Mac Jones vs Browns -- 2021

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 10: Here come the Patriots, Chiefs + what’s wrong with the Bucs?

This seasons continues to be an “up-for-grabs” campaign, with every team in the league now sporting two losses, and the AFC continuing to be a “who-wants-it?” affair, unless you think the Titans (7-0 vs 2020 playoff teams) sans Derrick Henry will not lose again this year.

As much of the league continues to folly through fall, there are a few teams that seem to be moving their way through the cluster, or at least showing signs of that, with Thanksgiving approaching.

We have two breakout performances to tackle in Week 10 before getting to ‘The Better Half’ where we have a dissection of issues plaguing the defending Super Bowl champs and explain why Cam Newton’s return is so important to the Panthers. So let’s get right to it.

QUICK-HITS

The 2021 Patriots look more like an alternate version of the 2001 Patriots each week. And now, they are clearly molding into an AFC contender. Bill Belchick’s record-breaking, offseason spending spree is starting to pay off. So is his 2021 draft class, led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. I’m not ready to declare him the obvious-best-in-his-class passer of this past spring’s barrage, but it seems pretty clear that the Patriots have the right guy in Jones, who is in the right place, and taking advantage of New England’s world-class internal teaching and mastery of the sport.

I’ve long said that no one will ever be Tom Brady from 2007 to 2017 (and maybe in the back half of 2020 with Tampa Bay). That’s the bread and butter of his career, a cyborg-level, decade-long run of dominance. But before Brady became the GOAT, he was still a special, yet-different type of quarterback. From 2001 to 2006 (and again in 2018) Brady led more of a running-game-centric, heavy-fullback usage, play-action passing offense, and he rose to the occasion as a gunslinger in certain moments (Super Bowl 38, 2004 AFC title game at PIT, 2018 AFC title game at KC) to help lead the Pats to four Super Bowls.

Mac Jones can absolutely be the QB, and leading man of a Super Bowl team in his early years. He’s already shown shades of Brady as a smart, accurate passer with great feel and ability in the pocket.

Jones almost certainly won’t win six Super Bowl wins (although, you never know?), seeing as even those signature early-career Brady moments were all-time special performances from a quarterback that was now obviously going to improve at an exponential pace. Jones, or any QB, won’t ever match that, or even come close, probably.

But even at the risk of being over-hyperbolic, there really is some young Brady in Jones’ play. Sunday’s 45-7 Patriots drubbing over the Browns was Mac’s best outing: 19-for-23, 198 yards, three touchdowns, six-of-seven on third down, 158.3 passer rating (perfect) on throws 10+ yards downfield (PFF). 

Mac’s touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne was the best throw of his young NFL career.

Among the other reasons for the Patriots’ recent success:

— Belichick’s rookie draft class, including Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore (an interior pass-rushing force who is first in hurries and second in QB pressures among rookies) and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (an athletic bruiser/ball-carrier vision aficionado combo who ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns) is already paying off. Other draftees and finds such as safety/linebacker Kyle Dugger and slot/nickel DB Myles Bryant (undrafted) from the 2020 class are improving at warp speed.

— The shift toward a more “beefy” 3-4 defense with Carl Davis moving into early-down nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux playing 3-4 defensive end, with Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley (who has been awesome in ’21) at inside linebacker, and Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy as stand-up edge defenders, has helped turn New England into a tougher run-defending unit. In the passing game, Barmore, and of course, Judon, who is playing at an All-Pro level, are giving the Patriots a potential all-time combo (for them) at rushing opposing quarterbacks.

— The emergence of key offensive additions in tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Kendrick Bourney, as well as the improvement of an offensive line that now has a few, solid identifiable combinations for which the Patriots can work with, with monstrous tackle Trent Brown back into the fold. Brown had a 91.3 PFF grade in 25 run-blocking snaps in his return on Sunday.

— The omnipresent team camaraderie amongst the players, which has been a staple of the Patriots’ success under Belichick. Did you see the whole team mob Jakobi Meyers in the end zone after his first career touchdown?

Kansas City Chiefs The Chiefs are back, sort of. I guess this depends on your opinion of the Las Vegas Raiders, who once looked like an AFC upstart with high-level offensive efficiency before the ‘Jon Gruden’ mess, and now have scored 28 total points in two weeks versus the Giants and defensively-challenged Chiefs. But let’s give Kansas City some credit here. They’ve buttoned up some on defense (Melvin Ingram has been a big addition) and in turn, Patrick Mahomes and company finally broke out of a month-plus long slump on offense, as the former league and Super Bowl MVP award winner threw for 406 yards and five touchdowns on 35-of-50 passing. It was an absolute masterpiece of a performance, an “old-school” (haha) or vintage level-dealing by Mahomes.

The most important statline was ‘0,’ which came in the turnover department. Lately, Mahomes had been overly eager to leave the pocket, push the ball downfield, and was pressing, overall, to make up for a lack of a running game and terrible defense. But he took his time, taking what the (albeit bad) Raiders defense gave him, and taking shots when necessary. The Chiefs play the Cowboys at home this Sunday in the marquee late afternoon slot, so we’ll know more then. But they certainly looked great on Sunday.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tennessee Titans (8-2) (Last week: 1). They held on versus a tough Saints team to move to 8-2. They’re on a league-high six-game winning streak, and have beaten five 2020 playoff teams in a row (7-0 versus ’20 postseason participants overall), and that’s without Derrick Henry and Julio Jones recently.

2. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 6). Between the safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and cornerback Jaire Alexander, the Packers may have the best secondary in the NFL. They have a great defense in general. Aaron Rodgers has a solid shot at a second Super Bowl this season. He’s had a few.

3. Dallas Cowboys (7-2) (Last week: 8). If we throw away their hideous, unexplainable home loss to the Broncos last week (every team seems to have two or more inexcusable losses this season), they’re as close to being a consistent force as any team this season.

4. Buffalo Bills (6-3) (Last week: 7). They’ve had a weird season. At times, they’ve just looked disinterested, but that was a big W versus the Jets, forcing four Mike White interceptions. Buffalo’s offense has cooled down some, but the potential is always there with Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and company. It’s the Bills’ league-best defense picking up the slack that makes this team a top-flight Super Bowl contender.

5. Los Angeles Rams (7-3) (Last week: 4). We know about their superstar talent, but losing Robert Woods is tragic, and this team still has some depth and focus issues. Can this NBA superteam-like beast win a Super Bowl? “There’s a difference between talent collecting and team building,” ESPN‘s Louis Riddick said during the MNF broadcast.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 2). Anyone looking to identify what’s wrong with the Buccaneers should start with injuries. Brady’s reliable weapons (Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski) are on the sidelines, as well as basically the entire starting defensive backfield. If they can get healthy, they surely can go on another run.

7. Arizona Cardinals (8-2) (Last week: 3). Injuries are starting to ruin what could have been a run at the NFC’s No. 1 seed for them. They have to avoid another late-season slide like last year. They need Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back on the field.

8. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 5). I gave them excuses throughout the year for comeback wins in sloppy performances, but maybe they’re just good, and not great? Lamar Jackson is great. He’s better than great, and that may be good enough in the AFC, but not if they play the way they did versus the Dolphins last Thursday. Yikes.

9. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 10). Let’s see how they do versus the Super Bowl-contending Cowboys before we emphatically say “they’re back!” But it certainly does seem like they’ll win the AFC West, at least.

10. New England Patriots (6-4) (Last week: 12). After their Thursday nighter in Atlanta in two days, they’ll play the AFC’s top two teams (vs Titans, at Bills on MNF).

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1) (Last week: 11). They picked up a win and a tie over lesser NFC North opponents (Bears, Lions) while at home in the past week-plus. But other AFC peers fighting for playoff spots have done worse, recently.

12. New Orleans Saints (5-4) (Last week: 13). Even in a loss, the Saints showed why they were complete football team in Tennessee. Trevor Siemian is not terrible, but he’s not good enough to lift a Saints team that probably could be playing an opponent tough on the road in a NFC Divisional matchup in January. They’re handicapped right now.

13. Indianapolis Colts (5-5) (Last week: NR). Despite Carson Wentz, here come the Colts. They field one of the league’s best rosters, and it’s starting to show.

14. Cleveland Browns (5-5) (Last week: 13). Baker Mayfield may not be the long-term answer for this well-built, talented football team. They should be better.

15. San Francisco 49ers (4-5) (Last week: NR). They have the talent to play like they did versus the Rams every week. Although, that is their fifth win in a row versus Sean McVay’s bunch, so maybe they just own that matchup? Either way, they are right back in the thick of the NFC wild card race.

16. Carolina Panthers (5-5) (Last week: NR). When the entire team has hope on offense (welcome back Cam Newton!), they are playoff-worthy in the NFC, because their defense is damn good. That was evident in Arizona on Sunday. Cam should be the starter going forward. What an awesomely surreal reunion.

Next Up: Cincinnati, Minnesota, L.A. Chargers, Las Vegas, Seattle 

Jeffery Simmons vs Rams

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: ‘Any Given Sunday’ moniker was earned this weekend

This past week of football was initially going to be highlighted for having the most Super Bowl rematches in a single week (5) in NFL history, but just as recent weeks have unfolded, as soon as the early slate of games kicked off on Sunday, mayhem ensued.

By the end of the night, four of the league’s division leaders suffered losses, and another division-leader, Baltimore (6-2), needed overtime to survive Minnesota (3-5) at home.

The topsy-turvy AFC, in particular, continues to be one of the weirdest-looking conference races in NFL history at midseason.

The Titans (7-2) and Ravens lead the conference as two-loss clubs, and then there are 10 teams with either five or four wins, vying for playoff spots.

No follower of the league can rightly say they have a firm grip on their prognostications going forward, but that’s what makes this season so fun, even if there has been an abundant of sloppy play.

Tennesee’s 28-16 beatdown of the Rams on Sunday night was most evident of this. Had the Rams had a solid win in this game, Matthew Stafford would have been a possible MVP frontrunner at midseason, and the Rams probably would have been looked at as Super Bowl favorites (they still might be, and rightfully so).

Instead, the Rams failed miserably in a game of catch-up after falling behind 21-3 early because of two Matthew Stafford interceptions, including one pick-six, while Los Angeles was backed up in its own territory in the first half.

Additionally, Tennessee sacked Stafford five times, with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (three sacks, four QB hits) outshining perhaps the best defensive tackle of all-time, Aaron Donald (one sack) in his own stadium.

Tennessee is a tough squad that should be in the thick of the AFC race all year long, but they really needed Stafford’s mistakes to come away with a win here.

The Titans averaged under three yards per carry on the ground without Derrick Henry, and Ryan Tannehill looked just so-so, despite coming through in some big moments.

The Rams should recover, but that’s now two big stinkers (Cardinals loss being the other one) so far this season. I suppose every team gets two or three, this season.

The Titans were blown out by the Cardinals in Week 1 and lost to the Jets in Week 4.

This was a wacky, wacky weekend in a wacky, wacky season. The moniker ‘Any Given Sunday’ was truly earned in Week 9.

Let’s do our best to break down a few other things in sort of a Quick-Hits form.

Among the most surprising results on Sunday were the Broncos complete drubbing of the Cowboys in Denver, the Giants stifling of the Raiders at home, and the Jaguars’ 9-6 win over the Bills. All three division winners looked piss-poor on Sunday. Denver led Dallas 30-0 late in the fourth quarter before the Cowboys lowered the final score to 30-16 in garbage time. Dak Prescott struggled in his return to action going 19-of-39 for a 24.2 Total QBR and an interception. Denver also outrushed Dallas 190-78. Denver had lost four of five before this performance, which adds to the wonkiness.

Caden Sterns INT vs Dallas
Broncos rookie safety Caden Sterns intercepts Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. Denver led Dallas 30-0 in the fourth quarter, before holding on for a stunning 30-16 victory on Sunday. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

The Bills continued their streak of looking bored, and playing down to their competition, but they legitimately looked sloppy. Jaguars young pass rusher Josh Allen outplayed the Bills rising star quarterback with the same name. Jacksonville’s Allen led his team with eight solo tackles, while victimizing Buffalo’s Allen for a sack, forced fumble and an interception. In such a ridiculous conference race, the Bills still look like a team talented enough to make the Super Bowl. While Buffalo and Dallas’ losses should raise some concern, both still seem like Super Bowl contenders. The Raiders, however, were exposed by a bad team with a solid defense. The Giants almost beat the Chiefs last Monday night with their defense. The G-Men forced three Raiders turnovers, including a Xavier McKinney pick-six of Derek Carr, and shut down Las Vegas’ offense in a classic “east coast team beats west coast team in early slate” result. The Giants’ tough, physical defense and home-field advantage in colder weather sort of exposed the good-but-not-great Raiders bunch.

Two wins that did not feel wonky, were blowout victories by the Patriots over Panthers, and the Browns over the Bengals. Both teams dominated on the road, and will face each other next Sunday at 1:00pm ET on CBS, but they also deserve their praise this week before looking ahead. The Patriots continued their dominance of Sam Darnold, who moved to 0-4 versus the Patriots in his career, with one touchdown and nine interceptions. Just like his time with the New York Jets, Darnold was again apparently “seeing ghosts” versus New England, throwing three ghastly interceptions, including a pick-six to Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is in for a huge payday this offseason (or franchise tag). Jackson had two interceptions on Sunday, and leads the league in interceptions (21) since coming into the league as an undrafted rookie in 2018.

On a personal level, being mostly from the New England area, but going to high school in North Carolina, these Patriots-Panthers matchups have always been a premier event for me. Both teams have usually sported physical squads in the years they’ve faced off, and this time was no different. Carolina’s defense is a solid unit, with players such as EDGE defender Brian Burns being a rising star, veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson being an enforcer on the second level, and now former Patriot Stephon Gilmore (who victimized his old team for an interception on Sunday) no in the backend. Carolina forced two New England turnovers, but allowed a season-high 151 yards on the ground to the Patriots committee of running backs. New England fared much better defensively. It helps that they their own game-wrecker on defense in Matthew Judon (9.5 sacks), as well as a future All-Pro caliber defensive tackle in Christian Barmore, who swarmed Darnold all game and knocked down a few of his passes (saving a touchdown to Christian McCaffrey on one). New England is still figuring things out, but they are tough, physical and a solid football team. They are playoff-caliber.

So are the Browns, who pushed the Odell Beckham Jr. fiasco to the recesses of their minds in time to destroy the Bengals in Cincinnati, which may be a huge result come January. Cleveland won 41-16 behind a near-flawless game from Baker Mayfield, who was precise, and a solid running game (153 yards, 6.7 YPC) and defense, with the latter tallying five sacks and forcing two turnovers off Bengals QB Joe Burrow. Myles Garrett leads the league with 12 sacks now, and is the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year at the moment, if you asked me.

As mentioned above, Cleveland travels to New England this week for a massive AFC contest that could decide seeding come January.

I originally planned on taking my first crack at the NFL MVP award race here at midseason, but the race is so messy at the moment, that I think it’s best to wait until after Thanksgiving (post-Week 12) for my first top-five ranking. In the past few weeks, injuries, bad play or stupidity have lessened the chances of Derrick Henry, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow and others from winning the award. Only Lamar Jackson improved his chances over the weekend, yet, I can’t tell you with certainty that I view him as the front-runner, as of now. This is such a wacky year. I think it’s best that we wait. (I promise this is is an act of intelligence, and not laziness on my part. The league is in a logjam, right now. Let’s wait for more answers).

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tennessee Titans (7-2) (Last week: 2). Their offense certainly misses Derrick Henry already, but we’ll give them credit here after that beatdown of the Rams in LA on Sunday night. This is a mentally and physically tough football team. Kudos, Mike Vrabel.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 4). In a week such as this one, it makes sense that Tom Brady’s bunch moves up a few spots.

3. Arizona Cardinals (8-1) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury is probably the lead-dog in the Coach of the Year race, as of now. The Cardinals pantsed the 49ers on Sunday without their best players (Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, etc.).s

4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2) (Last week: 1). Their defense didn’t play too bad, and that’s without Von Miller suiting up. But Matthew Stafford’s terrible, back-to-back interceptions in the first half downed them early.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Ravens have yet to play to their potential as a complete team, sans maybe their Week 6 blowout over the Chargers at home. They can play better defensively. Lamar Jackson and Justin Tucker have bailed this team out in the clutch in a couple of instances this season. Now they, just need to play better. They will.

6. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers’ disappointing handling of his COVID-19 vaccine situation (let’s face it, he lied, and his reasons for not getting the vaccine are asinine) certainly assists in putting lives at jeopardy, so let’s keep that in context when I say this here — Rodgers cost the Packers a win on Sunday night.This was a very winnable game for Green Bay, but Jordan Love simply wasn’t ready. The Packers defense played a fantastic game in Kansas City.

7. Buffalo Bills (5-3) (Last week: 3). No matter how you cut it, that was an inexcusable loss to one of the two or three worst teams in the league. They are one of the AFC’s best teams, but they need to get out of this funk. The Patriots are nipping at their heels in the AFC East, now.

8. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) (Last week: 6). Pretty shocking loss to the Broncos at home. Not much else to say. It seems like every contender will have a few stinkers this season. Let’s see how they respond.

9. Cleveland Browns (5-4) (Last week: 13). The Browns are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. They looked it on Sunday in Cincinnati.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) (Last week: 14). They’ve caught a few breaks versus the Giants and Packers at home to win. Now, they’ll go to Las Vegas for a Sunday night game will huge ramifications in the AFC West. They still don’t look right on offense, but wins are wins. They could make a run.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 12). The Steelers host the Bears (3-5) in a very winnable game on Monday night.

12. New England Patriots (5-4) (Last week: 15). The Patriots improved to 4-0 on the road. They’re getting better as the season progresses after suffering a few close losses to possible Super Bowl contenders (Tampa Bay, Dallas) earlier. This 2021 New England team seems like a version of their 2001 squad that doesn’t win the Super Bowl.

13. New Orleans Saints (5-3) (Last week: 9). They should be higher, but their QB situation may turn into a real problem despite Trevor Siemian’s noble attempt in these past two games.

14. Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert bounced back nicely in Philadelphia. That was a much-needed clutch win on the road.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 10). That was an ugly loss to the Giants that should have been a bit predictable. These Raiders have some juice on offense, even if it’s just Derek Carr and scheme, and a lack of overall star power, but they will struggle versus tougher teams (in terms of talent, and toughness) on the road. We’ll see if DeSean Jackson becomes a legitimate deep threat for them when he joins this week.

16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) (Last week: 11). The Bengals are probably not complete frauds. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are stars, no question, and Zac Taylor’s bunch has mostly improved on defense, but that side of the ball has looked ugly in their last two losses. They seem like a “next year” team. They’re almost there.

Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Denver, Atlanta, Seattle

P.J. Williams pick-six of Tom Brady

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 8: Saints shock Brady, Bucs + the crazy AFC

This has already been a weird season. On Halloween night, things got crazier, as the league tightened even further in Week 8 (especially in the standings), forcing us prognosticators to have more questions, and less answers when it comes to predicting how things will go in January and February.

So, let’s take it to Quick-Hits, and Cover 2.

