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

Nick Chubb vs Ravens

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ordering a muddled AFC

Known for being a month of unpredictability and little importance, September of NFL’s 100th season concluded with a flurry of bizarre results, mostly affecting the AFC.

No result in the conference was more notable than the Browns (2-2) dismantling of the Ravens (2-2), 40-25, in Baltimore.

Nick Chubb — 20 carries, 165 yards, three touchdowns — helped power Cleveland to a monumental win that now puts them on top of the AFC North.

That’s an unanticipated slot for a team that was off to a disastrous start that made Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd and an army of Baker Mayfield haters giddy just days ago.

The AFC North now shares similarities with the logjam that is AFC South.

The inconsistently-average division saw the Texans (2-2) and Colts (2-2) suffer demoralizing losses at home, while the Jaguars (2-2) and Titans (2-2) produced wins that evened out their record.

The Patriots (4-0) and Chiefs (4-0) each survived road scares by the previously-unbeaten Bills (3-1) and Lions (2-1-1). Thanks to a handful of upsets on Sunday, the 49ers (3-0), who were on a bye, are the only other undefeated team remaining.

At this point, it’s apparent that the the December 8th matchup between Kansas City and New England will be one of two contests between those teams this season. The AFC Championship Game in January should be a rematch of last season’s all-timer. It would be shocking to see any other AFC squad masquerading as the conference’s third best team in that game.

After the beasts, there are a few talented teams looking to right the ship in the Browns and Chargers (2-2). Then there’s Texans and Ravens, who have two gifted quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson, but have other holes that leave them liable to the occasional sink fest.

The Bills have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but Josh Allen’s accuracy issues leaves them suspended for the time being.

By January, one or two teams in the AFC will get to 11 wins outside of the Patriots and Chiefs. But will they be a viable threat to either team in the race toward Super Bowl LIV? It’s too early to say for sure, but that answer looks like a resounding “no” for now.

QUICK-HITS

– Down goes Dak Prescott in the Cowboys in New Orleans. The Saints held Dallas to 257 yards of total offense — 45 rushing yards — in a stingy 12-10 win that forces us to reassess the NFC. Teddy Bridgewater had his own issues on Sunday night, struggling to throw for a touchdown and therefore keeping the game closer than it needed to be. Luckily, with a stingy effort from their defense, and 184 total yards of offense from Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, the Saints did just enough to produce a huge victory in the Bayou. Drew Brees is expected to miss another month or more, but in a struggling NFC South that already is without Cam Newton in Carolina, and the mess that is the Falcons (1-3), the Saints are in good position as the Fall season begins.

– The Buccaneers (2-2) led the Rams 21-0 and 45-27 in Los Angeles before overcoming a few mistakes for a shocking 55-40 win over the defending NFC champions on the road. The win was the weekend’s most shocking, and similar to Tampa Bay 48-40 win in New Orleans to kickoff the 2018 season. Under head coach Bruce Arians and possibly wunderkind offensive coordinator Byron Leftwhich, even the inconsistent Jameis Winston should look good at times. Minus an embarrassing pick-six late to the Rams’ Marcus Peters, Winston was electric — 28-of-41, 385 passing yards, four touchdowns — and gaffe free, mostly targeting the underrated Chris Godwin — 12 catches, 172 yards, two touchdowns.

Jared Goff did his best to battle back from an ugly outing, finishing 45-of-68 for 517 yards and two scores, but his three interceptions were too much to overcome. Suddenly, the Rams (3-1) find themselves in a tough spot, as they travel to NFC West rival Seattle in three days for a Thursday night contest.

