Team Notes week 21 2021

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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Cincinnati Bengals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 24 January 2022

According to ESPN.com's Ben Baby, head coach Zac Taylor was almost at a loss for words when asked to describe quarterback Joe Burrow.

Fortunately, tight end C.J. Uzomah had a few. One of them isn't suitable for print.

"Excuse my French, but this f---ing guy's a beast," Uzomah said Sunday.

That was Uzomah's initial thought when the Bengals drafted Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. On Saturday, Burrow showed why he leaves people speechless or brings them to profanity. He overcame nine sacks to steer Cincinnati into position for a 19-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, bringing the Bengals their first AFC Championship Game berth since 1988.

Burrow, 25, will be able to enhance his status as one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

With the win over the Titans, Burrow became the first quarterback who was a former No. 1 overall draft pick to reach a conference championship game in his first or second season. Taylor said the question of how Burrow can be so mature and play this well despite his relative inexperience is what always leaves him struggling for a good answer.

"He's rare," Taylor said in a news conference Sunday. "It's impossible to put into words why he is why he is."

As Baby noted, when a team drafts someone with the top overall pick, it's with the expectation the player will be a transcendent presence. Cincinnati's win over the Titans was an example of what Burrow brings to the table.

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Burrow became the second player in the Super Bowl Era (since 1966) to win a playoff game after being sacked nine or more times. He was 28-of-37 passing for 348 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Burrow's 19-yard completion to rookie Ja'Marr Chase with 20 seconds remaining set up Evan McPherson's winning field goal.

"If you call consecutive passes after sacks, he's going to step up and play as if he didn't get sacked the play before," Taylor said.

Cincinnati's matchup against the Chiefs also features another one of the game's best quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes led the winning touchdown drive in the Chiefs' overtime win against the Bills on Sunday and is a major reason Kansas City, which opened as a 7-point favorite to beat Cincinnati, is playing in the AFC title game for the third consecutive season.

Burrow, who threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Mahomes and the Chiefs on Jan. 2, is having that same impact on Cincinnati. As good as he has been on the field, his leadership role has been equally important.

During the team meeting the night before Saturday's divisional game, Bengals safety Jessie Bates III said while Burrow has always carried a strong sense of poise and calmness, the quarterback has started to become more vocal.

"I feel like he's starting to really step out of that shell, where he can hold people accountable -- 'It's OK, Joey B, you can go cuss somebody out and we'll be fine,'" Bates said Sunday. "I think that's where he's really stepping into his own. He's really just putting everything on himself."

The team that played for Taylor in his first season in 2019 looks vastly different now.

Burrow is part of a blended roster with experienced veterans the Bengals signed within the past two years and a young core of players, such as Burrow and Chase, who were acquired in recent draft classes. With that, Burrow said, comes a sense of blissful naivety.

"We've brought in a lot of guys that have been in this kind of moment in this game," Burrow said after Saturday's win. "We're also a really young team that doesn't really don't know what we don't know. We're out there playing football with our friends, so that's what it's like."

With one more win, the Bengals will be playing for a Super Bowl. Throughout its best playoff run in 33 years, Cincinnati leaned into the role of the happy-go-lucky team .

That changed the night before the game against the Titans. As the captains addressed the entire team, Burrow initially planned to stay silent. But he called an audible and delivered a small but noteworthy statement.

Cincinnati isn't fortunate to be one of four teams left in this year's playoffs. The Bengals are a good team that earned its place.

That message, like the opportunity in front of him, signals that Burrow is the cornerstone quarterback he was drafted to become.

Said Bates: "That's Franchise Joey for a reason."

Meanwhile, the AFC championship bout between the Bengals and Chiefs offers the potential for another explosive fest at Arrowhead Stadium.

Anyone expecting the Chiefs to romp over the upstart Bengals must have forgotten about the above-mentioned battle between these two clubs just three weeks ago. Cincinnati overcame multiple 14-point deficits to beat K.C., 34-31, on a -- you might have heard this one before -- last-second McPherson field goal.

Speaking before the Chiefs beat the Bills in the Divisional Round, Taylor said there wasn't an advantage to having played Kansas City recently.

"I think all that matters is our team has a lot of confidence right now and we believe that we belong," Taylor said Sunday, via the team's official website. "You know some of the guys made the comment that people have tried to put the underdog card on us. We don't subscribe to that. We believe that we're as good as any team in the NFL, and so whoever we play, we play. We'll have to go on the road and have a great game."

The Bengals are the only team to beat the Chiefs in the past 12 games. The win clinched the AFC North for Cincy and caused Kansas City to tumble out of the No. 1 seed.

With an assist from Burrow, Chase tortured the Chiefs that day, netting 11 catches for 266 yards and three TDs, the most yards in a single game by a rookie in NFL history. The game's biggest play came on third-and-27 when Burrow found Chase deep down the sideline for a 30-yard score to set up the game-winning field goal.

