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Ja'Marr Chase vs Chiefs -- 2021

NFL Friday Morning Madness: 2021 Award picks + Final Power Ranking

As we ring in the new year, 2022, we do so by also saying goodbye to the 2021 NFL regular season.

With just one week left to play, the first ever Week 18, seven of eight division titles have been clinched, and 11 of 14 total playoff spots have been filled, with just three more berths and seeding left to be decided.

As it stands, there will be a few teams with nothing to play for in Week 18, which could signal a few key players resting up for the playoffs by missing a portion of their Week 18 contest, or sitting out their respective games entirely.

With that in mind, it feels like the right time to reveal my award picks and give my final power ranking for the season.

Some of these races are pretty tight, which makes some of these choices difficult. Give them a read and feel free to comment below the piece in the comments section.

We begin with the major awards, and then the final ‘The Better Half’ section follows.

Enjoy!

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MVP (Most Valuable Player) Tom BradyTom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

This will certainly draw some ire. The battle between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, both three-time NFL MVPs, for this year’s award, is a fascinating case study.

Like other league awards, stats play a huge factor in determining a winner here, but determining a player’s ‘value’ to their team, along with team success, help bring a unique ‘storyline’ feel to the award.

The Packers have been the best team in football for most of the year, and will enter the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Aaron Rodgers leads the league in a ton of efficiency metrics, as he’s arguably been the most efficient quarterback this year. His league-high marks include: TD/INT ratio (35:4), Total QBR (67.8), passer rating (111.1), total EPA and EPA/play.

When voting for MVP, there is an amount of “who feels like the winner?” associated with the process, and Rodgers certainly fits that criteria.

But Tom Brady, who has reached a LeBron James/Aaron Donald-level of fatigue when determining his single-season success for awards, should be right there, when it comes to a narrative-based discussion surrounding the honor.

In accounting for an injury-riddled team that has regressed mightily on defense, and been without pass-catchers such as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown (who now is gone, if you haven’t heard) and Rob Gronkowski at various points, the Buccaneers have resembled one of the undermanned ‘Do Your Job’ teams throughout Brady’s Patriots career, without Bill Belichick to help team up with him to lift the squad up.

Still, Brady has the Bucs sitting at 12-4, one game behind the Packers, with one more week to go.

Brady leads the league in a few traditional volume-based stats — attempts (682), completions (456), passing yards (4,990), passing touchdowns (40) — and bests Rodgers in a few important advanced analytics-based efficiency metrics such as PFF grade (91.4, 2nd in NFL behind Joe Burrow) and WAR (4.7). That last stat, WAR (Wins above replacement), is a respected metric created by Pro Football Focus that is used to ” assess the value of a player with an eye toward winning football games.” Brady leads the league in WAR by a huge margin. Brady also is right behind Rodgers in Total QBR (66.7 to Rodgers’ 66.8).

Many point to Brady’s struggles in two losses to the New Orleans Saints, including a 9-0 dumpster fire loss at home to New Orleans in December. Despite playing the game with numerous key injuries, there’s no excuse for a loss of that nature. But if that is to be docked against Brady, shouldn’t Rodgers’ 38-3, Week 1 loss to New Orleans be brought up, as well?

Wait, there’s more.

Brady has also been his usual self in the clutch, leading Tampa to a game-winning drive on five different occasions (four times versus 2021 playoff teams), which includes a win over the Patriots in Week 4, a double-digit comeback in Indianapolis to beat the Colts in Week 12, a walk-off overtime touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman to beat the the Bills in Week 14, and Sunday’s game-winning drive to beat the Jets (see tweet below) — a 93-yard journey with no timeouts, needing a touchdown, amidst all of the Antonio Brown drama.

This can go on and on. The latter part of the tweet above includes an explanation of a few of Brady’s interceptions, that were really ghastly drops-turned turnovers by his teammates.

Certainly, Rodgers has done enough to be deserving of the award. It’s a close race.

Rodgers certainly shouldn’t be docked because he has been “unlikable,” which was foolish reasoning given by longtime NFL reporter Herb Arkush, who is one of the 50 AP voters whose vote will count, and doesn’t plan to vote for Rodgers.

This is an award given to on-field play.

But to be fair, Rodgers’ snafu-ish handling of his COVID-19 vaccination situation did lead to him missing Green Bay’s battle in Kansas City, where the Chiefs limited the Packers’ offense with QB Jordan Love to just 7 points in a KC victory.

Couple that with the likeliness of Rodgers sitting out all or most of Green Bay’s Week 18 battle, and Brady likely playing all of his versus Carolina, and you will see an even bigger gap between Brady and Rodgers in some statistical metrics.

Again, it’s a close race, and like many arguing for either side, my bias is known — I’m a big Brady supporter. To tell you the truth, I figured Rodgers had this award locked up a week ago, but after watching Brady overcome the the drama and ineptitude that plagued the Bucs on Sunday, just to win another game in clutch that no one is talking about, sort of shifted the narrative for me.

As great as Rodgers has been, you can make the case that Brady has been more valuable to his team this season. I just made that case, actually.

One of these two quarterbacks will win their fourth MVP award in a month. Who is it going to be?

OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year)Cooper Kupp Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Runner-up: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Both Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor (along with Joe Burrow), would help round out a ‘Top 5′ of MVP voting, which would be helpful if there were additional votes given for second place, third place and so on. But there’s only one vote given for the award, and coupled with Brady and Rodgers’ success, and the value of a quarterback to its team, that makes it difficult for Kupp, or Taylor, especially, to be in the MVP race.

Now this award is a different story.

What Taylor has done this season has been extraordinary. He leads league the lead in rushing yards (1,734) and second place is over 500 yards behind. He also leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns (18) by a wide a margin and leads the league in touchdowns scored (20). And despite the Colts harboring what may be the league’s best offensive line, Taylor’s performance is still more indicative of his talent at the position. He could be the new Derrick Henry, or close to him.

That being said, what Kupp has done this season has been more impressive.

Most of what he has done has not been “schemed.” Sure, some of his big chunk gains have come on designed play-action passing concepts by Rams head coach Sean McVay, but a lot of Kupp’s success has come from his route-running ability, where he excels both from the slot, and from the perimeter.

He’s always been a good slot receiver. He’s played in the slot for 617 snaps this year, according to PFF. He’s also had 324 snaps out wide, which is a hefty total for a perceived full-time slot pass catcher.

In 16 games, Kupp has totaled 138 catches for 1,829 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He leads the league in all three metrics, which figures to give him the first pass catcher ‘triple crown’ since Steve Smith did so for the Carolina Panthers in 2005.

Kupp also leads the league in targets (184), with the next closest receiver, Davante Adams, being 22 targets behind.

With Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford having an up and own season, Kupp has been the spark plug of the Rams’ offense. The offense has simply evolved to revolve around him, and he has simply remained uncoverable. My vote would be for Kupp.

 DOPY (Defensive Player of the Year) — T.J. Watt T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers

Runner-up: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

This may be the toughest award to decide this season.

Myles Garrett had a clear lead at midseason. Several other names have jumped in and out of the conversation, including Matthew Judon, Nick Bosa, and Trey Hendrickson. And Dallas Cowboys rookie phenom Micah Parsons should certainly be in the mix.

But with one week to go, to me, the battle comes down to T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald.

Donald won last year’s DOPY award, as well as three of the last four. There is a sense of voter fatigue with him, like there has been with LeBron James for the NBA’s MVP honor.

Donald leads the league in QB pressures by a wide margin, which is incredibly impressive for an interior defensive lineman. He has a solid case to win the award again.

But so does Steelers stand-up EDGE defender T.J. Watt.

Watt has been in the mix for the award in each of the last two seasons. This year, he leads the league with 21.5 sacks, and has added four forced fumbles, and a league-high (tied) three fumble recoveries.

Pittsburgh’s defense hasn’t been as strong of an overall unit as it’s been in the past, with the defense relying heavily on Watt and veteran Cameron Heyward. Both of them have delivered, with Watt being the driving force.

The Steelers are known for being a proud franchise, and with the offense as lowly as it’s been in 2021 for Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song season, it’s been Watt that has the led the charge for the 8-7-1 Steelers, who have a shot at a winning record this week, and an outside shot at a playoff spot.

OROY (Offensive Rookie of the Year) —  Ja'Marr Chase Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Runner-up: Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots

As impressive as Mac Jones has been in spurts for the Patriots, he now falls back to the pack with the likes of Jaylen Waddle, Kyle Pitts and Creed Humphrey, as Ja’Marr Chase literally left behind everyone in the field last week versus the Chiefs.

In two important wins over Baltimore and Kansas City in the last two weeks, Chase has totaled 18 catches on 22 targets for 391 yards and three touchdowns to bring his total numbers on the year to: 79 catches, 1,429 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns.

He’s been the league’s most explosive downfield threat, leading the NFL in yards per reception (18.1) among qualified candidates.

There were many (including myself) questioning the Bengals ‘ selection of Chase with the fifth overall pick over a quality offensive tackle prospect last spring. The move seemed like too much of a gift toward Burrow, and less of an ideal decision toward overall team-building.

And although the Bengals’ O-line is indeed still a weakness, and the tackle position must be addressed in the offseason, Chase has proven to be the correct pick.

Burrow and Chase have teamed up to form perhaps the most dangerous QB-pass catcher combo in the game today, or at least up there with Patrick Mahoems-Tyreek Hill.

Although Mac Jones may bring more career-long value to his team than Chase, it’s Chase who deserves this particular award this season, no question.

 

DROY (Defensive Rookie of the Year) —  Micah Parsons Player Photo Micah Parsons, LB/EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Runner-up: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos 

This is a pretty easy pick. Patrick Surtain II has had an awesome rookie season, and should be a shutdown cornerback for years to come, but Micah Parsons is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, let alone Defensive Rookie of the Year. Parsons has the highest PFF grade (88.7) of any linebacker this year, but also has played 374 snaps on the D-line as an EDGE defender (according to PFF), where he leads the league in PFF pass rush grade (93.0) and is sixth in the NFL with 13 sacks. He’s been one of the best players in football this season, period.

 

Comeback Player of the Year —  Joe Burrow  Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Runner-up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Despite Prescott’s solid season in return from injury, this one has become pretty simple for me in recent weeks. Joe Burrow, with help from his buddy Ja’Marr Chase, has been marvelous in return from last season’s knee injury, helping to lead the Bengals to a surprising AFC North title, all while being near the top of the league in may statistical categories.

 

Coach of the Year — NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 14, 2021 - The 2021 photo of Head Coach Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans NFL football team. This image reflects the Tennessee Titans active roster as of June 14, 2021 when this image was taken. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Titans  Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

Runner-up: Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers 

It feels sort of wrong for Matt LaFleur, who has 13 wins in each of his first three seasons in Green Bay, to not win the award. If he wins it, there will be no pushback from me.

But what Mike Vrabel has done in Tennessee in this season has been more impressive. Dealing with an NFL-record 88 different starters in a single season, Vrabel has the Titans on the brink of capturing the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and it’s ever-important bye. He’s done much of this without arguably his two best players — running back Derrick Henry and receiver A.J. Brown.

If the Titans beat the Texans on Sunday, the award should be his.

Executive of the Year — bill-belichick-headshot2019-recropped  Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Runner-up: Brian Gutekunst, Green Bay Packers 

No one would fault anyone for voting for Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst here. He’s built perhaps the most complete team in football, all while dealing with the Aaron Rodgers offseason drama, to have the Packers as the Super Bowl favorite here in January.

But give me Bill Belichick, whose plan to move at hyper-speed to success following the departure of Tom Brady amidst a pandemic-riddled 2020, has panned out.

