Aaron Rodgers vs Rams - 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 12: Are Packers the league’s most complete team?

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In a season where no team has been consistently good, or even consistent, the Green Bay Packers (9-3) are starting to show their teeth as perhaps the NFC’s most complete club.

The Cheeseheads, led by Aaron Rodgers (28 of 45, 307 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) defeated the Los Angeles Rams (7-4), 36-28, in a game that wasn’t as close as its final score, as Green bay looked like a much better squad than the star-studded Rams.

Green Bay led the Rams 36-17 heading into the fourth quarter, and held Los Angeles to 68 rush yards (3.4 yards per carry), forcing three turnovers (including a pick-six of Matthew Stafford), and in several big moments, Rodgers found superstar receiver Davante Adams (eight catches, 104 yards) seemingly with ease, as the Rams’ zone-heavy scheme foolishly did not feature cornerback Jalen Ramsey shadowing Adams throughout the entire game.

The game also shed light on the puzzle of Rodgers’ future. Some said that Rodgers was justified in his offseason frustration over Green Bay’s roster construction. Green Bay lacked a solid pass catcher after Adams, and in the 2020 NFL Draft, they seemingly drafted Rodgers’ eventual replacement in the first round (quarterback Jordan Love) and drafted a bulldozing, old-school running back (A.J. Dillon) in Round 2.

Rodgers insisted the 2020 draft was not the issue, and that it was Green Bay’s overall way of handling many offseasons, that irked him.

“It’s never been about the draft pick,” Rodgers told ESPN‘s Kenny Mayne in his final SportsCenter appearance.

“I love Jordan. I love the coaching staff. I love my teammates. It’s just about a philosophy and maybe forgetting it is about the people that make things go.”

Rodgers eventually agreed to return to the team for this season, and was given a gift in Green Bay’s acquiring of Rodgers’ long-time friend, slot receiver Randall Cobb, via trade.

Many believe Rodgers will attempt to leave Green Bay this offseason. And that may very well be the case. But looking at the lay of the land as it stands, why would he leave?

What type of team does Rodgers want to play for, exactly? A squad like the Rams, top-heavy team, lacking depth and consistency.  Does he want a wheeling-and-dealing squad that constructs its roster only for its quarterback? Or does he want to win a Super Bowl. If the latter still matters to him, then Rodgers must see that the Packers are close.

Together, Rodgers and head coach Matt Lafleur are 35-8 in the last three regular seasons, which is good for best in the NFL. The Packers have also made the NFC title game in the last two seasons. They’ve failed to get past that round, but history shows great teams such as this one sometimes enjoy a “breakthrough” season in the midst of two or three consecutive near-berths to a Super Bowl.

Rodgers, after struggling some in 2019 in LaFleur’s Shanahan-style offense, now has acclimated perfectly, as the team uses a mix of under-center, run-heavy, two-tight end sets, and spread-you-out, passer-friendly looks to compliment Rodgers’ career-long strengths.

Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst has taken the brunt of Rodgers’ frustration via pass-aggressive quotes in the offseason, but the fourth-year general manager has carried the torch of the franchise’s past, relying heavily on the franchise’s scouting department to emphasize the need to build through the draft, focus on internal player progression, and prioritize homegrown players over free agents.

That style has worked for one of the NFL’s best franchises for years and years. Like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay has their own way of doing things. Their stubbornness in their ways caught up with them some during the middle of the last decade, as Rodgers was stuck attempting to elevate lesser-talented teams (think: 2016 season).

But Green Bay has built a solid roster up from the ground, with just the right mix of free agents to help lead the way.

A.J. Dillon vs Rams -- 2021
A.J. Dillon has been a breakout star for the Packers in 2021. He’s the perfect running back for the weather in Green Bay, and the Packers’ rushing scheme. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

A.J. Dillon, in particular, has had a breakout season in Year 2. The Boston College product is a bully-ball rusher who is perhaps in the perfect spot in snowy Wisconsin. He’s the type of January running back that was needed, but many scoffed at the draft pick two years ago.

Rodgers is still making due with a modst-at-best receiving group after Adams, but with the cap room to spread talent throughout the roster, Green Bay at least has Adams, maybe the best receiver in football, as well as a solid offensive line, and now, one of the NFL’s best defenses.

In 2019, Green Bay paid front seven members Za’Darius and Preston Smith, as sell as safety Adrian Amos, to help a defense that needed reinforcements. The moves have paid dividends, with Amos teaming up with homegrown safety Darnell Savage to rival Buffalo (Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer), as perhaps the best safety tandem in the league.

Up front, the Packers play mostly a 3-4 style defense built with tough, bigger players (somewhat like other well run-franchises in the Patriots and Steelers) that relies on a few players such as top-tier nose tackle Kenny Clark to take up bodies and make plays up front, clearing the way for others.

Green Bay is currently seventh in the league in yards per game allowed (321.7) and fifth in points allowed (20.2). They’ve built up a Super Bowl caliber defense, and they aren’t even at full strength as a team at the moment.

Za’Darius Smith has been out since September with a back injury, but should be back soon.

Green Bay is also expecting the return of left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexandler, two former All-Pros who are undoubtedly top-five players at their respective positions, sometime during their home stretch.

Alexander, much like Adams on offense, is a good example of how well Green Bay progresses their players.

To get back to Sunday’s game, the difference between the Packers and Rams was stark.

As great of a head coach and X’s and O’s man Sean McVay is, he’s stumbled as of late, as has his hand-picked quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who fell to 0-17 in his career against teams who entered a contest five games over .500 (via NFL research). It was the fourth loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for Stafford in such a situation.

The Rams have loads of top-end talent. Even Odell Beckham Jr. scored his first touchdown in over a year in the fourth quarter of the Rams’ comeback attempt. But what the Rams don’t have, is a steady roster across the board. Players one to 53, the practice squad, the team history, the scouting and player personnel department, the January, cold-weather homefield advantage.

In Green Bay, Rodgers just may have it all now, or close to it. The way the Packers’ season ends will have much to do with his decision. If Green Bay’s rushing attack is foiled, and Adams is blanketed in the same playoff game, Rodgers will identify that the problem is a lack of offensive weapons, and that may be true. But right now, in a year of mayhem, he has yet another prime shot at a second Super Bowl title with the team he’s played for, for 17 seasons.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 3). Along with the Patriots, they look like the league’s most complete team at the moment. And Aaron Rodgers is now back in the MVP conversation, surely.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) (Last week: 2). They survived Indianapolis behind a turn-back-the-clock performance by Rob Gronkowski (seven catches, 123 yards) and a dominant effort by Leonard Fournette (131 total yards, four touchdowns). Oh, and Tom Brady led his 65th career game-winning drive (including playoffs). Still, they need to get healthier on defense, and find their groove on that side of the ball.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) (Last week: 4). Kyler Murray should return this week. They’re starting to slip under the radar, but they still have the league’s best record.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 5). The Chiefs have improved steadily on offense during their four-game winning streak, and their once-awful defense has allowed just 11.8 points per game during that span. The madness of this season, and in the AFC in particular, left the door open for the Chiefs. It appears they’ve found their way in the room.

5. New England Patriots (8-4) (Last week: 6). This is eerily starting to look like many of the Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams throughout the dynasty. Sunday’s 36-13 win over Tennessee under the cold weather and snow flurries felt like a vintage post-Thanksgiving New England win. Everything is coming together. But their biggest test lies ahead. Their Monday night game in Buffalo next week is perhaps their biggest regular season matchup since 2018.

6. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) (Last week: 1). They’ve lost three straight, and Matthew Stafford (three games in a row with a pick-six) hasn’t played well as of late. They have too much talent to not right the ship. They have good enough players to where suggesting they could make a 2020 Buccaneers-like run is not out of the question.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-4) (Last week: 8). One of the bigger AFC East regular season games in recent memory awaits them on Monday Night Football next week. Patriots at Bills. Can Buffalo limit turnovers, stay balanced on offense, and play good enough defense to win? It should be a great game.

8. Baltimore Ravens (8-3) (Last week: 9). They really haven’t looked consistently good all season, but they’re the AFC’s No. 1 seed at the moment anyway. That’s probably a good sign. They’re too well-run of an organization not to tighten things up here soon.

9. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 7). When healthy, the Titans are a Super Bowl contender. Missing their three best offensive weapons in New England (Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones), Mike Vrabel’s bunch held tough, before three turnovers ruined their upset chances. Still, they ran for 270 yards versus one of the team’s stingiest defenses. Their goal now is to get healthy for the playoffs. They have the mental toughness and coaching to surprise some people then.

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (Last week: 10). They have the NFC East pseudo wrapped-up, but that doesn’t excuse their diminishing play as of late. Are they a Super Bowl contender, or will they just be happy to be ousted easily in the NFC Divisional round?

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 11). Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns in the first half as the Colts looked primed for a major home upset over the defending champs, before the wheels came off. He lost a fumble and threw a pick in consecutive drives starting with Indy leading 24-14 and driving in Tampa territory. This is a built-for-January team, but often times, they are being held back by their QB. But sometimes, they are elevated by Wentz and his talent. They need more consistency from their quarterback.

12. San Francisco 49ers (6-5) (Last week: 12). Here come the 49ers. They’re getting much better (albeit, still Jekyll-and-Hyde) play out of Jimmy Garoppolo as of late, and receiver-running back Deebo Samuel has probably entered the OPOY discussion with Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor for what he’s done as of recent.

13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) (Last week: NR). It’s hard to get a read on them. It seems as if they are good. That’s two big wins in a row for Joe Burrow and the gang. Joe Mixon (12 touchdowns in last eight games) has been a great compliment to their passing game as of late.

14. Minnesota Vikings (5-6) (last week: 15). They’re the only team in the league to lead each game they’ve played this year by seven points or more, yet they are 5-6. They’re snake-bitten, but the state of the NFC, and their remaining schedule (Lions, Bears (twice)) gives them a good shot at a wild card spot. This is a bad, good team. They have talent.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) (Last week: NR). I’m not sure they have what it takes to even make the playoffs, but when he is on, Derek Carr is one of the best passers in the league. That was a big overtime win in Dallas, for the most-watched regular season NFL game in league history.

16. Cleveland Browns (6-6) (Last week: 16). They’ve been horrid on offense as of late, but they still have the defense and potential in the running game for me to feel good about putting them above the teams below. Can they right the ship?

Next Up: Denver, L.A. Chargers, New Orleans, Miami, Pittsburgh

Mac Jones vs Browns -- 2021

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 10: Here come the Patriots, Chiefs + what’s wrong with the Bucs?

This seasons continues to be an “up-for-grabs” campaign, with every team in the league now sporting two losses, and the AFC continuing to be a “who-wants-it?” affair, unless you think the Titans (7-0 vs 2020 playoff teams) sans Derrick Henry will not lose again this year.

As much of the league continues to folly through fall, there are a few teams that seem to be moving their way through the cluster, or at least showing signs of that, with Thanksgiving approaching.

We have two breakout performances to tackle in Week 10 before getting to ‘The Better Half’ where we have a dissection of issues plaguing the defending Super Bowl champs and explain why Cam Newton’s return is so important to the Panthers. So let’s get right to it.

QUICK-HITS

The 2021 Patriots look more like an alternate version of the 2001 Patriots each week. And now, they are clearly molding into an AFC contender. Bill Belchick’s record-breaking, offseason spending spree is starting to pay off. So is his 2021 draft class, led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. I’m not ready to declare him the obvious-best-in-his-class passer of this past spring’s barrage, but it seems pretty clear that the Patriots have the right guy in Jones, who is in the right place, and taking advantage of New England’s world-class internal teaching and mastery of the sport.

I’ve long said that no one will ever be Tom Brady from 2007 to 2017 (and maybe in the back half of 2020 with Tampa Bay). That’s the bread and butter of his career, a cyborg-level, decade-long run of dominance. But before Brady became the GOAT, he was still a special, yet-different type of quarterback. From 2001 to 2006 (and again in 2018) Brady led more of a running-game-centric, heavy-fullback usage, play-action passing offense, and he rose to the occasion as a gunslinger in certain moments (Super Bowl 38, 2004 AFC title game at PIT, 2018 AFC title game at KC) to help lead the Pats to four Super Bowls.

Mac Jones can absolutely be the QB, and leading man of a Super Bowl team in his early years. He’s already shown shades of Brady as a smart, accurate passer with great feel and ability in the pocket.

Jones almost certainly won’t win six Super Bowl wins (although, you never know?), seeing as even those signature early-career Brady moments were all-time special performances from a quarterback that was now obviously going to improve at an exponential pace. Jones, or any QB, won’t ever match that, or even come close, probably.

But even at the risk of being over-hyperbolic, there really is some young Brady in Jones’ play. Sunday’s 45-7 Patriots drubbing over the Browns was Mac’s best outing: 19-for-23, 198 yards, three touchdowns, six-of-seven on third down, 158.3 passer rating (perfect) on throws 10+ yards downfield (PFF). 

Mac’s touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne was the best throw of his young NFL career.

Among the other reasons for the Patriots’ recent success:

— Belichick’s rookie draft class, including Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore (an interior pass-rushing force who is first in hurries and second in QB pressures among rookies) and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (an athletic bruiser/ball-carrier vision aficionado combo who ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns) is already paying off. Other draftees and finds such as safety/linebacker Kyle Dugger and slot/nickel DB Myles Bryant (undrafted) from the 2020 class are improving at warp speed.

— The shift toward a more “beefy” 3-4 defense with Carl Davis moving into early-down nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux playing 3-4 defensive end, with Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley (who has been awesome in ’21) at inside linebacker, and Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy as stand-up edge defenders, has helped turn New England into a tougher run-defending unit. In the passing game, Barmore, and of course, Judon, who is playing at an All-Pro level, are giving the Patriots a potential all-time combo (for them) at rushing opposing quarterbacks.

— The emergence of key offensive additions in tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Kendrick Bourney, as well as the improvement of an offensive line that now has a few, solid identifiable combinations for which the Patriots can work with, with monstrous tackle Trent Brown back into the fold. Brown had a 91.3 PFF grade in 25 run-blocking snaps in his return on Sunday.

— The omnipresent team camaraderie amongst the players, which has been a staple of the Patriots’ success under Belichick. Did you see the whole team mob Jakobi Meyers in the end zone after his first career touchdown?

Kansas City Chiefs The Chiefs are back, sort of. I guess this depends on your opinion of the Las Vegas Raiders, who once looked like an AFC upstart with high-level offensive efficiency before the ‘Jon Gruden’ mess, and now have scored 28 total points in two weeks versus the Giants and defensively-challenged Chiefs. But let’s give Kansas City some credit here. They’ve buttoned up some on defense (Melvin Ingram has been a big addition) and in turn, Patrick Mahomes and company finally broke out of a month-plus long slump on offense, as the former league and Super Bowl MVP award winner threw for 406 yards and five touchdowns on 35-of-50 passing. It was an absolute masterpiece of a performance, an “old-school” (haha) or vintage level-dealing by Mahomes.

The most important statline was ‘0,’ which came in the turnover department. Lately, Mahomes had been overly eager to leave the pocket, push the ball downfield, and was pressing, overall, to make up for a lack of a running game and terrible defense. But he took his time, taking what the (albeit bad) Raiders defense gave him, and taking shots when necessary. The Chiefs play the Cowboys at home this Sunday in the marquee late afternoon slot, so we’ll know more then. But they certainly looked great on Sunday.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tennessee Titans (8-2) (Last week: 1). They held on versus a tough Saints team to move to 8-2. They’re on a league-high six-game winning streak, and have beaten five 2020 playoff teams in a row (7-0 versus ’20 postseason participants overall), and that’s without Derrick Henry and Julio Jones recently.

2. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 6). Between the safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and cornerback Jaire Alexander, the Packers may have the best secondary in the NFL. They have a great defense in general. Aaron Rodgers has a solid shot at a second Super Bowl this season. He’s had a few.

3. Dallas Cowboys (7-2) (Last week: 8). If we throw away their hideous, unexplainable home loss to the Broncos last week (every team seems to have two or more inexcusable losses this season), they’re as close to being a consistent force as any team this season.

4. Buffalo Bills (6-3) (Last week: 7). They’ve had a weird season. At times, they’ve just looked disinterested, but that was a big W versus the Jets, forcing four Mike White interceptions. Buffalo’s offense has cooled down some, but the potential is always there with Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and company. It’s the Bills’ league-best defense picking up the slack that makes this team a top-flight Super Bowl contender.

5. Los Angeles Rams (7-3) (Last week: 4). We know about their superstar talent, but losing Robert Woods is tragic, and this team still has some depth and focus issues. Can this NBA superteam-like beast win a Super Bowl? “There’s a difference between talent collecting and team building,” ESPN‘s Louis Riddick said during the MNF broadcast.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 2). Anyone looking to identify what’s wrong with the Buccaneers should start with injuries. Brady’s reliable weapons (Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski) are on the sidelines, as well as basically the entire starting defensive backfield. If they can get healthy, they surely can go on another run.

7. Arizona Cardinals (8-2) (Last week: 3). Injuries are starting to ruin what could have been a run at the NFC’s No. 1 seed for them. They have to avoid another late-season slide like last year. They need Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back on the field.

8. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 5). I gave them excuses throughout the year for comeback wins in sloppy performances, but maybe they’re just good, and not great? Lamar Jackson is great. He’s better than great, and that may be good enough in the AFC, but not if they play the way they did versus the Dolphins last Thursday. Yikes.

9. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 10). Let’s see how they do versus the Super Bowl-contending Cowboys before we emphatically say “they’re back!” But it certainly does seem like they’ll win the AFC West, at least.

10. New England Patriots (6-4) (Last week: 12). After their Thursday nighter in Atlanta in two days, they’ll play the AFC’s top two teams (vs Titans, at Bills on MNF).

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1) (Last week: 11). They picked up a win and a tie over lesser NFC North opponents (Bears, Lions) while at home in the past week-plus. But other AFC peers fighting for playoff spots have done worse, recently.

12. New Orleans Saints (5-4) (Last week: 13). Even in a loss, the Saints showed why they were complete football team in Tennessee. Trevor Siemian is not terrible, but he’s not good enough to lift a Saints team that probably could be playing an opponent tough on the road in a NFC Divisional matchup in January. They’re handicapped right now.

13. Indianapolis Colts (5-5) (Last week: NR). Despite Carson Wentz, here come the Colts. They field one of the league’s best rosters, and it’s starting to show.

14. Cleveland Browns (5-5) (Last week: 13). Baker Mayfield may not be the long-term answer for this well-built, talented football team. They should be better.

15. San Francisco 49ers (4-5) (Last week: NR). They have the talent to play like they did versus the Rams every week. Although, that is their fifth win in a row versus Sean McVay’s bunch, so maybe they just own that matchup? Either way, they are right back in the thick of the NFC wild card race.

16. Carolina Panthers (5-5) (Last week: NR). When the entire team has hope on offense (welcome back Cam Newton!), they are playoff-worthy in the NFC, because their defense is damn good. That was evident in Arizona on Sunday. Cam should be the starter going forward. What an awesomely surreal reunion.

Next Up: Cincinnati, Minnesota, L.A. Chargers, Las Vegas, Seattle 

P.J. Williams pick-six of Tom Brady

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 8: Saints shock Brady, Bucs + the crazy AFC

This has already been a weird season. On Halloween night, things got crazier, as the league tightened even further in Week 8 (especially in the standings), forcing us prognosticators to have more questions, and less answers when it comes to predicting how things will go in January and February.

So, let’s take it to Quick-Hits, and Cover 2.

QUICK-HITS 

Saints stun Bucs

The Saints forced three Tom Brady turnovers, including a late, game-sealing pick-six by PJ Williams, and the Saints stunned the Buccaneers in New Orleans, despite losing Jameis Winston to a reported knee/ACL injury that could be season-ending. The crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was rockin’ the entire game, and the Saints’ defense was flying around the field with aggressiveness. When Winston went down, and New Orleans kept things simple for Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Sean Payton has been one of the four or five best head coaches in football for over 15 years now, yet doesn’t seem to get as much credit as he should. He was phenomenal on Sunday. The Saints’ 23-7 lead evaporated at one point, and Tampa bay took a 27-26 lead with just over five minutes to play. But the Saints calmly drove down the field and re-took the lead, even though they had a questionable managing of the clock (they gave Brady too much time). The Saints definitely look like a NFC wild card team, at least, but they probably aren’t catching Tampa Bay without a starting quarterback. Taysom Hill will return to the Saints soon, so you can expect them to use their packages with him at quarterback. If they can get receiver Michael Thomas back, that would make things even easier on Siemian, if he is indeed the starter for the rest of the season. It’s worth wondering if New Orleans would consider Cam Newton? He knows the division well, can run the same packages and plays that Hill runs, and is experienced enough to manage a game for a good team. It’s worth looking into.

American Football Conference logo.svg  A crowded AFC

As more weeks of football go by, the AFC seems like even more of a circus. How many good teams are there in the conference? Will multiple single-digit win teams (9-8, etc.) make the playoffs? Will the Chiefs (3-4) turn things around? Will the Bills (5-2), Titans (6-2) or Ravens (5-2) take advantage of the murkiness, and pseudo-lock up the conference’s top seed shortly after Thanksgiving by upping its play and going on a string of victories?

The conference truly is a mess, but it’s an exciting mess with tons of young, fresh quarterback talent (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Mac Jones, etc.). Still, all three of the quarterbacks I just named either struggled mightily, suffered an upset loss, or both, on Sunday. With backup quarterback Mike White starting (White was incredible on Sunday, and deserves his due), the Jets (2-6) erased an 11-point deficit late to defeat the Bengals (5-3). The Steelers (4-3) defeated the Browns (4-4), 15-10, in Cleveland, and that, coupled with the Patriots’ (4-4) win over the Chargers (4-3) in LA, and a Broncos (4-4) victory over Washington, make it impossible to predict wild card teams at the moment.

What we do know, is that the Bills and Titans, who started off slow on Sunday, are the conference’s two best teams at the moment, with the Ravens observing, the Chiefs still dormant, and the Raiders (5-2) as a surprise team that now many are talking about, even with the Jon Gruden mess. That’s about all we know, right now, which means we know just about nothing (give me the Bills to make the Super Bowl if I had to guess today).

National Football League logo.svg All hail backup QBs!

A quick note here — give it up for the backup quarterbacks on Sunday. Jets QB Mike White, Saints QB Trevor Siemian and Cowboys QB Cooper Rush all came through for HUGE victories for their respective teams on Sunday. White was the best of the bunch, full game-wise. But all three came through in the clutch for game-winning drives, with White and Rush (former 2019 Cowboys training camp teammates), throwing for game-winning scores late. You couldn’t help but feel great for Rush and his family after seeing his family celebrate in the stands after his game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Awesome stuff. This was just another example of “Any Given Sunday.”

COVER 2

 SAINTS 36, BUCCANEERS 27

We rightfully gave the Saints’ angle of this victory top billing above. They earned the victory. Still, right from the start it seemed like an off game for Tom Brady. It was the kind of game he’d have from time to time in New England. Famous Boston sports guy Bill Simmons would call these “bad body language” games. Still, Brady fights through these for victories once in awhile. Down 23-7 in the third quarter, Brady rallied the Bucs to a 27-26 lead with five-ish minutes left in the fourth period after a beautiful 50-yard touchdown heave to Cyril Grayson (his first career score) albeit on a blown Saints coverage. Brady (28-of-40, 375 yards, four touchdowns) ended up having a good game on paper, volume-wise, but New Orleans forced three turnovers, including the late pick-six, and sacked Brady three times. This Saints defense has given Brady a rough go this past year and a half. I’ll have to look at the All-22, but it seemed like the Saints played a ton of man coverage. In Cover 1 looks, New Orleans often employed a “robber” in coverage that sits in the middle of the field (think: yellow zone in Madden video games) to cut off crossers (same thing they utilized on the game-sealing interception touchdown). With Antonio Brown not active and Rob Gronkowski knocked out of the game early, Brady had less man coverage-beating pass catchers on the field, and New Orleans played the perfect scheme. The Saints flew around the field aggressively. Only Chris Godwin (eight catches, 140 yards, touchdown) seemed to beat Saints defenders often. After P.J. Williams’ pick-six, the game and moment reminded me of a couple things.

The Bucs’ surprising Halloween loss reminded me of the Steelers’ 34-20 victory over the defending-champion Patriots on Halloween in 2004. Rookie Ben Roethlisberger helped end New England’s still-NFL record 21 straight wins (including playoffs) and with a few key players out (running back Corey Dillon inactive, cornerback Ty Law left with a season-ending injury, etc.) Brady struggled versus an aggressive Pittsburgh defense, which victimized Brady for a pick-six in that game as well. Good news for Brady’s bunch, the Pats avenged the loss in the AFC title game that year, and went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls, something Tampa is striving for. And also after Williams’ pick-six on Sunday, Brady taking off his helmet and walking off the field reminded me of his late interception in the famous 2006 AFC Championship Game, where Brady threw a late pick to Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, which sealed  a comeback win for Peyton Manning. This is all to say that even the most clutch quarterback the league has ever seen sometimes doesn’t come through, just as Michael Jordan missed game-winning shot attempts. This was a big win for New Orleans, and Tampa has some problems that could prevent them from winning another Super Bowl, but still, give me the Bucs to win the NFC South. They’ll be OK.

PATRIOTS 27, CHARGERS 24

New England’s virtual “home” win in Los Angeles (did you see all those Patriots fans?!) was huge for their playoff aspirations, but the Patriots still managed to make the win not feel as good as it should have. They struggled mightily in the red zone, and in Chargers territory in general. They’re still making killer, bonehead mistakes (Kendrick Bourne fumble) and committing back-breaking penalties (a string of holding calls that killed two drives in Chargers’ territory), and the offensive line, which held up OK in pass blocking, but could have been better, is still so-so.

Mac Jones began the game looking sharp, which included his deep heave to Nelson Agholor (45 yards), but then he went through a 2-for-13 stretch that included seven overthrows. He was jumpy/skittish for much of the game, and panicked too often, getting rid of the ball too early and missing his mark on make-able throws. Tis the journey of a rookie quarterback, I suppose.

New England did have success running the football, and they played surprisingly well in pass coverage. Former Charger Adrian Phillips was the player of the game, picking off Chargers QB Justin Herbert twice, including a go-ahead, eventual game-winning pick-six in the fourth-quarter. Matt Judon and rookie Christian Barmore each also sacked Herbert, and just to twist the knife, it was former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry sealing the game by recovering Los Angeles’ late onside kick. New England did play well enough to win, big picture, but they were lucky to play a team of similar fashion, that can’t get out of its own way, even if they are talented (which the Patriots indeed, are).

Basically, the Patriots had a solid game plan that helped key their victory. They ran the ball hard and seemingly played a ton of Cover 2/zone coverage that flummoxed Herbert, according to the QB. It was a classic “Bill Belichick” victory. It was the type of win that people act like they never happened in the Tom Brady era now that it’s over. They happen. But still, New England needed an atrocious performance by the Chargers (Herbert, special teams, penalties, etc.) to win. In a sense, both of these teams look like the Phillip Rivers-era Chargers right now. But it’s the Patriots with the important tiebreaker that may come in handy in January. That’s huge. New England can improve, clean up their act (will they ever?) and use this as a building block.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Los Angeles Rams (7-1) (Last week: 3). Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp is simply unstoppable. Rams host the Titans next week in a huge Super Bowl 34 rematch.

2. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 4). Carson Wentz’ blunder helped fuel another Titans comeback win. Still, it’s a good sign Tennessee is winning these kinds of games. They go to Los Angeles next week. Can they take down the Rams? That’s a huge game. (Updated editor’s note: Titans could be without Derrick Henry for the rest of the season due to a foot injury.)

3. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 5). The Dolphins predictably played the Bills tough in Buffalo, but Josh Allen and company put the pedal to the metal late.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 1). They have their bye week to rest up and to get healthier. They’ll bounce back.

5. Dallas Cowboys (6-1) (Last week: 7). This Dallas team is having a special season. They do seem a bit “destined,” but they’ve had no luck in the playoffs since their ’90s dynasty years.

6. Green Bay Packers (7-1) (Last week: 6). Big win in Arizona. They should be able to fight for the NFC’s important No. 1 seed, all the way down to the wire.

7. Arizona Cardinals (7-1) (Last week: 2). They had been toying with defeat for awhile. They finally got burned.

8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 9). The Ravens move up here during their bye week. They were given a gift this weekend when the Bengals were upset by the Jets.

9. New Orleans Saints (5-2) (Last week: 13). Huge win, but what will they do at quarterback? Still, they should be a wild card team, and if they are, Sean Payton should be in the mix for Coach of the Year.

10. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) (Last week: 12). The Raiders may have had the best week of any AFC team by not playing.

11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) (Last week: 8). Most AFC teams have a bad loss or two this year. The Jets beat the Titans a few weeks ago. So we’ll ease up some on the Bengals, but up 31-20 late against a team like this, starting their backup QB, you can’t lose in that fashion (Joe Burrow late INT). The Bengals are no Super Bowl contender. We can settle down now.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 15). Here come the Steelers. They can win a ton of games with their stingy defense and rookie back Najee Harris carrying the offense.

13. Cleveland Browns (4-4) (Last week: 11). Baker Mayfield is banged up and not playing well. The Browns should be a playoff team, but now they are in trouble.

14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) (Last week: 14). The AFC is such a mess that the Chiefs have ample opportunity to make a run in the conference.

15. New England Patriots (4-4) (Last week: NR). The Patriots are 3-0 on the road, and were in position to beat the Dolphins, Cowboys and defending-champion, Brady-led Bucs at home this season. They’re a solid team that needs to clean up their act.

16. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) (Last week: 10). The Chargers are talented, but are they actually any good?

Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina

Tom Brady -- The Return

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 4: Three leftover thoughts on Brady-Belichick, Mac Jones & Bucs-Pats

An hour or two after an emotional game that bookended a taxing, emotional week, Tom Brady summed up what we all expected was the case for him.

“I’m tired” the seven-time Super Bowl champion, and former Patriot, told NBC Sports‘ Peter King.

“I’m really tired. For a regular-season game, that was pretty intense…God is it hard to come in here and win a football game.”

The defending champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1), had withstood a gutsy (albeit erratic) performance from the New England Patriots (1-3), a team once known for their Super Bowl stardom, now rebuilding, and searching for a better identity.

The final score — Bucs 19, Pats 17.

Here are three takeaways from the conclusion of perhaps the most anticipated regular season game in NFL history:

The embrace between Tom Brady and the Patriots’ fans and the organization went as well as it could have. From the outpouring of love from fans leading up to the game, pre-game, while Brady broke the all-time passing yards mark (with previous record-holder Drew Brees in attendance) and after the game, to Brady’s embrace with former teammates, Josh McDaniels (before and after the game), Robert Kraft, and yes, even Bill Belichick, for a 23-minute conversation in the Tampa locker room, following the game. Everything went smoothly. It was a great moment.

“Very emotional week,” Brady said to the press afterward. “These guys are like my brothers.”

Brady did his best to remain poised throughout the contest. Overall, he made great decisions and floated some gorgeous passes later in the game as he settled into a contest surrounded by hoopla. But it was obvious from the start, Brady was emotional, and the overall tone and weirdness of the game was omnipresent throughout the battle.

But for all the talk over what transpired over the past few years, it appears Patriots fans can rest easy, that Tom still appreciates his time with New England, forever his football home.

“I’ll be part of this community for a long time…When it’s all said and done, and I retire, you know, I’ll be around, and they’ll get a chance to see more of me” Brady told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya after the game.

Prior to the game, Robert Kraft floated the idea of Brady returning post-career for what would be a fitting ceremony that should, and in all likelihood will happen.

In the end, I hope and believe he’ll come back here and we’ll give him his red jacket, and he’ll retire a Patriot,” Kraft told Willie McGinest and Kay Adams in an NFL Network interview prior to the game. 

Brady somewhat deflected the notion after the game, seemingly out of respect for the Bucs’ organization, their fan base, and his current obligation to focus in on his current team.

“Are you offering me a one-day contract or did he offer me that?,” Brady said to the media, jokingly, when asked about the scenario after the game.

“He didn’t offer me that, so…I still got some time left with the Bucs, and like I said, really enjoying that. We got a lot to accomplish this year. It’s a tough challenging year. It’s a marathon of a season. It’s only four games in. There is a lot football to be played. It feels good to win on the road, so happy we did that.”

Still, all night, it was clear that Brady is still emotionally invested in the Patriots organization and the New England fans, and that aspect of ‘The Return’ was perfectly executed by all involved. Bravo.

In the matchup of Brady vs Belichick, the Patriots coach devised a perfectly-schemed game plan versus the Buccaneers’ offense, that was executed well enough for the Patriots to win. I’ll look at the All-22 film to produce my first defensive film review piece of the season for Patriots Wire, if the film is out in time this week, so look out for that, since we’ll know more then, but it appeared New England stuck with pretty clear man-coverage assignments (J.C. Jackson on Mike Evans, Jalen Mills and Chris Godwin, Jonathan Jones and Antonio Brown) with a mixture of middle-of-the-field zone coverage in the deep, intermediate and shallow parts of the field, via safeties, linebackers and on-the-line rushers dropping back into coverage. On clear passing downs, Belichick was able to mask his looks with several “amoeba” formations with most rushers standing in front of the Bucs’ O-line, moving around pre-snap to disguise who was rushing, and who was dropping back into coverage.

Matthew Judon (one sack, two QB hits, four hurries, four run stuffs, two tackles for loss), the only big-ticket 2021 free-agent signing consistently producing for Belichick, was particularly effective, bulldozing past members of Tampa’s stout offensive line at times, while also getting to Brady with his speed and athleticism at other times, and doing his best on the edge in run defense. Jalen Mills was particularly stout on Godwin (three catches, 55 yards) and the Patriots’ zone brackets in general looked like they did an awesome job of cutting off Tampa’s in-breaking routes in the intermediate part of the field.

The Patriots played a ton of Big Nickel and Big Dime looks with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger each playing pretty well.

In all, Brady’s stat line (22-of-43, 269 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt, 55.3 Total QBR) is exactly what you want if you’re the Patriots. Without Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate had an ugly, key drop, and Antonio Brown couldn’t hang on to a beautiful Brady long-ball for a go-ahead touchdown late, but really, the Patriots defense played well enough to win this game.

This New England defense is a top-tier unit in the league, defensively, and they may have Stephon Gilmore returning soon.

Mac Jones almost had his moment. In a weird, old-school-feeling Giants-Patriots, Eli Manning-Brady era-looking contest, the Patriots were in position to win, but just couldn’t pull it off. Alas, two turnovers, some sloppy play, more letdowns in got-to-have-it-moments (an all too familiar part of the Patriots identity since late 2019) included a failed attempt to score a touchdown to take a 21-16 lead while inside the 10-yard-line late in the fourth quarter, instead settling for a field goal, their last points of the game. There were several moments to be dissected, including Belichick conservatively opting not to trust Mac Jones on a 4th-and-2 in Tampa territory late at the end of the first half, and then again on a 4th-and-3 in the final minute of the game, instead opting for a 56-yard Nick Folk field goal attempt in the pouring rain, in which Folk heroically almost came through with one of the great kicks of all time, that ultimately hit the left upright with a loud “thud.”

A thud, is sort of what the 2021 Patriots are at this point. There have been comparisons to this team and the 2001 Patriots, as the franchise begins anew under Mac Jones. And heck, that team started 1-3 before eventually winning the Super Bowl. But that team, a well-disciplined bunch, came through when it mattered. There would be no game-winning kick (a la Adam Vinatieri) on this night, just as there would be no game-winning drive. New England is now 1-3 and 0-3 at home, with two gut-wrenching losses to the Dolphins (Damien Harris’ late fumble sealed it) and now, the Bucs.

Still, Mac Jones played well enough to win this game, and has shown a lot of promise.

The rookie completed 19 consecutive passes in a period in the second half, which included a go-ahead touchdown drive culminating in a throwing score to Jonnu Smith, that saw Jones go 7-of-7 on that drive to give New England the 14-13 lead.

Really, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Mac Jones and the defense all played well enough to win this game, which is probably why this loss stings so much for New England.

The potential is there, even with Jones and the offense going just 2-for-9 on third down conversions, and Jones still being pressured by pass rushers (4 sacks, 12 QB hits on Jones by Tampa on Sunday), due to a disappointing O-line, which was met with Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ famous blitz-heavy scheme. The rookie also overcame the Patriots absolutely abysmal rushing performance, which saw the team run for -1 yards on eight carries versus Tampa’s top-ranked rushing defense, led by monster interior defenders Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.

When given the time to throw, Mac Jones (31-of-40, 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) has proven more than capable, as the Patriots are beginning to find at least a small groove in spreading defenses out in empty, shotgun looks. Jakobi Meyers (eight catches, 70 yards) and Kendrick Bourne (five catches, 58 yards) are beginning to have their moments, but the team is still not getting enough out of their two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, despite their two short touchdown catches on Sunday.

Still, there are brilliant flashes with Jones operations a Patriots/Brady-style offense.

Bourne called Jones a “baby Tom” after the game, and Tom Brady and several other Buccaneers praised the Patriots quarterback.

“I feel like he’s gonna be a good quarterback in this league,” Tampa star linebacker Devin White said of Jones postgame.

“He was poised. We hit him a lot of times and he stayed in the scheme and moved the ball for them when he had to move the ball for them.”

For now, as he learns behind a caving offensive line, a disappointing running game and the lack of a true No. 1 pass catcher, Jones will still learn a ton, find his resolve, and continue to improve. So far, he looks the part of a franchise quarterback.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 4). As each week passes, their Week 1 loss to the Steelers continues to be more of an aberration. They are the best team in football right now.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) (Last week: 2). Their secondary is an absolute mess right now, but a favorable upcoming schedule should help keep them afloat near the top of the NFC.

3. Arizona Cardinals (4-0) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch is soaring after a month. They are the last remaining undefeated team. That was a helluva win over the Rams in Los Angeles. Is their defense good enough for them to be a contender this season? Will their offense keep this up all year?

4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 1). They didn’t get up for their home match versus Arizona like they did versus the Bucs. They’re still the NFC West favorite. They have a quick turnaround for a game in Seattle on Thursday.

5. Cleveland Browns (3-1) (Last week: 3). They’re one of the most talented teams in the league, but they aren’t quite playing like it, week to week. They need to hit their stride.

6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) (Last week: 5). That was a telling win in Denver. That’s 43 straight 100-yard rushing games for the Ravens as a team, which ties an NFL record.

7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 8). They’re coming along after that ugly Week 1 loss to New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers’ bunch are a Super Bowl contender, once more.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) (Last week: 10). They’re tied for second in points per game (33.5) and are ranked 31st in points per game allowed (31.3). That sounds about right.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1) (Last week: 15). Justin Herbert already looks like one of the best quarterbacks in football, and Brandon Staley may be an early Coach of the Year candidate. But, these are the Chargers. They find ways to disappoint. Will they buck the trend this year? They’re next three games: versus Browns, at Ravens, versus Patriots. That’s tough.

10. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 16). They have a top-tier offense, and their defense, although not great, has enough blue-chippers (Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs) to make some plays.

11. Las Vegas Raiders (3-1) (Last week: 8). Their defense isn’t great, which puts a lot of pressure on Derek Carr and the offense.

12. Seattle Seahawks (2-2) (Last week: NR). They weren’t going to just lie down and fall to 1-3. That was a big win.

13. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) (Last week: 9). Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback coming into the 2021 NFL Draft. He still is. But even I think it may be too soon for him to take full control of the offense. Let’s see if Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy enough to play on Sunday.

14. Tennessee Titans (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly overtime loss to the Jets in New York. They did fight back though. They play down to their competition too much.

15. Carolina Panthers (3-1) (Last week: 12). That was a tough loss in Dallas. Their defense is legitimately talented, but they’re not quite the league’s No. 1 unit. Sam Darnold has been great, though, at quarterback.

16. Denver Broncos (3-1) (Last week: 13). A win there over Baltimore would have been huge. Now, they’re stuck up top the AFC West in that early-season logjam.

Next Up: New Orleans, Cincinnati, New England, Washington, Minnesota/Indianapolis

Cooper Kupp vs Bucs -- 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 3: It’s September, but Rams are the league’s best

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — With three seconds remaining in the first half, and the Rams leading the Buccaneers 14-7 in an early-season NFC showdown, Tampa Bay kicker Ryan Succop attempted to cut Los Angeles’ lead to four points heading into halftime.

The kick sailed wide right.

Rams head coach Sean McVay seemingly unleashed his pent up energy via a moment of exuberance on the sideline.

The event was a clear example of McVay’s excitement regarding a roster he put together. It’s evident the organization believes this is a win-now, Super Bowl-winning team.

The outburst also showcased how bad McVay wanted this win, even if the coach’s answer on the matter felt plucked right from a Bill Belichick press conference transcript.

“It means we’re 3-0,” McVay told the media when asked what the Rams’ win meant.

It’s just September, but the Rams have laid claim as the NFL’s best team in the early going after a 34-24 defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This is a squad with a beautiful new stadium (SoFi Stadium is also the host of Super Bowl 56 this February), a new star quarterback, one of the NFL’s best route runners and slot magicians, an all-time deep threat, and maybe the two best defensive players in the league.

The Rams are built like a top-heavy roster, but their stars showed out on Sunday.

Matthew Stafford went 27-of-38 for 343 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. DeSean Jackson is 34 years old, but showcased why he is one of the all-time best deep threats on a 75-yard score in the third quarter. Cooper Kupp put Bucs defensive backs in a blender, catching nine passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns, upping his total to five on the season and changing narratives regarding him, as he’s the No. 1-scoring fantasy football receiver through three weeks. And on defense, Aaron Donald posted a sack, destroyed a screen, and was overall menacing throughout, as was Jalen Ramsey, who added his confidence in swagger in defending Tom Brady passes from the slot and the perimeter.

When asked if this team can reach the Super Bowl, Donald told The Athletic: “It’s the only thing I’m chasing. It’s a long season, but I think we’re in a good position.”

That they are. This was the second year in a row the Rams had  beaten Tampa Bay, who had come into this game with 10 straight wins dating back to 10 months ago.

Los Angeles got ahead early and won 27-24 in Tampa last Thanksgiving, and that was with Jared Goff at quarterback.

The Rams match up versus Tom Brady’s bunch nicely.

They have a sturdy pass rush, but more importantly, they create inside pressure with Donald and Kenny Young (one sack on Sunday). The ability to push the pocket from the middle of the line, while containing on the outside is a good way of defeating a top-tier pocket quarterback, even if that QB is the greatest of all-time.

In the secondary, Ramsey is the league’s No. 1 cornerback, and his ability to play the perimeter and in the nickel/slot role as a “Star” gives Los Angeles the ability to move him around. One play he’ll guard Mike Evans on the outside, and in the red zone, maybe he’ll move inside versus Rob Gronkowski, like he did some in the 2017 AFC title game matchup between the Jaguars and Patriots.

Opposite Ramsey is burgeoning star No. 2 cornerback Darious Williams. Last year’s fourth-highest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus is on the J.C. Jackson fast track established in New England, where the No. 2 cornerback learned heavily from then best-in-the-league No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

The defense as a unit sacked Brady three times on Sunday, limited Tampa to 2.7 yards per rush, and allowed just seven points to the Buccaneers in about two-and-a-half quarters before taking a 21-7 lead and forcing Tampa Bay into air-it-out mode, which boosted Brady’s end-of-game stat line (41-of-55, 432 passing yards).

On offense, Stafford has the look of an MVP-front runner. The team’s wide receiver core compliments each other nicely.

Kupp, the team’s No. 1 WR, is 6-foot-2 but has the ability to stop-and-start almost like Wes Welker, while also being a downfield threat. Robert Woods is a solid veteran possession receiver, Van Jefferson is a young route-running maestro and the aforementioned Jackson can still get behind a defense.

The team’s Shanahan-y offense with McVay’s own twists, has been a force in the league for the last few seasons, but the unit became stale under Jared Goff.

Enter Matthew Stafford, who excels in the under-center, bootleg concepts and shotgun-spread looks. It hasn’t taken long for Stafford to prove the Rams’ brass right in trading two first-round picks (and Goff) to Detroit during the offseason to get their guy to run their offense.

“I was the new guy coming in and they embraced me,” Stafford told The Athletic. “I’m just trying to be myself every day, be my best every day, and see where that takes us.”

After 12 seasons of personal promise, but uneventful team success with the Lions, Stafford is in line to have it all this season.

He leads the league in Total QBR (82.8) through three weeks, has been sacked just three times in three games (great offensive line play and a solid scheme help), and is second in yards per attempt (10.0), passing touchdowns (9) and passer rating (129.8).

Everything is working.

But in a tough NFC West, the team knows they can’t let up.

The Rams host a division rival, Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals (3-0), next Sunday, which will pose a challenge defensively.

This is also a long season. There are several instances over the years where a playoff rematch leads to a win for the team that lost in the regular season.

Add in the fact that the Bucs have Tom Brady, and were missing Antonio Brown (COVID-19), who could have excelled in the middle of the field on Sunday, and there’s an avenue for another Tampa Super Bowl run in January.

But the Rams are keen on becoming the league’s top dog in 2021. They already are, so far. And they’re just enjoying the moment.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0) (Last week: 2). There’s deservedly a lot of Matthew Stafford chatter, which is fair, because he’s the spark plug, and most important player for this team now, but Cooper Kupp’s ascension with Stafford at the helm has been mesmerizing. He’s been awesome.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 1). They likely would have lost this game regardless, but missing Antonio Brown hurt. Now, it’s Tom Brady week. Brady returns home to New England versus the reeling Patriots. Only because of it’s prime storyline, this may be regarded as the most hyped-up regular season game of all-time. Check the ticket prices.

3. Cleveland Browns (2-1) (Last week: 5). Myles Garrett (4.5 sacks of Justin Fields on Sunday) is primed to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award this season. He’ll have to keep up that pace with Aaron Donald in the fold, though.

4. Buffalo Bills (2-1) (Last week: 7). So much for a regression year for Josh Allen (egg on my face), huh? The Bills’ franchise quarterback had five total touchdowns versus one of the league’s very best front sevens in Washington on Sunday.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 6). That would have been a pretty bad loss in Detroit, but Justin Tucker saved them with a game-winning, longest-of-all-time 66-yarder to win. They have their momentary lapses of focus, and their defense is figuring things out, but there is something special brewing there. They are coming through in the clutch. Lamar Jackson converted a 4th-and-19, first-down pass to get the Ravens into position to win. His confidence is sky-rocketing.

6. Las Vegas Raiders (3-0) (Last week: 8). They tried to give the game away at times, but they persevered. This ultimately became a good sign for them. Derek Carr looks awesome. They have something here.

7. Arizona Cardinals (3-0) (Last week: 9). They are one of the most exciting offenses in the league. But this team has its limitations. We’ll see how they stack up versus a seemingly-superior Rams team on Sunday.

8. Green Bay Packers (2-1) (Last week: NR). What else needs to be said? Aaron Rodgers is a bad man.

9. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 4). That was a tough loss for them. Jimmy Garoppolo has his limitations, but he came through late on that touchdown drive. They just left too much time on the clock for Rodgers.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) (Last week: 3). Their defense is horrible, and they really should be 0-3. But with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, we know they’ll make some sort of a run.

11. Tennessee Titans (2-1) (Last week: 14). It’s only Week 3, and it’s clear that the Titans can sleepwalk to an AFC South title.

12. Carolina Panthers (3-0) (Last week: 14). Sam Darnold looks comfortable, and their defense looks great. It’s early in the season, but they seem like a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NFC. Let’s see if they can keep this up.

13. Denver Broncos (3-0) (Last week: 13). They’re 3-0 versus teams with a combined 0-9 record, but they’ve looked like the much better team in these wins. This is a club with a lot of talent. Let’s suspend judgement on them for now.

14. New Orleans Saints (2-1) (Last week: NR). The Saints dominated the line of scrimmage versus the Patriots, then, they dominated everything else, including coaching and the New Orleans players just wanting it more than New England’s. They are a tough team.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (2-1) (Last week: NR). That was a hell of a win in Kansas City, even though they tried to give it away late. But the pass interference on Mike Williams was the correct call. They deserved this one. The AFC West is the clear top division in the AFC.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: 16). They should beat Philadelphia at home on Monday night, if they are the clear top team in the NFC East.

Next Up: Minnesota, Seattle, Miami, Cincinnati, New England/Pittsburgh

Derrick Henry vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 2: Drama-filled Sunday provides extra excitment

Week 2 in the NFL this season had a flair for the dramatic, with the late afternoon window in particular featuring wild finishes out west in Los Angeles, Arizona and Seattle. There’s still a few weeks left to play before any rash conclusions or predictions can be made, as many call September the “extended preseason.”

The Cowboys and Chargers in recent years are known for their knack of blowing big games, but each team was fairly competent in a close contest that ended in a game-winning, 56-yard field goal by Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlien.

Dak Prescott delivered in the fourth quarter for the second-straight week, and the Cowboys came away with a win this time around.

In Arizona, Kyler Murray added five more touchdowns, bringing his total to nine on the season, and firmly placing him near the top of any way-too-early MVP talk, along with Tom Brady.

But the Cardinals were lucky to come away with a win, as Kirk Cousins marched the Vikings down into field goal territory late, but Minnesota lost on a missed game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt from Greg Joseph, giving Arizona a 34-33 win, and allowing them to keep pace with better clubs in the Rams and 49ers.

The Titans and Seahawks seemed destined to play a wacky, down-to-the-wire game. The DNA of both teams usually calls for multiple double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks and comparable, gut-wrenching losses throughout the season. Sunday’s game in Tennessee didn’t disappoint, with Tennessee rallying from down 30-16 late to win 33-30 in overtime.

Leading the effort was the league’s premier bell-cow back, Derrick Henry, who amassed 237 total yards and three rushing touchdowns on 41 touches (35 carries). Henry remains one of the league’s toughest players to stop, and Seattle learned the hard way as Henry shook off a rough performance versus Arizona, in helping the Titans to a much-needed road win.

The late window, equipped with cheering fans, brilliant announcing, excitement and heartbreak felt like something we haven’t seen since the 2019 season.

Then, all those games were topped, by the Sunday night affair in Baltimore.

The Chiefs led 35-24 late before Lamar Jackson (16 carries, 107 rush yards, three total TDs) ran his way to a 36-35 lead that Baltimore held, thanks to their rookie first-round pick EDGE defender, Odafe Oweh, who stripped Kansas City running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire late after Patrick Mahomes drove them down in game-winning field goal range.

The Ravens averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and ran for 251 yards in total against a still-soft-up-the-middle Chiefs defense that relies heavily on their all-time great offense. They got burned today, but even with their flaws, they remain Super Bowl material.

Baltimore is beginning what could be a tough season-long race with the Cleveland Browns for the AFC North crown.

COVER 2

(Throughout the season, I’ll include this segment as a side-by-side form of ‘double coverage’ (pun intended) of both Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

PATRIOTS 25, JETS 6

In typical Bill Belichick-versus-rookie quarterback fashion, the Patriots defense gave Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a tough time, forcing the No. 2 overall pick into four interceptions, some ghastly, in a solid road win in the AFC East for New England. Defensively, J.C. Jackson (two interceptions) and Jonathan Jones were particularly impressive in coverage, and Adrian Phillips and Ja’Whaun Bentley stood out on the TV tape as tough, gritty players who seemingly have benefited from experience in the system, and seemed primed to take a leap.

On offense, Mac Jones (28.4 Total QBR to Wilson’s 8.7) had a more tame (and maybe even uninspiring) performance than his overly-competent (for a rookie) NFL debut versus the Dolphins. The Jets defense held Jones and the passing game in check for much of the game, as Jones often looked for his checkdowns an held the ball for far too long on other occasions. Hunter Henry grabbed a 32-yard catch downfield on a schemed play-action shot that saw him wide open, but other than that, he and fellow newcomer tight end Jonnu Smith were once again quiet. The Patriots leader in both receptions (6) and receiving yards (45) was pass-catching running back James White. New England has a solid blueprint as a top-tier defense and running game, but the passing offense needs to be more than just adequate if they are to compete with the NFL’s best. Rest assured, Mac Jones will improve as he gains more NFL experience.

BUCCANEERS 48, FALCONS 25

Watching Tom Brady throw five more touchdown passes on Sunday versus Atlanta make you wonder: Is this the best he’s ever played? His physical peak has passed, yes, but he’s still displaying unbelievable arm talent at his age (44), and statistically, he could be headed for a 2007-level of dominance, with a 2007-esque dominant team to boot.

Tampa has won a franchise-record 10 straight games dating back to 10 months ago (November 2020), which includes the organization’s second Super Bowl title (Brady’s seventh). Brady, himself, has thrown for 17 touchdown passes in his last four games, and Rob Gronkowski, perhaps his favorite passing target ever, has caught two touchdowns from Brady in each of his last three games, dating back to Super Bowl 55.

This team is absolutely loaded, but they’ll face a big, big test this week in Los Angeles versus the Rams. This is a possible NFC Championship Game preview. Can the Bucs keep Brady upright versus Aaron Donald and that inside pressure-creating pass rush?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0) (Last week: 1). When all is said and done, will Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski be the best, and most iconic passer-pass catcher combo in league history?

2. Los Angeles Rams (2-0). (Last week: 3). They showed their resolve by winning a wild back-and-forth affair in Indianapolis in the early window. Next up: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. We’ll learn a bit next week.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) (Last week: 2). That offense masks a lot of issues, and if they don’t fumble late, it would have been much of the same on Sunday night. But they gave up an 11-point lead late to a team that ran the ball to re-take the lead, and win. Kansas City doesn’t need to have a Top-10 defense to win the Super Bowl, but the unit can’t be that bad.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-0) (Last week: 7). This is a team that will figure it out, and become much better as the season goes along. They’re still winning while they learn, though. That’s scary.

5. Cleveland Browns (1-1) (Last week: 6). They let the pesky Texans hang around for far too long, but a win is a win.

6. Baltimore Ravens (1-1) (Last week: 10). The fourth time’s the charm for Lamar Jackson, who finally defeated Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. Baltimore has some defensive woes and mental lapses (occasional bad tackling, mistakes, etc.) to fix, but they are a real threat in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (1-1) (Last week: 11). They took advantage of Tua leaving early, punishing the Dolphins 35-0. They were going to win this game no matter what.

8. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) (Last week: NR). When he’s on, Derek Carr is one of the best pure passers in the league. That was on display in his de-facto game-clinching deep-heave TD pass to Henry Ruggs to beat Pittsburgh.

9. Arizona Cardinals (2-0) (Last week: 8). They are one of the league’s most exciting teams, and are led by one of the league’s most exciting players in Kyler Murray.

10. Seattle Seahawks (1-1) (Last week: 4). We mentioned Brady-to-Gronk earlier in here, but Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is another long-time dependable duo. They don’t get enough credit as a dangerous pairing. But still, that was a devastating loss for the Seahawks. That can’t happen.

11. New England Patriots (1-1) (Last week: 13). They’ll improve on offense as the season goes along. We’re still learning a lot about this team. Their defense is scary good.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) (Last week: 5). Their defense is still solid. They missed T.J. Watt late in this game. Their offense, on the other hand, is a mess. They’ll have to lean on Najee Harris, their rookie running back.

13. Denver Broncos (2-0) (Last week: 14). The Broncos are quietly a home win over the lowly Jets from beginning the season at 3-0.

14. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: NR). They badly needed that win. Derrick Henry is still a force to be reckoned with.

15. Carolina Panthers (2-0) (Last week: NR). Could their defense actually be one of the league’s better units? Also, Sam Darnold looks comfortable here.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: NR). Their offense is a machine. Dak Prescott may be enough for Dallas to take the NFC East this year.

Next Up: Miami, New Orleans, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers, Washington

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.

Tom Brady — NO vs TB 2020 NFC Divisional Playoff

NFL Divisional Round Madness: Brady-Rodgers championship tilt finally materializes

Roughly 24 hours after Aaron Rodgers put forth the most efficient quarterback performance of the weekend, Tom Brady shook off some early rust to make the throws necessary to likely dispel Drew Brees from New Orleans (and the NFL) en route to joining the soon-to-be-named MVP Rodgers in the conference championship round — the 14th such berth for Brady in 21 years.

Sometimes, things come for those who wait.

So despite their now combined age of 80 years old, don’t you dare take for granted what could be the only Brady-Rodgers championship bout we’ll ever see, this Sunday at Lambeau Field.

This matchup has long been yearned, but has seemed anything but inevitable in recent seasons, as it seemed the time for these two great quarterbacks to meet in a big game had passed.

Shortly after Rodgers burst onto the scene, in 2010 — the season of Rodgers’ only Super Bowl win and Tom Brady’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP honor — Brett Favre’s replacement missed just one game during that campaign, a Sunday night tilt in December that saw Brady’s Patriots rally for a 31-27 win over Matt Flynn and the Packers.

That occurrence seems to be a microcosm of the missed opportunities for a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl.

Green Bay would go on to win the Super Bowl over the Steelers in 2010, while New England, sporting a league-best 14-2 regular season record, was stunned by the Jets in an AFC Divisional matchup.

The next season, the Patriots would make the Super Bowl (and fall short to the Giants), while MVP Rodgers and the league-best Packers (15-1 in regular season) were stunned by a New York team in the NFC Divisional Round.

The NFL’s “final four” in 2014 and 2016 became the biggest teases, with 2014 being the year that got away. The Patriots beat the Seahawks that season by the way of Brady and Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 49, but Seattle only got there after rallying from a 12-point deficit to Rodgers’ Packers in regulation to win that year’s NFC title game over Green Bay in overtime.

That 2014 postseason felt like the NBA’s version of the 2009 conference finals round, where the taxing debate of LeBron James vs Kobe Bryant never got it’s NBA Finals showdown, after LeBron’s Cavs failed to get past the gutsy and clutch Orlando Magic.

2016 is not a major indictment on Rodgers, as his undermanned Packers team was no match for the Atlanta Falcons in that year’s NFC Championship Game. And had Rodgers won, we would have never witnessed the masterpiece that is Brady’s “28-3” comeback in Super Bowl 51.

But now, the two quarterbacks so often compared (mostly on sports talk television) will meet with more than a regular season loss on the line.

To settle the Brady-Rodgers “debate,” it depends on what debate is being discussed.

The accolades and greatness that comes with being named the GOAT of your sport make it pretty clear who the greatest quarterback of all time is — that would be Brady.

The former Patriot quarterback won his 32nd career playoff game on Sunday, the best mark of all time. Second-place is Joe Montana with 16 postseason victories. Brady has lapped the field. If you take any two of the greatest QBs ever (Montana and Peyton Manning, John Elway and Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Terry Bradshaw…) and combine their amount of playoff wins, the mark would fall short of Brady’s.

So no matter what happens this upcoming Sunday, Brady is the greatest to ever live, and it will take a lot more then just one more Super Bowl win for the likes of Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes to change that.

But there are other debates — Would Rodgers have had the same amount as success as Brady with Bill Belichick’s Patriots? Who knows? Maybe. And who is the best quarterback right now? Like the GOAT debate, that mark has an easy answer, it’s Rodgers.

The Green Bay legend replaced another Lambeau legend, Brett Favre, before him, and by the end of the season, Rodgers will have matched him in MVP awards and possibly pass him in Super Bowl victories.

Really, for all the happiness that came from Brady besting Drew Brees in a battle of greats on Sunday, this still feels like Rodgers’ year.

And the fact that Rodgers’ worst game of his season is a 38-10 loss to Brady’s Bucs in October while posting an abysmal 17.8 Total QBR, fits right in with an in-season redemption chapter that would not only put Rodgers above his contemporary for a fleeting moment, but vault him to his long-awaited second Super Bowl.

It makes for a great story.

The game in general should be memorable, really, no matter who wins. Two legendary No. 12’s dueling it out in what could be a snowy championship game at Lambeau Field. Even the great “Ice Bowl” of 1967 won’t quite have the star power that is Brady and Rodgers in their twilight, dueling it out.

It shall be a treat, and we shouldn’t look past it. Savor it.