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

Rodgers vs Bears

NFL Monday Morning Madness: All hail Aaron Rodgers

The NFL once again delivered an exhilaratingly whacky Week 1, highlighted by the Chiefs’ explosive offense, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s fireworks through the air in New Orleans, a tie, and a game twice delayed by inclement weather.

But we begin in Green Bay, where fans at Lambeau Field were once again witnesses to the greatness of Aaron Rodgers.

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The most shocking upset of the week was almost complete. The Bears, with new head coach Matt Nagy, young QB Mitch Trubisky and recent mega-addition Khalil Mack, had seemingly sucked the energy out of the Packers. After all, superstar QB Aaron Rodgers left with an apparent knee injury, the Bears looked faster and hungrier, and Mack had completely taken over the game with a strip-sack and a pick-six. The score at the half? 17-0 in favor of the new, modern-day Monsters of the Midway.

Shockingly, Rodgers returned for the second half, and so did the Packers.

Insert one more legendary comeback and game into Rodgers’ script. A 20-point second half comeback to beat the upstart Bears, a team that had THAT look. The look of a team ready to break out. Not tonight, not in Rodgers’ house.

One of the game’s great rivalries has been in favor of the Packers during the Rodgers era. He had beaten the Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship in Chicago. He had beaten the Bears in Week 17 of 2013 to clinch the NFC North on a long-ball to Randall Cobb. And last night, he crushed the Bears’ souls again, with Cobb, his closest friend on the team. An 75-yard touchdown pass in which Cobb did most of the damage after the catch, put the Packers ahead 24-23. That would be the final score.

“It’s the Bear-Packer rivalry, Rodgers said to NBC’s Michele Tafoya. “It would have had to be something really catastrophic injury-wise to keep me off the field.”

Once Green Bay took the lead, Chicago had a chance to drive down for the win, but the moment looked too big for Mitchell Trubisky. It engulfed him. Even with a second chance after Clay Matthews roughing-the-passer penalty on fourth down extended the drive, Trubisky could not deliver. The same Bears that looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball in the first half couldn’t hang on in the second. Not with Rodgers at the helm, limping around and throwing touchdowns, firing up a crowd thad had almost certainly begun mulling over the career of their quarterback after what looked to be another serious injury possibly derailing another one of his seasons.

Instead, Rodgers came back and delivered one of his most masterful performances yet, as Trubisky, Mack and the rest of the Bears saw their statement victory slip away. This was must-see TV. Football is indeed back, and this was it’s finest part of the overall product this weekend.

“I’ll play next week,” Rodgers said.

We’ll be watching.

Chiefs still own AFC West

After an offseason filled with questions about whether or not the talented Chargers could finally win the AFC West, the division’s incumbent champs brought the noise in the league’s quietest stadium. The most explosive offense in pro football features the the most explosive player in the sport in Tyreek Hill, and a confident young QB in Patrick Mahomes, who seems ready to lead the charge for one of the AFC’s main contenders.

First thing of note is Hill, who is not only the game’s most explosive (and fastest) player but also the league’s most exciting, edging out guys like Rodgers, Alvin Kamara and Antonio Brown for the nod. A 91-yard punt return touchdown to begin the season, followed by 169 yards and two more scores on the receiving end. He scores on punts, reverses, hand-offs, drags, slants and deep flies. He can literally do it all. He’s what personnel guys always hoped Dante Hall or Devin Hester would be on offense. With lackluster performances by Kareem Hunt (16 carries, 49 yards) and Travis Kelce (1 catch, 6 yards), it was Hill who Mahomes looked to.

But Mahomes deserves credit in his own right. His second career start was basically his first career start. This was his moments. All offseason the Chargers were coronated as one of the league’s most talented teams, if not, the most talented in AFC, at least. But what about the Mahomet-Hill-Hunt-Kelce-Sammy Watkins grouping in Kansas City. The Chiefs have playmakers at all levels, and Mahomes is the perfect distributor in Andy Reid’s high-flying offense.

Mahomes’ final stat line: 15-for-27, 256 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions.

As a QB praised for his big arm and potential, it was refreshing to see Mahomes display accuracy and touch in his passing game, specifically in a floating pass along the left sideline to fullback Anthony Sherman, that turned into a 36-yard catch-and-score.

Yes, the Chargers were without Joey Bosa, and Week 1 is Week 1. But Kansas City made a statement with the win.

The Chiefs have now beaten the Chargers nine straight times, and with Mahomes, things look to be no different in the AFC West.

Same ole Saints?

For fans who haven’t noticed by now. here’s a mantra to keep in mind. Things change in the NFL. Production from the previous season rarely carries over to the next. Unless you’re the Patriots, or Aaron Rodgers, of course.

Sadly, the Saints defense does not fall in the exemption category. After a promising 2017 defensive campaign, the Saints entered Sunday as a Super Bowl contender. Instead they were embarrassed by the Buccaneers at home, 48-40, in a game in which Tampa Bay backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick had the game of his life (21 of 28, 417 yards, four touchdowns).

Fitzpatrick is a great story, and certainly one that should be talked about. He fed Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson magnificently. But the story here is the collapse of what was supposed to be an improving unit. During the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era in the Bayou, the Saints have continually relied on their offense.

But now with Brees at age-39, and Mark Ingram out for four weeks, September was set for the Saints defense to shine. Nope. Instead New Orleans did not capitalize on the Falcons loss in Philadelphia on Thursday. The Falcons should beat the Panthers (1-0) at home next week after blowing their chance to upend the defending Super Bowl Champions.

Atlanta is clearly the most complete team in the NFC South, and even they have a lot of work to do (RED ZONE).

The Saints can reflect this week as they look ahead to their home bout with the Browns next Sunday. Maybe that’s the cure they need.