AROUND THE NFL
Peter King sets things up for Championship Game Weekend:
Then there were four. Both conference title games will be rematches of compelling midseason shootouts. You remember back to midseason, when defense was going the way of the Giant Panda, verging on endangered. One piece of evidence: Patriots 43, Chiefs 40, in Week 6. Another: Saints 45, Rams 35, in Week 9.
With the ratings on a major rebound—the Rams win over Dallas on Saturday night had a 23-percent ratings increase over the same playoff slot a year ago—Roger Goodell and his broadcast czar, Howard Katz, will bust out mimosas for everyone in the NFL offices this morning. Because the divisional ratings ought to be a precursor to a golden Sunday of championship games.
L.A. Rams at New Orleans for the NFC title, early. New England at Kansas City for the AFC title, late. The storylines are pretty good:
• Two all-time quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The most exciting player in the game, Patrick Mahomes. The fourth QB, Jared Goff of the Rams, was a solid MVP candidate at midseason. Brady vs. Mahomes in the nightcap is the most compelling QB matchup since Brady at Peyton Manning in the 2015 AFC title game. I would say this one’s better, because it’s The Greatest at Next.
• Three coaches who’ve been in Super Bowls (Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Sean Payton) and a fourth, Sean McVay, who just might go to four of them.
• The Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game for the eighth straight year. Someday, we’ll look back at matter-of-fact statements like that and say, No. That never happened. There’s this, too: The Patriots will try to make their ninth Super Bowl in 18 years with the same owner-coach-quarterback combination. There’s a popular storyline out there that is a lie, by the way. The storyline is that the Patriots have been so far down the road in so many playoffs that they can’t be as hungry, they can’t be attacking the postseason with the same intensity as newbies like the Chiefs and the Rams, with so many players who’ve never been to the Super Bowl. I hear pretty reliably that the Patriots approached practice last week and the game on Sunday the same way they always have—like it’s the first time. Did you see the Tom Brady CBS interview post-game, the one where he said the world thinks the Patriots stink? Looked to me like classic Brady.
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Can this be true?
Wild stat: Patrick Mahomes is the first quarterback from a Big 12 school to ever win a playoff game.
So how is this defined? Texas QB Bobby Layne won NFL playoff games. We’re thinking there are others. This must be from the creation of the Big 12 as a merger of schools from the Southwest Conference and Big Eight in 1996.
Here’s the story that started it all from Charles Goldman of USA Today’s ChiefsWire.com:
Patrick Mahomes and history books just belong together.
The Chiefs quarterback continues to be associated with a lot of first-time occurrences this season, a season that also happens to be his first as a starting NFL quarterback. The latest is that the former Texas Tech star is the first quarterback from the Big 12 Conference ever to win an NFL playoff game.
The Big 12, formed from the former Big Eight Conference, started competing in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1996. So a few of the quarterbacks whom people point to, like former Steelers QB Kordell Stewart, were actually a part of the Big Eight before joining the NFL.
Via Pro Football Reference, here is the full list of quarterbacks who have been drafted out of the Big 12 since its inception. Other than Mahomes, not one of them has won a playoff game, though plenty have had the opportunity. Now, perhaps people will look at Big 12 quarterbacks under a different lens.
25 names listed below for draft choices, with 9 first rounders including Mahomes.
QBs who started and lost playoff games are Robert Griffin and Vince Young.
2018 1 Baker Mayfield CLE Oklahoma
2017 1 Patrick Mahomes KAN Texas Tech
2015 4 Bryce Petty NYJ Baylor
2013 2 Geno Smith NYJ West Virginia
2013 4 Landry Jones PIT Oklahoma
2012 1 Robert Griffin WAS Baylor
2012 1 Ryan Tannehill MIA Texas A&M
2012 1 Brandon Weeden CLE Oklahoma St.
2011 1 Blaine Gabbert JAX Missouri
2010 1 Sam Bradford STL Oklahoma
2010 3 Colt McCoy CLE Texas
2010 7 Zac Robinson NE Oklahoma St.
2009 1 Josh Freeman TB Kansas St.
2009 4 Stephen McGee DAL Texas A&M
2006 1 Vince Young TEN Texas
2006 4 Brad Smith NYJ Missouri
2006 6 Reggie McNeal CIN Texas A&M
2004 7 B.J. Symons HOU Texas Tech
2003 3 Chris Simms TB Texas
2003 4 Seneca Wallace SEA Iowa St.
2003 6 Kliff Kingsbury NE Texas Tech
2001 4 Sage Rosenfels WAS Iowa St.
2001 6 Josh Heupel MIA Oklahoma
1999 7 Michael Bishop NE Kansas St.
1997 7 Koy Detmer PHI Colorado
Marc Bulger was drafted out of West Virginia, now a Big 12 school, in the 6th round in 2000 and he won a playoff game for the Rams in 2004. But West Virginia was in the Big East when he was drafted, so he does not count.
PK CODY PARKEY has stoked the ire of his bosses, although we’re not totally sure what he did wrong here. Nick Shook of NFL.com:
Cody Parkey has been under fire since his potential game-winning kick was tipped, bounced off the left upright and then the crossbar, and fell to the Soldier Field turf.
