Roughly 24 hours after Aaron Rodgers put forth the most efficient quarterback performance of the weekend, Tom Brady shook off some early rust to make the throws necessary to likely dispel Drew Brees from New Orleans (and the NFL) en route to joining the soon-to-be-named MVP Rodgers in the conference championship round — the 14th such berth for Brady in 21 years.
Sometimes, things come for those who wait.
So despite their now combined age of 80 years old, don’t you dare take for granted what could be the only Brady-Rodgers championship bout we’ll ever see, this Sunday at Lambeau Field.
This matchup has long been yearned, but has seemed anything but inevitable in recent seasons, as it seemed the time for these two great quarterbacks to meet in a big game had passed.
Shortly after Rodgers burst onto the scene, in 2010 — the season of Rodgers’ only Super Bowl win and Tom Brady’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP honor — Brett Favre’s replacement missed just one game during that campaign, a Sunday night tilt in December that saw Brady’s Patriots rally for a 31-27 win over Matt Flynn and the Packers.
That occurrence seems to be a microcosm of the missed opportunities for a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl.
Green Bay would go on to win the Super Bowl over the Steelers in 2010, while New England, sporting a league-best 14-2 regular season record, was stunned by the Jets in an AFC Divisional matchup.
The next season, the Patriots would make the Super Bowl (and fall short to the Giants), while MVP Rodgers and the league-best Packers (15-1 in regular season) were stunned by a New York team in the NFC Divisional Round.
The NFL’s “final four” in 2014 and 2016 became the biggest teases, with 2014 being the year that got away. The Patriots beat the Seahawks that season by the way of Brady and Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 49, but Seattle only got there after rallying from a 12-point deficit to Rodgers’ Packers in regulation to win that year’s NFC title game over Green Bay in overtime.
That 2014 postseason felt like the NBA’s version of the 2009 conference finals round, where the taxing debate of LeBron James vs Kobe Bryant never got it’s NBA Finals showdown, after LeBron’s Cavs failed to get past the gutsy and clutch Orlando Magic.
2016 is not a major indictment on Rodgers, as his undermanned Packers team was no match for the Atlanta Falcons in that year’s NFC Championship Game. And had Rodgers won, we would have never witnessed the masterpiece that is Brady’s “28-3” comeback in Super Bowl 51.
But now, the two quarterbacks so often compared (mostly on sports talk television) will meet with more than a regular season loss on the line.
To settle the Brady-Rodgers “debate,” it depends on what debate is being discussed.
The accolades and greatness that comes with being named the GOAT of your sport make it pretty clear who the greatest quarterback of all time is — that would be Brady.
The former Patriot quarterback won his 32nd career playoff game on Sunday, the best mark of all time. Second-place is Joe Montana with 16 postseason victories. Brady has lapped the field. If you take any two of the greatest QBs ever (Montana and Peyton Manning, John Elway and Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Terry Bradshaw…) and combine their amount of playoff wins, the mark would fall short of Brady’s.
So no matter what happens this upcoming Sunday, Brady is the greatest to ever live, and it will take a lot more then just one more Super Bowl win for the likes of Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes to change that.
But there are other debates — Would Rodgers have had the same amount as success as Brady with Bill Belichick’s Patriots? Who knows? Maybe. And who is the best quarterback right now? Like the GOAT debate, that mark has an easy answer, it’s Rodgers.
The Green Bay legend replaced another Lambeau legend, Brett Favre, before him, and by the end of the season, Rodgers will have matched him in MVP awards and possibly pass him in Super Bowl victories.
Really, for all the happiness that came from Brady besting Drew Brees in a battle of greats on Sunday, this still feels like Rodgers’ year.
And the fact that Rodgers’ worst game of his season is a 38-10 loss to Brady’s Bucs in October while posting an abysmal 17.8 Total QBR, fits right in with an in-season redemption chapter that would not only put Rodgers above his contemporary for a fleeting moment, but vault him to his long-awaited second Super Bowl.
It makes for a great story.
The game in general should be memorable, really, no matter who wins. Two legendary No. 12’s dueling it out in what could be a snowy championship game at Lambeau Field. Even the great “Ice Bowl”of 1967 won’t quite have the star power that is Brady and Rodgers in their twilight, dueling it out.
It shall be a treat, and we shouldn’t look past it. Savor it.
When the NFL schedule was set, few looked at this Saints-Eagles matchup and imagined anything other than Drew Brees battling Carson Wentz, possibly for playoff seeding, in a cold-weather December matchup.
With Brees injured and Wentz and his albatross contract on the bench, one of the most unique matchups took place on Sunday when do-it-all, Swiss-army-knife Taysom Hill and dual-threat, been-through-it-all Jalen Hurts battled on Sunday.
The Eagles (4-8-1) won 24-21, dropping the Saints (10-3) to the NFC’s No. 2 spot because of their tie-breaking loss to the Packers (10-3) earlier this season.
With Taysom Hill, we know the story by now. We know why he is unique, and despite NFL Twitter taking a bad-faith approach (for whatever reason, but you can uncover possibly why if you got into the weeds, not recommended) to Hill, Sean Payton and the Saints were 3-0 under Hill before this matchup. And although the game plan has surely been altered, New Orleans has surprisingly let Hill read the field like a prototypical QB, and the 30-year-old has found some success going through his reads to fire down-field strikes.
On Sunday, Hill went 28-of-38 for 298 yards and two touchdowns, but threw an interception, often held onto the ball too long (Eagles had six sacks, some of them pure coverage sacks), and rushed for just 33 yards.
Time will tell if Hill is New Orleans’ long-term answer at QB (for next season and beyond), but anyone could see that they need Drew Brees if they are to win the Super Bowl this season.