– Down goes Nick Foles and Cam Newton, and to the bench goes Eli Manning. In comes Gardner Minshew, Kyle Allen and Daniel Jones. The latter trio has combined for a 6-1 record this season over the last two weeks. Jones has faced too easy opponents and Allen received a huge boost from Carolina’s stout defensive front yesterday, but Minshew overcame an erupting Denver defense early to produce a game-winning drive resulting in a walk-off 33-yard field goal by Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo. Even with better teams like the Colts and Texans in the division, and the moderate drama surrounding Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have rallied behind their eclectic rookie quarterback to pit themselves in the thick of things in their division. The Panthers (2-2) may not have enough to remain in the NFC mix, but there is a long season ahead. The same goes for the Saquon Barkley-less Giants. Jones has been solid, but he’ll see his first real test when New York hosts the Vikings (2-2) and their defense next week, before heading to New England for a Thursday night contest four days after. Regardless, all three passers have been impressive to close out September.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (4-0) (Last week: 1). Their defense is the best in a league that includes the mighty impressive unit over in Chicago. This year’s version of Tom Brady is obviously miles ahead of Peyton Manning’s final form, but there are striking similarities between the 2019 Patriots and the 2015 Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) (Last week: 2). They survived in Detroit. Even on an off day, Patrick Mahomes delivered.

3. New Orleans Saints (3-1) (Last week: 6). Thanks to an impressive defensive stand versus the Cowboys, Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints move above the team that has handed them their last two losses. Now that he’s settled in, Bridgewater should be able to do enough to keep the Saints afloat without Drew Brees.

4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 3). That was a bad home loss. It happens. But to surrender 55 points at home means something is wrong with the defense. Is it fixable?

5. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 4). Dak Prescott’s hot streak came crashing down in New Orleans. Will he bounce back at home against Green Bay?

6. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was as big of a win as any team has had in 2019. Carson Wentz finally delivered in a big game, on the road, nonetheless. The Eagles still have major issues on defense, but their overall level of talent pits them near the top of the NFC.

7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 5). Aaron Rodgers finally caught fire on Thursday, just in time for their red-hot defense to be extinguished. They’ll need to return to their previous form in Dallas next week.

8. Chicago Bears (3-1) (Last week: 14). No matter who plays quarterback for the Bears, they just need to play well enough to compliment the NFC’s very best defense. The Bears are a contender in the same sense as they’ve always been — a great defense mixed with a shaky quarterback(s).

9. Seattle Seahawks (3-1) (Last week: 10). They still look like a wild card team, but Sunday’s road dominance was a good sign.

10. San Francisco 49ers (3-0) (Last week: 16). Thanks to a number of disappointing efforts by teams that played this week, the bye-week 49ers move up here.

11. Cleveland Browns (2-2) (Last week: NR). After a disastrous start to their season, the Browns’ talent won out in Baltimore.

12. Baltimore Ravens (2-2) (Last week: 7). All of the sudden, Lamar Jackson’s breakout performances versus the Dolphins and Cardinals — two teams with a combined 0-7-1 record — don’t look so good. How will he respond to reoccurring criticism?

13. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2) (Last week: NR). The Chargers are under the radar for a reason — they haven’t played up to par. But in a middling AFC, they’re in position to reassert themselves.

14. Detroit Lions (2-1-1) (Last week: 13). It’s dumbfounding that the Lions aren’t 4-0. But then again, dumbfounding is what the Lions usually are. In translation — Lions are gonna Lion.

15. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 15). Their defense is extraordinary. Their quarterback is need of a masterclass in smart quarterback play.

16. Indianapolis Colts (2-2) (Last week: 9). That was as disappointing a loss as any this weekend. Were they caught looking ahead to next week’s Sunday Night Football matchup in Kansas City?

Next up: Minnesota, Carolina, Tennessee, Houston, Tampa Bay/Oakland/Jacksonville

Patrick Mahomes vs Ravens

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Mahomes continues to prove he’s NFL’s best player

With each passing week of football, Patrick Mahomes continues to prove he’s the NFL’s best player.

Although a young star-in-the-making, Lamar Jackson is not in Mahomes’ class. Nobody is, outside of six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. And even the GOAT can admire what he’s seen from Mahomes.

