Patrick Mahomes - Super Bowl 54

Brent’s Extra Points: Will Mahomes become NFL’s LeBron?

The NFL’s 100th season has come and gone, with the Kansas City Chiefs honoring the league and the great Lamar Hunt by winning the AFC — in turn, winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy — en route to a Super Bowl 54 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

In a new type of column I hope to put out at least semi-weekly this offseason, I tackle some of the major NFL storylines after Super Bowl 54, in hopes of wrapping up this season and looking ahead to next.  Additionally, I’ll talk about my trip down to Miami for Super Bowl week — including which celebrities and athletes I ran into — before an update on where I might be working next.

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 Is Patrick Mahomes the greatest QB we’ve ever seen? 

Fresh off a 10-point 4th quarter comeback for his first Super Bowl win, the talk around now-Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is as expected — Will he become the GOAT? Is he the best quarterback we’ve ever seen?

For the second question, I do think the answer is yes, from a talent standpoint. But in becoming the greatest quarterback of all-time, longevity (and a few more Super Bowl titles, at least) are major factors. Several all-time great quarterbacks have had a string of great seasons — think: Aaron Rodgers — but have failed to move toward GOAT status due to inconsistency in the postseason and a lack of talent around them.

With the great Andy Reid — a Super Bowl win solidified Reid as at least a top-10 coach of all-time — at the helm, and extraordinary and unique talents such as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as pass catchers, Mahomes is set up for a few more seasons of offensive greatness and additional Super Bowl runs.

But with his rookie deal set to expire after next season, the Chiefs will soon need to give Mahomes a record contract that most likely will pay the young phenom upwards of $40 million per year. That deal will likely come sometime this summer. So soon, Chiefs GM Brett Veach will have a completely different outlook on his team’s personnel structure and salary cap management going forward in the Mahomes era.

Sometime in the next three to five seasons, Mahomes will enter a period of his career that most all-time great QBs will enter. With comfortable, early-career talent depleted or gone, and his massive cap hit limiting his team’s options to acquire talent, Mahomes will need to elevate an underwhelming, if not, abysmal supporting cast  — in the shape of a horrid defense, severe lack of offensive of weapons, or both — to the point of turning that 53-man roster into a Super Bowl contender. Brady has carried several versions of a depleted roster to at least the AFC Championship Game, and a couple of those squads to Super Bowls. Rodgers once led a 4-6 Packers squad in 2016 on an eight-game winning streak that put them in the NFC Championship Game. And what about the NFL’s second-best quarterback at the moment? Russell Wilson has proven to be one of the game’s most valuable players in leading the Seahawks to some success during the post-Legion-of-Boom era. This will be Mahomes’ true judgment time. But winning as many Super Bowl titles as he can during the early favorable period of his career (a la, Brady) also helps his lore.

If generational greats such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre represent past NBA greats such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Tom Brady represents Michael Jordan. Jordan passed all his successors to be the unquestionable GOAT, but since then, the most-talented-of-all-time LeBron James has risen to the point of Jordan’s equal, creating the most heated greatest-of-all-time conversation imaginable.

Think of Mahomes as LeBron James. He’s the most talented quarterback we’ve ever seen. Not Marino. Not Elway. Not Peyton Manning. Not Lamar Jackson. It’s Mahomes. He’s that great. But it’ll be tough to match Brady’s six (and counting) Super Bowl ring total, or his iconic moments of greatness on the biggest stage — it’ll be hard to match Brady’s legendary Super Bowl 49 and Super Bowl 51 performances, which can be likened to some of Jordan’s iconic moments, like Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

But the way Mahomes elevates his current team, always giving them a chance — Mahomes holds a 28-8 record as a starter and has never lost a game by more than seven points — matching with his unique talent and immediate success in just two seasons, it appears the Chiefs’ franchise QB is at least on track to become the best of all-time. But that is certainly easier said than done.

The preferred method to analyzing Mahomes’ future, and his play over the first two seasons, is to admire what you’re watching. Although Marino, Rodgers and Drew Brees are among the all-time great passers to make just one Super Bowl, I’m pretty confident in saying Mahomes will get back to the NFL’s biggest stage.

For now, let’s all give credit where it’s due. Congrats to Mahomes, Andy Reid, the Kansas Chiefs and their fanbase. That was quite the run.

 What’s next for the 49ers? 

On the flip side of Super Bowl 54’s coin, the 49ers suffered a devastating defeat in the franchise’s biggest game in seven years.

Up 20-10 with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, and with the ball, San Francisco failed to put the game away. Just like his Atlanta Falcons offense in Super Bowl 51, Kyle Shanahan once again struggled to the finish line via a mismanagement of the four-minute offense.

Despite a stretch in the middle of the game in which Jimmy Garoppolo completed 13 of 14 passes and a touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk, the 49ers quarterback did not have a great game overall.

And then there’s the defense, perfect for three and a half quarters before self-destructing to allow 21 points in the game’s final minutes.

Still, housing a talented young coach, quarterback and several other young marquee pieces who played extremely well in this game — rookies Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel come to mind — San Francisco theoretically should be able to stay atop (or near the top) of the NFC.

But it’s not quite that simple.

The NFC is the poster child of year-to-year turnover, with only the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks and this past string of Saints seasons showing any resemblance of a consistent Super Bowl window.

Just look at the last two NFC champions? The Eagles were loaded headed into 2018 but got old and slow quickly on offense, and have since fallen back to the pack. The Rams loaded up with talent for a two-to-three year run that would leave them cap-space-stricken afterward, but due to the inconsistency of Jared Goff, and perhaps defenses’ ability to adjust to Sean McVay’s offense, the Rams have fallen backward.

The same could be headed for Shanahan, Garoppolo and these 49ers. Could teams adjust to their brilliant offensive scheme?

And not just teams, could the Seahawks and Rams, both equipped to improve in 2020, dethrone the 49ers in the NFC West, the NFL’s toughest division?

All these questions are plausible, but I have a feeling San Francisco will remain in the double-digit win category in 2020. Whether or not they re-sign Emmanuel Sanders, the team is in need of a true No. 1 receiver to clear the lanes with jack-of-all-trades Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, the NFL’s best tight end.

With Arik Armstead set to enter free agency, the 49ers will still boast the NFL’s best defensive line with Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and possible 2020 DPOY candidate Nick Bosa remaining up front.

The 49ers ‘ fast linebacking core of Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner will also return, giving the 49ers a perfect duo combat fast offenses in the middle of the field.

But where San Francisco can stand to improve semi-dramatically is in the back-end. Other than an aging Richard Sherman, the 49ers are in need of help in the secondary. They could address this in the draft.

The initial outlook for the 49ers seems rather peachy, despite the end to their season. But a big hurdle will be the mental game in rallying after this defeat. Time will tell if they are up to the task on that front.

 What does Tom Brady truly want? And what can the Patriots do for him? 

With Tom Brady reports galore before Super Bowl 54 and a Hulu advertisement featuring Brady during the game that sparked hot-take commentary these past few days, we are now entering peak Brady mania that will dominate the next four to six weeks this offseason.

I mentioned above that Brady can be compared to the NFL as Michael Jordan is to the NBA. That’s his legacy. In fact, he’s Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Russell or whoever you believe the greatest player in NFL History is. Right now, that’s solidified. And he may have more elite seasons left. He certainly believes he does. And judging by this weekend’s reports, it appears the Patriots believe he has more left, too.

But the truth is, none of us really know what Brady, Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft are thinking right now. We don’t know what has or hasn’t been discussed and there’s no way to know, seeing how tight-lipped these men, and the Patriots organization are.

But if I had to guess, I don’t think Brady is adamant on a deal worth north of $30 million per year. I believe the Patriots supplying him with more help on offense, along with perhaps a legitimate two or three-year deal with more guaranteed money (as opposed to a two or three-year deal masked as a one-year deal, like the extension he signed last offseason) is what Brady is looking for.

I’m not naive enough to think there’s zero chance Brady may wind up elsewhere, but I think the Patriots and Brady get a deal done before mid-March that keeps him in a Patriot uniform for the final two or three years of his career.

The next step is how the Patriots plan to surround Brady with better offensive weapons.

Can Brady convince them to re-sign Antonio Brown (probably not) or Danny Amendola (this is a possibility)? Will the Patriots trade draft picks or shell out available cash in free agency to bring in marquee, veteran pass-catching weapons such as Odell Beckham Jr., Stefon Diggs, O.J. Howard, A.J. Green, Hunter Henry, etc.?

Or will the Patriots present a plan to Brady that has them investing draft capital to acquire one or more the several intriguing wide receiver prospects in this loaded draft class?

I’ll re-visit this topic if (when) the Patriots re-sign Brady, but without a dominant weapon such as Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots need versatility in their pass-catching weapons, similar to how a basketball team operates in their starting line-up.

To use 2017 as an example (Brady’s last top-notch season. He won NFL MVP), the Patriots offense featured Gronkowski at tight end, Danny Amendola as a sure-handed slot receiver, Chris Hogan as a smart, possession receiver on the outside (who could also move inside) and Brandin Cooks as the team’s home-run threat.

Despite some media members (and fans) insisting Cooks did not live up to expectations in 2017, the former Patriot was a HUGE piece of that offense. He opened up the middle of the field for Gronkowski and Amendola, while also forcing attention off of James White, giving him the ability to work against linebackers in man coverage. Without a deep threat, or any threat outside of Edelman, in 2019, teams sometimes opted to put cornerbacks on White, taking him out of the passing game.

This next season, the Patriots will roll with Edelman in the slot, and an improved (hopefully) N’Keal Harry as the team’s possession X-receiver capable of using his strength and athleticism on the outside. But the team is also in need of a deep threat. A home-run hitter at flanker that can challenge defenses deep, and consistently get separation. The Patriots don’t just need a speedster, they need a competent speedster, a la Cooks.

Even better than Cooks, is a multi-tool receiver capable of utilizing an advanced route tree outside of just fly routes and comeback patterns (basically Cooks’ repertoire). The very best available or possibly available (trade market) receivers in this category include Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Stefon Diggs. Although possible, it seems unlikely that any of those No. 1 type options will be a Patriot in 2020.

