Many envious fans around the NFL have often viewed the New England Patriots as the evil Empire from the Star Wars films. Bill Belichick played the Emperor Palpatine role perfectly as the picture of hooded menace and misery, while Tom Brady was his Darth Vader; slaying opponents and destroying dream after dream as they controlled worlds for years at a time.
So, we should have known from that Star Wars franchise, even though the Death Star can be destroyed (Brady leaving for Tampa Bay), the evil can rise again and a return to galaxy-wide domination is not out of the question.
And the rise of Belichick's new army is proving to be one of the more fascinating stories as this 2021 NFL season continues to unfold. New England have now won four games in a row and five of their last six after a 1-3 start to the year during which time they looked pretty ordinary and quite low on talent.
They look anything but that now.
With Belichick preaching rock solid fundamentals and with the ultimate team-first attitude, the Patriots have played themselves into form during the season and now sit just half a game behind the 6-3 Buffalo Bills with a 6-4 record in the AFC East.
Sunday's 45-7 demolition of a Cleveland Browns team that had recorded a big win over Cincinnati the previous weekend was New England's finest performance of the season to date. And I don't think they are done building on this positive result.
We had former Patriots front office Super Bowl winner Mike Lombardi on Sky Sports last night and he talked about the incessant need to have good fundamentals in New England. Good blocking, good tackling, good running… those constants could serve this team very well indeed in the topsy-turvy, up and down world that is the 2021 NFL season.
With Damien Harris out injured, New England didn't miss a beat on the ground last night as they rushed for a season-high 184 yards. Rhamondre Stevenson led from the front as he gained an even 100 yards on 20 carries. Defensively, New England continue to dominate and they held Baker Mayfield to 73 passing yards and one interception before knocking him from the game with a knee injury in the third quarter.
But perhaps the biggest difference-making growth is coming from rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who dropped some absolute dimes on Sunday night while throwing for a very efficient 198 yards and three touchdowns on 19 of 23 completions.
Jones is never asked to do too much in New England's attack, but he is evolving and becoming more of a factor. In Weeks 1-6, he threw seven touchdown passes and six interceptions for a rating of 89.6. During New England's four-game winning streak, Jones has thrown six touchdown strikes (mostly to tight end Hunter Henry) and just one pick for a rating of 102.6.
New England are building momentum (they have out-scored opponents 150 points to 50 during the winning streak) and getting better at the right time of the year. Don't be surprised if they make playoff noise come January.
The Tennessee Titans… Mike Vrabel's men have now won six games in a row after Sunday's 23-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints. And that run of results includes five victories in a row against playoff teams from the previous season, matching the achievements of the 2003 Philadelphia Eagles. Once again, the Titans found a way. They won in Los Angeles with D'Onta Foreman serving as the leading rusher with just 29 yards. He was the leading rusher again on Sunday evening with just 30 yards, but the Titans got enough production from others. Marcus Johnson gained 100 receiving yards, the defense came up with four sacks and a necessary stop on a two-point conversion as the unlucky Saints looked to take the game into overtime. It has not always been pretty, but the Titans are 2-0 without Derrick Henry and remain the top seed in the AFC with an 8-2 record.
Green Bay's Defense… The Packers were far from ideal on a wintry evening at Lambeau Field, especially on offense, but they were powered to another key victory by a defense that is becoming one of the best in the league. In the 17-0 win, the Packers shut down pretty much every deep pass attempt thrown by Russell Wilson and never gave him a chance to get into a rhythm on his return from a finger injury. Over the past three games, Green Bay have conceded a total of 34 points against teams led by Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray. Each of those quarterbacks struggled against the Packers, which bodes well for Green Bay being a complete team when Aaron Rodgers gets back up to speed and hits his stride.
Offenses we expected to be good… Three offenses that were having the big play taken away from them enjoyed 'get right' games in Week 10. The Dallas Cowboys rolled up 431 yards of offense in a 43-3 hammering of Atlanta with CeeDee Lamb and Ezekiel Elliott each scoring two touchdowns. Buffalo gained 489 yards in a 45-17 victory over the New York Jets. Josh Allen threw for 366 yards and two scores and both Stefon Diggs (8 for 162 and 1) and Gabriel Davis (3 for 105) topped 100 yards receiving. Kansas City looked much more like their old selves as they gained 516 yards in a Sunday Night Football 41-14 whooping of the Las Vegas Raiders. Patrick Mahomes threw for 406 yards and five touchdowns, Travis Kelce went over 100 receiving yards and Tyreek Hill caught two touchdown passes. For one week at least, some normality returned to the NFL.
Lamar Jackson… 24 hours after I was asked to submit midseason awards for NFL UK and Sky Sports, the man I put down as the MVP had an absolute stinker in a 22-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Lamar threw for just 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a very ordinary 73.6 rating. Perhaps most importantly, he was held to just 39 rushing yards. In Baltimore's worst offensive outing of the season to date, Jackson couldn't handle the blitz and could not stretch the field with long passes. Did Miami show the rest of the NFL a blueprint for handling this exciting game-breaker, or was this merely a bump in a road in what is proving to be a very unpredictable season?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers… The defending Super Bowl champions have now lost two in a row after Sunday's 29-19 loss to the Washington Football Team and an emerging pattern must be stamped out the rest of the way. On Sunday, Tom Brady threw two interceptions. In a Week 8 loss to New Orleans, he threw two picks and Tampa turned the ball over three times. In Week 8, the Bucs ran the ball a total of 14 times for 71 yards. On Sunday, they rushed just 13 times for 53 yards. The offensive balance is lacking. Defensively, the secondary is banged up and wafer thin – the Bucs conceded 36 points to the Trevor Siemian-led Saints in Week 8 and 29 points to Taylor Heinicke and the Football Team in Week 10.
The Las Vegas Raiders… The Silver and Black have dealt with tremendous adversity and distractions in recent weeks and maybe it is taking a toll. Sunday's 41-14 home thrashing at the hands of Kansas City Chiefs means they have now lost two in a row and four of their last six after a 3-0 start that maybe flattered them a little bit. I expected the Raiders to fall back to earth after their fast start and that has proven to be the case. The running game is non-existent, the deep ball has disappeared and the defense is starting to crumble. How quickly they can stop the rot will determine if they descend into a total freefall.
The Fast Five…
- You never quite know what is around the corner in any given NFL weekend. If I had told you a week ago that Cam Newton would be running into the end zone to score a touchdown for the Carolina Panthers, yelling 'I'm back' you would have told me I was crazy. Cam also threw for one touchdown in Sunday's 34-10 victory over the depleted Arizona Cardinals. With the Panthers still alive in the NFC playoff race at 5-5, expect to see more of Cam in the coming weeks.
- That was some bad overtime football as the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers meandered to a 16-16 tie in miserable weather that matched the mood of the hometown fans at Heinz Field at the end of this forgettable outing. Pat Freiermuth's late fumble for Pittsburgh summed up a day that showed they still have a long way to go to be a true contender, even when Ben Roethlisberger returns from Covid 19.
- The Minnesota Vikings played out another one-score game on Sunday night, making that eight such contests out of a possible nine played this season. But this one saw the Vikings come out on top with a 27-20 road win against the Los Angeles Chargers. Minnesota's stars were influential as Kirk Cousins threw for close to 300 yards, Justin Jefferson caught nine passes for 143 yards and Dalvin Cook provided the winning touchdown. This result reminded me that both these clubs are going to be up and down at various points in 2021.
- I'm sure Russell Wilson will improve as the remainder of the season unfolds. He will shake off the rust of last night's 17-0 loss to Green Bay, but it may be getting a bit too late. Seattle are not out of the NFC playoff race but they have fallen to 3-6 and things are not looking great. A losing season is going to put the final nail in the coffin of any hopes the Seahawks have of keeping Wilson this offseason. I think he and the team are going to part ways.
- Let's keep an eye on an Indianapolis Colts team that has moved to 5-5 on the season with wins in four of their last five. The formula is simple. Feed Jonathan Taylor (he had another 116 rushing yards and one touchdown in Week 10's 23-17 win over Jacksonville) and have Carson Wentz avoid the costly mistakes. Wentz almost had another one on Sunday as he attempted another left-handed throw under pressure. He needs to calm down and know that ball security offers up more chances for JT to do his thing.
Fact of the Week
For the second consecutive week, four teams who entered without a winning record defeated a team that began the week in first place or tied for first in their division. Miami beat Baltimore, Carolina hammered Arizona, Minnesota edged past the LA Chargers and Washington upset Tampa Bay.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Fret Noodler (@noodlestudios) The team with a winning record but losing momentum and struggling is… the aforementioned Las Vegas Raiders, but also the Chargers who fell to 5-4 with Sunday's home loss to Minnesota. I don't really know who the Chargers are now. LA continue to place great weight on Justin Herbert's young shoulders. Where he goes, they go. Herbert has thrown six interceptions in their four losses but when he has a QB rating of 100 or above, the Chargers win (four times). In losing three of their last four, the Chargers have been out-scored by 35 points and out-gained by 116 yards. That is a worrying slide and Herbert needs to produce more than his 195 passing yards from Sunday.
From Tanja (@tanjjiii) The second half of the season is shaping up to belong to… those fans who love chaos and unpredictability every single weekend. I have no idea who is the best team in the NFL nor who is going to be make the Super Bowl. It is the most wide-open campaign I can ever remember. And I have seen a lot of them. Top spot in my weekly Power Rankings has changed eight times in 10 weeks and another change is coming this week. 12 of the AFC's 16 teams have at least five wins as we march towards the business end of the season. It's equally unpredictable in the NFC with heavyweight contenders Arizona, Dallas, Green Bay, LA Rams and Tampa Bay suffering defeats in the past two games. Just strap yourself in and enjoy the ride!
From Justin Sysum (@thesman7) Now that Cam is back, the Panthers will… still need to lean heavily on their running game led by Christian McCaffrey now that he is working back to fitness. They also need to help out a talented defense by not killing themselves with turnovers. Sam Darnold was actually setting this team back. As Cam gets integrated more and more into this offense, he needs to do just enough to get the best out of others. While his personality will always shine bright, I don't think he needs to be the biggest star on this team. It will be fun to see how he fares down the stretch and I think he quickly supplants P.J. Walker as the starter. But I still believe Carolina will be in the market for another new quarterback in the offseason.
Watching the snow fall down in about eight different directions in the final moments of the Packers-Seahawks game reminded me that homefield advantage is still going to matter in this wide-open race to the Super Bowl, even though every perceived powerhouse is vulnerable. Imagine if a team like Arizona, Dallas or the Rams (who play a lot of games indoors) have to head to a frosty Lambeau Field in January? I was going to add Tampa Bay there but they actually won at a frosty Lambeau Field in last year's NFC Championship Game so let's move on. It would be the same with an AFC title game in Buffalo. As Old Man Winter begins to wake up across America, securing that number one seed in the playoffs is going to be vital.