Ja'Marr Chase vs Chiefs -- 2021

NFL Friday Morning Madness: 2021 Award picks + Final Power Ranking

As we ring in the new year, 2022, we do so by also saying goodbye to the 2021 NFL regular season.

With just one week left to play, the first ever Week 18, seven of eight division titles have been clinched, and 11 of 14 total playoff spots have been filled, with just three more berths and seeding left to be decided.

As it stands, there will be a few teams with nothing to play for in Week 18, which could signal a few key players resting up for the playoffs by missing a portion of their Week 18 contest, or sitting out their respective games entirely.

With that in mind, it feels like the right time to reveal my award picks and give my final power ranking for the season.

Some of these races are pretty tight, which makes some of these choices difficult. Give them a read and feel free to comment below the piece in the comments section.

We begin with the major awards, and then the final ‘The Better Half’ section follows.

Enjoy!

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MVP (Most Valuable Player) Tom BradyTom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

This will certainly draw some ire. The battle between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, both three-time NFL MVPs, for this year’s award, is a fascinating case study.

Like other league awards, stats play a huge factor in determining a winner here, but determining a player’s ‘value’ to their team, along with team success, help bring a unique ‘storyline’ feel to the award.

The Packers have been the best team in football for most of the year, and will enter the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Aaron Rodgers leads the league in a ton of efficiency metrics, as he’s arguably been the most efficient quarterback this year. His league-high marks include: TD/INT ratio (35:4), Total QBR (67.8), passer rating (111.1), total EPA and EPA/play.

When voting for MVP, there is an amount of “who feels like the winner?” associated with the process, and Rodgers certainly fits that criteria.

But Tom Brady, who has reached a LeBron James/Aaron Donald-level of fatigue when determining his single-season success for awards, should be right there, when it comes to a narrative-based discussion surrounding the honor.

In accounting for an injury-riddled team that has regressed mightily on defense, and been without pass-catchers such as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown (who now is gone, if you haven’t heard) and Rob Gronkowski at various points, the Buccaneers have resembled one of the undermanned ‘Do Your Job’ teams throughout Brady’s Patriots career, without Bill Belichick to help team up with him to lift the squad up.

Still, Brady has the Bucs sitting at 12-4, one game behind the Packers, with one more week to go.

Brady leads the league in a few traditional volume-based stats — attempts (682), completions (456), passing yards (4,990), passing touchdowns (40) — and bests Rodgers in a few important advanced analytics-based efficiency metrics such as PFF grade (91.4, 2nd in NFL behind Joe Burrow) and WAR (4.7). That last stat, WAR (Wins above replacement), is a respected metric created by Pro Football Focus that is used to ” assess the value of a player with an eye toward winning football games.” Brady leads the league in WAR by a huge margin. Brady also is right behind Rodgers in Total QBR (66.7 to Rodgers’ 66.8).

Many point to Brady’s struggles in two losses to the New Orleans Saints, including a 9-0 dumpster fire loss at home to New Orleans in December. Despite playing the game with numerous key injuries, there’s no excuse for a loss of that nature. But if that is to be docked against Brady, shouldn’t Rodgers’ 38-3, Week 1 loss to New Orleans be brought up, as well?

Wait, there’s more.

Brady has also been his usual self in the clutch, leading Tampa to a game-winning drive on five different occasions (four times versus 2021 playoff teams), which includes a win over the Patriots in Week 4, a double-digit comeback in Indianapolis to beat the Colts in Week 12, a walk-off overtime touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman to beat the the Bills in Week 14, and Sunday’s game-winning drive to beat the Jets (see tweet below) — a 93-yard journey with no timeouts, needing a touchdown, amidst all of the Antonio Brown drama.

This can go on and on. The latter part of the tweet above includes an explanation of a few of Brady’s interceptions, that were really ghastly drops-turned turnovers by his teammates.

Certainly, Rodgers has done enough to be deserving of the award. It’s a close race.

Rodgers certainly shouldn’t be docked because he has been “unlikable,” which was foolish reasoning given by longtime NFL reporter Herb Arkush, who is one of the 50 AP voters whose vote will count, and doesn’t plan to vote for Rodgers.

This is an award given to on-field play.

But to be fair, Rodgers’ snafu-ish handling of his COVID-19 vaccination situation did lead to him missing Green Bay’s battle in Kansas City, where the Chiefs limited the Packers’ offense with QB Jordan Love to just 7 points in a KC victory.

Couple that with the likeliness of Rodgers sitting out all or most of Green Bay’s Week 18 battle, and Brady likely playing all of his versus Carolina, and you will see an even bigger gap between Brady and Rodgers in some statistical metrics.

Again, it’s a close race, and like many arguing for either side, my bias is known — I’m a big Brady supporter. To tell you the truth, I figured Rodgers had this award locked up a week ago, but after watching Brady overcome the the drama and ineptitude that plagued the Bucs on Sunday, just to win another game in clutch that no one is talking about, sort of shifted the narrative for me.

As great as Rodgers has been, you can make the case that Brady has been more valuable to his team this season. I just made that case, actually.

One of these two quarterbacks will win their fourth MVP award in a month. Who is it going to be?

OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year)Cooper Kupp Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Runner-up: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Both Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor (along with Joe Burrow), would help round out a ‘Top 5′ of MVP voting, which would be helpful if there were additional votes given for second place, third place and so on. But there’s only one vote given for the award, and coupled with Brady and Rodgers’ success, and the value of a quarterback to its team, that makes it difficult for Kupp, or Taylor, especially, to be in the MVP race.

