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Lamar Jackson vs 49ers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Can anyone stop Lamar Jackson, Ravens?

As I’ve said numerous times, gut check time in pro football begins after turkey day, as teams feel the added pressure that comes with important cold-weather games in December and January. Which teams are most positioned to make a run toward, and through the postseason? Which teams will fix their deficiencies in the next month?

I decided to do a column of quick-hits this week.

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, another look at Lamar Jackson and the seemingly Super Bowl-bound Ravens.

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The rain came pouring down in Baltimore, as did the NFC-leading 49ers (10-2).

The Ravens (10-2) withstood both, beating yet another top-tier contender on their way to an eighth straight victory.

This one was decided on the game’s final play — a game-winning 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, the NFL’s best kicker, despite the conditions.

“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told NFL.com. “We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for.”

The Ravens were ready again, as they were during previous big-time (and blow-out) signature wins over the likes of the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams in recent weeks.

The two best defenses this season — New England and San Francisco — use very different schemes.

The Patriots rely more on 3-4 principles with bigger defensive lineman (Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton) and a bevy of attacking linebackers to go with their league-best secondary.

The 49ers defense is a faster unit that uses the more common 4-3 look with four-down lineman all liable to rush the passer, with rookie Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner among the men up front making life easier for the likes of linebacker Fred Warner and cover man Richard Sherman.

Jackson throttled the Patriots, and was efficient enough in the rain versus San Francisco. He’s beaten them both.

The Ravens are without question the best team in football at the moment. Their defense has begun to improve, as the offense has eviscerated opponents such as the Rams, who they beat 45-6 in Los Angeles last Monday.

Maybe a possible bad-weather bout in Buffalo versus the the stingy Bills (9-3) this week presents an opportunity for a hiccup. But the Ravens are rolling, and have showed no signs of slowing down.

Baltimore just recently started utilizing speedster Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown again, as he scored twice in the win over the Rams. But Jackson is not even using the deep ball anymore, which is something he can do. His rocket arm has been throwing darts on roll-out passes and on short and intermediate level throws over the middle. And that, coupled with a Jackson-led rushing attack has rendered this offense unstoppable.

But on a day in which Jackson threw for just 105 yards and one score (and lost a fumble) — rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown, as well — it was encouraging to see them win a tough, gritty game.

“Blowing people out is easy,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith told The Athletic. “Being in a dogfight for four quarters, and always believing for four quarters, even longer if you have to, is a whole different mentality. I think to play in a game like this and fight to the end; it just helps our team realize our own resilience.”

In the end, after a defensive stop in their own territory, Baltimore’s familiar savior, Jackson, led the Ravens on a 12-play game-winning drive that ran out the remaining 6:28 on the game clock.

Until someone ends their red-hot streak — and maybe even if they do — the Ravens are the best team in football.

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Now, for my thoughts, starting with the offensively-challenged Patriots —

– The Patriots are sputtering in early December for the second season in a row. Last year they recovered by the end of the month to win it all, but watching this offense this season is like pulling teeth at this point. It’s fair to wonder if New England will remain inept offensively for the rest of the season. No pass catcher other than Julian Edelman can get any separation or has earned Tom Brady’s trust. New England used a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry and a second-round draft choice next year to bring in Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta. Both have struggled to find their footing in their few games thus far, while NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out just how frustrated Brady seemed to be with third-year Patriot Phillip Dorsett last night. That leaves just Edelman and rookie Jakobi Meyers as players who seemingly have any consistent rapport with Brady, and Meyers upset Brady on Sunday, as well.

It’s beating a dead horse at this point — and maybe, a pipe dream — but New England could really use Antonio Brown to open things up on all levels of the offense. If the Patriots are stuck with what they have for the remainder of the season, then it at least appears that the offensive line is better with the return of Isaiah Wynn, which helps the running game, and gives Brady more time to throw. But Brady struggled to find receivers on longer-developing routes, even with time, because they fail to get open. If you take out a late push that can’t yet be deciphered for ‘garbage time’ or a real improvement, the Patriots are have now scored 17, 13, and 9 points on offense the last few weeks. I believe they’ll hang onto the No. 2 seed at the very least, but they’ve already been passed by the red-hot Ravens. Can this team win in Baltimore in an AFC Championship Game? Yes, but now without improving on offense, which is something that seems nearly impossible at this point for the Patriots. But we’ve all learned our lesson with them, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

– Deshaun Watson –three touchdown passes, one receiving score on a pitch-throw from DeAndre Hopkins — was fearless and MVP-like in leading a win in Houston. Ryan Tannehill — 5-1 as a starter in 2019 — lead Tennessee to yet another big win. The Texans (8-4) and Titans (7-5) are the two remaining contenders in the AFC South, as it would be a tough climb for the Colts (6-6) at this point. Houston and Tennessee will play twice in these final four weeks, which includes a Week 17 bout in Houston. Considering they’re a game up already, the edge goes to Houston, who just played (and won) their toughest remaining game. The Titans still have wild card hopes if they fall to Houston once, but that means probably having to win a home game versus the Saints (10-2) in Week 16. If Tenneseee splits their final four games and ends up out of the field at 9-7 via tiebreakers, the team is still worth marveling at. Tannehill has taken over for Marcus Mariota and lifted up a superbly-talented, but usually inconsistent team. And with Derrick Henry bowling over defenses, the Titans are a tough team built for the playoffs.

– Two other teams built for the playoffs include the Bills (9-3) and Steelers (7-5). Both have little to no shot at advancing past the Divisional Round, if not, Round 1, but each are built for cold weather football. And considering the bleakness of Week 15’s initial Sunday Night Football matchup (Vikings-Chargers), NBC announced last night during SNF that Bills-Steelers has been moved to that Sunday night slot in two weeks. That’s a wise decision. What’s better than a possible bad-weather or cold-weather matchup between these tough clubs vying for a postseason berth in December? Josh Allen is a younger looking Ryan Tannehill with more potential, wearing the same number (jersey no. 17). It took a few months, but Allen has found his footing with offseason acquisitions John Brown and Cole Beasley. The former victimized his former team (Cowboys) over Thanksgiving.

The Steelers have mostly stayed afloat thanks to great leadership under head coach Mike Tomlin, who would get my vote for Coach of the Year if Pittsburgh is to make the postseason. The Steelers currently have the No. 6 seed due to a tiebreaker with Tennessee. The Titans can make the playoffs one of two ways, and if they somehow beat out Houston for the AFC South crown, it would be the epitome of a tough wild card matchup in Bills-Titans in Tennessee. The game would also be the first playoff matchup between the two since the Titans beat the Bills in a 1999 AFC Wild Card playoff via the ‘Music City Miracle.’ 

– One thing is for certain, as we see teams like the Titans, Bills and Steelers strutting their stuff as tough cold-weather teams, clubs like the Raiders (6-6), Browns (5-7) Cowboys (6-6) and even Eagles (5-7) don’t seem like teams that are ready for a December run this season. Cleveland is just a disappointing mess. Oakland is virtually out after two embarrassing losses to the Jets and Chiefs by a combined score of 74-12, while at least one of Philadelphia and Dallas will get in via an NFC East title. The Eagles are usually a tough team that improves as the season moves along, and Dallas is seemingly entering their usual late-season swoon. But I give the edge to the Cowboys at the moment. They may fire Jason Garrett anyway if they suffer a rough home postseason loss in the Wild Card round, but the Eagles are too beat up on offense to beat Dallas right now, even at home. If I had to choose today, I say Dallas wins in Philadelphia on Week 16, to take the division. But I may change my opinion from now until that game begins.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2) (Last week: 1). There’s no debate — the Ravens are the best team in football right now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers went toe to toe with the best team in football, and almost won on the road. We’ll keep them here for now. They’ll travel to New Orleans for a huge NFC tilt on Sunday.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 4). The Saints have a chance to take a tight grip on one of the NFC’s first-round byes — and possibly, home field advantage — with a win over San Francisco at home, next Sunday. 49ers at Saints. That’s quite the matchup.

4. New England Patriots (10-2) (Last week: 3). They showed fight at the end, but the offense has some serious issues. The defense is caliber of a Super Bowl-winning team. Brady and the offense have to figure this thing out. Can they?

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 5). The Seahawks have a chance to slip into the NFC West’s top spot for the moment, if they can beat the Vikings tonight.

6. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). That was beauty of a snow game in New York on Sunday. That was a pretty win by the Packers, too. But then again, the Giants (2-10) are a mess. Green Bay is sort of in NFC limbo. They’re not quite with these top-tier teams in the conference, yet.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The whole world will be watching Kirk Cousins on the road in Seattle tonight. Will he deliver? Or will he fold? (His performance will probably lie somewhere in between)

8. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 8). The defense came to play this week. But again, it was versus the Raiders. Before losing 40-9 to Kansas City on Sunday, Oakland lost 34-3 to the lowly Jets the week before. And the Jets lost to the then-winless Bengals this Sunday. Translation: are the Chiefs beginning their ‘2006 Colts’ path of an improved defense at just the right time? Or are they just the 2019 Chiefs? We’ll learn more after they travel to New England this week.

