MMQB: Lamar Jackson Wins a Playoff Game; Browns Overcome Hectic Wild-Card Week

The NFL's super wild-card weekend gave us six games, including long-awaited wins for Lamar Jackson, the Browns and the Bills. Plus, McVay on the QB secret, Nick Caserio's hiring in Houston, divisional round story lines, top prospects playing Monday night and much more.
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The story of wild-card weekend looked to be written at around 1:30 p.m. ET, with the Ravens staggering around Nissan Stadium and a lingering narrative being cemented.

Lamar Jackson can’t win in the playoffs.

You heard that this week. So did the Ravens. So did Jackson himself.

And it was playing out right in front of everyone. The Ravens had a three-and-out on their first possession, and their third-year quarterback threw an unsightly pick on their second possession—Jackson, for his part, later called it a “dumbass” throw—into traffic, while the hosts built a 10–0 lead and threatened to the blow the game wide open.

The first two plays of the team’s third possession didn’t go much better. Jackson was stacked up at the line on a first-down bootleg, and J.K. Dobbins was stopped after a three-yard gain on second down, setting up a third-and-seven that, really, seemed like third-and-the-season at the time. Absent a conversion, a Ravens defense that spent nearly 10 minutes on the field in the first quarter was going back out there, with things slipping away from Baltimore.

After the game, walking to the bus, Jackson laughed that he couldn’t really remember the play call, which, he added, is weird for him, because normally his postgame recall is good.

The truth is, the third-and-seven call itself wound up being irrelevant. After the snap, it became clear that the Ravens were simply going to need Jackson to be the best player on the field for them—like he has been so many times over his first three years.

He was.

The Titans crowded seven defenders at the line before the snap, dropped safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker Wyatt Ray off Jackson’s left side, and brought Adoree' Jackson from his right. The line flushed Lamar right, Adoree' came free, the best laid plans were blown and it was time to make something happen.

Which Jackson would.

“I can’t even remember the call,” Jackson told me. “I do know I probably could’ve hit him earlier, but the defensive line swarmed me. I rolled to the right. Mark did a great job of buying some room for me and I had to deliver a pass for him.”

Running out of real estate to the right boundary, Jackson flicked the ball probably 25 yards as the crow flies, perfectly into Mark Andrews’s hands, with Andrews dragging his toes to pick up 17 yards and the first down.

Some three hours later, Jackson was getting the game ball from John Harbaugh in a jubilant postgame locker room after the Ravens first playoff win in six years. That ball was another acknowledgement, from coach to quarterback, that this wasn’t just any other win for the Ravens’ franchise. In the NFL, for quarterbacks, these mean a little more.

Ravens 20, Titans 13 did for Jackson, no doubt.

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***

Wild-card weekend (it was fun, and there were a couple of good games, but it wasn’t quite super) is in the books, and we’re down to eight teams alive for trips to Tampa on Feb. 7. We’re going to hit on the six of those that won right here off the top. In this week’s MMQB, we’ll give you …

• A quick rundown of the top story lines in the four divisional-round games.

• When Sean McVay told his team that John Wolford would start at quarterback.

• Why Jordan Poyer still thinks the Bills got hosed by the refs on the Colts’ fumble/non-fumble.

• Where Tom Brady’s already proved his worth in Tampa.

But we’re starting with Lamar Jackson, and the significance of his first playoff win.

***

Jackson had to wear his loss to the Chargers in the 2018 playoffs into the early portions of his 2019 MVP season, and last year’s playoff losses to the same Titans for longer than that. The memory of it followed him in a bunch of different ways this year, whether he cared to pay attention or not. And if he’d lost this one, the truth is it would have become an even bigger part of his 2021 story, a full-blown demon for him to vanquish.

Is it fair? Probably not. He just turned 24 the other day. He graduated high school the same year as Joe Burrow.

But that’s the life of an NFL quarterback. And that’s why, for Harbaugh, giving Jackson the game ball postgame was less about what he did on this day—and he absolutely did plenty to win the Ravens the game—than it was about acknowledging the weight that had been lifted off his shoulders.

“It was just that we knew he had to carry that and answer all those questions,” Harbaugh said via text, as the Ravens headed for the airport, explaining that the game ball was a way to show that “we all had his back.”

In a big game, Jackson had theirs too, making play after play to deliver the Ravens through to another big one next Saturday night in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs for a touchdown during the Tennessee Titans game against the Baltimore Ravens in Nashville on January 10, 2021.

And it really did start with that third-and-seven, which was Baltimore, in effect, sticking its foot in the ground and turning the game with a sequence that one staffer said was, indeed, “just him and Andrews making a play.” Making it even more impressive was how Adoree' Jackson and Harold Landry were bearing down on Lamar, and pressing him toward the sideline as he flung the ball to Andrews, who, for his part, had Vaccaro hanging all over him.

“That was huge,” Jackson told me. “We had to convert. We didn’t want to put our defense out there on the field, no points being scored. We kept getting off the field pretty fast. The guys on the defensive end were playing playoff football. We knew it was going to be a tough game, and we knew we’d have to make the best of those chances. Tough catches. I knew I had to make tough throws. We pulled it out there. And Mark did a great job.”

That play, on the final snap of the first quarter, would help to set up a 33-yard Justin Tucker field goal, cutting the Titans’ lead to 10–3, and set the stage for Jackson’s equalizer, a 48-yard burst for a touchdown through the teeth of the Tennessee defense that was as impressive a quarterback run as you’ll ever see.

It was third-and-nine from the Titans’ 48, and Jackson took a three-step drop off a shotgun snap, quickly recognized Tennessee was in man coverage, saw a lane and absolutely exploded through the middle of the defensive front. With the ‘backers and secondary having their backs to the ball, Jackson basically caught the entire unit flat-footed, then ignited a footrace to the right pylon.

Jackson won’t lose too many of those, and just like that the score was tied at 10.

“I didn’t see it yet, so I don’t know where it ranks,” Jackson said, laughing. “I’m just happy it was a touchdown. I was looking for [that opening and] I thought I’d see more guys trying to tackle me. … But it was a touchdown.”

From there, like Jackson said, the Ravens settled in and the offense played playoff football, like the defense had. They opened the second half with an efficient, 10-play, 77-yard drive. Jackson was for 4 for 4 for 30 yards, and ran for another 34 on four carries on that possession, which was capped by a four-yard touchdown run from J.K. Dobbins, ate six minutes off the clock and put the Ravens up for good at 17–10.

