NFL MVP 2012: Predictions for Top Candidates

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2013

NFL MVP 2012: Predictions for Top Candidates

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    Though neither of their teams are making the trip to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, the 2012 NFL MVP award has long been seen as a two-man race between Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning.

    Both battled back from debilitating injuries and returned at peak form, leading their teams to the playoffs with weekly spectacular performances. They're deservedly the favorites and it's highly likely that one will ultimately walk away with the Associated Press' MVP trophy. 

    Nevertheless, there are other candidates who have a (slight) chance at pulling off a shocking upset. J.J. Watt ascended to superstardom in his second NFL season, while guys like Matt Ryan did the same later on in their careers.

    In the interest of keeping the "balloting" rational, we're only going to check in with the five players who actually have a chance at winning the award. So with apologies to Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and a couple others, here is a complete breakdown of the field for the 2012 NFL MVP award. 

J.J. Watt (DE, Houston Texans)

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    Regardless of how great his season was, J.J. Watt has no chance of winning the 2012 NFL MVP. There has been exactly one defensive winner in the past four decades (Lawrence Taylor in 1986), a fact that frustrates many on the less-flashy side of the ball.

    In that same time frame, the same amount of place-kickers have won the award as defensive players. Yes, place-kickers (Mark Moseley in 1982). 

    Nonetheless, it's impossible to have a fair MVP conversation without mentioning Watt. The Houston Texans star had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history for a defensive end, and pretty unarguably the best for a player in a 3-4 set. 

    Watt finished the 2012 regular season with a whopping 81 tackles, 20.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, becoming the most consistently disruptive force in the league. His 72 stops were 18 more than the next best defensive end, his 76 pressures led the NFL and he missed just two tackles in run defense all season, according to Pro Football Focus' advanced measurements.

    Considering the limitations usually placed on defensive ends in 3-4 schemes, Watt's ascent is utterly amazing. He was able to consistently wreak havoc in the backfield without two hosses in the middle occupying blockers, oftentimes defeating two linemen on his own.

    Though Houston's momentum slowed down toward the end of the season, Watt actually got better as the year went along. All four of his forced fumbles and a majority of his tackles and stuffs came in the second half of the season. 

    Unfortunately, the MVP is an offensive award masquerading as something else. Watt will win the Defensive Player of the Year going away, but his MVP candidacy will be stifled by the voters' continued predilection toward offensive players.

    Chances of Winning MVP: 1 Percent

Matt Ryan (QB, Atlanta Falcons)

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    While Matt Ryan is undoubtedly frustrated about the Falcons' loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, the Atlanta signal-caller has to be happy with his season as a whole.

    It ultimately doesn't matter for the MVP, but it's also worth noting that Ryan finally won a playoff game this season. That win ultimately just shutters one narrative (Ryan can't win a playoff game) while opening a new one (Ryan can't win the Super Bowl), but it has to feel good for ATLiens after a half-decade of disappointment.

    After years of hanging on the fringes of "elite" status, the 2012 season will be known as the year Ryan finally took "The Leap." Handed the full offensive reins for the first time in his five-year career, Ryan responded with highs in passing yards (4,719), touchdowns (34) and QBR (74.5) en route to leading the Falcons to the NFC's best record.

    Ryan did all of that while surrounded by arguably the league's worst set of running backs. Neither Michael Turner nor Jacquizz Rodgers averaged four yards per carry this season, leaving Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White to consistently carry the offensive load. 

    Unfortunately, Ryan's MVP chances fall off the rails mostly due to narrative. The Falcons were the least-respected 13-3 team in recent memory, as fans and pundits alike discounted their accomplishments because of the close nature of their games. 

    With a few players having both better stories and statistical performances, Ryan's MVP candidacy petered out down the stretch through no real fault of his own. He won't win the award this season, but one has a hard time finding a better clubhouse favorite for the 2013 trophy. 

    Chances of Winning MVP: 4 Percent

Tom Brady (QB, New England Patriots)

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    Painting with a broad brush, the collective we have probably become spoiled with is just how spectacular Tom Brady is every season. The 35-year-old quarterback threw for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns against only eight interceptions, leading the NFL in Football Outsiders' DVOA and DYAR along the way. 

    Surrounded with arguably his best set of offensive weapons since the Patriots' historic 2007 season, Brady seemed consistently in his comfort zone this season. Running back Stevan Ridley gave the Patriots just their first 1,200-yard since 2004, and the presence of Brandon Lloyd helped mitigate injuries to both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

    Overall, the Patriots scored a league-high 557 points, which was an astounding 76 points more than any other team this season. With Brady leading this cast of characters and putting up yet another fantastic season under center, it's hard to argue with his candidacy. 

    When comparing Brady against his counterparts, there certainly are some noteworthy cracks in his resume, particularly his inability to handle pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady completed only 40.4 percent of passes while facing pressure this season. Only Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck were worse among quarterbacks who took 50 percent of their teams' offensive snaps.

    Brady also dipped in accuracy overall during the second half of the season. After completing 65.3 percent of his passes in the first half of the season, Brady's rate dropped precipitously along with the winter, including 58.5 percent in December.

    We're splitting hairs here because Brady obviously had a fantastic season. He just wasn't ascendant in the same way other players were, and should probably finish third or fourth in the MVP balloting. 

    Chances of Winning MVP: 5 percent

Peyton Manning (QB, Denver Broncos)

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    This time a year ago, most had a hard time even picturing Peyton Manning playing football again. At that point, the then-Indianapolis Colts legend was a man who had undergone four neck surgeries and had missed the entire 2011 season.

    The Colts had locked up the No. 1 pick during his season on the sidelines and were preparing to draft their new quarterback of the future with the pick. Actor Rob Lowe, also known as Jim Irsay's BFF, had even tweeted that Manning would be retiring from the NFL.

    Well...Manning didn't retire. Instead, he left the only professional setting he had ever known, replaced the ever-popular Tim Tebow with the Denver Broncos and had one of the better seasons for a 36-year-old quarterback in NFL history.

    Finishing the regular season with 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns against a meager 11 interceptions, Manning looked far more like the 2007 version of himself than a man coming off four neck surgeries. He led the league with an 84.7 QBR, finished second in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and was (perhaps most impressively) the second-most accurate deep passer in the NFL.

    All of this came while surrounded by an offensive cast mostly unchanged from the Tebow era. For reference, Tebow's Broncos ranked second-worst in passing offense last season. Manning, meanwhile, made a Pro Bowler out of Demaryius Thomas while Eric Decker finished second in receiving touchdowns (13).

    It was a complete offensive overhaul that gave the Broncos the No. 1 seed in the AFC and made Manning the MVP favorite until Adrian Peterson's late surge. Though the lasting image of Manning for 2012 may be his cross-bodied, Favreian interception against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, he is definitely the AFC's most likely MVP winner. 

    Chances of Winning MVP Award: 44 Percent

Adrian Peterson (RB, Minnesota Vikings)

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    Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards during a historic 2012 regular season, but it's the nine yards he didn't get that the Vikings running back may remember forever. Nine yards was what kept Peterson from breaking Eric Dickerson's all-time rushing record of 2,105, in a season that saw him come back from an ACL tear to lead Minnesota to a 10-6 record and shocking playoff berth.  

    Not only did Peterson come back from his ACL injury, he came back more explosive than ever. According to Pro Football Focus, 56.5 percent of his yards came on "breakaway" gains.

    Even if you set his fantastic recovery from ACL surgery aside, Peterson's astounding numbers still came under extremely untenable circumstances. He had to deal with eight or nine men in the box on almost every single play, thanks mostly to frustrating play from quarterback Christian Ponder.

    The second-year signal-caller threw for 2,935 yards and 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, thoroughly mediocre numbers on the surface. But Ponder also had six different contests where he threw for fewer than 150 yards and completed a total of five passes thrown 21 or more yards through the air.

    That inability to stretch the field is what made Peterson's explosiveness so critical. Without him in the lineup, it's hard to imagine the Vikings winning more than five games, let along making the playoffs. 

    Too often pundits use the trope of a player "single-handedly" carrying a team. Peterson's 2012 regular season is one of the few instances where it not only avoids hyperbole, but simply feels right. 

    If that isn't enough to make him the league's "most valuable" player, then I'm not sure we'll ever see a non-quarterback win this award again. Peterson's season was historic, both on a human interest side and professional side, and he deserves to win the 2012 NFL MVP.

    Chances of Winning MVP: 46 Percent

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