We're almost to Christmas, and the NFL MVP race is actually fun! This basically never happens!
I can't remember the last instance in which there was more than a two-man MVP race this late in the season. In most cases, the late-season MVP conversation centers around a clear, runaway favorite and one, longshot underdog who'll likely get some votes but is almost assured to finish in second.
Not this season.
We've seen plenty of jockeying in the MVP betting odds all year, and after a recent surge from Jalen Hurts, Patrick Mahomes overtook the Eagles quarterback as the favorite entering Week 16.
After Mahomes, Hurts, Joe Burrow, and Josh Allen currently all have the same odds at +550. While those odds are decently long, there's plenty of opportunity for any of the underdogs to win the award in the final three weeks of the regular season.
Let's outline the case for and case against each legitimate MVP candidate and provide a lookahead to what will be the most compelling, tightly contested MVP race in quite some time.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs (-300)
In the aftermath of the Tyreek Hill trade in March, everyone speculated his absence from the Chiefs offense would spark regression in Mahomes' previously otherworldly efficiency as a passer. While Hill, individually, was clearly irreplaceable, Kansas City's plan was to replace Hill's production with a collection of new receivers -- JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling -- along with already established offensive pieces like Mecole Hardman. Most of us weren't convinced.
And all Mahomes has done is lead a more efficient Chiefs offense than last year. At this point of the season in 2021, Kansas City's offense had an Expected Points Added (EPA) per play of (+0.117). It's currently (+0.188), the best in the NFL.
In EPA per play, Mahomes himself is well clear of every other qualified quarterback in the field at +0.326. From a classic statistical perspective, Mahomes has the league's most passing yards (4,497) and has accounted for the most total touchdowns (38). Mahomes has completed 236 passes for first downs, 36 clear of Tom Brady in second place.
And Mahomes has had to do some heavy lifting for the Chiefs en route to the club's 11-3 record because Kansas City's defense is currently ranked 24th in defensive DVOA and 21st in EPA allowed per play. The Chiefs defense hasn't allowed 30 points in a single contest yet but has surrendered at least 27 points five times. Yikes.
Against the odds, Mahomes has pieced together a better statistical season, in many categories, than he has ever before. That will go a long way with MVP voters, and rightfully so.
There is some precedent for Mahomes without Hill. In 2019, he played four consecutive games without Hill and completed 103 of 162 passes (63.5% completion) for 1,463 yards (9.03 yards per attempt) with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. That equated to a quarterback rating of 109.16.
In Kansas City's three losses to date (at Colts, vs. Bills, at Bengals), Mahomes went a combined 61 of 102 (59.8% completion rate) for 823 yards (8.06 yards per attempt) with four passing touchdowns and three interceptions -- a stark reminder that no QB is flawless.
Then there's the Andy Reid influence. Reid has been coaching in Kansas City since 2013, when Alex Smith, a diametrically opposed quarterback to Mahomes, was the Chiefs starting quarterback.
And in that Reid and Smith, pre-Mahomes era, from 2013 to 2017, the Chiefs averaged a 10th-place finish in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA, with two top 10 finishes in 2016 and 2017. During a period when Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees were still elite quarterbacks, Smith finished with the 10th-highest passer rating in football from 2013 to 2017.
The argument here: Reid is a proven offensive genius and Kansas City's scheme is the most effective, time-tested offensive attack in football. Those factors are major players in the overall efficiency of Mahomes' offense. And that bleeds into the yards-after-the-catch element with Kansas City.
Once again, the Chiefs lead the NFL in yards after the catch as a team, nearly 300 yards clear of the Chargers in second place. Mahomes' pinpoint accuracy and understanding of where it's best to throw the football are part of Kansas City's YAC formula. So is the talent of the skill-position weapons and Reid's play design and play calling.
Mahomes is amazing. We all are keenly aware of that. But the environment in which he operates is amazing, too.
Mahomes has a somewhat cushy end to his fifth full season at the Chiefs starter. The Seahawks defense is decently susceptible (29th in points allowed per outing). After that, the Broncos stingy defense comes to Arrowhead Stadium. That'll be a challenge for Mahomes and the Chiefs offense has a whole. Denver allows a league-best 6.03 yards per pass attempt.
The regular-season finale is a road trip to Las Vegas for a date with the Raiders. Josh McDaniels' team has allowed 24.1 points per game to date -- 24th in the NFL -- and 7.33 yards per attempt, which ranks 21st in the league.
