Damien Harris -- 2021 December Patriots Practice

Gut Check Time: Two key Week 16 divisional battles may decide AFC East, AFC North

With three weeks to go in the NFL season, the games, similar to the NBA, have become an afterthought to the sudden surging of COVID-19 cases across the country, giving the nation a March 2020 feel, when it comes to news of the virus.

Even with the 2020 NFL season being played with virtually no fans in the stands, and the 2020 NBA playoffs played entirely in a ‘bubble’ in Orlando, Florida, it feels as if the pandemic is affecting the sports world now, in December, 2020, more than ever.

There have been hundreds of players in both the NFL and NBA that have been put into health and safety protocols over the past 10-12 days.

Head coaches have been forced to miss games, as have stars of franchises, and more.

Washington was forced to start Patriots practice-squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert, whom they signed from New England days before, on Tuesday to face the Eagles in Philadelphia in a game that likely decided their season. (They lost, but Gilbert hung tough).

More and more cases, or news of players entering health and safety protocols, have happened this week, making it uncertain if any of them can play this weekend in an ever-important slate of Week 16 action, with the playoffs looming.

But controlling the spread of the virus is more important than the games themselves, or your fantasy football playoffs with your buddies and friends.

Still, both the NFL and NBA have stated, in so many words, that the show must go on, regardless of who can play or not.

Week 16 in the NFL has a slew of interesting matchups, but none bigger than two division-deciding (virtually) contests in the AFC East and AFC North. Let’s give a quick breakdown on those, before getting to our weekly power rankings.

Buffalo Bills (8-6) at New England Patriots (9-5), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Needless to say, this contest between the two AFC East rivals should be much different than their Week 13 clash in Buffalo. It may be windy, and it should be cold, but more normal football should take place. That means the Bills will look to utilize Josh Allen again. Slot receiver Cole Beasley will miss the game due to COVID-19 protocol, so now the Patriots can key on Stefon Diggs, and containing Allen. The fourth-year QB will still make plays for Buffalo, though, putting more pressure on Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the New England offense. With rookie Rhamondre Stevenson iffy for Sunday, it’ll be Damien Harris who will get the brunt of the carries, probably regardless.

New England will certainly throw the ball more than three times in this contest, but establishing the run versus the Bills defense is once again top priority. Through the air, Nelson Agholor (head) and Kendrick Bourne (COVID-19/reserve list) may be no gos. Jones needs at least one to return by Sunday to have a formidable receiving duo. Being smart, and attacking the Bills underneath (Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds, specifically) should be the way to go through the air. This could be a big game for Jakobi Meyers.

Honestly, this sort of feels like Buffalo is primed to pull an upset, yet, I can’t go through with it. Not in a contest that features a head-coaching battle between Bill Belichick and Sean McDermott. Patriots fans have waited a long two years since their last AFC East title. They should get that much closer on Sunday, after another nail-biting win over Buffalo. Patriots 24, Bills 20. 

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Back in October, the Bengals surprisingly clobbered the Ravens, 41-17, in Baltimore. Rookie phenom receiver Ja’Marr Chase racked up 201 yards and a long score (82-yarder) on just eight catches, as Joe Burrow and Cincinnati destroyed Baltimore’s defense.

This time around, the Ravens may not even have Lamar Jackson at quarterback. If they don’t, it’ll be second-year man Tyler Huntley, who has been a pleasant surprise. He’s been solid in the clutch, and his improvisational ability gives Baltimore a semblance of QB-running ability, even if that’s not off designed runs, or to the ability that Jackson brings.

Baltimore is the more experienced team. They’re better coached. They’ve been here, but they are absolutely reeling from injuries.

This is the Bengals’ time to strike. Cincinnati should be able to lean both on Joe Mixon and the running game and Burrow and the passing game.

Even if Jackson misses the game, everything is telling me that Baltimore will pull this out with a display of mental and physical toughness. After all, both teams’ seasons are on the line. But I think the AFC North, at least this season, is susceptible to a take over via new blood. It’s been a wonky season. Give me the Bengals at home. Bengals 27, Ravens 24.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 1). With the competition doing less than treading water recently, Aaron Rodgers is in better position to win his fourth NFL MVP award (and second straight), than he’s been all season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 3). As of Thursday, both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are on the COVID-19 reserve list. That will complicate things for Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense this Sunday at home versus the Steelers.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4) (Last week: 5). Jonathan Taylor has been fantastic, but at this point in time, I lean toward Cooper Kupp (barely) as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Kupp has put up insane numbers in what is surely one of the best single seasons in league history for a wide receiver. He’s more than just an underneath slot option. He’s expanded into a pass catcher who can play in any role, using his footwork and overall route-running ability to be virtually uncoverable. What a player.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4) (Last week: 2). The injuries didn’t help (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin), but it’s clear the Saints have the Bucs’ number. Tampa Bay could be seeing New Orleans at home in a 2-seed vs. 7-seed matchup in the NFC wild card round in January, so Tom Brady and company better figure this out. Although, last season, Tampa lost twice to New Orleans in the regular season, then defeated them in the Superdome in January.

5. Dallas Cowboys (10-4) (Last week: 7). Cowboys have quietly made their way back into contender status. Dallas hosts Washington this week before a matchup with Arizona in Week 17. There’s no hiding from that one. The Cardinals should be desperate, too, considering their recent slump. We’ll learn a great deal about both teams then, but for now, Dallas has to take care of business at home on Sunday Night Football to lock up the NFC East.

6. Indianapolis Colts (8-6) (Last week: 9). They were the faster, and possibly more physical team in their 27-17 win over the Patriots on Saturday night. They have big-time 2019 Titans energy, meaning they could find themselves surprising many to reach the AFC Championship Game. But that is likely their ceiling, unless Carson Wentz flips the script entirely in January. Those 2019 Titans were even handicapped by Ryan Tannehill, who at the time was a better quarterback (and still is) than Wentz right now. But for the time being, let’s praise the Colts. This is a well-coached team and wonderfully-crafted roster. Well done, Frank Reich and Chris Ballard.

7. New England Patriots (9-5) (Last week: 4). It took three full quarters for the Patriots, who entered the fourth period down 20-0, to match Indianapolis’ energy. Mac Jones’ dreadful start and late-game heroics/magic was reminiscent of Brady, though. That’s a macro-level, big-picture (beyond this season) silver lining for a franchise that is tied to its hopeful young quarterback. Next up — Buffalo. The Patriots will basically clinch the AFC East with a win. This is a massive game.

8. Buffalo Bills (8-6) (Last week: 10). After all that has happened recently, the Bills have a chance to avenge their loss to New England by taking down the Patriots in their own house this weekend, and re-taking the AFC East lead with just two weeks to go. Buffalo plays Atlanta and the New York Jets after this, so this game should decide the division either way.

9. San Francisco 49ers (8-6) (Last week: 11). Like the Colts in the AFC, the 49ers are quickly becoming a team in the NFC that has come on strong as of late, and that no team would like to face in January. The combination of Deebo Samuel and George Kittle is up there with the best one-two punches on offense in the league.

10. Arizona Cardinals (10-4) (Last week: 6). For the second straight season, the Cardinals are sliding down the stretch. They’ll make the playoffs regardless this time around. But they’ll need to show some fight versus Indianapolis, Dallas and Seattle to be any sort of a factor in the playoffs.

11. Tennessee Titans (9-5) (Last week: 8). They just need to get healthy. Without Derrick Henry or A.J. Brown, they can’t do much of anything on offense. But if those two can come back (and be relatively healthy) for the playoffs, watch out.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). Justin Herbert is phenomenal, but like their predecessors, there’s still a lot of ‘Chargers are gonna’ Charger’ energy with this team. Winning two of their final three games may be enough to get them into the playoffs.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) (Last week: 13). Their sound coaching, and overall toughness/smarts have kept them afloat amidst a devastating season of injuries, but it’s starting to become too much. Their season is likely on the line in Cincinnati this week.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) (Last week: 15). A win at home over Baltimore on Sunday would give them a season sweep of the Ravens, and pull them extremely close to locking up the AFC North title. This is their shot. Biggest game of Joe Burrow’s NFL career thus far.

15. Minnesota Vikings (7-7) (Last week: 16). They’re hanging around, even if apathetically. They have talent, but no one should trust them.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1) (Last week: NR). The Steelers, a proud franchise, have been gutsy this season. They’re still in the mix. Sunday’s game in Kansas City is almost a must-win for them, though.

Next Up: New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Philadelphia 

Josh Allen vs Chiefs -- Week 5

NFL Friday Madness: Breaking down the AFC’s early-season contenders

Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season featured a slew of missed kicks, exciting finishes, and an overarching changing-of-the-guard storyline in the AFC, as the conference dominated by the likes of the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the 21st century, and the Kansas City Chiefs recently, will seemingly be lead by some of the league’s most talented teams in the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns (huh?!) in 2021.

Buffalo looks like the NFL’s best and most complete team after bolstering their pass rush this offseason, with rookie first-round pick Gregory Rosseau (6-foot-6, 267 pounds) leading the charge for that unit.

In Kansas City last Sunday night, Buffalo forced four Patrick Mahomes turnovers and Josh Allen amassed 374 total yards and four touchdowns and a 91.6 Total QBR with no turnovers and no sacks.

Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.

With the Chiefs driving, down 31-13 to the Bills with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter, Rosseau tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage for a Bills interception, prompting the thought of the night by NBC‘s Chris Collinsworth.

“When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back on this night and say ‘this is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC,” Collinsworth said.

After losing twice to the Chiefs last year, including in the AFC title game, Buffalo has already leapfrogged the conference powerhouse in October as the conference’s lead dog.

Behind them, there’s the Ravens, where Lamar Jackson is carrying the Ravens to last-second, comeback wins, and throwing the ball with authority, pitting him with the likes of Josh Allen at the top of any too-early MVP award discussions.