9. Houston Texans (8-4) (Last week: 9). Deshaun Watson was awesome in the win over New England. But the AFC South will be decided by the Texans’ two bouts with the Titans this month.

10. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 13). I have been tough on the Bills. Well, that was a mighty impressive win in Dallas over Thanksgiving. I apologize, Buffalo. Believe it or not, I think they may be a tough matchup for Baltimore this week, too.

11. Los Angeles Rams (7-5) (Last week: 11). After getting clobbered by the Ravens, the Rams took their frustrations out on the Cardinals, throttling them 34-7 in Arizona. It will be tough for them to make the postseason. They’ll need to win out to have a shot. They have the talent. Jared Goff looked good in the win. It had been awhile.

12. Tennessee Titans (7-5) (Last week: 14). Tannehill and the Titans are an incredible story. Will they keep this up and get to the postseason? Can they steal away the AFC South from Houston?

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) (Last week: 15). Mike Tomlin does it again. The Steelers bullied the Browns in their revenge-filled win in Pittsburgh. It’s amazing how tough this team is. Resilient in the truest sense of the word.

14. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 12). They’re nowhere near being mathematically eliminated yet, but you just know they probably won’t make the postseason now. That’s a bummer. This franchise is still headed in the right direction.

15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) (Last week: 10). The sky is falling in Dallas, but the sky may have already collapsed on the Eagles in Philadelphia. Which stooge will win the NFC East?

16. Chicago Bears (6-6) (Last week: NR). Even if they win out, they probably won’t make the postseason. But they’re better than anyone else not listed right now.

Next up: Philadelphia 

Jimmy Garoppolo vs Packers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Niners thrash Pack in statement win + Pats D rules again

After a tough overtime loss to Seattle two weeks earlier, and a comeback needed to beat Arizona last week, it seemed as if the 49ers were sliding down the mountain after hitting their peak.

Instead, their peak was yet to come.

In fact, if Sunday night’s win was any indication, the 49ers may be on top of the mountain for good.

San Francisco (10-1) dominated Green Bay (8-3) in just about every facet of the game in a 37-8 stomping over the NFC contending Packers.

Jimmy Garoppolo — 14 of 20, 253 yards, two touchdowns — thoroughly outplayed Aaron Rodgers, as the 49ers defense sacked the Packers quarterback five times, and limited him to one of the worst games of his career — 20 of 33, 104 yards.

“We feel like we’re the best team in the league and the only people who can beat us are us,” 49ers running back Raheem Mostert said after the game. “That’s our mentality.”

Despite the brilliance of NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson two weeks ago, the 49ers did indeed, beat themselves in their lone loss of the season to the Seahawks in overtime.

This week, they beat the Packers so bad that it’d be hard to argue they aren’t the conference’s best team at the moment.

But there’s more to come. This was just the beginning of a tough stretch that next features visits to Baltimore (8-2) and New Orleans (9-2), and ends with a Week 17 trip to Seattle (9-2), which will likely decide the NFC West, and maybe, the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

San Francisco — along with New Orleans — fields one of the NFL’s best rosters and forward-thinking coaching staffs under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Young playmakers like George Kittle — the NFL’s best tight end — and Nick Bosa — the NFL’s best young edge rusher — represent a young, talented team.

Rookie Deebo Samuel — their wide receiver out of the second round of the draft this past spring — has improved each week, and his race to the end zone has shown us what we already know — that he is one of the best playmakers of his draft class, which includes the likes of Josh Jacobs, Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown and Terry McLaurin.

The aforementioned Bosa is just an utter force along the defensive line. If it weren’t for Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (see below), he’d be a slam dunk DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) winner.

He’s transformed a defensive line of underachieving first-round picks into a five or six-man rotation of talented players, which includes offseason acquisition Dee Ford.

Then, there’s Richard Sherman.

The brash former Seahawk finds himself yet again in the spotlight, and once again, he’s earned it. After the game, Sherman and the 49ers were already mentioning the Super Bowl.

“Because we felt it,” Sherman said. “You feel the energy in the building. You feel the talent.”

All the talent in the world on one football team can be mitigated by a bad quarterback, just ask the Chicago Bears.

But in Garoppolo — 18-3 record as a starter — San Francisco has one of the game’s brightest stars, who at least belongs in the conversation with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and others going forward.

“He’s the leader of the team,” Sherman said. “Jimmy Garoppolo is our leader and we will follow him into the darkest of dark.”

Jimmy isn’t as flashy as some of the aforementioned young star QBs (Mahomes, Jackson, etc.) but he has the accuracy, mechanics and bravado to get the job done.

It took help from the defense earlier in the season to shake off some of the rust probably caused from his season-ending ACL injury last year. But the 49ers franchise passer is rounding into form.

As are the 49ers, who don’t give a damn about what you think of them and their quarterback.

The real season begins after Thanksgiving, and San Francisco will enter that period coming off their best performance yet.

GILMORE, PATRIOTS DEFENSE HALT COWBOYS

In a nasty battle in which both offenses slogged though the wind and rain (and defenses), it was America’s most hated team that defeated ‘America’s Team.’

Patriots 13, Cowboys 9, in a game that shall not be remembered years for now.

But if there are any takeaways from this game, they are these:

– This Patriots defense (8.0 points per game allowed in 10 wins) is the best defense Bill Belichick has ever had in New England.

– Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL since Darrelle Revis in his ‘Revis Island’ heyday. 

Gilmore has made quite the case for the NFL’s DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) award — in a race that includes the Rams’ Aaron Donald and 49ers rookie Nick Bosa. He’s the league’s best cornerback by a wide margin, specializing in blanketing man coverage.

On Sunday, he virtually erased Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper (two targets, zero catches), intercepted Dak Prescott, and left the NFC East-leading Cowboys — who entered the contest with the most yards per game on offense — in a frustrated state.

“With the makeup of this team, I shouldn’t be this frustrated,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones vented after the game.

“Thats 100 percent coaching,” Jones said of the Cowboys special teams woes, which included a blocked punt by Matthew Slater. “One hundred percent coaching.”

The Patriots are well coached, of course, under Bill Belichick. But you can’t underestimate the talent on this unit. Jonathan Jones has turned into one of the best (if not, the best) slot cornerbacks in the game. Kyle Van Noy and John Simon are perhaps the league’s most underrated duo on the edge.

Ditto for the duo of Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton, who form sort of a two-man defensive line on many occasions, and act as 3-4 style defensive lineman, attacking gaps and taking on blockers, with little to show for it on the stat sheet.

Then, of course, there is the athletic Jamie Collins and the veteran leadership trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower.

This is easily the best defense that we’ve ever seen in New England during the Belichick era.

And it’s come at an opportune time, as the defense is the main reason this Patriots team is 10-1 and not 6-5.

The offense has sputtered in the past month or two. Some of it is 42-year-old Tom Brady’s fault, and some is not. This week was less of his fault than it was during the uninspiring (on offense) 17-10 win in Philadelphia last week.

Brady — 17 of 37, 190 yards, one touchdown —  was fairly accurate on a number of throws that fell incomplete on Sunday. Newcomers N’Keal Harry (one catch, 10-yard touchdown) and Jakobi Meyers (four catches, 74 yards) had memorable moments, but also memorable drops. The two had an uptick in playing time with Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett out due to injury.

Julian Edelman (eight catches, 93 yards) was the only hyper-reliable target for Brady.

The running game got something going with the return of Isaiah Wynn at left tackle, but Brady was still sacked twice and pressured on several drop backs.

The offense has not looked good. That much we know. But there is room for improvement. The offensive line and running game should only get better from here on out, and that is a complimentary facet that Brady will need. Throwing 45 times or more a game with lesser-known pass catchers (and winning) has been an occasional staple of Brady’s career, but at age 42, it isn’t ideal.

As Harry and Sanu, in particular, continue to play with Brady, their chemistry should improve. And then, the offense will improve.

This Patriots defense can lead the way to a seventh Super Bowl title. But chances are, at some point, the offense will need to lead the way in a victory, and that moment will likely come in the postseason.

That moment didn’t come this week versus the talented Cowboys. Or last week versus the Eagles. But it’s coming.

It’d be unwise to bet on Brady not being ready for that moment.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. After a beautiful touchdown throw on a flea flicker early on, Wilson — 13 of 25, 200 yards, one interception, six sacks — struggled in Philadelphia. He still has a narrow lead in this race.

2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. He’s right there with Wilson, but will likely need to beat the Rams and 49ers these next two games to pass him.

3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. There’s a bit of a gap between Wilson/Jackson and Watson at this point, but Deshaun is about as valuable a player as any in this league.

