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Patrick Mahomes - Super Bowl 54

Brent’s Extra Points: Will Mahomes become NFL’s LeBron?

The NFL’s 100th season has come and gone, with the Kansas City Chiefs honoring the league and the great Lamar Hunt by winning the AFC — in turn, winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy — en route to a Super Bowl 54 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

In a new type of column I hope to put out at least semi-weekly this offseason, I tackle some of the major NFL storylines after Super Bowl 54, in hopes of wrapping up this season and looking ahead to next.  Additionally, I’ll talk about my trip down to Miami for Super Bowl week — including which celebrities and athletes I ran into — before an update on where I might be working next.

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 Is Patrick Mahomes the greatest QB we’ve ever seen? 

Fresh off a 10-point 4th quarter comeback for his first Super Bowl win, the talk around now-Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is as expected — Will he become the GOAT? Is he the best quarterback we’ve ever seen?

For the second question, I do think the answer is yes, from a talent standpoint. But in becoming the greatest quarterback of all-time, longevity (and a few more Super Bowl titles, at least) are major factors. Several all-time great quarterbacks have had a string of great seasons — think: Aaron Rodgers — but have failed to move toward GOAT status due to inconsistency in the postseason and a lack of talent around them.

With the great Andy Reid — a Super Bowl win solidified Reid as at least a top-10 coach of all-time — at the helm, and extraordinary and unique talents such as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as pass catchers, Mahomes is set up for a few more seasons of offensive greatness and additional Super Bowl runs.

But with his rookie deal set to expire after next season, the Chiefs will soon need to give Mahomes a record contract that most likely will pay the young phenom upwards of $40 million per year. That deal will likely come sometime this summer. So soon, Chiefs GM Brett Veach will have a completely different outlook on his team’s personnel structure and salary cap management going forward in the Mahomes era.

Sometime in the next three to five seasons, Mahomes will enter a period of his career that most all-time great QBs will enter. With comfortable, early-career talent depleted or gone, and his massive cap hit limiting his team’s options to acquire talent, Mahomes will need to elevate an underwhelming, if not, abysmal supporting cast  — in the shape of a horrid defense, severe lack of offensive of weapons, or both — to the point of turning that 53-man roster into a Super Bowl contender. Brady has carried several versions of a depleted roster to at least the AFC Championship Game, and a couple of those squads to Super Bowls. Rodgers once led a 4-6 Packers squad in 2016 on an eight-game winning streak that put them in the NFC Championship Game. And what about the NFL’s second-best quarterback at the moment? Russell Wilson has proven to be one of the game’s most valuable players in leading the Seahawks to some success during the post-Legion-of-Boom era. This will be Mahomes’ true judgment time. But winning as many Super Bowl titles as he can during the early favorable period of his career (a la, Brady) also helps his lore.

If generational greats such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre represent past NBA greats such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Tom Brady represents Michael Jordan. Jordan passed all his successors to be the unquestionable GOAT, but since then, the most-talented-of-all-time LeBron James has risen to the point of Jordan’s equal, creating the most heated greatest-of-all-time conversation imaginable.

Think of Mahomes as LeBron James. He’s the most talented quarterback we’ve ever seen. Not Marino. Not Elway. Not Peyton Manning. Not Lamar Jackson. It’s Mahomes. He’s that great. But it’ll be tough to match Brady’s six (and counting) Super Bowl ring total, or his iconic moments of greatness on the biggest stage — it’ll be hard to match Brady’s legendary Super Bowl 49 and Super Bowl 51 performances, which can be likened to some of Jordan’s iconic moments, like Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

But the way Mahomes elevates his current team, always giving them a chance — Mahomes holds a 28-8 record as a starter and has never lost a game by more than seven points — matching with his unique talent and immediate success in just two seasons, it appears the Chiefs’ franchise QB is at least on track to become the best of all-time. But that is certainly easier said than done.

The preferred method to analyzing Mahomes’ future, and his play over the first two seasons, is to admire what you’re watching. Although Marino, Rodgers and Drew Brees are among the all-time great passers to make just one Super Bowl, I’m pretty confident in saying Mahomes will get back to the NFL’s biggest stage.

For now, let’s all give credit where it’s due. Congrats to Mahomes, Andy Reid, the Kansas Chiefs and their fanbase. That was quite the run.

 What’s next for the 49ers? 

On the flip side of Super Bowl 54’s coin, the 49ers suffered a devastating defeat in the franchise’s biggest game in seven years.

Up 20-10 with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, and with the ball, San Francisco failed to put the game away. Just like his Atlanta Falcons offense in Super Bowl 51, Kyle Shanahan once again struggled to the finish line via a mismanagement of the four-minute offense.

Despite a stretch in the middle of the game in which Jimmy Garoppolo completed 13 of 14 passes and a touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk, the 49ers quarterback did not have a great game overall.

And then there’s the defense, perfect for three and a half quarters before self-destructing to allow 21 points in the game’s final minutes.

Still, housing a talented young coach, quarterback and several other young marquee pieces who played extremely well in this game — rookies Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel come to mind — San Francisco theoretically should be able to stay atop (or near the top) of the NFC.

But it’s not quite that simple.

The NFC is the poster child of year-to-year turnover, with only the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks and this past string of Saints seasons showing any resemblance of a consistent Super Bowl window.

Just look at the last two NFC champions? The Eagles were loaded headed into 2018 but got old and slow quickly on offense, and have since fallen back to the pack. The Rams loaded up with talent for run two-to-three year run that would leave them cap-space-stricken afterward, but due to the inconsistency of Jared Goff, and perhaps defenses ability to adjust to Sean McVay’s offense, the Rams have fallen backward.

The same could be headed for Shanahan, Garoppolo and these 49ers. Could teams adjust to their brilliant offensive scheme?

And not just teams, could the Seahawks and Rams, both equipped to improve in 2020, dethrone the 49ers in the NFC West, the NFL’s toughest division?

All these questions are plausible, but I have a feeling San Francisco will remain in the double-digit win category in 2020. Whether or not they re-sign Emmanuel Sanders, the team is in need of a true No. 1 receiver to clear the lanes with jack-of-all-trades Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, the NFL’s best tight end.

With Arik Armstead set to enter free agency, the 49ers will still boast the NFL’s best defensive line with Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and possible 2020 DPOY candidate Nick Bosa remaining up front.

The 49ers ‘ fast linebacking core of Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner will also return, giving the 49ers a perfect duo combat fast offenses in the middle of the field.

But where San Francisco can stand to improve semi-dramatically is in the back-end. Other than an aging Richard Sherman, the 49ers are in need of help in the secondary. They could address this in the draft.

The initial outlook for the 49ers seems rather peachy, despite the end to their season. But a big hurdle will be the mental game in rallying after this defeat. Time will tell if they are up to the task on that front.

 What does Tom Brady truly want? And what can the Patriots do for him? 

With Tom Brady reports galore before Super Bowl 54 and a Hulu advertisement featuring Brady during the game that sparked hot-take commentary these past few days, we are now entering peak Brady mania that will dominate the next four to six weeks this offseason.

I mentioned above that Brady can be compared to the NFL as Michael Jordan is to the NBA. That’s his legacy. In fact, he’s Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Russell or whoever you believe the greatest player in NFL History is. Right now, that’s solidified. And he may have more elite seasons left. He certainly believes he does. And judging by this weekend’s reports, it appears the Patriots believe he has more left, too.

But the truth is, none of us really know what Brady, Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft are thinking right now. We don’t know what has or hasn’t been discussed and there’s no way to know, seeing how tight-lipped these men, and the Patriots organization are.

But if I had to guess, I don’t think Brady is adamant on a deal worth north of $30 million per year. I believe the Patriots supplying him with more help on offense, along with perhaps a legitimate two or three-year deal with more guaranteed money (as opposed to a two or three-year deal masked as a one-year deal, like the extension he signed last offseason) is what Brady is looking for.

I’m not naive enough to think there’s zero chance Brady may wind up elsewhere, but I think the Patriots and Brady get a deal done before mid-March that keeps him in a Patriot uniform for the final two or three years of his career.

The next step is how the Patriots plan to surround Brady with better offensive weapons.

Can Brady convince them to re-sign Antonio Brown (probably not) or Danny Amendola (this is a possibility)? Will the Patriots trade draft picks or shell out available cash in free agency to bring in marquee, veteran pass-catching weapons such as Odell Beckham Jr., Stefon Diggs, O.J. Howard, A.J. Green, Hunter Henry, etc.?

Or will the Patriots present a plan to Brady that has them investing draft capital to acquire one or more the several intriguing wide receiver prospects in this loaded draft class?

I’ll re-visit this topic if (when) the Patriots re-sign Brady, but without a dominant weapon such as Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots need versatility in their pass-catching weapons, similar to how a basketball team operates in their starting line-up.

To use 2017 as an example (Brady’s last top-notch season. He won NFL MVP), the Patriots offense featured Gronkowski at tight end, Danny Amendola as a sure-handed slot receiver, Chris Hogan as a smart, possession receiver on the outside (who could also move inside) and Brandin Cooks as the team’s home-run threat.

Despite some media members (and fans) insisting Cooks did not live up to expectations in 2017, the former Patriot was a HUGE piece of that offense. He opened up the middle of the field for Gronkowski and Amendola, while also forcing attention off of James White, giving him the ability to work against linebackers in man coverage. Without a deep threat, or any threat outside of Edelman, in 2019, teams sometimes opted to put cornerbacks on White, taking him out of the passing game.

This next season, the Patriots will roll with Edelman in the slot, and an improved (hopefully) N’Keal Harry as the team’s possession X-receiver capable of using his strength and athleticism on the outside. But the team is also in need of a deep threat. A home-run hitter at flanker that can challenge defenses deep, and consistently get separation. The Patriots don’t just need a speedster, they need a competent speedster, a la Cooks.

Even better than Cooks, is a multi-tool receiver capable of utilizing an advanced route tree outside of just fly routes and comeback patterns (basically Cooks’ repertoire). The very best available or possibly available (trade market) receivers in this category include Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Stefon Diggs. Although possible, it seems unlikely that any of those No. 1 type options will be a Patriot in 2020.

New England’s best chance for this type of receiver is to take a chance on Alabama’s Henry Ruggs in the first round. Ruggs has elite speed (may run a 4.2 40-yard dash at the combine) and is not only a deep threat, but a skilled wide receiver who can work quicker routes in a smooth fashion, setting himself up for big plays via YAC (yards after the catch). The Patriots may (probably will) need to move up a couple spots to get him, seeing as teams like the Broncos, Raiders and Eagles may opt to use their pick on Ruggs. But in adding to their pass-catching arsenal, Ruggs is the best draft option for the Patriots, in my opinion.

And of course, on top of all this, they’ll also need a competent tight end.

This offseason is set-up to be the most interesting stretch of any during the Patriots dynasty, but New England’s best chance at one last re-load will hinge on re-signing Brady first.

 A much-needed trip to Miami for Super Bowl 54 week & catching up with Kyle Van Noy

This past week I took a much-needed “friends” trip to Miami to hang out with some of my best friends on the planet. I didn’t go to the game, but enjoyed watching it with friends, while also venturing into Miami for all the hoopla surrounding the game.

Among the celebrities and athletes I bumped into were Lil Nas X and Michael Irvin.

