The most exciting award races to watch in the last month of the NFL season
Most of the major awards are up for grabs, which should make for an eventful finish to the season. After that, we make our pick for Chiefs-Chargers, Part 2.
It’s been about two months since we last checked in on the early frontrunners for every major NFL award, and somehow in that time, most of the races have gotten murkier. With four weeks left in the season, almost all of the awards are coming down to the wire.
In some ways, it resembles the Heisman race we just saw unfold in college football. For most of the season, there was no clear frontrunner. It wasn’t until the final two weeks when Bryce Young, who rallied Alabama back in the Iron Bowl and then lit up a historically good George defense in the SEC Championship Game, emerged as the overwhelming favorite.
Similarly, how the last part of the NFL season plays out, and who comes out on top of the playoff standings, will be a huge factor in determining who takes home the hardware on Feb. 10.
Except Defensive Rookie of the Year. Micah Parsons has that one in the bag.
Let’s take a look at the other seven races — all competitive in their own way — to survey the candidates as the regular season enters its most critical point.
Vegas favorite: Tom Brady
The competition: Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes
At midseason, Kyler Murray was the favorite to win his first NFL MVP Award. He was posting career-high numbers and had the Cardinals sitting on top of the NFC. Then Murray suffered an ankle injury and missed three games, which put a dent in his candidacy.
After that, there was no real frontrunner until the past week or so, when three-time MVP winner Tom Brady took the lead (we tried to warn you about this last month). Brady ranks first in the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and QBR … at 44 years old. He also has the 10-3 Bucs in striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the NFC, thanks in part to his four game-winning drives this year. Brady hasn’t done it alone, but he’s the engine behind the Bucs’ consistent success this season, whether he’s throwing a game-winning touchdown or running (?) for a first down:
Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and Murray are still in the conversation; they’re also producing excellent stats and have their team at 10-3. Patrick Mahomes, another former winner, hasn’t managed the otherworldly numbers he has in previous seasons, but the Chiefs are on a roll. If they can stretch their six-game winning streak into a 10-game one by season’s end, then Mahomes can’t be counted out either.
Most likely, though, the 2021 MVP will be whichever quarterback helps his team clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Offensive Player of the Year
Vegas favorite: Cooper Kupp
The competition: Jonathan Taylor
Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor have each been good enough to earn consideration for MVP honors in a season without a stellar quarterback performance to lock the award down. Barring a historic finish — 2,000 receiving yards for Kupp (an NFL record and then some thanks to the 17th game) or 2,500 yards from scrimmage for Taylor (he’s on pace for 2,200) — it seems unlikely either one would win that award.
The next best thing for these two surefire All-Pros will be the OPOTY vote, which sometimes goes to the MVP quarterback and sometimes serves as a consolation prize for the league’s top skill player. Kupp at +125 and Taylor at +150 are light years ahead of the competition — the next lowest odds clock in at +3500 (four players, including James Conner and Deebo Samuel). Kupp has a slight edge because he’s got a real shot at rewriting the record book for a passing offense that cannot function without him. He’s on pace for the second-most receptions in league history behind only Michael Thomas’s 149. He’s also on pace to break Thomas’ yardage mark that season by more than 200 yards and seven touchdowns thanks to his ability to stretch defenses downfield.
That’s all very impressive, but no player in the league may be more instrumental to his team’s success than Taylor. The Colts are undefeated when he runs for at least 100 yards and winless when he doesn’t. He’s on track for more rushing touchdowns than anyone since 2006 and one of the 10 highest-scoring seasons in NFL history from a non-kicker.
Ultimately, we’re likely looking at a toss-up between these two. If Kupp sets the single-season receiving yard record, the award is his. If he falls short of 1,900 yards and the Colts make the playoffs, Taylor’s probably the guy. You can make a pretty solid case for either one.
Defensive Player of the Year
Vegas favorite: Myles Garrett
The competition: T.J. Watt, Micah Parsons, Aaron Donald
Myles Garrett has a chance to go wire-to-wire as the frontrunner for and winner of the DPOTY award. Through 13 games, he’s already recorded 15 sacks, exceeding his previous season high of 13.5 in 2018. He has the highest pass rush win rate among edge defenders, despite seeing a lot of double teams. And he’s always a second away from single-handedly taking over the game and making a play that turns out to be the difference between a win and a loss:
Garrett’s biggest competition is AFC North rival T.J. Watt, who leads the league in sacks for the second straight season — and has already surpassed last year’s total (16 so far in 2021 vs. 15 in 2020). Watt can similarly dominate games and has proven to be the Steelers’ most important player; they’re 6-0 when he’s at full strength and winless when he’s not.
The problem with Watt is that he hasn’t been healthy enough this year. One week he can wreck the Ravens to the tune of 3.5 sacks, 3 TFL, 6 QB hits, and 12 pressures, including the one that clinched the game:
And then the next week, he has to leave the game due to an injury, as he did in the first half of a loss to the Vikings.
Micah Parsons has been the game-changer the Cowboys defense has been waiting for; he has almost twice as many sacks (12) so far this season as the Cowboys’ 2020 leader, DeMarcus Lawrence (6.5).
