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    Retirement in Florida? Tom Brady’s Next Move Might Be to the Super Bowl

    #masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }The Coronavirus OutbreakliveLatest UpdatesMaps and Cases13,000 Approaches to TeachingVaccine InformationTimelineAdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyRetirement in Florida? Tom Brady’s Next Move Might Be to the Super BowlThe inglorious interception at the end of his career in New England seems a distant memory as he leads the Buccaneers into the N.F.C. championship game on Sunday.Florida man, 43, vows to play in the N.F.L. until he is 45.Credit…Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJan. 22, 2021Updated 4:59 p.m. ETOne year ago, Tom Brady’s last pass as a New England Patriot was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, the final mortifying act of a bitter first-round playoff loss.Brady, 42 at the time, had endured an erratic season, his 20th in the N.F.L., and with that performance slump came incessant conjecture about whether he would, or should, retire.Less than a minute into a news conference after the Patriots postseason exit, Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion, was asked if he was going to quit football.Brady paused, with a faint look of exasperation.“I would say it’s pretty unlikely,” he finally said.Now, he is a game away from another Super Bowl appearance. He will lead his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, into the N.F.C. championship against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.For Brady, win or lose, his 14th appearance in a conference title game will serve as the most defiant answer to those who wondered if — or secretly hoped — he would walk away from pro football forever, leaving a substantial void in the game itself.The N.F.L. finds itself at an inflection point with aging stars at quarterback like Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in their final years as emerging young stars like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson put their stamp on the position with multifaceted talents.But Brady is perhaps the most polarizing of the elders because of his longstanding ties to the Patriots, who have been heavily fined and punished with lost draft picks for various violations of league rules for nearly 15 years. Then there was Brady’s showcased role in the contretemps known as Deflategate, when the search for the cause of underinflated footballs in a 2015 playoff game resulted in a four-game suspension for Brady.For now, Brady is not going away. Often called the greatest quarterback in history, and a fixture of the N.F.L. playoffs this century in a Patriots uniform, he will appear on televisions screens Sunday in the pewter and red colors of the Buccaneers. Fans may have to adjust to that scene for a while, because Brady has for years indicated that he plans to play until he is 45. And who is going to stop him?“I’m definitely older,” Brady said this month after helping Tampa Bay win its first playoff game in 18 years. “But I’m hanging in there.”Brady, who won 30 postseason games with the Patriots, is also clearly relishing a period of vindication, since the second chapter of his career would seem to prove that past successes were not solely the result of his partnership with New England’s coach, Bill Belichick, or the influence of the noted “Patriot Way.”After the Buccaneers’ divisional round playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints last weekend, Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians was asked if he could tell that Brady was savoring a different kind of career milestone — a momentous playoff victory detached from the Patriots.“Yeah, you could tell,” Arians responded with a smile. “The emotions were really good — good moments on the field, in the locker room.”The Coronavirus Outbreak More

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    The Bills Rack Up Wins. Folding Tables Get Wrecked.

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyThe Bills Rack Up Wins. Folding Tables Get Wrecked.Though the team prohibits it, Bills fans are carrying on a new table-slamming tradition deep into the playoffs.The outpouring of emotions during this Bills season has proved cathartic, yet bittersweet because coronavirus restrictions prevented fans from attending regular season home games.Credit…Libby March for The New York TimesJan. 22, 2021, 4:12 p.m. ETDevoted N.F.L. fans show their love in lots of ways that don’t make sense out of context. Green Bay Packers fans wear foam blocks of cheese on their heads. Raiders fans paint their faces in black and silver and torment visiting players from their seats in the “Black Hole.” In Kansas City, Chiefs fans drive tricked-out school buses painted in red and gold, the team’s colors.Then there are Buffalo Bills fans, who make the ridiculous look routine. For the past few years, growing numbers of Bills tailgaters have ended their pre- and postgame debauchery by jumping from a high place — the back of a pickup truck, say, or the top of a Porta Potty — and slamming into a folding table. The WWE-inspired idea is to destroy the table, entertain friends (many of whom record the mayhem on smartphones) and get fired up for the game.So when Vincent Spano returned to his home in Buffalo around midnight after the Bills beat the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday, he was not surprised to see hundreds of fans down the street cheering a large man as he jumped off a step stool and crashed onto a table in the middle of a busy intersection. He was also not surprised that a video of the pandemonium that his friend posted on Instagram instantly went viral.“The guy jumped cleanly through it, popped up fine and everyone cleaned it up,” said Spano, a lifelong Bills fan who lives in the Allentown neighborhood, a center city area which now welcomes visitors with a sign that reads “Josh Allentown” in honor of the team’s quarterback, Josh Allen. “It’s all adrenaline and you’re so happy for the Bills, it takes over and you don’t think about it.”For his part, Allen said in an interview that he would jump through multiple tables if the Bills win the Super Bowl.The prevalence of table slamming is part of the frenzy sweeping Western New York as the Bills rumble through their best season since their glory years in the early 1990s, when the team played in four straight Super Bowls, losing all of them. Week by week, as the Bills marched toward their first division title and first playoff win in a quarter century, fans across the region have expressed their joy in bigger and more public ways.Seemingly every storefront in the city includes a ‘Go Bills’ sign. Huge banners celebrating the home team hang in front of city hall. Sales of retro Bills gear at Spano’s store, My Cuzin Vintage, have soared more than 50 percent this season. Restaurants as far away as Erie, Penn., are selling pizzas in the shape of buffalos. A Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Buffalo sold folding tables alongside Bills merchandise. Table slamming has become so closely linked to the Bills that ESPN designed a graphic video of Josh Allen jumping off a bus and onto a table.The popularity of table slamming, reckless as it may be, has coincided with the emergence of the Bills Mafia, a Twitter account started as a joke by three fans that has morphed into a kind of virtual identity for fans to show their passion. The seemingly random way in which these two elements quickly turned into traditions is part of their appeal to Bills fans.“We started Bills Mafia before people started jumping through tables,” said Del Reid, one of the account’s co-founders. Though Reid said he has never table slammed, he said he has no issue with the practice. “As long as people are being safe, however they want to express their fandom is fine,” he said. “People are trying to outdo themselves.”The outpouring during this Bills season has proved cathartic yet bittersweet because coronavirus restrictions prevented fans from attending regular season home games. Most fans made do by gathering with a few friends and family to watch games.Ashleigh Dopp, who could not use her family’s season tickets, turned her garage into a fan cave, complete with a Bills-themed mural, a refrigerator, a television and a heater. Dopp said she has not bought a folding table to slam in the driveway, though she got tossed on a table at a road game a few years ago.“Table slamming is about showmanship,” Dopp said. “It kind of ends your tailgate.”The Bills, though, have a complicated relationship with table slamming. Alarmed by excessive drinking and the violence of table slamming, the team told fans in 2018 that they could face criminal charges, have their tickets revoked, or be ejected from team-run parking lots for destroying folding tables.“The viral videos on social media, it’s embarrassing when we see that,” Andy Major, the team’s vice president of operations and guest experience, told The Buffalo News in 2019. He said a few fans “make a big stink out there — a few knuckleheads who wreck it.”So as the Bills began their postseason run and Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed about 6,500 fans to attend the team’s two home playoff games, the team is discouraging table slamming in the parking lots surrounding Bills Stadium.Eric Matwijow, who lives a three-minute walk from Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. has no trouble with the policy. He runs a parking lot on game days across the street from his home. Matwijow, whose nickname is “The Hammer” because he strictly polices his patrons before games, said his longtime customers clean up after themselves and don’t get out of hand.He has less tolerance for some of his younger customers, whom he calls “junior adults.” He banned table slamming because “people jump off vans and knock themselves out,” he said. “The power of alcohol can be strong.”Some team backers, though, said they will take their flying leaps on the road. The Bills travel to play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday and are one win away from returning to the Super Bowl. Months ago, Therese Forton Barnes, a Bills season-ticket holder since 1999, reserved a rental house near Tampa, Fla., site of this year’s Super Bowl, to work remotely in the warmer weather. She arrived there this week and one of her first purchases was a folding table that she uses as a desk.If the Bills win on Sunday, she’ll try to get tickets to the Super Bowl and wear the Jim Kelly jersey she brought with her. And if the Bills win their first Super Bowl title, Forton Barnes plans to stomp on her new folding table.“If we win, I may jump through a conference room table,” she said. “Go big or stay home!”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Super Bowl to Host 22,000 Fans

    #masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }The Coronavirus OutbreakliveLatest UpdatesMaps and Cases13,000 Approaches to TeachingVaccine InformationTimelineAdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storySuper Bowl to Host 22,000 FansAbout 7,500 health care workers who have been vaccinated will be given free tickets, the league said, but it will sell 14,500 tickets to customers who will not be required to get inoculated.The attendance at Super Bowl LV will be the smallest in the history of the game. Fans will be given masks and hand sanitizer.Credit…Jason Behnken/Associated PressJan. 22, 2021, 12:04 p.m. ETIt won’t quite be the usual full house, but 22,000 seats, or roughly 30 percent of capacity, will be filled at the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., the N.F.L. said Friday.About 7,500 of those seats will be occupied by health care workers who are being given free tickets by the league. Those attendees will all have been vaccinated for the coronavirus, the league said, and most will come from the Tampa area though the league will also allot tickets to workers from other N.F.L. cities.The league said that it would sell 14,500 tickets to the game, set for Feb. 7, with the buyers selected by lottery, as in normal years, with ticket allocations for every N.F.L. team. That total does not include about 2,000 seats in luxury suites at Raymond James Stadium, the site of this year’s Super Bowl. Fans seated there will not be required to be vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic-hit season, attendance figures varied from venue to venue, depending on local guidelines. In some cities, a significant number of fans were admitted: Dallas led the league with an average of 28,187 fans at its eight home games, followed by Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. But 13 of the 32 teams did not allow fans at any games.N.F.L. teams drew 1.2 million fans to attend games in the regular season, well below the normal total of 17 million.All fans who attended N.F.L. games this season were required to wear masks, and were kept apart in seating “pods,” policies that will continue at the Super Bowl. Super Bowl attendees will be given masks and hand sanitizer, the league said.The attendance this year would be the smallest in the history of the Super Bowl, an event that in ordinary years could undoubtedly sell out many times over. The previous low was 61,946 at the Coliseum in Los Angeles for the first game in 1967, when it was still known as the A.F.L.-N.F.L. World Championship Game.The Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to face the Green Bay Packers in the N.F.C. championship on Sunday with a chance to play in a home Super Bowl. The winner of that game will meet the A.F.C. champion, which will be decided in Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs.No team has ever played a Super Bowl in their home stadium, though in 1985 the San Francisco 49ers played Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium in nearby Palo Alto, Calif., and in 1980 the Los Angeles Rams played Super Bowl XIV in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.Ken Belson contributed reporting.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Requiem for the 'Indestructible' Green Bay Packers of the 1960s

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyThe Great Read‘Every Two Months, One of My Teammates Dies’The Green Bay Packers of the 1960s produced a legion of Hall of Famers and won five championships under Coach Vince Lombardi. Their ranks have been devastated by death in the last 27 months.“But you begin to think of certain people, like Forrest Gregg or Bart Starr or Willie Davis, as indestructible,” said Bill Curry, a Packers center in 1965 and 1966. “So when they die, it’s not like a regular death. It’s like a punch to the sternum.”Credit…La Crosse Tribune/Associated PressJan. 22, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ETThe phone at Bob Long’s home in Brookfield, Wis., has rung too many times these last few years, but especially in 2020. Some calls came from former teammates telling Long, a Packers receiver in the mid-1960s, that another member of their Vince Lombardi-era dynasty squads had died. Many others came from Green Bay fans, phoning to express their condolences.“Every two months,” Long, 79, said, “one of my teammates dies.”Doug Hart. Allen Brown. Willie Wood. Willie Davis. Herb Adderley. Paul Hornung.Gone, all of them.The last four, who died over a nine-month span last year, are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, royalty in an organization steeped in tradition. Together, the names evoke a wistful yearning for the teams that won five championships — including the first two Super Bowls — under Lombardi from 1961 to 1967.As the Packers chase a 14th N.F.L. title, a quest that continues Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the N.F.C. championship game at Lambeau Field, the deaths — and that of Ted Thompson, the general manager who drafted Aaron Rodgers and many other current Packers, on Wednesday — have freighted a glorious season with solemnity. Occurring in such swift succession, they stripped the facade of invincibility from titans of the sport, devastating the teammates left to mourn their friends from afar.“It snaps you back into reality,” said Dave Robinson, a Hall of Fame linebacker on Lombardi’s last three Packers championship teams. “We live in a fantasyland. Everything’s always been good or great — you play ball, you won your share of games, you won championships and were at the very top of your game. Nothing can go wrong. Then you get older and start losing teammates and realize how fragile life is. And you keep looking in the mirror saying, ‘Will I be next?’”In the last 27 months, nine starters from the 1965 championship team — nearly half — have died. The bruising fullback Jim Taylor and the sturdy left tackle Bob Skoronski did so within two weeks of each other in October 2018. As if following one of his powerful blocks, quarterback Bart Starr, an in-the-huddle extension of Lombardi, died a month after right tackle Forrest Gregg in spring 2019.Members of the Packers celebrated Christmas together in 1965. From left: Carroll Dale, Bart Starr, Zeke Bratkowski and Bob Long.Credit…Courtesy Long FamilyStarr’s death lacerated Bill Curry, his former center. The day Curry, now 78, reported to his first Packers training camp, as a rookie in 1965, he sensed someone else walking to dinner beside him. It was Starr, by then entering his 10th season, and from then on, Curry said, rarely did they leave each other’s side. Another dear friend, the backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski, died in November 2019, and the bad news kept mounting.Reflecting on all the losses, Curry was surprised to realize that he had ascribed a superhuman quality to so many of these men, but the mind remembers what it wants to remember: Hornung, the playboy running back, so young and virile, zigzagging for touchdowns instead of suffering from dementia; Wood, the rangy free safety, picking off Len Dawson to fuel Green Bay’s rout of Kansas City in Super Bowl I instead of deteriorating as his cognitive functions declined; Davis, a fearsome pass rusher who never missed a game during his 10 seasons in Green Bay, dragging down quarterbacks instead of fading from kidney failure.“I guess if I had thought about it, or if somebody had warned me, I would have maybe protected myself,” Curry said. “But you begin to think of certain people, like Forrest Gregg or Bart Starr or Willie Davis, as indestructible. So when they die, it’s not like a regular death. It’s like a punch to the sternum. I mean, it drops you to your knees. No, no, he can’t be dead. Well, he is.”The Packers’ president, Mark Murphy, added: “It’s like your parents. You never expect them to die.”The immortals live on in video clips and in photographs, but what endures for their teammates is what makes their absences so much harder to bear: the intimate moments they shared, the ones that unfolded away from public view. From Wood, Robinson gleaned the importance of learning everyone’s assignment on defense, not just his own. Long still can’t fathom that Hornung once told him he’d be a superstar. Curry credits Davis with transforming his life.Curry, who called himself a “snot-nosed white kid” from outside Atlanta, had never played on an integrated team before joining the Packers, he said. Insecure, he worried how the team’s Black players would react to his Georgia accent. Instead, he was humbled by Wood’s kindness and how Davis, the defensive captain, promised to help Curry — the next to last pick in the 20-round draft — make the team.Whenever he felt like capitulating, his confidence frayed by Lombardi’s withering words, Curry ran to the defensive side to find Davis, whom he called Dr. Feelgood. With a smile, Davis told Curry to feel good, that he could do it.“It was an unexpected, undeserved, unrewarded act of kindness from a great leader, and those moments change lives,” said Curry, who would go on to coach 26 years in college football and the N.F.L. “I had no choice but to respond to that. I never looked at human beings, any human being, in the same way again that I had previously. And when I began to coach, it was my primary mission to be sure that nobody on our team ever felt the sting of racism in our locker room.”Bill Curry, the former N.F.L. player and coach, spoke at a memorial service for the Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr in 2019.Credit…Butch Dill/Associated PressIn an era of racial intolerance, it was Lombardi’s commitment to equality that galvanized the team. Welcoming Black players at a time when so many of his peers didn’t, Lombardi — whose disgust for discrimination was personal, having been bullied for his Italian heritage and for being Catholic while growing up in Brooklyn — created what the former tight end Marv Fleming called “a brotherhood.” Those relationships bound players across the decades, even when they rarely saw one another. Fleming, when reached last week, said he had just finished a video call, arranged by the Packers, with some old teammates.“It made me want to shed a tear,” Fleming said. “I’m 79 years young, I’m still skateboarding in Venice. But to hear, ‘Marvin, have you heard about so-and-so’ and you say, ‘oh no,’ those memories come back, those times when we were in the foxhole together.”A member of the Hall of Fame’s board of trustees for more than 20 years, Robinson, 79, who lives in Akron, Ohio, would always welcome old teammates and their wives in Canton, Ohio, for induction-weekend festivities. Reminiscing with them there, or at reunions and alumni functions arranged by the Packers, made him feel young again, he said, even if the players’ numbers were dwindling.“We’d get together every now and then, but it’s not the same,” Robinson said. “Every year it used to take a big table to sit us down. Now we can just sit around a coffee table.”Except when they can’t. The pandemic canceled the Packers’ traditional alumni gatherings, from golf tournaments to weekends at Lambeau, where, under normal circumstances, former greats would have been invited back to serve as honorary captains on Sunday. It has also deprived family and friends of traditional funeral rituals, upending a grieving process that helps the living cope and mourn.Curry thought he knew Bratkowski well. But at his funeral service, Curry learned he went to Mass every morning and did volunteer work afterward. Sending flowers or a card has rendered the players’ grief incomplete.Vince Lombardi, left, and the team’s backup quarterback, Zeke Bratkowski, celebrated in the Packers’ dressing room after an N.F.L. playoff game against the Baltimore Colts in the 1965 season.Credit…Associated Press“There was so much more to him, and you only learn that if you listen to family and priests and ministers talk about the person,” Curry said, adding: “I don’t want to do a Zoom service. I want to be there next to the family. I want to be with the remains of my friend, and I can’t do it. And that has really bothered me. It’s pure selfishness, but I’d give anything to be able to go.”Robinson said the memorial service for Adderley had been rescheduled a few times, in accordance with local guidelines for gatherings. Helping to anchor the left side of the Packers’ defense, the two men helped write a book, “Lombardi’s Left Side,” which also detailed their experiences playing in the racially charged 1960s.“Me and Herb,” Robinson said, “we were like two fingers in a fist.”It was their deep friendship that compelled Robinson to place a call to Wisconsin after Adderley died on Oct. 30. Troubled by health problems in recent years — a stroke, open-heart surgery — Long thanked his old friend for notifying him. They talked for a little while longer, and when he hung up he hoped it wouldn’t ring again soon.Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Robert Saleh Outlines Plans for the Jets, With No Specifics About Quarterback

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyRobert Saleh Outlines Plans for the Jets, With No Specifics About QuarterbackSaleh praised Sam Darnold’s arm strength but stopped short of committing to him as the starter as the Jets hold the No. 2 pick in the draft.Jets Coach Robert Saleh, the former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator, said he would leave the defensive play calling to his coordinator, Jeff Ulbrich.Credit…Jennifer Stewart/Associated PressJan. 21, 2021, 7:10 p.m. ETAs Robert Saleh said he planned to infuse every aspect of the Jets with a clear identity, the team on Thursday formally announced the bulk of the staff that will support him as he begins his first season as the head coach of an N.F.L. team.Several of the assistants have ties to the San Francisco 49ers, whose defense thrived with Saleh as its coordinator over the last four years. The Jets’ defense, which ranked 26th in points allowed in 2020, will be led by Jeff Ulbrich, who was promoted to the Atlanta Falcons’ co-defensive coordinator this season after serving as their linebackers coach since 2015.Ulbrich spent his entire playing career with the 49ers, as a linebacker from 2000 to 2009, and when he was an assistant coach for special teams with the Seattle Seahawks, he worked with Saleh during the 2011 season. Saleh said that, unlike some former coordinators when they become head coaches, he would leave the defensive play calling to Ulbrich and take on more of an oversight role.As Saleh, 41, tries to end the Jets’ 10-year streak of no postseason appearances, the question of whether to stick with quarterback Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, looms large. On Thursday, Saleh declined to discuss whether the team was considering using its No. 2 overall pick in this spring’s draft on another young quarterback or possibly trying to trade for the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson, who has reportedly become disaffected after the team’s hiring of a new general manager without his consultation.Saleh offered a glowing review of Darnold’s arm and said: “He’s fearless in the pocket, he’s got a natural throwing motion, he’s mobile, he’s extremely intelligent,” adding that “his reputation in the locker room is unquestioned.” Yet he stopped short of guaranteeing that the team would hold onto Darnold as its starter for the coming season.“We’re just getting the staff into the building so there’s so many things that we have to do from an evaluation standpoint with regards to the entire roster not just a quarterback,” Saleh said in his first news conference as head coach. “To give you that answer right now would not be fair.”The new offensive coordinator, Mike LaFleur, will be coming from the 49ers’ staff, as will John Benton, the offensive line coach and run game coordinator. Greg Knapp, the Jets’ new passing game specialist, most recently worked with the Atlanta Falcons, but he started his N.F.L. coaching career in San Francisco in the 1990s and overlapped with Saleh on the Texans’ staff in 2010. Rob Calabrese, who most recently worked with the Denver Broncos, will be the new quarterbacks coach.The 2020 Jets’ offense was the worst in the league in most categories under Adam Gase, who left the team with a 9-23 record during his two-year tenure. Saleh’s hope is to make the Jets’ offense reflect the 49ers’ system honed under Coach Kyle Shanahan.“There’s going to be a clear identity of what we’re trying to accomplish down in and down out on the offensive side of the ball, defensive side of the ball and special teams, for that matter,” Saleh said.Saleh said the team’s philosophy would be “all gas, no brakes,” a phrase he also used when he introduced himself as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.“He has consistently demonstrated the ability to innovate, motivate and collaborate,” Christopher Johnson, who has been serving as chairman of the Jets for the past four years, said of Saleh. “His character and passion are what this team needs.”Johnson will also take on a new role with the Jets as their vice chairman, allowing his brother, Woody, to reclaim the decision-making spot as principal owner. Woody Johnson had been serving as ambassador to the United Kingdom since 2017 under the Trump administration; Christopher Johnson said his brother was flying back to the United States on Thursday.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    NFL Playoff Predictions: Our Picks in the Conference Championships

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyN.F.L. Playoff Predictions: Our Picks in the Conference ChampionshipsWith a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Tom Brady leads Tampa Bay into Green Bay while Josh Allen and the Bills take on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.The conference championship games have M.V.P. candidates on each team: Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills.Credit…Clockwise from top left: Brynn Anderson/Associated Press; Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press; Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated PressJan. 21, 2021Updated 9:42 a.m. ETA complicated and stressful N.F.L. season is nearing its conclusion, with four star-studded teams facing off on Sunday with a Super Bowl appearance on the line. Each of the remaining teams has a Most Valuable Player Award candidate at quarterback, stars at wide receiver and defenses that can make big plays. The questions for this weekend include which of the N.F.C.’s celebrated quarterbacks will make his return to the Super Bowl and whether the upstart Buffalo Bills can knock off the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.Here is a look at the conference championship games. Unlike in the regular season, the picks in the playoffs are not made against the spread to emphasize which teams we believe will win.Playoff record: 8-8N.F.C. Championship GameTampa Bay has numerous receiving options, but Mike Evans, at 6 feet 5 inches, is a dominant force in the red zone.Credit…Brynn Anderson/Associated PressDavante Adams of the Green Bay Packers had a career year, with 1,374 yards receiving and 18 touchdowns.Credit…Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports, via ReutersTampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers, 3:05 p.m. Sunday, FoxLine: Packers -3 | Total: 51More than a hundred players will suit up for this game, but the spotlight will fall on two of them: Tom Brady of the Buccaneers and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. It isn’t unusual for quarterbacks to command most of the attention, but this matchup goes beyond that.Brady, with more career touchdown passes and more Super Bowl wins than any other player, had a terrific 2020 season, throwing 40 touchdown passes and ending Tampa Bay’s long postseason drought. Rodgers, a two-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award and one-time winner of the Super Bowl, had perhaps the best season of his career, throwing 48 touchdown passes while leading the N.F.C.’s top team.The quarterbacks have combined to start 551 games, including in the postseason. But largely as a result of playing in different conferences for most of their careers, they have faced off as starters just three times. Two came in Brady’s time with the New England Patriots, with Brady beating the Packers in 2018 and Rodgers beating the Patriots in 2014. They faced each other in Week 6 of this season, with the Buccaneers winning, 38-10. It was the Packers’ lowest scoring game of the year.Brady, 43, has a career edge in accomplishments. Rodgers, who is six years younger, has a physical edge. After a few quiet seasons, by his standards, Rodgers in 2020 used wide receivers Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to shred defenses as the Packers led the N.F.L. in scoring and finished fifth in total yardage. Brady’s statistics were also impressive, but he is more physically limited than he was in the past, frequently relying on talented receivers like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown and tight end Rob Gronkowski to turn short passes into long gains.In a more neutral environment, Tampa Bay could have counted on its young defense to shift the balance in the Buccaneers’ favor by pressuring Rodgers. In that scenario, the team would rely on Brady to put up points against a good defense that is not nearly as explosive. But in Green Bay, with snow showers in the forecast and a game-time temperature expected to be around 30 degrees, a team from Florida — even one with a New England icon at quarterback — will be out of its element.The Packers fought hard to secure home field advantage throughout the N.F.C. playoffs, and this game should reward them for that effort, ending the Buccaneers’ attempt to be the first team to appear in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Pick: PackersA.F.C. Championship GameStefon Diggs was acquired by Buffalo in an off-season trade. He responded with the best season of his career.Credit…Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports, via ReutersTravis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs set an N.F.L. record with 1,416 yards receiving as a tight end.Credit…Reed Hoffmann/Associated PressBuffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, 6:40 p.m. Sunday, CBSLine: Chiefs -3 | Total: 53.5The Chiefs’ pursuit of a second straight Super Bowl victory hit its first real speed bump last weekend when Patrick Mahomes had his neck twisted by a defender as he was dragged to the turf, putting him in the N.F.L.’s concussion protocol and forcing him out of Kansas City’s 22-17 win over the Cleveland Browns. The Chiefs iced that victory with key plays by the backup quarterback, Chad Henne, but Mahomes’s absence was palpable in a game Kansas City was expected to win in a blowout.Mahomes has practiced lightly this week while working to be cleared, but there is little fear he will miss the game. As a result, the A.F.C. will get a strength-against-strength matchup between the conference’s best teams of the regular season.The Bills had an offensive renaissance this season thanks to the development of quarterback Josh Allen and the arrival of wide receiver Stefon Diggs. They led Buffalo to the second most points in the league and its first division title since 1995. While the defense took a major step backward from a brilliant 2019 season, a strong performance last weekend against the Baltimore Ravens proved the unit could be great when needed.Buffalo might have to play a perfect game to compete with Kansas City. The Chiefs stormed back to win last season’s Super Bowl behind Mahomes’s brilliance, and lost only two games in the 2020 season — one a meaningless Week 17 game in which Mahomes and other starters were rested. The Chiefs will be at their best if running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire returns from a Week 16 hip injury, but the offense has plenty of options without him, including wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce.The Chiefs are the clear favorites, particularly at home, but Buffalo should not be counted out. If its defense can play the way it did in the divisional round and Allen can avoid mistakes, the Bills can turn this into quite a fight. But the most likely result is a Kansas City victory, which would give the Chiefs the chance to be the first team since the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Pick: Chiefs.All times are Eastern.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Is the N.F.L. Over Punting?

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyOn FootballIs the N.F.L. Over Punting?Analytics-minded observers have long argued against punting, but what may finally persuade N.F.L. coaches to go for it on fourth down is another postseason with high-profile successes.San Francisco 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky punted during a game against the Dallas Cowboys during the 2020-21 N.F.L. season.Credit…Brandon Wade/Associated PressJan. 21, 2021, 3:00 a.m. ETAs a tactic for winning football games, punting makes little sense. Basketball teams don’t stop rebounding and offer the ball to the opponent if they miss a few jumpers. Baseball teams don’t reach an 0-2 count with two outs and declare: “Oh well, the odds are against us. You’re up!” Yet football coaches, those self-styled battle-hardened generals, have been meekly surrendering on fourth downs for decades.The punt, a holdover from football’s rugby-related roots, has been part of the N.F.L.’s calcified conventional wisdom for generations. But the tactic has fallen on hard times in recent years. The events of this year’s playoffs could push the punt to the verge of extinction. When Chiefs Coach Andy Reid made the bold fourth-quarter decision in Kansas City’s divisional-round playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, he may have launched the meteor.Reid’s Chiefs appeared to be trying to lure the Browns defense offsides before an evitable punt on fourth-and-inches while protecting a narrow 22-17 lead. Instead, the Chiefs snapped the ball and surprised the defense with a short pass that allowed them to run out the clock instead of giving the Browns a chance to attempt a desperate final touchdown drive.Reid’s daring decision was the latest development in what has become a postseason referendum on punting. Moments earlier, the Browns had punted despite trailing in the fourth quarter, hoping their defense could stop a Chiefs offense missing the injured superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It could not.In the previous week’s wild-card round, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans punted in late-game, short-yardage situations while trailing, only to allow the Browns and Baltimore Ravens to score on the next possession, extend their leads and ultimately win both games.Punting has become far less prevalent in recent years. N.F.L. teams punted an average of 3.7 times per game during the 2020 regular season, the lowest figure in recorded pro football history. Teams averaged 4.8 punts per game as recently as 2017, a rate that had held more-or-less steady since the mid-1980s but has declined in each of the last four seasons.The sudden decrease in punting comes over a decade after the football analytics community began decrying the punt as a counterproductive strategy, particularly in short-yardage situations near midfield or when trailing late in a close game. It doesn’t take much number crunching to realize that if the average offense gains 5.6 yards per play (the 2020 rate), not only should a team be able to pick up a yard or two on fourth down, but it should also be wary of gifting the ball to an opposing offense capable of marching right back down the field 5.6 yards at a time.Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill made the catch on fourth down to end the Browns’ chance to come back on Sunday.Credit…Reed Hoffmann/Associated PressFans have become increasingly aware of the analytics of punting, thanks to social media accounts that provide real-time calculations of a team’s chances of winning based on various in-game decisions. However, it takes a long time for anything remotely scientific to gain acceptance in a league where coaches have been passing down both sacred tactical oral wisdom and tough-guy rhetoric since the days of George Halas.In the primordial N.F.L. of the 1920s, it was common for a superstar like Jim Thorpe to punt on first down if his team was pinned near its own goal line. The early-down punt disappeared at about the same time as the leather helmet, but punting on fourth down in most circumstances (when not in field-goal range) became the unquestioned norm at all levels of play. That made sense at the time. In the early 1950s, N.F.L. teams averaged less than five yards per play and committed well over three turnovers per game (the 2020 turnover rate was just 1.3 per game), so there was a decent chance that the punting team would quickly get the ball back.Offenses have grown steadily more efficient since the late 1970s. Yet most coaches remained convinced that even a fourth-and-inches conversion attempt was as nearly as risky as betting the deed to the farm on the hope of a royal flush.Conversion attempts gradually increased as mavericks like New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick (who has an economics degree) and then-Panthers coach Ron Rivera (whose nickname is Riverboat Ron) enjoyed success with fourth-and-short “gambles” over the last two decades. Doug Pederson, the former Philadelphia Eagles head coach, bucked conventional wisdom in Super Bowl LII with several high-risk fourth-down conversions, including the Philly Special (a goal-line trick play for a touchdown run in a typical field-goal situation) and a fourth-and-1 pass while protecting a fourth-quarter lead, which was similar to Reid’s decision on Sunday.A few high-profile anecdotes carry more weight in the N.F.L. than a mountain of statistical research, so it’s no surprise that punt rates began dropping precipitously after Super Bowl LII. The last two weeks of playoff results will likely further sour coaches on punting when they have no other viable options.There will always be a place for the punt on fourth-and-15 from the shadow of a team’s own goal posts. And in a league full of traditionalists who still chant mantras like “establish the run” and “defense wins championships,” no strategy is likely to disappear overnight. But gradually, coaches will begin to wonder why they are replacing their multimillion-dollar quarterbacks in high-leverage situations with the player most likely to walk through a parking lot tailgate unrecognized, and why they preach aggressiveness all week during practice, only to timidly, and voluntarily, give the ball to their opponents with the game on the line.As soon as the tough guys and mathematicians finally agree about punting, they can start debating in earnest about settling for field goals.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Philip Rivers Retires After 17 N.F.L. Seasons

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyPhilip Rivers Retires After 17 N.F.L. SeasonsThe longtime Chargers quarterback, who played this season for the Colts, was a durable contributor to the league’s aerial explosion.Philip Rivers retired ranked fifth in the three major career categories: completed passes (5,277), passing yards (63,440) and passing touchdowns (421).Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated PressJan. 20, 2021, 10:43 a.m. ETQuarterback Philip Rivers, who led the Chargers and the Colts with notable talent and durability in his 17-year N.F.L. career, retired on Wednesday at 39.Rivers was named the starting quarterback of the Chargers, then based in San Diego, in 2006. In the years since, he managed to start all 16 regular-season games in an astonishing 15 consecutive seasons, 14 with the Chargers as the franchise moved to Los Angeles, and the 2020 season with the Indianapolis Colts. He had at least 20 touchdown passes, 250 completions and 3,000 yards in every one of those seasons.Rivers retires ranking fifth in the three major career categories: completed passes (5,277), passing yards (63,440) and passing touchdowns (421). In each case, he ranks behind Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, in some order.Unlike those four quarterbacks, he never played on a team good enough to make a Super Bowl. His career playoff record was only 5-7. Still, he was good enough to make eight Pro Bowls, and lead in just about every passer category for a season or two.“Every year, Jan. 20 is a special and emotional day,” Rivers told ESPN. “It is St. Sebastian’s feast day, the day I played in the A.F.C. championship without an A.C.L., and now the day that after 17 seasons, I’m announcing my retirement from the National Football League.”In the A.F.C. championship game for the 2007 season, Rivers played despite having torn his anterior cruciate ligament. The Chargers lost to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, 21-12, denying Rivers that elusive Super Bowl appearance.Rivers crossed paths with several quarterbacks who, like him, may wind up in the Hall of Fame. He was drafted No. 4 over all out of North Carolina State by the Giants, who immediately traded him to the Chargers for the No. 1 pick, Eli Manning.After two seasons on the bench, Rivers got the starting job with the Chargers when they decided to let their incumbent quarterback, Drew Brees, leave as a free agent. But Rivers proved nearly as productive over his long career.Even in his final season, with Indianapolis, he led the team to an 11-5 record. In his final game, he lost to the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs, 27-24.Born in Alabama, the son of a high school football coach and a teacher, Rivers for a time caught the fancy of fans by wearing a bolo tie at postgame interviews. “Whether he does or not, he comes across as a guy who when he’s done playing is going to be on a ranch, cleaning a barn or riding a horse,” Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said in 2014 of Rivers, who had a locker next to him for a decade. “He’s got that true country boy in him.”“I can sit here and say: ‘I can still throw it. I love to play,’” Rivers told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “But that’s always going to be there. I’m excited to go coach high school football.”In May, Rivers was announced as the next head coach at St. Michael Catholic High School in Fairhope, Ala., effective after his N.F.L. career was over.Rivers concluded a statement of thanks to fans, coaches and teammates with the Latin phrase “nunc coepi,” which he has translated as “now I begin.” The phrase has served as his motto over the years, and hung on the wall of the Chargers’ locker room.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More