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Breaking down the NFL MVP race: If Dak Prescott wants it, Cowboys might need No. 1 seed

The NFL MVP race isn't usually wrapped up with five weeks to go. But it's rarely this wide open.

There are between six and eight viable candidates, depending how generous you are, with others who could make it interesting with a great finish. That might speak more to this season's field, which has been hurt by numerous quarterback injuries. But someone is going to win MVP, and it's hard to tell who it will be.

Here is a breakdown of the race with five weeks to go:

Has the stats on a good team: Tua Tagovailoa

Because some refuse to acknowledge Tagovailoa is a top quarterback, it'll be hard for him. He's not as easy of a vote as some others. Tagovailoa having 10 interceptions won't help. But he's got a shot at 5,000 yards and 35 touchdowns with a strong finish, and the Dolphins are in the race for the AFC's No. 1 seed. But those who attribute all of Tagovailoa's success to coach Mike McDaniel or throwing to Tyreek Hill probably will look in other directions. Tagovailoa probably needs 5,000 yards and the top seed, which is feasible.

Old MVPs out of the AFC: Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes

Jackson and Mahomes aren't having obvious MVP seasons. But they're brand name quarterbacks on teams that have a shot at the No. 1 seed in their conference. That's enough to get them in the race. Both have won MVPs before. A strong finish from either might do it. It seems fair to project that of the three QBs from the AFC who have a realistic shot — Jackson, Mahomes, Tua Tagovailoa — we'll eventually keep the one from the No. 1 seed and eliminate the other two. More on the recent No. 1 seed/MVP correlation in a moment.

Still has a great case: C.J. Stroud

Stroud leads the NFL with 3,540 passing yards. He is averaging a strong 8.5 yards per attempt. His 20-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio is fantastic and better than some others in the MVP race. The Texans were supposed to be one of the NFL's worst teams but at 7-5, they're still in the playoff race. Has any quarterback meant more to a winning team's success this season than Stroud? He won't win because he's fighting a lot of history, most notably that he's a rookie, but I'm still not sure why he shouldn't get serious consideration.

If only a non-QB could win: Tyreek Hill

Since Emmitt Smith won MVP in 1993, every MVP has come from one of three categories: quarterback, running back with a 2,000-yard season, running back who set a season TD record. A receiver has never won the award. Other recent candidates with unbelievable seasons, like J.J. Watt in 2014 and Cooper Kupp in 2021, didn't have a fair chance. That's why it's hard to believe Hill wins.

But he deserves it. Hill is on pace for 132 catches, 2,098 yards and 17 touchdowns. His speed affects the defense of every team the Miami Dolphins play. The Dolphins are in the mix for a No. 1 seed and plenty of people don't give the credit to Tua Tagovailoa for that. Hill is the one tilting the field for an offense that is second in points scored and first in yards. Sounds valuable. Maybe if he reaches the magical 2,000-yard mark, which would be an NFL record for receiving yards, that gets him some votes. Getting 2,000 yards rushing pushed Adrian Peterson, Terrell Davis and Barry Sanders over the finish line for MVP. But if Jerry Rice never won an MVP, it's hard to believe Hill will. Though he should.

Here's who will win: Brock Purdy or Jalen Hurts or Dak Prescott

MVP voting has become formulaic. It's very likely be a QB off a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. And way more likely to be from the No. 1 seed.

Via NBC Sports' Peter King, of the last 10 MVPs, eight have come from a No. 1 seed and two are from a No. 2 seed. All of them are quarterbacks. Adrian Peterson was an outlier winner in 2012. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, the MVP also came from a QB off the No. 1 seed.

So using the past 14 years as a guide, you have a 79% chance of winning MVP if you're the QB on a No. 1 seed. That gives hope to the QB of the AFC team that eventually gets the No. 1 seed. But it probably boils down to the NFC.

Hurts and Prescott are doing well in the race. Hurts doesn't have the passing stats (a fairly mundane 93.5 passer rating and 10 interceptions) but a lot of comeback wins and highlights for a 10-2 team. He also barely missed out last season, perhaps due to injury, and voters might believe it's his turn. Prescott has been on fire lately. Over Dallas' last six games, Prescott has 21 TDs, two INTs and a 121.5 passer rating. The Cowboys are 6-1 in that stretch. If he keeps playing anywhere near that level and leads the Cowboys to the No. 1 seed, he's likely to win.

Purdy will be an interesting case. He has 3,185 yards on a ridiculous 9.6 yards per attempt. His 116.1 passer rating leads all starting quarterbacks. But he'll always have detractors who want to give the credit to Kyle Shanahan and all of the 49ers' offensive stars. Still, voters love quarterbacks for No. 1 seeds. If Purdy has the best passer rating in the NFL and his team gets the No. 1 seed, the way he'd lose is if those who don't credit him for his own success pivot to the QB from the AFC's top team.

The formula of QB from the No. 1 seed getting MVP hurts Prescott the most. According to DVOA's playoff odds, the Cowboys have just a 5.5% chance to get the top seed (the 49ers are at 54.7% for the No. 1 seed and the Eagles are 34.5%).

There are at least eight candidates with a reasonable argument to be in the MVP conversation. Based on stats, probabilities and voting history, Purdy should be the favorite. But he won't run away with the award, setting up a great debate over the last five weeks of the season.