More stories

  • in

    What We Learned From Week 2 of the N.F.L. Season

    Bill Belichick sees a path toward making the Patriots a dynastic contender again, the Cowboys’ talent got a chance to shine, and Sam Darnold looks … happy.There were no shirtless pictures of Bill Belichick from Barbados gracing your screens this off-season.Belichick, the New England Patriots’ head coach, was far too busy to kick back last spring.As a drunken Tom Brady chucked the Vince Lombardi Trophy boat to boat, and as we all declared the quarterback the true driving force in New England all those years, Belichick, the N.F.L.’s Voldemort, plotted his vengeful return. Ego understandably ended this generation’s greatest dynasty. Honestly, it’s a miracle Brady and Belichick coexisted for two decades. Now, ego just may be transforming the Patriots into contenders again.After the Patriots’ first losing season since 2000, Belichick declared himself the fixer this off-season with a $232 million spending spree on his roster. The message was clear in his 47th year as an N.F.L. coach: Give me the horses, and I’ll win with a quarterback on the cheap.And while nobody should ever schedule a Super Bowl parade after a win over the calamity that is the Jets, Sunday served as a quiet warning to the rest of the N.F.L. that Belichick’s Patriots aren’t dead yet.New England’s defense suffocated Zach Wilson throughout a 25-6 win. Once again, Belichick turned a rookie quarterback into a pumpkin. At one point, Wilson had four interceptions and four completions, and you half-hoped Jets Coach Robert Saleh would put the poor player out of his misery by handing him a clipboard.Add it all up, and what we learned most in Week 2 is that there is absolutely a path for the Patriots to be the Patriots once again.Clearly, the Jets are zero threat to win any time soon.The Miami Dolphins (1-1) looked abysmal in a 35-0 home loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. With or without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, this isn’t an offense that’ll scare anyone any time soon. Here’s thinking their Week 1 upset in Foxborough, Mass., was a gift-wrapped fluke.And, yes, the Bills are the defending A.F.C. East champs. Yes, they blasted Miami and, yes, the defense looks phenomenal. The fact is, their franchise quarterback — the very rich Josh Allen — has not looked sharp. He completed only 51 percent of his passes.So what if the Mac Jones Experience in New England is as exciting as a trip to the dentist? We see now why this team was OK washing its hands of Cam Newton. Jones is not overwhelmed by the speed of the N.F.L., Dad bod or not, and that’s all Belichick asks with the roster he has assembled around the position. After paying up for edge rusher Matt Judon, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, corner Jalen Mills, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and end Henry Anderson — Get all that? — Belichick knew he didn’t need a Superman at quarterback. He needed a distributor who wouldn’t turn the ball over.If that sounds very 1994, he frankly does not care.He let the Jets swing for the fences on a potential Mahomes Lite at No. 2 overall, perfectly content standing pat at No. 15 for a quarterback who completed 77.4 percent of his passes at Alabama. And unlike every other team that drafted a quarterback in April, the Jets did not sign anything resembling a threat or a veteran to challenge or support their rookie. This was Wilson’s gig from Day 1 and, on Sunday, you couldn’t help but wonder if the Jets should’ve found themselves a McCown of some sort.Wilson, the Brigham Young gunslinger, saw more ghosts than Sam Darnold ever dreamed of.After Interception No. 3 — a bizarre floater right to cornerback J.C. Jackson — Jones called an audible at the line and threw a beautiful rainbow to the Patriots’ Jakobi Meyers, in stride, for 24 yards.Such was the theme. This game served as a magnifying glass over two polar-opposite rookies. Wilson wants to play off-script like the three-time M.V.P. he idolized: Aaron Rodgers. His improvisation should at least make another losing season fun for the Jets. When a 315-pounder, Lawrence Guy, barreled in for a sack, Wilson hardly blinked. He juked. He escaped. He kept his eyes downfield before throwing incomplete.This style of play could prove to be special.This style could also get chewed up and spat out by the rest of the N.F.L.Interception No. 4 was even uglier, almost as if New England’s Devin McCourty was Wilson’s intended target.Meanwhile, Jones chugged along. He threw no touchdowns and no picks in completing 22 of 30 passes for 186 yards for the Patriots.Interesting, isn’t it? Through this off-season of quarterback madness, teams bent over backward for the chance at something special. San Francisco unloaded three first-rounders for someone from North Dakota State who played one football game in 2020 (Trey Lance); Green Bay was perfectly fine being publicly embarrassed by its disgruntled M.V.P. for six months (Rodgers); Indianapolis was willing to take on Carson Wentz’s massive contract; the L.A. Rams unloaded two firsts, a third and Jared Goff for a 33-year-old who has gone 74-90-1 in his career with zero playoff wins.The Bills handed Allen a six-year, $258 million contract.The Bears took a swing at every veteran possible before trading up for Justin Fields.And here’s Belichick again zagging as the rest of the league zigs. His defense is highly compensated and loaded. Judon will be worth every penny of his four-year, $56 million deal. Good luck finding a weakness anywhere. And this offense will only get better. Damien Harris atoned for his Week 1 fumble with arguably the best run of the season on Sunday.Harris broke seven tackles on the way to the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown.Beast Mode himself would be proud.OK, Brady’s title for Tampa Bay justifiably has us all questioning who meant more to those six N.F.L. titles in New England. Let’s not write those obituaries on the Patriots quite yet. If this equation leads to a winner, be it 2021 or 2022, nobody will question Belichick again. That’s surely on Belichick’s mind, too.For now, let’s just get the popcorn ready for Patriots-Bucs on Oct. 3.Defensive back Nasir Adderley of the Los Angeles Chargers broke up a pass intended for tight end Blake Jarwin of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesCowboys’ talent overcomes Chargers’ errors.The Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Chargers of this generation are bound to throw wins away as the seconds wane. Both teams have assembled contenders but something, always something, is bound to go wrong.Sunday’s game, a 20-17 Dallas win, sure seemed to be heading in that direction for both teams.On two consecutive drives, the Chargers had touchdowns wiped out by penalties.First, a holding penalty nullified a Donald Parham Jr. score. (An interception soon followed.) Then, an illegal shift nullified a Jared Cook touchdown when Los Angeles had first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. (The Chargers settled for a field goal.) The Chargers (1-1) finished with 12 penalties for 99 yards.Then, it appeared to be the Cowboys’ turn. With 3 minutes 45 seconds left and the score tied, quarterback Dak Prescott drove Dallas into Los Angeles territory, and the Cowboys (1-1) grew lax. Coach Mike McCarthy, who has had clock management issues throughout his career, inexplicably let precious time bleed off the clock with the ball on the Chargers’ 38-yard line.Nonetheless, with four seconds left, Greg Zuerlein banged in a 56-yard field goal to give Dallas its first win of the season.This will need to be the theme for the Cowboys, a team that has suffered the same problems for 25 years now. In 2021, that talent may be enough to validate the machinations of the ownership, the coaching changes and the constant attention. This was a solid win. We know Prescott is one of the greats, but on Sunday, the Cowboys proved they could win with the run, too. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for 180 rushing yards.Defensively, this isn’t going to be the historically awful unit we saw in 2020. The team’s new defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, has brought a scheme that is much better than the one Mike Nolan installed via Zoom a year ago, and Micah Parsons gives the Cowboys a playmaking pass rusher that opposing coordinators must now account for every week. A rookie out of Penn State, he was a presence all game with four quarterback hits and one sack.Next time, the Cowboys just may want to gain another 8 yards to be safe.Through his first two games with the Carolina Panthers, quarterback Sam Darnold has looked accurate, decisive and in rhythm. In other words, not like a Jets quarterback.Jacob Kupferman/Associated PressHey, Darnold.There is good news, Jets fans! Your new quarterback isn’t taking any advice from Adam Gase.The Carolina Panthers’ Sam Darnold — newly Gase-less — was the best quarterback on Sunday in lighting up the same New Orleans Saints defense that throttled Aaron Rodgers a week ago. He shredded the Saints for 305 yards on 26-of-38 passing with two touchdowns in a breezy 26-7 win. Thus far, the Panthers have gotten the most bang for their buck through that quarterback carousel. The marriage between Darnold and the offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, has been perfect two games in.Darnold isn’t going to wow anyone with his athleticism or his arm strength, but the reason a team drafted him over Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson is finally on display. He’s decisive. He’s accurate. He gets into a rhythm. Brady’s offense isn’t wordy or complicated like Gase’s. It simply has an answer for every type of coverage you can throw at Carolina — and Darnold delivers. After failing to register 200 yards and two scores in any game last season, the former Jet accomplished exactly that in one half against New Orleans.Now, with the right coach and the right weapons, he has a realistic shot to be everything we expected in 2018. And then some.Sunday’s GamesRaiders 26, Steelers 17: Derek Carr has secretively been a top 10 quarterback for a while now and he made one of the best defenses in the NFL look silly. If this is the real Henry Ruggs III, the Raiders’ offense may be here to stay, too. He’s not dinking and dunking all game as you might’ve thought — Carr has developed incredible touch on his deep ball.Henry Ruggs III caught a 61-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr in the fourth quarter of the Raiders’ 26-17 win over the Steelers.Philip G. Pavely/USA Today Sports, via ReutersBears 20, Bengals 17: Nine quarterback hits, four sacks, three interceptions, one pick-6. Let’s pray the Bengals aren’t ruining Joe Burrow off that torn ACL.49ers 17, Eagles 11: Jalen Reagor juuust stepped out of bounds running his route before hauling in a deep touchdown that would’ve completely changed the complexion of this game. Instead, San Francisco recovered to grind out the win.Browns 31, Texas 21: Baker Mayfield shouldn’t try to lay anybody out after his next interception. After giving locals a scare with a shoulder injury — a familiar feeling in Cleveland — the quarterback bounced back to finish 19 of 21 for 213 yards with one rushing score and one passing score.Rams 27, Colts 24: It wasn’t pretty but this is also why Sean McVay traded for Matthew Stafford. The longtime Lions starter is used to rallying his offense in the fourth quarter, and he needed to on Sunday.Broncos 23, Jaguars 13: No Jerry Jeudy, no problem. This Denver offense hummed right along with Courtland Sutton (nine receptions for 159 yards) stepping up as Teddy Bridgewater’s go-to guy. Like Darnold in Carolina, Teddy B in Denver is looking like a steal.Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25: A year ago, this offense was in disarray. Tom Brady wanted one offense. Bruce Arians wanted another. Now? Tampa Bay is already scoring at will and that’s a scary thought. Ten different players accounted for 24 completions as Brady threw five touchdowns in all. Until further notice, the Bucs are the team to beat.Cardinals 34, Vikings 33: When the Vikings decided to re-up Kirk Cousins one year ago, it meant embracing a total rebuild on defense. Mike Zimmer’s entire unit underwent a youth movement for the team to simply get under the cap. And while the Covid-19 pandemic provided an understandable excuse for last year’s issues — and there were plenty — there’s no excuse for how bad Minnesota’s defense has looked through two games. Zimmer has work to do.Titans 33, Seahawks 30 (Overtime): Weird things happen in Seattle. Always. None of us should be surprised that the Titans erased a 24-9 lead in a hostile environment to win. As ugly as the first six quarters to their season were, this remains an offense overflowing with weapons and Derrick Henry isn’t showing the slightest signs of wear and tear. The workhorse back bashed Seattle for 182 yards on 35 carries with three touchdowns. More

  • in

    Which A.F.C. Teams Could Challenge Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs?

    The Kansas City Chiefs fortified their offensive line in pursuit of another championship, but the Bills, Browns and a bevy of first-year starters should shake up the order.With back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl, it’s fair to say that the conference once ruled by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning now belongs to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.But last season’s churn lifted new contenders and stoked new rivalries that could define the next decade for the A.F.C. The Buffalo Bills reached the conference championship and the Cleveland Browns won a playoff game, both for the first time since 1994, and the two franchises are looking to build on that success. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans will try to settle their disdain for each other without drawing newly emphasized taunting penalties this season.Though the Texans’ fate is wrapped up in Deshaun Watson’s future, rookie quarterbacks will have their say elsewhere as the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence, Jets’ Zach Wilson and Patriots’ Mac Jones make their debuts. Here’s a look at where the A.F.C. stands as the 2021 season kicks off.A.F.C. EastBuffalo Bills (13-3)Key additions: QB Mitchell Trubisky, WR Emmanuel Sanders, RB Matt BreidaKey departures: WR John Brown, CB Josh NormanThe Bills came within one game of returning to the Super Bowl last season, so their priority was to lock in their best talent, starting with quarterback Josh Allen, who signed a six-year contract extension during training camp. To round out what were the N.F.L.’s second-best offense and a middling defense in 2020, the team also re-signed linebacker Matt Milano, guard Jon Feliciano and offensive tackle Daryl Williams, and picked up the fifth-year option on linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, and restocked the offensive and defensive lines early in the draft.Miami Dolphins (10-6)Key additions: WR Will Fuller V, QB Jacoby Brissett, CB Justin Coleman, RB Malcolm BrownKey departures: LB Kyle Van Noy, QB Ryan FitzpatrickThe Dolphins were one of the most improved teams in the N.F.L. in 2020, bouncing back from a five-win 2019 season to narrowly miss a playoff berth. To get over the postseason hump, the team gave quarterback Tua Tagovailoa another deep threat in Fuller, to go with DeVante Parker and Jaylen Waddle, whom the Dolphins drafted sixth overall. Tagovailoa went 6-3 in nine starts, with 11 touchdowns last season, so there’s reason to expect improvement, but if he falters, Brissett’s one-year deal gives the Dolphins a veteran to step in to lead an offense that ranked 22nd in the league last year.New England Patriots (7-9)Key additions: QB Mac Jones, TE Jonnu Smith, TE Hunter Henry, WR Nelson AgholorKey departures: QB Cam Newton, RB Sony Michel, S Patrick Chung, OG Joe ThuneyBill Belichick doesn’t like losing and after experiencing his first losing season since 2000, the year he took over in New England, the Patriots’ coach had a very busy off-season. Quarterback Cam Newton clearly was not the long-term solution to the hole left by Tom Brady, but the rookie Jones will face an expedited development after Newton’s sudden release at the end of training camp.Jones benefits from Belichick’s free agent spending in the off-season, when the coach used the league’s second-most cap space to lure in elite tight ends Smith and Henry, who figure to factor heavily in the offense. Defensive back Jalen Mills and linebacker Matthew Judon, who spent five seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, round out the summer haul that should alert Buffalo and Miami that Belichick wants his division back.New York Jets (2-14)The Jets took quarterback Zach Wilson from B.Y.U. with the second overall pick in this year’s draft.Matt Ludtke/Associated PressKey additions: QB Zach Wilson, WR Corey Davis, DT Sheldon Rankins, DE Carl LawsonKey departures: LB Jordan Jenkins, LB Tarell Basham, WR Breshad PerrimanAfter a disastrous 2020 season, the Jets and their new head coach, Robert Saleh, need more than just one off-season to fill all the holes in their roster. They began the restock in April’s draft by selecting Wilson, who takes over what was the league’s worst offense, and targeting the secondary by taking five defensive backs, led by Jamien Sherwood of Auburn.Davis and Keelan Cole Sr. should provide receiver depth alongside Jamison Crowder, and running back Tevin Coleman, who arrives in free agency after playing in only eight games for the 49ers last season due to a knee injury, should give Wilson a release valve if he’s healthy.—Ken BelsonA.F.C. NorthBaltimore Ravens (11-5)Key additions: WR Sammy Watkins, LT Alejandro VillanuevaKey departures: RB Mark Ingram II, LB Matthew Judon, DE Yannick NgakoueBy their standards, the Ravens had a down year in 2020 despite finishing 11-5 in one of the league’s most competitive divisions. Opponents found ways to slow the team’s running game and quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose season ended with a concussion sustained during the divisional round loss to the Buffalo Bills.Jackson enters his fourth season no doubt motivated to show why he deserves a big long-term contract extension and Watkins’ deep threat potential should help him make his case. He will also need to adjust to the absence of J.K. Dobbins, the lead running back who suffered a season-ending knee injury during a preseason game, though the Ravens have a capable backup in Gus Edwards.Team executives aiming for a deeper postseason run focused as usual on defense, re-signing linebackers Chris Board, Tyus Bowser and L.J. Fort, to go with a talented backfield that includes Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey.Cornerback Marcus Peters and the Ravens celebrated a fourth-quarter interception in the A.F.C. wild card win over the Titans in January.Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)Key additions: WR Ja’Marr Chase, RT Riley Reiff, CB Eli Apple, CB Ricardo AllenKey departures: WR A.J. Green, RB Giovani BernardQuarterback Joe Burrow, the first overall draft pick in 2020, saw his disappointing rookie season end in Week 11 when he tore ligaments in his left knee on a brutal hit. Burrow is expected to be back for the season opener against Minnesota, behind an improved offensive line coached by Frank Pollack, who returns to Cincinnati after two seasons with the Jets.Though the team passed over Penei Sewell to reunite Burrow with Chase, who should again give his quarterback a reliable deep threat, it added Reiff to the line on a one-year deal and drafted Jackson Carman, who protected Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, in the second round. Those additions likely won’t be enough to stop the Browns, Ravens and Steelers from continuing to dominate the division, but they’ll suffice if they keep Burrow off the operating table.Cleveland Browns (11-5)Key additions: DE Jadeveon Clowney, CB Greg Newsome, S John Johnson, LB Anthony WalkerKey departures: DT Sheldon RichardsonAfter ending the N.F.L.’s longest playoff drought with a wild card win over the vaunted Steelers, the Browns aren’t settling for a victory lap in the 2021 season. General Manger Andrew Berry continued revamping the roster this off-season, with a square aim on a defense that allowed too many clock-sucking drives in 2020.Berry brought in the top available defensive free agent in April, signing Clowney to a one-year deal to complement Myles Garrett in the pass rush, and added Johnson, perhaps the best available secondary player in free agency. Baker Mayfield, who cut down his turnovers in 2020, should benefit from having a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. to target.Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)Key additions: RB Najee Harris, DB Miles Killebrew, OT Joe HaegKey departures: RB James Conner, C Maurkice Pouncey, LB Bud Dupree, T Alejandro VillanuevaThe Ben Roethlisberger era, now in its 18th season, persists. How it will end is the question. Big Ben, 39, seemed to toss off any questions about his rebuilt throwing arm by beginning last season on an 11-0 run. But Pittsburgh couldn’t complete a rally in the wild card round to beat the Browns and the season was dashed well shy of expectations.The Steelers re-signed one of Roethlisberger’s favorite receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and drafted in the first round running back Najee Harris, who broke Derrick Henry’s rushing touchdowns record at Alabama. But the Steelers lost two of their best offensive linemen and with Cleveland on the rise and Baltimore looking for a longer playoff run, the Steelers will have a hard time winning the A.F.C. North again.—Ken BelsonA.F.C. SouthHouston Texans (4-12)Key arrivals: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB Rex Burkhead, OT Marcus Cannon, OL Justin BrittKey departures: WR Will Fuller V, C Nick Martin, DE J.J. WattThe 22 pending lawsuits against Deshaun Watson accusing him of sexual misconduct, which he has denied, loom over a franchise that chooses to pretend it’s not at all weird for him to take fourth-team reps at quarterback or serve as scout-team safety — or be with the team at all. Then again, not much makes sense about the Texans, whose front-office dysfunction and salary-cap mismanagement alienated their best players and precipitated a roster, reconstituted with free agents on short-term deals and coached by a first-timer in David Culley, that may luck its way into a victory or two. Or maybe not.Indianapolis Colts (11-5)Key arrivals: QB Carson Wentz, OT Eric Fisher, DT Antwaun Woods, DE Kwity PayeKey departures: QB Philip Rivers, QB Jacoby Brissett, OT Anthony Castonzo, DE Denico Autry, LB Justin Houston, S Malik HookerNot many teams are constructed and coached as well as the Colts, who went about solving the quarterback quandary prompted by Philip Rivers’s retirement … by acquiring one of the worst in the N.F.L by many statistical measures, advanced or traditional. Carson Wentz has been reunited with Coach Frank Reich and Press Taylor, former mentors in Philadelphia, but is recovering from foot surgery that imperils his availability for Week 1. If Wentz can’t revive his career, a team brimming with talent — guard Quenton Nelson, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and linebacker Darius Leonard all rank among the best in the league at their positions — can expect to struggle, especially with a brutal early schedule.Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)Key arrivals: QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Carlos Hyde, DT Malcom Brown, CB Shaquill GriffinKey departures: WR Keelan ColeIn a college hotbed, owner Shahid Khan has entrusted a successful college coach, Urban Meyer, and the best college quarterback prospect in a decade to resuscitate one of the N.F.L.’s woebegone franchises. The Jaguars will be relevant. Whether they’ll be anything more than competitive depends on the progress of, duh, Lawrence, and their brigade of recent high draft picks, defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson, cornerback C.J. Henderson and receiver Laviska Shenault. Alas, the Jaguars couldn’t schedule Florida A&M or Kent State to ease Meyer’s transition; they’ll have to settle for playing the Texans twice.Tennessee Titans (11-5)Key arrivals: WR Julio Jones, DE Denico Autry, LB Bud Dupree, CB Caleb FarleyKey departures: WR Corey Davis, TE Jonnu Smith, LB Jadeveon Clowney, CB Malcolm ButlerThe Titans were perhaps the most unbalanced team in the N.F.L. last season — elite offense, woeful defense — and hey, guess what? They very well might be again. Their off-season makeover yielded an inexperienced secondary and a thin group of pass-rushers headlined by Dupree, who is coming off knee surgery.It also netted Jones, who if he stays healthy adds another mismatch in the passing game to complement A.J. Brown. As assembled, the Titans are good enough to win this middling division again, but their chances would improve if they narrowed that gap between offense and defense even a bit.—Ben ShpigelA.F.C. WestDenver Broncos (5-11)Key Additions: QB Teddy Bridgewater, CB Patrick Surtain II (1st round) CB Ronald Darby, CB Kyle FullerKey Departures: RB Phillip Lindsay, CB A.J. Bouye, TE Nick Vannett, RT Ja’Wuan JamesThe Broncos spent much of training camp evaluating a quarterback battle between a journeyman and a young, inconsistent passer.Teddy Bridgewater, discarded by the Carolina Panthers in a trade, wrenched the starting job away from Drew Lock, who led the league in interceptions thrown in 2020. Bridgewater’s risk-averse play should be a boon to receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton. Star linebacker Von Miller returns from an ankle injury that kept him out last season, holding down a strong defense that got better for drafting cornerback Patrick Surtain II and adding the veteran Fuller in free agency.Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)Key Additions: OT Orlando Brown, OG Joe Thuney, DT Jarran Reed, OL Austin BlytheKey Departures: OT Eric Fisher, WR Sammy Watkins, OT Mitchell SchwartzThe Chiefs’ depleted offensive line was exposed in last year’s playoffs, first when Mahomes took on a hit by the Browns in the divisional round, and definitively in the Super Bowl, when the Buccaneers sacked Mahomes twice and hit him nine times. General manager Brett Veach addressed the deficiency in the off-season by trading for Brown and drafting 6-foot-5 center Creed Humphrey in the second round. The new-look offensive line should give Mahomes the time in the pocket to find his speedy playmakers instead of relying on him to be one.Las Vegas Raiders (8-8)Key Additions: DL Yannick Ngakoue, RB Kenyan Drake, WR John Brown, OL Alex LeatherwoodKey Departures: WR Nelson Agholor, DE Takkarist McKinley, RB Devontae BookerTight end Darren Waller became the Raiders’ best offensive weapon last season, catching 107 passes and posting over 1,000 receiving yards. Opponents noticed. This season, defenses focused on stopping Waller should be kept honest by running back Josh Jacobs, who earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2020, and deep threat receiver Henry Ruggs III.The Raiders’ top-10 offense was weighed down by a defense that ranked 30th in the N.F.L. and gave up 389 yards per game. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was brought in along with Ngakoue, who should compliment Maxx Crosby on the defensive line. That unit could hold control over how hot Coach Jon Gruden’s seat gets.Los Angeles Chargers (7-9)After missing all of the 2020 season and 11 games in 2019, Chargers safety Derwin James, right, is back to his pass-stealing ways in Los Angeles.Alex Gallardo/Associated PressKey Additions: C Corey Linsley, OT Matt Feiler, TE Jared Cook, OT Rashawn SlaterKey Departures: TE Hunter Henry, CB Casey Hayward, DE Melvin IngramHad a team physician not accidentally punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung, Justin Herbert may never have played last season. But he did, and his stellar performance — throwing for over 4,000 yards, 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, earned him the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. Herbert’s rise was the bright spot in a season in which the Chargers clumsily lost seven games by one score and fired Coach Anthony Lynn.His replacement, Brandon Staley, takes over a revamped offensive line and gets back safety Derwin James, an All-Pro in 2018, who missed 11 games after fracturing his right foot in 2019 and sat out the 2020 season with a torn meniscus. With James healthy, a wild-card berth isn’t out of the question.—Emmanuel Morgan More

  • in

    N.F.L. Vaccine Holdouts Face Training Camp Scrutiny

    Though 88.5 percent of all N.F.L. players had received at least one vaccine dose through Friday, some players voiced their hesitance to be inoculated.When asked by reporters Tuesday if he had received the Covid-19 vaccine, Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner nodded his head and smiled.“Yes, sir, fully vaccinated,” Buckner said.When asked the same question, his teammate, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, declined to clearly answer, glancing downward, his response slightly muffled by the mask covering his expression.“It’s a personal decision,” Hilton said, “so let’s just leave it at that.”On Monday, Frank Reich, the Colts’ vaccinated head coach, tested positive in a so-called breakthrough infection. He was asymptomatic, but participated in the start of training camp remotely, Chris Ballard, the team’s general manager, said.As the first week of N.F.L. training camps concluded amid the backdrop of the Delta variant fueling an alarming spike in coronavirus cases nationally, the dichotomy within the Colts’ locker room reflected the discussion among N.F.L. players regarding the vaccine, even as the league offered more education and levied harsher penalties on the unvaccinated.As of Friday morning, 88.5 percent of all players had received at least one vaccine dose, according to an N.F.L. spokesman, a more than 8 percent jump from last week. Twenty of the 32 teams have more than 90 percent of their rosters vaccinated, while two teams, the Colts and the Washington Football Team, have vaccination rates below 70 percent.With training camps open, players can now voice their opinions to the broader public, and their actions are more scrutinized with reporters present. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2019 N.F.L. most valuable player, tested positive for the coronavirus this week, his second infection since November. Protocols will require Jackson to miss at least 10 days if he is unvaccinated.Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette voiced their hesitancy about the vaccine in July on social media in posts they’ve since deleted..css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-w739ur{margin:0 auto 5px;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-w739ur{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-9s9ecg{margin-bottom:15px;}.css-uf1ume{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-box-pack:justify;-webkit-justify-content:space-between;-ms-flex-pack:justify;justify-content:space-between;}.css-wxi1cx{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;-webkit-align-self:flex-end;-ms-flex-item-align:end;align-self:flex-end;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott declined to reveal his vaccination status to reporters this week, inaccurately claiming that doing so would violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley, an outspoken vaccine critic, even crafted an original song regarding his stance.Despite high-profile examples of players with reservations about the vaccine, the leaguewide vaccination rate exceeds that of the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that nearly 70 percent of adults have received at least one dose.The N.F.L. in July issued a memo to all 32 teams outlining steep penalties for those who refuse inoculation. If an unvaccinated player or staff member is found to have caused an outbreak that forces a schedule change, the team experiencing the outbreak will be held financially responsible for the other club’s expenses, the memo said. If the game cannot be rescheduled, the team experiencing the outbreak will forfeit.Washington Coach Ron Rivera, left, wore a mask while talking to Tress Way at Thursday’s practice. Kevin Dietsch/Getty ImagesUnvaccinated players still face several restrictions, including daily testing, capacity limits in weight rooms and a requirement to travel on a separate plane from teammates. The league can also fine them as much as $50,000 for breaking Covid-related protocols. Regardless of the decrees from the N.F.L., individual teams still are encountering some resistance.In June, Washington Coach Ron Rivera addressed his team’s low vaccination rate by inviting Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist who helped develop the Moderna vaccine, to speak with players and address their questions.Some remained skeptical, including defensive end Montez Sweat, who said he was “not a fan” of the vaccine. Rivera, who is immune-compromised after battling cancer, said he continues to wear a mask around groups of players to protect himself.“‘I’m truly frustrated,” Rivera said. “I’m beyond frustrated.”The scattered messaging among some of the N.F.L.’s recognizable players may sow further doubt in who that may already be distrustful, said Dr. Sherita Golden, vice president and chief diversity officer at Johns Hopkins Medicine.“I do think they need to lead by example and realize the power of their influence,” she said in an interview Thursday. “Them modeling and getting the vaccine and tweeting about it sends a powerful message.”About 70 percent of N.F.L. players are Black, a racial group that is already suspicious of the vaccine and has limited access to it, and whose members are killed by the virus at a higher rate. Only 41 percent of those who have received the vaccine nationally are people of color, according to the C.D.C. and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The distrust among some N.F.L. players mimics societal trends, Golden said.“We don’t know their experiences growing up or interacting with the health care system,” Golden said. “Just because they are athletes doesn’t mean their lived experience doesn’t have influence, and I think we have to acknowledge that.”.css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-w739ur{margin:0 auto 5px;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-w739ur{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-9s9ecg{margin-bottom:15px;}.css-uf1ume{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-box-pack:justify;-webkit-justify-content:space-between;-ms-flex-pack:justify;justify-content:space-between;}.css-wxi1cx{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;-webkit-align-self:flex-end;-ms-flex-item-align:end;align-self:flex-end;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}The Denver Broncos were one of the first teams in the N.F.L. to vaccinate 85 percent of their players, thanks to a lot of education, discussion and communication, said George Paton, the team’s general manager.Last season, Dr. Michelle Barron, the senior medical director of infection prevention at UCHealth, advised the franchise on Covid-related issues. As the vaccine became widely available this spring, she led informational sessions with the team and privately with players’ families if requested. She also helped coordinate a vaccine clinic in April at the Broncos’ facility. Their vaccination rate did not surprise her, she said.“From the feedback I got, the important thing for them was to feel like they had the information, for them to be able to digest and then come back and ask smart questions,” Barron said in an interview Thursday.As training camp progresses, unvaccinated players battling for roster spots may face challenges. Beasley said in a news conference that unvaccinated young players have told him they fear they may be cut. Ballard, the Colts general manager, said that those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, but that the question of vaccination did make the process harder, especially for free agents whose unvaccinated status would mean they’d have to be tested more often. Regardless, he said he would try to evaluate fairly.“Whoever wins the job on the field, that’s who’s making the team,” Ballard said. “I’m not going to take a player just because he’s vaccinated that hadn’t won the job. What message are you sending to your locker room?”Players’ decisions on vaccination will probably be exposed over time. The unvaccinated are required to wear a mask when addressing the news media, unless they are outdoors and physically distant — a practice some inoculated players still choose to follow. Some teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, identify unvaccinated players with colored wristbands, a tactic Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter, the president of the N.F.L. Players Association, called “nonsensical.” Asked if he was prepared to operate under similar circumstances if needed, Hilton said, “Absolutely.”The stringent new rules, though, seem to have had an effect. Colts running back Nyheim Hines said that he initially did not want to be vaccinated, but that the protocols had changed his mind. He called the shift a “business decision.”Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill agreed, saying he would not have received the vaccine otherwise.“They’re trying to force your hand, and they ultimately have forced a lot of hands,” Tannehill said. More

  • in

    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

  • in

    NFL Playoffs: What We Learned From the Wild Card Weekend

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyWhat We Learned From the N.F.L.’s Wild-Card WeekendLamar Jackson finally won a playoff game, Tom Brady continued to break records and Nickelodeon’s broadcast of a game for children offered a welcome distraction.Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens has rushed for more than 130 yards in two of his three career playoff games.Credit…Mark Zaleski/Associated PressJan. 10, 2021Updated 9:18 p.m. ETIt was a supersize wild-card weekend, with the N.F.L.’s expanded playoff format requiring six games, rather than four, in the first two days of the postseason. There were no surprises in the results of the first five games, but most were close enough to provide plenty of entertainment.Here’s what we learned:It is time for a new Lamar Jackson narrative. It was hard to tell if the Baltimore Ravens were a top contender or a beneficiary of one of the N.F.L.’s weakest schedules over the final five weeks of the regular season. And with consecutive seasons that each ended in a disappointing playoff loss, there were those who questioned whether Jackson’s run-heavy style could translate to postseason success. After watching Baltimore race for 236 yards on the ground in a 20-13 win on the road against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, those narratives can be retired. Baltimore won’t surprise anyone, but knowing what’s coming is a lot different from knowing how to stop it.With his first playoff win and his team’s defense playing well, Jackson should finally be able to relax. That should terrify opponents, because Jackson, who rushed for 136 yards on Sunday and 143 in last year’s playoff loss to Tennessee, already owns two of the top three playoff rushing performances by a quarterback in N.F.L. history.[embedded content]Nickelodeon should broadcast a game every week. Keeping things interesting when a heavily favored team wins easily can be hard, but a broadcast on Nick aimed at children managed to do just that. The announcers explained the game at a base level, but had entertaining insights along the way, as when the former N.F.L. player Nate Burleson described being tackled as feeling like “falling down wooden stairs.” As for the actual game, the New Orleans Saints barely broke a sweat while beating the Chicago Bears, 21-9. The only real misstep of the broadcast was a fan vote leading to Mitchell Trubisky, the losing quarterback, being named the game’s most valuable player. Over all, the innovations led to the least competitive game of the weekend being must-see TV. (Related: The writer of this article has two children.)Credit…NBCTom Brady is leaving no stone unturned. Brady, the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (that still sounds weird), already had plenty of N.F.L. records, but he broke one on Saturday that had lasted for 50 years, passing George Blanda to become the oldest player to throw a touchdown pass in a playoff game. Brady, at 43 years 159 days, threw two touchdown passes in Tampa Bay’s 31-23 win on Saturday over the Washington Football Team, and will most likely push the record further next weekend in the divisional round. As Drew Brees is the only other active quarterback in his 40s, and is potentially retiring after this season, Brady’s record — should he ever choose to stop playing — could be safe for quite some time.Brady’s triumph led to jokes on social media after an NBC graphic showed how much younger Brady looks than Blanda did in 1971 (above). But Blanda’s fans still have some bragging rights: A versatile player for the Oakland Raiders, he not only had two touchdown passes in that A.F.C. championship game against the Baltimore Colts, but he also kicked the extra point after both touchdowns and connected on a 48-yard field goal.The Los Angeles Rams were leading the Seattle Seahawks, 6-3, when Darious Williams stepped in front of a pass by Russell Wilson and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown.Credit…Ted S. Warren/Associated PressThese are not the 2018 Los Angeles Rams. In the 2018 season, Coach Sean McVay used a groundbreaking offense — and a fairly mediocre defense — to lead the Rams to the Super Bowl. The script has officially been flipped, with Los Angeles going as far as its defense can take it. Facing the Seattle Seahawks, who finished eighth in the N.F.L. in scoring, Aaron Donald and the Rams’ front seven put a ton of pressure on Russell Wilson, sacking him five times in the Rams’ 30-20 victory on Saturday. The Rams also showed an aggressive streak when cornerback Darious Williams burst through a pair of Seattle players at the line of scrimmage to intercept a pass by Wilson, returning it 42 yards for a touchdown.Strong performances from the team’s defense and its rookie running back Cam Akers (28 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown) were particularly important since quarterback Jared Goff appeared limited after recent surgery on the thumb of his throwing hand.Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills are a problem for opposing teams. Buffalo’s defense might be the only thing standing in their way.Credit…Adrian Kraus/Associated PressThe Bills aren’t going to make it easy — for them or their opponents. A 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday gave Buffalo its first playoff win since 1995. The game managed to show off the Bills’ strengths and weaknesses. Quarterback Josh Allen (324 yards passing, 54 yards rushing, three total touchdowns) and wide receiver Stefon Diggs (128 yards receiving and a touchdown) were dominant, and safety Micah Hyde saved the day with a late pass deflection, but alarm bells should be ringing that Buffalo’s defense allowed 472 yards of total offense and nearly gave up what had been a 24-10 lead in the fourth quarter. The Bills did not have a sack or a turnover in the game, and got almost no contribution from the team’s running backs. As good as Allen and Diggs are, the rest of the team will need to step up for this run to continue.The expanded playoffs are a major time investment. As some feared, expanding the playoff field to 14 teams, from 12, led to an 8-8 squad — the Chicago Bears — qualifying for postseason play. In addition, the N.F.C. East was won by the 7-9 Washington Football Team, leaving only five of the N.F.C.’s entrants with winning records. But this year’s A.F.C. provided a good argument for the format, because it allowed the formidable 11-5 Indianapolis Colts to qualify. The conference even had a team with a winning record — the 10-6 Miami Dolphins — that did not make the playoffs.The ultimate goal of the Super Wild Card Weekend, however, was money. Games were broadcast across multiple networks and streaming platforms for more than 10 hours on both days. With the smaller in-person crowds, you could almost hear the league’s cash registers welcoming that boost in advertising revenue.The Dearly DepartedThis weekend, we said goodbye to the following teams. Each team has things it can look forward to and things it can work on heading into next season.If the Seattle Seahawks want to succeed in the playoffs, the team will need to give quarterback Russell Wilson more time to throw.Credit…Scott Eklund/Associated PressThe Seattle Seahawks12-4 | N.F.C. West championsIn the first half of the season, the Seahawks appeared to have a Super Bowl-quality offense and a high-school-level defense. While Seattle ironed out many of its defensive woes, it was Russell Wilson and the team’s offense that looked overwhelmed on Saturday — that happens a lot against the Los Angeles Rams’ underrated defense. Where does that leave the Seahawks? They need to find upgrades on the offensive line to protect Wilson and should probably go back and study the tape of the early-season games in which they seemed far more aggressive with their passing game.The Tennessee Titans11-5 | A.F.C. South championsDerrick Henry had an incredible season, rushing for 2,027 yards and becoming the first player to repeat as the N.F.L.’s rushing champion in more than a decade. A blend of his running and Ryan Tannehill’s passing led the Titans to the fourth-most points in the N.F.L. While many will focus on Henry’s disappointing effort in Sunday’s loss, Tennessee’s biggest issue this season was its defense. The easiest way to support Henry and Tannehill is to not make it imperative that they score on every drive.The Indianapolis Colts had their season end on Saturday, but rookie running back Jonathan Taylor has stepped up to become a major force for the team. Credit…Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe Indianapolis Colts11-5 | A.F.C. Wild CardThere were a lot of positives for the Colts this season. Some shrewd off-season moves led to the team having its best record since 2014 — and just its second playoff appearance since then. Indianapolis is unlikely to get similar turn-back-the-clock performances from quarterback Philip Rivers and cornerback Xavier Rhodes going forward, but the team’s trading for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and drafting of running back Jonathan Taylor should set the Colts up for more success next season.The Chicago Bears8-8 | N.F.C. Wild CardWhat a weird season. Chicago got off to a superficially strong start, was badly exposed by a midseason losing streak, rallied to make the playoffs and then was overwhelmed by the New Orleans Saints. A No. 7 seed being crushed by a No. 2 seed isn’t exactly an endorsement of the expanded playoff structure, but the Bears could probably be a relevant team fairly quickly provided that they admit Mitchell Trubisky is not their long-term answer at quarterback.The standout rookie Chase Young was clearly impressed with the play of quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Heinicke was the fourth quarterback to start a game for Washington this season.Credit…Brad Mills/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe Washington Football Team7-9 | N.F.C. East championsLaugh all you want about the team’s record — Washington matched the 2010 Seattle Seahawks for the worst record of a playoff team in the 16-game era — but the Footballers are walking away with their heads held high and their future looking bright. The rookie defensive end Chase Young is a top-shelf disrupter and poised to lead his unit into relevance for years. On offense, the team has found its answers at running back (Antonio Gibson) and wide receiver (Terry McLaurin). And after a gutsy performance against Tampa Bay, where he impressed with his arm and his legs, Taylor Heinicke should get some serious consideration as the team’s quarterback of the future.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

  • in

    What to Watch for in Saturday’s N.F.L. Wild-Card Games

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyWhat to Watch for in Saturday’s N.F.L. Wild-Card GamesThe first day of the expanded postseason kicks off with the Bills facing a franchise hero and the Colts, an N.F.C. West grudge match and the Washington rookie Chase Young getting his date with Tom Brady.Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winners of their final four regular season games, will try to keep their momentum going against the Washington Football Team’s fearsome pass rush.Credit…Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesJan. 9, 2021, 8:00 a.m. ETA weekend bulging with N.F.L. playoff football begins Saturday, when for the first time three games will be staged on the same day.The madness begins at 1:05 p.m. Eastern with an A.F.C. matchup in Orchard Park, N.Y., where about 6,700 fans, after assenting to coronavirus testing, will attend an event nearly as uncommon as a global pandemic: a Bills home playoff game.Bills legend Frank Reich returns to Buffalo as a spoiler.The second-seeded Bills will host the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts in the first postseason game at Bills Stadium since Dec. 28, 1996, another milestone in Buffalo’s enchanted season. But they’ll face a Colts team that’s led by Coach Frank Reich, who orchestrated one of the greatest playoff comebacks in league history when he quarterbacked the Bills to an overtime victory over the Houston Oilers after Buffalo had fallen behind by 32 points in a 1993 A.F.C. wild-card game.Credit…John Hickey/Associated PressCredit…Ron Schwane/Associated PressThis year, Reich’s Colts (11-5) had an unsettling tendency to collapse against good teams: They failed to score in the second half versus Baltimore, allowed 24 straight points in a loss to Tennessee and, in Week 16, blew a 17-point third-quarter lead at Pittsburgh. They did beat the Packers, though.In guiding the Bills (13-3) to their first A.F.C. East title since 1995, quarterback Josh Allen threw for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns, both franchise records. Receiver Stefon Diggs, who is questionable for Saturday’s game with an injury to an oblique muscle, led the league with 127 receptions, the sixth most in a single season, and 1,535 yards.If the Bills do have a weakness, it’s their run defense, which could benefit the Colts, whose rookie running back Jonathan Taylor rushed for 253 yards and two touchdowns in their Week 17 victory against Jacksonville. Only Derrick Henry of Tennessee has run for more yards since Week 11.Will the Seahawks stick to the basics against the Rams?Next up, at 4:40 p.m., is the season’s final installment of a delightful N.F.C. West rivalry, with the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Rams visiting Seattle for the second time in two weeks to face the third-seeded Seahawks. The Rams lost that Week 16 clash — and their quarterback, too. Jared Goff, recovering from surgery to repair a broken right thumb, may or may not be available to start. If he is not, John Wolford, who threw for 231 yards and ran for 56 in a Week 17 victory against Arizona that clinched a playoff berth, would start in his stead.The Rams allowed the fewest points (18.5) and yards (281.9) per game in the N.F.L. this season, but they also didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the last two weeks. Entering the postseason with that offensive malaise is bad timing, but it might be surmountable, considering that Los Angeles has held Seattle to 36 total points in their two meetings this season while sacking Russell Wilson 11 times.On pace at midseason to throw for 56 touchdowns, Wilson tossed only 12 over the second half of the regular season. Coach Pete Carroll, apparently unnerved by Wilson’s seven turnovers in losses to Buffalo and the Rams, resorted to a more conservative approach — for years the Seahawks’ formula — facilitated by a defense that stabilized after a dreadful start to the season: Since Seattle’s Week 10 loss at Los Angeles, no team has allowed fewer points.Chase Young will try to keep Tom Brady from getting comfortable.Chase Young, a Washington defensive end, led all rookies with seven and a half sacks and 10 tackles for loss.Credit…Mitchell Leff/Getty ImagesThe final game of the day, slated for 8:15 p.m. between fifth-seeded Tampa Bay and fourth-seeded Washington, showcases two quarterbacks who, based on all good sense, should not have been doing what they did this season.At age 43, Tom Brady threw for 4,633 yards, more than every quarterback but Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, and 40 touchdowns, tied with Russell Wilson and trailing only Aaron Rodgers, to lead the Buccaneers to their first playoff berth since 2007. Over the last four weeks, they have scored 148 points, the most in the N.F.C.For Washington, Alex Smith — whose status is questionable, as he has a calf injury — returned from a horrific 2018 leg injury to morph from third-stringer to backup to starter and help the Footballers secure their first division title since 2015.Smith’s on-field production, however, paled next to Brady’s, just one of the reasons this game has been touted as a mismatch. Brady is surrounded by an embarrassing collection of talent in Tampa Bay (11-5), from the receivers Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin to running back Ronald Jones to the rookie anchor at right tackle, Tristan Wirfs. Containing their offense should be a struggle for a Washington team that ranked 25th in scoring and 31st in yards per play, ahead of only the woeful Jets.It should be a lopsided game unless the Footballers (7-9) can make Brady’s life miserable all night — a realistic outcome given the team’s extraordinary pass rush. Brady succumbed to pressure in each of his three Super Bowl defeats and, at his advanced age, isn’t the most elusive fellow. Washington defensive end Chase Young led all rookies with seven and a half sacks and 10 tackles for loss. By the end of the night, those numbers will very likely swell. By how much could determine the game’s outcome.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

  • in

    NFL Playoff Predictions: Our Picks in the Wild-Card Round

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyN.F.L. Playoff Predictions: Our Picks in the Wild-Card RoundAn expanded first round is highlighted by a few tough matchups, including Colts-Bills and Ravens-Titans.Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens has lost both of his career starts against the Tennessee Titans — once in last year’s playoffs and again in Week 11 of this season. Jackson is hoping to find playoff success after two seasons ended in disappointment.Credit…Nick Wass/Associated PressJan. 7, 2021, 12:01 a.m. ETThe N.F.L. got through all 256 games, no matter how tenuous, completing the regular season. Now, an expanded field of 14 teams enters the playoffs with a chance at qualifying for Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled to be held on Feb. 7 in Tampa, Fla. The format, conceived to balance out the pandemic-related issues of the season, resulted in six games slotted this weekend, rather than the usual four. It also left only two teams with first-round byes, which was terrible news for the Buffalo Bills and the New Orleans Saints, both of whom would have been able to sit out this round in a typical season.Here is a look at the wild-card round. Unlike in the regular season, these picks are not made against the spread.Saturday’s GamesStefon Diggs and Josh Allen have turned the Buffalo Bills into must-see TV.Credit…Maddie Malhotra/Getty ImagesIndianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills, 1:05 p.m., CBSLine: Bills -6.5 | Total: 51One of these teams finished in the N.F.L.’s top 10 in offense and defense, and it wasn’t the Bills (13-3). The Colts (11-5) were wildly inconsistent, barely qualified for the playoffs (Buffalo’s blowout win over Miami in Week 17 helped considerably) and had a bad habit of wearing down as games went along. Despite that, they finished with the statistics of a solid contender and the franchise’s best record since 2014.That could fall apart quickly against Buffalo.The Bills’ success starts with quarterback Josh Allen, who progressed from a mistake-prone gunslinger to a legitimate candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award, leading Buffalo to its first division title since 1995. A fair amount of that improvement should be attributed to the arrival of wide receiver Stefon Diggs, whose presence opened the field for Cole Beasley and John Brown. Buffalo finished second in the N.F.L. in scoring, and closed the season with a six-game win streak in which the team averaged 38.2 points a game.The Bills’ defense didn’t rank nearly as high statistically, but cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds led a unit that tied for the third-most takeaways in the N.F.L. After a rocky start to the year, Buffalo’s defense was particularly impressive in late-season wins over the Chargers and the Steelers.The biggest factor in this game will probably be the weather. It is expected to be around 30 degrees in Orchard Park, N.Y., on Saturday afternoon, and Indianapolis’s quarterback, Philip Rivers, hasn’t won with a kickoff temperature below 35 degrees since Week 12 of the 2013 season. A creaky 39-year-old quarterback who has spent nearly his entire career playing in warm weather or domes is not a recipe for January success in western New York. Pick: BillsWhile John Wolford, right, performed admirably in his N.F.L. debut last week, the Los Angeles Rams are hoping Jared Goff, left, will be available this week.Credit…Harry How/Getty ImagesLos Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks, 4:40 p.m., FoxLine: Seahawks -4 | Total: 42.5That we are discussing whether quarterback Jared Goff can play is a testament to medical advances or his toughness, or both. Goff had surgery on the thumb of his throwing hand on Dec. 28 — that would allow for only 11 days of recovery and rehabilitation. Coach Sean McVay has said Goff is throwing in practice and “preparing himself to play,” but should he be ruled out, the Rams (10-6) would turn again to John Wolford, the pride and joy of the Alliance of American Football and the surprise winner of his first N.F.L. start, which came in Week 17.Be it Wolford or a limited version of Goff, the Rams should be underdogs against the Seahawks (12-4). Seattle’s offense was never in question — Russell Wilson is a threat to throw a touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett or D.K. Metcalf on almost every play — but after a brutal start to the season, the Seahawks’ defense improved considerably. The only solace for Los Angeles is that Seattle may be without safety Jamal Adams and defensive tackle Jarran Reed, which would significantly weaken the Seahawks’ pass rush.At full strength, this would probably have been a terrific game between N.F.C. West heavyweights. And you can’t count out the Rams as long as defensive tackle Aaron Donald — one of the best players in the N.F.L. at any position — is around. But when taken in its diminished form, this game tilts in Seattle’s direction. Pick: SeahawksThe Washington Football Team isn’t quite ready for prime time — and still needs a name — but opponents have become painfully aware of how much damage the rookie defensive end Chase Young, center, can do in any game. Credit…Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesTampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team, 8:15 p.m., NBCLine: Buccaneers -8 | Total: 45Winning your division is important. The Footballers (7-9) have the worst record of any playoff team — they tied the 2010 Seattle Seahawks for the worst record for a playoff team in N.F.L. history — but they get to host a game against the Buccaneers (11-5) by way of Tampa Bay’s being a wild-card entrant. It may seem unfair, but it wasn’t Washington’s fault that the Buccaneers lost both of their games against division rival New Orleans (by a combined score of 72-26).Home field advantage shouldn’t be ignored, and Washington’s defense should give it a bright future, but Tampa Bay is expected to win easily. Tom Brady and the Bucs’ offense got into a groove, ending the season with a four-game streak in which they averaged 37 points a game. And Tampa Bay’s defense, which specializes in getting to the quarterback, should have a field day thanks to the limited mobility of Alex Smith, who is not 100 percent after a calf injury to the same leg that nearly ended his career.If there is a path to victory for the Footballers it would start with turnovers caused by Chase Young and Washington’s upstart defense. Young, a rookie defensive end, appears to have skipped right from promising player to superstar. His day for playoff success will most likely come, but not this week. Pick: BuccaneersSunday’s GamesDerrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans rumbled for 195 yards against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs last season. Can he repeat that success?Credit…Rob Carr/Getty ImagesBaltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans, 1:05 p.m., ABC and ESPNLine: Ravens -3 | Total: 55Only two road teams are favored this weekend, and while Tampa Bay got that distinction thanks to Washington’s ineptitude, the Ravens (11-5) got there by looking nearly unbeatable over the season’s final five weeks.Somewhat written off after a midseason lull, Baltimore took advantage of a soft schedule to get things right, winning five consecutive games with an aggregate score of 186-89. The formula was familiar, with the Ravens rushing for more than 230 yards in four of the five games, but it was clear that a fire had been set under quarterback Lamar Jackson, who largely recaptured the form that made him the N.F.L.’s most valuable player in 2019.Tennessee’s offense is just as intimidating thanks to a formula not all that different from Baltimore’s. Running back Derrick Henry is a nearly unstoppable force — he became just the eighth N.F.L. player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season — and quarterback Ryan Tannehill makes teams pay for stacking the box with deep strikes to wide receiver A.J. Brown.The Titans (11-5) are nowhere near as capable as Baltimore on defense, but making them underdogs at home ignores the fact that the Ravens haven’t had anything resembling a dominant win over a good team since Week 9. It is possible Baltimore would have had similar late-season success against any opponent, but running up the score against teams like Jacksonville and Cincinnati isn’t enough to support such a bold pick. Pick: TitansChicago Bears at New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m., CBS, Nickelodeon and Prime VideoLine: Saints -10 | Total: 47The most interesting part of this game is that Nickelodeon will be doing a broadcast of it for children. There will be animated graphics, guest reporters, filters on the screen and, of course, slime.They couldn’t have picked a better game in which to inject some distraction, as the Bears (8-8) have little business being in the playoffs, let alone playing the Saints (12-4), who were among the N.F.L.’s five best teams this season.Chicago started the season with a 5-1 record, then looked so bad in a six-game losing streak that Coach Matt Nagy’s job appeared to be on the line, and then surprised everyone with three wins to get back in the playoff race. On the season’s final day, the Bears were blown out by Green Bay, but backed into the playoffs because of Arizona’s loss to the Rams.It is hard to imagine quarterback Mitchell Trubisky of the Bears winning a playoff game, but the Saints, who can dominate on both sides of the ball, have repeatedly reminded us that absolutely anything can happen in the playoffs. The Vikings shocked New Orleans in the divisional round of the 2017 season with a Stefon Diggs touchdown catch that will live forever. The Rams got away with an undeserved win in the N.F.C. championship game of the 2018 season thanks to one of the most brutal cases of uncalled pass interference you’ll find. And Minnesota ruined the Saints’ season yet again last year, with Kirk Cousins marching his team 75 yards on nine plays in overtime, throwing a walk-off touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph before Drew Brees could even touch the ball. Pick: SaintsThe Pittsburgh Steelers have frustrated many with a dink-and-dunk approach to offense this season. If they decide to be more aggressive this week, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is more than up for the challenge.Credit…Scott Galvin/USA Today Sports, via ReutersCleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:15 p.m., NBCLine: Steelers -6 | Total: 47.5Only 11 teams in the 16-game era have started a season 11-0, and none of the others finished with a record as bad as this season’s Steelers (12-4), who were 1-4 down the stretch. Several factors contributed to Pittsburgh’s collapse, including the team having played the season without a real bye week, injuries to crucial defenders and the decision to rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and multiple defensive starters in Week 17. But it is also worth wondering if the Steelers were never as good as their franchise-best start suggested.This is a rematch of the teams’ game in Week 17, which the Browns (11-5) won, 24-22. But the close result had to be disturbing for Cleveland given Mason Rudolph’s starting for Pittsburgh in place of Roethlisberger. Cleveland’s defensive struggles can largely be attributed to three of the team’s four starting defensive backs being out because of coronavirus protocols, but the game was still far more competitive than it should have been.Pittsburgh will have players like T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Roethlisberger back this weekend, and while the Browns should get their secondary restored, they will be weakened considerably by having their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, out after he tested positive for the coronavirus. Defensive end Olivier Vernon will be out as well after sustaining a season-ending injury in last week’s win. Of all the games this weekend, this one seems to be the most unpredictable one, but a narrow Pittsburgh victory is the most likely outcome. Pick: Steelers.All times are Eastern.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

  • in

    What We Learned From Week 17 of the NFL Season

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyWhat We Learned From Week 17 of the N.F.L. SeasonGreen Bay secured home-field advantage, Buffalo ended Miami’s season and Cleveland ended its 17-season playoff drought.Green Bay’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling had a 72-yard touchdown catch against Chicago, one of four touchdown passes Aaron Rogers threw while helping the Packers secure the No. 1 seed in the N.F.C. playoffs.Credit…Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPublished More