Aaron Rodgers vs Rams - 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 12: Are Packers the league’s most complete team?

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In a season where no team has been consistently good, or even consistent, the Green Bay Packers (9-3) are starting to show their teeth as perhaps the NFC’s most complete club.

The Cheeseheads, led by Aaron Rodgers (28 of 45, 307 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) defeated the Los Angeles Rams (7-4), 36-28, in a game that wasn’t as close as its final score, as Green bay looked like a much better squad than the star-studded Rams.

Green Bay led the Rams 36-17 heading into the fourth quarter, and held Los Angeles to 68 rush yards (3.4 yards per carry), forcing three turnovers (including a pick-six of Matthew Stafford), and in several big moments, Rodgers found superstar receiver Davante Adams (eight catches, 104 yards) seemingly with ease, as the Rams’ zone-heavy scheme foolishly did not feature cornerback Jalen Ramsey shadowing Adams throughout the entire game.

The game also shed light on the puzzle of Rodgers’ future. Some said that Rodgers was justified in his offseason frustration over Green Bay’s roster construction. Green Bay lacked a solid pass catcher after Adams, and in the 2020 NFL Draft, they seemingly drafted Rodgers’ eventual replacement in the first round (quarterback Jordan Love) and drafted a bulldozing, old-school running back (A.J. Dillon) in Round 2.

Rodgers insisted the 2020 draft was not the issue, and that it was Green Bay’s overall way of handling many offseasons, that irked him.

“It’s never been about the draft pick,” Rodgers told ESPN‘s Kenny Mayne in his final SportsCenter appearance.

“I love Jordan. I love the coaching staff. I love my teammates. It’s just about a philosophy and maybe forgetting it is about the people that make things go.”

Rodgers eventually agreed to return to the team for this season, and was given a gift in Green Bay’s acquiring of Rodgers’ long-time friend, slot receiver Randall Cobb, via trade.

Many believe Rodgers will attempt to leave Green Bay this offseason. And that may very well be the case. But looking at the lay of the land as it stands, why would he leave?

What type of team does Rodgers want to play for, exactly? A squad like the Rams, top-heavy team, lacking depth and consistency.  Does he want a wheeling-and-dealing squad that constructs its roster only for its quarterback? Or does he want to win a Super Bowl. If the latter still matters to him, then Rodgers must see that the Packers are close.

Together, Rodgers and head coach Matt Lafleur are 35-8 in the last three regular seasons, which is good for best in the NFL. The Packers have also made the NFC title game in the last two seasons. They’ve failed to get past that round, but history shows great teams such as this one sometimes enjoy a “breakthrough” season in the midst of two or three consecutive near-berths to a Super Bowl.

Rodgers, after struggling some in 2019 in LaFleur’s Shanahan-style offense, now has acclimated perfectly, as the team uses a mix of under-center, run-heavy, two-tight end sets, and spread-you-out, passer-friendly looks to compliment Rodgers’ career-long strengths.

Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst has taken the brunt of Rodgers’ frustration via pass-aggressive quotes in the offseason, but the fourth-year general manager has carried the torch of the franchise’s past, relying heavily on the franchise’s scouting department to emphasize the need to build through the draft, focus on internal player progression, and prioritize homegrown players over free agents.

That style has worked for one of the NFL’s best franchises for years and years. Like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay has their own way of doing things. Their stubbornness in their ways caught up with them some during the middle of the last decade, as Rodgers was stuck attempting to elevate lesser-talented teams (think: 2016 season).

But Green Bay has built a solid roster up from the ground, with just the right mix of free agents to help lead the way.

A.J. Dillon vs Rams -- 2021
A.J. Dillon has been a breakout star for the Packers in 2021. He’s the perfect running back for the weather in Green Bay, and the Packers’ rushing scheme. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

A.J. Dillon, in particular, has had a breakout season in Year 2. The Boston College product is a bully-ball rusher who is perhaps in the perfect spot in snowy Wisconsin. He’s the type of January running back that was needed, but many scoffed at the draft pick two years ago.

Rodgers is still making due with a modst-at-best receiving group after Adams, but with the cap room to spread talent throughout the roster, Green Bay at least has Adams, maybe the best receiver in football, as well as a solid offensive line, and now, one of the NFL’s best defenses.

In 2019, Green Bay paid front seven members Za’Darius and Preston Smith, as sell as safety Adrian Amos, to help a defense that needed reinforcements. The moves have paid dividends, with Amos teaming up with homegrown safety Darnell Savage to rival Buffalo (Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer), as perhaps the best safety tandem in the league.

Up front, the Packers play mostly a 3-4 style defense built with tough, bigger players (somewhat like other well run-franchises in the Patriots and Steelers) that relies on a few players such as top-tier nose tackle Kenny Clark to take up bodies and make plays up front, clearing the way for others.

Green Bay is currently seventh in the league in yards per game allowed (321.7) and fifth in points allowed (20.2). They’ve built up a Super Bowl caliber defense, and they aren’t even at full strength as a team at the moment.

Za’Darius Smith has been out since September with a back injury, but should be back soon.

Green Bay is also expecting the return of left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexandler, two former All-Pros who are undoubtedly top-five players at their respective positions, sometime during their home stretch.

Alexander, much like Adams on offense, is a good example of how well Green Bay progresses their players.

To get back to Sunday’s game, the difference between the Packers and Rams was stark.

As great of a head coach and X’s and O’s man Sean McVay is, he’s stumbled as of late, as has his hand-picked quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who fell to 0-17 in his career against teams who entered a contest five games over .500 (via NFL research). It was the fourth loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for Stafford in such a situation.

The Rams have loads of top-end talent. Even Odell Beckham Jr. scored his first touchdown in over a year in the fourth quarter of the Rams’ comeback attempt. But what the Rams don’t have, is a steady roster across the board. Players one to 53, the practice squad, the team history, the scouting and player personnel department, the January, cold-weather homefield advantage.

In Green Bay, Rodgers just may have it all now, or close to it. The way the Packers’ season ends will have much to do with his decision. If Green Bay’s rushing attack is foiled, and Adams is blanketed in the same playoff game, Rodgers will identify that the problem is a lack of offensive weapons, and that may be true. But right now, in a year of mayhem, he has yet another prime shot at a second Super Bowl title with the team he’s played for, for 17 seasons.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 3). Along with the Patriots, they look like the league’s most complete team at the moment. And Aaron Rodgers is now back in the MVP conversation, surely.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) (Last week: 2). They survived Indianapolis behind a turn-back-the-clock performance by Rob Gronkowski (seven catches, 123 yards) and a dominant effort by Leonard Fournette (131 total yards, four touchdowns). Oh, and Tom Brady led his 65th career game-winning drive (including playoffs). Still, they need to get healthier on defense, and find their groove on that side of the ball.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) (Last week: 4). Kyler Murray should return this week. They’re starting to slip under the radar, but they still have the league’s best record.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 5). The Chiefs have improved steadily on offense during their four-game winning streak, and their once-awful defense has allowed just 11.8 points per game during that span. The madness of this season, and in the AFC in particular, left the door open for the Chiefs. It appears they’ve found their way in the room.

5. New England Patriots (8-4) (Last week: 6). This is eerily starting to look like many of the Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams throughout the dynasty. Sunday’s 36-13 win over Tennessee under the cold weather and snow flurries felt like a vintage post-Thanksgiving New England win. Everything is coming together. But their biggest test lies ahead. Their Monday night game in Buffalo next week is perhaps their biggest regular season matchup since 2018.

6. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) (Last week: 1). They’ve lost three straight, and Matthew Stafford (three games in a row with a pick-six) hasn’t played well as of late. They have too much talent to not right the ship. They have good enough players to where suggesting they could make a 2020 Buccaneers-like run is not out of the question.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-4) (Last week: 8). One of the bigger AFC East regular season games in recent memory awaits them on Monday Night Football next week. Patriots at Bills. Can Buffalo limit turnovers, stay balanced on offense, and play good enough defense to win? It should be a great game.

8. Baltimore Ravens (8-3) (Last week: 9). They really haven’t looked consistently good all season, but they’re the AFC’s No. 1 seed at the moment anyway. That’s probably a good sign. They’re too well-run of an organization not to tighten things up here soon.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 7). When healthy, the Titans are a Super Bowl contender. Missing their three best offensive weapons in New England (Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones), Mike Vrabel’s bunch held tough, before three turnovers ruined their upset chances. Still, they ran for 270 yards versus one of the team’s stingiest defenses. Their goal now is to get healthy for the playoffs. They have the mental toughness and coaching to surprise some people then.

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (Last week: 10). They have the NFC East pseudo wrapped-up, but that doesn’t excuse their diminishing play as of late. Are they a Super Bowl contender, or will they just be happy to be ousted easily in the NFC Divisional round?

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 11). Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns in the first half as the Colts looked primed for a major home upset over the defending champs, before the wheels came off. He lost a fumble and threw a pick in consecutive drives starting with Indy leading 24-14 and driving in Tampa territory. This is a built-for-January team, but often times, they are being held back by their QB. But sometimes, they are elevated by Wentz and his talent. They need more consistency from their quarterback.

12. San Francisco 49ers (6-5) (Last week: 12). Here come the 49ers. They’re getting much better (albeit, still Jekyll-and-Hyde) play out of Jimmy Garoppolo as of late, and receiver-running back Deebo Samuel has probably entered the OPOY discussion with Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor for what he’s done as of recent.

13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) (Last week: NR). It’s hard to get a read on them. It seems as if they are good. That’s two big wins in a row for Joe Burrow and the gang. Joe Mixon (12 touchdowns in last eight games) has been a great compliment to their passing game as of late.

14. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) (last week: 15). They’re the only team in the league to lead each game they’ve played this year by seven points or more, yet they are 5-6. They’re snake-bitten, but the state of the NFC, and their remaining schedule (Lions, Bears (twice)) gives them a good shot at a wild card spot. This is a bad, good team. They have talent.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) (Last week: NR). I’m not sure they have what it takes to even make the playoffs, but when he is on, Derek Carr is one of the best passers in the league. That was a big overtime win in Dallas, for the most-watched regular season NFL game in league history.

16. Cleveland Browns (6-6) (Last week: 16). They’ve been horrid on offense as of late, but they still have the defense and potential in the running game for me to feel good about putting them above the teams below. Can they right the ship?

Next Up: Denver, L.A. Chargers, New Orleans, Miami, Pittsburgh

Tom Brady leaves Lambeau Field — 2020 NFC Championship Game

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady — NO vs TB 2020 NFC Divisional Playoff

NFL Divisional Round Madness: Brady-Rodgers championship tilt finally materializes

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.

Aaron Rodgers vs Titans — 2020

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 16: A shakeup in the MVP race, and other musings

With the final games of the year (not season) 2020 behind us, a new year will dawn with the end of an odd, pandemic-altering season.

I decided to empty my brain’s notebook of takes this week prior to Week 17 and the playoffs by taking a deep dive into the NFL MVP race, giving perhaps my final take on the matter barring any wacky Week 17 scenarios.

Then, I dig into my final power ranking of the 2020 season.

Cheers to a new year, and enjoy!

NFL MVP RACE

In October, Russell Wilson was seen as the clear early front runner for his first NFL MVP award. By November, Patrick Mahomes had seemingly clinched it for himself, and now, in December, Josh Allen has picked up where he left off in the season’s beginnings, thrusting himself back into the mix (somewhat).

But with just one week remaining in the regular season, the race has taken a bit of a dramatic turn after Week 16’s results, in my opinion. And the man who has most benefited is Aaron Rodgers.

As of now, Rodgers and Mahomes should be at a dead heap for this year’s award, with a splitting-of-the-hairs honor going to Rodgers, if the votes don’t add up to what should be another case of co-MVPs — as last seen in 2003 when Peyton Manning and Steve McNair split the award.

In recent weeks, the Chiefs have kept winning, but the apparent boredom from constant success has gotten to Kansas City’s heads. Mahomes has thrown four interceptions in his last three games, and could have easily thrown seven or eight. It’s a dropped interception by Falcons rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell on Sunday that stands in the way of the Chiefs’ second loss of the season.

Since Thanksgiving, Rodgers has thrown for 15 touchdowns and just one interception, and the Packers have won five straight games in the process.

Still, we can’t look past their seasons’ as a whole. Mahomes hasn’t laid an egg as hideous as Rodgers’ performance in a loss to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers back in October — a game in which the Green Bay quarterback posted a Total QBR of 12.3.

But in looking at their almost-finished 2020 resumes, Rodgers has thrown more touchdowns (44 to Mahomes’ 38), less interceptions (five to Mahomes’ six), while also posting a better passer rating (119.4 to 108.2) and Total QBR (83.9 to 82.7).

