With one week remaining in the NFL regular season, the MVP race is wide open.
Players like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dak Prescott all have legitimate cases for the season’s top individual honour, though detractors could also argue against any of them.
Among the more interesting candidates is Tom Brady, who, at age 39, has somehow put together one of the best seasons of his career.
Through 11 games, Brady is averaging 298 yards per game, with a 25-2 touchdown-interception ratio. His 66.7% completion rate is his best since 2007, he’s halved his interception percentage from 1.1% in 2015 to 0.5% in 2016, raised his touchdown percentage, raised his passer rating to its highest in six years, and raised his adjusted yards per pass attempt to its highest since 2007.
But the first number above might be the most important — 11. To many, Brady’s case for MVP is de-legitimized by the four-game suspension he served at the beginning of the season.
While Brady sat out, the Patriots went 3-1, getting 1.5 games of strong play from Jimmy Garoppolo before rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett took over when Garoppolo injured his shoulder. The Patriots flattened the Texans in a Week 3 win with Brissett at the helm, then came out flat against the Bills in Week 4, losing before Brady’s return.
The Patriots’ strong start without Brady (or much of Rob Gronkowski) called to question how much of Brady’s historic career is due, in part, to Bill Belichick’s plug-and-play system. If Brissett could go 1-1 against the Texans and Bills on 28-of-46 passing with no touchdowns or interceptions, with an injured thumb, perhaps anybody could.
Brady returned for Week 5 against the winless Browns — perhaps the softest landing possible. He slid back into his role with ease, working with a healthy Gronkowski, throwing for 406 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
As seen with his return game, the Patriots’ schedule this season creates a questionable MVP case for Brady. To date, the Patriots have played just four teams currently in the playoffs — the Dolphins (Week 2), the Texans (Week 3), the Steelers (Week 7), and the Seahawks (Week 10). Brady was still suspended for the Dolphins and Texans, the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for Week 7, and Brady was out-dueled by Russell Wilson as the Patriots lost to the Seahawks in Week 10.
Two of the biggest tests of Brady and the Patriots’ season have been games against the Ravens and Broncos (two teams eliminated from playoff contention) in Weeks 14 and 15. The Ravens entered the week against the Patriots as the leaders of the AFC North while the Broncos were still in the playoff hunt when they played the Patriots. While Brady and the Patriots deserve credit for beating two top defensive teams, in the end, neither were good enough to make the playoffs. Additionally, while Brady played well against the Ravens, he had one of his worst games of the season against the Broncos’ strong pass defence, completing 50% of his passes for 188 yards and no touchdowns in what turned out to be a defensive battle.
In total, Brady has played just four teams with records above .500, and only five teams with defences that rank in the top half in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. Consider that Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan have both faced seven teams currently above .500 this season, with six games against teams that rank in the top half of defensive DVOA.
None of this disqualifies Brady’s case for MVP, so much as it takes some air out of it. While Brady has put up some historic numbers for his career, he’s also done it on a soft schedule while the Patriots proved they can at least maintain their competitiveness without him.
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