Lamar Jackson vs Titans — 2020 AFC Wild Card

NFL Wild Card Madness: Jackson’s first playoff win a new chapter of renewed Ravens-Titans rivalry

After a quarter of jawing back and forth, hard hits and the feel of a true playoff game reminiscent of the Ray Lewis-Eddie George, Ravens-Titans rivalry of the early 2000s, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson found himself in a familiar place.

With Tennessee leading 10-0, and Jackson’s Baltimore-led offense struggling to play from behind, valid questions surrounding the 2019 NFL MVP’s ability to lead a comeback resurfaced.

After all, the Ravens had been the only team in the league over the last four years to not have a comeback win after trailing by 10 points or more.

With his usual-suspect, underwhelming perimeter pass catchers, and offensive game plan stalling, Jackson took matters into his own hands, improvising for an electrifying 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to tie the score at 10-10.

From there, Baltimore took the game over, finishing for 236 rushing yards, with 136 and a score coming from Jackson, the quarterback who had shaken off even his most ardent doubters this weekend.

“I’m happy for myself but I’m almost more happy for Lamar,” Baltimore cornerback Marlon Humphrey said after the game. “It sucks to be in his position at times that when you lose, it’s all his fault. It’s nobody else’s fault. It wasn’t the defense’s fault, it was Lamar’s fault. … He can play his heart out and some other guy is going to fall short. I know it’s a team game, but it seems like whenever it’s a loss, it’s always just his fault.”

This was an elating achievement for Jackson, and a Ravens squad that was on the brink of a hugely disappointing 2020 campaign before they righted the ship a little over a month ago.

In November, with the Ravens holding a 6-2 record, an ugly loss in the rain to the Cam Newton-led Patriots in New England sent Baltimore on a three-game losing streak — which included a devastating, bad-blooded overtime loss to the Titans — that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.

But Baltimore responded with five straight wins, albeit mostly versus bottom-tier teams, to finish 11-5 leading up to Sunday’s battle in Tennessee.

But despite the incompetence of their opponents during their December stretch, Baltimore’s sheer dominance over their foes was enough to pick up on their signaled change. The Ravens averaged 37.2 points per game during that stretch, and in four of those five contests, they held their opponent to 17 points or less.

Baltimore’s offense began to resemble the uniquely dominant, Jackson-led rushing attack from 2019, while their defense returned to dominate lesser foes.

Well Tennessee, led by 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry, is hardly that of the Ravens’ recent opponents.

This offseason, the Ravens acquired three-time All-pro defensive lineman Calais Campbell and veteran defensive end Derek Wolfe exactly for this purpose. The Ravens improved from 21st to 12th in Football Outisders‘ Rush DVOA metric from 2019 to this season.

Yet, Campbell, and nose tackle Brandon Williams, missed the Week 11 meeting versus the Titans. So as part of their brutal November slump, Baltimore fell 30-24 in overtime to Tennessee behind Henry’s 133 rushing yards, and walk-off 29-yard scamper. Henry also ran for 195 yards in Tennessee’s playoff win in Baltimore last January.

On Sunday, with Campbell, Williams and Wolfe up front, Baltimore limited Henry to just 40 yards on 18 carries. In all, Tennessee rushed for just 51 yards on 22 carries.

“We played good team ball…We played with heart and emotion,” Calais Campbell told NFL dot com after the game. “[Henry] is a king, he’s a beast. 2,000 yards. But today, he’s not gonna’ run the ball. He’s not gonna’ run the ball…Respect is earned.”

That last part of Campbell’s quote was directed toward a rivlary-based question by NFL dot com’s Tom Pelissero. Everyone was aware of the rivalry renewed between two physical teams. Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh jawing at midfield before their regular season battle. The Titans stomping on the Ravens logo after their November win.

So Baltimore, after this win, returned the favor by gathering on the Titans’ logo as Jackson left the field with almost 30 seconds remaining, joyfully running through the tunnel. Many, including former Baltimore safety Ed Reed on Twitter, took objection to the Ravens’s behavior after the win, but make no mistake, there was a lot on the line, including many egos, and the early-career legacy of Jackson.

In a physical battle of teams that despise each other, stopping the league’s best running back was an ego boost and massive moral victory in itself for the Ravens.

“They had a plan, and they executed their plan,” Henry told NFL dot com after the game. “All the credit goes to those guys, you know, of stopping the run. The last two times we had success and they had a plan to make sure we didn’t have success, and that’s what they did.”

After stopping Henry, the Ravens were able to limit the Titans’ deadly play-action passing game revolving around quarterback Ryan Tannehill and bully ball receiver A.J. Brown. (The Titans offense likes pounding the rock with Henry first, then opening up the passing game with play-action passes of both the traditional and bootleg variety.)

For the Titans, after finding success through the air early to take the 10-point lead, nothing worked as well as they would have liked it, and the Tennessee offense finished with just three more points over the final three quarters.

Baltimore 20-13 road victory was solidified after a late interception by cornerback Marcus Peters, who predictably jawed back at the Titans, in line with his boisterous personality.

These Ravens have a renewed swagger, and a sense of relief, after a hard-fought playoff win. But the Buffalo Bills, the AFC’s No 2 seed, are next. The Bills are undoubtedly the hottest team in the league over the last two-plus months, edging out the Ravens for that honor, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a member of Buffalo’s organization that would embrace Jackson and Baltimore hearing that.

*******

There’s five days until we’re back at it with the NFL’s Divisional Round, a weekend in which many think is pro football’s greatest event of the calendar year. Will there be a major upset? Which teams will move on? Here are my picks, equipped with a predicted score for each of the four contests.

L.A. Rams (No. 6 seed, 11-6) at Green Bay (No. 1 seed, 13-3), Saturday, 4:30 pm ET, FOX

If Aaron Rodgers is to win his second Super Bowl, this will likely be the toughest defense he faces in this year’s playoff journey. For Los Angeles, All-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey can key on Green Bay All-pro receiver Davante Adams, forcing Aaron Rodgers to look elsewhere. The Rams’ defense is playing with some moxie, and will give Green Bay a tough battle in the frozen tundra. Still, no matter who starts at quarterback for the Rams, Jared Goff or John Wolford, Los Angeles will need brilliant and consistent play-action passing versus the inevitable box-stacking that Green Bay will implement on Rams running back Cam Akers after some early success. In theory, this game is trouble for Green Bay, but the Rams don’t have the quarterback play to do what’s needed here to pull the upset. PACKERS 26, RAMS 17

 Baltimore (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at Buffalo (No. 2 seed, 14-3), Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, NBC

Despite Lamar Jackson’s brilliant performance his first playoff win, it was easy to see some of the problems with Baltimore’s offense. If their running game gets even somewhat stalled, and the team falls behind, there’s not really enough in the passing game to expect Jackson to rally a team back, and continue a run to score 30-plus points. At least not against an opponent with the offensive firepower like Buffalo’s. Jackson really took over the game by improvising through the chaos, using his athleticism to get the Ravens to 20 points, while the Baltimore defense assisted. Baltimore should be OK in slowing down a Buffalo offense in the cold, seeing as they have a secondary to at least put somewhat of a stop to Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Buffalo’s high-flying offensive attack, but they won’t shut down the Bills entirely. Basically, if Buffalo can get on the board early, and somewhat limit the Baltimore rushing attack, then the Ravens will find themselves ironically in the same trouble they thought they were past last week. Baltimore needs to supply Jackson with more help at the wide receiver position. This game is a tough one to predict, and will likely revolve around several factors, including the not-yet-mentioned Baltimore pass rush getting to Allen. This seems like the Bills’ time. BILLS 23, RAVENS 20

Cleveland (No. 6 seed, 12-5) at Kansas City (No. 1 seed, 14-2), Sunday, 3:00 pm ET, CBS

Many are already reminiscing on the college battle between Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes from 2016, which was a 66-59 Oklahoma victory over Texas Tech. In that game, the two quarterbacks combined for nearly 1,300 passing yards and threw for a total of 12 touchdown passes, with Mahomes running in two more scores. Don’t expect that type of firepower on Sunday, as the Browns would like to keep the game to a short one, running behind their improved offensive line and running backs Nick Chubb and former Chief Kareem Hunt. Technically, the Browns’ rushing attack should be of major cause for concern for a Kansas City defense that features a lot of holes. The Chiefs essentially rely on superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones and swiss-army-knife defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to do just enough to compliment Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Kansas City offense. As it always has been versus the Mahomes-Andy Reid Chiefs in the playoffs, Myles Garrett and the Browns defense will need to play a quarter or two stymying Mahomes before their eventual onslaught, and Baker Mayfield will need to make the necessary third-down throws when called upon. That’s a lot to ask. CHIEFS 34, BROWNS 24

Tampa Bay (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at New Orleans (No. 2 seed, 13-4), Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, FOX

The game of the week sees Tom Brady’s Buccaneers hoping to send Drew Brees into retirement by avoiding a third beatdown in one season by the way of the talented Saints. The indoor setting should make for a point-filled game, even with two good defenses in play. Drew Brees has a truncated field due to his inability to consistently throw deep, leaving the offense to revolve heavily on Alvin Kamara in the running and passing game, with Michael Thomas over the middle on seam and post routes. For Tampa, if the Saints can get pressure on Brady with just four like they did in their last meeting, it will be tough for the GOAT to get the ball to his offensive weapons, no matter how star-studded his arsenal is. It’s not an overstatement to say these are the NFC’s two most talented teams. This will be a close one, and call me Brady-biased, but I think third time’s a charm for Tampa. BUCCANEERS 34, SAINTS 31

Patrick Mahomes celebrates in 2019 AFC Title Game

NFL Playoff Primer: Are Chiefs destined to repeat?

Just four months ago, many wondered if the NFL would successfully get through all 256 games during their preset, schedule-based time frame. Well, it wasn’t easy, and several somewhat-questionable decisions were made to work around the COVID-19 pandemic, but alas, the regular season is over, and the playoffs will begin on time.

Before jumping into the major talking points for this postseason, here is my Twitter-released picks for the NFL’s season awards, all of which won’t be given out until the night before the Super Bowl.

After Sunday’s performance in Chicago, the decision to name Aaron Rodgers MVP for the third time in his career is an easy one, in my opinion. It feels odd leaving Josh Allen’s name out of anything above, including the runner-up mentions, but Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes were simply that good this year. Plus, the Offensive Player of the Year award race (if not won by Rodgers), features a 2,000-yard rusher (Derrick Henry) and a wide receiver (Davante Adams) who hauled in 18 touchdown passes with heavy defensive attention do to the lack of teammate talent on offense, sans Rodgers.

My toughest call was selecting Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson over Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert for the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honor. Herbert’s stat line was historically superb for a rookie QB (4,336 passing yards, 31 TD passes, 10 INTs), and the Chargers finished the season with four straight victories, but Jefferson was simply unstoppable as a wide receiver for just about the entire season. Jefferson’s play (88 catches, 1,400 receiving yards, 7 TDs) was so efficient that it validated the Vikings’ trade that involved jettisoning now-Bills receiver Stefon Diggs, who should be an All-Pro this season.

Now, without further ado, let’s talk playoffs.

