MMQB: Sean McVay’s Faith in Matthew Stafford Rewarded on Best NFL Weekend of the Year

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated

Stars like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Tom Brady delivered an unforgettable slate of games. Plus, a deep dive into the head coach hiring cycle.

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TAMPA — Sean McVay was in sweats for the long overnight flight back to California and recalled a conversation he and I had as his Rams were wrapping the offseason program and breaking for summer. Just then, his quarterback came up the tunnel, and the Rams’ coach, who turns 36 Monday, smiled and told Matthew Stafford we were recalling a certain moniker he’d given his team captain seven months ago .

Stafford knew the one.

“To me, when you just see that dude, in crunch time, divisional game, going on the road, they tie it up after you have a huge lead, no flinch, no blink?” McVay said, standing on a wall halfway between the locker room and the team bus. “He was a bad mother------ in that situation.”

Over perhaps the greatest playoff weekend in NFL history, Stafford justified his coach’s words and all the faith that McVay put in him over the last year.

And when it mattered most? Stafford was a bad mother------ indeed.

The Rams’ offense had turned the ball over four times. L.A. had blown a 27–3 lead. The greatest quarterback of Stafford’s, or any other, era was on the other sideline, and a Rams team that spent the previous year stacking bold roster decisions like they were Jenga pieces was staring at the prospect of the whole thing crashing down in spectacular fashion.

In the middle of it all was the quarterback McVay pushed the Rams to acquire to compete with the Tom Bradys of the world. The quarterback who hadn’t won much in Detroit but who the coach believed was the right triggerman to raise the ceiling for everyone in Los Angeles. It was almost a year to the day that McVay and Stafford, and their significant others, toasted to that new start under the moon in Cabo .

On this night, in the champs’ house with 35 seconds left and no timeouts, Stafford gave McVay something new to raise his glass to—and showed the world just how bad he can be.

The Rams, 30–27 winners over the Buccaneers , are one step away from the Super Bowl. And what they look capable of now was vividly on display over those inexplicable 35 seconds that somehow trumped the wild 59 minutes preceding them, and it was on display because of Stafford and the coach who knew how good he could be.

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports (Stafford); Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports (Mahomes); Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports (Burrow)

Honestly, this week, I didn’t know where to start. Mostly because what we just watched over the last two days was pretty overwhelming—and the absolute best the sport has to offer. So, I’ll try my best to make sense of it all and do justice to it. Inside this week’s MMQB column, we’re bringing you …

• A look at as good a battle of young quarterbacks as you’ll ever see.

• Why the Bengals have no interest in being—or playing the part of—the underdog.

• How the 49ers have formed an old-school identity that travels awfully well.

• All the coaching buzz you can shake a stick at.

But I did, eventually, decide where to start, and that’s where I am—in Tampa, on the scene of what would’ve been one of the great comebacks in playoff history, and how a determined Rams team thwarted it.

The degree of difficulty on what the Rams would accomplish on Sunday night was already high enough after the Bucs scored to tie the game at 27 to complete a comeback from 24 down and L.A. got the ball back with 42 seconds left. Inadvertently, right then and there, Stafford turned it up a notch.

On first-and-10, out of an empty set, the Bucs' rush drove upfield and Stafford started moving up in the pocket. Jason Pierre-Paul corralled him for a sack at the 24.

The Rams had to burn their final timeout.

Some teams in that spot, having taken the sack and spent the timeout, might play for overtime. Instead, McVay decided to push his chips in one more time and bet on Stafford again.

“We knew we were going to try to go for it because really, they had no timeouts left. There was no downside,” the coach told me. “So, it wasn’t like you were at risk of them getting the ball back. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to go win this. Here’s a couple things that we’re thinking, here’s what we expect them to do.’ And he balled. He was like, ‘Let’s go. Put the game in my hands.’”

McVay then smiled and said, “He didn’t say that, but the look in his eye told me that.” And the trust McVay showed did make a difference.

“Yep,” Stafford said to me a few minutes later. “It’s great. That’s a lot of trust we have in each other. I know he’s going to put us in position to succeed. Really, the sack was probably not the smartest play by myself, trying to get out and run, in a two-man situation. But he’s got a lot of trust in me and really our whole team. That’s what it really shows to me … or not so much me but, hey, it’s everyone on the team that he’s got trust in.”

So McVay’s plan was to give his offense one shot on that second-and-11, and if it didn’t go the Rams’ way, he’d probably have run the clock out on third down and gone to overtime. And the call there was to attack what McVay had seen in a two-man contour look the Bucs had given the Rams—he figured they’d get a matchup Cooper Kupp could win. Kupp won that rep, with Sean Murphy-Bunting falling down in coverage.

Kupp caught the ball outside the left hash and quickly ran it to the boundary, barely getting out of bounds after a 20-yard gain with 28 seconds showing.

Up next? A play that almost certainly wouldn’t go to Kupp. In fact, the call had Kupp running a “love of the game” route—a downfield sprint to clear out coverage so other receivers would have more space underneath. What the Rams couldn’t forecast was the Buccaneers’ sending the house.

“I mean, it was a total blitz, and I was able to hold onto it long enough,” Stafford said. “Our guys up front did a great job, and Coop set a great angle and he hit it.”

Did he ever, pulling down Stafford’s bomb for 44 yards to put the Rams at the Bucs’ 12 and, after the quarterback hustled the offense to the line to clock it, set up Matt Gay’s 30-yard game-winning field goal that avenged a 47-yard miss earlier in the day.

One key to making it happen was Stafford’s willingness to grit his teeth and take a hit knowing Bucs DC Todd Bowles's pressure at the snap would probably get to him just as he let the ball go. Another was the air he put underneath the ball, which allowed Kupp to run under it and get away from safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

“The trajectory that he put on it, you could see Cooper was digging out,” McVay said. “He knew he had to beat the blitzer, so he kind of drifted off, and he put great trajectory under it. Cooper ended up running underneath it. And that’s two of our guys that have been huge all year, two of the stars, two of our captains, making a play when we had to. It was awesome.”

The third key to it was a little less obvious: The Rams hustled to the line, even though Kupp had gotten out of bounds on the previous snap.

“A great idea to jump the ball and go fast, and we were able to hit it,” Stafford said. “So, I don’t know, he’s probably watched some football. He’s been on the other end of some of those too. So, he knows it can happen. I’m just happy it did.”

Of course, the Rams would’ve rather it not come to that.

Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

The Rams didn’t just overcome long odds in winning the game in the manner they did. They also overcame what psychologically could’ve broken another team.

By the time Stafford burrowed in for a touchdown from a yard out on third-and-1 with 7:11 to go, the Rams weren’t just beating the Bucs. They were annihilating them. The score was 27–3, and even that didn’t fully illustrate how this one looked. The Rams were outgaining the Bucs 307–140, they had 18 first downs to the Bucs’ seven and they were doubling their hosts in time of possession. Name the category, and the Rams were way ahead in it.

And then, because you knew Brady wouldn’t die that easily, the tide started to turn. A 10-play, 62-yard drive at the end of the third quarter set up a Ryan Succop field goal to cut the lead to 27–6. A Kupp fumble on the next play from scrimmage led into the Bucs’ covering the remaining 30 yards in seven plays to make 27–13.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, Von Miller got what looked like a game-sealing strip-sack, only to have a bad snap from Rams center Brian Allen gift the ball right back to Tampa. The missteps continued later in the quarter after Mike Evans beat Jalen Ramsey for a 55-yard touchdown to make it 27–20 with Cam Akers in a lead role.

Akers fumbled at the end of the first half, costing the Rams at least a field goal, and this time around carried the ball loosely enough on the second play to follow Evans’s score to have Ndamukong Suh slap it loose. Lavonte David recovered it, which put the Bucs in position to tie the game at 27. Seven plays later, they’d done it, with Leonard Fournette bouncing off the right tackle and running around the end on fourth-and-1 for the 7-yard equalizer.

Now, the idea that 27–3 could be a sequel to Brady’s 28–3 comeback was real—right down to the fact that Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris was on Atlanta’s staff for Super Bowl LI.

“When they tied it up, you’re looking at it and saying Man ,” McVay said. “But I genuinely had such confidence in our guys that I felt like we were going to be able to get ourselves a chance to kick a field goal as time expired before we had to go into overtime. And they answered the bell.”

And yes, McVay is saying that even considering what was lurking on the other sideline.

“You have tremendous respect for what he’s capable of, and this guy is so good. He’s been so successful,” he said of Brady. “So I think you just have tremendous respect for the reigning world champs. The guy at the switch is the best of all time, most successful of all time, but I did feel good about it. I had confidence in our guys that there was going to be a chance we could go get the field goal. And they did.”

Most of all, Stafford did, delivering on all that promise he’s shown over the years—promise that was easy to question when things weren’t going quite right in Detroit.

McVay, of course, wasn’t the only one who saw something last January. Washington and the Carolina were willing to move high-end draft capital to get Stafford back then, too. And it’s hard to speak for exactly what those other teams saw in him, but what McVay had conviction in with Stafford went well beyond arm talent and athleticism.

He loved Stafford’s personality, too, and thought it was tailor-made for moments like the one he faced on Sunday, which is why, in the end, he had no issue pushing the envelope when it mattered most.

Did McVay know how Stafford would respond in a playoff spot like that one? No, because Stafford’s playoff experience is so limited, it’d be impossible to forecast it. But what he’d ascertained about Stafford, and what he learned before they linked up a year ago, was enough to make him think things like Sunday could be possible.

“He’s unflappable. He’s just got a stillness during the games and a calmness and a look in his eye,” McVay said. “You could just feel it, man, the command he has. He never wavers. And I love the guy.”

Of course, we’ve known that much for a while now.

JAMIE GERMANO/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle/USA TODAY Network


In a way only he could, Andy Reid sent me his take on the Josh Allen vs. Patrick Mahomes showdown to cap this incredible weekend of pro football about two hours after it ended.

“It was more classic than dueling banjos,” the Chiefs’ coach texted. “Epic!!!”

Kansas City’s 42–36 win was all of that and worthy of each of Reid’s three exclamation points.

Allen turns 26 in May. Mahomes turns 27 in September. And maybe Aaron Rodgers is still capable of something approximating what we saw both quarterbacks put on display at Arrowhead on Sunday night. Maybe Justin Herbert or Trevor Lawrence will get there sometime soon.

For now, I feel comfortable saying this: What those two showed all of us on Sunday night should be a warning shot to the rest of the NFL. Keeping up with them is not going to be easy over the next decade or so, not with how high each guys’ ceiling is, not with how clutch each guy was when it mattered most and not with how each guy seems to continue to improve (which might be the most frightening prospect of all).

When it was over, Allen and Mahomes had combined for 707 passing yards, seven touchdown passes without a pick, and a pair of passer ratings exceeding 120. The former rushed for 68 yards, the latter for 69. The former had six receivers with multiple catches, the latter had four with five or more.

But really, this was about how the last two minutes of regulation and overtime played out.

It started, coming out of the two-minute warning, with Buffalo’s season on the line, down 26–21 in fourth-and-13 on the 17th play of a drive in which Allen had already converted three third downs and another fourth down. From there, here’s what happened …

• On that fourth-and-13, Allen took the shotgun snap, patted the ball twice and found Gabriel Davis for his third touchdown of the day, all alone in the back of the end zone. How did Davis get that open? He unleashed a double move on Mike Hughes so filthy that Hughes fell over as if someone had shot him in the leg. And Davis easily hauled the ball in to stake the Bills to a 27–26 lead. Allen then found Stefon Diggs on the end line, in a scramble situation, for the two-point conversion to make it 29–26 with 1:54 left.

• Five plays later, on second-and-10, Mahomes shuffled up in the pocket and dropped his arm angle to almost a sidearm delivery to get the ball around a defender, flicking his wrist and getting the ball to Tyreek Hill, who turned on the jets from there and ran past everyone for a 64-yard touchdown, flashing the peace sign as he glided past the pylon. Chiefs 33, Bills 29.

• After completions of 28 and 12 yards to Davis and 16 yards to Emmanuel Sanders and out of first-and-10 from the Chiefs’ 19, Allen threw a bullet down the seam to, yup, Davis again for a touchdown. It gave the Bills a 36–33 lead. It also somehow left too much time on the clock. (Thirteen seconds.)

• The Bills kicked the ball through the end zone, leaving the Chiefs, realistically, three plays to work with, but also three timeouts at their disposal, which opened up the whole field with the possession starting at Kansas City’s 25. On the first play, Mahomes dumped it short to Hill, and Hill chewed up 19 yards. Timeout. On the second play, from the Chiefs’ 44, Travis Kelce was isolated to Mahomes’s left, with Bills corner Levi Wallace in coverage. Kelce sprinted off the line, Mahomes pumped, Kelce angled his route slightly in and Mahomes delivered a rocket. Kelce stuck it and rolled to the ground just shy of the Bills’ 30. Timeout. With three seconds left, Harrison Butker came on for the 48-yarder to force overtime.

And if we’re being realistic about it, what happened after that, the rest was always going to be determined by the coin toss. Both quarterbacks were playing at an otherworldly level. Both defenses were gassed beyond comprehension. As such, after winning the toss, the Chiefs faced just one third down, and that was a third-and-1, on an eight-play, 75-yard drive to win the game, one capped with another Mahomes dime to a toe-dragging Kelce, this one bringing home an eight-yard touchdown

Mahomes was 6-for-6 for 69 yards on that possession, and 10-for-13 for 188 yards and two touchdowns after the two-minute warning . Allen, in that window, was 5-for-7 for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Mahomes’s passer rating over that time was 157.9, Allen’s was 153.3.

My takeaway? Here’s hoping we get a lot more of those over the next 10–15 years.

Even if it’ll be hard to ever top something as, to steal an adjective, epic as we what we just saw.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports


There were plenty of plays you could’ve picked out of the Bengals’ 19–16 stunner over the top-seeded Titans on Saturday and tagged as game-changers. There was Ja’Marr Chase’s 57-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter; Mike Hilton’s circus red-zone pick in the third quarter; short-yardage stops on a two-point try in the second quarter, and third- and fourth-and-1s in the fourth quarter; and then, of course, Logan Wilson’s pick ; Joe Burrow’s clutch throw to Chase in the final minute; and, well, Evan McPherson’s whole day .

But if you really want to, as far as Burrow himself is concerned, you can meld all those individual efforts together and categorize them as one.

Those, quite simply, over the 33 years since Cincinnati last made the AFC title game, are the kinds of plays the Bengals have never made. That is, until now. And now, they seem to be the kinds of plays the Bengals make all the time. And that, as Burrow sees it, is no accident.

“We’ve got great players that it really, really matters to—this is the life of everybody in that locker room,” Burrow told me, as he was leaving Nissan Stadium Saturday. “Everyone works really hard to put themselves in that moment and take advantage of those opportunities. Those are the kind of guys we have. … Everybody at this level is capable of making plays like that, but I don’t think everybody’s capable of making plays in that moment.”

These Bengals, most certainly, and most surprisingly, are. And while we’ve been over through the last few months how Burrow’s been the change agent in Southwest Ohio, as the team has overhauled its identity and mindset, the Bengals’ win over a rugged Tennessee team that kept swinging through the final bell showed it’s far more than just No. 9.

In this one, it seemed to be everyone not just making plays, but making winning plays.

“We’re proud of the history of Cincinnati because it’s a great history,” coach Zac Taylor told me after the final whistle. “But we haven’t been a part of some of the stuff that happened. And so we’re gonna make our own future for ourselves. And in our eyes, it’s not about the past. These guys believe that we can play with anybody, and we’ve proven it. So, we’re just happy to be one of the final four, and we’re gonna keep moving along.”

And to best explain a ridiculous finish, you have to rewind back another 24 hours, to the team hotel. All seven captains spoke, and each put his own spin on it, but all said something along the same lines—this was no house money , let it ride sort of situation.

This was a big game, and the Bengals wanted all the pressure that came with it.

“They were all aligned,” Taylor said. “And they spoke from the heart. They talked about how much they believe in this team. We’re not lucky to be here, we’re not the underdog. We’re meant to be here, and we gotta go take moments like this.”

Take those moments they did.

With 28 seconds left, and the game tied at 16, the Titans had bled the clock, and were in third-and-5 at their own 40, seemingly determined to make sure if they didn’t win in regulation, the game would go to overtime. Ryan Tannehill took a straight dropback. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine hooked up. Eli Apple sat on the route, stayed disciplined and popped his hand in as the ball came. And wouldn’t you know it, the Bengals’ linebacker who always appears at the scene of the crime in these spots, Logan Wilson, was there to pick it off.

“It felt like something was going to turn our way right there,” Taylor said. “I don’t know what it was—we were going through our two-minute calls, they end up getting a first down that let some clock run off. But you just felt like something was gonna happen for us. And our guys sure enough stepped up.”

As it was happening, Burrow was on the tablet with his coaches, pointing to how the Titans had played Chase out of three-by-one sets for the whole second half.

It had been a long afternoon for Burrow, to be sure. He had been sacked nine times . He was under constant duress. The Titans had successfully disguised coverages that got Burrow to doubt what he was looking at, and hold the ball, early in the first half; and Tennessee did that again early in the second half, with some tweaks and adjustments made during the break leading to similar results.

But with time, and through all the hits, Burrow was gaining insight into what Mike Vrabel’s crew was throwing at him, and that’s where the idea came—between he, Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan—to get a matchup on the outside on Tennessee’s two-man defense, by throwing an out-breaking route to Chase.

“I knew it was gonna come to the boundary when we were in those three-by-one situations,” Burrow said. “They’d been doing it the whole second half. And then no, I don’t know who called the play, but it was a great idea, and Ja’Marr went and made a play for us. … I’ve thrown that route with him hundreds of times. It was like playing pitch and catch.”

Burrow also knew, based on how McPherson was kicking it, and the end the Bengals were driving into, he’d need to get to at least the Titans’ 37 to set up the game-winning field goal.

The snap came on first-and-10 from the Bengals’ 47. So he’d need 16 yards. Chase wound up giving him 19, with the route setting up just as Burrow and his coaches figured it would, before sauntering out of bounds with 15 seconds left. Two snaps later, McPherson drilled the 52-yard game-winner (his second of 50-plus on the afternoon), and the Bengals were bound for Kansas City.

“Guy’s unbelievable,” Burrow said. “He’s got ice in his veins. That’s exactly what you want in a kicker. Everyone at this level can kick it through the uprights, but it’s what you do when everything’s on the line. And that guy’s unbelievable.”

And really, so many Bengals were.

Mostly, it was a defense that had to carry the day. There were the three crucial interceptions, part of an effort that wasn’t perfect (they did allow 140 rushing yards) but was excellent when it needed to be—the creativity in coverage was another key, with the Bengals rolling personnel groups and looks out there they’d usually deploy in man coverage, only to wind up in zone at the snap. And when the defense needed to bow up in those third- and fourth-and-shorts, and the two-point conversion, it bowed up big-time.

“It’s been there all year,” Taylor said. “Our run defense has been tremendous. And really, I can credit all those guys, all 11 guys on defense. I’ve been really proud of our defense overall, but specifically, our run defense has been tremendous. And again, they stepped up big today for us.”

That brings us back to the guy who stood tallest again, and that was Burrow.

Other young quarterbacks who get knocked around like Burrow did Sunday might start to look at the rush, abandon the pocket early or even see ghosts. But Burrow hung in there and kept playing his game, and the NFL’s now finding out what everyone in Cincinnati has gotten to know—it takes a lot to rattle the Athens, Ohio, native.

“He’s special,” Taylor said. “He goes onto the next play, whether it was a big pass or a hit he took. It doesn’t matter—that’s what makes him Joe Burrow, and we’re happy he’s ours.”

And he will be theirs for a while.

Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports


Maybe it’s a football cliché. And a little corny.

But underneath all the details—and we’ll get to those—of the 49ers’ 13–10 win over the Packers at Lambeau on Saturday night, there were two beliefs that the victors held from start to finish. First, the tougher team, in very tough conditions, would wind up advancing. And second, they were the tougher team. So if you ask the Niners how they did it in the aftermath and got to a second NFC title game in three years, it really was that simple.

“It’s just the physicality that we’ve always had here as a whole,” the Niners’ Mr. Everything, Deebo Samuel, told me from the locker room postgame. “And I don’t think too many people love to play the physical game that we play. They have to get mentally prepared. And the week is not long enough to prepare for how physical we play.”

That was especially so in Lambeau’s single-digit conditions, which essentially worked to negate so much of what we’ve been led to believe the NFL is about in 2021. The Niners were left to ride their defense and, especially, their special teams all the way back to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

With so much of the focus coming in on Jimmy Garoppolo and Aaron Rodgers, the truth is the Niners won this game just about everywhere else.

• The Packers went 69 yards on 10 plays on the game’s opening possession and, after a 49ers three-and-out, ripped off two more first downs to set up first-and-10 at the Niners’ 42. At that point, Aaron Rodgers was 6-of-7 for 70 yards. The Packers were up to 32 yards rushing. The game had blowout written all over it. And then, on that first-and-10, Rodgers rolled and dumped a short swing pass out to Marcedes Lewis. Fred Warner wrapped his right arm around Lewis’s right arm and punched the ball free. Which, in retrospect, looks like a game-saving level play.

• With the score still 7–0, and 40 seconds left in the first half, Rodgers found Aaron Jones deep past busted coverage, and Jones hauled in Rodgers’s dart, then got upfield for a 75-yard gain. That set up first-and-10 on San Francisco’s 14 with 26 seconds left and no timeouts. And sure enough, Nick Bosa (who finished with two sacks and six pressures) chased down Rodgers and stripped him, forcing a field goal attempt after Rodgers scrambled to clock the ball with three seconds showing. That field goal attempt? Blocked by Jimmie Ward, who was part of the busted coverage.

• And with the Packers up 10–3 late, the talk in the 49ers’ building all week—that this game would come down to special teams plays, and that San Francisco would have an edge in that area over Green Bay’s struggling units, came to life a second time. “We knew how the weather was going to be, and special teams is a real key,” said Samuel, who did his part as a return man. “And we made it an emphasis, how important it was, not only in our wideout room but special teams meeting, team meeting. It was just reiterated all week long how important special teams is going to be. It showed up today.” When it mattered most, it did. With 4:50 left, and the Packers punting from their own 12, Niners defensive lineman Jordan Willis pushed long snapper Hunter Bradley clear back into punter Corey Bojorquez and blocked the punt, popping it up into the arms of Talanoa Hufanga, who jogged into the end zone to tie the game.

So, to that point, the offense’s contribution was a field goal at the start of the second half—and even that one came as a result of a special teams play, with Samuel’s 45-yard return on the kickoff coming out of the break setting the Niners up at the 50, from which point they drove just 39 yards in 10 plays to position Robbie Gould for a 29-yard kick to make it 7–3.

That dominant special teams effort carried the Niners’ offense. A defense that held Rodgers to 154 yards on 13-of-21 passing over the 49 minutes following Warner’s strip carried the Niners’ offense. And the time eventually would come when Garoppolo’s group would have to do its part.

That time came with 3:20 to go and the Niners’ getting the ball at the Packers’ 29, and it wound up giving Garoppolo a chance to atone for what felt like a back-breaking and wild red-zone pick at the end of the first half, and a mostly rough night overall (he was 9-of-17 for 105 yards going into the final possession).

“I mean it’s hard being a quarterback in this league, and we know what it takes, and Jimmy has the heart and the mindset to do it,” Samuel said. “There’s never a [time] that we ever doubted Jimmy. We know everything that he’s capable of. And mistakes are going to happen, but it’s just how you bounce back, and he bounced back.”

On first down, Garoppolo found George Kittle over the middle for 14 yards. Then, he handed the ball to Elijah Mitchell for four yards and found Samuel, running an angle route out of the backfield, for 14 more. “I came off and I just saw an opening and drifted into the opening,” Samuel said. “And good thing that Jimmy gave me his eyes, and I gave him my eyes back, and just made a play.”

That got the ball to the 41, and two Samuel runs later, it was third-and-7 from the 38, on the fringe of field goal range. There was 1:10 left, and the Packers were out of timeouts. Kyle Shanahan sent in a pass call. Then, he called a timeout and switched to an inside run.

“I just went out there and followed the blocks, and hit the hole full speed, just hoping to get the first down,” Samuel said. “And that’s what happened.”

What happened was Samuel ran through three arm tackles, picked up nine yards and put Gould in position to hit the 45-yard game-winner at the buzzer three snaps later.

The Niners, who were 2–4 after six games and 3–5 after eight, are going to the NFC title game.

And when Samuel looks back, he sees a game right there, at 3–5, against the team the Niners face next, the Rams, as the turning point. On that Monday night in mid-November, San Francisco leaned on its running game and wound up rushing for 156 yards in a dominant 31–10 win. It also found its identity, which is one it had a couple of years back, too, when it rode a similar-looking operation all the way to the Super Bowl.

“[The path here] just showed the determination, the trust that we have in each other as a whole, as a group, as a team,” Samuel said. “Just putting all the pieces together, knowing it didn’t start off well, but just coming together as a team and just hitting the ground running shows everybody what we’re capable of.”

We can see it now, for sure.


I don’t know if the Giants got their GM hire right—obviously, it’s impossible to know at this point—but I think the idea of it was correct. I’ve said here a bunch over the last few months that the Giants would do well to go outside the family to find Dave Gettleman’s replacement. Not only does landing Joe Schoen accomplish that , I’m told the simple idea of it was a point of emphasis for the team’s ownership from the start. I also like what I’ve heard the Giants like about Schoen because I think it’s another sign that they’re willing to give him the keys and let him build the team the way he sees fit. The Giants were impressed with Schoen’s presentation and his vision for the future of the franchise, and also how he communicated and how he had a hand in basically every facet of the Bills’ rebuild (we’ll have more on that in a second) over the last five years, rather than just being a high-level scout. And they like that he saw it done in different ways before that, having worked under Marty Hurney in Carolina and under Jeff Ireland, Dennis Hickey and Mike Tannenbaum in Miami, before joining his old Panthers staff mate Brandon Beane in Buffalo.

That should give Schoen the background and know-how to effectively raze some of the flaws in the operation, with a mental Rolodex filled with experiences that’ll inform him on both what to do and what not to do. And because he’s very well-respected in the scouting world, he should be able to rework the scouting department with more new faces to inject new ideas into the place.

All of it added up with Schoen, and it did with 49ers assistant GM Adam Peters too (the decision between the two was a tough one)—with the Chiefs’ Ryan Poles showing a lot of upsides to entice the Giants, but lacking the assistant GM experience the other two had. Now, Schoen just has to find a coach. He’s obviously close with Brian Daboll (who has similarly varied experiences, having come up in the Bill Belichick tree, and also having worked for Nick Saban and, over the last four years, in an Andy Reid–style program under Sean McDermott). The two worked together in Miami in 2011, and Schoen played a role in Buffalo’s poaching him from Alabama in ’18. Another guy Schoen has background with, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo (the two were in Miami together), interviewed Sunday afternoon. And Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will interview with the Giants in New Jersey on Monday, with ex-Dolphins coach Brian Flores and the in-house defensive coordinator, Patrick Graham, also on the team’s list.

Schoen’s departure is just another indication that the Bills have become a model NFL franchise. It’s remarkable, too. People would look at you like you had two heads if you’d predicted this five years ago, when they plucked McDermott from Carolina, but that’s where we are now. Schoen’s the third exec whom Beane has had plucked in five years (Brian Gaine left to become Texans GM in 2018, Dan Morgan left to become Panthers assistant GM last year), and both of McDermott’s coordinators have had multiple head coach interviews over the last week.

“We’re thrilled for them and their families, for the growth and the opportunities,” Beane told me Friday. “It’s part of the business. There’s no way to change it, and you’re happy for them. And it’s better than the alternative of looking for jobs because they don’t have one.” The good news is twofold for the Bills. One, again, it’s a symbol of how they’re viewed around the league; and two, Beane’s got a couple of guys in Terrance Gray and Malik Boyd who ready to step up, and he has experienced ex-GMs in Gaine and Hickey with him, too (though it’s not out of the question Schoen might try to get one of those guys either before or after the draft). And as for Schoen himself? When Beane and I talked, he took me back to training camp in 2000 when he was a football operations manager for the Panthers, about 24 years old, and he met an eager 21-year-old intern who enthusiastically shuttled players from the airport, made coffee and shagged balls that kickers would knock into the woods behind the practice fields. Here’s a little more from Beane on Schoen …

• Schoen’s strength as a scout? His ability to see the big picture. “None of us have magic eyes,” Beane said. Joe is going to put the work in. He’s gonna watch enough film until he’s convinced he knows what this player can and can’t do. And Joe knows our roster. I always tell our guys, you have to know your roster before you go evaluating other stuff. You have to know who’s better than your second tight end, your third receiver. Like where is this guy going to fit on your roster? And you have to be able to conceptualize all that. Joe can visualize a guy playing at Marshall and how that’s going to transfer. It’s not always clean—it’s easier to visualize a guy that’s playing for the Dallas Cowboys, how he’s going to play in our offense, Cole Beasley or whatever, than it is a guy in college. But Joe can conceptualize that. He’s going to put the work in, he has contacts, he’s going to know somebody, and if he doesn’t, he’s going to introduce himself. And he’s going to ask the tough questions.”

• Over the last five years, Beane let Schoen in on everything—which is why the Giants saw what they did, which was an exec who was more than a scout. “I made sure to involve him in as many meetings as I could, separate of personnel,” Beane said. “Whether it was things in medical, conversations with coaches, or analytics, football operation, how we do things. All the things he’s going to come across, he was in every meeting where we put a value on a player. Now he may not have been involved in the negotiation, but I explained to him where we’re at in Josh Allen’s deal. He wasn’t involved in negotiation, but I told him, Hey, this is where it’s at . … He’s seen almost every decision that we’ve made.”

• Beane still views getting Schoen out of Miami in 2017 as a huge win, and a reason why the Bills are where they are. “Joe was big because even though we hadn’t worked together in a number of years, we stayed in touch,” Beane said. “We saw each other, and we always just meshed well together. And so, I knew anything I needed done, I knew it would be done the right way, the way I wanted. I wouldn’t have to double back. There was a natural synergy. We see players pretty similar, I feel like, not that we didn’t have our arguments, but overall. We treat people the same, we have a lot of the same interests, both of us are very competitive, we like golf, we like basketball. … Trust, dependability, was the main thing.”

So, yes, most of all, Beane’s happy for his old intern. And proud of what they built together, which, of course, is the reason why other teams keep sniffing around Buffalo.

The Dolphins’ process should accelerate in the coming days. My feeling is that a significant part of it will ride on how the dominoes fall. Quinn remains the big domino. Again, he’s scheduled to be in Jersey on Monday, and it certainly stands to reason that could push the Broncos to move their process along. If Denver were to take Quinn off the market, that could create some tension on Daboll—I’m told he interviewed well with the Dolphins, and his background with the organization, having been there in 2011, helps his cause. If the Giants try to close on Daboll? Then, Miami could turn to its ex-defensive coordinator (and current Cardinals DC) Vance Joseph, another candidate who’s positioned well with Miami wrapping up its initial set of head coaching interviews.

One big thing for the Dolphins has been finding a way to bring the building back together after the strife the football operation endured through 2021. And while it’s been stressed to me that Miami hasn’t made any decisions yet and remains focused on wrapping up the first phase of interviews, the standing relationships that Joseph and Daboll (and remember, Daboll has one with Tua Tagovailoa, too) have appear to be relevant now.

The dot-connecting on Las Vegas is happening fast and furious. To this point, the Raiders seem to be moving their GM search ahead of their coaching search—even as buzz persists that the team will likely retain the coach-centric model it had under Jon Gruden. So what gives? You can follow the bouncing ball on this one, with interim team president Dan Ventrelle and ex-NFL GM Ken Herock helping Mark Davis with his search.

Patriots exec Dave Ziegler interviewed Friday, and the Raiders have also met with Bears exec Champ Kelly and Bengals scout Trey Brown on the job. Ziegler and Kelly (not coincidentally) worked together in Denver during the Josh McDaniels and John Fox eras. Brown got his start in the NFL as a Patriots scout. And Vegas’s current assistant director of player personnel, DuJuan Daniels, worked in New England for over a decade. All of that points to setting up for a Patriots-raised coach. Josh McDaniels’s name has come up here, to be sure. If he leaves New England, I think it’ll happen fast. I don’t see him going through a drawn-out circus courtship. And Ziegler, for what it’s worth, would’ve been McDaniels’s GM in Cleveland if the Browns had hired him in 2020. This could, too, set up for Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who is expected to interview for the Raiders’ job early this week.

And the other direction the Raiders could go in? The obvious one— toward Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh . Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds has been connected to the Raiders’ job for a couple of weeks now, and Vegas put in a slip for him over the weekend. And the no-nonsense Dodds is seen as a solid fit for Harbaugh, and the two did cross over with one another for a year in Oakland in 2003 when Harbaugh was the Raiders’ quarterbacks coach and Dodds a young scout. Another personnel man who is rumored to be in play for Harbaugh is Jaguars director of player personnel Tom Gamble, who was with Harbaugh in San Francisco and helped run his recruiting department for a few years in Ann Arbor. What I will say I do like about the Raiders’ process is that rather than just looking at individual guys, they’re looking at models to build around a coach. I think it’s actually pretty smart.

Ryan Poles could be the next general manager hire. The Chiefs’ executive director of player personnel is just 37, and there’d be a learning curve—while he’s been in a management role the last few years in Kansas City, overseeing the team’s road scouts, he hasn’t worked on contracts with agents, through roster management or other elements on the operations side—but Poles is bright, has a great eye for talent and has been dynamite in interviews going back to his emergence as a finalist las year in Carolina. He has a second interview with the Bears on Tuesday and is tentatively scheduled to meet with the Vikings a second time on Wednesday.

The Bears’ Bill Polian/Tony Dungy–connected candidates—Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier and Colts DC Matt Eberflus—have emerged as top names in Chicago. Hiring Poles could mean changing course a bit. Poles is close with fellow former Boston College football letterman Brian Flores, and Flores has already interviewed with the Bears, and Poles has been in touch with a number of other candidates for the Vikings and Bears jobs (Caldwell is one, Quinn, Todd Bowles and Kevin O’Connell are others). So just like Quinn is the big domino on the coaching side, Poles could be the next domino on the general manager side.

While we’re there, it sure sounds like the Vikings want to build around a combination of younger candidates with which that organization can grow. That both Poles and Browns V.P. of football operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah are getting second interviews is definitely an indication of that, as is a candidate list that includes 30-somethings Jonathan Gannon, DeMeco Ryans, Kellen Moore and Kevin O’Connell. Whether they go with that sort of setup remains to be seen, but both Poles and Adofo-Mensah have backgrounds with coaches who fit into that category. Would Poles try to lure Flores or one of the guys on the above list with whom he’s been in touch? Would Adofo-Mensah reach back to his San Francisco days and advocate for Ryans? (I actually think Adofo-Mensah would probably be open to either someone like Ryans or someone he doesn’t know.)

I’d say of all the teams with openings, the Vikings’ process has probably been the most wide-open one. And with E.V.P. of football operations Rob Brzezinski in place to help younger guys grow into their roles (à la Mike Disner in Detroit last year), Minnesota can afford to take a chance here with candidates who have a little less experience.

Jonathan Gannon has quickly become a name to watch. Word is he knocked his interview with the Texans out of the park. He’s also met with the Vikings and Broncos, and despite the Eagles’ ups and downs on defense, he’s known as a really good scheme coach and leader with a bright future. In that way, there’s some similarity to where Mike Tomlin was in 2007, when the Vikings’ defense he coordinated may not have warranted such a quick rise, but his head coach qualities were so apparent that he wound up getting his shot.

And there’s a connection to Houston that helps, too. Gannon worked as a pro scout in St. Louis when McDaniels was the offensive coordinator there in 2011, and the two remained close. Gannon consistently has been on McDaniels’s staff lists as McDaniels interviewed for head coaching jobs. He was one of three coaches hired to Indy by McDaniels, and he wound up staying there after McDaniels backed out in ’18. He would’ve been McDaniels’s co-defensive coordinator in Cleveland (along with Brandon Staley), and McDaniels has helped prepare Gannon for his shot (they’ve met over the years at the combine, etc.). And through that connection, Gannon got to know another Northeast Ohio native—Texans GM Nick Caserio, McDaniels’s college teammate and longtime New England staff mate. So is Josh McCown the favorite in Houston ? He might be. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Gannon could wind up landing the job.

The Ravens’ divorce with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale seemed strange at the time, but as usual, the details of how it went down make sense. The Ravens’ defense, beset by a raft of injuries, faded down the stretch. And while Baltimore never lost its fight, it did lose six straight to finish the season. With that backdrop, Martindale’s contract complicated things. 2022 was the final year of his current contract. Other teams knew it and started sniffing around on a coach who’s known for his creativity and fielded units in 2018, ’19 and ’20 that ranked in the top 10 in both total defense and scoring defense. So he went to the Ravens looking for an extension. Based on how this season went, Baltimore balked. So John Harbaugh and Martindale met, and eventually, the conclusion was reached that, rather than sending everyone into a lame-duck year in ’22, it was best if the sides just split then and there. For the Ravens, that means diving into a rich candidate pool, with internal candidates (Chris Hewitt, Anthony Weaver), ex-Ravens assistants (Vic Fangio, Mike Macdonald) and external guys (Joe Whitt Jr.) out there for Baltimore to look at. And for Martindale, it means jumping into that pool with other well-regarded guys like Fangio, Mike Zimmer and Patrick Graham.

That’s eight takeaways on the hiring cycle, and the ninth is that we’re all still talking about a lot of uncertainty, and that’s a good thing. The bottom line: The NFL wanted the hiring process to slow down, and it most certainly has. Our old friend Peter King had this stat on PFT Live this week: 53 of the 63 most recent head coach hires before this year happened within two weeks of the end of the season. And here we are, two weeks separated from the end of the season, and none of the eight spots are filled. On top of that, only one of three GM positions has been taken.

So why is that a good development for the NFL? The league office’s efforts to diversify its coaching and executive ranks haven’t worked the last couple of years, and one problem 345 Park Ave. identified was too many teams were rushing the process, in competing for hot candidates, which kept them from really getting to know or truly consider new candidates. This year, the lack of a Robert Saleh or Arthur Smith (though you could argue Dan Quinn’s caught that kind of fire the last two weeks) forced teams to open up searches in a way they simply haven’t been of late. And the result has been more candidates considered, with more thorough processes. Does it mean the diversity numbers are going to improve in the next week or two? It might; it might not. But there has been progress in that more candidates are getting a real shot at all those coveted positions.

Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports

And now, our quick-hitters for divisional weekend …

• To me, what happened in Kansas City last night validated the Niners’ and Rams’ aggression at quarterback last year. It’s going to be hard to keep up with those two, and there’s going to be pressure on everyone to be better than just good at quarterback from here on out.

• I think Tom Brady’s going to consider his options for a little while. I know how much he loves playing. He also told the Bucs, when signing his revised deal last March, he planned to play in 2022 and hitting 45 as a player has always been a goal of his (there’s a Nolan Ryan story to Brady’s desire to get to that specific age milestone). But his kids are getting older, and Tampa Bay’s got a lot of business to tend to. Chris Godwin, Carlton Davis, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul are all free agents.

• Titans fans may want the team to detach from Ryan Tannehill in 2022. I don’t know how realistic it is. His $29 million base salary for next season vested last March and is fully guaranteed. Also, because he restructured in June to accommodate the Julio Jones trade, cutting him would mean having to account for $18.4 million in dead-cap money. So, maybe the Titans will draft a QB this year and develop him to replace Tannehill in 2023. I just think it’s going to be hard to find a taker for his contract. They’re tied to Tannehill, much like the Colts are tied to Carson Wentz.

• It was genuinely good to hear that Rodgers and Packers GM Brian Gutekunst have ironed out their issues. That said, Gutekunst and Green Bay cap boss Russ Ball will have to be very creative to keep the band together this time around. But if Rodgers really does want to stay a Packer, getting him signed to an extension could help the team move some more money around. And, of course, how hard the Packers work to keep Rodgers should inform us a bit about Jordan Love’s development. Stay tuned.

• The Packers are now 7–9 in the playoffs since winning Super Bowl XLV. Woof.

• The Buccaneers’ struggles to keep Brady upright, or get him comfortable at all on Sunday, were a good reminder that football is still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. Tampa Bay’s offensive line simply couldn’t block the Rams’ front.

• Should Daboll land a job somewhere over the next week or two, Bills quarterback coach Ken Dorsey is likely to replace him as offensive coordinator. Dorsey has done a really nice job, obviously, with Allen the last couple of years. And on defense, should Leslie Frazier land a job elsewhere, linebackers coach Bob Babich might be in line to replace him (though that one’s a little less clear).

• Hill’s speed is still stunning, all these years later. The way he accelerated on the 64-yard touchdown and broke the angles defenders were taking in pursuit was wild, as is the fact that Reid & Co. can just throw him back there on punt return when they want, and he’s terrifying in that role, too.

• The Rams and Chiefs open as favorites for next Sunday’s games. And their opponents, the Niners and Bengals, are 3–0 against them this year, for whatever that’s worth.

• I still can’t believe what we just saw .


1) It was interesting to hear what my buddy Pete Thamel (now of ESPN!) reported on the Caleb Williams sweepstakes—saying that his camp is focused on getting the quarterback in the best place to become the first pick in the 2024 draft, rather than the spot where he can maximize his NIL earning power right now. The first pick in April’s draft will get $41.47 million guaranteed over four years, with a $27.34 million signing bonus, per NFLPA projections, based on the NFL’s rookie salary slotting system. So, if, say, Georgia says it’ll get him $2 million in NIL deals, sure, that’s a lot of money to walk away from. But purely economically, it’s easy to see why the best move for someone like Williams (and there are very few like him) is to view the NIL money floating around as something that’ll be a bonus wherever he is, with professional development remaining paramount.

2) And that’s what is so complicated about the call for Williams specifically. It sure stands to reason that Lincoln Riley, his coach at Oklahoma, is the best guy to get him ready for the pros, based on the fact that Riley produced three NFL starting quarterbacks, and two No. 1 picks at the position, over his six years as Sooners coach. Williams obviously knows the system and could hit the ground running at USC. On the flip side, the Trojans’ roster isn’t in the shape the Sooners’ was, and there could be a learning curve with the other 10 guys in the huddle learning the offense. It’ll be interesting to see where Williams chooses to go.

3) The NFL released its list of 73 players granted “special eligibility” for the draft—basically, it’s the guys who declared. It’s a little bastardized because players who exhausted their natural eligibility and just chose not to take the extra COVID-19 year (the NCAA gave players who played in 2020 an extra year of eligibility) aren’t listed. But it does reflect who is actually leaving early specifically to protect their pro stock. I hit up a couple of scouts to ask if anything jumped out at them. One said, “Just the fact that there were only two guys (out of 73) on there we hadn’t written.” That, to me, is great news. For years, the NFL’s had an issue where guys who have no business declaring wind up coming out early. Maybe this is a sign that players coming out of college are doing a better job educating each other.

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4) Shout out to my buddy Chris Gasper for showing me the @rivalsportal Twitter account —the transfer portal is, indeed, wild. What really got me was guys flipping commitments while in the portal . I don’t know how that works. But I’m going to try to find out.

5) I think what Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy told a Detroit Lions podcast this week was really interesting—he said only four eligible players (Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson, Ohio State WR Chris Olave and OT Thayer Munford and Georgia NT Jordan Davis) declined invites to his game. He added that more will likely bow out due to injury, but I think it is absolutely reflective of the makeup of this year’s class. I did find out, for what it’s worth, that the game has had this sort of success with getting players to play recently, so it’s not like that number’s a huge anomaly. That said, there’s less of an elite layer of players atop the group (it won’t be a great year to pick in the top 10), which means there’ll be more jockeying for position near the top, making an event like the Senior Bowl more important to the top guys in the class.

6) Since we’re on the cusp of draft season, I figured I’d give you three questions that I think will be big ones near the top for the next three months. One, is NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu a tackle or a guard? Two, how big is Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, and how much weight will he carry as a pro? And three, what happened to LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr. the last two years?


I’m with Bucky on this—great to see Arch Manning living as normal a life as a teenage kid in his position could. And I’d bet he’ll have awesome memories of doing these things that you can’t recreate later in life.

Did we tell you Joe Burrow got knocked around a little?

I’d like this exchange more if Mike Marriott had that pick.

I said it Saturday: They need to have analytics on sleeves vs. no sleeves in sub-zero situations.

Did not expect Neil O’Donnell to return to the NFL playoffs this weekend. Although I guess he is a Titans legend and icon.


Jeffery Simmons doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves. He was unblockable Saturday.

Pretty much.

Nothing from Friday isn’t funny.

Bengals in College, Part I.

Bengals in College, Part II.


Kevin Huber at the Holy Grail in Cincinnati.

I always wonder what happens when these people are putting the makeup on. Are there other people around? If they have kids … what do the kids think? Wife? So many questions.

Niners can rush.

Was on Saturday.

The Kupp dot is a stud.

It was, in fact, Shawn Hochuli time, per Shawn Hochuli.

Good point from my old friend Brendan.

Just barely, it turns out.

Ensemble cast changes frequently, though, which has caused consternation for sections of the viewing public.

• Patrick Mahomes: 26
• Josh Allen: 25
• Joe Burrow: 25
• Lamar Jackson: 25
• Justin Herbert: 23
• Trevor Lawrence: 22

I believe this was after the fourth-and-4 run where he made like five guys miss. And Jeff’s 100% right. I’ve broken controllers for less.

The Davis route, if you missed it.

Sure was.

I believe we had fans rush the field in at least three of four games this week (there was one at the game I was at, too).

Mitch won Twitter on Sunday. Sorry, Kevin Clark.

I feel really bad for Bills fans.


And this is where you’ll get the most vital reporting in the column this week: Zac Taylor did, in fact, go to a bar again on Saturday night with a game ball for the fans. As we showed you above, Huber, who was at Mount Lookout Tavern with Taylor last weekend, was at Holy Grail at the Banks, near the Reds’ ballpark, shortly after the Bengals got back from Nashville. This time around, he didn’t have his coach with him.

Instead, Taylor went and got something quick to eat at Precinct (one of Jeff Ruby’s restaurants) with offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, then surprised the people who were out at Delwood’s, all 30 or so of them, by bringing them a ball from the Titans game.

In all seriousness, it’s a pretty cool thing to connect the players and coaches with the city, and I do hope they keep it going past this year. And if the Bengals win on Sunday, I promise you I’ll get all of you the details on the next stop on Taylor’s crawl.

More NFL Coverage:
Perfect Game for Tom Brady to Go Out On?
Burrow Survives Onslaught to Reach AFC Championship
The Packers’ Latest Postseason Loss Was a Total Debacle
Thirteen Seconds: Mahomes, Chiefs Win Instant Classic
Bills-Chiefs Is Greatest Game You Will Ever See

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