Ja'Marr Chase vs Chiefs -- 2021

NFL Friday Morning Madness: 2021 Award picks + Final Power Ranking

As we ring in the new year, 2022, we do so by also saying goodbye to the 2021 NFL regular season.

With just one week left to play, the first ever Week 18, seven of eight division titles have been clinched, and 11 of 14 total playoff spots have been filled, with just three more berths and seeding left to be decided.

As it stands, there will be a few teams with nothing to play for in Week 18, which could signal a few key players resting up for the playoffs by missing a portion of their Week 18 contest, or sitting out their respective games entirely.

With that in mind, it feels like the right time to reveal my award picks and give my final power ranking for the season.

Some of these races are pretty tight, which makes some of these choices difficult. Give them a read and feel free to comment below the piece in the comments section.

We begin with the major awards, and then the final ‘The Better Half’ section follows.

Enjoy!

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MVP (Most Valuable Player) Tom BradyTom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

This will certainly draw some ire. The battle between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, both three-time NFL MVPs, for this year’s award, is a fascinating case study.

Like other league awards, stats play a huge factor in determining a winner here, but determining a player’s ‘value’ to their team, along with team success, help bring a unique ‘storyline’ feel to the award.

The Packers have been the best team in football for most of the year, and will enter the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Aaron Rodgers leads the league in a ton of efficiency metrics, as he’s arguably been the most efficient quarterback this year. His league-high marks include: TD/INT ratio (35:4), Total QBR (67.8), passer rating (111.1), total EPA and EPA/play.

When voting for MVP, there is an amount of “who feels like the winner?” associated with the process, and Rodgers certainly fits that criteria.

But Tom Brady, who has reached a LeBron James/Aaron Donald-level of fatigue when determining his single-season success for awards, should be right there, when it comes to a narrative-based discussion surrounding the honor.

In accounting for an injury-riddled team that has regressed mightily on defense, and been without pass-catchers such as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown (who now is gone, if you haven’t heard) and Rob Gronkowski at various points, the Buccaneers have resembled one of the undermanned ‘Do Your Job’ teams throughout Brady’s Patriots career, without Bill Belichick to help team up with him to lift the squad up.

Still, Brady has the Bucs sitting at 12-4, one game behind the Packers, with one more week to go.

Brady leads the league in a few traditional volume-based stats — attempts (682), completions (456), passing yards (4,990), passing touchdowns (40) — and bests Rodgers in a few important advanced analytics-based efficiency metrics such as PFF grade (91.4, 2nd in NFL behind Joe Burrow) and WAR (4.7). That last stat, WAR (Wins above replacement), is a respected metric created by Pro Football Focus that is used to ” assess the value of a player with an eye toward winning football games.” Brady leads the league in WAR by a huge margin. Brady also is right behind Rodgers in Total QBR (66.7 to Rodgers’ 66.8).

Many point to Brady’s struggles in two losses to the New Orleans Saints, including a 9-0 dumpster fire loss at home to New Orleans in December. Despite playing the game with numerous key injuries, there’s no excuse for a loss of that nature. But if that is to be docked against Brady, shouldn’t Rodgers’ 38-3, Week 1 loss to New Orleans be brought up, as well?

Wait, there’s more.

Brady has also been his usual self in the clutch, leading Tampa to a game-winning drive on five different occasions (four times versus 2021 playoff teams), which includes a win over the Patriots in Week 4, a double-digit comeback in Indianapolis to beat the Colts in Week 12, a walk-off overtime touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman to beat the the Bills in Week 14, and Sunday’s game-winning drive to beat the Jets (see tweet below) — a 93-yard journey with no timeouts, needing a touchdown, amidst all of the Antonio Brown drama.

This can go on and on. The latter part of the tweet above includes an explanation of a few of Brady’s interceptions, that were really ghastly drops-turned turnovers by his teammates.

Certainly, Rodgers has done enough to be deserving of the award. It’s a close race.

Rodgers certainly shouldn’t be docked because he has been “unlikable,” which was foolish reasoning given by longtime NFL reporter Herb Arkush, who is one of the 50 AP voters whose vote will count, and doesn’t plan to vote for Rodgers.

This is an award given to on-field play.

But to be fair, Rodgers’ snafu-ish handling of his COVID-19 vaccination situation did lead to him missing Green Bay’s battle in Kansas City, where the Chiefs limited the Packers’ offense with QB Jordan Love to just 7 points in a KC victory.

Couple that with the likeliness of Rodgers sitting out all or most of Green Bay’s Week 18 battle, and Brady likely playing all of his versus Carolina, and you will see an even bigger gap between Brady and Rodgers in some statistical metrics.

Again, it’s a close race, and like many arguing for either side, my bias is known — I’m a big Brady supporter. To tell you the truth, I figured Rodgers had this award locked up a week ago, but after watching Brady overcome the the drama and ineptitude that plagued the Bucs on Sunday, just to win another game in clutch that no one is talking about, sort of shifted the narrative for me.

As great as Rodgers has been, you can make the case that Brady has been more valuable to his team this season. I just made that case, actually.

One of these two quarterbacks will win their fourth MVP award in a month. Who is it going to be?

OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year)Cooper Kupp Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Runner-up: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Both Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor (along with Joe Burrow), would help round out a ‘Top 5′ of MVP voting, which would be helpful if there were additional votes given for second place, third place and so on. But there’s only one vote given for the award, and coupled with Brady and Rodgers’ success, and the value of a quarterback to its team, that makes it difficult for Kupp, or Taylor, especially, to be in the MVP race.

Now this award is a different story.

What Taylor has done this season has been extraordinary. He leads league the lead in rushing yards (1,734) and second place is over 500 yards behind. He also leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns (18) by a wide a margin and leads the league in touchdowns scored (20). And despite the Colts harboring what may be the league’s best offensive line, Taylor’s performance is still more indicative of his talent at the position. He could be the new Derrick Henry, or close to him.

That being said, what Kupp has done this season has been more impressive.

Most of what he has done has not been “schemed.” Sure, some of his big chunk gains have come on designed play-action passing concepts by Rams head coach Sean McVay, but a lot of Kupp’s success has come from his route-running ability, where he excels both from the slot, and from the perimeter.

He’s always been a good slot receiver. He’s played in the slot for 617 snaps this year, according to PFF. He’s also had 324 snaps out wide, which is a hefty total for a perceived full-time slot pass catcher.

In 16 games, Kupp has totaled 138 catches for 1,829 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He leads the league in all three metrics, which figures to give him the first pass catcher ‘triple crown’ since Steve Smith did so for the Carolina Panthers in 2005.

Kupp also leads the league in targets (184), with the next closest receiver, Davante Adams, being 22 targets behind.

With Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford having an up and own season, Kupp has been the spark plug of the Rams’ offense. The offense has simply evolved to revolve around him, and he has simply remained uncoverable. My vote would be for Kupp.

 DOPY (Defensive Player of the Year) — T.J. Watt T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers

Runner-up: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

This may be the toughest award to decide this season.

Myles Garrett had a clear lead at midseason. Several other names have jumped in and out of the conversation, including Matthew Judon, Nick Bosa, and Trey Hendrickson. And Dallas Cowboys rookie phenom Micah Parsons should certainly be in the mix.

But with one week to go, to me, the battle comes down to T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald.

Donald won last year’s DOPY award, as well as three of the last four. There is a sense of voter fatigue with him, like there has been with LeBron James for the NBA’s MVP honor.

Donald leads the league in QB pressures by a wide margin, which is incredibly impressive for an interior defensive lineman. He has a solid case to win the award again.

But so does Steelers stand-up EDGE defender T.J. Watt.

Watt has been in the mix for the award in each of the last two seasons. This year, he leads the league with 21.5 sacks, and has added four forced fumbles, and a league-high (tied) three fumble recoveries.

Pittsburgh’s defense hasn’t been as strong of an overall unit as it’s been in the past, with the defense relying heavily on Watt and veteran Cameron Heyward. Both of them have delivered, with Watt being the driving force.

The Steelers are known for being a proud franchise, and with the offense as lowly as it’s been in 2021 for Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song season, it’s been Watt that has the led the charge for the 8-7-1 Steelers, who have a shot at a winning record this week, and an outside shot at a playoff spot.

OROY (Offensive Rookie of the Year) —  Ja'Marr Chase Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Runner-up: Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots

As impressive as Mac Jones has been in spurts for the Patriots, he now falls back to the pack with the likes of Jaylen Waddle, Kyle Pitts and Creed Humphrey, as Ja’Marr Chase literally left behind everyone in the field last week versus the Chiefs.

In two important wins over Baltimore and Kansas City in the last two weeks, Chase has totaled 18 catches on 22 targets for 391 yards and three touchdowns to bring his total numbers on the year to: 79 catches, 1,429 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns.

He’s been the league’s most explosive downfield threat, leading the NFL in yards per reception (18.1) among qualified candidates.

There were many (including myself) questioning the Bengals ‘ selection of Chase with the fifth overall pick over a quality offensive tackle prospect last spring. The move seemed like too much of a gift toward Burrow, and less of an ideal decision toward overall team-building.

And although the Bengals’ O-line is indeed still a weakness, and the tackle position must be addressed in the offseason, Chase has proven to be the correct pick.

Burrow and Chase have teamed up to form perhaps the most dangerous QB-pass catcher combo in the game today, or at least up there with Patrick Mahoems-Tyreek Hill.

Although Mac Jones may bring more career-long value to his team than Chase, it’s Chase who deserves this particular award this season, no question.

 

DROY (Defensive Rookie of the Year) —  Micah Parsons Player Photo Micah Parsons, LB/EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Runner-up: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos 

This is a pretty easy pick. Patrick Surtain II has had an awesome rookie season, and should be a shutdown cornerback for years to come, but Micah Parsons is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, let alone Defensive Rookie of the Year. Parsons has the highest PFF grade (88.7) of any linebacker this year, but also has played 374 snaps on the D-line as an EDGE defender (according to PFF), where he leads the league in PFF pass rush grade (93.0) and is sixth in the NFL with 13 sacks. He’s been one of the best players in football this season, period.

 

Comeback Player of the Year —  Joe Burrow  Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Runner-up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Despite Prescott’s solid season in return from injury, this one has become pretty simple for me in recent weeks. Joe Burrow, with help from his buddy Ja’Marr Chase, has been marvelous in return from last season’s knee injury, helping to lead the Bengals to a surprising AFC North title, all while being near the top of the league in may statistical categories.

 

Coach of the Year — NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 14, 2021 - The 2021 photo of Head Coach Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans NFL football team. This image reflects the Tennessee Titans active roster as of June 14, 2021 when this image was taken. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Titans  Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

Runner-up: Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers 

It feels sort of wrong for Matt LaFleur, who has 13 wins in each of his first three seasons in Green Bay, to not win the award. If he wins it, there will be no pushback from me.

But what Mike Vrabel has done in Tennessee in this season has been more impressive. Dealing with an NFL-record 88 different starters in a single season, Vrabel has the Titans on the brink of capturing the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and it’s ever-important bye. He’s done much of this without arguably his two best players — running back Derrick Henry and receiver A.J. Brown.

If the Titans beat the Texans on Sunday, the award should be his.

