/Gridiron Digest: Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey Heat Up an Epic MVP Race

Gridiron Digest: Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey Heat Up an Epic MVP Race

Brian Blanco/Associated Press

Week 5 didn’t tell us much about teams that we don’t already know: The Patriots are great (and may someday face a real opponent again), the Jets stink, the whole NFC is a confusing mess that will take weeks to sort itself out, and so forth.

On the other hand, Week 5 did help sort out the front-runners in this year’s MVP race. Here’s a look at how things shake out now that it’s easier to separate the true MVP contenders from the guys who just looked great when they played the Dolphins.


Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

The stats: Even on an off night, Mahomes threw for 321 yards and one touchdown, giving him 1,831 yards, 11 touchdowns and (still) zero interceptions for the season.

The case: Even while limping on a banged-up ankle in a sloppy, penalty-marred 19-13 loss to the Colts, Mahomes offered a few reminders that he’s the NFL’s best player, most notably on his dazzling 27-yard scramble and touchdown throw to Byron Pringle before the ankle injury deteriorated and the game came unglued.

Sunday night’s loss to the Colts also gave us a look at what the Chiefs are like when Mahomes is not at his best, and it wasn’t very pretty. Few players in the league elevate their teams the way Mahomes elevates the Chiefs.

Counterargument: Mahomes had a bad game. It may have been the first really bad game of his career, but it was still a bad game. Factor in an injury that has flared up in back-to-back weeks, and the door is wide-open for not only MVP challengers but for other AFC teams to push into the Super Bowl contender conversation (and, sigh, for the Patriots to pull away).


Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

The Numbers: McCaffrey rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 win over the Jaguars, adding 6-61-1 as a receiver. McCaffrey now leads the NFL with 587 rushing yards, averages 5.6 yards per carry, leads the Panthers with 31 receptions and has scored seven touchdowns.

The Case: The Panthers are 3-2 but could easily be 0-5 without McCaffrey providing 46.8 percent of their total offense. With Cam Newton injured, both the Panthers rushing and passing attacks flow through McCaffrey, who is generating lots of yards after contact and yards after the catch to make conservative game plans designed for backup quarterback Kyle Allen viable and productive.

The Counterargument: The cool kids on Twitter think running backs don’t matter.


Michael Thomas, Saints

The Numbers: Thomas caught 11 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-24 Saints victory over the Buccaneers, giving him 45-543-3 for the season.

The Case: Teddy Bridgewater has been a great story, but let’s be blunt: The Saints would not be 4-1 if Bridgewater didn’t have Michael Thomas to beat coverage right off the line of scrimmage, catch his micro-tosses and turn them into productive gains.

Thomas is leading the league in receptions and yards despite Drew Brees‘ absence. Imagine what he’ll do when Brees returns. Or just watch last year’s film, because that’s what he’s gonna do when Brees returns.

The Counterargument: Alvin Kamara fans can claim that Thomas isn’t even the best MVP candidate on the Saints. And they might have a point.


Deshaun Watson, Texans

The Numbers: A five-touchdown performance in a 53-32 victory over the Falcons on Sunday gives Watson 11 touchdowns and one interception for the season to go with a 69.2 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 115.9.

The Case: If the MVP award is meant for the player doing the most with the least support from the rest of his organization, Watson belongs among the front-runners.

The Texans did not really repair the offensive line in front of him by trading for Laremy Tunsil; they just bought the most expensive duct tape on Earth to patch over the biggest holes. Watson still takes a pounding in most games, and while Will Fuller is finally coming around as a No. 2 receiver after several years as the captain of the injured reserve, Watson still doesn’t have a worthy complement of weapons beyond DeAndre Hopkins. And yet the Texans are 3-2 in a division that could be won by a 9-7 team.

The Counterargument: Looking good against the Falcons defense is like looking good in a walkthrough against traffic cones and pylons.


Russell Wilson, Seahawks

The Numbers: Wilson threw for 268 yards and four touchdowns in Thursday night’s victory over the Rams, giving him 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions on the season, plus a 73.1 percent completion rate, two rushing touchdowns and other acts of heroism we take for granted from Wilson.

The Case: Thursday night’s performance looked like a whole season’s worth of old Randall Cunningham highlights crammed into one game. Wilson has done the near-impossible and kept the Seahawks functional despite minimal help (and occasional hinderance) from the rest of the organization for years. Wilson is doing even more with somewhat less this season. 

The Counterargument: He’s not Patrick Mahomes.


Others worth mentioning

Lamar Jackson, Ravens, and Dak Prescott, Cowboys

The early-September favorites are falling off the pace now that they are facing real opposition.


Tom Brady, Patriots

Brady is operating on autopilot against opposition that’s softer than a kitten’s belly, but Patriots fans get mad if we don’t include him in every MVP discussion.


Dalvin Cook, Vikings

He’s Kirk Cousins’ financial advisor’s MVP.


Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers

The unheralded defensive end leads the NFL with nine sacks, plus three forced fumbles and an interception. He’s a worthy Defensive Player of the Year contender. We included him in this MVP roundup because Gridiron Digest is thirsty for street cred.