With the NFL postseason upon us, I thought it would be a good time to empanel some respected NFL beat reporters to discuss what they expected to be the biggest story of the NFL playoffs and the story they worked on this season that impacted them the most.
• Eric Branch, 49ers reporter, San Francisco Chronicle.
• Ben Goessling, Vikings beat reporter, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
• Gary Klein, Rams beat writer, Los Angeles Times
• Stephen Holder, Colts reporter, Indianapolis Star
• Nicki Jhabvala, Broncos/NFL reporter, The Denver Post
• Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter, ESPN
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.
What do you see as the biggest story of the 2018 NFL playoffs and why?
Branch: I stared at this question for a long time, working to avoid the obvious, straining to offer a brilliant story line that few have considered. Then I gave up: It’s the Patriots. Their quest for a sixth Super Bowl title since February 2002 is huge because success would cement their claim as the most jaw-dropping dynasty in NFL history. Tom Brady, at 40, would have won six Super Bowls—two more than runner-up Joe Montana (and four more than any other active QB). Bill Belichick would have six Super Bowls—two more than runner-up Chuck Noll (and five (!) more than any other active head coach). For those who still would make an argument for the 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers, 1980s 49ers …the Patriots have done it in a salary-cap era that’s created parity…for everyone but the Patriots. In the 21st century, only two other teams have managed two Super Bowl wins. New England is already in a different stratosphere. Another title would make it unquestionably clear we’re witnessing greatness at the highest level.
Goessling: I'll stick with the team I cover and its attempt to make history: The Vikings have a good chance to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. They'll host a division game at U.S. Bank Stadium—where they've lost just once all season—and with the Eagles missing Carson Wentz, there's a decent chance the Vikings could host the NFC Championship Game, too. The Vikings' playoff success is already going to alter the NFL's preparation for the Super Bowl, since the league might have to cram a month's worth of access to the stadium into two or three weeks. And if the Vikings end up representing the NFC, it's going to create perhaps the most unique Super Bowl backdrop in the history of the game. Teams always talk about playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium, but there's no precedent for what effect it would have on the game, or how the opposing team would react to it. It's rare we see something so unique in the Super Bowl, and the Vikings have a good shot to make it happen.
Holder: I’m intrigued by this year’s playoffs because there’s a chance for some unexpected teams to advance and new stars to emerge. I sometimes think fans can grow weary by the same teams being in the mix each postseason. I’m sure there’s bound to be some Patriots fatigue among some fans out there. But I love that the field this year offers some variety, and the NFL stands to benefit from that. I can’t wait to see whether the Jaguars are for real. I am anxious to learn whether the Rams can continue their run. I want to know whether Marcus Mariota can win a big game. I think the Vikings are going to be so interesting. With teams like the Packers, Ravens and Seahawks sitting out these playoffs, things are much more difficult to predict. And I think that’s a very good thing.
Jhabvala: Like millions of others, I am most intrigued by Tom Brady and whatever he does or doesn't do at age 40. If he wins another Super Bowl title, I don't know how anyone could argue that he's NOT the best ever.
Klein: My view is no doubt skewed by the fact that I cover the Rams but….Sean McVay, the youngest coach in modern NFL history, has taken a team that was 4-12 and featured the NFL’s worst offense in 2016 and turned it into a division winner and the league’s highest-scoring team. And he did it in his first season. McVay acknowledged some game-management mistakes caused by inexperience early in the season. Can he avoid them in the pressure-packed playoffs and possibly lead the Rams to their first Super Bowl title since the 1999 season?
Reiss: Tom Brady, at 40, trying to do what no other quarterback has done and lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. Brady has already tied Brett Favre for most wins by a 40-year-old starting quarterback (13) and has totaled the most passing yards in a season by a player at 40. However, his interception total has risen late in the season, and the Patriots’ defense has looked vulnerable. So, more than past years, this is an anything-is-possible scenario for Brady and the Patriots in the playoffs. No one would be surprised if they were still playing in early February in Minnesota, and no one should be surprised if they are knocked out of the playoffs as early as the divisional round.
What was the most important story you worked on during the regular season and why?
Branch: It was this story on the sweet, unlikely bond between 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark, who has ALS, and Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls, whom Clark soared over 36 years ago for “The Catch.” Why was it important? To me, it was about goodness, the bond NFL players share, even if they squared off as hated rivals, and the outrage they feel over about the dire health issues many now face in retirement. For me, there was also a personal connection: As a 9-year-old Cowboys fan, I wept in my bedroom—specifically, on my NFL bedspread—after Clark’s catch and despised Joe Montana and Clark for dropping a bomb into my childhood. Walls offered a powerful reminder about an NFL brotherhood that transcends such feelings: “The fans can hate all they want, but the players are really family. When you see your family members being afflicted in this manner, it is extremely upsetting. It makes you want to hit something.”
Goessling: Michael Floyd's DWI arrest, where police found him asleep at the wheel in Arizona, was one of the NFL's most unsightly off-the-field events of 2016. The Vikings believed he'd be able to put his life back together in his home state, where he could live with Kyle Rudolph (his roommate at Notre Dame) and lean on family and friends from high school. Before Floyd returned from his suspension in October, I wanted to talk to the people who'd stood by him the longest, and hear why they thought he'd be able to get a fresh start in Minnesota. This story ran on Oct. 9, the day Floyd returned from his suspension against the Bears.
Holder: I really enjoyed reporting this story on how the Colts were taking the NFL protests further than simply taking a knee. They made it a point to put actions behind their words, and I thought it was important to document those efforts. I could tell this story had some impact because instead of the usual vitriolic feedback I got about protest stories, this one elicited very thoughtful responses that I did not expect.
Jhabvala: The most important story I covered was really done in multiple stories, on players' protests during the national anthem. The topic was a hot-button item throughout the league, but it drew especially opinionated responses from Broncos fans. Some applauded players using their voice, but many others vowed to boycott the league and the team. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall joined Colin Kaepernick in protesting alone last season but decided to stand mid-way through the year. When multiple Broncos players decided to kneel in Week 3 of this season, in response to President Trump's "son of bitch" comment, the blowback in Denver was tremendous. The team's leadership council comprised of about 20 veterans met afterward and decided the team as a whole would stand for the remainder of the season. You could see how the backlash affected certain guys more than others. I think Von Miller, in particular, a guy who generally loved by everyone in the locker room and the fan base, was especially taken aback by the vitriol. But what was interesting, at least to me as I covered the team, was how players within the same locker room were vocal in their varying opinions but didn’t let it come between. Derek Wolfe was strongly against it and was very clear about his belief that players should stand for the anthem. Marshall and others, mean supported the cause. And yet, it didn't tear apart the fabric of the team.
Klein: The Rams’ season was largely devoid of issue-based controversies related to anthem protests, lapses in adherence to concussion protocol, player suspensions, etc. The closest thing to acrimony was Aaron Donald’s training camp absence because of a contract dispute. From the day of his hiring through the end of the regular season, Times colleagues Lindsey Thiry and Sam Farmer and I have tracked the culture changes under McVay. But because of the seriousness of the situation it addresses, I would say a story about linebacker Robert Quinn and receiver Tavon Austin furnishing an apartment and buying Christmas gifts for a family transitioning from homelessness was the most important. So important, I got past my own competitive pride that a story about their effort to help a different family had been done the year before by another outlet. The players worked with the Rams and non-profit LA Family Housing to give a mother and her children a new chance at independence. That is as important as it gets.
Reiss: When the season began, one of the things I talked about with ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio—who has been especially kind to me from a mentoring perspective—was the historic nature of what was unfolding in New England with Brady at the age of 40 and how we would want to look for creative ways to chronicle it. This story, which was collaborative effort through all levels of ESPN (TV, digital, etc.), ties into that.