Now this award is a different story.

What Taylor has done this season has been extraordinary. He leads league the lead in rushing yards (1,734) and second place is over 500 yards behind. He also leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns (18) by a wide a margin and leads the league in touchdowns scored (20). And despite the Colts harboring what may be the league’s best offensive line, Taylor’s performance is still more indicative of his talent at the position. He could be the new Derrick Henry, or close to him.

That being said, what Kupp has done this season has been more impressive.

Most of what he has done has not been “schemed.” Sure, some of his big chunk gains have come on designed play-action passing concepts by Rams head coach Sean McVay, but a lot of Kupp’s success has come from his route-running ability, where he excels both from the slot, and from the perimeter.

He’s always been a good slot receiver. He’s played in the slot for 617 snaps this year, according to PFF. He’s also had 324 snaps out wide, which is a hefty total for a perceived full-time slot pass catcher.

In 16 games, Kupp has totaled 138 catches for 1,829 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He leads the league in all three metrics, which figures to give him the first pass catcher ‘triple crown’ since Steve Smith did so for the Carolina Panthers in 2005.

Kupp also leads the league in targets (184), with the next closest receiver, Davante Adams, being 22 targets behind.

With Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford having an up and own season, Kupp has been the spark plug of the Rams’ offense. The offense has simply evolved to revolve around him, and he has simply remained uncoverable. My vote would be for Kupp.

 DOPY (Defensive Player of the Year) — T.J. Watt T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers

Runner-up: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

This may be the toughest award to decide this season.

Myles Garrett had a clear lead at midseason. Several other names have jumped in and out of the conversation, including Matthew Judon, Nick Bosa, and Trey Hendrickson. And Dallas Cowboys rookie phenom Micah Parsons should certainly be in the mix.

But with one week to go, to me, the battle comes down to T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald.

Donald won last year’s DOPY award, as well as three of the last four. There is a sense of voter fatigue with him, like there has been with LeBron James for the NBA’s MVP honor.

Donald leads the league in QB pressures by a wide margin, which is incredibly impressive for an interior defensive lineman. He has a solid case to win the award again.

But so does Steelers stand-up EDGE defender T.J. Watt.

Watt has been in the mix for the award in each of the last two seasons. This year, he leads the league with 21.5 sacks, and has added four forced fumbles, and a league-high (tied) three fumble recoveries.

Pittsburgh’s defense hasn’t been as strong of an overall unit as it’s been in the past, with the defense relying heavily on Watt and veteran Cameron Heyward. Both of them have delivered, with Watt being the driving force.

The Steelers are known for being a proud franchise, and with the offense as lowly as it’s been in 2021 for Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song season, it’s been Watt that has the led the charge for the 8-7-1 Steelers, who have a shot at a winning record this week, and an outside shot at a playoff spot.

OROY (Offensive Rookie of the Year) —  Ja'Marr Chase Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Runner-up: Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots

As impressive as Mac Jones has been in spurts for the Patriots, he now falls back to the pack with the likes of Jaylen Waddle, Kyle Pitts and Creed Humphrey, as Ja’Marr Chase literally left behind everyone in the field last week versus the Chiefs.

In two important wins over Baltimore and Kansas City in the last two weeks, Chase has totaled 18 catches on 22 targets for 391 yards and three touchdowns to bring his total numbers on the year to: 79 catches, 1,429 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns.

He’s been the league’s most explosive downfield threat, leading the NFL in yards per reception (18.1) among qualified candidates.

There were many (including myself) questioning the Bengals ‘ selection of Chase with the fifth overall pick over a quality offensive tackle prospect last spring. The move seemed like too much of a gift toward Burrow, and less of an ideal decision toward overall team-building.

And although the Bengals’ O-line is indeed still a weakness, and the tackle position must be addressed in the offseason, Chase has proven to be the correct pick.

Burrow and Chase have teamed up to form perhaps the most dangerous QB-pass catcher combo in the game today, or at least up there with Patrick Mahoems-Tyreek Hill.

Although Mac Jones may bring more career-long value to his team than Chase, it’s Chase who deserves this particular award this season, no question.

 

DROY (Defensive Rookie of the Year) —  Micah Parsons Player Photo Micah Parsons, LB/EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Runner-up: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos 

This is a pretty easy pick. Patrick Surtain II has had an awesome rookie season, and should be a shutdown cornerback for years to come, but Micah Parsons is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, let alone Defensive Rookie of the Year. Parsons has the highest PFF grade (88.7) of any linebacker this year, but also has played 374 snaps on the D-line as an EDGE defender (according to PFF), where he leads the league in PFF pass rush grade (93.0) and is sixth in the NFL with 13 sacks. He’s been one of the best players in football this season, period.

 

Comeback Player of the Year —  Joe Burrow  Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Runner-up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Despite Prescott’s solid season in return from injury, this one has become pretty simple for me in recent weeks. Joe Burrow, with help from his buddy Ja’Marr Chase, has been marvelous in return from last season’s knee injury, helping to lead the Bengals to a surprising AFC North title, all while being near the top of the league in may statistical categories.

 

Coach of the Year — NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 14, 2021 - The 2021 photo of Head Coach Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans NFL football team. This image reflects the Tennessee Titans active roster as of June 14, 2021 when this image was taken. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Titans  Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

Runner-up: Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers 

It feels sort of wrong for Matt LaFleur, who has 13 wins in each of his first three seasons in Green Bay, to not win the award. If he wins it, there will be no pushback from me.

But what Mike Vrabel has done in Tennessee in this season has been more impressive. Dealing with an NFL-record 88 different starters in a single season, Vrabel has the Titans on the brink of capturing the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and it’s ever-important bye. He’s done much of this without arguably his two best players — running back Derrick Henry and receiver A.J. Brown.

If the Titans beat the Texans on Sunday, the award should be his.

Executive of the Year — bill-belichick-headshot2019-recropped  Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Runner-up: Brian Gutekunst, Green Bay Packers 

No one would fault anyone for voting for Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst here. He’s built perhaps the most complete team in football, all while dealing with the Aaron Rodgers offseason drama, to have the Packers as the Super Bowl favorite here in January.

But give me Bill Belichick, whose plan to move at hyper-speed to success following the departure of Tom Brady amidst a pandemic-riddled 2020, has panned out.

The Patriots spent a free agency-record $163 million guaranteed in free agency, and are seeing some great returns already from some such as EDGE Matthew Judon.

New England also drafted rookie QB Mac Jones in the first round, and have ushered him in nicely into the Patriot Way as the Patriots head back to the Playoffs.

Had New England defeated the Buffalo Bills last month, and grabbed the AFC’s No. 1 seed, Belichick would have been the vote for Coach of the Year, as well.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) (Last week: 1). They’ve been the NFL’s best and most complete team for much of the season. This may be Aaron Rodgers’ best chance yet at a second Super Bowl ring.

2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4) (Last week: 3). Even with Matthew Stafford playing messy football, they’re a Super Bowl contender. This is banking on them finally beating nemesis San Francisco to clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed, though.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) (Last week: 2). The loss in Cincinnati likely bumped them out of having a bye. They were on a roll. They’re the back-to-back defending AFC champs, so they enter the playoff field as the conference’s favorite. But just how good is their defense? Will they hold up versus the likes of Buffalo? Or versus the ground game of Jonathan Taylor and Indianapolis?

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4) (Last week: 4). Tom Brady has done a lot to prop them up this season. And that’s exactly why they can’t be counted out in the playoffs. But it does sort of feel like it’s not their year. We shall see. If their defense can flip the switch to even ‘moderately good,’ then look out.

5. Buffalo Bills (10-6) (Last week: 7). With Josh Allen manning their offense, they’re a Super Bowl contender. They’ve showed some toughness recently, too. Both mentally and physically.

6. Tennessee Titans (11-5) (Last week: 8). The Titans have A.J. Brown healthy and back on the field, playing well. Now, it’s Derrick Henry’s turn. The ‘King’ could reportedly play this week, if not, in the playoffs. Tennessee is a win over the Houston Texans away from clinching the AFC’s No. 1 seed, just as they re-welcome their star running back. What a great job by head coach Mike Vrabel to keep this team afloat amidst all of the madness.

7. Dallas Cowboys (11-5) (Last week: 5). They sort of felt like a team of destiny early on, but that magic has waned as of late. They’re still a great team. You can’t count them out.

8. New England Patriots (10-6) (Last week: 9). Like the Colts, they have the structure and identity of a team that could make a run in the playoffs, especially with Bill Belichick at coach, and the AFC as is. Is Mac Jones ready?

9. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) (Last week: 10). This has been a helluva season for them. Joe Burrow has taken the leap, and it looks like they made the right move in drafting Ja’Marr Chase over an offensive tackle with pick No. 5 last spring, eh? Let’s hear it for the AFC North champions.

10. Indianapolis Colts (9-7) (Last week: 6). They should be able to beat the Jaguars on Sunday to clinch a wild card spot, but their home loss to Las Vegas brought them down to earth some. They have the DNA of a tough playoff team, but they’ll ultimately go as far as Carson Wentz allows them to.

11. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) (Last week: 12). The Cardinals still have a shot at the NFC West. That was a tough win in Dallas last Sunday. Maybe they’re not dead yet. They still don’t ooze confidence, heading into the playoffs. But that was a step back in the rigth direction.

12. San Francisco 49ers (9-7) (Last week: 11). They need to beat the Rams for a sixth straight time to ensure they get into the playoffs. A loss and a Saints win means they’re out. If it’s Trey Lance who gets the start, can the rookie get the job done?

13. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert is perhaps as as talented a quarterback as any in this league, but the Chargers are…well, the Chargers. Can they overcome their franchise’s energy to defeat the Raiders in Las Vegas? Technically, they’re a better team, but I wouldn’t drop any money on them. Las Vegas has been a more mentally tough team this season.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7) (Last week: NR). Derek Carr (with some help from Hunter Renfrow) has done an incredible job keeping the Raiders season alive. They host the Chargers in a de-facto playoff game on Sunday night. If they win, they’re in.

15. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) (Last week: 15). The Eagles are going to the playoffs in Year 1 under rookie head coach Nick Sirianni. Jalen Hurts has had his ups and downs, but he’s proven to be a solid quarterback. Considering the lackluster impending rookie draft class of passers, Philadelphia should use their three first-round draft picks on other positions in hopes of building a solid team around Hurts, unless they can swing a deal for a star QB such as Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or maybe Deshaun Watson. If not, they should stick with Hurts.

16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8) (Last week: 14). Injuries derailed their regular season before it even began. They’ve lost five straight since an 8-3 start that had them as AFC frontrunners at the time. As great as the Bengals’ story is this season, a healthy Lamar Jackson, even with the rest of the team as is, probably would have given the Ravens the AFC North title this year. Instead, they’ll likely miss the playoffs.

