Andy DaltonAsk anyone who they think will win the NFL MVP this year, and the odds are high that you will hear “Peyton Manning” in response from the majority.

You may hear names such as Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, or even Jamaal Charles as well, but one name you will not hear is Andy Dalton.

Dalton, who has been on a tear recently and whose Bengals are serious contenders in the AFC, is a true dark horse candidate for the MVP award, however.

First, the numbers: Dalton is currently fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 2,249 yards and fifth in passing touchdowns with 16, according to pro-football-reference.

Dalton is also completing a career-high 65.6 percent of his passes (ninth in the NFL) and throwing interceptions at a career low rate of 2.5 percent (14th in the NFL for players with 200 or more pass attempts).

Those are above average numbers, and the kind of numbers most teams would be happy to have from their quarterback, but not MVP numbers. However, Dalton’s MVP case has only picked up momentum during the last month when he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month.

During Dalton’s first four games in the month of October, he completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,246 yards (311.5 yards per game, 9.5 yards per attempt) and had 11 touchdowns to go with his three interceptions. Those numbers prorated out to a full season equate to 4984 yards, 44 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Those are MVP numbers. It will be difficult for any quarterback to catch Manning given how great a start he had to the season, but, if Dalton can continue to play at this level for the rest of the season, he will finish amongst the top-five at his position in a majority of the important statistical categories.

MVP voters do not look at numbers alone, though. Whether right or wrong, they also value how a candidates team has performed, and it would be hard to find a team that has played better than the Bengals this season. At 6-2, the Bengals find themselves atop the AFC North and in good positioning to secure a high seed in the playoffs.

More important for Dalton’s MVP candidacy, the Bengals have won four games in a row after a 2-2 start to the season. The Bengals also have three marquee wins against teams are likely to make the playoffs this season (Packers, Patriots, and Lions).

An argument could be made that the Bengals have not played a challenging schedule so far, and do not have a challenging schedule remaining. The Bengals remaining eight games are against teams with a combined winning percentage of .421.

Mixed in there are important matchups against the Colts and Chargers, though, which will give Dalton a chance to outperform two of the better signal callers in the NFL this season.

If the Bengals can finish 7-1 with wins in both of those matchups, and Dalton continues to play at the level he has this month, then he will be in strong consideration for the MVP award at season's end.

Given the name of the award, it is important to also consider Dalton’s value to his team, and that is where his candidacy gets a boost. The Bengals without Dalton are the Buccaneers - a strong defensive team with a stud wide receiver who are in football limbo due to inconsistency at the quarterback position.

Quarterbacks are the most valuable players on the field, and, unless a player at another position has a once-in-a-generation season (Adrian Peterson last year), a quarterback should win this award every year.

The Bengals are where they are in the standings right now because of Andy Dalton. He is the most irreplaceable player on their roster. A.J. Green and Geno Atkins are amongst the best at their positions and would both be detrimental losses, but teams in the NFL win without elite wide receivers and defensive tackles all of the time.

They do not win without an above-average quarterback. When considering Dalton’s MVP candidacy, this is the most important aspect to keep in mind.

The NFL MVP race is still wide open. Peyton Manning has come back to Earth in recent weeks, and there is still a lot of football left to be played. At this point last year, Percy Harvin was the Minnesota Viking considered the favorite for MVP, not Adrian Peterson. It was an injury to Harvin combined with an insane second half by Peterson that led to Peterson claiming the NFL’s most important individual award.

Dalton’s true run at the MVP starts tonight against the Miami Dolphins. Playing in the Thursday night game will allow Dalton an opportunity to shine in the spotlight. The voters will not be watching any other games tonight, the voters will be watching Dalton.

If Dalton can continue his elite level of play from the last three games tonight against a Dolphins team that is still clinging to playoff hopes, the MVP talk will begin in earnest.