Justin Herbert is having a similar, red-hot start to the season for the Chargers, who outlasted the Browns, 47-42 last Sunday, and defeated the Chiefs in Kansas City in a tight contest in Week 2.

The Browns, who also blew a Week 1 game in Kansas City in addition to their similar, late-game letdown to the Chargers, may be the most talented team in the conference.

Myles Garrett is the early-season leader for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Browns as a team lead the NFL in rushing (187.6 yards per game) with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way behind a monstrous, guiding-light offensive line that was put together in the 2020 offseason, and now on Year 2 of their dominance.

Really, the Chiefs, despite their 2-3 mark, lack of a running game, and porous defense from all angles, should still be considered a contender as long as Patrick Mahomes is leading the offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as his top targets.

But Kansas City is missing additional pass catchers, or a running game, to help take the pressure off Mahomes, who is seeing a litany of two-high coverages, whether it’s 2-man or Cover-2, that have taken away the Chiefs’ usual downfield chunk plays, forcing them to run the ball or produce long drives, while pressuring Mahomes and forcing him out of the pocket.

To put the Chiefs offense in perspective, they are still the No. 1-ranked offense by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, but Mahomes has less 20-yard completions than the likes of Mac Jones and Jared Goff.

The Chiefs are virtually three games behind the Chargers considering their Week 2 loss, but there is more than enough time to make up ground.

But really, they look like a wild card bunch at best this year, with a new basket of quarterbacks leading more complete teams to victory.

The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.

Herbert’s deep-ball has led to a Mike Williams renaissance as a perimeter receiver and deep threat. Running back Austin Ekeler and route-running genius Keenan Allen are mismatches for defenses in the shallow and intermediate levels of the field. And under new head coach Brandon Staley’s Cover-3 style defense brought over from the Rams, the Chargers have looked much better on defense, save for their game versus Cleveland. Joey Bosa is one of the best pass rushers in football, and Derwin James is the perfect roaming athlete for such a scheme in the secondary.

Still, while putting the Chargers and Chiefs aside, and with no mention of the still-tough Tennessee Titans, who look locked into the AFC South title, it still appears both the Ravens and Browns appear like the best long-term threats to Buffalo this season.

Each has a bludgeoning running game.

We mentioned Cleveland above, but Baltimore, with a sturdy offensive line and a litany of additional blockers (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard) at tight end, H-back and fullback, has the perfect mix of old-school blocking with and new-age finesse with Lamar Jackson shredding defenses on designed runs behind a traditional and yesteryear blocking front.

Despite the great coaching from the likes of Staley and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are more experienced. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent franchises this century, and that seems to carry them to a Super Bowl run at least once per decade. That could be this year.

All this is said to lead to this — the AFC has regained power over the NFC as the league’s top conference overall. And this deep group includes talented teams of all types, with different schemes, concepts and strengths.

The Bills are in charge now, but there are several teams right there, and even with their struggles, it’s too early to fully give up on the Chiefs.

Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 1). They’re the best team in football right now. No question. The only things missing last year were their running game, pass rush and ability to defend Mahomes and Kansas City. They’ve figured out all three things, it seems.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). Despite all the fuss regarding Allen, Jackson, Herbert, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, it’s 44-year-old Tom Brady, who through six games has looked on a mission (2,064 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, two game-winning drives), that is the MVP leader at this point. It’s early, though.

3. Arizona Cardinals (5-0) (Last week: 3). Arizona faces a tall task in Cleveland this week. How well can this reimagined defense defend the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack?

4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 4). They should take care of the Giants this weekend. They were the talk of the league two weeks ago. Things change quickly. They’re a season-long contender in the NFC.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) (Last week: 9). They’re winning the close contests that used to bring them heartbreak. This is a different team.

6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). They’ve escaped with wins over the Lions and Colts that they certainly should have lost. They’ll get it together. Lamar Jackson has been awesome as a passer so far this season.

7. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 7). They’re kind of on autopilot at this point, but we know they can compete with anyone in the conference as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.

8. Cleveland Browns (3-2) (Last week: 5). They easily could be 5-0. They certainly should be at least 4-1. They have the recipe to be a Super Bowl winner, but they need to figure out how to win those close games versus good teams. Baker Mayfield needs to do better in the clutch. They’ll be without Nick Chubb this weekend, but with Kareem Hunt, they have enough to beat Arizona. This is a big game for them.

9. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) (Last week: 10). The NFC East is clearly theirs, but the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996, and they are 0-5 versus Bill Belichick. The TV-ratings game of the week will be a fun pitting of a successful pass offense versus a well-coached, usually-sound defense.

10. Tennessee Titans (3-2) (Last week: 14). Like the Packers, they feel very auto-pilot-y, but they, too, have the strengths (Derrick Henry, running game) to be a force come playoff time. They need to figure things out on defense, though.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) (Last week: 8). The offensive line and running game will improve as the season goes along, which will open things up for Mahomes and company for their deep passing game. It’s not time to panic, yet. They definitely don’t look like a Super Bowl team this season, though.

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: NR). They’re a solid football team that would be even better with a more consistent quarterback. They’ll mostly live and die with Jameis Winston.

13. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: NR). The Bears have won three of four, and Justin Fields is now getting his reps. Things are going well, for now.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 11). With Jon Gruden out of the picture, what happens next? Will they fall apart? Or will they rally around their team?

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-3) (Last week: 13). Bad injury luck is mounting again. This is a good football team, but it’s tough competing in the NFC West. Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback in this past draft, and he still is, but he clearly needs time to develop.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: 15). That was a rough home loss to the Eagles. That was maybe a sign that they aren’t quite ready to compete in the playoffs like we thought they were. Sam Darnold is still much better than we thought he was, but cracks are starting to reappear. They have a huge game at home this week versus the Vikings. This one could decide a wild card spot come January.

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota/Philadelphia

Derrick Henry vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 2: Drama-filled Sunday provides extra excitment

Week 2 in the NFL this season had a flair for the dramatic, with the late afternoon window in particular featuring wild finishes out west in Los Angeles, Arizona and Seattle. There’s still a few weeks left to play before any rash conclusions or predictions can be made, as many call September the “extended preseason.”

The Cowboys and Chargers in recent years are known for their knack of blowing big games, but each team was fairly competent in a close contest that ended in a game-winning, 56-yard field goal by Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlien.

Dak Prescott delivered in the fourth quarter for the second-straight week, and the Cowboys came away with a win this time around.

In Arizona, Kyler Murray added five more touchdowns, bringing his total to nine on the season, and firmly placing him near the top of any way-too-early MVP talk, along with Tom Brady.

But the Cardinals were lucky to come away with a win, as Kirk Cousins marched the Vikings down into field goal territory late, but Minnesota lost on a missed game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt from Greg Joseph, giving Arizona a 34-33 win, and allowing them to keep pace with better clubs in the Rams and 49ers.

The Titans and Seahawks seemed destined to play a wacky, down-to-the-wire game. The DNA of both teams usually calls for multiple double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks and comparable, gut-wrenching losses throughout the season. Sunday’s game in Tennessee didn’t disappoint, with Tennessee rallying from down 30-16 late to win 33-30 in overtime.

Leading the effort was the league’s premier bell-cow back, Derrick Henry, who amassed 237 total yards and three rushing touchdowns on 41 touches (35 carries). Henry remains one of the league’s toughest players to stop, and Seattle learned the hard way as Henry shook off a rough performance versus Arizona, in helping the Titans to a much-needed road win.

The late window, equipped with cheering fans, brilliant announcing, excitement and heartbreak felt like something we haven’t seen since the 2019 season.

Then, all those games were topped, by the Sunday night affair in Baltimore.

The Chiefs led 35-24 late before Lamar Jackson (16 carries, 107 rush yards, three total TDs) ran his way to a 36-35 lead that Baltimore held, thanks to their rookie first-round pick EDGE defender, Odafe Oweh, who stripped Kansas City running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire late after Patrick Mahomes drove them down in game-winning field goal range.

The Ravens averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and ran for 251 yards in total against a still-soft-up-the-middle Chiefs defense that relies heavily on their all-time great offense. They got burned today, but even with their flaws, they remain Super Bowl material.

Baltimore is beginning what could be a tough season-long race with the Cleveland Browns for the AFC North crown.

COVER 2

(Throughout the season, I’ll include this segment as a side-by-side form of ‘double coverage’ (pun intended) of both Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

PATRIOTS 25, JETS 6

In typical Bill Belichick-versus-rookie quarterback fashion, the Patriots defense gave Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a tough time, forcing the No. 2 overall pick into four interceptions, some ghastly, in a solid road win in the AFC East for New England. Defensively, J.C. Jackson (two interceptions) and Jonathan Jones were particularly impressive in coverage, and Adrian Phillips and Ja’Whaun Bentley stood out on the TV tape as tough, gritty players who seemingly have benefited from experience in the system, and seemed primed to take a leap.

On offense, Mac Jones (28.4 Total QBR to Wilson’s 8.7) had a more tame (and maybe even uninspiring) performance than his overly-competent (for a rookie) NFL debut versus the Dolphins. The Jets defense held Jones and the passing game in check for much of the game, as Jones often looked for his checkdowns an held the ball for far too long on other occasions. Hunter Henry grabbed a 32-yard catch downfield on a schemed play-action shot that saw him wide open, but other than that, he and fellow newcomer tight end Jonnu Smith were once again quiet. The Patriots leader in both receptions (6) and receiving yards (45) was pass-catching running back James White. New England has a solid blueprint as a top-tier defense and running game, but the passing offense needs to be more than just adequate if they are to compete with the NFL’s best. Rest assured, Mac Jones will improve as he gains more NFL experience.

BUCCANEERS 48, FALCONS 25

Watching Tom Brady throw five more touchdown passes on Sunday versus Atlanta make you wonder: Is this the best he’s ever played? His physical peak has passed, yes, but he’s still displaying unbelievable arm talent at his age (44), and statistically, he could be headed for a 2007-level of dominance, with a 2007-esque dominant team to boot.

