Who is the NFL’s playoff MVP thus far?
Based on percentages alone, Tom Brady and Eli Manning have to be considered the favorites to take home the Super Bowl XLVI MVP award. Quarterbacks have won four of the past six MVPs and 24 of 45 overall.
But before we get there, let’s take a step back and recognize some of the best efforts of the playoffs thus far. There have been some sensational individual performances since the postseason kicked off on Jan. 7, both from players who are still alive in the Super Bowl chase and from those whose teams have slipped into an early offseason.
So, without further adieu, the “playoff MVP” nominees:
• Honorable mention: Arian Foster, Rob Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson, Justin Smith, Vince Wilfork
You should get a sense from that list of names just how difficult a task it is to narrow down the field. Gronkowski, in spite of an ankle injury, could wind up as Super Bowl MVP and it would surprise absolutely no one, given how dominant the New England tight end has been this season.
Foster might have been the toughest exclusion from the top five — he had a huge 153-yard game against Cincinnati in the wild-card round, then was arguably the best player on the field, for either team, in a loss at Baltimore.
Johnson played just one postseason game … but, oh, what a game it was. Megatron pulled down 12 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints, almost single-handedly keeping Detroit’s upset bid alive for much of the night.
You definitely could make compelling cases for both Smith and Wilfork, too, particularly the latter, given that his team’s still alive in the playoff chase.
Smith was unblockable in San Francisco’s win over the Saints, then followed that up with a strong performance against the Giants. Wilfork, meanwhile, completely disrupted Baltimore’s offense from start to finish last Sunday. He just ran over Ravens linemen in one-on-one situations, including on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter when he bull rushed Matt Birk deep into the backfield to force a Joe Flacco incompletion.
5. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans: Watt turned in a very solid rookie season, but the playoffs might stand as his coming-out party. He made the biggest play in Houston’s opening-round victory over Cincinnati — the franchise’s first playoff game and playoff win — by picking off an Andy Dalton pass and taking it to the house to give the Texans the lead for good.
All he did for an encore was sack Joe Flacco 2.5 times and record a game-high 12 tackles, as the Texans nearly upset the Ravens. The 49ers’ Smith was dominant, at times, in his two games, and it’s clear to see the impact Wilfork’s had on New England’s run. Watt, though, put together as impressive a back-to-back playoff performance as you’ll see from a defensive end.
4. Drew Brees, QB, Saints: New Orleans is out of the playoffs, in all honesty, in spite of Brees. Sure, he threw two interceptions in the Saints’ loss to the 49ers, including one that set up a San Francisco TD. But in two postseason outings, Brees also tossed seven touchdowns and threw for a ridiculous 928 yards.
That’s 466 against Detroit in a 45-28 win and 462 against San Francisco’s stellar defense — the same defense that made Eli Manning’s life so uncomfortable in the NFC title game.
3. Eli Manning, QB, Giants: When it comes right down to it, Manning’s numbers are pristine (923 yards passing, a 61.8 completion percentage, eight touchdowns and just one turnover) and he’s knocked off the NFC’s top two seeds on the road.
That’s in addition to guiding the Giants to a 24-2 wild-card round rout of the visiting Falcons. Manning threw for three touchdowns and 277 yards in that game, which was over long before the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
He followed that up by outdueling Aaron Rodgers, at Lambeau Field no less. And last Sunday, he threw a whopping 58 passes (32 completions) in the Giants’ overtime triumph over the 49ers. The NFC title game wasn’t his best performance, mostly due to San Francisco’s defense, but there is little to nitpick about in Manning’s playoff showing.
2. Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers: In a season in which the Patriots’ tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, garnered a lot of the headlines, Davis’ playoff appearances stole the show.
There simply was no covering Davis in San Francisco’s two playoff games. He tortured the Saints’ secondary to the tune of seven catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by his dramatic TD grab across the middle in the closing seconds to send New Orleans home. Davis then scored twice more against the Giants, which might have been enough to give the 49ers a Super Bowl bid if not for a couple of special teams miscues.
1. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants: Given that Nicks had his worst playoff game Sunday after suffering an early shoulder injury, you easily could flip-flop Manning or Davis and Nicks on this list.
But that would be doing a disservice to Nicks, who has been the driving force behind New York’s offense in the playoffs. While just about everyone focused on rising star Victor Cruz entering the postseason, Nicks has reminded us how good he is.
He started with a 115-yard, two-touchdown show vs. Atlanta, then topped himself the next week at Green Bay by putting up 165 yards receiving and two more scores. His 37-yard Hail Mary TD grab to end the first half against the Packers will long be in Giants lore, right alongside David Tyree’s Super Bowl catch.
The Giants might have the best wide receiver corps in football right now, and Nicks’ play in the postseason shows why.