That miss — well, blocked kick — sent the Bears home as an early exit from the playoffs, and oddly enough sent Parkey to the TODAY show. Parkey explained his feelings about his missed kick, thanked his teammates for support, touted how the Bears were like a “family” and even discussed how he and his wife were reminded of how many people love and support them.
“I feel worse than anybody about missing that kick because I wanted to make it more than anybody,” Parkey said during his TODAY appearance last week. “But at the end of the day, I’m just going to hold my head high and when things aren’t going my way I’m just going to continue to think positive and keep swinging.”
But if Bears fans’ vitriol wasn’t enough — and it sure was a lot — it sounds as though coach Matt Nagy wasn’t too pleased with his decision to make a television appearance.
“We always talk about a ‘we’ and not a ‘me’ thing,” Nagy said Monday during his joint press conference with GM Ryan Pace. “We win as a team and we lose as a team. I didn’t necessarily think it was a ‘we’ thing.”
Pace went on to add the team is actively looking into addressing the position, saying, “That position is an emphasis for us. We understand that we need to get better.”
If one reads the tea leaves, it sounds like Parkey could be on the way out. If the Bears cut Parkey before June 1, Chicago would carry a dead cap number of $5.1 million, per Over The Cap. If they did so after June 1, that number drops to just a little over $4 million. Either way, that’s a lot of space to eat up just to change kickers.
Chicago is projected to have $19.7 million in cap space in 2019, and Pace also said Monday the team plans to pick up Leonard Floyd’s fifth-year option, which doesn’t take up cap space until 2020. His 2019 cap number is very similar to Parkey’s at $5 million.
Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com on the hiring of Nathanial Hackett as OC:
– It took Matt LaFleur only a week to make two of his most important hires as the Packers’ new head coach.
The first one he made upon taking the job, when he retained defensive coordinator Mike Pettine from the previous Green Bay staff.
The second one came Monday, when he wrapped up a deal with former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to hold the same position with the Packers. A source confirmed that Hackett and LaFleur had reached agreement, as NFL Network first reported.
The only major coordinator position that remains open is special teams. LaFleur did not retain Ron Zook, who ran that unit under former head coach Mike McCarthy for the last four seasons. Multiple reports have tied the Packers to Dolphins special-teams coach Darren Rizzi, who is in limbo while Miami waits to introduce New England Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores as its new coach.
After a falling out with the Broncos, Gary Kubiak is joining the Vikings. NFL.com:
Gary Kubiak is back on an NFL coaching staff, but it’s not in Denver.
The Minnesota Vikings hired the former Broncos and Texans coach on Monday with an expected title of assistant head coach/offensive advisor, sources told NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
Kubiak interviewed earlier Monday in Minnesota and was scheduled to travel to Jacksonville to interview with the Jaguars on Tuesday. The Vikings apparently didn’t let him out of the building.
In addition to adding Kubiak to the coaching staff, Minnesota is bringing in his son, Klint Kubiak, to be its quarterbacks coach under new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.
Klint previously spent two seasons with the Vikings in 2013 and 2014 as a quality control/assistant wide receivers coach under Bill Musgrave and Norv Turner. The younger Kubiak was a quarterbacks coach and offensive assistant on Vance Joseph’s Broncos staff.
Gary Kubiak spent 10 seasons as a head coach in the NFL (eight with the Texans, two with the Broncos), posting an 82-75 record, including a a 21-11 mark and a perfect 3-0 in the postseason with Denver that ended with a Super Bowl 50 win. The football lifer walked away from coaching following the 2016 season to focus on his health. For the last two seasons, Kubiak acted as a senior personnel advisor for the Broncos under John Elway.
After Denver hired Vic Fangio as its new head coach, Kubiak met the former Bears defensive coordinator and expected to join his staff, but differences in offensive philosophy and staffing ultimately led to a change of plans, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Friday. Denver has since hired Mike Munchak as its offensive line coach but is still without an OC.
Meanwhile, Kubiak has moved on to a new city, a new staff and a new start in his 35th year in professional football.
Stefanski was a finalist for the Browns job and probably had other offers. Instead, he returned to the Vikings who had let his contract run out – and now he’s bracketed by Kubiaks. Interesting.
Peter King is compelled to sing the praises of one of Sunday’s losers:
Before we move on, a note about the 2018 Eagles. That is one noble franchise. In two straight years, Philadelphia lost its franchise quarterback to injury in mid-December. Last year, the Eagles went 5-1 after the Wentz injury, they won the Super Bowl for the first time, and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles became one of the biggest heroes in the history of Philly sports. This year, the Eagles went 4-1 after the Wentz injury, they rebounded from a 4-6 start and a 41-point loss at New Orleans to make the playoffs, and Foles solidified his folk-hero status.
It’s how they won, and how they lost, too. They did both with class. One of their best players in this mini-Super Bowl run, Alshon Jeffery, had a perfect Foles pass whip right through his hands with the game on the line and two minutes to play. Jeffery’s miss became a Saints pick, and the game was over. Jeffery lay on the ground, crestfallen, for a good 15 seconds. Doug Pederson hugged him and told him the sun will come up tomorrow and we love you, or something like that. Then it was Foles’ turn to comfort Jeffery, who looked like he was going to cry. That’s what good teams do. The Eagles dug a huge hole for themselves, but they did all the right things to try to get out of it.