New England’s best chance for this type of receiver is to take a chance on Alabama’s Henry Ruggs in the first round. Ruggs has elite speed (may run a 4.2 40-yard dash at the combine) and is not only a deep threat, but a skilled wide receiver who can work quicker routes in a smooth fashion, setting himself up for big plays via YAC (yards after the catch). The Patriots may (probably will) need to move up a couple spots to get him, seeing as teams like the Broncos, Raiders and Eagles may opt to use their pick on Ruggs. But in adding to their pass-catching arsenal, Ruggs is the best draft option for the Patriots, in my opinion.

And of course, on top of all this, they’ll also need a competent tight end.

This offseason is set-up to be the most interesting stretch of any during the Patriots dynasty, but New England’s best chance at one last re-load will hinge on re-signing Brady first.

 A much-needed trip to Miami for Super Bowl 54 week & catching up with Kyle Van Noy

This past week I took a much-needed “friends” trip to Miami to hang out with some of my best friends on the planet. I didn’t go to the game, but enjoyed watching it with friends, while also venturing into Miami for all the hoopla surrounding the game.

Among the celebrities and athletes I bumped into were Lil Nas X and Michael Irvin.

In addition to the week’s festivities, I also was able to hang out with DeAnthony Williams, one of my best friends. Dee has since started his own company training athletes down in Miami, and in my one day visiting him, a couple of high-profile names were in the gym (I’ll keep his clients private.) I’m really proud of him.

And then, on my flight from Miami back to Boston, I got the chance to catch up with Patriots free agent-to-be Kyle Van Noy.

I first met Kyle this past summer when he was a guest on Fox Sports 1’s Fair Game with Kristine Leahy — I was working as an associate producer/writer/researcher hybrid for the show.

Because I’m a die-hard Patriots fan, I spent about 15 minutes with him discussing the defense for the upcoming season. Back in July, Kyle and I talked of a linebacker-heavy front that was set to dominate in 2019. He was right. That linebacking core was called “The Boogeymen” as New England switched to more of a 3-4 style defense that often used 3-4 principles with just two bigger down lineman.

Moving to the edge almost full-time as a stand-up 3-4 edge rusher, Van Noy enjoyed his best season as a pro, ranking 59th on Pro Football Focus’ Top 101 players list. (Van Noy posted a 84.2 PFF grade).

Well, Van Noy is now a free agent expected to garner major interest. He may get paid upward of $10 million per year. When I told Kyle to go get the money, he told me on the plane that he would love to remain in New England, saying “I want it to be here, though” referring to him staying with the Patriots. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure if Patriots free agent Jamie Collins was happy down the stretch. That could mean the New England linebacker may become a former Patriot for the second time during his career.

The Collins news given to me was interesting, but Van Noy’s eagerness to remain a Patriot is not exactly shocking. He’s told every outlet he’s interviewed with that he’d like to stay, but it was still cool to hear that in person.

Although the money he is expecting to command will likely be out of the Patriots ball park, New England would be wise to at least attempt to negotiate with its best pass rusher.

Although the offense failed to take advantage of perhaps Bill Belichick’s best defense in New England, the Patriots now know what works for them on that side of the ball. With a cornerback trio — Stephon Gilmore (DPOY), J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones (slot) — designed to slow down the defending Super Bowl champions, the Patriots would benefit from Van Noy’s presence. All they’d be missing then is one or two more big bodies up front to stop high-octane rushing attacks.

This will be an interesting free-agent case to monitor going forward. But personally, I hope Kyle breaks the bank. He deserves it.

 What’s next for me?

As you all know, Fair Game with Kristine Leahy is no longer on the air. I’m forever thankful to Kristine, my bosses and co-workers for some awesome memories. That was a thrilling job in which I learned a lot and met some good friends, all the while working and mingling with several celebrities and athletes. I loved the show and wish it could continue, but a las, life happens.

As for me now, I have a few things in the works. I’ve been speaking with a few places, and should know where I’m headed soon.

I’ll be pushing out offseason content as I see fit, heading up to the NFL Draft.

I’d just like to say, I hope you all enjoyed my coverage of yet another NFL season. That’s another one in the books! Thanks for reading.

Tom Brady vs Titans

NFL Friday Morning Madness: State of the Patriots + Divisional Round Preview

A week removed from the Patriots’ disappointing end to their 2019 season comes with perspective.

Since the loss, Tom Brady offered a reflective Instagram post (see below), special teams coordinator (and WR coach) Joe Judge left to become head coach of the New York Giants, and rumors have Brady leaving to play for the Los Angeles Chargers have already been discussed at a nauseating state. Not to mention, Josh McDaniels could be the Browns’ next head coach.

View this post on Instagram

I just wanted to say to all of our fans, THANK YOU! After a few days of reflection, I am so grateful and humbled by the unconditional support you have shown me the past two decades. Running out of that tunnel every week is a feeling that is hard to explain. I wish every season ended in a win, but that’s not the nature of sports (or life). Nobody plays to lose. But the reward for working hard is just that, the work!! I have been blessed to find a career I love, teammates who go to battle with me, an organization that believes in me, and fans who have been behind us every step of the way. Every one of us that works at Gillette Stadium strived to do their best, spent themselves at a worthy cause, and prepared to fail while daring greatly (h/t Teddy Roosevelt). And for that, we’ve been rewarded with something that the scoreboard won’t show – the satisfaction of knowing we gave everything to each other in pursuit of a common goal. That is what TEAM is all about. In both life and football, failure is inevitable. You dont always win. You can, however, learn from that failure, pick yourself up with great enthusiasm, and place yourself in the arena again. And that’s right where you will find me. Because I know I still have more to prove.

A post shared by Tom Brady (@tombrady) on

But for those who want the most realistic answers, as opposed to the most exciting (and absurd), listen up.

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It doesn’t take a football expert to realize the major problem with this season’s Patriots squad.

It was the offense.

Looking further, there were three problems with the unit, and this is where I put the blame:

Lack of talent in pass-catching group (WR, TE) — 60%

Offensive line/blocking – Inconsistency, retirement/injuries (Rob Gronkowski, David Andrews, James Develin) — 25%

Tom Brady’s decline due to age — 15%

Yes, Brady — who will turn 43 in August — is in a decline, but it’s more of a dip likened to slowly sliding down a small, snow-covered hill slowly — something you’d let your toddler do. It’s not a steep cliff, per se. Not yet.

His NFL MVP year in 2017 may be his last prime year, but of course, that was his last year with top-tier weapons in last-year-of-his-prime Rob Gronkowski and speedy deep threat Brandin Cooks.

Brady made due in 2018, even going score for score with Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs (on the road) in the AFC title game, with an over-the-hill Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett as his outside receivers.

Then came this season.

The coming and going of Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas are well-documented.

Although the Patriots could have used the latter two, Brown is the only one who truly would have transformed this offense. Despite mostly living and dying in the middle of the field post-Randy Moss, Brady was in desperate need of a receiver that could create separation and become a threat on the outside. Brown is versatile enough to line up all over the field, and win anywhere, but he failed to stay in line.

Had Brown been there, teams would have thought twice about playing man coverage across the board, but instead, New England’s pass catchers ranked 32nd (dead last) in average separation per pass play, and were second in the league in drops (34).

Mohammed Sanu — acquired from the Falcons for a second-round pick — and rookie N’Keal Harry — 2019 first-round pick — certainly attributed to those stats. Judging by his speed, Sanu’s days of being starting receiver seem over, and Harry failed to grasp New England’s playbook, or a rapport with Brady, after missing the first half of the season.

New England was also in need of any semblance of pass-catching and run-blocking at the tight end position. They got virtually none in 39-year-old Ben Watson and backup-level Matt LaCosse.

The offensive line also struggled at times before Isaiah Wynn returned from injury to put a struggling Marshall Newhouse to the bench. But struggles could also be attributed to a horrible down year from Shaq Mason after he had improved his pass blocking in 2018. The loss of David Andrews at center also hurt, and Marcus Cannon showed his age at times. Only Joe Thuney (who is now a free agent) played consistently well.

The run blocking also failed to find it’s footing with the losses of Andrews, Gronkowski and full back James Develin leading the way. The unit did find a rythmn in late December, just like last season. Sony Michel seems unworthy of a first-round pick, but he does have a knack for coming through and running hard in December and January. That counts for something.

But what now? The Patriots are scheduled to have roughly $49 million in cap space, and 12 picks in the draft.

Tom Brady should be back on a masked one-year deal that has one or two future years that serve only to mitigate Brady’s cap hit in 2020. But yes, Brady will be back, and he should.

The Patriots made their bed when they traded Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick because Brady outlasted him.

Now, with little ammo to move up to select a top-tier passer in the draft, and only soon-to-be second-year man Jarrett Stidham on the roster, there is no real replacement for Brady on the horizon.

Even the slew of available or semi-available quarterbacks this offseason — Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, — is nothing to be optimistic about, if New England is indeed hoping to continue as a consistent Super Bowl contender with no major rebuilding phase.

Re-signing Brady is the best for both the GOAT and Bill Belichick’s team.

New England is in need of an aggressive re-tooling this offseason, but it can be done. Pass catchers like A.J. Green, Amari Cooper, Eric Ebron, Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper are expected to hit free agency, and pass catchers such as O.J. Howard, Brandin Cooks and maybe even Odell Beckham Jr. may be available via trade.

Barring something unusual in Belichick’s usual draft strategy, New England’s higher-than-usual slot of the No. 23 pick in the first round will not stay as is. The Patriots are more liable to trade down, or trade away the pick for help on offense — Odell Beckham Jr. should be their main target.

On top of several high-profile moves that can be made, 34-year-old Danny Amendola hits free agency as a possible reliable target for Brady. Amendola has shown flashes in Miami and Detroit the last two seasons, and could look to return to New England for one last run.

Then there’s Gronkowski. Although he probably won’t return, the chance is always there.

Still, Brady will have to cooperate to help New England here. He’ll first have to be willing to take slightly less money than he deserves. A deal that nets him around $25 million a year should be reasonable. He deserves more, but has to take less money if he indeed wants help in the form of pass-catching personnel.

Second, he’ll have to sign his deal before March 18th to avoid New England taking on an additional $13.5 million cap hit due to his last deal signed last offseason.

Brady’s recent Instagram post (I know, speculation), Robert Kraft’s love for him, and Bill Belichick’s lack of other options at quarterback should make this deal work.

New England could also lose Thuney and several defensive pieces — Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton — could be on the move. New England should at least look to retain McCourty and special teams ace Matthew Slater for perhaps one more season each.

The defense did its part in 2019, and that was likely their peak, with this veteran group. Chase Winovich can perhaps fill Van Noy’s role and New England’s cornerback situation — Stephon Gilmore (No. 1 CB), J.C. Jackson (No. 2 CB) and Jonathan Jones (slot) should hit its position group peak in 2020, but the unit as a whole will take a dip.

The offense will need to step up. They’ll need additional personnel to do that, and perhaps familiarity at offensive coordinator. If McDaniels leaves for Cleveland, former wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea should be brought in after his one-year stint as Miami’s offensive coordinator.

The plan is in place for the Patriots to get back to their usual ways in 2020. Despite the horrid end to their season, the end is not yet here. But it’s close.

But as Brady said, he “still has more to prove.” He’s just going to need some help.

Your move, Patriots.

NFL DIVISIONAL ROUND PREVIEW

NFL Divisional Playoff logo

 

Fresh off one of the more exciting (and possibly telling) Wild Card rounds in years, the NFL’s divisional round poses intrigue in its own right.

The AFC champion will feature a quarterback not named Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisbeger for the firs time in 17 years. Soon-to-be-named 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, and college-standout-turned-pro Deshaun Watson represent the changing of the guard, and probably future of the position and the AFC.

The NFC features a matchup between two of the best quarterbacks of the past decade in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins face off in the Kyle Shanahan Bowl, which doubles as a contest between the two most complete remaining teams outside of Baltimore.

There’s a lot to uncover. Here’s a preview — and prediction — for each game.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (No. 6 seed. 11-6) AT SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (No. 1 seed, 13-3) — Saturday 4:35pm ET, NBC

Minnesota Vikings logo     San Francisco 49ers logo

Kirk Cousins defied the odds in picking up the biggest win of his career last week in New Orleans. The Vikings, a talented team in their own right, took care of what may be the second-most talented bunch of the NFC, with Minnesota being the third. The first? That would be the 49ers.

The abundance of first-round picks along the defensive line over the years was topped off by the monster acquisitions of Dee Ford and rookie Nick Bosa this offseason. Those two on the edge, paired with the underrated DeForest Buckner in the interior makes for the best defensive line in football. Expect this group to get after Cousins.

On offense, Jimmy Garoppolo has been much better in the second half of the season than he was in the first (probably because of his ACL tear in 2018), and that should continue here, albeit a talented Minnesota defense. Hitting on both midseason acquisition Emmanuel Sanders and rookie second-round pick Deebo Samuel at receiver has been huge, and having George Kittle is even bigger. Kittle is the both the best pass-catching and blocking tight end in football, and even Minnesota’s Harrison Smith will have trouble corralling him.

San Francisco will work best both working the running game and play-action throws into the mix, to fend off a Minnesota pass rush of Everson Griffen and Daniele Hunter, that got after Drew Brees last week.

Former All-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes has struggled some the past two seasons, so if Minnesota opts to use him on Sanders, the latter should have some success using his quickness against the larger Rhodes.

Minnesota will find ways to fend off San Francisco’s pass rush by running Dalvin Cook like they did last week in New Orleans. They should have some success. But Kyle Shanahan’s team will score, and Minnesota will look to Kirk Cousins to match. Richard Sherman battling Adam Thielen will be great theatre, but it’s Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph — along with Cousins — that will have to win the game for Minnesota.

The Vikings play well once more, but Jimmy G’s 49ers are up to the task. San Francisco wins a close contest via long-sustaining drives late and one key turnover forced by the pass rush.

Prediction: 49ers 30, Vikings 24

 

TENNESSEE TITANS (No. 6 seed. 10-7) AT BALTIMORE RAVENS (No. 1 seed, 14-2) — Saturday 8:15pm ET, CBS

        

After bowling over the Patriots’ top-ranked defense for 184 yards and a score — on 34 carries! — Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher this season, has now garnered 1,080 yards on the ground in just the last seven games.

Ryan Tannehill’s performance last week — 8 for 15, 72 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — left much to be desired. Even if Henry is to continue his dominant ways versus Baltimore, Tannehill will have to play better to offset what should be a ready-for-action explosion of Lamar Jackson’s offense.

The Ravens haven’t played a meaningful game since before Christmas, and should be chomping at the bit to shake off the possible rust. The health of Mark Ingram and Mark Andrews will play a major role in just how potent Baltimore’s attack is. So will the discipline and remaining spunk in the Titans’ defensive tank.

Jurrell Casey will do his best to clog up the middle lanes, but next-line-of-defense playmakers like rookie linebacker Rashaan Evans, and EDGE defender Harold Landry will need to be at their best in hopes of somewhat corralling Lamar.

Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccarro have also spent a lot of time cheating up to the line of scrimmage to help with their rush defense. They should continue that this week, while also being mindful of the short-middle in the passing game. A muddled middle with a way of slowing down the rushing attack would force Lamar to throw outside the numbers to the likes of Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead.

Technically, Tennessee has a defense that could theoretically slow down the soon-to-be NFL MVP, but listing that here is not the same as them executing.

And Baltimore’s aggressive defensive backfield consisting of Earl Thomas, Marlon Humprhey and Marcus Peters will come in to play here, probably to the detriment of Tannehill.

If the Titans can chew the clock and score touchdowns behind Henry and the occasional Tannehill play-action pass, while also holding Baltimore to under 24 points, then they have a shot.

But that seems too much to ask.

Prediction: Ravens 26, Titans 16 

 

HOUSTON TEXANS (No. 4 seed. 11-6) AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (No. 2 seed, 12-4) — Sunday 3:05pm ET, CBS

Houston Texans logo            Kansas City Chiefs logo

In a game in which only Patriots and Bears fans (check out the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft) may attest to being exciting, two of the most supernatural QBs will go at it in Kansas City.

Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

Both are liable to carry their team to 30-plus point performances. But Patrick Mahomes really doesn’t have to, at least not by himself. Deep threat Tyreek Hill and ‘Y’ receiver/tight end Travis Kelce supply him with one of the best one-two punches on offense. And on defense, Kansas City’s unit has adjusted to first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s schemes after a rocky start.

Watson has help in DeAndre Hopkins, but he’ll need fellow former first-round pick Will Fuller to acompany him on the outside. Fuller is an immaculate deep threat, if not much else. And his presence will help ease attention on Hopkins, who could see double teams, and Kenny Stills, who would maybe see Tyrann Mathieu in the slot — Mathieu has allowed a league-low 40.7 passer rating in the slot since Week 10, according to Pro Football Focus.

Houston will need to pressure Mahomes to even have a shot at winning, and although they finished the year 26th in that category (31 sacks), J.J. Watt’s return should give them more confidence there.

Houston’s defense has some major holes, but Bradley Roby isn’t one of them. The former first-round pick from Denver has played with controlled aggression, and has basically taken over for Marcus Peters as perhaps the best aggressive-style cornerback (in terms of taking chances) the past month. Will they opt to use him on Sammy Watkins, with a possible shift to man coverage on Kelce on key downs? And even then, Hill is liable to beat them deep.

Mahomes has not looked as sharp since returning from injury midseason, but he’s slowly gotten better as he has healed. But the Chiefs have been okay behind a suddenly-superb defense that should be able to stop any full-throttle plans by Houston to run out the clock with Carlos Hyde. So even though the Texans won in Kansas City (31-24) back in October behind 192 rushing yards, they are unlikely to repeat that here. Kansas City will force Houston into a shootout where they will tee off on Watson with their pass rush. And judging by  Buffalo’s seven sacks versus them last week, they’ll be able to do that.

Kansas City wins behind a few big plays on offense, and a 5-sack performance on Watson. If there is to be one blowout this week, this is the game.

Prediction: Chiefs 34, Texans 17

 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (No. 4 seed. 12-5) AT GREEN BAY PACKERS (No. 2 seed, 13-3) — Sunday 6:40pm ET, FOX

Seattle Seahawks logo       Green Bay Packers logo

On Sunday night, two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks will square off in the postseason for the first time since Russell Wilson and the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks came back to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in an overtime contest in Seattle that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

Although much has changed since then, it will be Wilson versus Rodgers once more, but this time in Lambeau Field.

The weather in Green Bay on Sunday is supposed to hover around 20 degrees, with partly sunny weather, but that’s after Green Bay is expecting to hire over 700 shovelers on Sunday morning to clear out what could be as much as 10 inches of snow for the night before. Regardless, it will be cold.

The frigid weather would benefit a fully-healthy Seattle, who’s top back — Chris Carson — rushed for 1,230 yards this season. But Carson and his next two backups, Rashaad Penny and C.J. Prosise are all out, leaving the Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch, whom they picked up before Week 17.

Looking over at Lynch on the Seattle sideline may give Rodgers enough jolt to remember the NFC title game that got away form him in Seattle. He’ll want this one. But the Packers have struggled at times on offense this season behind rookie head coach Matt LeFleur’s scheme. In Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones, the Packers have two top-tier weapons, but there’s not much after that, giving Seattle an easier time to game plan. The Seahawks’ best bet is to neutralize Jones on the ground, and then to hope for a fine performance from Jadeveon Clowney on the edge. Clowney has been inconsistent in his first season in Seattle, but at times has taken over games, showcasing why they brought him in.

Green Bay’s improved defense should be able to hold Seattle’s rushing attack down, meaning Wilson will likely run for his life throughout the game, considering Green Bay’s improved pass rush with the Smith’s — Zadarius and Preston.

But this is where Wilson thrives, when all the chips are down. Although rookie sensation D.K. Metcalf may struggle to separate versus Green Bay’s No. 1 cornerback, Jaire Alexander, Tyler Lockett should be able to find some success working out of the slot, even against 36-year-old stalwart Tramon Williams, who has been awesome this season.

The play of Seattle’s offensive line will be key here, but Wilson will extend plays on his own anyhow. He always does.

Hoping to avenge a loss that haunts him, and with the weather and home crowd backing him, this should be a game where Rodgers leads Green Bay to victory. Especially considering Seattle’s injury situation and incomplete roster.

But this feels like the last win in a heroic season for Russell Wilson, who has carried teams better than any other quarterback the past few seasons, and has been specifically good this season, even with somewhat of a December swoon. Wilson gets it done, and surprisingly gets a little help from his defense, and missed opportunities by the Packers’ offense.

Prediction: Seahawks 23, Packers 17

 

CFP NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

LSU logo         CFP NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP 2020 LOGO          Clemson logo

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler predicts double digit underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft after this game, detailing just how much talent will be on the field.

That stat doesn’t include redshirt senior Joe Burrow, who has maxed out his college eligibility to his final game, which could give him the perfect send-off — a National Championship.

The Heisman Trophy winner will look toward main target Justin Jefferson early and often, which should result in points. Although Clemson is heavily talented, LSU is the better team. Clemson should figure out a way to slow LSU, which is something that no team has done this season, but the Tigers will adjust and retaliate.

But the thing about Clemson is, they’re not scared. They have the experience, as shown by their comeback win over Ohio State in their CFP Semifinal victory. True Sophomore Trevor Lawrence is undefeated as a starter (25-0) and Clemson enters the contest not only as the defending National champions, but as a team with an 29-game winning streak.

Even against a more talented LSU squad that features a litany of pro talent on defense, Lawrence will find ways to score. Expect the game to be a back-and-forth affair with both teams scoring in the final minutes.

I have a feeling that Burrow’s season for the ages ends in him slaying Clemson, before heading to the Cincinnati Bengals as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft this spring.

Prediction: LSU 35, Clemson 31

Jimmy Garoppolo & John Lynch

NFL Monday Morning Madness: 49ers outlast Saints in season’s best game + AFC becomes clearer

Week 14 gave us yet another slate of important games, as well as a clearer picture painted in the AFC.

But we begin with the game of the year in New Orleans, whose result has sprung a clear favorite in the NFC, for the time being…

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As Robbie Gould’s game-winning 30-yard field goal went through the uprights, Jimmy Garoppolo darted onto the field in elation, sharing his excitement with the man who brought him in, GM John Lynch.

Garoppolo — 349 yards, four touchdowns — had just played his best game as a pro, leading his team to victory over Drew Brees’ in a game in which Brees threw for five touchdowns at home.

At the end of it, 94 points had been scored and the 49ers (11-2) defeated the Saints (10-3) 48-46 on the road, to lay claim to title of the NFC’s best team.

The win come on the day after the first anniversary of the passing of 49ers CEO Jed York’s brother, Tony, who committed suicide in 2018. Solomon Thomas, whose sister committed suicide in January of 2018, knew how York was feeling. The two embraced each other outside their visiting locker room after the win.

“For him, it was probably the most emotional day he’s probably had in the last year — at least that’s the way it was for me,” Thomas told NFL.com. “It was an honor just to be able to bring him that win — him and Tony and [the] entire York family. They mean the world to us. Hopefully getting the win brings a lot of peace and good memories of Tony.”

The 49ers do seem like a family. After all, they’ve been through a lot this past month, during a murderous trio of games against top-flight teams.

The 49ers were 9-1 entering a tough stretch that included games versus the Packers (10-3), Ravens (11-2) and Saints. Many thought they’d finish the stretch 1-2 at best, succumbing to the league’s most difficult stretch for any team this season. But San Francisco has risen from the onslaught, instead going 2-1, with their only two losses this season coming in a tough game versus Baltimore, and an overtime contest they should have won against the Seahawks at home.

Now, San Francisco is battle-tested, and ready for a deep postseason run. They appear to be the NFC’s top team.

Of course, even if the 49ers are certainly the NFC’s most powerful bunch, they’ll likely need to win in Seattle on Sunday night in Week 17 to risk falling from the NFC’s top spot to it’s no. 5 seed, which would mean a borderline unfair road match in Dallas or Philadelphia in early January, giving notice to the league’s seeding rules that may need re-tooling.

But for now, the 49ers will relish the win that game on a game-winning drive by Garoppolo, sprung by a monstrous 39-yard catch-and-run by George Kittle — the NFL’s best tight end — on a 4th-and-2.

On a day in which the 49ers defense fell victim to an offensive track meet, a commonality in New Orleans, Garoppolo and the offense were there to pick them up.

The 49ers now how far they can go, and they know wins like this prove they have the toughness and close-knit group that could get them to Miami in early February.

“We have a special group of people, and I’m just proud of these guys and how we have all come together, whether it’s ownership, whether it’s coaches, whether it’s players,” said an emotional Jed York after the game. “It’s just a really, really tight group of people. It’s special.”

*********

We could be in store for a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl.

In fact, that would be my pick today. They are each the two best teams in football, coming off a hard-fought contest against each other in a rainy day in Baltimore last week — in which the Ravens won 20-17 on a game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.

The Ravens keep on rolling, and Sunday was no different.

Marcus Peters broke up a 4th-down pass intended for foamier Raven John Brown, and Baltimore (11-2) won their ninth-straight game, a 24-17 win over Buffalo (9-4), bring them to a 7-1 mark against teams that have currently have winning records in 2019.

The Ravens will be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Especially after what unfolded in New England yesterday.

There is certainly reason for the Patriots (10-3) to be upset about Sunday’s officiating in their 23-16 home loss to the Chiefs (9-4), but the fact of the matter is — the Patriots offense struggled yet again. Even for New England, their chances look bleak.

This is the second December in a row that they began the month with two straight losses. No one intelligent will fully count them out going forward, but this offense might be what it is at this point.

The Patriots have lost to all three AFC division leaders at the moment — Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston — which includes the future of the AFC in quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. It’s worth wondering how they’ll respond this time around.

But give the Chiefs credit. Their defense has vastly improved under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, which is huge, considering Patrick Mahomes and the offense is currently gimpy, and playing like it.

The Chiefs really may be on a 2006 Colts path, turning on the switch to vastly improve on defense just when they need it, to go on a possible postseason run as the AFC’s No. 3 seed.

Elsewhere in the conference, Buffalo (9-4) and Pittsburgh (8-5) are tough teams battling for wild card spots who will face off on Sunday Night Football this week.

Tennessee (8-5) is 6-1 under Ryan Tannehill, and an equally tough opponent capable of playing smash mouth January football with the likes of the Ravens, Bills and Steelers, and have the talent to defeat the Patriots and Chiefs. They are a conference dark horse if there was one. But they’re unlikely to win three straight postseason games against AFC teams to get to the Super Bowl.

Tennessee will be fighting for the AFC South lead when they take on Houston (8-5) at home this week. The Texans followed up their win over the Patriots with a blowout loss to the Drew Lock-led Broncos (5-8) in a game in which they trailed 38-3 at home. Houston is Houston, and as talented as Deshaun Watson is, their flaws and deep-rooted inconsistency genuinely rule a serious run this season.

So the AFC will likely come down to Baltimore, New England and Kansas City.

And likely in that order, in terms of seeding. The Chiefs will likely travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts once more this season, in an AFC Divisional Playoff in New England.

Of course, the Patriots will have to follow up yet another gut-wrenching, alarm-sounding loss to Kansas City with a game versus the Bengals afterward — for the second time in five years.

For the Patriots, it’s once again — On to Cincinnati.

For the the Chiefs, there’s reason to be optimistic.

For the Ravens, home-field advantage is likely to be the case, and they know that a Super Bowl berth is now squarely in their sights. This is their season.

*********

The feel of this season, is that we’ll see a rematch of Baltimore and San Francisco.

These two teams are the biggest stories of the year.

New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle seem like bystanders in San Francisco’s magical season in the NFC this year.

And last year’s two AFC title game participants — New England and Kansas City — aren’t up to par with Baltimore.

A lot can change from now until Super Bowl 54, but as of now it looks like a rematch between Super Bowl 47 — Baltimore vs San Francisco — this February.

Would any one complain?

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. The race was close. Now, it’s not so close. This is Lamar’s award for the taking.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Russell has been great this season, doing his best to cover up for a somewhat-flawed Seahawks team.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. No one outside of Jackson and Wilson has a real chance at this award, but if anyone else does at all, it should be Jimmy G.

4. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. He’s missed too many games to win the award, and he hasn’t quite deserved it anyhow, but he’s played well this season. He’s being slowed down by injury, clearly.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans/Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers/ Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. An obligatory three-way tie between the two main Offensive Player of the Year candidates and Watson, who has done his best to keep the Texans afloat, but won’t be winning this award with performances like Sunday’s at home versus the Broncos. All three of these guys may be bumped off the list going forward, but they still deserve the nod here, barely.

Next up: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-2) (Last week: 1). The team to beat, still.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers have risen back to the top of the NFC. They are the conference’s best team — no question.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). Their defense failed them on Sunday. They still have a realistic shot at the No. 1 seed though, if they can take care of business down the stretch in December.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) (Last week: 8). Here come the Chiefs. Their recent performances came against the struggling offenses in Oakland and New England, but Kansas City’s defense has certainly improved.

5. New England Patriots (10-3) (Last week: 4). On to Cincinnati, Part II? This offense really may be broken. Another career test for Brady.

6. Seattle Seahawks (10-3) (Last week: 5). They got burned in Los Angeles on Sunday night. Russell Wilson really makes up for a lot with this club.

7. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 6). Something doesn’t look right with them, but they’re still lurking in the NFC.

8. Minnesota Vikings (9-4) (Last week: 7). With the Rams nipping at their heels, Minnesota will have to keep winning to ensure a playoff spot.

9. Los Angeles Rams (8-5) (Last week: 11). The Rams will likely have to win out to get in the playoff field, but their season isn’t over.

10. Tennessee Titans (8-5) (Last week: 12). The Titans play the Texans twice and the Saints at home down the stretch. If they make the postseason, they’ll have earned their berth.

11. Buffalo Bills (9-4) (Last week: 10). The Bills aren’t quite up to par with the AFC’s best. But this has still been a fun season for them.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) (Last week: 13). Mike Tomlin — Coach of the Year.

13. Houston Texans (8-5) (Last week: 9). Well, that was a thud. The Texans are in real danger of missing the postseason with a loss and a Steelers win this weekend.

14. Chicago Bears (7-6) (Last week: 16). They won’t make the postseason, but they can cause some real playoff seeding damage in what should be the final few games for Mitch Trubisky as the franchise’s starting QB.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) (Last week: NR). The Buccaneers even left a few wins out on the field this season. Jameis Winston has been complete trick or treat, as expected. But Bruce Arians seems to have this team going in the right direction, no matter who the team’s quarterback is in 2020. Let’s let the Bucs enjoy this spot for now.

16. Indianapolis Colts (6-7) (Last week: 14). The Colts season is now likely over, but they have much to look forward to in 2020 and beyond.

Next up: Philadelphia, Dallas, Cleveland 

Lamar Jackson vs 49ers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Can anyone stop Lamar Jackson, Ravens?

As I’ve said numerous times, gut check time in pro football begins after turkey day, as teams feel the added pressure that comes with important cold-weather games in December and January. Which teams are most positioned to make a run toward, and through the postseason? Which teams will fix their deficiencies in the next month?

I decided to do a column of quick-hits this week.

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, another look at Lamar Jackson and the seemingly Super Bowl-bound Ravens.

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The rain came pouring down in Baltimore, as did the NFC-leading 49ers (10-2).

The Ravens (10-2) withstood both, beating yet another top-tier contender on their way to an eighth straight victory.

This one was decided on the game’s final play — a game-winning 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, the NFL’s best kicker, despite the conditions.

“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told NFL.com. “We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for.”

The Ravens were ready again, as they were during previous big-time (and blow-out) signature wins over the likes of the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams in recent weeks.

The two best defenses this season — New England and San Francisco — use very different schemes.

The Patriots rely more on 3-4 principles with bigger defensive lineman (Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton) and a bevy of attacking linebackers to go with their league-best secondary.

The 49ers defense is a faster unit that uses the more common 4-3 look with four-down lineman all liable to rush the passer, with rookie Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner among the men up front making life easier for the likes of linebacker Fred Warner and cover man Richard Sherman.

Jackson throttled the Patriots, and was efficient enough in the rain versus San Francisco. He’s beaten them both.

The Ravens are without question the best team in football at the moment. Their defense has begun to improve, as the offense has eviscerated opponents such as the Rams, who they beat 45-6 in Los Angeles last Monday.

Maybe a possible bad-weather bout in Buffalo versus the the stingy Bills (9-3) this week presents an opportunity for a hiccup. But the Ravens are rolling, and have showed no signs of slowing down.

Baltimore just recently started utilizing speedster Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown again, as he scored twice in the win over the Rams. But Jackson is not even using the deep ball anymore, which is something he can do. His rocket arm has been throwing darts on roll-out passes and on short and intermediate level throws over the middle. And that, coupled with a Jackson-led rushing attack has rendered this offense unstoppable.

But on a day in which Jackson threw for just 105 yards and one score (and lost a fumble) — rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown, as well — it was encouraging to see them win a tough, gritty game.

“Blowing people out is easy,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith told The Athletic. “Being in a dogfight for four quarters, and always believing for four quarters, even longer if you have to, is a whole different mentality. I think to play in a game like this and fight to the end; it just helps our team realize our own resilience.”

In the end, after a defensive stop in their own territory, Baltimore’s familiar savior, Jackson, led the Ravens on a 12-play game-winning drive that ran out the remaining 6:28 on the game clock.

Until someone ends their red-hot streak — and maybe even if they do — the Ravens are the best team in football.

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Now, for my thoughts, starting with the offensively-challenged Patriots —

– The Patriots are sputtering in early December for the second season in a row. Last year they recovered by the end of the month to win it all, but watching this offense this season is like pulling teeth at this point. It’s fair to wonder if New England will remain inept offensively for the rest of the season. No pass catcher other than Julian Edelman can get any separation or has earned Tom Brady’s trust. New England used a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry and a second-round draft choice next year to bring in Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta. Both have struggled to find their footing in their few games thus far, while NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out just how frustrated Brady seemed to be with third-year Patriot Phillip Dorsett last night. That leaves just Edelman and rookie Jakobi Meyers as players who seemingly have any consistent rapport with Brady, and Meyers upset Brady on Sunday, as well.

It’s beating a dead horse at this point — and maybe, a pipe dream — but New England could really use Antonio Brown to open things up on all levels of the offense. If the Patriots are stuck with what they have for the remainder of the season, then it at least appears that the offensive line is better with the return of Isaiah Wynn, which helps the running game, and gives Brady more time to throw. But Brady struggled to find receivers on longer-developing routes, even with time, because they fail to get open. If you take out a late push that can’t yet be deciphered for ‘garbage time’ or a real improvement, the Patriots are have now scored 17, 13, and 9 points on offense the last few weeks. I believe they’ll hang onto the No. 2 seed at the very least, but they’ve already been passed by the red-hot Ravens. Can this team win in Baltimore in an AFC Championship Game? Yes, but now without improving on offense, which is something that seems nearly impossible at this point for the Patriots. But we’ve all learned our lesson with them, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

– Deshaun Watson –three touchdown passes, one receiving score on a pitch-throw from DeAndre Hopkins — was fearless and MVP-like in leading a win in Houston. Ryan Tannehill — 5-1 as a starter in 2019 — lead Tennessee to yet another big win. The Texans (8-4) and Titans (7-5) are the two remaining contenders in the AFC South, as it would be a tough climb for the Colts (6-6) at this point. Houston and Tennessee will play twice in these final four weeks, which includes a Week 17 bout in Houston. Considering they’re a game up already, the edge goes to Houston, who just played (and won) their toughest remaining game. The Titans still have wild card hopes if they fall to Houston once, but that means probably having to win a home game versus the Saints (10-2) in Week 16. If Tenneseee splits their final four games and ends up out of the field at 9-7 via tiebreakers, the team is still worth marveling at. Tannehill has taken over for Marcus Mariota and lifted up a superbly-talented, but usually inconsistent team. And with Derrick Henry bowling over defenses, the Titans are a tough team built for the playoffs.

– Two other teams built for the playoffs include the Bills (9-3) and Steelers (7-5). Both have little to no shot at advancing past the Divisional Round, if not, Round 1, but each are built for cold weather football. And considering the bleakness of Week 15’s initial Sunday Night Football matchup (Vikings-Chargers), NBC announced last night during SNF that Bills-Steelers has been moved to that Sunday night slot in two weeks. That’s a wise decision. What’s better than a possible bad-weather or cold-weather matchup between these tough clubs vying for a postseason berth in December? Josh Allen is a younger looking Ryan Tannehill with more potential, wearing the same number (jersey no. 17). It took a few months, but Allen has found his footing with offseason acquisitions John Brown and Cole Beasley. The former victimized his former team (Cowboys) over Thanksgiving.

The Steelers have mostly stayed afloat thanks to great leadership under head coach Mike Tomlin, who would get my vote for Coach of the Year if Pittsburgh is to make the postseason. The Steelers currently have the No. 6 seed due to a tiebreaker with Tennessee. The Titans can make the playoffs one of two ways, and if they somehow beat out Houston for the AFC South crown, it would be the epitome of a tough wild card matchup in Bills-Titans in Tennessee. The game would also be the first playoff matchup between the two since the Titans beat the Bills in a 1999 AFC Wild Card playoff via the ‘Music City Miracle.’ 

– One thing is for certain, as we see teams like the Titans, Bills and Steelers strutting their stuff as tough cold-weather teams, clubs like the Raiders (6-6), Browns (5-7) Cowboys (6-6) and even Eagles (5-7) don’t seem like teams that are ready for a December run this season. Cleveland is just a disappointing mess. Oakland is virtually out after two embarrassing losses to the Jets and Chiefs by a combined score of 74-12, while at least one of Philadelphia and Dallas will get in via an NFC East title. The Eagles are usually a tough team that improves as the season moves along, and Dallas is seemingly entering their usual late-season swoon. But I give the edge to the Cowboys at the moment. They may fire Jason Garrett anyway if they suffer a rough home postseason loss in the Wild Card round, but the Eagles are too beat up on offense to beat Dallas right now, even at home. If I had to choose today, I say Dallas wins in Philadelphia on Week 16, to take the division. But I may change my opinion from now until that game begins.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2) (Last week: 1). There’s no debate — the Ravens are the best team in football right now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers went toe to toe with the best team in football, and almost won on the road. We’ll keep them here for now. They’ll travel to New Orleans for a huge NFC tilt on Sunday.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 4). The Saints have a chance to take a tight grip on one of the NFC’s first-round byes — and possibly, home field advantage — with a win over San Francisco at home, next Sunday. 49ers at Saints. That’s quite the matchup.

4. New England Patriots (10-2) (Last week: 3). They showed fight at the end, but the offense has some serious issues. The defense is caliber of a Super Bowl-winning team. Brady and the offense have to figure this thing out. Can they?

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 5). The Seahawks have a chance to slip into the NFC West’s top spot for the moment, if they can beat the Vikings tonight.

6. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). That was beauty of a snow game in New York on Sunday. That was a pretty win by the Packers, too. But then again, the Giants (2-10) are a mess. Green Bay is sort of in NFC limbo. They’re not quite with these top-tier teams in the conference, yet.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The whole world will be watching Kirk Cousins on the road in Seattle tonight. Will he deliver? Or will he fold? (His performance will probably lie somewhere in between)

8. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 8). The defense came to play this week. But again, it was versus the Raiders. Before losing 40-9 to Kansas City on Sunday, Oakland lost 34-3 to the lowly Jets the week before. And the Jets lost to the then-winless Bengals this Sunday. Translation: are the Chiefs beginning their ‘2006 Colts’ path of an improved defense at just the right time? Or are they just the 2019 Chiefs? We’ll learn more after they travel to New England this week.

9. Houston Texans (8-4) (Last week: 9). Deshaun Watson was awesome in the win over New England. But the AFC South will be decided by the Texans’ two bouts with the Titans this month.

10. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 13). I have been tough on the Bills. Well, that was a mighty impressive win in Dallas over Thanksgiving. I apologize, Buffalo. Believe it or not, I think they may be a tough matchup for Baltimore this week, too.

11. Los Angeles Rams (7-5) (Last week: 11). After getting clobbered by the Ravens, the Rams took their frustrations out on the Cardinals, throttling them 34-7 in Arizona. It will be tough for them to make the postseason. They’ll need to win out to have a shot. They have the talent. Jared Goff looked good in the win. It had been awhile.

12. Tennessee Titans (7-5) (Last week: 14). Tannehill and the Titans are an incredible story. Will they keep this up and get to the postseason? Can they steal away the AFC South from Houston?

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) (Last week: 15). Mike Tomlin does it again. The Steelers bullied the Browns in their revenge-filled win in Pittsburgh. It’s amazing how tough this team is. Resilient in the truest sense of the word.

14. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 12). They’re nowhere near being mathematically eliminated yet, but you just know they probably won’t make the postseason now. That’s a bummer. This franchise is still headed in the right direction.

15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) (Last week: 10). The sky is falling in Dallas, but the sky may have already collapsed on the Eagles in Philadelphia. Which stooge will win the NFC East?

16. Chicago Bears (6-6) (Last week: NR). Even if they win out, they probably won’t make the postseason. But they’re better than anyone else not listed right now.

Next up: Philadelphia 

Jimmy Garoppolo vs Packers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Niners thrash Pack in statement win + Pats D rules again

After a tough overtime loss to Seattle two weeks earlier, and a comeback needed to beat Arizona last week, it seemed as if the 49ers were sliding down the mountain after hitting their peak.

Instead, their peak was yet to come.

In fact, if Sunday night’s win was any indication, the 49ers may be on top of the mountain for good.

San Francisco (10-1) dominated Green Bay (8-3) in just about every facet of the game in a 37-8 stomping over the NFC contending Packers.

Jimmy Garoppolo — 14 of 20, 253 yards, two touchdowns — thoroughly outplayed Aaron Rodgers, as the 49ers defense sacked the Packers quarterback five times, and limited him to one of the worst games of his career — 20 of 33, 104 yards.

“We feel like we’re the best team in the league and the only people who can beat us are us,” 49ers running back Raheem Mostert said after the game. “That’s our mentality.”

Despite the brilliance of NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson two weeks ago, the 49ers did indeed, beat themselves in their lone loss of the season to the Seahawks in overtime.

This week, they beat the Packers so bad that it’d be hard to argue they aren’t the conference’s best team at the moment.

But there’s more to come. This was just the beginning of a tough stretch that next features visits to Baltimore (8-2) and New Orleans (9-2), and ends with a Week 17 trip to Seattle (9-2), which will likely decide the NFC West, and maybe, the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

San Francisco — along with New Orleans — fields one of the NFL’s best rosters and forward-thinking coaching staffs under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Young playmakers like George Kittle — the NFL’s best tight end — and Nick Bosa — the NFL’s best young edge rusher — represent a young, talented team.

Rookie Deebo Samuel — their wide receiver out of the second round of the draft this past spring — has improved each week, and his race to the end zone has shown us what we already know — that he is one of the best playmakers of his draft class, which includes the likes of Josh Jacobs, Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown and Terry McLaurin.

The aforementioned Bosa is just an utter force along the defensive line. If it weren’t for Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (see below), he’d be a slam dunk DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) winner.

He’s transformed a defensive line of underachieving first-round picks into a five or six-man rotation of talented players, which includes offseason acquisition Dee Ford.

Then, there’s Richard Sherman.

The brash former Seahawk finds himself yet again in the spotlight, and once again, he’s earned it. After the game, Sherman and the 49ers were already mentioning the Super Bowl.

“Because we felt it,” Sherman said. “You feel the energy in the building. You feel the talent.”

All the talent in the world on one football team can be mitigated by a bad quarterback, just ask the Chicago Bears.

But in Garoppolo — 18-3 record as a starter — San Francisco has one of the game’s brightest stars, who at least belongs in the conversation with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and others going forward.

“He’s the leader of the team,” Sherman said. “Jimmy Garoppolo is our leader and we will follow him into the darkest of dark.”

Jimmy isn’t as flashy as some of the aforementioned young star QBs (Mahomes, Jackson, etc.) but he has the accuracy, mechanics and bravado to get the job done.

It took help from the defense earlier in the season to shake off some of the rust probably caused from his season-ending ACL injury last year. But the 49ers franchise passer is rounding into form.

As are the 49ers, who don’t give a damn about what you think of them and their quarterback.

The real season begins after Thanksgiving, and San Francisco will enter that period coming off their best performance yet.

GILMORE, PATRIOTS DEFENSE HALT COWBOYS

In a nasty battle in which both offenses slogged though the wind and rain (and defenses), it was America’s most hated team that defeated ‘America’s Team.’

Patriots 13, Cowboys 9, in a game that shall not be remembered years for now.

But if there are any takeaways from this game, they are these:

– This Patriots defense (8.0 points per game allowed in 10 wins) is the best defense Bill Belichick has ever had in New England.

– Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL since Darrelle Revis in his ‘Revis Island’ heyday. 

Gilmore has made quite the case for the NFL’s DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) award — in a race that includes the Rams’ Aaron Donald and 49ers rookie Nick Bosa. He’s the league’s best cornerback by a wide margin, specializing in blanketing man coverage.

On Sunday, he virtually erased Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper (two targets, zero catches), intercepted Dak Prescott, and left the NFC East-leading Cowboys — who entered the contest with the most yards per game on offense — in a frustrated state.

“With the makeup of this team, I shouldn’t be this frustrated,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones vented after the game.

“Thats 100 percent coaching,” Jones said of the Cowboys special teams woes, which included a blocked punt by Matthew Slater. “One hundred percent coaching.”

The Patriots are well coached, of course, under Bill Belichick. But you can’t underestimate the talent on this unit. Jonathan Jones has turned into one of the best (if not, the best) slot cornerbacks in the game. Kyle Van Noy and John Simon are perhaps the league’s most underrated duo on the edge.

Ditto for the duo of Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton, who form sort of a two-man defensive line on many occasions, and act as 3-4 style defensive lineman, attacking gaps and taking on blockers, with little to show for it on the stat sheet.

Then, of course, there is the athletic Jamie Collins and the veteran leadership trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower.

This is easily the best defense that we’ve ever seen in New England during the Belichick era.

And it’s come at an opportune time, as the defense is the main reason this Patriots team is 10-1 and not 6-5.

The offense has sputtered in the past month or two. Some of it is 42-year-old Tom Brady’s fault, and some is not. This week was less of his fault than it was during the uninspiring (on offense) 17-10 win in Philadelphia last week.

Brady — 17 of 37, 190 yards, one touchdown —  was fairly accurate on a number of throws that fell incomplete on Sunday. Newcomers N’Keal Harry (one catch, 10-yard touchdown) and Jakobi Meyers (four catches, 74 yards) had memorable moments, but also memorable drops. The two had an uptick in playing time with Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett out due to injury.

Julian Edelman (eight catches, 93 yards) was the only hyper-reliable target for Brady.

The running game got something going with the return of Isaiah Wynn at left tackle, but Brady was still sacked twice and pressured on several drop backs.

The offense has not looked good. That much we know. But there is room for improvement. The offensive line and running game should only get better from here on out, and that is a complimentary facet that Brady will need. Throwing 45 times or more a game with lesser-known pass catchers (and winning) has been an occasional staple of Brady’s career, but at age 42, it isn’t ideal.

As Harry and Sanu, in particular, continue to play with Brady, their chemistry should improve. And then, the offense will improve.

This Patriots defense can lead the way to a seventh Super Bowl title. But chances are, at some point, the offense will need to lead the way in a victory, and that moment will likely come in the postseason.

That moment didn’t come this week versus the talented Cowboys. Or last week versus the Eagles. But it’s coming.

It’d be unwise to bet on Brady not being ready for that moment.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. After a beautiful touchdown throw on a flea flicker early on, Wilson — 13 of 25, 200 yards, one interception, six sacks — struggled in Philadelphia. He still has a narrow lead in this race.

2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. He’s right there with Wilson, but will likely need to beat the Rams and 49ers these next two games to pass him.

3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. There’s a bit of a gap between Wilson/Jackson and Watson at this point, but Deshaun is about as valuable a player as any in this league.

4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. The Panthers’ playoff hopes are likely over, but Christian McCaffrey’s incredible season has continued. Although the MVP award is almost definitely going to a quarterback, the race for OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year) between McCaffrey and Michael Thomas is a fun one.

5. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. See above. Thomas has been sensational this season, and in every season in his young career. Could you imagine a Super Bowl 54 matchup between him and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore?

Next up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 1). I have a hunch that the Ravens might struggle versus a tough Rams defense tonight after going east to west. Let’s see how they respond in this tough predicament.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-1) (Last week: 3). That was one of the biggest statement wins of the year. Now, they’ll get the red-hot Ravens in Baltimore.

3. New England Patriots (10-1) (Last week: 2). This is the best defense of the Bill Belichick era. They need something out of this offense, but the defense can carry this team to a title — they just need help. The real season begins after Thanksgiving. Well, Thanksgiving is here. In a year in which the offense looks as dysfunctional as ever, can Brady lift them up in his 20th season?

4. New Orleans Saints (9-2) (Last week: 4). They were lucky to not be down three in the final minutes, thanks to a bad miss by Panthers kicker Joey Slye. But that was a quality win, regardless. The Saints may quietly have the most complete team in football.

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 6). Like the Patriots last week, the Seahawks had to eke out a tough win in Philadelphia. They’ll need to keep pace with San Francisco in the NFC West, which is possible thanks to the 49ers tough schedule.

6. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 5). That was one rough performance by Aaron Rodgers. I doubt this will become a trend. They’ll bounce back. They’ll have to, with this next team right on their tail.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The Vikings were rewarded during their bye week, thanks to Green Bay’s let down in San Francisco.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 8). Patrick Mahomes had an ugly game in last week’s win, but in an AFC with just two real contenders (New England, Baltimore) at the moment, the Chiefs could be waiting in the wings to join the party.

9. Houston Texans (7-4) (Last week: 13). That was a big win over AFC South rival Indianapolis. Now, they get the Patriots.

10. Dallas Cowboys (6-5) (Last week: 9). The weather conditions helped, but the Cowboys were completely shut down on offense. They’ll need to take out their frustrations on the Bills this Thanksgiving.

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 10). Their offense has been horrid, but their defense has quietly had a good stretch. Can they slow down Lamar Jackson tonight?

12. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) (Last week: 11).That’s another rough loss for the Colts, considering they led 17-10 at one point in the fourth quarter. Still, they have a shot to take back the lead in the AFC South if they can pull even with the Texans this week. They’ll have to beat a tough Titans team and hope for a Houston (vs Patriots) loss.

13. Buffalo Bills (8-3) (Last week: 15). They beat up on yet another subpar opponent. Let’s see what they do in Dallas on Thursday. They’ll have to prove that they’re no turkey (I’m sorry).

14. Tennessee Titans (6-5) (Last week: NR). Here come the Titans. What a job Ryan Tannehill has done these past few weeks. He’s been inspiring.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) (Last week: 16). I really believe the Steelers were a sure-fire playoff team with Ben Roethlisberger this season. They probably would have been an AFC contender, too. Still, they’re in the mix. If the season ended today, they’d be in as a No. 6 seed. That’s incredible.

16. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) (Last week: 12). Despite another ugly loss, the Eagles control their own destiny in the NFC East. Four two-win teams and the Cowboys stand in their way. They’ll likely need to win every one of those, and surely their game with Dallas. This offense is riddled with injuries but Carson Wentz (nine turnovers in last six games) still needs to play better. He’s been atrocious lately.

Next up: Carolina, Oakland, Cleveland, N.Y. Jets, L.A. Chargers

Danny Shelton vs Eagles

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Patriots outlast Eagles in physical battle + Ravens roast Texans

As the weather turns cold, the more physical, disciplined teams flourish. In a league that has seen many ripples and trends over the past century, that notion hasn’t quite changed.

And so when the Patriots (9-1) avenged Super Bowl LII in a 17-10 win over the Eagles (5-5) in Philadelphia on Sunday, it was the defense that led the way in this chilly November battle.

This game was not going to won by flash and substance, the Patriots slowly turned the tide in gaining the upper-hand in physicality and toughness, which ultimately won them the game.

“Yeah, he was crying,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said of Eagles pass catcher Zach Ertz. “He do that on film a lot. If you get into him, if he don’t get the ball or if he doesn’t get a call, he’ll cry. But he’s a good receiver, a good tight end.”

Gilmore, the league’s best cover man, was moved all around the field in different matchups, but was often lined up with Ertz, Wentz’s go-to-guy, on third down situations.

In addition to Gilmore, the Patriots were stout up front, sacking Carson Wentz five times and allowing just 81 yards on the ground. After the Eagles took a 10-0 lead early off a downfield pass interference call and one sustained drive, Bill Belichick took to the sideline to shore up any issues with his defense.

His adjustments worked, and New England was able to stifle an undermanned Philadelphia offense.

Luckily, the game did not rely too much on Tom Brady and the offense.

Brady — — 26 of 47, 216 yards — struggled to find a rhythm and was visibly frustrated during and after the game, when he mumbled through his press conference obligations before exiting at around two minutes in.

Even though this season has looked particularly bleak for the Patriots offense, you can bet Brady, even at age 42, will turn things around at least somewhat.

For starters,  2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn will return next Sunday to replace the struggling Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. And newcomer pass catchers Mohamed Sanu and first-round rookie N’Keal Harry should become more reliable as they gain a rapport with Brady.

But in a game in which Julian Edelman threw the game’s lone touchdown pass — to Phillip Dorsett — you can bet the greatest quarterback of all time is not going to be happy with his production, win or lose.

When asked if the offense can get back on track, Brady said: “I don’t think it matters what I think. It matters what we do.”

Well “do,” they probably will. Regardless, they’ll need to. Games against the Cowboys (6-4), Texans (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) are next on the docket, and you can bet that New England’s world-beating defense will have at least some issues with one or more of those offenses, meaning New England will rely more on Brady and their own offense.

We know now not to doubt Brady. But if this offense does fail to become a consistent force, they may have enough success on defense to return to the Super Bowl.

This is a call back to Brady’s early years, when he complimented a veteran defense with a chip on its shoulder. The 2019 Patriots, coupled with last year’s squad, are starting to share some similarities with the 2003 and 2004 that went on to win back to back Super Bowls.

New England has only Baltimore and Kansas City as true challengers in the AFC this year. Their Super Bowl hopes still shine bright, even if Brady’s demeanor isn’t exactly glowing.

The points may come soon enough, but New England has the grit and toughness on defense to defend their crowneither way.

RAVENS POUND TEXANS, CREATE SPACE IN AFC

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (8-2) moved one stop closer to earning a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs with a 41-7 stomping over the Texans (6-4) at home.

Houston’s spirt was broken early, as Deshaun Watson was sacked five times in the first half, and the Texans went into the locker room down 14-0 to a tougher — and better — Ravens team to this point.

The Texans entered the game as the NFL’s No. 3 rush defense, by game’s end, Baltimore — the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense —  had gained 263 yards on the ground.

“Any time you’re 8-2, you’ve got a special group of guys,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram said after the game. “And I think we really have a special group of guys. Guys who understand each other. Guys who believe in each other. Guys who want to fight for each other. Guys who understand the value of preparation one day at a time. We have a goal of being champions, so we don’t have time to rest.”

Jackson — 298 total yards, four touchdown passes — now leads a Baltimore team that is the best in the league at a time where the season really begins. The Ravens’ ferocious defense of yesteryear is no more, but the additions of Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters have given Baltimore a ball-hawking secondary that is improving by the week — a good sign for possible playoff matchups versus Patrick Mahomes and/or Tom Brady.

In addition to the back end, Matthew Judon (2 sacks) and Jaylon Ferguson (sack, two tackles for a loss) are among the names on a front seven that has gone from pedestrian to thriving in recent weeks, giving Baltimore a complete look on defense that the franchise and its fans have been accustomed to over the years.

“You all were questioning us,” Judon told The Athletic after the game. “We just focused and locked in, and we knew what we had in the room. It’s not like we were going to war inside our defensive rooms. We know what we have, and since then, we brought in four or five new defensive players. We just focused and we strapped in, man.”

The Ravens have now undressed the Seahawks (in Seattle), the Patriots and Texans in recent weeks. Three teams led by three top-tier quarterbacks.

They’ve also won six straight and have created a gap between them and the Texans, Colts (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) in the race for a first-round bye in the AFC.

With a Monday night matchup versus the Rams (6-4) in Los Angeles looming, followed by games versus the 49ers (9-1) and Saints (8-2), Baltimore’s difficulty in keeping up their now six-game winning streak only increases.

Still, it’s clear the Ravens are the hottest team in football at the moment, playing their best football as the season moves along.

QUICK-HITS 

– Kudos to Kirk Cousins for leading the Vikings (8-3) to a 27-23 win over the Broncos (3-7) after erasing a 20-0 deficit early on. There are bigger stories — Lamar Jackson, Colin Kaepernick, Myles Garrett — surrounding the NFL, but Cousins’ improved play in big games, road games and in the clutch should not go unnoticed. Just when it looked like the Vikings should be entertaining other options at quarterback in the offseason, Cousins in the midst of a career year. Minnesota looks primed for the postseason. Also, despite another blown fourth quarter lead, there were several positive takeaways for the Broncos and Brandon Allen, who looked poised late, almost leading the game-winning drive.

– Jimmy Garoppolo deserves a lot of credit for will the 49ers to a 30-26 comeback win over the pesky Cardinals on Sunday. Without top pass-catching option George Kittle, rusher Matt Brieda, and much more, the Niners were severely undermanned, and in danger of going from 8-0 to the NFC’s current No. 5 seed in just two weeks, had they lost. The win gives them a chance to breathe, and hopefully welcome back at least Kittle this week versus the Packers (8-2) in a huge Sunday night contest.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 2). With Lamar Jackson playing as is, and the defense improving, this is the best team in football at the moment.

2. New England Patriots (9-1) (Last week: 3). There are certainly issues with Brady and the offense at play, but I still think they’ll figure it out. The addition of left tackle Isaiah Wynn this week can’t be understated. Plus, the defense is still fantastic.

3. San Francisco 49ers (9-1) (Last week: 1). I know we like to scoff at him on Twitter, probably because he used to play for the Patriots, but it’s time to start giving Jimmy Garoppolo his due. He’s a part of this new wave of brilliant quarterbacks.

4. New Orleans Saints (8-2) (Last week: 5). Great bounce back win over division rival Tampa Bay on the road. It had also been awhile since Alvin Kamara played that well. That was good to see.

5. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 4). The Packers have a real test in San Francisco next Sunday night. These are the games that will help decide which of these NFC juggernauts is to get a first-round bye.

6. Seattle Seahawks (8-2) (Last week: 6). The Eagles will give Seattle their all next week in Philly. Russ will have to earn this win, just as he has for the rest of his victories this season.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). Kirk Cousins probably won’t win NFL MVP, but he’s right there with a few others after Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 10). The Chiefs are in desperate need of a win tonight versus the Chargers in Mexico City. The week after that, they’ll face the Raiders. If they can win both of these, the AFC West is likely theirs.

9. Dallas Cowboys (6-4) (Last week: 13). Dak Prescott has had just a few hiccups in an otherwise awesome season. He was lights out in Detroit on Sunday. He’ll need to be that and then some in New England, if they are to have a chance versus the mighty Patriots.

10. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 12). That was certainly an ugly win. You can blame some of the issues on offense to the absences of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but the smarter fans are intelligent enough to not be that naive. The talent is there, so a December run is always in the cards.

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-4) (Last week: 15). Great reslilient effort in Jacoby Brissett’s return. If the Colts win in Houston on Thursday, they’d be in a great position to win the AFC South.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5) (Last week: 8). Without DeSean Jackson, the Eagles are mighty slow on offense. A late-season run can happen, but they’re in trouble. They have to beat Seattle at home this week.

13. Houston Texans (6-4) (Last week: 9). That was a hideous performance in Baltimore. They don’t belong among the AFC’s elite, despite Deshaun Watson. Are they even worthy of an AFC South title? We’ll see on Thursday.

14. Oakland Raiders (6-4) (Last week: 14). They did what they needed to do on Sunday. They’re right there with the Chiefs in the AFC West.

15. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: NR). The Bills sneak back in after a pretty impressive win in Miami. (Hey, the Dolphins have been playing much better as of late!)

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly loss in all facets, with an even uglier ending. They’re still a well-coached team capable of pulling out a win in any circumstance.

Next up: Tennessee, L.A. Chargers, Carolina, Cleveland, Atlanta 

Lamar Jackson juke vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ravens halt Patriots, put AFC on notice

Since breaking onto the college scene to win a Heisman Trophy at Louisville, Lamar Jackson has had to start all over in earning the respect that comes with being one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. After taking over for Joe Flacco as a rookie, leading the Ravens on a 6-1 record down the stretch, Jackson’s limited passing skills were put on display on national television in an AFC Wild Card home loss to the Chargers.

It was a learning point that any (and most) young quarterbacks succumb to. But judging by the ridiculous ‘is he good enough to be an NFL quarterback’ takes, his case was obviously different. He’d need to treat the postseason defeat as a learning experience and then put the loss, and the naysayers, in the distance.

******

10 months later — His confidence is oozing. His leadership is an admirably developed trait. This is a different version of Jackson, or perhaps the franchise pillar that the Ravens thought they had when former legendary GM Ozzie Newsome made him his final first-round pick in 2018.

“This kid is just destined to be great,” said Willie Snead after the game. He attacks those (big) moments, he wants those moments to happen. That’s what he gravitates to. That’s when he’s at his best in those big moments.”

Behind Jackson and veteran rusher Mark Ingram (15 carries, 115 yards), the Ravens rushed 210 yards against one of the best defenses in NFL history through eight games.

Even when the Patriots knew Baltimore’s running game was coming, they struggled to stop it. The Ravens often used fullback Patrick Ricard or tight end Nick Boyle as an H-Back on the near-wing, in a way the Patriots utilized Rob Gronkowski or James Develin to plow over opposing team’s defenders.

When the Ravens weren’t running up the middle, stretch plays the option, or designed runs for Lamar, they were rolling him out and giving him a chance to find his open target. There was nothing fancy in the Ravens’ play-calling, and Lamar wasn’t asked to do too much in the passing game, but he converted a few big throws anyway, including a 4th-and-4 conversion to Willie Snead in the second half with Baltimore in need of a spark versus the surging, down-but-not-yet-out Patriots.

New England, a team that hadn’t lost since December 18, 2018, lost this game because they were outplayed by a better team (that day) that outplayed them physically on both sides of the ball, which is something Bill Belichick will surely address during New England’s bye week.

Earl Thomas emotionally led the Ravens’ charge, much like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs would in Patriots-Ravens matchups of the past. The former two were at Sunday’s game, soaking in the atmosphere that they once helped create in the tough town of Baltimore, and an aura that Thomas and this present-day Ravens defense is trying to keep afloat.

“We didn’t flinch,” Thomas said. “If we take the turnovers out, it’s not close.”

Thomas may be right, but it was a major turnover by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman that turned the tide. Trailing 17-13, and driving, to start the second half, Edelman fumbled in Ravens’ territory, and Marlon Humphrey returned the loose ball for a touchdown, which put New England in a hole they would not recover from.

Edelman took blame for the play, but his teammates would not let him take the burden for the loss, which was a true Patriots-like attitude from a team that otherwise did not resemble themselves.

Tom Brady, who Lamar Jackson still calls ‘the GOAT,’ did his best to combat the Ravens’ pass rush and offensive onslaught, finding his two favorite receivers — Edelman and Mohamed Sanu — although tough, for an impressive stat line for a top-tier running back – 20 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown.

To be blunt, the Patriots are down at least one playmaker on offense. That playmaker might be left tackle Isaiah Wynn. The former first-round pick is slated to return in three weeks versus the Cowboys (4-3), after New England travels to Philadelphia to face the Eagles (5-4). Ditto for rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who should be active then to take on the X-receiver role once occupied by Josh Gordon.

The Patriots now know this won’t be easy, like it appeared to be in their first eight games. The AFC now has three young quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Jackson — who are liable to take over a game at any moment. Jackson did that to them on Sunday, and they’ll see Watson and Mahomes down the stretch.

“The better team won tonight,” safety Duron Harmon said to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. “We know that. We know we can play a lot better, so it’s all about just learning from the loss.

There’s still a lot of football left. The real football season doesn’t start until Thanksgiving, so we’ve got some time to continue to improve before the real football starts.”

As for the Ravens, they’ll take the win, and they’ll stand behind their new franchise quarterback, who has consecutive wins over Russell Wilson’s Seahawks (on the road) and the defending Super Bowl champions.

“MVP, bro,” Thomas told NFL.com’s Michael Silver of Jackson.“He’s separating himself right now, and it’s pretty special to watch.”

QUICK-HITS 

– With a game-tying 54-yard field goal, and a 44-yard walk-off game winner, Harrison Butker delivered the Chiefs (6-3) a much-needed win that fired up the crowd, and Patrick Mahomes. Immediately after the kick sailed through the uprights, Mahomes ran onto the field to celebrate with Butker and his teammates. Kansas City has two games (vs Titans, at Chargers) before their bye, and they may have to evaluate whether or not they need to rush back Mahomes, who appears ready. At this point, it would take a miracle for the Chiefs to catch the Patriots in the race for home-field advantage, but they are right in the thick of things in the race for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, which would give them a bye. The good news is, the Chiefs should be ‘ok’ either way. Matt Moore, a 35-year-old journeyman who recently was a Dolphins scout, has been effective in Mahomes’ absence. Andy Reid always gets good play out of his backup quarterbacks. If he thinks the Chiefs can beat the reeling Titans with Moore next week, it would be worth considering holding out Mahomes for at least one more game. However, Reid reported “there are no new injuries,” after the win, meaning Mahomes should be scheduled to return Sunday.

– Laces out! Partially because of a bad hold, Adam Vinatieri — the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history — shanked a go-ahead 43-yard field goal attempt. But the bigger problem was that the 2019 Colts’ affinity to play sloppy games finally came back to bite them. Jacoby Brissett went down early, and Brian Hoyer played admirably, throwing for three scores while also setting up Indianapolis for a game-winning drive, but his redzone pick-six proved costly. The person who recorded that defensive touchdown? That’d be Minkah Fitzpatrick. The player who was traded from the Dolphins to the Steelers for a first-round pick has proven worth it. Fitzpatrick totaled three interceptions in a six-day period, which included two against his former team last Monday night. His addition as a do-it-all defensive back capable of playing anywhere on the secondary has given Pittsburgh a massive boost to their underrated defense. Mike Tomlin has done a great job in getting Pittsburgh (4-4) back to .500 without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

– Every good — or great — team has a dud in the regular season. A lot of times in the middle of the season, too. Because I view this from a Patriots lens, the Packers’ 26-11 loss to the Chargers on Sunday reminded me of the 2010 Patriots’ midseason loss in Cleveland — to Eric Mangini, Peyton Hillis and the Browns — and last year’s Patriots’ blowout loss in Tennessee to Mike Vrabel’s Titans. These losses happen. Even the activation of Rodgers’ No. 1 pass catcher, Davante Adams, couldn’t help in Los Angeles. The Packers (7-2) were flat, and the talented Chargers (4-5) took advantage in a moment where they absolutely needed a quality win to jumpstart a run to the postseason. The Chargers aren’t finished, yet. The Packers will be fine, and will welcome a trip back home next week versus the Panthers.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. With an out-of this-world stat line — 22 touchdowns, one interception — Wilson leads this close MVP race as we pass the season’s midway point.

2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Watson continues to lift up a Texans team with many holes, including a few among the ever-important offensive line.

3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. Even with a still-limited repertoire (he’ll learn) in the passing game, Jackson remains one of the best player makers in the NFL. He’s certainly the most exciting.

4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. He won’t win MVP, but he is the most valuable non-QB in the NFL this season.

5. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. Rough day for Rodgers in Los Angeles. That brings him down some. But the way he has picked up this new offense is still something to admire.

Next up: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

THE BETTER HALF

1. New Orleans Saints (7-1) (Last week: 2). Fittingly, the not-talked-about-enough Saints slide up to the top spot during their bye week. They belong here.

2. San Francisco 49ers (8-0) (Last week: 3). Their defense is mighty, and Jimmy Garoppolo just might be joining them.

3. New England Patriots (8-1) (Last week: 1). Now we can oust any undefeated talk. The Patriots have a bye, and then will travel to Philadelphia to exact revenge on the Eagles after a wonky Super Bowl 52.

4. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 4). That was a rough loss, but every team lays a dud. If that is Green Bay’s lone stinker this regular season, then they will have played a fantastic 16-game stretch.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 11). The Ravens have a unique offense worthy of postseason success. In an AFC that has just shown that their top team is somewhat vulnerable, Baltimore is right in the thick of things.

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-2) (Last week: 6). Russell Wilson continues to make up for Seattle’s deficiencies. This defense is not very good.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (6-3) (Last week: 9). Matt Moore did enough to win two games, really. It would be wise to wait until Mahomes has fully healed, but it appears he is ready to go. The Chiefs will likely battle the Ravens down the stretch for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, and maybe, the Patriots for home field advantage.

8. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 8). The Rams sit tight, feeling good about themselves during the bye week.

9. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 5). After winning a few sloppy games earlier this season — including last week’s win — the Colts got burned. Rough loss.

10. Dallas Cowboys (4-3) (Last week: 10). They should beat the Giants tonight, and then, they have a big SNF matchup with Minnesota next week.

11. Minnesota Vikings (6-3) (Last week: 7). The Vikings will have to regroup quickly when they face Dallas on Sunday.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) (Last week: 12). The Eagles now go into their bye week with some momentum. After that, they’ll host the Patriots. That game will be telling.

13. Houston Texans (6-3) (Last week: 13). Deshaun Watson continues to play ‘Like Mike,’ in taking the Texans to another level.

14. Buffalo Bills (6-2) (Last week: 14). They let Washington hang around for a bit, but ultimately pulled out a gritty win.

15. Carolina Panthers (5-3) (Last week: 16). No matter who finishes the season at quarterback for the Panthers, their MVP is running back Christian McCaffrey.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4) (Last week: NR). Mike Tomlin has done an incredible job in getting them back to this point. If they sneak into the playoffs, he should be up for Coach of the Year.

Next up: L.A. Chargers, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, Jacksonville