In addition to the week’s festivities, I also was able to hang out with DeAnthony Williams, one of my best friends. Dee has since started his own company training athletes down in Miami, and in my one day visiting him, a couple of high-profile names were in the gym (I’ll keep his clients private.) I’m really proud of him.

And then, on my flight from Miami back to Boston, I got the chance to catch up with Patriots free agent-to-be Kyle Van Noy.

I first met Kyle this past summer when he was a guest on Fox Sports 1’s Fair Game with Kristine Leahy — I was working as an associate producer/writer/researcher hybrid for the show.

Because I’m a die-hard Patriots fan, I spent about 15 minutes with him discussing the defense for the upcoming season. Back in July, Kyle and I talked of a linebacker-heavy front that was set to dominate in 2019. He was right. That linebacking core was called “The Boogeymen” as New England switched to more of a 3-4 style defense that often used 3-4 principles with just two bigger down lineman.

Moving to the edge almost full-time as a stand-up 3-4 edge rusher, Van Noy enjoyed his best season as a pro, ranking 59th on Pro Football Focus’ Top 101 players list. (Van Noy posted a 84.2 PFF grade).

Well, Van Noy is now a free agent expected to garner major interest. He may get paid upward of $10 million per year. When I told Kyle to go get the money, he told me on the plane that he would love to remain in New England, saying “I want it to be here, though” referring to him staying with the Patriots. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure if Patriots free agent Jamie Collins was happy down the stretch. That could mean the New England linebacker may become a former Patriot for the second time during his career.

The Collins news given to me was interesting, but Van Noy’s eagerness to remain a Patriot is not exactly shocking. He’s told every outlet he’s interviewed with that he’d like to stay, but it was still cool to hear that in person.

Although the money he is expecting to command will likely be out of the Patriots ball park, New England would be wise to at least attempt to negotiate with its best pass rusher.

Although the offense failed to take advantage of perhaps Bill Belichick’s best defense in New England, the Patriots now know what works for them on that side of the ball. With a cornerback trio — Stephon Gilmore (DPOY), J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones (slot) — designed to slow down the defending Super Bowl champions, the Patriots would benefit from Van Noy’s presence. All they’d be missing then is one or two more big bodies up front to stop high-octane rushing attacks.

This will be an interesting free-agent case to monitor going forward. But personally, I hope Kyle breaks the bank. He deserves it.

 What’s next for me?

As you all know, Fair Game with Kristine Leahy is no longer on the air. I’m forever thankful to Kristine, my bosses and co-workers for some awesome memories. That was a thrilling job in which I learned a lot and met some good friends, all the while working and mingling with several celebrities and athletes. I loved the show and wish it could continue, but a las, life happens.

As for me now, I have a few things in the works. I’ve been speaking with a few places, and should know where I’m headed soon.

I’ll be pushing out offseason content as I see fit, heading up to the NFL Draft.

I’d just like to say, I hope you all enjoyed my coverage of yet another NFL season. That’s another one in the books! Thanks for reading.

Kobe Bryant -- Super Bowl 54 Opening Night

Super Bowl LIV Preview: Loss of Kobe rightly overshadows buildup of speedy Chiefs-49ers tilt

After a fun-filled season, two teams worthy of the biggest game of the NFL’s historic 100th season remain.

Super Bowl 54. The Kansas City Chiefs versus the San Francisco 49ers.

Storylines aside, this is the most interesting Super Bowl matchup since Super Bowl 49 — Patriots over Seahawks — in terms of X’s and O’s, heading into the game.

I’ll get to why I think that later in this piece, along with my thoughts (and prediction) of Super Bowl 54. But I’ll begin with something much more important.

On Sunday afternoon, the sports world lost a legend and his daughter, along with seven other victims — whose families also deserve thoughts and prayers — in an unspeakable tragedy.

Here is my ode to Kobe Bryant, the tenacious NBA superstar that inspired my generation…

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Me and Tyler, one of my very best friends, used to viciously argue for hours over sports arguments in high school. One of the few I remember was me insisting Kobe Bryant, not LeBron James was the NBA’s best player in 2009, to the chagrin of Tyler. This came days after Kobe’s first NBA title without Shaq, as the unquestioned leading-man of the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Kobe was always a leading man. And it wasn’t because he consistently reiterated that out loud. He didn’t become a generational icon, and in turn, influencing my generation, by saying he did, he influenced us all by his tireless work ethic and drive to be the best at his craft.

Kobe wanted to be Michael Jordan. He wanted to be better than Jordan, actually. Kobe proceeded to become the other NBA player that has reminded us of “His Airness.” Only Kobe matched Kobe’s killer instinct and fearlessness in the clutch.

Just like Jordan famously reiterated “you miss 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take,” Kobe similarly once told the media: “I have no fear whatsoever…If I take the last second shot, and I miss? So what…”

Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality,” which has since inspired many of the younger superstars in the NBA, lives on in a few players. Kyrie Irving is one. Irving dropped 54 points (19-23 field goals) in a win Friday night, dedicating it to Kobe.

And despite the Lakers’ loss to the Trail Blazers at Staples Center, the night was still an honorable ode to Kobe Bryant, as LeBron James and the franchise in which Kobe played 20 seasons, honored him before the game beautifully. And during the game, Damian Lillard, who like Irving, is cut from the Kobe Bryant-mold in terms of basketball mettle, dropped 48 points in a Portland victory. Even in the Lakers loss, the night was a perfect memoriam to everything Kobe represented, with an NBA superstar putting a team on his back with an incredible, fearless performance.

Despite the legendary performance from Lillard, two nights before kick-off in Sunday’s Super Bowl, it was Kobe, his family and the families of the additional passengers on that helicopter that we continued to think about. That won’t go away anytime soon, and it shouldn’t.

This whole week has become a tribute to Kobe, Gigi, and seven other members who lost their lives. And we should all be complicit with that.

I touched down in Miami on Thursday, and the usual Super Bowl hoopla feels a bit different.

Monday’s Super Bowl Opening Night kicked off with a moment of silence for Kobe, and despite a fantastic game played out for us in Chiefs-49ers, the loss of a legend, his daughter, and their friends who lost their lives makes the game feel a bit hollow.

Super Bowl Live. NFL Experience. NFL Honors. South Beach. The bars, parties and events. This year feels a bit different.

Sports are a wonderful thing that continuously brings many of us, from different walks of life, together.

Several have held hands in the mourning over Kobe Bryant this week. Sports are what brought Kobe into our lives. We should be thankful. Everyone we lost in this tragic accident should be on our minds during Super Bowl LIV. And we should continue to think about him, for the rest of our major moments in sports, for the rest of our lives.

Long live Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan.

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And with that, I’ll get into Super Bowl LIV.

Some of the major ties with these two teams come in the way of two historic franchises with an affinity for the same quarterbacks.

Among the passers who played for both teams include: Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Alex Smith.

Another storyline is 49ers EDGE wonder Dee Ford, who was traded this past offseason after four seasons with the Chiefs as an extraordinary pass rush specialist. But his last play with Kansas City was his infamous offsides penalty that cost Kansas City a spot in last year’s Super Bowl. Do you think Ford has forgotten all the hurtful words from Chiefs fans, blaming last year’s AFC title game loss on him? There’s extra motivation here.

Both Travis Kelce and George Kittle should find motivation in trying to prove who is the NFL’s best tight end, as the pro football’s biggest game will feature the two best at the position.

In all, this is the most interesting Super Bowl I’ve seen (heading into the game) since Super Bowl 49, where the Patriots and Seahawks entered the game as the clear titans of the NFL that season, and the betting line was set at a push.

Similarly, the Chiefs are favored by 1 to 1.5 points in this contest, exemplifying the 50-50 feel of the public heading into this contest.

On paper, this game also reminds me of Super Bowl 48, where the Seahawks beat the Broncos 43-8, but heading into the game, many viewed it as a hard-to-pick contest of offense versus defense, with Peyton Manning being the difference for Denver’s recored-setting scoring machine. But the lightning-quick (and physical) Seahawks, equipped with a untraditional band of unique, all-time talent, length on the perimeter, and speed, destroyed the Broncos.

In this battle of offense versus defense, it’s the Chiefs (offense) versus the 49ers (defense), but unlike Denver’s offense in 2013, Kansas City’s offense has the most speed of any unit in the NFL. And at the helm, is Patrick Mahomes, who is capable of unconventional plays that leave even the most terrorizing defenses descending into madness.

Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and others are the great equalizer, making this game truly feeling like a close contest to come.

I’ll break down all facets of this fascinating matchup here.

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The Chiefs and 49ers present the two fastest offenses in the NFL, but the Chiefs pack the biggest punch in this category, with explosiveness all across the board on offense.

NFL Network‘s Cynthia Frelund had some telling stats (powered by Next Gen Stats) in her Game Theory score projection, regarding Kansas City’s big play ability in the passing game:

34 receptions of over 30 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

24 touchdown receptions of over 20 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

13 “deep” touchdown passes (Next Gen Stats) — Most in the NFL

But San Francisco may have the antidote to slowing down this prolific offense — The league’s best pass rush.

In addition to their overall defense — which is pretty fast in itself — San Francisco boasts a defensive line stockpiled with five first-round picks, headlined by Defensive-Rookie-of-the-Year-to-be Nick Bosa and former Chiefs All-Pro Dee Ford on the edge, and All-Pro DeForest Buckner in the interior.

One thing that is telling about Mahomes’ play is that 16 of his 17 interceptions over the past two seasons have come when defenses rush four or less defenders, leaving at least seven players back in coverage to defend Kansas City’s arial attack. Of course, that’s not very surprising. Producing pressure with four or less rushers will stymie just about any type of quarterback, no matter how skilled.

Yet another stat in favor of San Francisco is their ability to guard running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Football Outsiders ranks them first in DVOA in guarding running backs, and second when facing tight ends. That can be attributed to their fast linebacking core equipped with Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner. Now that the 49ers’ front seven is healthy again, they remain a huge factor. If San Francisco’s pass rush plays up to par, they’ll pressure Mahomes early and often, forcing him to look for his running backs and tight ends on quicker routes that sometime will be bail-out patterns. But with their speed at linebacker, San Francisco will likely have those routes covered often, on top of their pass rush.

The 49ers predominantly run a Cover 3 scheme that’s similar to the one Sherman helped spearhead with his play on Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense. Sherman excels in Cover 3 and Cover 3 match coverage, where he can play a bit of man coverage (to a degree) on downfield, boundary routes.

But if Mahomes is granted some time (thanks to Mitchell Schwartz and Kansas City’s more than competent O-line), the likes of  Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardmon present problems for Sherman, who is better with using his length versus larger, traditional No. 1 receivers, as opposed to diminutive speedsters.

The Chiefs would be wise to use them on the right side of their formation, as Sherman has an affinity for the left side, where he’ll probably reside the entire game.

Sherman may also see Travis Kelce in the Chiefs’ 3×1 scheme that features Kelce as the lone ‘X’ receiver, or he may draw Sammy Watkins, who is probably Sherman’s best chance in a 1-on-1 man coverage-type matchup.

Kansas City should have limited downfield attempts, so they’ll need to capitalize. Unless they suddenly breakout a top-tier running game behind Damien Williams, the Chiefs will have to try to win this game through the air.

And that’s how they like it, behind the league’s best player in Mahomes. But he’s going to need a little help from the big boys up front.

