As the weather turns cold, the more physical, disciplined teams flourish. In a league that has seen many ripples and trends over the past century, that notion hasn’t quite changed.
And so when the Patriots (9-1) avenged Super Bowl LII in a 17-10 win over the Eagles (5-5) in Philadelphia on Sunday, it was the defense that led the way in this chilly November battle.
This game was not going to won by flash and substance, the Patriots slowly turned the tide in gaining the upper-hand in physicality and toughness, which ultimately won them the game.
“Yeah, he was crying,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said of Eagles pass catcher Zach Ertz. “He do that on film a lot. If you get into him, if he don’t get the ball or if he doesn’t get a call, he’ll cry. But he’s a good receiver, a good tight end.”
Gilmore, the league’s best cover man, was moved all around the field in different matchups, but was often lined up with Ertz, Wentz’s go-to-guy, on third down situations.
In addition to Gilmore, the Patriots were stout up front, sacking Carson Wentz five times and allowing just 81 yards on the ground. After the Eagles took a 10-0 lead early off a downfield pass interference call and one sustained drive, Bill Belichick took to the sideline to shore up any issues with his defense.
His adjustments worked, and New England was able to stifle an undermanned Philadelphia offense.
Luckily, the game did not rely too much on Tom Brady and the offense.
Brady — — 26 of 47, 216 yards — struggled to find a rhythm and was visibly frustrated during and after the game, when he mumbled through his press conference obligations before exiting at around two minutes in.
Even though this season has looked particularly bleak for the Patriots offense, you can bet Brady, even at age 42, will turn things around at least somewhat.
For starters, 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn will return next Sunday to replace the struggling Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. And newcomer pass catchers Mohamed Sanu and first-round rookie N’Keal Harry should become more reliable as they gain a rapport with Brady.
But in a game in which Julian Edelman threw the game’s lone touchdown pass — to Phillip Dorsett — you can bet the greatest quarterback of all time is not going to be happy with his production, win or lose.
When asked if the offense can get back on track, Brady said: “I don’t think it matters what I think. It matters what we do.”
Well “do,” they probably will. Regardless, they’ll need to. Games against the Cowboys (6-4), Texans (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) are next on the docket, and you can bet that New England’s world-beating defense will have at least some issues with one or more of those offenses, meaning New England will rely more on Brady and their own offense.
We know now not to doubt Brady. But if this offense does fail to become a consistent force, they may have enough success on defense to return to the Super Bowl.
This is a call back to Brady’s early years, when he complimented a veteran defense with a chip on its shoulder. The 2019 Patriots, coupled with last year’s squad, are starting to share some similarities with the 2003 and 2004 that went on to win back to back Super Bowls.
New England has only Baltimore and Kansas City as true challengers in the AFC this year. Their Super Bowl hopes still shine bright, even if Brady’s demeanor isn’t exactly glowing.
The points may come soon enough, but New England has the grit and toughness on defense to defend their crowneither way.
RAVENS POUND TEXANS, CREATE SPACE IN AFC
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (8-2) moved one stop closer to earning a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs with a 41-7 stomping over the Texans (6-4) at home.
Houston’s spirt was broken early, as Deshaun Watson was sacked five times in the first half, and the Texans went into the locker room down 14-0 to a tougher — and better — Ravens team to this point.
The Texans entered the game as the NFL’s No. 3 rush defense, by game’s end, Baltimore — the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense — had gained 263 yards on the ground.
“Any time you’re 8-2, you’ve got a special group of guys,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram said after the game. “And I think we really have a special group of guys. Guys who understand each other. Guys who believe in each other. Guys who want to fight for each other. Guys who understand the value of preparation one day at a time. We have a goal of being champions, so we don’t have time to rest.”
Jackson — 298 total yards, four touchdown passes — now leads a Baltimore team that is the best in the league at a time where the season really begins. The Ravens’ ferocious defense of yesteryear is no more, but the additions of Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters have given Baltimore a ball-hawking secondary that is improving by the week — a good sign for possible playoff matchups versus Patrick Mahomes and/or Tom Brady.
In addition to the back end, Matthew Judon (2 sacks) and Jaylon Ferguson (sack, two tackles for a loss) are among the names on a front seven that has gone from pedestrian to thriving in recent weeks, giving Baltimore a complete look on defense that the franchise and its fans have been accustomed to over the years.
“You all were questioning us,” Judon told The Athletic after the game. “We just focused and locked in, and we knew what we had in the room. It’s not like we were going to war inside our defensive rooms. We know what we have, and since then, we brought in four or five new defensive players. We just focused and we strapped in, man.”
The Ravens have now undressed the Seahawks (in Seattle), the Patriots and Texans in recent weeks. Three teams led by three top-tier quarterbacks.
They’ve also won six straight and have created a gap between them and the Texans, Colts (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) in the race for a first-round bye in the AFC.
With a Monday night matchup versus the Rams (6-4) in Los Angeles looming, followed by games versus the 49ers (9-1) and Saints (8-2), Baltimore’s difficulty in keeping up their now six-game winning streak only increases.
Still, it’s clear the Ravens are the hottest team in football at the moment, playing their best football as the season moves along.
– Kudos to Kirk Cousins for leading the Vikings (8-3) to a 27-23 win over the Broncos (3-7) after erasing a 20-0 deficit early on. There are bigger stories — Lamar Jackson, Colin Kaepernick, Myles Garrett — surrounding the NFL, but Cousins’ improved play in big games, road games and in the clutch should not go unnoticed. Just when it looked like the Vikings should be entertaining other options at quarterback in the offseason, Cousins in the midst of a career year. Minnesota looks primed for the postseason. Also, despite another blown fourth quarter lead, there were several positive takeaways for the Broncos and Brandon Allen, who looked poised late, almost leading the game-winning drive.
– Jimmy Garoppolo deserves a lot of credit for will the 49ers to a 30-26 comeback win over the pesky Cardinals on Sunday. Without top pass-catching option George Kittle, rusher Matt Brieda, and much more, the Niners were severely undermanned, and in danger of going from 8-0 to the NFC’s current No. 5 seed in just two weeks, had they lost. The win gives them a chance to breathe, and hopefully welcome back at least Kittle this week versus the Packers (8-2) in a huge Sunday night contest.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 2). With Lamar Jackson playing as is, and the defense improving, this is the best team in football at the moment.
2. New England Patriots (9-1) (Last week: 3). There are certainly issues with Brady and the offense at play, but I still think they’ll figure it out. The addition of left tackle Isaiah Wynn this week can’t be understated. Plus, the defense is still fantastic.
3. San Francisco 49ers (9-1) (Last week: 1). I know we like to scoff at him on Twitter, probably because he used to play for the Patriots, but it’s time to start giving Jimmy Garoppolo his due. He’s a part of this new wave of brilliant quarterbacks.
4. New Orleans Saints (8-2) (Last week: 5). Great bounce back win over division rival Tampa Bay on the road. It had also been awhile since Alvin Kamara played that well. That was good to see.
5. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 4). The Packers have a real test in San Francisco next Sunday night. These are the games that will help decide which of these NFC juggernauts is to get a first-round bye.
6. Seattle Seahawks (8-2) (Last week: 6). The Eagles will give Seattle their all next week in Philly. Russ will have to earn this win, just as he has for the rest of his victories this season.
7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). Kirk Cousins probably won’t win NFL MVP, but he’s right there with a few others after Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 10). The Chiefs are in desperate need of a win tonight versus the Chargers in Mexico City. The week after that, they’ll face the Raiders. If they can win both of these, the AFC West is likely theirs.
9. Dallas Cowboys (6-4) (Last week: 13). Dak Prescott has had just a few hiccups in an otherwise awesome season. He was lights out in Detroit on Sunday. He’ll need to be that and then some in New England, if they are to have a chance versus the mighty Patriots.
10. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 12). That was certainly an ugly win. You can blame some of the issues on offense to the absences of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but the smarter fans are intelligent enough to not be that naive. The talent is there, so a December run is always in the cards.
11. Indianapolis Colts (6-4) (Last week: 15). Great reslilient effort in Jacoby Brissett’s return. If the Colts win in Houston on Thursday, they’d be in a great position to win the AFC South.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5) (Last week: 8). Without DeSean Jackson, the Eagles are mighty slow on offense. A late-season run can happen, but they’re in trouble. They have to beat Seattle at home this week.
13. Houston Texans (6-4) (Last week: 9). That was a hideous performance in Baltimore. They don’t belong among the AFC’s elite, despite Deshaun Watson. Are they even worthy of an AFC South title? We’ll see on Thursday.
14. Oakland Raiders (6-4) (Last week: 14). They did what they needed to do on Sunday. They’re right there with the Chiefs in the AFC West.
15. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: NR). The Bills sneak back in after a pretty impressive win in Miami. (Hey, the Dolphins have been playing much better as of late!)
16. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly loss in all facets, with an even uglier ending. They’re still a well-coached team capable of pulling out a win in any circumstance.
Next up: Tennessee, L.A. Chargers, Carolina, Cleveland, Atlanta