The Titans did hang around, though, which brought the Ravens to the point where they needed the backbreaker, and Jackson gave Baltimore that, too.

That came on a second-and-10 from the Ravens’ 38 with 1:45 left. The Titans had all three of their timeouts and figured to get the ball back with 1:30 or so on the clock and maybe a timeout in their pockets. Ravens OC Greg Roman called a zone-read, Jackson rode Gus Edwards, saw the defense crowding up toward the line, pulled the ball and shot down the right for 33 yards—capping the run by giving himself up inbounds so the clock would roll.

And with that came the game ball from Harbaugh and an end to questions on his playoff performance. Jackson finished 17 of 24 for 179 yards (and the aforementioned pick) while rushing for 136 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. The normally reserved Jackson wasn’t going to mince words afterward, either—this one did mean more.

“Yeah, it means a lot, just to have the one playoff win,” he told me. “But we’re trying to chase all of it now. And we’re taking it one game at a time, always loose, always keep it going, keep staying focused, keep being locked in.”

The nice thing is he’ll get to do it now, with one less question to answer.

***

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LOOKING AHEAD TO THE DIVISIONAL ROUND

Here’s your divisional playoff lineup, with one story line for each game.

Rams at Packers, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, Fox This one’s easy—Rams coach Sean McVay facing off with his old offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, with the winner sitting one win away from making it three straight years of a Washington 2010 to 13 alumnus representing the NFC as a Super Bowl head coach.

“It won’t be weird,” McVay said to me Saturday night, before the matchup was set. “It’s a blessing, man. I’ve already texted him. I mean, that’s one of my closest friends in this world. So champagne problems. We’ll have the opportunity to compete against one another, for us to be able to do that in the divisional round, if that’s what holds true, it’ll be a great opportunity. But I told Matt, I said, You’ve done such a great job, man. The record speaks for itself. We’ll go compete to the best of our ability. But I love Matt. He’s like a brother to me.”

And by the way, McVay says it’s no surprise seeing LaFleur doing this.

“I’m not surprised,” he continued. “Because he’s such a great coach, when you pair him up with great players like Aaron [Rodgers], like DaVante [Adams], like [David] Bakhtiari, some of their offensive linemen. You’ve got a great staff in place with guys like Nate Hackett. I just think Matt’s got a great mind. He’s always had such a great thought process to the game. Great communicator. He’s such a good person, too, that he’s always real and authentic. I’m not surprised. I’m happy. And if we get a chance to compete against one another, it’ll be fun. But to see one of your best friends do as well as he’s done, you’re nothing but happy for your guy. And I love connecting with him. If we have to go against one another, it’ll be fun if it’s in the playoffs.”

Ravens at Bills, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC. Jackson shook off two years of playoff ghosts on Sunday, Josh Allen shrugged away his own bad postseason memories from last year and now two guys who’ve been questioned fairly consistently—and have emerged as the top two quarterbacks to come out of the 2018 draft class—will go head-to-head in Western New York in January.

And to add another layer to it, you’ve got another pair of former staffmates facing one another. Harbaugh and Sean McDermott served together under Andy Reid in Philly from 1999 to 2007.

Browns at Chiefs, Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET. There aren’t a ton of obvious connections here (save for Kareem Hunt’s first return to Arrowhead)—although Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, who should be back for this one, did get his NFL start as an Eagles intern under Andy Reid, before going with Brad Childress to Minnesota. So how about an under-the-radar one?

The Chiefs struggled mightily for three-plus quarters in last year’s Super Bowl, before Patrick Mahomes threw his cape on. And the Niners’ pass-game coordinator on defense was …. Joe Woods, who’s now the Browns’ defensive coordinator. Woods should be getting corners Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson back too, so maybe the matchup Mahomes is facing will get more interesting than people might think.

Buccaneers at Saints, Sunday 6:40 p.m. ET. No need to overcomplicate this one—we have a historic quarterback matchup here. Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who are first and second in league history in passing yards and touchdowns, will lock horns for the ninth time. Brees carries a 5–3 edge, in a ledger going back 21 years.

10/2/99: Michigan 38, Purdue 12
9/29/02: Chargers 21, Patriots 14
10/2/05: Chargers 41, Patriots 17
11/30/09: Saints 38, Patriots 17
10/13/13: Patriots 30, Saints 27
9/17/17: Patriots 36, Saints 20
9/13/20: Saints 34, Buccaneers 23
11/8/20: Saints 38, Buccaneers 3

Because I’m obligated to point something mind-blowing about this out, here you go: Brady’s right tackle, Tristan Wirfs, was eight months old for that 1999 Michigan-Purdue game.

***

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BROWNS OVERCOME A VERY 2020 KIND OF WEEK

If you wanted scenes that typified the 2020 season, you got plenty in the locker room after the Browns’ 48–37 win in Pittsburgh. Pass-game coordinator Chad O’Shea was holding his phone up in the crowd, with Kevin Stefanski FaceTimed in and getting a look at the scene. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was doing the same with Olivier Vernon, with the non-COVID-shelved edge-rusher (he's out with a ruptured Achilles) getting to see what Cleveland winning its first playoff game in 25 years looked like.

And afterward, as players boarded buses to head to the airport, coaches exited the stadium into black cars that would bring them back to Cleveland separate from the team.

This was a weird week for the Browns, no doubt about it. But for those in Pittsburgh, every quirk was worth managing and each unusual hurdle worth clearing for what went down over three hours against an archrival. Cleveland was up 28–0 before you could blink. And by the time the Steelers woke up and started battling back, it was apparent the Browns weren’t going to quit fighting them off.

The result was something counterintuitive—the team that had its practice week ripped to shreds and a sizable percentage of its coaching staff sidelined was the one that looked way more prepared, motivated and ready Sunday night at Heinz Field.

“A weird year, but [the last two days were] a return to normalcy for us,” center J.C. Tretter told me as he left the stadium. “Obviously at the beginning of the week, we were just trying to make sure we had everything under control, and that we were safe to get back to the building, safe to get back to work. So the last couple days, we traveled a little bit different, did some things different, but it was nice to get back to what we usually do and get back out there on Friday at practice, have our normal Saturday walk-through and do all those things.

“That was honestly nice for us.”