The Chiefs (3-0) raced out to a 30-13 lead, holding on for a 33-28 victory over the Ravens (2-1) — one of the AFC’s few contenders.

Mahomes — 27-for-37, 374 yards, three touchdowns — was brilliant in finding DeMarcus Robinson and newcomers Mecole Hardman and LeSean McCoy for highlight-reel scores that we’re accustomed to seeing each week from the young phenom.

At just 24 years old, Mahomes is playing quarterback at a level that we have not yet seen from anyone. A rocket-armed passer with a baseball background, Mahomes’ athleticism and ungodly football awareness are only half of what makes him great. The Chiefs’ franchise player has shown poise and leadership in his 21 career starts, which have led to a 17-5 record to begin his career.

Among the other ridiculous stats, Mahomes registered a 100.0 passer rating for the 16th time in 20 regular season starts, and has 60 touchdown passes in his lat 19 contests.

With the controversial Tyreek Hill slated to return later this season, the reigning NFL MVP will re-add perhaps the NFL’s best deep threat added to his arsenal.

Of course there is a hill Mahomes has yet to climb. In two meetings with the New England Patriots, Mahomes has struggled — scoring a combined seven points in both first halves — early before rallying his team late, only to come up short versus Brady and Bill Belichick.

The budding rivalry between the Chiefs and Patriots is starting to have a ‘can-you-get-over-the-hump?’ feel to it for Mahomes.

For Michael Jordan, it was the Detroit Pistons. For Peyton Manning it was the Patriots. And for LeBron James it was a mix between the Pistons, Celtics and Spurs. Many young superstars fall victim to a more-established championship-level team for multiple seasons before climbing the hill. With Mahomes, the Chiefs may be Super Bowl-bound in just his second season, which would be an accelerated path that the aforementioned sports legends failed to follow. Manning didn’t defeat the Patriots until eight season, and failed to win his first Super Bowl until his ninth campaign. Mahomes has a good chance to host a Lombardi Trophy before that, but nothing is given in this league, and the Chiefs have more work to do on defense.

Mahomes will see the Patriots in New England in a Week 14 matchup that should decide home field advantage throughout the conference.

They may even see Baltimore again in the postseason. New Raven Earl Thomas was adamant on the matter after the game.

“We’re going to see them again. And when we see them down the line, we’re going to have it,” Thomas said.

Frankly, whichever team sees Mahomes and the Chiefs is going to have their hands full.

QUICK-HITS 

– In just three years as the Colts general manager, Chris Ballard has built one of the best rosters in the NFL in Indianapolis. And even with the surprise retirement of Andrew Luck, the franchise’s new passer has kept the Colts’ (2-1) playoff dreams afloat. Jacoby Brissett completed his first 16 passes and added a few clutch throws downfield late, to stave off the Falcons (1-2). Brissett was thought to have had intangible qualities needed for his role, but many would agree that he had much to improve on in terms of being a NFL-quality passer. Brissett has answered the bell, and clearly looks like one of the better all-around quarterbacks in pro football through three weeks.

– Matt Patricia has taken his fare share of criticism since taking the Lions head coaching job. After a week 1 tie with the lowly Cardinals — in which Detroit blew a 24-6 lead — the inconsistent franchise looked like a team in for more of the same in 2019. But Detroit has since taken down two of the league’s most talented teams, the Chargers and Eagles, to move to 2-0-1. The Lions are moderately stout in several different areas — the line of scrimmage (offense and defense), secondary, running game — giving them a well-balanced attack on both sides of the ball. Matthew Stafford has improved mightily. One of his major criticisms was his inability to beat good teams on the road. Stafford helped Detroit do that on Sunday. The Lions host the Chiefs next week in the weekend’s most interesting showdown.