After allowing 28 first-half points, the underrated Bengals defense held Mahomes in check in the final two quarters, giving up just 50 passing yards and three points the rest of the way.

But as NFL.com's Kevin Patra suggests, the rematch, this time at Arrowhead, will be a different beast.

Mahomes is 4-1 in his career (including playoffs) versus teams he lost to previously that season; he's won his last four and has at least a 100 passer rating in all five games. The only defeat came in the 2018 AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots.

"It's playoff football. It's gloves off. It's a street fight," Uzomah said. "You're saying we have tape on Kansas City. They have tape on us. You can say the exact same. That does not matter."

Following the Week 17 bout, Mahomes predicted a rematch, telling Burrow in the postgame handshake, "See y'all in the playoffs."

Indeed they will, with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.

But make no mistake: Burrow is rolling.

The second-year signal caller has completed 52 of 71 passes in the playoffs, good for a 73.2 percent completion percentage. That's the highest such rate of any player in his first two playoff games in NFL history, with a minimum of 50 attempts. He's also the first player in league history to complete at least 70 percent of his passes in each of his first two career playoff games, with a minimum of 10 attempts in each.

He hasn't been perfect, especially when facing a strong pass rush. But as ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert suggested, "When your already-strong quarterback shifts into a higher gear in the playoffs, truly anything is possible. ..."

But there are concerns and they start with pass protection.

The Titans sacked Burrow nine times, including eight when they sent their standard four-man rush. That was the highest total of sacks in an NFL playoff game using that number of rushers in the past 15 seasons, per ESPN Stats and Information research.

Taylor tried to deflect some of the blame away from the line.

"There's moments the offensive line could have been better, but I can promise you it wasn't all on the offensive line," he said. "It was all of us. You know, and it really starts with me. I got to do a better job taking the pressure off the quarterback and put us in a better position so those guys can't tee off on us."

According to Seifert, the Bengals' line won't face quite as fierce a matchup as it did against the Titans, but it's hard to imagine Cincinnati outscoring the Chiefs if Burrow takes anywhere close to a similar number of sacks.

Beyond that, the Bengals defense was outstanding. The unit bottled up Titans running back Derrick Henry, who was activated Friday after missing the nine previous games with a broken foot. Their three interceptions were game-changing. Linebacker Logan Wilson picked off Tannehill with 20 seconds left, allowing Burrow to get Cincinnati into field-goal range. ...

Meanwhile, Chase finished with 109 receiving yards on five catches, his seventh 100-plus yard game this season, including two playoff games. ...

McPherson's last field goal was a no-doubter, just like the previous three he hit in the game. He is 8 for 8 so far in the two postseason games. ...

On the health front. ... Pro Bowl DE Trey Hendrickson, cleared from a concussion that knocked him out of the wild-card win, went to the sideline with an apparent injury late in the game, but Taylor said he's OK. ... DE Cam Sample has groin injury and is day to day.

I'll post any injury updates of interest in the News and Views section in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen
RBs: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans
WRs: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan Jr.
TEs: Hayden Hurst, Drew Sample

Kansas City Chiefs

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 24 January 2022

As Associated Press sports writer Dave Skretta framed it, "You could spend about a year describing the frantic two minutes that led to overtime between the Bills and Chiefs on Sunday night, when Kansas City rallied for a heart-pounding 42-36 victory to reach its fourth consecutive AFC title game.

"Or you could use two words: Patrick Mahomes. ..."

According to ESPN.com's Adam Techer, head coach Andy Reid had some simple advice for Mahomes when the Chiefs faced long odds to beat the Bills.

"When it's grim, be the Grim Reaper and go get it," Reid said he told Mahomes right before the quarterback brought the Chiefs back for the win that sends them to this weekend's AFC Championship Game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"He did that," Reid said. "He made everyone around him better, which he's great at, and he just does it effortlessly. When it gets tough, he's going to be there battling."

Reid's words came after the Bills took a 36-33 lead with 13 seconds left in regulation. The Chiefs needed to go about 45 yards in those 13 seconds. Mahomes completed two passes, one of 19 yards to Tyreek Hill, the other for 25 yards to Travis Kelce, to set up Harrison Butker's game-tying, 49-yard field goal.

Mahomes then threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Kelce on the first possession of overtime to win the game.

In total, Mahomes threw for 378 yards and three touchdowns, and he scored the Chiefs' first TD on an 8-yard run.

"To be in this moment in this game against that team, to make a play to walk off a game at Arrowhead, I'll remember this game for the rest of my life," Mahomes said.

"It was definitely special to win a game like this at Arrowhead. Obviously, the Super Bowl was probably number one for me, but this one is right up there. To be able to come back a couple of times, get points when we needed to get points, score touchdowns, get in field goal range, I'll remember it forever."

