Torrey Smith vs. Eagles

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Eagles, Jaguars at a crossroads before London trek

Roughly nine months ago, the Jaguars and Eagles were gearing up for Conference Championship Sunday. Both teams had proven themselves to be among the NFL’s very best of 2017. The Jaguars fell to the Patriots after leading 20-10 in the AFC title game, while the Eagles routed the Vikings, and went on to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Oh, how things have changed.

Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Eagles (3-4) and Jaguars (3-4) will have a combined record of 6-10 when they face off in next week’s matchup at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

But to understand how these two teams got to this point, we’ll have to backtrack.

The Jaguars began the season with a 3-1 start, highlighted by Blake Bortles’ masterful performance (29-of-45, 376 yards, four touchdowns) to beat the Patriots, 31-20, to exact revenge on their 2017 AFC Championship Game opponent. Many are joking that the Week 2 matchup was Jacksonville’s Super Bowl. Judging by what they’ve done since, those claiming so appear right.

Jacksonville has dropped three straight games mostly in part to their ineptitude on offense, which starts with Bortles. The defense honestly hasn’t been much better. After benching Bortles in the 20-7 home loss to the Texans (4-3) on Sunday, one thing is clear – the Jaguars need to look for a QB. If Teddy Bridgewater or Tyrod Taylor aren’t available, then maybe sticking with Bortles is the only option for the rest of the season, but Cody Kessler will not cut it, either.

The Jaguars have a championship-caliber defense and a solid running game, but this may be one slump too many for Bortles.

In Philadelphia, the Eagles got off to a slow start to the season with Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, so they semi-rushed Carson Wentz back in time for gut-wrenching losses to the Titans, Vikings and Panthers. Luckily for Philadelphia, they do have a good quarterback in Wentz, but the Eagles in general have looked sloppy and unclutch in the game’s biggest moments. Both are a far cry from their run to glory last season.

A 17-0 lead at home in the fourth quarter should never be surrendered, not even to Tom Brady or Joe Montana. The Eagles allowed Cam Newton to lead the Panthers to a 21-17 comeback win in their house. This is more than a slow start in Philadelphia.

There’s rumors of the Eagles inquiring about Le’Veon Bell and DeVante Parker, but what the Eagles have to focus on next is the Jaguars, who are equally as frustrated, and will be ready to take the field with something to prove. Bill Simmons frequently refers to these types of games as a ‘Loser leaves town’ matchup. Well considering this game is in England, both teams will undoubtedly leave town afterward. But only one team will feel better about themselves, if that.

Saints have ‘Super Bowl’ feel

The most shocking takeaway of the Saints’ (5-1) impressive 24-23 win in Baltimore was that Ravens’ (4-3) kicker Justin Tucker does miss. His first failed extra point comes on attempt number 223, and ultimately doomed Baltimore.

But the real story is the Saints’ 17-point fourth quarter scoring effort, which erased a 17-7 Ravens lead in the fourth quarter. Brees’ 500th career touchdown pass (the fourth player to do so) was part of the scoring jamboree New Orleans put fourth on the road against the league’s No. 1 defense. That, coupled with Tucker’s shocking miss, brings about the aurora this Saints season is starting to produce.

“The more battle-tested you are from games like this, I think that serves you well as you go along,” Drew Brees told The Athletic after the game. “Just confidence and feeling like no matter what the situation is in a game, you’re going to find a way. We believe. We’ve done this before. That kind of mindset. It’s nice to run away with them every now and again. But it’s the NFL. A lot of games end like this.” ”

After a 48-40 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers to begin the year, it was plausible to ponder if the Saints were going to fall back to mediocrity. But the defense has slowly re-strengthened. And the return of Mark Ingram has provided the Saints with yet another prime offense weapon, to go along with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas.

The win means Brees has now beaten all 32 NFL teams (he beat the Saints while playing for the Chargers) and now, New Orleans begins the important two-game stretch that includes contests against the Vikings (4-2-1) and Rams (7-0). The midseason hierarchy of the NFC will be decided in the next two weeks. For now, admire the Saints’ gutsy comeback win on the road in Baltimore, it may be a pillar of a truly special season.

Ranking Chiefs’ offensive weapons

– And the Chiefs keep rolling. After a slip-up in a game for the ages in New England, Kareem Hunt (20 touches, 141 yards, three touchdowns) and the Chiefs (6-1) destroyed the Bengals (4-3), 45-10, in a game that was flexed into NBC’s Sunday Night Football slot because it was such an important AFC matchup. So much for that.

Hunt’s performance had me thinking….of Kansas City’s three major offensive weapons, how should they be ranked? My list:

1) Kareem Hunt – For the past two Sunday nights, we’ve seen why Hunt is so great. A quick, yet powerful runner who can bulldoze his way through you or scamper around you. Hunt is a top-five running back because of his effectiveness on the ground and for the added element of what he provides in the passing game. He can consistently beat linebackers over the top, or catch passes underneath and plow into or move around defensive backs for big gains.

2) Tyreek Hill – The most explosive and exciting player in football is Tyreek Hill. Capable of turning any play from any part of the field into an all-time, highlight-worthy touchdown, Hill is a player this league has never seen before. His literal olympic speed, underrated hands, and moves after the catch make him virtually unstoppable. Flies, slants, RPO’s, reverses, option routes, kick returns, punt returns, you name it. He can and has scored via all of them. Good luck covering him one-on-one.

3) Travis Kelce – After Rob Gronkowski, there’s Travis Kelce, who narrowly edges Zach Ertz as the second-best tight end in football. Although not the game’s best blocking tight end, Kelce makes up for that in his versatility and playmaking skills. He can line up traditionally (on the line), in the slot, isolated out wide or in the backfield. Either way, Kelce will get the ball and make a modest gain for the explosive Kansas City offense. In each of those instances, Kelce provides a matchup problem for a defender. Then there’s his underrated after-the-catch ability, in which his strength is actually trumped by his sneaky quickness. No matter where Kelce lines up, he poses a problem for any NFL defense.

Quick-hits

– The Patriots outlasted the Bears, 38-31, in a wild one in Chicago that saw New England lose Sony Michel to an ugly-looking knee injury early. Despite that, not having Rob Gronkowski, committing three turnovers and allowing 81 yards rushing to Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bill Belichick’s unit found a way. Brady was sharp as usual, throwing for 277 yards and three scores. James White had 19 offensive touches for 97 total yards and two scores, and Dont’a Hightower blocked a punt that Kyle Van Noy took in for a touchdown. On top of that, slot CB Jonathan Jones and rookie CB J.C. Jackson each snagged highlight-worthy interceptions when the game hung in the balance. The Patriots will need Gronk to stay healthy. They have to hope Michel is not lost fo the season, and they likely will make a few mid-level moves to improve the defense. But what matters is that they got their first road win of the season, and with November nearing they’re clearly beginning their annual Winter run.

– In a wild London game, the Titans opted to go for a two-point conversion down 20-19 in the final seconds versus the Chargers. After two incomplete passes on two chances (defensive holding was called on the Chargers in the first attempt), the Titans dropped their third straight to fall to 3-4.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision. In fact, with just one yard separating you from a big win over the Chargers (5-2) and a key tiebreaker advantage in the AFC playoff picture, the gutsy call was on brand with coaching in 2018, and showed guts. But Mike Vrabel and Tennessee has to have more ‘controlled’ plays in their holster for that moment. Both attempts featured chaotic passing plays that saw Mariota going through reads until the play resulted in an ad-libbed free-for-all. That can’t happen. The loss is a stinger, as the the Jaguars and Texans (4-3) are all in a mosh pit with the Titans for the AFC South lead. The win could have put Tennessee in good position to begin to show why they’re the division’s top team. That didn’t happen. On the other side, the Chargers have losses only to the Chiefs and Rams, and are clearly proving that their talent may be enough to get them into the postseason for the first time since 2013.

– Who saw this coming? Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Redskins (4-2) lead the Eagles (3-4) and Cowboys (3-4) by a game and a half in the NFC East. Led by three forgotten pieces (Alex Smith, Adrian Peterson and Josh Norman) jettisoned by their former teams, Washington is in prime position to shock the pro football world. There’s a lot of football left, but Jay Gruden’s bunch now has back-to-back wins over the Panthers and Cowboys under pressure. It’s the ability to pull off these type of wins early that ingrains the confidence to pull them out in December and January, where they might matter more, depending on the circumstances. In the end, the historic Cowboys-Redskins rivalry delivered another classic, and may have vaulted the Redskins further along on a special season.

 

Keelan Cole catch vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Bortles, Jags throttle Pats

Revenge is usually best served cold, but in the Jaguars’ 31-20 win over the Patriots in the hottest NFL game since 2003, it was the scorching performance by the polarizing Blake Bortles (29-45, 377 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT) that did the trick for the AFC’s early front-runner.

The Patriots’ defense that looked formidable against the Texans last week was nowhere to be found as Bortles found Keelan Cole (7 catches, 116 yards, 1 TD) when needed, including an Odell Beckham Jr.-like catch on the sideline in the first quarter, as the Jaguars raced out to a 21-3 lead that would never be surrendered or challenged.