Barring an uncharacteristic, noticeably lackluster outing -- which isn't out of the realm of possibility, particularly against the Broncos -- Mahomes is aligned to win his second MVP.
Jalen Hurts, Eagles (+550)
Hurts' maturation has been incredibly clear in 2022 after a small step forward as a passer in his second professional season. In many advanced metrics, Hurts emphatically checks boxes.
Among quarterbacks currently playing -- meaning Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't count here -- he's third in EPA per play behind Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa. He's second only to Tagovailoa in yards per attempt (8.2) and boasts the third-lowest "turnover-worthy play" rate (1.7%) among qualifying passers.
He has 35 total touchdowns to date (22 through the air and a massive 13 on the ground). His 745 rushing yards trail only Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson. The Eagles are second in points per game at 29.4 per contest.
Lastly, and I'll admit this is old school. To some, it shouldn't be the sole driver of serious MVP candidacy. But Hurts is the highly effective quarterback on the team with the best record in football. That's his mic drop in this conversation.
The Eagles roster is loaded. Offensively. Defensively. In the trenches. At the skill positions. Howie Roseman flipped the script on his reputation this offseason. A.J. Brown has been an absolute monster. Devonta Smith is now a No. 2 option at receiver. Dallas Goedert is a premier tight end. Philadelphia is seventh in defensive DVOA, fifth in points allowed per game (19.1), and first in sacks.
The offensive line is, arguably, the best in football. And really, I don't know if I could be talked into any blocking unit being better than Philadelphia's right now.
There's a very good case that the Eagles have the most well-rounded roster in football.
Beyond that, Nick Sirianni's scheme is tremendous. Super quarterback-friendly. Hurts has attempted the most RPOs in football to date (68), and his 31.4% play-action rate is the seventh-highest in the NFL.
An outstanding roster plus a prudent scheme spawns the idea that Hurts is being buoyed by his environment more than the three other MVP candidates. And that's a fair assessment.
Coming out of Week 15, Hurts was the MVP favorite, despite a shaky effort against the Bears in Chicago. With Hurts not playing against the Cowboys, he'll maintain his spot in the MVP race, right? In some seasons, yes. But with how tight this race is -- and with Mahomes, Burrow, and Allen having meaningful contests in front of them -- that's unlikely, and it's why Mahomes flipped to being the favorite when Hurts' injury was reported.
A lot would have to fall his way to win the award if Hurts misses any more time. But, if he returns, say, in Week 17, and plays similar football to what we've seen from him in the vast majority of his third year in the NFL, he very well could win the award.
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Joe Burrow, Bengals (+550)
Burrow calmly navigated the Bengals offense through Ja'Marr Chase's four-game injury absence, completing nearly 67% of his throws with a 99.9 quarterback rating. Cincinnati went 3-1 in those contests.
Right after that, Burrow made big throw after big throw in the Bengals' 27-24 victory over the Chiefs. The former No. 1 overall pick connected on just under 81% of his passes in that game with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Most recently, Burrow was integral in Cincinnati ascending from a 17-0 hole on the road against the Buccaneers. While a litany of Tampa Bay second-half turnovers aided the comeback, Burrow finished the day with four touchdowns, one interception and a hefty 104.6 rating.
The Bengals started the season 0-2, and Burrow had a four-interception outing in the wild, season-opening loss to the Steelers. They've only dropped two contests since, climbing the AFC and divisional standings in the process. Plus, Burrow is second in the NFL in total touchdowns with 37.
There's a legitimate argument that Burrow has the league's second-best receiver tandem -- as well as the best trio -- with Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. They're one of two wideout teammates currently averaging more than 2.0 yards per route run, the Dolphins being the other, of course.
I could wax poetic on Chase for hours. His 5.0 yards-after-the-catch-per-reception average is fourth among wideouts with at least 100 targets to date. And despite missing four games, he's tied for eighth in receiving first downs with 48. Higgins and Tyler Boyd are quality, reliable targets, too.
Higgins' 14 contested-catch wins are tied for fifth in the NFL. Boyd has a 2.0% drop rate, the sixth-best among wideouts with at least 50 catches on the season. While the explosive and diverse collection of weapons the Bengals have assembled for Burrow shouldn't make him an ineligible MVP candidate, their presence simply can't be ignored altogether. He has as good of weapons in the arsenal as any quarterback in the NFL.
