Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cam Newton -- Week 1 vs Dolphins

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 1: Breaking down Cam, Brady + Lamar’s passing masterclass

A Week 1 game in the NFL should follow with this disclaimer — “Do not overanalyze, as often times things are not what they appear.”

And in a NFL season during a year in which the world is turned upside down, the words above should ring even more clear. Heck, there were no preseason games and the offseason was severely shortened and unorthodox. We often talk about the first week or two of the regular season as an extended preseason, but we could be talking about each team’s first six to eight  games in that way this season. Right now, we just don’t know. Things will change.

Still, it’s tough to refrain from overanalyzing.

There’s been more skepticism surrounding the possible success of Cam Newton and the New England Patriots than Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And at face value, there’s good reason for that.

Brady — and former Patriot Rob Gronkowski — joined Bruce Arians’ high-flying offense, equipped with some of the league’s best skill position personnel. But some of those offensive weapons, Mike Evans and Gronk in particular, failed to find a rhythm Sunday for a team that looked every bit as undisciplined Sunday as it did last season with Jameis Winston at quarterback.

Tom Brady -- Week 1 vs Saints
Tom Brady voices his frustration after a third-down incomplete pass to Chris Godwin failed to draw a flag for defensive pass interference. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

And so TB12 sat opposite Winston, Tampa’s old QB turned Saints backup, and suffered a 34-23 defeat to New Orleans in a game that raised many questions about just how efficient Tampa Bay’s offense will be.

But for all the mistakes, including a ghastly pick-six, Brady — 23 for 36 for 239 yards, three touchdowns — showcased some zip and overall arm strength that many thought he left back in 2017 or earlier in New England. He found some success targeting the likes of Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller downfield.

Still, the disconnect with his teammates was stark and a reminder that things better change quick if Tampa Bay is to compete with some of the league’s top teams.

There’s no need to abandon what they view as their offensive approach — pass catchers and pass attempts galore, including formations with multiple (and capable) tight ends, as well as the occasional shotgun draw to keep the defense honest.

There’s something here with what they have, and what they view as as budding firecracker in their personnel. Brady and these weapons? You betcha.

That offense will look much different than Brady’s old unit in New England, however.

As expected, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ran Newton on a bevy of zone-reads, QB powers and bootlegs. In all, Newton rushed 15 times (second most of his career) for 75 yards and two touchdowns. The formations weren’t too unfamiliar to Brady-era lovers, but there was some pistol formation worked in.

The Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins, 21-11, in a game that seemingly ended while the rest of the 1:00pm ET time slot contests were entering the fourth quarter. New England ran the ball 42 times for 217 yards and won the time of possession battle by roughly 35 minutes to Miami’s 25.

It’s a bit early to think on this level, but if New England is to go far in the AFC postseason, they’ll likely use this form of bully ball to do it. Newton looked sharp through the air, particularly on his first throw of the game, a downfield drop by Edelman on a beautifully placed play-action pass. The 2015 NFL MVP went 15 for 19 for 155 yards. But the Patriots lack an adequate arsenal of pass catchers to compete in a shootout with the likes of Kansas City, or even Seattle, their next opponent. Still, New England’s top-tier offensive line and a unique group of versatile running backs give them something to work with.

Comparably (or not really), Brady has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Gronk, O.J. Howard, Leonard Fournette and more. Things didn’t go well for Tampa on Sunday, but there’s reason to believe that it might as the year goes on. Saints QB Drew Brees got the win but rarely threw downfield, which could be a skill that the Saints now look to Taysom Hill for. It’s not farfetched to claim that Brady looked better than Brees on Sunday, despite the mistakes. Tom looked livelier than the 41-year-old New Orleans, but the precision and timing with his new teammates was not there.

Without a preseason, there would be an expected learning curve with this “Tompa” Bay offense, especially with a Week 1 opponent such as New Orleans. Brady will find a rapport with a few guys and things will begin to click. The six-time Super Bowl-winning passer has Tampa head coach Bruce Arians to turn to — a known QB whisperer.

But Cam now has Belichick. And in turn, Belichick has Cam. There’s more creativity to come in New England, and success will surely come to Tampa this season, in some form.

These two — very different — offenses will certainly be compared and contrasted all season. If you look passed the cheap, soon-to-come “Bill 1, Brady 0” takes, there’s a fascinating football story brewing in both the evolution of the Patriots offense and the experiment of Brady in Tampa Bay at age 43.

QUICK-HITS 

Rams stymie Cowboys’ talented offense 

Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Dallas Cowboys and their high-octane offense, the Rams were able to corral America’s Team in their inaugural game in the beautiful SoFi Stadium. On offense, Sean McVay stuck with the ground game, which looked a lot more punishing than their stat line of 3.8 yards per carry suggests. Los Angles ran the ball 40 times for 153 yards, and went to play-action with Jared Goff when they didn’t. But this game was won by the Rams’ defense, particularly their pass rush. Aaron Donald was his usual self, posting a few highlight-worthy, trench-dominating moves from the interior, and Los Angeles sacked Cowboys QB Dak Prescott three times by a unit that many thought would be subpar at the EDGE position heading into the season. The current construction of Los Angeles’ roster is well-known. Contracts for players like Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey take up a good portion of the cap, so they’ll need help from the rest of their roster, such as Bears castoff Leonard Floyd, a former first-round pick who virtually depreciated in Chicago but looked better than advertised on Sunday. It’s been just two seasons since the 2018 Rams entered the season as an all-in team, and even though their cap situation suggests they are still in that mode, the Rams may quietly have a plan to quietly return as a contender behind some quieter acquisitions.

 Lamar Jackson thrives from pocket versus Browns

The Baltimore Ravens began their quest for Super Bowl 55 (and they are one of the few teams in which it’s not too early to talk like this) with a 38-6 beatdown over the Cleveland Browns. Sure, it seems as if the Browns may remain lowly in 2020, even with a new head coach, but that shouldn’t take the air out of a superb performance from Lamar Jackson through the air. Last year’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP was brilliant as a passer on Sunday, going 20 for 25 for 275 yards and three throwing scores. Those marks helped him post a 152.1 passer rating and 94.1 Total QBR. Even for a Week 1 game versus Cleveland, those are absurd numbers. If the Ravens are to reach (and win) Super Bowl 55, they will have to show improvement in two key areas that doomed them in the postseason last year — run defense (which was so-so despite the win on Sunday) and Jackson improving as a passer. Luckily, Jackson was able to do most of his work in the middle of the field, which will forego the critique of his much-needed improvement outside the numbers, but Jackson looked even more comfortable than last year from the pocket on Sunday. His only matchup-winning targets are “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, but Jackson’s ability to not only run, but read the field should be good enough to lift this supporting cast to Tampa Bay in February. He was already much better as a passer than critics would give him credit for in 2019, but it seems as if he’ll be even better in that aspect in Year 3.

Respect for Gardiner Minshew

The Jacksonville Jaguars certainly won’t be a playoff team this year. They are still in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in my eyes, and if they do end up in that slot, I suspect they’ll take Clemson wunderkind QB Trevor Lawrence. But after a 27-20 Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts, I felt obligated to give Gardiner Minshew some respect. Just one week after former Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette slighted him, Minshew went 19 for 20 for 173 yards for three touchdown passes with a barren set of skill position players versus one of the AFC’s best rosters. If the Jaguars do end up around 4-12, it’s worth wondering whether Minshew would be capable of starting elsewhere after Jacksonville turns to a top draft pick at quarterback. Teams like the Bears and Colts instantly come to mind. Jacksonville may not see a future with Minshew, but there may be a future for Minshew as a starter in the NFL.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). The Chiefs played on Thursday, so it’s easy to forget how dominant they looked while also looking a bit sloppy. They will play much better than they did on Thursday for much of the season, and they looked like the best team in football anyway versus Houston. That’s scary.

2. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). If Jackson is going to be this good through the air in 2020, look out.

3. New Orleans Saints (1-0). There are some concerns with Brees’ ability to push the ball downfield, but with offensive weapons such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill, that may not be too alarming.

4. Green Bay Packers (1-0). I suspected Aaron Rodgers would play angry and well this year. That was a superb start in Minnesota.

5. New England Patriots (1-0). There are major concerns with this pass-catching group, but with what Belichick appears to have in store for Cam Newton and this offense, that may just be a wart, as opposed to an Achilles heel.

6. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). Russell Wilson was as sharp as a QB possibly could be in Week 1. Maybe it was the pandemic that threw things off, but Seattle certainly didn’t look like a team heading west to east for an early start time on Sunday.

7. Buffalo Bills (1-0). Josh Allen had some good, some bad, and everything in between on Sunday. This Bills team is immensely talented, but there’s not much to take away after a Week 1 win over the New York Jets, who may have the worst roster in pro football.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0). The Steelers will undoubtedly field one of the NFL’s best defenses. If they can get anything out of their offense, they’ll be in good shape.

9. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). The Rams looked impressive on Sunday night, and they can play much better.

10. San Francisco 49ers (0-1). San Francisco is lacking at wide receiver, so you can imagine the feeling when it looked like George Kittle may have suffered a serious leg injury. He appears fine, however, and returned to the field. The 49ers are a team that will improve as the season goes along. They’ll need to figure out something at wide receiver until Deebo Samuel returns, though, and even then, they need some more help there.

11. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Good things will come for Dallas’ talented offense, but I worry that prognosticators have overvalued them yet again this preseason. Are they really Super Bowl contenders?

12. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Arizona was able to down the defending NFC champs while also not playing their best on offense. They at least got DeAndre Hopkins (14 catches, 151 receiving yards) involved. That’s a good sign.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1). That was an ugly start, but they’ll certainly improve on offense. Don’t jump ship just yet.

14. Tennessee Titans (0-0). The Titans are one of the toughest teams in football. They’ll need to utilize that skill for a tough Monday night matchup in Denver to kick off their season.

15. Washington Football Team (1-0). They belong here. That front seven is talented, and will be getting after quarterbacks all year. Rookie EDGE defender Chase Young could easily follow Nick Bosa’s 2019 route by becoming the next No. 2 overall pick from Ohio State to dominate up front as a rookie.

16. Houston Texans (0-1). It’ll take some time for this offense to click, and the pass blocking of their offensive line is still a mess, but the Texans still have Deshaun Watson. They have another tough test this week, though. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are coming to town.

Next up: L.A. Chargers, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas

Bill Belichick 2020 Patriots Training Camp

New beginnings and old trends: What can we expect from the 2020 New England Patriots?

Last January, in the final minutes of a tight AFC Wild Card matchup in Gillette Stadium, Super Bowl 53 MVP Julian Edelman dropped a key third-down pass in a clutch situation, and Tom Brady failed to deliver.

Tennessee Titans 20, New England Patriots 13. Welcome to 2020.

This was simply an odd beginning to a mostly catastrophic and unprecedented year up to this point.

Now for New England, weird will be the new normal as Brady is in South Florida with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots’ hopes on offense rest with former Carolina Panthers franchise quarterback Cam Newton.

Yes, Cam Newton is the starting QB for your New England Patriots, in a world where Brady is not retired and still playing pro football with the same burning desire that fueled an unprecedented 20-year run of success in the northeast.

So far, the Newton-Belichick pairing has been met with cheery optimism. Both Belichick and Newton have done nothing but overly praise each other to this point, and Newton appears as happy as he is motivated.

Instead of allowing him to play out the final year of his contract, the Carolina Panthers jettisoned the 2015 NFL MVP after failing to find a willing trade partner. Newton was hurt, and angry, but has seemed to have bottled that despair in the form of grueling training and recovery geared toward proving the Panthers and other doubters wrong via a bounce-back performance.

Belichick and the Patriots are surely the perfect facilitator for such a journey.

As previously mentioned, Newton took the league by storm in 2015. He was the league’s best player that year, leading Carolina to Super Bowl 50 — and subsequent loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

But that’s likely not the level of play the Patriots will be getting at quarterback in an unconventional 2020 season. Past shoulder and foot injuries, multiple surgeries, additional wear and tear, and a shortened offseason — with no preseason games — make it difficult to imagine Newton ever reaching his 2015 level again.

This leaves Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and new quarterback coach Jedd Fisch hoping for the 2018 version of Newton, before a shoulder injury caused the former No. 1 overall pick to drop his last eight starts heading into this campaign.

In 2018, under Norv Turner, Carolina began the year 6-2 behind a quick-passing game that saw Newton move on from his previous downfield passing barrage of earlier seasons with ample success. His ability to adapt to a new offense, and thrive while throwing precision-type passes to the likes of D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey and others prove that Newton is willing and able to adapt to a new scheme.

At that point in his career, Newton’s completion percentage was 58.5 heading into his eighth season, but after the aforementioned 6-2 start, Cam had a 67.3 completion percentage, and was squarely in another MVP race before Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt obliterated Newton’s throwing shoulder.

Cam Newton and Julian Edelman -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
With Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, can Cam Newton pick up where the GOAT left off in targeting Julian Edelman? (Screenshot: Patriots)

The difference here is that there is no McCaffrey or Moore on the roster. There are, however, James White and Julian Edelman, two wiley veterans in the roles of pass-catching running back and No. 1 wide receiver. Both are clutch, both are postseason heroes with a combined seven Super Bowl appearances and 1,096 career receptions (including playoffs).

After, that there’s not much in terms of experience and big-play potential at the skill position.

A wide receiver group that ranked dead last in average separation according to NFL Next Gen Stats has not been altered much since the end of last season.

N’Keal Harry returns as the top option at X-receiver along the boundary. Harry ranked 143rd (dead last) in the NFL last season in average separation at throw on all routes for receivers who ran at least 100 routes.

The 2019 first-round pick is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds but displays quickness and shiftiness of that of a smaller receiver. He can run reverses and use his power and running ability to create yards after the catch. But ironically, despite his size, he doesn’t appear to have the skill set for a dominating No. 1 type receiver on the outside.

Newton, of course, hasn’t played with such a player, but he has found a niche of throwing slants, 10-yard outs an hitches to bigger receivers. He had flashes of success on such passing patterns when targeting the likes of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Newton’s throws those routes possibly better than any QB I’ve seen over the past 20 seasons, and perhaps Harry can become a factor on such plays.

He’ll need to, because 34-year-old Edelman — who will presumably get the most targets — can’t do it all, and certainly not at his age.

Julian Edelman -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
Julian Edelman, 34, will be heavily relied on by Cam Newton this season. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

After Edelman and Harry, Damiere Byrd projects as the Patriots No. 3 WR with WR2 production potential. Byrd played four seasons with Newton in Carolina before a one year stint with the Arizona Cardinals last season. He ran a 4.28 40-yard dash coming into the draft, and projects to fill a Phillip Dorsett-type roll for New England, with much better potential on underneath routes.

After that, second-year undrafted men Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers return as project players that likely will be thrown into the fire once more.

The pass-catching group is far from scary to opposing defenses. New England at least drafted two tight ends in the third round — Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene — in attempt to fix perhaps the worst position group on any team last season, and that’s not a hyperbole.

Asiasi (6-3, 260 pounds) has pass-catching potential as an athletic ‘Y’ who should find some success in the seams as well as the middle of the field. Newton’s No. 1 target for much of his tenure in Carolina was tight end Greg Olsen, and although that’s way too high of a production projection for Asiasi in Year 1, the rookie could find a role as a security blanked for Newton at times. His potential is burgeoning as an NFL tight end after a so-so college career at Michigan and UCLA.

Keene, 6-4, 251 pounds, projects as more of an off-line, H-Back option with fullback potential.

Believe it or not, Keene could be the biggest indicator of where the Patriots see this offense going with Cam.

When New England drafted Keene out of Virginia Tech, not to toot my own horn, I immediately thought of him as an H-back that fit in shotgun and pistol formations that were heavily utilized in some of Newton’s best seasons in Carolina.

But as months went by without an announced New England-Newton pairing, many, including myself, began to wonder if the Patriots were building a Kyle Shanahan-esque offense around second-year man Jarrett Stidham.

Think of San Francisco and Minnesota. An offense revolving around the running game, with under-center formations featuring outside zone, pulling guards, an athletic pass-catching fullback, tons of pre-snap motion and play-action passes designed to freeze linebackers after they’ve been gashed by the run. An easy game plan for a young quarterback, essentially.

There may still be some of that with Newton under center, but that doesn’t seem like a productive staple with a QB that athletic and talented.

At the time, the Patriots were also expecting “Superback” Danny Vitale to be the team’s fullback, but he has since opted out.

Now, New England fields Keene and second-year man Jakob Johnson, who is from Germany and is part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.

Neither is a bulldozing lead-blocking extraordinaire a la James Develin, but Johnson should improve as a capable traditional fullback in Year 2.

As for Keene, his presence to me indicates that New England is envisioning using a lot of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) or 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), depending on how Keene is viewed, or used. Keene may not even play often to start, especially with the offseason as it was, but eventually, expect the Patriots to use him at both fullback and H-Back/wingback.

This puts Newton and the Patriots tinkering with a heavy dose of shotgun, pistol and other formations featured around multiplicity and Newton’s ability to run the football both in designed plays and when improvising on passing downs.

Sure, New England will still utilize a traditional 11 set (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at times. Edelman will likely see a slight down tick in snaps due to his age, but he should be on the field for most of the game, leaving Harry and Byrd fighting for time in 2-WR sets and both being used, with Edelman, in 11 personnel. Both Olszewski and Meyers each factor in as Z-receiver (flanker)/slot hybrids behind Edelman.

In 2018, the Panthers ran 11 personnel on 69 percent of snaps. Only eight teams used it more. But because of the Patriots’ current personnel, and lack of talent at wide receiver, expect Belichick to only use principles of Norv Turner’s Panthers offense from 2018. This will only be a slice of the pie, like the potential limited usage of Shanahan offensive concepts.

New England does field a diverse set of running backs, even if they are banged up some heading into the season. Sony Michel and Damien Harris should battle for lead back carries when Harris returns from injured reserve. White will be the third-down back, and Rex Burkhead will factor in both in the running and passing game as a do-it-all option who may be heavily utilized early (September) and late (December, January…February?) as a safe option in big games because of his versatility. But New England will likely limit his playing time to keep him fresh. And then there’s undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, a 5-foot-5 mighty mouse who is currently on the roster.

Here are two interesting notes from a recent episode of The Athletic Football Podcast via NFL’s Next Gen Stats:

With Michel on the field, New England ran the football 67 percent of the time in 2019. That’s the highest percentage for such a stat among running backs with at least 200 snaps last season.

Additionally, with White on the field, the Patriots ran a passing play on roughly 82 percent of snaps last season, which was good for fifth-highest among running backs.

If the offense is going to become less predictable by personnel, Michel will have to improve some as a pass catcher. But at the very least, you’d like to see him run wild in cold weather like he did down the stretch in 2018.

Basically, look for the Patriots to run the heck out of the football in 2020, and for them to do it out of a variety of formations, including many unique looks out of the shotgun. They may even roll with shotgun formations with both Burkhead and Michel in the backfield. Or Burkhead and White. Or all three.

Really, everything revolves around Belichick and Josh McDaniels once again to design a new offense with unique concepts, this time around a different QB.

Luckily for Newton, his NFL home is now full of men more adept than any other when it comes to tailor-made offensive game plans revolving around quarterbacks. And even better, Belichick and McDaniels have done this at a chameleon-like level of versatility, and they have done it on the fly.

Zone-reads, RPOs, designed QB runs. The Patriots will likely try to do it all with Newton. In a perfect world only in Belichick’s mind, the Patriots would run the football at a 2019 Baltimore Ravens level, plowing over teams on the way to the end zone.

No one really knows how Newton will fare as a runner in 2020. But you can bet that New England will look into it.

Additionally, Newton’s ability to tuck and run will encourage teams to play more zone coverage this season. Gone will be the days of 2019 where teams used man coverage across the board, doubling White or Edelman and blanketing New England’s passing game.

Newton should be able to buy time and find the open man, which will often be zone coverage spatial awareness mastermind, Edelman.

The Patriots will do this all behind an offensive line that will return center David Andrews to provide a stout interior core with guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Isaiah Wynn should improve as the team’s left tackle and with long-time right tackle Marcus Cannon sitting out this season, it looks like the Patriots may be relying on former Ravens guard Jermaine Eluemunor to play right tackle.

There is slightly less pressure on these tackles’ ability to pass block with Newton than there would be with Brady because of Newton’s ability to scramble, but the Patriots are still looking for strong play out of their O-line. This unit needs to be the constant. I suggest minimal problems with run blocking, at least.

The most exciting thing about this Patriots season is the offense under Newton. With no preseason games and a limited offseason, no one really knows what we’ll see. But we can make educated guesses, like I have here.

When Evan Lazar of CLNS Media asked what the offense will look like with him at quarterback, Newton smirked and gave this response: “Nobody knows, and nobody is going to know. You’ll just have to tune in and see.”

We’ll find out this Sunday.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Cam Newton

RB — Sony Michel 

FB/H-Back — Jakob Johnson/Dalton Keene

‘X’ WR — N’Keal Harry

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Julian Edelman

TE — Devin Asiasi 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Jermaine Eluemunor

Situational positions: 

Scatback — James White

WR3 — Damiere Byrd

WR4/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Scatback — J.J. Taylor

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste 

* * * * * * *

Unlike the offense, which will see somewhat of an overhaul, New England will likely use some of the same concepts on defense, just with different personnel.

By now, everyone’s aware of key opt-outs in linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung. New England should be able to get by without Chung, but losing Hightower could be a breaking point for a front seven that already lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, as well as nose tackle Danny Shelton.

This offseason, I watched every snap from the Patriots’ defense last season for a research project. Here are the formations the Patriots used for over two percent of their defensive snaps on the 2019 season, and how often they used them (rounded up to nearest tenth of a percent):

Nickel 2-4-5 (26.7%)

3-4 (16.4%)

Big Dime 1-4-6 (15.4%)

Big Nickel 2-4-5 (12.7%)

Big Dime 2-3-6 (10%)

Dime (4 CBs) (6.1%)

Quarter 1-3-7 (4.1%)

Nickel 3-3-5 (2.2%)

The Patriots switched to formations with 3-4 principles in 2019 because of their personnel. Because of their current personnel and shortened offseason, it’s worth wondering if Belichick will switch to more of a 4-3 concept, like he did when the NFL last had a shortened offseason in 2011 due to CBA discussions. Obviously, teams mostly use Nickel as their base in today’s game, but depending on how the Nickel defense is utilized, it will feature principles from the ole 3-4 or 4-3 looks.

In the front seven, only Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler return as consistent, sure things. Guy is versatile and has proven his worth by taking on multiple defenders up front, and Butler is a solid interior rusher who is steadily improving as a run defender.  After that, it’s a mystery.

Beau Allen was brought in to replace Danny Shelton at nose tackle, but Allen is currently on IR, ensuring he’ll miss at least the first three weeks. Deatrich Wise Jr.’s playing time decreased in 2019 due to a poor scheme fit, but the fourth-year defensive lineman has had a solid camp, and apparently has beefed up, meaning he may be able to slide into an interior role. Then there’s Byron Cowart, a fifth-round pick from last year who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation out of high school in 2015. The talent is there for Cowart, who could surprise as a fixture next to Guy up front in Nickel 2-4-5 sets.

Last season, New England generated a pass rush schematically by using Guy and other defensive lineman to eat up blockers up front, allowing Van Noy, Collins, Hightower and others to shoot the edge and gaps to rush the passer. If New England is to do the same this season, they’ll need a big second-year jump from EDGE Chase Winovich, who tallied 5.5 sacks on limited snaps as a rookie sub rusher in 2019.

Winovich is a little light to stop physical rushing attacks, but opposite him is strongman John Simon, who is entering his third season with the Patriots in sort of a Rob Ninkovich role. He is a strong-side EDGE defender who is versatile enough to play both stand-up or on the line. New England often switched their Nickel 2-4-5 into a 3-4 look last season in pre-snap. They’d bring Chung up into a linebacker role and have Simon play stand-up 3-4 defensive end, which looks unusual but was very effective for Belichick’s defense last season.

They’ll need Simon and rookie Anfernee Jennings to set the edge in the run game. Jennings projects to fill Van Noy’s in run defense only, but most likely won’t produce a pass rush anywhere near Van Noy’s 2019 level, nor will he play as many snaps as Van Noy did for New England last season.

In the middle of the defense, Ja’Whaun Bentley will need to evolve from part-time thumper linebacker to a full-time role as the front seven’s leader. He’ll essentially slide into Hightower’s role, but will be used a bit differently. And former New York Jet Brandon Copeland should factor in as an off-ball option, and perhaps the same with rookie sixth-round draft pick Cassh Maluia.

Josh Uche -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
There’s pressure on Patriots rookie LB/EDGE Josh Uche to catch on quick to the pro game. (Screenshot: Josh Uche (Twitter))

Then there’s Josh Uche, the team’s second-round pick out of Michigan. Uche played limited snaps in Michigan, but was a superb pass rusher, where he was opposite Winovich at one point. New England loves versatile players, and Uche will bring just that as a defender who will likely spend time as an off-ball linebacker on early downs and EDGE defender on passing downs. He’ll rush from both spots, and play some middle-of-the-field zone coverage, and perhaps, cover running backs.

Essentially, Uche will be used in Collins’ role from last season. Because of the lack of experience and depth at linebacker and EDGE, the Patriots are banking on Uche to learn quickly.

The linebacking core also signals that the Patriots will likely have instances where they use a ton of safeties on the field at the same time. Like last season, they’ll use a lot of three-safety packages in the form of Big Nickel and Big Dime. They’ll use multiple safeties in the box as psuedo-linebackers, and turn around and use those same players as traditional safeties.

In the 2018 playoffs, the Chargers shut down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense by using seven defensive backs on 98 percent of their defensive snaps in an AFC wild card win. Adrian Phillips, one of the Chargers’ extra safeties in that contest, is now a member of the Patriots.

New England’s versatile set of safeties — Phillips, rookie Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, Devin McCourty — can all play in the box, in attempts to field a faster defense congruent with some of the spread offenses in today’s game.

May this group, and the league’s best set of cornerbacks, limit high-flying spread offenses such as the Chiefs? Yes. Could they slow down Jackson and the Ravens by utilizing a ton of safeties at once (like the Chargers did in 2018) as opposed to last season’s unsuccessful heavy, stack-the-box personnel? Possibly.

But a team like the Titans could make mince meat out of this type of defense behind a 30-carry performance from bruising back Derrick Henry. Like always, Belichick will mix and match defensive game plans by the week.

In that case, it helps to have a constant in the league’s best group of cornerback and overall secondary. The Patriots should continue to rely on man coverage. According to PFF, New England has used Cover 1 more than any other franchise since 2015. Last year, they nearly perfected it with their versatile group of pass defenders.

Stephon Gilmore -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
Stephon Gilmore returns as the NFL’s best cornerback, and perhaps the best non-QB in the league outside of Rams DT Aaron Donald. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Stephon Gilmore, 30, remains the game’s best cornerback and perhaps the NFL’s best non-QB, non-Aaron Donald football player. He’ll continue to shut down opposing receivers in given assignments.

Opposite him, J.C. Jackson should overtake Jason McCourty as the team’s No. 2 cornerback on the outside, but both will get ample playing time, with Jonathan Jones manning the slot and occasionally playing two-deep safety, which he has done over the last two seasons (see: Super Bowl 53). Then there’s last year’s second-round pick, Joejuan Williams, a 6-foot-4 matchup piece that is learning the safety position.

It will be interesting to see how New England plays in the back end. The Patriots primarily used Duron Harmon as the lone deep safety last season, with McCourty moving up as a robber.

This season, New England can opt to keep McCourty as the free safety in Cover 1 or use Dugger in Harmon’s place. Dugger, and Phillips, are each certainly capable of filling Harmon’s old role. But it’s Dugger, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic force, who may fit best there. Still, Dugger may find himself in man coverage on the likes of Travis Kelce and other tight ends who are  unleashed as jumbo wide receivers out of the slot.

Like the offense, there is a sense of mystery on how the defense will line up, but you can bet a lot of Belichick’s old trends will factor in. The only wonder is whether the front seven will rely heavily on a Nickel 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles, or more of a Nickel defense with 4-3 principles, but in the secondary, the Patriots will continue to play to their strengths by applying man coverage and often using three-safety packages.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Lawrence Guy

Interior — Adam Butler

EDGE — Chase Winovich 

EDGE — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Josh Uche

LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

S — Kyle Dugger

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Beau Allen

Interior  — Bryan Cowart

Sub EDGE/Interior Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

LB — Brandon Copeland 

EDGE/LB — Anfernee Jennings

S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips

S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Terrence Brooks

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

* * * * * * *

Projected record: 10-6 (AFC’s No. 3 seed)

Despite Brady’s departure, the mass exodus in the defense and the possible ascension of the talented Buffalo Bills, the Patriots still have Belichick and a former NFL MVP at quarterback.

The defense will need to remain a top-five unit and Newton will need not only to be healthy, but also capable of elevating a sub-par group of pass catchers. He’s done this before in Carolina. If the Patriots can establish a solid and unique rushing attack, Newton should be able to make enough plays for the Patriots to surprise many on offense.

Prognosticators have been a bit harsh on New England’s chances this season. Yes, the Bills are more talented, but there’s a good chance an inferiority complex kicks in as soon as the Patriots establish an offensive identity and begin to roll, in which they will at some point this season — most likely down the stretch after a tough early-season schedule.

For these Patriots, a 12th straight AFC East title is in play, as well as a trip to the AFC Divisional Round. After that, the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh will make it tough for them to go any further. Divisional weekend seems like a good bet for this team, which isn’t bad for a re-tooling (not re-building) year.

Lamar Jackson vs Rams

Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2020

For the third straight year, I bring you, my Top 100 players list. Well, I made a Top 50 in 2019, but since increased my strenuous research project by double, as I watch film, sort players and give my takes on a piece that I begin around March or April every year, finishing up in the summer.

As we enter uncharted territory with the beginning of team training camps this week in a COVID-19 climate, there’s no telling if this season can safely be played, or if it will be, at this moment. This aims to be the weirdest season in NFL history, but it appears we will have a season nonetheless.

Before diving into the list, here are some notes:

— As it’s always been with this list, my criteria in ranking players is what I like to call the 70/30 rule. 70 percent of my decision to place a player on my list is based off that player’s last two or three seasons of play, and 30 percent is based off their potential in 2019.

— Here are the teams with the most players on my list: 

Kansas City Chiefs (6)

Tamps Bay Buccaneers (6)

Minnesota Vikings (6)

Baltimore Ravens (5)

New Orleans Saints (5)

Philadelphia Eagles (5)

Los Angeles Chargers (5)

San Francisco 49ers (4)

New England Patriots (4)

Dallas Cowboys (4)

Seattle Seahawks (4)

Pittsburgh Steelers (4)

Tennessee Titans (4)

 The Kansas City Chiefs are also the team featuring the most top-tier players. They have four in my Top 26. The Saints are the only other team with more than two players in the top 30, with three in my Top 24.

Here are the number of players for each position, on the list:

Quarterback (13)

Running Back (11)

Wide Receiver (19)

Tight End (4)

Tackle (5)

Guard (2)

Center (1)

Defensive Tackle (6)

EDGE (16)

Linebacker (4)

Cornerback (8)

Safety (11)

The stand-out positions of this list are EDGE defenders (16), wide receivers (19) and running backs (11). There is a nice blend of over-30 veterans (Cameron Jordan, Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Calias Campbell, etc.) mixed with promising young talent (Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, etc.) when it comes to edge setters, making it one of the most exciting positions. Few athletes are as exciting as NFL wide receivers, which is the group with the most volume on my list. I had to squeeze out some second-year players at the position. Last year was a promising rookie class (Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, etc.), but only the Titans’ A.J. Brown made my list. This year’s rookie wide receiver class is projected to be even better. As for running backs, most in the NFL world agree that it is not wise to pay one after he’s been heavily used for a few seasons. The position has been devalued to that of a phone booth or horse and buggy in today’s game, but I see sort of a renaissance mixed with new-school flavor at the position. In all, 11 running backs made my list, which includes old school-style runners (Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott), new-age, dual-threat wizards (Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara) and everything in between (Saquon Barkley).

— Here were the 25 players that nearly made my list, but were squeezed out in the evaluation process:

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals 

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Arik Armstead, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

D.J. Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers

Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington

Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Darius Slay, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

Trey Flowers, EDGE, Detroit Lions

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears

Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos

Joe Thuney, OG, New England Patriots

Demarcus Lawrence, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Demario Davis, LB, New Orleans Saints

La’el Collins, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Chris Harris Jr. , CB, Los Angeles Chargers

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

D.K. Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks

— As you’ll notice, I have A.J. Green — Green missed all of 2019 — barely missing the cut, but have Rob Gronkowski, who sat out in 2019 and has since returned from retirement, narrowly making the list. Although the shear talent and fit of A.J. Green with Joe Burrow, combined with my 30 percent aspect (potential) of the rule above, suggests Green should be heavily considered, there are more deserving players due to their respective play the last year or two, combined with their potential going forward. Considering his age and position, I’d like to see Green on the field first. Green is a soon-to-be-32-year-old wide receiver who sat out last year. Gronk, who is 31 years old himself, makes the list mostly for his consistency as possibly the best blocking tight end of all-time, combined with his rapport with Tom Brady. I’ll explain more in the list.

— I also decided to leave Philadelphia Eagles stalwart guard Brandon Brooks off the list. Brooks, who turns 31 next month, had the best year of his career last season. He was graded as the top guard in the league by PFF, with emphasis on his run blocking grade, which also led the league. When I began conducting research, watching film, and generally molding this list back in April, Brooks was initially in my Top 50. However, Brooks tore his left Achilles in June during an offseason workout, and is now expected to miss the entire 2020 season. The Eagles guard also tore his other Achilles back in 2018, and already had underwent shoulder surgery this offseason. Brooks is certainly one of the best guards in football, but considering he won’t be playing this season, I decided to leave him off. Considering his age and injury status, it will be tough for Brooks to return to his past level of play, but I wouldn’t count him out. Brooks is already looking forward to 2021.

— Another curious case, and omission, is Antonio Brown. There is no doubt in my mind that Antonio Brown could sign with a team next week, suit up this season, and be a top-five wide receiver. He’s THAT talented. If his situation weren’t as is, I’d probably include him in my top 25 or 30. That being said, considering he’s not signed — and even if he were, he would be facing a suspension — and he recently announced his retirement (again) before turning back on his decision (again), I decided to leave him off for now. It doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s a part of the NFL community at the moment, even if he’s been seen working out with Russell Wilson, garnering interest from the Seahawks and Ravens, and together with Tom Brady, holding out hope for a one-year deal with Tampa Bay.

And now, without further ado, the list…

*******

100. Cooper Kupp Cooper Kupp – WR, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: NR)            

A slot magician, Kupp has proven valuable to Sean McVay’s offense in Los Angeles. In 2018, the offense struggled down the stretch when Kupp was lost to injury. For an offensive unit that once held Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods as playmakers, Kupp is perhaps the most important to Jared Goff’s success. Kupp is Goff’s safety blanket. He caught 10 touchdowns in 2019 in a comeback effort.

99. Lavonte David Lavonte David – LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneeers (Last year: NR) 

David was one of the league’s best off-ball linebackers last season under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The 30-year-old was in the honorable mention portion of this list last season, but deserves to be here now. He has another year or two of dominance left in him. Last season, he ranked third among linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus

98. DeVante Parker DeVante Parker – WR, Miami Dolphins (Last year: NR) 

After four lackluster years, Parker finally pulled through as a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Year 5, just in time to ink a lucrative extension with the Dolphins. The 6-foot-3, X-type receiver pulled down 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and gave Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore — the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 — fits in a Week 17 performance that saw Parker snag eight catches for 137 yards on 11 targets, mostly working against the NFL’s best cornerback. To mention a fw extraordinarily hard omissions on the list, Parker essentially edged out Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, a three-time All-Pro X-receiver who will turn 32 at the end of July, and Panthers up-and-coming No. 1 wide receiver D.J. Moore. That’s saying something. Whether it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tua Tagovailoa throwing him the football, Parker should continue to improve.

97. Jadeveon Clowney Jadeveon Clowney  – EDGE, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 42)

Clowney, 27, still has the potential to be a game wrecker, but only shows it sparingly. He had a couple of monstrous games in Seattle, but ultimately finished the season with just three sacks, as the Seahawks ranked 29th in total sacks. It was a close call, but Clowney edged out Jaguars EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, a player with a lot of potential that should continue to flourish elsewhere (he won’t be in Jacksonville much longer) but his best season remains his 2017 campaign. Ngakoue has tallied 37.5 sacks in his four seasons, but was a mess against the run last year, ranking 95th out of 103 EDGE defenders in PFF’s run defense grade (51.6) in 2019. Clowney was stellar against the run last year, garnering a 80.8 grade in the same stat. And it’s worth noting that Clowney has had major success pressuring the quarterback (58 pressures in 2019), regardless of his sack numbers. Judging EDGE defenders solely off sacks will leave you with misleading information on said player.

96.Casey Hayward Jr. Casey Hayward – CB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 96)

Hayward turns 31 in September, but remains one of the most reliable players in football. He was expected to take a dip in 2019, but instead finished as the No. 3 cornerback in football according to PFFAlthough he will decline at somepoint (maybe this season), he’s still one of the better cover men in the NFL.

