Welcome to the latest edition of the Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action. Here are the top storylines from yesterday’s games.
Is New England the team to beat?
You may have heard, but Tom Brady made his return to the field against the Cleveland Browns yesterday. Many thought he might take a week to find his rhythm–after all, he wasn’t allowed to even be in the vicinity of the Patriots complex for an entire month. But Brady found his rhythm pretty quickly, as he immediately led the Patriots down the field on their first possession in what certainly was a sign of things to come.
Granted, Cleveland is bad. They came into this game with one of the poorest defenses as measured by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Patriots offense scored over 30 points. With that said, for Brady to be so precise and so dominant in his very first start back was impressive. Many point to the fact that Brady topped the 400 yard mark for only the eighth time in his career. But how about his 96.3 Total QBR? That’s the third highest single-game mark he’s posted in the last five years; and the 10.4 points he added according to ESPN’s QBR formula is the most by a quarterback all season.
With Brady showing no signs of regression, does this make the Patriots the Super Bowl favorite at this point in the season? Yes, but it’s close. The main reason why the Patriots are the Super Bowl favorites as it stands now is because they now have arguably the league’s most dominant offense. Before the Patriots pulled most of their starters in the fourth quarter yesterday, they were averaging over 7.5 yards per play. That clip is superb, and it’s not just a one-game occurrence, either. The Patriots were one of the league’s most potent teams in 2015 before a spate of injuries hindered their performance in the second half of last season. Now New England has even more weapons. We know of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, but now they have another matchup nightmare at tight end in Martellus Bennett. Chris Hogan has also provided the Patriots with a nice weapon on the outside. Moreover, elusive back Dion Lewis could return later in the season to give a New England backfield that is already producing more than usual an extra boost.
We also have to look at where the Patriots stand relative to the NFL’s other elite teams. The defending champion Broncos have certainly started off strong and could still make a case to be the league’s best team, even with yesterday’s loss to Atlanta. However, I’ll take New England’s body of work through five games, which includes a signature road win at Arizona and a blowout victory over Houston with a rookie third-string quarterback, over Denver’s. I also think the Patriots have been a tad more impressive than Pittsburgh. The Steelers are just as dangerous as New England offensively, but they also have a blown out loss to Philadelphia on their resume. New England’s lone loss to Buffalo, in contrast, came with a third-string quarterback playing with a thumb injury on his throwing hand that needed surgery. They’d be undefeated if Tom Brady had played all five games. Finally, I like New England’s long-term prospects a tad better than Minnesota’s. The Vikings have been extremely impressive through five games and their defense is good enough to take them to the Super Bowl. But which team do you think is more likely to win the Super Bowl, a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady or Sam Bradford? I’ll take the team led by a three-time Super Bowl MVP.
All this isn’t to say the Patriots don’t have their flaws. New England’s offensive line, which ranked 15th in pass protection entering Week 5, isn’t great. There is no indication that the Patriots can effectively block a great front-seven like Denver’s. Moreover, New England’s defense is certainly not elite. They’ve played a weak crop of offenses (31st toughest slate entering the Cleveland game) and they’re still only 19th in opponent yards per play. Plus, those other teams I just mentioned are strong and are eminently capable of beating the Patriots.
Nonetheless, New England was one of the league’s more impressive teams before Brady returned. Now he’s back, and the Patriots are the team to beat.
Better Defense: Minnesota or Denver?
I was posed this question yesterday. The Vikings, who have not allowed more than 17 points in their last eight games, have been unbelievably impressive of late. Yet I still think Denver’s defense is the best in the NFL. It’s simply too early in the season to forget what the Broncos accomplished last season. Not only were they the league’s best defense by a variety of metrics such as yards per play and DVOA, but they won the Super Bowl despite having two of the weakest and most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the league. Moreover, they held three elite offenses–Pittsburgh, New England, and Carolina–to under 20 points in each of their postseason games last year. Talk about coming through when it counts!
Minnesota’s defense has been been better through five games, particularly after what transpired for both teams yesterday. But it’s not like Denver’s defense has declined. Sure, they have been less stout against the run so far, but they still have the stingiest pass defense in the league. Plus, all the key pieces from last year’s team, particularly Von Miller, Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris Jr, continue to thrive. Look, I wish my Patriots had either of these defenses. But as well as Minnesota’s defense has played this year, I’m not ready to say they are the best in the NFL. For now, let’s give Denver the respect their defense deserves, at least as long as their pass defense continues to be the league’s best.
Fantasy Heroes & Zeroes
Hero: Tom Brady (29 points)
It looks like taking a month-long vacation served Brady well. He should continue to be one of the best fantasy quarterbacks moving forward.
Zero: Isiah Crowell (3 points)
One of the league’s leading rushers through four weeks couldn’t get it going against the Patriots on Sunday.
Hero: Martellus Bennett (24 points)
Despite playing alongside the league’s premier tight end, Bennett notched his first career three touchdown game to lead all tight ends in scoring this week.
Zero: Golden Tate (3 points)
Tate continues to be one of the most disappointing receivers in fantasy. He failed to score a touchdown for his fifth straight game yesterday.
Hero: Sammie Coates (25 points)
If you told me that a Pittsburgh receiver would lead all receivers in scoring, I think we all would’ve assumed it would have been that guy named Brown. But Coates, who I noticed was in more than a few of my friend’s lineups this week, delivered.
Hero: Adam Vinatieri (23 points)
Apparently the single-game record for fantasy points by a kicker is 29. The former New England legend came close, converting on all seven of his field goal and PAT attempts.
Best Call: Correctly Picking Washington to upset Baltimore
My locks were also 5-0, which isn’t too shabby.
Worst Call: Having too much confidence in the Eagles
I was very high on Philadelphia entering Week 5 based on many statistical indicators, but they came back down to Earth yesterday.
Records This Week
Straight Up: 9-4 Spread: 7-6 Over/Under: 5-7 Locks: 5-0 Best Bets: 9-8
Monday Night Prediction
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3) vs Carolina Panthers (1-3)
Spread: CAR -6 Over/Under: 46
’16 DVOA: TB (28) < CAR (17)
Public Betting: CAR 57%
Both teams are banged up. Cam Newton’s concussion has received most of the attention, but the Buccaneers will be without their two top running backs, Doug Martin and Charles Sims, and their best defensive lineman in Gerald McCoy. Yet I think the most intriguing storyline in this game is Carolina’s defense. I suspect that they will bounce back after getting lit up by Atlanta, and I don’t think Tampa Bay will be able to make up for the absences of both Martin and Sims. Carolina’s front-seven will put too much pressure on Tampa’s passing game. Jameis Winston will have his moments, but he won’t do enough to lead the Bucs to victory on the road. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I actually think the Panthers will win easily behind a multi-touchdown performance from Derek Anderson.