An NFL MVP typically demands everyone's admiration with numbers too sensational to ignore. Yet not every season contains a special campaign from an obvious choice.
Fans and pundits could make cases for nearly a dozen players. Alex Smith's sizzling start led the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC West title. Drew Brees quietly posted the highest completion percentage (72.0) in NFL history. Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers nearly carried their teams into the playoffs. Even Case Keenum could steal a first-place vote or two.
Although a trio of candidates damaged by missed time still have a puncher's chance, it's most likely a battle between Tom Brady and Todd Gurley.
Before Week 17, OddsShark gave the New England Patriots quarterback 1-3 odds of winning his third MVP trophy. At 2-1, the Los Angeles Rams star should make the race interesting.
If Only They Played All Year
Although an ACL tear cost Carson Wentz the final three games, his 33 passing touchdowns finished one shy of Wilson in second place. By the time he left, the 11-2 Philadelphia Eagles had already clinched the NFC East.
"There hasn't been a better player on the field when he stepped onto the field this year—whenever we play someone, he is the best player the moment he steps on," Eagles tight end Zach Ertz told ESPN.com's Tim McManus. "He gives us a chance to win every single game. That's what a franchise quarterback does, that's what an MVP does."
While Wentz still warrants consideration, he also finished outside the top 10 in completion percentage and yards per pass attempt. He'll probably settle for third place, a substantial accomplishment for a second-year quarterback who missed the final three weeks.
Antonio Brown was starting to garner justified MVP buzz before suffering a season-ending calf injury in Week 15. Despite still leading the NFL with 1,533 receiving yards, he required a strong finish to become the only wide receiver besides Jerry Rice—who won with 22 touchdowns in 1987—to claim the award.
Rob Gronkowski only needed 14 games to deliver 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns. Perhaps he would have a case with a fuller slate, but a tight end drawing praise over his superstar quarterback is too much of an uphill battle to climb. Getting suspended for a cheap late hit and then blanked in Week 17 also put red marks on his profile.
Plenty of onlookers will deem it unjust, but the race boils down to Brady and Gurley.
Tom Brady vs. Todd Gurley
Just about any other quarterback would view Brady's 2017 as a career-defining breakout. For the 40-year-old icon, it was just another year.
He finished with 32 passing touchdowns. After forfeiting just two interceptions last season, he tossed six in the Patriots' final six games. He also notched fewer yards per pass attempt (7.9) than last year's 8.2.
Brady, however, is not competing against past iterations of himself for the hardware. His 4,577 passing yards led the NFL, narrowly fending off a streaking Rivers (4,515). Although he doesn't top the leaderboard in every mark, he resides inside the top five in passing touchdowns, completion percentage and quarterback rating.
NESN.com's Doug Kyed addressed the voter fatigue Brady must overcome:
Despite resting on Sunday, Gurley recorded 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns for the 11-5 Rams, who secured their first winning season since 2003. Brady's Patriots went a superior 13-3, but everyone takes their annual double-digit wins and division title for granted.
The running back has recency bias on his side. He secured countless fantasy championships by accruing 749 yards and eight touchdowns over his last four games played. Another spectacular Week 17 could have helped his case, but voters nevertheless will not forget his dominant December.
These factors work in Gurley's favor, but Brady is a quarterback. Nine of the past 10 winners have played under center, with Adrian Peterson breaking the trend with 2,097 rushing yards.
Even if Gurley is enjoying an all-around better season because of his receiving returns, MVP running backs have historically needed eye-popping yardage and touchdown tallies on the ground.
While Gurley closed the season in style, Brady began his Super Bowl defense with 1,399 passing yards and 10 touchdowns through Week 4. Players aren't awarded bonuses for numbers amassed later in the season.
In a year with a handful of big-name injuries and no perfect MVP candidate, Brady's fine season leaves him as the last-man standing.
MVP Ballot Predictions
1. Tom Brady, QB, NE
2. Todd Gurley, RB, LAR
3. Carson Wentz, QB, PHI
4. Drew Brees, QB, NO
5. Antonio Brown, WR, PIT