Jimmy Garoppolo vs Packers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Niners thrash Pack in statement win + Pats D rules again

After a tough overtime loss to Seattle two weeks earlier, and a comeback needed to beat Arizona last week, it seemed as if the 49ers were sliding down the mountain after hitting their peak.

Instead, their peak was yet to come.

In fact, if Sunday night’s win was any indication, the 49ers may be on top of the mountain for good.

San Francisco (10-1) dominated Green Bay (8-3) in just about every facet of the game in a 37-8 stomping over the NFC contending Packers.

Jimmy Garoppolo — 14 of 20, 253 yards, two touchdowns — thoroughly outplayed Aaron Rodgers, as the 49ers defense sacked the Packers quarterback five times, and limited him to one of the worst games of his career — 20 of 33, 104 yards.

“We feel like we’re the best team in the league and the only people who can beat us are us,” 49ers running back Raheem Mostert said after the game. “That’s our mentality.”

Despite the brilliance of NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson two weeks ago, the 49ers did indeed, beat themselves in their lone loss of the season to the Seahawks in overtime.

This week, they beat the Packers so bad that it’d be hard to argue they aren’t the conference’s best team at the moment.

But there’s more to come. This was just the beginning of a tough stretch that next features visits to Baltimore (8-2) and New Orleans (9-2), and ends with a Week 17 trip to Seattle (9-2), which will likely decide the NFC West, and maybe, the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

San Francisco — along with New Orleans — fields one of the NFL’s best rosters and forward-thinking coaching staffs under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Young playmakers like George Kittle — the NFL’s best tight end — and Nick Bosa — the NFL’s best young edge rusher — represent a young, talented team.

Rookie Deebo Samuel — their wide receiver out of the second round of the draft this past spring — has improved each week, and his race to the end zone has shown us what we already know — that he is one of the best playmakers of his draft class, which includes the likes of Josh Jacobs, Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown and Terry McLaurin.

The aforementioned Bosa is just an utter force along the defensive line. If it weren’t for Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (see below), he’d be a slam dunk DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) winner.

He’s transformed a defensive line of underachieving first-round picks into a five or six-man rotation of talented players, which includes offseason acquisition Dee Ford.

Then, there’s Richard Sherman.

The brash former Seahawk finds himself yet again in the spotlight, and once again, he’s earned it. After the game, Sherman and the 49ers were already mentioning the Super Bowl.

“Because we felt it,” Sherman said. “You feel the energy in the building. You feel the talent.”

All the talent in the world on one football team can be mitigated by a bad quarterback, just ask the Chicago Bears.

But in Garoppolo — 18-3 record as a starter — San Francisco has one of the game’s brightest stars, who at least belongs in the conversation with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and others going forward.

“He’s the leader of the team,” Sherman said. “Jimmy Garoppolo is our leader and we will follow him into the darkest of dark.”

Jimmy isn’t as flashy as some of the aforementioned young star QBs (Mahomes, Jackson, etc.) but he has the accuracy, mechanics and bravado to get the job done.

It took help from the defense earlier in the season to shake off some of the rust probably caused from his season-ending ACL injury last year. But the 49ers franchise passer is rounding into form.

As are the 49ers, who don’t give a damn about what you think of them and their quarterback.

The real season begins after Thanksgiving, and San Francisco will enter that period coming off their best performance yet.

GILMORE, PATRIOTS DEFENSE HALT COWBOYS

In a nasty battle in which both offenses slogged though the wind and rain (and defenses), it was America’s most hated team that defeated ‘America’s Team.’

Patriots 13, Cowboys 9, in a game that shall not be remembered years for now.

But if there are any takeaways from this game, they are these:

– This Patriots defense (8.0 points per game allowed in 10 wins) is the best defense Bill Belichick has ever had in New England.

– Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL since Darrelle Revis in his ‘Revis Island’ heyday. 

Gilmore has made quite the case for the NFL’s DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) award — in a race that includes the Rams’ Aaron Donald and 49ers rookie Nick Bosa. He’s the league’s best cornerback by a wide margin, specializing in blanketing man coverage.

On Sunday, he virtually erased Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper (two targets, zero catches), intercepted Dak Prescott, and left the NFC East-leading Cowboys — who entered the contest with the most yards per game on offense — in a frustrated state.

“With the makeup of this team, I shouldn’t be this frustrated,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones vented after the game.

“Thats 100 percent coaching,” Jones said of the Cowboys special teams woes, which included a blocked punt by Matthew Slater. “One hundred percent coaching.”

The Patriots are well coached, of course, under Bill Belichick. But you can’t underestimate the talent on this unit. Jonathan Jones has turned into one of the best (if not, the best) slot cornerbacks in the game. Kyle Van Noy and John Simon are perhaps the league’s most underrated duo on the edge.

Ditto for the duo of Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton, who form sort of a two-man defensive line on many occasions, and act as 3-4 style defensive lineman, attacking gaps and taking on blockers, with little to show for it on the stat sheet.

Then, of course, there is the athletic Jamie Collins and the veteran leadership trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower.

This is easily the best defense that we’ve ever seen in New England during the Belichick era.

And it’s come at an opportune time, as the defense is the main reason this Patriots team is 10-1 and not 6-5.

The offense has sputtered in the past month or two. Some of it is 42-year-old Tom Brady’s fault, and some is not. This week was less of his fault than it was during the uninspiring (on offense) 17-10 win in Philadelphia last week.

Brady — 17 of 37, 190 yards, one touchdown —  was fairly accurate on a number of throws that fell incomplete on Sunday. Newcomers N’Keal Harry (one catch, 10-yard touchdown) and Jakobi Meyers (four catches, 74 yards) had memorable moments, but also memorable drops. The two had an uptick in playing time with Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett out due to injury.

Julian Edelman (eight catches, 93 yards) was the only hyper-reliable target for Brady.

The running game got something going with the return of Isaiah Wynn at left tackle, but Brady was still sacked twice and pressured on several drop backs.

The offense has not looked good. That much we know. But there is room for improvement. The offensive line and running game should only get better from here on out, and that is a complimentary facet that Brady will need. Throwing 45 times or more a game with lesser-known pass catchers (and winning) has been an occasional staple of Brady’s career, but at age 42, it isn’t ideal.

As Harry and Sanu, in particular, continue to play with Brady, their chemistry should improve. And then, the offense will improve.

This Patriots defense can lead the way to a seventh Super Bowl title. But chances are, at some point, the offense will need to lead the way in a victory, and that moment will likely come in the postseason.

