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.
Here's a full list of all the players placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list today. All 38 players tested positive, per the NFL. pic.twitter.com/dRnkQgngH0
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
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Monday’s night’s showdown in Buffalo marked the biggest AFC East game in a decade, maybe more. The New England Patriots (9-4) and Buffalo Bills (7-5) would battle it out in the first of two meetings that would likely decide the division.
However, it would be the weather, that would decide the game. Winds gusting from 25-to-35 miles per hour all game (sometimes 50 MPH), that would forced the contest into an alternate-looking example of the sport.
As expected for an ultra-situational style of football game, Bill Belichick and the Patriots bested the Bills, 14-10, by rushing for 222 yards on 46 carries, while Mac Jones passed just three times (2/3, 19 yards, 4.3 Total QBR).
New England’s three pass attempts marked the lowest single-game number for a winning team, or any team, since 1974 when ironically, O.J. Simpson and the Bills defeated Joe Namath and the New York Jets with just two pass attempts.
There was hyperbole run amok on Twitter after the game, calling this one of Belichick’s all-time greatest coaching performances. There was also an over-the-top group attempting to downplay the Patriots’ overall mastery of playing in the weather, which included Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott, after the game.
“Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one,” McDermott told reporters after Buffalo’s loss.
“Whether it’s Bill or anybody else, they beat us. You sit here and you tell me when we start with an average starting field position of the 40-yard line and he starts at the 23-yard line … and we were 1-for-4 in the red zone and they were 0-for-1 in the red zone — you give me that ahead of time and I would say, ‘I like my chances.’
The fact of the matter is, Buffalo failed to convert with their ‘chances,’ and the Patriots’ overall mega-conservative approach of betting on Buffalo ‘not winning’ the game, paid off. Buffalo, albeit with a quarterback in Josh Allen whose arm is strong enough to cut through the wind, failed to fully optimize points and true production out of their shotgun-spread looks in the weather.
The Patriots had some gaffes of their own, which included putting N’Keal Harry back to return a punt that ended up hitting his face mask, and landing right under a Bills special-teamer for a fumble recovery. Buffalo answered with a quick-strike, RPO touchdown pass by Josh Allen to Gabriel Davis on the next play, to cut the score to 8-7 after Damien Harris broke free for a 68-yard touchdown on a toss earlier in the game.
Had the fumble not occurred, the Patriots may have had an even easier time defeating the Bills, who failed to convert on their next three red zone trips.
Nothing seemed to work for Buffalo when they really needed it, as New England toughened up in the red zone. Once, Allen tried to hit Davis on another RPO-strike for a score on Patriots CB Jalen Mills, but Mills was ready for the pass that burned him earlier in the game, knocking it down.
On Buffalo’s final two plays of the game, Josh Allen was first tripped up for a sack by New England star EDGE Matthew Judon, who notched QB takedown number 12.5 on the year. On the next play, New England called an all-out blitz with just four defenders in coverage. Myles Bryant, playing the ‘robber’ role, made an astute play to knockdown a 4th-and-14 endzone pass attempt by Allen, giving the Patriots the victory.
This was certainly an old-school, classic, early-dynasty type of win for Belichick’s Patriots, evoking memories of New England’s 12-0 win over Miami in a raging snowstorm late in the 2003 regular season, a year in which they won their second Super Bowl.
Unsung heroes ran rampant in this game, with rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson actually running rampant on the Bills’s stacked boxes that included nine, ten and sometimes all 11 Buffalo defenders in the box. Stevenson’s final numbers (24 carries, 78 yards, 3.3 yards per carry) are hardly enough to get excited about, but there were several times where he weaved and plowed his way for first downs or hugely-important gains in moments in which that looked like an impossible task.
On defense, Buffalo’s pass-run split ended up being 30-to-25. Buffalo threw more than they ran in the conditions partly because they never had consistent success on the ground. Credit there largely goes to Patriots nose tackle-defensive tackle-3-4-defensive-end big-man Davon Godchaux. Brought over from Miami on a lucrative two-year deal this offseason, Godchaux has been a big addition in New England’s plan to get beefier, tougher and more competent up front. Godchaux, had a team-high 86.8 PFF grade on defense in the win, adding ten tackles, five run stuffs and a QB pressure in what was most likely the best game of his career.
These are the types of wins the Patriots have tallied up over the past 20 years. Every win by them, and every single-season DNA of this team has not always resembled the high-flying 2007 team equipped with Tom Brady and Randy Moss. This is how they do it.
There’s one more game versus Buffalo on the schedule, in New England, in three weeks.
“We were talking about that last night. We can use our whole passing game,” Belichick said with a chuckle when asked about New England’s next contest with Buffalo.
“All the pass plays we have, they haven’t seen.”
That game will likely have a different feel, as Belichick eludes to. The game may be cold, and even windy, but likely not to this effect.
Buffalo heads down to Tampa Bay this week to face the other pillar of the Patriots’ historical run of success, Tom Brady. A Bills loss there, and a Patriots win over Indianapolis in two weeks after their bye may spell the end of the AFC East race anyhow.
The Patriots, who are currently the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and will be even after next week, could be thinking Super Bowl. But just as Belichick likes it, they’ll take it game by game, braving the weather, their opponents, and whatever comes next.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 1). They used their bye week to rest up for the home stretch, where they will battle for the NFC’s No. 1 seed for the second straight season.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3) (Last week: 2). Their defense let Atlanta hang around a bit, and Tom Brady threw one atrocious pick six, but otherwise, he and the passing game were unstoppable. Brady leads the MVP race as of now.
3. Arizona Cardinals (10-2) (Last week: 3). With Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back, the full-strength Cardinals looked more like their record on Sunday. They’re flying under the radar.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week:4). They’ve won five straight, and have allowed an average of 9.8 points per game in their past four contests. Their defense has come alive, despite the offense still sputtering from time to time. If Mahomes and the offense can find a rhythm, and if Clyde Edwards-Helaire can produce on the ground, they could be headed for their third straight Super Bowl in two months.
5. New England Patriots (9-4) (Last week: 5). That was one of the weirdest games in recent memory, but the better-coached team, and overall, better team right now, won on Monday. Even after their bye this upcoming week, the Pats will be your No. 1 seed in the AFC.
6. Los Angeles Rams (8-4) (Last week: 6). No one is going to overly praise them for beating up on the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that win was still a much-needed morale booster.
7. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) (Last week: 10). Dallas plays Washington twice in their next three games, so they will need to fend them off to secure the NFC East crown. They suffered some midseason lapses after a blazing start. It’s time for them to get back on track.
8. Buffalo Bills (7-5) (Last week: 7). We can’t bury the Bills too much for a such a weird game in the wind, but Buffalo’s upcoming schedule includes the Buccaneers in Tampa, and the Patriots in New England. They need to start thinking about a playoff spot, in general, now. They’ll have to refocus for a big one versus the defending Super Bowl champs on Sunday.
9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 9). The Titans will come off their bye week facing the Jaguars at home. They face the Texans one more time, too. They could get to 11-6 or better, even with their injuries.
10. Indianapolis Colts (7-6) (Last week: 11). The Colts will rest up this week before hosting the Patriots in a big Saturday night showdown in Week 15. They should be a playoff team, but because of some blown losses earlier in their season, they’ll likely need to finish 3-1 down the stretch to even have a shot at a playoff spot.
11. Baltimore Ravens (8-4) (Last week: 8). Lamar Jackson is incredible, and he almost willed his team to a victory in the clutch once more on Sunday. This Ravens team as a whole, though, has sputtered often, and struggled some, partly due to several big injuries, for much of the season. Remember their early-season victories versus Detroit? What about their comeback win over Indianapolis? They have a great quarterback and coach, but they’re lucky to be 8-4.
12. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5) (Last week: NR). This is where the rankings turn into a weekly, topsy-turvy mess. The Chargers may have saved their season with that win in Cincinnati. They almost blew a 24-point lead, but hung on, and now, they’ll face the Giants at home with Jake Fromm likely starting at QB for New York. A win there would put the Chargers at 8-5, hosting the Chiefs for Thursday Night Football with a chance to take the lead in the AFC West.
13. San Francisco 49ers (6-6) (Last week: 12). They looked prime for a win over their NFC West rival before the Seahawks came storming back. That was a chance for them to pull ahead in the NFC wild card race. Now, they’re back with the pack.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) (Last week: 13).They almost rallied back, but let’s face it — that was an ugly loss. The Chargers and Bengals are both improving teams with two great young quarterbacks in Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow, but each team has little chance to make actual noise come January this season. They’re both set up well for the future, as of now, though.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1) (last week: NR). News of Ben Roethlisberger’s probable retirement after this season was reported Sunday morning, and then in the late afternoon, Big Ben put on a vintage clutch performance in a vintage Ravens-Steelers rivalry match. Pittsburgh is a tough, proud team that remains in the thick of the AFC wild card race.
16. Washington Football Team (6-6) (Last week: NR). How about the stones on Washington kicker Brian Johnson, a new addition, to kick a 48-yard game-winner in Las Vegas on Sunday. Here comes Washington. They host the Cowboys this week. They have a chance to make things incredibly interesting in the NFC East with a win on Sunday.
Next Up: Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, Minnesota, Philadelphia
The marquee ‘TV ratings’ matchup in the Sunday late afternoon window delivered a classic on Sunday.
Cowboys 35, Patriots 29, in overtime, in Foxboro, Massachussetts.
It was the Cowboys’ first win in six tries versus Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and it was Dallas’ first win over New England since a 12-6 victory over the Pats in 1996 when Bill Parcells was the team’s head coach, and Belichick was the club’s defensive coordinator.
There’s a lot to take away from a game like this:
— The Cowboys are not only ‘for real,’ they are a Super Bowl contender.
— Dak Prescott is an NFL MVP candidate, especially after his 445 passing yards (most ever versus a Belichick-coached team) and game tape exhibiting clutch throw after clutch throw in this primetime game against the Patriots. He was money.
— Mac Jones has shown glimpses of possible stardom in the future, be he, and this Patriots team are in transition. They have promise, and talent, but they’re blowing games late (fumbles, blocked punts, failures on ‘got-to-have-it’ plays) at a 21st-century Chargers-level since even the end of the 2019 season, with Tom Brady at quarterback (think: Week 17 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins with Brady in New England).
“We went toe-to-toe with them for 60 minutes,” Belichick said after the game. “They just made a few more plays than we did.”
Once thought of as a ‘moral victory’ equipped with silver linings, these types of losses are becoming too abundant for that term to be used any longer with these Patriots.
They have too many bullet holes in their foot, too many exhausted conservative-approach-infused decisions in major moments and an overall distrust of their young rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, in big moments.
The frustrating part about these Patriots is that they’ve played good teams well, for the most part, even going back to last season before they sort of gave up later in the year in losses to the Rams and Bills.
With Cam Newton, New England fell one-yard short of a major upset in Seattle, and a month or so later, Newton’s late fumble in Bills’ territory ended any hope of what was almost a major upset win in Buffalo.
This season, Damien Harris’ fumble was a self-thwart that ended any chance of a Week 1 victory over Miami, and despite keeping it close with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (and Tom Brady) and now, Dallas, the Patriots failed to deliver, again.
“When you look at the big picture, you never want to say you’re close; it’s hard to do that,” Jones said. “But the games we’ve lost we’ve been two or three plays away. I guess that’s how the NFL works, and I’m learning that the hard way.”
The teams that consistently make those plays, like the Buccaneers, the Patriots of the 2000s and 2010s, and yes, these Cowboys, are the teams that find themselves playing deep in January.
Dallas has won just three playoff games in the last 25 years, and have failed to move past the NFC Divisional round since their last Super Bowl win in 1995.
They are a prime example for fans to witness just how hard a franchise can fall post-dynasty.
The Patriots, of course, had nearly 20 years of unprecedented success. Simply labeling them a ‘Dynasty’ almost does them disservice.
But however you want to label it, Belichick and Mac Jones have work to do, even if the Cowboys’ star QB, Dak Prescott, thinks Jones is in a great spot.
“And when you have a bad play or an interception and the game changes right there, you gotta have the water-down-a-duck’s-back mentality. Let it go. It’s over. Mac’s got that. I really like what I see out of him. He’ll be a good quarterback for a long time.”
Jones followed up his late pick-six to former Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs on Dallas, with a 74-yard throwing strike to Kendrick Bourne to take the lead before Prescott rallied the Cowboys through a 4th-and-4 and subsequent 3rd-and-25 to help them score nine points at the end of regulation and overtime to win.