He’s a physical marvel who can line up anywhere on the field and make his presence felt immediately. And I mean immediately:
Most likely, though, Parsons will have to “settle” for rookie defensive honors, which he earned about, oh, eight weeks ago.
We can never overlook Aaron Donald, either. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is still an elite pass-rushing tackle who just posted 15 QB pressures and three sacks against the Cardinals in a pivotal NFC West clash:
But if Garrett can keep up his production, and potentially spur the Browns to a playoff bid, then he should claim the first DPOTY award in his career.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Vegas favorite: Mac Jones
The competition: Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle
Jones has started to run away with this award despite only throwing three passes in A Week 13 win over the Bills. The contrast between last year’s 7-9 Cam Newton-led Patriots and this year’s 9-4 squad with a rookie at the helm is stark, and Jones’ precise touch and growing willingness to take risks downfield has placed him head and shoulders above his quarterback cohort.
The question remains whether or not that will be enough to carry him past a strong group of wideouts. Ja’Marr Chase’s OROTY case has petered out from a tsunami to a stream as the Bengals have slipped from 5-2 and a spot atop the AFC to 7-6 and a spot outside the current playoff picture. The big-play magic that he’d dialed up early and often with Joe Burrow has faded, and what once looked like a 1,500-yard season will instead probably wind up in the pathetic 1,200s.
Jaylen Waddle is working in the opposite direction. He’s averaged 7.6 catches and 87 yards per game in the five-week winning streak that has pushed the Dolphins from 1-7 to the periphery of the playoff race. If he can keep that pace, he’ll finish with a 114-catch, 1,200-yard season for the most unlikely postseason team in league history.
It’s likely neither wideout would sway voters in a season with a solid quarterback atop the ranks — Justin Jefferson lost last year’s race to Justin Herbert, after all — but we could be in for a decent finish, especially if the AFC playoff battle remains weird as hell.
Comeback Player of the Year
Vegas favorite: Dak Prescott
The competition: Joe Burrow, Carson Wentz, Nick Bosa
Dak Prescott was a shoo-in for this award (and probably still is), but there’s no denying he’s been in a slump since he strained his calf in mid-October. In the last six games, Prescott has thrown more interceptions and half as many touchdowns as he did in his first six games. There are other factors contributing to Prescott’s struggles, including offensive line and running back injuries, but he’s no longer the only possible candidate to win comeback player honors.
Joe Burrow and Carson Wentz have their teams in the playoff race. Despite their limitations this season — Burrow turns the ball over too much and Wentz hasn’t been able to rally the Colts in close games — these two have come back stronger this year after a frustrating 2020. And if the Bengals and/or Colts do make it to the postseason, these quarterbacks will be a big reason why.
The same could be said for Nick Bosa, who is quietly having a monster season for the 49ers. You’d never be able to guess that he tore his ACL last year when you watch him play:
Currently, he leads the NFL in tackles for loss with 18 and is third in sacks behind Watt and Garrett. But he’s not a quarterback, so he’ll probably finish as a runner-up.
Coach of the Year
Vegas favorite: Bill Belichick
The competition: Kliff Kingsbury, Matt LaFleur, Mike Vrabel, John Harbaugh
If Kliff Kingsbury had a vote, Bill Belichick would win this award every year. That won’t happen, though Belichick could very well do it this year — in part because of Kingsbury.
Kingsbury was arguably the favorite for this award until he made several questionable decisions in the Cardinals’ critical loss to the Rams in Week 14. After that, Belichick became the clear frontrunner. The Patriots were a playoff longshot when they started the year at 2-4, but a seven-game win streak has them sitting in first place in the AFC. Belichick is doing this with a rookie quarterback and recently won a game in which said quarterback attempted just three passes. In the year 2021.
Matt LaFleur is, once again, on pace to win 13 games with the Packers, and he has successfully navigated media firestorms brought on by his own quarterback who can be difficult to manage. Mike Vrabel and John Harbaugh have guided their teams to the top of their division, despite their rosters getting decimated by injuries.
In the end, this award will end up with a coach who locks down one of the No. 1 seeds and does so in improbable fashion.
Thursday Night Football pick, Chiefs vs. Chargers
The Chargers are 8-5, but since beating the Chiefs in Week 3 their best victory is … a stomping of the mercurial Bengals? Squeaking by the offensively challenged Browns in a shootout? Barely handling the Steelers?
Struggles against the AFC North aside, Los Angeles has been a nightmare to figure out. Kansas City has been similarly inscrutable. The Chiefs have won six straight games, but their explosive offense has been mired in neutral while a beleaguered defense has done the heavy lifting. That group left each of its last three opponents stuck at nine points while pushing a team that was once 3-4 into the thick of the race for the conference’s top spot.
The best quarterback it faced in the team’s six-game winning streak was Dak Prescott and his aforementioned slump. Herbert is significantly better and has already hung a 281-yard, four-touchdown performance on Kansas City this season. That leaves us with a game the Chiefs feel more likely to win but the Chargers, at +3.5 points and +133 to win, make more sense to bet on.
So roll cautiously with the favorites here, but find value in the home team, even if their resume feels a bit light for December.