4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. The Panthers’ playoff hopes are likely over, but Christian McCaffrey’s incredible season has continued. Although the MVP award is almost definitely going to a quarterback, the race for OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year) between McCaffrey and Michael Thomas is a fun one.

5. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. See above. Thomas has been sensational this season, and in every season in his young career. Could you imagine a Super Bowl 54 matchup between him and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore?

Next up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 1). I have a hunch that the Ravens might struggle versus a tough Rams defense tonight after going east to west. Let’s see how they respond in this tough predicament.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-1) (Last week: 3). That was one of the biggest statement wins of the year. Now, they’ll get the red-hot Ravens in Baltimore.

3. New England Patriots (10-1) (Last week: 2). This is the best defense of the Bill Belichick era. They need something out of this offense, but the defense can carry this team to a title — they just need help. The real season begins after Thanksgiving. Well, Thanksgiving is here. In a year in which the offense looks as dysfunctional as ever, can Brady lift them up in his 20th season?

4. New Orleans Saints (9-2) (Last week: 4). They were lucky to not be down three in the final minutes, thanks to a bad miss by Panthers kicker Joey Slye. But that was a quality win, regardless. The Saints may quietly have the most complete team in football.

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 6). Like the Patriots last week, the Seahawks had to eke out a tough win in Philadelphia. They’ll need to keep pace with San Francisco in the NFC West, which is possible thanks to the 49ers tough schedule.

6. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 5). That was one rough performance by Aaron Rodgers. I doubt this will become a trend. They’ll bounce back. They’ll have to, with this next team right on their tail.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The Vikings were rewarded during their bye week, thanks to Green Bay’s let down in San Francisco.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 8). Patrick Mahomes had an ugly game in last week’s win, but in an AFC with just two real contenders (New England, Baltimore) at the moment, the Chiefs could be waiting in the wings to join the party.

9. Houston Texans (7-4) (Last week: 13). That was a big win over AFC South rival Indianapolis. Now, they get the Patriots.

10. Dallas Cowboys (6-5) (Last week: 9). The weather conditions helped, but the Cowboys were completely shut down on offense. They’ll need to take out their frustrations on the Bills this Thanksgiving.

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 10). Their offense has been horrid, but their defense has quietly had a good stretch. Can they slow down Lamar Jackson tonight?

12. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) (Last week: 11).That’s another rough loss for the Colts, considering they led 17-10 at one point in the fourth quarter. Still, they have a shot to take back the lead in the AFC South if they can pull even with the Texans this week. They’ll have to beat a tough Titans team and hope for a Houston (vs Patriots) loss.

13. Buffalo Bills (8-3) (Last week: 15). They beat up on yet another subpar opponent. Let’s see what they do in Dallas on Thursday. They’ll have to prove that they’re no turkey (I’m sorry).

14. Tennessee Titans (6-5) (Last week: NR). Here come the Titans. What a job Ryan Tannehill has done these past few weeks. He’s been inspiring.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) (Last week: 16). I really believe the Steelers were a sure-fire playoff team with Ben Roethlisberger this season. They probably would have been an AFC contender, too. Still, they’re in the mix. If the season ended today, they’d be in as a No. 6 seed. That’s incredible.

16. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) (Last week: 12). Despite another ugly loss, the Eagles control their own destiny in the NFC East. Four two-win teams and the Cowboys stand in their way. They’ll likely need to win every one of those, and surely their game with Dallas. This offense is riddled with injuries but Carson Wentz (nine turnovers in last six games) still needs to play better. He’s been atrocious lately.

Next up: Carolina, Oakland, Cleveland, N.Y. Jets, L.A. Chargers

Danny Shelton vs Eagles

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Patriots outlast Eagles in physical battle + Ravens roast Texans

As the weather turns cold, the more physical, disciplined teams flourish. In a league that has seen many ripples and trends over the past century, that notion hasn’t quite changed.

And so when the Patriots (9-1) avenged Super Bowl LII in a 17-10 win over the Eagles (5-5) in Philadelphia on Sunday, it was the defense that led the way in this chilly November battle.

This game was not going to won by flash and substance, the Patriots slowly turned the tide in gaining the upper-hand in physicality and toughness, which ultimately won them the game.

“Yeah, he was crying,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said of Eagles pass catcher Zach Ertz. “He do that on film a lot. If you get into him, if he don’t get the ball or if he doesn’t get a call, he’ll cry. But he’s a good receiver, a good tight end.”

Gilmore, the league’s best cover man, was moved all around the field in different matchups, but was often lined up with Ertz, Wentz’s go-to-guy, on third down situations.

In addition to Gilmore, the Patriots were stout up front, sacking Carson Wentz five times and allowing just 81 yards on the ground. After the Eagles took a 10-0 lead early off a downfield pass interference call and one sustained drive, Bill Belichick took to the sideline to shore up any issues with his defense.

His adjustments worked, and New England was able to stifle an undermanned Philadelphia offense.

Luckily, the game did not rely too much on Tom Brady and the offense.

Brady — — 26 of 47, 216 yards — struggled to find a rhythm and was visibly frustrated during and after the game, when he mumbled through his press conference obligations before exiting at around two minutes in.

Even though this season has looked particularly bleak for the Patriots offense, you can bet Brady, even at age 42, will turn things around at least somewhat.

For starters,  2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn will return next Sunday to replace the struggling Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. And newcomer pass catchers Mohamed Sanu and first-round rookie N’Keal Harry should become more reliable as they gain a rapport with Brady.

But in a game in which Julian Edelman threw the game’s lone touchdown pass — to Phillip Dorsett — you can bet the greatest quarterback of all time is not going to be happy with his production, win or lose.

When asked if the offense can get back on track, Brady said: “I don’t think it matters what I think. It matters what we do.”

Well “do,” they probably will. Regardless, they’ll need to. Games against the Cowboys (6-4), Texans (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) are next on the docket, and you can bet that New England’s world-beating defense will have at least some issues with one or more of those offenses, meaning New England will rely more on Brady and their own offense.

We know now not to doubt Brady. But if this offense does fail to become a consistent force, they may have enough success on defense to return to the Super Bowl.

This is a call back to Brady’s early years, when he complimented a veteran defense with a chip on its shoulder. The 2019 Patriots, coupled with last year’s squad, are starting to share some similarities with the 2003 and 2004 that went on to win back to back Super Bowls.

New England has only Baltimore and Kansas City as true challengers in the AFC this year. Their Super Bowl hopes still shine bright, even if Brady’s demeanor isn’t exactly glowing.

The points may come soon enough, but New England has the grit and toughness on defense to defend their crowneither way.

RAVENS POUND TEXANS, CREATE SPACE IN AFC

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (8-2) moved one stop closer to earning a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs with a 41-7 stomping over the Texans (6-4) at home.

Houston’s spirt was broken early, as Deshaun Watson was sacked five times in the first half, and the Texans went into the locker room down 14-0 to a tougher — and better — Ravens team to this point.

The Texans entered the game as the NFL’s No. 3 rush defense, by game’s end, Baltimore — the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense —  had gained 263 yards on the ground.

“Any time you’re 8-2, you’ve got a special group of guys,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram said after the game. “And I think we really have a special group of guys. Guys who understand each other. Guys who believe in each other. Guys who want to fight for each other. Guys who understand the value of preparation one day at a time. We have a goal of being champions, so we don’t have time to rest.”

Jackson — 298 total yards, four touchdown passes — now leads a Baltimore team that is the best in the league at a time where the season really begins. The Ravens’ ferocious defense of yesteryear is no more, but the additions of Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters have given Baltimore a ball-hawking secondary that is improving by the week — a good sign for possible playoff matchups versus Patrick Mahomes and/or Tom Brady.

In addition to the back end, Matthew Judon (2 sacks) and Jaylon Ferguson (sack, two tackles for a loss) are among the names on a front seven that has gone from pedestrian to thriving in recent weeks, giving Baltimore a complete look on defense that the franchise and its fans have been accustomed to over the years.

“You all were questioning us,” Judon told The Athletic after the game. “We just focused and locked in, and we knew what we had in the room. It’s not like we were going to war inside our defensive rooms. We know what we have, and since then, we brought in four or five new defensive players. We just focused and we strapped in, man.”

The Ravens have now undressed the Seahawks (in Seattle), the Patriots and Texans in recent weeks. Three teams led by three top-tier quarterbacks.

They’ve also won six straight and have created a gap between them and the Texans, Colts (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) in the race for a first-round bye in the AFC.

With a Monday night matchup versus the Rams (6-4) in Los Angeles looming, followed by games versus the 49ers (9-1) and Saints (8-2), Baltimore’s difficulty in keeping up their now six-game winning streak only increases.

Still, it’s clear the Ravens are the hottest team in football at the moment, playing their best football as the season moves along.

