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NFL veterans are having some of their best seasons well past their prime

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Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Charles Woodson and Benjamin Watson are just some of the veterans defying expectations at their age.

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The NFL is a young man's sport, for the most part. Careers last slightly more than three years on average. Some positions, like running backs, have a sell-by date of 30 years old. For most players -- except for the occasional kicker who makes it into his 40s -- sustained success into their mid-30s simply isn't expected.

This season is different. There are plenty of older guys making major contributions on the field. Several veteran quarterbacks are putting up monster numbers each week, but two in particular are producing MVP-caliber seasons. Tom Brady, 38, has the New England Patriots at 9-0 and looking like an early Super Bowl favorite. On Sunday, they got the one win that has eluded them for years when they took down the New York Giants, the team that beat the Patriots in the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls. Naturally, it was Brady, the NFL's leading passer this season, who engineered the game-winning drive.

Led by 35-year-old Carson Palmer, the Arizona Cardinals are coming off a huge Week 10 win of their own. Their 39-32 victory over the Seattle Seahawks put Arizona in firm control of the NFC West. Palmer, after his 2014 season was cut short due to injury, has evolved beyond being a temporary fix under center. Now, the Cardinals view him as a franchise quarterback who can guide them for years to come, according to ESPN.

Many thought Palmer's career was over when he underwhelmed in Oakland after leaving the Cincinnati Bengals, but he has managed to have a career renaissance in Arizona. Palmer might just be the No. 1 quarterback in the league right now, given the high percentage of deep throws he has been able to sustain while constantly under pressure, as noted by Pro Football Focus.

It isn't far-fetched to think that he could still be a key player for a while. Palmer is only a year older than Eli Manning and two years older than Philip Rivers, two quarterbacks who are recording some of the best numbers of their careers.

Other longtime veterans aren't slowing down

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (36) and Giants quarterback Eli Manning have also been lighting it up this year. When their teams played each other in Week 8, the two veterans combined for an NFL record 13 passing touchdowns. They obliterated the opposing defenses in the 52-49 shootout, but their performances that day weren't aberrations. Manning has 21 touchdowns and just six picks on the year, while Brees has connected for 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Meanwhile, Rivers is having an amazing season for the Chargers. He has navigated San Diego to a top-ranked passing offense and if the Chargers hadn't been decimated by injuries this year, he might be the favorite to win the league's MVP award. Rivers has had a career season so far, completing 69 percent of his passes for 3,033 yards with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Rivers, Brees, Brady and Palmer are leading the NFL in passing yardage, with 30-year-old Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons rounding out the top five.

Rivers also has a veteran tight end to throw to: Antonio Gates is playing in his 13th season. Even though he has missed five games, the 35-year-old still has 312 yards and two touchdowns in four games this year. He caught six passes for 69 yards against the Chicago Bears in his last game.

Saints tight end Benjamin Watson is playing in his 12th season in the league, and he's on pace to shatter his previous yardage totals. He has caught 46 passes for 551 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games. The best he's ever had was back in 2010, when he had 763 yards and three touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns.

On the other side of the ball, Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson is 39 years old, practically ancient for a player at his position. But Woodson leads the league with five interceptions, and he also has seven passes defended. Against the New York Jets in Week 8, Woodson snagged an interception off Geno Smith, had a pass defensed and also put up four tackles. He had eight tackles against the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week. Many thought his career was about over when he played in just seven games in 2012, but he's still going strong.

Peyton Manning is a cautionary tale

There's one glaring exception to this resurgent play from veterans: 39-year-old Peyton Manning is struggling this season. Although he's now the NFL's career leader in passing yards, Manning is having one of his worst seasons yet. Just two seasons ago, he posted career bests and set league records for single-season touchdown passes and passing yards -- all at 37 years of age. This year, however, his play has taken a drastic nose dive.

With the Broncos at 7-2, Manning is not completely used up. But he hit a wall against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10, and was benched for Brock Osweiler after throwing four interceptions and completing just 5 of 20 passes. Manning is dealing with a torn plantar fascia and a rib injury, and hasn't looked healthy for most of the season. He has thrown 17 interceptions and nine touchdowns in nine games and will sit in Week 11.

Injuries also derailed the Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith's season. The 36-year-old receiver was well on his way to one of his best years ever before sustaining a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 8. Smith was talking about retiring after this year, but he might decide to return after proving he had plenty left in the tank before his injury.

In previous years, there are notable players who succeeded at age 39 and up. Brett Favre had an excellent season with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009, completing 33 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Warren Moon tossed 16 touchdowns and five interceptions when he was 39 years old, and he still played well at 40, too. San Francisco 49ers great Jerry Rice had 1,211 receiving yards in 2002, when he was 40 years old.

Ken Riley and Rod Woodson both had eight interceptions in a season late in their careers. Riley had eight when he was 36 and Woodson pulled down the same number at 37. There is even a running back on the list: Marcus Allen rushed for 830 yards at 36 during the 1996 season.

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Based on their ages, these big-name veterans should be considered past their primes. But as long as Palmer and Brady are destined for the playoffs, and Brees and Woodson are still out there producing each week, being over 30 shouldn't be a death sentence for a player's NFL career. It's hard to say if they'll slow down before it's all said and done. For now, they continue to defy expectations.