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The Race Is On to Catch the Patriots and a Word About the Greg Schiano-Tennessee Mess

Ranking the teams with the best chance to dethrone New England in the postseason, including the Eagles, Steelers, Vikings, Rams, Saints and more

An eventful Sunday on the field, but first a few words about the unfortunate story that unfolded off it...

At 2 p.m. Sunday in Columbus, Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano signed a memorandum of understanding to become the head football coach at the University of Tennessee. The Ohio State team would practice for Saturday’s Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin in the afternoon, and Schiano, 51, would board a Tennessee plane bound for a 7 p.m. news conference in Knoxville to introduce Schiano as the next coach of the Vols. Then the plane would ferry Schiano back to Columbus to continue prep for the Wisconsin game.

Meanwhile, word leaked of the deal. And because of allegations that Schiano, who coached on the Penn State staff from 1990 to ’95, knew of Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation, scores of Volunteer loyalists began demonstrating. Someone painted “Schiano covered up child rape at Penn State” on a huge rock on campus. The President’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, wrote on Facebook, “Guess who’s the new head football coach at the University of Tennesse [sic]. Yup. The guy who covered for Jerry Sandusky. #GregSchiano.” This, even though Schiano was never found culpable in the case. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Ohio State hired him since his Penn State days after doing significant background checks, finding nothing untoward.

By 4 p.m. Sunday, Tennessee officials apparently got very cold feet. The athletic director who was in Columbus to make the deal with Schiano, John Currie, left town. The deal was off. Because we live in a guilty-until-proven-innocent social-media world these days, whatever Schiano says now—and he’ll certainly have to address this firestorm soon—probably won’t matter much. In a 2015 deposition related to the Sandusky case, former Penn State assistant Mike McQueary said another coach, Tom Bradley, had told him Schiano saw Sandusky “doing something with a boy.” Schiano denied seeing anything. Bradley denied having any knowledge of those incidents. Schiano was never charged with anything, nor was he deposed in the Sandusky case. In short, this story died legally, in a climate in which the university president and athletic director ended up in prison.

Greg Schiano's Memorandum of Understanding With Tennessee Could Burn Vols

Whether Schiano saw something or didn’t, whether he shielded Sandusky or didn’t, only Schiano knows. He denies it. The legal system in Pennsylvania found no reason to charge him with a crime. No matter. On Sunday, he was convicted in the court of public opinion, and the University of Tennessee dropped a man charged with nothing.

Innuendo won. The witch-hunters won. It’s a sad time in America.

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Back to the field...

Sunday night, before the Steelers had a surprisingly difficult time dispatching the Packers 31-28, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin sat for an interview with his former mentor and NBC “Football Night in America” analyst Tony Dungy. Naturally, Dungy was curious how Tomlin approached the looming mega-game with defending Super Bowl champion New England.

The game is in three weeks. Tomlin taped the interview with Dungy on Friday, with three game days standing between the Steelers and the Patriots, the two best teams in the AFC, tied with two losses atop the division.

Tomlin said he did not fear addressing the elephant in the room, the great white whale known as the Patriots. The Patriots-Steelers game on Dec. 17 in Pittsburgh, he said, “is probably gonna be part one. That’s gonna be a big game. But probably, if we both do what we’re supposed to do, the second one is really gonna be big. And what happens in the first is gonna set up the second one … is gonna determine the location of the second one.”

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Most coaches laser-focus on the next game. But the Patriots loom so large over this league that it’s tough to stick to that. In the 18-season Belichick-Brady Era, the Patriots have won five Super Bowls and, with a 35-17 rout of Miami on Sunday, clinched an NFL-record 17th straight winning season. Even though 9-2 New England doesn’t have the best record in football, it still feels as if the 10-1 Eagles, and everyone else, are chasing the Patriots.

That’s where we are now: Who’s good enough to catch the Patriots, and who’s good enough to get on a roll to beat the Patriots? With five weeks left in the regular season, New England has won seven straight (by an average of 14.9 points). Other teams are hotter statistically. Philadelphia’s won nine straight, the past three by 28 points each. But the main character on the Eagles, Carson Wentz, and the leading figures on most other contenders won’t have anywhere near the playoff pedigree of the Patriots.

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A football season is a living thing. Two months ago the Chiefs were 4-0 and had routed the Patriots and beaten the Eagles. But they’ve fallen way off. Newbies have taken their place. In order, the teams with the best chance to take New England down in the 10 weeks between now and Super Bowl 52:

1.Philadelphia (10-1). Strange season for the Eagles. Nine of their wins have come over teams with current losing records, a five-point win over Carolina the lone exception. But the Eagles’ precocious quarterback is reminiscent of a young Tom Brady. Nothing fazes Carson Wentz, the North Dakotan fond of saying, “It’s just football,” as the games get bigger and the stakes higher. What gives the Eagles the best chance, I think, is their formidable defensive front, surrendering just 3.5 yards per rush and holding quarterbacks to a league-low 73.9 passer rating. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, per Pro Football Focusaverage 7.7 quarterback disruptions (sacks, hits and hurries) between them, and watching Philly play, and watching Cox and Graham buzz around the quarterback consistently, I wouldn't have been surprised to see that average be 10 or 12 per game. I wonder how New England would block them in a potential Super Bowl matchup.

2.Pittsburgh (9-2). The Steelers’ inability to put away mortal teams (5-, 3- and 3-point wins over the Lions, Colts and Rodgers-less Packers, respectively) is bothersome. But Ben Roethlisberger has been playing big games almost as long as Tom Brady. And Pittsburgh’s game-breaking trio of receivers (Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant) is gaining 191 yards a week, on average. In a contract year, Le’Veon Bell has a 91-yard lead in the race for the rushing title, and he could gash the lone major New England weakness; the Pats are last in rush defense, giving up 4.9 yards per rush. Cam Heyward and young-gun pass-rushers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt will be a speedy load for the Patriots to keep off Brady, who gets hit too much.

3.Minnesota (9-2). The unpredictable team. Case Keenum has won seven in a row at the helm of the Vikings, but he’s never sniffed the playoffs in his career. The way he’s mowing down the opposition, maybe that doesn’t matter. His weapons are not famous, but Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and Stefon Diggs keep beating people. Another tough defensive front, with Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter (18 sacks combined) will be a chore for the Patriots’ edge protectors. Remember how Brady was abused in the Super Bowl, when Dwight Freeney (outside) and Grady Jarrett (inside) combined for 13 hits and sacks? The Vikings can do that to a quarterback.

4. Los Angeles Rams (8-3). Speaking of pressure teams, this is one that could really give the Patriots issues. Aaron Donald is an equal-opportunity destroyer. I watched most of the Rams-Saints game Sunday, and this Jared Goff gets better every week—seriously. You’ve heard of “throwing receivers open?” It’s a quarterback throwing to an open area, leading a receiver more than he normally would. It’s a sign the quarterback is mastering the offense and has the confidence to make a throw a little out of the box. Goff did that on his second-quarter TD throw to rookie Josh Reynolds, motioning for him to go further across the edge of the end zone—which Reynolds did—and Goff lasered a strike to him. The Rams buried a bad loss at Minnesota last week pretty quickly, which you’ve got to do when games matter so much now. “We weren’t going to let Minnesota beat us twice,” defensive leader Alec Ogletree told me from Los Angeles on Sunday night. Huh? “They beat us last week, and we weren’t going to let it hang with us—it was over. Gotta move on.” They did. The Rams put up 415 yards on a good defense, and knocked Drew Brees around most of the day.  

Rams and Saints Exemplify the Difference a Year Can Make

T-5. New Orleans (8-3), Carolina (8-3), Atlanta (7-4). They’re almost the same entry, with how explosive each can be on offense and with young impact players on defense ... and with their tough, division-oriented schedules. Check the slate over the final five weeks:

• Saints: Carolina, Atlanta, the Jets, Atlanta, Tampa Bay.

• Panthers: New Orleans, Minnesota, Green Bay (likely with Aaron Rodgers back), Tampa Bay, Atlanta.

• Falcons: Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina..

In other words, the schedule could knock out any of the three teams. New Orleans has an edge over both foes, with a 2-0 division record, and with the Jets and Bucs on the schedule might have the best chance to win the division and at least one home playoff game. Saints back Alvin Kamara has become the best rookie offensive weapon in the league, and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey is not far behind him. Those two have helped the Saints and Panthers, respectively, catch up to Atlanta’s backfield versatility and production. All three quarterbacks have deep-into-the-playoffs experience; Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan have all played in Super Bowls. I’ll give the Saints the edge to win the division and have the slightly easier playoff path—I like their young secondary best. It’s not one that would be intimidated by Brady.

The rest. The Los Angeles Chargers (5-6), the shockers of this group, don’t have much margin for error, but they’re the third-best team in the AFC right now, with a great set of bookend rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa and the hot quarterback, Philip Rivers, who has played in big games before. He just hasn’t won the biggest … Jacksonville (7-4) could fluster Brady with a deep pass-rush, but it’s hard to imagine Blake Bortles going throw-for-throw with Brady, in Foxboro … Can Seattle (7-4) hang on for dear life? There’s little doubt Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin and that D, diminished though it is, could play big in January. I just can’t see Seattle winning three road games, if it’s a wild-card team, against power NFC teams like the Eagles, to reach another Super Bowl, and a possible rematch of Supe 49.

It’s the Patriots against, mostly, the young and the restless. Should be a fun, and unpredictable, final five weeks of the regular season.

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Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling wrap up the Sunday action each Monday morning on “The MMQB: 10 Things Podcast.” Subscribe on iTunes.