*******

Despite a deep AFC playoff field, the Kansas City Chiefs are in good position to return to the Super Bowl. This year’s AFC had seven teams with 11-plus wins, making it one of the deepest conferences we’ve ever seen. But outside of the conference’s top two seeds — Chiefs and Buffalo Bills — it’s difficult to imagine any of the remaining five squads winning three straight games to reach the Super Bowl. However, it’s easy to envision one or more of those dark-horse clubs pulling at least one major upset, and possibly going on a surprising run to the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens, Titans and Browns are the top three rushing teams in football, and the Colts, led by rookie running back Jonathan Taylor and a top-tier offensive line, have come on strong in the run game as of late. Despite the devaluation of the running back position, and running game in general, it’s still an important aspect of the game that becomes vital come January, unless you have an all-time great at quarterback. But take last season’s Titans team, which rode Derrick Henry’s back to the AFC title game. The team had the moxie and personnel to make such a run, but after taking 10-0 lead in Kansas City, the wheels came off as Ryan Tannehill couldn’t keep up with Patrick Mahomes and company. Tannehill has thrown for 40 touchdown passes this season, but questions will remain on his ability to beat teams like Kansas City and Buffalo on the roadie a shootout. The same sort of issues lie in Baltimore, Cleveland and Indianapolis. Despite the talent and ability of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Colts passer Phillip Rivers, neither can be trusted to go on a three-game march to Tampa, out-dueling the likes of Mahomes, Allen, or both, on the road in the process. And in Baltimore, no one should question that Lamar Jackson is one of the seven or eight best quarterbacks in football, but the Ravens’ lack of wide-receiver personnel and Jackson’s struggles throwing to the perimeter are well documented, and teams like the Chiefs, and probably the Titans, will look to expose those flaws. The biggest threat to Kansas City is the obvious choice — the Bills. Josh Allen has been on fire as of late, and the Bills have the offensive firepower to go toe to toe with Kansas City. But unfortunately, they’ll need Allen to be almost perfect, considering their lack of a consistent run game. So in a battle between the Bills and Chiefs in Kansas City, who would you go with? So, the point is, do all of these teams make for a tough matchup for the defensively-challenged Chiefs? Yes. But if Kansas City is to lose, it would still be a massive upset.

The NFC playoff field is essentially a three-team race. When assessing the NFC, one can easily put aside the “Any Given Sunday” slogan to assume the No. 7 seed Chicago Bears (8-8) and NFC East-winning Washington Football Team (7-9) are not going on a run to Super Bowl 55. It’s just not happening. So that leaves five teams in the mix. The winner of the Seahawks-Rams contest on Saturday will certainly present a challenge in Round 2. Both teams have their issues, but the Rams’ defense is the league’s top-ranked unit on that side of the ball, and we all know rules don’t apply to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense. Still, with Seattle’s defensive woes and the Rams’ lack of consistency at the quarterback position, it’s unlikely one of these teams reaches the Super Bowl, although one would be unwise to totally discount Wilson’s Seahawks. That leaves three teams as true contenders. The Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Green Bay has a leg up with home-field advantage and a first-round bye, plus Aaron Rodgers is playing like a man possessed. Still, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are the more talented teams. The Buccaneers have won four straight games, averaging 37 points per contest in the process — albeit versus lesser opponents — and have scored 38 points or more in six different wins this season. With Tom Brady, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski starting to flourish in Bruce Arians’ offense, them, along with their top two receivers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) and running game presents an offense that absolutely can continue this tear, although Tampa’s 1-5 mark versus current playoff teams is a concern. In New Orleans, the Saints’ offense has revolved around running back Alvin Kamara, and soon-to-be-42-year-old quarterback Drew Brees is starting to look his age. On top of that, superstar receiver Michael Thomas is dealing with a nightmare year. Luckily, the Saints have the fourth-ranked defense (310.9 yards per game allowed) and their plus-nine turnover differential is tied for third-best in the league. They do the little things right, and any last-hurrah ability by Brees would be enough for New Orleans to make a run. Really, all three teams have a solid shot of making the Super Bowl, and each has a team they likely wouldn’t want to see again, but likely will. The Packers are a bad matchup for the Saints. The Buccaneers are a bad matchup for the Packers. And the Saints seem to have the Bucs’ number.

Aaron Rodgers is facing more pressure than any other player in the playoff field. Just last summer, many wondered how much time Rodgers had left with the Packers. Green Bay had just opted to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round (No. 30 pick), and the Packers legend seemed irritated following his first season under new head coach Matt LaFluer. Well, Green Bay went 13-3 again this year, but things were much different, as Rodgers has co-existed with the Green Bay coach’s system, throwing a league-leading 48 touchdown passes and posted a 121.5 passer rating in a season that should win him his third career NFL MVP award. Rodgers met the swirling storylines and pressure head on, to return to his best form. Now, Rodgers faces a new kind of pressure as he attempts to make his second Super Bowl appearance a decade removed from his lone Super Bowl win. This seems to be an off year in the NFC, which has been a haven for a bevy of talented teams appearing at once over the past 10 or so years. Who knows how the conference will look in 2021 and beyond? Harboring home-field advantage, the time is now for Rodgers to make a run. Looking at the field, there’s a good chance his first playoff game this year will be versus Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Like the never-materialized dream scenario of a LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals, the chances of a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl have likely passed, but a playoff battle between the two would certainly do. Despite Brady’s star-studded cast and eagerness to prove himself outside of New England, most of the pressure would still lie with Rodgers.

Chiefs-Packers leads most likely Super Bowl 55 matchups. Because of the new playoff rules, the top seeds in each conference now hold even more of an advantage, as they are the only playoff teams that receive first-round byes. The well-rested Chiefs and Packers each are in good position to reach Super Bowl 55, which would be a rematch of Super Bowl 1 if it were to happen. The Chiefs have simply looked bored as of late, but the defending champs are clearly the Super Bowl favorite. Outside of Kansas City and Green Bay, the Bills look like the next best Super Bowl contender. Buffalo is a true challenger to the Chiefs. Is it that hard to envision a Buffalo-Tampa Bay Super Bowl where the Bills must face their nemesis, Tom Brady, one last time to finally claim a Super Bowl win? What about Bills-Saints? Or Chiefs-Saints? The latter seemed to be a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick. My preseason pick was Ravens over Saints, and although that certainly can happen, Baltimore is now simply just a dark-horse candidate at best, until proven otherwise. The Ravens have been hot as of late, but like Tampa Bay, they’ve beaten up on bottom-of-the-barrel opponents. Barring a crazy unforeseen run, any combination of Kansas City or Buffalo paired against Green Bay, New Orleans or Tampa Bay will likely be the Super Bowl 55 matchup.

*******

My early inclination is that the Saints and Bucs will have some trouble with the Bears and Washington, but each will move on, while the Seahawks survive another bludgeoning by the Rams. In the AFC, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will look surprisingly sharp in a takedown of Baker Mayfield’s Browns, while Phillip Rivers and the Colts will predictably self-destruct their game-long, small lead over the Bills in Buffalo sometime in the third quarter, giving Josh Allen his first playoff win. That leaves my favorite game of the week — Titans-Ravens. It would be poetic justice for Lamar Jackson to earn his first playoff win in revengeful fashion over the Titans. Stating that this game could go either way really feels like a copout, but it’s true. As of now, give me Baltimore in a close contest. It’s Jackson’s time.

Aaron Rodgers vs Titans — 2020

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 16: A shakeup in the MVP race, and other musings

With the final games of the year (not season) 2020 behind us, a new year will dawn with the end of an odd, pandemic-altering season.

I decided to empty my brain’s notebook of takes this week prior to Week 17 and the playoffs by taking a deep dive into the NFL MVP race, giving perhaps my final take on the matter barring any wacky Week 17 scenarios.

Then, I dig into my final power ranking of the 2020 season.

Cheers to a new year, and enjoy!

NFL MVP RACE

In October, Russell Wilson was seen as the clear early front runner for his first NFL MVP award. By November, Patrick Mahomes had seemingly clinched it for himself, and now, in December, Josh Allen has picked up where he left off in the season’s beginnings, thrusting himself back into the mix (somewhat).

But with just one week remaining in the regular season, the race has taken a bit of a dramatic turn after Week 16’s results, in my opinion. And the man who has most benefited is Aaron Rodgers.

As of now, Rodgers and Mahomes should be at a dead heap for this year’s award, with a splitting-of-the-hairs honor going to Rodgers, if the votes don’t add up to what should be another case of co-MVPs — as last seen in 2003 when Peyton Manning and Steve McNair split the award.

In recent weeks, the Chiefs have kept winning, but the apparent boredom from constant success has gotten to Kansas City’s heads. Mahomes has thrown four interceptions in his last three games, and could have easily thrown seven or eight. It’s a dropped interception by Falcons rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell on Sunday that stands in the way of the Chiefs’ second loss of the season.

Since Thanksgiving, Rodgers has thrown for 15 touchdowns and just one interception, and the Packers have won five straight games in the process.

Still, we can’t look past their seasons’ as a whole. Mahomes hasn’t laid an egg as hideous as Rodgers’ performance in a loss to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers back in October — a game in which the Green Bay quarterback posted a Total QBR of 12.3.

But in looking at their almost-finished 2020 resumes, Rodgers has thrown more touchdowns (44 to Mahomes’ 38), less interceptions (five to Mahomes’ six), while also posting a better passer rating (119.4 to 108.2) and Total QBR (83.9 to 82.7).

And despite the brilliance by Rodgers’ top target, receiver Davante Adams, the talent pool of the Green Bay offense pales in comparison to Mahomes and Andy Reid’s star-studded cast that includes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Le’Veon Bell, Sammy Watkins and more.

In Year 2 of Matt LaFluer’s Shanahan-esque, albeit quarterback-friendly system in Green Bay, Rodgers has seemingly mastered the system after an inconsistent start that was the still-mightily-successful 2019 Packers campaign.

Still, the Packers (12-3) must finish the job of earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed for Rodgers to have the strongest case. The Chiefs (14-1) have already clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and judging by Andy Reid’s comments and recent news on Sunday’s game, we don’t expect Mahomes or the Chiefs starters to play much (or maybe, at all) in their Week 17 contest.

Even if the Packers join the Chiefs as fellow home-field advantage earners, it’s worth wondering if the NFL community as a collective loves drama, and are succumbing to a bit of subtle Mahomes fatigue, since the Chiefs quarterback makes it look so easy.

Even in his recent struggles, Mahomes has done enough to win every recent game. Immediately after the Falcons dropped an aforementioned would-be, game-ending interception, Mahomes darted a game-winning touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson on the very next play.

Mahomes is sensational, and quite frankly, he’s the best quarterback and player in today’s game. But Reid and the Chiefs’ unique supporting cast on offense (Hill, Kelce, etc.) is a bit more than what is assisting Rodgers (Adams, then RB Aaron Jones?) in Green Bay, where the Packers quarterback officially has better volume and efficiency stats than Mahomes in a rushing-based offensive system with lesser talent.

Really, there’s a brilliant case for both Mahomes and Rodgers, and any other year, the likes of Josh Allen or Russell Wilson could be running away with the award, but in a rough year overall, this has been quite the quality MVP race.

In a perfect world, Mahomes and Rodgers would tie for the award. That would be my vote — a split. But if we’re splitting hairs, it’s Rodgers who deserves the honor for the third time in his career.