The Patriots spent a free agency-record $163 million guaranteed in free agency, and are seeing some great returns already from some such as EDGE Matthew Judon.

New England also drafted rookie QB Mac Jones in the first round, and have ushered him in nicely into the Patriot Way as the Patriots head back to the Playoffs.

Had New England defeated the Buffalo Bills last month, and grabbed the AFC’s No. 1 seed, Belichick would have been the vote for Coach of the Year, as well.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) (Last week: 1). They’ve been the NFL’s best and most complete team for much of the season. This may be Aaron Rodgers’ best chance yet at a second Super Bowl ring.

2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4) (Last week: 3). Even with Matthew Stafford playing messy football, they’re a Super Bowl contender. This is banking on them finally beating nemesis San Francisco to clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed, though.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) (Last week: 2). The loss in Cincinnati likely bumped them out of having a bye. They were on a roll. They’re the back-to-back defending AFC champs, so they enter the playoff field as the conference’s favorite. But just how good is their defense? Will they hold up versus the likes of Buffalo? Or versus the ground game of Jonathan Taylor and Indianapolis?

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4) (Last week: 4). Tom Brady has done a lot to prop them up this season. And that’s exactly why they can’t be counted out in the playoffs. But it does sort of feel like it’s not their year. We shall see. If their defense can flip the switch to even ‘moderately good,’ then look out.

5. Buffalo Bills (10-6) (Last week: 7). With Josh Allen manning their offense, they’re a Super Bowl contender. They’ve showed some toughness recently, too. Both mentally and physically.

6. Tennessee Titans (11-5) (Last week: 8). The Titans have A.J. Brown healthy and back on the field, playing well. Now, it’s Derrick Henry’s turn. The ‘King’ could reportedly play this week, if not, in the playoffs. Tennessee is a win over the Houston Texans away from clinching the AFC’s No. 1 seed, just as they re-welcome their star running back. What a great job by head coach Mike Vrabel to keep this team afloat amidst all of the madness.

7. Dallas Cowboys (11-5) (Last week: 5). They sort of felt like a team of destiny early on, but that magic has waned as of late. They’re still a great team. You can’t count them out.

8. New England Patriots (10-6) (Last week: 9). Like the Colts, they have the structure and identity of a team that could make a run in the playoffs, especially with Bill Belichick at coach, and the AFC as is. Is Mac Jones ready?

9. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) (Last week: 10). This has been a helluva season for them. Joe Burrow has taken the leap, and it looks like they made the right move in drafting Ja’Marr Chase over an offensive tackle with pick No. 5 last spring, eh? Let’s hear it for the AFC North champions.

10. Indianapolis Colts (9-7) (Last week: 6). They should be able to beat the Jaguars on Sunday to clinch a wild card spot, but their home loss to Las Vegas brought them down to earth some. They have the DNA of a tough playoff team, but they’ll ultimately go as far as Carson Wentz allows them to.

11. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) (Last week: 12). The Cardinals still have a shot at the NFC West. That was a tough win in Dallas last Sunday. Maybe they’re not dead yet. They still don’t ooze confidence, heading into the playoffs. But that was a step back in the rigth direction.

12. San Francisco 49ers (9-7) (Last week: 11). They need to beat the Rams for a sixth straight time to ensure they get into the playoffs. A loss and a Saints win means they’re out. If it’s Trey Lance who gets the start, can the rookie get the job done?

13. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert is perhaps as as talented a quarterback as any in this league, but the Chargers are…well, the Chargers. Can they overcome their franchise’s energy to defeat the Raiders in Las Vegas? Technically, they’re a better team, but I wouldn’t drop any money on them. Las Vegas has been a more mentally tough team this season.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7) (Last week: NR). Derek Carr (with some help from Hunter Renfrow) has done an incredible job keeping the Raiders season alive. They host the Chargers in a de-facto playoff game on Sunday night. If they win, they’re in.

15. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) (Last week: 15). The Eagles are going to the playoffs in Year 1 under rookie head coach Nick Sirianni. Jalen Hurts has had his ups and downs, but he’s proven to be a solid quarterback. Considering the lackluster impending rookie draft class of passers, Philadelphia should use their three first-round draft picks on other positions in hopes of building a solid team around Hurts, unless they can swing a deal for a star QB such as Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or maybe Deshaun Watson. If not, they should stick with Hurts.

16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8) (Last week: 14). Injuries derailed their regular season before it even began. They’ve lost five straight since an 8-3 start that had them as AFC frontrunners at the time. As great as the Bengals’ story is this season, a healthy Lamar Jackson, even with the rest of the team as is, probably would have given the Ravens the AFC North title this year. Instead, they’ll likely miss the playoffs.

Next Up: New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Miami, Minnesota, Cleveland

Josh Allen vs Patriots -- 2021

Week 16 takeaways: Josh Allen, Joe Burrow lead Bills, Bengals to huge division wins

Week 16’s results shifted divisions, included major upsets and ultimately moved us one week closer to the end of the regular season.

There will be two more weeks of non-playoff pro football to kick off January, with the first ever Week 18 taking place on Sunday, January 9th.

There are several factors at play in the race for playoff seeding, which includes a ravaging of rosters via positive COVID-19 cases deeply affecting some contests (WAS-DAL, MIA-NO, etc.).

This has also been one of the tightest races to the postseason in history, particularly in the AFC, where just one team, the Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West champions) has clinched a playoff spot.

With this being the first season with a 17-game schedule, just one season after the league introduced an extra playoff team for each conference, there are a lot of similarities to this season and 2002, which was a year in which the league added the Houston Texans as a team, and realigned the league to feature eight divisions, instead of six.

The mad dash in the AFC feels similar this season. The league will probably better adjust to this new format next season, meaning we can expect slightly less chaos. But for now, let’s enjoy the ride.

There are a lot of takeaways from this week’s action, let’s tackle them in our weekly power ranking section — The Better Half.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 1). 

Green Bay survived the Cleveland Browns. They feel and look like a Super Bowl-winning squad, and Aaron Rodgers is close to winning his fourth NFL MVP award, and second in a row.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 2). 

The Chiefs have been on fire these past two months, particularly on defense. Their matchup in Cincinnati this week will be a sign of how they stack up versus one of the better (but not great) AFC squads on the road.

3. Los Angeles Rams (11-4) (Last week: 3).

Matthew Stafford had an ugly outing in Minnesota, but regardless, the Rams are still winning. Cooper Kupp (132 catches, 1,734 receiving yards, 13 TDs through 15 games) is having arguably the greatest season for a wide receiver in NFL history. He’s been amazing to watch.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4) (Last week: 4). 

Tampa will need to have Chris Godwin and Mike Evans back for the playoffs to have a solid shot of returning to the Super Bowl, but for now, the return of Antonio Brown will do for Tom Brady, who has helped elevate a Bucs team that hasn’t been at full go for virtually the entire season. That was a solid win in Carolina, even with the Panthers looking like one of the league’s worst teams.

5. Dallas Cowboys (11-4) (Last week: 5). 

Here comes Dallas. They’re starting to resemble the Super Bowl contending-team that they were earlier in the season. They have a Super Bowl “feel” to them, much like Green Bay, if that makes sense. If they can win out and hang onto the NFC’s No. 2 seed, that would be of big help. But they’ll need some help to do that.

6. Indianapolis Colts (9-6) (Last week: 6). 

Down linebacker Darius Leonard, league-best offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, and three more O-line starters for much of the game, the Colts rallied to win in Arizona. Even with Carson Wentz unable to find a rhythm at QB, Indianapolis is a clear contender in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (9-6) (Last week: 8). 

The Bills became the first team to win in New England in back to back seasons since Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts did so in 2005 and 2006. Josh Allen (378 total yards, three TDs) was seemingly unstoppable, as Buffalo never punted, scoring on six of their seven possessions, only being stopped by a fourth-and-goal incompletion early on. In all, the Bills converted nine of 16 third and fourth down conversions. At this point in time, they are the better team than the Patriots, and that will likely show in a second consecutive AFC East title.

8. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 11). 

Tennessee certainly welcomed back receiver A.J. Brown (11 catches, 145 yards, 1 TD vs SF on TNF) with open arms. If they can get Derrick Henry back for the postseason, watch out. They have championship mettle and moxie.

9. New England Patriots (9-6) (Last week: 7). With Cole Beasley out, reserve receiver and special-teamer Isiaiah McKenzie, who entered the game with seven catches for 37 yards, manned the slot position for Buffalo, and had a career-best effort. McKenzie, mostly guarded by Patriots slot CB Myles Bryant, went for 11 catches, 125 receiving yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. Bryant was helpless in man coverage/Cover-1 looks on Sunday, with McKenzie really just running across the field on most passing plays. Jalen Mills was equally as bad in zone coverage, allowing any and every pass to be completed underneath versus him. New England had no answer for Josh Allen on defense, and on offense, converted on just one of 10 third-down attempts. Judging by this game, the Patriots badly missed slot cornerback Jonathan Jones and pass-catching back James White. Both suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the season. A Patriots-Bills matchup is the most-likely projected wild card contest in the league, according to ESPN‘s FPI, so New England better figure out how to play these Bills, or they’ll be one and done in the playoffs.

10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) (Last week: 14). 

The AFC North is still a logjam, but the Bengals can now win the division by winning just one of their final two games. Joe Burrow, head coach Zac Taylor, offseason EDGE addition Trey Hendrickson and more have helped turn the Bengals into a pretty good team. Cincinnati fans should be excited for the future, even if a deep playoff run in 2021 is mostly unrealistic.

11. San Francisco 49ers (8-7) (Last week: 9). 

That was a rough loss in Tennessee. The 49ers find themselves in a little trouble now, but they should still make the postseason. Jimmy Garoppolo could miss some time, so Trey Lance may make his first start this week at home versus the Houston Texans. Rookie QB Davis Mills has been impressive for Houston, putting a little bit of pressure on Lance.

12. Arizona Cardinals (10-5) (Last week: 10). 

For the second straight season, they’re free-falling down the stretch. They have a playoff spot clinched, but no one should feel good about hem heading into January. Can they turn it around? Good grief.

13. Miami Dolphins (8-7) (Last week: NR). 

Here come the Dolphins. Sure, they’ve beaten up on a slew of bad opponents with bad quarterback situations, but still, to win seven straight games versus anyone in this league is impressive. Give credit where it’s due. If they can win in Tennessee and at home versus New England, they’re in the playoffs. That seems like too much to ask, but will you count them out? They’re a tough bunch.

14. Baltimore Ravens (8-7) (Last week: 13). 

Injuries are ultimately proving too much for them this season. They’ve lost four straight, despite hanging tough in some of their losses versus good teams.

15. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: NR). 

Here come the Eagles. Loaded with three first-round picks in the Spring, and getting some good play out of quarterback Jalen Hurts, Philly has been a second-half-of-the-season surprise. They have a lot of decisions to make this offseason, but for now, Eagles fans should just enjoy the ride.

16. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) (Last week: 12). 

Their loss to Houston on Sunday was as embarrassing and detrimental of a loss as we’ve seen in 2021, but the Chargers still have a shot at the playoffs. They’re not very good, but they have some good players, including young quarterback Justin Herbert. Can they rally?

Next Up: Minnesota, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans

Damien Harris -- 2021 December Patriots Practice

Gut Check Time: Two key Week 16 divisional battles may decide AFC East, AFC North

With three weeks to go in the NFL season, the games, similar to the NBA, have become an afterthought to the sudden surging of COVID-19 cases across the country, giving the nation a March 2020 feel, when it comes to news of the virus.

Even with the 2020 NFL season being played with virtually no fans in the stands, and the 2020 NBA playoffs played entirely in a ‘bubble’ in Orlando, Florida, it feels as if the pandemic is affecting the sports world now, in December, 2020, more than ever.

There have been hundreds of players in both the NFL and NBA that have been put into health and safety protocols over the past 10-12 days.

Head coaches have been forced to miss games, as have stars of franchises, and more.

Washington was forced to start Patriots practice-squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert, whom they signed from New England days before, on Tuesday to face the Eagles in Philadelphia in a game that likely decided their season. (They lost, but Gilbert hung tough).

More and more cases, or news of players entering health and safety protocols, have happened this week, making it uncertain if any of them can play this weekend in an ever-important slate of Week 16 action, with the playoffs looming.

But controlling the spread of the virus is more important than the games themselves, or your fantasy football playoffs with your buddies and friends.

Still, both the NFL and NBA have stated, in so many words, that the show must go on, regardless of who can play or not.

Week 16 in the NFL has a slew of interesting matchups, but none bigger than two division-deciding (virtually) contests in the AFC East and AFC North. Let’s give a quick breakdown on those, before getting to our weekly power rankings.

Buffalo Bills (8-6) at New England Patriots (9-5), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Needless to say, this contest between the two AFC East rivals should be much different than their Week 13 clash in Buffalo. It may be windy, and it should be cold, but more normal football should take place. That means the Bills will look to utilize Josh Allen again. Slot receiver Cole Beasley will miss the game due to COVID-19 protocol, so now the Patriots can key on Stefon Diggs, and containing Allen. The fourth-year QB will still make plays for Buffalo, though, putting more pressure on Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the New England offense. With rookie Rhamondre Stevenson iffy for Sunday, it’ll be Damien Harris who will get the brunt of the carries, probably regardless.

New England will certainly throw the ball more than three times in this contest, but establishing the run versus the Bills defense is once again top priority. Through the air, Nelson Agholor (head) and Kendrick Bourne (COVID-19/reserve list) may be no gos. Jones needs at least one to return by Sunday to have a formidable receiving duo. Being smart, and attacking the Bills underneath (Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds, specifically) should be the way to go through the air. This could be a big game for Jakobi Meyers.

Honestly, this sort of feels like Buffalo is primed to pull an upset, yet, I can’t go through with it. Not in a contest that features a head-coaching battle between Bill Belichick and Sean McDermott. Patriots fans have waited a long two years since their last AFC East title. They should get that much closer on Sunday, after another nail-biting win over Buffalo. Patriots 24, Bills 20. 

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Back in October, the Bengals surprisingly clobbered the Ravens, 41-17, in Baltimore. Rookie phenom receiver Ja’Marr Chase racked up 201 yards and a long score (82-yarder) on just eight catches, as Joe Burrow and Cincinnati destroyed Baltimore’s defense.

This time around, the Ravens may not even have Lamar Jackson at quarterback. If they don’t, it’ll be second-year man Tyler Huntley, who has been a pleasant surprise. He’s been solid in the clutch, and his improvisational ability gives Baltimore a semblance of QB-running ability, even if that’s not off designed runs, or to the ability that Jackson brings.

Baltimore is the more experienced team. They’re better coached. They’ve been here, but they are absolutely reeling from injuries.

This is the Bengals’ time to strike. Cincinnati should be able to lean both on Joe Mixon and the running game and Burrow and the passing game.

Even if Jackson misses the game, everything is telling me that Baltimore will pull this out with a display of mental and physical toughness. After all, both teams’ seasons are on the line. But I think the AFC North, at least this season, is susceptible to a take over via new blood. It’s been a wonky season. Give me the Bengals at home. Bengals 27, Ravens 24.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 1). With the competition doing less than treading water recently, Aaron Rodgers is in better position to win his fourth NFL MVP award (and second straight), than he’s been all season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 3). As of Thursday, both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are on the COVID-19 reserve list. That will complicate things for Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense this Sunday at home versus the Steelers.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4) (Last week: 5). Jonathan Taylor has been fantastic, but at this point in time, I lean toward Cooper Kupp (barely) as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Kupp has put up insane numbers in what is surely one of the best single seasons in league history for a wide receiver. He’s more than just an underneath slot option. He’s expanded into a pass catcher who can play in any role, using his footwork and overall route-running ability to be virtually uncoverable. What a player.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4) (Last week: 2). The injuries didn’t help (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin), but it’s clear the Saints have the Bucs’ number. Tampa Bay could be seeing New Orleans at home in a 2-seed vs. 7-seed matchup in the NFC wild card round in January, so Tom Brady and company better figure this out. Although, last season, Tampa lost twice to New Orleans in the regular season, then defeated them in the Superdome in January.

5. Dallas Cowboys (10-4) (Last week: 7). Cowboys have quietly made their way back into contender status. Dallas hosts Washington this week before a matchup with Arizona in Week 17. There’s no hiding from that one. The Cardinals should be desperate, too, considering their recent slump. We’ll learn a great deal about both teams then, but for now, Dallas has to take care of business at home on Sunday Night Football to lock up the NFC East.

6. Indianapolis Colts (8-6) (Last week: 9). They were the faster, and possibly more physical team in their 27-17 win over the Patriots on Saturday night. They have big-time 2019 Titans energy, meaning they could find themselves surprising many to reach the AFC Championship Game. But that is likely their ceiling, unless Carson Wentz flips the script entirely in January. Those 2019 Titans were even handicapped by Ryan Tannehill, who at the time was a better quarterback (and still is) than Wentz right now. But for the time being, let’s praise the Colts. This is a well-coached team and wonderfully-crafted roster. Well done, Frank Reich and Chris Ballard.

7. New England Patriots (9-5) (Last week: 4). It took three full quarters for the Patriots, who entered the fourth period down 20-0, to match Indianapolis’ energy. Mac Jones’ dreadful start and late-game heroics/magic was reminiscent of Brady, though. That’s a macro-level, big-picture (beyond this season) silver lining for a franchise that is tied to its hopeful young quarterback. Next up — Buffalo. The Patriots will basically clinch the AFC East with a win. This is a massive game.

8. Buffalo Bills (8-6) (Last week: 10). After all that has happened recently, the Bills have a chance to avenge their loss to New England by taking down the Patriots in their own house this weekend, and re-taking the AFC East lead with just two weeks to go. Buffalo plays Atlanta and the New York Jets after this, so this game should decide the division either way.

9. San Francisco 49ers (8-6) (Last week: 11). Like the Colts in the AFC, the 49ers are quickly becoming a team in the NFC that has come on strong as of late, and that no team would like to face in January. The combination of Deebo Samuel and George Kittle is up there with the best one-two punches on offense in the league.

10. Arizona Cardinals (10-4) (Last week: 6). For the second straight season, the Cardinals are sliding down the stretch. They’ll make the playoffs regardless this time around. But they’ll need to show some fight versus Indianapolis, Dallas and Seattle to be any sort of a factor in the playoffs.

11. Tennessee Titans (9-5) (Last week: 8). They just need to get healthy. Without Derrick Henry or A.J. Brown, they can’t do much of anything on offense. But if those two can come back (and be relatively healthy) for the playoffs, watch out.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). Justin Herbert is phenomenal, but like their predecessors, there’s still a lot of ‘Chargers are gonna’ Charger’ energy with this team. Winning two of their final three games may be enough to get them into the playoffs.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) (Last week: 13). Their sound coaching, and overall toughness/smarts have kept them afloat amidst a devastating season of injuries, but it’s starting to become too much. Their season is likely on the line in Cincinnati this week.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) (Last week: 15). A win at home over Baltimore on Sunday would give them a season sweep of the Ravens, and pull them extremely close to locking up the AFC North title. This is their shot. Biggest game of Joe Burrow’s NFL career thus far.

15. Minnesota Vikings (7-7) (Last week: 16). They’re hanging around, even if apathetically. They have talent, but no one should trust them.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1) (Last week: NR). The Steelers, a proud franchise, have been gutsy this season. They’re still in the mix. Sunday’s game in Kansas City is almost a must-win for them, though.

Next Up: New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Philadelphia 

Patrick Mahomes vs Chargers -- 2021

Burning Questions 🔥: NFL MVP race down to two candidates + Jags’ next HC, Russell Wilson ’22 landing spot

Week 15 began on Thursday in Los Angeles with a rivalry tilt between the Kansas City Chiefs and L.A. Chargers.

A wild, back-and-forth contest was ended in overtime, when Patrick Mahomes found Travis Kelce over the middle, and the shifty tight end making several Chargers miss on a 34-yard touchdown catch and scamper for the win.

The victory pseudo-locked up a sixth straight AFC West crown for the Chiefs, who have now won seven straight, and are in the mix for the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which comes with the ever-important, and lone, conference playoff bye.

In a season as wacky as this one, the race for playoff seeding figures to be an exciting trek.

For all teams, the regular season has entered its final month. There are four weeks remaining in the longest regular season in league history, with 30 teams readying to play out their final four games of their schedules (three each for Chiefs, Chargers).

Both the AFC and NFC now have three teams with an identical amount of losses at the top of their standings, making for an interesting month ahead.

As it stands, the Jacksonville Jaguars fired first-year head coach Urban Meyer after just 13 games, so there’s coal for the fire for a ‘burning questions’-type of piece, where I’ll give you my answers. This is a perfect opportunity for our Quick-Hits section.

Down, set, hut!

QUICK-HITS 

NFL MVP? The once-hectic race for the award for this season now is a two-man race involving two three-time winners in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And at this point, it’s Brady with the clear lead, and even a tiny bit of breathing room. This season, Brady currently leads the league in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, Total QBR, wins, sack percentage and PFF grade. Aaron Rodgers has volume stats than Tom Brady, partly because he missed a game due to COVID-19, which was a messy story that didn’t look good for the Packers’ QB, and likely will factor into this race. But Rodgers leads the league in passer rating and interception percentage, showing a knack for his overall efficiency this season post-Week 1, in which Green Bay suffered a stunning blowout defeat to the Saints. There’s more time left to decide the race. Green Bay currently leads the NFC via tiebreakers over Tampa Bay and Arizona. If the Packers secure the No. 1 seed in the conference, that will help Rodgers’ case. Ultimately Brady is working with better offensive weaponry while Rodgers may be leading the better overall team equipped with a solid defense and an evolving, tough running game built for cold-weather football (A.J. Dillon). At this point, Rodgers missing a game, and Brady leading wins like Sunday’s over Buffalo in overtime, it’s the GOAT who has the clear lead as the race winds down.

Tom Brady OT TD pass vs Bills -- 2021
Tom Brady looks on during his game-winning touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime to defeat the Buffalo Bills in Week 14. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

With Urban Meyer ousted, who should be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ next head coach? How about current Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy? Bieniemy has been a hot topic over the past few offseasons, as many have wondered why he hasn’t been offered a NFL head coaching job already. He’s helped in the maturation of Patrick Mahomes and in the creation of the Chiefs’ all-time explosive offense over the past few seasons. Kansas City has been hit with some resistance this season, but the Chiefs are starting to problem-solve and play their way out of it. Bieniemy deserves some of the credit there. The Jaguars are a lowly franchise but they have assets in young QB Trevor Lawrence, a likely top-three draft pick in April, and and over $70 million in projected cap space to use on talent in free agency this offseason. Schematically, Bieniemy could bring a lot to the table for Lawerence. It’s an interesting fit that I’d like to see happen. If I had to guess, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may also be in the mix when interviews begin for the role.

— We’re a few months away from the offseason, but the future of the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson in particular, is a hot topic. If he leaves Seattle, where may he go next? If Wilson is dealt, the New Orleans Saints are an obvious fit, but if they can finesse their way around the salary cap, how about the New York Giants as a possible destination?  The Giants will likely fire GM Dave Gettleman, a once respected, and succesful general manager who has failed in New York. Giants head coach Joe Judge is likely on the hot seat, but could return. In my eyes, there is a world where the Giants trade some significant draft capital to obtain Wilson, still find a way to improve their offensive line, retain Judge and most of their pretty-good, tough defense, and become a true contender in the NFC East. Plus, Wilson, although a different cat, would fit well in New York. He isn’t afraid of pressure, or the limelight, and his celebrity/talented artist wife, Ciara, would likely enjoy New York, as well (I’m guessing). It seems like a fun fit that is gaining some steam. Still, the Saints, with offensive-minded, wise/experienced head coach Sean Payton, is the best pairing for Wilson.

— As this piece is published around east coast lunch time on Friday, the NFL, along with the NBA, New York City, London, and other areas around the world are experiencing a huge surge/waves of increasing COVID-19 numbers. As it stands, both the Cleveland Browns and Washington Football team are down to starting third-string quarterbacks this weekend (as of now). Washington just signed New England Patriots practice squad QB Garrett Gilbert to start on Sunday in Philadelphia versus the Eagles in a virtual do-or-die game for both teams, in terms of playoff hopes. As of now, there have been over 130 NFL players put on the Reserve/COVID-19 list since Monday. Cleveland, the Los Angeles Rams and Washington have roughly 70 players combined on the list. With COVID-19 still present in our society, and both the Delta and reportedly highly-transmissible Omicron variant now out there, and Holiday season in full swing, this is a friendly reminder for everyone to be safe.

THE BETTER HALF

(With this piece being released on Friday, in the middle of Week 15, we will have blurbs for only the participants of the important AFC West showdown on Thursday Night Football (Chiefs, Chargers). We will wait for next week’s edition for blurbs on each team.)

1. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 1). 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3) (Last week: 2). 

3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 4). They figured things out late, battling back to defeat the Chargers in LA via a brilliant fourth quarter by Patrick Mahomes (10-13, 197 yards 3 TD in final 10 minutes), and a takeover by Travis Kelce (10 rec, 191 yds, 2 TD). Two-high looks by competent teams are still giving their offense fits, but they’re battling they’re way out of it.

4. New England Patriots (9-4) (Last week: 5).

5. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) (Last week: 6). 

6. Arizona Cardinals (10-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4) (Last week: 7). 

8. Tennessee Titans (9-4) (Last week: 9). 

9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6) (Last week: 10). 

10. Buffalo Bills (7-6) (Last week: 8). 

11. San Francisco 49ers (7-6) (Last week: 13). 

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). They outplayed the Chiefs for much of the game, but couldn’t capitalize. They’re still in good position for a playoff spot, but will likely need to win two of their final three games to have a good shot at clinching.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-5) (Last week: 11). 

14. Cleveland Browns (7-6) (Last week: NR).

15. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) (Last week: 14). 

16. Minnesota Vikings (6-7) (Last week: NR). 

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver, New Orleans, Philadelphia

Bill Belichick & Steve Belichick

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 13: Patriots out-muscle, out-game Bills in windy, situational football

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Monday’s night’s showdown in Buffalo marked the biggest AFC East game in a decade, maybe more. The New England Patriots (9-4) and Buffalo Bills (7-5) would battle it out in the first of two meetings that would likely decide the division.

However, it would be the weather, that would decide the game. Winds gusting from 25-to-35 miles per hour all game (sometimes 50 MPH), that would forced the contest into an alternate-looking example of the sport.

As expected for an ultra-situational style of football game, Bill Belichick and the Patriots bested the Bills, 14-10, by rushing for 222 yards on 46 carries, while Mac Jones passed just three times (2/3, 19 yards, 4.3 Total QBR).

New England’s three pass attempts marked the lowest single-game number for a winning team, or any team, since 1974 when ironically, O.J. Simpson and the Bills defeated Joe Namath and the New York Jets with just two pass attempts.

There was hyperbole run amok on Twitter after the game, calling this one of Belichick’s all-time greatest coaching performances. There was also an over-the-top group attempting to downplay the Patriots’ overall mastery of playing in the weather, which included Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott, after the game.

“Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one,” McDermott told reporters after Buffalo’s loss.

“Whether it’s Bill or anybody else, they beat us. You sit here and you tell me when we start with an average starting field position of the 40-yard line and he starts at the 23-yard line … and we were 1-for-4 in the red zone and they were 0-for-1 in the red zone — you give me that ahead of time and I would say, ‘I like my chances.’

The fact of the matter is, Buffalo failed to convert with their ‘chances,’ and the Patriots’ overall mega-conservative approach of betting on Buffalo ‘not winning’ the game, paid off. Buffalo, albeit with a quarterback in Josh Allen whose arm is strong enough to cut through the wind, failed to fully optimize points and true production out of their shotgun-spread looks in the weather.

The Patriots had some gaffes of their own, which included putting N’Keal Harry back to return a punt that ended up hitting his face mask, and landing right under a Bills special-teamer for a fumble recovery. Buffalo answered with a quick-strike, RPO touchdown pass by Josh Allen to Gabriel Davis on the next play, to cut the score to 8-7 after Damien Harris broke free for a 68-yard touchdown on a toss earlier in the game.

Had the fumble not occurred, the Patriots may have had an even easier time defeating the Bills, who failed to convert on their next three red zone trips.

Nothing seemed to work for Buffalo when they really needed it, as New England toughened up in the red zone. Once, Allen tried to hit Davis on another RPO-strike for a score on Patriots CB Jalen Mills, but Mills was ready for the pass that burned him earlier in the game, knocking it down.

On Buffalo’s final two plays of the game, Josh Allen was first tripped up for a sack by New England star EDGE Matthew Judon, who notched QB takedown number 12.5 on the year. On the next play, New England called an all-out blitz with just four defenders in coverage. Myles Bryant, playing the ‘robber’ role, made an astute play to knockdown a 4th-and-14 endzone pass attempt by Allen, giving the Patriots the victory.

Myles Bryant vs Bills -- 2021
Myles Bryant knocks down Josh Allen’s pass attempt in the final minutes of the Patriots’ victory over the Bills on Monday Night Football. (Screenshot: NFL on ESPN)

This was certainly an old-school, classic, early-dynasty type of win for Belichick’s Patriots, evoking memories of New England’s 12-0 win over Miami in a raging snowstorm late in the 2003 regular season, a year in which they won their second Super Bowl.

Unsung heroes ran rampant in this game, with rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson actually running rampant on the Bills’s stacked boxes that included nine, ten and sometimes all 11 Buffalo defenders in the box. Stevenson’s final numbers (24 carries, 78 yards, 3.3 yards per carry) are hardly enough to get excited about, but there were several times where he weaved and plowed his way for first downs or hugely-important gains in moments in which that looked like an impossible task.

On defense, Buffalo’s pass-run split ended up being 30-to-25. Buffalo threw more than they ran in the conditions partly because they never had consistent success on the ground. Credit there largely goes to Patriots nose tackle-defensive tackle-3-4-defensive-end big-man Davon Godchaux. Brought over from Miami on a lucrative two-year deal this offseason, Godchaux has been a big addition in New England’s plan to get beefier, tougher and more competent up front. Godchaux, had a team-high 86.8 PFF grade on defense in the win, adding ten tackles, five run stuffs and a QB pressure in what was most likely the best game of his career.

These are the types of wins the Patriots have tallied up over the past 20 years. Every win by them, and every single-season DNA of this team has not always resembled the high-flying 2007 team equipped with Tom Brady and Randy Moss. This is how they do it.

There’s one more game versus Buffalo on the schedule, in New England, in three weeks.

“We were talking about that last night. We can use our whole passing game,” Belichick said with a chuckle when asked about New England’s next contest with Buffalo.

“All the pass plays we have, they haven’t seen.”

That game will likely have a different feel, as Belichick eludes to. The game may be cold, and even windy, but likely not to this effect.

Buffalo heads down to Tampa Bay this week to face the other pillar of the Patriots’ historical run of success, Tom Brady. A Bills loss there, and a Patriots win over Indianapolis in two weeks after their bye may spell the end of the AFC East race anyhow.

The Patriots, who are currently the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and will be even after next week, could be thinking Super Bowl. But just as Belichick likes it, they’ll take it game by game, braving the weather, their opponents, and whatever comes next.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 1). They used their bye week to rest up for the home stretch, where they will battle for the NFC’s No. 1 seed for the second straight season.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3) (Last week: 2). Their defense let Atlanta hang around a bit, and Tom Brady threw one atrocious pick six, but otherwise, he and the passing game were unstoppable. Brady leads the MVP race as of now.

3. Arizona Cardinals (10-2) (Last week: 3). With Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back, the full-strength Cardinals looked more like their record on Sunday. They’re flying under the radar.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 4). They’ve won five straight, and have allowed an average of 9.8 points per game in their past four contests. Their defense has come alive, despite the offense still sputtering from time to time. If Mahomes and the offense can find a rhythm, and if Clyde Edwards-Helaire can produce on the ground, they could be headed for their third straight Super Bowl in two months.

5. New England Patriots (9-4) (Last week: 5). That was one of the weirdest games in recent memory, but the better-coached team, and overall, better team right now, won on Monday. Even after their bye this upcoming week, the Pats will be your No. 1 seed in the AFC.

6. Los Angeles Rams (8-4) (Last week: 6). No one is going to overly praise them for beating up on the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that win was still a much-needed morale booster.

7. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) (Last week: 10). Dallas plays Washington twice in their next three games, so they will need to fend them off to secure the NFC East crown. They suffered some midseason lapses after a blazing start. It’s time for them to get back on track.

8. Buffalo Bills (7-5) (Last week: 7). We can’t bury the Bills too much for a such a weird game in the wind, but Buffalo’s upcoming schedule includes the Buccaneers in Tampa, and the Patriots in New England. They need to start thinking about a playoff spot, in general, now. They’ll have to refocus for a big one versus the defending Super Bowl champs on Sunday.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 9). The Titans will come off their bye week facing the Jaguars at home. They face the Texans one more time, too. They could get to 11-6 or better, even with their injuries.

10. Indianapolis Colts (7-6) (Last week: 11). The Colts will rest up this week before hosting the Patriots in a big Saturday night showdown in Week 15. They should be a playoff team, but because of some blown losses earlier in their season, they’ll likely need to finish 3-1 down the stretch to even have a shot at a playoff spot.

11. Baltimore Ravens (8-4) (Last week: 8). Lamar Jackson is incredible, and he almost willed his team to a victory in the clutch once more on Sunday. This Ravens team as a whole, though, has sputtered often, and struggled some, partly due to several big injuries, for much of the season. Remember their early-season victories versus Detroit? What about their comeback win over Indianapolis? They have a great quarterback and coach, but they’re lucky to be 8-4.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5) (Last week: NR). This is where the rankings turn into a weekly, topsy-turvy mess. The Chargers may have saved their season with that win in Cincinnati. They almost blew a 24-point lead, but hung on, and now, they’ll face the Giants at home with Jake Fromm likely starting at QB for New York. A win there would put the Chargers at 8-5, hosting the Chiefs for Thursday Night Football with a chance to take the lead in the AFC West.

13. San Francisco 49ers (6-6) (Last week: 12). They looked prime for a win over their NFC West rival before the Seahawks came storming back. That was a chance for them to pull ahead in the NFC wild card race. Now, they’re back with the pack.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) (Last week: 13). They almost rallied back, but let’s face it — that was an ugly loss. The Chargers and Bengals are both improving teams with two great young quarterbacks in Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow, but each team has little chance to make actual noise come January this season. They’re both set up well for the future, as of now, though.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1) (last week: NR). News of Ben Roethlisberger’s probable retirement after this season was reported Sunday morning, and then in the late afternoon, Big Ben put on a vintage clutch performance in a vintage Ravens-Steelers rivalry match. Pittsburgh is a tough, proud team that remains in the thick of the AFC wild card race.

16. Washington Football Team (6-6) (Last week: NR). How about the stones on Washington kicker Brian Johnson, a new addition, to kick a 48-yard game-winner in Las Vegas on Sunday. Here comes Washington. They host the Cowboys this week. They have a chance to make things incredibly interesting in the NFC East with a win on Sunday.

Next Up: Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, Minnesota, Philadelphia

Aaron Rodgers vs Rams - 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 12: Are Packers the league’s most complete team?

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In a season where no team has been consistently good, or even consistent, the Green Bay Packers (9-3) are starting to show their teeth as perhaps the NFC’s most complete club.

The Cheeseheads, led by Aaron Rodgers (28 of 45, 307 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) defeated the Los Angeles Rams (7-4), 36-28, in a game that wasn’t as close as its final score, as Green bay looked like a much better squad than the star-studded Rams.

Green Bay led the Rams 36-17 heading into the fourth quarter, and held Los Angeles to 68 rush yards (3.4 yards per carry), forcing three turnovers (including a pick-six of Matthew Stafford), and in several big moments, Rodgers found superstar receiver Davante Adams (eight catches, 104 yards) seemingly with ease, as the Rams’ zone-heavy scheme foolishly did not feature cornerback Jalen Ramsey shadowing Adams throughout the entire game.

The game also shed light on the puzzle of Rodgers’ future. Some said that Rodgers was justified in his offseason frustration over Green Bay’s roster construction. Green Bay lacked a solid pass catcher after Adams, and in the 2020 NFL Draft, they seemingly drafted Rodgers’ eventual replacement in the first round (quarterback Jordan Love) and drafted a bulldozing, old-school running back (A.J. Dillon) in Round 2.

Rodgers insisted the 2020 draft was not the issue, and that it was Green Bay’s overall way of handling many offseasons, that irked him.

“It’s never been about the draft pick,” Rodgers told ESPN‘s Kenny Mayne in his final SportsCenter appearance.

“I love Jordan. I love the coaching staff. I love my teammates. It’s just about a philosophy and maybe forgetting it is about the people that make things go.”

Rodgers eventually agreed to return to the team for this season, and was given a gift in Green Bay’s acquiring of Rodgers’ long-time friend, slot receiver Randall Cobb, via trade.

Many believe Rodgers will attempt to leave Green Bay this offseason. And that may very well be the case. But looking at the lay of the land as it stands, why would he leave?

What type of team does Rodgers want to play for, exactly? A squad like the Rams, top-heavy team, lacking depth and consistency.  Does he want a wheeling-and-dealing squad that constructs its roster only for its quarterback? Or does he want to win a Super Bowl. If the latter still matters to him, then Rodgers must see that the Packers are close.

Together, Rodgers and head coach Matt Lafleur are 35-8 in the last three regular seasons, which is good for best in the NFL. The Packers have also made the NFC title game in the last two seasons. They’ve failed to get past that round, but history shows great teams such as this one sometimes enjoy a “breakthrough” season in the midst of two or three consecutive near-berths to a Super Bowl.

Rodgers, after struggling some in 2019 in LaFleur’s Shanahan-style offense, now has acclimated perfectly, as the team uses a mix of under-center, run-heavy, two-tight end sets, and spread-you-out, passer-friendly looks to compliment Rodgers’ career-long strengths.

Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst has taken the brunt of Rodgers’ frustration via pass-aggressive quotes in the offseason, but the fourth-year general manager has carried the torch of the franchise’s past, relying heavily on the franchise’s scouting department to emphasize the need to build through the draft, focus on internal player progression, and prioritize homegrown players over free agents.

That style has worked for one of the NFL’s best franchises for years and years. Like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay has their own way of doing things. Their stubbornness in their ways caught up with them some during the middle of the last decade, as Rodgers was stuck attempting to elevate lesser-talented teams (think: 2016 season).

But Green Bay has built a solid roster up from the ground, with just the right mix of free agents to help lead the way.

A.J. Dillon vs Rams -- 2021
A.J. Dillon has been a breakout star for the Packers in 2021. He’s the perfect running back for the weather in Green Bay, and the Packers’ rushing scheme. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

A.J. Dillon, in particular, has had a breakout season in Year 2. The Boston College product is a bully-ball rusher who is perhaps in the perfect spot in snowy Wisconsin. He’s the type of January running back that was needed, but many scoffed at the draft pick two years ago.

Rodgers is still making due with a modst-at-best receiving group after Adams, but with the cap room to spread talent throughout the roster, Green Bay at least has Adams, maybe the best receiver in football, as well as a solid offensive line, and now, one of the NFL’s best defenses.

In 2019, Green Bay paid front seven members Za’Darius and Preston Smith, as sell as safety Adrian Amos, to help a defense that needed reinforcements. The moves have paid dividends, with Amos teaming up with homegrown safety Darnell Savage to rival Buffalo (Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer), as perhaps the best safety tandem in the league.

Up front, the Packers play mostly a 3-4 style defense built with tough, bigger players (somewhat like other well run-franchises in the Patriots and Steelers) that relies on a few players such as top-tier nose tackle Kenny Clark to take up bodies and make plays up front, clearing the way for others.

Green Bay is currently seventh in the league in yards per game allowed (321.7) and fifth in points allowed (20.2). They’ve built up a Super Bowl caliber defense, and they aren’t even at full strength as a team at the moment.

Za’Darius Smith has been out since September with a back injury, but should be back soon.

Green Bay is also expecting the return of left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexandler, two former All-Pros who are undoubtedly top-five players at their respective positions, sometime during their home stretch.

Alexander, much like Adams on offense, is a good example of how well Green Bay progresses their players.

To get back to Sunday’s game, the difference between the Packers and Rams was stark.

As great of a head coach and X’s and O’s man Sean McVay is, he’s stumbled as of late, as has his hand-picked quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who fell to 0-17 in his career against teams who entered a contest five games over .500 (via NFL research). It was the fourth loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for Stafford in such a situation.

The Rams have loads of top-end talent. Even Odell Beckham Jr. scored his first touchdown in over a year in the fourth quarter of the Rams’ comeback attempt. But what the Rams don’t have, is a steady roster across the board. Players one to 53, the practice squad, the team history, the scouting and player personnel department, the January, cold-weather homefield advantage.

In Green Bay, Rodgers just may have it all now, or close to it. The way the Packers’ season ends will have much to do with his decision. If Green Bay’s rushing attack is foiled, and Adams is blanketed in the same playoff game, Rodgers will identify that the problem is a lack of offensive weapons, and that may be true. But right now, in a year of mayhem, he has yet another prime shot at a second Super Bowl title with the team he’s played for, for 17 seasons.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 3). Along with the Patriots, they look like the league’s most complete team at the moment. And Aaron Rodgers is now back in the MVP conversation, surely.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) (Last week: 2). They survived Indianapolis behind a turn-back-the-clock performance by Rob Gronkowski (seven catches, 123 yards) and a dominant effort by Leonard Fournette (131 total yards, four touchdowns). Oh, and Tom Brady led his 65th career game-winning drive (including playoffs). Still, they need to get healthier on defense, and find their groove on that side of the ball.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) (Last week: 4). Kyler Murray should return this week. They’re starting to slip under the radar, but they still have the league’s best record.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 5). The Chiefs have improved steadily on offense during their four-game winning streak, and their once-awful defense has allowed just 11.8 points per game during that span. The madness of this season, and in the AFC in particular, left the door open for the Chiefs. It appears they’ve found their way in the room.

5. New England Patriots (8-4) (Last week: 6). This is eerily starting to look like many of the Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams throughout the dynasty. Sunday’s 36-13 win over Tennessee under the cold weather and snow flurries felt like a vintage post-Thanksgiving New England win. Everything is coming together. But their biggest test lies ahead. Their Monday night game in Buffalo next week is perhaps their biggest regular season matchup since 2018.

6. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) (Last week: 1). They’ve lost three straight, and Matthew Stafford (three games in a row with a pick-six) hasn’t played well as of late. They have too much talent to not right the ship. They have good enough players to where suggesting they could make a 2020 Buccaneers-like run is not out of the question.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-4) (Last week: 8). One of the bigger AFC East regular season games in recent memory awaits them on Monday Night Football next week. Patriots at Bills. Can Buffalo limit turnovers, stay balanced on offense, and play good enough defense to win? It should be a great game.

8. Baltimore Ravens (8-3) (Last week: 9). They really haven’t looked consistently good all season, but they’re the AFC’s No. 1 seed at the moment anyway. That’s probably a good sign. They’re too well-run of an organization not to tighten things up here soon.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 7). When healthy, the Titans are a Super Bowl contender. Missing their three best offensive weapons in New England (Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones), Mike Vrabel’s bunch held tough, before three turnovers ruined their upset chances. Still, they ran for 270 yards versus one of the team’s stingiest defenses. Their goal now is to get healthy for the playoffs. They have the mental toughness and coaching to surprise some people then.

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (Last week: 10). They have the NFC East pseudo wrapped-up, but that doesn’t excuse their diminishing play as of late. Are they a Super Bowl contender, or will they just be happy to be ousted easily in the NFC Divisional round?

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 11). Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns in the first half as the Colts looked primed for a major home upset over the defending champs, before the wheels came off. He lost a fumble and threw a pick in consecutive drives starting with Indy leading 24-14 and driving in Tampa territory. This is a built-for-January team, but often times, they are being held back by their QB. But sometimes, they are elevated by Wentz and his talent. They need more consistency from their quarterback.

12. San Francisco 49ers (6-5) (Last week: 12). Here come the 49ers. They’re getting much better (albeit, still Jekyll-and-Hyde) play out of Jimmy Garoppolo as of late, and receiver-running back Deebo Samuel has probably entered the OPOY discussion with Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor for what he’s done as of recent.

13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) (Last week: NR). It’s hard to get a read on them. It seems as if they are good. That’s two big wins in a row for Joe Burrow and the gang. Joe Mixon (12 touchdowns in last eight games) has been a great compliment to their passing game as of late.

14. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) (last week: 15). They’re the only team in the league to lead each game they’ve played this year by seven points or more, yet they are 5-6. They’re snake-bitten, but the state of the NFC, and their remaining schedule (Lions, Bears (twice)) gives them a good shot at a wild card spot. This is a bad, good team. They have talent.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) (Last week: NR). I’m not sure they have what it takes to even make the playoffs, but when he is on, Derek Carr is one of the best passers in the league. That was a big overtime win in Dallas, for the most-watched regular season NFL game in league history.

16. Cleveland Browns (6-6) (Last week: 16). They’ve been horrid on offense as of late, but they still have the defense and potential in the running game for me to feel good about putting them above the teams below. Can they right the ship?

Next Up: Denver, L.A. Chargers, New Orleans, Miami, Pittsburgh

Tom Brady vs Giants -- 2021

Tackling the post-Thanksgiving stretch: Who are the Super Bowl contenders?

Thanksgiving is the time to be thankful for what you have.

For me, like many, that includes a wonderful family, a great group of friends, football (of course), and food – and tons of it, I might add. (I stuffed myself on Thursday.)

Thanksgiving also feels like an unofficial end of fall/beginning of winter, and according to Bill Belichick, the NFL season doesn’t really begin until the holiday has passed.

