Blog

Super Bowl 55, NFL Films shot

Brent’s Extra Points: Todd Bowles’ brilliance, Brady’s run + Chiefs’ future

A couple of days have now passed since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ complete mastery of the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.

As always, there’s more to uncover when the game tape is broken down and a there’s been some time since the result, allowing additional storylines to marinate.

Here are some of my thoughts on the Bucs, Chiefs and this year’s Super Bowl before we turn the page to the 2021 offseason.

🏈 TODD BOWLES’ BRILLIANCE

The awesome thing about Bruce Arians’ Tampa Bay coaching staff is that it is packed with a diverse array of men and women who are masters of their craft.

And among that championship-winning staff, one coach’s performance deserves extra praise.

Few defensive coordinators in NFL history have schemed up and executed a better game plan than Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ strategy to limit Patrick Mahomes to the worst game of his NFL career.

“I can’t give him enough credit,” Arians said of Bowles after the game. “You know, I think he got a little tired of hearing about how unstoppable they [Chiefs offense] were. I thought he came up with a fantastic plan just to keep them in front of us and tackle real well. Patrick [Mahomes] wasn’t going to beat us running …”

In Tampa’s 27-24 loss to Kansas City in November, Tyreek Hill victimized the Bucs via an historic performance, doing most of his damage in the first quarter versus single-high safety coverages with Tampa cornerback Carlton Davis in man or nearby zone coverage on Hill.

This time, with the state of Kansas City’s depleted offensive line, Bowles blitzed only situationally (Tampa blitzed on roughly 10 percent of KC passing plays, lowest for a Bowles defense in five years) and allowed his defensive front four (Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh) to feast on Mahomes and his undermanned blockers, which prompted Bowles to implement predominantly two-high coverage looks (Cover 2, Cover 4 or Quarters, 2-Man) to take away some of Kansas City’s staple offensive calls. Playing two-high safety looks would normally be an issue against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce underneath and in the middle of the field, but knowing the matchup with KC’s offensive line, this became the best move. Mahomes had no time to find longer-developing routes to Hill and others, and despite a garbage-time level stat line for Kelce (10 catches, 133 yards), the Kansas City tight end was largely kept in check underneath by Tampa linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, who also spent time chipping Kelce at the line of scrimmage (a strategy of Bill Belichick’s that seems to work versus Kelce).

Of course, pressuring Mahomes without blitzing makes any coverage look a lot better, but the two-safety shell implemented by Bowles was brilliant. Part of the reason Mahomes ran around the field for 497 yards on Sunday was because he was looking for pass catchers that weren’t open.

In all, Tampa played in two-high looks on 87 percent of Mahomes drop backs (according to NFL Next Gen Stats), pressured Mahomes a Super Bowl-record 29 times (52 percent of KC passing plays), and forced the Chiefs phenom into two picks, three sacks, a 49.9 Total QBR, and a meager nine total points without a touchdown. The loss was also the first double-digit loss of Mahomes’ career.

“Coach Bowles?” said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. “We call him the Mastermind. We were playing great defense throughout the playoffs, and (people) still doubted us.”

It’s time to give Bowles his due, in form of both praise and attention as a head-coaching candidate in 2022.

🏈 TOM BRADY’S PATRIOT-LIKE, WINTER RUN TO ANOTHER SUPER BOWL TITLE

For Tom Brady, duck boats in February New England weather turned to actual boats in 80-plus degree Florida sun. So even though things are different for the GOAT down in Tampa, some things stayed the same. The championship parades continued, as Brady celebrated his seventh Super Bowl title with a new club, and judging by the hilarious videos on Twitter, it looks like Tom ditched the TB12 method, at least for a day, to celebrate his incredible run to another championship. 

Can you blame him?

After an up-and-down start to the season, the Buccaneers figured things out right after Thanksgiving, and Brady’s play went from uneven to spectacular for two straight months.

Of course, that’s a familiar story, as Brady’s Buccaneers took on a New England Patriots-like run in making necessary adjustments to go on a winter bludgeoning of the league’s best teams (and quarterbacks), with the Bucs looking much different in the months of December and January, as opposed to September and October.

The main reason for Tampa’s sketchy 7-5 start was the abnormal offseason, which consisted of a truncated training camp with extra rules, and no preseason, due to COVID-19. Considering the team was welcoming a new quarterback, and several other new faces, it was tough for them to gel in the way they wanted. Especially with the differentiating methods of Tom Brady’s calculated passing attack and Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” deep-ball-flinging jamboree.

Still, Brady proved that even at age 43, he could still throw the ball downfield, leading the league in air yards per attempt (9.6), throwing downfield to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller.

But somewhere amidst the Bucs’ valiant effort to make their last loss of the season (to the Chiefs in November, 27-24, in Tampa) a close one, CBS Sports‘ Tony Romo apparently figured out that the Buccaneers offense had found a groove that would later vault them to the Super Bowl.

Tampa would go on to win their last eight games of the season, culminating in their 31-9 beatdown of the Chiefs to win Super Bowl 55.

The offense averaged 33.9 points per game over that stretch, as Brady and Arians became synced and in tune with each other’s styles.

Sure, Brady’s downfield dart to Scotty Miller to stun the Packers at the end of the first half of the NFC Title Game, and Tom’s pass interference-drawing deep heave to Mike Evans late in the first half of the Super Bowl were Arians-like decisions, but in the Super Bowl, Brady reverted to his old ways derived in New England.

Despite having one of the league’s best receiver duos in boundary extraordinaries Evans and Godwin, Brady targeted them just five times for three connections on 40 yards in Super Bowl 55, compared to a combined 15 passes completed to Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 17 targets. (Fournette also ran in a score.)

Brady is especially efficient throwing in the middle of the field to tight ends, slot receivers and pass-catching running backs. Brady also excels in the play-action passing game.

With the help from his trusted pal (Gronk) and another old friend he brought in (Brown), Brady utilized play-action and quick passes to pick the Chiefs apart.

Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich even let Brady bring back some of New England’s staple play-action passing plays designed for Gronkowski (see second part of Bill Barnwell’s tweet below).

It was Brady’s highest play-action passing rate in a game since 2016, and all three of Brady’s touchdowns, and nearly half of his completions (he went 10-for-13 on play-action passes for 135 yards) and over half of his yards came on such passes.

After the game, Brady stood on the podium and deflected a Jim Nantz question regarding if this was his most special Super Bowl win.

We know of course, that it’s because he was being modest, or maybe even because he knows how special Super Bowl 51 was to him.

But maybe it’s also because this championship performance, and title run, was quite similar to some of his past performances as a Patriot.

For Brady, the motto was again figuring things out in December and January, trusting your most-trusted targets, and playing the game though the air on your own accord.

🏈 WHAT’S NEXT FOR MAHOMES, CHIEFS? ARE THE RUSSELL WILSON-ERA SEAHAWKS A VALID LOOSE COMPARISON? WHAT ABOUT PEYTON MANNING-ERA COLTS?

The Chiefs fell short in their quest to win consecutive Super Bowls, leaving a sour taste to another fantastic season for them.

Considering they’ll return next season with the NFL’s best player (Patrick Mahomes), and their core group still intact, it’s easy to envision them making a third straight Super Bowl. But if you look a little closer, the cracks, no matter how small, are visible.

To loosely compare, when the 2014 Seattle Seahawks were thwarted by Tom Brady in their attempt to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-2004 Patriots (led by Brady), Russell Wilson’s playoff record went from 6-1 to 6-2, just like Mahomes’ recently did in this similar scenario. (And let’s be honest, Wilson came closer than Mahomes to winning his second Super Bowl title).

Since going from the young, clutch leader at quarterback to a top-flight field general who has elevated an undermanned team in recent seasons (I liken Wilson’s arc to a young Tom Brady in that way), Wilson has since become frustrated with the Seahawks team-building strategy and subpar win-loss success, compared to Wilson’s standards.

Sure, Mahomes’ career arc has been different, seeing as ever since he became the Chiefs starter, he immediately rose to a level of success and jaw-dropping-talent-meets-efficiency stardom that Wilson, and maybe no other young quarterback other than Dan Marino (without the Super Bowl ring), has achieved.

But soon, the older talent around him (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, etc.) will dissipate in the form of erosion or retirement, leaving a whole new era for Mahomes to take on, without the all-time unique Hill (best speed WR ever, most unique deep threat ever) and Kelce (best route-running tight end ever) to throw to.

As it stands, the salary-cap strategy of these Chiefs can be likened to the Peyton Manning-era Colts of the 2000s.

In those years, Indianapolis filled up most of their annual cap space by spending on their core players — Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis — leaving little cap space to sign top-tier or mid-level free agents or in-house players with expiring contracts.

For most years, this left those Colts as top-heavy squads lacking depth and competence on defense, save for a few players like Freeney and Mathis that could get after the quarterback, but still struggled in run defense. Because of this Indianapolis won just one Super Bowl during the Manning era, and often fell to the likes of more complete (and tougher) teams like the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers or talented San Diego Chargers.

The Chiefs are in a similar position. As it stands, Kansas City is heading into the 2021 offseason with roughly negative-$20 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. And that’s without a set-in-stone cap figure for next year to account for lost revenue for the league in 2020, due to the pandemic.

Here is a list of the top 15 cap hits on the Chiefs roster next season, taken from Spotrac:  

 ———

Frank Clark ($25.8 million)

Patrick Mahomes ($24.8 million)

Chris Jones ($21.9 million)

Tyrann Mathieu ($19.7 million)

Tyreek Hill ($15.9 million)

Eric Fisher ($15. 2 million)

Travis Kelce ($13.3 million)

Anthony Hitchens ($10.7 million)

Mitchell Schwartz ($10 million)

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif ($4.8 million)

Harrison Butker ($3.9 million)

Damien Williams ($2.8 million)

Clyde Edwards-Helaire ($2.5 million)

Alex Okafor ($2 million)

Chad Henne ($1.6 million)

Mecole Hardman ($1.4 million)

———

Notice the gap between Schwartz and Duvernay-Tardif’s contract. The Chiefs are built very top-heavy, and with their structure, and Mahomes’ record contract over the next few seasons, GM Brett Veach will suffer some cap casualties, while also being strapped, in terms of signing free agents.

Like the Manning-era Colts, the Chiefs struggle mightily in run defense, and rely on a couple big names (Jones, Mathieu) to help elevate an underwhelming unit. The Chiefs are also built offensively-minded, like those Colts. To be fair, Kansas City was one win away from back-to-back titles, but still, this team setup is not sustainable long-term.

Kansas City will have to counter with impeccable drafting skills. The Colts drafted a bevy of defensive backs (Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, Kelvin Hayden, etc.) during those years that helped give them an improved secondary as the decade went on.

The Chiefs have already begun drafting well under Veach, with L’Jarius Sneed —a fourth-round pick from this season who had an incredible rookie year as a do-it-all boundary/nickel cornerback — being an example of the type of player that Veach will need to find once or twice per draft in the middle rounds.

Because of their hamstrung situation in terms of spendable cash, things will get more difficult, but it’s tough to blame the Chiefs for locking up players such as Hill, Kelce, Mathieu and Jones, who are all at, or near, the top of their respective positions.

The Chiefs have some great players, but they may lack in enough good ones to help give them a sustainable roster in the long-term. But like any franchise, things change quickly.

In three to five seasons, Mahomes will be attempting to get back to the Super Bowl by throwing to wide receivers and tight ends that are probably currently in high school, while the Chiefs attempt to build their roster with cap space that was once not there. For now, Kansas City will attempt to sustain themselves on the backs of a few. It’s worked so far, but how long will it last?

Super Bowl 55, Tampa Hotel

Super Bowl LV Preview: Brady, Mahomes to meet in legendary QB battle

Every February, there’s a rush to uncover both the biggest and unheralded Super Bowl storylines that surround and directly affect the NFL’s annual big game.

In terms of beyond-the-game storylines, it simply doesn’t get bigger than Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.

Although we’re now in the year 2021, this is still the 2020 NFL season, and leave it to 2020 to give us a pro football culmination of this oddity and magnitude. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, much of the surrounding “GOAT” talk can be exhausting — and a bit sensational — in today’s media landscape. But there’s no denying the real stakes at play in this Brady-Mahomes title bout.

It’s the greatest player in NFL history pitted against the game’s current best player, with the former setting a winning precedent beyond belief, and the latter beginning a pace that would one day place him as football’s greatest player ever, if he continues on this ridiculous path.