And despite the brilliance by Rodgers’ top target, receiver Davante Adams, the talent pool of the Green Bay offense pales in comparison to Mahomes and Andy Reid’s star-studded cast that includes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Le’Veon Bell, Sammy Watkins and more.

In Year 2 of Matt LaFluer’s Shanahan-esque, albeit quarterback-friendly system in Green Bay, Rodgers has seemingly mastered the system after an inconsistent start that was the still-mightily-successful 2019 Packers campaign.

Still, the Packers (12-3) must finish the job of earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed for Rodgers to have the strongest case. The Chiefs (14-1) have already clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and judging by Andy Reid’s comments and recent news on Sunday’s game, we don’t expect Mahomes or the Chiefs starters to play much (or maybe, at all) in their Week 17 contest.

Even if the Packers join the Chiefs as fellow home-field advantage earners, it’s worth wondering if the NFL community as a collective loves drama, and are succumbing to a bit of subtle Mahomes fatigue, since the Chiefs quarterback makes it look so easy.

Even in his recent struggles, Mahomes has done enough to win every recent game. Immediately after the Falcons dropped an aforementioned would-be, game-ending interception, Mahomes darted a game-winning touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson on the very next play.

Mahomes is sensational, and quite frankly, he’s the best quarterback and player in today’s game. But Reid and the Chiefs’ unique supporting cast on offense (Hill, Kelce, etc.) is a bit more than what is assisting Rodgers (Adams, then RB Aaron Jones?) in Green Bay, where the Packers quarterback officially has better volume and efficiency stats than Mahomes in a rushing-based offensive system with lesser talent.

Really, there’s a brilliant case for both Mahomes and Rodgers, and any other year, the likes of Josh Allen or Russell Wilson could be running away with the award, but in a rough year overall, this has been quite the quality MVP race.

In a perfect world, Mahomes and Rodgers would tie for the award. That would be my vote — a split. But if we’re splitting hairs, it’s Rodgers who deserves the honor for the third time in his career.

1a. Aaron Rodgers

1b. Patrick Mahomes

3. Josh Allen

4. Russell Wilson

5. Derrick Henry

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-1) (Last week: 1). The apparent lackadaisical effort by the Chiefs in recent weeks should only concern the rest of the league. They can be beaten, but I have a feeling they won’t be.

2. Buffalo Bills (12-3) (Last week: 2). Well, that was a statement in Foxboro. Josh Allen has been sensational this year, and Stefon Diggs has a legitimate claim as the NFL’s best receiver, although a few others (Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, etc.) have just as good of a case. The Bills have built a helluva team, and are a true Super Bowl contender.

3. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 3). The Aaron Rodgers-Matt LaFluer pairing works, after all. Even in a playoffs with limited (or no) fans in the stands, Green Bay likely needs home-field advantage badly. They’ll need to beat the Bears in Chicago in a game in which the Bears absolutely need to win. Should be fun.

4. New Orleans Saints (11-4) (Last week: 5). The Saints remain the most talented team in the NFC. Can they make one last run with Drew Brees?

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) (Last week: 4). That was a season-saving win on Sunday. Barring a meeting in the playoffs, or an unlikely set up next season, that could be the final battle between QBs in the marveled 2004 NFL Draft class. In predictable fashion, Ben Roethlisberger was gritty in a tough comeback, while a Phillip Rivers-led team once again blew a 17-point lead. The Steelers are probably too beat up on defense to make a serious Super Bowl run now, but they’ll still be a tough out. I still wouldn’t want to see them in Round 2 at home if I’m the Bills.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5) (Last week: 9). Easy December schedule or not, here come Tom Brady and the Bucs. They’re like an alligator peeking it’s eyes out of the water. They can really make a run in the NFC.

7. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 8). The Seahawks sunk to the Rams’ level to win a rough defensive battle to take the NFC West. It’s been a while since we marveled at Russell Wilson. Seattle doesn’t have the roster of a Super Bowl team but Wilson doesn’t abide by normal rules. I say, watch out for the Seahawks in the NFC playoffs. They shouldn’t be able to make a run with their deficiencies, but they most certainly can with Wilson.

8. Baltimore Ravens (10-5) (Last week: 11). Like the Bucs, the Ravens are on a December run thanks to a soft, late-season schedule, but like Tampa Bay, Baltimore has the ingredients of a team ready to make a postseason push. Ironically, Lamar Jackson could win his first playoff game on the road as a wild card team this season, Baltimore’s least favorable position during the Jackson era.. But the Ravens could also miss the playoffs. Let’s revisit this next week in my playoff primer.

9. Indianapolis Colts (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Colts have a solid roster, and Rivers has had his moments, but Sunday’s debacle in Pittsburgh is not only expected of a Rivers-led team, it also makes it apparent that they aren’t likely going deep in the postseason.

10. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 6). The Titans will still be a tough out for teams like the Chiefs and Bills due to their running game, but their defense is just not up to par to make a similar run as last year to the AFC title game. I thought they could do it, now I have serious doubts.

11. Miami Dolphins (10-5) (Last week: 13). Brian Flores’ QB carousel and it’s odd-timing decisions only add to the fact that he could very well win Coach of the Year honors if Miami makes the playoffs, and maybe even if they don’t. (Although Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott also has a great case). This team should only get better in 2021. They’ve certainly overachieved this season.

12. Los Angeles Rams (9-6) (Last week: 10). Suddenly, the Rams find themselves in danger of missing the playoffs. They’ll miss Jared Goff next week, leaving John Wofford to start at quarterback with their season on the line. If they lose to the Cardinals, and the Bears beat the Packers at home the Rams are out. But Kyler Murray may miss the game for Arizona, making Cardinals-Rams a possible backup QB bonanza. If it’s any consolation, I believe Aaron Donald should edge out Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt for a third DPOY award, whether the Rams make the playoffs or not.

13. Cleveland Browns (10-5) (Last week: 12). I think I speak for most when I say we’d love to see the Browns make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, but it doesn’t look like they ultimately deserve it. We’ll see what happens on Sunday. Pittsburgh is starting Mason Rudolph at quarterback, giving Big Ben a rest.

14. Chicago Bears (8-7) (Last week: 16). You have to give credit to Mitchell Trubisky for battling back, as the Bears as a team have done, but he’s still clearly not the future.

15. L.A. Chargers (6-9) (Last week: NR). The Chargers belong here for their three-game winning streak and collective talent. I’d take them over any team below in a game in a neutral site right now.

16. Arizona Cardinals (8-7) (Last week: 15). Like we mentioned under the Rams section above, the Cardinals may be without Kyler Murray on Sunday. They had the obvious look of a fun team that is a year away. They are more of an extreme story of that nature then the Miami Dolphins in the AFC, who may make it in anyway, but are a year away themselves from real contention.

Next up: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Washington, Dallas, New England

Derrick Henry stiff arms Earl Thomas

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Titans, Chiefs to meet in AFC tilt of opposites + a NFC rivalry renewed

Many have said the NFL’s Divisional Playoff round is the best weekend in sports. I’m sure those people are not disappointed after this past weekend’s slate of games.

One major upset, one major comeback, and a close contest between two of the league’s top quarterbacks in legendary Lambeau Field.

But we begin with a side-by-side look at the AFC title game participants, and a barometer check of the conference as a whole.

*******

It almost happened. After an unfortunate turn of events, the Chiefs trailed the Texans 24-0 in the second quarter, with most believing that we were headed toward an unthinkable AFC “South” Championship Game — Tennessee at Houston.

Although intriguing and unexpected, it’s certainly not the game the NFL envisioned as a ratings bonanza for their second-most (tied) important game of their 100th season.

Luckily for those who may think that, Kansas City recovered. Patrick Mahomes reminded many of his brilliance in throwing for four second quarter touchdown passes, three to Travis Kelce, and Kansas City outscored Houston 51-7 the rest of the way, for a 51-31 victory.

“I don’t know who pissed him off, I don’t know who made him mad,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports of Mahomes, after the game. “I told him in the training room [afterwards], man — I said man, I don’t know who made you mad but I don’t have anything to do with it. Because when he comes out and [plays] like that, he’s clearly the best player in the National Football League by far, and everybody knows that.”

Mahomes vs Texans
Patrick Mahomes’ fiery attitude kept Kansas City’s playoff hopes alive, and broke Houston’s will and spirit. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Make no mistake, this was Mahomes’s finest performance  — 23 for 35, 321 yards, five touchdowns  — which comes in the form of a 24-point comeback that is tied for fourth-best in NFL postseason history. After being down big, the phenom quarterback led seven straight touchdown-scoring drives, for 41 unanswered points.

Kelce played his role of Robin, or maybe a second Batman, in hauling in 10 catches for 134 yards and three scores.

“Coach Reid is dialing them up for me and Pat is putting the ball on the money every single time,” Kelce told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game. It’s definitely a combination of everything coming together,

Reid is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, but it took some off-script improvising by Mahomes and Kelce to come away with two key red zone scores during the comeback. Both times, Mahomes was flushed to the sideline, only to throw or pitch a touchdown to Kelce, who used spatial awareness to haul in scores around multiple defenders sitting near the end zone.

For fun, the Chiefs mercilessly added 118 yards on the ground and sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson five times — three sacks by offseason acquisition Frank Clark.

It was a fast-paced, track sprint of a victory by Kansas City that showcased their speed and explosiveness on offense, and finished with help from their new-and-improved defense, led by newcomers Clark and Mathieu.

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Less than 20 hours earlier, the Titans had pulled off the unthinkable, a 28-12 smash-mouth beatdown over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, whom were the league’s biggest regular season story.

Just like their win last week of Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England, postseason hero Derrick Henry was heavily utilized. The gargantuan back carried the ball another 30 times for 195 and a touchdown, and also threw for a goal line score on a jump-pass to Corey Davis. His Tim Tebow-style leap pass was just one of several rushing highlights that included a 66-yard, back-breaking scramble to set up his touchdown throw, and another long run along the sideline earlier in which he stiff-armed Earl Thomas to the point of turning him around, and into a lead-blocking fullback for his amusement. His performance was again, unstoppable.

The offense started after Kevin Byard intercepted a tipped Lamar Jackson ball off Mark Andrews fingertips, and Ryan Tannehill lobbed a long 3rd-and-goal touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, who did most of the work in an acrobatic touchdown catch that set the tone.

“…Just starting the game out the way we did was a big key for us….It was huge,” Kevin Byard told The Athletic. “They’re probably one of the best first-quarter teams in the league, so the fact we got up on them in the first quarter, it kind of changed the game plan a little bit.”

Additionally, defensive coordinator and wizard Dean Pees stymied yet another former club on his revenge tour, with this being the best defensive performance of any team, all season. Soon-to-be-named MVP Lamar Jackson was elusive and unstoppable all regular season, and he produced 508 total yards of offense on Saturday, but that was mostly a hollow facade that did not tell the story of this game.

Tennessee held Baltimore’s offense to 12 points and forced three Jackson turnovers. The Titans muddled the middle of the field and loaded the box on Baltimore’s rushing attack, bringing up top-tier safety duo of Byard and Kenny Vaccaro near the line of scrimmage for a good portion of the game.

“We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan told Bleacher Report. “We were either playing with a loaded box and man to man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano or we were going to play a zone defense, a quarters defense similar to what Buffalo did. And Buffalo played them well. Buffalo just didn’t score a lot of points on offense. So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”

Tennessee forced Jackson to throw 59 times, often leaving everything covered but the boundaries. Jackson struggled outside the numbers, showcased by a late interception by Vaccaro when the Ravens quarterback tried to hit Baltimore rookie Myles Boykin on a quick out toward the sideline when Baltimore was in near-desperation mode.

It doesn’t help that Baltimore lacks wide receiver talent outside of Hollywood Brown. Boykin and Willie Snead are not going to cut it. Baltimore had found success throwing to its three tight ends — Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle — all season, but the Titans took them, and the middle of the field away.

As a team that was used to punching teams in the mouth early and often, John Harbaugh looked nervous and frustrated on the sideline, unsure if his style of offense could mount a double-digit postseason comeback. Despite Jackson keeping his cool (at least) attempting to get his team back in the game, Baltimore never recovered. On top of their struggles in the passing game — minus a few nice downfield throws by Jackson to Brown through the rare soft Titans zone coverage — Jackson was stymied on two 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks after converting all eight such situations during the regular season.

For Baltimore, nothing seemed to work. They were left befuddled and disappointed, unable to capitalize on their best regular season in franchise history.

“Listen, Lamar Jackson’s the MVP,” Byard told The Athletic. “He deservingly is supposed to be the MVP, the will that he plays with, he’s an incredible athlete. He tried to do everything he possibly could to will his team back into it. But it was our day today.”

Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill once again threw under 100 yards — 88 this week — but did throw for two touchdowns. Tennessee became the second team in postseason history to win back-to-back games in such fashion, joining the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins, and 1974 Steelers.

Behind Mike Vrabel’s fearless leadership, Tennessee came away with another old-school win. In a league where dual-threat quarterbacks and fast-break offenses equipped with speed and an NBA-style aggressivesnes are starting to take over, a defense and running game can still get it done. That shouldn’t seem so surprising, but yet, the win surprised many of us.

“If we’re being quite honest, we just shocked the world, and that’s all there is to it,” said Titans left guard Rodger Saffold.

“And the confidence and belief in this team is something I’ve felt before, and you guys already know that. This is a special team. We’re showing it. And you’ve got to love the underdog.”

_______________

This weekend’s events left us with some questions about the changing-of-the-guard AFC that saw it’s dominating — for the past 20 years — team in the Patriots bow out early to a series of offseason questions, and it’s upstart, best-of-this-season team suffer perhaps the most shocking one-and-done loss in NFL playoff history.

What’s next for Baltimore? A soon-to-be optimistic look back on how they revolutionized football in 2019, perhaps. As Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas pointed out in a great piece, Jackson’s electrifying season did happen.

Baltimore will need to shore up their possibly overrated front seven and add a receiver or two to Jackson’s arsenal. There’s a good chance Lamar makes more strides in the passing game next season, similar to his Year 1-to-Year 2 jump.

Baltimore will likely regress some from their 14-2 mark, and they’ll have to deal with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have an elite defense and should see the return of Ben Roethlisberger next season, to help the offense.

And expect the Patriots to re-sign Tom Brady and supply him with a few offensive weapons for the dynasty’s home stretch. New England is not done yet.

Then there’s the two AFC finalists. After a season of blending in with a hobbled Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have won seven straight since beginning the year 6-4, with the defense being the story of their season in the second half. Mahomes and the offense sputtered for a bit, but they put on their best 2018 Chiefs impression in their win on Sunday.

Still, Kansas City must stay strong on defense, doing their best 2006 Colts impression, if they are going to go all the way.

But this season’s Titans have a heavy dose of 2007 and 2011 Giants to them. They are an underdog only to the outside world. After a 2-4 start to the season under Marcus Mariota, Tennessee is 9-3 under Tannehill, and Henry’s late-season run is reminiscent of the NFL’s older days, where superstar running backs could take over in January.

Despite allowing just 9.6 points per game since Week 11 prior to Sunday, the Chiefs have still been gashed for 4.9 yards per rush this season. Kansas City was without defensive tackle Chris Jones on Sunday, and even if Jones is good to go this Sunday, the Chiefs are left extremely vulnerable to another legendary Henry performance.

Dean Pees’ scheming versus Kansas City’s offense will loom large. As Baltimore’s linebackers coach & defensive coordinator from 2010-2017, Pees played his part in sometimes mitigating Rob Gronkowski, and sometimes Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, when limiting Brady and the Patriots.

In Tennessee, Pees has safeties Byard and Vaccaro playing like absolute madmen right now. There’s no way they’ll let Kelce beat them the way the Texans did.

They’ll force Mahomes to throw downfield to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. And of course, Kansas City can win that way, but things will be tougher at least.

The Titans have tough and competent cornerbacks in Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson, who can do their part, even against the unbelievable amount of speed that Kansas City possesses. But the Titans will need a steady and consistent pass rush on Mahomes to win. That’s the Titans’ key to the game, where as Kansas City must find some way to limit Henry or they will be in a world of trouble.

In theory, the Titans have all the tools necessary to beat Kansas City. This is a tough matchup for the Chiefs, but Kansas City’s offense is a tough matchup for anyone. Mahomes will score more than Brady and Jackson, and I’m not sure the Titans will be able to keep up if the game is forced into Tannehill’s hands.

My early prognostication is Kansas City winning a semi-close contest.

*******

In Green Bay, it was apparent from the first drive that Aaron Rodgers was going to be on. And Davante Adams — eight catches, 160 yards, two touchdowns —  picked up where Travis Kelce left off in the game before him, baffling both man and zone coverages from the opposing team.

