The No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoff picture isn’t all that’ll be at stake on Sunday afternoon when the Patriots visit Heinz Field.
Odds are that the 2017 NFL Most Valuable Player will be on the turf in Pittsburgh for the 4:25 p.m. kickoff between the 10-3 Patriots and 11-2 Steelers, each respective candidate improbable in their own right.
Admittedly, the injury to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz likely created the scenario where each player will be able to state their case in one of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent memory. A few other candidates remain on the periphery, but make no mistake about it: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown are neck-and-neck in leading the MVP race.
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Brady and Brown aren’t unlikely MVP choices in the sense that they’ve come out of nowhere to sit atop the leaderboard at this juncture. Brady, of course, has already won the award twice (2007 and 2010) and has had countless other MVP-caliber seasons.
But in case you haven’t heard, he’s 40 years old.
Brown has been a consensus top-five wide receiver in the game five years running and is in the midst of putting up perhaps his finest work, all at the diminutive size of 5-foot-10.
But no wide receiver – not Jerry Rice, not Randy Moss, not anyone – has ever won the league’s MVP award.
Stephon Gilmore, who has played much better since his return from injury in Week 10, could well draw the assignment of Brown this week and is well aware of his status in the game today. In five career games against New England; Brown 37 catches for 454 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s a great receiver,” Gilmore said. “He’s got great speed, great quickness. He’s got a great quarterback to throw him the ball and they’ve got a good running game to free up the pass. He’s probably one of the best receivers in this league.”
Brady’s MVP candidacy has nothing to do with the degree of difficulty given his age, though it warrants mentioning that not-so-shockingly, a 40-year-old has never won the award. Peyton Manning is currently the oldest winner at 37 years old, 10 months when he won it in 2013.
Brady is leading the NFL in passing yards, with 3,865 and passer rating, at 105.2, especially remarkable considering his clunker Monday night against the Dolphins and another less-than-stellar game in the opener vs. Kansas City. He’s also second in completion percentage at 67.4.
If there’s any bonus points Brady deserves, it’s from guiding the Patriots through an uneven 2-2 start to the position they’re in today, which is on the brink of a ninth consecutive AFC East Championship and an eighth consecutive first-round bye. This is without his favorite target in the passing game, Julian Edelman, all season long and with an offensive line that has been up and down over the course of the season. Football Outsiders ranks the New England offensive line 13th in the league in terms of pass protection, slightly above average out of 32 teams.
The fact that the Patriots can clinch the division on Sunday, along with a bye moving closer to reality with a win, makes the showdown in Pittsburgh all the more tantalizing.
MVP voters, rightfully so, love division winners. Since the NFL re-aligned to its current eight-division format in 2002, only twice has the league’s MVP come from a wild-card team (it should go without saying that unlike in baseball, MVP winners almost never come from non-playoff teams. It’s only happened twice in the league’s history and not since the ‘70s.)
The Steelers have already clinched the AFC North, which certainly bodes well for Brown in his quest for history.
Like the Patriots, the Steelers have rounded into form as the season’s gone along. Pittsburgh looked done after Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in a Week 5 loss to the Jaguars that dropped the Steelers to 3-2, but the team has since responded by winning eight in a row.
Roethlisberger hasn’t been a liability for the Steelers by any means – he’s second in passing yards behind Brady – but he’s tied for third in interceptions with 13 and is too far down the list in completion percentage (63.3 percent, 14th among qualified passers) to merit MVP consideration.
Which makes Brown’s lapping of the field in two of the most significant receiving categories all the more impressive. He’s first in both receptions, with 99 and receiving yards, with 1,509. Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins is second in each category with 88 catches (tied with Miami’s Jarvis Landry) and 1,233 receiving yards.
“He’s really, really, really good,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of Brown, praising Roethlisberger as well. “And he has a really, really, really good quarterback.”
If Brown is going to make a serious claim for the MVP, his season will have to stand out in the context of some of the great seasons ever put together by a wide receiver. Brown’s pace of 1,857 receiving yards would be the third-most in a single season in league history (he has two other seasons in the top 10) and pace of 122 receptions would give him a top-10 season in that category as well.
Not that Brown’s entire body of work should be considered in the context of 2017, but only 11 times in league history has a player caught at least 115 passes and gained 1,600 yards in a single season. If Brown can get there again as his pace suggests, it’ll be his third such season.
“It’s tough to contain him, even if at times you get two guys on him, it’s tough,” McCourty said. “What you see him do, which a lot of receivers that are 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 don’t get credit for, is he makes catches in surrounding areas where there’s three guys around him, or Ben [Roethlisberger] throws it in between two guys and it looks like there’s no way he’s going to come down with it. I think he has really good hands where he goes and plucks the ball between two defenders.”
Brady is coming off of not only his worst game of the season, but one of the worst games of his career. It’s not an exaggeration; Brady has played in 250 regular season games, and in only 18 of them did he have a lower passer rating than he did on Monday night.
Brown, meanwhile, is coming off of an 11-catch, 213-yard performance against the Ravens. The 213 yards are the second most his career for a single game and the third most by a receiver in the league this season.
One of Brady’s best traits over the course of his career has been his ability to bounce back after a down game, and Sunday will present favorable conditions for him to do just that. He’s 10-2 lifetime against the Steelers, including 6-1 against the Mike Tomlin-coached version since 2007. In the seven games Brady has faced a Tomlin-led Pittsburgh team, he’s thrown 22 touchdowns against no interceptions.
With Rob Gronkowski back in the fold on Sunday, as well as the possibility new addition Kenny Britt is ready to go, Brady will have close to as full an arsenal as he’ll have at this point in the season.
Shredding the Steelers and getting back on track will propel Brady ahead of Brown, regardless of how he performs against the Patriots’ defense. All things being equal, the tie will almost undoubtedly go to the quarterback. Nine of the last 10 MVP winners and 14 of the last 18 dating back to the turn of the century have been signal callers.
Not that Brady cares in the slightest about a regular season MVP award. Brown likely doesn’t, either. Each player is on a team that is fully capable of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018, and that’s where the priority ultimately lies.
But the outcome of Sunday’s game will put either the Patriots or Steelers in the driver’s seat to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII, with a very good chance that the winning team will have its respective MVP candidate to thank.
The players may not be thinking it, but we as viewers are. It’s not often MVP candidates are on the same field at this juncture of the season, much less candidates who would make history by winning the honor. Sunday should be one of the rare occasions where the game lives up to the hype.