Patrick Mahomes - Super Bowl 54

Brent’s Extra Points: Will Mahomes become NFL’s LeBron?

The NFL’s 100th season has come and gone, with the Kansas City Chiefs honoring the league and the great Lamar Hunt by winning the AFC — in turn, winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy — en route to a Super Bowl 54 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

In a new type of column I hope to put out at least semi-weekly this offseason, I tackle some of the major NFL storylines after Super Bowl 54, in hopes of wrapping up this season and looking ahead to next.  Additionally, I’ll talk about my trip down to Miami for Super Bowl week — including which celebrities and athletes I ran into — before an update on where I might be working next.

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 Is Patrick Mahomes the greatest QB we’ve ever seen? 

Fresh off a 10-point 4th quarter comeback for his first Super Bowl win, the talk around now-Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is as expected — Will he become the GOAT? Is he the best quarterback we’ve ever seen?

For the second question, I do think the answer is yes, from a talent standpoint. But in becoming the greatest quarterback of all-time, longevity (and a few more Super Bowl titles, at least) are major factors. Several all-time great quarterbacks have had a string of great seasons — think: Aaron Rodgers — but have failed to move toward GOAT status due to inconsistency in the postseason and a lack of talent around them.

With the great Andy Reid — a Super Bowl win solidified Reid as at least a top-10 coach of all-time — at the helm, and extraordinary and unique talents such as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as pass catchers, Mahomes is set up for a few more seasons of offensive greatness and additional Super Bowl runs.

But with his rookie deal set to expire after next season, the Chiefs will soon need to give Mahomes a record contract that most likely will pay the young phenom upwards of $40 million per year. That deal will likely come sometime this summer. So soon, Chiefs GM Brett Veach will have a completely different outlook on his team’s personnel structure and salary cap management going forward in the Mahomes era.

Sometime in the next three to five seasons, Mahomes will enter a period of his career that most all-time great QBs will enter. With comfortable, early-career talent depleted or gone, and his massive cap hit limiting his team’s options to acquire talent, Mahomes will need to elevate an underwhelming, if not, abysmal supporting cast  — in the shape of a horrid defense, severe lack of offensive of weapons, or both — to the point of turning that 53-man roster into a Super Bowl contender. Brady has carried several versions of a depleted roster to at least the AFC Championship Game, and a couple of those squads to Super Bowls. Rodgers once led a 4-6 Packers squad in 2016 on an eight-game winning streak that put them in the NFC Championship Game. And what about the NFL’s second-best quarterback at the moment? Russell Wilson has proven to be one of the game’s most valuable players in leading the Seahawks to some success during the post-Legion-of-Boom era. This will be Mahomes’ true judgment time. But winning as many Super Bowl titles as he can during the early favorable period of his career (a la, Brady) also helps his lore.

If generational greats such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre represent past NBA greats such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Tom Brady represents Michael Jordan. Jordan passed all his successors to be the unquestionable GOAT, but since then, the most-talented-of-all-time LeBron James has risen to the point of Jordan’s equal, creating the most heated greatest-of-all-time conversation imaginable.

Think of Mahomes as LeBron James. He’s the most talented quarterback we’ve ever seen. Not Marino. Not Elway. Not Peyton Manning. Not Lamar Jackson. It’s Mahomes. He’s that great. But it’ll be tough to match Brady’s six (and counting) Super Bowl ring total, or his iconic moments of greatness on the biggest stage — it’ll be hard to match Brady’s legendary Super Bowl 49 and Super Bowl 51 performances, which can be likened to some of Jordan’s iconic moments, like Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

But the way Mahomes elevates his current team, always giving them a chance — Mahomes holds a 28-8 record as a starter and has never lost a game by more than seven points — matching with his unique talent and immediate success in just two seasons, it appears the Chiefs’ franchise QB is at least on track to become the best of all-time. But that is certainly easier said than done.

The preferred method to analyzing Mahomes’ future, and his play over the first two seasons, is to admire what you’re watching. Although Marino, Rodgers and Drew Brees are among the all-time great passers to make just one Super Bowl, I’m pretty confident in saying Mahomes will get back to the NFL’s biggest stage.

For now, let’s all give credit where it’s due. Congrats to Mahomes, Andy Reid, the Kansas Chiefs and their fanbase. That was quite the run.

 What’s next for the 49ers? 

On the flip side of Super Bowl 54’s coin, the 49ers suffered a devastating defeat in the franchise’s biggest game in seven years.

Up 20-10 with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, and with the ball, San Francisco failed to put the game away. Just like his Atlanta Falcons offense in Super Bowl 51, Kyle Shanahan once again struggled to the finish line via a mismanagement of the four-minute offense.

Despite a stretch in the middle of the game in which Jimmy Garoppolo completed 13 of 14 passes and a touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk, the 49ers quarterback did not have a great game overall.

And then there’s the defense, perfect for three and a half quarters before self-destructing to allow 21 points in the game’s final minutes.

Still, housing a talented young coach, quarterback and several other young marquee pieces who played extremely well in this game — rookies Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel come to mind — San Francisco theoretically should be able to stay atop (or near the top) of the NFC.

But it’s not quite that simple.

The NFC is the poster child of year-to-year turnover, with only the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks and this past string of Saints seasons showing any resemblance of a consistent Super Bowl window.

Just look at the last two NFC champions? The Eagles were loaded headed into 2018 but got old and slow quickly on offense, and have since fallen back to the pack. The Rams loaded up with talent for a two-to-three year run that would leave them cap-space-stricken afterward, but due to the inconsistency of Jared Goff, and perhaps defenses’ ability to adjust to Sean McVay’s offense, the Rams have fallen backward.

The same could be headed for Shanahan, Garoppolo and these 49ers. Could teams adjust to their brilliant offensive scheme?

And not just teams, could the Seahawks and Rams, both equipped to improve in 2020, dethrone the 49ers in the NFC West, the NFL’s toughest division?

All these questions are plausible, but I have a feeling San Francisco will remain in the double-digit win category in 2020. Whether or not they re-sign Emmanuel Sanders, the team is in need of a true No. 1 receiver to clear the lanes with jack-of-all-trades Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, the NFL’s best tight end.

With Arik Armstead set to enter free agency, the 49ers will still boast the NFL’s best defensive line with Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and possible 2020 DPOY candidate Nick Bosa remaining up front.

The 49ers ‘ fast linebacking core of Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner will also return, giving the 49ers a perfect duo combat fast offenses in the middle of the field.

But where San Francisco can stand to improve semi-dramatically is in the back-end. Other than an aging Richard Sherman, the 49ers are in need of help in the secondary. They could address this in the draft.

The initial outlook for the 49ers seems rather peachy, despite the end to their season. But a big hurdle will be the mental game in rallying after this defeat. Time will tell if they are up to the task on that front.

 What does Tom Brady truly want? And what can the Patriots do for him? 

With Tom Brady reports galore before Super Bowl 54 and a Hulu advertisement featuring Brady during the game that sparked hot-take commentary these past few days, we are now entering peak Brady mania that will dominate the next four to six weeks this offseason.

I mentioned above that Brady can be compared to the NFL as Michael Jordan is to the NBA. That’s his legacy. In fact, he’s Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Russell or whoever you believe the greatest player in NFL History is. Right now, that’s solidified. And he may have more elite seasons left. He certainly believes he does. And judging by this weekend’s reports, it appears the Patriots believe he has more left, too.

But the truth is, none of us really know what Brady, Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft are thinking right now. We don’t know what has or hasn’t been discussed and there’s no way to know, seeing how tight-lipped these men, and the Patriots organization are.

But if I had to guess, I don’t think Brady is adamant on a deal worth north of $30 million per year. I believe the Patriots supplying him with more help on offense, along with perhaps a legitimate two or three-year deal with more guaranteed money (as opposed to a two or three-year deal masked as a one-year deal, like the extension he signed last offseason) is what Brady is looking for.

I’m not naive enough to think there’s zero chance Brady may wind up elsewhere, but I think the Patriots and Brady get a deal done before mid-March that keeps him in a Patriot uniform for the final two or three years of his career.

The next step is how the Patriots plan to surround Brady with better offensive weapons.

Can Brady convince them to re-sign Antonio Brown (probably not) or Danny Amendola (this is a possibility)? Will the Patriots trade draft picks or shell out available cash in free agency to bring in marquee, veteran pass-catching weapons such as Odell Beckham Jr., Stefon Diggs, O.J. Howard, A.J. Green, Hunter Henry, etc.?

Or will the Patriots present a plan to Brady that has them investing draft capital to acquire one or more the several intriguing wide receiver prospects in this loaded draft class?

I’ll re-visit this topic if (when) the Patriots re-sign Brady, but without a dominant weapon such as Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots need versatility in their pass-catching weapons, similar to how a basketball team operates in their starting line-up.

To use 2017 as an example (Brady’s last top-notch season. He won NFL MVP), the Patriots offense featured Gronkowski at tight end, Danny Amendola as a sure-handed slot receiver, Chris Hogan as a smart, possession receiver on the outside (who could also move inside) and Brandin Cooks as the team’s home-run threat.

Despite some media members (and fans) insisting Cooks did not live up to expectations in 2017, the former Patriot was a HUGE piece of that offense. He opened up the middle of the field for Gronkowski and Amendola, while also forcing attention off of James White, giving him the ability to work against linebackers in man coverage. Without a deep threat, or any threat outside of Edelman, in 2019, teams sometimes opted to put cornerbacks on White, taking him out of the passing game.

This next season, the Patriots will roll with Edelman in the slot, and an improved (hopefully) N’Keal Harry as the team’s possession X-receiver capable of using his strength and athleticism on the outside. But the team is also in need of a deep threat. A home-run hitter at flanker that can challenge defenses deep, and consistently get separation. The Patriots don’t just need a speedster, they need a competent speedster, a la Cooks.

Even better than Cooks, is a multi-tool receiver capable of utilizing an advanced route tree outside of just fly routes and comeback patterns (basically Cooks’ repertoire). The very best available or possibly available (trade market) receivers in this category include Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Stefon Diggs. Although possible, it seems unlikely that any of those No. 1 type options will be a Patriot in 2020.

New England’s best chance for this type of receiver is to take a chance on Alabama’s Henry Ruggs in the first round. Ruggs has elite speed (may run a 4.2 40-yard dash at the combine) and is not only a deep threat, but a skilled wide receiver who can work quicker routes in a smooth fashion, setting himself up for big plays via YAC (yards after the catch). The Patriots may (probably will) need to move up a couple spots to get him, seeing as teams like the Broncos, Raiders and Eagles may opt to use their pick on Ruggs. But in adding to their pass-catching arsenal, Ruggs is the best draft option for the Patriots, in my opinion.

And of course, on top of all this, they’ll also need a competent tight end.

This offseason is set-up to be the most interesting stretch of any during the Patriots dynasty, but New England’s best chance at one last re-load will hinge on re-signing Brady first.

 A much-needed trip to Miami for Super Bowl 54 week & catching up with Kyle Van Noy

This past week I took a much-needed “friends” trip to Miami to hang out with some of my best friends on the planet. I didn’t go to the game, but enjoyed watching it with friends, while also venturing into Miami for all the hoopla surrounding the game.

Among the celebrities and athletes I bumped into were Lil Nas X and Michael Irvin.

In addition to the week’s festivities, I also was able to hang out with DeAnthony Williams, one of my best friends. Dee has since started his own company training athletes down in Miami, and in my one day visiting him, a couple of high-profile names were in the gym (I’ll keep his clients private.) I’m really proud of him.

And then, on my flight from Miami back to Boston, I got the chance to catch up with Patriots free agent-to-be Kyle Van Noy.

I first met Kyle this past summer when he was a guest on Fox Sports 1’s Fair Game with Kristine Leahy — I was working as an associate producer/writer/researcher hybrid for the show.

Because I’m a die-hard Patriots fan, I spent about 15 minutes with him discussing the defense for the upcoming season. Back in July, Kyle and I talked of a linebacker-heavy front that was set to dominate in 2019. He was right. That linebacking core was called “The Boogeymen” as New England switched to more of a 3-4 style defense that often used 3-4 principles with just two bigger down lineman.

Moving to the edge almost full-time as a stand-up 3-4 edge rusher, Van Noy enjoyed his best season as a pro, ranking 59th on Pro Football Focus’ Top 101 players list. (Van Noy posted a 84.2 PFF grade).

Well, Van Noy is now a free agent expected to garner major interest. He may get paid upward of $10 million per year. When I told Kyle to go get the money, he told me on the plane that he would love to remain in New England, saying “I want it to be here, though” referring to him staying with the Patriots. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure if Patriots free agent Jamie Collins was happy down the stretch. That could mean the New England linebacker may become a former Patriot for the second time during his career.

The Collins news given to me was interesting, but Van Noy’s eagerness to remain a Patriot is not exactly shocking. He’s told every outlet he’s interviewed with that he’d like to stay, but it was still cool to hear that in person.

Although the money he is expecting to command will likely be out of the Patriots ball park, New England would be wise to at least attempt to negotiate with its best pass rusher.

Although the offense failed to take advantage of perhaps Bill Belichick’s best defense in New England, the Patriots now know what works for them on that side of the ball. With a cornerback trio — Stephon Gilmore (DPOY), J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones (slot) — designed to slow down the defending Super Bowl champions, the Patriots would benefit from Van Noy’s presence. All they’d be missing then is one or two more big bodies up front to stop high-octane rushing attacks.

This will be an interesting free-agent case to monitor going forward. But personally, I hope Kyle breaks the bank. He deserves it.

 What’s next for me?

As you all know, Fair Game with Kristine Leahy is no longer on the air. I’m forever thankful to Kristine, my bosses and co-workers for some awesome memories. That was a thrilling job in which I learned a lot and met some good friends, all the while working and mingling with several celebrities and athletes. I loved the show and wish it could continue, but a las, life happens.

As for me now, I have a few things in the works. I’ve been speaking with a few places, and should know where I’m headed soon.

I’ll be pushing out offseason content as I see fit, heading up to the NFL Draft.

I’d just like to say, I hope you all enjoyed my coverage of yet another NFL season. That’s another one in the books! Thanks for reading.

Kobe Bryant -- Super Bowl 54 Opening Night

Super Bowl LIV Preview: Loss of Kobe rightly overshadows buildup of speedy Chiefs-49ers tilt

After a fun-filled season, two teams worthy of the biggest game of the NFL’s historic 100th season remain.

Super Bowl 54. The Kansas City Chiefs versus the San Francisco 49ers.

Storylines aside, this is the most interesting Super Bowl matchup since Super Bowl 49 — Patriots over Seahawks — in terms of X’s and O’s, heading into the game.

I’ll get to why I think that later in this piece, along with my thoughts (and prediction) of Super Bowl 54. But I’ll begin with something much more important.

On Sunday afternoon, the sports world lost a legend and his daughter, along with seven other victims — whose families also deserve thoughts and prayers — in an unspeakable tragedy.

Here is my ode to Kobe Bryant, the tenacious NBA superstar that inspired my generation…

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Me and Tyler, one of my very best friends, used to viciously argue for hours over sports arguments in high school. One of the few I remember was me insisting Kobe Bryant, not LeBron James was the NBA’s best player in 2009, to the chagrin of Tyler. This came days after Kobe’s first NBA title without Shaq, as the unquestioned leading-man of the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Kobe was always a leading man. And it wasn’t because he consistently reiterated that out loud. He didn’t become a generational icon, and in turn, influencing my generation, by saying he did, he influenced us all by his tireless work ethic and drive to be the best at his craft.

Kobe wanted to be Michael Jordan. He wanted to be better than Jordan, actually. Kobe proceeded to become the other NBA player that has reminded us of “His Airness.” Only Kobe matched Kobe’s killer instinct and fearlessness in the clutch.

Just like Jordan famously reiterated “you miss 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take,” Kobe similarly once told the media: “I have no fear whatsoever…If I take the last second shot, and I miss? So what…”

Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality,” which has since inspired many of the younger superstars in the NBA, lives on in a few players. Kyrie Irving is one. Irving dropped 54 points (19-23 field goals) in a win Friday night, dedicating it to Kobe.

And despite the Lakers’ loss to the Trail Blazers at Staples Center, the night was still an honorable ode to Kobe Bryant, as LeBron James and the franchise in which Kobe played 20 seasons, honored him before the game beautifully. And during the game, Damian Lillard, who like Irving, is cut from the Kobe Bryant-mold in terms of basketball mettle, dropped 48 points in a Portland victory. Even in the Lakers loss, the night was a perfect memoriam to everything Kobe represented, with an NBA superstar putting a team on his back with an incredible, fearless performance.

