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 sacked once.

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

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.    

49ers select Trey Lance

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Lance, Jones are perfect fits for 49ers, Patriots

For weeks in the lead-up to this past weekend’s NFL Draft, the much-discussed topic was the 49ers’ quarterback preference for their No. 3 pick, which they recently traded for.

As the opening night of the draft finally came, other headlines took shape (Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay? The return of Tim Tebow?!).

But as the Draft finally began, everything else sank into the background, as over 12.5 million viewers (second-most, ever) tuned into the NFL’s annual spring spectacle, internally creating hopes and dreams based off their favorite team’s first-round selections.

Some stand-out notes on the draft:

— For just the second time in NFL history, five quarterbacks were taken in the draft’s top 15 picks (1999 was the other year).

— This draft also set a record when the first seven picks off the board were offensive players.

There are many takeaways from this draft, but we begin with what I think is the best situation of any of the first-round rookie quarterback destinations…

*******

Trey Lance enters the best situation of any rookie QB. No one likes a brag about, but I’m excited to see Trey Lance land with the 49ers because I thought he was the best choice for San Francisco at pick No. 3, which is why I predicted it in my mock draft

The North Dakota State quarterback is young, raw and inexperienced, but he has the potential to be far better in the Shanahan scheme than Justin Fields or Mac Jones if he reaches that potential.

Lance does have some accuracy issues, but he’s accurate enough. He’s also athletic with a big arm and has experience leading a run-centric offense with a fullback and tight ends, with a heavy number of under-center snaps (important for a Shanahan offense) and a healthy amount of shotgun ones. Lance is also a great match for the John Elway/Jake Plummer-esque play-action and bootleg passing concepts in this offense, and can even perform designed runs like QB Power. He’s an incredibly unique talent. 

Former NFL scout Matt Manocherian also debunked some uneducated theories on Lance’s style of play in his podcast on Friday:

“This isn’t an off-schedule type quarterback,” said Manocherian.

“He very much played on schedule and within the frame of the offense, in what he was asked to do at North Dakota State. Just because you’re un-athletic, doesn’t mean you’re running outside the scheme all the time. And I think that’s the key there. It’s not that Shanahan doesn’t want a quarterback that can run. It’s that he wants a quarterback that is going to fit into the framework of his scheme.”

Some even viewed Lance as the smartest QB in the draft, stating that what North Dakota State asked Lance to do, in terms of pre-snap, was more of a responsibility than any of the other four top rookie quarterbacks had while running their college offense. Some evaluators called him a “savant,” meaning he’s just as much of an intelligent quarterback and football player as he is a burgeoning athletic marvel at the game’s most important position. 

Now, Lance will get to learn Kyle Shanahan’s system while Jimmy Garoppolo leads a Super Bowl-ready roster in 2021. It’s the perfect fit. 

 

The Patriots select Mac Jones as QB of the future, and continues to build bully-ball team revolving around running game, defense.  Most of the media (including me) had settled on the Patriots trading up for Justin Fields before selecting Mac Jones, but by letting the Bears jump them to select Fields, it seemed as if the Patriots were set on Jones over Fields all along. Former Belichick confidant Michael Lombardi (whose son, Mick, is New England’s WR coach), was pretty adamant that New England didn’t want Fields. We should have listened, but the potential pairing of Belichick with a young and athletic, new-age QB quarterback was an intriguing thought. Heck, that’s what I mocked, and wanted.

But instead, New England waited at No. 15 and let the Alabama pocket passer come to them. 

“Mac fits the style of offense that Bill [Belichick] has typically played for the past 20 years with Tom [Brady],” ESPN‘s Louis Riddick said. 

“It’s the kind of quarterback that Josh McDaniels is used to coaching from a physical skills perspective. It’s going to work perfectly for them.”

The knocks on Jones in the pre-draft process has been his lack of mobility/athleticism, adequate (at best) arm strength, and his unfair collegiate advantage of playing with Alabama and their seemingly endless supply of NFL first-round talent. 

But Jones’ strengths (football intelligence, pocket presence, accuracy, quick release, leadership) seem to place him as a perfect fit for just about any NFL offense, with New England a better fit than others. 

Jones was mostly a distributing point-guard out of the shotgun last season, often throwing vertically and mastering the RPO concept, so that’s a bit of a different offense from the under-center, two-tight end scheme that we’ll probably see New England run this season, but Jones should be able to adapt to any scheme, and his traits fit the type of offense that the Patriots ran under Tom Brady in the dynasty’s early years (2001 to 2006), and again in 2018 and 2019. 

 “Whenever Mac Jones is ready, he’s going to be able to operate the full facilities of the Patriots offense, which Cam Newton was never able to do last year, I don’t care what was around him,” said Boston Sports Journal‘s Greg Bedard via his podcast.

“Mac Jones is probably the most advanced college quarterback in terms of pre-snap, checks, reads, all the mental stuff that goes on at the line of scrimmage. I have not seen or heard of a quarterback as advanced as Mac Jones in terms of what is level of experience is.”

Jones will likely sit behind Cam Newton to begin this season, though. 

No matter who starts at quarterback for the Patriots will be leading a smash-mouth, bully-ball football team that has loaded up on the offensive line and tight end positions, as well as in the front seven on defense.

New England’s picks from Round 2 to 4 (Alabama DT Christian Barmore, EDGE Ronnie Perkins, RB Rhamondre Stevenson) seem to fit a certain style of football the Patriots are looking to get back to. 

Belichick had to give up two fourth-round picks to move up for Barmore, who was the only interior defensive lineman with a first-round grade on most draft boards. 

Perkins was a classic “best player available” pick, and Stevenson will fill the “thumper” running back role last occupied by LeGarrette Blount in 2016. 

Whoever wins the starting quarterback job for the Patriots in camp will be leading a tough, hungry football team that has been created by Belichick’s aggressive offseason and vision.

 

Justin Fields will need to embrace the “savior” role as the Bears’ QB. Fields is a fascinating prospect. Standing as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound, 4.4-speed guy, he also has a rocket arm and pin-point accuracy. 

It wouldn’t even be fair to call the Bears a quarterback purgatory because their main problem is developing/finding quarterbacks to begin with. 

But even if their trade-up to No. 11 (giving up a future first-round pick in the process) was partially an act fo desperation for GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy, I still think it was the right move, as Fields possess all the necessary skills to elevate the Bears’ offense, as long as the offense is schemed to his traits. 

“Theoretically, that’s the same offense [in Chicago] as Andy Reid runs,” said Greg Cosell via the Ross Tucker Podcast. 

“It’s the same playbook. We saw how well-defined that offense has worked for Patrick Mahomes. And Justin Fields is a high-level traits quarterback. So if you can really define the reads, the throws, through the use of personnel, formation, route concepts, based on your understanding of anticipating coverages, then I think it’s a really good spot for Justin Fields…To me, I think you should line the kid up on Day 1 and let him play.” 

The issue in Chicago is the Bears lack of offensive weapons. They have an OK tight end group, but their top two wide receivers are Allen Robinson (who is reluctantly on the franchise tag) and Darnell Mooney. Not a disaster by any means, because Robinson is a solid X-receiver who is deserving of a big contract, but the Bears should look to improve their pass-catching core while building around the young Fields. Adding Marquise Goodwin recently was a good start, but they need more. 

Fields will have heavy pressure to succeed right away from Nagy and Pace, considering their job status, and possibly the fan base, too.

He should start over Andy Dalton right off the bat, but Chicago should also be careful with his progression as a NFL QB. 

Regardless of what they do, Fields possesses a ton of mental and physical toughness, and should be up for the challenge. 

To me, the Bears made the right call to move up for him. 

 

Giants, Panthers were my favorite draft classes. Several teams, including the Dolphins, Jets, Patriots and Ravens, had stellar draft classes at first glance, in my opinion. Still, reactionary draft grades and takes are always just a means for content rather than a true prognostication, because the truth is, none of us know how any of these players will turn out. We’ll have to see it play out. That being said, I absolutely love what the Giants and Panthers did over the weekend. 

By trading with the Bears and acquiring another first-round pick for 2022, the Giants still came away with a stellar class of players (Florida WR Kadarius Toney, Georgia EDGE Azeez Ojulari, UCF CB Aaron Robinson) that will help the development of the team. 

The Giants pass-catching group is still pretty barren so adding a shifty, do-it-all slot playmaker like Toney should work wonders for QB Daniel Jones, and compliment recently-signed X-receiver Kenny Golladay nicely. 

On defense, GM Dave Gettleman and head coach Joe Judge seem to be building up a Belichick-style, 3-4 defense with big boys up front, and a stellar defensive back field.

Ojulari was a solid Round-2 pick, as he should provide value as a stand-up edge rusher in their scheme. 

With James Bradberry at outside cornerback, and the versatile Logan Ryan in the slot along with Adoree Jackson, the Giants again added to the group by selecting Robinson in Round 3, who can play both on the perimeter and in the nickel spot. 

It was a good value pick that solidifies a defensive backfield that already has Xavier McKinney and Jabrill Peppers at safety

The Giants are building a hell of a defense. 

In Carolina, the Panthers did their best to add talent to both sides of the ball. 

I do prefer Patrick Surtain II to Jaycee Horn, but in reality, both are lengthy, press-man cornerbacks who are virtually slam-dunk picks. 

Carolina knows they need to build up a defense that has needed help outside of EDGE Brian Burns and safety Jeremy Chinn. Horn should work well opposite A.J. Bouye, giving the Panthers a nasty and effective 1-2 punch at cornerback. 

The Panthers also made one of the great value picks in the draft by scooping up Iowa defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon in Round 5. Nixon was a Round 2 or 3 guy on many draft boards, but ended up falling over the weekend. He’ll be a three-technique or nose-tackle type for a team that needed some nastiness up front.

He should work well next to Derrick Brown, the defensive tackle Carolina picked in Round 1 last spring. 

On offense, the Panthers added Terrace Marshall Jr. in Round 2 as a big slot WR capable of working the seams and making tough catches via his ball-tracking skills. And in Round 3, they finally added an offensive tackle. 

Both the Panthers and Giants project as .500 teams in 2021, but each could surprise many, thanks to what they’ve done this offseason. They’re both building solid teams, and defenses in particular. 

 

Trey Lance, North Dakota State

2021 NFL Mock Draft: Who are the 49ers actually targeting at No. 3?

With just three days remaining until the 2021 NFL Draft, many questions remain regarding the top of the draft board, including which quarterback the San Francisco 49ers are favoring with pick No. 3. 

Despite the above report by Ian Rapoport late Sunday night, I still wonder if Justin Fields is in the mix for San Francisco. After all, any report this close to the draft may be a smokescreen.

The 49ers’ selection, along with the Falcons and Bengals after them, will create a domino effect for the rest of the draft. 

I give my answer to all three of those picks and more here in my first-round mock with some fun possible Round 2 and 3 fits mentioned at the end. 

Full disclosure, it’s hard, or nearly futile, to predict some of the trades that annually happen in the back half of the first round, so the only trades I mulled over for this first-round mock are move-ups for a quarterback, in which I have one. 

Without further ado, my lone mock draft of the offseason this year. Enjoy. 

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1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

There should be no qualms here. Lawrence is a generational prospect, joining Peyton Manning (1998) and Andrew Luck (2012) in their own category of No. 1 overall picks with the highest of expectations over the last 20 to 25 years. 

2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU 

It seems as if the Jets have been set on Wilson for a long time now. The kid from BYU has the ability to make difficult throws off-platform at a near Aaron Rodgers level. The quarterback position in the NFL is about much more than that, but still, it’s hard to witness Wilson’s arm talent and not become smitten with his play.

3. San Francisco 49ers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State 

Most of the media (because of their sources), and many former and current NFL personnel members believe the 49ers are eyeing Mac Jones here, but I don’t see it. At least not at pick No. 3. In giving up two future first-round draft picks to move up, I believe the 49ers are eying a more talented QB. 

To me, Trey Lance best fits the Kyle Shanahan offense. He’s lauded as a super-smart prospect with heavy experience in pre-snap recognition and full-field progressions in a run-centric offense. He’s also incredibly athletic, with a big arm, and is capable of executing play-action/bootleg concepts under the Shanahan scheme, which was at its peak under John Elway and Mike Shanahan in Denver in the mid-to-late 1990s. 

That’s why Lance was my initial pick here for San Francisco a few weeks ago, and after debating back and forth between Lance (who is raw), and the slightly-more-talented Justin Fields (who is also a more accurate thrower), I’ve decided to trust my gut and go back to Lance, despite him having some issues with passing accuracy, which is an uber-important characteristic for a quarterback leading a Shanahan offense. 

Drafting Lance to sit behind Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021 would elicit comparisons to the quarterback room of the 2017 Chiefs (Alex Smith, Patrick Mahomes) and the 2011-2012 49ers (Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick). The veteran leads a talented team for a season or so before the young, more athletic quarterback of the future takes over. 

4. Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida 

If the Falcons elect not to draft a QB here — I think Trey Lance is an excellent fit under Atlanta’s new regime but he’s unavailable in this scenario — this becomes an obvious trade spot for a team like the Broncos to move up from spot No. 9. 

But if Atlanta stays put, they have their pick of any top non-QB prospect of their choosing. The Titans led the league in 12 personnel (two tight ends) usage last season under offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is now the Falcons head coach. 

10 years after the Falcons moved up to take Julio Jones with pick No. 6, the team now stays put to draft another rare athletic pass-catching talent in tight end Kyle Pitts, who’s receiver-like ability would pair nicely with Jones, Calvin Ridley and traditional tight end Hayden Hurst. 

Of course, there’s the possibility that the Falcons deal Jones for cap relief later this summer, which makes even more sense that they’d draft Pitts here. 

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon  

With Pitts off the board, the Bengals decision will basically come down to one of the top two tackles or wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who played with Joe Burrow at LSU. 

As enticing as it is to pair Chase with Burrow once more, the Bengals have to prioritize their franchise quarterback, who was pressured and sacked a ton last season in 10 games before tearing his ACL. 

The Bengals shouldn’t overthink this.

6. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

Some are wondering if the Dolphins are interested in a tackle such as Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, but Ja’Marr Chase would give the Dolphins a bonafide No. 1 receiver talent for Tua Tagovailoa. Miami traded back to No. 12 only to immediately trade back up to No. 6, most likely to land a top-tier pass catcher. 

7. New England Patriots (TRADE with Lions): Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

It’s time to get wild. 

For the Lions to trade back to No. 15, potentially bypassing their chance to pick a blue-chip player at No. 7, it will have to be worth it. The Patriots would likely need to give up this year’s first-round pick and perhaps next year’s first to move up. Detroit is going for a full rebuild under new head coach Dan Campbell, so accumulating another first-round pick next season would help that process. 

Although I think Lance is a better pure fit for New England (along with San Francisco and Atlanta), Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are master adaptors who could easily transform their offense around a talented prospect such as Justin Fields, if the board were to shake up that way with Lance going No. 3 to San Francisco.

Fields is an accurate thrower with a talented arm who also possesses immense physical and mental toughness (see: Ohio State’s CFP semifinal win over Clemson in January). He’s also 6-foot-3, 228 pounds and ran an unofficial 4.44 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s pro day. 

In an interview with the media recently, Bill Belichick said this about the possibility of trading up: 

“I would say normally something will happen and there could very well be a player there that either you don’t expect to be there or maybe he is a couple spots — maybe at 12, 13 — he’s still on the board and you really thought that he’d be gone in the top six, seven picks,” Belichick said. “And then the question comes: Do move up and try to get that player that’s fallen a little bit?”

If Fields falls this far, I think the Patriots would make the call to trade up. 

8. Carolina Panthers: Rashawn Slater, OT/G, Northwestern

The Panthers could also trade back with a QB-needy team, or select a top-tier defensive player such as Patrick Surtain II or Micah Parsons, but Rashawn Slater is a slam-dunk pick here as a protector for new quarterback Sam Darnold.

If you watch any tape of Slater from college, let it be this film against Chase Young, who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in Washington last season. 

Slater could end up being one of the two or three best players from this entire draft. 

9. Denver Broncos: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

The Broncos could opt to trade (or wait out his release) for Teddy Bridgewater to push Drew Lock at the quarterback position, but why not go with a smart distributor at QB here? 

Denver has a ton of offensive weapons with wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, tight end Noah Fant and running back Melvin Gordon. Jones would have to get used to the pro game after carving up college defenses with a slate of first-round talent at wide receiver, but pairing him with an arsenal of pass catchers would be a nice way of getting production out of Jones early. Denver can’t afford to let this roster go forward with a question mark at quarterback. Jones would be the ideal distributor-type at the position for all of Denver’s offensive talent. 

10. Dallas Cowboys: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama 

For my money, Patrick Surtain II is the safest pick in the draft. The 6-foot-2, press-man cornerback should thrive in any scheme, but will best work in a man-heavy defense (like New England). 

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is a Cover-3 guy from his time as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks during the Legion-of-Boom era, and Surtain can certainly thrive in that system as well. But Dallas would be wise to select him and let him take away opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher in man coverage. 

11. New York Giants: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

Jaylen Waddle is my favorite receiver in the draft. He possess more Tyreek Hill-ability than his former Alabama teammate Henry Ruggs, who went in the top half of the first round to Las Vegas in last year’s draft. 

This splashy pick doesn’t really fit into GM Dave Gettleman’s past, but he knows the Giants need to upgrade their offense around Daniel Jones. This is the way. 

12. Philadelphia Eagles: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

It seems as if people are either doubting DeVonta Smith outright or comparing him to Hall-of-Fame receiver Marvin Harrison. 

There’s a middle ground at play. I think Smith will be closer to Harrison than an outright bust, but his weight (166 pounds) is not something to just gloss over. 

Luckily, Smith is an A+ route runner with silky smooth skills and pass-catching ability.

The Eagles could also use a defensive player like Parsons or Jaycee Horn here, but they are in dire need of a receiver for quarterback Jalen Hurts. I’m almost a little surprised they traded back from No. 6, but in this scenario, they get one of the talented young receivers. 

13. Los Angeles Chargers: Christian Darrishaw, OT, Virginia Tech 

Much like Joe Burrow’s situation in Cincinnati, fellow 2020 draft classmate Justin Herbert needs an improved offensive line in Los Angeles, too. 

Protecting Herbert, who already has a pretty good set of weapons on offense, should be priority No. 1. They go with one of the highest-rated offensive lineman in the draft here. 

14. Minnesota Vikings: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OT/G, USC

The Vikings could use some help along the offensive line, and Vera-Tucker is one of the top prospects up front. He’s versatile, and could play either guard or tackle in the pros. 

Here’s what NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former pro scout, had to say of the USC offensive lineman: 

“I also think along the offensive line, man, I mentioned his name a little bit, but Vera-Tucker, he’s one of my favorite players in the whole draft. He can play darned near anywhere,” Jeremiah said on his pre-draft conference call with the media. “I think he’s going to be an All-Pro guard. He can hold up at tackle if you wanted him to. But you want to get better along that offensive line, I think he’s just one of the cleanest, safest picks in the whole draft.”

15. Detroit Lions (TRADE with Patriots): Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

The Lions move back and still get one of the three or four best non-QB prospects in the draft. Micah Parsons is a freak at the linebacker position. He’ll add range, speed and athleticism to a defense that needs it after failing to replicate a Patriots-style defense under Matt Patricia. 

16. Arizona Cardinals: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina 

Horn is a solid, 6-foot-1 press man coverage specialist that would fit right in with longtime Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson now in Minnesota. 

17. Las Vegas Raiders: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Miami 

One of my favorite players in the draft, Kwity Paye can fit in any scheme, whether it be a 4-3-based defense, or one utilizing 3-4 principles. 

The Raiders have already invested in the EDGE position with the signing of pass-rush extraordinaire Yannick Ngakoue, but a complete player like Paye up front would come a long way in helping build up their defense. 

18. Miami Dolphins: Zaven Collins, LB/EDGE, Tulsa  

Brian Flores goes Belichick-ian here to select the bulking Collins, a versatile linebacker prospect with size (6-5, 260 pounds) a la Dont’a Hightower. This is also the first spot where Alabama running back Najee Harris may come off the board. 

19. Washington Football Team: Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State

Washington opts to build up the trenches along the offensive line with an excellent offensive tackle prospect who packs power. 

20. Chicago Bears: Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern 

The Bears stay close to home by adding a cornerback from nearby Northwestern. Chicago did sign Desmond Trufant this offseason, but I still think drafting the young Newsome will fully help ease the loss of Kyle Fuller. 

21. Indianapolis Colts: Jaelen Phillips, EDGE, Miami 

He’s had a rough injury past, but he’s still one of the top EDGE defenders in this class, capable of fitting right into a 4-3 scheme and producing. Indianapolis is a good fit for him. 

22. Tennessee Titans: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

His recent back surgery may cause him to fall down draft boards. The Titans stop the landslide here. They have a big need at cornerback. 

23. New York Jets: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami 

They are not at all the same player, but the sheer size of Gregory Rousseau (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) makes me think new Jets head coach Robert Saleh (recently the 49ers’ defensive coordinator) may want a towering defensive lineman up front, like he had in DeForest Buckner in San Francisco. 

24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Harris could go as high as No. 18 to running back-needy Miami, but I have him sliding to Pittsburgh here. Harris is a bruising, 6-foot-2, 230-pound back who possesses ridiculous speed, burst and athleticism for his size. He seems like the perfect 20-carries-a-game guy for the Steelers. 

25. Jacksonville Jaguars: Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida

At this point, the Jaguars should just be looking to add talent, but if that talent becomes a shifty offensive weapon for Trevor Lawrence, then that’s even better. Toney would fit nicely here with Urban Meyer’s bunch. 

26. Cleveland Browns: Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky 

Davis isn’t being talked about enough. He’s an incredible athlete with speed and range that is often needed in a marquee linebacker in today’s game (think: Devin White in Tampa Bay). If the Browns are to compete with an AFC powerhouse like the Chiefs, adding Davis to help patrol the middle of the field on defense makes a lot of sense.  

27. Baltimore Ravens: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

The Ravens can no longer sit idle and ignore the wide receiver position. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has big-play potential, but he can’t do much when he’s the only receiver being keyed on by opposing defenses. 

Baltimore needs a legit possession receiver on the outside. Bateman very well could be the fourth-best receiver in this draft class. He’s an ideal X-receiver. 

28. New Orleans Saints: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

This draft is loaded with slot receivers. And we’re not talking about quick-but-not-fast, route technicians like Wes Welker or Cole Beasley. 

We’re talking about slot receivers that are almost of the Tyreek Hill mold. Blazing-fast playmakers who can take the top off a defense, while also making plays underneath, or on schemed plays (reverse, screens, etc.). 

The Saints are in need of wide receiver help, and above all, explosiveness on offense as they begin the post-Drew Brees era. 

Rondale Moore is small (5-foot-7, 181 pounds) but compact. He’s tough and has strength that compliments his 4.29 speed. 

Moore also thrives in underneath option routes and unique setups in which he could come out of the backfield. 

Sean Payton and the Saints would get a lot out of this explosive playmaker. 

29. Green Bay Packers: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB/SS, Notre Dame

The Packers could (and should) snag a receiver by Round 2 at the latest, but the athletic Owusu-Koramoah as a strong safety-linebacker hybrid may be too much to pass up here. 

Many teams are now rolling with three-safety packages in critical situations, and the Notre Dame defender can really be labeled as either a box safety or a pure linebacker in those looks. The versatility and athleticism in the middle of the field is a need for the Packers here. 

30. Buffalo Bills: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

I like the possibility of North Carolina’s Javonte Williams here for Buffalo, but in this scenario Travis Etienne is still available, so the Bills grab him. 

Buffalo badly needs a running back, and the do-it-all back from Clemson would be a nice fit. 

31. Baltimore Ravens: Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State

Instead of rolling with one of the more raw tackle prospects that could fill up the board from late Round 1 to Round 3, the Chiefs opted to trade out of this spot to get the more proven Orlando Brown Jr. from the Ravens to play left tackle. 

With another late first-round pick handy, Baltimore adds to the EDGE position with Matt Judon now in New England. Jayson Oweh has the potential to be one of the best defensive players in this class. 

He projects as both a stand-up and on-the-line rusher in the Ravens’ scheme. 

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss

With all 22 starters returning from their Super Bowl 55-winning team, the Buccaneers can do just about anything here. Many are predicting that the defending Super Bowl champions will go with Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore as an eventual replacement for Ndamukong Suh, but I think they may try to fill Antonio Brown’s spot here. 

Yes, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson should receive more playing time this year, as both have potential and a rapport with Tom Brady, but the possibility of adding an explosive slot playmaker like Elijah Moore also makes a lot of sense for Tampa. 

Moore’s NFL.com draft profile even lists Antonio Brown as his pro comparison.

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Here are 10 fun fits for Day 2 (Rounds 2 and 3) on Friday. 

33. Jacksonville Jaguars: Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State

36. Miami Dolphins: Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina

37. Philadelphia Eagles: Landon Dickerson, C/OG, Alabama

42. New York Giants: Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia

44. Dallas Cowboys: Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama

52. Chicago Bears: Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M

55. Pittsburgh Steelers: Kyle Trask, QB, Florida

67. Houston Texans: Davis Mills, QB, Stanford

90. Minnesota Vikings: Jamie Newman, QB, Wake Forest/Georgia

96. New England Patriots: Anthony Schwartz, WR, Auburn (I couldn’t resist, plus he’s the fastest player in this draft. He has olympic speed.)

Cam Newton vs Dolphins — 2020 Week 15

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 15: Where do the Patriots go from here?

When Cam Newton was sacked on 4th down late in New England’s 22-12 loss in Miami on Sunday, the Patriots already-slim playoff chances went down with him.

Technically, the Patriots entered Sunday’s contest with just a three percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the NFL community has certainly taken solace in their wicked witch being officially dead.

The mood surrounding Bill Belichick and some of the few remaining Super Bowl heroes was as you’d expect.

“It stinks to lose,” Devin McCourty said after the loss, “but I think the way we have played has been most disappointing. It just really hasn’t developed for us all year. It’s just felt like that throughout the whole season.”

“Obviously it hasn’t been our year,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ longest-tenured player (since 2008). “Obviously we haven’t done enough to be the type of team we thought we would. As to why that’s the case, it’s really hard to put your finger on it.”

Now, the Patriots will play their last two games versus AFC East opponents at home (vs Bills, vs Jets) with them having nothing to lose, and not much to gain.

The New England offense under Cam Newton (5 TD passes, 10 INT, 11 rush TDs, 44.9 Total QBR), and a sub-par pass-catching core, has not only struggled, but they’ve set back the clock on modern offenses. The difference between New England’s pulling-teeth passing game and that of some of the efficient, new-age passing offenses (let alone the Chiefs) is stark.

Soon, NFL talk will shift toward the playoffs, and the deserving teams in the postseason field.

The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The AFC East-champion Buffalo Bills. Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 New England will enter the offseason with many questions needed to be answered, including one at quarterback, which is a topic that will have its time for deep dives in the next few weeks and months.

As expected by many sensible figures before the pandemic-altered season, the Patriots did not have the team to compete, especially with their legendary quarterback of the past two decades now throwing passes in South Florida.

But in taking a big-picture look at the fraction, which side of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady wishbone would you prefer to hold if you’re Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots?

Brady could win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and he’s likely going to call it a career in the next year or two (although you can never fully assume so when we’re talking about the GOAT).

Despite some questionable draft day decisions over the last few seasons, and a few blind spots in the entire process (evaluating wide receivers), Bill Belchick is a master team-builder, an innovative and brilliant strategist, and the best coach in the history of football, and maybe, sports.

The married football coach with young children who once stated he wouldn’t be “Marv Levy coaching in his 70s.” But things are different now. Belichick is now a man on a mission — to prove himself by sustaining consistent success without Tom Brady. “The Hoodie” is a revitalized 68-year-old coach with both sons (now adults) on his coaching staff. He’s since divorced but has been in a long-time loving relationship with partner Linda Holliday. Part of Belichick’s summers are spent at Cape Cod with Linda, but most of his life still revolves around football, where a big chunk of his heart undoubtedly resides.

Now, Belichick is tasked with rebuilding the New England Patriots.

The Pats are sufficient in a few important areas already (offensive line, defensive secondary), making the rebuild seem more like one of Bill’s classic “retools” (2005-2007, 2009-2010, etc.) as opposed to a full-on rebuild — if the quarterback position was more ingrained and not Brady-less.

But aside from QB — the obvious position that will be much-talked about in the northeast this offseason — New England obviously fields a skill-position arsenal (WR, TE) that simply must be addressed. Their defensive front seven also needs some offseason attention, as a team like the Dolphins, who came into the game ranked last in yards per carry (3.6), ran for 250 yards on 42 carries (6.0 YPC) versus the Patriots behind running backs Salvon Ahmed and Matt Brieda.

But despite a nightmare season congruent with the year 2020, there is reason for optimism in 2021.

The Patriots are projected to have at least $70-ish million in cap space, depending on the league’s cap number this Spring. They’ll also field a pick in the top half of the draft for just the second time since 2003, giving them a shot at a blue-chip player.

Then, there’s the small group of young players showing promise. Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Jakobi Meyers, Michael Onwenu.

As long as there are hard-working, young talents in the building reflecting with quotes such as Chase Winovich’s in the tweet below after Sunday’s loss in Miami, the “Patriot Way” is still in tact.

 Yes, New England’s young core is not that exciting on paper, but with Belchick, and an arsenal of offseason tools (cap space, draft) to reshape this team, it’s at least exciting to see which way Belichick goes.

They most certainly will address their receivers and defensive front seven.

At QB, do they re-sign Newton? Re-sign Newton and draft a rookie on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft? Do they hope former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo is released outright by the 49ers? Everything is on the table, and until they figure it out at QB, the rest may not matter, that’s evident, but everyone from Foxboro to Portland, Maine knows Bill, Nick Caserio and the Patriots front office are already planning.

This was a year of poor play and bad luck for the Patriots. But as a new year turns, New England’s hopes are that of American citizens dreaming of a post-Pandemic world. Change is coming.

“Teams that don’t make the playoffs change,” said Devin McCourty. “The 2020 Patriots — it won’t be the same in 2021.”

There’s a void… a cavity waiting to be filled with more Patriots success. Belichick and the Patriots are just getting started.

NFL MVP RACE

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Aaron Rodgers
  3. Russell Wilson
  4. Josh Allen
  5. Derrick Henry

The only change here is Josh Allen jumping into the top five. After a so-so midseason stretch, the third-year QB is revisiting his red-hot start to the season at just the right time. Still, he’s more in line with Russell Wilson than a true contender for the award. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are essentially in a two-man race with two weeks to go.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) (Last week: 1). We, as a collective non-Kansas City NFL community needed a Saints win over the Chiefs to prove that Kansas City can be beaten. It didn’t happen. The Chiefs are a collective cyborg. They are a well-oiled machine and Patrick Mahomes is a football god.

2. Buffalo Bills (11-3) (Last week: 2). With their scorching-hot play as of late, and their first AFC East title since 1995, the Bills have emerged as perhaps the most obvious challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC.

3. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 3). It seems the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them, but that’s really not the case. Rodgers is solid, and will remain so. It’s up to his supporting cast. Is their defense ready?

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 4). The Steelers should win tonight in Cincinnati, but it’s pretty clear a once-clear contender is floundering a bit in December. Injuries on defense are certainly mounting, too. Still, you wouldn’t want to see this proud franchise in January.

5. New Orleans Saints (10-4) (Last week: 5). Defensively, the Saints beat up Mahomes at times. They had a swagger and look of a Super Bowl contender that would not play afraid. Still, they lost. Drew Brees played fairly well down the stretch but it’s still pretty clear that these are his last days. Can he do enough for one last Super Bowl run?

6. Tennessee Titans (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans are the ultimate dark horse in the AFC, a spot in which they filled admirably last season. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown are players you just don’t want to see in an outdoor playoff game. Their defense, and lack of a pass rush, may make it too tough to repeat their playoff run from last season, though.

7. Indianapolis Colts (10-4) (Last week: 9). The Colts again survived Deshaun Watson and the Texans via a Houston goal-line fumble late in the game. That’s the second such occurrence in two weeks. But any division wins are welcome.

8. Seattle Seahawks (10-4) (Last week: 10). The Seahawks are slowly working their way back into contender status in the NFC. They have a big one on Sunday versus the Rams (9-5). If they win, they clinch the NFC West. The playoffs essentially start now for Russell Wilson’s bunch.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) (Last week: 11). Ho hum, another 17-point comeback for Tom Brady. And against Matt Ryan’s Falcons, no less. TB12 looked like a product of his method on Sunday, zinging the ball around to complete the come-from-behind win. In all, Brady threw for 320 yards in the second half on Sunday, the most of any QB in the second half this season.

10. Los Angeles Rams (9-5) (Last week: 6). They were rolling before this home loss to the all-time inept New York Jets (1-13). What the hell happened?

11. Baltimore Ravens (9-5) (Last week: 13). Their cake-walk of a closing schedule should put them at 11-5 and in one of the AFC’s wild card spots, but there’s much to like about Lamar Jackson and this Ravens team that is surging at the right time, albeit against lesser competition. They’ll be a tough out in January.

12. Cleveland Browns (10-4) (Last week: 7). Their Sunday night win over the Giants in New York was a solid, hard-earned win after their taxing loss to the Ravens last week.

13. Miami Dolphins (9-5) (Last week: 12). They did what they had to do to survive the Patriots (6-8) at home with a decimated pass-catching core. If the Dolphins make the playoffs, Brian Flores really may win the Coach of the Year award, leapfrogging Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who had the lead on the award for most of the year.

14. Arizona Cardinals (8-6) (Last week: 15). That was a mighty fun game in Philadelphia, with Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts battling it out. The Cardinals should be able to hold on to the NFC’s No. 7 spot.

15. Washington (6-8) (Last week: 14). We’ll leave Washington on the list for keeping it close with Seattle, and because of the ineptitude of everyone below them here.

16. Chicago Bears (7-7) (Last week: 16). I guess the Bears go here? It feels wrong to have them in the rankings, but they earned it in Minnesota. Or at least, they earned this spot.

Next up: Minnesota, New England, Las Vegas, L.A. Chargers, Dallas

DeAndre Hopkins Hail Mary TD

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness: 10 thoughts from Week 10

Week 10 in the NFL supplied us with a Thursday night AFC South bludgeoner, a game-winning 59-yard field goal, a slew of late afternoon games scheduled around The Masters, a Sunday night upset in a monsoon, and a game-winning hail-mary pass that will likely have major playoff seeding implications.

But we begin in Arizona, where two young, new-age quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Kyler Murray), relied on their team’s prized wide receiver acquisitions (Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins) to trade scores in the final 34 seconds of an edge-of-your-seat, 32-30 Cardinals win over the Bills.

Of course, Diggs’ touchdown was more routine, with his league-best route-running skills — and brilliant throw by Allen — leading to a late Buffalo lead.

Hopkins’ jackpot-esque jump ball snag over three defenders — accentuated by the quality of defenders, including Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, and it-writes-itself Air Jordan commercial material — was miraculous, with an improbable, on-the-run assisting throw by Murray to boot.

The look on Arizona offensive tackle D.J. Humphries above says it all. The immaculate play was the signature moment of a weekend that included an incredible capper performance by Masters champion Dustin Johnson, a heartwarming, just-short comeback effort from Alex Smith, and more.

But looking forward, Hopkins’ catch did more than just give the Cardinals a come-from-behind win.

I begin listing my 10 thoughts from Week 10 with a look at the crowded NFC West.

1.NFC West logjam makes for possible photo finish. Because of Hopkins’ catch, and the Los Angeles Rams’ home win over the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC West now features three teams (Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks) tied atop the standin gs after 10 weeks. Arizona currently holds the tiebreaker thanks to their spotless division record (2-0), but with many more intradivision games to take place, things may quickly change. Seattle (6-3) has a chance to exact revenge over Arizona (6-3) when they host the Cardinals this Thursday, and the Rams (6-3) will likely have trouble in Tampa Bay next Monday night. Both Arizona and Seattle feature a top-tier, high-flying offense and a poor defense, while the Rams are more centered in their ways as a pretty good offense that relies on their foundation, and rarely steers off course, and a defense that is solid statistically, revolving around superstars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles seems to struggle on the road in games in which defenses force them to try new things, or veer off course (see their loss to the Dolphins in Miami this season), which is a major cause for concern, and reason to doubt their chances of being a true NFC contender this season. Likewise, Arizona, although one of the most fun teams in the league, lacks the defense and overall consistency to make a three or four-game run versus good teams to make the Super Bowl. They feel like a team in the midst of a 10-win season that is heading in the right direction before reaching true contender status. That leaves the Seahawks, who live or die with Russell Wilson. That’s certainly not a bad approach, but Seattle’s defense is so far removed from the Legion-of-Boom days that it is unlikely that they’ll win a slew of consecutive 34-31-type games in January en route to a Super Bowl victory. Luckily for the Seahawks, their remaining seven-game schedule is fairly easy. Thursday’s game versus the Cardinals will give us a slightly clearer picture in the division. If Seattle wins at home, they are the likely favorite to retain their lead in the division, and win it down the stretch. But if the Cardinals sweep the Seahawks, we’re likely headed for a photo-finish between all three teams.

2. Russell Wilson slides behind Patrick Mahomes in MVP race. Sticking with the Seahawks, it was just weeks ago that Wilson was looking like a shoe-in to win his first NFL MVP award. But now, the player who has never received an MVP vote has suffered some damaging losses partly by the way of his reckless turnovers. Wilson, who still leads the league in touchdown passes (28), has thrown for seven interceptions in his last four games, and has committed 10 total turnovers in that span. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes’ 25-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio compliments the Chiefs’ somehow-quiet 8-1 start. It’s just business as usual in Kansas City, and although Mahomes does have an all-time offensive coach and the league’s best set of offensive weapons outside of Tampa Bay, it’s hard to penalize the reigning Super Bowl MVP too much when he’s playing as efficiently as is. There’s more games to play, and a NFC West title with the Seahawks’ defense as is may swing the votes back in Wilson’s favor, but after 10 weeks, he is no longer the lead dog in the MVP discussion.

3. Saints, Buccaneers are class of NFC thus far, ahead of Packers, NFC West clubs. With the NFC West fielding three good-not-great teams, and the NFC L-East (I’m sorry) as is, that leaves the Green bay Packers (7-2), New Orleans Saints (7-2) and Tampa Bay Buccaneer (7-3) as the NFC’s three best teams by record. Yes, Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, but theIR struggles versus teams such as the 2019 49ers has seemingly crossed over to this season (see: their losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay) as well as their affinity for playing down to their competition, which almost cost them versus Jacksonville (1-8) this week. They have a great young cover cornerback (Jaire Alexander) and the talented Smiths’ as a pass-rushing duo, but they struggle mightily against the run, and outside of Davante Adams, the lack of an effective No. 2 receiver — despite some big plays by Marquez Valdezs-Scantling this season — is a big issue versus better teams. With the Packers looking like the NFC’s No. 3 best team, their best bet is to earn the No. 1 overall seed over the likes of the Saints and Buccaneers, who are simply better teams. New Orleans is starting to come around with their defense playing like one of the league’s best units, and Drew Brees steadily improving. But with news of Brees now out for three or more weeks with multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung, the savvy offseason decision to bring in Jamies Winston will need to pay dividends to keep the Saints afloat. The Bucs, Jameis’ old team, and apparently New Orleans’ punching bag, are simply a hard team to predict, with their variance of play as is. Sandwiched between wins over admittedly-bad defenses in the Raiders and Panthers, Tampa Bay struggled on offense moderately versus the lowly Giants, and mightily in their 38-3, embarrassing home loss to the Saints. If you go back further, the prior two weeks before the aforementioned stretch features the lowly, “is-it-4th-down?” loss in Chicago and a 38-10 beatdown of the Packers in Green Bay. Certainly, a lack of a real preseason and truncated training camp and offseason workout plan has stunted Tampa Bay’s growth. But pretty soon, a flurry of consecutive A-plus offensive performances is coming, and it may been January. Antonio Brown looks spry and Rob Gronkowski is gaining momentum. Plus, Brady and Mike Evans seem to be building a connection, and lest we forget, Tampa Bay has a solid defense that should get back on track after back-to-back sub-par outings. For New Orleans, Brees’ injury and the fact that only one of them and Tampa Bay can win their division, gives Green Bay a leg up for the NFC’s top seed, especially with the Packers’ early-season win over the Saints. But with a No. 1 seed or not, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are clearly better teams at this point in the season. Expect one of them to be playing in Tampa in February.

4. Where do Bills, Dolphins fit in AFC? The AFC is comprised of two obvious favorites in Pittsburgh (9-0) and Kansas City (8-1) and what I think is a clear No. 3 team in Baltimore (6-3), despite the latter’s issues when playing the former two, and losing two of their key players (offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, blocking tight end Nick Boyle) for the season. After that, there’s a mishmash of six more three-loss teams in the conference, but both Buffalo (7-3) and Miami (6-3) should be viewed above the rest at this point. First off, the Browns (6-3) and Raiders (6-3) aren’t serious contenders, and glaring issues remain for the Titans (6-3, defense) and Colts (6-3, Philip Rivers’ consistency), despite the latter’s sound defense. The Bills were a Hopkins miracle catch away from reaching 8-2, but now must fend off the upstart Dolphins in the race for a vital AFC East title. Both teams have talent, but Buffalo is more succesful Run-N-Gun on offense with a disappointing defense, while the Dolphins are clearly better in two of three phases (defense, special teams) of the game. Miami head coach Brian Flores has brought a Belichickian attitude and team style to Miami, and after a rough start, his defensive principles are beginning to instill in the team. The fish have now won five straight and are 3-0 under rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa, which is a reason for confidence skyrocketing in South Florida. Although not exactly a “win-now” club, the Bills are operating with urgency while Allen is in the third year of his rookie deal, meaning he has a limited cap figure on Buffalo’s books. The Bills have the team to compete with the likes of Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but their inconsistencies may be too much to overcome, at least for a Super Bowl run. In Miami, the Dolphins appear to be a team of the future prematurely — and welcomingly — playing at a high level, like the Cardinals in the NFC. Both teams will be a tough out in January, and yes, both teams will make it. And both should be good in 2021 and beyond, even with the unpredictability of the league.

“We have a mentally tough team,” Flores told NFL.com after the game. “This is a hungry group. They fight for each other, and it’s important to them. They’re competitive, so they work at it and understand the fruits of that labor out on the field. It wasn’t perfect; we’ve got a long way to go.”

Miami’s next three games are versus the lowly Broncos (3-6), Jets (0-9) and Bengals (2-6-1), giving them a clear shot at 9-3.

“We know it’s hard to win in this league, and we just take it one game at a time,” Flores said.

5. Patriots find a rhythm in monsoon-filled win over Ravens. Just when the Patriots’ season seemed dead before thanksgiving, New England (4-5) upset Baltimore (6-3) 23-17 in a rainy contest on Sunday night. In their meeting last season, Jackson and the Ravens ran for 210 yards en route to a 37-20 home win over the then-undefeated Patriots, sending their season, and the dynasty, into a downward spiral. It appeared Bill Belichick certainly had been game planning for this rematch. Of course, the weather helped, but the Patriots were the better team, bulldozing over Baltimore’s No. 1 ranked rush defense for 173 yards on the ground (122 by Damien Harris), and limiting Jackson and the Baltimore offense to just two touchdown drives, which surrounded several other stagnant ones throughout the game. New England could still use some improvement through the air, but elevating wide receiver Jakobi Meyers to starter status has helped tremendously. The addition of Carl Davis at nose tackle also helped the run defense tremendously on Sunday. The Patriots have a good chance of reaching .500 when they play the Houston Texans (2-7) on the road next week. But even with their upset win, their AFC East chances are likely over and it seems like too much of a uphill battle to suggest they’ll earn a wild card spot, seeing as there are six 6-3 teams ahead of them in the race. It’s a lot to ask for the Patriots to finish the season winning six of seven from this point, while a few of those teams (not just one), goes 3-4 down the stretch. It’s not impossible, but tough. It is clear, however, that Belichick is not tanking, but simply playing, and trying to win, with the cards he has been dealt in 2020, all while evaluating his roster and certain players — including Cam Newton at quarterback — so he can make informed decisions regarding who will stay and who will go in the offseason, where New England will undoubtedly create a much different-looking team to put on the field in 2021.

6. What’s wrong with the Titans? After a 5-0 start, Tennessee (6-3) has lost three of four games, and has allowed 29 points per game during that stretch. Their 34-17 home loss versus Indianapolis (6-3) on Thursday puts them behind the Colts in the AFC South due to head-to-head tiebreaker. To make matters worse, he Titans have a tough three game stretch (at BAL, at IND, vs CLE) ahead, with their rematch with Indianapolis sticking out. But falling to 6-4, which is likely considering they are on the road versus Baltimore, would most likely kick them out of the playoff race all together, temporarily. There’s of course, many more games to play, and time for the Titans to right the ship. But it starts with their defense. Their pass rush is still abysmal. And though the air on offense, despite throwing for eight touchdowns and just one interception over their last four games, Ryan Tannehill has had accuracy issues, and is averaging just 190 yards per game during that stretch. Their shaky defense and Tannehill being unable to carry the Titans when they need him are Tennessee’s biggest worries, and they are seemingly biting them in the arse at the moment. For the Titans, continuing to rely on Derrick Henry in the running game to set up play-action passes (to A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith) to shorten games is the way to go, while hoping for a few lucky turnovers on defense.

7. Will the Steelers go undefeated? No, they won’t. I’ve been high on Pittsburgh since last season ended with them going 9-7 despite some of the worst QB play I’ve ever seen from Mason Rudolph and “Duck” Hodges. I picked them to make the AFC Championship Game before this season started, and I’m obviously sticking to that with them sitting at 9-0, with a meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) upcoming. Pittsburgh should move to 10-0, and may even go to 11-0 after a home rematch on Thanksgiving night with the Ravens. After that, they face lowly Washington at home before going to Buffalo to face the Bills. That’s where I believe they’ll falter, and if not then, it will come two weeks earlier to Baltimore, or even in Cincinnati, versus the team they just bludgeoned 36-10 on Sunday, on Monday Night in Week 15. It’s difficult to sustain this type of play all the way through December without having a reset both mentally and physically for the playoffs. Should they shoot for the undefeated season? Absolutely. We saw the eventual karma given out by the football gods to the 2009 Colts (Tracy Porter pick six off Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 44) after they rested starters halfway through a game that would have brought them to 15-0. But late in the season, these losses just, happen, to undefeated teams. The 2011 Packers were 13-0 before falling to Romeo Crennel’s defensive game plan lifted his then 5-8 Chiefs to a win over Green Bay. In 2015, Cam Newton and the Panthers were 14-0 before falling to the Falcons, 20-13, just two weeks after defeating them 38-0. Only the 2007 Patriots were able to run the table in the regular season in this era, and they ran out of steam down the stretch. So Pittsburgh, who has the best defense in the league and a rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger, will not go undefeated, but a 14 or 15-win season and the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which they need to stave off Kansas City (8-1) for, is likely, and that’s certainly good enough.

8. Washington-Detroit featured two heartwarming stories. If you can look past the obvious ugliness of a game between two bad teams, you can at least examine the product as NFL RedZone football at its most fun. It’s likely neither of these teams are making the playoffs — although Washington has a chance of winning the lowly NFC East — but the game featured a 21-point comeback by Washington, with trading field goals in the game’s final minutes, ending with a 59-yard game-winning field goal by Matt Prater. But the two most fascinating stories were Alex Smith, who has incredibly returned from one of the most gruesome leg injuries in league history, leading undermanned Washington back from 21 down to almost win, and former lockdown cornerback Aqib Talib making his NFL broadcasting debut. Is Smith, 36, the future for Washington at QB? Absolutely not. But watching Smith fighting his own battle to prove he could return from his injury is a noble battle worth glueing your eyes to screen. And what better way for your ears to follow suit with receiving some fun of their own? No, Talib is not your typical broadcaster. He’s not polished, obviously, but he was informative from the defensive side of the ball somewhat in the Tony Romo-mold in explaining offensive tendencies to viewers. And let’s face it, his fun attitude and style is a breath of fresh air amidst the usual coverage we get. So if you were able to tune into this game, or catch a good chunk of it via RedZone (like I did), than you were in for a treat.

9. The NFC East is worse than we thought. Coming into this week, we already knew this year’s NFC East was historically bad, but it’s no longer funny and cute, now, it’s just sad. The Eagles (3-5-1) were perhaps the division’s only hope at a somewhat competent victor. I pegged Philadelphia for a team that could make a mini run to 8-7-1 to take the division, and the unrewarding home playoff game that comes with it. But after their 27-17 loss to the Giants (3-7) in New York, it’s clear there is no saving this division in 2020. The television networks know this, too. They already moved Sunday’s Packers-Colts tilt into the late afternoon slot so we weren’t forced to watch the Dak Prescott-less Cowboys (2-7), normally a television cash cow, take on the Vikings (4-5) in their “America’s Game of the Week.” As it stands, I still believe Philadelphia will take the division, but the Giants do appear to have a good shot, as the team seems to be responding to head coach Joe Judge, even if they aren’t very good. But if you made me guess, I’d say Eagles take the division at 6-9-1. Yikes.

10. A unique NFL Sunday format that won’t be standard anytime soon. For those who weren’t aware, The Masters finished up on Sunday, with Dustin Johnson setting a course record, supplanting his claim, and ranking, as the world’s best golfer. Of course, The Masters is usually played in the Spring, but as the same with other events this season (NBA playoffs, etc.) the pandemic caused a unique set up in which Jim Nantz would need to take off a Sunday of football to call the final round on Sunday on CBS, which coincided with the early slate of NFL games. Because of that, the league scheduled just five games for the 1:00pm ET window, all on FOX, leaving more games (six) for the late afternoon window, which usually holds just two or three contests. Many have clamoring for an even split of games between these two windows for years, but that will never happen. You know why? It’s the same reason CBS wanted all eyes on the Masters, effectively making the NFL invert their usual format. In their current deals, CBS and FOX switch off each weekend airing a marquee, late-window game that is near-nationally televised to ensure they have a chance at a big chunk of viewers. Do you think they’d welcome everyone plopping over to NFL RedZone for both windows? No sir. So for those who enjoyed the format this weekend, don’t get used to it.

THE BETTER HALF

(Because of my detailed breakdown of many of these teams above, I decided to simply rank the teams this week, without an ensuing take. I’ll return to the old format next week!)

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0) (Last week: 1).

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). 

3. New Orleans Saints (7-2) (Last week: 4). 

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 8). 

5. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 5). 

6. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: 7). 

8. Miami Dolphins (6-3) (Last week: 10). 

9. Arizona Cardinals (6-3) (Last week: 11).

10. Indianapolis Colts (6-3) (Last week: 14). 

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-3) (Last week: 12). 

12. Seattle Seahawks (6-3) (Last week: 9). 

13. Tennessee Titans (6-3) (Last week: 6). 

14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-3) (Last week: 13). 

15. Cleveland Browns (6-3) (Last week: 15). 

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

Next up: Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta

Kyler Murray — Vs Seahawks, 2020

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 7: Cardinals rally to beat Seahawks plus Brady, Cam, Jimmy G and the Patriots’ QB situation

Week 7 gave us perhaps the most exciting weekend of this NFL season to date. From fantastic finishes to a battle of the undefeated clubs and an exciting NFC West showdown. Plus, I think there may have been a controversial pickup that everyone is talking about? And what about Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Cam Newton and the New England quarterback storyline?

So that’s why I’m using my piece to tackle multiple storylines over the weekend, starting with the Sunday night NFC West showdown in Arizona.

Kyler Murray, Cardinals down Seahawks in nail-biting NFC West contest

After Zane Gonzalez missed what should have been a 41-yard, game-winning field goal well into overtime on Sunday night, it appeared we all were witness to a similar story.

An upstart division team playing the consistent division rival juggernaut to the end, scratching and clawing, fighting, just one play away from victory, before the wheels on the engine that could came off, partly due to self-inflicted harm (like Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury icing his own kicker).

But just a few plays later, NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson throws his third interception of the night, Cardinals mighty-mouse QB Kyler Murray scoots Arizona back into field goal range, and Gonzalez redeems himself on a game-clinching 48-yarder with seconds to play in overtime.

Arizona 37, Seattle 34. And just like that, the NFC West is that much tighter.

“Don’t ever be conservative again,” Murray said he told his coach after the game. “I got you.”

Sure, the conservative approach to the missed field goal almost downed Arizona’s NFC West title hopes, but the Cardinals rallied through adversity. And we all know, there’s at least been nothing conservative about the aggressively successful way Arizona has become a threat to the league in just short time.

What Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim have done with this Arizona team in just a season and a half is honorable. Just two years removed from a dismal 3-13 year, partly with rookie first-round QB Josh Rosen, the team hired Kingsburgy in 2019, used the No. 1 overall pick to select another QB, Murray, and now have the look of at least a wild card team (maybe more) in the NFC in Year 2 of this process.

Kingsbury has fielded a unique offense that spreads out defenses across the field by using four-wide receivers sets more than any other club. With those looks, they get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins (a great pickup via a trade with the Texans), Larry Fitzgerald and other play-making receivers, while running up the gut with shifty running backs, or even Murray, when the defense spreads thin to cover the pass catchers.

And that’s just what Arizona did in their win on Sunday. Murray threw 48 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another score on 14 carries for 67 yards on the ground.

Predictably, the game turned into a wonky shootout, a Seattle Seahawks special, with Russell Wilson and Tyler Locket connecting for three scores, and the Seattle QB phenom throwing the ball 50 times, with three key interceptions, but still fielding a pretty good 74.7 Total QBR, which usually signals enough for a win.

Wilson made the best throw of the day (a beautiful deep bomb TD to Lockett) and some of the worst, including his last interception. It’s clear Seattle has major issues on defense, and on a night where Wilson was still superb, but far from perfect, Arizona was able to take advantage behind a daring effort by Murray, which included a 10-point 4th-quarter comeback reminiscent of some of Wilson’s herculean efforts over the past almost-decade.

Arizona has some defensive problems of their own. They allowed 572 total yards and failed to stop Wilson on a key 4th-down touchdown pass late that almost put the game away. But defensive coordinator Vance Joseph designed a few key zone blitzes that befuddled Wilson late, which is a rarity. Quite simply, after that aforementioned 4th-down, 4th-quarter score by Wilson to Lockett, Murray played better than his Seattle contemporary, and the Cardinals outscored Seattle 13-0 the rest of the way.

“These are the games you honestly dream about growing up, watching Sunday night football, last week playing on Monday [night] — these are the type of games you want to be a part of,” said Murray after the game. “To be a part of these games you’ve got to win and keep winning. I’m super proud of the team, the way we fought, not giving up. No matter the circumstances, just keep battling and keep battling.”

The Cardinals are probably a couple defensive pieces away from being a true contender with the likes of Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle in the NFC in 2020, but they’ll certainly be a tough out.

With Murray, and Kingsbury, they’re certainly trending upwards.

The New England QB carousel takes center stage

Just one year ago, the battle of the the 49ers and Patriots in New England in 2020 would seemingly revolve around Jimmy Garoppolo returning to Foxboro to battle Tom Brady, the man many thought he’d succeed as the Patriots quarterback, before he wasn’t.

Since then, we know what has happened. Brady in Tampa. Cam Newton in New England. Blah, blah. We don’t need to regurgitate, but we do need to re-assess what we now think of the Patriots’ current QB situation, just weeks after it looked like both Brady and the Patriots were going to win with their respective cases.

That can no longer be said about the Patriots. At least not right now.

Cam Newton (9-of-15, 98 yards, three interceptions) was abysmal for the second straight week, this time posting a laughable 3.5 Total QBR as the Patriots dropped their third straight game for the first time since 2002, 33-6 to Garoppolo’s 49ers.

Jimmy was solid, going 20-fof-25 and efficiently leading San Francisco’s unique, spread-you-thin-with-pre-snap-motion offense, save for a bad interception in the first quarter.

Still, when we talk about winning with their decision, we’re talking about New England signing Cam Newton, and trotting out their once-again, slow and not-with-the-times offense of 2019 once more, just with a different QB.

The decision by Belichick to trade Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick in 2017 is still a sound one. They were’t going to be able to keep both Brady and Garoppolo. Garoppolo was a free agent after the season, so they got something for him, and proceeded to make two more Super Bowls with Brady, winning one. But the fact that Brady simply outlived Garoppolo in New England is probably not a consolation to Jimmy, but heading to San Francisco, reaching a Super Bowl in your only full season as a starter, and downing the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in your next year, will probably do.

As for Newton, he’s been bad these past few weeks. Is it his comeback from COVID-19? A lack of practice time? A deep void of playmakers in the offense?

It’s probably all those things, coupled with the fact that Newton has also just played bad. He’s missed open receivers, held onto the ball too long, and doesn’t look comfortable.

Still, Belichick told the media that Cam would remain the starting QB going forward.

At 2-4, and with a tough game in Buffalo awaiting, the Patriots are perhaps awaiting a cold and dark football winter not seen before since 2000, Belichick’s first year in New England as head coach.

And perhaps that’s what we’re dealing with here — a “gauging-of-the-roster” season from Belichick, in which he can make trades, sign free agents (they have ample cap space next offseason) and make sound draft decisions (although their last few drafts have been bad) to put New England back in the thick of things in 2021.

It is starting to feel like Brady made the right decision in leaving the Patriots, who are at least in need of a re-tooling, if not re-build. And at age 43, chasing never-seen-before history, I don’t blame the best football player of all time creating a South Florida super team in his twilight. Heck, we didn’t blame LeBron James for it in Miami?

It adds salt to the wound that on the bleakest day of New England football this century, Brady was as sharp as we’ve seen him since perhaps 2017. He threw for four scores, including an unreal, outside-the-numbers deep ball to Scotty Miller, ran for another touchdown, and passed Drew Brees to sit atop the all-time touchdown pass list in the process.

Now, with Antonio Brown’s arrival imminent, Rob Gronkowski rounding into form as a pass catcher, and the offense catching fire to compliment one of the league’s top defenses, a seventh ring for Brady certainly seems obtainable.

Just weeks ago, Tampa’s ceiling appeared to be the NFC Divisional Round, while New England looked like it may round into the “nobody-wants-to-play-us” team of 2020, like the Titans of last season.

Instead, the Patriots are in a dark place, while Brady and Garoppolo lead surging NFC teams.

Still, even if this season continues on its path for these three teams, it’s too early to solidify a take on Belichick’s approach. This team simply needs more weapons, and Belichick the GM is up for the challenge this offseason to piece this puzzle back together.

But as for Brady, and Garoppolo, no matter what happens with Belichick’s Patriots, they’ve already won in their own way.

We’ll see if New England can eventually join the party with Cam Newton, or someone else at quarterback.

Antonio Brown joins Tom Brady, Bucs

Despite winning a tough road game in flashy fashion while passing Brees for the passing touchdown record in the process, the major news out of Tampa Bay over the weekend is still the imminent signing of Antonio Brown to a one-year deal.

Brown, 32, who may be available in Week 9 for Tampa’s rematch with the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints, has yet to post on social media in regards to his reunion with Tom Brady, but the deal should become official sometime this week or next.

Predictably, the move was followed by a storm of well-written articles on the moral stance of the Buccaneers signing Brown, and Brady’s advocacy for him.

“I’m not getting into personal conversations we’ve had together,” Brady told the media of his relationship with the controversial wide receiver.

“He’s a tremendous football player. I played with him for a brief period of time. I’m looking forward to working with him again. He’s a very hard-working guy.”

Although it feels a bit wrong to get excited at the pure football prospect of Brown and Brady connecting on the football field again in South Florida, there’s no denying that Brown fits the bill of Brady’s favorite type of receiver — the quick, shifty, route-running archetype.

Of that mold, Brown is the best receiver to ever live.

Pairing AB with an already-crowded pass-catching group of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and others seems like overkill, especially considering Tampa’s love of running the football with their staple of veteran backs (Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy), but from a QB-to-receiver standpoint, Brady to Brown is a dream connection of football IQ, talent and fluidity. Even with the two former Patriots sitting at ages 43 and 32, respectively.

But that won’t (and shouldn’t) drown out the absurdity of Brown finding work again, Brady’s continued friendship with Brown over the past year, and TB12’s call to criticized (and famous) life coach and guru Tony Robbins to help get Brown back on track.

To harken back to the bevy of national media takes on the signing, I think NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling had the most on-point take when criticizing Brady — and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, who was also wooing Brown to come to Seattle — in their misguided attempts to become friendly with Brown for pretty obvious, see-through football reasons. But alas, the prospect of a talent like Brown for a near-minimum deal on the most “all-in, win-now” football team in history is tough to pass up, especially when the two-fold move keeps Brown away from another wooing NFC contender such as Seattle.

Moral reasons, and a naive sense of confidence that Brown will remain inline, aside, this is the type of move that this type of team should make, for football reasons only.

Connor Orr, a brilliant writer for Sports Illustrated, delivered a take that I believe had the right intentions (condemning why Brown is being signed) while venturing too far into the outrage sector by first criticizing Tampa’s decision to bring in Brown, but then later insinuating it may have been too risky to bring in Brady on a farewell tour to pair with this burgeoning, lasting defense of the now and future.

I don’t see the sense in that. While fielding an up-and-coming top-tier defense and a star-studded offense, you try to find the QB that will maximize that talent, now. If you have the ability to chose between the roulette of the draft, some younger, only capable free agent (Teddy Bridgewater) or Tom freaking Brady, you take Brady if he’s available. The 43-year-old’s performance on Sunday is further proof of that.

For better or worse, Tampa is Tom’s team now. And don’t believe Arians’ post-game quote from Sunday suggesting Brady “didn’t have anything to do” with the signing of Brown. It was just months ago that Bucs head coach Bruce Arians adamantly shot down any chance of the former Steelers great coming to Tampa.

“I think he’s matured,” said Arians. “I believe in second chances.”

Now that may be true (meaning Arians’ stance, not that Brown may have matured).

But let’s call this what it is — Brady getting his wish. And with the GOAT playing as is, and the deal itself so risk-averse monetarily, it’s hard to chastise Tampa for obliging. Yet, off-the-field, there is ample reason to do so.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) (Last week: 1). The last undefeated squad, and overall best team in football, resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every few years, at least for a fleeting moment, this seems to be the case. This is a well-run franchise.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (6-1) (Last week: 2). With the contrast of Tom Brady and the Bucs versus the lowly Patriots drawing the most eyes in the late afternoon window, the Chiefs quietly dismantled the Broncos in snowy Denver. Le’Veon Bell (six carries, 39 yards) looked good in the KC offense.

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 3). Baltimore would find themselves virtually three games back (with the tiebreaker) of Pittsburgh in the AFC North if they can’t beat the Steelers at home this Sunday. This is a big game.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) (Last week: 10). It’s time to give them their due. Their defense is superb and Brady and the offense is rounding into form, with Antonio Brown on the way. Good luck to the rest of the NFL. Tampa’s ascension appears imminent.

5. Seattle Seahawks (5-1) (Last week: 5). As great as Russell Wilson was for much of Sunday night’s game, those three interceptions were killers. He’s still the clear MVP favorite, but with the Seahawks as is, you can’t make those mistakes versus opposing teams with stellar offenses. We’re beginning to see how Seattle’s season will go — they need Russ to put up a great game virtually every week to win.

6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 6). That was a nice bounce-back effort on the road, no matter how defunct this Texans team is. It’s a treat to see the Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams clicking like that.

7. Tennessee Titans (5-1) (Last week: 4). They almost came from behind again, but let’s stay grounded and admit that there is some worry in Ryan Tannehill’s ability to go against the league’s best teams (equipped with the best QBs), no matter how much he has improved as a passer. Still, they are a legitimate contender in the AFC.

8. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 7). That was an ugly showing in New York, but they did enough to beat the Jets. They have an opportunity to provide the knockout-punch to New England’s 2020 AFC East title hopes on Sunday.

9. New Orleans Saints (4-2) (Last week: 8). They’re starting to get going on offense, but their defense has been disappointing thus far. I believe the issue is fixable, though.

10. San Francisco 49ers (4-3) (Last week: 13). Just like that, here come the Niners. That blowout win over the struggling Patriots in New England had to be cathartic for Jimmy Garoppolo, who has played well these past two games. San Francisco is a team on its way back to contention in the NFC, injures and all. But they have the Seahawks in Seattle this week. That’ll be telling.

11. Arizona Cardinals (5-2) (Last week: NR). That was an incredible comeback win that proved Arizona can hang with Seattle. They’re quite similar teams, really. Two exciting QBs that make plays while proving height doesn’t matter like we thought when it comes to quarterbacks. Then, there’s the defenses, which could be the downfall of each club. Both teams make for exciting television.

12. Chicago Bears (5-1) (Last week: 9). If the Bears do win tonight, we can move them higher, but I don’t see it.

13. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) (Last week: 11). With the NFC West heating up, the Rams will have to keep pace by beating the Bears tonight.

14. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 12). We’ll put them here during their bye week. They are a clear AFC Wild Card hopeful in a tough conference. We’ll see how far Phillip Rivers can take them.

15. Cleveland Browns (5-2) (Last week: 14). They had trouble with the lowly Bengals, but it was encouraging to see Baker Mayfield lead his team down the field for a game-winning score. The loss of Odell Beckham Jr. hurts, though.

16. Miami Dolphins (3-3) (Last week: NR). Let’s move up the Dolphins to this spot during their bye. Sitting at .500, with Tua Tagovailoa set to take his first start versus the Rams on Sunday, a new era dawns for them.

Next up: Las Vegas, Carolina, Detroit, New England, Philadelphia

Arrowhead Stadium

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 4: COVID-19 issues first disruption

This space is normally occupied for the biggest story or game from the weekend’s slate. That won’t change this week.

The NFL dealt with its first batch of go-with-the-flow, hectic adjustments to their regular season schedule due to COVID-19 this week.

The circumventing seems to have worked thus far, but it would be a miracle if multiple scenarios similar to this week’s don’t pop up again. How will the NFL deal with it then?

Without a convenient plan such as moving the Steelers-Titans bout from this weekend to Week 7 (because of the teams bye weeks, etc.), to what drastic measures will the league turn to, to have a semblance of a normal season?

Will there be a Week 18? An extra week added at the end of the season for a few make-up games. Would the Super Bowl be pushed back until March? What about a 12-game regular season for all if more franchise-rampant cases such as the Titans pop up?

Not all cases will be as easy to deal with as the Patriots’ from this weekend. Just quarterback Cam Newton has tested positive for the virus (for now), and he is yet to show symptoms.

The rest of the team has taken a couple batches of tests — including after last night’s bout in Kansas City — and all results have came back negative. But with the incubation period reportedly being up to 14 days in some cases, how can we be sure that some Patriots players or staff members aren’t positive right now, and are simply getting false negatives?

There is so much at stake (family members of players, staff members, coaches or other with positive tests) in assuming that players are a 100-percent, good-to-go case for playing in these games.

The league already has set a precedent in having the Patriots and Chiefs play on Monday.

So far, the league has done an OK job at least in handling the few known cases they’ve had, but they certainly need to be more careful. The decision to play the game in Kansas City last night was not the wisest. 

The NFL has found a way to keep a 16-game regular season in tact after their first battle with COVID-19, but each ensuing battle won’t be won so easily. And they most likely will be ensuing, but we should all hope for the miracle that they won’t.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) (Last week: 1). The Chiefs have had some sluggish struggles on offense in two of their last three games, but they’ve won them both. Honestly, this is a scary thought for the rest of the league. We know they’ll regain focus as the season goes on, or when a major matchup awaits, like their beatdown win over the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 3.

2. Green Bay Packers (4-0) (Last week: 2). With all the talk of Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers’ incredible month has partly slipped under the radar. It looks like he’s acclimated to Matt LaFleur’s system.

3. Seattle Seahawks (4-0) (Last week: 3). It’s always tough to get up for an early road game after you’ve traveled from the opposite corner of the country, and thee Miami Dolphins are a pretty tough bunch. That was a good win for the Seahawks. This team has some holes on defense, but this is Russell Wilson’s best chance to get back to the Super Bowl in over five years.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) (Last week: 4). The Steelers get their bye earlier than expected after COVID-19 ran rampant through the Titans organization. They still seem like the sleeper team in the AFC, and they aren’t really a sleeper, people just aren’t talking about them enough.

5. Buffalo Bills (4-0) (Last week: 6).  Josh Allen is playing the QB position on a level field only occupied by the likes of Wilson, Mahomes and Rodgers right now. This talented Bills team is solid.

6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) (Last week: 5). That was a nice bounce-back win in Washington, but we know the Ravens are solid. They’ll now be judged on how they fare versus the AFC’s top teams.

7. Tennessee Titans (3-0) (Last week: 8). Their big bout with the Steelers has been postponed, so we’ll have to push back that big-time litmus test for this bunch. Luckily for us analysts, another awaits this week as the Bills come to Nashville. 

8. New Orleans Saints (2-2) (Last week: 9). The Saints still have all the talent in the world, and although his arm talent has greatly diminished to perhaps its last breath, Drew Brees can still win games. The Saints will be in the NFC mix come December and January.

9. New England Patriots (2-2) (Last week: 7). The Patriots have technically lost their last two meetings with the Chiefs, but it sure seems like Bill Belichick has won the battles of his defense pitted against the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes offense. Pittsburgh or Buffalo may ultimately fill this role, but this New England team — led by Belichick and Cam Newton — is the squad that KC would likely most not want to see in January.

10. Indianapolis Colts (3-1) (Last week: 13). Their defense is right with Pittsburgh’s as tthe league’s best, and Phillip Rivers is steadily improving. They are a solid, tough bunch. GM Chris Ballard has done an unbelievable job over these past few seasons. But Indy will live and die with 38-year-old Rivers at QB. Will he be enough to make them a contender? They have the roster to be just that.

11. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 10). The Rams obviously have some talent (Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, etc.) but they kind of seem just…there. It’s too early to get a sweeping read on them.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) (Last week: 12). Anytime NFL Twitter eagerly assumes Tom Brady is cooked, he cooks defenses. At one point, he went 14-for-15 for 225 yards and four scoring strikes during the Buccaneers’ 17-point comeback victory over the Chargers.

13. Cleveland Browns (3-1) (Last week: NR). It was the three-touchdown day from Odell Beckham Jr. that garnered the most headlines, but the Browns won this game behind an absurd 307-yard rushing day, and that’s without Nick Chubb, who left with an injury after six carries. The Shanahan-like, outside-zone-heavy rushing scheme that Kevin Stefanski has brought to Cleveland is working. With Chubb out at least a few weeks, the Browns should be fine leaning on Kareem Hunt.

14. Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1) (Last week: NR). This may seem like a silly jump for the Eagles after an ugly road win in San Francisco over the injury-ridden 49ers, but Philadelphia is injury-ridden themselves, dealing with emergency options at wide receiver and along the offensive line. Carson Wentz deserves some criticism, but look what he is working with. The talented Cowboys will surely get things going soon, so Philly will need to improve even to win the lowly NFC East.

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) (Last week: 11). Injuries are derailing their season. Had this team been healthy, they would have been in the mix in the NFC, even with the vaunted Super Bowl loser’s curse. But it seems the curse is alive and well, unfortunately.

16. Chicago Bears (3-1) (Last week: 15). Maybe Nick Foles isn’t the answer? That was an ugly home loss for a team that looks nothing like a 3-1 club.

Next up: Las Vegas, Dallas, Carolina, Arizona, L.A. Chargers