This past week of football was initially going to be highlighted for having the most Super Bowl rematches in a single week (5) in NFL history, but just as recent weeks have unfolded, as soon as the early slate of games kicked off on Sunday, mayhem ensued.
I don’t think we’ve ever had an early window like this. 6 of the 7 teams that started the day in playoff position lost. Including 3 Division Leaders.
Quite the witching hour. 👀
& how many of you lost your Survivor Pools are 💥 with that Bills loss??
By the end of the night, four of the league’s division leaders suffered losses, and another division-leader, Baltimore (6-2), needed overtime to survive Minnesota (3-5) at home.
The topsy-turvy AFC, in particular, continues to be one of the weirdest-looking conference races in NFL history at midseason.
The Titans (7-2) and Ravens lead the conference as two-loss clubs, and then there are 10 teams with either five or four wins, vying for playoff spots.
No follower of the league can rightly say they have a firm grip on their prognostications going forward, but that’s what makes this season so fun, even if there has been an abundant of sloppy play.
Tennesee’s 28-16 beatdown of the Rams on Sunday night was most evident of this. Had the Rams had a solid win in this game, Matthew Stafford would have been a possible MVP frontrunner at midseason, and the Rams probably would have been looked at as Super Bowl favorites (they still might be, and rightfully so).
Instead, the Rams failed miserably in a game of catch-up after falling behind 21-3 early because of two Matthew Stafford interceptions, including one pick-six, while Los Angeles was backed up in its own territory in the first half.
Additionally, Tennessee sacked Stafford five times, with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (three sacks, four QB hits) outshining perhaps the best defensive tackle of all-time, Aaron Donald (one sack) in his own stadium.
Tennessee is a tough squad that should be in the thick of the AFC race all year long, but they really needed Stafford’s mistakes to come away with a win here.
The Titans averaged under three yards per carry on the ground without Derrick Henry, and Ryan Tannehill looked just so-so, despite coming through in some big moments.
The Rams should recover, but that’s now two big stinkers (Cardinals loss being the other one) so far this season. I suppose every team gets two or three, this season.
The Titans were blown out by the Cardinals in Week 1 and lost to the Jets in Week 4.
This was a wacky, wacky weekend in a wacky, wacky season. The moniker ‘Any Given Sunday’ was truly earned in Week 9.
Let’s do our best to break down a few other things in sort of a Quick-Hits form.
— Among the most surprising results on Sunday were the Broncos complete drubbing of the Cowboys in Denver, the Giants stifling of the Raiders at home, and the Jaguars’ 9-6 win over the Bills. All three division winners looked piss-poor on Sunday. Denver led Dallas 30-0 late in the fourth quarter before the Cowboys lowered the final score to 30-16 in garbage time. Dak Prescott struggled in his return to action going 19-of-39 for a 24.2 Total QBR and an interception. Denver also outrushed Dallas 190-78. Denver had lost four of five before this performance, which adds to the wonkiness.
The Bills continued their streak of looking bored, and playing down to their competition, but they legitimately looked sloppy. Jaguars young pass rusher Josh Allen outplayed the Bills rising star quarterback with the same name. Jacksonville’s Allen led his team with eight solo tackles, while victimizing Buffalo’s Allen for a sack, forced fumble and an interception. In such a ridiculous conference race, the Bills still look like a team talented enough to make the Super Bowl. While Buffalo and Dallas’ losses should raise some concern, both still seem like Super Bowl contenders. The Raiders, however, were exposed by a bad team with a solid defense. The Giants almost beat the Chiefs last Monday night with their defense. The G-Men forced three Raiders turnovers, including a Xavier McKinney pick-six of Derek Carr, and shut down Las Vegas’ offense in a classic “east coast team beats west coast team in early slate” result. The Giants’ tough, physical defense and home-field advantage in colder weather sort of exposed the good-but-not-great Raiders bunch.
— Two wins that did not feel wonky, were blowout victories by the Patriots over Panthers, and the Browns over the Bengals. Both teams dominated on the road, and will face each other next Sunday at 1:00pm ET on CBS, but they also deserve their praise this week before looking ahead. The Patriots continued their dominance of Sam Darnold, who moved to 0-4 versus the Patriots in his career, with one touchdown and nine interceptions. Just like his time with the New York Jets, Darnold was again apparently “seeing ghosts” versus New England, throwing three ghastly interceptions, including a pick-six to Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is in for a huge payday this offseason (or franchise tag). Jackson had two interceptions on Sunday, and leads the league in interceptions (21) since coming into the league as an undrafted rookie in 2018.
On a personal level, being mostly from the New England area, but going to high school in North Carolina, these Patriots-Panthers matchups have always been a premier event for me. Both teams have usually sported physical squads in the years they’ve faced off, and this time was no different. Carolina’s defense is a solid unit, with players such as EDGE defender Brian Burns being a rising star, veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson being an enforcer on the second level, and now former Patriot Stephon Gilmore (who victimized his old team for an interception on Sunday) no in the backend. Carolina forced two New England turnovers, but allowed a season-high 151 yards on the ground to the Patriots committee of running backs. New England fared much better defensively. It helps that they their own game-wrecker on defense in Matthew Judon (9.5 sacks), as well as a future All-Pro caliber defensive tackle in Christian Barmore, who swarmed Darnold all game and knocked down a few of his passes (saving a touchdown to Christian McCaffrey on one). New England is still figuring things out, but they are tough, physical and a solid football team. They are playoff-caliber.
So are the Browns, who pushed the Odell Beckham Jr. fiasco to the recesses of their minds in time to destroy the Bengals in Cincinnati, which may be a huge result come January. Cleveland won 41-16 behind a near-flawless game from Baker Mayfield, who was precise, and a solid running game (153 yards, 6.7 YPC) and defense, with the latter tallying five sacks and forcing two turnovers off Bengals QB Joe Burrow. Myles Garrett leads the league with 12 sacks now, and is the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year at the moment, if you asked me.
As mentioned above, Cleveland travels to New England this week for a massive AFC contest that could decide seeding come January.
— I originally planned on taking my first crack at the NFL MVP award race here at midseason, but the race is so messy at the moment, that I think it’s best to wait until after Thanksgiving (post-Week 12) for my first top-five ranking. In the past few weeks, injuries, bad play or stupidity have lessened the chances of Derrick Henry, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow and others from winning the award. Only Lamar Jackson improved his chances over the weekend, yet, I can’t tell you with certainty that I view him as the front-runner, as of now. This is such a wacky year. I think it’s best that we wait. (I promise this is is an act of intelligence, and not laziness on my part. The league is in a logjam, right now. Let’s wait for more answers).
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tennessee Titans (7-2) (Last week: 2). Their offense certainly misses Derrick Henry already, but we’ll give them credit here after that beatdown of the Rams in LA on Sunday night. This is a mentally and physically tough football team. Kudos, Mike Vrabel.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 4). In a week such as this one, it makes sense that Tom Brady’s bunch moves up a few spots.
3. Arizona Cardinals (8-1) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury is probably the lead-dog in the Coach of the Year race, as of now. The Cardinals pantsed the 49ers on Sunday without their best players (Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, etc.).s
4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2) (Last week: 1). Their defense didn’t play too bad, and that’s without Von Miller suiting up. But Matthew Stafford’s terrible, back-to-back interceptions in the first half downed them early.
5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Ravens have yet to play to their potential as a complete team, sans maybe their Week 6 blowout over the Chargers at home. They can play better defensively. Lamar Jackson and Justin Tucker have bailed this team out in the clutch in a couple of instances this season. Now they, just need to play better. They will.
6. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers’ disappointing handling of his COVID-19 vaccine situation (let’s face it, he lied, and his reasons for not getting the vaccine are asinine) certainly assists in putting lives at jeopardy, so let’s keep that in context when I say this here — Rodgers cost the Packers a win on Sunday night.This was a very winnable game for Green Bay, but Jordan Love simply wasn’t ready. The Packers defense played a fantastic game in Kansas City.
7. Buffalo Bills (5-3) (Last week: 3). No matter how you cut it, that was an inexcusable loss to one of the two or three worst teams in the league. They are one of the AFC’s best teams, but they need to get out of this funk. The Patriots are nipping at their heels in the AFC East, now.
8. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) (Last week: 6). Pretty shocking loss to the Broncos at home. Not much else to say. It seems like every contender will have a few stinkers this season. Let’s see how they respond.
9. Cleveland Browns (5-4) (Last week: 13). The Browns are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. They looked it on Sunday in Cincinnati.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) (Last week:14). They’ve caught a few breaks versus the Giants and Packers at home to win. Now, they’ll go to Las Vegas for a Sunday night game will huge ramifications in the AFC West. They still don’t look right on offense, but wins are wins. They could make a run.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 12). The Steelers host the Bears (3-5) in a very winnable game on Monday night.
12. New England Patriots (5-4) (Last week: 15). The Patriots improved to 4-0 on the road. They’re getting better as the season progresses after suffering a few close losses to possible Super Bowl contenders (Tampa Bay, Dallas) earlier. This 2021 New England team seems like a version of their 2001 squad that doesn’t win the Super Bowl.
13. New Orleans Saints (5-3) (Last week: 9). They should be higher, but their QB situation may turn into a real problem despite Trevor Siemian’s noble attempt in these past two games.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert bounced back nicely in Philadelphia. That was a much-needed clutch win on the road.
15. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 10). That was an ugly loss to the Giants that should have been a bit predictable. These Raiders have some juice on offense, even if it’s just Derek Carr and scheme, and a lack of overall star power, but they will struggle versus tougher teams (in terms of talent, and toughness) on the road. We’ll see if DeSean Jackson becomes a legitimate deep threat for them when he joins this week.
16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) (Last week: 11). The Bengals are probably not complete frauds. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are stars, no question, and Zac Taylor’s bunch has mostly improved on defense, but that side of the ball has looked ugly in their last two losses. They seem like a “next year” team. They’re almost there.
Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Denver, Atlanta, Seattle
This has already been a weird season. On Halloween night, things got crazier, as the league tightened even further in Week 8 (especially in the standings), forcing us prognosticators to have more questions, and less answers when it comes to predicting how things will go in January and February.
So, let’s take it to Quick-Hits, and Cover 2.
Saints stun Bucs
The Saints forced three Tom Brady turnovers, including a late, game-sealing pick-six by PJ Williams, and the Saints stunned the Buccaneers in New Orleans, despite losing Jameis Winston to a reported knee/ACL injury that could be season-ending. The crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was rockin’ the entire game, and the Saints’ defense was flying around the field with aggressiveness. When Winston went down, and New Orleans kept things simple for Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Sean Payton has been one of the four or five best head coaches in football for over 15 years now, yet doesn’t seem to get as much credit as he should. He was phenomenal on Sunday. The Saints’ 23-7 lead evaporated at one point, and Tampa bay took a 27-26 lead with just over five minutes to play. But the Saints calmly drove down the field and re-took the lead, even though they had a questionable managing of the clock (they gave Brady too much time). The Saints definitely look like a NFC wild card team, at least, but they probably aren’t catching Tampa Bay without a starting quarterback. Taysom Hill will return to the Saints soon, so you can expect them to use their packages with him at quarterback. If they can get receiver Michael Thomas back, that would make things even easier on Siemian, if he is indeed the starter for the rest of the season. It’s worth wondering if New Orleans would consider Cam Newton? He knows the division well, can run the same packages and plays that Hill runs, and is experienced enough to manage a game for a good team. It’s worth looking into.
A crowded AFC
As more weeks of football go by, the AFC seems like even more of a circus. How many good teams are there in the conference? Will multiple single-digit win teams (9-8, etc.) make the playoffs? Will the Chiefs (3-4) turn things around? Will the Bills (5-2), Titans (6-2) or Ravens (5-2) take advantage of the murkiness, and pseudo-lock up the conference’s top seed shortly after Thanksgiving by upping its play and going on a string of victories?
The conference truly is a mess, but it’s an exciting mess with tons of young, fresh quarterback talent (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Mac Jones, etc.). Still, all three of the quarterbacks I just named either struggled mightily, suffered an upset loss, or both, on Sunday. With backup quarterback Mike White starting (White was incredible on Sunday, and deserves his due), the Jets (2-6) erased an 11-point deficit late to defeat the Bengals (5-3). The Steelers (4-3) defeated the Browns (4-4), 15-10, in Cleveland, and that, coupled with the Patriots’ (4-4) win over the Chargers (4-3) in LA, and a Broncos (4-4) victory over Washington, make it impossible to predict wild card teams at the moment.
What we do know, is that the Bills and Titans, who started off slow on Sunday, are the conference’s two best teams at the moment, with the Ravens observing, the Chiefs still dormant, and the Raiders (5-2) as a surprise team that now many are talking about, even with the Jon Gruden mess. That’s about all we know, right now, which means we know just about nothing (give me the Bills to make the Super Bowl if I had to guess today).
All hail backup QBs!
A quick note here — give it up for the backup quarterbacks on Sunday. Jets QB Mike White, Saints QB Trevor Siemian and Cowboys QB Cooper Rush all came through for HUGE victories for their respective teams on Sunday. White was the best of the bunch, full game-wise. But all three came through in the clutch for game-winning drives, with White and Rush (former 2019 Cowboys training camp teammates), throwing for game-winning scores late. You couldn’t help but feel great for Rush and his family after seeing his family celebrate in the stands after his game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Awesome stuff. This was just another example of “Any Given Sunday.”
SAINTS 36, BUCCANEERS 27
We rightfully gave the Saints’ angle of this victory top billing above. They earned the victory. Still, right from the start it seemed like an off game for Tom Brady. It was the kind of game he’d have from time to time in New England. Famous Boston sports guy Bill Simmons would call these “bad body language” games. Still, Brady fights through these for victories once in awhile. Down 23-7 in the third quarter, Brady rallied the Bucs to a 27-26 lead with five-ish minutes left in the fourth period after a beautiful 50-yard touchdown heave to Cyril Grayson (his first career score) albeit on a blown Saints coverage. Brady (28-of-40, 375 yards, four touchdowns) ended up having a good game on paper, volume-wise, but New Orleans forced three turnovers, including the late pick-six, and sacked Brady three times. This Saints defense has given Brady a rough go this past year and a half. I’ll have to look at the All-22, but it seemed like the Saints played a ton of man coverage. In Cover 1 looks, New Orleans often employed a “robber” in coverage that sits in the middle of the field (think: yellow zone in Madden video games) to cut off crossers (same thing they utilized on the game-sealing interception touchdown). With Antonio Brown not active and Rob Gronkowski knocked out of the game early, Brady had less man coverage-beating pass catchers on the field, and New Orleans played the perfect scheme. The Saints flew around the field aggressively. Only Chris Godwin (eight catches, 140 yards, touchdown) seemed to beat Saints defenders often. After P.J. Williams’ pick-six, the game and moment reminded me of a couple things.
The Bucs’ surprising Halloween loss reminded me of the Steelers’ 34-20 victory over the defending-champion Patriots on Halloween in 2004. Rookie Ben Roethlisberger helped end New England’s still-NFL record 21 straight wins (including playoffs) and with a few key players out (running back Corey Dillon inactive, cornerback Ty Law left with a season-ending injury, etc.) Brady struggled versus an aggressive Pittsburgh defense, which victimized Brady for a pick-six in that game as well. Good news for Brady’s bunch, the Pats avenged the loss in the AFC title game that year, and went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls, something Tampa is striving for. And also after Williams’ pick-six on Sunday, Brady taking off his helmet and walking off the field reminded me of his late interception in the famous 2006 AFC Championship Game, where Brady threw a late pick to Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, which sealed a comeback win for Peyton Manning. This is all to say that even the most clutch quarterback the league has ever seen sometimes doesn’t come through, just as Michael Jordan missed game-winning shot attempts. This was a big win for New Orleans, and Tampa has some problems that could prevent them from winning another Super Bowl, but still, give me the Bucs to win the NFC South. They’ll be OK.
PATRIOTS 27, CHARGERS 24
New England’s virtual “home” win in Los Angeles (did you see all those Patriots fans?!) was huge for their playoff aspirations, but the Patriots still managed to make the win not feel as good as it should have. They struggled mightily in the red zone, and in Chargers territory in general. They’re still making killer, bonehead mistakes (Kendrick Bourne fumble) and committing back-breaking penalties (a string of holding calls that killed two drives in Chargers’ territory), and the offensive line, which held up OK in pass blocking, but could have been better, is still so-so.
Mac Jones began the game looking sharp, which included his deep heave to Nelson Agholor (45 yards), but then he went through a 2-for-13 stretch that included seven overthrows. He was jumpy/skittish for much of the game, and panicked too often, getting rid of the ball too early and missing his mark on make-able throws. Tis the journey of a rookie quarterback, I suppose.
New England did have success running the football, and they played surprisingly well in pass coverage. Former Charger Adrian Phillips was the player of the game, picking off Chargers QB Justin Herbert twice, including a go-ahead, eventual game-winning pick-six in the fourth-quarter. Matt Judon and rookie Christian Barmore each also sacked Herbert, and just to twist the knife, it was former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry sealing the game by recovering Los Angeles’ late onside kick. New England did play well enough to win, big picture, but they were lucky to play a team of similar fashion, that can’t get out of its own way, even if they are talented (which the Patriots indeed, are).
Basically, the Patriots had a solid game plan that helped key their victory. They ran the ball hard and seemingly played a ton of Cover 2/zone coverage that flummoxed Herbert, according to the QB. It was a classic “Bill Belichick” victory. It was the type of win that people act like they never happened in the Tom Brady era now that it’s over. They happen. But still, New England needed an atrocious performance by the Chargers (Herbert, special teams, penalties, etc.) to win. In a sense, both of these teams look like the Phillip Rivers-era Chargers right now. But it’s the Patriots with the important tiebreaker that may come in handy in January. That’s huge. New England can improve, clean up their act (will they ever?) and use this as a building block.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Los Angeles Rams (7-1) (Last week: 3). Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp is simply unstoppable. Rams host the Titans next week in a huge Super Bowl 34 rematch.
2. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 4). Carson Wentz’ blunder helped fuel another Titans comeback win. Still, it’s a good sign Tennessee is winning these kinds of games. They go to Los Angeles next week. Can they take down the Rams? That’s a huge game. (Updated editor’s note: Titans could be without Derrick Henry for the rest of the season due to a foot injury.)
3. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 5). The Dolphins predictably played the Bills tough in Buffalo, but Josh Allen and company put the pedal to the metal late.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 1). They have their bye week to rest up and to get healthier. They’ll bounce back.
5. Dallas Cowboys (6-1) (Last week: 7). This Dallas team is having a special season. They do seem a bit “destined,” but they’ve had no luck in the playoffs since their ’90s dynasty years.
6. Green Bay Packers (7-1) (Last week: 6). Big win in Arizona. They should be able to fight for the NFC’s important No. 1 seed, all the way down to the wire.
7. Arizona Cardinals (7-1) (Last week: 2). They had been toying with defeat for awhile. They finally got burned.
8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 9). The Ravens move up here during their bye week. They were given a gift this weekend when the Bengals were upset by the Jets.
9. New Orleans Saints (5-2) (Last week: 13). Huge win, but what will they do at quarterback? Still, they should be a wild card team, and if they are, Sean Payton should be in the mix for Coach of the Year.
10. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) (Last week: 12). The Raiders may have had the best week of any AFC team by not playing.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) (Last week: 8). Most AFC teams have a bad loss or two this year. The Jets beat the Titans a few weeks ago. So we’ll ease up some on the Bengals, but up 31-20 late against a team like this, starting their backup QB, you can’t lose in that fashion (Joe Burrow late INT). The Bengals are no Super Bowl contender. We can settle down now.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 15). Here come the Steelers. They can win a ton of games with their stingy defense and rookie back Najee Harris carrying the offense.
13. Cleveland Browns (4-4) (Last week: 11). Baker Mayfield is banged up and not playing well. The Browns should be a playoff team, but now they are in trouble.
14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) (Last week:14). The AFC is such a mess that the Chiefs have ample opportunity to make a run in the conference.
15. New England Patriots (4-4) (Last week: NR). The Patriots are 3-0 on the road, and were in position to beat the Dolphins, Cowboys and defending-champion, Brady-led Bucs at home this season. They’re a solid team that needs to clean up their act.
16. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) (Last week: 10). The Chargers are talented, but are they actually any good?
Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina
What initially looked like a rough slate of games heading into the weekend, proved so in Week 7.
If you took the two most interesting early games (Chiefs-Titans, Bengals-Ravens) and the “TV ratings” slot in the late afternoon (Bears-Buccaneers), and combined the scores, you’d get a 106-23 total, with all three contests finishing with at least a 24-point margin of victory.
That’s not even including scores like the Patriots 54-13 onslaught over the Jets, the Cardinals 31-5 drubbing of the Texans, or the Giants 25-3 victory over the now-spiraling Panthers.
Still, results like the one in Tennessee produced interesting Monday morning talking points. Are the Titans now a juggernaut? Will the Chiefs even make the playoffs?
Here’s my Quick-Hits for the week:
Here Come The Titans
Just like that, the Tennessee Titans (5-2) followed an abysmal Week 3 overtime loss to the New York Jets by rattling off three straight impressive wins.
They’ve now defeated both of last year’s AFC finalists (Bills, Chiefs) in the past six days, and have a chance to virtually close the door on the AFC South when they travel to Indianapolis in an attempt to sweep the Colts, their only challenger in the division.
Tennessee has largely had success running behind the NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry, and utilizing Ryan Tannehill on play-action and bootleg passing concepts for downfield throws to A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. But versus the Chiefs, the Titans were held to 2.9 yards per carry on 35 attempts. So with help from a solid performance from Tannehill (21/27, 270 yards, one touchdown) and Brown (eight catches, 133 yards, one touchdown), it was Tennesee’s defense that took control versus the offensively-dangerous Chiefs.
The Titans beat the Chiefs 27-3, forcing three Patrick Mahomes turnovers, sacking Mahomes four times, and holding the young phenom to 5.9 yards per per attempt and a Total QBR of 6.0. This was by far Mahomes’ worst regular season performance of his career, and probably his worst game ever, moving ahead of his Super Bowl 55 outing last February.
Tennessee began the season with obvious holes on defense, particularly in the secondary, and they lost rookie cornerback Caleb Farley, their first-round pick last Spring, to a torn ACL in Week 6. The Titans also came into this game ranked 28th in total defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and ranked 27th versus the pass.
But Tennessee has gotten a much-needed boost from their pass rush this season. Fourth-year EDGE Harold Landry, a 2018 second-rounder from Boston College, has 7.5 sacks on the season, good for second in the league. Landry had a sack on Sunday. Interior defender Denico Autry had two sacks on Mahomes, and has been solid up front. Then there’s Bud Dupree, the Titans’ cash cow of the offseason. Dupree has missed a few games, and his sack on Sunday was his first of the year, but Tennessee knows they have one of the best overall stand-up EDGE defenders in the league in Dupree when healthy.
Head coach Mike Vrabel has a team built on toughness, both mental and physical, with the league’s best running back, a top-tier wide receiver duo, and a quarterback capable of running a deadly play-action attack. Now, they have a glimmer of hope on defense. Tennessee is right in the thick of things in the AFC, and as of now, they look great for the long-term this season, with the likes of the Buffalo Bills and maybe Baltimore Ravens.
These Titans are legit.
What in the world is wrong with the Chiefs?
Seven games in, it’s apparent that the Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) have one of the worst defenses in the league, and this season, it will probably be too much to overcome. The unit is that bad.
But now, the offense has begun to sputter. At least it did on Sunday.
We addressed Mahomes’ stat line in the blurb above. He was bad on Sunday. But still, his re-shaped offensive line, which should improve, was terrible, giving Mahomes little time to do anything.
Mahomes now leads the league in interceptions (9) and turnovers (11), and is often trying his best to create the big play when it’s not there. And that big play, the highlight-reel deep shot to Tyreek Hill, is often not there because opposing defenses are playing two-high coverage (2-man, Cover 2, Cover 4, etc.) at an alarming rate versus the Chiefs, with some success as of late.
Mahomes loves the big play. He loves to scramble and search for Hill deep and Travis Kelce attacking soft zone coverage underneath. But with the offensive line struggling, Mahomes doesn’t have time for much, and no one outside of Hill or Kelce seems of capable of being a consistent threat.
Still, Mahomes, and Andy Reid, need to adjust the offense and their strategy, to attack via long drives and shorter throws for the time being, until the O-line gets up to speed. That’s not necessarily Kanas City’s game, and it will be tough, but they can’t have Mahomes running around trying to make plays when he’s taking the beating he has these past couple of weeks.
Part of this is on Mahomes. We saw a similar situation in Super Bowl 55. Sure, Tampa Bay destroyed KC’s depleted O-line, and that was mostly why the Chiefs were killed in that game. But often times, Mahomes avoids the dump-off or check-down pass to attempt to run around and make a play. That’s burned him this calendar year.
Still, even after his lowly performance Sunday, Mahomes is sixth in the league in Total QBR, third in EPA/drop back, and is third in the NFL in passing touchdowns (18). The 2021 Chiefs aren’t dead, but they’re severely wounded. Will they adapt, or die?
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1) (Last week: 1). Tom Brady is your NFL MVP at the moment. And yes, he may even reach the 700-TD mark in career regular season passing touchdowns, one day. He may play forever.
3. Los Angeles Rams (6-1) (Last week: 3). Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions pulled out all the tricks (recovered onside kick, two fake punts converted for first downs) and Jared Goff played admirably in his return to Los Angeles, but Matthew Stafford’s 59-yard pass to Cooper Kupp on a 3rd-and-12 late in the third quarter should reassure the Rams that they have the right quarterback. Also, Cooper Kupp is uncoverable. What a season he is having.
