That the Buffalo Bills again are in position to make a playoff run and perhaps are on a Super Bowl trajectory is no surprise. They reached the postseason after the 2019 and 2020 seasons, advanced to the AFC Championship Game last year and are in excellent position to get a third straight crack at competing for the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since the Marv Levy-Jim Kelly teams went to the Super Bowl four years in a row in the 1990s.
That the Patriots are contending for the AFC East title and perhaps becoming a dark horse Super Bowl contender — with a rookie quarterback, no less?
Well, that might be the biggest surprise of the 2021 season.
What a tantalizing backdrop to Monday night’s game between the Bills and Patriots in Buffalo, which will go a long way toward determining who wins the suddenly competitive AFC East and will shed light on how seriously we should take both teams as the playoffs get closer.
Josh Allen continues to be one of the NFL’s most reliable quarterbacks, showing improvement in each of his first four seasons and leading Buffalo (7-4) with 25 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a 99.1 rating.
There have been a few unexpected hiccups along the way — see: that 9-6 loss in Jacksonville on Nov. 7 and a shocking 41-15 home loss to the Colts two weeks ago. But there is no underestimating Allen’s talent, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is doing some of his finest work, isn’t about to now.
"His improvement has just been tremendous," Belichick said. "It’s just remarkable how good he has become. He has a lot of command of the offense. He doesn’t get fooled much by anything. It’s really, really impressive to watch how he’s developed there."
Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones isn’t at that level yet, but his progress also has been remarkable. He beat out Cam Newton in the preseason and has shown the poise of a veteran in leading the Patriots to six straight wins and an 8-4 record.
That streak began with a 54-13 thumping of the Jets on Oct. 24 and includes wins over the Browns, Titans and Chargers, all of whom are AFC playoff contenders. But with two of the Patriots' next three games against Buffalo — with Indianapolis sandwiched in between — Jones faces a pivotal point in the schedule.
"I think Mac is off to a phenomenal start, and he’s as good as advertised," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "They’re in first place for a reason. They play good football and they haven’t turned the ball over, so that usually goes hand-in-hand with [winning] football."
Key stat: Jones has only two interceptions in the Patriots’ current winning streak; Allen has seven picks in his last four games.
Allen must be a lot more careful with the football against the Patriots, because New England is playing some of the best defense in the league. Ditto for the Bills. In fact, don’t be surprised if this game is decided by the defenses.
The Patriots have allowed the fewest points in the league (15.8) and the Bills are second (16.5). The Bills are the No. 1 defense in fewest yards allowed (275.2) and the Patriots are fourth (316.7).
This is the fifth time in the last 30 years that a team ranked first in scoring defense will face the team allowing the fewest yards.
Is Brown done in Tampa?
With Antonio Brown suspended three games for misrepresenting his COVID-19 vaccination status, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians left open the possibility that there will not be a place for him in the organization once he is eligible to return.
"Nothing has been decided," Arians said Friday when asked about Brown’s future with the team.
When the Bucs signed Brown last year after his reinstatement from a previous NFL suspension for off-field issues, Arians said he would be given no second chances if he got into further trouble.
"He screws up one time," Arians said in October 2020, "he’s gone."
Well, Brown screwed up. Big time. He lied about having a vaccination card and put others in danger — Including Arians, who is a cancer survivor and thus more susceptible to contracting the virus.
Arians suggested other teams might have players who also provided fake vaccination cards, although the NFL has not indicated how it will handle similar issues with other clubs.
Arians said he won’t address Brown’s situation again until his suspension is over, so it remains to be seen whether he will stay true to his word about no second chances.
If he does allow Brown back, it will be yet another example of a coach willing to overlook chronic misbehavior in the name of winning. Let’s hope Arians sticks to his original promise.
Why McKinney takes a knee during the anthem
Before the Giants face the Dolphins in Miami on Sunday, second-year safety Xavier McKinney will take a knee during the national anthem, the only player on the sidelines who is expected to do so.
While the overwhelming majority of NFL players now stand for the anthem — in contrast with the 2017-19 seasons, when several players took a knee to protest racial injustice after Colin Kaepernick drew attention to the issue — McKinney is one of the few who continues to take a knee.
Why does he continue to kneel?
"A lot of the stuff that you see happening around the world, different things, a lot of crazy stuff going on,'' he said. "I don’t even need to explain it; you see it every day and everybody else sees it. That’s why I continue to do it. When we see some type of progress, that’s when I’ll think about standing, but until then, I stand by my decision.
"To me, it’s all about bringing awareness to what’s going on around us," he said. "No matter if you have a big platform or a small platform, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about creating change, and that’s what I believe in."
McKinney, who didn’t take a knee during his career at Alabama, said he now looks at the situation "from different viewpoints and we are able to think about things in a different light. Somebody huge for me who I looked up to was Kaepernick. He showed me a lot of different things I didn’t see at first. Once I started to see what was going on, that’s when I decided to do this."
McKinney, who hasn’t met Kaepernick, hopes to connect with him someday.
"I think he’s a smart individual," he said. "He’s really knowledgeable about a lot of things. I would like to get to pick his brain."
Needless travel for Giants
The Giants will travel to Tucson after Sunday’s game in Miami to prepare for next week’s game against the Chargers in Los Angeles. We'll respectfully disagree with that strategy of being closer to California during the week. Nine days on the road is not necessary, especially given that Miami is not all that far from New Jersey.
Not that the Giants stand much of a chance against the surging Dolphins, who have won four straight games. They'll be without Daniel Jones because of a neck injury, and wide receivers Sterling Shepard (quadriceps) and Kadarius Toney (ankle) are doubtful.
The best chance they have is on defense. Patrick Graham's players have emerged from an early-season funk to become the heart of a 4-7 team.
'Lombardi Lenny' flourishes in Tampa
The Jaguars had hoped Leonard Fournette would grow into a Hall of Fame running back when they took the LSU star with the fourth overall pick in 2017. After languishing for much of his three-year run in Jacksonville, however, Fournette was released late in the 2020 preseason.
He has found a home in Tampa, and Fournette is playing the kind of football the Jaguars once envisioned. He comes off a four-touchdown performance in Tampa Bay’s comeback win over the Colts last Sunday, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
"We know what’s at stake," said Fournette, who leads the Bucs with 621 rushing yards. "The main focus is December football. We know how important this is as far as playoffs and having home-field advantage."
Fournette was considered a malcontent in Jacksonville, where he had run-ins with former director of football operations Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone. He has become one of the most popular players in the Bucs’ locker room, with teammates giving him an assortment of nicknames.
Last year, it was "Playoff Lenny" as he became the team’s lead back in the postseason. Then it was "Lombardi Lenny" after the team won the Super Bowl. This week, Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski added another.
"And may I please present a new name for Mr. Lombardi Lenny himself," Gronkowski wrote on his Twitter account, "Fourtuddiesssss @ Fournette."
What did Fournette think of the latest nickname?
"Gronk is crazy, man," Fournette said. "That’s his personality. He’s one of the best guys I’ve been around, I can say that — coming up with each name, each and every day. There are plenty of names at practice. Devin [White] — when I got cut — called me ‘Cut Lenny’ one day. It was a lot going on. I have plenty of names. Just being here, earning their respect and calling those guys my brothers — it means a lot to me. Coming from where I come from and the situations I have been in. Now I have a family in a different part of Florida. It’s a wonderful feeling."
Tomlin-Harbaugh rivalry continues
It is a testament to the coaching longevity of the Steelers' Mike Tomlin and the Ravens' John Harbaugh that only two other coaching matchups have featured more games.
When the Steelers host the Ravens on Sunday, it will be the 30th meeting between the two. The only coaching matchups featuring more games: George Halas of the Bears against Curly Lambeau of the Packers (49) and Steve Owen of the Giants against Lambeau (31).
Tomlin holds a 15-14 edge in head-to-head matchups against Harbaugh. Halas dominated his rivalry with Lambeau (30-16-3) and Owen had a 15-14-2 advantage over Lambeau.
Having their number
Kansas City faces Denver in a key AFC West game on Sunday, and if the past is prologue, this will be a win for two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City. The Broncos have lost 11 straight games to their divisional rivals. A win for Kansas City on Sunday, and it will match the Patriots’ 12 straight wins over the Jets as the longest active winning streak.
Just because your favorite team has a losing record to this point in the season doesn’t mean all hope is gone. Consider: In 15 of the last 17 seasons, at least one team with a losing record after 11 games has qualified for the playoffs . . . If it feels as if there are a lot of divisional games this weekend and down the stretch, you’re not imagining it. Seven of this weekend’s 14 games feature divisional opponents, and 49 of the final 92 are intra-divisional games . . . Gronkowski has 30 career 100-yard receiving games, one fewer than Tony Gonzalez, who has the most 100-yard games by a tight end . . . A game-winning score on the final play has been the difference in a whopping 25 games this year, the most to this point in the season in NFL history . . . Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout win over the Steelers last week, has two touchdowns (either rushing or receiving) in four straight games. That hasn’t happened since Steven Jackson did it with the Rams in 2006 . . . Still no punt return touchdowns this season after 12 weeks, the first time the NFL has gone that long without at least two punt return scores by this point. Dante Hall, where have you gone?