The NFL conference championship games are Sunday, and Patriots fans will be excused if they haven’t paid too close attention to the matchups.
After all, this year marks the first time since 2011 that the Patriots aren’t participating. The closest thing New Englanders have to a rooting interest is following Titans coach Mike Vrabel and 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, both former Patriots.
And these are not your usual championship game participants. Three of the four teams didn’t even make the playoffs last year — Green Bay, San Francisco, and Tennessee. The Chiefs are in back-to-back championship games for the first time in the franchise’s 60 years.
To get ready for the action, here’s what you need to know about Titans-Chiefs and Packers-49ers:
■ Both games are rematches from earlier this season. The Titans beat the Chiefs, 35-32, in Week 10 in Nashville, in one of the wildest games of the season. The Titans overcame a 29-20 deficit in the fourth quarter, with Ryan Tannehill throwing a winning 23-yard touchdown pass to Adam Humphries with 29 seconds left.
But the win was only made possible by the Chiefs muffing a field goal attempt with 1:27 remaining, and then having a 52-yard attempt get blocked at the buzzer. Derrick Henry ran for 188 yards in the win, while Patrick Mahomes threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns.
■ And the 49ers crushed the Packers, 37-8, at home back in Week 12. The 49ers’ defense overwhelmed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, holding him to 104 yards passing on 33 attempts, and the Pack to 198 yards of total offense.
But this past week, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine constantly reminded his players that his 2010 Jets, of which he was defensive coordinator, lost to the Patriots, 45-3, in the regular season, but came back to beat them, 28-21, in the playoffs.
■ The Packers are making their third trip to California this season, and the first two were not pretty. They have been outscored, 63-19, in the two games, first losing by 15 points to the Chargers, then by 29 to the 49ers. After the Chargers game in Week 9, Rodgers ripped his teammates for not taking the trip seriously and having too much fun on the road. After the Week 12 loss to the Niners, the Packers held a players-only meeting, which seems to have worked. The Packers have since won six straight games.
■ There is plenty of familiarity between the Packers and 49ers. Packers coach Matt LaFleur will be squaring off against his brother, Mike LaFleur, who is the 49ers’ passing game coordinator.
“First of all, who said he was a great coach? That is what I want to know,” Matt said of his little brother. “I never said that. Yeah, I think there’s a little different vibe, so I’ll just leave it at that. I haven’t really talked to him much at all and it will probably be that way for the remainder of the week.”
And historically, the Packers and Niners have seen each other plenty in the playoffs. This will be the eighth all-time postseason meeting between the teams, with the Packers holding a 4-3 advantage. But the 49ers have won the last two, including the most recent, a 23-20 wild-card victory in 2013.
■ Andy Reid has a rough history against the Titans, compiling a 1-8 record as a head coach with the Chiefs and Eagles. “Heck of a record though, isn’t it?” Reid said this past week.
Reid has lost four in a row to the Titans, including 22-21 two years ago in the wild-card round, with the Titans overcoming a 21-3 halftime deficit. But the Chiefs also enter Sunday’s game riding a seven-game win streak since losing to the Titans in Week 10.
■ Reid is currently the owner of the unfortunate title, “Best coach to never win a Super Bowl,” with a 1-5 record in conference championship games and no Super Bowl appearances in his last 14 seasons as a head coach. To say his players and coaches are rooting for him is an understatement.
“I’ve thought about this a lot. Nobody deserves it more than Andy,” Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub said. “He’s such as great coach. To not have a Super Bowl win under his belt — this would be huge. I don’t know if I’d stop crying with him. I’d probably hug him forever. I’m just so proud of what he’s done and everything he’s done in his career and he needs that. He needs this.”
■ This will mark the Titans’ fourth straight road game, and they have gone 7-3 away from Nissan Stadium this season. The Titans are the first No. 6 seed to reach the conference championship round since the Jets and Packers in 2010. And after already knocking off No. 1 seed Baltimore and No. 3 seed New England, the Titans can become the third team since 1990 to defeat all three top seeds in a conference (2005 Steelers, 2010 Packers). Both those teams won the Super Bowl.
■ Henry comes into this game on quite a roll. He has rushed for 1,273 yards over his last eight games (including playoffs), the second-most in any eight-game stretch by any player in the Super Bowl era (Adrian Peterson had 1,322 yards in one stretch in 2012). Henry has rushed for at least 149 yards in six of his last eight games.
CLOCK IS TICKING
Two months left on Brady contract
A few Patriots notes:
■ Tom Brady and the Patriots have a soft deadline of 4 p.m. on March 17 to sign a new contract. That’s the time his current contract voids, which will accelerate $6.75 million in signing bonus money to 2020, giving him $13.5 million in dead money. The Patriots can always sign Brady after that deadline, but it’s far better cap management to do it before then.
In theory, Brady doesn’t have much time before the deadline to speak with other teams and see what’s out there. But he does officially have 24 hours. The NFL’s “legal tampering” period for free agency begins at 4 p.m. on March 16, at which point free agents are allowed to speak with, and enter into contact negotiations with, other teams.
Unofficially, Brady should have a good idea following the NFL Combine (Feb. 24-March 2) about which teams are interested in him. The Combine has been ground zero for tampering for decades, with agents quietly meeting with teams and gauging the free agent market. If the Chargers, for example, are interested in Brady, he will likely know this in early March, and he can go take a visit there on March 16 to check out the facilities.
■ Brady has $13.5 million in dead cap space that the Patriots can’t outrun. His renegotiation this past August came with a $20.25 million signing bonus that apportions $6.75 million in cap space in 2019, 2020, and 2021. If his contract voids in March, the remaining $13.5 million hits in 2020. If they sign him to a one-year deal, the $13.5 million also hits in 2020. The best they can do is sign him to a two-year deal before March 17, which would spread out the cap money to $6.75 million in 2020 and 2021.
But the Patriots can’t spread it out any thinner than that. If they sign him to, say, a four-year deal, they still have to take $6.75 million hits in 2020 and 2021.
■ Boy, is Bill Belichick lucky that Rob Manfred is not the NFL commissioner. In Manfred’s report this past week regarding the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, he noted that “the investigation revealed no evidence to suggest that [former GM Jeff] Luhnow was aware of the banging scheme,” which was “not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club’s top baseball operations officials.”
But Manfred wrote that, “irrespective of Luhnow’s knowledge of his Club’s violations of the rules, I will hold him personally accountable for the conduct of his Club.” Manfred then suspended Luhnow for the 2020 season.
“It is the job of the General Manager to be aware of the activities of his staff and players, and to ensure that those activities comport with both standards of conduct set by Club ownership and MLB rules,” Manfred wrote.
But the NFL and Roger Goodell took a hands-off approach with Belichick in Deflategate. The Wells Report stated that “we do not believe there was any wrongdoing or knowledge of wrongdoing by Patriots ownership, Head Coach Belichick or any other Patriots coach in the matters investigated,” and Goodell didn’t levy any punishment against Belichick.
The NFL also appears to be accepting of the Patriots’ defense in their latest videotaping incident, that Belichick and the football department had no involvement in filming the Bengals’ sideline. While the league’s investigation is open, it does not seem likely that Belichick will be punished. Unlike Manfred and MLB, Goodell and the NFL don’t seem interested in holding Belichick accountable for the conduct of his club.
Kuechly retires for greater good
Best of luck to Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who announced his retirement from the NFL on Tuesday night after eight seasons. Kuechly, who turns 29 in April, didn’t give an explicit reason for why he’s walking away. But it’s not hard to connect the dots that it’s related to concussions and his health. Kuechly had three documented concussions in the NFL that forced him to miss 10 games, including a horrifying scene in 2016 in which he burst into tears on the field.
“I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision,” Kuechly said, holding back tears, in his retirement video. “I’ve thought about it for a long time, and now is an opportunity for me to step away with what’s going on here.”
