Patrick Mahomes celebrates in 2019 AFC Title Game

NFL Playoff Primer: Are Chiefs destined to repeat?

Just four months ago, many wondered if the NFL would successfully get through all 256 games during their preset, schedule-based time frame. Well, it wasn’t easy, and several somewhat-questionable decisions were made to work around the COVID-19 pandemic, but alas, the regular season is over, and the playoffs will begin on time.

Before jumping into the major talking points for this postseason, here is my Twitter-released picks for the NFL’s season awards, all of which won’t be given out until the night before the Super Bowl.

After Sunday’s performance in Chicago, the decision to name Aaron Rodgers MVP for the third time in his career is an easy one, in my opinion. It feels odd leaving Josh Allen’s name out of anything above, including the runner-up mentions, but Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes were simply that good this year. Plus, the Offensive Player of the Year award race (if not won by Rodgers), features a 2,000-yard rusher (Derrick Henry) and a wide receiver (Davante Adams) who hauled in 18 touchdown passes with heavy defensive attention do to the lack of teammate talent on offense, sans Rodgers.

My toughest call was selecting Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson over Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert for the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honor. Herbert’s stat line was historically superb for a rookie QB (4,336 passing yards, 31 TD passes, 10 INTs), and the Chargers finished the season with four straight victories, but Jefferson was simply unstoppable as a wide receiver for just about the entire season. Jefferson’s play (88 catches, 1,400 receiving yards, 7 TDs) was so efficient that it validated the Vikings’ trade that involved jettisoning now-Bills receiver Stefon Diggs, who should be an All-Pro this season.

Now, without further ado, let’s talk playoffs.

*******

Despite a deep AFC playoff field, the Kansas City Chiefs are in good position to return to the Super Bowl. This year’s AFC had seven teams with 11-plus wins, making it one of the deepest conferences we’ve ever seen. But outside of the conference’s top two seeds — Chiefs and Buffalo Bills — it’s difficult to imagine any of the remaining five squads winning three straight games to reach the Super Bowl. However, it’s easy to envision one or more of those dark-horse clubs pulling at least one major upset, and possibly going on a surprising run to the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens, Titans and Browns are the top three rushing teams in football, and the Colts, led by rookie running back Jonathan Taylor and a top-tier offensive line, have come on strong in the run game as of late. Despite the devaluation of the running back position, and running game in general, it’s still an important aspect of the game that becomes vital come January, unless you have an all-time great at quarterback. But take last season’s Titans team, which rode Derrick Henry’s back to the AFC title game. The team had the moxie and personnel to make such a run, but after taking 10-0 lead in Kansas City, the wheels came off as Ryan Tannehill couldn’t keep up with Patrick Mahomes and company. Tannehill has thrown for 40 touchdown passes this season, but questions will remain on his ability to beat teams like Kansas City and Buffalo on the roadie a shootout. The same sort of issues lie in Baltimore, Cleveland and Indianapolis. Despite the talent and ability of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Colts passer Phillip Rivers, neither can be trusted to go on a three-game march to Tampa, out-dueling the likes of Mahomes, Allen, or both, on the road in the process. And in Baltimore, no one should question that Lamar Jackson is one of the seven or eight best quarterbacks in football, but the Ravens’ lack of wide-receiver personnel and Jackson’s struggles throwing to the perimeter are well documented, and teams like the Chiefs, and probably the Titans, will look to expose those flaws. The biggest threat to Kansas City is the obvious choice — the Bills. Josh Allen has been on fire as of late, and the Bills have the offensive firepower to go toe to toe with Kansas City. But unfortunately, they’ll need Allen to be almost perfect, considering their lack of a consistent run game. So in a battle between the Bills and Chiefs in Kansas City, who would you go with? So, the point is, do all of these teams make for a tough matchup for the defensively-challenged Chiefs? Yes. But if Kansas City is to lose, it would still be a massive upset.

The NFC playoff field is essentially a three-team race. When assessing the NFC, one can easily put aside the “Any Given Sunday” slogan to assume the No. 7 seed Chicago Bears (8-8) and NFC East-winning Washington Football Team (7-9) are not going on a run to Super Bowl 55. It’s just not happening. So that leaves five teams in the mix. The winner of the Seahawks-Rams contest on Saturday will certainly present a challenge in Round 2. Both teams have their issues, but the Rams’ defense is the league’s top-ranked unit on that side of the ball, and we all know rules don’t apply to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense. Still, with Seattle’s defensive woes and the Rams’ lack of consistency at the quarterback position, it’s unlikely one of these teams reaches the Super Bowl, although one would be unwise to totally discount Wilson’s Seahawks. That leaves three teams as true contenders. The Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Green Bay has a leg up with home-field advantage and a first-round bye, plus Aaron Rodgers is playing like a man possessed. Still, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are the more talented teams. The Buccaneers have won four straight games, averaging 37 points per contest in the process — albeit versus lesser opponents — and have scored 38 points or more in six different wins this season. With Tom Brady, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski starting to flourish in Bruce Arians’ offense, them, along with their top two receivers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) and running game presents an offense that absolutely can continue this tear, although Tampa’s 1-5 mark versus current playoff teams is a concern. In New Orleans, the Saints’ offense has revolved around running back Alvin Kamara, and soon-to-be-42-year-old quarterback Drew Brees is starting to look his age. On top of that, superstar receiver Michael Thomas is dealing with a nightmare year. Luckily, the Saints have the fourth-ranked defense (310.9 yards per game allowed) and their plus-nine turnover differential is tied for third-best in the league. They do the little things right, and any last-hurrah ability by Brees would be enough for New Orleans to make a run. Really, all three teams have a solid shot of making the Super Bowl, and each has a team they likely wouldn’t want to see again, but likely will. The Packers are a bad matchup for the Saints. The Buccaneers are a bad matchup for the Packers. And the Saints seem to have the Bucs’ number.