QUICK-HITS 

– Kudos to Kirk Cousins for leading the Vikings (8-3) to a 27-23 win over the Broncos (3-7) after erasing a 20-0 deficit early on. There are bigger stories — Lamar Jackson, Colin Kaepernick, Myles Garrett — surrounding the NFL, but Cousins’ improved play in big games, road games and in the clutch should not go unnoticed. Just when it looked like the Vikings should be entertaining other options at quarterback in the offseason, Cousins in the midst of a career year. Minnesota looks primed for the postseason. Also, despite another blown fourth quarter lead, there were several positive takeaways for the Broncos and Brandon Allen, who looked poised late, almost leading the game-winning drive.

– Jimmy Garoppolo deserves a lot of credit for will the 49ers to a 30-26 comeback win over the pesky Cardinals on Sunday. Without top pass-catching option George Kittle, rusher Matt Brieda, and much more, the Niners were severely undermanned, and in danger of going from 8-0 to the NFC’s current No. 5 seed in just two weeks, had they lost. The win gives them a chance to breathe, and hopefully welcome back at least Kittle this week versus the Packers (8-2) in a huge Sunday night contest.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 2). With Lamar Jackson playing as is, and the defense improving, this is the best team in football at the moment.

2. New England Patriots (9-1) (Last week: 3). There are certainly issues with Brady and the offense at play, but I still think they’ll figure it out. The addition of left tackle Isaiah Wynn this week can’t be understated. Plus, the defense is still fantastic.

3. San Francisco 49ers (9-1) (Last week: 1). I know we like to scoff at him on Twitter, probably because he used to play for the Patriots, but it’s time to start giving Jimmy Garoppolo his due. He’s a part of this new wave of brilliant quarterbacks.

4. New Orleans Saints (8-2) (Last week: 5). Great bounce back win over division rival Tampa Bay on the road. It had also been awhile since Alvin Kamara played that well. That was good to see.

5. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 4). The Packers have a real test in San Francisco next Sunday night. These are the games that will help decide which of these NFC juggernauts is to get a first-round bye.

6. Seattle Seahawks (8-2) (Last week: 6). The Eagles will give Seattle their all next week in Philly. Russ will have to earn this win, just as he has for the rest of his victories this season.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). Kirk Cousins probably won’t win NFL MVP, but he’s right there with a few others after Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 10). The Chiefs are in desperate need of a win tonight versus the Chargers in Mexico City. The week after that, they’ll face the Raiders. If they can win both of these, the AFC West is likely theirs.

9. Dallas Cowboys (6-4) (Last week: 13). Dak Prescott has had just a few hiccups in an otherwise awesome season. He was lights out in Detroit on Sunday. He’ll need to be that and then some in New England, if they are to have a chance versus the mighty Patriots.

10. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 12). That was certainly an ugly win. You can blame some of the issues on offense to the absences of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but the smarter fans are intelligent enough to not be that naive. The talent is there, so a December run is always in the cards.

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-4) (Last week: 15). Great reslilient effort in Jacoby Brissett’s return. If the Colts win in Houston on Thursday, they’d be in a great position to win the AFC South.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5) (Last week: 8). Without DeSean Jackson, the Eagles are mighty slow on offense. A late-season run can happen, but they’re in trouble. They have to beat Seattle at home this week.

13. Houston Texans (6-4) (Last week: 9). That was a hideous performance in Baltimore. They don’t belong among the AFC’s elite, despite Deshaun Watson. Are they even worthy of an AFC South title? We’ll see on Thursday.

14. Oakland Raiders (6-4) (Last week: 14). They did what they needed to do on Sunday. They’re right there with the Chiefs in the AFC West.

15. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: NR). The Bills sneak back in after a pretty impressive win in Miami. (Hey, the Dolphins have been playing much better as of late!)

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly loss in all facets, with an even uglier ending. They’re still a well-coached team capable of pulling out a win in any circumstance.

Next up: Tennessee, L.A. Chargers, Carolina, Cleveland, Atlanta 

Kanye West -- Old school NFL Sunday

NFL Monday Morning Madness: How Kanye nostalgia sparked my ‘old-school’ NFL Sunday

This idea started with the release of Kanye West’s ninth studio album, ‘Jesus Is King,’ over two weeks ago. The album itself was a so-so effort by Kanye’s standards, but still harkened back to some of the reasons — forward-thinking vision, unique (and crisp) production — he became perhaps the best hip-hop artist of this century.

Considering the impressive discrepancy in sound and content on each one of his albums, listening to Kanye brings back different feelings of nostalgia, depending on which album the track you’re listening to is off of.

Although I consider every one of his albums at least good, it was his earlier work that stuck with me, before his ill-fated, more-recent decisions lessened his once-positive image, and popularity.

But in listening to Kanye’s work from start to finish, it was clear, he was always ahead of the curve.

His burst-onto-the-scene moments included his first style of music, hip-hop built around soulful samples that critics (and fans) ate up in The College Dropout and Late Registration. 

Then, in Graduation, Kanye triumphantly captivated the music world by using electronic-infused beats, some mixed with his patented soulful samples. Songs like Stronger topped the charts a few years before mainstream/pop music veered toward the electro side, led by guys like David Guetta and Calvin Harris.

Then, Kanye’s mom, Donda West, tragically passed away, 12 years ago on Sunday.

The loss prompted a then-introverted Kanye to go to Hawaii to record 808’s & Heartbreak. A controversial album at the time, 808’s was met with mixed reviews, but later revered. I loved it from the start.

The album spawned the introspective emo-era of rap later adopted by guys such as Drake, Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino. Cudi was a major part of the album, making it his entrance into the music world. It is his most influential album, and maybe THE most impactful hip-hip album, when we think of what transpired in the following decade.

It also was the beginning of an all-new Kanye. He was already an outspoken individual, but most of his major issues in the limelight began after this moment.

Although I still love basically every album he has put out, I sometimes yearn for the Old Kanye, and in turn, older times. Late Registration to 808’s and Heartbreak represent my high school life. Those years spanned from 2005 to 2009, right during this Kanye peak.

Regardless, Kanye continued his mastery.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), his post-Taylor Swift feud album, is perhaps his magnum opus. And the what-was-that? Yeezus (2013) was clearly before it’s time — think now of: Travis Scott’s odd, beat-switching work, with Sicko Mode in particular.

But I always find myself thinking of Kanye’s older music. I do the same with Drake. As humans, we paint a rosier picture of the past.

But where I’m going with this, I’m sure the that ‘old Kanye’ era was better for this particular subject…

*******

Kanye West -- Old school NFL Sunday
Nothing like a beautiful Sunday watching the NFL as it was back in the 2000’s, pre-social media. (photo cred: Ricardo Ramos)

With  Kanye’s ‘Graduation’ in 2007, I can pop it on and think of a backpack-wearing rapper taking over a scene that was normally reserved for gangsta rappers. But I also think of my own years as a backpack-wearing high schooler, discovering music (and myself) while feeding my appetite for the NFL during a pre-Twitter era of fan consumption. 

And so, on the Sunday of what I thought (I thought) would be an underwhelming slate of games, and a Patriots bye, I decided to take it back to simpler times.

I wondered how I used to consume NFL content on Sundays in the 2000’s. So, I decided to watch and gather information about the games mostly as I did in the booming internet age of the mid-to-late 2000’s.

I decided to allow myself NFL RedZone (debuted in 2009) and an end-of-the-day (only) Twitter scan.

But most of my NFL-consuming knowledge came from tentpoles of the past that led to my fascination with the coverage of pro football, which came after my love for the game itself.

Although now on ESPN + only, ‘NFL Primetime’ with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson would be my main highlight show, filling in the cracks, and overall game flow, that RedZone could not make up for. I also had NBC’s ‘Football Night In America’ complimenting.

There’s something about Primetime that adds to the NFL’s lore. Boomer and TJ setting the scene for each game to the tune of the classic music that everyone knows, and hopefully enjoys as much as I do.

With today’s good graphics-but-unrealistic video game-like state of EA’s Madden — which I will always love and purchase, but can admit is just not a great game at the moment, for realistic football simulation lovers — I’ve returned to my roots with video  games, too.

I’ve updated the rosters, thanks to the hardworkers in the Operation Sports forums, of ESPN’s NFL 2K5, which I believe is the best video game of all-time.

Julian Edelman- ESPN NFL 2K5
A digitized Julian Edelman celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown in an updated-roster version of ESPN NFL 2K5.

Equipped with modern-day players in the old game, I can see a digitized Chris Berman recapping a Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs win in a digitalized version of NFL Primetime on a video game created in 2004.

But it’s the real return of the Primetime that has had me thinking of a pre-Twitter NFL Sunday. One without the abundance of hot takes or the “it’s either this or that” do-or-die temperature gauges of each team after a win or loss. Even worse, we can tell a lot of the takes are mob takes designed to criticize immediately, because always has to be something to criticize. If a major trade happens, someone has to have lost it, immediately, right?

In a world in which social media is certainly needed — and there is a lot of good that has come from it, including tweets —  it’s the silly takes that bother me, including incomplete stats designed to further an agenda or argument that gets me riled up. Sometimes it’s better than just to sit back, watch the games, and say nothing.

I enjoyed the Sunday spent talking to my buddies, Tyler and Raul, in our hilarious group chat, and FaceTiming my father and Uncle to talk as I watched RedZone, while also talking about the games.

And I still got all the information I needed. For those who enjoy my takeaways — 

– The Ravens (7-2) are the hottest team in the AFC right now, and challenge the 49ers for the NFL’s crown on that list. Lamar Jackson looks like an evolved version of Michael Vick, crossed with Brett Favre, slinging passes at Patrick Mahomes-like angles, while also running around like a mad man. The Ravens have changed my mind with the league’s best three-game stretch of any team this season so far. Those were bulldozing wins over the Seahawks, Patriots and Bengals. P.S. I really enjoyed the ‘three-Heisman trophy winners’ play that culminated in a Jackson fake to Mark Ingram, and ensuing pitch to Robert Griffin III. 

– Even with the Falcons (2-7) and Saints (7-2) as they are, the rivalry came to fruition once more, as Matt Ryan returned and Drew Brees looked like he shouldn’t have. Falcons 26, Saints 9. These games happen, this is not panic time for New Orleans, although there’s certainly some concern after a game like that. 

– Seven of the 10 games before Sunday Night Football were close contests that were undecided in the final minute. The Dolphins upset the Colts. Ryan Tannehill rallied the Titans past the Chiefs. The Jets beat the Giants in the battle for New York and the Browns won a game. Can you believe that? 

– The most aesthetically-pleasing game was played in Green Bay. The light snow in Panthers-Packers increased as the game went on, as the did the drama that ensued when the Packers eventually held Carolina out of the end zone in the game’s waning moments, to win. The snow game triggered the start of gut-check time that pro football exhibits from November on, and also gave us a vintage snow game in a league that has lacked some of these in the latter half of the 2010s. I really enjoyed it. 

*******

The result of my Sunday was a soothing, needed experience away from the Twittersphere, as much as I love it. This was soul-soothing, just like one of Kanye’s soulful beats.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to think of a tweet for next week that will be so relatable that it gets more retweets than the money in my bank account.

*******

So, tonight will bring forth my return to consuming knowledge the “new” way, which is still a blast. Although too much at times, NFL Twitter is lit, as the kids say. It should be at a an all-time high when Richard Sherman’s old team, the Seahawks (7-2), travel to San Francisco to take on his new team, the 49ers (8-0). And that’s where we return to my analysis.

SEAHAWKS-49ERS PREVIEW

I stand by the fact that the NFC participant in Super Bowl LIV will be either the 49ers, Packers or Saints.

The Seahawks lead the next brigade of talented teams that also includes the Vikings, Eagles, Cowboys and Rams. These are teams that could make a run, but the Super Bowl is probably not where they’re going this season.

Russell Wilson is the NFL MVP leader at the moment, even if Lamar Jackson is nipping at his heels. Although the talent around him has improved, he still makes up for a lot of deficiencies, which includes a post-Legion of Boom defense that is nowhere near its predecessor.

San Francisco has seemingly built a powerhouse overnight, but that’s not quite the case. Jimmy Garoppolo and Richard Sherman have each been here in the last year or two to take on some lumps.

And although the 49ers defensive line includes a staggering five first-round picks, only the underrated DeForest Buckner has been a stalwart for them over the past few seasons. Rookie Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford were added this offseason, and Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas have been busts until now.

This smells like one last ‘big’ victory for San Francisco before they face the Cardinals, and then run into the gauntlet of the Packers, Ravens and Saints. That’s a rough there game stretch, and they’ll finally get at least one loss there, maybe two.

But San Francisco has the defensive front that should be able to wreak havoc on the visiting Seahawks, who still sport a so-so offensive line that lets the dogs through. Although Wilson is adept at winning these types of games, this seems like too much.

If he does somehow win, this will be the game where we look back and know that Wilson was deserving of the NFL MVP race, in a once-close race.

Both Wilson and Sherman will be looking to make a statement, and although I think Wilson will get a pass by Sherman for a score, it is the 49ers that will get the last laugh on Monday.

THE BETTER HALF

1. San Francisco 49ers (8-0) (Last week: 2). If the 49ers win tonight, they should be 10-0 when they host the 8-2 Packers in week 12.

2. Baltimore Ravens (7-2) (Last week: 5). We talked about Lamar above. He’s amazing. Baltimore also saw it’s midseason acquisition, Marcus Peters, return an interception 89 yards to the house on Sunday. That’s his second-pick six in three games with the Ravens. In a secondary filled with guys who avoid mistakes — Earl Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith — Peters has been able to play his aggressive style. Since he came into the league in 2015, Peters leads the NFL in interceptions (26) and pick-sixes (6). He’s the definition of a playmaker at the position, even if it led to inconsistent play in the past.

3. New England Patriots (8-1) (Last week: 3). Their top-rated rookie this year, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, returns this week versus the Eagles. Their top-rated rookie from last year, left tackle Isaiah Wynn, returns to face the Cowboys the week after. Oh, and you think Tom Brady doesn’t badly want to win this game in Philadelphia? He’ll be thinking of Super Bowl LII, in which his best Super Bowl (statistically) resulted in a loss. This has ‘here come the Patriots’ written all over it.

4. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 4). It seems as if Davante Adams is back. They’ll need him to stay healthy if they are to come out on top in the NFC.

5. New Orleans Saints (7-2) (Last week: 1). As I said with Green Bay after their loss to the Chargers last week, the ‘stink’ game happens. It happens to virtually every team. This was probably that game for the 2019 Saints. No time to panic, but they have to drop some after a 17-point home loss to a divisional rival with a 1-7 mark.

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-2) (Last week: 6). Can Russell Wilson overcome ex-teammate Richard Sherman, and the 49ers’ vaunted defensive line tonight?

7. Minnesota Vikings (7-3) (Last week: 11). Kirk Cousins is changing the way we view him. But he has to keep this up. Impressive win in Dallas. Add it to his impressive month.

8. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) (Last week: 12). With losses by several other clubs, the Eagles move up. They’re a second-half-of-the-season team. On Sunday they have the ultimate test in the Patriots, to test that theory.

9. Houston Texans (6-3) (Last week: 13). The Texans have a lot of holes, but they also have Deshaun Watson.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 7). Yeah, their defense is still rotten. As previously stated, they need a miraculous late-season fix of this issue, like the 2006 Colts.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) (Last week: 16). If the Steelers make the playoffs, Mike Tomlin deserves the Coach of the Year award. Kudos to him for the job he has done this season.

12. Los Angeles Rams (5-4) (Last week: 8). I know they had to go West to East, but that’s still an ugly loss. They have the talent. But what in the hell is wrong with this offense?

13. Dallas Cowboys (5-4) (Last week: 10). It’s a two-man race in the NFC East, and they have already pounded the Eagles, but I’m not sure they’ll outplay them down the stretch. They haven’t exactly been a ‘gut-check time’ team this century.

14. Oakland Raiders (5-4) (Last week: NR). The Bears certainly didn’t lose the Khalil Mack trade. But it seems the Raiders haven’t either. As I said above with Tomlin, give Jon Gruden some major credit here. (Here’s another take from NFL Twitter that didn’t go as the mob planned)

15. Indianapolis Colts (5-4) (Last week: 9). Two weeks ago, I had the Colts at No. 5 on this list. They’ve fallen, hard. Jacoby Brissett should return in a matter of weeks, to help right the ship. This is still a talented team. Don’t count them out just yet.

16. Carolina Panthers (5-4) (Last week: 16). They hung tough in Green Bay, and showed some of their physicality in the snow. This a team that looks primed for success in the future, meaning 2020 and on.

Next up: Buffalo, Chicago, Tennessee, L.A. Chargers, Detroit

Lamar Jackson juke vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ravens halt Patriots, put AFC on notice

Since breaking onto the college scene to win a Heisman Trophy at Louisville, Lamar Jackson has had to start all over in earning the respect that comes with being one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. After taking over for Joe Flacco as a rookie, leading the Ravens on a 6-1 record down the stretch, Jackson’s limited passing skills were put on display on national television in an AFC Wild Card home loss to the Chargers.

It was a learning point that any (and most) young quarterbacks succumb to. But judging by the ridiculous ‘is he good enough to be an NFL quarterback’ takes, his case was obviously different. He’d need to treat the postseason defeat as a learning experience and then put the loss, and the naysayers, in the distance.

******

10 months later — His confidence is oozing. His leadership is an admirably developed trait. This is a different version of Jackson, or perhaps the franchise pillar that the Ravens thought they had when former legendary GM Ozzie Newsome made him his final first-round pick in 2018.

“This kid is just destined to be great,” said Willie Snead after the game. He attacks those (big) moments, he wants those moments to happen. That’s what he gravitates to. That’s when he’s at his best in those big moments.”

Behind Jackson and veteran rusher Mark Ingram (15 carries, 115 yards), the Ravens rushed 210 yards against one of the best defenses in NFL history through eight games.

Even when the Patriots knew Baltimore’s running game was coming, they struggled to stop it. The Ravens often used fullback Patrick Ricard or tight end Nick Boyle as an H-Back on the near-wing, in a way the Patriots utilized Rob Gronkowski or James Develin to plow over opposing team’s defenders.

When the Ravens weren’t running up the middle, stretch plays the option, or designed runs for Lamar, they were rolling him out and giving him a chance to find his open target. There was nothing fancy in the Ravens’ play-calling, and Lamar wasn’t asked to do too much in the passing game, but he converted a few big throws anyway, including a 4th-and-4 conversion to Willie Snead in the second half with Baltimore in need of a spark versus the surging, down-but-not-yet-out Patriots.

New England, a team that hadn’t lost since December 18, 2018, lost this game because they were outplayed by a better team (that day) that outplayed them physically on both sides of the ball, which is something Bill Belichick will surely address during New England’s bye week.

Earl Thomas emotionally led the Ravens’ charge, much like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs would in Patriots-Ravens matchups of the past. The former two were at Sunday’s game, soaking in the atmosphere that they once helped create in the tough town of Baltimore, and an aura that Thomas and this present-day Ravens defense is trying to keep afloat.

“We didn’t flinch,” Thomas said. “If we take the turnovers out, it’s not close.”

Thomas may be right, but it was a major turnover by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman that turned the tide. Trailing 17-13, and driving, to start the second half, Edelman fumbled in Ravens’ territory, and Marlon Humphrey returned the loose ball for a touchdown, which put New England in a hole they would not recover from.

Edelman took blame for the play, but his teammates would not let him take the burden for the loss, which was a true Patriots-like attitude from a team that otherwise did not resemble themselves.

Tom Brady, who Lamar Jackson still calls ‘the GOAT,’ did his best to combat the Ravens’ pass rush and offensive onslaught, finding his two favorite receivers — Edelman and Mohamed Sanu — although tough, for an impressive stat line for a top-tier running back – 20 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown.

To be blunt, the Patriots are down at least one playmaker on offense. That playmaker might be left tackle Isaiah Wynn. The former first-round pick is slated to return in three weeks versus the Cowboys (4-3), after New England travels to Philadelphia to face the Eagles (5-4). Ditto for rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who should be active then to take on the X-receiver role once occupied by Josh Gordon.

The Patriots now know this won’t be easy, like it appeared to be in their first eight games. The AFC now has three young quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Jackson — who are liable to take over a game at any moment. Jackson did that to them on Sunday, and they’ll see Watson and Mahomes down the stretch.

“The better team won tonight,” safety Duron Harmon said to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. “We know that. We know we can play a lot better, so it’s all about just learning from the loss.

There’s still a lot of football left. The real football season doesn’t start until Thanksgiving, so we’ve got some time to continue to improve before the real football starts.”

As for the Ravens, they’ll take the win, and they’ll stand behind their new franchise quarterback, who has consecutive wins over Russell Wilson’s Seahawks (on the road) and the defending Super Bowl champions.

“MVP, bro,” Thomas told NFL.com’s Michael Silver of Jackson.“He’s separating himself right now, and it’s pretty special to watch.”

QUICK-HITS 

– With a game-tying 54-yard field goal, and a 44-yard walk-off game winner, Harrison Butker delivered the Chiefs (6-3) a much-needed win that fired up the crowd, and Patrick Mahomes. Immediately after the kick sailed through the uprights, Mahomes ran onto the field to celebrate with Butker and his teammates. Kansas City has two games (vs Titans, at Chargers) before their bye, and they may have to evaluate whether or not they need to rush back Mahomes, who appears ready. At this point, it would take a miracle for the Chiefs to catch the Patriots in the race for home-field advantage, but they are right in the thick of things in the race for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, which would give them a bye. The good news is, the Chiefs should be ‘ok’ either way. Matt Moore, a 35-year-old journeyman who recently was a Dolphins scout, has been effective in Mahomes’ absence. Andy Reid always gets good play out of his backup quarterbacks. If he thinks the Chiefs can beat the reeling Titans with Moore next week, it would be worth considering holding out Mahomes for at least one more game. However, Reid reported “there are no new injuries,” after the win, meaning Mahomes should be scheduled to return Sunday.

– Laces out! Partially because of a bad hold, Adam Vinatieri — the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history — shanked a go-ahead 43-yard field goal attempt. But the bigger problem was that the 2019 Colts’ affinity to play sloppy games finally came back to bite them. Jacoby Brissett went down early, and Brian Hoyer played admirably, throwing for three scores while also setting up Indianapolis for a game-winning drive, but his redzone pick-six proved costly. The person who recorded that defensive touchdown? That’d be Minkah Fitzpatrick. The player who was traded from the Dolphins to the Steelers for a first-round pick has proven worth it. Fitzpatrick totaled three interceptions in a six-day period, which included two against his former team last Monday night. His addition as a do-it-all defensive back capable of playing anywhere on the secondary has given Pittsburgh a massive boost to their underrated defense. Mike Tomlin has done a great job in getting Pittsburgh (4-4) back to .500 without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

– Every good — or great — team has a dud in the regular season. A lot of times in the middle of the season, too. Because I view this from a Patriots lens, the Packers’ 26-11 loss to the Chargers on Sunday reminded me of the 2010 Patriots’ midseason loss in Cleveland — to Eric Mangini, Peyton Hillis and the Browns — and last year’s Patriots’ blowout loss in Tennessee to Mike Vrabel’s Titans. These losses happen. Even the activation of Rodgers’ No. 1 pass catcher, Davante Adams, couldn’t help in Los Angeles. The Packers (7-2) were flat, and the talented Chargers (4-5) took advantage in a moment where they absolutely needed a quality win to jumpstart a run to the postseason. The Chargers aren’t finished, yet. The Packers will be fine, and will welcome a trip back home next week versus the Panthers.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. With an out-of this-world stat line — 22 touchdowns, one interception — Wilson leads this close MVP race as we pass the season’s midway point.

2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Watson continues to lift up a Texans team with many holes, including a few among the ever-important offensive line.

3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. Even with a still-limited repertoire (he’ll learn) in the passing game, Jackson remains one of the best player makers in the NFL. He’s certainly the most exciting.

4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. He won’t win MVP, but he is the most valuable non-QB in the NFL this season.

5. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. Rough day for Rodgers in Los Angeles. That brings him down some. But the way he has picked up this new offense is still something to admire.

Next up: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

THE BETTER HALF

1. New Orleans Saints (7-1) (Last week: 2). Fittingly, the not-talked-about-enough Saints slide up to the top spot during their bye week. They belong here.

2. San Francisco 49ers (8-0) (Last week: 3). Their defense is mighty, and Jimmy Garoppolo just might be joining them.

3. New England Patriots (8-1) (Last week: 1). Now we can oust any undefeated talk. The Patriots have a bye, and then will travel to Philadelphia to exact revenge on the Eagles after a wonky Super Bowl 52.

4. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 4). That was a rough loss, but every team lays a dud. If that is Green Bay’s lone stinker this regular season, then they will have played a fantastic 16-game stretch.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 11). The Ravens have a unique offense worthy of postseason success. In an AFC that has just shown that their top team is somewhat vulnerable, Baltimore is right in the thick of things.

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-2) (Last week: 6). Russell Wilson continues to make up for Seattle’s deficiencies. This defense is not very good.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (6-3) (Last week: 9). Matt Moore did enough to win two games, really. It would be wise to wait until Mahomes has fully healed, but it appears he is ready to go. The Chiefs will likely battle the Ravens down the stretch for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, and maybe, the Patriots for home field advantage.

8. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 8). The Rams sit tight, feeling good about themselves during the bye week.

9. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 5). After winning a few sloppy games earlier this season — including last week’s win — the Colts got burned. Rough loss.

10. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) (Last week: 10). They should beat the Giants tonight, and then, they have a big SNF matchup with Minnesota next week.

11. Minnesota Vikings (6-3) (Last week: 7). The Vikings will have to regroup quickly when they face Dallas on Sunday.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) (Last week: 12). The Eagles now go into their bye week with some momentum. After that, they’ll host the Patriots. That game will be telling.

13. Houston Texans (6-3) (Last week: 13). Deshaun Watson continues to play ‘Like Mike,’ in taking the Texans to another level.

14. Buffalo Bills (6-2) (Last week: 14). They let Washington hang around for a bit, but ultimately pulled out a gritty win.

15. Carolina Panthers (5-3) (Last week: 16). No matter who finishes the season at quarterback for the Panthers, their MVP is running back Christian McCaffrey.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4) (Last week: NR). Mike Tomlin has done an incredible job in getting them back to this point. If they sneak into the playoffs, he should be up for Coach of the Year.

