Early last week, Kyle Shanahan had his video director, Michael Bracken, pull coaches tape of the 1994 NFC title game between the 49ers and Cowboys. Shanahan was 15 for that one, a freshman in high school, and his dad was the Niners’ offensive coordinator. He figured he’d have time, at some point, to check it out before his own team played Dallas on Sunday. That time came on Thursday night, after he’d had trouble getting to sleep.
He got out of bed, went to his home office, and there were Troy Aikman and Steve Young on the screen, like he was a teenager again.
“I just wanted to watch that game for fun,” he said, early Sunday night from Dallas. “And I was just watching it, and it was just so cool because I haven’t watched that old of tape like that. And watching Michael Irvin and Deion [Sanders] just going at it one on one, watching all the players, there were so many. I was kinda having my own nostalgic moment just watching it.
“But there were so many clips that were cool in it, that I wanted to show the guys the next day.”
So right then and there, Shanahan hatched his own impromptu project, picking 10 plays from that game to cut up, with a very pointed message to go with the clips.
On Friday, he delivered that message.
“These guys were my heroes growing up,” Shanahan continued. “And I go, ‘The crazy thing is when I look back at it, all these guys are you guys’ age.’ I didn’t realize that at the time, but it was these playoff games that made these guys heroes to people and inspired everybody. And I was just like, ‘Guys, that’s what Sunday is for you. Deion and Michael, they were probably 25 at that time, just like you guys are. Ricky Watters wasn’t even in San Fran that many years, but what he did in the playoffs is why you see him at every event. That’s why he’s in the Niners’ Hall of Fame.’
“And even though those guys don’t know the rivalry, this is what the moment’s about. Our guys definitely understood the moment.”
Now, Niners 23, Cowboys 17 may have lacked the aesthetic flair, and stakes, that the ‘94 Niners’ win had. It didn’t have a play quite like Eric Davis’s pick-six to open the game, or a dramatic touchdown like Jerry Rice’s 28-yarder to make it 31–14 with eight seconds left in the first half. But that doesn’t mean the message stemming from Shanahan’s spur of the moment midnight film session didn’t wind up getting through.
In fact, if you saw the Niners gut Sunday out, it sure looked like they heard it loud and clear.
It’s the playoffs! And we’re down to nine teams alive now, with one game left in wild-card weekend. To sort through all of it, in this week’s MMQB column, we’re bringing you …
• An in-depth look at the Bills’ big night in Orchard Park.
• An idea on where the Bucs stand, in relation to where they were last year.
• A peek at how the Bengals changed the narrative and connected with their city.
• Notes from the coaching carousel.
… and a lot more from around the league.
But we’re starting with the game of the weekend, which stoked an old rivalry that had been dormant for decades.
Shanahan didn’t flat-out put it this way to me, but it was easy to sense in talking to him: He wanted to share those memories of his with the team because he really likes the group he has. And he thought they could handle the idea that there were big implications that would come along with this particular edition of the Niners-Cowboys rivalry.
“We got some special guys,” he said. “Everyone talks about how physical we play. And that’s just because our guys, that’s how they play football individually. And then you put a bunch of them together and you kind of feed off each other. And it’s kind of what our guys expect to do all the time, in terms of how physical they play, how hard they go.
“Whether you’re watching Deebo [Samuel] with the ball, whether you’re watching Elijah [Mitchell], whether you watch [Brandon] Aiyuk, whether you watch [Jauan] Jennings, whether you watch Jeff Wilson, I mean they’re all just … it’s every play. It doesn’t matter if it’s the second play of the game or the last one when we’re trying to move the chains.”
And from the start on Sunday, that edge was apparent.
The Niners marched 75 yards on seven plays right out of the gate, reaching the end zone without facing so much as a third down. By early in the second quarter, it was 13–0, and it looked like Shanahan’s crew was on the verge of blowing the game with the third-seeded Cowboys wide open.
But as we said earlier, this one wound up being no Picasso. Dallas swung back, and stayed in play, down just 16–7 at the half, only to see the Niners start to pull away again. One of a number of costly Cowboys penalties, this one a block-in-the-back with seven minutes left in the third quarter, erased an eight-yard gain on first-and-10 and eventually led to a second-and-28, on which K’Waun Williams picked off Dak Prescott at the Cowboys’ 26.
On the next play, Samuel took a sweep right and cut it all the way back against the grain, finding a seam and exploding past two defenders for a 26-yard score that made it 23–7.
“I actually had a play call, and Deebo ran by me and said, ‘Kyle!’” Shanahan said. “And I looked at him, and he was too far away from me to hear him, but he was mouthing something to me. And I had a pretty good idea of what it was: ‘Please give me the ball’ in whatever way he would say it. I know Deebo’s as real of a guy as I’ve ever been around, and when he says he’s ready for the moment, he is. So just watching him there, I was like, ‘Alright, what play should we give Deebo the ball on?’
“And we chose that play, and I’ve just never seen it cut back like that, that type of run. We ran that a number of times. I’ve seen a number of people do it. But I’ve never seen it hit that way, so I’m excited to see it on the plane, see how it goes. Deebo finds a way, and when he does hit it right, there’s no arm tackles or anything taking him down.”
Just as Samuel had let Shanahan know he was ready for that moment, the first three quarters showed everyone the physical, edgy Niners were ready for theirs.
But they’d be seriously challenged to set that in stone in the fourth.
As quick as the pick-and-score sequence seemed to put the game out of the reach, Dallas found a way to climb back. And it was actually yet another penalty by the Cowboys that sparked them. A sack, followed by an illegal shift, put the hosts in second-and-25 in the third quarter’s final minute, and it was in that situation that Prescott made his biggest throw of the game, with his team’s season on the line, a 24-yard rope down the seam to Cedrick Wilson. Later on the drive, a fake punt throw by Bryan Anger got Dallas in scoring range.
That one led to a field goal, and an ugly Jimmy Garoppolo pick to follow—he airmailed one over Trent Sherfield’s head and into the arms of Anthony Brown—gave the Cowboys the ball at the 49ers’ 28. Five plays later, Prescott took the ball in himself in a scramble situation on third-and-goal, with the five-yard touchdown cutting the deficit to 23–17.
And it was there, with 7:57 left, where Shanahan’s faith in his quarterback was going to be tested. The coach responded by throwing the ball on the first snap. Garoppolo wound up deftly avoiding a sack and picking up a yard on that one, then converted a third-and-4 to get a drive going.
“Jimmy’s been unbelievable this year,” Shanahan said. “And I really think when Jimmy’s been healthy and he’s played, he’s playing how he always has, which is more like a top quarterback. I think people are a little unfair with him, but Jimmy, he’s the same guy regardless. I mean, I’ve known him for five years, and he’s always the same guy and the guys really fight for him.
“He did throw that pick, but the ball got away from him. It did. It wasn’t a bad decision, just got away from him. And I’ve been down that road with Jimmy. … When he throws a pick, it doesn’t change him. He’s gonna still be the same, and that’s why I always have the confidence to keep going back with him and just try to call what’s right.”
Two more Dallas penalties (we’ll get to those later in the column) moved the chains on crucial third downs to come, and because of it the Cowboys had just 2:42 left when they got the ball back on their own 16.
Really, this is where the toughness Shanahan touted in his team had to show up. The defense, at that point, had lost its two best players—Nick Bosa and Fred Warner (Warner would come back at the very end)—and on the drive’s second play gave up a 38-yard catch-and-run to Dalton Schultz. That put the ball at the Niners’ 46, and that was effectively it for the possession.
Backup D-linemen Kevin Givens and Charles Omenihu combined for a one-yard sack on first down. And three plays later, on fourth-and-11, an aggressive blitz call sprung safety Jimmie Ward free to get in Prescott’s face, and force him from the pocket and into a throw that didn’t come close to getting to its intended target, Wilson.
“When you lose Fred, it’s the middle of your whole coverage. And then you lose your best pass rusher, one of the best pass rushers in the league, it is a little discouraging, but guys just stepped up,” Shanahan said. “And then there at the end, I mean getting to that fourth down, [coordinator] DeMeco [Ryans] calling that all-out blitz, someone’s gonna come free on that so you gotta have good coverage and you gotta hit it right.
“Jimmie was the one who did it, didn’t hesitate and did an awesome job.”
And with less than two minutes to go, that seemed to effectively put the Cowboys away.
Twice on the final Niners possession, Shanahan thought his team had closed the door. First, on Samuel’s bullish 10-yard charge up the right sideline on a reverse—it was called a first down on the field, then overturned. And then, when Garoppolo dove through the line on a sneak for the first down on the resulting fourth-and-inches, only to realize he hadn’t given left tackle Trent Williams enough time to line up.
Ultimately, the Cowboys found a way to create more drama down the stretch, getting to the Niners’ 41 with 14 seconds left. That’s where Mike McCarthy’s ill-fated quarterback draw call picked up 16 yards, and basically ended the game, with Prescott unable to get the offense lined up to spike the ball before the clock hit zero.
“I knew that was gonna be tough with how far that they had to go. …. But the very ending of that game was tight,” Shanahan said. “How close Deebo’s [run] was, I thought it was over then because we’re going to be able to take a knee. I felt real confident Jimmy would get the sneak, but then not letting Trent get set, that didn’t count so we couldn’t get the sneak. I was nervous because I knew that was a real good quarterback with some real good players with him. You give them too many chances and usually it doesn’t end right.
“But our defense was awesome all day. They stepped it up huge. K’Waun’s pick was unbelievable. I’m just real proud of everybody.”
So, improbably, after losing Bosa and Warner, and after Garoppolo threw that pick and fought through it, and the Cowboys rallied, the Niners did just enough to survive and advance. And that put this team that was 3–5 at one point, and 8–7 with flagging playoff hopes at another, into the divisional round.
They’ll get the Packers next, and it’s a quick turnaround—that one will be Saturday at Lambeau.
For the time being, though? Like Shanahan told them they would, now, guys like Samuel, Garoppolo and Williams have some Cowboys-49ers stories of their own. But the best story of all, to those in the building, is the more complete one, with all the steps it took to get here.
“I wouldn’t take any of it back, because the struggle we’ve gone through this whole year is what’s made us who we are,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I was extremely proud of our 10–7 record. You lose seven games, and you just look at it that way and that’s not something that you’re that excited about. But I was extremely proud of ours because the struggle we had gone through is really what made our team what it is. And that’s why I think we were a much better team the second half, because of what we went through.
It makes you battle-tested, it allows you to get stronger and get closer. When you do that, I think it gives you a chance to do something special. I’m just glad we got in this tournament in that last game, and the guys did an awesome job today. Now it’s on to Green Bay.”
And another chance for all of these guys to be remembered.
THE BILLS’ BIG NIGHT
In case you were wondering, yes, Sean McDermott was cold.
The Bills’ boss may be in his fifth year living in Western New York, but he’ll be the first to tell you—nothing, not even other kinds of cold, can really prepare a coach to walk the sideline for three hours in single-digit temps with the wind chill falling well below zero. In fact, McDermott didn’t even make it through pregame unscathed.
“Hey, I’ve never in my life worn a ski mask coaching a football game,” McDermott said late Saturday night, from his office at the stadium after thawing out. “Yeah, just … I went out there in warmups thinking, I feel like I’m pretty good, let me just test it with my baseball cap. And nah, like I had to have somebody bring a hat out for me, because I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it back in with two ears still intact by the end of warmups.
“Man, I’m serious. … I did start out with a baseball cap, and that wasn’t happening.”
In terms of wild conditions in Orchard Park, there was only one other Bills game this year that came close to comparing—and that was Buffalo’s Week 13 windstorm Monday-nighter against New England.
Safe to say, McDermott felt a lot warmer inside after this one.
It wasn’t just that the Bills beat the Patriots, either. They’d already avenged that Dec. 6 loss to their rivals by winning going away at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 26. No, this was more about how Buffalo’s 47–17 thumping of New England went down. To summarize it? McDermott went back into bowels of Highmark Stadium after warmups, found his ski mask and didn’t have another problem nearly as big the rest of the night.
And where the weather slowed the Bills down six weeks ago, nothing was going to on Saturday. The players, of course, had heard all of it—before Dec. 26 that the Patriots had broken them, and after it how the weather would play right into New England’s hands again—and resolved to leave no doubt on who the AFC East’s big dog is.
Yet, true to form, when it was over, McDermott insisted that there wasn’t any seeing that coming, and that no one should analyze it to be more than it was. Which, at the very least, was a damn good night.
“Nah, I think that’s an outlier, Albert,” McDermott said. “Whether it’s a playoff game or regular season game, it’s hard to win like that, and those are ... I mean, yeah, we did some things right, and there’s certainly a lot to work on. It doesn’t show, but there’s certainly a lot there that we need to get better at.”
I’m not a coach. But I think you’d have to go pretty deep into the All-22 to find those things.
What’s easier is just to look at the facts here:
• The Bills outgained the Patriots 482 to 305.
• The Bills had 29 first downs to the Patriots’ 20.
• The Bills averaged 8.9 yards per play.
• The Bills rushed for 174 yards, and 6.0 yards per carry.
• The Bills won the turnover battle 2–0.
• The Bills’ quarterback, Josh, Allen, posted a 157.6 passer rating.
And the wild thing is if you look at the numbers from just a little earlier, before the Patriots tacked on some garbage time yardage, it was even more lopsided.
All of which adds up to a conclusion I don’t think you’d have been able to make at any point previous to this one, over the five seasons that McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have run the team: The Bills looked like the best team in football this weekend. Now, flashing that and sustaining it are two different things, of course.
But this didn’t happen overnight. The Bills have been building to this, really, since that Monday night, with a core group that, while still young, has been together for a while. The week after that loss to the Patriots, the Bills came back from a 24–3 deficit to force overtime in Tampa, then won four straight games by double-digits (including the aforementioned Week 16 win in Foxboro) to win the East again and finish 11–6.
And even if older vets like Micah Hyde (Hyde said to me last week, “We remember the way we were treated and the questions that were being asked and how everyone wrote us off, and … we turned it into a positive thing”) and Jordan Poyer have drawn motivation from it, what the coach has seen from his guys in the month and a half since is simpler than that.
“I think we just kept trying to improve as a football team, really,” McDermott said. “I believe in that wholeheartedly, and that’s what we got to continue to do this week, in particular, is continue to improve as a football team. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve seen. … A lot of people looked at it like that was the turning point, but I just think it’s a culmination of a lot of just, continuing to get better and guys being focused.
“We’re executing at a higher level in all three phases. I think we’re playing more physical, and we’re playing just better, overall team ball. It’s not fancy, I know, just better at our overall team-complementary football.”
