Team Notes Week 21 2018

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris<

NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF

Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...

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Los Angeles Rams

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 January 2019

As the Associated Press framed the story, "It began in 2002, back when the Rams were in St. Louis and the Patriots were a plucky underdog standing in the way of a potential dynasty.

"So much has changed.

"This hasn't: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. ..."

Indeed, that same duo, every bit as formidable now as when they won that first title, face the Rams, now back in Los Angeles, in a Super Bowl rematch of sorts that pits the NFL's past against its future.

At 33, Sean McVay is the youngest Super Bowl coach. At 66, Bill Belichick has an NFL-record 30 playoff wins.

At 24, Jared Goff is the youngest quarterback to win the NFC championship. At 41, Brady will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl.

The Rams (15-3) are back in the Super Bowl for the first time since that meeting against the Patriots - and for the first time as the "Los Angeles Rams" since 1980, when they fell to the Steelers. The Patriots (13-5) are back for the third straight time - they lost to Philly last year - the fourth in five seasons and the ninth since Belichick got the New England dynasty on track in the 2002 win over St. Louis.

The Rams duo of McVay and Goff has spent the past two seasons heralding the coming of a new age of football - one in which McVay's re-imagined offense has dealt a blow to the old, increasingly dated adage that teams ultimately must win championships with defense. The Rams have cracked 30 points in 13 of their 18 games this season. A generation ago, that would've been novel; now, it's normal.

But to officially usher the NFL into a new era, the Rams will have to get past New England, which is a 1-point favorite for the game in Atlanta, set for Feb. 3 - exactly 17 years to the date of the last Super Bowl showdown, and a bit more than three months since the Boston Red Sox topped the LA Dodgers for the World Series.

On McVay's 33rd birthday (last Monday), he addressed the task of facing a quarterback who turned 41 in August.

"Yeah, it's a great challenge," McVay said regarding his looming test against Brady. "I mean, there's a reason why he's arguably one of the greatest of all time, because he does an excellent job of identifying whatever defensive structure you're in, whether you want to pressure, whether you want to try to put pressure with a four-man rush and play loaded zone or some man principles behind it. He's got such an ownership on being able to get the ball out of his hand in a timely manner and then he's got guys that can separate.

"So it's got to be a good mixture. We've got to identify the things that we want to be able to stop. Any time that you can try to move the quarterback off of his spot, whether that's interior or edge pressure, just being able to force them to move where they're not able to just set their feet and work in rhythm -- certainly easier said than done, but that's going to be a key to try to get him off of his rhythm, which not many people have success doing."

As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio suggested, McVay is absolutely right. The key to beating Brady comes from an ability to apply pressure to him early and often, hitting him hard and making him think about the next hit he may take. Ideally, that pressure will come up the middle, and the Rams are uniquely positioned to do it, with Aaron Donald among the best interior defensive linemen to ever play the game and with Ndamukong Suh finally earning his $14 million salary for the season.

It's easier said than done, but a strong offense can help and the Rams improved from 10th last year in offense to second this season, as McVay and Goff found their footing.

But maybe the most telling sign of their success is that McVay's offensive assistants are, as a group, the most sought-after sideline talent in the league. Two left after last season. Two more, quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor and tight ends coach Shane Waldron, are drawing attention this season (with Taylor to the Bengals all but officially done)..

Now, the ultimate question: If they leave, will they do so with a Super Bowl ring?

As we saw two weeks ago, McVay handled pressure well enough in the NFC Championship game, showing no signs of panic after the Saints scored 13 unanswered points in the first quarter. Goff remained true to his even-keeled nature, completing 25 of 40 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown, with an interception, as he led the come-from-behind effort.

"It was a chaotic game," Goff said, adding, "It's good to come into a place like this and be able to come from behind and win, that gives you a lot of confidence."

But there is a major question coming out of that game and heading into this one.

Todd Gurley was missing in action against the Saints.

As ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry noted, after Gurley had one pass skip off his arms and into those of a Saints defender in the Rams' first series, then dropped a pass on third down early in the second quarter, the highest-paid running back in NFL history inexplicably spent a majority of the game on the sideline, save for a 6-yard touchdown run, while veteran backup C.J. Anderson rushed for 44 yards in 16 carries.

"Not anything against Todd," McVay said. "C.J. did a nice job, but I thought that they did a nice job as a whole, slowing down our run game, and we kind of just had to grind some things out today."

Gurley finished with 10 yards on four carries.

Asked after the win in New Orleans if he was healthy, Gurley said, "Yeah. I was sorry."

Remember, Gurley was sidelined for the final two games of the regular season because of inflammation in his left knee. He returned for a divisional-round game against the Dallas Cowboys and rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown on six carries and he made it clear the knee wasn't an issue.

"I was sorry as hell today," Gurley explained. "I was sorry. So, C.J. did his thing and the whole team did its thing."

His five touches from scrimmage were a career-low, as were his 13 total yards. And the 32 snaps Gurley played were his fewest in a game since his rookie season, as well as the fewest of any Rams offensive player that took the field Sunday.

"That was just kind of the feel for the flow of the game that we had," McVay added when pressed on the topic

A fourth-year pro, Gurley said he became emotional after the game at the realization that he would get a chance to redeem himself in the Super Bowl. ...

So how will Gurley, the NFL's 2017 offensive player of the year, bounce back?

"He's a great teammate and a great guy," Goff told reporters last Thursday, "a guy that doesn't let that type of stuff affect him. He's going to come into work and be the same guy he always is and work hard.

"I expect him to have a big game. He's going to go out there and do everything he normally does. For whatever - last week wasn't his and it happens. It's not the end of the world. I think he knows that and approaches it like a pro."

For the record, Gurley insisted again last Friday that it was just a substandard performance on his part.

"I'm good. If there was an issue on my knee, it would be on the injury report," Gurley told reporters. "Come on now. I'm at practice. I'm playing."

Given that, we'll find out about his ability to rebound in a big moment soon enough -- as in this weekend. ...

Meanwhile, Donald and Suh created just enough pressure to make Drew Brees appear occasionally uncomfortable, as the Rams held the Saints, who averaged 31.5 points per game, to only 10 points in the second half. "Just kept playing as a team you know, feeding off the offense, feeding off the special teams and standing together as a defense," Donald said. "Making plays everybody flying around."

It's a strong squad. And it all centers on their head coach.

As Thiry reminded readers, two years ago, the Rams took a calculated risk when they hired the youngest head coach in modern NFL history in the 30-year-old McVay, who came with a reputation as an offensive mastermind.

In his first season in Los Angeles, McVay orchestrated an amazing turnaround, turning a 4-12 team into a division winner. The Rams made the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.

With the overnight success of its head coach and Goff still working on his rookie contract, the Rams organization seized an opportunity to double down on its immediate future this past offseason. Donald and the defending NFL Offensive Player of the Year in Gurley, along with Goff -- who made seven winless starts as a rookie before he helped the team to an 11-win season -- the Rams became active on the trade market and in free agency.

They traded for All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, then sent a first-round draft pick to the Patriots in exchange for Brandin Cooks, who would provide a much-needed deep threat for Goff. To put their lineup over the top -- and to be clear: the one and only goal this season was to win a Super Bowl -- the Rams grabbed Suh in free agency, on a one-year deal.

"Feels good," Suh said. "The hard work that we put in at the start of camp, OTAs, all those different things. It's good to see it pay off."

After bolting to an 11-1 start, the Rams hit a late-season slump that included back-to-back regular-season losses for the first time in McVay's two seasons as coach. Goff appeared out of sync with his receivers, and McVay failed to rely on Gurley. With two games remaining in the season, the panic button for the once-unstoppable Rams was hit. "Except for everybody in this building," McVay said.

Instead, the Rams got back to work and closed out the season with two dominant victories, before they took down the Dallas Cowboys for their first playoff win since 2004.

And in New Orleans, it was the Saints, who had dealt the Rams their first loss of the season in Week 9, who fell to a team determined long before games kicked off in September to go all-in for the Super Bowl. ...

On the injury front. ... Kicker Greg Zuerlein somewhat surprisingly showed up on the bye week injury report with an ailing left foot.

While Zuerlein has never been expected to miss Super Bowl LIII, McVay did say that the kicker is progressing in his recovery.

"One day at a time, but he's feeling good," McVay said. "No setbacks with that, so all things are pointing in the right direction for us."

Earlier last week, special teams coordinator John Fassel revealed that Zuerlein hit a steel plate awkwardly in the Superdome's turf while warming up for the third quarter. Speaking to the media in the locker room following Saturday's practice, Zuerlein himself said he's feeling good about his plant foot.

"Yeah, hit something hard in the ground. Just warming up at halftime, landed on something that didn't give as much as turf and then that's when it started hurting," Zuerlein said. "But, hopefully, a few more days of treatment and it'll be good to go."

With the injury occurring at halftime, Zuerlein obviously was playing through some kind of pain in the second half when he nailed a 48-yard game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter, and then a 57-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. But how much pain?

"I don't really know. It hurt, but not enough to stop me from playing, obviously," Zuerlein said. "I guess that's really all I can tell you. It really wasn't anything special about it, just get the job done."

In addition, Anderson missed two bye-week practices due to illness before returning Friday.

Whatever the case, I'll be following up on practice participation all this week via the daily injury/participation reports and the in the News and Views section of the site. ...

One other item worth noting here. ... The Rams were losing 13-0 and didn't have a first down in the NFC Championship Game when they sent punter Johnny Hekker on the field from their own 30-yard-line early in the second quarter.

Hekker didn't kick the ball away, though. He completed a pass to cornerback Sam Shields for a first down and the Rams would go on to score their first points of the game at the end of the drive. It's not the first time that Hekker has been called on to do something other than punt and his ability to make plays has caught the eye of Belichick.

Belichick called Hekker "a great athlete" in his opening statement at Thursday's press conference and then shared more of his thoughts when asked a question about the Rams punter.

"Yeah, again, he's a weapon on the field," Belichick said. "He can change field position and he's a good situational punter and obviously he's very athletic. You have to respect his ability to handle the ball. I think the main thing when you sent your punt return team out there is you want to make sure you get the ball at the end of the play. That's not always that difficult but with these guys it's pretty challenging."

It's not the first time that Hekker has found himself as the subject of Belichick's praise. The Patriots coach called him "as good a player as I've ever seen at that position" before a 2016 regular season game and it seems like a good bet that New England will spend a little extra practice time making sure they don't wind up on the wrong end of another big play by Hekker.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jared Goff, Sean Mannion, Brandon Allen
RBs: Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson, John Kelly, Justin Davis
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, JoJo Natson, KhaDarel Hodge
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Johnny Mundt

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 January 2019

The New England Patriots have shifted their attention to preparations for Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams, which, as ESPN.com's Mike Reiss noted, highlights a dramatic U-turn from where the team was just a few weeks ago, in mid-December.

Quarterback Tom Brady and other players identified a 17-10 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which the team totaled 14 accepted penalties, as a key turning point for the Patriots. It was the second loss in a row, following a final-play meltdown in Miami the week before, to drop the team's record to 9-5.

"It was like, 'We're running out of time,'" said safety Devin McCourty, one of the team's captains.

Turning more to the running game and tightening up parts of their defense, they suddenly shifted into a higher gear.

Week 16: Patriots 24, Bills 12

Week 17: Patriots 38, Jets 3

Divisional round: Patriots 41, Chargers 28

AFC title game: Patriots 37, Chiefs 31 (OT)

"We've found a way to play our best the last four games," Brady said. "Buffalo, Jets, had the bye, played great against the Chargers, played really well [against the Chiefs]. We're going to need one more great game."

One of the things that stood out to Brady was how the ground attack has come to life, which helps when playing in a place like Arrowhead Stadium. It was telling that on the first play of Sunday's game, the Patriots went big with their personnel, with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, and fullback James Develin. Running back Sony Michel rumbled ahead for an 11-yard gain and, in a sense, the tone was set.

"You play on the road, it's going to be tough. What travels is running the ball. Playing tough. That's good in any weather, any condition, any environment, any stadium," Brady said. "That was a big part of our game."

Players never gave up hope they would ultimately find their groove, even though it came later than they hoped.

"We would like for the whole December, and after Thanksgiving, to get going," McCourty acknowledged. "I thought we had flashes as a team -- whether it was Minnesota [on Dec. 2], Green Bay [Nov. 4], but then we go and not play our best football in Miami [Dec. 9], and then Pittsburgh [Dec. 16]."

That's why the Dec. 23 home game against Buffalo was so important.

"Buffalo was like, 'All right, guys, this is what it takes.' Playing at home, winning a division championship, was like, 'Guys, this is championship-level football. This is what we need to do,'" McCourty said. "And then essentially playing another playoff game the next weekend against the Jets, we rolled with that kind of mentality."

They haven't stopped rolling since, which has earned the respect of coach Bill Belichick.

"There's a lot of mentally tough players in that locker room, a lot of physically tough players in that locker room, a lot of guys that just go out and compete and won't quit, just battle you, no matter what the situation is, and let the chips fall where they may," Belichick said. "I think that's a good way to do it."

That mental toughness was defined by the ability to execute under pressure.

"I think there are a number of small things that changed, but ultimately, the biggest thing that's changed is how we've executed under pressure," special-teams captain Matthew Slater said. "We suffered those two losses and I don't think our mentality changed at all. We still had belief, we still had faith in our process, we still had faith in one another, but we understood that hey, at some point this has to carry over to the game, we have to be able to execute under pressure.

"So, I think we've done a better job of that the last four times we've taken the football field, understanding that we need to play with a sense of urgency and no more 'My bads' or 'I'll get it next time.' We've got to start executing now."

Part of realizing that comes from experience.

And, as Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith suggested, if Super Bowl experience matters, then the Patriots have an enormous advantage over the Rams.

In fact, Brady alone has more Super Bowl experience than the Rams' entire roster.

Brady has already played in eight Super Bowls, the most in NFL history. The Rams' whole roster has just four players who have played in a total of five Super Bowls: C.J. Anderson has played in two with the Broncos, Aqib Talib has played in one with the Broncos, Brandin Cooks has played in one with the Patriots and Sam Shields has played in one with the Packers.

The Patriots, of course, have dozens of players who have played in the Super Bowl, including everyone who was on the active roster when they played in last year's Super Bowl.

Rarely has a Super Bowl had one team with a greater big-game experience advantage than this year's Patriots have over the Rams.

Of course, some of that experience came against the Rams. ... The St. Louis Rams.

As USA Today's Doug Farrar reminded readers last week, when the Patriots upset the Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI on February 3, 2002, it marked the beginning of the dynasty authored by Belichick and Brady above all. It was also the first obvious utilization of a defensive philosophy Belichick used to put a lid on the Rams, whose "Greatest Show on Turf" offense had set the NFL ablaze over the previous three seasons.

The "Bull's-eye" game plan endeavored to stop Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk above all, but it also put serious restrictions on receivers Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Az-Zahir Hakim.

Fast-forward to this Super Bowl 17 years later, and Farrar believes it looks as if Belichick and his coaches are on the same philosophical bent. Based on how the Patriots have been dealing with offenses in recent weeks, you might imagine that the Patriots have dusted off the "Bull's-eye" game plan and are intending to beat up the rest of the league with it-and, by proxy, the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

Farrar went on to explain that to get to this Super Bowl, the Patriots had to outlast the Chiefs, this generation's version of the unstoppable Rams offense. And to do that, Belichick and his coaches treated receiver Tyreek Hill as Marshall Faulk (the X-factor who must be doubled at all times), and every other receiver as fodder for physical coverage that would delay routes and releases for Patrick Mahomes. It didn't always work, but it certainly worked well enough in the first half, when Mahomes completed just four of eight passes for 65 yards.

Mahomes recovered in the second half, throwing three touchdown passes and making a game of it, but New England won, 37-31 in overtime, giving the Pats the opportunity to put the "Bull's-eye" on the Rams all over again.

"They blitzed about every down," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said after the game. "Played man coverage. They were able to get home there a little bit on some of their gains. We made a few adjustments at halftime and came back and pressured them earlier. That's my responsibility. I'll take that. I am proud of the way the guys battled back and put ourselves in a position to win the game."

Per Pro Football Focus, Mahomes was pressured on 50 percent of his dropbacks, by far the most of any quarterback in the championship round. He completed six of 13 passes for 60 yards and a touchdown under pressure, and the fact that he was able to do anything against this particular combination of relentless pressure and aggressive coverage speaks to Mahomes' supernatural abilities to adjust in and out of the pocket.

Now, Rams quarterback Jared Goff will likely have to deal with the same combination of pressure and coverage.

Farrar added, "The Patriots are in tune with pressure schemes that bring extra blitzing defenders, but those ostensible blitzers can also drop into short and intermediate coverage, leaving Belichick's front four to get to the quarterback with twists and stunts at the line. New England's man coverage-they play more man than any other team in the league-creates pressure as well, because it forces receivers off their assigned responsibilities and wrecks potential route combinations."

Farrar believes this could be a major problem for Goff, who benefits mightily from McVay's offensive genius.

As opposed to most teams who prefer to throw a dizzying array of formations at defenses, the Rams come out in "11" personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) on nearly every play, and the multiplicity comes after Goff gets the ball. McVay does this to take away pre-snap indicators; his philosophy seems to be that a defense that can't read your progressions will be delayed in stopping them.

Theoretically, New England's man-heavy coverage should play right into Goff's hands. The third-year man has fared better against man coverage than zone schemes this season.

But Farrar believes the Patriots present unique challenges with their specific schemes, because they're not afraid to blitz from multiple gaps and play lockdown, aggressive coverage at the same time.

They did it over and over against Mahomes, and if they aren't afraid to do it against the NFL's most explosive quarterback, they're certainly not going to blink at bringing it against a quarterback in Goff who has struggled in the second half of the season, especially under pressure.

And now Goff has to succeed against a defense very much like the one that tipped the Rams off the pedestal a generation ago.

Of course, Goff will have to be on the field to do that. And the Patriots controlled the ball in that AFC title win like no NFL team in the last 16 seasons.

New England's 94 offensive plays (48 runs and 46 passes) were the most any NFL team has run in any game since 2002. The last team to run more plays than the Patriots ran in the AFC Championship Game was the Steelers, who ran 95 plays in a win over the expansion Texans in Week 14 of 2002.

It's worth noting that total plays is different than snap counts: The Patriots' offensive players were on the field for 97 snaps, which includes three plays that were wiped out by penalties. The snap count of 97 is actually fewer than New England's 99 snaps in the Super Bowl two years ago, but in that game the Patriots ran 93 plays, with another six snaps that were wiped out by penalties.

Also worth noting, as Brady drove the Patriots down the field for the game-winning touchdown in overtime, it felt inevitable because he's done it so many times before.

In fact, the win in Kansas City was the 12th time Brady has led the Patriots on a game-winning drive in the postseason: Brady has led a game-winning drive in all five of the Patriots' Super Bowl wins, four times in the AFC Championship Game, and three times in the divisional round of the playoffs. That's not just the most in NFL history, it's double any other quarterback in NFL history.