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Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco love to run the football. Their running back committee has dwindled down to virtually just Raheem Mostert, but that’s a good thing. Mostert’s explosiveness has been showcased in his postseason performances this past month. In San Francisco’s two playoff wins, the team rushed for 471 yards. And in the NFC Championship Game, Mostert ran for 220 yards and four scores on 29 carries.

Unlike Derrick Henry and the Titans, who ran out of gas trying to bulldoze through a suddenly-improved Chiefs run defense, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is an offensive mastermind with beautiful play design, and that extends into their running game. San Francisco would like to pound the still-vulnerable Kansas City defense on the ground with Mostert, gain an early lead, and then tee off on Mahomes with their pass rush, hoping to force him into a few mistakes. That’s their perfect game plan, but that could be asking a lot.

Through the air, Garoppolo will (of course) have to avoid throwing the ball right to linebackers in the play-action passing game. The 49ers quarterback has at times — twice versus the Vikings’ Eric Kendricks in NFC Divisional round — tried to force the ball to Kittle and has paid the price via an interception by a linebacker.

Jimmy G is not completely unflappable. Nerves (and a pass rush) could get the best of him, but he’s much more of a composed player than not. This is a quarterback who’s first career pro start was in place of a suspended Tom Brady, in which Jimmy led the Patriots to national-televised (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) fourth-quarter comeback win over the Cardinals in Arizona. Garoppolo is ready for the big moments.

And to those trying to diminish his 23-5 career record as a starter due to his game-managing in his last two contests — combined 11 pass completions in two postseason wins — just know that Kyle Shanahan’s offense displays a Patriots-like chameleon approach to their offense. They can win in a myriad of ways. Roughly just a month ago, Garoppolo outdueled Drew Brees in New Orleans, throwing for 349 yards and four touchdowns on 35 pass attempts (very Mahomes-like!) in a 48-46 comeback win over the Saints. Don’t underestimate Garoppolo’s ability — and in turn, the 49ers offense’s — to match Mahomes and this Chiefs offense score for score, if he gets even just a smidge of help from his defense.

In fact, San Francisco is 7-0 this season when Garoppolo throws for over 250 yards. They may need him to do that again in Super Bowl 54, as the Chiefs will likely force the game into his hands, knowing they’d be in worse trouble if they can’t stop the San Francisco defense.

But the Chiefs will have more problems with George Kittle, who I believe is the NFL’s best tight end because of his blocking skills and after-the-catch ability. Kelce is quicker and more of a route-running technician. He’s a better tight end-turned-wide receiver than Kittle. But Kittle is built from the Gronk mode, and is a destructive force in all facets on offense.

In the passing game, the Chiefs will likely use their safeties , the sure-tackling Daniel Sorenson, or Tyrann Mathieu, to attempt to neutralize him, but Kittle is a mismatch for either. They may need to double him, or hope for better pressure from a pass-rushing group that is already successful, being equipped with Frank Clark and Chris Jones. The latter is an absolute force in the interior, and pressure up the middle should disrupt Garoppolo’s timing and decision-making. This will in turn give the Chiefs a chance at neutralizing Kittle.

But the 49ers will also use their quick-passing game with the ultra-quick Emmanuel Sanders and the do-it-all rookie Deebo Samuel, who displays running back-like qualities as a wide receiver.

Shanahan will use pre-snap motion to try to confuse the Chiefs defense, or to sniff out their coverages.

Like Andy Reid and his forward-thinking, genius-level offensive concepts, Shanahan is one of the league’s brightest offensive minds.

He’ll pull out all the stops versus a Chiefs defense that will need to keep up its surreal play as of late.

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On paper, the 49ers are the better team. Everything is telling me that they should win a close or semi-close contest. But to me, it feels like the Chiefs’ year. And before you roll your eyes, sometimes, football works this way. The 49ers are the better team, but Patrick Mahomes could be the difference. He’s that good. One or two (or six) spectacular plays will have to be made by Mahomes. And they may all include evading San Francisco’s unreal pass rush. But he’s certainly capable of doing so.

The 49ers can possibly win behind the running game, Jimmy Garoppolo, or both. The many analysts and fans doubting Garoppolo may be in for a rude awakening on Sunday. I absolutely think Jimmy is already a top-10 quarterback. I think he matches the Chiefs score for score if he has to, even if it ends in defeat late.

I think this will be a fun, close contest throughout. But I say Andy Reid gets his first ring, and he’ll have his quarterback to thank.

Chiefs 33, 49ers 31. 

Eli Manning -- Super Bowl 46

Happy trails, Eli Manning + Top 25 clutch QBs in NFL History

I realized there was something special about Eli Manning during his first fourth quarter comeback in the spotlight.

During CBS’ late afternoon window in October of the 2005 NFL season, Manning rallied the Giants from a 23-10 fourth quarter deficit, to beat the Broncos — one of the NFL’s top teams that season.

Manning’s two-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with five seconds remaining gave New York a 24-23 victory. The pass was especially impressive because the Giants were out of timeouts, and Manning was backing up in the face of pressure during a somewhat-broken play, keeping his eyes on the end zone to find an improvising Toomer.

Two years later, Manning defeated perhaps the greatest team of all-time, the 18-0 2007 Patriots, en route to a Super Bowl 42 victory and MVP honors. He did it with two fourth-quarter touchdown-scoring drives, and one of the more miraculous plays of all-time in the Helmet Catch.

Eli Manning - Super Bowl 42
Eli Manning readies to throw the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 42. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Four years after that, Manning’s more impressive postseason run — NFL single postseason record of 1,219 pass yards —  ended with yet another Super Bowl win over the greatest coach and player in NFL history — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — featuring one of the great throws of all-time to Mario Manningham on the game-winning drive. Unlike the Helmet Catch, there was no luck involved in this one. A perfect throw by Manning, at the perfect time.

Manning’s composure is rivaled only by his forgetfulness. Manning’s ability to put a bad performance or drive behind him almost instantly, paved the way for several clutch performances in the unlikeliest of circumstances. His ability to forget and focus on the present (while moving forward) also made for the perfect New York quarterback.

In a city filled with tabloid-like headlines and a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude, Manning was able to shake off his critics to play 16 seasons, all with the Giants.

By the end of his career, Eli garnered $252 million though NFL contracts, the highest number in NFL history. But there were bumps along the way.

Despite his 8-4 postseason record (5-2 on the road), equipped with two of the greatest Super Bowl-winning runs in history, Eli’s four other postseason appearances resulted in disappointing one and done’s. And when Eli failed to make the postseason more than once in six seasons following his last Super Bowl win, his impressive streak of 210 consecutive games started came to an end when then Giants head coach Ben McAdoo benched him in favor of Geno Smith. After regaining his starting position in 2018, Eli was then benched again a couple of games into this season for rookie first-round pick Daniel Jones.

These were heartbreaking events for Eli, but he kept a smile on his face, refusing to criticize his team, coach, or starting quarterback when speaking to the media. Eli even helped mentor Jones, despite being in the most awkward of positions as the once-franchise quarterback — think: Drew Bledsoe.

Maybe that’s how we should remember Eli — a professional through the worst of circumstances and calm in the face of the highest adversity this game could offer. And although it’s debatable wether or not a quarterback with a career 117-117 record as a starter deserves Hall of Fame consideration, his two Super Bowl MVP awards speak for themselves.

Happy trails, Eli.

Top 25 Clutch Quarterbacks in NFL History

Eli’s retirement had me thinking of the greatest clutch quarterbacks in league history. We know Eli belongs on this list but where does he rank? See below.

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Honorable mention: Jim Plunkett, Patrick Mahomes (On his way, but too early. Would probably make this list with a win next Sunday, already.) Donovan McNabb, Matt Ryan, Steve McNair, Tim Tebow, Jake Plummer, Fran Tarkenton 

25. Steve Young

It took a few seasons for Young to “get the monkey off his back” as he and many viewed it. The Cowboys were a major thorn in his side, before Brett Favre and the Packers became one. But in between that, he beat Dallas to win a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP award, throwing for six touchdowns versus the overmatched Chargers. Then years later, he finally overcame Green Bay in the playoffs via a last-second touchdown pass to Terrell Owens — dubbed “The Catch II” — to beat the Packers in an NFC Wild Card matchup.

In all, Young had an above-average 8-6 mark in the postseason, and had some memorable moments in the clutch with the 49ers.

24. Jim Kelly

Despite his 0-4 Super Bowl mark, Kelly produced 29 game-winning drives as the leader of one of the greatest offenses ever during his stretch with the Bills. More so, Kelly drove the Bills into game-winning field goal range in Super Bowl 25, but Scott Norwood famously missed the kick, “wide right.” In two Super Bowls versus the Cowboys, Kelly was simply overmatched with his squad — similar to John Elway’s Super Bowl losses — and if you rule out his infamous Super Bowl record, Kelly is 9-4 in his additional postseason games. He came through several times for Buffalo.

23. Warren Moon

One might find this a bit of a surprise, but during Moon’s long career, he led his teams on 37 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. His playmaking ability magnificently came in handy during several comeback wins.

22. Troy Aikman

Aikman was surrounded by a ton of talent in Dallas, and he’s missing the memorable game-winning drive, but his 3-0 Super Bowl mark and 11-4 postseason record can’t be ignored. Aikman was a winner, and was highly accurate in several big games, both in the regular season and postseason.

21. Jake Delhomme

Many in Carolina remember Jake Delhomme from his six-turnover meltdown during a home NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Cardinals in 2008. But before that, Delhomme showcased why he belongs on this list.

Even including the bad loss above, Delhomme is 5-3 in the postseason. In his previous two playoff appearances, he brought his team to Super Bowl 38 — losing to Tom Brady but playing more than well enough to win — and to an NFC Championship Game in Seattle, where NFL MVP Shaun Alexander and the Seahawks overmatched the Panthers.

Delhomme was magical during his 2003 season, garnering a league-leading seven game-winning drives and five fourth quarter comebacks that season. Delhomme then posted a 106.1 passer rating during the playoffs, throwing for six touchdowns and one interception in four games. He threw the game-winning touchdown to Steve Smith to beat the vaunted Rams on the road in double overtime in the Divisional Round, won on the road in Philadelphia in the NFC Title game, and then threw for two fourth-quarter scores in Super Bowl 38, battling Brady score for score before losing on an Adam Vinatieri game-winning field goal.

The underrated stats of Delhomme’s career are his 4-1 postseason record on the road, and his honorable 2004 season, were the laughably-injured Panthers began the season 1-7, before Delhomme lead Carolina on a 6-1 record in a string of games that left them just short of the postseason.

His career may have been short lived, but Delhomme was remarkably clutch, leading 25 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in playing just four complete seasons.

20. Nick Foles

Another shorter resume makes the list with the unflappable Nick Foles.

With a 4-2 postseason record, and only 54 games started (30-24 record), Foles is one of the list’s additions simply due to how clutch he has been when thrown into the fire.

Before his disappointing, injury-filled effort with the Jaguars in 2019, Foles twice led the Eagles on late-season runs while filling in for Carson Wentz.

Many know Foles’ 2017 season that saw him take over for Wentz, and leading the Eagles on a Super Bowl run that saw him outscore NFL MVP Tom Brady and the Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl 52, giving Foles game MVP honors.

But it’s his next season, proving his clutch play was no fluke, that puts him at No. 20 on my list.

