From the first kickoff to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s hail mary falling to the turf just out of Panthers wide receiver D.J Moore’s outstretched arms, this NFC South battle had the intensity of a playoff game. The Falcons survived a few late defensive mistakes to pick up a crucial 31-24 win on Sept. 16 over the Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

The game started with the defenses of both teams stifling the opposing offenses, allowing three points each at the end of the first quarter. Both teams’ offenses asserted themselves commencing with an 11-yard run from the Panthers to pick up the first down on fourth and four. Panthers MVP Newton slid at the 22-yard line, ending the play.

Falcons safety Damontae Kazee delivered a bone-crushing hit to Newton’s head as he slid, sparking a brawl between the Panthers and Falcons. After the game, Newton expressed his relief regarding the close call.

“I’m just lucky nothing pretty much happened,” Newton said, according to Yahoo Sports. “But this game isn’t fit for cheap shots like that.”

While the referees reviewed the play to determine whether Kazee’s hit warranted an ejection, Panthers doctors examined Newton for a concussion and cleared him to play before the referees decided to eject Kazee.

Seven plays later, Newton threw a touchdown to wide receiver Jarius Wright to put the Panthers up 10-3.

After the drive, the Falcons showed their resiliency, as quarterback Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan responded by leading a 75-yard drive capped off by an 11-yard touchdown pass to the Falcons’ heralded rookie, Calvin Ridley, evening the score 10-10.

Defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. and the rest of the Falcons defense responded by handing the ball back to Ryan with the score still tied at 10 and one minute and 52 seconds remaining in the first half. Once again, Ryan showed why he was named NFL MVP two years ago by orchestrating an 85-yard drive that culminated in a beautiful 8-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper in the back right corner of the end zone, giving the Falcons a 17-10 lead heading into halftime.

In the third quarter, Ryan made his only mistake of the day when Panthers rookie Donte Jackson intercepted him at the Carolina 2-yard line.

But the mistake proved unimportant, as the Falcons defense forced a quick punt, putting Ryan in position to redeem himself. After the interception, Ryan threw the football in near flawless form, registering only one incompletion.

However, these glowing passing statistics were overshadowed, as Ryan stole a page from Newton’s playbook, the best rushing quarterback in the NFL, by rushing for two touchdowns in the second half. The first was a 1-yard quarterback sneak into the end zone, in which Ryan kept his legs churning and found a way through the massive heap of 300-pound offensive and defensive linemen into the end zone.

While the first touchdown run required power and strength, the second touchdown run demonstrated Ryan’s power, strength, agility and, more importantly, his will to win. Ryan challenged three Panthers defenders at the goal line by jumping in the air, landing, gathering himself and reaching the ball across the goal line for the touchdown to put the Falcons up 31-17 with seven minutes and 17 seconds remaining.

“I can’t remember the last time I had two touchdown runs,” Ryan said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).

Although the Falcons defense committed some major mistakes at the end of the game, such as allowing Newton to connect with Moore for a 51-yard touchdown to bring the Panthers within seven points, the game was never in doubt. The unit complemented Ryan’s MVP-level of performance to perfection, and the Falcons obtained a much-needed, much-deserved win to move to 1-1 this season.

“When we got our chances, we nailed them across the board today,” Ryan said, according to the AJC. “So I thought the execution was great.”

Although it is only week two of the NFL season, this game indicates that the NFC South is shaping up to be the toughest division in the NFL and moreover, any divisional win will be important moving forward. This win could propel the Falcons to a division title and a chance to avenge their last two heart-wrenching postseason losses.

The Falcons will play again on Sept. 23 at 1 p.m. against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The roads were noticeably quieter on Sunday, and the smell of face paint and burgers tinted the air. We all know what that means. Football is back. The 2018 NFL season started off with a bang this week with several comeback victories and close games.

Here is a recap of some of this season’s most intense victories and letdowns so far.

Heading off the weekend, the defending champions Philadelphia Eagles faced off against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 6. The Eagles squeaked by with an 18-12 victory. Both offenses struggled, but the Eagles prevailed through a magical trick play, two goal-line stands and inefficient red zone offense from the Falcons.

Of the slate of games on Sept. 9, the highlight came toward the end of the night when quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers to a come-from-behind 24-23 victory over the Chicago Bears. Despite suffering an injury in the second quarter, Rodgers returned to the game in the second half and finished with 301 total yards and three touchdowns. Bears defensive star Khalil Mack made an impressive debut, wreaking havoc all over the Packers’ offensive line, finishing with one strip sack and one interception in limited playing time.