That moment didn’t come this week versus the talented Cowboys. Or last week versus the Eagles. But it’s coming.

It’d be unwise to bet on Brady not being ready for that moment.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. After a beautiful touchdown throw on a flea flicker early on, Wilson — 13 of 25, 200 yards, one interception, six sacks — struggled in Philadelphia. He still has a narrow lead in this race.

2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. He’s right there with Wilson, but will likely need to beat the Rams and 49ers these next two games to pass him.

3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. There’s a bit of a gap between Wilson/Jackson and Watson at this point, but Deshaun is about as valuable a player as any in this league.

4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. The Panthers’ playoff hopes are likely over, but Christian McCaffrey’s incredible season has continued. Although the MVP award is almost definitely going to a quarterback, the race for OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year) between McCaffrey and Michael Thomas is a fun one.

5. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. See above. Thomas has been sensational this season, and in every season in his young career. Could you imagine a Super Bowl 54 matchup between him and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore?

Next up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 1). I have a hunch that the Ravens might struggle versus a tough Rams defense tonight after going east to west. Let’s see how they respond in this tough predicament.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-1) (Last week: 3). That was one of the biggest statement wins of the year. Now, they’ll get the red-hot Ravens in Baltimore.

3. New England Patriots (10-1) (Last week: 2). This is the best defense of the Bill Belichick era. They need something out of this offense, but the defense can carry this team to a title — they just need help. The real season begins after Thanksgiving. Well, Thanksgiving is here. In a year in which the offense looks as dysfunctional as ever, can Brady lift them up in his 20th season?

4. New Orleans Saints (9-2) (Last week: 4). They were lucky to not be down three in the final minutes, thanks to a bad miss by Panthers kicker Joey Slye. But that was a quality win, regardless. The Saints may quietly have the most complete team in football.

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 6). Like the Patriots last week, the Seahawks had to eke out a tough win in Philadelphia. They’ll need to keep pace with San Francisco in the NFC West, which is possible thanks to the 49ers tough schedule.

6. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 5). That was one rough performance by Aaron Rodgers. I doubt this will become a trend. They’ll bounce back. They’ll have to, with this next team right on their tail.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The Vikings were rewarded during their bye week, thanks to Green Bay’s let down in San Francisco.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 8). Patrick Mahomes had an ugly game in last week’s win, but in an AFC with just two real contenders (New England, Baltimore) at the moment, the Chiefs could be waiting in the wings to join the party.

9. Houston Texans (7-4) (Last week: 13). That was a big win over AFC South rival Indianapolis. Now, they get the Patriots.

10. Dallas Cowboys (6-5) (Last week: 9). The weather conditions helped, but the Cowboys were completely shut down on offense. They’ll need to take out their frustrations on the Bills this Thanksgiving.

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 10). Their offense has been horrid, but their defense has quietly had a good stretch. Can they slow down Lamar Jackson tonight?

12. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) (Last week: 11).That’s another rough loss for the Colts, considering they led 17-10 at one point in the fourth quarter. Still, they have a shot to take back the lead in the AFC South if they can pull even with the Texans this week. They’ll have to beat a tough Titans team and hope for a Houston (vs Patriots) loss.

13. Buffalo Bills (8-3) (Last week: 15). They beat up on yet another subpar opponent. Let’s see what they do in Dallas on Thursday. They’ll have to prove that they’re no turkey (I’m sorry).

14. Tennessee Titans (6-5) (Last week: NR). Here come the Titans. What a job Ryan Tannehill has done these past few weeks. He’s been inspiring.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) (Last week: 16). I really believe the Steelers were a sure-fire playoff team with Ben Roethlisberger this season. They probably would have been an AFC contender, too. Still, they’re in the mix. If the season ended today, they’d be in as a No. 6 seed. That’s incredible.

16. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) (Last week: 12). Despite another ugly loss, the Eagles control their own destiny in the NFC East. Four two-win teams and the Cowboys stand in their way. They’ll likely need to win every one of those, and surely their game with Dallas. This offense is riddled with injuries but Carson Wentz (nine turnovers in last six games) still needs to play better. He’s been atrocious lately.

Next up: Carolina, Oakland, Cleveland, N.Y. Jets, L.A. Chargers

Lamar Jackson vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Lamar, Ravens best Wilson as Patriots await

With how this season was going, Sunday’s game in Seattle had all the makings of another stepping stone for Russell Wilson, the NFL’s new (possibly) best player. So much for that.

On this day, a younger, flashier breed at quarterback stole the show.

By juking and maneuvering his way around Century Link Field for 116 yards and a score, Lamar Jackson led the Ravens (5-2) to a surprising 30-16 victory over the Seahawks (5-2), putting Baltimore in a commanding lead in the AFC North.

After a four-game stretch in which Baltimore was lucky to come out of with a 2-2 mark, the Ravens reenergized themselves to win in perhaps the hardest venue to do so, over a team led by the aforementioned Wilson, the still-leader in the NFL MVP race.

In addition to Jackson, Baltimore’s defense made a statement.

Wilson entered the game with a 14-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio that was dented after he was victimized by the new-acquired Marcus Peters via a game-changing pick-six in his first game as a Raven. The play sucked the life out of a crowd that is known for it’s energy.

“Once it was in the air, I felt it,” Peters said of the play after the game.

Marcus Peters pick-six vs Seahawks
In his first game with the Ravens, Marcus Peters victimized Russell Wilson for a pick-six. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Former Seahawk Earl Thomas had a front row seat to the type of victory this city has seen many times this decade. After a game in which Thomas forced Wilson complete less than 50 percent (20-for-41) of his passes, he embraced his former teammate with a hug and jersey swap after the game.

Still, it was Jackson and Baltimore’s 199 yards on the ground that made mince meat out of an improved defense in Seattle — compared to last season. The Ravens followed up a month of sloppy play offensively with a punishing running game featuring both old and new-school tactics, a formula that may be Baltimore’s best chance at a deep postseason run.

At this point in the season, the time for experimentation is waning. The Ravens know that, and in turn, have seemingly found what works.

After their upcoming bye week they’ll see if their current formula is good enough when they become the first in a line of teams with winning records to face the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots (6-0) starting in the first week of November.

Can their best beat the best? In two Sundays, we’ll find out.

QUICK-HITS 

– Sunday’s games provided a clear line in the sand in two divisions — the AFC South and NFC East.

In Dallas, the Cowboys (4-3) hit the Eagles (3-4) in the mouth within minutes, jumping out to a 14-0 lead en route to a 37-10 whooping of their NFC East rival. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and puts Dallas virtually two games up on Philadelphia in the division. Sunday’s win was a back-to-basics game for a team that is pretty loaded in the running game and on defense. Despite collecting what seemed to be an influx of talent, the Eagles don’t seem to be meshing. Their secondary is porous and their rush defense joined the pity party in Dallas on Sunday. Then there’s Carson Wentz, who is a top-tier quarterback according to Pro Football Focus and just about everyone else. For the Eagles, the talent is there, but the production is not.

In Indianapolis, Jacoby Brissett (26-for-39, 326 yards, four touchdowns) showed the NFL world just how complete of a team the Colts are. Already loaded with a top-tier offensive line and a fast defense consisting of an up-and-coming secondary, Brissett exploited Houston in a way they probably didn’t see coming. After making quick work of the Chiefs in Kansas City, the Colts sat and watched the Texans do the same during their bye week, as everyone praised Watson as an MVP candidate. It was Brissett who outplayed Watson on Sunday, as the Colts (4-2) moved ahead of the Texans (4-3) in the AFC South. It’s clear that they’re at least slightly ahead of teams like the Ravens (5-2) and Chiefs (5-2) for bragging rights as the second-best team in the AFC, for now.

– When Kirk Cousins is on, the Vikings do well. One of the league’s most talented teams knows that their hopes for success rely on Cousins playing consistently well. After a tough 42-30 road win in Detroit on Sunday, Cousins has now flourished for two straight weeks in Minnesota victories — eight touchdowns, one interception and 333.5 passing yards per game. They have a home bout with Washington next week, and then travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, who will probably be without superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. These may be games where the Vikings rely more on Dalvin Cook, who is looking like a top-five running back this season. But it would be wise to throw enough to at least keep the momentum going with Cousins, who has a great chance to lead his club to a 7-2 mark after these next two weeks.

– The NFC is truly a loaded conference at the moment. Aaron Rodgers finally has some defensive help in Green Bay, as well as a new offense tailored to succeed in the colder months. San Francisco is struggling some on offense, but have implemented a  power-running game with Matt Brieda to go along with perhaps the league’s best pass rush. They have transformed over night. The Seahawks aren’t quite up to par with San Francisco in terms of overall talent, but they’re close. With additions such as Jadeveon Clowney and D.K. Metcalf, the Seahawks — despite their loss on Sunday — have improved their roster behind Russell Wilson, the NFL’s best QB at the moment. Having Wilson makes them forever dangerous in their division and conference.

Then there’s the Saints, whose defense looks better than ever during the Sean Payton era, complimenting an offense that mimics it’s secret weapon, Taysom Hill, as a unit that can do just about everything. With Alvin Kamara out, the offense’s other star, Michael Thomas, hauled in 131 yards on nine catches, while the bruising Latavius Murry rushed for 119 yards and two scores in Kaamra’s absence on a day in which he looked every bit like Adrian Peterson. And this has all been led by backup QB Teddy Bridgewater. When Drew Brees returns, there’s little doubt that the Saints hold the NFC’s most complete unit.

THE BETTER HALF

1. New England Patriots (6-0) (Last week: 1). The Patriots have issues — mostly due to injuries — at wide receiver and along the offensive line. Expect them to have problems tonight in New York against the Jets. Also, keep your eyes on the transaction wire from now until the trade deadline on October 29. New England will be looking to bring in a pass catcher such as: A.J. Green, Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu or O.J. Howard.

2. New Orleans Saints (6-1) (Last week: 2). The Saints continue to win behind Teddy Bridgewater (5-0 as a starter in 2019) and their swarming defense. Sean Payton should consider sticking with Bridgewater versus the Cardinals next week, as their bye comes the week after that. Then, it’s Drew Brees time.

3. Green Bay Packers (6-1) (Last week: 3). The defense has been solid this year, and after a slow start, Aaron Rodgers — five touchdown passes, one rushing score, 158.3 passer rating on Sunday — has come alive in his first season under Matt LaFleur’s offensive system.

4. San Francisco 49ers (6-0) (Last week: 5). Jimmy Garoppolo is now 14-2 as a starter in the NFL, but the 49ers have got to this point by leaning on their suffocating defense. That was certainly the case in Sunday’s win over Washington in the slosh.

5. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 6). Most major media outlets had Indianapolis somewhere between No. 12 and 15 in their power rankings heading into this week. The Colts are criminally underrated. They are one of the NFL’s most complete teams, and they proved that this week.

6. Seattle Seahawks (5-2) (Last week: 4). The loss — and the pick-six — hurt, but Russell Wilson still leads the NFL MVP race.

7. Minnesota Vikings (5-2) (Last week: 8). Kirk Cousins has been awesome these past two weeks. When he looks like that, the Vikings are a contender. Will he keep this up? Minnesota could also have better performances out of their talented, but underachieving defense.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (5-2) (Last week: 7). By most indications, it looks like Patrick Mahomes will return sometime after missing three to five weeks. It would be wise to keep him out through their bye week around Thanksgiving. Andy Reid has had success with backup quarterbacks such Koy Detmer, Doug Peterson, A.J. Feeley and Jeff Garcia in Philadelphia. They can survive with Matt Moore or Chad Henne. The latter should be returning from an injury soon.

9. Los Angeles Rams (4-3) (Last week: 10). Jalen Ramsey provided an immediate and noticeable spark to a team that desperately needed it.

10. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) (Last week: 13). Dallas took a commanding lead in the NFC East behind efficient play in virtually all areas of their win over the Eagles. They needed that.

11. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 14). Just like that, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are back in the mix of contenders. That was an impressive win that I certainly didn’t see coming.

12. Buffalo Bills (5-1) (Last week: 12). They survived what would have been an inexplicable home loss to the Dolphins. They’re virtually a playoff lock with their schedule.

13. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) (Last week: 9). They’ve got issues. If they are to make the playoffs, it’s going to be by passing Dallas to win the NFC East. They’re not off to a good start. But they have time to correct what they’ve done. Can they? Maybe.

14. Houston Texans (4-3) (Last week: 11). The Texans’ offensive line continues to be a major problem. It’s a legitimate achilles heel for a team led by a fearless and fantastic young passer in Deshaun Watson.

15. Carolina Panthers (4-2) (Last week: 16). The Panthers head to San Francisco this week in a game that is more important than we ever thought it would be.

16. Detroit Lions (2-3-1) (Last week: NR). They belong here over any other team not listed. It’s inexcusable that they’re not 5-1, but two of their three excruciating results (two losses, one tie) have been their fault. And of course, we know what happened last Monday night in Green Bay. This is an up-and-coming team with talent that needs to get out of its own way.

Next up: Chicago, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Cleveland

Kenyan Drake vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Miami miracle, Mahomes’ magic maps out AFC

At one point in two different games, the age-old December storyline was set to emerge yet again. A top AFC contender was ready to fall, while the Patriots take advantage to claim the top seed in the conference.

When New England led 33-28 with six seconds remaining, it sure looked that way. That was because Patrick Mahomes and AFC-leading Chiefs were down 24-17 and facing 4th-and-9 to keep their hopes alive at home versus the Ravens.

But the impossible happened in two different locations — Miami and Kansas City.

Ryan Tannehill found Kenny Stills, who lateraled to DeVante Parker, who lateraled to Kenyan Drake who outran the rest of the Patriots for 69-yard game-winning, hook-and-ladder score. Dolphins 34, Patriots 33.

Then Patrick Mahomes sprinted right and delivered a downfield dime on the run to Tyreek Hill. He later found Damien Williams on a score on 4th-and-3. The Chiefs rallied in overtime. Chiefs, 27, Ravens 24.

Week 14 of the 2018 season should be remembered as the slate of games that nearly-solidified the top of the order in the AFC.

The Chiefs (11-2) still need to beat the Chargers next Thursday to be ABSOLUTELY safe, but they basically have the conference’s top seed on lock. The late-game heroics by Mahomes, coupled with the somewhat-sour play from Drew Brees as of late gives the Chiefs quarterback the inside track for the NFL MVP award.

The Patriots (9-4) will look to put this whacky (but mostly self-induced) loss behind them when they travel to face the Steelers next week, who are reeling after a late loss to Oakland. The way they respond from this disaster will likely shape their season.

“For it to end that way, it just doesn’t seem like that’s the end result for us, the end of the story,” Josh Gordon told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe after the game. “We know we’ve got more to prove and more to offer. Going into next week, we hope we can get it done, and I think we will.”

If the Steelers (7-5-1) don’t respond with a win, they may find themselves right out of postseason contention. They are in the midst of an epic meltdown. There is no way around it.

Not to be forgotten, the Texans’ (9-4) nine-game winning streak was snapped at home by the Colts (7-6). Indianapolis is fighting with the Ravens (7-6), Titans (7-6) and Broncos (6-7) for the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

The Titans have an inside track with their ridiculously-easy schedule. Their Week 17 game versus the Colts may serve as a de-facto playoff game for the conference’s No. 6 seed.

How will it all end up? Probably with the Chiefs and Patriots snagging the top two seeds, then meeting in Arrowhead Stadium on January 20th for a shot at playing in Super Bowl LIII. But if Sunday was any indication, that’s far from a lock.

Cooper, Cowboys are soon-to-be NFC East champs

When the Cowboys traded a first-round pick at midseason for Amari Cooper, who laughed? Who made a meme, or snarky tweet regarding the deal? It’s okay if you did, because no one would have expected the importance of that move then.

But now….it’s not ridiculous to say Cooper-to-the-Cowboys is the biggest midseason acquisiton in the history of the NFL.

Skeptical of that take? Look no further than his performance in the de-facto 2018 NFC East championship game.

Cooper scored three different times in the fourth quarter and overtime, with each touchdown giving Dallas a late lead, the last one being a walk-off score off a deflection, in overtime. Cooper has been as clutch as he’s been good, and he’s been damn effective.

With a true No. 1 wide receiver to compliment Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys seem to have enough offense to compete with the big boys of the NFC come January. That’s all possible because of their defense, of course, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, rookie Leighton Vander Esch and others help to form one of the NFL’s best front sevens.

If the Cowboys can keep games to a lower score (by 2018’s standards) then they can do damage when the pressure is on in the fourth quarter by running with Elliott, and by throwing to Cooper, who has proven that he performs best when the lights are brightest. Here come the Cowboys.

Quick-hits

– I hate to put the Bears’ (9-4) 15-6 thumping of the Rams (11-2) in the quick-hits section, but this was such an eventful week. The win on NBC’s Sunday Night Football one-upped the Cowboys’ 13-10 win over the Saints a week and a half ago. This was December football. A stout defense in a proud, cold-weather city shutting down an offensive juggernaut of a team from Southern California. Sure, Mitchell Trubisky threw three more interceptions, but Tarik Cohen scooted around the field enough to give the Bears just enough offense to topple the Rams. Plus, a litany of sacks and four interceptions of Jared Goff surely helped — this was surely most important. If you’re the Saints or Rams, I’m not sure you want to see either the Bears or Cowboys come to town in the NFC Divisional Round.

– Speaking of the Saints, It was Taysom Hill’s blocked punt with New Orleans down 14-3 in Tampa Bay, that turned their Sunday around. After six quarters of flat football, Drew Brees found somewhat of a rhythm after Hill’s third-quarter play, rallying New Orleans to a 28-14 win over the Buccaneers. The win not only exacted revenge for a crazy Week 1 loss, but effectively ended Tampa Bay’s outside shot at an NFC wild card berth. More importantly, the Saints (11-2) regained the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but they will have to dispatch the likes of the Steelers, and the Panthers (twice) to keep their footing. It wasn’t pretty, but New Orleans is back on top of the NFC. If they truly are a Super Bowl team, they should stay there.

– What in the world happened to the Panthers (6-7)? Sadly, even with a five-game losing streak, Carolina has a shot at the NFC’s No. 6 seed, a slot that no one wants to win. The Panthers will likely address Ron Rivera and the head coaching position this offseason, but new owner David Tepper should opt to stay with Rivera next year, which would be wise. The Panthers defense is not what it used to be. They’ll need to retool. And despite a fantastic season from Christian McCaffrey, and shades of greatness from D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers still lack a playmaker or two on offense. Perhaps with McCaffrey handling duties close to the line of scrimmage, Carolina should opt for a true No. 1 wide receiver. Maybe Moore becomes that, but the Panthers could still use someone on the perimeter, even if it’s a stop-plug free agent. DeSean Jackson, who is likely to bid farewell to division rival Tampa Bay, comes to mind. Whatever it is, the Panthers are in for a long offseason, where they’ll assess what went wrong, all under a brand-new owner. Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Tepper.

 

Jourdan Lewis INT vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness (Friday Edition): Cowboys halt Saints + Patriots begin season-defining stretch

With shades of 2009 pulled into force, the Cowboys ended the Saints’ 10-game winning streak via a 13-10 upset at home, vaulting them further along in the race for the NFC East crown, and solidifying them as a team to monitor in the NFC.

The Cowboys led the Saints 13-0 before a Brett Maher field goal finally put New Orleans on the board with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Saints rallied to cut the lead to 13-10 before Drew Brees threw a costly interception to Jourdan Lewis with 2:08 remaining, leading to a key Cowboys win.

To hold an offense as hot as the Saints (37.2 points per game entering Thursday) to zero points — and limit Drew Brees to 127 passing yards total — through the game’s first 35 minutes is absurd. Dallas’ defense has turned into one of the league’s best units, and at just the right time.

On offense, Dallas controlled the clock behind the Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher. And they produced through the air when needed behind Dak Prescott and No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper, this year’s best midseason acquisition. But overall it was a lukewarm performance for a unit that will need more consistency if it plans to make a serious run in January.

Prescott missed Michael Gallup on a wide-open pump-and-go attempt that would have iced the game. Later on the drive, the Cowboys quarterback fumbled the ball back to the Saints before Lewis’ interception two plays later. But Dak was sharp otherwise, going connecting on 24 of his 28 pass attempts, while throwing for an early score to Elliott on a 16-yard screen pass.

The Cowboys host the Eagles next week. A win would likely cripple the defending Super Bowl champs and nearly clinch the NFC East for Dallas, before they’d travel to the Indianapolis to face the red-hot Colts, who are serving as the AFC’s version of the Cowboys, to a degree.

The Saints will get back on the horse and attempt to close out a tough schedule by winning out, and hoping the Rams (10-1) drop a game to ensure New Orleans takes back the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

The Saints are still the best team in football, but with just 10 points in Dallas, the lack of offensive weapons beyond Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were notable for the first time all season. And because of that, the Rams remain the most talented team in football.

It’ll be interesting to look back in January or February to see if this loss was merely a speed bump for the Saints or the start of something more sinister for their season.

All we know today is that the Cowboys are in the midst of a late-season push that no one expected from them a month ago.

Are Patriots poised for another patented late-season run?

As the Patriots reach the homestretch of what’s been more of a topsy turvy season than usual, the next three games may very well define their season.

With upcoming games against the Vikings, Dolphins and Steelers, New England is entering a phase all too familiar to veterans of the team, who are hoping to inspire newcomers to carry the load in December.

Among the veterans who are used to this run are Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, as the latter will need to stay healthy for the Patriots to have any shot at a championship run. Even though he doesn’t dominate quite as consistently as he used to, Gronk still consistently draws double coverage, opening things up for Brady’s other options.

Rob Gronkowski vs Texans
Rob Gronkowski prepares for a catch versus the Texans’ double coverage. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Among the newcomers with important roles in the Patriots’ impending success are No. 1 wide receiver Josh Gordon, and rookie running back Sony Michel. With an aging Edelman and Gronkowski, Michel and Gordon (along with James White) have become focal points of the team’s current offense.

Up next are the talented Vikings, who may look to slow down Gordon with Xavier Rhodes (if he plays through an injury) and Gronkowski with Harrison Smith, meaning the young running back core of Michel and White may be asked to anchor the load on offense.

In Miami the Patriots will look to improve in one of their few house of horrors, to grab a win and most clinch the AFC East.

Then there’s the game in Pittsburgh, which may be the ultimate decider for the AFC’s No. 2 seed if the Texans to slip up. New England is all too familiar with this slate, seeing as they faced road games back-to-back in the same weeks on the schedule last year, losing to the Dolphins on a Monday Night contest before winning a thriller in Pittsburgh on a last-second goal line interception by Duron Harmon.

Despite having the Steelers number, Pittsburgh has the parts to derail New England’s defense, starting with their one-two punch at wide receiver with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

To have any chance at the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the Patriots will likely have to win out. Their toughest stretch of the season awaits. It’s gut-check time, which is a sports moment all too familiar this time of year in the Northeast pocket of the United States.

Ben Roethlisberger vs Jaguars

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Steelers rally past Jags; Cowboys, Bears make NFC statements

Fighting through yet another ugly contest in Jacksonville, Ben Roethlisberger’s plunge to the end zone with 4 seconds remaining kept the Steelers’ six-game winning streak intact, and effectively ended the season of the team that ended theirs this past January.

Down 16-0 to the Jaguars in the third quarter, it seemed as if their nemesis of the past season and a half would get the best of them again. Ben Roethlisberger’s final numbers through the air (27-for-47, 314 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions) were far from pretty. But Big Ben shook off two interceptions by Jalen Ramsey, and a game’s worth of smack talk, to send the loudest team in the league into what should be a quiet winter at home in January.

“They like to talk a lot before the game, during the game, but I’m carrying the game ball,” Roethlisberger said after the game.

With six straight losses, the Jaguars (3-7) should now be looking toward 2019, and replacing Blake Bortles at quarterback.

With six straight wins, the Steelers’ (7-2-1) season is just beginning. They currently hold the AFC’s No. 2 seed, but tough matchups with the Chargers (7-3), Saints (9-1) and longtime-rival Patriots (7-3) are looming.

Roethlisberger’s 31st career fourth-quarter comeback adds to a remarkable season that surely looks like another step in what may become a special ending for Pittsburgh, who beat the Bengals earlier this year in similar dramatic fashion – Antonio Brown’s game-winning 31-yard touchdown catch with 10 seconds remaining.

After being blanketed by Ramsey earlier, Brown won the matchup in the fourth quarter with four catches for 110 yards and a long score on his final six targets.

With the Le’Veon Bell situation — and the Jaguars — finally behind them, Pittsburgh can fully shift its focus toward the postseason push to January, which is a month of football in which the Steelers should have a major role in, this season.

Are Cowboys set to win NFC East?

After a Sunday that featured a beatdown of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles (4-6) and a Washington (6-4) loss in which they were stripped of much more — quarterback Alex Smith lost for the season with a broken leg — the Cowboys (5-5) have to feel mighty fine about their chances to win the NFL’s most storied division.

Combatting with a team in the Falcons (4-6) that may be vying for a NFC wild card spot, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot came through in the fourth quarter, matching Atlanta score for score to eventually win 22-19 on a walk-off field goal by Brett Maher.

Now, the Cowboys will host the Redskins on Thanksgiving day, adding a little flavor to one of the league’s oldest rivalries. Colt McCoy will start at quarterback for Jay Gruden’s bunch, which should make Dallas the favorite to win the game, and momentarily slide into first place in the division. Although, it’s worth noting that McCoy embarrassed the Cowboys in Dallas in a Monday Night game back in 2014.

The Eagles are still looming despite their 48-7 loss in New Orleans, but things are certainly piling up for a team that looks nothing like it did just nine months ago, when they beat the Patriots to win Super Bowl LII.

So for now, it’s Jerry Jones who should be rocking a Holiday grin of that of Dr. Suess’ Grinch. The Cowboys are coming.

Monsters of the North

As Dallas looks to take the NFC East, the Bears (7-3) may already have dibs on the NFC North this season. Their 25-20 defensive showout over the Vikings (5-4-1) puts Chicago a game and a half up in the division. The Vikings host the Packers (4-5-1) next Sunday night, then travel to New England.

So essentially, this may be the win that won the north for Chicago, which is still ironing out some kinks on offense, thanks to the inconsistency of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

But what Trubisky lacks in decision-making, he makes up for with an athleticism and the innate ability to scramble for first downs. He didn’t need to do much on Sunday, as Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ ferocious defense put a clamper on the Vikings’ star-studded offense.

The Bears are rolling, with four straight wins, and with an average schedule the rest of the way, they are in a good position for the NFC’s No. 3 seed.

Quick-hits

– It was only a matter of time before an NFL coach would burn himself to the temptation of ‘going for the win’ by attempting a two-point conversion down one point in the waning seconds. Ron Rivera is the latest victim and the Panthers (6-4) dropped a crucial game in Detroit to the Lions (4-6), 20-19.

The call can be dissected all day on Monday, but Cam Newton was off the mark, as Jarius Wright was open. To Newton’s credit, he blamed the loss on himself, after the game. Now, the Panthers host the Seahawks (5-5) in a game that may decide one of the NFC’s wild card spots.

– Give it up for Lamar Jackson, who won his first career start for the Ravens (5-5), 24-21 over the Bengals (5-5) in a big game for AFC wild card purposes.

“My teammates had my back, and I had theirs,” Jackson said after the game.

Jackson scurried on 27 rushing attempts (most by a NFL QB since 1950), which surprises no one who knows his game. As he gains more experience he should develop as a passer. Adding the ability to read defenses to his elite athleticism and playmaking skills could make for a scary player that could captivate the league much like Michael Vick did, at times.

With the lowly Raiders (2-8) up next, Baltimore may opt to keep Joe Flacco on the sideline for at least one more week, to see what else Jackson has to offer.

– It’s been mentioned a few times in lead-up to this, but this year’s best team, the Saints (9-1), just whooped last season’s best team — Eagles (4-6) in a game that spelled a ninth straight win for New Orleans. It’s certainly Super Bowl or bust for these Saints. But there’s a long way to go.

For now, watch this cool postgame interview with Drew Brees and the great Erin Andrews.

 

Tom Brady and Von Miller

Brent Schwartz’s Top 50 NFL players of 2018

A few weeks ago, NFL Network’s Top 100 players of 2018 series culminated with Tom Brady’s second consecutive — and third overall — finish at No. 1 on the rankings. I decided to follow that up with my own Top 50 list. Read and enjoy.

Just missed: Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Landon Collins, LeSean McCoy, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Marshon Lattimore, Kareem Hunt, Zach Ertz, Ndamukong Suh, Everson Griffen, Adam Thielen, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jimmy Garoppolo, Deshaun Watson, Phillip Rivers, Mike Evans, Marshal Yanda, Geno Atkins, Kevin Byard, Telvin Smith, Jason Kelce, Eric Weddle, Brandon Graham

50. Larry Fitzgerald – WR, Arizona Cardinals 

Fitzgerald will turn 35 before the season starts, but he’s coming off of three consecutive seasons with 100 receptions or more. That’s incredible. He’s still a borderline top 10 receiver.

49. Doug Baldwin – WR, Seattle Seahawks

As feisty as he is talented, the mentally-tough Baldwin is Russell Wilson’s go-to-guy. He’s one of the more clutch pass catchers in football, and is far from an interchangeable piece in the slot for Seattle.

48. Stephon Gilmore – CB, New England Patriots

After a rough start to his career in New England, Patriots fans were calling for his head. Gilmore quietly meshed into one of the league’s best cover corners outside of Jacksonville down the stretch. He’s the AFC champs’ third best player after Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

47. Michael Thomas – WR, New Orleans Saints

Thomas is easily the most talented wide receiver that Drew Brees has ever played with, and he’s only going to get better. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, Thomas is a ‘X’-type wide receiver that also produces from the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas was targeted on 26.7% of his routes last year, which is good for second in the league among wide receivers.

46. Fletcher Cox – DT, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles anchor on defense is one of the league’s best interior defensive lineman. His ability to disrupt and offense from the inside helps create one-on-one mismatches for Philadelphia’s talented team of pass rushers on the outside.

45. Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints

Give me Kamara over both Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette. The do-it-all back is a prime example of the NFL’s new breed of running backs. He can be a workhorse in a different way than an Ezekiel Elliot-type in that Kamara is best used as someone who’s targeted as often in the passing game as he is in an offense’s running attack.

44. Tyreek Hill – WR, Kansas City Chiefs

Perhaps Hill should be labeled as merely an ‘athlete’ rather than wide receiver. Hill exhibits explosiveness from a myriad of roles that include lining up on the outside, in the slot, out of the backfield and kick returning. He’s one of the league’s most exciting players.

43. David Johnson – RB, Arizona Cardinals

In examining a running back who previously suffered a season-ending injury the year before, one must do their due diligence in knocking them down a few spots on any player rankings. But when healthy, Johnson challenges a few others for the title of the league’s best running back. He’s just as affective in the passing game as he is in the running game.

42. A.J. Green – WR, Cincinnati Bengals 

Green’s best days in Cincinnati may be behind him as Andy Dalton and the middling Bengals provide little to be excited about as a franchise. But he still remains a borderline top five guy at his position.

41. David DeCastro – G, Pittsburgh Steelers

As great as Le’Veon Bell’s field vision is, would he have enough time for his patented stop-and-start running without DeCastro clearing the lanes? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t.

40. Chandler Jones – EDGE, Arizona Cardinals 

Looking back, Bill Belichick’s decision to trade Jones (instead of paying him) may be one of the few mistakes in his ruthless approach to team building. Without Jones (and albeit, a few others) the Patriots pass rush has been virtually nonexistent. In Arizona, Jones proved his worth by leading the NFL with 17 sacks in 2017.

39. Casey Hayward – CB, Los Angeles Chargers 

One of the league’s most underrated players, Hayward has been even better with the Chargers than he was with the Green Bay Packers. Pro Football Focus named Hayward the league’s top coverage defender in 2017.

38. Eric Berry – S, Kansas City Chiefs

Berry overcame Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, so he’ll overcome last year’s season-ending Achilles injury as well. The Chiefs once-stout defense is in need of a reboot and that begins mostly with Berry returning to action.

37. Earl Thomas – S, Seattle Seahawks

A couple seasons ago, Thomas was the anchor of arguably the best defensive backfield in NFL history, and was absolutely a top 10 player in football. In 2018 Thomas is still a top tier safety, but his prime years have passed him by. Still, whether he suits up for the Seahawks or Cowboys this season, Thomas still has an Ed Reed-style of range that will drive quarterbacks nuts for a couple more seasons.

36. Jadeveon Clowney – EDGE, Houston Texans

Clowney has slowly transitioned from the ‘bust’ label associated with an underperforming former No. 1 overall pick to one of the league’s best overall defensive players. He has the power, athleticism and technique to give even the best quarterbacks hell.

35. Patrick Peterson – CB, Arizona Cardinals 

Drafted the same year (2011) as Richard Sherman, Peterson has not yet reached Sherman’s peak, but he’s outlasted him as one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks for a longer period of time. Of course, Sherman could prove me wrong at age 30 on a new team coming off a major injury, but this isn’t about him.

Peterson has been one of the best coverage defenders in the business for most of this decade and he’s even been one of the game’s most dangerous punt returners at times.

34. Zack Martin – G, Dallas Cowboys

Martin edges DeCastro and Marshal Yanda on this list as the NFL’s best guard. Martin excels in both pass and run-blocking as one of a few All-Pros on Dallas’ league-best offensive ine.

33. Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers

When healthy, Allen is unquestionably a top-five level wide receiver. He’s the prototype underrated player that doesn’t get enough media attention. Despite his lackluster pro day 40-yard dash (4.71 seconds) Allen makes up that with his pristine route-running skills and playmaking ability, says NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, who is also a former player and scout.

32. Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City Chiefs 

Like Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce is a new-breed of tight end. The 6-foot-5 tight end is almost Gronkowksi’s size with better speed and quickness. Kelce can line up in-line like a traditional tight end but also spends time out wide and in the slot. Kelce is basically a massive wide receiver and should be treated as such on one of the best offenses in the league.

31. Carson Wentz – QB, Philadelphia Eagles

Had he not been injured versus the Rams, Wentz would have been last year’s MVP. He’ll have a chance to prove last year is no fluke in his return from a major injury last season. He’s one of the game’s brightest young stars.

30. Chris Harris, Jr. – CB, Denver Broncos

To be blunt, Harris is the best slot cornerback of all-time. The position is relatively new in terms of being a full-time role, but the nickel position is extremely important in today’s era of football. Harris’ ability to stymie Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and other slot playmakers in the innovative Patriots’ scheme is all you need to know about Harris. With Talib gone, Harris may be asked to cover opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher regardless of whether he’ll be lined up in the slot or the outside.

29. Harrison Smith – S, Minnesota Vikings

Smith is next in line to become the NFL’s best safety if he isn’t already. He’s just as effective in the box as he is in pass coverage. His reliability in the backend allows Mike Zimmer to be more aggressive with the NFL’s No. 1 defense.

28. Cam Newton – QB , Carolina Panthers 

Newton showed maturation as a leader in displaying mental toughness more often than not in 2017, a far cry from past seasons. During his 2015 MVP season, he showed how good he can be. As the Panthers add more weapons around him, Newton will continue to improve into a consistent quarterback.

27. Matt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons

With the absence of Kyle Shanahan and the ending to Super Bowl LI casting over the 2017 season, Matt Ryan still had the Falcons in position to make it back to the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons are one of the league’s most talented teams, and should be one out of a handful of Super Bowl LIII favorites, with much of that credited to Ryan.

26. Ben Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Roethlisberger is on the downside of his career, but at certain times during the 2017 season, he showcased that he still has the tools to be considered a top passer. Despite the loss to the Jaguars in an AFC Divisional Playoff, Big Ben shredded the AFC’s top ranked defense for 469 yards and five touchdowns. He may not be as consistent as he once was, and I’m willing to bet this is his last ‘good’ year at quarterback, but in a league riddled with inconsistency at the position he remains one of the NFL’s best.

25. Calais Campbell – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars

After nine seasons in Arizona as mostly an interior defender, Campbell had his best season as a pro on the Jaguars’ stingy defense by setting the tone on the edge. As the leader of a ferocious pass rush, it’s Campbell in company that rushed quarterbacks into untimely decisions. The Jaguars have the NFL’s best duo at cornerback, but they’re twice as effective because of Campbell and others up front.

24. Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers

Entering his third season, Boss could be labeled as an ’emerging’ star if he wasn’t a star already. He’s the best bet in terms of future ‘superstars’ in the same way J.J. Watt has been at a similar position. Having Melvin Ingram rushing the passer from the other side on the Chargers’ defense helps. Bosa is the most likely young player on this list to end up in the top 10 next summer.

23. Cameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints

Jordan is one of the NFL’s most underappreciated players in that he’s one of the best edge players in football, yet doesn’t get the national media attention of others at his position. The Saints’ defense improved dramatically in 2017, and although adding talent (Marshon Lattimore, etc.) in the secondary certainly helped, Jordan deserves the most credit for their turnaround.

22. Xavier Rhodes – CB, Minnesota Vikings

At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds with 4.39 speed, Rhodes is a prototypical No. 1 cornerback in today’s NFL. His combination of athleticism and physicality are virtually unmatched at his position, making him the Vikings’ most valuable cog on their No. 1 ranked defense.

21. A.J. Bouye – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Not to be overlooked by Jalen Ramsey, Bouye has already proven to be one of the best free agent acquisitions of the 2010’s. The Jaguars stole Bouye from their AFC South rival, the Texans, by singing him to five-year, $67.5 million contract last offseason. In his first season in Jacksonville, Bouye led the league in PFF’s passing rating allowed when targeted stat and didn’t allow a touchdown until Antonio Brown snagged one over him in the postseason.

20. Ezekiel Elliot – RB , Dallas Cowboys

Like Bosa, Elliot is one of the league’s budding young stars. He already has two seasons under his belt despite being just 22 years old (he’ll turn 23 next week). Sure, the Cowboys mammoth offensive line has a helping hand in Elliot’s success, but it’s apparent that the Cowboys running back has the talent to succeed just about anywhere.

19. DeAndre Hopkins – WR, Houston Texans

The most impressive thing about Hopkins is that he’s flourished with an array of below average quarterbacks. His knack for tracking the ball in the air and sideline balance are just as impressive as his receiving skills. Hopkins and Odell Beckham Jr. are the favorites to take the ‘best wide receiver’ crown from Antonio Brown.

18. Tyron Smith – T, Dallas Cowboys

Yes, the Cowboys have the NFL’s best guard and left tackle. Smith is a behemoth of both power and technique at one of the most important positions in pro football.

17. J.J. Watt – DE (3-4), Houston Texans

The only reason Watt isn’t in the top 10 of this list is due to the fact that he’s missed most of the past two seasons to injury. The former three-time Defensive Player of the Year is one of the most dominant edge defenders of all-time by any measure. Him and a certain Broncos’ pass rusher could each be called this generation’s Lawrence Taylor.

16. Julio Jones – WR, Atlanta Falcons

With four consecutive seasons of over 1,400 receiving yards, Jones has been one of the game’s top two receivers since 2014. But I made this list with a 70-30 rule of production in recent seasons pitted against potential during the 2018 campaign. The latter percentage makes me believe this next receiver will pass him this season.

15. Odell Beckham Jr. – WR, New York Giants

It may take a few games for him to round back into form, but with Saquon Barkley and an improved offensive line, Beckham should have a little less attention from defenses. 2018 may be the season that he becomes the game’s best wide receiver, and ultimate offensive weapon. He’s certainly on path to do that and more as he puts up early career numbers that only Jerry Rice and Randy Moss have produced.

14. Bobby Wagner – LB, Seattle Seahawks 

As the ‘Legion of Boom’ era comes to a close, Bobby Wagner remains the most important player on a once-stout defense. Wagner’s speed and instincts make him a downright monster in defending the run and the pass. Seahawks GM Jon Schneider should look to build around their star linebacker.

13. Luke Kuechly – LB, Carolina Panthers

Though his very best play happened a few seasons ago, Keuchly remains the best linebacker in pro football. He’s the Panthers’ best player.

12. Drew Brees – QB, New Orleans Saints

Many compliment Brady for his play at age 40, but Drew Brees is continuing to play quarterback at a high level at the current age of 39. He’s not in Brady or Aaron Rodgers’ class anymore, but he shouldn’t be overlooked. With the team built in New Orleans, Brees may have a real crack at ring No. 2 before he retires.

11. Todd Gurley – RB, Los Angeles Rams

Gurley was a finalist for NFL MVP due to being the catalyst of the NFL’s No. 1 offense in 2018. As Jared Goff matures, the focal point may switch from Gurley to the young quarterback. But frankly, there’s no need. Gurley is that good.

10. Le’Veon Bell – RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

The league’s best running back has perhaps the most unique running style in the history of pro football. Bell’s field vision is second to none among rushers, along with plenty of his other skills. In an era where running backs have been less valuable than years past, Bell is still one of the game’s best players, with only two skill position players above him on this list.

9. Jalen Ramsey – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars 

Ramsey has transcended into the league’s best cornerback much of the way Richard Sherman did for a moment a few years ago: by being the outspoken, brash leader of one of the league’s best defenses. He’s the face of the Jaguars.

8. Rob Gronkowski – TE, New England Patriots

Although Gronk’s full seasons are no longer statistically dominant, he still exhibits his unstoppable self when needed. During the Patriots’ game-winning drive to beat the Steelers in Week 15 and the team’s first drive to start the second half of Super Bowl LII, Gronkowski completely took the game over. He’s Randy Moss-level scary at the tight end position. He’s been passed as the game’s best non-QB on offense, though.

7. Khalil Mack – EDGE, Chicago Bears

The only player in NFL history to be voted an All-Pro at two positions (DE, OLB), Mack is an unstoppable force on the edge and will continue to thrive in Chicago as the Bears’ new franchise player.

6. Russell Wilson – QB, Seattle Seahawks 

Wilson was an MVP candidate in 2017 despite playing behind the league’s worst offensive line. It seemed like he was running for his life on virtually every snap last season. No other QB could have that much success given the circumstances. If the Seahawks surprisingly return to the playoffs in 2018 in their first year of the ‘post-Legion-of-Boom’ era, it’ll be because of Wilson. He’s the third best QB in football. ‘@’ me if you’d like.

5. Von Miller – EDGE, Denver Broncos 

Miller is still the game’s best pass rusher. If he can mentor rookie Bradley Chubb into half of the force he is on the edge, Denver’s defense may return to how it looked in 2015.

4. Antonio Brown – WR, Pittsburgh Steelers 

The game’s best non-QB on offense was unstoppable again in 2017. Statistically, he’s coming off the best five-year span for a wide receiver in NFL history. Speaking of history, Brown is climbing up the greatest wide receivers of all-time list. After Jerry Rice I’ve had Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald. Brown will give the latter two a run for their money with a few more seasons at his recent level of play.

3. Aaron Donald – DT, Los Angeles Rams 

Donald has taken over as the league’s best defensive player, a title previously held by Von Miller, and J.J. Watt before him. With the arrival of Ndamukong Suh along the Rams’ defensive line, Donald should terrorize offenses from the interior at an even higher rate in 2018.

2. Aaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay Packers 

Despite another season cut short to injury, Rodgers belongs here. He’s on pace to finish as one of the four or five best quarterbacks of all-time, with an outside chance of chasing this next QB for the ultimate crown.

1. Tom Brady – QB, New England Patriots

The GOAT remains at the top of his game despite turning 41 in August. His impressive run since 2014 (2-1 in Super Bowls, NFL MVP at age 40) has been the highest level of quarterback play of any passer, ever. The fact that he’s doing this at his age is incredible.