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

Nick Chubb vs Ravens

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ordering a muddled AFC

Known for being a month of unpredictability and little importance, September of NFL’s 100th season concluded with a flurry of bizarre results, mostly affecting the AFC.

No result in the conference was more notable than the Browns (2-2) dismantling of the Ravens (2-2), 40-25, in Baltimore.

Nick Chubb — 20 carries, 165 yards, three touchdowns — helped power Cleveland to a monumental win that now puts them on top of the AFC North.

That’s an unanticipated slot for a team that was off to a disastrous start that made Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd and an army of Baker Mayfield haters giddy just days ago.

The AFC North now shares similarities with the logjam that is AFC South.

The inconsistently-average division saw the Texans (2-2) and Colts (2-2) suffer demoralizing losses at home, while the Jaguars (2-2) and Titans (2-2) produced wins that evened out their record.

The Patriots (4-0) and Chiefs (4-0) each survived road scares by the previously-unbeaten Bills (3-1) and Lions (2-1-1). Thanks to a handful of upsets on Sunday, the 49ers (3-0), who were on a bye, are the only other undefeated team remaining.

At this point, it’s apparent that the the December 8th matchup between Kansas City and New England will be one of two contests between those teams this season. The AFC Championship Game in January should be a rematch of last season’s all-timer. It would be shocking to see any other AFC squad masquerading as the conference’s third best team in that game.

After the beasts, there are a few talented teams looking to right the ship in the Browns and Chargers (2-2). Then there’s Texans and Ravens, who have two gifted quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson, but have other holes that leave them liable to the occasional sink fest.

The Bills have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but Josh Allen’s accuracy issues leaves them suspended for the time being.

By January, one or two teams in the AFC will get to 11 wins outside of the Patriots and Chiefs. But will they be a viable threat to either team in the race toward Super Bowl LIV? It’s too early to say for sure, but that answer looks like a resounding “no” for now.

QUICK-HITS

– Down goes Dak Prescott in the Cowboys in New Orleans. The Saints held Dallas to 257 yards of total offense — 45 rushing yards — in a stingy 12-10 win that forces us to reassess the NFC. Teddy Bridgewater had his own issues on Sunday night, struggling to throw for a touchdown and therefore keeping the game closer than it needed to be. Luckily, with a stingy effort from their defense, and 184 total yards of offense from Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, the Saints did just enough to produce a huge victory in the Bayou. Drew Brees is expected to miss another month or more, but in a struggling NFC South that already is without Cam Newton in Carolina, and the mess that is the Falcons (1-3), the Saints are in good position as the Fall season begins.

– The Buccaneers (2-2) led the Rams 21-0 and 45-27 in Los Angeles before overcoming a few mistakes for a shocking 55-40 win over the defending NFC champions on the road. The win was the weekend’s most shocking, and similar to Tampa Bay 48-40 win in New Orleans to kickoff the 2018 season. Under head coach Bruce Arians and possibly wunderkind offensive coordinator Byron Leftwhich, even the inconsistent Jameis Winston should look good at times. Minus an embarrassing pick-six late to the Rams’ Marcus Peters, Winston was electric — 28-of-41, 385 passing yards, four touchdowns — and gaffe free, mostly targeting the underrated Chris Godwin — 12 catches, 172 yards, two touchdowns.

Jared Goff did his best to battle back from an ugly outing, finishing 45-of-68 for 517 yards and two scores, but his three interceptions were too much to overcome. Suddenly, the Rams (3-1) find themselves in a tough spot, as they travel to NFC West rival Seattle in three days for a Thursday night contest.

– Down goes Nick Foles and Cam Newton, and to the bench goes Eli Manning. In comes Gardner Minshew, Kyle Allen and Daniel Jones. The latter trio has combined for a 6-1 record this season over the last two weeks. Jones has faced too easy opponents and Allen received a huge boost from Carolina’s stout defensive front yesterday, but Minshew overcame an erupting Denver defense early to produce a game-winning drive resulting in a walk-off 33-yard field goal by Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo. Even with better teams like the Colts and Texans in the division, and the moderate drama surrounding Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have rallied behind their eclectic rookie quarterback to pit themselves in the thick of things in their division. The Panthers (2-2) may not have enough to remain in the NFC mix, but there is a long season ahead. The same goes for the Saquon Barkley-less Giants. Jones has been solid, but he’ll see his first real test when New York hosts the Vikings (2-2) and their defense next week, before heading to New England for a Thursday night contest four days after. Regardless, all three passers have been impressive to close out September.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (4-0) (Last week: 1). Their defense is the best in a league that includes the mighty impressive unit over in Chicago. This year’s version of Tom Brady is obviously miles ahead of Peyton Manning’s final form, but there are striking similarities between the 2019 Patriots and the 2015 Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) (Last week: 2). They survived in Detroit. Even on an off day, Patrick Mahomes delivered.

3. New Orleans Saints (3-1) (Last week: 6). Thanks to an impressive defensive stand versus the Cowboys, Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints move above the team that has handed them their last two losses. Now that he’s settled in, Bridgewater should be able to do enough to keep the Saints afloat without Drew Brees.

4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 3). That was a bad home loss. It happens. But to surrender 55 points at home means something is wrong with the defense. Is it fixable?

5. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 4). Dak Prescott’s hot streak came crashing down in New Orleans. Will he bounce back at home against Green Bay?

6. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was as big of a win as any team has had in 2019. Carson Wentz finally delivered in a big game, on the road, nonetheless. The Eagles still have major issues on defense, but their overall level of talent pits them near the top of the NFC.

7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 5). Aaron Rodgers finally caught fire on Thursday, just in time for their red-hot defense to be extinguished. They’ll need to return to their previous form in Dallas next week.

8. Chicago Bears (3-1) (Last week: 14). No matter who plays quarterback for the Bears, they just need to play well enough to compliment the NFC’s very best defense. The Bears are a contender in the same sense as they’ve always been — a great defense mixed with a shaky quarterback(s).

9. Seattle Seahawks (3-1) (Last week: 10). They still look like a wild card team, but Sunday’s road dominance was a good sign.

10. San Francisco 49ers (3-0) (Last week: 16). Thanks to a number of disappointing efforts by teams that played this week, the bye-week 49ers move up here.

11. Cleveland Browns (2-2) (Last week: NR). After a disastrous start to their season, the Browns’ talent won out in Baltimore.

12. Baltimore Ravens (2-2) (Last week: 7). All of the sudden, Lamar Jackson’s breakout performances versus the Dolphins and Cardinals — two teams with a combined 0-7-1 record — don’t look so good. How will he respond to reoccurring criticism?

13. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2) (Last week: NR). The Chargers are under the radar for a reason — they haven’t played up to par. But in a middling AFC, they’re in position to reassert themselves.

14. Detroit Lions (2-1-1) (Last week: 13). It’s dumbfounding that the Lions aren’t 4-0. But then again, dumbfounding is what the Lions usually are. In translation — Lions are gonna Lion.

15. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 15). Their defense is extraordinary. Their quarterback is need of a masterclass in smart quarterback play.

16. Indianapolis Colts (2-2) (Last week: 9). That was as disappointing a loss as any this weekend. Were they caught looking ahead to next week’s Sunday Night Football matchup in Kansas City?

Next up: Minnesota, Carolina, Tennessee, Houston, Tampa Bay/Oakland/Jacksonville