At the midway point of the 2016 NFL season, the presumptive MVP favorite has played in only half of his team’s games. That says plenty about how diluted the top tier of the league has become, but it says just as much about the performance Tom Brady has turned in through four games upon returning from his Deflategate suspension.
There were outlets that had Brady pegged as the clear MVP front-runner before the Patriots’ 41–25 dismantling of the Bills on Sunday. With Brady’s casual 22-of-33, 315-yard, four-touchdown performance, those odds are going to improve. New England’s offense clicked instantly upon Brady’s reinsertion into the lineup, but its shredding of Buffalo has officially put the Patriots on track to reach juggernaut status on that side of the ball. The Pats were 13th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA in their first four games without Brady. Before Sunday’s win, they’d climbed to third, and by picking apart the Bills, that ranking could rise more.
Some holes on the New England defense, particularly in the secondary, have kept this roster from looking as dominant as some of the best Patriots teams in recent seasons. But Brady and the offense have played about as well as anyone could have hoped. At age 39, he is somehow turning in the best per-game numbers of his career. Nine years after throwing for 4,806 yards and 50 touchdowns with Randy Moss and Wes Welker at his disposal, Brady has posted stats over his first four 2016 games — 1,319 yards, 12 touchdowns, no interceptions — that would put him on pace to rack up 5,276 yards and 48 scores over a 16-game season. Even with the benefit of facing a handful of bad defenses, what Brady has done with Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, and the Lollipop Guild as his pass catchers is remarkable. His 73.1 percent completion rate would break the NFL single-season record. His 9.84 yards per attempt would be second to only Kurt Warner in 2000 in the Super Bowl era. At a time when Brady should be slowing down, the Patriots offense has managed to rev up.
In a lot of ways, this version of the Pats offense looks a lot like the ones we’ve grown familiar with. Outside of wide receiver Chris Hogan — who got behind the Bills defense for a 53-yard score in the first quarter one play after an across-the-field bomb to Julian Edelman was called back because of a penalty — New England lacks a true down-the-the-field threat on the outside. The Patriots live on Brady’s ability to exploit the underneath areas of a defense, with Gronk occasionally tearing down the seam or making a linebacker look hapless as he bursts downfield before jutting to the corner. For what seems like a decade running, Brady’s ruthless efficiency is what has allowed the Patriots to slice and dice their way up the field.
The most telling drive of New England’s Week 8 win — and maybe the most telling drive leaguewide of the entire afternoon — was its final possession of the first half. Starting at his own 39-yard line with 27 seconds and two timeouts remaining, Brady ripped off three quick completions to move into range for a 51-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal that made the score 24–10. There are offenses that wouldn’t even consider trying to steal those points; Brady yawned as he did it. No team feels more comfortable or more confident in what its quarterback can do than the Pats.
Brady’s brilliance, combined with the unsteady play of several high-profile players around the league, has allowed what once seemed unthinkable to become reality in this year’s MVP race. Coming into the fall, the notion that a quarterback who was suspended for the first quarter of the campaign would emerge as the most valuable player by season’s end — no matter how well he played — sounded impossible. It took Brady four games to make that idea not only plausible, but likely, in part because his competition is relatively nonexistent.
Through Week 8, each of the league’s other top QBs has already faltered somewhere along the way. Aaron Rodgers turned in what might have been his best outing of the season in a 33–32 loss to the Falcons, but the Packers’ struggles on offense have been well documented. Russell Wilson has kept the Seahawks afloat, but his growing list of ailments and a leaky offensive line have limited the team’s success. Andrew Luck has routinely been masterful, but the Colts’ array of other shortcomings has hindered his hopes. With the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger hurt and the Panthers — and their reigning MVP quarterback, The Riddler — starting 2–5, the most reasonable challengers to Brady’s claim have come from further down the NFL’s hierarchy.
Among that lot, it’s hard to make a compelling case for anyone who could knock Brady from his perch. Dallas’s rookie combination of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott has been excellent (despite some fits and starts from Prescott in Sunday night’s 29–23 win over the Eagles), but they’re likely to split the MVP vote. Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy had carried the Bills offense (third in rushing DVOA, seventh overall, prior to this week) through much of the first half, but he’s back on the shelf with a hamstring injury. And though Arizona’s David Johnson was built in a laboratory, the Cardinals’ offensive ineptitude gives him little chance at earning the award. After Sunday, it seems like the player with the best claim may be Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who had an excellent showing in the Falcons’ win over Green Bay, despite not having Tevin Coleman and not getting much from a banged-up Julio Jones.
Even with Ryan playing well and the Atlanta offense clicking, though, the Falcons came in to Week 8 at 4–3 and battling to stay atop a diluted NFC South. With all the weapons Ryan has at his disposal this fall (and some improvements along the offensive line), the Falcons don’t look poised to take the tumble they did in 2015, but their suspect defense may be enough to keep them from piling up wins and cruising to the playoffs.
If they do falter — and if New England continues on its current trajectory — it seems like Brady’s path to winning his third MVP would be clear. Nine years after his first one and 17 seasons into his tenure in New England, neither his status nor that of his team has changed much. As the rest of the league flails around them, the Patriots calmly march toward the postseason. If the end of that reign is coming, it isn’t in sight.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. During a season in which defenses have ruled, the Falcons and Packers are making football fun again. Considering the stretch that the NFL has just experienced — a 6–6 slog, Brock Osweiler versus Trevor Siemian, and the Titans-Jaguars Thursday-night showcase — a high-level quarterback duel like the one that took place in Atlanta felt like more than a refreshing change of pace; it was a life-saving gasp.
Both Ryan and Rodgers opened Sunday’s game 15-of-19 passing and made their share of patently ridiculous throws in the first half. Ryan’s first-quarter deep toss to Taylor Gabriel (the third option in what’s become a loaded assortment of weapons) for a 47-yard touchdown was as good as that type of safety-splitting throw can be, and how Rodgers managed to slip a 9-yard strike to Trevor Davis in the front corner of the end zone in the second quarter, I’ll never know.
What’s even more encouraging for Atlanta than the continued excellence of Ryan’s offense: the signs of life from the defense, specifically up front. Head coach Dan Quinn’s unit is still a below-average group overall, but a year after finishing dead last in adjusted sack rate, the Falcons came in to Week 8 ranked 19th, and they got to Rodgers three times. Vic Beasley has done most of the work in that regard with 7.5 sacks, and after being labeled as a bust in Tampa Bay, defensive end Adrian Clayborn (two sacks on Sunday) has given the Falcons some pop as an interior pass rusher.
2. Washington and Cincinnati looked the part of middling teams on Sunday, but their offensive playmakers should scare opponents if either sneaks into the playoffs. During the league’s second “No, you take it, I insist” result in as many weeks, flawed defenses for both teams were on full display in London. But in a 27–27 tie, both offenses showed why they could be frightening draws later in the season.
Back after missing two games with a concussion, Washington tight end Jordan Reed (nine catches for 99 yards) wasted no time making his presence felt. And in just his second game this fall, the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert (nine catches for 102 yards) looked a lot like the player who dominated a season ago. Cincinnati’s receiving corps doesn’t boast the depth of Washington’s, which got another nice showing from Jamison Crowder after DeSean Jackson exited with a head injury. Still, Cincy’s pairing of Eifert and A.J. Green is enough to make it a potent group. With Eifert back in the fold, the Bengals finally have the ability to exploit the middle of the field.
3. The Chargers’ riff on sadness added a new wrinkle in Week 8. After San Diego ripped off two straight wins over probable playoff teams, it felt like the Chargers’ nightmarish fourth quarters might be a thing of the past. But their late-game struggles returned in a 27–19 loss to Denver, and this time they came with a twist.
For much of the first half of this season, San Diego has stormed out to leads, only to watch them slowly fade. On Sunday against the Broncos, though, the Chargers — down 24–13 early in the fourth quarter and the victims of an interception returned for a touchdown — were the team looking to steal a win. After Casey Hayward’s 24-yard pick-six cut the deficit to five with 8:02 left, San Diego’s defense stood firm, limiting the Broncos to a field goal after they drove inside the 5-yard line, which kept Denver’s lead at eight. Starting the next possession at their own 25, the Chargers marched all the way to Denver’s 2-yard line, thanks largely to the work of running back Melvin Gordon.
But then they stalled. Rather than handing the ball to Gordon to let him finish the drive, Philip Rivers lofted four consecutive incompletions, resulting in a turnover on downs. At this point, I can’t imagine a team creating a more disparate experience for fans and impartial observers than San Diego. As someone who has no emotional attachment to the Chargers, watching them play entertaining games every week is among the more enjoyable parts of my Sunday. But knowing their fans are curled into the fetal position on the couch does make me feel a little guilty.
4. Despite the Raiders’ best efforts, they continue to win. I think Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson put it best, regarding Oakland’s 30–24 overtime victory in Tampa Bay: “They were handing us the game with missed field goals and all those penalties and we didn’t take it,” Dotson said. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.” Considering I saw a pug in an octopus costume this weekend, I won’t go that far, but watching the Raiders tally an NFL-record 23 penalties — for 200 yards — and still win was incredible.
The Raiders finished with 626 total yards — 513 of them coming from QB Derek Carr through the air — and now sit at 6–2, tied with Denver atop the AFC West. Oakland’s defense remains a significant concern, but at this point, a string of luck and a Carr-led offense have been enough to point the Raiders toward the playoffs. In an AFC that appears wide open outside of New England, that’s all a team can ask for.
5. New England’s second cornerback spot may be a problem. The Pats have been searching all season for an answer to the question of who should line up across from Malcolm Butler. At this point, it doesn’t seem like Eric Rowe is up to the task. New England traded its 2018 fourth-round pick for the former Eagles defender in early September, and the only thing he’s proved so far is that he leaves part of the secondary vulnerable.
Rowe picked up two big penalties against the Bills — a 29-yard pass interference while covering Justin Hunter and an illegal contact call that negated a Tyrod Taylor pick — and doesn’t seem to be an upgrade over Logan Ryan. Given the Patriots’ struggles to create pressure up front, those issues on the back end aren’t likely to go away soon.
6. Dallas’s offense showed it could succeed in different ways while facing one of the league’s top defenses. The Cowboys’ recipe for putting together the NFL’s best offense has included a rookie quarterback who’s looked nothing like a rookie, a dominant offensive line, and a running back able to take advantage of a favorable situation. Against the Eagles, though, Dallas used those factors in slightly different proportions than it has throughout most of its 6–1 start.
Deploying extra rushers consistently, Philly bothered Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offensive line for much of Sunday’s game. Prescott was sacked twice and threw a costly red zone interception. And that’s what made Ezekiel Elliott’s outing so impressive, even if his final line — 22 carries for 96 yards — doesn’t stack up to those from his past four games.
Elliott managed to keep the Cowboys offense moving without the gaping holes he’d seen to that point. Even though Prescott had a rough night, which would have looked even worse if Dez Bryant hadn’t hauled in a couple of iffy throws, Elliott found ways to stay effective. The biggest takeaway from Dallas’s win this week is that it has a back who can survive even when the rest of its offense falters.
7. The Falcons’ third-quarter series that resulted in a touchdown was a perfect example of how teams often revert to conventional thinking near the end zone. After Packers safety Kentrell Brice tackled Atlanta’s Terron Ward inside the 1-yard line, the Falcons faced a first-and-goal. What followed were two runs out of heavy, tight-end-filled sets that produced no gain. On third down, though, Atlanta threw some of its big bodies off the field and spread the Packers defense out with its 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back).
The result was a beautifully designed run that featured guard Andy Levitre pulling and creating even more space than the formation already allowed. Devonta Freeman rushed in to give the Falcons a 26–24 lead. The sequence was a reminder that too many teams that rely on spread formations to move the ball down the field are content to abandon them on the most important snaps of the game. Just because the field shrinks vertically near the goal line doesn’t mean it has to shrink horizontally, too.
8. The Cardinals offensive line has reached DEFCON 1. Arizona’s group up front was outmanned by Carolina on Sunday, allowing Carson Palmer to be sacked eight times in a 30–20 loss. The interior of the line was roasted by Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, and Cards right tackle D.J. Humphries continued his season-long woes. Carolina generating pressure and taking stress off the secondary is a welcome sight for coach Ron Rivera, especially after his team’s 1–5 start this fall. We’ll see if the Panthers can consistently have that type of effect against lines that are better than the Cardinals’.
9. The Seahawks’ lack of pass protection gets the most ink, but their stagnant running game has quietly held back their offense. Russell Wilson’s value and array of minor injuries have brought a lot of talk about keeping him upright, but a key difference between this Seattle offense and the ones in past years has been an inability to get anything going on the ground. Coming into Sunday’s 25–20 loss to the Saints, the Seahawks were 30th in rushing DVOA. That ranking is astonishing, considering the team hasn’t finished outside the top seven (and has twice finished no. 1) since Wilson took over as the starter in 2012.
The simple explanation seems to be the retirement of Marshawn Lynch, but that doesn’t account for how the Seahawks finished third in DVOA last season with Thomas Rawls stomping all over defenses. The more plausible answer: Combined with Seattle’s line problems, Wilson’s injuries mean he is no longer a threat to carry the ball. Defenses aren’t worried about Wilson’s legs as an option, and in turn the line’s shortcomings are showing up in the running game the way they have in pass protection.
10. The Chiefs have some playmakers, I swear. A lack of turnover in Kansas City’s personnel — it feels like we’re on Year 10 of Andy Reid and Alex Smith — and a death-by-1,000-dump-offs style of offense don’t make the 5–2 Chiefs very exciting, but this is an offense that boasts plenty of firepower. Tight end Travis Kelce carved up the Colts defense for 101 yards on seven catches in Sunday’s 30–14 win, just in time to boost the ratings for his new reality dating show, and K.C. has a vertical threat to pair with receiver Jeremy Maclin in rookie Tyreek Hill. There’s talent in this group; the question is if Smith (and Nick Foles) can maximize it.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: David Johnson having the ability to levitate. Even with the Cardinals offense struggling, Johnson continues to make no sense.