Richard Sherman

Why Seattle’s Legion of Boom was the best defense of its era

In 2012 the young, upstart Seattle Seahawks took the league by storm. Five seasons — two NFC titles, one Super Bowl win — later the ‘Legion of Boom’ era is over.

General manager John Schneider has the ball rolling on the team’s ‘transition’ period. Seattle has officially released Richard Sherman, the poster boy of the rowdy bunch, just days after trading Michael Bennett to the defending Super Bowl champs. Additionally, Earl Thomas is on the trade block while Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril are dealing with career-threatening injuries. The once trend-setting franchise is waving the white flag on quite the six-year stretch. Sure, the Seahawks will revamp their defense around Bobby Wagner, the NFL’s best inside linebacker, but it won’t quite feel the same.

This defense was fast, talented and loud, sending a ripple effect throughout the NFL as other upstart teams attempted to mirror their philosophy of building a lengthy, athletic defense (with an offense led by a Quarterback who can run or scramble) to make a Super Bowl run.

The Panthers, Falcons and Jaguars have all enjoyed some success on a model loosely based on the Seahawks, but none of have enjoyed the same amount of success, and it’s likely none ever will. The LOB’s defensive dominance was unprecedented.

This sparks the question: Where do they rank among great defenses of this era?

I’d say pretty much at the top, beating out the early 2000’s Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, mid-2000s Bears, mid-to-late-2000s Steelers, 2008-2012 Ravens, early-2010’s 49ers and 2015 Broncos for bragging rights this century. 

Before Seattle, no defense had ever featured a secondary with such size:

Richard Sherman (6’3″, 197 pounds)

Brandon Browner  (6’4″, 221 pounds)

Byron Maxwell (6’1″, 198 pounds)

Kam Chancellor (6’3″, 232 pounds)

Earl Thomas (5’10”, 202 pounds)

Thomas, the only average-sized defender of the group, was the most important. His tenacity and range covering the the deep middle allowed the Seahawks to flourish in their Cover 3 scheme.

With Sherman and Browner (and Maxwell) covering their third of the field in the middle and deep portions, they were allowed to neglect the shallow areas in front of them. The lightening-quick Bobby Wagner and the savvy K.J. Wright took care of that.

Then there was Chancellor. The beast at strong safety played up in the box, terrorizing receivers as basically an extra linebacker in a middle zone. His athleticism and brute force forced you to be aware of him at all times.

At times, the Seahawks did play man coverage, and basically played a form of man in their zone scheme.

Wanger and Wright will remain on the team so the linebacking core will be intact, but the once-great pass rush has since seen change.

The secondary and linebacker core mixed with Bennett, Avril, and Bruce Irvin was the cherry on top of a delicious Sundae (Sunday?) defense. Now Bennett is gone, Irvin is long gone and Avril may not play again.

For four straight seasons (2012-2015) the Seahawks led the NFL in scoring defense and were No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They built the perfect defense to matchup with this era’s high-flying offenses. The best example of this was their 43-8 dismantling of the 2013 Denver Broncos (statistically the best passing offense of all-time) in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Someday either NFL Network’s ‘A Football Life’ or ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ will do a documentary special on this group. But that’s for another day.

Today we reflect on the greatest defense of this century, which doubles as one of the most important units of all-time in how it combated the new era of offenses.

It was great while it lasted, and how long it lasted is part of what makes them great.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

Is the Patriots’ reign over? Be weary of such claims

The only thing colder than the blizzard roaming New England is the perpetuated notion that the New England Patriots dynasty — the greatest in NFL history — is once again nearing its end.

If that lede seems cliche, it’s because it was meant to mirror the long list of attempts to forecast the end of the Patriots’ reign during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.

Early Friday morning ESPN’s Seth Wickersham — a brilliant reporter, to be fair – tweeted out his lengthy feature  summarizing a rift between Belichick, Brady and owner Robert Kraft. ESPN heavily marketed the article, putting it as its centerpiece on their website for much of the day, with it’s attention-grabbing line ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’

How many times is this going to happen? Sure, Brady and Belichick have never been best friends. Their relationship has strictly always been business related. But the Patriots have weathered far worse media storms such as SpyGate and DeflateGate in the past, winning two Super Bowls and four AFC Championships since the validity of their winning was questioned.

The Patriots are the most polarizing team in professional sports, and have been probably for the past decade, but ESPN and various other outlets and writers have made outlandish claims in the past, even before the Patriots were looked at as what the Dallas Cowboys once were.

In 2003, after Belichick abruptly released captain Lawyer Milloy, the team was spanked by Milloy’s new team, the Bills, 31-0 in Buffalo. That sparked ESPN’s Tom Jackson to infamously claim that the Patriots players ‘hated’ Belichick, and that their season would quickly spiral out of control.

The Patriots won 17 of their next 18 games en route to a winning the Super Bowl that season and the next.

Let’s also not forget the Patriots embarrassing 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on a national stage in 2014. This time it was ESPN’s Trent Dilfer predicted the dynasty’s demise.

The Patriots proceeded to win 13 of their next 15 games to ultimately beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

Now granted, there have been valid rifts in the past between Brady and Belichick reported by trusted sources like NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran, who has followed the team closely for almost two decades.

The above tweet enraptures a plausible situation, as Brady and Welker were very close friends. Plus Curran is one of the most reliable writers who covers the Patriots, and even he sent out another tweet closely after encouraging everyone to be weary over the claims.

Admittedly, these claims are different than those of the past. It is true that Belichick banned Brady’s health guru Alex Guerrero — who released his own statement yesterday — and much of the article centered around that and Belichick being ‘forced into a corner’ in regard to trading Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco right before the trade deadline.

The Patriots unwillingness to trade Garoppolo this past offseason when his value was at its peak suggests Belichick did plan on Garoppolo being the successor to Brady.

Belichick’s friend and former co-worker Michael Lombardi helped draft Garoppolo in 2014, a move that surely made Brady aware of his numbered days in New England. Lombardi — who now works for The Ringer — has been on record numerous times stating that the Patriots knew what they had in Garoppolo, a future franchise cornerstone.

But Brady has defied the odds, winning two Super Bowl MVPs since that 2014 decision to draft Garoppolo. Brady probably will also add a third NFL MVP award to his resume this February. He’s 40 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. Father Time will come for Brady, and even though he’s adamant about playing until the age of 45, a recent dip in production during December may suggest that Brady’s decline has begun.

But even that has been prematurely predicted ad nauseam over the years, as Brady continues to be the best player in football.

So with Garoppolo in the midst of his fourth season behind Brady, and itching to start, with Brady continuously playing at a high level, Belichick’s only other options were to let Garoppolo walk in free agency — the Patriots would have received a third-round compensatory pick — or sign Garoppolo to the franchise tag in hopes of trading him or keeping him around for one more season.

If the latter situation played out, the Patriots would have had a salary cap hit somewhere north of $44 million paying both Brady and Garoppolo. That’s just not feasible.

As expected, many of Wickersham’s claims (via his sources) are being refuted. Local beat reporters with a bevy of inside sources are stating that Garoppolo was never offfered a deal of roughly $17 million to stay, or that Brady certainly never encouraged Kraft to demand Belichick to trade Garoppolo.

It’s probably true that Brady saw Garoppolo as the Aaron Rodgers to his Brett Favre or Steve Young to his Joe Montana. Garoppolo’s 5-0 start with the 49ers portrays that he is indeed a franchise quarterback. Belichick knew this and wanted to keep him around. But Belichick knew what he had to do, even if he was reluctant to do so. If reports of Kraft forcing Belichick to trade Garoppolo were true, he would probably quit.

Kraft has often stated that it’s Belichick who runs football operations, not himself, so there’s no way this trade was made over Belichick’s head.

Surely there is some tension surrounding Brady and Belichick. Maybe one day that tension will finally set them apart. This historic run will end at somepoint, but it won’t be this season. Still, there are claims that Belichick could leave for New York to coach the Giants as he encourages his underlings, coordinators Josh McDaniels (the favorite to land the job) and Matt Patricia to interview for the open position.

So Belichick would step on the toes of his apprentices that have been waiting for this moment for years, all while leaving or uprooting his sons, who are now on the Patriots’ staff? The Hoodie would abandon everything he’s built in New England because of an overbearing trainer and the fact that the greatest quarterback of all-time is still playing like the greatest quarterback of all-time at age 40? That’s what doesn’t sound plausible.

Things have changed in New England. Brady, who is so woven into the ‘Patriot Way’ that he’d be used as the very definition of a player who follows it, is no longer a fiery, 24-year-old quarterback in the midst of learning his craft. He’s now a 40-year-old superstar with a a supermodel wife. But the desire to win football games is as prevalent as ever, as is his ‘football’ relationship with Belichick, the only relationship between the two that truly matters.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick - Week 17 2007
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick share an exchange before their 2007 Week 17 matchup with the New York Giants. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

But on the brink of Wild Card weekend we have yet another report of the Patriots’ demise. The dynasty is over due to a disagreement between Brady and Belichick. Mind you, the reported rift is so strong that the Patriots have played themselves out of the Wild Card round and into a bye once more. During the ‘drama-filled’ season, the Patriots have won 11 of their last 12 games en route to their seventh No. 1 seed in franchise history, all of which have been during the Brady-Belichick era.

As you intake the details of this recent piece, refer to earlier “the end is near” takes I listed above. Watch clips of ESPN’s Max Kellerman predict the end of Brady year after year. Watch them all. Just realize what happened after those takes. We’re more likely to see a repeat of that than anything else.

Brady, Patriots best Steelers in game of the year

If the Pittsburgh Steelers were ever going to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a big game, this was it. This was supposed to be it, until it wasn’t.

Only the cruelest of football gods could have constructed the latest outcome of the Steelers’ continuing series of misery versus the defending champs.

This was the game of the year. In fact, this was the regular season game of the past decade. Not since Patriots-Colts in 2007 (dubbed Super Bowl XLI 1/2) had a game received so much pre-game hype, and for good reason.

The Patriots win means Brady, who likely will win his third NFL MVP in February. He was good but not great in this trip to Heinz Field. But as his legendary career advertises, Brady was unflappable on the game-winning drive, in which he found Rob Gronkowski four times for 69 yards and a two point conversion to give the Patriots a 27-24 lead with 56 seconds remaining.

Ben Roethlisberger had led four game-winning drives of his own in the Steelers’ past five games, and he’s been known for a few clutch drives himself (Super Bowl XLIII anyone?). But after Jesse James’ touchdown catch was correctly overturned by the league’s infuriating catch rules, Big Ben’s last pass turned into the sourest of endings for a team that had recently had the look and feel of the team of destiny.

Losing Antonio Brown in the second quarter (and for the rest of the regular season) certainly hurt, but not as much as the Steelers only three-and-out of the game coming late in the fourth quarter when they needed a first down the most.

Down 24-19 with just over two minutes remaining, Brady (after a near interception from Sean Davis, who Gronkowski victimized afterword) constructed yet another surgical clinic on the heart of the Steelers defense, as well as the roaring fans in Heinz Field, who left the stadium in shock after the game.

Brady again came through in the most crucial situation of his season. After all, this was the game of the year, meaning this was the biggest moment of the entire NFL season in general.

What’s even more incredible is Brady’s late game heroics in his biggest moments since 2014.

Consider this: If you combine Brady’s passing numbers for the finals drives of Super Bowl XLIX, Super Bowl LI, and this past game, the biggest regular season game of the 2010s, Brady’s statistics and accomplishments are as followed:

16-for-18, 184 yards, three touchdown drives, two crucial two-point conversions, two Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl MVP awards, and what may be the AFC’s No. 1 seed and his third NFL MVP award after Sunday’s results. 

That is incomprehensible. It may be overkill to still be in awe of Brady at this point, but he continuously raises the bar of excellence. If the Patriots are to win Super Bowl LII in Minnesota, Brady would have two Super Bowl MVP awards and an NFL MVP trophy all in the span of 12 months.

As it is, Brady is in the midst of the best four-year stretch for a quarterback in NFL history, and he’s doing this at ages 37-to-40.

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio said it best during his guest appearance on the new program Golic & Wingo yesterday morning.

“It was such an incredible scene in the Patriots locker room after the game,” Paolantonio said. “Tom Brady, feet up in his locker FaceTiming with his children back home about fantasy football and The Last Jedi. It’s sort of like okay, I just cut the heart out (on the road) of my biggest rival and I’m just like another 40-year-old guy who went to work. Brady has become like Jordan to me. He wants to win at all costs, and at the end it’s just business as usual.”

Touching back on Brady’s high level of play at this age. He’s not only at his best right now, he is playing better than any NFL player ever has played at any age. With Carson Wentz and Antonio Brown out of the race, he is the NFL MVP (although Todd Gurley is a close second). Wrap your head around that while the conversation switches to the best tight end in NFL history.

Like Brady, Gronk continues to prove doubters wrong by returning to his best form after every major injury he’s sustained. Like Brady always is, including on Sunday, Gronkowski was uncharacteristically hyped to an aggressive extent during the game. Gronk has always been known for his outgoing personality, but most of his antics are all in good fun. He was out for blood on Sunday, but in a performance-based way as opposed to his borderline head-hunting stunt that caused him to miss last week’s loss in Miami.

Perhaps it was that situation that fueled Gronkowski, who had the best game of his career considering the moment. Brady, who clapped at the booing fans of Heinz Field as he ran onto the field, and screamed in elation at as he left after the win, may be throwing to his pass-catching clone in terms of fiery attitude and clutch play as of the last few seasons.

Yesterday, Fox Sports analyst Shannon Sharpe called Gronkowski the most dominant non-offensive quarterback in the NFL. To think that some writers were calling Travis Kelce the best tight end in football earlier in the year? Blasphemy.

The Steelers defense had no answer for Gronk in the second half, who reeled in 135 of his 168 yards in the second half. Their best defensive player, linebacker Ryan Shazier, was in luxury box and was shown on the big screen to a rousing applause. But on the field, the Steelers woes versus Gronkowski (135 of his 168 receiving yards in the second half) remained. Unlike past meetings where the Steelers refused to move away from their comfortable zone coverage scheme, the Steelers found some success in man coverage. But the decision to leave Sean Davis alone on Gronk during the final drive produced the results you’d expect. A Gronk victory by the form of mismatch.

Yet the Steelers still had their chances to win, even after the overturned catch, no-catch situation with tight end Jesse James. Roethlisberger, who has two Super Bowl wins, is clutch in his own right. But like Russell Wilson, a great pressure player himself, Roethlisberger made perhaps the biggest gaffe of his career against the mentally-tough, well-coached Patriots, who are a reflection of their head coach, Bill Belichick.

Roethlisberger used a fake spike to take the lead versus the Cowboys in the final seconds of a shootout last season. But the Patriots weren’t fooled. Big Ben’s pass was of course tipped by Eric Rowe, and ricocheted into the welcoming arms of Duron Harmon, the Patriots underrated closer known for his game-ending interceptions.

Antonio Brown (partially torn calf muscle) is believed to have a chance to return for the postseason. The Patriots won eight straight games and led the league in defensive scoring during that span with linebacker Kyle Van Noy as their defensive leader. He’s missed the last two games, but the Patriots will get him back for the playoffs.

So things may seem a little different when the Steelers and Patriots square off in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in January (which they most certainly will). In fact, it seems as if the Steelers have closed the gap on their prolonged inferiority to their big brother franchise of the 2000s. But given their past results and the improbable outcome in Pittsburgh on Sunday, the result for the Steelers may forever be the same.

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Week 10

On a cold November Sunday night in Denver, Tom Brady stared Von Miller and the Broncos defense in the face knowing that a victory would keep them in prime position for home field advantage in the AFC, while a loss would cripple them in that very same race.

Of course, this season things were different. This was not 2015, a year in which this same scenario invoked a Brock Osweiler-led comeback by the Broncos to win 30-24 in overtime, to eventually win the AFC’s No. 1 seed and Super Bowl 50.

In the 2017 version of this story, special teamer Chris Harper is not muffing kicks for the Patriots. Osweiler has left and returned to Denver after joining the Houston Texans. A one-year stint that ended with a Texans playoff loss to the Patriots in Foxboro last January.

For Osweiler, it was again Brady that virtually ended his season. For Brady, a game in Denver always comes with extra motivation. The Broncos eliminated the Patriots twice in Rocky Mountain AFC Title Games in 2013 and 2015. The same happened in a 2005 AFC divisional playoff bout. That was Brady’s first postseason loss of his career after starting 10-0 in such games.

After a 41-16 victory over the Broncos (3-6) this time around, Brady has left Denver on a five-game losing streak, essentially ending their season. With 266 passing yards and three touchdowns, Brady was still throwing with a 25-point lead with less than seven minutes to play. He looked for Brandin Cooks deep twice. This was personal for Brady. He wanted this.

This is just another corpse of a former AFC contender. Another destroyed rival empire in the wasteland that is a prolonged territorial dominance for the Patriots in the conference.

Brady and Bill Belichick have survived every forceful challenge that has come their way in the AFC in their existence. The Peyton Manning-led Colts. The Manning-led Broncos. The mentally-tough, no-nonsense Baltimore Ravens from 2008-2014. The talented Chargers led by LaDanian Tomlinson. Rex Ryan and the Jets had even come and gone with some success against the New England empire.

A few scars have been dealt in these rivalries. The Patriots have been tripped up by foes multiple times in big games, but they always get the last laugh.

It seems every other year is equipped with such revenge wins for Brady. Even with his second consecutive win in Denver, Brady is still just 4-7 at Invesco Field at Mile High.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan, widely considered the greatest NBA player of all-time, used past losses and opponents’ remarks as fuel for victories, much like Brady.

Like NBA great Michael Jordan, who routinely fed off bulletin board material to avenge silly quotes by opponents with his play on the court, Brady takes things personally, even if it doesn’t appear so.

Even teammate and friend Julian Edelman is on record recently admitting Brady is “sensitive.” Likewise, Danny Amendola has said Brady has gotten mad when he’s lost in ping pong, and has broken paddles over such losses. He’s as competitive as they come.

So it’s imaginable that a win in Denver might be more special to Brady than a win over the Chargers at home two weeks ago.

Of course, regular season wins over the inferior present-day Broncos teams won’t change past results, or make up for AFC Championship Game losses.

2015 AFC Championship Game
Brady gears up for a snap versus the Broncos in the 2015 AFC Championship Game in Denver. The Broncos won 20-18. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

The same rings true for Brady’s clutch comeback win in New York over Eli Manning and the Giants in 2015. His game-winning drive to best his prime Super Bowl nemesis doesn’t change the fact that Eli Manning will most likely always be 2-0 versus him in Super Bowls, but it’s still something.

Brady’s arch nemesis (and also friend off the field, sort of) had always been Eli’s older brother Peyton Manning. Despite beginning his career 6-0 versus the older Manning, Brady will most likely finish his career with a combined 2-5 record against the Manning brothers in championship games. That’s not counting two of Brady’s worst teams that fell to Peyton on the road in AFC Championship Games in 2006 and 2013.

But Brady most likely–although he won’t admit it–takes solace in the fact that he has five rings to the Mannings’ combined four. It’s ironic that in the win on Sunday, Brady became the all-timer leader in road victories with 86 wins, passing Peyton for the mark in the stadium of the last team he played for.

In the NFL, Brady is like the aforementioned Jordan in the NBA. He’s now the undisputed GOAT (greatest of all time). He’s the Wayne Gretzky, the Serena Williams or Steven Spielberg (I’d argue Christopher Nolan or Martin Scorsese, but that’s for another time) of pro football. Simply put, he’s the best ever.

Since turning 37 years old in 2014, and his future being questioned in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs that season, Brady has won two Super Bowls and is in the midst of the best four-year stretch of his career, or any quarterback’s career for that matter. His play has  improved each season since 2013, which is absurd considering the fall off of every quarterback ever at his age. The same cliff-diving that ESPN First Take’s Max Kellerman has countlessly predicted for him prematurely.

Of course, the time will come when Brady will retire like every other player in the history of this league. But that time is not now. Not after this season, and maybe not even after the next. It will never be when his critics say he’s done, because he hears those things despite the notion that he may be unaware of them.

Brady feeds off being doubted. He lives for conquering his foes. During the DeflateGate saga, when Brady’s private e-mails were leaked in 2015, one message in particular stood above the rest.

“I’ve got another 7 or 8 years, He has 2,” Brady said of Peyton Manning in an e-mail sent to a close friend.

After word got out and Brady was forced to address the e-mail, he played them off of course. But he meant what he said. He likes Manning, but his competitiveness takes over. The same competitiveness that has led him to two Super Bowls wins since DeflateGate, not to mention Spygate.

Brady heard what critics had to say then, and he heard them earlier in the season after another brutal early-season loss to the Chiefs.

But thanks to Brady the Patriots (7-2) are back in business. They’re tied atop the AFC with the Steelers and are the favorite to return to the Super Bowl in February.

The win in Denver began the second half of the season with one of Brady’s age-old victories: the revenge win.

The victory over Osweiler’s Broncos won’t erase the loss to them on Sunday Night Football two years ago that began the downward spiral of the 2015 season. But it can serve as the catalyst for a second half run to Super Bowl LII.

Once again, Brady is in the thick of the NFL MVP race and has the Patriots rolling into November and beyond just like many past winters, with a little help from his competitive edge, which is often satisfied with a little revenge.

New-look Saints make statement in Buffalo

In a weekend that featured great stories such as another explosive outing by the Rams (7-2) and a huge road win over Washington for the Vikings (7-2), it was the Saints (7-2) who made the biggest statement in the NFC with a 47-10 pounding of the Bills in Buffalo.

With seven straight wins, the Saints are no longer quietly winning. This one was defiant and unusual of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees tenure.

The Saints ran 48 times for 298 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. The two-back attack of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara each ran for over 100 yards, with Ingram running for three scores.

At one point the Saints ran the ball 24 straight times, the most in consecutive plays in almost 30 years.

With an amped-up running game and a defense that has allowed just 14.3 points per game during their seven-game winning streak, the Saints are a contender and should be labeled as such.

Their play on the road has dramatically improved in 2017, but they still love it at home. If the Saints can earn the No. 1 or 2 seed in the NFC, they have a realistic shot to make Super Bowl LII in Minnesota on February 4.

Brees is already looked at as one of the 10 or 15 best quarterbacks of all-time. But with just one Super Bowl ring, a second would go a long way in thrusting him much higher on that list.

After years of dealing with a broken defense and running game, Brees now has help. He no longer needs to be an annual 5,000 yard passer for the Saints to win games, and that’s a good thing.

Schwartz NFL Podcast: Week 10

After a one-week hiatus due to a power outage, the podcast is back with Cousin Dylan joining as always. We discussed the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, the Chiefs’ struggles (4:04), our top three NFC teams (6:47), DAL-ATL (12:53), NO-BUF & MIN-WAS (14:55), NE-DEN (17:34) and Cumberland Soccer in their conference tournament (20:45).

Ezekiel Elliott

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Week 9

Beyond the fights, sloppy play and shortage of ambiguity on Sunday, there was one thing that adamantly stood alone: Beware of the NFC.

There are six teams with at least six wins in the NFC after Week 9, compared to the AFC’s three six-win teams (New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City), which happen to be the conference’s only true contenders.

Consider these early afternoon scores from three NFC contenders:

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 5.00.26 PM

With the addition of Jay Ajayi to contribute with other offseason toys for Carson Wentz (Alshon Jeffrey, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount), the Eagles now have a running back committee that includes two talented power backs and two effective quicker runners in Wendell Smallwood and undrafted rookie Chris Clement, who scored three touchdowns against the vaunted (used to be) Broncos defense. 51-23 Eagles thanks to four touchdown passes from Wentz. The Eagles could have beaten the Broncos by 50 points if they wanted to.

In New York, Jared Goff (four touchdown passes) and Todd Gurley (two rushing touchdowns) scored 51 points of their own in a drubbing of the Giants. Add in the two former Bills receivers, Sammy Watkins (two touchdown catches) and Robert Woods (one touchdown catch), and you have a formidable offense under Goff, like the one Philadelphia has done for Wentz.

The two top draft picks from last year may be forever matched up against one another. Especially with how little time it’s taken them to find success.

In New Orleans, the Saints (6-2) won their sixth straight game and efficiently ended the Buccaneers (2-6) season. The Seahawks (5-3) suffered a gut-punching home loss to Washington (4-4), which leaves the Seahawks one game behind the Rams in the NFC West.

These two NFC teams are in a different category than the two previously mentioned NFC teams. Both are led by experienced passers. Both Drew Brees and Russell Wilson have each won a Super Bowl. The Saints have improved on defense, something they’ve struggled with for almost the entirety of Brees’ career.

Seattle’s achilles heel remains their offensive line, even with the addition of Duane Brown last week. Of course, it wasn’t that way in Seattle’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, which now feels like eons ago.

Russell Okung, Max Unger and others are gone, leaving Wilson scrambling for his life. But Wilson makes due with an offense that lacks star power. He does have a defense, the league’s best crew over the last five seasons to be exact.

The Seahawks and Saints are unlike the upstart Eagles and Rams. They have more issues, but also more experience.

Then there are the wild cards. Both the Panthers (6-3) and Cowboys (5-3) would literally be the NFC wild cards had the season ended today. A fitting description.

Both teams are talented. Dallas has had off-the-field drama with the on-and-off suspension for Ezekiel Elliot, who has had a great season. The defense has also improved from it’s early season struggles, as evident in their 28-17 win over the Chiefs.

Besides the miraculous Tyreek Hill score, the Cowboys allowed just 10 points against one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Karen Hunt was held to just 61 total yards, which is an impressive feat for a defense that let up 42 points to Trevor Siemian in Week 2.

Like the Cowboys defense, the Panthers offense is a talented bunch that needs consistency from Cam Newton, who’s play has been as shaky as his press conferences.

Where Dallas has Elliot and Dak Prescott to win games for them, Carolina has Luke Kuechly to lead the way on defense. But it’s Newton, without Greg Olsen and now Kelvin Benjamin (who was shipped to Buffalo last week) that has yet to fully mesh with rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. The Panthers offense has had their moments in big road wins over the Patriots and Lions, but have been near-dreadful besides that. It’s a  miracle that they’re in the position they’re in.

But the Panthers have a favorable schedule down the stretch, and may see Olsen return from injury. The Cowboys begin in Atlanta next week, they’ll play Seattle later on and are still yet to face Philadelphia who they’ll of course see twice.

If Elliot can stay on the field, the Cowboys are a team no one will want to play come January. Ditto to the Panthers if Newton and the offense gets hot.

But the NFC is crowded.

NFC Playoff Picture
The NFC playoff picture. (ESPN screenshot)

Russell Wilson–who threw a go-ahead touchdown to Doug Baldwin with under two minutes remaining versus Washington–now sees his Seahawks out of the playoff race if the season ended today.

With the Eagles likely in and the Vikings likely winning the NFC North be default with Aaron Rodgers out, it seems that five teams will be fighting deep into the season for the four remaining spots. The Cowboys, Saints, Panthers, Rams and Seahawks will fight that battle.

That’s without even mentioning Washington (4-4), who’s shown flashes of brilliance, or the defending champion Falcons (4-4), who still have time for a run. Depending on how Brett Hundley adapts to being the starter, the Packers (4-3) may not be done either as a wild card hopeful.

So in decoding the NFC, there is now the favorite (Eagles), the upstart (Rams), the quarterback-heals-all teams (Saints, Seahawks) and the potential coming-in-hot clubs (Panthers, Cowboys) as just a handful of what has become quite a scene in pro football’s premier conference.


1. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles. With a league-leading 23 touchdown passes, the second-year quarterback made both Denver and Washington’s defense look silly in recent weeks. He stands alone at the top for now.

2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots. The 40-year-old quarterback remains at or near the top of every noteworthy passing statistic. But perhaps the greatest sign of his greatness was the Patriots show of faith in him by trading Jimmy Garoppolo out west to San Francisco.

3. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson continues to run for his life thanks to a power offensive line and no running game. If it weren’t for an unusual late faltering by the Seahawks defense, Wilson would have had yet another fourth quarter comeback versus Washington.

4. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs. Even with Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, it’s Smith that makes this offense go. They’re 1-3 in their past four games, but a good second half run to the AFC’s No. 1 seed could sway voters toward Smith.

5. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys. After yet another big-game performance, Elliot passes Hunt, who has been quiet in losses to the Steelers and Cowboys in the national spotlight.

Honorable Mention: Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley, Drew Brees, Antonio Brown, Calais Campbell

Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson make MVP cases in QB duel of the year

Two quarterbacks with similar attributes put on the most stunning show of the 2017 NFL season thus far on Sunday.

Russell Wilson and rookie phenom Deshaun Watson. 856 passing yards, eight passing touchdowns, 97 rushing yards, 28 fourth quarter points, 79 total. Mind-boggling numbers.

There were some major mistakes, such as Watson’s pick-six to a revengeful Earl Thomas, just one drive after Watson found Will Fuller for a 59-yard touchdown pass over Thomas’ head. Wilson threw what almost was a game-ending interception to Texans cornerback Marcus Williams in the red zone with under three minutes to play and down four points.

But this game will be remembered for it’s quarterbacking brilliance and clutch play, capped off with Wilson’s three-play, 80-yard drive culminating in a game-winning TD pass to Jimmy Graham with 21 seconds to play.

Wilson was extraordinary under pressure, with a 113.5 passer rating with Texans in his face, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s been under fire all season thanks to the worst offensive line in football. The Seahawks recently traded for Texans tackle Duane Brown on Monday, just to salvage the situation.

Murmurs of Watson in the MVP race had already surfaced, and he’s still there, but hardly a favorite. Wilson vaulted himself ahead of Watson, and nearly into the Carson Wentz-Tom Brady-Alex Smith category, which could be categorized simply as the favorites.

For Seattle, time will tell if Brown alone can amend the Seahawks offensive line enough to win in the postseason. But the NFC is isn’t exactly abundant in the contender category. Only the Eagles (7-1) are in better position in the conference. The Vikings are inevitably-doomed because of their quarterback situation. The Cowboys (a team with Dak Prescott, a quarterback with a similar skillset to Watson and Wilson) (4-3) received news that Ezekiel Elliot’s six-game suspension is back on, again. The Rams (5-2) are a fun story, and are a future threat, but they’re no match for the Seahawks. They’re a wild card team at best. The NFC South has the Saints, who have won five straight but their defense simply can’t be called on to stop lethal offenses, while the Panthers are offensively-inept, and just traded Kelvin Benjamin, their No. 1 wide receiver, to the Bills. The Falcons (4-3) are dormant but have yet to prove their worth in 2017 as we approach the season’s midway point.

But in Seattle, the Seahawks have the NFC’s best quarterback in Wilson after an injury to Aaron Rodgers. After Brady, Wilson is the next best clutch quarterback in football, as well as proven winner. Since he entered the league in 2012, Wilson is second to only Brady in regular season wins (61), postseason wins (8) and Super Bowl appearances (2).

A team that was once led by the Legion of Boom, is now anchored by Wilson, who makes up the league’s worst offensive line and incompetent running game by throwing to a former-superstar-turned-pedestrian Jimmy Graham and a mighty-mouse group of undersized receivers in Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson.

The connection between Wilson and Baldwin, his favorite receiver, mirrors that of Brady and Deion Branch in the earlier years of the Patriots dynasty. With no disrespect to Baldwin, one of the league’s most underrated players, imagine what Wilson could do with an Antonio Brown or Julio Jones? An adequate offensive line? Brady got his shot with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and set records. Wilson is already having an incredible statistical career without any major weapons. The possibilities would be endless.

On Sunday, Wilson made due with what he had to out-duel a quarterback who shares several similarities with Wilson. Watson is an electrifying, clutch playmaker who has shown leadership and poise at not only the college level, but in the NFL with immediate success. Like Wilson with the Seahawks in 2012, Watson has ignited these Texans. Houston’s 3-4 record could easily be 6-1 had Watson played week one (Tom Savage started) and had the Texans defense held late versus Brady and Wilson on the road.

Watson is tied with Wentz for the league-lead in touchdown passes (19) and has become the new face of a franchise that has lost J.J. Watt, its soon to be former best player, for the second straight season due to injury. Like Wilson, there’s no denying the importance of Watson to his team.

Now both quarterbacks have officially entered the MVP race. Surely only Wilson has a realistic shot to make Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis this February. But both passers will continue and sustain their hault toward the top of any quarterback rankings, with each player seemingly having at least a decade (or more) of successful seasons in the near future.

At some point, the next group of elite passers will take the place of Brady, Rodgers, Drew Brees and the recently-retired Peyton Manning. Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, the NFL’s last two MVP award winners, can’t put together consecutive successful seasons. Andrew Luck can’t stay healthy on the mismanaged Colts, meanwhile while other once-anointed quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick are out of the league entirely.

In a few seasons, the title of the NFL’s best quarterback will be up for grabs. Expect these two to be at the forefront of that battle. For now, they’re just two MVP candidates who played a helluva game on Sunday. It was the duel of the year thus far.