Kuechly joins a list of players including Andrew Luck and Chris Borland who decided that NFL fame simply wasn’t worth the health risk, especially after Kuechly earned nearly $60 million in his eight seasons. It’s a bad look for a league fighting the perception that the game is too dangerous.
Kuechly is walking away from a contract that is set to pay him $22 million over the next two years. And his retirement leaves the Panthers with an $11.84 million dead cap hit in 2020.
Kuechly accomplished a ton in his eight NFL seasons: 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year, 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, seven All-Pro selections (five first team), and seven Pro Bowls. He is, in my opinion, the greatest and certainly most decorated Boston College Eagle to ever play in the NFL, a list that includes Matt Ryan, Fred Smerlas, Tom Nalen, Matt Hasselbeck, Doug Flutie, and Bill Romanowski.
Flores, Dolphins lose key staffers
A few interesting items from the coaching carousel:
■ The Dolphins won five of their last nine games, including a rousing win over the Patriots in Week 17. So it is surprising to see Brian Flores undertake wholesale changes to his staff, including losing both coordinators.
Flores brought several ex-Patriots to Miami, and many have now left. Offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea was fired, and replaced by Chan Gailey, because Flores wanted to simplify the offensive scheme and utilize spread principles.
And with a new coordinator, it makes sense that he would bring in a new staff. So quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski left to take a similar position with the Giants. And offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was replaced by Steve Marshall.
But the departure of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, also a former Patriot, was unexpected. He took a similar job with the Giants, perhaps to be closer to his hometown of Waterbury, Conn.
Though Flores wants to get away from the Patriots’ scheme on offense, that doesn’t appear to be the case on defense, as he promoted former Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer to be his new defensive coordinator. Boyer’s only experience as a coordinator came in 2005 at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
■ Meanwhile, the Giants have become an attractive landing spot for ex-Patriots with Joe Judge now running the team. Graham and Schuplinski are the first two, and a few more familiar names will undoubtedly pop up.
■ Panthers owner David Tepper simply refuses to be denied. He gave new coach Matt Rhule $62 million guaranteed to keep him from going to the Giants. And Tepper landed 30-year-old phenom Joe Brady, the mastermind of LSU’s offense, as his new offensive coordinator, even though reports emerged earlier this month that Brady wasn’t going to leave for the NFL. Tepper is reportedly worth about $12 billion, and is giving out money like it’s going out of style.
I don’t have any issue with the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducting 10 old-timers, many of whom have died, in addition to this year’s regular class of five enshrinees. And there’s no argument here about inducting NFL Films co-founder Steve Sabol or former Giants and Dolphins executive George Young. But this 15-member Centennial Class, announced this past week, also seems like a way to sneak former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and, to a lesser extent, coach Bill Cowher in through the back door. Just because Tagliabue was a commissioner doesn’t automatically make him a Hall of Famer, and for years he stood in the way of progress on our understanding of head injuries, calling it “one of those pack journalism issues.” Tagliabue has had every chance to get into the Hall of Fame, and previously was rejected four times by the regular panel of Hall voters. And everyone loves Cowher, but would he be a Hall of Famer if he weren’t on TV? Cowher won just one Super Bowl, and went 2-4 in the AFC Championship game (including two losses at home to the Patriots). Former Raiders coach Tom Flores, who won two Super Bowls, is more deserving . . . New Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow is the uncle of Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia . . . Andy Reid’s son, Spencer Reid, has been a strength and conditioning coach for the Boston College football team. And one of his players has been offensive lineman Tyler Vrabel, son of Mike . . . The NFL announced this past week that Bill Vinovich will be the Super Bowl referee. He worked two memorable Patriots games in the 2014 season — the divisional-round game against the Ravens, in which the Patriots used the eligible/ineligible tactics, and the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Vinovich also was the head of the officiating crew that botched last year’s NFC Championship game between the Saints and Rams, which apparently wasn’t bad enough to get him removed from Super Bowl consideration.
The Falcons announced last week that they are introducing new uniforms for 2020. I guess you’ve got to do something to excite the fans when you bring back the coach that everyone wanted fired.