Cam Newton is the MVP.
There, I said it. Are you happy now? I came out and said that Cam is the MVP ... Or at least, I should say, Cam Newton is going to win the MVP trophy when it is announced. Not that he would get my vote. Oh, sorry, was that confusing? Did I trick you? My
The thing is, my vote for MVP is open. I know that the regular season is closed, but it was such a weird year in the NFL, with all of the usual suspects getting flipped (I'll flip ya for real) by December and perhaps leaving only three strong candidates by year's end: Newton, Carson Palmer, and Russell Wilson. My reasons for why Newton doesn't rank atop of that trio have been outlined at length, so I won't go into it again. That's not what this article is about.
This is just an intro.
No, today what I want to focus on isn't an award that doesn't matter, but a game that really does. It's not Wilson that Newton must beat, but the Seattle defense that is his true foe if he wants to score points and give the Panthers a great chance to advance to the NFC Championship. How Wilson does against Carolina is equally important, but right now I want to focus on the matchup that people will be talking about the most:
The MVP vs the number one scoring defense for four years in a row.
It just so happens that the Seahawks were the best defense Newton faced this season, and by a fairly significant margin. The Panthers strength of schedule isn't really up for debate -- It was the easiest in the NFL. Pro-Football-Reference says so, as does FootballOutsiders. Or any metric really. It is a fact. The only thing Carolina seems to want to put up for debate is that SoS doesn't even matter. I mean, 50 years of Super Bowl history probably says otherwise, but whatever. The Giants won two Super Bowls with average teams, so who cares, right?
I'm still going to be citing SoS, so if that upsets you, or if DVOA pisses you off, maybe stop reading. (Though you might still be surprised by the ending. It's a real Shyamalan.)
Newton faced the Seahawks in Week 6 and Seattle ranked fourth in overall defense by DVOA, third against the pass, third against the run, first in touchdown passes allowed, first in points allowed, sixth in net yards per pass attempt, and first in rushing yards allowed. That's some real good defense.
But the only other top 10 defenses Newton faced this season were the Texans (in Week 2, and Houston's rank of eighth overall is heavily influenced by being fourth in Weighted defense thanks to a strong finish) and the Packers (ninth overall, sixth against the pass.)
Newton had four games against teams ranked in the top 13 (3, 8, 9, 13) and 12 games against teams ranked in the bottom half of the NFL. All of that contributed to Carolina's strength of defenses faced being ranked 32nd in the league. Now, fans will argue that A) that's bullshit or B) it doesn't matter and C) you can only play the schedule you're given.
A and B are ignorant arguments fueled by insecurity, but C is certainly true. The Panthers played the schedule they were given, turned in a 15-1 record, and scored the most points. Some lucky team gets the easiest schedule every season*** and you don't see them winning 15 games. Point: Carolina.
But the Panthers were 10th in net Y/A, 10th in yards per carry, eighth in offensive DVOA, ninth in passing, and sixth in rushing. Did they do as much as they should be expected to do given that they have faced very little in terms of above-average talent and coaching on defense?
In Newton's three games against Seattle, Houston, and Green Bay, these were his passing numbers:
53-of-103, 51.4%, six touchdowns, four interceptions, 7.38 Y/A, and a passer rating of 78.9.
It sucks that we don't have a larger sample size, but that's also kind of the point. One game against a great defense, two or three games against a good defense, and then a whole lot of games against "Alabama State A&M Tech Southern of Kensington College." (Also known as the 2015 New Orleans Saints.)
Sometimes what you did is less important than what you can prove. Maybe the Panthers are the best team in football. It is certainly possible. But there isn't a lot on the table that shows why they'll be able to beat not just the Seahawks, but the Cardinals, and possibly the Broncos, Chiefs, Patriots, or Steelers. The next three games -- should Carolina make it that far -- will be against the three best teams they've faced all year.
What Newton won't be facing this week is a pass defense ranked 26th or worse, which he did six times this year with these results:
123-of-196, 62.7%, 17 touchdowns, two interceptions, 8.05 Y/A, and a passer rating of 112.5.
Now, every player boosts their numbers against bad teams. Wilson does it. Palmer does. Everybody does it. But that isn't the point because again, we aren't talking about the MVP race, we're talking about this game. And just like I said about Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship game last year, and Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl a year earlier when he was coming off the greatest season by a quarterback of all-time: Newton will struggle to complete meaningful passes against the Seahawks.
Just like those two other QBs did against Seattle in the playoffs, in the same years that they won MVP. Will Newton be the third MVP in a row that the Seahawks knocked out of the postseason? Let's at least talk through it.
In four regular season starts against Seattle, Newton is 1-3 (0-3 in Carolina), with a passer rating of 69.0. It's the lowest passer rating he has against any team he's faced more than once. He's thrown two touchdowns and three interceptions with a Y/A of 6.42. Against the Seahawks in the playoffs last year, Newton had two touchdowns and two interceptions, but one of those scores came with his team down 31-10 as Seattle was already preparing for Green Bay.
With this much evidence, there isn't much reason to doubt that Newton will struggle to throw well against the Seahawks. Predicting a final stat line is more difficult than Manning and Rodgers though because of the Panthers defense and how they are able to dictate the flow of Seattle's offense. If they keep it close, or get Carolina out to a big lead (hey, this isn't something I think is out of the realm of possibility given how the Cardinals did it to the Seahawks or how they kept screwing up against the Rams) then it'll turn to a ground game for the Panthers.
One thing I predict is that Newton will throw an interception. He throws picks. This isn't something that should really be disputable, despite having only thrown one interception over his last eight games. Those games against those opponents (plus the number of dropped interceptions I witnessed from Newton over that period of time) don't matter as much as the fact that he's thrown five interceptions in his last three games against the Seahawks and threw a pick against Houston and Green Bay (the only other top 10 pass defenses he faced) this season as well.
A touchdown also seems appropriate. He had 20 of those at home this year and averaged 8.64 Y/A in Carolina.
Overall, what I'm feeling for Newton is something like this: 15-of-27, 175 yards, one touchdown, one interception.
Seattle fears Greg Olsen, defending the tight end is their biggest weakness, but perhaps now that Jeremy Lane is back and Cary Williams is gone, the secondary will feel more comfortable in coverage. Maybe it won't. But even with Williams, Newton struggled terribly for three quarters before putting together some good drives in the fourth.
Of course, when talking about Cam Newton, you're not just talking about passing. And that's where Mr. Shyamalan comes in because you expected me to be all negative, but I'm honestly just a realist. Abandon all narrative and get down to the facts. The fact is that of course Newton is a great player, it's just that he wouldn't be nearly as great if he didn't have a second weapon to offset his deficiencies as a passer.
Newton scored rushing touchdowns in nine different games this season, including against Seattle. That's a threat that goes beyond his passing abilities and it's not something you can ignore -- Especially for fans (and writers) that have been praising the two-tool abilities of Wilson for four years.
The Seahawks ability to easily defend Ted Ginn, Devin Funchess, and the other Carolina receivers still won't be able to account for Newton's ability to take off, and that definitely matters: Newton scored a rushing touchdown against all three of those top-10 passing defenses, and the Panthers won all of those games.
It's how he elevates his overall game in a way that Manning and Rodgers can't, which is the extra wrinkle that Seattle must gameplan for on Sunday if they're going to pull off another playoff road win. I know that they can do it, but I wouldn't sit here and tell you that they absolutely will.
I'm just pretty sure that if they lose, it won't be because Newton beat them with his arm. It will have a lot to do with Carolina's defense, their ability to contain Tyler Lockett in the return game (the Panthers were ranked 23rd in special teams DVOA, including their lowest marks being for punt coverage and kick coverage), and Newton moving the chains with his feet just as much as he is able to change the game with his arm. In what should be a very close games, those would be the key elements I'm watching for.
Is he the MVP? Sure, why not, go for it. If there ever was a year for a QB without the best arm to win the award, this is certainly it, and Newton (despite what so many fans think I would actually believe even though I don't, and have never said otherwise) is a great person to be the face of the league right now. However, on Sunday, nobody cares who the MVP of the regular season was; Newton and Wilson are both just vying to be the MVP of the divisional round.
That's the only thing matters right now.
***So I wrote a footnote about strength of schedule and it became so wordy that I made it into it's own article. Go read it now! I think you'll be pretty overwhelmed with the results.