Patrick Mahomes - Super Bowl 54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s next for the 49ers? 

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not quite that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s next for me?

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

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

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

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

Kobe Bryant -- Super Bowl 54 Opening Night

Super Bowl LIV Preview: Loss of Kobe rightly overshadows buildup of speedy Chiefs-49ers tilt

After a fun-filled season, two teams worthy of the biggest game of the NFL’s historic 100th season remain.

Super Bowl 54. The Kansas City Chiefs versus the San Francisco 49ers.

Storylines aside, this is the most interesting Super Bowl matchup since Super Bowl 49 — Patriots over Seahawks — in terms of X’s and O’s, heading into the game.

I’ll get to why I think that later in this piece, along with my thoughts (and prediction) of Super Bowl 54. But I’ll begin with something much more important.

On Sunday afternoon, the sports world lost a legend and his daughter, along with seven other victims — whose families also deserve thoughts and prayers — in an unspeakable tragedy.

Here is my ode to Kobe Bryant, the tenacious NBA superstar that inspired my generation…

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Me and Tyler, one of my very best friends, used to viciously argue for hours over sports arguments in high school. One of the few I remember was me insisting Kobe Bryant, not LeBron James was the NBA’s best player in 2009, to the chagrin of Tyler. This came days after Kobe’s first NBA title without Shaq, as the unquestioned leading-man of the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Kobe was always a leading man. And it wasn’t because he consistently reiterated that out loud. He didn’t become a generational icon, and in turn, influencing my generation, by saying he did, he influenced us all by his tireless work ethic and drive to be the best at his craft.

Kobe wanted to be Michael Jordan. He wanted to be better than Jordan, actually. Kobe proceeded to become the other NBA player that has reminded us of “His Airness.” Only Kobe matched Kobe’s killer instinct and fearlessness in the clutch.

Just like Jordan famously reiterated “you miss 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take,” Kobe similarly once told the media: “I have no fear whatsoever…If I take the last second shot, and I miss? So what…”

Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality,” which has since inspired many of the younger superstars in the NBA, lives on in a few players. Kyrie Irving is one. Irving dropped 54 points (19-23 field goals) in a win Friday night, dedicating it to Kobe.

And despite the Lakers’ loss to the Trail Blazers at Staples Center, the night was still an honorable ode to Kobe Bryant, as LeBron James and the franchise in which Kobe played 20 seasons, honored him before the game beautifully. And during the game, Damian Lillard, who like Irving, is cut from the Kobe Bryant-mold in terms of basketball mettle, dropped 48 points in a Portland victory. Even in the Lakers loss, the night was a perfect memoriam to everything Kobe represented, with an NBA superstar putting a team on his back with an incredible, fearless performance.

Despite the legendary performance from Lillard, two nights before kick-off in Sunday’s Super Bowl, it was Kobe, his family and the families of the additional passengers on that helicopter that we continued to think about. That won’t go away anytime soon, and it shouldn’t.

This whole week has become a tribute to Kobe, Gigi, and seven other members who lost their lives. And we should all be complicit with that.

I touched down in Miami on Thursday, and the usual Super Bowl hoopla feels a bit different.

Monday’s Super Bowl Opening Night kicked off with a moment of silence for Kobe, and despite a fantastic game played out for us in Chiefs-49ers, the loss of a legend, his daughter, and their friends who lost their lives makes the game feel a bit hollow.

Super Bowl Live. NFL Experience. NFL Honors. South Beach. The bars, parties and events. This year feels a bit different.

Sports are a wonderful thing that continuously brings many of us, from different walks of life, together.

Several have held hands in the mourning over Kobe Bryant this week. Sports are what brought Kobe into our lives. We should be thankful. Everyone we lost in this tragic accident should be on our minds during Super Bowl LIV. And we should continue to think about him, for the rest of our major moments in sports, for the rest of our lives.

Long live Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan.

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And with that, I’ll get into Super Bowl LIV.

Some of the major ties with these two teams come in the way of two historic franchises with an affinity for the same quarterbacks.

Among the passers who played for both teams include: Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Alex Smith.

Another storyline is 49ers EDGE wonder Dee Ford, who was traded this past offseason after four seasons with the Chiefs as an extraordinary pass rush specialist. But his last play with Kansas City was his infamous offsides penalty that cost Kansas City a spot in last year’s Super Bowl. Do you think Ford has forgotten all the hurtful words from Chiefs fans, blaming last year’s AFC title game loss on him? There’s extra motivation here.

Both Travis Kelce and George Kittle should find motivation in trying to prove who is the NFL’s best tight end, as the pro football’s biggest game will feature the two best at the position.

In all, this is the most interesting Super Bowl I’ve seen (heading into the game) since Super Bowl 49, where the Patriots and Seahawks entered the game as the clear titans of the NFL that season, and the betting line was set at a push.

Similarly, the Chiefs are favored by 1 to 1.5 points in this contest, exemplifying the 50-50 feel of the public heading into this contest.

On paper, this game also reminds me of Super Bowl 48, where the Seahawks beat the Broncos 43-8, but heading into the game, many viewed it as a hard-to-pick contest of offense versus defense, with Peyton Manning being the difference for Denver’s recored-setting scoring machine. But the lightning-quick (and physical) Seahawks, equipped with a untraditional band of unique, all-time talent, length on the perimeter, and speed, destroyed the Broncos.

In this battle of offense versus defense, it’s the Chiefs (offense) versus the 49ers (defense), but unlike Denver’s offense in 2013, Kansas City’s offense has the most speed of any unit in the NFL. And at the helm, is Patrick Mahomes, who is capable of unconventional plays that leave even the most terrorizing defenses descending into madness.

Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and others are the great equalizer, making this game truly feeling like a close contest to come.

I’ll break down all facets of this fascinating matchup here.

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The Chiefs and 49ers present the two fastest offenses in the NFL, but the Chiefs pack the biggest punch in this category, with explosiveness all across the board on offense.

NFL Network‘s Cynthia Frelund had some telling stats (powered by Next Gen Stats) in her Game Theory score projection, regarding Kansas City’s big play ability in the passing game:

34 receptions of over 30 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

24 touchdown receptions of over 20 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

13 “deep” touchdown passes (Next Gen Stats) — Most in the NFL

But San Francisco may have the antidote to slowing down this prolific offense — The league’s best pass rush.

In addition to their overall defense — which is pretty fast in itself — San Francisco boasts a defensive line stockpiled with five first-round picks, headlined by Defensive-Rookie-of-the-Year-to-be Nick Bosa and former Chiefs All-Pro Dee Ford on the edge, and All-Pro DeForest Buckner in the interior.

One thing that is telling about Mahomes’ play is that 16 of his 17 interceptions over the past two seasons have come when defenses rush four or less defenders, leaving at least seven players back in coverage to defend Kansas City’s arial attack. Of course, that’s not very surprising. Producing pressure with four or less rushers will stymie just about any type of quarterback, no matter how skilled.

Yet another stat in favor of San Francisco is their ability to guard running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Football Outsiders ranks them first in DVOA in guarding running backs, and second when facing tight ends. That can be attributed to their fast linebacking core equipped with Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner. Now that the 49ers’ front seven is healthy again, they remain a huge factor. If San Francisco’s pass rush plays up to par, they’ll pressure Mahomes early and often, forcing him to look for his running backs and tight ends on quicker routes that sometime will be bail-out patterns. But with their speed at linebacker, San Francisco will likely have those routes covered often, on top of their pass rush.

The 49ers predominantly run a Cover 3 scheme that’s similar to the one Sherman helped spearhead with his play on Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense. Sherman excels in Cover 3 and Cover 3 match coverage, where he can play a bit of man coverage (to a degree) on downfield, boundary routes.

But if Mahomes is granted some time (thanks to Mitchell Schwartz and Kansas City’s more than competent O-line), the likes of  Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardmon present problems for Sherman, who is better with using his length versus larger, traditional No. 1 receivers, as opposed to diminutive speedsters.

The Chiefs would be wise to use them on the right side of their formation, as Sherman has an affinity for the left side, where he’ll probably reside the entire game.

Sherman may also see Travis Kelce in the Chiefs’ 3×1 scheme that features Kelce as the lone ‘X’ receiver, or he may draw Sammy Watkins, who is probably Sherman’s best chance in a 1-on-1 man coverage-type matchup.

Kansas City should have limited downfield attempts, so they’ll need to capitalize. Unless they suddenly breakout a top-tier running game behind Damien Williams, the Chiefs will have to try to win this game through the air.

And that’s how they like it, behind the league’s best player in Mahomes. But he’s going to need a little help from the big boys up front.

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Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco love to run the football. Their running back committee has dwindled down to virtually just Raheem Mostert, but that’s a good thing. Mostert’s explosiveness has been showcased in his postseason performances this past month. In San Francisco’s two playoff wins, the team rushed for 471 yards. And in the NFC Championship Game, Mostert ran for 220 yards and four scores on 29 carries.

Unlike Derrick Henry and the Titans, who ran out of gas trying to bulldoze through a suddenly-improved Chiefs run defense, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is an offensive mastermind with beautiful play design, and that extends into their running game. San Francisco would like to pound the still-vulnerable Kansas City defense on the ground with Mostert, gain an early lead, and then tee off on Mahomes with their pass rush, hoping to force him into a few mistakes. That’s their perfect game plan, but that could be asking a lot.

Through the air, Garoppolo will (of course) have to avoid throwing the ball right to linebackers in the play-action passing game. The 49ers quarterback has at times — twice versus the Vikings’ Eric Kendricks in NFC Divisional round — tried to force the ball to Kittle and has paid the price via an interception by a linebacker.

Jimmy G is not completely unflappable. Nerves (and a pass rush) could get the best of him, but he’s much more of a composed player than not. This is a quarterback who’s first career pro start was in place of a suspended Tom Brady, in which Jimmy led the Patriots to national-televised (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) fourth-quarter comeback win over the Cardinals in Arizona. Garoppolo is ready for the big moments.

