Just a few weeks ago, Sunday’s marquee matchup in Tampa Bay was seemingly a possible Super Bowl preview between the Chiefs (10-1) and Buccaneers (7-5) in the stadium that will host Super Bowl 55 in two months.
By yesterday, questions surrounded the Bucs’ ability to remain a NFC threat going forward due to inconsistency and an inability to mesh as an offense under Tom Brady.
The Chiefs have seemingly gotten more unstoppable in recent weeks, as Patrick Mahomes has most likely psuedo-clinched a MVP award that saw Russell Wilson as a clear leader just weeks ago.
Well, those trends continued on Sunday. The Chiefs were able to hang on for a 27-24 win that shouldn’t have been remotely close. Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the KC offense put on one of the finest clinics of offense the game has ever seen in the first half, while Brady and the Buccaneers’ offense floundered before they prettied up their stat lines with a late-game rally.
With so much to discuss surrounding the matchup, I decided to tackle all my thoughts from this game in bullet form. Here are my thoughts.
— Patrick Mahomes may not reach 50 touchdowns like he did in 2018, but he’ll win the MVP this season by being more efficient, and essentially, better in 2020. Had the Bucs made more of a rally in the third quarter as opposed to the fourth period, Mahomes (37 of 49, 462 yards, three touchdowns) would have made a run at Norm Van Brocklin’s single-game passing record (554 yards). Who throws 49 passes and posts a 91.1 QBR? Mahomes, that’s who. Mahomes threw for 359 yards in the first half alone. Preposterous. Just hand him the MVP award now.
— Tyreek Hill — 15 targets, 13 catches, 269 receiving yard, three touchdowns — put up one of the most unstoppable wide receiver performances in NFL history on what was essentially a nationally-televised game. He had 203 receiving yards and two scores in the FIRST QUARTER alone. The Bucs had a perplexing plan for defending Hill, seemingly convincing themselves throughout the week that poor cornerback Carlton Davis could hold his own with little help. It didn’t work. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham put out a tweet suggesting Hill was the “biggest outside receiver matchup” since Randy Moss, which may be true, but Hill moves around a lot in the Chiefs’ formation, and even goes in motion quite a bit, so I’ll tackle it like this: Hill is the most unique deep threat of all-time, and my Mt. Rushmore of the league’s best deep threats to ever fly down the field includes Hill, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones, with DeSean Jackson as an honorable mention. How do you stop Mahomes to Hill?
— Looking at the landscape of the AFC, I’m not sure if anyone can stop these Chiefs from repeating. I say the AFC because of course, that’s the conference Kansas City is playing in, but also because it’s the much better conference this season. The NFC’s best team (Saints), is not sure if its quarterback (Drew Brees) can come back from a recent injury. The Saints with Brees are the only team — outside of a Buccaneers turnaround down the stretch — that has any shot versus Kansas City, and the Saints do host the Chiefs in Week 15. But teams like the Packers, Seahawks and others just don’t present enough of a challenge. That brings us back to the AFC, the better conference with better teams. This is clearly not the Ravens’ year, and they are completely inept versus KC anyhow. The Colts have a solid defense, but not one that would fare well versus extremely good units like Mahomes’ Chiefs, and even the Titans’ running game, like we saw Sunday. The Raiders have played them tough twice, but I chalk that up to divisional rivalries and minor letdowns by Kansas City. The Bills are fun, and have the talent to go toe-to-toe with anyone, but Josh Allen is way too inconsistent, the team struggles to run the ball, and their defense has been disappointing this season. That’s a recipe for disaster. So after laughing off fun, but not-ready teams — Browns, Dolphins — in the conference, that leaves us with two teams — the Steelers and Titans. I’ll explain more in the next bullett.
— If Pittsburgh can hang onto the No. 1 seed, they could be looking at a home AFC title game (even with no fans, home-field comfort and road teams’ traveling means at least something) with their stout defense and spread-you-out offense under what should be the league’s Coach of the Year (Mike Tomlin) calling the shots. The Steelers have the coaching staff, aura and talent to at least make it a game with the Chiefs, but I don’t expect their defense to drastically slow down KC’s offense. Their best bet is heavy pressure with just four rushers — T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the EDGE, Cameron Heyward up the middle — and forcing one or two Mahomes turnovers, which is plausible. The other team is the Titans, who have the recipe — running game, play-action passing game — to keep Mahomes off the field, but not the defensive personnel to make many stops they’ll need. Like Tomlin, Titans coach Mike Vrabel is also competent, and Tennessee is a team loaded with moxie. Their best bet is a somewhat-off game from Mahomes (which would still be a 25-to-30 point performance) and an unstoppable performance from Henry on the ground, with Tannehill coming through on a few big-time play-action throws. I have my doubts with Tannehill in big January games, but he’s clearly continued his mastery in 2020. There you have it, the only teams with a shot at beating Kansas City in the playoffs? Pittsburgh and Tennessee, with New Orleans and an improved Tampa Bay as outside shots in the NFC. As of now, I don’t see anyone beating the Chiefs, but we’ve seen similar seasons unfold with a defensively-minded team coming through to knock this type of team off in January. But these Chiefs are not your normal team, they’re actually unstoppable. Mahomes has yet to play a bad game in his entire career, and has only played three or four bad halves, and two were versus Bill Belichick, and another was his first half in Super Bowl 54 versus the 49ers, which didn’t stop the Chiefs from winning. The problem is, if someone does knock them off, I just can’t envision exactly how it happens. But what I explained above with Pittsburgh and Tennessee is all I can think of, but however it happens, one or two untimely Mahomes turnovers probably has to happen. I’d never bet on that happening.
— As for the Buccaneers, it’s clear their offense is not gelling like they want it to. Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich certainly deserve some blame, if not for their failure to play to Tom Brady’s strength, then just for their sheer incompetence in some game-management scenarios and with the team’s indiscipline at times. But Brady deserves some flack, as well. First off, he is older, so his play is diminishing, but only to a point. He can still play, and he picked the Bucs this offseason. Was there not some agreement between Arians and Brady about how the offense would go in the offseason? Did Brady believe he could be a bit better at 43 years old throwing an abundance of downfield throws? Is this just a hint of bad luck and bad chemistry? There are a lot of questions to be answered. It was encouraging to see the offense in the second half. Chris Godwin seems to be the receiver that Brady needs to continuing targeting if Tampa’s offense is to improve. Brady and Mike Evans have connected for 10 touchdowns this season, but Godwin’s versatility is more of a Brady-like receiver. You did see some of Brady’s New England staples — play-action, etc. — when throwing to Rob Gronkowski on Sunday. Gronk (six catches, 106 yards) had a solid game on Sunday, but there’s still something missing with Tampa’s offense. One thing I know is missing is a true pass-catching running back. Leonard Fournette and a 32-year-old LeSean McCoy clearly aren’t getting it done. Could you imagine this offense if they even had James White? Brady, especially at his age, needs a safety valve to dump the ball off for a few yards whenever Arians’ endless array of deep heaves outside the numbers are not the best decision with pass rush stampeding toward you. A pass-catching back wouldn’t completely transform this offense, but it would have helped mightily. They are missing one, bad. Also, Tampa’s defense, which looked so good for most of the season, has been dreadful these past few weeks. Tony Romo ended the CBS broadcast of the game by suggesting that what he saw in the second half from the Bucs’ offense was enough to convince him that the Chiefs and Bucs should meet again in Tampa in February. As of now, I just don’t see that happening, but the NFC is ripe for the taking, especially if Brees doesn’t return for the Saints. So I guess we can’t completely rule that out.
NFL MVP RACE
Here is my THIRD look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section I’m creating for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.
1) Patrick Mahomes — Any objections?
2) Aaron Rodgers — He’s had a few stinkers, but overall he’s been awesome in Year 2 of Matt Lafluer’s system. Their offense is barren outside of Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, yet Rodgers keeps racking up several prolific games, and has made a mini-star out of Marquez Valdez-Scantling, all while leading the league in touchdown passes (33) while throwing just four interceptions. In a Mahomes-less league, he’d be battling Russell Wilson deep into December for his possible third MVP award.
3) Russell Wilson — No, he likely won’t get his first NFL MVP award, but he may garner his first few MVP award votes.
4) Derrick Henry — After 12 weeks, Henry leads the league in rushing yards (1,257), rushing yards per game (114.3), rushing first downs (64) and rushing yards after contact (739). He’s also second in rushing touchdowns (12) and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry while rushing the football 37 more times than anyone else. Everyone expects these workhorse backs to eventually hit a wall, like they used to in the 2000s, but Henry keeps on chugging along for the 8-3 Titans. His performance on Sunday in Indianapolis — 27 carries, 178 rushing yards, three touchdowns — was also the main reason the Titans were able to exact revenge on the Colts (7-4) and shift the power in the AFC South back to Tennessee.
5) Ben Roethlisberger — His stats aren’t on par with some of the best QBs this season, but he’s been solid returning from injury, and has the Steelers sitting at 10-0 just one year after the Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t carry them past a playoff-less 9-7 season because of bad quarterback play. That means some something.
Honorable mention: Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Deshaun Watson
THE BETTER HALF
1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-1) (Last week: 2). Yeah, they belong here. I don’t care if the Steelers are undefeated.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0) (Last week: 1). The Steelers drop to here because the Chiefs are seemingly unstoppable. That doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers are having a fantastic season.
3. New Orleans Saints (9-2) (Last week: 3). They will need Drew Brees back if they want any shot at a Super Bowl victory.
4. Tennessee Titans (8-3) (Last week: 9). Here come the Titans. They are a team built for January, but going where they want to go will depend on Ryan Tannehill’s ability to make big throws, no matter how dominant Derrick Henry is.
5. Buffalo Bills (8-3) (Last week: 5). The Bills will most likely battle the Titans for the AFC’s No. 3 seed down the stretch.
6. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 7). Any other season, Aaron Rodgers’ play would force a million columns about his career twilight in a MVP campaign, but Mahomes is drowning that out some. Rodgers has been great.
7. Seattle Seahawks (7-3) (Last week: 8). They can really pull ahead in the NFC West if they beat the Eagles tonight.
8. Indianapolis Colts (7-4) (Last week: 6). Their defense face-planted on Sunday. It happens. They’re a good, but not great team.
9. Baltimore Ravens (6-4) (Last week: 10). It’s just not their year. It’s clear to see.
10. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) (Last week: 11). The Rams lost on Sunday, but they beat the Bucs last week. This seems like a logical spot.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) (Last week: 4). Can they turn this thing around after their upcoming bye week?
12. Miami Dolphins (7-4) (Last week: 12). They’ll need to get more out of their offense going forward if they are to soundly clinch a playoff spot.
13. Cleveland Browns (8-3) (Last week: 15). We can’t call them a complete fraud because they can run the ball really well and have guys like Myles Garrett on defense, but until Baker Mayfield gets comfortable, I wouldn’t be too scared of them if I’m a team hosting them in the wild card round in January.
14. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) (Last week: NR). Here come the Vikings. I could see them clawing their way back to a playoff spot. They are a better team than the Cardinals, and are probably even better than a few teams ranked above them here in my rankings.
15. Arizona Cardinals (6-5) (Last week: 3). They are a fun team, but they really need to add to their defense this offseason. That unit is dreadful, but they do find some success with their overly-aggressive, blitzing style that they seemingly use to help mask their problems. At least they’re trying.
16. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) (Last week: 14). That was one of the worst losses of the season by any team Sunday in Atlanta. Still, they have the offense to get back on track and push for a playoff spot, but we can cool it with any contender talk after that. They are a fun, nine-to-10 win team that is slowly improving each year, and nothing more. But hey, they are improving. Kudos to Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock.
Next up: Houston, New England, Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington