NFL Monday Morning Madness: Are the Patriots back? Plus, Ravens’ statement win

So, the New England Patriots. Are they back? The mass media scrutinization of pro football’s 21st-century empire is becoming a September tradition in the NFL. And although they’ve yet to fully climb out of the early hole (small hole) they’ve dug themselves in the AFC East standings, it appears the Patriots are not as bad many though. A 38-7 drubbing of the divsion-leading Dolphins will force the hopeful and naive (haters) to reconsider their silly takes. For now, the dynasty lives on.

“Well, obviously, we haven’t played well the last two weeks and we talked a lot about the things we need to do better,” Tom Brady said during his post game press conference.

“So, this game’s great, but you’ve got to turn the page once you learn from it and you get focused on the next game. You build on things you didn’t do well, you understand what they did well, and some other teams are going to see that too. It’s a long process. It’s a long season. We’ve only played four out of the 16. Hopefully, we’re a lot better in October than we were in September, and we’re going to need it because we face some good competition.”

Big games versus the Chiefs and Bears — with a combined record of 6-1 — looms large, but the Patriots will first focus on the reeling Colts, who come to town Thursday night on NFL Network. The special “Color Rush” jerseys will return, and so will Julian Edelman.

“I mean, we haven’t seen him in four weeks, but I know he’ll be ready,” Brady said. “And it’s a short week, so I’m sure he’ll be in here ready to go. Everyone loves Jules and loves having him back.”

Edelman will be joining an offense that may be rounding into form. Rookie Running Back Sony Michel gassed the Dolphins for 112 yards and score on 25 carries. Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson each added receiving touchdowns. And James White again proved pivotal with 112 yards from scrimmage and two scores on 16 touches.

During Edelman’s absence, White has further proved he is championship football player on the perfect team for his skillset. You’d be hardpressed to find a better fit on any team. As a security option for Brady, he’s come through time after time.

But of course, all eyes were on Josh Gordon, the team’s possible WR1 waiting in the wings. With a limited knowledge of the playbook at this point, Gordon ran mostly slants and other simple routes. His stat line (two catches, 32 yards) was minimal but misleading. Gordon often drew Dolphins CB1 Xavien Howard when on the field. Gordon often drew defenders out of the middle of the field, allowing Brady to find Rob Gronkowski (four catches, 44 yards) for a few first downs.

“I have no doubt I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity,” Josh Gordon said at the podium postgame. “I’m extremely grateful to be put in this scenario. I’m loving it, I’m enjoying it, the guys here are great, it’s a real home environment and I feel as comfortable as ever here. It’s awesome.”

Gordon may not have enough time to contribute too much more in this upcoming game, but for games against the Chiefs and Bears ahead, he should be much more involved by then, catching more passes from Brady.

“I mean, it’s awesome, just period, catching a pass from Tom at any point in time,” Gordon said. “He’s been rooting for me, and it’s been awesome to have his support and his love, as well as the rest of the teammates and staff here. You know, Tom’s a passionate guy and I love that, and I love the game of football and I think we’re going to mesh just fine.”

The defense was superb for the second time this season at home. Particularly, Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower were fantastic after two underwhelming performances on the road. The return of Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung were instrumental as well.

The Patriots now can set their sights on improving as the season goes along. Something they looked primed for, and something they’ve always done during the Brady-Belichick era. Always.

For now, the dynasty lives on.

Changing of the guard in AFC North?

While the AFC East may not see a new champion in 2018, the AFC North is topsy-turvy, as the “Killer B’s” era of the Steelers may be coming to an end.

With pre-game rumors of possible Le’Veon Bell trade scenarios swirling around, the remaining stars, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, hooked up for one score, and not much else on offense in a 26-14 loss to the Ravens at home.

But to overly-criticize the Steelers would take away from the statement win by a physically and mentally tough Ravens team that looks the part of a Super Bowl LIII contender in the AFC.

“It’s tough to come in and get a win in here,”  Joe Flacco said to NBC’s Michelle Tafoya after the game. “Pittsburgh games are always meaningful. They always prove to be significant at the end of the year. If we can get ’em, we’ll take ’em.”

Thought of as a QB on the way out by many, Flacco (363 passing yards, two touchdowns) has re-established himself with a new receiving core, highlighted by the speedy John Brown and possession receivers Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. With Lamar Jackson virtually a project in need of learning as a QB2 for at least two seasons anyway, Flacco should be locked in as the team’s franchise QB, especially if he continues to play like this. Before an Alex Collins’ goal line fumble, the team set an NFL record with 13 straight scoring drives in the red zone to start off the season.

Their balanced (and suddenly dangerous) offensive attack nicely compliments a defense that has re-tooled around the likes of Marlon Humphrey, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and others. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs is not quite the same at age 35. But the Ravens (3-1) finally seem like a team that is back in the thick of things in the AFC.

But so do the Bengals (3-1), a team that beat down the Ravens on Thursday Night Football in Week 2, and rallied for one of the year’s best clutch wins in a 37-36 thriller versus the Falcons in Atlanta.

With seven seconds remaining, Andy Dalton found A.J. Green for a game-winning score versus a Cover 2 scheme by Dan Quinn in the right corner of the end zone. Dalton kept the drive alive a few plays earlier with a 4th-and-6 conversion to Tyler Boyd.

Cincinnati has struggled some defensively, a semi-rarity under Marvin Lewis. But Dalton has the look of an improved quarterback, enjoying himself out on the field.

With the Steelers (1-2-1) sitting behind these two squads, the AFC North looks to pass its crown to either the Bengals or the Ravens, two teams that have re-tooled for this moment. Despite that Week 2 contest, the Ravens look like the favorite to take the division at this point. But one would be foolish to guarantee that this early.

For Pittsburgh, the end of this era under Mike Tomlin may be nearing. Despite a win in Super Bowl XLIII and a Super Bowl XLV appearance, the team underachieved during the era that followed with Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell. It now seems like their time together may be up.

Quick-hits

  • Two weeks, two hard-fought wins over the Jaguars and defending Super Bowl Champion Eagles for the AFC South-leading Titans (3-1). None of the wins have been particularly impressive. They’ve been ugly, but with their mettle tested, the AFC has been warned about the Titans. Rallying from a 17-3 deficit, Marcus Mariota converted on a 4th-and-15 and a 4th-and-2 in overtime, as Mike Vrabel played the role of daredevil in opting to go for the win instead of a possible tie. The Titans ended up victorious, 26-23 in overtime on a Mariota strike to Corey Davis with 11 seconds remaining in the extra period. Nothing can be guaranteed. But with a game versus the Bills in Buffalo ahead, the Titans should pull to 4-1, keeping pace with the Chiefs, Jaguars, Patriots, Ravens and Bengals, as early contenders in the conference.

 

  • Recently looked at as a piece that may hold back an otherwise super-talented Bears team, Mitch Trubisky was unstoppable in the Bears (3-1) 48-10 shellacking of the Buccaneers at home. With five touchdown passes in the first half, the performance must have caught the eye of Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter, who became so displeased with Ryan Fitzpatrick that he pulled him the second half for Jameis Winston. With superstar Khalil Mack leading the way on defense, and guys like Tarik Cohen and Allen Robinson becoming stand outs, the Bears are suddenly a team to reckon with in the NFC North. If it weren’t for a Week 1 meltdown versus Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, they’d be sitting at 4-0 right now. But the Bears will surely take the one-and-a-half game lead they have in the division right now. This is a talented bunch. The future is bright in Chicago.

 

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