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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.

Kenyan Drake vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Miami miracle, Mahomes’ magic maps out AFC

At one point in two different games, the age-old December storyline was set to emerge yet again. A top AFC contender was ready to fall, while the Patriots take advantage to claim the top seed in the conference.

When New England led 33-28 with six seconds remaining, it sure looked that way. That was because Patrick Mahomes and AFC-leading Chiefs were down 24-17 and facing 4th-and-9 to keep their hopes alive at home versus the Ravens.

But the impossible happened in two different locations — Miami and Kansas City.

Ryan Tannehill found Kenny Stills, who lateraled to DeVante Parker, who lateraled to Kenyan Drake who outran the rest of the Patriots for 69-yard game-winning, hook-and-ladder score. Dolphins 34, Patriots 33.

Then Patrick Mahomes sprinted right and delivered a downfield dime on the run to Tyreek Hill. He later found Damien Williams on a score on 4th-and-3. The Chiefs rallied in overtime. Chiefs, 27, Ravens 24.

Week 14 of the 2018 season should be remembered as the slate of games that nearly-solidified the top of the order in the AFC.

The Chiefs (11-2) still need to beat the Chargers next Thursday to be ABSOLUTELY safe, but they basically have the conference’s top seed on lock. The late-game heroics by Mahomes, coupled with the somewhat-sour play from Drew Brees as of late gives the Chiefs quarterback the inside track for the NFL MVP award.

The Patriots (9-4) will look to put this whacky (but mostly self-induced) loss behind them when they travel to face the Steelers next week, who are reeling after a late loss to Oakland. The way they respond from this disaster will likely shape their season.

“For it to end that way, it just doesn’t seem like that’s the end result for us, the end of the story,” Josh Gordon told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe after the game. “We know we’ve got more to prove and more to offer. Going into next week, we hope we can get it done, and I think we will.”

If the Steelers (7-5-1) don’t respond with a win, they may find themselves right out of postseason contention. They are in the midst of an epic meltdown. There is no way around it.

Not to be forgotten, the Texans’ (9-4) nine-game winning streak was snapped at home by the Colts (7-6). Indianapolis is fighting with the Ravens (7-6), Titans (7-6) and Broncos (6-7) for the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

The Titans have an inside track with their ridiculously-easy schedule. Their Week 17 game versus the Colts may serve as a de-facto playoff game for the conference’s No. 6 seed.

How will it all end up? Probably with the Chiefs and Patriots snagging the top two seeds, then meeting in Arrowhead Stadium on January 20th for a shot at playing in Super Bowl LIII. But if Sunday was any indication, that’s far from a lock.

Cooper, Cowboys are soon-to-be NFC East champs

When the Cowboys traded a first-round pick at midseason for Amari Cooper, who laughed? Who made a meme, or snarky tweet regarding the deal? It’s okay if you did, because no one would have expected the importance of that move then.

But now….it’s not ridiculous to say Cooper-to-the-Cowboys is the biggest midseason acquisiton in the history of the NFL.

Skeptical of that take? Look no further than his performance in the de-facto 2018 NFC East championship game.

Cooper scored three different times in the fourth quarter and overtime, with each touchdown giving Dallas a late lead, the last one being a walk-off score off a deflection, in overtime. Cooper has been as clutch as he’s been good, and he’s been damn effective.

With a true No. 1 wide receiver to compliment Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys seem to have enough offense to compete with the big boys of the NFC come January. That’s all possible because of their defense, of course, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, rookie Leighton Vander Esch and others help to form one of the NFL’s best front sevens.

If the Cowboys can keep games to a lower score (by 2018’s standards) then they can do damage when the pressure is on in the fourth quarter by running with Elliott, and by throwing to Cooper, who has proven that he performs best when the lights are brightest. Here come the Cowboys.

Quick-hits

– I hate to put the Bears’ (9-4) 15-6 thumping of the Rams (11-2) in the quick-hits section, but this was such an eventful week. The win on NBC’s Sunday Night Football one-upped the Cowboys’ 13-10 win over the Saints a week and a half ago. This was December football. A stout defense in a proud, cold-weather city shutting down an offensive juggernaut of a team from Southern California. Sure, Mitchell Trubisky threw three more interceptions, but Tarik Cohen scooted around the field enough to give the Bears just enough offense to topple the Rams. Plus, a litany of sacks and four interceptions of Jared Goff surely helped — this was surely most important. If you’re the Saints or Rams, I’m not sure you want to see either the Bears or Cowboys come to town in the NFC Divisional Round.

– Speaking of the Saints, It was Taysom Hill’s blocked punt with New Orleans down 14-3 in Tampa Bay, that turned their Sunday around. After six quarters of flat football, Drew Brees found somewhat of a rhythm after Hill’s third-quarter play, rallying New Orleans to a 28-14 win over the Buccaneers. The win not only exacted revenge for a crazy Week 1 loss, but effectively ended Tampa Bay’s outside shot at an NFC wild card berth. More importantly, the Saints (11-2) regained the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but they will have to dispatch the likes of the Steelers, and the Panthers (twice) to keep their footing. It wasn’t pretty, but New Orleans is back on top of the NFC. If they truly are a Super Bowl team, they should stay there.

– What in the world happened to the Panthers (6-7)? Sadly, even with a five-game losing streak, Carolina has a shot at the NFC’s No. 6 seed, a slot that no one wants to win. The Panthers will likely address Ron Rivera and the head coaching position this offseason, but new owner David Tepper should opt to stay with Rivera next year, which would be wise. The Panthers defense is not what it used to be. They’ll need to retool. And despite a fantastic season from Christian McCaffrey, and shades of greatness from D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers still lack a playmaker or two on offense. Perhaps with McCaffrey handling duties close to the line of scrimmage, Carolina should opt for a true No. 1 wide receiver. Maybe Moore becomes that, but the Panthers could still use someone on the perimeter, even if it’s a stop-plug free agent. DeSean Jackson, who is likely to bid farewell to division rival Tampa Bay, comes to mind. Whatever it is, the Panthers are in for a long offseason, where they’ll assess what went wrong, all under a brand-new owner. Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Tepper.

 

Phillip Rivers vs Steelers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Chargers’ thrilling comeback + Patriots edge Vikings

It was over and it was expected. At least that’s what we all thought when the Chargers trailed 23-7 at halftime in Pittsburgh. They had laid another egg in a big game on national television.

Instead, Phillip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Justin Jackson and others helped to rally the Chargers to a 33-30 win that came about without Melvin Gordon, one of the league’s most outstanding running backs.

Facing a 3rd-and-4 with the game tied with just over a minute to play, Rivers found Allen on an out route working against man coverage (against a linebacker — yikes) in the slot. Allen is the league’s best receiver out of the slot, and that includes other high-profile guys who spend a lot of time positioned there, such as the Saints’ Michael Thomas. Allen hauled in 14 catches for 148 yards and a whacky score, all while keeping the pace with the league’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, who also had a good night — 10 catches, 154 yards, one touchdown.

“I could feel it in the locker room,” Allen told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. “We built this off the end of the season last year. Now, this year we’re just rolling.”

The Chargers are rolling because they have the AFC’s most talented team, from top to bottom. With Joey Bosa back and healthy, the combination of him and Melvin Ingram gives Los Angeles a nasty pass rush. After being stifled by the Steelers offensive line for much of the night, the duo came alive in the second half. On offense, Rivers has been spectacular all year. A dark-horse MVP candidate that would get more love if it weren’t for the ridiculous seasons being put forth by Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees.

The win was Rivers’ 7th career comeback win after trailing by at least 16 points, which ties Peyton Manning for the most all-time by a quarterback. And it was arguably the biggest regular season win of his career. If not, certainly in recent memory.

The Chargers (9-3) now have an outside shot at the AFC West — the Chiefs (10-2) would hold the tiebreaker even if the Chargers beat them in two weeks — and certainly have all but locked up the conference’s No. 5 seed.

Certainly, this Chargers team is different. They have talent and guts. And because of that, there’s a new team to monitor in the AFC.

Patriots handle Vikings, move toward first-round bye

Here they come. Just like clockwork. This is one of the more flawed Patriots  teams in years, right? That may be so but it didn’t show on the field in New England’s 24-10 throttling of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

In surprising fashion, the Patriots (9-3) defense actually outplayed Tom Brady and the offense, holding the talented Vikings offense to 278 total yards and forcing 2 turnovers.

Trey Flowers, playing on a contract year, is showing why he’s one of the best edge defenders in football, while Dont’a Hightower and Jason McCourty, two players on the backend of their careers, turned in vintage performances.

Speaking of vintage, when the Patriots hopped out of I-formation, Brady was sharp throughout, which should put any “Brady is done” talk to rest.

The Patriots are getting healthy at the right time, as exemplified by Rex Burkhead, who looked spry in his return. With the trio of Burkhead, James White and Sony Michel complimenting No. 1 wide reciever Josh Gordon, some of the pressure comes off the older, usually more reliable trio of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. All three are still among Brady’s favorite, and will come through when called upon, but their very best years are over. That’s okay. Brady, and the Patriots, will make due.

With Kareem Hunt’s gone in Kansas City, the Chiefs (10-2) may now be vulnerable in an area other than just their sour defense and January bad luck. Meaning Bill Belichick’s bunch has a real shot at home field advantage throughout the AFC, if they are to win out.

Other top-end organizations in the Seahawks (7-5) and Ravens (7-5) are already out the gate in December with impressive wins of their own. But it’s the Patriots leading the pack in that category once more. This is what they do best — playing at the top of their game from December and on. Their annual march has begun.

Quick-hits

– It’s clear, the Bears need Mitchell Trubisky back. Although wild and inconsistent through the air, Chicago canon survive Chase Daniel. As it stands they were lucky to do so on Thanksgiving, squeezing by on a poor pick-six in the fourth quarter by Matthew Stafford then. They needed an onside kick and a touchdown pass from running back Tarik Cohen to force overtime this week. Once they got to the extra period, Daniel couldn’t get the Bears downfield. They’re basically looking at the NFC’s No. 3 seed at this point, and that’s if they win the NFC North. They should. But they need their quarterback.

– The Texans may be for real. Maybe. With nine straight wins versus lower-end competition, it would be easy to question their greatness. But that’s just it — NINE STRAIGHT WINS. When you win that often against lower competition, it usually means you’re in a higher class. That’s the Texans. They’re in good position to be one of the AFC’s top two seeds. They’ll most likely be a No. 3 seed. After the Steelers’ loss, they have that just about locked up.

– As briefly mentioned in the Patriots-Vikings section, here come the Seahawks and Ravens. Two 7-5 squads that have a penchant for good coaching and solid football in December and on. The Ravens mystique has taken a hit in that category because of their Week 17 loss to the Bengals, and the fact that they haven’t made the postseason since 2014. But behind rookie Lamar Jackson, Baltimore has won three straight to jump back into the wild card race in the AFC. They travel to Kansas City next Sunday. The Seahawks have been consistently good for just about the entirety of the Russell Wilson era (since 2012). Wilson is proving to be a top-five quarterback at the very least this season, working with a team that was gutted this offseason. Seattle is heading in the right direction between Wilson and Pete Carroll, who is still clearly a top-five coach. Baltimore and Seattle. Two tough football teams that look poised for the playoffs. Any division winners eager to see them come to town in January? I wouldn’t think so.

NFL MVP Race

1. Patrick Mahomes — The Saints’ loss in Dallas, coupled with Mahomes’ prolific performance in his first game without Kareem Hunt, vault Mahomes to the top spot for now. But it’s a close race. He’ll likely have to retain the AFC’s No. 1 seed to win the award.

2. Drew Brees — Brees’ subpar performance in Dallas featured a game-ending interception with a chance to drive down and tie/win the game. The loss also temporarily knocked the Saints back to the No. 2 seed. It’s the closest race in years, but he goes here for now, just barely.

3. Jared Goff — The conductor of Sean McVay’s mastermind offense.

4. Aaron Donald — It’s tempting to put Donald over Goff but quarterbacks are too valuable in today’s NFL. That being said Donald is the BEST player in football right now. Yes, even better than quarterbacks such as Mahomes and Brees.

5. Phillip Rivers — As discussed earlier in this column, Rivers is the dark-horse candidate. He’s been incredible this season. If the Chargers somehow steal the AFC West, he’ll have a real shot at this award.

Honorable mention: Russell Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Khalil Mack, Andrew Luck, Tyreek Hill

Jourdan Lewis INT vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness (Friday Edition): Cowboys halt Saints + Patriots begin season-defining stretch

With shades of 2009 pulled into force, the Cowboys ended the Saints’ 10-game winning streak via a 13-10 upset at home, vaulting them further along in the race for the NFC East crown, and solidifying them as a team to monitor in the NFC.

The Cowboys led the Saints 13-0 before a Brett Maher field goal finally put New Orleans on the board with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Saints rallied to cut the lead to 13-10 before Drew Brees threw a costly interception to Jourdan Lewis with 2:08 remaining, leading to a key Cowboys win.

To hold an offense as hot as the Saints (37.2 points per game entering Thursday) to zero points — and limit Drew Brees to 127 passing yards total — through the game’s first 35 minutes is absurd. Dallas’ defense has turned into one of the league’s best units, and at just the right time.

On offense, Dallas controlled the clock behind the Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher. And they produced through the air when needed behind Dak Prescott and No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper, this year’s best midseason acquisition. But overall it was a lukewarm performance for a unit that will need more consistency if it plans to make a serious run in January.

Prescott missed Michael Gallup on a wide-open pump-and-go attempt that would have iced the game. Later on the drive, the Cowboys quarterback fumbled the ball back to the Saints before Lewis’ interception two plays later. But Dak was sharp otherwise, going connecting on 24 of his 28 pass attempts, while throwing for an early score to Elliott on a 16-yard screen pass.

The Cowboys host the Eagles next week. A win would likely cripple the defending Super Bowl champs and nearly clinch the NFC East for Dallas, before they’d travel to the Indianapolis to face the red-hot Colts, who are serving as the AFC’s version of the Cowboys, to a degree.

The Saints will get back on the horse and attempt to close out a tough schedule by winning out, and hoping the Rams (10-1) drop a game to ensure New Orleans takes back the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

The Saints are still the best team in football, but with just 10 points in Dallas, the lack of offensive weapons beyond Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were notable for the first time all season. And because of that, the Rams remain the most talented team in football.

It’ll be interesting to look back in January or February to see if this loss was merely a speed bump for the Saints or the start of something more sinister for their season.

All we know today is that the Cowboys are in the midst of a late-season push that no one expected from them a month ago.

Are Patriots poised for another patented late-season run?

As the Patriots reach the homestretch of what’s been more of a topsy turvy season than usual, the next three games may very well define their season.

With upcoming games against the Vikings, Dolphins and Steelers, New England is entering a phase all too familiar to veterans of the team, who are hoping to inspire newcomers to carry the load in December.

Among the veterans who are used to this run are Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, as the latter will need to stay healthy for the Patriots to have any shot at a championship run. Even though he doesn’t dominate quite as consistently as he used to, Gronk still consistently draws double coverage, opening things up for Brady’s other options.

Rob Gronkowski vs Texans
Rob Gronkowski prepares for a catch versus the Texans’ double coverage. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Among the newcomers with important roles in the Patriots’ impending success are No. 1 wide receiver Josh Gordon, and rookie running back Sony Michel. With an aging Edelman and Gronkowski, Michel and Gordon (along with James White) have become focal points of the team’s current offense.

Up next are the talented Vikings, who may look to slow down Gordon with Xavier Rhodes (if he plays through an injury) and Gronkowski with Harrison Smith, meaning the young running back core of Michel and White may be asked to anchor the load on offense.

In Miami the Patriots will look to improve in one of their few house of horrors, to grab a win and most clinch the AFC East.

Then there’s the game in Pittsburgh, which may be the ultimate decider for the AFC’s No. 2 seed if the Texans to slip up. New England is all too familiar with this slate, seeing as they faced road games back-to-back in the same weeks on the schedule last year, losing to the Dolphins on a Monday Night contest before winning a thriller in Pittsburgh on a last-second goal line interception by Duron Harmon.

Despite having the Steelers number, Pittsburgh has the parts to derail New England’s defense, starting with their one-two punch at wide receiver with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

To have any chance at the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the Patriots will likely have to win out. Their toughest stretch of the season awaits. It’s gut-check time, which is a sports moment all too familiar this time of year in the Northeast pocket of the United States.

Russell Wilson vs Panthers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Seahawks defying odds + AFC playoff race

After six eventful seasons that defined the ‘Legion of Boom’ era, the 2018 Seahawks were supposed to be planning for the future. The playoffs wouldn’t be realistic. Not with the losses of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and others this offseason. This was a bridge year in which they would look to re-tool for 2018 and beyond. Right?

Wrong.

After a clutch 30-27 win over the Panthers, Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are where they ought to be — in the postseason hunt.

In the win, Seattle broke Carolina’s 10-game home winning streak, and gave them an inside track on one of the NFC’s two wild card spots.

In a league filled with high-flying offenses, Carroll has Seattle going back to the basics, as the Seahawks boast the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense by a considerable margin.

But the team still runs through Wilson, who has more wins than any quarterback not named Tom Brady, since he came into the league in 2012.

“When the game is on the line, you either gotta want it or you’re going to fear it,” Wilson told Deion Sanders after the game.

As always, there was no fear in Wilson, one of the NFL’s best players under pressure.

The Seahawks quarterback hit two big-time throws late to best Cam Newton’s bunch — a game-tying 35-yard touchdown pass to David Moore on 4th-and-3 and a 43-yard pass to Tyler Lockett to set up Sebastian Janikowski’s game-winning field goal.

In September, an 0-2 Seahawks team looked as if the only smiles on their face would come from reminiscing about the past. Things looked gloomy for a team that plays in arguably the gloomiest city in North America.

But now, at 6-5, the Seahawks are ushering in a new era featuring a team fully built around their star quarterback. And although they still plan to re-tool for beyond this season, it’s actually the immediate future that shines bright for Seattle.

AFC playoff race heats up for winter push

With five weeks to play, and a chilly winter ahead, the AFC playoff race is heating up in ways the NFL hasn’t seen since 2012.

Then, the Broncos stole the conference’s No. 1 seed in Week 17, as the Texans dropped from the No. 1 to the No. 3 spot with a loss to the Colts then, who grabbed the No. 5 seed. The Patriots would get the No. 2 seed then after the Texans’ loss. And with all that, New England hosted the AFC Championship Game, but lost to the Ravens, who ultimately won Super Bowl XLVII as the AFC’s no. 4 seed.

Insanity, right?

Well 12 weeks into the 2018 season, the AFC is as close as ever, with just a game and a half separating the conference’s top five seeds. Here’s the playoff picture at the moment.

AFC playoff picture via NFL on CBS graphic (Twitter: @gdowning14)

Behind a career-day from Sony Michel (21 carries, 133 yards, touchdown) and a significant return performance from Rob Gronkowski (three catches, 56 yards, touchdown) the Patriots glided to a 27-13 victory over the Jets. The win was expected but still all the more important because of an unexpected pleasant surprise from one of the conference’s other contenders.

Despite out gaining the Broncos 527-308 in total yardage, Pittsburgh’s four turnovers doomed them, as the Steelers suffered 24-17 loss in Denver. The final giveaway was all too familiar- a goal line interception thrown by Ben Roethlisberger, that may ultimately cost them a higher seed in the AFC.

Looking ahead it’s the Steelers who have one of the tougher finishes, with back-to-back games versus the Patriots and Saints, as well as a Sunday night contest with the surging Chargers next week.

The Patriots should have a good shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC if they win out. The Chiefs rested up during their bye week and return with the lowly Raiders, but may lose one during a tough three-game stretch versus the Ravens, Chargers and Seahawks. That won’t be easy.

Touching back on today’s win in New York, New England may be quietly building an anti-thesis to the explosive offenses of 2018, by building  a powerful clock-killing running game that could keep offenses like the Chiefs, Steelers and Chargers and off the field. But that will be made easier in front of their home crowd. As the Patriots are 5-0 at home this season, and have never made the Super Bowl without a first-round bye.

Seeding is important. And the race for the AFC’s most top spots is closer than it’s been in many years. Get ready for a fantastic finish this next month.

Quick-hits

– Maybe it’s time to start anew in Green Bay. After their eighth straight road loss, one that put them in a position to have to win out just to have a shot at an NFC wild card spot, the Packers (4-6-1) oh so dearly need a change. Aaron Rodgers (17-for-28, 198 yards, one touchdown) wasn’t very sharp, and badly missed Davante Adams in the end zone late, with the game on the line.

Still, the Green Bay quarterback reverberated a less-aggressive (and optimistic) version of his 2016 run-the-table talk, which ultimately came to fruition. But if the Packers are to do that, they may be inclined to hold onto Mike McCarthy, the team’s coach since 2006. But it’s certainly obvious that Green Bay (and Rodgers) are ready for a change, no matter how this season ends.

– All too often put in a position like Rodgers is now, Andrew Luck has done the best he can with little help around him. Even though Indianapolis can surely add more talent around Luck this offseason (they are slated to have over $100 million in salary cap — a league-high) the Colts have made due, winning their fifth game in a row. This one, a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback to dispatch the Dolphins (5-6) featured Luck’s 10th and 11th touchdown pass to Eric Ebron, a former first-round pick with the Lions, who has teamed up with Indianspolis’ franchise player to form one of the league’s best quarterback-receiver (tight end) duos.  The Colts (6-5) will have to battle with teams like the Ravens (6-5), Titans (5-5) and Broncos(5-6) for the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Judging by their five-game winning streak, and the fact that the Ravens are running with rookie Lamar Jackson now, Indianapolis should be considered the favorite to land that playoff spot. This team will be great in 2019 and beyond, but they’re pretty damn good now, too.

– Well, I guess the defending Super Bowl champions aren’t exactly finished. The Eagles (5-6) avoided utter embarrassment by rallying to beat the Giants (3-8) after facing a 19-3 deficit (at home) early on. As soon as time ran out shortly after Jake Elliot’s game-winning field goal, one thing was clear, there’s still fight left in this dog.

Philadelphia will host an Alex Smith-less Washington (6-5) team next week and then will travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys (6-5), who they lost to at home earlier this season. Considering the Eagles should beat Washington, and the Cowboys host the NFL’s best team (Saints) on Thursday night, it’s likely all three clubs will be knotted at 6-6 atop the division with four games to go. Meaning the Eagles-Cowboys matchup in two weeks may be for the NFC East. The Eagles were considered toast this week, and halfway through their game on Sunday. But their season is from from over.

Gerald Everett vs Chiefs

NFL Monday Morning Madness (Tuesday Edition): Rams outlast Chiefs + NFL MVP race

They share explosive, transcendent offenses. They share prolific young quarterbacks. They’ve literally shared players (Marcus Peters, Sammy Watkins). And yes, they even used to share states (Missouri).

On Monday night the Chiefs and Rams put on a show to the fullest extent at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. With an expected litany of points scored, millions of viewers still should be wowed by the insanity that transpired in the Rams’ 54-51 victory.

Is this the beginning of a diehard Rams fanbase building up in LA?

If so, it begins with Jared Goff’s cool-as-ever game-winning drive in the final minutes — with no timeouts — to send Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs (9-2) home, with their second loss of the season.

“It felt like Texas Tech and Cal,” Goff said he told Mahomes after the game.

Mahomes was brilliant on his own, notching nearly 500 passing yards and throwing for six scores. But he had five turnovers, including two interceptions on his final two possessions, in the game’s final two minutes.

In the first game in NFL history that featured both teams scoring at least 50 points, there did happen to be seven turnovers, and three defensive touchdowns.

Aaron Donald strips Patrick Mahomes
Aaron Donald recorded two strip-sacks of Patrick Mahomes in Monday’s win over the Chiefs. (Screenshot: NFL on ESPN)

But it was the Rams (10-1) who received the biggest boost from their defense, no matter how little. Aaron Donald — the NFL’s best non-quarterback — and Samson Ebukam – two defensive touchdowns — helped separate the two squads by making their mark in three different Mahomes turnovers, with two resulting in scores.

The league has obviously been shifting to become more offensive-centric for the past few decades, but something happened in the Eagles’ 41-33 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Where is the defense? Is it even needed anymore to win a championship. The answer is yes, but only sort of. Brandon Graham’s strip sack of Tom Brady last February was virtually the only big defensive play made in the contest, and it won the Eagles the game.

The NFL sure seems like it’s ushering in a new era. For however long that lasts, Super Bowl-caliber teams have offenses such as the Rams, Chiefs and Saints — and to a lesser extent, the Steelers and Patriots.

And the team with the most consistent offense, experienced head coach and quarterback, and/or closest to average defense wins. Last season, the Eagles played their part. This season, the Saints look like a much better version of last year’s Eagles. Especially after their 48-7 drubbing of Philadelphia on Sunday. They’re the Super Bowl LIII favorite. But in Pittsburgh and New England, two teams with the potential to run rampant on offense, and mightily improve on defense, are lying in the weeds.

But for tonight, the Rams and Chiefs put on a spectacular show for the ages. Or perhaps one of the inaugural shows of a new age. Time will tell, and our first example begins in the post-Thanksgiving push to Super Bowl LIII.

NFL MVP Race

1. Drew Brees — Brees is on pace to have perhaps the most efficient season a quarterback has ever had, at age 39. Where have we heard that before? (See: Tom Brady’s 2016 season at age 39).

2. Patrick Mahomes — Consider this, the Chiefs have averaged 45.5 points per game in their two LOSSES. Nonetheless, Mahomes’ five turnovers in the loss to the Rams puts him here for now. He may be battling Todd Gurley for the Offensive Player of the Year award at this point, if Brees keeps up his pace.

3. Jared Goff — Goff passes Gurley with his extraordinary performance to lift the Rams over the Chiefs. The quarterback position is clearly more important, as Gurley had a forgettable performance in a game where the Rams scored 54 points.

4. Todd Gurley — Yes, QBs are more important. But that doesn’t mean you can’t marvel at Gurley’s incredible season. He’s the best non-QB OFFENSIVE player in football. Aaron Donald, his teammate on defense, would be the best non-QB overall.

5. Andrew Luck — The Colts have risen from the dead, winning four straight games after starting 1-5, to pull even at .500. Luck is back, and the Colts are a force to be reckoned with in 2019 and beyond. And perhaps, the rest of this season.

Honorable mention: Aaron Donald, Antonio Brown, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Ben Roethlisberger