– The league’s quarterback carousel produced a litany of impressive performances on Sunday. Rookie Daniel Jones replaced Eli Manning and rallied the Giants (1-2) from an 18-point deficit to beat the Buccaneers (1-2) on the road in his first career start. Teddy Bridgewater filled in for Drew Brees and helped the Saints (2-1) beat the Seahawks (2-1), handing Russell Wilson his first career home loss in September. And Kyle Allen took Cam Newton’s spot and threw for four scores as the Panthers (1-2) downed the Cardinals (1-2) in Arizona. There were a few performances from this group that were left to be desired. Luke Faulk and the Jets were no match for the Patriots. Josh Rosen was given little help from his Dolphin teammates in Dallas. And despite some fourth-quarter heroics, Mason Rudolph and the Steelers were out-dueled by Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers (3-0) in San Francisco.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (3-0) (Last week: 1).  The Patriots allowed just 105 total yards versus the Jets on Sunday — their best effort in their 20 years under Bill Belichick. Is this their best defense ever?

2. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) (Last week: 2). Can anyone slow down Mahomes?

3. Los Angeles Rams (3-0) (Last week: 3). He threw a bad pick late, but Jared Goff still exorcised some road demons in Cleveland. The Patriots, Chiefs and Rams are in a different class than the rest. They’re the true contenders at this point.

4. Dallas Cowboys (3-0) (Last week: 4). Dallas picked up the pace versus Miami after a sloppy start. A win in New Orleans next Sunday night — even with Teddy Bridgewater in for Drew Brees — would show the nation just how good America’s Team is, in 2019.

5. Green Bay Packers (3-0) (Last week: 7). The Packers are quietly building their case in the NFC. Their defense is much improved. Their offseason signings are paying off.

6. New Orleans Saints (2-1) (Last week: 9). The Saints rallied around Teddy Bridgewater on Sunday. If they hang around .500, that should be enough for them to win the NFC South with a returning Drew Brees. Bridgewater can do at least that, it seems. Maybe more.

7. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 5). Lamar Jackson rallied the troops late, but the Ravens were flat for almost the entire game in Arrowhead. They aren’t up to par with New England or Kansas City in the AFC just yet. But we knew that.

8. Minnesota Vikings (2-1) (Last week: 11). Dalvin Cook continues to fry defenses (smooth, I know).

9. Indianapolis Colts (2-1) (Last week: 12). The Colts are a damn good team, and Jacoby Brissett is a damn good quarterback.

10. Seattle Seahawks (2-1) (Last week: 8).  That was a rough loss at home. They aren’t quite a top-tier contender in the NFC, but they’re probably a postseason team, just like last season.

11. Philadelphia Eagles (1-2) (Last week: 6). They have some major problems on defense. And it’s time to really consider if Carson Wentz is stuck in Nick Foles’ shadow. I think he’ll eventually respond nicely, though.

12. Houston Texans (2-1) (Last week: 15). Deshaun Watson rallied the Texans on the road. They still have some issues, but they look like a playoff team in the AFC. Beating the Chargers may prove monumental if both teams are later in the wild card hunt.

13. Detroit Lions (2-0-1) (Last week: NR). Are we still asking for Matt Patricia to be fired? Didn’t think so. Him and Matthew Stafford have been awesome so far this season.

14. Chicago Bears (1-1) (Last week: 10). They play Washington tonight. If they’re a slam-dunk playoff team, they’ll win this.

15. Buffalo Bills (3-0) (Last week: NR). Their defense has been solid but Josh Allen has produced almost only in the clutch. Just how good is this team?

16. San Francisco 49ers (3-0) (Last week: NR). Like the Bills, the 49ers are an undefeated team that has beaten up on lesser opponents, and are at this point — basically unproven.

 

Todd Gurley vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Rams lead the way in NFC; Patriots eying another 19-0 run?

Two weeks into the season and there’s already a headline that can be ruled out for the remainder of 2019.

There will be no silence of the Rams this year.

The Super Bowl loser’s curse had already lost some it’s oomph over the last few seasons. After all, the Patriots just won Super Bowl LIII over the Rams after losing Super Bowl LII the year before.

With the exception of that curse, or notion, there was no other reason to believe the Rams would not seriously contend to return to the Super Bowl.

After their 27-9 victory over the Saints in an NFC Championship Game rematch, it’s clear the Rams are the current favorite in the NFC.

Granted, Drew Brees left the game early after Aaron Donald swatted his right thumb on a passing attempt, knocking him out of the game, and possibly the next two months, the Rams still were clearly the better team.

John Johnson added another interception of Brees early on, as he did in overtime in the NFC title game. Clay Matthews notched a sack in his first game in his hometown (Matthews grew up in the valley in Aguora Hills) and Aaron Donald and Eric Weddle were their usual dominant selves.

On offense Jared Goff threw dimes downfield to Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley flashed a few brilliant stretches of healthy-looking dominance.

But Los Angeles’ most important development is the play of slot receiver Cooper Kupp after his torn ACL last season. Only when Kupp was lost for the season last year did the Rams realize just how important he is to their offense. Los Angeles was stymied several times — most notably versus the Bears and Patriots — without the trusty Kupp to move the chains on third downs.

Kupp hauled in a game-high 120 yards on five catches versus New Orleans, showing just how much of a threat he can be when defenses key on Cooks and Robert Woods on the outside and Gurley in the backfield.

With Kupp, Sean McVay’s offense has a better chance of moving the ball against some of the league’s better defenses. Without Kupp, teams were able to key on the team’s outside receivers, making Los Angeles somewhat predictable in their often-used three-receiver bunch sets.

With Kupp’s unique skill set, the Rams have re-added perhaps their most important player in their passing game.

With Brees out, the Cowboys, Seahawks and banged-up Eagles appear to be the biggest threats to the Rams’ throne. But at this point in the season, it’s clear the Rams are a step ahead.

Patriots are on a mission

It’s hard to imagine the Patriots ever coming as close as to a 19-0 record as they did in 2007, when the campaign was halted by the miraculous ‘Helmet Catch’ of Super Bowl XLII.

Enter New England’s 2019 squad.

The Patriots throttled the league-worst Dolphins in Miami, 43-0, exorcising some demons in their house of horrors, while moving to a mind-numbing point differential of plus-73 (76-3) in their first two games.

The Patriots have been to three straight Super Bowls — and our of the last five — and their current squad is unquestionably their most complete team this decade.

New England’s chameleon approach to attacking defenses focuses on their ability to switch formations as smoothy as they change the focus of their game plan, which could revolve around power-running behind Sony Michel, or a spread attack with their multitude of pass-catching running backs and a league-best wide receiver core.

Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and the underrated Phillip Dorsett make up a top-tier group on their own. Adding the best wide receiver of the decade makes this group sublime.

By now, we know Antonio Brown’s situation. The 31-year-old superstar has been accused of three different incidents of sexual assault, including rape, in a civil suit filed by his former trainer. SI’s Robert Klemko also released a bombshell long form report this morning detailing an alleged another incident of sexual misconduct by Brown with another woman. The NFL is meeting with Brown’s accuser today, and Brown is subject to discipline if more evidence is released, or if the NFL sees fit.

Antonio Brown vs Dolphins
Antonio Brown celebrates his first career catch as a Patriot. Brown’s future availability is in question due to a civil lawsuit filed by his former trainer. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

When discussing Brown, his serious situation(s) off-the-field should be discussed. But what Browns brings to New England on the field is the league’s best route runner and all-time best sideline catch specialist capable of rendering the Patriots unbeatable.

Between Gordon on the outside, Edelman in the slot, and Brown and the speedy Phillip Dorsett Jr. moving around their formations, New England may have the best four-receiver sets every assembled.

Brady looked Brown’s way on his first three pass attempts, completing all three for 36 yards. Brady then looked Brown’s way a fourth time in the end zone, but eventually threw the ball away as Xavien Howard was called for a defensive holding call on Brown after he was beat on a nifty whip route usually reserved for Edelman — see: Super Bowl XLIX.

In all, Brown tallied four catches for 56 yards and a beautiful back-shoulder touchdown on eight targets from Brady.

There were clear instances of miscommunication. Brady hit the back of former Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe in an end zone under throw to Brown in the second half. Brady slammed his hands on his helmet after the misfire.

With the new SI report out, it’s fair to wonder if Brown has played his last game of the season. There will be pressure on the NFL to at least place him on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. But the Patriots are force on offense without him.

Still, New England’s best unit is their league-best defense, which has allowed three points in two games this season, and six points in three games if you include their 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams — the second-best offense in 2018 — in Super Bowl LIII.

Bill Belichick’s varying defensive fronts and blitz schemes, often in a ‘amoeba’ look (several stand-up defenses on the line scrimmage) causes confusion for quarterbacks, who are already dealing with the league’s deepest secondary, equipped with the NFL’s best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore.

Gilmore added a pick-six and a skying, one-handed deflection of a pass that ended up in the arms of Patriots safety Devin McCourty.

But New England’s ace in the hole has been Jamie Collins and his return to the team in which he earned his eventual mega-contract with the Browns.

Collins posted a sack and a half, a pick-six, an additional interception, as well as another wallowing hit on a running back in the backfield.

With the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Chase Winovich on the edge, and Collins and Dont’a Hightower moving all around the defensive front, the Patriots will be able to slow down a myriad of offenses.

The bottom line for New England is this — with or without Brown, they’re the best team in football. With him — and their easy schedule with the exception of a midseason stretch — a 19-0 season is in the cards.

The Patriots weathered the media storm from Spygate in 2007 by crushing the Chargers in Week 2 with the help from a superstar former Raiders receiver in Randy Moss.

They did the same in Week 2 this week with the well-warranted talk of former Raiders receiver Antonio Brown this week. If the allegations are to be true, Brown should be outlawed from the league. It’s also fair to want Commissioner Goodell to keep Brown off the field until the matter(s) are sorted out.

Regardless, the Patriots are rolling on all cylinders, and are the overwhelming favorite to return to Miami in February for Super Bowl LIV.

QUICK-HITS 

– In a league in which older quarterbacks have dominated in recent seasons, a flurry of young quarterbacks seem to be making their push into the NFL’s top tier of signal callers. Of course, such seems to be the case every year, but many passers don’t last as top tier guys for longer than a few seasons — see: Cam Newton.

Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo appear to be leading the latest wave of young quarterbacks poised to lead their franchises to success. But all three passers should be placed in the ‘be-weary’ column that should have been applied to guys like Newton, just because quarterbacks lately seem to have a spurts of great seasons before falling back to earth.

One quarterback whom this need not apply is Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has continued on his torrid pace in 2019, as he’s seemingly on track to repeat as NFL MVP if he keeps up his current pace.

If the decade started with Aaron Rodgers showing us a level of quarterback talent we’ve never seen before, then Mahomes will end the decade by surpassing Rodgers as the most talented quarterback to ever play. Mahomes is already that. After the Raiders surprised many in getting off to a 10-0 lead at home, Mahomes erased that cushion in a matter of minutes, throwing for four second-quarter touchdown passes to take the game.

With Kansas City continuing to struggle some on defense, it will be up to Mahomes to slay the mighty Patriots to lead Kansas City back to the Super Bowl. If any quarterback is to do that without a defense, it will be Mahomes. He’s that talented. And yes, he’s also that good.

First, Mahomes will deal with Jackson and the Ravens coming to town next week in a battle of two very-early NFL MVP leaders leading two early-season heavyweights in the AFC.

– After a flurry of embarrassing seasons in the 2000’s and a run of utter dominance in this decade, the NFC West appears to be highly competitive once again with the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks each posting 2-0 records to begin the season. Granted, Seattle and San Francisco have played subpar opponents at this point in the season. The Rams are the clear favorite in the division, but both the Seahawks and 49ers are staking their claim as teams that will be in the mix down the stretch. And lest we forget about the Arizona Cardinals (0-1-1). Rookie Kyler Murray was out dueled by Lamar Jackson in a a showdown of young gunslingers, but Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals have shown some flashes of offensive efficiency. The NFC West is certainly trending up.

– Drew Brees’ aforementioned thumb injury has required him to stay in Los Angeles today as the rest of the team heads to Seattle. Brees reportedly has met Dr. Steve Shin, according to ESPN’s Stephania Bell. Shin is regarded as one of the best hand specialists in the country. Seemingly after that, Brees was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right thumb. The injury will require surgery and the star passer is expected to miss up to six weeks, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Between Brees and Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending right elbow injury, some of the game’s best quarterbacks are now on the shelf. In New Orleans and Pittsburgh, the likes of Teddy Bridgewater and Mason Rudolph as fill-in-starters may be enough to keep the Saints and Steelers afloat, but both are major losses. It’s also worth wondering if Roethlisberger will retire after this injury.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (2-0) (Last week: 1). They’re already the best team in the NFL without Antonio Brown. But with him, they’re essentially the Steph Curry and Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors. Add in their defense, and then yes, 19-0 is in the cards. It’s not too early to begin the undefeated talk.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) (Last week: 2). Mahomes seems primed for another MVP award. He’s the greatest talent this game has ever seen at the quarterback position.

3. Los Angeles Rams (2-0) (Last week: 4). They’re still the team to beat in the NFC, for now.

4. Dallas Cowboys (2-0) (Last week: 6). Many believe a young QB’s fourth season is the most telling. If that’s the case, Dak Prescott is building a legacy.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-0) (Last week: 8). Lamar Jackson has clearly improved as a passer, but the Ravens have beat up on lesser opponents these first two weeks. Can he keep up with Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City?

6. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1) (Last week: 3). A flurry of major injuries and a ton of bad luck downed the Eagles in Atlanta. They’ll be near the top of the conference come December.

7. Green Bay Packers (2-0) (Last week: 12). Green Bay’s defense may be the most underrated unit thus far. Once Aaron Rodgers fully adapts to the Packers’ new offense, look out, NFC.

8. Seattle Seahawks (2-0) (Last week: 11). Looking ahead at these next couple weeks, the Seahawks may quietly move to 4-0 before hosting the Rams in Seattle.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-1) (Last week: 5). With Brees expected to miss a good chunk of time, the talented Saints will turn to Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback who has been through his fair share of adversity.

10. Chicago Bears (1-1) (Last week: 14). Chicago has the best defense in the NFC, if not, the NFL. Mitch Trubisky may not be the answer as the franchise’s quarterback, but he does often come through in the clutch. Add in a kicker who doesn’t double-doink it, and the Bears are in business.

11. Minnesota Vikings (1-1) (Last week: 7). Like their NFC North counterpart in Chicago, the talented Vikings will only go as far as their inconsistent quarterback takes them. Kirk Cousins has to play better.

12. Atlanta Falcons (1-1) (Last week: NR). The wide-open NFC South is Atlanta’s for the taking.

13. Los Angeles Chargers (1-1) (Last week: 9). They still have a ton of talent, but something’s not quite right here. Doesn’t seem like their season.

14. Indianapolis Colts (1-1) (Last week: 16). Jacoby Brissett, franchise quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has earned his title.

15. Houston Texans (1-1) (Last week: 13). The Texans are entering what most likely will be a season of crazy up-and-down play.

16. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: 10). Every time the Titans look like they’re about to enter a winning streak, they stop themselves dead in their tracks.

Next up: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers