This Week in the NFL: Cam Newton has earned MVP honors _lowres

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2015, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) breaks a tackle by New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul (90) during the first half of an NFL football game in East Rutherford, N.J. We know the Panthers won the NFC South in 2014, but they did it with a 7-8-1 record. Their playoff win was over a severely undermanned Arizona. To see them win their first 14 games and for Newton to emerge as one of the NFL's elite players was unexpected. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

There was some reluctance to believe in Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in these parts earlier this season.

It was hard to buy in on Newton as a true MVP candidate because of his completion percentage and some of the other things that are typical hallmarks of the quarterback position.

That thinking was faulty.

Newton can be evaluated like a typical quarterback. He brings so much more to the Panthers than passing yards and a completion percentage. He allows the offense to be a specific system and his presence in the read-option helps his running backs pick up extra yards.

All of that is because of Newton. His completion percentage (58.6) will likely rankle some purists, but Newton has done enough this season to be considered the MVP in these parts.

Runner-up

CARSON PALMER

There would be no complaints here if someone wanted to put Palmer up as the league MVP. He’s reached that intersection where experience has matched skill to help him put together an incredible season.

As good as Carolina has been this season, thanks to Palmer and a strong defense, the Cardinals might actually be the team to beat in the NFC.

Second runner-up

TOM BRADY

The Patriots have battled enough injuries this season that no one could blame them if they folded up and fell apart. That hasn’t happened, and the main reason is because their quarterback, Tom Brady, has been around to lead them out of it.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski deserves some credit for that, as he’s perhaps the biggest mismatch in the NFL, but Brady is the guy who makes this team go.

Nick Underhill

NICK’S PICKS: Underhill’s top five teams (this week)

1. Cardinals (13-2)

This team has everything going for it right now. It has been hit with some injuries in key spots but has done a good job filling those gaps. This is the team to beat.

2. Panthers (14-1)

Maybe it was unfair to drop this team, but in these power rankings, just like in college football, it’s better to lose early than to lose late. The Panthers are 1A behind Arizona.

3. Patriots (12-3)

The injuries are catching up to them. The good news is the quarterbacks slated to be in the AFC playoffs aren’t very good. That could give the Pats some time to get healthy.

4. Chiefs (10-5)

Kansas City sneaks on this list in the final week. Perhaps that was an omission. This team has won nine straight games and is peaking at the right time. Some sleeper potential here.

5. Broncos (11-4)

Denver is still hanging around, but something feels flawed about this team. The defense deserves a little credit, though it’s starting to feel like they’re fading in some areas.

This Week’s Games

Jaguars (5-10) at Texans (8-7)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Texans by 61/2

BRIEFLY: Jaguars QB Blake Bortles has franchise-record 35 passing TDs this season. ... He needs 179 yards to move past Mark Brunell (4,367) for team record for most yards passing in single season. ... RB T.J. Yeldon’s 740 yards rushing are third most among rookies. ... RB Alfred Blue has career-high 596 yards rushing.

NICK’S PICK: Texans 27, Jaguars 20

REDSKINS (8-7) at COWBOYS (4-11)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Cowboys by 4

BRIEFLY: Cowboys going for season sweep of Redskins for second time in past three seasons. Dallas has won 10 of past 14 in series. ... Redskins can win consecutive games at Cowboys for first time since taking three straight from 1987-89. ... Cowboys trying to avoid most losses since going 1-15 in 1989, the year owner and general manager Jerry Jones bought the team.

NICK’S PICK: Redskins 28, Cowboys 24

LIONS (6-9) at Bears (6-9)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Pick ’em

BRIEFLY: Detroit dropped first five games before beating Chicago. ... Lions QB Matthew Stafford has thrown 14 touchdowns, one interception in past five games. ... With expiring contract, two-time Pro Bowl RB Matt Forte could be playing final game for Bears. ... Bears QB Jay Cutler has five TDs, one INT over past three games.

NICK’S PICK: Bears 21, Lions 17

JETS (10-5) at BILLS (7-8)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Jets by 21/2

BRIEFLY: Bills have won four straight against AFC East rival, their longest streak since winning six in row spanning 1995-97. ... Jets can clinch first playoff berth since 2010 with win or tie, or with Steelers’ loss or tie against Cleveland. ... Jets have chance to win 11 games for first time since 2010, and just second time in past 17 seasons. ... Bills out of playoff contention for 16th straight season, NFL’s longest active streak and tied with 1936-51 Detroit Lions for eighth-longest in NFL history.