And don't sleep on the Bengals offensive line, a unit that's done a complete 180 from a season ago. After finishing 26th in Pro Football Focus' "Pass-Blocking Efficiency" in 2021, the unit is now up to 11th entering Week 16. Some of it is on Burrow, but make no mistake -- his sack rate dropping from 8.9% last year to 6.7% this season has mostly been due to a sturdier, more reliable front.
He's another quarterback with a stellar cast of characters around him.
Burrow has the type of remaining schedule needed for a serious MVP contender to steal the award on the last week of the regular season. The Bengals travel to New England in Week 16. While the Patriots are bland offensively, the defense is still a top-rated unit -- second in defensive DVOA.
After that, there's a colossal "Monday Night Football" clash at home against the Bills, with enormous implications on the prestigious No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. As if that wasn't grueling enough, Burrow ends the regular season at home against the Ravens, the club that beat the Bengals, 19-17, earlier this season.
There's two ways to look at what Burrow has in front of him. Three stingy defenses represent a major challenge. But if he strings together strong performances in Bengals victories, he'll draw serious consideration from MVP voters.
Josh Allen, Bills (+550)
Watch one Bills game, and you'll feel Allen's immense value through your television screen. He's the only player in the top five in passing yards and rushing yards at the quarterback position.
For the analytics lovers, Allen is fourth in EPA per play and has dealt with the most drops (31) and fourth-highest drop rate (8.7%) to date in the NFL. As a runner, Allen's 3.56 yards-after-contact-per-attempt average is just shy of Josh Jacobs' (3.61).
The Bills offensive line hasn't been the banner of health or rock-solid play for much of this season entering Week 16. It's a unit that's currently 20th in PFF's Pass-Blocking Efficiency," well behind the Chiefs in 14th, the Bengals in 11th and the Eagles in second.
Yet Allen is the current owner of the highest yards-per-attempt average (8.2) and has thrown the most touchdowns (11) to date while under pressure this season. Beyond Stefon Diggs, the Bills haven't found a reliable No. 2 pass-catching weapon. Gabe Davis is second on the team with 752 yards, yet has eclipsed the 75-yard mark in a game only one time since early October. His 10.6% drop rate is the sixth-highest among receivers with at least 50 targets.
Allen also has the most "big-time throws" in football (39) and highest "big-time throw percentage" (7.3%) among qualifying quarterbacks. PFF categorizes a big-time throw as "a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window."
It hasn't all been a midsummer's walk in Buffalo's Delaware Park for Allen this season. He hit a rough patch from late October well into November, a stretch when the Bills went 1-2. From the second half of the Oct. 30 contest against the Packers through the loss to the Vikings two weeks later, Allen threw six interceptions to just one touchdown.
In Buffalo's three losses to date, Allen had three touchdown tosses to four interceptions, including a game-sealing pick in the end zone in overtime of that defeat at the hands of Minnesota. He completed just under 53% of his throws in the road loss to the Jets and had a passer rating of 78.6 against the Vikings.
Allen does have Diggs, one of the league's clear-cut stud elite wideouts. Right now, he's 10th in total YAC (414) and fifth in missed tackles forced (14). Plus, we've long known him to be one of the game's sharpest, most creative, and dynamic route runners. He's open. A lot.
Allen also trails some combination of the other MVP contenders in major categories, like passing yards, yards-per-attempt average, and touchdowns.
Then there's Buffalo defense. One of the league's elite. The Bills defense is currently second in points surrendered per game at 17.9 and fifth in defensive DVOA. Allen can lean on the defense in the moments he's not at his best, and the Bills can still win.
Allen faces a bottom-tier Bears defense in Week 16, yet the game might be played in brutal wintry conditions where passing probably won't be the preferred mode of football transportation. It's unlikely to be as much of a stat-padding contest as originally expected.
Then there's that Week 17 showdown in prime time in Cincinnati. Wooo boy. Big one. Huge. Cincinnati's defense has soared of late but will be without Sam Hubbard for that contest, and Trey Hendrickson may not be 100% healthy.
It won't be easy, but if Allen walks into Joe Burrow's house, outplays him, and the Bills win, that'd be one hell of a late-season statement in his MVP candidacy. The following week, Allen gets the tough Patriots defense at home, in another critical outing that very well could have playoff and seeding implications for both teams.
Like Burrow, Allen's final three games are the perfect recipe for a quarterback to fly up the MVP rankings and win the award at the buzzer.