Sometimes the MVP race is a one-man race, and it’s all over but the actual voting. When Tom Brady threw 50 touchdowns in 2007, no one was taking it from him. When LaDainian Tomlinson scored 23 touchdowns in eight games in 2006 (and a record 31 for the season), it was game over. But this year? Not so much.
There are a handful of candidates in the mix, and the voting gets even more interesting given Russell Wilson’s recent struggles and Carson Wentz’s injury. Is it Tom Brady’s to lose? Can anyone else put up a fight? Here’s a look at the five most likely MVP winners, and how they can lock it up in the final two weeks. They’re ranked from #5 to #1, but realistically, it’s anyone’s race.
Honorable Mention: Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Carson Wentz won’t win the MVP award anymore. His torn ACL put an end to a simply sensational season, one in which he was leading the league in touchdown passes for the team with the best record. You do those two things and you’re likely to win the award. What Wentz accomplished in just 13 games should still put him right in the thick of the race – after all, Marshall Faulk once won the award playing in just 14 of 16 games – but voters remember how the season ends, and unfortunately for Wentz, he’s on injured reserve. For what it’s worth, the same applies to Antonio Brown. Wide receivers don’t win the MVP award anyway, and Brown likely would have needed 2,000 yards to have a strong chance.
5. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Interestingly enough, Ben Roethlisberger’s MVP odds are boosted by Antonio Brown’s injury. Brown and Roethlisberger would have taken votes away from one another, just as Roethlisberger will be competing with Le’Veon Bell for such an honor. After a slow start to the 2017 campaign (7 TD to 8 INT in his first six games), Roethlisberger has heated up. He’s thrown for 19 touchdowns to just six picks in his last eight games, posting a 102.0 passer rating along the way. The Steelers have lost just one game, although unfortunately, it was a three-point loss to the New England Patriots in which Roethlisberger threw the game-ending interception.
What Needs to Happen: The Steelers need to earn the No. 1 seed, which means the Steelers need to win both of their remaining games and the Patriots need to lose one of their last two. Roethlisberger also needs to play well. He’s 138 passing yards behind Tom Brady and four passing touchdowns behind Russell Wilson. If he can somehow lead the NFL in either or both of those categories while quarterbacking the AFC’s No. 1 ranked team, he has a good chance at his first MVP award.
4. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
When you have not one, not two, but three MVP-caliber offensive players on the same team as Pittsburgh does, they’re bound to take votes away from one another. So does that mean Le’Veon Bell is less valuable, simply because Ben Roethlisberger is good and Antonio Brown is amazing? Maybe. But Bell has done seemingly all he can do. Through 14 games, he’s proven to be arguably the best running back in football. He can run the ball, as evidenced by a league-leading 1,222 rushing yards, and he can catch the ball – 80 receptions for 649 yards. With two games to go, Bell is a sure bet to top 2,000 scrimmage yards, and he’s going to handle the ball well over 400 times.
What Needs to Happen: The last three running backs to win league MVP all had historic seasons. Adrian Peterson (2012) rushed for 2,000 yards fresh off an ACL tear. LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) and Shaun Alexander (2005) set new single-season records for rushing touchdowns. If Bell can maintain his slim lead on the rushing crown (21 yards over Kareem Hunt), that will help his case. If he manages to top LaDainian Tomlinson’s halfback record of 100 receptions – this is admittedly a stretch, considering he needs to average 10.5 per game over his final two contests – that will help even more. And if he can play all 16 games, lead the NFL in rushing yards, and top 100 catches (which would see him picking up the load with Brown out), he has a pretty good chance.
3. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Jeff Fisher is gone, and thus, Todd Gurley is back. New head coach Sean McVay has utilized Gurley in all facets of the offense – as a runner (1,187 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns) and as a receiver (54 catches for 630 yards and four more scores). Gurley has 1,817 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns. By comparison, Bell has 1,849 yards and 10 touchdowns. As good as Bell has been, Gurley’s significant lead in touchdowns means he may be considered the MVP favorite right now – at least among running backs.
What Needs to Happen: Gurley is 35 yards behind Bell in the race for the rushing crown. Winning the rushing title would really help, but considering his most impressive stat is his touchdowns, that’s the big factor here. If Gurley can find the end zone five or six more times this season and finish with 22 or 23, he has a good chance. Admittedly, that’s a lot of scoring. At the minimum, Gurley needs to reach 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, but even then, he’s going to need to separate himself from Bell.
2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
In terms of sheer value to his football team, Russell Wilson is #1. He’s on pace to set the all-time record for highest percentage of his team’s total offense in terms of yards. He threw three interceptions against Jacksonville and barely mustered any scoring against the Los Angeles Rams, but don’t blame that all on Wilson. His best running back this year has 208 yards. Wilson has 2.5 times that amount. Wilson himself has three times as many rushing touchdowns as the rest of his team combined. He’s been asked to throw the ball at a higher rate than any season of his career, and he’s responded with 30 touchdown passes, of which a full 17 have come in the fourth quarter. The once-legendary Legion of Boom defense has been without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, and the Seahawks are in the middle of the pack in many key defensive statistics. The only reason they’re winning football games is because of Russell Wilson.
What Needs to Happen: Seattle can’t miss the playoffs, and right now, they’re on the outside looking in. Football Outsiders lists their odds as just 10 percent to still be playing come January. The Seahawks absolutely need to win their final two regular season games, they need one of the three NFC South teams (Atlanta/Carolina/New Orleans) to lose out, AND they need Detroit to lose at least one game. It’s not good odds, but certainly not impossible. If Seattle does make the playoffs, you know that means Wilson played well, and that could lock up the MVP award for him.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
The league’s oldest position player may be its best. Tom Brady is doing what he’s always doing – he’s directing the NFL’s best team to another first-round bye and he’s putting up stellar offensive numbers. Brady lost his best wide receiver, Julian Edelman, in the preseason, but he essentially hasn’t missed a beat. Brady leads the league in passing yards (4,163). He’s compiled a 28-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and his 104.0 passer rating is tied for second-best in the game. His play has cooled off as of late (2 TD, 4 INT in his last three games), but beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14 was huge.
What Needs to Happen: It’s likely Brady’s award to lose, especially if Seattle misses the playoffs. As long as New England wins its final two regular season games to secure home field advantage – and Brady plays well – he’s probably going to win his third MVP award. Not a bad feat for a 40-year-old man.