New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was the odds-on favorite to win NFL MVP just two weeks ago. Since then, Brady’s knee injury worsened and he lost his best receiving target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, to back surgery.

There’s still hope Brady can stick it to the league and win MVP after serving a four-game suspension for Deflategate, but it’s fading. He’s competing with Dallas Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who could split votes, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Players like Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers also are hanging around in the race.

Brady has a chance to stand out in the final four games of the season without Gronkowski in the offense. The absence of Brady’s best weapon ups his difficulty level to continue producing at an elite level. So, if he can regain his early-season efficiency and continues to avoid turnovers, voters could forgive him for missing four games by playing without Gronkowski.

Despite winning against the New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams, Brady must avoid more performances like he had in Weeks and 11 and 12 — completing a combined 63 of 96 passes for just 555 yards and three touchdowns — to win the individual honor, which Patriots players claim mean very little. Sure, those were solid outings, but they weren’t MVP-in-just-12-games-caliber.

The most games a player has missed and still won MVP was three with Joe Montana in 1989. Montana led the NFL with a 112.4 passer rating that season. Boomer Esiason was second in passer rating at 92.1, so it’s safe to say Montana was leaps and bounds better than other NFL quarterbacks. Only Montana, Green Bay Packers quarterback Don Majkowski and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Keith Millard received votes that season.

Running back Barry Sanders, who had 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns as a rookie, wide receiver Jerry Rice, who had 82 receptions for 1,483 yards with 17 touchdowns, and running back Dalton Hilliard, who had 1,776 yards from scrimmage and 18 total touchdowns, did not.

Brady wouldn’t need to outclass other QBs to the same degree Montana did, but he would have to clearly be the best quarterback in the NFL. Brady currently ranks first in passer rating, third in completion percentage, third in yards per attempt, third in touchdowns per game, fourth in yards per game and first (currently a single-season record) in interception percentage.

If Brady maintains those numbers for the rest of the season, he’ll improve his chances of winning MVP. If his numbers drop without Gronkowski, the award likely will go to someone else.

Does Brady deserve MVP? That’s a topic for another column, but his chances remain.

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images