Debrief: Pats down but NOT out; plus, top five MVP candidates

Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 10 to Week 11.

The Patriots' thorough beatdown at the hands of the Titans on Sunday has sparked another round of Football America's favorite game: Is the decline of the empire finally here?

While the handwringing in Boston feels especially overwrought with New England at 7-3 just one week after the city was celebrating a great win over Green Bay, Bill Belichick has a lot to work on during the team's bye week.

It's remarkable how similar Tom Brady's struggles were against Detroit in Week 3 and Tennessee on Sunday, perhaps his two worst games of an uneven season that has included precious little continuity in terms of the offensive personnel. The Titans' front seven and secondary worked so well in tandem. Tennessee pressured with blitzes and stunts that remained unpredictable throughout the game. Mike Vrabel's team won up front. The Patriots missed guard Shaq Mason and tackle Trent Brown, with Brady clearly uncomfortable and sometimes expecting pressure before it arrived. More importantly, the secondary did a great job changing assignments before the snap and disguising coverages to force Brady into being indecisive.

"If you make him blink and go to a second read, you've got a chance," Vrabel told reporters. "If you let him rip it to the first guy he looks at, it's going to be a long day. We were able to combine the rush, the different patterns and the coverage."

That's easier to say than accomplish, but the Titans and Lions did a fantastic job of maintaining mental pressure on Brady throughout their respective games. Including the Week 2 defeat in Jacksonville, it's notable that the Patriots never problem-solved in their three losses this season. They went down hard early and never recovered. More than usual, the Patriots have relied on their scheme and play calls winning, rather than their players.

The Titans were uniquely suited to execute this game plan because of a talented, deep veteran secondary that could handle all the various assignments without a breakdown in communication. The familiarity with the New England offense shared by former PatriotsMalcolm Butler and Logan Ryan surely didn't hurt, but Adoree' Jackson's coverage on Josh Gordon was even more crucial.

After two years as the best QB in football, Tom Brady is hovering around No. 12 in my season-long QB Index grades. He's seventh in PFF's grades and 11th in QBR for this season. The sky is hardly falling, but the Patriots' passing game clearly isn't at the same level as it has been in previous years. There is certainly room for improvement as New England heads into its bye. Brady's timing with Julian Edelman and Gordon needs to improve. The offensive line should get healthier, and the expected return of Rob Gronkowski (who has missed three of the last four games) will make everyone better, especially when the team goes up-tempo. Getting Gronk, Sony Michel, Edelman, Gordon and James White playing at the same time should help bolster an offense that is thinner than usual. Rex Burkhead might also return.

At this stage of Brady's career, the regular season has essentially become a 17-week training ground building to the part of the season that matters. The Patriots' level traditionally raises in November, which is why the loss to the Titans sticks out so much.

Tests remain against Minnesotaand Pittsburgh, but anything less than 11 wins would be a surprise, with so many soft AFC East games left. One problem for the Patriots is that they might not be done facing Belichick disciples. Vrabel's Titans and Romeo Crennel's Texans defense loom as potential playoff opponents, and the rest of the AFC can just turn on the Week 10 game film to see one way to scramble the hardwiring in Brady's mainframe.

Things we know after Week 10

Weekly proclamations about the state of the NFC East are useless.

Last week, the Redskins suffered the most devastating loss of the season, the Jason Garrett era was all but over in Dallas and the Eagles had the best bye week in NFL history. Now the Redskins are two games up again in the division and Cowboys fans are wondering if the team can run the table after Dallas beat Philadelphia. The Eagles and Cowboys have played consistently mediocre football all season. The Redskins have proven more resourceful, but they are punching above their weight at 6-3. It will probably take until Week 17 on "Sunday Night Football" to sort out which 9-7 squad gets a home playoff game.

The Eagles' offensive line is holding them back.

Carson Wentz has faced pressure all season, but it was the Eagles' struggles in short-yardage situations that stuck out most on Sunday night against Dallas. Facing second-and-2 on the Cowboys' 21-yard line in the second quarter, the Eagles ran three plays, including two runs, for negative-2 yards. They didn't score. After successfully throwing on the goal line in the fourth quarter, coach Doug Pederson again showed a lack of faith in his team's ability to run between the tackles on a crucial third-and-2 pitch to Corey Clement late in the fourth quarter. The play lost 5 yards.

The Eagles' offense doesn't create explosive plays and struggles in short-yardage situations -- that's a killer combination for a team that always seems to be on third down.

Things we don't know after Week 10

How Cooper Kupp's injury will impact the Rams.

Rams coach Sean McVay confirmed Monday that he won't be dialing up plays on "Third-and-Kupp" any more this season. Cooper Kupp's torn ACL is a massive loss for a Rams offense that uses the same personnel on nearly every play.

Kupp already missed two games this season and most of a third, so there is a blueprint for what the Rams will do. Josh Reynolds played over 85 percent of the team's snaps in the two games Kupp missed, only catching four passes for 62 yards combined in those two games. Jared Goff's numbers dipped significantly during the three games in which Kupp missed serious time, although that was partly because he barely needed to throw in an easy win over the 49ers and a run-heavy victory in Denver.

It's a shame that we won't see the Chiefs' and Rams' offenses face each other at full strength next Monday, but this time of year isn't about full strength. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods have both played like top-20 receivers this season, and the Rams' offense should have more than enough left to keep playing at a high level. Kupp's injury just reduces the team's margin for error and increases the need for the inconsistent Rams defense to pick up the slack.

If the AFC South can get two teams in the playoffs again.

The odds are increasing. The Titans played their second straight complete game, with their young playmakers all making a difference. Corey Davis dominated his matchup with Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and Marcus Mariota has played three consecutive clean games at quarterback, stepping up well in the pocket and using his threat to run efficiently.

The Colts have transformed from the best 1-5 team in football to the best 4-5 team in football. They won their "loser goes home" matchup with the Jaguars on Sunday by boat-racing the disorganized Jaguars in the first half and then holding on for dear life. The Colts have a similarly important home test against Tennessee this week. The winner of that game could have the inside track on the No. 6 seed in the AFC, because the schedule favors that spot coming out of the AFC South rather than the AFC North.

MVP watch

One of my pet peeves in NFL broadcasts happens when analysts suggest that some player having a great year that clearly isn't going to win the MVP should at least "be part of the MVP conversation." This isn't the NBA, where every voter puts five players on the ballot. There's only one vote on every ballot, and I suspect nearly all 50 voters would currently be choosing between Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes.

That said ... For the purpose of this exercise, I'm going to list my top five MVP candidates every week. But yeah, it should probably just be two players at this stage, because Brees and Mahomes have been the best two players by a wide margin this season, and I'd be stunned if one of those two wasn't accepting the award by season's end. Both players just hope to be accepting it via awkward video submission during the NFL Honors awards because they'll have better things to do the night before the Super Bowl.

1) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: Brees gets the slight edge over Mahomes because of the variety of different ways he's had to win. Despite Mahomes' superhuman athleticism, Brees has made more plays on his own.

2) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: Next Monday night's matchup between the Rams and Chiefs could go a long way toward determining Mahomes' MVP chances. I'm sure you won't hear this trenchant analysis any other time before game time.

3) Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams: Trying to separate Goff's value from his coach is missing the point. Goff makes nearly as many wow throws as any quarterback, with the Rams' repetitive precision on offense resembling the Peyton Manning-era Colts.

4) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers: I know I'm supposed to put a running back (Todd Gurley? Alvin Kamara?) or a wideout here, but does anyone really think those players are more valuable than Rodgers playing close to the peak of his powers? Maybe I'll bend to populist whims next week and throw Michael Thomas a bone, but just know it will be half-hearted.

5) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: If there were a stat for drive-stopping plays, Donald would surely have the league lead. If feels like the Ramsonly get stops if Donald is the one who makes it happen.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content