His 2018 campaign with Philadelphia featured a 5-2 mark that saw him lead the Eagles to three straight wins to end the regular season, before he led an ice-cold comeback drive to beat the Bears in Chicago in Wild Card round. After that, Foles looked poised to hand the Saints another devastating playoff loss (that would later come next week. The Super Bowl 52 MVP calmly drove down the field, but his perfect pass to Alshon Jeffrey (with separation) went through the receiver’s hands and into New Orleans’ Marshon Lattimore’s.

Still, Foles has proven to be a leader and big-time player to the fullest extent, even if just with one team (Eagles) , and with a smaller resume.

19. Joe Namath

What more can I say here? The “Guarantee” in Namath’s Jets’ Super Bowl 3 win set the stage for a respect (and full merger) between the AFL and NFL, and welcomed the football world to a “David beats Goliath” storyline that would come up again throughout the sport’s history — Super Bowl 36, Super Bowl 42, Super Bowl 52, etc.

Additionally, Namath posted 15 fourth quarter comebacks throughout his career. Even with a journey marred with some inconsistency, “Broadway Joe,” performed the best in the bright lights.

18. Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers was a difficult passer to place here. On the surface, Rodgers has 25 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, and two ultra-clutch Hail Mary throws during the 2015 postseason and regular season. Quite simply, Rodgers is the greatest Hail Mary thrower of all-time. There’s no debate there.

He’s also 10-8 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl 45 MVP award for his lone ring in a win over the Steelers. But the Packers legend sports a 1-3 record in NFC title games. There’s somewhat of an excuse for that, as his last two losses (2016 NFCCG to ATL, 2019 NFCCG to SF) came to vastly superior teams, and all three of those losses are on the road.

But in some postseason losses — like the 2011 NFC Divisional round blowout loss to the Giants at home after a 15-1, MVP season — he has been at fault.

I believe Rodgers is one of the greatest situationally-clutch passers I’ve ever seen, but is perhaps not the best big-game quarterback. (This is similar to Matt Ryan, but to a lesser extent with the Falcons passer.)

And because of that, Rodgers makes the list, but does not make my Top 10. Every one of my top 10 clutch quarterbacks on this list has consistently been situationally clutch, and a big-game player.

17. Joe Flacco

Like Eli, Flacco struggled to play at a consistently-elite level throughout his career, and rarely played better than he did during a few postseason runs.

Additionally, Flacco has the most road playoff wins (7) in NFL history, holds a 10-5 career playoff record, and has 26 career game-winning drives.

But Flacco’s most impressive feats include his 2-2 career playoff record on the road versus the Patriots (and could be better if not for his supporting cast letting him down), and his all-time great 2012 postseason run to Super Bowl 47 MVP. That year Flacco through for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four games.

16. Ken Stabler

The Snake!

Kenny Stabler was known for his comeback ability, leading 26 game-winning drives throughout his career, while also leading the Raiders to a Super Bowl 11 victory. Several times, Stabler showcased his come-from-behind ability, but his most clutch moment was his “Ghost To The Post” throw to force double overtime in a comeback win over the Colts during the 1977 AFC Playoffs.

15. Bart Starr

Starr is one of the older quarterbacks on this list, and although he wouldn’t register as the greatest passer with others on here, the Packers great was gritty in willing several Green Bay victories in the biggest moments. Just think of his quarterback sneak in the frigid cold to beat the Cowboys in “The Ice Bowl.”

Starr finished his career with a 9-1 record in the postseason, with 15 touchdowns, three interceptions, and 104.8 passer rating in those games. And in all, Starr won five NFL championships and the league’s first two Super Bowls, in which he brought home Super Bowl MVP honors in both.

14. Brett Favre

This begins the most interesting stretch of passers on our list.

Favre is known as the prototypical gunslinger mixed with a boatload of physical toughness, shaping one of the greatest careers in NFL history. He also produced 30 fourth quarter comebacks, 43 career game-winning drives and a Super Bowl 32 victory over the Patriots.

But Favre’s gunslinger ways hurt his image in the clutch during the homestretch of his career. Favre lost his last two NFC Championship Games with the Packers (2007 vs. Giants) and Vikings (2009 vs Saints) by throwing for ghastly, late interceptions that flunked both games for his respective team at the time. That brings him down a tad.

But everyone remembers Favre filling in for Don Majkowski for a fourth quarter comeback win in his first game. There was a lot of that throughout his career, too. Even late, with plays like his game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Lewis to beat the 49ers while in Minnesota. This spot for Favre feels about right.

13. Drew Brees

With 37 fourth quarter comebacks, 53 game-winning drives and a Super Bowl 44 MVP award, Brees is among the better clutch passers to ever play.

Brees’ postseason stats are also among the most efficient of all-time, but his 8-8 record puts a bit of a dent in his resume. Yes, many of those losses weren’t his fault, and the three consecutive postseason outs that have recently occurred are just about beyond his control. But if you look closer into some of those defeats, you’ll find stuff like his costly interception in overtime versus the Rams in last year’s NFC title game, or the loss on the road to the 7-9 Seahawks in the famous “Beast Quake” game of the 2010 playoffs.

Brees’ postseason perception is way better than his .500 record, and rightly so, but like Rodgers, you expect just a little bit more from him in the postseason.

But in conclusion, Brees is certainly clutch.

12. Dan Marino

Although he is certainly to blame somewhat for not having a Super Bowl ring, it’s basically public knowledge that the Dolphins failed to put the right team around Dan Marino to win a Super Bowl or two.

To the surprise of many fair whether fans, Marino is high on the leaderboard in several clutch categories, including: fourth quarter comebacks (36), game-winning drives (51) and postseason game-winning drives (4). And he even has some top-tier clutch moments (“Fake Spike”) on his resume.

He never won his Super Bowl, but Marino had several clutch moments.

11. Peyton Manning

Largely known as the QB who “couldn’t win the big one” early on in his career, Peyton Manning changed all that with the biggest win of his career, am 18-point comeback win versus his nemesis, the Patriots, in a 2006 AFC title game win.

Manning had some duds after this moment in the clutch — Tracy Porter Interception in Super Bowl 44, Super Bowl 48 blowout loss — but he was always one of the most clutch regular season quarterbacks of all-time, who was also capable of doing so in the postseason, even if not that often.

Manning was known as one the best “two-minute drill” passers ever, and his miraculous comeback versus the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in Tampa Bay — to exact revenge for Tony Dungy —  is still one of the league’s most memorable games.

Even if he’s lacking a few postseason moments, he still came away with two Super Bowl wins, and currently sits at second all-time with 56 career game-winning drives. Not bad.

10. Terry Bradshaw

Bradshaw was not only 4-0 in Super Bowls, he also boasts the best playoff record by winning percentage (14-5, .737) of any quarterback with at least 15 playoff starts, narrowly leading Brady at the moment.

Bradshaw is certainly not one of the best passers of all-time, but he is one of the best quarterbacks ever, and he left his mark mostly by his play on the biggest of stages in this league.

9. Ben Roethlisberger

Although he’s stumbled some in the postseason this decade, Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the game. Big Ben has a 13-8 career postseason mark (he began 10-2) with two Super Bowl wins (one via a game-winning drive in the final minute) and five playoff wins on the road.

With Roethlisberger, he shares a John Elway-like ability to break away from the rush to scramble for big gains and compete downfield throws on extended plays. That has certainly made for some exciting finishes via the big play.

Some of Roethlisberger’s most memorable plays include the famous game-winning touchdown to Santonio Homes in Super Bowl 43, and a walk-off, game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Wallace to beat Aaron Rodgers’ Packers in 2009. In all, Roethlisberger has 46 game-winning drives, with four coming in the playoffs.

8. Russell Wilson

Like Roethlisberger and Elway, Wilson makes you believe the game is never over with him at the helm due to his best-of-all-time escapability to extend plays and perfect touch on downfield throws in the clutch.

Wilson is a magician in the pocket with high-end leadership and the ability to forget recent mistakes, even during a game, which is likened to Eli Manning.

Another thing Wilson shares with the likes of Eli, Roethlisberger and Tom Brady is his ability to come through in the clutch, even to the chagrin of the flow of the game.

There have been several instances with one of those four aforementioned passers shook off earlier rust, several in-game mistakes, and the opposing team’s momentum to lead a shocking come-from-behind win.

In just eight seasons, Wilson has already built a Hall-of-Fame career to-be case, with 32 career game-wining drives (four in the postseason),nine postseason wins and a Super Bowl ring. He was THIS close to wining back-to-back Super Bowls, but succumbed to Malcolm Butler making the greatest (and most important) interception of all-time in Super Bowl 49. I attribute that play more to Butler’s awareness and playmaking skill (and a little bit of buffoonery from Seattle’s play calling), more so than to Wilson.

Simply put, Wilson is already one of the game’s best to ever do it when it comes to crunch time.

7. Kurt Warner

One of the weirder careers in NFL history began as such, as Kurt Warner’s pro football career came after he was bagging groceries at a local store in Iowa.

But after bursting onto the scene, Warner finished his career with a 9-4 postseason record, throwing for a game-winning touchdown pass in his first Super Bowl (winning Super Bowl MVP honors), while tying and taking the lead in the final two minutes of his two Super Bowl losses.

In all, Warner threw for four touchdown passes and rushed for another in the fourth quarter of three of the closest Super Bowls (34, 36, 43) of all time. Only Tom Brady (six touchdown passes) has more Super Bowl fourth quarter touchdown passes.

In total, Warner has a 102.8 passer rating and 31 touchdown passes in 13 playoff games. He’s a big-game quarterback in the highest regard.

6. Roger Staubach

“Captain Comeback” had a litany of clutch moments in a career that saw him produce and coin the famous “Hail Mary “, while also leading the Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins, helping them become known as “America’s Team.”

Despite two Super Bowl losses to the Steelers by a combined eight points, Staubach is known as one of the most clutch players of all-time in pro football, going 11-6 in the playoffs, while earning MVP honors in Super Bowl 6.

5. Eli Manning

In addition to what was mentioned above, there were several other Manning accomplishments in the clutch, including his two conference title game wins on the road — only Tom Brady (3) has more — and several regular season game-winning drives, such as the Giants 24-20 win over the Patriots in New England during the 2011 season, a precursor to their Super Bowl 46 win later that year.

Frankly, Manning was supremely inconsistent, but in the playoffs, at least for those two Super Bowl runs, he was the opposite. Any bad plays he made, he quickly forgot about to lead the Giants on several clutch scoring drives, often late, to produce several Giants playoff victories. Like Warner, Eli had a very weird career, but his play in the clutch alone (and maybe the Manning name) will probably get him into the Hall of Fame. That says enough about just how clutch Eli was. Few were better in the biggest moments than the youngest Manning brother.

4. Johnny Unitas

The original master of the two-minute drill and fourth quarter comeback, Johnny Unitas produced 38 game-winning drives from 1956-1973, with most calling him the greatest quarterback both in the clutch, and in general, of all-time when he retired.

Unitas also won three championships with the Colts, sporting a 6-2 playoff record. Unitas was the original clutch master, and many of his stats in the biggest of games hold up with today’s clutch stats.

3. John Elway

John Elway was clutch even while a sporting a 0-3 Super Bowl record, with critics saying he couldn’t win the big one. Elway finished his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins, of course, to rid of that narrative.

The Broncos quarterback twice beat the Browns in Cleveland in close AFC Championship Game contests, with one of those games featuring the famous “The Drive,” one of the most clutch drives in NFL history.

Truth is, Elway was supremely overmatched in his three Super Bowl losses, and his clutch playoff resume otherwise — 14-7 playoff record, 6 postseason game-winning drives — tell a story of one of the best QBs ever in crunch time.

Like Roethlisberger and Wilson, Elway was sort of a dual-threat quarterback who could scramble and throw, or do both in the same play, making it hard for defenses to contain him in prevent situations, or with double-digit leads late. Elway produced several “how did he do that?” comebacks throughout his career, and is one the best ever in those situations.

2. Joe Montana

Before Tom Brady, Joe Montana was the gold standard at quarterback, both in general and in the clutch. His 4-0 Super Bowl record — three Super Bowl MVP awards — 11-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in Super Bowls, and game-winning drive to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl 23 have immortalized Montana.

And there are several other fourth quarter comebacks, including a special comeback win over John Elway and the Broncos while Montana was a Chief, that are still talked about to this day.

Montana has 16 postseason wins (16-7 record), the second-most all-time for a quarterback, and has five fourth quarter comebacks in the playoffs. He is simply, “Joe Cool.”

1. Tom Brady

Brady was already a top three clutch quarterback of all-time before his torrid pace of crunch time antics that occurred after the infamous “On to Cincinnati” loss on Monday night versus Kansas City in 2014.

Since then, Brady produced a 10-point fourth quarter comeback to beat the defending champion Legion-of-Boom Seahawks, who double as the greatest pass defense of all time, in Super Bowl 49. And two years later, Brady completed perhaps the greatest single-game comeback in sports championship history, rallying the Patriots from a 28-3 deficit in the game’s final 18 minutes to beat the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, the first Super Bowl to go to overtime.

Brady earned Super Bowl MVP honors in both contests, giving him four such awards and six Super Bowl victories, with game-winning drives in EACH of his six Super Bowl wins. Furthermore, Brady has 30 postseason wins, by far the best of all-time, and Brady also took the lead with clutch drives in two of his Super Bowl losses (42, 52).

Additionally, Brady has the most postseason touchdown passes (73) of all time, and the most game-winning drives (58) of any QB ever, with an absurd record 13 of those drives of those coming in the playoffs.

We could have a whole other section about Brady’s clutch regular season moments, including a 24-point comeback to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, and a game-winning touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins to beat the Saints in the final seconds (both occurring in 2013), but I think the point has been made.

The GOAT is also the GOAT in the clutch.

 

 

Derrick Henry stiff arms Earl Thomas

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Titans, Chiefs to meet in AFC tilt of opposites + a NFC rivalry renewed

Many have said the NFL’s Divisional Playoff round is the best weekend in sports. I’m sure those people are not disappointed after this past weekend’s slate of games.

One major upset, one major comeback, and a close contest between two of the league’s top quarterbacks in legendary Lambeau Field.

But we begin with a side-by-side look at the AFC title game participants, and a barometer check of the conference as a whole.

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It almost happened. After an unfortunate turn of events, the Chiefs trailed the Texans 24-0 in the second quarter, with most believing that we were headed toward an unthinkable AFC “South” Championship Game — Tennessee at Houston.

Although intriguing and unexpected, it’s certainly not the game the NFL envisioned as a ratings bonanza for their second-most (tied) important game of their 100th season.

Luckily for those who may think that, Kansas City recovered. Patrick Mahomes reminded many of his brilliance in throwing for four second quarter touchdown passes, three to Travis Kelce, and Kansas City outscored Houston 51-7 the rest of the way, for a 51-31 victory.

“I don’t know who pissed him off, I don’t know who made him mad,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports of Mahomes, after the game. “I told him in the training room [afterwards], man — I said man, I don’t know who made you mad but I don’t have anything to do with it. Because when he comes out and [plays] like that, he’s clearly the best player in the National Football League by far, and everybody knows that.”

Mahomes vs Texans
Patrick Mahomes’ fiery attitude kept Kansas City’s playoff hopes alive, and broke Houston’s will and spirit. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Make no mistake, this was Mahomes’s finest performance  — 23 for 35, 321 yards, five touchdowns  — which comes in the form of a 24-point comeback that is tied for fourth-best in NFL postseason history. After being down big, the phenom quarterback led seven straight touchdown-scoring drives, for 41 unanswered points.

Kelce played his role of Robin, or maybe a second Batman, in hauling in 10 catches for 134 yards and three scores.

“Coach Reid is dialing them up for me and Pat is putting the ball on the money every single time,” Kelce told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game. It’s definitely a combination of everything coming together,

Reid is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, but it took some off-script improvising by Mahomes and Kelce to come away with two key red zone scores during the comeback. Both times, Mahomes was flushed to the sideline, only to throw or pitch a touchdown to Kelce, who used spatial awareness to haul in scores around multiple defenders sitting near the end zone.

For fun, the Chiefs mercilessly added 118 yards on the ground and sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson five times — three sacks by offseason acquisition Frank Clark.

It was a fast-paced, track sprint of a victory by Kansas City that showcased their speed and explosiveness on offense, and finished with help from their new-and-improved defense, led by newcomers Clark and Mathieu.

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Less than 20 hours earlier, the Titans had pulled off the unthinkable, a 28-12 smash-mouth beatdown over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, whom were the league’s biggest regular season story.

Just like their win last week of Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England, postseason hero Derrick Henry was heavily utilized. The gargantuan back carried the ball another 30 times for 195 and a touchdown, and also threw for a goal line score on a jump-pass to Corey Davis. His Tim Tebow-style leap pass was just one of several rushing highlights that included a 66-yard, back-breaking scramble to set up his touchdown throw, and another long run along the sideline earlier in which he stiff-armed Earl Thomas to the point of turning him around, and into a lead-blocking fullback for his amusement. His performance was again, unstoppable.

The offense started after Kevin Byard intercepted a tipped Lamar Jackson ball off Mark Andrews fingertips, and Ryan Tannehill lobbed a long 3rd-and-goal touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, who did most of the work in an acrobatic touchdown catch that set the tone.

“…Just starting the game out the way we did was a big key for us….It was huge,” Kevin Byard told The Athletic. “They’re probably one of the best first-quarter teams in the league, so the fact we got up on them in the first quarter, it kind of changed the game plan a little bit.”

Additionally, defensive coordinator and wizard Dean Pees stymied yet another former club on his revenge tour, with this being the best defensive performance of any team, all season. Soon-to-be-named MVP Lamar Jackson was elusive and unstoppable all regular season, and he produced 508 total yards of offense on Saturday, but that was mostly a hollow facade that did not tell the story of this game.

Tennessee held Baltimore’s offense to 12 points and forced three Jackson turnovers. The Titans muddled the middle of the field and loaded the box on Baltimore’s rushing attack, bringing up top-tier safety duo of Byard and Kenny Vaccaro near the line of scrimmage for a good portion of the game.

“We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan told Bleacher Report. “We were either playing with a loaded box and man to man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano or we were going to play a zone defense, a quarters defense similar to what Buffalo did. And Buffalo played them well. Buffalo just didn’t score a lot of points on offense. So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”

Tennessee forced Jackson to throw 59 times, often leaving everything covered but the boundaries. Jackson struggled outside the numbers, showcased by a late interception by Vaccaro when the Ravens quarterback tried to hit Baltimore rookie Myles Boykin on a quick out toward the sideline when Baltimore was in near-desperation mode.

It doesn’t help that Baltimore lacks wide receiver talent outside of Hollywood Brown. Boykin and Willie Snead are not going to cut it. Baltimore had found success throwing to its three tight ends — Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle — all season, but the Titans took them, and the middle of the field away.

As a team that was used to punching teams in the mouth early and often, John Harbaugh looked nervous and frustrated on the sideline, unsure if his style of offense could mount a double-digit postseason comeback. Despite Jackson keeping his cool (at least) attempting to get his team back in the game, Baltimore never recovered. On top of their struggles in the passing game — minus a few nice downfield throws by Jackson to Brown through the rare soft Titans zone coverage — Jackson was stymied on two 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks after converting all eight such situations during the regular season.

For Baltimore, nothing seemed to work. They were left befuddled and disappointed, unable to capitalize on their best regular season in franchise history.

“Listen, Lamar Jackson’s the MVP,” Byard told The Athletic. “He deservingly is supposed to be the MVP, the will that he plays with, he’s an incredible athlete. He tried to do everything he possibly could to will his team back into it. But it was our day today.”

Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill once again threw under 100 yards — 88 this week — but did throw for two touchdowns. Tennessee became the second team in postseason history to win back-to-back games in such fashion, joining the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins, and 1974 Steelers.

Behind Mike Vrabel’s fearless leadership, Tennessee came away with another old-school win. In a league where dual-threat quarterbacks and fast-break offenses equipped with speed and an NBA-style aggressivesnes are starting to take over, a defense and running game can still get it done. That shouldn’t seem so surprising, but yet, the win surprised many of us.

“If we’re being quite honest, we just shocked the world, and that’s all there is to it,” said Titans left guard Rodger Saffold.

“And the confidence and belief in this team is something I’ve felt before, and you guys already know that. This is a special team. We’re showing it. And you’ve got to love the underdog.”

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This weekend’s events left us with some questions about the changing-of-the-guard AFC that saw it’s dominating — for the past 20 years — team in the Patriots bow out early to a series of offseason questions, and it’s upstart, best-of-this-season team suffer perhaps the most shocking one-and-done loss in NFL playoff history.

What’s next for Baltimore? A soon-to-be optimistic look back on how they revolutionized football in 2019, perhaps. As Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas pointed out in a great piece, Jackson’s electrifying season did happen.

Baltimore will need to shore up their possibly overrated front seven and add a receiver or two to Jackson’s arsenal. There’s a good chance Lamar makes more strides in the passing game next season, similar to his Year 1-to-Year 2 jump.

Baltimore will likely regress some from their 14-2 mark, and they’ll have to deal with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have an elite defense and should see the return of Ben Roethlisberger next season, to help the offense.

And expect the Patriots to re-sign Tom Brady and supply him with a few offensive weapons for the dynasty’s home stretch. New England is not done yet.

Then there’s the two AFC finalists. After a season of blending in with a hobbled Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have won seven straight since beginning the year 6-4, with the defense being the story of their season in the second half. Mahomes and the offense sputtered for a bit, but they put on their best 2018 Chiefs impression in their win on Sunday.

Still, Kansas City must stay strong on defense, doing their best 2006 Colts impression, if they are going to go all the way.

But this season’s Titans have a heavy dose of 2007 and 2011 Giants to them. They are an underdog only to the outside world. After a 2-4 start to the season under Marcus Mariota, Tennessee is 9-3 under Tannehill, and Henry’s late-season run is reminiscent of the NFL’s older days, where superstar running backs could take over in January.

Despite allowing just 9.6 points per game since Week 11 prior to Sunday, the Chiefs have still been gashed for 4.9 yards per rush this season. Kansas City was without defensive tackle Chris Jones on Sunday, and even if Jones is good to go this Sunday, the Chiefs are left extremely vulnerable to another legendary Henry performance.

Dean Pees’ scheming versus Kansas City’s offense will loom large. As Baltimore’s linebackers coach & defensive coordinator from 2010-2017, Pees played his part in sometimes mitigating Rob Gronkowski, and sometimes Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, when limiting Brady and the Patriots.

In Tennessee, Pees has safeties Byard and Vaccaro playing like absolute madmen right now. There’s no way they’ll let Kelce beat them the way the Texans did.

They’ll force Mahomes to throw downfield to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. And of course, Kansas City can win that way, but things will be tougher at least.

The Titans have tough and competent cornerbacks in Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson, who can do their part, even against the unbelievable amount of speed that Kansas City possesses. But the Titans will need a steady and consistent pass rush on Mahomes to win. That’s the Titans’ key to the game, where as Kansas City must find some way to limit Henry or they will be in a world of trouble.

In theory, the Titans have all the tools necessary to beat Kansas City. This is a tough matchup for the Chiefs, but Kansas City’s offense is a tough matchup for anyone. Mahomes will score more than Brady and Jackson, and I’m not sure the Titans will be able to keep up if the game is forced into Tannehill’s hands.

My early prognostication is Kansas City winning a semi-close contest.

*******

In Green Bay, it was apparent from the first drive that Aaron Rodgers was going to be on. And Davante Adams — eight catches, 160 yards, two touchdowns —  picked up where Travis Kelce left off in the game before him, baffling both man and zone coverages from the opposing team.

Despite a late Russell Wilson push that stalled on a costly Malik Turner drop, it was apparent from the start that the Seahawks lacked the personnel and health to go on a realistic Super Bowl run.

Wilson did what he could, but this was Rodgers’ time. The Packers legend completed just 16 passes, but threw for 243 yards and two scores with zero turnovers. His beauty of a downfield, first-down pass to Adams on 3rd-and-8 was ice cold in the clutch, and put the Seahawks hopes on ice.

Seattle never got the ball back, Green Bay won 28-23 after getting out to a 28-10 lead. And the defense continued to be rewarded for Green Bay’s rare, high-profile free-agent purchases of Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith on the edge, as each picked up two sacks.

But next, they’ll face a San Francisco 49ers squad that is left as the best and most talented bunch. Heck, they’ve been the best NFC team all year. Their most impressive beatdown of the season came at Green Bay’s expense.

A 37-8 49ers win over the Packers in the Bay area back in November, in which Rodgers was held to a staggering 3.2 yards per pass attempt, and was sacked five times.

After a month or two of so-so defensive play since that day, San Francisco finally has their complete defensive front seven.

Dee Ford is back after missing the past two months, and linebacker Kwon Alexander was activated back off injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle a few months back.

Having the unit back together was apparent immediately on Saturday, as the 49ers dominated the Vikings, 27-10, by beating them in just about every facet of the game.

San Francisco held top-five running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards on nine carries, sacked Kirk Cousins six times and picked him off once while holding his yards per attempt to just 5.9.

Despite Green Bay fielding one of the best quarterbacks of all-time in Rodgers, it would be surprising to see them come out on top in San Francisco. The 49ers should see a better performance by Jimmy Garoppolo — 11 for 19, 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — after he looked out of place trying to avoid Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, the league’s top cover linebacker, who could have picked him off three or four times if he had pro pass-catcher’s hands.

San Francisco leaned on it’s running back committee on Saturday, rushing for 186 yards on 47 carries. Tevin Coleman — 22 carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns — was the lead man. He was brought in this offseason from Atlanta after breaking out with the Falcons under Kyle Shanahan’s watch, so Shanahan brought him to San Francisco.

If the 49ers run the ball this well versus Green Bay, the packers have little chance. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King may be able to slow down Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel in the passing game, but an affective 49ers run game should set up Garoppolo-to-George Kittle after the duo struggled in this past game.

Despite Kelce’s superb performance, Kittle is the NFL’s best tight end. He is at least tied with Kelce as it’s best in pass-catching, and is certainly the best blocking tight end in football. He’s the complete package. He’ll most certainly make some plays next week.

Green Bay will have to have a repeat performance by Rodgers and Adams, while also leaning on running back Aaron Jones to get San Francisco’s best-in-the-league pass rush off Rodgers’ back.

San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman has had a lot to say recently, but heck, he’s earned it, again. The 31-year-old had a pick on Saturday, and has reinvented himself as an older-but-smarter player with the 49ers.

Sherman covering Davante Adams will be the top player matchup of Conference Championship Sunday. If he can just slow down Adams (not even shut him out), things will be really tough on Green Bay. Jones, the running back, is likely their second-best pass catcher.

“The only place that I’m not the best corner in the game over the last generation is in the haters’ minds,” Sherman told The Athletic after the game. “You look at any stat, anything, and they just try to make it about other players. They never give me credit.”

“For all the people who think I’m in zone, it’s man,” Sherman said, continuing the lecture at his postgame presser. “I get tired of ‘oh man, he’s a zone corner.’ I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I’m great. It was man coverage. I covered the man. I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. Year in, year out. Whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 — unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there doing my job at a high level.”

There’s no doubt that the 49ers and Packers will play a closer game on Sunday than they did around Thanksgiving, but San Francisco is clear out-of-nowhere lead dog (although I’d like to toot my own horn in saying I had them winning the NFC West) that seems to pop up in the NFC almost every year. These uber-talented and fast teams seem to come up every so often.

Sherman was on the best of that category with the Legion-of-Boom era Seahawks. And now, he’s the vocal leader on Seattle’s rival, on the opposite end to the fascinating decade that was the 2010s.

There are plenty of smiles to go around in San Francisco, but they have one more game to win before a surprise trip to Super Bowl LIV. They should win it, in turn proving that a team with this amount of talent making it to the biggest game in their sport shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Tom Brady vs Titans

NFL Friday Morning Madness: State of the Patriots + Divisional Round Preview

A week removed from the Patriots’ disappointing end to their 2019 season comes with perspective.

Since the loss, Tom Brady offered a reflective Instagram post (see below), special teams coordinator (and WR coach) Joe Judge left to become head coach of the New York Giants, and rumors have Brady leaving to play for the Los Angeles Chargers have already been discussed at a nauseating state. Not to mention, Josh McDaniels could be the Browns’ next head coach.

View this post on Instagram

I just wanted to say to all of our fans, THANK YOU! After a few days of reflection, I am so grateful and humbled by the unconditional support you have shown me the past two decades. Running out of that tunnel every week is a feeling that is hard to explain. I wish every season ended in a win, but that’s not the nature of sports (or life). Nobody plays to lose. But the reward for working hard is just that, the work!! I have been blessed to find a career I love, teammates who go to battle with me, an organization that believes in me, and fans who have been behind us every step of the way. Every one of us that works at Gillette Stadium strived to do their best, spent themselves at a worthy cause, and prepared to fail while daring greatly (h/t Teddy Roosevelt). And for that, we’ve been rewarded with something that the scoreboard won’t show – the satisfaction of knowing we gave everything to each other in pursuit of a common goal. That is what TEAM is all about. In both life and football, failure is inevitable. You dont always win. You can, however, learn from that failure, pick yourself up with great enthusiasm, and place yourself in the arena again. And that’s right where you will find me. Because I know I still have more to prove.

A post shared by Tom Brady (@tombrady) on

But for those who want the most realistic answers, as opposed to the most exciting (and absurd), listen up.

*******

It doesn’t take a football expert to realize the major problem with this season’s Patriots squad.

It was the offense.

Looking further, there were three problems with the unit, and this is where I put the blame:

Lack of talent in pass-catching group (WR, TE) — 60%

Offensive line/blocking – Inconsistency, retirement/injuries (Rob Gronkowski, David Andrews, James Develin) — 25%

Tom Brady’s decline due to age — 15%

Yes, Brady — who will turn 43 in August — is in a decline, but it’s more of a dip likened to slowly sliding down a small, snow-covered hill slowly — something you’d let your toddler do. It’s not a steep cliff, per se. Not yet.

His NFL MVP year in 2017 may be his last prime year, but of course, that was his last year with top-tier weapons in last-year-of-his-prime Rob Gronkowski and speedy deep threat Brandin Cooks.

Brady made due in 2018, even going score for score with Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs (on the road) in the AFC title game, with an over-the-hill Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett as his outside receivers.

Then came this season.

The coming and going of Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas are well-documented.

Although the Patriots could have used the latter two, Brown is the only one who truly would have transformed this offense. Despite mostly living and dying in the middle of the field post-Randy Moss, Brady was in desperate need of a receiver that could create separation and become a threat on the outside. Brown is versatile enough to line up all over the field, and win anywhere, but he failed to stay in line.

Had Brown been there, teams would have thought twice about playing man coverage across the board, but instead, New England’s pass catchers ranked 32nd (dead last) in average separation per pass play, and were second in the league in drops (34).

Mohammed Sanu — acquired from the Falcons for a second-round pick — and rookie N’Keal Harry — 2019 first-round pick — certainly attributed to those stats. Judging by his speed, Sanu’s days of being starting receiver seem over, and Harry failed to grasp New England’s playbook, or a rapport with Brady, after missing the first half of the season.

New England was also in need of any semblance of pass-catching and run-blocking at the tight end position. They got virtually none in 39-year-old Ben Watson and backup-level Matt LaCosse.

The offensive line also struggled at times before Isaiah Wynn returned from injury to put a struggling Marshall Newhouse to the bench. But struggles could also be attributed to a horrible down year from Shaq Mason after he had improved his pass blocking in 2018. The loss of David Andrews at center also hurt, and Marcus Cannon showed his age at times. Only Joe Thuney (who is now a free agent) played consistently well.

The run blocking also failed to find it’s footing with the losses of Andrews, Gronkowski and full back James Develin leading the way. The unit did find a rythmn in late December, just like last season. Sony Michel seems unworthy of a first-round pick, but he does have a knack for coming through and running hard in December and January. That counts for something.

But what now? The Patriots are scheduled to have roughly $49 million in cap space, and 12 picks in the draft.

Tom Brady should be back on a masked one-year deal that has one or two future years that serve only to mitigate Brady’s cap hit in 2020. But yes, Brady will be back, and he should.

The Patriots made their bed when they traded Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick because Brady outlasted him.

Now, with little ammo to move up to select a top-tier passer in the draft, and only soon-to-be second-year man Jarrett Stidham on the roster, there is no real replacement for Brady on the horizon.

Even the slew of available or semi-available quarterbacks this offseason — Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, — is nothing to be optimistic about, if New England is indeed hoping to continue as a consistent Super Bowl contender with no major rebuilding phase.

Re-signing Brady is the best for both the GOAT and Bill Belichick’s team.

New England is in need of an aggressive re-tooling this offseason, but it can be done. Pass catchers like A.J. Green, Amari Cooper, Eric Ebron, Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper are expected to hit free agency, and pass catchers such as O.J. Howard, Brandin Cooks and maybe even Odell Beckham Jr. may be available via trade.

Barring something unusual in Belichick’s usual draft strategy, New England’s higher-than-usual slot of the No. 23 pick in the first round will not stay as is. The Patriots are more liable to trade down, or trade away the pick for help on offense — Odell Beckham Jr. should be their main target.

On top of several high-profile moves that can be made, 34-year-old Danny Amendola hits free agency as a possible reliable target for Brady. Amendola has shown flashes in Miami and Detroit the last two seasons, and could look to return to New England for one last run.

Then there’s Gronkowski. Although he probably won’t return, the chance is always there.

Still, Brady will have to cooperate to help New England here. He’ll first have to be willing to take slightly less money than he deserves. A deal that nets him around $25 million a year should be reasonable. He deserves more, but has to take less money if he indeed wants help in the form of pass-catching personnel.

Second, he’ll have to sign his deal before March 18th to avoid New England taking on an additional $13.5 million cap hit due to his last deal signed last offseason.

Brady’s recent Instagram post (I know, speculation), Robert Kraft’s love for him, and Bill Belichick’s lack of other options at quarterback should make this deal work.

New England could also lose Thuney and several defensive pieces — Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton — could be on the move. New England should at least look to retain McCourty and special teams ace Matthew Slater for perhaps one more season each.

The defense did its part in 2019, and that was likely their peak, with this veteran group. Chase Winovich can perhaps fill Van Noy’s role and New England’s cornerback situation — Stephon Gilmore (No. 1 CB), J.C. Jackson (No. 2 CB) and Jonathan Jones (slot) should hit its position group peak in 2020, but the unit as a whole will take a dip.

The offense will need to step up. They’ll need additional personnel to do that, and perhaps familiarity at offensive coordinator. If McDaniels leaves for Cleveland, former wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea should be brought in after his one-year stint as Miami’s offensive coordinator.

The plan is in place for the Patriots to get back to their usual ways in 2020. Despite the horrid end to their season, the end is not yet here. But it’s close.

But as Brady said, he “still has more to prove.” He’s just going to need some help.

Your move, Patriots.

NFL DIVISIONAL ROUND PREVIEW

NFL Divisional Playoff logo

 

Fresh off one of the more exciting (and possibly telling) Wild Card rounds in years, the NFL’s divisional round poses intrigue in its own right.

The AFC champion will feature a quarterback not named Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisbeger for the firs time in 17 years. Soon-to-be-named 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, and college-standout-turned-pro Deshaun Watson represent the changing of the guard, and probably future of the position and the AFC.

The NFC features a matchup between two of the best quarterbacks of the past decade in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins face off in the Kyle Shanahan Bowl, which doubles as a contest between the two most complete remaining teams outside of Baltimore.

There’s a lot to uncover. Here’s a preview — and prediction — for each game.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (No. 6 seed. 11-6) AT SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (No. 1 seed, 13-3) — Saturday 4:35pm ET, NBC

Minnesota Vikings logo     San Francisco 49ers logo

Kirk Cousins defied the odds in picking up the biggest win of his career last week in New Orleans. The Vikings, a talented team in their own right, took care of what may be the second-most talented bunch of the NFC, with Minnesota being the third. The first? That would be the 49ers.

The abundance of first-round picks along the defensive line over the years was topped off by the monster acquisitions of Dee Ford and rookie Nick Bosa this offseason. Those two on the edge, paired with the underrated DeForest Buckner in the interior makes for the best defensive line in football. Expect this group to get after Cousins.

On offense, Jimmy Garoppolo has been much better in the second half of the season than he was in the first (probably because of his ACL tear in 2018), and that should continue here, albeit a talented Minnesota defense. Hitting on both midseason acquisition Emmanuel Sanders and rookie second-round pick Deebo Samuel at receiver has been huge, and having George Kittle is even bigger. Kittle is the both the best pass-catching and blocking tight end in football, and even Minnesota’s Harrison Smith will have trouble corralling him.

San Francisco will work best both working the running game and play-action throws into the mix, to fend off a Minnesota pass rush of Everson Griffen and Daniele Hunter, that got after Drew Brees last week.

Former All-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes has struggled some the past two seasons, so if Minnesota opts to use him on Sanders, the latter should have some success using his quickness against the larger Rhodes.

Minnesota will find ways to fend off San Francisco’s pass rush by running Dalvin Cook like they did last week in New Orleans. They should have some success. But Kyle Shanahan’s team will score, and Minnesota will look to Kirk Cousins to match. Richard Sherman battling Adam Thielen will be great theatre, but it’s Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph — along with Cousins — that will have to win the game for Minnesota.

The Vikings play well once more, but Jimmy G’s 49ers are up to the task. San Francisco wins a close contest via long-sustaining drives late and one key turnover forced by the pass rush.

Prediction: 49ers 30, Vikings 24

 

TENNESSEE TITANS (No. 6 seed. 10-7) AT BALTIMORE RAVENS (No. 1 seed, 14-2) — Saturday 8:15pm ET, CBS

        

After bowling over the Patriots’ top-ranked defense for 184 yards and a score — on 34 carries! — Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher this season, has now garnered 1,080 yards on the ground in just the last seven games.

Ryan Tannehill’s performance last week — 8 for 15, 72 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — left much to be desired. Even if Henry is to continue his dominant ways versus Baltimore, Tannehill will have to play better to offset what should be a ready-for-action explosion of Lamar Jackson’s offense.

The Ravens haven’t played a meaningful game since before Christmas, and should be chomping at the bit to shake off the possible rust. The health of Mark Ingram and Mark Andrews will play a major role in just how potent Baltimore’s attack is. So will the discipline and remaining spunk in the Titans’ defensive tank.

Jurrell Casey will do his best to clog up the middle lanes, but next-line-of-defense playmakers like rookie linebacker Rashaan Evans, and EDGE defender Harold Landry will need to be at their best in hopes of somewhat corralling Lamar.

Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccarro have also spent a lot of time cheating up to the line of scrimmage to help with their rush defense. They should continue that this week, while also being mindful of the short-middle in the passing game. A muddled middle with a way of slowing down the rushing attack would force Lamar to throw outside the numbers to the likes of Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead.

Technically, Tennessee has a defense that could theoretically slow down the soon-to-be NFL MVP, but listing that here is not the same as them executing.

And Baltimore’s aggressive defensive backfield consisting of Earl Thomas, Marlon Humprhey and Marcus Peters will come in to play here, probably to the detriment of Tannehill.

If the Titans can chew the clock and score touchdowns behind Henry and the occasional Tannehill play-action pass, while also holding Baltimore to under 24 points, then they have a shot.

But that seems too much to ask.

Prediction: Ravens 26, Titans 16 

 

HOUSTON TEXANS (No. 4 seed. 11-6) AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (No. 2 seed, 12-4) — Sunday 3:05pm ET, CBS

Houston Texans logo            Kansas City Chiefs logo

In a game in which only Patriots and Bears fans (check out the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft) may attest to being exciting, two of the most supernatural QBs will go at it in Kansas City.

Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

Both are liable to carry their team to 30-plus point performances. But Patrick Mahomes really doesn’t have to, at least not by himself. Deep threat Tyreek Hill and ‘Y’ receiver/tight end Travis Kelce supply him with one of the best one-two punches on offense. And on defense, Kansas City’s unit has adjusted to first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s schemes after a rocky start.

Watson has help in DeAndre Hopkins, but he’ll need fellow former first-round pick Will Fuller to acompany him on the outside. Fuller is an immaculate deep threat, if not much else. And his presence will help ease attention on Hopkins, who could see double teams, and Kenny Stills, who would maybe see Tyrann Mathieu in the slot — Mathieu has allowed a league-low 40.7 passer rating in the slot since Week 10, according to Pro Football Focus.

Houston will need to pressure Mahomes to even have a shot at winning, and although they finished the year 26th in that category (31 sacks), J.J. Watt’s return should give them more confidence there.

Houston’s defense has some major holes, but Bradley Roby isn’t one of them. The former first-round pick from Denver has played with controlled aggression, and has basically taken over for Marcus Peters as perhaps the best aggressive-style cornerback (in terms of taking chances) the past month. Will they opt to use him on Sammy Watkins, with a possible shift to man coverage on Kelce on key downs? And even then, Hill is liable to beat them deep.

Mahomes has not looked as sharp since returning from injury midseason, but he’s slowly gotten better as he has healed. But the Chiefs have been okay behind a suddenly-superb defense that should be able to stop any full-throttle plans by Houston to run out the clock with Carlos Hyde. So even though the Texans won in Kansas City (31-24) back in October behind 192 rushing yards, they are unlikely to repeat that here. Kansas City will force Houston into a shootout where they will tee off on Watson with their pass rush. And judging by  Buffalo’s seven sacks versus them last week, they’ll be able to do that.

Kansas City wins behind a few big plays on offense, and a 5-sack performance on Watson. If there is to be one blowout this week, this is the game.

Prediction: Chiefs 34, Texans 17

 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (No. 4 seed. 12-5) AT GREEN BAY PACKERS (No. 2 seed, 13-3) — Sunday 6:40pm ET, FOX

Seattle Seahawks logo       Green Bay Packers logo

On Sunday night, two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks will square off in the postseason for the first time since Russell Wilson and the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks came back to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in an overtime contest in Seattle that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

Although much has changed since then, it will be Wilson versus Rodgers once more, but this time in Lambeau Field.

The weather in Green Bay on Sunday is supposed to hover around 20 degrees, with partly sunny weather, but that’s after Green Bay is expecting to hire over 700 shovelers on Sunday morning to clear out what could be as much as 10 inches of snow for the night before. Regardless, it will be cold.

The frigid weather would benefit a fully-healthy Seattle, who’s top back — Chris Carson — rushed for 1,230 yards this season. But Carson and his next two backups, Rashaad Penny and C.J. Prosise are all out, leaving the Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch, whom they picked up before Week 17.

Looking over at Lynch on the Seattle sideline may give Rodgers enough jolt to remember the NFC title game that got away form him in Seattle. He’ll want this one. But the Packers have struggled at times on offense this season behind rookie head coach Matt LeFleur’s scheme. In Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones, the Packers have two top-tier weapons, but there’s not much after that, giving Seattle an easier time to game plan. The Seahawks’ best bet is to neutralize Jones on the ground, and then to hope for a fine performance from Jadeveon Clowney on the edge. Clowney has been inconsistent in his first season in Seattle, but at times has taken over games, showcasing why they brought him in.

Green Bay’s improved defense should be able to hold Seattle’s rushing attack down, meaning Wilson will likely run for his life throughout the game, considering Green Bay’s improved pass rush with the Smith’s — Zadarius and Preston.

But this is where Wilson thrives, when all the chips are down. Although rookie sensation D.K. Metcalf may struggle to separate versus Green Bay’s No. 1 cornerback, Jaire Alexander, Tyler Lockett should be able to find some success working out of the slot, even against 36-year-old stalwart Tramon Williams, who has been awesome this season.

The play of Seattle’s offensive line will be key here, but Wilson will extend plays on his own anyhow. He always does.

Hoping to avenge a loss that haunts him, and with the weather and home crowd backing him, this should be a game where Rodgers leads Green Bay to victory. Especially considering Seattle’s injury situation and incomplete roster.

But this feels like the last win in a heroic season for Russell Wilson, who has carried teams better than any other quarterback the past few seasons, and has been specifically good this season, even with somewhat of a December swoon. Wilson gets it done, and surprisingly gets a little help from his defense, and missed opportunities by the Packers’ offense.

Prediction: Seahawks 23, Packers 17

 

CFP NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

LSU logo         CFP NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP 2020 LOGO          Clemson logo

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler predicts double digit underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft after this game, detailing just how much talent will be on the field.

That stat doesn’t include redshirt senior Joe Burrow, who has maxed out his college eligibility to his final game, which could give him the perfect send-off — a National Championship.

The Heisman Trophy winner will look toward main target Justin Jefferson early and often, which should result in points. Although Clemson is heavily talented, LSU is the better team. Clemson should figure out a way to slow LSU, which is something that no team has done this season, but the Tigers will adjust and retaliate.

But the thing about Clemson is, they’re not scared. They have the experience, as shown by their comeback win over Ohio State in their CFP Semifinal victory. True Sophomore Trevor Lawrence is undefeated as a starter (25-0) and Clemson enters the contest not only as the defending National champions, but as a team with an 29-game winning streak.

Even against a more talented LSU squad that features a litany of pro talent on defense, Lawrence will find ways to score. Expect the game to be a back-and-forth affair with both teams scoring in the final minutes.

I have a feeling that Burrow’s season for the ages ends in him slaying Clemson, before heading to the Cincinnati Bengals as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft this spring.

Prediction: LSU 35, Clemson 31

Lamar Jackson vs Browns

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Jackson permanentely ends MVP race

The Baltimore Ravens’ (13-2) magically dominant season continued on Sunday, as the team clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC with their 11th straight victory — a 31-15 win over the Browns with Cleveland.

And with that, Lamar Jackson clinched this season’s NFL MVP award.

Jackson — 341 total yards, three passing touchdowns — added more highlight-worthy plays through the air and on the ground, extending plays with apparent ease and juking defenders out of their shoes to convert first downs in situations that initially looked impossible.

This has been a weekly thing for Jackson this season. In all, he’s amassed 43 total touchdowns, with a crisp 36-to-six touchdown-to-interception ratio and an NFL-record (for a QB) 1,206 yards rushing and counting.

Jackson’s speed and elusiveness surpass that of Michael Vick, and his improving passing skills have taken his season to statistical heights of that of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ best years this decade.

Among Baltimore’s 11 straight wins, seven came against teams with winning records, including top-tier teams such as the Super Bowl-worthy Patriots (12-3) and 49ers (12-3).

After leading San Francisco’s new-school offense with Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of this decade, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s revolutionary offensive attack in Baltimore is nothing like we’ve ever seen in the pros. At least not to this dominantly-effective extent.

Give credit to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for his willingness to let go of the past, and embrace this new style. This offseason, Baltimore bid farewell to Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco at the position. Flacco and Harbaugh were a rookie pair of quarterback and head coach in 2008, and had been together since.

But Harbaugh’s obvious faith in Jackson sparked the decision to roll with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as it’s franchise.

Make no mistake, Baltimore has perfectly matched Jackson’s ability with coinciding personnel — a mauling offensive line, bruising running back Mark Ingram and the NFL’s best tight end trio in top man Mark Andrews, former first-round pick Hayden Hurst (selected before Jackson) and blocking H-back Nick Boyle.

Heck, first-round rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is yet to be fully unleashed, not because Jackson is unable to throw downfield, but because those shots are not needed when Baltimore is methodically marching at a consistent pace, as is.

Although many insist Jackson will be “figured out,” — a loose term that has been tied somewhat to Cam Newton after his ridiculously-good 2015 MVP season in Carolina — it’s best to appreciate Jackson’s season for what it is, and note that there are signs that he will improve in the coming seasons, if you can believe that.

Jackson has become more polished since his playoff meltdown in a Wild Card loss to the Chargers in Baltimore last January. Now, Baltimore’s next meaningful game will be a playoff contest in nearly three weeks that they will host.

The spotlight will be on Jackson, and if we can expect consistency (and we should) with his extraordinary season, it’s that he’ll wow fans and defenders alike once more, as he attempts to end his season in his hometown in Miami, in Super Bowl 54.

But for now, an MVP award will do.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. It’s over. The award is Jackson’s. And because of that, this will be my final MVP race rankings of the season.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has done a lot to keep Seattle in the mix for a first-round bye, but he needs more help to take this team to a Super Bowl.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. If the 49ers’ early season dominance was about the defense, the second half of their season has been about the ascension of Jimmy Garoppolo.

4. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. At the very least, he deserves co-OPOY award honors with Christian McCaffrey, if not, an outright win. He’s been unstoppable this season. He can play as a ‘big’ slot receiver and as an outside force. What a player.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB Houston Texans/Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Both Watson and Mahomes have had some struggles at times, but they pale in comparison to their fantastic play throughout the season. These guys, coupled with Jackson, are the future of the AFC. The new wave of quarterbacks has arrived.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should look to rest several players versus the Steelers, which include the banged up Marks — Ingram and Andrews. Both are vital to Baltimore’s Super Bowl chances.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-3) (Last week: 2). Jimmy Garoppolo converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 situations late. The 49ers will clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win in Seattle. A loss will drop them to the No. 5 or 6 seed. That’s insane.

3. New Orleans Saints (12-3) (Last week: 3). It was a good sign that the Saints got Alvin Kamara going, and were able to remain effective in a cold, outdoor game in December versus a tough opponent.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 4). The Chiefs have allowed a league-best 9.6 points per game since Week 11. Their 2006 Colts prophecy remains intact.

5. New England Patriots (12-3) (Last week: 5). The Patriots offense finally got things going versus a top-tier defense in the Bills. Julian Edelman and James White are Brady’s top passing targets, but he’ll need N’Keal Harry and Rex Burkhead to join that group this postseason if they are to have success. But most importantly, if the offensive line plays like they did versus Buffalo on Saturday, a 2018-like run for New England is possible. Here they come again.

6. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win tonight and next week, and a Seattle win over San Francisco.

7. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Vikings won’t pass the Packers in the NFC North with a win tonight, but they will have gained some major confidence. Kirk Cousins (0-8 career record on Monday Night Football) needs this win.

8. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 6). The Seahawks are stumbling to the finish line. But they still have a shot at the NFC West title if they can beat the 49ers at home this Sunday night.

9. Houston Texans (10-5) (Last week: 10). The Texans are a topsy-turvy bunch, but an AFC South title and the No. 4 seed in the AFC (probably) will do.

10. Buffalo Bills (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Bills hung tough in New England. They’ll be a hard team to face in the postseason.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-7) (Last week: 11). The Titans’ end-of-season schedule has been brutal. They need to win at Houston to make the postseason.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: 16). If they do indeed win the NFC East, I doubt the Eagles will make too much noise in the postseason, but they’ve shown their toughness down the stretch.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) (Last week: 12). The Steelers have almost everything they need to be a top team this season, but are without a quarterback. That’s killed them.

14. Indianapolis Colts (7-8) (Last week: NR). Their midseason swoon was a shame, because they have talent. Keep the Colts in mind for your 2020 predictions.

15. Dallas Cowboys (7-8) (Last week: 13). Just a tragic end to the Cowboys season, if Philadelphia wins next week. Either way, Jason Garrett should be gone.

16. Los Angeles Rams (8-7) (Last week: 14). A rough way to end their year, but with a few moves and renewed sense of tenacity, the Rams may be back in the postseason fold in 2020.

Next up: Tampa Bay, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, N.Y. Jets

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Week 15 shakeup sets up wild finish

Week 15 offered a glimpse of what we all hope to see come playoff time — a slew of games decided in the last second, and a touch of tough, cold weather football.

In Pittsburgh, 2019’s most unheralded Sunday night flex pitted two of the more mentally-tough, smash mouth teams against each other.

Behind (you guessed it), their defense, the Bills (10-4) upended the Steelers (8-6), 17-10, to put Sean McDermott’s bunch in the postseason for the second time in three seasons.

Buffalo has had some success on offense behind the improved Josh Allen, who threw the game-winning score to Tyler Kroft on a third-and-goal scramble in the clutch.

But it was the game-turning play of top-tier cornerback Tre’Davious White that changed the game. With the contest tied up late, White intercepted “Duck” Hodges for a second time, returning the ball 50 yards deep into Pittsburgh territory to set up the aforementioned Bills score.

White is a part of the holy trinity of cornerbacks at the moment. Led by New England’s Stephon Gilmore, who had two interceptions — one pick-six — versus the Bengals on Sunday, the group also includes the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey, and White.

Along with White, Buffalo has an underrated safety duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who are both versatile enough to move around the formation and cover different types of pass catchers.

The front seven, led by the talented young Tremaine Edmunds at middle linebacker features a veteran group of castoffs like Lorenzo Alexander, Jerry Hughes and Star Lotulelei, who have been magnificent for the franchise in upper New York.

With the Patriots struggling, and the AFC South teams showing some inconsistency, the conference is liable for a shakeup after the Ravens and Chiefs.

Even a win in New England next week would not give the Bills the AFC East lead literally, but it may metaphorically.

After a bevy of close finishes that shook up the playoff race, there are now two weeks left of possible mayhem for football fans to indulge on during the Holiday feast.

Could the Bills take down the mighty Patriots in New England on Saturday>

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. With five touchdown passes on Thursday, Jackson all but ended this MVP race. The award is his.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. While the MVP award might have evaded Wilson, the NFC’s No. 1 seed is still up for grabs. I bet I could tell you which one he covets more.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. The home loss to Atlanta was a road bump but Garoppolo has still had a fine season.

4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Watson shook off a few costly mistakes to lead Houston on an ever-important road victory at division rival Tennessee.

5. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Statistically, Mahomes has had another fine season in a shortened stretch, but it’s the defense that has given the Chiefs recent Super Bowl hopes.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers, Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (12-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should win in Cleveland to secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-3) (Last week: 2). The last-second loss to the Falcons was a bummer, but they’re still two wins away from the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Not much has changed.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). The Saints will need to keep pace with three other 11-win teams in the NFC with a win over the Colts tonight.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 4). Here come the Chiefs, with their much-improved defense.

5. New England Patriots (11-3) (Last week: 5). The offense may be beyond help in 2019, but if they can just find half of a rhythm, likely DPOY Stephon Gilmore and the defense may be able to lead New England to yet another Super Bowl.

6. Seattle Seahawks (11-3) (Last week: 6). Seattle regained the NFC West’s top spot on Sunday, but their Week 17 matchup with the 49ers will still decide the division.

7. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers haven’t looked too sharp as of late, but they’ve been winning.

8. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). That was a beatdown of the Chargers — 39-10, with seven turnovers forced in a road victory. Impressive.

9. Buffalo Bills (10-4) (Last week: 11). The Bills are back in the playoffs. What a great story.

10. Houston Texans (9-5) (Last week: 13). Houston’s up-and-down behavior exhibits the wild AFC South to a tee. They’d be a worthy champion of the division.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-6) (Last week: 10). The goal line drop-turned-interception that wasn’t Ryan Tannehill’s fault, changed everything. Now, they face a tough two-game stretch (vs Saints, at Texans) in which they’ll need to win at least one game to even have a chance at the postseason.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6) (Last week: 12). They just don’t have the offense to truly compete, but Mike Tomlin and the defense still has them in position to grab the AFC’s No. 6 seed.

13. Dallas Cowboys (7-7) (Last week: NR) If the Cowboys can play like THAT, then they can hold their own with anybody. Will they keep it rolling in Philly next week? Their season depends on it.

14. Los Angeles Rams (8-6) (Last week: 9). Their second beatdown loss in front of a national crowd in the past month should end their season. Time to regroup for 2020.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7) (Last week: 15). The Buccaneers have been one of the more exciting teams to watch this season.

16. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7) (Last week: NR) Another last-second victory keeps the Eagles on par with Dallas. Now, they’ll host Dallas with the NFC East on the line.

Next up: Indianapolis, Chicago