In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 4 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at one of the most anticipated matchups of the 2021 season so far ...
Those who expect to draw some insightful conclusions from the most highly anticipated game of this NFL season -- also known as Tampa Bay at New England this Sunday night -- need to pump the brakes. This will be a huge matchup because it's the first chance for Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady to face his former head coach, Bill Belichick, in the place where they combined to win six Super Bowls. What it won't be is a game that will tell us much about either team, or even either man. It's simply going to be a Week 4 meeting between one squad seeking a second consecutive championship and another hoping to return to the playoffs.
It's important to remember that there's really been one issue at the heart of this game: Who meant more to the Patriots' dynasty? The more critical answer to that is this: Why does it even matter anymore? Brady went to Tampa Bay last year and led the Bucs to a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Belichick futilely tried to succeed with an aging veteran quarterback (Cam Newton) last year, and now his team is mired at 1-2 with a rookie quarterback (Mac Jones) at the helm. Both men are dealing with totally different circumstances.
The fact is that Brady and Belichick needed each other. The quarterback needed a coach who could see the vast potential in him at a young age and mine the most out of it. The coach needed a quarterback who could handle his management style and operate as if every season was another opportunity to prove his doubters wrong. It was the kind of magical relationship that only comes around every so often in sports. Discussion of this relationship does not have to align with our culture's belief that life only can be painted in black or white, that one has to belong to a certain camp -- of either Brady supporters or Belichick supporters -- to be able to explain the overall significance of something.
We already knew how Belichick was going to approach this week -- with the same dismissive tone he attaches to all sorts of questions that come his way in advance of a game. When asked Monday about Brady leaving in free agency, Belichick told local reporters, "We made a statement when Tom left, and that covered it." He was similarly brusque after receiving a question about Brady's success in Tampa. "Tom's a great player," he said. "Nothing surprises me that he does."
Brady likely will say more during his media sessions this week, but it's doubtful that he'll be any more expansive. The Bucs just lost their first game of the season on Sunday, a 34-24 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. That will be more than enough to make Brady hyper-focused about the next opportunity to come his way. It's likelier that he'll care more about getting his team back on a winning streak instead of doing it in the place he called home for 20 years.
That doesn't mean there won't be serious emotions on either side. These men are still human, and they built something that we'll probably never see again. It's simply that far more interesting storylines have emerged around the NFL since this game was announced, from Green Bay to Kansas City to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, among other places. This past weekend alone offered even more proof of how wild and crazy this season will likely get before it's all over.
There used to be a time when this league revolved around what was happening in New England. It was either a question of whether the Patriots were going to win another Super Bowl or who was going to be good enough to stop them. It makes sense. From 2001 to 2018, they played in nine Super Bowls and nearly made four others, losing in the conference championship game.
That time has now passed, along with the intrigue about who meant more to each other or even why they couldn't stay together. The hype surrounding this game will be relentless, but these two men ultimately won't line up across from each other. They had their moment and produced enough magic to be considered the best quarterback and best coach ever. The only thing that matters is that history will remember one crucial fact about that high level of success: They ultimately did it together.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) The AFC West just got real: The Kansas City Chiefs have won five straight AFC West titles, but their chokehold over this division doesn't feel that firm anymore, now that they're sitting at 1-2 and in last place. It's easy to say it's early, that the Chiefs will find their way back to the top before the postseason begins. That also would be the view of someone who's unwilling to accept what's happening with the other three teams. The Chargers just scored a huge win in Kansas City over the weekend. The Raiders and Broncos are the only two undefeated teams left in the AFC, one winning with exceptional offense (Las Vegas) and the other with stifling defense (Denver). The consensus in the past was that these teams, no matter how promising they might look early, would find a way to implode late. It's a safe bet that won't be the case this year. The Chargers aren't fighting the same slew of deflating injuries that have plagued them in the past, while the Raiders and Broncos are more talented than they've been in years. All three also have benefited from strong quarterback play, with the Raiders' Derek Carr off to an MVP-caliber start. The Chiefs still have a stellar offense built around Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They added Josh Gordon. What they also have is an inept defense and a recent habit of turning the ball over in tight games. Those factors will make for a far more interesting race in a division where every other team clearly has improved.
2) The Pack is back: There was something profound about the end of Green Bay's 30-28 win over San Francisco on Sunday night. It wasn't just the way quarterback Aaron Rodgers connected on two consecutive passes in the final possession to set up Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal. It was the way Rodgers pumped his right fist after orchestrating that drive, one that started with only 37 seconds on the clock and no timeouts. It was the way his teammates mobbed Crosby in the end zone after his 51-yard kick split the uprights. This is a team that has been through a lot over the last six months, from the drama that resulted after Rodgers publicly aired his discontent with management to a season-opening beatdown at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. Now it feels like the Packers have a better sense of who they are this year, as well as what they can be. Rodgers acknowledged as much in his postgame press conference, when he referenced the vibe of that celebration and how the win legitimized this team's belief that the Saints loss was an anomaly. Look, the Packers still have their flaws. They're trying to make do with some inexperienced offensive linemen, and their defense remains a work in progress. But we also received a reminder of what this team can accomplish when its quarterback is on fire. That's enough to make any squad feel that all things are indeed possible.
3) Cooper Kupp deserves his due: Kupp is playing better than any wide receiver in the league right now. That doesn't mean he's superior to the likes of Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill or DeAndre Hopkins. It just means they aren't doing what he's doing this year. Entering Monday Night Football, Kupp led the league in receptions (25), receiving yards (367) and receiving touchdowns (five). He's terrorized defenders deep and on underneath routes, and it feels like every other highlight of the guy involves him running wide open. As much as quarterback Matthew Stafford deserves praise for all that he's brought to the Rams' offense this season, Kupp's continued growth also has helped this passing attack go to another level. You put a quarterback this confident with a receiver this savvy and then combine them with a coach as creative as Sean McVay, and it's a wrap. You read it here first: This isn't simply a fast start. Kupp will also be the league's leading receiver when this season ends.
The Los Angeles Chargers quarterback keeps proving he isn't going to be a one-year wonder after being named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020. He just outplayed Patrick Mahomes in a 30-24 win at Kansas City, and he made a huge statement with the final touchdown of that contest. Herbert's decision to check out of a run and throw a touchdown pass to Mike Williams -- instead of burning the clock to set up a game-winning field goal -- will be a huge turning point in the state of this franchise. It means he's a true baller, one that believes he can beat anybody at any time.
Cousins created a lot of headlines with his COVID-19 controversy in training camp. The only thing people should be talking about right now is the way he's playing. The Minnesota Vikings may be 1-2, but he isn't the problem. Cousins has connected on nearly 74 percent of his throws and tossed eight touchdown passes with no interceptions. More importantly, head coach Mike Zimmer has been praising Cousins for his improved leadership of late. The Vikings still have a lot of work to do on defense, but at least their quarterback has elevated his game.
If you hit a league-record 66-yard field goal to give your team a last-second win over the Lions, then you deserve a spot on this list. Tucker is one of the best kickers in league history for a reason. He'll also be asked to make a few more game-winning kicks this year for a team that needs every last break it can get.
All that good faith generated by a season-opening win over Buffalo has evaporated quickly. The Steelers' problems on the offensive line are so well-documented at this stage that the only question worth pondering is whether Ben Roethlisberger will play all 17 games. This team still can't run the ball -- Pittsburgh has a league-worst 159 yards on the ground -- and it looks even more feeble when Big Ben is trying to throw. The Steelers' best chance to win is with a dominant defense. With T.J. Watt and some other key defenders ailing, it's only going to get worse for this bunch.
Remember the days when Seattle head coach Pete Carroll was a defensive guru? The Seahawks had an underwhelming defense last season, and they're even worse this year. They've allowed 985 yards and 63 points over their last two games, both losses. They can't rush the passer, stop the run or cover consistently. That's a bad place to be in a division where the three other teams are all averaging at least 28 points per game.
The New York Giants head coach tried to offer some reassurance that his team will be "alright," but there is little to like about this squad. The Giants just lost to one of the worst teams in the league -- a 17-14 defeat to Atlanta -- and that was their best chance at a victory so far. Their next seven games? Try the Saints, Cowboys, Rams, Panthers, Chiefs, Raiders and Buccaneers. This team -- one that is also battling a slew of injuries -- has a legitimate chance of starting the season 0-10.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Why has Carolina's defense become dominant?
PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR AN NFC TEAM: "Talent helps. They've got five former first-round picks on that side of the ball, so they've invested heavily. They brought in (outside linebacker) Haason Reddick, and he's familiar with what Matt Rhule wants to do, because they were together at Temple. But the headliner is Brian Burns. He's really emerged. He has to improve his power, but his speed is elite. As a speed guy, he] can beat you a lot of ways, especially with spin moves and counters. He has length and explosiveness, so he demands a lot of attention. Then you throw in Reddick, (defensive tackle [Derrick) Brown and the guy from Penn State (defensive tackle DaQuan Jones), and you've got a pretty good pass rush. Their linebackers are hard to get mismatches on, and their secondary is good at keeping the lid on things. They're basically a team that is going to get after you by rushing four and then not give up anything big downfield. They have been blitzing more, but that might change some now that (rookie cornerback) Jaycee Horn is down (the Panthers acquired cornerback C.J. Henderson, another former first-round pick, in a trade with Jacksonville on Monday after Horn sustained a broken foot last week). We'll also see how their offense affects the defense with (running back Christian) McCaffrey out. Quarterback (Sam Darnold) is playing better, and they have some weapons around him, which helps that defense a lot. If they get you in a position where you have to play catch-up -- which they are built to do -- that front can pin their ears back and get after people."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 4 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Los Angeles Rams over Cleveland.