1a. Aaron Rodgers

1b. Patrick Mahomes

3. Josh Allen

4. Russell Wilson

5. Derrick Henry

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-1) (Last week: 1). The apparent lackadaisical effort by the Chiefs in recent weeks should only concern the rest of the league. They can be beaten, but I have a feeling they won’t be.

2. Buffalo Bills (12-3) (Last week: 2). Well, that was a statement in Foxboro. Josh Allen has been sensational this year, and Stefon Diggs has a legitimate claim as the NFL’s best receiver, although a few others (Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, etc.) have just as good of a case. The Bills have built a helluva team, and are a true Super Bowl contender.

3. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 3). The Aaron Rodgers-Matt LaFluer pairing works, after all. Even in a playoffs with limited (or no) fans in the stands, Green Bay likely needs home-field advantage badly. They’ll need to beat the Bears in Chicago in a game in which the Bears absolutely need to win. Should be fun.

4. New Orleans Saints (11-4) (Last week: 5). The Saints remain the most talented team in the NFC. Can they make one last run with Drew Brees?

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) (Last week: 4). That was a season-saving win on Sunday. Barring a meeting in the playoffs, or an unlikely set up next season, that could be the final battle between QBs in the marveled 2004 NFL Draft class. In predictable fashion, Ben Roethlisberger was gritty in a tough comeback, while a Phillip Rivers-led team once again blew a 17-point lead. The Steelers are probably too beat up on defense to make a serious Super Bowl run now, but they’ll still be a tough out. I still wouldn’t want to see them in Round 2 at home if I’m the Bills.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5) (Last week: 9). Easy December schedule or not, here come Tom Brady and the Bucs. They’re like an alligator peeking it’s eyes out of the water. They can really make a run in the NFC.

7. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 8). The Seahawks sunk to the Rams’ level to win a rough defensive battle to take the NFC West. It’s been a while since we marveled at Russell Wilson. Seattle doesn’t have the roster of a Super Bowl team but Wilson doesn’t abide by normal rules. I say, watch out for the Seahawks in the NFC playoffs. They shouldn’t be able to make a run with their deficiencies, but they most certainly can with Wilson.

8. Baltimore Ravens (10-5) (Last week: 11). Like the Bucs, the Ravens are on a December run thanks to a soft, late-season schedule, but like Tampa Bay, Baltimore has the ingredients of a team ready to make a postseason push. Ironically, Lamar Jackson could win his first playoff game on the road as a wild card team this season, Baltimore’s least favorable position during the Jackson era.. But the Ravens could also miss the playoffs. Let’s revisit this next week in my playoff primer.

9. Indianapolis Colts (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Colts have a solid roster, and Rivers has had his moments, but Sunday’s debacle in Pittsburgh is not only expected of a Rivers-led team, it also makes it apparent that they aren’t likely going deep in the postseason.

10. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 6). The Titans will still be a tough out for teams like the Chiefs and Bills due to their running game, but their defense is just not up to par to make a similar run as last year to the AFC title game. I thought they could do it, now I have serious doubts.

11. Miami Dolphins (10-5) (Last week: 13). Brian Flores’ QB carousel and it’s odd-timing decisions only add to the fact that he could very well win Coach of the Year honors if Miami makes the playoffs, and maybe even if they don’t. (Although Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott also has a great case). This team should only get better in 2021. They’ve certainly overachieved this season.

12. Los Angeles Rams (9-6) (Last week: 10). Suddenly, the Rams find themselves in danger of missing the playoffs. They’ll miss Jared Goff next week, leaving John Wofford to start at quarterback with their season on the line. If they lose to the Cardinals, and the Bears beat the Packers at home the Rams are out. But Kyler Murray may miss the game for Arizona, making Cardinals-Rams a possible backup QB bonanza. If it’s any consolation, I believe Aaron Donald should edge out Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt for a third DPOY award, whether the Rams make the playoffs or not.

13. Cleveland Browns (10-5) (Last week: 12). I think I speak for most when I say we’d love to see the Browns make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, but it doesn’t look like they ultimately deserve it. We’ll see what happens on Sunday. Pittsburgh is starting Mason Rudolph at quarterback, giving Big Ben a rest.

14. Chicago Bears (8-7) (Last week: 16). You have to give credit to Mitchell Trubisky for battling back, as the Bears as a team have done, but he’s still clearly not the future.

15. L.A. Chargers (6-9) (Last week: NR). The Chargers belong here for their three-game winning streak and collective talent. I’d take them over any team below in a game in a neutral site right now.

16. Arizona Cardinals (8-7) (Last week: 15). Like we mentioned under the Rams section above, the Cardinals may be without Kyler Murray on Sunday. They had the obvious look of a fun team that is a year away. They are more of an extreme story of that nature then the Miami Dolphins in the AFC, who may make it in anyway, but are a year away themselves from real contention.

Next up: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Washington, Dallas, New England

Cam Newton vs Dolphins — 2020 Week 15

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 15: Where do the Patriots go from here?

When Cam Newton was sacked on 4th down late in New England’s 22-12 loss in Miami on Sunday, the Patriots already-slim playoff chances went down with him.

Technically, the Patriots entered Sunday’s contest with just a three percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the NFL community has certainly taken solace in their wicked witch being officially dead.

The mood surrounding Bill Belichick and some of the few remaining Super Bowl heroes was as you’d expect.

“It stinks to lose,” Devin McCourty said after the loss, “but I think the way we have played has been most disappointing. It just really hasn’t developed for us all year. It’s just felt like that throughout the whole season.”

“Obviously it hasn’t been our year,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ longest-tenured player (since 2008). “Obviously we haven’t done enough to be the type of team we thought we would. As to why that’s the case, it’s really hard to put your finger on it.”

Now, the Patriots will play their last two games versus AFC East opponents at home (vs Bills, vs Jets) with them having nothing to lose, and not much to gain.

The New England offense under Cam Newton (5 TD passes, 10 INT, 11 rush TDs, 44.9 Total QBR), and a sub-par pass-catching core, has not only struggled, but they’ve set back the clock on modern offenses. The difference between New England’s pulling-teeth passing game and that of some of the efficient, new-age passing offenses (let alone the Chiefs) is stark.

Soon, NFL talk will shift toward the playoffs, and the deserving teams in the postseason field.

The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The AFC East-champion Buffalo Bills. Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 New England will enter the offseason with many questions needed to be answered, including one at quarterback, which is a topic that will have its time for deep dives in the next few weeks and months.

As expected by many sensible figures before the pandemic-altered season, the Patriots did not have the team to compete, especially with their legendary quarterback of the past two decades now throwing passes in South Florida.

But in taking a big-picture look at the fraction, which side of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady wishbone would you prefer to hold if you’re Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots?

Brady could win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and he’s likely going to call it a career in the next year or two (although you can never fully assume so when we’re talking about the GOAT).

Despite some questionable draft day decisions over the last few seasons, and a few blind spots in the entire process (evaluating wide receivers), Bill Belchick is a master team-builder, an innovative and brilliant strategist, and the best coach in the history of football, and maybe, sports.

The married football coach with young children who once stated he wouldn’t be “Marv Levy coaching in his 70s.” But things are different now. Belichick is now a man on a mission — to prove himself by sustaining consistent success without Tom Brady. “The Hoodie” is a revitalized 68-year-old coach with both sons (now adults) on his coaching staff. He’s since divorced but has been in a long-time loving relationship with partner Linda Holliday. Part of Belichick’s summers are spent at Cape Cod with Linda, but most of his life still revolves around football, where a big chunk of his heart undoubtedly resides.

Now, Belichick is tasked with rebuilding the New England Patriots.

The Pats are sufficient in a few important areas already (offensive line, defensive secondary), making the rebuild seem more like one of Bill’s classic “retools” (2005-2007, 2009-2010, etc.) as opposed to a full-on rebuild — if the quarterback position was more ingrained and not Brady-less.

But aside from QB — the obvious position that will be much-talked about in the northeast this offseason — New England obviously fields a skill-position arsenal (WR, TE) that simply must be addressed. Their defensive front seven also needs some offseason attention, as a team like the Dolphins, who came into the game ranked last in yards per carry (3.6), ran for 250 yards on 42 carries (6.0 YPC) versus the Patriots behind running backs Salvon Ahmed and Matt Brieda.

But despite a nightmare season congruent with the year 2020, there is reason for optimism in 2021.

The Patriots are projected to have at least $70-ish million in cap space, depending on the league’s cap number this Spring. They’ll also field a pick in the top half of the draft for just the second time since 2003, giving them a shot at a blue-chip player.

Then, there’s the small group of young players showing promise. Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Jakobi Meyers, Michael Onwenu.

As long as there are hard-working, young talents in the building reflecting with quotes such as Chase Winovich’s in the tweet below after Sunday’s loss in Miami, the “Patriot Way” is still in tact.

 Yes, New England’s young core is not that exciting on paper, but with Belchick, and an arsenal of offseason tools (cap space, draft) to reshape this team, it’s at least exciting to see which way Belichick goes.

They most certainly will address their receivers and defensive front seven.

At QB, do they re-sign Newton? Re-sign Newton and draft a rookie on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft? Do they hope former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo is released outright by the 49ers? Everything is on the table, and until they figure it out at QB, the rest may not matter, that’s evident, but everyone from Foxboro to Portland, Maine knows Bill, Nick Caserio and the Patriots front office are already planning.

This was a year of poor play and bad luck for the Patriots. But as a new year turns, New England’s hopes are that of American citizens dreaming of a post-Pandemic world. Change is coming.

“Teams that don’t make the playoffs change,” said Devin McCourty. “The 2020 Patriots — it won’t be the same in 2021.”

There’s a void… a cavity waiting to be filled with more Patriots success. Belichick and the Patriots are just getting started.

NFL MVP RACE

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Aaron Rodgers
  3. Russell Wilson
  4. Josh Allen
  5. Derrick Henry

The only change here is Josh Allen jumping into the top five. After a so-so midseason stretch, the third-year QB is revisiting his red-hot start to the season at just the right time. Still, he’s more in line with Russell Wilson than a true contender for the award. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are essentially in a two-man race with two weeks to go.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) (Last week: 1). We, as a collective non-Kansas City NFL community needed a Saints win over the Chiefs to prove that Kansas City can be beaten. It didn’t happen. The Chiefs are a collective cyborg. They are a well-oiled machine and Patrick Mahomes is a football god.

2. Buffalo Bills (11-3) (Last week: 2). With their scorching-hot play as of late, and their first AFC East title since 1995, the Bills have emerged as perhaps the most obvious challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC.

3. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 3). It seems the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them, but that’s really not the case. Rodgers is solid, and will remain so. It’s up to his supporting cast. Is their defense ready?

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 4). The Steelers should win tonight in Cincinnati, but it’s pretty clear a once-clear contender is floundering a bit in December. Injuries on defense are certainly mounting, too. Still, you wouldn’t want to see this proud franchise in January.

5. New Orleans Saints (10-4) (Last week: 5). Defensively, the Saints beat up Mahomes at times. They had a swagger and look of a Super Bowl contender that would not play afraid. Still, they lost. Drew Brees played fairly well down the stretch but it’s still pretty clear that these are his last days. Can he do enough for one last Super Bowl run?

6. Tennessee Titans (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans are the ultimate dark horse in the AFC, a spot in which they filled admirably last season. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown are players you just don’t want to see in an outdoor playoff game. Their defense, and lack of a pass rush, may make it too tough to repeat their playoff run from last season, though.

