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A tribute to… the lateral pass

The lateral pass may sit in the shadow of the far-more-common forward pass in American football but it still plays a crucial role in the strategy and tactics of the game. In this third article in our series about some of the rare-yet-intriguing aspects of gridiron, we examine what defines a lateral pass, look at some of the plays that involve lateral passes and shine a light on some of the most memorable examples – both successful and not – through the years.

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What is a lateral?

While the forward pass was invented specifically for the American game of football, the lateral or backward pass was borrowed from the two codes of rugby, where such passes are the norm (and, of course, where forward passes aren’t allowed). A lateral occurs when a player throws the ball sideways or backwards to a teammate and while only one forward pass may be thrown per down by the offense, there are no such restrictions on lateral passes. Any player carrying the ball may throw a lateral pass from any position on the field at any time. Similarly, any player may receive such a pass and any number of laterals may be thrown on a single play. Additionally, a player receiving a lateral pass behind the line of scrimmage may still throw a forward pass, as long as none has already been thrown during the play.

If there’s a change of possession, the defense can only throw laterals once they get the ball. And unlike a forward pass, a dropped lateral results in a live ball that may be picked up and advanced by either team. Backward passes can also be intercepted, opening up a whole new level of jeopardy. And therein lies the beauty and the fascination of the lateral. It’s a green light for the innovative coach to get scheming and the switched-on player to do something instinctive and unexpected. Furthermore, sometimes – usually when it’s the last play of the game and the attacking teams needs to score by any means – it can be a recipe for unadulterated, multi-pass madness, as we’ll see later.

MOST PLAYS FEATURE A LATERAL: Within the rules of the game, the snap at the line of scrimmage is officially classed as a backward pass.

Categories of lateral pass

The most common lateral pass involves the quarterback quickly ‘pitching’ the ball a short distance to a nearby running back on a rushing play. All pretty standard stuff. And like in rugby, a sideways pass to an adjacent runner in open play isn’t unheard of. Laterals are also used in trick plays – and this is where things get more exotic and interesting. Let’s have a closer look at a couple where a backwards pass is a fundamental element. 

The flea flicker

Who doesn’t love a ‘flea flicker’? The quarterback hands the ball to a running back, who rushes forwards but stops at or before the line of scrimmage and laterals the ball back to the QB, who then throws a forward pass. This trick play draws the defense into defending the run, leaving the quarterback free from an immediate pass rush. The back-and-forth between RB and QB also gives time for the intended receiver to get downfield, opening up an opportunity for a long completion.

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There are many, many examples of flea flickers over the years so we won’t dwell on them too much. But one particular combo – Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald – connected on some notable flea flickers for the Arizona Cardinals, not least in the 2009 playoffs. During the NFC Wild Card game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Cards were struggling to run the ball in the first quarter. Running back Edgerrin James took a handoff, progressed two yards before turning and pitching the ball back to Warner. With the pocket collapsing in on the expected runner, the Falcons secondary couldn’t see the pitch take place, allowing Warner to uncork a 42-yard pass to Fitzgerald in the end zone. The TD set Arizona on their way to winning their first home playoff game in 61 years.

A week later, facing the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, Warner and Fitzgerald did it again. This time, the pitch back to Warner came from JJ Arrington, who ran off to the right before throwing the ball back across to his QB. The ensuing TD pass to Fitzgerald went for 62 yards, sealing a 32-25 win that punched Arizona’s ticket to Super Bowl XLIII.

The hook and lateral

I’m also rather partial to another variant: the ‘hook and lateral’ (sometimes called a ‘hook and ladder’). Here, a receiver (quite often a tight end) runs a hook route, turns and collects a forward pass before tossing the ball backward to a second receiver running in behind, while the initial ball-catcher is closed down or tackled. Looking very much like a rugby move, the Kansas City Chiefs are rather adept at this one, often using Travis Kelce to take the pass before laying it off to a teammate – like this one to Noah Gray against the Broncos that secured a first down or one to LeSean McCoy against the Lions that turned a 12-yard pass into a 35-yard gain. (Maybe this is why they have signed former Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit through the International Player Pathway?)

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The Miami Dolphins also executed a classic hook and lateral that made the top 50 of the best NFL plays ever. Seconds before the break in their AFC playoff game against the San Diego Chargers in January 1982, wide receiver Duriel Harris caught a 20-yard pass from quarterback Don Strock. He immediately flung it, scrum-half style, into the path of running back Tony Nathan, who flew past him and in for the score.

THEY’RE NOTHING NEW: The first documented instance of a lateral occurred in the NFL’s inaugural season in 1920, by the Rock Island Independents against the Muncie Flyers.

Miracles do happen

Ask any Titans fan to name the best lateral play in NFL history and they’ll probably tell you it’s the ‘Music City Miracle’, which happened at the end of Tennessee’s AFC Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills in Nashville in January 2000. Having scored a go-ahead field goal to lead 16-15 with just 16 seconds left on the clock, Buffalo kicked off, expecting to defend their slim lead for a couple of plays and secure the victory. But Alan Lowry, the Titans’ Special Teams Coordinator, had other ideas.

Tennessee’s Lorenzo Neal caught the short, high kick at the 25 and immediately handed the ball off to tight end Frank Wycheck. Wycheck stepped to his right and having drawn the Bills players over to his side, threw the ball horizontally across the field to wide receiver Kevin Dyson. He sprinted down the left sideline for a game-winning touchdown, with only kicker Steve Christie even in the same zip code.

“Do the Titans have a miracle left in them in what has been a magical season to this point? If they do, they need it now. Christie kicks it high and short. Gonna be fielded by Lorenzo Neal at the 25. Pitches it back to Wycheck… he throws it across the field to Dyson… 30, 40, 50, 40… 20, 10, 5 – end zone! Touchdown Titans! There are no flags on the field! It’s a miracle! Tennessee has pulled a miracle! A miracle for the Titans!”
Mike Keith, Titans Radio Network broadcast

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Immediately after the play, there was controversy over whether Wycheck’s throw was an illegal forward pass (remember, they were the defense on this play). While Dyson was undoubtedly standing further forward than the passer, he crouched down and reached back to make the catch. Upon review, the touchdown stood and the Titans marched on to Super Bowl XXXIV.

Amazingly, the two players who had practised the play before the game – kick returner Derrick Mason (concussion) and safety Anthony Dorsett (cramp) – were unable to take the field at the time so Dyson had to step in, getting told what to do on the sideline before the play. The plan was also for him to step out of bounds if he got within field goal range but having the whole field open up, Dyson couldn’t help but go all the way.

When blind hope is all you have

In October 2003, the Minnesota Vikings were tied 7-7 with the Denver Broncos with 12 seconds left before halftime. Facing a 3rd-and-24 in their own territory, the Vikings’ QB Daunte Culpepper rolled right and heaved a Hail Mary to Randy Moss. Alas, the pass fell a bit short and he had to come back to make the catch at the Denver 10. Surrounded by several Broncos, Moss was immediately tackled but as he was going down, he threw the ball blindly over his head to running back Moe Williams, who scampered untouched into the end zone. As the commentators said at the time, the improvisation was worthy of an Academy Award.

The Vikings won 28-20 and the move was also named in the NFL’s top 100 plays. After the game, Moss – who posted 1,632 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns that season – implied he knew what he was doing when he said “Out of my peripheral vision, I saw a purple jersey. Well, purple is purple. That means he’s a teammate of mine. So out of instinct, I just tossed it over my shoulder…”

Multi-lateral mayhem

As we’ve seen, single laterals can be highly effective in the right situation. But there’s been many an instance where two or more lateral passes have been used to orchestrate game-defining plays.

One such example, the ‘River City Relay’, took place in a Week 16 game between the New Orleans Saints and the Jacksonville Jaguars in December 2003. With the Saints trailing by a touchdown and time running out, quarterback Aaron Brooks – at his own 25 on a 2nd-and-10 – completed a pass to Donte’ Stallworth out near the right sideline. The wide receiver cut in and headed back across the field before lateralling the ball to fellow wideout Michael Lewis on the left side. Lewis ran with it, then turned to hand it to Deuce McAllister. The RB ran into a cul-de-sac so swivelled and hurled the ball back across the field to unmarked running back Jerome Pathon, who raced into the end zone back over in the right corner. The fact that he made it into the paint was in no small part due to a timely block on the last defender by his QB Brooks, who’d tracked the play down the field. Unfortunately, that amazing effort – including three lateral passes – was in vain as Saints kicker John Carney missed the PAT attempt, resulting in a heartbreaking 20-19 loss.

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The Miami Dolphins also used two laterals to score a legendary touchdown that defeated the New England Patriots 34-33 on the last play of a game at Hard Rock Stadium in December 2018. Down by five points and with only seven seconds remaining, Ryan Tannehill completed a pass from his own 31-yard line to wide receiver Kenny Stills. He threw a short lateral to DeVante Parker in midfield, who in turn passed it along the line to running back Kenyan Drake. Drake then snaked his way through the Pats D (which included a flailing Rob Gronkowski, on the field to help defend a possible Hail Mary) to the end zone. The 69-yard TD, since dubbed the ‘Miracle in Miami’, was the first walk-off touchdown winner to involve multiple lateral passes in NFL history and the first multi-lateral TD play since the ‘River City Relay’ 15 years earlier.

Close but no cigar

An honourable mention goes to Antonio Brown who looked like he’d put the seal on a multi-lateral TD play for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Dolphins on a snowy field in Week 14, 2013. Trailing 34-28 as the clock ran out, Pittsburgh gave it one last effort. Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass out wide to Emmanuel Sanders, from whence it came back across the field to the quarterback in a series of backward diagonal passes. Big Ben stepped forward and then, as he was tackled, flipped a windmill of an underarm pass out to the left where Brown was waiting. The mercurial wide receiver found the room to race down the sideline and in for the TD, leaving the Miami secondary struggling to keep their feet on the snow-covered turf. Alas for the Steelers, the replays showed that Brown stepped out of bounds about 13 yards from paydirt… but it was a fine effort nonetheless and almost one of the best multi-pass TDs ever. 

THIS PLAY IS LATERALLY INSANE: Although it’s not from the NFL, we have to mention the University of Miami’s amazing eight-lateral game-winning play against Duke in 2015. This 45 seconds of craziness is exactly why we love the lateral.

Col-lateral damage

The lure of glory can be intoxicating but beware, fellow fans of the lateral. It can also go oh-so-wrong, as this cautionary tale illustrates.

In 2022, a week before Christmas, the Patriots were facing the Las Vegas Raiders. With three seconds left and the score tied at 24-24, QB Mac Jones could’ve taken a knee and overtime would have followed. Alternatively, they could have tried to win by hurling a Hail Mary into the Raiders’ end zone. Instead, what ensued was the worst of both worlds. Taking a handoff, Rhamondre Stevenson made 23 yards on a weaving run. But with Raiders safety Duron Harmon closing in, instead of being tackled and accepting the inevitability of overtime (hardly the most terrible of outcomes), he had a rush of blood to the head, raised his arm and pitched it back over a defender to Jakobi Meyers. His teammate also got over-excited and despite running in the wrong direction for eight yards, seemed determined to keep the play alive, so threw a second lateral back across the field towards Jones. Alas for the Patriots, Las Vegas’ own Jones – Chandler Jones – had been watching this madness unfold and stepped in front of his namesake, expecting the QB to be the next likely recipient of the ‘hot potato’. The defensive end inevitably intercepted the ball, stiff-armed Mac Jones to the floor and ran it in for the winning score.

Because the Patriots attempted this play when the game was tied and OT was safely in the bag, the play is widely considered to be one of the biggest howlers in league history. ESPN’s Stephen E Smith called it “the dumbest play ever” while NFL Network’s Rich Eisen christened it “the Hail Moron” before going on to describe it as “the most situationally boneheaded play… maybe ever”.

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When magic meets madness

So that, folks, is the lateral. It may be the poor cousin of the forward pass as far as frequency goes but given how often laterals have featured in the NFL’s most iconic plays throughout history, their impact on the game is undeniable. When used strategically in isolation, lateral passes can unlock a defense and they remain a potent weapon for coaches and players looking to outwit and outmanoeuvre their opponents. But when teams run out of time and have no other option than to wing it, attempting multiple laterals to keep the final play alive, that’s when magic and madness collide.

Long live the lateral!

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A tribute to… the fake punt

In the grand theatre that is American football, few tactics exemplify the art of deception quite like the fake punt. The sneaky trick play dates back to the early days of the National Football League and has shaped countless games, leaving an indelible mark on the sport’s landscape. In this, the second article in our series honouring the game’s rarer plays, we delve into the strategies behind the fake punt and relive some of the great examples from days gone by.

How it all began

While the rules of the sport do not explicitly mention the option to fake a punt attempt, teams have been doing so since the formative days of the league, when coaches and players began experimenting with unconventional ways to try to gain an edge on the field. At its core, the move is designed to deceive the opposing team by lining up in punt formation but executing an alternative play, such as a run or pass, that they aren’t set up to defend.

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The first documented instance of a fake punt in the NFL occurred on 6 November 1932, by the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers at Wrigley Field. Trailing by a point late in the fourth quarter, the Bears needed a big play to turn the tide in their favour and decided to fake a punt. Their legendary quarterback, Bronko Nagurski, received the snap instead of punter Johnny Sisk, faked a punt attempt himself before running with the ball. Catching the Packers off guard, Nagurski secured a pivotal first down that ultimately led to the game-winning touchdown.

The options

That landmark play, almost a century ago, demonstrated the potential impact of having bare-faced deception in the playbook and set the stage for others to follow. As the fake punt gained traction across the league, it became clear that different categories of trickery, each with its own unique approach and execution, were available. These can be loosely classified as follows:

  • The run: In this classic variation, more often used in short yardage situations, the punter receives the snap and runs with the ball. This relies on blockers to help the (usually smaller, lighter) ball-carrier evade defenders.
  • The pass: This more daring approach sees the punter make a downfield throw, targeting an uncovered receiver for a potentially big gain.
  • The direct snap: Bypassing the punter altogether, this variation involves the ball being snapped directly to a running back or quarterback (as in Nagurski’s case), who then executes a predetermined running or passing play.
  • The reverse: Adding another layer of complexity, the reverse fake punt sees the punter hand the ball off to a player executing a reverse run or pass, exploiting the defense’s pursuit of the punter.

DEEP FAKE: During the Cleveland Browns’ game against the Saints in October 2010, punter Reggie Hodges took a snap, bolted through the line of scrimmage and ran it 68 yards to the Saints’ 10-yard line. It’s still the longest run by a punter in NFL history.

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Legendary moments of fake puntory

Through the years, fake punts have etched themselves into the annals of NFL history, captivating audiences with their audacity and execution. Even in the last decade or so, there have been some memorable examples of the passing variety and many illustrate the point that punters don’t have to be particularly good at throwing if the play is enough of a surprise. 

Eight years ago, in 2016, kicker Pat McAfee threw a 35-yard pass on a fake punt for the Indianapolis Colts against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Facing a 4th-and-6 from midfield, McAfee took the snap, crept a few steps to his right and threw a pass to tight end Erik Swoope, who was eventually brought down inside the 10.   

In Week 4 of the 2017 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars literally didn’t defend the New York Jets receiver and punter Lac Edwards just about made the pass on a huge 4th-and-21. Also in 2017, during a Monday night clash with divisional rivals the Minnesota Vikings, Bears punter Pat O’Donnell completed a 38-yard TD pass to Benny Cunningham, who beat two defenders in the open field to score. By his own admission, O’Donnell had never thrown a pass before – not in college or even little league – and while his slow, lofted pass won’t win prizes for style, it still went for seven points.

A year later, the Tennessee Titans notched an impressive 66-yard TD on a fake punt against the Houston Texans. With the game just five minutes old and still scoreless, the long snap bypassed the punter in favour of safety Kevin Byard, lurking in the backfield. He noticed that the gunner on his right, rookie safety Dane Cruikshank, was unguarded and that was all he needed. Cruikshank was so open, he could afford to slow down to catch the ball before speeding past punt returner Bruce Ellington for the score in just his second game as a pro.

Only last year, Ryan Wright of the Vikings suddenly got licence to throw a ball instead of punting – with mixed success. In Week 15, the Vikings tried some sneakiness against the Colts on a fourth down but it went south. Wright lined up, looking to all intents and purposes like he was about to boot the ball away, but instead threw a pass towards Jalen Nailor on the left sideline. Alas, it was an ugly effort that sailed over his intended target’s head, leading to a turnover on downs. However, the two did connect when Minnesota played the New Orleans Saints in London earlier in the season. Leading 16-14 late in the third quarter, they faced a 4th-and-2 from just inside their own half. Wright took the snap, immediately turned to his right and threw a 13-yard pass that just about had the legs to reach Nailor for his first-ever NFL catch.

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Turning our attention to run plays, this fake punt from December 2021 went 73 yards – but it wasn’t the punter running this time. After seemingly going three-and-out on their opening possession against the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks snapped the ball directly to running back Travis Homer. He raced 73 yards to the end zone to give Seattle a 7-0 lead. This is the longest run on fourth down in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and Homer was actually listed as questionable because of a calf injury so extra kudos to him!

WORTH A GO: Historically, fake punt passes on 4th-and-7 or shorter have at least a conversion rate of at least 50%.

Fakes that failed

As much as it’s fun to celebrate every successful fake punt, it’s counterbalanced by many a cautionary tale of failure and miscalculation. There are far too many to recount of failed fakes but here are just a couple.

In the 2020 season, the NFC East (nicknamed the ‘NFC Least’ at the time due to the ineptitude of all four teams) was won, almost by default, by a Washington team with a 7-9 record. Summing up the division that year, the 6-10 Cowboys managed this epic fail on a reverse against the then-Redskins, barely making it back to the line of scrimmage, deep in their own territory. Mike McCarthy, hang your head in shame for calling this one.

And only this season, we saw the Buffalo Bills tried to pull a fast one on their AFC rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, but again failed to convert. Down 27-24 early in the fourth quarter, Bills HC Sean McDermott decided to get aggressive on a 4th-and-5 on their own 30 yard-line, obviously hoping that the field position would suggest conservatism rather than recklessness to his opposite number, Andy Reid. Damar Hamlin took the direct snap from the long snapper, and the offensive line shifted to the left to clear a path. However, the KC defense stopped Hamlin after a gain of two.

The king of fakes: Johnny Hekker

Several names have become synonymous with the art of the fake punt. Back in 1960, when some players still had multiple roles – as both quarterback and punter, for example – the Eagles’ Norm Van Brocklin was second in passer rating and fifth in punting average as he led Philadelphia to an NFL championship. Meanwhile, Dallas’ Danny White threw for three scores and averaged 44.5 yards a punt against the Rams in a 1980 playoff game. 

But in the modern era, no one can hold a candle to Johnny Hekker. The former LA Ram punter was named first-team All-Pro four times and holds the single-season record for net punting average. In 2016, he had the greatest punting season in NFL history, landing 51 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line with just one touchback. But as good as he is at punting, he’s in a league of his own at ‘not punting’.

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Most teams run fake punts once in a blue moon. In 2019, the Ringer stated that combined, the 31 teams other than the Rams attempt about five fake-punt passes a season and convert three. Hekker alone has averaged 2.4 passes per season since 2012, has yet to go a year without at least attempting a pass and has only had one season (2013) without a completion.

In Hekker’s rookie season (2012), all three of his throws went to wide-open players. His first came from inside his own end zone, when the Niners clearly weren’t expecting a pass and failed to defend a Rams’ gunner. His second came in the same game, on what might have been the first run-pass option called for a punter and his third came on a fake field goal attempt (more on them later), during which the Rams pretended to sub wide receiver Danny Amendola out of the game. Instead, he hugged the sideline without a defender anywhere near him, leaving Hekker with a throw that, well, any punter could have made.

“Deep down inside, all punters want to throw,” Rams special teams coach John Fassel said of Hekker, “and he’d much rather throw than punt.” Hekker himself admits, “I’ve got a good release… for a punter.” And the secret to his success? Hekker led his high school team to the Washingston state championship game as a QB.

Hekker has now played 10 NFL seasons – nine with the St Louis/Los Angeles Rams and one with the Carolina Panthers, and is now 15-of-24 (62.5%) for 193 yards – with a long of 28 – with 1 TD and 1 INT as a passer. (He also completed a pass on a two-point conversion but that doesn’t count towards his official statistics.) The guy is undoubtedly the league’s fakiest punter.

Dan, Dan, the diaper man

Switching from the field to the sidelines, current Detroit head coach Dan Campbell is definitely not afraid to call a high-risk, high-reward play. He even stated that Detroit fans should “wear a diaper” because he likes to take risks, specifically on fourth downs. Just last season, in the third quarter against the Packers in November 2023, the Lions attempted a fake punt on a 4th-and-4 from their own 23-yard line. From the moment the ball was snapped, the play never stood a chance. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was stopped for no gain and the Packers scored three plays later, going on to win 29-22. To his credit, Campbell held his hands up. “Yeah, look. That’s a bad call on me,” he said postgame. “I shouldn’t have done that to those guys. That’s a bad call.” 

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But that failure was the exception. Under Campbell, the Lions have converted eight of their 10 fake punt attempts, a stunningly high success rate. Props should also go to special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, who echoes Campbell’s gung-ho style and has helped to turn the Lions’ special teams into one of the league’s best units. In 2021, the Lions converted three of four fake punt attempts, with CJ Moore running for 28 yards on a direct snap against the Rams and punter Jack Fox completing two throws. Last season, Fox completed another pass, Moore ran for two more first downs and Reeves-Maybin rumbled for 3 yards on a 4th-and-2 from his own 17-yard line. Like with Hekker, the element of surprise is long gone with Campbell’s reputation for ballsy play-calling but nonetheless, he still seems to succeed more often than not.

Don’t forget the fake field goal

Before we finish, we must talk about fake field goals. Again, there are a number of different permutations. Usually the holder (often the punter or backup quarterback) will take the snap but rather than place the ball on the ground to be kicked, he’ll throw a pass or run with it.

Less frequently, the kicker, takes a direct snap and serves as the passer or rusher. Former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri received a direct snap and threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown during a game in 2004 and the Seahawks used this play in the 2014 NFC Championship game against the Packers. The box score would have revealed the weirdest touchdown pass description (holder/punter Jon Ryan to eligible offensive lineman Garry Gilliam) as Seattle recovered from a 16-point deficit on their way to Super Bowl XLIX.

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A legacy of innovation and intrigue

Reflecting on the history and evolution of fake kicks, one thing is clear: it’s not just a tactical manoeuvre. Indeed, it’s a testament to the creativity, daring and strategic brilliance of the players and coaches that have shaped the evolution of the game. The fake punt and field goal continue to illicit a knowing nod or even a hysterical squeal, given their potential for glory or disaster. But as the league continues to evolve, you can only imagine the new twists and turns that will define deception and trickery in years to come…

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Cuts, restructures and trades: how Sean Payton is finally rebuilding the Denver Broncos 10 years on

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Sean Payton’s first year in Denver saw Broncos Country endure a true rollercoaster of a season, from a 1-5 start to 7-6 and then back down to a seventh losing season in a row.

Now we’ve entered the offseason, the multiple superstars have moved on and the Broncos are staring down the largest dead cap hit in the history of the NFL. 

To outsiders, it may seem like the Broncos are in free fall and fully embracing a ‘tanking’ season, but in the Mile High city Broncos Country is getting the rebuild they’ve been so desperately longing for since Peyton Manning left in 2016. 

Figures correct as of Thursday, March 15.

The outs

Almost two years on from dropping their major trade acquisition of Russell Wilson, the Broncos announced that they were cutting Russell Wilson. 

Wilson was designated as a post-June 1st cut spreading his cap hit across 2024 and 2025 slightly nulifying the blow of the largest dead cap hit in NFL history. 

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During his time in Denver, Wilson threw for 42 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, and finished with an 11-19 record playing under Nathaniel Hackett and Sean Payton as well as two games under interim-head coach Jerry Rosburg. 

Before even playing a snap in orange, Wilson was handed a five-year 4245 million contract extension on top of the remaining two years he had remaining on his existing Seattle Seahawks contract. 

Now, anyone who can put two and two together will have noticed that the trade happened two years prior to the cutting of Wilson, meaning the 35-year-old failed to play any downs on the blockbuster extension he signed with the organisation. 

Payton has steadied the ship in Colorado after a disastrous season in 2022 but cutting Wilson officially called an end to one of the most disastrous eras in Broncos history, leaving a mere $85 million dead cap hit in its wake.

The dead cap hit more than doubles the previous record and has led to the Broncos having to make numerous other readjustments to gather some meaningful cap room for the 2024 season. 

The biggest casualty of this was superstar safety Justin Simmons who was cut after eight years with the Broncos, who selected the two-time Pro Bowler with the 98th pick of the 2016 draft.

Simmons was the true definition of a ball-hawk safety and a key addition to the Broncos’ roster, however, due to the league’s reluctance to pay safeties and the cap hole the Broncos found themselves in, Simmons was an obvious trade or cut candidate. 

Veteran tight end Chris Manhertz was also cut while fellow pass catcher and former 2020 first-round pick Jerry Jeudy was traded to the Cleveland Browns for two later-round picks.

Jeudy never truly fulfilled his potential in Denver and will get another chance to prove why he was a first-round selection in Cleveland next year, as for the Broncos they were able to free up more cap space and gather some much-needed draft capital in the process.

Away from cutting and trading players two star performers of the Broncos hit the open market in interior offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry III and interior linebacker Josey Jewell. 

Cushenberry earned himself a big-money move to the Tennessee Titans while Jewell currently remains a free agent in a position that is, like safety and running back, deemed as less valuable in the modern game. 

The 2024 linebacker draft class is quite weak which will play into Jewell’s favour, while for the Broncos they will have to decide whether they give second-year player Drew Sanders the keys or whether they look to free agency or a potential gem in this 2024 class, to play alongside Alex Singleton. 

General Manager, George Paton suggested that Sanders may eventually move outside so perhaps an inside linebacker will be in play for the Broncos with some of their mid-round picks. 

Restructures and more cuts?

In the week leading up to free agency, the Broncos restructured the contracts of their three big free-agent acquisitions from a year ago. 

They began by reworking a one-year deal with Tim Patrick, then freeing up $11 million by restructuring Mike McGlinchey’s contract before restructuring both Ben Powers’ and Zach Allen’s deals to allow for an extra $20 million to become available. 

After almost a week of free agency the Broncos’ current cap number sits at around $26 million under the cap and that may grow with some more likely cuts. 

NFL insider Benjamin Allbright hinted at the potential of at least three more cuts that could happen soon from the Broncos roster. 

The most likely candidate for the Broncos to part ways with is defensive tackle, DJ Jones who would free up nearly $10 million in cap space while Garrett Bolles and Samaje Perine may also be restructure or cut candidates. 

Bolles was part of Denver’s amazing run-blocking unit last year and if Payton wants to build his team in his mould it would be strange to see Bolles cut, but his $20 million against the cap does pose as a big figure.

Some flirted with the possibility of Courtland Sutton being a trade candidate but those rumours seem to have been squashed, which is great news for the Broncos after his monster year in 2023.

Free agents  

In the first week of free agency, the Broncos acquired Brandon Jones on a three-year, $20 million contract and defensive lineman Malcolm Roach on a two-year, $8 million contract. 

They also resigned, fullback Michael Burton for one year, safety P.J. Locke on a two-year, $7 million contract, and former New Orleans Saints duo, kicker Will Lutz and wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who both spent the 2023 season in Denver.

With the Broncos sitting at around $26 million in cap space and the free agent market dwindling, they perhaps won’t be going out and making any major deals. 

Perhaps some extra defensive line and linebacker help will come through the door later in free agency on some veteran minimum or cheap ‘prove it’ deals but unless more cuts come it seems unlikely the Broncos will play a much bigger role in the rest of this year’s free agency. 

Draft prospects

Coming later in the draft cycle we will bring you more mock drafts, a full seven-round Broncos mock draft and more draft spotlights. 

As we remain a month and a half out of the draft in Detroit this Spring it’s difficult to properly project any prospects and with a team in need of capital but also in need of a top quarterback prospect, the Broncos are a tough team to place in the draft pecking order. 

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They could go down the route of trading up for JJ McCarthy or Jayden Daniels if one starts to fall, but they likely don’t have the assets to properly facilitate that trade. 

So most likely, it’ll be a trade back to accumulate more capital before moving for one of the mid-range, second-tier quarterbacks, Bo Nix or Michael Penix Jr. to learn under veteran Jarrett Stidham in 2024. 

Elsewhere, the draft class is deep at receiver and with Sutton, Patrick, Humphrey, Brandon Johnson and Marvin Mims as the only receivers on the roster it is likely the Broncos will look to add one of the receivers out of the 2024 class.

The class is also deep at edge rusher, something the Broncos can always use more of, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Paton to select someone like Jared Verse or Laiatu Latu at 12th overall if they liked them enough. 

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With the linebacker class looking quite weak in 2024 in both the draft and free agency, it’ll be interesting to see how the Broncos fill that void. 

What do the next two years look like for the Broncos? 

2024 will be a year for rebuilding for the Broncos and Sean Payton, looking to add some franchise cornerstones through the draft before looking to 2025 with more cap room and bringing more quality into the team. 

The QB question heading into the 2024 draft is intriguing and with the prospects of a trade-up looking less likely, it’ll be interesting to see how the Broncos play the board with the top of the second tier of QBs. 

With the 2025 class of QBs looking weak, it would be surprising to see the Broncos pass on a signal-caller in this draft cycle. 

It would be expected to then see the front office use their extra cap room to surround him with talent when he takes a starting spot in 2025.

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A tribute to… the Hail Mary

While the rules of American football do not explicitly mention the Hail Mary pass, it remains a thrilling aspect of the game. There’s little else that evokes the same anticipation, or suggests the same desperation, as these all-or-nothing, everything-on-the-line moments. In this first in an occasional series of off-season articles about some of the game’s much-loved but rarer plays, Sean Tyler explores the history of the Hail Mary in the NFL, outlines the tactics and techniques behind it, and revisits some of the greatest Hail Marys from years gone by.

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How it all began

Because it’s not part of the game’s official lexicon, the term wasn’t coined by a coach, owner or even a commentator. In footballing terms, the expression dates back to October 1922, when players from Notre Dame (a Catholic university) twice said a prayer in the huddle before plays against Georgia Tech – and scored touchdowns in both instances.

As for the NFL, the first recorded reference came several decades later from Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback. In a divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in December 1975, with just 32 seconds on the clock and Dallas trailing by four, legendary Head Coach Tom Landry called for a long pass and Staubach launched one from the halfway line. The slightly underthrown ball was tipped by receiver Drew Pearson five yards shy of the paint but he somehow trapped it between his arm and hip before taking it in for the winning score. Afterwards, Landry said “Our only hope was to throw it and hope for a miracle,” while Staubach – a devout Catholic – told reporters, “I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” The term appeared in several newspaper headlines the following day and has been part of NFL folklore ever since.

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Mindset and mechanics

The prayer in question (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”) eludes to summoning help from the powers that be to successfully make a long, low-probability, chuck-it-and-hope throw. Usually attempted when a team is too far from the end zone to try something more conventional, the term implies that it would take a miracle for the play to succeed – which is why we love it when it does. That success relies on several factors coming together in the perfect storm: the strength and technique of the quarterback, whether there’s enough time for the receiver(s) to get downfield, whether the opposing team can defend it and, in most cases, a massive slice of good fortune.

So how do you shift the odds in your favour? Well, according to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, you practice. During his three years as an understudy to Brett Favre, he performed countless reps. “I got used to what it felt like, height and distance wise,” he told ESPN in a great article in 2019. “I’ve always been a little nerdy about that – watching the ball, seeing where it would land, remembering what that throw felt like. Was it all out? Was it 90 percent? Was it 80 percent? And just kind of locking those things away.”

As for Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, who has both a college and an NFL Hail Mary to his name, time is also crucial. “Can you find time in the pocket or can you escape the pocket and step up? By the time you run around a little bit, the receiver is in the end zone where you want them. It helps if you can buy as much time as possible, let the receivers get underneath the ball as it comes down.” And the numbers bear that out. According to ESPN tracking, the average time before a Hail Mary is thrown is 4.75 seconds – almost twice as long as a normal play.

So what about trajectory? The throw must go high and far enough to reach the end zone but not go out of the back – that’s quite a tight window if you’re 50 yards or more away. Quarterbacks tend to pull their arms farther back than normal and Cousins tilts his shoulders, with the front shoulder up and back shoulder down. “That will put the arc on it,” he confirms. “You want the ball coming down at the receivers. You don’t want a driven ball.”

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A RARE TREAT: Due to the degree of difficulty, most attempts aren’t completed. In fact, there have only been 34 successful Hail Marys in the professional game since Staubach’s effort nearly 50 years ago.

All hail King Rodgers

While the Hail Mary is often seen as a last-ditch effort, some players have developed a reputation for launching long, accurate passes in clutch moments. Since Staubach, there have been several successful proponents of the Hail Mary. And where better to start than with the best of the best, Aaron Rodgers, who (thanks to all that practice) is the only quarterback with three successful NFL Hail Marys to his name.

One of the most famous of all time, christened the ‘Miracle in Motown’ by broadcaster Jim Nantz, came on the final play of a Thursday night game in December 2015 against the Packers’ NFC North rivals, the Detroit Lions. Because of a face mask penalty on the previous play, Green Bay – who’d been trailing most of the game – were given an extra play with no time on the clock. After the snap, Rodgers broke left to buy time while his receivers rushed downfield. Then he scrambled to the right to evade pressure and hurled a howitzer from his own 35-yard line. It dropped inside the end zone, where it was caught by the 6’4” Richard Rodgers II in front of a gaggle of Detroit players. (The tight end also caught a 67-yarder from Carson Wentz as a Philadelphia Eagle in 2020.)

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The Rodgers-to-Rodgers connection, which brought a dramatic 27-23 victory, is still the longest Hail Mary touchdown in NFL history. According to estimations at the time, the ball travelled 69 yards and almost hit the rafters at Ford Field. Breaking it down afterwards, then-HC Mike McCarthy said: “When you throw it with that arc, it gives guys a chance to fight for position. And Richard is the perfect guy for that type of situation, with his ability to go up and high-point the football.”

Having won the NFL Play of the Year Award for the 2015 season for that one, Rodgers threw another just weeks later. This time, Green Bay were facing the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game. Down by seven and with seconds remaining, Rodgers heaved another desperation pass into the end zone while Marcus Golden and others rushed to close him down. This time, the ball was caught by receiver Jeff Janis and the 41-yard reception sent the game into overtime (although the Cardinals ultimately prevailed).

Rodgers, the unofficial yet undisputed ‘King of the Hail Mary’, then uncorked a third the following year – again in the postseason. In the NFC Wild Card Game against the New York Giants, he let it fly from the 53-yard-line with the last play of the first half and Randall Cobb took the catch at the back of the end zone. Rodgers’ three career Hail Marys, which came during a span of just 13 months, travelled a combined 172 yards.

Talking on Pat McAfee’s show years later, Rodgers raised another interesting factor: the inability of defensive players to read the flight of the ball. “I think it just comes down to the way you throw it,” he said. “If you take out the Jeff Janis one, the other two I was trying to get to a clean spot and throw it as high as possible. On both of those, I think there was a misjudgement by a majority of the players as to where the ball was going to come down.”

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A LONG SHOT… IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD: According to ESPN Stats and Information, only 9.7% of the 193 attempts from 2009 to 2019 were completed.

Double trouble: Dalton and Couch

Looking back through the annals of NFL history, there have been several other notable exponents of the Hail Mary. In particular, a couple of QBs from the AFC North have managed the feat twice (as has Russell Wilson, and we’ll come to him shortly).

In a 2013 battle with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens were leading 17-10 when, on the last play, Cincy’s Andy Dalton launched a 51-yard lob to the end zone on a 4th-and-15. The ball was deflected twice, once by each team, and while everyone else fell to the deck, the ball fell to AJ Green for a touchdown that forced overtime. The same pair teamed up three years later against the Browns, when the Red Rifle found Green with a 52-yard moonshot with seconds left in the first half. Again, there was some juggling and bobbling before Green pulled it into his chest for a 31-17 Bengals win.

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Staying in the division, in October 1999, the Cleveland Browns secured their first win as a returning expansion team with a Hail Mary against the New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Tim Couch avoided the pass rush and launched a 56-yard bomb that was tipped, then caught, by receiver Kevin Johnson. Three years later, Couch repeated the feat against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when his 50-yarder to a tightly covered Quincy Morgan (and the ensuing extra point) secured a 21-20 win. Couch remains the only player to win two NFL games on game-ending Hail Marys.

Before we move on from the Browns, we ought to mention another so-called ‘miracle’: The Miracle at the Met. This refers to Cleveland’s epic game at the Vikings’ old Metropolitan Stadium in December 1980, in which Minnesota came back from a 23-9 deficit to snatch victory in the last five minutes. The Vikes closed to within a point and, after forcing the Browns to punt, were left with 14 seconds, with the ball at their own 20. A crafty lateral pass (more of them another time) set up a 39-yard gain, leaving 41 yards still to go and just five seconds on the clock. NBC broadcaster Len Dawson predicted, “They’re gonna throw that ball up in the air and hope for a miracle” … and he wasn’t wrong. Three receivers lined up on the right and all ran go routes to the end zone, while Tommy Kramer (456 yards, 4 TDs) dropped back and heaved the ball into the crowd scene. A Browns defender tipped the ball but Ahmad Rashad caught it, with one hand, on the 1-yard line and took it in backwards for the score that sealed the NFC Central division title for Minnesota.

When Hail Marys become Fail Marys…

The original ‘Fail Mary’, as it became known, is a misnomer; it was actually a successful play. It occurred in 2012, during a contractual dispute with referees and umpires, when a replacement crew dominated the headlines in the Packers’ Monday night clash with the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a last-second attempt on a 4th-and-10 to Golden Tate, who was surrounded by three defenders in the end zone. Tate pushed one of them away without drawing a flag (hold that thought) but both he and MD Jennings gripped the ball with both hands as they fell to the ground. One referee signalled for a touchdown while another called it an INT. A replay confirmed the score, which resulted in a controversial 14-12 Seattle victory.

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That play is one of several that confirm the benefits of defensive players knocking the ball away – preferably down – rather that trying to intercept it but even that can go wrong. On the final play of a 2010 game in Jacksonville, Texans safety Glover Quin tried to knock down a David Garrard pass intended for Mike Sims-Walker with a double-handed, volleyball-style swat. Alas, it went straight into the hands of Jags receiver Mike Thomas, who brought the ball under control and stepped into the end zone for the winning score.

The Tate TD also highlights the fact that players on both sides are essentially immune from pass-interference flags on a Hail Mary, largely because the NFL doesn’t want a game to be decided on a penalty. Most attempts turn into rugby scrums and no one seems to bat an eyelid. The other dilemma facing defensive coaches is whether to take your chances at the line of scrimmage and send in the pass rush or pull more bodies back to defend the ball down the field. That’s a case of pick your own poison and there’s no right answer.

HOT AND COLD STREAKS: There have been three seasons (2012, 2015 and 2016) with three successful Hail Marys each, while only one was completed between 2003 and 2009.

… and Oh Hell Marys

Because it’s such a high-risk, high-reward play, a Hail Mary can go spectacularly awry and I don’t mean the ‘it didn’t quite work’ kind of wrong; I mean ‘handing the other team seven points’ wrong. Indeed, that happened just three months ago, in Week 12 of the 2023 season, in what might be one of the most ‘Jets’ plays ever.

Trailing 10-6 with the first half all but over, New York Jets QB Tim Boyle unleashed a ball 57 yards through the air. Alas, it went straight to Miami Dolphins safety Jevon Holland on the 1-yard line, and he ran it back for the first Hail Mary returned for a touchdown since ESPN began tracking them in 2006. Starting from the back-left of the field, he ended up at the opposite corner, having run for 124 yards. Picking up critical blocks from Christian Wilkins, Bradley Chubb and Jerome Baker along the way, he left the Jets players sprawling in his wake as he completed his incredible 99-yard pick six.

Despite going on to lose 34-13, Jets running back Breece Hall had no beef with the decision to try a Hail Mary. “It makes perfect sense to me,” he said. “You get the ball at the 50, you throw it at the end zone. When you stop thinking like that, that’s when you’re passive, and I don’t want to be a part of a passive offense. I’m happy we went for it.”

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THE LATEST (SUCCESSFUL) HAIL MARY: In Week 2 of the 2023 season, the Washington Commanders fought back from 21-3 down to lead the Denver Broncos 35–27. With three seconds remaining, Russell Wilson heaved a pass from midfield that was deflected twice before Brandon Johnson caught the TD, giving the QB his second career Hail Mary completion. Alas, Denver failed to convert the ensuing two-point conversion so it was all in vain.

A personal favourite: the Hail Murray

With 35 Hail Marys in the NFL record books, it’s impossible to summarise them all here. But before we finish, let’s revisit one more corker that wasn’t scripted. It was a play that unravelled and the quarterback in question just had to wing it.

The so-called ‘Hail Murray’ occurred when the Cardinals hosted the Buffalo Bills in November 2020. Down 30-26 with 11 seconds remaining and with no timeouts left, the intended target Andy Isabella – running a crossing route – couldn’t get open on a 1st-and-10. The diminutive Kyler Murray evaded a would-be sack from Mario Addison but with two Bills lineman barrelling towards him, it was clear that the play was breaking down, there was nowhere for him to scramble to and time was ebbing away. He was left with no other choice but to hurl it 43 yards downfield and hope for the best. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the only Arizona player to reach the end zone, somehow climbed the ladder and caught the ball, his hands rising through those of Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde to seal a stunning 32-30 comeback victory.

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Here’s just a taste of how that amazing moment, which won the NFL Play of the Year Award, was described by the radio announcers who cover the Cardinals on KVMP FM. (The fact that it’s nearly all in capitals tells you everything…)

Dave Pasch: “Murray back to throw, flushed out, rolling left in trouble, slips a tackle, gotta launch it, he does, left side, into the end zone, jump ball, and it is… is it caught?! Is it caught?! OH MY GOODNESS, IT’S CAUGHT! DEANDRE HOPKINS CAUGHT IT! HE CAUGHT IT FOR A TOUCHDOWN! WITH ONE SECOND LEFT! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! YOU’VE GOTTA BE JOKING ME! HOPKINS… REACHES UP WITH THREE DEFENDERS AROUND HIM AND PULLS IT IN! THE CARDINALS LEAD 32-30 WITH A SECOND LEFT!”

Ron Wolfley: “YOU! CAN’T! COVER! ‘NUK! YOU’RE NOT GONNA BE ABLE TO COVER HIM! THROW THE BALL UP! THAT’S WHAT KYLER MURRAY DID! HE EXTENDED THE PLAY WITH HIS LEGS! AND JUST CHUCKED THAT THING UP INTO THE AIR! INTO THE DESERT SKY, BABY! AND D-HOP BROUGHT IT DOWN! TOUCHDOWN!”

Wow. Goosebumps.

Long live the long throw

Since Staubach’s post-game comment half a century ago, the Hail Mary has (somewhat fittingly) come a long way. It is now less of a desperate call for divine intervention and more often a deliberate, strategic play that a cannon-armed quarterback can pull out of the bag when needed. It embodies everything we love about football: skill and strength for sure, but also unpredictability, hope and a little bit of luck.

So, please join me in raising a glass to the Hail Mary: a rare beast, but far from endangered. Rather, it has become an integral part of the NFL’s rich tapestry and, as these examples hopefully illustrate, brought us some of the most dramatic and celebrated moments in league history. That’s why I’m certain that, as long as there are a few seconds on the clock, half a field still to gain and a result hanging in the balance, the Hail Mary will continue to captivate NFL fans.

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PICK SIX – Super Bowl LVIII

That’s it. The 2023 NFL season is in the vault and the big finale at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas rounded it all off in style. Super Bowl LVIII had it all. Travis Kelce screaming into Andy Reid’s face. Taylor Swift downing a beer. Christian McCaffrey and Isaiah Pacheco coughing up fumbles. Mecole Hardman, who started the season with the Jets, catching the winning TD pass seconds away from double-overtime. Back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs for Patrick Mahomes. Talk of footballing dynasties. And while we can’t hope to cover everything from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 25-22 win over the San Francisco 49ers, Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler have picked six talking points for one last time this season.

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Taylor Swift is the NFL’s MVP

We can talk about game-changing plays or poor coaching decisions all we like. The reality is, the NFL is a business, a huge money-making business at that. At the heart of that business is its audience and this year’s Super Bowl attracted the highest US TV audience since Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Bear in mind that 50+ years ago, there were no streaming platforms, no cable TV and far less other entertainment avenues for the average consumer. So the question is, what made this year different? Enter Miss Swift.

It is estimated that as many as 20% of fans tuned in to cheer on the Chiefs just because of Taylor’s connection to Travis Kelce, based on a flash poll conducted by Variety. The TV coverage certainly made sure the pop superstar was featured heavily entering the arena, during the game (chugging a can of beer no less) and of course, the post-match celebrations sealed with a kiss. It may have become a bit of a bone of contention for avid fans but for the casuals, or what the NFL hopes will be ‘new fans’, the impact has been invaluable. 

The league will not be concerned how invested in the actual game these fans are at the moment but will be revelling in the buzz of the product hitting the eyes of an entire new genre of people. Sponsorship money will go through the roof, the international audience will grow and importantly, the sport will make headlines on front pages along with back pages of news coverage. I would warn anyone wanting to see less of this ‘distraction’ next season to be prepared for an awful lot more.

Lamar Jackson may have won the official hardware but have no doubt about it, there really is only one MVP in the eyes of the league this year and she didn’t ever see the field. I would suggest Travis Kelce is under enormous pressure to make that relationship work for a while to come yet. [SB]

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Butker enhances his leg-acy

As well as being an attritional defensive battle, Super Bowl LVIII was also a special teams showcase. In particular, the kickers on both teams excelled.

Although he ended up on the losing side, Jake Moody, the 49ers’ rookie kicker, still had himself a day to remember. In the second quarter, he set a new record for the longest field goal in Super Bowl history when he drilled a 55-yarder between the uprights (a yard further than the previous record). Moody then became the first kicker to make multiple field goals of 50+ yards in a Super Bowl when he banged another one home from 53. He ended up with three FGs in total but did see one of his point-after attempts blocked.

However, his opposite number for the Chiefs had a perfect night. Harrison Butker went 4 for 4 on field goals and nailed his only PAT kick too. As well as successful chip shots from 24, 28 and 29 yards, including the one that took the game to overtime with three seconds on the clock, his tally also included a 57-yarder midway through the third quarter. That set an even-newer benchmark for the longest field goal in Super Bowl history, beating the record that Moody had held for about 25 minutes.

Butker now has nine Super Bowl field goals to his name, which breaks the previous career high of seven, held by both Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski. Butker’s pre-game odds for Super Bowl MVP were even longer than Sam Darnold’s 20,000-1, as he wasn’t even on the list that I saw, but I’d say he gave Mahomes a good run for his money. [ST]

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Niners’ unexpected dual threat

If I’d said before the game that a Niners’ player was going to be a key dual-threat contributor in both of their touchdowns, you may have guessed that Christian McCaffrey had posted rushing and receiving touchdowns, or that Brock Purdy had thrown and rushed for scores. But in fact, despite his team falling short, it was wide receiver Jauan Jennings who came up big when it counted most, with a TD pass as well as a TD reception.

He provided a major spark to the San Francisco offence when the threw the game’s first TD pass on a trick play. Midway through the second quarter, Jennings – out to the left – took a lateral from Brock Purdy but then threw a pass straight back across the field to a waiting Run CMC, who ran it in with ease from 21 yards.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, Jennings capped a 14-play, 75-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown catch from Purdy. He ended the game with four catches for 42 yards and a score, but that lob to McCaffrey makes him just the sixth non-QB ever to throw a TD pass in the big dance. Furthermore, he became only the second player ever with both a passing and receiving TD in a Super Bowl, joining Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in a very exclusive club.

When asked to sum up his reaction to the loss, Jennings told a reporter that it was similar to “someone putting a nail in front of you and then having to step on it.” So we can confirm, the pain of losing as a team overrides the personal joy gained from any individual accomplishments. [ST]

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Will Shanahan feel better over time?

You’ve got to feel for Niners Head Coach Kyle Shanahan. He’s now been to three Super Bowls and lost them all, thanks to two all-time greats in Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Back in the 2016 season, he was the Atlanta Falcons’ OC when they let a 28-3 lead slip, the largest collapse in Super Bowl history, to TB12’s New England and in both games against the Chiefs over the last four years, the 49ers blew 10-point leads. 

On Sunday, the big one went into overtime for only the second time ever (that Falcons v Patriots classic did too), creating one of the game’s biggest talking points: why did Shanahan elect to receive the ball first when the 49ers won the coin toss? Ironically, the Chiefs were the last team to benefit under the old overtime regulations (against the Bills in the famous ‘13 Seconds’ AFC title match in 2022) but this was the first time the new overtime rules had been called into action since they were introduced two years ago. Under the new format, both teams have an opportunity to possess the ball regardless of what happens on the first possession, unless there’s a defensive score. If it’s all-square after those first two possessions, the game continues till someone scores.

Shanahan’s decision to take the ball first was seemingly locked in days before and based on the analytics behind having the third ‘sudden-death’ possession if the scores were level after a drive each. But his logic might be flawed; if the scores aren’t level, that crucial third possession is irrelevant. The argument in favour of deferring is that if your opponent’s offense has the ball first, you then know what is required to win… and you can play four-down football if necessary.

Here’s an example of how it played out on Sunday. During KC’s first overtime possession, after the Niners had kicked a FG in the opening drive of OT, they faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 34-yard line. Had they taken the ball first, they probably would have punted at this point (because had they gone for it and failed, the Niners would’ve been in range of a game-winning field goal). But because the Chiefs were trailing by three, punting wasn’t an option: conceding possession would have automatically handed the Lombardi trophy to their opponents. They had to go for it and, of course, an 8-yard scamper from Mahomes kept the drive alive.

Interestingly, had Mahomes won the OT toss rather than Fred Warner, the Chiefs would have let the 49ers have the ball anyway. As Chris Jones confirmed afterwards, “We’d talked for two weeks about the new overtime rules. Give the ball to the opponent. And if we score, we go for two.” Which is another reason why Shanahan’s plan might be considered misguided. Andy Reid wasn’t planning on letting the 49ers have another possession. If San Francisco scored seven points, the Chiefs would score eight – or go down trying. 

In another twist to the tale, it seems that while the Chiefs were all fully clued up, some 49ers players weren’t even aware of the new postseason OT rules. “I didn’t even realize the playoff rules were different,” Kyle Juszczyk confessed after the game. Yikes! Whatever you think of Shanahan’s post-coin-flip choices, that’s just unforgivable. Surely, when you’re competing for your sport’s greatest prize, everyone on your team should know the rules and understand the repercussions of any situations that might arise. This oversight only compounds the questions surrounding Shanahan’s OT tactics and it’s something that must be addressed before he reaches a fourth Super Bowl. [ST]

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Shanahan has the wrong answers… again

There is a giant monkey on the back of Kyle Shanahan. Without question, he is one of the premium coaches in the NFL but the nagging conundrum is can he win the big one? Here was another brilliant opportunity to get the job done and had you offered any Niners fan the ability to hold the Chiefs to 19 points in regulation, I am sure they would have snapped your hand off. That was the reality on Sunday evening and when San Francisco ultimately fell short, how does Kyle respond? By firing his defensive coordinator!

They didn’t lose the game because of their defense. Their offense was sluggish and largely ineffective. The defense gave the offense multiple opportunities to emerge from the first half with more than a seven-point lead. But the offensive coordinator can’t be fired by the head coach, because the offensive coordinator is the head coach. It just seems like an overreaction that’s possibly a reflection of the mounting pressure on Shanahan to win a championship.

Presumably, Shanahan already knows who will take over the defense. Will he look to bring in a big name such as Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick or Mike Vrabel to take over? Regardless, the timing stinks for Steve Wilks who has had a rough few years with circumstances seemingly conspiring against him wherever he has landed.

Wilks had led a top three defensive unit throughout the season and the decision has been widely criticised by pundits and players alike. NFL safety Tre Boston chimed in with “If y’all can’t see what’s going on with Steve Wilks! Open your (eyes)! There’s a target on his back which I truly don’t understand! Not one player who’s played for this man has had anything bad to say about him as a man, his coaching nor schemes! HE JUST LED HIS DEFENSE TO THE SB!”

It is hard to disagree with the sentiment. [SB]

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Please be better

Having written countless articles for Full 10 Yards over the years, it would seem appropriate for my final couple of paragraphs to probably be the most poignant. Football is a game, a game we all love, a game we debate, a game that frustrates us and a game that brings us joy. It is almost unfathomable to me that 22 people were injured, with one poor victim killed, in a shooting at the Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade.

This column has concentrated on play on the field throughout the season. To sign off the 2023/24 campaign, however, we have one ask. Thank you America for bringing this wonderful game into our lives but please realise that guns are a problem and never part of the solution. Do better, so that fans all over the world can celebrate their team’s ultimate success without fear of a lunatic running around with a deadly weapon. [SB]

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We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our Pick Six lists as much as we’ve enjoyed putting them together. Thank you for sticking with us every week. Keep your eyes peeled for more F10Y content throughout the off-season.

Shaun and Sean

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PICK SIX – Conference Championship Games

Four teams. Two Championship deciders. One game remaining. The ever-decreasing numbers leave Sean Tyler diving deeper into the detail so this week, our scribe shines a spotlight on the Chiefs defense, a pass-and-catch by Lamar, a crucial four-minute spell that save the Niners and some costly errors by the Lions.

In Spags we trust

Much will be made of Kansas City’s offensive stars in their 17-10 win over the Ravens on Sunday night. Patrick Mahomes was successful with 75% of his passes (30 of 39), Travis Kelce caught all 11 of his targets for 116 receiving yards and a touchdown, and Isiah Pacheco barged his way to 68 rushing yards and a score. All very impressive. But in restricting the free-scoring Ravens to just 10 points, Steve Spagnuolo’s defense – even without Willie Gay, who was ruled out before the game with a neck issue – should take much of the credit for this one. The Chiefs got touchdowns on their first two possessions and that proved to be enough to win. As safety Justin Reid said postgame, “Spags is a magician. His feel for the game, his timing of the calls, when to bring pressure and when to fake it. We have a plan for everything.”

Over the last couple of months, Lamar Jackson has been superb and Baltimore have looked imperious, coming into this game as 4.5-point favourites on merit. However, KC’s Defensive Coordinator stuck to his pressure-heavy approach and his boys blitzed Lamar 20 times – and it worked. The Chiefs D came away with four sacks, three QB hits and five passes batted down, allowed only three third-down conversions and conceded just 22-and-a-half minutes of possession to their opponents.

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Jackson, this year’s yet-to-be-crowned MVP, has been slicing and dicing teams for fun of late but KC somehow managed to pen him in the pocket from all sides, put him under pass-rush pressure and cover his downfield receivers all at once. George Karlaftis, Justin Reid, Charles Omenihu and Tershawn Wharton all brought him down, with Omenihu’s strip sack resulting in a fumble recovery (before he suffered an ACL injury that ends his season). Then, deep into the fourth quarter, Jackson was hurried into a deep ball into a crowded end zone. It was intended for Isaiah Likely but found the hands of Chiefs safety Deon Bush. With Baltimore’s OC Todd Monken relying on his QB to do the heavy lifting (Justice Hill and Gus Edwards combined for just six rushes), it wasn’t a balanced display from a team that normally relies much more on the ground game. They fell short and frustratingly, Lamar couldn’t carry the team by himself.

Even Mahomes has learned that it’s OK to lean on his defensive colleagues; it’s a team game after all. Should the Chiefs beat San Francisco next weekend and lift the Lombardi once more, Mahomes and Kelce (and Taylor bloody Swift) will inevitably dominate the headlines. But the ‘In Spags We Trust’ t-shirts, donned by KC’s defensive players during the warm-up at M&T Bank Stadium, will be out in force again.

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In spats we trust

Talking of warm-ups, who doesn’t appreciate a bit of childish nonsense between opposing players before a game? During their pregame routines, Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes were seen throwing Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s equipment away. The kerfuffle quickly went viral, adding some extra spice to the contest but alas, a day later, Tucker dismissed the interaction as a storm in a teacup.

“It’s kind of silly that we’re even having to address something that happened before the game that I really don’t see as a big deal,” he said. “But for those that don’t know the way it works, each kicker goes to the other team’s designated warm-up area. I’ve been doing the exact same thing for 12 years and never had a problem with anybody. That’s just the way kickers around the league have always done it.”

Kelce told Tucker he needed to move because Mahomes had to warm up, then took matters into his own hands by kicking his ball away and tossing his helmet to the side. As Tucker explained, “While I was on the ground stretching, Travis asked if I could move my helmet. I happily got up and moved my helmet out of the way, or so I thought. And then Travis comes over and he just kicks my stuff and throws my helmet. I thought it was all just some gamesmanship, you know? All in good fun.”

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It seems that Mahomes and Kelce were miffed by Tucker’s presence but the kicker added “Those are two of the best players that have ever played the game. Obviously, it’s an intense environment but at the end of the day, they’re just trying to get ready for a football game.”

So there you have it, right from the horse’s mouth. The spat was something about nothing. You can step away now, there’s nothing to see here.

The need for Sneed

The 10 points posted by the Ravens equalled their season low but if it wasn’t for a crucial game-defining turnover near the goal line, it could have been a different story.

Early in the fourth quarter, Zay Flowers did his best to get seven on the board for his team, reaching out for the end zone to cap a 7-yard catch-and-run. But with the tip of the ball just shy of the line, Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed punched the ball out of his grasp. The Ravens rookie receiver initially thought he’d broken the plane but replays confirmed the fumble, which was recovered by Trent McDuffie, was the correct call. Flowers was clearly frustrated after the play, throwing his helmet and apparently cutting his hand in the process. When asked if he thought he’d scored, he replied “Yeah, I thought I did, honestly. But I’ll learn from my mistakes.”

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In his defence, Flowers was being a bit hard on himself. It wasn’t a mistake, just a great play by Sneed that snatched much-needed points away from the Ravens. In fact, Flowers led his team with five receptions for 115 yards (including a 54-yarder) and a touchdown. The would-be TD appeared to have made up for a taunting penalty earlier in the drive, when he put Sneed on the deck but alas, Flowers was an inch or two away from his second score of the game.

The Ravens are 0-8 when committing three or more turnovers in the postseason and the only other time they’ve committed three this season, in Week 5 against the Steelers, also resulted in a loss. Therefore, it should be no surprise that with Lamar Jackson accounting for two others – a strip-sack early in the second quarter and a desperation throw into triple coverage – the turnover battle proved to be the difference in this closely contested game.

Lamar wins MOTY (Multi-tasker of the Year)

If you’d read the play-by-play descriptions of the Chiefs/Ravens game on NFL.com without having seen the highlights, you may have been confused by one snippet from the second quarter:

13 Yard Pass
(5:38) (Shotgun) L. Jackson pass short left to L. Jackson to BAL 31 for 13 yards (D. Tranquill).

Yes, Lamar threw a pass… to himself!

The eye-catching play happened on a 2nd-and-5 on his own 18-yard line, when Jackson the quarterback had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage by Justin Reid. The ball deflected up into the air but Jackson the receiver ran forward and pulled in the ball himself, eventually taking it for 13 yards. The crazy play is now the longest postseason completion by a player to himself in the Super Bowl era.

Summing up how the game went, however, the Ravens couldn’t take advantage of the lucky break and four plays later, they were forced to punt the ball away.

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Niners turn tide in four minutes

After a regular season in which the 49ers didn’t have to make a single second-half comeback, the team has had to do so in back-to-back playoff games. They fought back from behind to see off the spirted Packers last week and had to dig themselves out of an even bigger hole this weekend, overcoming a 17-point deficit to beat the Detroit Lions. Trailing 24-7 at the break, Brock Purdy was struggling to push the ball downfield. But despite being down by three scores, with their season on the line, no one quit. No one panicked. No one even blinked.

The tide turned in four action-packed third-quarter minutes. Having opened the second half with a 43-yard Jake Moody field goal, the Niners defense crucially stopped the Lions on a 4th-and-2 (more on that one below). Having secured the turnover on downs with 7:03 left in the quarter, the Niners then got a bit of luck. A 51-yard pass to Brandon Aiyuk was overthrown by Purdy but the ball bounced off the facemask of cornerback Kindle Vildor as he fell backwards and into the clutches of a diving Aiyuk, just 4 yards shy of the paint (6:29).

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Three plays later, the same player connected with his QB to make it a one-score game (5:22). On the opening play of Detroit’s next possession, Jahmyr Gibbs gave up a fumble to Arik Armstead (5:15) on his own 24-yard line and the 49ers comeback was well and truly on. Much of the necessary yardage was made on a 21-yard Purdy scramble and the irrepressible Christian McCaffrey eventually punched it in from a yard out with 3:04 left in the quarter.

Those 14 unanswered points in four minutes flipped the script, with the Niners going on to right the wrongs from their last two NFC Championship games with a 34-31 victory and the Lions never recovering their swagger. In the first half, Detroit bagged three touchdowns and a successful FG but hit a wall after that, getting nothing from their first four possessions in the second half. In contrast, San Francisco’s 27 second-half points equal the third-largest comeback in a Conference Championship game so the lesson here is to never count the 49ers out, even though they’ve put together just three good quarters in the playoffs. Andy Reid, you have been warned.

Lions mistakes take their toll

You can understand Dan Campbell going for it, with the ultimate prize – a first Super Bowl appearance for his franchise – on the line. The ultra-aggressive Head Coach of the Lions has always played on the front foot, looking at achieving the best-possible outcome from any situation rather than fearing the worst. And you can’t knock it; that approach has defined his leadership over the last three years and it’s brought Detroit to the brink of the big one.

However, such a gung-ho style will inevitably fail at times and on those occasions, you’re bound to face some heat. And so it was in their loss to the Niners on Sunday, when Campbell’s decisions contributed to his team letting a 17-point lead slip through their fingers. (Yeah, the Lions couldn’t just lose in a ‘normal’ way, they had to do something spectacular.)

As referenced above, the Lions faced a 4th-and-2, within field goal range, in the third quarter. Holding a 24-10 lead at that point, many a coach would have opted to take the potential three points from a 45-yard kick and reinstate a three-score lead. But maybe having the inconsistent Michael Badgley waiting in the wings convinced Campbell to try and keep the drive alive. Alas, the decision backfired as a wide-open Josh Reynolds couldn’t haul in Jared Goff’s pass.

“I felt really good about us converting and keeping our momentum,” a philosophical Campbell said afterwards. “It’s easy with hindsight, I get it. But I don’t regret those decisions. It’s hard, because we didn’t come through, it didn’t work out. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. It’s part of the gig.”

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There was also another play call he may want back. Trailing 34-24 with 1:05 left, the Lions faced a 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Campbell believed David Montgomery could run into the end zone with ease and, with all three timeouts in tact, would give his team a shot at forcing a three-and-out. Instead, Montgomery was dropped in the backfield for a loss of 2, and Campbell had to cash in a timeout. Jameson Williams caught a TD on the next play but with only two timeouts left, the Lions couldn’t stop San Francisco from running the clock down.

Sure, Campbell’s decisions will get the headlines, but the blame falls wider than that. Kindle Vildor’s facemask-ricochet interception to Brandon Aiyuk. Jahmyr Gibbs’ fumble. Another Reynolds drop. A missed downed punt at the 1-yard-line. Another failed fourth down when a 48-yard game-tying FG was on the cards. And lots of missed tackles in the open field. They all played a part. In the end, Detroit were just too error-prone, on and off the field, to withstand the onslaught of the 49ers’ second-half resurrection. But rest assured, if they iron out some of those blemishes, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with again next season.

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PICK SIX – Divisional Round

With only four games over the weekend, we’ve had to dive a little deeper this time, looking at individual players and even individual plays. With Shaun Blundell in the dog house (don’t worry, he’s just settling in a new pet pooch), Sean Tyler takes the reins and selects six aspects of the NFL’s Division Round to unpick.

Another Lamar-vellous performance

If you have Lamar Jackson on your team, you always have a chance, and if you have him playing at his best, then frankly, you have an unfair advantage. And so it proved on Saturday evening, when the No.1 seed Baltimore Ravens came off a week’s rest to put the spirited Houston Texans to the sword. Defying his 1-3 playoff record, Lamar went into full action hero mode in the Ravens’ 34-10 Divisional Round victory, throwing 16 of 22 for 152 yards and rushing 11 times for 100 more in a four-touchdown, zero-turnover performance.

Baltimore walked away with the spoils quite comfortably in the end but having gone into the break tied at 10-apiece, it wasn’t obvious that the dam was about to break. In fact, Lamar was blitzed time and again in the first two quarters, took three sacks – two in back-to-back plays – and ended the half with 23 net passing yards and just one TD pass to Nelson Agholor. It was an evenly matched contest up until that point, but something must have clicked into place in the locker room.

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In the second half, Jackson led four consecutive scoring drives, which ended in rushing TDs from 15 and 8 yards out – the latter saw him keep going through the back of the end zone, over the photographers and off down the tunnel – a TD pass to tight end Isaiah Likely and a 43-yard Justin Tucker field goal. Meanwhile, his defensive colleagues kept Houston at arm’s length, holding them to 213 total yards and no offensive scores.

Jackson is the first player in NFL history with two-plus passing TDs, two-plus rushing TDs, 100+ passing yards and 100+ rushing yards in a game, and must be nailed on to be the league MVP again. And on the back of his second playoff win, Baltimore progress to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 2012, when they last lifted the Lombardi. If Jackson is truly MVP-worthy, he needed to show more than a stellar regular season. There were still lingering doubts about his playoff credentials before this weekend but not any more; four TDs have a habit of silencing your critics.

Nonetheless, despite this impressive display, no one’s counting any chickens yet, least of all the man himself. “We’ve got to finish,” Jackson said after the game. “We’re still in the playoffs, not in the dance yet. I’m not even thinking of the Super Bowl until we handle business.” [ST]

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Jordan would Love a second chance

Even in the perfect game, I suspect every player is going to want one or two plays back. And in the Packers’ 24-21 loss to San Francisco on Saturday night, there are no prizes for guessing which one Jordan Love would nominate for a do-over.

After the Packers had gone behind for the final time, Love (194 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) had just over a minute left, and three timeouts at his disposal, to get his team into field goal range. He picked up an initial first down but on the next set of downs, starting from his own 36-yard line, he got flushed out of the pocket and had to roll to the right.

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Instead of throwing the ball away or attempting to scramble for a few yards – but importantly, living to fight another play – he had a rush of blood to the head and forced an off-balance, on-the-run, underthrown wing-and-a-prayer throw back across the field into a sea of red jerseys. His intended target, Christian Watson, was outnumbered 3:1 by Niners and the nearest one, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, dived in for his second INT of the game.

It wasn’t this one attempt, or even Love’s play in general, that lost them the game; there were ample chances for Green Bay to seal the deal, not least when Anders Carlson’s 41-yard FG attempt drifted wide left earlier in the game. But the errant throw did put the final nail in the Packers’ fifth straight postseason loss to the 49ers in the last 10 years. It was ironic that their season ended on a turnover, considering that Love had thrown for 2,422 yards, 21 touchdowns and just one interception since Week 10. It’ll feel pretty raw for a while but unlike seasons past, Matt LaFleur’s young team – including their impressive young quarterback – are on an upward trajectory and have a lot to look forward to. [ST]

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The Mac attack

Christian McCaffrey is pretty good at the worst of times but when he’s enjoyed a couple of weeks’ recuperation, he’s lethal. In the 49ers’ come-from-behind win against Green Bay on Saturday, the dual-threat running back ran the rock 17 times for 98 yards (averaging 5.7) and rushed for two touchdowns, and caught seven of 12 targets for another 30 in the passing game.

It should be no surprise, given that Run CMC has absolutely dominated the regular season, with more than 2,000 total yards to his name. Not only did he lead the league with 1,459 rushing yards – nearly 300 more than his nearest rival, Derrick Henry – and 14 rushing TDs but he also posted 564 yards and seven TDs (the same as teammates Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel) as a receiver. If you look up ‘workhorse’ in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’ll find a picture of McCaffrey there.

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His first score, with the Niners 13-7 behind midway through the third quarter, was a 39-yard scamper where he just barged his way up the middle, made a couple of cuts to the left and broke out into the open field. His other TD, from 6 yards out, saw his O-line open up a big channel for him to run right through, with only Jonathan Owens able to get anywhere near him. That was the fatal blow: five plays later, Jordan Love threw his second pick and the game was over. But as ever, it wasn’t just the touchdowns. McCaffrey was effective on screen passes and several times, he just barrelled into the heart of the Packers’ defensive line with the ball cradled tightly in both arms, pumping his legs and breaking tackles to secure the required yardage.  

McCaffrey’s winning score gave the Niners their first second-half comeback of the season and on a night when they weren’t at their best – with special teams blunders, their defense giving up big plays and Brock Purdy being off-target for much of the night – they needed to lean on him. But I guess it shows that the 49ers can come from behind if required, and they may well have to do the same again this week in the NFC Championship game. [ST]

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Dan’s the man as Lions tame Bucs  

Famously, the Detroit Lions are one of only four NFL franchises never to reach a Super Bowl and after a slow start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, doubts crept in as to whether this year’s version could keep the dream alive. Luckily, a raucous home crowd finally woke the team up to secure a 31-23 victory and advance to a conference championship game for the first time since 1991. 

In front of their fervent fans, the Lions epitomised the grit, determination and honest endeavour of their (Honolulu) blue-collar town. The game was tied at 17-17 going into the final quarter but Dan Campbell’s team somehow dug a little deeper and found that extra gear. Jared Goff threw for 287 yards and two touchdown passes. Amon-Ra St Brown led the team with 77 receiving yards and scored the game-sealing TD. Sam LaPorta had nine catches for 65 yards, while running back Jahmyr Gibbs scored a touchdown and gained 114 total yards.   

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But it wasn’t plain sailing by any means. Through their first six possessions, the Lions punted four times and crossed into Bucs territory just twice as Tampa’s HC Todd Bowles shut down their ground game. But this team knows how to stay calm and make the necessary adjustments. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who looks set to land a head coaching gig once Detroit’s season ends, didn’t panic in the face of adversity, he just used the passing game to open things up for Gibbs. Touchdowns followed on the Lions’ next three drives.

Detroit have set themselves up nicely for the next few years with a trio of emerging stars in Gibbs, St Brown and LaPorta but for me, the ace in the pack is Coach Campbell. Exactly three years ago, the former tight end made headlines for his infamous introductory press conference, when he said his team would be biting kneecaps off and kicking teeth in. And when he started 0-10-1 and then 4-19-1, the critics piled in and the vultures started to circle. But Campbell stuck to his guns and steadily turned it around, improving from a three-win team in 2021 to one that’s about to play its first NFC title game in 32 seasons.

For all his potty-mouthed passion, Metallica quotes and meme-fodder clichés (if you watched Hard Knocks, you’ll know), the guy can coach football, build a culture and lead a team. He gives his guys the kudos when things go well and clearly believes in them. They obviously believe in him too. Everyone inside the camp seems bought in and thinks they can go all the way. And now, after three decades in the wilderness, the Ford Field faithful can finally dare to believe too. [ST]

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KC’s killer combo

There are three things in life you can be sure of: death, taxes and a Mahomes-to-Kelce touchdown pass in a big playoff game. And that lethal connection – between the best QB and the best TE in the league – proved to be the undoing of the Buffalo Bills in a 27-24 Kansas City Chiefs win on Sunday night. The pair now have the most combined TDs (16) by any QB–receiver duo in NFL postseason history, overtaking Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

Ironically, Travis Kelce (who posted five catches for 75 yards) was in the middle of a seven-game spell without a touchdown, his second-longest drought of a very productive career. But in the second quarter, Kelce hauled in a 22-yard TD pass and after halftime, his red-and-yellow gloves stuck to a 3-yard throw and he fought his way over the line near the pylon before directing lovehearts towards girlfriend Taylor Swift and brother Jason in celebration. The 34-year-old now has 18 TDs in the playoffs, and could edge closer to Jerry Rice’s postseason record (22) next week in the AFC Championship decider.

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Having battled back from 6-6 with six straight wins, the Bills have essentially been playing playoff football for two months and were definitely the team with momentum. In contrast, KC have been more inconsistent of late, with their offense ranked just 15th in scoring. But with Patrick Mahomes and his number one target in determined mood, you write these perennial Super Bowl contenders off at your peril – even when Mahomes is playing his first playoff game on the road.

This growing AFC rivalry produced yet another classic. The lead changed five times and neither team led by more than seven points. But the Bills found a new way to lose to the Chiefs, who have extinguished their season in three of the past four playoffs. After succumbing 38-24 in the 2020 AFC Championship game, Buffalo came up short in an epic 42-36 overtime loss in the Divisional Round a year later. This time, the result was even closer and the jeopardy came in the form of a game-tying FG attempt with 1:47 remaining. Alas for Buffalo, Tyler Bass’ 44-yard kick swerved off to the right and the Chiefs ran the clock down.

While this loss may not hit as hard as the “13 second” game from 2021, the heartache from yet another close-but-no-cigar, what-might-have-been season will linger in Buffalo. Meanwhile, the Chiefs will have to sharpen up in a few areas – Mecole Hardman not fumbling the ball through the end zone for a turnover, for example – if they’re going to give the Baltimore Ravens a run for their money at M&T Bank Stadium this weekend. It’s another road trip for Mahomes, Kelce and co but as they’ve just proved, with that dynamic duo in their ranks, you can never rule them out. [ST]

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Baker proves he’s worth the dough

Moving on to his fourth team in two years, Baker Mayfield bet on himself at the start of this season by signing a one-year ‘prove it’ deal with Tampa Bay. Having ‘proven it’ by throwing for more than 4,000 yards, 28 TDs and 10 INTs, the wager seems to have paid off.

The Bucs backed their way into the playoffs by winning the sub-par NFC South, then beat the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round and gave the feisty Lions a scare on Sunday before bowing out 31-23. Mayfield had a lot to do with that run of success and on Sunday, he played his part too, trying to keep his team in the game as his defense struggled.

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Unfortunately, with the Buccaneers fighting back from a two-score deficit against Detroit, Baker threw a devastating interception with 1:35 remaining. He’d tried to squeeze a pass into tight end Cade Otton, but it was cut out by Derrick Barnes. The pick ended the game and the Bucs’ season, leaving the QB bent over, head in hands in horror and disbelief. Tampa’s first possession of the game had also ended in an INT, although that pass bounced right off Mike Evans’ hands. Nonetheless, despite the turnovers, and the four sacks, Mayfield rallied his troops time and again, completing 26 of 41 passes for 349 yards and three touchdown passes. 

After the game, he confirmed that he would like to return to the Gulf Coast of Florida in 2014, adding that he’d also like 30-year-old receiver Mike Evans, who had eight catches for 147 yards and a TD on Sunday, there with him. “The guy hasn’t regressed at all,” Mayfield said. “I think he had one of his best years. He makes my life easy. So yeah, if I’m back, I want Mike back. That guy’s a stud.”

HC Todd Bowles agreed that Mayfield has earned the right to return but with the franchise tag for QBs projected to be approaching $36 million in 2024, Bucs GM Jason Licht will need to do some financial jiggery-pokery. Licht also wants Evans to sign a new deal. After all, he is the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs and total TDs, and has just become the only player in NFL history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in 10 consecutive seasons. So however it shakes out, I suspect Mayfield and Evans will both be in demand… and in the money. [ST]

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PICK SIX – Wild Card Round

Or the Super Wild Card Round, as the NFL likes to call it. The playoffs opened up with six intriguing games – two each on Saturday, Sunday and Monday – so our resident scribes, Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler, have picked three each to dive into. For tales of Arctic weather, young QBs putting older ones in their place and a couple of surprisingly high scores, read on…    

Chiefs D in their element

According to legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant, “offense sells tickets but defense wins championships”. And sure enough, when the Chiefs beat the Dolphins 26-7 on Saturday night to reach the AFC Divisional Round for a sixth straight season, it was Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive unit that dominated proceedings.

With the temperature at Arrowhead plummeting to -32°C with wind chill, making it the fourth-coldest NFL game ever, icicles were seen dangling off Andy Reid’s moustache, fans were decked out in ski wear and Mahomes’ helmet shattered like plastic after a hit from safety DeShon Elliott. But despite the inhospitably cold conditions, the Chiefs D were on fire. Through the first three quarters, the league’s second-ranked defense froze Miami out, limiting them to 151 total yards and one big play, a 53-yard TD pass to Tyreek Hill. They pressured Tua Tagovailoa 16 times, sacked him twice (George Karlaftis getting 1.5 of those) and forced him to delay passes or make errant ones by keeping Hill (on his much-touted return to Kansas City) and Jaylen Waddle under wraps. Even the run game got iced, with neither Raheem Mostert nor De’Von Achane able to bust out anything longer than 8 yards.

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On the other side of the ball, Miami’s depleted defense (no Chubb, Phillips, Van Ginkel or Holland) tried to blitz Patrick Mahomes but he seemed chill all game, even on the rare occasions he has a defender up in his grille. After a lukewarm season, the Chiefs offense finally turned up the heat with 409 yards and 25 first downs. Second-year RB Isiah Pacheco rumbled for 89 yards and a TD, aided by a further 41 rushing yards by Mahomes himself, while another young buck, rookie Rashee Rice, had eight catches for 130 yards and a TD. Travis Kelce (seven for 71 yards) and kicker Harrison Butker (four field goals) were the other standouts.

Injuries and the weather were clearly factors in Miami hitting their lowest points tally of the season but the narratives about the one-and-done Dolphins still hold water: they can’t beat teams with a winning record and their Hawaiian QB can’t win in cold-weather games. Having been the NFL’s hottest team for a while, they definitely cooled off down the home straight, slipping from favourites to frauds as their once-promising campaign ended with consecutive losses to the Ravens, Bills and Chiefs. In turn, those defeats ended up costing them the top seed in the AFC (and subsequent home ties played in 80 degrees), the AFC East title and then what would have been only their second playoff win this century.

As for KC, they not only coped with the Arctic conditions, they thrived in them. Coach Reid notched his 23rd playoff victory, the defense was dominant, Mahomes was unflustered, Pacheco and Kelce were solid, and Rice posted the most receiving yards by a rookie receiver in a home game in NFL playoff history. Like cybermen from Doctor Who, the Chiefs march on through the postseason with an ominous inevitability, seemingly untroubled by ice and wind, aquatic mammals or anything else. [ST]

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When defense doesn’t win championships

“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” said Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. “Just disappointing.” Did they ever? And was it ever.

The Houston Texans crushed the Browns 45-14 on Saturday to advance past the Wild Card Round in a humbling rout that could’ve been worse. Cleveland’s vaunted pass rush, headlined by Myles Garrett, produced one quarterback hurry and zero sacks against the Texans rookie passer, CJ Stroud. There were big plays and missed tackles a plenty and the Texans could’ve put up a 60-burger.

The Browns entered the playoffs looking like they had the goods to make a deep run. Their defense had been the most dominant unit of any to make the postseason, and shut down the San Francisco 49ers’ top-ranked offense in October. They rattled Lamar Jackson in November. And they surged into the playoffs with a string of stifling performances in December. But in January, when it really counted, Cleveland’s defense was absent. Stroud completed 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns before exiting early in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand.

Joe Flacco’s back-to-back pick-sixes eliminated any hope of another Cleveland comeback. But Stroud was cooking the Browns defense long before that. The Texans’ 24 first-half points were the most Cleveland had surrendered this year, and Houston’s 286 yards were the most the Browns had allowed in any half all season.

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Houston located their opponents’ vulnerabilities early and often. They even capitalised on the aggressiveness of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who was the lone Browns player on either side of the ball to bring his best, highlighted by his four tackles for loss. After the Browns had taken a 14-10 lead on the opening play of Houston’s next possession, Stroud rolled right off play-action. Instead of sticking with tight end Brevin Jordan, who looked like he would stay in and block on the play, Owusu-Koramoah went after Stroud along with defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo. Stroud tossed the ball to the uncovered Jordan, who dashed through cornerback Martin Emerson Jr.’s arm tackle on the way to a 76-yard touchdown. The Texans regained the lead, 17-14, and never relinquished it.

The Browns kept on making mistakes. And when it became evident that Cleveland wouldn’t be able to slow down Stroud or the Texans, DC Jim Schwartz opted against making any major adjustments, especially in coverage. They couldn’t get going or do much of anything against the youngest quarterback to ever win a playoff game in the Super Bowl era. The Browns didn’t bring their best to the postseason – and no-showed when it mattered most. [SB]

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Love will tear us apart

In a Super Wild Card matchup that brought the home side very little joy, division winners Dallas succumbed to an early onslaught when hosting the No.7 seed Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys trailed 27-0 shortly before half-time and while they eventually lost by a more flattering scoreline of 48-32, the damage had already been done.

As the NFC’s second seed, Dallas were riding a 16-game home winning streak, having won all eight this year with a +172 point differential. The odds may have been stacked against Matt LeFleur’s Packers but QB Jordan Love – who sat behind Aaron Rodgers for three years to earn his shot – has been electric of late. Since Week 11, he’s gone 7-2 with 21 TDs and just one interception, and there was a whole lotta Love on show again on Sunday night. His passer rating of 157.2 (interestingly, the same as CJ Stroud’s) is the highest in a road playoff game in the Super Bowl era and it would’ve been perfect if not for a garbage-time drop by Tucker Kraft. Even though he completed just 16 passes, the largely unpressured QB had plenty of time to shred the Dallas defense, amassing 272 yards, three TDs and 0 INTs as the Pack stunned AT&T Stadum into silence.

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The main beneficiary of the Love bombs was Romeo Doubs (151 receiving yards and a TD from just six receptions), while Luke Musgrave and Dontayvion Wicks also caught touchdown passes. With a healthy dose of Aaron Jones (21 carries for 118 rushing yards and 3 TDs) added to the mix, it was soon clear that Dan Quinn’s defence – ranked fifth over the regular season – couldn’t stop a dripping tap, let alone this increasingly impressive Green Bay attack. The 48 points Dallas shipped set an unwanted postseason record for the franchise and must cast serious doubts in the minds of those currently considering Quinn as a potential HC hire.

After a sticky patch, the Packers defense also chose a good time to come out and play. They forced Dak Prescott into two first-half turnovers – a Jaire Alexander INT and a Darnell Savage pick-six – and were seconds away from shutting the Cowboys out in the first half. Prescott, the one-time MVP favourite, just couldn’t get on the same page as his targets, and failed to record any passing yards in the first quarter. By the end, Cee Dee Lamb (110 yards), Michael Gallup (103 yards) and Jake Ferguson (93 yards and 3 TDs) had made their mark on the box score, but the Packers were already 32 points to the good and resting key defensive players by the time the league’s highest-scoring team finally started to click.

Just like they have over the last quarter of a century or so, the Dallas players will now watch the latter stages of the postseason from the comfort of their couches, while Mike McCarthy – despite becoming the first Dallas coach with three consecutive 12-win seasons – will have an uncomfortable time waiting for Jerry Jones to call after losing to the franchise he once led to Super Bowl glory.

In contrast, Green Bay (who, don’t forget, were 3-6 midway through the season) become the first 7th seed to win a playoff game since the expanded 14-team format was introduced in 2020. The youngest team in the league progresses to the Divisional Round for the fourth time in five years only this time, it’s with a new QB, a promising cast of offensive playmakers and a very bright future. The betting for Saturday’s game against top seeds San Francisco may have opened with them as 9.5-point underdogs but as Mark Twain once wrote, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” And if Sunday’s win is anything to go by, there’s a lot of fight in this dog. [ST]

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Goff wins the big one at last

Has a kneel-down ever generated such a noise? As Jared Goff directed the Ford Field fans to get even louder, he took the final snap and ended his long-suffering franchise’s playoff drought after 32 years.

It was billed as Goff vs Stafford, the past against the present, and Goff came through in a big way. Against the franchise he once led to the Super Bowl, Goff was 22 of 27 for 277 yards and a touchdown. He also threw the crucial completed pass for a victory-sealing first down against the team that cast him away, beating Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams 24-23 on Sunday night.

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The Lions ended a nine-game postseason losing streak – the longest in NFL history – that dated back to a victory over Dallas on 5 January 1992. They lost a home playoff game two years later and hadn’t hosted one since. But now Detroit, the NFC’s No.3 seed, will have two home playoff games for the first time in their 90-year franchise history, hosting Tampa Bay in the Divisional Round next Sunday. The Lions started strong and looked as fired up as their long-suffering fans, with rapper and Motor City native Eminem in the house along with Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson.

With that said, LA was always in this contest. Stafford, who played most of the game with a bandaged and bloody hand after he slammed it into a defender’s helmet, finished 25 of 36 for 367 yards with two touchdowns. The Rams moved the ball at will for much of the game, but had to settle for short field goals by Brett Maher to get to 24-23 with 8:10 remaining. Stafford has made a career of fourth-quarter comebacks, a fact that the fans at Ford Field were well aware of. With a chance to put the Rams ahead for the first time, he led a drive to the Detroit 34, but the Lions’ defense forced him backwards from there. Detroit took over with 4:07 to go, and Los Angeles had only one timeout left after calling two earlier in the half to cope with the crowd noise. That allowed Goff to take a knee after his throw to Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Detroit drafted Stafford No.1 overall in 2009 and while he put up great statistics, he didn’t win a playoff game in his 12 seasons in Michigan. Stafford hugged dozens of Detroit’s players and staff members after the game and, in a classy act, he signed off with “I’m happy for the players, I’m happy for those guys.” It’s a trade where both sides can claim to be very happy with the results. [SB]

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Philly’s season scuttled by the Buccaneers

Well, shiver me timbers, the Philadelphia Eagles’ implosion is complete. After completing five straight wins to go 10-1, they stumbled to 11-6 and now they’re one-and-done in the playoffs, losing 32-9 to the swashbuckling Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.

The defending NFC champions played like they were walking the plank from the off, looking disinterested on offense and scared on defense. Other than DeVonta Smith, the lone bright spark with eight catches for 148 yards, their passing game was clearly missing the injured AJ Brown. They failed to convert a single third down and went scoreless in three quarters, Dallas Goedert’s TD and their single field goal both coming in Q2. Summing up their day, their ground game delivered just 42 yards and the Bucs even managed to repel their notorious ‘Brotherly Shove’ on a two-point conversion attempt.

To be fair, Tampa Bay had looked like scurvy dogs coming into the game too and only locked up the NFC South last week with an ugly 9-0 win over the lowly Panthers. But their performance on Monday night was a vast improvement. They mustered 426 total yards, with five players exceeding 45 receiving yards and Rachaad White (72 rushing yards) running well. Todd Bowles’ blitz-heavy defense also gave Jalen Hurts, playing with an injured finger, no time and no place to run.

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While Tampa Bay were aggressive on both sides of the ball, Philly tackled like it was a flag football game. The Bucs finished with 219 yards after catch, with Trey Palmer’s 56-yard touchdown reception a classic case in point: he should have been stopped by corner James Bradberry (and others) after snagging a six-yard pass, not left unchecked to run half the length of the field. As well as some offseason tackling practice, some new playing personnel wouldn’t go amiss, with center Jason Kelce announcing his retirement on Tuesday, and Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham possibly playing their last game in green too. And after dropping six of the last seven, I’m sure Head Coach Nick Sirianni will also be ‘having a chat’ with GM Howie Roseman.

Like Green Bay, Tampa fought back from a midseason hole (4-7) and having won six of seven, seem to be revelling in their role as the dark horse slipping in under the radar. Had they faced a stronger opponent, their early drops (half a dozen in the first half alone) might have cost them. But Baker Mayfield, playing through a rib issue, did enough to compensate from his clumsy teammates, racking up 337 yards and three touchdowns. After bouncing around four teams in three years, he seems to have silenced his critics with his best season to date and helped the Buccaneers pillage their third straight NFC South title. But this weekend, he and his butter-fingered receivers will need to be shipshape for a much sterner challenge: a Divisional Round clash with the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. [ST]

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Snow plough Josh

After seeing some of the images of Highmark Stadium on Sunday, it is quite remarkable that we got a game on Monday. The Buffalo faithful came out in force to get the game against Pittsburgh on, albeit a day later than originally scheduled, and as a reward for all their snow-shovelling, quarterback Josh Allen gave them one of the most memorable plays in postseason history. 

Faced with 3rd-and-7 from the Bills 48-yard line, Allen began to scramble. His rookie season was filled with highlight rushes but it has been a part of his game that has been restricted in more recent times. This scramble, however, had picked up enough for first-down yardage and, because he was close to the sideline, you could see plenty of encouragement from his teammates and coaches for him to slide. He didn’t.

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A full 52 yards later, he was in the end zone. He was seemingly aboard a snow plough all of his own after the initial part of his run when it became apparent that the opportunity of getting to the end zone was opening up for him. He turned on the engine boosters as a bunch of Steelers were left floundering and wondering what had just happened.

Allen’s play powered Buffalo to a 31-17 victory over the Steelers. Cue the snow being thrown in the air around Highmark Stadium. Allen finished the rescheduled game by completing 21 of 30 passes for 203 yards and three passing touchdowns. He also ran for 74 yards on eight carries and the score. The touchdown run was the longest rushing score in Bills postseason history and the second-longest by a quarterback ever, behind only Colin Kaepernick (56 yards, 2012 Divisional Round).

Allen’s third career playoff game was marked with four combined passing and rushing touchdowns, tying Joe Montana and Patrick Mahomes for the most in NFL history, and zero turnovers. It was just the second time since Week 4 that Allen did not turn the ball over. A reduction in turnovers by the Bills offense has been tied to Joe Brady taking over play calling in Week 11 and his increase in running the football. From Weeks 1 through 10, Buffalo had a designed rush percentage of 36% and a drive turnover of 17%. Since then, the rushing play percentage has increased to 47 and the drives that end in turnovers has dropped to 10%.

Despite the freezing cold temperatures, it is safe to say the Bills are getting hot at just the right moment. Next up, their kryptonite: the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe this time, they can get over the hump.

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PICK SIX – Week 18

Well, there you have it. Another regular NFL season, all 18 weeks of it, is behind us. For 14 teams, there’s more to come as the playoffs begin while the rest slink off home to lick their wounds, revise their strategies, assess their on- and off-field personnel and, in a couple of cases, have a good old cry. Probably. In the meantime, Sean Tyler and Shaun Blundell dissect six more exciting, entertaining and intriguing things from the first week of 2024 action.

Ten-win Texans back in the big time

Back in September, the Houston Texans had a rookie quarterback, their fourth Head Coach in as many years and just 11 victories to show for the previous three campaigns. Come Saturday night, they had 10 wins, a bona fide franchise QB, an impressive HC in DeMeco Ryans, a Wild Card place in their back pocket and a shot at the division title. Yes, after three seasons of double-digit defeats, the 10-6 Texans returned to the postseason with a bang, winning the late Saturday night game against their divisional rivals, the Indianapolis Colts. The 23-19 victory in the win-or-go-home contest took them to the top of the AFC South, a position they retained when the Jaguars lost the following day.

Indy’s postseason hopes ended with just 1:06 remaining when, down by six, they turned the ball over on downs on a 4th-and-1 at Houston’s 15-yard line. Inexplicably, after Jonathan Taylor had run 30 times for 188 yards, the Colts’ star running back was kept on the sideline for the crucial play. Gardner Minshew underthrew a quick pass, Tyler Goodson couldn’t reel in and that was that. An odd decision that I bet HC Shane Steichen would like to take back.

While the Texans’ D sealed the deal, it was their impressive attack that stole the show. On their very first offensive snap, CJ Stroud – playing in his first primetime game – threw a bomb half the length of the field, with Nico Collins taking it in stride for a 75-yard TD catch-and-run. And with Tank Dell, Robert Woods and Noah Brown all out injured, the Stroud-Collins connection went on to dominate the game script. The young QB finished with 20 of 26 for 264 yards with two touchdowns and became only the fifth rookie ever to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Meanwhile, Collins caught all nine of his targets for 195 yards and that early score, taking him over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his three-year career.

These teams had a combined seven wins between them last season so battling it out for a playoff berth this time around suggests that both rebuilds are well ahead of schedule. Reaching Week 18 with a shot at the division title is clearly a tick in the box for Steichen, and his team could push on next year with a few shrewd additions. Meanwhile, back in training camp, Stroud declared that the Texans would “shock the world” this season… and so it’s proved. He remains the favourite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year while Ryans has a solid claim to be NFL Coach of the Year in his debut campaign. That said, I suspect both would sacrifice individual honours in favour of a deep playoff run. Given their explosive offense and the league’s third-best run defense, Houston’s next opponents –Cleveland – won’t be taking anything for granted in the Wild Card round. [ST]

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From Jordan with love

While CJ Stroud has taken plenty of headlines as the dazzling rookie QB of 2023, maybe more attention should be going the way of a quarterback who only became a full-time starter this year: Jordan Love. Unlike his much-talked-about predecessors in Green Bay, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, Love can claim the distinction that he is a playoff quarterback in his first season as a full-time starting QB, doing so with the league’s youngest roster to boot.

The upwards trajectory has been gradual. Over the final eight games, Love completed over 70% of his passes and tossed 18 touchdowns against just one interception. For the entire campaign, Love finished second in the NFL with 32 touchdown passes, a 64.2% completion rate and 4,159 yards. All but one of those touchdowns were to either first- or second-year players, highlighting the bright future ahead for this organisation.

With a playoff berth on the line once again, Love had a day to remember and led the Packers to a 17-9 win over visitors Chicago. Love was brilliant, completing 27 of 32 passes (84.4%) for 316 yards. He threw two touchdowns, no interceptions and had a passer rating of 128.6. The man himself was in a reflective mood post-game. “You want to play in big-time games and, when the pressure’s on, just to be able to go showcase what you’re made of,” Love said. “Definitely being on the bench for those three years, and being behind Aaron and wanting to be out there so bad, now that I’ve got my opportunity, just making the most of it, taking it and running with it.”

Love has certainly accomplished that, which is why the Packers finally shone in a huge game – something that, despite his individual brilliance, had been the knock on Aaron Rodgers in recent times. The Packers threw away the playoffs in Week 18 last year but were not to be denied with their new quarterback in situ this time around. 

Next up, the playoffs: a place few believed possible when they sat at 2-5 a few short months ago. With the win, the Packers improved to 9-8, earned the No.7 seed in the NFC and will head to Dallas for a Wild Card game. If Love can continue to show his second half of the season form, it will be a tricky proposition for the Cowboys. [SB]

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Hit-and-miss Bills take AFC East title

At Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the 11-6 Buffalo Bills won their fifth straight game, clinched their fourth consecutive AFC East title and locked up the No.2 seed in the conference. Yet six weeks ago, few pundits even had them making the playoffs after a mid-season slump threatened to derail their year. November losses to the Bengals, Broncos and Eagles left the Bills at 6-6 but they’ve bounced back, seeing off the Chiefs, Cowboys and Dolphins in recent weeks. They’re now the only team since playoff seedings began in 1975 to earn a top 2 seed after being .500 or below with five games left.

Buffalo rallied from 14-7 down at the start of the final quarter against Miami to beat their divisional rivals 21-14, and the late turnaround mirrored their entire season to perfection. There were mistakes and missed chances, injuries to the defense and turnovers by the offense. But when it mattered most, they found a way and came up smelling of roses. Fans were treated to the full spectrum of what Josh Allen offers. Bad Josh started the game with three turnovers – two end-zone picks (taking him to a career-high 18 INTs for the season) and a fumble just outside the red zone – but Good Josh prevailed, playing lights out in the fourth quarter (going 7 of 7 for 83 yards). Overall, he threw for 359 yards and two TDs, and led the team with 67 rushing yards, including a signature 15-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-13.

Several of Buffalo’s unsung heroes shared the limelight with their quarterback. WR Trent Sherfield had just 11 catches before Sunday but it was his toe-drag grab at the back of the end zone that gave Buffalo their first TD, albeit from a throw that ricocheted off a Miami helmet. Deonte Harty found a seam and posted an electric 96-yard punt return TD to tie the game at 14-14. And tight end Dawson Knox got the go-ahead score with 7:16 on the clock before Taylor Rapp’s first INT for Buffalo put a full stop on the contest.

The Dolphins, held to just 57 yards of total offense after the break, have now gone 15 straight seasons without a division title and they’ve dropped three of their last five games. But all is not lost; postseason football awaits and everyone has a clean slate. As the No.6 seed, their path to a potential Super Bowl starts in Kansas City on Saturday night, with Tyreek Hill returning to Arrowhead for the first time since his trade. But unless some of their injured stars – Jaylen Waddle, Raheem Mostert, Bradley Chubb, Jaelan Phillips and Xavien Howard – return, it could be a tall order.

As for Buffalo, they host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Orchard Park, where they are 7-1 this season. They’re the AFC’s in-form team but Allen’s hot-and-cold play could define how this one goes. Bad Josh might make their Wild Card matchup more competitive than it should be. Conversely, Good Josh, the league leader in passing touchdowns (44), might just blow them away. Will the real Josh Allen please stand up and make himself known? [ST]

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Fitting end for a legend

Sorry Bill Belichick, this isn’t your section. No, this title is for Titans running back Derrick Henry. He gave Tennessee fans some great memories over his eight seasons with the team and it’s only fitting that he should end his tenure (likely) with a final stat line of 153 yards rushing and a touchdown against old divisional foe Jacksonville. It ended a miserable finish to the campaign for the Jags who somehow managed to throw away a playoff berth after leading the division for three months. 

This piece, though, is about Henry. The man simply known as “King” took a microphone post-game and addressed the crowd at Nissan Stadium. “Titans fans, I just want to say thank you for the greatest eight years of my life,” he said. “The ups and the downs, y’all been there for everything — through the adversity, watching me grow as a person and a player, always supporting me. I love y’all. … Hopefully I was an inspiration to all the young kids and everybody in the community.”

Henry’s contract technically goes for two more years, but is out of guaranteed money. With a looming Head Coaching change now also confirmed, it’s very likely his tenure is over. He could find a role on a team somewhere as a short-yardage back but as a running back now in his 30s, his prime is likely behind him.

He became Tennessee’s featured running back in 2019, leading the league in rushing yards and rushing attempts that season – as well as in 2020 – helping the Titans lead the playoffs both times, while earning Pro Bowl honours personally. The next year, Henry became the first NFL player since Adrian Peterson in 2012 to surpass 2,000 rushing yards in a single season. He reached the Pro Bowl two more times, in 2022 and 2023, after injuries limited him in 2021. In total, Henry rushed for 9,349 yards and accounted for 98 total touchdowns during his time in Nashville. 

It is a badge that is given out far too often these days but, Derrick Henry, you sir, are a legend. [SB]

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Jalen hurts finger as Philly falter (again)

At this time of the year, it’s inevitable that some teams find themselves on a bit of a losing streak but they usually have to pack up for the offseason as a result. The woeful Panthers have lost 15 times this season and failed to score a point in their last two games, while the 4-13 Commanders have lost eight on the bounce. The Jaguars lost five of their last six, the Chargers have lost five straight and the Vikings four. None are playing again till September. But the Philadelphia Eagles have lost four of their last five too. Yep, the “11-6, runners-up in the NFC East, 5th seed in the conference” Eagles.

Philly started the 2023 campaign on fire, racing out to 5-0. By early December, their record stood at 10-1 and we all thought emulating last year’s run to the Super Bowl was the minimum they should expect. Then the wheels fell off. In the last six weeks, the Eagles have suffered losses to the Niners, Cowboys, Seahawks, Cardinals – and now a 27-10 defeat to the New York Giants. They look a totally different team now and not in a good way. Their consistency has deserted them and the flair and fun seem to have gone with it.

With three first-half turnovers and some pretty abject defense against a Tyrod Taylor-led Giants team, Philly soon found themselves 24-0 down at MetLife. With defeat all but assured before half time, Nick Sirianni began pulling his starters but even so, it wasn’t soon enough. Jalen Hurts went 7 of 16 for 55 yards before his finger “popped out”, Marcus Mariota joining the fray in his stead, while AJ Brown made one catch for 9 yards before getting his knee banged up. Should the likes of Hurts and Brown have even been on the field? Most would argue “not on your Nelly”, even without the benefit of hindsight. Time will tell if these injuries impact them this weekend or beyond.

In their favour, their Wild Card opponents are the 9-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the NFC South despite managing just three field goals in a 9-0 win over the Panthers. They don’t look like a playoff team and are probably the weakest of the bunch on the NFC side of things. But maybe they think the same about the dysfunctional Eagles? Philly have been well below par for weeks and Sunday’s performance didn’t suggest that things are going to change anytime soon. With their season on the line, they have less than a week to rediscover their mojo. [ST]

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Rolex sales spike

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones backed himself in the offseason to secure his own reworked contract. That included a tidy $1.25 million bonus for accumulating 10 sacks. Thanks to his performance against the Los Angeles Chargers this weekend, Jones was laughing all the way to the bank.

The sack occurred in the third quarter when the Chargers were in the red zone looking to score a touchdown and take the lead. After sacking Easton Stick, Jones ran towards the sideline to celebrate with his teammates, including Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. If you like a big man dancing then, I highly recommend you search out the amusing clip on social media.

Having already secured a place in the playoffs before the game at SoFi Stadium, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid bucked a bit of a Week 18 trend and decided to keep Jones on the field for most of the contest. With the second half underway and time winding down, Reid had initially planned to take his stud defensive tackle out of the game to protect him from injury. Jones, however, managed to persuade Reid to let him stay on the field long enough to secure the sack he needed for his bonus.

It was a nice culmination to the story that took up a lot of column inches in the Chiefs preseason. It was excellent coaching and leadership on the part of Reid to not hold any grudges and allow Jones the opportunity to cash in on the incentive agreed upon the restructure. Above all else, it was also fitting for Jones to make his splash play on his final snap, particularly as he has hinted this may be his final season at Arrowhead.

Jones will not be seeing too much of the bounty, however, as he revealed after the game that the entire defensive line group, including the coaches and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, would all be treated to a new Rolex. Jones recognises that football is the ultimate team sport and without the help of those around him, he wouldn’t be the star he backed himself to be ahead of the season. [SB]

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Takeaways as the Broncos season ends in disappointing fashion

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After a long and tumultuous 18 weeks, the Denver Broncos season has come to an end with a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, wilting 27-14 to their division rivals and falling to third in the AFC West. 

The Broncos started the season 1-5 and inevitably dug themselves too big of a hole to climb out of. Despite their five-game winning streak in the middle of the season, they were always on the outside looking in and fell away again at the end of the year going 2-4 to close out the season, missing the playoffs again.

The losing streak to the Raiders continues 

Perhaps, the most disappointing part of Sunday’s loss is the continuation of the Broncos’ losing streak against their bitter AFC West rivals. 

Sean Payton’s team could have bucked two huge losing trends this season had they won on Sunday, having already put an end to their 16-game losing streak against the Kansas City Chiefs earlier in the season. 

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It wasn’t to be however and they got thoroughly outplayed by the Raiders who looked better and more hungry in every facet of the game, from coaching to quarterback play and everything in between. 

To put the icing on the cake, the loss meant that the Broncos have now had a losing record for seven straight seasons ending Payton’s first campaign 8-9. 

The rebuild starts now 

Now the season is over, the conversations will turn to offseason movement in free agency and the NFL Draft which will take place in late April. 

As discussed last week, the Broncos have several big pending free agents who they likely won’t be able to retain if they also take the route of cutting Russell Wilson and eating his hefty dead cap hit. 

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As a result, Denver will likely be constructing a roster of cheap veteran and rookie players next year, unless they can convince some of their stars that remain on the roster to reconstruct their contracts and give the Broncos some breathing room on their cap.

An 8-9 record partnered with a Superbowl-winning head coach, is a great base to rebuild on and defensively Vance Joseph found a formula that clicked in the middle part of the season.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of holes on the roster that need filling on both sides of the ball, coaching can provide the players with a strong floor, the Los Angeles Rams showed that this season, and perhaps the Broncos will still be able to take positive steps next season.

January blues

It was sealed last week, but the Broncos will be without playoff football in January for the seventh year in a row, the second-longest post-season drought in the NFL currently.

Payton’s team gave it a good shot and for the first time since the 2016, Super Bowl 50 team, it felt like Broncos Country had a team that they could root for and a team that could bring some cheer back to Mile High. 

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Payton brought a sense of optimism back to the Broncos and he has begun to change the culture of this team, it’s clear for all to see when they look at the tape, and the midseason turnaround personified it. 

So while the short-term future of the franchise seems bleak, there are reasons to be optimistic and in a couple of seasons, there is reason to hold out hope that Payton can bring the Broncos back into the AFC playoffs in the future.

Thank you! 

Finally, a thank you from me to anyone reading this week’s takeaways or to anyone who read one of my takeaway pieces this season.

If you’re a general NFL fan then I hope you enjoy the storyline-littered NFL playoffs, and if you are a member of Broncos Country then have hope and get mock drafting!

I hope to see you back again reading takeaways throughout the offseason and into 2024.