Despite a late Russell Wilson push that stalled on a costly Malik Turner drop, it was apparent from the start that the Seahawks lacked the personnel and health to go on a realistic Super Bowl run.

Wilson did what he could, but this was Rodgers’ time. The Packers legend completed just 16 passes, but threw for 243 yards and two scores with zero turnovers. His beauty of a downfield, first-down pass to Adams on 3rd-and-8 was ice cold in the clutch, and put the Seahawks hopes on ice.

Seattle never got the ball back, Green Bay won 28-23 after getting out to a 28-10 lead. And the defense continued to be rewarded for Green Bay’s rare, high-profile free-agent purchases of Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith on the edge, as each picked up two sacks.

But next, they’ll face a San Francisco 49ers squad that is left as the best and most talented bunch. Heck, they’ve been the best NFC team all year. Their most impressive beatdown of the season came at Green Bay’s expense.

A 37-8 49ers win over the Packers in the Bay area back in November, in which Rodgers was held to a staggering 3.2 yards per pass attempt, and was sacked five times.

After a month or two of so-so defensive play since that day, San Francisco finally has their complete defensive front seven.

Dee Ford is back after missing the past two months, and linebacker Kwon Alexander was activated back off injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle a few months back.

Having the unit back together was apparent immediately on Saturday, as the 49ers dominated the Vikings, 27-10, by beating them in just about every facet of the game.

San Francisco held top-five running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards on nine carries, sacked Kirk Cousins six times and picked him off once while holding his yards per attempt to just 5.9.

Despite Green Bay fielding one of the best quarterbacks of all-time in Rodgers, it would be surprising to see them come out on top in San Francisco. The 49ers should see a better performance by Jimmy Garoppolo — 11 for 19, 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — after he looked out of place trying to avoid Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, the league’s top cover linebacker, who could have picked him off three or four times if he had pro pass-catcher’s hands.

San Francisco leaned on it’s running back committee on Saturday, rushing for 186 yards on 47 carries. Tevin Coleman — 22 carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns — was the lead man. He was brought in this offseason from Atlanta after breaking out with the Falcons under Kyle Shanahan’s watch, so Shanahan brought him to San Francisco.

If the 49ers run the ball this well versus Green Bay, the packers have little chance. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King may be able to slow down Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel in the passing game, but an affective 49ers run game should set up Garoppolo-to-George Kittle after the duo struggled in this past game.

Despite Kelce’s superb performance, Kittle is the NFL’s best tight end. He is at least tied with Kelce as it’s best in pass-catching, and is certainly the best blocking tight end in football. He’s the complete package. He’ll most certainly make some plays next week.

Green Bay will have to have a repeat performance by Rodgers and Adams, while also leaning on running back Aaron Jones to get San Francisco’s best-in-the-league pass rush off Rodgers’ back.

San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman has had a lot to say recently, but heck, he’s earned it, again. The 31-year-old had a pick on Saturday, and has reinvented himself as an older-but-smarter player with the 49ers.

Sherman covering Davante Adams will be the top player matchup of Conference Championship Sunday. If he can just slow down Adams (not even shut him out), things will be really tough on Green Bay. Jones, the running back, is likely their second-best pass catcher.

“The only place that I’m not the best corner in the game over the last generation is in the haters’ minds,” Sherman told The Athletic after the game. “You look at any stat, anything, and they just try to make it about other players. They never give me credit.”

“For all the people who think I’m in zone, it’s man,” Sherman said, continuing the lecture at his postgame presser. “I get tired of ‘oh man, he’s a zone corner.’ I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I’m great. It was man coverage. I covered the man. I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. Year in, year out. Whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 — unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there doing my job at a high level.”

There’s no doubt that the 49ers and Packers will play a closer game on Sunday than they did around Thanksgiving, but San Francisco is clear out-of-nowhere lead dog (although I’d like to toot my own horn in saying I had them winning the NFC West) that seems to pop up in the NFC almost every year. These uber-talented and fast teams seem to come up every so often.

Sherman was on the best of that category with the Legion-of-Boom era Seahawks. And now, he’s the vocal leader on Seattle’s rival, on the opposite end to the fascinating decade that was the 2010s.

There are plenty of smiles to go around in San Francisco, but they have one more game to win before a surprise trip to Super Bowl LIV. They should win it, in turn proving that a team with this amount of talent making it to the biggest game in their sport shouldn’t be all that surprising.