franchise record and the NFL's longest current streak by seven games.

-- Mike Sando, NFC West blogger

Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

Manning doesn't have the flashiest stats in the league, but no player is more important to his team. One of the reasons the Giants are one of the best rushing teams in football is the respect opponents have for Manning's arm.

He has taken the confidence he gained in last season's Super Bowl run and become a more consistent player -- and more vocal leader. When the Redskins loaded up to stop the run two weeks ago, Manning shredded them with the pass. At the end of a brutal game in Pittsburgh, it was Manning who made several huge plays in the passing game.

He has thrown for 2,747 yards and 20 touchdowns, but the key stat is eight interceptions. And almost half those came in his one truly poor performance of the season -- against the Browns.

Manning has all the intangibles you look for in a great quarterback. He hasn't flinched during all the Plaxico Burress controversy this season. When Burress was out with an injury in training camp, Manning seized the opportunity to bond with young receivers such as Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham. He also identified the fact that the Giants weren't making enough plays downfield and made the deep ball a huge priority.

An MVP award should go to someone a team couldn't live without. On the Giants, everything begins and ends with Manning. If the team needed him to put up Warner-like stats, he certainly could. But he'd rather focus on winning.

-- Matt Mosley, NFC East blogger

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

They've had as many injuries as just about any team in the league, made a strenuous trip to London and had problems on defense all year.

But the 7-7 New Orleans Saints remain in the playoff picture -- barely --- and that's almost entirely because of Brees. In a season in which almost everything else has gone wrong for the Saints, everything has gone right for Brees.

With 4,332 passing yards already, Brees is on pace to challenge Marino's record for yards in a season (5.084). It has been said by some that Brees' accomplishments are inflated because the Saints don't have much of a running game and their record isn't gaudy.

But the fact they're .500 at this point is almost entirely down to Brees. Without him, New Orleans' season already would be over. With him, the Saints are still in the playoff hunt and a strong finish could make Brees' lofty numbers significant.

-- Pat Yasinskas, NFC South blogger

Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings

The running game is about yards, of course. But most coaches will tell
you they value one facet more than any other: explosive plays.

On that scale, Peterson has been the NFL's
best this season. Sure, he is leading the league with 1,413 yards --
almost 150 yards ahead of the league's next-most productive runner.
But just as important, Peterson has an NFL-high 17 rushes for 20 or
more yards.

Those are the types of plays that change games and can alter a team's
course in a season. Peterson has amassed that total through a
combination of speed and power that largely has been unstoppable.

If anything, Peterson is running harder this season than he did in his 2007 rookie-of-the-year campaign, busting through would-be
tacklers aligned close to the line of scrimmage specifically to stop
him. And don't discount the impact Peterson has had on the Vikings'
passing game.

Peterson himself has only 19 catches for 109 yards, but check out what
designated deep receiver Bernard Berrian has done. Berrian is
averaging 20.1 yards a catch on 41 receptions, the highest mark in
the NFL for anyone with at least 30 receptions. Without Peterson
drawing the defenses to the line of scrimmage, either on pre-snap
reads or in play-action, Berrian never would have been left open for
so many long passes.

-- Kevin Seifert, NFC North blogger

Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta Falcons

What was the last defense to stop Michael Turner? It was the Falcons. Seriously. When the team had Turner in for his free-agent visit in March, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith refused to let the former San Diego running back leave Atlanta without signing a contract.

That has turned out to be a huge move as the 8-5 Falcons have been the NFL's most pleasant surprise. That's largely because of Turner, who has shown he can be a true feature back after spending the first four years of his career as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup.

With 300 carries already, Turner has been a workhorse. He has produced 1,269 yards and 14 touchdowns. But Turner's contribution has been about more than numbers. His steady production has allowed rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to prosper. The presence of a strong running game has prevented defenses from putting much pressure on Ryan, who also has benefited from breakout years by receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Just about everything has clicked offensively for the Falcons, but it all started with the arrival of Turner.

-- Pat Yasinskas, NFC South blogger

Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers

Although no defensive player has won the NFL Most Valuable Player award since 1986, Polamalu is pushing the envelope of conventional wisdom this year.

Polamalu is the most dynamic player on the most dominant unit -- offensive or defensive -- in the league this season. The Steelers are No. 1 across the board in total defense, stopping the run and stifling the pass, and Polamalu plays an integral role in the success of every phase.

Polamalu brings certain elements and versatility that no other defensive player provides. He is a great open-field tackler and hard hitter who can blow up running plays, similar to Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders. Yet Polamalu also has the range and coverage skills to make plays against the pass, equal to Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.

The statistics certainly are there. Polamalu leads the NFL with seven interceptions and is first on the Steelers in passes defensed (16) and fourth in tackles (63). Winning also is an important criterion for MVP, and Pittsburgh is 10-3 and one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

Perhaps hurting Polamalu's case is the fact that he is teammates with outside linebacker James Harrison, who has 15 sacks and also is an MVP candidate. Votes often become split when teammates are under consideration.

If there were an award this year for Most Unique Player in the NFL, Polamalu would be a lock. Yet it's still very high praise for a defensive player to be in the running for MVP alongside another strong field of offensive candidates.

-- James Walker, AFC North blogger