“As coach says, football season starts after Thanksgiving,” Patriots long-time team captain Matthew Slater once told the media.

With the extension to a 17-game season this year, it truly does feel like there’s a whole ’nother campaign ahead for these teams. 

So how can we correctly identify the Super Bowl contenders out of the current muddled mess of standings? You can’t, really. You just have to guess. Kidding. There’s some telltale signs to split these teams up.

Let’s get right to it.

🦃  The easiest place to start when assessing teams that may make some noise in January, is to begin with the NFC. There are five teams — Arizona, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Dallas and the L.A. Rams — who are legitimate contenders to win the conference. Then, there are probably five teams — Minnesota, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Carolina, New Orleans — who are fighting for two wild card spots, and if they were to even win one playoff game on the road in the Wild Card round, it would be miraculous. Things could change from now until January, but this seems pretty set in stone when it comes to the NFC.

🦃 It’s hard to separate the “big” five in the NFC at the moment, but if I had to pick three out of the five to make an ultra-serious push at a trip to Los Angeles for Super Bowl 56, it would start with a team stockpiled with talent that could stay put, in the Rams, along with the Buccaneers and Packers. The Rams suffered two straight bad losses before their bye week, and now they’ll head to Green Bay on Sunday, where we should learn a lot. The Bucs are still battling injuries, but are starting to get healthier on both sides of the ball with tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting returning to the lineup last Monday. The Rams and Buccaneers are loaded with talented players, which should prove valuable down the stretch. The Packers have built up a solid defense, which along with Aaron Rodgers, will keep them in contention. The Cardinals have fared okay with Colt McCoy filling in for Kyler Murray at quarterback, and their defense has been better than expected this year, but my gut tells me they’ll slide just a little as the season progresses. The Cowboys looked like a team of destiny about a month ago. Dak Prescott is still playing well, and their defense, now ripe with playmakers such as cornerback Trevon Diggs (eight interceptions) and rookie Micah Parsons (nine sacks) has improved, but it’s still an issue, as evident by the Las Vegas Raiders’ 36-33 win in Dallas in overtime on Thanksgiving. Dallas should still win the NFC East, but cracks are starting to show.

🦃 Now, to the AFC. Never in my twenty-plus years of watching the NFL, have I ever seen a conference more up for grabs. That favors teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, who have Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and ended their early-season skid, and the New England Patriots, who equipped with their solid rookies (Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, etc.), and several offseason veteran reinforcements (Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, etc.) are back to playing like the early-dynasty New England teams of the early 2000s, which is just how Bill Belichick likes it. Both teams have experienced coaching staffs and players who have recently won championships, making any January run less daunting for them than it would be for most teams. After that, Baltimore and Buffalo look like viable contenders when they’re playing at their best. Each team has had great wins, as well as several uninspired performances, some of which have burned them. They’re both inconsistent clubs, but they will be tough outs. After that, there’s the AFC South teams. Much has been said about the “devaluing” of running backs in the modern NFL, but these Titans are a case study on just how much a phenomenal running back can help their team. Their offense lives off outside-zone rushing and play-action passing. Tennessee is averaging almost three yards per attempt less on play-action passes with Derrick Henry out, as Ryan Tannehill struggles. Of course, Henry is an all-time talent rushing the football, but he is a Titan, and the Titans need him back in the playoffs to make any realistic Super Bowl push. Then, there’s the Colts, and their stout offensive line and running game with Jonathan Taylor, and their fast and physical defense that has added a slew of man coverage principles and new tendencies to what once was an elite zone pass coverage team. The Colts, much like the Patriots have the formula for January success, but like New England, will need their quarterback, Carson Wentz in their case, to make a few big-time throws and have at least one or two big games for them to roll to Los Angeles. It certainly is possible. Wentz is extremely inconsistent, but the talent is there, making them the ultimate dark horse candidate throughout the league. After that, I don’t seen any realistic options of teams that could make a serious Super Bowl run. I like what the Pittsburgh Steelers are about, but they don’t have enough offensive production to make a run. The Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers both may make the playoffs, and each squad should be even better next season with 2020 draft class QBs Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert steadily improving into star-worthy passers, but these squads aren’t ready for a serious run.

THE BETTER HALF

(With a short two-day stint until we get the meat of the Week 12 schedule, I’ll hold off on any additional blurbs in my power rankings before we see more of the first week in a post-Thanksgiving 2021 season. The home stretch is here! Enjoy.)

1. Los Angeles Rams (7-3) (Last week: 5). 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 6).

3. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 2).

4. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) (Last week: 7). 

5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 9). 

6. New England Patriots (7-4) (Last week: 10). 

7. Tennessee Titans (8-3) (Last week: 1). 

8. Buffalo Bills (7-4) (Last week: 4). 

9. Baltimore Ravens (7-3) (Last week: 8). 

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (Last week: 3). 

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) (Last week: 13). 

12. San Francisco 49ers (5-5) (Last week: 15).

13. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4) (Last week: NR). 

14. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1) (Last week: 11). 

15. Minnesota Vikings (5-5) (last week: NR). 

16. Cleveland Browns (6-5) (Last week: 14). 

Next Up: Cincinnati, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia

Mac Jones vs Browns -- 2021

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 10: Here come the Patriots, Chiefs + what’s wrong with the Bucs?

This seasons continues to be an “up-for-grabs” campaign, with every team in the league now sporting two losses, and the AFC continuing to be a “who-wants-it?” affair, unless you think the Titans (7-0 vs 2020 playoff teams) sans Derrick Henry will not lose again this year.

As much of the league continues to folly through fall, there are a few teams that seem to be moving their way through the cluster, or at least showing signs of that, with Thanksgiving approaching.

We have two breakout performances to tackle in Week 10 before getting to ‘The Better Half’ where we have a dissection of issues plaguing the defending Super Bowl champs and explain why Cam Newton’s return is so important to the Panthers. So let’s get right to it.

QUICK-HITS

The 2021 Patriots look more like an alternate version of the 2001 Patriots each week. And now, they are clearly molding into an AFC contender. Bill Belchick’s record-breaking, offseason spending spree is starting to pay off. So is his 2021 draft class, led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. I’m not ready to declare him the obvious-best-in-his-class passer of this past spring’s barrage, but it seems pretty clear that the Patriots have the right guy in Jones, who is in the right place, and taking advantage of New England’s world-class internal teaching and mastery of the sport.

I’ve long said that no one will ever be Tom Brady from 2007 to 2017 (and maybe in the back half of 2020 with Tampa Bay). That’s the bread and butter of his career, a cyborg-level, decade-long run of dominance. But before Brady became the GOAT, he was still a special, yet-different type of quarterback. From 2001 to 2006 (and again in 2018) Brady led more of a running-game-centric, heavy-fullback usage, play-action passing offense, and he rose to the occasion as a gunslinger in certain moments (Super Bowl 38, 2004 AFC title game at PIT, 2018 AFC title game at KC) to help lead the Pats to four Super Bowls.

Mac Jones can absolutely be the QB, and leading man of a Super Bowl team in his early years. He’s already shown shades of Brady as a smart, accurate passer with great feel and ability in the pocket.

Jones almost certainly won’t win six Super Bowl wins (although, you never know?), seeing as even those signature early-career Brady moments were all-time special performances from a quarterback that was now obviously going to improve at an exponential pace. Jones, or any QB, won’t ever match that, or even come close, probably.

But even at the risk of being over-hyperbolic, there really is some young Brady in Jones’ play. Sunday’s 45-7 Patriots drubbing over the Browns was Mac’s best outing: 19-for-23, 198 yards, three touchdowns, six-of-seven on third down, 158.3 passer rating (perfect) on throws 10+ yards downfield (PFF). 

Mac’s touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne was the best throw of his young NFL career.

Among the other reasons for the Patriots’ recent success:

— Belichick’s rookie draft class, including Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore (an interior pass-rushing force who is first in hurries and second in QB pressures among rookies) and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (an athletic bruiser/ball-carrier vision aficionado combo who ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns) is already paying off. Other draftees and finds such as safety/linebacker Kyle Dugger and slot/nickel DB Myles Bryant (undrafted) from the 2020 class are improving at warp speed.

— The shift toward a more “beefy” 3-4 defense with Carl Davis moving into early-down nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux playing 3-4 defensive end, with Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley (who has been awesome in ’21) at inside linebacker, and Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy as stand-up edge defenders, has helped turn New England into a tougher run-defending unit. In the passing game, Barmore, and of course, Judon, who is playing at an All-Pro level, are giving the Patriots a potential all-time combo (for them) at rushing opposing quarterbacks.

— The emergence of key offensive additions in tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Kendrick Bourney, as well as the improvement of an offensive line that now has a few, solid identifiable combinations for which the Patriots can work with, with monstrous tackle Trent Brown back into the fold. Brown had a 91.3 PFF grade in 25 run-blocking snaps in his return on Sunday.

— The omnipresent team camaraderie amongst the players, which has been a staple of the Patriots’ success under Belichick. Did you see the whole team mob Jakobi Meyers in the end zone after his first career touchdown?

Kansas City Chiefs The Chiefs are back, sort of. I guess this depends on your opinion of the Las Vegas Raiders, who once looked like an AFC upstart with high-level offensive efficiency before the ‘Jon Gruden’ mess, and now have scored 28 total points in two weeks versus the Giants and defensively-challenged Chiefs. But let’s give Kansas City some credit here. They’ve buttoned up some on defense (Melvin Ingram has been a big addition) and in turn, Patrick Mahomes and company finally broke out of a month-plus long slump on offense, as the former league and Super Bowl MVP award winner threw for 406 yards and five touchdowns on 35-of-50 passing. It was an absolute masterpiece of a performance, an “old-school” (haha) or vintage level-dealing by Mahomes.

The most important statline was ‘0,’ which came in the turnover department. Lately, Mahomes had been overly eager to leave the pocket, push the ball downfield, and was pressing, overall, to make up for a lack of a running game and terrible defense. But he took his time, taking what the (albeit bad) Raiders defense gave him, and taking shots when necessary. The Chiefs play the Cowboys at home this Sunday in the marquee late afternoon slot, so we’ll know more then. But they certainly looked great on Sunday.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tennessee Titans (8-2) (Last week: 1). They held on versus a tough Saints team to move to 8-2. They’re on a league-high six-game winning streak, and have beaten five 2020 playoff teams in a row (7-0 versus ’20 postseason participants overall), and that’s without Derrick Henry and Julio Jones recently.

2. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 6). Between the safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and cornerback Jaire Alexander, the Packers may have the best secondary in the NFL. They have a great defense in general. Aaron Rodgers has a solid shot at a second Super Bowl this season. He’s had a few.

3. Dallas Cowboys (7-2) (Last week: 8). If we throw away their hideous, unexplainable home loss to the Broncos last week (every team seems to have two or more inexcusable losses this season), they’re as close to being a consistent force as any team this season.

4. Buffalo Bills (6-3) (Last week: 7). They’ve had a weird season. At times, they’ve just looked disinterested, but that was a big W versus the Jets, forcing four Mike White interceptions. Buffalo’s offense has cooled down some, but the potential is always there with Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and company. It’s the Bills’ league-best defense picking up the slack that makes this team a top-flight Super Bowl contender.

5. Los Angeles Rams (7-3) (Last week: 4). We know about their superstar talent, but losing Robert Woods is tragic, and this team still has some depth and focus issues. Can this NBA superteam-like beast win a Super Bowl? “There’s a difference between talent collecting and team building,” ESPN‘s Louis Riddick said during the MNF broadcast.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 2). Anyone looking to identify what’s wrong with the Buccaneers should start with injuries. Brady’s reliable weapons (Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski) are on the sidelines, as well as basically the entire starting defensive backfield. If they can get healthy, they surely can go on another run.

7. Arizona Cardinals (8-2) (Last week: 3). Injuries are starting to ruin what could have been a run at the NFC’s No. 1 seed for them. They have to avoid another late-season slide like last year. They need Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back on the field.

8. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 5). I gave them excuses throughout the year for comeback wins in sloppy performances, but maybe they’re just good, and not great? Lamar Jackson is great. He’s better than great, and that may be good enough in the AFC, but not if they play the way they did versus the Dolphins last Thursday. Yikes.

9. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 10). Let’s see how they do versus the Super Bowl-contending Cowboys before we emphatically say “they’re back!” But it certainly does seem like they’ll win the AFC West, at least.

10. New England Patriots (6-4) (Last week: 12). After their Thursday nighter in Atlanta in two days, they’ll play the AFC’s top two teams (vs Titans, at Bills on MNF).

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1) (Last week: 11). They picked up a win and a tie over lesser NFC North opponents (Bears, Lions) while at home in the past week-plus. But other AFC peers fighting for playoff spots have done worse, recently.

12. New Orleans Saints (5-4) (Last week: 13). Even in a loss, the Saints showed why they were complete football team in Tennessee. Trevor Siemian is not terrible, but he’s not good enough to lift a Saints team that probably could be playing an opponent tough on the road in a NFC Divisional matchup in January. They’re handicapped right now.

13. Indianapolis Colts (5-5) (Last week: NR). Despite Carson Wentz, here come the Colts. They field one of the league’s best rosters, and it’s starting to show.

14. Cleveland Browns (5-5) (Last week: 13). Baker Mayfield may not be the long-term answer for this well-built, talented football team. They should be better.

15. San Francisco 49ers (4-5) (Last week: NR). They have the talent to play like they did versus the Rams every week. Although, that is their fifth win in a row versus Sean McVay’s bunch, so maybe they just own that matchup? Either way, they are right back in the thick of the NFC wild card race.

16. Carolina Panthers (5-5) (Last week: NR). When the entire team has hope on offense (welcome back Cam Newton!), they are playoff-worthy in the NFC, because their defense is damn good. That was evident in Arizona on Sunday. Cam should be the starter going forward. What an awesomely surreal reunion.

Next Up: Cincinnati, Minnesota, L.A. Chargers, Las Vegas, Seattle 

Jeffery Simmons vs Rams

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: ‘Any Given Sunday’ moniker was earned this weekend

This past week of football was initially going to be highlighted for having the most Super Bowl rematches in a single week (5) in NFL history, but just as recent weeks have unfolded, as soon as the early slate of games kicked off on Sunday, mayhem ensued.

By the end of the night, four of the league’s division leaders suffered losses, and another division-leader, Baltimore (6-2), needed overtime to survive Minnesota (3-5) at home.

The topsy-turvy AFC, in particular, continues to be one of the weirdest-looking conference races in NFL history at midseason.

The Titans (7-2) and Ravens lead the conference as two-loss clubs, and then there are 10 teams with either five or four wins, vying for playoff spots.

No follower of the league can rightly say they have a firm grip on their prognostications going forward, but that’s what makes this season so fun, even if there has been an abundant of sloppy play.

Tennesee’s 28-16 beatdown of the Rams on Sunday night was most evident of this. Had the Rams had a solid win in this game, Matthew Stafford would have been a possible MVP frontrunner at midseason, and the Rams probably would have been looked at as Super Bowl favorites (they still might be, and rightfully so).

Instead, the Rams failed miserably in a game of catch-up after falling behind 21-3 early because of two Matthew Stafford interceptions, including one pick-six, while Los Angeles was backed up in its own territory in the first half.

Additionally, Tennessee sacked Stafford five times, with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (three sacks, four QB hits) outshining perhaps the best defensive tackle of all-time, Aaron Donald (one sack) in his own stadium.

Tennessee is a tough squad that should be in the thick of the AFC race all year long, but they really needed Stafford’s mistakes to come away with a win here.

The Titans averaged under three yards per carry on the ground without Derrick Henry, and Ryan Tannehill looked just so-so, despite coming through in some big moments.

The Rams should recover, but that’s now two big stinkers (Cardinals loss being the other one) so far this season. I suppose every team gets two or three, this season.

The Titans were blown out by the Cardinals in Week 1 and lost to the Jets in Week 4.

This was a wacky, wacky weekend in a wacky, wacky season. The moniker ‘Any Given Sunday’ was truly earned in Week 9.

Let’s do our best to break down a few other things in sort of a Quick-Hits form.

Among the most surprising results on Sunday were the Broncos complete drubbing of the Cowboys in Denver, the Giants stifling of the Raiders at home, and the Jaguars’ 9-6 win over the Bills. All three division winners looked piss-poor on Sunday. Denver led Dallas 30-0 late in the fourth quarter before the Cowboys lowered the final score to 30-16 in garbage time. Dak Prescott struggled in his return to action going 19-of-39 for a 24.2 Total QBR and an interception. Denver also outrushed Dallas 190-78. Denver had lost four of five before this performance, which adds to the wonkiness.

Caden Sterns INT vs Dallas
Broncos rookie safety Caden Sterns intercepts Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. Denver led Dallas 30-0 in the fourth quarter, before holding on for a stunning 30-16 victory on Sunday. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

The Bills continued their streak of looking bored, and playing down to their competition, but they legitimately looked sloppy. Jaguars young pass rusher Josh Allen outplayed the Bills rising star quarterback with the same name. Jacksonville’s Allen led his team with eight solo tackles, while victimizing Buffalo’s Allen for a sack, forced fumble and an interception. In such a ridiculous conference race, the Bills still look like a team talented enough to make the Super Bowl. While Buffalo and Dallas’ losses should raise some concern, both still seem like Super Bowl contenders. The Raiders, however, were exposed by a bad team with a solid defense. The Giants almost beat the Chiefs last Monday night with their defense. The G-Men forced three Raiders turnovers, including a Xavier McKinney pick-six of Derek Carr, and shut down Las Vegas’ offense in a classic “east coast team beats west coast team in early slate” result. The Giants’ tough, physical defense and home-field advantage in colder weather sort of exposed the good-but-not-great Raiders bunch.

Two wins that did not feel wonky, were blowout victories by the Patriots over Panthers, and the Browns over the Bengals. Both teams dominated on the road, and will face each other next Sunday at 1:00pm ET on CBS, but they also deserve their praise this week before looking ahead. The Patriots continued their dominance of Sam Darnold, who moved to 0-4 versus the Patriots in his career, with one touchdown and nine interceptions. Just like his time with the New York Jets, Darnold was again apparently “seeing ghosts” versus New England, throwing three ghastly interceptions, including a pick-six to Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is in for a huge payday this offseason (or franchise tag). Jackson had two interceptions on Sunday, and leads the league in interceptions (21) since coming into the league as an undrafted rookie in 2018.

On a personal level, being mostly from the New England area, but going to high school in North Carolina, these Patriots-Panthers matchups have always been a premier event for me. Both teams have usually sported physical squads in the years they’ve faced off, and this time was no different. Carolina’s defense is a solid unit, with players such as EDGE defender Brian Burns being a rising star, veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson being an enforcer on the second level, and now former Patriot Stephon Gilmore (who victimized his old team for an interception on Sunday) no in the backend. Carolina forced two New England turnovers, but allowed a season-high 151 yards on the ground to the Patriots committee of running backs. New England fared much better defensively. It helps that they their own game-wrecker on defense in Matthew Judon (9.5 sacks), as well as a future All-Pro caliber defensive tackle in Christian Barmore, who swarmed Darnold all game and knocked down a few of his passes (saving a touchdown to Christian McCaffrey on one). New England is still figuring things out, but they are tough, physical and a solid football team. They are playoff-caliber.

So are the Browns, who pushed the Odell Beckham Jr. fiasco to the recesses of their minds in time to destroy the Bengals in Cincinnati, which may be a huge result come January. Cleveland won 41-16 behind a near-flawless game from Baker Mayfield, who was precise, and a solid running game (153 yards, 6.7 YPC) and defense, with the latter tallying five sacks and forcing two turnovers off Bengals QB Joe Burrow. Myles Garrett leads the league with 12 sacks now, and is the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year at the moment, if you asked me.

As mentioned above, Cleveland travels to New England this week for a massive AFC contest that could decide seeding come January.

I originally planned on taking my first crack at the NFL MVP award race here at midseason, but the race is so messy at the moment, that I think it’s best to wait until after Thanksgiving (post-Week 12) for my first top-five ranking. In the past few weeks, injuries, bad play or stupidity have lessened the chances of Derrick Henry, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow and others from winning the award. Only Lamar Jackson improved his chances over the weekend, yet, I can’t tell you with certainty that I view him as the front-runner, as of now. This is such a wacky year. I think it’s best that we wait. (I promise this is is an act of intelligence, and not laziness on my part. The league is in a logjam, right now. Let’s wait for more answers).

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tennessee Titans (7-2) (Last week: 2). Their offense certainly misses Derrick Henry already, but we’ll give them credit here after that beatdown of the Rams in LA on Sunday night. This is a mentally and physically tough football team. Kudos, Mike Vrabel.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 4). In a week such as this one, it makes sense that Tom Brady’s bunch moves up a few spots.

3. Arizona Cardinals (8-1) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury is probably the lead-dog in the Coach of the Year race, as of now. The Cardinals pantsed the 49ers on Sunday without their best players (Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, etc.).s

4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2) (Last week: 1). Their defense didn’t play too bad, and that’s without Von Miller suiting up. But Matthew Stafford’s terrible, back-to-back interceptions in the first half downed them early.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Ravens have yet to play to their potential as a complete team, sans maybe their Week 6 blowout over the Chargers at home. They can play better defensively. Lamar Jackson and Justin Tucker have bailed this team out in the clutch in a couple of instances this season. Now they, just need to play better. They will.

6. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers’ disappointing handling of his COVID-19 vaccine situation (let’s face it, he lied, and his reasons for not getting the vaccine are asinine) certainly assists in putting lives at jeopardy, so let’s keep that in context when I say this here — Rodgers cost the Packers a win on Sunday night.This was a very winnable game for Green Bay, but Jordan Love simply wasn’t ready. The Packers defense played a fantastic game in Kansas City.

7. Buffalo Bills (5-3) (Last week: 3). No matter how you cut it, that was an inexcusable loss to one of the two or three worst teams in the league. They are one of the AFC’s best teams, but they need to get out of this funk. The Patriots are nipping at their heels in the AFC East, now.

8. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) (Last week: 6). Pretty shocking loss to the Broncos at home. Not much else to say. It seems like every contender will have a few stinkers this season. Let’s see how they respond.

9. Cleveland Browns (5-4) (Last week: 13). The Browns are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. They looked it on Sunday in Cincinnati.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) (Last week: 14). They’ve caught a few breaks versus the Giants and Packers at home to win. Now, they’ll go to Las Vegas for a Sunday night game will huge ramifications in the AFC West. They still don’t look right on offense, but wins are wins. They could make a run.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 12). The Steelers host the Bears (3-5) in a very winnable game on Monday night.

12. New England Patriots (5-4) (Last week: 15). The Patriots improved to 4-0 on the road. They’re getting better as the season progresses after suffering a few close losses to possible Super Bowl contenders (Tampa Bay, Dallas) earlier. This 2021 New England team seems like a version of their 2001 squad that doesn’t win the Super Bowl.

13. New Orleans Saints (5-3) (Last week: 9). They should be higher, but their QB situation may turn into a real problem despite Trevor Siemian’s noble attempt in these past two games.

14. Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert bounced back nicely in Philadelphia. That was a much-needed clutch win on the road.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 10). That was an ugly loss to the Giants that should have been a bit predictable. These Raiders have some juice on offense, even if it’s just Derek Carr and scheme, and a lack of overall star power, but they will struggle versus tougher teams (in terms of talent, and toughness) on the road. We’ll see if DeSean Jackson becomes a legitimate deep threat for them when he joins this week.

16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) (Last week: 11). The Bengals are probably not complete frauds. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are stars, no question, and Zac Taylor’s bunch has mostly improved on defense, but that side of the ball has looked ugly in their last two losses. They seem like a “next year” team. They’re almost there.

Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Denver, Atlanta, Seattle

P.J. Williams pick-six of Tom Brady

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 8: Saints shock Brady, Bucs + the crazy AFC

This has already been a weird season. On Halloween night, things got crazier, as the league tightened even further in Week 8 (especially in the standings), forcing us prognosticators to have more questions, and less answers when it comes to predicting how things will go in January and February.

So, let’s take it to Quick-Hits, and Cover 2.

QUICK-HITS 

Saints stun Bucs

The Saints forced three Tom Brady turnovers, including a late, game-sealing pick-six by PJ Williams, and the Saints stunned the Buccaneers in New Orleans, despite losing Jameis Winston to a reported knee/ACL injury that could be season-ending. The crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was rockin’ the entire game, and the Saints’ defense was flying around the field with aggressiveness. When Winston went down, and New Orleans kept things simple for Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Sean Payton has been one of the four or five best head coaches in football for over 15 years now, yet doesn’t seem to get as much credit as he should. He was phenomenal on Sunday. The Saints’ 23-7 lead evaporated at one point, and Tampa bay took a 27-26 lead with just over five minutes to play. But the Saints calmly drove down the field and re-took the lead, even though they had a questionable managing of the clock (they gave Brady too much time). The Saints definitely look like a NFC wild card team, at least, but they probably aren’t catching Tampa Bay without a starting quarterback. Taysom Hill will return to the Saints soon, so you can expect them to use their packages with him at quarterback. If they can get receiver Michael Thomas back, that would make things even easier on Siemian, if he is indeed the starter for the rest of the season. It’s worth wondering if New Orleans would consider Cam Newton? He knows the division well, can run the same packages and plays that Hill runs, and is experienced enough to manage a game for a good team. It’s worth looking into.

American Football Conference logo.svg  A crowded AFC

As more weeks of football go by, the AFC seems like even more of a circus. How many good teams are there in the conference? Will multiple single-digit win teams (9-8, etc.) make the playoffs? Will the Chiefs (3-4) turn things around? Will the Bills (5-2), Titans (6-2) or Ravens (5-2) take advantage of the murkiness, and pseudo-lock up the conference’s top seed shortly after Thanksgiving by upping its play and going on a string of victories?

The conference truly is a mess, but it’s an exciting mess with tons of young, fresh quarterback talent (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Mac Jones, etc.). Still, all three of the quarterbacks I just named either struggled mightily, suffered an upset loss, or both, on Sunday. With backup quarterback Mike White starting (White was incredible on Sunday, and deserves his due), the Jets (2-6) erased an 11-point deficit late to defeat the Bengals (5-3). The Steelers (4-3) defeated the Browns (4-4), 15-10, in Cleveland, and that, coupled with the Patriots’ (4-4) win over the Chargers (4-3) in LA, and a Broncos (4-4) victory over Washington, make it impossible to predict wild card teams at the moment.

What we do know, is that the Bills and Titans, who started off slow on Sunday, are the conference’s two best teams at the moment, with the Ravens observing, the Chiefs still dormant, and the Raiders (5-2) as a surprise team that now many are talking about, even with the Jon Gruden mess. That’s about all we know, right now, which means we know just about nothing (give me the Bills to make the Super Bowl if I had to guess today).

National Football League logo.svg All hail backup QBs!

A quick note here — give it up for the backup quarterbacks on Sunday. Jets QB Mike White, Saints QB Trevor Siemian and Cowboys QB Cooper Rush all came through for HUGE victories for their respective teams on Sunday. White was the best of the bunch, full game-wise. But all three came through in the clutch for game-winning drives, with White and Rush (former 2019 Cowboys training camp teammates), throwing for game-winning scores late. You couldn’t help but feel great for Rush and his family after seeing his family celebrate in the stands after his game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Awesome stuff. This was just another example of “Any Given Sunday.”

COVER 2

 SAINTS 36, BUCCANEERS 27

We rightfully gave the Saints’ angle of this victory top billing above. They earned the victory. Still, right from the start it seemed like an off game for Tom Brady. It was the kind of game he’d have from time to time in New England. Famous Boston sports guy Bill Simmons would call these “bad body language” games. Still, Brady fights through these for victories once in awhile. Down 23-7 in the third quarter, Brady rallied the Bucs to a 27-26 lead with five-ish minutes left in the fourth period after a beautiful 50-yard touchdown heave to Cyril Grayson (his first career score) albeit on a blown Saints coverage. Brady (28-of-40, 375 yards, four touchdowns) ended up having a good game on paper, volume-wise, but New Orleans forced three turnovers, including the late pick-six, and sacked Brady three times. This Saints defense has given Brady a rough go this past year and a half. I’ll have to look at the All-22, but it seemed like the Saints played a ton of man coverage. In Cover 1 looks, New Orleans often employed a “robber” in coverage that sits in the middle of the field (think: yellow zone in Madden video games) to cut off crossers (same thing they utilized on the game-sealing interception touchdown). With Antonio Brown not active and Rob Gronkowski knocked out of the game early, Brady had less man coverage-beating pass catchers on the field, and New Orleans played the perfect scheme. The Saints flew around the field aggressively. Only Chris Godwin (eight catches, 140 yards, touchdown) seemed to beat Saints defenders often. After P.J. Williams’ pick-six, the game and moment reminded me of a couple things.

The Bucs’ surprising Halloween loss reminded me of the Steelers’ 34-20 victory over the defending-champion Patriots on Halloween in 2004. Rookie Ben Roethlisberger helped end New England’s still-NFL record 21 straight wins (including playoffs) and with a few key players out (running back Corey Dillon inactive, cornerback Ty Law left with a season-ending injury, etc.) Brady struggled versus an aggressive Pittsburgh defense, which victimized Brady for a pick-six in that game as well. Good news for Brady’s bunch, the Pats avenged the loss in the AFC title game that year, and went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls, something Tampa is striving for. And also after Williams’ pick-six on Sunday, Brady taking off his helmet and walking off the field reminded me of his late interception in the famous 2006 AFC Championship Game, where Brady threw a late pick to Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, which sealed  a comeback win for Peyton Manning. This is all to say that even the most clutch quarterback the league has ever seen sometimes doesn’t come through, just as Michael Jordan missed game-winning shot attempts. This was a big win for New Orleans, and Tampa has some problems that could prevent them from winning another Super Bowl, but still, give me the Bucs to win the NFC South. They’ll be OK.

PATRIOTS 27, CHARGERS 24

New England’s virtual “home” win in Los Angeles (did you see all those Patriots fans?!) was huge for their playoff aspirations, but the Patriots still managed to make the win not feel as good as it should have. They struggled mightily in the red zone, and in Chargers territory in general. They’re still making killer, bonehead mistakes (Kendrick Bourne fumble) and committing back-breaking penalties (a string of holding calls that killed two drives in Chargers’ territory), and the offensive line, which held up OK in pass blocking, but could have been better, is still so-so.

Mac Jones began the game looking sharp, which included his deep heave to Nelson Agholor (45 yards), but then he went through a 2-for-13 stretch that included seven overthrows. He was jumpy/skittish for much of the game, and panicked too often, getting rid of the ball too early and missing his mark on make-able throws. Tis the journey of a rookie quarterback, I suppose.

New England did have success running the football, and they played surprisingly well in pass coverage. Former Charger Adrian Phillips was the player of the game, picking off Chargers QB Justin Herbert twice, including a go-ahead, eventual game-winning pick-six in the fourth-quarter. Matt Judon and rookie Christian Barmore each also sacked Herbert, and just to twist the knife, it was former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry sealing the game by recovering Los Angeles’ late onside kick. New England did play well enough to win, big picture, but they were lucky to play a team of similar fashion, that can’t get out of its own way, even if they are talented (which the Patriots indeed, are).

Basically, the Patriots had a solid game plan that helped key their victory. They ran the ball hard and seemingly played a ton of Cover 2/zone coverage that flummoxed Herbert, according to the QB. It was a classic “Bill Belichick” victory. It was the type of win that people act like they never happened in the Tom Brady era now that it’s over. They happen. But still, New England needed an atrocious performance by the Chargers (Herbert, special teams, penalties, etc.) to win. In a sense, both of these teams look like the Phillip Rivers-era Chargers right now. But it’s the Patriots with the important tiebreaker that may come in handy in January. That’s huge. New England can improve, clean up their act (will they ever?) and use this as a building block.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Los Angeles Rams (7-1) (Last week: 3). Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp is simply unstoppable. Rams host the Titans next week in a huge Super Bowl 34 rematch.

2. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 4). Carson Wentz’ blunder helped fuel another Titans comeback win. Still, it’s a good sign Tennessee is winning these kinds of games. They go to Los Angeles next week. Can they take down the Rams? That’s a huge game. (Updated editor’s note: Titans could be without Derrick Henry for the rest of the season due to a foot injury.)

3. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 5). The Dolphins predictably played the Bills tough in Buffalo, but Josh Allen and company put the pedal to the metal late.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 1). They have their bye week to rest up and to get healthier. They’ll bounce back.

5. Dallas Cowboys (6-1) (Last week: 7). This Dallas team is having a special season. They do seem a bit “destined,” but they’ve had no luck in the playoffs since their ’90s dynasty years.

6. Green Bay Packers (7-1) (Last week: 6). Big win in Arizona. They should be able to fight for the NFC’s important No. 1 seed, all the way down to the wire.

7. Arizona Cardinals (7-1) (Last week: 2). They had been toying with defeat for awhile. They finally got burned.

8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 9). The Ravens move up here during their bye week. They were given a gift this weekend when the Bengals were upset by the Jets.

9. New Orleans Saints (5-2) (Last week: 13). Huge win, but what will they do at quarterback? Still, they should be a wild card team, and if they are, Sean Payton should be in the mix for Coach of the Year.

10. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) (Last week: 12). The Raiders may have had the best week of any AFC team by not playing.

11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) (Last week: 8). Most AFC teams have a bad loss or two this year. The Jets beat the Titans a few weeks ago. So we’ll ease up some on the Bengals, but up 31-20 late against a team like this, starting their backup QB, you can’t lose in that fashion (Joe Burrow late INT). The Bengals are no Super Bowl contender. We can settle down now.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 15). Here come the Steelers. They can win a ton of games with their stingy defense and rookie back Najee Harris carrying the offense.

13. Cleveland Browns (4-4) (Last week: 11). Baker Mayfield is banged up and not playing well. The Browns should be a playoff team, but now they are in trouble.

14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) (Last week: 14). The AFC is such a mess that the Chiefs have ample opportunity to make a run in the conference.

15. New England Patriots (4-4) (Last week: NR). The Patriots are 3-0 on the road, and were in position to beat the Dolphins, Cowboys and defending-champion, Brady-led Bucs at home this season. They’re a solid team that needs to clean up their act.

16. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) (Last week: 10). The Chargers are talented, but are they actually any good?

Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina