Marshon Lattimore INT

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Fitting Final Four is set

As soon as Nick Foles’ pass slipped through Alshon Jeffrey’s fingers and into Marshon Lattimore’s hands, the storyline of Conference Championship weekend was revealed. This is the group the league deserves.

The stage is set.

The four very best teams in football in the NFL’s version of the Final Four. Not the most talented teams, per say — although, the Saints and Rams may be just that, but the best. The Patriots and Chiefs are incomplete squads with lesser defenses. But New England holds Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the greatest player and coach in the history of the sport. Kansas City has the league’s soon-to-be-named NFL MVP in Patrick Mahomes, and its greatest offensive innovator in Andy Reid (not yet, Sean McVay).

There were hotter teams down the stretch. But they were eviscerated by this group over the weekend. The Colts, Cowboys and Chargers stood no chance on the road in Kansas City, Los Angeles and New England.

The Chargers were 9-0 outside California before they quickly fell behind 38-7 to the Patriots in the third quarter, before eventually falling to the two-time defending AFC champs, 41-28.

 

Sony Michel vs Chargers
Sony Michel ran wild versus the Chargers on Sunday. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

The aforementioned Brady was phenomenal — 34-for-44, 343 yards, touchdown. But this game was as much about Sony Michel (24 carries, 128 rushing yards, three touchdowns) and New England’s power-running game behind the blocking of a sturdy offensive line, James Develin, and Rob Gronkowski as it was the greatest quarterback ever. New England scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, and even the defense looked spry and competent in rushing Philip Rivers all day. It was clear that New England fed off the debate show-spewing notions that they were finished. And that showed in Brady’s postgame comments alluding to their matchup with Kansas City next Sunday.

“I know everyone thinks we suck and you know can’t win any games,” Brady told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson. “So we’ll see. It’ll be fun.”

The Rams and Chiefs had been doubted, too. In fact, both teams ranked 31st (Chiefs) and 32nd (Rams) in yards per carry allowed this season. But the Rams held the NFL’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, to just 2.3 yards per carry (20 carries, 47 yards) while supplying a power-running game with late-season addition C.J. Anderson (and Todd Gurley) to rush for 273 yards versus a seemingly-stout Cowboys defense.

Kansas City completely shut down the Colts, who were supposedly a more complete team. The pass-rushing trio of Chris Jones, Dee Ford and veteran Justin Houston emerged, questioning whether or not this unit is as much of a liability as it once was.

Michael Thomas vs Eagles
Michael Thomas dominated versus the Eagles’ decimated secondary. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Then there were the Saints. New Orleans is arguably the favorite of the four remaining teams, yet they had to fight back from an early 14-0 deficit to win at home. But the Saints drew the defending Super Bowl champions. In a 20-14 Saints victory, the Eagles were the only loser of the weekend to put up a fight. But New Orleans rallied behind a fake-punt rush by Taysom Hill and the fabulous connection of Drew Brees to Michael Thomas. The two combined for 12 catches, 171 yards and a score on 16 targets, which includes an interception on Brees’ first pass attempt of the game. But New Orleans rallied, setting up what we now have.

So here we have it: Patriots at Chiefs and Rams at Saints. Two regular season rematches from outstanding games decided in the final minutes.

Four great coaches in Belichick, Reid, McVay and Sean Payton. Four great quarterbacks. Two young-guns in Mahomes (age 23) and Goff (24). And two surefire Hall-of-Famers in Brady (41) and Brees (40).

Three often-criticized defenses (the Saints unit is formidable) that improved in their first postseason game.

Four great teams. Four deserving teams.

Who ever reaches (and wins) Super Bowl LIII will have undoubtedly earned it.

These are the teams that should be here. Buckle up for a wild, destined finish.

Next Sunday’s mini-preview

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints (Fox, Sunday 3:05pm ET)

The Rams had to claw themselves back into their first contest with New Orleans back in November. This game, too, will be played in the Superdome, giving the Saints an immense advantage. Alvin Kamara (116 total yards, three touchdowns) was unstoppable in that matchup, but the Rams seemed to have improved in stopping running backs. At least on Saturday. Stopping Ezekiel Elliott was no easy task, and the Rams were up for it. The Saints will try to score at will, and early, which is exactly what they did in the 45-35 victory in the regular season. Drew Brees knows there isn’t much time left for him to get a second Super Bowl ring. This is his best shot. The Saints are 6-0 at home in the postseason with Brees and Sean Payton.