Executive of the Year — bill-belichick-headshot2019-recropped  Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Runner-up: Brian Gutekunst, Green Bay Packers 

No one would fault anyone for voting for Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst here. He’s built perhaps the most complete team in football, all while dealing with the Aaron Rodgers offseason drama, to have the Packers as the Super Bowl favorite here in January.

But give me Bill Belichick, whose plan to move at hyper-speed to success following the departure of Tom Brady amidst a pandemic-riddled 2020, has panned out.

The Patriots spent a free agency-record $163 million guaranteed in free agency, and are seeing some great returns already from some such as EDGE Matthew Judon.

New England also drafted rookie QB Mac Jones in the first round, and have ushered him in nicely into the Patriot Way as the Patriots head back to the Playoffs.

Had New England defeated the Buffalo Bills last month, and grabbed the AFC’s No. 1 seed, Belichick would have been the vote for Coach of the Year, as well.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) (Last week: 1). They’ve been the NFL’s best and most complete team for much of the season. This may be Aaron Rodgers’ best chance yet at a second Super Bowl ring.

2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4) (Last week: 3). Even with Matthew Stafford playing messy football, they’re a Super Bowl contender. This is banking on them finally beating nemesis San Francisco to clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed, though.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) (Last week: 2). The loss in Cincinnati likely bumped them out of having a bye. They were on a roll. They’re the back-to-back defending AFC champs, so they enter the playoff field as the conference’s favorite. But just how good is their defense? Will they hold up versus the likes of Buffalo? Or versus the ground game of Jonathan Taylor and Indianapolis?

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4) (Last week: 4). Tom Brady has done a lot to prop them up this season. And that’s exactly why they can’t be counted out in the playoffs. But it does sort of feel like it’s not their year. We shall see. If their defense can flip the switch to even ‘moderately good,’ then look out.

5. Buffalo Bills (10-6) (Last week: 7). With Josh Allen manning their offense, they’re a Super Bowl contender. They’ve showed some toughness recently, too. Both mentally and physically.

6. Tennessee Titans (11-5) (Last week: 8). The Titans have A.J. Brown healthy and back on the field, playing well. Now, it’s Derrick Henry’s turn. The ‘King’ could reportedly play this week, if not, in the playoffs. Tennessee is a win over the Houston Texans away from clinching the AFC’s No. 1 seed, just as they re-welcome their star running back. What a great job by head coach Mike Vrabel to keep this team afloat amidst all of the madness.

7. Dallas Cowboys (11-5) (Last week: 5). They sort of felt like a team of destiny early on, but that magic has waned as of late. They’re still a great team. You can’t count them out.

8. New England Patriots (10-6) (Last week: 9). Like the Colts, they have the structure and identity of a team that could make a run in the playoffs, especially with Bill Belichick at coach, and the AFC as is. Is Mac Jones ready?

9. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) (Last week: 10). This has been a helluva season for them. Joe Burrow has taken the leap, and it looks like they made the right move in drafting Ja’Marr Chase over an offensive tackle with pick No. 5 last spring, eh? Let’s hear it for the AFC North champions.

10. Indianapolis Colts (9-7) (Last week: 6). They should be able to beat the Jaguars on Sunday to clinch a wild card spot, but their home loss to Las Vegas brought them down to earth some. They have the DNA of a tough playoff team, but they’ll ultimately go as far as Carson Wentz allows them to.

11. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) (Last week: 12). The Cardinals still have a shot at the NFC West. That was a tough win in Dallas last Sunday. Maybe they’re not dead yet. They still don’t ooze confidence, heading into the playoffs. But that was a step back in the rigth direction.

12. San Francisco 49ers (9-7) (Last week: 11). They need to beat the Rams for a sixth straight time to ensure they get into the playoffs. A loss and a Saints win means they’re out. If it’s Trey Lance who gets the start, can the rookie get the job done?

13. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert is perhaps as as talented a quarterback as any in this league, but the Chargers are…well, the Chargers. Can they overcome their franchise’s energy to defeat the Raiders in Las Vegas? Technically, they’re a better team, but I wouldn’t drop any money on them. Las Vegas has been a more mentally tough team this season.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7) (Last week: NR). Derek Carr (with some help from Hunter Renfrow) has done an incredible job keeping the Raiders season alive. They host the Chargers in a de-facto playoff game on Sunday night. If they win, they’re in.

15. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) (Last week: 15). The Eagles are going to the playoffs in Year 1 under rookie head coach Nick Sirianni. Jalen Hurts has had his ups and downs, but he’s proven to be a solid quarterback. Considering the lackluster impending rookie draft class of passers, Philadelphia should use their three first-round draft picks on other positions in hopes of building a solid team around Hurts, unless they can swing a deal for a star QB such as Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or maybe Deshaun Watson. If not, they should stick with Hurts.

16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8) (Last week: 14). Injuries derailed their regular season before it even began. They’ve lost five straight since an 8-3 start that had them as AFC frontrunners at the time. As great as the Bengals’ story is this season, a healthy Lamar Jackson, even with the rest of the team as is, probably would have given the Ravens the AFC North title this year. Instead, they’ll likely miss the playoffs.

Next Up: New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Miami, Minnesota, Cleveland

Patrick Mahomes vs Chargers -- 2021

Burning Questions 🔥: NFL MVP race down to two candidates + Jags’ next HC, Russell Wilson ’22 landing spot

Week 15 began on Thursday in Los Angeles with a rivalry tilt between the Kansas City Chiefs and L.A. Chargers.

A wild, back-and-forth contest was ended in overtime, when Patrick Mahomes found Travis Kelce over the middle, and the shifty tight end making several Chargers miss on a 34-yard touchdown catch and scamper for the win.

The victory pseudo-locked up a sixth straight AFC West crown for the Chiefs, who have now won seven straight, and are in the mix for the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which comes with the ever-important, and lone, conference playoff bye.

In a season as wacky as this one, the race for playoff seeding figures to be an exciting trek.

For all teams, the regular season has entered its final month. There are four weeks remaining in the longest regular season in league history, with 30 teams readying to play out their final four games of their schedules (three each for Chiefs, Chargers).

Both the AFC and NFC now have three teams with an identical amount of losses at the top of their standings, making for an interesting month ahead.

As it stands, the Jacksonville Jaguars fired first-year head coach Urban Meyer after just 13 games, so there’s coal for the fire for a ‘burning questions’-type of piece, where I’ll give you my answers. This is a perfect opportunity for our Quick-Hits section.

Down, set, hut!

QUICK-HITS 

NFL MVP? The once-hectic race for the award for this season now is a two-man race involving two three-time winners in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And at this point, it’s Brady with the clear lead, and even a tiny bit of breathing room. This season, Brady currently leads the league in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, Total QBR, wins, sack percentage and PFF grade. Aaron Rodgers has volume stats than Tom Brady, partly because he missed a game due to COVID-19, which was a messy story that didn’t look good for the Packers’ QB, and likely will factor into this race. But Rodgers leads the league in passer rating and interception percentage, showing a knack for his overall efficiency this season post-Week 1, in which Green Bay suffered a stunning blowout defeat to the Saints. There’s more time left to decide the race. Green Bay currently leads the NFC via tiebreakers over Tampa Bay and Arizona. If the Packers secure the No. 1 seed in the conference, that will help Rodgers’ case. Ultimately Brady is working with better offensive weaponry while Rodgers may be leading the better overall team equipped with a solid defense and an evolving, tough running game built for cold-weather football (A.J. Dillon). At this point, Rodgers missing a game, and Brady leading wins like Sunday’s over Buffalo in overtime, it’s the GOAT who has the clear lead as the race winds down.

Tom Brady OT TD pass vs Bills -- 2021
Tom Brady looks on during his game-winning touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime to defeat the Buffalo Bills in Week 14. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

With Urban Meyer ousted, who should be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ next head coach? How about current Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy? Bieniemy has been a hot topic over the past few offseasons, as many have wondered why he hasn’t been offered a NFL head coaching job already. He’s helped in the maturation of Patrick Mahomes and in the creation of the Chiefs’ all-time explosive offense over the past few seasons. Kansas City has been hit with some resistance this season, but the Chiefs are starting to problem-solve and play their way out of it. Bieniemy deserves some of the credit there. The Jaguars are a lowly franchise but they have assets in young QB Trevor Lawrence, a likely top-three draft pick in April, and and over $70 million in projected cap space to use on talent in free agency this offseason. Schematically, Bieniemy could bring a lot to the table for Lawerence. It’s an interesting fit that I’d like to see happen. If I had to guess, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may also be in the mix when interviews begin for the role.

— We’re a few months away from the offseason, but the future of the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson in particular, is a hot topic. If he leaves Seattle, where may he go next? If Wilson is dealt, the New Orleans Saints are an obvious fit, but if they can finesse their way around the salary cap, how about the New York Giants as a possible destination?  The Giants will likely fire GM Dave Gettleman, a once respected, and succesful general manager who has failed in New York. Giants head coach Joe Judge is likely on the hot seat, but could return. In my eyes, there is a world where the Giants trade some significant draft capital to obtain Wilson, still find a way to improve their offensive line, retain Judge and most of their pretty-good, tough defense, and become a true contender in the NFC East. Plus, Wilson, although a different cat, would fit well in New York. He isn’t afraid of pressure, or the limelight, and his celebrity/talented artist wife, Ciara, would likely enjoy New York, as well (I’m guessing). It seems like a fun fit that is gaining some steam. Still, the Saints, with offensive-minded, wise/experienced head coach Sean Payton, is the best pairing for Wilson.

— As this piece is published around east coast lunch time on Friday, the NFL, along with the NBA, New York City, London, and other areas around the world are experiencing a huge surge/waves of increasing COVID-19 numbers. As it stands, both the Cleveland Browns and Washington Football team are down to starting third-string quarterbacks this weekend (as of now). Washington just signed New England Patriots practice squad QB Garrett Gilbert to start on Sunday in Philadelphia versus the Eagles in a virtual do-or-die game for both teams, in terms of playoff hopes. As of now, there have been over 130 NFL players put on the Reserve/COVID-19 list since Monday. Cleveland, the Los Angeles Rams and Washington have roughly 70 players combined on the list. With COVID-19 still present in our society, and both the Delta and reportedly highly-transmissible Omicron variant now out there, and Holiday season in full swing, this is a friendly reminder for everyone to be safe.

THE BETTER HALF

(With this piece being released on Friday, in the middle of Week 15, we will have blurbs for only the participants of the important AFC West showdown on Thursday Night Football (Chiefs, Chargers). We will wait for next week’s edition for blurbs on each team.)

1. Green Bay Packers (10-3) (Last week: 1). 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3) (Last week: 2). 

3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 4). They figured things out late, battling back to defeat the Chargers in LA via a brilliant fourth quarter by Patrick Mahomes (10-13, 197 yards 3 TD in final 10 minutes), and a takeover by Travis Kelce (10 rec, 191 yds, 2 TD). Two-high looks by competent teams are still giving their offense fits, but they’re battling they’re way out of it.

4. New England Patriots (9-4) (Last week: 5).

5. Los Angeles Rams (9-4) (Last week: 6). 

6. Arizona Cardinals (10-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4) (Last week: 7). 

8. Tennessee Titans (9-4) (Last week: 9). 

9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6) (Last week: 10). 

