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Divisional Round Takeaways: Inside the 49ers’ Big Day Against Big D, Understanding Patriots Staff Changes

Fred Warner tells SI about how San Francisco picked off Dak Prescott twice and the Cowboys’ “very bizarre” play to end the game. And the next offensive coordinator of the Patriots is …

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I think we got a glimpse of what could happen if the clock strikes midnight on Brock Purdy for the 49ers—and I’d be relatively encouraged if I were San Francisco with the result. I’m not saying, to be clear, that the rookie quarterback played poorly against the Cowboys. Really, he didn’t. He finished 19-of-29 for 214 yards, didn’t turn the ball over and made critical throws on third-down slants to Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey on the Niners’ last scoring drive. He did his job.

But Sunday wasn’t about Purdy. The Niners scored 19 points and had only two plays of 20-plus yards. And thanks to a promise fulfilled by the San Francisco defense, that was plenty.

So how good is that defense? Good enough, it turns out, to bring home a playoff win.

San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner breaks up a pass against the Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb during their NFC divisional playoff game.

Warner was all over the field for the 49ers with nine tackles and an interception against the Cowboys.

The numbers were all there to show what happened in San Francisco’s 19–12 win over Dallas. The Niners held the Cowboys to 282 total yards, including just 76 on the ground. They picked off Dak Prescott twice in the first half. They forced three punts in the second half. And there was only one Dallas possession after the break that included more than a single first down.

“I mean we’re just trying to be the best us, honestly,” captain and middle linebacker Fred Warner told me afterward. “It’s not about comparing to the past defenses or how we’ve been in the past here. We’re just trying to be our best selves, continuing to search for improvement in all areas and being at our best when our best is needed, which is right now.”

And the way the Niners’ defense has played the past six quarters in two playoff games—allowing just 18 points—says you’re getting their best right now.

But it was, in fact, a long road here, going back to a meeting Warner, Emmanuel Moseley and Arik Armstead had with defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans during the offseason. At that point, Ryans was still working on putting the pieces together, coming off his first year as a coordinator, and so he set out to commandeer a leader from each level of his unit to set tangible goals for the year ahead.

“We all said that we wanted to be No. 1; we wanted to be the best and be the rock for this team,” Warner says. “So anything less than that is unacceptable. We did that for the most part today. It wasn’t perfect at all; I think there were things that we could’ve been better at on our side of the ball. But I think, overall, we did what was needed to win the game.”

The first thing came midway through the first quarter, on a third-and-9, with Ryans’s bringing pressure to Prescott’s left. Armstead wound up in his lap, keeping Prescott from getting his body into the throw—and forcing a floater that Deommodore Lenoir easily picked at the Cowboys’ 27 to set up the Niners’ first points (on a Robbie Gould field goal).

“The formation they came out in was a look where I think the corners knew that the ball was going to either of them—it was just a two-man route concept,” Warner says. “And I don’t know how Deommo played it. I just turned around and I saw him in position to make a play on the ball. He made a huge play in a huge moment early in the game to kind of get us going. We know we have to take the ball away to have a chance at winning. And we did that.”

And they weren’t done doing it. Prescott would throw them another one.

With the game tied at 6 and 1:24 left in the first half, Prescott looked underneath for CeeDee Lamb, and veteran Jimmie Ward saw it—quickly breaking to undercut the route. Ward got there in time to break it up (he definitely should have caught it, too), and the ball bounced right into Warner’s waiting hands.

“Jim made a huge play—huge play,” Warner says. “Kind of squatted and CeeDee was on me one-on-one and kind of worked away from my leverage, and Jimmie made a huge play. That was a big assist in that moment.”

The Niners then drove for a 50-yard Gould field goal, went up 9–6 and wouldn’t trail again.

The biggest challenge from there probably came in the fourth quarter, right after the Niners took a 16–9 lead. KaVontae Turpin returned the kickoff 44 yards to the Dallas 43 and, just like that, the Cowboys were in business. The Niners bowed up, forced a field goal and the Cowboys wouldn’t cross midfield again.

“Honestly, through the entire game, we had ultimate confidence in ourselves,” Warner says. “And it doesn’t matter where they place the ball in the field, we know we gotta go out and we gotta execute at a high level. I think all the way through we did that. We held ’em. They had that long drive in the first half, but other than that, I think we held our standard and did what we needed to do to win the game.”

And did it in a way that, assuming Purdy and the offense rebound, should make the Niners that much tougher to beat.

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Bill O'Brien could return to the Patriots as their offensive coordinator.

O'Brien is the leading candidate to become the Patriots' offensive coordinator. 

The Patriots’ offensive coordinator search marks a sea change in more ways than one. It started with an out-of-nowhere, out-of-character team statement—attributed to no one—that announced a search for a named coordinator after a year of Bill Belichick telling everyone he wasn’t big on titles, and an ongoing negotiation from an organization that never talks about contracts. And 10 days later, it looks like the end might be in sight.

The Patriots interviewed five candidates last week over Zoom for their open OC job—Bill O’Brien, Shawn Jefferson, Adrian Klemm, Keenan McCardell and Nick Caley—and there are a couple of notable things about the way the interviews went down.

• The guy negotiating the new deal that was referenced in the Patriots’ statement, Jerod Mayo, appears to have already taken steps forward in his place on the staff. Belichick had Mayo in the room as part of the OC interviews, while the rest of his staff was enjoying a week-and-a-half vacation ahead of coaching in the Shrine Game. Mayo’s new deal with the Patriots isn’t done yet, but that he’s in on such an important hire matters. Given all that, I’d say there’s a good chance Mayo will wind up with an assistant head coach title.

• O’Brien’s the leader in the clubhouse for that OC job, and that makes sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands it early this week. But he also has a relationship with Ossenfort, who could interview him for the head coaching job in Arizona, and he’s taken calls from just about every team with a coordinator opening.

• It also looks like the OC interviews here are set up to fill out the offensive staff, if O’Brien is the pick. That could mean Klemm as a line coach (he’s making nearly $1 million at Oregon), Jefferson or McCardell as receivers coach, with Caley potentially back as tight ends coach (if everyone can swallow their pride).

• What all this means for Matt Patricia and Joe Judge remains to be seen. Both are close with Belichick. The former served in a quasi-front-office role in 2021 (he even got Nick Caserio’s old office); the latter returned in ’22 on the promise of coaching offense rather than special teams. Would they accept moves back to defense and special teams? I’m really not sure they would.

So in the end, Mac Jones should have a more experienced offensive staff, and Belichick could have a designated successor in Mayo. And the Patriots would go forward with the most significant in-house shakeup since Tom Brady bolted three years ago.

The hire of Ran Carthon in Tennessee makes sense. And the reason why? The new general manager from San Francisco should be a really good fit for sixth-year head coach Mike Vrabel.

If you don’t believe me, you can take Thomas Dimitroff’s word for it. The former Falcons GM was with Vrabel—when Vrabel was still playing—for seven years in New England. He then brought Carthon into the scouting business in 2008 with the Falcons, where he’d be Carthon’s boss for five years. Carthon, of course, will replace another former Dimitroff staffer in Jon Robinson.

“I am still very confused why Jon Robinson got fired at 7–5, but that’s a different point; I get it,” Dimitroff said Friday. “With respect to Jon, I looked at this hiring. I thought, Well, this is a really good match out the gate because you have two really good football men who are very passionate about the game and very knowledgeable. One having been a player a long time, of course, and a coach now in Mike Vrabel with an acute football mind. The other, a very smart football mind having been raised in the business from the day he was born with his dad being Mo [Maurice] Carthon.”

But there’s more than just a personality match here—there’s also a tangible alignment in the systems the two have worked in.

Dimitroff brought the New England grading scale from Foxborough to Atlanta, which is where Carthon learned. Carthon then went with Les Snead, another Dimitroff protégé, to St. Louis, where they put similar nomenclature in place. So right there, Carthon has nine years of speaking the language that Robinson and Vrabel have for the past five years. And Carthon worked with Patriot alum Adam Peters in San Francisco for the past six seasons.

“It should be just a really smooth, legitimate transition because it’s not going from one scouting system/team-building system to another,” Dimitroff continued. “They speak in the same vernacular; they use the same, for the most part, grading scales. And they understand the nuances of the Patriot paradigm scouting system, which is really where it comes from.

“So that’s important.”

Carthon’s roots, too, in his dad’s days playing for Bill Parcells, have been apparent in how he’s interviewed with teams the past couple of years—the old Florida and Colts tailback believes pretty deeply in having a tough, physical team that can run the ball. And if you’ve watched two minutes of Derrick Henry highlights, you know Vrabel does, too.

“There’s no question there’s common ground,” Dimitroff said. “Not only in literally the numerical elements to the grading, but also the system itself, also the player and the person and the style of play. To me it seems like a no-brainer fit, honestly.”

Of course, Robinson and Vrabel were one, too, once upon a time.

So we’ll have to wait and see where this one goes.

The NFL’s biggest problem in expanding internationally is finding enough teams to go overseas. I spoke with the NFL’s EVP of club business and league events Peter O’Reilly the other day, and as we talked about where the league is going next, a simple word kept coming up—inventory. And to best explain how inventory has impacted everything, you can look at how the league is hosting a second game in Germany next year, with the Patriots and Chiefs slated to play home games.

It happened, sure, because the league wanted to do more over there after what a roaring success Bucs-Seahawks was in November. But it also happened, because the NFL lost a game for next year, giving it a spot to fill—Estadio Azteca in Mexico City will be unavailable because of renovations ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

That gave O’Reilly and his team the natural opening to capitalize in a market that the league probably should’ve been putting games in years ago.

“Clearly, we experienced November at Allianz Arena, and it was just tremendous,” O’Reilly said. “You could see it. We knew in the lead-up the demand was there, ticket sales, engagement, otherwise. And then the factor that made it that much more clear-eyed on the decision was when we found out officially that Estadio Azteca in Mexico City was not going to be available in 2023.”

So next year, the Titans and Bills will play home games at Tottenham, the Jaguars will be at Wembley again, and Kansas City and New England will go to Germany—with either both games being held in Frankfurt, or one in Frankfurt and one in Munich. O’Reilly added that the league likes the idea of doing the Germany games in back-to-back weeks as it has in the past with the U.K. games, but has to work around the Bundesliga and DFL schedules.

Either way, it’s exciting to see more steps being taken in a football-hungry country.

Here are a couple of other things from my conversation with O’Reilly.

• He and I discussed Spain and Brazil, and potentially France, as the NFL’s next frontiers, but those still may be a ways off. “We’re definitely talking about it now,” O’Reilly said, “and having the conversations because the work we do now will set us up for when that opportunity is real. We’ve gone out and are talking to stadiums in some of those markets you talked about. Like a Spain, like a Brazil, like a France in terms of we need to know what the stadium situation is, we tie it to the fan research we’re doing, link it to the teams who are in the IHMA [International Home Marketing Area] program are interested in doing more.” Potential host cities, I’ve heard, would be the obvious ones—Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Rio and São Paulo.

• The idea of London having a team isn’t quite dead. “I think the strategy that my predecessors built on is having the capacity in London to not only play games but potentially have a club based in London is continuing to be real,” O’Reilly said. “There are just obviously many, many factors that go into that. And it’s usually complicated. But in terms of fan capacity, stadium, multiple stadiums and governmental support, those things continue to be really strong in that market.” Logistics, O’Reilly confirmed, remain the biggest hurdle.

• The one piece of growth could be if the Jaguars decided to play another game there. Last year, for the first time, the team took control of operations for its game over there, rather than letting the league do it. And ticket sales reflect they’ve broken through on establishing a British fan base.

Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne came in for an injured Patrick Mahomes and led Kansas City on a 12-play, 98-yard scoring drive.

Henne and the other Chiefs quarterbacks mimic Mahomes and everything he does in preparation for that week's game. 

Chad Henne’s job is really interesting. Before Saturday, the 37-year-old backup quarterback had thrown just two passes in a game all year, and he hadn’t taken a first-team rep in practice since around New Year’s Day 2021. And then, he had to come in off the bench and lead a 12-play, 98-yard drive to help keep the Chiefs’ season alive, as Patrick Mahomes went to the locker room to get X-rays on what turned out to be a high-ankle sprain.

How do you get ready for that? It’s a pretty obvious question, sure, but it drew a pretty good answer out of Henne when he and I talked Sunday.

“The way I get ready is basically going through a whole routine throughout the week,” Henne says. “When Patrick’s on in practice, the quarterbacks will stand behind him, and we’ll just mimic everything he does. So, mentally, we have to make the Mike [line] calls, or go through our progression, do all the drops, and sit behind Patrick, which is definitely helpful. And then after practice, we kind of grab a couple receivers and throw the routes that were thrown in practice, just so we have the same thing that Patrick has. We’re kind of getting the same thing, even though it’s not live action.

“And then just preparation. I mean there’s a routine that I go through, writing each play down, kind of going through it even with my wife. She’ll quiz me at nights, drawing plays all the time. But that’s really how mentally I stay prepared.”

There are smaller challenges, too, along the way.

One is actually that Chiefs center Creed Humphrey is left-handed, so taking snaps as the quarterback in the shotgun is a little different—something a backup has to be acutely aware of lest he fumble the first snap that comes his way in an emergency situation. And here’s something that led to an even deeper conversation on where, uh, your hands might go.

“It’s definitely different,” Henne says. “It’s a different feel. I always felt right-handers; you can feel where they’re going to miss, but the left hand is almost exactly opposite. But that was just one of those things that I worked with Creed on the sideline, and I said, Listen, ’cause I kind of evaluate how Patrick takes the snap and I was like I’m just going to try to set my hands back. I’m usually kind of in there a little deeper, not to be weird about it.

“Patrick kind of sits back on it, so I kind of just told Creed, I’m like, Hey, I’m going to try to do it like Patrick, and you just snap it normal so you don’t have to change what you’re doing.”

The result? The snaps got off clean, the offense moved the ball, Henne did his job and the Chiefs won. And, as Tom Coughlin told Andy Reid about his old quarterback, Henne proved his worth.

On balance, Mike McCarthy did a really good job in Dallas this year. And if you want proof, we can do the blind résumé thing here, and you can pretend I didn’t tell you this would be about McCarthy. Check it out …

• Twelve wins for a second consecutive year.

• A convincing first playoff win for the team in Year 3 in charge.

• A 4–1 mark through a five-week quarterback absence.

• A successful move of a first-round rookie playing guard to left tackle to replace an injured perennial All-Pro left tackle.

• A solid staff with sought-after coordinators on both sides of the ball.

There’s no way we’d be talking about this person’s job security with this résumé if the coach in question wasn’t the coach of the Cowboys. So, yeah, I think McCarthy has earned a fourth year in Dallas, without question.

(Though I do think he could’ve at least given us an explanation on whatever the hell that was at the end of the game. I asked Warner what he thought after seeing it: “Yeah, very [bizarre]. I don’t know what, in that moment, it was. Obviously, they know that they have to kind of just toss the ball back and forth, and Jimmie [Ward] just took it into his own hands and shot his gun and took him down right away. So yeah … obviously, we found a way to win.”)

What a long season it was for that Bills team that looked, in September, like a runaway freight train. In wins over the Rams and Titans to open the season, it sure seemed undeniable that this was a Super Bowl–or-bust kind of year for Buffalo. Then, well, a lot of things happened. The team had already gone through, with its community, the Tops tragedy. After that, there were the twin blizzards that crushed Western New York and, of course, the Damar Hamlin situation earlier this month.

Add less-serious, football-related problems, such as injuries to Von Miller and Micah Hyde, and it sure seems possible that everything simply caught up with the Bills the past three weeks or so. They looked sluggish at points against New England and Miami, and nothing was working Sunday against the Bengals.

Josh Allen described his feelings this way in the press conference after the loss: “Disappointment. You play to win. Our goal was to win a Super Bowl, a world championship, and we didn’t accomplish that. So, everything that happened this season is kind of null and void in our minds. It sucks.”

The flip side of this? The Bills are still pretty young, and Allen, Stefon Diggs, Dawson Knox, Dion Dawkins, Ed Oliver and Tre’Davious White will return, and Miller and Hyde should be back, as well. There are a few pending free agents to take care of such as Tremaine Edmunds and Jordan Poyer. But the core is in place, the team will enter 2023 as the clear favorite to win the AFC East for a fourth consecutive year and, while this probably does feel worse than the way the Bills lost last year, there’s still a lot to build on here.

Even if it doesn’t seem like it right now.

The Giants have two big decisions to make that’ll chart their course for the second year of the Joe Schoen–Brian Daboll regime. Daniel Jones had career highs in passing yards, completion percentage and passer rating in 2022. Saquon Barkley hit a career high in rushing yards. Both made the playoffs for the first time. Both won in the playoffs for the first time.

The question now is whether they’ll be back in 2023.

And while I think Schoen and Daboll would love to have both guys back, one thing we’ve clearly seen is that those guys are going to be responsible about their commitments, and their spending, and so much of what happens with Jones and Barkley, as I see it, will come down to what the market is for each guy.

As it stands, and this is just me, I’d be surprised if either guy gets franchised—Jones’s number will be around $33 million and Barkley’s will be around $10 million. If they don’t get franchised, and they wind up on the market, I think those figures will probably set a nice benchmark for whether either guy ends up staying in New York. In other words, if the Giants can come in under those numbers, I think the guys could wind up staying.

At any rate, it’ll be interesting to watch, with the team now having a pretty solid core (Evan Neal, Andrew Thomas, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Xavier McKinney, etc.) to build around.

We have some quick-hitters to get you ready for Championship Week. And we have them now …

• We’ll get some more answers on Lamar Jackson at the end of February or beginning of March when the Ravens have to decide which franchise tag, exclusive or nonexclusive, to use on him. The former would cost more than $45 million and take him off the market. The latter would run the Ravens $32 million and allow other teams to try to sign him to an offer sheet.

The Brett Maher thing was so weird—how is it that he was fine on field goals but a mess on extra points?

George Kittle’s 30-yard catch was the best play of the weekend and a real difference-maker for a Niners offense that was scuffling around. San Francisco’s next four snaps? Runs of eight, five, eight and six yards, and it wound up finishing the drive with its only touchdown of the day.

• Will Carson Wentz retire? It feels like this one might go the same way as Sam Bradford’s situation did at the end.

• The Raiders have just over three weeks to agree to trade Derek Carr, or they're gonna have to cut him.

• I think Chiefs GM Brett Veach deserved more love in the Exec of the Year voting in my awards polling two weeks ago. He’s seriously turned that roster over the past two years, made it faster and younger all over the place, and did it without costing the team much at all in wins and losses.

Travis Etienne Jr.—underrated revelation of 2022. He’s a real player.

• I love Dre Greenlaw’s game.

• I still can’t believe the final play for Ezekiel Elliott, a two-time NFL rushing champion, as a Dallas Cowboy could be actually snapping a ball into that disaster.

• Over the next six days, we’re going to learn way too much about Mahomes’s ankle.

One thing you need to know

You’ll hear people outside of football say coaches sometimes have their sons working for them to try and make up for lost hours when those kids were younger. People inside of football will tell you something different, that a kid getting into the business is actually an incredibly sincere expression of love for his coaching father.

For the past 14 years, I had a front-row seat as an example of the latter. It just wasn’t in football.

For me, it was at home. When my wife and I started dating in 2009, she was climbing the ladder in fundraising as a development officer, having gone from Children’s Hospital Boston to Lucile Packard Children’s in Palo Alto and then back to Boston to work at Joslin Diabetes Center. She had a business degree from Providence.

At the same time, she was studying to go back to school, and work worse hours, make less money and do what very few 26-year-olds would do. That was the spring of 2009, and by the summer of 2010, she was enrolled in Georgetown’s nursing program. By January of ’12, she’d graduated, and was back at Children’s Boston, this time as a cardiac ICU nurse.

A lot of people would ask why she’d do that. If you knew Emily, it was obvious why she’d made those choices.

It was because of what she saw her dad do—as a firefighter, and then as a fire chief.

Em’s dad, and my father-in-law, Stephen Burkott, 70, passed away Jan. 13. It was sudden. It happened fast. We are all broken, shocked and left looking for answers.

But what’s stuck with me most is that incredible, indescribable expression of love my wife’s work was for her dad. Emily grew up in Chicopee in Western Massachusetts—the town her dad was fire chief—and I can remember telling my buddy Pete Thamel about Emily because Pete was also from that area, too. He told me that out that way in Chicopee, fire chiefs are almost like mayors, and it wouldn’t be long until I knew exactly what he meant.

Everyone knew Em’s dad because he seemed to help everyone in some way. There was this story of how he and his department had more or less rescued a restaurant called the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee. Every time my father-in-law went there after that, the story went, the manager would come out of the back to refuse to take his money. After it happened a couple times, Pops would send Em or her mom, Debbie, to pick up the takeout, because he didn’t want the attention, or to have his food comped, regardless of how much he deserved both.

That’s who he was. He always wanted to help people, and the last thing he wanted was to be recognized for it. And the stories of him helping people, without wanting anyone to know, are everywhere. I heard another one after we buried him Wednesday. During COVID, he quietly came up with the idea—amongst the credit union board he chaired—to raise money for people linked to the group that had lost their jobs. They came up with $40,000, and more with gas, and set up a secluded location where those people could pick up food, and maintain their dignity.

I wasn’t the only person who heard that story for the first time Wednesday. My mother-in-law hadn’t heard it, either—presumably because Pops wasn’t seeking pats on the back for it.

All of which is why, as I see it, being a fire chief was a calling for him.

And because it was a calling for him, it became a calling for Emily to help people, too. One thing that’s lingered for me was one of my last conversations with him, driving my oldest son, Steve—named after his grandfather and a hockey player like his grandfather—to one of his games (Big Steve loved going to Little Steve’s games). We were talking about Damar Hamlin, and I asked Pops about administering CPR, and he told me he had done it more times than he wanted to remember, just like his daughter had in her job, and that was a good reminder for me.

Being a firefighter and being a nurse are different jobs, of course, but both jobs make heroes. And going back to school, taking less money and working worse hours allowed Emily to be one, just like her dad. Which means my kids get to learn from her, just like she learned from him—and what a legacy for our family.

My kids, for that matter, got to learn from him, too, and I’m hopeful they’ll continue to take lessons from who their grandfather was as a person. In his last week, he took Steve to a hockey game at the home rink of his daughter’s alma mater, Providence, and hung out with our younger son, Drew, and daughter, Ginny, too. He also played one final round of golf—he loved golf—Tuesday. So if there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that he left with no regrets, having spent so much time with those he loved.

I maybe have one, and that’s that I didn’t get to tell him how I, and we all, felt about him.

We love you, Pops.