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 Don’t 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

Drew Brees vs Bengals

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

There would be no letdown in Cincinnati for the Saints. After all, the universe did its best to bring down the NFL’s best team via a freakish, season-ending Achilles injury to the newly-acquired Dez Bryant in his first practice as a Saint. But New Orleans prevailed by the way of a 51-14 drubbing of the Bengals (5-4) in Cincinnati, highlighted by the NFL’s best trio, on the league’s unquestionably-best team through 10 weeks.

Drew Brees: 22-for-25, 265 passing yards, four total touchdowns

Alvin Kamara: 102 total yards, two touchdowns

Michael Thomas: eight catches, 70 yards, two touchdowns

With all due respect to the triplets in Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger, James Connor, Antonio Brown), Los Angeles (Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks), Los Angeles (Phillip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen) and New England (Tom Brady, James White and Julian Edelman/Josh Gordon/Rob Gronkowski) the Saints harness the best the league has to offer here.

One could even add in additional weapons such as Mark Ingram, and the situational-piece, Taysom Hill, to form the most complete and efficient unit in football. The Saints are lethal offensively. Road wins over the Vikings, Ravens and Bengals don’t come easy, yet New Orleans made it seem as such.

With a slew of tough games ahead, the Saints will look to keep their moniker as the best team there is. If they do, it’ll be because of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. When you provide offensive mastermind Sean Payton with that crew, this is what you should expect.

Titans rock Patriots in ‘personal’ beatdown

In Tennessee, instead of jogging through a win before the bye week, the Patriots (7-3) fell victim to a team that knows them all too well.

Hell yeah it’s personal,” said former Patriot Dion Lewis in the Titans’ locker room, after the win. “That’s what happens when you go cheap. You get your ass kicked.”

Although Lewis was the only ex-Patriot to take a sour approach toward his former employer, former New England cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and even defensive lineman Darius Kilgore made their presence known in Tennesse’s 34-10 thrashing of New England.

The Titans (5-4) hold a certain swagger, believing they can beat anybody. And with wins over last season’s Super Bowl participants, they very well can. The edginess begins and ends with rookie head coach Mike Vrabel, an ex-Patriot himself, groomed and developed under Bill Belichick’s early-dynasty clubs in the 2000’s. Today, Vrabel bested his former coach, and added a little salt to the wound when he ran the ‘Philly Special’ to a greater success just plays after the Patriots’ fell short of a first down on their attempt.

“I wanted to see if it looked better than theirs,” Vrabel said during a postgame press conference.

The Titans are back to within striking distance in the AFC South. With road games versus the Colts (4-5) and the division-leading Texans (6-3) ahead, Vrabel’s bunch has a shot at a playoff push.

New England will limp into their bye week desperately needing consistency out of a defense that doesn’t feature much of it, after Trey Flowers and Stephon Gilmore. The latter even had his first rough outing in weeks on Sunday.

“I could have won that matchup a little bit more, but he made some plays today,” Gilmore told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, in regard to his matchup with the Titans’ Corey Davis. “My hat’s off to them.”

On offense, New England will welcome back Rob Gronkowski versus the Jets in 13 days. Maybe that will take some of the coverage off of Josh Gordon, who Brady forced 13 throws to in Tennessee, coming up with only four completions.

The faith Brady has developed in Gordon bodes well for the rest of the season, but there were several instances in which Brady missed James White and others by forcing the ball to his WR1.

James White should still be the focal point of the offense, with Gordon, Gronk and Julian Edelman (nine catches, 104 yards) each taking turns as the team’s focal point. The offense should be fine. Their O-line played a chunk of the game down three starters in Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason, as the latter sat out the entire game.

With the Chiefs now two games ahead of them, and the Steelers now passing them for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, New England’s new goal is a hyper-focused, week-to-week approach that will feature situational game plans designed to cripple each opponent. Only their Week 13 home match with Minnesota, and their Week 15 road contest in Pittsburgh seem like possible losses.

New England may very well run the table and steamroll their way into the postseason, but the defense may always rear it’s ugly head. It did last year, in Super Bowl LII. When will it do so again this season? And can the offense score enough for them to emerge victorious?

Chiefs-Rams a monster matchup in Mexico City

After a too-close-for-comfort win at home for each squad, the Chiefs (9-1) and Rams (9-1) can now look ahead to the biggest cross-conference matchup of the 2018 regular season, which oddly enough, will be played in Mexico City.

Even more of a factor than the altitude may be the apparent season-ending injury to Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp, who seemingly suffered an ACL injury in the win over the Seahawks.

But aside from that, there are weapons galore in this title. Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce take on Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.

Mahomes (along with Drew Brees) is an MVP frontrunner while Gurley is in the mix for that award, and likely the leader to repeat as the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Aaron Donald remains the best non-QB in the entire league, and is well on his way to his second-consecutive Defensive Player of the year award at age 27.

Both teams will battle the air to put up their usual offensive showing. The Chiefs have a bit more firepower on offense, but the Rams’ unit is more calculated and controlled.

This game may come down to the defensive side of the ball, where the Rams look much better on paper, but aren’t playing nearly at the level where many thought they would be. Their edge defenders and linebackers are lacking, meaning Kareem Hunt will have a shot to lead his team to victory.

30-plus points and winning the turnover battle should win this one.

The stars have aligned on either squad to give us a possible Super Bowl LIII preview, deep into the regular season.

A fitting football sendoff for those heading home to be with family for Thanksgiving, in the day or two after this matchup.

My early pick? Chiefs 31, Rams 27.

Enjoy.

Quick-hits

– Let’s begin with late coverage from the Steelers’ (6-2-1) 52-21 primetime spanking of the Panthers (6-3) in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Coupled with the win and the Patriots’ loss, Pittsburgh has now risen from the dead to takeover the AFC’s No. 2 seed entering mid-November. Although they officially will be without Le’Veon Bell in 2018 (and probably forever), James Conner has been well worth a 2017 third-round pick, as has JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was picked a round earlier in that very same draft. Antonio Brown has now moved passed his early-season grievances to return to his throne as the game’s best receiver, while Ben Roethlisberger (22-for-25, 328 yards, five touchdowns) looks far from retiring in Pittsburgh’s uber-impressive five-game winning streak. With games remaining against the Chargers, Patriots and Saints, the Steelers will need all the offensive firepower they can get, which is something they have as much of as any other team in pro football.

-With the Cowboys’ 27-20 win over the Eagles (4-5) in Philadelphia, the happiest team in the NFC East is Washington (6-3), who handled the Buccaneers, 16-3, to take a two-game lead in the division. Both Dallas and Philadelphia hold more talent than Washington, but after a bad home loss to the Falcons last week, the Redskins surprised many by regrouping to win in Tampa Bay. Now, the defending Super Bowl champions will travel to New Orleans, to face the hottest team in all the land.

– After the Bears’ third straight win to stay ahead in the NFC North, the division now features its biggest game of the year next Sunday Night:

Minnesota (5-3-1) at Chicago (6-3).

The Vikings had a bye this week to sort things out. Both teams make up the top five or six of the league’s most talented bunches. Minnesota should be looked at as a mini-favorite, even in Chicago, but the play of Mitchell Trubisky as of late should be enough to quiet critics momentarily, as he head’s into the biggest game of his career.

With star power throughout (Khalil Mack, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Allen Robinson) who will take a November stand in possibly the league’s toughest division?

Tom Brady vs Packers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, Saints hand Rams first loss

On Sunday night a game that many fans, sports media members, and network executives circled on their calendar roughly six months ago took place.

We’re talking about the Packers-Patriots showdown, of course. Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady. The most talented quarterback of all time versus the greatest quarterback of all time.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks these aren’t the two greatest passers in the game. But ironically, the most ridiculous hot takes involving the two usually surround comparisons among the two best players in football. And that’s not just on Twitter, were talking network-created debate shows that make some of the most outrageous claims.

But as the great Bill Simmons put in a 2007 column that led up to a great Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown — the greatest QB rivalry of all-time — “If you don’t like the accompanying BS for an admittedly overdiscussed game, simply skip the shows, columns, features and SportsCenter segments and join’ NBC’s broadcast on Sunday night.

Well that date has passed. It’s now Monday, and the Patriots won that contest, 31-17, all while using their WR5 (Cordarrelle Patterson, 73 total yards and a rushing TD) as an RB2, and while doing so without Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel, who are two of the team’s top five weapons on offense, and that’s being modest.

Yes, Brady has the better coach and the better overall team. With the exception of maybe Mike Daniels and a young (but talented) CB core, the Packers defense is not quite as good as the Patriots’ unit, and New England’s defense is iffy. So it goes without saying, Brady didn’t necessarily beat Rodgers in a boxing match, it’s the team sport of football.

But Brady is the better quarterback. He has the better resume, legacy, and has been better since the 2014 regular season, when Rodgers beat Brady and the Patriots at home, 26-21, leading to Rodgers second NFL MVP award. So it was obvious Brady wanted this one, to even the score at 1-1 in what will most likely be the lasting moments of their often-discussed but never-matched-up-against rivalry. Green Bay is not returning to the Super Bowl this season, and with the talent in the NFC, they may not get back. Unless the two are still playing 2022, this was the last regular season meeting between the two.

Working with what he had, Brady spread the ball around to his trusted weapons, offensive engine James White and the ever-valuable Julian Edelman, as the two combined for 191 yards form scrimmage, 37 passing yards (!) and two scores.

But the X-factor is and will remain WR1 Josh Gordon, who continues to make spectacular plays as the type of guy Brady feels comfortable just lofting the ball up to, like he used to with the great Randy Moss. But there was no jump ball in the game’s best play, that put the game away. Brady lured two good rookie Packers cornerbacks to the flats as he faked a WR screen to Chris Hogan, then threw a dart to Gordon, who broke free for a 55-yard score. Game, set, match.

Rodgers was good, throwing for 259 yards, two scores and zero picks on 24-for-43 passing. He’s always good, at the very least. He’s usually great, but with only WR1 Davante Adams as a bonafide top target, Rodgers is working with two players who have seen better days, Randall Cobb and Jimmy Graham, as his next best weapons. After that it’s a barrel of rookie pass catchers.

Rodgers did what he could, and was humble in defeat. And if he springs together a run of late-career Super Bowls, he may very well finish as the greatest ever. For now, that conversation is not close, it’s Brady. And as for the best over the last few seasons, and right now? That conversation yields a much closer argument. But it’s Brady who is the better in that category, too. He proved that Sunday night, and has been in a recent, late-career run that Rodgers needs to mirror to pass him.

Saints rip Rams, lay claim as NFL’s best team

A Brady-Rodgers duel is awesome, but the best matchup of the week resided in New Orleans, as the Rams and Saints squared off in a battle that may decide the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The Saints were on their way to destroying the Rams, holding a 35-14 lead right before the half. It wasn’t close. It was a spanking.

But the Rams clawed their way back to tie the game at 35-35 midway through the fourth quarter. In the biggest game of his young career, Jared Goff showed incredible poise and composure in leading the Rams back into the game. But the Saints responded.

The answer to my tweet above was obviously a resounding no, as Alvin Kamara ripped through Los Angeles for 116 total yards and three touchdowns in New Orleans’ eventual 45-35 victory. To make matters worse, Rams CB1 Marcus Peters was lost trying to defend Saints WR1 Michael Thomas, who is on an extraordinary receiving pace that rivals Todd Gurley’s season for the Rams. Kamara had three scores and Thomas put the game away with a clutch touchdown, and celebrated with a legendary ode to Joe Horn’s old-school cell phone celebration.

Despite the abundance of talent in the NFC (Panthers, Vikings, Eagles, Bears, Packers etc..) these two should meet again in the NFC Championship Game. If the Saints take care of business, they should have that game at home, because of this win. Give me the Saints in a rematch — that would be even closer than this matchup — due to their league-best trio of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. The Rams and Chiefs may have more complete offenses, but those three in New Orleans are not to be messed with.

Thomas was too much for Peters. Kamara was too much for the Rams’ underwhelming LB crew. And despite Goff’s ability to guide the Rams back in it, Brees was better. The Rams are all in, but the Saints are slightly better at the moment. They proved that and more on Sunday. They’re the best team in pro football. And now, they hold all the cards in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Three sleeper teams to monitor

With most eyes on the Saints, Rams, Patriots and Chiefs, there are three teams flying under the radar at this point in the season.

Give it up for the Panthers (6-2, three-game winning streak), Chargers (6-2, five-game winning streak) and Texans (6-3, six-game winning streak). All three clubs are coasting thanks to MVP-level play from their QBs – Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers and Deshaun Watson. The latter has overcome a slow start, in which he clearly was still affected by last season’s ACL tear, to return to his old self. Mahomes may have jumped ahead for now but Watson, who was snagged two picks after Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft, has a chance to become the best QB of that draft class, really. As for the Bears (5-3), it’s their health, and the inconsistency of the highest-drafted QB of that class, Mitchell Trubisky, that brings them down. They aren’t up to par with Houston, or the Panthers or Chargers.

Both Newton and Rivers are a few seasons removed from their previous best seasons. Newton hogged the limelight during a great 2015 run, and isn’t quite doing that statistically this season, but he’s working with a re-defined offense that plays at a different pace, and he’s playing as efficient as he’s ever been. This is actually Rivers’ best season by any mark, so far. With Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams, Los Angeles’ offense is tough to stop.

All three of these teams are tough to stop. Down the stretch, give me the Chargers as the most sure-fire to make the postseason, then the Panthers, then the Texans, who may need to hold off the Jaguars (3-5) who are bound to make a run at some point, they have too much talent. But all three should make it in, and all three will deserve too. Keep an eye on these three squads.

Quick-hits

– Although it’s not yet time to stick a fork in the Ravens (4-5), licking your chops at the idea wouldn’t be considered reckless. Five weeks ago, Baltimore impressively dismantled the Steelers (5-2-1) in Pittsburgh on a national stage. On Sunday, they played uninspired at home in a 23-16 loss to their division rival during a game sandwiched with others in the early afternoon slate. The loss is the third straight for the Ravens, who have been knocked farther down the AFC North ladder, looking up at the Steelers and Bengals (5-3).

Pittsburgh has seemingly eviscerated their sluggish play to begin the year, as their fourth straight win puts them behind only the Chiefs (8-1) and Patriots (7-2) in the AFC playoff picture.

– In the Falcons (4-4) 38-14 bludgeoning of the Redskins (5-3) in Washington, two points were made. First, Washington clearly shouldn’t be mentioned among the NFC’s true contenders. And second, with three straight wins, the Falcons have risen from the dead to insert themselves in the NFC’s wild card race. With season-ending injuries to Keanu Neal and Deion Jones (among other casulaties), no team has been devastated with more injuries this season than Atlanta. But Steve Sarkisian’s offense has come alive for the Falcons, who seemed to have fixed their red-zone woes and are scoring at will. Halfway through what looked like was becoming a disaster campaign, Atlanta deserves some attention.

NFL MVP Race

1) Patrick Mahomes – As he continues on his record pace, it’s clear the QB for the league’s most explosive offense in at least a decade is the frontrunner for the NFL MVP.

2) Drew Brees – Brees leads the NFL’s best team at the moment, with seven straight wins. In the Saints only loss (Week 1 vs. the Bucs), Brees and company put up 40 points in a 47-40 loss. He’s having perhaps his best season at age 39.

3) Todd Gurley – Gurley leads the league in rushing yards (868 yards), total yards from scrimmage (1,230 yards), and total touchdowns (16). He’s your Offensive Player of the Year at this point.

4) Phillip Rivers – Like Brees, Rivers is having his best season in the twilight of his career, as well. Utilizing his humongous receiving core — and Melvin Gordon — the Chargers are a scary 6-2 bunch, with their only losses coming to the Chiefs and Rams. You can thank Rivers for the Chargers’ success this season, and any success they’ve had since about 2009.

5) Tom Brady – Overcoming yet another bumpy start, Brady continues to win when key pieces are missing, when players are added midseason to fill major roles, or when the Patriots’ offensive strategy changes from week to week.

Next Up: Alvin Kamara, James Connor, Kareem Hunt, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan