As we rapidly approach the postseason, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape. With that, it’s becoming increasingly obvious which guys are not only MVP candidates but simply the most important players on their respective team. Those two typically coincide, not surprisingly.
A handful of teams have multiple worthy candidates, such as the Cowboys and the Chiefs and the Steelers, but others are more reliant on one name – the Patriots, Giants, and Packers, for example. Regardless of how a team wins games, be it on the arm of the quarterback or by pounding the ball with a running back, each one has a single most important asset.
Fortunately, you don’t have to decide which player that is for your Super Bowl-contending team – we did it for you.
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New England Patriots: Tom Brady
Had Rob Gronkowski been healthy, he would have challenged Tom Brady for this spot. However, with Gronk injured, Brady is the obvious choice. Some will argue that the Patriots won three of four games without him, but does anyone really think they’d have a good shot at winning the Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo starting? I didn’t think so. Considering the lack of talent around him offensively, Brady’s play is the single most important factor in New England’s title chances.
Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott
Not Dak Prescott, not Tyron Smith, not Dez Bryant. Ezekiel Elliott is the Cowboys’ most important player, and if they win the Super Bowl, it’ll be largely thanks to him. He’s been the best running back in the NFL all year despite being a rookie, largely thanks to his ability to carry it 25-plus times a game without slowing down a bit. In fact, he’s almost getting better as the year goes on. Prescott and the aforementioned names are obviously important pieces for Dallas, but Elliott helps the entire team – defense, included. They’ll go as he goes, which could be a long, long way.
New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.
Wide receivers aren’t typically their teams' most important players, but Odell Beckham Jr. transcends the usual perception of players at his position. He has the ability to change a game with one play, just as he did against the Cowboys when he took a slant 61 yards for a game-deciding touchdown. Beckham can do anything in the playbook. He can line up in the slot and run an option route, putting the nickel corner in a bind. He can also split out as an X receiver and run a 9 route, burning the secondary over the top. With Eli Manning struggling, Beckham is by far the Giants’ most important player.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell
The Steelers are currently on a five-game winning streak. It should come as no surprise that during those five games, Bell is averaging 191 yards from scrimmage. That’s not a coincidence. Bell has completely changed the offense since Week 11, elevating the play of everyone around him with his running ability and willingness to split out wide as a receiver. His shiftiness and patience at the line forces every defender to key on him, and when the Steelers go to play-action, linebackers and safeties tend to step up and bite on the fake. An injury to Ben Roethlisberger would be crushing, but Bell is playing like an All-Pro right now and could carry the offense.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY SportsMike Dinovo
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson
Richard Sherman is a close second here, especially with Earl Thomas being out. Sherman’s role is now even larger and more important, but not greater than Russell Wilson’s. The Seahawks would be doomed without Wilson, who’s played through injuries and elevated the play of his teammates for most of the season. If Wilson isn’t playing at a Pro Bowl level, the Seahawks will most likely struggle because they don’t have much of a run game right now. Thomas Rawls has to play better to take pressure off of Wilson, otherwise teams will key on him and the passing attack.
Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr
There’s a reason Derek Carr is an MVP candidate, and it’s because he’s the most valuable player on one of the league's best teams. Oakland relies on a high-powered passing attack to counterbalance its underwhelming defense. Without Carr, the Raiders wouldn’t be able to do that despite having two Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree on the outside. If the Raiders are to go anywhere in the postseason, it’ll be because of Carr’s arm.
Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry
It may sound bizarre for a team’s most important player to be a defensive back, let alone a safety, but Berry has a huge impact each week for the Chiefs. Whether it’s matching up against opposing tight ends and taking them out of the game or picking off passes over the middle and returning them for big yardage, he dominates in the secondary. Just look at the Chiefs’ win over the Falcons, when he followed up a pick-six with a pick-two, intercepting a two-point conversion and returning it for the game-winning score. Alex Smith is important in the fact that he can’t make mistakes, but Berry can shift the balance of games in the secondary.
USA TODAY SportsTroy Taormina
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers
It’s tempting to select Ty Montgomery here, considering the way he’s provided a spark for a bleak running game in recent weeks. however, when considering which player it would hurt to lose more – Montgomery or Aaron Rodgers – the choice is fairly obvious. Rodgers has played some of the best football of his career in recent weeks, averaging 274 passing yards per game with 10 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 114.7 in his past five starts. The Packers have won four of those games, and that’s no coincidence. Rodgers is going to have to carry this team in the postseason – if they get there – considering the inconsistency at running back and on defense.
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan
Ryan and Derek Carr are similar quarterbacks. Not just in the way they play the game but in the fact that they’re both the most important players on their offensive-centric teams. Neither the Raiders nor the Falcons have a particularly daunting defense, and the offenses are built around big plays. There’s a reason Ryan is third in the league in passing this season, and it’s because the Falcons have to put the ball in his hands to win games – and it usually works. Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones are also key pieces, but the Falcons have scored 40-plus points in each of the two games Jones has missed. And Freeman has a capable backup in Tevin Coleman. Ryan will need to throw for 300-plus yards per game for the Falcons to win it all.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford
This was the most obvious choice of all. The Lions are probably the most underwhelming Super Bowl contender on this list, lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball – particularly on defense and at running back. Sure, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones are a nice duo, but Stafford doesn’t have a running game to counter the passing attack – and that’s a huge issue. Play-action doesn’t work without a threat in the backfield, and running it on third-and-short is almost never an option for the Lions. Instead, Stafford is forced to do everything in his power to get the ball in the hands of Jones and Tate, or simply scramble out of the pocket himself. It should come as no surprise that he’s the Lions’ third-leading rusher, just 149 yards behind Theo Riddick. Detroit would go nowhere without Stafford.