Still, it wasn’t normal, and it’ll be quite the story to tell when we all look back at how the Browns scored their first playoff win in a generation—the last one had Bill Belichick beating the Patriots on New Year’s Day 1995.

Cleveland’s continued COVID-19 issues, as Tretter said, basically eliminated the team’s work week, with Friday being the only practice day (the Browns got out there late afternoon). It was then, too, that coaches were informed that they’d have to drive individually to Pittsburgh on Saturday for the Sunday game, with the team offering car service if they wanted to leave the actual driving to someone else.

So the coaching staff got on the road around 4 p.m. on Saturday, and most of the guys got to the hotel around 6 p.m. ET, a little bit before the players—who were able to space out better on the two jets the team charters, with the coaches driving (which was the idea)—arrived. From there, everyone had grab-and-go dinners, and there was a virtual team meeting at 9 p.m. ET, with everyone patched in from their hotel rooms.

All of this led into the Browns’ biggest game in 18 years, and if there was any thought that all this would erupt in their faces, that idea was dispelled quickly. In fact, Tretter felt like, personally, he might’ve been more ready to go given the extra rest he got.

“I definitely think so,” he said. “This late in the season, you can’t never practice. You’ve got to get out there, get reps and keep your body right to avoid soft tissue injuries. But I think you’ve seen it a couple times, guys going into games fresher after a little bit of a layoff and play a little faster. I think we came out fast.”

There was no question about that. The Browns scored on the first play from scrimmage, with a bad snap sailing past Ben Roethlisberger and Cleveland’s Karl Joseph's pouncing on it in the end zone after both Roethlisberger and James Conner bizarrely failed to cover it near the goal line. That made it 7–0, and was just the first of four first-quarter touchdowns, with M.J. Stewart and Sheldrick Redwine picks of Roethlisberger setting up two more.

There was a legit offensive drive in there, too, with Nick Chubb's tearing off runs of 20 and 17 yards to kickstart a six-play, 65-yard march to the end zone.

By the end of the first quarter, it was 28–0. The Browns had four touchdowns. The Steelers had four first downs. And as much fight as the Steelers showed from there, the game really was won in that first 15 minutes.

“We just came out ready to play,” Tretter said. “And I think it all varies between the guys. I know some guys want to practice and want the reps, that’s the way they learn. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all, and you should never practice or anything like that. But I think for some guys it’s an advantage. It lets their bodies heal up and get fresher, almost like a mini-bye week. It’s one of those things. You start fast, and that’s just what you have to do in this kind of environment.”

Which sounds pretty matter of fact for a win that was anything but that for a franchise that hasn’t come out of this weekend alive in a very long time.

But part of that is, weird as this year’s been, this particular Browns team has become accustomed to firsts. And even if it may come off as routine in how they’re talking about it, deep down, these guy know that playing in Cleveland, there’s more to winning these sorts of games than there is in other places, even if the hope is to make it increasingly normal.

“These opportunities aren’t guaranteed and sometimes don’t come for a long time,” Tretter said. “I think that’s what guys have noticed for years now. The fans of Cleveland have been yearning for this moment and for these games. For everybody involved, it’s exciting to kind of live in the moment and realize that for the fans, this has been a long time coming. For players, it’s been a long time coming. And these are the exciting ones. These are the ones you always remember.

“So this was just really special game. There’s more work to do, though.”

But first, there was the matter of everyone getting home, which, for those coaches going back up I-76, provided another reminder that this is a year like no other.

***

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SILENCE OF THE RAMS

We use the word culture a lot in discussing coaches and general managers, and how you build a successful program in the NFL. You want to know how it’s defined? There was a good example out in Los Angeles this week.

On Tuesday, Rams coach Sean McVay opened prep for Saturday’s wild-card game in Seattle with some news for his players: John Wolford would be the starting quarterback.

He did it because he wanted his players to have the best shot to be ready for the Seahawks and, just generally, to be up front with them about the plan for the days ahead. But there was risk that came along with it, too, because the coach wanted no part of Pete Carroll & Co. on the opposing sideline knowing exactly who to prepare for.

“I told them, ‘Our starting quarterback had thumb surgery, and [highlighted] the confidence we have in John, and said Jared is hopefully going to be ready and available if needed,’” McVay said from his cell, headed for the airport Saturday. “I told the whole team. And for it not to get out? Really, the only way it got out was in the production meeting, I’d told a couple people just leading up to it, I didn’t want anyone to know until before kickoff. For it to [stay in-house] is a real credit to the caliber of people we have in our building, and our players and coaches.

“I think it’s a good example of what’s right.”

In the end, you may think, since Wolford got hurt and Jared Goff played most of the game anyway, it didn’t matter.

But to McVay, that would be missing the point entirely. In fact, that second quarterback switch only emphasized what he was trying to say: Rams 30, Seahawks 20 was really about that sort of thing completely, because as he saw it, what would compel a player to keep a juicy piece of information quiet would also help draw everyone together when, say, the team’s quarterback or goes down. Or the best defensive player in the sport, Aaron Donald, is declared out in the third quarter.

So yes, L.A. losing Wolford, then Donald, and still winning with all the force of a schoolyard bully was, as much as anything else, about culture—which is really just a whole bunch of guys being bought in and on the same page. And McVay didn’t have to reach too deep to find examples of it from Saturday’s win.

The ability to adjust in midstream. Wolford got hurt less than 10 minutes into the game, with the Rams finishing their second possession, about to go up 3–0. And in came Goff, who’s no run threat, and had his ability to throw severely hampered by the three screws he had implanted in his thumb. Yet, somehow, the Rams rushed for 164 yards on a defense that had to know what was coming, which allowed for nearly 34 minutes of possession.

“The key was being able to be physical up front,” McVay said. “Cam Akers was really the star of the game, in terms of offensively just being able to be strong, get sturdy, just get tough yards, being able to control possessions. He made his plays. I thought the biggest play of the game in terms of momentum, one of the bigger plays, was the checkdown where Jared moved in the pocket, found Cam for a big, explosive play on a third-down-and-long.”

That one came right after the Seahawks pulled to within 13–10—on D.K. Metcalf’s 51-yard touchdown catch—in the second quarter. It was third-and-nine from the Rams’ 26. Momentum was swinging. Goff found Akers, Akers picked up 44 yards, and two Akers runs later it was 20–10. The Seahawks didn’t get any closer than down seven points for the rest of the afternoon.

The ability to lean on depth. Donald went down fewer than five minutes into the second half, and he’d been an absolute game-wrecker to that point, registering two sacks while consistently creating general havoc in the Seattle backfield. And somehow, from that point forward, the Rams had three more sacks, four tackles for losses and six quarterback hits.

McVay credited a collective effort for that—D-linemen Michael Brockers, Morgan Fox, Sebastian Joseph-Day, A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines, and their position coach Eric Henderson (“He’s a special coach,” McVay said)—and the depth that’s been built.

“It says a lot about the depth of the team,” he said. “The mental fortitude. The resilience. I was just so impressed. These guys had a great feeling all week. Any time that Aaron goes out, I mean he’s the best in the world at what he does. But the guys picked up the slack.”

Making the biggest plays. McVay cited Akers’s big-gainer on a checkdown as the game’s biggest play. The reality is that one had competition from both the L.A. defense and special teams: Darious Williams’s pick-six was as well-timed as it gets, coming in the aftermath of the Wolford injury to give the Rams breathing room in the first half, and Samson Ebukam's punching the ball loose from Seattle returner D.J. Reed in the fourth quarter effectively closed out the Seahawks. These occurrences, of course, don’t come in waves by accident.

“What Darious did was a huge momentum swing,” McVay said. “And for Sampson to be able to do that was instrumental. Both of those plays, obviously Darious scored on his, but that leads to a touchdown when Sampson forces a fumble on the punt return. For us to not have any turnovers, for us to force two, both of them lead to 14 points, that’s the difference in winning the game today.”

Depth in coaching, too. Last year around this time, having missed the playoffs for the first time as a head coach, McVay was letting coaches go and going outside the organization to find three new coordinators. After the success the Rams had over his first three years, it wasn’t the easy thing to do. But Saturday was a good example of why bringing aboard OC Kevin O’Connell and DC Brandon Staley was the right thing to do.

“One of the hardest things you have to do as a head coach is make decisions that you think are in the best interest of the team even though sometimes it’s not best for people you really care about,” McVay said. “But I’ve been really pleased with Brandon. He’s done an excellent job working in unison—he came in and he worked in collaboration with a lot of great coaches we already had in place. And so those guys have all done such a great job.

“And then really it was more just adding pieces to the puzzle. Kevin O’Connell’s come in and done a great job. I’ve loved everything that he’s been about. It’s been a really good thing, and we want to keep this thing rolling.”

***

And as a result of all this, the Fox cameras caught McVay hugging just about anyone who crossed his line of vision—which, to me, came off as his appreciation of what a win like this meant, considering all the circumstances his team faced.

“Nah, this is a fun team,” he affirmed. “There’s just something about them. You’re right, Albert. There’s a resilience, a connection. I think this year with all the bull---- this has brought, in terms of the pandemic, you really find out how close guys are. You’re not playing with fans, so you really have to bring your own energy. I think this year has given you a better appreciation for the caliber of men we have on this team and the caliber of coaches. There’s something about it that makes it feel special.”

His voice was pretty hoarse, as he said that—but it didn’t stop him from driving the point home one more time with a bigger game now on the horizon.

“That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” he said. “S---, I can’t remember the last time my voice was like this. Let’s go!”

Obviously, McVay’s excited about where he’s going next. And more than just that, he’s pretty jacked about who’s coming with him.

***

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BILLS STRIP A WIN FROM THE COLTS

Because I love these little things, I’m going to take you back to a small detail in the most controversial call of wild-card weekend.

Fourth-and-10, Bills up 27–24, Colts ball on their own 37, 50 seconds left.

At the snap, the Colts deftly pick up the Bills’ pressure, Philip Rivers drops back and finds a sliding Zach Pascal 17 yards downfield. Pascal picks himself up off the ground, and is held up by veteran safety Jordan Poyer, buying time for linebacker Matt Milano to come screaming in and punch the ball loose. The ball skips right to Bills corner Tre’Davious White, who covers it.

And that would’ve ended the game, but the call on the field was that Pascal was touched down at the Bills’ 46. Buffalo coach Sean McDermott realized it just before the Colts could get the ball snapped again, rushed to the official to call timeout and then the fun began.

Yes, the play stood on review. No, it didn’t matter. The Bills didn’t allow another first down, or for the Colts to get close enough to try a game-tying field goal, and won anyway.

But I noticed something very minute about the play in question—one that at the time seemed like a massive one (and would’ve been if the Colts found a way to score)—and that was Poyer’s approach. The officials said he was the one who touched Pascal down. Watching the play back, I could’ve sworn he actually consciously did not do that. To me, it looked like he waited to put his hand on Pascal’s back, to create a shot at the turnover.

Turns out, in what would’ve been an all-time heads-up play if it had been counted like it should’ve, that’s exactly what Poyer was doing.

“I tried to time it up. I knew he wasn’t down,” Poyer said, laughing. “So he was going to try to get up and get extra yards. And he got up, I felt like I didn’t touch him while he was on the ground. Bang-bang play in that situation. I’m sure there are games, NFL games, that are probably not going to overturn that type of call. Definitely thought it was our ball. But a tough, tough call to overturn.

“But yeah, I knew he was going to get up. Even the way he caught the ball, I felt like we had an opportunity to try to punch it out.”

So after McDermott rushed the timeout to the line judge, getting the game stopped just before the snap, Poyer made his way over to an official to see what he thought, with the play being run back on the Bills Stadium boards.

“I was standing there and I asked him what he thought, and I mean, he was looking up at the screen and was like, ‘It’s almost like you touched him when he was down,’“ Poyer said. “I had no doubt in my mind that it was our ball. Especially talking to that ref, the way he saw it on the [screen], too, he thought it was our ball. But they discussed it for a long time. I think with the time it took to discuss it, it was probably not going to be our ball.”

And it wasn’t. But that attention to detail would continue to serve the Bills well.

Four snaps later, it was time to close the Colts out, and it was lost on no one that the last time the Bills had lost a game, it was seven weeks ago in a similar sort of spot. So even with the feeling that the game should’ve been closed out minutes earlier, the Bills stayed locked in on closing things out for real—and making sure no Hail Murray sequel was written.

“Everybody just gets it,” Poyer said. “It’s just another opportunity for us to go out there and finish the game. Nobody panicked. We’ve got a great, resilient group of guys. Lot of great leaders on our team. Lot of great leaders on our defense. So when we’re put in those situations, nobody panics.”