10. Buffalo Bills (7-6) (Last week: 8). 

11. San Francisco 49ers (7-6) (Last week: 13). 

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). They outplayed the Chiefs for much of the game, but couldn’t capitalize. They’re still in good position for a playoff spot, but will likely need to win two of their final three games to have a good shot at clinching.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-5) (Last week: 11). 

14. Cleveland Browns (7-6) (Last week: NR).

15. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) (Last week: 14). 

16. Minnesota Vikings (6-7) (Last week: NR). 

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver, New Orleans, Philadelphia

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

Patrick Mahomes fumble vs Titans

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 7: Titans’ dominance + Chiefs’ woes

What initially looked like a rough slate of games heading into the weekend, proved so in Week 7.

If you took the two most interesting early games (Chiefs-Titans, Bengals-Ravens) and the “TV ratings” slot in the late afternoon (Bears-Buccaneers), and combined the scores, you’d get a 106-23 total, with all three contests finishing with at least a 24-point margin of victory.

That’s not even including scores like the Patriots 54-13 onslaught over the Jets, the Cardinals 31-5 drubbing of the Texans, or the Giants 25-3 victory over the now-spiraling Panthers.

Still, results like the one in Tennessee produced interesting Monday morning talking points. Are the Titans now a juggernaut? Will the Chiefs even make the playoffs?

Here’s my Quick-Hits for the week:

QUICK-HITS 

Here Come The Titans

Just like that, the Tennessee Titans (5-2) followed an abysmal Week 3 overtime loss to the New York Jets by rattling off three straight impressive wins.

They’ve now defeated both of last year’s AFC finalists (Bills, Chiefs) in the past six days, and have a chance to virtually close the door on the AFC South when they travel to Indianapolis in an attempt to sweep the Colts, their only challenger in the division.

Tennessee has largely had success running behind the NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry, and utilizing Ryan Tannehill on play-action and bootleg passing concepts for downfield throws to A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. But versus the Chiefs, the Titans were held to 2.9 yards per carry on 35 attempts. So with help from a solid performance from Tannehill (21/27, 270 yards, one touchdown) and Brown (eight catches, 133 yards, one touchdown), it was Tennesee’s defense that took control versus the offensively-dangerous Chiefs.

The Titans beat the Chiefs 27-3, forcing three Patrick Mahomes turnovers, sacking Mahomes four times, and holding the young phenom to 5.9 yards per per attempt and a Total QBR of 6.0. This was by far Mahomes’ worst regular season performance of his career, and probably his worst game ever, moving ahead of his Super Bowl 55 outing last February.

Tennessee began the season with obvious holes on defense, particularly in the secondary, and they lost rookie cornerback Caleb Farley, their first-round pick last Spring, to a torn ACL in Week 6. The Titans also came into this game ranked 28th in total defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and ranked 27th versus the pass.

But Tennessee has gotten a much-needed boost from their pass rush this season. Fourth-year EDGE Harold Landry, a 2018 second-rounder from Boston College, has 7.5 sacks on the season, good for second in the league. Landry had a sack on Sunday. Interior defender Denico Autry had two sacks on Mahomes, and has been solid up front. Then there’s Bud Dupree, the Titans’ cash cow of the offseason. Dupree has missed a few games, and his sack on Sunday was his first of the year, but Tennessee knows they have one of the best overall stand-up EDGE defenders in the league in Dupree when healthy.

Head coach Mike Vrabel has a team built on toughness, both mental and physical, with the league’s best running back, a top-tier wide receiver duo, and a quarterback capable of running a deadly play-action attack. Now, they have a glimmer of hope on defense. Tennessee is right in the thick of things in the AFC, and as of now, they look great for the long-term this season, with the likes of the Buffalo Bills and maybe Baltimore Ravens.

These Titans are legit.

What in the world is wrong with the Chiefs?

Seven games in, it’s apparent that the Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) have one of the worst defenses in the league, and this season, it will probably be too much to overcome. The unit is that bad.

But now, the offense has begun to sputter. At least it did on Sunday.

We addressed Mahomes’ stat line in the blurb above. He was bad on Sunday. But still, his re-shaped offensive line, which should improve, was terrible, giving Mahomes little time to do anything.

Mahomes now leads the league in interceptions (9) and turnovers (11), and is often trying his best to create the big play when it’s not there. And that big play, the highlight-reel deep shot to Tyreek Hill, is often not there because opposing defenses are playing two-high coverage (2-man, Cover 2, Cover 4, etc.) at an alarming rate versus the Chiefs, with some success as of late.

Mahomes loves the big play. He loves to scramble and search for Hill deep and Travis Kelce attacking soft zone coverage underneath. But with the offensive line struggling, Mahomes doesn’t have time for much, and no one outside of Hill or Kelce seems of capable of being a consistent threat.

Still, Mahomes, and Andy Reid, need to adjust the offense and their strategy, to attack via long drives and shorter throws for the time being, until the O-line gets up to speed. That’s not necessarily Kanas City’s game, and it will be tough, but they can’t have Mahomes running around trying to make plays when he’s taking the beating he has these past couple of weeks.

Part of this is on Mahomes. We saw a similar situation in Super Bowl 55. Sure, Tampa Bay destroyed KC’s depleted O-line, and that was mostly why the Chiefs were killed in that game. But often times, Mahomes avoids the dump-off or check-down pass to attempt to run around and make a play. That’s burned him this calendar year.

Still, even after his lowly performance Sunday, Mahomes is sixth in the league in Total QBR, third in EPA/drop back, and is third in the NFL in passing touchdowns (18). The 2021 Chiefs aren’t dead, but they’re severely wounded. Will they adapt, or die?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1) (Last week: 1). Tom Brady is your NFL MVP at the moment. And yes, he may even reach the 700-TD mark in career regular season passing touchdowns, one day. He may play forever.

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-0) (Last week: 2). They put aside their sluggish start to dominate the Texans, as they should. Did you see former Texans J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins walking off the field together? All smiles. They have the Packers at home on Thursday.

3. Los Angeles Rams (6-1) (Last week: 3). Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions pulled out all the tricks (recovered onside kick, two fake punts converted for first downs) and Jared Goff played admirably in his return to Los Angeles, but Matthew Stafford’s 59-yard pass to Cooper Kupp on a 3rd-and-12 late in the third quarter should reassure the Rams that they have the right quarterback. Also, Cooper Kupp is uncoverable. What a season he is having.

4. Tennessee Titans (5-2) (Last week: 8). Here come the Titans, indeed. This is a tough team. They’re fun to watch.

5. Buffalo Bills (4-2) (Last week: 4). The Bills still look like the long-term favorite in the AFC, but we have to give Tennessee their due for now.

6. Green Bay Packers (6-1) (Last week: 6). Not much has been said of the Packers this season, but they’ve won six straight. Up next? The Cardinals in Arizona on Thursday night. A big one.

7. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) (Last week: 7). They’ll come off their bye week with a Sunday Night Football game in Minnesota. It will be tougher than it appears.

8. Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) (Last week: 14). Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and of course, head coach Zac Taylor, deserve a ton of credit here for the Bengals’ surprising start. They look legit. Have to give credit where credit is due.

9. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 5). The Ravens have had some sloppy games this season. They were lucky enough to have miracle wins versus the Lions and Colts, but were burned here in an important AFC North showdown. It’s a long season, though. I ultimately think they’ll win the division, but they belong here for this week. They need to tighten things up.

10. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) (Last week: 9). They’ll look to put the ugly Ravens loss behind them after chewing on it over the bye week. They’ll host the Patriots on Sunday in a game that could decide an AFC wild card spot come January. New England beat Justin Herbert’s Chargers 45-0 last December.

11. Cleveland Browns (4-3) (Last week: 11). The Browns are beat up, but still have the recipe for January success. They have to make it there, though. That was a big win over the Denver Broncos.

12. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) (Last week: 13). The Raiders have now won their first two games without Jon Gruden, and Derek Carr is quietly playing like one of the game’s best quarterbacks in a year that has many MVP-like campaigns. This tweet by the NFL’s Gregg Rosenthal was well-put.

13. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 12). A win in Seattle on Monday night would be of big help to the Saints’ playoff chances down the line.

14. Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) (Last week: 10). Can they right the ship? This is a season from hell for them, to start. I see this sort of like their “2005 Patriots” season. Go look up that year. There’s still hope for the Chiefs to at least be a playoff team.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Last week: 15). The Steelers are quietly positioning themselves to make some noise in the wild card race.

16. Minnesota Vikings (3-3) (Last week: NR). The Vikings really should be 4-2, but they missed a chip-shot game-winning kick to beat the undefeated Cardinals a few weeks ago. They’re talented. Same story with them from the last couple of seasons, really.

Next Up: Indianapolis, New England, Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco

CeeDee Lamb TD vs Patriots in OT

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 6: Cowboys-Patriots classic featured two teams in wildly different places

The marquee ‘TV ratings’ matchup in the Sunday late afternoon window delivered a classic on Sunday.

Cowboys 35, Patriots 29, in overtime, in Foxboro, Massachussetts.

It was the Cowboys’ first win in six tries versus Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and it was Dallas’ first win over New England since a 12-6 victory over the Pats in 1996 when Bill Parcells was the team’s head coach, and Belichick was the club’s defensive coordinator.

There’s a lot to take away from a game like this:

— The Cowboys are not only ‘for real,’ they are a Super Bowl contender.

— Dak Prescott is an NFL MVP candidate, especially after his 445 passing yards (most ever versus a Belichick-coached team) and game tape exhibiting clutch throw after clutch throw in this primetime game against the Patriots. He was money.

— Mac Jones has shown glimpses of possible stardom in the future, be he, and this Patriots team are in transition. They have promise, and talent, but they’re blowing games late (fumbles, blocked punts, failures on ‘got-to-have-it’ plays) at a 21st-century Chargers-level since even the end of the 2019 season, with Tom Brady at quarterback (think: Week 17 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins with Brady in New England).

“We went toe-to-toe with them for 60 minutes,” Belichick said after the game. “They just made a few more plays than we did.”

Once thought of as a ‘moral victory’ equipped with silver linings, these types of losses are becoming too abundant for that term to be used any longer with these Patriots.

They have too many bullet holes in their foot, too many exhausted conservative-approach-infused decisions in major moments and an overall distrust of their young rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, in big moments.

The frustrating part about these Patriots is that they’ve played good teams well, for the most part, even going back to last season before they sort of gave up later in the year in losses to the Rams and Bills.

With Cam Newton, New England fell one-yard short of a major upset in Seattle, and a month or so later, Newton’s late fumble in Bills’ territory ended any hope of what was almost a major upset win in Buffalo.

This season, Damien Harris’ fumble was a self-thwart that ended any chance of a Week 1 victory over Miami, and despite keeping it close with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (and Tom Brady) and now, Dallas, the Patriots failed to deliver, again.

“When you look at the big picture, you never want to say you’re close; it’s hard to do that,” Jones said. “But the games we’ve lost we’ve been two or three plays away. I guess that’s how the NFL works, and I’m learning that the hard way.”

The teams that consistently make those plays, like the Buccaneers, the Patriots of the 2000s and 2010s, and yes, these Cowboys, are the teams that find themselves playing deep in January.

Dallas has won just three playoff games in the last 25 years, and have failed to move past the NFC Divisional round since their last Super Bowl win in 1995.

They are a prime example for fans to witness just how hard a franchise can fall post-dynasty.

The Patriots, of course, had nearly 20 years of unprecedented success. Simply labeling them a ‘Dynasty’ almost does them disservice.

But however you want to label it, Belichick and Mac Jones have work to do, even if the Cowboys’ star QB, Dak Prescott, thinks Jones is in a great spot.

“You gotta be able to take a lick and not flinch and make the play when the hard hit’s coming,” Prescott said to NBC Sports‘ Peter King when breaking down Jones’ play after the game.

“And when you have a bad play or an interception and the game changes right there, you gotta have the water-down-a-duck’s-back mentality. Let it go. It’s over. Mac’s got that. I really like what I see out of him. He’ll be a good quarterback for a long time.”

Jones followed up his late pick-six to former Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs on Dallas, with a 74-yard throwing strike to Kendrick Bourne to take the lead before Prescott rallied the Cowboys through a 4th-and-4 and subsequent 3rd-and-25 to help them score nine points at the end of regulation and overtime to win.

The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best offenses behind Prescott, his dynamic pass-catching duo of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb (who scored the winning touchdown in overtime), running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a top-tier offensive line, which has returned to greatness this season.

Prescott dropped back to pass 51 times on Sunday, and was never sacked.

On defense, Dallas has improved from subpar to so-so. With guys like Diggs (seven interceptions in six games), rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and pass rusher Randy Gregory, the team at least has playmakers capable of forcing turnovers and disrupting an offense.

In an NFC with several contenders in undefeated Arizona (6-0), Green Bay (5-1), the Los Angeles Rams (5-1) and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (5-1), the Cowboys are right there in the mix.

The Cowboys and Patriots, the NFL’s last two dynasties, are two teams in wildly different places at the moment.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). They move back to the top spot by default after the Bills’ loss. They should take care of the Bears at home this week.

2. Arizona Cardinals (6-0) (Last week: 3). They surprised many again by soundly defeating the Browns in Cleveland. They get a bye now to rest up.

3. Los Angeles Rams (5-1) (Last week: 4). I still think the Rams will be in the mix, probably in the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl, come January/February. But the NFC is a lot better than we thought, so this is a tougher task for them than I had imagined a few weeks ago.

4. Buffalo Bills (4-2) (Last week: 1). Josh Allen was stopped twice from reaching a key first down late in Tennessee, but I still think the decision to go for it was the correct call. The Bills will be OK.

5. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 6). Their 34-6 win over the Chargers may be the most impressive win of any NFL team this season. They ran all over LA, garnering 187 yards on just under five yards per carry.

6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 7). Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams alone make Green Bay a serious contender in the NFC once more.

7. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) (Last week: 10). Dak Prescott now finds himself near the very top in the beginning of the NFL MVP race after his performance in New England on Sunday.

8. Tennessee Titans (4-2) (Last week: 10). Derrick Henry (and maybe Adrian Peterson, as well) is this era’s Jim Brown.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) (Last week: 5). That was a humbling loss in Baltimore. Now they have their bye week to chew on it.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) (Last week: 11). They picked things up in Washington in the second half to look more like the Chiefs of old on Sunday.

11. Cleveland Browns (3-3) (Last week: 8). They’re much better than their record suggests, but here they are, and they have some major injuries, too. Will Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb be able to suit up versus the Broncos on Thursday?

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 12). They had their bye week this past weekend. They’ll be in the wild card mix all season.

13. Las Vegas Raiders (4-2) (Last week: 14). That was a huge win in Denver, for their first outing without Jon Gruden.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) (Last week: NR). Good teams beat up bad teams. The Bengals beat the Lions 34-11 in Detroit. Is this team actually…good?

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Even in their “off” years, the Steelers find a away to finish around .500.

16. Minnesota Vikings (3-3) (Last week: NR). The Vikings have been a wild ride to start the year. They’re a team with talent. That win in overtime over the Panthers may decide the NFC’s No. 7 seed come January.

Next Up: San Francisco, Chicago, Carolina, Indianapolis, Atlanta 

Josh Allen vs Chiefs -- Week 5

NFL Friday Madness: Breaking down the AFC’s early-season contenders

Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season featured a slew of missed kicks, exciting finishes, and an overarching changing-of-the-guard storyline in the AFC, as the conference dominated by the likes of the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the 21st century, and the Kansas City Chiefs recently, will seemingly be lead by some of the league’s most talented teams in the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns (huh?!) in 2021.

Buffalo looks like the NFL’s best and most complete team after bolstering their pass rush this offseason, with rookie first-round pick Gregory Rosseau (6-foot-6, 267 pounds) leading the charge for that unit.

In Kansas City last Sunday night, Buffalo forced four Patrick Mahomes turnovers and Josh Allen amassed 374 total yards and four touchdowns and a 91.6 Total QBR with no turnovers and no sacks.

Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.

With the Chiefs driving, down 31-13 to the Bills with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter, Rosseau tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage for a Bills interception, prompting the thought of the night by NBC‘s Chris Collinsworth.

“When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back on this night and say ‘this is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC,” Collinsworth said.

After losing twice to the Chiefs last year, including in the AFC title game, Buffalo has already leapfrogged the conference powerhouse in October as the conference’s lead dog.

Behind them, there’s the Ravens, where Lamar Jackson is carrying the Ravens to last-second, comeback wins, and throwing the ball with authority, pitting him with the likes of Josh Allen at the top of any too-early MVP award discussions.

Justin Herbert is having a similar, red-hot start to the season for the Chargers, who outlasted the Browns, 47-42 last Sunday, and defeated the Chiefs in Kansas City in a tight contest in Week 2.

The Browns, who also blew a Week 1 game in Kansas City in addition to their similar, late-game letdown to the Chargers, may be the most talented team in the conference.

Myles Garrett is the early-season leader for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Browns as a team lead the NFL in rushing (187.6 yards per game) with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way behind a monstrous, guiding-light offensive line that was put together in the 2020 offseason, and now on Year 2 of their dominance.

Really, the Chiefs, despite their 2-3 mark, lack of a running game, and porous defense from all angles, should still be considered a contender as long as Patrick Mahomes is leading the offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as his top targets.

But Kansas City is missing additional pass catchers, or a running game, to help take the pressure off Mahomes, who is seeing a litany of two-high coverages, whether it’s 2-man or Cover-2, that have taken away the Chiefs’ usual downfield chunk plays, forcing them to run the ball or produce long drives, while pressuring Mahomes and forcing him out of the pocket.

To put the Chiefs offense in perspective, they are still the No. 1-ranked offense by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, but Mahomes has less 20-yard completions than the likes of Mac Jones and Jared Goff.

The Chiefs are virtually three games behind the Chargers considering their Week 2 loss, but there is more than enough time to make up ground.

But really, they look like a wild card bunch at best this year, with a new basket of quarterbacks leading more complete teams to victory.

The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.

Herbert’s deep-ball has led to a Mike Williams renaissance as a perimeter receiver and deep threat. Running back Austin Ekeler and route-running genius Keenan Allen are mismatches for defenses in the shallow and intermediate levels of the field. And under new head coach Brandon Staley’s Cover-3 style defense brought over from the Rams, the Chargers have looked much better on defense, save for their game versus Cleveland. Joey Bosa is one of the best pass rushers in football, and Derwin James is the perfect roaming athlete for such a scheme in the secondary.

Still, while putting the Chargers and Chiefs aside, and with no mention of the still-tough Tennessee Titans, who look locked into the AFC South title, it still appears both the Ravens and Browns appear like the best long-term threats to Buffalo this season.

Each has a bludgeoning running game.

We mentioned Cleveland above, but Baltimore, with a sturdy offensive line and a litany of additional blockers (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard) at tight end, H-back and fullback, has the perfect mix of old-school blocking with and new-age finesse with Lamar Jackson shredding defenses on designed runs behind a traditional and yesteryear blocking front.

Despite the great coaching from the likes of Staley and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are more experienced. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent franchises this century, and that seems to carry them to a Super Bowl run at least once per decade. That could be this year.

All this is said to lead to this — the AFC has regained power over the NFC as the league’s top conference overall. And this deep group includes talented teams of all types, with different schemes, concepts and strengths.

The Bills are in charge now, but there are several teams right there, and even with their struggles, it’s too early to fully give up on the Chiefs.

Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 1). They’re the best team in football right now. No question. The only things missing last year were their running game, pass rush and ability to defend Mahomes and Kansas City. They’ve figured out all three things, it seems.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). Despite all the fuss regarding Allen, Jackson, Herbert, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, it’s 44-year-old Tom Brady, who through six games has looked on a mission (2,064 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, two game-winning drives), that is the MVP leader at this point. It’s early, though.

3. Arizona Cardinals (5-0) (Last week: 3). Arizona faces a tall task in Cleveland this week. How well can this reimagined defense defend the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack?

4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 4). They should take care of the Giants this weekend. They were the talk of the league two weeks ago. Things change quickly. They’re a season-long contender in the NFC.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) (Last week: 9). They’re winning the close contests that used to bring them heartbreak. This is a different team.

6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). They’ve escaped with wins over the Lions and Colts that they certainly should have lost. They’ll get it together. Lamar Jackson has been awesome as a passer so far this season.

7. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 7). They’re kind of on autopilot at this point, but we know they can compete with anyone in the conference as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.

8. Cleveland Browns (3-2) (Last week: 5). They easily could be 5-0. They certainly should be at least 4-1. They have the recipe to be a Super Bowl winner, but they need to figure out how to win those close games versus good teams. Baker Mayfield needs to do better in the clutch. They’ll be without Nick Chubb this weekend, but with Kareem Hunt, they have enough to beat Arizona. This is a big game for them.

9. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) (Last week: 10). The NFC East is clearly theirs, but the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996, and they are 0-5 versus Bill Belichick. The TV-ratings game of the week will be a fun pitting of a successful pass offense versus a well-coached, usually-sound defense.

10. Tennessee Titans (3-2) (Last week: 14). Like the Packers, they feel very auto-pilot-y, but they, too, have the strengths (Derrick Henry, running game) to be a force come playoff time. They need to figure things out on defense, though.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) (Last week: 8). The offensive line and running game will improve as the season goes along, which will open things up for Mahomes and company for their deep passing game. It’s not time to panic, yet. They definitely don’t look like a Super Bowl team this season, though.

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: NR). They’re a solid football team that would be even better with a more consistent quarterback. They’ll mostly live and die with Jameis Winston.

13. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: NR). The Bears have won three of four, and Justin Fields is now getting his reps. Things are going well, for now.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 11). With Jon Gruden out of the picture, what happens next? Will they fall apart? Or will they rally around their team?

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-3) (Last week: 13). Bad injury luck is mounting again. This is a good football team, but it’s tough competing in the NFC West. Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback in this past draft, and he still is, but he clearly needs time to develop.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: 15). That was a rough home loss to the Eagles. That was maybe a sign that they aren’t quite ready to compete in the playoffs like we thought they were. Sam Darnold is still much better than we thought he was, but cracks are starting to reappear. They have a huge game at home this week versus the Vikings. This one could decide a wild card spot come January.

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota/Philadelphia

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