Tampa has won a franchise-record 10 straight games dating back to 10 months ago (November 2020), which includes the organization’s second Super Bowl title (Brady’s seventh). Brady, himself, has thrown for 17 touchdown passes in his last four games, and Rob Gronkowski, perhaps his favorite passing target ever, has caught two touchdowns from Brady in each of his last three games, dating back to Super Bowl 55.

This team is absolutely loaded, but they’ll face a big, big test this week in Los Angeles versus the Rams. This is a possible NFC Championship Game preview. Can the Bucs keep Brady upright versus Aaron Donald and that inside pressure-creating pass rush?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0) (Last week: 1). When all is said and done, will Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski be the best, and most iconic passer-pass catcher combo in league history?

2. Los Angeles Rams (2-0). (Last week: 3). They showed their resolve by winning a wild back-and-forth affair in Indianapolis in the early window. Next up: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. We’ll learn a bit next week.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) (Last week: 2). That offense masks a lot of issues, and if they don’t fumble late, it would have been much of the same on Sunday night. But they gave up an 11-point lead late to a team that ran the ball to re-take the lead, and win. Kansas City doesn’t need to have a Top-10 defense to win the Super Bowl, but the unit can’t be that bad.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-0) (Last week: 7). This is a team that will figure it out, and become much better as the season goes along. They’re still winning while they learn, though. That’s scary.

5. Cleveland Browns (1-1) (Last week: 6). They let the pesky Texans hang around for far too long, but a win is a win.

6. Baltimore Ravens (1-1) (Last week: 10). The fourth time’s the charm for Lamar Jackson, who finally defeated Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. Baltimore has some defensive woes and mental lapses (occasional bad tackling, mistakes, etc.) to fix, but they are a real threat in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (1-1) (Last week: 11). They took advantage of Tua leaving early, punishing the Dolphins 35-0. They were going to win this game no matter what.

8. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) (Last week: NR). When he’s on, Derek Carr is one of the best pure passers in the league. That was on display in his de-facto game-clinching deep-heave TD pass to Henry Ruggs to beat Pittsburgh.

9. Arizona Cardinals (2-0) (Last week: 8). They are one of the league’s most exciting teams, and are led by one of the league’s most exciting players in Kyler Murray.

10. Seattle Seahawks (1-1) (Last week: 4). We mentioned Brady-to-Gronk earlier in here, but Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is another long-time dependable duo. They don’t get enough credit as a dangerous pairing. But still, that was a devastating loss for the Seahawks. That can’t happen.

11. New England Patriots (1-1) (Last week: 13). They’ll improve on offense as the season goes along. We’re still learning a lot about this team. Their defense is scary good.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) (Last week: 5). Their defense is still solid. They missed T.J. Watt late in this game. Their offense, on the other hand, is a mess. They’ll have to lean on Najee Harris, their rookie running back.

13. Denver Broncos (2-0) (Last week: 14). The Broncos are quietly a home win over the lowly Jets from beginning the season at 3-0.

14. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: NR). They badly needed that win. Derrick Henry is still a force to be reckoned with.

15. Carolina Panthers (2-0) (Last week: NR). Could their defense actually be one of the league’s better units? Also, Sam Darnold looks comfortable here.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: NR). Their offense is a machine. Dak Prescott may be enough for Dallas to take the NFC East this year.

Next Up: Miami, New Orleans, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers, Washington

Lamar Jackson vs Titans — 2020 AFC Wild Card

NFL Wild Card Madness: Jackson’s first playoff win a new chapter of renewed Ravens-Titans rivalry

After a quarter of jawing back and forth, hard hits and the feel of a true playoff game reminiscent of the Ray Lewis-Eddie George, Ravens-Titans rivalry of the early 2000s, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson found himself in a familiar place.

With Tennessee leading 10-0, and Jackson’s Baltimore-led offense struggling to play from behind, valid questions surrounding the 2019 NFL MVP’s ability to lead a comeback resurfaced.

After all, the Ravens had been the only team in the league over the last four years to not have a comeback win after trailing by 10 points or more.

With his usual-suspect, underwhelming perimeter pass catchers, and offensive game plan stalling, Jackson took matters into his own hands, improvising for an electrifying 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to tie the score at 10-10.

From there, Baltimore took the game over, finishing for 236 rushing yards, with 136 and a score coming from Jackson, the quarterback who had shaken off even his most ardent doubters this weekend.

“I’m happy for myself but I’m almost more happy for Lamar,” Baltimore cornerback Marlon Humphrey said after the game. “It sucks to be in his position at times that when you lose, it’s all his fault. It’s nobody else’s fault. It wasn’t the defense’s fault, it was Lamar’s fault. … He can play his heart out and some other guy is going to fall short. I know it’s a team game, but it seems like whenever it’s a loss, it’s always just his fault.”

This was an elating achievement for Jackson, and a Ravens squad that was on the brink of a hugely disappointing 2020 campaign before they righted the ship a little over a month ago.

In November, with the Ravens holding a 6-2 record, an ugly loss in the rain to the Cam Newton-led Patriots in New England sent Baltimore on a three-game losing streak — which included a devastating, bad-blooded overtime loss to the Titans — that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.

But Baltimore responded with five straight wins, albeit mostly versus bottom-tier teams, to finish 11-5 leading up to Sunday’s battle in Tennessee.

But despite the incompetence of their opponents during their December stretch, Baltimore’s sheer dominance over their foes was enough to pick up on their signaled change. The Ravens averaged 37.2 points per game during that stretch, and in four of those five contests, they held their opponent to 17 points or less.

Baltimore’s offense began to resemble the uniquely dominant, Jackson-led rushing attack from 2019, while their defense returned to dominate lesser foes.

Well Tennessee, led by 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry, is hardly that of the Ravens’ recent opponents.

This offseason, the Ravens acquired three-time All-pro defensive lineman Calais Campbell and veteran defensive end Derek Wolfe exactly for this purpose. The Ravens improved from 21st to 12th in Football Outisders‘ Rush DVOA metric from 2019 to this season.

Yet, Campbell, and nose tackle Brandon Williams, missed the Week 11 meeting versus the Titans. So as part of their brutal November slump, Baltimore fell 30-24 in overtime to Tennessee behind Henry’s 133 rushing yards, and walk-off 29-yard scamper. Henry also ran for 195 yards in Tennessee’s playoff win in Baltimore last January.

On Sunday, with Campbell, Williams and Wolfe up front, Baltimore limited Henry to just 40 yards on 18 carries. In all, Tennessee rushed for just 51 yards on 22 carries.

“We played good team ball…We played with heart and emotion,” Calais Campbell told NFL dot com after the game. “[Henry] is a king, he’s a beast. 2,000 yards. But today, he’s not gonna’ run the ball. He’s not gonna’ run the ball…Respect is earned.”

That last part of Campbell’s quote was directed toward a rivlary-based question by NFL dot com’s Tom Pelissero. Everyone was aware of the rivalry renewed between two physical teams. Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh jawing at midfield before their regular season battle. The Titans stomping on the Ravens logo after their November win.

So Baltimore, after this win, returned the favor by gathering on the Titans’ logo as Jackson left the field with almost 30 seconds remaining, joyfully running through the tunnel. Many, including former Baltimore safety Ed Reed on Twitter, took objection to the Ravens’s behavior after the win, but make no mistake, there was a lot on the line, including many egos, and the early-career legacy of Jackson.

In a physical battle of teams that despise each other, stopping the league’s best running back was an ego boost and massive moral victory in itself for the Ravens.

“They had a plan, and they executed their plan,” Henry told NFL dot com after the game. “All the credit goes to those guys, you know, of stopping the run. The last two times we had success and they had a plan to make sure we didn’t have success, and that’s what they did.”

After stopping Henry, the Ravens were able to limit the Titans’ deadly play-action passing game revolving around quarterback Ryan Tannehill and bully ball receiver A.J. Brown. (The Titans offense likes pounding the rock with Henry first, then opening up the passing game with play-action passes of both the traditional and bootleg variety.)

For the Titans, after finding success through the air early to take the 10-point lead, nothing worked as well as they would have liked it, and the Tennessee offense finished with just three more points over the final three quarters.

Baltimore 20-13 road victory was solidified after a late interception by cornerback Marcus Peters, who predictably jawed back at the Titans, in line with his boisterous personality.

These Ravens have a renewed swagger, and a sense of relief, after a hard-fought playoff win. But the Buffalo Bills, the AFC’s No 2 seed, are next. The Bills are undoubtedly the hottest team in the league over the last two-plus months, edging out the Ravens for that honor, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a member of Buffalo’s organization that would embrace Jackson and Baltimore hearing that.

*******

There’s five days until we’re back at it with the NFL’s Divisional Round, a weekend in which many think is pro football’s greatest event of the calendar year. Will there be a major upset? Which teams will move on? Here are my picks, equipped with a predicted score for each of the four contests.

L.A. Rams (No. 6 seed, 11-6) at Green Bay (No. 1 seed, 13-3), Saturday, 4:30 pm ET, FOX

If Aaron Rodgers is to win his second Super Bowl, this will likely be the toughest defense he faces in this year’s playoff journey. For Los Angeles, All-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey can key on Green Bay All-pro receiver Davante Adams, forcing Aaron Rodgers to look elsewhere. The Rams’ defense is playing with some moxie, and will give Green Bay a tough battle in the frozen tundra. Still, no matter who starts at quarterback for the Rams, Jared Goff or John Wolford, Los Angeles will need brilliant and consistent play-action passing versus the inevitable box-stacking that Green Bay will implement on Rams running back Cam Akers after some early success. In theory, this game is trouble for Green Bay, but the Rams don’t have the quarterback play to do what’s needed here to pull the upset. PACKERS 26, RAMS 17

 Baltimore (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at Buffalo (No. 2 seed, 14-3), Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, NBC

Despite Lamar Jackson’s brilliant performance his first playoff win, it was easy to see some of the problems with Baltimore’s offense. If their running game gets even somewhat stalled, and the team falls behind, there’s not really enough in the passing game to expect Jackson to rally a team back, and continue a run to score 30-plus points. At least not against an opponent with the offensive firepower like Buffalo’s. Jackson really took over the game by improvising through the chaos, using his athleticism to get the Ravens to 20 points, while the Baltimore defense assisted. Baltimore should be OK in slowing down a Buffalo offense in the cold, seeing as they have a secondary to at least put somewhat of a stop to Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Buffalo’s high-flying offensive attack, but they won’t shut down the Bills entirely. Basically, if Buffalo can get on the board early, and somewhat limit the Baltimore rushing attack, then the Ravens will find themselves ironically in the same trouble they thought they were past last week. Baltimore needs to supply Jackson with more help at the wide receiver position. This game is a tough one to predict, and will likely revolve around several factors, including the not-yet-mentioned Baltimore pass rush getting to Allen. This seems like the Bills’ time. BILLS 23, RAVENS 20

Cleveland (No. 6 seed, 12-5) at Kansas City (No. 1 seed, 14-2), Sunday, 3:00 pm ET, CBS

Many are already reminiscing on the college battle between Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes from 2016, which was a 66-59 Oklahoma victory over Texas Tech. In that game, the two quarterbacks combined for nearly 1,300 passing yards and threw for a total of 12 touchdown passes, with Mahomes running in two more scores. Don’t expect that type of firepower on Sunday, as the Browns would like to keep the game to a short one, running behind their improved offensive line and running backs Nick Chubb and former Chief Kareem Hunt. Technically, the Browns’ rushing attack should be of major cause for concern for a Kansas City defense that features a lot of holes. The Chiefs essentially rely on superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones and swiss-army-knife defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to do just enough to compliment Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Kansas City offense. As it always has been versus the Mahomes-Andy Reid Chiefs in the playoffs, Myles Garrett and the Browns defense will need to play a quarter or two stymying Mahomes before their eventual onslaught, and Baker Mayfield will need to make the necessary third-down throws when called upon. That’s a lot to ask. CHIEFS 34, BROWNS 24

Tampa Bay (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at New Orleans (No. 2 seed, 13-4), Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, FOX

The game of the week sees Tom Brady’s Buccaneers hoping to send Drew Brees into retirement by avoiding a third beatdown in one season by the way of the talented Saints. The indoor setting should make for a point-filled game, even with two good defenses in play. Drew Brees has a truncated field due to his inability to consistently throw deep, leaving the offense to revolve heavily on Alvin Kamara in the running and passing game, with Michael Thomas over the middle on seam and post routes. For Tampa, if the Saints can get pressure on Brady with just four like they did in their last meeting, it will be tough for the GOAT to get the ball to his offensive weapons, no matter how star-studded his arsenal is. It’s not an overstatement to say these are the NFC’s two most talented teams. This will be a close one, and call me Brady-biased, but I think third time’s a charm for Tampa. BUCCANEERS 34, SAINTS 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamar Jackson — 2020 vs Chiefs

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 3: Ravens’ big-game issues conjured up by Chiefs

Three plays into the most hyped-up Monday Night Football matchup in years, Lamar Jackson was doing Jackson things — taking off and scampering down the sideline for a 30-yard run. Five plays later, the Ravens had a red zone first down, and were ready to begin what should have been a demon-exercising night with an emphatic touchdown drive.

They settled for a field goal. Then, Patrick Mahomes happened. 517 total yards, five total touchdowns and an absurd 97.7 Total QBR helped lead the Chiefs to a 34-20 win in Baltimore that resembled just about every other win by Kansas City in the Mahomes era.

This is nothing for these Chiefs, who are clearly not only the defending Super Bowl champions, but the league’s front runner once more after three weeks.

Who will stop the Chiefs? Will it be Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on Sunday?

We know it won’t be the Ravens. Not until they fix their big game woes.

Jackson’s Ravens aren’t just 0-3 versus the Chiefs, they are also 0-10 when trailing at halftime since Jackson was drafted in 2018. Jackson mounted somewhat of a comeback on Monday, and drops by tight end Mark Andrews and others plagued him, but the reigning unanimous NFL MVP’s numbers — 97 passing yards on 28 attempts (3.8 average) — in a game that was going to need much more than that through the air is telling.

It’s not all on Jackson. Baltimore has a good group of tight ends, and Marquise Brown is a capable deep threat, but after that the Ravens are relying on the likes of Willie Snead and Myles Boykin on the perimeter.

Similar to what the Titans did in Jackson’s most devastating defeat last January, the Chiefs began flooding the line of scrimmage, forcing Jackson to throw beyond the numbers on the outside to beat them. Jackson scrambled for some good gains, but he also scrambled when he didn’t need to.

The Ravens’ chaotic what-do-we-do-now offense was met by a QB who calmly leads a 500-yard offensive day like it’s nothing, even in big games. This wasn’t necessarily a big game for the Chiefs. It was for the Ravens. And Baltimore emphatically fell short in the spotlight yet again.

The Ravens will be in the postseason in January, where they’ll once again be met by a stellar opponent on a national stage in a must-win contest. What then?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) (Last week: 1). Can they be stopped? This offense is literally unfair. Let’s see how Bill Belichick and the Patriots fare this Sunday.

2. Green Bay Packers (3-0) (Last week: 4). With guys like Russell Wilson and Josh Allen stealing the headlines, it’s easy to overlook how special Aaron Rodgers has been through three games — 9 TD, 0 INT, 90.6 Total QBR. The Packers are quietly the best team in the NFC as we enter October. Of course, that doesn’t mean much, but it’s a start. Just think of how we viewed Rodgers and the Packers just two months ago?

3. Seattle Seahawks (3-0) (Last week: 5). The defense is more of a problem then people are realizing, but who cares when Russell Wilson — 14 TD, 1 INT (not his fault), 76.7 completion percentage — is playing as is. It’s too early, but it feels like this could be the year Wilson gets back to the Super Bowl.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) (Last week: 6). Ben Roethlisbeger looks pretty spry for an oft-injured, 38-year-old QB coming off a season-ending injury. And then there’s the defense. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 2). In case you missed the lead at the beginning of the column — Lamar’s Ravens are not only 0-3 versus Mahomes’ Chiefs, Baltimore is also 0-10 when trailing at halftime since Jackson was drafted in 2018. When they fall behind, they have trouble winning through the air. Jackson is improving as a passer, so this isn’t a complete indictment on him. They need help at the WR position. This loss certainly hurt their morale. They’re too good not to be in the mix come January, but there’s a pattern with the Jackson-era Ravens thus far. Can they win in January? They have much to prove.

6. Buffalo Bills (3-0) (Last week: 7). Josh Allen has been otherworldly these first three weeks. The Bills seem eager to prove themselves as contenders in the early going.

7. New England Patriots (2-1) (Last week: 9). Cam Newton and the defense got off to a rocky start, and then all of the sudden the Patriots are doing Patriots things again — forcing turnovers, scoring defensive touchdowns, rushing for 250 yards — even without Tom Brady. The fact that New England could blow the Raiders out that way on a B-/C+ day for them says something. They’ll need an A+/A effort to win in Kansas City next week. They can do it.

8. Tennessee Titans (3-0) (Last week: 12). Three weeks, three game-winning field goals for kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The Titans are proving to be one of the league’s toughest teams once again — both physically and mentally.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-2) (Last week: 3). It’s becoming clear this should be Drew Brees’ final season, but we can’t rule them out just yet. Not with all that talent. Let’s wait until Michael Thomas comes back into the fold.

10. Los Angeles Rams (2-1) (Last week: 8). They should have won the game in Buffalo, but anytime you go down 28-3, there’s room for concern. They are a good-but-not-great team.

11. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 11). The 49ers are about as injury depleted as it gets. Kyle Shanahan is one of the NFL’s top coaches, so maybe they stay afloat until Jimmy Garoppolo returns to give them some sense of normalcy. It just doesn’t feel like their year, but they won’t go down without a fight.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 14). The offense is slowly gaining steam. Tom Brady looked good in Denver. But they’ve beaten up on bad or severely injured teams these past two weeks. We’ll pass on any rash judgements on their season for now.

13. Indianapolis Colts (2-1) (Last week: NR). Phillip Rivers has been much better these past two weeks. The Colts have one of the league’s better rosters. If Rivers isn’t completely washed, they have a good shot at an AFC wild card spot. They’ll be in the mix.

14. Arizona Cardinals (2-1) (Last week: 10). The Lions are tough, so this wasn’t as bad a loss as it seems, but it was telling. Three more touchdowns by Kyle Murray were with met with three ugly turnovers. Let’s see how they respond after a bad loss.

15. Chicago Bears (3-0) (Last week: 16). The Bears are definitely the flimsiest 3-0 team in the league, but with Nick Foles now at the helm, perhaps anything is possible.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-2) (Last week: 13). The offense showed up to the party late the last two weeks. It’s clear they have the talent to get going as the season progresses with that star-studded unit. Their defense, however, has been a major disappointment.

Next up: Las Vegas, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, L.A. Chargers

Derrick Henry stiff arms Earl Thomas

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Titans, Chiefs to meet in AFC tilt of opposites + a NFC rivalry renewed

Many have said the NFL’s Divisional Playoff round is the best weekend in sports. I’m sure those people are not disappointed after this past weekend’s slate of games.

One major upset, one major comeback, and a close contest between two of the league’s top quarterbacks in legendary Lambeau Field.

But we begin with a side-by-side look at the AFC title game participants, and a barometer check of the conference as a whole.

*******

It almost happened. After an unfortunate turn of events, the Chiefs trailed the Texans 24-0 in the second quarter, with most believing that we were headed toward an unthinkable AFC “South” Championship Game — Tennessee at Houston.

Although intriguing and unexpected, it’s certainly not the game the NFL envisioned as a ratings bonanza for their second-most (tied) important game of their 100th season.