Next up: L.A. Chargers, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, Jacksonville

Nick Bosa INT vs CAR

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Bosa, Sherman leading ferocious 49ers defense

An upstart NFC team equipped with a hungry defense, a young quarterback and a bruising running game has taken the season by storm.

This is nothing new to 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who is having a mini-renaissance in his second season as a 49er.

“I’m not new to this, I’m true to this,” Sherman said after the game, quoting rapper Drake.  “My 15 minutes started an hour ago.”

Sherman, who had an interception late on Sunday, was the face of the brash-talking Seahawks that made back-to-back Super Bowls a few seasons ago.

But those Seahawks, which revolved mostly around the ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary and a steady pass rush — before Bobby Wagner evolved into what he is now — didn’t have Nick Bosa.

The No. 2 overall pick from this past draft tallied four sacks and an athletic interception — and long return afterward– that set the tone for the victory.

Bosa has seven sacks this season, anchoring a loaded offensive line, mostly of former first-round picks, that has finally played up to par in 2019. They played above expectations on Sunday, sacking quarterback Kyle Allen seven times and nothing 13 interceptions in their 51-13 destruction of the Panthers.

In addition to their defense, the NFC-leading 49ers rushed for 232 yards, with Kyle Shanahan-product Tevin Coleman adding 105 of those yards and three scores on 11 carries. And newcomer wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders added the game’s first touchdown after a tipped ball, and subsequently soaked in the winning atmosphere at Levi’s Stadium. Sanders a veteran of the Steelers and Broncos, knows a thing or two about winning football, as he was one of the primary weapons on the Super Bowl 50 champion Broncos.

“All week the energy has been so positive,” Sanders said after the game. “This locker room is just amazing… I will never forget going out the tunnel with these guys. Everybody was laughing & smiling. I was like man this is football, this is fun. Im blessed to be here.”

Unlike the AFC in the 21st century, which has been dominated by the Patriots, Steelers and Peyton Manning-led teams, the NFC has seen a variety of different franchises have their two or three year run at the conference. These upstarts usually burst onto the scene swiftly, like the 49ers and Seahawks of the early 2010’s, or the Rams in the past few seasons.

So now the 49ers have made the jump with a different era of players. They’re ending the decade just as they begun it, creating a team built for a special run of seasons.

With the Seahawks, Packers, Ravens and Saints on the schedule in the next six weeks, we are set to learn more about these 49ers. But what we’ve learned already, is that they’re a legitimate Super Bowl LIV contender.

“We haven’t reached our potential,” 49ers defensive end Dee Ford, an offseason acquisition from Kansas City, told NFL.com.

“We’re just going to keep chopping wood and squeeze out every bit of potential that we can. I don’t know if we’re getting each team’s best shot, but I know they’re getting ours.”

 

QUICK-HITS 

– Bill Belichick picked up his 300th win on Sunday in the same matchup that brought him his first win. Belichick was the Browns head coach, winning in New England, for his first career victory. Almost 30 years later, Belichick has since created the greatest sports dynasty perhaps in history in New England. Belichick has experienced it all and then some up in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but he hasn’t had a defense quite like this. With a slow-to-start offense under Tom Brady and a revolving door of personnel, the defense again picked up the slack, forcing three turnovers in a row in the first half, which virtually put the game out of reach right then. New England won 27-13 behind another outstanding performance by Jamie Collins (1.5 sacks), who was released by the Browns this offseason before coming back to New England. Collins’ playmaking ability encouraged Belichick to switch his defense to more of a two-down lineman base with four linebackers — sometimes a 3-4 front — that has allowed Kyle Van Noy to be a force on the edge full time. With the Ravens up next week, it’ll be interesting to see how Belichick defends their quarterback — the uber-spry Lamar Jackson.

– Simply put — the Eagles bullied the Bills on Sunday. Behind rookie sensation Miles Sanders, veteran Jordan Howard and even Boston Scott (not to be confused with Survivor celebrity ‘Boston Rob’) Philadelphia rushed for 218 yards versus a stout Buffalo defense that came into the game ranked third in total yards allowed per game. Still in need of help on defense, the Eagles clearly took out their frustrations over the past seven games on their Week 8 opponent in a windy matchup in upstate New York. Like the Rams and Cowboys, Philadelphia has the talent to go on a major run during the latter half of the regular season. As we approach November, the real season is about to begin. The Eagles have made two consecutive winter runs under Nick Foles. Can Carson Wentz take the torch?

– The Colts weren’t on their A-game on Sunday. And could they be? The Broncos (2-6) are a train wreck of a team that has turned into a fire sale as we approach this week’s trade deadline. But Denver gave Indianapolis all they had, and it was almost enough. But Jacoby Brissett did just enough. Down 13-12 late, and ffter evading Broncos superstar pass rusher Von Miller in his end zone for a 35-yard sideline heave to T.Y. Hilton, the Colts quarterback did his job in getting his team in field goal range. Adam Vinatieri did the rest. The NFL’s best clutch kicker ever missed a field goal and extra point earlier, but the 46-year-old nailed the game-winning 51-yarder. He always seems to come through when it counts. And in doing so, the Colts showed the grittiness needed to win when you’re not playing your best. That’s a good sign for a team that is battling for a first-round bye in a cluttered AFC after New England.

THE BETTER HALF

1. New England Patriots (8-0) (Last week: 1). As we enter the second half of the regular season, the Patriots schedule increases tremendously with difficulty. They’ll need more out of their offense, perhaps starting next week in Baltimore. Anyone want to bet against Tom Brady?

2. New Orleans Saints (7-1) (Last week: 2). Drew Brees looked fresh and potent, and the Saints steamrolled yet another opponent. They’re the class of the NFC thus far.

3. San Francisco 49ers (7-0) (Last week: 4). Can you believe this defense? They belong right there with the Saints and Packers as the NFC’s top-tier contenders at the moment.

4. Green Bay Packers (7-1) (Last week: 3). Rodgers was magnificent in Kansas City, and running back Aaron Jones caught seven balls for 159 yards and two long scores. He can’t be covered solely by a linebacker. What a weapon he’s become on that offense.

5. Indianapolis Colts (5-2) (Last week: 5). They survived versus Denver. They can win ugly. This is a totally different Colts team than we’re used to seeing.

6. Seattle Seahawks (6-2) (Last week: 6). They let up late, but that 24-0 start was something you usually don’t see from them on an early east coast game. Russell Wilson still leads the tightest NFL MVP race in years.

7. Minnesota Vikings (6-2) (Last week: 7). They travel to Kansas City this week. Even with Matt Moore starting for the Chiefs, this will be tough. Can Kirk Cousins keep it rolling with a huge road win on Sunday?

8. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 9). Cooper Kupp — 7 catches, 220 yards, one touchdown — is the engine for this Rams offense. They’re a much more efficient offense when he’s rolling. He was certainly on his A-game in London.

9. Kansas City Chiefs (5-3) (Last week: 8). The Chiefs kept up with the Packers at home under Matt Moore, but the defense ultimately collapsed. They face a similar test at Arrowhead versus the Vikings on Sunday, another NFC North foe. The good news for them is that this may be their last game before Patrick Mahomes returns under center.

10. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) (Last week: 10). The Cowboys have a monster bye week, seeing as they don’t play until next Monday in New York, versus the lowly Giants.

11. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 11). The Patriots come to town for a Sunday Night Football game that may be Lamar Jackson’s biggest game in the NFL thus far. Can he solve this defense?

12. Philadelphia Eagles (4-4) (Last week: 13). Their beatdown of the Bills in Buffalo was much needed. Can they go on another run this winter?

13. Houston Texans (5-3) (Last week: 14). Deshaun Watson was incredible once again, but the bigger story was the season-ending injury to J.J. Watt, who shared a message to his teammates and fans on Twitter, after the game. This is Watt’s third season-ending injury in four seasons. He’s bounced back each prior time, and I would be on him doing it again. He’s a warrior.

14. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 12). Ugly loss at home for the Bills. I think we know where they belong. They’re a team with a tough defense and a below-average offense that won’t beat good teams on the road, and may not beat them at home, either. But, they should still make the playoffs.

15. Detroit Lions (3-3-1) (Last week: 16). They made some of their usual mistakes, but they did enough to hang on and beat the troubled Giants.

16. Carolina Panthers (4-3) (Last week: 15). That was a stinker that will rightfully question whether or not Cam Newton should start again this season. Not sure Newton would have looked that bad in San Francisco. But it’s considering that’s his first career loss, this is no time to bury Kyle Allen (5-1). Not yet.

Next up: Jacksonville, L.A. Chargers, Chicago, Tennessee, Oakland

Lamar Jackson vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Lamar, Ravens best Wilson as Patriots await

With how this season was going, Sunday’s game in Seattle had all the makings of another stepping stone for Russell Wilson, the NFL’s new (possibly) best player. So much for that.