4. Tennessee Titans (5-2) (Last week: 8). Here come the Titans, indeed. This is a tough team. They’re fun to watch.
5. Buffalo Bills (4-2) (Last week: 4). The Bills still look like the long-term favorite in the AFC, but we have to give Tennessee their due for now.
6. Green Bay Packers (6-1) (Last week: 6). Not much has been said of the Packers this season, but they’ve won six straight. Up next? The Cardinals in Arizona on Thursday night. A big one.
7. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) (Last week: 7). They’ll come off their bye week with a Sunday Night Football game in Minnesota. It will be tougher than it appears.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) (Last week: 14). Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and of course, head coach Zac Taylor, deserve a ton of credit here for the Bengals’ surprising start. They look legit. Have to give credit where credit is due.
9. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 5). The Ravens have had some sloppy games this season. They were lucky enough to have miracle wins versus the Lions and Colts, but were burned here in an important AFC North showdown. It’s a long season, though. I ultimately think they’ll win the division, but they belong here for this week. They need to tighten things up.
10. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) (Last week: 9). They’ll look to put the ugly Ravens loss behind them after chewing on it over the bye week. They’ll host the Patriots on Sunday in a game that could decide an AFC wild card spot come January. New England beat Justin Herbert’s Chargers 45-0 last December.
11. Cleveland Browns (4-3) (Last week: 11). The Browns are beat up, but still have the recipe for January success. They have to make it there, though. That was a big win over the Denver Broncos.
12. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) (Last week: 13). The Raiders have now won their first two games without Jon Gruden, and Derek Carr is quietly playing like one of the game’s best quarterbacks in a year that has many MVP-like campaigns. This tweet by the NFL’s Gregg Rosenthal was well-put.
13. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 12). A win in Seattle on Monday night would be of big help to the Saints’ playoff chances down the line.
14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) (Last week:10). Can they right the ship? This is a season from hell for them, to start. I see this sort of like their “2005 Patriots” season. Go look up that year. There’s still hope for the Chiefs to at least be a playoff team.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Last week: 15). The Steelers are quietly positioning themselves to make some noise in the wild card race.
16. Minnesota Vikings (3-3) (Last week: NR). The Vikings really should be 4-2, but they missed a chip-shot game-winning kick to beat the undefeated Cardinals a few weeks ago. They’re talented. Same story with them from the last couple of seasons, really.
Next Up: Indianapolis, New England, Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco
The marquee ‘TV ratings’ matchup in the Sunday late afternoon window delivered a classic on Sunday.
Cowboys 35, Patriots 29, in overtime, in Foxboro, Massachussetts.
It was the Cowboys’ first win in six tries versus Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and it was Dallas’ first win over New England since a 12-6 victory over the Pats in 1996 when Bill Parcells was the team’s head coach, and Belichick was the club’s defensive coordinator.
There’s a lot to take away from a game like this:
— The Cowboys are not only ‘for real,’ they are a Super Bowl contender.
— Dak Prescott is an NFL MVP candidate, especially after his 445 passing yards (most ever versus a Belichick-coached team) and game tape exhibiting clutch throw after clutch throw in this primetime game against the Patriots. He was money.
— Mac Jones has shown glimpses of possible stardom in the future, be he, and this Patriots team are in transition. They have promise, and talent, but they’re blowing games late (fumbles, blocked punts, failures on ‘got-to-have-it’ plays) at a 21st-century Chargers-level since even the end of the 2019 season, with Tom Brady at quarterback (think: Week 17 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins with Brady in New England).
“We went toe-to-toe with them for 60 minutes,” Belichick said after the game. “They just made a few more plays than we did.”
Once thought of as a ‘moral victory’ equipped with silver linings, these types of losses are becoming too abundant for that term to be used any longer with these Patriots.
They have too many bullet holes in their foot, too many exhausted conservative-approach-infused decisions in major moments and an overall distrust of their young rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, in big moments.
The frustrating part about these Patriots is that they’ve played good teams well, for the most part, even going back to last season before they sort of gave up later in the year in losses to the Rams and Bills.
With Cam Newton, New England fell one-yard short of a major upset in Seattle, and a month or so later, Newton’s late fumble in Bills’ territory ended any hope of what was almost a major upset win in Buffalo.
This season, Damien Harris’ fumble was a self-thwart that ended any chance of a Week 1 victory over Miami, and despite keeping it close with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (and Tom Brady) and now, Dallas, the Patriots failed to deliver, again.
“When you look at the big picture, you never want to say you’re close; it’s hard to do that,” Jones said. “But the games we’ve lost we’ve been two or three plays away. I guess that’s how the NFL works, and I’m learning that the hard way.”
The teams that consistently make those plays, like the Buccaneers, the Patriots of the 2000s and 2010s, and yes, these Cowboys, are the teams that find themselves playing deep in January.
Dallas has won just three playoff games in the last 25 years, and have failed to move past the NFC Divisional round since their last Super Bowl win in 1995.
They are a prime example for fans to witness just how hard a franchise can fall post-dynasty.
The Patriots, of course, had nearly 20 years of unprecedented success. Simply labeling them a ‘Dynasty’ almost does them disservice.
But however you want to label it, Belichick and Mac Jones have work to do, even if the Cowboys’ star QB, Dak Prescott, thinks Jones is in a great spot.
“And when you have a bad play or an interception and the game changes right there, you gotta have the water-down-a-duck’s-back mentality. Let it go. It’s over. Mac’s got that. I really like what I see out of him. He’ll be a good quarterback for a long time.”
Jones followed up his late pick-six to former Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs on Dallas, with a 74-yard throwing strike to Kendrick Bourne to take the lead before Prescott rallied the Cowboys through a 4th-and-4 and subsequent 3rd-and-25 to help them score nine points at the end of regulation and overtime to win.
The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best offenses behind Prescott, his dynamic pass-catching duo of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb (who scored the winning touchdown in overtime), running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a top-tier offensive line, which has returned to greatness this season.
Prescott dropped back to pass 51 times on Sunday, and was never sacked.
On defense, Dallas has improved from subpar to so-so. With guys like Diggs (seven interceptions in six games), rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and pass rusher Randy Gregory, the team at least has playmakers capable of forcing turnovers and disrupting an offense.
In an NFC with several contenders in undefeated Arizona (6-0), Green Bay (5-1), the Los Angeles Rams (5-1) and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (5-1), the Cowboys are right there in the mix.
The Cowboys and Patriots, the NFL’s last two dynasties, are two teams in wildly different places at the moment.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). They move back to the top spot by default after the Bills’ loss. They should take care of the Bears at home this week.
2. Arizona Cardinals (6-0) (Last week: 3). They surprised many again by soundly defeating the Browns in Cleveland. They get a bye now to rest up.
3. Los Angeles Rams (5-1) (Last week: 4). I still think the Rams will be in the mix, probably in the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl, come January/February. But the NFC is a lot better than we thought, so this is a tougher task for them than I had imagined a few weeks ago.
4. Buffalo Bills (4-2) (Last week: 1). Josh Allen was stopped twice from reaching a key first down late in Tennessee, but I still think the decision to go for it was the correct call. The Bills will be OK.
5. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 6). Their 34-6 win over the Chargers may be the most impressive win of any NFL team this season. They ran all over LA, garnering 187 yards on just under five yards per carry.
6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 7). Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams alone make Green Bay a serious contender in the NFC once more.
7. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) (Last week: 10). Dak Prescott now finds himself near the very top in the beginning of the NFL MVP race after his performance in New England on Sunday.
8. Tennessee Titans (4-2) (Last week: 10). Derrick Henry (and maybe Adrian Peterson, as well) is this era’s Jim Brown.
9. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) (Last week: 5). That was a humbling loss in Baltimore. Now they have their bye week to chew on it.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) (Last week:11). They picked things up in Washington in the second half to look more like the Chiefs of old on Sunday.
11. Cleveland Browns (3-3) (Last week: 8). They’re much better than their record suggests, but here they are, and they have some major injuries, too. Will Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb be able to suit up versus the Broncos on Thursday?
12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 12). They had their bye week this past weekend. They’ll be in the wild card mix all season.
13. Las Vegas Raiders (4-2) (Last week: 14). That was a huge win in Denver, for their first outing without Jon Gruden.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) (Last week: NR). Good teams beat up bad teams. The Bengals beat the Lions 34-11 in Detroit. Is this team actually…good?
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Even in their “off” years, the Steelers find a away to finish around .500.
16. Minnesota Vikings (3-3) (Last week: NR). The Vikings have been a wild ride to start the year. They’re a team with talent. That win in overtime over the Panthers may decide the NFC’s No. 7 seed come January.
Next Up: San Francisco, Chicago, Carolina, Indianapolis, Atlanta
Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season featured a slew of missed kicks, exciting finishes, and an overarching changing-of-the-guard storyline in the AFC, as the conference dominated by the likes of the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the 21st century, and the Kansas City Chiefs recently, will seemingly be lead by some of the league’s most talented teams in the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns (huh?!) in 2021.
Buffalo looks like the NFL’s best and most complete team after bolstering their pass rush this offseason, with rookie first-round pick Gregory Rosseau (6-foot-6, 267 pounds) leading the charge for that unit.
In Kansas City last Sunday night, Buffalo forced four Patrick Mahomes turnovers and Josh Allen amassed 374 total yards and four touchdowns and a 91.6 Total QBR with no turnovers and no sacks.
Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.
With the Chiefs driving, down 31-13 to the Bills with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter, Rosseau tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage for a Bills interception, prompting the thought of the night by NBC‘s Chris Collinsworth.
“When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back on this night and say ‘this is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC,” Collinsworth said.
After losing twice to the Chiefs last year, including in the AFC title game, Buffalo has already leapfrogged the conference powerhouse in October as the conference’s lead dog.
Behind them, there’s the Ravens, where Lamar Jackson is carrying the Ravens to last-second, comeback wins, and throwing the ball with authority, pitting him with the likes of Josh Allen at the top of any too-early MVP award discussions.
Justin Herbert is having a similar, red-hot start to the season for the Chargers, who outlasted the Browns, 47-42 last Sunday, and defeated the Chiefs in Kansas City in a tight contest in Week 2.
The Browns, who also blew a Week 1 game in Kansas City in addition to their similar, late-game letdown to the Chargers, may be the most talented team in the conference.
Myles Garrett is the early-season leader for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Browns as a team lead the NFL in rushing (187.6 yards per game) with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way behind a monstrous, guiding-light offensive line that was put together in the 2020 offseason, and now on Year 2 of their dominance.
Really, the Chiefs, despite their 2-3 mark, lack of a running game, and porous defense from all angles, should still be considered a contender as long as Patrick Mahomes is leading the offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as his top targets.
But Kansas City is missing additional pass catchers, or a running game, to help take the pressure off Mahomes, who is seeing a litany of two-high coverages, whether it’s 2-man or Cover-2, that have taken away the Chiefs’ usual downfield chunk plays, forcing them to run the ball or produce long drives, while pressuring Mahomes and forcing him out of the pocket.
To put the Chiefs offense in perspective, they are still the No. 1-ranked offense by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, but Mahomes has less 20-yard completions than the likes of Mac Jones and Jared Goff.
The Chiefs are virtually three games behind the Chargers considering their Week 2 loss, but there is more than enough time to make up ground.
But really, they look like a wild card bunch at best this year, with a new basket of quarterbacks leading more complete teams to victory.
The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.
Herbert’s deep-ball has led to a Mike Williams renaissance as a perimeter receiver and deep threat. Running back Austin Ekeler and route-running genius Keenan Allen are mismatches for defenses in the shallow and intermediate levels of the field. And under new head coach Brandon Staley’s Cover-3 style defense brought over from the Rams, the Chargers have looked much better on defense, save for their game versus Cleveland. Joey Bosa is one of the best pass rushers in football, and Derwin James is the perfect roaming athlete for such a scheme in the secondary.
Still, while putting the Chargers and Chiefs aside, and with no mention of the still-tough Tennessee Titans, who look locked into the AFC South title, it still appears both the Ravens and Browns appear like the best long-term threats to Buffalo this season.
Each has a bludgeoning running game.
We mentioned Cleveland above, but Baltimore, with a sturdy offensive line and a litany of additional blockers (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard) at tight end, H-back and fullback, has the perfect mix of old-school blocking with and new-age finesse with Lamar Jackson shredding defenses on designed runs behind a traditional and yesteryear blocking front.
Despite the great coaching from the likes of Staley and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are more experienced. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent franchises this century, and that seems to carry them to a Super Bowl run at least once per decade. That could be this year.
All this is said to lead to this — the AFC has regained power over the NFC as the league’s top conference overall. And this deep group includes talented teams of all types, with different schemes, concepts and strengths.
The Bills are in charge now, but there are several teams right there, and even with their struggles, it’s too early to fully give up on the Chiefs.
Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 1). They’re the best team in football right now. No question. The only things missing last year were their running game, pass rush and ability to defend Mahomes and Kansas City. They’ve figured out all three things, it seems.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). Despite all the fuss regarding Allen, Jackson, Herbert, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, it’s 44-year-old Tom Brady, who through six games has looked on a mission (2,064 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, two game-winning drives), that is the MVP leader at this point. It’s early, though.
3. Arizona Cardinals (5-0) (Last week: 3). Arizona faces a tall task in Cleveland this week. How well can this reimagined defense defend the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack?
4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 4). They should take care of the Giants this weekend. They were the talk of the league two weeks ago. Things change quickly. They’re a season-long contender in the NFC.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) (Last week: 9). They’re winning the close contests that used to bring them heartbreak. This is a different team.
6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). They’ve escaped with wins over the Lions and Colts that they certainly should have lost. They’ll get it together. Lamar Jackson has been awesome as a passer so far this season.
7. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 7). They’re kind of on autopilot at this point, but we know they can compete with anyone in the conference as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.
8. Cleveland Browns (3-2) (Last week: 5). They easily could be 5-0. They certainly should be at least 4-1. They have the recipe to be a Super Bowl winner, but they need to figure out how to win those close games versus good teams. Baker Mayfield needs to do better in the clutch. They’ll be without Nick Chubb this weekend, but with Kareem Hunt, they have enough to beat Arizona. This is a big game for them.
9. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) (Last week: 10). The NFC East is clearly theirs, but the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996, and they are 0-5 versus Bill Belichick. The TV-ratings game of the week will be a fun pitting of a successful pass offense versus a well-coached, usually-sound defense.
10. Tennessee Titans (3-2) (Last week: 14). Like the Packers, they feel very auto-pilot-y, but they, too, have the strengths (Derrick Henry, running game) to be a force come playoff time. They need to figure things out on defense, though.
11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) (Last week:8). The offensive line and running game will improve as the season goes along, which will open things up for Mahomes and company for their deep passing game. It’s not time to panic, yet. They definitely don’t look like a Super Bowl team this season, though.
12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: NR). They’re a solid football team that would be even better with a more consistent quarterback. They’ll mostly live and die with Jameis Winston.
13. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: NR). The Bears have won three of four, and Justin Fields is now getting his reps. Things are going well, for now.
14. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 11). With Jon Gruden out of the picture, what happens next? Will they fall apart? Or will they rally around their team?
15. San Francisco 49ers (2-3) (Last week: 13). Bad injury luck is mounting again. This is a good football team, but it’s tough competing in the NFC West. Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback in this past draft, and he still is, but he clearly needs time to develop.
16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: 15). That was a rough home loss to the Eagles. That was maybe a sign that they aren’t quite ready to compete in the playoffs like we thought they were. Sam Darnold is still much better than we thought he was, but cracks are starting to reappear. They have a huge game at home this week versus the Vikings. This one could decide a wild card spot come January.
Next Up: Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota/Philadelphia
“I’m really tired. For a regular-season game, that was pretty intense…God is it hard to come in here and win a football game.”
The defending champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1), had withstood a gutsy (albeit erratic) performance from the New England Patriots (1-3), a team once known for their Super Bowl stardom, now rebuilding, and searching for a better identity.
Here are three takeaways from the conclusion of perhaps the most anticipated regular season game in NFL history:
— The embrace between Tom Brady and the Patriots’ fans and the organization went as well as it could have. From the outpouring of love from fans leading up to the game, pre-game, while Brady broke the all-time passing yards mark (with previous record-holder Drew Brees in attendance) and after the game, to Brady’s embrace with former teammates, Josh McDaniels (before and after the game), Robert Kraft, and yes, even Bill Belichick, for a 23-minute conversation in the Tampa locker room, following the game. Everything went smoothly. It was a great moment.
“Very emotional week,” Brady said to the press afterward. “These guys are like my brothers.”
Brady did his best to remain poised throughout the contest. Overall, he made great decisions and floated some gorgeous passes later in the game as he settled into a contest surrounded by hoopla. But it was obvious from the start, Brady was emotional, and the overall tone and weirdness of the game was omnipresent throughout the battle.
But for all the talk over what transpired over the past few years, it appears Patriots fans can rest easy, that Tom still appreciates his time with New England, forever his football home.
“I’ll be part of this community for a long time…When it’s all said and done, and I retire, you know, I’ll be around, and they’ll get a chance to see more of me” Brady told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya after the game.
Prior to the game, Robert Kraft floated the idea of Brady returning post-career for what would be a fitting ceremony that should, and in all likelihood will happen.
“In the end, I hope and believe he’ll come back here and we’ll give him his red jacket, and he’ll retire a Patriot,” Kraft told Willie McGinest and Kay Adams in an NFL Network interview prior to the game.
Brady somewhat deflected the notion after the game, seemingly out of respect for the Bucs’ organization, their fan base, and his current obligation to focus in on his current team.
“Are you offering me a one-day contract or did he offer me that?,” Brady said to the media, jokingly, when asked about the scenario after the game.
“He didn’t offer me that, so…I still got some time left with the Bucs, and like I said, really enjoying that. We got a lot to accomplish this year. It’s a tough challenging year. It’s a marathon of a season. It’s only four games in. There is a lot football to be played. It feels good to win on the road, so happy we did that.”
Still, all night, it was clear that Brady is still emotionally invested in the Patriots organization and the New England fans, and that aspect of ‘The Return’ was perfectly executed by all involved. Bravo.
— In the matchup of Brady vs Belichick, the Patriots coach devised a perfectly-schemed game plan versus the Buccaneers’ offense, that was executed well enough for the Patriots to win. I’ll look at the All-22 film to produce my first defensive film review piece of the season for Patriots Wire, if the film is out in time this week, so look out for that, since we’ll know more then, but it appeared New England stuck with pretty clear man-coverage assignments (J.C. Jackson on Mike Evans, Jalen Mills and Chris Godwin, Jonathan Jones and Antonio Brown) with a mixture of middle-of-the-field zone coverage in the deep, intermediate and shallow parts of the field, via safeties, linebackers and on-the-line rushers dropping back into coverage. On clear passing downs, Belichick was able to mask his looks with several “amoeba” formations with most rushers standing in front of the Bucs’ O-line, moving around pre-snap to disguise who was rushing, and who was dropping back into coverage.
Buccaneers send 5 receivers into routes, so looks like Brady slides his protection away from the side where he wants to throw vs a blitz look.
Matthew Judon (one sack, two QB hits, four hurries, four run stuffs, two tackles for loss), the only big-ticket 2021 free-agent signing consistently producing for Belichick, was particularly effective, bulldozing past members of Tampa’s stout offensive line at times, while also getting to Brady with his speed and athleticism at other times, and doing his best on the edge in run defense. Jalen Mills was particularly stout on Godwin (three catches, 55 yards) and the Patriots’ zone brackets in general looked like they did an awesome job of cutting off Tampa’s in-breaking routes in the intermediate part of the field.
In all, Brady’s stat line (22-of-43, 269 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt, 55.3 Total QBR) is exactly what you want if you’re the Patriots. Without Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate had an ugly, key drop, and Antonio Brown couldn’t hang on to a beautiful Brady long-ball for a go-ahead touchdown late, but really, the Patriots defense played well enough to win this game.
Jeff Saturday on the Pats defensive game plan: "I recognized it so much because they did it to Peyton Manning every time they played him. That was the way they played Peyton Manning it's the way they played Tom Brady, to limit the big plays."
This New England defense is a top-tier unit in the league, defensively, and they may have Stephon Gilmore returning soon.
— Mac Jones almost had his moment. In a weird, old-school-feeling Giants-Patriots, Eli Manning-Brady era-looking contest, the Patriots were in position to win, but just couldn’t pull it off. Alas, two turnovers, some sloppy play, more letdowns in got-to-have-it-moments (an all too familiar part of the Patriots identity since late 2019) included a failed attempt to score a touchdown to take a 21-16 lead while inside the 10-yard-line late in the fourth quarter, instead settling for a field goal, their last points of the game. There were several moments to be dissected, including Belichick conservatively opting not to trust Mac Jones on a 4th-and-2 in Tampa territory late at the end of the first half, and then again on a 4th-and-3 in the final minute of the game, instead opting for a 56-yard Nick Folk field goal attempt in the pouring rain, in which Folk heroically almost came through with one of the great kicks of all time, that ultimately hit the left upright with a loud “thud.”
A thud, is sort of what the 2021 Patriots are at this point. There have been comparisons to this team and the 2001 Patriots, as the franchise begins anew under Mac Jones. And heck, that team started 1-3 before eventually winning the Super Bowl. But that team, a well-disciplined bunch, came through when it mattered. There would be no game-winning kick (a la Adam Vinatieri) on this night, just as there would be no game-winning drive. New England is now 1-3 and 0-3 at home, with two gut-wrenching losses to the Dolphins (Damien Harris’ late fumble sealed it) and now, the Bucs.
Still, Mac Jones played well enough to win this game, and has shown a lot of promise.
Mac Jones completed 19 straight passes Sunday night.
According to @EliasSports that's tied with Tom Brady (9/10/2015 vs Steelers) for the most in a single game by a Patriots player since 1978 (1st season of the 16-game schedule). pic.twitter.com/ICSSgOhWFL
The rookie completed 19 consecutive passes in a period in the second half, which included a go-ahead touchdown drive culminating in a throwing score to Jonnu Smith, that saw Jones go 7-of-7 on that drive to give New England the 14-13 lead.
Really, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Mac Jones and the defense all played well enough to win this game, which is probably why this loss stings so much for New England.
The potential is there, even with Jones and the offense going just 2-for-9 on third down conversions, and Jones still being pressured by pass rushers (4 sacks, 12 QB hits on Jones by Tampa on Sunday), due to a disappointing O-line, which was met with Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ famous blitz-heavy scheme. The rookie also overcame the Patriots absolutely abysmal rushing performance, which saw the team run for -1 yards on eight carries versus Tampa’s top-ranked rushing defense, led by monster interior defenders Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.
When given the time to throw, Mac Jones (31-of-40, 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) has proven more than capable, as the Patriots are beginning to find at least a small groove in spreading defenses out in empty, shotgun looks. Jakobi Meyers (eight catches, 70 yards) and Kendrick Bourne (five catches, 58 yards) are beginning to have their moments, but the team is still not getting enough out of their two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, despite their two short touchdown catches on Sunday.
Still, there are brilliant flashes with Jones operations a Patriots/Brady-style offense.
Bourne called Jones a “baby Tom” after the game, and Tom Brady and several other Buccaneers praised the Patriots quarterback.
“He was poised. We hit him a lot of times and he stayed in the scheme and moved the ball for them when he had to move the ball for them.”
For now, as he learns behind a caving offensive line, a disappointing running game and the lack of a true No. 1 pass catcher, Jones will still learn a ton, find his resolve, and continue to improve. So far, he looks the part of a franchise quarterback.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 4). As each week passes, their Week 1 loss to the Steelers continues to be more of an aberration. They are the best team in football right now.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) (Last week: 2). Their secondary is an absolute mess right now, but a favorable upcoming schedule should help keep them afloat near the top of the NFC.
3. Arizona Cardinals (4-0) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch is soaring after a month. They are the last remaining undefeated team. That was a helluva win over the Rams in Los Angeles. Is their defense good enough for them to be a contender this season? Will their offense keep this up all year?
4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 1). They didn’t get up for their home match versus Arizona like they did versus the Bucs. They’re still the NFC West favorite. They have a quick turnaround for a game in Seattle on Thursday.
5. Cleveland Browns (3-1) (Last week: 3). They’re one of the most talented teams in the league, but they aren’t quite playing like it, week to week. They need to hit their stride.
6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) (Last week: 5). That was a telling win in Denver. That’s 43 straight 100-yard rushing games for the Ravens as a team, which ties an NFL record.
7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 8). They’re coming along after that ugly Week 1 loss to New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers’ bunch are a Super Bowl contender, once more.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) (Last week: 10). They’re tied for second in points per game (33.5) and are ranked 31st in points per game allowed (31.3). That sounds about right.
9. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1) (Last week: 15). Justin Herbert already looks like one of the best quarterbacks in football, and Brandon Staley may be an early Coach of the Year candidate. But, these are the Chargers. They find ways to disappoint. Will they buck the trend this year? They’re next three games: versus Browns, at Ravens, versus Patriots. That’s tough.
10. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 16). They have a top-tier offense, and their defense, although not great, has enough blue-chippers (Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs) to make some plays.
11. Las Vegas Raiders (3-1) (Last week: 8). Their defense isn’t great, which puts a lot of pressure on Derek Carr and the offense.
12. Seattle Seahawks (2-2) (Last week: NR). They weren’t going to just lie down and fall to 1-3. That was a big win.
13. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) (Last week: 9). Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback coming into the 2021 NFL Draft. He still is. But even I think it may be too soon for him to take full control of the offense. Let’s see if Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy enough to play on Sunday.
14. Tennessee Titans (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly overtime loss to the Jets in New York. They did fight back though. They play down to their competition too much.
15. Carolina Panthers (3-1) (Last week: 12). That was a tough loss in Dallas. Their defense is legitimately talented, but they’re not quite the league’s No. 1 unit. Sam Darnold has been great, though, at quarterback.
16. Denver Broncos (3-1) (Last week: 13). A win there over Baltimore would have been huge. Now, they’re stuck up top the AFC West in that early-season logjam.
Next Up: New Orleans, Cincinnati, New England, Washington, Minnesota/Indianapolis
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — With three seconds remaining in the first half, and the Rams leading the Buccaneers 14-7 in an early-season NFC showdown, Tampa Bay kicker Ryan Succop attempted to cut Los Angeles’ lead to four points heading into halftime.
The kick sailed wide right.
Rams head coach Sean McVay seemingly unleashed his pent up energy via a moment of exuberance on the sideline.
It’s just September, but the Rams have laid claim as the NFL’s best team in the early going after a 34-24 defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This is a squad with a beautiful new stadium (SoFi Stadium is also the host of Super Bowl 56 this February), a new star quarterback, one of the NFL’s best route runners and slot magicians, an all-time deep threat, and maybe the two best defensive players in the league.
The Rams are built like a top-heavy roster, but their stars showed out on Sunday.
Matthew Stafford went 27-of-38 for 343 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. DeSean Jackson is 34 years old, but showcased why he is one of the all-time best deep threats on a 75-yard score in the third quarter. Cooper Kupp put Bucs defensive backs in a blender, catching nine passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns, upping his total to five on the season and changing narratives regarding him, as he’s the No. 1-scoring fantasy football receiver through three weeks. And on defense, Aaron Donald posted a sack, destroyed a screen, and was overall menacing throughout, as was Jalen Ramsey, who added his confidence in swagger in defending Tom Brady passes from the slot and the perimeter.
When asked if this team can reach the Super Bowl, Donald told The Athletic: “It’s the only thing I’m chasing. It’s a long season, but I think we’re in a good position.”
That they are. This was the second year in a row the Rams had beaten Tampa Bay, who had come into this game with 10 straight wins dating back to 10 months ago.
Los Angeles got ahead early and won 27-24 in Tampa last Thanksgiving, and that was with Jared Goff at quarterback.
The Rams match up versus Tom Brady’s bunch nicely.
They have a sturdy pass rush, but more importantly, they create inside pressure with Donald and Kenny Young (one sack on Sunday). The ability to push the pocket from the middle of the line, while containing on the outside is a good way of defeating a top-tier pocket quarterback, even if that QB is the greatest of all-time.
In the secondary, Ramsey is the league’s No. 1 cornerback, and his ability to play the perimeter and in the nickel/slot role as a “Star” gives Los Angeles the ability to move him around. One play he’ll guard Mike Evans on the outside, and in the red zone, maybe he’ll move inside versus Rob Gronkowski, like he did some in the 2017 AFC title game matchup between the Jaguars and Patriots.
Opposite Ramsey is burgeoning star No. 2 cornerback Darious Williams. Last year’s fourth-highest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus is on the J.C. Jackson fast track established in New England, where the No. 2 cornerback learned heavily from then best-in-the-league No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
The defense as a unit sacked Brady three times on Sunday, limited Tampa to 2.7 yards per rush, and allowed just seven points to the Buccaneers in about two-and-a-half quarters before taking a 21-7 lead and forcing Tampa Bay into air-it-out mode, which boosted Brady’s end-of-game stat line (41-of-55, 432 passing yards).
On offense, Stafford has the look of an MVP-front runner. The team’s wide receiver core compliments each other nicely.
Kupp, the team’s No. 1 WR, is 6-foot-2 but has the ability to stop-and-start almost like Wes Welker, while also being a downfield threat. Robert Woods is a solid veteran possession receiver, Van Jefferson is a young route-running maestro and the aforementioned Jackson can still get behind a defense.
The team’s Shanahan-y offense with McVay’s own twists, has been a force in the league for the last few seasons, but the unit became stale under Jared Goff.
Enter Matthew Stafford, who excels in the under-center, bootleg concepts and shotgun-spread looks. It hasn’t taken long for Stafford to prove the Rams’ brass right in trading two first-round picks (and Goff) to Detroit during the offseason to get their guy to run their offense.
“I was the new guy coming in and they embraced me,” Stafford told The Athletic. “I’m just trying to be myself every day, be my best every day, and see where that takes us.”
After 12 seasons of personal promise, but uneventful team success with the Lions, Stafford is in line to have it all this season.
He leads the league in Total QBR (82.8) through three weeks, has been sacked just three times in three games (great offensive line play and a solid scheme help), and is second in yards per attempt (10.0), passing touchdowns (9) and passer rating (129.8).
Everything is working.
But in a tough NFC West, the team knows they can’t let up.
The Rams host a division rival, Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals (3-0), next Sunday, which will pose a challenge defensively.
This is also a long season. There are several instances over the years where a playoff rematch leads to a win for the team that lost in the regular season.
Add in the fact that the Bucs have Tom Brady, and were missing Antonio Brown (COVID-19), who could have excelled in the middle of the field on Sunday, and there’s an avenue for another Tampa Super Bowl run in January.
But the Rams are keen on becoming the league’s top dog in 2021. They already are, so far. And they’re just enjoying the moment.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0) (Last week: 2). There’s deservedly a lot of Matthew Stafford chatter, which is fair, because he’s the spark plug, and most important player for this team now, but Cooper Kupp’s ascension with Stafford at the helm has been mesmerizing. He’s been awesome.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 1). They likely would have lost this game regardless, but missing Antonio Brown hurt. Now, it’s Tom Brady week. Brady returns home to New England versus the reeling Patriots. Only because of it’s prime storyline, this may be regarded as the most hyped-up regular season game of all-time. Check the ticket prices.
3. Cleveland Browns (2-1) (Last week: 5). Myles Garrett (4.5 sacks of Justin Fields on Sunday) is primed to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award this season. He’ll have to keep up that pace with Aaron Donald in the fold, though.
4. Buffalo Bills (2-1) (Last week: 7). So much for a regression year for Josh Allen (egg on my face), huh? The Bills’ franchise quarterback had five total touchdowns versus one of the league’s very best front sevens in Washington on Sunday.
5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 6). That would have been a pretty bad loss in Detroit, but Justin Tucker saved them with a game-winning, longest-of-all-time 66-yarder to win. They have their momentary lapses of focus, and their defense is figuring things out, but there is something special brewing there. They are coming through in the clutch. Lamar Jackson converted a 4th-and-19, first-down pass to get the Ravens into position to win. His confidence is sky-rocketing.
6. Las Vegas Raiders (3-0) (Last week: 8). They tried to give the game away at times, but they persevered. This ultimately became a good sign for them. Derek Carr looks awesome. They have something here.
7. Arizona Cardinals (3-0) (Last week: 9). They are one of the most exciting offenses in the league. But this team has its limitations. We’ll see how they stack up versus a seemingly-superior Rams team on Sunday.
8. Green Bay Packers (2-1) (Last week: NR). What else needs to be said? Aaron Rodgers is a bad man.
9. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 4). That was a tough loss for them. Jimmy Garoppolo has his limitations, but he came through late on that touchdown drive. They just left too much time on the clock for Rodgers.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) (Last week: 3). Their defense is horrible, and they really should be 0-3. But with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, we know they’ll make some sort of a run.
11. Tennessee Titans (2-1) (Last week: 14). It’s only Week 3, and it’s clear that the Titans can sleepwalk to an AFC South title.
12. Carolina Panthers (3-0) (Last week: 14). Sam Darnold looks comfortable, and their defense looks great. It’s early in the season, but they seem like a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NFC. Let’s see if they can keep this up.
13. Denver Broncos (3-0) (Last week: 13). They’re 3-0 versus teams with a combined 0-9 record, but they’ve looked like the much better team in these wins. This is a club with a lot of talent. Let’s suspend judgement on them for now.
14. New Orleans Saints (2-1) (Last week: NR). The Saints dominated the line of scrimmage versus the Patriots, then, they dominated everything else, including coaching and the New Orleans players just wanting it more than New England’s. They are a tough team.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (2-1) (Last week: NR). That was a hell of a win in Kansas City, even though they tried to give it away late. But the pass interference on Mike Williams was the correct call. They deserved this one. The AFC West is the clear top division in the AFC.
16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: 16). They should beat Philadelphia at home on Monday night, if they are the clear top team in the NFC East.
Next Up: Minnesota, Seattle, Miami, Cincinnati, New England/Pittsburgh
Week 2 in the NFL this season had a flair for the dramatic, with the late afternoon window in particular featuring wild finishes out west in Los Angeles, Arizona and Seattle. There’s still a few weeks left to play before any rash conclusions or predictions can be made, as many call September the “extended preseason.”
The Cowboys and Chargers in recent years are known for their knack of blowing big games, but each team was fairly competent in a close contest that ended in a game-winning, 56-yard field goal by Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlien.
Dak Prescott delivered in the fourth quarter for the second-straight week, and the Cowboys came away with a win this time around.
In Arizona, Kyler Murray added five more touchdowns, bringing his total to nine on the season, and firmly placing him near the top of any way-too-early MVP talk, along with Tom Brady.
But the Cardinals were lucky to come away with a win, as Kirk Cousins marched the Vikings down into field goal territory late, but Minnesota lost on a missed game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt from Greg Joseph, giving Arizona a 34-33 win, and allowing them to keep pace with better clubs in the Rams and 49ers.
The Titans and Seahawks seemed destined to play a wacky, down-to-the-wire game. The DNA of both teams usually calls for multiple double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks and comparable, gut-wrenching losses throughout the season. Sunday’s game in Tennessee didn’t disappoint, with Tennessee rallying from down 30-16 late to win 33-30 in overtime.
Leading the effort was the league’s premier bell-cow back, Derrick Henry, who amassed 237 total yards and three rushing touchdowns on 41 touches (35 carries). Henry remains one of the league’s toughest players to stop, and Seattle learned the hard way as Henry shook off a rough performance versus Arizona, in helping the Titans to a much-needed road win.
The late window, equipped with cheering fans, brilliant announcing, excitement and heartbreak felt like something we haven’t seen since the 2019 season.
Then, all those games were topped, by the Sunday night affair in Baltimore.
The Chiefs led 35-24 late before Lamar Jackson (16 carries, 107 rush yards, three total TDs) ran his way to a 36-35 lead that Baltimore held, thanks to their rookie first-round pick EDGE defender, Odafe Oweh, who stripped Kansas City running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire late after Patrick Mahomes drove them down in game-winning field goal range.
The Ravens averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and ran for 251 yards in total against a still-soft-up-the-middle Chiefs defense that relies heavily on their all-time great offense. They got burned today, but even with their flaws, they remain Super Bowl material.
Baltimore is beginning what could be a tough season-long race with the Cleveland Browns for the AFC North crown.
(Throughout the season, I’ll include this segment as a side-by-side form of ‘double coverage’ (pun intended) of both Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)
PATRIOTS 25, JETS 6
In typical Bill Belichick-versus-rookie quarterback fashion, the Patriots defense gave Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a tough time, forcing the No. 2 overall pick into four interceptions, some ghastly, in a solid road win in the AFC East for New England. Defensively, J.C. Jackson (two interceptions) and Jonathan Jones were particularly impressive in coverage, and Adrian Phillips and Ja’Whaun Bentley stood out on the TV tape as tough, gritty players who seemingly have benefited from experience in the system, and seemed primed to take a leap.
On offense, Mac Jones (28.4 Total QBR to Wilson’s 8.7) had a more tame (and maybe even uninspiring) performance than his overly-competent (for a rookie) NFL debut versus the Dolphins. The Jets defense held Jones and the passing game in check for much of the game, as Jones often looked for his checkdowns an held the ball for far too long on other occasions. Hunter Henry grabbed a 32-yard catch downfield on a schemed play-action shot that saw him wide open, but other than that, he and fellow newcomer tight end Jonnu Smith were once again quiet. The Patriots leader in both receptions (6) and receiving yards (45) was pass-catching running back James White. New England has a solid blueprint as a top-tier defense and running game, but the passing offense needs to be more than just adequate if they are to compete with the NFL’s best. Rest assured, Mac Jones will improve as he gains more NFL experience.
BUCCANEERS 48, FALCONS 25
Watching Tom Brady throw five more touchdown passes on Sunday versus Atlanta make you wonder: Is this the best he’s ever played? His physical peak has passed, yes, but he’s still displaying unbelievable arm talent at his age (44), and statistically, he could be headed for a 2007-level of dominance, with a 2007-esque dominant team to boot.
Buccaneers QB Tom Brady now has nine passing touchdowns in the first two games of the 2021 season.
His nine touchdowns through two games are tied for the second-most in NFL history, trailing only Patrick Mahomes (10 in 2018).
Tampa has won a franchise-record 10 straight games dating back to 10 months ago (November 2020), which includes the organization’s second Super Bowl title (Brady’s seventh). Brady, himself, has thrown for 17 touchdown passes in his last four games, and Rob Gronkowski, perhaps his favorite passing target ever, has caught two touchdowns from Brady in each of his last three games, dating back to Super Bowl 55.
This team is absolutely loaded, but they’ll face a big, big test this week in Los Angeles versus the Rams. This is a possible NFC Championship Game preview. Can the Bucs keep Brady upright versus Aaron Donald and that inside pressure-creating pass rush?
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0) (Last week: 1). When all is said and done, will Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski be the best, and most iconic passer-pass catcher combo in league history?
2. Los Angeles Rams (2-0). (Last week: 3). They showed their resolve by winning a wild back-and-forth affair in Indianapolis in the early window. Next up: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. We’ll learn a bit next week.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) (Last week: 2). That offense masks a lot of issues, and if they don’t fumble late, it would have been much of the same on Sunday night. But they gave up an 11-point lead late to a team that ran the ball to re-take the lead, and win. Kansas City doesn’t need to have a Top-10 defense to win the Super Bowl, but the unit can’t be that bad.
4. San Francisco 49ers (2-0) (Last week: 7). This is a team that will figure it out, and become much better as the season goes along. They’re still winning while they learn, though. That’s scary.
5. Cleveland Browns (1-1) (Last week: 6). They let the pesky Texans hang around for far too long, but a win is a win.
6. Baltimore Ravens (1-1) (Last week: 10). The fourth time’s the charm for Lamar Jackson, who finally defeated Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. Baltimore has some defensive woes and mental lapses (occasional bad tackling, mistakes, etc.) to fix, but they are a real threat in the AFC.
7. Buffalo Bills (1-1) (Last week: 11). They took advantage of Tua leaving early, punishing the Dolphins 35-0. They were going to win this game no matter what.
8. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) (Last week: NR). When he’s on, Derek Carr is one of the best pure passers in the league. That was on display in his de-facto game-clinching deep-heave TD pass to Henry Ruggs to beat Pittsburgh.
9. Arizona Cardinals (2-0) (Last week: 8). They are one of the league’s most exciting teams, and are led by one of the league’s most exciting players in Kyler Murray.
10. Seattle Seahawks (1-1) (Last week: 4). We mentioned Brady-to-Gronk earlier in here, but Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is another long-time dependable duo. They don’t get enough credit as a dangerous pairing. But still, that was a devastating loss for the Seahawks. That can’t happen.
11. New England Patriots (1-1) (Last week: 13). They’ll improve on offense as the season goes along. We’re still learning a lot about this team. Their defense is scary good.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) (Last week: 5). Their defense is still solid. They missed T.J. Watt late in this game. Their offense, on the other hand, is a mess. They’ll have to lean on Najee Harris, their rookie running back.
13. Denver Broncos (2-0) (Last week: 14).The Broncos are quietly a home win over the lowly Jets from beginning the season at 3-0.
14. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: NR). They badly needed that win. Derrick Henry is still a force to be reckoned with.
15. Carolina Panthers (2-0) (Last week: NR). Could their defense actually be one of the league’s better units? Also, Sam Darnold looks comfortable here.
16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: NR). Their offense is a machine. Dak Prescott may be enough for Dallas to take the NFC East this year.
Next Up: Miami, New Orleans, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers, Washington
Sunday marked the return of the NFL in full tilt for its 102nd campaign.
Stadiums filled with fans across the league after a pandemic-alerting season in 2020 blocked them from doing so this time last year. The last year-plus has been a tragedy due to the countless lives lost. And although it’s quite a sobering way to begin a post-Week 1 NFL column, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention the more important topic over the weekend, as millions across the country, and even around the world, reflected on the now-20-year-old tragedy that took place in Manhattan, New York on September 11, 2001.
The tragic events of September 11th, 2001 devastated our country 20 years ago.
We remember those we lost and how we came together the day after the attacks, paving the way for healing and growth, followed by a special performance of our country’s National Anthem. pic.twitter.com/ZFqbmLIppG
The NFL, and several teams, honored those who lost their lives that day, with the league providing a memorial package (in the tweet above) featuring a touching narration by Steve Buscemi, and a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by Juliette Candela, that aired just before the early slate of games. (There was also an emotional story regarding new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, and his brother.)
Over the weekend, there was a glimpse of hope for those who believe the United States has the ability to band together in a time of need, to show compassion and empathy for others.
I’ve always thought of sports, especially the game of football, as both a hub for diversity, and a healing space. Although we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus regaining ground in many states, maybe there’s a chance that we band together once more to defeat a virus that has taken the lives of 660,000 Americans. The virus’ continuing grip on our country, due to many reasons, including those who don’t properly fear it, is as frustrating and demoralizing as it is devastating. This nation is currently a country divided, due to mostly political reasons. But to put a stop to this current tragedy, an effort to unite, and agree to strategize against a deadly virus, is much needed. Stay safe, everyone, and keep your wits about you.
Now…on to the NFL.
NFC West makes opening-weekend statement
The NFC West, widely regarded as perhaps the best division in football this year, may also be the most competitive. The entire group won their opening games.
Russell Wilson threw four touchdown passes, two to Tyler Lockett and one to D.K. Metcalf, as the Seahawks efficiently handled the Colts, a team with a talented roster, 28-16 in Indianapoilis. In Tennessee, the Cardinals showed a new side of themselves with a tough defense, mixing in 3-4 principles (like 2-4-5 looks), and led by Chandler Jones’ triumphant return for five sacks after missing virtually all of 2020 with a torn bicep. Team also held Derrick Henry to just 58 yards rushing on 3.4 yards per carry. Oh, and Kyler Murray added five total touchdowns, no biggie. The 49ers played staunch defense through three quarters to go along with a solid running game and a glimpse of what Trey Lance can do (short TD pass to Trent Sherfield on shotgun, plya-action fake).
Welcome to the #Rams offense: Matthew Stafford with a 67-yard BOMB to Van Jefferson for the TD.
Then, there’s the Rams. Los Angeles looked the best out of the four clubs, with their ball-hawking secondary, arsenal of wide receivers and smart play-calling. Everything looked complete with new quarterback Matthew Stafford at the helm. The former Detroit Lion showed off his clear fit in McVay’s scheme, and his incredible arm on a Rams offensive staple early on — an under-center, play-action bootleg play, turned-bomb 67-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson. It’s much too early to make a call, but give me the Rams, my predicted Super Bowl 56 winner, as the early favorite in the division.
Mac Jones displays poise, smart QB play
In New England, the Patriots out-gained the Dolphins by 134 yards, produced eight more first downs, 51 more rushing yards, and were in the red zone down 17-16 in the game’s final minutes, before running back Damien Harris, who had a nice showing, lost the team’s second fumble of the day, sealing a 0-1 fate for Bill Belichick’s squad.
New England was in position to win thanks to rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who lost his debut, but looked poised, efficient and NFL-ready in doing so.
Jones showed why he was a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense, going 29-for-39 for 281 passing yards and a touchdown to Nelson Agholor. Jones also went 14-of-18 for 129 yards versus the blitz, 7-of-10 (and his touchdown throw) under pressure, and 9-for-12 for 89 yards on third down, with seven conversions. He displayed a mastery and command of the offense that only improved as the game went along.
Former Alabama teammate, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, got the win, and made some impressive throws, but I thought Jones looked better than Tagovailoa, who produced more out of schemed plays, albeit with impressive designs.
The opening-day loss in a game they should have won will sting for the Patriots. But the bigger picture is: they have their guy at quarterback.
Jameis Winston did what?!
The Saints, playing in Jacksonville, Florida for a home game because of Hurricane Ida, throttled Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, 38-3. The defense forced two Aaron Rodgers interceptions and a 13.5 Total QBR from last year’s NFL MVP. On offense, Jameis Winston put an end to any debate between him and Swiss army knife Taysom Hill regarding who should start at quarterback. Winston efficiently threw for five touchdowns, with no turnovers, on just 148 yards passing, the lowest yardage total for a five-touchdown pass game in league history. The low-yardage total is a good thing. As the Saints defense continued to make plays, New Orleans needed Winston to manage the flow of the game, which he did perfectly. His 55-yard-touchdown heave to speedster Deonte Harris was a beautiful deep ball, which is a facet the offense had been missing in Drew Brees’ later years, which Brees joked about in his NBC debut. If Winston can limit turnovers on offense, they are a legitimate threat in the NFC.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0). Tom Brady, at age 44, looked as sharp as a quarterback, and as spry as a deep ball passer in Week 1 than he has since at least his 2017 MVP award-winning season. His connection with Gronk remains, but it’s the full offseason of work with Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin that has seemingly taken this offense to another level. One observation from Thursday, is that Brown may be Brady’s favorite target this year. Brady and his aforementioned trio of pass catchers combined for 22 completions for 316 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday. Wait until it’s Mike Evans’ turn, or when they get Giovanni Bernard involved. Look out.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). It was a sloppy game for the defense, but the NFL’s best trio saved the day. Final statlines: Patrick Mahomes (27-of-36, 347 pass yards, four total TDs), Tyreek Hill (11 catches, 197 receiving yards, two TDs) Travis Kelce (six catches, 97 receiving yards, 2 TDs). All three remain at the peak of their game. The Chiefs have a litany of holes and roster questions, but remain the team to beat in the AFC.
3. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). We talked about the NFC West above. The Rams combination of newfound moxie on offense, and tough defense with attitude, pits them as the prime opponent for the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs. They’ll face off in Los Angeles in two weeks.
4. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). That was a mighty-impressive east-coast, early-window win for the Seahawks. Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson will always bring a level of consistent winning to this club. It’s up to the defense to play up-to-par, if they are to compete with the heavyweights in this league.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0). Pittsburgh’s defense, with T.J. Watt and others, kept the high-flying Bills offense at bay for their entirety of their 23-13 win in Buffalo. They showed grit and toughness in outscoring last year’s AFC title game participant, 23-6, in the second half. They’ll get the offense sorted out. They should have one of the best defenses in football for the entire year.
6. Cleveland Browns (0-1). Despite the loss, the Browns showed why they are a team to be feared in the AFC. Baker Mayfield stumbled late, throwing the game-ending interception, but early on he flourished in the play-action passing game out of 12 personnel. Aaron Rodgers took a leap last season in Year 2 under Matt LaFluer’s heavy-12 personnel, play-action passing attack. Kevin Stefanski runs a similar scheme in Cleveland, and Mayfield already looks more comfortable within the offense in his second season. Overall, the Browns, with their rushing attack and pass rush, led by Myles Garrett, have the recipe to unseat the Chiefs, but they have to execute for four quarters. They got burned on Sunday.
7. San Francisco 49ers (1-0). They let up late versus the Lions, but it happens. For three quarters, they soundly handled an inferior team. This is one of the NFL’s best squads.
8. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Kyler Murray and that offense is still explosive. Kliff Kingsbury even cooked up some things for dangerous new weapon Rondale Moore, a rookie second-round pick receiver out of Purdue, who can do a multitude of things. If their defense becomes a top-10 unit, they’ll be one of the league’s best clubs.
9. New Orleans Saints (1-0). It’s Week 1, but if the Saints play anything close to yesterday’s win for a good chunk of the season, Sean Payton will be a prime Coach of the Year candidate.
10. Baltimore Ravens (0-0). The Ravens will have to figure out their running back situation on the fly, and losing Marcus Peters will hurt, but this is one of the best-run franchises in the league. They’ll figure it out.
11. Buffalo Bills (0-1). We’ll hold off on panicking about the Bills, although Josh Allen is a prime regression candidate, with his style of play. Buffalo heads to Miami this week to attempt to even things up in the AFC East.
12. Miami Dolphins (1-0). Brian Flores’ aptitude versus his former boss is now becoming a trend. The Dolphins are a physical, tough team who now have won three of their last four versus the Patriots under Flores. Their nice blend of RPOs and inside-zone runs hurt the Patriots when it mattered. That looked like a game between two playoff teams, even if ranked at the back-half of the eventual playoff field. The Dolphins can create a pretty nice early lead in the division with a win over the Bills next week.
13. New England Patriots (0-1). The Patriots are now 7-10 since Brady left, but there’s a lot to be excited about after watching Mac Jones on Sunday. They have a solid running game and front seven. The Dolphins, who know them well, are a tough matchup. This is a fringe-playoff team, at minimum. They should be in the tourney come January.
14. Denver Broncos (1-0). They looked solid in a win over the Giants. They have one of the league’s better rosters. It’ll be up to Teddy Bridgewater to determine just how far they can go.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). They survived in Washington. Justin Herbert made some key throws late, particularly to Keenan Allen.
16. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Yes, their defense is bad, but with rookie phenom Micah Parsons at linebacker, and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn implementing his Cover-3-based system throughout the year, maybe they’ll do just enough to help the Cowboys, and their incredible passing offense, win the NFC East. Dak Prescott is due for a monster season.
Next Up: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tennessee
Twenty years ago, Bill Belichick was faced with a tough decision at quarterback.
Taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Tom Brady made it far too difficult for Belichick to return to the New England Patriots’ then-$100 million man in Bledsoe, when the presumed franchise passer was cleared to play.
The tough choice to stick with Brady spawned a two-decade dynasty in Foxboro that totaled six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances, 13 AFC title game berths and 17 AFC East division titles.
Now, looking to pick up the pieces after a rough first season without Brady (who added to his Super Bowl total in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers), ‘The Hoodie’ was tasked with another conundrum at QB.
Cam Newton versus Mac Jones.
Belichick once again opted for the young, gangly passer over a former No. 1 overall pick when he decided to abruptly extinguish the Cam Newton era, releasing the 2015 NFL MVP before eager Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium ever got the chance to cheer for him in person.
Now, the keys to the New England’s complex offense belong to Mac Jones, the franchise’s lone first-round pick quarterback (No. 15 overall) of the Belichick era, and first since Bledsoe in 1993.
Comparing Jones to Tom Brady outright is a fool’s errand.
Brady will forever be the face of the franchise. He’s the greatest player in NFL history. Even if Mac Jones’ career is everything the Patriots hope for, there will likely be a statue of Brady built outside the stadium in Foxboro midway through Jones’ New England career, which is something that probably won’t happen for the latter.
However, it’s fair to say that Jones is of Brady’s mold. Shared attributes include a super-computer football mind, pocket presence, accuracy, poise, and shared “deficiencies”such as a lack of speed and the inability to make off-schedule plays consistently.
Both have been described as having “adequate” arm strength, despite each displaying deep-shot ability and zip on the ball. (Seriously, go watch this Brady attempt to Randy Moss in Super Bowl 42, or some of his intermediate throws in his 2010 NFL MVP award-winning season.)
“He’s known for being that cerebral, fast-thinking, risk-averse…but at the same time, calculated in terms of the big shots that he takes, type of quarterback. Last time I checked, that’s what wins in the NFL.
…At quarterback, it’s always been about decision making and accuracy. It always will be about that. Everything else is a bonus. There’s a lot of quarterbacks in this draft that make spectacular plays with their legs. What is going to separate them from the rest, and put them in the category of being elite, is: can they make good decisions and be accurate with the football? It’s really that simple. And Mac [Jones] has shown the ability to do that.
What did he do this preseason? He was throwing people open.
His first preseason game, what did they do? They went up-tempo and no-huddle, because things were sluggish for him against Washington. So they go five-empty, and they are just like “zoom, zoom, zoom”. No other rookie quarterback was doing that.”
The decision to go with Jones over Newton came down to Jones being the perfect leader for Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes and concepts. (As well as having the cap space to build a Super Bowl-winning team around Mac Jones’ four-year, $16 million cheap-as-hell rookie QB contract during Belichick’s presumed final coaching years).
Many believed that New England “catered” their playbook to Newton last season, but really, Newton was asked to run the Patriots’ offense led by Brady in 2018 and 2019, with the only consistent “Cam-specific” addition to the offense being a small package of QB power-type plays utilized by Newton on the goal line and in short-yardage scenarios.
Jones is the perfect fit to run any of New England’s offensive iterations in the Brady era: run-heavy and play-action passing out of I-formation and Singleback under center, quick-passing and timing-based throws out of shotgun empty and spread, and up-tempo attacks with versatile pieces such as New England’s two new tight ends.
Jones is the type of passer who thrives before the snap and goes through his progressions quicker than most after the snap. Often times last year, Newton’s struggled in New England’s play-action reads from under center. He held onto the ball for too long when scanning the field. Sure, a lack of competent pass-catchers certainly had a lot to do with that, but Newton just didn’t seem to fit New England’s offense, and the Patriots didn’t seem willing to change, nor did they have the time to do so with no preseason and a truncated training camp in the Summer of 2020.
Jones is the perfect fit for what the team wants to do. And in 2021, that’s best predicted as an amalgam of their early-dynasty offense from 2001 to 2006 (and again from 2018 to 2020), and their up-tempo, quick-passing, matchup-exploiting scheme from 2010 to 2012 with the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, paired with Brady at the end of his physical peak.
Asking for Jones to be anything close to what Brady was from about 2007 to 2017 is incredibly unfair. It won’t happen. But Jones is absolutely capable of mimicking Brady’s early years, when New England won three Super Bowls with a solid team around him.
Up front, New England has what should be one of the NFL’s four or five best offensive lines. The Patriots have returning starters in left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu, who is moving over from right tackle to left guard, a more natural spot for him after he mostly played tackle last season, and excelled.
The Patriots let their best offensive lineman over the past few seasons, Joe Thuney, walk in free agency for a big deal with AFC rival Kansas City based off the play of Onwenu, who as a rookie, was the eighth-highest-graded tackle (84.3) in the NFL in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wynn, Onwenu and Mason are incredible run blockers, in particular. The Patriots will go heavy with pulling guards and man-blocking as a power running team once more.
The unit may be the best run-blocking group in the NFL, and should be in the top half of the league in pass-blocking, with the latter being helped out by the last-to-be-named starting offensive lineman: right tackle Trent Brown.
New England kicked off the offseason by trading back for Brown after his two seasons with the Raiders. Brown was an anchoring left tackle for New England in their 2018 Super Bowl run, which helped the 6-foot-8, 380-pound gargantuan earn a contract as massive as his size.
Size is the name of the game with this group of front, as each starter is over 300 pounds, and the entire unit averaging a league-high 330 pounds. This is one of the bigger offensive lines in the league, if not the biggest.
Running behind them often will be Damien Harris, who should be the team’s clear leading rusher now that Super Bowl 53 hero Sony Michel is battling for RB1 duties with the Los Angeles Rams.
The team felt comfortable with Harris leading the charge as a traditional, downhill-running back who makes up for any talent deficiencies with his tough, and smart, ball-carrying style.
But it’s only a matter of time that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, and J.J. Taylor, entering Year 2 out of Arizona, become significant parts of the offense.
Taylor should be first up as RB2 as a Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead hybrid who runs with a surprising amount of power for his size (5-foot-6, 185 pounds).
Stevenson is a bigger back (6-foot, 246 pounds) that initially drew comparisons to LeGarrette Blount, only for many to find out that he is surprisingly agile as a make-you-miss runner who will excel in shotgun, inside-zone attempts, and is probably the second-best receiving back of the group behind James White.
Speaking of White, the eight-year-pro, and longtime Patriots hero, stands the most to gain from the switch from Cam Newton to Mac Jones at quarterback. The Patriots can now turn to its quick-passing attack that historically feeds its pass-catching backs. That wasn’t really Cam’s game. So White, who had less receiving yards (375) and receiving scores (one) than he’s had since his rookie year (where he barely played) should have a resurgence on screens, as well as flat routes and option routes from the backfield on 3rd-and-5-and-under situations.
The reimplementation of White as a factor in the offense is just one of a slew of factors that should help improve won of the most inefficient passing offenses of the 21st century last season.
The team threw a league-worst 10 touchdown passes last season, and ranked 27th in passing in Football Outsiders‘ renowned DVOA stat.
To help combat the issues, Belichick overhauled the tight end position by making headlines with not one, but two free agency splashes at the position in Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed).
The offense will be led by rookie Mac Jones, but will revolve around the O-line, running game, and play-action passing to what should be two phenomenal chess pieces in Smith and Henry for McDaniels’ play-calling.
12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) has long been a staple of New England offenses, but with limited personnel post-Gronk, the team has barely used the tight end position. The Patriots ran 12 personnel in just two-percent of offensive snaps (22 snaps) in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats, a league low, and New England has only three touchdown receptions from tight ends in the last two seasons combined. Quite simply, they’ve ignored the position during games because they’ve had to, due to a lack of talent. Now, they likely will use more two-tight end sets than any team in the league.
In Henry they have more of a traditional ‘Y’ tight end who is capable in-line as a blocker, and can spread out as a pass-catcher in looks such as a shotgun 3×1 setup, where the former Charger would project as a backside ‘X’ receiver a la Travis Kelce in Kansas City.
Smith, a former Tennesee Titan, is more of a rare breed as a Swiss army knife-type player who can line up on the line, in the slot, as an H-back, fullback, or even running back. McDaniels will look to get him matched up on slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs in hopes of utilizing Smith’s incredible yards-after-the-catch ability, in which he has averaged 6.8 YAC for his career, by using a blend of power and finesse as a fully-aware, movement player with supreme ball carrier vision, athleticism and toughness for his position.
"We're completely different players than the guys in the past… we're not trying to be those guys, we're going to be ourselves but this offense has a tradition with two tight ends."
On the surface, it would seem lazy to compare the Henry-Smith combination to the great Gronk-Hernandez tandem from 2010 to 2012, but the archetypes seem similar. Sure, Henry isn’t as powerful as Gronk, and Smith, although a much better blocker than Hernandez, doesn’t quite have the body control of the former troubled Florida Gator product, who made defenders miss after the catch perhaps better than any tight end the game has ever seen.
But, there are similarities. The Patriots should be much better in the red zone with this tight end tandem. Smith, alone, had a career-high eight touchdowns in 2020.
Additionally, look for each to run a myriad of routes out of play-action in I-Form and Singbleback two-tight end sets. In shotgun-spread, Henry will split out wide at times, and Smith should work heavily in the middle of the field, whether it be seam routes, or quick outs from the slot, or option-routes from the backfield.
All of this leans on Jones’ ability to get these guys the ball, of course. The Alabama QB seems to thrive in both spread and under-center, play-action looks, and is accurate when throwing the football. A bigger cause for concern with the tight ends, is the health of Henry, who is coming into Week 1 possibly banged up, and has missed 24 games in four seasons. Henry has also never played a full season of games.
If Henry does miss time, Devin Asiasi, a 2020 third-round pick, stands to fill his place as the Y-tight end, but it’s more likely that New England will then heavily mix in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and the common 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) to make up for Henry’s absence.
Not yet mentioned, Jakob Johnson is a traditional fullback who lacks the power of James Develin, but is a capable lead-blocker in I-formation, strong, and weak looks. Even with Smith and Henry healthy, Johnson will get his fair share of goal-line and short-yardage snaps.
At wide receiver, the Patriots paid Nelson Agholor (2 years, $26 million, $15 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $22.5 million) to come in and help a wide receiver core that struggled mightily against man coverage in 2020. Last season, the Patriots passing offense was 31st in EPA/play versus man coverage and single-high looks.
Agholor’s contract suggests New England views him as their top receiver. The former Philadelphia Eagle was considered a bit of a first-round bust as a slot receiver, even if he burned the Patriots for a nine-catch, 84-yard performance as an underneath, quick-pass option in Philadephia’s Super Bowl 52 win over New England.
Playing on a prove-it, one-year deal for the Raiders last year, Agholor reinvented himself as a speedy deep-threat and X-receiver, setting a career-high in receiving yards (896) and tying his high in touchdowns (8), all while ranking second in the league in yards per reception (18.7).
Agholor will be tasked as New England’s deep-shot playmaker who also runs intermediate, in-breaking routes such as crossers, from both the perimeter and the slot. There, Agholor can utilize his speed to break away from man-coverage defenders, allowing the rest of the team’s pass-catchers, such as fellow newcomer Kendrick Bourne, to work underneath.
Bourne, coming over from San Francisco, will likely begin the season as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver who comes on the field in 11 personnel and third-down situations. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver is not known for his speed, but rather his quickness, route-running, strength/toughness and ability in the clutch on 3rd-and-7-or-so scenarios. He will be a threat underneath, in the red zone, on third down, and in crunch time. Expect Bourne to be one of the team’s more improved players in the scheme by season’s end. He has the potential, along with James White, to be a third-down security blanket pass catcher for the team’s rookie QB.
Then, there’s Jakobi Meyers. The former North Carolina State QB-turned-receiver continues to defy expectations, blossoming into one of the NFL’s more competent and productive possession receivers. He ranked 10th out of 111 qualifying pass catchers in receiving yards per routes run (2.24) last year, and led the Patriots in receiving yards (776) despite not starting in the team’s first few games of 2020.
He’ll often play in the slot in both shotgun-spread and 11-personnel looks, and as a Z-receiver/flanker option on the outside in 12 personnel. Basically, despite having a bit of a different skill set, Meyers is taking over Edelman’s role in the offense. Meyers is on an early-career, Edelman-like progression track within the offense, too. He should be a focal point in his third year in 2021.
After that, there’s 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who will miss the first few games of the season on injured reserve, and look to produce as a moving chess piece on the perimeter, in the slot, and in motion as an athlete-type player at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, who may surprise some in Year 3 after gaining confidence and experience.
Rounding out the group is Gunner Olszewski, an All-Pro punt returner and backup slot option, and newcomer Malcolm Perry, a former Navy quarterback (right up Belichick’s wheelhouse) converted to a slot receiver-running back in Miami under former Patriots coach Brian Flores. Expect him to be a gadget-type player at first who attempts to learn the receiver position, a la Julian Edelman. Perry does have incredible quickness.
The offense will likely get back to its roots under Mac Jones, with McDaniels reverting back to his mix-and-match approach with game plans as Jones becomes more comfortable leading the offense. The team’s chameleon-like approach was renowned in the 2010s, and was a major factor in their success under Tom Brady.
Expect the Patriots to lean heavy on 12 personnel, power-running and play-action passing at first, before eventually leaning more on Jones’ ability to run an up-tempo, spread offense that famously uses versatile players (Jonnu Smith, James White, etc.) to exploit matchups in a timing-based, quick-passing scheme.
For all the talk of the ineffective passing offense from last year, the Patriots defense stumbled down the ladder of the league’s top-ranked defenses, into a unit that resembled nothing of its staunch 2019 form.
The team went from first in DVOA in total defense in 2019 to 26th last season, which included a ranking of dead-last in run defense DVOA. Those are catastrophic numbers for a Belichick-led defense.
The unit struggled mightily last year after losing some of its key players both to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) and opt-outs (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung), and missing Stephon Gilmore, New England’s current best player, for five games due to injury.
The Patriots’ Spending spree in free agency included an initial wave of players on defense with Van Noy returning from Miami on a two-year, $13.2 million deal. The team also signed cornerback/safety-hybrid Jalen Mills (4 years, $24 million) and plucked nose tackle Davon Godchaux (2 years, $16 million) and defensive end Henry Anderson (2 years, $7 million) from AFC East rivals.
But their biggest offseason addition was the the signing of former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon to a four-year, $56 million deal ($32 million guaranteed). Judon already looked the part in the preseason as a menacing edge setter.
In addition to finishing last in run defense DVOA last year, the team was also ranked last in off-tackle yards per attempt, showcasing just how bad they were in setting the edge in the run game. Chase Winovich is one of the league’s better edge rushers, but coupled with the likes of John Simon, Shilique Calhoun and Tashawn Bower last year, the team was horrendous in stopping outside runs.
Adding Judon and re-adding Van Noy to set the edge in the run game, along with the additions of Godchaux and Anderson (3rd among interior lineman with a 43 percent run-stop-win rate in 2020) to plug up the interior will transform this front seven, and give the Patriots what they want: a tough, deep depth chart of defensive lineman and linebackers for their 3-4-style (mostly) defense that they’ve shifted too since 2019.
Expect the Patriots to run a boatload of 2-4-5 with Godchaux (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and the returning Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) up front as a versatile lineman who can play both 4-3 defensive tackle an 3-4-style defensive end. Each of these men are excellent two-gapping lineman for this type of defense. The Patriots struggled last year with an endless supply of practice-squad type players and cast-offs rotating around Guy up front, which hurt the defense almost as much their deficiencies on the edge.
This year on the edge, the aforementioned Matt Judon is probably New England’s best football player on the roster with Gilmore sidelined. He’s the strong-side, stand-up EDGE defender that is perfect for this scheme. The “Elephant” role, is what former Patriot Willie McGinest calls this role, according to CLNS Media‘s Evan Lazar.
Judon can use his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, athleticism and aggressiveness to stop the run, rush the passer and even play a bit of shallow pass coverage.
Van Noy returns on the other side as the opposite EDGE on early downs, with the possibility to move inside as well.
At off-ball linebacker, the return of Dont’a Hightower is one of the more under-the-radar, massively important stories of the entire league. The 10-year-pro is a leader on the defense, and New England missed his football wit, swagger and ferociousness up front.
Depending on the scheme, the Patriots will have Ja’Whaun Bentley, who struggled in Hightower’s role last year, returning to his perfect fit as a “thumper” inside linebacker in 3-4 looks.
New England also loves to employ three safeties, and the Patrick Chung role as a box safety/linebacker hybrid will certainly be utilized in some 2-4-5 looks. Last year, Kyle Dugger played mostly as a strong safety, and Adrian Phillips as a linebacker. This season, there’s a chance their roles switch, as Dugger’s tackling ability and sideline-to-sideline speed fit better in the box, with Phillips impressing many in pass coverage, specifically man coverage on tight ends, in training camp. Although, Phillips was tough up front tackling ball carriers in 2020, even with his smaller frame for the box. But the lack of run-stuffers up front meant more lineman coming downhill and blowing Phillips out of the play. That shouldn’t happen this season.
Rounding out the safeties is Devin McCourty, who enters his 12th season at age 34 as a dependable free safety on early downs, and Cover 1 robber defender to stop crossers (think: yellow zone in Madden) on later downs. The “Duron Harmon” role as the team’s deep safety on clear passing downs (such as 3rd-and-long) is up for grabs, with slot cornerback Jonathan Jones looking like a frontrunner.
The Patriots loved to run a heavy amount of man coverage, with Cover 1 being their speciality. Last year, Cover 1 and Cover 3 were once again their main coverage tendencies, but the split between man coverage and zone was roughly 51 percent to 49 percent last season, according to my film review and charting.
The increase in zone coverage from the previous season probably had a lot to do with the absence of No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore for five games.
The Patriots are vulnerable without Stephon Gilmore, who even at age 31 is arguably the best man-coverage cornerback in football on the perimeter. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is attempting to return from a torn quad, and will miss at least six weeks since he’s on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list. Gilmore is also looking for a new contract, as he’s playing on just a $7 million base salary in 2021, much lower than top-of-the-market pay for his position. So his situation is murky, making New England’s cornerback situation a possible Achilles heel on an otherwise superb-looking defense.
With Gilmore out, J.C. Jackson, who is playing on a contract year (he’s playing in 2021 on a cheap restricted free agent tender this season), moves up to No. 1 cornerback, a position in which he struggled some last year, particularly against Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs.
Jackson is possibly the best No. 2 cornerback in football, but stands to improve as a No. 1 option. After gaining some experience in the role last year, expect him to be even better in 2021. He’s one of the best deep-ball defenders in the game on the outside.
Patriots CB J.C. Jackson since entering the league in coverage on deep targets (20+ yards): 🔒Six catches on 57 targets with 12 interceptions, one touchdown 🔒92.1 @PFF coverage grade (first among qualified defenders) 🔒6.4 passer rating (second among qualified defenders)
Jalen Mills, a struggling cornerback-turned-competent-safety with the Eagles is the type of versatile defensive player that the Patriots covet, but it’s worth wondering how he’ll hold up as the No. 2 cornerback on the outside. He best slots in as competition for Jonathan Jones as a slot or nickel-type who plays some safety.
The Patriots should also get a lot out their non-starters, as they look for their best pairings.
In the secondary, Joejuan Williams and newcomer Shaun Wade, Baltimore’s fifth-round pick this past spring out of Ohio State who was once considered a first-round pick prospect, are gangly cornerbacks with safety potential who will get their fare share of playing time with Gilmore out.
At linebacker, Harvey Langi returns to the Patriots to provide depth after a three-year-stint with the rival New York Jets that saw him in a starting role at times in 2020.
On the defensive line, there’s Carl Davis as depth for Godchaux at nose tackle after earning his spot as the lone midseason addition who could stop the run last year. Then there’s newcomer Henry Anderson and the returning Deatrich Wise Jr., a Belichick favorite, will battle it out for snaps alongside Guy and Godchaux as a 3-4 defensive end in base 3-4 looks. Wise Jr. is more of a 4-3-style player but has molded his game over the past two years to fit the 3-4, and is a great locker room presence.
Wise Jr. will also see time as an interior rusher in clear passing situations in the Patriots’ Big Dime 2-3-6 setup, a go-to look for them on third down.
Christian Barmore: PFF's No.1 interior DL in the 2021 NFL Draft
Next to him will be rookie Christian Barmore. New England moved up to get the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Alabama defensive tackle in the second round after he fell out of his projected spot as a back-half-of-the-first-round prospect. Barmore may one day be a starter in 3-4 and 2-4-5 looks on early downs, but he’ll begin his career in the Adam Butler role as perhaps the Patriots’ best interior rusher. He should also be the lone hand-in-the-dirt lineman in Big Dime 1-4-6 looks.
Rounding out the insanely-deep EDGE position is third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, who should get a bit of a redshirt year in a learning role, and the aforementioned Chase Winovich, who will return to his pass-rush specialty position as a third-down rusher and occasional base player.
And last but not least, there’s Josh Uche, one of the team’s most important players this season, along with Dugger at safety, considering the second-year “leap” each player is projected to take.
Uche has the speed and athleticism to take over the 2019 Jamie Collins role as both an early-down EDGE defender and off-ball linebacker in passing situations who often blitzes up the middle. But Uche’s raw talent at rushing the passer, with his speed, quickness and ability to bend past offensive tackles make him a fit as a full-time EDGE, where he may be able to kick Van Noy to the inside. After all, Dont’a Hightower called Uche “little Judon” for his talent and overall ability as a stand-up EDGE defender.
Uche, a 2019 second-round pick, will certainly play often, and the possibilities of mixing and matching these pass-rushing edge rushers on clear passing downs are endless.
Could you imagine a 1-4-6 look on a 3rd-and-10 with Barmore on the line, and four out of five of a group including Judon, Hightower, Van Noy, Winovich and Uche all along the line as stand-up rushers? That’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare.
The Patriots have the ability to go with a bulkier 3-4, a 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles (their usual base), or a Big Dime look (2-3-6, 1-4-6) as their main defense for the majority of a game, depending on the opponent.
They can run three safety-looks, and can also use run-stuffing personnel, pass-rushing personnel and more, all with the perfect amount of player overlap and cycling of players with different skill sets.
This unit has the ability to be a top-five group in both points allowed and efficiency metrics (DVOA, etc.).
Week 1 Projected defense:
Interior/Nose Tackle — Davon Godchaux
Interior— Lawrence Guy
EDGE — Matt Judon
EDGE — Kyle Van Noy
LB — Dont’a Hightower
Box safety/LB— Kyle Dugger
S (‘Big’ Nickel/Dime/three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips
CB1 — J.C. Jackson
CB2 — Jalen Mills
Slot CB — Jonathan Jones
S — Devin McCourty
Interior/3-4 DE — Deatrich Wise Jr.
Interior/3-4 DE — Henry Anderson
3-4 Nose Tackle — Carl Davis
Interior pass rusher (Big Dime 2-3-6/1-4-6) — Christian Barmore
3-4 ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley
EDGE/LB/3rd-down pass rusher — Josh Uche
EDGE/3rd-down pass rusher — Chase Winovich
EDGE — Ronnie Perkins
CB1 (PUP, out six weeks) — Stephon Gilmore
CB4 (perimeter)/slot — Shaun Wade
CB5/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams
Some criticized the moves, calling some of the contracts “overpays,” but the moves were strategic, as the Patriots were one of just a couple teams with the available cap space in 2020 after the salary cap shrunk in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from a lack of fan attendance during last season.
The salary cap will increase, swiftly and dramatically, I might add, which will make many of these deals closer to market value, or even below the threshold, which means the Patriots will have additional cap space after all, to build a team around rookie Mac Jones.
Yes, it’s Jones who Belichick plucked from good friend Nick Saban’s team in Alabama, in the first round of the draft. It’s Jones, who Belichick has deemed worthy as Brady’s official successor, perhaps thanks to valuable insider info from Saban.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That season, it was fitting that the New England Patriots banded together as a team, built off a solid defense, top-tier play in the trenches (OL, DL), a tough power-running game, and a young quarterback leading the offense as a clutch, unafraid leader with much to learn. And let’s not forget, great coaching.
The 2021 Patriots are a similar breed, perhaps not as sturdy in the secondary without Stephon Gilmore, but just as deep in the front seven, with a better offensive line, and perhaps, better offensive weapons, with two tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith ready to become a focal point of the offense.
Of course, times have changed, as the game is equipped with new rules today that were not in place in 2001. High-flying offenses and great quarterback play are more important than ever.
So even with all of this, the comparisons to the 2001 Patriots and all, this team is not quite Super Bowl-ready, but they will surprise many, challenging the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East for all 18 weeks of the regular season, before earning a wild-card berth, and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Super Bowl 53, three seasons ago. (I have them losing in the Divisional round.)
There was a clear opposing of views between Brady and Belichick when it came to team-building philosophies. That was perhaps the main reason for Brady’s split to Tampa Bay during his final years. Brady has his high-flying offense, and now, Belichick’s vision for a more complete team has come to fruition.