7. Indianapolis Colts (10-4) (Last week: 9). The Colts again survived Deshaun Watson and the Texans via a Houston goal-line fumble late in the game. That’s the second such occurrence in two weeks. But any division wins are welcome.

8. Seattle Seahawks (10-4) (Last week: 10). The Seahawks are slowly working their way back into contender status in the NFC. They have a big one on Sunday versus the Rams (9-5). If they win, they clinch the NFC West. The playoffs essentially start now for Russell Wilson’s bunch.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) (Last week: 11). Ho hum, another 17-point comeback for Tom Brady. And against Matt Ryan’s Falcons, no less. TB12 looked like a product of his method on Sunday, zinging the ball around to complete the come-from-behind win. In all, Brady threw for 320 yards in the second half on Sunday, the most of any QB in the second half this season.

10. Los Angeles Rams (9-5) (Last week: 6). They were rolling before this home loss to the all-time inept New York Jets (1-13). What the hell happened?

11. Baltimore Ravens (9-5) (Last week: 13). Their cake-walk of a closing schedule should put them at 11-5 and in one of the AFC’s wild card spots, but there’s much to like about Lamar Jackson and this Ravens team that is surging at the right time, albeit against lesser competition. They’ll be a tough out in January.

12. Cleveland Browns (10-4) (Last week: 7). Their Sunday night win over the Giants in New York was a solid, hard-earned win after their taxing loss to the Ravens last week.

13. Miami Dolphins (9-5) (Last week: 12). They did what they had to do to survive the Patriots (6-8) at home with a decimated pass-catching core. If the Dolphins make the playoffs, Brian Flores really may win the Coach of the Year award, leapfrogging Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who had the lead on the award for most of the year.

14. Arizona Cardinals (8-6) (Last week: 15). That was a mighty fun game in Philadelphia, with Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts battling it out. The Cardinals should be able to hold on to the NFC’s No. 7 spot.

15. Washington (6-8) (Last week: 14). We’ll leave Washington on the list for keeping it close with Seattle, and because of the ineptitude of everyone below them here.

16. Chicago Bears (7-7) (Last week: 16). I guess the Bears go here? It feels wrong to have them in the rankings, but they earned it in Minnesota. Or at least, they earned this spot.

Next up: Minnesota, New England, Las Vegas, L.A. Chargers, Dallas

Jalen Hurts vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 14: Hurts bests Hill in unique QB matchup

When the NFL schedule was set, few looked at this Saints-Eagles matchup and imagined anything other than Drew Brees battling Carson Wentz, possibly for playoff seeding, in a cold-weather December matchup.

Queue, 2020.

With Brees injured and Wentz and his albatross contract on the bench, one of the most unique matchups took place on Sunday when do-it-all, Swiss-army-knife Taysom Hill and dual-threat, been-through-it-all Jalen Hurts battled on Sunday.

The Eagles (4-8-1) won 24-21, dropping the Saints (10-3) to the NFC’s No. 2 spot because of their tie-breaking loss to the Packers (10-3) earlier this season.

With Taysom Hill, we know the story by now. We know why he is unique, and despite NFL Twitter taking a bad-faith approach (for whatever reason, but you can uncover possibly why if you got into the weeds, not recommended) to Hill, Sean Payton and the Saints were 3-0 under Hill before this matchup. And although the game plan has surely been altered, New Orleans has surprisingly let Hill read the field like a prototypical QB, and the 30-year-old has found some success going through his reads to fire down-field strikes.

On Sunday, Hill went 28-of-38 for 298 yards and two touchdowns, but threw an interception, often held onto the ball too long (Eagles had six sacks, some of them pure coverage sacks), and rushed for just 33 yards.

Time will tell if Hill is New Orleans’ long-term answer at QB (for next season and beyond), but anyone could see that they need Drew Brees if they are to win the Super Bowl this season.

But the story of Sunday was Hill being outplayed by Jalen Hurts.

Hurts, Philadelphia’s rookie second-round pick (a surprise at the time) won his first career NFL start over a Super Bowl contender that came into the game on a nine-game winning streak. In doing so, he joined Lamar Jackson as the only other quarterback since 1950 to have over 100 rushing yards in his first NFL start.

Hurts ran for 106 yards on 18 carries, outshining Hill at his own game, as the rookie’s presence also opened up the door for Miles Sanders (14 carries, 115 yards, two touchdowns), as Philly ran for 246 yards (6.8 yards per carry) versus one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, particularly against the run.

The Saints came into the game without allowing a 100-yard rusher in 55 straight contests. As stated above, the Eagles had two such rushers on Sunday.

Thought of as Philly’s possible “Taysom Hill” when he was drafted last spring, Hurts is on the right path to proving that he can be more than just a situational-type player to spell Wentz —much like Hill, over the last month, is steadily proving that he, too, may be a legit starting QB.

His passing numbers (17-of-30, 167 yards, one touchdown) were pedestrian, but Hurts made several big-time throws from the pocket, and the on the run. His most important throw of the day was his second-quarter, 15-yard, back-shoulder touchdown strike to Alshon Jeffrey on 4th-and-2. Even more impressive was that Hurts delivered that throw with an all-out blitz in his face.

Poise and confidence is apparent in the young quarterback that has been through it all, including a benching in Alabama, which he handled graciously, and a transfer to Oklahoma, where he found success once more with his second college team.

“I know he’s an NFL rookie . . . but I don’t know that he could’ve experienced a whole lot more to get him ready for this than what he did in college,” said Lincoln Riley (Hurts’ head coach at Oklahoma) to NBC Sports’ Peter King.

“I mean, he goes into Alabama, starts as a true freshman, part of championship teams, and all of a sudden, he’s not the starter. Comes back in in a championship game and leads them to victory. Transfers to [Oklahoma], where they just had two Heisman trophy winners in a row, knowing he’s only gonna have one year, comes in and has a great year, new system, new teammates. He’s always got supreme confidence in himself and he trusts his preparation. I think part of him is like, ‘Man, if I’ve made it through what I’ve made it through, I trust myself that even in a new situation that I can do it. So no, not surprising to me at all that he would go play the way he did today.”

There were other great throws from Hurts, including this deep, almost-completion above. It’s clear Philly might have something in the young cat. They’ll need more than one game to judge, but could the Eagles ship Wentz to say, Indianapolis (to reunite with Frank Reich), swallowing a bunch of dead cap for his remaining two years on the contract, and build this offense around Hurts?

Again, it’s too early to tell.

Philly head coach Doug Pederson is still yet to name a starter for the Eagles late-afternoon showdown in Arizona (7-6) next week.

NFL MVP RACE

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Aaron Rodgers
  3. Russell Wilson
  4. Derrick Henry
  5. Aaron Donald

The first of four consecutive MVP sections to finish out the season in my column doesn’t accept much change from my ranking from two weeks ago. Mahomes is still the clear favorite, although Rodgers is not that far behind. Any other season without a QB of Mahomes’ caliber would spurn a clear win for Rodgers, and hundreds of columns surrounding his improved play in Year 2 under Green Bay head coach Matt Lafluer, as well was what this means for Rodgers’ future in Green Bay with Jordan Love (first-round rookie QB) as his backup. Elsewhere, Russell Wilson, the “clear” favorite from the first half of the season, sits soundly in third over Derrick Henry (who is dominating defenses in December once more) and Aaron Donald, who is so good that it’s easy to overlook his play.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) (Last week: 1). Even on one of their ugly days (hideous, by their standards), Mahomes shook off a few mistakes to throw for 393 yards, touchdowns to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and post a 91.9 Total QBR. Yeah, they’re starting to look unbeatable this season.

2. Buffalo Bills (10-3) (Last week: 4). Josh Allen has come alive again after falling back to earth some during the middle of the season. The Bills are as talented as almost anyone in the league, and are a real contender in the AFC. Would they fare better in a rematch with the Chiefs in January?

3. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers and the Packers now have a good shot at the NFC’s No. 1 seed. They’ve been looking good as of late, but some teams that would give them fits in January include the Rams and Buccaneers. And oddly enough, one of those two squads could end up being their NFC Divisional Round matchup, as one of them may get the NFC’s No. 5 seed, and face the NFC East winner in Round 1. It’s too early to tell, though.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 2). Their defense is starting to slip some without both Devin Bush and Bud Dupree. Having Dupree opposite T.J. Watt was a big advantage for the Steelers. Now, Pittsburgh must shore up issues, including their suddenly moribund-looking offense, to at least hang onto the AFC’s No. 2 seed. They’re starting to look like last year’s Patriots.

5. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). They suffered their first loss with Taysom Hill. They’ve fared much better with Hill than I figured they would, but they need Drew Brees back to reach the Super Bowl. Will he return this week, in time for a big home matchup with the Chiefs (12-1)?

6. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) (Last week: 6). They dominated the Patriots (6-7) last week, giving Sean McVay at least a small taste of revenge for Super Bowl 53. Their offense is starting to round into form again, and their defense, led by stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, is phenomenal. No one in the NFC would like to see them come January.

7. Cleveland Browns (9-3) (Last week: 7). Can they keep things going versus the Ravens tonight? If they win soundly, it’s time to start taking them seriously. Not Super Bowl contender seriously, but at least as a tough AFC postseason opponent. Can they hang onto the conference’s No. 5 seed?

8. Tennessee Titans (9-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans took their frustrations out on the lowly Jaguars (1-12) on Sunday. The Titans are an inconsistent bunch, so this may seem crazy to say, but I think they’re the biggest threat to the Chiefs in the AFC, just above the Bills and the beat-up Steelers.

9. Indianapolis Colts (9-4) (Last week: 9). Their defense is starting to slip some, but racking up 44 points on the road, even against a defense like the Raiders, is impressive. There’s more work to be done to ensure they make the postseason, but Sunday’s win improved their chances dramatically.

10. Seattle Seahawks (9-4) (Last week: 10). There’s no better opponent than the 2020 Jets (0-13) to help your team get back on track. Or at least, to make it look like your team is trending back in the right direction. I think they are, though. All eyes are still peeking ahead to the Seahawks’ Week 16 home game versus the Rams (9-4), though. That game will likely decide the NFC West.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) (Last week: 11). The offense got off to a slow start, and Tom Brady had two awful misses to wide-open receivers, but the GOAT settled into things. The 48-yard touchdown throw to Scotty Miller was a beauty. They need to find a way to get Miller onto the field more often, even if it means decreasing Antonio Brown’s snaps. On defense, their ferocious pass rush came alive late. They’re still a collection of talent that is yet to mesh, though, and they may never do so in this weird season.

12. Miami Dolphins (8-5) (Last week: 12). They muddied the game enough early versus the Chiefs, forcing Mahomes to throw two easy interceptions and sacking him a few times, but Miami’s offense couldn’t take advantage. Tua Tagovailoa got it going down the stretch, but it was too little, too late.

13. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) (Last week: 13). Their favorable schedule gives them a great shot at the AFC’s No. 7 seed, and maybe even the No. 6 spot. If they can beat Cleveland tonight, they really could go 11-5. Let’s see if they can begin to execute. They’re beat up, though.

14. Washington (6-7) (Last week: NR). There may not be a better defensive line in the NFL than the one in Washington, where Chase Young looks like the next superstar in the line of second-overall pick defensive ends selected out of Ohio State (see: 49ers’ Nick Bosa last season). Alex Smith went down with an injury in San Francisco (his old home, where he was credited with a win) on Sunday, though, but all reports are saying he’s fine. WFT should stick with him over Dwayne Haskins.