In the final two minutes of regulation and overtime, Mahomes was 10-of-13 for 188 yards and two touchdowns -- one the game winner to Kelce, and the other for 64 yards to Hill late in the fourth quarter.

Reid knows a little about playoff-caliber quarterbacks.

He once tutored Hall of Famer Brett Favre in Green Bay, and he got the most out of Donovan McNabb when the two of them took Philadelphia to the Super Bowl.

"Every time he comes in the huddle, he says, 'Let's be great.' That's a great characteristic to have," Reid said. "And when he says it, it's not corny. It doesn't come off that way. The guys believe in it and he tries to do it every snap."

He's made a believer out of everyone around him, too.

"This is definitely another step for him into the Hall of Fame," Hill said. "He's definitely at the top of the helm when it comes to quarterbacks in this league. We know it, but I feel like the rest of the league sometimes doubts him because of the coach and players that he has around him. If you watch the guy -- if you truly know Pat -- and the amount of time he spends on game film and understanding coverages and going out there and making a play out of nothing, it's just crazy."

Skretta went on to remind readers that all this came against the NFL's top-ranked defense Sunday night that the Chiefs set a franchise playoff record with 552 yards of total offense. That included a whopping 182 yards rushing, which will probably be overlooked because of Mahomes' air-it-out heroics over the final few minutes.

Let's also not forget that the Chiefs needed those heroics because their own defense turned into a second-half sieve. Allen diced it up for 329 yards passing while Davis caught eight passes for 201 yards with a playoff-record four touchdowns.

Next up, the Chiefs are fortunate to have plenty of experience playing this time of year, because it could be a challenge to move past their thrilling win over Buffalo. It also helps that the Bengals beat the Chiefs 34-31 in Cincinnati in the penultimate game of the regular season, costing Kansas City the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. ...

Reid expects a significant challenge from the upstart Bengals.

"They made big plays on us on both sides of the ball. They were able to slow us down and then pick it up on the offensive side," Reid said in his Monday press conference. "So, we've got to do a better job all the way around, special teams included. Every phase can be better.

"They beat us. It wasn't a fluke. They beat us, so they're a good football team and it's important that we have a great week of preparation here, and that's one reason why the urgency level is there even yesterday once the game was over to get busy."

Cincinnati finished that game with 475 total yards while averaging 7.5 yards per play. The Chiefs will have to play better defense and maintain consistent offensive execution on Sunday to advance to a third consecutive Super Bowl. ...

For what it's worth, the Chiefs are favored by seven points over the Bengals. The initial over/under is 53.5.

Other notes of interest. ... Clyde Edwards-Helaire returned for the first time since hurting his collarbone Dec. 26 against Pittsburgh. And despite playing limited snaps, he gave the Kansas City offense another dimension. Edwards-Helaire ran seven times for 60 yards -- that's more than 8 1/2 yards per carry -- while adding a nifty catch out of the backfield.

Darrel Williams was inactive because of a bothersome toe, allowing Jerick McKinnon to solidify his place in the Kansas City backfield. McKinnon ran 10 times for just 24 yards, but also had five catches for another 54 yards.

On the health front. ... FS Tyrann Mathieu sustained a concussion when he took a knee to the helmet on the game's opening series. His backup, Daniel Sorensen, once again struggled in his place. Mathieu's status will be crucial with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his group of playmaking wide receivers on their way to Arrowhead Stadium. ...

I'll have more on Williams and any other injuries of interest in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...

More Mahomes. ... As Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith notes, since 1967, Hall of Fame Packers quarterback Bart Starr has owned the NFL's all-time record for career passer rating in the postseason. Starr's record stood for 54 years, a stunning achievement given how much the NFL has changed, with new rules and new strategies resulting in passing statistics that dwarfed the numbers of Starr's era.

But Starr doesn't have the record anymore.

After Sunday night's NFL playoff classic, Mahomes and Bills quarterback Josh Allen both have a higher career postseason passer rating than Starr.

Mahomes is now first in NFL history with a 107.2 passer rating in the postseason. In Mahomes' 10 career postseason games he has completed 254 of 384 passes for 3,106 yards, a 66.1 percent completion rate and 8.1 yards per attempt. Mahomes has 25 touchdowns and five interceptions in the playoffs.

Allen is now second in NFL history with a 106.6 passer rating in the postseason. In Allen's six career postseason games, he has completed 149 of 228 passes for 1,718 yards, a 65.4 percent completion rate and 7.5 yards per attempt. Allen has 14 touchdowns and one interception in the playoffs.

Starr has dropped to third in NFL history with a 104.8 career postseason passer rating. In his 10 career postseason games he completed 130 of 213 passes for 1,753 yards, a 61 percent completion rate and 8.2 yards per attempt. Starr threw seven touchdowns and three interceptions in the playoffs.

What Starr did in the postseason was legendary. It took something special for Mahomes and Allen to surpass him. ...

Wide receiver Josh Gordon has cleared waivers and is re-signing with the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported Tuesday.

The team waived the receiver on Monday.

The move was an expected move as Pelissero reported Monday that the team's intention was to get him back on the practice squad if he was not claimed after being waived.

Gordon was inactive in each of the Chiefs' playoff games so far and in the regular season saw action in 12 games with seven starts, five receptions on 14 targets for 32 yards and a touchdown. ...

And finally. ... Lost amid the chaos Sunday night was the fact that Reid moved into a tie with Hall of Fame coach Don Shula for third on the career list with 19 postseason wins. Another one over the Bengals, which would be Kansas City's seventh straight home playoff win, would send Reid into a tie with Tom Landry for second.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
RBs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon, Darrel Williams, Derrick Gore, Ronald Jones
WRs: Mecole Hardman, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Marcus Kemp, JuJu Smith-Schuster
TEs: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, Blake Bell

Los Angeles Rams

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 24 January 2022

As ESPN.com's Brady Henderson reminded readers, when the Rams acquired Matthew Stafford in a blockbuster trade last winter, the veteran quarterback said he wanted to play in big games, an opportunity he seldom received during 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.

Stafford and the Rams -- fresh off a dramatic 30-27 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium -- are now one victory away from the biggest game of all.

And they nearly blew their chance to get to the NFC Championship Game, losing four fumbles and a 27-3 third-quarter lead to Tom Brady and the defending champions before Stafford led a 63-yard drive in the closing seconds to set up the winning field goal.

"In my mind, I live for those kind of moments," said Stafford, who pulled off the 43rd game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career, the most of anyone since he entered the league in 2009. "I would have loved to have been taking a knee up three scores, but it's a whole lot more fun when you've got to make a play like that to win the game and just steal somebody's soul. That's what it feels like sometimes where they're sitting there going, 'Man, we just had this great comeback.' And you get to reach in there and take it from them.

"That's a whole lot of fun."

Stressful, too.

The Rams' fourth lost fumble -- and running back Cam Akers' second of the game -- set up the Buccaneers' tying touchdown with 42 seconds left. On the ensuing drive, Stafford hit All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp for gains of 20 and 44 yards to set up Matt Gay's 30-yard game-winner. What was nearly an epic collapse became an emotional victory that set up a date with the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. Los Angeles will have the chance to do what Tampa Bay did last season and play in the Super Bowl on its home field.

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the only other team to lose a 24-point lead in a playoff game and still win was the Chargers in 1981.

"That's why you play four quarters and try to finish that game out," head coach Sean McVay said. "That was something else. That was something else."

Henderson went on to note that Stafford turned in another clean performance, tossing two touchdown passes, rushing for another and not throwing an interception for the second straight game. He again got help from his loaded cast of offensive players, and the Rams' star-studded defense sacked Brady three times and forced him to commit two turnovers, only to allow three touchdowns over the final 16 minutes.

Two of those scores were set up by Rams fumbles -- Akers' second and an earlier one from Kupp -- that gave Tampa Bay the ball at the Los Angeles 30.

Von Miller stripped the ball from Brady and recovered it early in the fourth quarter. He was still celebrating on the sideline when he heard the crowd roar as Tampa Bay fell on a center snap that had sailed past an unready Stafford on the ensuing play.

The Rams pressured Brady 17 times, the most against him this season and his second most since joining the Buccaneers in 2020. He went 4-of-14 and took three sacks when pressured by the Rams.

"I'm still trying to process everything," Miller said. "Man that was a crazy game. I knew it was going to come down to the end. All the times that I've played Tom Brady, it always comes down to the end, so I knew no lead that we had was safe."

The Rams became the first team to win a playoff game after losing four or more fumbles since the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the AFC Championship Game against the Raiders despite four lost fumbles.

"As an offense, we first and foremost did a terrible job of executing for this team in the second half," Kupp said. "We can't do the things that we did. Put our defense, our team in a really bad spot."

As Associated Press sports writer Greg Beacham put it, "Stafford is the upgrade that the Rams sought when they traded Jared Goff to get him nearly a year ago."

After a near-perfect performance in the wild-card round against Arizona, Stafford put on a clinic in clutch football in Tampa.

Stafford completed 28 of 38 attempts for 366 yards, the third-most yardage in a single game in Rams postseason history. He tossed touchdown passes to backup tight end Kendall Blanton and Kupp, who finished with nine catches for 183 yards. His 70-yard TD pass to Kupp put the Rams up 17-3 early in the second quarter. Stafford's 1-yard rushing score -- his second score on a goal-line sneak in as many weeks -- made it 27-3.

So much for Stafford not being able to win in the playoffs.

He entered last week's wild-card game with the most regular-season touchdown passes (323) among quarterbacks without a playoff victory. Now, he's got two of them -- including one over the greatest quarterback of all time and the reigning champions in their building, where the Bucs had lost only once this season.

Stafford was 10-of-15 for 120 yards and a touchdown against the blitz. That includes his 44-yard completion to Kupp when the Rams had the ball at their 44-yard line with 26 seconds and no timeouts left.

On that play, Kupp said he ran what the Rams playfully refer to as a "love of the game" route, thinking he was running deep just to attract defenders and open something else up for another pass-catcher. But Stafford realized that a deep shot to Kupp was the best option when the Bucs made the aggressive decision to send six pass-rushers after him.

"It felt like that ball hung up for about 12 seconds," McVay said. "But those guys did a great job. I thought Matthew Stafford was unbelievable throughout the whole day. Just his poise, his command, his demeanor, his decision-making."

For the record, Stafford has completed 74.5 percent of his passes in the postseason for 568 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating is 131.5, nearly even with Patrick Mahomes' 131.7. ...

Now, the remainder of the Rams' path to a championship does not leave Inglewood: They'll become the first team to host a conference title game in that year's Super Bowl stadium when the 49ers visit on Sunday, and the big game is Feb. 13.

If the Rams can figure out how to play 60 minutes of solid ball, they could have a chance against the 49ers. Los Angeles hopes the drama of its experience in Tampa Bay and against the Niners earlier this month will be motivation to avoid all that excitement in the Rams' second conference title game in four years.

But there is ample reason to be wary here.

The Rams have lost six straight games to the 49ers (and seven of 10 in their head coaches' concurrent careers), including Week 18 when L.A. blew a 17-0 lead to fall 27-24 in OT and allow San Francisco into the postseason tournament. ...

There will be plenty of discussion this week about the Rams' offensive options with Stafford, as well as Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. But, as ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert suggested, we should focus on the fact that the 49ers' offense is coming off a pretty miserable performance in Green Bay, having managed only a pair of field goals in a 13-10 win.

And with receiver Deebo Samuel (knee) and left tackle Trent Williams (ankle) dealing with injuries, the Rams' defense has a good chance to control this game. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald and edge rusher Von Miller give the Rams a distinct advantage.

They're coming off a game in which they accounted for 14 of the Rams' 17 pressures against Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. Brady had four completions on 14 attempts and took three sacks on those snaps.

But Beacham notes the Rams' depleted secondary continues to hang on by its fingernails.

Brady still passed for 329 yards, with 135 yards of that coming on nine completions to receivers guarded by cornerback Darious Williams. Safety Nick Scott came up with a huge interception, but the Rams' pass rush deserves ample credit for Brady's 24 incompletions -- and Jimmy Garoppolo is likely to be much harder to pressure than Brady. ...

Worth noting. ... The Rams are favored by three points over the 49ers this weekend. The over/under is 46 points. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The Rams were not a fumble-prone team in 2021, with their five lost fumbles tied for the second fewest in the NFL. Their four giveaways in Tampa are a worrying aberration, but no sign of a significant trend yet, even though Akers and Kupp both lost the ball at crucial moments and helped to give away that big early lead.

Ball security -- and synchronization between Stafford and center Brian Allen -- will be an emphasis in practice yet again.

As for Akers, McVay said after the win that he's still confident in the running back moving forward.

"[I] still have tremendous faith and confidence in Cam Akers, he's going to be a great player -- there will be a couple plays that he wants back, then we had a little miscommunication on the one snap after we end up getting the turnover in their territory," McVay said. "Those are things that [we] can't have, but we were able to overcome it, and I'm excited for those guys."

Despite missing most of the season with the Achilles tear, Akers took 24 of the Rams' 26 handoffs Sunday, with Sony Michel seeing just a single carry.

The Rams' run game went nowhere against the stingy Bucs front. Akers averaged just 2.0 yards per carry on his 24 totes, netting 48 yards with a long run of nine. Still, McVay continually called the runs -- particularly on first-and-10 -- with a big lead. The conservative nature nearly cost the Rams.

"Yeah I think it's really the confidence in Cam but we do have confidence in Sony, it was tough to really be able to get anything in the run game going, they did a nice job," the Rams coach said. "[We] always talk about that, to be able to have that great ball security, especially when you're in those four-minute situations where you're really just trying to run the clock out. Still, we needed to compete and wanted to be able to do that, he was making a tough run, as he was pulling through it, it got a little away from him, and this defense does an outstanding job attacking at the football -- great learning [opportunity].

"I know he'll learn and he'll respond the right way from it."

McVay knows he'll need Akers -- and it's safe to assume we'll see plenty of him this weekend. ...

Matt Gay had a great season, converting 32 of 34 field goal attempts for a 94.1 percent rate, the second highest in the league. But Gay did somewhat bizarrely come up short on a 47-yard attempt that would have made Sunday's win a bit less agonizing.

Gay said he didn't injure himself during pregame warmups, contrary to a suggestion on the NBC television broadcast. He attributed coming up short on that 47 yarder to a particularly gusty crosswind at exactly the wrong time. ...

On the health front. ... The Rams were without starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth for Sunday's game against the Buccaneers. Joe Noteboom started in his place and played well.

Now, Noteboom is injured, and Whitworth looks like he's on track to return.

McVay said Noteboom strained a pectoral late in the game. Noteboom played all 72 snaps.

Whitworth was inactive for the divisional round game after injuring his knee and ankle on Los Angeles' first offensive play in the wild card victory over the Cardinals. McVay said Whitworth will practice this week and is on track to return against the 49ers.

Safety Taylor Rapp is making progress through the concussion protocol after missing Sunday's game, McVay said.

And finally. ... The Rams have sold out SoFi Stadium for the NFC Championship. If the Rams fans who have bought the tickets choose to sell them (and turn a tidy profit), they can.

McVay hopes they won't.

"I thought the Monday night atmosphere [against the Cardinals] was electric and looking to create something [similar] -- and even that much more -- for the NFC Championship," McVay told reporters on Monday. "[I'm] really grateful for those Rams fans. Hold onto those tickets and it'll be much appreciated. But our guys are looking forward to putting on a good show against a great opponent. Can't wait to be able to do it and don't sell those tickets!"

It's not just a joke or a bit. The Rams had to deal with an influx of 49ers fans in Week 18 so significant that it forced the Rams to use a silent count.

"What catches you off guard is, they do a great job traveling," McVay said. "They got a really loyal fan base. They've got a great tradition, and history, and it's a short trip. So, credit to them. They made it difficult where in a lot of instances, you're kind of absent of your verbal communication. If they get as loud as they were when our offense was on the field -- in certain parts of the field it was really noisy. It was really difficult to operate. And so, you almost have to handle that situation like you would an away game."

McVay is hopeful that the situation will be different for the game that will determine the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

"I'm really hopeful and would be grateful for these Rams fans to show up," McVay said. "I thought the atmosphere on Monday Night Football, in the first playoff game ever on Monday Night Football, against the Cardinals was electric. It majorly gave us an advantage and our players a big boost. Looking forward to the same thing on Sunday afternoon for the NFC Championship. Our fans will be really proud of the way that these guys will come out and compete. I am looking forward to feeling their support because they're a big factor for us -- just like they were against Arizona. I feel confident they will be this Sunday."

The mixture of Rams and 49ers fans will impact the game, obviously. McVay wouldn't have said so much about it on Monday if it wasn't a major factor. The question for the week of practice becomes whether and to what extent McVay prepares his players for dealing with crowd noise.

At some point, McVay will need to make a bet. The best bet could be to prepare for noise. It's always easier to pivot to dealing with less than to transition to dealing with more.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Cam Akers, Jake Funk, Darrell Henderson, Javian Hawkins
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell, Landen Akers
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins, Jacob Harris

San Francisco 49ers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 24 January 2022

As ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner framed it, "When the Green Bay Packers jumped out to a quick lead and just about everything that could go wrong did, the San Francisco 49ers barely batted an eye. ..."

"There was a calmness, honestly," said quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who helped the Niners to a 13-10 victory in the NFC divisional round Saturday. "Even when they had the lead, I felt like we were in control of the game as crazy as that sounds. You could feel it on the sidelines and we were waiting for that one play to spark us."

Of course they were.

Wagoner reminded readers this is a team that lost four straight games early in the season. A team that was 3-5 after a blowout loss to an injury-riddled, junior varsity version of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 9. A team that failed to put away multiple games because of a flurry of self-inflicted mistakes. A team that trailed the Los Angeles Rams by 17 in a win-or-go-home Week 18 game before rallying to win in overtime.

At every turn, it would have been easy for the 49ers to relent and call it a season. Instead, these Niners seem to take pleasure in the elevated blood pressure they create for their faithful fans as they deliver harrowing victory after harrowing victory.

"It was only a matter of time before things started clicking, and we have been in some really tough games but we're not standing here with a win if we didn't go through what we did in LA against the Rams," linebacker Fred Warner said. "I think going through that kind of win and taking it in to Dallas [in the wild-card round], winning that game and then obviously here [in Green Bay]. It's all kind of just a storybook."

Saturday's win might have been the most dramatic chapter yet. On a night when the offense was snowed under, the Niners' defense limited Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the worst QBR of his playoff career (19.3) and held Green Bay to a lone field goal on nine possessions following an opening-drive touchdown.

Then, as has so often happened in the second half of the season, the Niners got significant contributions from the place it's least expected. This time, it was special teams coming up with a blocked field goal, a big kickoff returns to setup a field goal, a blocked punt for a touchdown and another Robbie Gould field goal for the to win.

All of this against a Packers team that was arguably the best in football all season while managing wind chills at kickoff of zero degrees and a second-half snow shower.

Now after mounting that late-game comeback at SoFi Stadium in Week 18 and winning on the road at Dallas and Green Bay the past two weeks, the Niners head back to Los Angeles for an improbable NFC title game appearance against the Rams on Sunday.

The road has been far from easy as San Francisco (12-7) needed to force a three-and-out, drive 88 yards for the tying score and win in overtime just to get to the playoffs and then win a pair of nail-biters, including Saturday night's 13-10 win against the Packers just to get back to the title game.

Two years after a fourth-quarter collapse in the Super Bowl against Kansas City, the 49ers are one game away from returning to that stage.

They've done it with a dominant defense that has held Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers in check the past two weeks, very little from Garoppolo and the offensive creativity of Shanahan.

But it's been much more challenging than two years ago when the Niners rolled through the NFC playoffs.

"It's completely different," defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. "I was just talking to some of my teammates about how easy that year was, just kind of ran through people and got to the Super Bowl. This is a different road, lot of adversity, but I think it's making it even more special."

Garoppolo would agree.

In fact, the quarterback has openly acknowledged he is well aware that each game could be his last with the 49ers. He knows the team's situation. The 49ers used a lot of draft capital to trade up and acquire his successor, Trey Lance, with the No. 3 overall pick. Lance, not Garoppolo, is the quarterback of the future.

As 49ersWebZone.com's David Bonilla notes, that could have created an awkward situation for Garoppolo. That wasn't the case earlier in the season because it was easy enough to focus on the many remaining games. However, as that number of games diminished, Garoppolo started to think about his situation.

Before the regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Rams, before the 49ers clinched a playoff berth, Garoppolo approached his fullback, Kyle Juszczyk.

"And we hugged," Garoppolo told Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated, "He was like, 'Man, I don't want to get emotional or anything, but this is our last regular-season game together.' It was a pretty cool moment, and from that point on, I really was like, 'This could be it.'"

That wasn't it.

Garoppolo helped the 49ers win that game and the two playoff games that followed.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan spoke with reporters on Monday afternoon and was asked how much Garoppolo's attitude about the end of this chapter has helped the quarterback and team lock in on the task at hand.

"A ton," Shanahan responded. "That is the reality we're at. It's been that way for a while, since we made that trade, and the more that we all can accept it and know it and not beat around the bush, the easier it is to go on with your jobs. And that's what we've all done, and we've all enjoyed each other as people. We all respect the hell of each other in our profession.

"And I think it's just allowed everyone to move on and be themselves. And I think throughout the year, that's allowed him to get better, it's allowed our team to get better, it's allowed me to get better and focus on what we should focus on, and just trying to be as good at our jobs as we can."

Bonilla went on to remind readers that surrendering so much draft capital for Lance had many pushing for the 49ers to start the rookie, especially when the team was sitting at 2-4 in October and 3-5 in November. Shanahan and his players never felt the season was over, though, and pushed forward with their quarterback plan -- Garoppolo plays, and Lance sits and learns, so long as the playoffs were a possibility.

Did Shanahan ever consider a quarterback change when things looked dire?

"No, there was never a point where I thought of switching to Trey in terms of I think the stuff that I said at the time was the truth," Shanahan said. "I didn't think Jimmy was the issue. I thought Jimmy, there was games that he could have played better in, but I didn't think he was playing the way that everyone was saying. And just watching the tape with our team, I didn't think our team was there, and I didn't think it was the best thing for Trey.

"But when we did have a 3-5 record, I knew we were not one game away, but it was getting close to where the best thing for the team was focusing on some other things and maybe getting some guys some chances to play, but I never felt that at 3-5.

"But you could see that the games were going to come if we didn't turn this around fast. And I felt the first time we did that was that game versus the Rams, and since then, I haven't had that thought because that got us on a pretty good roll after that. And we've never been in that situation since, where you see that nearing."

Maybe it's fitting that the 49ers are preparing to face those Rams again, this time with a return trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

It could make for a fitting finale for Garoppolo, redeeming himself for the missed opportunities the last time San Francisco appeared in the big game.

But he needs to pick up the pace.

Garoppolo has averaged just 146 yards passing in five playoff starts, ranking 80th among 87 QBs with at least five starts in the Super Bowl era. San Francisco has managed to win four of those games, but might need more out of Garoppolo going forward. He was just 1 for 4 for 15 yards on throws at least 10 yards downfield Saturday.

At this point, it's worth acknowledging the 49ers have dominated this NFC West rivalry over the past three years, winning six consecutive games over the Rams. That includes a 31-10 beatdown in Week 10 and a 27-24 overtime victory in Week 18, during which the 49ers fought back from a 17-3 halftime deficit.

Can the 49ers do it a third time?

Historically, it has happened more times than you might realize. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, there have been 22 instances of a team winning both regular-season games and then meeting a third time in the postseason. One of the teams has completed a three-game sweep 14 times, most recently in 2017 when the Saints swept the Panthers.

The 2020 Saints are the most recent team to lose the third matchup after winning the first two, against the Buccaneers.

That said, the 49ers are the first team to enter a Conference Championship game on a win streak of 6-plus games against their opponent since the 2017 Patriots, who had won seven straight against the Jaguars. New England beat Jacksonville 24-20 in that title game.

There is no doubt the 49ers have a comfort level playing against the Rams, and especially in SoFi Stadium. That Week 18 win came in front of tens of thousands of 49ers fans who bought up tickets from a still-growing Rams fan base in Los Angeles. In fact, the Rams were concerned enough about a repeat that they reportedly are limiting online ticket purchases to fans with local addresses.

According to ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert, if you're looking for more of an X's and O's explanation, consider that the 49ers forced Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford into four of his 17 interceptions this season. In his six career games against the 49ers, Stafford has thrown five picks (his teams went 1-5 in those games). ...

One issue the Niners need to work on is their red-zone offense.

According to Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow, the 49ers were converting at an impressive clip in the red zone the first 14 games with TDs on a league-best 73.8 percent of trips inside the 20. But they have struggled of late, converting just 6 of 16 (37.5 percent) the past five games.

San Francisco failed to get in the end zone on three red zone drives Saturday with Garoppolo throwing an interception, Elijah Mitchell getting stopped on a fourth-and-1 run and Shanahan settling for a field goal on the other trip.

Conversely, the Niners' much-maligned special teams unit saved the day against the Packers.

Safety Jimmie Ward blocked a 39-yard field-goal attempt by Mason Crosby at the end of the first half to keep it a seven-point deficit.

Deebo Samuel returned the opening kick of the second half 45 yards to set up San Francisco's first score on a field goal.

The 49ers then tied the game with 4:41 to go when Jordan Willis blocked a punt by Corey Bojorquez and Talanoa Hufanga returned it 6 yards for a score.

San Francisco became the first team with a blocked punt and field goal in the same game since Buffalo did it against Houston on Jan. 1, 1989.

Robbie Gould then won it with a 45-yard field goal on the final play.

By the way. ... Gould owns the NFL record for the most field goal attempts (20) without a miss in postseason history. His streak of 20 consecutive field goals is the third longest in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. ...

On the health front. ... With the celebration of the San Francisco 49ers' upset over the Green Bay Packers on Saturday, there was also concern.

Standout left tackle Trent Williams sustained an ankle injury during the win and was seen on crutches after the game.

Shanahan said Monday that Williams' X-rays were negative and he'll be managed during practice this week, but his status for Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams is uncertain.

There's better news for Samuel who was seen limping in Saturday's game.

Samuel also fought through the game, going down once in the third quarter after being tackled by Packers linebacker Krys Barnes but remaining in the game. He appeared to suffer a second injury late in the fourth quarter.

Samuel amassed 44 yards on three receptions (four targets) and 39 rushing yards on 10 attempts against the Packers. Samuel suffered the apparent ankle injury on his last rush attempt to get kicker Robbie Gould a few yards closer to nailing the game-winning field goal.

"Deebo, he took a helmet to the side of his knee/leg on that last play," Shanahan said, "so he's sore today. We expect to see him on the practice field this week."

Cornerback Ambry Thomas (knee), who was inactive on Saturday, has a much better chance of playing versus the Rams on Sunday than he did Saturday, Shanahan said.

Early in Saturday's game, running back Jeff Wilson Jr. was carted to the locker room and ruled out due to an ankle injury. Shanahan said Wilson is also dealing with an ankle sprain but has a chance to play on Sunday.

"It ended up not being high (high-ankle sprain)," Shanahan said, "so we'll see how this week goes, [but he's] got a chance."

I'll have more on Samuel and Wilson in the News and Views section of the site as developments warrant in coming days. ...

Finally. ... The Vikings interviewed San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans on Sunday for their head coach vacancy, the eighth candidate to meet virtually with the organization.

The 37-year-old Ryans is in his first season as defensive coordinator and his fifth year as an assistant for the 49ers. He played 10 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for Houston (2006-11) and Philadelphia (2012-15), winning the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2006 and landing a first-team All-Pro selection in 2007.

The Vikings have identified Cleveland vice president of football operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kansas City executive director of player personnel Ryan Poles as the finalists for their general manager job. They're set for second interviews this week.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance
RBs: Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, Trey Sermon
WRs: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Ray-Ray McCloud, Malik Turner, Jauan Jennings, Mohamed Sanu, KeeSean Johnson
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Tanner Hudson, Charlie Woerner