In the win, Jalen Ramsey and the team’s brash defense forced Brady to avoid the outside and deep areas of the field. Brady instead looked toward the all-familiar middle zone of the defense, in which trusty slot receiver Julian Edelman was sorely missed. Without Edelman, the Jaguars keyed on Rob Gronkowski, allowing him just two catches for 15 yards as Brady’s dink-and-dunk philosophy garnered just 20 points, which wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with the gun-slinging Bortles.

The Patriots currently are without a receiver talented enough to get consistent serperation on the outside, which makes you wonder, do they make a play for Josh Gordon? With the Cowboys’ apparent signing of Brice Butler, the 49ers, Packers and Seahawks seem like the only other likely destinations outside of New England.

But discussing Gordon would takeaway from the Patriots’ all-too-familiar problem: what’s up with the defense? Certainly an early exit from Trey Flowers contributed, but the Patriots’ last two losses involve the dismantling of their unit but Nick Foles and Bortles. Is it panic time in New England? No. Is it a cause for concern? You bet.

The Patriots will likely be 4-1 when they visit Patrick Mahomes and the red-hot Chiefs (to be discussed next) on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in Week 5. Will the defense show up then? They better hope.

Chiefs exorcise demons, outscore Steelers

After a sizzling performance in Week 1, Patrick Mahomes and the red-hot Chiefs picked up where they left off in a 42-37 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The win doubled as an exorcising-of-the-demons affair mixed with a statement win that vaults Kansas City at or near the the top of the AFC’s group of early contenders.

Even in a flawed AFC, one can’t simply look past the Chiefs’ horrendous defense. But the perfect amalgam of star-studded weapons on offense have helped ease Mahomes into the NFL, as the young QB has been anything but easy to defend thus far.

With 10 touchdowns (and zero interceptions) in these first two weeks, Mahomes is on pace to shatter Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 55 touchdown passes with the rival Broncos in 2013. And although that probably won’t happen, Mahomes has set himself up as the way-too-early NFL MVP after two weeks.

The Steelers certainly missed Le’Veon Bell to a degree on Sunday, as replacement James Conner notched just 17 rushing yards on 8 carries, but it’s the defense that remains the Achilles Heel of the franchise. Can the Steelers overcome another slow start? They’ll need to if they are to keep up with the Chiefs, Jaguars, Patriots and Bengals in the AFC.

NFC North stalemate complicates standings

The Vikings and Packers squared off in an early candidate for game of the year before a bevy of field goal misses by both teams solidified a 29-29 tie in Lambeau Field.

Despite being the last team to miss an easy 35-yard chip-shot field goal for the win, it’s the Vikings who come away with more to be happy about with this result.

For starters, it took Kirk Cousins’ three-touchdown fourth quarter performance, which included an eight-point scoring drive in the final minute, to force overtime to avoid the loss. And secondly, the Vikings will host the Packers in their second meeting later in the year, meaning they escaped Green Bay without a loss.

Now Aaron Rodgers is still far from healthy, meaning he’ll kick things into high gear at somepoint, but the Vikings are the much more talented team, and only the Rams look better in the NFC right now.

But still, two ties in two weeks? They sure do make the standings look ugly, especially early in the season.

Decoding the NFC South

The NFC South, the league’s best division last year, is shaping up to be one of the league’s most disappointing this year. For starters, the Falcons and Panthers are decimated by injuries, while the Saints continue to underachieve on both sides of the ball, alternating by the week.

Then there is the Buccaneers.

Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bucs thoroughly outplayed the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles in a 27-21 victory at home, as four more touchdown passes by Ryan Fitzpatrick place the journeyman QB right with Mahomes as the league’s most valuable player after two weeks.

And although it’s laughable to discuss such a topic this early, it’s Jameis Winston and the remaining NFC South teams who aren’t laughing.

Not only should Fitzpatrick keep his job when Winston returns after next week, the Bucs also have a prime opportunity to ride this ship toward a possible NFC South title.

Again, it’s way too early to envision Tampa Bay (2-0) hosting a playoff game, but with the state of the NFC South, it’s certainly possible.

The Saints (1-1) travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons (1-1) next week. The Falcons remain the division’s most talented team even with their recent slew of injuries. A convincing victory there, coupled with a Bucs’ home loss to the struggling Steelers on ESPN’s Monday Night Football would shuffle things around.

As with most league discussions at this point, let’s chalk this up as ‘to be determined.’