Aaron Rodgers is facing more pressure than any other player in the playoff field. Just last summer, many wondered how much time Rodgers had left with the Packers. Green Bay had just opted to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round (No. 30 pick), and the Packers legend seemed irritated following his first season under new head coach Matt LaFluer. Well, Green Bay went 13-3 again this year, but things were much different, as Rodgers has co-existed with the Green Bay coach’s system, throwing a league-leading 48 touchdown passes and posted a 121.5 passer rating in a season that should win him his third career NFL MVP award. Rodgers met the swirling storylines and pressure head on, to return to his best form. Now, Rodgers faces a new kind of pressure as he attempts to make his second Super Bowl appearance a decade removed from his lone Super Bowl win. This seems to be an off year in the NFC, which has been a haven for a bevy of talented teams appearing at once over the past 10 or so years. Who knows how the conference will look in 2021 and beyond? Harboring home-field advantage, the time is now for Rodgers to make a run. Looking at the field, there’s a good chance his first playoff game this year will be versus Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Like the never-materialized dream scenario of a LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals, the chances of a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl have likely passed, but a playoff battle between the two would certainly do. Despite Brady’s star-studded cast and eagerness to prove himself outside of New England, most of the pressure would still lie with Rodgers.

Chiefs-Packers leads most likely Super Bowl 55 matchups. Because of the new playoff rules, the top seeds in each conference now hold even more of an advantage, as they are the only playoff teams that receive first-round byes. The well-rested Chiefs and Packers each are in good position to reach Super Bowl 55, which would be a rematch of Super Bowl 1 if it were to happen. The Chiefs have simply looked bored as of late, but the defending champs are clearly the Super Bowl favorite. Outside of Kansas City and Green Bay, the Bills look like the next best Super Bowl contender. Buffalo is a true challenger to the Chiefs. Is it that hard to envision a Buffalo-Tampa Bay Super Bowl where the Bills must face their nemesis, Tom Brady, one last time to finally claim a Super Bowl win? What about Bills-Saints? Or Chiefs-Saints? The latter seemed to be a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick. My preseason pick was Ravens over Saints, and although that certainly can happen, Baltimore is now simply just a dark-horse candidate at best, until proven otherwise. The Ravens have been hot as of late, but like Tampa Bay, they’ve beaten up on bottom-of-the-barrel opponents. Barring a crazy unforeseen run, any combination of Kansas City or Buffalo paired against Green Bay, New Orleans or Tampa Bay will likely be the Super Bowl 55 matchup.

*******

My early inclination is that the Saints and Bucs will have some trouble with the Bears and Washington, but each will move on, while the Seahawks survive another bludgeoning by the Rams. In the AFC, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will look surprisingly sharp in a takedown of Baker Mayfield’s Browns, while Phillip Rivers and the Colts will predictably self-destruct their game-long, small lead over the Bills in Buffalo sometime in the third quarter, giving Josh Allen his first playoff win. That leaves my favorite game of the week — Titans-Ravens. It would be poetic justice for Lamar Jackson to earn his first playoff win in revengeful fashion over the Titans. Stating that this game could go either way really feels like a copout, but it’s true. As of now, give me Baltimore in a close contest. It’s Jackson’s time.

Aaron Rodgers vs Titans — 2020

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 16: A shakeup in the MVP race, and other musings

With the final games of the year (not season) 2020 behind us, a new year will dawn with the end of an odd, pandemic-altering season.

I decided to empty my brain’s notebook of takes this week prior to Week 17 and the playoffs by taking a deep dive into the NFL MVP race, giving perhaps my final take on the matter barring any wacky Week 17 scenarios.

Then, I dig into my final power ranking of the 2020 season.

Cheers to a new year, and enjoy!

NFL MVP RACE

In October, Russell Wilson was seen as the clear early front runner for his first NFL MVP award. By November, Patrick Mahomes had seemingly clinched it for himself, and now, in December, Josh Allen has picked up where he left off in the season’s beginnings, thrusting himself back into the mix (somewhat).

But with just one week remaining in the regular season, the race has taken a bit of a dramatic turn after Week 16’s results, in my opinion. And the man who has most benefited is Aaron Rodgers.

As of now, Rodgers and Mahomes should be at a dead heap for this year’s award, with a splitting-of-the-hairs honor going to Rodgers, if the votes don’t add up to what should be another case of co-MVPs — as last seen in 2003 when Peyton Manning and Steve McNair split the award.

In recent weeks, the Chiefs have kept winning, but the apparent boredom from constant success has gotten to Kansas City’s heads. Mahomes has thrown four interceptions in his last three games, and could have easily thrown seven or eight. It’s a dropped interception by Falcons rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell on Sunday that stands in the way of the Chiefs’ second loss of the season.

Since Thanksgiving, Rodgers has thrown for 15 touchdowns and just one interception, and the Packers have won five straight games in the process.

Still, we can’t look past their seasons’ as a whole. Mahomes hasn’t laid an egg as hideous as Rodgers’ performance in a loss to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers back in October — a game in which the Green Bay quarterback posted a Total QBR of 12.3.

But in looking at their almost-finished 2020 resumes, Rodgers has thrown more touchdowns (44 to Mahomes’ 38), less interceptions (five to Mahomes’ six), while also posting a better passer rating (119.4 to 108.2) and Total QBR (83.9 to 82.7).

And despite the brilliance by Rodgers’ top target, receiver Davante Adams, the talent pool of the Green Bay offense pales in comparison to Mahomes and Andy Reid’s star-studded cast that includes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Le’Veon Bell, Sammy Watkins and more.

In Year 2 of Matt LaFluer’s Shanahan-esque, albeit quarterback-friendly system in Green Bay, Rodgers has seemingly mastered the system after an inconsistent start that was the still-mightily-successful 2019 Packers campaign.