NICK’S PICK: Jets 24, Bills 23

Patriots (12-3) at DOLPHINS (5-10)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Patriots by 10

BRIEFLY: Patriots have lost their past two games in Miami. ... QB Tom Brady has thrown 21 interceptions against Dolphins, more than against any other team. He’s 6-7 in Miami. ... Brady leads NFL with 4,636 yards passing and 36 touchdown throws despite multitude of injuries to his receivers and running backs. ... Patriots have 14 turnovers, second-fewest in NFL. ... Patriots rank second with 48 sacks.

NICK’S PICK: Patriots 27, Dolphins 23

RAVENS (5-10) at BENGALS (11-4)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Bengals by 91/2

BRIEFLY: Bengals have won four straight in series, their most consecutive victories against Ravens. ... Cincinnati has clinched AFC North and will get No. 2 seed in playoffs if it beats Ravens and Broncos (11-4) lose at home to San Diego. ... Bengals could match best mark in franchise history at 12-4. Also did it in 1981 and 1988, when they won AFC championships and lost to San Francisco in Super Bowls.

NICK’S PICK: Bengals 27, Ravens 23

SteelerS (9-6) at BROWNS (3-12)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Steelers by 11

BRIEFLY: Steelers damaged playoff chances with loss at Baltimore. They must win and Jets have to lose against Buffalo for Pittsburgh to earn postseason spot. ... Steelers are 27-6 vs. Browns since 1999. ... ... Browns have had 14 players diagnosed with concussions since start of training camp.

NICK’S PICK: Steelers 34, Browns 20

TITANS (3-12) at COlts (7-8)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Off

BRIEFLY: Titans have lost three straight, six of last seven, and eight straight to Colts. ... Tennessee can lock up No. 1 overall draft pick by losing season finale. ... Rookie QB Marcus Mariota will miss second straight game with sprained right knee. ... Backup Zach Mettenberger is 0-9 as starter. ... Colts need win, Texans loss and seven other games to break right way to make fourth straight playoff appearance.

NICK’S PICK: Colts 28, Titans 21

EAGLES (6-9) at GIANTS (6-9)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Giants by 5

BRIEFLY: Coaches in focus. Eagles fired Chip Kelly. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will coach finale. Tom Coughlin might be coaching final game with Giants after missing four straight playoffs, their longest drought since missing 17 straight seasons (1964-80). ... Winner finishes in second place in NFC East behind Washington. ... Eagles have won four of five against Giants.

NICK’S PICK: Giants 24, Eagles 21

RAMS (7-8) at 49ers (4-11)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Rams by 31/2

BRIEFLY: St. Louis seeks first four-game winning streak since seven-gamer in 2003. ... Win would end streak of eight straight losing seasons for Rams. ... Loss would leave Niners with worst record since going 4-12 in 2005.

NICK’S PICK: Rams 24, 49ers 17

Chargers (4-11) at Broncos (11-4)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Broncos by 9

BRIEFLY: QB Philip Rivers needs 239 yards passing to break the team’s single-season mark held by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, who threw for 4,802 yards in 1981. ... Denver looking to clinch 15th AFC West title. Broncos can join Oakland (1972-76) as only teams to win five straight AFC West crowns with a win or Kansas City loss.

NICK’S PICK: Broncos 30, Chargers 21

Seahawks (9-6) at Cardinals (13-2)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Cardinals by 6

BRIEFLY: Seattle’s Russell Wilson (109.3) and Arizona’s Carson Palmer (107.7) are 1-2 in NFL QB rating. ... Cardinals haven’t swept season series against Seattle since 2009. ... Seahawks are only NFC West team Cardinals coach Bruce Arians hasn’t beaten in Arizona.

NICK’S PICK: Cardinals 24, Seahawks 20

Raiders (7-8) at Chiefs (10-5)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Chiefs by 7

BRIEFLY: Chiefs have won four of last five vs. Oakland. ... Raiders trying to finish 8-8, matching best finish since 2003. ... Raiders S Charles Woodson playing final game of 18-year career.

NICK’S PICK: Chiefs 27, Raiders 20

Buccaneers (6-9) at Panthers (14-1)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Panthers by 111/2

BRIEFLY: Buccaneers have not been to playoffs since 2007 and not won playoff game since Super Bowl victory in 2002. ... Panthers have rushed for at least 100 yards in 26 straight games, longest streak in NFL. Next longest is Tampa Bay with six.

NICK’S PICK: Panthers 31, Bucs 23

Vikings (10-5) at Packers (10-5)

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Line: Packers by 3

BRIEFLY: Vikings seeking first NFC North title since 2009. ... Packers seeking fifth straight division crown. ... Green Bay playing for third straight season with NFC North title on line in final regular-season game.

NICK’S PICK: Packers 27, Vikings 26

FOR THE RECORD (straight up)

Nick’s picks last week: 7-6

For the season: 123-83