FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Before getting into the weekly film review, a few quick thoughts on the NFL's "Most Valuable Player" debate:
Compelling race. Entering Week 15 play, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers seemed like the leader in the clubhouse. But an uninspiring performance (17-of-45 for 185 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT) against a very good Bills defense in a surprising road loss Sunday has opened the door for other possibilities.
Most-mentioned candidates on the ballot. The most widely discussed players for the honor have been Rodgers, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. There is a strong case that could be made for each player on the list.
Revisiting midseason projections. At the midpoint of the season, ESPN.com's 32 NFL Nation reporters had Brady as the MVP with 16 votes, more than doubling the total of the next player on the list. With Rodgers outdueling Brady on Nov. 30, playing a masterful game that day, the feeling here was that it swayed the vote in Rodgers' favor for those deciding between the two quarterbacks.
Sticking with Gronkowski as the pick. From this viewpoint, the candidacy of Gronkowski has only grown stronger since that time and he'd be my pick if I had a vote. Sunday's 41-13 win over the Dolphins was the latest example, as the Patriots' offense was not in a good place at halftime (14-13 lead) before Gronkowski (0 catches in first half) helped restore order with three catches for 96 yards and one touchdown over the next 15 minutes as the Patriots recorded a franchise-record 24-point third quarter. Gronkowski's impact was detailed by ESPNBoston.com columnist Jackie MacMullan and Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges, among others. That's MVP-type stuff, and it further supports what I view as the key points for Gronkowski's candidacy:
The Patriots were 2-2 in the first four games of the season as Gronkowski was working his way into the mix after not playing in the preseason while recovering from a torn ACL sustained in December 2013. Gronkowski was averaging 35 snaps in those games and clearly not yet at 100 percent. Over the last 10 games, Gronkowski is averaging 63.2 snaps per game, is back to 100 percent and the Patriots are 9-1.
As voters, the easy thing to do is fall back on statistics to build a player's candidacy. But they seldom tell the whole story, and if there are two plays that perfectly capture Gronkowski's impact, they were Julian Edelman's 5-yard touchdown against Denver on Nov. 2 (second quarter, 11:45 remaining) and Shane Vereen's 5-yard touchdown catch in the same game (second quarter, :11 remaining). The attention Gronkowski drew in the red zone on those plays is over the top (3-4 players each time), opening one-on-one opportunities for others. To me, that's what an MVP is -- a difference-maker who makes others around him better. It's just harder to see that with a tight end compared to a quarterback or running back.
Along the same lines, watch Gronkowski's block on LeGarrette Blount's 3-yard touchdown run in Sunday's win over Miami when the game started to turn -- he comes in motion and clears out two players. He's a true combination tight end -- lethal in the passing and blocking games.
Finally, and I left this until last because of the feeling that the emphasis on stats should be lessened a bit, Gronkowski checks out pretty well in that area regardless: 76 catches, 1,093 yards, 11 touchdowns.
I obviously haven't watched all the candidates as closely as Gronkowski and Brady, which adds important context to the discussion. And I'm not crazy about the idea that any positive talk about Gronkowski demeans what Brady has accomplished, which is terrific in its own right.
But based on the factors above, I have a hard time believing there is another candidate who has been as valuable to a team with a winning record on a consistent basis over the course of the season.