Despite the legendary performance from Lillard, two nights before kick-off in Sunday’s Super Bowl, it was Kobe, his family and the families of the additional passengers on that helicopter that we continued to think about. That won’t go away anytime soon, and it shouldn’t.

This whole week has become a tribute to Kobe, Gigi, and seven other members who lost their lives. And we should all be complicit with that.

I touched down in Miami on Thursday, and the usual Super Bowl hoopla feels a bit different.

Monday’s Super Bowl Opening Night kicked off with a moment of silence for Kobe, and despite a fantastic game played out for us in Chiefs-49ers, the loss of a legend, his daughter, and their friends who lost their lives makes the game feel a bit hollow.

Super Bowl Live. NFL Experience. NFL Honors. South Beach. The bars, parties and events. This year feels a bit different.

Sports are a wonderful thing that continuously brings many of us, from different walks of life, together.

Several have held hands in the mourning over Kobe Bryant this week. Sports are what brought Kobe into our lives. We should be thankful. Everyone we lost in this tragic accident should be on our minds during Super Bowl LIV. And we should continue to think about him, for the rest of our major moments in sports, for the rest of our lives.

Long live Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan.

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And with that, I’ll get into Super Bowl LIV.

Some of the major ties with these two teams come in the way of two historic franchises with an affinity for the same quarterbacks.

Among the passers who played for both teams include: Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Alex Smith.

Another storyline is 49ers EDGE wonder Dee Ford, who was traded this past offseason after four seasons with the Chiefs as an extraordinary pass rush specialist. But his last play with Kansas City was his infamous offsides penalty that cost Kansas City a spot in last year’s Super Bowl. Do you think Ford has forgotten all the hurtful words from Chiefs fans, blaming last year’s AFC title game loss on him? There’s extra motivation here.

Both Travis Kelce and George Kittle should find motivation in trying to prove who is the NFL’s best tight end, as the pro football’s biggest game will feature the two best at the position.

In all, this is the most interesting Super Bowl I’ve seen (heading into the game) since Super Bowl 49, where the Patriots and Seahawks entered the game as the clear titans of the NFL that season, and the betting line was set at a push.

Similarly, the Chiefs are favored by 1 to 1.5 points in this contest, exemplifying the 50-50 feel of the public heading into this contest.

On paper, this game also reminds me of Super Bowl 48, where the Seahawks beat the Broncos 43-8, but heading into the game, many viewed it as a hard-to-pick contest of offense versus defense, with Peyton Manning being the difference for Denver’s recored-setting scoring machine. But the lightning-quick (and physical) Seahawks, equipped with a untraditional band of unique, all-time talent, length on the perimeter, and speed, destroyed the Broncos.

In this battle of offense versus defense, it’s the Chiefs (offense) versus the 49ers (defense), but unlike Denver’s offense in 2013, Kansas City’s offense has the most speed of any unit in the NFL. And at the helm, is Patrick Mahomes, who is capable of unconventional plays that leave even the most terrorizing defenses descending into madness.

Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and others are the great equalizer, making this game truly feeling like a close contest to come.

I’ll break down all facets of this fascinating matchup here.

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The Chiefs and 49ers present the two fastest offenses in the NFL, but the Chiefs pack the biggest punch in this category, with explosiveness all across the board on offense.

NFL Network‘s Cynthia Frelund had some telling stats (powered by Next Gen Stats) in her Game Theory score projection, regarding Kansas City’s big play ability in the passing game:

34 receptions of over 30 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

24 touchdown receptions of over 20 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

13 “deep” touchdown passes (Next Gen Stats) — Most in the NFL

But San Francisco may have the antidote to slowing down this prolific offense — The league’s best pass rush.

In addition to their overall defense — which is pretty fast in itself — San Francisco boasts a defensive line stockpiled with five first-round picks, headlined by Defensive-Rookie-of-the-Year-to-be Nick Bosa and former Chiefs All-Pro Dee Ford on the edge, and All-Pro DeForest Buckner in the interior.

One thing that is telling about Mahomes’ play is that 16 of his 17 interceptions over the past two seasons have come when defenses rush four or less defenders, leaving at least seven players back in coverage to defend Kansas City’s arial attack. Of course, that’s not very surprising. Producing pressure with four or less rushers will stymie just about any type of quarterback, no matter how skilled.

Yet another stat in favor of San Francisco is their ability to guard running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Football Outsiders ranks them first in DVOA in guarding running backs, and second when facing tight ends. That can be attributed to their fast linebacking core equipped with Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner. Now that the 49ers’ front seven is healthy again, they remain a huge factor. If San Francisco’s pass rush plays up to par, they’ll pressure Mahomes early and often, forcing him to look for his running backs and tight ends on quicker routes that sometime will be bail-out patterns. But with their speed at linebacker, San Francisco will likely have those routes covered often, on top of their pass rush.

The 49ers predominantly run a Cover 3 scheme that’s similar to the one Sherman helped spearhead with his play on Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense. Sherman excels in Cover 3 and Cover 3 match coverage, where he can play a bit of man coverage (to a degree) on downfield, boundary routes.

But if Mahomes is granted some time (thanks to Mitchell Schwartz and Kansas City’s more than competent O-line), the likes of  Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardmon present problems for Sherman, who is better with using his length versus larger, traditional No. 1 receivers, as opposed to diminutive speedsters.

The Chiefs would be wise to use them on the right side of their formation, as Sherman has an affinity for the left side, where he’ll probably reside the entire game.

Sherman may also see Travis Kelce in the Chiefs’ 3×1 scheme that features Kelce as the lone ‘X’ receiver, or he may draw Sammy Watkins, who is probably Sherman’s best chance in a 1-on-1 man coverage-type matchup.

Kansas City should have limited downfield attempts, so they’ll need to capitalize. Unless they suddenly breakout a top-tier running game behind Damien Williams, the Chiefs will have to try to win this game through the air.

And that’s how they like it, behind the league’s best player in Mahomes. But he’s going to need a little help from the big boys up front.

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Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco love to run the football. Their running back committee has dwindled down to virtually just Raheem Mostert, but that’s a good thing. Mostert’s explosiveness has been showcased in his postseason performances this past month. In San Francisco’s two playoff wins, the team rushed for 471 yards. And in the NFC Championship Game, Mostert ran for 220 yards and four scores on 29 carries.

Unlike Derrick Henry and the Titans, who ran out of gas trying to bulldoze through a suddenly-improved Chiefs run defense, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is an offensive mastermind with beautiful play design, and that extends into their running game. San Francisco would like to pound the still-vulnerable Kansas City defense on the ground with Mostert, gain an early lead, and then tee off on Mahomes with their pass rush, hoping to force him into a few mistakes. That’s their perfect game plan, but that could be asking a lot.

Through the air, Garoppolo will (of course) have to avoid throwing the ball right to linebackers in the play-action passing game. The 49ers quarterback has at times — twice versus the Vikings’ Eric Kendricks in NFC Divisional round — tried to force the ball to Kittle and has paid the price via an interception by a linebacker.

Jimmy G is not completely unflappable. Nerves (and a pass rush) could get the best of him, but he’s much more of a composed player than not. This is a quarterback who’s first career pro start was in place of a suspended Tom Brady, in which Jimmy led the Patriots to national-televised (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) fourth-quarter comeback win over the Cardinals in Arizona. Garoppolo is ready for the big moments.

And to those trying to diminish his 23-5 career record as a starter due to his game-managing in his last two contests — combined 11 pass completions in two postseason wins — just know that Kyle Shanahan’s offense displays a Patriots-like chameleon approach to their offense. They can win in a myriad of ways. Roughly just a month ago, Garoppolo outdueled Drew Brees in New Orleans, throwing for 349 yards and four touchdowns on 35 pass attempts (very Mahomes-like!) in a 48-46 comeback win over the Saints. Don’t underestimate Garoppolo’s ability — and in turn, the 49ers offense’s — to match Mahomes and this Chiefs offense score for score, if he gets even just a smidge of help from his defense.

In fact, San Francisco is 7-0 this season when Garoppolo throws for over 250 yards. They may need him to do that again in Super Bowl 54, as the Chiefs will likely force the game into his hands, knowing they’d be in worse trouble if they can’t stop the San Francisco defense.

But the Chiefs will have more problems with George Kittle, who I believe is the NFL’s best tight end because of his blocking skills and after-the-catch ability. Kelce is quicker and more of a route-running technician. He’s a better tight end-turned-wide receiver than Kittle. But Kittle is built from the Gronk mode, and is a destructive force in all facets on offense.

In the passing game, the Chiefs will likely use their safeties , the sure-tackling Daniel Sorenson, or Tyrann Mathieu, to attempt to neutralize him, but Kittle is a mismatch for either. They may need to double him, or hope for better pressure from a pass-rushing group that is already successful, being equipped with Frank Clark and Chris Jones. The latter is an absolute force in the interior, and pressure up the middle should disrupt Garoppolo’s timing and decision-making. This will in turn give the Chiefs a chance at neutralizing Kittle.

But the 49ers will also use their quick-passing game with the ultra-quick Emmanuel Sanders and the do-it-all rookie Deebo Samuel, who displays running back-like qualities as a wide receiver.

Shanahan will use pre-snap motion to try to confuse the Chiefs defense, or to sniff out their coverages.

Like Andy Reid and his forward-thinking, genius-level offensive concepts, Shanahan is one of the league’s brightest offensive minds.

He’ll pull out all the stops versus a Chiefs defense that will need to keep up its surreal play as of late.

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On paper, the 49ers are the better team. Everything is telling me that they should win a close or semi-close contest. But to me, it feels like the Chiefs’ year. And before you roll your eyes, sometimes, football works this way. The 49ers are the better team, but Patrick Mahomes could be the difference. He’s that good. One or two (or six) spectacular plays will have to be made by Mahomes. And they may all include evading San Francisco’s unreal pass rush. But he’s certainly capable of doing so.

The 49ers can possibly win behind the running game, Jimmy Garoppolo, or both. The many analysts and fans doubting Garoppolo may be in for a rude awakening on Sunday. I absolutely think Jimmy is already a top-10 quarterback. I think he matches the Chiefs score for score if he has to, even if it ends in defeat late.

I think this will be a fun, close contest throughout. But I say Andy Reid gets his first ring, and he’ll have his quarterback to thank.

Chiefs 33, 49ers 31. 

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.

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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.

_______________

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.

Jimmy Garoppolo & John Lynch

NFL Monday Morning Madness: 49ers outlast Saints in season’s best game + AFC becomes clearer

Week 14 gave us yet another slate of important games, as well as a clearer picture painted in the AFC.

But we begin with the game of the year in New Orleans, whose result has sprung a clear favorite in the NFC, for the time being…

*********

As Robbie Gould’s game-winning 30-yard field goal went through the uprights, Jimmy Garoppolo darted onto the field in elation, sharing his excitement with the man who brought him in, GM John Lynch.

Garoppolo — 349 yards, four touchdowns — had just played his best game as a pro, leading his team to victory over Drew Brees’ in a game in which Brees threw for five touchdowns at home.

At the end of it, 94 points had been scored and the 49ers (11-2) defeated the Saints (10-3) 48-46 on the road, to lay claim to title of the NFC’s best team.

The win come on the day after the first anniversary of the passing of 49ers CEO Jed York’s brother, Tony, who committed suicide in 2018. Solomon Thomas, whose sister committed suicide in January of 2018, knew how York was feeling. The two embraced each other outside their visiting locker room after the win.

“For him, it was probably the most emotional day he’s probably had in the last year — at least that’s the way it was for me,” Thomas told NFL.com. “It was an honor just to be able to bring him that win — him and Tony and [the] entire York family. They mean the world to us. Hopefully getting the win brings a lot of peace and good memories of Tony.”

The 49ers do seem like a family. After all, they’ve been through a lot this past month, during a murderous trio of games against top-flight teams.

The 49ers were 9-1 entering a tough stretch that included games versus the Packers (10-3), Ravens (11-2) and Saints. Many thought they’d finish the stretch 1-2 at best, succumbing to the league’s most difficult stretch for any team this season. But San Francisco has risen from the onslaught, instead going 2-1, with their only two losses this season coming in a tough game versus Baltimore, and an overtime contest they should have won against the Seahawks at home.

Now, San Francisco is battle-tested, and ready for a deep postseason run. They appear to be the NFC’s top team.

Of course, even if the 49ers are certainly the NFC’s most powerful bunch, they’ll likely need to win in Seattle on Sunday night in Week 17 to risk falling from the NFC’s top spot to it’s no. 5 seed, which would mean a borderline unfair road match in Dallas or Philadelphia in early January, giving notice to the league’s seeding rules that may need re-tooling.

But for now, the 49ers will relish the win that game on a game-winning drive by Garoppolo, sprung by a monstrous 39-yard catch-and-run by George Kittle — the NFL’s best tight end — on a 4th-and-2.

On a day in which the 49ers defense fell victim to an offensive track meet, a commonality in New Orleans, Garoppolo and the offense were there to pick them up.

The 49ers now how far they can go, and they know wins like this prove they have the toughness and close-knit group that could get them to Miami in early February.

“We have a special group of people, and I’m just proud of these guys and how we have all come together, whether it’s ownership, whether it’s coaches, whether it’s players,” said an emotional Jed York after the game. “It’s just a really, really tight group of people. It’s special.”

*********

We could be in store for a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl.

In fact, that would be my pick today. They are each the two best teams in football, coming off a hard-fought contest against each other in a rainy day in Baltimore last week — in which the Ravens won 20-17 on a game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.

The Ravens keep on rolling, and Sunday was no different.

Marcus Peters broke up a 4th-down pass intended for foamier Raven John Brown, and Baltimore (11-2) won their ninth-straight game, a 24-17 win over Buffalo (9-4), bring them to a 7-1 mark against teams that have currently have winning records in 2019.

The Ravens will be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Especially after what unfolded in New England yesterday.

There is certainly reason for the Patriots (10-3) to be upset about Sunday’s officiating in their 23-16 home loss to the Chiefs (9-4), but the fact of the matter is — the Patriots offense struggled yet again. Even for New England, their chances look bleak.

This is the second December in a row that they began the month with two straight losses. No one intelligent will fully count them out going forward, but this offense might be what it is at this point.

The Patriots have lost to all three AFC division leaders at the moment — Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston — which includes the future of the AFC in quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. It’s worth wondering how they’ll respond this time around.

But give the Chiefs credit. Their defense has vastly improved under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, which is huge, considering Patrick Mahomes and the offense is currently gimpy, and playing like it.

The Chiefs really may be on a 2006 Colts path, turning on the switch to vastly improve on defense just when they need it, to go on a possible postseason run as the AFC’s No. 3 seed.

Elsewhere in the conference, Buffalo (9-4) and Pittsburgh (8-5) are tough teams battling for wild card spots who will face off on Sunday Night Football this week.

Tennessee (8-5) is 6-1 under Ryan Tannehill, and an equally tough opponent capable of playing smash mouth January football with the likes of the Ravens, Bills and Steelers, and have the talent to defeat the Patriots and Chiefs. They are a conference dark horse if there was one. But they’re unlikely to win three straight postseason games against AFC teams to get to the Super Bowl.

Tennessee will be fighting for the AFC South lead when they take on Houston (8-5) at home this week. The Texans followed up their win over the Patriots with a blowout loss to the Drew Lock-led Broncos (5-8) in a game in which they trailed 38-3 at home. Houston is Houston, and as talented as Deshaun Watson is, their flaws and deep-rooted inconsistency genuinely rule a serious run this season.

So the AFC will likely come down to Baltimore, New England and Kansas City.

And likely in that order, in terms of seeding. The Chiefs will likely travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts once more this season, in an AFC Divisional Playoff in New England.

Of course, the Patriots will have to follow up yet another gut-wrenching, alarm-sounding loss to Kansas City with a game versus the Bengals afterward — for the second time in five years.

For the Patriots, it’s once again — On to Cincinnati.

For the the Chiefs, there’s reason to be optimistic.

For the Ravens, home-field advantage is likely to be the case, and they know that a Super Bowl berth is now squarely in their sights. This is their season.

*********

The feel of this season, is that we’ll see a rematch of Baltimore and San Francisco.

These two teams are the biggest stories of the year.

New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle seem like bystanders in San Francisco’s magical season in the NFC this year.

And last year’s two AFC title game participants — New England and Kansas City — aren’t up to par with Baltimore.

A lot can change from now until Super Bowl 54, but as of now it looks like a rematch between Super Bowl 47 — Baltimore vs San Francisco — this February.

