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Armando Salguero’s OutKick Monday NFL Perspectives: Patriots and Chiefs rising; Packers D ballin’; Bucs not

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Bill Belichick has heard all about what a great job he does with his football teams, getting them to steadily improve as fall turns to winter during every NFL season and having them in peak form late and just in time for the playoffs.

But he doesn’t necessarily embrace that narrative.

“Believe it or not, we try to play well all the time,” Belichick deadpanned in front of reporters Monday morning. “Maybe it doesn’t look that way, but we actually try to.”

We believe it, but we also have eyes and for years the Belichick-coached teams of the Tom Brady era started slow and then steadily improved. His first Super Bowl team in 2001 started 1-3 and then won 10 of their next 12, including six in a row to close the regular season.

The 2003 Super Bowl winners started 2-2 before winning their final 12 regular-season games and three more postseason games.

There are more examples, but suffice it to say the good people of New England see possibilities with this Patriots team that is seemingly coming of age before everyone’s eyes.

They’ve won four consecutive games, including Sunday’s 45-7 dismantling of the Cleveland Browns that caused NFL sack leader Myles Garrett to explain, “Sometimes you’re on top of the hill. Sometimes you get your ass kicked.” 

“I don’t have an explanation besides we got outplayed and outcoached,” Browns guard Joel Bitonio added.

One possible explanation is the Patriots are coming of age, and quarterback Mac Jones and running back Rhamondre Stevenson — both rookies — are part of that.

Stevenson made his first NFL start and had a career day, rushing for 100 yards on 20 carries. Jones led an offense that scored on seven of nine possessions.

The Patriots offense had three 90-yard drives that resulted in touchdowns, including an
11-play, 99-yard drive in the second quarter that set the tone for the day.

And Jones is looking like the best of the 2021 rookie QB class. Sorry, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance.

And, yes, he’s probably in the best situation of all those rookies.

But he’s not being towed along by the rest of the team. He’s pulling his weight and, increasingly, leading. He did that this game with three touchdown passes.

“Mac always looks poised. I don’t know what it is,” said wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who caught one of the scores. “He’s just driven in different ways, wired a different way. He’s just relaxed, and I think that’s how we all need to play.

“He’s not thinking about the next play. He’s not thinking about the last play. He’s thinking about the current play. That mindset can take you far in this league…”

The Patriots play Atlanta on Thursday. They’ll try to stay on their roll.

Chiefs had a rough stretch that doesn’t seem to matter right now

You remember all the worry and handwringing that everyone (including this space) did as the Chiefs lost to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills and Titans earlier this season?

You remember, right? The offense was out of sorts. Receivers couldn’t get open against the Cover 2 and Cover 3 coverages defenses were deploying. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes seemed unwilling to be patient enough to take short gains in order to move the football, and even his footwork and fundamentals were off.

Yeah, um, never mind.

The Chiefs today stand atop the AFC West following Sunday’s 41-14 whipping of the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Raiders churned out 516 total yards, converted 9 of 15 (60 percent) of their third down tries and were 3-of-3 on fourth down.

Mahomes, in something of a fog at times earlier this year, seemed his old self, roasting Las Vegas for 406 passing yards and five touchdowns — both season-highs.

So if one game can be believed, the Chiefs are hopeful Mahomes is back.

“Pat’s lasted longer than any quarterback in the history of the game without a slump,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters afterward. “And so it’s going to happen. There’s going to be a little something that doesn’t go your way. It’s important that you power through it, stay confident, and keep firing. And so that’s how he’s wired. He knew he was going to get through the ups and downs, just by the way he handles himself.”

Kansas City’s timing is good because as the other AFC West teams seem to be regressing to mean as the Chargers, Broncos and obviously the Raiders all lost on Sunday, the Chiefs seem to be finding themselves.

“You have to develop your own personality,” Reid said. “Every team’s different. Every year, you can’t worry about the expectations or any of that stuff. You have to get down to the nitty-gritty and build it. Our guys have kind of done that. They’re getting to know each other better. We’ve got to keep plugging away. It’s a good one to get.”

While eyes are on Rodgers, Packers defense rolls

The attention turned toward the Green Bay Packers the past few weeks have primarily focused on Aaron Rodgers and for good reason.

But the Packers defense is doing some serious work. Like, all-time serious work.

For perspective, this historical height comes from a franchise that boasts 27 members in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, cornerback Willie David, safety Willie Wood, defensive end Reggie White and others.

But today’s Green Bay defense in the past three weeks alone has played against Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, and in that span, they’re first in the NFL in fewest points allowed and second in fewest yards allowed per play.

“I thought our defense really carried the night,” coach Matt LaFleur said after Sunday’s 17-0 victory over Seattle.

“I really like the culture that we have on that side of the ball. The guys buying in, playing
for one another, playing with great energy and effort.”

What the heck is wrong with the Buccaneers?

Remember that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions. Maybe you forgot, as the Bucs have lost two consecutive games and don’t seem to be the class of the NFC right now.

The defense struggling? That’s easy: Injuries.

Tampa has played with a makeshift lineup, particularly in the defensive backfield and that seemed to continue Sunday as cornerback Richard Sherman was lost just prior to the game to a strained calf injury. Coach Bruce Arians Monday commented: “I doubt seriously if he’ll be back anytime soon.”

Defensive lineman Vita Vea has a bone bruise and perhaps even an MCL injury.

The offense has also struggled with injuries to Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski, but teams are simply preventing the Bucs from attacking them with deep passes.

“Everybody’s playing us in a very soft, two-shell, and forcing the ball to go underneath and make you run with it,” Arians said . “I think we got to protect our quarterback better early in the game, and maybe we’ll take some shots down the field like we normally do when he’s protected. But when he’s getting hit a bunch early, he ain’t going to hold onto it very long.”

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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