John Elway led the Broncos on six postseason game-winning drives, which is the second-most in NFL history. Tied for third are Joe Montana and Eli Manning, who led five postseason game-winning drives each. Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw have four apiece. Kurt Warner, Ken Stabler, Dan Fouts and Drew Brees have three apiece.

No one else has more than two.

If the Rams take a lead late in the fourth quarter on Super Bowl Sunday, it will be hard not to think Brady has them right where he wants them.

And how about the rushing attack?

As USA Today's Doug Farrar pointed out this week, not only is Belichick's team beating the daylights out of defenses with as efficient, varied, and powerful a rushing attack as can be imagined, that attack is allowing New England to dominate the time of possession battle.

Against the Chargers in the divisional round, the Pats rushed 34 times for 155 yards and four touchdowns, controlling the ball for 38:20. Against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, they rushed 48 times for 176 yards and four more touchdowns, controlling the clock for an astonishing 43:59, including an overtime in which they were the only team to have the ball.

And in that overtime drive, the Patriots converted three third-and-10 situations

So if the Rams have to play from behind on the clock, they will face an enormous handicap, especially given the aggressive nature of New England's defense. ...

Looking beyond the Super Bowl, the speculation about whether tight end Rob Gronkowski would play in 2018 began even before last season's NFL Championship game was over and it was some time before Gronkowski confirmed that he'd return for a ninth season. That ninth season was quieter than past seasons as Gronkowski battled through injuries and a drop in production that had people wondering if he'd be able to hold up to the physical toll required by life in the NFL.

The last two weeks have shown the impact Gronkowski can still have, however.

He only caught one pass against the Chargers, but his blocking was praised as the Patriots ran their way to the next round. He was targeted more often against the Chiefs and came up with several big catches while playing every offensive snap in the AFC Championship Game, including a 25-yarder to set up the final touchdown of regulation and a 15-yarder on third down to set up the game-winning score.

"It's just basically what the doctor orders," Gronkowski said. "Or what the coach orders-coach/doctor orders. Whatever it is. I have to block, I have to receive. It's crucial. The team depends on me in many situations in the run game and in the pass game. I've just been fighting all year long so when situations come like this I'm ready to go and ready to make some plays. So whatever coaches ask me to do I'm always down to try my best and give it my all."

As Profootballtalk.com's Josh Alper suggests, there will almost certainly be more discussion about Gronkowski's future before and after Super Bowl LIII, but he showed that there's enough left in the tank to close this year with a bang.

In addition, PFT's Mike Florio notes that while Brady has long insisted that he'll play until he's 45, it remains to be seen if that actually comes to pass.

As Florio explained, some think that he continues to point to an expiration date well into the future in order to never have what would amount to a farewell tour. Under that theory, Brady would unexpectedly bid farewell at some point short of hitting the halfway point to 90.

But Florio believes the wishes of Mrs. Brady can't be overlooked.

She has spoken publicly regarding her concerns for his health, blurting out during an interview nearly two years ago that Brady has had concussions. Although Brady has managed to keep her on board for two more seasons, she now has 13 days to make the case that the ultimate quarterback needs to become the ultimate showman and walk away on top, before he becomes the ultimate meatball.

The fact that Brady and the Patriots will face in Super Bowl LIII the team that Brady and the Patriots beat in Super Bowl XXXVI gives the moment a certain bit of symmetry and poetry. Brady can bookend his initial championship, put a sixth pelt on the wall, and call it a career. Of course, Brady has long said that his favorite championship is the next one.

And if the Patriots get to No. 6, the next one will be the most that any team has ever won. So he might be tempted to give it one more spin.

Indeed, in an interview with ESPN's Jeff Darlington on Sunday, Brady reiterated there is "zero chance" that Super Bowl LIII will be his final game.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling
RBs: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, James Develin
WRs: Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen