Deshaun Watson’s season-ending ACL tear last week was just the latest reminder that this NFL campaign has felt like a particularly treacherous stretch on Game of Thrones. It doesn’t matter if your favorite player seems essential to the plot. Injuries can affect anyone, and along with creating a league-wide absence of superstars and unleashing chaos upon a crowded playoff picture, the loss of talents like Watson, Aaron Rodgers, and even Andrew Luck (the Ser Arthur Dayne of our tale, his greatness understood only through blurred memories and flashbacks) has muddied an MVP race that was already tough to parse.
The two favorites at this point represent familiar archetypes from most recent MVP discussions. There’s Tom Brady, the mainstay who warrants annual consideration simply by virtue of existing. Bovada lists him at 2-1 to take home his third MVP and first in seven years for a reason. Not only has Brady prevented his numbers from careening off a cliff at age 40, but he’s playing as well as ever: He’s completing 66.7 percent of his attempts while slinging 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and keeping up a pace to finish with more than 5,000 yards. Even with a basement-dwelling defense, the Patriots are 6-2 and poised to cruise to something like their 73rd straight AFC East title. That’s a boon to Brady’s candidacy—although past years have made clear that the guy with the strongest claim doesn’t always win the trophy. Narratives have a role to play, and that occasionally means the shiny new option has an advantage.
Enter Carson Wentz, who Bovada now lists as the favorite ahead of Brady (1-1) and represents the quarterback this season who’s ascended to take his place as one of the league’s best. Everything about this campaign and what the Eagles have achieved has bolstered his chances of coming out of nowhere in his second pro season to capture the MVP. With the Peyton Manning–Tom Brady–Drew Brees era of quarterbacks winding to a close, the scramble to identify the league’s next great passers is in full swing; hopefuls like Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston have failed to take key steps in their development; and Wentz has looked fantastic while lifting the Eagles to a league-best 8-1 record. Philadelphia’s team success has certainly played a role in his candidacy, but his case extends far beyond that. Wentz has an NFL-leading 23 touchdown passes and is on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards. The Eagles have converted 48.9 percent of their third-down passes, the highest rate in the league, and Wentz owns a league-best 125.1 passer rating and averages an absurd 9.3 yards per attempt on third down. The North Dakota State product has been an actual wizard in high-leverage spots, and by helping hang 51 points on the Broncos in Week 9, Wentz only further solidified his status as the favorite at this season’s midway point.
Still, even if Wentz and Brady lead the way, neither has a stranglehold on the rest of the field. Through Week 9 of last season, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had thrown for 2,636 yards with 19 scores and was averaging 9.45 yards per attempt. The Falcons offense was working at a historically torrid pace, and the MVP race had a clear front-runner. While Wentz and Brady have been the league’s two most consistent players on what might be the Super Bowl favorites in each conference, their respective production to date hasn’t been earth-shattering.
After that pair of favorites, shit gets weird in a hurry. Alex Smith’s current odds (8-1) slot him behind only Brady and Wentz, and considering his contributions so far, that totally makes sense. The Kansas City quarterback is on pace to throw for more than 4,300 yards with 32 touchdowns and two interceptions, and his yards-per-attempt average (8.3) is the best in the league. In a way, Smith’s 2017 candidacy mirrors Ryan’s last season. Years after it felt like we knew exactly who both players were, their statistics took a huge jump thanks in large part to some schematic tweaks. The problem for Smith is that Ryan’s rise was seen as unexpected but not unfathomable; Smith’s is viewed as the byproduct of head coach Andy Reid’s ingenuity. All of the credit Reid has rightfully received for the Chiefs’ offensive potency damages Smith’s chances to win the award, and after a red-hot start, both his production and Kansas City’s standing have fallen off a bit.
It also doesn’t help Smith’s case that he shares a backfield with someone whose name has been tossed around in MVP chatter. Kareem Hunt’s odds over the first half of the season spoke to both the climate of the race and the state of offense as a whole in 2017. The hype that surrounded Hunt has quieted following his scorching start that included four 100-yard outings in his first five games, but the factors that made him a legitimate candidate could apply to a couple of other guys over the season’s second half.
Le’Veon Bell’s (listed at 25-1) percentage of the Steelers’ overall yardage lagged just behind Hunt’s in Kansas City (33.6 percent compared to 35.4) through Week 8, but it’s easy to envision that shifting a bit as the former distances himself from a shaky start. Come December, Bell’s total stats could hover around 1,600 rushing yards and 2,250 yards from scrimmage, and his yards-per-carry clip seems likely to rise from 3.9 as the Steelers’ ground game continues to find its stride. Bell is almost certain to be the no. 1 producer on a team in position to secure a first-round playoff bye, and depending on how things elsewhere in the league shake out, all of those factors could combine to vault him to the front of the chase.
After another huge week (two touchdowns and 104 yards from scrimmage) in the Rams’ 51-17 rout of the Giants, Todd Gurley is in a similar situation, only unlike Bell he has the benefit of a narrative boost. Gurley’s effort in New York gives him 1,024 yards from scrimmage on the season to go with a league-best average of 128 yards per game. A few monster outings could easily lift Gurley to 2,250 by Week 17, and with 29 catches on the year, he has a real chance to finish the season as his team’s leader in receptions, too. Quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay have been the names most frequently mentioned in conjunction with the Rams’ redemption tale, but if Gurley goes on a second-half tear, his resurgence and the franchise’s unlikely rise could power him to the forefront of the conversation.
It takes a wonky series of events for position players to stake realistic MVP claims, and that’s exactly what we’ve had in 2017. Wentz’s lead—with Brady nipping at his heels—feels justified, but the uncertain pecking order of guys right behind them has kept just about any possibility in play should either of those two tumble. It would’ve sounded impossible two months ago that Deshaun Watson’s name could be mentioned in the same sentence as “2017 MVP candidate,” but by the time the Texans star went down during practice last week, his odds had climbed all the way to 10-1. Houston’s Super Bowl odds plummeted from 40-1 to 100-1 in the wake of his injury, and the line entering the team’s game against Indianapolis on Sunday (an eventual 20-14 loss) moved six points. That feels like value to me.
Even more than usual, this MVP race could be decided by who has the strongest final push, rather than the player who cemented his place as the candidate to beat all year. Russell Wilson endured two miserable starts to kick off the season and had a rough go of it Sunday against Washington, but he still boasts 14-1 odds and is on pace to tally nearly 4,600 passing yards with 34 touchdowns for an offense that wouldn’t be able to function without him. The Saints have emerged as a contender because they don’t have to rely solely on Drew Brees anymore, but the future Hall of Famer (12-1) is still on pace to throw for 4,400 yards. Dak Prescott (25-1) has been stellar of late, slinging 11 touchdowns in his past five games. It isn’t all that tough to imagine any of those three winning the award, and that’s the point. You don’t need a wild imagination to dream up a huge swath of possibilities.
Wentz and Brady are rightly the MVP front-runners to this point, and the smart money is one of those two ultimately reigning supreme. Wentz has started to look like the hero this season needs, but if the past few weeks have reinforced anything, it’s this: Fall in love with any NFL story line at your peril.