QUICK-HITS 

Saints stun Bucs

The Saints forced three Tom Brady turnovers, including a late, game-sealing pick-six by PJ Williams, and the Saints stunned the Buccaneers in New Orleans, despite losing Jameis Winston to a reported knee/ACL injury that could be season-ending. The crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was rockin’ the entire game, and the Saints’ defense was flying around the field with aggressiveness. When Winston went down, and New Orleans kept things simple for Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Sean Payton has been one of the four or five best head coaches in football for over 15 years now, yet doesn’t seem to get as much credit as he should. He was phenomenal on Sunday. The Saints’ 23-7 lead evaporated at one point, and Tampa bay took a 27-26 lead with just over five minutes to play. But the Saints calmly drove down the field and re-took the lead, even though they had a questionable managing of the clock (they gave Brady too much time). The Saints definitely look like a NFC wild card team, at least, but they probably aren’t catching Tampa Bay without a starting quarterback. Taysom Hill will return to the Saints soon, so you can expect them to use their packages with him at quarterback. If they can get receiver Michael Thomas back, that would make things even easier on Siemian, if he is indeed the starter for the rest of the season. It’s worth wondering if New Orleans would consider Cam Newton? He knows the division well, can run the same packages and plays that Hill runs, and is experienced enough to manage a game for a good team. It’s worth looking into.

American Football Conference logo.svg  A crowded AFC

As more weeks of football go by, the AFC seems like even more of a circus. How many good teams are there in the conference? Will multiple single-digit win teams (9-8, etc.) make the playoffs? Will the Chiefs (3-4) turn things around? Will the Bills (5-2), Titans (6-2) or Ravens (5-2) take advantage of the murkiness, and pseudo-lock up the conference’s top seed shortly after Thanksgiving by upping its play and going on a string of victories?

The conference truly is a mess, but it’s an exciting mess with tons of young, fresh quarterback talent (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Mac Jones, etc.). Still, all three of the quarterbacks I just named either struggled mightily, suffered an upset loss, or both, on Sunday. With backup quarterback Mike White starting (White was incredible on Sunday, and deserves his due), the Jets (2-6) erased an 11-point deficit late to defeat the Bengals (5-3). The Steelers (4-3) defeated the Browns (4-4), 15-10, in Cleveland, and that, coupled with the Patriots’ (4-4) win over the Chargers (4-3) in LA, and a Broncos (4-4) victory over Washington, make it impossible to predict wild card teams at the moment.

What we do know, is that the Bills and Titans, who started off slow on Sunday, are the conference’s two best teams at the moment, with the Ravens observing, the Chiefs still dormant, and the Raiders (5-2) as a surprise team that now many are talking about, even with the Jon Gruden mess. That’s about all we know, right now, which means we know just about nothing (give me the Bills to make the Super Bowl if I had to guess today).

National Football League logo.svg All hail backup QBs!

A quick note here — give it up for the backup quarterbacks on Sunday. Jets QB Mike White, Saints QB Trevor Siemian and Cowboys QB Cooper Rush all came through for HUGE victories for their respective teams on Sunday. White was the best of the bunch, full game-wise. But all three came through in the clutch for game-winning drives, with White and Rush (former 2019 Cowboys training camp teammates), throwing for game-winning scores late. You couldn’t help but feel great for Rush and his family after seeing his family celebrate in the stands after his game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Awesome stuff. This was just another example of “Any Given Sunday.”

COVER 2

 SAINTS 36, BUCCANEERS 27

We rightfully gave the Saints’ angle of this victory top billing above. They earned the victory. Still, right from the start it seemed like an off game for Tom Brady. It was the kind of game he’d have from time to time in New England. Famous Boston sports guy Bill Simmons would call these “bad body language” games. Still, Brady fights through these for victories once in awhile. Down 23-7 in the third quarter, Brady rallied the Bucs to a 27-26 lead with five-ish minutes left in the fourth period after a beautiful 50-yard touchdown heave to Cyril Grayson (his first career score) albeit on a blown Saints coverage. Brady (28-of-40, 375 yards, four touchdowns) ended up having a good game on paper, volume-wise, but New Orleans forced three turnovers, including the late pick-six, and sacked Brady three times. This Saints defense has given Brady a rough go this past year and a half. I’ll have to look at the All-22, but it seemed like the Saints played a ton of man coverage. In Cover 1 looks, New Orleans often employed a “robber” in coverage that sits in the middle of the field (think: yellow zone in Madden video games) to cut off crossers (same thing they utilized on the game-sealing interception touchdown). With Antonio Brown not active and Rob Gronkowski knocked out of the game early, Brady had less man coverage-beating pass catchers on the field, and New Orleans played the perfect scheme. The Saints flew around the field aggressively. Only Chris Godwin (eight catches, 140 yards, touchdown) seemed to beat Saints defenders often. After P.J. Williams’ pick-six, the game and moment reminded me of a couple things.

The Bucs’ surprising Halloween loss reminded me of the Steelers’ 34-20 victory over the defending-champion Patriots on Halloween in 2004. Rookie Ben Roethlisberger helped end New England’s still-NFL record 21 straight wins (including playoffs) and with a few key players out (running back Corey Dillon inactive, cornerback Ty Law left with a season-ending injury, etc.) Brady struggled versus an aggressive Pittsburgh defense, which victimized Brady for a pick-six in that game as well. Good news for Brady’s bunch, the Pats avenged the loss in the AFC title game that year, and went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls, something Tampa is striving for. And also after Williams’ pick-six on Sunday, Brady taking off his helmet and walking off the field reminded me of his late interception in the famous 2006 AFC Championship Game, where Brady threw a late pick to Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, which sealed  a comeback win for Peyton Manning. This is all to say that even the most clutch quarterback the league has ever seen sometimes doesn’t come through, just as Michael Jordan missed game-winning shot attempts. This was a big win for New Orleans, and Tampa has some problems that could prevent them from winning another Super Bowl, but still, give me the Bucs to win the NFC South. They’ll be OK.

PATRIOTS 27, CHARGERS 24

New England’s virtual “home” win in Los Angeles (did you see all those Patriots fans?!) was huge for their playoff aspirations, but the Patriots still managed to make the win not feel as good as it should have. They struggled mightily in the red zone, and in Chargers territory in general. They’re still making killer, bonehead mistakes (Kendrick Bourne fumble) and committing back-breaking penalties (a string of holding calls that killed two drives in Chargers’ territory), and the offensive line, which held up OK in pass blocking, but could have been better, is still so-so.

Mac Jones began the game looking sharp, which included his deep heave to Nelson Agholor (45 yards), but then he went through a 2-for-13 stretch that included seven overthrows. He was jumpy/skittish for much of the game, and panicked too often, getting rid of the ball too early and missing his mark on make-able throws. Tis the journey of a rookie quarterback, I suppose.

New England did have success running the football, and they played surprisingly well in pass coverage. Former Charger Adrian Phillips was the player of the game, picking off Chargers QB Justin Herbert twice, including a go-ahead, eventual game-winning pick-six in the fourth-quarter. Matt Judon and rookie Christian Barmore each also sacked Herbert, and just to twist the knife, it was former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry sealing the game by recovering Los Angeles’ late onside kick. New England did play well enough to win, big picture, but they were lucky to play a team of similar fashion, that can’t get out of its own way, even if they are talented (which the Patriots indeed, are).

Basically, the Patriots had a solid game plan that helped key their victory. They ran the ball hard and seemingly played a ton of Cover 2/zone coverage that flummoxed Herbert, according to the QB. It was a classic “Bill Belichick” victory. It was the type of win that people act like they never happened in the Tom Brady era now that it’s over. They happen. But still, New England needed an atrocious performance by the Chargers (Herbert, special teams, penalties, etc.) to win. In a sense, both of these teams look like the Phillip Rivers-era Chargers right now. But it’s the Patriots with the important tiebreaker that may come in handy in January. That’s huge. New England can improve, clean up their act (will they ever?) and use this as a building block.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Los Angeles Rams (7-1) (Last week: 3). Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp is simply unstoppable. Rams host the Titans next week in a huge Super Bowl 34 rematch.

2. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 4). Carson Wentz’ blunder helped fuel another Titans comeback win. Still, it’s a good sign Tennessee is winning these kinds of games. They go to Los Angeles next week. Can they take down the Rams? That’s a huge game. (Updated editor’s note: Titans could be without Derrick Henry for the rest of the season due to a foot injury.)

3. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 5). The Dolphins predictably played the Bills tough in Buffalo, but Josh Allen and company put the pedal to the metal late.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 1). They have their bye week to rest up and to get healthier. They’ll bounce back.

5. Dallas Cowboys (6-1) (Last week: 7). This Dallas team is having a special season. They do seem a bit “destined,” but they’ve had no luck in the playoffs since their ’90s dynasty years.

6. Green Bay Packers (7-1) (Last week: 6). Big win in Arizona. They should be able to fight for the NFC’s important No. 1 seed, all the way down to the wire.

7. Arizona Cardinals (7-1) (Last week: 2). They had been toying with defeat for awhile. They finally got burned.

8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 9). The Ravens move up here during their bye week. They were given a gift this weekend when the Bengals were upset by the Jets.

9. New Orleans Saints (5-2) (Last week: 13). Huge win, but what will they do at quarterback? Still, they should be a wild card team, and if they are, Sean Payton should be in the mix for Coach of the Year.

10. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) (Last week: 12). The Raiders may have had the best week of any AFC team by not playing.

11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) (Last week: 8). Most AFC teams have a bad loss or two this year. The Jets beat the Titans a few weeks ago. So we’ll ease up some on the Bengals, but up 31-20 late against a team like this, starting their backup QB, you can’t lose in that fashion (Joe Burrow late INT). The Bengals are no Super Bowl contender. We can settle down now.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 15). Here come the Steelers. They can win a ton of games with their stingy defense and rookie back Najee Harris carrying the offense.

13. Cleveland Browns (4-4) (Last week: 11). Baker Mayfield is banged up and not playing well. The Browns should be a playoff team, but now they are in trouble.

14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) (Last week: 14). The AFC is such a mess that the Chiefs have ample opportunity to make a run in the conference.

15. New England Patriots (4-4) (Last week: NR). The Patriots are 3-0 on the road, and were in position to beat the Dolphins, Cowboys and defending-champion, Brady-led Bucs at home this season. They’re a solid team that needs to clean up their act.

16. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) (Last week: 10). The Chargers are talented, but are they actually any good?

Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina

Cooper Kupp vs Bucs -- 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 3: It’s September, but Rams are the league’s best

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — With three seconds remaining in the first half, and the Rams leading the Buccaneers 14-7 in an early-season NFC showdown, Tampa Bay kicker Ryan Succop attempted to cut Los Angeles’ lead to four points heading into halftime.

The kick sailed wide right.

Rams head coach Sean McVay seemingly unleashed his pent up energy via a moment of exuberance on the sideline.

The event was a clear example of McVay’s excitement regarding a roster he put together. It’s evident the organization believes this is a win-now, Super Bowl-winning team.

The outburst also showcased how bad McVay wanted this win, even if the coach’s answer on the matter felt plucked right from a Bill Belichick press conference transcript.

“It means we’re 3-0,” McVay told the media when asked what the Rams’ win meant.

It’s just September, but the Rams have laid claim as the NFL’s best team in the early going after a 34-24 defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This is a squad with a beautiful new stadium (SoFi Stadium is also the host of Super Bowl 56 this February), a new star quarterback, one of the NFL’s best route runners and slot magicians, an all-time deep threat, and maybe the two best defensive players in the league.

The Rams are built like a top-heavy roster, but their stars showed out on Sunday.

Matthew Stafford went 27-of-38 for 343 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. DeSean Jackson is 34 years old, but showcased why he is one of the all-time best deep threats on a 75-yard score in the third quarter. Cooper Kupp put Bucs defensive backs in a blender, catching nine passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns, upping his total to five on the season and changing narratives regarding him, as he’s the No. 1-scoring fantasy football receiver through three weeks. And on defense, Aaron Donald posted a sack, destroyed a screen, and was overall menacing throughout, as was Jalen Ramsey, who added his confidence in swagger in defending Tom Brady passes from the slot and the perimeter.

When asked if this team can reach the Super Bowl, Donald told The Athletic: “It’s the only thing I’m chasing. It’s a long season, but I think we’re in a good position.”

That they are. This was the second year in a row the Rams had  beaten Tampa Bay, who had come into this game with 10 straight wins dating back to 10 months ago.

Los Angeles got ahead early and won 27-24 in Tampa last Thanksgiving, and that was with Jared Goff at quarterback.

The Rams match up versus Tom Brady’s bunch nicely.

They have a sturdy pass rush, but more importantly, they create inside pressure with Donald and Kenny Young (one sack on Sunday). The ability to push the pocket from the middle of the line, while containing on the outside is a good way of defeating a top-tier pocket quarterback, even if that QB is the greatest of all-time.

In the secondary, Ramsey is the league’s No. 1 cornerback, and his ability to play the perimeter and in the nickel/slot role as a “Star” gives Los Angeles the ability to move him around. One play he’ll guard Mike Evans on the outside, and in the red zone, maybe he’ll move inside versus Rob Gronkowski, like he did some in the 2017 AFC title game matchup between the Jaguars and Patriots.

Opposite Ramsey is burgeoning star No. 2 cornerback Darious Williams. Last year’s fourth-highest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus is on the J.C. Jackson fast track established in New England, where the No. 2 cornerback learned heavily from then best-in-the-league No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

The defense as a unit sacked Brady three times on Sunday, limited Tampa to 2.7 yards per rush, and allowed just seven points to the Buccaneers in about two-and-a-half quarters before taking a 21-7 lead and forcing Tampa Bay into air-it-out mode, which boosted Brady’s end-of-game stat line (41-of-55, 432 passing yards).

On offense, Stafford has the look of an MVP-front runner. The team’s wide receiver core compliments each other nicely.

Kupp, the team’s No. 1 WR, is 6-foot-2 but has the ability to stop-and-start almost like Wes Welker, while also being a downfield threat. Robert Woods is a solid veteran possession receiver, Van Jefferson is a young route-running maestro and the aforementioned Jackson can still get behind a defense.

The team’s Shanahan-y offense with McVay’s own twists, has been a force in the league for the last few seasons, but the unit became stale under Jared Goff.

Enter Matthew Stafford, who excels in the under-center, bootleg concepts and shotgun-spread looks. It hasn’t taken long for Stafford to prove the Rams’ brass right in trading two first-round picks (and Goff) to Detroit during the offseason to get their guy to run their offense.

“I was the new guy coming in and they embraced me,” Stafford told The Athletic. “I’m just trying to be myself every day, be my best every day, and see where that takes us.”

After 12 seasons of personal promise, but uneventful team success with the Lions, Stafford is in line to have it all this season.

He leads the league in Total QBR (82.8) through three weeks, has been sacked just three times in three games (great offensive line play and a solid scheme help), and is second in yards per attempt (10.0), passing touchdowns (9) and passer rating (129.8).

Everything is working.

But in a tough NFC West, the team knows they can’t let up.

The Rams host a division rival, Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals (3-0), next Sunday, which will pose a challenge defensively.

This is also a long season. There are several instances over the years where a playoff rematch leads to a win for the team that lost in the regular season.

Add in the fact that the Bucs have Tom Brady, and were missing Antonio Brown (COVID-19), who could have excelled in the middle of the field on Sunday, and there’s an avenue for another Tampa Super Bowl run in January.

But the Rams are keen on becoming the league’s top dog in 2021. They already are, so far. And they’re just enjoying the moment.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0) (Last week: 2). There’s deservedly a lot of Matthew Stafford chatter, which is fair, because he’s the spark plug, and most important player for this team now, but Cooper Kupp’s ascension with Stafford at the helm has been mesmerizing. He’s been awesome.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 1). They likely would have lost this game regardless, but missing Antonio Brown hurt. Now, it’s Tom Brady week. Brady returns home to New England versus the reeling Patriots. Only because of it’s prime storyline, this may be regarded as the most hyped-up regular season game of all-time. Check the ticket prices.

3. Cleveland Browns (2-1) (Last week: 5). Myles Garrett (4.5 sacks of Justin Fields on Sunday) is primed to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award this season. He’ll have to keep up that pace with Aaron Donald in the fold, though.

4. Buffalo Bills (2-1) (Last week: 7). So much for a regression year for Josh Allen (egg on my face), huh? The Bills’ franchise quarterback had five total touchdowns versus one of the league’s very best front sevens in Washington on Sunday.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 6). That would have been a pretty bad loss in Detroit, but Justin Tucker saved them with a game-winning, longest-of-all-time 66-yarder to win. They have their momentary lapses of focus, and their defense is figuring things out, but there is something special brewing there. They are coming through in the clutch. Lamar Jackson converted a 4th-and-19, first-down pass to get the Ravens into position to win. His confidence is sky-rocketing.

6. Las Vegas Raiders (3-0) (Last week: 8). They tried to give the game away at times, but they persevered. This ultimately became a good sign for them. Derek Carr looks awesome. They have something here.

7. Arizona Cardinals (3-0) (Last week: 9). They are one of the most exciting offenses in the league. But this team has its limitations. We’ll see how they stack up versus a seemingly-superior Rams team on Sunday.

8. Green Bay Packers (2-1) (Last week: NR). What else needs to be said? Aaron Rodgers is a bad man.

9. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 4). That was a tough loss for them. Jimmy Garoppolo has his limitations, but he came through late on that touchdown drive. They just left too much time on the clock for Rodgers.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) (Last week: 3). Their defense is horrible, and they really should be 0-3. But with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, we know they’ll make some sort of a run.

11. Tennessee Titans (2-1) (Last week: 14). It’s only Week 3, and it’s clear that the Titans can sleepwalk to an AFC South title.

12. Carolina Panthers (3-0) (Last week: 14). Sam Darnold looks comfortable, and their defense looks great. It’s early in the season, but they seem like a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NFC. Let’s see if they can keep this up.

13. Denver Broncos (3-0) (Last week: 13). They’re 3-0 versus teams with a combined 0-9 record, but they’ve looked like the much better team in these wins. This is a club with a lot of talent. Let’s suspend judgement on them for now.

14. New Orleans Saints (2-1) (Last week: NR). The Saints dominated the line of scrimmage versus the Patriots, then, they dominated everything else, including coaching and the New Orleans players just wanting it more than New England’s. They are a tough team.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (2-1) (Last week: NR). That was a hell of a win in Kansas City, even though they tried to give it away late. But the pass interference on Mike Williams was the correct call. They deserved this one. The AFC West is the clear top division in the AFC.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: 16). They should beat Philadelphia at home on Monday night, if they are the clear top team in the NFC East.

Next Up: Minnesota, Seattle, Miami, Cincinnati, New England/Pittsburgh

Todd Gurley vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Rams lead the way in NFC; Patriots eying another 19-0 run?

Two weeks into the season and there’s already a headline that can be ruled out for the remainder of 2019.

There will be no silence of the Rams this year.

The Super Bowl loser’s curse had already lost some it’s oomph over the last few seasons. After all, the Patriots just won Super Bowl LIII over the Rams after losing Super Bowl LII the year before.

With the exception of that curse, or notion, there was no other reason to believe the Rams would not seriously contend to return to the Super Bowl.

After their 27-9 victory over the Saints in an NFC Championship Game rematch, it’s clear the Rams are the current favorite in the NFC.

Granted, Drew Brees left the game early after Aaron Donald swatted his right thumb on a passing attempt, knocking him out of the game, and possibly the next two months, the Rams still were clearly the better team.

John Johnson added another interception of Brees early on, as he did in overtime in the NFC title game. Clay Matthews notched a sack in his first game in his hometown (Matthews grew up in the valley in Aguora Hills) and Aaron Donald and Eric Weddle were their usual dominant selves.

On offense Jared Goff threw dimes downfield to Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley flashed a few brilliant stretches of healthy-looking dominance.

But Los Angeles’ most important development is the play of slot receiver Cooper Kupp after his torn ACL last season. Only when Kupp was lost for the season last year did the Rams realize just how important he is to their offense. Los Angeles was stymied several times — most notably versus the Bears and Patriots — without the trusty Kupp to move the chains on third downs.

Kupp hauled in a game-high 120 yards on five catches versus New Orleans, showing just how much of a threat he can be when defenses key on Cooks and Robert Woods on the outside and Gurley in the backfield.

With Kupp, Sean McVay’s offense has a better chance of moving the ball against some of the league’s better defenses. Without Kupp, teams were able to key on the team’s outside receivers, making Los Angeles somewhat predictable in their often-used three-receiver bunch sets.

With Kupp’s unique skill set, the Rams have re-added perhaps their most important player in their passing game.

With Brees out, the Cowboys, Seahawks and banged-up Eagles appear to be the biggest threats to the Rams’ throne. But at this point in the season, it’s clear the Rams are a step ahead.

Patriots are on a mission

It’s hard to imagine the Patriots ever coming as close as to a 19-0 record as they did in 2007, when the campaign was halted by the miraculous ‘Helmet Catch’ of Super Bowl XLII.

Enter New England’s 2019 squad.

The Patriots throttled the league-worst Dolphins in Miami, 43-0, exorcising some demons in their house of horrors, while moving to a mind-numbing point differential of plus-73 (76-3) in their first two games.

The Patriots have been to three straight Super Bowls — and our of the last five — and their current squad is unquestionably their most complete team this decade.

New England’s chameleon approach to attacking defenses focuses on their ability to switch formations as smoothy as they change the focus of their game plan, which could revolve around power-running behind Sony Michel, or a spread attack with their multitude of pass-catching running backs and a league-best wide receiver core.

Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and the underrated Phillip Dorsett make up a top-tier group on their own. Adding the best wide receiver of the decade makes this group sublime.

By now, we know Antonio Brown’s situation. The 31-year-old superstar has been accused of three different incidents of sexual assault, including rape, in a civil suit filed by his former trainer. SI’s Robert Klemko also released a bombshell long form report this morning detailing an alleged another incident of sexual misconduct by Brown with another woman. The NFL is meeting with Brown’s accuser today, and Brown is subject to discipline if more evidence is released, or if the NFL sees fit.

Antonio Brown vs Dolphins
Antonio Brown celebrates his first career catch as a Patriot. Brown’s future availability is in question due to a civil lawsuit filed by his former trainer. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

When discussing Brown, his serious situation(s) off-the-field should be discussed. But what Browns brings to New England on the field is the league’s best route runner and all-time best sideline catch specialist capable of rendering the Patriots unbeatable.

Between Gordon on the outside, Edelman in the slot, and Brown and the speedy Phillip Dorsett Jr. moving around their formations, New England may have the best four-receiver sets every assembled.

Brady looked Brown’s way on his first three pass attempts, completing all three for 36 yards. Brady then looked Brown’s way a fourth time in the end zone, but eventually threw the ball away as Xavien Howard was called for a defensive holding call on Brown after he was beat on a nifty whip route usually reserved for Edelman — see: Super Bowl XLIX.

In all, Brown tallied four catches for 56 yards and a beautiful back-shoulder touchdown on eight targets from Brady.

There were clear instances of miscommunication. Brady hit the back of former Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe in an end zone under throw to Brown in the second half. Brady slammed his hands on his helmet after the misfire.

With the new SI report out, it’s fair to wonder if Brown has played his last game of the season. There will be pressure on the NFL to at least place him on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. But the Patriots are force on offense without him.

Still, New England’s best unit is their league-best defense, which has allowed three points in two games this season, and six points in three games if you include their 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams — the second-best offense in 2018 — in Super Bowl LIII.

Bill Belichick’s varying defensive fronts and blitz schemes, often in a ‘amoeba’ look (several stand-up defenses on the line scrimmage) causes confusion for quarterbacks, who are already dealing with the league’s deepest secondary, equipped with the NFL’s best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore.

Gilmore added a pick-six and a skying, one-handed deflection of a pass that ended up in the arms of Patriots safety Devin McCourty.

But New England’s ace in the hole has been Jamie Collins and his return to the team in which he earned his eventual mega-contract with the Browns.

Collins posted a sack and a half, a pick-six, an additional interception, as well as another wallowing hit on a running back in the backfield.

With the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Chase Winovich on the edge, and Collins and Dont’a Hightower moving all around the defensive front, the Patriots will be able to slow down a myriad of offenses.

The bottom line for New England is this — with or without Brown, they’re the best team in football. With him — and their easy schedule with the exception of a midseason stretch — a 19-0 season is in the cards.

The Patriots weathered the media storm from Spygate in 2007 by crushing the Chargers in Week 2 with the help from a superstar former Raiders receiver in Randy Moss.

They did the same in Week 2 this week with the well-warranted talk of former Raiders receiver Antonio Brown this week. If the allegations are to be true, Brown should be outlawed from the league. It’s also fair to want Commissioner Goodell to keep Brown off the field until the matter(s) are sorted out.

Regardless, the Patriots are rolling on all cylinders, and are the overwhelming favorite to return to Miami in February for Super Bowl LIV.

QUICK-HITS 

– In a league in which older quarterbacks have dominated in recent seasons, a flurry of young quarterbacks seem to be making their push into the NFL’s top tier of signal callers. Of course, such seems to be the case every year, but many passers don’t last as top tier guys for longer than a few seasons — see: Cam Newton.

Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo appear to be leading the latest wave of young quarterbacks poised to lead their franchises to success. But all three passers should be placed in the ‘be-weary’ column that should have been applied to guys like Newton, just because quarterbacks lately seem to have a spurts of great seasons before falling back to earth.

One quarterback whom this need not apply is Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has continued on his torrid pace in 2019, as he’s seemingly on track to repeat as NFL MVP if he keeps up his current pace.

If the decade started with Aaron Rodgers showing us a level of quarterback talent we’ve never seen before, then Mahomes will end the decade by surpassing Rodgers as the most talented quarterback to ever play. Mahomes is already that. After the Raiders surprised many in getting off to a 10-0 lead at home, Mahomes erased that cushion in a matter of minutes, throwing for four second-quarter touchdown passes to take the game.

With Kansas City continuing to struggle some on defense, it will be up to Mahomes to slay the mighty Patriots to lead Kansas City back to the Super Bowl. If any quarterback is to do that without a defense, it will be Mahomes. He’s that talented. And yes, he’s also that good.

First, Mahomes will deal with Jackson and the Ravens coming to town next week in a battle of two very-early NFL MVP leaders leading two early-season heavyweights in the AFC.

– After a flurry of embarrassing seasons in the 2000’s and a run of utter dominance in this decade, the NFC West appears to be highly competitive once again with the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks each posting 2-0 records to begin the season. Granted, Seattle and San Francisco have played subpar opponents at this point in the season. The Rams are the clear favorite in the division, but both the Seahawks and 49ers are staking their claim as teams that will be in the mix down the stretch. And lest we forget about the Arizona Cardinals (0-1-1). Rookie Kyler Murray was out dueled by Lamar Jackson in a a showdown of young gunslingers, but Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals have shown some flashes of offensive efficiency. The NFC West is certainly trending up.

– Drew Brees’ aforementioned thumb injury has required him to stay in Los Angeles today as the rest of the team heads to Seattle. Brees reportedly has met Dr. Steve Shin, according to ESPN’s Stephania Bell. Shin is regarded as one of the best hand specialists in the country. Seemingly after that, Brees was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right thumb. The injury will require surgery and the star passer is expected to miss up to six weeks, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Between Brees and Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending right elbow injury, some of the game’s best quarterbacks are now on the shelf. In New Orleans and Pittsburgh, the likes of Teddy Bridgewater and Mason Rudolph as fill-in-starters may be enough to keep the Saints and Steelers afloat, but both are major losses. It’s also worth wondering if Roethlisberger will retire after this injury.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (2-0) (Last week: 1). They’re already the best team in the NFL without Antonio Brown. But with him, they’re essentially the Steph Curry and Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors. Add in their defense, and then yes, 19-0 is in the cards. It’s not too early to begin the undefeated talk.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) (Last week: 2). Mahomes seems primed for another MVP award. He’s the greatest talent this game has ever seen at the quarterback position.

3. Los Angeles Rams (2-0) (Last week: 4). They’re still the team to beat in the NFC, for now.

4. Dallas Cowboys (2-0) (Last week: 6). Many believe a young QB’s fourth season is the most telling. If that’s the case, Dak Prescott is building a legacy.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-0) (Last week: 8). Lamar Jackson has clearly improved as a passer, but the Ravens have beat up on lesser opponents these first two weeks. Can he keep up with Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City?

6. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1) (Last week: 3). A flurry of major injuries and a ton of bad luck downed the Eagles in Atlanta. They’ll be near the top of the conference come December.

7. Green Bay Packers (2-0) (Last week: 12). Green Bay’s defense may be the most underrated unit thus far. Once Aaron Rodgers fully adapts to the Packers’ new offense, look out, NFC.

8. Seattle Seahawks (2-0) (Last week: 11). Looking ahead at these next couple weeks, the Seahawks may quietly move to 4-0 before hosting the Rams in Seattle.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-1) (Last week: 5). With Brees expected to miss a good chunk of time, the talented Saints will turn to Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback who has been through his fair share of adversity.

10. Chicago Bears (1-1) (Last week: 14). Chicago has the best defense in the NFC, if not, the NFL. Mitch Trubisky may not be the answer as the franchise’s quarterback, but he does often come through in the clutch. Add in a kicker who doesn’t double-doink it, and the Bears are in business.

11. Minnesota Vikings (1-1) (Last week: 7). Like their NFC North counterpart in Chicago, the talented Vikings will only go as far as their inconsistent quarterback takes them. Kirk Cousins has to play better.

12. Atlanta Falcons (1-1) (Last week: NR). The wide-open NFC South is Atlanta’s for the taking.

13. Los Angeles Chargers (1-1) (Last week: 9). They still have a ton of talent, but something’s not quite right here. Doesn’t seem like their season.

14. Indianapolis Colts (1-1) (Last week: 16). Jacoby Brissett, franchise quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has earned his title.

15. Houston Texans (1-1) (Last week: 13). The Texans are entering what most likely will be a season of crazy up-and-down play.

16. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: 10). Every time the Titans look like they’re about to enter a winning streak, they stop themselves dead in their tracks.

Next up: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers

Patriots celebrate Super Bowl LIII

Belichick, Patriots halt Rams with defensive masterpiece

With just over eight minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIII, and the score tied, the crowd of fans overwhelming run by Patriots’ backers began their chant.

“Brady! Brady! Brady!”

Tom Brady delivered a 29-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski up the seam, setting up a two-yard, eventual game-winning touchdown by Sony Michel.

Tom Brady - Super Bowl LIII
Tom Brady celebrates the go-ahead score in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

As always, Brady calmly came through in the fourth quarter of football’s biggest stage, helping the Patriots win yet another Super Bowl. But that’s about all he did. In fact, that was the only touchdown scored by any team, the entire game.

“Yeah, it was tough,” Brady said. “We just couldn’t make the big play. We just couldn’t stay on the field on third down. We just knew we had a whole half to go. Defense set the tone. . . . They held them and we broke through in the fourth quarter.”

This game was mostly won by Bill Belichick, Brian Flores and their hungry defense. It was an ode to Patriots teams of the past. Like the one that stopped the Rams of St. Louis in their tracks in Super Bowl XXXVI. But this was more than that. This was an ass-whooping of the umpteenth degree. This was 66-year-old Belichick schooling 33-year-old Rams head coach Sean McVay, and 24-year-old Jared Goff, the quarterback that was taken with the first pick of the 2016 draft.

The tone of the defense was especially set to pristine edge-setting, effective interior pass-rushing, blanketed coverage and a warrior-like attitude from a unit that was counted out more times than once during their trek toward yet another championship.

Few other plays (and players) exemplified the Patriots’ attitude then Patrick Chung’s tenacity in attempting to make a tackle, on a play where he reportedly broke his arm. After a TV timeout where staff tended to Chung, which led to the cart being rolled out, the 10-year veteran corralled his emotions and pulled himself up, to walk to the sideline, on his own volition.

“When you see a guy like that put it all on the line, put his body on the line, not caring, it makes you want to fight more for your teammates,” Stephon Gilmore said.

Chung watched the rest of the game from the sidelines in an arm cast. But even he realized that his teammates were more than capable of picking up the slack, to finish off the wide-eyed Rams.

“I was on the ground crying,” Chung told The Athletic. “They said, ‘Stop crying, bro we got you.’ I heard it. I felt it. I had no doubt in my mind we would be good.”

New England had already confused the Rams with a heavy dose of zone coverage, which contradicted their season’s story, as they ran more man coverage than any other team in the NFL.

Jonathan Jones, a backup cornerback, and special teams player, played 64 of 65 snaps as a safety opposite Devin McCourty, while Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty played every defensive snap as the team’s top two cornerbacks.

New England employed a quarters coverage for most of the game. That’s essentially a Cover 4, with two cornerbacks and two safeties each taking away one-fourth of the field in deep zone coverage.

“We anticipated that we would see some unscouted stuff,” Rams center John Sullivan told Sports Illustrated. “Playing Cover-4 was unscouted. Or it was different from them, let’s put it that way.”

Ironically, it was ex-Patriots defensive coordinator, and current Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who successfully slowed down the Rams’ offense with this style in a 30-16 loss to Los Angeles in December.

Belichick saw that and utilized this coverage, while also taking away the Rams’ patented outside zone running scheme by often putting linebackers on the edge of the line of scrimmage, giving the feel of six-man fronts to limit the Rams aggressiveness with their usual rushing style.

Of course, the curious case of Todd Gurley (34 total yards), the NFL’s touchdown leader in the regular season with 21, helped in preventing the Rams usually-explosive offense from doing heavy damage, but the Patriots certainly played their part in limiting him when McVay looked his way.

A front seven that was inconsistent for much of the year was masterful on Sunday, holding the Rams to 62 rushing yards and sacking Goff four times, flustering him to the point where never gained a rhythm.

Trey Flowers had a monster tackle for a loss, Adrian Clayborn consistently applied pressure, Kyle Van Noy added a key third-down sack, and Dont’a Hightower added to his Super Bowl lore.

Famous for his game-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX, and his sack-fumble on Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI, Hightower had his best overall performance in any of his three Super Bowl appearances on Sunday.

He was flying around the field with his pre-2017 speed, using his experience in big games to outsmart Goff, and pummel the Rams’ offensive line and running game.

Clearly missed in last year’s 41-33, Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, Hightower’s two sacks, and near-interception, put him a hair above Gilmore as the team’s best defensive player on the night.

“Whenever you work as hard as we do,” Hightower said, “and you’re as dedicated, and you’ve got guys who come in and work hard and who are willing to sacrifice their time away from their family and their loved ones, who are willing to do whatever each and every week in a hard, demanding place, you expect that. You expect to win whenever you practice, whenever you put that much hard work into the game plans every week.”

As the pass rush got to Goff, the secondary limited the Rams receivers. Former Patriot deep-threat Brandin Cooks, traded to Los Angeles a year ago for a first-round pick, hauled in eight catches for 120 yards, but failed to reel in two of the biggest targets of the game.

Goff looked his way late for a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, that was knocked away by Jason McCourty, after a herculean effort to sprint from his zone assignment to break up the play. Then, in the fourth quarter, Goff’s best throw of the night fell right into Cooks’ hands, but Duron Harmon got a hand in there, which was just enough to stop the play.

Stephon Gilmore - Super Bowl LIII
Stephon Gilmore’s interception of Goff in the fourth quarter put Super Bowl LIII on ice
(Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

On the very next play, the Patriots sent Harmon on a delayed-blitz. As he came screaming in untouched, Goff panicked, and threw up a jackpot-style pass to the same spot, where Stephon Gilmore, the NFL’s premier shutdown cornerback, was waiting in his quarters coverage.

“I saw it the whole time,” Gilmore said. “I never took my eyes off it. I looked it in. I can’t believe he threw it.”

It’s true. In replays, Gilmore clearly had his eyes on Goff the entire time. His interception came after a vintage game-winning drive by Brady, his sixth in Super Bowls (he’s won every one that way), virtually sealing the game.

Finally coming alive, Brady went 4-for-4 with 67 yards to put the Patriots up 10-3, finding eventual Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards) on his zillionth dig route of the game, matched up against Rams linebacker Corey Littleton, who gave up the ensuing deep seam route to Gronk, two plays later.

Rob Gronkowski - Super Bowl LIII
Rob Gronkowski reels in a 29-yard catch on the Patriots game-winning drive in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

After the game, Gronkowski punted away retirement questions, stating that he would take a week or two to decide. Instead, perhaps the greatest tight end ever, fresh off his big fourth quarter, embraced the moment.

“Bill (Belichick) told me he’s partying tonight,” said Gronkowski, who was also seen in a hilarious Instagram video with Brady after the game, seemingly taunting any and all of their detractors to the tune of the outro in Eminem’s Without Me.

New England even finally broke free in the running game late, as James Develin plowed over defenders as a lead-blocking fullback, helping clear lanes for Michel (18 carries, 94 yards) and the Patriots backs in general (154 rushing yards) on a night where the Rams not only took away the outside-the-numbers passing routes, but also usual Super Bowl safety net James White (nine total yards).

But as always, the Patriots adapted. And despite a shaky effort early, Brady found his rhythm late. He was given way too many chances.

Brady was already at or past Michael Jordan’s level of overarching greatness in North American professional team sports. And this season was about Brady, Belichick and the Patriots resilience in the face of more moments of adversity than even they have been accustomed to.

But this game in particular was about something else. It was another masterful Belichick blueprint on the game’s biggest stage. It was Flores’ swan song before heading to Miami to coach the Dolphins. And it was the Patriots’ defense, the group that let the team down in Super Bowl LII last February, emphatically making their mark with one of the great performances as an overall unit in the history of the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LIII Preview

Super Bowl LIII Preview: Brady’s second shot at ring No. 6 comes versus ‘all-in’ Rams

By now the storylines have reached a point of exhaustion. The hate for the Patriots’ self-contrived ‘underdog’ status has been well-documented. The Rams’ aggressive team-building approach and wunderkind head coach, well-profiled.

But this should come as a sigh of relief — here is a FOOTBALL preview of Super Bowl LIII. That’s right — matchups, x-factors and what each team needs to do to be victorious. Enjoy.

Patriots offense vs Rams defense

Despite being anchored by the greatest quarterback that ever lived, the Patriots have transitioned to more of an old-school ground-and-pound offense for a significant portion of the team’s last four victories.

Behind perhaps the league’s best offensive line since December, and the best lead-blocking fullback in pro football in James Develin, rookie workhorse back Sony Michel has rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns in New England’s two postseason wins.

Still, the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is famous for adopting a chameleon-type approach to attacking defenses. Depending on the opponent, the Patriots may opt for Brady to line up in shotgun and sling the football 50-60 times, or they may opt to bulk up and run over opponents with ’21’ or 12′ personnel.

The Rams were ranked 31st in rush yards per attempt allowed in the regular season (Chiefs were 32nd), but they’ve hunkered down in the postseason. First, they bottled up Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, then stymied the two-back attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, allowing those three to just 93 yards on 37 carries in their two postseason wins.

But what the Rams did fall susceptible to (early on) in their thrilling overtime win over the Saints, is the halfback running out into the flats.

Targeted 13 times, Kamara reeled in 11 passes for 96 yards, often in the flats with Rams linebacker Corey Littleton trailing in coverage.

This bodes well for James White, who is the Patriots’ X-factor on offense this Sunday. 

Expect White to haul in anywhere from 10 to 15 passes running shallow flat, angle and option routes matched up against Rams linebackers.

With an excellent cornerback duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, Brady will have trouble throwing outside the numbers to the likes of Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.

But with just Hogan, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field most of the time for New England, expect Talib to get his share of duties against Gronk in man coverage, even lined up as a traditional tight end.

Brady will shy away from Talib and Peters mostly, looking for White, Rex Burkhead and you guessed it….Julian Edelman lined up against Rams slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Robey-Coleman walked back his ‘taken-out-of-context’ comments referring to Brady’s old age, which is good, because TB12 has had his fair share of success targeting him from his days as a member of the Buffalo Bills. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a 130.6 passer rating when targeting Robey-Coleman, which is good for his third highest against any defender in the he has targeted at least 20 times.

So it’s understandable that Brady and Edelman, perhaps the best QB-to-slot receiver tandems of all-time, would have their way with the Rams’ CB3.

But in a season-defining game such as this, look for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to have various plans in slowing down the Patriots’ passing game. With age catching up to Gronkowski, it’s possible Phillips places Talib on Edelman, but Talib will turn 33 years old 10 days after Sunday’s game, meaning he’s not quite the player he once was. Still a solid man-coverage cornerback, Talib would be up for the challenge, with the press coverage skills to slow down Edelman at times, but Edelman is not your average 32-year-old receiver. His affinity for clutch play and relentless grit, combined with his quickness and rapport with Brady, actually make him one of the league’s hardest receivers to cover, certainly at this time of the year.

In that case, the Rams might opt for more zone coverage, but knowing Brady decimates teams that play soft zone coverage as their primary defense (see: Brady vs. Steelers), Phillips will have to disguise his looks to full Brady, ultimately mixing in well-designed blitzes at the proper times to fool the GOAT.

But that can prove risky, with quick outlets such as White and Burkhead (who also can be utilized in running draws) available as quick-passing targets for Brady.

Which means the Rams’ blueprint success doesn’t necessarily rely on perfect coverage, but instead being the old adage of pressuring the quarterback, which works on any passer, not just Brady.

Yet, it’s a very specific type of pressure that will slow down this Patriots offense, and the Rams have the perfect players to do so.

Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. are capable on the edge, but Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon should be able to slow them down. And even if they don’t at times, Brady’s all-time pocket presence is perhaps his best tangible attribute, meaning stepping up and around edge pressure is something he can and will do.

Instead, it’s the interior where the Rams will need to excel.

Luckily for Los Angeles, they sport the greatest interior rushing threat — and eventually, maybe greatest defensive tackle ever— in Aaron Donald.

With a league-high 20.5 sacks and 41 knockdowns, Donald is primed for to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award on Saturday.

The behemoth has the ability to wreck any team’s game plan, but the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line has been stout. From left guard to right, Joe Thuney, David Andrews (center) and Shaq Mason have brutalized defenses in the run game, and along with tackles Brown and Cannon, they have kept Brady upright the entire postseason thus far. Zero sacks allowed by this group. The only other time a Super Bowl-winning quarterback went unscathed for no sacks in a postseason run was Brady in the 2003 Patriots’ path to glory.

With the ability to double-team Donald, the Patriots will limit him SOME, but expect Donald to have at least three or more clean pressures on Brady from the interior, due to his sheer dominance.

But if New England can limit Donald with a double team, the Rams’ success, and possibly chances of winning, may lie with their X-factor on defense, Ndamukong Suh.

Once a dominant interior player on his own with the Lions, Suh is not quite the same player, but is still formidable enough to take over a game if need be. Although not indicative of the effectiveness of an interior rusher, Suh has just 4.5 sacks this season, meaning he could do better as a rusher, which is part of the reason the Rams snagged Fowler from the Jaguars midseason, to generate more pressure.

But matched up solo against Thuney or Mason, Suh may be a game-wrecker for the Patriots in both the pass and the run game, if he steps up for the challenge.

But this is a tough matchup for the Rams. The Patriots will likely employ a mix of everything, which includes things like Burkhead running routes from the slot, and Cordarrelle Patterson acting as an ‘athlete’ by lining up in the backfield, and taking his fair share of end-arounds.

But ultimately, the Patriots want to control the tempo, and the clock, by pounding Michel behind their stout offensive line, lead-blocking extraordinaire Develin and monster-blocking by Gronk and Dwayne Allen. If they can break the Rams that way, then the play-action will come, and the Rams will likely falter, no matter what they do on offense. But if Donald and Suh can generate consistent interior pressure, against both the run and the pass, a la the 2007 and 2011 Giants, then the Rams may have their recipe for success.

Rams defense vs Patriots offense

The Rams have fond success under wunderkind, offensive-minded Sean McVay, a 33-year-old head coach that has used futuristic concepts to riddle opposing defenses.

Running McVay’s offense is 24-year-old Jared Goff, a third-year quarterback (and former No. 1 overall pick) who has vastly improved since his NFL debut.

The Rams heavily employ ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and often use these pieces in a bunch formation, with three receivers playing tightly within each other, and close to their offensive line. There, McVay relies upon Todd Gurley, one of the league’s best backs, on outside zones, while also utilizing Gurley as a receiver, and as a decoy, in play-action passes where the team’s bunch formations makes it hard to decipher routes, and where their receivers are going.

But because many of the Rams’ passing plays are long-developing, with routes such as deep-comebacks to Brandin Cooks, Goff holds onto the ball longer, giving a much-improved Patriots pass rush, led by Trey Flowers, a chance pressure Goff, as they did Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots front seven in general had a rough go for much of the regular season, but they’ve allowed just 60 yards on 22 carries in their postseason wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. And while December-acquisition, and postseason hero C.J. Anderson had a successful outing versus the Cowboys, he was held to 2.8 yards per carry versus the Saints, meaning Gurley HAS to get it going in some form, for the Rams to have a chance.

The 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year garnered a putrid 13 yards on five touches, which included a drop-turned interception early on, which helped put the Rams in a 13-0 hole. That can’t happen versus the Patriots.

Gurley looked discouraged and flustered, but he’s been given another opportunity, and should have a better go-round than his NFC championship game performance.

But Bill Belichick specializes in taking away his opponents’ best offensive weapon. And although Gurley may seem like that guy on paper, the real weapon in this offense is McVay, through Goff. It’s the perfectly-ingrained system. With possession receiver, turned-bonafide-stud WR1 Robert Woods, speedy, deep threat Brandin Cooks and the young, sure-handed Josh Reynolds, the Rams have a nice trio of receivers, even with the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp earlier in the season.

Mentioned earlier, the Rams’ Aqib Talib was perhaps the league’s best man coverage cornerback a few seasons ago (think: 2015). That title now belongs to Patriots CB1 Stephon Gilmore. Not only is Gilmore the best man coverage corner, he’s the best cornerback in the league overall right now, period.

Although the Patriots may mix in some zone concepts, they just love to play man coverage, meaning that’s primarily what they’ll start with.

Cooks is a dangerous threat, but his route tree is limited to deep comebacks, drags, slants and flies. He isn’t a uber-precise route-runner, or a receiver who hangs onto balls consistently in traffic.

Woods isn’t as much of a home-run threat as Cooks is, but he’s the better overall receiver, meaning he’ll likely draw Gilmore for most of the game.

The Patriots will likely use a combination of Jason McCourty or undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson on Cooks, with safety Duron Harmon moving over from his usual ‘center fielder’ type role to shad overtop Cooks. The guess is the veteran McCourty draws Cooks (with help), while Jackson gets a shot at Reynolds. Because of his likely opportunity in one-on-one coverage, Reynolds is one of two X-factor(s) on the Rams’ offense. 

If Reynolds can beat his man consistently, Goff will be able to find his second and third read, while the Patriots key on more-known targets like Woods, Cooks and Gurley.

But with a much-improved pass rush, the Patriots have been able to get pressure with fronts containing Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, and interior sub-rusher Adam Butler. New England has also sent Kyle Van Noy from the edge with much success in recent weeks, specifically in the first half against Kansas City.

If the Patriots are able to play press man coverage tightly to delay (and knock off) the routes of Rams receivers, New England may make things difficult for Goff. That’s where McVay will have to lean on the ’12’ personel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2WR) groupings he used in the team’s comeback win over the Saints (16 snaps.)

In that case, the Rams would replace Reynolds with another tight end to pair with Tyler Higbee. That would be the team’s second X-factor on offense, Gerald Everett. 

Everett is a move tight end capable of giving the Patriots fits. He’s nimble and athletic, and can block just well enough to not be a liability in the run game. If the Rams can find some success running Gurley or Anderson here, that will set up Everett matched up agains the likes of Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and possibly Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung. The latter of those four would likely be the best matchup for the Patriots, meaning Chung is the Patriots’ X-factor on defense, providing Belichick with a good piece in man coverage against tight ends from the slot. 

In the run game, Chung can be used in the box and up front as a pseudo-linebacker capable of stopping Gurley and Anderson, while also not surrendering speed and coverage ability to the team’s personnel. This may also include the occasional man coverage assignment on Gurley lined up as a receiver, when motioning out of the backfield.

The Rams have the pieces to make things awfully difficult on the Patriots here, but New England’s experience and recent mojo suggest they’ll have their moments, too.

Prediction

On paper, the Rams are not only vastly more talented, but they seemingly have the pieces and the aggressive approach to take down the Patriots, much like the Eagles did last year.

But New England has their swagger back this postseason. Missing in Super Bowl LII were the likes of Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower, both of whom provide championship pedigree to a team that feeds off mental toughness and momentum. This Patriots team feeds off doubters, more so than any of the teams they’ve harnessed in the past decade.

The stage won’t be ‘too big’ for the Rams, but I believe they’ll get caught napping early, as the Patriots get out to a lead behind a fiery Tom Brady, who will look for James White early and often (I mean it…10-15 catches from him, and two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving).

The Rams will figure things out both offensively and defensively in the second half, and like all past Brady-Belichick Super Bowls, this will be close, but nowhere near like the  nail-biters in their past few bouts.

New England will switch up their offensive approach from drive to drive, as they won’t be able to run 45 times against this improved Rams defense, but they’ll have enough success running to set up a few downfield throws by Brady on play-action.

And when the Patriots aren’t running behind Develin and the offensive line, they’ll spread things out and Brady will look to the short and intermediate areas in between the numbers.

The Rams will have some success with Gurley before he’s taken out of the game, leaving Goff alone, looking for his secondary weapons.

Give me Brady, Belichick and these hungry Patriots to complete the full circle of their dynasty that spans over 18 years. They’ll beat the Rams again, for what might be their last Super Bowl together.

Patriots 31, Rams 26

Super Bowl MVP: James White

Greg Zuerlein kick

No matter what happens next, Rams’ aggressive offseason paid off

Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard, walk-off boot sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl, but the path to franchise’s first league championship bout since 2001 started roughly 10 months ago.

Last March, the team most noted for its offensive transcendence and aggressiveness on the field in 2017, geared up for their 2018 campaign by vigorously searching for (and adding) talent.

They acquired disgruntled Chiefs No. 1 cornerback Marcus Peters via a trade. They traded a first-round pick (no. 23 overall) to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks. They plucked Aqib Talib in a trade with the Broncos. They placed Ndamukong Suh from free agency on a one-year, ‘rental’ deal for this moment.

At one point, before the Cooks trade, there was rumored interest between the Rams and Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

After watching the Eagles roll to a championship via going after players in trades and free agency, rather than waiting and developing their own prospects, the Rams assertively one-upped last year’s Super Bowl champions by digging for talent via every avenue possible.

The Rams embraced the ultimate, ‘win-now’ mode, but also made progress in solidifying their nucleus for seasons to come.

The team opted to extend Todd Gurley’s contract on a four-year, $60 million deal. Upon trading for Cooks, who had one year left on his rookie contract, the team gave him a five-year, $81 million extension.

Then, after a stare down that saw Aaron Donald, the NFL’s best defensive player, skip their training camp and preseason, Los Angeles obliged Donald with a 6-year, $135 million extension.

Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald should win a second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, come Feb. 2. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

As an interior force, Donald is perhaps the most disruptive to offenses than any other player in history at his position. Pairing him with Suh has helped produce a formidable duo, but the team still struggled to defend the run in the regular season, rating as the worst team in football against yards per attempt (5.1).

But like the 2006 Colts (who won Super Bowl XLI), they’ve buckled down in the postseason, corralling the NFL’s leading rusher, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (20 carries, 47 yards), then stymieing the NFL’s best running back duo, Saints’ Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (21 carries, 48 yards).

Although the Rams are thin at the linebacker spot, their talented secondary has one of the league’s best duos of playmaking cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who are both newcomers.

But even with a vast collection of talent on defense, and a wizard defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, the Rams haven’t been as effective as they hoped on defense. But by cracking down on their usual mistakes in the postseason, they’ve done just enough to balance out an offense that has been virtually transcendent under mastermind, 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, and third-year quarterback Jared Goff.

After a minor injury to Gurley and a season-ending injury to trust receiver Cooper Kupp, the Rams offense hit a wall in December, as most (including me) fitted them for an early postseason exit to regroup for next year.

But McVay’s futuristic offensive scheming adapted to more of an almost-old school vibe of pounding C.J. Anderson, a Super Bowl 50 hero, and journeyman running back, acquired in December. Anderson ran wild versus a tough Cowboys defense in an NFC divisional round matchup. And on Sunday, when Gurley had perhaps the worst game of his career, and Anderson was corralled to just 2.8 yards per carry, Goff led the Rams on a 13-point comeback on the road in the NFC championship game.

Goff has improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons, and in just two years, McVay has become a top-five coach, taking home Coach of the Year honors last year, and leading his team to an NFC title in his second season.

While utilizing a heavy attack of tight-bunch formations and inside zone running plays out of the shotgun formation, the Rams have built up a high-scoring offense. On defense, the Rams have finally started to figure things out as a team, rather than a collection of talent.

So when Zuerlein’s kick sailed through the uprights in New Orleans, the Rams were going to the Super Bowl. But they knew this all along. They went all-in on this season, while still hedging for the future, and it worked out.

Tom Brady iconic shot

Brady, Patriots reach Super Bowl LIII in unlikely (yet, not surprising) story of redemption

At one point this season the Patriots were 9-5, fresh off a last-second, miracle loss in Miami, and an ugly, demoralizing 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks. The season appeared lost, as the pulse around the nation seemed to suggest that this Patriots season was different.

Five weeks (and four wins) later, New England is heading to it’s third Super Bowl in a row, and fourth in five years.

Maybe it was the bullish ‘are the Patriots done?’ takes by most of sports media. The end-is-near predictions became increasingly more abundant this season. After all, 41-year-old Tom Brady was good, but not his usual self for most of the regular season, that was apparent. But come January, the Patriots have turned on the jets, 2007/2011 New York Giants-style, feeding on more ‘talented’ squads like the Chargers and Chiefs, bursting out to a combined 42-7 lead in the first halves of each game. But unlike their blowout win over Phillip Rivers and company, New England’s bout with soon-to-be MVP Patrick Mahomes turned into the greatest conference championship game in NFL history.

There were six lead changes (including ties) in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. To outlast Mahomes and his three second half touchdowns, Brady led three consecutive touchdown treks of his own to close out the game.

His stats during those drives: 11-of-16, 147 yards, 5-for-5 in third down conversion attempts.

In Brady’s remarkable career, one could argue that was his third most clutch moment, behind his last two Super Bowl victories.

For a quarterback who admittedly looked more skittish than usual in the pocket at times this season, Brady was fearless in the face of the league-leading team in sacks. TB12 converted on three consecutive 3rd-and-10’s on the final drive in overtime, finding’s Julian Edelman twice and Rob Gronkowski once.

Brady to Gronk vs Chiefs
Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski on a clutch 3rd-and-10 conversion in overtime (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Both Edelman and Gronk fended off possible season-ending drops-turned-interceptions in the fourth quarter, to return with a collection of clutch catches that rival, well, maybe no other duo of pass catchers ever. Everytime Brady dropped back on a big-time down late in the game, one of his trusted confidants pulled in a catch in blanked coverage. At one point, Gronk’s career looked as if it would end in an Alshon Jeffrey-like whiff to end the Patriots season. Instead, a Dee Ford offside penalty on the Chiefs gave New England new life. Gronk hauled in a sideline catch right over Eric Berry on the very next play. Redemption beamed from these two.

But Brady’s season-long redemption began as soon as his Super Bowl LII hail mary attempt hit the turf, last February in Minnesota. The Patriots lost Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder and Danny Amendola on an offense that seemingly needed them throughout the season.

But as they always do, the Patriots adapted. The plug-in-and-play method lives on. Trent Brown filled in for Solder. Rookie rusher Sony Michel has one-upped Lewis as a lead back. And despite not fully making up for the production of Cooks and Amendola, Brady has gotten enough out of do-everything athlete Cordarrelle Patterson and reserve-turned-WR3 Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in a massive jump ball score at the end of the first half.

On defense, the team has heavily relied on one player at each level, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Stephon Gilmore, to elevate themselves as star players at different times. Flowers was solid on Sunday. Van Noy was a star on Sunday. Gilmore has been a star all season, as he’s become the premier lockdown, No. 1 cornerback in football.

But one of the major stories of the offense has been the underrated offensive line and James Develin. Behind those two forces (and Gronk and Dwayne Allen) the Patriots have been solid virtually all season in pass protection and in opening up rushing lanes. During this postseason run, Michel has garnered 242 rushing yards and five touchdowns, with the Patriots gaining 331 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns total over their two-game stretch. That’s an insane amount. Piggybacking off run-heavy formations in December wins over the Bills and Jets to close out the regular season, New England carried that game plan into January, but as we saw, they were’t going to hold onto a victory against the feisty Mahomes. Brady was needed to ‘take’ the win. And that he did.

Echoed in his quick postgame chat with CBS, and in raw footage of him in the locker room, Brady’s feelings about this game (and this season) were clear.

“Un-fucking-believable bro!” Brady told, well, everyone.

New England is back in the Super Bowl to face the Rams of Los Angeles. 17 years ago, a 24-year-old Brady bested the Rams for his first Super Bowl win. Now, he gets one more shot at his sixth. The Michael Jordan of football looks to become perhaps the greatest athlete in the history of North American professional sports.

This was no ‘underdog’ story. But admit it, this was their most surprising run to pro football’s biggest game since 2001.

Adversity was met head on. People will be angry, America is sick of the Patriots. But Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots aren’t yet sick of playing in Super Bowls.

 

Marshon Lattimore INT

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Fitting Final Four is set

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

The stage is set.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four great teams. Four deserving teams.

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

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

Next Sunday’s mini-preview

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

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

Early prediction: Saints 31, Rams 21

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

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

Early prediction: Chiefs 34, Patriots 30