Would any one complain?

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. The race was close. Now, it’s not so close. This is Lamar’s award for the taking.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Russell has been great this season, doing his best to cover up for a somewhat-flawed Seahawks team.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. No one outside of Jackson and Wilson has a real chance at this award, but if anyone else does at all, it should be Jimmy G.

4. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. He’s missed too many games to win the award, and he hasn’t quite deserved it anyhow, but he’s played well this season. He’s being slowed down by injury, clearly.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans/Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers/ Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. An obligatory three-way tie between the two main Offensive Player of the Year candidates and Watson, who has done his best to keep the Texans afloat, but won’t be winning this award with performances like Sunday’s at home versus the Broncos. All three of these guys may be bumped off the list going forward, but they still deserve the nod here, barely.

Next up: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-2) (Last week: 1). The team to beat, still.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers have risen back to the top of the NFC. They are the conference’s best team — no question.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). Their defense failed them on Sunday. They still have a realistic shot at the No. 1 seed though, if they can take care of business down the stretch in December.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) (Last week: 8). Here come the Chiefs. Their recent performances came against the struggling offenses in Oakland and New England, but Kansas City’s defense has certainly improved.

5. New England Patriots (10-3) (Last week: 4). On to Cincinnati, Part II? This offense really may be broken. Another career test for Brady.

6. Seattle Seahawks (10-3) (Last week: 5). They got burned in Los Angeles on Sunday night. Russell Wilson really makes up for a lot with this club.

7. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 6). Something doesn’t look right with them, but they’re still lurking in the NFC.

8. Minnesota Vikings (9-4) (Last week: 7). With the Rams nipping at their heels, Minnesota will have to keep winning to ensure a playoff spot.

9. Los Angeles Rams (8-5) (Last week: 11). The Rams will likely have to win out to get in the playoff field, but their season isn’t over.

10. Tennessee Titans (8-5) (Last week: 12). The Titans play the Texans twice and the Saints at home down the stretch. If they make the postseason, they’ll have earned their berth.

11. Buffalo Bills (9-4) (Last week: 10). The Bills aren’t quite up to par with the AFC’s best. But this has still been a fun season for them.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) (Last week: 13). Mike Tomlin — Coach of the Year.

13. Houston Texans (8-5) (Last week: 9). Well, that was a thud. The Texans are in real danger of missing the postseason with a loss and a Steelers win this weekend.

14. Chicago Bears (7-6) (Last week: 16). They won’t make the postseason, but they can cause some real playoff seeding damage in what should be the final few games for Mitch Trubisky as the franchise’s starting QB.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) (Last week: NR). The Buccaneers even left a few wins out on the field this season. Jameis Winston has been complete trick or treat, as expected. But Bruce Arians seems to have this team going in the right direction, no matter who the team’s quarterback is in 2020. Let’s let the Bucs enjoy this spot for now.

16. Indianapolis Colts (6-7) (Last week: 14). The Colts season is now likely over, but they have much to look forward to in 2020 and beyond.

Next up: Philadelphia, Dallas, Cleveland 

Lamar Jackson juke vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ravens halt Patriots, put AFC on notice

Since breaking onto the college scene to win a Heisman Trophy at Louisville, Lamar Jackson has had to start all over in earning the respect that comes with being one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. After taking over for Joe Flacco as a rookie, leading the Ravens on a 6-1 record down the stretch, Jackson’s limited passing skills were put on display on national television in an AFC Wild Card home loss to the Chargers.

It was a learning point that any (and most) young quarterbacks succumb to. But judging by the ridiculous ‘is he good enough to be an NFL quarterback’ takes, his case was obviously different. He’d need to treat the postseason defeat as a learning experience and then put the loss, and the naysayers, in the distance.

******

10 months later — His confidence is oozing. His leadership is an admirably developed trait. This is a different version of Jackson, or perhaps the franchise pillar that the Ravens thought they had when former legendary GM Ozzie Newsome made him his final first-round pick in 2018.

“This kid is just destined to be great,” said Willie Snead after the game. He attacks those (big) moments, he wants those moments to happen. That’s what he gravitates to. That’s when he’s at his best in those big moments.”

Behind Jackson and veteran rusher Mark Ingram (15 carries, 115 yards), the Ravens rushed 210 yards against one of the best defenses in NFL history through eight games.

Even when the Patriots knew Baltimore’s running game was coming, they struggled to stop it. The Ravens often used fullback Patrick Ricard or tight end Nick Boyle as an H-Back on the near-wing, in a way the Patriots utilized Rob Gronkowski or James Develin to plow over opposing team’s defenders.

When the Ravens weren’t running up the middle, stretch plays the option, or designed runs for Lamar, they were rolling him out and giving him a chance to find his open target. There was nothing fancy in the Ravens’ play-calling, and Lamar wasn’t asked to do too much in the passing game, but he converted a few big throws anyway, including a 4th-and-4 conversion to Willie Snead in the second half with Baltimore in need of a spark versus the surging, down-but-not-yet-out Patriots.

New England, a team that hadn’t lost since December 18, 2018, lost this game because they were outplayed by a better team (that day) that outplayed them physically on both sides of the ball, which is something Bill Belichick will surely address during New England’s bye week.

Earl Thomas emotionally led the Ravens’ charge, much like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs would in Patriots-Ravens matchups of the past. The former two were at Sunday’s game, soaking in the atmosphere that they once helped create in the tough town of Baltimore, and an aura that Thomas and this present-day Ravens defense is trying to keep afloat.

“We didn’t flinch,” Thomas said. “If we take the turnovers out, it’s not close.”

Thomas may be right, but it was a major turnover by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman that turned the tide. Trailing 17-13, and driving, to start the second half, Edelman fumbled in Ravens’ territory, and Marlon Humphrey returned the loose ball for a touchdown, which put New England in a hole they would not recover from.

Edelman took blame for the play, but his teammates would not let him take the burden for the loss, which was a true Patriots-like attitude from a team that otherwise did not resemble themselves.

Tom Brady, who Lamar Jackson still calls ‘the GOAT,’ did his best to combat the Ravens’ pass rush and offensive onslaught, finding his two favorite receivers — Edelman and Mohamed Sanu — although tough, for an impressive stat line for a top-tier running back – 20 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown.

To be blunt, the Patriots are down at least one playmaker on offense. That playmaker might be left tackle Isaiah Wynn. The former first-round pick is slated to return in three weeks versus the Cowboys (4-3), after New England travels to Philadelphia to face the Eagles (5-4). Ditto for rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who should be active then to take on the X-receiver role once occupied by Josh Gordon.

The Patriots now know this won’t be easy, like it appeared to be in their first eight games. The AFC now has three young quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Jackson — who are liable to take over a game at any moment. Jackson did that to them on Sunday, and they’ll see Watson and Mahomes down the stretch.

“The better team won tonight,” safety Duron Harmon said to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. “We know that. We know we can play a lot better, so it’s all about just learning from the loss.

There’s still a lot of football left. The real football season doesn’t start until Thanksgiving, so we’ve got some time to continue to improve before the real football starts.”

As for the Ravens, they’ll take the win, and they’ll stand behind their new franchise quarterback, who has consecutive wins over Russell Wilson’s Seahawks (on the road) and the defending Super Bowl champions.

“MVP, bro,” Thomas told NFL.com’s Michael Silver of Jackson.“He’s separating himself right now, and it’s pretty special to watch.”

QUICK-HITS 

– With a game-tying 54-yard field goal, and a 44-yard walk-off game winner, Harrison Butker delivered the Chiefs (6-3) a much-needed win that fired up the crowd, and Patrick Mahomes. Immediately after the kick sailed through the uprights, Mahomes ran onto the field to celebrate with Butker and his teammates. Kansas City has two games (vs Titans, at Chargers) before their bye, and they may have to evaluate whether or not they need to rush back Mahomes, who appears ready. At this point, it would take a miracle for the Chiefs to catch the Patriots in the race for home-field advantage, but they are right in the thick of things in the race for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, which would give them a bye. The good news is, the Chiefs should be ‘ok’ either way. Matt Moore, a 35-year-old journeyman who recently was a Dolphins scout, has been effective in Mahomes’ absence. Andy Reid always gets good play out of his backup quarterbacks. If he thinks the Chiefs can beat the reeling Titans with Moore next week, it would be worth considering holding out Mahomes for at least one more game. However, Reid reported “there are no new injuries,” after the win, meaning Mahomes should be scheduled to return Sunday.

– Laces out! Partially because of a bad hold, Adam Vinatieri — the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history — shanked a go-ahead 43-yard field goal attempt. But the bigger problem was that the 2019 Colts’ affinity to play sloppy games finally came back to bite them. Jacoby Brissett went down early, and Brian Hoyer played admirably, throwing for three scores while also setting up Indianapolis for a game-winning drive, but his redzone pick-six proved costly. The person who recorded that defensive touchdown? That’d be Minkah Fitzpatrick. The player who was traded from the Dolphins to the Steelers for a first-round pick has proven worth it. Fitzpatrick totaled three interceptions in a six-day period, which included two against his former team last Monday night. His addition as a do-it-all defensive back capable of playing anywhere on the secondary has given Pittsburgh a massive boost to their underrated defense. Mike Tomlin has done a great job in getting Pittsburgh (4-4) back to .500 without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

– Every good — or great — team has a dud in the regular season. A lot of times in the middle of the season, too. Because I view this from a Patriots lens, the Packers’ 26-11 loss to the Chargers on Sunday reminded me of the 2010 Patriots’ midseason loss in Cleveland — to Eric Mangini, Peyton Hillis and the Browns — and last year’s Patriots’ blowout loss in Tennessee to Mike Vrabel’s Titans. These losses happen. Even the activation of Rodgers’ No. 1 pass catcher, Davante Adams, couldn’t help in Los Angeles. The Packers (7-2) were flat, and the talented Chargers (4-5) took advantage in a moment where they absolutely needed a quality win to jumpstart a run to the postseason. The Chargers aren’t finished, yet. The Packers will be fine, and will welcome a trip back home next week versus the Panthers.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. With an out-of this-world stat line — 22 touchdowns, one interception — Wilson leads this close MVP race as we pass the season’s midway point.

2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Watson continues to lift up a Texans team with many holes, including a few among the ever-important offensive line.

3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. Even with a still-limited repertoire (he’ll learn) in the passing game, Jackson remains one of the best player makers in the NFL. He’s certainly the most exciting.

4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. He won’t win MVP, but he is the most valuable non-QB in the NFL this season.

5. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. Rough day for Rodgers in Los Angeles. That brings him down some. But the way he has picked up this new offense is still something to admire.

Next up: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

THE BETTER HALF

1. New Orleans Saints (7-1) (Last week: 2). Fittingly, the not-talked-about-enough Saints slide up to the top spot during their bye week. They belong here.

2. San Francisco 49ers (8-0) (Last week: 3). Their defense is mighty, and Jimmy Garoppolo just might be joining them.

3. New England Patriots (8-1) (Last week: 1). Now we can oust any undefeated talk. The Patriots have a bye, and then will travel to Philadelphia to exact revenge on the Eagles after a wonky Super Bowl 52.

4. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 4). That was a rough loss, but every team lays a dud. If that is Green Bay’s lone stinker this regular season, then they will have played a fantastic 16-game stretch.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 11). The Ravens have a unique offense worthy of postseason success. In an AFC that has just shown that their top team is somewhat vulnerable, Baltimore is right in the thick of things.

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-2) (Last week: 6). Russell Wilson continues to make up for Seattle’s deficiencies. This defense is not very good.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (6-3) (Last week: 9). Matt Moore did enough to win two games, really. It would be wise to wait until Mahomes has fully healed, but it appears he is ready to go. The Chiefs will likely battle the Ravens down the stretch for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, and maybe, the Patriots for home field advantage.

8. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 8). The Rams sit tight, feeling good about themselves during the bye week.

9. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 5). After winning a few sloppy games earlier this season — including last week’s win — the Colts got burned. Rough loss.

10. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) (Last week: 10). They should beat the Giants tonight, and then, they have a big SNF matchup with Minnesota next week.

11. Minnesota Vikings (6-3) (Last week: 7). The Vikings will have to regroup quickly when they face Dallas on Sunday.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) (Last week: 12). The Eagles now go into their bye week with some momentum. After that, they’ll host the Patriots. That game will be telling.

13. Houston Texans (6-3) (Last week: 13). Deshaun Watson continues to play ‘Like Mike,’ in taking the Texans to another level.

14. Buffalo Bills (6-2) (Last week: 14). They let Washington hang around for a bit, but ultimately pulled out a gritty win.

15. Carolina Panthers (5-3) (Last week: 16). No matter who finishes the season at quarterback for the Panthers, their MVP is running back Christian McCaffrey.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4) (Last week: NR). Mike Tomlin has done an incredible job in getting them back to this point. If they sneak into the playoffs, he should be up for Coach of the Year.

Next up: L.A. Chargers, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, Jacksonville

Deshaun Watson vs KC

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Watson outduels Mahomes + What football means to the Schwartz family

When I went to journalism school in Northwestern in 2017, our class with media veteran J.A. Adande consisted of writing about topics of our own choice.

My most passionate paper that year was when I lobbied that Deshaun Watson should be the first quarterback taken in the 2017 NFL Draft. I later doubled down on Watson in a NFL Draft recap show us students created a few weeks later.

The National Championship-winning quarterback from Clemson has made me proud thus far.

His stats — 30 of 42, 280 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions — weren’t as flashy, thanks to a number of dumbfounding drops. But the result, a 31-24 win over the Chiefs in Kansas City, tell the real story.

As soon as Watson converted a 4th-and-3 on a gutsy pass to DeAndre Hopkins to seal the game, one thing was clear: Watson is an MVP candidate worthy of lofty comparisons to fellow new-wave superstars Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson.

While his moxie and leadership skills were already uncovered in college, it’s Watson’s pure passing skills that have kept the Texans in the mix in the AFC, despite having a slew of roster efficiencies like their offensive line.

The Texans head to Indianapolis next week, meaning we should know more about the division then. As admirable as Jacoby Brissett has played, he’s no Watson. But the Colts have the vastly superior team and the better head coach.

Good news for Houston — Watson produces when the chips are down, and stacked against his squad.

*******

For Kansas City, this is the second week in a row I featured their loss at the top my column. Two AFC South teams have beaten the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium last week, showcasing what we already knew about the 2018 AFC finalists — even Patrick Mahomes and this explosive offense will have trouble making the Super Bowl with this defense.

Even with a change at defensive coordinator — Steve Spagnuolo replacing Bob Sutton — and a slew of player additions — Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu — Kansas City’s defense remains futile.

Their inability to stop the run will only make things harder for them come January. Although this is a new era of football capable of producing a champion with a team of this nature, don’t bet on it. The Chiefs should and will explore the trade market for additions on defense this month.

LIFE AND FOOTBALL — THE GREAT SCHWARTZ INTERSECTION

Truth be told, basketball was my favorite sport until I was about 10 years old. I was also better at basketball than I was at football until I grew into my body around age 16 or 17.

But the moment I became hooked on football — which is basically the Schwartz family crest — was midway during the 1999 NFL season. I began watching after asking my Dad one simple question: “Who is our team?”

“The New England Patriots,” he responded, almost non-caring.

To be a Patriots fan was to barely care, at that point. Boston was a town ruled by the rich history of the the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins.

I cared though. And I cared a lot, even though it all started on a whim.

Doug Flutie and the Buffalo Bills defeated the Patriots 17-7 in the first game I remember watching. The Patriots missed the postseason in 1999, and again in 2000, when they sported a measly 5-11 record under new head coach Bill Belichick.

But football quickly became my favorite sport to play and follow. I took in and processed all the information about the NFL that I could through Almanacs, Sports Illustrated issues, NFL preview magazines, Madden, and the internet back in the dial-up days — and that’s while I lived in Germany.

At one point during a holiday vacation to a resort in the Grand Canary Islands in December of 2000, I begged my dad to take me to the internet cafe so I could check the scores.

Unfortunately, my eagerness to learn was at a much higher level than the Patriots’ success.

That didn’t last long.

In September of 2001, a week after 9/11, the NFL resumed, and the 0-2 Patriots had dropped a close home game to the 2-0 New York Jets. But a major event happened — Tom Brady had replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe. And the rest was history.

I’d say three of New England’s six Super Bowl wins — Super Bowls 36, 49 and 51 — would make the top five of my favorite moments in life at this point, seeing as I am a 28-year-old, yet-to-be married dude who has no kids (yet).

Through the Patriots, I became ultra-close with my Dad’s mother, Grandma Schwartz, when she followed us to Jacksonville, North Carolina in 2005 after we moved there from Germany the year before.

I was often dropped off at her house during NFL Sundays — the first being a Patriots loss to the Panthers in 2005.

The most memorable moments with her were probably New England’s unbelievable upset over the Chargers in San Diego in the 2006 playoffs, and celebrating the Patriots clinching a 16-0 record together in their 2007 Week 17 win over the Giants. We even hugged with joy after the record-breaking Brady-to-Randy Moss score for the win.

The thing is, football brought our family closer. And although much of the Schwartz family were already Patriots fans, I do take credit (not fully) for spearheading the brigade, from when I became a fanatic. Soon, my Father, a UConn football alum who loved football but just casually enjoyed the NFL, was a huge Patriots fan. My mother became a fan, and my sister even ride or dies with the team.

Through football, my cousins Ryan, Brandon, Dylan and Kyle — who are basically like brothers — all love the game as much as I do, and we talk non-stop, almost each day, about the Patriots and the game.

The Patriots are so important to me that I could tell you where I was for just about every game since 2001. It’s insane. I remember those moments probably more than any other type of event in my life.

And the weirdest thing is, things seem to happen based on what has happened in my life. Of course this is probably all a coincidence, but it is weird that the Brady-Belichick era began JUST after I became interested in the sport.

And after a 10-year title drought, filled with SpyGate jokes and such, New England brought home the title on Malcolm Butler’s interception in Super Bowl 49, just three months after my Grandma Schwartz passed.

New England then won Super Bowl 51 just after my Grandpa Schwartz, another die-hard New England sports fan, passed away. That greatest-of-all-time comeback that cemented Brady as the greatest of all time, happened to be my year in J-School, and I covered the event that week down in Houston, even attending the press conference with Brady and Belichick the following morning.

Football has taught me about love, heartbreak, the importance of family and friends, and an arsenal of other lessons.

I suffered one bad adult breakup in my life, as we all do. Looking back, I’m obviously no longer sad as I was, but how bad as it was then, it was NOWHERE NEAR as sad as some of the Patriots biggest losses — the 2006 AFC Championship Game, Super Bowls 42, 46 and 52, etc.

But during those times, I was with family and/or the best of friends. And after ignoring sports media for a few days, I got back up on the horse, and looked forward to next season. I persevered, and my family was right there with me, ready for the new season.

Nowadays, I call my Dad after almost  every game to discuss, even if he just likes talking to me, and can care less how well New England balanced the run and the pass.

As we enter the fall and winter once more, the Patriots are 6-0 and on track for a run at an unprecedented seventh title.

I’ll travel to both North Carolina and Dracut, Massachusetts, this Holiday season, as I have for the past few years. And I’ll enjoy the games with my immediate family, my extended family (shoutout to Uncle Kevin, Auntie Linda and the Dracut clan, which is like my second home, or home 1B) and with lifelong friends.

What a great tradition.

*******

I decided to write this section this weekend after dealing with the loss of my last childhood dog, Mickey.

To deal with the loss of a pet, one should try to look at the bright side, with all the memories you will forever have by sharing with the lovely creature. A lot of my memories will involve watching football with family, with Mickey hovering around, gleefully. So I remembered those times while also reading some of my favorite dog obituary columns by the great Peter King and Bill Simmons.

Brent and Mickey
Several memorable moments in my life have come from watching big Patriots games, often with the late Mickey, and her sister Spock. They were great dogs.

This is not meant to be an overly-somber cheesy memorial. Mickey was an awesome dog, and whatever lies after life on Earth, she’ll be there with her sister rat terrier pup, Spock — named by me, of course — waiting for the rest of us.

Mickey is no longer with us in a physical presence. Sometime in the way distant future, neither will my father, or even, me.

But the bond in our family created by the Patriots, and football, remains.

*******

Now without further ado, more fun and football. Here is my first take on the NFL MVP race this season:

NFL MVP RACE

This is my first ranking of NFL MVP candidates for 2019. I plan on including this section again after Week 9, Week 12 and then each week after Week 14.

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson willed the Seahawks to wins over the Rams and Browns, and has officially ushered in Seattle’s new era under his leadership. His legacy will be defined by this era. This is a good start.

2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. Judging by voting in recent seasons, McCaffrey is probably slated for the OPOY award, but not the MVP. Voters like quarterbacks. There was a time when running backs often won this award.

3. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. He has the offensive weapons, but his protection is waning, and his defense is still awful. He makes up for a lot.

4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Even behind a lackluster offensive line, Watson keeps his cool, and delivers.

5. Jacoby Brissett, QB, Indianapolis Colts. Yeah, I said it. He has a great coach and team backing him, but Brissett was thrust into this spot after Andrew Luck’s retirement, and he’s kept the Colts’ playoff aspirations afloat. His stats are pretty, too. He belongs here.

Next up: Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

THE BETTER HALF

1. New England Patriots (6-0) (Last week: 1). I somehow found myself in the middle of a heated Twitter debate on Sunday, defending Julian Edelman’s name to a portion of NFL Twitter that continues to dog him. It’s incredible that this happens on a Sunday in which New England wasn’t even playing. Listen, Edelman will likely have to play three more seasons, and would have to provide some more memorable moments to help win another Super Bowl or two, to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He just doesn’t have the regular season success. But the way in which football twitter places him as a system player not worthy of even top-25 receiver discussion at the moment — I believe Edelman is certainly in the top 20 right now, and was once a borderline top-10 pass catcher — is just nauseous.

Did they see his sweet move to beat a Giants double-team on Sunday?

Even in a game in which New England struggled on offense, and he was often doubled in coverage, Edelman hauled in nine catches for 115 yards on 15 targets. They don’t win any of these past three Super Bowls without him, and Brady’s play without him in the last few seasons is well-documented. He isn’t as good as Rob Gronkowski but he’s as equally — possibly more —  important to this Patriots run of the 2010’s. He’s a major part of the offense. As it stands, New England should be searching for another receiver to add to their arsenal, but make no mistake — without Edelman, they’d be in much more trouble offensively.

2. New Orleans Saints (5-1) (Last week: 2). Another defensive-led win for the Saints. Teddy Bridgewater is solid, but when Drew Brees returns, the Saints know they may finally have the team and formula needed to win their second Super Bowl.

3. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 5). Aaron Rodgers and the Packers defense should be able to squeeze by the Lions tonight.

4. Seattle Seahawks (5-1) (Last week: 6). Going west to east for an early kickoff is always going to be a tough one for the Seahawks. Thankfully, Russell Wilson pulled another one out of his hat. MVP?

5. San Francisco 49ers (5-0) (Last week: 10). They’re up top in the NFC despite semi-shaky play from Jimmy Garoppolo. That’s scary, because he’ll improve as we get farther away from the date of his brutal ACL injury. In the last two weeks, the defense has allowed a combined 10 points versus the star-studded offenses of the Browns and Rams.

6. Indianapolis Colts (3-2) (Last week: 8). The Colts move up during the bye week. They have perhaps the AFC’s most complete team.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) (Last week: 3). Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes. But it appears even he can’t win a Super Bowl with this defense. Will they attempt to make some midseason changes?

8. Minnesota Vikings (4-2) (Last week: 16). Maybe a three-touchdown performance will temper Stefon Diggs’ desire to leave? Regardless, Kirk Cousins was awesome on Sunday, even if he was pitted against Philadelphia’s atrocious secondary.

9. Philadelphia Eagles (3-3) (Last week: 4). Their defense is holding them back. They need to swing a trade for Jalen Ramsey or Patrick Peterson, badly.

10. Los Angeles Rams (3-3) (Last week: 7). Yeah, they have issues. But I still think there’s a few more memorable moments to come in the Sean McVay-Jared Goff era. Let’s be patient. I think this tweet by a Rams beat reporter sums things up for now.  But losing back-to-back games to NFC West opponents puts them squarely in the wild card race. I don’t think they’re winning the division.

11. Houston Texans (4-2) (Last week: NR). Big win for the Texans. They have a more important game next week in Indianapolis. A win over the Colts would put them 1.5 games ahed of Indy in the division.

12. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 13). They have the second-best winning percentage in the AFC, and a laughable schedule the rest of the way. It’s time to start thinking of these Bills as the AFC’s No. 5 seed come January.

13. Dallas Cowboys (3-3) (Last week: 9). Three straight losses. All in ugly fashion. So much for the Dak Prescott MVP/new contract talk. If they lose at home to the Eagles on Sunday Night Football this week, they may fully spiral out of control. The talent is there. This is a perfect game for them to get back on track. Especially since it seems the NFC East may only send one playoff team.

14. Baltimore Ravens (4-2) (Last week: 14). Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have been sloppy after their two easy wins to begin the year. Had Ben Roethlisberger not gotten injured, I think the Steelers would take the AFC North. But with Ben’s injury and the Browns’ disastrous season, Baltimore should win the division. With that cushion, they should work on fixing their issues before January.

15. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: 12). Other teams impressed this week, so they move down a few spots during their bye. They have a chance to move back up in a big way with a home bout with the Saints. They can win this.

16. Carolina Panthers (4-2) (Last week: NR). The Panthers have won five straight games with Kyle Allen, and have lost eight straight games with Cam Newton at the helm. Newton is certainly a better football player right now, but sometimes things just need to change. Allen is the hot hand, and Carolina should stick with him if he continues to play like this.

Next up: Detroit, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver

Nick Chubb vs Ravens

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ordering a muddled AFC

Known for being a month of unpredictability and little importance, September of NFL’s 100th season concluded with a flurry of bizarre results, mostly affecting the AFC.

No result in the conference was more notable than the Browns (2-2) dismantling of the Ravens (2-2), 40-25, in Baltimore.

Nick Chubb — 20 carries, 165 yards, three touchdowns — helped power Cleveland to a monumental win that now puts them on top of the AFC North.

That’s an unanticipated slot for a team that was off to a disastrous start that made Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd and an army of Baker Mayfield haters giddy just days ago.

The AFC North now shares similarities with the logjam that is AFC South.

The inconsistently-average division saw the Texans (2-2) and Colts (2-2) suffer demoralizing losses at home, while the Jaguars (2-2) and Titans (2-2) produced wins that evened out their record.

The Patriots (4-0) and Chiefs (4-0) each survived road scares by the previously-unbeaten Bills (3-1) and Lions (2-1-1). Thanks to a handful of upsets on Sunday, the 49ers (3-0), who were on a bye, are the only other undefeated team remaining.

At this point, it’s apparent that the the December 8th matchup between Kansas City and New England will be one of two contests between those teams this season. The AFC Championship Game in January should be a rematch of last season’s all-timer. It would be shocking to see any other AFC squad masquerading as the conference’s third best team in that game.

After the beasts, there are a few talented teams looking to right the ship in the Browns and Chargers (2-2). Then there’s Texans and Ravens, who have two gifted quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson, but have other holes that leave them liable to the occasional sink fest.

The Bills have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but Josh Allen’s accuracy issues leaves them suspended for the time being.

By January, one or two teams in the AFC will get to 11 wins outside of the Patriots and Chiefs. But will they be a viable threat to either team in the race toward Super Bowl LIV? It’s too early to say for sure, but that answer looks like a resounding “no” for now.

QUICK-HITS

– Down goes Dak Prescott in the Cowboys in New Orleans. The Saints held Dallas to 257 yards of total offense — 45 rushing yards — in a stingy 12-10 win that forces us to reassess the NFC. Teddy Bridgewater had his own issues on Sunday night, struggling to throw for a touchdown and therefore keeping the game closer than it needed to be. Luckily, with a stingy effort from their defense, and 184 total yards of offense from Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, the Saints did just enough to produce a huge victory in the Bayou. Drew Brees is expected to miss another month or more, but in a struggling NFC South that already is without Cam Newton in Carolina, and the mess that is the Falcons (1-3), the Saints are in good position as the Fall season begins.

– The Buccaneers (2-2) led the Rams 21-0 and 45-27 in Los Angeles before overcoming a few mistakes for a shocking 55-40 win over the defending NFC champions on the road. The win was the weekend’s most shocking, and similar to Tampa Bay 48-40 win in New Orleans to kickoff the 2018 season. Under head coach Bruce Arians and possibly wunderkind offensive coordinator Byron Leftwhich, even the inconsistent Jameis Winston should look good at times. Minus an embarrassing pick-six late to the Rams’ Marcus Peters, Winston was electric — 28-of-41, 385 passing yards, four touchdowns — and gaffe free, mostly targeting the underrated Chris Godwin — 12 catches, 172 yards, two touchdowns.

Jared Goff did his best to battle back from an ugly outing, finishing 45-of-68 for 517 yards and two scores, but his three interceptions were too much to overcome. Suddenly, the Rams (3-1) find themselves in a tough spot, as they travel to NFC West rival Seattle in three days for a Thursday night contest.

– Down goes Nick Foles and Cam Newton, and to the bench goes Eli Manning. In comes Gardner Minshew, Kyle Allen and Daniel Jones. The latter trio has combined for a 6-1 record this season over the last two weeks. Jones has faced too easy opponents and Allen received a huge boost from Carolina’s stout defensive front yesterday, but Minshew overcame an erupting Denver defense early to produce a game-winning drive resulting in a walk-off 33-yard field goal by Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo. Even with better teams like the Colts and Texans in the division, and the moderate drama surrounding Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have rallied behind their eclectic rookie quarterback to pit themselves in the thick of things in their division. The Panthers (2-2) may not have enough to remain in the NFC mix, but there is a long season ahead. The same goes for the Saquon Barkley-less Giants. Jones has been solid, but he’ll see his first real test when New York hosts the Vikings (2-2) and their defense next week, before heading to New England for a Thursday night contest four days after. Regardless, all three passers have been impressive to close out September.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (4-0) (Last week: 1). Their defense is the best in a league that includes the mighty impressive unit over in Chicago. This year’s version of Tom Brady is obviously miles ahead of Peyton Manning’s final form, but there are striking similarities between the 2019 Patriots and the 2015 Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) (Last week: 2). They survived in Detroit. Even on an off day, Patrick Mahomes delivered.

3. New Orleans Saints (3-1) (Last week: 6). Thanks to an impressive defensive stand versus the Cowboys, Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints move above the team that has handed them their last two losses. Now that he’s settled in, Bridgewater should be able to do enough to keep the Saints afloat without Drew Brees.

4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 3). That was a bad home loss. It happens. But to surrender 55 points at home means something is wrong with the defense. Is it fixable?

5. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 4). Dak Prescott’s hot streak came crashing down in New Orleans. Will he bounce back at home against Green Bay?

6. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was as big of a win as any team has had in 2019. Carson Wentz finally delivered in a big game, on the road, nonetheless. The Eagles still have major issues on defense, but their overall level of talent pits them near the top of the NFC.

7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 5). Aaron Rodgers finally caught fire on Thursday, just in time for their red-hot defense to be extinguished. They’ll need to return to their previous form in Dallas next week.

8. Chicago Bears (3-1) (Last week: 14). No matter who plays quarterback for the Bears, they just need to play well enough to compliment the NFC’s very best defense. The Bears are a contender in the same sense as they’ve always been — a great defense mixed with a shaky quarterback(s).

9. Seattle Seahawks (3-1) (Last week: 10). They still look like a wild card team, but Sunday’s road dominance was a good sign.

10. San Francisco 49ers (3-0) (Last week: 16). Thanks to a number of disappointing efforts by teams that played this week, the bye-week 49ers move up here.

11. Cleveland Browns (2-2) (Last week: NR). After a disastrous start to their season, the Browns’ talent won out in Baltimore.

12. Baltimore Ravens (2-2) (Last week: 7). All of the sudden, Lamar Jackson’s breakout performances versus the Dolphins and Cardinals — two teams with a combined 0-7-1 record — don’t look so good. How will he respond to reoccurring criticism?

13. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2) (Last week: NR). The Chargers are under the radar for a reason — they haven’t played up to par. But in a middling AFC, they’re in position to reassert themselves.

14. Detroit Lions (2-1-1) (Last week: 13). It’s dumbfounding that the Lions aren’t 4-0. But then again, dumbfounding is what the Lions usually are. In translation — Lions are gonna Lion.

15. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 15). Their defense is extraordinary. Their quarterback is need of a masterclass in smart quarterback play.

16. Indianapolis Colts (2-2) (Last week: 9). That was as disappointing a loss as any this weekend. Were they caught looking ahead to next week’s Sunday Night Football matchup in Kansas City?

Next up: Minnesota, Carolina, Tennessee, Houston, Tampa Bay/Oakland/Jacksonville