On this day, a younger, flashier breed at quarterback stole the show.

By juking and maneuvering his way around Century Link Field for 116 yards and a score, Lamar Jackson led the Ravens (5-2) to a surprising 30-16 victory over the Seahawks (5-2), putting Baltimore in a commanding lead in the AFC North.

After a four-game stretch in which Baltimore was lucky to come out of with a 2-2 mark, the Ravens reenergized themselves to win in perhaps the hardest venue to do so, over a team led by the aforementioned Wilson, the still-leader in the NFL MVP race.

In addition to Jackson, Baltimore’s defense made a statement.

Wilson entered the game with a 14-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio that was dented after he was victimized by the new-acquired Marcus Peters via a game-changing pick-six in his first game as a Raven. The play sucked the life out of a crowd that is known for it’s energy.

“Once it was in the air, I felt it,” Peters said of the play after the game.

Marcus Peters pick-six vs Seahawks
In his first game with the Ravens, Marcus Peters victimized Russell Wilson for a pick-six. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Former Seahawk Earl Thomas had a front row seat to the type of victory this city has seen many times this decade. After a game in which Thomas forced Wilson complete less than 50 percent (20-for-41) of his passes, he embraced his former teammate with a hug and jersey swap after the game.

Still, it was Jackson and Baltimore’s 199 yards on the ground that made mince meat out of an improved defense in Seattle — compared to last season. The Ravens followed up a month of sloppy play offensively with a punishing running game featuring both old and new-school tactics, a formula that may be Baltimore’s best chance at a deep postseason run.

At this point in the season, the time for experimentation is waning. The Ravens know that, and in turn, have seemingly found what works.

After their upcoming bye week they’ll see if their current formula is good enough when they become the first in a line of teams with winning records to face the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots (6-0) starting in the first week of November.

Can their best beat the best? In two Sundays, we’ll find out.

QUICK-HITS 

– Sunday’s games provided a clear line in the sand in two divisions — the AFC South and NFC East.

In Dallas, the Cowboys (4-3) hit the Eagles (3-4) in the mouth within minutes, jumping out to a 14-0 lead en route to a 37-10 whooping of their NFC East rival. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and puts Dallas virtually two games up on Philadelphia in the division. Sunday’s win was a back-to-basics game for a team that is pretty loaded in the running game and on defense. Despite collecting what seemed to be an influx of talent, the Eagles don’t seem to be meshing. Their secondary is porous and their rush defense joined the pity party in Dallas on Sunday. Then there’s Carson Wentz, who is a top-tier quarterback according to Pro Football Focus and just about everyone else. For the Eagles, the talent is there, but the production is not.

In Indianapolis, Jacoby Brissett (26-for-39, 326 yards, four touchdowns) showed the NFL world just how complete of a team the Colts are. Already loaded with a top-tier offensive line and a fast defense consisting of an up-and-coming secondary, Brissett exploited Houston in a way they probably didn’t see coming. After making quick work of the Chiefs in Kansas City, the Colts sat and watched the Texans do the same during their bye week, as everyone praised Watson as an MVP candidate. It was Brissett who outplayed Watson on Sunday, as the Colts (4-2) moved ahead of the Texans (4-3) in the AFC South. It’s clear that they’re at least slightly ahead of teams like the Ravens (5-2) and Chiefs (5-2) for bragging rights as the second-best team in the AFC, for now.

– When Kirk Cousins is on, the Vikings do well. One of the league’s most talented teams knows that their hopes for success rely on Cousins playing consistently well. After a tough 42-30 road win in Detroit on Sunday, Cousins has now flourished for two straight weeks in Minnesota victories — eight touchdowns, one interception and 333.5 passing yards per game. They have a home bout with Washington next week, and then travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, who will probably be without superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. These may be games where the Vikings rely more on Dalvin Cook, who is looking like a top-five running back this season. But it would be wise to throw enough to at least keep the momentum going with Cousins, who has a great chance to lead his club to a 7-2 mark after these next two weeks.

– The NFC is truly a loaded conference at the moment. Aaron Rodgers finally has some defensive help in Green Bay, as well as a new offense tailored to succeed in the colder months. San Francisco is struggling some on offense, but have implemented a  power-running game with Matt Brieda to go along with perhaps the league’s best pass rush. They have transformed over night. The Seahawks aren’t quite up to par with San Francisco in terms of overall talent, but they’re close. With additions such as Jadeveon Clowney and D.K. Metcalf, the Seahawks — despite their loss on Sunday — have improved their roster behind Russell Wilson, the NFL’s best QB at the moment. Having Wilson makes them forever dangerous in their division and conference.

Then there’s the Saints, whose defense looks better than ever during the Sean Payton era, complimenting an offense that mimics it’s secret weapon, Taysom Hill, as a unit that can do just about everything. With Alvin Kamara out, the offense’s other star, Michael Thomas, hauled in 131 yards on nine catches, while the bruising Latavius Murry rushed for 119 yards and two scores in Kaamra’s absence on a day in which he looked every bit like Adrian Peterson. And this has all been led by backup QB Teddy Bridgewater. When Drew Brees returns, there’s little doubt that the Saints hold the NFC’s most complete unit.

THE BETTER HALF

1. New England Patriots (6-0) (Last week: 1). The Patriots have issues — mostly due to injuries — at wide receiver and along the offensive line. Expect them to have problems tonight in New York against the Jets. Also, keep your eyes on the transaction wire from now until the trade deadline on October 29. New England will be looking to bring in a pass catcher such as: A.J. Green, Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu or O.J. Howard.

2. New Orleans Saints (6-1) (Last week: 2). The Saints continue to win behind Teddy Bridgewater (5-0 as a starter in 2019) and their swarming defense. Sean Payton should consider sticking with Bridgewater versus the Cardinals next week, as their bye comes the week after that. Then, it’s Drew Brees time.

3. Green Bay Packers (6-1) (Last week: 3). The defense has been solid this year, and after a slow start, Aaron Rodgers — five touchdown passes, one rushing score, 158.3 passer rating on Sunday — has come alive in his first season under Matt LaFleur’s offensive system.

4. San Francisco 49ers (6-0) (Last week: 5). Jimmy Garoppolo is now 14-2 as a starter in the NFL, but the 49ers have got to this point by leaning on their suffocating defense. That was certainly the case in Sunday’s win over Washington in the slosh.

5. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 6). Most major media outlets had Indianapolis somewhere between No. 12 and 15 in their power rankings heading into this week. The Colts are criminally underrated. They are one of the NFL’s most complete teams, and they proved that this week.

6. Seattle Seahawks (5-2) (Last week: 4). The loss — and the pick-six — hurt, but Russell Wilson still leads the NFL MVP race.

7. Minnesota Vikings (5-2) (Last week: 8). Kirk Cousins has been awesome these past two weeks. When he looks like that, the Vikings are a contender. Will he keep this up? Minnesota could also have better performances out of their talented, but underachieving defense.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (5-2) (Last week: 7). By most indications, it looks like Patrick Mahomes will return sometime after missing three to five weeks. It would be wise to keep him out through their bye week around Thanksgiving. Andy Reid has had success with backup quarterbacks such Koy Detmer, Doug Peterson, A.J. Feeley and Jeff Garcia in Philadelphia. They can survive with Matt Moore or Chad Henne. The latter should be returning from an injury soon.

9. Los Angeles Rams (4-3) (Last week: 10). Jalen Ramsey provided an immediate and noticeable spark to a team that desperately needed it.

10. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) (Last week: 13). Dallas took a commanding lead in the NFC East behind efficient play in virtually all areas of their win over the Eagles. They needed that.

11. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 14). Just like that, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are back in the mix of contenders. That was an impressive win that I certainly didn’t see coming.

12. Buffalo Bills (5-1) (Last week: 12). They survived what would have been an inexplicable home loss to the Dolphins. They’re virtually a playoff lock with their schedule.

13. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) (Last week: 9). They’ve got issues. If they are to make the playoffs, it’s going to be by passing Dallas to win the NFC East. They’re not off to a good start. But they have time to correct what they’ve done. Can they? Maybe.

14. Houston Texans (4-3) (Last week: 11). The Texans’ offensive line continues to be a major problem. It’s a legitimate achilles heel for a team led by a fearless and fantastic young passer in Deshaun Watson.

15. Carolina Panthers (4-2) (Last week: 16). The Panthers head to San Francisco this week in a game that is more important than we ever thought it would be.

16. Detroit Lions (2-3-1) (Last week: NR). They belong here over any other team not listed. It’s inexcusable that they’re not 5-1, but two of their three excruciating results (two losses, one tie) have been their fault. And of course, we know what happened last Monday night in Green Bay. This is an up-and-coming team with talent that needs to get out of its own way.

Next up: Chicago, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Cleveland