15. Arizona Cardinals (7-6) (Last week: NR). The Cardinals moved into sole possession of the NFC’s final playoff spot on Sunday thanks to Hasaan Reddick. Reddick, Arizona’s first-round pick in 2017 (13th overall), had his fifth-year option declined in the offseason, and has mostly been considered a bust. But after a few bad seasons (and subsequent benching) at the linebacker position, the unique athlete has spent more time as an EDGE defender this season in Arizona’s aggressive, blitz-happy defense designed to mask their overall inefficiency on that side of the ball. Well, Reddick notched five sacks versus the Giants on Sunday, and Arizona’s defense came alive at the right time, albeit versus a subpar offense.

16. Minnesota Vikings (6-7) (Last week: 14). They deserve this spot over the Patriots and Raiders, for now. They likely have to win all of their remaining games (vs Chicago, at New Orleans (Christmas Day), at Detroit) to even have a chance at making the postseason. That’s doable, but unlikely.

Next up: New England, Las Vegas, Chicago, Denver, N.Y. Giants

Baker Mayfield and Jarvis Landry vs Titans — 2020

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 13: Are the Browns serious contenders?

The Browns (9-3) entered Sunday’s uber-important contest with the Titans (8-4) in Tennessee as a semi-fraudulent team (to some) that had beaten up on bad teams en route to a probable playoff spot that won’t become of anything (some thought).

At halftime, Cleveland surprisingly led Tennessee by a score of 38-7, before holding on for a 41-35 statement win that has many thinking differently of these Browns. What a difference a weeks makes.

So what do we make of this Browns team? Is talk of them as an AFC contender a knee-jerk reaction?

Sitting at 9-3, and in prime position for an AFC wild card spot — maybe the top, No. 5 wild card spot they hold now — Cleveland enters the final quarter of the regular season with a surging outside appreciation for what they’ve done, just weeks after most (including me) have discredited them as a somewhat-fraudulent, soon to be one-and-done wild card team.

Before their win on Sunday, they had played just four games against teams with winning records, going 1-3 in those contests with their last loss being an offensively-challenged 16-6 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders (7-5) at home before beginning their current four-game winning streak.

Baker Mayfield — 2,442 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 70.5 Total QBR — hasn’t been quite as good as his average-to-good season stat line suggests. He likely won’t eclipse 4,000 yards passing in an era in which it seems nearly every QB does each season, but with the Browns’ league-best rushing attack (157.8 yards per game) leading the way, he really doesn’t need to air it out for Cleveland to rack up wins.

Mayfield was phenomenal on Sunday, throwing for four first-half touchdowns to give the Browns a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Yes, the lack of a Titans pass rush, or maybe even competent defense, helped spur perhaps Mayfield’s greatest performance as a pro. But if this Browns team is to do any damage in the AFC postseason field, it will need Mayfield to capitalize on play-action passes downfield after their running game has been established. He did that on Sunday, ironically versus a team that works their offense the same way, except usually with better success with Ryan Tannehill finding the likes of A.J. Brown downfield after a fake hand-off to Derrick Henry.

The combination attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the ground behind a superb, remodeled offensive line has been the key to the Browns attack. Possible coach-of-the-year candidate Kevin Stefanski, 38, has brought a Mike Shanahan-style system to the Browns, employing a heavy amount of outside-zone running plays as their bread and butter, with play-action and bootleg passes as secondary options. These plays are designed to make the game easier for Mayfield as other offenses have done similarly for the likes of Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers (to a degree, since he doesn’t really need the help) and Jared Goff — and for former Broncos QB Jake Plummer (2003-2006 in Denver), once upon a time.

 On defense, Myles Garrett (10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles) is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the Browns’ defensive unit as a whole has been much improved.

Still, in the AFC, the Chiefs (11-1) are operating on a plane above the entire NFL. And despite their sluggish play of late, the Steelers (11-1) still look like the conference’s second best team. After that, the Bills (9-3) definitely look like the third best.

So where do the Browns fall into the mix after that?

The last few weeks has seen some weird results, much like the Browns win over the Titans. In the AFC South, the Titans and Colts (8-4) each traded dominant road wins over each other in the past month.

After the heavyweights in the AFC, it’s clear that there’s some unpredictability at play. The Browns finish the season with two winnable games (at Giants, at Jets) in New York, sandwiched in between two tough games (vs Ravens, vs Steelers) versus their AFC North rivals. If they beat Baltimore this weekend, it’s likely they’ll hang onto the conference’s No. 5 seed.

How would they fare in a wild card rematch in Tennessee? Or in Indianapolis? Or Buffalo? Their likely opponent would likely come from that pool if they are to be the conference’s top wild card. And they’re playing like they deserve that seed, as of late.

The truth is Cleveland is a bit limited with Baker Mayfield at the moment, but the former No. 1 overall pick has the talent to improve, and maybe Sunday’s win over Tennessee is the start of the that. But it’s likely this game is a bit of an aberration, and evidence of the ever-changing narratives of some of the good-not-great teams in the AFC after the likes of Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Still, the Browns are certainly proving they’re not frauds. I’ve thrown that word around with them, so I suppose that’s an egg on my face, for now.

They have the recipe of a solid playoff team.

The Browns are well coached. They run the ball extremely well, which is a cold-weather, January must if you don’t have a top-tier QB (and they don’t). Their offensive line is much improved. And on defense, Myles Garrett is one of the best players in football.

Still, despite the Titans’ porous effort on Sunday (and their unpredictability, and their poor defense), it feels like they still remain the biggest threat to the Chiefs and Steelers, maybe even more so than the Bills.

Tennessee has no pass rush, they can’t stop the run, and at times, they seem to be laying duds on offense. But the Titans, who used their bruising formula to make the AFC Championship Game last season, still have the ingredients (Mike Vrabel, Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown, etc.) to a mark run this season.

As for the Browns, they too have some of the those ingredients, but have yet to prove their moxie in January. Could they be last year’s Titans? Now that’s not farfetched. But we’ll have to see it first.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) (Last week: 1). Is there any stopping them? Denver kept it close.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) (Last week: 2). They haven’t looked good the past few weeks, and the loss of Bud Dupree on defense is MASSIVE. But they’re still the second best team in the AFC.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 3). They’re fun with Taysom Hill, but to win the Super Bowl, they’ll need Drew Brees back for what is likely the last few games of his illustrious career.

4. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 5). That was a solid win in San Francisco. The 49ers are feisty, even in their injury-derailed season. Still, the Bills must get it together on defense if they are to be a threat to Kansas City.

5. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). Let’s not forget about how great Aaron Rodgers has been this season. There’s a chance they snag the NFC’s No. 1 seed if they can win out. The Saints have some tough games to finish out their year.

6. Los Angeles Rams (8-4) (Last week: 10). They’re getting better by the week. Can they keep it going versus the Patriots on Thursday?

7. Cleveland Browns (9-3) (Last week: 13). Are the Browns for real? We explained above. Yes and no from me. One thing I didn’t mention earlier — they have a negative-15 point differential, which is virtually unheard of for a 9-3 team. That’s worse than teams like Washington (5-7) and San Francisco (5-7) with losing records. Still, they have the recipe for a well-stocked January team, as long as Mayfield doesn’t revert to his previous form of ineptitude.

8. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 4). They’ve been Jekyll and Hyde recently but I still think they’re a real threat to the AFC’s top teams, much like last January.

9. Indianapolis Colts (8-4) (Last week: 8). They easily could have lost in Houston, but they pulled out yet another win. They have some tough games to finish out their season.

10. Seattle Seahawks (8-4) (Last week: 8). They are in trouble, but I trust Russell Wilson to pull them up a level here soon. They’ll get it going again on offense.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) (Last week: 11). The Bucs return from their late-season bye week in gut check mode. Will they finally get it going for a string of games?

12. Miami Dolphins (8-4) (Last week: 12). They don’t look right on offense, but their defense remains solid. They’ll be put to the test this week versus the Chiefs.

13. Baltimore Ravens (6-5) (Last week: 10). Will the Ravens take advantage of their easy schedule to make the postseason?

14. Minnesota Vikings (6-6) (Last week: 14). Can they outpace the Cardinals and others for the last playoff spot? Their remaining schedule includes a game in New Orleans and a game in Tampa Bay this Sunday. They may need to win one of those to get in.

15. New England Patriots (6-6) (Last week: NR). That 45-0 win over the Chargers felt like a Tom Brady-era, late-season road beatdown that usually sparked a Super Bowl run. That’s not likely the case this year, but if the Pats can beat the Rams on Thursday to compete the LA sweep, they’re right back in the thick of the playoff picture. Their season comes down to their last four games. They likely need to win all four to make the playoffs.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (7-5) (Last week: 16). They were lucky to win in New York over the Jets (0-12). They really shouldn’t have won. Ironically, unless they’re playing the Chiefs, they haven’t looked that good, save for a game or two, here and there.

Next up: Arizona, Houston, N.Y. Giants, Washington, San Francisco

Tyreek Hill vs Bucs

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 12: Are Chiefs primed to repeat?

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

Patrick Mahomes TD pass vs Raiders

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 11: Mahomes’ mastery of KC offense is divine

Just six weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) suffered their only loss of the season, when the upstart Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) came into Arrowhead Stadium looking for trouble, winning the game 40-32 and subsequently taking a victory lap around the Chiefs’ home venue before heading to the Kansas City airport for the trip home.

A month-and-a-half later, Las Vegas used that same bravado to play the Chiefs tough once more in their home rematch with the defending Super Bowl champions. Derek Carr’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Jason Witten with 1:43 remaining in the game gave Vegas their fifth-lead of the night, 31-28.

But then, Patrick Mahomes happened.

Still, despite that fantastic lede, it wasn’t Mahomes’ vengeance that won the Chiefs their fifth straight game, it was his divine mastery of the Kansas City offense in limited time.

“I’ve got Pat Mahomes,” Andy Reid said after the game. “You give me a minute and a half and I’m pretty good right there. We can roll. I’d take him over everybody and I’m lucky to have him.”

The Chiefs are lucky indeed. Despite already garnering a 50-touchdown pass, NFL MVP season in Year 1 as a starter, and a Super Bowl MVP in Year 2, Mahomes is seemingly more efficient in Year 3, averaging 303.5 yards per game while throwing for 27 touchdown passes to just two interceptions, giving him a league-best 85.2 QBR as we enter Thanksgiving.

He’s already heaved a full highlight-tape worth of his “25 best throws” that make some of the most immaculate darts in history pale in comparison. So forgive me if I say I’m desensitized by some of his passes, because I shouldn’t be. But what stood out the most in his game-winning drive Sunday night — and what has this season — is his sheer control over the offense.

His pre-snap adjustments. The way he sees the defense both before and after the snap. He does it all with an effortless aura of confidence.

Patrick Mahomes gives off an aura of confidence of that of some of the all-time greats — Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, etc. (Screenshot: NFL on NBC)

With just one timeout and only needing a field goal, the Chiefs must have churned out plays in just a few seconds. Nine yards to Tyreek Hill there, 16-yard throw to Mecole Hardman there, a 15-yard, zone-beating, beautiful anticipation throw to Travis Kelce over the middle of the field.

“There are steps,” Mahomes said of the game-wining drive. “The first step is to try to get into field goal range. Once we got into field goal range we still had some time left. I was hoping we had a couple of shots into the end zone.”

It seemed that Mahomes processed those steps at lightning speed, and with precision.

Those three consecutive aforementioned pass completions totaled 24 seconds from the end of the first one and the end of the last mentioned. By the end of the Kelce throw it was apparent that the Chiefs were not settling for a field goal, they were winning the game outright on a touchdown drive that spanned 75 yards on seven plays in 1:15, ending with Mahomes finding Kelce for a 22-yard touchdown with 28 seconds remaining in the game to give KC a permanent 35-31 lead.

The Raiders were so frustrated and confused that there was no one around Kelce on the score. It looked like a broken play or a play in which a play-stopping flag had been called mid-play.

Nope, just Mahomes using his all-time-best passing skills with a Peyton-Manning-level of leadership and recognition pre-snap, and a Tom Brady-level of coverage reading post-snap. And if he even needed it, he can be as accurate as Drew Brees while throwing on the run or across his body. The Aaron Rodgers throws we used to gush over have now become routine and almost unworthy of game highlights if a network is indeed cutting for time.

Mahomes’ library is full of highlight-worthy plays, but it’s his consistency and wise-beyond-his-years control of the game, and the Chiefs’ offense, that is so fascinating to watch.

At just 25 years old, he’s already polished, and he’s certainly in line for his second NFL MVP award in just three season as a starter.

Next up for the Chiefs, a possible Super Bowl preview in Tampa, the place where Super Bowl 55 will be held in February. Tom Brady — the quarterback’s legendary status that Mahomes is chasing — and the Buccaneers await.

“[Mahomes] is always ready for the moment,” Kelce said.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0) (Last week: 1). The Steelers have taken care of business these last two weeks versus lesser opponents. They have a chance to sweep their bitter rival, the Ravens, on Thanksgiving night. That should be enough to keep them motivated.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) (Last week: 2). As surreal as Mahomes and the Kansas City offense is, the defense is still a cause for concern. Can they hold up their end of the bargain enough in January for Kansas City to repeat as champions? I won’t be surprised either way.

3. New Orleans Saints (8-2) (Last week: 3). The Atlanta Falcons’ defense is no good, so skeptics can continue doubting Taysom Hill as a long-term option as a starting QB, for now. But it was mighty satisfying to see him play well with all the bizarre negativity surrounding him on NFL Twitter. I figured Sean Payton’s overall game plan on offense would be a bit gimmicky to adhere to Hill’s strengths, but they treated him like a traditional QB, using normal personnel and formations, and passing concepts. Kudos to Hill. They’ll need him to continue to play well with Drew Brees out for the foreseeable future (at least the next two weeks due to injured reserve rules), so the Saints can keep their lead on the Bucs and the rest of the NFC.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 4). The Rams present a challenge for Tom Brady. If Aaron Donald and others can get consistent pressure up the middle, this could be a low-scoring affair. I have confidence in the Bucs’ defense versus Jared Goff in a cross-country, nationally-televised road game, though.

5. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: 7). Due to a number of losses by teams in this part of the rankings, the Bills move up for now. They have to be happy about the Dolphins’ loss in Denver.

6. Indianapolis Colts (7-3) (Last week: 10). It seemed like they tried to give the game away in the final minutes of regulation, but they held on. That was a pretty important, 14-point comeback win over Green Bay in overtime. They play the Titans (7-3) at home this week, just 10 days after beating them in Tennessee. If they win, they’ll virtually hold a two-game lead in the AFC South. That’s huge.

7. Green Bay Packers (7-3) (Last week: 5). The defense is not very good, which makes me think they’ll meet their demise in the NFC divisional round or title game once more.

8. Seattle Seahawks (7-3) (Last week: 12). They have the inside track in the competitive NFC West after beating Arizona at home. They’ll go as far as Russell Wilson takes them.

9. Tennessee Titans (7-3) (Last week: 13). They have their issues, but they also have guts and moxie. That was a bad-blood game that started with Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh chirping at midfield before the game. It ended with Tennessee eliminating an 11-point lead in the final minutes to force overtime before winning on a lengthy Derrick Henry touchdown scamper. We could see this matchup again in a No. 3 vs No. 6 or No. 4 vs. No 5. wild card tilt in January. I’m all for it.

10. Baltimore Ravens (6-4) (Last week: 6). They are in trouble, but a favorable schedule down the stretch (after their meeting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night) should be enough to get them into the postseason.

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-3) (Last week: 11). If the Rams are to keep pace with the Seahawks in the NFC West, they may need to pull an upset in Tampa Bay tonight.

12. Miami Dolphins (6-4) (Last week: 8). That was an ugly offensive performance in Denver. Those will happen as Tua Tagovaoila acclimates to the NFL. No biggie on that front, but the loss does hurt. But no, it’s not time to give the starting job back to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

13. Arizona Cardinals (6-4) (Last week: 9). Their defense is a mess. It seems like all they can do is blitz and pray. Sometimes it works (in their overtime win over the Seahawks weeks ago) and sometimes it does not (their loss to Seattle last Thursday).

14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) (Last week: 14). They are fun team, and deserve some credit for their gradual turnaround these past few seasons, but they’re not there yet.

15. Cleveland Browns (7-3) (Last week: 15). They aren’t very good, but they have Myles Garrett on defense and can run the ball well. That will be enough to beat some teams. Until Baker Mayfield gets going, they won’t reach the level they seek, though. Still, 7-3 is nice for them.

16. Chicago Bears (5-5) (Last week: NR). As incompetent as the Bears are on offense, they get bumped back in after three 4-5 teams (heading into Week 11) in the Patriots, Vikings and Lions suffered extremely disappointing losses to subpar teams, watching their chances to pull even to .500 with a shot at the postseason dissipate.

Next up: New England, Minnesota, Carolina, Denver, Detroit

DeAndre Hopkins Hail Mary TD

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness: 10 thoughts from Week 10

Week 10 in the NFL supplied us with a Thursday night AFC South bludgeoner, a game-winning 59-yard field goal, a slew of late afternoon games scheduled around The Masters, a Sunday night upset in a monsoon, and a game-winning hail-mary pass that will likely have major playoff seeding implications.

But we begin in Arizona, where two young, new-age quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Kyler Murray), relied on their team’s prized wide receiver acquisitions (Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins) to trade scores in the final 34 seconds of an edge-of-your-seat, 32-30 Cardinals win over the Bills.

Of course, Diggs’ touchdown was more routine, with his league-best route-running skills — and brilliant throw by Allen — leading to a late Buffalo lead.

Hopkins’ jackpot-esque jump ball snag over three defenders — accentuated by the quality of defenders, including Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, and it-writes-itself Air Jordan commercial material — was miraculous, with an improbable, on-the-run assisting throw by Murray to boot.

The look on Arizona offensive tackle D.J. Humphries above says it all. The immaculate play was the signature moment of a weekend that included an incredible capper performance by Masters champion Dustin Johnson, a heartwarming, just-short comeback effort from Alex Smith, and more.

But looking forward, Hopkins’ catch did more than just give the Cardinals a come-from-behind win.

I begin listing my 10 thoughts from Week 10 with a look at the crowded NFC West.

1.NFC West logjam makes for possible photo finish. Because of Hopkins’ catch, and the Los Angeles Rams’ home win over the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC West now features three teams (Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks) tied atop the standin gs after 10 weeks. Arizona currently holds the tiebreaker thanks to their spotless division record (2-0), but with many more intradivision games to take place, things may quickly change. Seattle (6-3) has a chance to exact revenge over Arizona (6-3) when they host the Cardinals this Thursday, and the Rams (6-3) will likely have trouble in Tampa Bay next Monday night. Both Arizona and Seattle feature a top-tier, high-flying offense and a poor defense, while the Rams are more centered in their ways as a pretty good offense that relies on their foundation, and rarely steers off course, and a defense that is solid statistically, revolving around superstars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles seems to struggle on the road in games in which defenses force them to try new things, or veer off course (see their loss to the Dolphins in Miami this season), which is a major cause for concern, and reason to doubt their chances of being a true NFC contender this season. Likewise, Arizona, although one of the most fun teams in the league, lacks the defense and overall consistency to make a three or four-game run versus good teams to make the Super Bowl. They feel like a team in the midst of a 10-win season that is heading in the right direction before reaching true contender status. That leaves the Seahawks, who live or die with Russell Wilson. That’s certainly not a bad approach, but Seattle’s defense is so far removed from the Legion-of-Boom days that it is unlikely that they’ll win a slew of consecutive 34-31-type games in January en route to a Super Bowl victory. Luckily for the Seahawks, their remaining seven-game schedule is fairly easy. Thursday’s game versus the Cardinals will give us a slightly clearer picture in the division. If Seattle wins at home, they are the likely favorite to retain their lead in the division, and win it down the stretch. But if the Cardinals sweep the Seahawks, we’re likely headed for a photo-finish between all three teams.

2. Russell Wilson slides behind Patrick Mahomes in MVP race. Sticking with the Seahawks, it was just weeks ago that Wilson was looking like a shoe-in to win his first NFL MVP award. But now, the player who has never received an MVP vote has suffered some damaging losses partly by the way of his reckless turnovers. Wilson, who still leads the league in touchdown passes (28), has thrown for seven interceptions in his last four games, and has committed 10 total turnovers in that span. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes’ 25-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio compliments the Chiefs’ somehow-quiet 8-1 start. It’s just business as usual in Kansas City, and although Mahomes does have an all-time offensive coach and the league’s best set of offensive weapons outside of Tampa Bay, it’s hard to penalize the reigning Super Bowl MVP too much when he’s playing as efficiently as is. There’s more games to play, and a NFC West title with the Seahawks’ defense as is may swing the votes back in Wilson’s favor, but after 10 weeks, he is no longer the lead dog in the MVP discussion.

3. Saints, Buccaneers are class of NFC thus far, ahead of Packers, NFC West clubs. With the NFC West fielding three good-not-great teams, and the NFC L-East (I’m sorry) as is, that leaves the Green bay Packers (7-2), New Orleans Saints (7-2) and Tampa Bay Buccaneer (7-3) as the NFC’s three best teams by record. Yes, Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, but theIR struggles versus teams such as the 2019 49ers has seemingly crossed over to this season (see: their losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay) as well as their affinity for playing down to their competition, which almost cost them versus Jacksonville (1-8) this week. They have a great young cover cornerback (Jaire Alexander) and the talented Smiths’ as a pass-rushing duo, but they struggle mightily against the run, and outside of Davante Adams, the lack of an effective No. 2 receiver — despite some big plays by Marquez Valdezs-Scantling this season — is a big issue versus better teams. With the Packers looking like the NFC’s No. 3 best team, their best bet is to earn the No. 1 overall seed over the likes of the Saints and Buccaneers, who are simply better teams. New Orleans is starting to come around with their defense playing like one of the league’s best units, and Drew Brees steadily improving. But with news of Brees now out for three or more weeks with multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung, the savvy offseason decision to bring in Jamies Winston will need to pay dividends to keep the Saints afloat. The Bucs, Jameis’ old team, and apparently New Orleans’ punching bag, are simply a hard team to predict, with their variance of play as is. Sandwiched between wins over admittedly-bad defenses in the Raiders and Panthers, Tampa Bay struggled on offense moderately versus the lowly Giants, and mightily in their 38-3, embarrassing home loss to the Saints. If you go back further, the prior two weeks before the aforementioned stretch features the lowly, “is-it-4th-down?” loss in Chicago and a 38-10 beatdown of the Packers in Green Bay. Certainly, a lack of a real preseason and truncated training camp and offseason workout plan has stunted Tampa Bay’s growth. But pretty soon, a flurry of consecutive A-plus offensive performances is coming, and it may been January. Antonio Brown looks spry and Rob Gronkowski is gaining momentum. Plus, Brady and Mike Evans seem to be building a connection, and lest we forget, Tampa Bay has a solid defense that should get back on track after back-to-back sub-par outings. For New Orleans, Brees’ injury and the fact that only one of them and Tampa Bay can win their division, gives Green Bay a leg up for the NFC’s top seed, especially with the Packers’ early-season win over the Saints. But with a No. 1 seed or not, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are clearly better teams at this point in the season. Expect one of them to be playing in Tampa in February.

4. Where do Bills, Dolphins fit in AFC? The AFC is comprised of two obvious favorites in Pittsburgh (9-0) and Kansas City (8-1) and what I think is a clear No. 3 team in Baltimore (6-3), despite the latter’s issues when playing the former two, and losing two of their key players (offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, blocking tight end Nick Boyle) for the season. After that, there’s a mishmash of six more three-loss teams in the conference, but both Buffalo (7-3) and Miami (6-3) should be viewed above the rest at this point. First off, the Browns (6-3) and Raiders (6-3) aren’t serious contenders, and glaring issues remain for the Titans (6-3, defense) and Colts (6-3, Philip Rivers’ consistency), despite the latter’s sound defense. The Bills were a Hopkins miracle catch away from reaching 8-2, but now must fend off the upstart Dolphins in the race for a vital AFC East title. Both teams have talent, but Buffalo is more succesful Run-N-Gun on offense with a disappointing defense, while the Dolphins are clearly better in two of three phases (defense, special teams) of the game. Miami head coach Brian Flores has brought a Belichickian attitude and team style to Miami, and after a rough start, his defensive principles are beginning to instill in the team. The fish have now won five straight and are 3-0 under rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa, which is a reason for confidence skyrocketing in South Florida. Although not exactly a “win-now” club, the Bills are operating with urgency while Allen is in the third year of his rookie deal, meaning he has a limited cap figure on Buffalo’s books. The Bills have the team to compete with the likes of Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but their inconsistencies may be too much to overcome, at least for a Super Bowl run. In Miami, the Dolphins appear to be a team of the future prematurely — and welcomingly — playing at a high level, like the Cardinals in the NFC. Both teams will be a tough out in January, and yes, both teams will make it. And both should be good in 2021 and beyond, even with the unpredictability of the league.

“We have a mentally tough team,” Flores told NFL.com after the game. “This is a hungry group. They fight for each other, and it’s important to them. They’re competitive, so they work at it and understand the fruits of that labor out on the field. It wasn’t perfect; we’ve got a long way to go.”

Miami’s next three games are versus the lowly Broncos (3-6), Jets (0-9) and Bengals (2-6-1), giving them a clear shot at 9-3.

“We know it’s hard to win in this league, and we just take it one game at a time,” Flores said.

5. Patriots find a rhythm in monsoon-filled win over Ravens. Just when the Patriots’ season seemed dead before thanksgiving, New England (4-5) upset Baltimore (6-3) 23-17 in a rainy contest on Sunday night. In their meeting last season, Jackson and the Ravens ran for 210 yards en route to a 37-20 home win over the then-undefeated Patriots, sending their season, and the dynasty, into a downward spiral. It appeared Bill Belichick certainly had been game planning for this rematch. Of course, the weather helped, but the Patriots were the better team, bulldozing over Baltimore’s No. 1 ranked rush defense for 173 yards on the ground (122 by Damien Harris), and limiting Jackson and the Baltimore offense to just two touchdown drives, which surrounded several other stagnant ones throughout the game. New England could still use some improvement through the air, but elevating wide receiver Jakobi Meyers to starter status has helped tremendously. The addition of Carl Davis at nose tackle also helped the run defense tremendously on Sunday. The Patriots have a good chance of reaching .500 when they play the Houston Texans (2-7) on the road next week. But even with their upset win, their AFC East chances are likely over and it seems like too much of a uphill battle to suggest they’ll earn a wild card spot, seeing as there are six 6-3 teams ahead of them in the race. It’s a lot to ask for the Patriots to finish the season winning six of seven from this point, while a few of those teams (not just one), goes 3-4 down the stretch. It’s not impossible, but tough. It is clear, however, that Belichick is not tanking, but simply playing, and trying to win, with the cards he has been dealt in 2020, all while evaluating his roster and certain players — including Cam Newton at quarterback — so he can make informed decisions regarding who will stay and who will go in the offseason, where New England will undoubtedly create a much different-looking team to put on the field in 2021.

6. What’s wrong with the Titans? After a 5-0 start, Tennessee (6-3) has lost three of four games, and has allowed 29 points per game during that stretch. Their 34-17 home loss versus Indianapolis (6-3) on Thursday puts them behind the Colts in the AFC South due to head-to-head tiebreaker. To make matters worse, he Titans have a tough three game stretch (at BAL, at IND, vs CLE) ahead, with their rematch with Indianapolis sticking out. But falling to 6-4, which is likely considering they are on the road versus Baltimore, would most likely kick them out of the playoff race all together, temporarily. There’s of course, many more games to play, and time for the Titans to right the ship. But it starts with their defense. Their pass rush is still abysmal. And though the air on offense, despite throwing for eight touchdowns and just one interception over their last four games, Ryan Tannehill has had accuracy issues, and is averaging just 190 yards per game during that stretch. Their shaky defense and Tannehill being unable to carry the Titans when they need him are Tennessee’s biggest worries, and they are seemingly biting them in the arse at the moment. For the Titans, continuing to rely on Derrick Henry in the running game to set up play-action passes (to A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith) to shorten games is the way to go, while hoping for a few lucky turnovers on defense.

7. Will the Steelers go undefeated? No, they won’t. I’ve been high on Pittsburgh since last season ended with them going 9-7 despite some of the worst QB play I’ve ever seen from Mason Rudolph and “Duck” Hodges. I picked them to make the AFC Championship Game before this season started, and I’m obviously sticking to that with them sitting at 9-0, with a meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) upcoming. Pittsburgh should move to 10-0, and may even go to 11-0 after a home rematch on Thanksgiving night with the Ravens. After that, they face lowly Washington at home before going to Buffalo to face the Bills. That’s where I believe they’ll falter, and if not then, it will come two weeks earlier to Baltimore, or even in Cincinnati, versus the team they just bludgeoned 36-10 on Sunday, on Monday Night in Week 15. It’s difficult to sustain this type of play all the way through December without having a reset both mentally and physically for the playoffs. Should they shoot for the undefeated season? Absolutely. We saw the eventual karma given out by the football gods to the 2009 Colts (Tracy Porter pick six off Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 44) after they rested starters halfway through a game that would have brought them to 15-0. But late in the season, these losses just, happen, to undefeated teams. The 2011 Packers were 13-0 before falling to Romeo Crennel’s defensive game plan lifted his then 5-8 Chiefs to a win over Green Bay. In 2015, Cam Newton and the Panthers were 14-0 before falling to the Falcons, 20-13, just two weeks after defeating them 38-0. Only the 2007 Patriots were able to run the table in the regular season in this era, and they ran out of steam down the stretch. So Pittsburgh, who has the best defense in the league and a rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger, will not go undefeated, but a 14 or 15-win season and the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which they need to stave off Kansas City (8-1) for, is likely, and that’s certainly good enough.

8. Washington-Detroit featured two heartwarming stories. If you can look past the obvious ugliness of a game between two bad teams, you can at least examine the product as NFL RedZone football at its most fun. It’s likely neither of these teams are making the playoffs — although Washington has a chance of winning the lowly NFC East — but the game featured a 21-point comeback by Washington, with trading field goals in the game’s final minutes, ending with a 59-yard game-winning field goal by Matt Prater. But the two most fascinating stories were Alex Smith, who has incredibly returned from one of the most gruesome leg injuries in league history, leading undermanned Washington back from 21 down to almost win, and former lockdown cornerback Aqib Talib making his NFL broadcasting debut. Is Smith, 36, the future for Washington at QB? Absolutely not. But watching Smith fighting his own battle to prove he could return from his injury is a noble battle worth glueing your eyes to screen. And what better way for your ears to follow suit with receiving some fun of their own? No, Talib is not your typical broadcaster. He’s not polished, obviously, but he was informative from the defensive side of the ball somewhat in the Tony Romo-mold in explaining offensive tendencies to viewers. And let’s face it, his fun attitude and style is a breath of fresh air amidst the usual coverage we get. So if you were able to tune into this game, or catch a good chunk of it via RedZone (like I did), than you were in for a treat.

9. The NFC East is worse than we thought. Coming into this week, we already knew this year’s NFC East was historically bad, but it’s no longer funny and cute, now, it’s just sad. The Eagles (3-5-1) were perhaps the division’s only hope at a somewhat competent victor. I pegged Philadelphia for a team that could make a mini run to 8-7-1 to take the division, and the unrewarding home playoff game that comes with it. But after their 27-17 loss to the Giants (3-7) in New York, it’s clear there is no saving this division in 2020. The television networks know this, too. They already moved Sunday’s Packers-Colts tilt into the late afternoon slot so we weren’t forced to watch the Dak Prescott-less Cowboys (2-7), normally a television cash cow, take on the Vikings (4-5) in their “America’s Game of the Week.” As it stands, I still believe Philadelphia will take the division, but the Giants do appear to have a good shot, as the team seems to be responding to head coach Joe Judge, even if they aren’t very good. But if you made me guess, I’d say Eagles take the division at 6-9-1. Yikes.

10. A unique NFL Sunday format that won’t be standard anytime soon. For those who weren’t aware, The Masters finished up on Sunday, with Dustin Johnson setting a course record, supplanting his claim, and ranking, as the world’s best golfer. Of course, The Masters is usually played in the Spring, but as the same with other events this season (NBA playoffs, etc.) the pandemic caused a unique set up in which Jim Nantz would need to take off a Sunday of football to call the final round on Sunday on CBS, which coincided with the early slate of NFL games. Because of that, the league scheduled just five games for the 1:00pm ET window, all on FOX, leaving more games (six) for the late afternoon window, which usually holds just two or three contests. Many have clamoring for an even split of games between these two windows for years, but that will never happen. You know why? It’s the same reason CBS wanted all eyes on the Masters, effectively making the NFL invert their usual format. In their current deals, CBS and FOX switch off each weekend airing a marquee, late-window game that is near-nationally televised to ensure they have a chance at a big chunk of viewers. Do you think they’d welcome everyone plopping over to NFL RedZone for both windows? No sir. So for those who enjoyed the format this weekend, don’t get used to it.

THE BETTER HALF

(Because of my detailed breakdown of many of these teams above, I decided to simply rank the teams this week, without an ensuing take. I’ll return to the old format next week!)

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0) (Last week: 1).

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). 

3. New Orleans Saints (7-2) (Last week: 4). 

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 8). 

5. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 5). 

6. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: 7). 

8. Miami Dolphins (6-3) (Last week: 10). 

9. Arizona Cardinals (6-3) (Last week: 11).

10. Indianapolis Colts (6-3) (Last week: 14). 

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-3) (Last week: 12). 

12. Seattle Seahawks (6-3) (Last week: 9). 

13. Tennessee Titans (6-3) (Last week: 6). 

14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-3) (Last week: 13). 

15. Cleveland Browns (6-3) (Last week: 15). 

16. New England Patriots (4-5) (Last week: NR)

Next up: Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta

Drew Brees vs Saints, Week 9, 2020

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: Saints rout Bucs, march into NFC’s top spot

With a Week 1 loss in New Orleans on their mind, and a furthering lead on the NFC South at stake, Sunday’s night tilt was primed for a coronation of what seemed to be the NFC’s soon-to-be best team, the Buccaneers.

That is, until the Saints came marching in.

If you can forgive the cheesy reference, you’ll see just how important New Orleans’ statement win was in the NFC. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a season-sweep clinching, 38-3 dismantling of Tom Brady’s Bucs by Drew Brees’ Saints.

“Give New Orleans credit. They kicked our ass in every phase,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said after the game.

That they did.

The Saints outgained the Bucs 420-194 in total yards, 138-8 in rushing yards, and Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns and earned a near-perfect 98.9 Total QBR compared to Tom Brady’s abysmal 3.8 mark, as the latter threw for three interceptions on just 5.5 yards per attempt. The 35-point loss was also the largest of Brady’s career, and perhaps, his ugliest.

“It’s about playing better and execution and we all have to do our jobs a lot better,” said Brady. “When you play good teams there’s little margin for error. They’ve been a great team for a long time. They’ve got a lot of good players. If we’re going to beat them we’ve got to play a lot better than we did tonight.”

The Saints do have a lot of good players, but the Bucs do too. Touted as one of the NFL’s best rosters, equipped with one of the league’s best defenses and up-and-coming offenses led by Brady, almost nothing went right for the Bucs. Even newcomer Antonio Brown (three catches, 31 yards) was unable to give the offense a spark.

The most telling moment of the night came early in the third quarter. New Orleans led 31-0 at halftime but the Bucs were able to drive down to the Saints’ one-yard line in their first drive of the second half. But Tampa was denied any points, as Brady threw three incomplete passes (one was a Rob Gronkowski drop) at the goal line, and the Saints took over on downs, effectively slamming the door shut on their victory.

“When things don’t go your way…sometimes they keep going that way,” said Brady. “We have to figure out how to stop it and turn it around, and we had our opportunities and we just didn’t do it.”

Opportunity was the word I was most thinking of heading into Sunday’s game. After the Seahawks lost to the Bills earlier in the day, it was clear what was at stake for both teams, but even more so for Tampa. A win would have not only given them bragging rights as the NFC’s best team at midseason, it would have put the Bucs at the top of the conference and a game and a half above the Saints in the NFC South, which now looks to be a wire-to-wire race.

If you’re the Saints, you have to feel good about this victory — a season sweep over the NFL team getting the most attention. Brees, who began the year as the league’s all-time leading touchdown passer, has been criticized and questioned as it appeared his play had declined, and his arm strength slipped even a little bit more. The former, at least, was not a concern on Sunday.

“Brady is still the second greatest quarterback for a reason,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said after the game, seemingly in a way of backing his own QB.

Stuck in an era with the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and with others like Patrick Mahomes soon to hog all-time glory, Brees has been forgotten among the league’s all-time best QBs. No, he doesn’t belong above Brady or Manning on any all-time lists, but Rodgers? Maybe. What about Brett Favre, Dan Marino and some others? Maybe them too, honestly. But he isn’t talked about as such.

Regardless of what’s being talked about, Brees extended his regained lead over Brady in all-time touchdown passes on Sunday, and moved to 5-2 versus the GOAT in their seven head-to-head meetings.

Ripe with talent and unique playmakers such as Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill and Michael Thomas (who returned on Sunday), the Saints have enough offensive firepower to continue to play the game their way, without having to listen to any qualms some might have with their unwillingness to push the ball downfield.

The three aforementioned playmakers (Kamara, Hill, Thomas) are among the NFL’s best players in confined spaces, winning their battles by either finessing or bulldozing defenders, or catching contested catches over the middle. And they’re led by Brees, perhaps the most accurate quarterback in NFL history. They can win this way, despite what you think of Brees’ 41-year-old throwing arm.

And what about the defense? The talented unit has had some troubles in the first half of the season, but they’ve at least been sturdy against the run. Tampa ran the ball only five times on Sunday, as the game quickly got away from them, but it was clear they weren’t going to amass much on the ground, as the Saints swallowed up any attempts. That led to a flurry of Brady pass attempts early and often, mostly with a Saints pass rush in his face.

Now, the top of the NFC is jumbled. There’s a logjam with the likes of the Saints, Bucs, Seahawks and Packers in the race for the conference’s top seed, which is more important than ever with the new rules in place making it the only team in the conference to get a first-round bye.

But make no mistake, the Saints are now the NFC’s top dog, even if just by a slim margin. And the talent on their team suggests they’ll only get better.

NFL MVP RACE

Here is my second 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) Russell Wilson — That was a dud in Buffalo, but it was a dud in which the Seahawks were still able to score 34 points. But MVP voters should be able to see through this performance. That was his first bad game of the season. He was careless with the football. Still, he is your midseason MVP, but just by a hair. This next guy is now right there with him. Wilson is far from a shoe-in for his first MVP award. He’ll certainly need to earn it. I won’t doubt him, though. He’ll bounce back.

2) Patrick Mahomes — Mahomes causally has thrown for 25 touchdowns and just one interception during a 8-1 start and is barely mentioned in the MVP race. LeBron-like voter fatigue has already begun to minimize his accomplishments in just his third year as a starter. He’s right there with Wilson for the award at the season’s midway point.

3) Aaron Rodgers — Rodgers is definitely having an MVP-type season, but his egg-laying in Tampa Bay a few weeks ago places him soundly in third, looking up at Wilson and Mahomes as true lead candidates. Nonetheless, it’s impressive what he’s been able to do in Year 2 under Matt LaFeur’s offense, and that’s with a lack of pass-catching talent outside of Davante Adams.

4) Kyler Murray — Losses like Sunday’s in Miami put him more in the race for Offensive Player of the Year, but still, you can’t knock what he’s done in just Year 2.

5) Tom Brady — Barring an insane run these last seven weeks, both statistically and win-loss-wise, Brady lost any chance at this award with Sunday’s performance. Luckily for him, he did inspire what will be a huge list of doubters and off-the-wall takes, which is what he feeds off.

Honorable mention: Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry/Dalvin Cook (RBs! — Let’s face it, these two are OPOY candidates only)

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0) (Last week: 1). Dallas did everything they could to knock off the Steelers in a game that surprisingly became a slug fest. But good teams find a way to win, even on their off days. The Steelers did just that.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). They have some problems on defense, but we knew that. They win anyway. It seems Patrick Mahomes literally can’t play a bad game, or even an average one, really. And his stat line for the last two weeks? 788 yards, nine touchdown passes, zero interceptions. That’s silly. The Steelers may be the best team at the moment, but let’s be clear, the Chiefs are favored to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

3. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 5). Fresh off another disappointing loss, the Ravens took their frustrations out on the Colts. That was an impressive showing in Indianapolis. No, the Colts aren’t an opponent on par with the Steelers or Chiefs, but they were a 5-2 team with a talented defense and solid coach, playing at home. For Lamar Jackson, that was as good of a moral victory as it was a real one. They can beat good teams, but we still need to see them beat a great one, particularly in January.

4. New Orleans Saints (6-2) (Last week: 6). Whether Drew Brees is starting to slip or not, the Saints have the talent to reach, and win, the Super Bowl. But we’re just getting started. Here comes the second half of the regular season. Will they get the NFC’s top seed? It’s way too early to tell. But that was quite the statement in Tampa Bay.

5. Green Bay Packers (6-2) (Last week: 7). The 49ers have been absolutely destroyed by injuries, so Aaron Rodgers’ fabulous performance on Thursday for a Green Bay win over San Francisco wasn’t exactly a demon-exorcising event, but they’ll take it.

6. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Bears offense certainly isn’t scaring anyone, but that was an encouragingly sound win at home for the Titans. Desmond King Jr., a versatile former All-Pro defensive back coming over from Chargers, was a good trade for them. The Titans had been missing Logan Ryan in their secondary. King fills that role.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-2) (Last week: 9). That was a nice turn-back-the-clock performance from Josh Allen, who looked more like his September self in their win over the Seahawks on Sunday. They are soundly in tier 2 in the tough AFC.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 3). After his five-touchdown performance in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Tom Brady’s offense sputtered versus the Giants last week and came to a screeching halt at home versus the Saints on Sunday. Yes, Tampa’s defense, which has been touted as one of the NFL’s best, did not play well, but this was more on the offense. Three points? In that game? At home? They are simply too inconsistent on offense to be fully trusted. Doubt Brady at your own risk, but they didn’t look right on Sunday night. Bucs fans should be concerned, but not hysterical.

9. Seattle Seahawks (6-2) (Last week: 4). It’s not too surprising that the Seahawks lost a cross-country road game to a talented opponent, but the way in which they were beat is concerning. But we knew what they were. This season, Russell Wilson has been playing at an MVP-level in a run-n’-gun offense, while the defense has been one of the league’s worst, particularly in defending the pass and rushing the passer. As fun as they are, I’m not sure even Wilson can lead this team to a Super Bowl with the defense as is. They may not meet their demise until as late as the NFC title game or Super Bowl, but the Seahawks’ defense will ultimately be their undoing. They are not a good unit.

10. Miami Dolphins (5-3) (Last week: 12). The talk will be centered around rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa this week, and for good reason, he was awesome on Sunday. But I think it’s time to start talking about Brian Flores as a Coach-of-the-Year candidate. He’d probably be second on my list after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin at this point.

11. Arizona Cardinals (5-3) (Last week: 11). As great as their offense has been, they were shutout 10-0 in the fourth quarter at home versus Miami with a chance to take the lead (via tiebreaker over Seattle) in the NFC West, had they won. That stings.

12. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 13). They move up during their bye week. Next up: a home game versus division rival Seattle. Can they make the NFC West even more of a tight-knit group?

13. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 16). They withstood two dropped end-zone fades on the game’s final two plays to outlast the Chargers. They look like an AFC wild card team. Jon Gruden deserves a ton of credit.

14. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 11). Yes, the Ravens may be a better team, but that was a discouraging loss for at Colts club that feels like one of the league’s best overall rosters. Sadly, as expected, Phillip Rivers and the offense can’t be trusted in big games, and that falls mostly on Rivers.

15. Cleveland Browns (5-3) (Last week: NR). The teams below them were so bad this week, that the Browns, fresh off a 16-6, inept home loss to the Raiders, move into this spot after their bye week.

16. Chicago Bears (5-4) (Last week: 14). They go here for now because no other team below them seems like they have a chance for the playoffs, minus the NFC East-leading Eagles. It’s becoming apparent that Chicago is not a playoff-quality team.

Next up: Philadelphia, Minnesota, San Francisco, Atlanta, Carolina