Next Up: New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Miami, Minnesota, Cleveland

Patrick Mahomes vs Chargers -- 2021

Burning Questions 🔥: NFL MVP race down to two candidates + Jags’ next HC, Russell Wilson ’22 landing spot

Week 15 began on Thursday in Los Angeles with a rivalry tilt between the Kansas City Chiefs and L.A. Chargers.

A wild, back-and-forth contest was ended in overtime, when Patrick Mahomes found Travis Kelce over the middle, and the shifty tight end making several Chargers miss on a 34-yard touchdown catch and scamper for the win.

The victory pseudo-locked up a sixth straight AFC West crown for the Chiefs, who have now won seven straight, and are in the mix for the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which comes with the ever-important, and lone, conference playoff bye.

In a season as wacky as this one, the race for playoff seeding figures to be an exciting trek.

For all teams, the regular season has entered its final month. There are four weeks remaining in the longest regular season in league history, with 30 teams readying to play out their final four games of their schedules (three each for Chiefs, Chargers).

Both the AFC and NFC now have three teams with an identical amount of losses at the top of their standings, making for an interesting month ahead.

As it stands, the Jacksonville Jaguars fired first-year head coach Urban Meyer after just 13 games, so there’s coal for the fire for a ‘burning questions’-type of piece, where I’ll give you my answers. This is a perfect opportunity for our Quick-Hits section.

Down, set, hut!

QUICK-HITS 

NFL MVP? The once-hectic race for the award for this season now is a two-man race involving two three-time winners in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And at this point, it’s Brady with the clear lead, and even a tiny bit of breathing room. This season, Brady currently leads the league in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, Total QBR, wins, sack percentage and PFF grade. Aaron Rodgers has volume stats than Tom Brady, partly because he missed a game due to COVID-19, which was a messy story that didn’t look good for the Packers’ QB, and likely will factor into this race. But Rodgers leads the league in passer rating and interception percentage, showing a knack for his overall efficiency this season post-Week 1, in which Green Bay suffered a stunning blowout defeat to the Saints. There’s more time left to decide the race. Green Bay currently leads the NFC via tiebreakers over Tampa Bay and Arizona. If the Packers secure the No. 1 seed in the conference, that will help Rodgers’ case. Ultimately Brady is working with better offensive weaponry while Rodgers may be leading the better overall team equipped with a solid defense and an evolving, tough running game built for cold-weather football (A.J. Dillon). At this point, Rodgers missing a game, and Brady leading wins like Sunday’s over Buffalo in overtime, it’s the GOAT who has the clear lead as the race winds down.

Tom Brady OT TD pass vs Bills -- 2021
Tom Brady looks on during his game-winning touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime to defeat the Buffalo Bills in Week 14. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

With Urban Meyer ousted, who should be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ next head coach? How about current Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy? Bieniemy has been a hot topic over the past few offseasons, as many have wondered why he hasn’t been offered a NFL head coaching job already. He’s helped in the maturation of Patrick Mahomes and in the creation of the Chiefs’ all-time explosive offense over the past few seasons. Kansas City has been hit with some resistance this season, but the Chiefs are starting to problem-solve and play their way out of it. Bieniemy deserves some of the credit there. The Jaguars are a lowly franchise but they have assets in young QB Trevor Lawrence, a likely top-three draft pick in April, and and over $70 million in projected cap space to use on talent in free agency this offseason. Schematically, Bieniemy could bring a lot to the table for Lawerence. It’s an interesting fit that I’d like to see happen. If I had to guess, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may also be in the mix when interviews begin for the role.

— We’re a few months away from the offseason, but the future of the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson in particular, is a hot topic. If he leaves Seattle, where may he go next? If Wilson is dealt, the New Orleans Saints are an obvious fit, but if they can finesse their way around the salary cap, how about the New York Giants as a possible destination?  The Giants will likely fire GM Dave Gettleman, a once respected, and succesful general manager who has failed in New York. Giants head coach Joe Judge is likely on the hot seat, but could return. In my eyes, there is a world where the Giants trade some significant draft capital to obtain Wilson, still find a way to improve their offensive line, retain Judge and most of their pretty-good, tough defense, and become a true contender in the NFC East. Plus, Wilson, although a different cat, would fit well in New York. He isn’t afraid of pressure, or the limelight, and his celebrity/talented artist wife, Ciara, would likely enjoy New York, as well (I’m guessing). It seems like a fun fit that is gaining some steam. Still, the Saints, with offensive-minded, wise/experienced head coach Sean Payton, is the best pairing for Wilson.

— As this piece is published around east coast lunch time on Friday, the NFL, along with the NBA, New York City, London, and other areas around the world are experiencing a huge surge/waves of increasing COVID-19 numbers. As it stands, both the Cleveland Browns and Washington Football team are down to starting third-string quarterbacks this weekend (as of now). Washington just signed New England Patriots practice squad QB Garrett Gilbert to start on Sunday in Philadelphia versus the Eagles in a virtual do-or-die game for both teams, in terms of playoff hopes. As of now, there have been over 130 NFL players put on the Reserve/COVID-19 list since Monday. Cleveland, the Los Angeles Rams and Washington have roughly 70 players combined on the list. With COVID-19 still present in our society, and both the Delta and reportedly highly-transmissible Omicron variant now out there, and Holiday season in full swing, this is a friendly reminder for everyone to be safe.

THE BETTER HALF

(With this piece being released on Friday, in the middle of Week 15, we will have blurbs for only the participants of the important AFC West showdown on Thursday Night Football (Chiefs, Chargers). We will wait for next week’s edition for blurbs on each team.)

1. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 1). 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3) (Last week: 2). 

3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 4). They figured things out late, battling back to defeat the Chargers in LA via a brilliant fourth quarter by Patrick Mahomes (10-13, 197 yards 3 TD in final 10 minutes), and a takeover by Travis Kelce (10 rec, 191 yds, 2 TD). Two-high looks by competent teams are still giving their offense fits, but they’re battling they’re way out of it.

4. New England Patriots (9-4) (Last week: 5).

5. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) (Last week: 6). 

6. Arizona Cardinals (10-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4) (Last week: 7). 

8. Tennessee Titans (9-4) (Last week: 9). 

9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6) (Last week: 10). 

10. Buffalo Bills (7-6) (Last week: 8). 

11. San Francisco 49ers (7-6) (Last week: 13). 

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). They outplayed the Chiefs for much of the game, but couldn’t capitalize. They’re still in good position for a playoff spot, but will likely need to win two of their final three games to have a good shot at clinching.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-5) (Last week: 11). 

14. Cleveland Browns (7-6) (Last week: NR).

15. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) (Last week: 14). 

16. Minnesota Vikings (6-7) (Last week: NR). 

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver, New Orleans, Philadelphia

Aaron Rodgers vs Rams - 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 12: Are Packers the league’s most complete team?

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In a season where no team has been consistently good, or even consistent, the Green Bay Packers (9-3) are starting to show their teeth as perhaps the NFC’s most complete club.

The Cheeseheads, led by Aaron Rodgers (28 of 45, 307 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) defeated the Los Angeles Rams (7-4), 36-28, in a game that wasn’t as close as its final score, as Green bay looked like a much better squad than the star-studded Rams.

Green Bay led the Rams 36-17 heading into the fourth quarter, and held Los Angeles to 68 rush yards (3.4 yards per carry), forcing three turnovers (including a pick-six of Matthew Stafford), and in several big moments, Rodgers found superstar receiver Davante Adams (eight catches, 104 yards) seemingly with ease, as the Rams’ zone-heavy scheme foolishly did not feature cornerback Jalen Ramsey shadowing Adams throughout the entire game.

The game also shed light on the puzzle of Rodgers’ future. Some said that Rodgers was justified in his offseason frustration over Green Bay’s roster construction. Green Bay lacked a solid pass catcher after Adams, and in the 2020 NFL Draft, they seemingly drafted Rodgers’ eventual replacement in the first round (quarterback Jordan Love) and drafted a bulldozing, old-school running back (A.J. Dillon) in Round 2.

Rodgers insisted the 2020 draft was not the issue, and that it was Green Bay’s overall way of handling many offseasons, that irked him.

“It’s never been about the draft pick,” Rodgers told ESPN‘s Kenny Mayne in his final SportsCenter appearance.

“I love Jordan. I love the coaching staff. I love my teammates. It’s just about a philosophy and maybe forgetting it is about the people that make things go.”

Rodgers eventually agreed to return to the team for this season, and was given a gift in Green Bay’s acquiring of Rodgers’ long-time friend, slot receiver Randall Cobb, via trade.

Many believe Rodgers will attempt to leave Green Bay this offseason. And that may very well be the case. But looking at the lay of the land as it stands, why would he leave?

What type of team does Rodgers want to play for, exactly? A squad like the Rams, top-heavy team, lacking depth and consistency.  Does he want a wheeling-and-dealing squad that constructs its roster only for its quarterback? Or does he want to win a Super Bowl. If the latter still matters to him, then Rodgers must see that the Packers are close.

Together, Rodgers and head coach Matt Lafleur are 35-8 in the last three regular seasons, which is good for best in the NFL. The Packers have also made the NFC title game in the last two seasons. They’ve failed to get past that round, but history shows great teams such as this one sometimes enjoy a “breakthrough” season in the midst of two or three consecutive near-berths to a Super Bowl.

Rodgers, after struggling some in 2019 in LaFleur’s Shanahan-style offense, now has acclimated perfectly, as the team uses a mix of under-center, run-heavy, two-tight end sets, and spread-you-out, passer-friendly looks to compliment Rodgers’ career-long strengths.

Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst has taken the brunt of Rodgers’ frustration via pass-aggressive quotes in the offseason, but the fourth-year general manager has carried the torch of the franchise’s past, relying heavily on the franchise’s scouting department to emphasize the need to build through the draft, focus on internal player progression, and prioritize homegrown players over free agents.

That style has worked for one of the NFL’s best franchises for years and years. Like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay has their own way of doing things. Their stubbornness in their ways caught up with them some during the middle of the last decade, as Rodgers was stuck attempting to elevate lesser-talented teams (think: 2016 season).

But Green Bay has built a solid roster up from the ground, with just the right mix of free agents to help lead the way.

A.J. Dillon vs Rams -- 2021
A.J. Dillon has been a breakout star for the Packers in 2021. He’s the perfect running back for the weather in Green Bay, and the Packers’ rushing scheme. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

A.J. Dillon, in particular, has had a breakout season in Year 2. The Boston College product is a bully-ball rusher who is perhaps in the perfect spot in snowy Wisconsin. He’s the type of January running back that was needed, but many scoffed at the draft pick two years ago.

Rodgers is still making due with a modst-at-best receiving group after Adams, but with the cap room to spread talent throughout the roster, Green Bay at least has Adams, maybe the best receiver in football, as well as a solid offensive line, and now, one of the NFL’s best defenses.

In 2019, Green Bay paid front seven members Za’Darius and Preston Smith, as sell as safety Adrian Amos, to help a defense that needed reinforcements. The moves have paid dividends, with Amos teaming up with homegrown safety Darnell Savage to rival Buffalo (Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer), as perhaps the best safety tandem in the league.

Up front, the Packers play mostly a 3-4 style defense built with tough, bigger players (somewhat like other well run-franchises in the Patriots and Steelers) that relies on a few players such as top-tier nose tackle Kenny Clark to take up bodies and make plays up front, clearing the way for others.

Green Bay is currently seventh in the league in yards per game allowed (321.7) and fifth in points allowed (20.2). They’ve built up a Super Bowl caliber defense, and they aren’t even at full strength as a team at the moment.

Za’Darius Smith has been out since September with a back injury, but should be back soon.

Green Bay is also expecting the return of left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexandler, two former All-Pros who are undoubtedly top-five players at their respective positions, sometime during their home stretch.

Alexander, much like Adams on offense, is a good example of how well Green Bay progresses their players.

To get back to Sunday’s game, the difference between the Packers and Rams was stark.

As great of a head coach and X’s and O’s man Sean McVay is, he’s stumbled as of late, as has his hand-picked quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who fell to 0-17 in his career against teams who entered a contest five games over .500 (via NFL research). It was the fourth loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for Stafford in such a situation.

The Rams have loads of top-end talent. Even Odell Beckham Jr. scored his first touchdown in over a year in the fourth quarter of the Rams’ comeback attempt. But what the Rams don’t have, is a steady roster across the board. Players one to 53, the practice squad, the team history, the scouting and player personnel department, the January, cold-weather homefield advantage.

In Green Bay, Rodgers just may have it all now, or close to it. The way the Packers’ season ends will have much to do with his decision. If Green Bay’s rushing attack is foiled, and Adams is blanketed in the same playoff game, Rodgers will identify that the problem is a lack of offensive weapons, and that may be true. But right now, in a year of mayhem, he has yet another prime shot at a second Super Bowl title with the team he’s played for, for 17 seasons.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 3). Along with the Patriots, they look like the league’s most complete team at the moment. And Aaron Rodgers is now back in the MVP conversation, surely.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) (Last week: 2). They survived Indianapolis behind a turn-back-the-clock performance by Rob Gronkowski (seven catches, 123 yards) and a dominant effort by Leonard Fournette (131 total yards, four touchdowns). Oh, and Tom Brady led his 65th career game-winning drive (including playoffs). Still, they need to get healthier on defense, and find their groove on that side of the ball.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) (Last week: 4). Kyler Murray should return this week. They’re starting to slip under the radar, but they still have the league’s best record.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 5). The Chiefs have improved steadily on offense during their four-game winning streak, and their once-awful defense has allowed just 11.8 points per game during that span. The madness of this season, and in the AFC in particular, left the door open for the Chiefs. It appears they’ve found their way in the room.

5. New England Patriots (8-4) (Last week: 6). This is eerily starting to look like many of the Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams throughout the dynasty. Sunday’s 36-13 win over Tennessee under the cold weather and snow flurries felt like a vintage post-Thanksgiving New England win. Everything is coming together. But their biggest test lies ahead. Their Monday night game in Buffalo next week is perhaps their biggest regular season matchup since 2018.

6. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) (Last week: 1). They’ve lost three straight, and Matthew Stafford (three games in a row with a pick-six) hasn’t played well as of late. They have too much talent to not right the ship. They have good enough players to where suggesting they could make a 2020 Buccaneers-like run is not out of the question.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-4) (Last week: 8). One of the bigger AFC East regular season games in recent memory awaits them on Monday Night Football next week. Patriots at Bills. Can Buffalo limit turnovers, stay balanced on offense, and play good enough defense to win? It should be a great game.

8. Baltimore Ravens (8-3) (Last week: 9). They really haven’t looked consistently good all season, but they’re the AFC’s No. 1 seed at the moment anyway. That’s probably a good sign. They’re too well-run of an organization not to tighten things up here soon.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 7). When healthy, the Titans are a Super Bowl contender. Missing their three best offensive weapons in New England (Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones), Mike Vrabel’s bunch held tough, before three turnovers ruined their upset chances. Still, they ran for 270 yards versus one of the team’s stingiest defenses. Their goal now is to get healthy for the playoffs. They have the mental toughness and coaching to surprise some people then.

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (Last week: 10). They have the NFC East pseudo wrapped-up, but that doesn’t excuse their diminishing play as of late. Are they a Super Bowl contender, or will they just be happy to be ousted easily in the NFC Divisional round?

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 11). Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns in the first half as the Colts looked primed for a major home upset over the defending champs, before the wheels came off. He lost a fumble and threw a pick in consecutive drives starting with Indy leading 24-14 and driving in Tampa territory. This is a built-for-January team, but often times, they are being held back by their QB. But sometimes, they are elevated by Wentz and his talent. They need more consistency from their quarterback.

12. San Francisco 49ers (6-5) (Last week: 12). Here come the 49ers. They’re getting much better (albeit, still Jekyll-and-Hyde) play out of Jimmy Garoppolo as of late, and receiver-running back Deebo Samuel has probably entered the OPOY discussion with Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor for what he’s done as of recent.

13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) (Last week: NR). It’s hard to get a read on them. It seems as if they are good. That’s two big wins in a row for Joe Burrow and the gang. Joe Mixon (12 touchdowns in last eight games) has been a great compliment to their passing game as of late.

14. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) (last week: 15). They’re the only team in the league to lead each game they’ve played this year by seven points or more, yet they are 5-6. They’re snake-bitten, but the state of the NFC, and their remaining schedule (Lions, Bears (twice)) gives them a good shot at a wild card spot. This is a bad, good team. They have talent.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) (Last week: NR). I’m not sure they have what it takes to even make the playoffs, but when he is on, Derek Carr is one of the best passers in the league. That was a big overtime win in Dallas, for the most-watched regular season NFL game in league history.

16. Cleveland Browns (6-6) (Last week: 16). They’ve been horrid on offense as of late, but they still have the defense and potential in the running game for me to feel good about putting them above the teams below. Can they right the ship?

Next Up: Denver, L.A. Chargers, New Orleans, Miami, Pittsburgh

Cooper Kupp vs Bucs -- 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 3: It’s September, but Rams are the league’s best

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.

The event was a clear example of McVay’s excitement regarding a roster he put together. It’s evident the organization believes this is a win-now, Super Bowl-winning team.

The outburst also showcased how bad McVay wanted this win, even if the coach’s answer on the matter felt plucked right from a Bill Belichick press conference transcript.

“It means we’re 3-0,” McVay told the media when asked what the Rams’ win meant.

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

Tom Brady leaves Lambeau Field — 2020 NFC Championship Game

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady — NO vs TB 2020 NFC Divisional Playoff

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

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

Sometimes, things come for those who wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It makes for a great story.

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

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

Aaron Rodgers vs Titans — 2020

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

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

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

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

Cheers to a new year, and enjoy!

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1a. Aaron Rodgers

1b. Patrick Mahomes

3. Josh Allen

4. Russell Wilson

5. Derrick Henry

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Wilson vs Panthers

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFC playoff race heats up for winter push

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

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

Insanity, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick-hits

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady vs Packers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, Saints hand Rams first loss

On Sunday night a game that many fans, sports media members, and network executives circled on their calendar roughly six months ago took place.

We’re talking about the Packers-Patriots showdown, of course. Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady. The most talented quarterback of all time versus the greatest quarterback of all time.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks these aren’t the two greatest passers in the game. But ironically, the most ridiculous hot takes involving the two usually surround comparisons among the two best players in football. And that’s not just on Twitter, were talking network-created debate shows that make some of the most outrageous claims.

But as the great Bill Simmons put in a 2007 column that led up to a great Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown — the greatest QB rivalry of all-time — “If you don’t like the accompanying BS for an admittedly overdiscussed game, simply skip the shows, columns, features and SportsCenter segments and join’ NBC’s broadcast on Sunday night.

Well that date has passed. It’s now Monday, and the Patriots won that contest, 31-17, all while using their WR5 (Cordarrelle Patterson, 73 total yards and a rushing TD) as an RB2, and while doing so without Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel, who are two of the team’s top five weapons on offense, and that’s being modest.

Yes, Brady has the better coach and the better overall team. With the exception of maybe Mike Daniels and a young (but talented) CB core, the Packers defense is not quite as good as the Patriots’ unit, and New England’s defense is iffy. So it goes without saying, Brady didn’t necessarily beat Rodgers in a boxing match, it’s the team sport of football.

But Brady is the better quarterback. He has the better resume, legacy, and has been better since the 2014 regular season, when Rodgers beat Brady and the Patriots at home, 26-21, leading to Rodgers second NFL MVP award. So it was obvious Brady wanted this one, to even the score at 1-1 in what will most likely be the lasting moments of their often-discussed but never-matched-up-against rivalry. Green Bay is not returning to the Super Bowl this season, and with the talent in the NFC, they may not get back. Unless the two are still playing 2022, this was the last regular season meeting between the two.

Working with what he had, Brady spread the ball around to his trusted weapons, offensive engine James White and the ever-valuable Julian Edelman, as the two combined for 191 yards form scrimmage, 37 passing yards (!) and two scores.

But the X-factor is and will remain WR1 Josh Gordon, who continues to make spectacular plays as the type of guy Brady feels comfortable just lofting the ball up to, like he used to with the great Randy Moss. But there was no jump ball in the game’s best play, that put the game away. Brady lured two good rookie Packers cornerbacks to the flats as he faked a WR screen to Chris Hogan, then threw a dart to Gordon, who broke free for a 55-yard score. Game, set, match.

Rodgers was good, throwing for 259 yards, two scores and zero picks on 24-for-43 passing. He’s always good, at the very least. He’s usually great, but with only WR1 Davante Adams as a bonafide top target, Rodgers is working with two players who have seen better days, Randall Cobb and Jimmy Graham, as his next best weapons. After that it’s a barrel of rookie pass catchers.

Rodgers did what he could, and was humble in defeat. And if he springs together a run of late-career Super Bowls, he may very well finish as the greatest ever. For now, that conversation is not close, it’s Brady. And as for the best over the last few seasons, and right now? That conversation yields a much closer argument. But it’s Brady who is the better in that category, too. He proved that Sunday night, and has been in a recent, late-career run that Rodgers needs to mirror to pass him.

Saints rip Rams, lay claim as NFL’s best team

A Brady-Rodgers duel is awesome, but the best matchup of the week resided in New Orleans, as the Rams and Saints squared off in a battle that may decide the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The Saints were on their way to destroying the Rams, holding a 35-14 lead right before the half. It wasn’t close. It was a spanking.

