Julian Edelman -- Super Bowl LIII

Edelman, the NFL’s most clutch receiver, adds to legacy in Super Bowl LIII

For three quarters, the Rams’ talented defense played like a unit that holds the Super Bowl-record with seven first-round picks. Even with two of those players lined up as cornerbacks (Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib), Julian Edelman made a mockery of Wade Phillips’ otherwise brilliant zone defense that confused Brady for much of the game.

Super Bowl LIII was the lowest scoring Super Bowl in NFL history. And yet, Brady’s most-trusted receiver hauled in 10 catches for 141 receiving yards, earning him the Super Bowl LIII MVP award.

Julian Edelman -- Super Bowl LIII
Julian Edelman celebrates a third-down conversion versus the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

Often lining up across from Nickell Robey-Coleman or Corey Littleton in matchup zones, Edelman feasted by using his spacial awareness and elite quickness to find open spots in the defense. This not only gave Brady an open target, but allowed him to look for Edelman in YAC (yards after catch) situations, for bigger gains.

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Edelman amassed 70 yards after the catch, which is good for almost exactly half of his production. Additionally, he averaged just about four yards of separation on his team-high 12 targets from Brady.

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Edelman is the epitome of what it means to be a Patriot. A coachable, gritty, hard-working underdog at his core. Like Brady, Edelman found success in the NFL by utilizing real slights against him (from his past) and then kept that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality thoughout the rest of his career, even after he became a household name.

Julian Edelman - Super Bowl LIII parade
Edelman embraces fans at the Super Bowl LIII parade in Boston. (Screenshot: WBZ/CBS Boston)

That’s a much-needed mantra in New England, that epitomizes the attitudes of past team leaders from the franchise’s first dynasty — Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest.

Like other postseason heroes of the Patriots’ past, at his position, there is a little of Troy Brown and Deion Branch in Edelman. But he has somehow become Brady’s best friend of all, and most trusted target.

From climbing out of Wes Welker’s shadow, to running routes in the offseason at Brady’s Montana home.

Edelman could have retired after Super Bowl LI. But instead, he ventured on another journey, to fight off more setbacks, to become a champion, once more.

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The last 24 months of Edelman’s life have been a whirlwind.

Virtually, two years ago to the very weekend, Tom Brady’s most trusted target hauled in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history, in helping the Patriots secure the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Edelman - Super Bowl LI
Julian Edelman hauled in one the most improbable catches in NFL history in Super Bowl LI. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

Fast forward six months later to August 2017. In a preseason game in Detroit versus the Lions, Edelman took a routine drag route from Brady, slipped past defenders and then fell to the ground without being tackled.

It was a complete ACL tear, which ended his 2017 season.

Edelman watched Danny Amendola, another one of football’s most clutch players (and one of Edelman’s good friends), step up in his absence, in taking over the slot receiver position full-time. Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl LII, but the Patriots fell to Nick Foles and the Eagles, 41-33.

Then, Amendola departed in free agency, joining the Dolphins. This put more pressure on the health of Edelman, who needed to be himself for Brady and the continuity of the team to remain intact.

But in a twist, Edelman was served a four-game suspension in June for performance-enhancing drugs, in a story that was first reported on Reddit.

While waiting for Edelman to return, Brady and the Patriots struggled mightily on offense, starting the season 1-2. When No. 11 did return to the field, he looked almost like his usual self. He garnered 74 catches for 850 yards and six touchdowns in just 12 games, but New England struggled early in December, dropping consecutive road games to the Dolphins and Steelers. They rallied enough — ironically, with help from Foles and the Eagles — to hang onto the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Then the magic began.

Edelman reeled in nine catches for 151 yards agains the Chargers in their AFC Divisional Playoff win. He was virtually uncoverable agains the Chargers’ zone scheme.

Then, after a near-muffed punt, and a subsequent drop-turned-interception in the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, the slot master embarrassed all of his ‘Ball Don’t Lie’ detractors on Twitter with three huge catches down the stretch in the team’s overtime victory.

Julian Edelman -- 3rd and 10
Edelman reeled in back-to-back 3rd-and-10-converting catches in the AFC title game. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

Edelman brought in two tough grabs on tight man coverage on consecutive 3rd-and-10’s on the game-winning drive in overtime. He ended the game with seven catches for 96 yards.

The moment was a microcosm of his career. From being counted out since being an undersized high school kid growing up in Northern California, to receive no D-1 college scholarship offers, to falling to the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Edelman has always beaten the odds.

Most of the excitement toward his fourth-quarter miscue in Kanas City was due to the hatred that most outside of New England have for Tom Brady and the Patriots. If detractors really can’t stomach the Patriots cleaning house of the NFL’s best teams in crunch time, then Edelman surely made them pay afterword, by adding to his legacy with more late-game heroics in the biggest of moments.

This wasn’t an underdog team, but this was a surprising champion. At various times throughout the year, conversation on shows such as ESPN’s First Take (and other shows) revolved around the impending end of Brady and the Patriots’ current reign.

During the AFC title game, Edelman was caught by NFL Films, yelling “you’re too old!” at Brady, in an effort to hype up the man who sees him as the little brother he never had.

In the Super Bowl, Brady looked his way 12 times, which is five more than the player (Gronk) with the second-most targets (7) in the game.

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Much more regular season success, and perhaps more postseason moments, are needed for Edelman to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he is indeed a candidate. The conversation is not laughable, as many on Twitter have opined, hoping to come up with some type of negative storyline about the Patriots. In fact, his case is formidable.

Edelman is now the second-best postseason receiver in NFL history, with stats, and a bag of moments to prove it.

The double-pass to Amendola in a 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff. A 3rd-and-14 conversion, and game-winning touchdown to beat the Seahawks (the best passing defense of all-time) in Super Bowl XLIX. One of the greatest catches ever in Super Bowl LI. Multiple third down conversions in the clutch at cold-weather Kansas City two weeks ago.

And now, this.

Edelman and Brady -- Super Bowl LIII
Edelman and Brady celebrate their third Super Bowl win together. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

Edelman is the most clutch receiver in football over the last decade.

And if the greatest (and most clutch) player in NFL history trusts him with a Super Bowl hanging in the balance, then Edelman’s greatness should be defined by that.

 

Patriots celebrate Super Bowl LIII

Belichick, Patriots halt Rams with defensive masterpiece

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

“Brady! Brady! Brady!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl LIII Preview

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

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

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

Patriots offense vs Rams defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams defense vs Patriots offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction

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

But New England has their swagger back this postseason. Missing in Super Bowl LII were the likes of Julian Edelman and Don’t Hightower, both of whom provide championship pedigree to a team that feeds off mental toughness and momentum. This Patriots team feeds off doubters, more so than any of the teams they’ve harnessed in the past decade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriots 31, Rams 26

Super Bowl MVP: James White

Tom Brady iconic shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Marshon Lattimore INT

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Fitting Final Four is set

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

The stage is set.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four great teams. Four deserving teams.

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

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

Next Sunday’s mini-preview

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

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

Early prediction: Saints 31, Rams 21

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

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

Early prediction: Chiefs 34, Patriots 30

Kenyan Drake vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Miami miracle, Mahomes’ magic maps out AFC

At one point in two different games, the age-old December storyline was set to emerge yet again. A top AFC contender was ready to fall, while the Patriots take advantage to claim the top seed in the conference.

When New England led 33-28 with six seconds remaining, it sure looked that way. That was because Patrick Mahomes and AFC-leading Chiefs were down 24-17 and facing 4th-and-9 to keep their hopes alive at home versus the Ravens.

But the impossible happened in two different locations — Miami and Kansas City.

Ryan Tannehill found Kenny Stills, who lateraled to DeVante Parker, who lateraled to Kenyan Drake who outran the rest of the Patriots for 69-yard game-winning, hook-and-ladder score. Dolphins 34, Patriots 33.

Then Patrick Mahomes sprinted right and delivered a downfield dime on the run to Tyreek Hill. He later found Damien Williams on a score on 4th-and-3. The Chiefs rallied in overtime. Chiefs, 27, Ravens 24.

Week 14 of the 2018 season should be remembered as the slate of games that nearly-solidified the top of the order in the AFC.

The Chiefs (11-2) still need to beat the Chargers next Thursday to be ABSOLUTELY safe, but they basically have the conference’s top seed on lock. The late-game heroics by Mahomes, coupled with the somewhat-sour play from Drew Brees as of late gives the Chiefs quarterback the inside track for the NFL MVP award.

The Patriots (9-4) will look to put this whacky (but mostly self-induced) loss behind them when they travel to face the Steelers next week, who are reeling after a late loss to Oakland. The way they respond from this disaster will likely shape their season.

“For it to end that way, it just doesn’t seem like that’s the end result for us, the end of the story,” Josh Gordon told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe after the game. “We know we’ve got more to prove and more to offer. Going into next week, we hope we can get it done, and I think we will.”

If the Steelers (7-5-1) don’t respond with a win, they may find themselves right out of postseason contention. They are in the midst of an epic meltdown. There is no way around it.

Not to be forgotten, the Texans’ (9-4) nine-game winning streak was snapped at home by the Colts (7-6). Indianapolis is fighting with the Ravens (7-6), Titans (7-6) and Broncos (6-7) for the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

The Titans have an inside track with their ridiculously-easy schedule. Their Week 17 game versus the Colts may serve as a de-facto playoff game for the conference’s No. 6 seed.

How will it all end up? Probably with the Chiefs and Patriots snagging the top two seeds, then meeting in Arrowhead Stadium on January 20th for a shot at playing in Super Bowl LIII. But if Sunday was any indication, that’s far from a lock.

Cooper, Cowboys are soon-to-be NFC East champs

When the Cowboys traded a first-round pick at midseason for Amari Cooper, who laughed? Who made a meme, or snarky tweet regarding the deal? It’s okay if you did, because no one would have expected the importance of that move then.

But now….it’s not ridiculous to say Cooper-to-the-Cowboys is the biggest midseason acquisiton in the history of the NFL.

Skeptical of that take? Look no further than his performance in the de-facto 2018 NFC East championship game.

Cooper scored three different times in the fourth quarter and overtime, with each touchdown giving Dallas a late lead, the last one being a walk-off score off a deflection, in overtime. Cooper has been as clutch as he’s been good, and he’s been damn effective.

With a true No. 1 wide receiver to compliment Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys seem to have enough offense to compete with the big boys of the NFC come January. That’s all possible because of their defense, of course, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, rookie Leighton Vander Esch and others help to form one of the NFL’s best front sevens.

If the Cowboys can keep games to a lower score (by 2018’s standards) then they can do damage when the pressure is on in the fourth quarter by running with Elliott, and by throwing to Cooper, who has proven that he performs best when the lights are brightest. Here come the Cowboys.

Quick-hits

– I hate to put the Bears’ (9-4) 15-6 thumping of the Rams (11-2) in the quick-hits section, but this was such an eventful week. The win on NBC’s Sunday Night Football one-upped the Cowboys’ 13-10 win over the Saints a week and a half ago. This was December football. A stout defense in a proud, cold-weather city shutting down an offensive juggernaut of a team from Southern California. Sure, Mitchell Trubisky threw three more interceptions, but Tarik Cohen scooted around the field enough to give the Bears just enough offense to topple the Rams. Plus, a litany of sacks and four interceptions of Jared Goff surely helped — this was surely most important. If you’re the Saints or Rams, I’m not sure you want to see either the Bears or Cowboys come to town in the NFC Divisional Round.

– Speaking of the Saints, It was Taysom Hill’s blocked punt with New Orleans down 14-3 in Tampa Bay, that turned their Sunday around. After six quarters of flat football, Drew Brees found somewhat of a rhythm after Hill’s third-quarter play, rallying New Orleans to a 28-14 win over the Buccaneers. The win not only exacted revenge for a crazy Week 1 loss, but effectively ended Tampa Bay’s outside shot at an NFC wild card berth. More importantly, the Saints (11-2) regained the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but they will have to dispatch the likes of the Steelers, and the Panthers (twice) to keep their footing. It wasn’t pretty, but New Orleans is back on top of the NFC. If they truly are a Super Bowl team, they should stay there.

– What in the world happened to the Panthers (6-7)? Sadly, even with a five-game losing streak, Carolina has a shot at the NFC’s No. 6 seed, a slot that no one wants to win. The Panthers will likely address Ron Rivera and the head coaching position this offseason, but new owner David Tepper should opt to stay with Rivera next year, which would be wise. The Panthers defense is not what it used to be. They’ll need to retool. And despite a fantastic season from Christian McCaffrey, and shades of greatness from D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers still lack a playmaker or two on offense. Perhaps with McCaffrey handling duties close to the line of scrimmage, Carolina should opt for a true No. 1 wide receiver. Maybe Moore becomes that, but the Panthers could still use someone on the perimeter, even if it’s a stop-plug free agent. DeSean Jackson, who is likely to bid farewell to division rival Tampa Bay, comes to mind. Whatever it is, the Panthers are in for a long offseason, where they’ll assess what went wrong, all under a brand-new owner. Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Tepper.

 

Phillip Rivers vs Steelers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Chargers’ thrilling comeback + Patriots edge Vikings

It was over and it was expected. At least that’s what we all thought when the Chargers trailed 23-7 at halftime in Pittsburgh. They had laid another egg in a big game on national television.

Instead, Phillip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Justin Jackson and others helped to rally the Chargers to a 33-30 win that came about without Melvin Gordon, one of the league’s most outstanding running backs.

Facing a 3rd-and-4 with the game tied with just over a minute to play, Rivers found Allen on an out route working against man coverage (against a linebacker — yikes) in the slot. Allen is the league’s best receiver out of the slot, and that includes other high-profile guys who spend a lot of time positioned there, such as the Saints’ Michael Thomas. Allen hauled in 14 catches for 148 yards and a whacky score, all while keeping the pace with the league’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, who also had a good night — 10 catches, 154 yards, one touchdown.

“I could feel it in the locker room,” Allen told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. “We built this off the end of the season last year. Now, this year we’re just rolling.”

The Chargers are rolling because they have the AFC’s most talented team, from top to bottom. With Joey Bosa back and healthy, the combination of him and Melvin Ingram gives Los Angeles a nasty pass rush. After being stifled by the Steelers offensive line for much of the night, the duo came alive in the second half. On offense, Rivers has been spectacular all year. A dark-horse MVP candidate that would get more love if it weren’t for the ridiculous seasons being put forth by Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees.

The win was Rivers’ 7th career comeback win after trailing by at least 16 points, which ties Peyton Manning for the most all-time by a quarterback. And it was arguably the biggest regular season win of his career. If not, certainly in recent memory.

The Chargers (9-3) now have an outside shot at the AFC West — the Chiefs (10-2) would hold the tiebreaker even if the Chargers beat them in two weeks — and certainly have all but locked up the conference’s No. 5 seed.

Certainly, this Chargers team is different. They have talent and guts. And because of that, there’s a new team to monitor in the AFC.

Patriots handle Vikings, move toward first-round bye

Here they come. Just like clockwork. This is one of the more flawed Patriots  teams in years, right? That may be so but it didn’t show on the field in New England’s 24-10 throttling of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

In surprising fashion, the Patriots (9-3) defense actually outplayed Tom Brady and the offense, holding the talented Vikings offense to 278 total yards and forcing 2 turnovers.

Trey Flowers, playing on a contract year, is showing why he’s one of the best edge defenders in football, while Dont’a Hightower and Jason McCourty, two players on the backend of their careers, turned in vintage performances.

Speaking of vintage, when the Patriots hopped out of I-formation, Brady was sharp throughout, which should put any “Brady is done” talk to rest.

The Patriots are getting healthy at the right time, as exemplified by Rex Burkhead, who looked spry in his return. With the trio of Burkhead, James White and Sony Michel complimenting No. 1 wide reciever Josh Gordon, some of the pressure comes off the older, usually more reliable trio of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. All three are still among Brady’s favorite, and will come through when called upon, but their very best years are over. That’s okay. Brady, and the Patriots, will make due.

With Kareem Hunt’s gone in Kansas City, the Chiefs (10-2) may now be vulnerable in an area other than just their sour defense and January bad luck. Meaning Bill Belichick’s bunch has a real shot at home field advantage throughout the AFC, if they are to win out.

Other top-end organizations in the Seahawks (7-5) and Ravens (7-5) are already out the gate in December with impressive wins of their own. But it’s the Patriots leading the pack in that category once more. This is what they do best — playing at the top of their game from December and on. Their annual march has begun.

Quick-hits

– It’s clear, the Bears need Mitchell Trubisky back. Although wild and inconsistent through the air, Chicago canon survive Chase Daniel. As it stands they were lucky to do so on Thanksgiving, squeezing by on a poor pick-six in the fourth quarter by Matthew Stafford then. They needed an onside kick and a touchdown pass from running back Tarik Cohen to force overtime this week. Once they got to the extra period, Daniel couldn’t get the Bears downfield. They’re basically looking at the NFC’s No. 3 seed at this point, and that’s if they win the NFC North. They should. But they need their quarterback.

– The Texans may be for real. Maybe. With nine straight wins versus lower-end competition, it would be easy to question their greatness. But that’s just it — NINE STRAIGHT WINS. When you win that often against lower competition, it usually means you’re in a higher class. That’s the Texans. They’re in good position to be one of the AFC’s top two seeds. They’ll most likely be a No. 3 seed. After the Steelers’ loss, they have that just about locked up.

– As briefly mentioned in the Patriots-Vikings section, here come the Seahawks and Ravens. Two 7-5 squads that have a penchant for good coaching and solid football in December and on. The Ravens mystique has taken a hit in that category because of their Week 17 loss to the Bengals, and the fact that they haven’t made the postseason since 2014. But behind rookie Lamar Jackson, Baltimore has won three straight to jump back into the wild card race in the AFC. They travel to Kansas City next Sunday. The Seahawks have been consistently good for just about the entirety of the Russell Wilson era (since 2012). Wilson is proving to be a top-five quarterback at the very least this season, working with a team that was gutted this offseason. Seattle is heading in the right direction between Wilson and Pete Carroll, who is still clearly a top-five coach. Baltimore and Seattle. Two tough football teams that look poised for the playoffs. Any division winners eager to see them come to town in January? I wouldn’t think so.

NFL MVP Race

1. Patrick Mahomes — The Saints’ loss in Dallas, coupled with Mahomes’ prolific performance in his first game without Kareem Hunt, vault Mahomes to the top spot for now. But it’s a close race. He’ll likely have to retain the AFC’s No. 1 seed to win the award.

2. Drew Brees — Brees’ subpar performance in Dallas featured a game-ending interception with a chance to drive down and tie/win the game. The loss also temporarily knocked the Saints back to the No. 2 seed. It’s the closest race in years, but he goes here for now, just barely.

3. Jared Goff — The conductor of Sean McVay’s mastermind offense.

4. Aaron Donald — It’s tempting to put Donald over Goff but quarterbacks are too valuable in today’s NFL. That being said Donald is the BEST player in football right now. Yes, even better than quarterbacks such as Mahomes and Brees.

5. Phillip Rivers — As discussed earlier in this column, Rivers is the dark-horse candidate. He’s been incredible this season. If the Chargers somehow steal the AFC West, he’ll have a real shot at this award.

Honorable mention: Russell Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Khalil Mack, Andrew Luck, Tyreek Hill