Luckily for those who may think that, Kansas City recovered. Patrick Mahomes reminded many of his brilliance in throwing for four second quarter touchdown passes, three to Travis Kelce, and Kansas City outscored Houston 51-7 the rest of the way, for a 51-31 victory.

“I don’t know who pissed him off, I don’t know who made him mad,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports of Mahomes, after the game. “I told him in the training room [afterwards], man — I said man, I don’t know who made you mad but I don’t have anything to do with it. Because when he comes out and [plays] like that, he’s clearly the best player in the National Football League by far, and everybody knows that.”

Mahomes vs Texans
Patrick Mahomes’ fiery attitude kept Kansas City’s playoff hopes alive, and broke Houston’s will and spirit. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Make no mistake, this was Mahomes’s finest performance  — 23 for 35, 321 yards, five touchdowns  — which comes in the form of a 24-point comeback that is tied for fourth-best in NFL postseason history. After being down big, the phenom quarterback led seven straight touchdown-scoring drives, for 41 unanswered points.

Kelce played his role of Robin, or maybe a second Batman, in hauling in 10 catches for 134 yards and three scores.

“Coach Reid is dialing them up for me and Pat is putting the ball on the money every single time,” Kelce told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game. It’s definitely a combination of everything coming together,

Reid is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, but it took some off-script improvising by Mahomes and Kelce to come away with two key red zone scores during the comeback. Both times, Mahomes was flushed to the sideline, only to throw or pitch a touchdown to Kelce, who used spatial awareness to haul in scores around multiple defenders sitting near the end zone.

For fun, the Chiefs mercilessly added 118 yards on the ground and sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson five times — three sacks by offseason acquisition Frank Clark.

It was a fast-paced, track sprint of a victory by Kansas City that showcased their speed and explosiveness on offense, and finished with help from their new-and-improved defense, led by newcomers Clark and Mathieu.

_______________

Less than 20 hours earlier, the Titans had pulled off the unthinkable, a 28-12 smash-mouth beatdown over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, whom were the league’s biggest regular season story.

Just like their win last week of Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England, postseason hero Derrick Henry was heavily utilized. The gargantuan back carried the ball another 30 times for 195 and a touchdown, and also threw for a goal line score on a jump-pass to Corey Davis. His Tim Tebow-style leap pass was just one of several rushing highlights that included a 66-yard, back-breaking scramble to set up his touchdown throw, and another long run along the sideline earlier in which he stiff-armed Earl Thomas to the point of turning him around, and into a lead-blocking fullback for his amusement. His performance was again, unstoppable.

The offense started after Kevin Byard intercepted a tipped Lamar Jackson ball off Mark Andrews fingertips, and Ryan Tannehill lobbed a long 3rd-and-goal touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, who did most of the work in an acrobatic touchdown catch that set the tone.

“…Just starting the game out the way we did was a big key for us….It was huge,” Kevin Byard told The Athletic. “They’re probably one of the best first-quarter teams in the league, so the fact we got up on them in the first quarter, it kind of changed the game plan a little bit.”

Additionally, defensive coordinator and wizard Dean Pees stymied yet another former club on his revenge tour, with this being the best defensive performance of any team, all season. Soon-to-be-named MVP Lamar Jackson was elusive and unstoppable all regular season, and he produced 508 total yards of offense on Saturday, but that was mostly a hollow facade that did not tell the story of this game.

Tennessee held Baltimore’s offense to 12 points and forced three Jackson turnovers. The Titans muddled the middle of the field and loaded the box on Baltimore’s rushing attack, bringing up top-tier safety duo of Byard and Kenny Vaccaro near the line of scrimmage for a good portion of the game.

“We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan told Bleacher Report. “We were either playing with a loaded box and man to man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano or we were going to play a zone defense, a quarters defense similar to what Buffalo did. And Buffalo played them well. Buffalo just didn’t score a lot of points on offense. So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”

Tennessee forced Jackson to throw 59 times, often leaving everything covered but the boundaries. Jackson struggled outside the numbers, showcased by a late interception by Vaccaro when the Ravens quarterback tried to hit Baltimore rookie Myles Boykin on a quick out toward the sideline when Baltimore was in near-desperation mode.

It doesn’t help that Baltimore lacks wide receiver talent outside of Hollywood Brown. Boykin and Willie Snead are not going to cut it. Baltimore had found success throwing to its three tight ends — Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle — all season, but the Titans took them, and the middle of the field away.

As a team that was used to punching teams in the mouth early and often, John Harbaugh looked nervous and frustrated on the sideline, unsure if his style of offense could mount a double-digit postseason comeback. Despite Jackson keeping his cool (at least) attempting to get his team back in the game, Baltimore never recovered. On top of their struggles in the passing game — minus a few nice downfield throws by Jackson to Brown through the rare soft Titans zone coverage — Jackson was stymied on two 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks after converting all eight such situations during the regular season.

For Baltimore, nothing seemed to work. They were left befuddled and disappointed, unable to capitalize on their best regular season in franchise history.

“Listen, Lamar Jackson’s the MVP,” Byard told The Athletic. “He deservingly is supposed to be the MVP, the will that he plays with, he’s an incredible athlete. He tried to do everything he possibly could to will his team back into it. But it was our day today.”

Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill once again threw under 100 yards — 88 this week — but did throw for two touchdowns. Tennessee became the second team in postseason history to win back-to-back games in such fashion, joining the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins, and 1974 Steelers.

Behind Mike Vrabel’s fearless leadership, Tennessee came away with another old-school win. In a league where dual-threat quarterbacks and fast-break offenses equipped with speed and an NBA-style aggressivesnes are starting to take over, a defense and running game can still get it done. That shouldn’t seem so surprising, but yet, the win surprised many of us.

“If we’re being quite honest, we just shocked the world, and that’s all there is to it,” said Titans left guard Rodger Saffold.

“And the confidence and belief in this team is something I’ve felt before, and you guys already know that. This is a special team. We’re showing it. And you’ve got to love the underdog.”

_______________

This weekend’s events left us with some questions about the changing-of-the-guard AFC that saw it’s dominating — for the past 20 years — team in the Patriots bow out early to a series of offseason questions, and it’s upstart, best-of-this-season team suffer perhaps the most shocking one-and-done loss in NFL playoff history.

What’s next for Baltimore? A soon-to-be optimistic look back on how they revolutionized football in 2019, perhaps. As Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas pointed out in a great piece, Jackson’s electrifying season did happen.

Baltimore will need to shore up their possibly overrated front seven and add a receiver or two to Jackson’s arsenal. There’s a good chance Lamar makes more strides in the passing game next season, similar to his Year 1-to-Year 2 jump.

Baltimore will likely regress some from their 14-2 mark, and they’ll have to deal with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have an elite defense and should see the return of Ben Roethlisberger next season, to help the offense.

And expect the Patriots to re-sign Tom Brady and supply him with a few offensive weapons for the dynasty’s home stretch. New England is not done yet.

Then there’s the two AFC finalists. After a season of blending in with a hobbled Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have won seven straight since beginning the year 6-4, with the defense being the story of their season in the second half. Mahomes and the offense sputtered for a bit, but they put on their best 2018 Chiefs impression in their win on Sunday.

Still, Kansas City must stay strong on defense, doing their best 2006 Colts impression, if they are going to go all the way.

But this season’s Titans have a heavy dose of 2007 and 2011 Giants to them. They are an underdog only to the outside world. After a 2-4 start to the season under Marcus Mariota, Tennessee is 9-3 under Tannehill, and Henry’s late-season run is reminiscent of the NFL’s older days, where superstar running backs could take over in January.

Despite allowing just 9.6 points per game since Week 11 prior to Sunday, the Chiefs have still been gashed for 4.9 yards per rush this season. Kansas City was without defensive tackle Chris Jones on Sunday, and even if Jones is good to go this Sunday, the Chiefs are left extremely vulnerable to another legendary Henry performance.

Dean Pees’ scheming versus Kansas City’s offense will loom large. As Baltimore’s linebackers coach & defensive coordinator from 2010-2017, Pees played his part in sometimes mitigating Rob Gronkowski, and sometimes Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, when limiting Brady and the Patriots.

In Tennessee, Pees has safeties Byard and Vaccaro playing like absolute madmen right now. There’s no way they’ll let Kelce beat them the way the Texans did.

They’ll force Mahomes to throw downfield to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. And of course, Kansas City can win that way, but things will be tougher at least.

The Titans have tough and competent cornerbacks in Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson, who can do their part, even against the unbelievable amount of speed that Kansas City possesses. But the Titans will need a steady and consistent pass rush on Mahomes to win. That’s the Titans’ key to the game, where as Kansas City must find some way to limit Henry or they will be in a world of trouble.

In theory, the Titans have all the tools necessary to beat Kansas City. This is a tough matchup for the Chiefs, but Kansas City’s offense is a tough matchup for anyone. Mahomes will score more than Brady and Jackson, and I’m not sure the Titans will be able to keep up if the game is forced into Tannehill’s hands.

My early prognostication is Kansas City winning a semi-close contest.

*******

In Green Bay, it was apparent from the first drive that Aaron Rodgers was going to be on. And Davante Adams — eight catches, 160 yards, two touchdowns —  picked up where Travis Kelce left off in the game before him, baffling both man and zone coverages from the opposing team.

Despite a late Russell Wilson push that stalled on a costly Malik Turner drop, it was apparent from the start that the Seahawks lacked the personnel and health to go on a realistic Super Bowl run.

Wilson did what he could, but this was Rodgers’ time. The Packers legend completed just 16 passes, but threw for 243 yards and two scores with zero turnovers. His beauty of a downfield, first-down pass to Adams on 3rd-and-8 was ice cold in the clutch, and put the Seahawks hopes on ice.