Even with Brady at age 43, this is primed to be the best Super Bowl QB matchup of all-time. (Note: It’s worth noting the same would have been true had Aaron Rodgers and the Packers moved on to play Mahomes’ Chiefs on Sunday.)

But despite the obvious appeal of Brady versus Mahomes, there’s the obvious underlying theme that will be brought up both immediately after this game’s result, and for years to come — Will Mahomes ever catch Brady to become the NFL’s greatest quarterback, and player, ever?

Since last year’s Super Bowl, I’ve personally compared the Brady-Mahomes debate to the NBA’s great Michael Jordan-LeBron James conversation.

Here are some anecdotes from my linked piece (above) from last February:

———

Fresh off a 10-point 4th quarter comeback for his first Super Bowl win, the talk around now-Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is as expected — Will he become the GOAT? Is he the best quarterback we’ve ever seen? For the second question, I do think the answer is yes, from a talent standpoint. But in becoming the greatest quarterback of all-time, longevity (and a few more Super Bowl titles, at least) are major factors. 

Sometime in the next three to five seasons, Mahomes will enter a period of his career that most all-time great QBs will enter. With comfortable, early-career talent depleted or gone, and his massive cap hit limiting his team’s options to acquire talent, Mahomes will need to elevate an underwhelming, if not, abysmal supporting cast  — in the shape of a horrid defense, severe lack of offensive of weapons, or both — to the point of turning that 53-man roster into a Super Bowl contender. Brady has carried several versions of a depleted roster to at least the AFC Championship Game, and a couple of those squads to Super Bowls. This will be Mahomes’ true judgment time. But winning as many Super Bowl titles as he can during the early favorable period of his career (a la, Brady) also helps his lore.

…Tom Brady represents Michael Jordan. Jordan passed all his successors to be the unquestionable GOAT, but since then, the most-talented-of-all-time LeBron James has risen to the point of Jordan’s equal, creating the most heated greatest-of-all-time conversation imaginable. Think of Mahomes as LeBron James. He’s the most talented quarterback we’ve ever seen. Not Dan Marino. Not John Elway. Not Peyton Manning. Not Lamar Jackson. It’s Mahomes. He’s that great. But it’ll be tough to match Brady’s six (and counting) Super Bowl ring total, or his iconic moments of greatness on the biggest stage. It’ll also be hard to match Brady’s legendary Super Bowl 49 and Super Bowl 51 performances, which can be likened to some of Jordan’s iconic moments, like Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

In just two seasons, it appears the Chiefs’ franchise QB is at least on track to become the best of all-time. But that is certainly easier said than done.

———

With Brady now in Tampa, leading the Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl, an unforeseen wrinkle has been added to what will be an ongoing debate.

Whether it’s fair or not, the shear weight of this Super Bowl will likely engulf every other Mahomes career Super Bowl appearance, unless the Chiefs phenom earns as many rings as Brady.

For LeBron, unless he gets to seven or eight rings (I predict five for him), he’ll never be considered the unanimous or overwhelming consensus greatest basketball player ever. That’s how iconic Jordan’s legacy is. In NFL lore, Brady is Jordan, possessing a legacy equipped with moments such as Super Bowl 51, a comeback that will likely never be duplicated. And although both TB12 and Air Jordan are supremely talented in their own right, it would not be blasphemous to call LeBron and Mahomes the most talented players to ever play their respective sport.

But no one wants to be labeled “the most talented ever.” “Greatness” is what every athlete seeks.

For Brady, considering Mahomes is his Super Bowl opponent, there is a bit of pressure. Although Tom has accomplished more than any quarterback has ever dreamed of, winning a seventh Super Bowl at age 43 with a new club by beating the talented Mahomes is picture perfect. So, yes, a smidge of “can you win this?” pressure is now miraculously applied to a six-time Super Bowl winner.

But for Mahomes, he’ll face more than just an uphill battle to ever reach Brady’s legacy if he falls to Brady in both an AFC Championship Game at home, and a Super Bowl with Brady on a new team at age 43. The brutal (and probably slightly unfair) tarnishing that would come from those two losses would just be a secondary smidge compared to the 7-to-1 ring total that Mahomes would be tasked with reaching, or coming close to, to have a legacy equal or greater than Brady’s.

For Mahomes, this could be it. This may be the legacy game of his career, even 15 years from now. But as we saw with Brady post-Super Bowl 42, one can never be sure where things lead.

Mahomes’ career is just beginning, and despite Brady’s pummeling of Father Time in his age-related battle, Tom’s career is currentlly in one of it’s final (but not the final) chapters.

On Sunday, their paths will cross, before dispersing with an important result that will follow the debate between the two for decades. Let’s enjoy it.

*******

With the theatrics behind us, here are some of my biggest in-game storylines and matchups. I’ll provide my prediction for the game at the end of this piece.

Kansas City’s O-line vs Tampa Bay’s Pass Rush

The most impactful matchup of Super Bowl 55 will be Kansas City’s depleted, and therefore unheralded, offensive line pitted against Tampa’s effective pass rush, led by the monstrous, Super Bowl-experienced EDGE duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.

This became an immediate thinking point after Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher tragically tore his achilles in the AFC title game versus the Bills, joining four-time All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz on the bench with injuries.

Due to this, Kansas City will move Mike Remmers from right to left tackle, and will slide right guard Andrew Wylie to right tackle, filling Remmers’ role as a fill-in for Schwartz. These two will need to hold up versus the Barrett-Pierre-Paul duo, as well as any other stunts that Tampa blitz-reliant defensive coordinator Todd Bowles throws at them.

“They got speed up the field and power down the middle,” Wylie told The Kansas City Star on Wednesday. “They got linebackers that can fly around and make plays. So this is an extremely talented group that we’re going up against against.”

The Buccaneers tallied 48 sacks this season (fourth-best), and blitzed (39 percent of opponents’ dropbacks) the fifth most of any team in 2020. But in the Chiefs’ 27-24, not-as-close-as-it-looks Week 12 victory in Tampa, Bowles blitzed Mahomes just 17 percent of the time.

The thinking there was to shy away from Mahomes’ league-best ability to destroy blitzes. But even with Mahomes’ brilliance, doing this requires at least somewhat-stable play out of their offensive line. The Chiefs had Fisher at left tackle in that game, and they won’t now.

So maybe Bowles inches a bit closer to his 39-percent, 2020 blitz rate on Sunday. But that’s a high risk, especially with the way the Chiefs have successfully countered their offensive line issues by abandoning their deep passing game entirely as of recent.

As Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar pointed out in his brilliant piece this week, Mahomes has attempted just two passes of 20 yards or more through the air this postseason. Just one per game in wins versus the Browns and Bills. Additionally, on Andy Reid-schemed RPO pass attempts, Mahomes leads the league this year on such throws with an absurd 21.7 Expected Points Added, according to Sports Info Solutions. (Tom Brady is second with 9.7 EPA on such throws).

Essentially, Tampa’s pass rush may be rendered moot if they can’t consistently stop the Chiefs’ running game, quick passes, RPO’s, or wide receiver and tight end screens to the likes of Mecole Hardman, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Despite the Chiefs’ ability to pass the football, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy would love to have some success on the ground with the current state of their offensive line. But Tampa holds the edge there as well.

The Bucs have the second-best run defense in the league this season according to Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric. Ndamukong Suh and rookie Vita Vea are the interior defenders tasked with corralling rookie Clyde Edwards-Heliare and former Steelers great Le’Veon Bell at running back for the Chiefs.

If Kansas City can miraculously find consistent success on the ground, then they’ll likely win this game, but that’s unlikely, leaving the game in Mahomes’ hands, as it should be.

As previously mentioned, maybe Tampa blitzes a few more times in this game than their last matchup with Kansas City. After all, linebacker Devin White has nine sacks this season. But most would agree that blitzing Mahomes still remains too much of a risk.

Tampa would like to get pressure on Mahomes with just their defensive front four, and the aforementioned edge rushers and Suh up the middle (Suh has six sacks, 19 QB hits in 2020) have a good chance of providing that, making things a bit tougher on Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable offense.

Defending Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce

On Tuesday night, For The Win senior writer Steven Ruiz took to Twitter to ask this valid question:

In my football lifetime, I think an argument could be made for Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker for one season (2007), Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for multiple seasons (mid 2000s), or Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce/Torry Holt for the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams.

However, the shear uniqueness of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce’s skill sets, along with their production with Mahomes at QB, make it hard to argue Steven’ point.

We’re all aware of Mahomes’ ability, but Hill and Kelce are also major cogs in this offense.

Hill is the greatest speed receiver of all-time (unreal speed and stop-start quickness/burst) and most unique deep threat ever. Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all time, and is making his case as the best pass-catching tight end ever, as well.

In the Chiefs’ win over Tampa in Week 12, the Bucs opted to leave cornerback Carlton Davis on Hill for a boatload of snaps. Hill historically ended up with 203 receiving yards (and two scores) in the first quarter, and finished with 269 yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 201 of Hill’s receiving yards came with Davis as the closest defender.

Tampa was running a lot of single-high looks and coverages (Cover 1, Cover 3) at that point in the season. Since that game, Bowles has had Tampa playing more 2-Man coverage, and more two-high safety looks in general, to greater results.

Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht has did an awesome job putting together this young, underrated secondary with boundary cornerbacks Davis (2nd round, 2019 NFL Draft) and Sean Murphy-Bunting (2nd round, 2018), safeties Jordan Whitehead (4th round, 2018) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd round, 2020) and nickel cornerback Jamel Dean (3rd round, 2019).

Each of these players can have consistent success in man coverage versus certain opponents, but that’s not the case when defending Mahomes passing to Hill and Kelce, at least not when Tampa is aligned in single-high coverage.

Single-high coverage often leaves defenders on an an island with Hill downfield, where as two-high looks gives the team more downfield defensive options (2-Man, Cover 4/quarters) to defend Hill.

Of course, Mahomes’ downfield looks to Hill and others have come few and far between as of late due to offensive line issues, and although you can expect at least one or two downfield shots on Sunday, don’t expect a litany of them unless KC’s beat-up O-line miraculously wins their matchup.

The Chiefs will likely use a heavy dose of RPOs, WR screens, various quick passes, and intermediate crossers to target Hill. Even in man coverage, Tampa will need tackling help via linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David in defending all quick passes to Hill. The same could be said on crossers if White and David back up into zone coverage. Without pressure, the Tampa LBs would likely have no shot, even with White’s incredible range and tenacity, but with expected pressure, White has a good chance to notch an interception much like 49ers LB Fred Warner did off Mahomes in last year’s Super Bowl.

This is where Tampa should look to play more Cover 1 robber and Cover 3, even out of two-high looks. Yes, we know Tampa got burned on some of these staples in Week 12, but Tampa should generate more pressure on Mahomes this time around, and they’ll need a lurking safety like Whitehead or Winfield Jr. to come up to cut off the crossing routes.

If Tampa is to employ Cover 1 or 2-Man, they should use slot cornerback Jamel Dean (4.3 40-yard dash speed) to cover Hill this time around. Hill often lines up in the slot in KC’s 3×1 looks, anyhow. If Cover 1 is the coverage, Tampa would be using a faster, slot-savvy Dean on Hill (instead of Davis), while a robber comes down underneath.

Lining up on the other side of KC’s 3 by 1 sets as a boundary X-receiver is tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce had eight catches for 82 yards in the November matchup, and looks to be targeted even more in this game, as the Chiefs will look to give the Tampa defense a death by intermediate paper cuts, as opposed to downfield slashes.

Kelce’ extended route-tree, versatility (can line up as a ‘Y’ tight end, X-receiver, in the slot), quickness for his size and top-tier spatial awareness (to destroy zone coverage) make him almost impossible to defend.

As is the obvious and oft-stated case in this piece, whether Tampa is playing man or zone coverage, they must get pass-rushing pressure to stop Mahomes-to-Kelce.

The challenge of defending both Hill and Kelce is that single-high safety looks can be destroyed by Hill, where as two-high looks can be obliterated by Kelce.

Taking away a defender underneath allows Kelce to attack the middle part of the field. In zone coverage, Devon White (and Lavonte Davis) will need to keep his head on a swivel in the second level of defense by reading Mahomes’ eyes.

“It’s just going to take discipline,” Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David told the media on Tuesday. “Latching on to a man if we’re in man-to-man or if we’re in zone coverage. Matching onto a guy. Take away his zones and his reads. And you’ve just got to get to him. Quick as you can, fast as you can, any way you can. He makes magic outside the pocket, and that’s definitely something we’ve got to watch out for.”

But even then, Kelce is a master of finding the open crease in zone looks, and Mahomes is a master at finding or throwing him open. In both man and zone, Winfield Jr. may get the brunt of the job of defending Kelce. He should drop into the box on Cover 3 looks, even when Bowles’ defense lines up in a two-high design to start, and in man coverage, he should be tasked with guarding Kelce. (On top of this, the Bucs would be wise to knock Kelce off his route on the line of scrimmage via a linebacker, taking a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook, which has had some moderate success versus this Chiefs offense.)

On paper, the Tampa Bay defense finished fifth against the pass in DVOA this season, but that doesn’t really apply to the air-it-out Chiefs.

The best thing Tampa can do to counter Mahomes’ best two pass catchers is to generate pressure with just their front four (surprise! sound familiar?) while mixing in some more two-high (more 2-Man or safety dropping down in Cover 3, as opposed to Cover 2 or Cover 4) looks, while also not totally abandoning their single-high, Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages out of that pre-snap design. Also, be aware of screens and quick passes, and limiting those possible big gains with sound tackling at the second level (White, David).

Sounds easy enough, right?

Tom Brady vs Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones & Steve Spagnuolo

Venturing into the other side of the ball, a great chess match awaits in Tom Brady versus do-it-all defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

Recently on Chris Collinsworth’s podcast, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman compared the Chiefs’ Mathieu to an all-time great DB, as well a current stud in Arizona.

“He plays… and I hate to say it because it’s cliché and simple, and their games are totally different, but the tenacity and speed he plays with is similar to what Budda [Baker] does in Arizona, and what Tyrann used to do in Arizona,” Sherman said.

“The exception [with Mathieu] is in coverage. He is one of the most instinctual and gambling DBs I’ve ever seen, and he’s usually right. I’d compare him to Ed Reed in that regard, except he’s playing more in the box than single-high safety.”

There’s a famous clip in NFL FilmsA Football Life episode of Bill Belichick, where Brady and Belichick sit down in The Hoodie’s office to prepare for playing Reed when he was an All-Pro safety for the Ravens.

“You’re always so aware of where he is” Brady said of Reed in the clip.

“I remember playing him….five years ago…and every time you break the huddle, that’s where you’re looking at,” Brady said.

Although Mathieu is not quite at Reed’s peak level, he’s one of the game’s best defensive backs in present-day pro football, and Brady will likely treat Mathieu in the same mold.

But like Sherman said, Mathieu plays more in the box than as a deep safety, like Reed was. But Mathieu has the ability to line up anywhere, nonetheless. Pro Football Focus charted The Honey Badger lining up mostly as a slot CB (403 snaps) in 2020, while also playing a bevy of box safety (363) and free safety (275).

In a Patriots offense, Brady often looked to attack the short and intermediate areas of the field, which is where you would often see Mathieu as a robber defender reading the QB in both Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks.

Brady hasn’t abandoned the middle part of the field, but in Bruce Arians’ downfield passing scheme, the Bucs QB has magically become the game’s most efficient deep passer at age 43.

A lot of Brady’s throws are now targeting the perimeter to the likes of X-receiver Mike Evans and inside-outside receiver Chris Godwin, as well as sneaky-speed guy Scotty Miller. In theory, the added wrinkle makes Brady a bit more dangerous than he’s been since 2017, when he was a great deep passer in New England throwing to Brandin Cooks and company.

These throws can help Brady veer away from the chess match with Mathieu, who will often be reading Brady’s eyes, looking to snatch a middle-of-the-field interception.

But in the first half of the November matchup, the Chiefs made Brady and the Bucs offense look the quarterback’s age.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo blitzed Brady a ton in that game (see Matt Bowen’s tweet above), and played man coverage about two-thirds of the game. That’s a lot of man coverage for a Chiefs team that has an average pass defense (16th in pass defense DVOA), and has an unheralded DB group outside of Mathieu and underrated rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.

Spagnuolo, the former Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl 42, has been an overall nuisance for Brady throughout his career. TB12 is 2-3 versus Spagnuolo-coached defenses, and has posted a meager 58.8 Total QBR in those games.

Kansas City has the power up front to get to Brady at times with just four. Especially with Frank Clark and Chris Jones up front.

Jones is an All-Pro caliber player who has had his fair share of jawing moments with Brady in games, adding to the mental side of their battle.

The Chiefs would like to key on Ronald Jones/Leonard Fournette runs and Brady passes by having their front four week havoc all game, but that level of consistent pass-rushing pressure is hard to come by if your D-line is not the 2007 New York Giants.

But like his Giants defense, Spagnuolo should continue using unique stunts and other pressure-tactics to keep the Tampa O-line guessing, while keeping pressure on, and sometimes confusing, Brady. They’ll also likely continuing blitzing the GOAT, but Brady, Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will likely have some counter attacks for that this time around. That counter may be more pre-snap motion to give Brady a chance at deciphering man or zone coverage, like he often did in New England. 

Spagnuolo used some of his exotic blitz schemes from his Giants days on Brady in the November matchup, with defenders blitzing and on-the-line defenders backing up into coverage. They also ran a ton of Cover 0.

Brady will likely be thinking quick pass on these looks, but what Tampa would really like to do is establish the run game versus KC’s 31st-ranked run defense (DVOA), to set-up play-action throws.

This will anger some who rightly accuse Arians and Leftwich of leaning too heavily on the run at times this season, when you have Brady under center. But in this case, Tampa should look to find some success on the ground, which in turn keeps Mahomes and the KC offense off the field.

When KC undoubtedly loads the box up, Brady will look to Rob Gronkowski, yes, the “I mostly block now” Gronk should play a slightly bigger role in the passing game than other games this season. After all, he had a season-high six catches for 106 yards in the November matchup. 

For the Chiefs, this is where Mathieu comes into play. He should be the man-coverage option on Gronk on both play-action crossing routes and seam looks. Additionally, expect Spagnuolo to continue using weird coverages with defenders dropping back to clog up the play-action throwing lanes in the middle of the field.

This is where Brady’s improved perimeter, outside-the-numbers passing should come into play.

NFL Next Gen Stats — Tom Brady, Super Bowl 55
The table above by NFL Next Gen Stats shows Tom Brady’s improved downfield passing as the season went along. (Screenshot: NFL Next Gen Stats)

If Brady can throw well-placed balls on the outside, and if Evans, Godwin, Antonio Brown and others can win those 1-on-1 matchups, things will get difficult for KC. 

But expect Spagnuolo to use an insanely-wide array of calls versus Brady, while using more zone blitz than Cover 0, once Brady finds his prepared outlets to counter-attack Kansas City’s effective, man-coverage and blitz-heavy scheme from November. 

Let’s conclude — if Kansas City can limit Tampa’s run game, apply consistent middle pressure with Chris Jones, play solid man coverage and have Mathieu play well in his middle-of-the-field chess match versus Brady, the Chiefs will be in good shape defensively. 

If Tampa’s O-line holds up enough to give Brady time and produce a solid running game, then it’s just Brady and his talented core versus the Chiefs’ secondary and linebackers. Kansas City played solid man coverage last time around, but without pressure on Brady, they can’t expect to repeat that. Especially now that the past experience and film will lead to a slightly different Tampa game plan. 

Let the chess match begin. 

*******

PREDICTION: The legacy talk surrounds this game, but the key matchup is KC’s O-line versus Tampa Bay’s pass rush, and the key chess match is Tom Brady versus Tyrann Mathieu and the Steve Spagnuolo defense. The Chiefs defense is not very good on paper, but their stars have a knack for coming to play in the playoffs, making them a better unit than perceived. The Chiefs fared well versus Brady last time, but the Bucs did find a way to counter in the second half, almost coming back to win.

The great Tony Romo called that November game along with Jim Nantz and Tracy Wolfson for CBS, and the broadcast group will call Super Bowl 55 as well. Romo astutely forecasted this matchup at the end of their past meeting. 

“I think there’s a better than good chance…..that these two [Chiefs and Buccaneers] are going to be here in Tampa,” Romo said. 

“…I think they’re in the discussion after they evolved this offense today as the game was unfolding and Brady was getting upset.”

Romo proved to be right, as the Bucs haven’t lost since. Without a preseason or normal training camp, it took Brady longer than expected to adjust to Arians’ offense scheme, but here we are.

Tampa will likely play this game much differently offensively. But even with that, I would pick the Chiefs if not for the state of their offensive line. I think that becomes the biggest storyline, and I think it plays out as expected. Consistent pressure on Mahomes will do just enough, forcing a key turnover or two, and limiting Kansas City’s passing game, despite Mahomes’ worthy attempt to counteract a short-handed blocking group. 

On the other side, Brady will throw for two scores and 300-plus yards, winning his record fifth Super Bowl MVP award, while the Buccaneers celebrate their second Super Bowl title, becoming the first team to win a home Super Bowl after being the first team to host one. 

BUCCANEERS 30, CHIEFS 27. 

Tom Brady leaves Lambeau Field — 2020 NFC Championship Game

NFL Conference Championship Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, KC’s well-oiled machine moves along

And then there were two. Kansas City-Tampa Bay. Patrick Mahomes versus Tom Brady.

There will be time to do a deep dive on the fascinating Super Bowl 55 matchup that is to come ( you can expect my mega preview next week), so let’s use this space to tackle some of the initial takeaways from conference championship weekend.

Here are my thoughts, as I empty the internal football notebook in my brain…

*******

Tom Brady somehow adds to all-time best NFL legacy. Although many were aware in March that the GOAT was leaving New England for a very talented Tampa team, not that many forecasted a 43-year-old Tom Brady leading the talented (and apparently, hungry) Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl.

As the great Ian O’Connor points out in the tweet above, the Bucs have been a downtrodden franchise, beat up by NFL powers for almost 50 years, save for a Super Bowl 37 victory in 2002, sandwiched between Brady’s first three titles in New England.

Brady joined the Bucs in March, just as a global pandemic made headway in the news.

There was a limited NFL training camp and no preseason. Hardly the perfect environment for a quarterback to learn a new city, coaching staff, set of teammates and a playbook.

Yet, after and up-and-down, 7-5 start that culminated in a 27-24 home loss (that wasn’t as close as the score indicates) to the Chiefs after Thanksgiving, Tampa has now won seven straight games, three on the road in the postseason, behind a reborn, steely-eyed Brady primed to win his seventh Super Bowl in 10 tries.

Now, Brady sits 33-11 in the postseason with wins over Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, with Mahomes up next. A legacy that was cemented two Super Bowl wins (and three appearances) ago as the greatest resume in pro football history now has an opportunity for another unique accolade.

Afterwards, Brady deflected the praise toward his new head coach, Bruce Arians.

“I don’t think about what it means for me,” said Brady to NFL dot com. “I do think about what it means for everybody else. It’s an amazing achievement for BA. I’m so happy for him.”

Despite the humble move, make no mistake, Super Bowl 55, and this Tampa run, is about Brady first and foremost, even with a bevy of talented playmakers on offense and defense helping to push him toward the finish line once more.

There was a time in the second half, with Brady throwing three interceptions in three consecutive drives (with two being totally his fault, and as hideous of throws as you’ll see him make), where it seemed like the game would slip away. But Brady made some key throws late, which complimented his superb play in the first half and the hungry pass-rush duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who combined for five key sacks on Rodgers.

Brady couldn’t do this without his teammates, and his coaching staff, but they couldn’t have done this without Brady, either. And now, Brady’s team is headed to the Super Bowl in his first season with his new club. Coincidence?

What’s next for Aaron Rodgers? Coming into the weekend, it was obvious that Aaron Rodgers was under more pressure than any other player playing on Conference Championship Sunday. But moments of greatness often come for players under the microscope, and during most of the second half, it seemed as if Rodgers’ shining moment of destiny (an 18-point comeback to beat Tom Brady to reach his second Super Bowl) was inevitable. That moment began to slip away after Rodgers, who had a fine game otherwise, seemingly panicked by not running for a touchdown on a 3rd-and-goal play late in the 4th quarter when down eight points, instead forcing an incompletion to Davante Adams into double coverage. The moment fully vanquished after an anticlimactic, but correct, flag on Packers cornerback Kevin King that effectively ended the game.

Much will be made about Rodgers’ comments after the game, which can be seen in the tweets above. That reporter, Matt Schneidman of The Athletic, later took to Twitter to say Rodgers wouldn’t say something like this if he didn’t mean it. We should trust the great local reporting in Green Bay, but it still seems farfetched that the Packers would want to move on from Rodgers in favor of Jordan Love at quarterback, just yet. Not after a season that will certainly net Rodgers his third career NFL MVP award.

