When the Patriots failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from their own 12-yard line with 2:24 left in the fourth quarter on Sunday night against the 49ers, the game essentially was over and the chances at a top two seed and first-round bye in the AFC playoffs were in serious jeopardy.
And 49ers 41, Patriots 34 meant Tom Brady went from front-runner to also-ran in the MVP race.
That's how it works, fair or not. After torching the Texans on Monday night, Brady was three wins away from locking up his third MVP. How he played in those games wouldn't really matter, he just had to win them. It's all about what best fits the storyline of the voters, what makes them most comfortable. And Tom Brady having a great season for a 13-3 team with the (at the time) statement win of the NFL season fits pretty nicely.
But one loss to the 49ers and -- again, fair or not -- voters go somewhere else. If the Patriots complete that comeback and beat the 49ers, the race is over, Brady wins in a landslide. But that loss makes it easier for voters to find another angle, they won't vote for Brady if there are other viable options. And there are other very real options in Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. When the numbers and wins are close -- and they are with Manning and Brady, Peterson is having a historic season for a team that will win fewer games than the Patriots or Broncos -- voters inevitably will go with the most recent image or whatever consensus is being formed. And for most voters -- who won't be watching Patriots-Jaguars or Patriots-Dolphins -- that will be a loss on national TV, a failed last drive for Brady. It's the easiest way to dismiss candidates in a really close race and it's why Brady will fall short in the voting.
Here's a look at the top five candidates.
5. Robert Griffin III
First, the obvious Rookie of the Year. I've heard people argue for Andrew Luck, which is of course absurd if you even take the quickest glance at the numbers. Luck has thrown for more passing yards than Griffin, and that's about all you've got. Griffin is second in the NFL in passer rating at 104.2, Luck is 31st with a 75.5 rating. OK, Luck has thrown for two more touchdown passes (with 213 more pass attempts), but also has 14 more interceptions. Griffin leads the league in yards per attempt (8.27) and Luck is 17th (7.05). Throw in the 748 yards rushing by Griffin and it's an absolute blowout for Griffin, who is having as good a season as any rookie quarterback in history. The reality is that Luck -- who I think will eventually be an MVP-level player -- is at best the third-best rookie quarterback this season, behind both Griffin and Russell Wilson, who is semi-quietly putting together a terrific year for the playoff-bound Seahawks (95.5 passer rating, 21-9 TD-INT ratio).
As for MVP, Griffin lost any chance to sneak in and maybe steal it the instant he was forced to come out of the game against the Ravens and Kirk Cousins replaced him and lead the Redskins to their signature win of the season and then passed for 329 yards and two TD's in a road win over the Browns the next week. Best case, the Redskins will finish 10-6 and make the playoffs by a game, and missing parts of two December games is too just much to overcome for Griffin's MVP candidacy.
4. J.J. Watt
Here's a perfect case of perception playing a role in the whole thing: Watt could very possibly set the NFL record for sacks in a season for a team that will almost certainly be the top seed in the AFC and could finish 14-2 and he has virtually no shot at the MVP because he submitted something resembling a stinker at Gillette. Forget that he bounced back the next week with three sacks, 10 tackles and a forced fumble in a win over the Colts that could be argued was a more important game to the Texans (divisional opponent, a Colts win with another game left vs. the Texans and all of the sudden a five seed isn't impossible) than the matchup vs. the Patriots. Doesn't matter -- what is believed after New England 42, Houston 14 is that the Texans failed miserably on the biggest regular-season stage in franchise history and Watt was invisible when it mattered most. Watt could have three sacks in each of the next two games and he'd still have zero chance at winning MVP, that ended in the second quarter at Gillette on December 10. Voters -- who don't get the opportunity to watch every single game but were watching that night -- won't forget the beating the Houston defense took that night.
3. Tom Brady
Look, it can move around pretty fast, to be fair. If Manning throws three picks in a loss to Cleveland and Peterson has 36 yards rushing in a loss at Houston this weekend (not impossible) and Brady throws for 300 yards and three TDs in a 48-10 win over Jaguars he's probably back at the top. I just don't think that's going to happen -- put it this way, Manning probably isn't going to lose to either Cleveland or Kansas City, and that will have to happen for Brady to jump Manning in the race. I'm not sure that's exactly fair -- the numbers are really close and Brady has the head-to-head win -- but we know giving Manning the MVP after missing a season and leaving the Colts will ultimately prove irresistible to voters if the Broncos finish 13-3 and Peterson doesn't a) make the playoffs and b) break Eric Dickerson's record.
2. Peyton Manning
Suggesting the voters want Manning to win the MVP doesn't mean he's not having a truly remarkable season. Clearly he is and clearly this is one of the three or four greatest quarterbacks in history (I've got Brady ahead right now -- and I've wavered on this in the past -- but if Manning leads this team to a Super Bowl it'll be time for a historical reconsideration). He's going to take a Broncos team that went 8-8 and was destroyed in the playoffs to 13-3 and the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Manning is fourth in the NFL in passer rating (just behind Alex Smith), third in TD passes and will finish with about 4,500 yards passing without anything approaching what would have been considered an elite receiver before the season started (Demaryius Thomas had 54 catches for 834 yards and six TD's in his first two seasons combined -- he has 78 catches for 1,210 yards and eight TD's this year). There's a resistance in these parts to Manning, to try and lessen what he or what he has or hasn't accomplished next to Brady is, but if there was somehow a sliver of doubt remaining about his greatness it has been obliterated this year.
1. Adrian Peterson
This is right now, Manning is the best bet to actually win the award. I don't think the Vikings will beat both the Texans (on the road) and Packers (at home, with the Packers likely needing to win for the No. 2 seed in the NFC) to get to 10-6 and make the playoffs, which is think is a must for Peterson to win the MVP. Too many heavyweights having great seasons (forgetting Brady and Manning, Aaron Rodgers is going to throw for over 4,000 yards and 35 TDs with a 100.0+ passer rating for a team that could finish 12-4) for really good teams for even a 2,000-yard rusher to take it if he's not on a playoff team. Even if Peterson breaks Dickerson's record and the Vikings miss the postseason he won't win it -- though he'd be a lock for Offensive Player of the Year.
(And the numbers are insane -- Peterson leads the league in rushing by 433 yards. He leads the NFL with 20 carries of 20-plus yards -- C.J. Spiller is second, Doug Martin is third and they have 20 combined. And he's rushed for 576 yards and four TDs in three games this month. Oh, and Peterson is doing all this with Christian Ponder -- 26th in passer rating -- as his quarterback.)
This is simplistic, but here's one reason why Peterson would have my vote for MVP: If you swapped, say, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (10th in rushing yards this year, a top 15 back in the league) with Peterson what do you think Minnesota's record would be? Would they have any shot at the postseason? Nope, they'd be a 6-10, 5-11 team. Now, if you swapped Andy Dalton (12th in passer rating, again somewhere in the top 15 at his position) with Brady doesn't that team still make the playoffs? No team with a chance at the playoffs needs a player as much as the Vikings need Peterson.