Josh Allen vs Patriots -- 2021

Week 16 takeaways: Josh Allen, Joe Burrow lead Bills, Bengals to huge division wins

Week 16’s results shifted divisions, included major upsets and ultimately moved us one week closer to the end of the regular season.

There will be two more weeks of non-playoff pro football to kick off January, with the first ever Week 18 taking place on Sunday, January 9th.

There are several factors at play in the race for playoff seeding, which includes a ravaging of rosters via positive COVID-19 cases deeply affecting some contests (WAS-DAL, MIA-NO, etc.).

This has also been one of the tightest races to the postseason in history, particularly in the AFC, where just one team, the Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West champions) has clinched a playoff spot.

With this being the first season with a 17-game schedule, just one season after the league introduced an extra playoff team for each conference, there are a lot of similarities to this season and 2002, which was a year in which the league added the Houston Texans as a team, and realigned the league to feature eight divisions, instead of six.

The mad dash in the AFC feels similar this season. The league will probably better adjust to this new format next season, meaning we can expect slightly less chaos. But for now, let’s enjoy the ride.

There are a lot of takeaways from this week’s action, let’s tackle them in our weekly power ranking section — The Better Half.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 1). 

Green Bay survived the Cleveland Browns. They feel and look like a Super Bowl-winning squad, and Aaron Rodgers is close to winning his fourth NFL MVP award, and second in a row.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 2). 

The Chiefs have been on fire these past two months, particularly on defense. Their matchup in Cincinnati this week will be a sign of how they stack up versus one of the better (but not great) AFC squads on the road.

3. Los Angeles Rams (11-4) (Last week: 3).

Matthew Stafford had an ugly outing in Minnesota, but regardless, the Rams are still winning. Cooper Kupp (132 catches, 1,734 receiving yards, 13 TDs through 15 games) is having arguably the greatest season for a wide receiver in NFL history. He’s been amazing to watch.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4) (Last week: 4). 

Tampa will need to have Chris Godwin and Mike Evans back for the playoffs to have a solid shot of returning to the Super Bowl, but for now, the return of Antonio Brown will do for Tom Brady, who has helped elevate a Bucs team that hasn’t been at full go for virtually the entire season. That was a solid win in Carolina, even with the Panthers looking like one of the league’s worst teams.

5. Dallas Cowboys (11-4) (Last week: 5). 

Here comes Dallas. They’re starting to resemble the Super Bowl contending-team that they were earlier in the season. They have a Super Bowl “feel” to them, much like Green Bay, if that makes sense. If they can win out and hang onto the NFC’s No. 2 seed, that would be of big help. But they’ll need some help to do that.

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

Down linebacker Darius Leonard, league-best offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, and three more O-line starters for much of the game, the Colts rallied to win in Arizona. Even with Carson Wentz unable to find a rhythm at QB, Indianapolis is a clear contender in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (9-6) (Last week: 8). 

The Bills became the first team to win in New England in back to back seasons since Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts did so in 2005 and 2006. Josh Allen (378 total yards, three TDs) was seemingly unstoppable, as Buffalo never punted, scoring on six of their seven possessions, only being stopped by a fourth-and-goal incompletion early on. In all, the Bills converted nine of 16 third and fourth down conversions. At this point in time, they are the better team than the Patriots, and that will likely show in a second consecutive AFC East title.

8. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 11). 

Tennessee certainly welcomed back receiver A.J. Brown (11 catches, 145 yards, 1 TD vs SF on TNF) with open arms. If they can get Derrick Henry back for the postseason, watch out. They have championship mettle and moxie.

9. New England Patriots (9-6) (Last week: 7). With Cole Beasley out, reserve receiver and special-teamer Isiaiah McKenzie, who entered the game with seven catches for 37 yards, manned the slot position for Buffalo, and had a career-best effort. McKenzie, mostly guarded by Patriots slot CB Myles Bryant, went for 11 catches, 125 receiving yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. Bryant was helpless in man coverage/Cover-1 looks on Sunday, with McKenzie really just running across the field on most passing plays. Jalen Mills was equally as bad in zone coverage, allowing any and every pass to be completed underneath versus him. New England had no answer for Josh Allen on defense, and on offense, converted on just one of 10 third-down attempts. Judging by this game, the Patriots badly missed slot cornerback Jonathan Jones and pass-catching back James White. Both suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the season. A Patriots-Bills matchup is the most-likely projected wild card contest in the league, according to ESPN‘s FPI, so New England better figure out how to play these Bills, or they’ll be one and done in the playoffs.

10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) (Last week: 14). 

The AFC North is still a logjam, but the Bengals can now win the division by winning just one of their final two games. Joe Burrow, head coach Zac Taylor, offseason EDGE addition Trey Hendrickson and more have helped turn the Bengals into a pretty good team. Cincinnati fans should be excited for the future, even if a deep playoff run in 2021 is mostly unrealistic.

11. San Francisco 49ers (8-7) (Last week: 9). 

That was a rough loss in Tennessee. The 49ers find themselves in a little trouble now, but they should still make the postseason. Jimmy Garoppolo could miss some time, so Trey Lance may make his first start this week at home versus the Houston Texans. Rookie QB Davis Mills has been impressive for Houston, putting a little bit of pressure on Lance.

12. Arizona Cardinals (10-5) (Last week: 10). 

For the second straight season, they’re free-falling down the stretch. They have a playoff spot clinched, but no one should feel good about hem heading into January. Can they turn it around? Good grief.

13. Miami Dolphins (8-7) (Last week: NR). 

Here come the Dolphins. Sure, they’ve beaten up on a slew of bad opponents with bad quarterback situations, but still, to win seven straight games versus anyone in this league is impressive. Give credit where it’s due. If they can win in Tennessee and at home versus New England, they’re in the playoffs. That seems like too much to ask, but will you count them out? They’re a tough bunch.

14. Baltimore Ravens (8-7) (Last week: 13). 

Injuries are ultimately proving too much for them this season. They’ve lost four straight, despite hanging tough in some of their losses versus good teams.

15. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: NR). 

Here come the Eagles. Loaded with three first-round picks in the Spring, and getting some good play out of quarterback Jalen Hurts, Philly has been a second-half-of-the-season surprise. They have a lot of decisions to make this offseason, but for now, Eagles fans should just enjoy the ride.

16. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) (Last week: 12). 

Their loss to Houston on Sunday was as embarrassing and detrimental of a loss as we’ve seen in 2021, but the Chargers still have a shot at the playoffs. They’re not very good, but they have some good players, including young quarterback Justin Herbert. Can they rally?

Next Up: Minnesota, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans

Damien Harris -- 2021 December Patriots Practice

Gut Check Time: Two key Week 16 divisional battles may decide AFC East, AFC North

With three weeks to go in the NFL season, the games, similar to the NBA, have become an afterthought to the sudden surging of COVID-19 cases across the country, giving the nation a March 2020 feel, when it comes to news of the virus.

Even with the 2020 NFL season being played with virtually no fans in the stands, and the 2020 NBA playoffs played entirely in a ‘bubble’ in Orlando, Florida, it feels as if the pandemic is affecting the sports world now, in December, 2020, more than ever.

There have been hundreds of players in both the NFL and NBA that have been put into health and safety protocols over the past 10-12 days.

Head coaches have been forced to miss games, as have stars of franchises, and more.

Washington was forced to start Patriots practice-squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert, whom they signed from New England days before, on Tuesday to face the Eagles in Philadelphia in a game that likely decided their season. (They lost, but Gilbert hung tough).

More and more cases, or news of players entering health and safety protocols, have happened this week, making it uncertain if any of them can play this weekend in an ever-important slate of Week 16 action, with the playoffs looming.

But controlling the spread of the virus is more important than the games themselves, or your fantasy football playoffs with your buddies and friends.

Still, both the NFL and NBA have stated, in so many words, that the show must go on, regardless of who can play or not.

Week 16 in the NFL has a slew of interesting matchups, but none bigger than two division-deciding (virtually) contests in the AFC East and AFC North. Let’s give a quick breakdown on those, before getting to our weekly power rankings.

Buffalo Bills (8-6) at New England Patriots (9-5), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Needless to say, this contest between the two AFC East rivals should be much different than their Week 13 clash in Buffalo. It may be windy, and it should be cold, but more normal football should take place. That means the Bills will look to utilize Josh Allen again. Slot receiver Cole Beasley will miss the game due to COVID-19 protocol, so now the Patriots can key on Stefon Diggs, and containing Allen. The fourth-year QB will still make plays for Buffalo, though, putting more pressure on Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the New England offense. With rookie Rhamondre Stevenson iffy for Sunday, it’ll be Damien Harris who will get the brunt of the carries, probably regardless.

New England will certainly throw the ball more than three times in this contest, but establishing the run versus the Bills defense is once again top priority. Through the air, Nelson Agholor (head) and Kendrick Bourne (COVID-19/reserve list) may be no gos. Jones needs at least one to return by Sunday to have a formidable receiving duo. Being smart, and attacking the Bills underneath (Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds, specifically) should be the way to go through the air. This could be a big game for Jakobi Meyers.

Honestly, this sort of feels like Buffalo is primed to pull an upset, yet, I can’t go through with it. Not in a contest that features a head-coaching battle between Bill Belichick and Sean McDermott. Patriots fans have waited a long two years since their last AFC East title. They should get that much closer on Sunday, after another nail-biting win over Buffalo. Patriots 24, Bills 20. 

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Back in October, the Bengals surprisingly clobbered the Ravens, 41-17, in Baltimore. Rookie phenom receiver Ja’Marr Chase racked up 201 yards and a long score (82-yarder) on just eight catches, as Joe Burrow and Cincinnati destroyed Baltimore’s defense.

This time around, the Ravens may not even have Lamar Jackson at quarterback. If they don’t, it’ll be second-year man Tyler Huntley, who has been a pleasant surprise. He’s been solid in the clutch, and his improvisational ability gives Baltimore a semblance of QB-running ability, even if that’s not off designed runs, or to the ability that Jackson brings.

Baltimore is the more experienced team. They’re better coached. They’ve been here, but they are absolutely reeling from injuries.

This is the Bengals’ time to strike. Cincinnati should be able to lean both on Joe Mixon and the running game and Burrow and the passing game.

Even if Jackson misses the game, everything is telling me that Baltimore will pull this out with a display of mental and physical toughness. After all, both teams’ seasons are on the line. But I think the AFC North, at least this season, is susceptible to a take over via new blood. It’s been a wonky season. Give me the Bengals at home. Bengals 27, Ravens 24.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 1). With the competition doing less than treading water recently, Aaron Rodgers is in better position to win his fourth NFL MVP award (and second straight), than he’s been all season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 3). As of Thursday, both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are on the COVID-19 reserve list. That will complicate things for Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense this Sunday at home versus the Steelers.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4) (Last week: 5). Jonathan Taylor has been fantastic, but at this point in time, I lean toward Cooper Kupp (barely) as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Kupp has put up insane numbers in what is surely one of the best single seasons in league history for a wide receiver. He’s more than just an underneath slot option. He’s expanded into a pass catcher who can play in any role, using his footwork and overall route-running ability to be virtually uncoverable. What a player.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4) (Last week: 2). The injuries didn’t help (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin), but it’s clear the Saints have the Bucs’ number. Tampa Bay could be seeing New Orleans at home in a 2-seed vs. 7-seed matchup in the NFC wild card round in January, so Tom Brady and company better figure this out. Although, last season, Tampa lost twice to New Orleans in the regular season, then defeated them in the Superdome in January.

5. Dallas Cowboys (10-4) (Last week: 7). Cowboys have quietly made their way back into contender status. Dallas hosts Washington this week before a matchup with Arizona in Week 17. There’s no hiding from that one. The Cardinals should be desperate, too, considering their recent slump. We’ll learn a great deal about both teams then, but for now, Dallas has to take care of business at home on Sunday Night Football to lock up the NFC East.

6. Indianapolis Colts (8-6) (Last week: 9). They were the faster, and possibly more physical team in their 27-17 win over the Patriots on Saturday night. They have big-time 2019 Titans energy, meaning they could find themselves surprising many to reach the AFC Championship Game. But that is likely their ceiling, unless Carson Wentz flips the script entirely in January. Those 2019 Titans were even handicapped by Ryan Tannehill, who at the time was a better quarterback (and still is) than Wentz right now. But for the time being, let’s praise the Colts. This is a well-coached team and wonderfully-crafted roster. Well done, Frank Reich and Chris Ballard.

7. New England Patriots (9-5) (Last week: 4). It took three full quarters for the Patriots, who entered the fourth period down 20-0, to match Indianapolis’ energy. Mac Jones’ dreadful start and late-game heroics/magic was reminiscent of Brady, though. That’s a macro-level, big-picture (beyond this season) silver lining for a franchise that is tied to its hopeful young quarterback. Next up — Buffalo. The Patriots will basically clinch the AFC East with a win. This is a massive game.

8. Buffalo Bills (8-6) (Last week: 10). After all that has happened recently, the Bills have a chance to avenge their loss to New England by taking down the Patriots in their own house this weekend, and re-taking the AFC East lead with just two weeks to go. Buffalo plays Atlanta and the New York Jets after this, so this game should decide the division either way.

9. San Francisco 49ers (8-6) (Last week: 11). Like the Colts in the AFC, the 49ers are quickly becoming a team in the NFC that has come on strong as of late, and that no team would like to face in January. The combination of Deebo Samuel and George Kittle is up there with the best one-two punches on offense in the league.

10. Arizona Cardinals (10-4) (Last week: 6). For the second straight season, the Cardinals are sliding down the stretch. They’ll make the playoffs regardless this time around. But they’ll need to show some fight versus Indianapolis, Dallas and Seattle to be any sort of a factor in the playoffs.

11. Tennessee Titans (9-5) (Last week: 8). They just need to get healthy. Without Derrick Henry or A.J. Brown, they can’t do much of anything on offense. But if those two can come back (and be relatively healthy) for the playoffs, watch out.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). Justin Herbert is phenomenal, but like their predecessors, there’s still a lot of ‘Chargers are gonna’ Charger’ energy with this team. Winning two of their final three games may be enough to get them into the playoffs.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) (Last week: 13). Their sound coaching, and overall toughness/smarts have kept them afloat amidst a devastating season of injuries, but it’s starting to become too much. Their season is likely on the line in Cincinnati this week.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) (Last week: 15). A win at home over Baltimore on Sunday would give them a season sweep of the Ravens, and pull them extremely close to locking up the AFC North title. This is their shot. Biggest game of Joe Burrow’s NFL career thus far.

15. Minnesota Vikings (7-7) (Last week: 16). They’re hanging around, even if apathetically. They have talent, but no one should trust them.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1) (Last week: NR). The Steelers, a proud franchise, have been gutsy this season. They’re still in the mix. Sunday’s game in Kansas City is almost a must-win for them, though.

Next Up: New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Philadelphia 

Bill Belichick & Steve Belichick

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 13: Patriots out-muscle, out-game Bills in windy, situational football

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Monday’s night’s showdown in Buffalo marked the biggest AFC East game in a decade, maybe more. The New England Patriots (9-4) and Buffalo Bills (7-5) would battle it out in the first of two meetings that would likely decide the division.

However, it would be the weather, that would decide the game. Winds gusting from 25-to-35 miles per hour all game (sometimes 50 MPH), that would forced the contest into an alternate-looking example of the sport.

As expected for an ultra-situational style of football game, Bill Belichick and the Patriots bested the Bills, 14-10, by rushing for 222 yards on 46 carries, while Mac Jones passed just three times (2/3, 19 yards, 4.3 Total QBR).

New England’s three pass attempts marked the lowest single-game number for a winning team, or any team, since 1974 when ironically, O.J. Simpson and the Bills defeated Joe Namath and the New York Jets with just two pass attempts.

There was hyperbole run amok on Twitter after the game, calling this one of Belichick’s all-time greatest coaching performances. There was also an over-the-top group attempting to downplay the Patriots’ overall mastery of playing in the weather, which included Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott, after the game.

“Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one,” McDermott told reporters after Buffalo’s loss.

“Whether it’s Bill or anybody else, they beat us. You sit here and you tell me when we start with an average starting field position of the 40-yard line and he starts at the 23-yard line … and we were 1-for-4 in the red zone and they were 0-for-1 in the red zone — you give me that ahead of time and I would say, ‘I like my chances.’

The fact of the matter is, Buffalo failed to convert with their ‘chances,’ and the Patriots’ overall mega-conservative approach of betting on Buffalo ‘not winning’ the game, paid off. Buffalo, albeit with a quarterback in Josh Allen whose arm is strong enough to cut through the wind, failed to fully optimize points and true production out of their shotgun-spread looks in the weather.

The Patriots had some gaffes of their own, which included putting N’Keal Harry back to return a punt that ended up hitting his face mask, and landing right under a Bills special-teamer for a fumble recovery. Buffalo answered with a quick-strike, RPO touchdown pass by Josh Allen to Gabriel Davis on the next play, to cut the score to 8-7 after Damien Harris broke free for a 68-yard touchdown on a toss earlier in the game.

Had the fumble not occurred, the Patriots may have had an even easier time defeating the Bills, who failed to convert on their next three red zone trips.

Nothing seemed to work for Buffalo when they really needed it, as New England toughened up in the red zone. Once, Allen tried to hit Davis on another RPO-strike for a score on Patriots CB Jalen Mills, but Mills was ready for the pass that burned him earlier in the game, knocking it down.

On Buffalo’s final two plays of the game, Josh Allen was first tripped up for a sack by New England star EDGE Matthew Judon, who notched QB takedown number 12.5 on the year. On the next play, New England called an all-out blitz with just four defenders in coverage. Myles Bryant, playing the ‘robber’ role, made an astute play to knockdown a 4th-and-14 endzone pass attempt by Allen, giving the Patriots the victory.

Myles Bryant vs Bills -- 2021
Myles Bryant knocks down Josh Allen’s pass attempt in the final minutes of the Patriots’ victory over the Bills on Monday Night Football. (Screenshot: NFL on ESPN)

This was certainly an old-school, classic, early-dynasty type of win for Belichick’s Patriots, evoking memories of New England’s 12-0 win over Miami in a raging snowstorm late in the 2003 regular season, a year in which they won their second Super Bowl.

Unsung heroes ran rampant in this game, with rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson actually running rampant on the Bills’s stacked boxes that included nine, ten and sometimes all 11 Buffalo defenders in the box. Stevenson’s final numbers (24 carries, 78 yards, 3.3 yards per carry) are hardly enough to get excited about, but there were several times where he weaved and plowed his way for first downs or hugely-important gains in moments in which that looked like an impossible task.

On defense, Buffalo’s pass-run split ended up being 30-to-25. Buffalo threw more than they ran in the conditions partly because they never had consistent success on the ground. Credit there largely goes to Patriots nose tackle-defensive tackle-3-4-defensive-end big-man Davon Godchaux. Brought over from Miami on a lucrative two-year deal this offseason, Godchaux has been a big addition in New England’s plan to get beefier, tougher and more competent up front. Godchaux, had a team-high 86.8 PFF grade on defense in the win, adding ten tackles, five run stuffs and a QB pressure in what was most likely the best game of his career.

These are the types of wins the Patriots have tallied up over the past 20 years. Every win by them, and every single-season DNA of this team has not always resembled the high-flying 2007 team equipped with Tom Brady and Randy Moss. This is how they do it.

There’s one more game versus Buffalo on the schedule, in New England, in three weeks.

“We were talking about that last night. We can use our whole passing game,” Belichick said with a chuckle when asked about New England’s next contest with Buffalo.

“All the pass plays we have, they haven’t seen.”

That game will likely have a different feel, as Belichick eludes to. The game may be cold, and even windy, but likely not to this effect.

Buffalo heads down to Tampa Bay this week to face the other pillar of the Patriots’ historical run of success, Tom Brady. A Bills loss there, and a Patriots win over Indianapolis in two weeks after their bye may spell the end of the AFC East race anyhow.

The Patriots, who are currently the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and will be even after next week, could be thinking Super Bowl. But just as Belichick likes it, they’ll take it game by game, braving the weather, their opponents, and whatever comes next.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 1). They used their bye week to rest up for the home stretch, where they will battle for the NFC’s No. 1 seed for the second straight season.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3) (Last week: 2). Their defense let Atlanta hang around a bit, and Tom Brady threw one atrocious pick six, but otherwise, he and the passing game were unstoppable. Brady leads the MVP race as of now.

3. Arizona Cardinals (10-2) (Last week: 3). With Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back, the full-strength Cardinals looked more like their record on Sunday. They’re flying under the radar.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 4). They’ve won five straight, and have allowed an average of 9.8 points per game in their past four contests. Their defense has come alive, despite the offense still sputtering from time to time. If Mahomes and the offense can find a rhythm, and if Clyde Edwards-Helaire can produce on the ground, they could be headed for their third straight Super Bowl in two months.

5. New England Patriots (9-4) (Last week: 5). That was one of the weirdest games in recent memory, but the better-coached team, and overall, better team right now, won on Monday. Even after their bye this upcoming week, the Pats will be your No. 1 seed in the AFC.

6. Los Angeles Rams (8-4) (Last week: 6). No one is going to overly praise them for beating up on the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that win was still a much-needed morale booster.

7. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) (Last week: 10). Dallas plays Washington twice in their next three games, so they will need to fend them off to secure the NFC East crown. They suffered some midseason lapses after a blazing start. It’s time for them to get back on track.

8. Buffalo Bills (7-5) (Last week: 7). We can’t bury the Bills too much for a such a weird game in the wind, but Buffalo’s upcoming schedule includes the Buccaneers in Tampa, and the Patriots in New England. They need to start thinking about a playoff spot, in general, now. They’ll have to refocus for a big one versus the defending Super Bowl champs on Sunday.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 9). The Titans will come off their bye week facing the Jaguars at home. They face the Texans one more time, too. They could get to 11-6 or better, even with their injuries.

10. Indianapolis Colts (7-6) (Last week: 11). The Colts will rest up this week before hosting the Patriots in a big Saturday night showdown in Week 15. They should be a playoff team, but because of some blown losses earlier in their season, they’ll likely need to finish 3-1 down the stretch to even have a shot at a playoff spot.

11. Baltimore Ravens (8-4) (Last week: 8). Lamar Jackson is incredible, and he almost willed his team to a victory in the clutch once more on Sunday. This Ravens team as a whole, though, has sputtered often, and struggled some, partly due to several big injuries, for much of the season. Remember their early-season victories versus Detroit? What about their comeback win over Indianapolis? They have a great quarterback and coach, but they’re lucky to be 8-4.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5) (Last week: NR). This is where the rankings turn into a weekly, topsy-turvy mess. The Chargers may have saved their season with that win in Cincinnati. They almost blew a 24-point lead, but hung on, and now, they’ll face the Giants at home with Jake Fromm likely starting at QB for New York. A win there would put the Chargers at 8-5, hosting the Chiefs for Thursday Night Football with a chance to take the lead in the AFC West.

13. San Francisco 49ers (6-6) (Last week: 12). They looked prime for a win over their NFC West rival before the Seahawks came storming back. That was a chance for them to pull ahead in the NFC wild card race. Now, they’re back with the pack.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) (Last week: 13). They almost rallied back, but let’s face it — that was an ugly loss. The Chargers and Bengals are both improving teams with two great young quarterbacks in Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow, but each team has little chance to make actual noise come January this season. They’re both set up well for the future, as of now, though.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1) (last week: NR). News of Ben Roethlisberger’s probable retirement after this season was reported Sunday morning, and then in the late afternoon, Big Ben put on a vintage clutch performance in a vintage Ravens-Steelers rivalry match. Pittsburgh is a tough, proud team that remains in the thick of the AFC wild card race.

16. Washington Football Team (6-6) (Last week: NR). How about the stones on Washington kicker Brian Johnson, a new addition, to kick a 48-yard game-winner in Las Vegas on Sunday. Here comes Washington. They host the Cowboys this week. They have a chance to make things incredibly interesting in the NFC East with a win on Sunday.

Next Up: Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, Minnesota, Philadelphia

Aaron Rodgers vs Rams - 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 12: Are Packers the league’s most complete team?

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In a season where no team has been consistently good, or even consistent, the Green Bay Packers (9-3) are starting to show their teeth as perhaps the NFC’s most complete club.

The Cheeseheads, led by Aaron Rodgers (28 of 45, 307 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) defeated the Los Angeles Rams (7-4), 36-28, in a game that wasn’t as close as its final score, as Green bay looked like a much better squad than the star-studded Rams.

Green Bay led the Rams 36-17 heading into the fourth quarter, and held Los Angeles to 68 rush yards (3.4 yards per carry), forcing three turnovers (including a pick-six of Matthew Stafford), and in several big moments, Rodgers found superstar receiver Davante Adams (eight catches, 104 yards) seemingly with ease, as the Rams’ zone-heavy scheme foolishly did not feature cornerback Jalen Ramsey shadowing Adams throughout the entire game.

The game also shed light on the puzzle of Rodgers’ future. Some said that Rodgers was justified in his offseason frustration over Green Bay’s roster construction. Green Bay lacked a solid pass catcher after Adams, and in the 2020 NFL Draft, they seemingly drafted Rodgers’ eventual replacement in the first round (quarterback Jordan Love) and drafted a bulldozing, old-school running back (A.J. Dillon) in Round 2.

Rodgers insisted the 2020 draft was not the issue, and that it was Green Bay’s overall way of handling many offseasons, that irked him.

“It’s never been about the draft pick,” Rodgers told ESPN‘s Kenny Mayne in his final SportsCenter appearance.

“I love Jordan. I love the coaching staff. I love my teammates. It’s just about a philosophy and maybe forgetting it is about the people that make things go.”

Rodgers eventually agreed to return to the team for this season, and was given a gift in Green Bay’s acquiring of Rodgers’ long-time friend, slot receiver Randall Cobb, via trade.

Many believe Rodgers will attempt to leave Green Bay this offseason. And that may very well be the case. But looking at the lay of the land as it stands, why would he leave?

What type of team does Rodgers want to play for, exactly? A squad like the Rams, top-heavy team, lacking depth and consistency.  Does he want a wheeling-and-dealing squad that constructs its roster only for its quarterback? Or does he want to win a Super Bowl. If the latter still matters to him, then Rodgers must see that the Packers are close.

Together, Rodgers and head coach Matt Lafleur are 35-8 in the last three regular seasons, which is good for best in the NFL. The Packers have also made the NFC title game in the last two seasons. They’ve failed to get past that round, but history shows great teams such as this one sometimes enjoy a “breakthrough” season in the midst of two or three consecutive near-berths to a Super Bowl.

Rodgers, after struggling some in 2019 in LaFleur’s Shanahan-style offense, now has acclimated perfectly, as the team uses a mix of under-center, run-heavy, two-tight end sets, and spread-you-out, passer-friendly looks to compliment Rodgers’ career-long strengths.

Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst has taken the brunt of Rodgers’ frustration via pass-aggressive quotes in the offseason, but the fourth-year general manager has carried the torch of the franchise’s past, relying heavily on the franchise’s scouting department to emphasize the need to build through the draft, focus on internal player progression, and prioritize homegrown players over free agents.

That style has worked for one of the NFL’s best franchises for years and years. Like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay has their own way of doing things. Their stubbornness in their ways caught up with them some during the middle of the last decade, as Rodgers was stuck attempting to elevate lesser-talented teams (think: 2016 season).

But Green Bay has built a solid roster up from the ground, with just the right mix of free agents to help lead the way.

A.J. Dillon vs Rams -- 2021
A.J. Dillon has been a breakout star for the Packers in 2021. He’s the perfect running back for the weather in Green Bay, and the Packers’ rushing scheme. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

A.J. Dillon, in particular, has had a breakout season in Year 2. The Boston College product is a bully-ball rusher who is perhaps in the perfect spot in snowy Wisconsin. He’s the type of January running back that was needed, but many scoffed at the draft pick two years ago.

Rodgers is still making due with a modst-at-best receiving group after Adams, but with the cap room to spread talent throughout the roster, Green Bay at least has Adams, maybe the best receiver in football, as well as a solid offensive line, and now, one of the NFL’s best defenses.

In 2019, Green Bay paid front seven members Za’Darius and Preston Smith, as sell as safety Adrian Amos, to help a defense that needed reinforcements. The moves have paid dividends, with Amos teaming up with homegrown safety Darnell Savage to rival Buffalo (Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer), as perhaps the best safety tandem in the league.

Up front, the Packers play mostly a 3-4 style defense built with tough, bigger players (somewhat like other well run-franchises in the Patriots and Steelers) that relies on a few players such as top-tier nose tackle Kenny Clark to take up bodies and make plays up front, clearing the way for others.

Green Bay is currently seventh in the league in yards per game allowed (321.7) and fifth in points allowed (20.2). They’ve built up a Super Bowl caliber defense, and they aren’t even at full strength as a team at the moment.

Za’Darius Smith has been out since September with a back injury, but should be back soon.

Green Bay is also expecting the return of left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexandler, two former All-Pros who are undoubtedly top-five players at their respective positions, sometime during their home stretch.

Alexander, much like Adams on offense, is a good example of how well Green Bay progresses their players.

To get back to Sunday’s game, the difference between the Packers and Rams was stark.

As great of a head coach and X’s and O’s man Sean McVay is, he’s stumbled as of late, as has his hand-picked quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who fell to 0-17 in his career against teams who entered a contest five games over .500 (via NFL research). It was the fourth loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for Stafford in such a situation.

The Rams have loads of top-end talent. Even Odell Beckham Jr. scored his first touchdown in over a year in the fourth quarter of the Rams’ comeback attempt. But what the Rams don’t have, is a steady roster across the board. Players one to 53, the practice squad, the team history, the scouting and player personnel department, the January, cold-weather homefield advantage.

In Green Bay, Rodgers just may have it all now, or close to it. The way the Packers’ season ends will have much to do with his decision. If Green Bay’s rushing attack is foiled, and Adams is blanketed in the same playoff game, Rodgers will identify that the problem is a lack of offensive weapons, and that may be true. But right now, in a year of mayhem, he has yet another prime shot at a second Super Bowl title with the team he’s played for, for 17 seasons.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 3). Along with the Patriots, they look like the league’s most complete team at the moment. And Aaron Rodgers is now back in the MVP conversation, surely.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) (Last week: 2). They survived Indianapolis behind a turn-back-the-clock performance by Rob Gronkowski (seven catches, 123 yards) and a dominant effort by Leonard Fournette (131 total yards, four touchdowns). Oh, and Tom Brady led his 65th career game-winning drive (including playoffs). Still, they need to get healthier on defense, and find their groove on that side of the ball.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) (Last week: 4). Kyler Murray should return this week. They’re starting to slip under the radar, but they still have the league’s best record.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 5). The Chiefs have improved steadily on offense during their four-game winning streak, and their once-awful defense has allowed just 11.8 points per game during that span. The madness of this season, and in the AFC in particular, left the door open for the Chiefs. It appears they’ve found their way in the room.

5. New England Patriots (8-4) (Last week: 6). This is eerily starting to look like many of the Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams throughout the dynasty. Sunday’s 36-13 win over Tennessee under the cold weather and snow flurries felt like a vintage post-Thanksgiving New England win. Everything is coming together. But their biggest test lies ahead. Their Monday night game in Buffalo next week is perhaps their biggest regular season matchup since 2018.

6. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) (Last week: 1). They’ve lost three straight, and Matthew Stafford (three games in a row with a pick-six) hasn’t played well as of late. They have too much talent to not right the ship. They have good enough players to where suggesting they could make a 2020 Buccaneers-like run is not out of the question.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-4) (Last week: 8). One of the bigger AFC East regular season games in recent memory awaits them on Monday Night Football next week. Patriots at Bills. Can Buffalo limit turnovers, stay balanced on offense, and play good enough defense to win? It should be a great game.

8. Baltimore Ravens (8-3) (Last week: 9). They really haven’t looked consistently good all season, but they’re the AFC’s No. 1 seed at the moment anyway. That’s probably a good sign. They’re too well-run of an organization not to tighten things up here soon.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 7). When healthy, the Titans are a Super Bowl contender. Missing their three best offensive weapons in New England (Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones), Mike Vrabel’s bunch held tough, before three turnovers ruined their upset chances. Still, they ran for 270 yards versus one of the team’s stingiest defenses. Their goal now is to get healthy for the playoffs. They have the mental toughness and coaching to surprise some people then.

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (Last week: 10). They have the NFC East pseudo wrapped-up, but that doesn’t excuse their diminishing play as of late. Are they a Super Bowl contender, or will they just be happy to be ousted easily in the NFC Divisional round?

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 11). Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns in the first half as the Colts looked primed for a major home upset over the defending champs, before the wheels came off. He lost a fumble and threw a pick in consecutive drives starting with Indy leading 24-14 and driving in Tampa territory. This is a built-for-January team, but often times, they are being held back by their QB. But sometimes, they are elevated by Wentz and his talent. They need more consistency from their quarterback.

12. San Francisco 49ers (6-5) (Last week: 12). Here come the 49ers. They’re getting much better (albeit, still Jekyll-and-Hyde) play out of Jimmy Garoppolo as of late, and receiver-running back Deebo Samuel has probably entered the OPOY discussion with Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor for what he’s done as of recent.

13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) (Last week: NR). It’s hard to get a read on them. It seems as if they are good. That’s two big wins in a row for Joe Burrow and the gang. Joe Mixon (12 touchdowns in last eight games) has been a great compliment to their passing game as of late.

14. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) (last week: 15). They’re the only team in the league to lead each game they’ve played this year by seven points or more, yet they are 5-6. They’re snake-bitten, but the state of the NFC, and their remaining schedule (Lions, Bears (twice)) gives them a good shot at a wild card spot. This is a bad, good team. They have talent.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) (Last week: NR). I’m not sure they have what it takes to even make the playoffs, but when he is on, Derek Carr is one of the best passers in the league. That was a big overtime win in Dallas, for the most-watched regular season NFL game in league history.

16. Cleveland Browns (6-6) (Last week: 16). They’ve been horrid on offense as of late, but they still have the defense and potential in the running game for me to feel good about putting them above the teams below. Can they right the ship?

Next Up: Denver, L.A. Chargers, New Orleans, Miami, Pittsburgh

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

CeeDee Lamb TD vs Patriots in OT

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 6: Cowboys-Patriots classic featured two teams in wildly different places

The marquee ‘TV ratings’ matchup in the Sunday late afternoon window delivered a classic on Sunday.

Cowboys 35, Patriots 29, in overtime, in Foxboro, Massachussetts.

It was the Cowboys’ first win in six tries versus Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and it was Dallas’ first win over New England since a 12-6 victory over the Pats in 1996 when Bill Parcells was the team’s head coach, and Belichick was the club’s defensive coordinator.

There’s a lot to take away from a game like this:

— The Cowboys are not only ‘for real,’ they are a Super Bowl contender.

— Dak Prescott is an NFL MVP candidate, especially after his 445 passing yards (most ever versus a Belichick-coached team) and game tape exhibiting clutch throw after clutch throw in this primetime game against the Patriots. He was money.

— Mac Jones has shown glimpses of possible stardom in the future, be he, and this Patriots team are in transition. They have promise, and talent, but they’re blowing games late (fumbles, blocked punts, failures on ‘got-to-have-it’ plays) at a 21st-century Chargers-level since even the end of the 2019 season, with Tom Brady at quarterback (think: Week 17 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins with Brady in New England).

“We went toe-to-toe with them for 60 minutes,” Belichick said after the game. “They just made a few more plays than we did.”

Once thought of as a ‘moral victory’ equipped with silver linings, these types of losses are becoming too abundant for that term to be used any longer with these Patriots.

They have too many bullet holes in their foot, too many exhausted conservative-approach-infused decisions in major moments and an overall distrust of their young rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, in big moments.

The frustrating part about these Patriots is that they’ve played good teams well, for the most part, even going back to last season before they sort of gave up later in the year in losses to the Rams and Bills.

With Cam Newton, New England fell one-yard short of a major upset in Seattle, and a month or so later, Newton’s late fumble in Bills’ territory ended any hope of what was almost a major upset win in Buffalo.

This season, Damien Harris’ fumble was a self-thwart that ended any chance of a Week 1 victory over Miami, and despite keeping it close with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (and Tom Brady) and now, Dallas, the Patriots failed to deliver, again.

“When you look at the big picture, you never want to say you’re close; it’s hard to do that,” Jones said. “But the games we’ve lost we’ve been two or three plays away. I guess that’s how the NFL works, and I’m learning that the hard way.”

The teams that consistently make those plays, like the Buccaneers, the Patriots of the 2000s and 2010s, and yes, these Cowboys, are the teams that find themselves playing deep in January.

Dallas has won just three playoff games in the last 25 years, and have failed to move past the NFC Divisional round since their last Super Bowl win in 1995.

They are a prime example for fans to witness just how hard a franchise can fall post-dynasty.

The Patriots, of course, had nearly 20 years of unprecedented success. Simply labeling them a ‘Dynasty’ almost does them disservice.

But however you want to label it, Belichick and Mac Jones have work to do, even if the Cowboys’ star QB, Dak Prescott, thinks Jones is in a great spot.

“You gotta be able to take a lick and not flinch and make the play when the hard hit’s coming,” Prescott said to NBC Sports‘ Peter King when breaking down Jones’ play after the game.

“And when you have a bad play or an interception and the game changes right there, you gotta have the water-down-a-duck’s-back mentality. Let it go. It’s over. Mac’s got that. I really like what I see out of him. He’ll be a good quarterback for a long time.”

Jones followed up his late pick-six to former Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs on Dallas, with a 74-yard throwing strike to Kendrick Bourne to take the lead before Prescott rallied the Cowboys through a 4th-and-4 and subsequent 3rd-and-25 to help them score nine points at the end of regulation and overtime to win.

The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best offenses behind Prescott, his dynamic pass-catching duo of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb (who scored the winning touchdown in overtime), running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a top-tier offensive line, which has returned to greatness this season.

Prescott dropped back to pass 51 times on Sunday, and was never sacked.

On defense, Dallas has improved from subpar to so-so. With guys like Diggs (seven interceptions in six games), rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and pass rusher Randy Gregory, the team at least has playmakers capable of forcing turnovers and disrupting an offense.

In an NFC with several contenders in undefeated Arizona (6-0), Green Bay (5-1), the Los Angeles Rams (5-1) and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (5-1), the Cowboys are right there in the mix.

The Cowboys and Patriots, the NFL’s last two dynasties, are two teams in wildly different places at the moment.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). They move back to the top spot by default after the Bills’ loss. They should take care of the Bears at home this week.

2. Arizona Cardinals (6-0) (Last week: 3). They surprised many again by soundly defeating the Browns in Cleveland. They get a bye now to rest up.

3. Los Angeles Rams (5-1) (Last week: 4). I still think the Rams will be in the mix, probably in the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl, come January/February. But the NFC is a lot better than we thought, so this is a tougher task for them than I had imagined a few weeks ago.

4. Buffalo Bills (4-2) (Last week: 1). Josh Allen was stopped twice from reaching a key first down late in Tennessee, but I still think the decision to go for it was the correct call. The Bills will be OK.

5. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 6). Their 34-6 win over the Chargers may be the most impressive win of any NFL team this season. They ran all over LA, garnering 187 yards on just under five yards per carry.

6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 7). Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams alone make Green Bay a serious contender in the NFC once more.

7. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) (Last week: 10). Dak Prescott now finds himself near the very top in the beginning of the NFL MVP race after his performance in New England on Sunday.

8. Tennessee Titans (4-2) (Last week: 10). Derrick Henry (and maybe Adrian Peterson, as well) is this era’s Jim Brown.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) (Last week: 5). That was a humbling loss in Baltimore. Now they have their bye week to chew on it.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) (Last week: 11). They picked things up in Washington in the second half to look more like the Chiefs of old on Sunday.

11. Cleveland Browns (3-3) (Last week: 8). They’re much better than their record suggests, but here they are, and they have some major injuries, too. Will Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb be able to suit up versus the Broncos on Thursday?

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 12). They had their bye week this past weekend. They’ll be in the wild card mix all season.

13. Las Vegas Raiders (4-2) (Last week: 14). That was a huge win in Denver, for their first outing without Jon Gruden.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) (Last week: NR). Good teams beat up bad teams. The Bengals beat the Lions 34-11 in Detroit. Is this team actually…good?

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Even in their “off” years, the Steelers find a away to finish around .500.

16. Minnesota Vikings (3-3) (Last week: NR). The Vikings have been a wild ride to start the year. They’re a team with talent. That win in overtime over the Panthers may decide the NFC’s No. 7 seed come January.

Next Up: San Francisco, Chicago, Carolina, Indianapolis, Atlanta 

Tom Brady -- The Return

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 4: Three leftover thoughts on Brady-Belichick, Mac Jones & Bucs-Pats

An hour or two after an emotional game that bookended a taxing, emotional week, Tom Brady summed up what we all expected was the case for him.

“I’m tired” the seven-time Super Bowl champion, and former Patriot, told NBC Sports‘ Peter King.

“I’m really tired. For a regular-season game, that was pretty intense…God is it hard to come in here and win a football game.”

The defending champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1), had withstood a gutsy (albeit erratic) performance from the New England Patriots (1-3), a team once known for their Super Bowl stardom, now rebuilding, and searching for a better identity.

The final score — Bucs 19, Pats 17.

Here are three takeaways from the conclusion of perhaps the most anticipated regular season game in NFL history:

The embrace between Tom Brady and the Patriots’ fans and the organization went as well as it could have. From the outpouring of love from fans leading up to the game, pre-game, while Brady broke the all-time passing yards mark (with previous record-holder Drew Brees in attendance) and after the game, to Brady’s embrace with former teammates, Josh McDaniels (before and after the game), Robert Kraft, and yes, even Bill Belichick, for a 23-minute conversation in the Tampa locker room, following the game. Everything went smoothly. It was a great moment.

“Very emotional week,” Brady said to the press afterward. “These guys are like my brothers.”

Brady did his best to remain poised throughout the contest. Overall, he made great decisions and floated some gorgeous passes later in the game as he settled into a contest surrounded by hoopla. But it was obvious from the start, Brady was emotional, and the overall tone and weirdness of the game was omnipresent throughout the battle.

But for all the talk over what transpired over the past few years, it appears Patriots fans can rest easy, that Tom still appreciates his time with New England, forever his football home.

“I’ll be part of this community for a long time…When it’s all said and done, and I retire, you know, I’ll be around, and they’ll get a chance to see more of me” Brady told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya after the game.

Prior to the game, Robert Kraft floated the idea of Brady returning post-career for what would be a fitting ceremony that should, and in all likelihood will happen.

In the end, I hope and believe he’ll come back here and we’ll give him his red jacket, and he’ll retire a Patriot,” Kraft told Willie McGinest and Kay Adams in an NFL Network interview prior to the game. 

Brady somewhat deflected the notion after the game, seemingly out of respect for the Bucs’ organization, their fan base, and his current obligation to focus in on his current team.

“Are you offering me a one-day contract or did he offer me that?,” Brady said to the media, jokingly, when asked about the scenario after the game.

“He didn’t offer me that, so…I still got some time left with the Bucs, and like I said, really enjoying that. We got a lot to accomplish this year. It’s a tough challenging year. It’s a marathon of a season. It’s only four games in. There is a lot football to be played. It feels good to win on the road, so happy we did that.”

Still, all night, it was clear that Brady is still emotionally invested in the Patriots organization and the New England fans, and that aspect of ‘The Return’ was perfectly executed by all involved. Bravo.

In the matchup of Brady vs Belichick, the Patriots coach devised a perfectly-schemed game plan versus the Buccaneers’ offense, that was executed well enough for the Patriots to win. I’ll look at the All-22 film to produce my first defensive film review piece of the season for Patriots Wire, if the film is out in time this week, so look out for that, since we’ll know more then, but it appeared New England stuck with pretty clear man-coverage assignments (J.C. Jackson on Mike Evans, Jalen Mills and Chris Godwin, Jonathan Jones and Antonio Brown) with a mixture of middle-of-the-field zone coverage in the deep, intermediate and shallow parts of the field, via safeties, linebackers and on-the-line rushers dropping back into coverage. On clear passing downs, Belichick was able to mask his looks with several “amoeba” formations with most rushers standing in front of the Bucs’ O-line, moving around pre-snap to disguise who was rushing, and who was dropping back into coverage.

Matthew Judon (one sack, two QB hits, four hurries, four run stuffs, two tackles for loss), the only big-ticket 2021 free-agent signing consistently producing for Belichick, was particularly effective, bulldozing past members of Tampa’s stout offensive line at times, while also getting to Brady with his speed and athleticism at other times, and doing his best on the edge in run defense. Jalen Mills was particularly stout on Godwin (three catches, 55 yards) and the Patriots’ zone brackets in general looked like they did an awesome job of cutting off Tampa’s in-breaking routes in the intermediate part of the field.

The Patriots played a ton of Big Nickel and Big Dime looks with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger each playing pretty well.

In all, Brady’s stat line (22-of-43, 269 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt, 55.3 Total QBR) is exactly what you want if you’re the Patriots. Without Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate had an ugly, key drop, and Antonio Brown couldn’t hang on to a beautiful Brady long-ball for a go-ahead touchdown late, but really, the Patriots defense played well enough to win this game.

This New England defense is a top-tier unit in the league, defensively, and they may have Stephon Gilmore returning soon.

Mac Jones almost had his moment. In a weird, old-school-feeling Giants-Patriots, Eli Manning-Brady era-looking contest, the Patriots were in position to win, but just couldn’t pull it off. Alas, two turnovers, some sloppy play, more letdowns in got-to-have-it-moments (an all too familiar part of the Patriots identity since late 2019) included a failed attempt to score a touchdown to take a 21-16 lead while inside the 10-yard-line late in the fourth quarter, instead settling for a field goal, their last points of the game. There were several moments to be dissected, including Belichick conservatively opting not to trust Mac Jones on a 4th-and-2 in Tampa territory late at the end of the first half, and then again on a 4th-and-3 in the final minute of the game, instead opting for a 56-yard Nick Folk field goal attempt in the pouring rain, in which Folk heroically almost came through with one of the great kicks of all time, that ultimately hit the left upright with a loud “thud.”

A thud, is sort of what the 2021 Patriots are at this point. There have been comparisons to this team and the 2001 Patriots, as the franchise begins anew under Mac Jones. And heck, that team started 1-3 before eventually winning the Super Bowl. But that team, a well-disciplined bunch, came through when it mattered. There would be no game-winning kick (a la Adam Vinatieri) on this night, just as there would be no game-winning drive. New England is now 1-3 and 0-3 at home, with two gut-wrenching losses to the Dolphins (Damien Harris’ late fumble sealed it) and now, the Bucs.

Still, Mac Jones played well enough to win this game, and has shown a lot of promise.

The rookie completed 19 consecutive passes in a period in the second half, which included a go-ahead touchdown drive culminating in a throwing score to Jonnu Smith, that saw Jones go 7-of-7 on that drive to give New England the 14-13 lead.

Really, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Mac Jones and the defense all played well enough to win this game, which is probably why this loss stings so much for New England.

The potential is there, even with Jones and the offense going just 2-for-9 on third down conversions, and Jones still being pressured by pass rushers (4 sacks, 12 QB hits on Jones by Tampa on Sunday), due to a disappointing O-line, which was met with Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ famous blitz-heavy scheme. The rookie also overcame the Patriots absolutely abysmal rushing performance, which saw the team run for -1 yards on eight carries versus Tampa’s top-ranked rushing defense, led by monster interior defenders Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.

When given the time to throw, Mac Jones (31-of-40, 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) has proven more than capable, as the Patriots are beginning to find at least a small groove in spreading defenses out in empty, shotgun looks. Jakobi Meyers (eight catches, 70 yards) and Kendrick Bourne (five catches, 58 yards) are beginning to have their moments, but the team is still not getting enough out of their two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, despite their two short touchdown catches on Sunday.

Still, there are brilliant flashes with Jones operations a Patriots/Brady-style offense.

Bourne called Jones a “baby Tom” after the game, and Tom Brady and several other Buccaneers praised the Patriots quarterback.

“I feel like he’s gonna be a good quarterback in this league,” Tampa star linebacker Devin White said of Jones postgame.

“He was poised. We hit him a lot of times and he stayed in the scheme and moved the ball for them when he had to move the ball for them.”

For now, as he learns behind a caving offensive line, a disappointing running game and the lack of a true No. 1 pass catcher, Jones will still learn a ton, find his resolve, and continue to improve. So far, he looks the part of a franchise quarterback.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 4). As each week passes, their Week 1 loss to the Steelers continues to be more of an aberration. They are the best team in football right now.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) (Last week: 2). Their secondary is an absolute mess right now, but a favorable upcoming schedule should help keep them afloat near the top of the NFC.

3. Arizona Cardinals (4-0) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch is soaring after a month. They are the last remaining undefeated team. That was a helluva win over the Rams in Los Angeles. Is their defense good enough for them to be a contender this season? Will their offense keep this up all year?

4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 1). They didn’t get up for their home match versus Arizona like they did versus the Bucs. They’re still the NFC West favorite. They have a quick turnaround for a game in Seattle on Thursday.

5. Cleveland Browns (3-1) (Last week: 3). They’re one of the most talented teams in the league, but they aren’t quite playing like it, week to week. They need to hit their stride.

6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) (Last week: 5). That was a telling win in Denver. That’s 43 straight 100-yard rushing games for the Ravens as a team, which ties an NFL record.

7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 8). They’re coming along after that ugly Week 1 loss to New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers’ bunch are a Super Bowl contender, once more.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) (Last week: 10). They’re tied for second in points per game (33.5) and are ranked 31st in points per game allowed (31.3). That sounds about right.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1) (Last week: 15). Justin Herbert already looks like one of the best quarterbacks in football, and Brandon Staley may be an early Coach of the Year candidate. But, these are the Chargers. They find ways to disappoint. Will they buck the trend this year? They’re next three games: versus Browns, at Ravens, versus Patriots. That’s tough.

10. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 16). They have a top-tier offense, and their defense, although not great, has enough blue-chippers (Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs) to make some plays.

11. Las Vegas Raiders (3-1) (Last week: 8). Their defense isn’t great, which puts a lot of pressure on Derek Carr and the offense.

12. Seattle Seahawks (2-2) (Last week: NR). They weren’t going to just lie down and fall to 1-3. That was a big win.

13. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) (Last week: 9). Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback coming into the 2021 NFL Draft. He still is. But even I think it may be too soon for him to take full control of the offense. Let’s see if Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy enough to play on Sunday.

14. Tennessee Titans (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly overtime loss to the Jets in New York. They did fight back though. They play down to their competition too much.

15. Carolina Panthers (3-1) (Last week: 12). That was a tough loss in Dallas. Their defense is legitimately talented, but they’re not quite the league’s No. 1 unit. Sam Darnold has been great, though, at quarterback.

16. Denver Broncos (3-1) (Last week: 13). A win there over Baltimore would have been huge. Now, they’re stuck up top the AFC West in that early-season logjam.

Next Up: New Orleans, Cincinnati, New England, Washington, Minnesota/Indianapolis

Derrick Henry vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 2: Drama-filled Sunday provides extra excitment

Week 2 in the NFL this season had a flair for the dramatic, with the late afternoon window in particular featuring wild finishes out west in Los Angeles, Arizona and Seattle. There’s still a few weeks left to play before any rash conclusions or predictions can be made, as many call September the “extended preseason.”

The Cowboys and Chargers in recent years are known for their knack of blowing big games, but each team was fairly competent in a close contest that ended in a game-winning, 56-yard field goal by Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlien.

Dak Prescott delivered in the fourth quarter for the second-straight week, and the Cowboys came away with a win this time around.

In Arizona, Kyler Murray added five more touchdowns, bringing his total to nine on the season, and firmly placing him near the top of any way-too-early MVP talk, along with Tom Brady.

But the Cardinals were lucky to come away with a win, as Kirk Cousins marched the Vikings down into field goal territory late, but Minnesota lost on a missed game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt from Greg Joseph, giving Arizona a 34-33 win, and allowing them to keep pace with better clubs in the Rams and 49ers.

The Titans and Seahawks seemed destined to play a wacky, down-to-the-wire game. The DNA of both teams usually calls for multiple double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks and comparable, gut-wrenching losses throughout the season. Sunday’s game in Tennessee didn’t disappoint, with Tennessee rallying from down 30-16 late to win 33-30 in overtime.

Leading the effort was the league’s premier bell-cow back, Derrick Henry, who amassed 237 total yards and three rushing touchdowns on 41 touches (35 carries). Henry remains one of the league’s toughest players to stop, and Seattle learned the hard way as Henry shook off a rough performance versus Arizona, in helping the Titans to a much-needed road win.

The late window, equipped with cheering fans, brilliant announcing, excitement and heartbreak felt like something we haven’t seen since the 2019 season.

Then, all those games were topped, by the Sunday night affair in Baltimore.

The Chiefs led 35-24 late before Lamar Jackson (16 carries, 107 rush yards, three total TDs) ran his way to a 36-35 lead that Baltimore held, thanks to their rookie first-round pick EDGE defender, Odafe Oweh, who stripped Kansas City running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire late after Patrick Mahomes drove them down in game-winning field goal range.

The Ravens averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and ran for 251 yards in total against a still-soft-up-the-middle Chiefs defense that relies heavily on their all-time great offense. They got burned today, but even with their flaws, they remain Super Bowl material.

Baltimore is beginning what could be a tough season-long race with the Cleveland Browns for the AFC North crown.

COVER 2

(Throughout the season, I’ll include this segment as a side-by-side form of ‘double coverage’ (pun intended) of both Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

PATRIOTS 25, JETS 6

In typical Bill Belichick-versus-rookie quarterback fashion, the Patriots defense gave Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a tough time, forcing the No. 2 overall pick into four interceptions, some ghastly, in a solid road win in the AFC East for New England. Defensively, J.C. Jackson (two interceptions) and Jonathan Jones were particularly impressive in coverage, and Adrian Phillips and Ja’Whaun Bentley stood out on the TV tape as tough, gritty players who seemingly have benefited from experience in the system, and seemed primed to take a leap.

On offense, Mac Jones (28.4 Total QBR to Wilson’s 8.7) had a more tame (and maybe even uninspiring) performance than his overly-competent (for a rookie) NFL debut versus the Dolphins. The Jets defense held Jones and the passing game in check for much of the game, as Jones often looked for his checkdowns an held the ball for far too long on other occasions. Hunter Henry grabbed a 32-yard catch downfield on a schemed play-action shot that saw him wide open, but other than that, he and fellow newcomer tight end Jonnu Smith were once again quiet. The Patriots leader in both receptions (6) and receiving yards (45) was pass-catching running back James White. New England has a solid blueprint as a top-tier defense and running game, but the passing offense needs to be more than just adequate if they are to compete with the NFL’s best. Rest assured, Mac Jones will improve as he gains more NFL experience.

BUCCANEERS 48, FALCONS 25

Watching Tom Brady throw five more touchdown passes on Sunday versus Atlanta make you wonder: Is this the best he’s ever played? His physical peak has passed, yes, but he’s still displaying unbelievable arm talent at his age (44), and statistically, he could be headed for a 2007-level of dominance, with a 2007-esque dominant team to boot.

Tampa has won a franchise-record 10 straight games dating back to 10 months ago (November 2020), which includes the organization’s second Super Bowl title (Brady’s seventh). Brady, himself, has thrown for 17 touchdown passes in his last four games, and Rob Gronkowski, perhaps his favorite passing target ever, has caught two touchdowns from Brady in each of his last three games, dating back to Super Bowl 55.

This team is absolutely loaded, but they’ll face a big, big test this week in Los Angeles versus the Rams. This is a possible NFC Championship Game preview. Can the Bucs keep Brady upright versus Aaron Donald and that inside pressure-creating pass rush?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0) (Last week: 1). When all is said and done, will Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski be the best, and most iconic passer-pass catcher combo in league history?

2. Los Angeles Rams (2-0). (Last week: 3). They showed their resolve by winning a wild back-and-forth affair in Indianapolis in the early window. Next up: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. We’ll learn a bit next week.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) (Last week: 2). That offense masks a lot of issues, and if they don’t fumble late, it would have been much of the same on Sunday night. But they gave up an 11-point lead late to a team that ran the ball to re-take the lead, and win. Kansas City doesn’t need to have a Top-10 defense to win the Super Bowl, but the unit can’t be that bad.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-0) (Last week: 7). This is a team that will figure it out, and become much better as the season goes along. They’re still winning while they learn, though. That’s scary.

5. Cleveland Browns (1-1) (Last week: 6). They let the pesky Texans hang around for far too long, but a win is a win.

6. Baltimore Ravens (1-1) (Last week: 10). The fourth time’s the charm for Lamar Jackson, who finally defeated Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. Baltimore has some defensive woes and mental lapses (occasional bad tackling, mistakes, etc.) to fix, but they are a real threat in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (1-1) (Last week: 11). They took advantage of Tua leaving early, punishing the Dolphins 35-0. They were going to win this game no matter what.

8. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) (Last week: NR). When he’s on, Derek Carr is one of the best pure passers in the league. That was on display in his de-facto game-clinching deep-heave TD pass to Henry Ruggs to beat Pittsburgh.

9. Arizona Cardinals (2-0) (Last week: 8). They are one of the league’s most exciting teams, and are led by one of the league’s most exciting players in Kyler Murray.

10. Seattle Seahawks (1-1) (Last week: 4). We mentioned Brady-to-Gronk earlier in here, but Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is another long-time dependable duo. They don’t get enough credit as a dangerous pairing. But still, that was a devastating loss for the Seahawks. That can’t happen.

11. New England Patriots (1-1) (Last week: 13). They’ll improve on offense as the season goes along. We’re still learning a lot about this team. Their defense is scary good.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) (Last week: 5). Their defense is still solid. They missed T.J. Watt late in this game. Their offense, on the other hand, is a mess. They’ll have to lean on Najee Harris, their rookie running back.

13. Denver Broncos (2-0) (Last week: 14). The Broncos are quietly a home win over the lowly Jets from beginning the season at 3-0.

14. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: NR). They badly needed that win. Derrick Henry is still a force to be reckoned with.

15. Carolina Panthers (2-0) (Last week: NR). Could their defense actually be one of the league’s better units? Also, Sam Darnold looks comfortable here.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: NR). Their offense is a machine. Dak Prescott may be enough for Dallas to take the NFC East this year.

Next Up: Miami, New Orleans, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers, Washington

Mac Jones Practice

Dawn of a new era: Can Mac Jones lead the Patriots back to the playoffs?

Twenty years ago, Bill Belichick was faced with a tough decision at quarterback. 

Taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Tom Brady made it far too difficult for Belichick to return to the New England Patriots’ then-$100 million man in Bledsoe, when the presumed franchise passer was cleared to play. 

The tough choice to stick with Brady spawned a two-decade dynasty in Foxboro that totaled six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances, 13 AFC title game berths and 17 AFC East division titles.

Now, looking to pick up the pieces after a rough first season without Brady (who added to his Super Bowl total in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers), ‘The Hoodie’ was tasked with another conundrum at QB.

Cam Newton versus Mac Jones. 

Belichick once again opted for the young, gangly passer over a former No. 1 overall pick when he decided to abruptly extinguish the Cam Newton era, releasing the 2015 NFL MVP before eager Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium ever got the chance to cheer for him in person. 

Now, the keys to the New England’s complex offense belong to Mac Jones, the franchise’s lone first-round pick quarterback (No. 15 overall) of the Belichick era, and first since Bledsoe in 1993. 

Cam Newton and Mac Jones
Mac Jones is a better fit for the Patriots’ offense than Cam Newton. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Comparing Jones to Tom Brady outright is a fool’s errand. 

Brady will forever be the face of the franchise. He’s the greatest player in NFL history. Even if Mac Jones’ career is everything the Patriots hope for, there will likely be a statue of Brady built outside the stadium in Foxboro midway through Jones’ New England career, which is something that probably won’t happen for the latter. 

However, it’s fair to say that Jones is of Brady’s mold. Shared attributes include a super-computer football mind, pocket presence, accuracy, poise, and shared “deficiencies”such as a lack of speed and the inability to make off-schedule plays consistently. 

Both have been described as having “adequate” arm strength, despite each displaying deep-shot ability and zip on the ball. (Seriously, go watch this Brady attempt to Randy Moss in Super Bowl 42, or some of his intermediate throws in his 2010 NFL MVP award-winning season.)

ESPN‘s Louis Riddick, a former player of Belichick’s and a brilliant evaluator/analyst amidst a sea of hot-take artists in the business, took to NBC Sports Boston’s ‘Next Pats’ podcast to praise the fit of Jones with the Patriots to Insider Phil Perry:

——-

“He’s known for being that cerebral, fast-thinking, risk-averse…but at the same time, calculated in terms of the big shots that he takes, type of quarterback. Last time I checked, that’s what wins in the NFL. 

…At quarterback, it’s always been about decision making and accuracy. It always will be about that. Everything else is a bonus. There’s a lot of quarterbacks in this draft that make spectacular plays with their legs. What is going to separate them from the rest, and put them in the category of being elite, is: can they make good decisions and be accurate with the football? It’s really that simple. And Mac [Jones] has shown the ability to do that. 

What did he do this preseason? He was throwing people open. 

His first preseason game, what did they do? They went up-tempo and no-huddle, because things were sluggish for him against Washington. So they go five-empty, and they are just like “zoom, zoom, zoom”. No other rookie quarterback was doing that.”

——-

The decision to go with Jones over Newton came down to Jones being the perfect leader for Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes and concepts. (As well as having the cap space to build a Super Bowl-winning team around Mac Jones’ four-year, $16 million cheap-as-hell rookie QB contract during Belichick’s presumed final coaching years). 

Many believed that New England “catered” their playbook to Newton last season, but really, Newton was asked to run the Patriots’ offense led by Brady in 2018 and 2019, with the only consistent “Cam-specific” addition to the offense being a small package of QB power-type plays utilized by Newton on the goal line and in short-yardage scenarios. 

Mac Jones and Josh McDaniels
Mac Jones is the prototypical style of quarterback to run Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes in New England. (Photo: Mark Daniels)

Jones is the perfect fit to run any of New England’s offensive iterations in the Brady era: run-heavy and play-action passing out of I-formation and Singleback under center, quick-passing and timing-based throws out of shotgun empty and spread, and up-tempo attacks with versatile pieces such as New England’s two new tight ends. 

Jones is the type of passer who thrives before the snap and goes through his progressions quicker than most after the snap. Often times last year, Newton’s struggled in New England’s play-action reads from under center. He held onto the ball for too long when scanning the field. Sure, a lack of competent pass-catchers certainly had a lot to do with that, but Newton just didn’t seem to fit New England’s offense, and the Patriots didn’t seem willing to change, nor did they have the time to do so with no preseason and a truncated training camp in the Summer of 2020.

Bill Belichick's Prototypical QB
Mac Jones fits Bill Belichick’s prototypical quarterback template to a tee, as described by Belichick here in a 1991 scouting guide he presumably gave to his Cleveland Browns staff. (Photo by Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network)

Jones is the perfect fit for what the team wants to do. And in 2021, that’s best predicted as an amalgam of their early-dynasty offense from 2001 to 2006 (and again from 2018 to 2020), and their up-tempo, quick-passing, matchup-exploiting scheme from 2010 to 2012 with the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, paired with Brady at the end of his physical peak. 

Asking for Jones to be anything close to what Brady was from about 2007 to 2017 is incredibly unfair. It won’t happen. But Jones is absolutely capable of mimicking Brady’s early years, when New England won three Super Bowls with a solid team around him. 

Up front, New England has what should be one of the NFL’s four or five best offensive lines. The Patriots have returning starters in left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu, who is moving over from right tackle to left guard, a more natural spot for him after he mostly played tackle last season, and excelled. 

The Patriots let their best offensive lineman over the past few seasons, Joe Thuney, walk in free agency for a big deal with AFC rival Kansas City based off the play of Onwenu, who as a rookie, was the eighth-highest-graded tackle (84.3) in the NFL in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus

Wynn, Onwenu and Mason are incredible run blockers, in particular. The Patriots will go heavy with pulling guards and man-blocking as a power running team once more. 

The unit may be the best run-blocking group in the NFL, and should be in the top half of the league in pass-blocking, with the latter being helped out by the last-to-be-named starting offensive lineman: right tackle Trent Brown

New England kicked off the offseason by trading back for Brown after his two seasons with the Raiders. Brown was an anchoring left tackle for New England in their 2018 Super Bowl run, which helped the 6-foot-8, 380-pound gargantuan earn a contract as massive as his size. 

Size is the name of the game with this group of front, as each starter is over 300 pounds, and the entire unit averaging a league-high 330 pounds. This is one of the bigger offensive lines in the league, if not the biggest. 

Running behind them often will be Damien Harris, who should be the team’s clear leading rusher now that Super Bowl 53 hero Sony Michel is battling for RB1 duties with the Los Angeles Rams. 

The team felt comfortable with Harris leading the charge as a traditional, downhill-running back who makes up for any talent deficiencies with his tough, and smart, ball-carrying style. 

But it’s only a matter of time that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, and J.J. Taylor, entering Year 2 out of Arizona, become significant parts of the offense. 

Taylor should be first up as RB2 as a Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead hybrid who runs with a surprising amount of power for his size (5-foot-6, 185 pounds). 

Stevenson is a bigger back (6-foot, 246 pounds) that initially drew comparisons to LeGarrette Blount, only for many to find out that he is surprisingly agile as a make-you-miss runner who will excel in shotgun, inside-zone attempts, and is probably the second-best receiving back of the group behind James White. 

Speaking of White, the eight-year-pro, and longtime Patriots hero, stands the most to gain from the switch from Cam Newton to Mac Jones at quarterback. The Patriots can now turn to its quick-passing attack that historically feeds its pass-catching backs. That wasn’t really Cam’s game. So White, who had less receiving yards (375) and receiving scores (one) than he’s had since his rookie year (where he barely played) should have a resurgence on screens, as well as flat routes and option routes from the backfield on 3rd-and-5-and-under situations. 

The reimplementation of White as a factor in the offense is just one of a slew of factors that should help improve won of the most inefficient passing offenses of the 21st century last season. 

The team threw a league-worst 10 touchdown passes last season, and ranked 27th in passing in Football Outsiders‘ renowned DVOA stat. 

To help combat the issues, Belichick overhauled the tight end position by making headlines with not one, but two free agency splashes at the position in Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed). 

The offense will be led by rookie Mac Jones, but will revolve around the O-line, running game, and play-action passing to what should be two phenomenal chess pieces in Smith and Henry for McDaniels’ play-calling. 

12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) has long been a staple of New England offenses, but with limited personnel post-Gronk, the team has barely used the tight end position. The Patriots ran 12 personnel in just two-percent of offensive snaps (22 snaps) in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats, a league low, and New England has only three touchdown receptions from tight ends in the last two seasons combined. Quite simply, they’ve ignored the position during games because they’ve had to, due to a lack of talent. Now, they likely will use more two-tight end sets than any team in the league. 

In Henry they have more of a traditional ‘Y’ tight end who is capable in-line as a blocker, and can spread out as a pass-catcher in looks such as a shotgun 3×1 setup, where the former Charger would project as a backside ‘X’ receiver a la Travis Kelce in Kansas City. 

Smith, a former Tennesee Titan, is more of a rare breed as a Swiss army knife-type player who can line up on the line, in the slot, as an H-back, fullback, or even running back. McDaniels will look to get him matched up on slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs in hopes of utilizing Smith’s incredible yards-after-the-catch ability, in which he has averaged 6.8 YAC for his career, by using a blend of power and finesse as a fully-aware, movement player with supreme ball carrier vision, athleticism and toughness for his position.

On the surface, it would seem lazy to compare the Henry-Smith combination to the great Gronk-Hernandez tandem from 2010 to 2012, but the archetypes seem similar. Sure, Henry isn’t as powerful as Gronk, and Smith, although a much better blocker than Hernandez, doesn’t quite have the body control of the former troubled Florida Gator product, who made defenders miss after the catch perhaps better than any tight end the game has ever seen.

But, there are similarities. The Patriots should be much better in the red zone with this tight end tandem. Smith, alone, had a career-high eight touchdowns in 2020. 

Additionally, look for each to run a myriad of routes out of play-action in I-Form and Singbleback two-tight end sets. In shotgun-spread, Henry will split out wide at times, and Smith should work heavily in the middle of the field, whether it be seam routes, or quick outs from the slot, or option-routes from the backfield. 

All of this leans on Jones’ ability to get these guys the ball, of course. The Alabama QB seems to thrive in both spread and under-center, play-action looks, and is accurate when throwing the football. A bigger cause for concern with the tight ends, is the health of Henry, who is coming into Week 1 possibly banged up, and has missed 24 games in four seasons. Henry has also never played a full season of games. 

If Henry does miss time, Devin Asiasi, a 2020 third-round pick, stands to fill his place as the Y-tight end, but it’s more likely that New England will then heavily mix in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and the common 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) to make up for Henry’s absence. 

Not yet mentioned, Jakob Johnson is a traditional fullback who lacks the power of James Develin, but is a capable lead-blocker in I-formation, strong, and weak looks. Even with Smith and Henry healthy, Johnson will get his fair share of goal-line and short-yardage snaps. 

At wide receiver, the Patriots paid Nelson Agholor (2 years, $26 million, $15 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $22.5 million) to come in and help a wide receiver core that struggled mightily against man coverage in 2020. Last season, the Patriots passing offense was 31st in EPA/play versus man coverage and single-high looks.

Agholor’s contract suggests New England views him as their top receiver. The former Philadelphia Eagle was considered a bit of a first-round bust as a slot receiver, even if he burned the Patriots for a nine-catch, 84-yard performance as an underneath, quick-pass option in Philadephia’s Super Bowl 52 win over New England. 

Playing on a prove-it, one-year deal for the Raiders last year, Agholor reinvented himself as a speedy deep-threat and X-receiver, setting a career-high in receiving yards (896) and tying his high in touchdowns (8), all while ranking second in the league in yards per reception (18.7).

Agholor will be tasked as New England’s deep-shot playmaker who also runs intermediate, in-breaking routes such as crossers, from both the perimeter and the slot. There, Agholor can utilize his speed to break away from man-coverage defenders, allowing the rest of the team’s pass-catchers, such as fellow newcomer Kendrick Bourne, to work underneath. 

Bourne, coming over from San Francisco, will likely begin the season as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver who comes on the field in 11 personnel and third-down situations. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver is not known for his speed, but rather his quickness, route-running, strength/toughness and ability in the clutch on 3rd-and-7-or-so scenarios. He will be a threat underneath, in the red zone, on third down, and in crunch time. Expect Bourne to be one of the team’s more improved players in the scheme by season’s end. He has the potential, along with James White, to be a third-down security blanket pass catcher for the team’s rookie QB. 

Then, there’s Jakobi Meyers. The former North Carolina State QB-turned-receiver continues to defy expectations, blossoming into one of the NFL’s more competent and productive possession receivers. He ranked 10th out of 111 qualifying pass catchers in receiving yards per routes run (2.24) last year, and led the Patriots in receiving yards (776) despite not starting in the team’s first few games of 2020. 

He’ll often play in the slot in both shotgun-spread and 11-personnel looks, and as a Z-receiver/flanker option on the outside in 12 personnel. Basically, despite having a bit of a different skill set, Meyers is taking over Edelman’s role in the offense. Meyers is on an early-career, Edelman-like progression track within the offense, too. He should be a focal point in his third year in 2021.

After that, there’s 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who will miss the first few games of the season on injured reserve, and look to produce as a moving chess piece on the perimeter, in the slot, and in motion as an athlete-type player at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, who may surprise some in Year 3 after gaining confidence and experience.

Rounding out the group is Gunner Olszewski, an All-Pro punt returner and backup slot option, and newcomer Malcolm Perry, a former Navy quarterback (right up Belichick’s wheelhouse) converted to a slot receiver-running back in Miami under former Patriots coach Brian Flores. Expect him to be a gadget-type player at first  who attempts to learn the receiver position, a la Julian Edelman. Perry does have incredible quickness. 

The offense will likely get back to its roots under Mac Jones, with McDaniels reverting back to his mix-and-match approach with game plans as Jones becomes more comfortable leading the offense. The team’s chameleon-like approach was renowned in the 2010s, and was a major factor in their success under Tom Brady. 

Expect the Patriots to lean heavy on 12 personnel, power-running and play-action passing at first, before eventually leaning more on Jones’ ability to run an up-tempo, spread offense that famously uses versatile players (Jonnu Smith, James White, etc.) to exploit matchups in a timing-based, quick-passing scheme.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Mac Jones

RB — Damien Harris

‘X’ WR — Nelson Agholor

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Jakobi Meyers

‘Y’/Traditional TE — Hunter Henry

‘F’/’Move’ TE — Jonnu Smith

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Michael Onwenu

C — David Andrews 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Trent Brown

Situational positions: 

FB — Jakob Johnson

WR3 (Underneath option, 3rd-down, etc.) — Kendrick Bourne

3rd-down back/receiving back — James White

RB2/Scatback — J.J. Taylor

RB3 — Rhamondre Stevenson 

‘Y’ TE/TE3 — Devin Asiasi

WR4 — N’Keal Harry

WR5/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski 

‘Gadget’/Slot WR — Malcolm Perry

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste/Justin Herron 

* * * * * * *

For all the talk of the ineffective passing offense from last year, the Patriots defense stumbled down the ladder of the league’s top-ranked defenses, into a unit that resembled nothing of its staunch 2019 form. 

The team went from first in DVOA in total defense in 2019 to 26th last season, which included a ranking of dead-last in run defense DVOA. Those are catastrophic numbers for a Belichick-led defense. 

The unit struggled mightily last year after losing some of its key players both to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) and opt-outs (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung), and missing Stephon Gilmore, New England’s current best player, for five games due to injury. 

The Patriots’ Spending spree in free agency included an initial wave of players on defense with Van Noy returning from Miami on a two-year, $13.2 million deal. The team also signed cornerback/safety-hybrid Jalen Mills (4 years, $24 million) and plucked nose tackle Davon Godchaux (2 years, $16 million) and defensive end Henry Anderson (2 years, $7 million) from AFC East rivals. 

But their biggest offseason addition was the the signing of former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon to a four-year, $56 million deal ($32 million guaranteed). Judon already looked the part in the preseason as a menacing edge setter. 

In addition to finishing last in run defense DVOA last year, the team was also ranked last in off-tackle yards per attempt, showcasing just how bad they were in setting the edge in the run game. Chase Winovich is one of the league’s better edge rushers, but coupled with the likes of John Simon, Shilique Calhoun and Tashawn Bower last year, the team was horrendous in stopping outside runs.

Adding Judon and re-adding Van Noy to set the edge in the run game, along with the additions of Godchaux and Anderson (3rd among interior lineman with a 43 percent run-stop-win rate in 2020) to plug up the interior will transform this front seven, and give the Patriots what they want: a tough, deep depth chart of defensive lineman and linebackers for their 3-4-style (mostly) defense that they’ve shifted too since 2019. 

 

Patriots defense -- 2020 trends
The New England Patriots have mostly moved to a 3-4 style of defense since 2019, employing a “base” Nickel 2-4-5, often with three safeties, as their most-used formation.

Expect the Patriots to run a boatload of 2-4-5 with Godchaux (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and the returning Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) up front as a versatile lineman who can play both 4-3 defensive tackle an 3-4-style defensive end. Each of these men are excellent two-gapping lineman for this type of defense. The Patriots struggled last year with an endless supply of practice-squad type players and cast-offs rotating around Guy up front, which hurt the defense almost as much their deficiencies on the edge. 

This year on the edge, the aforementioned Matt Judon is probably New England’s best football player on the roster with Gilmore sidelined. He’s the strong-side, stand-up EDGE defender that is perfect for this scheme. The “Elephant” role, is what former Patriot Willie McGinest calls this role, according to CLNS Media‘s Evan Lazar

Matthew Judon -- Training Camp
Matthew Judon may be the Patriots’ best player in 2021. New England was in dire need of a player of his caliber as an EDGE defender. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Judon can use his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, athleticism and aggressiveness to stop the run, rush the passer and even play a bit of shallow pass coverage. 

Van Noy returns on the other side as the opposite EDGE on early downs, with the possibility to move inside as well. 

At off-ball linebacker, the return of Dont’a Hightower is one of the more under-the-radar, massively important stories of the entire league. The 10-year-pro is a leader on the defense, and New England missed his football wit, swagger and ferociousness up front. 

Depending on the scheme, the Patriots will have Ja’Whaun Bentley, who struggled in Hightower’s role last year, returning to his perfect fit as a “thumper” inside linebacker in 3-4 looks. 

New England also loves to employ three safeties, and the Patrick Chung role as a box safety/linebacker hybrid will certainly be utilized in some 2-4-5 looks. Last year, Kyle Dugger played mostly as a strong safety, and Adrian Phillips as a linebacker. This season, there’s a chance their roles switch, as Dugger’s tackling ability and sideline-to-sideline speed fit better in the box, with Phillips impressing many in pass coverage, specifically man coverage on tight ends, in training camp. Although, Phillips was tough up front tackling ball carriers in 2020, even with his smaller frame for the box. But the lack of run-stuffers up front meant more lineman coming downhill and blowing Phillips out of the play. That shouldn’t happen this season. 

Rounding out the safeties is Devin McCourty, who enters his 12th season at age 34 as a dependable free safety on early downs, and Cover 1 robber defender to stop crossers (think: yellow zone in Madden) on later downs. The “Duron Harmon” role as the team’s deep safety on clear passing downs (such as 3rd-and-long) is up for grabs, with slot cornerback Jonathan Jones looking like a frontrunner. 

The Patriots loved to run a heavy amount of man coverage, with Cover 1 being their speciality. Last year, Cover 1 and Cover 3 were once again their main coverage tendencies, but the split between man coverage and zone was roughly 51 percent to 49 percent last season, according to my film review and charting.

The increase in zone coverage from the previous season probably had a lot to do with the absence of No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore for five games. 

The Patriots are vulnerable without Stephon Gilmore, who even at age 31 is arguably the best man-coverage cornerback in football on the perimeter. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is attempting to return from a torn quad, and will miss at least six weeks since he’s on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list. Gilmore is also looking for a new contract, as he’s playing on just a $7 million base salary in 2021, much lower than top-of-the-market pay for his position. So his situation is murky, making New England’s cornerback situation a possible Achilles heel on an otherwise superb-looking defense. 

With Gilmore out, J.C. Jackson, who is playing on a contract year (he’s playing in 2021 on a cheap restricted free agent tender this season), moves up to No. 1 cornerback, a position in which he struggled some last year, particularly against Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs. 

Jackson is possibly the best No. 2 cornerback in football, but stands to improve as a No. 1 option. After gaining some experience in the role last year, expect him to be even better in 2021. He’s one of the best deep-ball defenders in the game on the outside. 

Jalen Mills, a struggling cornerback-turned-competent-safety with the Eagles is the type of versatile defensive player that the Patriots covet, but it’s worth wondering how he’ll hold up as the No. 2 cornerback on the outside. He best slots in as competition for Jonathan Jones as a slot or nickel-type who plays some safety.

The Patriots should also get a lot out their non-starters, as they look for their best pairings. 

In the secondary, Joejuan Williams and newcomer Shaun Wade, Baltimore’s fifth-round pick this past spring out of Ohio State who was once considered a first-round pick prospect, are gangly cornerbacks with safety potential who will get their fare share of playing time with Gilmore out. 

At linebacker, Harvey Langi returns to the Patriots to provide depth after a three-year-stint with the rival New York Jets that saw him in a starting role at times in 2020. 

On the defensive line, there’s Carl Davis as depth for Godchaux at nose tackle after earning his spot as the lone midseason addition who could stop the run last year. Then there’s newcomer Henry Anderson and the returning Deatrich Wise Jr., a Belichick favorite, will battle it out for snaps alongside Guy and Godchaux as a 3-4 defensive end in base 3-4 looks. Wise Jr. is more of a 4-3-style player but has molded his game over the past two years to fit the 3-4, and is a great locker room presence. 

Wise Jr. will also see time as an interior rusher in clear passing situations in the Patriots’ Big Dime 2-3-6 setup, a go-to look for them on third down. 

Next to him will be rookie Christian Barmore. New England moved up to get the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Alabama defensive tackle in the second round after he fell out of his projected spot as a back-half-of-the-first-round prospect. Barmore may one day be a starter in 3-4 and 2-4-5 looks on early downs, but he’ll begin his career in the Adam Butler role as perhaps the Patriots’ best interior rusher. He should also be the lone hand-in-the-dirt lineman in Big Dime 1-4-6 looks.

Rounding out the insanely-deep EDGE position is third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, who should get a bit of a redshirt year in a learning role, and the aforementioned Chase Winovich, who will return to his pass-rush specialty position as a third-down rusher and occasional base player.

And last but not least, there’s Josh Uche, one of the team’s most important players this season, along with Dugger at safety, considering the second-year “leap” each player is projected to take. 

Josh Uche -- Training Camp
Josh Uche is projected to have a breakout second season, and perhaps may overtake Kyle Van Noy as a starting stand-up EDGE opposite Matthew Judon in base defense looks later in the season. (Screenshot: Josh Uche Instagram)

Uche has the speed and athleticism to take over the 2019 Jamie Collins role as both an early-down EDGE defender and off-ball linebacker in passing situations who often blitzes up the middle. But Uche’s raw talent at rushing the passer, with his speed, quickness and ability to bend past offensive tackles make him a fit as a full-time EDGE, where he may be able to kick Van Noy to the inside. After all, Dont’a Hightower called Uche “little Judon” for his talent and overall ability as a stand-up EDGE defender. 

Uche, a 2019 second-round pick, will certainly play often, and the possibilities of mixing and matching these pass-rushing edge rushers on clear passing downs are endless. 

Could you imagine a 1-4-6 look on a 3rd-and-10 with Barmore on the line, and four out of five of a group including Judon, Hightower, Van Noy, Winovich and Uche all along the line as stand-up rushers? That’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare. 

The Patriots have the ability to go with a bulkier 3-4, a 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles (their usual base), or a Big Dime look (2-3-6, 1-4-6) as their main defense for the majority of a game, depending on the opponent. 

They can run three safety-looks, and can also use run-stuffing personnel, pass-rushing personnel and more, all with the perfect amount of player overlap and cycling of players with different skill sets. 

This unit has the ability to be a top-five group in both points allowed and efficiency metrics (DVOA, etc.).

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior/Nose Tackle — Davon Godchaux

Interior— Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Matt Judon

EDGE — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

Box safety/LB— Kyle Dugger

S (‘Big’ Nickel/Dime/three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips

CB1 — J.C. Jackson

CB2 — Jalen Mills 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

Interior/3-4 DE — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Interior/3-4 DE  — Henry Anderson

3-4 Nose Tackle — Carl Davis

Interior pass rusher (Big Dime 2-3-6/1-4-6) — Christian Barmore

3-4 ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley

EDGE/LB/3rd-down pass rusher — Josh Uche 

EDGE/3rd-down pass rusher — Chase Winovich

EDGE — Ronnie Perkins

CB1 (PUP, out six weeks) — Stephon Gilmore

CB4 (perimeter)/slot — Shaun Wade

CB5/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

* * * * * * *

Projected record: 11-6 (AFC’s No. 6 seed)

In an attempt to reboot the team after a 7-9 transition season in a post-Tom Brady world, during a pandemic, Bill Belichick hurled an NFL-record $159.6 million of guaranteed money in free agency to attempt to fix his team on both sides of the ball. 

Some criticized the moves, calling some of the contracts “overpays,” but the moves were strategic, as the Patriots were one of just a couple teams with the available cap space in 2020 after the salary cap shrunk in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from a lack of fan attendance during last season. 

The salary cap will increase, swiftly and dramatically, I might add, which will make many of these deals closer to market value, or even below the threshold, which means the Patriots will have additional cap space after all, to build a team around rookie Mac Jones. 

Yes, it’s Jones who Belichick plucked from good friend Nick Saban’s team in Alabama, in the first round of the draft. It’s Jones, who Belichick has deemed worthy as Brady’s official successor, perhaps thanks to valuable insider info from Saban. 

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That season, it was fitting that the New England Patriots banded together as a team, built off a solid defense, top-tier play in the trenches (OL, DL), a tough power-running game, and a young quarterback leading the offense as a clutch, unafraid leader with much to learn. And let’s not forget, great coaching. 

The 2021 Patriots are a similar breed, perhaps not as sturdy in the secondary without Stephon Gilmore, but just as deep in the front seven, with a better offensive line, and perhaps, better offensive weapons, with two tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith ready to become a focal point of the offense. 

Of course, times have changed, as the game is equipped with new rules today that were not in place in 2001. High-flying offenses and great quarterback play are more important than ever. 

So even with all of this, the comparisons to the 2001 Patriots and all, this team is not quite Super Bowl-ready, but they will surprise many, challenging the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East for all 18 weeks of the regular season, before earning a wild-card berth, and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Super Bowl 53, three seasons ago. (I have them losing in the Divisional round.) 

There was a clear opposing of views between Brady and Belichick when it came to team-building philosophies. That was perhaps the main reason for Brady’s split to Tampa Bay during his final years. Brady has his high-flying offense, and now, Belichick’s vision for a more complete team has come to fruition.