SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Could it be? Is it possible that the best four teams in the 2022 NFL season will play the Super Bowl semifinals in Kansas City and Philadelphia on Sunday (“The Andy Reid Invitational”), for the right to advance to Super Bowl 57?
One by one in the NFL’s Elite Eight, the pretenders vanished. The Jaguars and Giants went home Saturday, logically. On Sunday, the weary-to-the-bone Bills were done, and finally Dallas, which is simply not a smart football team, went home for the off-season. Leaving us:
Four teams. A combined 59-14.
With the weirdness of neutral Atlanta disappearing, we’re left with the outdoor venues of NFL dreams, Arrowhead and the Linc. The quarterbacks from Dreamland, Joe Burrow at Patrick Mahomes, in one game. The bizarro Big 12 Alumni QB matchup, Brock Purdy at Jalen Hurts, in the other, and not in Norman, but in Philadelphia.
The storylines this week … Can Patrick Mahomes even walk? … Is Joe Burrow even mortal? … The team that makes defense sexy, San Francisco … The Eagles: Can any team be that good?
“Oh my gosh,” Fred Warner said Sunday night, in the wake of the final game of the weekend—San Francisco 19, Dallas 12. He really said gosh. “Are you kidding me? Seriously, I was just talking about this, and I started getting goosebumps. I’m fresh off a big playoff win at home, and now, just thinking about these big-time games. This is what you play for. This is what we all play for. It’s exactly where every team wants to be.”
But only four of them can make it to championship weekend. This is the first year in forever I could make a case for every team in the NFL’s Final Four winning the Super Bowl. I’d lean Cincinnati-Philadelphia in Super Bowl LVII, but Mahomes turning into Willis Reed and the Niners winning a steel cage match on the road—well, that would not surprise me a bit.
Some would say it’s the most wonderful time of the year, the four Super Bowl quarterfinals in 30 hours. I’d agree, and there’s more than the four games on this week’s FMIA docket:
The conference championship games, non-neutral-field edition:
NFC: San Francisco (15-4, 2 seed) at Philadelphia (15-3, 1 seed), Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET, FOX.
AFC: Cincinnati (14-4, 3 seed) at Kansas City (15-3, 1 seed), Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS.
Five straight AFC Championship Game appearances for Kansas City at home. That’s a wow. Problem is, KC lost the first, lost the fourth, and will be playing the fifth with Patrick Mahomes nursing a high ankle sprain—against Joe Burrow, who’s 3-0 on the road in the playoffs in the last 13 months … and who’s 3-0 in head-to-head matchups versus Mahomes.
What guts, Patrick Mahomes. You’ll need more on Sunday at Arrowhead.
What poise, Joe Burrow. It oozes from the guy. “Never met anyone like him in my life,” said his center, Ted Karras. “His general attitude, his energy, his killer instinct—and the fact he puts the ball right in people’s hands.”
Interesting. Karras had a teammate named Tom Brady for four years in New England.
Man, who’s beating the Eagles? I do know this: The 49ers will be the kind of physical test that can cause any team, no matter how dominant it seems, to stumble and struggle. Niners-Eagles could be Creed-Balboa.
Sports Quiz: What did Philadelphia do Saturday for the first time in the 90-season history of the franchise?
The funk over Buffalo will last a long, long time. This is the fourth straight year the Bills have bowed out of the playoffs without winning a single conference title—and they’ve lost those four playoff games by 3, 14, 6 and 17 points.
Aaron Rodgers, tradee, wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive. Adam Schefter reported Saturday that a Green Bay trade of Aaron Rodgers is “a very real scenario” this off-season. Rodgers is 39. If, say, the Jets could satisfy Green Bay’s trade request, cap numbers of $15.79 million in 2023 and $32.54 million in 2024, per overthecap.com, would be reasonable.
Don’t blame Dan Quinn—whose defense helped him burnish his head-coach resume Sunday evening at the Niners—for the distraction that occupied a good chunk of his Friday in Texas, doing two head-coach interviews in a short week of prep before the Cowboys’ biggest game of the year. Blame the NFL for an idiotic rule that allows it to happen.
The NFL will export two of its biggest draws to Germany next November. Yes, Bill Belichick and Patrick Mahomes will be headliners in Deutschland on November Sundays next fall, with one and maybe both in Frankfurt.
Attention, Panther people: Book your flights to Germany for November 2024. Carolina will host a game in Munich or Frankfurt then.
Tale of two kickers. The booters in Santa Clara Sunday left the field with this storyline: Niner Robbie Gould has made all 67 placekicks he’s tried in his playoff career. Cowboy Brett Maher made three of eight placekicks in his last two playoff games.
Travis Kelce is doing things no tight end has ever done. There. I said it. Averaging 108 yards a game in his last seven playoff games. Gronk had one postseason game with 100 yards receiving.
There’s a former lacrosse goalie in Florida who might have some good advice for Damar Hamlin.
Jackson Carman, come on down! You’re an FMIA player of the week!
Merrill Reese, come on down! You’re in Quotes of the Week!
I wonder what the geniuses running the five head-coach searches think of boycotting Lou Anarumo after the Cincinnati defensive boy wonder orchestrated a D that held Josh Allen’s offense to 10 points Sunday.
There wasn’t a lot of drama on the weekend of the NFL’s elite eight, but I got a glimpse of some Sunday evening in California.
This game came down to one team that didn’t play great offensively playing smart when it counted, and the other team doing the opposite. For that reason, the right team won. Sometimes it’s not the little things—it’s the tiny things. Did you notice the Niners, trying to protect a 16-12 lead with 11 minutes to play, whittled the next eight minutes off the clock and kicked an insurance field goal, and did so in part thanks to Brock Purdy snapping the ball consistently with one or zero seconds left on the play clock? In a 13-play drive, those critical seconds add up.
Dallas next touched the ball with 2:59 left. First down: Dak Prescott threw what should have been a pick-six that Dre Greenlaw dropped. Second down: Prescott missed Michael Gallup on a deep shot down the right side. Third down: Prescott sacked. That’s 48 seconds of Jerry Jones’ life he’ll never get back.
Overall, I left unimpressed with Dallas. I loved the defense. DeMarcus Lawrence had one of his best games ever, all things considered, and the Niners struggled even doing the basics on offense. Now, I realize the San Francisco defense is the game’s best, and it often looks like even good teams are running in mud against the Niners. But Prescott was not a big-time player Sunday. If Greenlaw catches the pick-six with three minutes to go, the final is 26-12 and sabers would be rattling about the turnover-prone Prescott’s future. And the little things the Cowboys just didn’t handle right … like returner KaVontae Turpin making a fair catch at his own six-yard line, with space around him, down seven with 45 seconds left. What is he doing fair-catching the ball in that situation? Dude, the touchdowns aren’t going to score themselves. Then, the bizarre final play of the game, with Ezekiel Elliott playing center, snapping the ball to Prescott, and getting obliterated by Niners linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. “What the heck was that?” Greenlaw said later. Some of what Dallas did just wasn’t football-smart.
Now to the Niners. You could say they survived, and you could say Purdy got exposed a bit. Both are true. But this sport, often, is about not playing your best and finding ways to win. Purdy found a way by not turning it over—a habit that is going to earn him a very long life in this game, if not a starring role—and by accurately hitting George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. Purdy had but seven possessions in the last 50 minutes of the game, but he moved the chains well enough to put points up on five of those seven drives.
Purdy was helped by the usual stinging Niner defense. Fitting that the game ended by Jimmie Ward knocking Turpin into next week a second after Turpin caught a desperation throw from Prescott. “Jimmie’s one of us,” Warner said. “He’s one of the best at imposing his will on the ballcarrier, and that’s what everyone on our defense is about. That’s the perfect play to show it.”
So now Purdy is 8-0 as an NFL starter—if you count the win over Miami Dec. 4 when Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot four minutes in and Purdy got the 56-minute save. In those eight games, he has three interceptions and zero fumbles.
It doesn’t blow him away that he’s playing for a shot at the Super Bowl next Sunday in Philadelphia. It should, probably, but in any business, the only way to succeed is to keep the main thing the main thing; he wouldn’t be playing—in fact, he wouldn’t be in pro football as a smallish 6-footer with an average arm—if he got involved with the crazy stuff that surrounds the NFL. He explained after the game that it’s not hard to just play without getting into the hype.
“When I first got in against Miami,” he told me post-game, “it was like, ‘Man, I’m playing in the NFL. I’m showing the guys I can play.’ But that goes away. You have to do the job. At this point, it’s playoff football and all I can think about is what I have to do for my team. I don’t make it more than what it is. But yeah, to say that we’re going to the NFC Championship Game, obviously I’m very thankful and blessed to even be in this position.”
Purdy and I talked after Sunday’s game in Santa Clara.
Playing at Iowa State, he said, “taught me how to be real about myself. I learned so much just with winning and being successful and then also losing some big games. I learned how to overcome some things, believe in myself, but also not be too high when things are great, or just because you’ve lost a couple games doesn’t mean you’re horrible. Honestly it was a blessing in disguise because when I came here for the NFL, I was already used to the sport being hard, and being coached hard, and it was always, ‘How can I get better?’ I think it’s allowed me to have some success.”
In 2018, Purdy was a lightly recruited freshman from Arizona. Injuries and ineffectiveness by upperclassmen opened a spot for him, and Purdy got his first five starts as an 18-year-old true frosh. Often outmanned, much of Iowa State’s success hinged on the quarterback—such as in 2019 at Oklahoma. Purdy was matched against Jalen Hurts at quarterback and Purdy threw five touchdown passes. But his failed two-point conversion pass let the Sooners escape, 42-41.
“Not only did Brock have to have the maturity to come here, but then he has success right away and they put him on a pedestal,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said last week. “They crown him king right away. You gotta deal with the pressure, no different than an NFL quarterback. They’re expecting him to play elite all the time when we don’t have elite players always around him. We had some really good players around him but not like what he’s got right now. Learning how to fail was huge. It’s something we talked about a lot, quite honestly, in our program. Between 18 and 22 years old, you learn how to handle success and [you] most importantly learn how to handle failure—especially failure when you feel like it’s all on your shoulders 24/7. There was no McCaffrey here, no Deebo, no Aiyuk, no elite defense.
“In our program, he was trusted, he was an elite competitor, and he was tough. When you have those three qualities, there’s not many in our society that have all three of them. I think you’re seeing all of them come to fruition right now at the highest level.”
Purdy will be tested, again, Sunday in Philadelphia.
“I’ve heard they got a great fan base,” Purdy said, just before leaving the stadium Sunday night. “I hear they bring it for the whole game, for four quarters.”
You heard right, kid.
The Bengals aren’t a cute upstart story anymore. Cute upstarts in the NFL don’t win five playoff games in 54 weeks, don’t embarrass the preseason Super Bowl favorites in their own stadium and in their own weather. Joe Burrow is not a cute upstart. He is the Paulie Walnuts of NFL quarterbacks, able to rip the guts out of the Allens and Mahomeses without changing expressions, without feeling one pang of sorrow for the vanquished.
I’m sure Kansas City isn’t scared of the Bengals coming to Arrowhead Sunday for a rerun of last year’s AFC title game. But I’d also bet a lot of money that, deep down, Kansas City wanted Buffalo, even if it meant playing the game in Atlanta instead of Arrowhead. What KC must feel for Cincinnati is deep and abiding respect after losing to the Bengals three times in three games in the last 13 months. Home-field might not be absolutely meaningless in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, but it’s damn close.
There are so many places to start with what Cincinnati did in chopping the Bills down Sunday, but I think the best place to start is at left tackle.
When incumbent Jonah Williams became the third starting offensive lineman to get ruled out of the lineup last week, the Bengals turned to a mostly disappointing second-year lineman, Jackson Carman, who’d be starting his first career game at left tackle. The old man of the line, center Ted Karras, told me post-game, “I told the guys this week, ‘The pressure’s off, guys. No one thinks we can do it. We have a chance to go be heroes.’ And we did.”
Then Karras thought for a second. “Well, gotta give a shoutout to the defense as well. Come on, holding Josh Allen to 10 points? At home? In the playoffs? In the sleet? With that crowd against us?”
Good points. But the Achilles of the Cincinnati team was supposed to be, left to right, Carman, Cordell Volson, Karras, Max Scharping and Hakeem Adeniji. And so what happened? Burrow tightened up his game, throwing the ball at a breakneck average of 2.50 seconds from the time of snap in 39 pass drops; on one throw (I’ll explain), he hit Ja’Marr Chase in a startling time of 1.10 seconds after taking the snap—the fifth-fastest time for a third-down conversion this season, per Next Gen Stats.
Even though Burrow was quick off the draw, the line held up well, and illustrated how big the loss of Von Miller to ACL injury in midseason was to the Bills. Carman especially. In Burrow’s 39 dropbacks, Carman allowed just one pressure on Burrow. “In this league,” Karras said, “that’s a big, big deal. That’s taking advantage of a massive opportunity. After the game, I told him how proud of him I was. I think he proved that he’s a tackle in this league.
“And you know, on the biggest stage of all of our football careers up to this point, he performed when it counted the most. He’s had a transformative year and this was a transformative day for him, being in the spotlight and performing at the highest level.”
My first job in the NFL business was covering the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1984. Tremendous experience. I can’t say enough about it. Watching training-camp practices with the founder and owner, Paul Brown. Living in the players’ dorm during training camp, with Boomer Esiason and Cris Collinsworth using the landline phone in my cinderblock dorm room when the two pay phones in the dorm were taken. Spending hours in the head coach’s suite, with Sam Wyche doling out his imaginative offensive gimmickry. I left for New York in 1985, and the Bengals were good and interesting and highly competitive, and I went back often and covered the Boomer Bengals a lot.
I have a feeling this current iteration of the Bengals will be the best ever. A few reasons for that, but the biggest is Burrow. Imagine what Ted Karras, who has been in Cincinnati for one season, must think of this guy to talk about him like he’s some young Brady. This is Burrow’s third year, and you need to be careful about making him the second coming, but a player who completes 69 percent of his throws in the first three seasons, and who is 5-1 in his first six playoff games, and who is not afraid of anything – well, such a fellow is dangerous.
(Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
“This,” Burrow said after the game, “might be our most complete game of the season as a team. We’re a more complete team this year. Our offensive line is better. Our running game is better. Our defense is better.”
All of which should sound a clarion call in Kansas City this morning. I don’t know if the Bengals will win Sunday, but I do know these are not the same old Bengals, as this franchise was for years. Decades. These are Joe Burrow’s Bengals, and everything is possible.
PHILADELPHIA—Now that the Eagles’ world is back on its axis, and the NFC’s top seed looks as powerful as it has all season, the truth can be told: Jalen Hurts is one tough quarterback. He’s the NFC’s Mahomes.
Five weeks after spraining his shoulder and missing two games, Hurts led the Eagles to a soul-crushing rout of their I-95 NFC brethren from the Meadowlands. Hurts was his efficient self: a TD run, two TD throws, zero turnovers. The first clue he wasn’t altogether whole, still, came when he told me after the game he hadn’t attempted in practice a spiral as long as the 40-yard pass he completed to DeVonta Smith (45 yards in the air) on the second play of this game.
“I actually hadn’t done it in practice,” he said a few minutes after midnight, his voice soft, as usual. “But this was a matter of doing what I had to do. My read took me to DeVonta, so it’s the throw I had to make. Mentally, I had to put myself in the position where I was okay overcoming the challenge. It’s not easy to do that.”
I asked Hurts if he saw what happened to Patrick Mahomes earlier in the day.
“No,” he said.
He hadn’t seen Mahomes sprain his right ankle on a tackle against Jacksonville, insist he was okay to keep playing, throw a coat when he was taken out, and later come back to lead Kansas City to a win.
The hint of a smile came onto Hurts’ face when I told him. “I think when you want something, you don’t want to be denied of that,” he said. “You know? Going back to that Chicago game, when I got the shoulder [injury], I was grimacing. Tears. Tears that couldn’t come out because it was so cold.” He let out a mini laugh.