95. Zach ErtzZach Ertz – TE, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 76)

Ertz will turn 30 in November, but remains one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. He’s capable of playing in-line, flexed in the slot, or out wide. He’s brought in 204 catches the last two seasons, and remains one of the more reliable third-down converters in football.

94. Shaquil BarrettShaquil Barrett – EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR) 

After being franchise tagged by the Bucs this offseason, Barrett will look to duplicate his success from last season, where he led the league in sacks (19.5). He has room for improvement as an edge-setting run defender, and will have to show that he is a consistent force as a stand-up pass rusher in 2020, but it’s clear the talent is there to continuously improve.

93. Rob GronkowskiRob Gronkowski – TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Gronk’s dominance as a pass-catcher finally came to an end in 2018, but there’s little doubt that he’ll still be a threat in the middle of the field. He certainly should at least regain his claim as the best blocking tight end in football. Even at age 31, and while coming out of retirement, he’s a top-three tight end. Thanks to their chemistry, Gronkowski’s potential is maximized with Brady throwing him the football.

92. Devin McCourtyDevin McCourty – S, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

Even entering his age-33 season, McCourty remains one of the most reliable safeties in the league. He’s classified as a free safety, and although he does often defend the deep end, McCourty also spends a lot of time in the box in Bill Belichick’s three-safety scheme. His free safety-to-box-safety snap count in 2019 was 467 to 343, according to PFF. McCourty has also thrived as a man coverage defender against athletic tight ends, at times. It’s no wonder New England decided to extend the veteran on a two-year deal, even at his age.

91. Harrison Smith Harrison Smith – S, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 66)

In 2017, Smith was the top-graded safety in the NFL by Pro Football FocusTwo seasons later, Smith remained the third-highest graded safety in the league at age 30. Entering his age-31 season, he remains a consistent force in the Vikings’ defense, capable of playing as a deep-defending free safety, or in the box.

90. Marcus PetersMarcus Peters – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Known for his aggressive, play-making style — often with the risk of allowing big plays — Peters has found the perfect home in Baltimore. Peters was PFF’s No. 3-graded cornerback in 2019, and second-best man coverage cornerback, while also leading the league with three pick-sixes. His seven career defensive touchdowns are the most in the NFL since 2015.

89. Kenny Golladay Kenny Golladay – WR, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

Former NFL safety and current ESPN NFL film analyst Matt Bowen says Kenny Golladay has top-five upside as a WR1 in fantasy leagues this season. Pro Bowl stats or not, the 6-foot-4 receiver has proven to be a valuable piece on the perimeter for the Lions, showcased by his 18.3 yards per catch (third best in the NFL) last season. He’s one of the more underrated pass catchers in the league, as he’s not often talked about despite also garnering two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and a 11-touchdown campaign in 2019.  His best is yet to come.

88. Anthony HarrisAnthony Harris – S, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Harris was PFF‘s top-graded safety last year (both overall and in coverage) as well as their No. 3-graded safety the year before (2018). With Smith playing more of a strong safety role, Harris mans the deep end as one of the NFL’s best free safeties over the past two seasons.

87. Dak Prescott  Dak Prescott – QB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

After a last-minute scramble for a long-term contract fell short before the July 15th deadline (contract extension for franchise-tagged players), one of the league’s better quarterbacks will now be playing on the franchise tag.

With a steady offensive line, Ezekiel Elliot, and a projected top-tier wide receiver trio (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb), Prescott is in position to have a career year. He ranked fourth in ESPN‘s Total QBR stat (70.2) last year. Dak also ranked among the top four in 2016 and 2017.

86. Josh Allen Josh Allen – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: NR)

As a rookie, last year’s No. 7 overall pick tallied 10.5 sacks on a morbidly-deteriorating defense. There’s much room for improvement, and if Yannick Ngakoue doesn’t suit up for the Jaguars, there will be even more attention on the talented Allen, but his skill set puts him in great position going forward. There’s a superstar wave of young EDGE defenders in the likes of Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt, who all shine in both pass rushing and run defense. There’s potential for Allen, and maybe the Broncos’ Bradley Chubb, to soon join that group.

 

85. Julian Edelman Julian Edelman – WR, New England Patriots (Last year: 74)

Even entering his age-34 season, Edelman remains one of the NFL’s best slot receivers and reliable options on key third-downs and other clutch situations.

Last season, in a bottom-level passing offense in which he was the only reliable non-James White target, Edelman’s stat line was almost identical to DeAndre Hopkins, with 100 catches for a career-high 1,117 receiving yards and six scores (and a passing touchdown!). It’ll be interesting monitoring Edelman’s production with likely new starter Cam Newton now at the helm in New England.

84. Austin Ekeler Austin Ekeler – RB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

Ekeler wowed analysts and fantasy football owners alike in 2019, garnering 993 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns on 92 catches. Ekeler also showcased his rushing ability in a four-game stretch to begin the year in which he filled in for Melvin Gordon as the Chargers’ starting running back.

Ekeler is certainly capable of slotting into a Christian McCaffrey-type role within the Chargers offense, as a do-it-all offensive weapon worthy of 20-plus carries a game, and the ability to be a factor in the passing game, even when aligning as a receiver in shotgun formations.

83. Jimmy GaroppoloJimmy Garoppolo – QB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

In 27 starts with the 49ers (including playoffs), Jimmy Garoppolo is 21-6 as a starter, while also leading his team to a Super Bowl in his first full season as an NFL starter.

Many may quibble with Garoppolo making this list, but he only stands to get better as he further removes himself from a torn ACL he suffered early in the 2018 season. Normally, it takes a quarterback a year to get back into the swing of things, in terms of pocket presence and mobility, after such an injury — See: the difference between Tom Brady’s 2009 and 2010 seasons after his brutal opening day ACL tear in 2008.

As Garoppolo gains experience in Kyle Shanahan’s system, the team will begin to rely more on his right arm, as opposed to some of the run-heavy game plans we saw during the 2019 playoffs, which includes a 49ers win in which Garoppolo attempted eight passes.

Despite the success of Shanahan’s outside zone rushing scheme, there were times where Garoppolo carried the team in the clutch, like in San Francisco’s 48-46 win in New Orleans.

Yes, he was underwhelming down the stretch of Super Bowl 54, which includes a missed throw on a possible touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, but he only stands to learn from such an experience. His best days are ahead of him.

82. Tyler LockettTyler Lockett– WR, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: NR)

Since becoming one of Russel Wilson’s top targets as a rookie in 2015, only Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski has been a more efficient connection than Wilson to Tyler Lockett.

As a quick route technician working out of the slot, Locket caught an absurd 74.8 percent of his passes in 2019.

Additionally, last season Wilson had a 125.9 passer rating when targeting Lockett, which was the second year in a row that number was above 125. When a play is needed, the most underrated quarterback in the NFL looks toward perhaps the league’s most underrated wide receiver.

81. A.J. Brown  A.J. Brown – WR, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

The only 2019 rookie wide receiver to make this list, Brown hit the ground running as a bonafide No. 1 WR with size (6-foot-1, 226 pounds) and shiftiness. He led all wide receivers in yards after catch (YAC — 8.9) in 2019, demonstrating his ability to make plays with the football. That number, and his receiving ability in the intermediary part of the field on in-cutting routes, helped shape his phenomenal yards per catch (20.2), which was the league’s second-best mark (behind the Chargers’ Mike Williams).

As the best receiver out of a fun 2019 wide receiver class (D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, etc.), Brown is player with All-Pro caliber potential going forward. Notice I said All-Pro, not Pro Bowl. There is a major difference between the distinctions, with the former being much more noteworthy.

80. Earl Thomas III Earl Thomas– S, Free Agent (Last year: 93)

Thomas found success in his lone season in Baltimore, holding down the backend as a free safety in the Ravens’ Cover 1-heavy scheme. Because of a training camp altercation with Chuck Clark — and presumably more conflict — the Ravens recently released Thomas, making him a quality free agent. He’s older now (age 31), but is still one of the best safeties in football in terms of range. His ability to go sideline to sideline while reading the quarterback is second only to Ed Reed this century.

79. Amari CooperAmari Cooper – WR, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 67)

Cooper remains one of the better playmakers at wide receiver due to his route-running ability. In his first full season with Dallas, he had the best season of his career. His rapport with Dak Prescott is something the Cowboys would like to capture for the long-term.

Dallas will attempt to lock up Prescott after the season after rewarding Cooper this offseason with a hefty five-year extension worth $100 million.

78. Carson WentzCarson Wentz – QB, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 59)

Wentz has yet to recapture the magic he had during his 2017 campaign, but he was certainly not in the best position to succeed last year. Due mostly to injuries, Philadelphia fielded a wide receiving core that rivaled New England’s as one of the more slower, inefficient groups.

With the return of DeSean Jackson, and additional speed at receiver (drafting of Jalen Reagor, John Hightower) added through the draft, Wentz is better equipped for success in 2020. We should expect him to improve mightily.

77. Akiem Hicks Akiem Hicks – DT, Chicago Bears (Last year: 32)

After having the best season of his career in 2018, Hicks’ play fell back from phenomenal to just, good, in 2019. He’s still one of the best overall defensive lineman in the NFL in the interior. He was great against the run last year for a defense that regressed some.

76.Cam Newton Cam Newton – QB, New England Patriots (Last year: 58)

Newton’s inconsistency, recent injury history and recent play are enough to leave him off this list.

But alas, the potential (30 percent!) of a 31-year-old, highly-motivated Newton with Bill Belichick is too strong. The 2015 NFL MVP signed perhaps the biggest bargain-bin contract in league history last month — a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth $7.5 million if all stipulations are met, but is otherwise a near-league minimum deal with a base salary of $1.05 million (550k guaranteed) for just the 2020 season.

Of course, he’ll technically need to beat out Jarrett Stidham in August for the starting job, but the job of replacing Tom Brady in New England — which sounds crazy to say — is essentially Newton’s. Look for a mix of Brady-era staples and some new principles (QB power, zone-read, pistol formation, etc.) from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this year.

Despite losing in his last eight starts, Newton is set up for success in New England and belongs on the list.

75. Justin SimmonsJustin Simmons – S, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

Simmons was a Second-team All-Pro in 2019, as well as the No. 2-graded safety in the NFL in both coverage and overall play, according to Pro Football FocusJohn Elway and the Broncos would be wise to lock him up to a long-term deal next offseason. Simmons is a cornerstone player for Denver, who has benefited greatly from his play in the backend. He’s a major part of their swift rebuild that may net a playoff spot in 2020.

74. Byron Jones Byron Jones – CB, Miami Dolphins (Last year: 88)

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, a Bill Belichick disciple, is paying Byron Jones big money to fill the Stephon Gilmore role in Miami as a man coverage-based, No. 1 cornerback opposite fellow shutdown corner Xavien Howard (who is off the list in 2020 after a rough, injury-ridden 2019). Jones’ size and coverage skills make him the idea fit for this role. The UConn alum will help the lead the charge of the Dolphins’ new identity on defense.

73. Courtland SuttonCourtland Sutton  – WR, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

The 6-foot-4, 216 pound beast on the perimeter is the perfect No. 1 wide receiver for Drew Lock, who also has rookies Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, and tight end Noah Fant, to form a promising pass-catching nucleus behind the second-year quarterback and capable running back duo (Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon).

Still, it’s Sutton who is the top playmaker on the team. He only played a few games with Lock down the stretch, yet still grabbed 1,112 receiving yards and six scores mostly with sub-par quarterback play throughout the year. He’s a prototypical, big-bodied X-receiver.

72. Ben RoethlisbergerBen Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 35)

After missing virtually all of last season, Big Ben returns at age 38 to write the final chapter of his storied career. Will this be his last season? Or will he play a few more? His soon-to-be seventeenth season as quarterback with the Steelers put him tied for second all-time for most seasons at QB with one team, trailing only Tom Brady’s 20 years in New England.

But enough with the theatrics. Why does Ben belong on this list? Because he’s still a capable starting quarterback with top 10-value. He doesn’t need to be anywhere near that for the Steelers — a team that went 9-7 with awful QB play in 2019 — to succeed in 2020, but expect him to have a moderately successful comeback season nonetheless.

71. Chris GodwinChris Godwin – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Godwin, a 6-foot-1 playmaker who lines up mostly in the slot, was PFF‘s top-graded wide receiver in the NFL last season (90.7). Only Michael Thomas had a better PFF receiving grade.

With Tom Brady now at the helm in Tampa, it’ll be interesting to see how the 43-year-old works with Godwin, who is more of a downfield, Z/slot receiver with deep and intermediate ability, as opposed to a possession slot receiver that Brady is accustomed to working with. The GOAT’s arm will be tested.

Still, Godwin can also produce underneath, as evident by his 591 yards after the catch in 2019, a mark that led all wide receivers. At 24 years old, and entering just his fourth season, his best is likely to come.

70. Keenan Allen Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 44)

With 303 catches in the last three seasons, Keenan Allen has shaken off early-career injuries to remain one of the most consistent playmakers in football.

At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he works mostly out of the slot as a route-running extraordinaire despite sub-par speed — at NFL standards —  for the position. He’s seems like an older age 28, considering he’s entering his eight season and has suffered some gruesome knee and kidney injuries, but he still has much more left in the tank.

He should once again be among the most-targeted pass catchers in football in 2020.

69. David Bakhtiari David Bakhtiari – OT, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 39)

Bakhitiari remains one of the most reliable tackles in football. He ranked second in pass blocking grade in 2019, according to PFF. He’s one of the Packers’ cornerstone players, and will continue to be a force this season, as well as a reliable pass rush safeguard to Aaron Rodgers.

68. Marlon HumphreyMarlon Humphrey – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 100)

The Ravens, a team rich in defensive tradition, were able to build yet another formidable unit with much help from Humphrey, who has developed into one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. Last year he was one of the top cornerbacks in man coverage, both from the slot and the perimeter. The Ravens and the Patriots were in a tier of their own last season in terms of Cover 1 efficiency. But where New England often used a “robber” to take away crossing routes, Ravens cornerbacks often did not have that luxury, as Baltimore blitzed on 60 percent of their Cover 1 snaps. Humphrey proved his worth as a an excellent cover-man in 2019, earning him First-team All-Pro honors. He should only improve from here.

67. Mitchell Schwartz Mitchell Schwartz – OT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 63)

Schwartz, who has been named an All-Pro in each of the last four seasons, was snubbed from ESPN’s Top 10 tackles list (voted on by NFL scouts and front office personnel) despite remaining one of the most reliable offensive lineman in football. The 31-year-old is a fixture up front. As the great Tony Reali pointed out on Twitter recently, on 834 pass blocking plays in 2019, Schwartz allowed Patrick Mahomes to be touched just five times.

66. Stefon Diggs  Stefon Diggs – WR, Buffalo Bills (Last year: NR)

Diggs is on a short list with the league’s best route runners that includes Keenan Allen, DeVante Adams and Antonio Brown when playing. Diggs will now be Josh Allen’s No. 1 receiver in Buffalo after partly forcing himself out of Minnesota. Allen’s accuracy is not his strong suit, which could spell problems for Diggs and his fluid route-running and awareness. Still, it’s impossible not to improve with the addition of Diggs to a pass-catching core. Diggs ranked 4th last year in yards per reception (17.9) and remains one of the better intermediate and deep threats in the league.

65. Jason KelceJason Kelce – C, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 61)

Kelce remains the best center in football for a team that prides themselves in steady offensive line play. The soon-to-be 33-year-old has been named a First-team All-Pro in each of the last three seasons, while also being PFF’s top-graded center in all three years.

64. Danielle Hunter  Danielle Hunter – EDGE, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Hunter notched 14.5 sacks for the second year in a row last season working as a terrorizing EDGE deFender along the Vikings defense line. He was also one of the top pass rushers in terms of overall pressures. Now that his production has skyrocketed, his praise should soon catch up. He’s underrated.

63. Eddie Jackson Eddie Jackson – S, Chicago Bears (Last year: 51)

His play dipped last year, but so did Khalil Mack’s and the majority of the Bears defense’s. Don’t let last year fool you, he’s one of the best safeties in football. He’ll pick it back up this season.

62. Joe MixonJoe Mixon – RB, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

It’s hard to produce or stand out league-wide on a team such as last year’s Bengals squad, but Joe Mixon did just that. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he’s one of the bigger feature backs in football. A nice blend of old-school, hard running and new-age athleticism, Mixon should help take some pressure of Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow in 2020.

61.Alvin Kamara Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 20)

After a booming 2018 season, he wasn’t quite the same in 2019. Injuries certainly played a part. Still, he remains one of the most dynamic players in football, and best pass-catching running backs after Christian McCaffrey. Kamara has notched exactly 81 catches in each of the last three seasons, and averages an insane 5.0 yards per carry on the ground. He has 37 total touchdowns in just three seasons, but his number of scores dropped from 18 to six in 2019. He’s set to bounce back this season.

60.Adam Thielen Adam Thielen – WR, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 43)

An ankle injury derailed his 2019 season. He’ll be 30 by the end of August, but is set up for a monster season as the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver once more. With Diggs gone, expect a boatload of targets to come his way. He can play on the perimeter and as a “Big” slot receiver.

59.Za'Darius Smith Za’Darius Smith – EDGE, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Smith was a monstrous offseason addition for the Packers last season. With the exception of maybe Nick Bosa in San Francisco, no other defensive newcomer transformed a defense like Smith did in 2019. He notched 13.5 sacks, led the league in total pressures (93) and notched one of the highest-graded seasons in terms of pass rushing and coverage as an EDGE defender, according to PFF.

58. Tyrann MathieuTyrann Mathieu – S, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 86)

Last year’s list showcased a trend in the rising importance of players who work out of the slot, on both offense and defense. As a safety/nickel back hybrid, Tyrann Mathieu showed his worth by picking up the slack in a lackluster secondary, making things difficult for quarterbacks over the middle. The Chiefs likely wouldn’t have had enough talent on defense to win the Super Bowl without him.

57. Lane Johnson Lane Johnson – OT, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: NR)

Johnson has been consistently great as the Eagles right tackle over the past few seasons. In 2019, he allowed just one sack and posted the highest run-blocking grade for a tackle, according to PFF.

56. Josh Jacobs Josh Jacobs – RB, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: NR)

In just 13 games last season, Jacobs posted 4.8 yards per carry while averaging 88.5 yards rushing per game, which was good for third in the league. The Raiders relied heavily on the rookie to produce on offense. That’ll be the case again in 2020, as the franchise opens up their new stadium in Las Vegas. At least they have one of the game’s best young running backs.

55.Eric Kendricks  Eric Kendricks – LB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

He was PFF‘s second-highest graded off-ball linebacker last year. Kendricks excels in pass coverage in an era in which teams rightly covet linebackers of that variety. He’s no slouch in run coverage, either.

54. Nick Chubb Nick Chubb – RB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

Chubb ran for 1,494 rushing yards last season while averaging 5.1 yards per carry, a ridiculous feet. New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski (former Vikings OC) should be able to use multiple tight ends and an outside zone rushing scheme to further Chubb’s excellence in 2020. Chubb excels in fighting through contact and breaking tackles to gain extra yardage. He’s a workhorse back. He was also PFF‘s top-rated running back (88.7) last season.

53. Derwin JamesDerwin James – S, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 30)

James missed all but five games last season due to a stress fracture in his right foot. The Chargers’ defense suffered without him. James is one of the most versatile players in the NFL, capable of playing as a deep safety, box safety, linebacker or cornerback. He can play both man or zone coverage in any scheme. Let’s hope NFL fans don’t have to suffer, too, and we get a healthy Derwin on the field in 2020.

52. Mike EvansMike Evans – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 68)

It’ll be interesting to see how Evans, a 6-foot-5, giant X-receiver meshes with a 43-year-old Tom Brady. Brady excelled in his prime with Randy Moss as a deep threat, and later turned back the clock at age 40 with Brandin Cooks as a speedy downfield option. Evans is more of a jump ball machine with excellent hands and underrated route-running and awareness. Considering Brady’s work with Gronk over the years, Evans’ top-notch catch radius should help Brady adjust to Bruce Arians’ offense. Regardless, Evans is one of the best perimeter receivers in the game.

51. Ronnie Stanley Ronnie Stanley – OT, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Stanley, the No. 6 overall pick in 2016, came into his own in Year 4 as the left tackle for one of the best rushing offenses of all time. He was rightly named First-team All-Pro last year, but ironically, it was mostly his pass blocking that earned him the honor. Stanley notched one of PFF‘s highest-graded pass-blocking seasons (93.7) by a tackle ever, and was the second-best graded tackle overall in 2019.

50. Darius Leonard Darius Leonard – LB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 65)

Leonard is a do-it-all force, and perhaps the best off-ball linebacker in football after Bobby Wagner. His light frame and quickness make him perfect for today’s game. He excels in sideline-to-sideline play and zone coverage.

49. Kevin Byard Kevin Byard – S, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 83)

Byard has 17 interceptions in the last three seasons, one of the top numbers for a safety. His five-year deal last offseason was the richest contract in NFL history for his position. Byard has proven to be a tough player to play against for all types of quarterbacks, stemming from Tom Brady to Lamar Jackson. He picked off Jackson early in last year’s shocking AFC Divisional Playoff where the Titans upended the Ravens, setting the tone for Baltimore’s night of misery. He’s an enforcer who helps lead the way for Mike Vrabel’s tough Tennessee squad with attitude.

48. Aaron JonesAaron Jones – RB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Jones’ 19 total touchdowns tied Christian McCaffrey for the highest mark last season. He’s dual-threat running back who not only excels in the passing game, but can line up on the line as a receiver in shotgun spread formations. But under head coach Matt LaFluer, the Packers now use more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and zone-rushing schemes from the Shanahan tree. Jones has proven the ability to flourish in multiple offenses over the past two years, and remains an valuable offensive asset for Green Bay.

47. Minkah FitzpatrickMinkah Fitzpatrick – S, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR) 

Pittsburgh traded their first-round pick to Miami for the versatile Minkah Fitzpatrick last year, and the decision ultimately was a sound one. The Steelers pick (No. 18 overall) was essentially used to select the 23-year-old defensive back Swiss army knife who changed the landscape of the Steelers defense. He can play free safety (where he played the majority of snaps in 2019, according to PFF), as a box safety, in the slot, or even out wide in man coverage. It’s that kind of versatility that’s sorely needed in any NFL defense because of the style of today’s game.

46.Davante AdamsDavante Adams – WR, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 64)

Adams notched 83 catches on 127 targets in 12 games last season as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver. Considering the lack of talent across the rest of their pass-catching arsenal, what Adams has done recently in Green Bay has been extra impressive. He remains one of the best route-runners in football. Everything he does is fluid.

45.Jamal Adams Jamal Adams – S, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 47)

Seattle traded a massive haul — including two first-round picks and a third-round pick — to the New York Jets in exchange for perhaps the best safety in the NFL. At face value, the trade suggests the Seahawks will look to partly recreate their Legion-of-Boom defensive glory days by using Adams in the Earl Thomas role as a rangy, Cover 3, deep safety. However, Adams actually played more snaps in the box (401) than he did as a free safety (297) last season. As great as he is in deep coverage, he is also a capable man coverage defender versus athletic tight ends, and is also one of the best pass rushing safeties in football. He’s an all-around playmaker. Look for the Seahawks to move him all around the board, especially since Quandre Diggs capable of handling free safety duties.

44. Grady JarrettGrady Jarrett – DT, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 46)

He doesn’t get enough credit as one of the best interior defenders in the NFL. He’s been of the better pass rushers at defensive tackle for quite some time, but it’s his improvement in run coverage that has made him a complete player. He was just one of four interior defenders to grade above an 80 in both pass-rushing and run defense last season for PFF. The Falcons are in need of help around him (and Deion Jones) on defense, but having Jarrett is a good start.

43. Matt RyanMatt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 38)

The Falcons were riddled with injuries in 2019. They began the season 3-9 before winning their last four games. According to PFF, Matt Ryan had his worst season since 2009. The year was a mess overall, but by the end of the season, there were reasons for optimism. The consistency of Ryan, who has been one of the better quarterbacks or the last decade-plus, is one thing Atlanta should be thankful for. The 35-year-old is in position to bounce back in 2019, as he enters perhaps the tail end of his career. With Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and newcomers Hayden Hurst (TE) and Todd Gurley, expect there is a capable arsenal for Ryan to thrive with his passing prowess. I sense a good season coming from him. He’ll need it in a tough AFC South that now features Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

42. Richard ShermanRichard Sherman – CB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR) 

In a bounce-back effort for the ages, Sherman adjusted to life as a veteran by regaining his position as an outspoken team leader for an NFC champion team, a familiar role for him. Sherman finished the season as the top-ranked cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (90.3 grade). He’s lost a bit of speed and quickness, but he’s still a technician as a press-coverage boundary cornerback in San Francisco’s Cover 3 scheme.

41.Chandler Jones Chandler Jones – EDGE, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 54)

Since coming over to Arizona from New England in 2016, no one has had more sacks (60) than Chandler Jones. The two-time All-Pro can thrive as a stand-up EDGE in a 3-4 or as a 4-3-style defensive end on the line. Only Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett (19.5) notched more sacks than Jones’ 19 last season. There are EDGE defenders that are perhaps more complete players, but you could make the case that Jones has been the best pure pass rusher at that spot over the last three or four years.

40. Dalvin Cook  Dalvin Cook – RB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

The thing with a Shanahan-style offense (in which Minnesota runs under OC Gary Kubiak) is that the outside-zone rushing scheme treats running backs well. Heck, Rueben Droughns, a fullback, ran for 1,240 yards in 2004 under Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos. So, there’s room for skepticism when gauging running back’s production in a Shanahan scheme.

That being said, we can throw that notion out the window here.

Dalvin Cook is one of the best running backs in football, utilizing his talents as a superb cutback runner who dazzles with quickness and tackle-breaking efficiency. On top of Cook’s 1,135 rushing yards and 13 rushing scores in 2019, he also caught 53 passes. He’s the perfect do-it-all player for Minnesota’s scheme.

39. Odell Beckham Jr.Odell Beckham Jr. – WR, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 16)

Kudos to Odell for tweeting out that there’s “unfinished business” in Cleveland. That’s certainly true. Last season was a mess for the hyped-up Browns. But when you can call a 74-catch, 1,035-yard season a disappointment as a wide receiver, we know we’re talking about a special player.

With a new head coach and scheme coming to Cleveland, expect a bounce-back season for Beckham, Baker Mayfield, and the Cleveland offense.

38. DeForest BucknerDeForest Buckner – DT, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 91)

One of the more under-appreciated players in pro football, Buckner is a force along the interior. The Colts traded their No. 13 pick from this past draft — an extremely valuable piece — to the 49ers n order to obtain the 26-year-old. Last season, Buckner’s presence in the interior allowed the likes of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford to feast in one-on-one matchups along the edge. With Buckner, Darius Leonard and linebacker Bobby Okereke now in the front seven, Indianapolis GM Chris Ballard has done a great job of building up his defensive unit.

37. Ryan Ramczyk  Ryan Ramczyk  – OT, New Orleans Saints (Last year: NR)

Ramczyk is the highest-ranked tackle and third-highest ranked offensive lineman on my list. The two-time All-Pro has been a beast at right tackle since joining the Saints as a first-round pick (No. 32) in 2017.

He was PFF‘s highest-graded tackle (90.9) in 2019, and his 91.8 run-blocking grade was the best among lineman who played most or all of the season. He also didn’t allow a single sack.

36. Cameron Heyward Cameron Heyward – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 85)

In last year’s list, I detailed Heyward’s game as sort of a 2010’s version of Richard Seymour. Heyward can act as a 3-4-style defensive end or 4-3-style defensive tackle. He mostly plays as an interior defender in Pittsburgh’s Nickel 2-4-5 scheme with 3-4 principles — sort of like New England’s base defense last season. I also noted that Heyward’s best years may be behind him.

I was wrong.

Heyward, 31, had his best season in 2019, tallying nine sacks and the highest grade (91.5) of any interior defender not named Aaron Donald. He was phenomenal both against the run and rushing the passer. With fellow interior defender Stephon Tuitt out of Pittsburgh’s lineup for 10 games, Heyward stepped up to the plate. His inside presence was key in allowing T.J. Watt to have a career year as an EDGE defender.

35. Jalen RamseyJalen Ramsey – CB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 24) 

As the Rams attempt to reverse course on their over spending by cutting bait with others, they appear to be content with spending a boatload of money (and two first-round picks in a trade to Jacksonville) on Aaron Donald and Ramsey, figuring they have the NFL’s best non-QB and a top-three cornerback. They’d be right on both fronts, even if their trade for Ramsey was steep. The former Jaguar can play any coverage, but also thrives in Cover 3. The COVID-19 pandemic may hinder his ability to feel comfortable entering his first full season as a Ram, but with half a season already under his belt out in LA, that shouldn’t be a problem for the boisterous cornerback, who happens to be the most talented in the league at his position. Ramsey struggled last year, adjusting to his new team, but I don’t seem him continuing down that path going forward. He’ll return to his old self, or close to it.

34. Zack Martin  Zack Martin – OG, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 40)

Martin has played six NFL seasons and has made six All-Pro teams. Quite simply, he’s an animal up front.

Last season he was the third-highest graded guard on PFF. He’s been among the top-five graded guards every year he’s been in the league. His pass-blocking grade (90.8) was the top mark by far for his position. He will continue to be a mauler at guard for years to come. He’s the second-highest ranked offensive lineman on my list.

33. Fletcher Cox Fletcher Cox – DT, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 19)

Another defensive tackle who qualifies for the “not-talked-about-enough” list is Fletcher Cox.

He’ll turn 30 in December, but should continue to shine as a do-it-all force that creates a ton of inside pressure on the quarterback, even if his sack numbers don’t show it.

32. Calais CampbellCalais Campbell – EDGE, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 49)

If Cam Newton to New England is the “How did the NFL let this happen?” storyline on the offensive side of the ball, Calias Campbell being traded from the Jaguars to the Ravens for a measly fifth-round pick wins defensive honors.

Sure, he’ll be 34 years old by the time the season starts, but his versatility and run coverage will make a huge difference along a Ravens’ defensive line that was gashed by Derrick Henry and the Titans in their playoff loss last January.

Campbell does work as both an interior presence and EDGE rusher, and fits base defenses with both 3-4 and 4-3 principles (most teams now use Nickel personnel with five defensive backs as a base, but still employ principles of the 4-3 and 3-4).

His PFF run blocking grade (90.6) in 2019 was best among all EDGE defenders and second for interior defensive lineman. His overall PFF grade was third-best among interior lineman. Furthermore, Campbell’s veteran presence should elevate him to a team-captain-ish role on the team if he isn’t literally elected as a captain. The addition of both Campbell and Derek Wolfe will work wonders for the Ravens both on and off the field. It’s Super Bowl or bust for Baltimore.

31. Ezekiel Elliott Ezekiel Elliott – RB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 12)

After earning his mega-extension before last season, Elliott became the fifth running back in NFL history to rush for over 5,000 yards before the age of 25. The two-time All-Pro finally turned 25 last week, and should continue his ascension up the all-time rushing list. He ran for 1,387 yards and 12 scores last season with a 4.5 average per rush. That was somehow overlooked, as he stills chasing the magic that came with his rookie year in 2016. The Cowboys offensive line remains one of the league’s best  units, but is not quite as good as it was in 2016. Great offensive line or not, Elliott is one of the best downhill runners in football with excellent vision and stamina.

30. J.J. Watt  J.J. Watt – EDGE, Houston Texans (Last year: 8)

Watt again missed valuable time with an injury after tearing his pectoral halfway through last season. But in eight games, he notched an 88.9 PFF pass-rushing grade, good for sixth-best among EDGE defenders.

Watt’s last full season (2018) was a First-team All-Pro sensation, hence his high rank on my list last season, but the problem is his three seasons surrounding that campaign (2016, 2017, 2019) have added up to just 16 games total, meaning he’s missed 32 regular season games to injury since 2016. That’s two full seasons in four years. He’s 31 years old now, but can still be a force up front.

29. Derrick Henry Derrick Henry – RB, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

Simply put, Henry is a dominant force at the running back position. With size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds), strength and power, the 26-year-old bell cow back is the perfect antidote for smaller and quicker defenses often employed in today’s game.

Despite his downhill running ability, Henry has enough speed to get to the edge, putting fear in opposing defensive backs. If he reaches the second level behind the front seven, he’s likely to break past safeties for a big gain. He ran for a season-high 1,540 yards on 303 carries last season, good for a whopping 5.1 average, while also adding 18 touchdowns (16 rush, two receiving). He was the only player in the NFL to rush for over 100 yards per game (102.7) and also gained a whopping 1,268 yards after contact in 2019.

Things quickly improved for the Titans when they replaced quarterback Marcus Mariota with Ryan Tannehill, but it was mostly Henry’s running down the cold weather stretch that led to Tennessee to an unlikely AFC Championship Game appearance. Henry ran for 446 yards on 83 carries (5.4 average) in the Titans’ three playing games.

In an age where teams are passing on paying their star running backs to long-term deals  — and rightfully so, for the most part — you have to feel good for Henry, who signed a four-year, $50 contract with $25.5 million guaranteed, a few weeks ago.

28. Von Miller Von Miller – EDGE, Denver Broncos (Last year: 9)

After finishing among PFF‘s top-four graded EDGE defenders in each of his first eight seasons, Miller slipped to 22nd in 2019. Could his best years as a pass rusher be behind him? Possibly. But I’d be willing to bet we see a bounce-back season from the 31-year-old with a healthy Bradley Chubb rushing from the other side.

With Drew Lock and an offense with a lot of potential, and a defense fielding Miller, Chubb and newcomers Jurrell Casey (DT) and A.J. Bouye (CB), the Broncos have sort of a pre-season 2019 49ers feel to them. If Denver is to meet expectations, they’ll need a big year from Miller, and he’s certainly still capable.

27. Deshaun Watson  Deshaun Watson – QB, Houston Texans (Last year: 80)

Watson is one of the more promising young quarterbacks in football, and is one of a few talented young field generals (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, etc.) that has helped usher in a new era of football featuring forward-thinking coaches and front offices building around dual-threat quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, Bill O’Brien the GM has had issues surrounding Watson with a talented squad that can consistently stand up to the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and perhaps, New England, in the AFC.

Even with left tackle Laramey Tunsil, the Texans’ offensive line is a mess, often sending Watson into a frenzy that includes making plays on the move while running for his safety, away from a pass rush.

Houston’s 16-point comeback win over the Bills in their AFC Wild Card matchup was a good illustration of Watson’s capabilities as a franchise quarterback. Despite DeAndre Hopkins’ departure, a trio of Will Fuller IV, Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, along with running back David Johnson, is a sneaky-good lineup. Watson and O’Brien the coach (not to be confused with O’Brien, the GM) should be able to parlay this into another AFC South title, but will that alone be enough to comfort Watson into taking a long-term, big-money deal to stay in Houston? Certainly, money talks, but Watson’s future in Houston may be something to monitor in the next year or two.

26. Travis Kelce Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 36)

Kelce topped 1,200 yards receiving for the second consecutive season last year, with his 97 catches garnering a total of 200 in his last two seasons.

He’s improved some as a blocker, but his strength is ability as a “jumbo” wide receiver with ridiculous shake-and-bake agility and route-running smoothness for someone of his size — 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. Considering the way he moves, there hasn’t quite been a ‘Y’ playmaker like Kelce. He’s a special pass catcher. Kelce turns 31 in October, but should continue to produce big numbers for the next season or two.

25. Chris Jones Chris Jones – DT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 71)

The Chiefs were wise to lock up Jones this offseason as a cornerstone piece (along with Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill) for years to come. He’s the best interior pass rusher in the NFL after Aaron Donald, and has improved some as a run defender. His knockdowns on some of Jimmy Garoppolo’s passes late in Super Bowl 54 were a major part of the Chiefs’ comeback victory. He’ll only get better. The Chiefs can build around him up front.

24. Cameron JordanCameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 28)

Jordan, 31, is another overlooked EDGE defender in the mold of Fletcher Cox and Grady Jarrett in the interior. In his nine seasons, he has yet to miss a game, while garnering five double-digit sack efforts in the last nine years, which includes a career-high 15.5 takedowns in 2019.

He is just about equally effective both against the run and rushing the passer, and has remained consistent enough to be named to the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team, opposite Calias Campbell on the EDGE.

23. Joey Bosa Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 25)

After missing time with a foot injury in 2018, Joey Bosa quietly returned to forming 2019, notching 11.5 sacks en route to being PFF‘s fifth-graded EDGE defenders. His brother stole most of his thunder last season, but only T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett notched a better PFF pass rush grade (90.3) at his position. Joey is just turned 25 years old, and has room for improvement. That’s a scary thought.

22. Tyreek HillTyreek Hill – WR, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 26)

With a never-before-seen blend of speed, agility, burst and tough-it-out, hold-on-to-the-ball catch ability, Hill is the definition of a mighty mouse playmaker with peak explosiveness.

Hill, 26, already owns the most 60-yard-plus touchdowns (16) in NFL History, and averages a whopping 40.8 yards per touchdown. He’s on a short list with the likes of Randy Moss and prime DeSean Jackson as one of the greatest deep threats of all time. Additionally, he has otherworldly after-the-catch ability. He’s the most unique wide receiver in the NFL, and when paired with perhaps the best pass-catching tight end and the most talented quarterback of all-time, the Chiefs are virtually unstoppable on offense when everyone is clicking.