But the Rams clawed their way back to tie the game at 35-35 midway through the fourth quarter. In the biggest game of his young career, Jared Goff showed incredible poise and composure in leading the Rams back into the game. But the Saints responded.

The answer to my tweet above was obviously a resounding no, as Alvin Kamara ripped through Los Angeles for 116 total yards and three touchdowns in New Orleans’ eventual 45-35 victory. To make matters worse, Rams CB1 Marcus Peters was lost trying to defend Saints WR1 Michael Thomas, who is on an extraordinary receiving pace that rivals Todd Gurley’s season for the Rams. Kamara had three scores and Thomas put the game away with a clutch touchdown, and celebrated with a legendary ode to Joe Horn’s old-school cell phone celebration.

Despite the abundance of talent in the NFC (Panthers, Vikings, Eagles, Bears, Packers etc..) these two should meet again in the NFC Championship Game. If the Saints take care of business, they should have that game at home, because of this win. Give me the Saints in a rematch — that would be even closer than this matchup — due to their league-best trio of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. The Rams and Chiefs may have more complete offenses, but those three in New Orleans are not to be messed with.

Thomas was too much for Peters. Kamara was too much for the Rams’ underwhelming LB crew. And despite Goff’s ability to guide the Rams back in it, Brees was better. The Rams are all in, but the Saints are slightly better at the moment. They proved that and more on Sunday. They’re the best team in pro football. And now, they hold all the cards in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Three sleeper teams to monitor

With most eyes on the Saints, Rams, Patriots and Chiefs, there are three teams flying under the radar at this point in the season.

Give it up for the Panthers (6-2, three-game winning streak), Chargers (6-2, five-game winning streak) and Texans (6-3, six-game winning streak). All three clubs are coasting thanks to MVP-level play from their QBs – Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers and Deshaun Watson. The latter has overcome a slow start, in which he clearly was still affected by last season’s ACL tear, to return to his old self. Mahomes may have jumped ahead for now but Watson, who was snagged two picks after Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft, has a chance to become the best QB of that draft class, really. As for the Bears (5-3), it’s their health, and the inconsistency of the highest-drafted QB of that class, Mitchell Trubisky, that brings them down. They aren’t up to par with Houston, or the Panthers or Chargers.

Both Newton and Rivers are a few seasons removed from their previous best seasons. Newton hogged the limelight during a great 2015 run, and isn’t quite doing that statistically this season, but he’s working with a re-defined offense that plays at a different pace, and he’s playing as efficient as he’s ever been. This is actually Rivers’ best season by any mark, so far. With Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams, Los Angeles’ offense is tough to stop.

All three of these teams are tough to stop. Down the stretch, give me the Chargers as the most sure-fire to make the postseason, then the Panthers, then the Texans, who may need to hold off the Jaguars (3-5) who are bound to make a run at some point, they have too much talent. But all three should make it in, and all three will deserve too. Keep an eye on these three squads.

Quick-hits

– Although it’s not yet time to stick a fork in the Ravens (4-5), licking your chops at the idea wouldn’t be considered reckless. Five weeks ago, Baltimore impressively dismantled the Steelers (5-2-1) in Pittsburgh on a national stage. On Sunday, they played uninspired at home in a 23-16 loss to their division rival during a game sandwiched with others in the early afternoon slate. The loss is the third straight for the Ravens, who have been knocked farther down the AFC North ladder, looking up at the Steelers and Bengals (5-3).

Pittsburgh has seemingly eviscerated their sluggish play to begin the year, as their fourth straight win puts them behind only the Chiefs (8-1) and Patriots (7-2) in the AFC playoff picture.

– In the Falcons (4-4) 38-14 bludgeoning of the Redskins (5-3) in Washington, two points were made. First, Washington clearly shouldn’t be mentioned among the NFC’s true contenders. And second, with three straight wins, the Falcons have risen from the dead to insert themselves in the NFC’s wild card race. With season-ending injuries to Keanu Neal and Deion Jones (among other casulaties), no team has been devastated with more injuries this season than Atlanta. But Steve Sarkisian’s offense has come alive for the Falcons, who seemed to have fixed their red-zone woes and are scoring at will. Halfway through what looked like was becoming a disaster campaign, Atlanta deserves some attention.

NFL MVP Race

1) Patrick Mahomes – As he continues on his record pace, it’s clear the QB for the league’s most explosive offense in at least a decade is the frontrunner for the NFL MVP.

2) Drew Brees – Brees leads the NFL’s best team at the moment, with seven straight wins. In the Saints only loss (Week 1 vs. the Bucs), Brees and company put up 40 points in a 47-40 loss. He’s having perhaps his best season at age 39.

3) Todd Gurley – Gurley leads the league in rushing yards (868 yards), total yards from scrimmage (1,230 yards), and total touchdowns (16). He’s your Offensive Player of the Year at this point.

4) Phillip Rivers – Like Brees, Rivers is having his best season in the twilight of his career, as well. Utilizing his humongous receiving core — and Melvin Gordon — the Chargers are a scary 6-2 bunch, with their only losses coming to the Chiefs and Rams. You can thank Rivers for the Chargers’ success this season, and any success they’ve had since about 2009.

5) Tom Brady – Overcoming yet another bumpy start, Brady continues to win when key pieces are missing, when players are added midseason to fill major roles, or when the Patriots’ offensive strategy changes from week to week.

Next Up: Alvin Kamara, James Connor, Kareem Hunt, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan