NFL MVP race 2018: Will it come down to Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes?

Drew Brees and the Saints crashed back to earth with a Thursday Night Football loss to the Cowboys. Did they take Brees’ MVP hopes with them?

The veteran quarterback had his worst game of the season in Week 13, throwing for just 127 yards and heaving a game-sealing interception into the hands of Jourdan Lewis. That snapping New Orleans’ 10-game winning streak and knocked the Saints off the top of the NFC standings with just four weeks left in the season.

Brees’ underwhelming performance was one of several last week, but that plague of airborne mediocrity didn’t carry over to Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes. The second-year pro regained his spot atop sportsbooks’ odds to take home the league’s top honor. He carved up an overmatched Raiders team for 295 passing yards and four touchdown passes, marking the seventh time in 12 games he’s found the end zone at least four times.

That’s earned him a rightful spot at the top of this year’s list of worthy candidates, but he’s still got four games left — including showdowns with playoff hopefuls like the Ravens, Chargers, and Seahawks — to prove himself. Here’s who is stuck looking up at Mahomes now that three quarters of the 2018 season is in the books.

Current 2018 NFL MVP odds

A lot of names on this list are either people we’d like to see win it and/or truly deserving names, but we all know that only goes so far when it comes to the actual voters this spring. So before we dig into a closer look at the candidates, let’s make a quick scan of the odds.

These are the top 10 from OddsShark, and were last updated prior to Week 14.

Drew Brees: -150
Patrick Mahomes: +100
Philip Rivers: +1800
Aaron Donald: +2500
Jared Goff: +3300
Todd Gurley: +3300
Ben Roethlisberger: +5000

Now, let’s take a deeper look at the candidates — starting with the man at the top of the odds sheet after Week 13.

The Saints’ venerable veteran: Drew Brees, QB

Brees didn’t play well Thursday night, averaging a sub-Osweilerian 4.7 yards per pass. Part of his struggle can be attributed to the Cowboys’ ability to take Alvin Kamara out of the game. Head coach Sean Payton leaned hard on his game-breaking tailback, with 22 of the team’s 49 offensive plays either ending in rushes or passes to Kamara. He gained just 72 yards on those plays, pushing Brees to rely on his other playmakers to beat Dallas.

Without Kamara clicking, New Orleans’ lack of supporting talent finally came back to bite Brees. Michael Thomas had just five catches on eight targets, a mark well below the 88.7 percent catch rate he had coming into Week 13. Only four other players earned targets. If the Saints are going to push Brees to his first MVP award, their receivers are going to step up and give him all the tools he needs to get there.

The Chiefs’ second-year star: Patrick Mahomes, QB

Mahomes sliced through the Raiders with his arm, but he also made a bevy of plays on the ground that reinforce just how dangerous he can be. He ran for a career-high 52 yards (on nine carries), showcasing the mobility that not only leads to first downs in a pinch, but just as importantly extends plays outside the pocket. Few quarterbacks in the league now — and possibly ever — combine the speed, arm strength, and accuracy Mahomes can dial up on demand.

He’s on pace for 55 touchdown passes and leads the league with 10.0 adjusted yards per pass this fall. He may be having the greatest season in NFL history.

He’s got a tough road to run the next three weeks, however. Next Sunday brings the Ravens and the league’s top-ranked defense to Arrowhead Stadium, one week after Baltimore ruined Matt Ryan’s slim MVP hopes. If Mahomes can handle John Harbaugh’s team, he might just wrap up the league’s highest regular season honor.

The man who may finally lead the Chargers to the promised land: Philip Rivers, QB

Rivers dealt Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers one of the biggest home collapses in franchise history, leading the Chargers back from a 23-7 deficit for a 33-30 victory. Some luck was involved, but the veteran still finished the day with 299 passing yards and a pair of passing touchdowns while reinforcing the idea Los Angeles is a top-tier team in the AFC.

Rivers’ lowest passer rating for a single game this fall is 91.3. At his worst, he’s been roughly as good as 2017 Matt Ryan. The Chargers are a legitimate postseason contender, and if Rivens can get the better of Mahomes in their Week 15 rematch — he had 424 yards and three touchdowns when Los Angeles and Kansas City met on opening week — he could force his way to the top of the MVP ballot.

Goff fell into the Lions weird vortex of suck Sunday, but unlike Tom Brady, Cam Newton, or Aaron Rodgers he still managed to escape Motor City with a win. His 17-of-33, 207-yard performance was his second-worst of the season — only the Broncos were able to coax him into a less impressive showing. Even with that rough outing he’s still got a 109.9 passer rating, which is seven points higher than Tom Brady scored in his MVP season last year.

Gurley bounced back from a turned ankle that limited him in that Monday instant classic win over the Chiefs. His 132-yard, two-touchdown performance put him back atop the league ranks in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns. He’s on pace for a shade under 2,200 total yards, which would be MVP-worthy in a year without so many amazing quarterback performances. Gurley’s been great, but he might not even be a top two candidate on his own team.

That’s because Donald continues to just absolutely destroy opposing offensive lines. A steady diet of double teams hasn’t been able to slow him down, and his performance has been prolific.

It’s one thing to read his stats, but watching him bulldoze through a double team to wrestle opposing quarterbacks to the turf like a lioness stretching out to devour a gazelle really drives home just how special he’s been.

Donald needs six sacks over his final four games to tie Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record. He’s got 6.5 in his past three contests. But even a historically dominant season may not sway voters to select a defensive MVP for the first time since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. This utter dominance may have come one season too late for Donald to get his fair due from MVP voters.

The man tasked with throwing the Steelers to a playoff bye: Ben Roethlisberger, QB

Roethlisberger’s high-usage season continued in a 46-pass effort against LA. He’s averaging more than 43 passes per game this season, over five more than his previous career high. With James Conner set to miss Week 14 due to a lower leg sprain, he could wind up throwing the ball 50 times against Oakland on Sunday. Another monster performance — he’s thrown for 450+ yards twice already this year — could boost him up the MVP ballot, but he remains a longshot to win the award.

The Patriots’ old standby: Tom Brady, QB

Brady nearly let the Vikings back into a 14-point win with a fourth-quarter interception, but Kirk Cousins’ refusal to live up to the $84 million contract the Vikings handed him meant his 311-yard performance would stand up in a win. The 41-year-old has been entirely solid this fall, throwing for fewer touchdowns but generally outplaying the seasonal averages of his Hall of Fame career. Most years that would make his a rock solid MVP candidate. This year he might not even be a top-five candidate.

The man who refuses to let the Seahawks tank: Russell Wilson, QB

Wilson just keeps winning, even without the backing of the Legion of Boom. He only needed six passes Sunday to effectively squash the 49ers:

Hooooo boy. Wilson finished his day with just 185 passing yards but four passing touchdowns in a game that pushed the Seahawks into a Wild Card spot. He’s got a 29:5 TD:INT ratio this fall, and while there are several factors for Seattle’s refusal to backslide into a rebuilding year — an emerging rushing game, a seemingly unbreakable defense — Wilson is the biggest reason for the Seahawks continued presence in the NFC playoff race.

The Texans’ second-year stud: Deshaun Watson, QB

Watson stomped the Browns’ slim playoff hopes into a fine powder Sunday, rolling up 254 total yards and a touchdown in a 29-13 win over Cleveland that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. He’s the engine behind Houston’s nine-game winning streak, bolstered by a top 10 defense that’s finally healthy for the first time in years.

While his absurd touchdown rate of 2017 has proven unsustainable, he’s been more accurate as a sophomore (66.5% completion rate vs. 61.8% last year) and more cautious with the ball (a 2.5% interception rate compared to last year’s 3.9%). Watson is unlikely to break into the Brees/Goff/Mahomes stratosphere to win MVP honors, but his 2018 is proof he’s a top 10 quarterback.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings

Khalil Mack, DE, Bears

Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers

Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons

Andrew Luck, QB, Colts

Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints

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