Matthew Stafford vs Bears

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 1: Reflecting on 9/11 + NFC West makes a statement

Sunday marked the return of the NFL in full tilt for its 102nd campaign.

Stadiums filled with fans across the league after a pandemic-alerting season in 2020 blocked them from doing so this time last year. The last year-plus has been a tragedy due to the countless lives lost. And although it’s quite a sobering way to begin a post-Week 1 NFL column, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention the more important topic over the weekend, as millions across the country, and even around the world, reflected on the now-20-year-old tragedy that took place in Manhattan, New York on September 11, 2001.

The NFL, and several teams, honored those who lost their lives that day, with the league providing a memorial package (in the tweet above) featuring a touching narration by Steve Buscemi, and a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by Juliette Candela, that aired just before the early slate of games. (There was also an emotional story regarding new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, and his brother.)

Over the weekend, there was a glimpse of hope for those who believe the United States has the ability to band together in a time of need, to show compassion and empathy for others.

I’ve always thought of sports, especially the game of football, as both a hub for diversity, and a healing space. Although we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus regaining ground in many states, maybe there’s a chance that we band together once more to defeat a virus that has taken the lives of 660,000 Americans. The virus’ continuing grip on our country, due to many reasons, including those who don’t properly fear it, is as frustrating and demoralizing as it is devastating. This nation is currently a country divided, due to mostly political reasons. But to put a stop to this current tragedy, an effort to unite, and agree to strategize against a deadly virus, is much needed. Stay safe, everyone, and keep your wits about you.

Now…on to the NFL.

QUICK-HITS 

National Football Conference logo.svg    NFC West makes opening-weekend statement

The NFC West, widely regarded as perhaps the best division in football this year, may also be the most competitive. The entire group won their opening games.

Russell Wilson threw four touchdown passes, two to Tyler Lockett and one to D.K. Metcalf, as the Seahawks efficiently handled the Colts, a team with a talented roster, 28-16 in Indianapoilis. In Tennessee, the Cardinals showed a new side of themselves with a tough defense, mixing in 3-4 principles (like 2-4-5 looks), and led by Chandler Jones’ triumphant return for five sacks after missing virtually all of 2020 with a torn bicep. Team also held Derrick Henry to just 58 yards rushing on 3.4 yards per carry. Oh, and Kyler Murray added five total touchdowns, no biggie. The 49ers played staunch defense through three quarters to go along with a solid running game and a glimpse of what Trey Lance can do (short TD pass to Trent Sherfield on shotgun, plya-action fake).

Then, there’s the Rams. Los Angeles looked the best out of the four clubs, with their ball-hawking secondary, arsenal of wide receivers and smart play-calling. Everything looked complete with new quarterback Matthew Stafford at the helm. The former Detroit Lion showed off his clear fit in McVay’s scheme, and his incredible arm on a Rams offensive staple early on — an under-center, play-action bootleg play, turned-bomb 67-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson. It’s much too early to make a call, but give me the Rams, my predicted Super Bowl 56 winner, as the early favorite in the division.

Mac Jones   Mac Jones displays poise, smart QB play

In New England, the Patriots out-gained the Dolphins by 134 yards, produced eight more first downs, 51 more rushing yards, and were in the red zone down 17-16 in the game’s final minutes, before running back Damien Harris, who had a nice showing, lost the team’s second fumble of the day, sealing a 0-1 fate for Bill Belichick’s squad.

New England was in position to win thanks to rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who lost his debut, but looked poised, efficient and NFL-ready in doing so.

Jones showed why he was a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense, going 29-for-39 for 281 passing yards and a touchdown to Nelson Agholor. Jones also went 14-of-18 for 129 yards versus the blitz, 7-of-10 (and his touchdown throw) under pressure, and 9-for-12 for 89 yards on third down, with seven conversions. He displayed a mastery and command of the offense that only improved as the game went along.

Former Alabama teammate, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, got the win, and made some impressive throws, but I thought Jones looked better than Tagovailoa, who produced more out of schemed plays, albeit with impressive designs.

The opening-day loss in a game they should have won will sting for the Patriots. But the bigger picture is: they have their guy at quarterback.

Jameis Winston   Jameis Winston did what?!

The Saints, playing in Jacksonville, Florida for a home game because of Hurricane Ida, throttled Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, 38-3. The defense forced two Aaron Rodgers interceptions and a 13.5 Total QBR from last year’s NFL MVP. On offense, Jameis Winston put an end to any debate between him and Swiss army knife Taysom Hill regarding who should start at quarterback. Winston efficiently threw for five touchdowns, with no turnovers, on just 148 yards passing, the lowest yardage total for a five-touchdown pass game in league history. The low-yardage total is a good thing. As the Saints defense continued to make plays, New Orleans needed Winston to manage the flow of the game, which he did perfectly. His 55-yard-touchdown heave to speedster Deonte Harris was a beautiful deep ball, which is a facet the offense had been missing in Drew Brees’ later years, which Brees joked about in his NBC debut. If Winston can limit turnovers on offense, they are a legitimate threat in the NFC.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0). Tom Brady, at age 44, looked as sharp as a quarterback, and as spry as a deep ball passer in Week 1 than he has since at least his 2017 MVP award-winning season. His connection with Gronk remains, but it’s the full offseason of work with Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin that has seemingly taken this offense to another level. One observation from Thursday, is that Brown may be Brady’s favorite target this year. Brady and his aforementioned trio of pass catchers combined for 22 completions for 316 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday. Wait until it’s Mike Evans’ turn, or when they get Giovanni Bernard involved. Look out.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). It was a sloppy game for the defense, but the NFL’s best trio saved the day. Final statlines: Patrick Mahomes (27-of-36, 347 pass yards, four total TDs), Tyreek Hill (11 catches, 197 receiving yards, two TDs) Travis Kelce (six catches, 97 receiving yards, 2 TDs). All three remain at the peak of their game. The Chiefs have a litany of holes and roster questions, but remain the team to beat in the AFC.

3. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). We talked about the NFC West above. The Rams combination of newfound moxie on offense, and tough defense with attitude, pits them as the prime opponent for the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs. They’ll face off in Los Angeles in two weeks.

4. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). That was a mighty-impressive east-coast, early-window win for the Seahawks. Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson will always bring a level of consistent winning to this club. It’s up to the defense to play up-to-par, if they are to compete with the heavyweights in this league.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0). Pittsburgh’s defense, with T.J. Watt and others, kept the high-flying Bills offense at bay for their entirety of their 23-13 win in Buffalo. They showed grit and toughness in outscoring last year’s AFC title game participant, 23-6, in the second half. They’ll get the offense sorted out. They should have one of the best defenses in football for the entire year.

6. Cleveland Browns (0-1). Despite the loss, the Browns showed why they are a team to be feared in the AFC. Baker Mayfield stumbled late, throwing the game-ending interception, but early on he flourished in the play-action passing game out of 12 personnel. Aaron Rodgers took a leap last season in Year 2 under Matt LaFluer’s heavy-12 personnel, play-action passing attack. Kevin Stefanski runs a similar scheme in Cleveland, and Mayfield already looks more comfortable within the offense in his second season. Overall, the Browns, with their rushing attack and pass rush, led by Myles Garrett, have the recipe to unseat the Chiefs, but they have to execute for four quarters. They got burned on Sunday.

7. San Francisco 49ers (1-0). They let up late versus the Lions, but it happens. For three quarters, they soundly handled an inferior team. This is one of the NFL’s best squads.

8. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Kyler Murray and that offense is still explosive. Kliff Kingsbury even cooked up some things for dangerous new weapon Rondale Moore, a rookie second-round pick receiver out of Purdue, who can do a multitude of things. If their defense becomes a top-10 unit, they’ll be one of the league’s best clubs.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-0). It’s Week 1, but if the Saints play anything close to yesterday’s win for a good chunk of the season, Sean Payton will be a prime Coach of the Year candidate.

10. Baltimore Ravens (0-0). The Ravens will have to figure out their running back situation on the fly, and losing Marcus Peters will hurt, but this is one of the best-run franchises in the league. They’ll figure it out.

11. Buffalo Bills (0-1). We’ll hold off on panicking about the Bills, although Josh Allen is a prime regression candidate, with his style of play. Buffalo heads to Miami this week to attempt to even things up in the AFC East.

12. Miami Dolphins (1-0). Brian Flores’ aptitude versus his former boss is now becoming a trend. The Dolphins are a physical, tough team who now have won three of their last four versus the Patriots under Flores. Their nice blend of RPOs and inside-zone runs hurt the Patriots when it mattered. That looked like a game between two playoff teams, even if ranked at the back-half of the eventual playoff field. The Dolphins can create a pretty nice early lead in the division with a win over the Bills next week.

13. New England Patriots (0-1). The Patriots are now 7-10 since Brady left, but there’s a lot to be excited about after watching Mac Jones on Sunday. They have a solid running game and front seven. The Dolphins, who know them well, are a tough matchup. This is a fringe-playoff team, at minimum. They should be in the tourney come January.

14. Denver Broncos (1-0). They looked solid in a win over the Giants. They have one of the league’s better rosters. It’ll be up to Teddy Bridgewater to determine just how far they can go.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). They survived in Washington. Justin Herbert made some key throws late, particularly to Keenan Allen.

16. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Yes, their defense is bad, but with rookie phenom Micah Parsons at linebacker, and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn implementing his Cover-3-based system throughout the year, maybe they’ll do just enough to help the Cowboys, and their incredible passing offense, win the NFC East. Dak Prescott is due for a monster season.

Next Up: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tennessee

Super Bowl 55, NFL Films shot

Brent’s Extra Points: Todd Bowles’ brilliance, Brady’s run + Chiefs’ future

A couple of days have now passed since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ complete mastery of the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.

As always, there’s more to uncover when the game tape is broken down and a there’s been some time since the result, allowing additional storylines to marinate.

Here are some of my thoughts on the Bucs, Chiefs and this year’s Super Bowl before we turn the page to the 2021 offseason.

🏈 TODD BOWLES’ BRILLIANCE

The awesome thing about Bruce Arians’ Tampa Bay coaching staff is that it is packed with a diverse array of men and women who are masters of their craft.

And among that championship-winning staff, one coach’s performance deserves extra praise.

Few defensive coordinators in NFL history have schemed up and executed a better game plan than Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ strategy to limit Patrick Mahomes to the worst game of his NFL career.

“I can’t give him enough credit,” Arians said of Bowles after the game. “You know, I think he got a little tired of hearing about how unstoppable they [Chiefs offense] were. I thought he came up with a fantastic plan just to keep them in front of us and tackle real well. Patrick [Mahomes] wasn’t going to beat us running …”

In Tampa’s 27-24 loss to Kansas City in November, Tyreek Hill victimized the Bucs via an historic performance, doing most of his damage in the first quarter versus single-high safety coverages with Tampa cornerback Carlton Davis in man or nearby zone coverage on Hill.

This time, with the state of Kansas City’s depleted offensive line, Bowles blitzed only situationally (Tampa blitzed on roughly 10 percent of KC passing plays, lowest for a Bowles defense in five years) and allowed his defensive front four (Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh) to feast on Mahomes and his undermanned blockers, which prompted Bowles to implement predominantly two-high coverage looks (Cover 2, Cover 4 or Quarters, 2-Man) to take away some of Kansas City’s staple offensive calls. Playing two-high safety looks would normally be an issue against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce underneath and in the middle of the field, but knowing the matchup with KC’s offensive line, this became the best move. Mahomes had no time to find longer-developing routes to Hill and others, and despite a garbage-time level stat line for Kelce (10 catches, 133 yards), the Kansas City tight end was largely kept in check underneath by Tampa linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, who also spent time chipping Kelce at the line of scrimmage (a strategy of Bill Belichick’s that seems to work versus Kelce).

Of course, pressuring Mahomes without blitzing makes any coverage look a lot better, but the two-safety shell implemented by Bowles was brilliant. Part of the reason Mahomes ran around the field for 497 yards on Sunday was because he was looking for pass catchers that weren’t open.

In all, Tampa played in two-high looks on 87 percent of Mahomes drop backs (according to NFL Next Gen Stats), pressured Mahomes a Super Bowl-record 29 times (52 percent of KC passing plays), and forced the Chiefs phenom into two picks, three sacks, a 49.9 Total QBR, and a meager nine total points without a touchdown. The loss was also the first double-digit loss of Mahomes’ career.

“Coach Bowles?” said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. “We call him the Mastermind. We were playing great defense throughout the playoffs, and (people) still doubted us.”

It’s time to give Bowles his due, in form of both praise and attention as a head-coaching candidate in 2022.

🏈 TOM BRADY’S PATRIOT-LIKE, WINTER RUN TO ANOTHER SUPER BOWL TITLE

For Tom Brady, duck boats in February New England weather turned to actual boats in 80-plus degree Florida sun. So even though things are different for the GOAT down in Tampa, some things stayed the same. The championship parades continued, as Brady celebrated his seventh Super Bowl title with a new club, and judging by the hilarious videos on Twitter, it looks like Tom ditched the TB12 method, at least for a day, to celebrate his incredible run to another championship. 

Can you blame him?

After an up-and-down start to the season, the Buccaneers figured things out right after Thanksgiving, and Brady’s play went from uneven to spectacular for two straight months.

Of course, that’s a familiar story, as Brady’s Buccaneers took on a New England Patriots-like run in making necessary adjustments to go on a winter bludgeoning of the league’s best teams (and quarterbacks), with the Bucs looking much different in the months of December and January, as opposed to September and October.

The main reason for Tampa’s sketchy 7-5 start was the abnormal offseason, which consisted of a truncated training camp with extra rules, and no preseason, due to COVID-19. Considering the team was welcoming a new quarterback, and several other new faces, it was tough for them to gel in the way they wanted. Especially with the differentiating methods of Tom Brady’s calculated passing attack and Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” deep-ball-flinging jamboree.

Still, Brady proved that even at age 43, he could still throw the ball downfield, leading the league in air yards per attempt (9.6), throwing downfield to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller.

But somewhere amidst the Bucs’ valiant effort to make their last loss of the season (to the Chiefs in November, 27-24, in Tampa) a close one, CBS Sports‘ Tony Romo apparently figured out that the Buccaneers offense had found a groove that would later vault them to the Super Bowl.

Tampa would go on to win their last eight games of the season, culminating in their 31-9 beatdown of the Chiefs to win Super Bowl 55.

The offense averaged 33.9 points per game over that stretch, as Brady and Arians became synced and in tune with each other’s styles.

Sure, Brady’s downfield dart to Scotty Miller to stun the Packers at the end of the first half of the NFC Title Game, and Tom’s pass interference-drawing deep heave to Mike Evans late in the first half of the Super Bowl were Arians-like decisions, but in the Super Bowl, Brady reverted to his old ways derived in New England.

Despite having one of the league’s best receiver duos in boundary extraordinaries Evans and Godwin, Brady targeted them just five times for three connections on 40 yards in Super Bowl 55, compared to a combined 15 passes completed to Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 17 targets. (Fournette also ran in a score.)

Brady is especially efficient throwing in the middle of the field to tight ends, slot receivers and pass-catching running backs. Brady also excels in the play-action passing game.

With the help from his trusted pal (Gronk) and another old friend he brought in (Brown), Brady utilized play-action and quick passes to pick the Chiefs apart.

Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich even let Brady bring back some of New England’s staple play-action passing plays designed for Gronkowski (see second part of Bill Barnwell’s tweet below).

It was Brady’s highest play-action passing rate in a game since 2016, and all three of Brady’s touchdowns, and nearly half of his completions (he went 10-for-13 on play-action passes for 135 yards) and over half of his yards came on such passes.

After the game, Brady stood on the podium and deflected a Jim Nantz question regarding if this was his most special Super Bowl win.

We know of course, that it’s because he was being modest, or maybe even because he knows how special Super Bowl 51 was to him.

But maybe it’s also because this championship performance, and title run, was quite similar to some of his past performances as a Patriot.

For Brady, the motto was again figuring things out in December and January, trusting your most-trusted targets, and playing the game though the air on your own accord.

🏈 WHAT’S NEXT FOR MAHOMES, CHIEFS? ARE THE RUSSELL WILSON-ERA SEAHAWKS A VALID LOOSE COMPARISON? WHAT ABOUT PEYTON MANNING-ERA COLTS?

The Chiefs fell short in their quest to win consecutive Super Bowls, leaving a sour taste to another fantastic season for them.

Considering they’ll return next season with the NFL’s best player (Patrick Mahomes), and their core group still intact, it’s easy to envision them making a third straight Super Bowl. But if you look a little closer, the cracks, no matter how small, are visible.

To loosely compare, when the 2014 Seattle Seahawks were thwarted by Tom Brady in their attempt to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-2004 Patriots (led by Brady), Russell Wilson’s playoff record went from 6-1 to 6-2, just like Mahomes’ recently did in this similar scenario. (And let’s be honest, Wilson came closer than Mahomes to winning his second Super Bowl title).

Since going from the young, clutch leader at quarterback to a top-flight field general who has elevated an undermanned team in recent seasons (I liken Wilson’s arc to a young Tom Brady in that way), Wilson has since become frustrated with the Seahawks team-building strategy and subpar win-loss success, compared to Wilson’s standards.

Sure, Mahomes’ career arc has been different, seeing as ever since he became the Chiefs starter, he immediately rose to a level of success and jaw-dropping-talent-meets-efficiency stardom that Wilson, and maybe no other young quarterback other than Dan Marino (without the Super Bowl ring), has achieved.

But soon, the older talent around him (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, etc.) will dissipate in the form of erosion or retirement, leaving a whole new era for Mahomes to take on, without the all-time unique Hill (best speed WR ever, most unique deep threat ever) and Kelce (best route-running tight end ever) to throw to.

As it stands, the salary-cap strategy of these Chiefs can be likened to the Peyton Manning-era Colts of the 2000s.

In those years, Indianapolis filled up most of their annual cap space by spending on their core players — Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis — leaving little cap space to sign top-tier or mid-level free agents or in-house players with expiring contracts.

For most years, this left those Colts as top-heavy squads lacking depth and competence on defense, save for a few players like Freeney and Mathis that could get after the quarterback, but still struggled in run defense. Because of this Indianapolis won just one Super Bowl during the Manning era, and often fell to the likes of more complete (and tougher) teams like the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers or talented San Diego Chargers.

The Chiefs are in a similar position. As it stands, Kansas City is heading into the 2021 offseason with roughly negative-$20 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. And that’s without a set-in-stone cap figure for next year to account for lost revenue for the league in 2020, due to the pandemic.

Here is a list of the top 15 cap hits on the Chiefs roster next season, taken from Spotrac:  

 ———

Frank Clark ($25.8 million)

Patrick Mahomes ($24.8 million)

Chris Jones ($21.9 million)

Tyrann Mathieu ($19.7 million)

Tyreek Hill ($15.9 million)

Eric Fisher ($15. 2 million)

Travis Kelce ($13.3 million)

Anthony Hitchens ($10.7 million)

Mitchell Schwartz ($10 million)

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif ($4.8 million)

Harrison Butker ($3.9 million)

Damien Williams ($2.8 million)

Clyde Edwards-Helaire ($2.5 million)

Alex Okafor ($2 million)

Chad Henne ($1.6 million)

Mecole Hardman ($1.4 million)

———

Notice the gap between Schwartz and Duvernay-Tardif’s contract. The Chiefs are built very top-heavy, and with their structure, and Mahomes’ record contract over the next few seasons, GM Brett Veach will suffer some cap casualties, while also being strapped, in terms of signing free agents.

Like the Manning-era Colts, the Chiefs struggle mightily in run defense, and rely on a couple big names (Jones, Mathieu) to help elevate an underwhelming unit. The Chiefs are also built offensively-minded, like those Colts. To be fair, Kansas City was one win away from back-to-back titles, but still, this team setup is not sustainable long-term.

Kansas City will have to counter with impeccable drafting skills. The Colts drafted a bevy of defensive backs (Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, Kelvin Hayden, etc.) during those years that helped give them an improved secondary as the decade went on.

The Chiefs have already begun drafting well under Veach, with L’Jarius Sneed —a fourth-round pick from this season who had an incredible rookie year as a do-it-all boundary/nickel cornerback — being an example of the type of player that Veach will need to find once or twice per draft in the middle rounds.

Because of their hamstrung situation in terms of spendable cash, things will get more difficult, but it’s tough to blame the Chiefs for locking up players such as Hill, Kelce, Mathieu and Jones, who are all at, or near, the top of their respective positions.

The Chiefs have some great players, but they may lack in enough good ones to help give them a sustainable roster in the long-term. But like any franchise, things change quickly.

In three to five seasons, Mahomes will be attempting to get back to the Super Bowl by throwing to wide receivers and tight ends that are probably currently in high school, while the Chiefs attempt to build their roster with cap space that was once not there. For now, Kansas City will attempt to sustain themselves on the backs of a few. It’s worked so far, but how long will it last?

Super Bowl 55, Tampa Hotel

Super Bowl LV Preview: Brady, Mahomes to meet in legendary QB battle

Every February, there’s a rush to uncover both the biggest and unheralded Super Bowl storylines that surround and directly affect the NFL’s annual big game.

In terms of beyond-the-game storylines, it simply doesn’t get bigger than Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.

Although we’re now in the year 2021, this is still the 2020 NFL season, and leave it to 2020 to give us a pro football culmination of this oddity and magnitude. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, much of the surrounding “GOAT” talk can be exhausting — and a bit sensational — in today’s media landscape. But there’s no denying the real stakes at play in this Brady-Mahomes title bout.

It’s the greatest player in NFL history pitted against the game’s current best player, with the former setting a winning precedent beyond belief, and the latter beginning a pace that would one day place him as football’s greatest player ever, if he continues on this ridiculous path.

Even with Brady at age 43, this is primed to be the best Super Bowl QB matchup of all-time. (Note: It’s worth noting the same would have been true had Aaron Rodgers and the Packers moved on to play Mahomes’ Chiefs on Sunday.)

But despite the obvious appeal of Brady versus Mahomes, there’s the obvious underlying theme that will be brought up both immediately after this game’s result, and for years to come — Will Mahomes ever catch Brady to become the NFL’s greatest quarterback, and player, ever?

Since last year’s Super Bowl, I’ve personally compared the Brady-Mahomes debate to the NBA’s great Michael Jordan-LeBron James conversation.

Here are some anecdotes from my linked piece (above) from last February:

———

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. 

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. 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.

…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 Dan Marino. Not John 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 also 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.

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.

———

With Brady now in Tampa, leading the Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl, an unforeseen wrinkle has been added to what will be an ongoing debate.

Whether it’s fair or not, the shear weight of this Super Bowl will likely engulf every other Mahomes career Super Bowl appearance, unless the Chiefs phenom earns as many rings as Brady.

For LeBron, unless he gets to seven or eight rings (I predict five for him), he’ll never be considered the unanimous or overwhelming consensus greatest basketball player ever. That’s how iconic Jordan’s legacy is. In NFL lore, Brady is Jordan, possessing a legacy equipped with moments such as Super Bowl 51, a comeback that will likely never be duplicated. And although both TB12 and Air Jordan are supremely talented in their own right, it would not be blasphemous to call LeBron and Mahomes the most talented players to ever play their respective sport.

But no one wants to be labeled “the most talented ever.” “Greatness” is what every athlete seeks.

For Brady, considering Mahomes is his Super Bowl opponent, there is a bit of pressure. Although Tom has accomplished more than any quarterback has ever dreamed of, winning a seventh Super Bowl at age 43 with a new club by beating the talented Mahomes is picture perfect. So, yes, a smidge of “can you win this?” pressure is now miraculously applied to a six-time Super Bowl winner.

But for Mahomes, he’ll face more than just an uphill battle to ever reach Brady’s legacy if he falls to Brady in both an AFC Championship Game at home, and a Super Bowl with Brady on a new team at age 43. The brutal (and probably slightly unfair) tarnishing that would come from those two losses would just be a secondary smidge compared to the 7-to-1 ring total that Mahomes would be tasked with reaching, or coming close to, to have a legacy equal or greater than Brady’s.

For Mahomes, this could be it. This may be the legacy game of his career, even 15 years from now. But as we saw with Brady post-Super Bowl 42, one can never be sure where things lead.

Mahomes’ career is just beginning, and despite Brady’s pummeling of Father Time in his age-related battle, Tom’s career is currentlly in one of it’s final (but not the final) chapters.

On Sunday, their paths will cross, before dispersing with an important result that will follow the debate between the two for decades. Let’s enjoy it.

*******

With the theatrics behind us, here are some of my biggest in-game storylines and matchups. I’ll provide my prediction for the game at the end of this piece.

Kansas City’s O-line vs Tampa Bay’s Pass Rush

The most impactful matchup of Super Bowl 55 will be Kansas City’s depleted, and therefore unheralded, offensive line pitted against Tampa’s effective pass rush, led by the monstrous, Super Bowl-experienced EDGE duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.

This became an immediate thinking point after Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher tragically tore his achilles in the AFC title game versus the Bills, joining four-time All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz on the bench with injuries.

Due to this, Kansas City will move Mike Remmers from right to left tackle, and will slide right guard Andrew Wylie to right tackle, filling Remmers’ role as a fill-in for Schwartz. These two will need to hold up versus the Barrett-Pierre-Paul duo, as well as any other stunts that Tampa blitz-reliant defensive coordinator Todd Bowles throws at them.

“They got speed up the field and power down the middle,” Wylie told The Kansas City Star on Wednesday. “They got linebackers that can fly around and make plays. So this is an extremely talented group that we’re going up against against.”

The Buccaneers tallied 48 sacks this season (fourth-best), and blitzed (39 percent of opponents’ dropbacks) the fifth most of any team in 2020. But in the Chiefs’ 27-24, not-as-close-as-it-looks Week 12 victory in Tampa, Bowles blitzed Mahomes just 17 percent of the time.

The thinking there was to shy away from Mahomes’ league-best ability to destroy blitzes. But even with Mahomes’ brilliance, doing this requires at least somewhat-stable play out of their offensive line. The Chiefs had Fisher at left tackle in that game, and they won’t now.

So maybe Bowles inches a bit closer to his 39-percent, 2020 blitz rate on Sunday. But that’s a high risk, especially with the way the Chiefs have successfully countered their offensive line issues by abandoning their deep passing game entirely as of recent.

As Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar pointed out in his brilliant piece this week, Mahomes has attempted just two passes of 20 yards or more through the air this postseason. Just one per game in wins versus the Browns and Bills. Additionally, on Andy Reid-schemed RPO pass attempts, Mahomes leads the league this year on such throws with an absurd 21.7 Expected Points Added, according to Sports Info Solutions. (Tom Brady is second with 9.7 EPA on such throws).

Essentially, Tampa’s pass rush may be rendered moot if they can’t consistently stop the Chiefs’ running game, quick passes, RPO’s, or wide receiver and tight end screens to the likes of Mecole Hardman, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Despite the Chiefs’ ability to pass the football, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy would love to have some success on the ground with the current state of their offensive line. But Tampa holds the edge there as well.

The Bucs have the second-best run defense in the league this season according to Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric. Ndamukong Suh and rookie Vita Vea are the interior defenders tasked with corralling rookie Clyde Edwards-Heliare and former Steelers great Le’Veon Bell at running back for the Chiefs.

If Kansas City can miraculously find consistent success on the ground, then they’ll likely win this game, but that’s unlikely, leaving the game in Mahomes’ hands, as it should be.

As previously mentioned, maybe Tampa blitzes a few more times in this game than their last matchup with Kansas City. After all, linebacker Devin White has nine sacks this season. But most would agree that blitzing Mahomes still remains too much of a risk.

Tampa would like to get pressure on Mahomes with just their defensive front four, and the aforementioned edge rushers and Suh up the middle (Suh has six sacks, 19 QB hits in 2020) have a good chance of providing that, making things a bit tougher on Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable offense.

Defending Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce

On Tuesday night, For The Win senior writer Steven Ruiz took to Twitter to ask this valid question:

In my football lifetime, I think an argument could be made for Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker for one season (2007), Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for multiple seasons (mid 2000s), or Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce/Torry Holt for the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams.

However, the shear uniqueness of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce’s skill sets, along with their production with Mahomes at QB, make it hard to argue Steven’ point.

We’re all aware of Mahomes’ ability, but Hill and Kelce are also major cogs in this offense.

Hill is the greatest speed receiver of all-time (unreal speed and stop-start quickness/burst) and most unique deep threat ever. Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all time, and is making his case as the best pass-catching tight end ever, as well.

In the Chiefs’ win over Tampa in Week 12, the Bucs opted to leave cornerback Carlton Davis on Hill for a boatload of snaps. Hill historically ended up with 203 receiving yards (and two scores) in the first quarter, and finished with 269 yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 201 of Hill’s receiving yards came with Davis as the closest defender.

Tampa was running a lot of single-high looks and coverages (Cover 1, Cover 3) at that point in the season. Since that game, Bowles has had Tampa playing more 2-Man coverage, and more two-high safety looks in general, to greater results.

Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht has did an awesome job putting together this young, underrated secondary with boundary cornerbacks Davis (2nd round, 2019 NFL Draft) and Sean Murphy-Bunting (2nd round, 2018), safeties Jordan Whitehead (4th round, 2018) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd round, 2020) and nickel cornerback Jamel Dean (3rd round, 2019).

Each of these players can have consistent success in man coverage versus certain opponents, but that’s not the case when defending Mahomes passing to Hill and Kelce, at least not when Tampa is aligned in single-high coverage.

Single-high coverage often leaves defenders on an an island with Hill downfield, where as two-high looks gives the team more downfield defensive options (2-Man, Cover 4/quarters) to defend Hill.

Of course, Mahomes’ downfield looks to Hill and others have come few and far between as of late due to offensive line issues, and although you can expect at least one or two downfield shots on Sunday, don’t expect a litany of them unless KC’s beat-up O-line miraculously wins their matchup.

The Chiefs will likely use a heavy dose of RPOs, WR screens, various quick passes, and intermediate crossers to target Hill. Even in man coverage, Tampa will need tackling help via linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David in defending all quick passes to Hill. The same could be said on crossers if White and David back up into zone coverage. Without pressure, the Tampa LBs would likely have no shot, even with White’s incredible range and tenacity, but with expected pressure, White has a good chance to notch an interception much like 49ers LB Fred Warner did off Mahomes in last year’s Super Bowl.

This is where Tampa should look to play more Cover 1 robber and Cover 3, even out of two-high looks. Yes, we know Tampa got burned on some of these staples in Week 12, but Tampa should generate more pressure on Mahomes this time around, and they’ll need a lurking safety like Whitehead or Winfield Jr. to come up to cut off the crossing routes.

If Tampa is to employ Cover 1 or 2-Man, they should use slot cornerback Jamel Dean (4.3 40-yard dash speed) to cover Hill this time around. Hill often lines up in the slot in KC’s 3×1 looks, anyhow. If Cover 1 is the coverage, Tampa would be using a faster, slot-savvy Dean on Hill (instead of Davis), while a robber comes down underneath.

Lining up on the other side of KC’s 3 by 1 sets as a boundary X-receiver is tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce had eight catches for 82 yards in the November matchup, and looks to be targeted even more in this game, as the Chiefs will look to give the Tampa defense a death by intermediate paper cuts, as opposed to downfield slashes.

Kelce’ extended route-tree, versatility (can line up as a ‘Y’ tight end, X-receiver, in the slot), quickness for his size and top-tier spatial awareness (to destroy zone coverage) make him almost impossible to defend.

As is the obvious and oft-stated case in this piece, whether Tampa is playing man or zone coverage, they must get pass-rushing pressure to stop Mahomes-to-Kelce.

The challenge of defending both Hill and Kelce is that single-high safety looks can be destroyed by Hill, where as two-high looks can be obliterated by Kelce.

Taking away a defender underneath allows Kelce to attack the middle part of the field. In zone coverage, Devon White (and Lavonte Davis) will need to keep his head on a swivel in the second level of defense by reading Mahomes’ eyes.

“It’s just going to take discipline,” Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David told the media on Tuesday. “Latching on to a man if we’re in man-to-man or if we’re in zone coverage. Matching onto a guy. Take away his zones and his reads. And you’ve just got to get to him. Quick as you can, fast as you can, any way you can. He makes magic outside the pocket, and that’s definitely something we’ve got to watch out for.”

But even then, Kelce is a master of finding the open crease in zone looks, and Mahomes is a master at finding or throwing him open. In both man and zone, Winfield Jr. may get the brunt of the job of defending Kelce. He should drop into the box on Cover 3 looks, even when Bowles’ defense lines up in a two-high design to start, and in man coverage, he should be tasked with guarding Kelce. (On top of this, the Bucs would be wise to knock Kelce off his route on the line of scrimmage via a linebacker, taking a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook, which has had some moderate success versus this Chiefs offense.)

On paper, the Tampa Bay defense finished fifth against the pass in DVOA this season, but that doesn’t really apply to the air-it-out Chiefs.

The best thing Tampa can do to counter Mahomes’ best two pass catchers is to generate pressure with just their front four (surprise! sound familiar?) while mixing in some more two-high (more 2-Man or safety dropping down in Cover 3, as opposed to Cover 2 or Cover 4) looks, while also not totally abandoning their single-high, Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages out of that pre-snap design. Also, be aware of screens and quick passes, and limiting those possible big gains with sound tackling at the second level (White, David).

Sounds easy enough, right?

Tom Brady vs Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones & Steve Spagnuolo

Venturing into the other side of the ball, a great chess match awaits in Tom Brady versus do-it-all defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

Recently on Chris Collinsworth’s podcast, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman compared the Chiefs’ Mathieu to an all-time great DB, as well a current stud in Arizona.

“He plays… and I hate to say it because it’s cliché and simple, and their games are totally different, but the tenacity and speed he plays with is similar to what Budda [Baker] does in Arizona, and what Tyrann used to do in Arizona,” Sherman said.

“The exception [with Mathieu] is in coverage. He is one of the most instinctual and gambling DBs I’ve ever seen, and he’s usually right. I’d compare him to Ed Reed in that regard, except he’s playing more in the box than single-high safety.”

There’s a famous clip in NFL FilmsA Football Life episode of Bill Belichick, where Brady and Belichick sit down in The Hoodie’s office to prepare for playing Reed when he was an All-Pro safety for the Ravens.

“You’re always so aware of where he is” Brady said of Reed in the clip.

“I remember playing him….five years ago…and every time you break the huddle, that’s where you’re looking at,” Brady said.

Although Mathieu is not quite at Reed’s peak level, he’s one of the game’s best defensive backs in present-day pro football, and Brady will likely treat Mathieu in the same mold.

But like Sherman said, Mathieu plays more in the box than as a deep safety, like Reed was. But Mathieu has the ability to line up anywhere, nonetheless. Pro Football Focus charted The Honey Badger lining up mostly as a slot CB (403 snaps) in 2020, while also playing a bevy of box safety (363) and free safety (275).

In a Patriots offense, Brady often looked to attack the short and intermediate areas of the field, which is where you would often see Mathieu as a robber defender reading the QB in both Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks.

Brady hasn’t abandoned the middle part of the field, but in Bruce Arians’ downfield passing scheme, the Bucs QB has magically become the game’s most efficient deep passer at age 43.

A lot of Brady’s throws are now targeting the perimeter to the likes of X-receiver Mike Evans and inside-outside receiver Chris Godwin, as well as sneaky-speed guy Scotty Miller. In theory, the added wrinkle makes Brady a bit more dangerous than he’s been since 2017, when he was a great deep passer in New England throwing to Brandin Cooks and company.

These throws can help Brady veer away from the chess match with Mathieu, who will often be reading Brady’s eyes, looking to snatch a middle-of-the-field interception.

But in the first half of the November matchup, the Chiefs made Brady and the Bucs offense look the quarterback’s age.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo blitzed Brady a ton in that game (see Matt Bowen’s tweet above), and played man coverage about two-thirds of the game. That’s a lot of man coverage for a Chiefs team that has an average pass defense (16th in pass defense DVOA), and has an unheralded DB group outside of Mathieu and underrated rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.

Spagnuolo, the former Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl 42, has been an overall nuisance for Brady throughout his career. TB12 is 2-3 versus Spagnuolo-coached defenses, and has posted a meager 58.8 Total QBR in those games.

Kansas City has the power up front to get to Brady at times with just four. Especially with Frank Clark and Chris Jones up front.

Jones is an All-Pro caliber player who has had his fair share of jawing moments with Brady in games, adding to the mental side of their battle.

The Chiefs would like to key on Ronald Jones/Leonard Fournette runs and Brady passes by having their front four week havoc all game, but that level of consistent pass-rushing pressure is hard to come by if your D-line is not the 2007 New York Giants.

But like his Giants defense, Spagnuolo should continue using unique stunts and other pressure-tactics to keep the Tampa O-line guessing, while keeping pressure on, and sometimes confusing, Brady. They’ll also likely continuing blitzing the GOAT, but Brady, Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will likely have some counter attacks for that this time around. That counter may be more pre-snap motion to give Brady a chance at deciphering man or zone coverage, like he often did in New England. 

Spagnuolo used some of his exotic blitz schemes from his Giants days on Brady in the November matchup, with defenders blitzing and on-the-line defenders backing up into coverage. They also ran a ton of Cover 0.

Brady will likely be thinking quick pass on these looks, but what Tampa would really like to do is establish the run game versus KC’s 31st-ranked run defense (DVOA), to set-up play-action throws.

This will anger some who rightly accuse Arians and Leftwich of leaning too heavily on the run at times this season, when you have Brady under center. But in this case, Tampa should look to find some success on the ground, which in turn keeps Mahomes and the KC offense off the field.

When KC undoubtedly loads the box up, Brady will look to Rob Gronkowski, yes, the “I mostly block now” Gronk should play a slightly bigger role in the passing game than other games this season. After all, he had a season-high six catches for 106 yards in the November matchup. 

For the Chiefs, this is where Mathieu comes into play. He should be the man-coverage option on Gronk on both play-action crossing routes and seam looks. Additionally, expect Spagnuolo to continue using weird coverages with defenders dropping back to clog up the play-action throwing lanes in the middle of the field.

This is where Brady’s improved perimeter, outside-the-numbers passing should come into play.

NFL Next Gen Stats — Tom Brady, Super Bowl 55
The table above by NFL Next Gen Stats shows Tom Brady’s improved downfield passing as the season went along. (Screenshot: NFL Next Gen Stats)

If Brady can throw well-placed balls on the outside, and if Evans, Godwin, Antonio Brown and others can win those 1-on-1 matchups, things will get difficult for KC. 

But expect Spagnuolo to use an insanely-wide array of calls versus Brady, while using more zone blitz than Cover 0, once Brady finds his prepared outlets to counter-attack Kansas City’s effective, man-coverage and blitz-heavy scheme from November. 

Let’s conclude — if Kansas City can limit Tampa’s run game, apply consistent middle pressure with Chris Jones, play solid man coverage and have Mathieu play well in his middle-of-the-field chess match versus Brady, the Chiefs will be in good shape defensively. 

If Tampa’s O-line holds up enough to give Brady time and produce a solid running game, then it’s just Brady and his talented core versus the Chiefs’ secondary and linebackers. Kansas City played solid man coverage last time around, but without pressure on Brady, they can’t expect to repeat that. Especially now that the past experience and film will lead to a slightly different Tampa game plan. 

Let the chess match begin. 

*******

PREDICTION: The legacy talk surrounds this game, but the key matchup is KC’s O-line versus Tampa Bay’s pass rush, and the key chess match is Tom Brady versus Tyrann Mathieu and the Steve Spagnuolo defense. The Chiefs defense is not very good on paper, but their stars have a knack for coming to play in the playoffs, making them a better unit than perceived. The Chiefs fared well versus Brady last time, but the Bucs did find a way to counter in the second half, almost coming back to win.

The great Tony Romo called that November game along with Jim Nantz and Tracy Wolfson for CBS, and the broadcast group will call Super Bowl 55 as well. Romo astutely forecasted this matchup at the end of their past meeting. 

“I think there’s a better than good chance…..that these two [Chiefs and Buccaneers] are going to be here in Tampa,” Romo said. 

“…I think they’re in the discussion after they evolved this offense today as the game was unfolding and Brady was getting upset.”

Romo proved to be right, as the Bucs haven’t lost since. Without a preseason or normal training camp, it took Brady longer than expected to adjust to Arians’ offense scheme, but here we are.

Tampa will likely play this game much differently offensively. But even with that, I would pick the Chiefs if not for the state of their offensive line. I think that becomes the biggest storyline, and I think it plays out as expected. Consistent pressure on Mahomes will do just enough, forcing a key turnover or two, and limiting Kansas City’s passing game, despite Mahomes’ worthy attempt to counteract a short-handed blocking group. 

On the other side, Brady will throw for two scores and 300-plus yards, winning his record fifth Super Bowl MVP award, while the Buccaneers celebrate their second Super Bowl title, becoming the first team to win a home Super Bowl after being the first team to host one. 

BUCCANEERS 30, CHIEFS 27. 

Tom Brady leaves Lambeau Field — 2020 NFC Championship Game

NFL Conference Championship Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, KC’s well-oiled machine moves along

And then there were two. Kansas City-Tampa Bay. Patrick Mahomes versus Tom Brady.

There will be time to do a deep dive on the fascinating Super Bowl 55 matchup that is to come ( you can expect my mega preview next week), so let’s use this space to tackle some of the initial takeaways from conference championship weekend.

Here are my thoughts, as I empty the internal football notebook in my brain…

*******

Tom Brady somehow adds to all-time best NFL legacy. Although many were aware in March that the GOAT was leaving New England for a very talented Tampa team, not that many forecasted a 43-year-old Tom Brady leading the talented (and apparently, hungry) Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl.

As the great Ian O’Connor points out in the tweet above, the Bucs have been a downtrodden franchise, beat up by NFL powers for almost 50 years, save for a Super Bowl 37 victory in 2002, sandwiched between Brady’s first three titles in New England.

Brady joined the Bucs in March, just as a global pandemic made headway in the news.

There was a limited NFL training camp and no preseason. Hardly the perfect environment for a quarterback to learn a new city, coaching staff, set of teammates and a playbook.

Yet, after and up-and-down, 7-5 start that culminated in a 27-24 home loss (that wasn’t as close as the score indicates) to the Chiefs after Thanksgiving, Tampa has now won seven straight games, three on the road in the postseason, behind a reborn, steely-eyed Brady primed to win his seventh Super Bowl in 10 tries.

Now, Brady sits 33-11 in the postseason with wins over Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, with Mahomes up next. A legacy that was cemented two Super Bowl wins (and three appearances) ago as the greatest resume in pro football history now has an opportunity for another unique accolade.

Afterwards, Brady deflected the praise toward his new head coach, Bruce Arians.

“I don’t think about what it means for me,” said Brady to NFL dot com. “I do think about what it means for everybody else. It’s an amazing achievement for BA. I’m so happy for him.”