Seattle never got the ball back, Green Bay won 28-23 after getting out to a 28-10 lead. And the defense continued to be rewarded for Green Bay’s rare, high-profile free-agent purchases of Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith on the edge, as each picked up two sacks.

But next, they’ll face a San Francisco 49ers squad that is left as the best and most talented bunch. Heck, they’ve been the best NFC team all year. Their most impressive beatdown of the season came at Green Bay’s expense.

A 37-8 49ers win over the Packers in the Bay area back in November, in which Rodgers was held to a staggering 3.2 yards per pass attempt, and was sacked five times.

After a month or two of so-so defensive play since that day, San Francisco finally has their complete defensive front seven.

Dee Ford is back after missing the past two months, and linebacker Kwon Alexander was activated back off injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle a few months back.

Having the unit back together was apparent immediately on Saturday, as the 49ers dominated the Vikings, 27-10, by beating them in just about every facet of the game.

San Francisco held top-five running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards on nine carries, sacked Kirk Cousins six times and picked him off once while holding his yards per attempt to just 5.9.

Despite Green Bay fielding one of the best quarterbacks of all-time in Rodgers, it would be surprising to see them come out on top in San Francisco. The 49ers should see a better performance by Jimmy Garoppolo — 11 for 19, 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — after he looked out of place trying to avoid Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, the league’s top cover linebacker, who could have picked him off three or four times if he had pro pass-catcher’s hands.

San Francisco leaned on it’s running back committee on Saturday, rushing for 186 yards on 47 carries. Tevin Coleman — 22 carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns — was the lead man. He was brought in this offseason from Atlanta after breaking out with the Falcons under Kyle Shanahan’s watch, so Shanahan brought him to San Francisco.

If the 49ers run the ball this well versus Green Bay, the packers have little chance. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King may be able to slow down Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel in the passing game, but an affective 49ers run game should set up Garoppolo-to-George Kittle after the duo struggled in this past game.

Despite Kelce’s superb performance, Kittle is the NFL’s best tight end. He is at least tied with Kelce as it’s best in pass-catching, and is certainly the best blocking tight end in football. He’s the complete package. He’ll most certainly make some plays next week.

Green Bay will have to have a repeat performance by Rodgers and Adams, while also leaning on running back Aaron Jones to get San Francisco’s best-in-the-league pass rush off Rodgers’ back.

San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman has had a lot to say recently, but heck, he’s earned it, again. The 31-year-old had a pick on Saturday, and has reinvented himself as an older-but-smarter player with the 49ers.

Sherman covering Davante Adams will be the top player matchup of Conference Championship Sunday. If he can just slow down Adams (not even shut him out), things will be really tough on Green Bay. Jones, the running back, is likely their second-best pass catcher.

“The only place that I’m not the best corner in the game over the last generation is in the haters’ minds,” Sherman told The Athletic after the game. “You look at any stat, anything, and they just try to make it about other players. They never give me credit.”

“For all the people who think I’m in zone, it’s man,” Sherman said, continuing the lecture at his postgame presser. “I get tired of ‘oh man, he’s a zone corner.’ I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I’m great. It was man coverage. I covered the man. I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. Year in, year out. Whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 — unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there doing my job at a high level.”

There’s no doubt that the 49ers and Packers will play a closer game on Sunday than they did around Thanksgiving, but San Francisco is clear out-of-nowhere lead dog (although I’d like to toot my own horn in saying I had them winning the NFC West) that seems to pop up in the NFC almost every year. These uber-talented and fast teams seem to come up every so often.

Sherman was on the best of that category with the Legion-of-Boom era Seahawks. And now, he’s the vocal leader on Seattle’s rival, on the opposite end to the fascinating decade that was the 2010s.

There are plenty of smiles to go around in San Francisco, but they have one more game to win before a surprise trip to Super Bowl LIV. They should win it, in turn proving that a team with this amount of talent making it to the biggest game in their sport shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Lamar Jackson vs Browns

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Jackson permanentely ends MVP race

The Baltimore Ravens’ (13-2) magically dominant season continued on Sunday, as the team clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC with their 11th straight victory — a 31-15 win over the Browns with Cleveland.

And with that, Lamar Jackson clinched this season’s NFL MVP award.

Jackson — 341 total yards, three passing touchdowns — added more highlight-worthy plays through the air and on the ground, extending plays with apparent ease and juking defenders out of their shoes to convert first downs in situations that initially looked impossible.

This has been a weekly thing for Jackson this season. In all, he’s amassed 43 total touchdowns, with a crisp 36-to-six touchdown-to-interception ratio and an NFL-record (for a QB) 1,206 yards rushing and counting.

Jackson’s speed and elusiveness surpass that of Michael Vick, and his improving passing skills have taken his season to statistical heights of that of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ best years this decade.

Among Baltimore’s 11 straight wins, seven came against teams with winning records, including top-tier teams such as the Super Bowl-worthy Patriots (12-3) and 49ers (12-3).

After leading San Francisco’s new-school offense with Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of this decade, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s revolutionary offensive attack in Baltimore is nothing like we’ve ever seen in the pros. At least not to this dominantly-effective extent.

Give credit to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for his willingness to let go of the past, and embrace this new style. This offseason, Baltimore bid farewell to Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco at the position. Flacco and Harbaugh were a rookie pair of quarterback and head coach in 2008, and had been together since.

But Harbaugh’s obvious faith in Jackson sparked the decision to roll with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as it’s franchise.

Make no mistake, Baltimore has perfectly matched Jackson’s ability with coinciding personnel — a mauling offensive line, bruising running back Mark Ingram and the NFL’s best tight end trio in top man Mark Andrews, former first-round pick Hayden Hurst (selected before Jackson) and blocking H-back Nick Boyle.

Heck, first-round rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is yet to be fully unleashed, not because Jackson is unable to throw downfield, but because those shots are not needed when Baltimore is methodically marching at a consistent pace, as is.

Although many insist Jackson will be “figured out,” — a loose term that has been tied somewhat to Cam Newton after his ridiculously-good 2015 MVP season in Carolina — it’s best to appreciate Jackson’s season for what it is, and note that there are signs that he will improve in the coming seasons, if you can believe that.

Jackson has become more polished since his playoff meltdown in a Wild Card loss to the Chargers in Baltimore last January. Now, Baltimore’s next meaningful game will be a playoff contest in nearly three weeks that they will host.

The spotlight will be on Jackson, and if we can expect consistency (and we should) with his extraordinary season, it’s that he’ll wow fans and defenders alike once more, as he attempts to end his season in his hometown in Miami, in Super Bowl 54.

But for now, an MVP award will do.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. It’s over. The award is Jackson’s. And because of that, this will be my final MVP race rankings of the season.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has done a lot to keep Seattle in the mix for a first-round bye, but he needs more help to take this team to a Super Bowl.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. If the 49ers’ early season dominance was about the defense, the second half of their season has been about the ascension of Jimmy Garoppolo.

4. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. At the very least, he deserves co-OPOY award honors with Christian McCaffrey, if not, an outright win. He’s been unstoppable this season. He can play as a ‘big’ slot receiver and as an outside force. What a player.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB Houston Texans/Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Both Watson and Mahomes have had some struggles at times, but they pale in comparison to their fantastic play throughout the season. These guys, coupled with Jackson, are the future of the AFC. The new wave of quarterbacks has arrived.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should look to rest several players versus the Steelers, which include the banged up Marks — Ingram and Andrews. Both are vital to Baltimore’s Super Bowl chances.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-3) (Last week: 2). Jimmy Garoppolo converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 situations late. The 49ers will clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win in Seattle. A loss will drop them to the No. 5 or 6 seed. That’s insane.

3. New Orleans Saints (12-3) (Last week: 3). It was a good sign that the Saints got Alvin Kamara going, and were able to remain effective in a cold, outdoor game in December versus a tough opponent.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 4). The Chiefs have allowed a league-best 9.6 points per game since Week 11. Their 2006 Colts prophecy remains intact.

5. New England Patriots (12-3) (Last week: 5). The Patriots offense finally got things going versus a top-tier defense in the Bills. Julian Edelman and James White are Brady’s top passing targets, but he’ll need N’Keal Harry and Rex Burkhead to join that group this postseason if they are to have success. But most importantly, if the offensive line plays like they did versus Buffalo on Saturday, a 2018-like run for New England is possible. Here they come again.

6. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win tonight and next week, and a Seattle win over San Francisco.

7. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Vikings won’t pass the Packers in the NFC North with a win tonight, but they will have gained some major confidence. Kirk Cousins (0-8 career record on Monday Night Football) needs this win.

8. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 6). The Seahawks are stumbling to the finish line. But they still have a shot at the NFC West title if they can beat the 49ers at home this Sunday night.

9. Houston Texans (10-5) (Last week: 10). The Texans are a topsy-turvy bunch, but an AFC South title and the No. 4 seed in the AFC (probably) will do.

10. Buffalo Bills (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Bills hung tough in New England. They’ll be a hard team to face in the postseason.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-7) (Last week: 11). The Titans’ end-of-season schedule has been brutal. They need to win at Houston to make the postseason.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: 16). If they do indeed win the NFC East, I doubt the Eagles will make too much noise in the postseason, but they’ve shown their toughness down the stretch.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) (Last week: 12). The Steelers have almost everything they need to be a top team this season, but are without a quarterback. That’s killed them.

14. Indianapolis Colts (7-8) (Last week: NR). Their midseason swoon was a shame, because they have talent. Keep the Colts in mind for your 2020 predictions.

15. Dallas Cowboys (7-8) (Last week: 13). Just a tragic end to the Cowboys season, if Philadelphia wins next week. Either way, Jason Garrett should be gone.

16. Los Angeles Rams (8-7) (Last week: 14). A rough way to end their year, but with a few moves and renewed sense of tenacity, the Rams may be back in the postseason fold in 2020.

Next up: Tampa Bay, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, N.Y. Jets

Jimmy Garoppolo & John Lynch

NFL Monday Morning Madness: 49ers outlast Saints in season’s best game + AFC becomes clearer

Week 14 gave us yet another slate of important games, as well as a clearer picture painted in the AFC.

But we begin with the game of the year in New Orleans, whose result has sprung a clear favorite in the NFC, for the time being…

*********

As Robbie Gould’s game-winning 30-yard field goal went through the uprights, Jimmy Garoppolo darted onto the field in elation, sharing his excitement with the man who brought him in, GM John Lynch.

Garoppolo — 349 yards, four touchdowns — had just played his best game as a pro, leading his team to victory over Drew Brees’ in a game in which Brees threw for five touchdowns at home.

At the end of it, 94 points had been scored and the 49ers (11-2) defeated the Saints (10-3) 48-46 on the road, to lay claim to title of the NFC’s best team.

The win come on the day after the first anniversary of the passing of 49ers CEO Jed York’s brother, Tony, who committed suicide in 2018. Solomon Thomas, whose sister committed suicide in January of 2018, knew how York was feeling. The two embraced each other outside their visiting locker room after the win.

“For him, it was probably the most emotional day he’s probably had in the last year — at least that’s the way it was for me,” Thomas told NFL.com. “It was an honor just to be able to bring him that win — him and Tony and [the] entire York family. They mean the world to us. Hopefully getting the win brings a lot of peace and good memories of Tony.”

The 49ers do seem like a family. After all, they’ve been through a lot this past month, during a murderous trio of games against top-flight teams.

The 49ers were 9-1 entering a tough stretch that included games versus the Packers (10-3), Ravens (11-2) and Saints. Many thought they’d finish the stretch 1-2 at best, succumbing to the league’s most difficult stretch for any team this season. But San Francisco has risen from the onslaught, instead going 2-1, with their only two losses this season coming in a tough game versus Baltimore, and an overtime contest they should have won against the Seahawks at home.

Now, San Francisco is battle-tested, and ready for a deep postseason run. They appear to be the NFC’s top team.

Of course, even if the 49ers are certainly the NFC’s most powerful bunch, they’ll likely need to win in Seattle on Sunday night in Week 17 to risk falling from the NFC’s top spot to it’s no. 5 seed, which would mean a borderline unfair road match in Dallas or Philadelphia in early January, giving notice to the league’s seeding rules that may need re-tooling.

But for now, the 49ers will relish the win that game on a game-winning drive by Garoppolo, sprung by a monstrous 39-yard catch-and-run by George Kittle — the NFL’s best tight end — on a 4th-and-2.

On a day in which the 49ers defense fell victim to an offensive track meet, a commonality in New Orleans, Garoppolo and the offense were there to pick them up.

The 49ers now how far they can go, and they know wins like this prove they have the toughness and close-knit group that could get them to Miami in early February.

“We have a special group of people, and I’m just proud of these guys and how we have all come together, whether it’s ownership, whether it’s coaches, whether it’s players,” said an emotional Jed York after the game. “It’s just a really, really tight group of people. It’s special.”

*********

We could be in store for a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl.

In fact, that would be my pick today. They are each the two best teams in football, coming off a hard-fought contest against each other in a rainy day in Baltimore last week — in which the Ravens won 20-17 on a game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.

The Ravens keep on rolling, and Sunday was no different.

Marcus Peters broke up a 4th-down pass intended for foamier Raven John Brown, and Baltimore (11-2) won their ninth-straight game, a 24-17 win over Buffalo (9-4), bring them to a 7-1 mark against teams that have currently have winning records in 2019.

The Ravens will be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Especially after what unfolded in New England yesterday.

There is certainly reason for the Patriots (10-3) to be upset about Sunday’s officiating in their 23-16 home loss to the Chiefs (9-4), but the fact of the matter is — the Patriots offense struggled yet again. Even for New England, their chances look bleak.

This is the second December in a row that they began the month with two straight losses. No one intelligent will fully count them out going forward, but this offense might be what it is at this point.

The Patriots have lost to all three AFC division leaders at the moment — Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston — which includes the future of the AFC in quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. It’s worth wondering how they’ll respond this time around.

But give the Chiefs credit. Their defense has vastly improved under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, which is huge, considering Patrick Mahomes and the offense is currently gimpy, and playing like it.

The Chiefs really may be on a 2006 Colts path, turning on the switch to vastly improve on defense just when they need it, to go on a possible postseason run as the AFC’s No. 3 seed.

Elsewhere in the conference, Buffalo (9-4) and Pittsburgh (8-5) are tough teams battling for wild card spots who will face off on Sunday Night Football this week.

Tennessee (8-5) is 6-1 under Ryan Tannehill, and an equally tough opponent capable of playing smash mouth January football with the likes of the Ravens, Bills and Steelers, and have the talent to defeat the Patriots and Chiefs. They are a conference dark horse if there was one. But they’re unlikely to win three straight postseason games against AFC teams to get to the Super Bowl.

Tennessee will be fighting for the AFC South lead when they take on Houston (8-5) at home this week. The Texans followed up their win over the Patriots with a blowout loss to the Drew Lock-led Broncos (5-8) in a game in which they trailed 38-3 at home. Houston is Houston, and as talented as Deshaun Watson is, their flaws and deep-rooted inconsistency genuinely rule a serious run this season.

So the AFC will likely come down to Baltimore, New England and Kansas City.

And likely in that order, in terms of seeding. The Chiefs will likely travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts once more this season, in an AFC Divisional Playoff in New England.

Of course, the Patriots will have to follow up yet another gut-wrenching, alarm-sounding loss to Kansas City with a game versus the Bengals afterward — for the second time in five years.

For the Patriots, it’s once again — On to Cincinnati.

For the the Chiefs, there’s reason to be optimistic.

For the Ravens, home-field advantage is likely to be the case, and they know that a Super Bowl berth is now squarely in their sights. This is their season.

*********

The feel of this season, is that we’ll see a rematch of Baltimore and San Francisco.

These two teams are the biggest stories of the year.

New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle seem like bystanders in San Francisco’s magical season in the NFC this year.

And last year’s two AFC title game participants — New England and Kansas City — aren’t up to par with Baltimore.

A lot can change from now until Super Bowl 54, but as of now it looks like a rematch between Super Bowl 47 — Baltimore vs San Francisco — this February.

Would any one complain?

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. The race was close. Now, it’s not so close. This is Lamar’s award for the taking.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Russell has been great this season, doing his best to cover up for a somewhat-flawed Seahawks team.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. No one outside of Jackson and Wilson has a real chance at this award, but if anyone else does at all, it should be Jimmy G.

4. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. He’s missed too many games to win the award, and he hasn’t quite deserved it anyhow, but he’s played well this season. He’s being slowed down by injury, clearly.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans/Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers/ Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. An obligatory three-way tie between the two main Offensive Player of the Year candidates and Watson, who has done his best to keep the Texans afloat, but won’t be winning this award with performances like Sunday’s at home versus the Broncos. All three of these guys may be bumped off the list going forward, but they still deserve the nod here, barely.

Next up: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-2) (Last week: 1). The team to beat, still.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers have risen back to the top of the NFC. They are the conference’s best team — no question.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). Their defense failed them on Sunday. They still have a realistic shot at the No. 1 seed though, if they can take care of business down the stretch in December.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) (Last week: 8). Here come the Chiefs. Their recent performances came against the struggling offenses in Oakland and New England, but Kansas City’s defense has certainly improved.

5. New England Patriots (10-3) (Last week: 4). On to Cincinnati, Part II? This offense really may be broken. Another career test for Brady.

6. Seattle Seahawks (10-3) (Last week: 5). They got burned in Los Angeles on Sunday night. Russell Wilson really makes up for a lot with this club.

7. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 6). Something doesn’t look right with them, but they’re still lurking in the NFC.

8. Minnesota Vikings (9-4) (Last week: 7). With the Rams nipping at their heels, Minnesota will have to keep winning to ensure a playoff spot.

9. Los Angeles Rams (8-5) (Last week: 11). The Rams will likely have to win out to get in the playoff field, but their season isn’t over.

10. Tennessee Titans (8-5) (Last week: 12). The Titans play the Texans twice and the Saints at home down the stretch. If they make the postseason, they’ll have earned their berth.

11. Buffalo Bills (9-4) (Last week: 10). The Bills aren’t quite up to par with the AFC’s best. But this has still been a fun season for them.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) (Last week: 13). Mike Tomlin — Coach of the Year.

13. Houston Texans (8-5) (Last week: 9). Well, that was a thud. The Texans are in real danger of missing the postseason with a loss and a Steelers win this weekend.

14. Chicago Bears (7-6) (Last week: 16). They won’t make the postseason, but they can cause some real playoff seeding damage in what should be the final few games for Mitch Trubisky as the franchise’s starting QB.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) (Last week: NR). The Buccaneers even left a few wins out on the field this season. Jameis Winston has been complete trick or treat, as expected. But Bruce Arians seems to have this team going in the right direction, no matter who the team’s quarterback is in 2020. Let’s let the Bucs enjoy this spot for now.

16. Indianapolis Colts (6-7) (Last week: 14). The Colts season is now likely over, but they have much to look forward to in 2020 and beyond.

Next up: Philadelphia, Dallas, Cleveland 

Lamar Jackson vs 49ers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Can anyone stop Lamar Jackson, Ravens?

As I’ve said numerous times, gut check time in pro football begins after turkey day, as teams feel the added pressure that comes with important cold-weather games in December and January. Which teams are most positioned to make a run toward, and through the postseason? Which teams will fix their deficiencies in the next month?

I decided to do a column of quick-hits this week.

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, another look at Lamar Jackson and the seemingly Super Bowl-bound Ravens.

********

The rain came pouring down in Baltimore, as did the NFC-leading 49ers (10-2).

The Ravens (10-2) withstood both, beating yet another top-tier contender on their way to an eighth straight victory.

This one was decided on the game’s final play — a game-winning 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, the NFL’s best kicker, despite the conditions.

“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told NFL.com. “We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for.”

The Ravens were ready again, as they were during previous big-time (and blow-out) signature wins over the likes of the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams in recent weeks.

The two best defenses this season — New England and San Francisco — use very different schemes.

The Patriots rely more on 3-4 principles with bigger defensive lineman (Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton) and a bevy of attacking linebackers to go with their league-best secondary.

The 49ers defense is a faster unit that uses the more common 4-3 look with four-down lineman all liable to rush the passer, with rookie Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner among the men up front making life easier for the likes of linebacker Fred Warner and cover man Richard Sherman.

Jackson throttled the Patriots, and was efficient enough in the rain versus San Francisco. He’s beaten them both.

The Ravens are without question the best team in football at the moment. Their defense has begun to improve, as the offense has eviscerated opponents such as the Rams, who they beat 45-6 in Los Angeles last Monday.

Maybe a possible bad-weather bout in Buffalo versus the the stingy Bills (9-3) this week presents an opportunity for a hiccup. But the Ravens are rolling, and have showed no signs of slowing down.

Baltimore just recently started utilizing speedster Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown again, as he scored twice in the win over the Rams. But Jackson is not even using the deep ball anymore, which is something he can do. His rocket arm has been throwing darts on roll-out passes and on short and intermediate level throws over the middle. And that, coupled with a Jackson-led rushing attack has rendered this offense unstoppable.

But on a day in which Jackson threw for just 105 yards and one score (and lost a fumble) — rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown, as well — it was encouraging to see them win a tough, gritty game.

“Blowing people out is easy,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith told The Athletic. “Being in a dogfight for four quarters, and always believing for four quarters, even longer if you have to, is a whole different mentality. I think to play in a game like this and fight to the end; it just helps our team realize our own resilience.”

In the end, after a defensive stop in their own territory, Baltimore’s familiar savior, Jackson, led the Ravens on a 12-play game-winning drive that ran out the remaining 6:28 on the game clock.

Until someone ends their red-hot streak — and maybe even if they do — the Ravens are the best team in football.

********

Now, for my thoughts, starting with the offensively-challenged Patriots —

– The Patriots are sputtering in early December for the second season in a row. Last year they recovered by the end of the month to win it all, but watching this offense this season is like pulling teeth at this point. It’s fair to wonder if New England will remain inept offensively for the rest of the season. No pass catcher other than Julian Edelman can get any separation or has earned Tom Brady’s trust. New England used a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry and a second-round draft choice next year to bring in Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta. Both have struggled to find their footing in their few games thus far, while NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out just how frustrated Brady seemed to be with third-year Patriot Phillip Dorsett last night. That leaves just Edelman and rookie Jakobi Meyers as players who seemingly have any consistent rapport with Brady, and Meyers upset Brady on Sunday, as well.

It’s beating a dead horse at this point — and maybe, a pipe dream — but New England could really use Antonio Brown to open things up on all levels of the offense. If the Patriots are stuck with what they have for the remainder of the season, then it at least appears that the offensive line is better with the return of Isaiah Wynn, which helps the running game, and gives Brady more time to throw. But Brady struggled to find receivers on longer-developing routes, even with time, because they fail to get open. If you take out a late push that can’t yet be deciphered for ‘garbage time’ or a real improvement, the Patriots are have now scored 17, 13, and 9 points on offense the last few weeks. I believe they’ll hang onto the No. 2 seed at the very least, but they’ve already been passed by the red-hot Ravens. Can this team win in Baltimore in an AFC Championship Game? Yes, but now without improving on offense, which is something that seems nearly impossible at this point for the Patriots. But we’ve all learned our lesson with them, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

– Deshaun Watson –three touchdown passes, one receiving score on a pitch-throw from DeAndre Hopkins — was fearless and MVP-like in leading a win in Houston. Ryan Tannehill — 5-1 as a starter in 2019 — lead Tennessee to yet another big win. The Texans (8-4) and Titans (7-5) are the two remaining contenders in the AFC South, as it would be a tough climb for the Colts (6-6) at this point. Houston and Tennessee will play twice in these final four weeks, which includes a Week 17 bout in Houston. Considering they’re a game up already, the edge goes to Houston, who just played (and won) their toughest remaining game. The Titans still have wild card hopes if they fall to Houston once, but that means probably having to win a home game versus the Saints (10-2) in Week 16. If Tenneseee splits their final four games and ends up out of the field at 9-7 via tiebreakers, the team is still worth marveling at. Tannehill has taken over for Marcus Mariota and lifted up a superbly-talented, but usually inconsistent team. And with Derrick Henry bowling over defenses, the Titans are a tough team built for the playoffs.

– Two other teams built for the playoffs include the Bills (9-3) and Steelers (7-5). Both have little to no shot at advancing past the Divisional Round, if not, Round 1, but each are built for cold weather football. And considering the bleakness of Week 15’s initial Sunday Night Football matchup (Vikings-Chargers), NBC announced last night during SNF that Bills-Steelers has been moved to that Sunday night slot in two weeks. That’s a wise decision. What’s better than a possible bad-weather or cold-weather matchup between these tough clubs vying for a postseason berth in December? Josh Allen is a younger looking Ryan Tannehill with more potential, wearing the same number (jersey no. 17). It took a few months, but Allen has found his footing with offseason acquisitions John Brown and Cole Beasley. The former victimized his former team (Cowboys) over Thanksgiving.

The Steelers have mostly stayed afloat thanks to great leadership under head coach Mike Tomlin, who would get my vote for Coach of the Year if Pittsburgh is to make the postseason. The Steelers currently have the No. 6 seed due to a tiebreaker with Tennessee. The Titans can make the playoffs one of two ways, and if they somehow beat out Houston for the AFC South crown, it would be the epitome of a tough wild card matchup in Bills-Titans in Tennessee. The game would also be the first playoff matchup between the two since the Titans beat the Bills in a 1999 AFC Wild Card playoff via the ‘Music City Miracle.’ 

– One thing is for certain, as we see teams like the Titans, Bills and Steelers strutting their stuff as tough cold-weather teams, clubs like the Raiders (6-6), Browns (5-7) Cowboys (6-6) and even Eagles (5-7) don’t seem like teams that are ready for a December run this season. Cleveland is just a disappointing mess. Oakland is virtually out after two embarrassing losses to the Jets and Chiefs by a combined score of 74-12, while at least one of Philadelphia and Dallas will get in via an NFC East title. The Eagles are usually a tough team that improves as the season moves along, and Dallas is seemingly entering their usual late-season swoon. But I give the edge to the Cowboys at the moment. They may fire Jason Garrett anyway if they suffer a rough home postseason loss in the Wild Card round, but the Eagles are too beat up on offense to beat Dallas right now, even at home. If I had to choose today, I say Dallas wins in Philadelphia on Week 16, to take the division. But I may change my opinion from now until that game begins.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2) (Last week: 1). There’s no debate — the Ravens are the best team in football right now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers went toe to toe with the best team in football, and almost won on the road. We’ll keep them here for now. They’ll travel to New Orleans for a huge NFC tilt on Sunday.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 4). The Saints have a chance to take a tight grip on one of the NFC’s first-round byes — and possibly, home field advantage — with a win over San Francisco at home, next Sunday. 49ers at Saints. That’s quite the matchup.

4. New England Patriots (10-2) (Last week: 3). They showed fight at the end, but the offense has some serious issues. The defense is caliber of a Super Bowl-winning team. Brady and the offense have to figure this thing out. Can they?

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 5). The Seahawks have a chance to slip into the NFC West’s top spot for the moment, if they can beat the Vikings tonight.

6. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). That was beauty of a snow game in New York on Sunday. That was a pretty win by the Packers, too. But then again, the Giants (2-10) are a mess. Green Bay is sort of in NFC limbo. They’re not quite with these top-tier teams in the conference, yet.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The whole world will be watching Kirk Cousins on the road in Seattle tonight. Will he deliver? Or will he fold? (His performance will probably lie somewhere in between)

8. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 8). The defense came to play this week. But again, it was versus the Raiders. Before losing 40-9 to Kansas City on Sunday, Oakland lost 34-3 to the lowly Jets the week before. And the Jets lost to the then-winless Bengals this Sunday. Translation: are the Chiefs beginning their ‘2006 Colts’ path of an improved defense at just the right time? Or are they just the 2019 Chiefs? We’ll learn more after they travel to New England this week.

9. Houston Texans (8-4) (Last week: 9). Deshaun Watson was awesome in the win over New England. But the AFC South will be decided by the Texans’ two bouts with the Titans this month.

10. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 13). I have been tough on the Bills. Well, that was a mighty impressive win in Dallas over Thanksgiving. I apologize, Buffalo. Believe it or not, I think they may be a tough matchup for Baltimore this week, too.

11. Los Angeles Rams (7-5) (Last week: 11). After getting clobbered by the Ravens, the Rams took their frustrations out on the Cardinals, throttling them 34-7 in Arizona. It will be tough for them to make the postseason. They’ll need to win out to have a shot. They have the talent. Jared Goff looked good in the win. It had been awhile.

12. Tennessee Titans (7-5) (Last week: 14). Tannehill and the Titans are an incredible story. Will they keep this up and get to the postseason? Can they steal away the AFC South from Houston?

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) (Last week: 15). Mike Tomlin does it again. The Steelers bullied the Browns in their revenge-filled win in Pittsburgh. It’s amazing how tough this team is. Resilient in the truest sense of the word.

14. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 12). They’re nowhere near being mathematically eliminated yet, but you just know they probably won’t make the postseason now. That’s a bummer. This franchise is still headed in the right direction.

15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) (Last week: 10). The sky is falling in Dallas, but the sky may have already collapsed on the Eagles in Philadelphia. Which stooge will win the NFC East?

16. Chicago Bears (6-6) (Last week: NR). Even if they win out, they probably won’t make the postseason. But they’re better than anyone else not listed right now.

Next up: Philadelphia