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Monday Night Football Preview: An Emerging MVP Candidate

With Andy Dalton's Bengals sitting at 8-0 in the best season of his career, is Dalton becoming a serious MVP candidate?

Over the past few weeks, momentum has been building for Cam Newton being the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Newton has had his fair share of bright moments, and he has helped his team find decent success. Makes sense.

Before you get too deep into that conversation, you can bet Tom Brady's name will pop up. After all, his team is also undefeated, and he has been tearing defenses to shreds the entire year. Why wouldn't he be a contender?

Two quarterbacks. Both of their teams are undefeated. Both have performed admirably. Both have been getting an appropriate amount of hype for it.

What about Andy Dalton?

If you're going to base discussions of the league's Most Valuable Player around his team's success, then Dalton needs to be in the discussion as well. His Cincinnati Bengals are sitting at 8-0 entering Monday night's contest against the Houston Texans. It turns out that Dalton's individual resume brings its own credibility, as well.

Let's take a deeper look at this game -- including Dalton's performance this year -- using numberFire's game projections page. This gives a projected final score with win odds, what the algorithms see for the final stats, and a breakdown of the betting lines. This is available for every game during the NFL season for premium subscribers.

We'll also be looking at numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is our efficiency stat used for both teams and players with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.

If you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. Before each play, there is an expected number of points the team will score on that drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease that, resulting in negative NEP. The fluctuation in these expected points throughout the year is a team or player's NEP.

There are some intriguing questions at hand entering Monday night's game. Let's go through each of those to see if we can get a firmer grasp on what to expect once the teams take the field.

Is Andy Dalton the League's MVP?

First of all, how absurd is it that this is even a question? Before the season, you'd get that nah wave if you brought this up as being a possibility. But, here we are.

If we look at this from the standpoint of efficiency, you had best believe that Dalton is an MVP contender. He entered Week 10 leading the league in Passing NEP per drop back of the 36 quarterbacks with at least 90 drop backs. Brady was third, behind Dalton and Carson Palmer. Newton was 17th.

Part of the argument in favor of Newton is the value he adds with his legs, prompting a look at Total NEP, which factors this into the equation. In this category, Dalton does drop two spots to third, behind Brady and Palmer. Newton is 14th. Once again, this makes it look as though Dalton is a legitimate front-runner for the league's MVP.

You shouldn't judge an individual award based on team performance. This would punish a quarterback for being on a team with a lackluster defense, something over which he has no control. But no matter what way you look at it, Dalton is just as good as -- or possibly better than -- Brady and Newton.

If you didn't see this coming, don't sweat it. This is far beyond any performance we have ever seen out of Dalton.

Over the first four years of his NFL career, Dalton has never finished in the top 10 in Total NEP. His best finish in his career was 11th back in 2013. The table below shows his totals over his career and his ranking that season. The rank is out of quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs on the season.

Year Total NEP Rank
2011 14.98 18th
2012 27.78 19th
2013 72.17 11th
2014 34.67 22nd
2015 99.41 3rd

As you can see, he has already set a career high in Total NEP this year by over 27 points. If you predicted that, you are far wiser than I.

Dalton's task Monday isn't an overly easy one. The Texans enter play ranked 14th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. As such, our projections see an efficient -- yet not overwhelming -- night for Dalton with 255 passing yards on 34 attempts (7.5 yards per attempt) with 1.96 touchdowns and 0.63 interceptions. If he can keep posting the numbers he has in the first half of the season, don't be shocked to hear Dalton's name in the MVP discussion for the foreseeable future.

What Do We Make of the Bengals' Backfield?

Perhaps equally difficult to peg this year has been the Bengals' backfield. You'd have to be channeling the devil to identify properly which games favor Jeremy Hill and which lend themselves to Giovani Bernard. I'm going to assume you're not because this situation is all types of messed up.

The story that head coach Marvin Lewis pushed earlier in the year was that Hill would get the ball when the team was leading, while Bernard would be used when game script dictated more passes. That hasn't been the case at all.

In reality, Bernard has out-carried Hill by a margin of 72-59 when the team has been leading this year. When the team has trailed, that has flipped with Hill seeing 17 carries to 9 for Bernard. Yes, Bernard has seen six more targets with the team trailing, but the opportunities have favored Hill. It doesn't follow any true pattern.

There hasn't been a definitive flow to the distribution over the course of the year, either. Both players have led the team in snaps at running back four times this year. Hill looked like he was claiming the lead by leading in snaps in the sixth and seventh games of the year, but then Bernard got the majority of looks last week in a game that appeared ripe for Hill. It. Makes. No. Sense.

The one thing that is easy to decipher is which running back has been more effective. Bernard entered Week 10 second in the league in Rushing NEP per carry of the 37 running backs with at least 70 carries. Hill was 31st. Hill is viewed a bit more favorably in Rushing Success Rate (which tracks the percentage of carries that result in positive NEP), where he ranks 19th. The downside? Bernard leads the league there. In terms of efficiency, Bernard has clearly had the upper hand.

The shame here is that the Bengals' backs are in a good spot for this week. Houston is 25th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, and the spread dictates a game in which Cincinnati is likely to run the ball plenty. It's a matchup waiting to be exploited -- if you can only properly diagnose it.

Because of the ambiguity, it should come as no shock that Hill and Bernard have similar projections. Hill is slated for 11 carries for 43 yards and 0.36 touchdowns to go with 2 receptions for 21 yards and 0.05 touchdowns. Bernard, on the other hand, is down for 8 rushes for 38 yards and 0.40 touchdowns with 2 receptions for 16 yards and 0.08 touchdowns. This game may provide additional clarity into the situation, but this will be a difficult backfield to trust until further notice.

Can the Bengals Contain DeAndre Hopkins?

If we're talking about breakout performers, we can't limit the discussion of players in this game just to Dalton. That dude DeAndre Hopkins has thrown his name in the hat as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.

Hopkins entered the week leading the league in Reception NEP at 86.65. He is one of only four receivers in the league above 66 Reception NEP, and he has that mark cleared by over 20. Not too shabby, young pup.

The volume that Hopkins has seen this year has been truly remarkable. He hasn't had fewer than 11 targets in any game the entire season, and his average per game is 14. If he were to maintain that pace over the final eight games, Hopkins would finish with 224 targets, breaking Herman Moore's record of 221 since 1992, when target tracking data began. He's a bad, bad man.

Hopkins has the volume, but he has also been able to maintain decent efficiency. He leads the Texans in Reception NEP per target at 0.77, just edging Nate Washington at 0.73. The next highest was Arian Foster at 0.63, but no other player on the team is above 0.40. Without Hopkins, this team would be in some serious trouble.

Thankfully, they don't need to worry about that right now. It's the Bengals who will have to worry as they go head-to-head with Hopkins Monday night.

It should be an interesting battle, as well. Cincinnati sits 11th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.Only two wide receivers have finished a game with more than 70 receiving yards against the Bengals this year, but both of those individuals went off for at least 148 yards. It has been boom or bust for opposing top wideouts this year. Considering Hopkins has had more of the former than the latter, what can we expect Monday night?

Not shockingly, the computers are digging DeAndre here. They have him projected at 7 receptions for 98 yards and 0.56 touchdowns. That's his usual productive self, but the Texans may need more to pull off the upset. Speaking of which...

Can the Texans Hand the Bengals Their First Loss?

With the Bengals favored by 11 points entering the night, this would appear to be a longshot. But, considering how bonkers this NFL season has been, we certainly can't rule it out. So what's the blueprint for the Texans to claim victory?

To answer this, we can look toward the game projections page again. Here, you'll find a list of similar games throughout history that may provide us with a map of what to expect once the game kicks off.

Obviously, a good chunk of these games are going to illustrate scenarios in which the Bengals get the win. The fifth most similar game, however, goes a bit differently.

That contest (88.94 percent similar to this one) featured the Dallas Cowboys against Washington in October of last year. The Cowboys (representing the Bengals) were 9.5-point favorites heading into the game, but Washington forced overtime and won it, 20-17.

Part of the reason the Cowboys couldn't claim the win here was untimely fumbles. Their first came deep in their own territory when Joseph Randle put it on the turf at the Dallas nine-yard line. Colt McCoy was in a giving mood, though, and threw an interception two plays later. It should have been a play that directly cost the Cowboys points, but they were bailed out.

The second turnover had a bigger impact. Tony Romo completed a pass to DeMarco Murray, and Murray took it all the way down to the Washington 10-yard line. He coughed it up, forfeiting what would have been at worst a field goal and could have been a trip to the end zone. The Bengals can't afford those types of mistakes Monday night.

It wasn't as if the Cowboys were outplayed by much in that game. They averaged 6.84 yards per carry and 8.18 yards per attempt through the air. They just weren't able to take advantage of their opportunities, and that kept Washington in the game. That is where the Texans find their hope heading into this one. If they can't force the Bengals into some mistakes, though, it would seem they are facing an uphill battle.

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