McDermott’s right, of course. The biggest flaw the Bills had the first three months of the season is that against good teams, they couldn’t run or stop the run, and that was highlighted in a very big way in the inclement conditions of Dec. 26. This time around, they nearly doubled-up the Patriots in rushing yards (174 to 89), and choked out New England’s running game (33 first-half yards) when the game was still in any semblance of doubt.
So yes, they got better. But the guys that they expected to be good all along were even better on this night, too—and that starts with the quarterback those guys drafted four years ago. It’d be hard to describe how unstoppable Allen looked to someone who didn’t watch the game. The numbers (21-of-25, 308 yards, 5 TDs, 66 yards rushing) were off the charts, just 0.7 points off a perfect passer rating.
And somehow, they don’t fully tell the story of plays like his defense-demoralizing 26-yard run on the fourth snap of the game, or his will-breaking 46-yard downfield dart to Stefon Diggs, or the 34-yard touchdown throw to Emmanuel Sanders on his sixth play of the second half (which followed an offensive pass interference call that could’ve broken momentum), which effectively ended the game.
“It’s really the result of his week,” McDermott told me. “He had a good week of preparation. He was just in a good spot. And he came out and executed, and he led the offense with that same level of execution, so I think that’s what you saw there.”
Of course, Allen wasn’t the only one. McDermott even made a point of throwing praise to the team’s equipment director for getting everyone outfitted right for the conditions—“Our equipment staff, led by Jeff Mazurek, did a phenomenal job being out in front of it. And then, I know during the week, our strength and conditioning, medical staff, sports science staff and probably some others that, I wasn’t in the meeting. But they put their collective minds together and made sure that everyone was well-prepared.”
The coach’s larger point? This really was a night five years in the making, and set up by a lot of people who’ve built to the kind of performance that should allow for Bills fans to dream as big as they have since Jim Kelly was the quarterback.
“This goes back to even before we arrived, Brandon and myself,” McDermott said. “The way the roster’s constructed now, this team’s had a hard time beating New England, and rightfully so. They’ve been at the top of the league for so long. Coach Belichick does such a good job in so many ways, as I told you after the [Dec. 26] game—he challenges coaches around the league to up their game.
“And so we’re just taking ’em one game at a time here. And we were on our game tonight.”
And on a night during which the Bills clearly wanted to leave no doubt, there really was zero questioning that.
The Buccaneers are a different group than they were last year. And it’s mostly because they’re not as healthy as they were in 2020. Most of the secondary spent a good chunk of the season on the shelf. Tom Brady’s skill group has been nicked up. Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown missed most of October and November, before Brown went off the reservation altogether, and Chris Godwin tore his ACL. And while it hasn’t been perfect, through all of it, the Bucs have mostly been able to keep the train on the tracks, even if that has meant having a late-season launching point like they did last year.
“It’s different,” 10th-year linebacker Lavonte David told me after Sunday’s win over the Eagles. “When you get in the groove with certain guys, and then that guy’s out through injury, you got to be able to adjust. And we were able to do that, for the most part, throughout the year. Had a next-man-up mentality. It’s football. Injuries are expected, you know? So unfortunately, our team took a bulk of them, but we had guys step up and get us to this point.
“We may have a young guy coming in who may not have played a lot of football in the NFL. But you got veteran guys to keep them calm and help ’em out when he needs to be helped, whoever he may be. And you come in, and then you got guys that’s counting on you. That’s the main thing. We hold guys accountable. We got a certain standard here, and whenever your name is called, you gotta step up and make plays.”
The standard was, for the most part, adhered to on Sunday. The Bucs treated the seventh-seeded Eagles like what they would’ve been under the old format—a team staying home for the playoffs—in exploding to a 31–0 lead and cruising to a 31–15 win.
And it did look a little different, to be sure. Without Godwin and Brown, and facing a defense geared up to slow down Gronk, the Bucs had to lean on Mike Evans more (nine catches, 117 yards, TD) and spread the ball around otherwise (nine different guys had catches). With Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones down, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Gio Bernard combined for 30 carries and 97 yards. Conversely, the defense got David back (“Nobody’s really healthy at this point, but my best is all I can do right now”), was as close to full-strength as it’s been in a long time and held Philly to 179 yards and zero points through three quarters.
But to David, looking at his return, or who was in and who was out, would be missing the point he and his teammates have been trying to drive home all year, on that standard.
“It’s just a mentality that we gotta uphold when we come, whenever you put on that pewter and red,” he said. “When you step on the field, you give your all when you out there. Gotta go 100%, gotta finish plays, gotta run to the football, you gotta communicate, you gotta do whatever’s needed. … That’s just exactly how we approach every day at practice. Whoever’s in there, somebody catches a pass on them, everybody’s like, ‘Hey, that’s not it, that’s not what we’re trying to do. Be competitive, compete for it.’”
So with the defense close to full strength, the focus for that will go to an offense that leaned on receivers Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller and Breshad Perriman for snaps, the aforementioned tailbacks for balance and, as the game went on, depth along the line with heart-and-soul center Ryan Jensen and All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs hurt in-game.
And that offense was good enough for Brady to be his efficient self on Sunday, for the Bucs to advance and for David, who’s been the Bucs’ leader for longer than most of his teammates have been in the league, to say, “we definitely got that dawg mentality” and “we all know what we’re capable of.”
But it wasn’t quite to the point where he was ready to say the team’s hit the sort of stride it did at this time last year—mostly because it didn’t finish the way he’d hoped against Philly.
“I’m going to give you a hard no right there, because we did want the shutout,” he said. “We didn’t finish the game at that point. We had them where we wanted, but we had a lull in the defense, and that’s not the standard. That lull, we didn’t do what we needed. We had a great game plan going, but we kind of fell off a little bit. So we definitely, obviously got chewed out over that. Because our standard is different, especially around this time of year.”
And, of course, combine that with the guy at quarterback who now has 35 playoff wins, and even if they aren’t quite the same as they were last year, the Bucs bring plenty for everyone else to respect.
The Bengals’ connection to their city is showing up. Zac Taylor’s ride home from work takes him past a place called the Mount Lookout Tavern, and every night over the last three years he had this picture in his head of what it might look like after a monumental Bengals win—and he visualized the idea of doing something over there when it happened. Saturday, finally, the idea came to life.
The occasion was the Bengals’ first playoff win in 31 years. Cincinnati wound up outlasting the Raiders 26–19 on Saturday afternoon, and shortly thereafter, Taylor hit up punter Kevin Huber, who lives in his neighborhood, with the idea to go deliver a game ball to the fans at that bar, starting what he hopes is a new tradition in his adopted home city.
“It was what I pictured,” Taylor told me Sunday morning. “It was packed. It was a good scene. People obviously had been there for a while, having a good time, which is what I was hoping for. So it was fun to be able to share that with those people.”
This is a different time in Southwest Ohio.
Maybe all the scars of lost seasons over the last three decades aren’t gone, but behind Joe Burrow there’s absolutely a belief that wasn’t there before. And it showed up in the biggest moments on Saturday night—and on plays Burrow wasn’t even involved in. Two of them in particular, both made by the defense, and both after the defensive line lost star end Trey Hendrickson and veteran tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Mike Daniels for the game.
The first was a third-and-3, with 3:42 left and the score 26–16. On the play, Bengals DE Sam Hubbard got in a passing lane, and Derek Carr doinked the ball off his head. The second was a fourth-and-goal from the Bengals’ 9, with the score 26–19 and 17 seconds left. Germaine Pratt stepped in front of Zay Jones there and picked off Carr and end the game.
In both situations, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo leaned on his players, rather than some scheme to get the job done—giving them a call they knew so they could play fast.
“[On third-and-3], we were in one of our base red zone calls that we’ve been practicing,” Anarumo said. “I wanted to make sure in that situation, we didn’t do anything that was game-plan specific. I wanted one of our core calls that we’ve used all the way back to OTAs. And that was one of them. It was the same thing, to be honest, on the fourth down where Germaine intercepted the ball. It’s something we’ve been practicing back since OTA 1, the first red zone install.
“In those big situations, I wanted to make sure our guys knew exactly what they had to do. And if they beat us, they beat us. But they weren’t going to beat us because we made a mistake.”
On the first one, Anarumo explained, the Bengals only rushed three, and bracketed both Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, while flooding the underneath area, which led to hesitation from Carr (and the throw into Hubbard’s helmet). On the second one, Anarumo explained, it was the freedom the call gave Pratt to read the quarterback’s eyes, which helped lead him to the ball.
And in both spots, the Bengals’ renewed belief was also a factor. As Anarumo sees it, the way Burrow’s carries himself has rubbed off on everyone. “I just don’t think he knows how to lose,” Anarumo said. “He was born to be a winner.”
The proof now is in Burrow’s becoming the first Bengals quarterback to win in the playoffs since Boomer Esiason beat the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1991 postseason (the infamous Bo Jackson game). And it was also in the connection Burrow, Taylor and the Bengals are growing with the city now, too, something that was evident to Taylor himself in that bar on Saturday night.
Three years ago, when the Bengals’ job came open, he told anyone who’d listen that Cincinnati was where he wanted to be, even after spending just a year there, back in 2016, as the Univ. of Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. When he landed the job, he and his family even found a place in their old neighborhood to buy. And it’s been everything he imagined.
“There’s literally nowhere I’d rather be,” he said. “And that’s just, for me, I love working here. My wife loves living here. Our kids love their friends and their school, and it’s kind of amazing how this all transpired. We were here in 2016, and then of all the places I get an opportunity to go coach, it’s right back at the city that we really loved as much as anywhere we’ve ever lived. So really special to be able to enjoy this with everybody.”
If the Bengals keep this up, it’s good bet that Taylor will be welcome to stay a while.
The Chiefs are still the Chiefs. And next Sunday’s going to be fun. It’s very difficult to be the type of team, at the NFL level, that can just flip a switch. But just like they did a couple of years ago against the Texans in the divisional playoffs, and even later that year against the Titans and Niners, the Chiefs showed again on Sunday night that they are very much that team, even if living that way can be dangerous.
Kansas City’s 42–21 win over the Steelers didn’t even seem that close, and that’s because Mahomes spent two quarters going NBA Jam on Pittsburgh’s defense. Here’s proof …
Mahomes through one quarter: 6-of-12, 45 yards, INT
Mahomes thereafter (following T.J. Watt’s second-quarter TD): 24-of-27, 359 yards, 5 TDs.
Now, the Steelers’ defense isn’t what it once was. But those numbers would be good on air in a Wednesday practice.
“We came back with energy,” Mahomes told NBC postgame. “That first quarter, we were playing tentative. It started with me. I think when we got to that second quarter, we kind of got back to who we are. And hopefully we can keep this momentum going to next week.”
The Chiefs are now where they envisioned they’d be. After undergoing a fairly radical makeover, with an infusion of young on both offense (Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith) and defense (L’Jarius Sneed, Willie Gay, Nick Bolton), in an effort to build something sustainable to the realities of Mahomes’s big contract, the team is coalescing again, with a defense-infused midseason winning streak having bought the offense time to find this sort of stride.
So we get as good a divisional round game as you could hope for—with the high-powered Bills set to go shot for shot with Kansas City next week. This will be the second straight year the two have met in the playoffs, and the chances seem good that Allen vs. Mahomes is going to mean Big Game in the AFC for some time to come.
While we’re there, and before we jump into the coaching carousel, here’s the full divisional slate for next weekend:
• Bengals at Titans, 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS.
• 49ers at Packers, 8:15 p.m. ET Saturday, Fox.
• Rams/Cardinals at Buccaneers, 3 p.m. ET, NBC.
• Bills at Chiefs, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS.
The Giants need to do what they say they’re going to do. It’s no secret that New York’s first football franchise’s loyalty has, to some degree, gotten in the way in recent years—whether it was in promoting Ben McAdoo in 2016, or going back to Dave Gettleman in ’18, or just in how the operation works day to day. Bottom line, most people who’ve been there, and left, have felt there have too many lifetime job appointments handed out, and that the place needs more than the half-measure clean-outs it’s gotten since Tom Coughlin was fired six years ago.
That brings us to where the team is now. What GM candidates are hearing isn’t much different than what ex-coach Joe Judge or others have heard coming into the organization. That the owners, John Mara and Steve Tisch, know that patience will be needed, the roster needs work, and that it’ll take time to truly turn the page and create a new organizational culture. So at this point, if you’re a GM candidate, can you trust that? I think it’s a very fair question.
To me, the Giants are where the 49ers were in 2017. Jed York had just fired his coach for a third straight year. Finally, GM Trent Baalke was going with the coach. And York had the self-awareness to understand that he’d have to convince the best candidates that they wouldn’t wind up like Jim Tomsula or Chip Kelly. He struck out on Sean McVay, came very close to hiring Josh McDaniels and Nick Caserio, then ultimately wound up going with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch—and did it by giving both six-year deals, after Shanahan recommended Lynch to be his GM. Those two were tied at the hip, worked through a 10–22 stretch their first two years, fought through a quarterback injury in Year 2 and made it to the Super Bowl in Year 3. Now, has the whole thing been perfect? No, it hasn’t. But the Niners are light years ahead of where they were five years ago, because the owner and his top lieutenants were honest with themselves about where they stood and what needed to be done.
So we can argue now about whether Judge (or Pat Shurmur or McAdoo) deserved more runway. But what can’t be argued is that this vicious cycle needs to be broken. The offensive line still needs to be fixed. Decisions have to be made over the next couple of years on Daniel Jones. The defense, conversely, played pretty well, so there’s something to build on there. And if you look at the totality of the work ahead, one lesson that can be taken from the Judge Era is this: The Giants need to tie the coach and GM together, and lean into them to the point where it’s not those guys adapting to the so-called Giants Way, it’s those guys being allowed to shape a new way for the organization. And to do that, it’ll take Mara and Tisch being willing to throw the keys to someone else, like York did five years ago.
Speaking of time, David Culley deserved more, but the way 2021 went showed that the union between him and Texans GM Nick Caserio would never be long-term. And maybe this sounds like “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup logic, but the fact is that Caserio’s Patriot–styled, relentless attention to detail just wasn’t there in the ’22 Texans, and the feeling inside the organization, over time, grew that the job was a little too big for Culley. Two examples really left a mark on the head coach, and they came early in the year.
• Early in the second quarter of the Texans’ Week 2 game at Cleveland, on a third-and-15, Tyrod Taylor found Brandin Cooks for 13 yards. And as the ball was snapped, a flag came out—offsides on Browns DE Takk McKinley. So Culley then had the choice, either to take the 13 yards and go into fourth-and-2, or accept the penalty and attack third-and-10. Culley took the former and then punted, a decision that baffled some in the organization, without much explanation for it.
• The second example is from Week 5, and the well-known case of Caserio telling Culley over the headset to let the Patriots score. The situation: The game was tied and, after Rhamondre Stevenson was stacked up on first-and-goal from the 6, the Texans used their final timeout. That left 1:56 on the clock and New England in second-and-goal. The Patriots scored on that snap, but an illegal shift pushed the ball to the 9 with 1:52 left. From there, the math showed New England could run the clock under 20 seconds, kick a field goal to take the lead and make it nearly impossible for the Texans to come back. Culley, by calling for Houston to try to get a stop, let that happen.
Now, these could be seen as game-management growing pains that any new head coach goes through. And that’s fair, to give Culley that leeway in the moment. The problem, to me, is sort of separate from that. For a coach to match with Caserio, there was always going to have to be a detail-oriented approach in every facet of the operation—and seeing that stuff in-game was always going to be a problem for him. You remember how Judge’s third-and-long QB sneaks created a problem for him with Giants’ decision-makers? For different reasons, the above examples created a problem for Culley, and one he wouldn’t be able to overcome. And I think it’s why Caserio’s overwhelmingly likely to go get Brian Flores, Jerod Mayo or Josh McDaniels, with whom he knows he’ll be on the same page. And what’d be interesting about that? Seven of Bill Belichick’s assistant coaches have gotten a total of nine shots at being a head coach. But only once has one of those assistants been paired with an ex-Patriots exec/scout as GM, and the one time that happened (Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel in Kansas City) it lasted only a year. The closest other example would be Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, though Vrabel only played, and never coached, for Belichick. So it’ll be fascinating to see, if it comes to pass, what having both spots arranged that way will add up to in Houston.
One big domino remains in Seattle. A week ago, it was tough to predict how things would play out with GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll. Seahawks owner Jody Allen, the sister of the late Paul Allen, was, for the first time, in a position to make very difficult decisions on the team coming out of a very difficult year—easily the worst of the Carroll/Schneider era. And the lack of a real track to go off on her meant, for people in the organization, it felt like much was uncertain. As Mike Silver and Chris Mortensen said over the weekend, the Seahawks are planning to stick with their current organizational structure, but what does that mean when it comes to Russell Wilson’s future? Well, it seems clear Allen would like to find a way to have that future play out in Seattle. But maybe the best way to look at this going forward is to dive into Wilson’s approach last year, coming off a 12–4 season and a division title. At the time, he was looking at the end of his ninth season as the start of the second half of his career, and a time for him to try to set himself up for the nine years to come—both to pursue individual (all-pros, Hall of Fame) and team (championships) goals. In that pursuit, as I wrote in March, he came away with three asks.
1) A new offensive scheme to maximize his game.
2) A significant upgrade to the offensive line.
3) A larger voice in the organization.
The Seahawks hired Shane Waldron to bring in the Shanahan-McVay offense, and traded for Gabe Jackson to check the first two boxes. On the third? Well, the Seahawks took his input, and got his sign-off, on the Waldron hire, but they did maintain a line there. A year later, the offense didn’t take off as Wilson had hoped it would under Waldron, and the line still needs work with 36-year-old left tackle Duane Brown set to become a free agent. The Seahawks also don’t have a first-round pick. They’re one of the older teams in football. There’s just a lot there that screams for a rebuild.
Is there a way around that? Does Wilson have the stomach for a rebuild? Would the team be better off trading him and starting over? Would he be better off giving the team another list of destinations and actually asking for a trade this time?
These are all questions that need to be answered. Wilson’s got two years left on his contract. There’s been a feeling for a while that it’ll be his last in Seattle (though the team could franchise him in 2024). So there’s reason for everyone to consider whether this is the right time to move on. And figuring this part out early, like the Lions did last year with Matthew Stafford, would probably be best for everyone.
Black coaches are frustrated, and they have a right to be. The situations with Culley and Brian Flores made for a tough week for NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent, and mostly because a common refrain from Black coaches was given new life. “There’s always been one foundational kind of comment that you hear—they have different expectations for us to deliver,” Vincent told me on Sunday morning. “And see, everyone’s reminded, in particular the Black coach, because they go back to Coach [Tony] Dungy and Coach [Jim] Caldwell and their firings. That lives with everyone to this day, and when you fast-forward and you look at Coach Flores, and then you look at David, you just go, ‘Wow.’ Someone else can have the same exact record, or worse, and the talk is give them time to build. But then I have to go back up, I just have to just go back and just stay committed to the work that’s been put in, the commitment. And as I see our interview tracker, I’m optimistic.”
So here’s the optimistic view that Vincent can take: While it’s easy to look at the current state of the group, minus Flores and Culley, and say just one of 32 NFL coaches is Black, the more precise way to analyze it is one of 24 coaches is Black. Eight jobs remain open, so Vincent, as he said, remains optimistic. “Hey, we’re down two scores, it’s the end of the first quarter, there’s been no hires made, I’m seeing the permissions come in, the requests come in, which is a good thing,” Vincent said. “There’s been no decisions made on any coach. I got 37 total openings. Thirty-seven total openings. That’s between GM, three GMS, eight head coaches and 26 coordinators. So we’re down two scores, but I got three quarters left to play.” Here’s a little more from my talk with Vincent.
• One thing that encourages Vincent? The number of guys who are hearing their names called for interviews, in both the coach and GM arenas. “When I see Todd Bowles, I see Coach Flores, I see Leslie Frazier, I see Byron [Leftwich], I see Eric [Bieniemy], I see Jim Caldwell, I see Thomas Brown, I see Vance Joseph, I see Ran Carthon, I see Quentin Harris, I see Ryan Poles, I see Brandon Brown, Glenn Cook, I see Omar Khan, Reggie McKenzie, then O.K. As I referenced to the commissioner, three years ago I think it was, when your best is not getting an opportunity, we got problems. Whether it’s on the personnel side or on the coaching side, we saw our best not get opportunities even for an interview. That’s when you gotta reset. We’re not seeing that now.”
• The fact that a lot of these names are new is another positive, as Vincent sees it—with coaches like Rams assistant head coach Thomas Brown and scouts like Arizona’s Quentin Harris popping up for the first time, reflecting the belief that the pipeline’s only getting stronger. “You got a good mixture of wisdom and who’s the upper-comer,” he said. “That is consistent with what you’re seeing on the coaching side. The young, the innovative, the smart, so that’s encouraging. And frankly, to see Reggie McKenzie there, he was lost. How could Reggie McKenzie get lost in our system? Less than seven years ago, he was an Executive of the Year. To see him, that’s encouraging. That’s encouraging.”
• One thing Vincent mentioned on his own—there’s no quota to hit here. And he referenced the league’s social justice work over the last year and a half to explain what he’s looking for over the next couple of weeks. “When you put in all of the efforts from so many different people, the efforts just aim to eliminate bias, promote trust, develop skills and provide an opportunity. That’s the end game,” he said. “It’s not 20%, it’s not 40%, it’s not 13%. No. It’s not equating it back to the number of Blacks that play in the league. No. It’s about eliminating bias, promoting trust, developing people’s skills and providing an opportunity. That’s the goal.”
So we’ll see what teams do with the last three quarters of the 2022 carousel.
On the GM front, there are some names I’ve been surprised not to hear over the last week. It is, of course, always more difficult to discern who the best GM candidates are—it’s much easier with coaches, whose jobs are more well-defined for public consumption than those of scouts or operations people. And that’s why there are at least a few friends of the guys I’m going to list below who are frustrated not to see requests roll in on them.
• Dan Morgan, Panthers assistant GM: Morgan was a major part of building the Bills over the last few years and was in on the ground floor in building the Seattle juggernaut. He’s also an ex-Pro Bowl linebacker who’s seen the game for just about every angle.
• Ian Cunningham, Eagles assistant director of player personnel: Philly’s personnel staff has garnered plenty of interest, but Cunningham, a Ravens–raised protégé of Ozzie Newsome, somehow hasn’t been a target yet. Ask anyone in Baltimore or Philly; they’ll tell you.
• Mike Borgonzi, Chiefs assistant GM: The lack of poking around K.C. in general last week, on both the coach and GM sides, was confounding to me. Ryan Poles got deserved attention. But other than that, sniffs have been scarce—and the ex-Ivy Leaguer Borgonzi is one example of it (Brandt Tilis and Mike Kafka are a couple of others).
• Jon-Eric Sullivan, Packers director of player personnel: Ditto on the Packers. OC Nathaniel Hackett has drawn deserved interest. But past him, there hasn’t been much. Sullivan is one of a number of guys with bright futures in the organization (Chad Brinker and Luke Getsy, who did get an interview with Denver, are two others).
• Dave Ziegler, Patriots director of player personnel: Maybe he wasn’t leaving anyway. But Denver showed interest last year, and that was before Ziegler captained a blockbuster offseason to get New England back in the playoffs.
The good news? There are some really great young names (Ran Carthon, Glenn Cook, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, John Spytek) that are getting interest for the first time, and one guy who was initially going to make this list (JoJo Wooden of the Chargers) wound up getting a request from the Bears. So I do think there’s been progress, as we discussed with Vincent, in teams finding new names.
No matter what happens, the Eric Weddle story is incredible. And it’s wild hearing the story from the perspective of his agent, and one of his best friends, David Canter. Really, to get the proper background, you have to go back to the summer, when Canter was out to dinner with Weddle and his kicker client, Matt Gay, in Newport Beach, Calif., during Rams training camp; and the impression Canter and Gay took from then, and Canter took again after visiting Weddle just a couple of weeks ago.
“I can’t stress this enough—Eric Weddle was done,” Canter said. “He’s turned down radio, he’s turned down TV, he’s turned down the idea he could be the defensive version of Tony Romo, he turned down the chance to drive up to L.A. from San Diego to do NFL Network once a week. He’s done some pro personnel work for a couple teams off the books, but he really was unbelievably content being a soccer dad, and going to his house in Utah, and skiing and snowboarding. He had money, he had time, and he was happy.” So how in the world did this come to be? It’s a fun story.
• Weddle knew Rams coordinator Raheem Morris (who wasn’t there for Weddle’s one year as a Ram, in 2019) going back 14 years—to when Morris was Weddle’s position coach in the ’07 Senior Bowl. So when Morris called Weddle on Tuesday, having lost safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp, he cut right to the chase. “Are you fat and out of shape?” Morris asked, with a laugh. From there, Morris told Weddle the Rams wanted him to give a fire-drill comeback a shot.
• That night, Canter was out for an early dinner meeting. Weddle called. Canter sent him to voicemail. Weddle called again. Canter texted him that he’d call him. Weddle called again. Canter excused himself and picked up. “Coach just called,” Weddle said. “Which coach?” Canter responded. “Rah,” Weddle answered. The 37-year-old then explained. Canter asked if he’d checked with his wife. “Yeah,” Weddle said, “that’s why I’m calling you.”
• Canter called Morris, and the two laughed about how wild the whole thing was, then Canter called Rams execs Kevin Demoff and Tony Pastoors to negotiate a deal. Those talks went from about 6 p.m. ET to 10:30 p.m. or so, before Weddle, after talking with Sean McVay and Jalen Ramsey, called to shut it down. “We’re doing this,” he told Canter. “I don’t care about money.” The Rams sent Canter a practice squad contract, and Weddle made the three-hour drive, through the night, from San Diego to a hotel near the Rams facility.
• Canter got everything he needed to have ready, and had a little bit of a restless night into Wednesday morning—worried that Weddle might fail his physical or his COVID-19 test. And then, at 8 a.m. in L.A., Canter got a text from Weddle. It was to the point: “Just signed it.”
Even after that, there weren’t many guarantees on how the rest of this was going to go. But Weddle showed up and learned a defense he didn’t know, and by Thursday he was helping Ramsey run it on the back end. And he did it wearing No. 20—Ramsey’s old number, which the Rams had intentionally shelved for the year—with Ramsey’s blessing. “Weddle 2.0,” he’s joked. After seeing Weddle 2.0 move around this week, the Rams plan to elevate him from the practice squad for Monday’s game against the Cardinals.
Maybe he’ll play 10 snaps. Maybe it’ll be 40. That part’s unpredictable. But regardless, it’s remarkable to pull off what he’s in the process of pulling off, given that the extent of Weddle’s football activity this year had come helping out his 12-year-old’s tackle team.
“The Rams had the need and made the call, but that had to be a pretty tough call for them to make—it’s been however many weeks, over two years, since he’s played,” Canter said. “And then the idea that Eric’s in that kind of shape and can do it is even more surprising. He wasn’t working out for another shot; it’s just who he is, it’s his makeup. So yeah, I can’t wait to get to L.A. to see it.”
As always, we’re going to wrap this section with your quick-hitting, game-centric takeaways. So here are 10 for wild-card weekend (no, you can’t make me call it super) …
1) A great sign of the Bills’ balance and depth: Nine different players registered catches against New England (though one was OL Tommy Doyle). And Buffalo brought multiple capable slots into the game, in Cole Beasley and Isaiah McKenzie, which allowed Brian Daboll to deploy McKenzie creatively. Bottom line, there’s a lot to love about how McDermott and Beane built that roster.
2) Even wearing the shiner they took on Saturday night, the Patriots have plenty to be excited about looking forward. There’s a 23-year-old quarterback, in Mac Jones, in an offense that might be one receiver away from being really good. There’s, for the first time in a while, a nice base of young talent. But one thing, without question, that will be tricky for New England is getting younger on defense, with so many accomplished vets set to hit free agency. One thing is for sure: The Patriots need to get faster.
3) It’s hard not to notice how C.J. Uzomah has become such a trusted target for Joe Burrow, and a huge voice in the locker room (you’ve heard a lot of “Why not us?” from him). And he’s becoming that sort of homegrown former Day 3 pick (he was a fifth-rounder in 2015) who just continually gets better that great teams seem to have.
4) I know this would have sounded far-fetched three weeks ago, but if the Raiders aren’t going to take a big swing, because targets like Jim Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin are out of reach, why not stick with Rich Bisaccia in the short term? The locker room loves him. The staff is pretty good, so that would stay intact. And GM Mike Mayock, by virtue of that roster, has earned a fourth year, in my mind—and he’s always been a Bisaccia advocate. I understand the resistance to get caught in the moment. But I think it’s worth some thought.
5) The officiating in Bengals-Raiders was beyond awful. And it’s really on the league for putting Jerome Boger’s crew on that game. I shared some feedback from team folks over the weekend on what they thought about his assignment to a playoff game. Let’s just say it wasn’t all that positive.
6) It’s hard not to see the Eagles’ season as a success. Nick Sirianni was a revelation, and he’s got a strong, young staff around him. Jalen Hurts has, at least, given Philly flexibility not to have to force something reckless this offseason at quarterback. And the team has cap space and the 15th, 16th and 19th picks in the draft. Now, the Eagles do have to get younger in some key spots. But there’s no question they’ve got the resources to pull it off.
7) The combination of a club playoff record for penalties, and game-management issues at the end of Sunday’s game puts McCarthy in a weird spot coming out of the season. The Cowboys brass loves defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and the team seems to be on the precipice of losing him (he’s a leader for the Broncos’ job, and has gotten interest from just about every team with an opening). Would they shuffle things around to hang on to Quinn? We’ll see.
8) Jerry Jones’s postgame message shouldn’t be ignored, either. He clearly believes his team is in a championship window. And he’s right about that. So he may act with more urgency than he has in the past.
9) T.J. Watt’s been an absolute blast to watch this year, and that continued with Sunday’s touchdown. The Steelers’ defensive terrorizer deserves every penny of that new contract, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award he’s likely to pick up during Super Bowl week.
10) There are lots of dumbfounding Brady stats out there. Want a few? He now has 35 playoff wins. Among quarterbacks, Joe Montana is second on that list with 16. And next weekend, he’ll play in the divisional round for 17th time, with the potential to get to a 15th conference title game and 11th Super Bowl still in front of him. If he gets to the Super Bowl? He’ll have played in roughly 20% of them, despite not even being alive for the first 11. The more you look at it, these really are Babe Ruth numbers.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
With the college season over, here are six observations from the year, and for the draft cycle ahead, from the scouts who’ve been studying it …
1) One NFC general manager raised NIL and the transfer portal—and said he thinks the developments in those areas are beginning to creep into the NFL. In the past, he said, athletes would be recruited, then de-recruited by coaches (meaning they’d basically be knocked down a peg once they arrived on campus), which eventually led to tougher guys being developed. But now, he continued, college coaches have to continually “recruit” their own players (“they gotta keep kissing these kids’ asses”), for fear of losing them. “Watching Alabama, Ohio State had their stud receiver [Jameson Williams] the last two years; the corner at Clemson’s now at Georgia [Derion Kendrick]. And these are big schools—Power 5 to Power 5 moves,” said the GM. “That’s where college football is changing, and we’re starting to get more entitled players. It used to be that you got humbled at some point. Now, that never happens.” And it’s also made for a cloudier picture on some big-time names. “With the program he left, you gather information, and a lot of times, it’s gonna be negative; at the new school, where maybe he was for a year, it’s positive,” said the GM. “So what really is it?” It’s a question that’ll be asked more during this draft cycle than ever before.
2) Then, there’s the opt-out question. One NFC exec pointed to three first-round picks on his roster who chose to play in their bowl games—and their answers when asked about it predraft. All were along the lines of, “I want to play football.” And the so-called football character that reflects has shown up in each of them in the time since, with all three becoming high-end players. “I don’t blame the kid that sits out—we all saw the injury to Jameson Williams and [Matt Corral], and what happened to Jaylon Smith,” said the exec. “Those can be life-altering things. But it used to that it was only those ones inside the top 15 or 20 picks. Now, it’s a lot more than that. … So it’s just one more thing we have to ask. If a kid’s entire career, he’s shown it, then O.K. Like, if the tight end at Ohio State [Jeremy Ruckert] sat out, well, he’s been unselfish his whole career, a team player who blocks willingly, and people say he’s the toughest f---er there, O.K, he made a decision. But if a guy doesn’t have football character and then sits out, what are we getting?”
3) This one’s more of a trend thing. “You look at Jameson leaving Ohio State, and he was the fourth receiver there, and then [Chris] Olave and [Garrett] Wilson opt out of the Rose Bowl, Jaxon Smith-Njigba breaks every record and Marvin Harrison Jr. steps right in. And no one can cover them,” said an AFC exec. “Those two things show the stark difference between receiver and corner right now. You look in the third and fourth rounds last year, and see Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Josh Palmer, and Nico Collins, and all these receivers that can play. And good luck finding a corner at that point of the draft.” The overarching point should be driven home again this year. There’s no Ja’Marr Chase in 2022. But there is depth, as there has been the last few years, at receiver. And it will, again, be a challenge to find good corners in April.
4) Along those lines, and this is something I brought up last spring: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many corners coming into the league are NFL legacies. The top two corners drafted last year (Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II), and four of the top 13 taken (adding Asante Samuel Jr. and Elijah Molden) have NFL dads. This year, the presumptive top corner, LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., had an NFL grandfather. What’s the hook here? Well, with the proliferation of seven-on-seven and explosion of spread offenses at the high school level, the best athletes all want to play receiver. A dad who played in the league sees that, and realizes, because of it, there’s a better chance that a great 6' 1", 200-pound athlete can make it at corner than at receiver. Bottom line, there are a lot of wideouts who profile athletically like Horn and Surtain, but far fewer corners. It means, ultimately, a better chance to get drafted higher. And a better chance, because of the scarcity of corners in the league, to sustain NFL earning power.
5) Speaking of scarcity, it looks like there’s one at quarterback. There will be teams that don’t have a first-round grade on any of the 2022 quarterbacks, and the outlook for ’23 is still cloudy. Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud both have a shot to play their way into the upper reaches of the first round next year, but this isn’t Trevor Lawrence going into the ’20 season or even Justin Herbert going into ’19. And if cases like Spencer Rattler’s this year showed us anything, it’s that, absent the overwhelming physical talents like Lawrence and Herbert, it’s best not to make any grand proclamations this far ahead of time.
6) And looking forward to the draft, this should a fun class to track. There’s no Lawrence at quarterback. There’s no zero-doubt position player like Myles Garrett out there. That does, of course, mean this isn’t the best year to have a top-10 pick. But getting to see guys like Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Evan Neal and Stingley jockey for position over the next three months should offer plenty of intrigue to what’s always one of my favorite times of year.
And here’s one bonus: After all we’ve been through, it was so great to see college football become college football again. I’d argue it’s the sport that was most adversely affected by all the empty stadiums in 2020. So seeing all those places bring the atmosphere that defines that level of football back was fantastic. Here’s hoping we’re all the way back next fall.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
It’s hard not look at it, based on what I know, and not think that one decision led to the end of the Chris Grier/Brian Flores marriage in Miami. Similarly, in fact, to how choosing Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees led to the end of Nick Saban with the Dolphins 15 years ago.
Ryan Fitzpatrick had an awesome bond with the fans in Buffalo over his years as a Bill, so it’s cool to see him braving the elements (sort of … he is in the heated area) with all those people.
Love this. Earlier in the year, Burrow wore a T-shirt to a game with pictures of Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on it. And this presumably is Chase returning the favor.
And this is an even cooler tribute, from Emmanuel Sanders to his late former teammate Demaryius Thomas.
Just an incredible, incredible night for Allen, Daboll and everyone else associated with that team.
Those adjustments came more easily …
… when the Patriots had the Buccaneers’ quarterback.
The officiating was a story again, you say?
Congrats to Sam! Blockbuster cast in that one, that included the late, great Don Banks.
Best tweet all week.
Jacket does look warm.
We’ll get a few more big Allen-Jones showdowns down the line.
Excellent in-game use of social media by Orlovsky.
One million percent.
Good for Troy!
And this is a fair point.
Rob Gronkowski, big analytics guy.
One of those things that’s much cooler when you win—like the Texans’ letter jackets would’ve been!
Don’t get me started, Mitch!!!
If you know why I’m posting this, you follow the NFL very closely.
I saw some Philly fans getting mad that the rest of use weren’t getting more mad over this. (To be clear, it’s dumb, gutless and wrong to throw crap at players, or officials, from the stands.)
Really cool by Mama Kelce.
And J.J. is in Monday night.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
It’s the playoffs—and for the first time since the ’80s, we have a game on Monday, so that means we’re getting one last edition of the Monday Night Spotlight. To get you ready for the Rams-Cardinals MNF capper to wild-card weekend, we got Rams RB Sony Michel on the phone.
MMQB: So you started the season a Patriot and will finish it a Ram; how weird has this year been?
SM: It’s been a lot. It’s been a process. And this is, I guess you would say, this is the kind of situation you prepare for, unknowingly. And as long as you’re prepared, you would always be ready for whatever’s coming at you.
MMQB: What made you ready for being traded right before the season, then?
SM: I would just say me just sticking to who I am as a person, relying on my offseason training, which leads to confidence. Me starting off with the Patriots, and once I’m traded, I still have confidence to know, ‘O.K., I’ve trained enough to be physically ready. I just gotta go in there and be mentally prepared, and I’ll be fine.’ That’s kind of how.
MMQB: Was there anything hard about being traded that way that no one would know?
SM: I do think it’s hard. You’re changing in an instant. It’s a sudden change that you have to adapt to very quick. And I think it’s hard. And I commend guys that have been traded and are able to be successful throughout the process. I had to learn a whole new coach, a whole new system, whole new terminology, whole new way to go about things in a matter of what, a week? I got in the third preseason game and the following week it’s, we’re jumping into a season. So I had to be prepared for the first game.
MMQB: How long was it before you were really comfortable out there?
SM: I’d say it took me a while. I’m still learning. Yes, I’ve learned so much, and I’ve grown so much from when I first got here. But every day is just a new day, and I feel like I’m continuously just learning.
MMQB: Biggest difference between New England and L.A.?
SM: They’re just two completely different places, so that kind of tells it all. Just two different cities, two different organizations. They’re both great. Two different cultures, so two different teams.
MMQB: Is there something you can bring the Rams from your New England experience?
SM: I try to just stick to what I do, my routine, and hopefully some of the young guys, because we do have quite a bit of young guys on the team, can see something and maybe can grasp the information I do in some way. But I just try to stick to my routine, do what I do, and hopefully it’s successful and guys can try to lean on it.
MMQB: Your production really started to go up just six weeks or so ago with the Jaguars game, and then the Monday-nighter in Arizona. Did anything click for you then?
SM: I wouldn’t say it clicked; I would say it’s just opportunity. I got a chance to play as a starter, and I feel like I tried my best to take advantage. And every week was me just being hungry, and all I just needed was a crumb. And every week is just, I just want a crumb. I just want a little bit. And try to take advantage of that little bit, and it’s been helpful, it’s been successful so far.
MMQB: Is there anything about Sean McVay’s offense that’s made you a better player?
SM: I would say so, from the aspect of expanding my mind. I’d played in one offense for three years. And basically learning a whole new system, it helped me grow as a football player. Now, I know different variations, I can use some of the old stuff that I got and put it in my toolbox for the new stuff that I’ve learned. And I’m learning new things every day with Sean. He’s an offensive genius, I’d say. And how he goes about things, I feel like I’ve learned a lot, actually, from being here.
MMQB: What’s your relationship with Cam Akers been like?
SM: It’s great. And that’s one of my goals, to try to have great relationships with all the guys in the room, because we’re always together. We’re always competing with each other, but we’ve always gotta uplift each other. And yeah, Cam has helped with the process because he brings a different element to the game. His skill set causes other guys to raise their level of play in all different aspects. He brings good energy. He brings that fast tempo to the game that it’s like, O.K., now we gotta try to get rolling too. And that’s part of the aspect of all the running backs kind of pushing each other. And it’s been great to have him back.
MMQB: And as a guy who’s had major injuries, how impressed are you with Cam’s return?
SM: It is remarkable. It’s his commitment to trying to get back. It’s the support system that he has around him. It’s the training staff that devoted so much time and effort to his rehab and training, and everybody was committed. So it’s amazing. It’s remarkable how committed they were, and able to get him back so fast.
MMQB: How does this being the third time you guys have played the Cardinals affect things?
SM: The intensity will be up a little bit, for sure, because this is do or die. But us knowing them, them knowing us, it makes it a very competitive game. I’m sure they’re going to poke something in there that we haven’t seen, and vice versa, and I think that’s what makes this game interesting.
MMQB: You won a Super Bowl as a rookie and haven’t won a playoff game since. Do you have a better appreciation now for the opportunity in front of you?
SM: I always take the same approach. I’ve appreciated it from the first year that I played in it to the year that I didn’t play in it, to now getting another opportunity. Always appreciated it, whether I had the opportunity or didn’t. And when I didn’t, it makes the team and maybe me a little bit more hungry to try to get back to that point. I’m very fortunate to be back in this position, another opportunity to play in a playoff game.
MMQB: Have you given any thought to your future, with free agency coming?
SM: Yeah, I’ve thought about my future. But it’s hard. I would drive myself crazy trying to predict what was going to happen, so the only thing I can control is finishing off strong. And if I finish off this season strong, everything else should be able to play out for itself.
MMQB: Do you want to stay with the Rams?
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I don’t have a Hall of Fame vote, but I have hard time seeing how Ben Roethlisberger could fail to make it in on the first ballot. Why? Well …
• Two Super Bowl rings, three Super Bowl appearances.
• 18 years, zero losing seasons.
• 64,088 passing yards (fifth all-time).
• 418 touchdown passes (eighth all-time).
• Led the NFL in passing yards twice and yards per game three times.
And on top of that, he was at his best in some clutch spots—his throw to Santonio Holmes to win Super Bowl XLIII stands, as I see it, as one of the most memorable in the history of the league, both for its high degree of difficulty on both ends (throw and catch) and for all that was at stake at the time.
Now, Roethlisberger’s never been considered the most likable figure publicly, in large part because of the very serious sexual assault allegations that led to a 2010 suspension from the league. That situation, understandably, has followed him the last decade.
But on the field, his mark was made on the game. He came out of Miami (Ohio) as a big, raw, mobile gunslinger, and played that way through the Super Bowl years. It wasn’t until Todd Haley arrived in Pittsburgh in 2012 that he started to adapt his game to rely more on his receivers (he had Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders at the time), and less on running around and constantly trying to make something happen off-script.
That he pulled off the transformation from off-schedule flamethrower to old-school pocket passer as smoothly as he did was pretty impressive, and could provide a template for some of today’s quarterbacks who play off-schedule and take hits accordingly. And it sure served him well—extending his career past those of his two ballyhooed draft classmates, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning.
Now, of course, it’s worth pointing out that there has not been an official announcement on his retirement. But everything Roethlisberger said after the loss to the Chiefs pointed that way, right down to his talking about being excited about being able to focus on being a dad and a husband, and getting home to his kids to go sledding tomorrow.
“God has blessed me with an ability to throw a football, and blessed me to play in the greatest city, Pittsburgh, with the greatest fans and the greatest football team, and players. And it’s been truly a blessing,” he said in his presser. “It was meant to be that I was gonna wear black and gold. Draft day, I had a black suit on with a gold tie. I’m just so thankful. I hope that I’m able to pass the legacy of what it is to be a Steeler from Dan Rooney.”
Later, Roethlisberger added, “How lucky are we that we get to play football for a living?”
He’s gotten to do it for 18 years, and I don’t think anyone would argue against the idea that it’s time for him to walk away.
He’ll leave with a complicated legacy. But between the lines, he accomplished a lot—and plenty to have earned a new home in his home state of Ohio five years from now.