By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Russell Wilson is making a late push to gain credibility as a legitimate NFL MVP candidate, as he almost single-handedly carries the entire Seahawks offense. But for more than a month, the race for NFL MVP has mostly been considered by most of the football world to be a two-man battle between Tom Brady and Carson Wentz.
We’ll get to Wilson some more in a bit, but in the discussion between Brady and Wentz, this upcoming week may be the final significant week in sorting out a winner.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in that statement, but it basically boils down to this: It’s most likely going to be pretty cold out when Brady and Wentz play their final three games of the season.
After Monday night’s trip to Miami, the Patriots will close out their season with a trip to Pittsburgh (late-afternoon game) and two 1 p.m. games in Foxboro.
The Eagles will travel to Los Angeles this weekend to face the Rams. After that, they’ll play at the Giants followed by two home games in Philly vs. Oakland and Dallas.
For Brady, excelling in the cold is one of the most undersold aspects of his sustained statistical greatness as a quarterback. His career regular-season passer rating in December and January is 95.6 — just a tick lower than his overall career passer rating of 97.8. It’s something that should probably be discussed more when comparing the overall output against the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Dan Marino, but that’s a story for a different day.
Still, throwing footballs with precision in cold, windy conditions in December is a lot more difficult than throwing footballs with precision on mild autumn days in October. And a look at Brady’s stats in the final three games of each season from 2009-16 in games played outdoors in cold cities shows that his numbers have suffered a bit in those games. (I find it proper to divide Brady’s career in terms of pre-2008 injury and post-2008 injury, hence the dates. And the stats included involve games played in New England, Buffalo, Denver, New York, and Baltimore. It excluses the games played in Houston, Jacksonville, and Miami.)
Tom Brady, Weeks 15-17, cold weather cities, 2009-16 (19 games):
4,316 yards (227 Y/G, 7.28 Y/A)
32 TD, 8 INT (4-to-1 ratio)
95.8 passer rating
Tom Brady, all other games, 2009-16 (105 games):
30,820 yards (294 Y/G, 7.75 Y/A)
227 TDs, 58 INTs (3.9-to-1)
As you can see, Brady’s managed to keep the TD-to-INT ratio almost exactly in line with his production outside of the cold weather games, though much of that was accomplished from 2009-11, when he threw 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions in those eight games. In the 11 late-season, cold-weather games since then, he’s thrown 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. That’s a 16-game average of 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions, which is quite obviously not MVP-level stuff.
Additionally, Brady’s yardage drops off significantly in those games. Now, a part of that has to do with getting taken out of games that don’t matter to the team’s playoff position (2010 vs. Miami, 2014 vs. Buffalo) and not throwing as much, but it also has to do with with the elements. And considering that arguably Brady’s best claim to the MVP this year has been his wire-to-wire lead in passing yards, the possibility of losing that lead could hurt his chances.
This week in Miami, however, he should have an opportunity to pad those stats to protect against the final three cold games. Two weeks ago, Brady didn’t go crazy with the yardage (227 yards) as he was withstanding eight hits from Miami’s defense, but he averaged 8.1 yards per attempt while throwing four touchdowns and an interception. The Miami pass defense ranks in the middle of the NFL pack in terms of yards allowed, but ranks 22nd in touchdowns allowed and 27th in passer rating against.
And though the members of the Miami defense and coaching staff have changed, it’s worth noting that Brady’s single-game career high in yards came in Miami on a Monday night in 2011, when he threw for 517 yards. And after Brady was held without a touchdown last week, it’s also a safe bet that Brady will be throwing at least one touchdown this week. He hasn’t been held without a touchdown for two consecutive weeks since December of 2006. (Wentz was 13 years old when that happened, as a random aside.) So the opportunity is there for Brady to pump up some of those stats to prepare for the winter cold that will follow — though he’ll of course have to do it without the benefit of having Rob Gronkowski as a receiving option.
Now, at the same time, Wentz will have what will likely be his final warm-weather game of 2017 this week in Los Angeles. It will be an important week for him in his MVP candicacy, too, though he’ll be going up against a Rams defense that ranks fourth in the NFL in passer rating against and ranks in the top 10 in yards allowed and touchdowns allowed.
Admittedly, it’s not an entirely valuable process to look at Wentz’s work last year in cold weather, considering his rookie stats (16 TD, 14 INT, 79.3 passer rating) look nothing at all like his stats this season (29 TD, 6 INT, 102.0 rating). Yet it’s worth noting that in three cold-weather cities at the end of last season, Wentz completed just 56.9 percent of his passes for 567 total yards (189 yards per game) while throwing three touchdowns and three interceptions.
So just like Brady, if Wentz wants to maintain his statistical lead atop the NFL (in Wentz’s case, he currently leads the league in touchdown passes), he’ll likely want to get to work this weekend in L.A.
We should also mention Mr. Wilson. Though he ranks 11th in passer rating and sixth in yards, his MVP candidacy has gotten a boost by the attention paid to his accounting for almost all of Seattle’s offense — 85 percent, to be precise. (He also ranks second in touchdown passes.)
His weather outlook depends on whether or not you consider Seattle a “cold-weather city.” If you do, then he’ll play two of his final three games in cold weather. If you don’t, he’ll have the best opportunity to increase his stats with home dates against the Rams and Cardinals and a road trip to Dallas. However, this week, Wilson will be dealing with the Jaguars in Jacksonville. The Jaguars lead the league in sacks, passing yards allowed (by a large margin), and passer rating against. If Wilson can put up numbers against that defense this week, then he will indeed let it be known that his MVP candidacy is no joke.
Long story short: Brady may lead the league or rank second in every important statistical category, but Monday night in Miami may be his last great chance to post some obscene stats to boost his MVP case.