Patrick Mahomes vs Chargers -- 2021

Burning Questions 🔥: NFL MVP race down to two candidates + Jags’ next HC, Russell Wilson ’22 landing spot

Week 15 began on Thursday in Los Angeles with a rivalry tilt between the Kansas City Chiefs and L.A. Chargers.

A wild, back-and-forth contest was ended in overtime, when Patrick Mahomes found Travis Kelce over the middle, and the shifty tight end making several Chargers miss on a 34-yard touchdown catch and scamper for the win.

The victory pseudo-locked up a sixth straight AFC West crown for the Chiefs, who have now won seven straight, and are in the mix for the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which comes with the ever-important, and lone, conference playoff bye.

In a season as wacky as this one, the race for playoff seeding figures to be an exciting trek.

For all teams, the regular season has entered its final month. There are four weeks remaining in the longest regular season in league history, with 30 teams readying to play out their final four games of their schedules (three each for Chiefs, Chargers).

Both the AFC and NFC now have three teams with an identical amount of losses at the top of their standings, making for an interesting month ahead.

As it stands, the Jacksonville Jaguars fired first-year head coach Urban Meyer after just 13 games, so there’s coal for the fire for a ‘burning questions’-type of piece, where I’ll give you my answers. This is a perfect opportunity for our Quick-Hits section.

Down, set, hut!

QUICK-HITS 

NFL MVP? The once-hectic race for the award for this season now is a two-man race involving two three-time winners in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And at this point, it’s Brady with the clear lead, and even a tiny bit of breathing room. This season, Brady currently leads the league in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, Total QBR, wins, sack percentage and PFF grade. Aaron Rodgers has volume stats than Tom Brady, partly because he missed a game due to COVID-19, which was a messy story that didn’t look good for the Packers’ QB, and likely will factor into this race. But Rodgers leads the league in passer rating and interception percentage, showing a knack for his overall efficiency this season post-Week 1, in which Green Bay suffered a stunning blowout defeat to the Saints. There’s more time left to decide the race. Green Bay currently leads the NFC via tiebreakers over Tampa Bay and Arizona. If the Packers secure the No. 1 seed in the conference, that will help Rodgers’ case. Ultimately Brady is working with better offensive weaponry while Rodgers may be leading the better overall team equipped with a solid defense and an evolving, tough running game built for cold-weather football (A.J. Dillon). At this point, Rodgers missing a game, and Brady leading wins like Sunday’s over Buffalo in overtime, it’s the GOAT who has the clear lead as the race winds down.

Tom Brady OT TD pass vs Bills -- 2021
Tom Brady looks on during his game-winning touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime to defeat the Buffalo Bills in Week 14. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

With Urban Meyer ousted, who should be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ next head coach? How about current Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy? Bieniemy has been a hot topic over the past few offseasons, as many have wondered why he hasn’t been offered a NFL head coaching job already. He’s helped in the maturation of Patrick Mahomes and in the creation of the Chiefs’ all-time explosive offense over the past few seasons. Kansas City has been hit with some resistance this season, but the Chiefs are starting to problem-solve and play their way out of it. Bieniemy deserves some of the credit there. The Jaguars are a lowly franchise but they have assets in young QB Trevor Lawrence, a likely top-three draft pick in April, and and over $70 million in projected cap space to use on talent in free agency this offseason. Schematically, Bieniemy could bring a lot to the table for Lawerence. It’s an interesting fit that I’d like to see happen. If I had to guess, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may also be in the mix when interviews begin for the role.

— We’re a few months away from the offseason, but the future of the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson in particular, is a hot topic. If he leaves Seattle, where may he go next? If Wilson is dealt, the New Orleans Saints are an obvious fit, but if they can finesse their way around the salary cap, how about the New York Giants as a possible destination?  The Giants will likely fire GM Dave Gettleman, a once respected, and succesful general manager who has failed in New York. Giants head coach Joe Judge is likely on the hot seat, but could return. In my eyes, there is a world where the Giants trade some significant draft capital to obtain Wilson, still find a way to improve their offensive line, retain Judge and most of their pretty-good, tough defense, and become a true contender in the NFC East. Plus, Wilson, although a different cat, would fit well in New York. He isn’t afraid of pressure, or the limelight, and his celebrity/talented artist wife, Ciara, would likely enjoy New York, as well (I’m guessing). It seems like a fun fit that is gaining some steam. Still, the Saints, with offensive-minded, wise/experienced head coach Sean Payton, is the best pairing for Wilson.

— As this piece is published around east coast lunch time on Friday, the NFL, along with the NBA, New York City, London, and other areas around the world are experiencing a huge surge/waves of increasing COVID-19 numbers. As it stands, both the Cleveland Browns and Washington Football team are down to starting third-string quarterbacks this weekend (as of now). Washington just signed New England Patriots practice squad QB Garrett Gilbert to start on Sunday in Philadelphia versus the Eagles in a virtual do-or-die game for both teams, in terms of playoff hopes. As of now, there have been over 130 NFL players put on the Reserve/COVID-19 list since Monday. Cleveland, the Los Angeles Rams and Washington have roughly 70 players combined on the list. With COVID-19 still present in our society, and both the Delta and reportedly highly-transmissible Omicron variant now out there, and Holiday season in full swing, this is a friendly reminder for everyone to be safe.

THE BETTER HALF

(With this piece being released on Friday, in the middle of Week 15, we will have blurbs for only the participants of the important AFC West showdown on Thursday Night Football (Chiefs, Chargers). We will wait for next week’s edition for blurbs on each team.)

1. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 1). 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3) (Last week: 2). 

3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 4). They figured things out late, battling back to defeat the Chargers in LA via a brilliant fourth quarter by Patrick Mahomes (10-13, 197 yards 3 TD in final 10 minutes), and a takeover by Travis Kelce (10 rec, 191 yds, 2 TD). Two-high looks by competent teams are still giving their offense fits, but they’re battling they’re way out of it.

4. New England Patriots (9-4) (Last week: 5).

5. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) (Last week: 6). 

6. Arizona Cardinals (10-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4) (Last week: 7). 

8. Tennessee Titans (9-4) (Last week: 9). 

9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6) (Last week: 10). 

10. Buffalo Bills (7-6) (Last week: 8). 

11. San Francisco 49ers (7-6) (Last week: 13). 

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). They outplayed the Chiefs for much of the game, but couldn’t capitalize. They’re still in good position for a playoff spot, but will likely need to win two of their final three games to have a good shot at clinching.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-5) (Last week: 11). 

14. Cleveland Browns (7-6) (Last week: NR).

15. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) (Last week: 14). 

16. Minnesota Vikings (6-7) (Last week: NR). 

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver, New Orleans, Philadelphia

Josh Allen vs Chiefs -- Week 5

NFL Friday Madness: Breaking down the AFC’s early-season contenders

Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season featured a slew of missed kicks, exciting finishes, and an overarching changing-of-the-guard storyline in the AFC, as the conference dominated by the likes of the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the 21st century, and the Kansas City Chiefs recently, will seemingly be lead by some of the league’s most talented teams in the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns (huh?!) in 2021.

Buffalo looks like the NFL’s best and most complete team after bolstering their pass rush this offseason, with rookie first-round pick Gregory Rosseau (6-foot-6, 267 pounds) leading the charge for that unit.

In Kansas City last Sunday night, Buffalo forced four Patrick Mahomes turnovers and Josh Allen amassed 374 total yards and four touchdowns and a 91.6 Total QBR with no turnovers and no sacks.

Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.

With the Chiefs driving, down 31-13 to the Bills with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter, Rosseau tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage for a Bills interception, prompting the thought of the night by NBC‘s Chris Collinsworth.

“When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back on this night and say ‘this is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC,” Collinsworth said.

After losing twice to the Chiefs last year, including in the AFC title game, Buffalo has already leapfrogged the conference powerhouse in October as the conference’s lead dog.

Behind them, there’s the Ravens, where Lamar Jackson is carrying the Ravens to last-second, comeback wins, and throwing the ball with authority, pitting him with the likes of Josh Allen at the top of any too-early MVP award discussions.

Justin Herbert is having a similar, red-hot start to the season for the Chargers, who outlasted the Browns, 47-42 last Sunday, and defeated the Chiefs in Kansas City in a tight contest in Week 2.

The Browns, who also blew a Week 1 game in Kansas City in addition to their similar, late-game letdown to the Chargers, may be the most talented team in the conference.

Myles Garrett is the early-season leader for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Browns as a team lead the NFL in rushing (187.6 yards per game) with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way behind a monstrous, guiding-light offensive line that was put together in the 2020 offseason, and now on Year 2 of their dominance.

Really, the Chiefs, despite their 2-3 mark, lack of a running game, and porous defense from all angles, should still be considered a contender as long as Patrick Mahomes is leading the offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as his top targets.

But Kansas City is missing additional pass catchers, or a running game, to help take the pressure off Mahomes, who is seeing a litany of two-high coverages, whether it’s 2-man or Cover-2, that have taken away the Chiefs’ usual downfield chunk plays, forcing them to run the ball or produce long drives, while pressuring Mahomes and forcing him out of the pocket.

To put the Chiefs offense in perspective, they are still the No. 1-ranked offense by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, but Mahomes has less 20-yard completions than the likes of Mac Jones and Jared Goff.

The Chiefs are virtually three games behind the Chargers considering their Week 2 loss, but there is more than enough time to make up ground.

But really, they look like a wild card bunch at best this year, with a new basket of quarterbacks leading more complete teams to victory.

The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.

Herbert’s deep-ball has led to a Mike Williams renaissance as a perimeter receiver and deep threat. Running back Austin Ekeler and route-running genius Keenan Allen are mismatches for defenses in the shallow and intermediate levels of the field. And under new head coach Brandon Staley’s Cover-3 style defense brought over from the Rams, the Chargers have looked much better on defense, save for their game versus Cleveland. Joey Bosa is one of the best pass rushers in football, and Derwin James is the perfect roaming athlete for such a scheme in the secondary.

Still, while putting the Chargers and Chiefs aside, and with no mention of the still-tough Tennessee Titans, who look locked into the AFC South title, it still appears both the Ravens and Browns appear like the best long-term threats to Buffalo this season.

Each has a bludgeoning running game.

We mentioned Cleveland above, but Baltimore, with a sturdy offensive line and a litany of additional blockers (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard) at tight end, H-back and fullback, has the perfect mix of old-school blocking with and new-age finesse with Lamar Jackson shredding defenses on designed runs behind a traditional and yesteryear blocking front.

Despite the great coaching from the likes of Staley and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are more experienced. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent franchises this century, and that seems to carry them to a Super Bowl run at least once per decade. That could be this year.

All this is said to lead to this — the AFC has regained power over the NFC as the league’s top conference overall. And this deep group includes talented teams of all types, with different schemes, concepts and strengths.

The Bills are in charge now, but there are several teams right there, and even with their struggles, it’s too early to fully give up on the Chiefs.

Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 1). They’re the best team in football right now. No question. The only things missing last year were their running game, pass rush and ability to defend Mahomes and Kansas City. They’ve figured out all three things, it seems.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). Despite all the fuss regarding Allen, Jackson, Herbert, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, it’s 44-year-old Tom Brady, who through six games has looked on a mission (2,064 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, two game-winning drives), that is the MVP leader at this point. It’s early, though.

3. Arizona Cardinals (5-0) (Last week: 3). Arizona faces a tall task in Cleveland this week. How well can this reimagined defense defend the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack?

4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 4). They should take care of the Giants this weekend. They were the talk of the league two weeks ago. Things change quickly. They’re a season-long contender in the NFC.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) (Last week: 9). They’re winning the close contests that used to bring them heartbreak. This is a different team.

6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). They’ve escaped with wins over the Lions and Colts that they certainly should have lost. They’ll get it together. Lamar Jackson has been awesome as a passer so far this season.

7. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 7). They’re kind of on autopilot at this point, but we know they can compete with anyone in the conference as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.

8. Cleveland Browns (3-2) (Last week: 5). They easily could be 5-0. They certainly should be at least 4-1. They have the recipe to be a Super Bowl winner, but they need to figure out how to win those close games versus good teams. Baker Mayfield needs to do better in the clutch. They’ll be without Nick Chubb this weekend, but with Kareem Hunt, they have enough to beat Arizona. This is a big game for them.

9. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) (Last week: 10). The NFC East is clearly theirs, but the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996, and they are 0-5 versus Bill Belichick. The TV-ratings game of the week will be a fun pitting of a successful pass offense versus a well-coached, usually-sound defense.

10. Tennessee Titans (3-2) (Last week: 14). Like the Packers, they feel very auto-pilot-y, but they, too, have the strengths (Derrick Henry, running game) to be a force come playoff time. They need to figure things out on defense, though.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) (Last week: 8). The offensive line and running game will improve as the season goes along, which will open things up for Mahomes and company for their deep passing game. It’s not time to panic, yet. They definitely don’t look like a Super Bowl team this season, though.

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: NR). They’re a solid football team that would be even better with a more consistent quarterback. They’ll mostly live and die with Jameis Winston.

13. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: NR). The Bears have won three of four, and Justin Fields is now getting his reps. Things are going well, for now.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 11). With Jon Gruden out of the picture, what happens next? Will they fall apart? Or will they rally around their team?

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-3) (Last week: 13). Bad injury luck is mounting again. This is a good football team, but it’s tough competing in the NFC West. Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback in this past draft, and he still is, but he clearly needs time to develop.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: 15). That was a rough home loss to the Eagles. That was maybe a sign that they aren’t quite ready to compete in the playoffs like we thought they were. Sam Darnold is still much better than we thought he was, but cracks are starting to reappear. They have a huge game at home this week versus the Vikings. This one could decide a wild card spot come January.

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota/Philadelphia

Phillip Rivers vs Steelers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Chargers’ thrilling comeback + Patriots edge Vikings

It was over and it was expected. At least that’s what we all thought when the Chargers trailed 23-7 at halftime in Pittsburgh. They had laid another egg in a big game on national television.

Instead, Phillip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Justin Jackson and others helped to rally the Chargers to a 33-30 win that came about without Melvin Gordon, one of the league’s most outstanding running backs.

Facing a 3rd-and-4 with the game tied with just over a minute to play, Rivers found Allen on an out route working against man coverage (against a linebacker — yikes) in the slot. Allen is the league’s best receiver out of the slot, and that includes other high-profile guys who spend a lot of time positioned there, such as the Saints’ Michael Thomas. Allen hauled in 14 catches for 148 yards and a whacky score, all while keeping the pace with the league’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, who also had a good night — 10 catches, 154 yards, one touchdown.

“I could feel it in the locker room,” Allen told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. “We built this off the end of the season last year. Now, this year we’re just rolling.”

The Chargers are rolling because they have the AFC’s most talented team, from top to bottom. With Joey Bosa back and healthy, the combination of him and Melvin Ingram gives Los Angeles a nasty pass rush. After being stifled by the Steelers offensive line for much of the night, the duo came alive in the second half. On offense, Rivers has been spectacular all year. A dark-horse MVP candidate that would get more love if it weren’t for the ridiculous seasons being put forth by Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees.

The win was Rivers’ 7th career comeback win after trailing by at least 16 points, which ties Peyton Manning for the most all-time by a quarterback. And it was arguably the biggest regular season win of his career. If not, certainly in recent memory.

The Chargers (9-3) now have an outside shot at the AFC West — the Chiefs (10-2) would hold the tiebreaker even if the Chargers beat them in two weeks — and certainly have all but locked up the conference’s No. 5 seed.

Certainly, this Chargers team is different. They have talent and guts. And because of that, there’s a new team to monitor in the AFC.

Patriots handle Vikings, move toward first-round bye

Here they come. Just like clockwork. This is one of the more flawed Patriots  teams in years, right? That may be so but it didn’t show on the field in New England’s 24-10 throttling of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

In surprising fashion, the Patriots (9-3) defense actually outplayed Tom Brady and the offense, holding the talented Vikings offense to 278 total yards and forcing 2 turnovers.

Trey Flowers, playing on a contract year, is showing why he’s one of the best edge defenders in football, while Dont’a Hightower and Jason McCourty, two players on the backend of their careers, turned in vintage performances.

Speaking of vintage, when the Patriots hopped out of I-formation, Brady was sharp throughout, which should put any “Brady is done” talk to rest.

The Patriots are getting healthy at the right time, as exemplified by Rex Burkhead, who looked spry in his return. With the trio of Burkhead, James White and Sony Michel complimenting No. 1 wide reciever Josh Gordon, some of the pressure comes off the older, usually more reliable trio of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. All three are still among Brady’s favorite, and will come through when called upon, but their very best years are over. That’s okay. Brady, and the Patriots, will make due.

With Kareem Hunt’s gone in Kansas City, the Chiefs (10-2) may now be vulnerable in an area other than just their sour defense and January bad luck. Meaning Bill Belichick’s bunch has a real shot at home field advantage throughout the AFC, if they are to win out.

Other top-end organizations in the Seahawks (7-5) and Ravens (7-5) are already out the gate in December with impressive wins of their own. But it’s the Patriots leading the pack in that category once more. This is what they do best — playing at the top of their game from December and on. Their annual march has begun.

Quick-hits

– It’s clear, the Bears need Mitchell Trubisky back. Although wild and inconsistent through the air, Chicago canon survive Chase Daniel. As it stands they were lucky to do so on Thanksgiving, squeezing by on a poor pick-six in the fourth quarter by Matthew Stafford then. They needed an onside kick and a touchdown pass from running back Tarik Cohen to force overtime this week. Once they got to the extra period, Daniel couldn’t get the Bears downfield. They’re basically looking at the NFC’s No. 3 seed at this point, and that’s if they win the NFC North. They should. But they need their quarterback.

– The Texans may be for real. Maybe. With nine straight wins versus lower-end competition, it would be easy to question their greatness. But that’s just it — NINE STRAIGHT WINS. When you win that often against lower competition, it usually means you’re in a higher class. That’s the Texans. They’re in good position to be one of the AFC’s top two seeds. They’ll most likely be a No. 3 seed. After the Steelers’ loss, they have that just about locked up.

– As briefly mentioned in the Patriots-Vikings section, here come the Seahawks and Ravens. Two 7-5 squads that have a penchant for good coaching and solid football in December and on. The Ravens mystique has taken a hit in that category because of their Week 17 loss to the Bengals, and the fact that they haven’t made the postseason since 2014. But behind rookie Lamar Jackson, Baltimore has won three straight to jump back into the wild card race in the AFC. They travel to Kansas City next Sunday. The Seahawks have been consistently good for just about the entirety of the Russell Wilson era (since 2012). Wilson is proving to be a top-five quarterback at the very least this season, working with a team that was gutted this offseason. Seattle is heading in the right direction between Wilson and Pete Carroll, who is still clearly a top-five coach. Baltimore and Seattle. Two tough football teams that look poised for the playoffs. Any division winners eager to see them come to town in January? I wouldn’t think so.

NFL MVP Race

1. Patrick Mahomes — The Saints’ loss in Dallas, coupled with Mahomes’ prolific performance in his first game without Kareem Hunt, vault Mahomes to the top spot for now. But it’s a close race. He’ll likely have to retain the AFC’s No. 1 seed to win the award.

2. Drew Brees — Brees’ subpar performance in Dallas featured a game-ending interception with a chance to drive down and tie/win the game. The loss also temporarily knocked the Saints back to the No. 2 seed. It’s the closest race in years, but he goes here for now, just barely.

3. Jared Goff — The conductor of Sean McVay’s mastermind offense.

4. Aaron Donald — It’s tempting to put Donald over Goff but quarterbacks are too valuable in today’s NFL. That being said Donald is the BEST player in football right now. Yes, even better than quarterbacks such as Mahomes and Brees.

5. Phillip Rivers — As discussed earlier in this column, Rivers is the dark-horse candidate. He’s been incredible this season. If the Chargers somehow steal the AFC West, he’ll have a real shot at this award.

Honorable mention: Russell Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Khalil Mack, Andrew Luck, Tyreek Hill