1. Did the Patriots cheat?
I believe the New England Patriots when they say that they weren't trying to skirt NFL rules in the latest taping scandal. There is no way, no way in fresh hell, that Bill Belichick would ever cheat like this. He isn't a moron. He knows that if he directed an employee to tape an opponent's sideline, he'd get caught.
The idea that Belichick, or any member of his team's front office or coaching staff, would sign off on such blatantly obvious chicanery is absurd.
"Bill isn't that dumb," said one AFC West assistant coach who knows Belichick well. "You'd have to believe he's remarkably stupid to do this."
And Belichick is not stupid. He's a genius. Again, just to make it clear: To me, there's no way the Patriots were trying to cheat.
Some people across the NFL—perhaps many—do not share this belief. They think the Patriots tried to cheat (again) and got caught (again).
"No one buys what they're saying," one NFC East front-office executive said. "They don't get the benefit of the doubt."
That seems to be the core of how many are reacting to this latest scandal. No benefit of the doubt. Not for this team. The Patriots have been caught breaking the rules before, so you have to assume their actions are purposeful, not coincidental. Multiple team and league office sources made this point while speaking with Bleacher Report.
Could there be reasonable, non-illicit explanations for why a Patriots employee was taping the sideline of their next opponent, the Bengals, for a full eight minutes Sunday, according to Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic? Sure. But this is the Patriots.
That type of taping is against league rules. Even if Belichick didn't directly order it, the video crew was probably doing what it thought Belichick wanted, these critics say.
No benefit of the doubt. Not anymore.
Following the infamous 2007 Spygate incident, the NFL took away the Patriots' first-round pick in 2008, fined Belichick $500,000 and fined the team $250,000.
In a conference call with Cincinnati media Tuesday, Belichick said the Patriots followed the rules this time. In a press release, the team said the videographer was there to do a segment on an advance scout for a series about employees on the team's website.
"We're competitive, and we'll try to be competitive in every area," Belichick said. "But we don't knowingly, intentionally want to do anything that's across the line."
At his own news conference at the Patriots' facility later Tuesday, Belichick again denied any knowledge of the incident, according to a team transcript.
"Again, I have no involvement in this and no knowledge of it, and so I really don't have any idea what exactly is going on. I can tell you that we've never, as a coaching staff and me personally, have never viewed any video footage at all of anything that those production people have done, other than what's shown on public television or something like that. But, we don't have anything to do with what they do, so I really don't have much knowledge of the situation at all."
I believe him. To me, the odds that this is some type of nefarious cheating plot are zero. Less than zero.
But very few people seem to believe that.
2. Kyle Shanahan's 49ers
As the 49ers were flying home following their victory in the game of the year at New Orleans, head coach Kyle Shanahan walked to the back of the plane and saw a good sign.
He saw calm.
"I think a lot of them were sleeping by the time I went back there," Shanahan said, according to a team transcript. "Some were playing cards and stuff, but we've got a pretty good group. They're low-key. They don't get too up and down. We've got some pros who know that this stuff's bigger than just one week."
That is not the case with all teams. After a big win, they get cocky. Or after a devastating loss, it takes them weeks to recover. The 49ers are the Goldilocks of football: They are always just right.
Several NFL coaches have told Bleacher Report that Shanahan's management of the San Francisco locker room has quietly been one of the best stories of the season. He keeps a team full of extremely strong personalities happy. It's one of the 49ers' greatest strengths.
When coaches around the league are asked to assess how real the 49ers' chances are of reaching the Super Bowl, they first say to stop asking that stupid question. Of course they can get there.
They then say that what sticks out is how unflappable the 49ers are, and they credit Shanahan.
There are numerous X's and O's data points to discuss with the 49ers, but what makes them a legitimate threat is how hard they fight. When the game is over, they celebrate, and then it's on to Cincinnati.
One of the greatest compliments you can pay a franchise is that it's Patriots-like, and the way the 49ers have approached this season is extremely Patriots-like.
After losing in overtime to Seattle last month, they beat Arizona. After losing in Baltimore, they won in New Orleans.
The 49ers' unflappable nature allows them to win in almost every imaginable way. Teams that live on emotional seesaws can't be grounded, and if they can't be grounded, they can't adapt.
The 49ers won with defense earlier in the season, and they are now winning with offense. That flexibility is the main chromosome of all good teams.
Shanahan's sense of calm is a huge part of it. He can be fiery, but his steadiness is a greater asset.
The 49ers can do anything. They can physically beat you. They can run past you. They can get in a track meet. They will do what they must.
And do it with a steady pulse.
3. The new Rob Gronkowski
If there is one player not named Lamar Jackson who is capturing a lot of attention around the NFL, it's 49ers tight end George Kittle.
The one thing I'm hearing constantly from sources around the league is how so many personnel departments got Kittle wrong.
The Niners drafted Kittle with a fifth-round pick in 2017. He's now one the best tight ends in the sport and one of the top weapons on either side of the ball.
Coming out of Iowa, some teams were concerned about whether Kittle could become efficient in the passing game. Imagine that. Kittle is a Porsche, but teams were worried he'd be a bus.
Kittle is another example of how even if the draft process gets so many players right, it also gets so many so wrong.
4. The MVP race
There are only a handful of weeks remaining in the regular season, and the race for MVP has essentially come down to two players: Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.
Carolina's Christian McCaffrey was once a candidate, but the Panthers have lost five straight games. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is worth mentioning, but he hasn't done anything that separates himself, and Dalvin Cook is the heart of that offense.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas is a candidate, but despite how good he's been—and he's been terrific—he'd need to be even better to eclipse a quarterback at this level.
Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are all having great seasons, but they're all clearly behind Jackson and Wilson. Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who started the season in the scrap heap but is 6-1 since becoming the starter, might actually be No. 3 in the MVP race. But even if he finishes at 9-1 and the Titans make the playoffs, he'll be behind Jackson and Wilson.
Jackson is having such a remarkable season, the fact that Wilson is even in the MVP conversation is stunning. But with Wilson having games left against the Panthers (five straight losses) and Cardinals (worst pass defense in the league) before a Week 17 matchup with the 49ers that could be for the top seed in the NFC, he still has time to make his case.
All other candidates have likely seen the race pass them by.
5. The playoff race
A quick breakdown of how things stand (we won't be breaking down all of the tiebreakers, because if we did, your brains would turn to mush):
• AFC East: The Patriots are 10-3 and the Bills are 9-4. The Patriots will likely win the division. The Patriots won the first meeting against the Bills, so they'd need to lose to either the Bengals or Dolphins, and then to the Bills on Dec. 21, for Buffalo to have a legitimate shot at winning the division.
• AFC North: At 11-2, the Ravens are running away with the division.The only question now is whether the 8-5 Steelers become a wild-card team. If that happens, give Mike Tomlin the Coach of the Year award.
• AFC South: The Texans and Titans are tied at 8-5. The Titans have won four straight games. The two teams face off this coming weekend and then again in Week 17. In between, the Titans play the Saints, and the Texans play Tampa Bay. Advantage: Texans.
• AFC West: The 9-4 Chiefs have already clinched this division.
• AFC wild cards: The Bills are at the Steelers this Sunday. If the Steelers win that game, both teams will be 9-5 front-runners for wild-card spots, with whoever loses Texans-Titans sitting one game back.
• NFC East: One of the worst divisions since the 1970 merger. The Cowboys and Eagles are both 6-7. The Eagles finish with Washington, Dallas and the Giants. The Cowboys play the Rams, Eagles and Washington. It's a toss-up, but the best weapon on either of these teams is Ezekiel Elliott. He might be the key...if head coach Jason Garrett can remember Elliott is on the team, that is.
• NFC North: The Packers are 10-3 and the Vikings are 9-4. The Packers have had some brutal losses (they lost to the Chargers and 49ers by a combined score of 63-19), but they are 3-0 in the division and have Aaron Rodgers.
• NFC South: The Saints have already clinched. The only issue with New Orleans is whether it can stay in the mix for the top playoff seed.
• NFC West: The most interesting division by far. It could come down to the Week 17 matchup between the Seahawks and 49ers.
• NFC wild cards: One will likely go to the Week 17 49ers-Seahawks loser, while the other figures to go to the NFC North runner-up. But the 8-5 Rams are still in the mix after winning two straight.
6. More bad officiating
People hate the Patriots. Yes, that is like saying the sun shines, and the hatred is often rooted in jealousy. But whatever the cause, everyone should hate what happened to them Sunday.
First, a clear Travis Kelce fumble was blown dead. Defensive back Stephon Gilmore ran the ball back for a score, but the play was over. It shouldn't have been.
Then, rookie receiver N'Keal Harry scored a touchdown, but officials ruled he stepped out of bounds at the 3-yard line. He didn't, but the Patriots couldn't challenge because they didn't have any left.
This is part of a pattern we've seen for years now, which is the decline of NFL officiating. The referees appeared overwhelmed by the speed of the game, and nothing the league does has stopped the number of bad calls.
The worst thing is that refs are missing obvious calls. Calls that are right in their faces, like Harry's score. That's what's most troubling, and the NFL doesn't seem to know how to make things better.
7. Patrick Mahomes' remarkable feat
One last thing on the Patriots or, rather, what was done to them.
Patrick Mahomes' win at New England was impressive, and you may not have heard why. (Please don't yell at me about quarterback winzzzzz.)
The 24-year-old Mahomes became the first quarterback under 25 to beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at Foxborough during the regular season.
Since 2001, the Patriots were 29-0 at home against quarterbacks that were under 25, per ESPN Stats & Info.
The stat is more about Belichick than Brady because Belichick does so many things to confuse young players. His defenses get inside their heads, and their brains get scrambled.
Mahomes' classroom smarts are vastly underrated. Because he prepares so hard and is so smart, there's less of a chance he can be shaken.
Even by someone as brilliant as Belichick.
8. Titaning up
One NFC assistant coach was asked what he believed the difference was between Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill now and the player who spent most of his career being a punch line.
He gave a two-word response: "Coaching and injuries."
Tannehill missed the 2017 season because of a torn ACL.
There's long been a belief among some coaches (one that I never shared until recently) that Tannehill was dramatically underserved by head coach Adam Gase (now the coach of the Jets) when both were in Miami.
That always sounded absurd to me, and it seemed more likely that Tannehill wasn't very good. But his recent play puts him in a completely different light. In fact, it's been one of the NFL's most staggering career relaunches in years.
Tannehill was named the starter in Week 7. Since then, Tennessee has the second-most offensive touchdowns and is scoring the second-most points per game (31.4), per ESPN Stats & Info.
It isn't unprecedented for an offense to change quarterbacks and get a spark. Tannehill has lit a five-alarm fire and proved so many wrong about him in the process.
9. Rivera will get a 'billion interviews'
Ron Rivera is no longer the Panthers' head coach, but if he wants another job, he will almost certainly get one.
"He will get a billion interviews," one AFC general manager told B/R of Rivera.
The team I keep hearing Rivera's name associated the most with: Atlanta.
10. Cam chronicles
One thing I've heard continually from a source with the Panthers is that the team hasn't made a decision about what to do with quarterback Cam Newton. I'm also told they don't intend to make one any time soon.
This is smart. Why would they rush anything? At the very least, you'd wait to see how well Newton does after he has foot surgery.
The Panthers are going to take their time not solely because Newton is the best player in team history, but also because what they do next will impact the team's fortunes for years to come. There isn't a bigger decision than figuring out what to do about a franchise quarterback.
The Panthers don't know what they're going to do. They shouldn't. At least not yet, anyway.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.