So does this mean Rodgers wants out? If he does, what will it cost for a top-five or top-10 quarterback of all-time, entering his age 38-season? A first-round pick and change? If this bizarre scenario were to take place, I’d suspect the loaded 49ers (Rodgers’ hometown team) to be squarely in the mix, with the Patriots as a secondary option.

Still, this to me feels like a reflective, part-reactionary quote immediately after a yet another heartbreaking postseason loss, and nothing more. The best we can do is to monitor this when the offseason starts.

Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid lead the way in Kansas City, but Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are vital cogs in the Chiefs’ well-oiled machine. Despite recovering from turf toe and a hit that knocked him out of last week’s AFC Divisional win over the Browns, Patrick Mahomes looked unaffected, even if a bit gimpy, on Sunday. Throwing for 325 yards and three scores on 29-of-38 passing, the reigning Super Bowl MVP did what was expected of him in the AFC title game — dispose of the Bills to reach his second straight Super Bowl. Mahomes and Andy Reid (and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) are a dangerous combination. Reid is one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, and Mahomes is perhaps the most talented player we’ve ever seen.

Still, this offense wouldn’t be anywhere near what we’re seeing without one or both of tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

The two combined for 22 catches for 290 yards and two scores versus Buffalo.

Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all-time, and one of the two or three best pass-catching tight ends to ever suit up. Never before have we seen a tight end with shake-and-bake moves and this level of spatial awareness at his size (6-5, 260 pounds). He continues to be an easy outlet for Mahomes, whether the Kansas City QB sits in the pocket to decipher zone coverage, or rolls out of the pocket looking for a breakaway option from man coverage.

Hill is the most unique pass catcher in NFL history, harboring a skill set that pits him as one of the greatest deep threats ever, and the best speed receiver that’s ever played the game. Just take his 71-yard catch-and-run in the second half (see tweet below) that left the Bills moribund.

The pass-catching duo did even more damage to the Buccaneers in November. Hill historically went for 269 yards and three scores on 13 catches on that game, while Kelce added 82 receiving yards on eight catches.

There’s simply no stopping the unique duo of Kelce and Hill, and certainly not with Mahomes at quarterback. All Tampa can do in two Sundays is to hope to contain them, or generate consistent pressure on Mahomes.

Will the Bills be back? One of the more interesting things at the end of the AFC title game was CBS‘ Tony Romo’s comments at the end of the game (see tweet below).

When looking at Buffalo’s well-put-together squad, it’s difficult to imagine them sinking back to mediocrity, but the NFL is full of upstart teams that fall right back to the pack in years following.

So will the Patriots, or Dolphins, unseat them in the AFC East in 2021? Or will the Bills lessen to a 10-win division champion that will be ousted in the wild card round?

Only time will tell, but it’s pretty obvious the Bills have a good thing going here. They should remain at least a contender in the next two or three years following, even if not a 13-win team ever again.

The inconsistency of Josh Allen’s passing skills is apparent, which should should put some scare into Bills Mafia, but the game is changing, and quarterbacks with Allen’s chaotic play are finding consistent success.

Plus, Stefon Diggs still remains a top-five receiver with league-best route-running skills (or at least tied with Green Bay’s Davante Adams), and the Bills should improve on defense with the right pieces and offseason practice, seeing as that unit was slightly disappointing this season considering their talent on that side of the ball.

It’s too early to tell what Buffalo’s fate in 2021 will be, but let’s just say they’re well set up for success, but that’s hardly a given, even for younger teams that theoretically should continue improving.

Tom Brady — NO vs TB 2020 NFC Divisional Playoff

NFL Divisional Round Madness: Brady-Rodgers championship tilt finally materializes

Roughly 24 hours after Aaron Rodgers put forth the most efficient quarterback performance of the weekend, Tom Brady shook off some early rust to make the throws necessary to likely dispel Drew Brees from New Orleans (and the NFL) en route to joining the soon-to-be-named MVP Rodgers in the conference championship round — the 14th such berth for Brady in 21 years.

Sometimes, things come for those who wait.

So despite their now combined age of 80 years old, don’t you dare take for granted what could be the only Brady-Rodgers championship bout we’ll ever see, this Sunday at Lambeau Field.

This matchup has long been yearned, but has seemed anything but inevitable in recent seasons, as it seemed the time for these two great quarterbacks to meet in a big game had passed.

Shortly after Rodgers burst onto the scene, in 2010 — the season of Rodgers’ only Super Bowl win and Tom Brady’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP honor — Brett Favre’s replacement missed just one game during that campaign, a Sunday night tilt in December that saw Brady’s Patriots rally for a 31-27 win over Matt Flynn and the Packers.

That occurrence seems to be a microcosm of the missed opportunities for a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl.

Green Bay would go on to win the Super Bowl over the Steelers in 2010, while New England, sporting a league-best 14-2 regular season record, was stunned by the Jets in an AFC Divisional matchup.

The next season, the Patriots would make the Super Bowl (and fall short to the Giants), while MVP Rodgers and the league-best Packers (15-1 in regular season) were stunned by a New York team in the NFC Divisional Round.

The NFL’s “final four” in 2014 and 2016 became the biggest teases, with 2014 being the year that got away. The Patriots beat the Seahawks that season by the way of Brady and Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 49, but Seattle only got there after rallying from a 12-point deficit to Rodgers’ Packers in regulation to win that year’s NFC title game over Green Bay in overtime.

That 2014 postseason felt like the NBA’s version of the 2009 conference finals round, where the taxing debate of LeBron James vs Kobe Bryant never got it’s NBA Finals showdown, after LeBron’s Cavs failed to get past the gutsy and clutch Orlando Magic.

2016 is not a major indictment on Rodgers, as his undermanned Packers team was no match for the Atlanta Falcons in that year’s NFC Championship Game. And had Rodgers won, we would have never witnessed the masterpiece that is Brady’s “28-3” comeback in Super Bowl 51.

But now, the two quarterbacks so often compared (mostly on sports talk television) will meet with more than a regular season loss on the line.

To settle the Brady-Rodgers “debate,” it depends on what debate is being discussed.

The accolades and greatness that comes with being named the GOAT of your sport make it pretty clear who the greatest quarterback of all time is — that would be Brady.

The former Patriot quarterback won his 32nd career playoff game on Sunday, the best mark of all time. Second-place is Joe Montana with 16 postseason victories. Brady has lapped the field. If you take any two of the greatest QBs ever (Montana and Peyton Manning, John Elway and Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Terry Bradshaw…) and combine their amount of playoff wins, the mark would fall short of Brady’s.

So no matter what happens this upcoming Sunday, Brady is the greatest to ever live, and it will take a lot more then just one more Super Bowl win for the likes of Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes to change that.

But there are other debates — Would Rodgers have had the same amount as success as Brady with Bill Belichick’s Patriots? Who knows? Maybe. And who is the best quarterback right now? Like the GOAT debate, that mark has an easy answer, it’s Rodgers.

The Green Bay legend replaced another Lambeau legend, Brett Favre, before him, and by the end of the season, Rodgers will have matched him in MVP awards and possibly pass him in Super Bowl victories.

Really, for all the happiness that came from Brady besting Drew Brees in a battle of greats on Sunday, this still feels like Rodgers’ year.

And the fact that Rodgers’ worst game of his season is a 38-10 loss to Brady’s Bucs in October while posting an abysmal 17.8 Total QBR, fits right in with an in-season redemption chapter that would not only put Rodgers above his contemporary for a fleeting moment, but vault him to his long-awaited second Super Bowl.

It makes for a great story.

The game in general should be memorable, really, no matter who wins. Two legendary No. 12’s dueling it out in what could be a snowy championship game at Lambeau Field. Even the great “Ice Bowl” of 1967 won’t quite have the star power that is Brady and Rodgers in their twilight, dueling it out.

It shall be a treat, and we shouldn’t look past it. Savor it.

Lamar Jackson vs Titans — 2020 AFC Wild Card

NFL Wild Card Madness: Jackson’s first playoff win a new chapter of renewed Ravens-Titans rivalry

After a quarter of jawing back and forth, hard hits and the feel of a true playoff game reminiscent of the Ray Lewis-Eddie George, Ravens-Titans rivalry of the early 2000s, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson found himself in a familiar place.

With Tennessee leading 10-0, and Jackson’s Baltimore-led offense struggling to play from behind, valid questions surrounding the 2019 NFL MVP’s ability to lead a comeback resurfaced.

After all, the Ravens had been the only team in the league over the last four years to not have a comeback win after trailing by 10 points or more.

With his usual-suspect, underwhelming perimeter pass catchers, and offensive game plan stalling, Jackson took matters into his own hands, improvising for an electrifying 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to tie the score at 10-10.

From there, Baltimore took the game over, finishing for 236 rushing yards, with 136 and a score coming from Jackson, the quarterback who had shaken off even his most ardent doubters this weekend.

“I’m happy for myself but I’m almost more happy for Lamar,” Baltimore cornerback Marlon Humphrey said after the game. “It sucks to be in his position at times that when you lose, it’s all his fault. It’s nobody else’s fault. It wasn’t the defense’s fault, it was Lamar’s fault. … He can play his heart out and some other guy is going to fall short. I know it’s a team game, but it seems like whenever it’s a loss, it’s always just his fault.”

This was an elating achievement for Jackson, and a Ravens squad that was on the brink of a hugely disappointing 2020 campaign before they righted the ship a little over a month ago.

In November, with the Ravens holding a 6-2 record, an ugly loss in the rain to the Cam Newton-led Patriots in New England sent Baltimore on a three-game losing streak — which included a devastating, bad-blooded overtime loss to the Titans — that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.

But Baltimore responded with five straight wins, albeit mostly versus bottom-tier teams, to finish 11-5 leading up to Sunday’s battle in Tennessee.

But despite the incompetence of their opponents during their December stretch, Baltimore’s sheer dominance over their foes was enough to pick up on their signaled change. The Ravens averaged 37.2 points per game during that stretch, and in four of those five contests, they held their opponent to 17 points or less.

Baltimore’s offense began to resemble the uniquely dominant, Jackson-led rushing attack from 2019, while their defense returned to dominate lesser foes.

Well Tennessee, led by 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry, is hardly that of the Ravens’ recent opponents.

This offseason, the Ravens acquired three-time All-pro defensive lineman Calais Campbell and veteran defensive end Derek Wolfe exactly for this purpose. The Ravens improved from 21st to 12th in Football Outisders‘ Rush DVOA metric from 2019 to this season.

Yet, Campbell, and nose tackle Brandon Williams, missed the Week 11 meeting versus the Titans. So as part of their brutal November slump, Baltimore fell 30-24 in overtime to Tennessee behind Henry’s 133 rushing yards, and walk-off 29-yard scamper. Henry also ran for 195 yards in Tennessee’s playoff win in Baltimore last January.

On Sunday, with Campbell, Williams and Wolfe up front, Baltimore limited Henry to just 40 yards on 18 carries. In all, Tennessee rushed for just 51 yards on 22 carries.

“We played good team ball…We played with heart and emotion,” Calais Campbell told NFL dot com after the game. “[Henry] is a king, he’s a beast. 2,000 yards. But today, he’s not gonna’ run the ball. He’s not gonna’ run the ball…Respect is earned.”

That last part of Campbell’s quote was directed toward a rivlary-based question by NFL dot com’s Tom Pelissero. Everyone was aware of the rivalry renewed between two physical teams. Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh jawing at midfield before their regular season battle. The Titans stomping on the Ravens logo after their November win.

So Baltimore, after this win, returned the favor by gathering on the Titans’ logo as Jackson left the field with almost 30 seconds remaining, joyfully running through the tunnel. Many, including former Baltimore safety Ed Reed on Twitter, took objection to the Ravens’s behavior after the win, but make no mistake, there was a lot on the line, including many egos, and the early-career legacy of Jackson.

In a physical battle of teams that despise each other, stopping the league’s best running back was an ego boost and massive moral victory in itself for the Ravens.

“They had a plan, and they executed their plan,” Henry told NFL dot com after the game. “All the credit goes to those guys, you know, of stopping the run. The last two times we had success and they had a plan to make sure we didn’t have success, and that’s what they did.”

After stopping Henry, the Ravens were able to limit the Titans’ deadly play-action passing game revolving around quarterback Ryan Tannehill and bully ball receiver A.J. Brown. (The Titans offense likes pounding the rock with Henry first, then opening up the passing game with play-action passes of both the traditional and bootleg variety.)

For the Titans, after finding success through the air early to take the 10-point lead, nothing worked as well as they would have liked it, and the Tennessee offense finished with just three more points over the final three quarters.

Baltimore 20-13 road victory was solidified after a late interception by cornerback Marcus Peters, who predictably jawed back at the Titans, in line with his boisterous personality.

These Ravens have a renewed swagger, and a sense of relief, after a hard-fought playoff win. But the Buffalo Bills, the AFC’s No 2 seed, are next. The Bills are undoubtedly the hottest team in the league over the last two-plus months, edging out the Ravens for that honor, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a member of Buffalo’s organization that would embrace Jackson and Baltimore hearing that.

*******

There’s five days until we’re back at it with the NFL’s Divisional Round, a weekend in which many think is pro football’s greatest event of the calendar year. Will there be a major upset? Which teams will move on? Here are my picks, equipped with a predicted score for each of the four contests.

L.A. Rams (No. 6 seed, 11-6) at Green Bay (No. 1 seed, 13-3), Saturday, 4:30 pm ET, FOX

If Aaron Rodgers is to win his second Super Bowl, this will likely be the toughest defense he faces in this year’s playoff journey. For Los Angeles, All-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey can key on Green Bay All-pro receiver Davante Adams, forcing Aaron Rodgers to look elsewhere. The Rams’ defense is playing with some moxie, and will give Green Bay a tough battle in the frozen tundra. Still, no matter who starts at quarterback for the Rams, Jared Goff or John Wolford, Los Angeles will need brilliant and consistent play-action passing versus the inevitable box-stacking that Green Bay will implement on Rams running back Cam Akers after some early success. In theory, this game is trouble for Green Bay, but the Rams don’t have the quarterback play to do what’s needed here to pull the upset. PACKERS 26, RAMS 17

 Baltimore (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at Buffalo (No. 2 seed, 14-3), Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, NBC

Despite Lamar Jackson’s brilliant performance his first playoff win, it was easy to see some of the problems with Baltimore’s offense. If their running game gets even somewhat stalled, and the team falls behind, there’s not really enough in the passing game to expect Jackson to rally a team back, and continue a run to score 30-plus points. At least not against an opponent with the offensive firepower like Buffalo’s. Jackson really took over the game by improvising through the chaos, using his athleticism to get the Ravens to 20 points, while the Baltimore defense assisted. Baltimore should be OK in slowing down a Buffalo offense in the cold, seeing as they have a secondary to at least put somewhat of a stop to Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Buffalo’s high-flying offensive attack, but they won’t shut down the Bills entirely. Basically, if Buffalo can get on the board early, and somewhat limit the Baltimore rushing attack, then the Ravens will find themselves ironically in the same trouble they thought they were past last week. Baltimore needs to supply Jackson with more help at the wide receiver position. This game is a tough one to predict, and will likely revolve around several factors, including the not-yet-mentioned Baltimore pass rush getting to Allen. This seems like the Bills’ time. BILLS 23, RAVENS 20

Cleveland (No. 6 seed, 12-5) at Kansas City (No. 1 seed, 14-2), Sunday, 3:00 pm ET, CBS

Many are already reminiscing on the college battle between Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes from 2016, which was a 66-59 Oklahoma victory over Texas Tech. In that game, the two quarterbacks combined for nearly 1,300 passing yards and threw for a total of 12 touchdown passes, with Mahomes running in two more scores. Don’t expect that type of firepower on Sunday, as the Browns would like to keep the game to a short one, running behind their improved offensive line and running backs Nick Chubb and former Chief Kareem Hunt. Technically, the Browns’ rushing attack should be of major cause for concern for a Kansas City defense that features a lot of holes. The Chiefs essentially rely on superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones and swiss-army-knife defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to do just enough to compliment Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Kansas City offense. As it always has been versus the Mahomes-Andy Reid Chiefs in the playoffs, Myles Garrett and the Browns defense will need to play a quarter or two stymying Mahomes before their eventual onslaught, and Baker Mayfield will need to make the necessary third-down throws when called upon. That’s a lot to ask. CHIEFS 34, BROWNS 24

Tampa Bay (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at New Orleans (No. 2 seed, 13-4), Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, FOX

The game of the week sees Tom Brady’s Buccaneers hoping to send Drew Brees into retirement by avoiding a third beatdown in one season by the way of the talented Saints. The indoor setting should make for a point-filled game, even with two good defenses in play. Drew Brees has a truncated field due to his inability to consistently throw deep, leaving the offense to revolve heavily on Alvin Kamara in the running and passing game, with Michael Thomas over the middle on seam and post routes. For Tampa, if the Saints can get pressure on Brady with just four like they did in their last meeting, it will be tough for the GOAT to get the ball to his offensive weapons, no matter how star-studded his arsenal is. It’s not an overstatement to say these are the NFC’s two most talented teams. This will be a close one, and call me Brady-biased, but I think third time’s a charm for Tampa. BUCCANEERS 34, SAINTS 31

Patrick Mahomes celebrates in 2019 AFC Title Game

NFL Playoff Primer: Are Chiefs destined to repeat?

Just four months ago, many wondered if the NFL would successfully get through all 256 games during their preset, schedule-based time frame. Well, it wasn’t easy, and several somewhat-questionable decisions were made to work around the COVID-19 pandemic, but alas, the regular season is over, and the playoffs will begin on time.

Before jumping into the major talking points for this postseason, here is my Twitter-released picks for the NFL’s season awards, all of which won’t be given out until the night before the Super Bowl.

After Sunday’s performance in Chicago, the decision to name Aaron Rodgers MVP for the third time in his career is an easy one, in my opinion. It feels odd leaving Josh Allen’s name out of anything above, including the runner-up mentions, but Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes were simply that good this year. Plus, the Offensive Player of the Year award race (if not won by Rodgers), features a 2,000-yard rusher (Derrick Henry) and a wide receiver (Davante Adams) who hauled in 18 touchdown passes with heavy defensive attention do to the lack of teammate talent on offense, sans Rodgers.

My toughest call was selecting Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson over Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert for the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honor. Herbert’s stat line was historically superb for a rookie QB (4,336 passing yards, 31 TD passes, 10 INTs), and the Chargers finished the season with four straight victories, but Jefferson was simply unstoppable as a wide receiver for just about the entire season. Jefferson’s play (88 catches, 1,400 receiving yards, 7 TDs) was so efficient that it validated the Vikings’ trade that involved jettisoning now-Bills receiver Stefon Diggs, who should be an All-Pro this season.

Now, without further ado, let’s talk playoffs.

*******

Despite a deep AFC playoff field, the Kansas City Chiefs are in good position to return to the Super Bowl. This year’s AFC had seven teams with 11-plus wins, making it one of the deepest conferences we’ve ever seen. But outside of the conference’s top two seeds — Chiefs and Buffalo Bills — it’s difficult to imagine any of the remaining five squads winning three straight games to reach the Super Bowl. However, it’s easy to envision one or more of those dark-horse clubs pulling at least one major upset, and possibly going on a surprising run to the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens, Titans and Browns are the top three rushing teams in football, and the Colts, led by rookie running back Jonathan Taylor and a top-tier offensive line, have come on strong in the run game as of late. Despite the devaluation of the running back position, and running game in general, it’s still an important aspect of the game that becomes vital come January, unless you have an all-time great at quarterback. But take last season’s Titans team, which rode Derrick Henry’s back to the AFC title game. The team had the moxie and personnel to make such a run, but after taking 10-0 lead in Kansas City, the wheels came off as Ryan Tannehill couldn’t keep up with Patrick Mahomes and company. Tannehill has thrown for 40 touchdown passes this season, but questions will remain on his ability to beat teams like Kansas City and Buffalo on the roadie a shootout. The same sort of issues lie in Baltimore, Cleveland and Indianapolis. Despite the talent and ability of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Colts passer Phillip Rivers, neither can be trusted to go on a three-game march to Tampa, out-dueling the likes of Mahomes, Allen, or both, on the road in the process. And in Baltimore, no one should question that Lamar Jackson is one of the seven or eight best quarterbacks in football, but the Ravens’ lack of wide-receiver personnel and Jackson’s struggles throwing to the perimeter are well documented, and teams like the Chiefs, and probably the Titans, will look to expose those flaws. The biggest threat to Kansas City is the obvious choice — the Bills. Josh Allen has been on fire as of late, and the Bills have the offensive firepower to go toe to toe with Kansas City. But unfortunately, they’ll need Allen to be almost perfect, considering their lack of a consistent run game. So in a battle between the Bills and Chiefs in Kansas City, who would you go with? So, the point is, do all of these teams make for a tough matchup for the defensively-challenged Chiefs? Yes. But if Kansas City is to lose, it would still be a massive upset.

The NFC playoff field is essentially a three-team race. When assessing the NFC, one can easily put aside the “Any Given Sunday” slogan to assume the No. 7 seed Chicago Bears (8-8) and NFC East-winning Washington Football Team (7-9) are not going on a run to Super Bowl 55. It’s just not happening. So that leaves five teams in the mix. The winner of the Seahawks-Rams contest on Saturday will certainly present a challenge in Round 2. Both teams have their issues, but the Rams’ defense is the league’s top-ranked unit on that side of the ball, and we all know rules don’t apply to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense. Still, with Seattle’s defensive woes and the Rams’ lack of consistency at the quarterback position, it’s unlikely one of these teams reaches the Super Bowl, although one would be unwise to totally discount Wilson’s Seahawks. That leaves three teams as true contenders. The Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Green Bay has a leg up with home-field advantage and a first-round bye, plus Aaron Rodgers is playing like a man possessed. Still, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are the more talented teams. The Buccaneers have won four straight games, averaging 37 points per contest in the process — albeit versus lesser opponents — and have scored 38 points or more in six different wins this season. With Tom Brady, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski starting to flourish in Bruce Arians’ offense, them, along with their top two receivers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) and running game presents an offense that absolutely can continue this tear, although Tampa’s 1-5 mark versus current playoff teams is a concern. In New Orleans, the Saints’ offense has revolved around running back Alvin Kamara, and soon-to-be-42-year-old quarterback Drew Brees is starting to look his age. On top of that, superstar receiver Michael Thomas is dealing with a nightmare year. Luckily, the Saints have the fourth-ranked defense (310.9 yards per game allowed) and their plus-nine turnover differential is tied for third-best in the league. They do the little things right, and any last-hurrah ability by Brees would be enough for New Orleans to make a run. Really, all three teams have a solid shot of making the Super Bowl, and each has a team they likely wouldn’t want to see again, but likely will. The Packers are a bad matchup for the Saints. The Buccaneers are a bad matchup for the Packers. And the Saints seem to have the Bucs’ number.

Aaron Rodgers is facing more pressure than any other player in the playoff field. Just last summer, many wondered how much time Rodgers had left with the Packers. Green Bay had just opted to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round (No. 30 pick), and the Packers legend seemed irritated following his first season under new head coach Matt LaFluer. Well, Green Bay went 13-3 again this year, but things were much different, as Rodgers has co-existed with the Green Bay coach’s system, throwing a league-leading 48 touchdown passes and posted a 121.5 passer rating in a season that should win him his third career NFL MVP award. Rodgers met the swirling storylines and pressure head on, to return to his best form. Now, Rodgers faces a new kind of pressure as he attempts to make his second Super Bowl appearance a decade removed from his lone Super Bowl win. This seems to be an off year in the NFC, which has been a haven for a bevy of talented teams appearing at once over the past 10 or so years. Who knows how the conference will look in 2021 and beyond? Harboring home-field advantage, the time is now for Rodgers to make a run. Looking at the field, there’s a good chance his first playoff game this year will be versus Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Like the never-materialized dream scenario of a LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals, the chances of a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl have likely passed, but a playoff battle between the two would certainly do. Despite Brady’s star-studded cast and eagerness to prove himself outside of New England, most of the pressure would still lie with Rodgers.

