On a night when Jake Paul won yet another shambolic celebrity boxing match in Tampa, Saturday’s best knockout punch instead happened in Indianapolis. Though the Colts had jumped out to a big 20-0 lead against the New England Patriots, Mac Jones and Co. had brought it back down to a three-point game with 2:21 remaining, thanks to a Jones-Hunter Henry seven-yard connection. The Pats needed a stop on the ensuing Colts drive to have a chance of either sending the game into overtime or winning it outright.
That hope lasted exactly two plays, thanks to Jonathan Taylor:
Though New England had the NFL’s best scoring defense entering Week 15, its rushing defense was near the bottom of the league, ranking in the bottom 10 for both rushing yards against and yards per carry. That was a terrible recipe against the Colts, who are the best traditional rushing team in the league. (The Eagles get more yards on the ground per game, but they also have QB Jalen Hurts to do a handful of that running). Indianapolis has a killer offensive line—watch how the linemen completely stuff the run blitz in the deciding play above—and they have Taylor, the league’s best running back.
That’s how the Colts won on Saturday, even though Carson Wentz did not get anything substantial going through the air: 5-of-12 passing with a touchdown and a pick. Instead, Indianapolis simply tallied up 226 rushing yards, mashing its strength against New England’s biggest weakness 39 times for a very healthy 5.8 yards per carry.
It all started with Taylor, who has been sublime this season after a slow start. He demolished New England even before that game-clinching 67-yard run, tallying up his eighth 100-yard game in his last 11 outings. That period of time also includes 11 consecutive games with a rushing touchdown. He’s leading the league in every relevant statistical category: carries, rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, rushing touchdowns, yards per carry … hell, even top individual play speed:
It’s safe to say that the Colts likely would not be the fifth seed in the AFC playoff race right now without Taylor. For one—if not for his 67-yard monster run on Saturday—perhaps Indianapolis punts the ball away and New England comes back to win. But also, the Colts always win if Taylor gets going: So far this season, the Colts have won every game in which their star running back gets at least 100 yards on the ground, and lost every game in which he does not. It’s as strong a statistical correlation as one can deduce from the small sample size that is an NFL season, and it’s a quirk that the Colts have ridden into the playoff picture.
It’s here where I should say that Taylor is absolutely the Most Valuable Player this season, even though there is a near-zero percent chance that he wins. The usual suspects at quarterback will likely get longer looks at the trophy, even though Tom Brady has a loaded arsenal around him and Aaron Rodgers did Aaron Rodgers things that cost him game time and most of his public goodwill.
For my money, no one in the league has been more integral to his team’s success than Taylor, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down as we near the end of the regular season. Next up on his hit list is Arizona in another Saturday night marquee matchup, this time on Christmas Day. If the Cardinals’ middle-of-the-pack rushing defense comes out as weakly as the Pats’ unit did, Taylor will be adding another building block to his rock-solid case for the league’s highest individual honor. He won’t win, but I assume that he’ll be too busy running past defenders to care.