Josh Allen vs Patriots -- 2021

Week 16 takeaways: Josh Allen, Joe Burrow lead Bills, Bengals to huge division wins

Week 16’s results shifted divisions, included major upsets and ultimately moved us one week closer to the end of the regular season.

There will be two more weeks of non-playoff pro football to kick off January, with the first ever Week 18 taking place on Sunday, January 9th.

There are several factors at play in the race for playoff seeding, which includes a ravaging of rosters via positive COVID-19 cases deeply affecting some contests (WAS-DAL, MIA-NO, etc.).

This has also been one of the tightest races to the postseason in history, particularly in the AFC, where just one team, the Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West champions) has clinched a playoff spot.

With this being the first season with a 17-game schedule, just one season after the league introduced an extra playoff team for each conference, there are a lot of similarities to this season and 2002, which was a year in which the league added the Houston Texans as a team, and realigned the league to feature eight divisions, instead of six.

The mad dash in the AFC feels similar this season. The league will probably better adjust to this new format next season, meaning we can expect slightly less chaos. But for now, let’s enjoy the ride.

There are a lot of takeaways from this week’s action, let’s tackle them in our weekly power ranking section — The Better Half.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 1). 

Green Bay survived the Cleveland Browns. They feel and look like a Super Bowl-winning squad, and Aaron Rodgers is close to winning his fourth NFL MVP award, and second in a row.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 2). 

The Chiefs have been on fire these past two months, particularly on defense. Their matchup in Cincinnati this week will be a sign of how they stack up versus one of the better (but not great) AFC squads on the road.

3. Los Angeles Rams (11-4) (Last week: 3).

Matthew Stafford had an ugly outing in Minnesota, but regardless, the Rams are still winning. Cooper Kupp (132 catches, 1,734 receiving yards, 13 TDs through 15 games) is having arguably the greatest season for a wide receiver in NFL history. He’s been amazing to watch.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4) (Last week: 4). 

Tampa will need to have Chris Godwin and Mike Evans back for the playoffs to have a solid shot of returning to the Super Bowl, but for now, the return of Antonio Brown will do for Tom Brady, who has helped elevate a Bucs team that hasn’t been at full go for virtually the entire season. That was a solid win in Carolina, even with the Panthers looking like one of the league’s worst teams.

5. Dallas Cowboys (11-4) (Last week: 5). 

Here comes Dallas. They’re starting to resemble the Super Bowl contending-team that they were earlier in the season. They have a Super Bowl “feel” to them, much like Green Bay, if that makes sense. If they can win out and hang onto the NFC’s No. 2 seed, that would be of big help. But they’ll need some help to do that.

6. Indianapolis Colts (9-6) (Last week: 6). 

Down linebacker Darius Leonard, league-best offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, and three more O-line starters for much of the game, the Colts rallied to win in Arizona. Even with Carson Wentz unable to find a rhythm at QB, Indianapolis is a clear contender in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (9-6) (Last week: 8). 

The Bills became the first team to win in New England in back to back seasons since Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts did so in 2005 and 2006. Josh Allen (378 total yards, three TDs) was seemingly unstoppable, as Buffalo never punted, scoring on six of their seven possessions, only being stopped by a fourth-and-goal incompletion early on. In all, the Bills converted nine of 16 third and fourth down conversions. At this point in time, they are the better team than the Patriots, and that will likely show in a second consecutive AFC East title.

8. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 11). 

Tennessee certainly welcomed back receiver A.J. Brown (11 catches, 145 yards, 1 TD vs SF on TNF) with open arms. If they can get Derrick Henry back for the postseason, watch out. They have championship mettle and moxie.

9. New England Patriots (9-6) (Last week: 7). With Cole Beasley out, reserve receiver and special-teamer Isiaiah McKenzie, who entered the game with seven catches for 37 yards, manned the slot position for Buffalo, and had a career-best effort. McKenzie, mostly guarded by Patriots slot CB Myles Bryant, went for 11 catches, 125 receiving yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. Bryant was helpless in man coverage/Cover-1 looks on Sunday, with McKenzie really just running across the field on most passing plays. Jalen Mills was equally as bad in zone coverage, allowing any and every pass to be completed underneath versus him. New England had no answer for Josh Allen on defense, and on offense, converted on just one of 10 third-down attempts. Judging by this game, the Patriots badly missed slot cornerback Jonathan Jones and pass-catching back James White. Both suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the season. A Patriots-Bills matchup is the most-likely projected wild card contest in the league, according to ESPN‘s FPI, so New England better figure out how to play these Bills, or they’ll be one and done in the playoffs.

10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) (Last week: 14). 

The AFC North is still a logjam, but the Bengals can now win the division by winning just one of their final two games. Joe Burrow, head coach Zac Taylor, offseason EDGE addition Trey Hendrickson and more have helped turn the Bengals into a pretty good team. Cincinnati fans should be excited for the future, even if a deep playoff run in 2021 is mostly unrealistic.

11. San Francisco 49ers (8-7) (Last week: 9). 

That was a rough loss in Tennessee. The 49ers find themselves in a little trouble now, but they should still make the postseason. Jimmy Garoppolo could miss some time, so Trey Lance may make his first start this week at home versus the Houston Texans. Rookie QB Davis Mills has been impressive for Houston, putting a little bit of pressure on Lance.

12. Arizona Cardinals (10-5) (Last week: 10). 

For the second straight season, they’re free-falling down the stretch. They have a playoff spot clinched, but no one should feel good about hem heading into January. Can they turn it around? Good grief.

13. Miami Dolphins (8-7) (Last week: NR). 

Here come the Dolphins. Sure, they’ve beaten up on a slew of bad opponents with bad quarterback situations, but still, to win seven straight games versus anyone in this league is impressive. Give credit where it’s due. If they can win in Tennessee and at home versus New England, they’re in the playoffs. That seems like too much to ask, but will you count them out? They’re a tough bunch.

14. Baltimore Ravens (8-7) (Last week: 13). 

Injuries are ultimately proving too much for them this season. They’ve lost four straight, despite hanging tough in some of their losses versus good teams.

15. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: NR). 

Here come the Eagles. Loaded with three first-round picks in the Spring, and getting some good play out of quarterback Jalen Hurts, Philly has been a second-half-of-the-season surprise. They have a lot of decisions to make this offseason, but for now, Eagles fans should just enjoy the ride.

16. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) (Last week: 12). 

Their loss to Houston on Sunday was as embarrassing and detrimental of a loss as we’ve seen in 2021, but the Chargers still have a shot at the playoffs. They’re not very good, but they have some good players, including young quarterback Justin Herbert. Can they rally?

Next Up: Minnesota, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans

Damien Harris -- 2021 December Patriots Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Belichick & Steve Belichick

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 13: Patriots out-muscle, out-game Bills in windy, situational football

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.

Myles Bryant vs Bills -- 2021
Myles Bryant knocks down Josh Allen’s pass attempt in the final minutes of the Patriots’ victory over the Bills on Monday Night Football. (Screenshot: NFL on ESPN)

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

Jeffery Simmons vs Rams

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: ‘Any Given Sunday’ moniker was earned this weekend

This past week of football was initially going to be highlighted for having the most Super Bowl rematches in a single week (5) in NFL history, but just as recent weeks have unfolded, as soon as the early slate of games kicked off on Sunday, mayhem ensued.

By the end of the night, four of the league’s division leaders suffered losses, and another division-leader, Baltimore (6-2), needed overtime to survive Minnesota (3-5) at home.

The topsy-turvy AFC, in particular, continues to be one of the weirdest-looking conference races in NFL history at midseason.

The Titans (7-2) and Ravens lead the conference as two-loss clubs, and then there are 10 teams with either five or four wins, vying for playoff spots.

No follower of the league can rightly say they have a firm grip on their prognostications going forward, but that’s what makes this season so fun, even if there has been an abundant of sloppy play.

Tennesee’s 28-16 beatdown of the Rams on Sunday night was most evident of this. Had the Rams had a solid win in this game, Matthew Stafford would have been a possible MVP frontrunner at midseason, and the Rams probably would have been looked at as Super Bowl favorites (they still might be, and rightfully so).

Instead, the Rams failed miserably in a game of catch-up after falling behind 21-3 early because of two Matthew Stafford interceptions, including one pick-six, while Los Angeles was backed up in its own territory in the first half.

Additionally, Tennessee sacked Stafford five times, with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (three sacks, four QB hits) outshining perhaps the best defensive tackle of all-time, Aaron Donald (one sack) in his own stadium.

Tennessee is a tough squad that should be in the thick of the AFC race all year long, but they really needed Stafford’s mistakes to come away with a win here.

The Titans averaged under three yards per carry on the ground without Derrick Henry, and Ryan Tannehill looked just so-so, despite coming through in some big moments.

The Rams should recover, but that’s now two big stinkers (Cardinals loss being the other one) so far this season. I suppose every team gets two or three, this season.

The Titans were blown out by the Cardinals in Week 1 and lost to the Jets in Week 4.

This was a wacky, wacky weekend in a wacky, wacky season. The moniker ‘Any Given Sunday’ was truly earned in Week 9.

Let’s do our best to break down a few other things in sort of a Quick-Hits form.

Among the most surprising results on Sunday were the Broncos complete drubbing of the Cowboys in Denver, the Giants stifling of the Raiders at home, and the Jaguars’ 9-6 win over the Bills. All three division winners looked piss-poor on Sunday. Denver led Dallas 30-0 late in the fourth quarter before the Cowboys lowered the final score to 30-16 in garbage time. Dak Prescott struggled in his return to action going 19-of-39 for a 24.2 Total QBR and an interception. Denver also outrushed Dallas 190-78. Denver had lost four of five before this performance, which adds to the wonkiness.

Caden Sterns INT vs Dallas
Broncos rookie safety Caden Sterns intercepts Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. Denver led Dallas 30-0 in the fourth quarter, before holding on for a stunning 30-16 victory on Sunday. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

The Bills continued their streak of looking bored, and playing down to their competition, but they legitimately looked sloppy. Jaguars young pass rusher Josh Allen outplayed the Bills rising star quarterback with the same name. Jacksonville’s Allen led his team with eight solo tackles, while victimizing Buffalo’s Allen for a sack, forced fumble and an interception. In such a ridiculous conference race, the Bills still look like a team talented enough to make the Super Bowl. While Buffalo and Dallas’ losses should raise some concern, both still seem like Super Bowl contenders. The Raiders, however, were exposed by a bad team with a solid defense. The Giants almost beat the Chiefs last Monday night with their defense. The G-Men forced three Raiders turnovers, including a Xavier McKinney pick-six of Derek Carr, and shut down Las Vegas’ offense in a classic “east coast team beats west coast team in early slate” result. The Giants’ tough, physical defense and home-field advantage in colder weather sort of exposed the good-but-not-great Raiders bunch.

Two wins that did not feel wonky, were blowout victories by the Patriots over Panthers, and the Browns over the Bengals. Both teams dominated on the road, and will face each other next Sunday at 1:00pm ET on CBS, but they also deserve their praise this week before looking ahead. The Patriots continued their dominance of Sam Darnold, who moved to 0-4 versus the Patriots in his career, with one touchdown and nine interceptions. Just like his time with the New York Jets, Darnold was again apparently “seeing ghosts” versus New England, throwing three ghastly interceptions, including a pick-six to Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is in for a huge payday this offseason (or franchise tag). Jackson had two interceptions on Sunday, and leads the league in interceptions (21) since coming into the league as an undrafted rookie in 2018.

On a personal level, being mostly from the New England area, but going to high school in North Carolina, these Patriots-Panthers matchups have always been a premier event for me. Both teams have usually sported physical squads in the years they’ve faced off, and this time was no different. Carolina’s defense is a solid unit, with players such as EDGE defender Brian Burns being a rising star, veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson being an enforcer on the second level, and now former Patriot Stephon Gilmore (who victimized his old team for an interception on Sunday) no in the backend. Carolina forced two New England turnovers, but allowed a season-high 151 yards on the ground to the Patriots committee of running backs. New England fared much better defensively. It helps that they their own game-wrecker on defense in Matthew Judon (9.5 sacks), as well as a future All-Pro caliber defensive tackle in Christian Barmore, who swarmed Darnold all game and knocked down a few of his passes (saving a touchdown to Christian McCaffrey on one). New England is still figuring things out, but they are tough, physical and a solid football team. They are playoff-caliber.

So are the Browns, who pushed the Odell Beckham Jr. fiasco to the recesses of their minds in time to destroy the Bengals in Cincinnati, which may be a huge result come January. Cleveland won 41-16 behind a near-flawless game from Baker Mayfield, who was precise, and a solid running game (153 yards, 6.7 YPC) and defense, with the latter tallying five sacks and forcing two turnovers off Bengals QB Joe Burrow. Myles Garrett leads the league with 12 sacks now, and is the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year at the moment, if you asked me.

As mentioned above, Cleveland travels to New England this week for a massive AFC contest that could decide seeding come January.

I originally planned on taking my first crack at the NFL MVP award race here at midseason, but the race is so messy at the moment, that I think it’s best to wait until after Thanksgiving (post-Week 12) for my first top-five ranking. In the past few weeks, injuries, bad play or stupidity have lessened the chances of Derrick Henry, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow and others from winning the award. Only Lamar Jackson improved his chances over the weekend, yet, I can’t tell you with certainty that I view him as the front-runner, as of now. This is such a wacky year. I think it’s best that we wait. (I promise this is is an act of intelligence, and not laziness on my part. The league is in a logjam, right now. Let’s wait for more answers).

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tennessee Titans (7-2) (Last week: 2). Their offense certainly misses Derrick Henry already, but we’ll give them credit here after that beatdown of the Rams in LA on Sunday night. This is a mentally and physically tough football team. Kudos, Mike Vrabel.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 4). In a week such as this one, it makes sense that Tom Brady’s bunch moves up a few spots.

3. Arizona Cardinals (8-1) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury is probably the lead-dog in the Coach of the Year race, as of now. The Cardinals pantsed the 49ers on Sunday without their best players (Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, etc.).s

4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2) (Last week: 1). Their defense didn’t play too bad, and that’s without Von Miller suiting up. But Matthew Stafford’s terrible, back-to-back interceptions in the first half downed them early.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Ravens have yet to play to their potential as a complete team, sans maybe their Week 6 blowout over the Chargers at home. They can play better defensively. Lamar Jackson and Justin Tucker have bailed this team out in the clutch in a couple of instances this season. Now they, just need to play better. They will.

6. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers’ disappointing handling of his COVID-19 vaccine situation (let’s face it, he lied, and his reasons for not getting the vaccine are asinine) certainly assists in putting lives at jeopardy, so let’s keep that in context when I say this here — Rodgers cost the Packers a win on Sunday night.This was a very winnable game for Green Bay, but Jordan Love simply wasn’t ready. The Packers defense played a fantastic game in Kansas City.

7. Buffalo Bills (5-3) (Last week: 3). No matter how you cut it, that was an inexcusable loss to one of the two or three worst teams in the league. They are one of the AFC’s best teams, but they need to get out of this funk. The Patriots are nipping at their heels in the AFC East, now.

8. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) (Last week: 6). Pretty shocking loss to the Broncos at home. Not much else to say. It seems like every contender will have a few stinkers this season. Let’s see how they respond.

9. Cleveland Browns (5-4) (Last week: 13). The Browns are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. They looked it on Sunday in Cincinnati.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) (Last week: 14). They’ve caught a few breaks versus the Giants and Packers at home to win. Now, they’ll go to Las Vegas for a Sunday night game will huge ramifications in the AFC West. They still don’t look right on offense, but wins are wins. They could make a run.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 12). The Steelers host the Bears (3-5) in a very winnable game on Monday night.

12. New England Patriots (5-4) (Last week: 15). The Patriots improved to 4-0 on the road. They’re getting better as the season progresses after suffering a few close losses to possible Super Bowl contenders (Tampa Bay, Dallas) earlier. This 2021 New England team seems like a version of their 2001 squad that doesn’t win the Super Bowl.

13. New Orleans Saints (5-3) (Last week: 9). They should be higher, but their QB situation may turn into a real problem despite Trevor Siemian’s noble attempt in these past two games.

14. Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert bounced back nicely in Philadelphia. That was a much-needed clutch win on the road.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 10). That was an ugly loss to the Giants that should have been a bit predictable. These Raiders have some juice on offense, even if it’s just Derek Carr and scheme, and a lack of overall star power, but they will struggle versus tougher teams (in terms of talent, and toughness) on the road. We’ll see if DeSean Jackson becomes a legitimate deep threat for them when he joins this week.

16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) (Last week: 11). The Bengals are probably not complete frauds. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are stars, no question, and Zac Taylor’s bunch has mostly improved on defense, but that side of the ball has looked ugly in their last two losses. They seem like a “next year” team. They’re almost there.

Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Denver, Atlanta, Seattle

Josh Allen vs Chiefs -- Week 5

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

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

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

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

Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.

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

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

Each has a bludgeoning running game.

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

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

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

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

Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady leaves Lambeau Field — 2020 NFC Championship Game

NFL Conference Championship Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, KC’s well-oiled machine moves along

And then there were two. Kansas City-Tampa Bay. Patrick Mahomes versus Tom Brady.

There will be time to do a deep dive on the fascinating Super Bowl 55 matchup that is to come ( you can expect my mega preview next week), so let’s use this space to tackle some of the initial takeaways from conference championship weekend.

Here are my thoughts, as I empty the internal football notebook in my brain…

*******

Tom Brady somehow adds to all-time best NFL legacy. Although many were aware in March that the GOAT was leaving New England for a very talented Tampa team, not that many forecasted a 43-year-old Tom Brady leading the talented (and apparently, hungry) Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl.

As the great Ian O’Connor points out in the tweet above, the Bucs have been a downtrodden franchise, beat up by NFL powers for almost 50 years, save for a Super Bowl 37 victory in 2002, sandwiched between Brady’s first three titles in New England.

Brady joined the Bucs in March, just as a global pandemic made headway in the news.

There was a limited NFL training camp and no preseason. Hardly the perfect environment for a quarterback to learn a new city, coaching staff, set of teammates and a playbook.

Yet, after and up-and-down, 7-5 start that culminated in a 27-24 home loss (that wasn’t as close as the score indicates) to the Chiefs after Thanksgiving, Tampa has now won seven straight games, three on the road in the postseason, behind a reborn, steely-eyed Brady primed to win his seventh Super Bowl in 10 tries.

Now, Brady sits 33-11 in the postseason with wins over Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, with Mahomes up next. A legacy that was cemented two Super Bowl wins (and three appearances) ago as the greatest resume in pro football history now has an opportunity for another unique accolade.

Afterwards, Brady deflected the praise toward his new head coach, Bruce Arians.

“I don’t think about what it means for me,” said Brady to NFL dot com. “I do think about what it means for everybody else. It’s an amazing achievement for BA. I’m so happy for him.”

Despite the humble move, make no mistake, Super Bowl 55, and this Tampa run, is about Brady first and foremost, even with a bevy of talented playmakers on offense and defense helping to push him toward the finish line once more.

There was a time in the second half, with Brady throwing three interceptions in three consecutive drives (with two being totally his fault, and as hideous of throws as you’ll see him make), where it seemed like the game would slip away. But Brady made some key throws late, which complimented his superb play in the first half and the hungry pass-rush duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who combined for five key sacks on Rodgers.

Brady couldn’t do this without his teammates, and his coaching staff, but they couldn’t have done this without Brady, either. And now, Brady’s team is headed to the Super Bowl in his first season with his new club. Coincidence?

What’s next for Aaron Rodgers? Coming into the weekend, it was obvious that Aaron Rodgers was under more pressure than any other player playing on Conference Championship Sunday. But moments of greatness often come for players under the microscope, and during most of the second half, it seemed as if Rodgers’ shining moment of destiny (an 18-point comeback to beat Tom Brady to reach his second Super Bowl) was inevitable. That moment began to slip away after Rodgers, who had a fine game otherwise, seemingly panicked by not running for a touchdown on a 3rd-and-goal play late in the 4th quarter when down eight points, instead forcing an incompletion to Davante Adams into double coverage. The moment fully vanquished after an anticlimactic, but correct, flag on Packers cornerback Kevin King that effectively ended the game.

Much will be made about Rodgers’ comments after the game, which can be seen in the tweets above. That reporter, Matt Schneidman of The Athletic, later took to Twitter to say Rodgers wouldn’t say something like this if he didn’t mean it. We should trust the great local reporting in Green Bay, but it still seems farfetched that the Packers would want to move on from Rodgers in favor of Jordan Love at quarterback, just yet. Not after a season that will certainly net Rodgers his third career NFL MVP award.

So does this mean Rodgers wants out? If he does, what will it cost for a top-five or top-10 quarterback of all-time, entering his age 38-season? A first-round pick and change? If this bizarre scenario were to take place, I’d suspect the loaded 49ers (Rodgers’ hometown team) to be squarely in the mix, with the Patriots as a secondary option.

Still, this to me feels like a reflective, part-reactionary quote immediately after a yet another heartbreaking postseason loss, and nothing more. The best we can do is to monitor this when the offseason starts.

Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid lead the way in Kansas City, but Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are vital cogs in the Chiefs’ well-oiled machine. Despite recovering from turf toe and a hit that knocked him out of last week’s AFC Divisional win over the Browns, Patrick Mahomes looked unaffected, even if a bit gimpy, on Sunday. Throwing for 325 yards and three scores on 29-of-38 passing, the reigning Super Bowl MVP did what was expected of him in the AFC title game — dispose of the Bills to reach his second straight Super Bowl. Mahomes and Andy Reid (and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) are a dangerous combination. Reid is one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, and Mahomes is perhaps the most talented player we’ve ever seen.

Still, this offense wouldn’t be anywhere near what we’re seeing without one or both of tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

The two combined for 22 catches for 290 yards and two scores versus Buffalo.

Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all-time, and one of the two or three best pass-catching tight ends to ever suit up. Never before have we seen a tight end with shake-and-bake moves and this level of spatial awareness at his size (6-5, 260 pounds). He continues to be an easy outlet for Mahomes, whether the Kansas City QB sits in the pocket to decipher zone coverage, or rolls out of the pocket looking for a breakaway option from man coverage.

Hill is the most unique pass catcher in NFL history, harboring a skill set that pits him as one of the greatest deep threats ever, and the best speed receiver that’s ever played the game. Just take his 71-yard catch-and-run in the second half (see tweet below) that left the Bills moribund.

The pass-catching duo did even more damage to the Buccaneers in November. Hill historically went for 269 yards and three scores on 13 catches on that game, while Kelce added 82 receiving yards on eight catches.

There’s simply no stopping the unique duo of Kelce and Hill, and certainly not with Mahomes at quarterback. All Tampa can do in two Sundays is to hope to contain them, or generate consistent pressure on Mahomes.

Will the Bills be back? One of the more interesting things at the end of the AFC title game was CBS‘ Tony Romo’s comments at the end of the game (see tweet below).

When looking at Buffalo’s well-put-together squad, it’s difficult to imagine them sinking back to mediocrity, but the NFL is full of upstart teams that fall right back to the pack in years following.

So will the Patriots, or Dolphins, unseat them in the AFC East in 2021? Or will the Bills lessen to a 10-win division champion that will be ousted in the wild card round?

Only time will tell, but it’s pretty obvious the Bills have a good thing going here. They should remain at least a contender in the next two or three years following, even if not a 13-win team ever again.

The inconsistency of Josh Allen’s passing skills is apparent, which should should put some scare into Bills Mafia, but the game is changing, and quarterbacks with Allen’s chaotic play are finding consistent success.

Plus, Stefon Diggs still remains a top-five receiver with league-best route-running skills (or at least tied with Green Bay’s Davante Adams), and the Bills should improve on defense with the right pieces and offseason practice, seeing as that unit was slightly disappointing this season considering their talent on that side of the ball.

It’s too early to tell what Buffalo’s fate in 2021 will be, but let’s just say they’re well set up for success, but that’s hardly a given, even for younger teams that theoretically should continue improving.

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Week 15 shakeup sets up wild finish

Week 15 offered a glimpse of what we all hope to see come playoff time — a slew of games decided in the last second, and a touch of tough, cold weather football.

In Pittsburgh, 2019’s most unheralded Sunday night flex pitted two of the more mentally-tough, smash mouth teams against each other.

Behind (you guessed it), their defense, the Bills (10-4) upended the Steelers (8-6), 17-10, to put Sean McDermott’s bunch in the postseason for the second time in three seasons.

Buffalo has had some success on offense behind the improved Josh Allen, who threw the game-winning score to Tyler Kroft on a third-and-goal scramble in the clutch.

But it was the game-turning play of top-tier cornerback Tre’Davious White that changed the game. With the contest tied up late, White intercepted “Duck” Hodges for a second time, returning the ball 50 yards deep into Pittsburgh territory to set up the aforementioned Bills score.

White is a part of the holy trinity of cornerbacks at the moment. Led by New England’s Stephon Gilmore, who had two interceptions — one pick-six — versus the Bengals on Sunday, the group also includes the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey, and White.

Along with White, Buffalo has an underrated safety duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who are both versatile enough to move around the formation and cover different types of pass catchers.

The front seven, led by the talented young Tremaine Edmunds at middle linebacker features a veteran group of castoffs like Lorenzo Alexander, Jerry Hughes and Star Lotulelei, who have been magnificent for the franchise in upper New York.

With the Patriots struggling, and the AFC South teams showing some inconsistency, the conference is liable for a shakeup after the Ravens and Chiefs.

Even a win in New England next week would not give the Bills the AFC East lead literally, but it may metaphorically.

After a bevy of close finishes that shook up the playoff race, there are now two weeks left of possible mayhem for football fans to indulge on during the Holiday feast.

Could the Bills take down the mighty Patriots in New England on Saturday>

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. With five touchdown passes on Thursday, Jackson all but ended this MVP race. The award is his.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. While the MVP award might have evaded Wilson, the NFC’s No. 1 seed is still up for grabs. I bet I could tell you which one he covets more.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. The home loss to Atlanta was a road bump but Garoppolo has still had a fine season.

4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Watson shook off a few costly mistakes to lead Houston on an ever-important road victory at division rival Tennessee.

5. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Statistically, Mahomes has had another fine season in a shortened stretch, but it’s the defense that has given the Chiefs recent Super Bowl hopes.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers, Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (12-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should win in Cleveland to secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-3) (Last week: 2). The last-second loss to the Falcons was a bummer, but they’re still two wins away from the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Not much has changed.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). The Saints will need to keep pace with three other 11-win teams in the NFC with a win over the Colts tonight.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 4). Here come the Chiefs, with their much-improved defense.

5. New England Patriots (11-3) (Last week: 5). The offense may be beyond help in 2019, but if they can just find half of a rhythm, likely DPOY Stephon Gilmore and the defense may be able to lead New England to yet another Super Bowl.

6. Seattle Seahawks (11-3) (Last week: 6). Seattle regained the NFC West’s top spot on Sunday, but their Week 17 matchup with the 49ers will still decide the division.

7. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers haven’t looked too sharp as of late, but they’ve been winning.

8. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). That was a beatdown of the Chargers — 39-10, with seven turnovers forced in a road victory. Impressive.

9. Buffalo Bills (10-4) (Last week: 11). The Bills are back in the playoffs. What a great story.

10. Houston Texans (9-5) (Last week: 13). Houston’s up-and-down behavior exhibits the wild AFC South to a tee. They’d be a worthy champion of the division.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-6) (Last week: 10). The goal line drop-turned-interception that wasn’t Ryan Tannehill’s fault, changed everything. Now, they face a tough two-game stretch (vs Saints, at Texans) in which they’ll need to win at least one game to even have a chance at the postseason.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6) (Last week: 12). They just don’t have the offense to truly compete, but Mike Tomlin and the defense still has them in position to grab the AFC’s No. 6 seed.

13. Dallas Cowboys (7-7) (Last week: NR) If the Cowboys can play like THAT, then they can hold their own with anybody. Will they keep it rolling in Philly next week? Their season depends on it.

14. Los Angeles Rams (8-6) (Last week: 9). Their second beatdown loss in front of a national crowd in the past month should end their season. Time to regroup for 2020.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7) (Last week: 15). The Buccaneers have been one of the more exciting teams to watch this season.

16. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7) (Last week: NR) Another last-second victory keeps the Eagles on par with Dallas. Now, they’ll host Dallas with the NFC East on the line.

Next up: Indianapolis, Chicago