The award for the NFL's most valuable player from the 2021 season comes down to two quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady formed were in a two-man race the back half of the year, and each built a case for MVP based on statistics, monumental performances and overall value to their respective franchises. Both quarterbacks led their teams convincingly to the playoffs, and both were subsequently done playing in the divisional round. Fortunately, this is a regular-season award. The fact that neither quarterback will be playing for a championship does not factor into who walks away as the MVP at the NFL Honors, which are Thursday at 9 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN+/NFL Network).
Based on how our ESPN panel -- Sam Acho, Stephania Bell, Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Courtney Cronin, Jeremy Fowler, Jason Reid, Kevin Seifert, Mike Tannenbaum, Seth Walder and Field Yates -- voted here, we agree with the consensus around the NFL that Rodgers will edge out Brady. Nine of our 11 voters put the Green Bay quarterback in the No. 1 spot for a second consecutive year.
There wasn't much leapfrogging this season. Arizona's Kyler Murray was the front-runner for the first seven weeks after leading the Cardinals to an undefeated start. Once injury cost him his next three games, Brady emerged as the top name, with Josh Allen, Matthew Stafford and Justin Herbert also making a case. But as we learned last year, never count out Rodgers, who could become the fifth player in NFL history to win the MVP in consecutive seasons. Both Rodgers and Brady are seeking their fourth NFL MVP award, but there are five others who also need to be recognized for the seasons they put together.
Note: All odds are via Caesars Sportsbook.
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
2021 stats: 4,115 passing yards, 40 total TDs, 4 INTs, 69.2 QBR
If this ends up being Rodgers' final year in Green Bay, the 38-year-old quarterback wrote a storybook script during the regular season of his "Last Dance." He persevered through an onslaught of team injuries to lead the Packers to a 13-4 finish and a third straight NFC North title. Rodgers played most of the season behind four backup offensive linemen as injuries cost left tackle David Bakhtiari 16 games, guard Elgton Jenkins nine games, center Josh Myers 11 games and right tackle Billy Turner four games. He was also without tight end Robert Tonyan (nine games missed) and receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling (six) and Randall Cobb (five) for stretches.
Even so, he led the NFL in QBR (69.2) and passer rating (111.9), and he was third in completion percentage (68.9%). Rodgers carried his team to the No. 1 seed in spite of a slumping defense and a special teams unit that ranked 32nd. The Packers went 5-0 against teams that made the playoffs behind 10 touchdown passes and just one interception from Rodgers in those games. And from Week 11 on, Rodgers played his best ball of the season, throwing 20 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Rodgers capitalized on having arguably the league's best receiver in Davante Adams (11 TDs, fifth most) and a terrific one-two punch in the backfield with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon to establish the Packers as a top-10 offense in yards and points. Rodgers had 13 games this season in which he threw for multiple touchdowns and zero interceptions, which broke the record he set twice in 2014 and 2020 (11).
Rodgers was named this year's First Team All-Pro quarterback and has the shortest odds to win the MVP (-400). Over the previous eight seasons, every quarterback named First Team All-Pro has also won the NFL MVP -- including Rodgers last season.
2. Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2021 stats: 5,316 passing yards, 45 total TDs, 12 INTs, 68.1 QBR
Bucs coach Bruce Arians said it would be a "travesty" for Brady to not win this award. And how fitting that the quarterback ended his 22-year NFL career by playing at an MVP level during his final season. Brady was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded quarterback (91.4) in 2021 and is +550 to win MVP.
He completed 485 of his 719 passing attempts for 5,316 yards and 43 touchdown passes, all of which rank No. 1 in the NFL. He's the third quarterback in league history to lead all four major statistical passing categories, joining Drew Brees (2018) and Peyton Manning (2013). In fact, the 44-year-old led the league in passing by more than 1,200 yards and established the 13-4 Bucs as the No. 1 passing offense. Taking away with NFL's 17th game this season, Brady's 4,990 passing yards in his first 16 games would put him 14th all time in single-season passing records.
In October, Brady went into Foxborough for his highly anticipated return against the New England Patriots and beat his former team. It would have been remembered for one of the best throws of his career had Antonio Brown not dropped the game-winning touchdown and forced the Bucs to instead kick a game-winning field goal to escape with a 19-17 win. His five game-winning drives were tied for the third most in the league, highlighted by a 94-yard overtime march down the field to beat Buffalo 33-27.
Brady revived a franchise that had not been the postseason since 2007 prior to his arrival two years ago, and his presence lured players to Tampa Bay to compete alongside the seven-time Super Bowl champion. Should he end up edging Rodgers for the MVP, Brady would join Peyton Manning (Colts and Broncos) as the only players in NFL history to win the award with multiple teams.
Where each has the edge
Brady played one more game this season than Rodgers, who tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Packers' Week 9 showdown with the Chiefs. The Tampa Bay quarterback averaged 312.7 passing yards per game compared to Rodgers' 257.2. No one had a better passing season that Brady, whose 5,316 yards were the third-highest single-season total in NFL history. Brady was one of just four quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards and 40 passing TDs while still completing at least 65% of his passes in a single season. Advantage: Brady.
Rodgers would be the fourth quarterback to lead the league in Total QBR (69.2) and win the MVP award over the past five seasons. Rodgers was also the more efficient passer -- his 68.9% completion percentage ranked third behind Joe Burrow and Kyler Murray, and was higher than Brady's 67.2%. Advantage: Rodgers.
The Buccaneers' offense ran through Brady, as Tampa Bay had the highest rate of designed pass plays (68.2%) compared to Green Bay's 61.7% (17th). Brady averaged 42 pass attempts per game because the Buccaneers needed him to throw the ball to win. The Packers, on the other hand, could win with Rodgers doing less. He was more efficient but needed less overall. Advantage: Brady.
His 9.3 touchdown-to interception ratio (37 TDs to 4 INTs), which was the seventh-best in the NFL for a single season over the past 20 years, dominates Brady's 2.5. There have been four instances of a quarterback throwing 35-plus touchdowns in a season with five or fewer interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In each of the previous three instances, the quarterback went on to win MVP, including Rodgers twice (2020, 2014). According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a slight edge on turnover-worthy play percentage at 1.9% (Rodgers was at 2.0%). Three of Brady's 12 interceptions came on wide receiver drops and another on a Hail Mary, which would classify as non-turnover-worthy plays. Rodgers, on the other hand, had 12 turnover-worthy plays on 587 dropbacks and did not have an interception on non-turnover-worthy plays this season. Advantage: Rodgers.
The Chiefs were 3-4 through the first seven weeks and didn't seem like a team primed for the AFC Championship Game. Mahomes didn't look like himself in duels against other great young quarterbacks, including Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Josh Allen, and some were ready to write off the Chiefs and their star quarterback. But once Week 8 hit, Mahomes helped the Chiefs get hot at the right time and win eight straight en route to an AFC West title. The Kansas City quarterback finished fourth in passing yards (4,839), fifth in QBR (62.2) and tied for fourth in TD passes (37).
Allen was the Bills' offense in 2021, accounting for more than 80% of Buffalo's total yards and having to overcompensate for a struggling offensive line and a run game that didn't come on until late in the season. The duds he turned in against Jacksonville and Atlanta were made up by spectacular performances against the Buccaneers (in a close loss) and Buffalo's second meeting with New England. Allen kept the Bills on track, and he recorded his third straight season with 20 passing and five rushing touchdowns.
Kupp received the most votes of any non-quarterback by our panel for an award that has never been won by a wide receiver. The arrival of quarterback Matthew Stafford helped Kupp take his game to the next level and produce not only the best season of his career but also one of the most prolific seasons ever by a wide receiver. Kupp led the NFL in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947), and receiving TDs (16), becoming just the fourth player since 1970 to lead the NFL in all three categories. Kupp came within 17 yards of tying Calvin Johnson's record for yards in a season by a wideout and was four away from the single-season reception mark set by Michael Thomas in 2019.
Taylor was the league's most dynamic running back in 2021. Not only did he lead the NFL in rushing (1,811 yards), rushing touchdowns (18) and rushing yards after contact (862), he also was No. 1 in scrimmage yards (2,171) and touchdowns from scrimmage (20). Taylor tied one of the most impressive streaks in NFL history by recording eight straight games with 100 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown. The only other player to do that that in a single season in NFL history was LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 -- the year he won the MVP.
At 25, Burrow became the youngest player to lead the NFL in both completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9). He bounced back from a season-ending ACL injury as a rookie to lead Cincinnati to an AFC North title in Year 2 while cementing himself as one of the top passers in the league. He finished the 2021 season ranked sixth in passing yards (4,611), third in passing yards per game (288.2) and third in touchdown rate (6.5%). All of this was accomplished behind an offensive line that struggled to protect him throughout the season.
Also received top-10 votes: Chargers QB Justin Herbert, Rams DT Aaron Donald, Rams QB Matthew Stafford, Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, Steelers OLB T.J. Watt, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, Cowboys OLB Micah Parsons, 49ers WR/RB Deebo Samuel, Raiders QB Derek Carr, Patriots QB Mac Jones, Titans QB Ryan Tannehill