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

Jourdan Lewis INT vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness (Friday Edition): Cowboys halt Saints + Patriots begin season-defining stretch

With shades of 2009 pulled into force, the Cowboys ended the Saints’ 10-game winning streak via a 13-10 upset at home, vaulting them further along in the race for the NFC East crown, and solidifying them as a team to monitor in the NFC.

The Cowboys led the Saints 13-0 before a Brett Maher field goal finally put New Orleans on the board with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Saints rallied to cut the lead to 13-10 before Drew Brees threw a costly interception to Jourdan Lewis with 2:08 remaining, leading to a key Cowboys win.

To hold an offense as hot as the Saints (37.2 points per game entering Thursday) to zero points — and limit Drew Brees to 127 passing yards total — through the game’s first 35 minutes is absurd. Dallas’ defense has turned into one of the league’s best units, and at just the right time.

On offense, Dallas controlled the clock behind the Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher. And they produced through the air when needed behind Dak Prescott and No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper, this year’s best midseason acquisition. But overall it was a lukewarm performance for a unit that will need more consistency if it plans to make a serious run in January.

Prescott missed Michael Gallup on a wide-open pump-and-go attempt that would have iced the game. Later on the drive, the Cowboys quarterback fumbled the ball back to the Saints before Lewis’ interception two plays later. But Dak was sharp otherwise, going connecting on 24 of his 28 pass attempts, while throwing for an early score to Elliott on a 16-yard screen pass.

The Cowboys host the Eagles next week. A win would likely cripple the defending Super Bowl champs and nearly clinch the NFC East for Dallas, before they’d travel to the Indianapolis to face the red-hot Colts, who are serving as the AFC’s version of the Cowboys, to a degree.

The Saints will get back on the horse and attempt to close out a tough schedule by winning out, and hoping the Rams (10-1) drop a game to ensure New Orleans takes back the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

The Saints are still the best team in football, but with just 10 points in Dallas, the lack of offensive weapons beyond Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were notable for the first time all season. And because of that, the Rams remain the most talented team in football.

It’ll be interesting to look back in January or February to see if this loss was merely a speed bump for the Saints or the start of something more sinister for their season.

All we know today is that the Cowboys are in the midst of a late-season push that no one expected from them a month ago.

Are Patriots poised for another patented late-season run?

As the Patriots reach the homestretch of what’s been more of a topsy turvy season than usual, the next three games may very well define their season.

With upcoming games against the Vikings, Dolphins and Steelers, New England is entering a phase all too familiar to veterans of the team, who are hoping to inspire newcomers to carry the load in December.

Among the veterans who are used to this run are Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, as the latter will need to stay healthy for the Patriots to have any shot at a championship run. Even though he doesn’t dominate quite as consistently as he used to, Gronk still consistently draws double coverage, opening things up for Brady’s other options.

Rob Gronkowski vs Texans
Rob Gronkowski prepares for a catch versus the Texans’ double coverage. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Among the newcomers with important roles in the Patriots’ impending success are No. 1 wide receiver Josh Gordon, and rookie running back Sony Michel. With an aging Edelman and Gronkowski, Michel and Gordon (along with James White) have become focal points of the team’s current offense.

Up next are the talented Vikings, who may look to slow down Gordon with Xavier Rhodes (if he plays through an injury) and Gronkowski with Harrison Smith, meaning the young running back core of Michel and White may be asked to anchor the load on offense.

In Miami the Patriots will look to improve in one of their few house of horrors, to grab a win and most clinch the AFC East.

Then there’s the game in Pittsburgh, which may be the ultimate decider for the AFC’s No. 2 seed if the Texans to slip up. New England is all too familiar with this slate, seeing as they faced road games back-to-back in the same weeks on the schedule last year, losing to the Dolphins on a Monday Night contest before winning a thriller in Pittsburgh on a last-second goal line interception by Duron Harmon.

Despite having the Steelers number, Pittsburgh has the parts to derail New England’s defense, starting with their one-two punch at wide receiver with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

To have any chance at the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the Patriots will likely have to win out. Their toughest stretch of the season awaits. It’s gut-check time, which is a sports moment all too familiar this time of year in the Northeast pocket of the United States.

Drew Brees vs Bengals

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Pro football’s best trio + Titans get ‘personal’ with Patriots

There would be no letdown in Cincinnati for the Saints. After all, the universe did its best to bring down the NFL’s best team via a freakish, season-ending Achilles injury to the newly-acquired Dez Bryant in his first practice as a Saint. But New Orleans prevailed by the way of a 51-14 drubbing of the Bengals (5-4) in Cincinnati, highlighted by the NFL’s best trio, on the league’s unquestionably-best team through 10 weeks.

