Team Notes week 22 2021
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. ...
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Cincinnati BengalsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 31 January 2022
When the Cincinnati Bengals went down 21-3 early in the second quarter of the AFC championship game, a third straight Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs seemed inevitable.
The Bengals weren't feeling it, though. They'd been coming from behind and winning close games all season. What transpired was another incredible Bengals finish, this one propelling them to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.
In the first half, Patrick Mahomes tossed three touchdown passes, and the Bengals went to the locker room at halftime down 21-10.
"Nobody blinked an eye," kicker Evan McPherson said. "We all thought that we were definitely going to come back and find a way to win. That's what we've done the whole year."
The Bengals clawed back in the second half, scoring 14 unanswered points and holding the Chiefs to just Harrison Butker's field goal as time ran out to tie the score at 24 and force overtime.
After Cincinnati safety Vonn Bell intercepted Mahomes in overtime, quarterback Joe Burrow put McPherson in position for the 31-yard field goal, the rookie kicker's second game-winner in as many playoff games.
Burrow was coming off major offseason knee surgery. Cincinnati was just 7-6 after Week 14. The Bengals finally managed to win three in a row in December, a streak that coincided with the late-season struggles of the Browns and Ravens. They won the AFC North with a 10-7 record.
Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, the first-round pick in the 2021 draft, emerged as a reliable and resilient tandem. A defense that had been up and down got the job done with sacks and critical interceptions in the past two playoff games.
Head coach Zac Taylor said the season started with many uncertainties, but it all came together at the right time.
"I certainly think that when we got to December that the feeling in the locker was we have the ability to play with anybody in this league," Taylor said Monday. "And we all know, those of us who have been in the league a long time, you just have to get hot at the right time."
After the game, some of the players were still trying to get their heads around it.
"It's crazy, it still hasn't hit me yet," said receiver Tee Higgins, who had six catches for 103 yards. "It didn't feel real at all. It's crazy."
Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Mitch Stacy notes, the Bengals seem to be able to get what they need to get when they need to get it.
In the second half in Kansas City, they needed the defense to disguise some looks and get after Mahomes, one of the league's most-elusive quarterbacks. They needed running back Joe Mixon to break some his carries for more yards.
They needed Burrow to make some more magic, and the second-year quarterback delivered.
One issue that needs to be addressed before Super Sunday: The Bengals have been a slow-starting team all season. That usually causes the team to play from behind. It's exciting and hard to argue with the results when they get them, but the Bengals surely would like to be far enough ahead at the end to keep from dropping all the pressure on the shoulders of their 22-year-old kicker.
Until then, they need to stay focused amid the hysteria in Cincinnati and the avalanche of extra national attention that goes with a Super-Bowl appearance.
So what factors are working in their favor in Sunday's game?
First and foremost, it's Burrow.
As ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert noted, he has been holding up well behind an offensive line that can't keep him clean. In Kansas City, he completed seven of 12 passes when under pressure and converted three third downs via scrambles, including two of third-and-6 or greater. And when the Chiefs found ways to cover Chase, Burrow simply shifted to Higgins.
Seifert added: "Burrow is playing like a hot point guard in the NCAA basketball tournament, carrying a team that has some otherwise disqualifying deficiencies."
So the Bengals will ride the wave that we've seen other recent Super Bowl winners find. The regular season's best team doesn't necessarily win the Super Bowl. It's the team that plays the best and with the most confidence in the postseason. Sometimes the gap can be wide.
While Burrow leads the way, every single member of the Bengals' organization believes it can win, and that's more than half the battle. ...
Of some concern, the above-mentioned offensive line.
As Stacy noted, the pass protection was better in Kansas City after Burrow was sacked nine times in the divisional-round win over Tennessee. He was better at evading it this time, too. He was sacked just once and hit three other times. He had two third-down scrambles in the fourth quarter that moved the chains at critical times.
Still, Burrow was the 55th quarterback in league history to be sacked 50 or more times in the regular season. None of the previous 54 reached the Super Bowl. He took 51 sacks in the regular season, and 12 so far in the postseason.
That being the case, we need to remember the defensive front of the Rams is formidable -- and a major reason they've made it this far.
This is yet another tough test, especially with Aaron Donald collapsing the pocket from the interior. So far, it hasn't cost the Bengals. If you can win a playoff game while allowing nine sacks, you have to figure you're capable of overcoming just about everything.
But surely, Burrow would appreciate a little bit cleaner pocket one of these days. Super Bowl Sunday would be a good time to start.
A few other notes of interest. ... As ESPN.com's Dan Graziano noted, the Bengals made a major defensive adjustment after falling behind the Chiefs 21-3, most notably taking away receiver Tyreek Hill and passes outside the numbers in general. Mahomes completed all 11 of those attempts in the first half for 127 yards and three touchdowns.
After halftime, he missed on seven of eight such throws. It's great that defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was able to make that adjustment, but we would all be foolish to assume that the Bengals can absorb a similar body blow in the Super Bowl. The Bengals' defense had its questionable moments during the regular season and ranked No. 24 in opposing Total QBR.
Can we trust them against Matthew Stafford?
We'll see. ... But one person we can trust is McPherson. The rookie out of Florida has made 12 field goals without a miss through three postseason games. ...
On the health front. ... The hope in Cincinnati is that tight end C.J. Uzomah will be able to play against the Rams in Super Bowl LVI and the door remains open with more than a week to go before the game gets underway in Los Angeles.
Uzomah will have to show some signs of progress in the team's practices next week for that to remain the case, however. Uzomah hurt his knee in the AFC Championship Game and he missed practice all of this week.
Last Friday's bye-week injury report shows that guard Jackson Carman (back) was also out of practice. He was listed as a full participant in practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
Wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. (hamstring), defensive end Cameron Sample (groin), and defensive tackle Josh Tupou (knee) were limited participants on Friday. The team listed all three of those players as questionable along with Carman and Uzomah, but the designations they make at this time next week will have more bearing on their outlooks for Super Bowl Sunday.
I'll have more on that in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...
A few final items. ... In February 2019, the Bengals searched for a head coach who could propel them back to the postseason and over the first-round exit rut. As many teams in need of coaches that cycle, the Bengals sought to capture the offensive magic Sean McVay brought to L.A. en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
And so, the Bengals hired McVay's quarterback's coach, Taylor, to lead their program. The first two seasons in Cincy were a bumpy ride for Taylor, who netted a 6-25-1 record. But Cincy didn't change course and was rewarded with their first AFC North title since 2015 and first postseason win in 31 years.
Their thrilling win over the Chiefs, wherein the Bengals tied the 2006 Colts for the largest comeback in conference championship game history with their 18-point reversal, pits Taylor against his mentor.
"The joke is if you have a cup of coffee with Sean McVay, you're going to be a head coach in the NFL. ... There's a lot of truth to that," Taylor quipped.
Following the Rams' NFC Championship win over the San Francisco 49ers, McVay spoke glowingly about his Super Bowl opponent.
"Really, congratulations to them for winning the NFC," the coach said. "You look at the start of that game, I think they're a great, resilient team. It didn't look good for them and they've just continued to show why they're a mentally tough outfit. I think that's reflected by their head coach. I know what a great coach he is. They've done a great job this year. We've crossed over with him a little bit, but I'm looking forward to diving into the tape, figuring out how to put together a good game plan to try to see if we can finish this thing off."
With so many connections between the Rams and Bengals coaching staffs, the familiarity could breed an intriguing chess match on Sunday. ...
And last. ... The Bengals will be back in black.
Even with the game at the Rams' stadium, Cincy is the home team and they are going with the black jersey that is also their standard home top. It's one they have paired with both sets of white pants as well as their black pants. Cincinnati is choosing the white set of pants with orange stripes and matching orange socks for a look that is reminiscent of the uniform the Bengals wore in their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, Super Bowl XVI, in the 1981 season.
Cincinnati's choice makes for an aesthetically pleasing pairing with the Super Bowl LVI logo, which almost perfectly matches the Bengals' orange. But uniform history might not be on the Bengals' side. The Bengals have worn black in one Super Bowl and white in another, and lost both of them to the San Francisco 49ers, meaning the choice didn't matter much based on the franchise's history.
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
Los Angeles RamsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 31 January 2022
As NFL.com's Kevin Patra framed it: "If playoff success defines quarterback legacies, Matthew Stafford flipped his on its head in the 2021 postseason. ..."
Spending 12 years with the Detroit Lions, Stafford went 0-3 in the postseason and was saddled with the distinction of a good quarterback who couldn't win the big game.
It took just one year in Los Angeles to change that.
Stafford led the Rams to a 20-17 comeback win over the San Francisco 49ers to propel L.A. to the Super Bowl.
"Long time coming, you know? Spent a lot of years in this league and I've loved every minute of it," Stafford said. "I feel blessed to be able to play in this league for as long as I have but I sure am happy for this opportunity for not only myself but, really, so many guys in that locker room that deserve this too. And that's what it is, it's an opportunity to go out there and win another one."
Patra went on to suggest that Stafford's immediate success in L.A. proved that, when buffered a good team, he's the type of quarterback who can shine in the postseason.
The Rams knew this.
It's why they traded draft capital to swap Jared Goff, a solid quarterback who wasn't going to lift the offense, for Stafford, who can open up the operation and make plays in the heat of the crucible, like he did against the 49ers.
"We went out and got him because we thought it was a chance to be able to get a great player of his magnitude, those things don't come around often," head coach Sean McVay said following the win. "What he's done, he's elevated everybody around him. He's made me a better coach, he's made his teammates better, he's such a great person.
"If you don't root for this guy, something's wrong with you. He's a great competitor, we've seen that really throughout the whole season, but I think it's really been on display these last couple weeks. We talk about competitive greatness all the time, being your best when your best was required, he embodied competitive greatness today, love Matthew Stafford."
Stafford entered the year with an 0-3 record in the postseason. He's evened that up at 3-3 this year.
McVay was asked how Stafford has risen to the occasion this postseason.
"I think he's played like he's capable of," the coach responded. "Risen? I think he's played like we thought he would. No moment's too big for him, I can tell you that much. He's elevated everybody around him. We got one more, we know it's gonna be a great challenge."
Against the 49ers, it was a 10-point deficit that Stafford and the Rams needed to overcome to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl. The QB made big-time throws, netting 337 yards and two TDs with an early red-zone interception on 31-of-45 passing. A little luck helped as 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped a sure fourth-quarter INT.
Stafford then drove the Rams downfield for a game-tying field goal. Then after the defense held, they secured another three points to take the lead for good. It marked Stafford's 44th career game-winning drive (including playoffs), which puts him alone in eighth place all time. The seven men ahead of him are either already Hall of Famers or will be soon (Tom Brady 67; Ben Roethlisberger 57, Drew Brees 56, Peyton Manning 56, Dan Marino 51, John Elway 46, Brett Favre 45).
"It's everything that you could hope and wish for," receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said of his QB. "He had that look in his eyes the whole game. He motivated us, he pushed us, one play at a time, and he drove us down. He's just been doing that all postseason, all season really, since I've been here, he's just had that look on him. Just happy that we could get him to this point, and I know it was tough for Detroit for a lot of those years, man. Having an amazing opportunity, (he's) just gonna take full advantage of it."
Stafford has 49,995 career passing yards and 323 career passing TDs in the regular season (both 12th-most in NFL history), the most pass yards and pass TDs by a player at the time of his first Super Bowl appearance in NFL history.
With the run to the Super Bowl, Stafford no longer has that 0-3 playoff record by which to be ridiculed. On Feb. 13, he can destroy another O-fer record: Stafford is 0-3 against the Cincinnati Bengals in his career (all with the Lions).
So now they head into the championship game against the Bengals scoring plenty of points -- primarily because the connection between Stafford and Cooper Kupp is incredibly strong.
The Rams carved up an impressive San Francisco defense that knew exactly what was coming in the teams' third meeting of the season. Kupp had five catches for 64 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and he had six catches for 78 yards and a touchdown in the second half. Beckham's production was similarly even, and the Rams ran the ball decently even with Cam Akers slowed by an early injury.
With 1,199 yards in three postseason games, Los Angeles has found an offensive flow that only turnovers have interrupted.
They're also improving weekly on defense because the teamwork of Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey and their supporting cast is increasingly dangerous.
But the Rams are in the Super Bowl matchup in their home stadium because all their big names put the team first over the second half of this season, creating a powerhouse that has answered every challenge down the stretch.
Los Angeles' only remaining obstacle is the AFC North champion Bengals.
Here's something that they can lean on heading into the festivities: No Stafford team can be counted out in the fourth quarter of a game.
As ESPN.com's Dan Graziano noted, based on how close the NFL's playoff games have been over the past two weeks, his resourcefulness will be a huge advantage. Stafford's 34 fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season are the fifth most in NFL history, and he has pulled off consecutive late victories in each of the past two weeks. The Bengals' Joe Burrow might be playing at a higher level at the moment, but it's hard to argue against having Stafford -- along with Kupp and Beckham -- on the field with the game on the line.
Bigger picture, the Rams under McVay averaged 32.9 points per game in the regular season, and 28 in two playoff games, before showing up for Super Bowl LIII and losing 13-3 to Bill Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots. It was a major letdown for McVay, who said in the weeks that followed that he would do some things differently if he had another chance.
Well, not only does he have that chance, he has it with Stafford at quarterback.
According to Graziano, sometimes McVay gets in his own way.
His haphazard use of timeouts is well documented. His playcalling sometimes can be overthought. And he even admitted he didn't adjust to how the New England Patriots were playing defense against them in Super Bowl LIII. McVay has at once been the top driver of the Rams' success in his tenure and also one of the reasons it hasn't yet led to a championship.
Can he take the final step?
It will help having a very strong front four on defense. This unit -- especially defensive tackle Aaron Donald and edge rusher Von Miller -- give Los Angeles a huge mismatch against the Bengals' offensive line. We've seen how Burrow has managed to hold his own against pass-rushers who are getting home, especially in the divisional round against the Titans, but the Rams' will be the most aggressive and talented rush he has faced.
Many Super Bowls have been won by dominant interior pass rushes taking quarterbacks out of their comfort zone.
But it's not just the defensive line.
According to ESPN.com's Seth Walder, Los Angeles ranked first in pass block win rate, pass rush win rate and run stop win rate.
Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and Donald lead the way along the two lines, but it's a team effort. While receiver Kupp gets the highlights (and rightfully so), but don't forget about the linemen who have fueled Los Angeles' path to the Super Bowl. ...
Other notes of interest. ... According to ESPN.com's Matt Bowen, Kupp against Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton is a major matchup.
When the Bengals play man coverage, it will be Hilton vs. Kupp in the slot. We know Kupp has the route-running traits to win one-on-ones, and McVay will use reduced formations and bunch sets to give Kupp free access off the ball. ...
Pro Bowl kicker Matt Gay missed a field-goal attempt for the second straight week, coming up short and right on a 54-yarder in SoFi Stadium's kicker-friendly conditions. He also left two kickoffs short of touchbacks, allowing Deebo Samuel to get his hands on the ball twice.
The Rams covered those kicks well, and Gay eventually nailed two fourth-quarter field goals to win it, but Gay acknowledged on Twitter that he's "gotta clean some things up on my end. ..."
On the health front. ... The Rams added two players to their practice report last Friday, their first non-walkthrough practice of the week.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey did not practice because of a shoulder injury, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth was out with a quadriceps injury. The Rams had to give an injury designation as if they were playing this week, and they listed both as questionable.
Offensive lineman Joe Noteboom (chest), Akers, Tyler Higbee (knee) and defensive back Grant Haley (quadriceps) remained out of practice.
Van Jefferson (knee) was out of practice Friday after being estimated as limited on the other two practice reports of the week.
Safety Taylor Rapp (concussion) was a full participant and good to go for the Super Bowl.
Based on the team's status report, Noteboom and Higbee are the furthest away from returning. The Rams listed both as doubtful to play if the game was this Sunday.
I'll have more on all involved in the News and Views section of the site in coming days.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles got a huge boost from Kendall Blanton when Higbee went down with a knee injury. The undrafted tight end barely played for the Rams in his three NFL seasons, only making his first four receptions earlier this season. But Blanton stepped up with a TD catch at Tampa Bay, and he filled in superbly for Higbee with five catches for 57 yards against the Niners.
With Jefferson ailing in Tampa, rookie receiver Ben Skowronek had to play 21 snaps, and he failed to make a tough touchdown reception on his only target.
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Cam Akers, Jake Funk, Darrell Henderson, Javian Hawkins
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell, Landen Akers
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins, Jacob Harris