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Super Bowl LIII Preview

Super Bowl LIII Preview: Brady’s second shot at ring No. 6 comes versus ‘all-in’ Rams

By now the storylines have reached a point of exhaustion. The hate for the Patriots’ self-contrived ‘underdog’ status has been well-documented. The Rams’ aggressive team-building approach and wunderkind head coach, well-profiled.

But this should come as a sigh of relief — here is a FOOTBALL preview of Super Bowl LIII. That’s right — matchups, x-factors and what each team needs to do to be victorious. Enjoy.

Patriots offense vs Rams defense

Despite being anchored by the greatest quarterback that ever lived, the Patriots have transitioned to more of an old-school ground-and-pound offense for a significant portion of the team’s last four victories.

Behind perhaps the league’s best offensive line since December, and the best lead-blocking fullback in pro football in James Develin, rookie workhorse back Sony Michel has rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns in New England’s two postseason wins.

Still, the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is famous for adopting a chameleon-type approach to attacking defenses. Depending on the opponent, the Patriots may opt for Brady to line up in shotgun and sling the football 50-60 times, or they may opt to bulk up and run over opponents with ’21’ or 12′ personnel.

The Rams were ranked 31st in rush yards per attempt allowed in the regular season (Chiefs were 32nd), but they’ve hunkered down in the postseason. First, they bottled up Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, then stymied the two-back attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, allowing those three to just 93 yards on 37 carries in their two postseason wins.

But what the Rams did fall susceptible to (early on) in their thrilling overtime win over the Saints, is the halfback running out into the flats.

Targeted 13 times, Kamara reeled in 11 passes for 96 yards, often in the flats with Rams linebacker Corey Littleton trailing in coverage.

This bodes well for James White, who is the Patriots’ X-factor on offense this Sunday. 

Expect White to haul in anywhere from 10 to 15 passes running shallow flat, angle and option routes matched up against Rams linebackers.

With an excellent cornerback duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, Brady will have trouble throwing outside the numbers to the likes of Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.

But with just Hogan, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field most of the time for New England, expect Talib to get his share of duties against Gronk in man coverage, even lined up as a traditional tight end.

Brady will shy away from Talib and Peters mostly, looking for White, Rex Burkhead and you guessed it….Julian Edelman lined up against Rams slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Robey-Coleman walked back his ‘taken-out-of-context’ comments referring to Brady’s old age, which is good, because TB12 has had his fair share of success targeting him from his days as a member of the Buffalo Bills. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a 130.6 passer rating when targeting Robey-Coleman, which is good for his third highest against any defender in the he has targeted at least 20 times.

So it’s understandable that Brady and Edelman, perhaps the best QB-to-slot receiver tandems of all-time, would have their way with the Rams’ CB3.

But in a season-defining game such as this, look for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to have various plans in slowing down the Patriots’ passing game. With age catching up to Gronkowski, it’s possible Phillips places Talib on Edelman, but Talib will turn 33 years old 10 days after Sunday’s game, meaning he’s not quite the player he once was. Still a solid man-coverage cornerback, Talib would be up for the challenge, with the press coverage skills to slow down Edelman at times, but Edelman is not your average 32-year-old receiver. His affinity for clutch play and relentless grit, combined with his quickness and rapport with Brady, actually make him one of the league’s hardest receivers to cover, certainly at this time of the year.

In that case, the Rams might opt for more zone coverage, but knowing Brady decimates teams that play soft zone coverage as their primary defense (see: Brady vs. Steelers), Phillips will have to disguise his looks to full Brady, ultimately mixing in well-designed blitzes at the proper times to fool the GOAT.

But that can prove risky, with quick outlets such as White and Burkhead (who also can be utilized in running draws) available as quick-passing targets for Brady.

Which means the Rams’ blueprint success doesn’t necessarily rely on perfect coverage, but instead being the old adage of pressuring the quarterback, which works on any passer, not just Brady.

Yet, it’s a very specific type of pressure that will slow down this Patriots offense, and the Rams have the perfect players to do so.

Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. are capable on the edge, but Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon should be able to slow them down. And even if they don’t at times, Brady’s all-time pocket presence is perhaps his best tangible attribute, meaning stepping up and around edge pressure is something he can and will do.

Instead, it’s the interior where the Rams will need to excel.

Luckily for Los Angeles, they sport the greatest interior rushing threat — and eventually, maybe greatest defensive tackle ever— in Aaron Donald.

With a league-high 20.5 sacks and 41 knockdowns, Donald is primed for to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award on Saturday.

The behemoth has the ability to wreck any team’s game plan, but the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line has been stout. From left guard to right, Joe Thuney, David Andrews (center) and Shaq Mason have brutalized defenses in the run game, and along with tackles Brown and Cannon, they have kept Brady upright the entire postseason thus far. Zero sacks allowed by this group. The only other time a Super Bowl-winning quarterback went unscathed for no sacks in a postseason run was Brady in the 2003 Patriots’ path to glory.

With the ability to double-team Donald, the Patriots will limit him SOME, but expect Donald to have at least three or more clean pressures on Brady from the interior, due to his sheer dominance.

But if New England can limit Donald with a double team, the Rams’ success, and possibly chances of winning, may lie with their X-factor on defense, Ndamukong Suh.

Once a dominant interior player on his own with the Lions, Suh is not quite the same player, but is still formidable enough to take over a game if need be. Although not indicative of the effectiveness of an interior rusher, Suh has just 4.5 sacks this season, meaning he could do better as a rusher, which is part of the reason the Rams snagged Fowler from the Jaguars midseason, to generate more pressure.

But matched up solo against Thuney or Mason, Suh may be a game-wrecker for the Patriots in both the pass and the run game, if he steps up for the challenge.

But this is a tough matchup for the Rams. The Patriots will likely employ a mix of everything, which includes things like Burkhead running routes from the slot, and Cordarrelle Patterson acting as an ‘athlete’ by lining up in the backfield, and taking his fair share of end-arounds.

But ultimately, the Patriots want to control the tempo, and the clock, by pounding Michel behind their stout offensive line, lead-blocking extraordinaire Develin and monster-blocking by Gronk and Dwayne Allen. If they can break the Rams that way, then the play-action will come, and the Rams will likely falter, no matter what they do on offense. But if Donald and Suh can generate consistent interior pressure, against both the run and the pass, a la the 2007 and 2011 Giants, then the Rams may have their recipe for success.

Rams defense vs Patriots offense

The Rams have fond success under wunderkind, offensive-minded Sean McVay, a 33-year-old head coach that has used futuristic concepts to riddle opposing defenses.

Running McVay’s offense is 24-year-old Jared Goff, a third-year quarterback (and former No. 1 overall pick) who has vastly improved since his NFL debut.

The Rams heavily employ ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and often use these pieces in a bunch formation, with three receivers playing tightly within each other, and close to their offensive line. There, McVay relies upon Todd Gurley, one of the league’s best backs, on outside zones, while also utilizing Gurley as a receiver, and as a decoy, in play-action passes where the team’s bunch formations makes it hard to decipher routes, and where their receivers are going.

But because many of the Rams’ passing plays are long-developing, with routes such as deep-comebacks to Brandin Cooks, Goff holds onto the ball longer, giving a much-improved Patriots pass rush, led by Trey Flowers, a chance pressure Goff, as they did Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots front seven in general had a rough go for much of the regular season, but they’ve allowed just 60 yards on 22 carries in their postseason wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. And while December-acquisition, and postseason hero C.J. Anderson had a successful outing versus the Cowboys, he was held to 2.8 yards per carry versus the Saints, meaning Gurley HAS to get it going in some form, for the Rams to have a chance.

The 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year garnered a putrid 13 yards on five touches, which included a drop-turned interception early on, which helped put the Rams in a 13-0 hole. That can’t happen versus the Patriots.

Gurley looked discouraged and flustered, but he’s been given another opportunity, and should have a better go-round than his NFC championship game performance.

But Bill Belichick specializes in taking away his opponents’ best offensive weapon. And although Gurley may seem like that guy on paper, the real weapon in this offense is McVay, through Goff. It’s the perfectly-ingrained system. With possession receiver, turned-bonafide-stud WR1 Robert Woods, speedy, deep threat Brandin Cooks and the young, sure-handed Josh Reynolds, the Rams have a nice trio of receivers, even with the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp earlier in the season.

Mentioned earlier, the Rams’ Aqib Talib was perhaps the league’s best man coverage cornerback a few seasons ago (think: 2015). That title now belongs to Patriots CB1 Stephon Gilmore. Not only is Gilmore the best man coverage corner, he’s the best cornerback in the league overall right now, period.

Although the Patriots may mix in some zone concepts, they just love to play man coverage, meaning that’s primarily what they’ll start with.

Cooks is a dangerous threat, but his route tree is limited to deep comebacks, drags, slants and flies. He isn’t a uber-precise route-runner, or a receiver who hangs onto balls consistently in traffic.

Woods isn’t as much of a home-run threat as Cooks is, but he’s the better overall receiver, meaning he’ll likely draw Gilmore for most of the game.

The Patriots will likely use a combination of Jason McCourty or undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson on Cooks, with safety Duron Harmon moving over from his usual ‘center fielder’ type role to shad overtop Cooks. The guess is the veteran McCourty draws Cooks (with help), while Jackson gets a shot at Reynolds. Because of his likely opportunity in one-on-one coverage, Reynolds is one of two X-factor(s) on the Rams’ offense. 

If Reynolds can beat his man consistently, Goff will be able to find his second and third read, while the Patriots key on more-known targets like Woods, Cooks and Gurley.

But with a much-improved pass rush, the Patriots have been able to get pressure with fronts containing Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, and interior sub-rusher Adam Butler. New England has also sent Kyle Van Noy from the edge with much success in recent weeks, specifically in the first half against Kansas City.

If the Patriots are able to play press man coverage tightly to delay (and knock off) the routes of Rams receivers, New England may make things difficult for Goff. That’s where McVay will have to lean on the ’12’ personel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2WR) groupings he used in the team’s comeback win over the Saints (16 snaps.)

In that case, the Rams would replace Reynolds with another tight end to pair with Tyler Higbee. That would be the team’s second X-factor on offense, Gerald Everett. 

Everett is a move tight end capable of giving the Patriots fits. He’s nimble and athletic, and can block just well enough to not be a liability in the run game. If the Rams can find some success running Gurley or Anderson here, that will set up Everett matched up agains the likes of Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and possibly Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung. The latter of those four would likely be the best matchup for the Patriots, meaning Chung is the Patriots’ X-factor on defense, providing Belichick with a good piece in man coverage against tight ends from the slot. 

In the run game, Chung can be used in the box and up front as a pseudo-linebacker capable of stopping Gurley and Anderson, while also not surrendering speed and coverage ability to the team’s personnel. This may also include the occasional man coverage assignment on Gurley lined up as a receiver, when motioning out of the backfield.

The Rams have the pieces to make things awfully difficult on the Patriots here, but New England’s experience and recent mojo suggest they’ll have their moments, too.

Prediction

On paper, the Rams are not only vastly more talented, but they seemingly have the pieces and the aggressive approach to take down the Patriots, much like the Eagles did last year.

But New England has their swagger back this postseason. Missing in Super Bowl LII were the likes of Julian Edelman and Don’t Hightower, both of whom provide championship pedigree to a team that feeds off mental toughness and momentum. This Patriots team feeds off doubters, more so than any of the teams they’ve harnessed in the past decade.

The stage won’t be ‘too big’ for the Rams, but I believe they’ll get caught napping early, as the Patriots get out to a lead behind a fiery Tom Brady, who will look for James White early and often (I mean it…10-15 catches from him, and two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving).

The Rams will figure things out both offensively and defensively in the second half, and like all past Brady-Belichick Super Bowls, this will be close, but nowhere near like the  nail-biters in their past few bouts.

New England will switch up their offensive approach from drive to drive, as they won’t be able to run 45 times against this improved Rams defense, but they’ll have enough success running to set up a few downfield throws by Brady on play-action.

And when the Patriots aren’t running behind Develin and the offensive line, they’ll spread things out and Brady will look to the short and intermediate areas in between the numbers.

The Rams will have some success with Gurley before he’s taken out of the game, leaving Goff alone, looking for his secondary weapons.

Give me Brady, Belichick and these hungry Patriots to complete the full circle of their dynasty that spans over 18 years. They’ll beat the Rams again, for what might be their last Super Bowl together.

Patriots 31, Rams 26

Super Bowl MVP: James White

Greg Zuerlein kick

No matter what happens next, Rams’ aggressive offseason paid off

Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard, walk-off boot sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl, but the path to franchise’s first league championship bout since 2001 started roughly 10 months ago.

Last March, the team most noted for its offensive transcendence and aggressiveness on the field in 2017, geared up for their 2018 campaign by vigorously searching for (and adding) talent.

They acquired disgruntled Chiefs No. 1 cornerback Marcus Peters via a trade. They traded a first-round pick (no. 23 overall) to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks. They plucked Aqib Talib in a trade with the Broncos. They placed Ndamukong Suh from free agency on a one-year, ‘rental’ deal for this moment.

At one point, before the Cooks trade, there was rumored interest between the Rams and Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

After watching the Eagles roll to a championship via going after players in trades and free agency, rather than waiting and developing their own prospects, the Rams assertively one-upped last year’s Super Bowl champions by digging for talent via every avenue possible.

The Rams embraced the ultimate, ‘win-now’ mode, but also made progress in solidifying their nucleus for seasons to come.

The team opted to extend Todd Gurley’s contract on a four-year, $60 million deal. Upon trading for Cooks, who had one year left on his rookie contract, the team gave him a five-year, $81 million extension.

Then, after a stare down that saw Aaron Donald, the NFL’s best defensive player, skip their training camp and preseason, Los Angeles obliged Donald with a 6-year, $135 million extension.

Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald should win a second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, come Feb. 2. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

As an interior force, Donald is perhaps the most disruptive to offenses than any other player in history at his position. Pairing him with Suh has helped produce a formidable duo, but the team still struggled to defend the run in the regular season, rating as the worst team in football against yards per attempt (5.1).

But like the 2006 Colts (who won Super Bowl XLI), they’ve buckled down in the postseason, corralling the NFL’s leading rusher, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (20 carries, 47 yards), then stymieing the NFL’s best running back duo, Saints’ Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (21 carries, 48 yards).

Although the Rams are thin at the linebacker spot, their talented secondary has one of the league’s best duos of playmaking cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who are both newcomers.

But even with a vast collection of talent on defense, and a wizard defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, the Rams haven’t been as effective as they hoped on defense. But by cracking down on their usual mistakes in the postseason, they’ve done just enough to balance out an offense that has been virtually transcendent under mastermind, 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, and third-year quarterback Jared Goff.

After a minor injury to Gurley and a season-ending injury to trust receiver Cooper Kupp, the Rams offense hit a wall in December, as most (including me) fitted them for an early postseason exit to regroup for next year.

But McVay’s futuristic offensive scheming adapted to more of an almost-old school vibe of pounding C.J. Anderson, a Super Bowl 50 hero, and journeyman running back, acquired in December. Anderson ran wild versus a tough Cowboys defense in an NFC divisional round matchup. And on Sunday, when Gurley had perhaps the worst game of his career, and Anderson was corralled to just 2.8 yards per carry, Goff led the Rams on a 13-point comeback on the road in the NFC championship game.

Goff has improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons, and in just two years, McVay has become a top-five coach, taking home Coach of the Year honors last year, and leading his team to an NFC title in his second season.

While utilizing a heavy attack of tight-bunch formations and inside zone running plays out of the shotgun formation, the Rams have built up a high-scoring offense. On defense, the Rams have finally started to figure things out as a team, rather than a collection of talent.

So when Zuerlein’s kick sailed through the uprights in New Orleans, the Rams were going to the Super Bowl. But they knew this all along. They went all-in on this season, while still hedging for the future, and it worked out.

Tom Brady iconic shot

Brady, Patriots reach Super Bowl LIII in unlikely (yet, not surprising) story of redemption

At one point this season the Patriots were 9-5, fresh off a last-second, miracle loss in Miami, and an ugly, demoralizing 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks. The season appeared lost, as the pulse around the nation seemed to suggest that this Patriots season was different.

Five weeks (and four wins) later, New England is heading to it’s third Super Bowl in a row, and fourth in five years.

Maybe it was the bullish ‘are the Patriots done?’ takes by most of sports media. The end-is-near predictions became increasingly more abundant this season. After all, 41-year-old Tom Brady was good, but not his usual self for most of the regular season, that was apparent. But come January, the Patriots have turned on the jets, 2007/2011 New York Giants-style, feeding on more ‘talented’ squads like the Chargers and Chiefs, bursting out to a combined 42-7 lead in the first halves of each game. But unlike their blowout win over Phillip Rivers and company, New England’s bout with soon-to-be MVP Patrick Mahomes turned into the greatest conference championship game in NFL history.

There were six lead changes (including ties) in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. To outlast Mahomes and his three second half touchdowns, Brady led three consecutive touchdown treks of his own to close out the game.

His stats during those drives: 11-of-16, 147 yards, 5-for-5 in third down conversion attempts.

In Brady’s remarkable career, one could argue that was his third most clutch moment, behind his last two Super Bowl victories.

For a quarterback who admittedly looked more skittish than usual in the pocket at times this season, Brady was fearless in the face of the league-leading team in sacks. TB12 converted on three consecutive 3rd-and-10’s on the final drive in overtime, finding’s Julian Edelman twice and Rob Gronkowski once.

Brady to Gronk vs Chiefs
Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski on a clutch 3rd-and-10 conversion in overtime (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Both Edelman and Gronk fended off possible season-ending drops-turned-interceptions in the fourth quarter, to return with a collection of clutch catches that rival, well, maybe no other duo of pass catchers ever. Everytime Brady dropped back on a big-time down late in the game, one of his trusted confidants pulled in a catch in blanked coverage. At one point, Gronk’s career looked as if it would end in an Alshon Jeffrey-like whiff to end the Patriots season. Instead, a Dee Ford offside penalty on the Chiefs gave New England new life. Gronk hauled in a sideline catch right over Eric Berry on the very next play. Redemption beamed from these two.

But Brady’s season-long redemption began as soon as his Super Bowl LII hail mary attempt hit the turf, last February in Minnesota. The Patriots lost Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder and Danny Amendola on an offense that seemingly needed them throughout the season.

But as they always do, the Patriots adapted. The plug-in-and-play method lives on. Trent Brown filled in for Solder. Rookie rusher Sony Michel has one-upped Lewis as a lead back. And despite not fully making up for the production of Cooks and Amendola, Brady has gotten enough out of do-everything athlete Cordarrelle Patterson and reserve-turned-WR3 Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in a massive jump ball score at the end of the first half.

On defense, the team has heavily relied on one player at each level, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Stephon Gilmore, to elevate themselves as star players at different times. Flowers was solid on Sunday. Van Noy was a star on Sunday. Gilmore has been a star all season, as he’s become the premier lockdown, No. 1 cornerback in football.

But one of the major stories of the offense has been the underrated offensive line and James Develin. Behind those two forces (and Gronk and Dwayne Allen) the Patriots have been solid virtually all season in pass protection and in opening up rushing lanes. During this postseason run, Michel has garnered 242 rushing yards and five touchdowns, with the Patriots gaining 331 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns total over their two-game stretch. That’s an insane amount. Piggybacking off run-heavy formations in December wins over the Bills and Jets to close out the regular season, New England carried that game plan into January, but as we saw, they were’t going to hold onto a victory against the feisty Mahomes. Brady was needed to ‘take’ the win. And that he did.

Echoed in his quick postgame chat with CBS, and in raw footage of him in the locker room, Brady’s feelings about this game (and this season) were clear.

“Un-fucking-believable bro!” Brady told, well, everyone.

New England is back in the Super Bowl to face the Rams of Los Angeles. 17 years ago, a 24-year-old Brady bested the Rams for his first Super Bowl win. Now, he gets one more shot at his sixth. The Michael Jordan of football looks to become perhaps the greatest athlete in the history of North American professional sports.

This was no ‘underdog’ story. But admit it, this was their most surprising run to pro football’s biggest game since 2001.

Adversity was met head on. People will be angry, America is sick of the Patriots. But Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots aren’t yet sick of playing in Super Bowls.

 

Marshon Lattimore INT

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Fitting Final Four is set

As soon as Nick Foles’ pass slipped through Alshon Jeffrey’s fingers and into Marshon Lattimore’s hands, the storyline of Conference Championship weekend was revealed. This is the group the league deserves.

The stage is set.

The four very best teams in football in the NFL’s version of the Final Four. Not the most talented teams, per say — although, the Saints and Rams may be just that, but the best. The Patriots and Chiefs are incomplete squads with lesser defenses. But New England holds Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the greatest player and coach in the history of the sport. Kansas City has the league’s soon-to-be-named NFL MVP in Patrick Mahomes, and its greatest offensive innovator in Andy Reid (not yet, Sean McVay).

There were hotter teams down the stretch. But they were eviscerated by this group over the weekend. The Colts, Cowboys and Chargers stood no chance on the road in Kansas City, Los Angeles and New England.

The Chargers were 9-0 outside California before they quickly fell behind 38-7 to the Patriots in the third quarter, before eventually falling to the two-time defending AFC champs, 41-28.

 

Sony Michel vs Chargers
Sony Michel ran wild versus the Chargers on Sunday. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

The aforementioned Brady was phenomenal — 34-for-44, 343 yards, touchdown. But this game was as much about Sony Michel (24 carries, 128 rushing yards, three touchdowns) and New England’s power-running game behind the blocking of a sturdy offensive line, James Develin, and Rob Gronkowski as it was the greatest quarterback ever. New England scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, and even the defense looked spry and competent in rushing Philip Rivers all day. It was clear that New England fed off the debate show-spewing notions that they were finished. And that showed in Brady’s postgame comments alluding to their matchup with Kansas City next Sunday.

“I know everyone thinks we suck and you know can’t win any games,” Brady told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson. “So we’ll see. It’ll be fun.”

The Rams and Chiefs had been doubted, too. In fact, both teams ranked 31st (Chiefs) and 32nd (Rams) in yards per carry allowed this season. But the Rams held the NFL’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, to just 2.3 yards per carry (20 carries, 47 yards) while supplying a power-running game with late-season addition C.J. Anderson (and Todd Gurley) to rush for 273 yards versus a seemingly-stout Cowboys defense.

Kansas City completely shut down the Colts, who were supposedly a more complete team. The pass-rushing trio of Chris Jones, Dee Ford and veteran Justin Houston emerged, questioning whether or not this unit is as much of a liability as it once was.

Michael Thomas vs Eagles
Michael Thomas dominated versus the Eagles’ decimated secondary. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Then there were the Saints. New Orleans is arguably the favorite of the four remaining teams, yet they had to fight back from an early 14-0 deficit to win at home. But the Saints drew the defending Super Bowl champions. In a 20-14 Saints victory, the Eagles were the only loser of the weekend to put up a fight. But New Orleans rallied behind a fake-punt rush by Taysom Hill and the fabulous connection of Drew Brees to Michael Thomas. The two combined for 12 catches, 171 yards and a score on 16 targets, which includes an interception on Brees’ first pass attempt of the game. But New Orleans rallied, setting up what we now have.

So here we have it: Patriots at Chiefs and Rams at Saints. Two regular season rematches from outstanding games decided in the final minutes.

Four great coaches in Belichick, Reid, McVay and Sean Payton. Four great quarterbacks. Two young-guns in Mahomes (age 23) and Goff (24). And two surefire Hall-of-Famers in Brady (41) and Brees (40).

Three often-criticized defenses (the Saints unit is formidable) that improved in their first postseason game.

Four great teams. Four deserving teams.

Who ever reaches (and wins) Super Bowl LIII will have undoubtedly earned it.

These are the teams that should be here. Buckle up for a wild, destined finish.

Next Sunday’s mini-preview

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints (Fox, Sunday 3:05pm ET)

The Rams had to claw themselves back into their first contest with New Orleans back in November. This game, too, will be played in the Superdome, giving the Saints an immense advantage. Alvin Kamara (116 total yards, three touchdowns) was unstoppable in that matchup, but the Rams seemed to have improved in stopping running backs. At least on Saturday. Stopping Ezekiel Elliott was no easy task, and the Rams were up for it. The Saints will try to score at will, and early, which is exactly what they did in the 45-35 victory in the regular season. Drew Brees knows there isn’t much time left for him to get a second Super Bowl ring. This is his best shot. The Saints are 6-0 at home in the postseason with Brees and Sean Payton.

Early prediction: Saints 31, Rams 21

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs (CBS, Sunday 6:40pm ET)

The Patriots had a tale of two halves versus Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in their 43-40 thrilling win back in October. In the first half, the team played an ‘amoeba’ type defense by standing up everybody on the line, and disguising zone coverage and blitzes enough to confuse Mahomes into some early mistakes. But as told by the aforementioned final score, the young phenom figured it out, blazing past the Patriots defense in the second half. But the Chiefs have gashed New England in recent matchups with Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill. Hunt is now out, leaving Damien Williams to take his place. If Williams can mimic 70 percent of what Hunt does, the Chiefs likely win. That’s also with their defense playing as it did last week. Like the Rams, no none knows if they will fare better against running backs for a second straight week. The pass rush with Dee Ford, Chris Jones and Justin Houston should be there, but can the Chiefs stop the Patriots’ power-running attack with rookie rusher Sony Michel. New England likely needs long scoring drives and two turnovers to win. Brady will likely have to spread it out at times, as Kansas City should overcompentsate for the run if they are having issues. That is where Brady will look for Julian Edelman, James White and even Rob Gronkowski, who had a pair of big catches versus the Chiefs in their past meeting pre-Halloween. Do the Patriots have enough to win their first road playoff game since 2007?

Early prediction: Chiefs 34, Patriots 30

Nick Foles to Golden Tate

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Foles delivers again + an early look at the Divisional Round

The weekend’s best game, Eagles-Bears, ended on a heartbreaking note, with Cody Parkey’s game-winning field goal attempt bouncing off two crossbars, en route to falling on the floor, effectively giving Philadelphia a 16-15 win.

The kick is what most will remember, but the game was won on the previous drive.

With a raucos crowd of Bears fans filling the air in Chicago’s Soldier Field, Nick Foles did what he’s consistently done since last season. Come through in the clutch.

Dart after dart into the middle of the Bears’ vaunted defense. Precise pocket movement of that of Tom Brady. Foles added to his legend by employing all that, along with an old-school Eli Manning-like Rainman forgetfulness of his early mistakes.

But with all the talk of Brady or Eli or other great clutch quarterbacks, it’s Foles who has been the best with the game on the line since Super Bowl LII, where he took home the game’s Most Valuable Player award.

Foles deserves is own moniker. In fact he has one. Some call him St. Nick. Recently, others have given him a different moniker, Big Dick Nick. And not to sound vulgar, but it takes massive melons (or cajones, if you prefer) to attempt (and complete) the types of throws that Foles has delivered in pro football’s biggest stages.

Overcoming two interceptions, Foles went 15-for-24 with 153 yards and two touchdowns passes in the second half.

His best throws on the final drive were a down-to-the-goal line 3rd-and-9 slant to former Bear Alshon Jeffrey, and the fourth-and-goal winning score to newcomer Golden Tate in the right flats.

Tate, a midseason acquisition gone awry, hadn’t delivered until his big day on Sunday, with Foles looking his way on various crucial moments.

“We said, once we get in, now you got to deal with us,” Tate said in a video message to the NFL after the game.

The defending Super Bowl champions now visit New Orleans, home of the team that many believe will win pro football’s greatest prize this season.

The Saints wiped the floor with the Eagles at home, 48-7, in November. But that was with Carson Wentz at the helm.

With Foles, the Eagles are a rejuvenated offense and team. The defense is back to playing at a championship-level, as the pass rush has returned to its glory, and the secondary has played with confidence, despite the team losing it’s top two cornerbacks for the season due to injury.

After a 6-7 start, and another injury to their ‘star’ quarterback, the Eagles savior has come in the same form in which he arrived last season. Four straight wins, and another masterful postseason performance later, Foles and the underdog Eagles are back.

Care to bet against them?

Looking Ahead…Divisional Weekend

Colts at Chiefs (NBC, Saturday, 4:35 PM ET)

The Colts look like a dangerous team that can beat anyone after their drubbing of the Texans in Houston. But beating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium presents a different challenge. Winners of 10 of their last 11 games after a 1-5 start, Indianapolis’ much-improved defense will look to stymie the likely NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes.

The Colts are a more complete team than the Chiefs. But Kansas City has an improving pass rush, bolstered by the return of Justin Houston, and the great season by Chris Jones. But the Chiefs still struggle to stop the run, and Marlon Mack has run wild these past few months for Indianapolis.

It should be relatively high-scoring contest between Andrew Luck and Mahomes

Gut feeling: Chiefs 31, Colts 24

Cowboys at Rams (FOX, Saturday, 8:15 PM ET)

The Rams don’t posses that much of a home-field advantage, but Los Angeles likes them more than the Chargers. The Coliseum has gotten up for a few games this season, and this will be one of them. There will undoubtedly be a bunch of Dallas fans as well, as they’ll be supporting the underdog Cowboys.

To win, Dallas will likely need to pound the rock with Ezekiel Elliott over 30 times to attack the Rams’ questionable run defense, while keeping Sean McVay’s offense off the field. Of course, the Rams haven’t looked as sharp after Thanksgiving. Jared Goff had a tumultuous end to the season, and the offense certainly isn’t the same without trusty slot receiver Cooper Kupp.

Dallas has a top-tier defense, as well as the running game to upset the Rams in LA. The Rams have a slew of defensive playmakers that should make life difficult for Dak Prescott. All it takes is a turnover forced by someone like Aaron Donald to change the game completely.

The Cowboys have the team and proposed blueprint to pul off the upset. But the Rams should play well enough to garner their first postseason victory of the McVay-Goff era.

Gut feeling: Rams 24, Cowboys 23

Chargers at Patriots (CBS, Sunday, 1:05 PM ET)

The Patriots draw the toughest matchup of any first-round bye team in this one.

New England has won 15 straight games at home dating back October 2017. And Tom Brady is 7-0 versus Phillip Rivers. But the Chargers are 8-1 on the road, and 9-0 outside California. Something has to give.

This is the best chance Rivers may ever get to beat Brady. The Chargers have the superior team. They’e the most talented club in the AFC. Their key to victory relies on a big day from Melvin Gordon, and the pass-rush duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram getting to Tom Brady early and often.

Brady will look to work with his running backs in the passing game to combat the Chargers’ pass rush. Look for James White and Rex Burkhead to have big games. Without Josh Gordon, and Rob Gronkowski showing his age, Brady will stay away from outside-the-numbers throws versus Casey Hayward and others. He will look inside and shallow to Julian Edelman. The Chargers may opt to use do-it-all defender Derwin James as a rover in the middle of the field to take help take away both Edelman and Gronkowski.

Although many will pick the Chargers, and it does indeed feel like their time, Brady always seems to best Rivers. Bill Belichick will outcoach Anthony Lynn as well, as New England moves on to its eighth straight AFC Championship Game.

Gut feeling: Patriots 26, Chargers 17

Eagles at Saints (FOX, Sunday, 4:40 PM ET)

The Eagles were mentioned heavily in the lead to this column so we’ll focus on the Saints here.

New Orleans won’t glide to a victory this time around. They’ll have to shake off the rust and rely on their Big three (Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas) to generate points early. The underdog Eagles relish close games in which they are doubted. Leaving them hanging around can be a death sentence. But the Saints are lethal at home, and should prevail here. But if anyone is up to the task of downing the Super Bowl favorites in their home stadium, it’s the Eagles. This one is a toss-up. But I have a hunch.

Gut feeling: Saints 27, Eagles 24

Patrick Mahomes MVP

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Mahomes locks up MVP + season awards

As the seasons change or as life moves on, the NFL’s best players come and go.

In Kansas City, the Chiefs found a 23-year-old phenom gunslinger in Patrick Mahomes. And on Saturday, February 2nd in Atlanta, Mahomes will (and should) be awarded this season’s NFL MVP award.

No, I don’t have one of the 50 votes for the AP award…yet. But if I did, I’d vote for the young quarterback who gave us a season’s worth of jaw-dropping highlight throws, all while leading his team to the AFC’s No. 1 seed and producing this stat line:

5,097 passing yards

50 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

113.8 passer rating

66.8 completion percentage

8.79 yards per attempt

While the Chiefs struggled to compensate for one of the league’s worst defenses, and the defection of running back Kareem Hunt over a domestic dispute, Mahomes led the Chiefs to a 12-4 mark, and produced scores of 40, 51, 28 and 31 in the team’s defeats.

In Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs have one of the most unique offensive weapons in the history of pro football, but it’s Mahomes that perfectly utilizes his world-class speed. Brought up through the sport of baseball, Mahomes has the best arm in the league. He can throw nearly 80 yards effortlessly, and his no-look and side-arm zingers resemble that of Derek Jeter making a cross-bodied throw to first base.

Add in top-tier tight end Travis Kelce, and a litany of mid-level talent in Sammy Watkins and others, and Mahomes does have the tools to succeed. He isn’t making something out of nothing. But Drew Brees (his biggest competitor for this award) has a top-five receiver in Michael Thomas, and the league’s best one-two punch at running back in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

At one point, Brees stole the award in my eyes, but quickly surrendered it during a three-game slump that began with a 13-10 loss to the Cowboys in Dallas. That game saw Brees throw a game-ending interception in crunch time, that cost the Saints the game. Although Mahomes has a game-ending pick of his own in a 54-51 loss to the Rams, he showed his talent by matching one of team’s most explosive offenses score for score. That’s just as he did in a 43-40 loss to the Patriots, the NFL’s model franchise, in primetime.

Mahomes is the perfect compliment to the forward-thinking Andy Reid at coach. And as a dual-threat player at the game’s most important position, Mahomes shouldn’t be compared to players such as Cam Newton, a fine quarterback in his own right that hasn’t been able to replicate his 2015 MVP campaign.

Mahomes may not post historic numbers like this again. This will likely be his best season statistically, by pure volume. But he will be a top-five quarterback for years to come. He won’t fall back like Newton, or possibly how Carson Wentz may be doing after a successful 2017 season. He’s the real deal at the most important position in sports.

After sitting for a year behind Alex Smith, Andy Reid chose to ride with Mahomes, and the results that he envisioned with his young passer have materialized on the field. Mahomes has compensated for the loss of one of his most dynamic weapons and and a lousy defense that has failed him in the team’s biggest games of the year. Despite the anchors weighing him down, the Chiefs have home-field advantage in their conference, and are the AFC’s favorite to reach Super Bowl LIII.

That spells MVP. Well, that and the fact that he has 15 more touchdown passes and memorable moments than anyone else this season.

The rest…..season awards

Coach of the Year — Pete Carroll 

Bears head coach Matt Nagy has been impressive as a first-year coach leading a talented bunch to the NFC North title. But Carroll’s team was left for dead after an 0-2 start and the loss of Earl Thomas, among others this offseason. The fact that they made the postseason is incredible. They are the Patriots of the NFC. They didn’t need a full re-build, they just re-tooled on the fly. That’s easier to do with a coach like Carroll.

Offensive Player of the Year — Patrick Mahomes

Not much else to say here…

Defensive Player of the Year — Aaron Donald

Khalil Mack was a lock to win this award around midseason. He transformed the Bears into a Super Bowl contender. But Donald’s 20.5 sacks from the interior are otherworldly. He’s the best player in football, at any position.

Offensive Player of the Year — Baker Mayfield

I’d love to go with Saquon Barkley here, but Mayfield completely transformed the NFL’s sad sack franchise into an instant contender. Look out in 2019.

Defensive Player of the Year — Derwin James

Others such as Darius Leonard, Leighton Vander Esch and Bradley Chubb have played well enough to win this award, but James is the perfect specimen to stop modern-day NFL offenses. He’s virtually positionless, short of like Kevin Durant in the NBA.

Comeback Player of the Year — Andrew Luck 

J.J. Watt was outstanding this year. He’s back to being a top-10 player. But Luck rallied the Colts from a 1-5 start to a 10-6 mark and a playoff berth. The Colts have a renewed sense of hope. They will be a contender in the AFC in the early part of the 2020’s, and that’s mostly on Luck, who is a borderline top-five quarterback again.

Michael Thomas TD vs Steelers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Saints outlast Steelers, Foles’ magic returns

Shortly after Michael Thomas’ game-winning touchdown catch was awarded, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster rewarded the Saints with a game-ending fumble, that may be season-ending for the Steelers.

But the Saints deserved this game. They took it by fending off a talented Pittsburgh team playing for their life. Behind their juggernaut of an offensive trio, New Orleans (13-2) clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed, and are back to putting the league on notice. They are the best team.

Drew Brees (326 yards, one touchdown), Alvin Kamara (105 total yards, two touchdowns) and the aforementioned Thomas (11 catches, 109 yards, one score) imposed their will on Pittsburgh, a defense that had help Tom Brady and the Patriots to just 10 points last week, to keep their season alive.

But the Saints yield the NFL’s most lethal offense. With Kareem Hunt absent from the explosive Chiefs, and the Rams enjoying a winter swoon, New Orleans now holds the title of ‘offense you’d least like to face,’ and that unit will play at home for the remainder of their season, save for Super Bowl LIII.

The Steelers (9-6-1) were tough, rallying from a 24-14 deficit to take a 28-24 lead. They blocked a Saints field goal attempt in the fourth quarter and even converted on a 4th-and-15 on the game’s final drive, when Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown along the sideline for a clutch connection. But Pittsburgh now needs help via a Browns win over the Ravens in Week 17, to continue their season.

The Saints don’t need help from anyone, they just need to play more like this on offense, as opposed to their lallygagging endured in their last three outings versus the Cowboys, Buccaneers and Panthers. That should be easier at home, where Brees and head coach Sean Payton have never lost in the postseason.

This is their best shot at a second Super Bowl ring, and now they have three weeks to plan for an NFC Divisional matchup at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Foles keeps Eagles’ season alive, but is he better for Philly than Wentz?

Out comes Carson Wentz. Insert Nick Foles as the Eagles QB1 for a game versus the Rams in Los Angeles. Here come the Eagles, again.

After the Texans erased a 13-point deficit to take a 30-29 lead over the Eagles with just over two minutes to play, the Philadelphia crowd held their collective breath, but only for a second. They had seen this before.

The eventual result — Last season’s Super Bowl MVP (Foles) saved the Eagles’ current season by directing a game-winning drive to defeat Houston, 32-30.

Even after getting the wind knocked out of him on a clutch pass to third-and-10-converting pass to Alshon Jeffrey, Foles showed grit in returning after sitting out just one play, and eventually willing Philadelphia to a win that keeps them alive in the NFC Wild Card race.

Second-year phenom Deshaun Watson (29-for-40, 339 yards, two touchdowns) was awesome in leading the Texans from behind in the fourth quarter. But Foles (35-for-49, 471 yards, four touchdowns) was better. Philadelphia’s QB2 has now beaten the Rams and Texans, both the NFC and AFC’s No. 2 seeds (at the time), and is in the midst of making a strong case to the Eagles’ brass that he should be the team’s starter.

Carson Wentz was well on his way to winning NFL MVP last year before he went down, but that magic has yet to return in full in his Year 3 campaign. After a slow start to the 2018 season, Foles returned to the bench for Wentz, who was rushed back from injury, but the Eagles stumbled to a 6-7 record. But Foles now has the Eagles peeking out of the hole they dug, searching for a way into the NFC Playoff field (they’ll need the Vikings to lose to the Bears next week.)

But perhaps his second-consecutive December run is an audition tape for other franchises. The Eagles would have to pick up a $20 million mutual option to keep Foles in 2019, meaning this could be his last run with the franchise in Philadelphia.

“It’s emotional. I love playing in Philly. I knew there’s a chance this could be it. This city means a lot to me,” Foles said postgame. “There’s a chance it’s coming to an end. I am very grateful for every opportunity to play here.”

Teams like the Jaguars and Buccaneers will surely be looking for quarterbacks, but Foles has made a great case in Philadelphia. Although he’s not in his rookie contract, Foles is just 29 years old. But Wentz has shown his game-breaking potential in his play during the 2017 regular season. He may have 10 or 12 more seasons of that, if he ever regains his form. But what about Cam Newton’s 2015 MVP campaign? The Panthers quarterback hasn’t been close to that since. Foles has proven better than Went in big games, but it would seem silly for Philadelphia to give up on the second overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, so soon. The decision is certainly a tough one. But the Eagles front office likely doesn’t see a quarterback controversy at all. At least that’s what they’d say if they were asked.

During NBC’s Sunday Night Football game between the Chiefs and Seahawks, Al Michales and Chris Collinsworth mentioned that Foles told them he would have retired if it weren’t for Andy Reid bringing him into Kansas City in 2016. Foles won’t have an issue finding a new home in 2019, if that is indeed the case. But maybe where he plays now should be home. The next few weeks may decide that.

Quick-hits

– Two of the most exciting quarterbacks the league has ever seen dueled on Sunday night, with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks outlasting Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, 38-31. The win clinched a playoff berth for Seattle, who overcame the losses of many of their great defensive players over the years, to return to the postseason. Few saw this coming (except for me), and now the Seahawks enter the postseason as a dangerous team built on a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and coach, the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense, and a fast-improving defense.

The Chiefs should still lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC. All they have to do is beat the Raiders at home. Mahomes may still win the MVP award (I’ll make my pick between him and Drew Brees next week), but even he can’t seem to overcome the ineptitude of Kansas City’s defense, which has burned them in jus about every one of their big games this season. Will homefield advantage in the AFC be a cure-all for Andy Reid’s bunch?

– Behind a season high 275 rushing yards, and two timely interceptions of Josh Allen, the Patriots overcame an ugly effort from Tom Brady and the passing game to beat the Bills 24-12 and clinch their 10th-straight AFC East title. Additionally, with the Texans’ loss to the Eagles, New England just needs to beat the Jets (4-11) at home next week to clinch the AFC’s No. 2 seed. The Patriots don’t look right. This team is different than their usual norm. But with a first-round bye for the ninth-straight year, they can certainly do some damage in the postseason. Look out.

-Colts-Titans is the right pick for the Week 17 SNF matchup. After all of next Sunday’s early and late afternoon games are finished, two 9-6 teams will square off in what’s unofficially the first playoff game of the season. Indianapolis is the better team but Tennessee has beaten some better opponents, including a 34-10 beatdown of the Patriots, and a magical comeback win in overtime over the Eagles this past Fall. Give me Andrew Luck and the Colts whether Marcus Mariota suits up or not. The Titans are tough, but the Colts have developed a gritty identity of their own overnight, and that should culminate in overcoming a 1-5 start to the season to make the playoffs.