And to those trying to diminish his 23-5 career record as a starter due to his game-managing in his last two contests — combined 11 pass completions in two postseason wins — just know that Kyle Shanahan’s offense displays a Patriots-like chameleon approach to their offense. They can win in a myriad of ways. Roughly just a month ago, Garoppolo outdueled Drew Brees in New Orleans, throwing for 349 yards and four touchdowns on 35 pass attempts (very Mahomes-like!) in a 48-46 comeback win over the Saints. Don’t underestimate Garoppolo’s ability — and in turn, the 49ers offense’s — to match Mahomes and this Chiefs offense score for score, if he gets even just a smidge of help from his defense.

In fact, San Francisco is 7-0 this season when Garoppolo throws for over 250 yards. They may need him to do that again in Super Bowl 54, as the Chiefs will likely force the game into his hands, knowing they’d be in worse trouble if they can’t stop the San Francisco defense.

But the Chiefs will have more problems with George Kittle, who I believe is the NFL’s best tight end because of his blocking skills and after-the-catch ability. Kelce is quicker and more of a route-running technician. He’s a better tight end-turned-wide receiver than Kittle. But Kittle is built from the Gronk mode, and is a destructive force in all facets on offense.

In the passing game, the Chiefs will likely use their safeties , the sure-tackling Daniel Sorenson, or Tyrann Mathieu, to attempt to neutralize him, but Kittle is a mismatch for either. They may need to double him, or hope for better pressure from a pass-rushing group that is already successful, being equipped with Frank Clark and Chris Jones. The latter is an absolute force in the interior, and pressure up the middle should disrupt Garoppolo’s timing and decision-making. This will in turn give the Chiefs a chance at neutralizing Kittle.

But the 49ers will also use their quick-passing game with the ultra-quick Emmanuel Sanders and the do-it-all rookie Deebo Samuel, who displays running back-like qualities as a wide receiver.

Shanahan will use pre-snap motion to try to confuse the Chiefs defense, or to sniff out their coverages.

Like Andy Reid and his forward-thinking, genius-level offensive concepts, Shanahan is one of the league’s brightest offensive minds.

He’ll pull out all the stops versus a Chiefs defense that will need to keep up its surreal play as of late.

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On paper, the 49ers are the better team. Everything is telling me that they should win a close or semi-close contest. But to me, it feels like the Chiefs’ year. And before you roll your eyes, sometimes, football works this way. The 49ers are the better team, but Patrick Mahomes could be the difference. He’s that good. One or two (or six) spectacular plays will have to be made by Mahomes. And they may all include evading San Francisco’s unreal pass rush. But he’s certainly capable of doing so.

The 49ers can possibly win behind the running game, Jimmy Garoppolo, or both. The many analysts and fans doubting Garoppolo may be in for a rude awakening on Sunday. I absolutely think Jimmy is already a top-10 quarterback. I think he matches the Chiefs score for score if he has to, even if it ends in defeat late.

I think this will be a fun, close contest throughout. But I say Andy Reid gets his first ring, and he’ll have his quarterback to thank.

Chiefs 33, 49ers 31. 

Derrick Henry stiff arms Earl Thomas

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Titans, Chiefs to meet in AFC tilt of opposites + a NFC rivalry renewed

Many have said the NFL’s Divisional Playoff round is the best weekend in sports. I’m sure those people are not disappointed after this past weekend’s slate of games.

One major upset, one major comeback, and a close contest between two of the league’s top quarterbacks in legendary Lambeau Field.

But we begin with a side-by-side look at the AFC title game participants, and a barometer check of the conference as a whole.

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It almost happened. After an unfortunate turn of events, the Chiefs trailed the Texans 24-0 in the second quarter, with most believing that we were headed toward an unthinkable AFC “South” Championship Game — Tennessee at Houston.

Although intriguing and unexpected, it’s certainly not the game the NFL envisioned as a ratings bonanza for their second-most (tied) important game of their 100th season.

Luckily for those who may think that, Kansas City recovered. Patrick Mahomes reminded many of his brilliance in throwing for four second quarter touchdown passes, three to Travis Kelce, and Kansas City outscored Houston 51-7 the rest of the way, for a 51-31 victory.

“I don’t know who pissed him off, I don’t know who made him mad,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports of Mahomes, after the game. “I told him in the training room [afterwards], man — I said man, I don’t know who made you mad but I don’t have anything to do with it. Because when he comes out and [plays] like that, he’s clearly the best player in the National Football League by far, and everybody knows that.”

Mahomes vs Texans
Patrick Mahomes’ fiery attitude kept Kansas City’s playoff hopes alive, and broke Houston’s will and spirit. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Make no mistake, this was Mahomes’s finest performance  — 23 for 35, 321 yards, five touchdowns  — which comes in the form of a 24-point comeback that is tied for fourth-best in NFL postseason history. After being down big, the phenom quarterback led seven straight touchdown-scoring drives, for 41 unanswered points.

Kelce played his role of Robin, or maybe a second Batman, in hauling in 10 catches for 134 yards and three scores.

“Coach Reid is dialing them up for me and Pat is putting the ball on the money every single time,” Kelce told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game. It’s definitely a combination of everything coming together,

Reid is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, but it took some off-script improvising by Mahomes and Kelce to come away with two key red zone scores during the comeback. Both times, Mahomes was flushed to the sideline, only to throw or pitch a touchdown to Kelce, who used spatial awareness to haul in scores around multiple defenders sitting near the end zone.

For fun, the Chiefs mercilessly added 118 yards on the ground and sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson five times — three sacks by offseason acquisition Frank Clark.

It was a fast-paced, track sprint of a victory by Kansas City that showcased their speed and explosiveness on offense, and finished with help from their new-and-improved defense, led by newcomers Clark and Mathieu.

_______________

Less than 20 hours earlier, the Titans had pulled off the unthinkable, a 28-12 smash-mouth beatdown over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, whom were the league’s biggest regular season story.

Just like their win last week of Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England, postseason hero Derrick Henry was heavily utilized. The gargantuan back carried the ball another 30 times for 195 and a touchdown, and also threw for a goal line score on a jump-pass to Corey Davis. His Tim Tebow-style leap pass was just one of several rushing highlights that included a 66-yard, back-breaking scramble to set up his touchdown throw, and another long run along the sideline earlier in which he stiff-armed Earl Thomas to the point of turning him around, and into a lead-blocking fullback for his amusement. His performance was again, unstoppable.

The offense started after Kevin Byard intercepted a tipped Lamar Jackson ball off Mark Andrews fingertips, and Ryan Tannehill lobbed a long 3rd-and-goal touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, who did most of the work in an acrobatic touchdown catch that set the tone.

“…Just starting the game out the way we did was a big key for us….It was huge,” Kevin Byard told The Athletic. “They’re probably one of the best first-quarter teams in the league, so the fact we got up on them in the first quarter, it kind of changed the game plan a little bit.”

Additionally, defensive coordinator and wizard Dean Pees stymied yet another former club on his revenge tour, with this being the best defensive performance of any team, all season. Soon-to-be-named MVP Lamar Jackson was elusive and unstoppable all regular season, and he produced 508 total yards of offense on Saturday, but that was mostly a hollow facade that did not tell the story of this game.

Tennessee held Baltimore’s offense to 12 points and forced three Jackson turnovers. The Titans muddled the middle of the field and loaded the box on Baltimore’s rushing attack, bringing up top-tier safety duo of Byard and Kenny Vaccaro near the line of scrimmage for a good portion of the game.

“We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan told Bleacher Report. “We were either playing with a loaded box and man to man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano or we were going to play a zone defense, a quarters defense similar to what Buffalo did. And Buffalo played them well. Buffalo just didn’t score a lot of points on offense. So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”

Tennessee forced Jackson to throw 59 times, often leaving everything covered but the boundaries. Jackson struggled outside the numbers, showcased by a late interception by Vaccaro when the Ravens quarterback tried to hit Baltimore rookie Myles Boykin on a quick out toward the sideline when Baltimore was in near-desperation mode.

It doesn’t help that Baltimore lacks wide receiver talent outside of Hollywood Brown. Boykin and Willie Snead are not going to cut it. Baltimore had found success throwing to its three tight ends — Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle — all season, but the Titans took them, and the middle of the field away.

As a team that was used to punching teams in the mouth early and often, John Harbaugh looked nervous and frustrated on the sideline, unsure if his style of offense could mount a double-digit postseason comeback. Despite Jackson keeping his cool (at least) attempting to get his team back in the game, Baltimore never recovered. On top of their struggles in the passing game — minus a few nice downfield throws by Jackson to Brown through the rare soft Titans zone coverage — Jackson was stymied on two 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks after converting all eight such situations during the regular season.

For Baltimore, nothing seemed to work. They were left befuddled and disappointed, unable to capitalize on their best regular season in franchise history.

“Listen, Lamar Jackson’s the MVP,” Byard told The Athletic. “He deservingly is supposed to be the MVP, the will that he plays with, he’s an incredible athlete. He tried to do everything he possibly could to will his team back into it. But it was our day today.”

Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill once again threw under 100 yards — 88 this week — but did throw for two touchdowns. Tennessee became the second team in postseason history to win back-to-back games in such fashion, joining the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins, and 1974 Steelers.

Behind Mike Vrabel’s fearless leadership, Tennessee came away with another old-school win. In a league where dual-threat quarterbacks and fast-break offenses equipped with speed and an NBA-style aggressivesnes are starting to take over, a defense and running game can still get it done. That shouldn’t seem so surprising, but yet, the win surprised many of us.

“If we’re being quite honest, we just shocked the world, and that’s all there is to it,” said Titans left guard Rodger Saffold.

“And the confidence and belief in this team is something I’ve felt before, and you guys already know that. This is a special team. We’re showing it. And you’ve got to love the underdog.”

_______________

This weekend’s events left us with some questions about the changing-of-the-guard AFC that saw it’s dominating — for the past 20 years — team in the Patriots bow out early to a series of offseason questions, and it’s upstart, best-of-this-season team suffer perhaps the most shocking one-and-done loss in NFL playoff history.

What’s next for Baltimore? A soon-to-be optimistic look back on how they revolutionized football in 2019, perhaps. As Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas pointed out in a great piece, Jackson’s electrifying season did happen.

Baltimore will need to shore up their possibly overrated front seven and add a receiver or two to Jackson’s arsenal. There’s a good chance Lamar makes more strides in the passing game next season, similar to his Year 1-to-Year 2 jump.

Baltimore will likely regress some from their 14-2 mark, and they’ll have to deal with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have an elite defense and should see the return of Ben Roethlisberger next season, to help the offense.

And expect the Patriots to re-sign Tom Brady and supply him with a few offensive weapons for the dynasty’s home stretch. New England is not done yet.

Then there’s the two AFC finalists. After a season of blending in with a hobbled Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have won seven straight since beginning the year 6-4, with the defense being the story of their season in the second half. Mahomes and the offense sputtered for a bit, but they put on their best 2018 Chiefs impression in their win on Sunday.

Still, Kansas City must stay strong on defense, doing their best 2006 Colts impression, if they are going to go all the way.

But this season’s Titans have a heavy dose of 2007 and 2011 Giants to them. They are an underdog only to the outside world. After a 2-4 start to the season under Marcus Mariota, Tennessee is 9-3 under Tannehill, and Henry’s late-season run is reminiscent of the NFL’s older days, where superstar running backs could take over in January.

Despite allowing just 9.6 points per game since Week 11 prior to Sunday, the Chiefs have still been gashed for 4.9 yards per rush this season. Kansas City was without defensive tackle Chris Jones on Sunday, and even if Jones is good to go this Sunday, the Chiefs are left extremely vulnerable to another legendary Henry performance.

Dean Pees’ scheming versus Kansas City’s offense will loom large. As Baltimore’s linebackers coach & defensive coordinator from 2010-2017, Pees played his part in sometimes mitigating Rob Gronkowski, and sometimes Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, when limiting Brady and the Patriots.

In Tennessee, Pees has safeties Byard and Vaccaro playing like absolute madmen right now. There’s no way they’ll let Kelce beat them the way the Texans did.

They’ll force Mahomes to throw downfield to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. And of course, Kansas City can win that way, but things will be tougher at least.

The Titans have tough and competent cornerbacks in Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson, who can do their part, even against the unbelievable amount of speed that Kansas City possesses. But the Titans will need a steady and consistent pass rush on Mahomes to win. That’s the Titans’ key to the game, where as Kansas City must find some way to limit Henry or they will be in a world of trouble.

In theory, the Titans have all the tools necessary to beat Kansas City. This is a tough matchup for the Chiefs, but Kansas City’s offense is a tough matchup for anyone. Mahomes will score more than Brady and Jackson, and I’m not sure the Titans will be able to keep up if the game is forced into Tannehill’s hands.

My early prognostication is Kansas City winning a semi-close contest.

*******

In Green Bay, it was apparent from the first drive that Aaron Rodgers was going to be on. And Davante Adams — eight catches, 160 yards, two touchdowns —  picked up where Travis Kelce left off in the game before him, baffling both man and zone coverages from the opposing team.

Despite a late Russell Wilson push that stalled on a costly Malik Turner drop, it was apparent from the start that the Seahawks lacked the personnel and health to go on a realistic Super Bowl run.

Wilson did what he could, but this was Rodgers’ time. The Packers legend completed just 16 passes, but threw for 243 yards and two scores with zero turnovers. His beauty of a downfield, first-down pass to Adams on 3rd-and-8 was ice cold in the clutch, and put the Seahawks hopes on ice.

Seattle never got the ball back, Green Bay won 28-23 after getting out to a 28-10 lead. And the defense continued to be rewarded for Green Bay’s rare, high-profile free-agent purchases of Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith on the edge, as each picked up two sacks.

But next, they’ll face a San Francisco 49ers squad that is left as the best and most talented bunch. Heck, they’ve been the best NFC team all year. Their most impressive beatdown of the season came at Green Bay’s expense.

A 37-8 49ers win over the Packers in the Bay area back in November, in which Rodgers was held to a staggering 3.2 yards per pass attempt, and was sacked five times.

After a month or two of so-so defensive play since that day, San Francisco finally has their complete defensive front seven.

Dee Ford is back after missing the past two months, and linebacker Kwon Alexander was activated back off injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle a few months back.

Having the unit back together was apparent immediately on Saturday, as the 49ers dominated the Vikings, 27-10, by beating them in just about every facet of the game.

San Francisco held top-five running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards on nine carries, sacked Kirk Cousins six times and picked him off once while holding his yards per attempt to just 5.9.

Despite Green Bay fielding one of the best quarterbacks of all-time in Rodgers, it would be surprising to see them come out on top in San Francisco. The 49ers should see a better performance by Jimmy Garoppolo — 11 for 19, 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — after he looked out of place trying to avoid Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, the league’s top cover linebacker, who could have picked him off three or four times if he had pro pass-catcher’s hands.

San Francisco leaned on it’s running back committee on Saturday, rushing for 186 yards on 47 carries. Tevin Coleman — 22 carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns — was the lead man. He was brought in this offseason from Atlanta after breaking out with the Falcons under Kyle Shanahan’s watch, so Shanahan brought him to San Francisco.

If the 49ers run the ball this well versus Green Bay, the packers have little chance. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King may be able to slow down Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel in the passing game, but an affective 49ers run game should set up Garoppolo-to-George Kittle after the duo struggled in this past game.

Despite Kelce’s superb performance, Kittle is the NFL’s best tight end. He is at least tied with Kelce as it’s best in pass-catching, and is certainly the best blocking tight end in football. He’s the complete package. He’ll most certainly make some plays next week.

Green Bay will have to have a repeat performance by Rodgers and Adams, while also leaning on running back Aaron Jones to get San Francisco’s best-in-the-league pass rush off Rodgers’ back.

San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman has had a lot to say recently, but heck, he’s earned it, again. The 31-year-old had a pick on Saturday, and has reinvented himself as an older-but-smarter player with the 49ers.

Sherman covering Davante Adams will be the top player matchup of Conference Championship Sunday. If he can just slow down Adams (not even shut him out), things will be really tough on Green Bay. Jones, the running back, is likely their second-best pass catcher.

“The only place that I’m not the best corner in the game over the last generation is in the haters’ minds,” Sherman told The Athletic after the game. “You look at any stat, anything, and they just try to make it about other players. They never give me credit.”

“For all the people who think I’m in zone, it’s man,” Sherman said, continuing the lecture at his postgame presser. “I get tired of ‘oh man, he’s a zone corner.’ I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I’m great. It was man coverage. I covered the man. I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. Year in, year out. Whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 — unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there doing my job at a high level.”

There’s no doubt that the 49ers and Packers will play a closer game on Sunday than they did around Thanksgiving, but San Francisco is clear out-of-nowhere lead dog (although I’d like to toot my own horn in saying I had them winning the NFC West) that seems to pop up in the NFC almost every year. These uber-talented and fast teams seem to come up every so often.

Sherman was on the best of that category with the Legion-of-Boom era Seahawks. And now, he’s the vocal leader on Seattle’s rival, on the opposite end to the fascinating decade that was the 2010s.

There are plenty of smiles to go around in San Francisco, but they have one more game to win before a surprise trip to Super Bowl LIV. They should win it, in turn proving that a team with this amount of talent making it to the biggest game in their sport shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Jimmy Garoppolo & John Lynch

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

These two teams are the biggest stories of the year.

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

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

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

Would any one complain?

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Philadelphia, Dallas, Cleveland 

Lamar Jackson vs 49ers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Philadelphia 

Jimmy Garoppolo vs Packers

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

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

Instead, their peak was yet to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there’s Richard Sherman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GILMORE, PATRIOTS DEFENSE HALT COWBOYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kanye West -- Old school NFL Sunday

NFL Monday Morning Madness: How Kanye nostalgia sparked my ‘old-school’ NFL Sunday

This idea started with the release of Kanye West’s ninth studio album, ‘Jesus Is King,’ over two weeks ago. The album itself was a so-so effort by Kanye’s standards, but still harkened back to some of the reasons — forward-thinking vision, unique (and crisp) production — he became perhaps the best hip-hop artist of this century.

Considering the impressive discrepancy in sound and content on each one of his albums, listening to Kanye brings back different feelings of nostalgia, depending on which album the track you’re listening to is off of.

Although I consider every one of his albums at least good, it was his earlier work that stuck with me, before his ill-fated, more-recent decisions lessened his once-positive image, and popularity.

But in listening to Kanye’s work from start to finish, it was clear, he was always ahead of the curve.

His burst-onto-the-scene moments included his first style of music, hip-hop built around soulful samples that critics (and fans) ate up in The College Dropout and Late Registration. 

Then, in Graduation, Kanye triumphantly captivated the music world by using electronic-infused beats, some mixed with his patented soulful samples. Songs like Stronger topped the charts a few years before mainstream/pop music veered toward the electro side, led by guys like David Guetta and Calvin Harris.

Then, Kanye’s mom, Donda West, tragically passed away, 12 years ago on Sunday.

The loss prompted a then-introverted Kanye to go to Hawaii to record 808’s & Heartbreak. A controversial album at the time, 808’s was met with mixed reviews, but later revered. I loved it from the start.

The album spawned the introspective emo-era of rap later adopted by guys such as Drake, Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino. Cudi was a major part of the album, making it his entrance into the music world. It is his most influential album, and maybe THE most impactful hip-hip album, when we think of what transpired in the following decade.

It also was the beginning of an all-new Kanye. He was already an outspoken individual, but most of his major issues in the limelight began after this moment.

Although I still love basically every album he has put out, I sometimes yearn for the Old Kanye, and in turn, older times. Late Registration to 808’s and Heartbreak represent my high school life. Those years spanned from 2005 to 2009, right during this Kanye peak.

Regardless, Kanye continued his mastery.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), his post-Taylor Swift feud album, is perhaps his magnum opus. And the what-was-that? Yeezus (2013) was clearly before it’s time — think now of: Travis Scott’s odd, beat-switching work, with Sicko Mode in particular.

But I always find myself thinking of Kanye’s older music. I do the same with Drake. As humans, we paint a rosier picture of the past.

But where I’m going with this, I’m sure the that ‘old Kanye’ era was better for this particular subject…

*******

Kanye West -- Old school NFL Sunday
Nothing like a beautiful Sunday watching the NFL as it was back in the 2000’s, pre-social media. (photo cred: Ricardo Ramos)

With  Kanye’s ‘Graduation’ in 2007, I can pop it on and think of a backpack-wearing rapper taking over a scene that was normally reserved for gangsta rappers. But I also think of my own years as a backpack-wearing high schooler, discovering music (and myself) while feeding my appetite for the NFL during a pre-Twitter era of fan consumption. 

And so, on the Sunday of what I thought (I thought) would be an underwhelming slate of games, and a Patriots bye, I decided to take it back to simpler times.

I wondered how I used to consume NFL content on Sundays in the 2000’s. So, I decided to watch and gather information about the games mostly as I did in the booming internet age of the mid-to-late 2000’s.

I decided to allow myself NFL RedZone (debuted in 2009) and an end-of-the-day (only) Twitter scan.

But most of my NFL-consuming knowledge came from tentpoles of the past that led to my fascination with the coverage of pro football, which came after my love for the game itself.

Although now on ESPN + only, ‘NFL Primetime’ with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson would be my main highlight show, filling in the cracks, and overall game flow, that RedZone could not make up for. I also had NBC’s ‘Football Night In America’ complimenting.

There’s something about Primetime that adds to the NFL’s lore. Boomer and TJ setting the scene for each game to the tune of the classic music that everyone knows, and hopefully enjoys as much as I do.

With today’s good graphics-but-unrealistic video game-like state of EA’s Madden — which I will always love and purchase, but can admit is just not a great game at the moment, for realistic football simulation lovers — I’ve returned to my roots with video  games, too.

I’ve updated the rosters, thanks to the hardworkers in the Operation Sports forums, of ESPN’s NFL 2K5, which I believe is the best video game of all-time.

Julian Edelman- ESPN NFL 2K5
A digitized Julian Edelman celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown in an updated-roster version of ESPN NFL 2K5.

Equipped with modern-day players in the old game, I can see a digitized Chris Berman recapping a Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs win in a digitalized version of NFL Primetime on a video game created in 2004.

But it’s the real return of the Primetime that has had me thinking of a pre-Twitter NFL Sunday. One without the abundance of hot takes or the “it’s either this or that” do-or-die temperature gauges of each team after a win or loss. Even worse, we can tell a lot of the takes are mob takes designed to criticize immediately, because always has to be something to criticize. If a major trade happens, someone has to have lost it, immediately, right?

In a world in which social media is certainly needed — and there is a lot of good that has come from it, including tweets —  it’s the silly takes that bother me, including incomplete stats designed to further an agenda or argument that gets me riled up. Sometimes it’s better than just to sit back, watch the games, and say nothing.

I enjoyed the Sunday spent talking to my buddies, Tyler and Raul, in our hilarious group chat, and FaceTiming my father and Uncle to talk as I watched RedZone, while also talking about the games.

And I still got all the information I needed. For those who enjoy my takeaways — 

– The Ravens (7-2) are the hottest team in the AFC right now, and challenge the 49ers for the NFL’s crown on that list. Lamar Jackson looks like an evolved version of Michael Vick, crossed with Brett Favre, slinging passes at Patrick Mahomes-like angles, while also running around like a mad man. The Ravens have changed my mind with the league’s best three-game stretch of any team this season so far. Those were bulldozing wins over the Seahawks, Patriots and Bengals. P.S. I really enjoyed the ‘three-Heisman trophy winners’ play that culminated in a Jackson fake to Mark Ingram, and ensuing pitch to Robert Griffin III. 

– Even with the Falcons (2-7) and Saints (7-2) as they are, the rivalry came to fruition once more, as Matt Ryan returned and Drew Brees looked like he shouldn’t have. Falcons 26, Saints 9. These games happen, this is not panic time for New Orleans, although there’s certainly some concern after a game like that. 

– Seven of the 10 games before Sunday Night Football were close contests that were undecided in the final minute. The Dolphins upset the Colts. Ryan Tannehill rallied the Titans past the Chiefs. The Jets beat the Giants in the battle for New York and the Browns won a game. Can you believe that? 

– The most aesthetically-pleasing game was played in Green Bay. The light snow in Panthers-Packers increased as the game went on, as the did the drama that ensued when the Packers eventually held Carolina out of the end zone in the game’s waning moments, to win. The snow game triggered the start of gut-check time that pro football exhibits from November on, and also gave us a vintage snow game in a league that has lacked some of these in the latter half of the 2010s. I really enjoyed it. 

*******

The result of my Sunday was a soothing, needed experience away from the Twittersphere, as much as I love it. This was soul-soothing, just like one of Kanye’s soulful beats.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to think of a tweet for next week that will be so relatable that it gets more retweets than the money in my bank account.

*******

So, tonight will bring forth my return to consuming knowledge the “new” way, which is still a blast. Although too much at times, NFL Twitter is lit, as the kids say. It should be at a an all-time high when Richard Sherman’s old team, the Seahawks (7-2), travel to San Francisco to take on his new team, the 49ers (8-0). And that’s where we return to my analysis.

SEAHAWKS-49ERS PREVIEW

I stand by the fact that the NFC participant in Super Bowl LIV will be either the 49ers, Packers or Saints.

The Seahawks lead the next brigade of talented teams that also includes the Vikings, Eagles, Cowboys and Rams. These are teams that could make a run, but the Super Bowl is probably not where they’re going this season.

Russell Wilson is the NFL MVP leader at the moment, even if Lamar Jackson is nipping at his heels. Although the talent around him has improved, he still makes up for a lot of deficiencies, which includes a post-Legion of Boom defense that is nowhere near its predecessor.

San Francisco has seemingly built a powerhouse overnight, but that’s not quite the case. Jimmy Garoppolo and Richard Sherman have each been here in the last year or two to take on some lumps.

And although the 49ers defensive line includes a staggering five first-round picks, only the underrated DeForest Buckner has been a stalwart for them over the past few seasons. Rookie Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford were added this offseason, and Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas have been busts until now.

This smells like one last ‘big’ victory for San Francisco before they face the Cardinals, and then run into the gauntlet of the Packers, Ravens and Saints. That’s a rough there game stretch, and they’ll finally get at least one loss there, maybe two.

But San Francisco has the defensive front that should be able to wreak havoc on the visiting Seahawks, who still sport a so-so offensive line that lets the dogs through. Although Wilson is adept at winning these types of games, this seems like too much.

If he does somehow win, this will be the game where we look back and know that Wilson was deserving of the NFL MVP race, in a once-close race.

Both Wilson and Sherman will be looking to make a statement, and although I think Wilson will get a pass by Sherman for a score, it is the 49ers that will get the last laugh on Monday.

THE BETTER HALF

1. San Francisco 49ers (8-0) (Last week: 2). If the 49ers win tonight, they should be 10-0 when they host the 8-2 Packers in week 12.

2. Baltimore Ravens (7-2) (Last week: 5). We talked about Lamar above. He’s amazing. Baltimore also saw it’s midseason acquisition, Marcus Peters, return an interception 89 yards to the house on Sunday. That’s his second-pick six in three games with the Ravens. In a secondary filled with guys who avoid mistakes — Earl Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith — Peters has been able to play his aggressive style. Since he came into the league in 2015, Peters leads the NFL in interceptions (26) and pick-sixes (6). He’s the definition of a playmaker at the position, even if it led to inconsistent play in the past.

3. New England Patriots (8-1) (Last week: 3). Their top-rated rookie this year, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, returns this week versus the Eagles. Their top-rated rookie from last year, left tackle Isaiah Wynn, returns to face the Cowboys the week after. Oh, and you think Tom Brady doesn’t badly want to win this game in Philadelphia? He’ll be thinking of Super Bowl LII, in which his best Super Bowl (statistically) resulted in a loss. This has ‘here come the Patriots’ written all over it.

4. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 4). It seems as if Davante Adams is back. They’ll need him to stay healthy if they are to come out on top in the NFC.

5. New Orleans Saints (7-2) (Last week: 1). As I said with Green Bay after their loss to the Chargers last week, the ‘stink’ game happens. It happens to virtually every team. This was probably that game for the 2019 Saints. No time to panic, but they have to drop some after a 17-point home loss to a divisional rival with a 1-7 mark.

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-2) (Last week: 6). Can Russell Wilson overcome ex-teammate Richard Sherman, and the 49ers’ vaunted defensive line tonight?

7. Minnesota Vikings (7-3) (Last week: 11). Kirk Cousins is changing the way we view him. But he has to keep this up. Impressive win in Dallas. Add it to his impressive month.

8. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) (Last week: 12). With losses by several other clubs, the Eagles move up. They’re a second-half-of-the-season team. On Sunday they have the ultimate test in the Patriots, to test that theory.

9. Houston Texans (6-3) (Last week: 13). The Texans have a lot of holes, but they also have Deshaun Watson.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 7). Yeah, their defense is still rotten. As previously stated, they need a miraculous late-season fix of this issue, like the 2006 Colts.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) (Last week: 16). If the Steelers make the playoffs, Mike Tomlin deserves the Coach of the Year award. Kudos to him for the job he has done this season.

12. Los Angeles Rams (5-4) (Last week: 8). I know they had to go West to East, but that’s still an ugly loss. They have the talent. But what in the hell is wrong with this offense?

13. Dallas Cowboys (5-4) (Last week: 10). It’s a two-man race in the NFC East, and they have already pounded the Eagles, but I’m not sure they’ll outplay them down the stretch. They haven’t exactly been a ‘gut-check time’ team this century.

14. Oakland Raiders (5-4) (Last week: NR). The Bears certainly didn’t lose the Khalil Mack trade. But it seems the Raiders haven’t either. As I said above with Tomlin, give Jon Gruden some major credit here. (Here’s another take from NFL Twitter that didn’t go as the mob planned)

15. Indianapolis Colts (5-4) (Last week: 9). Two weeks ago, I had the Colts at No. 5 on this list. They’ve fallen, hard. Jacoby Brissett should return in a matter of weeks, to help right the ship. This is still a talented team. Don’t count them out just yet.

16. Carolina Panthers (5-4) (Last week: 16). They hung tough in Green Bay, and showed some of their physicality in the snow. This a team that looks primed for success in the future, meaning 2020 and on.

Next up: Buffalo, Chicago, Tennessee, L.A. Chargers, Detroit