The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best offenses behind Prescott, his dynamic pass-catching duo of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb (who scored the winning touchdown in overtime), running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a top-tier offensive line, which has returned to greatness this season.
Prescott dropped back to pass 51 times on Sunday, and was never sacked.
On defense, Dallas has improved from subpar to so-so. With guys like Diggs (seven interceptions in six games), rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and pass rusher Randy Gregory, the team at least has playmakers capable of forcing turnovers and disrupting an offense.
In an NFC with several contenders in undefeated Arizona (6-0), Green Bay (5-1), the Los Angeles Rams (5-1) and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (5-1), the Cowboys are right there in the mix.
The Cowboys and Patriots, the NFL’s last two dynasties, are two teams in wildly different places at the moment.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). They move back to the top spot by default after the Bills’ loss. They should take care of the Bears at home this week.
2. Arizona Cardinals (6-0) (Last week: 3). They surprised many again by soundly defeating the Browns in Cleveland. They get a bye now to rest up.
3. Los Angeles Rams (5-1) (Last week: 4). I still think the Rams will be in the mix, probably in the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl, come January/February. But the NFC is a lot better than we thought, so this is a tougher task for them than I had imagined a few weeks ago.
4. Buffalo Bills (4-2) (Last week: 1). Josh Allen was stopped twice from reaching a key first down late in Tennessee, but I still think the decision to go for it was the correct call. The Bills will be OK.
5. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 6). Their 34-6 win over the Chargers may be the most impressive win of any NFL team this season. They ran all over LA, garnering 187 yards on just under five yards per carry.
6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 7). Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams alone make Green Bay a serious contender in the NFC once more.
7. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) (Last week: 10). Dak Prescott now finds himself near the very top in the beginning of the NFL MVP race after his performance in New England on Sunday.
8. Tennessee Titans (4-2) (Last week: 10). Derrick Henry (and maybe Adrian Peterson, as well) is this era’s Jim Brown.
9. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) (Last week: 5). That was a humbling loss in Baltimore. Now they have their bye week to chew on it.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) (Last week:11). They picked things up in Washington in the second half to look more like the Chiefs of old on Sunday.
11. Cleveland Browns (3-3) (Last week: 8). They’re much better than their record suggests, but here they are, and they have some major injuries, too. Will Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb be able to suit up versus the Broncos on Thursday?
12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 12). They had their bye week this past weekend. They’ll be in the wild card mix all season.
13. Las Vegas Raiders (4-2) (Last week: 14). That was a huge win in Denver, for their first outing without Jon Gruden.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) (Last week: NR). Good teams beat up bad teams. The Bengals beat the Lions 34-11 in Detroit. Is this team actually…good?
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Even in their “off” years, the Steelers find a away to finish around .500.
16. Minnesota Vikings (3-3) (Last week: NR). The Vikings have been a wild ride to start the year. They’re a team with talent. That win in overtime over the Panthers may decide the NFC’s No. 7 seed come January.
Next Up: San Francisco, Chicago, Carolina, Indianapolis, Atlanta
“I’m really tired. For a regular-season game, that was pretty intense…God is it hard to come in here and win a football game.”
The defending champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1), had withstood a gutsy (albeit erratic) performance from the New England Patriots (1-3), a team once known for their Super Bowl stardom, now rebuilding, and searching for a better identity.
Here are three takeaways from the conclusion of perhaps the most anticipated regular season game in NFL history:
— The embrace between Tom Brady and the Patriots’ fans and the organization went as well as it could have. From the outpouring of love from fans leading up to the game, pre-game, while Brady broke the all-time passing yards mark (with previous record-holder Drew Brees in attendance) and after the game, to Brady’s embrace with former teammates, Josh McDaniels (before and after the game), Robert Kraft, and yes, even Bill Belichick, for a 23-minute conversation in the Tampa locker room, following the game. Everything went smoothly. It was a great moment.
“Very emotional week,” Brady said to the press afterward. “These guys are like my brothers.”
Brady did his best to remain poised throughout the contest. Overall, he made great decisions and floated some gorgeous passes later in the game as he settled into a contest surrounded by hoopla. But it was obvious from the start, Brady was emotional, and the overall tone and weirdness of the game was omnipresent throughout the battle.
But for all the talk over what transpired over the past few years, it appears Patriots fans can rest easy, that Tom still appreciates his time with New England, forever his football home.
“I’ll be part of this community for a long time…When it’s all said and done, and I retire, you know, I’ll be around, and they’ll get a chance to see more of me” Brady told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya after the game.
Prior to the game, Robert Kraft floated the idea of Brady returning post-career for what would be a fitting ceremony that should, and in all likelihood will happen.
“In the end, I hope and believe he’ll come back here and we’ll give him his red jacket, and he’ll retire a Patriot,” Kraft told Willie McGinest and Kay Adams in an NFL Network interview prior to the game.
Brady somewhat deflected the notion after the game, seemingly out of respect for the Bucs’ organization, their fan base, and his current obligation to focus in on his current team.
“Are you offering me a one-day contract or did he offer me that?,” Brady said to the media, jokingly, when asked about the scenario after the game.
“He didn’t offer me that, so…I still got some time left with the Bucs, and like I said, really enjoying that. We got a lot to accomplish this year. It’s a tough challenging year. It’s a marathon of a season. It’s only four games in. There is a lot football to be played. It feels good to win on the road, so happy we did that.”
Still, all night, it was clear that Brady is still emotionally invested in the Patriots organization and the New England fans, and that aspect of ‘The Return’ was perfectly executed by all involved. Bravo.
— In the matchup of Brady vs Belichick, the Patriots coach devised a perfectly-schemed game plan versus the Buccaneers’ offense, that was executed well enough for the Patriots to win. I’ll look at the All-22 film to produce my first defensive film review piece of the season for Patriots Wire, if the film is out in time this week, so look out for that, since we’ll know more then, but it appeared New England stuck with pretty clear man-coverage assignments (J.C. Jackson on Mike Evans, Jalen Mills and Chris Godwin, Jonathan Jones and Antonio Brown) with a mixture of middle-of-the-field zone coverage in the deep, intermediate and shallow parts of the field, via safeties, linebackers and on-the-line rushers dropping back into coverage. On clear passing downs, Belichick was able to mask his looks with several “amoeba” formations with most rushers standing in front of the Bucs’ O-line, moving around pre-snap to disguise who was rushing, and who was dropping back into coverage.
Buccaneers send 5 receivers into routes, so looks like Brady slides his protection away from the side where he wants to throw vs a blitz look.
Matthew Judon (one sack, two QB hits, four hurries, four run stuffs, two tackles for loss), the only big-ticket 2021 free-agent signing consistently producing for Belichick, was particularly effective, bulldozing past members of Tampa’s stout offensive line at times, while also getting to Brady with his speed and athleticism at other times, and doing his best on the edge in run defense. Jalen Mills was particularly stout on Godwin (three catches, 55 yards) and the Patriots’ zone brackets in general looked like they did an awesome job of cutting off Tampa’s in-breaking routes in the intermediate part of the field.
In all, Brady’s stat line (22-of-43, 269 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt, 55.3 Total QBR) is exactly what you want if you’re the Patriots. Without Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate had an ugly, key drop, and Antonio Brown couldn’t hang on to a beautiful Brady long-ball for a go-ahead touchdown late, but really, the Patriots defense played well enough to win this game.
Jeff Saturday on the Pats defensive game plan: "I recognized it so much because they did it to Peyton Manning every time they played him. That was the way they played Peyton Manning it's the way they played Tom Brady, to limit the big plays."
This New England defense is a top-tier unit in the league, defensively, and they may have Stephon Gilmore returning soon.
— Mac Jones almost had his moment. In a weird, old-school-feeling Giants-Patriots, Eli Manning-Brady era-looking contest, the Patriots were in position to win, but just couldn’t pull it off. Alas, two turnovers, some sloppy play, more letdowns in got-to-have-it-moments (an all too familiar part of the Patriots identity since late 2019) included a failed attempt to score a touchdown to take a 21-16 lead while inside the 10-yard-line late in the fourth quarter, instead settling for a field goal, their last points of the game. There were several moments to be dissected, including Belichick conservatively opting not to trust Mac Jones on a 4th-and-2 in Tampa territory late at the end of the first half, and then again on a 4th-and-3 in the final minute of the game, instead opting for a 56-yard Nick Folk field goal attempt in the pouring rain, in which Folk heroically almost came through with one of the great kicks of all time, that ultimately hit the left upright with a loud “thud.”
A thud, is sort of what the 2021 Patriots are at this point. There have been comparisons to this team and the 2001 Patriots, as the franchise begins anew under Mac Jones. And heck, that team started 1-3 before eventually winning the Super Bowl. But that team, a well-disciplined bunch, came through when it mattered. There would be no game-winning kick (a la Adam Vinatieri) on this night, just as there would be no game-winning drive. New England is now 1-3 and 0-3 at home, with two gut-wrenching losses to the Dolphins (Damien Harris’ late fumble sealed it) and now, the Bucs.
Still, Mac Jones played well enough to win this game, and has shown a lot of promise.
Mac Jones completed 19 straight passes Sunday night.
According to @EliasSports that's tied with Tom Brady (9/10/2015 vs Steelers) for the most in a single game by a Patriots player since 1978 (1st season of the 16-game schedule). pic.twitter.com/ICSSgOhWFL
The rookie completed 19 consecutive passes in a period in the second half, which included a go-ahead touchdown drive culminating in a throwing score to Jonnu Smith, that saw Jones go 7-of-7 on that drive to give New England the 14-13 lead.
Really, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Mac Jones and the defense all played well enough to win this game, which is probably why this loss stings so much for New England.
The potential is there, even with Jones and the offense going just 2-for-9 on third down conversions, and Jones still being pressured by pass rushers (4 sacks, 12 QB hits on Jones by Tampa on Sunday), due to a disappointing O-line, which was met with Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ famous blitz-heavy scheme. The rookie also overcame the Patriots absolutely abysmal rushing performance, which saw the team run for -1 yards on eight carries versus Tampa’s top-ranked rushing defense, led by monster interior defenders Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.
When given the time to throw, Mac Jones (31-of-40, 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) has proven more than capable, as the Patriots are beginning to find at least a small groove in spreading defenses out in empty, shotgun looks. Jakobi Meyers (eight catches, 70 yards) and Kendrick Bourne (five catches, 58 yards) are beginning to have their moments, but the team is still not getting enough out of their two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, despite their two short touchdown catches on Sunday.
Still, there are brilliant flashes with Jones operations a Patriots/Brady-style offense.
Bourne called Jones a “baby Tom” after the game, and Tom Brady and several other Buccaneers praised the Patriots quarterback.
“He was poised. We hit him a lot of times and he stayed in the scheme and moved the ball for them when he had to move the ball for them.”
For now, as he learns behind a caving offensive line, a disappointing running game and the lack of a true No. 1 pass catcher, Jones will still learn a ton, find his resolve, and continue to improve. So far, he looks the part of a franchise quarterback.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 4). As each week passes, their Week 1 loss to the Steelers continues to be more of an aberration. They are the best team in football right now.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) (Last week: 2). Their secondary is an absolute mess right now, but a favorable upcoming schedule should help keep them afloat near the top of the NFC.
3. Arizona Cardinals (4-0) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch is soaring after a month. They are the last remaining undefeated team. That was a helluva win over the Rams in Los Angeles. Is their defense good enough for them to be a contender this season? Will their offense keep this up all year?
4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 1). They didn’t get up for their home match versus Arizona like they did versus the Bucs. They’re still the NFC West favorite. They have a quick turnaround for a game in Seattle on Thursday.
5. Cleveland Browns (3-1) (Last week: 3). They’re one of the most talented teams in the league, but they aren’t quite playing like it, week to week. They need to hit their stride.
6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) (Last week: 5). That was a telling win in Denver. That’s 43 straight 100-yard rushing games for the Ravens as a team, which ties an NFL record.
7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 8). They’re coming along after that ugly Week 1 loss to New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers’ bunch are a Super Bowl contender, once more.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) (Last week: 10). They’re tied for second in points per game (33.5) and are ranked 31st in points per game allowed (31.3). That sounds about right.
9. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1) (Last week: 15). Justin Herbert already looks like one of the best quarterbacks in football, and Brandon Staley may be an early Coach of the Year candidate. But, these are the Chargers. They find ways to disappoint. Will they buck the trend this year? They’re next three games: versus Browns, at Ravens, versus Patriots. That’s tough.
10. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 16). They have a top-tier offense, and their defense, although not great, has enough blue-chippers (Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs) to make some plays.
11. Las Vegas Raiders (3-1) (Last week: 8). Their defense isn’t great, which puts a lot of pressure on Derek Carr and the offense.
12. Seattle Seahawks (2-2) (Last week: NR). They weren’t going to just lie down and fall to 1-3. That was a big win.
13. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) (Last week: 9). Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback coming into the 2021 NFL Draft. He still is. But even I think it may be too soon for him to take full control of the offense. Let’s see if Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy enough to play on Sunday.
14. Tennessee Titans (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly overtime loss to the Jets in New York. They did fight back though. They play down to their competition too much.
15. Carolina Panthers (3-1) (Last week: 12). That was a tough loss in Dallas. Their defense is legitimately talented, but they’re not quite the league’s No. 1 unit. Sam Darnold has been great, though, at quarterback.
16. Denver Broncos (3-1) (Last week: 13). A win there over Baltimore would have been huge. Now, they’re stuck up top the AFC West in that early-season logjam.
Next Up: New Orleans, Cincinnati, New England, Washington, Minnesota/Indianapolis
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.
(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.
Buccaneers QB Tom Brady now has nine passing touchdowns in the first two games of the 2021 season.
His nine touchdowns through two games are tied for the second-most in NFL history, trailing only Patrick Mahomes (10 in 2018).
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
Sunday marked the return of the NFL in full tilt for its 102nd campaign.
Stadiums filled with fans across the league after a pandemic-alerting season in 2020 blocked them from doing so this time last year. The last year-plus has been a tragedy due to the countless lives lost. And although it’s quite a sobering way to begin a post-Week 1 NFL column, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention the more important topic over the weekend, as millions across the country, and even around the world, reflected on the now-20-year-old tragedy that took place in Manhattan, New York on September 11, 2001.
The tragic events of September 11th, 2001 devastated our country 20 years ago.
We remember those we lost and how we came together the day after the attacks, paving the way for healing and growth, followed by a special performance of our country’s National Anthem. pic.twitter.com/ZFqbmLIppG
The NFL, and several teams, honored those who lost their lives that day, with the league providing a memorial package (in the tweet above) featuring a touching narration by Steve Buscemi, and a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by Juliette Candela, that aired just before the early slate of games. (There was also an emotional story regarding new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, and his brother.)
Over the weekend, there was a glimpse of hope for those who believe the United States has the ability to band together in a time of need, to show compassion and empathy for others.
I’ve always thought of sports, especially the game of football, as both a hub for diversity, and a healing space. Although we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus regaining ground in many states, maybe there’s a chance that we band together once more to defeat a virus that has taken the lives of 660,000 Americans. The virus’ continuing grip on our country, due to many reasons, including those who don’t properly fear it, is as frustrating and demoralizing as it is devastating. This nation is currently a country divided, due to mostly political reasons. But to put a stop to this current tragedy, an effort to unite, and agree to strategize against a deadly virus, is much needed. Stay safe, everyone, and keep your wits about you.
Now…on to the NFL.
NFC West makes opening-weekend statement
The NFC West, widely regarded as perhaps the best division in football this year, may also be the most competitive. The entire group won their opening games.
Russell Wilson threw four touchdown passes, two to Tyler Lockett and one to D.K. Metcalf, as the Seahawks efficiently handled the Colts, a team with a talented roster, 28-16 in Indianapoilis. In Tennessee, the Cardinals showed a new side of themselves with a tough defense, mixing in 3-4 principles (like 2-4-5 looks), and led by Chandler Jones’ triumphant return for five sacks after missing virtually all of 2020 with a torn bicep. Team also held Derrick Henry to just 58 yards rushing on 3.4 yards per carry. Oh, and Kyler Murray added five total touchdowns, no biggie. The 49ers played staunch defense through three quarters to go along with a solid running game and a glimpse of what Trey Lance can do (short TD pass to Trent Sherfield on shotgun, plya-action fake).
Welcome to the #Rams offense: Matthew Stafford with a 67-yard BOMB to Van Jefferson for the TD.
Then, there’s the Rams. Los Angeles looked the best out of the four clubs, with their ball-hawking secondary, arsenal of wide receivers and smart play-calling. Everything looked complete with new quarterback Matthew Stafford at the helm. The former Detroit Lion showed off his clear fit in McVay’s scheme, and his incredible arm on a Rams offensive staple early on — an under-center, play-action bootleg play, turned-bomb 67-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson. It’s much too early to make a call, but give me the Rams, my predicted Super Bowl 56 winner, as the early favorite in the division.
Mac Jones displays poise, smart QB play
In New England, the Patriots out-gained the Dolphins by 134 yards, produced eight more first downs, 51 more rushing yards, and were in the red zone down 17-16 in the game’s final minutes, before running back Damien Harris, who had a nice showing, lost the team’s second fumble of the day, sealing a 0-1 fate for Bill Belichick’s squad.
New England was in position to win thanks to rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who lost his debut, but looked poised, efficient and NFL-ready in doing so.
Jones showed why he was a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense, going 29-for-39 for 281 passing yards and a touchdown to Nelson Agholor. Jones also went 14-of-18 for 129 yards versus the blitz, 7-of-10 (and his touchdown throw) under pressure, and 9-for-12 for 89 yards on third down, with seven conversions. He displayed a mastery and command of the offense that only improved as the game went along.
Former Alabama teammate, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, got the win, and made some impressive throws, but I thought Jones looked better than Tagovailoa, who produced more out of schemed plays, albeit with impressive designs.
The opening-day loss in a game they should have won will sting for the Patriots. But the bigger picture is: they have their guy at quarterback.
Jameis Winston did what?!
The Saints, playing in Jacksonville, Florida for a home game because of Hurricane Ida, throttled Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, 38-3. The defense forced two Aaron Rodgers interceptions and a 13.5 Total QBR from last year’s NFL MVP. On offense, Jameis Winston put an end to any debate between him and Swiss army knife Taysom Hill regarding who should start at quarterback. Winston efficiently threw for five touchdowns, with no turnovers, on just 148 yards passing, the lowest yardage total for a five-touchdown pass game in league history. The low-yardage total is a good thing. As the Saints defense continued to make plays, New Orleans needed Winston to manage the flow of the game, which he did perfectly. His 55-yard-touchdown heave to speedster Deonte Harris was a beautiful deep ball, which is a facet the offense had been missing in Drew Brees’ later years, which Brees joked about in his NBC debut. If Winston can limit turnovers on offense, they are a legitimate threat in the NFC.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0). Tom Brady, at age 44, looked as sharp as a quarterback, and as spry as a deep ball passer in Week 1 than he has since at least his 2017 MVP award-winning season. His connection with Gronk remains, but it’s the full offseason of work with Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin that has seemingly taken this offense to another level. One observation from Thursday, is that Brown may be Brady’s favorite target this year. Brady and his aforementioned trio of pass catchers combined for 22 completions for 316 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday. Wait until it’s Mike Evans’ turn, or when they get Giovanni Bernard involved. Look out.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). It was a sloppy game for the defense, but the NFL’s best trio saved the day. Final statlines: Patrick Mahomes (27-of-36, 347 pass yards, four total TDs), Tyreek Hill (11 catches, 197 receiving yards, two TDs) Travis Kelce (six catches, 97 receiving yards, 2 TDs). All three remain at the peak of their game. The Chiefs have a litany of holes and roster questions, but remain the team to beat in the AFC.
3. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). We talked about the NFC West above. The Rams combination of newfound moxie on offense, and tough defense with attitude, pits them as the prime opponent for the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs. They’ll face off in Los Angeles in two weeks.
4. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). That was a mighty-impressive east-coast, early-window win for the Seahawks. Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson will always bring a level of consistent winning to this club. It’s up to the defense to play up-to-par, if they are to compete with the heavyweights in this league.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0). Pittsburgh’s defense, with T.J. Watt and others, kept the high-flying Bills offense at bay for their entirety of their 23-13 win in Buffalo. They showed grit and toughness in outscoring last year’s AFC title game participant, 23-6, in the second half. They’ll get the offense sorted out. They should have one of the best defenses in football for the entire year.
6. Cleveland Browns (0-1). Despite the loss, the Browns showed why they are a team to be feared in the AFC. Baker Mayfield stumbled late, throwing the game-ending interception, but early on he flourished in the play-action passing game out of 12 personnel. Aaron Rodgers took a leap last season in Year 2 under Matt LaFluer’s heavy-12 personnel, play-action passing attack. Kevin Stefanski runs a similar scheme in Cleveland, and Mayfield already looks more comfortable within the offense in his second season. Overall, the Browns, with their rushing attack and pass rush, led by Myles Garrett, have the recipe to unseat the Chiefs, but they have to execute for four quarters. They got burned on Sunday.
7. San Francisco 49ers (1-0). They let up late versus the Lions, but it happens. For three quarters, they soundly handled an inferior team. This is one of the NFL’s best squads.
8. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Kyler Murray and that offense is still explosive. Kliff Kingsbury even cooked up some things for dangerous new weapon Rondale Moore, a rookie second-round pick receiver out of Purdue, who can do a multitude of things. If their defense becomes a top-10 unit, they’ll be one of the league’s best clubs.
9. New Orleans Saints (1-0). It’s Week 1, but if the Saints play anything close to yesterday’s win for a good chunk of the season, Sean Payton will be a prime Coach of the Year candidate.
10. Baltimore Ravens (0-0). The Ravens will have to figure out their running back situation on the fly, and losing Marcus Peters will hurt, but this is one of the best-run franchises in the league. They’ll figure it out.
11. Buffalo Bills (0-1). We’ll hold off on panicking about the Bills, although Josh Allen is a prime regression candidate, with his style of play. Buffalo heads to Miami this week to attempt to even things up in the AFC East.
12. Miami Dolphins (1-0). Brian Flores’ aptitude versus his former boss is now becoming a trend. The Dolphins are a physical, tough team who now have won three of their last four versus the Patriots under Flores. Their nice blend of RPOs and inside-zone runs hurt the Patriots when it mattered. That looked like a game between two playoff teams, even if ranked at the back-half of the eventual playoff field. The Dolphins can create a pretty nice early lead in the division with a win over the Bills next week.
13. New England Patriots (0-1). The Patriots are now 7-10 since Brady left, but there’s a lot to be excited about after watching Mac Jones on Sunday. They have a solid running game and front seven. The Dolphins, who know them well, are a tough matchup. This is a fringe-playoff team, at minimum. They should be in the tourney come January.
14. Denver Broncos (1-0). They looked solid in a win over the Giants. They have one of the league’s better rosters. It’ll be up to Teddy Bridgewater to determine just how far they can go.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). They survived in Washington. Justin Herbert made some key throws late, particularly to Keenan Allen.
16. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Yes, their defense is bad, but with rookie phenom Micah Parsons at linebacker, and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn implementing his Cover-3-based system throughout the year, maybe they’ll do just enough to help the Cowboys, and their incredible passing offense, win the NFC East. Dak Prescott is due for a monster season.
Next Up: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tennessee
Twenty years ago, Bill Belichick was faced with a tough decision at quarterback.
Taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Tom Brady made it far too difficult for Belichick to return to the New England Patriots’ then-$100 million man in Bledsoe, when the presumed franchise passer was cleared to play.
The tough choice to stick with Brady spawned a two-decade dynasty in Foxboro that totaled six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances, 13 AFC title game berths and 17 AFC East division titles.
Now, looking to pick up the pieces after a rough first season without Brady (who added to his Super Bowl total in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers), ‘The Hoodie’ was tasked with another conundrum at QB.
Cam Newton versus Mac Jones.
Belichick once again opted for the young, gangly passer over a former No. 1 overall pick when he decided to abruptly extinguish the Cam Newton era, releasing the 2015 NFL MVP before eager Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium ever got the chance to cheer for him in person.
Now, the keys to the New England’s complex offense belong to Mac Jones, the franchise’s lone first-round pick quarterback (No. 15 overall) of the Belichick era, and first since Bledsoe in 1993.
Comparing Jones to Tom Brady outright is a fool’s errand.
Brady will forever be the face of the franchise. He’s the greatest player in NFL history. Even if Mac Jones’ career is everything the Patriots hope for, there will likely be a statue of Brady built outside the stadium in Foxboro midway through Jones’ New England career, which is something that probably won’t happen for the latter.
However, it’s fair to say that Jones is of Brady’s mold. Shared attributes include a super-computer football mind, pocket presence, accuracy, poise, and shared “deficiencies”such as a lack of speed and the inability to make off-schedule plays consistently.
Both have been described as having “adequate” arm strength, despite each displaying deep-shot ability and zip on the ball. (Seriously, go watch this Brady attempt to Randy Moss in Super Bowl 42, or some of his intermediate throws in his 2010 NFL MVP award-winning season.)
“He’s known for being that cerebral, fast-thinking, risk-averse…but at the same time, calculated in terms of the big shots that he takes, type of quarterback. Last time I checked, that’s what wins in the NFL.
…At quarterback, it’s always been about decision making and accuracy. It always will be about that. Everything else is a bonus. There’s a lot of quarterbacks in this draft that make spectacular plays with their legs. What is going to separate them from the rest, and put them in the category of being elite, is: can they make good decisions and be accurate with the football? It’s really that simple. And Mac [Jones] has shown the ability to do that.
What did he do this preseason? He was throwing people open.
His first preseason game, what did they do? They went up-tempo and no-huddle, because things were sluggish for him against Washington. So they go five-empty, and they are just like “zoom, zoom, zoom”. No other rookie quarterback was doing that.”
The decision to go with Jones over Newton came down to Jones being the perfect leader for Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes and concepts. (As well as having the cap space to build a Super Bowl-winning team around Mac Jones’ four-year, $16 million cheap-as-hell rookie QB contract during Belichick’s presumed final coaching years).
Many believed that New England “catered” their playbook to Newton last season, but really, Newton was asked to run the Patriots’ offense led by Brady in 2018 and 2019, with the only consistent “Cam-specific” addition to the offense being a small package of QB power-type plays utilized by Newton on the goal line and in short-yardage scenarios.
Jones is the perfect fit to run any of New England’s offensive iterations in the Brady era: run-heavy and play-action passing out of I-formation and Singleback under center, quick-passing and timing-based throws out of shotgun empty and spread, and up-tempo attacks with versatile pieces such as New England’s two new tight ends.
Jones is the type of passer who thrives before the snap and goes through his progressions quicker than most after the snap. Often times last year, Newton’s struggled in New England’s play-action reads from under center. He held onto the ball for too long when scanning the field. Sure, a lack of competent pass-catchers certainly had a lot to do with that, but Newton just didn’t seem to fit New England’s offense, and the Patriots didn’t seem willing to change, nor did they have the time to do so with no preseason and a truncated training camp in the Summer of 2020.
Jones is the perfect fit for what the team wants to do. And in 2021, that’s best predicted as an amalgam of their early-dynasty offense from 2001 to 2006 (and again from 2018 to 2020), and their up-tempo, quick-passing, matchup-exploiting scheme from 2010 to 2012 with the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, paired with Brady at the end of his physical peak.
Asking for Jones to be anything close to what Brady was from about 2007 to 2017 is incredibly unfair. It won’t happen. But Jones is absolutely capable of mimicking Brady’s early years, when New England won three Super Bowls with a solid team around him.
Up front, New England has what should be one of the NFL’s four or five best offensive lines. The Patriots have returning starters in left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu, who is moving over from right tackle to left guard, a more natural spot for him after he mostly played tackle last season, and excelled.
The Patriots let their best offensive lineman over the past few seasons, Joe Thuney, walk in free agency for a big deal with AFC rival Kansas City based off the play of Onwenu, who as a rookie, was the eighth-highest-graded tackle (84.3) in the NFL in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wynn, Onwenu and Mason are incredible run blockers, in particular. The Patriots will go heavy with pulling guards and man-blocking as a power running team once more.
The unit may be the best run-blocking group in the NFL, and should be in the top half of the league in pass-blocking, with the latter being helped out by the last-to-be-named starting offensive lineman: right tackle Trent Brown.
New England kicked off the offseason by trading back for Brown after his two seasons with the Raiders. Brown was an anchoring left tackle for New England in their 2018 Super Bowl run, which helped the 6-foot-8, 380-pound gargantuan earn a contract as massive as his size.
Size is the name of the game with this group of front, as each starter is over 300 pounds, and the entire unit averaging a league-high 330 pounds. This is one of the bigger offensive lines in the league, if not the biggest.
Running behind them often will be Damien Harris, who should be the team’s clear leading rusher now that Super Bowl 53 hero Sony Michel is battling for RB1 duties with the Los Angeles Rams.
The team felt comfortable with Harris leading the charge as a traditional, downhill-running back who makes up for any talent deficiencies with his tough, and smart, ball-carrying style.
But it’s only a matter of time that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, and J.J. Taylor, entering Year 2 out of Arizona, become significant parts of the offense.
Taylor should be first up as RB2 as a Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead hybrid who runs with a surprising amount of power for his size (5-foot-6, 185 pounds).
Stevenson is a bigger back (6-foot, 246 pounds) that initially drew comparisons to LeGarrette Blount, only for many to find out that he is surprisingly agile as a make-you-miss runner who will excel in shotgun, inside-zone attempts, and is probably the second-best receiving back of the group behind James White.
Speaking of White, the eight-year-pro, and longtime Patriots hero, stands the most to gain from the switch from Cam Newton to Mac Jones at quarterback. The Patriots can now turn to its quick-passing attack that historically feeds its pass-catching backs. That wasn’t really Cam’s game. So White, who had less receiving yards (375) and receiving scores (one) than he’s had since his rookie year (where he barely played) should have a resurgence on screens, as well as flat routes and option routes from the backfield on 3rd-and-5-and-under situations.
The reimplementation of White as a factor in the offense is just one of a slew of factors that should help improve won of the most inefficient passing offenses of the 21st century last season.
The team threw a league-worst 10 touchdown passes last season, and ranked 27th in passing in Football Outsiders‘ renowned DVOA stat.
To help combat the issues, Belichick overhauled the tight end position by making headlines with not one, but two free agency splashes at the position in Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed).
The offense will be led by rookie Mac Jones, but will revolve around the O-line, running game, and play-action passing to what should be two phenomenal chess pieces in Smith and Henry for McDaniels’ play-calling.
12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) has long been a staple of New England offenses, but with limited personnel post-Gronk, the team has barely used the tight end position. The Patriots ran 12 personnel in just two-percent of offensive snaps (22 snaps) in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats, a league low, and New England has only three touchdown receptions from tight ends in the last two seasons combined. Quite simply, they’ve ignored the position during games because they’ve had to, due to a lack of talent. Now, they likely will use more two-tight end sets than any team in the league.
In Henry they have more of a traditional ‘Y’ tight end who is capable in-line as a blocker, and can spread out as a pass-catcher in looks such as a shotgun 3×1 setup, where the former Charger would project as a backside ‘X’ receiver a la Travis Kelce in Kansas City.
Smith, a former Tennesee Titan, is more of a rare breed as a Swiss army knife-type player who can line up on the line, in the slot, as an H-back, fullback, or even running back. McDaniels will look to get him matched up on slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs in hopes of utilizing Smith’s incredible yards-after-the-catch ability, in which he has averaged 6.8 YAC for his career, by using a blend of power and finesse as a fully-aware, movement player with supreme ball carrier vision, athleticism and toughness for his position.
"We're completely different players than the guys in the past… we're not trying to be those guys, we're going to be ourselves but this offense has a tradition with two tight ends."
On the surface, it would seem lazy to compare the Henry-Smith combination to the great Gronk-Hernandez tandem from 2010 to 2012, but the archetypes seem similar. Sure, Henry isn’t as powerful as Gronk, and Smith, although a much better blocker than Hernandez, doesn’t quite have the body control of the former troubled Florida Gator product, who made defenders miss after the catch perhaps better than any tight end the game has ever seen.
But, there are similarities. The Patriots should be much better in the red zone with this tight end tandem. Smith, alone, had a career-high eight touchdowns in 2020.
Additionally, look for each to run a myriad of routes out of play-action in I-Form and Singbleback two-tight end sets. In shotgun-spread, Henry will split out wide at times, and Smith should work heavily in the middle of the field, whether it be seam routes, or quick outs from the slot, or option-routes from the backfield.
All of this leans on Jones’ ability to get these guys the ball, of course. The Alabama QB seems to thrive in both spread and under-center, play-action looks, and is accurate when throwing the football. A bigger cause for concern with the tight ends, is the health of Henry, who is coming into Week 1 possibly banged up, and has missed 24 games in four seasons. Henry has also never played a full season of games.
If Henry does miss time, Devin Asiasi, a 2020 third-round pick, stands to fill his place as the Y-tight end, but it’s more likely that New England will then heavily mix in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and the common 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) to make up for Henry’s absence.
Not yet mentioned, Jakob Johnson is a traditional fullback who lacks the power of James Develin, but is a capable lead-blocker in I-formation, strong, and weak looks. Even with Smith and Henry healthy, Johnson will get his fair share of goal-line and short-yardage snaps.
At wide receiver, the Patriots paid Nelson Agholor (2 years, $26 million, $15 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $22.5 million) to come in and help a wide receiver core that struggled mightily against man coverage in 2020. Last season, the Patriots passing offense was 31st in EPA/play versus man coverage and single-high looks.
Agholor’s contract suggests New England views him as their top receiver. The former Philadelphia Eagle was considered a bit of a first-round bust as a slot receiver, even if he burned the Patriots for a nine-catch, 84-yard performance as an underneath, quick-pass option in Philadephia’s Super Bowl 52 win over New England.
Playing on a prove-it, one-year deal for the Raiders last year, Agholor reinvented himself as a speedy deep-threat and X-receiver, setting a career-high in receiving yards (896) and tying his high in touchdowns (8), all while ranking second in the league in yards per reception (18.7).
Agholor will be tasked as New England’s deep-shot playmaker who also runs intermediate, in-breaking routes such as crossers, from both the perimeter and the slot. There, Agholor can utilize his speed to break away from man-coverage defenders, allowing the rest of the team’s pass-catchers, such as fellow newcomer Kendrick Bourne, to work underneath.
Bourne, coming over from San Francisco, will likely begin the season as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver who comes on the field in 11 personnel and third-down situations. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver is not known for his speed, but rather his quickness, route-running, strength/toughness and ability in the clutch on 3rd-and-7-or-so scenarios. He will be a threat underneath, in the red zone, on third down, and in crunch time. Expect Bourne to be one of the team’s more improved players in the scheme by season’s end. He has the potential, along with James White, to be a third-down security blanket pass catcher for the team’s rookie QB.
Then, there’s Jakobi Meyers. The former North Carolina State QB-turned-receiver continues to defy expectations, blossoming into one of the NFL’s more competent and productive possession receivers. He ranked 10th out of 111 qualifying pass catchers in receiving yards per routes run (2.24) last year, and led the Patriots in receiving yards (776) despite not starting in the team’s first few games of 2020.
He’ll often play in the slot in both shotgun-spread and 11-personnel looks, and as a Z-receiver/flanker option on the outside in 12 personnel. Basically, despite having a bit of a different skill set, Meyers is taking over Edelman’s role in the offense. Meyers is on an early-career, Edelman-like progression track within the offense, too. He should be a focal point in his third year in 2021.
After that, there’s 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who will miss the first few games of the season on injured reserve, and look to produce as a moving chess piece on the perimeter, in the slot, and in motion as an athlete-type player at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, who may surprise some in Year 3 after gaining confidence and experience.
Rounding out the group is Gunner Olszewski, an All-Pro punt returner and backup slot option, and newcomer Malcolm Perry, a former Navy quarterback (right up Belichick’s wheelhouse) converted to a slot receiver-running back in Miami under former Patriots coach Brian Flores. Expect him to be a gadget-type player at first who attempts to learn the receiver position, a la Julian Edelman. Perry does have incredible quickness.
The offense will likely get back to its roots under Mac Jones, with McDaniels reverting back to his mix-and-match approach with game plans as Jones becomes more comfortable leading the offense. The team’s chameleon-like approach was renowned in the 2010s, and was a major factor in their success under Tom Brady.
Expect the Patriots to lean heavy on 12 personnel, power-running and play-action passing at first, before eventually leaning more on Jones’ ability to run an up-tempo, spread offense that famously uses versatile players (Jonnu Smith, James White, etc.) to exploit matchups in a timing-based, quick-passing scheme.
For all the talk of the ineffective passing offense from last year, the Patriots defense stumbled down the ladder of the league’s top-ranked defenses, into a unit that resembled nothing of its staunch 2019 form.
The team went from first in DVOA in total defense in 2019 to 26th last season, which included a ranking of dead-last in run defense DVOA. Those are catastrophic numbers for a Belichick-led defense.
The unit struggled mightily last year after losing some of its key players both to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) and opt-outs (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung), and missing Stephon Gilmore, New England’s current best player, for five games due to injury.
The Patriots’ Spending spree in free agency included an initial wave of players on defense with Van Noy returning from Miami on a two-year, $13.2 million deal. The team also signed cornerback/safety-hybrid Jalen Mills (4 years, $24 million) and plucked nose tackle Davon Godchaux (2 years, $16 million) and defensive end Henry Anderson (2 years, $7 million) from AFC East rivals.
But their biggest offseason addition was the the signing of former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon to a four-year, $56 million deal ($32 million guaranteed). Judon already looked the part in the preseason as a menacing edge setter.
In addition to finishing last in run defense DVOA last year, the team was also ranked last in off-tackle yards per attempt, showcasing just how bad they were in setting the edge in the run game. Chase Winovich is one of the league’s better edge rushers, but coupled with the likes of John Simon, Shilique Calhoun and Tashawn Bower last year, the team was horrendous in stopping outside runs.
Adding Judon and re-adding Van Noy to set the edge in the run game, along with the additions of Godchaux and Anderson (3rd among interior lineman with a 43 percent run-stop-win rate in 2020) to plug up the interior will transform this front seven, and give the Patriots what they want: a tough, deep depth chart of defensive lineman and linebackers for their 3-4-style (mostly) defense that they’ve shifted too since 2019.
Expect the Patriots to run a boatload of 2-4-5 with Godchaux (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and the returning Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) up front as a versatile lineman who can play both 4-3 defensive tackle an 3-4-style defensive end. Each of these men are excellent two-gapping lineman for this type of defense. The Patriots struggled last year with an endless supply of practice-squad type players and cast-offs rotating around Guy up front, which hurt the defense almost as much their deficiencies on the edge.
This year on the edge, the aforementioned Matt Judon is probably New England’s best football player on the roster with Gilmore sidelined. He’s the strong-side, stand-up EDGE defender that is perfect for this scheme. The “Elephant” role, is what former Patriot Willie McGinest calls this role, according to CLNS Media‘s Evan Lazar.
Judon can use his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, athleticism and aggressiveness to stop the run, rush the passer and even play a bit of shallow pass coverage.
Van Noy returns on the other side as the opposite EDGE on early downs, with the possibility to move inside as well.
At off-ball linebacker, the return of Dont’a Hightower is one of the more under-the-radar, massively important stories of the entire league. The 10-year-pro is a leader on the defense, and New England missed his football wit, swagger and ferociousness up front.
Depending on the scheme, the Patriots will have Ja’Whaun Bentley, who struggled in Hightower’s role last year, returning to his perfect fit as a “thumper” inside linebacker in 3-4 looks.
New England also loves to employ three safeties, and the Patrick Chung role as a box safety/linebacker hybrid will certainly be utilized in some 2-4-5 looks. Last year, Kyle Dugger played mostly as a strong safety, and Adrian Phillips as a linebacker. This season, there’s a chance their roles switch, as Dugger’s tackling ability and sideline-to-sideline speed fit better in the box, with Phillips impressing many in pass coverage, specifically man coverage on tight ends, in training camp. Although, Phillips was tough up front tackling ball carriers in 2020, even with his smaller frame for the box. But the lack of run-stuffers up front meant more lineman coming downhill and blowing Phillips out of the play. That shouldn’t happen this season.
Rounding out the safeties is Devin McCourty, who enters his 12th season at age 34 as a dependable free safety on early downs, and Cover 1 robber defender to stop crossers (think: yellow zone in Madden) on later downs. The “Duron Harmon” role as the team’s deep safety on clear passing downs (such as 3rd-and-long) is up for grabs, with slot cornerback Jonathan Jones looking like a frontrunner.
The Patriots loved to run a heavy amount of man coverage, with Cover 1 being their speciality. Last year, Cover 1 and Cover 3 were once again their main coverage tendencies, but the split between man coverage and zone was roughly 51 percent to 49 percent last season, according to my film review and charting.
The increase in zone coverage from the previous season probably had a lot to do with the absence of No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore for five games.
The Patriots are vulnerable without Stephon Gilmore, who even at age 31 is arguably the best man-coverage cornerback in football on the perimeter. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is attempting to return from a torn quad, and will miss at least six weeks since he’s on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list. Gilmore is also looking for a new contract, as he’s playing on just a $7 million base salary in 2021, much lower than top-of-the-market pay for his position. So his situation is murky, making New England’s cornerback situation a possible Achilles heel on an otherwise superb-looking defense.
With Gilmore out, J.C. Jackson, who is playing on a contract year (he’s playing in 2021 on a cheap restricted free agent tender this season), moves up to No. 1 cornerback, a position in which he struggled some last year, particularly against Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs.
Jackson is possibly the best No. 2 cornerback in football, but stands to improve as a No. 1 option. After gaining some experience in the role last year, expect him to be even better in 2021. He’s one of the best deep-ball defenders in the game on the outside.
Patriots CB J.C. Jackson since entering the league in coverage on deep targets (20+ yards): 🔒Six catches on 57 targets with 12 interceptions, one touchdown 🔒92.1 @PFF coverage grade (first among qualified defenders) 🔒6.4 passer rating (second among qualified defenders)
Jalen Mills, a struggling cornerback-turned-competent-safety with the Eagles is the type of versatile defensive player that the Patriots covet, but it’s worth wondering how he’ll hold up as the No. 2 cornerback on the outside. He best slots in as competition for Jonathan Jones as a slot or nickel-type who plays some safety.
The Patriots should also get a lot out their non-starters, as they look for their best pairings.
In the secondary, Joejuan Williams and newcomer Shaun Wade, Baltimore’s fifth-round pick this past spring out of Ohio State who was once considered a first-round pick prospect, are gangly cornerbacks with safety potential who will get their fare share of playing time with Gilmore out.
At linebacker, Harvey Langi returns to the Patriots to provide depth after a three-year-stint with the rival New York Jets that saw him in a starting role at times in 2020.
On the defensive line, there’s Carl Davis as depth for Godchaux at nose tackle after earning his spot as the lone midseason addition who could stop the run last year. Then there’s newcomer Henry Anderson and the returning Deatrich Wise Jr., a Belichick favorite, will battle it out for snaps alongside Guy and Godchaux as a 3-4 defensive end in base 3-4 looks. Wise Jr. is more of a 4-3-style player but has molded his game over the past two years to fit the 3-4, and is a great locker room presence.
Wise Jr. will also see time as an interior rusher in clear passing situations in the Patriots’ Big Dime 2-3-6 setup, a go-to look for them on third down.
Christian Barmore: PFF's No.1 interior DL in the 2021 NFL Draft
Next to him will be rookie Christian Barmore. New England moved up to get the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Alabama defensive tackle in the second round after he fell out of his projected spot as a back-half-of-the-first-round prospect. Barmore may one day be a starter in 3-4 and 2-4-5 looks on early downs, but he’ll begin his career in the Adam Butler role as perhaps the Patriots’ best interior rusher. He should also be the lone hand-in-the-dirt lineman in Big Dime 1-4-6 looks.
Rounding out the insanely-deep EDGE position is third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, who should get a bit of a redshirt year in a learning role, and the aforementioned Chase Winovich, who will return to his pass-rush specialty position as a third-down rusher and occasional base player.
And last but not least, there’s Josh Uche, one of the team’s most important players this season, along with Dugger at safety, considering the second-year “leap” each player is projected to take.
Uche has the speed and athleticism to take over the 2019 Jamie Collins role as both an early-down EDGE defender and off-ball linebacker in passing situations who often blitzes up the middle. But Uche’s raw talent at rushing the passer, with his speed, quickness and ability to bend past offensive tackles make him a fit as a full-time EDGE, where he may be able to kick Van Noy to the inside. After all, Dont’a Hightower called Uche “little Judon” for his talent and overall ability as a stand-up EDGE defender.
Uche, a 2019 second-round pick, will certainly play often, and the possibilities of mixing and matching these pass-rushing edge rushers on clear passing downs are endless.
Could you imagine a 1-4-6 look on a 3rd-and-10 with Barmore on the line, and four out of five of a group including Judon, Hightower, Van Noy, Winovich and Uche all along the line as stand-up rushers? That’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare.
The Patriots have the ability to go with a bulkier 3-4, a 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles (their usual base), or a Big Dime look (2-3-6, 1-4-6) as their main defense for the majority of a game, depending on the opponent.
They can run three safety-looks, and can also use run-stuffing personnel, pass-rushing personnel and more, all with the perfect amount of player overlap and cycling of players with different skill sets.
This unit has the ability to be a top-five group in both points allowed and efficiency metrics (DVOA, etc.).
Week 1 Projected defense:
Interior/Nose Tackle — Davon Godchaux
Interior— Lawrence Guy
EDGE — Matt Judon
EDGE — Kyle Van Noy
LB — Dont’a Hightower
Box safety/LB— Kyle Dugger
S (‘Big’ Nickel/Dime/three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips
CB1 — J.C. Jackson
CB2 — Jalen Mills
Slot CB — Jonathan Jones
S — Devin McCourty
Interior/3-4 DE — Deatrich Wise Jr.
Interior/3-4 DE — Henry Anderson
3-4 Nose Tackle — Carl Davis
Interior pass rusher (Big Dime 2-3-6/1-4-6) — Christian Barmore
3-4 ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley
EDGE/LB/3rd-down pass rusher — Josh Uche
EDGE/3rd-down pass rusher — Chase Winovich
EDGE — Ronnie Perkins
CB1 (PUP, out six weeks) — Stephon Gilmore
CB4 (perimeter)/slot — Shaun Wade
CB5/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams
Some criticized the moves, calling some of the contracts “overpays,” but the moves were strategic, as the Patriots were one of just a couple teams with the available cap space in 2020 after the salary cap shrunk in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from a lack of fan attendance during last season.
The salary cap will increase, swiftly and dramatically, I might add, which will make many of these deals closer to market value, or even below the threshold, which means the Patriots will have additional cap space after all, to build a team around rookie Mac Jones.
Yes, it’s Jones who Belichick plucked from good friend Nick Saban’s team in Alabama, in the first round of the draft. It’s Jones, who Belichick has deemed worthy as Brady’s official successor, perhaps thanks to valuable insider info from Saban.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That season, it was fitting that the New England Patriots banded together as a team, built off a solid defense, top-tier play in the trenches (OL, DL), a tough power-running game, and a young quarterback leading the offense as a clutch, unafraid leader with much to learn. And let’s not forget, great coaching.
The 2021 Patriots are a similar breed, perhaps not as sturdy in the secondary without Stephon Gilmore, but just as deep in the front seven, with a better offensive line, and perhaps, better offensive weapons, with two tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith ready to become a focal point of the offense.
Of course, times have changed, as the game is equipped with new rules today that were not in place in 2001. High-flying offenses and great quarterback play are more important than ever.
So even with all of this, the comparisons to the 2001 Patriots and all, this team is not quite Super Bowl-ready, but they will surprise many, challenging the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East for all 18 weeks of the regular season, before earning a wild-card berth, and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Super Bowl 53, three seasons ago. (I have them losing in the Divisional round.)
There was a clear opposing of views between Brady and Belichick when it came to team-building philosophies. That was perhaps the main reason for Brady’s split to Tampa Bay during his final years. Brady has his high-flying offense, and now, Belichick’s vision for a more complete team has come to fruition.
When Cam Newton was sacked on 4th down late in New England’s 22-12 loss in Miami on Sunday, the Patriots already-slim playoff chances went down with him.
Technically, the Patriots entered Sunday’s contest with just a three percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the NFL community has certainly taken solace in their wicked witch being officially dead.
The mood surrounding Bill Belichick and some of the few remaining Super Bowl heroes was as you’d expect.
“It stinks to lose,” Devin McCourty said after the loss, “but I think the way we have played has been most disappointing. It just really hasn’t developed for us all year. It’s just felt like that throughout the whole season.”
“Obviously it hasn’t been our year,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ longest-tenured player (since 2008). “Obviously we haven’t done enough to be the type of team we thought we would. As to why that’s the case, it’s really hard to put your finger on it.”
Now, the Patriots will play their last two games versus AFC East opponents at home (vs Bills, vs Jets) with them having nothing to lose, and not much to gain.
The New England offense under Cam Newton (5 TD passes, 10 INT, 11 rush TDs, 44.9 Total QBR), and a sub-par pass-catching core, has not only struggled, but they’ve set back the clock on modern offenses. The difference between New England’s pulling-teeth passing game and that of some of the efficient, new-age passing offenses (let alone the Chiefs) is stark.
Soon, NFL talk will shift toward the playoffs, and the deserving teams in the postseason field.
The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The AFC East-champion Buffalo Bills. Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New England will enter the offseason with many questions needed to be answered, including one at quarterback, which is a topic that will have its time for deep dives in the next few weeks and months.
As expected by many sensible figures before the pandemic-altered season, the Patriots did not have the team to compete, especially with their legendary quarterback of the past two decades now throwing passes in South Florida.
But in taking a big-picture look at the fraction, which side of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady wishbone would you prefer to hold if you’re Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots?
Brady could win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and he’s likely going to call it a career in the next year or two (although you can never fully assume so when we’re talking about the GOAT).
Despite some questionable draft day decisions over the last few seasons, and a few blind spots in the entire process (evaluating wide receivers), Bill Belchick is a master team-builder, an innovative and brilliant strategist, and the best coach in the history of football, and maybe, sports.
The married football coach with young children who once stated he wouldn’t be “Marv Levy coaching in his 70s.” But things are different now. Belichick is now a man on a mission — to prove himself by sustaining consistent success without Tom Brady. “The Hoodie” is a revitalized 68-year-old coach with both sons (now adults) on his coaching staff. He’s since divorced but has been in a long-time loving relationship with partner Linda Holliday. Part of Belichick’s summers are spent at Cape Cod with Linda, but most of his life still revolves around football, where a big chunk of his heart undoubtedly resides.
Now, Belichick is tasked with rebuilding the New England Patriots.
The Pats are sufficient in a few important areas already (offensive line, defensive secondary), making the rebuild seem more like one of Bill’s classic “retools” (2005-2007, 2009-2010, etc.) as opposed to a full-on rebuild — if the quarterback position was more ingrained and not Brady-less.
But aside from QB — the obvious position that will be much-talked about in the northeast this offseason — New England obviously fields a skill-position arsenal (WR, TE) that simply must be addressed. Their defensive front seven also needs some offseason attention, as a team like the Dolphins, who came into the game ranked last in yards per carry (3.6), ran for 250 yards on 42 carries (6.0 YPC) versus the Patriots behind running backs Salvon Ahmed and Matt Brieda.
But despite a nightmare season congruent with the year 2020, there is reason for optimism in 2021.
The Patriots are projected to have at least $70-ish million in cap space, depending on the league’s cap number this Spring. They’ll also field a pick in the top half of the draft for just the second time since 2003, giving them a shot at a blue-chip player.
Then, there’s the small group of young players showing promise. Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Jakobi Meyers, Michael Onwenu.
As long as there are hard-working, young talents in the building reflecting with quotes such as Chase Winovich’s in the tweet below after Sunday’s loss in Miami, the “Patriot Way” is still in tact.
Yes, New England’s young core is not that exciting on paper, but with Belchick, and an arsenal of offseason tools (cap space, draft) to reshape this team, it’s at least exciting to see which way Belichick goes.
They most certainly will address their receivers and defensive front seven.
At QB, do they re-sign Newton? Re-sign Newton and draft a rookie on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft? Do they hope former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo is released outright by the 49ers? Everything is on the table, and until they figure it out at QB, the rest may not matter, that’s evident, but everyone from Foxboro to Portland, Maine knows Bill, Nick Caserio and the Patriots front office are already planning.
This was a year of poor play and bad luck for the Patriots. But as a new year turns, New England’s hopes are that of American citizens dreaming of a post-Pandemic world. Change is coming.
“Teams that don’t make the playoffs change,” said Devin McCourty. “The 2020 Patriots — it won’t be the same in 2021.”
There’s a void… a cavity waiting to be filled with more Patriots success. Belichick and the Patriots are just getting started.
NFL MVP RACE
The only change here is Josh Allen jumping into the top five. After a so-so midseason stretch, the third-year QB is revisiting his red-hot start to the season at just the right time. Still, he’s more in line with Russell Wilson than a true contender for the award. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are essentially in a two-man race with two weeks to go.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) (Last week: 1). We, as a collective non-Kansas City NFL community needed a Saints win over the Chiefs to prove that Kansas City can be beaten. It didn’t happen. The Chiefs are a collective cyborg. They are a well-oiled machine and Patrick Mahomes is a football god.
2. Buffalo Bills (11-3) (Last week: 2). With their scorching-hot play as of late, and their first AFC East title since 1995, the Bills have emerged as perhaps the most obvious challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC.
3. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 3). It seems the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them, but that’s really not the case. Rodgers is solid, and will remain so. It’s up to his supporting cast. Is their defense ready?
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 4). The Steelers should win tonight in Cincinnati, but it’s pretty clear a once-clear contender is floundering a bit in December. Injuries on defense are certainly mounting, too. Still, you wouldn’t want to see this proud franchise in January.
5. New Orleans Saints (10-4) (Last week: 5). Defensively, the Saints beat up Mahomes at times. They had a swagger and look of a Super Bowl contender that would not play afraid. Still, they lost. Drew Brees played fairly well down the stretch but it’s still pretty clear that these are his last days. Can he do enough for one last Super Bowl run?
6. Tennessee Titans (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans are the ultimate dark horse in the AFC, a spot in which they filled admirably last season. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown are players you just don’t want to see in an outdoor playoff game. Their defense, and lack of a pass rush, may make it too tough to repeat their playoff run from last season, though.
7. Indianapolis Colts (10-4) (Last week: 9). The Colts again survived Deshaun Watson and the Texans via a Houston goal-line fumble late in the game. That’s the second such occurrence in two weeks. But any division wins are welcome.
8. Seattle Seahawks (10-4) (Last week: 10). The Seahawks are slowly working their way back into contender status in the NFC. They have a big one on Sunday versus the Rams (9-5). If they win, they clinch the NFC West. The playoffs essentially start now for Russell Wilson’s bunch.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) (Last week: 11). Ho hum, another 17-point comeback for Tom Brady. And against Matt Ryan’s Falcons, no less. TB12 looked like a product of his method on Sunday, zinging the ball around to complete the come-from-behind win. In all, Brady threw for 320 yards in the second half on Sunday, the most of any QB in the second half this season.
10. Los Angeles Rams (9-5) (Last week: 6). They were rolling before this home loss to the all-time inept New York Jets (1-13). What the hell happened?
11. Baltimore Ravens (9-5) (Last week: 13). Their cake-walk of a closing schedule should put them at 11-5 and in one of the AFC’s wild card spots, but there’s much to like about Lamar Jackson and this Ravens team that is surging at the right time, albeit against lesser competition. They’ll be a tough out in January.
12. Cleveland Browns (10-4) (Last week: 7). Their Sunday night win over the Giants in New York was a solid, hard-earned win after their taxing loss to the Ravens last week.
13. Miami Dolphins (9-5) (Last week: 12). They did what they had to do to survive the Patriots (6-8) at home with a decimated pass-catching core. If the Dolphins make the playoffs, Brian Flores really may win the Coach of the Year award, leapfrogging Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who had the lead on the award for most of the year.
14. Arizona Cardinals (8-6) (Last week: 15). That was a mighty fun game in Philadelphia, with Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts battling it out. The Cardinals should be able to hold on to the NFC’s No. 7 spot.
15. Washington (6-8) (Last week: 14). We’ll leave Washington on the list for keeping it close with Seattle, and because of the ineptitude of everyone below them here.
16. Chicago Bears (7-7) (Last week: 16). I guess the Bears go here? It feels wrong to have them in the rankings, but they earned it in Minnesota. Or at least, they earned this spot.
Next up: Minnesota, New England, Las Vegas, L.A. Chargers, Dallas
A Week 1 game in the NFL should follow with this disclaimer — “Do not overanalyze, as often times things are not what they appear.”
And in a NFL season during a year in which the world is turned upside down, the words above should ring even more clear. Heck, there were no preseason games and the offseason was severely shortened and unorthodox. We often talk about the first week or two of the regular season as an extended preseason, but we could be talking about each team’s first six to eight games in that way this season. Right now, we just don’t know. Things will change.
Still, it’s tough to refrain from overanalyzing.
There’s been more skepticism surrounding the possible success of Cam Newton and the New England Patriots than Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And at face value, there’s good reason for that.
Brady — and former Patriot Rob Gronkowski — joined Bruce Arians’ high-flying offense, equipped with some of the league’s best skill position personnel. But some of those offensive weapons, Mike Evans and Gronk in particular, failed to find a rhythm Sunday for a team that looked every bit as undisciplined Sunday as it did last season with Jameis Winston at quarterback.
And so TB12 sat opposite Winston, Tampa’s old QB turned Saints backup, and suffered a 34-23 defeat to New Orleans in a game that raised many questions about just how efficient Tampa Bay’s offense will be.
But for all the mistakes, including a ghastly pick-six, Brady — 23 for 36 for 239 yards, three touchdowns — showcased some zip and overall arm strength that many thought he left back in 2017 or earlier in New England. He found some success targeting the likes of Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller downfield.
Still, the disconnect with his teammates was stark and a reminder that things better change quick if Tampa Bay is to compete with some of the league’s top teams.
There’s no need to abandon what they view as their offensive approach — pass catchers and pass attempts galore, including formations with multiple (and capable) tight ends, as well as the occasional shotgun draw to keep the defense honest.
There’s something here with what they have, and what they view as as budding firecracker in their personnel. Brady and these weapons? You betcha.
That offense will look much different than Brady’s old unit in New England, however.
As expected, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ran Newton on a bevy of zone-reads, QB powers and bootlegs. In all, Newton rushed 15 times (second most of his career) for 75 yards and two touchdowns. The formations weren’t too unfamiliar to Brady-era lovers, but there was some pistol formation worked in.
The Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins, 21-11, in a game that seemingly ended while the rest of the 1:00pm ET time slot contests were entering the fourth quarter. New England ran the ball 42 times for 217 yards and won the time of possession battle by roughly 35 minutes to Miami’s 25.
It’s a bit early to think on this level, but if New England is to go far in the AFC postseason, they’ll likely use this form of bully ball to do it. Newton looked sharp through the air, particularly on his first throw of the game, a downfield drop by Edelman on a beautifully placed play-action pass. The 2015 NFL MVP went 15 for 19 for 155 yards. But the Patriots lack an adequate arsenal of pass catchers to compete in a shootout with the likes of Kansas City, or even Seattle, their next opponent. Still, New England’s top-tier offensive line and a unique group of versatile running backs give them something to work with.
Comparably (or not really), Brady has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Gronk, O.J. Howard, Leonard Fournette and more. Things didn’t go well for Tampa on Sunday, but there’s reason to believe that it might as the year goes on. Saints QB Drew Brees got the win but rarely threw downfield, which could be a skill that the Saints now look to Taysom Hill for. It’s not farfetched to claim that Brady looked better than Brees on Sunday, despite the mistakes. Tom looked livelier than the 41-year-old New Orleans, but the precision and timing with his new teammates was not there.
Without a preseason, there would be an expected learning curve with this “Tompa” Bay offense, especially with a Week 1 opponent such as New Orleans. Brady will find a rapport with a few guys and things will begin to click. The six-time Super Bowl-winning passer has Tampa head coach Bruce Arians to turn to — a known QB whisperer.
But Cam now has Belichick. And in turn, Belichick has Cam. There’s more creativity to come in New England, and success will surely come to Tampa this season, in some form.
These two — very different — offenses will certainly be compared and contrasted all season. If you look passed the cheap, soon-to-come “Bill 1, Brady 0” takes, there’s a fascinating football story brewing in both the evolution of the Patriots offense and the experiment of Brady in Tampa Bay at age 43.
Rams stymie Cowboys’ talented offense
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Dallas Cowboys and their high-octane offense, the Rams were able to corral America’s Team in their inaugural game in the beautiful SoFi Stadium. On offense, Sean McVay stuck with the ground game, which looked a lot more punishing than their stat line of 3.8 yards per carry suggests. Los Angles ran the ball 40 times for 153 yards, and went to play-action with Jared Goff when they didn’t. But this game was won by the Rams’ defense, particularly their pass rush. Aaron Donald was his usual self, posting a few highlight-worthy, trench-dominating moves from the interior, and Los Angeles sacked Cowboys QB Dak Prescott three times by a unit that many thought would be subpar at the EDGE position heading into the season. The current construction of Los Angeles’ roster is well-known. Contracts for players like Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey take up a good portion of the cap, so they’ll need help from the rest of their roster, such as Bears castoff Leonard Floyd, a former first-round pick who virtually depreciated in Chicago but looked better than advertised on Sunday. It’s been just two seasons since the 2018 Rams entered the season as an all-in team, and even though their cap situation suggests they are still in that mode, the Rams may quietly have a plan to quietly return as a contender behind some quieter acquisitions.
Lamar Jackson thrives from pocket versus Browns
The Baltimore Ravens began their quest for Super Bowl 55 (and they are one of the few teams in which it’s not too early to talk like this) with a 38-6 beatdown over the Cleveland Browns. Sure, it seems as if the Browns may remain lowly in 2020, even with a new head coach, but that shouldn’t take the air out of a superb performance from Lamar Jackson through the air. Last year’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP was brilliant as a passer on Sunday, going 20 for 25 for 275 yards and three throwing scores. Those marks helped him post a 152.1 passer rating and 94.1 Total QBR. Even for a Week 1 game versus Cleveland, those are absurd numbers. If the Ravens are to reach (and win) Super Bowl 55, they will have to show improvement in two key areas that doomed them in the postseason last year — run defense (which was so-so despite the win on Sunday) and Jackson improving as a passer. Luckily, Jackson was able to do most of his work in the middle of the field, which will forego the critique of his much-needed improvement outside the numbers, but Jackson looked even more comfortable than last year from the pocket on Sunday. His only matchup-winning targets are “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, but Jackson’s ability to not only run, but read the field should be good enough to lift this supporting cast to Tampa Bay in February. He was already much better as a passer than critics would give him credit for in 2019, but it seems as if he’ll be even better in that aspect in Year 3.
Respect for Gardiner Minshew
The Jacksonville Jaguars certainly won’t be a playoff team this year. They are still in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in my eyes, and if they do end up in that slot, I suspect they’ll take Clemson wunderkind QB Trevor Lawrence. But after a 27-20 Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts, I felt obligated to give Gardiner Minshew some respect. Just one week after former Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette slighted him, Minshew went 19 for 20 for 173 yards for three touchdown passes with a barren set of skill position players versus one of the AFC’s best rosters. If the Jaguars do end up around 4-12, it’s worth wondering whether Minshew would be capable of starting elsewhere after Jacksonville turns to a top draft pick at quarterback. Teams like the Bears and Colts instantly come to mind. Jacksonville may not see a future with Minshew, but there may be a future for Minshew as a starter in the NFL.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). The Chiefs played on Thursday, so it’s easy to forget how dominant they looked while also looking a bit sloppy. They will play much better than they did on Thursday for much of the season, and they looked like the best team in football anyway versus Houston. That’s scary.
2. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). If Jackson is going to be this good through the air in 2020, look out.
3. New Orleans Saints (1-0). There are some concerns with Brees’ ability to push the ball downfield, but with offensive weapons such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill, that may not be too alarming.
4. Green Bay Packers (1-0). I suspected Aaron Rodgers would play angry and well this year. That was a superb start in Minnesota.
5. New England Patriots (1-0). There are major concerns with this pass-catching group, but with what Belichick appears to have in store for Cam Newton and this offense, that may just be a wart, as opposed to an Achilles heel.
6. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). Russell Wilson was as sharp as a QB possibly could be in Week 1. Maybe it was the pandemic that threw things off, but Seattle certainly didn’t look like a team heading west to east for an early start time on Sunday.
7. Buffalo Bills (1-0). Josh Allen had some good, some bad, and everything in between on Sunday. This Bills team is immensely talented, but there’s not much to take away after a Week 1 win over the New York Jets, who may have the worst roster in pro football.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0). The Steelers will undoubtedly field one of the NFL’s best defenses. If they can get anything out of their offense, they’ll be in good shape.
9. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). The Rams looked impressive on Sunday night, and they can play much better.
10. San Francisco 49ers (0-1). San Francisco is lacking at wide receiver, so you can imagine the feeling when it looked like George Kittle may have suffered a serious leg injury. He appears fine, however, and returned to the field. The 49ers are a team that will improve as the season goes along. They’ll need to figure out something at wide receiver until Deebo Samuel returns, though, and even then, they need some more help there.
11. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Good things will come for Dallas’ talented offense, but I worry that prognosticators have overvalued them yet again this preseason. Are they really Super Bowl contenders?
12. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Arizona was able to down the defending NFC champs while also not playing their best on offense. They at least got DeAndre Hopkins (14 catches, 151 receiving yards) involved. That’s a good sign.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1). That was an ugly start, but they’ll certainly improve on offense. Don’t jump ship just yet.
14. Tennessee Titans (0-0). The Titans are one of the toughest teams in football. They’ll need to utilize that skill for a tough Monday night matchup in Denver to kick off their season.
15. Washington Football Team (1-0). They belong here. That front seven is talented, and will be getting after quarterbacks all year. Rookie EDGE defender Chase Young could easily follow Nick Bosa’s 2019 route by becoming the next No. 2 overall pick from Ohio State to dominate up front as a rookie.
16. Houston Texans (0-1). It’ll take some time for this offense to click, and the pass blocking of their offensive line is still a mess, but the Texans still have Deshaun Watson. They have another tough test this week, though. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are coming to town.
Next up: L.A. Chargers, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas
Last January, in the final minutes of a tight AFC Wild Card matchup in Gillette Stadium, Super Bowl 53 MVP Julian Edelman dropped a key third-down pass in a clutch situation, and Tom Brady failed to deliver.
Tennessee Titans 20, New England Patriots 13. Welcome to 2020.
This was simply an odd beginning to a mostly catastrophic and unprecedented year up to this point.
Now for New England, weird will be the new normal as Brady is in South Florida with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots’ hopes on offense rest with former Carolina Panthers franchise quarterback Cam Newton.
Yes, Cam Newton is the starting QB for your New England Patriots, in a world where Brady is not retired and still playing pro football with the same burning desire that fueled an unprecedented 20-year run of success in the northeast.
So far, the Newton-Belichick pairing has been met with cheery optimism. Both Belichick and Newton have done nothing but overly praise each other to this point, and Newton appears as happy as he is motivated.
Instead of allowing him to play out the final year of his contract, the Carolina Panthers jettisoned the 2015 NFL MVP after failing to find a willing trade partner. Newton was hurt, and angry, but has seemed to have bottled that despair in the form of grueling training and recovery geared toward proving the Panthers and other doubters wrong via a bounce-back performance.
Belichick and the Patriots are surely the perfect facilitator for such a journey.
As previously mentioned, Newton took the league by storm in 2015. He was the league’s best player that year, leading Carolina to Super Bowl 50 — and subsequent loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
But that’s likely not the level of play the Patriots will be getting at quarterback in an unconventional 2020 season. Past shoulder and foot injuries, multiple surgeries, additional wear and tear, and a shortened offseason — with no preseason games — make it difficult to imagine Newton ever reaching his 2015 level again.
This leaves Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and new quarterback coach Jedd Fisch hoping for the 2018 version of Newton, before a shoulder injury caused the former No. 1 overall pick to drop his last eight starts heading into this campaign.
In 2018, under Norv Turner, Carolina began the year 6-2 behind a quick-passing game that saw Newton move on from his previous downfield passing barrage of earlier seasons with ample success. His ability to adapt to a new offense, and thrive while throwing precision-type passes to the likes of D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey and others prove that Newton is willing and able to adapt to a new scheme.
At that point in his career, Newton’s completion percentage was 58.5 heading into his eighth season, but after the aforementioned 6-2 start, Cam had a 67.3 completion percentage, and was squarely in another MVP race before Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt obliterated Newton’s throwing shoulder.
The difference here is that there is no McCaffrey or Moore on the roster. There are, however, James White and Julian Edelman, two wiley veterans in the roles of pass-catching running back and No. 1 wide receiver. Both are clutch, both are postseason heroes with a combined seven Super Bowl appearances and 1,096 career receptions (including playoffs).
After, that there’s not much in terms of experience and big-play potential at the skill position.
A wide receiver group that ranked dead last in average separation according to NFL Next Gen Stats has not been altered much since the end of last season.
N’Keal Harry returns as the top option at X-receiver along the boundary. Harry ranked 143rd (dead last) in the NFL last season in average separation at throw on all routes for receivers who ran at least 100 routes.
The 2019 first-round pick is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds but displays quickness and shiftiness of that of a smaller receiver. He can run reverses and use his power and running ability to create yards after the catch. But ironically, despite his size, he doesn’t appear to have the skill set for a dominating No. 1 type receiver on the outside.
Newton, of course, hasn’t played with such a player, but he has found a niche of throwing slants, 10-yard outs an hitches to bigger receivers. He had flashes of success on such passing patterns when targeting the likes of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Newton’s throws those routes possibly better than any QB I’ve seen over the past 20 seasons, and perhaps Harry can become a factor on such plays.
He’ll need to, because 34-year-old Edelman — who will presumably get the most targets — can’t do it all, and certainly not at his age.
After Edelman and Harry, Damiere Byrd projects as the Patriots No. 3 WR with WR2 production potential. Byrd played four seasons with Newton in Carolina before a one year stint with the Arizona Cardinals last season. He ran a 4.28 40-yard dash coming into the draft, and projects to fill a Phillip Dorsett-type roll for New England, with much better potential on underneath routes.
After that, second-year undrafted men Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers return as project players that likely will be thrown into the fire once more.
The pass-catching group is far from scary to opposing defenses. New England at least drafted two tight ends in the third round — Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene — in attempt to fix perhaps the worst position group on any team last season, and that’s not a hyperbole.
Asiasi (6-3, 260 pounds) has pass-catching potential as an athletic ‘Y’ who should find some success in the seams as well as the middle of the field. Newton’s No. 1 target for much of his tenure in Carolina was tight end Greg Olsen, and although that’s way too high of a production projection for Asiasi in Year 1, the rookie could find a role as a security blanked for Newton at times. His potential is burgeoning as an NFL tight end after a so-so college career at Michigan and UCLA.
Keene, 6-4, 251 pounds, projects as more of an off-line, H-Back option with fullback potential.
Believe it or not, Keene could be the biggest indicator of where the Patriots see this offense going with Cam.
If it doesn't happen, feel free to laugh at me, but I feel like the #Patriots are building an O in need of hybrid H-back/wing backs that caters to Pistol formation stuff CAR/Cam Newton worked with.
When New England drafted Keene out of Virginia Tech, not to toot my own horn, I immediately thought of him as an H-back that fit in shotgun and pistol formations that were heavily utilized in some of Newton’s best seasons in Carolina.
But as months went by without an announced New England-Newton pairing, many, including myself, began to wonder if the Patriots were building a Kyle Shanahan-esque offense around second-year man Jarrett Stidham.
Think of San Francisco and Minnesota. An offense revolving around the running game, with under-center formations featuring outside zone, pulling guards, an athletic pass-catching fullback, tons of pre-snap motion and play-action passes designed to freeze linebackers after they’ve been gashed by the run. An easy game plan for a young quarterback, essentially.
There may still be some of that with Newton under center, but that doesn’t seem like a productive staple with a QB that athletic and talented.
At the time, the Patriots were also expecting “Superback” Danny Vitale to be the team’s fullback, but he has since opted out.
Now, New England fields Keene and second-year man Jakob Johnson, who is from Germany and is part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.
Neither is a bulldozing lead-blocking extraordinaire a la James Develin, but Johnson should improve as a capable traditional fullback in Year 2.
As for Keene, his presence to me indicates that New England is envisioning using a lot of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) or 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), depending on how Keene is viewed, or used. Keene may not even play often to start, especially with the offseason as it was, but eventually, expect the Patriots to use him at both fullback and H-Back/wingback.
This puts Newton and the Patriots tinkering with a heavy dose of shotgun, pistol and other formations featured around multiplicity and Newton’s ability to run the football both in designed plays and when improvising on passing downs.
Sure, New England will still utilize a traditional 11 set (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at times. Edelman will likely see a slight down tick in snaps due to his age, but he should be on the field for most of the game, leaving Harry and Byrd fighting for time in 2-WR sets and both being used, with Edelman, in 11 personnel. Both Olszewski and Meyers each factor in as Z-receiver (flanker)/slot hybrids behind Edelman.
In 2018, the Panthers ran 11 personnel on 69 percent of snaps. Only eight teams used it more. But because of the Patriots’ current personnel, and lack of talent at wide receiver, expect Belichick to only use principles of Norv Turner’s Panthers offense from 2018. This will only be a slice of the pie, like the potential limited usage of Shanahan offensive concepts.
New England does field a diverse set of running backs, even if they are banged up some heading into the season. Sony Michel and Damien Harris should battle for lead back carries when Harris returns from injured reserve. White will be the third-down back, and Rex Burkhead will factor in both in the running and passing game as a do-it-all option who may be heavily utilized early (September) and late (December, January…February?) as a safe option in big games because of his versatility. But New England will likely limit his playing time to keep him fresh. And then there’s undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, a 5-foot-5 mighty mouse who is currently on the roster.
Here are two interesting notes from a recent episode of The Athletic Football Podcast via NFL’s Next Gen Stats:
With Michel on the field, New England ran the football 67 percent of the time in 2019. That’s the highest percentage for such a stat among running backs with at least 200 snaps last season.
Additionally, with White on the field, the Patriots ran a passing play on roughly 82 percent of snaps last season, which was good for fifth-highest among running backs.
If the offense is going to become less predictable by personnel, Michel will have to improve some as a pass catcher. But at the very least, you’d like to see him run wild in cold weather like he did down the stretch in 2018.
Basically, look for the Patriots to run the heck out of the football in 2020, and for them to do it out of a variety of formations, including many unique looks out of the shotgun. They may even roll with shotgun formations with both Burkhead and Michel in the backfield. Or Burkhead and White. Or all three.
Really, everything revolves around Belichick and Josh McDaniels once again to design a new offense with unique concepts, this time around a different QB.
Luckily for Newton, his NFL home is now full of men more adept than any other when it comes to tailor-made offensive game plans revolving around quarterbacks. And even better, Belichick and McDaniels have done this at a chameleon-like level of versatility, and they have done it on the fly.
Zone-reads, RPOs, designed QB runs. The Patriots will likely try to do it all with Newton. In a perfect world only in Belichick’s mind, the Patriots would run the football at a 2019 Baltimore Ravens level, plowing over teams on the way to the end zone.
No one really knows how Newton will fare as a runner in 2020. But you can bet that New England will look into it.
Additionally, Newton’s ability to tuck and run will encourage teams to play more zone coverage this season. Gone will be the days of 2019 where teams used man coverage across the board, doubling White or Edelman and blanketing New England’s passing game.
Newton should be able to buy time and find the open man, which will often be zone coverage spatial awareness mastermind, Edelman.
The Patriots will do this all behind an offensive line that will return center David Andrews to provide a stout interior core with guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Isaiah Wynn should improve as the team’s left tackle and with long-time right tackle Marcus Cannon sitting out this season, it looks like the Patriots may be relying on former Ravens guard Jermaine Eluemunor to play right tackle.
There is slightly less pressure on these tackles’ ability to pass block with Newton than there would be with Brady because of Newton’s ability to scramble, but the Patriots are still looking for strong play out of their O-line. This unit needs to be the constant. I suggest minimal problems with run blocking, at least.
The most exciting thing about this Patriots season is the offense under Newton. With no preseason games and a limited offseason, no one really knows what we’ll see. But we can make educated guesses, like I have here.
When Evan Lazar of CLNS Media asked what the offense will look like with him at quarterback, Newton smirked and gave this response: “Nobody knows, and nobody is going to know. You’ll just have to tune in and see.”
We’ll find out this Sunday.
Week 1 Projected offense:
QB — Cam Newton
RB — Sony Michel
FB/H-Back — Jakob Johnson/Dalton Keene
‘X’ WR — N’Keal Harry
‘Z’ WR/Slot — Julian Edelman
TE — Devin Asiasi
LT — Isaiah Wynn
LG — Joe Thuney
C — David Andrews
RG — Shaq Mason
RT — Jermaine Eluemunor
Scatback — James White
WR3 — Damiere Byrd
WR4/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski
WR5 — Jakobi Meyers
RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead
RB3 — Damien Harris
Scatback — J.J. Taylor
Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo
Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste
* * * * * * *
Unlike the offense, which will see somewhat of an overhaul, New England will likely use some of the same concepts on defense, just with different personnel.
By now, everyone’s aware of key opt-outs in linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung. New England should be able to get by without Chung, but losing Hightower could be a breaking point for a front seven that already lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, as well as nose tackle Danny Shelton.
The Patriots switched to formations with 3-4 principles in 2019 because of their personnel. Because of their current personnel and shortened offseason, it’s worth wondering if Belichick will switch to more of a 4-3 concept, like he did when the NFL last had a shortened offseason in 2011 due to CBA discussions. Obviously, teams mostly use Nickel as their base in today’s game, but depending on how the Nickel defense is utilized, it will feature principles from the ole 3-4 or 4-3 looks.
In the front seven, only Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler return as consistent, sure things. Guy is versatile and has proven his worth by taking on multiple defenders up front, and Butler is a solid interior rusher who is steadily improving as a run defender. After that, it’s a mystery.
Beau Allen was brought in to replace Danny Shelton at nose tackle, but Allen is currently on IR, ensuring he’ll miss at least the first three weeks. Deatrich Wise Jr.’s playing time decreased in 2019 due to a poor scheme fit, but the fourth-year defensive lineman has had a solid camp, and apparently has beefed up, meaning he may be able to slide into an interior role. Then there’s Byron Cowart, a fifth-round pick from last year who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation out of high school in 2015. The talent is there for Cowart, who could surprise as a fixture next to Guy up front in Nickel 2-4-5 sets.
Last season, New England generated a pass rush schematically by using Guy and other defensive lineman to eat up blockers up front, allowing Van Noy, Collins, Hightower and others to shoot the edge and gaps to rush the passer. If New England is to do the same this season, they’ll need a big second-year jump from EDGE Chase Winovich, who tallied 5.5 sacks on limited snaps as a rookie sub rusher in 2019.
Winovich is a little light to stop physical rushing attacks, but opposite him is strongman John Simon, who is entering his third season with the Patriots in sort of a Rob Ninkovich role. He is a strong-side EDGE defender who is versatile enough to play both stand-up or on the line. New England often switched their Nickel 2-4-5 into a 3-4 look last season in pre-snap. They’d bring Chung up into a linebacker role and have Simon play stand-up 3-4 defensive end, which looks unusual but was very effective for Belichick’s defense last season.
They’ll need Simon and rookie Anfernee Jennings to set the edge in the run game. Jennings projects to fill Van Noy’s in run defense only, but most likely won’t produce a pass rush anywhere near Van Noy’s 2019 level, nor will he play as many snaps as Van Noy did for New England last season.
In the middle of the defense, Ja’Whaun Bentley will need to evolve from part-time thumper linebacker to a full-time role as the front seven’s leader. He’ll essentially slide into Hightower’s role, but will be used a bit differently. And former New York Jet Brandon Copeland should factor in as an off-ball option, and perhaps the same with rookie sixth-round draft pick Cassh Maluia.
Then there’s Josh Uche, the team’s second-round pick out of Michigan. Uche played limited snaps in Michigan, but was a superb pass rusher, where he was opposite Winovich at one point. New England loves versatile players, and Uche will bring just that as a defender who will likely spend time as an off-ball linebacker on early downs and EDGE defender on passing downs. He’ll rush from both spots, and play some middle-of-the-field zone coverage, and perhaps, cover running backs.
Essentially, Uche will be used in Collins’ role from last season. Because of the lack of experience and depth at linebacker and EDGE, the Patriots are banking on Uche to learn quickly.
The linebacking core also signals that the Patriots will likely have instances where they use a ton of safeties on the field at the same time. Like last season, they’ll use a lot of three-safety packages in the form of Big Nickel and Big Dime. They’ll use multiple safeties in the box as psuedo-linebackers, and turn around and use those same players as traditional safeties.
New England’s versatile set of safeties — Phillips, rookie Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, Devin McCourty — can all play in the box, in attempts to field a faster defense congruent with some of the spread offenses in today’s game.
May this group, and the league’s best set of cornerbacks, limit high-flying spread offenses such as the Chiefs? Yes. Could they slow down Jackson and the Ravens by utilizing a ton of safeties at once (like the Chargers did in 2018) as opposed to last season’s unsuccessful heavy, stack-the-box personnel? Possibly.
But a team like the Titans could make mince meat out of this type of defense behind a 30-carry performance from bruising back Derrick Henry. Like always, Belichick will mix and match defensive game plans by the week.
In that case, it helps to have a constant in the league’s best group of cornerback and overall secondary. The Patriots should continue to rely on man coverage. According to PFF, New England has used Cover 1 more than any other franchise since 2015. Last year, they nearly perfected it with their versatile group of pass defenders.
Stephon Gilmore, 30, remains the game’s best cornerback and perhaps the NFL’s best non-QB, non-Aaron Donald football player. He’ll continue to shut down opposing receivers in given assignments.
Opposite him, J.C. Jackson should overtake Jason McCourty as the team’s No. 2 cornerback on the outside, but both will get ample playing time, with Jonathan Jones manning the slot and occasionally playing two-deep safety, which he has done over the last two seasons (see: Super Bowl 53). Then there’s last year’s second-round pick, Joejuan Williams, a 6-foot-4 matchup piece that is learning the safety position.
It will be interesting to see how New England plays in the back end. The Patriots primarily used Duron Harmon as the lone deep safety last season, with McCourty moving up as a robber.
This season, New England can opt to keep McCourty as the free safety in Cover 1 or use Dugger in Harmon’s place. Dugger, and Phillips, are each certainly capable of filling Harmon’s old role. But it’s Dugger, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic force, who may fit best there. Still, Dugger may find himself in man coverage on the likes of Travis Kelce and other tight ends who are unleashed as jumbo wide receivers out of the slot.
Like the offense, there is a sense of mystery on how the defense will line up, but you can bet a lot of Belichick’s old trends will factor in. The only wonder is whether the front seven will rely heavily on a Nickel 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles, or more of a Nickel defense with 4-3 principles, but in the secondary, the Patriots will continue to play to their strengths by applying man coverage and often using three-safety packages.
Week 1 Projected defense:
Interior — Lawrence Guy
Interior — Adam Butler
EDGE — Chase Winovich
EDGE — John Simon
LB/EDGE — Josh Uche
LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley
CB1 — Stephon Gilmore
CB2 — J.C. Jackson
Slot CB — Jonathan Jones
S — Kyle Dugger
S — Devin McCourty
3-4 Nose Tackle — Beau Allen
Interior — Bryan Cowart
Sub EDGE/Interior Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr.
LB — Brandon Copeland
EDGE/LB — Anfernee Jennings
S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips
S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Terrence Brooks
CB3 — Jason McCourty
CB4/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams
* * * * * * *
Projected record: 10-6 (AFC’s No. 3 seed)
Despite Brady’s departure, the mass exodus in the defense and the possible ascension of the talented Buffalo Bills, the Patriots still have Belichick and a former NFL MVP at quarterback.
The defense will need to remain a top-five unit and Newton will need not only to be healthy, but also capable of elevating a sub-par group of pass catchers. He’s done this before in Carolina. If the Patriots can establish a solid and unique rushing attack, Newton should be able to make enough plays for the Patriots to surprise many on offense.
Prognosticators have been a bit harsh on New England’s chances this season. Yes, the Bills are more talented, but there’s a good chance an inferiority complex kicks in as soon as the Patriots establish an offensive identity and begin to roll, in which they will at some point this season — most likely down the stretch after a tough early-season schedule.
For these Patriots, a 12th straight AFC East title is in play, as well as a trip to the AFC Divisional Round. After that, the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh will make it tough for them to go any further. Divisional weekend seems like a good bet for this team, which isn’t bad for a re-tooling (not re-building) year.