Derrick Henry stiff arms Earl Thomas

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Lamar Jackson vs Browns

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Jackson permanentely ends MVP race

The Baltimore Ravens’ (13-2) magically dominant season continued on Sunday, as the team clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC with their 11th straight victory — a 31-15 win over the Browns with Cleveland.

And with that, Lamar Jackson clinched this season’s NFL MVP award.

Jackson — 341 total yards, three passing touchdowns — added more highlight-worthy plays through the air and on the ground, extending plays with apparent ease and juking defenders out of their shoes to convert first downs in situations that initially looked impossible.

This has been a weekly thing for Jackson this season. In all, he’s amassed 43 total touchdowns, with a crisp 36-to-six touchdown-to-interception ratio and an NFL-record (for a QB) 1,206 yards rushing and counting.

Jackson’s speed and elusiveness surpass that of Michael Vick, and his improving passing skills have taken his season to statistical heights of that of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ best years this decade.

Among Baltimore’s 11 straight wins, seven came against teams with winning records, including top-tier teams such as the Super Bowl-worthy Patriots (12-3) and 49ers (12-3).

After leading San Francisco’s new-school offense with Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of this decade, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s revolutionary offensive attack in Baltimore is nothing like we’ve ever seen in the pros. At least not to this dominantly-effective extent.

Give credit to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for his willingness to let go of the past, and embrace this new style. This offseason, Baltimore bid farewell to Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco at the position. Flacco and Harbaugh were a rookie pair of quarterback and head coach in 2008, and had been together since.

But Harbaugh’s obvious faith in Jackson sparked the decision to roll with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as it’s franchise.

Make no mistake, Baltimore has perfectly matched Jackson’s ability with coinciding personnel — a mauling offensive line, bruising running back Mark Ingram and the NFL’s best tight end trio in top man Mark Andrews, former first-round pick Hayden Hurst (selected before Jackson) and blocking H-back Nick Boyle.

Heck, first-round rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is yet to be fully unleashed, not because Jackson is unable to throw downfield, but because those shots are not needed when Baltimore is methodically marching at a consistent pace, as is.

Although many insist Jackson will be “figured out,” — a loose term that has been tied somewhat to Cam Newton after his ridiculously-good 2015 MVP season in Carolina — it’s best to appreciate Jackson’s season for what it is, and note that there are signs that he will improve in the coming seasons, if you can believe that.

Jackson has become more polished since his playoff meltdown in a Wild Card loss to the Chargers in Baltimore last January. Now, Baltimore’s next meaningful game will be a playoff contest in nearly three weeks that they will host.

The spotlight will be on Jackson, and if we can expect consistency (and we should) with his extraordinary season, it’s that he’ll wow fans and defenders alike once more, as he attempts to end his season in his hometown in Miami, in Super Bowl 54.

But for now, an MVP award will do.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. It’s over. The award is Jackson’s. And because of that, this will be my final MVP race rankings of the season.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has done a lot to keep Seattle in the mix for a first-round bye, but he needs more help to take this team to a Super Bowl.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. If the 49ers’ early season dominance was about the defense, the second half of their season has been about the ascension of Jimmy Garoppolo.

4. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. At the very least, he deserves co-OPOY award honors with Christian McCaffrey, if not, an outright win. He’s been unstoppable this season. He can play as a ‘big’ slot receiver and as an outside force. What a player.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB Houston Texans/Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Both Watson and Mahomes have had some struggles at times, but they pale in comparison to their fantastic play throughout the season. These guys, coupled with Jackson, are the future of the AFC. The new wave of quarterbacks has arrived.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should look to rest several players versus the Steelers, which include the banged up Marks — Ingram and Andrews. Both are vital to Baltimore’s Super Bowl chances.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-3) (Last week: 2). Jimmy Garoppolo converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 situations late. The 49ers will clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win in Seattle. A loss will drop them to the No. 5 or 6 seed. That’s insane.

3. New Orleans Saints (12-3) (Last week: 3). It was a good sign that the Saints got Alvin Kamara going, and were able to remain effective in a cold, outdoor game in December versus a tough opponent.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 4). The Chiefs have allowed a league-best 9.6 points per game since Week 11. Their 2006 Colts prophecy remains intact.

5. New England Patriots (12-3) (Last week: 5). The Patriots offense finally got things going versus a top-tier defense in the Bills. Julian Edelman and James White are Brady’s top passing targets, but he’ll need N’Keal Harry and Rex Burkhead to join that group this postseason if they are to have success. But most importantly, if the offensive line plays like they did versus Buffalo on Saturday, a 2018-like run for New England is possible. Here they come again.

6. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win tonight and next week, and a Seattle win over San Francisco.

7. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Vikings won’t pass the Packers in the NFC North with a win tonight, but they will have gained some major confidence. Kirk Cousins (0-8 career record on Monday Night Football) needs this win.

8. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 6). The Seahawks are stumbling to the finish line. But they still have a shot at the NFC West title if they can beat the 49ers at home this Sunday night.

9. Houston Texans (10-5) (Last week: 10). The Texans are a topsy-turvy bunch, but an AFC South title and the No. 4 seed in the AFC (probably) will do.

10. Buffalo Bills (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Bills hung tough in New England. They’ll be a hard team to face in the postseason.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-7) (Last week: 11). The Titans’ end-of-season schedule has been brutal. They need to win at Houston to make the postseason.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: 16). If they do indeed win the NFC East, I doubt the Eagles will make too much noise in the postseason, but they’ve shown their toughness down the stretch.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) (Last week: 12). The Steelers have almost everything they need to be a top team this season, but are without a quarterback. That’s killed them.

14. Indianapolis Colts (7-8) (Last week: NR). Their midseason swoon was a shame, because they have talent. Keep the Colts in mind for your 2020 predictions.

15. Dallas Cowboys (7-8) (Last week: 13). Just a tragic end to the Cowboys season, if Philadelphia wins next week. Either way, Jason Garrett should be gone.

16. Los Angeles Rams (8-7) (Last week: 14). A rough way to end their year, but with a few moves and renewed sense of tenacity, the Rams may be back in the postseason fold in 2020.

Next up: Tampa Bay, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, N.Y. Jets

Lamar Jackson vs 49ers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Can anyone stop Lamar Jackson, Ravens?

As I’ve said numerous times, gut check time in pro football begins after turkey day, as teams feel the added pressure that comes with important cold-weather games in December and January. Which teams are most positioned to make a run toward, and through the postseason? Which teams will fix their deficiencies in the next month?

I decided to do a column of quick-hits this week.

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, another look at Lamar Jackson and the seemingly Super Bowl-bound Ravens.

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The rain came pouring down in Baltimore, as did the NFC-leading 49ers (10-2).

The Ravens (10-2) withstood both, beating yet another top-tier contender on their way to an eighth straight victory.

This one was decided on the game’s final play — a game-winning 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, the NFL’s best kicker, despite the conditions.

“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told NFL.com. “We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for.”

The Ravens were ready again, as they were during previous big-time (and blow-out) signature wins over the likes of the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams in recent weeks.

The two best defenses this season — New England and San Francisco — use very different schemes.

The Patriots rely more on 3-4 principles with bigger defensive lineman (Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton) and a bevy of attacking linebackers to go with their league-best secondary.

The 49ers defense is a faster unit that uses the more common 4-3 look with four-down lineman all liable to rush the passer, with rookie Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner among the men up front making life easier for the likes of linebacker Fred Warner and cover man Richard Sherman.

Jackson throttled the Patriots, and was efficient enough in the rain versus San Francisco. He’s beaten them both.

The Ravens are without question the best team in football at the moment. Their defense has begun to improve, as the offense has eviscerated opponents such as the Rams, who they beat 45-6 in Los Angeles last Monday.

Maybe a possible bad-weather bout in Buffalo versus the the stingy Bills (9-3) this week presents an opportunity for a hiccup. But the Ravens are rolling, and have showed no signs of slowing down.

Baltimore just recently started utilizing speedster Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown again, as he scored twice in the win over the Rams. But Jackson is not even using the deep ball anymore, which is something he can do. His rocket arm has been throwing darts on roll-out passes and on short and intermediate level throws over the middle. And that, coupled with a Jackson-led rushing attack has rendered this offense unstoppable.

But on a day in which Jackson threw for just 105 yards and one score (and lost a fumble) — rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown, as well — it was encouraging to see them win a tough, gritty game.

“Blowing people out is easy,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith told The Athletic. “Being in a dogfight for four quarters, and always believing for four quarters, even longer if you have to, is a whole different mentality. I think to play in a game like this and fight to the end; it just helps our team realize our own resilience.”

In the end, after a defensive stop in their own territory, Baltimore’s familiar savior, Jackson, led the Ravens on a 12-play game-winning drive that ran out the remaining 6:28 on the game clock.

Until someone ends their red-hot streak — and maybe even if they do — the Ravens are the best team in football.

********

Now, for my thoughts, starting with the offensively-challenged Patriots —

– The Patriots are sputtering in early December for the second season in a row. Last year they recovered by the end of the month to win it all, but watching this offense this season is like pulling teeth at this point. It’s fair to wonder if New England will remain inept offensively for the rest of the season. No pass catcher other than Julian Edelman can get any separation or has earned Tom Brady’s trust. New England used a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry and a second-round draft choice next year to bring in Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta. Both have struggled to find their footing in their few games thus far, while NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out just how frustrated Brady seemed to be with third-year Patriot Phillip Dorsett last night. That leaves just Edelman and rookie Jakobi Meyers as players who seemingly have any consistent rapport with Brady, and Meyers upset Brady on Sunday, as well.

It’s beating a dead horse at this point — and maybe, a pipe dream — but New England could really use Antonio Brown to open things up on all levels of the offense. If the Patriots are stuck with what they have for the remainder of the season, then it at least appears that the offensive line is better with the return of Isaiah Wynn, which helps the running game, and gives Brady more time to throw. But Brady struggled to find receivers on longer-developing routes, even with time, because they fail to get open. If you take out a late push that can’t yet be deciphered for ‘garbage time’ or a real improvement, the Patriots are have now scored 17, 13, and 9 points on offense the last few weeks. I believe they’ll hang onto the No. 2 seed at the very least, but they’ve already been passed by the red-hot Ravens. Can this team win in Baltimore in an AFC Championship Game? Yes, but now without improving on offense, which is something that seems nearly impossible at this point for the Patriots. But we’ve all learned our lesson with them, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

– Deshaun Watson –three touchdown passes, one receiving score on a pitch-throw from DeAndre Hopkins — was fearless and MVP-like in leading a win in Houston. Ryan Tannehill — 5-1 as a starter in 2019 — lead Tennessee to yet another big win. The Texans (8-4) and Titans (7-5) are the two remaining contenders in the AFC South, as it would be a tough climb for the Colts (6-6) at this point. Houston and Tennessee will play twice in these final four weeks, which includes a Week 17 bout in Houston. Considering they’re a game up already, the edge goes to Houston, who just played (and won) their toughest remaining game. The Titans still have wild card hopes if they fall to Houston once, but that means probably having to win a home game versus the Saints (10-2) in Week 16. If Tenneseee splits their final four games and ends up out of the field at 9-7 via tiebreakers, the team is still worth marveling at. Tannehill has taken over for Marcus Mariota and lifted up a superbly-talented, but usually inconsistent team. And with Derrick Henry bowling over defenses, the Titans are a tough team built for the playoffs.

– Two other teams built for the playoffs include the Bills (9-3) and Steelers (7-5). Both have little to no shot at advancing past the Divisional Round, if not, Round 1, but each are built for cold weather football. And considering the bleakness of Week 15’s initial Sunday Night Football matchup (Vikings-Chargers), NBC announced last night during SNF that Bills-Steelers has been moved to that Sunday night slot in two weeks. That’s a wise decision. What’s better than a possible bad-weather or cold-weather matchup between these tough clubs vying for a postseason berth in December? Josh Allen is a younger looking Ryan Tannehill with more potential, wearing the same number (jersey no. 17). It took a few months, but Allen has found his footing with offseason acquisitions John Brown and Cole Beasley. The former victimized his former team (Cowboys) over Thanksgiving.

The Steelers have mostly stayed afloat thanks to great leadership under head coach Mike Tomlin, who would get my vote for Coach of the Year if Pittsburgh is to make the postseason. The Steelers currently have the No. 6 seed due to a tiebreaker with Tennessee. The Titans can make the playoffs one of two ways, and if they somehow beat out Houston for the AFC South crown, it would be the epitome of a tough wild card matchup in Bills-Titans in Tennessee. The game would also be the first playoff matchup between the two since the Titans beat the Bills in a 1999 AFC Wild Card playoff via the ‘Music City Miracle.’ 

– One thing is for certain, as we see teams like the Titans, Bills and Steelers strutting their stuff as tough cold-weather teams, clubs like the Raiders (6-6), Browns (5-7) Cowboys (6-6) and even Eagles (5-7) don’t seem like teams that are ready for a December run this season. Cleveland is just a disappointing mess. Oakland is virtually out after two embarrassing losses to the Jets and Chiefs by a combined score of 74-12, while at least one of Philadelphia and Dallas will get in via an NFC East title. The Eagles are usually a tough team that improves as the season moves along, and Dallas is seemingly entering their usual late-season swoon. But I give the edge to the Cowboys at the moment. They may fire Jason Garrett anyway if they suffer a rough home postseason loss in the Wild Card round, but the Eagles are too beat up on offense to beat Dallas right now, even at home. If I had to choose today, I say Dallas wins in Philadelphia on Week 16, to take the division. But I may change my opinion from now until that game begins.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2) (Last week: 1). There’s no debate — the Ravens are the best team in football right now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers went toe to toe with the best team in football, and almost won on the road. We’ll keep them here for now. They’ll travel to New Orleans for a huge NFC tilt on Sunday.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 4). The Saints have a chance to take a tight grip on one of the NFC’s first-round byes — and possibly, home field advantage — with a win over San Francisco at home, next Sunday. 49ers at Saints. That’s quite the matchup.

4. New England Patriots (10-2) (Last week: 3). They showed fight at the end, but the offense has some serious issues. The defense is caliber of a Super Bowl-winning team. Brady and the offense have to figure this thing out. Can they?

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 5). The Seahawks have a chance to slip into the NFC West’s top spot for the moment, if they can beat the Vikings tonight.

6. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). That was beauty of a snow game in New York on Sunday. That was a pretty win by the Packers, too. But then again, the Giants (2-10) are a mess. Green Bay is sort of in NFC limbo. They’re not quite with these top-tier teams in the conference, yet.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The whole world will be watching Kirk Cousins on the road in Seattle tonight. Will he deliver? Or will he fold? (His performance will probably lie somewhere in between)

8. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 8). The defense came to play this week. But again, it was versus the Raiders. Before losing 40-9 to Kansas City on Sunday, Oakland lost 34-3 to the lowly Jets the week before. And the Jets lost to the then-winless Bengals this Sunday. Translation: are the Chiefs beginning their ‘2006 Colts’ path of an improved defense at just the right time? Or are they just the 2019 Chiefs? We’ll learn more after they travel to New England this week.

9. Houston Texans (8-4) (Last week: 9). Deshaun Watson was awesome in the win over New England. But the AFC South will be decided by the Texans’ two bouts with the Titans this month.

10. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 13). I have been tough on the Bills. Well, that was a mighty impressive win in Dallas over Thanksgiving. I apologize, Buffalo. Believe it or not, I think they may be a tough matchup for Baltimore this week, too.

11. Los Angeles Rams (7-5) (Last week: 11). After getting clobbered by the Ravens, the Rams took their frustrations out on the Cardinals, throttling them 34-7 in Arizona. It will be tough for them to make the postseason. They’ll need to win out to have a shot. They have the talent. Jared Goff looked good in the win. It had been awhile.

12. Tennessee Titans (7-5) (Last week: 14). Tannehill and the Titans are an incredible story. Will they keep this up and get to the postseason? Can they steal away the AFC South from Houston?

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) (Last week: 15). Mike Tomlin does it again. The Steelers bullied the Browns in their revenge-filled win in Pittsburgh. It’s amazing how tough this team is. Resilient in the truest sense of the word.

14. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 12). They’re nowhere near being mathematically eliminated yet, but you just know they probably won’t make the postseason now. That’s a bummer. This franchise is still headed in the right direction.

15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) (Last week: 10). The sky is falling in Dallas, but the sky may have already collapsed on the Eagles in Philadelphia. Which stooge will win the NFC East?

16. Chicago Bears (6-6) (Last week: NR). Even if they win out, they probably won’t make the postseason. But they’re better than anyone else not listed right now.

Next up: Philadelphia 

Kanye West -- Old school NFL Sunday

NFL Monday Morning Madness: How Kanye nostalgia sparked my ‘old-school’ NFL Sunday

This idea started with the release of Kanye West’s ninth studio album, ‘Jesus Is King,’ over two weeks ago. The album itself was a so-so effort by Kanye’s standards, but still harkened back to some of the reasons — forward-thinking vision, unique (and crisp) production — he became perhaps the best hip-hop artist of this century.

Considering the impressive discrepancy in sound and content on each one of his albums, listening to Kanye brings back different feelings of nostalgia, depending on which album the track you’re listening to is off of.

Although I consider every one of his albums at least good, it was his earlier work that stuck with me, before his ill-fated, more-recent decisions lessened his once-positive image, and popularity.

But in listening to Kanye’s work from start to finish, it was clear, he was always ahead of the curve.

His burst-onto-the-scene moments included his first style of music, hip-hop built around soulful samples that critics (and fans) ate up in The College Dropout and Late Registration. 

Then, in Graduation, Kanye triumphantly captivated the music world by using electronic-infused beats, some mixed with his patented soulful samples. Songs like Stronger topped the charts a few years before mainstream/pop music veered toward the electro side, led by guys like David Guetta and Calvin Harris.

Then, Kanye’s mom, Donda West, tragically passed away, 12 years ago on Sunday.

The loss prompted a then-introverted Kanye to go to Hawaii to record 808’s & Heartbreak. A controversial album at the time, 808’s was met with mixed reviews, but later revered. I loved it from the start.

The album spawned the introspective emo-era of rap later adopted by guys such as Drake, Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino. Cudi was a major part of the album, making it his entrance into the music world. It is his most influential album, and maybe THE most impactful hip-hip album, when we think of what transpired in the following decade.

It also was the beginning of an all-new Kanye. He was already an outspoken individual, but most of his major issues in the limelight began after this moment.

Although I still love basically every album he has put out, I sometimes yearn for the Old Kanye, and in turn, older times. Late Registration to 808’s and Heartbreak represent my high school life. Those years spanned from 2005 to 2009, right during this Kanye peak.

Regardless, Kanye continued his mastery.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), his post-Taylor Swift feud album, is perhaps his magnum opus. And the what-was-that? Yeezus (2013) was clearly before it’s time — think now of: Travis Scott’s odd, beat-switching work, with Sicko Mode in particular.

But I always find myself thinking of Kanye’s older music. I do the same with Drake. As humans, we paint a rosier picture of the past.

But where I’m going with this, I’m sure the that ‘old Kanye’ era was better for this particular subject…

*******

Kanye West -- Old school NFL Sunday
Nothing like a beautiful Sunday watching the NFL as it was back in the 2000’s, pre-social media. (photo cred: Ricardo Ramos)

With  Kanye’s ‘Graduation’ in 2007, I can pop it on and think of a backpack-wearing rapper taking over a scene that was normally reserved for gangsta rappers. But I also think of my own years as a backpack-wearing high schooler, discovering music (and myself) while feeding my appetite for the NFL during a pre-Twitter era of fan consumption. 

And so, on the Sunday of what I thought (I thought) would be an underwhelming slate of games, and a Patriots bye, I decided to take it back to simpler times.

I wondered how I used to consume NFL content on Sundays in the 2000’s. So, I decided to watch and gather information about the games mostly as I did in the booming internet age of the mid-to-late 2000’s.

I decided to allow myself NFL RedZone (debuted in 2009) and an end-of-the-day (only) Twitter scan.

But most of my NFL-consuming knowledge came from tentpoles of the past that led to my fascination with the coverage of pro football, which came after my love for the game itself.

Although now on ESPN + only, ‘NFL Primetime’ with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson would be my main highlight show, filling in the cracks, and overall game flow, that RedZone could not make up for. I also had NBC’s ‘Football Night In America’ complimenting.

There’s something about Primetime that adds to the NFL’s lore. Boomer and TJ setting the scene for each game to the tune of the classic music that everyone knows, and hopefully enjoys as much as I do.

With today’s good graphics-but-unrealistic video game-like state of EA’s Madden — which I will always love and purchase, but can admit is just not a great game at the moment, for realistic football simulation lovers — I’ve returned to my roots with video  games, too.

I’ve updated the rosters, thanks to the hardworkers in the Operation Sports forums, of ESPN’s NFL 2K5, which I believe is the best video game of all-time.

Julian Edelman- ESPN NFL 2K5
A digitized Julian Edelman celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown in an updated-roster version of ESPN NFL 2K5.

Equipped with modern-day players in the old game, I can see a digitized Chris Berman recapping a Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs win in a digitalized version of NFL Primetime on a video game created in 2004.

But it’s the real return of the Primetime that has had me thinking of a pre-Twitter NFL Sunday. One without the abundance of hot takes or the “it’s either this or that” do-or-die temperature gauges of each team after a win or loss. Even worse, we can tell a lot of the takes are mob takes designed to criticize immediately, because always has to be something to criticize. If a major trade happens, someone has to have lost it, immediately, right?

In a world in which social media is certainly needed — and there is a lot of good that has come from it, including tweets —  it’s the silly takes that bother me, including incomplete stats designed to further an agenda or argument that gets me riled up. Sometimes it’s better than just to sit back, watch the games, and say nothing.

I enjoyed the Sunday spent talking to my buddies, Tyler and Raul, in our hilarious group chat, and FaceTiming my father and Uncle to talk as I watched RedZone, while also talking about the games.

And I still got all the information I needed. For those who enjoy my takeaways — 

– The Ravens (7-2) are the hottest team in the AFC right now, and challenge the 49ers for the NFL’s crown on that list. Lamar Jackson looks like an evolved version of Michael Vick, crossed with Brett Favre, slinging passes at Patrick Mahomes-like angles, while also running around like a mad man. The Ravens have changed my mind with the league’s best three-game stretch of any team this season so far. Those were bulldozing wins over the Seahawks, Patriots and Bengals. P.S. I really enjoyed the ‘three-Heisman trophy winners’ play that culminated in a Jackson fake to Mark Ingram, and ensuing pitch to Robert Griffin III. 

– Even with the Falcons (2-7) and Saints (7-2) as they are, the rivalry came to fruition once more, as Matt Ryan returned and Drew Brees looked like he shouldn’t have. Falcons 26, Saints 9. These games happen, this is not panic time for New Orleans, although there’s certainly some concern after a game like that. 

– Seven of the 10 games before Sunday Night Football were close contests that were undecided in the final minute. The Dolphins upset the Colts. Ryan Tannehill rallied the Titans past the Chiefs. The Jets beat the Giants in the battle for New York and the Browns won a game. Can you believe that? 

– The most aesthetically-pleasing game was played in Green Bay. The light snow in Panthers-Packers increased as the game went on, as the did the drama that ensued when the Packers eventually held Carolina out of the end zone in the game’s waning moments, to win. The snow game triggered the start of gut-check time that pro football exhibits from November on, and also gave us a vintage snow game in a league that has lacked some of these in the latter half of the 2010s. I really enjoyed it. 

*******

The result of my Sunday was a soothing, needed experience away from the Twittersphere, as much as I love it. This was soul-soothing, just like one of Kanye’s soulful beats.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to think of a tweet for next week that will be so relatable that it gets more retweets than the money in my bank account.

*******

So, tonight will bring forth my return to consuming knowledge the “new” way, which is still a blast. Although too much at times, NFL Twitter is lit, as the kids say. It should be at a an all-time high when Richard Sherman’s old team, the Seahawks (7-2), travel to San Francisco to take on his new team, the 49ers (8-0). And that’s where we return to my analysis.

SEAHAWKS-49ERS PREVIEW

I stand by the fact that the NFC participant in Super Bowl LIV will be either the 49ers, Packers or Saints.

The Seahawks lead the next brigade of talented teams that also includes the Vikings, Eagles, Cowboys and Rams. These are teams that could make a run, but the Super Bowl is probably not where they’re going this season.

Russell Wilson is the NFL MVP leader at the moment, even if Lamar Jackson is nipping at his heels. Although the talent around him has improved, he still makes up for a lot of deficiencies, which includes a post-Legion of Boom defense that is nowhere near its predecessor.

San Francisco has seemingly built a powerhouse overnight, but that’s not quite the case. Jimmy Garoppolo and Richard Sherman have each been here in the last year or two to take on some lumps.

And although the 49ers defensive line includes a staggering five first-round picks, only the underrated DeForest Buckner has been a stalwart for them over the past few seasons. Rookie Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford were added this offseason, and Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas have been busts until now.

This smells like one last ‘big’ victory for San Francisco before they face the Cardinals, and then run into the gauntlet of the Packers, Ravens and Saints. That’s a rough there game stretch, and they’ll finally get at least one loss there, maybe two.

But San Francisco has the defensive front that should be able to wreak havoc on the visiting Seahawks, who still sport a so-so offensive line that lets the dogs through. Although Wilson is adept at winning these types of games, this seems like too much.

If he does somehow win, this will be the game where we look back and know that Wilson was deserving of the NFL MVP race, in a once-close race.

Both Wilson and Sherman will be looking to make a statement, and although I think Wilson will get a pass by Sherman for a score, it is the 49ers that will get the last laugh on Monday.

THE BETTER HALF

1. San Francisco 49ers (8-0) (Last week: 2). If the 49ers win tonight, they should be 10-0 when they host the 8-2 Packers in week 12.

2. Baltimore Ravens (7-2) (Last week: 5). We talked about Lamar above. He’s amazing. Baltimore also saw it’s midseason acquisition, Marcus Peters, return an interception 89 yards to the house on Sunday. That’s his second-pick six in three games with the Ravens. In a secondary filled with guys who avoid mistakes — Earl Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith — Peters has been able to play his aggressive style. Since he came into the league in 2015, Peters leads the NFL in interceptions (26) and pick-sixes (6). He’s the definition of a playmaker at the position, even if it led to inconsistent play in the past.

3. New England Patriots (8-1) (Last week: 3). Their top-rated rookie this year, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, returns this week versus the Eagles. Their top-rated rookie from last year, left tackle Isaiah Wynn, returns to face the Cowboys the week after. Oh, and you think Tom Brady doesn’t badly want to win this game in Philadelphia? He’ll be thinking of Super Bowl LII, in which his best Super Bowl (statistically) resulted in a loss. This has ‘here come the Patriots’ written all over it.

4. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 4). It seems as if Davante Adams is back. They’ll need him to stay healthy if they are to come out on top in the NFC.

5. New Orleans Saints (7-2) (Last week: 1). As I said with Green Bay after their loss to the Chargers last week, the ‘stink’ game happens. It happens to virtually every team. This was probably that game for the 2019 Saints. No time to panic, but they have to drop some after a 17-point home loss to a divisional rival with a 1-7 mark.

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-2) (Last week: 6). Can Russell Wilson overcome ex-teammate Richard Sherman, and the 49ers’ vaunted defensive line tonight?

7. Minnesota Vikings (7-3) (Last week: 11). Kirk Cousins is changing the way we view him. But he has to keep this up. Impressive win in Dallas. Add it to his impressive month.

8. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) (Last week: 12). With losses by several other clubs, the Eagles move up. They’re a second-half-of-the-season team. On Sunday they have the ultimate test in the Patriots, to test that theory.

9. Houston Texans (6-3) (Last week: 13). The Texans have a lot of holes, but they also have Deshaun Watson.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 7). Yeah, their defense is still rotten. As previously stated, they need a miraculous late-season fix of this issue, like the 2006 Colts.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) (Last week: 16). If the Steelers make the playoffs, Mike Tomlin deserves the Coach of the Year award. Kudos to him for the job he has done this season.

12. Los Angeles Rams (5-4) (Last week: 8). I know they had to go West to East, but that’s still an ugly loss. They have the talent. But what in the hell is wrong with this offense?

13. Dallas Cowboys (5-4) (Last week: 10). It’s a two-man race in the NFC East, and they have already pounded the Eagles, but I’m not sure they’ll outplay them down the stretch. They haven’t exactly been a ‘gut-check time’ team this century.

14. Oakland Raiders (5-4) (Last week: NR). The Bears certainly didn’t lose the Khalil Mack trade. But it seems the Raiders haven’t either. As I said above with Tomlin, give Jon Gruden some major credit here. (Here’s another take from NFL Twitter that didn’t go as the mob planned)

15. Indianapolis Colts (5-4) (Last week: 9). Two weeks ago, I had the Colts at No. 5 on this list. They’ve fallen, hard. Jacoby Brissett should return in a matter of weeks, to help right the ship. This is still a talented team. Don’t count them out just yet.

16. Carolina Panthers (5-4) (Last week: 16). They hung tough in Green Bay, and showed some of their physicality in the snow. This a team that looks primed for success in the future, meaning 2020 and on.

Next up: Buffalo, Chicago, Tennessee, L.A. Chargers, Detroit

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

Lamar Jackson vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Lamar, Ravens best Wilson as Patriots await

With how this season was going, Sunday’s game in Seattle had all the makings of another stepping stone for Russell Wilson, the NFL’s new (possibly) best player. So much for that.

On this day, a younger, flashier breed at quarterback stole the show.

By juking and maneuvering his way around Century Link Field for 116 yards and a score, Lamar Jackson led the Ravens (5-2) to a surprising 30-16 victory over the Seahawks (5-2), putting Baltimore in a commanding lead in the AFC North.

After a four-game stretch in which Baltimore was lucky to come out of with a 2-2 mark, the Ravens reenergized themselves to win in perhaps the hardest venue to do so, over a team led by the aforementioned Wilson, the still-leader in the NFL MVP race.

In addition to Jackson, Baltimore’s defense made a statement.

Wilson entered the game with a 14-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio that was dented after he was victimized by the new-acquired Marcus Peters via a game-changing pick-six in his first game as a Raven. The play sucked the life out of a crowd that is known for it’s energy.

“Once it was in the air, I felt it,” Peters said of the play after the game.

Marcus Peters pick-six vs Seahawks
In his first game with the Ravens, Marcus Peters victimized Russell Wilson for a pick-six. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Former Seahawk Earl Thomas had a front row seat to the type of victory this city has seen many times this decade. After a game in which Thomas forced Wilson complete less than 50 percent (20-for-41) of his passes, he embraced his former teammate with a hug and jersey swap after the game.

Still, it was Jackson and Baltimore’s 199 yards on the ground that made mince meat out of an improved defense in Seattle — compared to last season. The Ravens followed up a month of sloppy play offensively with a punishing running game featuring both old and new-school tactics, a formula that may be Baltimore’s best chance at a deep postseason run.

At this point in the season, the time for experimentation is waning. The Ravens know that, and in turn, have seemingly found what works.

After their upcoming bye week they’ll see if their current formula is good enough when they become the first in a line of teams with winning records to face the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots (6-0) starting in the first week of November.

Can their best beat the best? In two Sundays, we’ll find out.

QUICK-HITS 

– Sunday’s games provided a clear line in the sand in two divisions — the AFC South and NFC East.

In Dallas, the Cowboys (4-3) hit the Eagles (3-4) in the mouth within minutes, jumping out to a 14-0 lead en route to a 37-10 whooping of their NFC East rival. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and puts Dallas virtually two games up on Philadelphia in the division. Sunday’s win was a back-to-basics game for a team that is pretty loaded in the running game and on defense. Despite collecting what seemed to be an influx of talent, the Eagles don’t seem to be meshing. Their secondary is porous and their rush defense joined the pity party in Dallas on Sunday. Then there’s Carson Wentz, who is a top-tier quarterback according to Pro Football Focus and just about everyone else. For the Eagles, the talent is there, but the production is not.

In Indianapolis, Jacoby Brissett (26-for-39, 326 yards, four touchdowns) showed the NFL world just how complete of a team the Colts are. Already loaded with a top-tier offensive line and a fast defense consisting of an up-and-coming secondary, Brissett exploited Houston in a way they probably didn’t see coming. After making quick work of the Chiefs in Kansas City, the Colts sat and watched the Texans do the same during their bye week, as everyone praised Watson as an MVP candidate. It was Brissett who outplayed Watson on Sunday, as the Colts (4-2) moved ahead of the Texans (4-3) in the AFC South. It’s clear that they’re at least slightly ahead of teams like the Ravens (5-2) and Chiefs (5-2) for bragging rights as the second-best team in the AFC, for now.

– When Kirk Cousins is on, the Vikings do well. One of the league’s most talented teams knows that their hopes for success rely on Cousins playing consistently well. After a tough 42-30 road win in Detroit on Sunday, Cousins has now flourished for two straight weeks in Minnesota victories — eight touchdowns, one interception and 333.5 passing yards per game. They have a home bout with Washington next week, and then travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, who will probably be without superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. These may be games where the Vikings rely more on Dalvin Cook, who is looking like a top-five running back this season. But it would be wise to throw enough to at least keep the momentum going with Cousins, who has a great chance to lead his club to a 7-2 mark after these next two weeks.

– The NFC is truly a loaded conference at the moment. Aaron Rodgers finally has some defensive help in Green Bay, as well as a new offense tailored to succeed in the colder months. San Francisco is struggling some on offense, but have implemented a  power-running game with Matt Brieda to go along with perhaps the league’s best pass rush. They have transformed over night. The Seahawks aren’t quite up to par with San Francisco in terms of overall talent, but they’re close. With additions such as Jadeveon Clowney and D.K. Metcalf, the Seahawks — despite their loss on Sunday — have improved their roster behind Russell Wilson, the NFL’s best QB at the moment. Having Wilson makes them forever dangerous in their division and conference.

Then there’s the Saints, whose defense looks better than ever during the Sean Payton era, complimenting an offense that mimics it’s secret weapon, Taysom Hill, as a unit that can do just about everything. With Alvin Kamara out, the offense’s other star, Michael Thomas, hauled in 131 yards on nine catches, while the bruising Latavius Murry rushed for 119 yards and two scores in Kaamra’s absence on a day in which he looked every bit like Adrian Peterson. And this has all been led by backup QB Teddy Bridgewater. When Drew Brees returns, there’s little doubt that the Saints hold the NFC’s most complete unit.

THE BETTER HALF

1. New England Patriots (6-0) (Last week: 1). The Patriots have issues — mostly due to injuries — at wide receiver and along the offensive line. Expect them to have problems tonight in New York against the Jets. Also, keep your eyes on the transaction wire from now until the trade deadline on October 29. New England will be looking to bring in a pass catcher such as: A.J. Green, Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu or O.J. Howard.

2. New Orleans Saints (6-1) (Last week: 2). The Saints continue to win behind Teddy Bridgewater (5-0 as a starter in 2019) and their swarming defense. Sean Payton should consider sticking with Bridgewater versus the Cardinals next week, as their bye comes the week after that. Then, it’s Drew Brees time.

3. Green Bay Packers (6-1) (Last week: 3). The defense has been solid this year, and after a slow start, Aaron Rodgers — five touchdown passes, one rushing score, 158.3 passer rating on Sunday — has come alive in his first season under Matt LaFleur’s offensive system.

4. San Francisco 49ers (6-0) (Last week: 5). Jimmy Garoppolo is now 14-2 as a starter in the NFL, but the 49ers have got to this point by leaning on their suffocating defense. That was certainly the case in Sunday’s win over Washington in the slosh.

5. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 6). Most major media outlets had Indianapolis somewhere between No. 12 and 15 in their power rankings heading into this week. The Colts are criminally underrated. They are one of the NFL’s most complete teams, and they proved that this week.

6. Seattle Seahawks (5-2) (Last week: 4). The loss — and the pick-six — hurt, but Russell Wilson still leads the NFL MVP race.

7. Minnesota Vikings (5-2) (Last week: 8). Kirk Cousins has been awesome these past two weeks. When he looks like that, the Vikings are a contender. Will he keep this up? Minnesota could also have better performances out of their talented, but underachieving defense.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (5-2) (Last week: 7). By most indications, it looks like Patrick Mahomes will return sometime after missing three to five weeks. It would be wise to keep him out through their bye week around Thanksgiving. Andy Reid has had success with backup quarterbacks such Koy Detmer, Doug Peterson, A.J. Feeley and Jeff Garcia in Philadelphia. They can survive with Matt Moore or Chad Henne. The latter should be returning from an injury soon.

9. Los Angeles Rams (4-3) (Last week: 10). Jalen Ramsey provided an immediate and noticeable spark to a team that desperately needed it.

10. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) (Last week: 13). Dallas took a commanding lead in the NFC East behind efficient play in virtually all areas of their win over the Eagles. They needed that.

11. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 14). Just like that, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are back in the mix of contenders. That was an impressive win that I certainly didn’t see coming.

12. Buffalo Bills (5-1) (Last week: 12). They survived what would have been an inexplicable home loss to the Dolphins. They’re virtually a playoff lock with their schedule.

13. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) (Last week: 9). They’ve got issues. If they are to make the playoffs, it’s going to be by passing Dallas to win the NFC East. They’re not off to a good start. But they have time to correct what they’ve done. Can they? Maybe.

14. Houston Texans (4-3) (Last week: 11). The Texans’ offensive line continues to be a major problem. It’s a legitimate achilles heel for a team led by a fearless and fantastic young passer in Deshaun Watson.

15. Carolina Panthers (4-2) (Last week: 16). The Panthers head to San Francisco this week in a game that is more important than we ever thought it would be.

16. Detroit Lions (2-3-1) (Last week: NR). They belong here over any other team not listed. It’s inexcusable that they’re not 5-1, but two of their three excruciating results (two losses, one tie) have been their fault. And of course, we know what happened last Monday night in Green Bay. This is an up-and-coming team with talent that needs to get out of its own way.

Next up: Chicago, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Cleveland

Brady, Dorsett vs Steelers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Patriots drop sixth banner, pound Steelers, as Antonio Brown awaits

The Patriots celebrated their sixth Super Bowl win in front of the the only other franchise with as many. Then, they dismantled them on a national stage.

New England pummeled Pittsburgh, 33-3, by dominating in most facets of the game. Another banner drops, another in sight.

But the biggest story surrounding the most talked about team in sports remains the acquisition of superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown, which will become official today. After forcing his way out of Oakland in the most bizarre of circumstances, Brown signed a one-year deal worth $15 million — with a $9 million signing bonus — after leaving $30 million on the table in Northern California after several childish acts.

The Patriots were there to pluck Brown, and now it’s fair to wonder: where will Brown fit in this offense.

The logical answer is that he’d take the Z-receiver position, or flanker, considering he’s the better at that spot than anyone in the history of the NFL. But that role is currently occupied by Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in four catches on four targets for 95 yards and two scores.

Dorsett’s rapport with Brady is well-documented. The former first-round pick from Indianapolis has improved in each of the last two seasons in New England, and should continue to be apart of the team’s offensive plans, even as a No. 4 guy. After the game, he displayed nothing but awe for Brown’s career when asked about him.

“I was like, ‘Wow’ because I can’t wait to work with him,” Dorsett told NESN’s Doug Kyed. “He’s always been a guy I’ve looked up to when it comes to just football. He’s a beast. We all know that. I can’t wait to learn from him because we have similar body types, similar play types. I’ve always wanted to learn from him. Now I get to see him every day and work with him. So, I can’t wait.”

New England’s top two receivers, Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, also had outstanding nights. Coming back from yet another suspension, Gordon displays his physicality in hauling in three catches for 73 yards and a nifty, after-the-catch score. Edelman was his usual self, providing a game-high six catches for 83 yards.

After a few antsy misfires, or bad balls, Brady improved as the night went on, finishing 24-for-36 for 341 yards and three scores, including his impressive deep touchdown to Dorsett, and another long bomb to Gordon.

Adding Brown to this offense is not only comical, it is terrifying to even the best of defenses. He’s a perfect addition to a receiver core featuring the aforementioned box-out specialist Gordon and the shifty Edelman. But New England will have to get him up to speed, integrating him properly into the offense, while using his strengths to vanquish any and all opponents in their way.

The defense also looks like one of the league’s best units. Pittsburgh is without Brown and Le’Veon Bell. They no longer have the Killer B’s. But JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are two of the better young offensive weapons in football, and Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion and Hall-of-Famer.

The Patriots defense held them to three measly points, which is the same exact score they held the offensively-gifted Rams to in Super Bowl LIII, seven months ago.

Adding Michael Bennett, Jamie Collins and rookie pass-rush specialist Chase Winovich to a defense that already yields Dont’a Hightower and the league’s best secondary is unfair. Heck, even Kyle Van Noy, who missed the game to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, wasn’t even there. He’ll return next week.

But nothing will be as unfair as when Antonio Brown makes his Patriots debut in Miami, his hometown, versus the lowly Dolphins next Sunday. And looking at the Patriots next few games after that — vs Jets, at Bills, at Washington, vs Giants, at Jets — it’s fair to think that New England should cruise to a 7-0 start before hosting the Browns. The 19-0 talk will certainly ramp up before then.

Brown, 31, will provide New England with a Randy Moss-live presence in terms of potential production. He’s tallied the most catches (686) and yards (9,145) in the last six seasons than any other player has ever contributed over that same span. He’s the league’s best route-runner capable of being a deep threat, a slot receiver, an perimeter player and a punt returner.

If he can stay in line, and there’s no reason to believe New England can’t tame even someone of his caliber, then the possibilities are endless.

According to a report from NBC’s Al Michaels, Brady has already offered Brown a chance to stay at his home while he searches for his own humble abode. Although Brady was fairly mum on Brown to the media after the game, and Belichick deflected questions of Brown entirely.

This marriage can work, and it probably will. Shades of 2007 are upon. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots aren’t done.

ARE THE BROWNS OVERRATED? 

Among the weekend’s biggest news was the shockingly bad performance by Baker Mayfield (25-for-38, 285 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) and the Cleveland Browns. The team was hyped to no end this offseason, after bringing in superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and others. The team even donned the cover of Sports Illustrated’s NFL preview magazine.

The headline read: ‘The Browns are back.’ Week 1 is hardly indicative of a team’s season, but it’s clear the Browns have a lot of work to do.

Mayfield threw picks to the Titans’ Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan, before Malcolm Butler added a pick-six for emphasis in the Titans’ 43-13 domination of the Browns in Cleveland. Both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry provided some offense in the early going, eventually landing with 11 catches for 138 yards, which was hardly enough to keep them in the game.

A litany of takes will come forth today. After all, it’s Week 1’s overreaction Monday. Are the Browns closer to the ‘Dream Team’ 2011 Eagles — a perceived all-star cast that finished 8-8 — than the nearly-undefetead 2007 Patriots? Probably. But it’s worth nothing that the Titans are a tough and talented bunch. They’re also the franchise most equipped to have a few wonk games. Last season the Titans thrashed the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots at home, 34-10, before losing road games to the Colts and Texans by a combined score of 72-27. Tennessee is an enigma in itself. Also, did I mention it’s Week 1?

Mayfield should improve, Beckham Jr. will find his footing, Kareem Hunt will join the offense near midseason and Myles Garrett and the stacked defense will improve. The Browns are too talented to not finish with at least a 9-7 mark. They aren’t a Super Bowl contender, as Mayfield will undoubtedly suffer some sophomore blues. And rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens will learn a litany of lessons before he enters the upper echelon of coaches. If he does. Kitchens is not Sean McVay, but he’s a young offensive mind capable of learning on the fly, and keeping Baker focused. The two seem to have a good relationship. It’ll be good enough to weather this storm, but with all the hoopla surrounding these Browns this offseason, a mighty storm there will be, before their road Week 2 matchup next Monday night versus the New York Jets.

QUICK-HITS

– Once upon a time, NFL pundits wondered why Lamar Jackson wasn’t priming to be an NFL wide receiver, instead of a quarterback. That notion seemed silly in real time, considering Jackson was a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback at Louisville. It looks even sillier now, as Jackson’s Madden video game stat line — 17-of-20,  324 passing yards, five passing touchdowns, 158.3 passer rating — helped the Ravens annihilate the obviously-tanking Miami Dolphins, 59-10, in Miami. Its worth nothing the Dolphins are obviously looking toward the future, as they field one of the worst rosters (on paper) in the history of the league. It appears things are worse than we thought in Miami. Although improved as a passer, stronger defenses will force Jackson to make tougher throws. Given his new No. 1 pass-catching option, rookie first-round pick Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown (4 catches, 147 yards, two touchdowns), Jackson should be up to the task. Antonio Brown’s first cousin (timely, I know) is everything Baltimore and first-year GM Eric DeCosta hoped he’d be. And given the Browns’ letdown and the Steelers’ Week 1 loss, can Baltimore repeat in the AFC North? It’s way too early to tell, but obviously something to think about. As for the Dolphins? They’ll host the Patriots for Antonio Brown’s New England debut. Miami is 5-1 in their last six home meetings with the Patriots, but it’s safe to say that stat won’t matter come Sunday. Miami has some work to do.

– It appears reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will remain the most dangerous offense in football. A brutal injury to Nick Foles rid the Chiefs of any urgency, but Kansas City scored at will anyway. Sammy Watkins (nine catches, 198 receiving yards, three touchdowns) was unstoppable, mostly leaving Jalen Ramsey in the dust. LeSean McCoy (11 touches, 93 total yards) and Travis Kelce (three catches, 88 yards) also thrived in the absence of Tyreek Hill, who left during the first half with a shoulder injury and was later hospitalized.   Week 1 — and September in general — should be approached with caution, but we’ve already seen what Mahomes and this offense can do. If Kansas City is to wreak havoc on a season-long basis, they’ll need Hill to return at some point, which seems to be the case. But it appears Kanas City will be tough to stop on offense, again. Who knew?

– Dak Prescott recently made news for reportedly turning down a contact extension that would net him $30 million per year, because he is seeking $40 million a season from the Cowboys. To add insult to injury, Dallas recently came to terms with Ezekiel Elliott on a six-year extension worth $90 million, and $50 million guaranteed. The deal was the biggest ever for a NFL running back. Still on his rookie deal, Dak Prescott took out his frustrations on the lowly Giants, throwing 405 yards and four touchdowns while posting a perfect passer rating. Prescott spread the ball to the likes of Amari Cooper, newcomer slot man Randall Cobb and the returning Jason Witten, in a 35-17 win. Prescott joined the likes of Jackson and Mahomes in posting video game-like stats in Week 1, and seemingly setting themselves up for special seasons.

– After falling behind 17-0 to Case Keenum, rookie Terry McLaurin and Washington early, Carson Wentz and the Eagles outscored their NFC East rival 32-10 the rest of the way, winning 32-27. We’ll see how the Saints look tonight, but the Eagles look primed to compete for the NFC championship. The still-diminutive Darren Sproles and rookie Miles Saunders were menacing in the backfield, while DeSean Jackson’s (eight catches, 154 yards, two touchdowns) return to the Eagles highlights just how efficient this Eagles offense will be. The success of the team all rests on Wentz’s shoulders, of course.

– It initially seemed like Arizona may be the Miami of the NFC, but the Cardinals’ full-throttle comeback showcased just how unpredictable this Cardinals season should be. The game featured a slew of impressive catches by future Hall-of-famer Larry Fitzgerald late, just as Lions veteran Danny Amendola added a nifty score earlier. But rookies Kyler Murray and T.J. Hockenson stole the show in the eventual 27-27 tie. Hockenson proved he may already be a top-five tight end. I mean, who else would you take over him outside of George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz? Murray shook off a ghastly interception to throw for 308 yards a touchdown, and looked calm and collected late, helping Arizona erase a 24-6 fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime. The Murray-Kliff Kingsbury will be anything but boring, despite their first-half play. Next week, the Cardinals will travel to Baltimore for a young quarter back showdown between Murray and Jackson. That should be fun.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (1-0). Good luck to the rest of the NFL.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). The Chiefs’ explosive offense is still intact. With Patrick Mahomes, anything is possible.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (1-0). The Eagles are the best team in the NFC at the moment. It’s also Week 1. I also picked them to reach Super Bowl LIV.

4. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). The Rams avoided the west-to-east early game bog to upend the Panthers in Carolina. The return of Cooper Kupp is monumental, but the Rams still need Todd Gurley to get healthy.

5. New Orleans Saints (0-0). The Eagles and Cowboys looked fantastic, but let’s not forget about the Saints. They’ll be around for the long haul in the NFC.

6. Dallas Cowboys (1-0). We hear you, Dak Prescott. It’s time for Jerry Jones to consider opening up his checkbook for another integral cog on his young and talented team.

7. Minnesota Vikings (1-0). Dalvin Cook and the Vikings defense were quietly among the most impressive things on opening weekend.

8. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). Considering their opponent — the lowly Dolphins — is seemingly the worst team in football in 2019, it would be wise to proceed with caution on the ‘Lamar Jackson for MVP’ talk. But no one can argue that he hasn’t improved as a passer. Plus, Hollywood Brown is a budding star.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). The Chargers’ monster drive to open up overtime staved off Jacoby Brissett and the upstart Colts. The talent is still there, but time will tell if they have enough juice on offense to keep up with the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC. They’ll need Derwin James’ versatility back to help on defense. The good news is they don’t miss Melvin Gordon. Austin Ekeler’s heroic three-touchdown performance — and walk-off touchdown — was a major difference on Sunday.

10. Tennessee Titans (1-0). The Titans manhandled the Browns in Cleveland. But we’ve seen them do this during the Mike Vrabel era. They need consistency. Will Marcus Mariota finally help provide that? We’ll see.

11. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). It’s easier when Russell Wilson is your quarterback, but it appears many of us (myself included) may have been wrong about D.K. Metcalf’s NFL potential. Seattle will be the under-the-radar, lying-in-the-weeds potential postseason team in the NFC.

12. Green Bay Packers (1-0). The debut of their new offense looked rough, but they were also playing the Bears’ mighty defense. Their defense looked fantastic, but they also played Mitchell Trubisky on his worst behavior. This seems like the right spot for them for now.

13. Houston Texans (0-0). They have talent, and their division is up for grabs. They should get back to the postseason, if they’re any good.

14. Chicago Bears (0-1). They needed something, anything out of Mitchell Trubisky, to win in Week 1. They got nothing. The Bears have the best defense in the NFL, but they’ll remain handicapped until Trubisky matures, if he ever does.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1). Bare with me. The Steelers will figure things out, starting with a home victory over the Seahawks next week.

16. Indianapolis Colts (0-1). Jacoby Brissett rallied the Colts late, but never touched the ball in overtime. Sadly, their loss was decided by an Eric Ebron end-zone drop and three missed kicks by the legendary Adam Vinatieri. They can win the AFC South with Brissett.