Vikings complete interview with Eliot Wolf

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings
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The Vikings have finished their seventh interview for General Manager.

Minnesota announced on Thursday that the club completed an interview with Patriots scouting consultant Eliot Wolf for the vacancy.

Wolf has spent the last two seasons in his role with the Patriots. Before that, he was the Browns’ assistant General Manager for two years.

The son of former Packers G.M. Ron Wolf, Eliot came up in the Packers organization, starting there in 2004 as a pro personnel assistant. He worked his way up to director of football operations in 2016 and was a candidate to succeed Ted Thompson as the club’s G.M. But that job ultimately went to Brian Gutekunst.

Wolf has also interviewed with the Bears for their vacancy at General Manager.

The Vikings fired Rick Spielman on January 10.

Trey Hendrickson clears concussion protocol, will play Saturday vs. Titans

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Las Vegas Raiders v Cincinnati Bengals
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The Bengals will have their best pass rusher on the field Saturday against the Titans.

Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson has cleared the NFL concussion protocol and will play at Tennessee, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said today.

Hendrickson, who led the Bengals with 14 sacks during the regular season, suffered a concussion during last week’s win over the Raiders. He had already recorded a sack before he left that game, and he has at least half a sack in 14 of the 17 games he has played this season.

Taylor also said nose tackle Josh Tupou and wide receiver Stanley Morgan are trending toward being able to play on Saturday.

PFT’s NFL 2022 divisional round picks

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs
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Six postseason games down, seven to go.

MDS won the wild-card round with a 5-1 record. I went 4-2.

This week, we disagree on one of the four games.

For the year, I’m 181-96-1. MDS is 177-100-1.

For this week’s takes and picks, scroll away.

Bengals (+3.5) at Titans

MDS’s take: The Titans are healthier right now than they were during the regular season, and I’m expecting them to play one of their best games and remind everyone that the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Tennessee.

MDS’s pick: Titans 27, Bengals 20.

Florio’s take: Derrick Henry makes a huge difference for a team that went 6-3 without him. The Cincinnati offense lacked the killer instinct on Saturday against the Raiders, allowing Las Vegas to hang around for far too long. While the Bengals may indeed be a Super Bowl contender in 2022, it feels like they’ve reached the end of the road. The Titans, in contrast, are just getting started.

Florio’s pick: Titans 24, Bengals 17.


49ers (+6) at Packers

MDS’s take: The Packers benefited from the bye week while the 49ers played a tough, physical game in Dallas that left them banged up. Playing Saturday on a short work week, the 49ers will struggle.

MDS’s pick: Packers 30, 49ers 17.

Florio’s take: One team’s quarterback is Aaron Rodgers. The other team’s quarterback is Jimmy Garoppolo. Need I say more? (I will anyway.) San Francisco’s defense will have a hard time keeping Rodgers from torching it, especially if Nick Bosa (concussion) can’t go. Rodgers has limited shots at winning another Super Bowl. This may be his best, and possibly his last, as a Packer.

Florio’s pick: Packers 27, 49ers 20.


Rams (+2.5) at Buccaneers

MDS’s take: Both of these teams won blowouts last week, but this should be a hard-fought game. I trust Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of a close playoff game more than I trust Matthew Stafford.

MDS’s pick: Buccaneers 28, Rams 24.

Florio’s take: It won’t be easy for the Bucs. They’ll need to commit to the run in order to set up the pass. Throw too much, and Tom Brady may soon be putting the ball up for grabs in order to avoid getting his 44-year-old body banged around. If the Rams can’t run effectively, quarterback Matthew Stafford may eventually make a fatal mistake.

Florio’s pick: Buccaneers 23, Ram 17.


Bills (+1.5) at Chiefs

MDS’s take: The best game of the divisional round features two quarterbacks who were outstanding in the wild card round. I trust Patrick Mahomes a little bit more than Josh Allen to play that well again in the divisional round, so I’ll pick the Chiefs.

MDS’s pick: Chiefs 31, Bills 28.

Florio’s take: This one has game of the year potential, with the Bills ready to exorcise more demons and the Chiefs potentially on their heels as they try to slow down Buffalo’s offense. Crazy as it sounds, Kansas City should consider slowing things down and limiting possessions in order to avoid letting the Bills fast-break their way to 40 points.

Florio’s pick: Bills 41, Chiefs 28.

Rams designate Ernest Jones to return from IR

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Earlier this week, Rams head coach Sean McVay mentioned in a press conference that there was a possibility linebacker Ernest Jones could return to practice.

Now possibility has turned into reality.

Los Angeles designated Jones to return from injured reserve on Thursday. Jones has been out since suffering a high-ankle sprain in the Rams’ victory over the Vikings back in Week 16.

Jones had emerged as a key defender for Los Angeles in the back half of the season. He began the year mainly playing special teams. But he started his first game in Week Eight against Houston and recorded nine total tackles, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, and an interception.

In all, Jones tallied 61 tackles, 1.0 sacks, four passes defensed, and a pair of interceptions in 15 games with seven starts.

Getting a key defender like Jones back would be a boost to a defense that had its best outing of the year in Monday’s Wild Card victory over the Cardinals. The Rams allowed only 183 yards and forced a pair of turnovers in their 34-11 win.

Rob Gronkowski moving up the all-time playoff receiving record lists

NFL: JAN 16 NFC Wild Card - Eagles at Buccaneers
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Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski is already one of the most productive receivers in NFL postseason history, and he’s not done yet.

In the Bucs’ wild-card round win over the Eagles, Gronkowski moved ahead of Reggie Wayne into No. 3 in NFL history with 94 receptions in the postseason. Only Jerry Rice (151 career postseason catches) and Julian Edelman (118) have more.

And in Sunday’s game against the Rams, Gronkowski is almost certain to move into third place all-time for postseason receiving yards. Gronkowski currently has 1,304 receiving yards in his postseason career. Michael Irvin is currently third with 1,315 career postseason receiving yards, so Gronk needs just 12 yards on Sunday to surpass Irvin. With a very big game, Gronk could also surpass Edelman, who’s No. 2 all-time with 1,442 postseason receiving yards. Jerry Rice has the all-time record with 2,245 postseason receiving yards. Rice’s record is out of reach.

Gronkowski is No. 2 in NFL history with 15 postseason touchdown passes. Only Rice, with 22, has more.

Gronk has had one of the best playoff careers in NFL history.

Leonard Fournette, Ryan Jensen practicing for Bucs Thursday

NFL: DEC 19 Saints at Buccaneers
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The Buccaneers held a walkthrough Wednesday, but they’re back on the field for a full practice session on Thursday.

According to multiple reports, running back Leonard Fournette and center Ryan Jensen are two of the players who are taking part in the workout. Fournette was not activated from injured reserve for last Sunday’s win over the Eagles as he works his way back from a hamstring injury while Jensen was listed as out of practice Wednesday due to the ankle injury he picked up in the Wild Card round.

Right tackle Tristan Wirfs also hurt his ankle in that game and he did not get on the field Thursday. Josh Wells replaced him and is practicing despite a quad injury.

Wide receiver Cyril Grayson (hamstring), running back Ronald Jones (ankle), and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (hamstring) were all working with trainers after missing last Sunday’s win.

Chris Ballard: Every year, you have to evaluate QB position in full

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars
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After the Colts experienced a disastrous end to their 2021 season, General Manager Chris Ballard did not commit to Carson Wentz continuing on as Indianapolis’ starting quarterback in 2022.

There’s still plenty for the Colts to sort out after losing their last two games and failing to make the postseason, especially considering the club’s 26-11 loss to Jacksonville in Week 18. But whoever is behind center for Indianapolis next year will go a long way to determining the team’s ultimate performance.

Appearing on the team-produced “Overtime” podcast, General Manager Chris Ballard didn’t offer many specifics on what Indianapolis might do at quarterback. But Ballard did make it seem like the position is still in flux.

“I don’t care who you have at the position at the time — I think every year, you’ve got to evaluate it in full, both free agents and the draft. I mean, it’s that important,” Ballard said. “And it’s one that we’ll exhaust each and every year and we do with our scouts and with our coaches.”

Ballard noted that head coach Frank Reich’s input is valuable in that process given that he played the position. But Reich had worked with Wentz before and that didn’t end up working out as well as Indianapolis could have hoped in 2021. Wentz finished the season with a 62 percent completion rate, throwing for 3,563 yards with 27 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and five lost fumbles.

Reich had only one year of coaching Andrew Luck before he surprisingly retired in August 2019. Since then, the team has used Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, and Wentz as its starting QBs.

After the way 2021 ended, another new QB could be behind center for Reich and Ballard in 2022.

Jay Gruden will have second interview for Panthers offensive coordinator

Miami Dolphins v Jacksonville Jaguars
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Former Washington head coach Jay Gruden appears to be a leading candidate for the Panthers offensive coordinator position.

Gruden was identified as a candidate early in the search process and his initial interview with the team was reported earlier this week. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Gruden will have a second interview for the position on Thursday.

It will be an in-person interview with Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.

Gruden was the Bengals offensive coordinator before spending five-plus seasons as the head coach in Washington. He was Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator during the 2020 season as well.

Colts running backs coach Scottie Montgomery has also had two interviews with the Panthers.

Braxton Berrios, Jets have talked about new contract

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The Jets’ lone All-Pro player from the 2021 season has had talks with the team about a new contract.

Braxton Berrios was selected as the first-team kick returner in voting conducted by the Associated Press after leading the league with an average of 30.4 yards per return and taking one kick back for a touchdown. Berrios said on Pardon My Take that he and the Jets have spoken about a deal that would bring him back to the team for a fourth season.

Berrios said “we’ll see what happens” in those discussions while adding that he thinks the Jets are moving the right way with head coach Robert Saleh.

“Truly, truly, I think they’re heading in a very good direction,” Berrios said, via SNY.tv. “I love the coaching staff there. Most of ’em, they’re young, they know what they’re doing, communicate well and Saleh is a phenomenal coach.”

In addition to his kick return work, Berrios caught 46 passes for 431 yards and two touchdowns and ran seven times for 40 yards and two scores.

Antonio Brown: “There’s nothing wrong with my mental health”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New York Jets
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In the aftermath of Antonio Brown‘s in-game exit from the Buccaneers, the organization (including quarterback Tom Brady, repeatedly) suggested that Brown was experiencing a mental-health challenge. Appearing on the new episode of the I Am Athlete podcast, which debuts Monday, Brown insists that he has no such issues.

“Why every time something happens bad, or how someone reacts, ‘Aw, he’s crazy, there’s something wrong with his mental health,'” Brown says in the episode, via TMZ.com. “There’s nothing wrong with my mental health. Someone told me to get the f–k out of here. I’m not passive-aggressive.”

Brown emphasizes during the interview his contention that coach Bruce Arians tried to get Brown to play when he didn’t believe he physically could, and that Arians then kicked Brown off the team on the spot.

“An NFL Super Bowl team coach told a guy on the team who’s playing hurt ‘get the f–k out of here,'” Brown said.

Brown’s claims take on a different vibe in the aftermath of Sunday’s interaction between coach Bruce Arians and safety Andrew Adams, which resulted in a $50,000 fine. Still, Brown’s decision to keep talking about the end of his time in Tampa won’t make it any easier for him to get another NFL job.

Yes, talent always finds a way. That said, no coach will want to be the next one to be the target of Brown’s complaint once it inevitably ends.

Patrick Mahomes: Buffalo puts a lot on Josh Allen’s shoulders and he rises to the occasion

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In what could be the game of the Divisional round, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will take on Josh Allen and the Bills for the second time this season in Kansas City.

The first matchup featured a significant lightning delay, but Buffalo still picked up a decisive 38-20 victory back in Week Five.

Both teams have evolved since then. But in that first meeting Allen passed for 315 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing 11 times for 59 yards with a TD.

That Buffalo offense runs through Allen, which is something Mahomes respects as he gears up to face Allen for the fourth time in the last two seasons.

“Yeah he’s a tremendous player,” Mahomes said in his Wednesday press conference. “I actually know him a little bit off the field as well, great dude. They put a lot on his shoulders, and he rises to the occasion. He’s able to run the ball, he can throw the ball, he has the arm strength to throw it anywhere on the football field and he makes great decisions. Like you said we’ll probably play them a lot of times, it’ll be great competition and it’s definitely a great challenge for us as a team to compete with them.”

Allen is coming off the best game of his career, completing 21-of-25 passes for 308 yards and five touchdowns plus another 66 yards on the ground in Buffalo’s 47-17 drubbing of New England last week. Kansas City’s defense should put up more resistance, but Mahomes will also have to be at his best for the Chiefs to reach a fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game.

Matthew Stafford attributes record-low passing attempts to “flow of the game”

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams
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On Monday night against the Cardinals, quarterback Matthew Stafford had the highest single-game postseason passer rating in Rams history in the same game that he threw the fewest passes, with the exception of games he left due to injury.

Was that the plan?

“No, that was just flow of the game,” Stafford told reporters on Wednesday. “We want to be balanced, like we always are, but nobody’s ever talking about that number, to be honest with you. We’re just trying to go out there and feel the flow of the game. I think it’s credit to our guys up front. It’s good as they were moving those guys and creating rush lanes. Our guys did a great job running the football. And then our defense was doing such a good job of giving us a short field. There were so many times where we had the ball with great field position and those don’t sometimes equate to long drives. Less plays, less opportunities to throw the football. But I take it as a positive. I love throwing the ball, no doubt. But I love it when I hand it off and our guys are getting 10, 12 [yards] a pop too. So, at this point I’ll take them anyway we can get them.”

Stafford said it didn’t feel strange to be passing so infrequently, but he said “I could tell coming out of the game that I didn’t put it up in the air a bunch of times.”

Coach Sean McVay similarly attributed the low number of passes to the flow of the game “and how that dictates what’s the best way to be able to win it.”

This week, it could be dramatically different. If, for example, the Rams can’t run the ball against the Buccaneers defense, Stafford will have to throw it more. Maybe much more.

George Kittle: Playoff game at Lambeau Field a dream come true

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers
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Playing on the road in the postseason is usually something teams want to avoid and that’s all the more true when the road game is in Green Bay on a frigid January night, but one key 49ers player is fired up about the prospect of being in Lambeau Field this weekend.

Tight end George Kittle played in a 33-30 loss to the Packers in Green Bay during the 2018 season and said on Wednesday that he’s eager to get another chance to play at one of the most venerated venues in sports.

“Lambeau is going to be awesome,” Kittle said, via Jennifer Lee Chan of NBCSportsBayArea.com. “Historic stadium. Haven’t played there since 2018. Very excited to go there. It’s really kind of a dream come true. Looking forward to that experience, playing a night playoff game at Lambeau, zero degrees. What more could you ask for?”

The only other thing Kittle and the 49ers could ask for is to leave Lambeau with a win that would set them up to play on the road again in the NFC Championship Game. The setting wouldn’t have the same history as Lambeau, but that’s a trade Kittle and company will be happy to make.

Joe Mixon: I feel like we’ve yet to play our best football

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Las Vegas Raiders v Cincinnati Bengals
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The Bengals had to sweat out a late rally by the Raiders but still advanced to the Divisional round after a solid performance to beat Las Vegas.

But now a road playoff game awaits the club, as Cincinnati will play Tennessee on Saturday. The Bengals have never won a road playoff game in their team history, going 0-7 in those contests.

According to running back Joe Mixon, the 2021 Bengals aren’t concerned about the ghosts of postseasons past.

We’re here to win. We don’t care about some theory that everybody [else is] worried about,” Mixon said this week, via Jake Rice of the team’s website. “We know what we’ve got in front of us, we know what we have to do in order to get where we want to be, we got the path laid out for us. At the same time, as we’ve been saying for these past I don’t know how many weeks now, we control our own destiny and we just got to keep on pushing and keep on getting better each and every week.”

Mixon noted that Cincinnati has played well on the road, compiling a 5-3 record away from Paul Brown Stadium this season. One of those losses came in Week 18 when the Bengals rested quarterback Joe Burrow and several other starters against the Browns.

“We try to pride ourselves on going out there and being real warriors, to be honest,” Mixon said. “We’ve been doing really well on the road against very good teams. We like to go out there (and handle) business and do whatever we can to always come out on top. We pretty much get prepared throughout the week, pretty much go ahead and do that.”

And while the Bengals have put together solid performances, Mixon noted that the club still has to hone in on the details to defeat a No. 1 seed on the road.

“We’ve got to figure out, ways to play complete games. We have yet to do that,” Mixon said. “We’re definitely getting better, on each side of the ball and also on special teams. I [feel] like we’ve yet to play our best football.

“And I think that within these next couple opportunities that we are able to have, I think that we’re going to put it all together here shortly.”

If they don’t do it against the Titans, then the Bengals won’t be playing beyond this weekend.

Broncos raising prices of most non-club tickets

DENVER BRONCOS VS CINCINNATI BENGALS, NFL
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The Broncos will be hiring a new head coach in the near future and many of the team’s fans will have to pay more for the chance to see how that coach fares in home games next season.

In a letter to season ticket holders, the Broncos announced that they will be raising prices for some of their non-club seats for the 2022 season. Mike Klis of KUSA reports that 58 percent of those seats will cost more for the coming season while 39 percent will be unchanged and three percent will see a decrease.

Raising prices after five straight losing seasons would seem to be a tough sell, but Klis notes that the team is still trying to make up for lost revenue due to COVID restrictions on attendance during the 2020 season.

The Broncos are expected to be sold soon and the team’s fans will likely be hoping that the change in leadership on the field and in the front office means that their money goes toward a winning team sooner rather than later.