By Steve Silverman
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This has been a season in which MVP candidates have been plentiful.
Early in the season, it looked like Arizona running back David Johnson would throw his name into the equation because of his Walter Payton-like ability to pile up rushing yards, receptions and touchdowns.
The problem for Johnson was that he was playing for a disappointing and losing team in the Cardinals, who in the preseason were considered Super Bowl contenders. It’s hard to reward a player on a team that went 7-8-1, even one who amassed 2,118 total yards.
After early-season suspensions, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell have come through in dynamic fashion once again. Brady played just 12 games, but he has been masterful, rolling up a 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and coming through with clutch throws every time the Patriots needed a big play.
The Steelers know that Bell is capable of carrying the team when it’s needed. He averaged 157 yards from scrimmage in 12 games. Extrapolate that figure for a full 16-game season, and he would have broken Chris Johnson’s single-season total yardage record of 2,509.
Bell has been especially effective late in the season, averaging 139.2 rushing yards over his last six games.
But while Bell was brilliant during the season’s stretch run and helped the Steelers close with seven straight victories, his performance may not have been as dominant as quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ was for the Packers.
After dropping a 42-24 decision at Washington in late November, Green Bay was 4-6 and seemingly going nowhere.
The defense was abominable and Rodgers and his offensive teammates were merely OK. Rodgers attempted to rally the Packers, saying the team could win its final six games and take the NFC North title in the process.
That’s just what happened. The defense figured out a few things, but the Green Bay offense shifted into high gear and Rodgers ended up with MVP numbers — 4,428 yards with a 40-to-7 TD-to-interception ratio. Rodgers was clearly on top of his game during the winning streak, throwing for 15 touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Cowboys authored one of the most memorable stories of the 2016 season with their 13-3 record and the No.1 seed in the NFC. Rookies Ezekiel Elliott (1,631 rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 15 TDs) and Dak Prescott (3,667 passing yards, 23-to-4 TD-to-interception ratio) were both remarkable, but each one will likely take votes away from the other.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has had a memorable year for several reasons. In the past, Ryan’s ability to escape pressure with his quickness in the pocket and find his receivers downfield with pinpoint passes was sensational. However, he would regularly hit a wall — and so would his teammates. The Falcons collapsed after a brilliant start in 2015, and Ryan was determined to avoid that fate this year.
He succeeded in dramatic fashion, completing 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards and a Rodgers-like 38-to-7 TD-to-interception ratio.
Instead of collapsing down the stretch, Atlanta dominated, going 4-0 in the season’s final weeks and averaging 38 points per game. Ryan threw 11 TDs and no interceptions.
All of these candidates are brilliant, and they are deserving of consideration and debate. But the best player in the league is hardly being talked about for this honor.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown long ago put his stamp on the Pittsburgh offense and his status as one of the best pass catchers in the league.
He was in top form again this season, catching 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns, including 22 receptions of 20 yards or more. This marked the fourth consecutive season Brown went over the 100-reception mark, and in a league stocked with several other brilliant receivers, including the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. and the Falcons’ Julio Jones, Brown is the best at his position.
But if you look at Brown’s numbers alone, they are good, but not convincing. He had 550 more receiving yards in 2015 than he did this year.
What makes him a legitimate MVP candidate is one single play: “The Stretch.”
Brown clinched the AFC North title for the Steelers in Week 16 when he caught the game-winning, 4-yard TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger with nine seconds remaining against the Baltimore Ravens.
Brown hauled in the toss inside the 2-yard line, and he was able to take about half a step before the 179-pound receiver was met by three Ravens defenders who hammered him. Brown managed to stretch the tip of the football over the goal line, allowing the Steelers to turn a 27-24 deficit into a 31-27 victory.
If Brown had been stopped, the Ravens would have won the game, and the Steelers would have entered Week 17 fighting for their playoff lives. But instead, Brown used his talent, courage and relentless desire to turn his team into division champions.
What’s more valuable than that? That’s why I support Brown over the other worthy MVP candidates this season.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy