In most years, the Super Bowl MVP goes to the quarterback of the winning team. When that doesn’t happen, it usually goes to a running back or a receiver or a star defensive player. Five of the past seven went to QBs — Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees — and last year, Von Miller rightfully took it home.
As for the one guy we haven’t mentioned?
Malcolm freaking Smith was the MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII. During the second quarter of the Seahawks’ 43–8 trouncing of the Broncos, the rotational weakside linebacker, who played 46 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps that year, became a household name by intercepting a Peyton Manning pass in the second quarter and running it in for a touchdown. Seattle’s defense dominated the day, but without a clear standout performer, it was Smith’s play, which put a nail in the coffin of the Broncos, that won him the award.
This Sunday, in a game between two of the most unstoppable offenses in the NFL this year, it’s hard to imagine a defensive player ending up as the star of the show. The odds-on Vegas favorites for the game’s MVP are unsurprisingly Brady (+120, per OddsShark) and Matt Ryan (+200). But the beauty of both of these offenses isn’t just that they’re led by two of the best quarterbacks in the game, it’s that they both feature an unequaled selection of options. Each team has anywhere from five to seven guys who can beat you on a given day, so it seems as likely as ever that come Sunday night, we’ll be talking about another unlikely Super Bowl MVP.
So, who are the candidates?
New England Patriots
For New England, Julian Edelman (+2,500) and LeGarrette Blount (+2,500) immediately come to mind as potential candidates for the honor. Edelman inherited the “no. 1 receiver” title for New England when Rob Gronkowski was lost for the year in Week 12, and he responded by tying Jordy Nelson for an NFL-best 748 receiving yards over the final nine weeks of the season. With 16 catches for 255 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ first two postseason games, he’s already proved that his production late in the year was no fluke. But while Atlanta may have fielded a poor pass defense this season, one area the Falcons excelled in was against their opponents’ top receivers, finishing ninth in the NFL in coverage on no. 1s, per Football Outsiders.
However, Atlanta did not excel against the run, surrendering 4.5 yards per carry — tied for 28th in the league — while finishing 29th in run defense DVOA. The last time Blount faced a 4–3 defense running the same scheme as Dan Quinn’s Falcons — in Week 10 against Quinn’s former team, the Seahawks — he rushed for three touchdowns. Even if Blount’s future Hall of Fame quarterback throws for 200-plus yards with a touchdown or two, a multiscore performance from Blount could still be enough for the award.
After becoming the surprise star in the AFC championship game, Chris Hogan (+2,500) comes in with the same payout as Edelman and Blount. Hogan, who had four touchdowns and eclipsed 100 yards receiving in a game just twice during the regular season, exploded into Patriot lore with nine catches, 180 yards, and two touchdowns in New England’s 36–17 win over Pittsburgh. You don’t have to look back much further to find another potential sneaky MVP for the Patriots. A week earlier in the divisional round, Dion Lewis (+3,300), who scored exactly zero touchdowns in seven regular-season games, found the end zone three times against Houston, becoming the first player in NFL postseason history to score a touchdown on a catch, a rush, and a kick return in the same game.
Let’s not count out Martellus Bennett (+5,000), either — he’s been relatively quiet since Gronk went to the injured reserve, but could still feature prominently in New England’s game plan. He’s proved that a few times already this year, including his seven-catch, 102-yard performance in Week 10 against Seattle and his three-touchdown day in New England’s Week 5 win over the Browns.
If you’re looking for a true Malcolm Smith Long-Shot Award candidate, bet on receivers Danny Amendola or Malcolm Mitchell (both +10,000). They’re both well down the Patriots pecking order, but consider this: Atlanta finished 29th in the NFL in defending opposing teams’ no. 3 (or lower) receivers, surrendering an average of 7.2 passes and 55.1 yards per game. With the Falcons focused on stopping Edelman, Blount, Hogan, and Lewis, both Amendola and Mitchell will have an opportunity to shine. Oh, and remember Jonas Gray? Don’t put it past the Patriots to ignore Lewis completely and suddenly turn to James White (+10,000) to carry the offense.
For the Falcons, Julio Jones (+900) clearly stands out as the most likely MVP candidate outside of Ryan. He simply does things no one else can do. We don’t have to spend a lot of time on this.
Behind Jones, running backs Devonta Freeman (+2,500) and Tevin Coleman (+5,000) are both worthy options. The dual-threat runners and receivers may have some trouble getting much traction in the run game on Sunday: The Patriots were one of the best in the league against the run this year, finishing fourth in rush defense DVOA. But both have a real chance to do some damage in the passing game, as New England finished just 20th in the NFL in coverage on opposing running backs. Whether it’s Freeman or Coleman (or both) on the field, the Patriots are going to have to figure out how to match up with them in coverage without losing their strength against the run.
However, one of the things that made the Falcons so good this year is their wealth of options in the passing game. There’s Mohamed Sanu (+4,000), a reliable, chains-moving possession receiver who led the team in targets (23), receptions (17), and first downs (12) on crucial third-down plays, and there’s Taylor Gabriel (+6,600), an explosive, field-stretching deep threat. Both players bring the potential for the big play. For Sanu, it’s his tackle-breaking ability after the catch. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound former high school quarterback outpaced Jones in yards after the catch per reception. Plus, there’s always a chance he could throw the ball downfield on a trick play. (He’s 5-for-5 for 177 yards and two touchdowns in his career, though he has yet to throw a pass with the Falcons.) With Gabriel, it’s not quite as complicated, but it’s just as challenging for a defense: The guy ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2014.
As for Atlanta’s MVP long shots, look no further than the tight ends: Austin Hooper (+15,000) and Levine Toilolo (+20,000). Neither player featured prominently in the passing attack (they combined for 32 catches, 535 yards, and five touchdowns on the year) and neither is an explosive, run-away-from-anybody type of athlete. But as my Ringer colleague Robert Mays wrote about this week, both can be dangerous as leak-out options in play-action — for instance, by running downfield on the backside of a play as a surprise change in tendency at just the right moment — and both have reliable hands and plenty of size, which also comes in handy in the red zone.
A kick returner has won Super Bowl MVP. A linebacker on the losing team has won Super Bowl MVP. And again, Malcolm freaking Smith has won Super Bowl MVP. But an MVP performance by either Hooper or Toilolo (or Bennett) would be a first: The Super Bowl MVP award has been given out 51 times, and not once has it gone to a tight end.