Despite the humble move, make no mistake, Super Bowl 55, and this Tampa run, is about Brady first and foremost, even with a bevy of talented playmakers on offense and defense helping to push him toward the finish line once more.

There was a time in the second half, with Brady throwing three interceptions in three consecutive drives (with two being totally his fault, and as hideous of throws as you’ll see him make), where it seemed like the game would slip away. But Brady made some key throws late, which complimented his superb play in the first half and the hungry pass-rush duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who combined for five key sacks on Rodgers.

Brady couldn’t do this without his teammates, and his coaching staff, but they couldn’t have done this without Brady, either. And now, Brady’s team is headed to the Super Bowl in his first season with his new club. Coincidence?

What’s next for Aaron Rodgers? Coming into the weekend, it was obvious that Aaron Rodgers was under more pressure than any other player playing on Conference Championship Sunday. But moments of greatness often come for players under the microscope, and during most of the second half, it seemed as if Rodgers’ shining moment of destiny (an 18-point comeback to beat Tom Brady to reach his second Super Bowl) was inevitable. That moment began to slip away after Rodgers, who had a fine game otherwise, seemingly panicked by not running for a touchdown on a 3rd-and-goal play late in the 4th quarter when down eight points, instead forcing an incompletion to Davante Adams into double coverage. The moment fully vanquished after an anticlimactic, but correct, flag on Packers cornerback Kevin King that effectively ended the game.

Much will be made about Rodgers’ comments after the game, which can be seen in the tweets above. That reporter, Matt Schneidman of The Athletic, later took to Twitter to say Rodgers wouldn’t say something like this if he didn’t mean it. We should trust the great local reporting in Green Bay, but it still seems farfetched that the Packers would want to move on from Rodgers in favor of Jordan Love at quarterback, just yet. Not after a season that will certainly net Rodgers his third career NFL MVP award.

So does this mean Rodgers wants out? If he does, what will it cost for a top-five or top-10 quarterback of all-time, entering his age 38-season? A first-round pick and change? If this bizarre scenario were to take place, I’d suspect the loaded 49ers (Rodgers’ hometown team) to be squarely in the mix, with the Patriots as a secondary option.

Still, this to me feels like a reflective, part-reactionary quote immediately after a yet another heartbreaking postseason loss, and nothing more. The best we can do is to monitor this when the offseason starts.

Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid lead the way in Kansas City, but Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are vital cogs in the Chiefs’ well-oiled machine. Despite recovering from turf toe and a hit that knocked him out of last week’s AFC Divisional win over the Browns, Patrick Mahomes looked unaffected, even if a bit gimpy, on Sunday. Throwing for 325 yards and three scores on 29-of-38 passing, the reigning Super Bowl MVP did what was expected of him in the AFC title game — dispose of the Bills to reach his second straight Super Bowl. Mahomes and Andy Reid (and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) are a dangerous combination. Reid is one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, and Mahomes is perhaps the most talented player we’ve ever seen.

Still, this offense wouldn’t be anywhere near what we’re seeing without one or both of tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

The two combined for 22 catches for 290 yards and two scores versus Buffalo.

Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all-time, and one of the two or three best pass-catching tight ends to ever suit up. Never before have we seen a tight end with shake-and-bake moves and this level of spatial awareness at his size (6-5, 260 pounds). He continues to be an easy outlet for Mahomes, whether the Kansas City QB sits in the pocket to decipher zone coverage, or rolls out of the pocket looking for a breakaway option from man coverage.

Hill is the most unique pass catcher in NFL history, harboring a skill set that pits him as one of the greatest deep threats ever, and the best speed receiver that’s ever played the game. Just take his 71-yard catch-and-run in the second half (see tweet below) that left the Bills moribund.

The pass-catching duo did even more damage to the Buccaneers in November. Hill historically went for 269 yards and three scores on 13 catches on that game, while Kelce added 82 receiving yards on eight catches.

There’s simply no stopping the unique duo of Kelce and Hill, and certainly not with Mahomes at quarterback. All Tampa can do in two Sundays is to hope to contain them, or generate consistent pressure on Mahomes.

Will the Bills be back? One of the more interesting things at the end of the AFC title game was CBS‘ Tony Romo’s comments at the end of the game (see tweet below).

When looking at Buffalo’s well-put-together squad, it’s difficult to imagine them sinking back to mediocrity, but the NFL is full of upstart teams that fall right back to the pack in years following.

So will the Patriots, or Dolphins, unseat them in the AFC East in 2021? Or will the Bills lessen to a 10-win division champion that will be ousted in the wild card round?

Only time will tell, but it’s pretty obvious the Bills have a good thing going here. They should remain at least a contender in the next two or three years following, even if not a 13-win team ever again.

The inconsistency of Josh Allen’s passing skills is apparent, which should should put some scare into Bills Mafia, but the game is changing, and quarterbacks with Allen’s chaotic play are finding consistent success.

Plus, Stefon Diggs still remains a top-five receiver with league-best route-running skills (or at least tied with Green Bay’s Davante Adams), and the Bills should improve on defense with the right pieces and offseason practice, seeing as that unit was slightly disappointing this season considering their talent on that side of the ball.

It’s too early to tell what Buffalo’s fate in 2021 will be, but let’s just say they’re well set up for success, but that’s hardly a given, even for younger teams that theoretically should continue improving.

Patrick Mahomes celebrates in 2019 AFC Title Game

NFL Playoff Primer: Are Chiefs destined to repeat?

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

A memorable ride for the Patriots: 20 years of Brady, Belichick are forever ingrained in NFL lore

After two months of speculation regarding Tom Brady’s football future, there it came.

On the morning of a gloomy and grey uncelebrated St. Patrick’s Day in New England, Tom Brady let the world know via social media that he would not be returning to the Patriots. Later that day, reports circulated that Tom Brady would be heading south, in a somewhat LeBron James-like move to Florida to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in hopes of boosting an existing team with young talent to a home Super Bowl in February of 2021.

The news was shocking, especially to Patriots fans, but it serves as a reminder that Brady is always chasing greatness. He’s always on his toes, ready to prove detractors wrong, no matter how silly or uneducated their points, and no matter how much Tom has already accomplished.

It’s likely no one will ever accomplish what Brady and Bill Belichick did in their 20 years together, and before we analyze what’s to come for both men, it’s time to make sense, in a vacuum, of the most historic run in sports history, spanning two decades.

2001-2006: Brady’s beginnings + 21st century’s first NFL dynasty

In college, Brady was a quarterback that battled Drew Henson to retain his starting job at Michigan. Months later in the NFL Scouting Combine, Brady fell down draft boards due to many criticizing his measurable characteristics, lack of quickness, and athletic ability. It appeared most evaluators were not overly impressed that Brady finished his Michigan career by leading the Wolverines to a win over rival Ohio State and an overtime victory over Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

Brady’s final college performances were actually a sign of things to come, in that perhaps his immeasurable intangibles, and a Michael Jordan-like competitiveness, were to become pillars of his game. That was certainly the case earlier in his career. And perhaps those are skills — the intangibles — that he channeled when he told owner Robert Kraft that he would be “the best decision the organization had ever made.”

Those are strong words coming from pick no. 199 in the 2000 NFL Draft. Brady, a sixth-round pick sitting fourth on the depth chart at quarterback, had a movie-like relentlessness, met only by his confidence, that was ironically instilled by relentlessly thinking of his detractors, and wanting to prove them wrong.

Thankfully, he landed at the right spot at the perfect time, with head coach Bill Belichick, and a cast of wily veterans that were ready to embark on a legendary four-year run.

Brady won the backup job in his second year, heading into the 2001 season. Soon, he’d take off.

In that same season, roughy two weeks after 9/11, Brady filled in for an injured Bledsoe that year, leading New England to a 14-3 mark the rest of the way. Brady famously beat the Raiders in the snow in his first playoff game, en route to a Super Bowl 36 victory over the Rams via a game-winning drive that culminated in an 48-yard, walk-off field goal by Adam Vinatieri.

Two years later, Brady and Vinatieri would strike again in a last-minute, game-winning drive in a Super Bowl 38 win over the Panthers. The year after, the Patriots put behind a slew of injuries on defense, with Belichick utilizing slot receiver Troy Brown as the team’s nickel back, just three seasons removed from his 101-yard catch season as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver in 2004. New England would go on to cement itself as the 21st century’s first NFL dynasty, with a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl 39, claiming back-to-back titles, and three championships in four years.

As great as the three early-career Super Bowl victories were, Brady’s most impressive win to that point came in the 2004 AFC Championship Game when New England defeated Pittsburgh, 41-27. It was January 23, 2005 at Heinz Field. Facing rookie Ben Roethlisberger (13-0 as a starter at the time) and the league’s No. 1 defense — and after getting walloped there on Halloween of that season —  Brady eviscerated the mighty Steelers through the air, despite having a 103-degree fever. His stat line — 14 of 21, 207 yards, two touchdowns — doesn’t do his performance justice. Brady twice hit Deion Branch deep, once for a touchdown, in cold weather in the toughest of stadiums, against the toughest of teams.

Belichick explained to the media after the game that no moment or situation seems too big for Brady, and that he was always up for the challenge. “There’s no quarterback I’d rather have,” Belichick said.

Some of Brady’s greatest early-career moments can slip through the cracks as he has so many legendary performances. For instance, sandwiched between his first three Super Bowl victories in four seasons is his first full season as a starter, in which he led New England to a 9-7 mark in 2002. Fresh off a Super Bowl 36 victory, Belichick dealt Drew Bledsoe to division rival Buffalo for a first-round pick, leaving Brady as the team’s franchise quarterback. Amid speculation whether or not the Patriots were a one-hit wonder, the team did succumb to sort of a hangover by missing the playoffs on a three-way tiebreaker atop the division, but Brady tied Brett Favre for the league-lead in touchdown passes (28), proving that his best was yet to come.

In the early dynasty years, the Patriots were without an All-Pro-caliber offensive weapon, save for maybe Troy Brown in 2001. The team relied on a modest, but clutch, basketball-like lineup of different receivers with different traits. David Givens as the physical, possession-like receiver on the outside. Brown as a crafty slot receiver, and Branch as the team’s No. 1 option (from 2003 to 2005) as a receiver with inside and outside versatility, and quickness that New England covets at that position. Then there was the underrated David Patten, who was the team’s best deep threat during those seasons.

In the three early Super Bowl-winning seasons (2001, 2003, 2004) — excluding the 2002 season — Brady threw 35 passes or more just 15 times (4 times in the playoffs) in 55 games (nine in the playoffs). However, the Patriots were 12-3 in those games. This was impressive seeing as this was the backend of an era in which throwing the ball too many times usually spelled a loss, as teams would get desperate and throw for the football in hopes to get back into a game, similar to what goes on now, but pro football in the present day sees that at a larger scale. So it was apparent the Patriots could win by relying heavily on Brady’s right arm, but the team worked best as a balanced unit. Brady was third in the league in pass attempts (601) in 2002, more attempts than the three Super Bowl-winning seasons, but the team missed the playoffs. There was an order with those early teams, but when the moment came, Brady delivered.

To combat any reason for an overly pass-happy attack, the team also liked to rely on a power-running game, with Antowain Smith (2001-2003), and later, Corey Dillon (2004-2006). On defense, Belichick employed versatile looks but shifted from more of a 4-3 scheme from 2001 to 2002, to a unit based on 3-4 principles in 2003 and 2004. Richard Seymour was utilized in the interior as a wrecking ball as a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, the secondary was solid, relying around the likes of Ty Law and Rodney Harrison, and the veteran linebacking core of Teddy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest (EDGE/OLB) and others played a significant role.

From 2001 to 2004, the team’s approach was simple — if the defense played its part, they could count on Brady to make timely throws and lead clutch drives to put the Patriots over the top. On the slight chance that the defense would underwhelm, they’d need Brady to carry the team, and he’d deliver. It was a spot that would become familiar to Brady once more, in his last Super Bowl run in New England in the 2018 season.

Brady stepped up to the plate to compliment the defense in Super Bowl 36. He carried the team amidst a lousy defensive performance in Super Bowl 38, and a more mature, refined Brady grew closer to the quarterback many now proclaim the GOAT, in a 2004 season that finished with a Super Bowl 39 victory.

The Patriots’ quest for a three-peat died in 2005. Although Brady led the NFL in passing yards (4,110 yards), the team got older. One year after New England ranked 22nd in the league in pass attempts, the team ranked second in 2005, relying more on Brady as the defense and running game began to decline. In addition to the team getting older and veterans moving on (Ty Law, David Patten, Roman Phifer, etc.) the Patriots lost both coordinators in Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel the prior offseason. Quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels took over the offense. The Patriots limped to a 10-6 record after a winter run, even winning their home AFC Wild Card matchup against quarterback Byron Leftwitch (Brady’s new offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay) and the Jaguars.

Brady was 10-0 in the postseason before an untimely interception to Champ Bailey led to a 27-13 loss to the Broncos in Denver in their 2005 AFC Divisional matchup.

Already without cornerback Ty Law, who played the 2005 season with the Jets, Belichick began a re-tooling during the 2006 offseason that prompted the departures of kicker Adam Vinatieri (who defected to rival Indianapolis), linebacker/edge rusher Willie McGinest, and wide receiver David Givens.

The first possible slight from Belichick to his quarterback, in Brady’s eyes, may have came in that following 2006 season. With Givens gone, and Brown entering his age-36 season, No. 1 wideout Deion Branch, a clear Brady favorite was conducting a holdout in hopes of a new deal paying him closer to market value at the position. After all, Branch’s rookie deal was ending and he had outperformed the contract. Belichick ultimately traded Branch to the Seahawks for a first-round pick at the beginning of the season, leaving Brady with a ragtag group of afterthoughts at wide receiver (Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, etc.), and a running back tandem of Dillon (in his last season) and 2006 rookie first-round pick Laurence Maroney.

Brady had a few memorable performances, but the passing game sputtered for much of the season. One of the NFL’s best offensive lines and better one-two punches at running back, coupled with Brady’s elevating of his supporting cast, helped New England to a 12-4 record an No. 4 seed in the AFC. But after a Wild Card win over the Jets, and a stunning AFC Divisional win in San Diego, the Patriots blew a 21-3 lead in the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, to Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Brady and Manning had been pitted against each other as the game’s two best quarterbacks since the beginning of the 2004 season, a year in which Manning broke the NFL’s single-season passing touchdown record (49) but lost to Brady in Foxboro, Massachusetts in the postseason for the second straight year. In fact, up until 2005, Brady held a 6-0 record versus Manning, and had three Super Bowl rings to Mannings zero. Additionally, as the two entered that 2006 AFC Championship Game, Brady had a 12-1 postseason mark, and Manning’s was just 5-6. The Brady-Manning debate raged on, but many felt as if Belichick gave Brady the upper hand, and that Manning was the better QB, with the other side arguing that Brady was more clutch, a winner, who elevated the play of a lesser-known offensive cast.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning became the NFL’s all-time quarterback rivalry, with the early-to-mid 2000’s serving as a starting point. (Photo: Sports Illustrated)

Where Belichick opted to prioritize the defense and trenches (O-line, D-line) over offensive playmakers, near the top of the draft, the Colts built a star-studded supporting cast around Manning. When the Colts defeated the Patriots, 38-34, in that 2006 AFC Title Game, Manning heavily relied on four first-round picks as playmakers on offense — running back Joseph Addai, tight end Dallas Clark, and wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. All except Harrison were drafted after Manning had been selected by Indianapolis as the top pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. They supplied Manning with an abundance of offensive talent, which left the team bare bones on defense save for an elite pass-rushing duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

If Manning needed an additional offensive weapon, General Manager Bill Polian and the Colts front office obliged. The team went from Marshall Faulk to Edgerrin James to Addai to Donald Brown at running back during the Manning era. All were first-round picks, and all but Brown had Pro Bowl-level success, with Faulk and James at an even higher All-Pro level. The offensive line was stockpiled with talent, including Tarik Glenn, one of the league’s best left tackles. Quite simply, the Colts were loaded on offense, but shorthanded on defense, an opposite trait of the early-to-mid 2000’s Patriots teams, which relied heavily on Brady and a running game on offense, and for Belichick to utilize top-tier talent mixed with veterans on defense to stifle high-flying offenses such as the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams and the record-breaking Colts under Manning. Belichick had success against those top offensive units, and Brady had some success versus a Colts defense that wasn’t one of the league’s better units.

It was a rivalry that defined the NFL in the 2000’s, but Indianapolis had won the last two meetings in Foxboro since 2005, and won a third straight versus the Patriots in the 2006 playoffs en route to their first (and only) Super Bowl win under Manning. Additionally, while Brady nearly led the Patriots to a fourth Super Bowl win in six years, he had to do so without Branch, or any first-round pick wide receiver on offense. Brady’s most reliable receiver in the 2006 postseason was Jabar Gaffney, picked up in October after being released by his second team that season. While Manning, a two-time NFL MVP, had help on offense, Belichick had spread out talent throughout the roster, but not at wide receiver, and even traded away Brady’s best offensive weapon (Branch) at the start of the season.

After three losses to the Colts in roughly 15 months, it was clear that something had to change. Enter the 2007 offseason.

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2007-2013: Brady’s physical prime, New England’s two transcendent offensive styles and big-game heartbreak

Entering the 2007 season, most outside of New England had come to the conclusion that Manning, with his first Super Bowl title, was a better quarterback than Brady, and that it was Belichick that was the major cog in New England’s first three Super Bowl titles.

Sure, Manning had the much better offensive weapons, but many insisted Belichick was the game’s best coach (he was…and is) and that Brady had a better defense for much of the decade up to that point.

Everything about those notions were true. But the 2006 Colts, a team with a horrendous run defense, saw that unit turn a corner in the 2006 Playoffs, thanks to the return of injured safety Bob Sanders. In fact, Manning had a stat line of three touchdowns to six interceptions during that postseason run, despite winning Super Bowl 41 MVP. It was the defense that played a major role in three of Indianapolis’ four postseason victories.

The Colts’ lightning quick-defense had suddenly improved into an formidable unit in 2007, as they built a young and talented defensive backfield revolved around Sanders, who would win the league’s DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) award in 2007, and a fast front seven that still had Freeney and Mathis terrorizing quarterbacks.

AFC stalwarts such as the Colts and Chargers were turning into talented juggernauts, while the Patriots were left with a team of veterans and a lack of offensive weapons, even at the average level, in terms of pass catchers.

Belichick made it a point to address the wide receiver position that offseason, first signing speedy deep threat Donte’ Stallworth to a six-year contract that was basically a one-year, prove-it deal, and later trading second and seventh round-draft picks to the Dolphins for slot receiver and punt returner Wes Welker and a fourth-round pick to the Raiders for Randy Moss, the best perimeter receiver and deep threat in NFL history.

One of the unanswered questions in the Brady-Manning debate was: How would Brady fare with top-tier talent at the receiver position?

We were about to find out.

Between Brady’s quest to prove he belongs among the statistically elite, and Belichick and the rest of the roster ready to punish opponents after questions about the validity of their success after SpyGate at the season’s start, the 2007 Patriots became a rocket ship built off of detractor’s remarks serving as fuel.

Quite simply, despite their eventual doom at “18-1,” this was the best football team ever assembled.

Although the slot receiver was not a new concept, utilizing the role on a full-time basis was. The Patriots revolutionized the position with Welker, who would lead the NFL in receptions (112) in 2007 and later have seasons of 111, 123, 122 and 118 catches in a Patriots uniform.

With the Patriots striking deep only strategically in earlier years, they began firing downfield to Moss at will. Moss shook off two disappointing seasons with the Raiders to set an NFL single-season record with 23 touchdown receptions, passing Jerry Rice.

Welker and Moss became the best 1-2 punch at the receiver position, and after them, New England employed several complementary weapons. Stallworth served his role as a speedy outside wideout and Gaffney, the only holdover from the previous year at wide receiver, was a fine possession receiver. Then there was Kevin Faulk, a Patriots fixture from 2000 to 2011. New England revolutionized the pass-catching running back, or scat back, like they did the slot receiver position, and Faulk, along with J.R. Redmond, was the first in New England, before the likes of Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis and James White.

Although not at the All-Pro level, first-round picks Laurence Maroney and Ben Watson were fine players at the running back and tight end positions. And New England’s offensive line was a  juggernaut, featuring three All-Pro level blockers.

As for Brady, the answer to how he would fare with elite offensive weaponry became clear. Brady won his first NFL MVP award by the way of 49 of 50 votes (some dimwit voted for Brett Favre) and broke several single-season passing records, including Manning’s touchdown passing record, as Brady threw for a then-NFL record 50 scores.

But most importantly, the Patriots became the first NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season. And the team was actually talented on both sides. The Patriots’ highest-priced free agent that offseason was actually EDGE defender Adalius Thomas, who played as a traditional outside linebacker, 3-4 outside linebacker and defensive end in the Patriots scheme. New England also employed the best 3-4 front possibly ever assembled in All-Pros Ty Warren and Richard Seymour at defensive end, and Vince Wilfork at nose tackle. All three were first-round picks. Additional veterans such as Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Teddy Bruschi and Junior Seau (joined in 2006) also helped, and 2003 draft pick turned top-three NFL cornerback Asante Samuel had become a deadly playmaking machine at defense, to the chagrin of NFL passers. The Patriots had become loaded in just one offseason.

But we know how the season ended. After a Week 17 loss to the Patriots at home, the Giants shocked the world with the help from a helmet catch and ferocious defensive line. From 18-0 to 18-1. The season ended in heartbreak.

According to Ian O’Connor’s book, ‘Belichick,’ it was the coach who took the blame for the loss immediately after the game. As told by O’Connor, via Stallworth, Belichick apparently walked into the locker room after the 17-14, Super Bowl 42 loss and took accountability.

“This was my fault,” Belichick said, according to Stallworth, through O’Connor. “And as he walked out, Donte Stallworth told me, it was like he just faded to black and disappeared. I actually think that’s one of his finest moments as a head coach – that he tried to help get his broken team through that moment by blaming himself,” O’Connor said.

The loss was rough, but Brady had arrived. For years, he was snubbed on best players lists such as Peter King‘s and Pete Prisco‘s, usually finishing at the No. 2 slot behind Manning, at least the past few seasons, despite his superior winning success.

This time, Brady topped both Prisco’s top 100 players list, and King’s top 50 players list in Sports Illustrated. Tom had finally been given respect as the NFL’s best player and quarterback.

The future was bright. Despite losing the likes of Samuel (Eagles) on defense and Stallworth (Browns) on offense, the Patriots retained Moss on a three-year deal and still had Welker, a stout offensive line, and veteran defense. They were the obvious Super Bowl favorites heading into the 2008 season, being led by the game’s best quarterback, who turned just 31 in August of 2008.

Despite two Super Bowl losses to the Giants during the upcoming span, 2007 to 2011 would end up being Brady’s physical peak. His zip on passes of variance was unrivaled at any point throughout his career. Tom won two NFL MVP awards with two completely different offenses (we’ll get to the second offense later).

But the 2008 season came crashing down in Week 1. Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard — who would later be known as the “Patriot Killer” for four such devastating, season-altering tackles that inflicted season-ending injuries on important Patriots — rammed into Brady’s knee, tearing his ACL and ending his season before it really started.

New England missed the playoffs via a top-of-the-AFC East tiebreaker with the Miami Dolphins, but the Patriots went 11-5 under backup quarterback Matt Cassel, who enjoyed a fine season while being thrusted into the starting role.

Although their numbers were slightly down, Moss and Welker had successful seasons with Cassel throwing them the ball. This sparked controversy as many believed this proved, again, that it was Belichick who was the main engine, and Brady merely a cog that could be replaced by the likes of Cassel or others.

That was a silly notion, obviously, but that season did prove Belichick could make due, whatever the circumstance. His ability to adjust as a coach and team manager is second to none, even after losing his most valuable player. The team adapted to become the no. 6 rushing offense in football (142.4 yards per game) behind a four-prong, committee attack at running back, and the defense remained one of the league’s better units.

Still, a team that nearly went 19-0 the season before finished 11-5. The drop-off from Brady to Cassel was a five-win differential in the regular season.

A major counter-question to the silly television segments that suggested that Brady should be traded in favor of Cassel that offseason would be: Would those same Brady detractors feel that way if the Patriots’ five-win drop-off was, say, from 12-4 to 7-9? Additionally, what is to make of Brady’s 50-touchdown season to Cassel’s 21-touchdown performance with Moss, Welker, Gaffney and others the following year?

Ultimately, despite a having a surprisingly successful season without Brady, the Patriots went 3-5 versus teams that finished with a winning record. It appeared the Patriots could somewhat succeed with Belichick and not Brady, and maybe even Brady, and not Belichick. But for New England to achieve the level of success that would see them make reach nine Super Bowls and 13 AFC Championship Games in 18 Brady-led seasons, the Patriots needed both the greatest quarterback (and player) in NFL history, and perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history, and perhaps, sports. The level of success they attained was so wildly absurd, that it makes sense that both are the greatest at what they do, despite many detractors’ need to diminish one part of the tandem by proving them less valuable.

Belichick ended up shipping Cassel and veteran Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs, and Brady returned to the field in 2009, reuniting with Moss and Welker to hopefully return to top contender status.

The team went through a variety of changes, but they made an important draft pick at the end of the 2009 NFL Draft. Seventh-round draft pick Julian Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State, but was selected by the Patriots presumably because of the “Wildcat” fad started by the Dolphins in 2008.

To the Patriots, Edelman was seen as a football player that was a piece not yet used in the offensive puzzle.

Would he be a slot receiver, pass-catching running back, or a Wildcat QB? Belichick loved his versatility, and praised Edelman when he scored his first professional touchdown on a punt return versus the Eagles during the 2009 preseason, even foreshadowing him to Welker as the Lou Gehrig to his Wally Pip, meaning Edelman could be the more-known successor of Welker years later.

As for the regular season, the Patriots began the year 6-2 before a key meeting at 8-0 Indianapolis. It was the 11th meeting between Brady and Manning. The Patriots jumped out to a 31-14 lead behind two scores from Brady to Moss, and one to Edelman, the rookie, for his first career score. But the Colts stormed back to cut the deficit to 34-28 before Belichick made a decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from their own 30-yard line with just over two minutes to play. Brady’s pass was caught by Kevin Faulk just inches short of the first down. The Colts took over on downs and Manning would win the game on a short touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds remaining. Colts 35, Patriots 34, the final score read. Indianapolis moved virtually four games ahead of the Patriots in the AFC standings, instead of New England being just one game back, and with the tiebreaker. The loss changed the course of the season.

The Patriots then dropped two of their next three games and finished 10-6 before being blown out by the Ravens, 33-14, at home in an AFC Wild Card matchup at home in which Brady threw three interceptions.

The team struggled without Welker, who tore his ACL the week prior in a near-meaningless game that ended in a loss to the Texans in Houston. The player who tackled Welker during the play where he was injured? Patriot-killer, Bernard Pollard.

In Welker’s place, the rookie Edelman caught two touchdown passes, but New England was overmatched.

Earlier in the year, NFL Films caught a conversation between Brady and Belichick on the sideline while filming Belichick’s two-part ‘A Football Life’ episode.

A Football Life, Belichick and Brady
NFL Films captured a conversation between Brady and Belichick that showed their frustration with the 2009 team, and that change was to come in the offseason. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

“We just have no mental toughness,” Belichick told Brady about the current state of the team. “We can’t play the game the way we need to play it…I just can’t get this team to play the way we need to play. I just can’t do it. It’s so fucking frustrated…And the tougher it gets, the lest likely we are to do it.”

That conversation came two weeks after the rough loss in Indianapolis, on a Monday night massacre in New Orleans, that saw the eventual Super Bowl 44 champion Saints bludgeon the Patriots, 38-17, with speed and creativity.

While New England went one-and-done in the playoffs for the first time in the Brady-Belichick era, Manning had won his fourth NFL MVP award and led his Colts to Super Bowl 44, where a Manning-thrown pick-six would doom them, and Drew Brees’ Saints would win. The Patriots’ roster was nowhere near the class of those teams.

It was clear, the Patriots were in need of a major overhaul, on both sides of the ball. The run of veterans that helped the defense throughout the 2000’s would be gone entering 2010, save for nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was drafted in 2004.

Seymour was traded that 2010 offseason to the Raiders for a first-round pick. Bruschi and Harrison had retired before the 2009 season. Ty Warren would play his last season as a Patriot in 2009, as he was put on injured reserve before the 2010 season before being released, and 2007 marquee signing, Adalius Thomas, was released after the 2009 season after a year that featured a bumpy relationship with Belichick and a decline in on-field play. The defense was completely shot.

Enter the 2010 offseason, which became the most impressive draft of Belichick’s tenure, to date.

