Sometimes, MVP races are simpler than others. Right now, this year looks like one of the easier battles to narrow down. You can justify a case for J.J. Watt, who continues to drag the Texans to victories alongside DeAndre Hopkins. Watt had two sacks and five knockdowns of Ryan Fitzpatrick in yet another dominant performance Sunday, but he's not going to be in the MVP picture. Secondary offensive candidates such as Carson Palmer and Adrian Peterson, as good as they've been, also are out of the running.
There are two undefeated teams in the league as we approach Thanksgiving, and if they stay undefeated, one of their star quarterbacks is going to win the MVP award. We've seen other sports get away from reflexively linking team wins to individual player performance (see: Bryce Harper just this past week), but the NFL is always going to be more resistant to those changes. The compressed season and the hyper-importance of quarterbacks means that the award is almost always going to be contested between the guys under center on the best teams in football.
Right now, that's very clearly the Panthers and Patriots, who each have a serious shot at going 16-0. Cam Newton's Panthers blew out an overmatched Washington team on Sunday to go to 10-0. ESPN's Football Power Index gives them a 8.9 percent chance of going undefeated this year. Tom Brady's Patriots will hope to make it to that same mark tonight against the Bills on Monday Night Football; they still need seven wins as opposed to Carolina's six, but by virtue of being more dominant this season, FPI gives them a 9.3 percent chance of running the table. Beat the Bills and the Pats leap to 12.0 percent.
What if both teams go 16-0? (The chances of that, at the moment, are 0.7 percent. But growing.) Or if they each finish 15-1 or 14-2? The past four teams to finish with 14 wins in a season also saw the best player on their roster win league MVP. That may not be possible this season.
As it comes down to it, with six weeks and one game to go, should the favorite for league MVP be Tom Brady or Cam Newton?
On first glance, Brady and Newton seem like polar opposites. Newton is the young, mobile physical freak playing in the Southeast, and Brady is the cagey veteran up North. Newton is famous for his smile and the sheer amount of whimsy he manages to pack into playing tackle football; Brady, much like his head coach, scowls his way through games. Newton has an absolute howitzer attached to his shoulder when he needs to fit passes into a tight window, while Brady never really had that throw in his arsenal, at least on deep balls.
Think about it a little further, though, and you realize that there are more similarities between the 38-year-old Brady and the 26-year-old Newton than you might think.
One of the few quarterbacks who can match Newton's incredible ability in short yardage is Brady, who famously is one of the best quarterbacks in football when he chooses to attempt sneaks. Brady is an otherworldly 102-for-115 (88.7 percent) on third and fourth down with 2 yards or less to go as a runner since 2001. That's even better than Newton, who is 65-for-84 (77.4 percent) in those same situations since 2011, albeit with teams focusing on him far more heavily.
In terms of their personnel, too, Brady and Newton aren't much different. They each have offensive lines that basically amount to hopes and prayers, with late-round picks and undrafted free agents running roughshod. Brady's line has been decimated by injuries, notably to left tackle Nate Solder, while the Panthers haven't had the financial resources to invest much around star center Ryan Kalil. Despite those concerns, excellent coaching and quick development for the likes of Patriots UFA David Andrews and tossed-off Panthers left tackle Michael Oher have managed to do just enough to keep these two star quarterbacks upright.
Even their receiving groups share a common building block. They're built around a dominant tight end, and while Greg Olsen isn't Rob Gronkowski because nobody in the history of football has been at Gronk's level, consensus would surely put Olsen as the best tight end in the NFC this season. Both Brady and Cam are down their top wide receiver, although Newton has spent the entire season without Kelvin Benjamin, while Brady is just about to begin his run without Julian Edelman. The guys left -- Danny Amendola, Keshawn Martin, Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery et al -- might not crack some teams' depth charts for regular snaps at wideout.
Brady and Newton make it work anyway.
With the team wins being equal (and realistically not a great basis for making comparisons anyway), cut to the individual passing numbers and you'll see that Brady is way out in front ahead of Newton, who is a shockingly-low 20th in QBR. Brady, who has thrown 64 more passes than Newton despite playing in one fewer game, is fifth, leading in virtually every major statistical category:
Leave it there and Brady should be the prohibitive favorite. The default is that Brady is the better candidate and deserves to win the award. Maybe that's not wrong. Given how well it seems like Newton is playing, though, is there something about Cam and his performance that these numbers aren't catching?
The natural place to start, of course, is Newton's massive contributions as a runner. Brady is exclusively a short-yardage runner; his 22 carries this year have produced 28 rushing yards, including an impressive 10 first downs. Brady is 7-for-8 on those third/fourth-and-2 or less runs this season.
Newton, meanwhile, is a one-man running game. He has been even more productive than Brady in those situations, going 10-for-11 in converting those short-yardage runs. And there's a whole other facet to Newton as a runner that Brady simply can't touch. Through Week 10, Newton had generated a whopping 129 DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) as a runner to Brady's 19. Not only is that No. 1 among quarterbacks, but the only running back in the league with more DYAR heading into Week 11 was Devonta Freeman.
The former first overall pick has carried the ball 86 times for 382 yards, generating 35 first downs with his feet in the process. He is nearly lapping the league. No other quarterback has generated more than 20 first downs while running the football. Newton would be tied for seventh in the league with the resurgent Doug Martin in first downs if we were comparing him to starting running backs, who all have twice as many carries as Newton.
Expressed another way, 40.7 percent of Newton's carries turn into first downs. The only other player in the league with 50 or more carries who is above 30 percent -- let alone 40 -- is Ryan Mathews (34.7 percent). Some of that is chalked up to Newton's success in short yardage, but he's picking up steadier chunks of yardage as a runner too. He has carried the ball 26 times on first-and-10 and picked up 141 yards, which is 13th among players who have carried the ball as many times in that split, with his 5.4 yards per attempt figure just ahead of the aforementioned Freeman (5.3 yards per attempt) in those first-and-10 spots. He also has been far more efficient than teammate Jonathan Stewart, who has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on 106 first-and-10 attempts this year.
There's not a simple traditional way to add up Newton's passing and running prowess, but we can use a QBR component to get an idea of how they compare to Brady's. Using the expected points added by each player as a passer, Brady is way ahead of Newton. Throw in what they've generated as a rusher, though, and the numbers begin to get closer:
The EPA figures are weighted for clutch performance and the rushing figures include fumbles, which help narrow the gap. Newton has thrown nine interceptions to Brady's three, but Brady also has been responsible for five fumbles. Newton, despite the higher degree of difficulty that comes with taking such a heavy amount of the rushing workload, has fumbled only twice. Over a virtually identical number of plays, Newton has been intercepted or fumbled 11 times on 593 snaps. Brady is at eight over 597 plays.
You also can make the case that the degree of difficulty for Newton's passes has been greater than Brady's. Cam is throwing passes downfield like few other quarterbacks in football this year. He's averaging 10.6 air yards per attempt this season, a figure topped only by Palmer, who is two-hundredths of a yard ahead. Newton is getting little after the catch from his tightly covered receivers, who are 27th in the league in YAC, averaging 4.6 yards per reception. And it's not as though teams are keeping guys in coverage to defend against those wideouts; Cam is being blitzed more frequently than any other quarterback in football so far this season.
Brady, on the other hand, is killing opposing defenses with far shorter passes and getting more help from his receivers. His passes are traveling just 7.2 yards in the air, which itself is 27th in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. Gronkowski, Edelman, Dion Lewis and the rest of his receivers have done far more after the catch; the 5.9 YAC they've averaged is the sixth-best figure in the league in 2015.
It's true that receivers will average more yards after catch on shorter passes than they do on longer ones, and offensive coordinators Mike Shula and Josh McDaniels have built their respective passing attacks around the strengths of their quarterbacks and receivers. I don't think it's Brady's fault that he throws shorter passes. QBR attempts to control for air yards, and Brady still has a healthy lead there, but Brady has had far better receivers than Cam for the vast majority of the season. It's only now, with Lewis and Edelman on the shelf, that their receiving cabinets are similarly bare.
Beyond those factors, it's difficult to make much more of a case that the numbers are underselling Newton. Neither Newton nor Brady has faced a particularly difficult slate of opposing pass defenses this season; if anything, Brady has faced the harder bunch. Brady has generated six first downs and 144 yards on pass interference penalties, while Newton has been at the helm for just two DPIs, generating 44 yards.
The next step
There tends to be an exhaustion bias amongst MVP voters across all sports; it's innately more fun to follow the new story and give the trophy to somebody who hasn't won an MVP award than it is to give the gong to a player who already has the trophy on his mantel. Brady hasn't been named AP MVP since the 2010 season, so that exhaustion bias may not exist, but my suspicion is that the voters would be more likely to reward Cam if the two fought to a dead heat in terms of performance.
At the moment, though, it isn't a dead heat. The numbers might undersell what Newton is doing and how tough it has been for him to perform, but Brady is still a step ahead. He's markedly more efficient as a passer, and for all the value Newton adds as a runner, there's a reason this award goes to quarterbacks and not running backs these days. The Patriots are averaging 6.2 yards per play, and a league-high 47.4 percent of their offensive snaps are adding expected points. The Panthers are 21st in the league in yards per play (5.3) and 11th in success rate (43.3 percent). Brady is great at his style, and Newton is great at his, but Brady's style is a more efficient, effective and valuable way of playing football in 2015 than Newton's.
So, how can Cam make up the remainder of the gap?
One way would be to keep up what he has been doing over the past three weeks, when Newton has been among the best passers in football. Over Carolina's past three games, Newton has thrown a league-high nine TD passes and put up an NFL-best 83.4 QBR. He also has chipped in with 22 carries for 94 rushing yards and two touchdowns, throwing in 12 first downs as a runner. If Cam keeps that up, his numbers are going to get close enough to Brady's to start stealing away votes, especially if Brady's numbers decline without Lewis and Edelman in the lineup.
The other way? Go undefeated and hope that the Patriots don't make it to 16-0 themselves. There's an 8.1 percent chance that happens, and if it does, Newton should be golden. The toughest matchup the Panthers actually have left is coming up Thursday, when they play the Cowboys in Dallas. The opening line in Vegas actually listed them as 2.5-point underdogs, and while FPI lists them as a favorite, it's only with a slight advantage, with the simulator estimating their chances of winning at an even 54.0 percent.
The only other way I can imagine Brady missing out is if a significant percentage of the electorate lashes back for last year's Deflategate saga, but given that Brady has been exonerated of those charges, it's hard to imagine a meaningful subset of the voters refusing to vote for the two-time MVP. It's just as plausible, sadly, that a voter or two would pass on voting for Newton because he has fun after his touchdowns.
There's still a lot of football left to be played, of course. After 10 games last year, the Panthers were 3-6-1, and there was serious talk that Carolina should have considered shutting down a clearly battered Newton for the remainder of what was clearly a lost season. (I know, because I was one of the people doing the talking.) The Panthers then lost their next two games ... and haven't lost a regular-season game since. That's a remarkable 14 straight. Maybe Newton will run the table and dab deep into January. Maybe Watt will actually consume a quarterback whole. Or maybe Brady will overcome the injuries and take home a third trophy. I think Brady is currently the deserved favorite, but with six weeks to go, there's an awful lot left in this race.