Sometimes, as we saw Sunday, the other team is just better. The home field helps too.
DREW BREES talks to Peter King about the culture change in New Orleans:
“Well, ’14 and ’15 were tough, really tough,” Brees said. “We lost a ton of guys and it was a different locker room, a different vibe. But after the ’16 season, we made an effort to draft the right guys—guys of character, toughness and intelligence. We rebuilt the foundation and the culture of the team that we had for so long here but somehow we lost. We brought in the right guys, and look at the results.”
“What are you going to do Tuesday?” I asked.
“My birthday?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Your 40th.”
“I’m gonna be sitting there grinding on Rams film,” he said. “Like I always do. I’ve got the whole offseason to celebrate. My son [Baylen] turns 10 Tuesday. He was born on my 30th birthday. So it’ll be all about him. I might get a piece of his birthday cake.”
Not to quibble with Brees, but it seems to the DB that the turnaround started after the 2015 season. Here is how the Saints used their first two picks in the 2016 draft as graded at the time by NoLa.com:
R1: DT Sheldon Rankins
The Saints did the right thing with this pick. They took the player that would best help them right away. They took the best overall defensive tackle in the draft outside of DeForest Buckner. They avoided the temptation of taking falling players like Laremy Tunsil and Myles Jack. Rankins will be a three-down player at defensive tackle from Week 1.
R2: WR Michael Thomas
New Orleans has been enamored with the former Ohio State wideout throughout the draft process. He’s more of a Marques Colston-type receiver than anything else. The Saints obviously needed that with Colston’s release earlier this offseason. Thomas could become the No. 3 receiver if he beats out Brandon Coleman. A run on defensive end early in Round 2 made this pick easier to pull off, too.
Then, of course, the great draft of ’17 with 5-for-5 to start things. This from NewOrleansSaints.com:
In the first round, the New Orleans Saints selected cornerback Marshon Lattmore from Ohio State. Lattimore went on to have 52 tackles, 18 pass deflections and five interceptions in his rookie campaign which landed him as the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Tackle Ryan Ramczyk was selected in the first round as the 32nd pick from Wisconsin. Ramczyk was an opening-game starter who played every offensive snap and was pivotal in the success of the offensive line, which suffered multiple injuries.
Safety Marcus Williams was selected in the second round as the 42nd pick and was an opening-game starter who had four interceptions and 57 tackles. Running back Alvin Kamara was the biggest steal from the third round. Kamara was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and scored a franchise rookie record 14 touchdowns. Kamara and Mark Ingram II went on to make running back history for the Saints by tallying more than 1,500 yards each.
Linebacker Alex Anzalone was selected in the third round and started the first four games before a shoulder injury ended his season.
Peter King talks to Kliff Kingsbury:
Kingsbury’s not apologizing for his past. New Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury, who had a losing record in six seasons at Texas Tech, said “there’s no question defense is an area I have to focus on” after his teams were consistent bottom-feeders in the NCAA on defense. But in hiring former Broncos coach Vance Joseph as his defensive coordinator, Kingsbury will likely have a job situation like Sean McVay with the Rams; McVay allows Wade Phillips to be the de facto head coach of the defense. “The mentorship of Josh Rosen will be extremely important,” Kingsbury said. On his jilting of USC after one month: “That is where I wanted to be. But when this opportunity arose, I took it.” I asked Kingsbury if there’s anything he thinks people should know about him after this stretch of a hire by the Cards. “No, I think I’m good,’’ he said. I get the sense Kingsbury understands why there is widespread skepticism about the hiring of a coach whose teams played exciting football but didn’t win enough, and there’s nothing he can say now to erase that. He’s got to coach Rosen and the offense well, and he’s got to win.
In six seasons, Kingsbury’s Texas Tech teams never allowed less than 30 points per game.
And King notes this quote:
“Kyler is a freak. I would take him with the first pick in the draft if I could.”
—New Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury, in October, to Sports Illustrated TV.
Now about Josh Rosen …
We don’t think this is tampering since Jerry Rice doesn’t hold an official position with the 49ers that we know of. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
Antonio Brown may never reach Jerry Rice’s level of accomplishments.
But according to Rice, he wants to wear the same uniform.
During an interview on 95.7 The Game, the league’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns said he spoke to Brown via FaceTime on Sunday, so he trusts his source.
“He wants to come here really badly,” Rice said, via Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area.
That’s something Rice would like to see as well, if the Steelers want to ship Brown to the West Coast. He thinks as much for the obvious football benefit as much as the signal it would send to a fan base.
“This guy, man, he’s a totally, complete team player,” Rice said (though Ben Roethlisberger might disagree). “I don’t know what happened in Pittsburgh but I know that this guy, if he comes here to San Francisco, he’s going to do everything possible to help this team to win. . . .
“If it was left up to me, he’d be here in a heartbeat. It sends a message to the fans, that, ‘Hey, look, we’re not looking down the road to win. We’re looking to win right now.’ And he’s that type of player — big playmaker that can make those big plays and really put a lot of fans in the stands.”
The 30-year-old Brown is still producing at a high level, leading the league in touchdowns this year. But his act has worn thin on enough people that Steelers president Art Rooney II said it would be “hard to envision” he would stay there in 2019.
The 49ers have approximately $70 million in cap room, but that’s not a big deal since Brown is signed at reasonable rates for the next three years.
Compensating the Steelers would be another matter. The 49ers have just five draft picks, including the No. 2 and 36 overall picks.
Peter King on the hiring of Vic Fangio who is John Elway’s Bruce Arians:
Elway wanted a traditional coach, and he got it. Not long after arriving at the Broncos practice facility for the first time last Wednesday, late in the day, and before even getting a tour of the place, Vic Fangio went up to his new office, put on Bronco sweats, and started watching tape of his team. That’s who—and what—the Broncos hired. He didn’t politic for the job (“I didn’t ask one person to reach out to John Elway for me,” he said), or for any job over the years; he first was interviewed for a head-coaching job by GM Bobby Beathard in San Diego … in 1997. It’s also amazing to think that Fangio first was a defensive coordinator with the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. He reminds me of Arians getting the Cardinals job six years ago—Arians just assumed at his advanced age, he’s never get a shot, and he was bummed by it, but he could live with it. With Elway, Fangio found a guy who was buying what the coach was selling: discipline, unwavering rules for all, and an emphasis on making even the best players better. Fifteen minutes into their interview, Elway said, Fangio’s “death by inches” ethos swayed him. Fangio explained to the Denver media, and then to me. “Death by inches,” he said. “A player is off in the right technique just a little, and you let it go because he’s playing okay. A player’s late for a meeting by 30 seconds. One act. Meaningless. But if you don’t correct it, then two players walk in a minute late the next day. All these things build on each other. It’s death by inches—or, in our business, it’s losses.”
Interesting that Elway went in the opposite direction from all the shiny young coaches that were hired this time around – including Zac Taylor (Cincinnati) and Brian Flores (New England) to come.
We had four sub-40 coaches – Taylor, Flores joining Brian LaFleur in Green Bay and Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona.
Two are plus-60 – Fangio and Bruce Arians
Adam Gase is getting a 2nd head coaching job with the Jets and he’s just turned 40, so he’s not quite in the first category of Whiz Kids coaches
Freddie Kitchens, who went from obscure journeyman assistant to the Browns head coaching gig in just a few months is 44.
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The Broncos have doubled down on old school with their offensive line hire. Nick Shook of NFL.com:
While the talk is about Antonio Brown’s potential departure from Pittsburgh, an important member of the Steelers’ coaching staff is headed elsewhere.
Mike Munchak has agreed to become the Denver Broncos’ offensive line coach, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported, per a source informed of the deal. The team later made the news official on Monday. The Steelers promoted assistant offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett to the main OL job.
Munchak’s lateral move raises an eyebrow at the seemingly endless drama in Pittsburgh, which hasn’t quieted much since the Steelers failed to reach the playoffs. 9News’ Mike Klis offered some context to the decision that might help explain things:
Mike Munchak turns 59 on March 5 (he seems much younger, doesn’t he?). He and his wife Marci have a daughter and grandchild who live in Denver area. In case your wondering about lateral move. NFL assistant coaches make decisions based on family, too. #9sports
A Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman, Munchak spent the last five seasons coaching offensive line for the Steelers, helping develop the unit into one of the NFL’s best in his time in the Steel City. Prior to Pittsburgh, Munchak served as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans from 2011-2013. He was a longtime assistant in Tennessee prior to his stint as head coach.
Munchak spent his entire playing career with the Titans’ previous form, the Houston Oilers, from 1982-1993. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
This is the reverse of Wade Phillips leaving Denver for the Rams because he has a daughter in L.A. Of course, Mark Kizla of the Denver Post explained in October that there was more to the Phillips move than family ties.
For anything and everything wrong with the Broncos, the default mode these days is to point a finger of blame at coach Vance Joseph. It’s not his fault, however, that Phillips departed the staff fewer than 12 months after Denver won the Super Bowl. Joseph was comfortable with retaining Phillips as defensive coordinator.
This mistake is the responsibility of John Elway, the president of football operations. The falling out between Elway and Phillips was a year in the making. After linebacker Von Miller and defenders that relentlessly harassed Newton were the reason Denver upset Carolina to win the league championship in February 2016, Phillips sought to be rewarded in a major way, requesting a huge bump in salary and a contract extension that would give him security well past his 70th birthday.
Elway balked. He granted Phillips the raise but decided against the long-term deal. When coach Gary Kubiak, citing health concerns, stepped down as head coach after a disappointing 9-7 season, the team pushed Phillips out the door in the desire to promote Joe Woods to defensive coordinator. Where has all the laughter gone? Only five of the 11 defensive starters from Super 50 remain on Denver’s roster.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Peter King still thinks QB PHILIP RIVERS is Hall of Fame worthy – as does the DB for that matter:
Does Philip Rivers’ 0-8 record against Tom Brady influence your Hall of Fame vote at this point? If so, is that the only thing his résumé still needs?”
Well, there is the matter of a Super Bowl. Rivers has never gotten to one, never mind won one. But I’m not one of those voters who thinks a career is wholly defined by how many championships a player has won. I doubt I will still be a voter in eight or nine or however many more years it will be before Rivers is considered, but I would take many things into account and certainly not just the head-to-head record against Tom Brady. Stats like that can be overwhelming and numbing.
Here’s what I see: Rivers was drafted four years after Dan Marino retired, so their careers are in proximity but obviously not simultaneous. If Rivers plays two more seasons, he’s likely to have more passing yards and more touchdowns passes than Marino, and he could have the same number of Super Bowl wins. Now, stats should absolutely not be everything, but Rivers is a consistently high performer at the most important position in the game. That matters a lot to me.
NEW YORK JETS
In a print forum, we can’t show you the eye-rolling that Adam Gase did Monday during his introductory press conference (but it’s a viral internet meme). His comments in print though are standard fare:
Adam Gase’s No. 1 job taking over the New York Jets is to drive Sam Darnold to the next level.
The new coach said Monday in his introductory press conference that the young quarterback was one of the main attractions for jumping right back into a job after getting fired by the Miami Dolphins. Gase noted that preparing to face Darnold twice in 2018 gave him an idea of the skills the first-round quarterback possesses.
“The majority of the things I’ve already looked at have been his pro tape,” Gase said. “Obviously, I was preparing for him for two games was kind of really a jumpstart for me. He was one of the guys that we actually thought was gonna be gone before way before we even picked. We focused on a couple of other guys that we thought could possibly fall to us at 11.
“I’ve been able to, especially in the last few days really hammer out as much tape as I could on him and start looking at the things that I’ve seen him do really well, some of the things we could possibly work on. And really it’s gonna start with him. That’s an obvious statement. I’m excited because this is the first time I’ve been able to get with a guy this young, this early in his career. We’re going into Year 2 and he’s hungry for knowledge. He wants to be coached, which, when you have that type of player that does have the physical traits, this is an exciting thing for me to go through.”
THIS AND THAT
This from Peter King:
Call it The Doug Pederson Effect. Pro Football Focus runs a program that applies a mathematical formula to coaches’ decision-making on fourth down. In other words, do they have a better than 50-50 chance of success if they go for it on fourth down and short yardage (excluding obvious situations of desperation late in games)? Last year, when Pederson began going for it on fourth-and-one-or-two quite often when his team was near midfield, the tide seemed to turn around the league. Several coaches, including Anthony Lynn of the Chargers, went to school on the strategy and began doing it more in 2018. The numbers:
2016: Teams went for it on fourth-and-short 23 percent of the time.
2017: Teams went for it 24 percent of the time.
2018: Teams went for it 31 percent of the time.
On drives when a team went for it on fourth-and-short this season, they scored 153 touchdowns—up from 110 touchdowns last year. Philadelphia, as you might figure, leads the NFL on fourth-down daring in the last two years, scoring 20 touchdowns after going for it on fourth-and-short.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com makes the case that this could be a very special Championship Game Weekend (some editing below):
If you were looking for upsets during NFL divisional round weekend, you were most certainly disappointed.
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On paper, Patriots-Chiefs and Rams-Saints make for a wildly entertaining duo of matchups. There’s a backstory, rivalries and legacies, both beginning and ending. When you put these matchups in context, there are reasons to think we’re in store for classic games.
Why? Let’s run through eight notable reasons:
1. These are projected to be close, high-scoring games.
The Vegas lines for Patriots-Chiefs and Rams-Saints basically paint each side as equals. Vegas has the Chiefs as 3-point favorites at home against the Pats, while the Saints are 3.5-point favorites against the visiting Rams. When you remember that home-field advantage is generally considered to be worth between 2.5 and three points, what Vegas is basically saying is that these two teams are about equal on a neutral field. That’s pretty remarkable.
This is rare, although it isn’t quite a record. The smallest combined spread for two conference title games in one season is four points, per ESPN Stats & Information, which was set in 1970 and 1982. Those games didn’t end up actually coming in all that close — they were decided by just over 11 points per contest — but in general, games with smaller spreads are going to be closer than those with larger ones.
Furthermore, as you probably suspect, we’re also projected to see the two highest-scoring conference title games in history. The totals for these two games come in at 57 (Rams-Saints) and 57.5 (Patriots-Chiefs) for a total of 114.5 points. That number represents the largest combined over/under in at least 30 years, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Given that the NFL ended up posting its second-highest average point total in league history this season, it’s not necessarily a surprise that we would see some remarkably high totals here. If we take things a step further, though, we can see that this isn’t simply a product of a high-scoring era.
2. These are the best offenses we’ve ever seen in conference title games.
No, I’m not figuring that out by adding up their points per game, because that’s going to immediately rule out great offenses from lower-scoring eras. If you were a fan in 1981, you got about as excited about the league-leading Chargers as a fan in 2018 does about this season’s Chiefs, even though those Chargers scored 29.9 points per game and this season’s Chiefs averaged 35.5. To get a sense of how good these offenses are, we have to measure them against the rest of the league in 2018 and each of the teams from past conference championships against the teams from their time.
I can do that with standard score, which I went back and calculated for every conference championship attendee going back through the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. By measuring how much better or worse each team is than the rest of their league at the time, we can compare teams between eras and see which year actually delivered the most impressive batch of conference title opponents.
On offense, even after you adjust for era, the answer to that question is 2018. The Chiefs, Saints, Patriots and Rams are, on average, 1.77 standard deviations over the mean. That’s the best mark going back through 1970, topping the previous record-holder of 1.67 standard deviations, set back in 1998. (More on that year in a moment.) This is just the second time in the past 49 years that there are two offenses (the Chiefs and Saints) in the conference championships that rank more than two standard deviations above the average offense.
The worst offense in this year’s group is the Patriots, who would have ranked as the best offense to make the conference championships during the 2010 playoffs. That was the worst conference title game Sunday for offenses in league history, as offensive juggernauts such as the Patriots, Colts and Eagles all lost on their way to the third round of the postseason. But if you’re trying to use 2018 as proof that you need a great offense to make it deep into the playoffs in modern football, well, I’d hold off for a moment.
3. These are the worst defenses we’ve ever seen in conference title games.
Again, after accounting for era, there aren’t great defenses left in the postseason. In fact, we have a defense that actually rates as downright bad in the Chiefs, although I think they’re better than their raw numbers might indicate. Keeping in mind that I’ve flipped the scale so good defenses are above league average, the Chiefs are 0.91 standard deviations below the mean, which is the fourth-worst defense in a conference championship game since the 1970 merger.
With the Chiefs dragging down the pack, the four remaining defenses are essentially league average at 0.1 standard deviations above the mean, which is the worst mark of the past 49 seasons, topping the high-flying 1982 campaign. Then, Washington averaged nearly 34 points per game during the regular season and scored 75 points in its first two playoff games before falling to the Raiders 38-9 in the Super Bowl.
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So overall, we have four really good teams who bring more offensive firepower than any set of semifinalists in league history. That alone would make for a promising set of games. There’s more.
4. This is arguably the best set of coaches we’ve seen in conference title games.
It’s impossible to quantify coaching, of course, but I think most people would agree that we’re looking at some of the league’s brightest minds in the final four. In the AFC, we have Bill Belichick, who has a strong case as the greatest coach in modern NFL history. Joining him is Andy Reid, who obviously hasn’t had the same sort of playoff success Belichick has enjoyed, but who quietly tied Mike Holmgren this weekend for the sixth-most wins in postseason history. Reid also has 195 regular-season wins, which is tied for eighth in NFL history. His coaching tree includes last year’s Super Bowl winner (Doug Pederson) and my pick for Coach of the Year (Matt Nagy). Unless your only measure of coaching success is Super Bowl wins, Reid is a legend.
The guys on the other side aren’t bad, either. Sean McVay was a little rough around the edges in terms of clock and game management against the Cowboys, but the coach everyone is trying to copy with their new hires won his first playoff game on Saturday night. He’ll try to get his second against Sean Payton, who has the 14th-best winning percentage in NFL history among guys who have coached more than 150 games. Reid probably justifies a Hall of Fame spot with a Super Bowl win, as does Payton with his second. McVay would receive the most picks as the coach most likely to dominate over the next decade.
Most importantly, there’s no obvious weak point, which is rarely the case when you get to the final four. (See: Marrone, Doug.) While we don’t know how McVay’s career will turn out after Year 2, there’s at least a reasonably strong case that we’re looking at one of the best sets of coaches this deep in the playoffs in recent memory.
What past group would come close? You probably have to go back to 1992 or 1993, when the threesome of Marv Levy, Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert each made the conference championship round, where they were joined by either Don Shula (1992) or Marty Schottenheimer (1993). If McVay is as good as he has looked in his first two years, though, I’d still put the current bunch ahead of them.
Go back to 1984 and I think you’ll find a better comparison. You had two legendary veterans in Shula and Chuck Noll, who had combined for six Super Bowl wins and were essentially 10-win locks every season at that point of their careers. They were joined by one of the most influential coaches in league history in Bill Walsh, who was in the middle of a 15-1 season and about to win his second Super Bowl. The guy on the other side was Mike Ditka, who had just become the first Bears coach in 19 years to win a playoff game. Ditka was a year away from winning his own Super Bowl and probably slotted in as the McVay of his group.
I think the 1975 season has the best case for truly legendary coaches. There’s no Shula, but Noll had just won his first Super Bowl and was about to win his second. His Steelers made it to the Super Bowl by beating John Madden and the Raiders, and the longtime broadcaster requires no introduction. On the NFC side, Tom Landry already had been the Cowboys’ coach for 15 seasons and already had a Super Bowl win; he was up against Chuck Knox, who had started his career with the Rams by going 34-8. McVay, by comparison, is 24-8. I don’t know whether these coaches were more highly regarded at the time than our four current coaches are now, but they all went on to have legendary careers, and all but Knox are in the Hall of Fame.