21. DeAndre HopkinsDeAndre Hopkins – WR, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 13)

Hopkins was my highest-ranked receiver last season, and remains in my top three heading into 2020 with his new club. He doesn’t have the explosiveness or speed of a Tyreek Hill, or ridiculous size of a Mike Evans or Julio Jones, but he makes it work with some of the best hands this game has ever seen.

Having just turned 28 this summer, he has ample time to continue climbing up the receiving record books as a reliable No. 1 target for young phenom Kyler Murray in Arizona.

20. Bobby Wagner  Bobby Wagner – LB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 10)

He had a subpar year by his standards in 2019, but was still one of the best off-ball linebackers in the game. He just turned 30, but remains in the back-end of his prime as the NFL’s premier linebacker and field general. Seattle hasn’t quite hit on their draft picks over the last few years, but they were still wise to build their team around both Russell Wilson and Wagner in the post-Legion-of-Boom era.

19. Julio JonesJulio Jones – WR, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 22)

Entering his age-31 season, there is still a viable case for Jones being the best receiver in football. In a rough year for the Falcons, Jones quietly posted a 99-catch, 1,394-yard season that somehow is his worst campaign since 2013, in terms of statistical production. That’s absolutely insane.

Over the past six seasons, Jones has averaged 103 catches and 1,565 receiving yards per year. Expect him to continue that pace in 2020.

18.Saquon Barkley Saquon Barkley – RB, New York Giants (Last year: 17)

It’s hard to dock Barkley because of his subpar offensive line and lack of an overall offense. All eyes are on him. Yet, he produced almost 1,500 total yards and eight scores in 13 games last season.

At 6-foot, 233 pounds with size, speed and power, the 23-year-old has yet to scratch the surface of what he can accomplish. He’s the most talented running back in football, and one of the most physically-gifted athletic freaks in all of sports.

17. Myles Garrett Myles Garrett – EDGE, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 34)

In hopes of putting last year’s debacle with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph behind him, Garrett enters 2020 with a massive new contract and a renewed sense of purpose.

Garrett somehow notched 10 sacks in 10 games played last year, and was the No. 1 pass rusher in terms of PFF‘s grading system before being suspended for the rest of the year after the incident. Like the 2019 Cleveland Browns in general, Garrett and the reset of the talented players on that squad are ready to leave the past where it belongs in hopes of reaching the postseason in 2020 with new head coach Kevin Stefanski.

16. T.J. Watt  T.J. Watt – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

Watt, 25, finished second in DPOY voting last year for good reason. He increased his sack total (14.5) for the third year in a row, giving him 34.5 in his first three seasons. He was also graded as PFF‘s top EDGE defender both overall (91.3) and rushing the passer (91.7).

He’s a monster in all facets as a Nickel 2-4-5 stand-up EDGE in Pittsburgh’s base defense, which uses 3-4 principles from their 2000s days. He is in line for a massive contract extension, perhaps next offseason.

15. Khalil Mack Khalil Mack – EDGE, Chicago Bears (Last year: 5)

Khalil Mack’s “off” year was a season in which he notched 8.5 sacks, but still ranked among the top EDGE defenders in both run coverage and pass rushing, according to PFF.

Entering his age-29 season, Mack is well positioned to return to his monstrous ways as a stand-up rusher opposite newcomer Robert Quinn. Expect him to notch double digit sacks in 2020 as he feasts off the edge.

14. Tre'Davious White Tre’Davious White – CB, Buffalo Bills (Last year: 45)

It’s ironic that the Bills parted ways with man coverage extraordinaire Stephon Gilmore, only to draft Tre’Davious White in the first round of that same offseason.

Bills GM Brandon Beane has done an excellent job in building Buffalo’s roster into one of the better teams heading into 2020, and no player represents that more than the 25-year-old White. The 2017 first-round pick has become the second-best cornerback in football with the inclination that he may be become the premier player at his position in due time.

White primarily plays a lot of zone coverage in the Bills’ scheme, but also excels when asked to play man coverage. He also plays the majority of his snaps out wide on the perimeter. But in 2017 and 2018, White often shadowed Rob Gronkowski, and gave him fits.

Basically, he can do it all.

13. Christian McCaffrey Christian McCaffrey – RB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: 37) 

The Panthers ponied up to hand McCaffrey a four-year deal upwards of $16 million per season, with over half of the contract guaranteed. That’s the most lucrative contract for a running back in NFL history. He earned the deal by becoming the first running back in league history to accumulate over 2,500 rushing yards and 2,500 receiving yards in his first three seasons, while also playing the highest rate of snaps for a running back (1,004 snaps, 93.4 percent) in 2019, according to Next Gen Stats. He’s not a running back of the traditional mold. Instead, he’s a phenomenally versatile offensive playmaker who is perfect for today’s game, as evident by his 1,387 rushing yards and 116 catches last season.

“I don’t look at Christian [McCaffrey] as just a running back,” Panthers first-year head coach Matt Rhule told WFNZ in March. “We see him as a weapon. We see him as a person that can be a receiver, a running back, can be a returner. As important as anything else is the true leader [McCaffrey is] on the team and he does everything the right way. I don’t think he’s the type of player you can pigeonhole into one position.”

12. Quenton Nelson Quenton Nelson – OG, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 33)

The 24-year-old, two-time First-team All-Pro has already became the best guard, and offensive lineman, in all of pro football.

He was the second-highest graded offensive lineman by PFF (91.2) last season (behind Eagles guard Brandon Brooks), and allowed just three sacks on 1,042 offensive snaps. He’s equally dominant in both pass blocking and run blocking. He will only get better. He’s already on track to become a Hall-of-Famer, and one of the best guards this game has ever seen.

 

11. Nick BosaNick Bosa – EDGE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Nick Bosa, the second overall pick in 2019, was an absolute madman along the edge as a rookie. He entered the league with a lot of hype, and somehow exceed it by a hefty margin.

It’s true that the 49ers were absolutely stacked up front, fielding four other first-rounders along the defensive line, which included DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford, but the 22-year-old Bosa stood out among the group.

He’s a better pass rusher than run stuffer, but he also sets the edge exceptionally well in run coverage. On passing downs, Bosa utilizes a nice blend of power and finesse moves to get to the quarterback. Nick virtually overpowers tackles as one of the most athletic EDGE defenders in the game.

He ranked second among EDGE players in PFF grade (89.8) last season, and generated an absurd 80 pressures, which is the more telling stat than his nine sacks.

In all, he had one of the most impressive rookie seasons of any defensive player ever last year, and will only get better.

 

10. Michael Thomas Michael Thomas – WR, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 23)

In sports, when everyone knows something is going to happen and it still can’t be stopped, that speaks to the dominance of the player involved.

Michael Thomas on intermediate passing targets has become one of the surest bets in the NFL.

Playing both on the perimeter and as a “big” slot option, Thomas uses his fantastic hands, body control, and elite awareness to come down with all different kinds of catches. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, he boxes defenders out, high points balls, and destroys both man and zone coverage.

He broke the single-season catch record with 149 grabs last season to go a long with a league-leading 1,725 receiving yards on 185 targets. He has 470 catches in just four seasons in the league, and should continue to dominate in 2020 with Drew Brees still at the helm.

He’s the top receiver on my list this year, and he’s earned it.

9. Aaron RodgersAaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 3)

There’s no question that last season was an acclimation season for Aaron Rodgers under new head coach Matt LaFluer’s system. LaFluer loves running ’12’ personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) with the quarterback under center in a Shanahan-type system that favors the outside-zone running game.

Add in the lack of secondary weapons outside of DeVante Adams and Aaron Jones — who are both supreme players who made my list, however — and you have a subpar season, by Rodgers’ standards.

Still, in his Age-35 season, Rodgers threw for over 4,000 yards with a 26-to-four touchdown-to-interception ratio, which eases the appearance of his 50.4 Total QBR mark. Plus, Rodgers helped lead the Packers to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in the last six seasons.

Now, he entered 2020 with something to prove after Green Bay drafted what could be his eventual replacement in the first round in quarterback Jordan Love. I expect Rodgers to respond by having a bounce-back campaign. This will only drive him.

8. Drew Brees Drew Brees – QB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 6)

Like Tom Brady — before last season, at least — Drew Brees has enjoyed a fruitful twilight that perhaps includes his best play in his late 30’s and early 40’s.

Last year, at 40, he nearly broke is completion percentage record from the year before (74.4 percent in 2018) with a 74.3 percent mark, while also boasting a career-high 116.3 rating and nearly 3,000 passing yards in 11 games. Statistically, he is the most accurate passer of all time.

He enters 2020 with yet another prime chance to win a coveted second Super Bowl ring in what looks to be his final season. New Orleans has perhaps the best roster in football. They have a solid defense, the most productive wide receiver in football, and a dynamic playmaker at running back. They also added Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver and still have the versatile Taysom Hill as a Swiss Army knife.

Then there’s Sean Payton. Brees and Payton have been together since their dual arrival in New Orleans in 2006, and they know how much a second Super Bowl ring would mean to their run.

Last year, Brees took the lead as the all-time leader in touchdown passes, which is now a race that sees him leading Tom Brady by six. He also graded out as the second best passer (89.2) and overall quarterback (90.6) in PFF’s grading system.

For the Saints, anything less than a Super Bowl win is a disappointment. Luckily, they still have one of the best quarterbacks of all time, who is ready to write his final chapter.

7. George Kittle George Kittle – TE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: 29)

Not only was George Kittle the top tight end in football last year, PFF ranked him as their top player overall in the NFL.

Kittle graded as a 94.4 overall, which is by far their top mark for a tight end last season, and the highest mark for a tight end ever, in their grading system.

As a prototypical ‘Y’ with devastating yards-after-catch ability, Kittle is simply too big for defensive backs, and perhaps too fast and too big for linebackers, as well. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Kittle broke 20 tackles (most for a tight end or wide receiver in 2019) and produced 622 yards after catch last season. The latter mark was more than any non-running back pass catcher, and good for third overall behind just Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler.

Furthermore, the 26-year-old is as good a blocker as he is a pass catcher. He’s filled the whole left by the departure of prime Rob Gronkowski as the man among boys at the position.

6. Tom Brady Tom Brady – QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 1)

I suspect this will be one of the more scrutinized slots on my list.

No, Tom Brady was not great last season. At times, he was as inaccurate and frustrated as he’s ever been. As he enters unknown territory at age 43, there’s no doubt his physical skills have already begun to decline.

But in today’s game, where quarterbacks are protected, Brady at 70 percent, physically, and at his best-of-all-time peak, mentally, is still a dangerous combo. Add in the fact that he is as driven as ever to prove everyone wrong (again) and will be throwing to an absurdly-talented tight end trio and wide receiver duo, and you can bet there’s a better chance that we’ll see GOAT-level Brady for stretches in 2020.

Last year, he dealt with a receiving core that was last in the league by a mile in average separation. After a fun start, Josh Gordon was jettisoned, the Antonio Brown experiment imploded, Gronkowski, James Develin, Trent Brown and David Andrews were not there to block and Brady was left with 33-year-old Julian Edelman and not much else.

So with Brady, there’s a chicken and egg-type situation — Was New England’s offense subpar because of Brady’s decline? Or was it mostly his surrounding core? I think there’s a little bit of the former at play, but I would attribute most of last year to the latter.

Plus, are you willing to doubt the man this Fall?

5. Lamar JacksonLamar Jackson – QB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Lamar Jackson took the league by storm in 2019, rightfully becoming the second unanimous NFL MVP in league history (Tom Brady was the first in 2010).

He obliterated the single-season rushing yards record for a quarterback with 1,206 yards on the ground, good for sixth in the league overall. He did so with a 6.9-yard rushing average mostly on designed runs that defenses were anticipating, but could not stop.

Not only is Jackson the best quarterback at designed runs the game has ever seen, he’s also a competent passer who will vastly improve as he becomes more polished. In 2019, he threw for a league-high 36 touchdown passes with just six interceptions and and posted a league-best 81.8 Total QBR.

At times, he was simply unstoppable. I don’t see his game being “figured out” anytime soon. Sure, defenses will adjust, but you can’t mimic Jackson’s athleticism, and he’ll only get better as a field general. He may not post absurd, unanimous MVP-type numbers for many more seasons, but he’ll continue to be a star for years to come.

4. Stephon GilmoreStephon Gilmore – CB, New England Patriots (Last year: 15)

In Gilmore, the Patriots have the best shutdown, man coverage cornerback since Darrelle Revis from his early-career days as a New York Jet. Gilmore became the first defensive back in roughly a decade to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award by stymieing opposing No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis. His incredible play was at its peak during the middle of last season, when he held Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper to zero catches on two targets, while also grabbing an interception. Bill Belichick is able to scheme up a pass rush in New England’s 3-4-type, Nickel 2-4-5 defensive scheme by sending blitzing linebackers while knowing Gilmore will blanket the opposing team’s top pass-catching option. He’s the best man coverage cornerback since peak Darrelle Revis, and the second-best defensive player in the league, and perhaps the most valuable in today’s game.

3. Russell Wilson  Russell Wilson – QB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 7)

Perhaps the most underrated player in today’s game, Russell Wilson’s value to Seattle rivals that of any other player’s value to their respective team as we begin the new decade.

Last season, he was the top-graded quarterback (91.9) by PFF, all while posting a 31-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And although the drafting of D.K. Metcalf is a nice compliment to Tyler Lockett, the quarterback’s supporting cast is still a so-so affair compared to that of some of his fellow elite field generals.

His offensive line is shaky, and although Seattle has a decent running game, the team relies too much on it, often taking the ball out of Wilson’s hands. He’s one of the best clutch quarterbacks this game has ever seen, often using his ability to improvise or use his league-best passing touch to fit in downfield passes when the team needs him most.

After solids drafts that netted the Legion of Boom era, GM Jon Schneider has been just OK in recent seasons, appearing to whiff on the team’s last four first-round picks, and gambling by trading their next two to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams.

Wilson will continue to lead Seattle to seasons of 10-plus wins, but for the Seahawks to return to the big game, they’ll need to improve their defense and offensive line. Still, he’s a treat to watch, especially when he elevates this Seattle team.

2. Aaron Donald Aaron Donald – DT, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 2)

It’s a shame Donald hasn’t reached the top spot on my list for the past three years, but as the league’s best non-QB over that span, he’s been in my top three on all three of my lists since I began this exercise in the Summer of 2018.

His PFF grades are the most impressive marks found on the website. He has been graded the top interior defender for the past five years, and was the second-best graded in 2014, his rookie season. He’s missed just two games in his career, and has averaged 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons as a defensive tackle, which is silly.

He’s a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and one of the most dominant football players of all time.

1. Patrick MahomesPatrick Mahomes – QB, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 4)

With less than two full seasons as a starter under his belt, 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes has twice reached the AFC Championship Game and has earned an NFL MVP award and Super Bowl 54 MVP honors. His ascension to this spot could come with a decade-long warranty. He has more to prove, but it’s clear he’s a legendary player who could be on path to challenge Brady as the GOAT, years from now.

A pass-catching offense featuring the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, a sturdy offensive line and mastermind Andy Reid is an excellent surrounding cast, but we saw the difference between Alex Smith and Mahomes leading this offense. Yes, even though he has tons of help, Mahomes is simply the most talented quarterback to ever play the game.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were about to find out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As expected, mayhem in the media ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything was set up for a career-defining moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brady was now, the GOAT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His wife, Gisele gave the most telling statements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Patriots accomplished more than any ever dreamt of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Mahomes - Super Bowl 54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s next for the 49ers? 

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not quite that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s next for me?

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

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

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

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

Eli Manning -- Super Bowl 46

Happy trails, Eli Manning + Top 25 clutch QBs in NFL History

I realized there was something special about Eli Manning during his first fourth quarter comeback in the spotlight.

During CBS’ late afternoon window in October of the 2005 NFL season, Manning rallied the Giants from a 23-10 fourth quarter deficit, to beat the Broncos — one of the NFL’s top teams that season.

Manning’s two-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with five seconds remaining gave New York a 24-23 victory. The pass was especially impressive because the Giants were out of timeouts, and Manning was backing up in the face of pressure during a somewhat-broken play, keeping his eyes on the end zone to find an improvising Toomer.

Two years later, Manning defeated perhaps the greatest team of all-time, the 18-0 2007 Patriots, en route to a Super Bowl 42 victory and MVP honors. He did it with two fourth-quarter touchdown-scoring drives, and one of the more miraculous plays of all-time in the Helmet Catch.

Eli Manning - Super Bowl 42
Eli Manning readies to throw the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 42. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Four years after that, Manning’s more impressive postseason run — NFL single postseason record of 1,219 pass yards —  ended with yet another Super Bowl win over the greatest coach and player in NFL history — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — featuring one of the great throws of all-time to Mario Manningham on the game-winning drive. Unlike the Helmet Catch, there was no luck involved in this one. A perfect throw by Manning, at the perfect time.

Manning’s composure is rivaled only by his forgetfulness. Manning’s ability to put a bad performance or drive behind him almost instantly, paved the way for several clutch performances in the unlikeliest of circumstances. His ability to forget and focus on the present (while moving forward) also made for the perfect New York quarterback.

In a city filled with tabloid-like headlines and a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude, Manning was able to shake off his critics to play 16 seasons, all with the Giants.

By the end of his career, Eli garnered $252 million though NFL contracts, the highest number in NFL history. But there were bumps along the way.

Despite his 8-4 postseason record (5-2 on the road), equipped with two of the greatest Super Bowl-winning runs in history, Eli’s four other postseason appearances resulted in disappointing one and done’s. And when Eli failed to make the postseason more than once in six seasons following his last Super Bowl win, his impressive streak of 210 consecutive games started came to an end when then Giants head coach Ben McAdoo benched him in favor of Geno Smith. After regaining his starting position in 2018, Eli was then benched again a couple of games into this season for rookie first-round pick Daniel Jones.

These were heartbreaking events for Eli, but he kept a smile on his face, refusing to criticize his team, coach, or starting quarterback when speaking to the media. Eli even helped mentor Jones, despite being in the most awkward of positions as the once-franchise quarterback — think: Drew Bledsoe.

Maybe that’s how we should remember Eli — a professional through the worst of circumstances and calm in the face of the highest adversity this game could offer. And although it’s debatable wether or not a quarterback with a career 117-117 record as a starter deserves Hall of Fame consideration, his two Super Bowl MVP awards speak for themselves.

Happy trails, Eli.

Top 25 Clutch Quarterbacks in NFL History

Eli’s retirement had me thinking of the greatest clutch quarterbacks in league history. We know Eli belongs on this list but where does he rank? See below.

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Honorable mention: Jim Plunkett, Patrick Mahomes (On his way, but too early. Would probably make this list with a win next Sunday, already.) Donovan McNabb, Matt Ryan, Steve McNair, Tim Tebow, Jake Plummer, Fran Tarkenton 

25. Steve Young

It took a few seasons for Young to “get the monkey off his back” as he and many viewed it. The Cowboys were a major thorn in his side, before Brett Favre and the Packers became one. But in between that, he beat Dallas to win a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP award, throwing for six touchdowns versus the overmatched Chargers. Then years later, he finally overcame Green Bay in the playoffs via a last-second touchdown pass to Terrell Owens — dubbed “The Catch II” — to beat the Packers in an NFC Wild Card matchup.

In all, Young had an above-average 8-6 mark in the postseason, and had some memorable moments in the clutch with the 49ers.

24. Jim Kelly

Despite his 0-4 Super Bowl mark, Kelly produced 29 game-winning drives as the leader of one of the greatest offenses ever during his stretch with the Bills. More so, Kelly drove the Bills into game-winning field goal range in Super Bowl 25, but Scott Norwood famously missed the kick, “wide right.” In two Super Bowls versus the Cowboys, Kelly was simply overmatched with his squad — similar to John Elway’s Super Bowl losses — and if you rule out his infamous Super Bowl record, Kelly is 9-4 in his additional postseason games. He came through several times for Buffalo.

23. Warren Moon

One might find this a bit of a surprise, but during Moon’s long career, he led his teams on 37 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. His playmaking ability magnificently came in handy during several comeback wins.

22. Troy Aikman

Aikman was surrounded by a ton of talent in Dallas, and he’s missing the memorable game-winning drive, but his 3-0 Super Bowl mark and 11-4 postseason record can’t be ignored. Aikman was a winner, and was highly accurate in several big games, both in the regular season and postseason.

21. Jake Delhomme

Many in Carolina remember Jake Delhomme from his six-turnover meltdown during a home NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Cardinals in 2008. But before that, Delhomme showcased why he belongs on this list.

Even including the bad loss above, Delhomme is 5-3 in the postseason. In his previous two playoff appearances, he brought his team to Super Bowl 38 — losing to Tom Brady but playing more than well enough to win — and to an NFC Championship Game in Seattle, where NFL MVP Shaun Alexander and the Seahawks overmatched the Panthers.

Delhomme was magical during his 2003 season, garnering a league-leading seven game-winning drives and five fourth quarter comebacks that season. Delhomme then posted a 106.1 passer rating during the playoffs, throwing for six touchdowns and one interception in four games. He threw the game-winning touchdown to Steve Smith to beat the vaunted Rams on the road in double overtime in the Divisional Round, won on the road in Philadelphia in the NFC Title game, and then threw for two fourth-quarter scores in Super Bowl 38, battling Brady score for score before losing on an Adam Vinatieri game-winning field goal.

The underrated stats of Delhomme’s career are his 4-1 postseason record on the road, and his honorable 2004 season, were the laughably-injured Panthers began the season 1-7, before Delhomme lead Carolina on a 6-1 record in a string of games that left them just short of the postseason.

His career may have been short lived, but Delhomme was remarkably clutch, leading 25 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in playing just four complete seasons.

20. Nick Foles

Another shorter resume makes the list with the unflappable Nick Foles.

With a 4-2 postseason record, and only 54 games started (30-24 record), Foles is one of the list’s additions simply due to how clutch he has been when thrown into the fire.

Before his disappointing, injury-filled effort with the Jaguars in 2019, Foles twice led the Eagles on late-season runs while filling in for Carson Wentz.

Many know Foles’ 2017 season that saw him take over for Wentz, and leading the Eagles on a Super Bowl run that saw him outscore NFL MVP Tom Brady and the Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl 52, giving Foles game MVP honors.

But it’s his next season, proving his clutch play was no fluke, that puts him at No. 20 on my list.

His 2018 campaign with Philadelphia featured a 5-2 mark that saw him lead the Eagles to three straight wins to end the regular season, before he led an ice-cold comeback drive to beat the Bears in Chicago in Wild Card round. After that, Foles looked poised to hand the Saints another devastating playoff loss (that would later come next week. The Super Bowl 52 MVP calmly drove down the field, but his perfect pass to Alshon Jeffrey (with separation) went through the receiver’s hands and into New Orleans’ Marshon Lattimore’s.

Still, Foles has proven to be a leader and big-time player to the fullest extent, even if just with one team (Eagles) , and with a smaller resume.

19. Joe Namath

What more can I say here? The “Guarantee” in Namath’s Jets’ Super Bowl 3 win set the stage for a respect (and full merger) between the AFL and NFL, and welcomed the football world to a “David beats Goliath” storyline that would come up again throughout the sport’s history — Super Bowl 36, Super Bowl 42, Super Bowl 52, etc.

Additionally, Namath posted 15 fourth quarter comebacks throughout his career. Even with a journey marred with some inconsistency, “Broadway Joe,” performed the best in the bright lights.

18. Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers was a difficult passer to place here. On the surface, Rodgers has 25 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, and two ultra-clutch Hail Mary throws during the 2015 postseason and regular season. Quite simply, Rodgers is the greatest Hail Mary thrower of all-time. There’s no debate there.

He’s also 10-8 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl 45 MVP award for his lone ring in a win over the Steelers. But the Packers legend sports a 1-3 record in NFC title games. There’s somewhat of an excuse for that, as his last two losses (2016 NFCCG to ATL, 2019 NFCCG to SF) came to vastly superior teams, and all three of those losses are on the road.

But in some postseason losses — like the 2011 NFC Divisional round blowout loss to the Giants at home after a 15-1, MVP season — he has been at fault.

I believe Rodgers is one of the greatest situationally-clutch passers I’ve ever seen, but is perhaps not the best big-game quarterback. (This is similar to Matt Ryan, but to a lesser extent with the Falcons passer.)

And because of that, Rodgers makes the list, but does not make my Top 10. Every one of my top 10 clutch quarterbacks on this list has consistently been situationally clutch, and a big-game player.

17. Joe Flacco

Like Eli, Flacco struggled to play at a consistently-elite level throughout his career, and rarely played better than he did during a few postseason runs.

Additionally, Flacco has the most road playoff wins (7) in NFL history, holds a 10-5 career playoff record, and has 26 career game-winning drives.

But Flacco’s most impressive feats include his 2-2 career playoff record on the road versus the Patriots (and could be better if not for his supporting cast letting him down), and his all-time great 2012 postseason run to Super Bowl 47 MVP. That year Flacco through for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four games.

16. Ken Stabler

The Snake!

Kenny Stabler was known for his comeback ability, leading 26 game-winning drives throughout his career, while also leading the Raiders to a Super Bowl 11 victory. Several times, Stabler showcased his come-from-behind ability, but his most clutch moment was his “Ghost To The Post” throw to force double overtime in a comeback win over the Colts during the 1977 AFC Playoffs.

15. Bart Starr

Starr is one of the older quarterbacks on this list, and although he wouldn’t register as the greatest passer with others on here, the Packers great was gritty in willing several Green Bay victories in the biggest moments. Just think of his quarterback sneak in the frigid cold to beat the Cowboys in “The Ice Bowl.”

Starr finished his career with a 9-1 record in the postseason, with 15 touchdowns, three interceptions, and 104.8 passer rating in those games. And in all, Starr won five NFL championships and the league’s first two Super Bowls, in which he brought home Super Bowl MVP honors in both.

14. Brett Favre

This begins the most interesting stretch of passers on our list.

Favre is known as the prototypical gunslinger mixed with a boatload of physical toughness, shaping one of the greatest careers in NFL history. He also produced 30 fourth quarter comebacks, 43 career game-winning drives and a Super Bowl 32 victory over the Patriots.

But Favre’s gunslinger ways hurt his image in the clutch during the homestretch of his career. Favre lost his last two NFC Championship Games with the Packers (2007 vs. Giants) and Vikings (2009 vs Saints) by throwing for ghastly, late interceptions that flunked both games for his respective team at the time. That brings him down a tad.

But everyone remembers Favre filling in for Don Majkowski for a fourth quarter comeback win in his first game. There was a lot of that throughout his career, too. Even late, with plays like his game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Lewis to beat the 49ers while in Minnesota. This spot for Favre feels about right.

13. Drew Brees

With 37 fourth quarter comebacks, 53 game-winning drives and a Super Bowl 44 MVP award, Brees is among the better clutch passers to ever play.

Brees’ postseason stats are also among the most efficient of all-time, but his 8-8 record puts a bit of a dent in his resume. Yes, many of those losses weren’t his fault, and the three consecutive postseason outs that have recently occurred are just about beyond his control. But if you look closer into some of those defeats, you’ll find stuff like his costly interception in overtime versus the Rams in last year’s NFC title game, or the loss on the road to the 7-9 Seahawks in the famous “Beast Quake” game of the 2010 playoffs.

Brees’ postseason perception is way better than his .500 record, and rightly so, but like Rodgers, you expect just a little bit more from him in the postseason.

But in conclusion, Brees is certainly clutch.

12. Dan Marino

Although he is certainly to blame somewhat for not having a Super Bowl ring, it’s basically public knowledge that the Dolphins failed to put the right team around Dan Marino to win a Super Bowl or two.

To the surprise of many fair whether fans, Marino is high on the leaderboard in several clutch categories, including: fourth quarter comebacks (36), game-winning drives (51) and postseason game-winning drives (4). And he even has some top-tier clutch moments (“Fake Spike”) on his resume.

He never won his Super Bowl, but Marino had several clutch moments.

11. Peyton Manning

Largely known as the QB who “couldn’t win the big one” early on in his career, Peyton Manning changed all that with the biggest win of his career, am 18-point comeback win versus his nemesis, the Patriots, in a 2006 AFC title game win.

Manning had some duds after this moment in the clutch — Tracy Porter Interception in Super Bowl 44, Super Bowl 48 blowout loss — but he was always one of the most clutch regular season quarterbacks of all-time, who was also capable of doing so in the postseason, even if not that often.

Manning was known as one the best “two-minute drill” passers ever, and his miraculous comeback versus the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in Tampa Bay — to exact revenge for Tony Dungy —  is still one of the league’s most memorable games.

Even if he’s lacking a few postseason moments, he still came away with two Super Bowl wins, and currently sits at second all-time with 56 career game-winning drives. Not bad.

10. Terry Bradshaw

Bradshaw was not only 4-0 in Super Bowls, he also boasts the best playoff record by winning percentage (14-5, .737) of any quarterback with at least 15 playoff starts, narrowly leading Brady at the moment.

Bradshaw is certainly not one of the best passers of all-time, but he is one of the best quarterbacks ever, and he left his mark mostly by his play on the biggest of stages in this league.

9. Ben Roethlisberger

Although he’s stumbled some in the postseason this decade, Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the game. Big Ben has a 13-8 career postseason mark (he began 10-2) with two Super Bowl wins (one via a game-winning drive in the final minute) and five playoff wins on the road.

With Roethlisberger, he shares a John Elway-like ability to break away from the rush to scramble for big gains and compete downfield throws on extended plays. That has certainly made for some exciting finishes via the big play.

Some of Roethlisberger’s most memorable plays include the famous game-winning touchdown to Santonio Homes in Super Bowl 43, and a walk-off, game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Wallace to beat Aaron Rodgers’ Packers in 2009. In all, Roethlisberger has 46 game-winning drives, with four coming in the playoffs.

8. Russell Wilson

Like Roethlisberger and Elway, Wilson makes you believe the game is never over with him at the helm due to his best-of-all-time escapability to extend plays and perfect touch on downfield throws in the clutch.

Wilson is a magician in the pocket with high-end leadership and the ability to forget recent mistakes, even during a game, which is likened to Eli Manning.

Another thing Wilson shares with the likes of Eli, Roethlisberger and Tom Brady is his ability to come through in the clutch, even to the chagrin of the flow of the game.

There have been several instances with one of those four aforementioned passers shook off earlier rust, several in-game mistakes, and the opposing team’s momentum to lead a shocking come-from-behind win.

In just eight seasons, Wilson has already built a Hall-of-Fame career to-be case, with 32 career game-wining drives (four in the postseason),nine postseason wins and a Super Bowl ring. He was THIS close to wining back-to-back Super Bowls, but succumbed to Malcolm Butler making the greatest (and most important) interception of all-time in Super Bowl 49. I attribute that play more to Butler’s awareness and playmaking skill (and a little bit of buffoonery from Seattle’s play calling), more so than to Wilson.

Simply put, Wilson is already one of the game’s best to ever do it when it comes to crunch time.

7. Kurt Warner

One of the weirder careers in NFL history began as such, as Kurt Warner’s pro football career came after he was bagging groceries at a local store in Iowa.

But after bursting onto the scene, Warner finished his career with a 9-4 postseason record, throwing for a game-winning touchdown pass in his first Super Bowl (winning Super Bowl MVP honors), while tying and taking the lead in the final two minutes of his two Super Bowl losses.

In all, Warner threw for four touchdown passes and rushed for another in the fourth quarter of three of the closest Super Bowls (34, 36, 43) of all time. Only Tom Brady (six touchdown passes) has more Super Bowl fourth quarter touchdown passes.

In total, Warner has a 102.8 passer rating and 31 touchdown passes in 13 playoff games. He’s a big-game quarterback in the highest regard.

6. Roger Staubach

“Captain Comeback” had a litany of clutch moments in a career that saw him produce and coin the famous “Hail Mary “, while also leading the Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins, helping them become known as “America’s Team.”

Despite two Super Bowl losses to the Steelers by a combined eight points, Staubach is known as one of the most clutch players of all-time in pro football, going 11-6 in the playoffs, while earning MVP honors in Super Bowl 6.

5. Eli Manning

In addition to what was mentioned above, there were several other Manning accomplishments in the clutch, including his two conference title game wins on the road — only Tom Brady (3) has more — and several regular season game-winning drives, such as the Giants 24-20 win over the Patriots in New England during the 2011 season, a precursor to their Super Bowl 46 win later that year.

Frankly, Manning was supremely inconsistent, but in the playoffs, at least for those two Super Bowl runs, he was the opposite. Any bad plays he made, he quickly forgot about to lead the Giants on several clutch scoring drives, often late, to produce several Giants playoff victories. Like Warner, Eli had a very weird career, but his play in the clutch alone (and maybe the Manning name) will probably get him into the Hall of Fame. That says enough about just how clutch Eli was. Few were better in the biggest moments than the youngest Manning brother.

4. Johnny Unitas

The original master of the two-minute drill and fourth quarter comeback, Johnny Unitas produced 38 game-winning drives from 1956-1973, with most calling him the greatest quarterback both in the clutch, and in general, of all-time when he retired.

Unitas also won three championships with the Colts, sporting a 6-2 playoff record. Unitas was the original clutch master, and many of his stats in the biggest of games hold up with today’s clutch stats.

3. John Elway

John Elway was clutch even while a sporting a 0-3 Super Bowl record, with critics saying he couldn’t win the big one. Elway finished his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins, of course, to rid of that narrative.

The Broncos quarterback twice beat the Browns in Cleveland in close AFC Championship Game contests, with one of those games featuring the famous “The Drive,” one of the most clutch drives in NFL history.

Truth is, Elway was supremely overmatched in his three Super Bowl losses, and his clutch playoff resume otherwise — 14-7 playoff record, 6 postseason game-winning drives — tell a story of one of the best QBs ever in crunch time.

Like Roethlisberger and Wilson, Elway was sort of a dual-threat quarterback who could scramble and throw, or do both in the same play, making it hard for defenses to contain him in prevent situations, or with double-digit leads late. Elway produced several “how did he do that?” comebacks throughout his career, and is one the best ever in those situations.

2. Joe Montana

Before Tom Brady, Joe Montana was the gold standard at quarterback, both in general and in the clutch. His 4-0 Super Bowl record — three Super Bowl MVP awards — 11-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in Super Bowls, and game-winning drive to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl 23 have immortalized Montana.

And there are several other fourth quarter comebacks, including a special comeback win over John Elway and the Broncos while Montana was a Chief, that are still talked about to this day.

Montana has 16 postseason wins (16-7 record), the second-most all-time for a quarterback, and has five fourth quarter comebacks in the playoffs. He is simply, “Joe Cool.”

1. Tom Brady

Brady was already a top three clutch quarterback of all-time before his torrid pace of crunch time antics that occurred after the infamous “On to Cincinnati” loss on Monday night versus Kansas City in 2014.

Since then, Brady produced a 10-point fourth quarter comeback to beat the defending champion Legion-of-Boom Seahawks, who double as the greatest pass defense of all time, in Super Bowl 49. And two years later, Brady completed perhaps the greatest single-game comeback in sports championship history, rallying the Patriots from a 28-3 deficit in the game’s final 18 minutes to beat the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, the first Super Bowl to go to overtime.

Brady earned Super Bowl MVP honors in both contests, giving him four such awards and six Super Bowl victories, with game-winning drives in EACH of his six Super Bowl wins. Furthermore, Brady has 30 postseason wins, by far the best of all-time, and Brady also took the lead with clutch drives in two of his Super Bowl losses (42, 52).

Additionally, Brady has the most postseason touchdown passes (73) of all time, and the most game-winning drives (58) of any QB ever, with an absurd record 13 of those drives of those coming in the playoffs.

We could have a whole other section about Brady’s clutch regular season moments, including a 24-point comeback to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, and a game-winning touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins to beat the Saints in the final seconds (both occurring in 2013), but I think the point has been made.

The GOAT is also the GOAT in the clutch.

 

 

Tom Brady vs Titans

NFL Friday Morning Madness: State of the Patriots + Divisional Round Preview

A week removed from the Patriots’ disappointing end to their 2019 season comes with perspective.

Since the loss, Tom Brady offered a reflective Instagram post (see below), special teams coordinator (and WR coach) Joe Judge left to become head coach of the New York Giants, and rumors have Brady leaving to play for the Los Angeles Chargers have already been discussed at a nauseating state. Not to mention, Josh McDaniels could be the Browns’ next head coach.

But for those who want the most realistic answers, as opposed to the most exciting (and absurd), listen up.

*******

It doesn’t take a football expert to realize the major problem with this season’s Patriots squad.

It was the offense.

Looking further, there were three problems with the unit, and this is where I put the blame:

Lack of talent in pass-catching group (WR, TE) — 60%

Offensive line/blocking – Inconsistency, retirement/injuries (Rob Gronkowski, David Andrews, James Develin) — 25%

Tom Brady’s decline due to age — 15%

Yes, Brady — who will turn 43 in August — is in a decline, but it’s more of a dip likened to slowly sliding down a small, snow-covered hill slowly — something you’d let your toddler do. It’s not a steep cliff, per se. Not yet.

His NFL MVP year in 2017 may be his last prime year, but of course, that was his last year with top-tier weapons in last-year-of-his-prime Rob Gronkowski and speedy deep threat Brandin Cooks.

Brady made due in 2018, even going score for score with Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs (on the road) in the AFC title game, with an over-the-hill Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett as his outside receivers.

Then came this season.

The coming and going of Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas are well-documented.

Although the Patriots could have used the latter two, Brown is the only one who truly would have transformed this offense. Despite mostly living and dying in the middle of the field post-Randy Moss, Brady was in desperate need of a receiver that could create separation and become a threat on the outside. Brown is versatile enough to line up all over the field, and win anywhere, but he failed to stay in line.

Had Brown been there, teams would have thought twice about playing man coverage across the board, but instead, New England’s pass catchers ranked 32nd (dead last) in average separation per pass play, and were second in the league in drops (34).

Mohammed Sanu — acquired from the Falcons for a second-round pick — and rookie N’Keal Harry — 2019 first-round pick — certainly attributed to those stats. Judging by his speed, Sanu’s days of being starting receiver seem over, and Harry failed to grasp New England’s playbook, or a rapport with Brady, after missing the first half of the season.

New England was also in need of any semblance of pass-catching and run-blocking at the tight end position. They got virtually none in 39-year-old Ben Watson and backup-level Matt LaCosse.

The offensive line also struggled at times before Isaiah Wynn returned from injury to put a struggling Marshall Newhouse to the bench. But struggles could also be attributed to a horrible down year from Shaq Mason after he had improved his pass blocking in 2018. The loss of David Andrews at center also hurt, and Marcus Cannon showed his age at times. Only Joe Thuney (who is now a free agent) played consistently well.

The run blocking also failed to find it’s footing with the losses of Andrews, Gronkowski and full back James Develin leading the way. The unit did find a rythmn in late December, just like last season. Sony Michel seems unworthy of a first-round pick, but he does have a knack for coming through and running hard in December and January. That counts for something.

But what now? The Patriots are scheduled to have roughly $49 million in cap space, and 12 picks in the draft.

Tom Brady should be back on a masked one-year deal that has one or two future years that serve only to mitigate Brady’s cap hit in 2020. But yes, Brady will be back, and he should.

The Patriots made their bed when they traded Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick because Brady outlasted him.

Now, with little ammo to move up to select a top-tier passer in the draft, and only soon-to-be second-year man Jarrett Stidham on the roster, there is no real replacement for Brady on the horizon.

Even the slew of available or semi-available quarterbacks this offseason — Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, — is nothing to be optimistic about, if New England is indeed hoping to continue as a consistent Super Bowl contender with no major rebuilding phase.

Re-signing Brady is the best for both the GOAT and Bill Belichick’s team.

New England is in need of an aggressive re-tooling this offseason, but it can be done. Pass catchers like A.J. Green, Amari Cooper, Eric Ebron, Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper are expected to hit free agency, and pass catchers such as O.J. Howard, Brandin Cooks and maybe even Odell Beckham Jr. may be available via trade.

Barring something unusual in Belichick’s usual draft strategy, New England’s higher-than-usual slot of the No. 23 pick in the first round will not stay as is. The Patriots are more liable to trade down, or trade away the pick for help on offense — Odell Beckham Jr. should be their main target.

On top of several high-profile moves that can be made, 34-year-old Danny Amendola hits free agency as a possible reliable target for Brady. Amendola has shown flashes in Miami and Detroit the last two seasons, and could look to return to New England for one last run.

Then there’s Gronkowski. Although he probably won’t return, the chance is always there.

Still, Brady will have to cooperate to help New England here. He’ll first have to be willing to take slightly less money than he deserves. A deal that nets him around $25 million a year should be reasonable. He deserves more, but has to take less money if he indeed wants help in the form of pass-catching personnel.

Second, he’ll have to sign his deal before March 18th to avoid New England taking on an additional $13.5 million cap hit due to his last deal signed last offseason.

Brady’s recent Instagram post (I know, speculation), Robert Kraft’s love for him, and Bill Belichick’s lack of other options at quarterback should make this deal work.

New England could also lose Thuney and several defensive pieces — Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton — could be on the move. New England should at least look to retain McCourty and special teams ace Matthew Slater for perhaps one more season each.

The defense did its part in 2019, and that was likely their peak, with this veteran group. Chase Winovich can perhaps fill Van Noy’s role and New England’s cornerback situation — Stephon Gilmore (No. 1 CB), J.C. Jackson (No. 2 CB) and Jonathan Jones (slot) should hit its position group peak in 2020, but the unit as a whole will take a dip.

The offense will need to step up. They’ll need additional personnel to do that, and perhaps familiarity at offensive coordinator. If McDaniels leaves for Cleveland, former wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea should be brought in after his one-year stint as Miami’s offensive coordinator.

The plan is in place for the Patriots to get back to their usual ways in 2020. Despite the horrid end to their season, the end is not yet here. But it’s close.

But as Brady said, he “still has more to prove.” He’s just going to need some help.

Your move, Patriots.

NFL DIVISIONAL ROUND PREVIEW

NFL Divisional Playoff logo

 

Fresh off one of the more exciting (and possibly telling) Wild Card rounds in years, the NFL’s divisional round poses intrigue in its own right.

The AFC champion will feature a quarterback not named Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisbeger for the firs time in 17 years. Soon-to-be-named 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, and college-standout-turned-pro Deshaun Watson represent the changing of the guard, and probably future of the position and the AFC.

The NFC features a matchup between two of the best quarterbacks of the past decade in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins face off in the Kyle Shanahan Bowl, which doubles as a contest between the two most complete remaining teams outside of Baltimore.

There’s a lot to uncover. Here’s a preview — and prediction — for each game.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (No. 6 seed. 11-6) AT SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (No. 1 seed, 13-3) — Saturday 4:35pm ET, NBC

Minnesota Vikings logo     San Francisco 49ers logo

Kirk Cousins defied the odds in picking up the biggest win of his career last week in New Orleans. The Vikings, a talented team in their own right, took care of what may be the second-most talented bunch of the NFC, with Minnesota being the third. The first? That would be the 49ers.

The abundance of first-round picks along the defensive line over the years was topped off by the monster acquisitions of Dee Ford and rookie Nick Bosa this offseason. Those two on the edge, paired with the underrated DeForest Buckner in the interior makes for the best defensive line in football. Expect this group to get after Cousins.

On offense, Jimmy Garoppolo has been much better in the second half of the season than he was in the first (probably because of his ACL tear in 2018), and that should continue here, albeit a talented Minnesota defense. Hitting on both midseason acquisition Emmanuel Sanders and rookie second-round pick Deebo Samuel at receiver has been huge, and having George Kittle is even bigger. Kittle is the both the best pass-catching and blocking tight end in football, and even Minnesota’s Harrison Smith will have trouble corralling him.

San Francisco will work best both working the running game and play-action throws into the mix, to fend off a Minnesota pass rush of Everson Griffen and Daniele Hunter, that got after Drew Brees last week.

Former All-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes has struggled some the past two seasons, so if Minnesota opts to use him on Sanders, the latter should have some success using his quickness against the larger Rhodes.

Minnesota will find ways to fend off San Francisco’s pass rush by running Dalvin Cook like they did last week in New Orleans. They should have some success. But Kyle Shanahan’s team will score, and Minnesota will look to Kirk Cousins to match. Richard Sherman battling Adam Thielen will be great theatre, but it’s Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph — along with Cousins — that will have to win the game for Minnesota.

The Vikings play well once more, but Jimmy G’s 49ers are up to the task. San Francisco wins a close contest via long-sustaining drives late and one key turnover forced by the pass rush.

Prediction: 49ers 30, Vikings 24

 

TENNESSEE TITANS (No. 6 seed. 10-7) AT BALTIMORE RAVENS (No. 1 seed, 14-2) — Saturday 8:15pm ET, CBS

        

After bowling over the Patriots’ top-ranked defense for 184 yards and a score — on 34 carries! — Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher this season, has now garnered 1,080 yards on the ground in just the last seven games.

Ryan Tannehill’s performance last week — 8 for 15, 72 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — left much to be desired. Even if Henry is to continue his dominant ways versus Baltimore, Tannehill will have to play better to offset what should be a ready-for-action explosion of Lamar Jackson’s offense.

The Ravens haven’t played a meaningful game since before Christmas, and should be chomping at the bit to shake off the possible rust. The health of Mark Ingram and Mark Andrews will play a major role in just how potent Baltimore’s attack is. So will the discipline and remaining spunk in the Titans’ defensive tank.

Jurrell Casey will do his best to clog up the middle lanes, but next-line-of-defense playmakers like rookie linebacker Rashaan Evans, and EDGE defender Harold Landry will need to be at their best in hopes of somewhat corralling Lamar.

Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccarro have also spent a lot of time cheating up to the line of scrimmage to help with their rush defense. They should continue that this week, while also being mindful of the short-middle in the passing game. A muddled middle with a way of slowing down the rushing attack would force Lamar to throw outside the numbers to the likes of Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead.

Technically, Tennessee has a defense that could theoretically slow down the soon-to-be NFL MVP, but listing that here is not the same as them executing.

And Baltimore’s aggressive defensive backfield consisting of Earl Thomas, Marlon Humprhey and Marcus Peters will come in to play here, probably to the detriment of Tannehill.

If the Titans can chew the clock and score touchdowns behind Henry and the occasional Tannehill play-action pass, while also holding Baltimore to under 24 points, then they have a shot.

But that seems too much to ask.

Prediction: Ravens 26, Titans 16 

 

HOUSTON TEXANS (No. 4 seed. 11-6) AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (No. 2 seed, 12-4) — Sunday 3:05pm ET, CBS

Houston Texans logo            Kansas City Chiefs logo

In a game in which only Patriots and Bears fans (check out the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft) may attest to being exciting, two of the most supernatural QBs will go at it in Kansas City.

Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

Both are liable to carry their team to 30-plus point performances. But Patrick Mahomes really doesn’t have to, at least not by himself. Deep threat Tyreek Hill and ‘Y’ receiver/tight end Travis Kelce supply him with one of the best one-two punches on offense. And on defense, Kansas City’s unit has adjusted to first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s schemes after a rocky start.

Watson has help in DeAndre Hopkins, but he’ll need fellow former first-round pick Will Fuller to acompany him on the outside. Fuller is an immaculate deep threat, if not much else. And his presence will help ease attention on Hopkins, who could see double teams, and Kenny Stills, who would maybe see Tyrann Mathieu in the slot — Mathieu has allowed a league-low 40.7 passer rating in the slot since Week 10, according to Pro Football Focus.

Houston will need to pressure Mahomes to even have a shot at winning, and although they finished the year 26th in that category (31 sacks), J.J. Watt’s return should give them more confidence there.

Houston’s defense has some major holes, but Bradley Roby isn’t one of them. The former first-round pick from Denver has played with controlled aggression, and has basically taken over for Marcus Peters as perhaps the best aggressive-style cornerback (in terms of taking chances) the past month. Will they opt to use him on Sammy Watkins, with a possible shift to man coverage on Kelce on key downs? And even then, Hill is liable to beat them deep.

Mahomes has not looked as sharp since returning from injury midseason, but he’s slowly gotten better as he has healed. But the Chiefs have been okay behind a suddenly-superb defense that should be able to stop any full-throttle plans by Houston to run out the clock with Carlos Hyde. So even though the Texans won in Kansas City (31-24) back in October behind 192 rushing yards, they are unlikely to repeat that here. Kansas City will force Houston into a shootout where they will tee off on Watson with their pass rush. And judging by  Buffalo’s seven sacks versus them last week, they’ll be able to do that.

Kansas City wins behind a few big plays on offense, and a 5-sack performance on Watson. If there is to be one blowout this week, this is the game.

Prediction: Chiefs 34, Texans 17

 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (No. 4 seed. 12-5) AT GREEN BAY PACKERS (No. 2 seed, 13-3) — Sunday 6:40pm ET, FOX

Seattle Seahawks logo       Green Bay Packers logo

On Sunday night, two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks will square off in the postseason for the first time since Russell Wilson and the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks came back to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in an overtime contest in Seattle that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

Although much has changed since then, it will be Wilson versus Rodgers once more, but this time in Lambeau Field.

The weather in Green Bay on Sunday is supposed to hover around 20 degrees, with partly sunny weather, but that’s after Green Bay is expecting to hire over 700 shovelers on Sunday morning to clear out what could be as much as 10 inches of snow for the night before. Regardless, it will be cold.

The frigid weather would benefit a fully-healthy Seattle, who’s top back — Chris Carson — rushed for 1,230 yards this season. But Carson and his next two backups, Rashaad Penny and C.J. Prosise are all out, leaving the Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch, whom they picked up before Week 17.

Looking over at Lynch on the Seattle sideline may give Rodgers enough jolt to remember the NFC title game that got away form him in Seattle. He’ll want this one. But the Packers have struggled at times on offense this season behind rookie head coach Matt LeFleur’s scheme. In Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones, the Packers have two top-tier weapons, but there’s not much after that, giving Seattle an easier time to game plan. The Seahawks’ best bet is to neutralize Jones on the ground, and then to hope for a fine performance from Jadeveon Clowney on the edge. Clowney has been inconsistent in his first season in Seattle, but at times has taken over games, showcasing why they brought him in.

Green Bay’s improved defense should be able to hold Seattle’s rushing attack down, meaning Wilson will likely run for his life throughout the game, considering Green Bay’s improved pass rush with the Smith’s — Zadarius and Preston.

But this is where Wilson thrives, when all the chips are down. Although rookie sensation D.K. Metcalf may struggle to separate versus Green Bay’s No. 1 cornerback, Jaire Alexander, Tyler Lockett should be able to find some success working out of the slot, even against 36-year-old stalwart Tramon Williams, who has been awesome this season.

The play of Seattle’s offensive line will be key here, but Wilson will extend plays on his own anyhow. He always does.

Hoping to avenge a loss that haunts him, and with the weather and home crowd backing him, this should be a game where Rodgers leads Green Bay to victory. Especially considering Seattle’s injury situation and incomplete roster.

But this feels like the last win in a heroic season for Russell Wilson, who has carried teams better than any other quarterback the past few seasons, and has been specifically good this season, even with somewhat of a December swoon. Wilson gets it done, and surprisingly gets a little help from his defense, and missed opportunities by the Packers’ offense.

Prediction: Seahawks 23, Packers 17

 

CFP NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

LSU logo         CFP NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP 2020 LOGO          Clemson logo

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler predicts double digit underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft after this game, detailing just how much talent will be on the field.

That stat doesn’t include redshirt senior Joe Burrow, who has maxed out his college eligibility to his final game, which could give him the perfect send-off — a National Championship.

The Heisman Trophy winner will look toward main target Justin Jefferson early and often, which should result in points. Although Clemson is heavily talented, LSU is the better team. Clemson should figure out a way to slow LSU, which is something that no team has done this season, but the Tigers will adjust and retaliate.

But the thing about Clemson is, they’re not scared. They have the experience, as shown by their comeback win over Ohio State in their CFP Semifinal victory. True Sophomore Trevor Lawrence is undefeated as a starter (25-0) and Clemson enters the contest not only as the defending National champions, but as a team with an 29-game winning streak.

Even against a more talented LSU squad that features a litany of pro talent on defense, Lawrence will find ways to score. Expect the game to be a back-and-forth affair with both teams scoring in the final minutes.

I have a feeling that Burrow’s season for the ages ends in him slaying Clemson, before heading to the Cincinnati Bengals as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft this spring.

Prediction: LSU 35, Clemson 31

Danny Shelton vs Eagles

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Patriots outlast Eagles in physical battle + Ravens roast Texans

As the weather turns cold, the more physical, disciplined teams flourish. In a league that has seen many ripples and trends over the past century, that notion hasn’t quite changed.

And so when the Patriots (9-1) avenged Super Bowl LII in a 17-10 win over the Eagles (5-5) in Philadelphia on Sunday, it was the defense that led the way in this chilly November battle.

This game was not going to won by flash and substance, the Patriots slowly turned the tide in gaining the upper-hand in physicality and toughness, which ultimately won them the game.

“Yeah, he was crying,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said of Eagles pass catcher Zach Ertz. “He do that on film a lot. If you get into him, if he don’t get the ball or if he doesn’t get a call, he’ll cry. But he’s a good receiver, a good tight end.”

Gilmore, the league’s best cover man, was moved all around the field in different matchups, but was often lined up with Ertz, Wentz’s go-to-guy, on third down situations.

In addition to Gilmore, the Patriots were stout up front, sacking Carson Wentz five times and allowing just 81 yards on the ground. After the Eagles took a 10-0 lead early off a downfield pass interference call and one sustained drive, Bill Belichick took to the sideline to shore up any issues with his defense.

His adjustments worked, and New England was able to stifle an undermanned Philadelphia offense.

Luckily, the game did not rely too much on Tom Brady and the offense.

Brady — — 26 of 47, 216 yards — struggled to find a rhythm and was visibly frustrated during and after the game, when he mumbled through his press conference obligations before exiting at around two minutes in.

Even though this season has looked particularly bleak for the Patriots offense, you can bet Brady, even at age 42, will turn things around at least somewhat.

For starters,  2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn will return next Sunday to replace the struggling Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. And newcomer pass catchers Mohamed Sanu and first-round rookie N’Keal Harry should become more reliable as they gain a rapport with Brady.

But in a game in which Julian Edelman threw the game’s lone touchdown pass — to Phillip Dorsett — you can bet the greatest quarterback of all time is not going to be happy with his production, win or lose.

When asked if the offense can get back on track, Brady said: “I don’t think it matters what I think. It matters what we do.”

Well “do,” they probably will. Regardless, they’ll need to. Games against the Cowboys (6-4), Texans (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) are next on the docket, and you can bet that New England’s world-beating defense will have at least some issues with one or more of those offenses, meaning New England will rely more on Brady and their own offense.

We know now not to doubt Brady. But if this offense does fail to become a consistent force, they may have enough success on defense to return to the Super Bowl.

This is a call back to Brady’s early years, when he complimented a veteran defense with a chip on its shoulder. The 2019 Patriots, coupled with last year’s squad, are starting to share some similarities with the 2003 and 2004 that went on to win back to back Super Bowls.

New England has only Baltimore and Kansas City as true challengers in the AFC this year. Their Super Bowl hopes still shine bright, even if Brady’s demeanor isn’t exactly glowing.

The points may come soon enough, but New England has the grit and toughness on defense to defend their crowneither way.

RAVENS POUND TEXANS, CREATE SPACE IN AFC

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (8-2) moved one stop closer to earning a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs with a 41-7 stomping over the Texans (6-4) at home.

Houston’s spirt was broken early, as Deshaun Watson was sacked five times in the first half, and the Texans went into the locker room down 14-0 to a tougher — and better — Ravens team to this point.

The Texans entered the game as the NFL’s No. 3 rush defense, by game’s end, Baltimore — the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense —  had gained 263 yards on the ground.

“Any time you’re 8-2, you’ve got a special group of guys,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram said after the game. “And I think we really have a special group of guys. Guys who understand each other. Guys who believe in each other. Guys who want to fight for each other. Guys who understand the value of preparation one day at a time. We have a goal of being champions, so we don’t have time to rest.”

Jackson — 298 total yards, four touchdown passes — now leads a Baltimore team that is the best in the league at a time where the season really begins. The Ravens’ ferocious defense of yesteryear is no more, but the additions of Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters have given Baltimore a ball-hawking secondary that is improving by the week — a good sign for possible playoff matchups versus Patrick Mahomes and/or Tom Brady.

In addition to the back end, Matthew Judon (2 sacks) and Jaylon Ferguson (sack, two tackles for a loss) are among the names on a front seven that has gone from pedestrian to thriving in recent weeks, giving Baltimore a complete look on defense that the franchise and its fans have been accustomed to over the years.

“You all were questioning us,” Judon told The Athletic after the game. “We just focused and locked in, and we knew what we had in the room. It’s not like we were going to war inside our defensive rooms. We know what we have, and since then, we brought in four or five new defensive players. We just focused and we strapped in, man.”

The Ravens have now undressed the Seahawks (in Seattle), the Patriots and Texans in recent weeks. Three teams led by three top-tier quarterbacks.

They’ve also won six straight and have created a gap between them and the Texans, Colts (6-4) and Chiefs (6-4) in the race for a first-round bye in the AFC.

With a Monday night matchup versus the Rams (6-4) in Los Angeles looming, followed by games versus the 49ers (9-1) and Saints (8-2), Baltimore’s difficulty in keeping up their now six-game winning streak only increases.

Still, it’s clear the Ravens are the hottest team in football at the moment, playing their best football as the season moves along.

QUICK-HITS 

– Kudos to Kirk Cousins for leading the Vikings (8-3) to a 27-23 win over the Broncos (3-7) after erasing a 20-0 deficit early on. There are bigger stories — Lamar Jackson, Colin Kaepernick, Myles Garrett — surrounding the NFL, but Cousins’ improved play in big games, road games and in the clutch should not go unnoticed. Just when it looked like the Vikings should be entertaining other options at quarterback in the offseason, Cousins in the midst of a career year. Minnesota looks primed for the postseason. Also, despite another blown fourth quarter lead, there were several positive takeaways for the Broncos and Brandon Allen, who looked poised late, almost leading the game-winning drive.

– Jimmy Garoppolo deserves a lot of credit for will the 49ers to a 30-26 comeback win over the pesky Cardinals on Sunday. Without top pass-catching option George Kittle, rusher Matt Brieda, and much more, the Niners were severely undermanned, and in danger of going from 8-0 to the NFC’s current No. 5 seed in just two weeks, had they lost. The win gives them a chance to breathe, and hopefully welcome back at least Kittle this week versus the Packers (8-2) in a huge Sunday night contest.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 2). With Lamar Jackson playing as is, and the defense improving, this is the best team in football at the moment.

2. New England Patriots (9-1) (Last week: 3). There are certainly issues with Brady and the offense at play, but I still think they’ll figure it out. The addition of left tackle Isaiah Wynn this week can’t be understated. Plus, the defense is still fantastic.

3. San Francisco 49ers (9-1) (Last week: 1). I know we like to scoff at him on Twitter, probably because he used to play for the Patriots, but it’s time to start giving Jimmy Garoppolo his due. He’s a part of this new wave of brilliant quarterbacks.

4. New Orleans Saints (8-2) (Last week: 5). Great bounce back win over division rival Tampa Bay on the road. It had also been awhile since Alvin Kamara played that well. That was good to see.

5. Green Bay Packers (8-2) (Last week: 4). The Packers have a real test in San Francisco next Sunday night. These are the games that will help decide which of these NFC juggernauts is to get a first-round bye.

6. Seattle Seahawks (8-2) (Last week: 6). The Eagles will give Seattle their all next week in Philly. Russ will have to earn this win, just as he has for the rest of his victories this season.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). Kirk Cousins probably won’t win NFL MVP, but he’s right there with a few others after Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) (Last week: 10). The Chiefs are in desperate need of a win tonight versus the Chargers in Mexico City. The week after that, they’ll face the Raiders. If they can win both of these, the AFC West is likely theirs.

9. Dallas Cowboys (6-4) (Last week: 13). Dak Prescott has had just a few hiccups in an otherwise awesome season. He was lights out in Detroit on Sunday. He’ll need to be that and then some in New England, if they are to have a chance versus the mighty Patriots.

10. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 12). That was certainly an ugly win. You can blame some of the issues on offense to the absences of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but the smarter fans are intelligent enough to not be that naive. The talent is there, so a December run is always in the cards.

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-4) (Last week: 15). Great reslilient effort in Jacoby Brissett’s return. If the Colts win in Houston on Thursday, they’d be in a great position to win the AFC South.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5) (Last week: 8). Without DeSean Jackson, the Eagles are mighty slow on offense. A late-season run can happen, but they’re in trouble. They have to beat Seattle at home this week.

13. Houston Texans (6-4) (Last week: 9). That was a hideous performance in Baltimore. They don’t belong among the AFC’s elite, despite Deshaun Watson. Are they even worthy of an AFC South title? We’ll see on Thursday.

14. Oakland Raiders (6-4) (Last week: 14). They did what they needed to do on Sunday. They’re right there with the Chiefs in the AFC West.

15. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: NR). The Bills sneak back in after a pretty impressive win in Miami. (Hey, the Dolphins have been playing much better as of late!)

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly loss in all facets, with an even uglier ending. They’re still a well-coached team capable of pulling out a win in any circumstance.

Next up: Tennessee, L.A. Chargers, Carolina, Cleveland, Atlanta 

Brady, Dorsett vs Steelers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Patriots drop sixth banner, pound Steelers, as Antonio Brown awaits

The Patriots celebrated their sixth Super Bowl win in front of the the only other franchise with as many. Then, they dismantled them on a national stage.

New England pummeled Pittsburgh, 33-3, by dominating in most facets of the game. Another banner drops, another in sight.

But the biggest story surrounding the most talked about team in sports remains the acquisition of superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown, which will become official today. After forcing his way out of Oakland in the most bizarre of circumstances, Brown signed a one-year deal worth $15 million — with a $9 million signing bonus — after leaving $30 million on the table in Northern California after several childish acts.

The Patriots were there to pluck Brown, and now it’s fair to wonder: where will Brown fit in this offense.

The logical answer is that he’d take the Z-receiver position, or flanker, considering he’s the better at that spot than anyone in the history of the NFL. But that role is currently occupied by Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in four catches on four targets for 95 yards and two scores.

Dorsett’s rapport with Brady is well-documented. The former first-round pick from Indianapolis has improved in each of the last two seasons in New England, and should continue to be apart of the team’s offensive plans, even as a No. 4 guy. After the game, he displayed nothing but awe for Brown’s career when asked about him.

“I was like, ‘Wow’ because I can’t wait to work with him,” Dorsett told NESN’s Doug Kyed. “He’s always been a guy I’ve looked up to when it comes to just football. He’s a beast. We all know that. I can’t wait to learn from him because we have similar body types, similar play types. I’ve always wanted to learn from him. Now I get to see him every day and work with him. So, I can’t wait.”

New England’s top two receivers, Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, also had outstanding nights. Coming back from yet another suspension, Gordon displays his physicality in hauling in three catches for 73 yards and a nifty, after-the-catch score. Edelman was his usual self, providing a game-high six catches for 83 yards.

After a few antsy misfires, or bad balls, Brady improved as the night went on, finishing 24-for-36 for 341 yards and three scores, including his impressive deep touchdown to Dorsett, and another long bomb to Gordon.

Adding Brown to this offense is not only comical, it is terrifying to even the best of defenses. He’s a perfect addition to a receiver core featuring the aforementioned box-out specialist Gordon and the shifty Edelman. But New England will have to get him up to speed, integrating him properly into the offense, while using his strengths to vanquish any and all opponents in their way.

The defense also looks like one of the league’s best units. Pittsburgh is without Brown and Le’Veon Bell. They no longer have the Killer B’s. But JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are two of the better young offensive weapons in football, and Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion and Hall-of-Famer.

The Patriots defense held them to three measly points, which is the same exact score they held the offensively-gifted Rams to in Super Bowl LIII, seven months ago.

Adding Michael Bennett, Jamie Collins and rookie pass-rush specialist Chase Winovich to a defense that already yields Dont’a Hightower and the league’s best secondary is unfair. Heck, even Kyle Van Noy, who missed the game to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, wasn’t even there. He’ll return next week.

But nothing will be as unfair as when Antonio Brown makes his Patriots debut in Miami, his hometown, versus the lowly Dolphins next Sunday. And looking at the Patriots next few games after that — vs Jets, at Bills, at Washington, vs Giants, at Jets — it’s fair to think that New England should cruise to a 7-0 start before hosting the Browns. The 19-0 talk will certainly ramp up before then.

Brown, 31, will provide New England with a Randy Moss-live presence in terms of potential production. He’s tallied the most catches (686) and yards (9,145) in the last six seasons than any other player has ever contributed over that same span. He’s the league’s best route-runner capable of being a deep threat, a slot receiver, an perimeter player and a punt returner.

If he can stay in line, and there’s no reason to believe New England can’t tame even someone of his caliber, then the possibilities are endless.

According to a report from NBC’s Al Michaels, Brady has already offered Brown a chance to stay at his home while he searches for his own humble abode. Although Brady was fairly mum on Brown to the media after the game, and Belichick deflected questions of Brown entirely.

This marriage can work, and it probably will. Shades of 2007 are upon. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots aren’t done.

ARE THE BROWNS OVERRATED? 

Among the weekend’s biggest news was the shockingly bad performance by Baker Mayfield (25-for-38, 285 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) and the Cleveland Browns. The team was hyped to no end this offseason, after bringing in superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and others. The team even donned the cover of Sports Illustrated’s NFL preview magazine.

The headline read: ‘The Browns are back.’ Week 1 is hardly indicative of a team’s season, but it’s clear the Browns have a lot of work to do.

Mayfield threw picks to the Titans’ Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan, before Malcolm Butler added a pick-six for emphasis in the Titans’ 43-13 domination of the Browns in Cleveland. Both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry provided some offense in the early going, eventually landing with 11 catches for 138 yards, which was hardly enough to keep them in the game.

A litany of takes will come forth today. After all, it’s Week 1’s overreaction Monday. Are the Browns closer to the ‘Dream Team’ 2011 Eagles — a perceived all-star cast that finished 8-8 — than the nearly-undefetead 2007 Patriots? Probably. But it’s worth nothing that the Titans are a tough and talented bunch. They’re also the franchise most equipped to have a few wonk games. Last season the Titans thrashed the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots at home, 34-10, before losing road games to the Colts and Texans by a combined score of 72-27. Tennessee is an enigma in itself. Also, did I mention it’s Week 1?

Mayfield should improve, Beckham Jr. will find his footing, Kareem Hunt will join the offense near midseason and Myles Garrett and the stacked defense will improve. The Browns are too talented to not finish with at least a 9-7 mark. They aren’t a Super Bowl contender, as Mayfield will undoubtedly suffer some sophomore blues. And rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens will learn a litany of lessons before he enters the upper echelon of coaches. If he does. Kitchens is not Sean McVay, but he’s a young offensive mind capable of learning on the fly, and keeping Baker focused. The two seem to have a good relationship. It’ll be good enough to weather this storm, but with all the hoopla surrounding these Browns this offseason, a mighty storm there will be, before their road Week 2 matchup next Monday night versus the New York Jets.

QUICK-HITS

– Once upon a time, NFL pundits wondered why Lamar Jackson wasn’t priming to be an NFL wide receiver, instead of a quarterback. That notion seemed silly in real time, considering Jackson was a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback at Louisville. It looks even sillier now, as Jackson’s Madden video game stat line — 17-of-20,  324 passing yards, five passing touchdowns, 158.3 passer rating — helped the Ravens annihilate the obviously-tanking Miami Dolphins, 59-10, in Miami. Its worth nothing the Dolphins are obviously looking toward the future, as they field one of the worst rosters (on paper) in the history of the league. It appears things are worse than we thought in Miami. Although improved as a passer, stronger defenses will force Jackson to make tougher throws. Given his new No. 1 pass-catching option, rookie first-round pick Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown (4 catches, 147 yards, two touchdowns), Jackson should be up to the task. Antonio Brown’s first cousin (timely, I know) is everything Baltimore and first-year GM Eric DeCosta hoped he’d be. And given the Browns’ letdown and the Steelers’ Week 1 loss, can Baltimore repeat in the AFC North? It’s way too early to tell, but obviously something to think about. As for the Dolphins? They’ll host the Patriots for Antonio Brown’s New England debut. Miami is 5-1 in their last six home meetings with the Patriots, but it’s safe to say that stat won’t matter come Sunday. Miami has some work to do.

– It appears reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will remain the most dangerous offense in football. A brutal injury to Nick Foles rid the Chiefs of any urgency, but Kansas City scored at will anyway. Sammy Watkins (nine catches, 198 receiving yards, three touchdowns) was unstoppable, mostly leaving Jalen Ramsey in the dust. LeSean McCoy (11 touches, 93 total yards) and Travis Kelce (three catches, 88 yards) also thrived in the absence of Tyreek Hill, who left during the first half with a shoulder injury and was later hospitalized.   Week 1 — and September in general — should be approached with caution, but we’ve already seen what Mahomes and this offense can do. If Kansas City is to wreak havoc on a season-long basis, they’ll need Hill to return at some point, which seems to be the case. But it appears Kanas City will be tough to stop on offense, again. Who knew?

– Dak Prescott recently made news for reportedly turning down a contact extension that would net him $30 million per year, because he is seeking $40 million a season from the Cowboys. To add insult to injury, Dallas recently came to terms with Ezekiel Elliott on a six-year extension worth $90 million, and $50 million guaranteed. The deal was the biggest ever for a NFL running back. Still on his rookie deal, Dak Prescott took out his frustrations on the lowly Giants, throwing 405 yards and four touchdowns while posting a perfect passer rating. Prescott spread the ball to the likes of Amari Cooper, newcomer slot man Randall Cobb and the returning Jason Witten, in a 35-17 win. Prescott joined the likes of Jackson and Mahomes in posting video game-like stats in Week 1, and seemingly setting themselves up for special seasons.

– After falling behind 17-0 to Case Keenum, rookie Terry McLaurin and Washington early, Carson Wentz and the Eagles outscored their NFC East rival 32-10 the rest of the way, winning 32-27. We’ll see how the Saints look tonight, but the Eagles look primed to compete for the NFC championship. The still-diminutive Darren Sproles and rookie Miles Saunders were menacing in the backfield, while DeSean Jackson’s (eight catches, 154 yards, two touchdowns) return to the Eagles highlights just how efficient this Eagles offense will be. The success of the team all rests on Wentz’s shoulders, of course.

– It initially seemed like Arizona may be the Miami of the NFC, but the Cardinals’ full-throttle comeback showcased just how unpredictable this Cardinals season should be. The game featured a slew of impressive catches by future Hall-of-famer Larry Fitzgerald late, just as Lions veteran Danny Amendola added a nifty score earlier. But rookies Kyler Murray and T.J. Hockenson stole the show in the eventual 27-27 tie. Hockenson proved he may already be a top-five tight end. I mean, who else would you take over him outside of George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz? Murray shook off a ghastly interception to throw for 308 yards a touchdown, and looked calm and collected late, helping Arizona erase a 24-6 fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime. The Murray-Kliff Kingsbury will be anything but boring, despite their first-half play. Next week, the Cardinals will travel to Baltimore for a young quarter back showdown between Murray and Jackson. That should be fun.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (1-0). Good luck to the rest of the NFL.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). The Chiefs’ explosive offense is still intact. With Patrick Mahomes, anything is possible.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (1-0). The Eagles are the best team in the NFC at the moment. It’s also Week 1. I also picked them to reach Super Bowl LIV.

4. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). The Rams avoided the west-to-east early game bog to upend the Panthers in Carolina. The return of Cooper Kupp is monumental, but the Rams still need Todd Gurley to get healthy.

5. New Orleans Saints (0-0). The Eagles and Cowboys looked fantastic, but let’s not forget about the Saints. They’ll be around for the long haul in the NFC.

6. Dallas Cowboys (1-0). We hear you, Dak Prescott. It’s time for Jerry Jones to consider opening up his checkbook for another integral cog on his young and talented team.

7. Minnesota Vikings (1-0). Dalvin Cook and the Vikings defense were quietly among the most impressive things on opening weekend.

8. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). Considering their opponent — the lowly Dolphins — is seemingly the worst team in football in 2019, it would be wise to proceed with caution on the ‘Lamar Jackson for MVP’ talk. But no one can argue that he hasn’t improved as a passer. Plus, Hollywood Brown is a budding star.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). The Chargers’ monster drive to open up overtime staved off Jacoby Brissett and the upstart Colts. The talent is still there, but time will tell if they have enough juice on offense to keep up with the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC. They’ll need Derwin James’ versatility back to help on defense. The good news is they don’t miss Melvin Gordon. Austin Ekeler’s heroic three-touchdown performance — and walk-off touchdown — was a major difference on Sunday.

10. Tennessee Titans (1-0). The Titans manhandled the Browns in Cleveland. But we’ve seen them do this during the Mike Vrabel era. They need consistency. Will Marcus Mariota finally help provide that? We’ll see.

11. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). It’s easier when Russell Wilson is your quarterback, but it appears many of us (myself included) may have been wrong about D.K. Metcalf’s NFL potential. Seattle will be the under-the-radar, lying-in-the-weeds potential postseason team in the NFC.

12. Green Bay Packers (1-0). The debut of their new offense looked rough, but they were also playing the Bears’ mighty defense. Their defense looked fantastic, but they also played Mitchell Trubisky on his worst behavior. This seems like the right spot for them for now.

13. Houston Texans (0-0). They have talent, and their division is up for grabs. They should get back to the postseason, if they’re any good.

14. Chicago Bears (0-1). They needed something, anything out of Mitchell Trubisky, to win in Week 1. They got nothing. The Bears have the best defense in the NFL, but they’ll remain handicapped until Trubisky matures, if he ever does.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1). Bare with me. The Steelers will figure things out, starting with a home victory over the Seahawks next week.

16. Indianapolis Colts (0-1). Jacoby Brissett rallied the Colts late, but never touched the ball in overtime. Sadly, their loss was decided by an Eric Ebron end-zone drop and three missed kicks by the legendary Adam Vinatieri. They can win the AFC South with Brissett.