Plus, there was retribution to be had, after six straight blowouts denied the Bills a chance to get another Hail Mary rep to atone with.

“Hell yeah. Of course,” Poyer said. “[DeAndre Hopkins] Mossed guys like me, Tre’Davious and Micah [Hyde]. We think of ourselves as the leaders on the team. So we just held ourselves accountable and said that was unacceptable, we moved forward and we were able to learn from those mistakes. Came back and showed it today.”

Along those lines, they showed more than just that on Saturday. The Bills also beat back a comeback (led by Buffalo comeback legend Frank Reich) from a game Colts team, and got Sean McDermott his first playoff win as coach, Josh Allen his first playoff win as quarterback and the franchise its first playoff win in a quarter-century.

And now, they’ve got bigger fish to fry.

“This is a resilient group of guys,” Poyer said. “Great group of guys that play well together, man. Nothing fazes us. It’s cool to have all these records broken and ‘first team since’—you know? But those aren’t our goals. Obviously our long-term goal is to win the Super Bowl. So obviously happy for the victory, happy for the city, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to continue our journey in order to win the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got three games left to do so. Why not us?”

***

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BRADY LIFTS EVERYONE

I’m ready to say this: The Bucs’ two-year, $50 million deal with quarterback Tom Brady qualifies as a roaring success for everyone involved, and that was affirmed with the win on Saturday night. The list of winners …

• Brady left New England just as the castle was crumbling. Now, he’s throwing to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate and Scotty Miller, instead of Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Ryan Izzo. You hear people saying he’s playing better than he has in a while? This is why.

• Bruce Arians avoided having to either move forward with Jameis Winston or start over at quarterback. The Bucs’ backup plan if Brady had chosen the Chargers would’ve been Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater’s fine, but the difference between him and Winston likely would’ve been minimal either way. Which means at 68, without Brady, he’d have been in no man’s land at quarterback.

• GM Jason Licht has built a really nice roster over the last half-decade, but that was obscured by the miss on Winston—and missing on a quarterback can lead guys to lose their jobs. In this case, finding a way to land Brady didn’t just put the seventh-year GM in position to stick around, it also highlighted a nice number of things he got right over the last few years.

• Mike Evans, now in his seventh season and signed through 2023, went from playing for a shot to get into the playoffs to playing for championships. Nice tradeoff for a star locked into a place for the balance of his prime.

• Chris Godwin’s about to get really rich, and playing with Brady has most certainly helped.

• Antonio Brown got back in the league.

• A host of coaches—OC Byron Leftwich, DC Todd Bowles, even LBs coach Larry Foote—are now on the NFL head coach radar. Being on national TV in relevant games consistently is a big part of that.

And as for the Bucs franchise, the team had gone 13 years without a playoff berth, and 18 without a win, and played in a postseason game on Saturday where winning seemed to be a formality. Brady threw for 381 yards, Leonard Fournette rushed for 93, and Evans, Godwin, Cam Brate and Brown took turns burning the Washington defense.

When it was over, it was just sort of over. No celebration to mark the end of that run of playoff futility, which means, in just 10 months’ time, Brady’s gotten that franchise to collectively act like it’s been there before, even if it hasn’t been in a long, long time.

The truth’s right there for you. The Bucs have come a long way, and a 43-year-old quarterback is why and how.

***

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TEN TAKEAWAYS

The Colts could really kick things into overdrive with an aggressive move for a quarterback—and give Philip Rivers one last hurrah. Indy GM Chris Ballard wasn’t in Kansas City for the move up to get Patrick Mahomes, but he was there for all the build-up to it, having taken the Colts job three months before the 2017 draft. And right now, he is where the Chiefs were that offseason. He’s put a playoff foundation in place and he’s drafted exceptionally well, all of which gives the Colts the same sort of flexibility to get aggressive and move up the board for a quarterback three months from now. The genius in the Chiefs’ approach then is obvious now, and has been crystal clear in Kansas City over much of the four years since the Mahomes draft.

1) In having Alex Smith aboard from 2013 to 17, the Chiefs never had to force the issue and reach for a quarterback they weren’t wild about. Had Andy Reid decided in 2013 that he had to draft his quarterback that year? The top five quarterbacks taken were E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib. The 2014 class had Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater as first-rounders. Smith gave Reid the freedom and flexibility to wait and pick his spot.

2) By not taking one right away, the Chiefs were able to build the roster up first, so a young quarterback wouldn’t be piloting a rebuild, which is what so many young quarterbacks are asked to do. In Patrick Mahomes’s first year starting, he had Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz as his tackles, Mitch Morse as his center, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins as his receivers, Travis Kelce as his tight end and Kareem Hunt as his tailback. None of those guys were there before Reid got there.

3) Having all those pieces in place made it so Reid and then-GM John Dorsey could feel comfortable trading a three and the following year’s one to jump 17 spots and swipe Mahomes from the waiting arms of Sean Payton, whose Saints were poised to take him with the 11th pick. (If your roster’s not built up that way, it makes it harder to trade for a quarterback, because you’re necessarily making the situation he’s walking into worse.)

4) Hanging onto Smith for the extra year allowed the Chiefs the shot to develop Mahomes for a year and have him learn from Smith before handing him the reins.

So how does this relate to the Colts? Well, Indy’s built a playoff foundation, like K.C. had, with top-end young pieces everywhere, creating a good situation for a quarterback to enter into. They didn’t have to force the issue last year, which allowed them to trade for another big cornerstone in DeForest Buckner. And now, because they have cornerstones, they don’t need, say, their 2022 first-round pick the same way other teams might. Which, I think, sets Indy up to go take a swing at getting a Justin Fields or Zach Wilson. I’m not sure if they’ll do it or not. But I think it’d make sense, and you could even pair the kid with Rivers for a year to set up a smooth Smith/Mahomes-style transition. And then, I think the Colts would really take off, given all the promise we’ve already seen, which was on display again with a very solid effort in Western New York on Saturday.

Nick Caserio’s the right guy for Houston. I know that’s not what people down there want to hear right now—they’ve watched seven years of the team trying to adapt what the Patriots do in another place, and it’s understandable where this may feel like Cal McNair just trying to run it back one more time. Also, there’s no question this whole thing was sloppy. It had been communicated they weren’t going down the Patriot road again, and a search firm was hired to turn over new rocks. That search firm, Korn Ferry, discussed the idea of tapping John Dorsey as GM, which would’ve lined up with QB Deshaun Watson (more on him in a minute) wanting the team to take a look at Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy. When the Dorsey idea died on the vine, Korn Ferry advocated for Steelers exec Omar Khan on the GM side and Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus on the coaching side. And then, word got to McNair that Caserio had knocked his interview out of the park in Carolina, EVP Jack Easterby reentered the picture and, to the shock of many there, the Caserio hire was fast-tracked. A mess? Yup, that handling of all this was a mess. But that does not mean that the Texans didn’t get it right. Caserio’s smart as a whip, and has experience in every facet of a football operation. He was the Patriots’ receivers coach in 2007, the year Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth were acquired, and the New England offense exploded. He worked on both the scouting and coaching sides before that. He took Scott Pioli’s place in 2009, and since has been charged with negotiating trades and contracts, while staying true to his football roots (he’s even remained on the offensive headset during games). Make no mistake, there’s a reason why he was so sought after the last few years, and one bad season and a few shaky drafts doesn’t change that. Houston did well to land him, even if it stepped on a lot of rakes before getting there.

Caserio should involve Watson in the coaching search. That doesn’t mean, by the way, letting Watson pick the next guy, which is not something Watson ever asked to do. It does mean treating him like an important piece of the Texans’ future, which he is. Here’s the thing: This whole fiasco is of Houston’s own doing. The team didn’t have to tell Watson he’d be involved. They did. Then, they consulted with him right up until they got close to making a hire, and once they got close to making a hire, Watson’s involvement ended. A candidate he’d discussed with them, Bieniemy, was out of the picture. Caserio was in it, as was Easterby. So it’s easy to see why Watson’s upset here. Anyone in that scenario would probably feel like they were being patronized and lied to, and the truth is that the team would’ve been better off not involving Watson at all than letting this go the way it did. Which has left a flaming bag of you-know-what on Caserio’s doorstep as he starts his new job. The answer going forward is pretty simple. Whether it’s Bills OC Brian Daboll, Rams DC Brandon Staley or someone else, just do your best to keep Watson updated. Let him know he’s valued. It’s not that hard, and if it had been done before, this mess would’ve been avoided before the Texans got to this very weird place with their most important player.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the Panthers make more than one hire in the coming weeks. The GM search, as I see it, could go one of two ways. Either they’ll make a move on a Matt Rhule–connected scouting type like New Orleans’s Jeff Ireland or San Francisco’s Adam Peters (I’m told John Elway put in a strong word for Peters with Carolina owner David Tepper), or they’ll go the analytics-centered route and hire Cleveland’s Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. If they choose the latter path, don’t be shocked if an assistant GM–type of hire follows. One name to watch would be Chiefs assistant director of player personnel Ryan Poles—he interviewed for the Panthers GM job, and it’s not far-fetched to think that Carolina could pair him and director of player personnel Pat Stewart with Adofo-Mensah. Regardless of which path is chosen, this much is clear: Tepper wants diversity of skill set in his new, more modern personnel operation. It’ll be interesting to see what that all looks like six months from now.

I think people are looking at the Broncos GM job the wrong way. I don’t believe this will be a GM Lite situation with John Elway hovering over everything—which was a concern even of the candidates themselves when the search started last week. My understanding is that Elway really does view the GM hire as the final piece of his Broncos legacy. The landscape there can illustrate it. Elway’s going into the last year of his contract. The team was planning to put off big-box decisions on Elway and coach Vic Fangio until after next year, with the hope that Brittany Bowlen, who’s been groomed to take over, will have become controlling owner by then. Elway, seeing this, and having turned 60, looked at that and, to his credit, understood the awkward situation that could come. So instead of there being any sort of weird transition with a new owner appointed, he took the pressure off everyone in the organization and gave himself the chance to help pick his successor. And so whether he hits on one of the hot candidates (George Paton, Terry Fontenot) or brings home a familiar face (Dave Ziegler, Champ Kelly), he’ll get to add a final chapter to a Broncos book that has him leading the team to its first two titles on the field and a third championship off it.

Doug Pederson’s status in Philly bears watching—and it relates to staffing. There’s no question that Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is unhappy with the state of affairs in his football operation. And it’s been an open secret in the league that Pederson was likely going to have to make major staff changes (read: new coordinators) to get to 2021. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz got ahead of the process in stepping aside last week. And the Eagles don’t have an offensive coordinator in title, but the expectation coming out of the 4–11–1 campaign has been that Pederson would need to find one, and try to fix, once and for all, his issues staffing that side of the ball. Really, this goes back to OC Frank Reich leaving for Indy and QBs coach John DeFilippo leaving for Minnesota after the championship season of 2017. Pederson first promoted receivers coach Mike Groh to OC to replace Reich, Carson Walch to replace Groh, and Press Taylor to replace DeFilippo; then, after Groh and Walch were fired, Taylor became pass-game coordinator, with ex-Denver OC Rich Scangarello coming aboard as an offensive assistant. After all that, and three full seasons, it’s apparent the losses of Reich and DeFilippo are still being felt (Scangarello just got shown the door, too). Can Pederson show Lurie that’s being fixed? His ability to looms large now. There were subtle signs in December that Pederson was worried for his job. Turns out, he had reason to be.

Ron Rivera deserves a ton of credit. And to show that, I thought it was worth putting in perspective what Rivera was saddled with in his first year as Washington’s head coach.

• Being frontman for a process of renaming the team that was, at times, pretty sloppy, through no fault of Rivera’s. The name—removed after being deemed a racial slur, amid our nation’s social reckoning—had been with the team for 87 seasons.

• Serving as the face of the franchise through a slew of Washington Post reports that first painted the team’s workplace as highly toxic toward women, then implicated owner Dan Snyder directly. Snyder didn’t speak publicly on the matter, leaving Rivera in the weird position of having to answer for some pretty horrific things that predated his arrival in D.C.

• Contracting squamous cell cancer in August. Rivera had to manage it throughout the year. Early on, that meant taking an IV at halftime of games. Later in the season, he told me he still needed to take naps before night games to conserve energy. He wound up coaching all 16 games, plus Saturday’s playoff game.

• Guiding the team through a tumultuous quarterback situation, that went from former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins starring on opening day, to Haskins’s benching a month later, to Kyle Allen going in and getting hurt, to Alex Smith’s miraculous return to the starting lineup, to Smith's getting hurt again, to Haskins's reentering the lineup, to Haskins's blowing that chance both on and off the field, to Haskins's being cut, to Smith's going back in and getting hurt again, to Taylor Heinecke's being the guy on Saturday … I think that covers it.

Add all of that together—and yes, I know that winning the NFC East this year was like being the tallest gymnast—and the fact that Rivera got the team to 7–9, and into the playoffs, is pretty incredible. We’ll see what happens with ownership. But between Rivera and new team president Jason Wright, there’s plenty of reason for people in Washington to be optimistic on the future.

Lots of eyes are on Urban Meyer, and they should be. This is a pretty big deal for the Jaguars franchise, and the individuals involved (Trevor Lawrence included). As we’ve told you, Meyer’s been working on staff. Friday night’s meeting in Florida was not the first between the team and Meyer, and communication has been ongoing for over a month. Yes, some of Meyer’s old coaching friends—ex-Texas coach Charlie Strong, ex-Rutgers coach Chris Ash and current Colorado State coach Steve Addazi were among the names I’d heard connected to the ex-Florida and Ohio State coach and Jacksonville over the last couple of weeks—are in the mix. Just as important is the support staff, which serves Meyer’s holistic approach to building a program. And, to me, and some people I’ve talked to the last couple of weeks, there’s one question hovering over Meyer right now: If not now, then when? The Jaguars have …

• The quarterback lined up, in Lawrence.

• A ton of draft capital (multiple picks in the first, second, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds).

• The most cap space in the league for 2021.

• Patient ownership.

• A city where Meyer is comfortable, that gives him a chance to repair his UF legacy.

So again … if he doesn’t jump at this chance, is that it for him? Meyer will turn 57 in July. His health issues are well-documented and real. His kids are grown. If he doesn’t take this one, then is that it for him as a coach? It’s a heavy question for someone like Meyer, who’s obviously elite at what he’s spent his life doing, to answer. Which, I think, is why when you ask those who know him best what they think he’ll do, right now, you’re getting a collective shrug.

NFL teams are kicking the tires on college coaches. Obviously we have Meyer and the Jaguars. And my understanding is the Lions, Jets, Falcons and Chargers have at least explored hiring from the college ranks. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll have a single college coach land in one of the six open spots. But it is at least interesting that five of the six teams looking for head coaches are kicking the tires on guys at the college level, and I think it speaks to three things. One, college concepts and ideas have absolutely trickled up to the pros, blurring the lines between the two levels and making the transition up or down easier. Two, more college coaches, with NIL and the one-time transfer rule coming, are at least willing to take their NFL curiosities to another level, with the complications of their current jobs growing. And three, there isn’t overwhelming excitement over the current crop of NFL candidates, leading to more owners trying to think outside the box. Again, I think there’s a good chance that none of these guys wind up making the leap. But I do think opportunity will continue to be there into the future for guys like Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Stanford’s David Shaw and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell (along with big fish like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Ohio State’s Ryan Day).

There was a lot to see over the weekend! So here are my quicker hitting thoughts from the Saturday and Sunday action …

• Jonathan Taylor (21 carries, 78 yards) and Michael Pittman (five catches, 90 yards) look like they have a shot to be long-term thoroughbreds for Indy at the skill positions.

• Bills rookie Gabriel Davis’s toe-tap magic on Saturday was just another sign of promise in a year full of it from him. Amazing that Bills GM Brandon Beane dealt away a first-rounder for Stefon Diggs and still got a real nice add in the draft at the position (and with the 128th pick!).

• Despite the result, I love the Seahawks safety situation going forward with Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs, and Marquise Blair coming back from injury next year. Pete Carroll is gonna have a shot to get very creative with those guys in 2021.

• Jalen Ramsey brings a lot of noise with him, but man is he fun to watch when he’s matched up with someone who can run with him athletically, like D.K. Metcalf can.

• Chris Godwin’s about to become a very wealthy man.

• Taylor Heinecke deserves a ton of credit, as does, as we said above, Ron Rivera. But leave some for Washington OC Scott Turner, too. He went into this year without a left tackle, with projects and retreads at running back, a converted QB at tight end, and that’s before getting to the quarterback situation. Norv Turner’s son acquitted himself well in his first shot as an OC.

• Similar to (but different from) Metcalf vs. Ramsey, Marlon Humphrey vs. A.J. Brown was competitive as hell, and between two players who are models for what their teams want in all players.

• Ravens DC Wink Martindale can take a bow—his unit allowed just three points over the last three quarters in Nashville, and limited Derrick Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries, and Ryan Tannehill to his third-lowest passer rating of the year (83.0). I don’t think it was lost on him either that he has had zero teams put in to interview him for head-coaching jobs while Titans OC Arthur Smith, his counterpart Sunday, got requests from all six with openings.

• After how Saints RB Alvin Kamara and the whole Browns team played Sunday, you’ll probably hear a lot about the importance (or lack thereof) of practice. And I’m not even kidding.

• Some hard decisions are to come in Chicago. The first might be on GM Ryan Pace. After that, the obvious big one is on the quarterback position. And these things are complex, because they relate to a core that’s still strong, but is starting to age a bit.

• As for the Steelers, they have to, at the very least, work on the 2021 draft quarterbacks as if they don’t have one going forward. That means going through all the paces with each of the top ones. Ben Roethlisberger might have a good year left in him. But they can’t disregard the future at the position, because that future is coming quick.

***

Ohio State QB Justin Fields runs during the playoff semifinal

SIX FROM SATURDAY

The CFP Championship is here (and I’ll be there!), so I figured it’d make sense to use our weekly draft space on two programs that have accounted for 20% of the NFL’s first-round picks over the last five draft cycles. You read that right: From 2016 to ‘20, Ohio State and Alabama have produced 31 of the 120 first-rounders to enter the NFL, a staggering statistic that illustrates the level at which these bluebloods are operating.

This year, predictably, there’ll be more, which is why I felt like it’d nice to give you a list of the six guys taking the Hard Rock Stadium field that’ll go highest in April’s draft, in order.

1) Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: Whether he’s the second or third quarterback taken may be a bit less certain than it seemed two months ago—thanks to the ascension of BYU’s Zach Wilson and some bumps in his own year—but Fields still shapes up as most likely to go in the top five of anyone on either of these teams, with a ceiling of second overall. He’s got everything you want in a quarterback, and he showed in New Orleans he’s pretty tough too.

2) DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: I’ll be honest, as ridiculous as Smith is, and he’s ridiculous, I hesitated a beat to put him here, just because I know how NFL teams are about comps—and just two receivers that weren’t at least 6' 1" and 200 pounds went in the top 10 the last decade. That they were John Ross and Tavon Austin only further gave me pause. But in the end, Smith is such a good player, a sort of Marvin Harrison type of talent, I can’t bet against him landing safely in the top 10.

3) Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: This is who I would’ve had second if it wasn’t for Smith’s Heisman season—and Surtain’s likely going in the top half of the first round. The doubts I’ve heard about him center on how fast he really is, so testing will be important for him come spring. Everything else you’d want in a corner is there.

4) Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: And I can say this here—I think Waddle could go in front of Smith, depending on a team’s desires. Waddle’s back from a broken ankle Monday night and, regardless of how that goes, he is, in the words of one NFC personnel executive, “fast fast.” Which is why his comp is Tyreek Hill. Remember, very few people thought Waddle’s old teammate Henry Ruggs would go in front of another Tide receiver, Jerry Jeudy, and he did because he too was fast fast.

5) Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: This makes three wide receivers in the top five on this list, and impressive underclassmen Garrett Wilson and John Metchie aren’t eligible for this list because they’re not draft-eligible—this matchup is loaded with top-shelf receiver talent. Olave’s been incredibly consistent, and productive in all areas of the field, since the end of his freshman year. Plus, word is he’ll run a 4.3.

6) Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: This was a tough call. I initially had Tide OT Alex Leatherwood here—a collegiate left tackle who might have to flip to the right side in the pros. I thought about Alabama’s Najee Harris, who’s top-shelf but at a devalued position (running back). And I’m not positive Jones will go in the first round. But in the end, it makes sense to put the quarterback here just based on how the draft works.

Honorable mentions: Harris and Leatherwood both have a shot at going first round—Harris’s fate may lie in how fast he tests, and Leatherwood’s in teams’ feelings on what position he projects to (left tackle, right tackle or guard). … Ohio State interior linemen Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers aren’t far off from this group. Each will probably go on Day 2, and maybe early on Day 2. … And there are a host of Ohio State players in that prospective Day 2 group, with defensive tackles Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai, linebacker Pete Warner, running back Trey Sermon and even tight end Jeremy Ruckert potentially in that Round 2–3 mix. … Corner Shaun Wade likely is, too, as a really inconsistent year probably knocked him out of the first round (though a good night against Smith could help his cause). … And keep an eye on Tide defensive tackle Christian Barmore. There are questions about his football character, but he’s a big-time talent. And while NFL teams expect the redshirt sophomore to return for a fourth year in Tuscaloosa, the 6' 5", 310-pounder is on their radar, given his immense upside.

***

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

This is pretty great: (left to right) Tampa’s Lori Locust, Washington’s Jennifer King and Tampa’s Maral Javadifar in Landover before making history. Saturday night’s NFC wild-card game was the first in NFL playoff history to have women on both coaching staffs.

My thoughts exactly.

You won’t find anyone who’s worked with Philip Rivers who doesn’t love the guy. And this video shows why. If this is it for him, and he said postgame he’d either return to Indy or retire, then he’s had a heck of a career.

This is a good explanation of what Chase Young meant in saying he wanted Brady. Good for him for not backing down. This is what you want in your defensive leader.

… To build on my earlier point.

… And this was fun too.

This is what happens when they can’t go to the stadium.

This further proves that point. (S/O to NESN’s Doug Kyed for the epic follow-up.)

Rough … but the best tweet of the weekend, hands down.

Important context: Wilde tweeted this on Saturday.

Mitch’s Octopus Quest has been an inspiration for us all.

Pretty good.

After the year they’ve had at quarterback, this was interesting to listen to.

Not gonna lie, Master was on fire this weekend.

Kevin’s not just the Tweet King, he’s also a top sport coat review man.

Here’s a story line I missed above—the John Dorsey Bowl.

Good on Sean for following through on his promise!

It was a weird call. I didn’t realize how unusual it was.

Not bad.

Whatever it takes?

Love the logo coverage.

Agreed.

This was … a strict interpretation of the offensive pass interference rule.

I, for one, can’t wait for Allen vs. Jackson, and think both guys deserve a ton of credit for working through the flaws in their games—flaws that were much scrutinized—to get here.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

I had to pass this story along to wrap the weekend up, because it is truly incredible.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the NFL’s annual My Cause My Cleats campaign—players, coaches and staff are encouraged during a designated weekend every year to wear shoes themed for a cause close to them on game day. And every year, the shoes go up for auction afterward to support the causes, generating a ton of money to be put to good use.

You probably aren’t familiar with Berj Najarian. His title with the Patriots is director of football head coach administration, and he’s served, in essence, as Bill Belichick’s chief of staff over the last 20 years. And this year, he’s very publicly thrown his support behind relief efforts in Armenia, a war-torn country that was the target of a string of drone strikes this fall, which has taken him out of his behind-the-scenes comfort zone.

He’s become active on social media, and done stories to get the word out, and My Cause My Cleats was a part of that. And then it became a remarkable part of it. Thanks to his own efforts, and the efforts of Patriots players to help—Najarian’s passion to help Armenia became part of the Patriots’ social justice discussions in the spring and summer, and Cam Newton wore Najarian’s shoes around his neck in a postgame interview after beating the Chargers in L.A.—momentum built on nflauction.com for the cause.

With a few hours left in the auction, last Wednesday, Najarian got an email from the league showing that his shoes had a bid of $15,900 on them. With the note came this list of all-time rankings for MCMC bids:

1. Tom Brady in 2017: $31.025K

2. Brady in 2018: $30.05K

3. Brady in 2019: $20.2K

4. Berj in 2020: Currently at $15.9K**

5. Patrick Mahomes in 2018: $14.3K

Which was pretty cool begin with. And then, for one reason or another, the ball really started rolling. And a few hours later, the auction closed with a winning bid of $40,300, easily outdistancing any other MCMC bid ever.

Cool deal for Najarian, whose grandfather was an Armenian immigrant and is of Armenian descent on both sides of his family, and cool too to see how word of mouth can still make something like this happen.