NFL Monday Morning Madness: Chargers’ thrilling comeback + Patriots edge Vikings

It was over and it was expected. At least that’s what we all thought when the Chargers trailed 23-7 at halftime in Pittsburgh. They had laid another egg in a big game on national television.

Instead, Phillip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Justin Jackson and others helped to rally the Chargers to a 33-30 win that came about without Melvin Gordon, one of the league’s most outstanding running backs.

Facing a 3rd-and-4 with the game tied with just over a minute to play, Rivers found Allen on an out route working against man coverage (against a linebacker — yikes) in the slot. Allen is the league’s best receiver out of the slot, and that includes other high-profile guys who spend a lot of time positioned there, such as the Saints’ Michael Thomas. Allen hauled in 14 catches for 148 yards and a whacky score, all while keeping the pace with the league’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, who also had a good night — 10 catches, 154 yards, one touchdown.

“I could feel it in the locker room,” Allen told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. “We built this off the end of the season last year. Now, this year we’re just rolling.”

The Chargers are rolling because they have the AFC’s most talented team, from top to bottom. With Joey Bosa back and healthy, the combination of him and Melvin Ingram gives Los Angeles a nasty pass rush. After being stifled by the Steelers offensive line for much of the night, the duo came alive in the second half. On offense, Rivers has been spectacular all year. A dark-horse MVP candidate that would get more love if it weren’t for the ridiculous seasons being put forth by Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees.

The win was Rivers’ 7th career comeback win after trailing by at least 16 points, which ties Peyton Manning for the most all-time by a quarterback. And it was arguably the biggest regular season win of his career. If not, certainly in recent memory.

The Chargers (9-3) now have an outside shot at the AFC West — the Chiefs (10-2) would hold the tiebreaker even if the Chargers beat them in two weeks — and certainly have all but locked up the conference’s No. 5 seed.

Certainly, this Chargers team is different. They have talent and guts. And because of that, there’s a new team to monitor in the AFC.

Patriots handle Vikings, move toward first-round bye

Here they come. Just like clockwork. This is one of the more flawed Patriots  teams in years, right? That may be so but it didn’t show on the field in New England’s 24-10 throttling of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

In surprising fashion, the Patriots (9-3) defense actually outplayed Tom Brady and the offense, holding the talented Vikings offense to 278 total yards and forcing 2 turnovers.

Trey Flowers, playing on a contract year, is showing why he’s one of the best edge defenders in football, while Dont’a Hightower and Jason McCourty, two players on the backend of their careers, turned in vintage performances.

Speaking of vintage, when the Patriots hopped out of I-formation, Brady was sharp throughout, which should put any “Brady is done” talk to rest.

The Patriots are getting healthy at the right time, as exemplified by Rex Burkhead, who looked spry in his return. With the trio of Burkhead, James White and Sony Michel complimenting No. 1 wide reciever Josh Gordon, some of the pressure comes off the older, usually more reliable trio of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. All three are still among Brady’s favorite, and will come through when called upon, but their very best years are over. That’s okay. Brady, and the Patriots, will make due.

With Kareem Hunt’s gone in Kansas City, the Chiefs (10-2) may now be vulnerable in an area other than just their sour defense and January bad luck. Meaning Bill Belichick’s bunch has a real shot at home field advantage throughout the AFC, if they are to win out.

Other top-end organizations in the Seahawks (7-5) and Ravens (7-5) are already out the gate in December with impressive wins of their own. But it’s the Patriots leading the pack in that category once more. This is what they do best — playing at the top of their game from December and on. Their annual march has begun.

Quick-hits

– It’s clear, the Bears need Mitchell Trubisky back. Although wild and inconsistent through the air, Chicago canon survive Chase Daniel. As it stands they were lucky to do so on Thanksgiving, squeezing by on a poor pick-six in the fourth quarter by Matthew Stafford then. They needed an onside kick and a touchdown pass from running back Tarik Cohen to force overtime this week. Once they got to the extra period, Daniel couldn’t get the Bears downfield. They’re basically looking at the NFC’s No. 3 seed at this point, and that’s if they win the NFC North. They should. But they need their quarterback.

– The Texans may be for real. Maybe. With nine straight wins versus lower-end competition, it would be easy to question their greatness. But that’s just it — NINE STRAIGHT WINS. When you win that often against lower competition, it usually means you’re in a higher class. That’s the Texans. They’re in good position to be one of the AFC’s top two seeds. They’ll most likely be a No. 3 seed. After the Steelers’ loss, they have that just about locked up.

– As briefly mentioned in the Patriots-Vikings section, here come the Seahawks and Ravens. Two 7-5 squads that have a penchant for good coaching and solid football in December and on. The Ravens mystique has taken a hit in that category because of their Week 17 loss to the Bengals, and the fact that they haven’t made the postseason since 2014. But behind rookie Lamar Jackson, Baltimore has won three straight to jump back into the wild card race in the AFC. They travel to Kansas City next Sunday. The Seahawks have been consistently good for just about the entirety of the Russell Wilson era (since 2012). Wilson is proving to be a top-five quarterback at the very least this season, working with a team that was gutted this offseason. Seattle is heading in the right direction between Wilson and Pete Carroll, who is still clearly a top-five coach. Baltimore and Seattle. Two tough football teams that look poised for the playoffs. Any division winners eager to see them come to town in January? I wouldn’t think so.

NFL MVP Race

1. Patrick Mahomes — The Saints’ loss in Dallas, coupled with Mahomes’ prolific performance in his first game without Kareem Hunt, vault Mahomes to the top spot for now. But it’s a close race. He’ll likely have to retain the AFC’s No. 1 seed to win the award.

2. Drew Brees — Brees’ subpar performance in Dallas featured a game-ending interception with a chance to drive down and tie/win the game. The loss also temporarily knocked the Saints back to the No. 2 seed. It’s the closest race in years, but he goes here for now, just barely.

3. Jared Goff — The conductor of Sean McVay’s mastermind offense.

4. Aaron Donald — It’s tempting to put Donald over Goff but quarterbacks are too valuable in today’s NFL. That being said Donald is the BEST player in football right now. Yes, even better than quarterbacks such as Mahomes and Brees.

5. Phillip Rivers — As discussed earlier in this column, Rivers is the dark-horse candidate. He’s been incredible this season. If the Chargers somehow steal the AFC West, he’ll have a real shot at this award.

Honorable mention: Russell Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Khalil Mack, Andrew Luck, Tyreek Hill

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