“It was very painful. It was very bad. I knew it was bad. It was bad. Being able to overcome that challenge in that game, come back to win, coming back to win the number one seed. Those are things as a competitor you just have to challenge yourself to overcome.”
All doubts about Hurts’ ability to play his game disappeared in the first quarter. Playing from the shotgun against a four-man Giants rush on the second snap, Hurts stepped back a couple of yards, had plenty of time, and rainbowed a perfect throw 45 yards into the air in tight coverage to Smith. Now I understand making that throw wasn’t a comfortable thing for Hurts, but no way you could see that at the time. Beautiful spiral, and he threw it on a dime. He said he didn’t prove anything to himself on the throw, but he certainly proved something to all of Philadelphia, which let out a collective primal scream inside and outside the Linc at that moment.
(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Later in the quarter, on successive plays, he kept the proving up. He threw a line drive to A.J. Brown for 12 yards and a first down. And with questions about whether the Eagles would put him in harm’s way on designed runs, Hurts ran a play-action bootleg left, got hit by three Giants and buried—after a gain of nine. Three plays later, his nine-yard TD toss to Smith made it 14-0. The rout was on.
This was not exclusively the Jalen Show. It might seem weird based on the final score, but coach Nick Sirianni and his staff have tremendous respect for the Giants, for coach Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. Privately, I got the feeling that some players and even Sirianni were blown away by the one-sidedness of the game. But this team has been set up in the old Andy Reid tradition: strengthen both lines first, second and third, then worry about every other spot on the field.
The most amazing thing, I thought, was the neutering of the Giants’ defensive line, which embarrassed the Vikings a week ago in the Wild Card game. But in Philadelphia, this great offensive line and line coach, Jeff Stoutland, paved the way for 268 rushing yards and allowed just one sack and a measly four pressures to standout rushers Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams and Kayvon Thibodeaux. That was the first game all season that Lawrence had been held without a QB pressure. It’s important that Hurts have room to breathe—for his health and for his explosiveness—and this line put an oxygen tent around the young QB for four quarters.
On defense, Eagles coordinator Jonathan Gannon rotated in eight defensive linemen who played between 10 and 34 snaps; rusher Haason Reddick got 1.5 sacks and two more hits of Daniel Jones on 36 snaps. Spotting an efficient rusher like Brandon Graham at age 34 for 12 snaps is smart; he had enough burst left for a fourth-quarter sack of Jones.
“My dad’s here tonight,” Sirianni said after the game, nodding in the direction of his father, “and the first thing he told me when I got into coaching was, ‘It’s always about the O-line and the D-line.’”
Just then, the architect of the two lines and the rest of the roster, GM Howie Roseman, walked by to congratulate Sirianni.
“Howie!” Sirianni yelled. “All about the O-line, D-line, baby!”
“All about the O-line, D-line!” Roseman replied.
Sirianni continued. “You get tested in this division—Washington with a great defensive line, Dallas with a great defensive line, the Giants with a great defensive line. Everybody wants to make fun of our division, but we had three teams in the divisional playoffs. That’s a really good team over there [the Giants]. We just played one of our best games tonight, though.”
Now the Eagles (15-3) play for the conference title next Sunday. Tk details tonight They’ve seen what Jalen Hurts can do while not 100 percent, and it’s damn good. Damn good, though, with a line that’s playing better than any offensive line in football—and the second-place line might not be close.
“What’s the shoulder like right now?” I asked Hurts.
“Good enough,” he said. “It’s definitely a nagging thing. But as far as me physically, I just want to continue my recovery process and be ready for the next game.”
The mind is a powerful thing. Right now, Hurts’ mind might be the most powerful force he has.
Five thoughts about a bruising, injurious game at Arrowhead:
This might be insane, but I say Patrick Mahomes will play okay with a high ankle sprain. I point to the winning TD pass in the divisional round win over Jacksonville. Obviously hobbling up in the pocket with the right ankle killing him, Mahomes zipped a ball off his left foot 19 yards in the air to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. So it wasn’t an Aroldis Chapman fastball; it was plenty fast and right on target, and it won the game. As former Mahomes right tackle Mitchell Schwartz tweeted: “Can’t plant and push off for down the field throws. He’s going to change his mechanics now and start throwing with all arm.” Talk about a prescient tweet. As I see it, what changes now with Mahomes is the fact that throwing on the run mostly goes away. Maybe the gameplan will be to have a more consistent sixth blocker (extra tight end?) in on obvious pass plays. The sheer force of will of Mahomes will help carry him through, I believe. And if he’s ineffective Sunday night, Andy Reid will have the guts and common sense to play Chad Henne—which would not be a disaster.
Orlando Brown pointed out two benefits to Mahomes playing hobbled. “When something like that happens,” said Brown, KC’s left tackle, “it forces us up front to play even harder to make sure he doesn’t get hit. That’s one thing about it—you get motivated to up your game even more.” This is corny, and I’m not sure how much it actually improves the quality of play of the other 10 players. But Brown said seeing the leader of the team fight with coaches to stay in the game and insist on playing through an injury many would not play with does something in the alpha-male world of football. “We have a ton of grit instilled in us here, and we love the sport and love each other. I don’t know how to explain it, but we just want to rally behind 15. He’s the epitome of what our team is.” It’s not the same as Mahomes being completely healthy, of course, but other factors may make the other 10 play better.
Travis Kelce showed he’s the best and surest-handed of the short and intermediate receivers in football. He caught 14 balls Saturday. He might catch 44 in the championship game. Coverage patterns in this game will be interesting. If I were Cincinnati, I’d put a consistent second cover player, a physical one like a rangy linebacker, on Kelce.
(Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Losing home field would’ve been a factor, but I doubt a big one. “We’ll play in a CVS parking lot, man,” Brown said. “We don’t care.” Even before Sunday’s game would determine their championship foe, there wasn’t much of a trend when Kansas City played the other two teams. Since 2020, in regular- and post-season games, KC is 2-1 against Buffalo at home, 1-0 at Buffalo, 0-1 against Cincinnati at home, 0-1 at Cincinnati.
The Jags should be proud. Count the accomplishments: After “winning” the first overall draft pick two straight years, Jacksonville won the AFC South, rebounded from a 27-point deficit to beat the Chargers in a Wild Card game, established a raucous, young front seven that the franchise can grow with, hired a coach who can train a franchise quarterback, got that quarterback playing 50 percent better than in his rookie year, and finished with an 8-3 post-Halloween record. On Saturday, coach Doug Pederson got the main point of it all: Trevor Lawrence is good, and he’s a leader. “The success of your football team relies on the quarterback,” Pederson said. “You have to get that piece and that player right. I feel we have that person right. Trevor is just going to get better. He is going to learn from this. He is going to grow with the receivers, tight ends, the backs because they are all young.” He could use a franchise tight end, and one more receiver—either the formerly suspended Calvin Ridley, acquired during the season, or one in the draft. Jacksonville, in the span of a half-season, showed it might be (might being the apt word) the AFC South team to beat in 2023.
Three things you need to know apart from the four games:
The fate of Aaron Rodgers. Adam Schefter reported Saturday—with very little couching—about the 39-year-old Rodgers’ future that it’s a “real possibility … Aaron Rodgers is going to be traded” in the off-season. Schefter often puts governors or conditions on his reports, but not so much here about the Packers’ starter for the past 15 seasons. “Make no mistake: Both sides are fully aware that a trade is a very real scenario this off-season for Aaron Rodgers,” Schefter said.
The possibilities are delicious. Rodgers to the Jets, maybe re-teaming with ex-Pack aide Nathaniel Hackett, who has interviewed for the New York offensive coordinator job. Or Rodgers to the Patriots, which seems very Belichickian, to perhaps give Mac Jones two learning seasons in the shadows. Or Rodgers to Vegas, if Tom Brady doesn’t beat him there. Or Rodgers to Seattle, which is seventh in cap room in 2023 and has four picks in the draft’s top 55. You could think of 10 more.
So, how possible is it? Well, consider that Rodgers’ cap numbers in the next two seasons would be $48.3 million, combined. That’s certainly manageable. As for the compensation due Green Bay, my guess is the Pack would want at least two first-round picks. The Woody Johnson Jets, desperate for a star QB almost since the Broadway Joe days, would happily pay that freight, I’d guess. But would Rodgers accept a deal to the Jets? We shall see.
Doubling down on Germany. Notes on the NFL’s international schedule in 2023:
Three games in London (Jacksonville hosting at Wembley, Buffalo and Tennessee hosting at Tottenham), while Kansas City and New England will be home teams in Germany. With Mexico City’s Stadium Azteca unavailable because of World Cup ’26 construction, and the league impressed with the German reaction to Bucs-Seahawks last November, the NFL rewarded Germany with an extra game. I’d expect Germany to return to one game in 2024, with Carolina hosting, and the league being back in Mexico in November 2024. Nine NFL teams are working on making Mexico their international territory, including the Cowboys and Steelers, who have strong fan bases there.
A Patriots business group was in Germany over the weekend working on activating the market there. The international games have gone from a one-off that teams felt they had to endure to now being a business and fan-growth opportunity the business sides of franchises have embraced.
Brazil, Spain and France are likely to get a game or games down the road, but I don’t sense “down the road” means 2024 or 2025.
Bayern Munich FC did a great job hosting the two teams in November and providing them practice fields. Now it’ll be Eintracht Frankfurt’s turn if, as I suspect, both games are played in the American football hotbed of Frankfurt. The NFL considers Frankfurt a more enthusiastic market than Munich.
With every team required to sacrifice one home game in an eight-year period for an international game, it made sense for Tennessee and Buffalo—teams with stadium construction projects in the works—to get their international games out of the way before the new places open.
Damar Hamlin’s kindred spirit? Fifteen years ago, a high school lacrosse goalie in Neptune Beach, Fla., was struck by a hard shot in the chest during a game. A few seconds later, James Hendrick collapsed and his heart stopped, the victim of commotio cordis, a rare malady when a sudden blow to the chest causes the heart to stop. Luckily for Hendrick, his coach was a firefighter and knew and practiced CPR, and sprinted onto the field and was able to revive him. Then there was a defibrillator on hand to shock the heart back into rhythm. “When I woke up in the hospital,” Hendrick, now 31, said the other day, “the first thing I said was the same thing Damar said: Who won the game?”
Exactly like Bills-Bengals, the lacrosse game was discontinued. About a month later, doctors cleared Hendrick to return to the field, and he played later that spring. On his first day back, his coach peppered him with hard shots, just so Hendrick would have the confidence to know his heart wasn’t going to stop again. He had a normal final two-plus years in high school, and now has his own clinical-research company with about 100 employees in the Jacksonville area. “I’m blessed to be able to have these conversations now, because I’m aware what could have happened,” Hendrick said.
It was reported last week that Hamlin, who collapsed on Jan. 2, is still recovering, and still taking oxygen as part of his recovery. No two heart cases of this ilk are the same, and though it seems likely Hamlin suffered commotio cordis, the diagnosis has not been announced. By saying Hendrick played competitive sports a month after his heart stopped, I don’t mean to suggest Hamlin will be able to play in a month, or ever. I just thought Hendrick’s case sounded like Hamlin’s to a degree and wanted to pass it along.
Last week, I published my list of awards filed to the Associated Press for the annual voting. This week, I’ll give you my votes for my all-pro first and second teams.
The AP asks us to vote for three wide receivers. I did that, but I made it two outside receivers and a slot receiver, seeing as that’s how the game in three-receiver sets is configured, and seven-tenths of the snaps in football are played with three or more receivers on the field. That’s why you see Amon-Ra St. Brown (59.9 percent of his snaps in the slot, 38.7 percent out wide, per PFF), with 139 targets, 106 catches and four drops, on my first team instead of A.J. Brown of the Eagles. Brown played just 25.7 percent of his snaps in the slot.
There were some players I simply liked more than my peers. Safety Talanoa Hufanga was PFF’s 27th-rated safety among those who played half their team’s snaps or more, but I thought he tilted the field in every game with his physicality and range. Austin Ekeler was PFF’s 13th-best back, but he was my second-best, because he changed games with his pass-catching. Metrics say I overrated Matt Milano, but the more I watched this Buffalo linebacker during the season, the more I thought I was watching a player with instincts bordering on Luke Kuechly’s. So he was on my first team.
How I saw the first and second teams:
Very different pass rushing experiences for the Bills and Bengals Sunday, and NextGen Stats helps us take a look at why Joe Burrow thrived, and Josh Allen struggled. For Burrow, quick passes helped to limit the efficacy of the Bills pass rush: he averaged 2.50 seconds to throw and faced a quarterback pressure rate of 21.6 percent. Allen, meanwhile, clocked an average time to throw of 3.20 seconds, nearly a second longer than Burrow. He felt the impact in the form of a 39.5 percent pressure rate from the Bengals defense.
Sunday continued a season trend for Burrow, who’s been near the top of the league this year in quick throws (defined as those with a time to throw under 2.5 seconds). A look at the stats from NextGen, all of which include the postseason:
Burrow averages the second-quickest time to throw in the league (2.54 seconds) and has the highest quick pass rate (55.3 percent).
On quick passes, Burrow has thrown a league-high 19 touchdown passes.
In 2022, the quarterbacks with the most successful quick passes:
Tom Brady: 225
Joe Burrow: 199
Trevor Lawrence: 193
Patrick Mahomes: 175
I asked veteran New England safety Devin McCourty, a guest on The Peter King Podcast presented by Salesforce this week, what he tells young players about the Patriots ethos and playing for Bill Belichick. McCourty, who says he still is mulling over whether to return to the Patriots for a 14th season or go into TV, had some interesting points on the pod.
McCourty on his advice to young Patriots:
“The first thing I tell people is, ‘Whatever you probably think coming in, it’s not going to be what you think.’ Guys come in with this thought process, almost like you’re going into the military. You have somebody who’s gonna be barking at you all the time. You gotta be 10 minutes early for everything. For example, we start our day with a squad meeting at 8 o’clock in the morning. I’ve been in there at 7:55, and there’s only four people in the entire meeting room. They’re like, ‘Where’s everybody at?’ I’m like, ‘Guys don’t walk in till 7:59. You’re not late till it hits 8:01.’ Guys are like, ‘Really, in New England?’ What you thought is not always the reality of the situation.”
More McCourty: “Watching the playoffs now is fun for me. It used to be, if we didn’t make the playoffs, I was angry. I wanted to be there. As I’ve gotten older, watching the game of football being played at a high level is so enjoyable.”
Offensive players of the week
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. For being John Wayne.
Jackson Carman, tackle, Cincinnati. Carman was one of the three or four players on divisional weekend with the most pressure on his shoulders, because the Bengals’ left tackle, steady Jonah Williams, was kayoed for the Buffalo game with a dislocated kneecap. So in stepped Carman, making his first NFL start at tackle, and at left tackle no less. His performance was not just okay. It was exemplary. In 39 pass-drop snaps, Carman allowed zero sacks, zero hits on Joe Burrow, and one QB pressure. The three replacement offensive linemen for Cincinnati performed well overall, allowing just one sack as the Bengals had a 412-yard, 27-point day.
Travis Kelce, tight end, Kansas City. Set an NFL record for catches by a tight end in a playoff game with 14 for 98 yards and two touchdowns as Kansas City beat Jacksonville 27-20 Saturday. Kelce was a security blanket even before Patrick Mahomes suffered his ankle injury (10 catches for 55 yards and two scores in the first half), and continued his recent wave of unstoppable playoff play, which you can read about in Numbers Game.
Kenneth Gainwell, running back. The 23-year-old NFL neophyte, a fifth-round pick of the Eagles in 2021, never had an 80-yard game in his young career. He picked a heck of a time for his first 100-yard rushing game, rushing 12 times for 112 yards – a 9.3-yard average – and being a huge factor in the Eagles’ 268-yard rushing day. And did you know he’s Fletcher Cox’s cousin?
Defensive players of the week
James Bradberry, cornerback, Philadelphia. “The thing I’m seeing is they’re not making mistakes,” Bradberry told me a few days before Giants-Eagles. Until Saturday night. Already down 14-0 late in the first quarter, Daniel Jones was in a rush to get something going at midfield. Bradberry baited Jones, waiting behind Darius Slayton till Jones wound up. Then Bradberry broke on the ball and picked it cleanly. He added three clean pass-breakups. What a godsend the addition of Bradberry has been this year for the Eagles’ Super Bowl hopes.
Mike Hilton, cornerback, Cincinnati. Hilton’s ability as a slot blitzer was a cornerstone of the Bengals’ defensive performance, and key to their shutdown of Josh Allen. On the Bills’ fourth-quarter drive with 10 minutes left, likely their last slim shot to get back in the game, Hilton pressured Allen repeatedly, forcing him to throw it away on the second play of the drive and then, two plays later, coming off the corner with remarkable speed to hammer Allen and force the incompletion (the initial ruling was a fumble recovered by the Bengals, overturned on review). Hilton, who also led Cincinnati with eight tackles, plays a unique role in Lou Anarumo’s defense, which will hope to have similar success against a high-powered KC offense next weekend.
Mike Hilton tackles Dawson Knox on Sunday. (Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Special teams players of the week
Robbie Gould, kicker, San Francisco. Twenty-nine field goals taken, twenty-nine field goals made (and 38-for-38 on extra points) – that’s Robbie Gould in the postseason, a perfect record bolstered by Sunday’s win, in which he went four-for-four and accounted for thirteen of the 49ers’ 19 points, with makes from 26, 28, 47 and 50. And with San Francisco up 16-9 at the start of the fourth quarter, he made a game-saving play, knocking down KaVontae Turpin on a 44-yard kick return that otherwise could have gone all the way for the game-tying score (the Cowboys were held to a field goal on the drive instead).
Jamal Agnew, kick-returner, Jacksonville. The two pieces of good news in a storm of ugly for the Jags in 2021:
Drafted Trevor Lawrence.
Signed Jamal Agnew as a free-agent for $4.75 million a year. In the Jags’ 27-20 playoff loss, Agnew returned a first-half kickoff 63 yards, setting up the first Jacksonville touchdown. With the Jags down 10 in the fourth quarter, he returned a kick 42 yards to the Jacksonville 45—and might have been the hero of the game were it not for losing a fumble at the KC three-yard line. A game of impact for the diminutive former San Diego Torero.
Harrison Butker, kicker, Kansas City. 2022 was a shaky regular season for Butker. He was hurt part of the year and missed six field goals, the most for a season in his career. But he hit two 50-yard field goals in a close win over the Jags, and he made a TD-saving tackle of Jamal Agnew on a kick return in the third quarter.
Coaches of the week
Jeff Stoutland, run game coordinator/offensive line coach, Philadelphia. When I walked into the Linc Saturday, I was convinced that the oft-oppressive Giants’ defensive front would buzz around Jalen Hurts much of the evening, pressuring him and forcing him to throw quickly to avoid getting hit on his achy throwing shoulder. But this line was terrific, and the plan of Stoutland, the 10-year Eagles’ O-line maven, terrific too. For the game, the Giants had one sack of Hurts (by a safety, Xavier McKinney), and the most dangerous New York front seven players—tackles Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, and edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux—were no factor when it came to bugging Hurts. Last week, those three had 17 pressures of Kirk Cousins in beating Minnesota, per PFF. This week, the pressures from those three players were down from 17 to four, per PFF: two QB hits, two hurries of Jalen Hurts. Negligible, basically. And the Eagles had a clock-eating 44 rushes for 268 yards (6.1 yards per rush) and three TDs. The crazy thing is, this was supposed to be a game because of the Giants’ defensive front. Stoutland and that great Eagles’ line made that front disappear.
Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. The Buffalo Bills were second in the league in scoring in the regular season, putting up an average of 28.4 points per game, behind only the Chiefs. But on a snowy Sunday at Highmark, Anarumo’s Bengals defense held Josh Allen and the Bills to just 10 points and only 63 yards on the ground. Buffalo went four-of-12 on third down, and Cincinnati got after Allen from start to finish, with well-designed blitzes that completely stymied the Bills offense. Anarumo hasn’t been a major topic in the coaching vacancy conversation so far – this game should change that.
Goat of the week
Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas. Prescott had a rough go in another early playoff exit for the Cowboys, throwing two first-half interceptions, one of which came in the red zone with the Cowboys looking to take the lead, and both of which led to San Francisco field goals. Those six points were felt in a defensive battle that ended 19-12, and there could have been more if the Niners had been able to haul in additional errant passes that bounced off their hands. The Cowboys haven’t been to the NFC Championship game in almost 30 years, and Brock Purdy owns as many playoff wins as Dak Prescott.
Hidden person of the week
Cam Taylor-Britt, cornerback, Cincinnati. Bengals-Bills was still a game in the last minute of the third quarter, with Cincinnati up 24-10 and the Bills having third-and-two at their own 20-. Josh Allen went for the gusto, throwing deep down the left side for Gabe Davis—and Taylor-Britt barged in at the last second and chopped the ball away from Davis. Davis slammed the ball to the ground in anger, and the Bills punted, and they never scored the rest of the day. It was Taylor-Britt’s interception of Josh Allen in the final seconds that was the final dagger. Great day for the rookie from Nebraska.
The Jason Jenkins Award
The Green Bay Packers. For their donation of $100,000 toward the purchase of 80 life-saving defibrillators for schools and recreation centers in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (a Packer fan stronghold), in partnership with team partner Bellin Health. What’s more, the Packers and Bellin Health are going to have a large public teaching seminar later this year at Lambeau Field to train civilians in CPR. What a terrific way to respond to a disaster-turned-opportunity such as the near-tragedy of Damar Hamlin.
Everything that happened this year is kind of null and void in our minds. It sucks.
–Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, after finishing his fourth straight postseason shy of the Super Bowl.
This is very sickening, to not win tonight.
–Dallas owner Jerry Jones, whose wait to return to the NFC Championship game just got extended to at least a 28th year.
This thing’s been over a long time. Maybe since the coin toss.
–Eagles radio voice Merrill Reese, on the air with three minutes left in the Eagles’ total domination of the Giants, 38-7.
Eric wants him here, I want him here, Steve wants him here, Lamar wants to be here. It’s gonna work out.
–Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, on GM Eric DeCosta, owner Steve Bisciotti and him wanting Lamar Jackson back as quarterback.
If you say so, coach.
“He’s a very durable player,” Harbaugh also said.
If you say so, coach.
Ego will not be tolerated in this organization.
–New Cardinals GM Monti Ossenfort.
I look forward to getting a bratwurst.
–Kansas City coach Andy Reid, upon hearing the news his team will host a game in Germany in the 2023 season.
No tight end in history has ever had a playoff hot streak like the one Travis Kelce is on now. His last seven post-season games:
Kelce’s average game in the last three post-seasons: 9.5 catches, 108.1 yards, 1.1 touchdowns.
Another way to put it: The three previous best tight ends of this century—Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten—played a total of 45 seasons. Gonzalez, Gronk and Witten, combined, totaled two playoff games with 10 or more catches in those 45 seasons. In his last seven playoff games, over three seasons, Kelce has had 10 or more catches four times.
Jan. 21, 2018, night playoff game, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, cloudy, no precipitation:
Eagles 38, Vikings 7. Center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson anchored an offensive line that held the opposition to one sack for six yards, the offense converted 10 of 14 third-down chances, Fletcher Cox contributed two quarterback hits on the defensive line, and kicker Jake Elliott added eight points … with baseballer and Eagles superfan Mike Trout in the stands.
The field judge was Eugene Hall.
Jan. 21, 2023, night playoff game, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, cloudy, no precipitation:
Eagles 38, Giants 7. Center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson anchored an offensive line that held the opposition to one sack for six yards, the offense converted 10 of 14 third-down chances, Fletcher Cox contributed two quarterback hits on the defensive line, and kicker Jake Elliott added eight points … with baseballer and Eagles superfan Mike Trout in the stands.
The side judge was Eugene Hall.
The Eagles have been playing football for 90 years. The win over the Giants Saturday night marks the first time they’ve beaten the same team three times in one year.
Philadelphia, as if it needed it, has the 10th pick in the 2024 draft.
The Howie Roseman Effect on the 2022 Eagles—and beyond—is well illustrated by the trade he made with New Orleans three weeks before last April’s draft. Saints GM Mickey Loomis wanted multiple picks in the top 20 and had one, 18th overall. So he dealt the 18th pick, a third-rounder and a first- in ’23, and second- in ’24 to the Eagles for the 16th and 19th overall picks (there was more flotsam involved, but you get the gist); the Saints then traded up from 16 to 11 to be able to draft wideout Chris Olave. Where the trade left Philadelphia:
2022: The Eagles traded the 18th pick for wideout A.J. Brown, who was the impact player the Eagles needed to pair with DeVonta Smith. Brown was signed to a long-term deal, then delivered with 1,496 receiving yards, fourth in the league.
2023: Philadelphia has the 10th pick overall and a late first-rounder between 28th and 31st overall.
2024: The Eagles will have three picks in the first two rounds, their own plus the Saints’ choice in round two.
Crazy playoff travel weekend. I’ve done something like this before, but not in a while.
10 a.m. ET: Amtrak Acela from New York to Philadelphia.
Noon ET: Check in at Courtyard Marriott/Navy Yard just south of the sports complex.
3:15 p.m. ET: Two-minute report previewing Giants-Eagles from Lincoln Financial Field on “Football Night in America,” preceding Jacksonville-KC game.
8:15 p.m. ET: Cover Giants-Eagles for this column. Interviews afterward.
12:08 a.m. ET: Finish with Jalen Hurts outside Eagles locker room. “One word to describe Jalen: stoic,” said Jason Kelce. The perfect word. Walk back to hotel. Bed by 1:30.
4 a.m. ET: Alarm. Curse the day I was born. Cab to Philly airport. But give me some credit. I did brush my teeth.
5:20 a.m. ET: Delta 2075, Philadelphia to Atlanta. Conk out.
8:55 a.m. ET: Delta 809, Atlanta to San Jose. Work for well-near four-and-a-half hours.
10:48 a.m. PT: Land in San Jose. Rent car. Drive 35-ish minutes, much of it inching along, to Levi’s Stadium. Joust with traffic.
12:40 p.m. PT: Watch Bengals-Bills in Levi’s press box.
3:30 p.m. PT: Cover Cowboys-Niners for this column. Interviews afterward.
7:20 p.m. PT: Work in press box for an hour. The column is filed in chunks, and I send a bunch of stuff before darting from press box.
8:30 p.m. PT: After parking lots mostly clear out, drive to hotel, one-third of the way to San Francisco airport, ahead of my midday Monday nonstop flight back to New York.
9:15 p.m. PT: Get cheeseburger just before last call. Work in hotel. Sprint to the finish of the column, aided by editorial assistant Amelia Acosta of NBC with top-notch notes compiled off the Cincinnati-Buffalo game.
2:07 a.m. PT: File last chunk of column to sleep-deprived editor Sarah Hughes, working and catching my slew of mistakes from her home in Atlanta.
2:14 a.m. PT: Column posted.
You might say, What is your problem? Why do a cross-country trip when, if you wanted to cover two games, you could have found your way to Buffalo Sunday morning? Yes. And it could be that I chose wrong. You never know. But most often—not always—I think I like to be at the last game of the weekend, because there’s a good chance that’s going to be the game people are most interested in when they wake up Monday morning. Last week, I ended up leading the column with Joe Burrow and the Bengals off the Sunday night game. Also, in this case, the Cowboys factor helped—surely the Sunday evening Cowboys-Niners game was going to get the biggest rating of the weekend.
So that’s my logic, even if I’m beat to crap as you read this.
Wednesday, 8:50 a.m., Fort Greene, Brooklyn, 48 degrees: I’m working out outside, in my Padres sweatshirt, hardly needing it, in a park, on Jan. 18, the 316th consecutive day with no measurable snow in New York City.
We the panthers interviewed Kellen Moore for the HC job! Based on the last play for the cowboys, Ain’t no way in hell Moore is coaching us with that trash last play!!!!
— Steve Smith Sr. (@SteveSmithSr89) January 23, 2023
The longtime Panthers receiver, after watching the Cowboys’ pitiful last play Sunday night.
The Bengals locker room reeks of cigar smoke.
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) January 22, 2023
Jhabvala is an NFL writer at The Washington Post.
Still throwing TDs, that’s my boy🙏🏼
— Brittany Mahomes (@BrittanyLynne) January 22, 2023
Brittany Mahomes is married to Patrick.
Patrick Mahomes is the most talented QB we’ve ever seen.
It’s okay to say it, we have a large enough sample size. He’s an outlier in a time filled with greats.
— Rich Ohrnberger (@ohrnberger) January 22, 2023
Rich Ohrnberger, former NFL offensive lineman, is now an NFL analyst and host based in San Diego.
As rookie in Houston, I bought my first house across the street from DeMeco because if Meco thought it was the right place to live, it was the right place to live for me.
Captain, leader, smart, tough, personable, crushed it as DC…
He will be a great head coach. https://t.co/OjUdnUxVR6
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) January 21, 2023
Watt was DeMeco Ryans’ teammate in 2010 and ’11 in Houston, and Ryans interviewed for the Texans head-coaching job on Friday.
Bout to put my pads on 😂
— Lawrence ‘LT’ Taylor (@LT_56) January 22, 2023
Lawrence Taylor, who once played for the Giants, tweeting when it was Eagles 21, Giants 0 in the second quarter Saturday night.
Schedule disparity? From Thomas, of Fort Worth, Texas: “I don’t know how the NFL can justify putting the Cowboys on the road on a Monday in Wild Card Weekend on the East Coast, then on the road six days later on the West Coast in the next round of the playoffs. It’s just not fair.”
A lot of fans and readers feel this way, Thomas. Three thoughts:
Once the NFL decided to play one of the playoff games on Monday night, it was clear that the winner of that game would have to play a short-week game (Monday to Sunday). In fact, the Giants had a short week ahead of divisional weekend as well (Sunday to Saturday), and on the road—though obviously not as far.
This is not much different than the Chargers playing a road game in Week 18, a 2-hour, 10-minute flight away, then having a short-week playoff game at Jacksonville, a 4-hour, 28-minute flight away, on a Sunday-to-Saturday turnaround. I didn’t hear anyone with the Chargers complain about the scheduling there.
The Cowboys had an extra day of rest/rehab/prep for the Monday night game. Think of what would have happened had the Monday night Wild Card game not been a part of the weekend landscape. Dallas might have been scheduled for Saturday night in prime time. Would you have wanted a short-week road game to open the playoffs, if it had fallen that way?
Bottom line: Four teams on Wild Card weekend played playoff games on short weeks. Two teams on divisional weekend played on short rest. That’s six teams playing short-rest games. If there’d been no Monday night game and Dallas-Tampa had been a Saturday game, that would have meant seven teams would have played on short rest (counting the two additional Saturday Wild Card teams) instead of the six that did.
Tribute to Howie. From Jim Sweeney: “As a diehard Giants fan, I hate that Howie Roseman is so damn good at his job.”
Yes he is. But you might have a very good one in Joe Schoen. Be glad that John Mara and Steve Tisch picked a progressive outsider last year to run the franchise.
This is odd—a Jacksonville reader thinks Doug Pederson is coach of the year. From Talmadge Hunt, of Jacksonville: “How in the world could you not have Doug Pederson as coach of the year. He has taken the Jags, who won four games over the last two years to a division championship and playoff win. I can’t figure out why he wouldn’t be a slam dunk for coach of the year.”
Picking a coach of the year is always hard. This year, I thought coach and offensive rookie were chock-full of candidates. I love the job Pederson did. I don’t pick the list based solely on the inversion of team records. Brian Daboll had the hardest job in the league, I thought, in turning around a team with bottom-five talent without relief from a bloated cap. Kyle Shanahan winning with three QBs, including the last pick in the draft, and coaching Brock Purdy up to play as well as he did, is worth consideration as well.
This is odd—a Washingtonian thinks Pete Carroll belongs on the list. From Ken Boyer, of Redmond, Wash.: “As a Seahawks fan, I believe Pete Carroll deserves to be in your top five. We lost the best QB and the best middle linebacker we have ever had, started rookies in key positions all over the field, turned the keys over to a journeyman QB, and in the process improved the team into a playoff squad. To further show my bias, I do not think that Kyle Shanahan is worthy of a top five slot.”
We’ll disagree on Shanahan. Carroll did a great job—you’re right. He easily could have made the list. I think Mike Tomlin did a fantastic job, similar to Carroll, in winning after his franchise QB left. I had Tomlin fifth over Carroll narrowly, and it wouldn’t have been wrong to switch them, or to have Dan Campbell there.
This is odd—a Vikings fan thinks Kevin O’Connell should be on the list. From Chris, of St. Cloud, Minn.: “Kevin O’Connell wins 13 games in his first year as a head coach, and Sean McDermott, with a loaded team, wins 13 games, and he’s on your list and O’Connell isn’t. That’s terrible.”
McDermott had a lot to handle this year aside from the games. That’s why I had him at two. O’Connell did a very nice job and it was hard to exclude him.
On kickers. From Simon Bigg, of Eastleigh, England: “I was particularly interested in the feature about kickers [in last week’s column]. The main point was that the current kickers are much better than those of the past, which of course I agree with. However I would like to make the case that Justin Tucker is still the most accurate kicker in the league. He attempts more field goals of 55 yards or more than anyone else which skews the statistics because other kickers aren’t asked to attempt so many long kicks. Your table states that Tucker was 18 of 25 at 50-plus yards, but six of the seven misses were attempts of 55-plus yards. To take out the effect of the differing appetites of head coaches to go for extra-long field goals we can just look at all kicks attempted of under 50 yards including extra points. Justin Tucker is at .970 over the last three years, the best of the six kickers you listed by a significant margin. Graham Gano is next at .952.”
That’s one way to look at it, Simon. I’m not a fan of including Tucker’s 117 PATs here; those are 33-yard kicks, and no one on the day Tucker goes into Canton (if he does) will say, “Wow! You only missed two extra points between 2020 and ’22!” But it is a good point that Tucker is asked to attempt more long field goals than many of his peers. Thanks for including that.
I got a lot of pushback on my chart from last week, which surprised me a lot. It mainly came from people whose point seemed to be, How dare you say these other guys are in Tucker’s league! The fact is, they are now. Daniel Carlson is more efficient overall on field-goal tries, and more efficient from 50 and beyond, than Tucker since 2020. I’m not saying he’s better than Tucker. As I wrote: “Tucker, we’d probably agree, is the premier kicker in the NFL. Of the kickers in the NFL in the last third of its existence, it seems likely that two—Adam Vinatieri and Tucker—stand above all, and will have an excellent shot to make the Hall of Fame when they’re eligible … It’s just that others in the sport are catching up.” I don’t think that’s much in dispute.
1. I think this was the first time, the Buffalo loss, this year, that I started to feel the sand slipping through the hourglass for the Bills. This the fourth straight year they’ve made the playoffs but haven’t gotten out of the AFC. Josh Allen is still young—he’ll play his age-27 season next year—but Stefon Diggs turns 30 next season. The Bills need another offensive weapon and some line reinforcements. The offense flamed out over the last few weeks of 2022, and younger teams are catching up to Buffalo. Classic example of the NFL, as Jerry Glanville once said, meaning “Not For Long.”
2. I think it’s got to be heartbreaking for those fans, who were so convinced this was the golden year, and they wake this morning, again, on the outside looking in at four other teams competing for the Lombardi.
3. I think the Giants and Jaguars shouldn’t be down today. They should be euphoric. Even the Giants, who were stomped on by the Eagles. This was never supposed to be their year. I expect GM Joe Schoen will build a bridge to sign Daniel Jones for at least three years. Not so sure about Saquon Barkley, because of the shelf life of backs. Jones is the most important asset to keep right now, obviously.
4. I think it’s past time for the NFL to retire these down-and-distance chains. There was a 90-second delay early in Giants-Eagles because one of them broke. Even when it was “repaired,” the fix was wrapping white athletic tape to re-connect the broken chains. Now that’s really exact.
The 1st down chains were broken, so officials brought out the backup chains, and it took just a little bit to unravel them 😅 Ready to go now! pic.twitter.com/sSES5w4hri
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 22, 2023
5. I think Shannon Sharpe, fan, owes the world an apology today. Imagine what Shannon Sharpe, the player, would have done if a fan on the sidelines of a football game started heckling/screaming (of course, basketball fans can be much closer than NFL fans) at the players, and stuck his chest out and started walking toward players and a dad of one of the players. Absurd to see an adult acting in public like some 15-year-old.
6. I think the Football Story of the Week comes from Kalyn Kahler of The Athletic on the pushing-and-pulling of quarterbacks on sneaks, particularly by the Eagles, that is either overwhelmingly efficient or has gotten out of control.
a. Kahler has some great information in here—the best that Eagles center Jason Kelce is warned about moving the ball ahead as much as the length of the football, almost nonchalantly, before every game. Kelce was honest and up-front with Kahler about the various sneak tactics. The Eagles, including tackle Jordan Mailata and coach Nick Sirianni, chimed in.
b. Wrote Kahler, on the efficiency of the sneak:
“I think it’s a highly underutilized play in the NFL,” Kelce said. “As the league becomes more of an analytical league, it’s a number that you can’t negate. There’s no other play that’s going to have that high percentage of assurance.”
On sneaks on third or fourth down with less than two yards to go, NFL teams converted 87.2 percent of the time this season. The Eagles’ conversion rate on third or fourth down is 92.6 percent. Hurts has the strength to squat 600 lbs, but your quarterback doesn’t have to be a quad monster to successfully run the play. Of 22 quarterbacks with a sample size of at least four sneaks this season, only one converted less than 80 percent.
It’s a smart call in short-yardage situations because with a sneak on third-and-short, an offense can bet it won’t get a holding call or lose yards that would kill the drive. If there’s no gain, repeat on fourth down.
“It’s hard to defend because it shouldn’t be legal because people are just pushing players forward,” said Bucs safety Logan Ryan. “We’re getting away from what football is. A lot of the rules aren’t really skewed for defense, but until they make a rule to stop that, I guess you can always just give someone the ball, create a circle and push forward and you’ll probably get five yards per carry. That’s the next version of offense.”
“Cry me a river,” said Mailata.
“Until they say that we can’t do that, it’s legal,” Sirianni said.
c. Really well done by Kahler, who found mid-level NFL staffers (coaches, analytics people) to tell a story the NFL wishes were hidden. The reason it’s important to discuss is that it’s getting out of control. Pro football was never meant to be rugby, with players being pushed for four, six, eight yards by three or four offensive mates.
d. The Competition Committee must, capital M, examine the spate of pushing ballcarriers this off-season. Until then, I’ll cry a river.
7. I think Ravens coach John Harbaugh and GM Eric DeCosta said all the right things, and I’m certain they both hope Lamar Jackson ends up behind center when the 2023 season kicks off in nine months. But let’s be realistic. Jackson’s probably not going to get the money or guarantees he wants from Baltimore after missing 34 percent of the last two seasons due to injury. I have no idea how this will go, but the waters will be choppy in February and March.
8. I think I would like to ask one question about coaching searches: Can you give me one good reason why Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have not gotten one request for a head-coach interview in this cycle? I didn’t think you could.
9. I think I will avoid my annual screed ripping the NFL for allowing coaches on teams in the playoffs to interview while preparing for playoff games in favor of three sentences: I don’t care what Jerry Jones or Mike McCarthy says to minimize this, but it is the definition of insanity that wedged between two Dallas playoff road games (at Tampa, at San Francisco), the two most important games of the season, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn spent four to six hours interviewing for coaching jobs with Denver and Indianapolis on Friday. Every bit of coaching and ridiculously long hours for nine or 10 months is devoted to being in the best position without interference for the two biggest games of the season—and the man in charge of orchestrating and designing and coaching the defense spends half a day auditioning for work elsewhere. Lunacy is what it is.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. So much sadness in the past week, capped by news of the death of Gwen Knapp, the former Philadelphia and San Francisco columnist and most recently New York Times She died of cancer on Friday. Knapp was a fearless and principled reporter and columnist and editor. She will be missed in the business, a lot.
b. Such a lovely celebration of life Friday in Riverside, Calif., for Vicki Czarnecki, wife of my good sportswriting friend John Czarnecki, last with FOX Sports before retiring a year ago. You can tell a lot about a person by the people she touched, the people she molded, and the people whose lives will be forever affected by her. That was Vicki. Friends and neighbors and husband with story after story of her goodness, and finally her three daughters … All over the room people choked back sobs. Good to see so many of Czar’s FOX pals (Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Curt Menefee among them) there to support the family.
c. Story of the Week: John Hendrickson, writing in The Atlantic, with a powerful story about stuttering: “Why I Dread Saying My Own Name.” He says, “Nearly every decision in my life has been shaped by my stutter.”
d. Writes Hendrickson:
Okay, here comes our waiter. I stare at the silverware. He clicks his pen. I’m always the last to order. Sometimes my mom tries to help me by tossing out what she thinks I want.
“… Yyyy-uhh … yyyueaah,” I force out.
If I’m lucky, there are no follow-up questions. I’m rarely lucky.
e. Man, I feel for John Hendrickson. I stuttered for about 10 years of my youth—badly in fifth and sixth grade. On a particularly bad morning reading aloud in sixth grade, my teacher bellowed, “OUT WITH IT!”
f. Uh, that didn’t help.
g. Saw a survey the other day about the most popular Girl Scout Cookie—and the season is coming up. In New York, 30 percent of respondents said Thin Mints, 22 percent said Samoas.
h. Thin Mints forever, baby! Did you know that General Mills has a Thin Mints Cereal? That must be heaven.
i. Murder Mystery of the Week: Adam Leith Gollner, writing in Vanity Fair about the mob hits and duped normal people that made the Montreal area a killing field in the last decade.
j. Great scene-setting by Gollner:
On the morning they were arrested for allegedly burning bodies as part of a series of Mafia murders, Marie-Josée Viau and Guy Dion had already finished breakfast and packed their daughter off to elementary school. A hand-drawn Mother’s Day card hung on the fridge next to family photographs. Viau, 44, didn’t have to go to her shift at the roadside poutine restaurant until later that day, so she tried baking something new: blueberry phyllo puffs. The pastries were still on the stove top when police arrived at 9:56 a.m. on October 16, 2019.
“We’re normal people,” Viau swore to the arresting officers, through her tears, after she and her husband were each charged with two counts of first-degree murder. “We didn’t kill anyone.”
Undercover recordings made by investigators told a different tale. The interception division of the Sûreté du Québec had secretly taped Viau and Dion speaking about how they’d disposed of bodies for members of the Calabrian Mafia. By their own admission, they’d incinerated corpses in their yard in a bonfire. “We did what we could with what we had,” she explained, when police questioned her about the cremations.
k. The story’s long, but it’s worth it.
l. Happy 70th, Pat Haden. Lest you remember Pat Haden only as a USC athletic director, I take you back 45 years. The 9-1 Steelers, on their way to a 17-2 season (including sweeping the postseason and winning a third Super Bowl), invaded the LA Coliseum. The Steel Curtain, with five future Hall of Famers (Greene, Ham, Lambert, Blount, Shell) rushed the 5-11 Rams’ QB Pat Haden hard all night and led 7-3 entering the fourth quarter. But Haden executed a late 10-yard TD pass to Willie Miller, and the Rams walked out with a 10-7 win. That was probably the most glorious of Haden’s 55 Rams starts. He never played for another team.
m. I liked this from Alex Ritman of The Hollywood Reporter on the casting and making of “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which I mentioned here last week. Read how the star of the show, a miniature donkey named Jenny, got found.
n. Podcast of the Week: The nightmare that is identity theft, a Los Angeles Times pod featuring one of its reporters, Jessica Roy, as a victim of this modern plague.
o. The scary thing is how hard it was for Roy to get out of it.
p. Howie Rose, Mets Hall of Famer. Well-deserved, Howie.
q. TV Story of the Week: Tim McNicholas of WCBS-TV in New York, about steps taken by a local high school conference, the Metropolitan Independent Football League, to remove kickoffs and offer devices to measure brain trauma in real time.
r. Kudos to Chris Nowinski’s Concussion Legacy Foundation for assisting in providing data to the MIFL, and kudos to Nowinski for his common-sense op-ed in The New York Times after the Damar Hamlin incident about the spate of heart-disease deaths in former players.
s. Nowinski wrote in the wake of the Hamlin story about how we should not forget a real issue for former players, heart disease:
Hours before the Monday night game [in which Hamlin was injured], I learned that the former N.F.L. offensive lineman Uche Nwaneri, who started 92 games at guard and center for the Jacksonville Jaguars, had died from a heart attack at the age of 38. Uche and I had been messaging on Twitter about our shared concerns about concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). He had struggled to find his next passion after retiring but had recently gained a dedicated following on YouTube commenting on football and pop culture, calling himself the Observant Lineman. He is survived by his wife, Michele, and two young daughters.
Young former N.F.L. players, mostly linemen, die from heart attacks or heart disease nearly every year. In addition to Uche, Shane Olivea, died in March at age 40. Max Tuerk, age 26, died in 2020. Taylor Whitley, age 38, 2018. Jeremy Nunley, age 46, 2018. Nate Hobgood-Chittick, age 42, 2017. Rodrick Monroe, age 40, 2017. Ron Brace, age 29, 2016. Quentin Groves, 32, 2016. Damion Cook, 36, 2015. According to a 2019 study from Harvard University, N.F.L. players are 2.5 times as likely to have cardiovascular diseases listed as an underlying or contributing cause of death as Major League Baseball players.
Scientists believe N.F.L. players are at greater risk of heart disease because of the weight they gain, even when it is mostly muscle. After players retire, it’s extremely difficult for them to lose the football weight, partly because of chronic pain from injuries suffered while playing.
t. The world’s oldest person, or at least oldest known person, a French nun, died last week at 118. And what a nice person Sister André was. That photo of her: beatific.
u. Sister André was 8 when the Titanic sank. She was 9 when the bra was invented. She beat Covid at 116. Ten popes ruled the Catholic church in her life. “Work kept me alive,” she told reporters last year, per Constant Méheut’s obit (linked above).
v. Sympathy to friend and fellow NFL columnist Albert Breer and his wife Emily on the death of her dad, Stephen S. Burkott, the retired fire chief of Chicopee, Mass. The man lived a life of service, and passed that lesson onto his daughter, who went into nursing inspired by her dad. RIP, Stephen Burkott.
w. And RIP, David Crosby, a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash), who died at 81. CSN: soundtrack of my youth.
x. We cap the column today with Long Time Gone, one of Crosby’s best, about the raucous times of the sixties.
Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness
You got to speak your mind if you dare
But don’t, no don’t, no, try to get yourself elected
If you do, you had better cut your hair.
y. Great obit on Crosby by Steve Chawkins in the Los Angeles Times. Absolutely amazing that Crosby lived to see 81. Wrote Chawkins:
A guitarist who sang in a crystal-clear middle tenor, Crosby had a voice sometimes described as angelic. He wrote or co-wrote songs with evocative lyrics and unusual tunings, and many of them — “Eight Miles High,” “Guinnevere,” “Wooden Ships,” “Long Time Gone” — continue stirring the hearts of fans who had long since traded their mescaline for Medicare.
For some, Crosby took his place in rock history on Aug. 18, 1969, when he performed at Woodstock with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and the fledgling group’s recent addition, Neil Young.
At 3 a.m. on the festival’s final night, they played for about an hour. When they launched into “Long Time Gone,” an elegy inspired by Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination the previous year, Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus wrote of Crosby that he had “never seen a musician more involved in his music.” At one point, Crosby aimed his 12-string guitar over the stage’s edge and, belting out the powerful lyrics he had written, nearly fell off.
“Their performance was a scary brilliant proof of the magnificence of music,” Marcus wrote, “and I don’t believe it could have happened with such power anywhere else.”
z. At Woodstock! At 3 a.m.!
The football gods sleet on you.
When will it all end?