Early prediction: Saints 31, Rams 21

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs (CBS, Sunday 6:40pm ET)

The Patriots had a tale of two halves versus Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in their 43-40 thrilling win back in October. In the first half, the team played an ‘amoeba’ type defense by standing up everybody on the line, and disguising zone coverage and blitzes enough to confuse Mahomes into some early mistakes. But as told by the aforementioned final score, the young phenom figured it out, blazing past the Patriots defense in the second half. But the Chiefs have gashed New England in recent matchups with Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill. Hunt is now out, leaving Damien Williams to take his place. If Williams can mimic 70 percent of what Hunt does, the Chiefs likely win. That’s also with their defense playing as it did last week. Like the Rams, no none knows if they will fare better against running backs for a second straight week. The pass rush with Dee Ford, Chris Jones and Justin Houston should be there, but can the Chiefs stop the Patriots’ power-running attack with rookie rusher Sony Michel. New England likely needs long scoring drives and two turnovers to win. Brady will likely have to spread it out at times, as Kansas City should overcompentsate for the run if they are having issues. That is where Brady will look for Julian Edelman, James White and even Rob Gronkowski, who had a pair of big catches versus the Chiefs in their past meeting pre-Halloween. Do the Patriots have enough to win their first road playoff game since 2007?

Early prediction: Chiefs 34, Patriots 30

Kenyan Drake vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick-hits

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

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

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

 

Gerald Everett vs Chiefs

NFL Monday Morning Madness (Tuesday Edition): Rams outlast Chiefs + NFL MVP race

They share explosive, transcendent offenses. They share prolific young quarterbacks. They’ve literally shared players (Marcus Peters, Sammy Watkins). And yes, they even used to share states (Missouri).

On Monday night the Chiefs and Rams put on a show to the fullest extent at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. With an expected litany of points scored, millions of viewers still should be wowed by the insanity that transpired in the Rams’ 54-51 victory.

Is this the beginning of a diehard Rams fanbase building up in LA?

If so, it begins with Jared Goff’s cool-as-ever game-winning drive in the final minutes — with no timeouts — to send Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs (9-2) home, with their second loss of the season.

“It felt like Texas Tech and Cal,” Goff said he told Mahomes after the game.

Mahomes was brilliant on his own, notching nearly 500 passing yards and throwing for six scores. But he had five turnovers, including two interceptions on his final two possessions, in the game’s final two minutes.

In the first game in NFL history that featured both teams scoring at least 50 points, there did happen to be seven turnovers, and three defensive touchdowns.

Aaron Donald strips Patrick Mahomes
Aaron Donald recorded two strip-sacks of Patrick Mahomes in Monday’s win over the Chiefs. (Screenshot: NFL on ESPN)

But it was the Rams (10-1) who received the biggest boost from their defense, no matter how little. Aaron Donald — the NFL’s best non-quarterback — and Samson Ebukam – two defensive touchdowns — helped separate the two squads by making their mark in three different Mahomes turnovers, with two resulting in scores.

The league has obviously been shifting to become more offensive-centric for the past few decades, but something happened in the Eagles’ 41-33 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Where is the defense? Is it even needed anymore to win a championship. The answer is yes, but only sort of. Brandon Graham’s strip sack of Tom Brady last February was virtually the only big defensive play made in the contest, and it won the Eagles the game.

The NFL sure seems like it’s ushering in a new era. For however long that lasts, Super Bowl-caliber teams have offenses such as the Rams, Chiefs and Saints — and to a lesser extent, the Steelers and Patriots.

And the team with the most consistent offense, experienced head coach and quarterback, and/or closest to average defense wins. Last season, the Eagles played their part. This season, the Saints look like a much better version of last year’s Eagles. Especially after their 48-7 drubbing of Philadelphia on Sunday. They’re the Super Bowl LIII favorite. But in Pittsburgh and New England, two teams with the potential to run rampant on offense, and mightily improve on defense, are lying in the weeds.

But for tonight, the Rams and Chiefs put on a spectacular show for the ages. Or perhaps one of the inaugural shows of a new age. Time will tell, and our first example begins in the post-Thanksgiving push to Super Bowl LIII.

NFL MVP Race

1. Drew Brees — Brees is on pace to have perhaps the most efficient season a quarterback has ever had, at age 39. Where have we heard that before? (See: Tom Brady’s 2016 season at age 39).

2. Patrick Mahomes — Consider this, the Chiefs have averaged 45.5 points per game in their two LOSSES. Nonetheless, Mahomes’ five turnovers in the loss to the Rams puts him here for now. He may be battling Todd Gurley for the Offensive Player of the Year award at this point, if Brees keeps up his pace.

3. Jared Goff — Goff passes Gurley with his extraordinary performance to lift the Rams over the Chiefs. The quarterback position is clearly more important, as Gurley had a forgettable performance in a game where the Rams scored 54 points.

4. Todd Gurley — Yes, QBs are more important. But that doesn’t mean you can’t marvel at Gurley’s incredible season. He’s the best non-QB OFFENSIVE player in football. Aaron Donald, his teammate on defense, would be the best non-QB overall.

5. Andrew Luck — The Colts have risen from the dead, winning four straight games after starting 1-5, to pull even at .500. Luck is back, and the Colts are a force to be reckoned with in 2019 and beyond. And perhaps, the rest of this season.

Honorable mention: Aaron Donald, Antonio Brown, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Ben Roethlisberger

Drew Brees vs Bengals

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Pro football’s best trio + Titans get ‘personal’ with Patriots

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.

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.

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.

Enjoy.

Quick-hits

– 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.

– 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?

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.

 

Rob Gronkowski vs Chiefs

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Brady-Mahomes duel (Part I of II?) one for the ages + NFL MVP race

The game of the year (so far) lived up the billing. It could have been named regular season game of the decade and lived up to the hype, and then some. There’s a lot to unpack, a lot to examine in one of the wildest games in NFL history. A 43-40, video-game like thriller resulting in a 43-40 win for the Patriots over the Chiefs. The game may decide a lot more than just last night’s result in the standings. But we’ll get to that.

We’ll begin with the greatest quarterback of all-time, and his 2018 offense, which has the chance to develop into one of Tom Brady’s best, just in time for the November-December-January trek.

“I think we have a lot of clutch players,” Brady said at his postgame press conference. “I don’t think we have a problem grinding it out.”

Among the players grinding it out in the 4th quarter were Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan. Each of them made two huge catches in the fourth quarter (four of their seven catches combined for the night) to help set up 13 key points late, that ultimately won the game.

Joining Gronkowski and Hogan (and his 39-yard virtual game-winning catch above) were Sony Michel (106 rushing yards, 2 TDs), James White (92 total yards), Julian Edelman (four catches, 54 yards, TD) and Josh Gordon (five catches, 42 yards) as a holster of weapons — some tenured, some developing — in an offense that should become scarier leading up to Halloween and beyond.

In the win, Brady became the winningest-player (227 wins) at any position in NFL history, along with garnering his 200th career regular season win, which is another league record.

The same cannot be said about the Patriots’ defense, whose gimmicky (and smart) defense that confused Patrick Mahomes early on faded away as the game went along. But the Patriots’ defense is as advertised. The story here is Mahomes, a never-before-seen player who is a healthy mix between Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre (Packer fans’ input?), but too original to heavily compare him to anyone.

After a few mistakes early on, Mahomes delivered four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, leading the Chiefs to 31 second-half points to take the lead after being down 24-9 at the half.

“Just to be able to go against the best, that fight is something you can carry on for the rest of the season,” Mahomes said during his postgame presser.

Rarely does game in October mean so much, but there was a lot at stake on Sunday night. Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard game-winning field goal) brought the Patriots (4-2) within one game of the Chiefs (5-1) and gives New England the tiebreaker if the AFC’s No. 1 seed comes down to that. The Chiefs have a tough Week 11 matchup with the league-best Rams in Mexico City, but ultimately have the much-easier schedule down the stretch, as the Patriots host the Packers and Vikings, and travel to face the Bears (next Sunday) and Steelers as part of a tough journey ahead. A win here would have been a knockout punch fo the Chiefs, who may still host the AFC Championship Game.

It’s possible Eric Berry and Justin Houston would be available to boost Kansas City’s defense at Arrowhead Stadium (or Gillette Stadium) when the rematch materializes. And it will.

The Chiefs will still have Travis Kelce, and Patriots-dominating offensive weapons Kareem Hunt (185 total yards, TD) and Tyreek Hill (seven catches, 142 yards, three receiving TDs) who have played two games in New England in the last 13 months, and have been unstoppable in each.

The brief postgame handshake between Brady and Mahomes felt like a possible passing of the torch, even if delayed for another season or too. Brady is still the game’s best player now, and ever. But Mahomes has arrived. It wasn’t as sweet as Tim Duncan’s interaction with LeBron James after the 2007 NBA Finals, but if Kansas City ousts New England in the playoffs, this could be the game we look back at as maybe Brady’s last moment as lead dog. But Brady is a machine, and that can’t yet be predicted for sure.

The defensive-minded Ravens and Jaguars, or talented Chargers and Steelers may have a say here, but expect to see a rematch this January in the AFC Championship game.. Chiefs-Patriots, or Patriots-Chiefs. Whichever it is, treat it as well….a treat. A wonderful second meal (way better than a measly dessert) all football fans deserve, after tasting it’s imperfect perfection on Sunday Night.

The game of the year (so far) lived up to the hype.

Cream of the crop always…..you know

Are the Steelers slowly easing their way back into contenders status? What we do know after their thrilling, last-second win in Cincinnati, is that the Bengals aren’t quite ready for that label. With a chance to take a commanding early lead in the AFC North, they lost at home, as the Steelers are now just a half game back in the division.

It was Ben Roethlisbeger to Antonio Brown for the game-winning score with 10 seconds remaining, as he drove down the field with help (including a two-point conversion) from JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was equally as clutch. Like the Patriots, the Steelers seem to start off slow in recent seasons. But with the drams surrounding the team this season, and the absence of Le’Veon Bell, the skepticism was well-warranted. But with the ascension of James Connor, the grittiness of Big Ben, and AB84 back to being, well, the game’s best receiver, the Steelers are back in the thick of things.

Pittsburgh is the favorite to win the AFC North, again. That’s six straight losses to Pittsburgh for the Bengals, who may need to think about Wild Card spots after this loss.

AFC South logjam

What in the world is happening with the AFC South?

The most shocking development has been the uneven play of the Jaguars (3-3), who have looked awful as of late, mostly because of the pumpkin-reverting play by Jags QB Blake Bortles, who was again shaky in the team’s 40-7 loss in Dallas to the Cowboys.

But at least the Jaguars have a signature win (Week 2 vs. Patriots) to bank on. The Titans (3-3) have played six ugly games, and after a road loss in Buffalo, and now a 21-0 home loss to the Ravens, the team is clearly trending downward, even after wins over the Jaguars and Eagles.

Then there’s the Texans (3-3). After an 0-3 start, the team has fallen ass-backward into three straight wins to move into a tie for first place in the division. Houston needed a pick-six (and another interception following that) by the immortal Nathan Peterman to beat the Buffalo Bills (2-4) at home. Houston hasn’t looked particularly solid in any game this season, as Deshaun Watson eases back in from an ACL tear last season, and the common Year 2 blues that a young QB generally experiences.

The Jaguars are probably the team to beat in this division, as their talented defense should lead them to the AFC South title, and the conferees’s No. 4 seed, at minimum. But with the way Bortles has been playing, that’s far from a sure thing. The overall take of this group (which includes the 1-5 Indianapolis Colts) through six games? ‘Woof.’

Quick-hits

– For Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake, the keyword is ‘mental toughness.’ Especially after he seemingly fumbled away a victory at the one-inch line in overtime, only to lead the Dolphins back into field goal range after given a second chance (Bears missed field goal.) The win really exhibited the grit that Gase so desires from his team after an offseason overhaul. Miami kept pace in the AFC East with the win.

The Bears get the Bengals’ treatment in that they may be a year away from being a ‘true’ contender in their conference. But traveling to Miami from Chicago for an early start time is as tough as it gets for a non-East coast team. But still, the game was up grabs and the Bears capitalized on virtually nothing, minus a big interception late of Brock Osweiler returned the other way to set up a score. But after blowing leads of 21-13 and 28-21 to Osweiler, it seems the Bears are super talented, but aren’t a true contender yet. 2019 may be their year. Up next for the Bears? The surging Patriots, who will be looking for their first road victory of 2018.

– The perfect picture to sum up the Redskins’ 23-17 victory over the Panthers at home. Both teams are now 3-2.

– Here come the Los Angeles Chargers. Their third straight win, a 38-14 dismantling of the upstart Browns in Cleveland, bring them to 4-2 and squarely in the mix in the AFC. They’re one of the league’s five or six most talented teams, that will only get better with the return of Joey Bosa at some point. Also, they’re only losses are to the Rams and Chiefs, two of the league’s best clubs. However, their track record of errant miscues at the most inopportune times should serve as a tale of caution for anyone predicting them to make a deep playoff run. But it’s fun to get reeled in. The talent is there. Will coaching and well-executed play in the clutch catch up this season?

NFL MVP Race

1) Patrick Mahomes What more can you say? Even in a loss he showed why he belongs here for now.

2) Todd Gurley – Gurley has overtaken the throne — previously held by Le’Veon Bell — as the league’s best running back. The Rams RB1 has also passed Antonio Brown as the NFL’s best non-QB, offensive weapon. Jared Goff has begun taking the mantle as the leader of this team, but Gurley is still engine.

3) Jared Goff – The Rams were Gurley’s team last season. This year it’s a mix between Gurley and Goff. If the Rams ultimately are to win Super Bowl LIII, the third-year QB will have to fully take the mantle. If it doesn’t happen then, it soon will. It’s a QB-driven league and offensive mastermind Sean McVay has his guy.

4) Drew Brees – With 11 TDs, ZERO interceptions and a league-high 77.9 completion percentage, Brees is playing perhaps his best football at age 39. Don’t sleep on the 2018 New Orleans Saints.

5) Alvin Kamara – Similar to the Rams’ situation explained above, Kamara is becoming the engine of the Saints’ offense. Brees is still the offense, and the franchise, but with help from Kamara (and Michael Thomas), the Saints are gaining momentum as a NFC powerhouse. They have more than just their QB to thank.

Next up: Khalil Mack, Tom Brady, Adam Thielen 

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.’