Football has been a welcome distraction during the pandemic. And playoff football has come into its own over these unprecedented weeks in American history. On Martin Luther King weekend, with a new president set to be sworn in on Wednesday, the football ebbed and flowed, and did not disappoint.
The Green Bay Packers beat the L.A. Rams to set up a NFC Championship Game showdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buffalo Bills will travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs. I’ll cover some of the game flashpoints, before providing an update on the coaching carousel and previewing Championship Sunday. Frozen Tundra Rocks Green Bay advanced to the NFC Championship Game after a comprehensive 32-18 win over the Los Angeles Rams. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense, bar a third quarter nap, were in total command. They built their supremacy in the run game, rushing for almost 200 yards. The offensive line that lost the best left tackle in football in December didn’t miss a beat. On a day when Davante Adams had Jalen Ramsey sticking to him for company, fellow receiver Alan Lazard got plenty of targets and had one memorable 58-yard touchdown - the longest scoring pass of Rodgers storied postseason career. The Packers scored on their first three possessions against the Rams defense, considered the best in the NFL. The Rams were hampered by a rib injury to Aaron Donald, the league’s best defensive player, who appeared sporadically during the game.
The Packers host a long awaited NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field next weekend: their first since January 2007. 8,456 Packers fans were allowed in for the first time all season. Rodgers said they sounded like 50,000 during the game. I wonder what they’ll sound like next Sunday? AFC Gets Its Dream Match-Up A sublime showing by Buffalo’s defense halted Baltimore’s elite rushing attack, and allowed the Bills to advance to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Ravens offense, with its running attack blunted by the Bills defense, was not balanced enough to have its passing game come to the rescue. Lamar Jackson’s struggles through the air persisted in this game. The Ravens can start planning for the draft and free agency. They can start by bringing in a top receiver in the draft. Worryingly, the connection between Jackson and tight end Mark Andrews, which was integral to the effort last season, has fallen by the wayside this year. Their game demands they have a tight end, if not two, to deliver consistent catches for them over the middle of the field. There’s no reason to think Andrews is not the guy. Josh Allen and the Bills march on to play the Chiefs. We know the Bills are capable of going toe-to-toe with Kansas. After defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s devastating assault on Baltimore yesterday, Buffalo is counting on the art of confusion with the Chiefs offense, as much as scoring points. Following the conclusion of the game, over 5,500 Bills fans donated more than $150,000 to Lamar Jackson's preferred charity, the Louisville chapter of Blessings in a Backpack. Jackson was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Decency, community and kindness for others in victory still exists in places. It is hard not to be enamored with the people of Buffalo and their fanbase.
Henne Given Sunday Kansas City hung on after Patrick Mahomes went off with a concussion to beat a valiant and impressive Cleveland Browns 22-17. The Chiefs defense of the Lombardi Trophy had an unlikely hero as backup quarterback Chad Henne made two big late plays to settle the outcome. Mahomes saluted his backup, tweeting “#HenneThingIsPossible” after the game. With the game on the line, the big name players on the Chiefs - Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu - made several game altering plays. The Browns, who went down fighting, can take so much from this season. They did not look out of place on this stage. Lesser teams would have folded when things weren’t going their way and after Kansas City jumped out to a formidable lead. A case in point was when receiver Rashard Higgins spilled the ball into the end zone resulting in a touchback, agonizingly missing out on a touchdown. That Chiefs safety Daniel Sorenson had clearly targeted Higgins with head-to-head contact in the process of the tackle, which - disgracefully - was overlooked by the officials. They went on undeterred. At the end of the game, those would be costly points for Cleveland. They can believe again in Believeland. The Browns have a rookie head coach who is likely to be named NFL coach of the year and they have their franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield. To get to the summit, they need to overhaul the defense and rebuild it around Denzil Ward and Myles Garrett. The future is bright on Lake Eyrie.
Father Time Tampa got the better of the New Orleans Saints in what should be Drew Brees’ final game of an outstanding career. Ultimately, it was a night to forget for Brees as he turned the ball over repeatedly and he looked his age in this pivotal contest. In a tight game, his errors condemned the Saints. This is why the Bucs signed Tom Brady: to help them mount a deep playoff run. Brady played error free football and was able to watch his defense fizz round the field and make plays that won the game.
New Head Coaching Hires
Urban Myer, Jacksonville Jaguars In accepting the Jacksonville Jaguars head coaching job, Urban Myer goes where high-profile NFL coaching hires from college football such as Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and Chip Kelly have failed. I’m sure Myer would be happier with the comparison to his friend, former Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl-winning head coach, Jimmy Johnson. Myer could bring in a generational talent at quarterback no. 1 overall in the draft. He’ll look to create an ultra competitive culture. There will be plenty of doubters around the league. He transformed some college teams and worked for powerhouse others. Jacksonville, a team that has lost an awful lot of NFL games, has found its program and culture builder in Myer. There’s no doubt Urban Myer can be successful in pro football. It starts with getting the coaching hires around him right.
Robert Saleh, New York Jets The New York Jets hired 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to be their new coach. Saleh was the guiding force behind San Francisco's defense turning into one of the NFL’s most disruptive groups. They were minutes away from halting Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in last year's Super Bowl. Saleh is expected to unveil Mike LaFleur, brother of Packers head coach Matt, as his new offensive coordinator. The joke will now continue that anyone who’s ever met Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay has a chance of becoming an NFL head coach. Saleh coached under Shanahan and was best man at Matt LaFleuer’s wedding. He has a tough job ahead of him. The Jets have been a mess for an extended period. In their favor, they do have the number two pick in the draft - where they’re likely to to draft a quarterback - along with a strong batch of draft capital in the next two drafts.
Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons Arthur Smith, offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, has agreed to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Smith was the play caller who made Tennessee one of most potent offenses in the league over the past two years. Under his guidance, Derrick Henry’s has become the most devastating running back in football, and Ryan Tannehill’s career has revived to become a top ten quarterback. Fun fact: Smith is the son of FedEx Founder and CEO, Fred Smith.
Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers Fresh from defeat to the Packers, defensive coordinator of the Rams, Brandon Staley, is the new head coach of the Chargers. In his one year with the Rams, he presided over the best defensive scheme in the league with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey in it. Staley will stay put in the same home stadium and city, which is convenient. With fantastic rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, and a talented, yet perennially underachieving roster, he’s walking into a good situation in his first head coaching role.
Next Sunday will be a treat to see the best pair of old and young quarterbacks going against each other. More fittingly, the best four teams in the league are left to serve up two potentially classic games. Let’s hope Patrick Mahomes can negotiate concussion protocols to face Josh Allen - a man whose defense has finally woken up to take some of the pressure off him.
Tom Brady is on to one more Championship Game, his first in the NFC. Buoyed by dispatching the Saints on the road in New Orleans last night, the Bucs will fly into Austin Straubel International Airport with a formula to beat the Packers. It will be as much predicated on what the New York Giants did in the same game in 2007 against Green Bay. Pummel the Packers defense with the ball and beat them at the line of scrimmage. Then revisit the playbook of their win earlier this season, which was built on a nasty defensive effort shutting down the Pack - that same defense made Drew Brees’ life miserable in his final game. And put the ball in Brady’s hands with the game on the line. If they can do that they have a real shot. The challenge is that Packers have evolved a lot since losing in Tampa. If a star player is taken out of the game, someone else can step up to carry the load. Their defense can now make plays, the offense at times seems unstoppable. The warm glow of Tom Brady versus Aaron Rodgers in the snow at Lambeau Field might be the perfect anecdote for the times we live in. Bring your cowbells and put your overalls on for an American tradition we’re all proud of.