Still, the Packers (12-3) must finish the job of earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed for Rodgers to have the strongest case. The Chiefs (14-1) have already clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and judging by Andy Reid’s comments and recent news on Sunday’s game, we don’t expect Mahomes or the Chiefs starters to play much (or maybe, at all) in their Week 17 contest.

Even if the Packers join the Chiefs as fellow home-field advantage earners, it’s worth wondering if the NFL community as a collective loves drama, and are succumbing to a bit of subtle Mahomes fatigue, since the Chiefs quarterback makes it look so easy.

Even in his recent struggles, Mahomes has done enough to win every recent game. Immediately after the Falcons dropped an aforementioned would-be, game-ending interception, Mahomes darted a game-winning touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson on the very next play.

Mahomes is sensational, and quite frankly, he’s the best quarterback and player in today’s game. But Reid and the Chiefs’ unique supporting cast on offense (Hill, Kelce, etc.) is a bit more than what is assisting Rodgers (Adams, then RB Aaron Jones?) in Green Bay, where the Packers quarterback officially has better volume and efficiency stats than Mahomes in a rushing-based offensive system with lesser talent.

Really, there’s a brilliant case for both Mahomes and Rodgers, and any other year, the likes of Josh Allen or Russell Wilson could be running away with the award, but in a rough year overall, this has been quite the quality MVP race.

In a perfect world, Mahomes and Rodgers would tie for the award. That would be my vote — a split. But if we’re splitting hairs, it’s Rodgers who deserves the honor for the third time in his career.

1a. Aaron Rodgers

1b. Patrick Mahomes

3. Josh Allen

4. Russell Wilson

5. Derrick Henry

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-1) (Last week: 1). The apparent lackadaisical effort by the Chiefs in recent weeks should only concern the rest of the league. They can be beaten, but I have a feeling they won’t be.

2. Buffalo Bills (12-3) (Last week: 2). Well, that was a statement in Foxboro. Josh Allen has been sensational this year, and Stefon Diggs has a legitimate claim as the NFL’s best receiver, although a few others (Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, etc.) have just as good of a case. The Bills have built a helluva team, and are a true Super Bowl contender.

3. Green Bay Packers (12-3) (Last week: 3). The Aaron Rodgers-Matt LaFluer pairing works, after all. Even in a playoffs with limited (or no) fans in the stands, Green Bay likely needs home-field advantage badly. They’ll need to beat the Bears in Chicago in a game in which the Bears absolutely need to win. Should be fun.

4. New Orleans Saints (11-4) (Last week: 5). The Saints remain the most talented team in the NFC. Can they make one last run with Drew Brees?

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) (Last week: 4). That was a season-saving win on Sunday. Barring a meeting in the playoffs, or an unlikely set up next season, that could be the final battle between QBs in the marveled 2004 NFL Draft class. In predictable fashion, Ben Roethlisberger was gritty in a tough comeback, while a Phillip Rivers-led team once again blew a 17-point lead. The Steelers are probably too beat up on defense to make a serious Super Bowl run now, but they’ll still be a tough out. I still wouldn’t want to see them in Round 2 at home if I’m the Bills.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5) (Last week: 9). Easy December schedule or not, here come Tom Brady and the Bucs. They’re like an alligator peeking it’s eyes out of the water. They can really make a run in the NFC.

7. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 8). The Seahawks sunk to the Rams’ level to win a rough defensive battle to take the NFC West. It’s been a while since we marveled at Russell Wilson. Seattle doesn’t have the roster of a Super Bowl team but Wilson doesn’t abide by normal rules. I say, watch out for the Seahawks in the NFC playoffs. They shouldn’t be able to make a run with their deficiencies, but they most certainly can with Wilson.

8. Baltimore Ravens (10-5) (Last week: 11). Like the Bucs, the Ravens are on a December run thanks to a soft, late-season schedule, but like Tampa Bay, Baltimore has the ingredients of a team ready to make a postseason push. Ironically, Lamar Jackson could win his first playoff game on the road as a wild card team this season, Baltimore’s least favorable position during the Jackson era.. But the Ravens could also miss the playoffs. Let’s revisit this next week in my playoff primer.

9. Indianapolis Colts (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Colts have a solid roster, and Rivers has had his moments, but Sunday’s debacle in Pittsburgh is not only expected of a Rivers-led team, it also makes it apparent that they aren’t likely going deep in the postseason.

10. Tennessee Titans (10-5) (Last week: 6). The Titans will still be a tough out for teams like the Chiefs and Bills due to their running game, but their defense is just not up to par to make a similar run as last year to the AFC title game. I thought they could do it, now I have serious doubts.

11. Miami Dolphins (10-5) (Last week: 13). Brian Flores’ QB carousel and it’s odd-timing decisions only add to the fact that he could very well win Coach of the Year honors if Miami makes the playoffs, and maybe even if they don’t. (Although Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott also has a great case). This team should only get better in 2021. They’ve certainly overachieved this season.

12. Los Angeles Rams (9-6) (Last week: 10). Suddenly, the Rams find themselves in danger of missing the playoffs. They’ll miss Jared Goff next week, leaving John Wofford to start at quarterback with their season on the line. If they lose to the Cardinals, and the Bears beat the Packers at home the Rams are out. But Kyler Murray may miss the game for Arizona, making Cardinals-Rams a possible backup QB bonanza. If it’s any consolation, I believe Aaron Donald should edge out Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt for a third DPOY award, whether the Rams make the playoffs or not.

13. Cleveland Browns (10-5) (Last week: 12). I think I speak for most when I say we’d love to see the Browns make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, but it doesn’t look like they ultimately deserve it. We’ll see what happens on Sunday. Pittsburgh is starting Mason Rudolph at quarterback, giving Big Ben a rest.

14. Chicago Bears (8-7) (Last week: 16). You have to give credit to Mitchell Trubisky for battling back, as the Bears as a team have done, but he’s still clearly not the future.

15. L.A. Chargers (6-9) (Last week: NR). The Chargers belong here for their three-game winning streak and collective talent. I’d take them over any team below in a game in a neutral site right now.

16. Arizona Cardinals (8-7) (Last week: 15). Like we mentioned under the Rams section above, the Cardinals may be without Kyler Murray on Sunday. They had the obvious look of a fun team that is a year away. They are more of an extreme story of that nature then the Miami Dolphins in the AFC, who may make it in anyway, but are a year away themselves from real contention.

Next up: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Washington, Dallas, New England

Cam Newton vs Dolphins — 2020 Week 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DeAndre Hopkins Hail Mary TD

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness: 10 thoughts from Week 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 6: Brady-Rodgers, AFC over NFC & first look at MVP race

Every few weeks a weekend’s slate of NFL games sets off more conversations than a simple lead story can handle. Sunday was one of those weeks. Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers, the dominant NFC, the Steelers, the Titans, and more.

Here is a bullet-version of this week’s NFL Morning Madness, where I attempt to collect all my thoughts in a coherent format:

 The Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers argument has always been somewhat silly. The Packers (4-1) perfect start to the season went undone in Tampa Bay, as both Brady and Rodgers’ performances couldn’t be more different. Rodgers posted a dismal 17.8 Total QBR, throwing two interceptions (one pick-six) as Green Bay failed to score any points after the first quarter. Conversely, Brady committed zero turnovers, posted a superb 96.1 QBR, and finally found his rhythm with old friend Rob Gronkowski (5 catches, 78 yards, TD).

Despite Brady’s effort, it was Tampa Bay’s underrated defense that sparked Tampa’s 38 unanswered points, and essentially, the win. Brady moved to 2-1 versus Rodgers, which seems ridiculous that they’ve only faced off three times since they’ve both been starters in the league since 2008.

But that’s just that. The great “debate” (which isn’t that much of a debate) has always been a difficult, and somewhat silly one that poses some similarities to two NBA player conversations — Lebron James vs Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan vs Shaquille O’Neal.

Like LeBron and Kobe, Brady and Rodgers have often been compared but they rarely faced off, seeing as they were in different conferences. And like LeBron and Kobe in 2009, the two QBs came dangerously close to facing off in a few Super Bowls (2014, 2016) but the all-time player showdown never materialized. Additionally, unlike LeBron and Kobe, who truly did face off when they played each other, we know Brady and Rodgers don’t exactly touch the field at the same time, unless one of them accidentally wandered onto the field drunk when their defense was on the field. Still, that doesn’t deter me from QB conversations, which I believe are the most fun debates in sports.

And in these debates, we tend to get silly when discussing reasons why one should be better. First off, the argument isn’t simply Brady’s six Super Bowl rings versus Rodgers’ one. Brady had stable help for 20 years in the form of greatest coach in sports history, a perfectly-balanced, when-to-meddle-if-at-all owner, and a cast of championship-caliber players for reasons both tangible and intangible. But at the same time, success in the form of six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances and 17 AFC East division titles signals a greatness in more than just a head coach, and the way some of those rings were one hosts Brady into a well-earned Michael Jordan-like stratosphere. Simply put, both Brady and Belichick are individually the best ever at what they do, no matter how much that triggers the gag reflex in sports fans outside of New England.

That’s not to say Rodgers isn’t one of the best QBs to ever play. He is. He’s probably one of the seven or best right now, and a seemingly successful twilight and stat-earning may very well thrust him into the top five. Heck, two more rings in his late 30’s would put him in the GOAT conversation with Brady, depending on how they were won (Peyton Manning and the 2015 Broncos are an example of critical thinking here).

But what Rodgers is now, is one of the best QBs ever (but not the GOAT, that’s Brady) and perhaps the most talented we’ve ever seen with maybe Dan Marino. But that was before Patrick Mahomes came along, who I think no holds that distinction.

Look, Rodgers can do things Brady simply can’t do. Him and Mahomes can run RPO’s, scramble, throw 60-yard touchdown throws across their body, and simply make some throws that Brady cannot make. And that’s all fine and well, but it doesn’t overcome Brady’s relentless consistency and success (now into his mid 40’s), dissecting coverages, fitting the ball into tight windows, elevating sub-par pass-catching groups, performing in the clutch, and most importantly, winning.

Rodgers’ throws may be sexier, but to bring back the second of two NBA player arguments, were Tim Duncan’s 30-point, 20-rebound performances less dominant than Shaq’s because he was fundamentally shooting short and mid-range shots (and hook shots) as opposed to dunking over his defenders? Of course not. And as much as I love Shaq, I have Duncan one spot above Shaq on my all-time NBA player rankings. But that conversation is for another day.

For now, let’s set the record straight on Brady-Rodgers, a fun conversation that never really was one, at least on a macro-level. And that’s okay. We have to talk about something on Mondays, don’t we?

 The AFC is significantly better than the NFC in 2020. Throughout my time closely following the NFL since 2000, the shift of conference power has teeter-tottered. The AFC ruled much of the 2000’s with 2004 being an NFC low point. That quickly changed in the 2010’s, which began with new-age teams such as the Jim Harbaugh 49ers, Legion-of-Boom Seahawks, and Cam Newton and Luke Keuchly Panthers leading the charge over an AFC that really featured just Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with a few solid Steeler seasons mixed in.

Now, it appears the AFC has re-taken charge. It’s not too surprising considering Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the two best young quarterbacks in football, reside there. But teams such as the Steelers (5-0), Titans (5-0) and Bills (4-1) have single the change in power. Tennessee and Buffalo both feature QBs who can scramble, make plays and run unique offenses, one with a solid, old-school rushing attack (thanks Derrick Henry) and the other with a top-flight receiving core (Stefon Diggs!) and both feature up-and-coming, Top-5 or Top-10 coaches who are aggressive, confident and harbor athletic defenses. Both teams are tough and will continue to be. These sort of new-age teams remind me of the way the NFC had those Seattle and San Francisco teams that signaled a trend to a different era of football in the 2010’s, even though I think those NFC teams were on another level.

And for the NFC, it wouldn’t be fair without mentioning Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury, the injury-ridden Eagles and 49ers, and Drew Brees’ apparent decline in New Orleans, which all have limited the potential of the conference thus far.

But as of now, the NFC’s best teams are just two well-run franchises led by two of the three or four best QBs in football, but both teams have significant holes. We’re talking about Seattle and Green Bay, which you’ll see below, are the top two NFC teams in my Week 6 rankings, but both are behind four AFC teams.

Two of those teams, the Titans and Steelers, will face off on Sunday for the leading conference, the AFC. I’ll talk more about that here in this next bullet.

— Steelers-Titans on Sunday is 2020’s best matchup so far. Despite a travesty-laden 1:00 pm ET start for a game of this magnitude, most of the country should get a top-billing matchup between Pittsburgh (5-0) and Tennessee (5-0) next week, and if you don’t, you better at least have NFL RedZone. 

I still believe Pittsburgh is the best team in football, and that they proved that once more in their usual beatdown of the Browns at home on Sunday. Their defense is the best in football, period. Which makes for an excellent matchup next week as the Titans intend to most likely establish the run with Derrick Henry, the best running back in football by far. Then, Vrabel’s bunch would like to get into play-action passes to the likes of A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith, which is a duo that is up there with the best WR-TE, one-two punches in the league.

But Ryan Tannehill will have to look away from middle-of-the-field protecter Minkah Fitzpatrick, who victimized Baker Mayfield for a pick-six in a robber assignment early on Sunday.

Then there’s the Steelers’ offense. Tennesee’s defense actually hasn’t been that good, and can be had. Big Ben Roethlisberger will need to buy time to find play-making rookie receiver Chase Claypool, tight end Eric Ebron, and others downfield.

Expect a heavy-hitting, high-energy and aggressively, somewhat-high-octane matchup next Sunday. My prediction? Steelers 26, Titans 24. 

NFL MVP RACE

Here is my first look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.

1) Russell Wilson — I don’t think this is much of a conversation at this point. Wilson makes up for a lackluster defense and continuously creates plays, both designed and broken, and wins games in the clutch in extraordinary fashion. Additionally, for you “you’re not allowed to be the best if you only throw short passes!” buffoons, Wilson has been the best deep passer in football as well. Despite the bye this week, he has five more touchdown passes than any other QB (before tonight’s Chiefs-Bills tilt) and his passer rating (129.8) is roughly 15 points higher than the next man. Yeah, this isn’t that close.

2) Derrick Henry — Despite having the most rushing attempts (123) in football by a wide margin, Henry has averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He’s the only RB averaging more than 100 yards per game and he’s average 117.6. He has 99 more rushing yards than any other player, and the Titans have already had their bye. I know a running back will probably never win MVP again, so let me just say that Henry should at least be in the lead for OPOY. But I know if you wanted to place Wilson there, as well, I wouldn’t have too much of a qualm.

3) Ryan Tannehill — It’s hard to place these Titans in the race, and I’ll take all the flack for having Henry ahead of Tanny. I think both are about equal in terms of being the engine of the offense, but as the team’s quarterback, Tannehill bares the most burden. He’s won 13 of his past 15 games, and overall has been superb this season. But in last year’s playoff run, the team relied more on Henry, and when they relied on Tannehill, they faltered. That was just in January. I bet Tannehill remembers his critics from that period, and uses it as fuel. It’s worked thus far. He’s been awesome.

4) Patrick Mahomes/Lamar Jackson — Here is where I start to cheat. Yes, maybe I should have included the Titans guys in one slot, but I needed to give Tennessee some love. And yes, I’m adding two guys here in what will probably become the inaugural “they could win every year” slot reserved for the likes of LeBron James in the NBA and Bill Belichick in the coach of the year (or coach of the worst team that does OK) award. The voter fatigue slot, essentially. Mahomes and the Chiefs have been a bit sluggish overall, but their lighting up of the Ravens in Baltimore was something to see. Conversely, Jackson has been predictably great in almost every game once more, but his performance in the home loss to KC has caused some over-arching concern. He needs to win some of these bigger games.

5) Aaron Rodgers/Josh Allen — Here is where I continue to cheat. Yes, my Top 5 in the race is essentially a Top 7. Turn me in. Both Rodgers and Allen were nipping on Wilson’s heels before each put up a duck in their last contest. Going forward, Rodgers has much more of a chance of winning the award. Allen has a lot to work with, but Rodgers has played well in Year 2 in a Matt LaFluer’s QB-limiting (MVP-wise, somewhat) offense, and has done it mostly without Davante Adams, meaning essentially no one at WR.

Honorable mention: Aaron Donald, Ben Roethlisbeger, Tom Brady, Alvin Kamara, Stefon Diggs 

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) (Last week: 1). Still the best team in football, and maybe their next two games (at Titans, at Ravens) are a chance to prove that.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) (Last week: 3). Kansas City has another chance to come into an opposing AFC contender’s house and lay the smack down tonight.

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 5). Any non-playoff, non-marquee game for the Ravens is entering almost-meaningless territory. And not because those games don’t tell us anything, they do. Baltimore is damn good, but they’ll be judged on their bigger contests.

4. Tennessee Titans (5-0) (Last week: 6). If the Steelers have had the best start to the season, the Titans have had the most special. I was wrong about this team. Mike Vrabel and company are a super tough bunch. Football as it should be.

5. Seattle Seahawks (5-0) (Last week: 4). Russell Wilson is the the MVP, and he’ll need to continue to be just that for Seattle.

6. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 2). That loss sparked PTSD from last season’s bouts with San Francisco. Is this the same story for Green Bay?

7. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 7). The Bills have a chance to make a statement tonight versus KC, and put the AFC East race in the back burner for now.

8. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 8). I’m still waiting for them to click on offense. They’ll need Michael Thomas back for that.

9. Chicago Bears (5-1) (Last week: 13). How in the world are they 5-1? Impressive.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) (Last week: 14). Their defense is special, and the offense is just getting going. Gronk looked somewhat like Gronk finally and the re-addition of Chris Godwin to the offense was much-needed.

11. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) (Last week: 9). They are 2020 NFC Wild Card material at it’s purest level.

12. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 12). Being down 17 at home to the lowly Bengals is concerning, but credit to Phillip Rivers and company for the comeback win. Avoiding losses like that, while teams like the Patriots fall at home to the Broncos, will be huge when it comes to time to place AFC postseason field in January.

13. San Francisco 49ers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Jimmy Garoppolo finally found his groove, just in time for a return to New England next Sunday.

14. Cleveland Browns (4-2) (Last week: 11). Same ole Browns? That was ugly. Baker Mayfield can’t seem to get it going. They can run the ball, but what happens when they can’t? Will we always see an ugly performance like that? To take the next step, they need to be more consistent through the air.

15. New England Patriots (2-3) (Last week: 10). That was perhaps their worst loss since the Monday night massacre of 2014 in Kansas City that sparked “On to Cincinnati.” All of the sudden, they are in trouble. I still think this is a wild card team, and I still think Cam Newton is the man, but they desperately need some talent at wide receiver and tight end.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 15). We’ll keep them here for now. The AFC is such a deep conference this season.

Next up: Miami, Carolina, Dallas, Arizona, Denver

Lamar Jackson vs Browns

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Jackson permanentely ends MVP race

The Baltimore Ravens’ (13-2) magically dominant season continued on Sunday, as the team clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC with their 11th straight victory — a 31-15 win over the Browns with Cleveland.

And with that, Lamar Jackson clinched this season’s NFL MVP award.

Jackson — 341 total yards, three passing touchdowns — added more highlight-worthy plays through the air and on the ground, extending plays with apparent ease and juking defenders out of their shoes to convert first downs in situations that initially looked impossible.

This has been a weekly thing for Jackson this season. In all, he’s amassed 43 total touchdowns, with a crisp 36-to-six touchdown-to-interception ratio and an NFL-record (for a QB) 1,206 yards rushing and counting.

Jackson’s speed and elusiveness surpass that of Michael Vick, and his improving passing skills have taken his season to statistical heights of that of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ best years this decade.

Among Baltimore’s 11 straight wins, seven came against teams with winning records, including top-tier teams such as the Super Bowl-worthy Patriots (12-3) and 49ers (12-3).

After leading San Francisco’s new-school offense with Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of this decade, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s revolutionary offensive attack in Baltimore is nothing like we’ve ever seen in the pros. At least not to this dominantly-effective extent.

Give credit to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for his willingness to let go of the past, and embrace this new style. This offseason, Baltimore bid farewell to Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco at the position. Flacco and Harbaugh were a rookie pair of quarterback and head coach in 2008, and had been together since.

But Harbaugh’s obvious faith in Jackson sparked the decision to roll with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as it’s franchise.

Make no mistake, Baltimore has perfectly matched Jackson’s ability with coinciding personnel — a mauling offensive line, bruising running back Mark Ingram and the NFL’s best tight end trio in top man Mark Andrews, former first-round pick Hayden Hurst (selected before Jackson) and blocking H-back Nick Boyle.

Heck, first-round rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is yet to be fully unleashed, not because Jackson is unable to throw downfield, but because those shots are not needed when Baltimore is methodically marching at a consistent pace, as is.

Although many insist Jackson will be “figured out,” — a loose term that has been tied somewhat to Cam Newton after his ridiculously-good 2015 MVP season in Carolina — it’s best to appreciate Jackson’s season for what it is, and note that there are signs that he will improve in the coming seasons, if you can believe that.

Jackson has become more polished since his playoff meltdown in a Wild Card loss to the Chargers in Baltimore last January. Now, Baltimore’s next meaningful game will be a playoff contest in nearly three weeks that they will host.

The spotlight will be on Jackson, and if we can expect consistency (and we should) with his extraordinary season, it’s that he’ll wow fans and defenders alike once more, as he attempts to end his season in his hometown in Miami, in Super Bowl 54.

But for now, an MVP award will do.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. It’s over. The award is Jackson’s. And because of that, this will be my final MVP race rankings of the season.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has done a lot to keep Seattle in the mix for a first-round bye, but he needs more help to take this team to a Super Bowl.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. If the 49ers’ early season dominance was about the defense, the second half of their season has been about the ascension of Jimmy Garoppolo.

4. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. At the very least, he deserves co-OPOY award honors with Christian McCaffrey, if not, an outright win. He’s been unstoppable this season. He can play as a ‘big’ slot receiver and as an outside force. What a player.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB Houston Texans/Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Both Watson and Mahomes have had some struggles at times, but they pale in comparison to their fantastic play throughout the season. These guys, coupled with Jackson, are the future of the AFC. The new wave of quarterbacks has arrived.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should look to rest several players versus the Steelers, which include the banged up Marks — Ingram and Andrews. Both are vital to Baltimore’s Super Bowl chances.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-3) (Last week: 2). Jimmy Garoppolo converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 situations late. The 49ers will clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win in Seattle. A loss will drop them to the No. 5 or 6 seed. That’s insane.

3. New Orleans Saints (12-3) (Last week: 3). It was a good sign that the Saints got Alvin Kamara going, and were able to remain effective in a cold, outdoor game in December versus a tough opponent.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 4). The Chiefs have allowed a league-best 9.6 points per game since Week 11. Their 2006 Colts prophecy remains intact.

5. New England Patriots (12-3) (Last week: 5). The Patriots offense finally got things going versus a top-tier defense in the Bills. Julian Edelman and James White are Brady’s top passing targets, but he’ll need N’Keal Harry and Rex Burkhead to join that group this postseason if they are to have success. But most importantly, if the offensive line plays like they did versus Buffalo on Saturday, a 2018-like run for New England is possible. Here they come again.

6. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win tonight and next week, and a Seattle win over San Francisco.

7. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Vikings won’t pass the Packers in the NFC North with a win tonight, but they will have gained some major confidence. Kirk Cousins (0-8 career record on Monday Night Football) needs this win.

8. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 6). The Seahawks are stumbling to the finish line. But they still have a shot at the NFC West title if they can beat the 49ers at home this Sunday night.

9. Houston Texans (10-5) (Last week: 10). The Texans are a topsy-turvy bunch, but an AFC South title and the No. 4 seed in the AFC (probably) will do.

10. Buffalo Bills (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Bills hung tough in New England. They’ll be a hard team to face in the postseason.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-7) (Last week: 11). The Titans’ end-of-season schedule has been brutal. They need to win at Houston to make the postseason.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: 16). If they do indeed win the NFC East, I doubt the Eagles will make too much noise in the postseason, but they’ve shown their toughness down the stretch.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) (Last week: 12). The Steelers have almost everything they need to be a top team this season, but are without a quarterback. That’s killed them.

14. Indianapolis Colts (7-8) (Last week: NR). Their midseason swoon was a shame, because they have talent. Keep the Colts in mind for your 2020 predictions.

15. Dallas Cowboys (7-8) (Last week: 13). Just a tragic end to the Cowboys season, if Philadelphia wins next week. Either way, Jason Garrett should be gone.

16. Los Angeles Rams (8-7) (Last week: 14). A rough way to end their year, but with a few moves and renewed sense of tenacity, the Rams may be back in the postseason fold in 2020.

Next up: Tampa Bay, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, N.Y. Jets

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Week 15 shakeup sets up wild finish

Week 15 offered a glimpse of what we all hope to see come playoff time — a slew of games decided in the last second, and a touch of tough, cold weather football.

In Pittsburgh, 2019’s most unheralded Sunday night flex pitted two of the more mentally-tough, smash mouth teams against each other.

Behind (you guessed it), their defense, the Bills (10-4) upended the Steelers (8-6), 17-10, to put Sean McDermott’s bunch in the postseason for the second time in three seasons.

Buffalo has had some success on offense behind the improved Josh Allen, who threw the game-winning score to Tyler Kroft on a third-and-goal scramble in the clutch.

But it was the game-turning play of top-tier cornerback Tre’Davious White that changed the game. With the contest tied up late, White intercepted “Duck” Hodges for a second time, returning the ball 50 yards deep into Pittsburgh territory to set up the aforementioned Bills score.

White is a part of the holy trinity of cornerbacks at the moment. Led by New England’s Stephon Gilmore, who had two interceptions — one pick-six — versus the Bengals on Sunday, the group also includes the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey, and White.

Along with White, Buffalo has an underrated safety duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who are both versatile enough to move around the formation and cover different types of pass catchers.

The front seven, led by the talented young Tremaine Edmunds at middle linebacker features a veteran group of castoffs like Lorenzo Alexander, Jerry Hughes and Star Lotulelei, who have been magnificent for the franchise in upper New York.

With the Patriots struggling, and the AFC South teams showing some inconsistency, the conference is liable for a shakeup after the Ravens and Chiefs.

Even a win in New England next week would not give the Bills the AFC East lead literally, but it may metaphorically.

After a bevy of close finishes that shook up the playoff race, there are now two weeks left of possible mayhem for football fans to indulge on during the Holiday feast.

Could the Bills take down the mighty Patriots in New England on Saturday>

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. With five touchdown passes on Thursday, Jackson all but ended this MVP race. The award is his.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. While the MVP award might have evaded Wilson, the NFC’s No. 1 seed is still up for grabs. I bet I could tell you which one he covets more.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. The home loss to Atlanta was a road bump but Garoppolo has still had a fine season.

4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Watson shook off a few costly mistakes to lead Houston on an ever-important road victory at division rival Tennessee.

5. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Statistically, Mahomes has had another fine season in a shortened stretch, but it’s the defense that has given the Chiefs recent Super Bowl hopes.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers, Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (12-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should win in Cleveland to secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-3) (Last week: 2). The last-second loss to the Falcons was a bummer, but they’re still two wins away from the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Not much has changed.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-3) (Last week: 3). The Saints will need to keep pace with three other 11-win teams in the NFC with a win over the Colts tonight.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 4). Here come the Chiefs, with their much-improved defense.

5. New England Patriots (11-3) (Last week: 5). The offense may be beyond help in 2019, but if they can just find half of a rhythm, likely DPOY Stephon Gilmore and the defense may be able to lead New England to yet another Super Bowl.

6. Seattle Seahawks (11-3) (Last week: 6). Seattle regained the NFC West’s top spot on Sunday, but their Week 17 matchup with the 49ers will still decide the division.

7. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers haven’t looked too sharp as of late, but they’ve been winning.

8. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). That was a beatdown of the Chargers — 39-10, with seven turnovers forced in a road victory. Impressive.

9. Buffalo Bills (10-4) (Last week: 11). The Bills are back in the playoffs. What a great story.

10. Houston Texans (9-5) (Last week: 13). Houston’s up-and-down behavior exhibits the wild AFC South to a tee. They’d be a worthy champion of the division.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-6) (Last week: 10). The goal line drop-turned-interception that wasn’t Ryan Tannehill’s fault, changed everything. Now, they face a tough two-game stretch (vs Saints, at Texans) in which they’ll need to win at least one game to even have a chance at the postseason.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6) (Last week: 12). They just don’t have the offense to truly compete, but Mike Tomlin and the defense still has them in position to grab the AFC’s No. 6 seed.

13. Dallas Cowboys (7-7) (Last week: NR) If the Cowboys can play like THAT, then they can hold their own with anybody. Will they keep it rolling in Philly next week? Their season depends on it.

14. Los Angeles Rams (8-6) (Last week: 9). Their second beatdown loss in front of a national crowd in the past month should end their season. Time to regroup for 2020.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7) (Last week: 15). The Buccaneers have been one of the more exciting teams to watch this season.

16. Philadelphia Eagles (7-7) (Last week: NR) Another last-second victory keeps the Eagles on par with Dallas. Now, they’ll host Dallas with the NFC East on the line.

Next up: Indianapolis, Chicago

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

Patrick Mahomes MVP

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Mahomes locks up MVP + season awards

As the seasons change or as life moves on, the NFL’s best players come and go.

In Kansas City, the Chiefs found a 23-year-old phenom gunslinger in Patrick Mahomes. And on Saturday, February 2nd in Atlanta, Mahomes will (and should) be awarded this season’s NFL MVP award.

No, I don’t have one of the 50 votes for the AP award…yet. But if I did, I’d vote for the young quarterback who gave us a season’s worth of jaw-dropping highlight throws, all while leading his team to the AFC’s No. 1 seed and producing this stat line:

5,097 passing yards

50 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

113.8 passer rating

66.8 completion percentage

8.79 yards per attempt

While the Chiefs struggled to compensate for one of the league’s worst defenses, and the defection of running back Kareem Hunt over a domestic dispute, Mahomes led the Chiefs to a 12-4 mark, and produced scores of 40, 51, 28 and 31 in the team’s defeats.

In Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs have one of the most unique offensive weapons in the history of pro football, but it’s Mahomes that perfectly utilizes his world-class speed. Brought up through the sport of baseball, Mahomes has the best arm in the league. He can throw nearly 80 yards effortlessly, and his no-look and side-arm zingers resemble that of Derek Jeter making a cross-bodied throw to first base.

Add in top-tier tight end Travis Kelce, and a litany of mid-level talent in Sammy Watkins and others, and Mahomes does have the tools to succeed. He isn’t making something out of nothing. But Drew Brees (his biggest competitor for this award) has a top-five receiver in Michael Thomas, and the league’s best one-two punch at running back in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

At one point, Brees stole the award in my eyes, but quickly surrendered it during a three-game slump that began with a 13-10 loss to the Cowboys in Dallas. That game saw Brees throw a game-ending interception in crunch time, that cost the Saints the game. Although Mahomes has a game-ending pick of his own in a 54-51 loss to the Rams, he showed his talent by matching one of team’s most explosive offenses score for score. That’s just as he did in a 43-40 loss to the Patriots, the NFL’s model franchise, in primetime.

Mahomes is the perfect compliment to the forward-thinking Andy Reid at coach. And as a dual-threat player at the game’s most important position, Mahomes shouldn’t be compared to players such as Cam Newton, a fine quarterback in his own right that hasn’t been able to replicate his 2015 MVP campaign.

Mahomes may not post historic numbers like this again. This will likely be his best season statistically, by pure volume. But he will be a top-five quarterback for years to come. He won’t fall back like Newton, or possibly how Carson Wentz may be doing after a successful 2017 season. He’s the real deal at the most important position in sports.

After sitting for a year behind Alex Smith, Andy Reid chose to ride with Mahomes, and the results that he envisioned with his young passer have materialized on the field. Mahomes has compensated for the loss of one of his most dynamic weapons and and a lousy defense that has failed him in the team’s biggest games of the year. Despite the anchors weighing him down, the Chiefs have home-field advantage in their conference, and are the AFC’s favorite to reach Super Bowl LIII.

That spells MVP. Well, that and the fact that he has 15 more touchdown passes and memorable moments than anyone else this season.

The rest…..season awards

Coach of the Year — Pete Carroll 

Bears head coach Matt Nagy has been impressive as a first-year coach leading a talented bunch to the NFC North title. But Carroll’s team was left for dead after an 0-2 start and the loss of Earl Thomas, among others this offseason. The fact that they made the postseason is incredible. They are the Patriots of the NFC. They didn’t need a full re-build, they just re-tooled on the fly. That’s easier to do with a coach like Carroll.

Offensive Player of the Year — Patrick Mahomes

Not much else to say here…

Defensive Player of the Year — Aaron Donald

Khalil Mack was a lock to win this award around midseason. He transformed the Bears into a Super Bowl contender. But Donald’s 20.5 sacks from the interior are otherworldly. He’s the best player in football, at any position.

Offensive Player of the Year — Baker Mayfield

I’d love to go with Saquon Barkley here, but Mayfield completely transformed the NFL’s sad sack franchise into an instant contender. Look out in 2019.

Defensive Player of the Year — Derwin James

Others such as Darius Leonard, Leighton Vander Esch and Bradley Chubb have played well enough to win this award, but James is the perfect specimen to stop modern-day NFL offenses. He’s virtually positionless, short of like Kevin Durant in the NBA.

Comeback Player of the Year — Andrew Luck 

J.J. Watt was outstanding this year. He’s back to being a top-10 player. But Luck rallied the Colts from a 1-5 start to a 10-6 mark and a playoff berth. The Colts have a renewed sense of hope. They will be a contender in the AFC in the early part of the 2020’s, and that’s mostly on Luck, who is a borderline top-five quarterback again.

Phillip Rivers vs Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriots handle Vikings, move toward first-round bye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick-hits

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

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

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

NFL MVP Race

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

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

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

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

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

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