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Jalen Hurts vs Saints

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

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

Queue, 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, it’s too early to tell.

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

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baker Mayfield and Jarvis Landry vs Titans — 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have the recipe of a solid playoff team.

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyreek Hill vs Bucs

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 12: Are Chiefs primed to repeat?

Just a few weeks ago, Sunday’s marquee matchup in Tampa Bay was seemingly a possible Super Bowl preview between the Chiefs (10-1) and Buccaneers (7-5) in the stadium that will host Super Bowl 55 in two months.

By yesterday, questions surrounded the Bucs’ ability to remain a NFC threat going forward due to inconsistency and an inability to mesh as an offense under Tom Brady.

The Chiefs have seemingly gotten more unstoppable in recent weeks, as Patrick Mahomes has most likely psuedo-clinched a MVP award that saw Russell Wilson as a clear leader just weeks ago.

Well, those trends continued on Sunday. The Chiefs were able to hang on for a 27-24 win that shouldn’t have been remotely close. Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the KC offense put on one of the finest clinics of offense the game has ever seen in the first half, while Brady and the Buccaneers’ offense floundered before they prettied up their stat lines with a late-game rally.

With so much to discuss surrounding the matchup, I decided to tackle all my thoughts from this game in bullet form. Here are my thoughts.

*******

— Patrick Mahomes may not reach 50 touchdowns like he did in 2018, but he’ll win the MVP this season by being more efficient, and essentially, better in 2020. Had the Bucs made more of a rally in the third quarter as opposed to the fourth period, Mahomes (37 of 49, 462 yards, three touchdowns) would have made a run at Norm Van Brocklin’s single-game passing record (554 yards). Who throws 49 passes and posts a 91.1 QBR? Mahomes, that’s who. Mahomes threw for 359 yards in the first half alone. Preposterous. Just hand him the MVP award now.

— Tyreek Hill — 15 targets, 13 catches, 269 receiving yard, three touchdowns — put up one of the most unstoppable wide receiver performances in NFL history on what was essentially a nationally-televised game. He had 203 receiving yards and two scores in the FIRST QUARTER alone. The Bucs had a perplexing plan for defending Hill, seemingly convincing themselves throughout the week that poor cornerback Carlton Davis could hold his own with little help. It didn’t work. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham put out a tweet suggesting Hill was the “biggest outside receiver matchup” since Randy Moss, which may be true, but Hill moves around a lot in the Chiefs’ formation, and even goes in motion quite a bit, so I’ll tackle it like this: Hill is the most unique deep threat of all-time, and my Mt. Rushmore of the league’s best deep threats to ever fly down the field includes Hill, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones, with DeSean Jackson as an honorable mention. How do you stop Mahomes to Hill?

— Looking at the landscape of the AFC, I’m not sure if anyone can stop these Chiefs from repeating. I say the AFC because of course, that’s the conference Kansas City is playing in, but also because it’s the much better conference this season. The NFC’s best team (Saints), is not sure if its quarterback (Drew Brees) can come back from a recent injury. The Saints with Brees are the only team — outside of a Buccaneers turnaround down the stretch — that has any shot versus Kansas City, and the Saints do host the Chiefs in Week 15. But teams like the Packers, Seahawks and others just don’t present enough of a challenge. That brings us back to the AFC, the better conference with better teams. This is clearly not the Ravens’ year, and they are completely inept versus KC anyhow. The Colts have a solid defense, but not one that would fare well versus extremely good units like Mahomes’ Chiefs, and even the Titans’ running game, like we saw Sunday. The Raiders have played them tough twice, but I chalk that up to divisional rivalries and minor letdowns by Kansas City. The Bills are fun, and have the talent to go toe-to-toe with anyone, but Josh Allen is way too inconsistent, the team struggles to run the ball, and their defense has been disappointing this season. That’s a recipe for disaster. So after laughing off fun, but not-ready teams — Browns, Dolphins — in the conference, that leaves us with two teams — the Steelers and Titans. I’ll explain more in the next bullett.

— If Pittsburgh can hang onto the No. 1 seed, they could be looking at a home AFC title game (even with no fans, home-field comfort and road teams’ traveling means at least something) with their stout defense and spread-you-out offense under what should be the league’s Coach of the Year (Mike Tomlin) calling the shots. The Steelers have the coaching staff, aura and talent to at least make it a game with the Chiefs, but I don’t expect their defense to drastically slow down KC’s offense. Their best bet is heavy pressure with just four rushers — T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the EDGE, Cameron Heyward up the middle — and forcing one or two Mahomes turnovers, which is plausible. The other team is the Titans, who have the recipe — running game, play-action passing game — to keep Mahomes off the field, but not the defensive personnel to make many stops they’ll need. Like Tomlin, Titans coach Mike Vrabel is also competent, and Tennessee is a team loaded with moxie. Their best bet is a somewhat-off game from Mahomes (which would still be a 25-to-30 point performance) and an unstoppable performance from Henry on the ground, with Tannehill coming through on a few big-time play-action throws. I have my doubts with Tannehill in big January games, but he’s clearly continued his mastery in 2020. There you have it, the only teams with a shot at beating Kansas City in the playoffs? Pittsburgh and Tennessee, with New Orleans and an improved Tampa Bay as outside shots in the NFC. As of now, I don’t see anyone beating the Chiefs, but we’ve seen similar seasons unfold with a defensively-minded team coming through to knock this type of team off in January. But these Chiefs are not your normal team, they’re actually unstoppable. Mahomes has yet to play a bad game in his entire career, and has only played three or four bad halves, and two were versus Bill Belichick, and another was his first half in Super Bowl 54 versus the 49ers, which didn’t stop the Chiefs from winning. The problem is, if someone does knock them off, I just can’t envision exactly how it happens. But what I explained above with Pittsburgh and Tennessee is all I can think of, but however it happens, one or two untimely Mahomes turnovers probably has to happen. I’d never bet on that happening.

— As for the Buccaneers, it’s clear their offense is not gelling like they want it to. Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich certainly deserve some blame, if not for their failure to play to Tom Brady’s strength, then just for their sheer incompetence in some game-management scenarios and with the team’s indiscipline at times. But Brady deserves some flack, as well. First off, he is older, so his play is diminishing, but only to a point. He can still play, and he picked the Bucs this offseason. Was there not some agreement between Arians and Brady about how the offense would go in the offseason? Did Brady believe he could be a bit better at 43 years old throwing an abundance of downfield throws? Is this just a hint of bad luck and bad chemistry? There are a lot of questions to be answered. It was encouraging to see the offense in the second half. Chris Godwin seems to be the receiver that Brady needs to continuing targeting if Tampa’s offense is to improve. Brady and Mike Evans have connected for 10 touchdowns this season, but Godwin’s versatility is more of a Brady-like receiver. You did see some of Brady’s New England staples — play-action, etc. — when throwing to Rob Gronkowski on Sunday. Gronk (six catches, 106 yards) had a solid game on Sunday, but there’s still something missing with Tampa’s offense. One thing I know is missing is a true pass-catching running back. Leonard Fournette and a 32-year-old LeSean McCoy clearly aren’t getting it done. Could you imagine this offense if they even had James White? Brady, especially at his age, needs a safety valve to dump the ball off for a few yards whenever Arians’ endless array of deep heaves outside the numbers are not the best decision with pass rush stampeding toward you. A pass-catching back wouldn’t completely transform this offense, but it would have helped mightily. They are missing one, bad. Also, Tampa’s defense, which looked so good for most of the season, has been dreadful these past few weeks. Tony Romo ended the CBS broadcast of the game by suggesting that what he saw in the second half from the Bucs’ offense was enough to convince him that the Chiefs and Bucs should meet again in Tampa in February. As of now, I just don’t see that happening, but the NFC is ripe for the taking, especially if Brees doesn’t return for the Saints. So I guess we can’t completely rule that out.

NFL MVP RACE

Here is my THIRD look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section I’m creating for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.

1) Patrick Mahomes — Any objections?

2) Aaron Rodgers — He’s had a few stinkers, but overall he’s been awesome in Year 2 of Matt Lafluer’s system. Their offense is barren outside of Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, yet Rodgers keeps racking up several prolific games, and has made a mini-star out of Marquez Valdez-Scantling, all while leading the league in touchdown passes (33) while throwing just four interceptions. In a Mahomes-less league, he’d be battling Russell Wilson deep into December for his possible third MVP award.

3) Russell Wilson — No, he likely won’t get his first NFL MVP award, but he may garner his first few MVP award votes.

4) Derrick Henry — After 12 weeks, Henry leads the league in rushing yards (1,257), rushing yards per game (114.3), rushing first downs (64) and rushing yards after contact (739). He’s also second in rushing touchdowns (12) and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry while rushing the football 37 more times than anyone else. Everyone expects these workhorse backs to eventually hit a wall, like they used to in the 2000s, but Henry keeps on chugging along for the 8-3 Titans. His performance on Sunday in Indianapolis — 27 carries, 178 rushing yards, three touchdowns — was also the main reason the Titans were able to exact revenge on the Colts (7-4) and shift the power in the AFC South back to Tennessee.

5) Ben Roethlisberger — His stats aren’t on par with some of the best QBs this season, but he’s been solid returning from injury, and has the Steelers sitting at 10-0 just one year after the Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t carry them past a playoff-less 9-7 season because of bad quarterback play. That means some something.

Honorable mention: Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Deshaun Watson

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-1) (Last week: 2). Yeah, they belong here. I don’t care if the Steelers are undefeated.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0) (Last week: 1). The Steelers drop to here because the Chiefs are seemingly unstoppable. That doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers are having a fantastic season.

3. New Orleans Saints (9-2) (Last week: 3). They will need Drew Brees back if they want any shot at a Super Bowl victory.

4. Tennessee Titans (8-3) (Last week: 9). Here come the Titans. They are a team built for January, but going where they want to go will depend on Ryan Tannehill’s ability to make big throws, no matter how dominant Derrick Henry is.

5. Buffalo Bills (8-3) (Last week: 5). The Bills will most likely battle the Titans for the AFC’s No. 3 seed down the stretch.

6. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 7). Any other season, Aaron Rodgers’ play would force a million columns about his career twilight in a MVP campaign, but Mahomes is drowning that out some. Rodgers has been great.

7. Seattle Seahawks (7-3) (Last week: 8). They can really pull ahead in the NFC West if they beat the Eagles tonight.

8. Indianapolis Colts (7-4) (Last week: 6). Their defense face-planted on Sunday. It happens. They’re a good, but not great team.

9. Baltimore Ravens (6-4) (Last week: 10). It’s just not their year. It’s clear to see.

10. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) (Last week: 11). The Rams lost on Sunday, but they beat the Bucs last week. This seems like a logical spot.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) (Last week: 4). Can they turn this thing around after their upcoming bye week?

12. Miami Dolphins (7-4) (Last week: 12). They’ll need to get more out of their offense going forward if they are to soundly clinch a playoff spot.

13. Cleveland Browns (8-3) (Last week: 15). We can’t call them a complete fraud because they can run the ball really well and have guys like Myles Garrett on defense, but until Baker Mayfield gets comfortable, I wouldn’t be too scared of them if I’m a team hosting them in the wild card round in January.

14. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) (Last week: NR). Here come the Vikings. I could see them clawing their way back to a playoff spot. They are a better team than the Cardinals, and are probably even better than a few teams ranked above them here in my rankings.

15. Arizona Cardinals (6-5) (Last week: 3). They are a fun team, but they really need to add to their defense this offseason. That unit is dreadful, but they do find some success with their overly-aggressive, blitzing style that they seemingly use to help mask their problems. At least they’re trying.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) (Last week: 14). That was one of the worst losses of the season by any team Sunday in Atlanta. Still, they have the offense to get back on track and push for a playoff spot, but we can cool it with any contender talk after that. They are a fun, nine-to-10 win team that is slowly improving each year, and nothing more. But hey, they are improving. Kudos to Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock.

Next up: Houston, New England, Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington

Patrick Mahomes TD pass vs Raiders

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 11: Mahomes’ mastery of KC offense is divine

Just six weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) suffered their only loss of the season, when the upstart Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) came into Arrowhead Stadium looking for trouble, winning the game 40-32 and subsequently taking a victory lap around the Chiefs’ home venue before heading to the Kansas City airport for the trip home.

A month-and-a-half later, Las Vegas used that same bravado to play the Chiefs tough once more in their home rematch with the defending Super Bowl champions. Derek Carr’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Jason Witten with 1:43 remaining in the game gave Vegas their fifth-lead of the night, 31-28.

But then, Patrick Mahomes happened.

Still, despite that fantastic lede, it wasn’t Mahomes’ vengeance that won the Chiefs their fifth straight game, it was his divine mastery of the Kansas City offense in limited time.

“I’ve got Pat Mahomes,” Andy Reid said after the game. “You give me a minute and a half and I’m pretty good right there. We can roll. I’d take him over everybody and I’m lucky to have him.”

The Chiefs are lucky indeed. Despite already garnering a 50-touchdown pass, NFL MVP season in Year 1 as a starter, and a Super Bowl MVP in Year 2, Mahomes is seemingly more efficient in Year 3, averaging 303.5 yards per game while throwing for 27 touchdown passes to just two interceptions, giving him a league-best 85.2 QBR as we enter Thanksgiving.

He’s already heaved a full highlight-tape worth of his “25 best throws” that make some of the most immaculate darts in history pale in comparison. So forgive me if I say I’m desensitized by some of his passes, because I shouldn’t be. But what stood out the most in his game-winning drive Sunday night — and what has this season — is his sheer control over the offense.

His pre-snap adjustments. The way he sees the defense both before and after the snap. He does it all with an effortless aura of confidence.

Patrick Mahomes gives off an aura of confidence of that of some of the all-time greats — Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, etc. (Screenshot: NFL on NBC)

With just one timeout and only needing a field goal, the Chiefs must have churned out plays in just a few seconds. Nine yards to Tyreek Hill there, 16-yard throw to Mecole Hardman there, a 15-yard, zone-beating, beautiful anticipation throw to Travis Kelce over the middle of the field.

“There are steps,” Mahomes said of the game-wining drive. “The first step is to try to get into field goal range. Once we got into field goal range we still had some time left. I was hoping we had a couple of shots into the end zone.”

It seemed that Mahomes processed those steps at lightning speed, and with precision.

Those three consecutive aforementioned pass completions totaled 24 seconds from the end of the first one and the end of the last mentioned. By the end of the Kelce throw it was apparent that the Chiefs were not settling for a field goal, they were winning the game outright on a touchdown drive that spanned 75 yards on seven plays in 1:15, ending with Mahomes finding Kelce for a 22-yard touchdown with 28 seconds remaining in the game to give KC a permanent 35-31 lead.

The Raiders were so frustrated and confused that there was no one around Kelce on the score. It looked like a broken play or a play in which a play-stopping flag had been called mid-play.

Nope, just Mahomes using his all-time-best passing skills with a Peyton-Manning-level of leadership and recognition pre-snap, and a Tom Brady-level of coverage reading post-snap. And if he even needed it, he can be as accurate as Drew Brees while throwing on the run or across his body. The Aaron Rodgers throws we used to gush over have now become routine and almost unworthy of game highlights if a network is indeed cutting for time.

Mahomes’ library is full of highlight-worthy plays, but it’s his consistency and wise-beyond-his-years control of the game, and the Chiefs’ offense, that is so fascinating to watch.

At just 25 years old, he’s already polished, and he’s certainly in line for his second NFL MVP award in just three season as a starter.

Next up for the Chiefs, a possible Super Bowl preview in Tampa, the place where Super Bowl 55 will be held in February. Tom Brady — the quarterback’s legendary status that Mahomes is chasing — and the Buccaneers await.

“[Mahomes] is always ready for the moment,” Kelce said.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0) (Last week: 1). The Steelers have taken care of business these last two weeks versus lesser opponents. They have a chance to sweep their bitter rival, the Ravens, on Thanksgiving night. That should be enough to keep them motivated.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) (Last week: 2). As surreal as Mahomes and the Kansas City offense is, the defense is still a cause for concern. Can they hold up their end of the bargain enough in January for Kansas City to repeat as champions? I won’t be surprised either way.

3. New Orleans Saints (8-2) (Last week: 3). The Atlanta Falcons’ defense is no good, so skeptics can continue doubting Taysom Hill as a long-term option as a starting QB, for now. But it was mighty satisfying to see him play well with all the bizarre negativity surrounding him on NFL Twitter. I figured Sean Payton’s overall game plan on offense would be a bit gimmicky to adhere to Hill’s strengths, but they treated him like a traditional QB, using normal personnel and formations, and passing concepts. Kudos to Hill. They’ll need him to continue to play well with Drew Brees out for the foreseeable future (at least the next two weeks due to injured reserve rules), so the Saints can keep their lead on the Bucs and the rest of the NFC.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 4). The Rams present a challenge for Tom Brady. If Aaron Donald and others can get consistent pressure up the middle, this could be a low-scoring affair. I have confidence in the Bucs’ defense versus Jared Goff in a cross-country, nationally-televised road game, though.

5. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: 7). Due to a number of losses by teams in this part of the rankings, the Bills move up for now. They have to be happy about the Dolphins’ loss in Denver.

6. Indianapolis Colts (7-3) (Last week: 10). It seemed like they tried to give the game away in the final minutes of regulation, but they held on. That was a pretty important, 14-point comeback win over Green Bay in overtime. They play the Titans (7-3) at home this week, just 10 days after beating them in Tennessee. If they win, they’ll virtually hold a two-game lead in the AFC South. That’s huge.

7. Green Bay Packers (7-3) (Last week: 5). The defense is not very good, which makes me think they’ll meet their demise in the NFC divisional round or title game once more.

8. Seattle Seahawks (7-3) (Last week: 12). They have the inside track in the competitive NFC West after beating Arizona at home. They’ll go as far as Russell Wilson takes them.

9. Tennessee Titans (7-3) (Last week: 13). They have their issues, but they also have guts and moxie. That was a bad-blood game that started with Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh chirping at midfield before the game. It ended with Tennessee eliminating an 11-point lead in the final minutes to force overtime before winning on a lengthy Derrick Henry touchdown scamper. We could see this matchup again in a No. 3 vs No. 6 or No. 4 vs. No 5. wild card tilt in January. I’m all for it.

10. Baltimore Ravens (6-4) (Last week: 6). They are in trouble, but a favorable schedule down the stretch (after their meeting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night) should be enough to get them into the postseason.

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-3) (Last week: 11). If the Rams are to keep pace with the Seahawks in the NFC West, they may need to pull an upset in Tampa Bay tonight.

12. Miami Dolphins (6-4) (Last week: 8). That was an ugly offensive performance in Denver. Those will happen as Tua Tagovaoila acclimates to the NFL. No biggie on that front, but the loss does hurt. But no, it’s not time to give the starting job back to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

13. Arizona Cardinals (6-4) (Last week: 9). Their defense is a mess. It seems like all they can do is blitz and pray. Sometimes it works (in their overtime win over the Seahawks weeks ago) and sometimes it does not (their loss to Seattle last Thursday).

14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) (Last week: 14). They are fun team, and deserve some credit for their gradual turnaround these past few seasons, but they’re not there yet.

15. Cleveland Browns (7-3) (Last week: 15). They aren’t very good, but they have Myles Garrett on defense and can run the ball well. That will be enough to beat some teams. Until Baker Mayfield gets going, they won’t reach the level they seek, though. Still, 7-3 is nice for them.

16. Chicago Bears (5-5) (Last week: NR). As incompetent as the Bears are on offense, they get bumped back in after three 4-5 teams (heading into Week 11) in the Patriots, Vikings and Lions suffered extremely disappointing losses to subpar teams, watching their chances to pull even to .500 with a shot at the postseason dissipate.

Next up: New England, Minnesota, Carolina, Denver, Detroit

DeAndre Hopkins Hail Mary TD

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness: 10 thoughts from Week 10

Week 10 in the NFL supplied us with a Thursday night AFC South bludgeoner, a game-winning 59-yard field goal, a slew of late afternoon games scheduled around The Masters, a Sunday night upset in a monsoon, and a game-winning hail-mary pass that will likely have major playoff seeding implications.

But we begin in Arizona, where two young, new-age quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Kyler Murray), relied on their team’s prized wide receiver acquisitions (Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins) to trade scores in the final 34 seconds of an edge-of-your-seat, 32-30 Cardinals win over the Bills.

Of course, Diggs’ touchdown was more routine, with his league-best route-running skills — and brilliant throw by Allen — leading to a late Buffalo lead.

Hopkins’ jackpot-esque jump ball snag over three defenders — accentuated by the quality of defenders, including Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, and it-writes-itself Air Jordan commercial material — was miraculous, with an improbable, on-the-run assisting throw by Murray to boot.

The look on Arizona offensive tackle D.J. Humphries above says it all. The immaculate play was the signature moment of a weekend that included an incredible capper performance by Masters champion Dustin Johnson, a heartwarming, just-short comeback effort from Alex Smith, and more.

But looking forward, Hopkins’ catch did more than just give the Cardinals a come-from-behind win.

I begin listing my 10 thoughts from Week 10 with a look at the crowded NFC West.

1.NFC West logjam makes for possible photo finish. Because of Hopkins’ catch, and the Los Angeles Rams’ home win over the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC West now features three teams (Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks) tied atop the standin gs after 10 weeks. Arizona currently holds the tiebreaker thanks to their spotless division record (2-0), but with many more intradivision games to take place, things may quickly change. Seattle (6-3) has a chance to exact revenge over Arizona (6-3) when they host the Cardinals this Thursday, and the Rams (6-3) will likely have trouble in Tampa Bay next Monday night. Both Arizona and Seattle feature a top-tier, high-flying offense and a poor defense, while the Rams are more centered in their ways as a pretty good offense that relies on their foundation, and rarely steers off course, and a defense that is solid statistically, revolving around superstars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles seems to struggle on the road in games in which defenses force them to try new things, or veer off course (see their loss to the Dolphins in Miami this season), which is a major cause for concern, and reason to doubt their chances of being a true NFC contender this season. Likewise, Arizona, although one of the most fun teams in the league, lacks the defense and overall consistency to make a three or four-game run versus good teams to make the Super Bowl. They feel like a team in the midst of a 10-win season that is heading in the right direction before reaching true contender status. That leaves the Seahawks, who live or die with Russell Wilson. That’s certainly not a bad approach, but Seattle’s defense is so far removed from the Legion-of-Boom days that it is unlikely that they’ll win a slew of consecutive 34-31-type games in January en route to a Super Bowl victory. Luckily for the Seahawks, their remaining seven-game schedule is fairly easy. Thursday’s game versus the Cardinals will give us a slightly clearer picture in the division. If Seattle wins at home, they are the likely favorite to retain their lead in the division, and win it down the stretch. But if the Cardinals sweep the Seahawks, we’re likely headed for a photo-finish between all three teams.

2. Russell Wilson slides behind Patrick Mahomes in MVP race. Sticking with the Seahawks, it was just weeks ago that Wilson was looking like a shoe-in to win his first NFL MVP award. But now, the player who has never received an MVP vote has suffered some damaging losses partly by the way of his reckless turnovers. Wilson, who still leads the league in touchdown passes (28), has thrown for seven interceptions in his last four games, and has committed 10 total turnovers in that span. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes’ 25-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio compliments the Chiefs’ somehow-quiet 8-1 start. It’s just business as usual in Kansas City, and although Mahomes does have an all-time offensive coach and the league’s best set of offensive weapons outside of Tampa Bay, it’s hard to penalize the reigning Super Bowl MVP too much when he’s playing as efficiently as is. There’s more games to play, and a NFC West title with the Seahawks’ defense as is may swing the votes back in Wilson’s favor, but after 10 weeks, he is no longer the lead dog in the MVP discussion.

3. Saints, Buccaneers are class of NFC thus far, ahead of Packers, NFC West clubs. With the NFC West fielding three good-not-great teams, and the NFC L-East (I’m sorry) as is, that leaves the Green bay Packers (7-2), New Orleans Saints (7-2) and Tampa Bay Buccaneer (7-3) as the NFC’s three best teams by record. Yes, Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, but theIR struggles versus teams such as the 2019 49ers has seemingly crossed over to this season (see: their losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay) as well as their affinity for playing down to their competition, which almost cost them versus Jacksonville (1-8) this week. They have a great young cover cornerback (Jaire Alexander) and the talented Smiths’ as a pass-rushing duo, but they struggle mightily against the run, and outside of Davante Adams, the lack of an effective No. 2 receiver — despite some big plays by Marquez Valdezs-Scantling this season — is a big issue versus better teams. With the Packers looking like the NFC’s No. 3 best team, their best bet is to earn the No. 1 overall seed over the likes of the Saints and Buccaneers, who are simply better teams. New Orleans is starting to come around with their defense playing like one of the league’s best units, and Drew Brees steadily improving. But with news of Brees now out for three or more weeks with multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung, the savvy offseason decision to bring in Jamies Winston will need to pay dividends to keep the Saints afloat. The Bucs, Jameis’ old team, and apparently New Orleans’ punching bag, are simply a hard team to predict, with their variance of play as is. Sandwiched between wins over admittedly-bad defenses in the Raiders and Panthers, Tampa Bay struggled on offense moderately versus the lowly Giants, and mightily in their 38-3, embarrassing home loss to the Saints. If you go back further, the prior two weeks before the aforementioned stretch features the lowly, “is-it-4th-down?” loss in Chicago and a 38-10 beatdown of the Packers in Green Bay. Certainly, a lack of a real preseason and truncated training camp and offseason workout plan has stunted Tampa Bay’s growth. But pretty soon, a flurry of consecutive A-plus offensive performances is coming, and it may been January. Antonio Brown looks spry and Rob Gronkowski is gaining momentum. Plus, Brady and Mike Evans seem to be building a connection, and lest we forget, Tampa Bay has a solid defense that should get back on track after back-to-back sub-par outings. For New Orleans, Brees’ injury and the fact that only one of them and Tampa Bay can win their division, gives Green Bay a leg up for the NFC’s top seed, especially with the Packers’ early-season win over the Saints. But with a No. 1 seed or not, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are clearly better teams at this point in the season. Expect one of them to be playing in Tampa in February.

4. Where do Bills, Dolphins fit in AFC? The AFC is comprised of two obvious favorites in Pittsburgh (9-0) and Kansas City (8-1) and what I think is a clear No. 3 team in Baltimore (6-3), despite the latter’s issues when playing the former two, and losing two of their key players (offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, blocking tight end Nick Boyle) for the season. After that, there’s a mishmash of six more three-loss teams in the conference, but both Buffalo (7-3) and Miami (6-3) should be viewed above the rest at this point. First off, the Browns (6-3) and Raiders (6-3) aren’t serious contenders, and glaring issues remain for the Titans (6-3, defense) and Colts (6-3, Philip Rivers’ consistency), despite the latter’s sound defense. The Bills were a Hopkins miracle catch away from reaching 8-2, but now must fend off the upstart Dolphins in the race for a vital AFC East title. Both teams have talent, but Buffalo is more succesful Run-N-Gun on offense with a disappointing defense, while the Dolphins are clearly better in two of three phases (defense, special teams) of the game. Miami head coach Brian Flores has brought a Belichickian attitude and team style to Miami, and after a rough start, his defensive principles are beginning to instill in the team. The fish have now won five straight and are 3-0 under rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa, which is a reason for confidence skyrocketing in South Florida. Although not exactly a “win-now” club, the Bills are operating with urgency while Allen is in the third year of his rookie deal, meaning he has a limited cap figure on Buffalo’s books. The Bills have the team to compete with the likes of Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but their inconsistencies may be too much to overcome, at least for a Super Bowl run. In Miami, the Dolphins appear to be a team of the future prematurely — and welcomingly — playing at a high level, like the Cardinals in the NFC. Both teams will be a tough out in January, and yes, both teams will make it. And both should be good in 2021 and beyond, even with the unpredictability of the league.

“We have a mentally tough team,” Flores told NFL.com after the game. “This is a hungry group. They fight for each other, and it’s important to them. They’re competitive, so they work at it and understand the fruits of that labor out on the field. It wasn’t perfect; we’ve got a long way to go.”

Miami’s next three games are versus the lowly Broncos (3-6), Jets (0-9) and Bengals (2-6-1), giving them a clear shot at 9-3.

“We know it’s hard to win in this league, and we just take it one game at a time,” Flores said.

5. Patriots find a rhythm in monsoon-filled win over Ravens. Just when the Patriots’ season seemed dead before thanksgiving, New England (4-5) upset Baltimore (6-3) 23-17 in a rainy contest on Sunday night. In their meeting last season, Jackson and the Ravens ran for 210 yards en route to a 37-20 home win over the then-undefeated Patriots, sending their season, and the dynasty, into a downward spiral. It appeared Bill Belichick certainly had been game planning for this rematch. Of course, the weather helped, but the Patriots were the better team, bulldozing over Baltimore’s No. 1 ranked rush defense for 173 yards on the ground (122 by Damien Harris), and limiting Jackson and the Baltimore offense to just two touchdown drives, which surrounded several other stagnant ones throughout the game. New England could still use some improvement through the air, but elevating wide receiver Jakobi Meyers to starter status has helped tremendously. The addition of Carl Davis at nose tackle also helped the run defense tremendously on Sunday. The Patriots have a good chance of reaching .500 when they play the Houston Texans (2-7) on the road next week. But even with their upset win, their AFC East chances are likely over and it seems like too much of a uphill battle to suggest they’ll earn a wild card spot, seeing as there are six 6-3 teams ahead of them in the race. It’s a lot to ask for the Patriots to finish the season winning six of seven from this point, while a few of those teams (not just one), goes 3-4 down the stretch. It’s not impossible, but tough. It is clear, however, that Belichick is not tanking, but simply playing, and trying to win, with the cards he has been dealt in 2020, all while evaluating his roster and certain players — including Cam Newton at quarterback — so he can make informed decisions regarding who will stay and who will go in the offseason, where New England will undoubtedly create a much different-looking team to put on the field in 2021.

6. What’s wrong with the Titans? After a 5-0 start, Tennessee (6-3) has lost three of four games, and has allowed 29 points per game during that stretch. Their 34-17 home loss versus Indianapolis (6-3) on Thursday puts them behind the Colts in the AFC South due to head-to-head tiebreaker. To make matters worse, he Titans have a tough three game stretch (at BAL, at IND, vs CLE) ahead, with their rematch with Indianapolis sticking out. But falling to 6-4, which is likely considering they are on the road versus Baltimore, would most likely kick them out of the playoff race all together, temporarily. There’s of course, many more games to play, and time for the Titans to right the ship. But it starts with their defense. Their pass rush is still abysmal. And though the air on offense, despite throwing for eight touchdowns and just one interception over their last four games, Ryan Tannehill has had accuracy issues, and is averaging just 190 yards per game during that stretch. Their shaky defense and Tannehill being unable to carry the Titans when they need him are Tennessee’s biggest worries, and they are seemingly biting them in the arse at the moment. For the Titans, continuing to rely on Derrick Henry in the running game to set up play-action passes (to A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith) to shorten games is the way to go, while hoping for a few lucky turnovers on defense.

7. Will the Steelers go undefeated? No, they won’t. I’ve been high on Pittsburgh since last season ended with them going 9-7 despite some of the worst QB play I’ve ever seen from Mason Rudolph and “Duck” Hodges. I picked them to make the AFC Championship Game before this season started, and I’m obviously sticking to that with them sitting at 9-0, with a meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) upcoming. Pittsburgh should move to 10-0, and may even go to 11-0 after a home rematch on Thanksgiving night with the Ravens. After that, they face lowly Washington at home before going to Buffalo to face the Bills. That’s where I believe they’ll falter, and if not then, it will come two weeks earlier to Baltimore, or even in Cincinnati, versus the team they just bludgeoned 36-10 on Sunday, on Monday Night in Week 15. It’s difficult to sustain this type of play all the way through December without having a reset both mentally and physically for the playoffs. Should they shoot for the undefeated season? Absolutely. We saw the eventual karma given out by the football gods to the 2009 Colts (Tracy Porter pick six off Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 44) after they rested starters halfway through a game that would have brought them to 15-0. But late in the season, these losses just, happen, to undefeated teams. The 2011 Packers were 13-0 before falling to Romeo Crennel’s defensive game plan lifted his then 5-8 Chiefs to a win over Green Bay. In 2015, Cam Newton and the Panthers were 14-0 before falling to the Falcons, 20-13, just two weeks after defeating them 38-0. Only the 2007 Patriots were able to run the table in the regular season in this era, and they ran out of steam down the stretch. So Pittsburgh, who has the best defense in the league and a rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger, will not go undefeated, but a 14 or 15-win season and the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which they need to stave off Kansas City (8-1) for, is likely, and that’s certainly good enough.

8. Washington-Detroit featured two heartwarming stories. If you can look past the obvious ugliness of a game between two bad teams, you can at least examine the product as NFL RedZone football at its most fun. It’s likely neither of these teams are making the playoffs — although Washington has a chance of winning the lowly NFC East — but the game featured a 21-point comeback by Washington, with trading field goals in the game’s final minutes, ending with a 59-yard game-winning field goal by Matt Prater. But the two most fascinating stories were Alex Smith, who has incredibly returned from one of the most gruesome leg injuries in league history, leading undermanned Washington back from 21 down to almost win, and former lockdown cornerback Aqib Talib making his NFL broadcasting debut. Is Smith, 36, the future for Washington at QB? Absolutely not. But watching Smith fighting his own battle to prove he could return from his injury is a noble battle worth glueing your eyes to screen. And what better way for your ears to follow suit with receiving some fun of their own? No, Talib is not your typical broadcaster. He’s not polished, obviously, but he was informative from the defensive side of the ball somewhat in the Tony Romo-mold in explaining offensive tendencies to viewers. And let’s face it, his fun attitude and style is a breath of fresh air amidst the usual coverage we get. So if you were able to tune into this game, or catch a good chunk of it via RedZone (like I did), than you were in for a treat.

9. The NFC East is worse than we thought. Coming into this week, we already knew this year’s NFC East was historically bad, but it’s no longer funny and cute, now, it’s just sad. The Eagles (3-5-1) were perhaps the division’s only hope at a somewhat competent victor. I pegged Philadelphia for a team that could make a mini run to 8-7-1 to take the division, and the unrewarding home playoff game that comes with it. But after their 27-17 loss to the Giants (3-7) in New York, it’s clear there is no saving this division in 2020. The television networks know this, too. They already moved Sunday’s Packers-Colts tilt into the late afternoon slot so we weren’t forced to watch the Dak Prescott-less Cowboys (2-7), normally a television cash cow, take on the Vikings (4-5) in their “America’s Game of the Week.” As it stands, I still believe Philadelphia will take the division, but the Giants do appear to have a good shot, as the team seems to be responding to head coach Joe Judge, even if they aren’t very good. But if you made me guess, I’d say Eagles take the division at 6-9-1. Yikes.

10. A unique NFL Sunday format that won’t be standard anytime soon. For those who weren’t aware, The Masters finished up on Sunday, with Dustin Johnson setting a course record, supplanting his claim, and ranking, as the world’s best golfer. Of course, The Masters is usually played in the Spring, but as the same with other events this season (NBA playoffs, etc.) the pandemic caused a unique set up in which Jim Nantz would need to take off a Sunday of football to call the final round on Sunday on CBS, which coincided with the early slate of NFL games. Because of that, the league scheduled just five games for the 1:00pm ET window, all on FOX, leaving more games (six) for the late afternoon window, which usually holds just two or three contests. Many have clamoring for an even split of games between these two windows for years, but that will never happen. You know why? It’s the same reason CBS wanted all eyes on the Masters, effectively making the NFL invert their usual format. In their current deals, CBS and FOX switch off each weekend airing a marquee, late-window game that is near-nationally televised to ensure they have a chance at a big chunk of viewers. Do you think they’d welcome everyone plopping over to NFL RedZone for both windows? No sir. So for those who enjoyed the format this weekend, don’t get used to it.

THE BETTER HALF

(Because of my detailed breakdown of many of these teams above, I decided to simply rank the teams this week, without an ensuing take. I’ll return to the old format next week!)

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0) (Last week: 1).

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). 

3. New Orleans Saints (7-2) (Last week: 4). 

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 8). 

5. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 5). 

6. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: 7). 

8. Miami Dolphins (6-3) (Last week: 10). 

9. Arizona Cardinals (6-3) (Last week: 11).

10. Indianapolis Colts (6-3) (Last week: 14). 

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-3) (Last week: 12). 

12. Seattle Seahawks (6-3) (Last week: 9). 

13. Tennessee Titans (6-3) (Last week: 6). 

14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-3) (Last week: 13). 

15. Cleveland Browns (6-3) (Last week: 15). 

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

Next up: Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta

Drew Brees vs Saints, Week 9, 2020

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: Saints rout Bucs, march into NFC’s top spot

With a Week 1 loss in New Orleans on their mind, and a furthering lead on the NFC South at stake, Sunday’s night tilt was primed for a coronation of what seemed to be the NFC’s soon-to-be best team, the Buccaneers.

That is, until the Saints came marching in.

If you can forgive the cheesy reference, you’ll see just how important New Orleans’ statement win was in the NFC. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a season-sweep clinching, 38-3 dismantling of Tom Brady’s Bucs by Drew Brees’ Saints.

“Give New Orleans credit. They kicked our ass in every phase,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said after the game.

That they did.

The Saints outgained the Bucs 420-194 in total yards, 138-8 in rushing yards, and Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns and earned a near-perfect 98.9 Total QBR compared to Tom Brady’s abysmal 3.8 mark, as the latter threw for three interceptions on just 5.5 yards per attempt. The 35-point loss was also the largest of Brady’s career, and perhaps, his ugliest.

“It’s about playing better and execution and we all have to do our jobs a lot better,” said Brady. “When you play good teams there’s little margin for error. They’ve been a great team for a long time. They’ve got a lot of good players. If we’re going to beat them we’ve got to play a lot better than we did tonight.”

The Saints do have a lot of good players, but the Bucs do too. Touted as one of the NFL’s best rosters, equipped with one of the league’s best defenses and up-and-coming offenses led by Brady, almost nothing went right for the Bucs. Even newcomer Antonio Brown (three catches, 31 yards) was unable to give the offense a spark.

The most telling moment of the night came early in the third quarter. New Orleans led 31-0 at halftime but the Bucs were able to drive down to the Saints’ one-yard line in their first drive of the second half. But Tampa was denied any points, as Brady threw three incomplete passes (one was a Rob Gronkowski drop) at the goal line, and the Saints took over on downs, effectively slamming the door shut on their victory.

“When things don’t go your way…sometimes they keep going that way,” said Brady. “We have to figure out how to stop it and turn it around, and we had our opportunities and we just didn’t do it.”

Opportunity was the word I was most thinking of heading into Sunday’s game. After the Seahawks lost to the Bills earlier in the day, it was clear what was at stake for both teams, but even more so for Tampa. A win would have not only given them bragging rights as the NFC’s best team at midseason, it would have put the Bucs at the top of the conference and a game and a half above the Saints in the NFC South, which now looks to be a wire-to-wire race.

If you’re the Saints, you have to feel good about this victory — a season sweep over the NFL team getting the most attention. Brees, who began the year as the league’s all-time leading touchdown passer, has been criticized and questioned as it appeared his play had declined, and his arm strength slipped even a little bit more. The former, at least, was not a concern on Sunday.

“Brady is still the second greatest quarterback for a reason,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said after the game, seemingly in a way of backing his own QB.

Stuck in an era with the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and with others like Patrick Mahomes soon to hog all-time glory, Brees has been forgotten among the league’s all-time best QBs. No, he doesn’t belong above Brady or Manning on any all-time lists, but Rodgers? Maybe. What about Brett Favre, Dan Marino and some others? Maybe them too, honestly. But he isn’t talked about as such.

Regardless of what’s being talked about, Brees extended his regained lead over Brady in all-time touchdown passes on Sunday, and moved to 5-2 versus the GOAT in their seven head-to-head meetings.

Ripe with talent and unique playmakers such as Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill and Michael Thomas (who returned on Sunday), the Saints have enough offensive firepower to continue to play the game their way, without having to listen to any qualms some might have with their unwillingness to push the ball downfield.

The three aforementioned playmakers (Kamara, Hill, Thomas) are among the NFL’s best players in confined spaces, winning their battles by either finessing or bulldozing defenders, or catching contested catches over the middle. And they’re led by Brees, perhaps the most accurate quarterback in NFL history. They can win this way, despite what you think of Brees’ 41-year-old throwing arm.

And what about the defense? The talented unit has had some troubles in the first half of the season, but they’ve at least been sturdy against the run. Tampa ran the ball only five times on Sunday, as the game quickly got away from them, but it was clear they weren’t going to amass much on the ground, as the Saints swallowed up any attempts. That led to a flurry of Brady pass attempts early and often, mostly with a Saints pass rush in his face.

Now, the top of the NFC is jumbled. There’s a logjam with the likes of the Saints, Bucs, Seahawks and Packers in the race for the conference’s top seed, which is more important than ever with the new rules in place making it the only team in the conference to get a first-round bye.

But make no mistake, the Saints are now the NFC’s top dog, even if just by a slim margin. And the talent on their team suggests they’ll only get better.

NFL MVP RACE

Here is my second look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section I’m creating for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.

1) Russell Wilson — That was a dud in Buffalo, but it was a dud in which the Seahawks were still able to score 34 points. But MVP voters should be able to see through this performance. That was his first bad game of the season. He was careless with the football. Still, he is your midseason MVP, but just by a hair. This next guy is now right there with him. Wilson is far from a shoe-in for his first MVP award. He’ll certainly need to earn it. I won’t doubt him, though. He’ll bounce back.

2) Patrick Mahomes — Mahomes causally has thrown for 25 touchdowns and just one interception during a 8-1 start and is barely mentioned in the MVP race. LeBron-like voter fatigue has already begun to minimize his accomplishments in just his third year as a starter. He’s right there with Wilson for the award at the season’s midway point.

3) Aaron Rodgers — Rodgers is definitely having an MVP-type season, but his egg-laying in Tampa Bay a few weeks ago places him soundly in third, looking up at Wilson and Mahomes as true lead candidates. Nonetheless, it’s impressive what he’s been able to do in Year 2 under Matt LaFeur’s offense, and that’s with a lack of pass-catching talent outside of Davante Adams.

4) Kyler Murray — Losses like Sunday’s in Miami put him more in the race for Offensive Player of the Year, but still, you can’t knock what he’s done in just Year 2.

5) Tom Brady — Barring an insane run these last seven weeks, both statistically and win-loss-wise, Brady lost any chance at this award with Sunday’s performance. Luckily for him, he did inspire what will be a huge list of doubters and off-the-wall takes, which is what he feeds off.

Honorable mention: Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry/Dalvin Cook (RBs! — Let’s face it, these two are OPOY candidates only)

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0) (Last week: 1). Dallas did everything they could to knock off the Steelers in a game that surprisingly became a slug fest. But good teams find a way to win, even on their off days. The Steelers did just that.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). They have some problems on defense, but we knew that. They win anyway. It seems Patrick Mahomes literally can’t play a bad game, or even an average one, really. And his stat line for the last two weeks? 788 yards, nine touchdown passes, zero interceptions. That’s silly. The Steelers may be the best team at the moment, but let’s be clear, the Chiefs are favored to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

3. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 5). Fresh off another disappointing loss, the Ravens took their frustrations out on the Colts. That was an impressive showing in Indianapolis. No, the Colts aren’t an opponent on par with the Steelers or Chiefs, but they were a 5-2 team with a talented defense and solid coach, playing at home. For Lamar Jackson, that was as good of a moral victory as it was a real one. They can beat good teams, but we still need to see them beat a great one, particularly in January.

4. New Orleans Saints (6-2) (Last week: 6). Whether Drew Brees is starting to slip or not, the Saints have the talent to reach, and win, the Super Bowl. But we’re just getting started. Here comes the second half of the regular season. Will they get the NFC’s top seed? It’s way too early to tell. But that was quite the statement in Tampa Bay.

5. Green Bay Packers (6-2) (Last week: 7). The 49ers have been absolutely destroyed by injuries, so Aaron Rodgers’ fabulous performance on Thursday for a Green Bay win over San Francisco wasn’t exactly a demon-exorcising event, but they’ll take it.

6. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Bears offense certainly isn’t scaring anyone, but that was an encouragingly sound win at home for the Titans. Desmond King Jr., a versatile former All-Pro defensive back coming over from Chargers, was a good trade for them. The Titans had been missing Logan Ryan in their secondary. King fills that role.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-2) (Last week: 9). That was a nice turn-back-the-clock performance from Josh Allen, who looked more like his September self in their win over the Seahawks on Sunday. They are soundly in tier 2 in the tough AFC.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 3). After his five-touchdown performance in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Tom Brady’s offense sputtered versus the Giants last week and came to a screeching halt at home versus the Saints on Sunday. Yes, Tampa’s defense, which has been touted as one of the NFL’s best, did not play well, but this was more on the offense. Three points? In that game? At home? They are simply too inconsistent on offense to be fully trusted. Doubt Brady at your own risk, but they didn’t look right on Sunday night. Bucs fans should be concerned, but not hysterical.

9. Seattle Seahawks (6-2) (Last week: 4). It’s not too surprising that the Seahawks lost a cross-country road game to a talented opponent, but the way in which they were beat is concerning. But we knew what they were. This season, Russell Wilson has been playing at an MVP-level in a run-n’-gun offense, while the defense has been one of the league’s worst, particularly in defending the pass and rushing the passer. As fun as they are, I’m not sure even Wilson can lead this team to a Super Bowl with the defense as is. They may not meet their demise until as late as the NFC title game or Super Bowl, but the Seahawks’ defense will ultimately be their undoing. They are not a good unit.

10. Miami Dolphins (5-3) (Last week: 12). The talk will be centered around rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa this week, and for good reason, he was awesome on Sunday. But I think it’s time to start talking about Brian Flores as a Coach-of-the-Year candidate. He’d probably be second on my list after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin at this point.

11. Arizona Cardinals (5-3) (Last week: 11). As great as their offense has been, they were shutout 10-0 in the fourth quarter at home versus Miami with a chance to take the lead (via tiebreaker over Seattle) in the NFC West, had they won. That stings.

12. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 13). They move up during their bye week. Next up: a home game versus division rival Seattle. Can they make the NFC West even more of a tight-knit group?

13. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 16). They withstood two dropped end-zone fades on the game’s final two plays to outlast the Chargers. They look like an AFC wild card team. Jon Gruden deserves a ton of credit.

14. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 11). Yes, the Ravens may be a better team, but that was a discouraging loss for at Colts club that feels like one of the league’s best overall rosters. Sadly, as expected, Phillip Rivers and the offense can’t be trusted in big games, and that falls mostly on Rivers.

15. Cleveland Browns (5-3) (Last week: NR). The teams below them were so bad this week, that the Browns, fresh off a 16-6, inept home loss to the Raiders, move into this spot after their bye week.

16. Chicago Bears (5-4) (Last week: 14). They go here for now because no other team below them seems like they have a chance for the playoffs, minus the NFC East-leading Eagles. It’s becoming apparent that Chicago is not a playoff-quality team.

Next up: Philadelphia, Minnesota, San Francisco, Atlanta, Carolina

Steelers stop Lamar Jackson on 4th down -- 2020, Week 8

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 8: Steelers down rival Ravens, remain unbeaten

It doesn’t seem too long ago when the likes of Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and the Steelers of yesteryear battled Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the Ravens of the past in matchups that left both opponents bloodied and battered. Pittsburgh’s 28-24, nail-biting victory over Baltimore on Sunday was a return to those times, as both teams are among the AFC’s top contenders.

After the game, breakout rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool was just one of many Steelers celebrating when he tweeted: “Losing? Never heard of her.”

Can you blame them for boasting? Pittsburgh (7-0) just survived yet another close bout with a top AFC team on the road, and this time it was over their bitter AFC North rival.

To get a win of this caliber in Baltimore to stay undefeated was something even Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had to acknowledge.

“You better believe it,” said Tomlin. “It’s an honor. A humbling experience. This is what we signed up for, this is what we do at this level. You want to be in these stadiums, you want to have [Jim] Nantz and [Tony] Romo calling your game. We’re honored to be a part of it.”

Having Nantz and Romo, CBS’ top NFL broadcasting team, at your game, means you’re playing one of the biggest games of the week, usually on a national stage, or close to it.

Pittsburgh looks primed to win more of these close affairs behind their top-flight defense, rejuvenated offense, sound coaching and organizational consistency.

The contest featured twists and turns as Baltimore led 17-7 at the half before Pittsburgh rallied to take a 21-17 second-half lead, before falling behind once more. That’s when Ben Roethlisberger delivering a game-winning touchdown pass to Claypool midway through the fourth quarter.

Still, holding that 28-24 lead with over seven minutes remaining, the stout Pittsburgh defense suffered through a few anxious moments before eventually holding versus Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the electric reigning the NFL MVP.

“It’s not always pretty, but we find a way to get it done,” Ben Roethlisberger told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson after the game. “I’m just glad they’re my defense.”

The moment of praise for his teammates on the opposite side of the football was needed.

The menacing Steeler defense forced four Jackson turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles lost), including a game-opening pick-six and a fumble recovery on a 4th-and-3 stop on a Baltimore QB draw up the gut with roughly two minutes to play.

“The turnovers are the reason why we lost the game,” said Jackson.

He may not be wrong. Baltimore had a double-digit lead at halftime, and despite the turnovers they were able to spread out the Pittsburgh defense to rush for 265 yards on the ground, but the Steeler pass rush (four sacks), and Baltimore’s all-too-familiar, big-game ineffectiveness through the air reared it’s ugly head once again.

Throughout the season, the Ravens had collected some beatdown wins over lesser opponents under the radar, but now have twice have fallen twice on a big stage at home to what we now know are the AFC’s two best teams — Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

The loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football earlier in the year was especially rough. Baltimore’s defense was carved to pieces by Chiefs phenom passer Patrick Mahomes, and Jackson’s attempt to keep up through the air — admittedly with lesser pass-catching targets — was futile, leaving a possible opening for a “Jackson—can’t—keep—up—with—Mahomes” talkshow topic that is certainly ego-damaging for a young and maturing Jackson.

But Sunday’s home loss to their AFC North rival is another moral bludgeoning altogether.

For years, dating back to the early-2000s, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry has been one of the NFL’s marquee matchups.

If the battles between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were the best recent individual player rivalries, then the smash mouth, hard-hitting affairs between Pittsburgh and Baltimore make up perhaps the best 21s-century rivalry in team-versus-team form, with only the Seahawks-49ers battles of the early-2010s even coming close.

These games are must-see television. Two (or sometimes three) times a year, legacies have been built, and career-encompassing judgment has been cast based off the results of a Steelers-Ravens clash.

Now, Baltimore falls virtually three games back of Pittsburgh (if you include the tiebreaker) in the AFC North, with their next meeting with the Steelers residing in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. First, the Ravens will travel to Indianapolis to take on the Colts (5-2) next week in an important AFC battle that will kick off the second half of the season.

Furthermore, Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a young franchise cornerstone, suffered an ankle injury that will end his season.

As for Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ next three games (at Cowboys, vs. Bengals, at Jaguars) are all winnable, giving them a shot at a 10-0 start before they see Baltimore again at home for that aforementioned second meeting.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) (Last week: 1). After bludgeoning the Browns, and soundly beating the Titans and Ravens on the road, it’s clear the Steelers are the biggest threat to defending champion Kansas City in the AFC. Them, along with the Buccaneers, are the most complete teams in football right now, even if league-best quarterback play on the Chiefs and Seahawks make the latter two equally dangerous teams come January.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (7-1) (Last week: 2). I know they played the Jets — whose 2020 version of their team may be the worst pro football squad we’ve ever seen — but it’s pretty wild that a Patrick Mahomes’ five-touchdown game is now bottom-of-the-barrel, ho-hum news for an NFL Sunday.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) (Last week: 4). They should beat the Giants in New York tonight, setting up a mega-tilt versus the NFC South rival Saints in Tampa next Sunday night. If they win that, they’ll be in the driver’s seat for the division crown, with New Orleans two rows back in the van.

4. Seattle Seahawks (6-1) (Last week: 6). Defending NFC champion San Francisco was starting to feel good about themselves before they ran into Russell Wilson, D.K. Metcalf and the seemingly unstoppable Seahawks offense, which is one of the best stories of the season. No matter how bad their defense is, Seattle is still a Super Bowl contender.

5. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 3). They’ll probably follow this up with a few solid wins that are seen by most on the bottom-of-the-TV ticker or in a postgame highlights show, but that’s their problem. The Ravens will be judged on games like Sunday’s, or their match with Kansas City earlier in the year. They lost both. They’re a great team that needs wide receiver help, more consistency in the passing game, and better play in big games. There’s still Super Bowl hope with a team this talented, but it seems Lamar Jackson is destined to suffer another rough playoff loss before the Ravens further build around him.

6. New Orleans Saints (5-2) (Last week: 9). They still don’t look great on offense, and Michael Thomas’ extended absence is likely at play there. They have a chance to raise some eyebrows next week in Tampa, where they’ll attempt to sweep the mighty Bucs, and in turn, pull ahead in the NFC South.

7. Green Bay Packers (5-2) (Last week: 6). Here comes the list of three teams that are clearly good but not great, and it showed on Sunday. Of course, the Vikings were going to get up for a game with their NFC North rival, especially when they have nothing to lose. But if you get three touchdowns from No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams, and still don’t win, that’s a sign you need more on offense. No wonder they’ve been linked to Will Fuller’s before tomorrow’s trade deadline. They need to get better in run defense, too. They were run over twice by the 49ers last year, and similarly by Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota running game on Tuesday. That’s a bad Achilles heel to have come January. It may be their undoing again.

8. Tennessee Titans (5-2) (Last week: 7). The Titans’ 34-20 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati was perhaps the worst loss of the day, for any team. You’d think they’d get up more for a lowly opponent after their first loss of the year at home the week before. Now, the Colts have pulled even with them in the AFC South.

9. Buffalo Bills (6-2) (Last week: 8). Yes, they beat the Patriots, effectively ending their AFC East title chances and elevating theirs in the process, but the Bills haven’t quite looked good the past few weeks. They are a super-talented team, but they have trouble stopping the run in what looks like a defensive regression season, and Josh Allen still throws a few errant passes. They are soundly the fifth or sixth best team in the AFC, but should do enough to win the division, although the Dolphins are creeping up.

10. Arizona Cardinals (5-2) (Last week: 11). We’ll put them here during their bye week. They are one of the most fun teams to watch in 2020.

11. Indianapolis Colts (5-2) (Last week: 14). Here come the Colts. Believe it or not, that was a pretty great win in Detroit on Sunday. The Lions are indeed, the Lions, but they are a tough team that was feeling good about themselves. We’ll know a lot more about Indy after next week’s home match versus Baltimore.

12. Miami Dolphins (4-3) (Last week: 16). Tua Tagovailoa wins his first start, and the Dolphins have now won three straight and are allowing a league-best 18.6 points per game on defense. Head coach Brian Flores deserves a ton of credit for what he’s doing in Miami.

13. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 13). Here comes the trio of “just OK” teams in the NFC, whether for quarterback play, injuries, or overall roster issues. The Rams are primed to be a NFC wild card team at best, and nothing else.

14. Chicago Bears (5-3) (Last week: 12). Similar to the Rams, the Bears have erratic QB play, and just don’t feel like a true contender in the NFC. And that’s because they’re not.

15. San Francisco 49ers (4-4) (Last week: 10). Things were looking up for the 49ers before a rough loss in Seattle that featured more injuries to Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle. This just isn’t their year, despite Kyle Shanahan’s valiant attempt to coach around it.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (4-3) (Last week: NR). That was a big win in Cleveland for AFC Wild Card purposes come January. The Raiders are a wily bunch.

Next up: Cleveland, Philadelphia, Carolina, Detroit, Denver

Kyler Murray — Vs Seahawks, 2020

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 7: Cardinals rally to beat Seahawks plus Brady, Cam, Jimmy G and the Patriots’ QB situation

Week 7 gave us perhaps the most exciting weekend of this NFL season to date. From fantastic finishes to a battle of the undefeated clubs and an exciting NFC West showdown. Plus, I think there may have been a controversial pickup that everyone is talking about? And what about Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Cam Newton and the New England quarterback storyline?

So that’s why I’m using my piece to tackle multiple storylines over the weekend, starting with the Sunday night NFC West showdown in Arizona.

Kyler Murray, Cardinals down Seahawks in nail-biting NFC West contest

After Zane Gonzalez missed what should have been a 41-yard, game-winning field goal well into overtime on Sunday night, it appeared we all were witness to a similar story.

An upstart division team playing the consistent division rival juggernaut to the end, scratching and clawing, fighting, just one play away from victory, before the wheels on the engine that could came off, partly due to self-inflicted harm (like Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury icing his own kicker).

But just a few plays later, NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson throws his third interception of the night, Cardinals mighty-mouse QB Kyler Murray scoots Arizona back into field goal range, and Gonzalez redeems himself on a game-clinching 48-yarder with seconds to play in overtime.

Arizona 37, Seattle 34. And just like that, the NFC West is that much tighter.

“Don’t ever be conservative again,” Murray said he told his coach after the game. “I got you.”

Sure, the conservative approach to the missed field goal almost downed Arizona’s NFC West title hopes, but the Cardinals rallied through adversity. And we all know, there’s at least been nothing conservative about the aggressively successful way Arizona has become a threat to the league in just short time.

What Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim have done with this Arizona team in just a season and a half is honorable. Just two years removed from a dismal 3-13 year, partly with rookie first-round QB Josh Rosen, the team hired Kingsburgy in 2019, used the No. 1 overall pick to select another QB, Murray, and now have the look of at least a wild card team (maybe more) in the NFC in Year 2 of this process.

Kingsbury has fielded a unique offense that spreads out defenses across the field by using four-wide receivers sets more than any other club. With those looks, they get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins (a great pickup via a trade with the Texans), Larry Fitzgerald and other play-making receivers, while running up the gut with shifty running backs, or even Murray, when the defense spreads thin to cover the pass catchers.

And that’s just what Arizona did in their win on Sunday. Murray threw 48 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another score on 14 carries for 67 yards on the ground.

Predictably, the game turned into a wonky shootout, a Seattle Seahawks special, with Russell Wilson and Tyler Locket connecting for three scores, and the Seattle QB phenom throwing the ball 50 times, with three key interceptions, but still fielding a pretty good 74.7 Total QBR, which usually signals enough for a win.

Wilson made the best throw of the day (a beautiful deep bomb TD to Lockett) and some of the worst, including his last interception. It’s clear Seattle has major issues on defense, and on a night where Wilson was still superb, but far from perfect, Arizona was able to take advantage behind a daring effort by Murray, which included a 10-point 4th-quarter comeback reminiscent of some of Wilson’s herculean efforts over the past almost-decade.

Arizona has some defensive problems of their own. They allowed 572 total yards and failed to stop Wilson on a key 4th-down touchdown pass late that almost put the game away. But defensive coordinator Vance Joseph designed a few key zone blitzes that befuddled Wilson late, which is a rarity. Quite simply, after that aforementioned 4th-down, 4th-quarter score by Wilson to Lockett, Murray played better than his Seattle contemporary, and the Cardinals outscored Seattle 13-0 the rest of the way.

“These are the games you honestly dream about growing up, watching Sunday night football, last week playing on Monday [night] — these are the type of games you want to be a part of,” said Murray after the game. “To be a part of these games you’ve got to win and keep winning. I’m super proud of the team, the way we fought, not giving up. No matter the circumstances, just keep battling and keep battling.”

The Cardinals are probably a couple defensive pieces away from being a true contender with the likes of Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle in the NFC in 2020, but they’ll certainly be a tough out.

With Murray, and Kingsbury, they’re certainly trending upwards.

The New England QB carousel takes center stage

Just one year ago, the battle of the the 49ers and Patriots in New England in 2020 would seemingly revolve around Jimmy Garoppolo returning to Foxboro to battle Tom Brady, the man many thought he’d succeed as the Patriots quarterback, before he wasn’t.

Since then, we know what has happened. Brady in Tampa. Cam Newton in New England. Blah, blah. We don’t need to regurgitate, but we do need to re-assess what we now think of the Patriots’ current QB situation, just weeks after it looked like both Brady and the Patriots were going to win with their respective cases.

That can no longer be said about the Patriots. At least not right now.

Cam Newton (9-of-15, 98 yards, three interceptions) was abysmal for the second straight week, this time posting a laughable 3.5 Total QBR as the Patriots dropped their third straight game for the first time since 2002, 33-6 to Garoppolo’s 49ers.

Jimmy was solid, going 20-fof-25 and efficiently leading San Francisco’s unique, spread-you-thin-with-pre-snap-motion offense, save for a bad interception in the first quarter.

Still, when we talk about winning with their decision, we’re talking about New England signing Cam Newton, and trotting out their once-again, slow and not-with-the-times offense of 2019 once more, just with a different QB.

The decision by Belichick to trade Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick in 2017 is still a sound one. They were’t going to be able to keep both Brady and Garoppolo. Garoppolo was a free agent after the season, so they got something for him, and proceeded to make two more Super Bowls with Brady, winning one. But the fact that Brady simply outlived Garoppolo in New England is probably not a consolation to Jimmy, but heading to San Francisco, reaching a Super Bowl in your only full season as a starter, and downing the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in your next year, will probably do.

As for Newton, he’s been bad these past few weeks. Is it his comeback from COVID-19? A lack of practice time? A deep void of playmakers in the offense?

It’s probably all those things, coupled with the fact that Newton has also just played bad. He’s missed open receivers, held onto the ball too long, and doesn’t look comfortable.

Still, Belichick told the media that Cam would remain the starting QB going forward.

At 2-4, and with a tough game in Buffalo awaiting, the Patriots are perhaps awaiting a cold and dark football winter not seen before since 2000, Belichick’s first year in New England as head coach.

And perhaps that’s what we’re dealing with here — a “gauging-of-the-roster” season from Belichick, in which he can make trades, sign free agents (they have ample cap space next offseason) and make sound draft decisions (although their last few drafts have been bad) to put New England back in the thick of things in 2021.

It is starting to feel like Brady made the right decision in leaving the Patriots, who are at least in need of a re-tooling, if not re-build. And at age 43, chasing never-seen-before history, I don’t blame the best football player of all time creating a South Florida super team in his twilight. Heck, we didn’t blame LeBron James for it in Miami?

It adds salt to the wound that on the bleakest day of New England football this century, Brady was as sharp as we’ve seen him since perhaps 2017. He threw for four scores, including an unreal, outside-the-numbers deep ball to Scotty Miller, ran for another touchdown, and passed Drew Brees to sit atop the all-time touchdown pass list in the process.

Now, with Antonio Brown’s arrival imminent, Rob Gronkowski rounding into form as a pass catcher, and the offense catching fire to compliment one of the league’s top defenses, a seventh ring for Brady certainly seems obtainable.

Just weeks ago, Tampa’s ceiling appeared to be the NFC Divisional Round, while New England looked like it may round into the “nobody-wants-to-play-us” team of 2020, like the Titans of last season.

Instead, the Patriots are in a dark place, while Brady and Garoppolo lead surging NFC teams.

Still, even if this season continues on its path for these three teams, it’s too early to solidify a take on Belichick’s approach. This team simply needs more weapons, and Belichick the GM is up for the challenge this offseason to piece this puzzle back together.

But as for Brady, and Garoppolo, no matter what happens with Belichick’s Patriots, they’ve already won in their own way.

We’ll see if New England can eventually join the party with Cam Newton, or someone else at quarterback.

Antonio Brown joins Tom Brady, Bucs

Despite winning a tough road game in flashy fashion while passing Brees for the passing touchdown record in the process, the major news out of Tampa Bay over the weekend is still the imminent signing of Antonio Brown to a one-year deal.

Brown, 32, who may be available in Week 9 for Tampa’s rematch with the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints, has yet to post on social media in regards to his reunion with Tom Brady, but the deal should become official sometime this week or next.

Predictably, the move was followed by a storm of well-written articles on the moral stance of the Buccaneers signing Brown, and Brady’s advocacy for him.

“I’m not getting into personal conversations we’ve had together,” Brady told the media of his relationship with the controversial wide receiver.

“He’s a tremendous football player. I played with him for a brief period of time. I’m looking forward to working with him again. He’s a very hard-working guy.”

Although it feels a bit wrong to get excited at the pure football prospect of Brown and Brady connecting on the football field again in South Florida, there’s no denying that Brown fits the bill of Brady’s favorite type of receiver — the quick, shifty, route-running archetype.

Of that mold, Brown is the best receiver to ever live.

Pairing AB with an already-crowded pass-catching group of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and others seems like overkill, especially considering Tampa’s love of running the football with their staple of veteran backs (Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy), but from a QB-to-receiver standpoint, Brady to Brown is a dream connection of football IQ, talent and fluidity. Even with the two former Patriots sitting at ages 43 and 32, respectively.

But that won’t (and shouldn’t) drown out the absurdity of Brown finding work again, Brady’s continued friendship with Brown over the past year, and TB12’s call to criticized (and famous) life coach and guru Tony Robbins to help get Brown back on track.

To harken back to the bevy of national media takes on the signing, I think NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling had the most on-point take when criticizing Brady — and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, who was also wooing Brown to come to Seattle — in their misguided attempts to become friendly with Brown for pretty obvious, see-through football reasons. But alas, the prospect of a talent like Brown for a near-minimum deal on the most “all-in, win-now” football team in history is tough to pass up, especially when the two-fold move keeps Brown away from another wooing NFC contender such as Seattle.

Moral reasons, and a naive sense of confidence that Brown will remain inline, aside, this is the type of move that this type of team should make, for football reasons only.

Connor Orr, a brilliant writer for Sports Illustrated, delivered a take that I believe had the right intentions (condemning why Brown is being signed) while venturing too far into the outrage sector by first criticizing Tampa’s decision to bring in Brown, but then later insinuating it may have been too risky to bring in Brady on a farewell tour to pair with this burgeoning, lasting defense of the now and future.

I don’t see the sense in that. While fielding an up-and-coming top-tier defense and a star-studded offense, you try to find the QB that will maximize that talent, now. If you have the ability to chose between the roulette of the draft, some younger, only capable free agent (Teddy Bridgewater) or Tom freaking Brady, you take Brady if he’s available. The 43-year-old’s performance on Sunday is further proof of that.

For better or worse, Tampa is Tom’s team now. And don’t believe Arians’ post-game quote from Sunday suggesting Brady “didn’t have anything to do” with the signing of Brown. It was just months ago that Bucs head coach Bruce Arians adamantly shot down any chance of the former Steelers great coming to Tampa.

“I think he’s matured,” said Arians. “I believe in second chances.”

Now that may be true (meaning Arians’ stance, not that Brown may have matured).

But let’s call this what it is — Brady getting his wish. And with the GOAT playing as is, and the deal itself so risk-averse monetarily, it’s hard to chastise Tampa for obliging. Yet, off-the-field, there is ample reason to do so.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) (Last week: 1). The last undefeated squad, and overall best team in football, resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every few years, at least for a fleeting moment, this seems to be the case. This is a well-run franchise.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (6-1) (Last week: 2). With the contrast of Tom Brady and the Bucs versus the lowly Patriots drawing the most eyes in the late afternoon window, the Chiefs quietly dismantled the Broncos in snowy Denver. Le’Veon Bell (six carries, 39 yards) looked good in the KC offense.

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 3). Baltimore would find themselves virtually three games back (with the tiebreaker) of Pittsburgh in the AFC North if they can’t beat the Steelers at home this Sunday. This is a big game.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) (Last week: 10). It’s time to give them their due. Their defense is superb and Brady and the offense is rounding into form, with Antonio Brown on the way. Good luck to the rest of the NFL. Tampa’s ascension appears imminent.

5. Seattle Seahawks (5-1) (Last week: 5). As great as Russell Wilson was for much of Sunday night’s game, those three interceptions were killers. He’s still the clear MVP favorite, but with the Seahawks as is, you can’t make those mistakes versus opposing teams with stellar offenses. We’re beginning to see how Seattle’s season will go — they need Russ to put up a great game virtually every week to win.

6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 6). That was a nice bounce-back effort on the road, no matter how defunct this Texans team is. It’s a treat to see the Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams clicking like that.

7. Tennessee Titans (5-1) (Last week: 4). They almost came from behind again, but let’s stay grounded and admit that there is some worry in Ryan Tannehill’s ability to go against the league’s best teams (equipped with the best QBs), no matter how much he has improved as a passer. Still, they are a legitimate contender in the AFC.

8. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 7). That was an ugly showing in New York, but they did enough to beat the Jets. They have an opportunity to provide the knockout-punch to New England’s 2020 AFC East title hopes on Sunday.

9. New Orleans Saints (4-2) (Last week: 8). They’re starting to get going on offense, but their defense has been disappointing thus far. I believe the issue is fixable, though.

10. San Francisco 49ers (4-3) (Last week: 13). Just like that, here come the Niners. That blowout win over the struggling Patriots in New England had to be cathartic for Jimmy Garoppolo, who has played well these past two games. San Francisco is a team on its way back to contention in the NFC, injures and all. But they have the Seahawks in Seattle this week. That’ll be telling.

11. Arizona Cardinals (5-2) (Last week: NR). That was an incredible comeback win that proved Arizona can hang with Seattle. They’re quite similar teams, really. Two exciting QBs that make plays while proving height doesn’t matter like we thought when it comes to quarterbacks. Then, there’s the defenses, which could be the downfall of each club. Both teams make for exciting television.

12. Chicago Bears (5-1) (Last week: 9). If the Bears do win tonight, we can move them higher, but I don’t see it.

13. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) (Last week: 11). With the NFC West heating up, the Rams will have to keep pace by beating the Bears tonight.

14. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 12). We’ll put them here during their bye week. They are a clear AFC Wild Card hopeful in a tough conference. We’ll see how far Phillip Rivers can take them.

15. Cleveland Browns (5-2) (Last week: 14). They had trouble with the lowly Bengals, but it was encouraging to see Baker Mayfield lead his team down the field for a game-winning score. The loss of Odell Beckham Jr. hurts, though.

16. Miami Dolphins (3-3) (Last week: NR). Let’s move up the Dolphins to this spot during their bye. Sitting at .500, with Tua Tagovailoa set to take his first start versus the Rams on Sunday, a new era dawns for them.

Next up: Las Vegas, Carolina, Detroit, New England, Philadelphia

Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 6: Brady-Rodgers, AFC over NFC & first look at MVP race

Every few weeks a weekend’s slate of NFL games sets off more conversations than a simple lead story can handle. Sunday was one of those weeks. Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers, the dominant NFC, the Steelers, the Titans, and more.

Here is a bullet-version of this week’s NFL Morning Madness, where I attempt to collect all my thoughts in a coherent format:

 The Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers argument has always been somewhat silly. The Packers (4-1) perfect start to the season went undone in Tampa Bay, as both Brady and Rodgers’ performances couldn’t be more different. Rodgers posted a dismal 17.8 Total QBR, throwing two interceptions (one pick-six) as Green Bay failed to score any points after the first quarter. Conversely, Brady committed zero turnovers, posted a superb 96.1 QBR, and finally found his rhythm with old friend Rob Gronkowski (5 catches, 78 yards, TD).

Despite Brady’s effort, it was Tampa Bay’s underrated defense that sparked Tampa’s 38 unanswered points, and essentially, the win. Brady moved to 2-1 versus Rodgers, which seems ridiculous that they’ve only faced off three times since they’ve both been starters in the league since 2008.

But that’s just that. The great “debate” (which isn’t that much of a debate) has always been a difficult, and somewhat silly one that poses some similarities to two NBA player conversations — Lebron James vs Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan vs Shaquille O’Neal.

Like LeBron and Kobe, Brady and Rodgers have often been compared but they rarely faced off, seeing as they were in different conferences. And like LeBron and Kobe in 2009, the two QBs came dangerously close to facing off in a few Super Bowls (2014, 2016) but the all-time player showdown never materialized. Additionally, unlike LeBron and Kobe, who truly did face off when they played each other, we know Brady and Rodgers don’t exactly touch the field at the same time, unless one of them accidentally wandered onto the field drunk when their defense was on the field. Still, that doesn’t deter me from QB conversations, which I believe are the most fun debates in sports.

And in these debates, we tend to get silly when discussing reasons why one should be better. First off, the argument isn’t simply Brady’s six Super Bowl rings versus Rodgers’ one. Brady had stable help for 20 years in the form of greatest coach in sports history, a perfectly-balanced, when-to-meddle-if-at-all owner, and a cast of championship-caliber players for reasons both tangible and intangible. But at the same time, success in the form of six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances and 17 AFC East division titles signals a greatness in more than just a head coach, and the way some of those rings were one hosts Brady into a well-earned Michael Jordan-like stratosphere. Simply put, both Brady and Belichick are individually the best ever at what they do, no matter how much that triggers the gag reflex in sports fans outside of New England.

That’s not to say Rodgers isn’t one of the best QBs to ever play. He is. He’s probably one of the seven or best right now, and a seemingly successful twilight and stat-earning may very well thrust him into the top five. Heck, two more rings in his late 30’s would put him in the GOAT conversation with Brady, depending on how they were won (Peyton Manning and the 2015 Broncos are an example of critical thinking here).

But what Rodgers is now, is one of the best QBs ever (but not the GOAT, that’s Brady) and perhaps the most talented we’ve ever seen with maybe Dan Marino. But that was before Patrick Mahomes came along, who I think no holds that distinction.

Look, Rodgers can do things Brady simply can’t do. Him and Mahomes can run RPO’s, scramble, throw 60-yard touchdown throws across their body, and simply make some throws that Brady cannot make. And that’s all fine and well, but it doesn’t overcome Brady’s relentless consistency and success (now into his mid 40’s), dissecting coverages, fitting the ball into tight windows, elevating sub-par pass-catching groups, performing in the clutch, and most importantly, winning.

Rodgers’ throws may be sexier, but to bring back the second of two NBA player arguments, were Tim Duncan’s 30-point, 20-rebound performances less dominant than Shaq’s because he was fundamentally shooting short and mid-range shots (and hook shots) as opposed to dunking over his defenders? Of course not. And as much as I love Shaq, I have Duncan one spot above Shaq on my all-time NBA player rankings. But that conversation is for another day.

For now, let’s set the record straight on Brady-Rodgers, a fun conversation that never really was one, at least on a macro-level. And that’s okay. We have to talk about something on Mondays, don’t we?

 The AFC is significantly better than the NFC in 2020. Throughout my time closely following the NFL since 2000, the shift of conference power has teeter-tottered. The AFC ruled much of the 2000’s with 2004 being an NFC low point. That quickly changed in the 2010’s, which began with new-age teams such as the Jim Harbaugh 49ers, Legion-of-Boom Seahawks, and Cam Newton and Luke Keuchly Panthers leading the charge over an AFC that really featured just Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with a few solid Steeler seasons mixed in.

Now, it appears the AFC has re-taken charge. It’s not too surprising considering Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the two best young quarterbacks in football, reside there. But teams such as the Steelers (5-0), Titans (5-0) and Bills (4-1) have single the change in power. Tennessee and Buffalo both feature QBs who can scramble, make plays and run unique offenses, one with a solid, old-school rushing attack (thanks Derrick Henry) and the other with a top-flight receiving core (Stefon Diggs!) and both feature up-and-coming, Top-5 or Top-10 coaches who are aggressive, confident and harbor athletic defenses. Both teams are tough and will continue to be. These sort of new-age teams remind me of the way the NFC had those Seattle and San Francisco teams that signaled a trend to a different era of football in the 2010’s, even though I think those NFC teams were on another level.

And for the NFC, it wouldn’t be fair without mentioning Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury, the injury-ridden Eagles and 49ers, and Drew Brees’ apparent decline in New Orleans, which all have limited the potential of the conference thus far.

But as of now, the NFC’s best teams are just two well-run franchises led by two of the three or four best QBs in football, but both teams have significant holes. We’re talking about Seattle and Green Bay, which you’ll see below, are the top two NFC teams in my Week 6 rankings, but both are behind four AFC teams.

Two of those teams, the Titans and Steelers, will face off on Sunday for the leading conference, the AFC. I’ll talk more about that here in this next bullet.

— Steelers-Titans on Sunday is 2020’s best matchup so far. Despite a travesty-laden 1:00 pm ET start for a game of this magnitude, most of the country should get a top-billing matchup between Pittsburgh (5-0) and Tennessee (5-0) next week, and if you don’t, you better at least have NFL RedZone. 

I still believe Pittsburgh is the best team in football, and that they proved that once more in their usual beatdown of the Browns at home on Sunday. Their defense is the best in football, period. Which makes for an excellent matchup next week as the Titans intend to most likely establish the run with Derrick Henry, the best running back in football by far. Then, Vrabel’s bunch would like to get into play-action passes to the likes of A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith, which is a duo that is up there with the best WR-TE, one-two punches in the league.

But Ryan Tannehill will have to look away from middle-of-the-field protecter Minkah Fitzpatrick, who victimized Baker Mayfield for a pick-six in a robber assignment early on Sunday.

Then there’s the Steelers’ offense. Tennesee’s defense actually hasn’t been that good, and can be had. Big Ben Roethlisberger will need to buy time to find play-making rookie receiver Chase Claypool, tight end Eric Ebron, and others downfield.

Expect a heavy-hitting, high-energy and aggressively, somewhat-high-octane matchup next Sunday. My prediction? Steelers 26, Titans 24. 

NFL MVP RACE

Here is my first look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.

1) Russell Wilson — I don’t think this is much of a conversation at this point. Wilson makes up for a lackluster defense and continuously creates plays, both designed and broken, and wins games in the clutch in extraordinary fashion. Additionally, for you “you’re not allowed to be the best if you only throw short passes!” buffoons, Wilson has been the best deep passer in football as well. Despite the bye this week, he has five more touchdown passes than any other QB (before tonight’s Chiefs-Bills tilt) and his passer rating (129.8) is roughly 15 points higher than the next man. Yeah, this isn’t that close.

2) Derrick Henry — Despite having the most rushing attempts (123) in football by a wide margin, Henry has averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He’s the only RB averaging more than 100 yards per game and he’s average 117.6. He has 99 more rushing yards than any other player, and the Titans have already had their bye. I know a running back will probably never win MVP again, so let me just say that Henry should at least be in the lead for OPOY. But I know if you wanted to place Wilson there, as well, I wouldn’t have too much of a qualm.

3) Ryan Tannehill — It’s hard to place these Titans in the race, and I’ll take all the flack for having Henry ahead of Tanny. I think both are about equal in terms of being the engine of the offense, but as the team’s quarterback, Tannehill bares the most burden. He’s won 13 of his past 15 games, and overall has been superb this season. But in last year’s playoff run, the team relied more on Henry, and when they relied on Tannehill, they faltered. That was just in January. I bet Tannehill remembers his critics from that period, and uses it as fuel. It’s worked thus far. He’s been awesome.

4) Patrick Mahomes/Lamar Jackson — Here is where I start to cheat. Yes, maybe I should have included the Titans guys in one slot, but I needed to give Tennessee some love. And yes, I’m adding two guys here in what will probably become the inaugural “they could win every year” slot reserved for the likes of LeBron James in the NBA and Bill Belichick in the coach of the year (or coach of the worst team that does OK) award. The voter fatigue slot, essentially. Mahomes and the Chiefs have been a bit sluggish overall, but their lighting up of the Ravens in Baltimore was something to see. Conversely, Jackson has been predictably great in almost every game once more, but his performance in the home loss to KC has caused some over-arching concern. He needs to win some of these bigger games.

5) Aaron Rodgers/Josh Allen — Here is where I continue to cheat. Yes, my Top 5 in the race is essentially a Top 7. Turn me in. Both Rodgers and Allen were nipping on Wilson’s heels before each put up a duck in their last contest. Going forward, Rodgers has much more of a chance of winning the award. Allen has a lot to work with, but Rodgers has played well in Year 2 in a Matt LaFluer’s QB-limiting (MVP-wise, somewhat) offense, and has done it mostly without Davante Adams, meaning essentially no one at WR.

Honorable mention: Aaron Donald, Ben Roethlisbeger, Tom Brady, Alvin Kamara, Stefon Diggs 

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) (Last week: 1). Still the best team in football, and maybe their next two games (at Titans, at Ravens) are a chance to prove that.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) (Last week: 3). Kansas City has another chance to come into an opposing AFC contender’s house and lay the smack down tonight.

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 5). Any non-playoff, non-marquee game for the Ravens is entering almost-meaningless territory. And not because those games don’t tell us anything, they do. Baltimore is damn good, but they’ll be judged on their bigger contests.

4. Tennessee Titans (5-0) (Last week: 6). If the Steelers have had the best start to the season, the Titans have had the most special. I was wrong about this team. Mike Vrabel and company are a super tough bunch. Football as it should be.

5. Seattle Seahawks (5-0) (Last week: 4). Russell Wilson is the the MVP, and he’ll need to continue to be just that for Seattle.

6. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 2). That loss sparked PTSD from last season’s bouts with San Francisco. Is this the same story for Green Bay?

7. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 7). The Bills have a chance to make a statement tonight versus KC, and put the AFC East race in the back burner for now.

8. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 8). I’m still waiting for them to click on offense. They’ll need Michael Thomas back for that.

9. Chicago Bears (5-1) (Last week: 13). How in the world are they 5-1? Impressive.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) (Last week: 14). Their defense is special, and the offense is just getting going. Gronk looked somewhat like Gronk finally and the re-addition of Chris Godwin to the offense was much-needed.

11. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) (Last week: 9). They are 2020 NFC Wild Card material at it’s purest level.

12. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 12). Being down 17 at home to the lowly Bengals is concerning, but credit to Phillip Rivers and company for the comeback win. Avoiding losses like that, while teams like the Patriots fall at home to the Broncos, will be huge when it comes to time to place AFC postseason field in January.

13. San Francisco 49ers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Jimmy Garoppolo finally found his groove, just in time for a return to New England next Sunday.

14. Cleveland Browns (4-2) (Last week: 11). Same ole Browns? That was ugly. Baker Mayfield can’t seem to get it going. They can run the ball, but what happens when they can’t? Will we always see an ugly performance like that? To take the next step, they need to be more consistent through the air.

15. New England Patriots (2-3) (Last week: 10). That was perhaps their worst loss since the Monday night massacre of 2014 in Kansas City that sparked “On to Cincinnati.” All of the sudden, they are in trouble. I still think this is a wild card team, and I still think Cam Newton is the man, but they desperately need some talent at wide receiver and tight end.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 15). We’ll keep them here for now. The AFC is such a deep conference this season.

Next up: Miami, Carolina, Dallas, Arizona, Denver

Chase Claypool vs Eagles

NFL Friday Morning Madness Week 5: Steelers are league’s best team thus far

In the most unconventional NFL season in history, the league managed to get through its first three weeks of the regular season almost unscathed. That quickly turned when COVID-19 predictably infiltrated some of the league’s clubs. First, it was the Tennessee Titans, whose situation turned rampant, eventually forcing the NFL to play schedule-altering dominoes with ramifications weeks down the line. Then, Cam Newton, and later, Stephon Gilmore, marked the NFL’s first two star-studded, in-season cases of the year.

Since then, a few other cases have risen among a few teams, with both players and staff testing positive. Today, the Colts shut down their facility due to several positive cases. Yesterday, the Falcons shut down their facilities for the same reason.

Pandemic protocol and overall handling of the virus aside, the league has been able to successfully alter their schedule thus far — at least for them — but that will become increasingly difficult moving forward.

Now, without further ado, here is my extended look at each of the league’s top 16 teams (in my opinion) after five weeks, in power rankings form.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0) (Last week: 4).

Let it be known that the Steelers are the best team in the NFL after five weeks, and that they will do damage in January’s AFC postseason field.

Pittsburgh has the NFL’s best defense — no, not statistically, at the moment, but they are the best defensive unit in football going forward — equipped with stars at all three levels, and several other solid complimentary players helping to form a cohesive unit.

Cameron Heyward has enjoyed a stellar twilight to his career as a big-bodied presence in the interior of the team’s Nickel 2-4-5 scheme. Playing next to nose-tackle type defenders like Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, Heyward helps occupy offensive lineman up front for the likes of Devin Bush at off-ball linebacker, and the terrorizing EDGE combo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the outside.

T.J. Watt
T.J. Watt will be in the mix for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award once again in 2020. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Watt, who rightly finished second in defensive player of the year voting last season, is the top-ranked EDGE defender (92.4 grade) by Pro Football Focus thus far. He’s continued his mastery as both a pass rusher and run stuffer, while also helping out in coverage.

Then there’s the secondary, which has solid players in cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton (slot) as well as safety Terrell Edmunds. But it’s safety Minkah Fitzpatrick who is the best in the backend. The former Miami Dolphin has been brilliant as a safety and nickel back in the Steelers’ scheme.

But we knew they’d have one of the NFL’s best defenses. Last season, Pittsburgh went 9-7 and nearly made the playoffs despite inept play from QBs Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. All credit goes to Mike Tomlin, his coaching staff, and the defense there.

Now, Ben Roethlisberger, 38, has returned looking more slender and energized than he has since his early years, helping to lead an offensive unit that has a top-tier offensive line and yet another up-and-coming wide receiver group.

The Steelers are simply the kings of pro football when it comes to scouting, drafting and developing wide receivers. From first-round talents such as Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes, to mid and late-round receivers like Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh continuously breeds top-end wide receivers.

Chase Claypool, the Steelers’ second-round pick last Spring, looks like their next great pass catcher. The 6-foot-4, 230 pound looks like a receiver in a tight end’s body. Claypool scored four touchdowns versus the Eagles on Sunday, with a penalty negating a possible fifth score.

He joins JuJu Smith-Schuster, Dionte Johnson, Eric Ebron and James Conner as the team’s leading men in the skill position slots. If Claypool is the real deal as an X-type receiver — and it appears he is — the Steelers have enough fire power on offense to compliment their defense in matchups against some of the AFC’s best teams — Kansas City, Baltimore, Tennessee, etc.

And on top of that, they have a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB to lead them, giving them a sense of comfort that teams like the Titans, Bills, and even Ravens don’t have come January. The point is, Pittsburgh can hold their own with the Chiefs.

With a brutal three-game schedule ahead (vs Browns, at Titans, at Ravens), it’s tough to imagine Pittsburgh staying undefeated, meaning some will right them off, especially if they drop two of three, but this will be an awakening from the NFL public when Pittsburgh gets an increase in TV exposure with these upcoming games. Soon enough, the Steelers will have more than just a few analysts buzzing, they’ll be known as a top tier team by the public and casual fans, too.

2. Green Bay Packers (4-0) (Last week: 2).

Aaron Rodgers has been terrific, and is squarely in second place in the way-too-early-MVP race behind Russell Wilson. It looks like they’ll get Davante Adams back this week, which is big news because their game in Tampa Bay may turn into a shootout. These are the games the Packers will have to steal if they are to get the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) (Last week: 1). Whether it be their offensive performances in wins over the Chargers and Patriots, or last week’s defensive meltdown versus the Raiders, the Chiefs have had a sluggish start to the season by their standards. But we know they’ll be fine come playoff time, with their beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore as proof of their always-burgeoning, tangible potential.

Now, they add Le’Veon Bell to compliment rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the backfield. The rookie back has been a wonderful addition, and should remain a top option, but it’s easy to imagine Bell with a few 20-plus carry games in January in cold weather games versus tough AFC defenses. Although Bell may not regain his Pittsburgh form, he is definitely one of the NFL’s top 10 running backs, even now. He’s just one more weapon that opposing defenses will have to game plan for when facing KC.

4. Seattle Seahawks (5-0) (Last week: 3). Russell Wilson is the league’s top story through five weeks. The Seahawks continue to play in extraordinarily weird and exciting contests, and they continue to pull them out. The Vikings were Seattle’s latest victim, when Wilson drove the Seahawks 94 yards in the final two minutes, converting two fourth downs to D.K. Metcalf in the process, to stun Minnesota on a game-winning touchdown pass.

The aforementioned Metcalf is in line to become the next super-specimen at the X-receiver position, joining the likes of Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and others before him. Then there’s Tyler Lockett in the slot and a rushing attack that’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry thus far.

But their success lies with Wilson, an MVP-frontrunner who will need to continue his pace to offset the Seahawks’ sneaky-bad defense, which may eventually be their undoing.

5. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). 

The Ravens beat up the bad teams every time. That’s a sign of a good team. But to be great, they’ll need to beat the good or great teams more often than not. Now that Pittsburgh is once again a real threat in the AFC, all eyes will be on Steelers-Ravens in Week 8, an AFC North heavyweight battle that begins a tougher stretch of games for Baltimore. Until then, let’s see how many mediocre teams the Ravens can power through before their next big game.

6. Tennessee Titans (4-0) (Last week: 7). 

That was a helluva win for the Titans after all that has happened with them over the past few weeks. They barely even got to practice, yet came out hot and destroyed the Bills. Mike Vrabel is a solid coach who you can always trust will have his team emotionally ready.

7. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 5). 

That was a train wreck loss for Josh Allen and the Bills, but on a Tuesday night game on the road versus the undefeated Titans, some is forgiven. Buffalo returns home to play the Chiefs in a few days in another weird time slot during dinner time on Monday. We should judge the Bills more off of this upcoming game than the one that transpired on Tuesday.

8. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 8). 

The Saints haven’t looked right yet, and as long as Michael Thomas remains out (this time because of disciplinary issues), that likely won’t change. But Thomas will return, the offense will get rolling despite Drew Brees’ diminished arm strength, and the defense will at least get a smidge better, because there is too much talent for them not to. Hold judgement on these Saints for a few more weeks.

9. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 11). 

Sean McVay’s club has fallen under the radar thus far as a tough 4-1 bunch. A silly 4th-down pass interference call in Buffalo a few weeks ago negated a miraculous 28-3 comeback that would have the Rams sitting at 5-0 right now.

Salary cap malpractice aside, the Rams have done an OK job of navigating around some of their bad contracts over the last few years (Todd Gurley, etc.) to boast a team with superstars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense, and a solid offense ripe with underrated contributors picked outside of the first round. Their running back-by-committee approach isn’t sexy, but it has been effective, paving the way for Jared Goff to recapture success on bootlegs and play-action passing looks.

The 2020 rookie wide receiver class already looks like one of the best we’ve ever seen, and that’s without many talking about Van Jefferson, who should be a key piece for the Rams for years to come.

10. New England Patriots (2-2) (Last week: 9).

The Patriots are a work in progress, as we’ve only seen Cam Newton at the helm for three weeks, and the defense is still navigating through their somewhat-new personnel in the front seven. Bill Belichick usually gets his defense going after four to six games to start the season, and that can be expected again this year. They still have the NFL’s best secondary (we saw them in action versus Mahomes and the Chiefs) and up front, guys like Deatrich Wise Jr. and Chase Winovich appear to be making the jump to solid players.

11. Cleveland Browns (4-1) (Last week: 13).

Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the passing game still seems a bit off, but no one is questioning the rushing attack, which has been near unstoppable thus far. The combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will continue to bludgeon most defenses as the season progresses, and Myles Garrett has fully evolved into a superstar on defense. They have the talent, but will need to continue to execute.

12. Indianapolis Colts (3-2) (Last week: 10). 

The Colts remain solid on defense and in the trenches overall, with their top-flight offensive line. But as expected, Phillip Rivers continues the trend of inconsistent quarterback play that has plagued the team over the last few years when Andrew Luck was out, or now, retired. They will be firmly in the mix for an AFC Wild Card spot, but they will likely be looking elsewhere at QB in 2021.

13. Chicago Bears (4-1) (Last week: 16). 

Like the Rams, the Bears are a pretty quiet 4-1. Even Nick Foles stepping in to win two of three for Chicago, the offense still struggles. To be fair to Foles, his first two Chicago stars have come against the Colts and Bucs, two of the NFL’s top defenses, but can anyone see them turning into a 30-plus scoring team consistently when they need to be? I actually can’t rule it out, since I like the fit of Foles in Matt Nagy’s offense. Still, it seems unlikely.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) (Last week: 12). 

Last week’s loss in Chicago was rough. Tom Brady deserves blame, but not as much as Bruce Arians, who can’t seem to bottle up the Buccaneers’ penalty problem. It’s the discipline instilled in his teammates that Brady likely misses the most from the Patriots. What he enjoys in Tampa is a superb pass-catching cast that has yet to see Mike Evans and Chris Godwin healthy and on the field at the same time. They can shut up a few critics with a home win over Green Bay on Sunday. I think they get it done.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: NR).

Jon Gruden’s patience with Derek Carr, and successful scouting of offensive talent (Josh Jacobs, Henry Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow, Darren Waller) not only has the Raiders in the mix with a underrated and effective offense but also signals what could be an improbable victory in the Khalil Mack trade. Maybe not, but either way, it’s hard to question Gruden now.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: NR).

The Panthers have won three straight, which is a testament to new head coach Matt Rhule and Teddy Bridgewater. Without Christian McCaffrey at running back, the team refused to shy away from their ground attack, placing their trust in Mike Davis, and when they do throw the ball, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson form an underrated receiver duo. They are predictably bad on defense but are much better than we all thought there with young players such as Brian Burns and others showing potential. They are probably not a playoff team, but they also aren’t a team primed to pick in the Top 5 of this upcoming draft, either. There’s hope for the future in Carolina.

Next up: Dallas, Arizona, Miami, San Francisco, L.A. Chargers