On a second-and-five just inside the Bills’ 30, Jonathan Taylor slipped out of a fake handoff and into the Buffalo secondary relatively uncovered, spied only by an out-of-position cornerback four yards to his right.
After making eye contact with Carson Wentz to trigger a throw, Taylor locked eyes with the defender, Taron Johnson, seemingly tracking the ball coming over his shoulder by osmosis. When the ball landed in his arms, Taylor’s first step was almost completely backward, forcing Johnson to skid out ahead of him. Taylor lowered his shoulder and carried two more Bills defenders with him into the end zone.
In short, his entrance into the MVP discussion on Sunday was not subtle. Taylor dressed down both the league’s third-best rushing defense and the best passing defense amid a gargantuan 32-carry, 185-yard performance. Taylor caught another three balls for 19 yards, including that touchdown, one of five on the day. The Colts won 41–15, saving their middling season in the process.
Before halftime, he became one of two running backs since 1950 to log eight straight performances of at least 100 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown. The other was LaDainian Tomlinson. He has scored more rushing touchdowns against the Bills this season than every other running back in the league combined. The only other back with multiple scores against Buffalo this year was Derrick Henry.
These stats were cherrypicked to funnel an overarching point: Taylor deserves to be mentioned among the likes of Tomlinson and Henry this season, which means he deserves to be mentioned as an MVP candidate. Henry’s previous two seasons also deserved to put him in that company, but were cut off in traffic by borderline-historic campaigns from a pair of generational quarterbacking talents (Aaron Rodgers in 2020 and Lamar Jackson in ’19). Tomlinson won the MVP in ’06. Adrian Peterson (’12) was the last nonquarterback to win the award.
We often have a hard time differentiating the players who have the most value from the players who play the quarterback position, but Taylor’s case is interesting. The Colts have rescued themselves from a 1–4 hole predominantly on the back of their running game. Since mid-October, Taylor has rushed 88 times for 610 yards and seven touchdowns. In that time span he’s gaining almost seven yards per carry. He’s doing this without world-beating quarterback play. Wentz, according to a composite of expected points added and completion percentage over expectation, is about the 20th best quarterback in the NFL this season. Quenton Nelson, undoubtedly the best all-around guard in the NFL, has only played 100% of the snaps in five games this season. According to Pro Football Focus’s individual player grading metrics, only one of the Colts’ offensive lineman (2018 second-round pick Braden Smith) is considered a top-10 player at his position.
Add in the fact that Kyler Murray’s injury has gummed up the top of the MVP leaderboard and, at least for the moment, we may have a slight crack in the door for Taylor to force his way through. (The same could actually be said for another non-QB, Rams receiver Cooper Kupp.) Coming into Sunday, Tom Brady was among the presumptive favorites, along with Josh Allen and Dak Prescott. But none of their résumés are perfect. Brady, as singularly talented and efficient as he is, enjoys a better supporting cast than Taylor does in Indianapolis. Prescott has as clean a résumé as any quarterback to this point, but lacks a signature win against a top-tier opponent this year, even if the Patriots win is beginning to look more like one. Allen has played two of his worst games of the season in the last three weeks. The Bills are also slumping back into striking distance of the surging Patriots.
While the Colts may or may not be a playoff team, the singular amount of weight on Taylor’s shoulders to get Indianapolis into a place where we could consider it (FiveThirtyEight now projects the Colts with a 73% chance to reach the playoffs after beating Buffalo, with seven games remaining) has been astounding. While it’s unfair to ask any running back to continuously put up 100-plus yard, multi-touchdown performances (Tomlinson, in his MVP season, had two four-touchdown games and three three-touchdown games) in order to break up the QB monopoly, Taylor looks like he’s up for the challenge. If the Bills could fold so easily, what’ll happen when the Jaguars and Texans pop up on the remaining schedule? Taylor shows no signs of backing out of the race right now.
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