Chiefs-Packers leads most likely Super Bowl 55 matchups. Because of the new playoff rules, the top seeds in each conference now hold even more of an advantage, as they are the only playoff teams that receive first-round byes. The well-rested Chiefs and Packers each are in good position to reach Super Bowl 55, which would be a rematch of Super Bowl 1 if it were to happen. The Chiefs have simply looked bored as of late, but the defending champs are clearly the Super Bowl favorite. Outside of Kansas City and Green Bay, the Bills look like the next best Super Bowl contender. Buffalo is a true challenger to the Chiefs. Is it that hard to envision a Buffalo-Tampa Bay Super Bowl where the Bills must face their nemesis, Tom Brady, one last time to finally claim a Super Bowl win? What about Bills-Saints? Or Chiefs-Saints? The latter seemed to be a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick. My preseason pick was Ravens over Saints, and although that certainly can happen, Baltimore is now simply just a dark-horse candidate at best, until proven otherwise. The Ravens have been hot as of late, but like Tampa Bay, they’ve beaten up on bottom-of-the-barrel opponents. Barring a crazy unforeseen run, any combination of Kansas City or Buffalo paired against Green Bay, New Orleans or Tampa Bay will likely be the Super Bowl 55 matchup.

*******

My early inclination is that the Saints and Bucs will have some trouble with the Bears and Washington, but each will move on, while the Seahawks survive another bludgeoning by the Rams. In the AFC, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will look surprisingly sharp in a takedown of Baker Mayfield’s Browns, while Phillip Rivers and the Colts will predictably self-destruct their game-long, small lead over the Bills in Buffalo sometime in the third quarter, giving Josh Allen his first playoff win. That leaves my favorite game of the week — Titans-Ravens. It would be poetic justice for Lamar Jackson to earn his first playoff win in revengeful fashion over the Titans. Stating that this game could go either way really feels like a copout, but it’s true. As of now, give me Baltimore in a close contest. It’s Jackson’s time.

Aaron Rodgers vs Titans — 2020

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 16: A shakeup in the MVP race, and other musings

With the final games of the year (not season) 2020 behind us, a new year will dawn with the end of an odd, pandemic-altering season.

I decided to empty my brain’s notebook of takes this week prior to Week 17 and the playoffs by taking a deep dive into the NFL MVP race, giving perhaps my final take on the matter barring any wacky Week 17 scenarios.

Then, I dig into my final power ranking of the 2020 season.

Cheers to a new year, and enjoy!

NFL MVP RACE

In October, Russell Wilson was seen as the clear early front runner for his first NFL MVP award. By November, Patrick Mahomes had seemingly clinched it for himself, and now, in December, Josh Allen has picked up where he left off in the season’s beginnings, thrusting himself back into the mix (somewhat).

But with just one week remaining in the regular season, the race has taken a bit of a dramatic turn after Week 16’s results, in my opinion. And the man who has most benefited is Aaron Rodgers.

As of now, Rodgers and Mahomes should be at a dead heap for this year’s award, with a splitting-of-the-hairs honor going to Rodgers, if the votes don’t add up to what should be another case of co-MVPs — as last seen in 2003 when Peyton Manning and Steve McNair split the award.

In recent weeks, the Chiefs have kept winning, but the apparent boredom from constant success has gotten to Kansas City’s heads. Mahomes has thrown four interceptions in his last three games, and could have easily thrown seven or eight. It’s a dropped interception by Falcons rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell on Sunday that stands in the way of the Chiefs’ second loss of the season.

Since Thanksgiving, Rodgers has thrown for 15 touchdowns and just one interception, and the Packers have won five straight games in the process.

Still, we can’t look past their seasons’ as a whole. Mahomes hasn’t laid an egg as hideous as Rodgers’ performance in a loss to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers back in October — a game in which the Green Bay quarterback posted a Total QBR of 12.3.

But in looking at their almost-finished 2020 resumes, Rodgers has thrown more touchdowns (44 to Mahomes’ 38), less interceptions (five to Mahomes’ six), while also posting a better passer rating (119.4 to 108.2) and Total QBR (83.9 to 82.7).

And despite the brilliance by Rodgers’ top target, receiver Davante Adams, the talent pool of the Green Bay offense pales in comparison to Mahomes and Andy Reid’s star-studded cast that includes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Le’Veon Bell, Sammy Watkins and more.

In Year 2 of Matt LaFluer’s Shanahan-esque, albeit quarterback-friendly system in Green Bay, Rodgers has seemingly mastered the system after an inconsistent start that was the still-mightily-successful 2019 Packers campaign.

Still, the Packers (12-3) must finish the job of earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed for Rodgers to have the strongest case. The Chiefs (14-1) have already clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and judging by Andy Reid’s comments and recent news on Sunday’s game, we don’t expect Mahomes or the Chiefs starters to play much (or maybe, at all) in their Week 17 contest.

Even if the Packers join the Chiefs as fellow home-field advantage earners, it’s worth wondering if the NFL community as a collective loves drama, and are succumbing to a bit of subtle Mahomes fatigue, since the Chiefs quarterback makes it look so easy.

Even in his recent struggles, Mahomes has done enough to win every recent game. Immediately after the Falcons dropped an aforementioned would-be, game-ending interception, Mahomes darted a game-winning touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson on the very next play.

Mahomes is sensational, and quite frankly, he’s the best quarterback and player in today’s game. But Reid and the Chiefs’ unique supporting cast on offense (Hill, Kelce, etc.) is a bit more than what is assisting Rodgers (Adams, then RB Aaron Jones?) in Green Bay, where the Packers quarterback officially has better volume and efficiency stats than Mahomes in a rushing-based offensive system with lesser talent.

Really, there’s a brilliant case for both Mahomes and Rodgers, and any other year, the likes of Josh Allen or Russell Wilson could be running away with the award, but in a rough year overall, this has been quite the quality MVP race.

In a perfect world, Mahomes and Rodgers would tie for the award. That would be my vote — a split. But if we’re splitting hairs, it’s Rodgers who deserves the honor for the third time in his career.

1a. Aaron Rodgers

1b. Patrick Mahomes

3. Josh Allen

4. Russell Wilson

5. Derrick Henry

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-1) (Last week: 1). The apparent lackadaisical effort by the Chiefs in recent weeks should only concern the rest of the league. They can be beaten, but I have a feeling they won’t be.

2. Buffalo Bills (12-3) (Last week: 2). Well, that was a statement in Foxboro. Josh Allen has been sensational this year, and Stefon Diggs has a legitimate claim as the NFL’s best receiver, although a few others (Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, etc.) have just as good of a case. The Bills have built a helluva team, and are a true Super Bowl contender.

3. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 3). The Aaron Rodgers-Matt LaFluer pairing works, after all. Even in a playoffs with limited (or no) fans in the stands, Green Bay likely needs home-field advantage badly. They’ll need to beat the Bears in Chicago in a game in which the Bears absolutely need to win. Should be fun.

4. New Orleans Saints (11-4) (Last week: 5). The Saints remain the most talented team in the NFC. Can they make one last run with Drew Brees?

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) (Last week: 4). That was a season-saving win on Sunday. Barring a meeting in the playoffs, or an unlikely set up next season, that could be the final battle between QBs in the marveled 2004 NFL Draft class. In predictable fashion, Ben Roethlisberger was gritty in a tough comeback, while a Phillip Rivers-led team once again blew a 17-point lead. The Steelers are probably too beat up on defense to make a serious Super Bowl run now, but they’ll still be a tough out. I still wouldn’t want to see them in Round 2 at home if I’m the Bills.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5) (Last week: 9). Easy December schedule or not, here come Tom Brady and the Bucs. They’re like an alligator peeking it’s eyes out of the water. They can really make a run in the NFC.

7. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 8). The Seahawks sunk to the Rams’ level to win a rough defensive battle to take the NFC West. It’s been a while since we marveled at Russell Wilson. Seattle doesn’t have the roster of a Super Bowl team but Wilson doesn’t abide by normal rules. I say, watch out for the Seahawks in the NFC playoffs. They shouldn’t be able to make a run with their deficiencies, but they most certainly can with Wilson.

8. Baltimore Ravens (10-5) (Last week: 11). Like the Bucs, the Ravens are on a December run thanks to a soft, late-season schedule, but like Tampa Bay, Baltimore has the ingredients of a team ready to make a postseason push. Ironically, Lamar Jackson could win his first playoff game on the road as a wild card team this season, Baltimore’s least favorable position during the Jackson era.. But the Ravens could also miss the playoffs. Let’s revisit this next week in my playoff primer.

9. Indianapolis Colts (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Colts have a solid roster, and Rivers has had his moments, but Sunday’s debacle in Pittsburgh is not only expected of a Rivers-led team, it also makes it apparent that they aren’t likely going deep in the postseason.

10. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 6). The Titans will still be a tough out for teams like the Chiefs and Bills due to their running game, but their defense is just not up to par to make a similar run as last year to the AFC title game. I thought they could do it, now I have serious doubts.

11. Miami Dolphins (10-5) (Last week: 13). Brian Flores’ QB carousel and it’s odd-timing decisions only add to the fact that he could very well win Coach of the Year honors if Miami makes the playoffs, and maybe even if they don’t. (Although Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott also has a great case). This team should only get better in 2021. They’ve certainly overachieved this season.

12. Los Angeles Rams (9-6) (Last week: 10). Suddenly, the Rams find themselves in danger of missing the playoffs. They’ll miss Jared Goff next week, leaving John Wofford to start at quarterback with their season on the line. If they lose to the Cardinals, and the Bears beat the Packers at home the Rams are out. But Kyler Murray may miss the game for Arizona, making Cardinals-Rams a possible backup QB bonanza. If it’s any consolation, I believe Aaron Donald should edge out Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt for a third DPOY award, whether the Rams make the playoffs or not.

13. Cleveland Browns (10-5) (Last week: 12). I think I speak for most when I say we’d love to see the Browns make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, but it doesn’t look like they ultimately deserve it. We’ll see what happens on Sunday. Pittsburgh is starting Mason Rudolph at quarterback, giving Big Ben a rest.

14. Chicago Bears (8-7) (Last week: 16). You have to give credit to Mitchell Trubisky for battling back, as the Bears as a team have done, but he’s still clearly not the future.

15. L.A. Chargers (6-9) (Last week: NR). The Chargers belong here for their three-game winning streak and collective talent. I’d take them over any team below in a game in a neutral site right now.

16. Arizona Cardinals (8-7) (Last week: 15). Like we mentioned under the Rams section above, the Cardinals may be without Kyler Murray on Sunday. They had the obvious look of a fun team that is a year away. They are more of an extreme story of that nature then the Miami Dolphins in the AFC, who may make it in anyway, but are a year away themselves from real contention.

Next up: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Washington, Dallas, New England

Cam Newton vs Dolphins — 2020 Week 15

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 15: Where do the Patriots go from here?

When Cam Newton was sacked on 4th down late in New England’s 22-12 loss in Miami on Sunday, the Patriots already-slim playoff chances went down with him.

Technically, the Patriots entered Sunday’s contest with just a three percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the NFL community has certainly taken solace in their wicked witch being officially dead.

The mood surrounding Bill Belichick and some of the few remaining Super Bowl heroes was as you’d expect.

“It stinks to lose,” Devin McCourty said after the loss, “but I think the way we have played has been most disappointing. It just really hasn’t developed for us all year. It’s just felt like that throughout the whole season.”

“Obviously it hasn’t been our year,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ longest-tenured player (since 2008). “Obviously we haven’t done enough to be the type of team we thought we would. As to why that’s the case, it’s really hard to put your finger on it.”

Now, the Patriots will play their last two games versus AFC East opponents at home (vs Bills, vs Jets) with them having nothing to lose, and not much to gain.

The New England offense under Cam Newton (5 TD passes, 10 INT, 11 rush TDs, 44.9 Total QBR), and a sub-par pass-catching core, has not only struggled, but they’ve set back the clock on modern offenses. The difference between New England’s pulling-teeth passing game and that of some of the efficient, new-age passing offenses (let alone the Chiefs) is stark.

Soon, NFL talk will shift toward the playoffs, and the deserving teams in the postseason field.

The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The AFC East-champion Buffalo Bills. Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 New England will enter the offseason with many questions needed to be answered, including one at quarterback, which is a topic that will have its time for deep dives in the next few weeks and months.

As expected by many sensible figures before the pandemic-altered season, the Patriots did not have the team to compete, especially with their legendary quarterback of the past two decades now throwing passes in South Florida.

But in taking a big-picture look at the fraction, which side of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady wishbone would you prefer to hold if you’re Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots?

Brady could win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and he’s likely going to call it a career in the next year or two (although you can never fully assume so when we’re talking about the GOAT).

Despite some questionable draft day decisions over the last few seasons, and a few blind spots in the entire process (evaluating wide receivers), Bill Belchick is a master team-builder, an innovative and brilliant strategist, and the best coach in the history of football, and maybe, sports.

The married football coach with young children who once stated he wouldn’t be “Marv Levy coaching in his 70s.” But things are different now. Belichick is now a man on a mission — to prove himself by sustaining consistent success without Tom Brady. “The Hoodie” is a revitalized 68-year-old coach with both sons (now adults) on his coaching staff. He’s since divorced but has been in a long-time loving relationship with partner Linda Holliday. Part of Belichick’s summers are spent at Cape Cod with Linda, but most of his life still revolves around football, where a big chunk of his heart undoubtedly resides.

Now, Belichick is tasked with rebuilding the New England Patriots.

The Pats are sufficient in a few important areas already (offensive line, defensive secondary), making the rebuild seem more like one of Bill’s classic “retools” (2005-2007, 2009-2010, etc.) as opposed to a full-on rebuild — if the quarterback position was more ingrained and not Brady-less.

But aside from QB — the obvious position that will be much-talked about in the northeast this offseason — New England obviously fields a skill-position arsenal (WR, TE) that simply must be addressed. Their defensive front seven also needs some offseason attention, as a team like the Dolphins, who came into the game ranked last in yards per carry (3.6), ran for 250 yards on 42 carries (6.0 YPC) versus the Patriots behind running backs Salvon Ahmed and Matt Brieda.

But despite a nightmare season congruent with the year 2020, there is reason for optimism in 2021.

The Patriots are projected to have at least $70-ish million in cap space, depending on the league’s cap number this Spring. They’ll also field a pick in the top half of the draft for just the second time since 2003, giving them a shot at a blue-chip player.

Then, there’s the small group of young players showing promise. Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Jakobi Meyers, Michael Onwenu.

As long as there are hard-working, young talents in the building reflecting with quotes such as Chase Winovich’s in the tweet below after Sunday’s loss in Miami, the “Patriot Way” is still in tact.

 Yes, New England’s young core is not that exciting on paper, but with Belchick, and an arsenal of offseason tools (cap space, draft) to reshape this team, it’s at least exciting to see which way Belichick goes.

They most certainly will address their receivers and defensive front seven.

At QB, do they re-sign Newton? Re-sign Newton and draft a rookie on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft? Do they hope former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo is released outright by the 49ers? Everything is on the table, and until they figure it out at QB, the rest may not matter, that’s evident, but everyone from Foxboro to Portland, Maine knows Bill, Nick Caserio and the Patriots front office are already planning.

This was a year of poor play and bad luck for the Patriots. But as a new year turns, New England’s hopes are that of American citizens dreaming of a post-Pandemic world. Change is coming.

“Teams that don’t make the playoffs change,” said Devin McCourty. “The 2020 Patriots — it won’t be the same in 2021.”

There’s a void… a cavity waiting to be filled with more Patriots success. Belichick and the Patriots are just getting started.

NFL MVP RACE

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Aaron Rodgers
  3. Russell Wilson
  4. Josh Allen
  5. Derrick Henry

The only change here is Josh Allen jumping into the top five. After a so-so midseason stretch, the third-year QB is revisiting his red-hot start to the season at just the right time. Still, he’s more in line with Russell Wilson than a true contender for the award. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are essentially in a two-man race with two weeks to go.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) (Last week: 1). We, as a collective non-Kansas City NFL community needed a Saints win over the Chiefs to prove that Kansas City can be beaten. It didn’t happen. The Chiefs are a collective cyborg. They are a well-oiled machine and Patrick Mahomes is a football god.

2. Buffalo Bills (11-3) (Last week: 2). With their scorching-hot play as of late, and their first AFC East title since 1995, the Bills have emerged as perhaps the most obvious challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC.

3. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 3). It seems the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them, but that’s really not the case. Rodgers is solid, and will remain so. It’s up to his supporting cast. Is their defense ready?

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 4). The Steelers should win tonight in Cincinnati, but it’s pretty clear a once-clear contender is floundering a bit in December. Injuries on defense are certainly mounting, too. Still, you wouldn’t want to see this proud franchise in January.

5. New Orleans Saints (10-4) (Last week: 5). Defensively, the Saints beat up Mahomes at times. They had a swagger and look of a Super Bowl contender that would not play afraid. Still, they lost. Drew Brees played fairly well down the stretch but it’s still pretty clear that these are his last days. Can he do enough for one last Super Bowl run?

6. Tennessee Titans (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans are the ultimate dark horse in the AFC, a spot in which they filled admirably last season. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown are players you just don’t want to see in an outdoor playoff game. Their defense, and lack of a pass rush, may make it too tough to repeat their playoff run from last season, though.

7. Indianapolis Colts (10-4) (Last week: 9). The Colts again survived Deshaun Watson and the Texans via a Houston goal-line fumble late in the game. That’s the second such occurrence in two weeks. But any division wins are welcome.

8. Seattle Seahawks (10-4) (Last week: 10). The Seahawks are slowly working their way back into contender status in the NFC. They have a big one on Sunday versus the Rams (9-5). If they win, they clinch the NFC West. The playoffs essentially start now for Russell Wilson’s bunch.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) (Last week: 11). Ho hum, another 17-point comeback for Tom Brady. And against Matt Ryan’s Falcons, no less. TB12 looked like a product of his method on Sunday, zinging the ball around to complete the come-from-behind win. In all, Brady threw for 320 yards in the second half on Sunday, the most of any QB in the second half this season.

10. Los Angeles Rams (9-5) (Last week: 6). They were rolling before this home loss to the all-time inept New York Jets (1-13). What the hell happened?

11. Baltimore Ravens (9-5) (Last week: 13). Their cake-walk of a closing schedule should put them at 11-5 and in one of the AFC’s wild card spots, but there’s much to like about Lamar Jackson and this Ravens team that is surging at the right time, albeit against lesser competition. They’ll be a tough out in January.

12. Cleveland Browns (10-4) (Last week: 7). Their Sunday night win over the Giants in New York was a solid, hard-earned win after their taxing loss to the Ravens last week.

13. Miami Dolphins (9-5) (Last week: 12). They did what they had to do to survive the Patriots (6-8) at home with a decimated pass-catching core. If the Dolphins make the playoffs, Brian Flores really may win the Coach of the Year award, leapfrogging Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who had the lead on the award for most of the year.

14. Arizona Cardinals (8-6) (Last week: 15). That was a mighty fun game in Philadelphia, with Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts battling it out. The Cardinals should be able to hold on to the NFC’s No. 7 spot.

15. Washington (6-8) (Last week: 14). We’ll leave Washington on the list for keeping it close with Seattle, and because of the ineptitude of everyone below them here.

16. Chicago Bears (7-7) (Last week: 16). I guess the Bears go here? It feels wrong to have them in the rankings, but they earned it in Minnesota. Or at least, they earned this spot.

Next up: Minnesota, New England, Las Vegas, L.A. Chargers, Dallas

Jalen Hurts vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 14: Hurts bests Hill in unique QB matchup

When the NFL schedule was set, few looked at this Saints-Eagles matchup and imagined anything other than Drew Brees battling Carson Wentz, possibly for playoff seeding, in a cold-weather December matchup.

Queue, 2020.

With Brees injured and Wentz and his albatross contract on the bench, one of the most unique matchups took place on Sunday when do-it-all, Swiss-army-knife Taysom Hill and dual-threat, been-through-it-all Jalen Hurts battled on Sunday.

The Eagles (4-8-1) won 24-21, dropping the Saints (10-3) to the NFC’s No. 2 spot because of their tie-breaking loss to the Packers (10-3) earlier this season.

With Taysom Hill, we know the story by now. We know why he is unique, and despite NFL Twitter taking a bad-faith approach (for whatever reason, but you can uncover possibly why if you got into the weeds, not recommended) to Hill, Sean Payton and the Saints were 3-0 under Hill before this matchup. And although the game plan has surely been altered, New Orleans has surprisingly let Hill read the field like a prototypical QB, and the 30-year-old has found some success going through his reads to fire down-field strikes.

On Sunday, Hill went 28-of-38 for 298 yards and two touchdowns, but threw an interception, often held onto the ball too long (Eagles had six sacks, some of them pure coverage sacks), and rushed for just 33 yards.

Time will tell if Hill is New Orleans’ long-term answer at QB (for next season and beyond), but anyone could see that they need Drew Brees if they are to win the Super Bowl this season.

But the story of Sunday was Hill being outplayed by Jalen Hurts.

Hurts, Philadelphia’s rookie second-round pick (a surprise at the time) won his first career NFL start over a Super Bowl contender that came into the game on a nine-game winning streak. In doing so, he joined Lamar Jackson as the only other quarterback since 1950 to have over 100 rushing yards in his first NFL start.

Hurts ran for 106 yards on 18 carries, outshining Hill at his own game, as the rookie’s presence also opened up the door for Miles Sanders (14 carries, 115 yards, two touchdowns), as Philly ran for 246 yards (6.8 yards per carry) versus one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, particularly against the run.

The Saints came into the game without allowing a 100-yard rusher in 55 straight contests. As stated above, the Eagles had two such rushers on Sunday.

Thought of as Philly’s possible “Taysom Hill” when he was drafted last spring, Hurts is on the right path to proving that he can be more than just a situational-type player to spell Wentz —much like Hill, over the last month, is steadily proving that he, too, may be a legit starting QB.

His passing numbers (17-of-30, 167 yards, one touchdown) were pedestrian, but Hurts made several big-time throws from the pocket, and the on the run. His most important throw of the day was his second-quarter, 15-yard, back-shoulder touchdown strike to Alshon Jeffrey on 4th-and-2. Even more impressive was that Hurts delivered that throw with an all-out blitz in his face.

Poise and confidence is apparent in the young quarterback that has been through it all, including a benching in Alabama, which he handled graciously, and a transfer to Oklahoma, where he found success once more with his second college team.

“I know he’s an NFL rookie . . . but I don’t know that he could’ve experienced a whole lot more to get him ready for this than what he did in college,” said Lincoln Riley (Hurts’ head coach at Oklahoma) to NBC Sports’ Peter King.

“I mean, he goes into Alabama, starts as a true freshman, part of championship teams, and all of a sudden, he’s not the starter. Comes back in in a championship game and leads them to victory. Transfers to [Oklahoma], where they just had two Heisman trophy winners in a row, knowing he’s only gonna have one year, comes in and has a great year, new system, new teammates. He’s always got supreme confidence in himself and he trusts his preparation. I think part of him is like, ‘Man, if I’ve made it through what I’ve made it through, I trust myself that even in a new situation that I can do it. So no, not surprising to me at all that he would go play the way he did today.”

There were other great throws from Hurts, including this deep, almost-completion above. It’s clear Philly might have something in the young cat. They’ll need more than one game to judge, but could the Eagles ship Wentz to say, Indianapolis (to reunite with Frank Reich), swallowing a bunch of dead cap for his remaining two years on the contract, and build this offense around Hurts?

Again, it’s too early to tell.

Philly head coach Doug Pederson is still yet to name a starter for the Eagles late-afternoon showdown in Arizona (7-6) next week.

NFL MVP RACE

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Aaron Rodgers
  3. Russell Wilson
  4. Derrick Henry
  5. Aaron Donald

The first of four consecutive MVP sections to finish out the season in my column doesn’t accept much change from my ranking from two weeks ago. Mahomes is still the clear favorite, although Rodgers is not that far behind. Any other season without a QB of Mahomes’ caliber would spurn a clear win for Rodgers, and hundreds of columns surrounding his improved play in Year 2 under Green Bay head coach Matt Lafluer, as well was what this means for Rodgers’ future in Green Bay with Jordan Love (first-round rookie QB) as his backup. Elsewhere, Russell Wilson, the “clear” favorite from the first half of the season, sits soundly in third over Derrick Henry (who is dominating defenses in December once more) and Aaron Donald, who is so good that it’s easy to overlook his play.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) (Last week: 1). Even on one of their ugly days (hideous, by their standards), Mahomes shook off a few mistakes to throw for 393 yards, touchdowns to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and post a 91.9 Total QBR. Yeah, they’re starting to look unbeatable this season.

2. Buffalo Bills (10-3) (Last week: 4). Josh Allen has come alive again after falling back to earth some during the middle of the season. The Bills are as talented as almost anyone in the league, and are a real contender in the AFC. Would they fare better in a rematch with the Chiefs in January?

3. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers and the Packers now have a good shot at the NFC’s No. 1 seed. They’ve been looking good as of late, but some teams that would give them fits in January include the Rams and Buccaneers. And oddly enough, one of those two squads could end up being their NFC Divisional Round matchup, as one of them may get the NFC’s No. 5 seed, and face the NFC East winner in Round 1. It’s too early to tell, though.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 2). Their defense is starting to slip some without both Devin Bush and Bud Dupree. Having Dupree opposite T.J. Watt was a big advantage for the Steelers. Now, Pittsburgh must shore up issues, including their suddenly moribund-looking offense, to at least hang onto the AFC’s No. 2 seed. They’re starting to look like last year’s Patriots.

5. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). They suffered their first loss with Taysom Hill. They’ve fared much better with Hill than I figured they would, but they need Drew Brees back to reach the Super Bowl. Will he return this week, in time for a big home matchup with the Chiefs (12-1)?

6. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) (Last week: 6). They dominated the Patriots (6-7) last week, giving Sean McVay at least a small taste of revenge for Super Bowl 53. Their offense is starting to round into form again, and their defense, led by stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, is phenomenal. No one in the NFC would like to see them come January.

7. Cleveland Browns (9-3) (Last week: 7). Can they keep things going versus the Ravens tonight? If they win soundly, it’s time to start taking them seriously. Not Super Bowl contender seriously, but at least as a tough AFC postseason opponent. Can they hang onto the conference’s No. 5 seed?

8. Tennessee Titans (9-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans took their frustrations out on the lowly Jaguars (1-12) on Sunday. The Titans are an inconsistent bunch, so this may seem crazy to say, but I think they’re the biggest threat to the Chiefs in the AFC, just above the Bills and the beat-up Steelers.

9. Indianapolis Colts (9-4) (Last week: 9). Their defense is starting to slip some, but racking up 44 points on the road, even against a defense like the Raiders, is impressive. There’s more work to be done to ensure they make the postseason, but Sunday’s win improved their chances dramatically.

10. Seattle Seahawks (9-4) (Last week: 10). There’s no better opponent than the 2020 Jets (0-13) to help your team get back on track. Or at least, to make it look like your team is trending back in the right direction. I think they are, though. All eyes are still peeking ahead to the Seahawks’ Week 16 home game versus the Rams (9-4), though. That game will likely decide the NFC West.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) (Last week: 11). The offense got off to a slow start, and Tom Brady had two awful misses to wide-open receivers, but the GOAT settled into things. The 48-yard touchdown throw to Scotty Miller was a beauty. They need to find a way to get Miller onto the field more often, even if it means decreasing Antonio Brown’s snaps. On defense, their ferocious pass rush came alive late. They’re still a collection of talent that is yet to mesh, though, and they may never do so in this weird season.

12. Miami Dolphins (8-5) (Last week: 12). They muddied the game enough early versus the Chiefs, forcing Mahomes to throw two easy interceptions and sacking him a few times, but Miami’s offense couldn’t take advantage. Tua Tagovailoa got it going down the stretch, but it was too little, too late.

13. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) (Last week: 13). Their favorable schedule gives them a great shot at the AFC’s No. 7 seed, and maybe even the No. 6 spot. If they can beat Cleveland tonight, they really could go 11-5. Let’s see if they can begin to execute. They’re beat up, though.

14. Washington (6-7) (Last week: NR). There may not be a better defensive line in the NFL than the one in Washington, where Chase Young looks like the next superstar in the line of second-overall pick defensive ends selected out of Ohio State (see: 49ers’ Nick Bosa last season). Alex Smith went down with an injury in San Francisco (his old home, where he was credited with a win) on Sunday, though, but all reports are saying he’s fine. WFT should stick with him over Dwayne Haskins.

15. Arizona Cardinals (7-6) (Last week: NR). The Cardinals moved into sole possession of the NFC’s final playoff spot on Sunday thanks to Hasaan Reddick. Reddick, Arizona’s first-round pick in 2017 (13th overall), had his fifth-year option declined in the offseason, and has mostly been considered a bust. But after a few bad seasons (and subsequent benching) at the linebacker position, the unique athlete has spent more time as an EDGE defender this season in Arizona’s aggressive, blitz-happy defense designed to mask their overall inefficiency on that side of the ball. Well, Reddick notched five sacks versus the Giants on Sunday, and Arizona’s defense came alive at the right time, albeit versus a subpar offense.

16. Minnesota Vikings (6-7) (Last week: 14). They deserve this spot over the Patriots and Raiders, for now. They likely have to win all of their remaining games (vs Chicago, at New Orleans (Christmas Day), at Detroit) to even have a chance at making the postseason. That’s doable, but unlikely.

Next up: New England, Las Vegas, Chicago, Denver, N.Y. Giants

Baker Mayfield and Jarvis Landry vs Titans — 2020

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 13: Are the Browns serious contenders?

The Browns (9-3) entered Sunday’s uber-important contest with the Titans (8-4) in Tennessee as a semi-fraudulent team (to some) that had beaten up on bad teams en route to a probable playoff spot that won’t become of anything (some thought).

At halftime, Cleveland surprisingly led Tennessee by a score of 38-7, before holding on for a 41-35 statement win that has many thinking differently of these Browns. What a difference a weeks makes.

So what do we make of this Browns team? Is talk of them as an AFC contender a knee-jerk reaction?

Sitting at 9-3, and in prime position for an AFC wild card spot — maybe the top, No. 5 wild card spot they hold now — Cleveland enters the final quarter of the regular season with a surging outside appreciation for what they’ve done, just weeks after most (including me) have discredited them as a somewhat-fraudulent, soon to be one-and-done wild card team.

Before their win on Sunday, they had played just four games against teams with winning records, going 1-3 in those contests with their last loss being an offensively-challenged 16-6 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders (7-5) at home before beginning their current four-game winning streak.

Baker Mayfield — 2,442 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 70.5 Total QBR — hasn’t been quite as good as his average-to-good season stat line suggests. He likely won’t eclipse 4,000 yards passing in an era in which it seems nearly every QB does each season, but with the Browns’ league-best rushing attack (157.8 yards per game) leading the way, he really doesn’t need to air it out for Cleveland to rack up wins.

Mayfield was phenomenal on Sunday, throwing for four first-half touchdowns to give the Browns a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Yes, the lack of a Titans pass rush, or maybe even competent defense, helped spur perhaps Mayfield’s greatest performance as a pro. But if this Browns team is to do any damage in the AFC postseason field, it will need Mayfield to capitalize on play-action passes downfield after their running game has been established. He did that on Sunday, ironically versus a team that works their offense the same way, except usually with better success with Ryan Tannehill finding the likes of A.J. Brown downfield after a fake hand-off to Derrick Henry.

The combination attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the ground behind a superb, remodeled offensive line has been the key to the Browns attack. Possible coach-of-the-year candidate Kevin Stefanski, 38, has brought a Mike Shanahan-style system to the Browns, employing a heavy amount of outside-zone running plays as their bread and butter, with play-action and bootleg passes as secondary options. These plays are designed to make the game easier for Mayfield as other offenses have done similarly for the likes of Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers (to a degree, since he doesn’t really need the help) and Jared Goff — and for former Broncos QB Jake Plummer (2003-2006 in Denver), once upon a time.

 On defense, Myles Garrett (10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles) is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the Browns’ defensive unit as a whole has been much improved.

Still, in the AFC, the Chiefs (11-1) are operating on a plane above the entire NFL. And despite their sluggish play of late, the Steelers (11-1) still look like the conference’s second best team. After that, the Bills (9-3) definitely look like the third best.

So where do the Browns fall into the mix after that?

The last few weeks has seen some weird results, much like the Browns win over the Titans. In the AFC South, the Titans and Colts (8-4) each traded dominant road wins over each other in the past month.

After the heavyweights in the AFC, it’s clear that there’s some unpredictability at play. The Browns finish the season with two winnable games (at Giants, at Jets) in New York, sandwiched in between two tough games (vs Ravens, vs Steelers) versus their AFC North rivals. If they beat Baltimore this weekend, it’s likely they’ll hang onto the conference’s No. 5 seed.

How would they fare in a wild card rematch in Tennessee? Or in Indianapolis? Or Buffalo? Their likely opponent would likely come from that pool if they are to be the conference’s top wild card. And they’re playing like they deserve that seed, as of late.

The truth is Cleveland is a bit limited with Baker Mayfield at the moment, but the former No. 1 overall pick has the talent to improve, and maybe Sunday’s win over Tennessee is the start of the that. But it’s likely this game is a bit of an aberration, and evidence of the ever-changing narratives of some of the good-not-great teams in the AFC after the likes of Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Still, the Browns are certainly proving they’re not frauds. I’ve thrown that word around with them, so I suppose that’s an egg on my face, for now.

They have the recipe of a solid playoff team.

The Browns are well coached. They run the ball extremely well, which is a cold-weather, January must if you don’t have a top-tier QB (and they don’t). Their offensive line is much improved. And on defense, Myles Garrett is one of the best players in football.

Still, despite the Titans’ porous effort on Sunday (and their unpredictability, and their poor defense), it feels like they still remain the biggest threat to the Chiefs and Steelers, maybe even more so than the Bills.

Tennessee has no pass rush, they can’t stop the run, and at times, they seem to be laying duds on offense. But the Titans, who used their bruising formula to make the AFC Championship Game last season, still have the ingredients (Mike Vrabel, Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown, etc.) to a mark run this season.

As for the Browns, they too have some of the those ingredients, but have yet to prove their moxie in January. Could they be last year’s Titans? Now that’s not farfetched. But we’ll have to see it first.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) (Last week: 1). Is there any stopping them? Denver kept it close.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) (Last week: 2). They haven’t looked good the past few weeks, and the loss of Bud Dupree on defense is MASSIVE. But they’re still the second best team in the AFC.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 3). They’re fun with Taysom Hill, but to win the Super Bowl, they’ll need Drew Brees back for what is likely the last few games of his illustrious career.

4. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 5). That was a solid win in San Francisco. The 49ers are feisty, even in their injury-derailed season. Still, the Bills must get it together on defense if they are to be a threat to Kansas City.

5. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). Let’s not forget about how great Aaron Rodgers has been this season. There’s a chance they snag the NFC’s No. 1 seed if they can win out. The Saints have some tough games to finish out their year.

6. Los Angeles Rams (8-4) (Last week: 10). They’re getting better by the week. Can they keep it going versus the Patriots on Thursday?

7. Cleveland Browns (9-3) (Last week: 13). Are the Browns for real? We explained above. Yes and no from me. One thing I didn’t mention earlier — they have a negative-15 point differential, which is virtually unheard of for a 9-3 team. That’s worse than teams like Washington (5-7) and San Francisco (5-7) with losing records. Still, they have the recipe for a well-stocked January team, as long as Mayfield doesn’t revert to his previous form of ineptitude.

8. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 4). They’ve been Jekyll and Hyde recently but I still think they’re a real threat to the AFC’s top teams, much like last January.

9. Indianapolis Colts (8-4) (Last week: 8). They easily could have lost in Houston, but they pulled out yet another win. They have some tough games to finish out their season.

10. Seattle Seahawks (8-4) (Last week: 8). They are in trouble, but I trust Russell Wilson to pull them up a level here soon. They’ll get it going again on offense.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) (Last week: 11). The Bucs return from their late-season bye week in gut check mode. Will they finally get it going for a string of games?

12. Miami Dolphins (8-4) (Last week: 12). They don’t look right on offense, but their defense remains solid. They’ll be put to the test this week versus the Chiefs.

13. Baltimore Ravens (6-5) (Last week: 10). Will the Ravens take advantage of their easy schedule to make the postseason?

14. Minnesota Vikings (6-6) (Last week: 14). Can they outpace the Cardinals and others for the last playoff spot? Their remaining schedule includes a game in New Orleans and a game in Tampa Bay this Sunday. They may need to win one of those to get in.

15. New England Patriots (6-6) (Last week: NR). That 45-0 win over the Chargers felt like a Tom Brady-era, late-season road beatdown that usually sparked a Super Bowl run. That’s not likely the case this year, but if the Pats can beat the Rams on Thursday to compete the LA sweep, they’re right back in the thick of the playoff picture. Their season comes down to their last four games. They likely need to win all four to make the playoffs.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (7-5) (Last week: 16). They were lucky to win in New York over the Jets (0-12). They really shouldn’t have won. Ironically, unless they’re playing the Chiefs, they haven’t looked that good, save for a game or two, here and there.

Next up: Arizona, Houston, N.Y. Giants, Washington, San Francisco