NFL

Chiefs run AFC again, NFL power rankings, Urban Meyer issues and more

The Kansas City Chiefs have lorded over the AFC for the past two seasons. Which contender is ready to take their place, if any?

Who is stopping Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs this year?

It’s been a question three years running in the AFC. So far, no answer.

The last time the Chiefs didn’t reach the Super Bowl was the start of this sensational run. They lost in a classic, the 2018 AFC Championship Game, a 37-31 overtime defeat to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

This year, Kansas City is attempting to host its fourth straight conference championship game. No team in NFL history has ever done so.

Again, the question perplexing the AFC. Who is going to stop the Chiefs?

The first five weeks might tell us.

Going by Vegas odds, the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are the three contenders for the mantle.

The Chiefs see all three foes over their first five games, starting with the Browns at home in Week 1, a Sunday night affair with the Ravens in Baltimore the following week, and then another Sunday Night Football showcase in Week 5 with the Bills in the heartland.

Outside of Kansas City sustaining innumerable injuries to key figures, the best chance for an AFC foe to represent the conference come Super Sunday? Beat the Chiefs head-up in the regular season, and then win the ensuing match race. Going to Arrowhead in January is a brutal task, especially considering Mahomes and Co. are 5-1 there, with the lone loss coming to Bill Belichick and Brady.

Of the aforementioned trio chasing down the Chiefs, the case for each goes as follows:

Buffalo — The Bills have the weaker division when compared to the AFC North, as the Ravens and Browns will be fighting each other and the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins are both playoff contenders, neither is the quality of Baltimore or Cleveland, and perhaps not even Pittsburgh.

Baltimore — The Ravens are the only one of this trio to get Kansas City at home. It didn’t matter last year, with the Chiefs winning a Week 3 affair on Monday night, 35-21. With this being the fourth meeting between Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, perhaps the latter picks up his first win head-to-head. If so, the Ravens have a chance to outpace Kansas City, as Jackson h as 30-7 regular-season record.

Cleveland — The Browns might have the AFC’s best roster. Cleveland is loaded offensively in both linemen and weaponry, with a defense infused by the signings of corner Troy Hill, safety John Johnson III and edge rusher Jadevon Clowney. If the Browns can knock off Kansas City to open the season, it could serve as a springboard for a title run.

While others in the AFC might have a word for Kansas City — the Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans among them — the Chiefs are the heavy favorite.

To take Kansas City down, a blend of experience, talent, coaching and top-flight quarterback play are musts. In that regard, the Browns, Bills and Ravens are the league’s best shot of keeping Mahomes from becoming only the fourth quarterback to reach four straight Super Bowls.

But who stops Kansas City? Whoever beats them, both early and late.

Power rankings

Top 10 most-likely playoff teams after missing in 2020

1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Minnesota Vikings
3. Los Angeles Chargers
4. Miami Dolphins
5. Dallas Cowboys
6. New England Patriots
7. New York Giants
8. Arizona Cardinals
9. Denver Broncos
10. Atlanta Falcons

Quotable

“I don’t think he was 100 percent last year. His quote, or close to a quote was, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get my knee fixed up and I’m gonna be better next year and you’re gonna be excited about that.’”

– Tampa Bay Buccaneers QBs coach Clyde Christensen on Tom Brady having full health in 2021

Did you know Tom Brady, at age 43, played an entire season on a torn MCL and still won Super Bowl? You might have heard.

Regardless, Brady doing so is a legendary feat, but it also raises questions. Teams are mandated to report injuries on their reports each week. Brady never appeared. If he truly played on a serious knee injury all year, that’s a violation of league policy.

While the story adds to Brady’s legacy, it should also concern the Bucs. Commissioner Roger Goodell is likely going to be on Line 1 shortly, making it intriguing to see if anything comes of all this in the way of punishment.

Podcast

Random stat

The Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team to predate the league. Curly Lambeau formed the club in 1919, playing two seasons as an independent club before joining the NFL in 1921.

Info learned this week

1. Richard Sherman faces five charges with NFL career in limbo

When Richard Sherman retires, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The question is when.

Right now, it’s unknown if Sherman will ever play in another NFL game. The cornerback formerly of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers came into legal trouble last week, charged with five misdemeanors including driving under the influence, criminal trespass, malicious mischief, resisting arrest and reckless endangerment of roadway workers.

On Friday, Sherman, 33, pled not guilty to all charges and released a statement about the incident on social media:

While it’s impossible and irresponsible to guess when and how the matter will be resolved, the football reality is clear: Sherman could have a tough time finding work in the near future. After going through the crux of free agency with little discernible interest, the five-time Pro Bowler will likely be seen as at risk of suspension for teams in need of corner help.

It’s unfortunate, but a hard truth as the calendar nears August.

2. Urban Meyer’s failures to understand NFL is portent of issues ahead

The Urban Meyer experiment is off to an inauspicious start in Jacksonville.

Meyer was hired by the club on Jan. 14. Here’s a timeline of events since:

  • Feb. 11: Hired director of sports performance coach Chris Doyle
  • Feb. 12: Doyle resigns amid allegations of racism dating to previous jobs
  • April 30: Meyer says first-round running back Travis Etienne is a third-down back
  • July 1: Meyer, Jaguars fined $300K for OTA violations
  • July 15: Meyer issues subpoena over lawsuit against Doyle

None of this suggests a coach who understands the difference between the collegiate and professional ranks. Which would make sense, since Meyer had never coached in the NFL before January.

At Ohio State and Florida, Meyer had full control. He effectively ran the school and certainly anything pertaining to he football program. In Jacksonville, Meyer is a coach with personnel input and little more. He’s not the only man being paid, and more importantly, he’s not the only man.

Meyer runs the Jaguars without any apparent consideration for optics or rules. Not good.

3. Vaccination rates climbing with training camp closing in

NFL players are getting the jab. It’s a good sign for a league not looking to deal with COVID in 2021.

According to NFL Network, 73.8 percent of players have received at least one shot. Additionally, 13 teams have crossed the all-important threshold of 85 percent. Finally, only two teams are below the truly dreadful rate of 50 percent vaccinated. While the report doesn’t state which clubs they are, the Associated Press writes the Washington Football Team and Indianapolis Colts are the two worst in terms of percentage.

Conversely, the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers are cited as four teams doing the best job in getting players the vaccine.

While everyone has COVID fatigue, these rates will justifiably be a huge story in the coming weeks. And when teams hit the field in late July, it’ll be apparent which have been proactive, and which are most susceptible to an outbreak.

4. Saints lose key contributor to lengthy suspension

The New Orleans Saints have endured many losses this offseason. They sustained another last week.

Star defensive lineman David Onyemata has been suspended the first six games of the regular season for violation of the Performance Enhancing Drug policy. Last year, Onyemata notched 6.5 sacks on the interior last season, giving New Orleans excellent push alongside Sheldon Rankins, Cameron Jordan and Trey Frederickson. Fast forward to now, and only Jordan remains for Week 1.

Without the elite pass rush New Orleans enjoyed in 2020, the Saints need the offense to be sharp from the jump. In short, Jameis Winston needs to be prolific without the turnovers in the early going, as New Orleans takes on the Packers on opening day, followed by the Panthers and New England Patriots.

For a team used to being a contender, the Saints are facing a mountain of challenges.

5. Ginn finishes up underrated career after being a surprise pick

Ted Ginn Jr. wasn’t supposed to go before Brady Quinn in the 2007 NFL Draft. Imagine that.

Yes, Ginn was a surprise when Miami took him No. 7 overall while Quinn, the standout Notre Dame quarterback remained on the board. Many were critical at the time with the Dolphins having no clear signal-caller entering ’07 (Joey Harrington was the incumbent).

Ginn proved Miami right. Now Ginn is retiring, leaving behind a career not appreciated enough.

A 14-year career spanning five teams, the Ohio State product was an elite return man with big-play ability as a receiver.

All told, he scored 38 touchdowns and totaled 15,749 all-purpose yards.

The latter figure ranks 24th all-time. Not bad.

Two cents

During my vacation, Pro Football Reference (PFR) unveiled its latest project.

Researched by John Turney and Nick Webster, NFL sack totals have now been updated in the PFR database to reflect statistics dating back to 1960. Of course, sacks didn’t become official for NFL record books until 1982.

The work from Turney and Webster is both important and phenomenal. It puts new light on greats who played in the 1960s and ’70s, men who have long, and unjustly, been forgotten. For example, Al “Bubba” Baker recorded 23 sacks as a rookie in 1978 with the Detroit Lions. While the number remains unofficial, it represents the true record for a single season.

Think this matters to Baker? His reaction is wonderful.

We also see Alan Page credited with 148.5 sacks, which would place him above fellow Minnesota Vikings great John Randle as having the top spot for interior defenders. How about Coy Bacon? Yes, Bacon is largely anonymous to fans today, but he ranks 22nd all-time in sacks on PFR’s leaderboard with 130.5 sacks. In 1976, Bacon notched 21.5 sacks for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Bravo to Pro Football Reference. It could rekindle more than a few Hall of Fame candidacies.

Inside the league

Coming out of the draft, Jalen Hurts was roundly lauded in league circles for his maturity and football IQ. If he succeeds in 2021, both will be on full display.

Hurts, who played under both Lincoln Riley and Nick Saban in college at Oklahoma and Alabama respectively, was aptly prepared for the pro game. There were glimmers as a rookie, when the youngster was thrust into the lineup following three months of ineptitude by Carson Wentz.

In four starts (15 games) with the Philadelphia Eagles, Hurts notched six passing touchdowns and four interceptions while only completing 52 percent of his attempts. However, he also ran for 352 yards and three scores.

This year, Hurts is the unquestioned starter. He has a lackluster group of weapons, headlined by rookie DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert. Not exactly the ’80s 49ers. Hurts also has a first-year head coach in any level in Nick Sirianni. His offensive coordinator, Shane Steichen, might be his best security blanket. Serving in the same role for the Chargers, Steichen helped rookie Justin Herbert to stardom in his rookie campaign.

Still, Steichen is 36 years old and Sirianni couldn’t be greener. The weaponry couldn’t be more limited. If Hurts thrives in Philadelphia this season, it’ll be because the thoughts pre-draft about him ring true. He’s smart, he’s mature and he can thrive in a multitude of situations.

History lesson

Few teams ever had more shocking runs to the Super Bowl than the 1985 Patriots.

After finishing the season 11-5, New England was the AFC’s fifth — and final — seed, not expected to do much with a roster featuring starting quarterback Tony Eason and only two future Hall of Famers.

Somehow, the Patriots got hot. They beat the New York Jets and top-seeded Los Angeles Raiders before taking on the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl in the AFC Championship Game. Losers against Miami in its previous 18 appearances at the venue, New England pulled a stunning 31-14 upset to reach Super Bowl XX.

There, however, they were pummeled by the iconic ’85 Chicago Bears, being routed 46-10.

Parting shot

A movie is being made about Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner and his life. It might be a rare time when cinema has a difficult chore to match the absurdity of reality.

Everyone knows the pillars of Warner’s painstaking and then meteoric rise. Stocking shelves, Arena League, NFL Europe and then wham, Super Bowl MVP. But his 1999 season really deserves all-time acclaim.

Even forgetting all the moment that make a movie about Warner so compelling, just consider the following: he attempted 11 passes in his NFL career before taking over the starting job for the St. Louis Rams in ’99, following Trent Green’s knee injury.

Warner, taking over the franchise with the worst winning percentage in the ’90s, proceeded to throw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns, winning league MVP honors. Those numbers are great now, but two decades ago? Warner became only the second player to ever throw 40 touchdowns in a season, joining Dan Marino’s 1984 campaign.

The Northern Iowa product then capped his magical year off in grand fashion, helping the Rams to the first — and still only — Super Bowl win, taking MVP on the night along the way.

Quarterbacks have enjoyed better statistical years and will certainly do so in the 17-game era ahead. Nobody will ever have a more stunning season.

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