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Around the NFL: News, notes and thoughts on what’s happening around the league

Nick Falato takes us around the NFL

Divisional Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Here we are, entering the conference championship games in the year 2021. Just a few short months ago, there was a ton of uncertainty around the likelihood of the season’s existence, but remarkably the NFL didn’t have to miss a game due to COVID-19.

The divisional round was entertaining. The Bills advanced to the conference championship for the first time since 1994 after defeating the Ravens 17-3. Green Bay beat Los Angeles in the cold of Lambeau Field 32-18. The Chiefs narrowly defeated the Browns 22-17 after Pat Mahomes left the game with an injury, and Tom Brady will play in his 14th conference championship game after the Buccaneers defeated the Saints 30-20.

Brady has been in the NFC for a season and has already brought his team to the conference championship. Defeating the red hot Green Bay Packers in the frigid cold will be a difficult task, but Buccaneers’ star defensive lineman Vita Vea may be ready to play, which will surely help the Buccaneers run defense slow down Aaron Jones and company.

Much like the Saints, this isn’t the first time the Packers will have seen Brady and the Buccaneers this season. New Orleans dominated Tampa Bay twice in the regular season with a 34-23 win and an annihilating 38-3 victory on Sunday Night Football in October. It’s been quite some time since a team was able to complete the sweep against a divisional rival with a playoff win. The 2007 Cowboys had this opportunity, but Eli Manning spoiled their chances by defeating Tony Romo 21-17.

As for the Packers, they went down to Tampa Bay and went up 10-0 before getting throttled 38-10 on Oct. 18th. Todd Bowels’ defense forced two Aaron Rodgers interceptions and Ronald Jones II, who has been hobbled with a quad injury, rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Replicating this victory in the cold of Lambeau Field will be difficult, but Tom Brady knows how to overcome unfavorable situations. With that said, I still feel Green Bay will win.

Bills’ Mafia stays golden by donating over $360,000 to Lamar Jackson’s charity after the Bills defeated the Ravens. Jackson expressed his gratitude for Bills’ Mafia on Twitter. The passionate fan base did something similar for Andy Dalton when the former Bengals quarterback defeated the Ravens in week 17 of the 2017 season. Dalton threw a 49 yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd in the final seconds of their game which effectively eliminated the Ravens and propelled the Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Bills’ Mafia may not be kind to tables, but they’re kind to people (at times).

Josh Allen will now go to Kansas City and play a Chiefs team that will desperately need their star quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Super Bowl champion will have to pass the concussion protocol after taking an awkward hit from Mack Wilson in the third quarter of the divisional round. A hit that Mahomes mother has criticized Wilson for after the game. Everyone other than the Bills’ Mafia (and the Bills themselves) are routing to see Mahomes on the field, not because we’re Chiefs fans, but because the game will be much more entertaining with the two young gunslingers.

The oddsmakers are going to be eagerly waiting to see what happens with Mahomes. As of now, the Chiefs are favored by 2.5 and the over-under is 53. The Packers are favored by 3.5 with a 50.5 over-under in the NFC, according to DraftKings Sports Books.

Other news

The Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles are the lone remaining NFL coaching vacancies - both jobs have downsides. The Eagles just fired Doug Pederson after bringing the city their lone super bowl just three short years ago. Howie Roseman and owner Jeffery Laurie are micromanaging the team. The names involved with the Eagles are Josh McDaniels (Patriots offensive coordinator) and Dennis Allen (Saints defensive coordinator). The Eagles have a lot of older players with big salary cap hits, but the Eagle head coaching job is not nearly as toxic as whatever’s going on in Houston.

The Texans have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but he wants out of Houston after the McNairs (Houston owners) failed to include Watson on the general manager search that resulted in the hiring of former Patriots’ front office personnel Nick Casario. The fracture between Watson and the Texans has been boiling for quite some time and the presence of team consultant Jack Easterby has not helped the situation. Easterby is the executive vice president and he doesn’t seem to be respected or liked by players who come through Houston.

The deterioration of the roster, the disrespect of DeShaun Watson, and the overall nature in Houston have led many NFL insiders to believe that Watson has taken his last snaps as quarterback for the team. If Watson is on the market, who knows what the trade capital would be if there’s a bidding war - which there should be for someone of Watson’s talents. There could be another blockbuster trade involving Houston this offseason, just like last year with DeAndre Hopkins.

In other general manager news, former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney was fired by the Panthers and now looks to possibly secure the Washington Football Team’s general manager position. It is not finalized quite yet, but there could be a reunion for head coach Ron Rivera and Hurney.

Coaching hires

The Jacksonville Jaguars made a splash and signed Urban Meyer to be their head coach. Meyer had tremendous success in Gainesville, just 45 minutes south of Jacksonville, as the head coach of the Florida Gators from 2005-2010. He’ll now look to stabilize this Jaguar team that possesses the first overall pick. The addition of Trevor Lawrence, and the possible influx of former Ohio State free agents reuniting with Meyer in a state tax-less place like Florida, make this an intriguing hire.

Meyer now has two first-round picks, a lot of cap space, and probably a ton of flexibility. It’s an interesting storyline for a team that kind of needs interesting storylines. Meyer is only 56 years old. Can he join Pete Caroll and Jimmy Johnson and make a successful jump to the NFL?

The Jets have finalized a deal with Robert Saleh to be the head football coach in Florham Park, N.J. Saleh was the 49ers defensive coordinator from 2017-2020 and was with the Seahawks and Jaguars as an assistant coach before his San Francisco days. Saleh is known for his passion and energy, which will be a change for the Jets. Saleh also brought Matt LaFleur’s younger brother Mike to be his offensive coordinator. Mike LaFleur was the 49ers pass game coordinator and will now be leading the Jets’ offense.

Jets’ general manager Joe Douglas will have a big decision to make about Sam Darnold and the number two selection in the 2020 draft. Does LaFleur, Douglas, and Saleh believe they can salvage Darnold and then maybe trade that selection for a ton of capital, or do they select a quarterback and trade Darnold for a second-round pick? This, like many other storylines, will be very interesting to follow.

The Lions have reportedly hired Dan Campbell, the Saints tight ends and assistant head coach. Campbell was an interim head coach for the Dolphins in 2015 after Joe Philbin was fired by the team - Campbell went 5-7 in that time frame and was not retained. Campbell is well respected by players because he is a former player; the Lions seemed to have little respect for former coach Matt Patricia, who was fired after getting embarrassed on national television after a 41-25 Thanksgiving loss to the Texans. Campbell will look to instill respect and not create a divided locker room.

The Falcons have hired Arthur Smith to be their head coach. He was the Titans offensive coordinator for two seasons and was the tight ends coach for the previous four. Smith has been with the Titans organization since 2011. This is a big jump for Smith; his offenses finished 2nd in rushing yards per game and 23rd in passing yards per game in 2020. They were 6th in total yards in 2020 and 4th in points scored. In 2019, they were 8th in points and 6th in total yards. Smith is going to have to find some different personnel to try and replicate the offense he had with Tennessee, especially at the running back position.

Former Rams’ defensive coordinator Brandon Staley didn’t have to move far. Staley accepted the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Chargers who were also looking to hire Jason Garrett or Brian Daboll. Los Angeles instead went with a young defensive mind to pair with star quarterback Justin Herbert. Staley was a surprise hire because he was only a defensive coordinator for one season.

Many feel he could be the “defensive Sean McVay.” This a gigantic opportunity for Staley, but it’s also a ton of responsibility for a 38-year-old who has only coordinated for one season. The Rams were the second-best defense in terms of points per game. Staley has worked under McVay and Broncos’ head coach Vic Fangio when Fangio was the Bears’ defensive coordinator.