Of the 51 Super Bowls played, 28 of the game’s MVP’s have been quarterbacks, with 23 ranging from all the other position. From that proposition, the likely MVP of Super Bowl 52 probability wise would be Tom Brady or Nick Foles. However, that doesn’t make it a guarantee. There can always be the standout running back, like Terrell Davis or Larry Csonka. There can be the breakout wide receiver, like Deion Branch or Hines Ward. And least likely of all, the breakout defensive player, like Malcolm Smith in Super Bowl 48, who was only playing because of an injury to K.J. Wright. So in a battle with loaded rosters, who says it has to be the quarterback who wins Super Bowl MVP? And who says that the quarterback deserves it every time when the rosters are this good? If Atlanta actually decided to play defense in the second half rather than all deep zones, would Matt Ryan have won MVP? Probably not. If the Panthers won against Denver, Kony Ealy, the #3 defensive end with 3 sacks, probably would have won MVP. The point is breakout players in these big games can come out of nowhere. The big play in Super Bowl 42 was David Tyree, a guy that was primarily on the team for special teams coverage. The big play in Super Bowl 49 was Malcolm Butler, a rookie replacement corner for a struggling Kyle Arrington. So who will break through this year and have a shot at MVP? Here are 5 candidates for both teams.
Patriots: Trey Flowers
The man who had one of the more clutch defensive plays in the Patriots comeback victory last year with a sack two plays after the Julio Jones toe tap, Trey Flowers has emerged this year as the Patriots best pass rusher. Flowers, a right defensive end who can also line up as defensive tackle, led the Patriots this season with 6.5 sacks on the season. The combination of his great play against the Falcons and a good matchup advantage in this game makes him a candidate as a sleeper Super Bowl MVP.
Besides Carson Wentz, the next most crucial Eagles injury comes to that of Jason Peters, an elite left tackle who one can argued as the best in all of football. Their backup is Hal Vaitai, who has been a major dropoff to Peters, and a major dropoff in comparison to the rest of the Eagles line as well. Flowers is a good power rusher that can be used both in the interior line as well as at defensive end, but defensive end seems like his best matchup due to the Peters injury. In addition, being that the right end spot is Nick Foles’ blind side, expect Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia to emphasize putting their best pass rushers on that side, which would likely be Flowers. If he can get 2-3 sacks and a lot of quarterback pressures and maybe even a fumble, why not Flowers? With that kind of offensive line weakness, he could turn in a performance like Richard Dent did in Super Bowl 20, when he had 1.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. I’m not saying Flowers is up to that level, but not all Super Bowl MVP’s end up being future Hall of Famers. Grady Jarrett had 3 sacks last year. Kony Ealy had 3 sacks the year before. Those players could have won MVP if their teams were able to win, and Trey Flowers could join that list if the Patriots win a low-scoring game.
Patriots: Rex Burkhead
Technically labeled as a running back, but bigger like a receiver at 214 pounds, Rex Burkhead may take on a featured role in this game. Why could he win MVP? Similarly to Flowers, for similar matchup advantages. The Eagles, without 2nd round pick Sidney Jones, have lacked cornerback depth all year long. Understandably, Patrick Robinson had a pick-6 against the Vikings, but I think a lot of fans could have caught that ball the way Keenum threw it. Robinson is an older corner with not a lot of speed and quickness at age 30. He is also not that tall either, standing at 5’11”, meaning Burkhead will not have a massive size disadvantage like he’s had on some linebackers and other corners. Last year, I thought James White should have won MVP for his production and consistency in this game. But looking at Burkhead’s size and build, I think he could feature a bigger role. I think he can catch more of the deeper passes and maybe even be a good red zone target, with him having 8 touchdowns on the season between rushing and receiving, a lot of which came in goal-to-go opportunities. Also, if he’s matched up with a linebacker, the injury to Jordan Hicks forced the hand of the Eagles to put in Najee Goode as their left outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Najee Goode has struggled many times in coverage this season, especially man-to-man. That should benefit the Patriots running backs if they can get past the first level, which I believe Burkhead can with his size. I believe Burkhead, as a whole can accumulate not only a lot of catches, but the big catches downfield because he is a more sophisticated route runner. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he led the Patriots in receiving yards in this game, similarly to how Deion Branch broke out last time these two teams met in the big game.
Patriots: James White
Next I will go with the man who should have won Super Bowl MVP last year in running back James White. James White was the no doubt breakthrough player of last year’s comeback against the Atlanta Falcons, with 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. He was also the most consistent player in that game, even in the first half where the Patriots trailed 21-3. So why can’t he do it again? Similarly to Burkhead, I mentioned how White could receive a lot of catches due to a matchup against linebackers that are still good, but a major dropoff from Jordan Hicks. White also has better speed and quickness than Burkhead, and that can lead to a lot more catches, even though I think Burkhead can get the bigger ones. The difference between these two guys and who has a better chance at MVP if New England wins could come down to how the Eagles utilize their linebackers and slot corners. If they play man-to-man, expect Burkhead to be more dominant with his better size. But like we saw last year against the Falcons, when their linebackers drop back into zone defenses, such as Cover 2 and Cover 3, expect White with his speed to the outside to be able to turn the corner and get yards after the catch that way. James White and many other Patriots have shredded Cover 3 defenses throughout their career. Despite the Eagles being more of a man-to-man defense, that doesn’t mean they’ll never play zone ever. And going back to the Falcons last year, they only started playing zone mistakenly more in the second half when they had their 28-3 lead. I don’t think there’s a shot that the Eagles will possess that lead, but I still think there will be cases where they play deeper zones. And in those kinds of instances, James White can shred a defense with his yards after the catch. And if he accumulates enough of those yards and maybe a few touchdowns, don’t be surprised if he wins a Super Bowl MVP like he should have won last year.
Patriots: Elandon Roberts
You may be reading this article wondering who Elandon Roberts is. He is a young middle linebacker who started in the 3-4 defense when Jamie Collins was shockingly traded to Cleveland last year. This year, he has been a rotational linebacker amidst the injury to star middle linebacker Donta Hightower. However, among the guys New England has on their roster, I think he has the closest skillset to a middle linebacker and the best chance to make an impact in this game. The Eagles have two powerful running backs in Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, both who are better runners up the middle than to the outside. Between that and the strength of the Eagles line being more in the middle now with Peters out, expect Roberts to get a lot of action at the second level. Roberts has good athleticism and a nice mixture of speed and size that can allow him to stop any kind of run situations, and maybe even force a fumble. It would likely take some kind of turnover to have him win MVP, as was the case with Malcolm Smith in Super Bowl 48 with his pick-6. But if that does happen, and the Patriots win a low scoring game, don’t be surprised if he wins the MVP honors, as he should get a lot of tackles.
Patriots: James Harrison
A guy that was benchwarming all year, only appearing in 4 of the Steelers’ 14 games, got his relief getting shipped off by the Steelers and essentially snatched by the Patriots, less than a week after the Patriots beat the Steelers in Week 15. Now, unlike anybody who wore a Pittsburgh Steeler uniform this year, Harrison will find himself in a Super Bowl, and looking to send a message to his former organization that he can still play. James Harrison, talent wise, is the Patriots’ best outside rusher on this team, and being that he usually lines up on the right side, expect him to have similar benefits to Trey Flowers if Hal Vaitai is lining up on that left side. An added bonus with Harrison though, despite being 39 years old, is that he still has better speed than anybody on that defensive line for the Patriots. The reason I bring this up is the Eagles did a lot of bootleg and rollout plays against the Vikings to try to counter their talented defensive line. And historically, with a lot of running quarterbacks, including current young star Carson Wentz, the Eagles have always had mobile quarterbacks and stressed these kinds of plays in their playbook. Being that Harrison is an outside rusher, he has a better chance of getting to Foles if he rolls out or tries to shuffle within the pocket, but still has the size and strength to hit him hard. Like I was saying with Roberts, it could take a turnover for him to garner MVP. But if he can have a high sack total and maybe a forced fumble, he could win MVP. And that would seem easy when you’re the same guy who had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in a Super Bowl.
Eagles: Chris Long
The Eagles defense will be key to winning this game, no doubt. If they allow 28 points or more, there is little to no chance of them winning their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. And the way to rattling a rhythm quarterback like Tom Brady has always been pressure from both sides and both styles as well as man coverage. Long is one of many talented defensive ends on this team, and he also has a small edge having played with the Patriots last year. He can let these other players in on some tendencies and stylistic preferences that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels like to stress on offense. Not to mention, he has a good matchup against a backup right tackle in Cameron Fleming. His ability to get pressure quickly with good speed rushing skills could rattle Brady quickly, as the New York Giants did with Osi Umenyiora in their two wins versus the Patriots. And being that the Eagles have a lot of other talented defensive lineman, don’t expect any of them to receive double teams, maybe besides Fletcher Cox. That should leave Long with a winnable 1-on-1 matchup, and one where he can certainly wreak havoc in an obvious matchup advantage.
Eagles: Jalen Mills
I have said all postseason that the Eagles’ cornerback tandem has been the most overperforming unit of the entire postseason. They had to go against a very talented Falcons receiver and the most skilled receiver in the league in Julio Jones, and then against another nice duo in Stefon Diggs and Adam Theilen in the NFC Championship game. These corners passed both of those tests big time, and it was a big reason this Eagles defense held opponents to just 17 points in their two prior playoff games. Jalen Mills, a second-year corner with good physicality and ball skills has been a big reason why. Mills had 3 interceptions and 14 passes deflected in the regular season, a lot of which as the #1 corner with Ronald Darby out half the year. Mills has taken that confidence into the playoffs where he has done an excellent job. Tom Brady took a good amount of deep shots against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which could bode well for Mills to get an interception or two in man coverage. And being that he took on Julio Jones and Adam Theilen and played very well in those games, especially in the second half, expect him to be well-tested for Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, or Brandin Cooks. Also expect him to get a lot of tackles if the Patriots elect to do a lot of screen passes and out routes with their running backs. But with good size for a cornerback (6’0″, 191 pounds), he could definitely help run support and screen defense for this Eagles team. Again, for a defensive player to win MVP, turnovers are a must and a high total of something else is essential as well. Only one cornerback has ever won Super Bowl MVP, Larry Allen of the Dallas Cowboys in 1995-96. However, with the situation he’s in and the strong play against top receivers, I think Mills could be the second.
Eagles: Zach Ertz
A tight end winning Super Bowl MVP? Wait, what? Yes indeed. Zach Ertz could absolutely do it, and here’s why. He dominated the Minnesota Vikings last week, especially on third down, for 8 catches and 93 yards. Who was his matchup on a lot of those plays? Only a top 5 NFL safety in Harrison Smith and two very talented young linebackers in Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. This unexpected performance by Ertz shows that he can take on anybody in man coverage. It also, from a visual standpoint, shows how useful he can be running routes on the edges of the field as well. The Patriots, defensively, have historically loved to double and triple team top players on an opponent’s offense. But when it comes down to a tiebreaker of positions, Belichick usually double teams the wide receiver. I expect Alshon Jeffery to receive that attention and those double teams allowing Ertz to be matched up with backup linebackers or maybe one safety. I’m not saying that Devin McCourty can’t cover him, but seeing what Ertz did to Harrison Smith last week, you have to give Ertz the edge in this matchup one-on-one. And if Ertz is the leading receiver and maybe adds a few touchdowns, and Nick Foles doesn’t completely go off enough to win MVP, we may see our first tight end Super Bowl MVP.
Eagles: Nelson Agholor
Heroes and dynamic players playing against the New England Patriots often times lie with slot receivers. It was David Tyree and Mario Manningham for the Giants making miracle plays. It was Torrey Smith for the Ravens who led in receiving yards in the 2012-13 AFC Championship game upset. Eric Decker, despite not leading in yards, had 73 for the Broncos the following year to get them to Super Bowl 48. And even for Jacksonville last week, despite losing, a lot of yardage and big catches came from Marqise Lee and Keelan Cole. The Eagles version of this is Nelson Agholor, who is coming off a career year with 768 yards and 8 touchdowns out of the slot. Even though I still am not convinced that makes him a better receiver skill wise, it makes him a big threat in this game. As I mentioned, I think Alshon Jeffery will receive the double team, and the run game will receive some attention too from their linebackers. That frees up Agholor to make spectacular catches and big plays in one-on-one coverages, as the Patriots mostly play man-to-man with their defensive backs. Agholor catches a lot of screen passes, which the Patriots struggle with as well, because they don’t have a lot of raw speed at the linebacker position. With those things in mind, I think Agholor will actually lead the Eagles in receiving in this game, likely matched up most of the time with a linebacker or Eric Rowe. And like those Giants receivers in the two Super Bowls they beat the Patriots, Agholor is capable of making those spectacular catches. I believe he will make one in this game, and also be able to get yards after the catch with his speed. He is a huge X-factor in this game and, in my opinion, will get the most receiving yards in this Super Bowl for Philadelphia. And often times, those performances can lead to a Super Bowl MVP honor, as it did for Deion Branch and Hines Ward.
Eagles: Brandon Graham
And I finish off this article with the one that I think will win the MVP, defensive end and hybrid linebacker Brandon Graham. Like I was mentioning with Long, Graham will receive a lot of one-on-one matchups with a defensive line that is loaded and deep in the Philadelphia Eagles. With that in mind, I expect him to be able to get to the quarterback as well, especially matched up on the left side. But besides that, Graham is an excellent run stopper, especially to the outside, which the New England Patriots do more often than running up the middle. I believe he will also be big when it comes to screen tackling. Being that he was drafted as a hybrid outside linebacker, he also has very good tackling skills in the flat. And being that the Patriots do a lot of screen passes, I believe Jim Schwartz will use that to his advantage, flanking Graham out to the side wherever James White, Dion Lewis, or Rex Burkhead lines up in the formation. The Patriots backs also had some fumbling problems last week against Jacksonville, and with Graham having a big size advantage of about 50-60 pounds on these backs, don’t be surprised if he pops one loose. Overall, I think the combination of that and his pass-rushing ability will spawn a huge statistical performance for Graham, being the veteran leadership along with Long on this team and this front 7. It would take a low-scoring game for a defensive player to win MVP, like it was for Von Miller 2 years ago. But the Eagles have a championship-caliber defense that I believe will help out Foles and keep this game close. And in a close, lower-scoring game I like the better and more talented defense than the team more known for its offense, despite the Patriots having more Super Bowl experience by far. However, this Eagles team reminds me a lot of the 2015 Broncos, the 1 seed that was always an underdog and never given any love. Even though, schematically, this Eagles team is very different, their story remains very similar, and if they were to win, it would be because of their defense, and their dominant defensive line getting to Tom Brady and these backs. And I believe Brandon Graham has the best chance to put up the stat line necessary and the game changing plays necessary to take home Super Bowl MVP, because of his well-rounded skillset and ability to counter the Patriots tendencies.
And yes, I said it. I think the Eagles pull off the upset, with my score pick being 20-17. I think their story is a lot like the Broncos 2 years ago, which were given no chance against the Patriots or the Panthers. And the way that this team would win is with their defense. And with that upset, you can see a lot of sneaky guys win Super Bowl MVP that may not be the flashy pick of a quarterback or running back, but a defensive lineman, a slot receiver, a pass catching running back, or even a cornerback or tight end. But even if the Patriots tie the Steelers and hoist their sixth Lombardi Trophy, don’t be surprised if, in a lower-scoring or closer game, that somebody not named Tom Brady takes home MVP either.