The Cleveland Browns ended their 17-game losing streak with their opening-day game against the Pittsburgh Steelers — albeit with a 21-21 tie. Both teams missed game-winning field goals in overtime. The Steelers struggled throughout the game without their star running back Le’veon Bell, who is still holding out for a new contract.

In a surprising game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped 48 points over the New Orleans Saints’ 40. The Saints’ horrendous defense suffered under Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s total of five touchdowns. The Saints showed several signs of weaknesses on defense against what many considered the worst team in the league.

Among the shootouts on Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs impressed with their 38-28 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. New Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and offensive star Tyreek Hill dominated the Chargers’ defense. Mahomes threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns showing off his cannon of an arm, while Hill had 169 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns alongside a 91-yard punt return touchdown.

Sept. 10 was a day of smooth victories for the New York Jets and the Los Angeles Rams. The Jets blew out the Detroit Lions 48-17. Jets quarterback Sam Darnold impressed after throwing an interception return for a touchdown on his first throw. The Jets defense caught five interceptions, humbling Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had an unmemorable game in which he threw just one touchdown and four interceptions.

Despite head coach Jon Gruden’s long-awaited return to the NFL, the Oakland Raiders lost 33-13 to the Rams. The Rams looked in every way a Super Bowl contender with an impressive defense that had several sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown to finish off the Raiders.

Week One brings out overreactions from fans and pundits alike. No, the Buccaneers are not going to be Super Bowl contenders. Yes, the Steelers and Saints are going to be fine even with disappointing starts.

However, there are some things from Week One that will likely hold. The Buffalo Bills looked abysmal — who knows why quarterback Nathan Peterman started the game after his debut last year throwing five interceptions? The Bills also have no weapons on offense and are probably going to be the doormat of the AFC East. Mahomes looks like the real deal for the Kansas City Chiefs, and head coach Andy Reid once again has positioned the Chiefs in prime playoff contention.

In the NFC, the Falcons underwent many of the same issues that plagued the team last year. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has yet to fix the red zone problems. This could spell the Falcons’ demise if they make it to the playoffs again. The Bears’ blown lead might either set up a rallying cry to become a playoff contender, or they might not be able to recover. Meanwhile, the Rams and the Minnesota Vikings look like the prime Super Bowl favorites with very impressive opening weekends.

Week Two of the season starts on Sept. 13 with an AFC North rivalry matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals.

The 2018 NFL Draft is almost upon us.

You can feel it in the air. The draft “experts” are creating mock drafts. NFL teams are scouting every prospect. Fans are clamoring for their teams to draft their favorite players. And, the Cleveland Browns are drafting first overall — again.

The 2018 NFL Draft may be remembered as one of the most entertaining and unexpected drafts in recent memory. Nevertheless, here are three headlines that may or may not become a reality in this year’s draft.

Cleveland Drafts the Quarterback and the Running Back of the Future No. 1 and No. 4

With the highest potential among the quarterback prospects, Sam Darnold is the perfect pick for the Browns. He possesses the arm, the mobility and the leadership that every NFL team covets. Although he didn’t throw at the NFL Scouting Combine, he was lights-out in his pro day at the University of Southern California.

Darnold possesses traits that other potential top QB prospects lack. For example, he exhibited strong character when he swapped flights to throw for his teammate. In addition, his experience exceeds that of other players, like University of Wyoming QB Josh Allen, as he faced tough competition in the Pac-12 Conference, while Allen played in the less competitive Mountain West Conference. His focus sets him apart from other prospects, such as University of California, Los Angeles QB Josh Rosen, who put a hot tub in his freshman dorm, just because. Also, University of Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield has well-documented maturity issues such as resisting arrest and a crotch-grabbing incident.

The fourth overall pick is an easy choice. If former Pennsylvania State University running back Saquon Barkley is on the board, Cleveland should take him — no questions asked.  

With the Denver Broncos and New York Jets seemingly locked in on QBs, the Browns will be more than happy to have the best prospect in the draft fall into their laps. Barkley, rocking an NFL-ready 6 feet and 233 pounds, impressed at the NFL Scouting Combine. Barkley blazed the 40-yard dash in a lightning 4.40 seconds, adding to his 29 reps in the bench press and 41-inch vertical leap.

With Darnold as QB and Barkley as RB, the Browns’ offense would be set for the foreseeable future. Here’s to hoping they don’t pick first again next year.

Patriots Keep Their Picks and Still Get QB Prospect

The New England Patriots are loaded this draft.

After wide receiver Brandin Cooks’ trade to the Los Angeles Rams, the Patriots hold two first-round picks (No. 23 from the Los Angeles Rams and No. 31) and two second-round picks (No. 43 from the San Francisco 49ers and No. 63).

In classic Bill Belichick fashion,the Patriots’ draft plans are secret. According to NFL insider Adam Shefter, the Patriots may trade up into the Top 10 in hopes of drafting one of the premier QB prospects. Tom Brady will be 41-years-old this upcoming NFL season, so the Patriots will soon need to find his successor. Others have speculated that Belichick may attempt to trade both first-round picks to the New York Giants to obtain superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

However, both seem like longshots. Beckham Jr. doesn’t fit the mold of “The Patriot Way,” and, with a massive contract on the horizon, the fickle Patriots hesitate to pay around $20 million per season. Although they do need a QB this draft, the Patriots should look into a Day-2 QB such as the University of Richmond (Va.)’s Kyle Lauletta or Oklahoma State University’s Mason Rudolph, if still available.

Giants Build Up an Arsenal

After lofty expectations to begin the 2017 NFL season, the New York Giants were to put it lightly awful. With former General Manager Jerry Reese and former Head Coach Ben McAdoo fired, the Giants hope to revamp the franchise by finding young talent in the draft.

Holding the second overall pick, the Giants have a plethora of options. But the Giants should trade their pick and move back. While the Buffalo Bills are a viable trading partner with the No. 12 and No. 22 overall picks, the Giants should do business with the Denver Broncos if the opportunity arises. That trade would allow the Giants to obtain Denver’s No. 5-overall pick, along with potentially a pair of second rounders. If the 49ers can obtain a first, two-thirds and a fourth from the Chicago Bears to move down only one pick, the Giants should gain some considerable assets. And with that fifth selection, the Giants can shore up their offensive line by drafting University of Notre Dame (Ind.) guard Quenton Nelson.

It’s more than likely, however, that New York will trade Beckham Jr. by draft night. I would be shocked if the Giants acquire two first-round picks, but they should be able to stockpile a considerable return for Beckham Jr.’s services. With Beckham Jr.’s on-and-off-the-field antics becoming a nuisance to the team, it’s time for the Giants to cash in and trade him away. With an arsenal of picks following these trades, the Giants should be in a great position to draft their next superstar.


The Philadelphia Eagles celebrate their first Super Bowl victory at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneappolis, Minn., Feb. 4. The Eagles outlasted the New England Patriots 41-33 to win Super Bowl LII. Courtesy of Rahul Uppal.


In the greatest offensive display in Super Bowl history, the Philadelphia Eagles outdueled the New England Patriots 41-33 to win Super Bowl LII. This is the Eagles’ first ever Super Bowl title, delivering sweet redemption to their rabid fan base after the team’s 2005 loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX.

The Eagles sealed the victory when defensive end Brandon Graham strip-sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during what was set to be a classic game-winning drive for the Patriots. It was the only sack of the game, and it was the Eagles’ only forced turnover, but they certainly made it count.

Super Bowl MVP went to Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who threw the game-winning two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Ertz with 2:21 remaining.

Super Bowl LII was one of the most exciting in recent history in light of a number of broken records. The game was a combination of trick-plays and fourth-down conversions as both teams brought an aggressive offensive mindset to the contest. The two offenses consistently took chances, and the risks paid off, which resulted in a game that played host to only one punt per side. Offense was the name of the game as the teams combined for a playoff record 1,151 total yards. The Patriots had 613 yards, the most ever for a losing team in the playoffs.

Philadelphia Head Coach Doug Pederson told Bleacher Report Feb. 4 that the team’s dynamic offense was the result of an aggressive game plan.

“We mixed in some of the RPOs [run-pass options],” Pederson said. “The Patriots did a great job of kind of nullifying some of that. Listen, my mentality was ‘I’m going to stay aggressive with [Foles] and let him use his playmakers to make plays.’”

Despite the Patriots’ failure, Brady delivered another incredible performance, throwing for 505 yards and three scores in the losing effort. The passing mark broke the record he set one year ago against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Brady added to his all-time lead in Super Bowl passing yards and touchdowns, becoming the first player to throw for 10,000 yards in the playoffs.

Matched up against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Foles held his own. Philadelphia lost first string quarterback Carson Wentz in early December 2017 due to a torn ACL. Stepping out of the on-deck circle was Foles, whom many viewed as the Eagles’ greatest liability. Foles was impressive in the biggest game of his career Sunday as he passed for 373 yards and three touchdowns, along with a brilliant touchdown catch at the close of the first half.

“I was thinking of hanging up the cleats,” Foles said in a Feb. 5 Bleacher Report interview. “I’m glad I made the decision to come back to play.”

Eagles star defensive end Chris Long gave his support to Foles.

“People disrespected Nick all year,” Long said in the Feb. 5 Bleacher Report article. “Now look where he is.”

Foles’ touchdown reception came at a key point in the game — the end of the second half. He caught the pass from tight end Trey Burton on a fourth-down play. This trick play had a completely contrary result off a similar trick play from the Patriots. Brady had dropped a pass from wide receiver Danny Amendola even though Brady had no one near him.

Foles also threw one interception from a deep throw to wideout Alshon Jeffery that the wide receiver almost caught with one hand. But Jeffery tipped the ball into the air and eventually into the hands of Patriots defensive back Duron Harmon. Notably absent from the Patriots secondary was cornerback Malcolm Butler, who was benched for reasons that, at present, remain unclear.

Pederson did not lose trust in his quarterback even after the turnover, putting his faith into Foles on the Eagles’ game-winning drive on a fourth-and-one conversion near midfield. Eventually, Foles hit Ertz for a touchdown pass at the end of the drive.

Philadelphia running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi did the heavy lifting for the Eagles. Blount rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown off 14 carries against his former team. Ajayi ran for 57 yards on nine carries.

From the pocket, Foles kept the Patriots defense guessing. Running back Corey Clement turned in a team-high 100 receiving yards on four catches. Jeffery impressed with three catches, 73 yards, and a touchdown. Ertz had seven catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. Nelson Agholor rounded out a solid game for the receiving unit with nine catches for 84 yards.

On the Patriots’ end, Brady’s throws went to a trifecta of targets in Amendola, wide receiver Chris Hogan and tight end Rob Gronkowski. “Playoff” Amendola continued to impress with 152 yards on eight receptions. Gronk found the endzone twice with 116 yards on nine receptions and Hogan hauled in 128 yards on six catches.

In a game marked by brilliant offensive performances, special teams errors stood out like a sore thumb. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, one of the most dependable kickers in the NFL, missed an extra point and a 26-yard field goal off the upright. Kicker Jake Elliot converted all three of his field goals but missed an extra point in the first quarter.

After almost two decades of success, the Patriots dynasty might be nearing a close. Brady’s fight against Father Time can only be delayed for so long. Head Coach Bill Belichick will also lose defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as he transitions into a new head coaching job with the Detroit Lions. The Pats will have a lot to look over this offseason as they need to bolster their defensive line and secondary.

With Wentz set to return next year, Foles is still under contract. His future is uncertain, and the Eagles may want to cash in on his peak value. The Eagles may lose much of their wide receiving core to free agency and will also need to improve their defensive secondary.

Questions surrounding the futures of both teams will be answered later. As of now, much of Philadelphia will be celebrating and tearing down their city after their first ever Super Bowl win. Light poles and a Ritz-Carlton awning have already fallen down. One can only hope that this Super Bowl win might soften the hearts of the Eagles fanbase notoriously known for its unforgiving attitude.

I’m happy. I was sad. Now I’m like — wow,” Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen told ESPN in a post-game interview. Griffen captured every Vikings fan’s reaction to wide receiver Stefon Diggs’ miraculous 61-yard touchdown catch over whiffing New Orleans Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams, giving the Vikings the 29-24 victory over the Saints in the NFC Divisional Round Jan. 14, the first walk-off playoff touchdown in NFL history.

In those nine words, Griffen encapsulated the 57-year history of Minnesota’s oldest professional sports team. The Vikings have never won a Super Bowl and have faced every disappointment an NFL team could, from playoff meltdowns to stadium collapses.

Griffen’s reaction illustrates the beauty of sports fandom. Fans invest so much in their teams. The payoff: entertainment, pride and occasional elation. The cost: frequent anguish. Vikings fans know this emotional rollercoaster better than most. But they also know the secret of fandom: hope.

I’ve been a Vikings fan since I was five years old. I grew up hearing my dad’s tales of the Vikings’ 1970s glory days. They had a Hall of Fame defense, highlighted by defensive tackle Alan Page and defensive end Carl Eller. At quarterback, Fran Tarkenton. The unit lives on in Vikings lore as the Purple People Eaters.

Our team went to the Super Bowl four times from 1971-1977. They lost each time, normalizing the agony of heartbreak. It’s generational.

The next dominant Vikings team arrived in 1998, the team of my older brother Mathew. With veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham airing it out to Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter and wide-eyed rookie Randy Moss, the Vikings had an offense so dangerous that it broke the existing NFL record for points per game.

The 1998 Vikings went 15-1. Before their matchup with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship, football legend John Madden asserted, “This is really their year.”

Madden was wrong. With the chance to ice the game, legendary kicker Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season, from a makeable 39 yards, costing the Vikings the game and a Super Bowl berth.

Mathew was heartbroken. Never again did he put the same hope in the team he loved.

The Vikings regained prominence in 2009 when they managed one of the greatest coups in Minnesota’s history by signing Hall of Famer Brett Favre, the long-time Green Bay Packers quarterback and Vikings terrorizer. With Favre and running back Adrian Peterson, the offense exploded. For the first time in five years, I didn’t grimace at a shotgun formation. The team went 12-4, including two victories over the Packers.

Just like ‘98, the Vikings got to the NFC Championship. Just like ‘98, victory was within reach. Mathew, jaded by past disappointment, was less than optimistic. Tied with the New Orleans Saints with under one minute to go, Favre rolled right. In my cousin’s  basement, I watched the disaster unfold. Nothing developed downfield. “Throw it out of bounds!” I screamed. All we needed was a field goal. Instead, Favre threw across his body to the middle of the field and was intercepted. The Saints won in overtime.

Max Rotenberg (center, white jersey) suffers through a family photo. Max Rotenberg/Contributing.

I was in tears, but my mom took a family photo anyway. My mugshot in that family photo immortalized another disappointing Vikings performance.

Favre was never the same and retired a year later. Even with Peterson, one of the best running backs in NFL history, the team wasn’t good enough, especially with Aaron Rodgers down the road.

We hit rock bottom in 2013, going 5-10-1. My love for the Vikings, for the first time in my life, began to wane.

But my hope for the team didn’t, and I was rewarded. By 2015, we were back in the playoffs, winning the NFC North with an 11-5 record behind great defense and a new quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.

History repeats itself. Just like ‘98, the Vikings’ 2015 season came down to a kick. Down 10-9 in the final seconds of the NFC wild card playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, kicker Blair Walsh shanked an easy 29-yard field goal. Another season over.

I pulled my hat over my 18-year-old eyes, balled up on my couch and cried.

But hope whispered to me again. They’ll come back stronger next year, right? We have a great defense. We’ll be able to contend.

Then Bridgewater tore his ACL. In desperation, Minnesota traded for quarterback Sam Bradford. The team started the season 5-0, then crumbled to finish 8-8, becoming just the fifth team since 2002 to miss the playoffs after such a start.

Enter the 2017 season. Bradford returned after posting the best completion percentage in NFL history. In week one, the Vikings smoked the Saints behind a career day from Bradford. Then disaster struck. Bradford suffered a knee injury that no one (including Coach Zimmer) understood. In desperation (again), the Vikings turned to six-foot journeyman quarterback Case Keenum. After a shaky start, the Vikings began to look like a legitimate NFL team. Case “He’s just a backup” Keenum and the No. 1 NFL defense rattled off eight straight wins. Could Keenum be the key to a Super Bowl?

History suggested otherwise. Year after year, luck has worked against the Vikings. Against the storied Purple People Eaters defense in the divisional round of the 1975 NFC divisional playoffs, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach completed the original Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings. Miracles happen in the NFL — Vikings fans just happen to be on the wrong side of the magic every time. That is, until three weeks ago, when Diggs and the Vikings walked off against New Orleans.

In one play, Diggs exorcised the demons of the original Hail Mary and the 2009 Saints loss and became a Minnesota legend.

“I ran a route, my [quarterback] gave me a great throw and God took care of the rest,” Diggs told ESPN.

Ecstatic, I stayed up watching replays of the final catch. We were going to the Super Bowl. All we had to do was beat the Philadelphia Eagles.

That shouldn’t be too hard, I thought. We have the best defense in the NFL and they have Nick Foles, who has one touchdown pass over his last three games. No way he scores more than 13 points on our defense.

How wrong I was. Just like Madden. Just like the generations of Vikings fans before me. Foles and the Eagles blew the top off the Vikings, 38-7. The NFL’s No. 1 defense, which had allowed only 15.8 points per game, gave up 38. To Nick Foles.

I’m sad. I was happy. Now I’m like — wow.

Thus ends the fairy tale season. The Vikings wouldn’t be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Instead, they broke my heart again. New year, same story.

But hey, there’s always next year.

Despite talks of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s injured hand and the behind-the-scenes conflict between the Patriots’ triumvirate of Brady, Head Coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft, the Patriots continue to do what the Patriots always do: win.

That platitude held true once again at the Jan. 21 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are set to head to Super Bowl LII after they rallied to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20.

Brady, donning a black bandage over a cut on his hand that required 12 stitches, led the Patriots from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to a four-point victory. With the season on the line, Brady threw 26 of 38 for 290 yards passing and two touchdowns.

The box score tells the simple story of yet another Patriots win and Super Bowl berth. But those who watched Sunday’s AFC matchup will remember a game dominated largely by the Jaguars.

The Patriots struck first with a field goal from kicker Stephen Gostkowski. But from there, Jacksonville took the wheel.

Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (23-36, 293 yards passing) began the team’s second drive with a 20-yard pass to running back Corey Grant. The Jaguars continued to utilize these short screen passes and slant routes, as they slowly chipped away yards. Ultimately, Bortles lofted a pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis, who was wide open in the right side of the end zone.

On their next drive, the Jaguars’ momentum continued. Bortles, who may have played his best game of the season, made a rare, deep 27-yard pass to wide receiver Allen Hurns, and star rookie running back Leonard Fournette converted a pivotal third down conversion. Fournette eventually capped off the drive with a four-yard rushing touchdown, giving the Jaguars a 14-3 edge.

But right before halftime, the Patriots scored a touchdown of their own, primarily due to an unnecessary roughness and pass interference penalty by the Jaguars. That led to a one-yard touchdown rush by running back James White, which cut the deficit to 14-10 at halftime.

But that touchdown came at the cost of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a head injury following a crushing hit by Jaguar safety Barry Church. Gronkowski did not return for the rest of the game. The team is optimistic that he will return to play before the Super Bowl, according to an SB Nation report.

After the intermission, the Jaguars continued to put points on the board. With two field goals by kicker Josh Lambo, the Jaguars held a 20-10 advantage near the start of the fourth quarter.

But they don’t call Brady “Captain Comeback” for nothing.

With their star tight end ruled out for the remainder of the game, the Patriots were forced to alter their game plan. Brady relied on his wide receivers, specifically Danny Amendola, to spark their resurgence.

With 12 minutes remaining in the fourth, Brady produced long passes to receivers Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Amendola. The drive was eventually finished off by a nine-yard pass from Brady to Amendola, which cut the Jaguars’ lead to three.

After a Jacksonville punt, the Patriots began their winning drive at the Jaguars’ 30-yard line with fewer than five minutes left in regulation.

Brady started with a short screen pass to White, who turned upfield for a 15-yard gain. The Patriots then gained 10 more, following a quick pass to Amendola. This led to a remarkable four-yard touchdown, where Brady passed deep into the end zone to Amendola, who somehow kept both feet inbounds.

With fewer than three minutes remaining and now trailing 24-20, the Jaguars still had a chance to score a touchdown and reclaim the lead. Now adopting an aggressive approach, Bortles began with a long pass to wide receiver Dede Westbrook down the left sideline, advancing the Jags into Patriot territory. But a sack by Patriot linebacker Kyle Van Noy on second down and a beautiful pass breakup by cornerback Stephon Gilmore on fourth down sealed the Jaguars’ fate.

With their victory Sunday, the Patriots have won their 10th Lamar Hunt Trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the AFC Championship Game. Already the winningest quarterback of all time, Brady hopes to win his and the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title in what will be his eighth visit to football’s greatest stage.

The New England Patriots will play the Philadelphia Eagles Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m. (ET) in Minneapolis, Minn., to determine the champion of Super Bowl LII.

Players kneel prior to a game between the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders Sept. 24. Photo courtesy of Keith Allison.

The saga of the NFL player protests extends further into the abyss. In the most recent development surrounding former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the resulting police brutality protests, several individuals, including NFL owners Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft, will be deposed by Kaepernick’s lawyers and asked to turn in their cell phone and email records regarding allegations that the league blackballed Kaepernick, according to The Washington Post.

The request for deposition is simply the latest in a long line of happenings surrounding NFL player protests, started by Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, and the resulting pushback from various NFL owners. With player-owner mistrust growing across the league, a resolution to this complex conflict seems only to stretch further and further out of reach.

According to a Yahoo Sports report, Kaepernick’s legal team intends to target Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, President Donald J. Trump, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL teams the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans. This comes at the tail end of of a long month in the world of NFL protesting.

The rocky road between some NFL players and owners has resulted in several arguments, which will likely continue to until a resolution is reached.

According to a USA Today report, some owners view the protests as business losses, with overall viewership falling to 10 percent since the season began. Television ratings this NFL season have been at their lowest in a few years. During the first three weeks of the 2016 season, 17.6 million people tuned in to watch games, but only 15.8 million have done so during the same time span in 2017. Some owners suggest that anthem protests are to blame, but there is little concrete evidence to support this claim. Some viewers have turned away from the NFL in solidarity with Kaepernick, though others have tuned out due to moral reasons concerning player safety in light of evidence that the hits football players endure each game can cause severe, long-term health effects.

Players involved in the anthem protests see the demonstrations as a way to bring awareness to racial problems in the United States. With players showing support for Kaepernick, and owners like Jones threatening to suspend players who protest, the relationship between NFL executives, owners and players is reaching dangerously high-levels of instability. With Kaepernick’s legal battle looming, it’s likely that owner-player relations will only grow worse in the interim.

In an Oct. 17 meeting, NFL owners met with players to find common ground on the issue of kneeling during the National Anthem. League executives attempted to acknowledge that they understood the social justice issues driving players’ protests, and it appeared that plans were in place to reach a mutual understanding about the protests.

However, just one day following this reportedly productive meeting, Houston Texans owner Robert McNair made the comment that “We can’t have the inmates running the prison” in regards to player protests, according to an ESPN Outside the Lines report.

McNair’s comment sparked criticism from some NFL players and sports commentators.

Showing true colors allows [people] to see you for who you are,” Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman wrote in a series of tweets Oct. 27.I wish more [people] would do that. So the world could ostracize those who don’t want to see EQUALITY. Otherwise they will continue to hide.”

McNair later apologized and attempted to clarify the true intentions of his remark.

“I regret that I used that expression,” McNair said in an Oct. 27 Houston Texans press release. “I never meant to offend anyone and I was not referring to our players. I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally. I was referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years.”

However, some Texans players were not satisfied with McNair’s response and planned to walk out of practice Oct. 27. Ten players left, but most of them returned after the coaching staff persuaded them to come back. Star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins did not.

“I think the comments were disrespectful, I think it was ignorant, I think it was embarrassing,” former tackle Duane Brown said, according to The Washington Post. “I think it angered a lot of players, including myself.”

McNair met with Texans players Oct. 29 to apologize. However, the apology did not stop the majority of Houston’s team from kneeling during the anthem at a game later that day. The demonstration at the Texans’ Oct. 29 game against the Seattle Seahawks was part of the continued protests against police brutality with the added intent to defy McNair.

Not everyone reprimanded McNair for his “inmates” comment. A few sportscasters defended him, including Fox Sports Radio broadcaster Doug Gottlieb.

The inmates can’t run the asylum, the prison, the football team,” Gottlieb said. “And if you’re bothered by the use of the word inmates, sorry, that’s a you problem. You don’t understand the expression. When you come up to speed on the expression, I’ll fill you in on the business acumen that you don’t have.”

It will take more than just a few meetings and apologies to patch the relationship between all the parties involved. It will be up to the players’ union, NFL owners and Goodell to find middle ground. News of Kaepernick’s legal plans is yet another wild card in the field, a catalyst with the potential to push player-owner relations to the edge if unleashed. For now, the story of this NFL season remains what happens off, rather than on, the playing field.

The Atlanta Falcons found their footing and survived 25-20 against the New York Jets on a wet Sunday, Oct. 29, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

After a three-game losing streak, the Falcons overcame multiple turnovers caused by soggy conditions to bring their overall record to 4-3.

Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for two touchdown passes, one to tight end Austin Hooper and one to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The biggest play of the afternoon came at 12:22 in the fourth quarter when Ryan sent an 8-yard touchdown pass to Sanu, putting the Falcons in the lead, 22-17.

From there, the Falcons never looked back.

Ryan, who threw for 254 yards with a passer rating of 113.3, struggled to hold on to the football throughout the game due to the rainy weather conditions. He fumbled three snap exchanges with center Alex Mack, losing two of them in the first quarter. Wide receiver Andre Roberts followed suit with a fumble of his own but succeeded in recovering it to maintain Atlanta’s possession.

“That was some of the hardest conditions I played just for the length of the game,” Ryan told ESPN. “I have played in situations where we had some heavy rain or tough wind or anything like that for a little bit. From kickoff to the end of the game it was coming down pretty hard.”

The Jets (3-5) started the game strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive when a 20-yard pass from Josh McCown found receiver Eric Tomlinson. McCown later connected with receiver Robby Anderson for a touchdown on a 24-yard strike in the second quarter.

But the Jets had some turnovers of their own.

McCown, who threw for 257 yards with a passer rating of 119.3, fumbled twice. Returner Jeremy Kerley made a costly turnover as he muffed a punt in the fourth quarter, allowing the Falcons to tack on another field goal.

“It sailed a little bit,” Kerley told ESPN. “It was wet, raining and the ball was more slippery than I thought it was. … It messed up momentum a little bit.”

This marks the third consecutive game that the Jets lost despite leading in the fourth quarter.

Leading 17-16 early in the fourth quarter, the Jets missed a chance to add to their lead when kicker Chandler Catanzaro (2/4 on FG for the day) missed a 48-yard field goal wide right.

That gave the Falcons great field position, and with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, running back Falcons Tevin Coleman evaded multiple defenders and burst for a 52-yard run. Ryan capped the drive with a touchdown pass to Sanu.

On the next drive, the Jets cut the lead 22-20 on a 46-yard field goal by Catanzaro.

But the Jets’ best chance at a comeback ended when returner Jeremy Kerley muffed a punt in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over deep in Jets territory.

The Atlanta Falcons hope to maintain their winning ways when they battle the Carolina Panthers (5-3) in Charlotte, N.C., Nov. 5. The New York Jets hope to rebound at home against AFC East rival Buffalo Bills (5-2) Nov. 2.

It was no ordinary opening to the NFL season between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 7 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. The Patriots were determined to put on a show for their fans to celebrate last February’s improbable Super Bowl comeback victory, the team’s fifth world championship since 2001. Yet, for all the lengths to which the Patriots went to make the night about their past accomplishments, their celebration was upstaged by a running back who was still carrying the football for the University of Toledo (Ohio) when the Patriots won the Super Bowl.

The Patriots honored their victory with Super Bowl LI patches stitched to every one of their blue jerseys. Rapper Flo Rida performed before the game, followed a by a display of all five Vince Lombardi Trophies, a new Super Bowl banner and a hyperbole-filled speech from super fan and actor Mark Wahlberg, detailing the insurmountable odds the Patriots overcame to win the Super Bowl last year.

The celebrations appeared to roll seamlessly into a strong start for the defending Super Bowl champs. They jumped out to a 7-0 lead after an impressive 73-yard drive on their first possession of the season. On the ensuing Chiefs possession, running back Kareem Hunt, a third-round pick playing in his first NFL game, fumbled on his first carry of his young NFL career, something he never did even in college. However, that was the last moment that Patriots fans were happy to see No. 27 of the Chiefs on the field.

From that point on, Hunt torched the Patriots defense, compiling 148 rushing yards on 17 carries, five receptions for 98 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Hunt’s 246 all-purpose yards were the most ever in an NFL debut, and according to ESPN Stats and Info, he is one of only three players in NFL history to have 150 total yards and three touchdowns in his debut.

What made Hunt’s play even more impactful was the timing with which he delivered big play after big play. With just over two minutes left in the first half and the Pats up 17-7, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith led his team 92 yards down field, but it was Hunt who punched in the touchdown off a screen-pass, trimming the Patriots’ lead to three.

Then, with the Chiefs down six to begin the fourth quarter, Hunt ran a beautiful go route up the seam. With a perfect throw from Smith, edge-rusher Cassius Marsh had no chance of catching Hunt on his way to a 78 yard, game-tying touchdown. With the extra point, Kansas City went up 28-27 and the Kareem Hunt show was in full swing.  

Two drives later, Hunt capped off another drive by stiff-arming safety Duron Harmon to the ground and diving past the pylon into the end-zone, stretching the Chiefs’ lead to eight.

After exhibiting his pass-catching and tackle-breaking skills, Hunt showed he isn’t a one-trick, or even a two-trick, pony. With 4:15 to go in the game, Hunt took a toss from Smith, darted around the edge of the defense and sprinted upfield 58 yards before Patriots safety Devin McCourty mercifully pushed Hunt out of bounds. The run sucked the life out of the Patriots defense, put an exclamation point on what may be the greatest debut in NFL history and emphasized that, for now, there’s a new sheriff in town.

Besides a season-ending Achilles injury to Chiefs safety Eric Berry, there’s a lot to be excited about if you are a Kansas City fan. Beyond Hunt’s historic performance, Smith had a career day, completing 28 of 35 passes for 368 passing yards and four touchdowns, dramatically outplaying future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady on Brady’s home field. The Chiefs also got significant contributions from second-year wide receiver Tyreek Hill, (seven receptions, 133 receiving yards, one touchdown) and edge-rusher Justin Houston (two sacks).

The Patriots, meanwhile, are walking away from this game with big losses off the field as well. Star linebacker Dont’a Hightower left the game midway through the third quarter with a minor right MCL sprain. Receiver Danny Amendola also left the game in the second half with a head injury after compiling six receptions for 100 yards. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Patriots are hoping that Hightower will recover in time to play the New Orleans Saints next week, while Amendola is still in the NFL’s concussion protocol. The Patriots need these players to recover quickly as they are already without key playmakers in receivers Julian Edelman (torn ACL) and Malcolm Mitchell (knee).  

The Patriots have been the team to beat in the AFC for some time, but after Thursday night’s performance, it’s looking like the Chiefs hold that honor, for now.  

All stats from unless otherwise stated.