In need of an infusion of young talent on both ends of the ball, the Patriots drafted cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the second and fourth rounds, off-ball, thumper linebacker Brandon Spikes in the second round and picked up a starter over the next few seasons at both boundary cornerback and nickel back in Kyle Arrington, as an undrafted, rookie free agent.

Heading into 2010, Manning and Brees were now considered the best quarterbacks in football by many, with Brady on the outside looking in, with the likes of the up-and-coming Aaron Rodgers. Two years removed from a brutal, season-ending knee injury, Brady was finally feeling healthy, after a subpar 2009 season in which he showed signs of skittishness in the pocket for the first time of his career. What came next, was one of the most memorable seasons of his legendary career.

Brady was otherworldly explosive in 2007, but just as efficient in 2010. ESPN‘s Gene Wojciechowski, one of the most respected NFL columnists of the 2000s, inferred Brady was better in 2010 than he was in 2007 in a column after the Patriots defeated the eventual Super Bowl 45 champion Packers, albeit without Super Bowl 45 MVP Aaron Rogders, 31-27 via a game-winning drive on a frigid December night at Gillette. Brady needed just 43 plays, compared to the Packers’ 80, to seal a victory against an uber-talented defense that featured that season’s Defensive Player of the Year award winner — Brady’s former Michigan teammate, Charles Woodson. Efficient. A smooth offense orchestrated by the coolest of cats at quarterback.

Brady smoothly operated through what easily could have been a rough midseason transition. The Patriots drastically shifted their offense from the season before, relying on two-tight end sets with Gronk as a monstrous, traditional tight end, and Hernandez as one of the most effective offensive swiss army knifes in NFL offensive history, as he played tight end, wide receiver, H-back and even lined up in the backfield. With the offense relying on the tight ends, and Welker (who had an off year recovering from an ACL tear of his own the year before) the team relied less on Moss early in the season, and after Moss vented his frustration to the media about not receiving a contract extension, Belichick shipped the wide receiver back to his initial NFL team, the Vikings.

To replace Moss as the team’s No. 1 boundary receiver, Belichick traded back for Brady’s old friend, Deion Branch, who was still effective, but hardly the player he once was. New England deemphasized the permitter receiver position, and instead relied on Brady’s familiarity with Branch and Welker, and mismatches with Gronk and Hernandez. At running back, former 2006 first-round pick Maroney was shipped to the Broncos before the season, leaving 2008 undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis, “The Lawfirm,” as the Patriots ‘ running back, with Danny Woodhead, another undrafted player, and former New York Jet, to fill the scatback role. Kevin Faulk was lost for the season in Week 2.

Brady was making due with the most awkward of transitions. It was an offensive overhaul, and the franchise quarterback delivered a 36-touchdown, four-interception (a single-season, ratio record) season that would win him his second NFL MVP award, while being the first unanimous choice up to that point.

As for the AFC landscape, the Chargers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005, and longstanding injury issues to Manning’s neck caused the Colts to become a 10-6 shell of themselves that were ousted in the wild card. In fact, Manning had thrown a game-ending interception to James Sanders in a 31-28 loss to Brady and the Patriots earlier in the season. The Patriots’ new main rival would be Rex Ryan and the loudmouth Jets, who voiced their arrogance in a victory at home over New England in 2009, a season that saw the wild card Jets make the 2009 AFC Title Game, where they’d lose in Indianapolis.

Ryan and the Jets beat the Patriots in New York again in 2010, but in a national-televised Monday Night game in December, the Patriots destroyed the Jets in Foxboro, 45-3, taking control of the AFC en route to a 14-2, No. 1 seed season. That was a rare blowout win for Brady’s Patriots versus a Rex Ryan-led defense. A former Ravens defensive coordinator, Ryan was well-versed with the Patriots, and with the offense shifting to more of a middle-of-the-field attack, the Jets were able to adjust to the Patriots’ offensive scheme after their humiliating loss, to shock the Patriots, 28-21 in an AFC Divisional Playoff rematch.

After blitzing 22 times versus Brady in their December loss, the Jets scaled back, and instead clogged the middle of the field with loaded coverages (explained in a brilliant piece by NFL.com’s Elliot Harrison), which befuddled Brady and stifled the Patriots’ unique attack. Ironically, after a season in which the Patriots adjusted their offense perfectly without Moss, New England missed Moss on the perimeter in their disappointing playoff loss.

New England needed to adjust once more. Additionally, they needed help on defense. The Patriots defense played well in transition in 2010, but that was mostly due to their 38 takeaways, which ranked them second-best in the league. This was the beginning of the bend-but-don’t-break defenses the Patriots housed often in the 2010’s, and in 2011, they were about to break.

Thanks to the 2010 NFL draft class drafted by Belichick, the Patriots were back as an NFL power after a two-year hiatus in 2008 and 2009. Of course, Brady was owed some thanks, too. Twice, he adjusted to new personnel, new schemes, and a new offensive play-caller (Josh McDaniels, Bill O’Brien) since Charlie Weis left in 2005. Brady had success with two, trend-setting offenses (2007, 2010), that according to Football Outsidersare the two best offenses of all-time by a wide margin, based off the site’s well-respected DVOA stat. During a nine-game span in 2010, Brady threw for 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

The Patriots didn’t do much to help their defense in the 2011 offseason (save for signing defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who was cut midseason), which was a mess because of the CBA deals, much like this current 2020 offseason, because of that, and mostly the COVID-19 pandemic. They did, however, sign the boisterous Chad Ochocinco to fill Moss’ role as the boundary receiver. Ochocinco, 33, was thought to have at least one more great season in him, and Belichick, who had shown his affinity toward the receiver during a pre-preseason game talk with the former Bengal in 2009, was trying to supply Brady with an adequate boundary receiver after the Patriots’ undoing the prior year without Moss.

Brady began the season with a 509-yard performance versus the Dolphins, and the Patriots fielded a juggernaut offense, but Ochocinco failed to catch on, again leaving the Patriots without a true outside threat at the position. The defense was even more disappointing, as McCourty and Arrington fell victim to sophomore slumps, and New England’s defense was left without top talent besides Wilfork and 2008 first-round pick Jerod Mayo at linebacker.

New England sat tied with the Jets at 5-3, before they defeated Rex Ryan’s bunch in New York, beginning a nine-game winning streak that took them to Super Bowl 46. After ending Tebowmania in the AFC Divisional Round, the team barely skated by a tough Ravens squad, but they failed to escape without trouble. Patriot Killer Bernard Pollard again victimized the Patriots, injuring Gronk, who had been a breakout star in his sophomore campaign, scoring 17 touchdowns in 2011, making the Patriots’ forget about their lack of a true No. 1 wide receiver on the outside.

With Welker having a career year in 2011 (122 catches, 1,569 receiving yards, nine touchdowns), and Hernandez acting as a versatile piece, the Patriots were in position to find just enough, while balancing the running game, to hopefully win a fourth title, but it was the Giants that stifled them again, 21-17, in Super Bowl 46.

Gronkowski was a shell of himself with his ankle injury, and was basically used as a decoy in the game, as he was targeted just three times. The Giants ferocious defensive front, again led by defensive end Justin Tuck (the breakout player of Super Bowl 42) was once agin able to hone in on Brady with just a four-man front of defensive ends (Giants’ ‘NASCAR’ package), and despite Brady completing a Super Bowl-record 16 straight passes (two touchdowns) to give New England a 17-9 lead, it was now two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning who had the better fourth quarter.

Of course, there was the key Welker drop in the fourth quarter. Then there was a failed, but almost-completed Hail Mary pass by Brady. Then, after the loss, Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen’s had an infamous rant after being swarmed by reporters.

In 2012, the Patriots replaced Ochocinco with 31-year-old Brandon Lloyd (911 yards, 12.3 yards per reception, 4 touchdowns in 2012) to some avail. Welker put in another fine season, despite a lingering issue regarding his expiring contract. And as for the twin towers, both Gronkowski and Hernandez missed time with injuries. Gronk scored 11 touchdowns in 11 games before virtually being lost for the season, and Hernandez missed six regular season games.

With Bill O’Brien leaving, Josh McDaniels returned as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2012 (he rejoined the staff during the 2011 postseason) and the Patriots relied on a hurry-up approach on offense, with Steven Ridley at running back.

Brady’s old nemesis, Peyton Manning, who sat out the entire 2011 season before being released by Colts, had spectacularly returned to lead the Broncos to the AFC’s top seed, despite New England beating Denver earlier in the year.

But the Patriots (12-4, No. 2 seed) caught a break when the Ravens upset the Broncos in double overtime, or so they thought. Baltimore exacted revenge over the previous AFC Title Game, by downing the Gronk-less Patriots. Bernard Pollard struck again, injuring Ridley on a fumble-inducing hit in the fourth quarter, and the Ravens won 28-13, eventually winning Super Bowl 47.

New England’s misfortune continued into the 2013 offseason, as the Aaron Hernandez saga unfolded, and complications with Gronk’s forearm and back forced multiple surgeries that saw him miss the beginning of the year. As a cherry on top, Brady’s most trusted target, Welker, left the Patriots for Peyton Manning and the Broncos in free agency.

Not only did Welker leave, but he signed a modest deal of $12 million over two years to be in Denver. The Patriots had reportedly offered Welker a deal worth just $10 million over that same span, but Welker had felt slighted by Belichick’s hard-ball approach.

Brady never voiced his frustration publicly, but several sources close to Brady claim that he was upset over the decision. Additional news came out that inferred Welker had gone back to the Patriots after the Broncos offer, but that New England informed Welker that they had planned to replace him with another free agent. That would be Danny Amendola, who spent time in McDaniels’ system with the St. Louis Rams.

That, coupled with the details of Amendola’s contract (5 years, $31 million) made it clear that Belichick had preferred Amendola, and had little intention of bringing back Welker, Brady’s friend. This ordeal also came roughly a month after Brady had reportedly restructured his contract to give the team more flexibility. ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported that a source that had direct contact with Brady said the quarterback was “bummed out.”

As a Patriot for six years, Welker had more catches over that span than any other NFL player. He was now gone. The shifty, do-it-all, tight end-receiver-running back hybrid Hernandez was in prison facing murder charges. Boundary receiver Brandon Lloyd was not resigned. Additionally, the role of the pass-catching running back was a question mark, as Woodhead left to sign with the Chargers that offseason, and Faulk had retired after the 2011 season.

Moreover, with Gronk out indefinitely, the Patriots began the season expecting to rely on Amendola in the slot and second-round rookie Aaron Dobson as the team’s perimeter wide receiver. But the team also made an under-the-radar move to bring back reserve receiver and punt returner Edelman back on a low-end, one-year deal.

Edelman (105 catches, 1,056 yards, six touchdowns) ended up being Brady’s top target that year as a flanker/slot receiver hybrid.

But with Gronkowski out, and Hernandez, Welker, Lloyd and Woodhead gone, Brady struggled and New England struggled to find their identity on offense.

Gronkowski returned for seven games, boosting the Patriots offense for span, before being lost for another season after suffering a torn ACL and MCL later in the year. In 2013, Brady’s offense produced 30.6 points per game with Gronkowski, but that number fell a bit (27.7 points per game) without him. That doesn’t sound too bad statically, but the truth is, the Patriots were not a formidable offense at that point without Gronk. Without him, they relied on undrafted rookie Matthew Mulligan from Maine at the position, exposing their team’s depth at the position.

Brady had success throwing to Edelman, but Amendola wasn’t as effective as Welker, and the likes of undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and Dobson on the outside wasn’t going to cut it.

With Gronk, the Patriots erased a 24-point deficit to defeat Manning’s Broncos and dropped 55 points in a home win over the Steelers. Without him, they turned to bulky running back LaGarrette Blount, who ran wild (24 carries, 166 yards, four touchdowns) in an AFC Divisional Playoff win over the Colts, but was stymied in New England’s 26-16, AFC title game loss in Denver. Brady and a mostly-hapless group of pass catchers were unable to match Denver’s mighty attack.

Manning, Welker and the Broncos were headed to the Super Bowl. Brady had suffered his worst statistical season since 2006, another year where he had inadequate receivers, and Manning had re-broken the NFL single-season passing touchdowns recored (55) and many other single-season marks, as the 2013 Broncos became the highest-scoring team of all-time.

It’s not as simple as saying Manning had the weapons, and Brady didn’t, but Denver and GM John Elway had clearly tailored their team to Manning, while Brady fit into whatever current Patriots roster that Belichick constructed.

Most would agree that the 2006 and 2013 squads were clearly inadequate, and not the roster that Belichick had envisioned. But many would also agree that the way Belichick did business, and the way Brady fit into the “Patriot Way,” was a major reason why they continued to be a contender. But like the 2007 offseason, Belichick would have to make the team significantly better in 2014.

The pass-happy Broncos ultimately were run over by the new-age, defensively unique Seahawks, 43-8, in Super Bowl 48, but one thing was clear, the current broader picture: Peyton Manning had gained the upper hand on Brady in their see-saw race toward Joe Montana, to become the greatest of all-time at the quarterback position.

A 37-year-old Manning had revived the Broncos with help from Welker, one of Brady’s best friends during his Patriots tenure. He was viewed as the game’s current best passer heading into the 2014 season. And if not him, then it was Rodgers in Green Bay, who had already won a Super Bowl and an NFL MVP award, and was most likely only getting better. After those two, there were some who even put Brees in New Orleans over Brady, for his recent statistical prowess with the Saints. The Brady-Manning debate raged on, but for many covering the NFL nationally, Brady was becoming an afterthought in the “Who’s the best QB?” debates, and he was entering his age-37 season.

Despite the porous offensive cast around him, and a third straight AFC title game appearance, there were questions surrounding Brady by the media. That would only intensify after New England selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois in the second round (no. 62 pick) of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Brady had insisted he had no thoughts of retiring anytime soon, but Belichick clearly was at least thinking about life after Brady. It appeared that time may finally be in focus, even if it were a couple of seasons away.

Heading into 2014, the Patriots were almost 10 full years removed from their last Super Bowl win. Their quarterback was aging. Their pass-catching personnel outside of Edelman, and an oft-injured Gronk, was barren, and their slightly-above-average defense was not good enough to carry the team.

For the Belichick-Brady era, the end was near…or so we thought.

2014-2018: Brady’s prime + Dynasty comes full circle with second wave of titles

Extraordinarily, Brady’s actual prime didn’t begin until his age-37 season.

Brady’s magnum opus on a macro level came from “on to Kansas City” in 2014 through Super Bowl LII at the end of the 2017 season. On a micro level, it was Super Bowl LI. After a lengthy battle with the league over the embarrassing (for the league) DeflateGate scandal, Brady’s four-game suspension was deferred to the 2016 season. The GOAT came back with a vengeance, winning 14 of his next 15 games en route to his most memorable performance — turning a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit versus the Atlanta Falcons into a 34-28 overtime win for the Patriots.

But before all that, the Patriots entered the 2014 season with some uncertainty.

Belichick banked on Gronkowski returning into form, to go along with Edelman, Amendola and the newly-signed Brandon LaFell (outside threat, perimeter) as the team’s wide receivers.

On defense, the Patriots spent money on cornerbacks in former All-Pro Darrelle Revis and the lengthy and muscular Brandon Browner, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound press coverage cornerback who had success with the defending champion Seahawks.

The thinking by Belichick was that he needed a better defensive backfield to combat Manning’s record-setting Broncos offense.

New England began the year with a sloppy 2-1 mark, with both Gronkowski and Revis looking rusty enough to assume their past level of play was only a distant memory.

In Week 4, the Patriots would travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs on a nationally-televised Monday Night game in raucous Arrowhead Stadium.

The Patriots were massacred, 41-14, in a game that would not only change the course of the next five years, but eventually, Brady and Belichick’s legacy. At the time, who would have ever imagined the success that would follow the duo after what looked like the nail-in-the-coffin loss of a great run? I guess, Skip Bayless knew, judging by his ESPN column proclaiming that Brady would “rise like the Phoenix from the ashes” and win Super Bowl 49. But you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who agreed with that take at the time.

Brady had thrown two picks (one pick-six), fumbled twice (losing one) and was eventually benched late for Garoppolo, who came in and produced an impressive touchdown-scoring drive, albeit in garbage time.

As expected, mayhem in the media ensued.

On NFL Network, Donovan McNabb suggested the Patriots would be better off with Garoppolo. Pro Football Focus adamantly declared that “we’ve seen the best of Brady,” and during ESPN’s postgame of the Patriots loss, Trent Dilfer infamously called New England a “weak team” that was no longer a good bunch. (Although, Dilfer later came to bat for New England following the ridiculous DeflateGate scandal later in the season. Keep reading.)

The media asked Belichick during a press conference leading up to the next game about all that went wrong. Almost every one of his responses was an answer of “On to Cincinnati,” which became a slogan throughout the year.

At one point in the presser, someone asked Belichick if the “quarterback position would be evaluated”, to which Belichick deflected the question with a quick laugh infused with disgust for the question even being asked.

It was a moment that spoke volumes. Brady, even at age 37, was still the team’s quarterback, and Belichick had come to his defense in a time of need.

The Patriots adjusted on both offense and defense after that, as Brady had an MVP-level season the rest of the way. Gronkowski shook off the rust from September, and at times looked as dominant as he had ever been throughout his career, that season. After struggling with different coverage concepts earlier in the year, New England switched back to a Belichick favorite scheme in heavy man coverage, allowing Revis to shine, along with Browner, who started playing after serving a four-game suspension.

Other contributing defensive players that would become household names included Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. New England also brought Chung back at safety after his one season with the Eagles, and traded for edge rusher Akeem Ayers at midseason. And then there was undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, the team’s No. 5 cornerback, who would later make a name for himself.

New England shook off a 2-2 start to win their next seven games in a row, which included a thumping of the Broncos in Foxboro, which became the lasting see-saw in the careers of Brady and Manning. Manning would struggle through the rest of 2014 and in his very last season in 2015. He’d look like a shell of himself from there on out, (albeit winning a Super Bowl) while Brady shook off the impending doom of the early part of 2014, to begin a five-season run that would lift him to a never-before-seen stratosphere of quarterbacks, and NFL players.

New England went 12-4, earning the No. 1 seed, and after falling behind by 14 points twice during one AFC Divisional Playoff game versus the rival Ravens, Brady erased both deficits to win the game, 35-31. If the “Tuck Rule” game back in 2001 kicked off the Patriots initial dynasty, it was this game that kicked off the dynasty’s second wave of postseason success.

Baltimore, who along with maybe the Giants, were the only consistently fearless bunch that didn’t give a damn about going into Foxboro. And the Ravens had stuffed any hopes of a New England rushing attack, leaving that aspect of the offense non-existent.

But Brady delivered, throwing the ball 50 times for 367 yards and three scores, erasing both deficits and throwing the game-winning score late to Brandon LaFell. The pass remains of his greatest legacy throws.

Perhaps the most impressive stat for Brady is not his best-of-all-time winning percentage (minimum 100 starts — 219-64, .774) as a starter, but his record in the playoffs when throwing the ball 50-plus times. The high number, usually a sign of a team in trouble, meant a team was often trailing, and in need of their quarterback to bail them out.

Brady’s career record in the playoffs with 50 or more pass attempts is 6-2. All other quarterbacks in NFL playoff history are a combined 3-32 with that same stat. Brady also has the highest winning-percentage in such occasion in the regular season.

This is a ridiculous stat that showcases Brady’s ability when the game is solely in his hands. As expected, teams enter games with a game plan, and any team would love to have balance, with success on the ground to compliment the passing game.

In the 2014 playoff win over the Ravens, any hopes of a rushing attack (that was surely at least in the game plan, somewhat) were dashed early, and Belichick and McDaniels felt comfortable leaving the game solely in Brady’s hands. As he usually did, he delivered.

The Patriots relied on Blount and their rushing attack the next week, as they bullied the Colts, 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game.

And just as New England began to gear their focus toward the defending champion Seahawks in Super Bowl 49, the infamous DeflateGate scandal came about. By Monday morning, it was all everyone wanted to talk about.

Like the SpyGate scandal, people absurdly started questioning the validity of the Patriots success.

Kraft, Belichick and eventually, Brady, all conducted press conferences on the matter. There was some evidence that Brady may have conspired a plan to doctor the balls. But the clear evidence of weather was also at play.

The NFL and NFL PA combined, ended up spending roughly $22 million (roughly $14.7 million for the league itself) on independent investigations, legal fees and more, on the air pressure in a few footballs.

ESPN’s Chris Mortenson was given incorrect information from a source that told him 11 of the Patriots’ 12 footballs were under-inflated by league standards (which was not true), which solidified the running theme of ESPN having it out for the Patriots, which is probably not true, but it’s impossible to completely ignore some of their stances on the Patriots, including a failure to apologize about the initial misinformation from Mortenson’s source. It didn’t help that the NFL, too, failed to correct the information in a pubic statement. They put out nothing, adding to the misleading hysteria over what actually happened.

By all measures, the saga was an embarrassing shit show, to say the least.

Many believed that Belichick shined a light directly on Brady, during the coach’s conference. To be fair, it did seem as if Belichick had no idea what was happening. Many thought Kraft also failed to come to bat for Brady when he allowed the league to dish out the eventual punishment, months later, of a fine, loss of a two draft picks — including the team’s first-round choice in 2016 — without a fight. If SpyGate fell directly on Belichick, DeflateGate would fall on Brady.

The scandal bled into Super Bowl 49, a game between the mighty dynastic Patriots, and the defending-champion Seahawks, whose “Legion-of-Boom” defense was perhaps the best pass-defending unit of all-time. The game was fascinating in that the betting line was dead even, a pick-em, heading into Super Bowl Sunday. It was an even match between the league’s clear two best teams, something that hasn’t always played out.

After an early, back-and-forth effort, Seattle managed to score 17 straight points to take a 24-14 lead. In with that same score, on a 3rd-and-14 for the Patriots with less than 12 minutes remaining, NBC’s Chris Collinsworth brought up the scandal once more, as Brady was attempting the game’s most important throw to that point.

Brady delivered an iconic, first-down strike to Edelman. He ended up leading two consecutive, touchdown-scoring drives to give New England a 28-24, Super Bowl 49 victory, with help from his friend, undrafted rookie, Malcolm Butler.

In the mighty fourth quarter, Brady went 13-for-15, with 124 yards and two passing scores, to erase the 10-point deficit against the best passing defense of all-time.

The win gave him his fourth ring, tying Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, along with his third Super Bowl MVP award, joining Montana.

The game is still, perhaps, the greatest Super Bowl of all-time, and it’s the best Super Bowl representation of Brady, Belichick and the Patriots as a collective unit. Brady eviscerated the NFL’s top defense late, and Belichick’s Jedi mind trick late on Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, caused a hectic atmosphere that may or may not have caused a panic, that resulted in a Patriots victory.

It was the first Super Bowl win for the Patriots in 10 years. Any “they haven’t won since SpyGate/DeflateGate” jokes were officially put to rest.

What was not put to rest, however, was the looming suspension of Brady, who was lucky to be reinstated for the beginning of the 2015 season when judge Richard Berman vacated Brady’s four-game suspension just before the start of the season.

After a 10-0 start to the 2015 season, the Patriots lost three of five to end the year, eventually losing in Denver in the AFC Championship Game, where Brady failed to convert a two-point conversion in the closing seconds, despite some heroic, clutch efforts with Gronk, to get to that point. Despite serving as only a game manager at QB, Manning got the best of Brady in his second-to-last game of his career, and Denver ended up beating Carolina in Super Bowl 50.

To make matters worse, Brady’s four-game suspension was back in play for the beginning of the 2016 season, and this time, he’d serve it.

New England began the year with Garoppolo at quarterback, wining their first two games, but losing Garoppolo to injury in the process. The Patriots split the next two games with rookie, third-stringer Jacoby Brissett at the helm.

With a 3-1 record and a Week 5 contest to be played in Cleveland, Brady returned.

What ensued was a revenge tour de force that saw the Patriots finish the year winning 14 of 15 games under Brady, despite losing Gronkowski to yet another year-ending injury midseason, and despite having a mediocre defense.

New England’s defensive unit did step up later in the year, and ended up allowing the lowest points per game total in the league, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s unit was more of a bend-don’t-break unit.

After a masterpiece performance in the AFC Championship Game win over Pittsburgh, Brady entered Super Bowl 51 with a chance to become the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls, and perhaps more importantly, would get a chance to force Goodell to shake his hand after a Super Bowl victory, the same year he served his suspension.

Everything was set up for a career-defining moment.

The NFC champion Falcons had other plans, racing out to a 28-3 lead via an electric, fast-paced offense that broke the Patriots’ bend-but-don’t break offense in the game’s first three quarters.

It wasn’t just the Falcons offense that was on fire, their fast defense victimized Brady for a pick-six, and their man-coverage game plan forced New England’s pass catchers to beat their defenders. Through three quarters, that wasn’t happening.

But the stars aligned that night, or should I say, Brady happened.

The most memorable single-game comeback in sports history, and biggest comeback in NFL postseason history, happened that night.

The Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit that stood with as late as two minutes remaining in the third quarter, while relying heavily on Brady’s right arm and coverage-dissecting, football mind.

If some of the early-dynasty Super Bowl wins were more of Belichick’s accomplishments, this Super Bowl (and that entire season) would be Brady’s magnum opus. This was his moment.

Brady went 43 of 62 for 466 yards and two passing scores to win his NFL-record fourth Super Bowl MVP award, which came along with his fifth Super Bowl ring.

The win ended any argument over who was now the greatest quarterback of all time, and to many, put Brady over the likes of Jim Brown and Jerry Rice to be crowned the greatest football player of all time.

Brady was now, the GOAT.

In an iconic moment after the game, Brady broke down, surrounded by reporters and photographers. Running back LeGarrette Blount, and then, Belichick, came over to rejoice with him.

A few minutes later, Brady received a handshake from commissioner Goodell, and later, received the Lombardi Trophy.

“We’re bringing this sucker home!” Brady shouted toward the confetti-drowned crowd, while hosting the trophy.

That offseason would be the last period of complete harmony (at least from the media’s standpoint) between Brady and Belichick, which seems hard to believe, seeing as two more consecutive Super Bowl appearances would follow.

After seeing his Patriots receivers struggle to get separation on Atlanta’s man coverage defense in the first half of Super Bowl 51, Belichick realized that Brady needed speed at the position.

In a trade involving multiple assets, Belichick unloaded the Patriots’ first-round pick (No. 32) to the Saints to acquire speedy wideout Brandin Cooks. A first-round pick himself in 2014 for New Orleans, Cooks was a basically a three-prong route-runner (fly, comeback, slant) as opposed to a five-tool receiver with inside and outside versatility.

But Cooks, and the return of Gronkowski, would be all Brady needed to silent detractors again by uncorking an efficient deep passing game in 2017, that Patriots fans hadn’t seen since the Randy Moss-era.

Brady won his third NFL MVP award in 2017, at age 40, but the team had some problems.

First off, Edelman, fresh off one of the most miraculous catches in Super Bowl history, and being Brady’s most trusted target for the past few seasons, was lost with an ACL injury in the preseason.

Secondly, defensive leader and big-game linebacker Dont’a Hightower, would also miss the remainder of the year after an early-season injury.

Thirdly, the Patriots’ bend-but-don’t-break defense would be at its worst form since 2011, when the unit helped cost the team a Super Bowl. With injuries afoot, prime offseason acquisition, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, struggling with zone schemes to start the year, and a lack of a pass rush, the Patriots were left vulnerable to high-flying offenses, particularly ones fielding an Andy Reid-like offense, Like the one coached by Reid himself, in Kansas City, as the Chiefs rampaged the Patriots in New England on Super Bowl-banner-dropping opening night, for a 42-27 win.

As the cherry on top, ESPN‘s Seth Wickersham had released a long-form exposé on the supposed divisiveness between Brady and Belichick, citing Brady’s trainer and friend, Alex Guerrero, as a locker room rift-causing presence irking Belichick, and the presence of Garoppolo, who had played well in filling in for Brady in 2016, as as an annoyance to Tom.

Although slivers of the truth may have been present, everything seemed force, along with zero on-the-record quotes. And again, an ‘ESPN vs Patriots’ stance was taken, either outright, or subliminally, between all that discussed the subject.

Kraft, Belichick and Brady released a joint statement shooting down the report and any of its supposed truths, as did Brady’s agent, Don Yee.

And as an important bit of information pertaining to the January 2018 column published right before the playoffs…backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had already been traded roughly two months earlier before the trade deadline.

Realizing that Brady had fought off any passing-of-the-torch with Garoppolo, and that the Patriots would not have had the cap space to pay the impending free agent and Brady, Belichick shipped the promising young quarterback off to Brady’s favorite childhood team, the San Francisco 49ers, for a second-round pick.

Wickersham’s article stated that Brady had forced Kraft’s hand by insisting he force Belichick to trade Garoppolo, which Wickerham thought that explained the low return value for a promising young passer, and that Belichick wanted Garoppolo to succeed elsewhere, so he sent him to a franchise under good leadership and offensive brain trust.

But the reality is, there was no way the Patriots could pay Garoppolo that offseason, and there was no way they could let go of Brady in the midst of the best four-year run by any quarterback, ever.

ESPN’s Ian O’Connor, one of the great columnists out there, said it right, when he wrote a piece detaining how Brady had survived the Patriot Way. Belichick always rids of players a year too early, rather than a year late, and Garoppolo clearly was his quarterback of the future, but Brady out-performed the planned takeover, and it would be silly to assume Belichick would be angry over that, and the continued winning.

The winning was continuing. The Patriots raced to Super Bowl LII that year after Brady made due without Gronkowski once more (injured in the AFC title game) to defeated the league’s newest top defense, the Jaguars, 24-20, by erasing a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in Foxboro, despite slicing open his hand earlier in the week due to an incident at practice — a botched a handoff to running back Rex Burkhead.

Brady had done it again. New England was heading to it’s second straight Super Bowl, and third and four years, just like their early-2000s run. And just like that run, Brady was attempting to win his third ring in four years against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The game seemed ripe for the taking. Because of an injury to Carson Wentz, Philadelphia was rolling with backup quarterback Nick Foles. But the Eagles were run by head coach Doug Pederson. Pederson, fresh from the Andy Reid-coaching tree, had installed a fast-paced, high-flying offense that incorporate Reid schemes with RPO’s (run-pass-options) that were masterfully conducted by Foles that postseason.

The Eagles were a team feeding off the underdog narrative, led by some such as Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount, who had both been on the Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning team the year before.

The game was a weird contest that got off to a mind-numbingly odd start when starting cornerback Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl 49 hero, was seen crying during the National Anthem.

Supposedly benched by Belichick, Butler would play only a few special teams snaps that game. To this day, no one knows the reason for Belichick’s benching of Butler on a defense that was already a mess of a unit. That would also be Butler’s last game as a Patriot, as he’d leave for the Tennessee Titans that offseason.

Despite 505 yards and three touchdowns by Brady, the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII, 41-33. Many remember Brady’s dropped pass on a trick play, or his fumble late in the fourth quarter on a blind-sided rush by Brandon Graham. But the fact of the matter is, this was Belichick and the defense’s doing.

The Patriots had trailed the Eagles all game, but Brady led New England back to a 33-32 lead in the fourth quarter, before the defense fell one more. The Eagles amassed a total of 538 yards, with New England garnering a Super Bowl-record 613.

The Patriots needed one stop, but the Malcolm Butler-less defense could not provide it.

Tom Brady -- Super Bowl LII
The Patriots lost Super Bowl LII, despite a 505-yard performance from Tom Brady. (Screenshot: Tom vs. Time)

That offseason, reports swirled around regarding a deteriorating relationship between Brady and Belichick.

Belichick tried to trade Gronkowski to the Lions before Brady reportedly stepped in. The near-completed trade was confirmed by Gronk months later.

“Yeah it happened….Brady’s my quarterback, that’s all,” Gronk told reporters. “I wasn’t going anywhere without Brady.”

Brady had also alluded to some discord during the post-Super Bowl episode of his ‘Tom vs Time’ series.

His wife, Gisele gave the most telling statements.

“These last two years have been really challenging for him, in so many ways,” Gisele said. “He tells me ‘I love it so much, and I just want to feel appreciated and have fun.'”

A few months later, in an interview in Los AngelesBrady “pleaded the fifth” when asked a question about whether or not he felt appreciated by the Patriots.

It was clear that there was at least some level of unhappiness from Brady’s standpoint.

As for the team, Belichick sent Cooks to the Rams for a first-round pick, and let Danny Amendola, a trusted Brady target since 2013, walk in free agency to eventually join the rival Dolphins.

Luckily, Gronk stayed put for one final season, and Edelman, recovering from his injury, would return.

But in return from his injury, Edelman tested positive for a banned substance that would land him a four-game suspension. Additionally, Gronk was slow to get going in the regular season, his final.

The Patriots began 2018 with a lowly 1-2 mark in which the offense looked utterly inefficient.

Many in the media were giddy to discuss the end of the Patriots dynasty. Several assumed Brady’s career had reached its end.

Of course, a familiar story played out, even for one final time.

Edelman came back, Brady improved, as did the defense, and New England would win five straight games before suffering another midseason mess, in which they lost two straight to drop to 9-5, including a last-second, ‘Miami Miracle’ loss.

But the Patriots would put that stretch in the rear view mirror, too.

In perhaps the most endearing run of the Patriots dynasty, either because of the finality of the Brady-Belichick era of success, or the F-U attitude displayed, New England put on a clinic in mental toughness, with a shift back to it’s early-dynasty philosophies, with a prime-Brady twist infused.

New England quietly dismantled the Bills and Jets in Weeks 16 and 17 to secure the AFC’s No. 2 seed, then, with many picking the talented Chargers to win in Foxboro, the Patriots dismantled Los Angeles in a home AFC Divisional Playoff win, 41-28, in a game that was never close.

Brady went 34-of-44 for 343 yards, and the Patriots, led by rookie first-round pick Sony Michel, ran for 155 yards as a team, and forced two takeaways on defense.

It was a masterpiece that would serve as an hors d’oeuvre for what was to come.

“I know everyone thinks we suck..and you know..can’t win any games…we’ll see” Brady told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson after the game.

New England would go onto Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the hardest places to play, the Chiefs were fresh off a magical season in which young phenom QB Patrick Mahomes won NFL MVP for his 50-touchdown passing season, for an offense that was simply unstoppable.

Belichick and the Patriots gave Mahomes fits in the first half of a home win over the Cheifs earlier in the year, but after second-half adjustments by Kansas City, New England was lucky to escape with a 43-40 win.

This time they had to win in Kansas City. And they did.

The game is perhaps the last great legacy game for Brady and Belichick. It became perhaps the greatest, or one of the greatest, conference title games in NFL history.

The Patriots slowed down Mahomes and Kansas City again in the first half, limiting his downfield passes with a ferocious pass rush, all while controlling the clock with a dominant running game.

New England led 14-0 at the half in a game that was vintage for the Patriots, before another second-half shootout between Brady and Mahomes took place.

The Patriots scored three touchdowns in the closing four minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, with Brady converting three third-and-long conversions along the way to Edelman (twice) and Gronkowski.

After Burkhead’s game-clinching, two-yard score in overtime, Brady lifted off his helmet, and jumped for joy, into the arms of teammate Kyle Van Noy.

The final score read Patriots 37, Chiefs 31, and New England was heading back to its third straight Super Bowl, and fourth in five years, in what would become the final Super Bowl for both Brady and Belichick together.

In Super Bowl 53, New England reverted back to their defensive ways, completely befuddling the offensively-driven Los Angeles Rams, the same way they halted the Greatest-Show-On-Turf-led St. Louis Rams in New England’s first Super Bowl win in 2002.

Brady struggled for much of the game but he repeatedly found Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards) on timely throws, and on the game-winning drive, Brady took control, completing a beautiful pass to Gronkowski down the seam, in play that would be Gronk’s final NFL catch, and Brady’s last legacy throw.

New England won the game 13-3. Afterward, Brady, Edelman and Belichick exchanged hugs and “I love you’s” amidst a media mob, as an elderly Belichick and grey-bearded Brady celebrated their sixth Super Bowl title together. Brady had become the only player in NFL history to win six rings, and in turn, tied Michael Jordan in a debate that may have lifted him into “greatest team sport athlete of all-time” consideration (I think so).

Like the early-dynasty teams, the Patriots had won this title with a complete unit packed with a solid defense, a tough ground attack, and few bail-out performances from the greatest quarterback of all-time, who now had that distinction.

The Patriots had officially created a second wave of the dynasty. They were the youngest team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl back in 2014. Now, with many of those same players on hand, they had won their third title in five years in that era, with the oldest squad in the NFL.

A year later, many things would change, but during that 2018 season, one thing remained the same — Brady and Belichick were Super Bowl champions, and their history of success would forever be ingrained in NFL lore.

The 2019 season was dissected ad nauseam. New England had the league’s best defense, a distinction that has been the case since the 2018 playoffs, and may continue in 2020, but the offense struggled.

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Patriots’ pass-catching group ranked dead last in total separation.

Despite going 12-4, the offense struggled to get going, and Brady seemed frustrated all year. New England went from a 10-1 start to a 12-5 finish that saw them lose to Mike Vrabel, Logan Ryan and other former Patriots headlining an underdog Titans squad. Tennessee out-muscled New England in the AFC Wild Card win.

Brady’s last throw as a Patriot would be a pick-six to Ryan. His last throw to Edelman was an Edelman drop. Titans 20, Patriots 13, and Brady would join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two months later.

This is not how many envisioned it ending, but if you take a closer look, the final season of success, the year before, was the perfect bookend to the dynasty.

The Patriots accomplished more than any ever dreamt of.

There was a lot of great reporting done by the likes of Seth Wickersham, Jeff Darlington, Adam Schefter, Tom Curran and others.

It’s likely no one hit this whole thing on the head. I still have my quarrels with some of Wickersham’s piece back in January of 2018. At the time, I thought the story was out of nowhere, and was completely overblown, so I owe Seth somewhat of an apology on that front. He’s an excellent reporter who clearly uncovered something.

We won’t know exactly what happened unless Brady and Belichick are willing to share, long after their careers are over.

Personally, it seemed apparent that Brady was irked by the presence of Jimmy Garoppolo, drafted by the Patriots in 2014 as a second-round pick by Belichick, slated to be Brady’s successor.

But it doesn’t appear logical that Belichick was ever frustrated with having to deal Garoppolo, or frustrated with Brady in general.

If I had to guess, the animosity is non-existent, the discord way overblown, and if anyone was frustrated, it was Brady, and only Brady, and not to the extent that most loved to assume.

In a way, this is exactly how it should be for Brady. Believe it or not, this decision is congruent with the rest of his career.

Once again feeding off his doubters, who scoff at Brady’s quest to remain at the top of his game at this age, the 43-year-old sees an opportunity with a talented young offense featuring threats at outside receiver, the slot, and tight end, and an up-and-coming defense that could compliment that. Brady believes he can win a Super Bowl with this team, and it would be unwise to doubt him.

As for Belichick, the mad scientist is likely eyeing a severe re-tooling, rather than a rebuild.

It was the defense that kept the team afloat last season, and that should be the case again in 2020.

Some important pieces — Kyle Van Noy, Duron Harmon — and some complimentary players — Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton — will now be missing from that defense, but New England has already begun tinkering for under-the-radar replacements in nose tackle Beau Allen and do-it-all, swiss army knife Adrian Phillips, who mostly played at safety for the Chargers, but can also play linebacker and nickel back.

This Patriots team can still be very good, with a veteran, top-tier defense, a stout offensive line and a modest offense, perhaps under Jarrett Stidham, a hand-picked fourth-round pick of Belichick’s in last year’s draft.

Or perhaps, the Hoodie could be eying 2021 — a year in which he ironically the Buccaneers (and probably, Brady) will play in Gillette Stadium — as a return to clear contender status. The team’s two most vocal leaders, Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty each just signed two-year deals through that season, and marquee Patriots dynasty member Julian Edelman is under contract until then, as well as the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore.

Furthermore, New England is set to have roughly $110 million in cap space next offseason, according to Over The CapShould the team exhibit some fight in 2020 — and they should, considering their head coach and defense — the Patriots would be well positioned to make major moves to fill their cap with talented players to join the fray to battle the likes of new-age AFC stalwarts such as the Chiefs and Ravens

In a sense, both the Patriots and Brady are set up for some success for the next year or two, even if that seems unfathomable for many predicting the demise of both parties.

As for the Brady-Belichick relationship , I believe both will likely keep things close to their vest in retirement, but if anyone is more likely to give an intimate thought into the breakup and their relationship to the media a decade from now, it’s probably Brady. But by then, any animosity, no matter how slight or perceived, by Tom toward his coach should dissipate. Maybe then, Brady will show admiration similar to what Belichick exemplified in his statement a few weeks ago, when Tom announced his departure.

“Sometimes in life, it takes some time to pass before truly appreciating something or someone, but that has not been the case with Tom,” Belichick stated. “He is a special person and the greatest quarterback of all-time.”

In the end, the Patriots have come full circle in team personnel and philosophy. In between two, mostly defensive-driven Super Bowl wins over the Rams, there were several iterations of the Patriots that revolved heavily on Brady’s right arm, and he delivered. New England should compete in the AFC, no matter who the quarterback is, with their current roster. And Brady’s presence should make this talented Tampa Bay squad an NFC contender. Both Brady and Belichick have something to prove, which should make for a fascinating season watching these two great minds of football. And for that, we’re all still, extremely lucky.

Brady was asked a litany of questions about the Patriots in his introductory press conference call as a Buccaneer. He reiterated his respect and love for Kraft, Belichick, his former teammates, and the Patriot organization, even calling this transition “emotional.”

But that’s as far as he’d go. His overall take was simple, and similar to the mantra both Brady and Belichick have lived by, at least when answering questions with the media.

The last question of the conference call came from The Athletic‘s Jeff Howe, a respected, long-time Patriots beat reporter. Howe asked what would have had to happen for Brady to have remained a Patriot. It was the question that spurred the aforementioned word “emotional” from Brady, when describing his departure from his former teammates. But the first words of his answer captured his overall tone of the call when asked questions about his former team.

“I don’t want to talk about the past because that’s not relevant to what is important in my future and what is going on in this offseason for me,” Brady said.

Well, I’d like to talk about the past, or at least reminisce a bit. Many in the region of New England likely would, too.

Sometime in the next seven to ten years, there will be a ceremony in Canton, Ohio. Both Brady and Belichick will be there. Brady will almost certainly express more emotion regarding his days with the Patriots then, as he looks back, similar to what I’m doing now.

The Brady-Belichick era in New England is finally over. What a memorable ride it was.

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 a 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…

*******

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.

*******

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.

*******

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.

*******

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.

*******

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.

*******

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.

Todd Gurley vs Saints

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

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

There will be no silence of the Rams this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriots are on a mission

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

Enter New England’s 2019 squad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUICK-HITS 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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