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Drew Brees vs Bengals

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Pro football’s best trio + Titans get ‘personal’ with Patriots

There would be no letdown in Cincinnati for the Saints. After all, the universe did its best to bring down the NFL’s best team via a freakish, season-ending Achilles injury to the newly-acquired Dez Bryant in his first practice as a Saint. But New Orleans prevailed by the way of a 51-14 drubbing of the Bengals (5-4) in Cincinnati, highlighted by the NFL’s best trio, on the league’s unquestionably-best team through 10 weeks.

Drew Brees: 22-for-25, 265 passing yards, four total touchdowns

Alvin Kamara: 102 total yards, two touchdowns

Michael Thomas: eight catches, 70 yards, two touchdowns

With all due respect to the triplets in Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger, James Connor, Antonio Brown), Los Angeles (Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks), Los Angeles (Phillip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen) and New England (Tom Brady, James White and Julian Edelman/Josh Gordon/Rob Gronkowski) the Saints harness the best the league has to offer here.

One could even add in additional weapons such as Mark Ingram, and the situational-piece, Taysom Hill, to form the most complete and efficient unit in football. The Saints are lethal offensively. Road wins over the Vikings, Ravens and Bengals don’t come easy, yet New Orleans made it seem as such.

With a slew of tough games ahead, the Saints will look to keep their moniker as the best team there is. If they do, it’ll be because of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. When you provide offensive mastermind Sean Payton with that crew, this is what you should expect.

Titans rock Patriots in ‘personal’ beatdown

In Tennessee, instead of jogging through a win before the bye week, the Patriots (7-3) fell victim to a team that knows them all too well.

Hell yeah it’s personal,” said former Patriot Dion Lewis in the Titans’ locker room, after the win. “That’s what happens when you go cheap. You get your ass kicked.”

Although Lewis was the only ex-Patriot to take a sour approach toward his former employer, former New England cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and even defensive lineman Darius Kilgore made their presence known in Tennesse’s 34-10 thrashing of New England.

The Titans (5-4) hold a certain swagger, believing they can beat anybody. And with wins over last season’s Super Bowl participants, they very well can. The edginess begins and ends with rookie head coach Mike Vrabel, an ex-Patriot himself, groomed and developed under Bill Belichick’s early-dynasty clubs in the 2000’s. Today, Vrabel bested his former coach, and added a little salt to the wound when he ran the ‘Philly Special’ to a greater success just plays after the Patriots’ fell short of a first down on their attempt.

“I wanted to see if it looked better than theirs,” Vrabel said during a postgame press conference.

The Titans are back to within striking distance in the AFC South. With road games versus the Colts (4-5) and the division-leading Texans (6-3) ahead, Vrabel’s bunch has a shot at a playoff push.

New England will limp into their bye week desperately needing consistency out of a defense that doesn’t feature much of it, after Trey Flowers and Stephon Gilmore. The latter even had his first rough outing in weeks on Sunday.

“I could have won that matchup a little bit more, but he made some plays today,” Gilmore told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, in regard to his matchup with the Titans’ Corey Davis. “My hat’s off to them.”

On offense, New England will welcome back Rob Gronkowski versus the Jets in 13 days. Maybe that will take some of the coverage off of Josh Gordon, who Brady forced 13 throws to in Tennessee, coming up with only four completions.

The faith Brady has developed in Gordon bodes well for the rest of the season, but there were several instances in which Brady missed James White and others by forcing the ball to his WR1.

James White should still be the focal point of the offense, with Gordon, Gronk and Julian Edelman (nine catches, 104 yards) each taking turns as the team’s focal point. The offense should be fine. Their O-line played a chunk of the game down three starters in Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason, as the latter sat out the entire game.

With the Chiefs now two games ahead of them, and the Steelers now passing them for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, New England’s new goal is a hyper-focused, week-to-week approach that will feature situational game plans designed to cripple each opponent. Only their Week 13 home match with Minnesota, and their Week 15 road contest in Pittsburgh seem like possible losses.

New England may very well run the table and steamroll their way into the postseason, but the defense may always rear it’s ugly head. It did last year, in Super Bowl LII. When will it do so again this season? And can the offense score enough for them to emerge victorious?

Chiefs-Rams a monster matchup in Mexico City

After a too-close-for-comfort win at home for each squad, the Chiefs (9-1) and Rams (9-1) can now look ahead to the biggest cross-conference matchup of the 2018 regular season, which oddly enough, will be played in Mexico City.

Even more of a factor than the altitude may be the apparent season-ending injury to Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp, who seemingly suffered an ACL injury in the win over the Seahawks.

But aside from that, there are weapons galore in this title. Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce take on Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.

Mahomes (along with Drew Brees) is an MVP frontrunner while Gurley is in the mix for that award, and likely the leader to repeat as the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Aaron Donald remains the best non-QB in the entire league, and is well on his way to his second-consecutive Defensive Player of the year award at age 27.

Both teams will battle the air to put up their usual offensive showing. The Chiefs have a bit more firepower on offense, but the Rams’ unit is more calculated and controlled.

This game may come down to the defensive side of the ball, where the Rams look much better on paper, but aren’t playing nearly at the level where many thought they would be. Their edge defenders and linebackers are lacking, meaning Kareem Hunt will have a shot to lead his team to victory.

30-plus points and winning the turnover battle should win this one.

The stars have aligned on either squad to give us a possible Super Bowl LIII preview, deep into the regular season.

A fitting football sendoff for those heading home to be with family for Thanksgiving, in the day or two after this matchup.

My early pick? Chiefs 31, Rams 27.

Enjoy.

Quick-hits

– Let’s begin with late coverage from the Steelers’ (6-2-1) 52-21 primetime spanking of the Panthers (6-3) in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Coupled with the win and the Patriots’ loss, Pittsburgh has now risen from the dead to takeover the AFC’s No. 2 seed entering mid-November. Although they officially will be without Le’Veon Bell in 2018 (and probably forever), James Conner has been well worth a 2017 third-round pick, as has JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was picked a round earlier in that very same draft. Antonio Brown has now moved passed his early-season grievances to return to his throne as the game’s best receiver, while Ben Roethlisberger (22-for-25, 328 yards, five touchdowns) looks far from retiring in Pittsburgh’s uber-impressive five-game winning streak. With games remaining against the Chargers, Patriots and Saints, the Steelers will need all the offensive firepower they can get, which is something they have as much of as any other team in pro football.

-With the Cowboys’ 27-20 win over the Eagles (4-5) in Philadelphia, the happiest team in the NFC East is Washington (6-3), who handled the Buccaneers, 16-3, to take a two-game lead in the division. Both Dallas and Philadelphia hold more talent than Washington, but after a bad home loss to the Falcons last week, the Redskins surprised many by regrouping to win in Tampa Bay. Now, the defending Super Bowl champions will travel to New Orleans, to face the hottest team in all the land.

– After the Bears’ third straight win to stay ahead in the NFC North, the division now features its biggest game of the year next Sunday Night:

Minnesota (5-3-1) at Chicago (6-3).

The Vikings had a bye this week to sort things out. Both teams make up the top five or six of the league’s most talented bunches. Minnesota should be looked at as a mini-favorite, even in Chicago, but the play of Mitchell Trubisky as of late should be enough to quiet critics momentarily, as he head’s into the biggest game of his career.

With star power throughout (Khalil Mack, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Allen Robinson) who will take a November stand in possibly the league’s toughest division?

Tom Brady vs Packers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, Saints hand Rams first loss

On Sunday night a game that many fans, sports media members, and network executives circled on their calendar roughly six months ago took place.

We’re talking about the Packers-Patriots showdown, of course. Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady. The most talented quarterback of all time versus the greatest quarterback of all time.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks these aren’t the two greatest passers in the game. But ironically, the most ridiculous hot takes involving the two usually surround comparisons among the two best players in football. And that’s not just on Twitter, were talking network-created debate shows that make some of the most outrageous claims.

But as the great Bill Simmons put in a 2007 column that led up to a great Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown — the greatest QB rivalry of all-time — “If you don’t like the accompanying BS for an admittedly overdiscussed game, simply skip the shows, columns, features and SportsCenter segments and join’ NBC’s broadcast on Sunday night.

Well that date has passed. It’s now Monday, and the Patriots won that contest, 31-17, all while using their WR5 (Cordarrelle Patterson, 73 total yards and a rushing TD) as an RB2, and while doing so without Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel, who are two of the team’s top five weapons on offense, and that’s being modest.

Yes, Brady has the better coach and the better overall team. With the exception of maybe Mike Daniels and a young (but talented) CB core, the Packers defense is not quite as good as the Patriots’ unit, and New England’s defense is iffy. So it goes without saying, Brady didn’t necessarily beat Rodgers in a boxing match, it’s the team sport of football.

But Brady is the better quarterback. He has the better resume, legacy, and has been better since the 2014 regular season, when Rodgers beat Brady and the Patriots at home, 26-21, leading to Rodgers second NFL MVP award. So it was obvious Brady wanted this one, to even the score at 1-1 in what will most likely be the lasting moments of their often-discussed but never-matched-up-against rivalry. Green Bay is not returning to the Super Bowl this season, and with the talent in the NFC, they may not get back. Unless the two are still playing 2022, this was the last regular season meeting between the two.

Working with what he had, Brady spread the ball around to his trusted weapons, offensive engine James White and the ever-valuable Julian Edelman, as the two combined for 191 yards form scrimmage, 37 passing yards (!) and two scores.

But the X-factor is and will remain WR1 Josh Gordon, who continues to make spectacular plays as the type of guy Brady feels comfortable just lofting the ball up to, like he used to with the great Randy Moss. But there was no jump ball in the game’s best play, that put the game away. Brady lured two good rookie Packers cornerbacks to the flats as he faked a WR screen to Chris Hogan, then threw a dart to Gordon, who broke free for a 55-yard score. Game, set, match.

Rodgers was good, throwing for 259 yards, two scores and zero picks on 24-for-43 passing. He’s always good, at the very least. He’s usually great, but with only WR1 Davante Adams as a bonafide top target, Rodgers is working with two players who have seen better days, Randall Cobb and Jimmy Graham, as his next best weapons. After that it’s a barrel of rookie pass catchers.

Rodgers did what he could, and was humble in defeat. And if he springs together a run of late-career Super Bowls, he may very well finish as the greatest ever. For now, that conversation is not close, it’s Brady. And as for the best over the last few seasons, and right now? That conversation yields a much closer argument. But it’s Brady who is the better in that category, too. He proved that Sunday night, and has been in a recent, late-career run that Rodgers needs to mirror to pass him.

Saints rip Rams, lay claim as NFL’s best team

A Brady-Rodgers duel is awesome, but the best matchup of the week resided in New Orleans, as the Rams and Saints squared off in a battle that may decide the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The Saints were on their way to destroying the Rams, holding a 35-14 lead right before the half. It wasn’t close. It was a spanking.

But the Rams clawed their way back to tie the game at 35-35 midway through the fourth quarter. In the biggest game of his young career, Jared Goff showed incredible poise and composure in leading the Rams back into the game. But the Saints responded.

The answer to my tweet above was obviously a resounding no, as Alvin Kamara ripped through Los Angeles for 116 total yards and three touchdowns in New Orleans’ eventual 45-35 victory. To make matters worse, Rams CB1 Marcus Peters was lost trying to defend Saints WR1 Michael Thomas, who is on an extraordinary receiving pace that rivals Todd Gurley’s season for the Rams. Kamara had three scores and Thomas put the game away with a clutch touchdown, and celebrated with a legendary ode to Joe Horn’s old-school cell phone celebration.

Despite the abundance of talent in the NFC (Panthers, Vikings, Eagles, Bears, Packers etc..) these two should meet again in the NFC Championship Game. If the Saints take care of business, they should have that game at home, because of this win. Give me the Saints in a rematch — that would be even closer than this matchup — due to their league-best trio of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. The Rams and Chiefs may have more complete offenses, but those three in New Orleans are not to be messed with.

Thomas was too much for Peters. Kamara was too much for the Rams’ underwhelming LB crew. And despite Goff’s ability to guide the Rams back in it, Brees was better. The Rams are all in, but the Saints are slightly better at the moment. They proved that and more on Sunday. They’re the best team in pro football. And now, they hold all the cards in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Three sleeper teams to monitor

With most eyes on the Saints, Rams, Patriots and Chiefs, there are three teams flying under the radar at this point in the season.

Give it up for the Panthers (6-2, three-game winning streak), Chargers (6-2, five-game winning streak) and Texans (6-3, six-game winning streak). All three clubs are coasting thanks to MVP-level play from their QBs – Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers and Deshaun Watson. The latter has overcome a slow start, in which he clearly was still affected by last season’s ACL tear, to return to his old self. Mahomes may have jumped ahead for now but Watson, who was snagged two picks after Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft, has a chance to become the best QB of that draft class, really. As for the Bears (5-3), it’s their health, and the inconsistency of the highest-drafted QB of that class, Mitchell Trubisky, that brings them down. They aren’t up to par with Houston, or the Panthers or Chargers.

Both Newton and Rivers are a few seasons removed from their previous best seasons. Newton hogged the limelight during a great 2015 run, and isn’t quite doing that statistically this season, but he’s working with a re-defined offense that plays at a different pace, and he’s playing as efficient as he’s ever been. This is actually Rivers’ best season by any mark, so far. With Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams, Los Angeles’ offense is tough to stop.

All three of these teams are tough to stop. Down the stretch, give me the Chargers as the most sure-fire to make the postseason, then the Panthers, then the Texans, who may need to hold off the Jaguars (3-5) who are bound to make a run at some point, they have too much talent. But all three should make it in, and all three will deserve too. Keep an eye on these three squads.

Quick-hits

– Although it’s not yet time to stick a fork in the Ravens (4-5), licking your chops at the idea wouldn’t be considered reckless. Five weeks ago, Baltimore impressively dismantled the Steelers (5-2-1) in Pittsburgh on a national stage. On Sunday, they played uninspired at home in a 23-16 loss to their division rival during a game sandwiched with others in the early afternoon slate. The loss is the third straight for the Ravens, who have been knocked farther down the AFC North ladder, looking up at the Steelers and Bengals (5-3).

Pittsburgh has seemingly eviscerated their sluggish play to begin the year, as their fourth straight win puts them behind only the Chiefs (8-1) and Patriots (7-2) in the AFC playoff picture.

– In the Falcons (4-4) 38-14 bludgeoning of the Redskins (5-3) in Washington, two points were made. First, Washington clearly shouldn’t be mentioned among the NFC’s true contenders. And second, with three straight wins, the Falcons have risen from the dead to insert themselves in the NFC’s wild card race. With season-ending injuries to Keanu Neal and Deion Jones (among other casulaties), no team has been devastated with more injuries this season than Atlanta. But Steve Sarkisian’s offense has come alive for the Falcons, who seemed to have fixed their red-zone woes and are scoring at will. Halfway through what looked like was becoming a disaster campaign, Atlanta deserves some attention.

NFL MVP Race

1) Patrick Mahomes – As he continues on his record pace, it’s clear the QB for the league’s most explosive offense in at least a decade is the frontrunner for the NFL MVP.

2) Drew Brees – Brees leads the NFL’s best team at the moment, with seven straight wins. In the Saints only loss (Week 1 vs. the Bucs), Brees and company put up 40 points in a 47-40 loss. He’s having perhaps his best season at age 39.

3) Todd Gurley – Gurley leads the league in rushing yards (868 yards), total yards from scrimmage (1,230 yards), and total touchdowns (16). He’s your Offensive Player of the Year at this point.

4) Phillip Rivers – Like Brees, Rivers is having his best season in the twilight of his career, as well. Utilizing his humongous receiving core — and Melvin Gordon — the Chargers are a scary 6-2 bunch, with their only losses coming to the Chiefs and Rams. You can thank Rivers for the Chargers’ success this season, and any success they’ve had since about 2009.

5) Tom Brady – Overcoming yet another bumpy start, Brady continues to win when key pieces are missing, when players are added midseason to fill major roles, or when the Patriots’ offensive strategy changes from week to week.

Next Up: Alvin Kamara, James Connor, Kareem Hunt, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan

Marshon Lattimore vs Vikings

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Saints’ revenge in Minny, surprising Skins

This time there would be no close ending. No Minnesota Miracle. No heartbreak for Drew Brees and the Saints (6-1) in Minnesota, just glee. In their 30-20 win over the Vikings (4-3-1), the Saints exacted their revenge for the wackiest finish of 2017, which sent them home in the playoffs, two games short of their ultimate goal.

Brees (18-for-23, 120 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) wasn’t exactly a world beater in the win, but he was sharp in his accuracy, which complimented an opportunistic defense that has reverted back to it’s 2017 ways as a formidable unit.

The game changed when Marshon Lattimore returned an Adam Thielen fumble 54 yards into Vikings territory before the end of the first half. The Saints then scored on a short run by Alvin Kamara to take a 17-13 lead into the half that they would not surrender.

Now the Saints welcome the Rams (8-0) in what is basically a midseason NFC title game that may very well decide who gets home field advantage come January.

With six straight wins, the Saints are as good of a team as any, bolstering an offense full of versatile weapons — Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and Taysom Hill — and a defense that has improved dramatically since being overtaken by  Tampa Bay’s ‘FitzMagic’ in Week 1.

If Sean Payton’s crew has one more statement win in them, this Sunday is the time to to play that card. Teams like the Panthers, Eagles and perhaps tonight’s Vikings may stand in the way, but looking ahead, this sure looks like a preview of the NFC Championship Game to come this weekend.

Smith, Peterson lead surging Skins

Jettisoned by the Chiefs after another disappointing, early-postseason exit, Alex Smith joined a Washington unit that seemingly was in rebuilding mode. Many Redskins fans mourned the exit of Kirk Cousins, expecting their next few seasons to be that of a misery-filled pit.

Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, had other plans.

The Redskins have won three straight since their debacle of a loss in New Orleans, a 43-19 stinker, to jump on top of the NFL’s most storied division. This has been done thanks to an efficient offense led by Smith, and a surprisingly-affective defense that has held opponents to just under 16 points per game during their winning streak.

Additionally, the 34-year-old Smith has thrown zero interceptions the past three games, and has thrown just two all season. With an average arsenal of pass catchers, Smith is making due. The quarterback that Kansas City didn’t want (and judging by Patrick Mahomes’ play, with good reason) has found a home in Washington. When the trade went down, it seemed like a move for a stopgap QB to fill the void between Cousins and and an eventual rookie passer. But it’s clear now why the Redskins wanted him.

No one wanted Adrian Peterson, who was without a team until Washington signed him right before the regular season. Inserted as the team’s bell cow RB1 after rookie Derrius Guice was lost for the season with an injury, the NFL’s ninth all-time leading rusher has enjoyed a career renaissance in the nation’s capital.

After the game, Peterson embraced the league’s next star RB in the wings, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley. “The sky is the limit for you,” Peterson told Barkley.

Peterson was once that young, generational prospect. He evolved into one of the game’s best running backs instantly, and was going to be included in the pantheon of the league’s best to ever do it, regardless of how he fared in D.C. But he’s added to his legacy anyway, but turning back the clock on an incredible 2018 campaign thus far.

This is a man that returned from an ACL tear to run for over 2,000 yards the following year, and win NFL MVP while almost single-handily carrying the 2012 Vikings to the playoffs.

He may not be that dominant anymore, but shades of vintage Peterson are still present at age 33. And behind the workhorse RB, and the overlooked QB, the Redskins rule the NFC East at the season’s midpoint.

Vinatieri re-solidifies place as greatest kicker ever

When I was 10 years old, the Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-tying and game-winning field goals in the famous ‘Tuck Rule’ game, a 16-13 overtime victory by the New England Patriots over the Oakland Raiders. That was the first career postseason win for Tom Brady, the first career postseason win of the current Patriots dynasty, and the last game ever played at Foxboro Stadium.

I’m now 27 years old. Things have changed for me and the entire world. There were no MacBooks, or iPod Nanos or Twitter or anything in the previous mentioned game. But there are now, 17 years later, as Vinatieri has now become the NFL’s all-time leading scorer in his 23rd season. Not only is Vinatieri one of the most clutch athletes of all-time (and undoubtedly the most clutch kicker ever), he’s simply the greatest kicker in the history of football. The greatest man at his particular profession, to ever grace this planet, and possibly universe.

The 45-year-old has two game-winning kicks in Super Bowls, four Super Bowl rings, and is the author of probably the three greatest kicks ever, his two Super Bowl footers and that famous 45-yard field goal in the snow in Foxboro Stadium, to launch the Patriots’ dynasty.

When Vinatieri steps up to attempt a game-winning or game-tying kick, you know it’s going in. And it’s virtually the same for any other kick.

With 2,547 career points, Adam is now the league’s all-time leading scorer. Whenever he decides to retire, he’ll follow that up five years afterword in being the first kicker to ever be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. What a career. What a kicker.

Quick-hits

– Down 29-27 with just over two minutes remaining, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (3-3-1) were staring down a situation they’ve thrived in recently. A chance to win a game in the final moments, but this time the opponent was the NFL’s best team, the lone-unbeaten Rams (8-0). But instead of the viewing public getting a chance to see what would transpire, the situation was eviscerated almost immediately, via a kick-return fumble. Game over. Packers fall back to .500, while the Rams remain unbeaten at midseason. Rodgers and the Packers now travel to New England as the Packers great and Tom Brady will duel for just the second (and possibly last) time of their careers. More on that later this week.

The main story is that of Todd Gurley, who is in the lead for his second-consecutive Offensive Player of the Year award, and is second in the NFL MVP race behind only Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. The Rams RB is perhaps the league’s greatest offensive weapon, surpassing Antonio Brown for the feat. Brown is still playing at an extraordinary level, but in a league filled with explosive starts of the present era, there’s always a player to one-up the other. From Calvin Johnson to Rob Gronkowski to Antonio Brown, and now…. Gurley. The Rams have a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, but Gurley is indeed the straw that stirs the drink.

– Beware of the Panthers (5-2), who took it to the NFL’s No. 1 defense, the Ravens (4-4), in a 36-21 beatdown at home, after falling behind early. Cam Newton’s squad is positioning themselves into the thick of of things in the NFC with the passing of each week. First off, the maturation of Christian McCaffrey and rookie wide receiver D.J. Moore has given Newton a 1-2 punch of affective offensive weapons he hasn’t had since the early years of his career with Steve Smith Sr. and a young Greg Olsen. An older Olsen has returned from injury in 2018 to provide the Panthers with a legit No. 3 weapon and a security blanket for Newton on important third and fourth-down situations. The Panthers don’t play the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints until Weeks 15 and 17, leaving the race for a the division title a season-long race, most likely. Can the Panthers upend Drew Brees and the mighty team on the Gulf? Either way, we’ve only just begun to realize how formidable the Panthers are in the South.

– In the Wembley Stadium battle of disappointing clubs, the Eagles (4-4) will leave London with more confidence than the Jaguars (3-5) losers of four straight and a franchise that had four of its players suspended over the weekend in England, due to a misunderstanding at a British pub. The Jaguars have less than 24 hours to solve a QB situation that mostly likely will remain unsolved through this season. There’s really nothing they can do at this point. Tyrod Taylor, Teddy Bridgewater and MAYBE Jameis Winston are his only options. But even they are crapshoots. To fight back into the AFC South race, Jacksonville will just have to play better. I know, what a take.

The Eagles still trail the Redskins by a game and a half in the NFC East, but most would agree that Philadelphia is waiting in the wings to make a winter run at the crown. But still, this is not a team worthy of winning Super Bowl LIII. The rest of the season will serve as a screening for what the Eagles need this offseason in order to retool and situate themselves as one of the top contenders for Super Bowl LIV, which they most likely will be.

 

 

Torrey Smith vs. Eagles

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Eagles, Jaguars at a crossroads before London trek

Roughly nine months ago, the Jaguars and Eagles were gearing up for Conference Championship Sunday. Both teams had proven themselves to be among the NFL’s very best of 2017. The Jaguars fell to the Patriots after leading 20-10 in the AFC title game, while the Eagles routed the Vikings, and went on to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Oh, how things have changed.

Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Eagles (3-4) and Jaguars (3-4) will have a combined record of 6-10 when they face off in next week’s matchup at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

But to understand how these two teams got to this point, we’ll have to backtrack.

The Jaguars began the season with a 3-1 start, highlighted by Blake Bortles’ masterful performance (29-of-45, 376 yards, four touchdowns) to beat the Patriots, 31-20, to exact revenge on their 2017 AFC Championship Game opponent. Many are joking that the Week 2 matchup was Jacksonville’s Super Bowl. Judging by what they’ve done since, those claiming so appear right.

Jacksonville has dropped three straight games mostly in part to their ineptitude on offense, which starts with Bortles. The defense honestly hasn’t been much better. After benching Bortles in the 20-7 home loss to the Texans (4-3) on Sunday, one thing is clear – the Jaguars need to look for a QB. If Teddy Bridgewater or Tyrod Taylor aren’t available, then maybe sticking with Bortles is the only option for the rest of the season, but Cody Kessler will not cut it, either.

The Jaguars have a championship-caliber defense and a solid running game, but this may be one slump too many for Bortles.

In Philadelphia, the Eagles got off to a slow start to the season with Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, so they semi-rushed Carson Wentz back in time for gut-wrenching losses to the Titans, Vikings and Panthers. Luckily for Philadelphia, they do have a good quarterback in Wentz, but the Eagles in general have looked sloppy and unclutch in the game’s biggest moments. Both are a far cry from their run to glory last season.

A 17-0 lead at home in the fourth quarter should never be surrendered, not even to Tom Brady or Joe Montana. The Eagles allowed Cam Newton to lead the Panthers to a 21-17 comeback win in their house. This is more than a slow start in Philadelphia.

There’s rumors of the Eagles inquiring about Le’Veon Bell and DeVante Parker, but what the Eagles have to focus on next is the Jaguars, who are equally as frustrated, and will be ready to take the field with something to prove. Bill Simmons frequently refers to these types of games as a ‘Loser leaves town’ matchup. Well considering this game is in England, both teams will undoubtedly leave town afterward. But only one team will feel better about themselves, if that.

Saints have ‘Super Bowl’ feel

The most shocking takeaway of the Saints’ (5-1) impressive 24-23 win in Baltimore was that Ravens’ (4-3) kicker Justin Tucker does miss. His first failed extra point comes on attempt number 223, and ultimately doomed Baltimore.

But the real story is the Saints’ 17-point fourth quarter scoring effort, which erased a 17-7 Ravens lead in the fourth quarter. Brees’ 500th career touchdown pass (the fourth player to do so) was part of the scoring jamboree New Orleans put fourth on the road against the league’s No. 1 defense. That, coupled with Tucker’s shocking miss, brings about the aurora this Saints season is starting to produce.

“The more battle-tested you are from games like this, I think that serves you well as you go along,” Drew Brees told The Athletic after the game. “Just confidence and feeling like no matter what the situation is in a game, you’re going to find a way. We believe. We’ve done this before. That kind of mindset. It’s nice to run away with them every now and again. But it’s the NFL. A lot of games end like this.” ”

After a 48-40 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers to begin the year, it was plausible to ponder if the Saints were going to fall back to mediocrity. But the defense has slowly re-strengthened. And the return of Mark Ingram has provided the Saints with yet another prime offense weapon, to go along with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas.

The win means Brees has now beaten all 32 NFL teams (he beat the Saints while playing for the Chargers) and now, New Orleans begins the important two-game stretch that includes contests against the Vikings (4-2-1) and Rams (7-0). The midseason hierarchy of the NFC will be decided in the next two weeks. For now, admire the Saints’ gutsy comeback win on the road in Baltimore, it may be a pillar of a truly special season.

Ranking Chiefs’ offensive weapons

– And the Chiefs keep rolling. After a slip-up in a game for the ages in New England, Kareem Hunt (20 touches, 141 yards, three touchdowns) and the Chiefs (6-1) destroyed the Bengals (4-3), 45-10, in a game that was flexed into NBC’s Sunday Night Football slot because it was such an important AFC matchup. So much for that.

Hunt’s performance had me thinking….of Kansas City’s three major offensive weapons, how should they be ranked? My list:

1) Kareem Hunt – For the past two Sunday nights, we’ve seen why Hunt is so great. A quick, yet powerful runner who can bulldoze his way through you or scamper around you. Hunt is a top-five running back because of his effectiveness on the ground and for the added element of what he provides in the passing game. He can consistently beat linebackers over the top, or catch passes underneath and plow into or move around defensive backs for big gains.

2) Tyreek Hill – The most explosive and exciting player in football is Tyreek Hill. Capable of turning any play from any part of the field into an all-time, highlight-worthy touchdown, Hill is a player this league has never seen before. His literal olympic speed, underrated hands, and moves after the catch make him virtually unstoppable. Flies, slants, RPO’s, reverses, option routes, kick returns, punt returns, you name it. He can and has scored via all of them. Good luck covering him one-on-one.

3) Travis Kelce – After Rob Gronkowski, there’s Travis Kelce, who narrowly edges Zach Ertz as the second-best tight end in football. Although not the game’s best blocking tight end, Kelce makes up for that in his versatility and playmaking skills. He can line up traditionally (on the line), in the slot, isolated out wide or in the backfield. Either way, Kelce will get the ball and make a modest gain for the explosive Kansas City offense. In each of those instances, Kelce provides a matchup problem for a defender. Then there’s his underrated after-the-catch ability, in which his strength is actually trumped by his sneaky quickness. No matter where Kelce lines up, he poses a problem for any NFL defense.

Quick-hits

– The Patriots outlasted the Bears, 38-31, in a wild one in Chicago that saw New England lose Sony Michel to an ugly-looking knee injury early. Despite that, not having Rob Gronkowski, committing three turnovers and allowing 81 yards rushing to Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bill Belichick’s unit found a way. Brady was sharp as usual, throwing for 277 yards and three scores. James White had 19 offensive touches for 97 total yards and two scores, and Dont’a Hightower blocked a punt that Kyle Van Noy took in for a touchdown. On top of that, slot CB Jonathan Jones and rookie CB J.C. Jackson each snagged highlight-worthy interceptions when the game hung in the balance. The Patriots will need Gronk to stay healthy. They have to hope Michel is not lost fo the season, and they likely will make a few mid-level moves to improve the defense. But what matters is that they got their first road win of the season, and with November nearing they’re clearly beginning their annual Winter run.

– In a wild London game, the Titans opted to go for a two-point conversion down 20-19 in the final seconds versus the Chargers. After two incomplete passes on two chances (defensive holding was called on the Chargers in the first attempt), the Titans dropped their third straight to fall to 3-4.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision. In fact, with just one yard separating you from a big win over the Chargers (5-2) and a key tiebreaker advantage in the AFC playoff picture, the gutsy call was on brand with coaching in 2018, and showed guts. But Mike Vrabel and Tennessee has to have more ‘controlled’ plays in their holster for that moment. Both attempts featured chaotic passing plays that saw Mariota going through reads until the play resulted in an ad-libbed free-for-all. That can’t happen. The loss is a stinger, as the the Jaguars and Texans (4-3) are all in a mosh pit with the Titans for the AFC South lead. The win could have put Tennessee in good position to begin to show why they’re the division’s top team. That didn’t happen. On the other side, the Chargers have losses only to the Chiefs and Rams, and are clearly proving that their talent may be enough to get them into the postseason for the first time since 2013.

– Who saw this coming? Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Redskins (4-2) lead the Eagles (3-4) and Cowboys (3-4) by a game and a half in the NFC East. Led by three forgotten pieces (Alex Smith, Adrian Peterson and Josh Norman) jettisoned by their former teams, Washington is in prime position to shock the pro football world. There’s a lot of football left, but Jay Gruden’s bunch now has back-to-back wins over the Panthers and Cowboys under pressure. It’s the ability to pull off these type of wins early that ingrains the confidence to pull them out in December and January, where they might matter more, depending on the circumstances. In the end, the historic Cowboys-Redskins rivalry delivered another classic, and may have vaulted the Redskins further along on a special season.

 

Rob Gronkowski vs Chiefs

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Brady-Mahomes duel (Part I of II?) one for the ages + NFL MVP race

The game of the year (so far) lived up the billing. It could have been named regular season game of the decade and lived up to the hype, and then some. There’s a lot to unpack, a lot to examine in one of the wildest games in NFL history. A 43-40, video-game like thriller resulting in a 43-40 win for the Patriots over the Chiefs. The game may decide a lot more than just last night’s result in the standings. But we’ll get to that.

We’ll begin with the greatest quarterback of all-time, and his 2018 offense, which has the chance to develop into one of Tom Brady’s best, just in time for the November-December-January trek.

“I think we have a lot of clutch players,” Brady said at his postgame press conference. “I don’t think we have a problem grinding it out.”

Among the players grinding it out in the 4th quarter were Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan. Each of them made two huge catches in the fourth quarter (four of their seven catches combined for the night) to help set up 13 key points late, that ultimately won the game.

Joining Gronkowski and Hogan (and his 39-yard virtual game-winning catch above) were Sony Michel (106 rushing yards, 2 TDs), James White (92 total yards), Julian Edelman (four catches, 54 yards, TD) and Josh Gordon (five catches, 42 yards) as a holster of weapons — some tenured, some developing — in an offense that should become scarier leading up to Halloween and beyond.

In the win, Brady became the winningest-player (227 wins) at any position in NFL history, along with garnering his 200th career regular season win, which is another league record.

The same cannot be said about the Patriots’ defense, whose gimmicky (and smart) defense that confused Patrick Mahomes early on faded away as the game went along. But the Patriots’ defense is as advertised. The story here is Mahomes, a never-before-seen player who is a healthy mix between Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre (Packer fans’ input?), but too original to heavily compare him to anyone.

After a few mistakes early on, Mahomes delivered four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, leading the Chiefs to 31 second-half points to take the lead after being down 24-9 at the half.

“Just to be able to go against the best, that fight is something you can carry on for the rest of the season,” Mahomes said during his postgame presser.

Rarely does game in October mean so much, but there was a lot at stake on Sunday night. Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard game-winning field goal) brought the Patriots (4-2) within one game of the Chiefs (5-1) and gives New England the tiebreaker if the AFC’s No. 1 seed comes down to that. The Chiefs have a tough Week 11 matchup with the league-best Rams in Mexico City, but ultimately have the much-easier schedule down the stretch, as the Patriots host the Packers and Vikings, and travel to face the Bears (next Sunday) and Steelers as part of a tough journey ahead. A win here would have been a knockout punch fo the Chiefs, who may still host the AFC Championship Game.

It’s possible Eric Berry and Justin Houston would be available to boost Kansas City’s defense at Arrowhead Stadium (or Gillette Stadium) when the rematch materializes. And it will.

The Chiefs will still have Travis Kelce, and Patriots-dominating offensive weapons Kareem Hunt (185 total yards, TD) and Tyreek Hill (seven catches, 142 yards, three receiving TDs) who have played two games in New England in the last 13 months, and have been unstoppable in each.

The brief postgame handshake between Brady and Mahomes felt like a possible passing of the torch, even if delayed for another season or too. Brady is still the game’s best player now, and ever. But Mahomes has arrived. It wasn’t as sweet as Tim Duncan’s interaction with LeBron James after the 2007 NBA Finals, but if Kansas City ousts New England in the playoffs, this could be the game we look back at as maybe Brady’s last moment as lead dog. But Brady is a machine, and that can’t yet be predicted for sure.

The defensive-minded Ravens and Jaguars, or talented Chargers and Steelers may have a say here, but expect to see a rematch this January in the AFC Championship game.. Chiefs-Patriots, or Patriots-Chiefs. Whichever it is, treat it as well….a treat. A wonderful second meal (way better than a measly dessert) all football fans deserve, after tasting it’s imperfect perfection on Sunday Night.

The game of the year (so far) lived up to the hype.

Cream of the crop always…..you know

Are the Steelers slowly easing their way back into contenders status? What we do know after their thrilling, last-second win in Cincinnati, is that the Bengals aren’t quite ready for that label. With a chance to take a commanding early lead in the AFC North, they lost at home, as the Steelers are now just a half game back in the division.

It was Ben Roethlisbeger to Antonio Brown for the game-winning score with 10 seconds remaining, as he drove down the field with help (including a two-point conversion) from JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was equally as clutch. Like the Patriots, the Steelers seem to start off slow in recent seasons. But with the drams surrounding the team this season, and the absence of Le’Veon Bell, the skepticism was well-warranted. But with the ascension of James Connor, the grittiness of Big Ben, and AB84 back to being, well, the game’s best receiver, the Steelers are back in the thick of things.

Pittsburgh is the favorite to win the AFC North, again. That’s six straight losses to Pittsburgh for the Bengals, who may need to think about Wild Card spots after this loss.

AFC South logjam

What in the world is happening with the AFC South?

The most shocking development has been the uneven play of the Jaguars (3-3), who have looked awful as of late, mostly because of the pumpkin-reverting play by Jags QB Blake Bortles, who was again shaky in the team’s 40-7 loss in Dallas to the Cowboys.

But at least the Jaguars have a signature win (Week 2 vs. Patriots) to bank on. The Titans (3-3) have played six ugly games, and after a road loss in Buffalo, and now a 21-0 home loss to the Ravens, the team is clearly trending downward, even after wins over the Jaguars and Eagles.

Then there’s the Texans (3-3). After an 0-3 start, the team has fallen ass-backward into three straight wins to move into a tie for first place in the division. Houston needed a pick-six (and another interception following that) by the immortal Nathan Peterman to beat the Buffalo Bills (2-4) at home. Houston hasn’t looked particularly solid in any game this season, as Deshaun Watson eases back in from an ACL tear last season, and the common Year 2 blues that a young QB generally experiences.

The Jaguars are probably the team to beat in this division, as their talented defense should lead them to the AFC South title, and the conferees’s No. 4 seed, at minimum. But with the way Bortles has been playing, that’s far from a sure thing. The overall take of this group (which includes the 1-5 Indianapolis Colts) through six games? ‘Woof.’

Quick-hits

– For Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake, the keyword is ‘mental toughness.’ Especially after he seemingly fumbled away a victory at the one-inch line in overtime, only to lead the Dolphins back into field goal range after given a second chance (Bears missed field goal.) The win really exhibited the grit that Gase so desires from his team after an offseason overhaul. Miami kept pace in the AFC East with the win.

The Bears get the Bengals’ treatment in that they may be a year away from being a ‘true’ contender in their conference. But traveling to Miami from Chicago for an early start time is as tough as it gets for a non-East coast team. But still, the game was up grabs and the Bears capitalized on virtually nothing, minus a big interception late of Brock Osweiler returned the other way to set up a score. But after blowing leads of 21-13 and 28-21 to Osweiler, it seems the Bears are super talented, but aren’t a true contender yet. 2019 may be their year. Up next for the Bears? The surging Patriots, who will be looking for their first road victory of 2018.

– The perfect picture to sum up the Redskins’ 23-17 victory over the Panthers at home. Both teams are now 3-2.

– Here come the Los Angeles Chargers. Their third straight win, a 38-14 dismantling of the upstart Browns in Cleveland, bring them to 4-2 and squarely in the mix in the AFC. They’re one of the league’s five or six most talented teams, that will only get better with the return of Joey Bosa at some point. Also, they’re only losses are to the Rams and Chiefs, two of the league’s best clubs. However, their track record of errant miscues at the most inopportune times should serve as a tale of caution for anyone predicting them to make a deep playoff run. But it’s fun to get reeled in. The talent is there. Will coaching and well-executed play in the clutch catch up this season?

NFL MVP Race

1) Patrick Mahomes What more can you say? Even in a loss he showed why he belongs here for now.

2) Todd Gurley – Gurley has overtaken the throne — previously held by Le’Veon Bell — as the league’s best running back. The Rams RB1 has also passed Antonio Brown as the NFL’s best non-QB, offensive weapon. Jared Goff has begun taking the mantle as the leader of this team, but Gurley is still engine.

3) Jared Goff – The Rams were Gurley’s team last season. This year it’s a mix between Gurley and Goff. If the Rams ultimately are to win Super Bowl LIII, the third-year QB will have to fully take the mantle. If it doesn’t happen then, it soon will. It’s a QB-driven league and offensive mastermind Sean McVay has his guy.

4) Drew Brees – With 11 TDs, ZERO interceptions and a league-high 77.9 completion percentage, Brees is playing perhaps his best football at age 39. Don’t sleep on the 2018 New Orleans Saints.

5) Alvin Kamara – Similar to the Rams’ situation explained above, Kamara is becoming the engine of the Saints’ offense. Brees is still the offense, and the franchise, but with help from Kamara (and Michael Thomas), the Saints are gaining momentum as a NFC powerhouse. They have more than just their QB to thank.

Next up: Khalil Mack, Tom Brady, Adam Thielen 

Patrick Mahomes vs Jaguars

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Chiefs pound Jags, Pats await

After a week full of passive-aggressive trash talk and strategic breakdowns, it was the undefeated home team that took home a win that really went ‘chalk,’ if you break it down.

The win didn’t come easy for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but the league’s No. 1 offense survived the Jaguars (and the No. 1 defense), 30-14 at home on Sunday. Despite being heavily unbalanced in terms of offensive-to-defensive ineptitude, the Chiefs proved to be the AFC’s best team by forcing Blake Bortles into three interceptions.

In fact, the ‘unstoppable’ Patrick Mahomes threw two interceptions of his own (with zero touchdown passes), and Tyreek Hill was held to 61 yards on four catches, while being covered mostly by the brash-talking Jalen Ramsey.

“I won the majority of my matchups today,” Ramsey told the media after the game.

Except it’s the variety and abundance of mismatch-creating weapons, combined with Andy Reid’s offensive scheme (and Mahomes) that make the Chiefs’ offense so dangerous.

Travis Kelce (five catches, 100 yards) and Sammy Watkins (six catches, 78 yards) took advantage of their matchups, and Kareem Hunt averaged 87 yards and a score on the ground, as Reid found other ways to move the ball downfield during a lesser game by Mahomes and Hill.

“No one is going to push us around, anywhere,” said Reid after the game.

Whether the Chiefs’ offense runs through Mahomes, Hunt, Kelce or the Super Mario-like Hill, Kansas City has enough offensive weapons to counter any pre-planned defensive attack.

Next up for the Chiefs is the NFL’s version of Bowser, the two-time defending AFC champion New England Patriots.

The road to Super Bowl LIII will likely involve a matchup with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, a tandem that has made seven straight AFC title games, and has reached the Super Bowl seven times in their last 17 full seasons together.

After a patented sluggish start, the Patriots are have slowly began rolling down the familiar season-long hill that usually ends with their momentous dash toward the place the Chiefs want to be.

The Patriots will be overmatched on defense, superior on offense, and with the advantage of prior big-game experience when the teams square off on NBC’s Sunday Nigh Football.

With the return of Julian Edelman, and the ongoing ascensions of Sony Michel and Josh Gordon — to pair with Rob Gronkowski and James White — the Patriots suddenly have an arsenal of formidable weapons.

The Chiefs have the best offensive weaponry in the NFL, and perhaps the game’s most experienced offensive guru calling the shots.

This game should be the first of two potential matchups between these two teams. An easy barometer for two Super Bowl LIII contenders. Up to Week 6, this is the NFL’s game of the year.

Vikings tread water, Eagles sink (momentarily)

At a combined 8-1, the Rams (5-0) and Saints (3-1) may already be too far ahead for the Vikings and Eagles to catch in the race for the NFC’s top two seeds. But that was far from the minds of two teams that now combine for 4-5-1 after Minnesota’s 23-21 fend-off victory over the defending Super Bowl champs.

The Vikings’ (2-2-1) situation was (and remains) slightly more dire, with both the young-and-talented Bears (3-1) and the dormant Aaron Rodgers-led Packers (2-2-1) both having their goals set on winning the NFC North. The Eagles (2-3) have no long-term (most likely) contenders in the NFC East, as even a 9-7 mark may grant them the division title and the NFC’s No. 4 seed.

Carson Wentz is clearly still easing back into form after his ACL tear last season, while the injury-riddled Eagles experience a hangover in general, which Super Bowl-winning teams are often susceptible to.

The Vikings are banged up as well, touting a below-average offensive line and and Everyon Griffen-less front seven. Kirk Cousins has been shaky, showing signs of greatness and ineptitude, while the team’s wide receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (17 catches, 217 yards, one touchdown combined) is clearly the NFL’s best WR1/WR2 duo for the second consecutive season.

Thielen was especially potent versus an Eagles defense that lacks some in the cornerback department. Maybe this is why the Vikings opted to pay Cousins. Minnesota failed miserably offensively with Case Keenum at quarterback last January in a a 38-7 loss in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia. Ironically, Nick Foles torched Minnesota’s defense in that game, while Wentz failed to get things going until it was virtually too late.

It’s way too early to make any definitive picks for the playoff field come January, but here is how I see the NFC’s playoff field playing out at this moment:

1) Rams

2) Saints

3) NFC North winner (Bears, Vikings, Packers) or Eagles

4) NFC North winner (Bears, Vikings, Packers) or Eagles

5) NFC North wild card (Bears, Vikings, Packers) or Panthers

6) NFC North wild card (Bears, Vikings, Packers) or Panthers

In a talent-heavy NFC, things are already starting to take shape.

Quick-hits

– Graham Gano set an NFL record with the longest walk-off, game-winning field goal (63 yards) in NFL history, to lift the Panthers over the Giants (1-4), and in turn keeping Carolina in position to pace with other NFC stalwarts. Ron Rivera’s silly gamble to run with Christian McCaffrey on 3rd-and-1 with no timeouts remaining (and 30-ish seconds left) was bailed out, as Cam Newton led Carolina on a game-winning drive that may serve as a tentpole to a great season in the works.

– Three other win-needy teams, the Bills (2-3), Browns (2-2-1) and Texans (2-3) also won on walk-off field goals to keep their season alive. The Bills have little shot at a playoff berth, but have to like what they’ve seen out of Josh Allen, who is 2-2 in four starts. The up-and-down Browns clearly have their QB of the future (and now) in Baker Mayfield, but they’re likely a year away from a postseason berth as well. The Texans host the Bills next week, with a good shot at winning their third straight contest to pull to 3-3. In a muddled and unclear AFC, as Deshaun Watson slowly returns to form after his ACL tear, so may the talented-Texans.

-Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen all pulled in close wins on Sunday to give the 2018 class of rookie QBs a 4-0 mark. It’s early, but this group may end up living up to the hype bestowed on them to supplant the 1983 and 2004 classes as the best ever. Allen and Rosen are dealing with deprived rosters in particular, so any wins that come their way in Year 1 will be impressive. Mayfield and Rosen are the two young QBs displaying the most moxie. Still waiting in the wings, is Lamar Jackson, who is probably two seasons away from starting. Again, it’s premature, but early grades on this group are better than expected this soon.

Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, the dynasty lives on.

Changing of the guard in AFC North?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick-hits

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

 

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