5. These are rematches of wildly entertaining regular-season games.
It was overshadowed by the legendary Chiefs-Rams game that followed, but when I tried to identify the most exciting regular-season games of all time, the 43-40 Patriots-Chiefs game from Week 6 made the top 10. It had two fourth-quarter lead changes, a 75-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill to tie things up with 3:03 left, and a bomb to Rob Gronkowski to set up a 28-yard game winner from Stephen Gostkowski at all zeros. The two teams combined for just one punt, which came from the Chiefs midway through the fourth quarter on the only three-and-out of the game.
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The battle between Payton and McVay is also knotted up. The Rams comfortably beat the Saints in Los Angeles last season, with a late Alvin Kamara touchdown making the 26-20 score look closer than the game actually was. New Orleans was down Marshon Lattimore in that game, although their numbers with and without Lattimore on the field since 2017 are surprisingly similar. Dennis Allen’s defense has allowed a 90.1 passer rating with Lattimore on the field and an 89.1 mark without its star corner.
The Saints responded this season with a 45-35 win that actually was a closer game, given that the Rams tied the score at 35-all with 9:48 to go after Jared Goff threw a touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp and hit on the subsequent two-pointer. The Saints kicked a field goal to go up three, and after a Rams three-and-out, Michael Thomas burned Marcus Peters on the 72-yard touchdown that led to the Joe Horn tribute cell phone celebration. The Saints will get to play the rubber match in New Orleans on Sunday.
6. This could be the last time we get to see several great players in familiar uniforms.
The most obvious candidate here is Gronkowski, who has been the subject of retirement reports. It certainly looks like the 29-year-old isn’t the same receiver we saw in years past. He had just two 100-yard games this season, one of which came in that infamous game against the Dolphins in which he failed to defend the goal line effectively on Miami’s game-winning laterals play.
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The Chiefs’ defense across from Gronk might not look the same. Eric Berry played a key role in stopping Gronkowski in Week 1 of the 2017 season, only to tear his Achilles in the second half. Berry has played only one full game since and sat out the divisional-round win with heel pain. The Chiefs would owe nearly $15 million in dead money, although they could free up $9.6 million in 2019 cap room, if they designated Berry as a post-June 1 release.
More likely, Reid will look toward Justin Houston for cap space. Houston is still a useful pass-rusher, but the 29-year-old hasn’t cracked 10 sacks since 2015 and is no longer worth the $21.1 million cap hit he’s set to make in 2019. Kansas City could free up $14 million in cap room to re-sign Dee Ford and work on an extension for Chris Jones, both of whom figure to be the future cornerstones.
Tom Brady and Drew Brees could also theoretically choose to hang it up, with a Super Bowl win perhaps making it easier to move on. Their contract structures seem to suggest that their respective franchises expect their star quarterbacks to each play through the end of 2019. I don’t expect either of them to retire, but stranger things have happened.
7. This could represent a passing of the torch in both conferences.
It’s hard to find an example of a potential passing of the torch quite as extreme as the matchup between Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Brady is obviously still playing at a high level, but he has thrown 11 interceptions this season. In fact, even though Brady won the MVP in 2017, his numbers suggest the future Hall of Famer has been in a modest decline over the past two seasons after an incredible 12-game run in 2016. I’d pin part of that on the absence of Julian Edelman in 2017 and a limited receiving corps without Brandin Cooks, and with Gronkowski aging in 2018, but Brady is also 41 years old.
Mahomes, meanwhile, is the presumptive MVP. If the second-year quarterback does claim the award, he’ll be the youngest quarterback to win the AP’s MVP award in modern history, narrowly dethroning Dan Marino by two days. Both won the award in their age-23 season and their second professional campaign. Even though he had a Hall of Fame career, Marino never topped that 1984 campaign. He never made it back to the Super Bowl, and while Marino was first-team All-Pro in 1985 and 1986, he never had those sort of years again after turning 26.
There’s not really a comparable game between quarterbacks in this situation when you combine age, merit and the postseason. If I look for games between a passer 25 years or younger in the middle of their MVP campaign against a quarterback who’s 35 or older and won the MVP and continues to play at a high level, there are two games: Brady against Mahomes in Week 6, and Marino vs. defending MVP Joe Theismann in Week 1 of that 1984 season. If I’m looking for a playoff game, I have to stretch the criteria to get 26-year-old Brett Favre in the divisional round of the 1995 playoffs against 34-year-old Steve Young, who threw a staggering 65 passes in a 27-17 loss. (To put that in context, Young never threw more than 51 passes in any other game in his 49ers career.)
We often base too much of our evaluation of a quarterback’s legacy on what happens in his first few playoff games. Brady became a larger-than-life figure by winning his first 10 postseason games, although he has gone 17-10 since. Guys such as Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan had to fight skepticism and deal with perpetually moving goalposts after they struggled early in their postseason careers. One league voter in Mike Sando’s QB tier rankings this past year said Ryan was a Tier II and not a Tier I quarterback because of “the ‘playoff’ stuff,” but Ryan posted a 135.3 passer rating in 2016 and came within six points of leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl victory.
It’s unfair to turn playoff games into quarterback matchups, but if Mahomes beats Brady, it’ll be seen as the official dawn of a new era in Kansas City. If the Chiefs lose and Mahomes struggles, though, the default will be to refer to Mahomes as the same old Chiefs under the same old Andy Reid, as if the 23-year-old had anything to do with the Chiefs’ defense blowing a 28-point lead to the Colts in 2013. It’s not the way I think or I would suggest you think about quarterbacks, but it would be naive to pretend that some subset of the NFL universe doesn’t talk about passers this way.
The narrative stakes aren’t quite as high in Los Angeles, where Goff might have to take the torch from Aaron Rodgers as opposed to Brees, but this would be a huge feather in the caps of both Goff and McVay.
8. They’re going to be played in front of two raucous home crowds.
I don’t want to pick between the Chiefs and Saints for home-crowd noise, and there’s certainly more to home-field advantage than simply being loud, but who could ask for more entertaining venues for these two games? Everyone knows Saints fans are going to show up for their biggest home game since the 2009 NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, but think about how big this is for Chiefs fans.
The Chiefs just won their first home playoff game since 1993, which was the last time they made it this far. Kansas City hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1969. It gets a chance to overcome all that on Sunday at home against a team that knocked them out of the playoffs in 2015. The last time the Patriots played in Kansas City, Chiefs fans set the record for the loudest outdoor stadium. You get the feeling they might top that number in a big moment on Sunday.
Heisman Trophy winner QB/IF KYLER MURRAY of Oklahoma applied for the NFL draft on Monday, just before the deadline, but Tim Brown of YahooSports.com says he hasn’t made a final choice of sports:
Kyler Murray, the first-round draft pick of the Oakland A’s in June and the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in December, on Monday declared for the NFL draft, a procedural decision that also hinted at his preference for football over baseball, according to those close to the two-sport athlete.
Murray also is 21 years old. So while today he views himself a football player, and while today his parents are said to have come in on the side of football, and while today his near future looks like NFL scouting combine (or private workouts) and NFL draft (and perhaps not as much of MLB spring training, if any), preferences, at 21, are shifty constructs.
Even so, perhaps it is time for the adults – the other adults – to leave the room.
Kyler Murray is a grown man, and if now you must make a crack about NFL quarterback height requirements, have at it. He has spent weeks navigating a grossly unfair system, one that limits where he can go and for how much, and in April will be drafted into another one. He has people – agents, guardians, confidantes, friends, coaches, accountants – to help guide him, a special case serving in some ways as a test case, after which he is likely to learn the games are still the games and the rules are not his to make. They will be his to live with.
Murray arrives at his decision at a time when the greater transgression is not the opinion but the absence of an opinion, so the football people will tell him what a fine choice he made, and the baseball people will slap their foreheads, and the money people will count it out to the last nickel, and the fact is nobody has an idea what this will look like in a year, in five, in 10. Not them. Not Kyler. Not the guy manning the height station at the NFL combine. Not the guy who sees Rickey Henderson in everything Kyler Murray is and could be.
What Murray must know is the only way this absolutely does not work is to try to keep it all alive, to mix football quarterbacking with baseball outfielding and so attempt to cover himself in the case of failure. One day, and declaring for the draft does not make this day that day, the decision will have to come, and he’ll know it before anybody else does. Maybe it’ll be what makes him wealthiest, or could. Maybe it’ll be what he is best at, in his estimation. Maybe it’ll be the lifestyle, an NFL huddle (or bench) against a bus somewhere between three at-bats here and four at-bats there. Maybe it’ll be the arena that brings him the most joy, that’s the most fun, that allows him to love every day more than the last.
Maybe, when that day comes, being a big-league fourth outfielder sounds better to him than being a starting quarterback, or being a second-string quarterback sounds better than being an All-Star outfielder. However it goes. Or, why not, a Super Bowl quarterback sounds better than any of it.
Remember when what you chose today and for forever was the thing that most inspired you? And, because it inspired you, you knew – just knew – you could be great at it? No matter how it played out, you couldn’t regret that choice today.
No, if the decision hasn’t already been made, it’ll come to him while dragging his pads from a practice field somewhere. Or in a batting cage, after his thousandth swing. Or two thousandth. Three thousandth. Somewhere, but probably not in a room surrounded by people in suits and polo shirts, holding calculators, protecting their own skins in his game.
Spring training begins in about a month, in Arizona. The combine opens a couple weeks later, in Indiana. There will be decisions to be made before then, and again in the two months leading to the draft, and plenty – perhaps over a year or two or more – after that. He does not have to choose the rest of his life today, not based on his mid-day Tweet: “I have declared for the NFL Draft.” He merely has to prepare himself for the decision. Whose money he will accept. Whose uniform he will wear. What journey he will honor.
Mostly, though, what feels right to him. What makes him happiest.
Because that’s where he’ll be best.
We went to Wikipedia to see if his family history would tell us whether or not he comes from football people or baseball people. The results are mixed – and we learned (although we are late to the party) that he’s part Korean:
Murray’s father, Kevin Murray, was a quarterback at Texas A&M from 1983 to 1986. Also, his uncle, University of Texas alumnus Calvin, is a former professional baseball player for the San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, and Chicago Cubs.Kyler is a second-generation Korean-American, with his maternal grandmother being a South Korean national.