Drew Brees: 22-for-25, 265 passing yards, four total touchdowns

Alvin Kamara: 102 total yards, two touchdowns

Michael Thomas: eight catches, 70 yards, two touchdowns

With all due respect to the triplets in Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger, James Connor, Antonio Brown), Los Angeles (Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks), Los Angeles (Phillip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen) and New England (Tom Brady, James White and Julian Edelman/Josh Gordon/Rob Gronkowski) the Saints harness the best the league has to offer here.

One could even add in additional weapons such as Mark Ingram, and the situational-piece, Taysom Hill, to form the most complete and efficient unit in football. The Saints are lethal offensively. Road wins over the Vikings, Ravens and Bengals don’t come easy, yet New Orleans made it seem as such.

With a slew of tough games ahead, the Saints will look to keep their moniker as the best team there is. If they do, it’ll be because of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. When you provide offensive mastermind Sean Payton with that crew, this is what you should expect.

Titans rock Patriots in ‘personal’ beatdown

In Tennessee, instead of jogging through a win before the bye week, the Patriots (7-3) fell victim to a team that knows them all too well.

Hell yeah it’s personal,” said former Patriot Dion Lewis in the Titans’ locker room, after the win. “That’s what happens when you go cheap. You get your ass kicked.”

Although Lewis was the only ex-Patriot to take a sour approach toward his former employer, former New England cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and even defensive lineman Darius Kilgore made their presence known in Tennesse’s 34-10 thrashing of New England.

The Titans (5-4) hold a certain swagger, believing they can beat anybody. And with wins over last season’s Super Bowl participants, they very well can. The edginess begins and ends with rookie head coach Mike Vrabel, an ex-Patriot himself, groomed and developed under Bill Belichick’s early-dynasty clubs in the 2000’s. Today, Vrabel bested his former coach, and added a little salt to the wound when he ran the ‘Philly Special’ to a greater success just plays after the Patriots’ fell short of a first down on their attempt.

“I wanted to see if it looked better than theirs,” Vrabel said during a postgame press conference.

The Titans are back to within striking distance in the AFC South. With road games versus the Colts (4-5) and the division-leading Texans (6-3) ahead, Vrabel’s bunch has a shot at a playoff push.

New England will limp into their bye week desperately needing consistency out of a defense that doesn’t feature much of it, after Trey Flowers and Stephon Gilmore. The latter even had his first rough outing in weeks on Sunday.

“I could have won that matchup a little bit more, but he made some plays today,” Gilmore told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, in regard to his matchup with the Titans’ Corey Davis. “My hat’s off to them.”

On offense, New England will welcome back Rob Gronkowski versus the Jets in 13 days. Maybe that will take some of the coverage off of Josh Gordon, who Brady forced 13 throws to in Tennessee, coming up with only four completions.

The faith Brady has developed in Gordon bodes well for the rest of the season, but there were several instances in which Brady missed James White and others by forcing the ball to his WR1.

James White should still be the focal point of the offense, with Gordon, Gronk and Julian Edelman (nine catches, 104 yards) each taking turns as the team’s focal point. The offense should be fine. Their O-line played a chunk of the game down three starters in Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason, as the latter sat out the entire game.

With the Chiefs now two games ahead of them, and the Steelers now passing them for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, New England’s new goal is a hyper-focused, week-to-week approach that will feature situational game plans designed to cripple each opponent. Only their Week 13 home match with Minnesota, and their Week 15 road contest in Pittsburgh seem like possible losses.

New England may very well run the table and steamroll their way into the postseason, but the defense may always rear it’s ugly head. It did last year, in Super Bowl LII. When will it do so again this season? And can the offense score enough for them to emerge victorious?

Chiefs-Rams a monster matchup in Mexico City

After a too-close-for-comfort win at home for each squad, the Chiefs (9-1) and Rams (9-1) can now look ahead to the biggest cross-conference matchup of the 2018 regular season, which oddly enough, will be played in Mexico City.

Even more of a factor than the altitude may be the apparent season-ending injury to Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp, who seemingly suffered an ACL injury in the win over the Seahawks.

But aside from that, there are weapons galore in this title. Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce take on Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.

Mahomes (along with Drew Brees) is an MVP frontrunner while Gurley is in the mix for that award, and likely the leader to repeat as the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Aaron Donald remains the best non-QB in the entire league, and is well on his way to his second-consecutive Defensive Player of the year award at age 27.

Both teams will battle the air to put up their usual offensive showing. The Chiefs have a bit more firepower on offense, but the Rams’ unit is more calculated and controlled.

This game may come down to the defensive side of the ball, where the Rams look much better on paper, but aren’t playing nearly at the level where many thought they would be. Their edge defenders and linebackers are lacking, meaning Kareem Hunt will have a shot to lead his team to victory.

30-plus points and winning the turnover battle should win this one.

The stars have aligned on either squad to give us a possible Super Bowl LIII preview, deep into the regular season.

A fitting football sendoff for those heading home to be with family for Thanksgiving, in the day or two after this matchup.

My early pick? Chiefs 31, Rams 27.

Enjoy.

Quick-hits

– Let’s begin with late coverage from the Steelers’ (6-2-1) 52-21 primetime spanking of the Panthers (6-3) in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Coupled with the win and the Patriots’ loss, Pittsburgh has now risen from the dead to takeover the AFC’s No. 2 seed entering mid-November. Although they officially will be without Le’Veon Bell in 2018 (and probably forever), James Conner has been well worth a 2017 third-round pick, as has JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was picked a round earlier in that very same draft. Antonio Brown has now moved passed his early-season grievances to return to his throne as the game’s best receiver, while Ben Roethlisberger (22-for-25, 328 yards, five touchdowns) looks far from retiring in Pittsburgh’s uber-impressive five-game winning streak. With games remaining against the Chargers, Patriots and Saints, the Steelers will need all the offensive firepower they can get, which is something they have as much of as any other team in pro football.

-With the Cowboys’ 27-20 win over the Eagles (4-5) in Philadelphia, the happiest team in the NFC East is Washington (6-3), who handled the Buccaneers, 16-3, to take a two-game lead in the division. Both Dallas and Philadelphia hold more talent than Washington, but after a bad home loss to the Falcons last week, the Redskins surprised many by regrouping to win in Tampa Bay. Now, the defending Super Bowl champions will travel to New Orleans, to face the hottest team in all the land.

– After the Bears’ third straight win to stay ahead in the NFC North, the division now features its biggest game of the year next Sunday Night:

Minnesota (5-3-1) at Chicago (6-3).

The Vikings had a bye this week to sort things out. Both teams make up the top five or six of the league’s most talented bunches. Minnesota should be looked at as a mini-favorite, even in Chicago, but the play of Mitchell Trubisky as of late should be enough to quiet critics momentarily, as he head’s into the biggest game of his career.

With star power throughout (Khalil Mack, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Allen Robinson) who will take a November stand in possibly the league’s toughest division?

Tom Brady vs Packers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, Saints hand Rams first loss

On Sunday night a game that many fans, sports media members, and network executives circled on their calendar roughly six months ago took place.

We’re talking about the Packers-Patriots showdown, of course. Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady. The most talented quarterback of all time versus the greatest quarterback of all time.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks these aren’t the two greatest passers in the game. But ironically, the most ridiculous hot takes involving the two usually surround comparisons among the two best players in football. And that’s not just on Twitter, were talking network-created debate shows that make some of the most outrageous claims.

But as the great Bill Simmons put in a 2007 column that led up to a great Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown — the greatest QB rivalry of all-time — “If you don’t like the accompanying BS for an admittedly overdiscussed game, simply skip the shows, columns, features and SportsCenter segments and join’ NBC’s broadcast on Sunday night.

Well that date has passed. It’s now Monday, and the Patriots won that contest, 31-17, all while using their WR5 (Cordarrelle Patterson, 73 total yards and a rushing TD) as an RB2, and while doing so without Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel, who are two of the team’s top five weapons on offense, and that’s being modest.

Yes, Brady has the better coach and the better overall team. With the exception of maybe Mike Daniels and a young (but talented) CB core, the Packers defense is not quite as good as the Patriots’ unit, and New England’s defense is iffy. So it goes without saying, Brady didn’t necessarily beat Rodgers in a boxing match, it’s the team sport of football.

But Brady is the better quarterback. He has the better resume, legacy, and has been better since the 2014 regular season, when Rodgers beat Brady and the Patriots at home, 26-21, leading to Rodgers second NFL MVP award. So it was obvious Brady wanted this one, to even the score at 1-1 in what will most likely be the lasting moments of their often-discussed but never-matched-up-against rivalry. Green Bay is not returning to the Super Bowl this season, and with the talent in the NFC, they may not get back. Unless the two are still playing 2022, this was the last regular season meeting between the two.

Working with what he had, Brady spread the ball around to his trusted weapons, offensive engine James White and the ever-valuable Julian Edelman, as the two combined for 191 yards form scrimmage, 37 passing yards (!) and two scores.

But the X-factor is and will remain WR1 Josh Gordon, who continues to make spectacular plays as the type of guy Brady feels comfortable just lofting the ball up to, like he used to with the great Randy Moss. But there was no jump ball in the game’s best play, that put the game away. Brady lured two good rookie Packers cornerbacks to the flats as he faked a WR screen to Chris Hogan, then threw a dart to Gordon, who broke free for a 55-yard score. Game, set, match.

Rodgers was good, throwing for 259 yards, two scores and zero picks on 24-for-43 passing. He’s always good, at the very least. He’s usually great, but with only WR1 Davante Adams as a bonafide top target, Rodgers is working with two players who have seen better days, Randall Cobb and Jimmy Graham, as his next best weapons. After that it’s a barrel of rookie pass catchers.

Rodgers did what he could, and was humble in defeat. And if he springs together a run of late-career Super Bowls, he may very well finish as the greatest ever. For now, that conversation is not close, it’s Brady. And as for the best over the last few seasons, and right now? That conversation yields a much closer argument. But it’s Brady who is the better in that category, too. He proved that Sunday night, and has been in a recent, late-career run that Rodgers needs to mirror to pass him.

Saints rip Rams, lay claim as NFL’s best team

A Brady-Rodgers duel is awesome, but the best matchup of the week resided in New Orleans, as the Rams and Saints squared off in a battle that may decide the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The Saints were on their way to destroying the Rams, holding a 35-14 lead right before the half. It wasn’t close. It was a spanking.

But the Rams clawed their way back to tie the game at 35-35 midway through the fourth quarter. In the biggest game of his young career, Jared Goff showed incredible poise and composure in leading the Rams back into the game. But the Saints responded.

The answer to my tweet above was obviously a resounding no, as Alvin Kamara ripped through Los Angeles for 116 total yards and three touchdowns in New Orleans’ eventual 45-35 victory. To make matters worse, Rams CB1 Marcus Peters was lost trying to defend Saints WR1 Michael Thomas, who is on an extraordinary receiving pace that rivals Todd Gurley’s season for the Rams. Kamara had three scores and Thomas put the game away with a clutch touchdown, and celebrated with a legendary ode to Joe Horn’s old-school cell phone celebration.

Despite the abundance of talent in the NFC (Panthers, Vikings, Eagles, Bears, Packers etc..) these two should meet again in the NFC Championship Game. If the Saints take care of business, they should have that game at home, because of this win. Give me the Saints in a rematch — that would be even closer than this matchup — due to their league-best trio of Brees, Kamara and Thomas. The Rams and Chiefs may have more complete offenses, but those three in New Orleans are not to be messed with.

Thomas was too much for Peters. Kamara was too much for the Rams’ underwhelming LB crew. And despite Goff’s ability to guide the Rams back in it, Brees was better. The Rams are all in, but the Saints are slightly better at the moment. They proved that and more on Sunday. They’re the best team in pro football. And now, they hold all the cards in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Three sleeper teams to monitor

With most eyes on the Saints, Rams, Patriots and Chiefs, there are three teams flying under the radar at this point in the season.

Give it up for the Panthers (6-2, three-game winning streak), Chargers (6-2, five-game winning streak) and Texans (6-3, six-game winning streak). All three clubs are coasting thanks to MVP-level play from their QBs – Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers and Deshaun Watson. The latter has overcome a slow start, in which he clearly was still affected by last season’s ACL tear, to return to his old self. Mahomes may have jumped ahead for now but Watson, who was snagged two picks after Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft, has a chance to become the best QB of that draft class, really. As for the Bears (5-3), it’s their health, and the inconsistency of the highest-drafted QB of that class, Mitchell Trubisky, that brings them down. They aren’t up to par with Houston, or the Panthers or Chargers.

Both Newton and Rivers are a few seasons removed from their previous best seasons. Newton hogged the limelight during a great 2015 run, and isn’t quite doing that statistically this season, but he’s working with a re-defined offense that plays at a different pace, and he’s playing as efficient as he’s ever been. This is actually Rivers’ best season by any mark, so far. With Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams, Los Angeles’ offense is tough to stop.

All three of these teams are tough to stop. Down the stretch, give me the Chargers as the most sure-fire to make the postseason, then the Panthers, then the Texans, who may need to hold off the Jaguars (3-5) who are bound to make a run at some point, they have too much talent. But all three should make it in, and all three will deserve too. Keep an eye on these three squads.

Quick-hits

– Although it’s not yet time to stick a fork in the Ravens (4-5), licking your chops at the idea wouldn’t be considered reckless. Five weeks ago, Baltimore impressively dismantled the Steelers (5-2-1) in Pittsburgh on a national stage. On Sunday, they played uninspired at home in a 23-16 loss to their division rival during a game sandwiched with others in the early afternoon slate. The loss is the third straight for the Ravens, who have been knocked farther down the AFC North ladder, looking up at the Steelers and Bengals (5-3).

Pittsburgh has seemingly eviscerated their sluggish play to begin the year, as their fourth straight win puts them behind only the Chiefs (8-1) and Patriots (7-2) in the AFC playoff picture.

– In the Falcons (4-4) 38-14 bludgeoning of the Redskins (5-3) in Washington, two points were made. First, Washington clearly shouldn’t be mentioned among the NFC’s true contenders. And second, with three straight wins, the Falcons have risen from the dead to insert themselves in the NFC’s wild card race. With season-ending injuries to Keanu Neal and Deion Jones (among other casulaties), no team has been devastated with more injuries this season than Atlanta. But Steve Sarkisian’s offense has come alive for the Falcons, who seemed to have fixed their red-zone woes and are scoring at will. Halfway through what looked like was becoming a disaster campaign, Atlanta deserves some attention.

NFL MVP Race

1) Patrick Mahomes – As he continues on his record pace, it’s clear the QB for the league’s most explosive offense in at least a decade is the frontrunner for the NFL MVP.

2) Drew Brees – Brees leads the NFL’s best team at the moment, with seven straight wins. In the Saints only loss (Week 1 vs. the Bucs), Brees and company put up 40 points in a 47-40 loss. He’s having perhaps his best season at age 39.

3) Todd Gurley – Gurley leads the league in rushing yards (868 yards), total yards from scrimmage (1,230 yards), and total touchdowns (16). He’s your Offensive Player of the Year at this point.

4) Phillip Rivers – Like Brees, Rivers is having his best season in the twilight of his career, as well. Utilizing his humongous receiving core — and Melvin Gordon — the Chargers are a scary 6-2 bunch, with their only losses coming to the Chiefs and Rams. You can thank Rivers for the Chargers’ success this season, and any success they’ve had since about 2009.

5) Tom Brady – Overcoming yet another bumpy start, Brady continues to win when key pieces are missing, when players are added midseason to fill major roles, or when the Patriots’ offensive strategy changes from week to week.

Next Up: Alvin Kamara, James Connor, Kareem Hunt, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan

Marshon Lattimore vs Vikings

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Saints’ revenge in Minny, surprising Skins

This time there would be no close ending. No Minnesota Miracle. No heartbreak for Drew Brees and the Saints (6-1) in Minnesota, just glee. In their 30-20 win over the Vikings (4-3-1), the Saints exacted their revenge for the wackiest finish of 2017, which sent them home in the playoffs, two games short of their ultimate goal.

Brees (18-for-23, 120 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) wasn’t exactly a world beater in the win, but he was sharp in his accuracy, which complimented an opportunistic defense that has reverted back to it’s 2017 ways as a formidable unit.

The game changed when Marshon Lattimore returned an Adam Thielen fumble 54 yards into Vikings territory before the end of the first half. The Saints then scored on a short run by Alvin Kamara to take a 17-13 lead into the half that they would not surrender.

Now the Saints welcome the Rams (8-0) in what is basically a midseason NFC title game that may very well decide who gets home field advantage come January.

With six straight wins, the Saints are as good of a team as any, bolstering an offense full of versatile weapons — Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and Taysom Hill — and a defense that has improved dramatically since being overtaken by  Tampa Bay’s ‘FitzMagic’ in Week 1.

If Sean Payton’s crew has one more statement win in them, this Sunday is the time to to play that card. Teams like the Panthers, Eagles and perhaps tonight’s Vikings may stand in the way, but looking ahead, this sure looks like a preview of the NFC Championship Game to come this weekend.

Smith, Peterson lead surging Skins

Jettisoned by the Chiefs after another disappointing, early-postseason exit, Alex Smith joined a Washington unit that seemingly was in rebuilding mode. Many Redskins fans mourned the exit of Kirk Cousins, expecting their next few seasons to be that of a misery-filled pit.

Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, had other plans.

The Redskins have won three straight since their debacle of a loss in New Orleans, a 43-19 stinker, to jump on top of the NFL’s most storied division. This has been done thanks to an efficient offense led by Smith, and a surprisingly-affective defense that has held opponents to just under 16 points per game during their winning streak.

Additionally, the 34-year-old Smith has thrown zero interceptions the past three games, and has thrown just two all season. With an average arsenal of pass catchers, Smith is making due. The quarterback that Kansas City didn’t want (and judging by Patrick Mahomes’ play, with good reason) has found a home in Washington. When the trade went down, it seemed like a move for a stopgap QB to fill the void between Cousins and and an eventual rookie passer. But it’s clear now why the Redskins wanted him.

No one wanted Adrian Peterson, who was without a team until Washington signed him right before the regular season. Inserted as the team’s bell cow RB1 after rookie Derrius Guice was lost for the season with an injury, the NFL’s ninth all-time leading rusher has enjoyed a career renaissance in the nation’s capital.

After the game, Peterson embraced the league’s next star RB in the wings, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley. “The sky is the limit for you,” Peterson told Barkley.

Peterson was once that young, generational prospect. He evolved into one of the game’s best running backs instantly, and was going to be included in the pantheon of the league’s best to ever do it, regardless of how he fared in D.C. But he’s added to his legacy anyway, but turning back the clock on an incredible 2018 campaign thus far.

This is a man that returned from an ACL tear to run for over 2,000 yards the following year, and win NFL MVP while almost single-handily carrying the 2012 Vikings to the playoffs.

He may not be that dominant anymore, but shades of vintage Peterson are still present at age 33. And behind the workhorse RB, and the overlooked QB, the Redskins rule the NFC East at the season’s midpoint.

Vinatieri re-solidifies place as greatest kicker ever

When I was 10 years old, the Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-tying and game-winning field goals in the famous ‘Tuck Rule’ game, a 16-13 overtime victory by the New England Patriots over the Oakland Raiders. That was the first career postseason win for Tom Brady, the first career postseason win of the current Patriots dynasty, and the last game ever played at Foxboro Stadium.

I’m now 27 years old. Things have changed for me and the entire world. There were no MacBooks, or iPod Nanos or Twitter or anything in the previous mentioned game. But there are now, 17 years later, as Vinatieri has now become the NFL’s all-time leading scorer in his 23rd season. Not only is Vinatieri one of the most clutch athletes of all-time (and undoubtedly the most clutch kicker ever), he’s simply the greatest kicker in the history of football. The greatest man at his particular profession, to ever grace this planet, and possibly universe.

The 45-year-old has two game-winning kicks in Super Bowls, four Super Bowl rings, and is the author of probably the three greatest kicks ever, his two Super Bowl footers and that famous 45-yard field goal in the snow in Foxboro Stadium, to launch the Patriots’ dynasty.

When Vinatieri steps up to attempt a game-winning or game-tying kick, you know it’s going in. And it’s virtually the same for any other kick.

With 2,547 career points, Adam is now the league’s all-time leading scorer. Whenever he decides to retire, he’ll follow that up five years afterword in being the first kicker to ever be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. What a career. What a kicker.

Quick-hits

– Down 29-27 with just over two minutes remaining, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (3-3-1) were staring down a situation they’ve thrived in recently. A chance to win a game in the final moments, but this time the opponent was the NFL’s best team, the lone-unbeaten Rams (8-0). But instead of the viewing public getting a chance to see what would transpire, the situation was eviscerated almost immediately, via a kick-return fumble. Game over. Packers fall back to .500, while the Rams remain unbeaten at midseason. Rodgers and the Packers now travel to New England as the Packers great and Tom Brady will duel for just the second (and possibly last) time of their careers. More on that later this week.

The main story is that of Todd Gurley, who is in the lead for his second-consecutive Offensive Player of the Year award, and is second in the NFL MVP race behind only Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. The Rams RB is perhaps the league’s greatest offensive weapon, surpassing Antonio Brown for the feat. Brown is still playing at an extraordinary level, but in a league filled with explosive starts of the present era, there’s always a player to one-up the other. From Calvin Johnson to Rob Gronkowski to Antonio Brown, and now…. Gurley. The Rams have a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, but Gurley is indeed the straw that stirs the drink.

– Beware of the Panthers (5-2), who took it to the NFL’s No. 1 defense, the Ravens (4-4), in a 36-21 beatdown at home, after falling behind early. Cam Newton’s squad is positioning themselves into the thick of of things in the NFC with the passing of each week. First off, the maturation of Christian McCaffrey and rookie wide receiver D.J. Moore has given Newton a 1-2 punch of affective offensive weapons he hasn’t had since the early years of his career with Steve Smith Sr. and a young Greg Olsen. An older Olsen has returned from injury in 2018 to provide the Panthers with a legit No. 3 weapon and a security blanket for Newton on important third and fourth-down situations. The Panthers don’t play the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints until Weeks 15 and 17, leaving the race for a the division title a season-long race, most likely. Can the Panthers upend Drew Brees and the mighty team on the Gulf? Either way, we’ve only just begun to realize how formidable the Panthers are in the South.

– In the Wembley Stadium battle of disappointing clubs, the Eagles (4-4) will leave London with more confidence than the Jaguars (3-5) losers of four straight and a franchise that had four of its players suspended over the weekend in England, due to a misunderstanding at a British pub. The Jaguars have less than 24 hours to solve a QB situation that mostly likely will remain unsolved through this season. There’s really nothing they can do at this point. Tyrod Taylor, Teddy Bridgewater and MAYBE Jameis Winston are his only options. But even they are crapshoots. To fight back into the AFC South race, Jacksonville will just have to play better. I know, what a take.

The Eagles still trail the Redskins by a game and a half in the NFC East, but most would agree that Philadelphia is waiting in the wings to make a winter run at the crown. But still, this is not a team worthy of winning Super Bowl LIII. The rest of the season will serve as a screening for what the Eagles need this offseason in order to retool and situate themselves as one of the top contenders for Super Bowl LIV, which they most likely will be.

 

 

Torrey Smith vs. Eagles

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Eagles, Jaguars at a crossroads before London trek

Roughly nine months ago, the Jaguars and Eagles were gearing up for Conference Championship Sunday. Both teams had proven themselves to be among the NFL’s very best of 2017. The Jaguars fell to the Patriots after leading 20-10 in the AFC title game, while the Eagles routed the Vikings, and went on to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Oh, how things have changed.

Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Eagles (3-4) and Jaguars (3-4) will have a combined record of 6-10 when they face off in next week’s matchup at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

But to understand how these two teams got to this point, we’ll have to backtrack.

The Jaguars began the season with a 3-1 start, highlighted by Blake Bortles’ masterful performance (29-of-45, 376 yards, four touchdowns) to beat the Patriots, 31-20, to exact revenge on their 2017 AFC Championship Game opponent. Many are joking that the Week 2 matchup was Jacksonville’s Super Bowl. Judging by what they’ve done since, those claiming so appear right.

Jacksonville has dropped three straight games mostly in part to their ineptitude on offense, which starts with Bortles. The defense honestly hasn’t been much better. After benching Bortles in the 20-7 home loss to the Texans (4-3) on Sunday, one thing is clear – the Jaguars need to look for a QB. If Teddy Bridgewater or Tyrod Taylor aren’t available, then maybe sticking with Bortles is the only option for the rest of the season, but Cody Kessler will not cut it, either.

The Jaguars have a championship-caliber defense and a solid running game, but this may be one slump too many for Bortles.

In Philadelphia, the Eagles got off to a slow start to the season with Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, so they semi-rushed Carson Wentz back in time for gut-wrenching losses to the Titans, Vikings and Panthers. Luckily for Philadelphia, they do have a good quarterback in Wentz, but the Eagles in general have looked sloppy and unclutch in the game’s biggest moments. Both are a far cry from their run to glory last season.

A 17-0 lead at home in the fourth quarter should never be surrendered, not even to Tom Brady or Joe Montana. The Eagles allowed Cam Newton to lead the Panthers to a 21-17 comeback win in their house. This is more than a slow start in Philadelphia.

There’s rumors of the Eagles inquiring about Le’Veon Bell and DeVante Parker, but what the Eagles have to focus on next is the Jaguars, who are equally as frustrated, and will be ready to take the field with something to prove. Bill Simmons frequently refers to these types of games as a ‘Loser leaves town’ matchup. Well considering this game is in England, both teams will undoubtedly leave town afterward. But only one team will feel better about themselves, if that.

Saints have ‘Super Bowl’ feel

The most shocking takeaway of the Saints’ (5-1) impressive 24-23 win in Baltimore was that Ravens’ (4-3) kicker Justin Tucker does miss. His first failed extra point comes on attempt number 223, and ultimately doomed Baltimore.

But the real story is the Saints’ 17-point fourth quarter scoring effort, which erased a 17-7 Ravens lead in the fourth quarter. Brees’ 500th career touchdown pass (the fourth player to do so) was part of the scoring jamboree New Orleans put fourth on the road against the league’s No. 1 defense. That, coupled with Tucker’s shocking miss, brings about the aurora this Saints season is starting to produce.

“The more battle-tested you are from games like this, I think that serves you well as you go along,” Drew Brees told The Athletic after the game. “Just confidence and feeling like no matter what the situation is in a game, you’re going to find a way. We believe. We’ve done this before. That kind of mindset. It’s nice to run away with them every now and again. But it’s the NFL. A lot of games end like this.” ”

After a 48-40 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers to begin the year, it was plausible to ponder if the Saints were going to fall back to mediocrity. But the defense has slowly re-strengthened. And the return of Mark Ingram has provided the Saints with yet another prime offense weapon, to go along with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas.

The win means Brees has now beaten all 32 NFL teams (he beat the Saints while playing for the Chargers) and now, New Orleans begins the important two-game stretch that includes contests against the Vikings (4-2-1) and Rams (7-0). The midseason hierarchy of the NFC will be decided in the next two weeks. For now, admire the Saints’ gutsy comeback win on the road in Baltimore, it may be a pillar of a truly special season.

Ranking Chiefs’ offensive weapons

– And the Chiefs keep rolling. After a slip-up in a game for the ages in New England, Kareem Hunt (20 touches, 141 yards, three touchdowns) and the Chiefs (6-1) destroyed the Bengals (4-3), 45-10, in a game that was flexed into NBC’s Sunday Night Football slot because it was such an important AFC matchup. So much for that.

Hunt’s performance had me thinking….of Kansas City’s three major offensive weapons, how should they be ranked? My list:

1) Kareem Hunt – For the past two Sunday nights, we’ve seen why Hunt is so great. A quick, yet powerful runner who can bulldoze his way through you or scamper around you. Hunt is a top-five running back because of his effectiveness on the ground and for the added element of what he provides in the passing game. He can consistently beat linebackers over the top, or catch passes underneath and plow into or move around defensive backs for big gains.

2) Tyreek Hill – The most explosive and exciting player in football is Tyreek Hill. Capable of turning any play from any part of the field into an all-time, highlight-worthy touchdown, Hill is a player this league has never seen before. His literal olympic speed, underrated hands, and moves after the catch make him virtually unstoppable. Flies, slants, RPO’s, reverses, option routes, kick returns, punt returns, you name it. He can and has scored via all of them. Good luck covering him one-on-one.

3) Travis Kelce – After Rob Gronkowski, there’s Travis Kelce, who narrowly edges Zach Ertz as the second-best tight end in football. Although not the game’s best blocking tight end, Kelce makes up for that in his versatility and playmaking skills. He can line up traditionally (on the line), in the slot, isolated out wide or in the backfield. Either way, Kelce will get the ball and make a modest gain for the explosive Kansas City offense. In each of those instances, Kelce provides a matchup problem for a defender. Then there’s his underrated after-the-catch ability, in which his strength is actually trumped by his sneaky quickness. No matter where Kelce lines up, he poses a problem for any NFL defense.

Quick-hits

– The Patriots outlasted the Bears, 38-31, in a wild one in Chicago that saw New England lose Sony Michel to an ugly-looking knee injury early. Despite that, not having Rob Gronkowski, committing three turnovers and allowing 81 yards rushing to Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bill Belichick’s unit found a way. Brady was sharp as usual, throwing for 277 yards and three scores. James White had 19 offensive touches for 97 total yards and two scores, and Dont’a Hightower blocked a punt that Kyle Van Noy took in for a touchdown. On top of that, slot CB Jonathan Jones and rookie CB J.C. Jackson each snagged highlight-worthy interceptions when the game hung in the balance. The Patriots will need Gronk to stay healthy. They have to hope Michel is not lost fo the season, and they likely will make a few mid-level moves to improve the defense. But what matters is that they got their first road win of the season, and with November nearing they’re clearly beginning their annual Winter run.

– In a wild London game, the Titans opted to go for a two-point conversion down 20-19 in the final seconds versus the Chargers. After two incomplete passes on two chances (defensive holding was called on the Chargers in the first attempt), the Titans dropped their third straight to fall to 3-4.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision. In fact, with just one yard separating you from a big win over the Chargers (5-2) and a key tiebreaker advantage in the AFC playoff picture, the gutsy call was on brand with coaching in 2018, and showed guts. But Mike Vrabel and Tennessee has to have more ‘controlled’ plays in their holster for that moment. Both attempts featured chaotic passing plays that saw Mariota going through reads until the play resulted in an ad-libbed free-for-all. That can’t happen. The loss is a stinger, as the the Jaguars and Texans (4-3) are all in a mosh pit with the Titans for the AFC South lead. The win could have put Tennessee in good position to begin to show why they’re the division’s top team. That didn’t happen. On the other side, the Chargers have losses only to the Chiefs and Rams, and are clearly proving that their talent may be enough to get them into the postseason for the first time since 2013.

– Who saw this coming? Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Redskins (4-2) lead the Eagles (3-4) and Cowboys (3-4) by a game and a half in the NFC East. Led by three forgotten pieces (Alex Smith, Adrian Peterson and Josh Norman) jettisoned by their former teams, Washington is in prime position to shock the pro football world. There’s a lot of football left, but Jay Gruden’s bunch now has back-to-back wins over the Panthers and Cowboys under pressure. It’s the ability to pull off these type of wins early that ingrains the confidence to pull them out in December and January, where they might matter more, depending on the circumstances. In the end, the historic Cowboys-Redskins rivalry delivered another classic, and may have vaulted the Redskins further along on a special season.