But the story of Sunday was Hill being outplayed by Jalen Hurts.
Hurts, Philadelphia’s rookie second-round pick (a surprise at the time) won his first career NFL start over a Super Bowl contender that came into the game on a nine-game winning streak. In doing so, he joined Lamar Jackson as the only other quarterback since 1950 to have over 100 rushing yards in his first NFL start.
Hurts ran for 106 yards on 18 carries, outshining Hill at his own game, as the rookie’s presence also opened up the door for Miles Sanders (14 carries, 115 yards, two touchdowns), as Philly ran for 246 yards (6.8 yards per carry) versus one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, particularly against the run.
Thought of as Philly’s possible “Taysom Hill” when he was drafted last spring, Hurts is on the right path to proving that he can be more than just a situational-type player to spell Wentz —much like Hill, over the last month, is steadily proving that he, too, may be a legit starting QB.
His passing numbers (17-of-30, 167 yards, one touchdown) were pedestrian, but Hurts made several big-time throws from the pocket, and the on the run. His most important throw of the day was his second-quarter, 15-yard, back-shoulder touchdown strike to Alshon Jeffrey on 4th-and-2. Even more impressive was that Hurts delivered that throw with an all-out blitz in his face.
Poise and confidence is apparent in the young quarterback that has been through it all, including a benching in Alabama, which he handled graciously, and a transfer to Oklahoma, where he found success once more with his second college team.
“I know he’s an NFL rookie . . . but I don’t know that he could’ve experienced a whole lot more to get him ready for this than what he did in college,” said Lincoln Riley (Hurts’ head coach at Oklahoma) to NBC Sports’ Peter King.
“I mean, he goes into Alabama, starts as a true freshman, part of championship teams, and all of a sudden, he’s not the starter. Comes back in in a championship game and leads them to victory. Transfers to [Oklahoma], where they just had two Heisman trophy winners in a row, knowing he’s only gonna have one year, comes in and has a great year, new system, new teammates. He’s always got supreme confidence in himself and he trusts his preparation. I think part of him is like, ‘Man, if I’ve made it through what I’ve made it through, I trust myself that even in a new situation that I can do it. So no, not surprising to me at all that he would go play the way he did today.”
There were other great throws from Hurts, including this deep, almost-completion above. It’s clear Philly might have something in the young cat. They’ll need more than one game to judge, but could the Eagles ship Wentz to say, Indianapolis (to reunite with Frank Reich), swallowing a bunch of dead cap for his remaining two years on the contract, and build this offense around Hurts?
Again, it’s too early to tell.
Philly head coach Doug Pederson is still yet to name a starter for the Eagles late-afternoon showdown in Arizona (7-6) next week.
NFL MVP RACE
The first of four consecutive MVP sections to finish out the season in my column doesn’t accept much change from my ranking from two weeks ago. Mahomes is still the clear favorite, although Rodgers is not that far behind. Any other season without a QB of Mahomes’ caliber would spurn a clear win for Rodgers, and hundreds of columns surrounding his improved play in Year 2 under Green Bay head coach Matt Lafluer, as well was what this means for Rodgers’ future in Green Bay with Jordan Love (first-round rookie QB) as his backup. Elsewhere, Russell Wilson, the “clear” favorite from the first half of the season, sits soundly in third over Derrick Henry (who is dominating defenses in December once more) and Aaron Donald, who is so good that it’s easy to overlook his play.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) (Last week: 1). Even on one of their ugly days (hideous, by their standards), Mahomes shook off a few mistakes to throw for 393 yards, touchdowns to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and post a 91.9 Total QBR. Yeah, they’re starting to look unbeatable this season.
2. Buffalo Bills (10-3) (Last week: 4). Josh Allen has come alive again after falling back to earth some during the middle of the season. The Bills are as talented as almost anyone in the league, and are a real contender in the AFC. Would they fare better in a rematch with the Chiefs in January?
3. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers and the Packers now have a good shot at the NFC’s No. 1 seed. They’ve been looking good as of late, but some teams that would give them fits in January include the Rams and Buccaneers. And oddly enough, one of those two squads could end up being their NFC Divisional Round matchup, as one of them may get the NFC’s No. 5 seed, and face the NFC East winner in Round 1. It’s too early to tell, though.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 2). Their defense is starting to slip some without both Devin Bush and Bud Dupree. Having Dupree opposite T.J. Watt was a big advantage for the Steelers. Now, Pittsburgh must shore up issues, including their suddenly moribund-looking offense, to at least hang onto the AFC’s No. 2 seed. They’re starting to look like last year’s Patriots.
5. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). They suffered their first loss with Taysom Hill. They’ve fared much better with Hill than I figured they would, but they need Drew Brees back to reach the Super Bowl. Will he return this week, in time for a big home matchup with the Chiefs (12-1)?
6. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) (Last week: 6). They dominated the Patriots (6-7) last week, giving Sean McVay at least a small taste of revenge for Super Bowl 53. Their offense is starting to round into form again, and their defense, led by stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, is phenomenal. No one in the NFC would like to see them come January.
7. Cleveland Browns (9-3) (Last week: 7). Can they keep things going versus the Ravens tonight? If they win soundly, it’s time to start taking them seriously. Not Super Bowl contender seriously, but at least as a tough AFC postseason opponent. Can they hang onto the conference’s No. 5 seed?
8. Tennessee Titans (9-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans took their frustrations out on the lowly Jaguars (1-12) on Sunday. The Titans are an inconsistent bunch, so this may seem crazy to say, but I think they’re the biggest threat to the Chiefs in the AFC, just above the Bills and the beat-up Steelers.
9. Indianapolis Colts (9-4) (Last week: 9). Their defense is starting to slip some, but racking up 44 points on the road, even against a defense like the Raiders, is impressive. There’s more work to be done to ensure they make the postseason, but Sunday’s win improved their chances dramatically.
10. Seattle Seahawks (9-4) (Last week: 10). There’s no better opponent than the 2020 Jets (0-13) to help your team get back on track. Or at least, to make it look like your team is trending back in the right direction. I think they are, though. All eyes are still peeking ahead to the Seahawks’ Week 16 home game versus the Rams (9-4), though. That game will likely decide the NFC West.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) (Last week: 11). The offense got off to a slow start, and Tom Brady had two awful misses to wide-open receivers, but the GOAT settled into things. The 48-yard touchdown throw to Scotty Miller was a beauty. They need to find a way to get Miller onto the field more often, even if it means decreasing Antonio Brown’s snaps. On defense, their ferocious pass rush came alive late. They’re still a collection of talent that is yet to mesh, though, and they may never do so in this weird season.
12. Miami Dolphins (8-5) (Last week: 12). They muddied the game enough early versus the Chiefs, forcing Mahomes to throw two easy interceptions and sacking him a few times, but Miami’s offense couldn’t take advantage. Tua Tagovailoa got it going down the stretch, but it was too little, too late.
13. Baltimore Ravens (7-5) (Last week: 13). Their favorable schedule gives them a great shot at the AFC’s No. 7 seed, and maybe even the No. 6 spot. If they can beat Cleveland tonight, they really could go 11-5. Let’s see if they can begin to execute. They’re beat up, though.
14. Washington (6-7) (Last week: NR). There may not be a better defensive line in the NFL than the one in Washington, where Chase Young looks like the next superstar in the line of second-overall pick defensive ends selected out of Ohio State (see: 49ers’ Nick Bosa last season). Alex Smith went down with an injury in San Francisco (his old home, where he was credited with a win) on Sunday, though, but all reports are saying he’s fine. WFT should stick with him over Dwayne Haskins.
15. Arizona Cardinals (7-6) (Last week: NR). The Cardinals moved into sole possession of the NFC’s final playoff spot on Sunday thanks to Hasaan Reddick. Reddick, Arizona’s first-round pick in 2017 (13th overall), had his fifth-year option declined in the offseason, and has mostly been considered a bust. But after a few bad seasons (and subsequent benching) at the linebacker position, the unique athlete has spent more time as an EDGE defender this season in Arizona’s aggressive, blitz-happy defense designed to mask their overall inefficiency on that side of the ball. Well, Reddick notched five sacks versus the Giants on Sunday, and Arizona’s defense came alive at the right time, albeit versus a subpar offense.
16. Minnesota Vikings (6-7) (Last week: 14). They deserve this spot over the Patriots and Raiders, for now. They likely have to win all of their remaining games (vs Chicago, at New Orleans (Christmas Day), at Detroit) to even have a chance at making the postseason. That’s doable, but unlikely.
Next up: New England, Las Vegas, Chicago, Denver, N.Y. Giants
With a Week 1 loss in New Orleans on their mind, and a furthering lead on the NFC South at stake, Sunday’s night tilt was primed for a coronation of what seemed to be the NFC’s soon-to-be best team, the Buccaneers.
That is, until the Saints came marching in.
If you can forgive the cheesy reference, you’ll see just how important New Orleans’ statement win was in the NFC. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a season-sweep clinching, 38-3 dismantling of Tom Brady’s Bucs by Drew Brees’ Saints.
“Give New Orleans credit. They kicked our ass in every phase,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said after the game.
That they did.
The Saints outgained the Bucs 420-194 in total yards, 138-8 in rushing yards, and Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns and earned a near-perfect 98.9 Total QBR compared to Tom Brady’s abysmal 3.8 mark, as the latter threw for three interceptions on just 5.5 yards per attempt. The 35-point loss was also the largest of Brady’s career, and perhaps, his ugliest.
“It’s about playing better and execution and we all have to do our jobs a lot better,” said Brady. “When you play good teams there’s little margin for error. They’ve been a great team for a long time. They’ve got a lot of good players. If we’re going to beat them we’ve got to play a lot better than we did tonight.”
The Saints do have a lot of good players, but the Bucs do too. Touted as one of the NFL’s best rosters, equipped with one of the league’s best defenses and up-and-coming offenses led by Brady, almost nothing went right for the Bucs. Even newcomer Antonio Brown (three catches, 31 yards) was unable to give the offense a spark.
The most telling moment of the night came early in the third quarter. New Orleans led 31-0 at halftime but the Bucs were able to drive down to the Saints’ one-yard line in their first drive of the second half. But Tampa was denied any points, as Brady threw three incomplete passes (one was a Rob Gronkowski drop) at the goal line, and the Saints took over on downs, effectively slamming the door shut on their victory.
“When things don’t go your way…sometimes they keep going that way,” said Brady. “We have to figure out how to stop it and turn it around, and we had our opportunities and we just didn’t do it.”
Opportunity was the word I was most thinking of heading into Sunday’s game. After the Seahawks lost to the Bills earlier in the day, it was clear what was at stake for both teams, but even more so for Tampa. A win would have not only given them bragging rights as the NFC’s best team at midseason, it would have put the Bucs at the top of the conference and a game and a half above the Saints in the NFC South, which now looks to be a wire-to-wire race.
If you’re the Saints, you have to feel good about this victory — a season sweep over the NFL team getting the most attention. Brees, who began the year as the league’s all-time leading touchdown passer, has been criticized and questioned as it appeared his play had declined, and his arm strength slipped even a little bit more. The former, at least, was not a concern on Sunday.
“Brady is still the second greatest quarterback for a reason,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said after the game, seemingly in a way of backing his own QB.
Stuck in an era with the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and with others like Patrick Mahomes soon to hog all-time glory, Brees has been forgotten among the league’s all-time best QBs. No, he doesn’t belong above Brady or Manning on any all-time lists, but Rodgers? Maybe. What about Brett Favre, Dan Marino and some others? Maybe them too, honestly. But he isn’t talked about as such.
Regardless of what’s being talked about, Brees extended his regained lead over Brady in all-time touchdown passes on Sunday, and moved to 5-2 versus the GOAT in their seven head-to-head meetings.
Ripe with talent and unique playmakers such as Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill and Michael Thomas (who returned on Sunday), the Saints have enough offensive firepower to continue to play the game their way, without having to listen to any qualms some might have with their unwillingness to push the ball downfield.
The three aforementioned playmakers (Kamara, Hill, Thomas) are among the NFL’s best players in confined spaces, winning their battles by either finessing or bulldozing defenders, or catching contested catches over the middle. And they’re led by Brees, perhaps the most accurate quarterback in NFL history. They can win this way, despite what you think of Brees’ 41-year-old throwing arm.
And what about the defense? The talented unit has had some troubles in the first half of the season, but they’ve at least been sturdy against the run. Tampa ran the ball only five times on Sunday, as the game quickly got away from them, but it was clear they weren’t going to amass much on the ground, as the Saints swallowed up any attempts. That led to a flurry of Brady pass attempts early and often, mostly with a Saints pass rush in his face.
Now, the top of the NFC is jumbled. There’s a logjam with the likes of the Saints, Bucs, Seahawks and Packers in the race for the conference’s top seed, which is more important than ever with the new rules in place making it the only team in the conference to get a first-round bye.
But make no mistake, the Saints are now the NFC’s top dog, even if just by a slim margin. And the talent on their team suggests they’ll only get better.
NFL MVP RACE
Here is my second look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section I’m creating for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.
1) Russell Wilson — That was a dud in Buffalo, but it was a dud in which the Seahawks were still able to score 34 points. But MVP voters should be able to see through this performance. That was his first bad game of the season. He was careless with the football. Still, he is your midseason MVP, but just by a hair. This next guy is now right there with him. Wilson is far from a shoe-in for his first MVP award. He’ll certainly need to earn it. I won’t doubt him, though. He’ll bounce back.
2) Patrick Mahomes — Mahomes causally has thrown for 25 touchdowns and just one interception during a 8-1 start and is barely mentioned in the MVP race. LeBron-like voter fatigue has already begun to minimize his accomplishments in just his third year as a starter. He’s right there with Wilson for the award at the season’s midway point.
3) Aaron Rodgers — Rodgers is definitely having an MVP-type season, but his egg-laying in Tampa Bay a few weeks ago places him soundly in third, looking up at Wilson and Mahomes as true lead candidates. Nonetheless, it’s impressive what he’s been able to do in Year 2 under Matt LaFeur’s offense, and that’s with a lack of pass-catching talent outside of Davante Adams.
4) Kyler Murray — Losses like Sunday’s in Miami put him more in the race for Offensive Player of the Year, but still, you can’t knock what he’s done in just Year 2.
5) Tom Brady — Barring an insane run these last seven weeks, both statistically and win-loss-wise, Brady lost any chance at this award with Sunday’s performance. Luckily for him, he did inspire what will be a huge list of doubters and off-the-wall takes, which is what he feeds off.
Honorable mention: Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill,Derrick Henry/Dalvin Cook (RBs! — Let’s face it, these two are OPOY candidates only)
THE BETTER HALF
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0) (Last week: 1). Dallas did everything they could to knock off the Steelers in a game that surprisingly became a slug fest. But good teams find a way to win, even on their off days. The Steelers did just that.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). They have some problems on defense, but we knew that. They win anyway. It seems Patrick Mahomes literally can’t play a bad game, or even an average one, really. And his stat line for the last two weeks? 788 yards, nine touchdown passes, zero interceptions. That’s silly. The Steelers may be the best team at the moment, but let’s be clear, the Chiefs are favored to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.
3. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 5). Fresh off another disappointing loss, the Ravens took their frustrations out on the Colts. That was an impressive showing in Indianapolis. No, the Colts aren’t an opponent on par with the Steelers or Chiefs, but they were a 5-2 team with a talented defense and solid coach, playing at home. For Lamar Jackson, that was as good of a moral victory as it was a real one. They can beat good teams, but we still need to see them beat a great one, particularly in January.
4. New Orleans Saints (6-2) (Last week: 6). Whether Drew Brees is starting to slip or not, the Saints have the talent to reach, and win, the Super Bowl. But we’re just getting started. Here comes the second half of the regular season. Will they get the NFC’s top seed? It’s way too early to tell. But that was quite the statement in Tampa Bay.
5. Green Bay Packers (6-2) (Last week: 7). The 49ers have been absolutely destroyed by injuries, so Aaron Rodgers’ fabulous performance on Thursday for a Green Bay win over San Francisco wasn’t exactly a demon-exorcising event, but they’ll take it.
6. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Bears offense certainly isn’t scaring anyone, but that was an encouragingly sound win at home for the Titans. Desmond King Jr., a versatile former All-Pro defensive back coming over from Chargers, was a good trade for them. The Titans had been missing Logan Ryan in their secondary. King fills that role.
7. Buffalo Bills (7-2) (Last week: 9). That was a nice turn-back-the-clock performance from Josh Allen, who looked more like his September self in their win over the Seahawks on Sunday. They are soundly in tier 2 in the tough AFC.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 3). After his five-touchdown performance in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Tom Brady’s offense sputtered versus the Giants last week and came to a screeching halt at home versus the Saints on Sunday. Yes, Tampa’s defense, which has been touted as one of the NFL’s best, did not play well, but this was more on the offense. Three points? In that game? At home? They are simply too inconsistent on offense to be fully trusted. Doubt Brady at your own risk, but they didn’t look right on Sunday night. Bucs fans should be concerned, but not hysterical.
9. Seattle Seahawks (6-2) (Last week: 4). It’s not too surprising that the Seahawks lost a cross-country road game to a talented opponent, but the way in which they were beat is concerning. But we knew what they were. This season, Russell Wilson has been playing at an MVP-level in a run-n’-gun offense, while the defense has been one of the league’s worst, particularly in defending the pass and rushing the passer. As fun as they are, I’m not sure even Wilson can lead this team to a Super Bowl with the defense as is. They may not meet their demise until as late as the NFC title game or Super Bowl, but the Seahawks’ defense will ultimately be their undoing. They are not a good unit.
10. Miami Dolphins (5-3) (Last week: 12). The talk will be centered around rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa this week, and for good reason, he was awesome on Sunday. But I think it’s time to start talking about Brian Flores as a Coach-of-the-Year candidate. He’d probably be second on my list after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin at this point.
11. Arizona Cardinals (5-3) (Last week: 11). As great as their offense has been, they were shutout 10-0 in the fourth quarter at home versus Miami with a chance to take the lead (via tiebreaker over Seattle) in the NFC West, had they won. That stings.
12. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 13). They move up during their bye week. Next up: a home game versus division rival Seattle. Can they make the NFC West even more of a tight-knit group?
13. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 16). They withstood two dropped end-zone fades on the game’s final two plays to outlast the Chargers. They look like an AFC wild card team. Jon Gruden deserves a ton of credit.
14. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 11). Yes, the Ravens may be a better team, but that was a discouraging loss for at Colts club that feels like one of the league’s best overall rosters. Sadly, as expected, Phillip Rivers and the offense can’t be trusted in big games, and that falls mostly on Rivers.
15. Cleveland Browns (5-3) (Last week: NR). The teams below them were so bad this week, that the Browns, fresh off a 16-6, inept home loss to the Raiders, move into this spot after their bye week.
16. Chicago Bears (5-4) (Last week: 14). They go here for now because no other team below them seems like they have a chance for the playoffs, minus the NFC East-leading Eagles. It’s becoming apparent that Chicago is not a playoff-quality team.
Next up: Philadelphia, Minnesota, San Francisco, Atlanta, Carolina
Two weeks into the season and there’s already a headline that can be ruled out for the remainder of 2019.
There will be no silence of the Rams this year.
The Super Bowl loser’s curse had already lost some it’s oomph over the last few seasons. After all, the Patriots just won Super Bowl LIII over the Rams after losing Super Bowl LII the year before.
With the exception of that curse, or notion, there was no other reason to believe the Rams would not seriously contend to return to the Super Bowl.
After their 27-9 victory over the Saints in an NFC Championship Game rematch, it’s clear the Rams are the current favorite in the NFC.
Granted, Drew Brees left the game early after Aaron Donald swatted his right thumb on a passing attempt, knocking him out of the game, and possibly the next two months, the Rams still were clearly the better team.
John Johnson added another interception of Brees early on, as he did in overtime in the NFC title game. Clay Matthews notched a sack in his first game in his hometown (Matthews grew up in the valley in Aguora Hills) and Aaron Donald and Eric Weddle were their usual dominant selves.
On offense Jared Goff threw dimes downfield to Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley flashed a few brilliant stretches of healthy-looking dominance.
But Los Angeles’ most important development is the play of slot receiver Cooper Kupp after his torn ACL last season. Only when Kupp was lost for the season last year did the Rams realize just how important he is to their offense. Los Angeles was stymied several times — most notably versus the Bears and Patriots — without the trusty Kupp to move the chains on third downs.
Kupp hauled in a game-high 120 yards on five catches versus New Orleans, showing just how much of a threat he can be when defenses key on Cooks and Robert Woods on the outside and Gurley in the backfield.
Cooper Kupp shakes and bakes Marshon Lattimore from the slot and embarrasses some defenders after the catch.pic.twitter.com/FO6WOtNtAi
With Kupp, Sean McVay’s offense has a better chance of moving the ball against some of the league’s better defenses. Without Kupp, teams were able to key on the team’s outside receivers, making Los Angeles somewhat predictable in their often-used three-receiver bunch sets.
With Kupp’s unique skill set, the Rams have re-added perhaps their most important player in their passing game.
With Brees out, the Cowboys, Seahawks and banged-up Eagles appear to be the biggest threats to the Rams’ throne. But at this point in the season, it’s clear the Rams are a step ahead.
Patriots are on a mission
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots ever coming as close as to a 19-0 record as they did in 2007, when the campaign was halted by the miraculous ‘Helmet Catch’ of Super Bowl XLII.
Enter New England’s 2019 squad.
The Patriots throttled the league-worst Dolphins in Miami, 43-0, exorcising some demons in their house of horrors, while moving to a mind-numbing point differential of plus-73 (76-3) in their first two games.
The Patriots have been to three straight Super Bowls — and our of the last five — and their current squad is unquestionably their most complete team this decade.
New England’s chameleon approach to attacking defenses focuses on their ability to switch formations as smoothy as they change the focus of their game plan, which could revolve around power-running behind Sony Michel, or a spread attack with their multitude of pass-catching running backs and a league-best wide receiver core.
Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and the underrated Phillip Dorsett make up a top-tier group on their own. Adding the best wide receiver of the decade makes this group sublime.
By now, we know Antonio Brown’s situation. The 31-year-old superstar has been accused of three different incidents of sexual assault, including rape, in a civil suit filed by his former trainer. SI’s Robert Klemko also released a bombshell long form report this morning detailing an alleged another incident of sexual misconduct by Brown with another woman. The NFL is meeting with Brown’s accuser today, and Brown is subject to discipline if more evidence is released, or if the NFL sees fit.
When discussing Brown, his serious situation(s) off-the-field should be discussed. But what Browns brings to New England on the field is the league’s best route runner and all-time best sideline catch specialist capable of rendering the Patriots unbeatable.
I think the #Patriots just invented a new offensive personnel grouping:
Between Gordon on the outside, Edelman in the slot, and Brown and the speedy Phillip Dorsett Jr. moving around their formations, New England may have the best four-receiver sets every assembled.
Brady looked Brown’s way on his first three pass attempts, completing all three for 36 yards. Brady then looked Brown’s way a fourth time in the end zone, but eventually threw the ball away as Xavien Howard was called for a defensive holding call on Brown after he was beat on a nifty whip route usually reserved for Edelman — see: Super Bowl XLIX.
In all, Brown tallied four catches for 56 yards and a beautiful back-shoulder touchdown on eight targets from Brady.
There were clear instances of miscommunication. Brady hit the back of former Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe in an end zone under throw to Brown in the second half. Brady slammed his hands on his helmet after the misfire.
With the new SI report out, it’s fair to wonder if Brown has played his last game of the season. There will be pressure on the NFL to at least place him on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. But the Patriots are force on offense without him.
Still, New England’s best unit is their league-best defense, which has allowed three points in two games this season, and six points in three games if you include their 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams — the second-best offense in 2018 — in Super Bowl LIII.
First half points allowed by Patriots:
Today: 0 Week 1: 0 Super Bowl: 0 AFC Championship: 0 AFC divisional: 7 Week 17 last year: 3 Week 16 last year: 0
Bill Belichick’s varying defensive fronts and blitz schemes, often in a ‘amoeba’ look (several stand-up defenses on the line scrimmage) causes confusion for quarterbacks, who are already dealing with the league’s deepest secondary, equipped with the NFL’s best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore.
Gilmore added a pick-six and a skying, one-handed deflection of a pass that ended up in the arms of Patriots safety Devin McCourty.
But New England’s ace in the hole has been Jamie Collins and his return to the team in which he earned his eventual mega-contract with the Browns.
"Jamie is a very special player. He is very smart, instinctive, has a great nose for the ball … It's really exciting to have that type of player in your system," Bill Belichick, to @trags, on LB Jamie Collins.
Collins posted a sack and a half, a pick-six, an additional interception, as well as another wallowing hit on a running back in the backfield.
With the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Chase Winovich on the edge, and Collins and Dont’a Hightower moving all around the defensive front, the Patriots will be able to slow down a myriad of offenses.
The bottom line for New England is this — with or without Brown, they’re the best team in football. With him — and their easy schedule with the exception of a midseason stretch — a 19-0 season is in the cards.
The Patriots weathered the media storm from Spygate in 2007 by crushing the Chargers in Week 2 with the help from a superstar former Raiders receiver in Randy Moss.
They did the same in Week 2 this week with the well-warranted talk of former Raiders receiver Antonio Brown this week. If the allegations are to be true, Brown should be outlawed from the league. It’s also fair to want Commissioner Goodell to keep Brown off the field until the matter(s) are sorted out.
Regardless, the Patriots are rolling on all cylinders, and are the overwhelming favorite to return to Miami in February for Super Bowl LIV.
– In a league in which older quarterbacks have dominated in recent seasons, a flurry of young quarterbacks seem to be making their push into the NFL’s top tier of signal callers. Of course, such seems to be the case every year, but many passers don’t last as top tier guys for longer than a few seasons — see: Cam Newton.
Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo appear to be leading the latest wave of young quarterbacks poised to lead their franchises to success. But all three passers should be placed in the ‘be-weary’ column that should have been applied to guys like Newton, just because quarterbacks lately seem to have a spurts of great seasons before falling back to earth.
One quarterback whom this need not apply is Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has continued on his torrid pace in 2019, as he’s seemingly on track to repeat as NFL MVP if he keeps up his current pace.
It was completely reasonable to fade the idea of Patrick Mahomes breaking the NFL….but Patrick Mahomes appears to be breaking the NFL
If the decade started with Aaron Rodgers showing us a level of quarterback talent we’ve never seen before, then Mahomes will end the decade by surpassing Rodgers as the most talented quarterback to ever play. Mahomes is already that. After the Raiders surprised many in getting off to a 10-0 lead at home, Mahomes erased that cushion in a matter of minutes, throwing for four second-quarter touchdown passes to take the game.
With Kansas City continuing to struggle some on defense, it will be up to Mahomes to slay the mighty Patriots to lead Kansas City back to the Super Bowl. If any quarterback is to do that without a defense, it will be Mahomes. He’s that talented. And yes, he’s also that good.
Lamar Jackson vs. Pat Mahomes next week. Inject it.
First, Mahomes will deal with Jackson and the Ravens coming to town next week in a battle of two very-early NFL MVP leaders leading two early-season heavyweights in the AFC.
– After a flurry of embarrassing seasons in the 2000’s and a run of utter dominance in this decade, the NFC West appears to be highly competitive once again with the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks each posting 2-0 records to begin the season. Granted, Seattle and San Francisco have played subpar opponents at this point in the season. The Rams are the clear favorite in the division, but both the Seahawks and 49ers are staking their claim as teams that will be in the mix down the stretch. And lest we forget about the Arizona Cardinals (0-1-1). Rookie Kyler Murray was out dueled by Lamar Jackson in a a showdown of young gunslingers, but Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals have shown some flashes of offensive efficiency. The NFC West is certainly trending up.
– Drew Brees’ aforementioned thumb injury has required him to stay in Los Angeles today as the rest of the team heads to Seattle. Brees reportedly has met Dr. Steve Shin, according to ESPN’s Stephania Bell. Shin is regarded as one of the best hand specialists in the country. Seemingly after that, Brees was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right thumb. The injury will require surgery and the star passer is expected to miss up to six weeks, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
#Saints QB Drew Brees has a torn ligament in his throwing thumb and he’s going to require surgery, sources say. The timeframe depends on the surgery, but he’s likely out 6 weeks. That’s the initial estimate.
Between Brees and Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending right elbow injury, some of the game’s best quarterbacks are now on the shelf. In New Orleans and Pittsburgh, the likes of Teddy Bridgewater and Mason Rudolph as fill-in-starters may be enough to keep the Saints and Steelers afloat, but both are major losses. It’s also worth wondering if Roethlisberger will retire after this injury.
THE BETTER HALF
1. New England Patriots (2-0) (Last week: 1). They’re already the best team in the NFL without Antonio Brown. But with him, they’re essentially the Steph Curry and Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors. Add in their defense, and then yes, 19-0 is in the cards. It’s not too early to begin the undefeated talk.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) (Last week: 2). Mahomes seems primed for another MVP award. He’s the greatest talent this game has ever seen at the quarterback position.
3. Los Angeles Rams (2-0) (Last week: 4). They’re still the team to beat in the NFC, for now.
4. Dallas Cowboys (2-0) (Last week: 6). Many believe a young QB’s fourth season is the most telling. If that’s the case, Dak Prescott is building a legacy.
5. Baltimore Ravens (2-0) (Last week: 8). Lamar Jackson has clearly improved as a passer, but the Ravens have beat up on lesser opponents these first two weeks. Can he keep up with Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City?
6. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1) (Last week: 3). A flurry of major injuries and a ton of bad luck downed the Eagles in Atlanta. They’ll be near the top of the conference come December.
7. Green Bay Packers (2-0) (Last week: 12). Green Bay’s defense may be the most underrated unit thus far. Once Aaron Rodgers fully adapts to the Packers’ new offense, look out, NFC.
8. Seattle Seahawks (2-0) (Last week: 11). Looking ahead at these next couple weeks, the Seahawks may quietly move to 4-0 before hosting the Rams in Seattle.
9. New Orleans Saints (1-1) (Last week: 5). With Brees expected to miss a good chunk of time, the talented Saints will turn to Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback who has been through his fair share of adversity.
10. Chicago Bears (1-1) (Last week: 14). Chicago has the best defense in the NFC, if not, the NFL. Mitch Trubisky may not be the answer as the franchise’s quarterback, but he does often come through in the clutch. Add in a kicker who doesn’t double-doink it, and the Bears are in business.
11. Minnesota Vikings (1-1) (Last week: 7). Like their NFC North counterpart in Chicago, the talented Vikings will only go as far as their inconsistent quarterback takes them. Kirk Cousins has to play better.
12. Atlanta Falcons (1-1) (Last week: NR). The wide-open NFC South is Atlanta’s for the taking.
13. Los Angeles Chargers (1-1) (Last week: 9). They still have a ton of talent, but something’s not quite right here. Doesn’t seem like their season.
14. Indianapolis Colts (1-1) (Last week: 16). Jacoby Brissett, franchise quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has earned his title.
15. Houston Texans (1-1) (Last week: 13). The Texans are entering what most likely will be a season of crazy up-and-down play.
16. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: 10). Every time the Titans look like they’re about to enter a winning streak, they stop themselves dead in their tracks.
Next up: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers
There would be no letdown in Cincinnati for the Saints. After all, the universe did its best to bring down the NFL’s best team via a freakish, season-ending Achilles injury to the newly-acquired Dez Bryant in his first practice as a Saint. But New Orleans prevailed by the way of a 51-14 drubbing of the Bengals (5-4) in Cincinnati, highlighted by the NFL’s best trio, on the league’s unquestionably-best team through 10 weeks.
Drew Brees: 22-for-25, 265 passing yards, four total touchdowns
Alvin Kamara: 102 total yards, two touchdowns
Michael Thomas: eight catches, 70 yards, two touchdowns
With all due respect to the triplets in Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger, James Connor, Antonio Brown), Los Angeles (Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks), Los Angeles (Phillip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen) and New England (Tom Brady, James White and Julian Edelman/Josh Gordon/Rob Gronkowski) the Saints harness the best the league has to offer here.
One could even add in additional weapons such as Mark Ingram, and the situational-piece, Taysom Hill, to form the most complete and efficient unit in football. The Saints are lethal offensively. Road wins over the Vikings, Ravens and Bengals don’t come easy, yet New Orleans made it seem as such.
With a slew of tough games ahead, the Saints will look to keep their moniker as the best team there is. If they do, it’ll be because of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. When you provide offensive mastermind Sean Payton with that crew, this is what you should expect.
Titans rock Patriots in ‘personal’ beatdown
In Tennessee, instead of jogging through a win before the bye week, the Patriots (7-3) fell victim to a team that knows them all too well.
Hell yeah it’s personal,” said former Patriot Dion Lewis in the Titans’ locker room, after the win. “That’s what happens when you go cheap. You get your ass kicked.”
Although Lewis was the only ex-Patriot to take a sour approach toward his former employer, former New England cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and even defensive lineman Darius Kilgore made their presence known in Tennesse’s 34-10 thrashing of New England.
One more from my line of questioning w/ #Titans RB Dion Lewis, "I didn't have to prove anything. I know I can play. I just had to let our team know that these guys are beatable…I know those guys. I know that you be physical with them & let 'em have it & they'll fold." #Patriots
The Titans (5-4) hold a certain swagger, believing they can beat anybody. And with wins over last season’s Super Bowl participants, they very well can. The edginess begins and ends with rookie head coach Mike Vrabel, an ex-Patriot himself, groomed and developed under Bill Belichick’s early-dynasty clubs in the 2000’s. Today, Vrabel bested his former coach, and added a little salt to the wound when he ran the ‘Philly Special’ to a greater success just plays after the Patriots’ fell short of a first down on their attempt.
“I wanted to see if it looked better than theirs,” Vrabel said during a postgame press conference.
The Titans are back to within striking distance in the AFC South. With road games versus the Colts (4-5) and the division-leading Texans (6-3) ahead, Vrabel’s bunch has a shot at a playoff push.
New England will limp into their bye week desperately needing consistency out of a defense that doesn’t feature much of it, after Trey Flowers and Stephon Gilmore. The latter even had his first rough outing in weeks on Sunday.
“I could have won that matchup a little bit more, but he made some plays today,” Gilmore told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, in regard to his matchup with the Titans’ Corey Davis. “My hat’s off to them.”
On offense, New England will welcome back Rob Gronkowski versus the Jets in 13 days. Maybe that will take some of the coverage off of Josh Gordon, who Brady forced 13 throws to in Tennessee, coming up with only four completions.
The faith Brady has developed in Gordon bodes well for the rest of the season, but there were several instances in which Brady missed James White and others by forcing the ball to his WR1.
James White should still be the focal point of the offense, with Gordon, Gronk and Julian Edelman (nine catches, 104 yards) each taking turns as the team’s focal point. The offense should be fine. Their O-line played a chunk of the game down three starters in Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason, as the latter sat out the entire game.
With the Chiefs now two games ahead of them, and the Steelers now passing them for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, New England’s new goal is a hyper-focused, week-to-week approach that will feature situational game plans designed to cripple each opponent. Only their Week 13 home match with Minnesota, and their Week 15 road contest in Pittsburgh seem like possible losses.
New England may very well run the table and steamroll their way into the postseason, but the defense may always rear it’s ugly head. It did last year, in Super Bowl LII. When will it do so again this season? And can the offense score enough for them to emerge victorious?
Chiefs-Rams a monster matchup in Mexico City
After a too-close-for-comfort win at home for each squad, the Chiefs (9-1) and Rams (9-1) can now look ahead to the biggest cross-conference matchup of the 2018 regular season, which oddly enough, will be played in Mexico City.
Rams and Chiefs both requested to play in Denver the week before having to play in altitude in Mexico City; NFL rejected both requests. Now the Rams will spend this week training at altitude in Colorado Springs, practicing at the Air Force Academy, before traveling to Mexico City
Even more of a factor than the altitude may be the apparent season-ending injury to Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp, who seemingly suffered an ACL injury in the win over the Seahawks.
But aside from that, there are weapons galore in this title. Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce take on Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.
Mahomes (along with Drew Brees) is an MVP frontrunner while Gurley is in the mix for that award, and likely the leader to repeat as the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Aaron Donald remains the best non-QB in the entire league, and is well on his way to his second-consecutive Defensive Player of the year award at age 27.
Both teams will battle the air to put up their usual offensive showing. The Chiefs have a bit more firepower on offense, but the Rams’ unit is more calculated and controlled.
This game may come down to the defensive side of the ball, where the Rams look much better on paper, but aren’t playing nearly at the level where many thought they would be. Their edge defenders and linebackers are lacking, meaning Kareem Hunt will have a shot to lead his team to victory.
30-plus points and winning the turnover battle should win this one.
The stars have aligned on either squad to give us a possible Super Bowl LIII preview, deep into the regular season.
A fitting football sendoff for those heading home to be with family for Thanksgiving, in the day or two after this matchup.
My early pick? Chiefs 31, Rams 27.
– Let’s begin with late coverage from the Steelers’ (6-2-1) 52-21 primetime spanking of the Panthers (6-3) in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Coupled with the win and the Patriots’ loss, Pittsburgh has now risen from the dead to takeover the AFC’s No. 2 seed entering mid-November. Although they officially will be without Le’Veon Bell in 2018 (and probably forever), James Conner has been well worth a 2017 third-round pick, as has JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was picked a round earlier in that very same draft. Antonio Brown has now moved passed his early-season grievances to return to his throne as the game’s best receiver, while Ben Roethlisberger (22-for-25, 328 yards, five touchdowns) looks far from retiring in Pittsburgh’s uber-impressive five-game winning streak. With games remaining against the Chargers, Patriots and Saints, the Steelers will need all the offensive firepower they can get, which is something they have as much of as any other team in pro football.
-With the Cowboys’ 27-20 win over the Eagles (4-5) in Philadelphia, the happiest team in the NFC East is Washington (6-3), who handled the Buccaneers, 16-3, to take a two-game lead in the division. Both Dallas and Philadelphia hold more talent than Washington, but after a bad home loss to the Falcons last week, the Redskins surprised many by regrouping to win in Tampa Bay. Now, the defending Super Bowl champions will travel to New Orleans, to face the hottest team in all the land.
Next week, last year's best team versus this year's best team, so far:
– After the Bears’ third straight win to stay ahead in the NFC North, the division now features its biggest game of the year next Sunday Night:
Minnesota (5-3-1) at Chicago (6-3).
The Vikings had a bye this week to sort things out. Both teams make up the top five or six of the league’s most talented bunches. Minnesota should be looked at as a mini-favorite, even in Chicago, but the play of Mitchell Trubisky as of late should be enough to quiet critics momentarily, as he head’s into the biggest game of his career.
With star power throughout (Khalil Mack, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Allen Robinson) who will take a November stand in possibly the league’s toughest division?