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    Ravens part ways with defensive coordinator Don Martindale
    By NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer | 
    1/22/22

    Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Friday night he is parting ways with defensive coordinator Don Martindale.

    “After several productive conversations, Don and I have agreed to move forward in separate directions," Harbaugh said in a statement. “We have had a great run on defense, and I am very proud of what has been accomplished and the work he has done. Don has been a major contributor to the success of our defense since 2012, and especially since he became defensive coordinator four years ago.”

    Martindale's departure comes after only the second losing season in Harbaugh's 14 years as Baltimore's coach. The injury-riddled Ravens lost their final six games following an 8-3 start and missed the playoffs.

    The defense was hit hard by injuries in the secondary, and although Baltimore was competitive during most of its season-ending skid, a 41-21 loss to division rival Cincinnati was particularly damaging. The Ravens allowed Joe Burrow to throw for 525 yards in that game.

    Baltimore also lost 41-17 the first time it faced the Bengals.

    The 58-year-old Martindale departs after a decade with the Ravens. He began his tenure coaching inside linebackers in 2012, the season Baltimore won the Super Bowl. He became defensive coordinator in 2018.

    “He has done a great job. Now it is time to pursue other opportunities,” Harbaugh said. “Sometimes the moment comes, and it’s the right time. I am personally grateful for our friendship and for everything he has done in Baltimore.”

    ___

    Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister

    ___

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    Bears interview Frazier for coaching job, Poles for GM spot
    1/22/22

    LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Bears interviewed 1985 championship team member Leslie Frazier for their head coaching vacancy Friday and Kansas City Chiefs executive director of player personnel Ryan Poles for their general manager job.

    Frazier, a cornerback on Chicago's only Super Bowl-winning team, coached Minnesota to a 21-32-1 record from 2010 to 2013. He has spent the past four years as the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator.

    Poles has spent 13 seasons in the Chiefs' front office, the past year in his current role under general manager Brett Veach. He was the team's director of college scouting in 2017 when Kansas City drafted Patrick Mahomes with the No. 10 overall pick — after Chicago took Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2.

    The Bears fired general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy after going 6-11.

    Chicago has interviewed several former head coaches to replace Nagy, including Doug Pederson, Brian Flores and Jim Caldwell, as well as Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

    For the GM spot, the Bears have also interviewed their director of player personnel, Champ Kelly; Cleveland Browns executives Glenn Cook and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah; New Orleans Saints assistant general manager Jeff Ireland; Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen; Tennessee Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort; Colts executive Ed Dodds; New England Patriots front office consultant Eliot Wolf; San Francisco 49ers director of pro personnel Ran Carthon and longtime NFL executive Reggie McKenzie.

    ___

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    Packers' Campbell's bet on himself pays huge dividends
    By STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer | 
    1/21/22

    Green Bay Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell remembers every critical comment he received after fighting through nagging injuries while playing for the Arizona Cardinals last season.

    He used it as motivation to become the first Packers inside linebacker to earn first-team All-Pro honors since Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke in 1966.

    As he detailed in an Instagram post last week, Campbell heard last season that he didn’t look the same, that he was on the back end of his career and that his performance was slipping.

    “Everybody just kind of counted me out,” Campbell said Thursday. “I dealt with a lot of stuff last year in Arizona that I never talked about because nobody really cares. At the end of the day, people just care about results. I was just honest with myself. I was injured, I didn’t feel like I played the best but I didn’t feel like I played terrible, but that’s not what everybody else thought. Honestly, I don’t really care about other people’s opinions, but I just knew what was at stake, so I bet on myself, as I always will.”

    What a winning bet that was.

    Campbell, 28, said he had five or six offers in free agency, but joined the Packers because he considered it the best possible situation for him. The Packers signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal.

    Now he has a chance to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. The top-seeded Packers (13-4) open their playoff run Saturday night when they host the San Francisco 49ers (11-7).

    “We wouldn’t be where we’re at without him right now, I’ll tell you that,” wide receiver Davante Adams said.

    The Packers’ appreciation of Campbell was evident last week after the All-Pro announcements were made. Adams earned All-Pro honors for a second straight season, but said he was more excited about Campbell’s selection.

    Campbell endeared himself even more to his teammates when he responded to the All-Pro honor by thanking them for making him feel important.

    “That got to me, it really did,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “The older you get, I think it’s easier to get a little misty from time to time. You can watch an episode of ‘After Life,’ ‘Ted Lasso,’ and find yourself kind of crying to yourself and going, ‘Man, this is really hitting me.’ But that moment definitely got me because it’s so important to myself and our leadership and the culture we’ve tried to create to make guys feel important, to make guys feel special, to make guys feel like they’re a part of something.”

    Campbell said that feeling started the first day of training camp.

    “I was sitting on the ground stretching and Aaron came up and introduced himself to me,” Campbell said. “At first, I was like, ‘Is he joking? I know who you are.’ It’s little things like that, like, nobody being too big. It’s just a blessing and an honor to be a part of such a historical organization.”

    Campbell wasted no time proving his worth. He was the first player since Indianapolis’ Darius Leonard in 2018 to have at least 145 total tackles plus multiple interceptions, sacks and forced fumbles in the same season.

    “Since Day 1, I’ve always felt like I was a top-10 backer in this league,” Campbell said. “If people watch the tape, they would’ve seen that themselves.”

    Yet he’d never been this productive in his five previous seasons with the Falcons (2016-19) and Cardinals (2020). Pro Football Focus gave Campbell an 84.3 rating this season, well above his previous career high of 69.1 in 2017.

    Campbell says the change came from how the Packers used him.

    “Everybody’s whole question is, ‘What’s so different? How did you just become this elite player all of a sudden?’" Campbell said. “I’ve been the same player my whole career. My job responsibilities have just been different. I’ve never been a true MIKE. I’ve never been put in a position to make plays week in and week out. That was something I was very adamant about coming into the offseason. I was going to sign somewhere that allowed to me to be the guy.

    “Like I said, Green Bay allowed me that opportunity and I’m just thankful for it — for them believing in me when a lot of people didn’t.”

    NOTES: Packers coach Matt LaFleur said offensive tackle David Bakhtiari (knee) is questionable and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (back) is doubtful for Saturday’s game. Bakhtiari played 27 snaps in the Packers’ regular-season finale at Detroit, which marked his first game appearance since tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in practice on Dec. 31, 2020. … The Packers activated WR Randall Cobb from injured reserve, clearing the way for him to play Saturday night. Cobb missed the Packers' last five regular-season games with a core injury. ... LaFleur declined to detail why the Packers released defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, who made eight starts earlier this season. “Sometimes you’ve got to make some tough decisions, and we’re very appreciative of everything he brought to this team and we wish him well,” LaFleur said. “I’m sure he’s going to get another opportunity somewhere, and I hope he takes advantage of it and wish him well.”

    ___

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    Bills enjoy safeties in numbers with Hyde and Poyer
    By JOHN WAWROW, AP Sports Writer | 
    1/21/22

    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Coming off the excitement of a playoff win, while focused on prepping to interview for the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching vacancy, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier couldn’t leave his office before sending a congratulatory text to safety Micah Hyde early Sunday morning.

    For all the emotions he was juggling, Frazier’s mind kept coming back to Hyde’s leaping over-the-shoulder interception of Mac Jones’ pass intended for Nelson Agholor in the end zone to snuff out the Patriots’ opening drive in Buffalo’s 47-17 wild-card playoff win on Saturday.

    “It was hard to see from the sideline what exactly happened or how he made that catch, so when I got in my office and had a chance to watch it and ran it back a few times,” recalled Frazier. “It was just an incredible play by a very, very good player.”

    With New England down 7-0 and facing first-and-10 at the Buffalo 34, Hyde was in the middle of the field when Jones saw Agholor bursting past Levi Wallace up the left sideline. Hyde immediately sprinted toward the receiver and snatched the ball away mere inches from Agholor’s fingertips, while making sure to land inbounds before tumbling into the sideline.

    Hyde isn’t sure how he got there, saying: “I kind of blacked out.”

    Wallace, believing he was beaten, was surprised to see a flash of Hyde’s blue jersey streak past him.

    For Frazier, it was a play he has come to expect from his safety tandem rounded out by Jordan Poyer who, along with cornerback Tre’Davious White, have anchored Buffalo’s playmaking secondary over the past five years.

    Exceptional as the trio has been over that stretch in combining for 48 interceptions (Poyer has 18, White 16 and Hyde 14), this just might be the safety tandem’s best season with White having missed the final six games with a knee injury.

    Poyer, who earned his first All-Pro honors this season, and Hyde, who was tied for third with 10 votes, each finished the season with five interceptions — the NFL’s only safety duo with five or more each — and were part of a defense which allowed the fewest yards, yards passing and points in the NFL.

    “They are the backbone of our secondary,” Frazier said. “I don’t know where we’d be without them.”

    The two-time AFC East champion Bills are headed to play a divisional playoff game at Kansas City on Sunday in what will be a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game which the Chiefs won 38-24. It'll also be their second meeting this season after Buffalo beat Kansas City 38-20 in Week 5.

    While Hyde had one of Buffalo’s two interceptions of Patrick Mahomes in October, he’s aware of the daunting challenge the Bills face against a quarterback who threw five TDs in a 42-21 wild-card win last weekend.

    “They do it all,” Hyde said. “These guys can literally score on any single play.”

    The secondary has been Buffalo’s strength by allowing just 12 touchdowns passing in 17 games, one short of the 16-game low of 11 set in 1996.

    Hyde and Poyer have played together for so long in the same system, they instinctually read off each other while also being adept at disguising their intentions to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing.

    What’s no coincidence is how they both landed in Buffalo by agreeing to contracts on the first day of free agency in March 2017.

    Hyde, who spent his first four NFL seasons in Green Bay, and Poyer, coming off three-plus seasons in Cleveland, were specifically targeted as players who fit the defensive system being introduced by Frazier and newly hired head coach Sean McDermott. An added bonus was both having leadership potential to oversee a unit being rebuilt with youth.

    “Two very fine young men that just handle their business the right way,” McDermott said. “They’re professional in their approach and they can flip the switch when they get on the field.”

    Hyde and Poyer’s presence is evident among Buffalo’s offensive players.

    “Their juice, their energy, it’s unmatched,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “And obviously, you see the accolades start rolling in for them. In my opinion, they should have been rolling in a lot sooner.”

    Both safeties have not hidden their displeasure in being overlooked once the annual awards season arrives. They’ve become masters in using the lack of respect as motivation.

    Even upon being honored this season, Poyer said he can always find someone out there who doubts them.

    “That’s how we’re wired. We’re always going to carry the underdog mentality with us,” Poyer said. “And I think that’s part of the reason why we’ve become who we’ve become.”

    Frazier saw the first glimpse of Hyde and Poyer’s potential in a 23-17 win at Atlanta in Week 4 of the 2017 season in which Hyde had two interceptions. What stood out to Frazier is how opposing offenses began changing their strategy by attempting fewer deep passes.

    Hyde’s interception against New England reminded Frazier of that game.

    “When he made that play and I watched it again, I said, 'Finally, someone decides to test us with a shot and Micah makes this play,’” Frazier said. “I’m not sure if we’ll see many shots down the field like that again.”

    ___

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    Stars aligned: Rams confident their big names will deliver
    By GREG BEACHAM, AP Sports Writer | 
    1/21/22

    THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Von Miller remembers every detail of each time he has sacked Tom Brady, starting all the way back in his second NFL season a decade ago.

    He savored and catalogued their meetings over their years, highlighted by the AFC championship game in which Miller dropped Brady 2 1/2 times in the Broncos' win over the Patriots in January 2016.

    “Whenever he decides to retire, those are the sacks that you're going to remember,” Miller said. “You remember the sacks going against the great quarterbacks, against the great teams. These are the type of sacks that I'll tell my son about.”

    Miller has the chance to add to his memory bank Sunday when his Los Angeles Rams visit Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a berth in the NFC championship game.

    Miller is in position to chase Brady again precisely because he's done it before. The Rams (13-5) added the three-time All-Pro linebacker to an already solid pass rush at great cost this season because they believe elite players give them the best opportunity to beat Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray and the rest of the NFC's top quarterbacks on the way back to the Super Bowl.

    The Rams have spent a half decade making salary cap contortions and sacrificing draft picks because they believe stars will light their path to the top. While some teams patiently stockpile homegrown talent and hope to hit the jackpot, Los Angeles attempts to make its own luck by paying any price necessary to land the best players.

    Miller, Jalen Ramsey, Matthew Stafford and Odell Beckham Jr. all joined the Rams over the past two-plus years, three of them arriving in blockbuster trades that cost the Rams multiple draft picks. They've already delivered an NFC West title and a playoff victory to a team with five consecutive winning seasons under coach Sean McVay, and the Rams have won six of their past seven games overall.

    But paying top prices for premium players means the Rams have high stakes in January. They realize this team-up will be widely perceived as a failure unless they reach their hometown Super Bowl next month — but nobody in the Rams' training complex seems worried.

    In fact, the Rams' big names uniformly welcome the pressure. They didn't get where they are today by flinching under outside scrutiny.

    “It's the nature of it,” said Beckham, who got his first playoff TD catch and postseason victory last week. “These are the moments that you, as a kid, you waited for, you prayed for, and now have the opportunity to play for. And that’s really what matters, is being great in these moments. Regular season is cool, but ... I don’t want to say it doesn’t mean anything, but everything is about (the playoffs).”

    The Rams' acquisitions aren't the only big names in horned helmets, since two of their three All-Pros are their own draft picks: defensive tackle Aaron Donald and NFL receiving leader Cooper Kupp. The top of the Rams' depth chart is undeniably impressive, but every one of their big names has embraced the team-first mentality required by McVay, Donald and the Rams' team captains.

    “All those guys are our leaders, and they’re also our best players,” offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said. “And when they’re doing those two things, leading you with their performance, but then also with the standard they set as leaders, that does so much for all of us.”

    Ramsey and Miller both became team leaders within a few weeks of arriving in Los Angeles two years apart, but Miller understandably needed time to adjust to the upheaval after being traded out of Denver, where he had spent his whole career.

    Although he didn't have a sack in his first four games with the Rams, Miller has a sack in five consecutive games heading to Tampa Bay, along with a steady surge in quarterback pressures.

    What's more, he's second in the NFL with 22 tackles for loss, and he's grading as an outstanding run defender. Miller is in the form that the Rams anticipated when they risked part of their future on him — and now he needs to deliver along with his big-name teammates.

    “We all feel like we've got to do more to win a Super Bowl,” Miller said. "We've got a hell of an opportunity, hell of a chance. Why get out there and rely on somebody else to make the play? I want to make the play. Aaron Donald wants to make the play. Jalen Ramsey wants to make the play. ... We've got all these guys that are stepping up to take the load off everybody else.” Rams wants to make the play. ... We've got all these guys that are stepping up to take the load off everybody else.”

    NOTES: Rookie LB Ernest Jones returned to practice for the first time since injuring his ankle at Minnesota in December. The Rams haven't confirmed he'll play this week, but could definitely use his athleticism on the thin second level of their defense. ... LT Andrew Whitworth (knee) missed his second straight day of practice, as did S Taylor Rapp (concussion). ... LB Troy Reeder (ankle) was limited for the second straight day. Reeder has taken Jones' spot since the rookie's injury.

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    Cowboys' Prescott fined $25,000 for comments about officials
    By The Associated Press | 
    1/21/22

    The NFL fined Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott $25,000 for comments condoning fans throwing objects at officials after a wild-card loss to San Francisco.

    The fine was issued Thursday, a day after Prescott apologized in a series of tweets. Told after the game that fans were throwing objects at officials, Prescott said, “Credit to them then.” He initially called it “sad” because he was told the objects were being thrown at Dallas players.

    When given another chance to answer a question about fans throwing objects at officials, Prescott said, “I guess it’s why the refs took off and got out of there so fast. I think everybody was upset about the way that this thing played out.”

    The 23-17 loss to the 49ers ended after Prescott gained 17 yards on a quarterback draw to the 49ers 24-yard line, and the Cowboys were unable to spike the ball in time to stop to clock for one more play. Umpire Ramon George bumped into Prescott when officially marking the ball, and then time ran out.

    Prescott wasn't the only Dallas player to criticize officials after the game. Coach Mike McCarthy also questioned why the Cowboys weren't given time to run another play.

    It was a rare public misstep from Prescott, who was criticized for his comments. He even drew a rebuke from NBA referees. He apologized two days later.

    “I deeply regret the comments I made regarding the officials after the game on Sunday,” Prescott wrote in one of three Twitter posts. “I was caught up in the emotion of a disappointing loss and my words were uncalled for and unfair.”

    The defeat was a bitter ending for a franchise seeking to win multiple playoff games in the same season for the first time since the last of five Super Bowl championships 26 years ago. Prescott is now 1-3 in the playoffs.

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    Chargers GM Telesco focused on future, not job security
    By JOE REEDY, AP Sports Writer | 
    1/21/22

    COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — Tom Telesco thinks the Los Angeles Chargers have a good foundation with quarterback Justin Herbert and coach Brandon Staley. The general manager also realizes fans are frustrated about not making the postseason for the third straight year.

    The Chargers finished 9-8 in Staley’s first season, but missed the playoffs after losing three of their final four games. That included a 35-32 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in the last game of the regular season.

    Under Telesco, the Chargers have reached the playoffs only twice during his nine-year tenure and finished with a winning record five times. The Chargers are 71-78 since 2013, with their .477 winning percentage ranking 18th in the league.

    “I don’t think a lot about job security,” Telesco said during his season-ending news conference Thursday. “I think that there’s a lot there to be proud of with this football team and how they play. I understand that people want results right now, and they should have results right now, but this team is different than the team a couple of years ago. I’m just focused on 2021 and then getting better for 2022.”

    Los Angeles began the season with wins in four of its first five games, but won back-to-back games only once after early October. While Staley’s fourth-down decisions late in the season brought plenty of second-guessing, Telesco likes the aggressive mentality the Chargers coach has brought.

    “I love the identity that we play with. I know, on the outside, that not everyone may agree with how we play, but it’s who we are, and I love it," Telesco said. "That’s what we are, and that’s the way that we’re going to play moving forward. You know what you get with us; we’re going to play aggressive — it’s not reckless.

    “All of these decisions, even though they’re made in real-time, there’s research involved in it prior to the game.”

    A big reason the Chargers didn’t advance to the postseason is their defense. They struggled in their transition to Staley’s attacking 3-4 scheme. The Chargers hired Staley after he made the Rams the top-ranked defense in 2020.

    The Chargers allowed 269 points after halftime, tied with the 2015 New Orleans Saints for most since 1991. The 138.9 yards per game allowed on the ground was fourth-worst in the league and worst by a Chargers defense since 2003.

    Offenses converted 49.5% of their third-down opportunities, the third-highest rate since 1991.

    “It just didn’t come along as quickly enough, on defense, as I thought it would,” Telesco said. “We had a lot of stretches this year that the players that are out there did some pretty good things, but we weren’t consistent enough by any means. We have to take a good look at that, and we have to get better, there’s no doubt about that.

    "Some of it is alignment, assignment and technique. Some of it is personnel, and some of it is just being in the first year of the defense.”

    Four of the Chargers’ key free agents are on the defensive side of the ball — tackles Justin Jones and Linval Joseph, along with linebackers Kyzir White and Uchenna Nwosu.

    The Chargers’ biggest free agent will be wide receiver Mike Williams, who set a career high in catches (76) and yards (1,146). Telesco did not give any hints about possibly using the franchise tag on Williams if the two sides can't agree on an extension.

    While most of the offseason priorities will be on upgrading the defense, Telesco will also take a look at the right side of the offensive line and continue to build depth throughout the entire roster. Los Angeles is likely to enter free agency with nearly $70 million in cap space, second-most in the league. Telesco will also look at signing safety Derwin James to an extension.

    The more immediate issues include filling coaching staff openings after special teams coordinator Darius Swinton II and assistant Mayur Chaudhari were fired last Friday. Telesco also said that director of player personnel JoJo Wooden will interview for the Chicago Bears' GM opening.

    The one area Telesco and Staley do not have to worry about is quarterback after Herbert became the first in franchise history to throw for at least 5,000 yards (5,014) and 38 touchdowns. Telesco, though, discounted the notion there was a competitive window due to Herbert being on a rookie contract.

    “You have to build it differently, but certainly you can do it. I don’t see that we only have a year or two window with this quarterback’s contract. It’s not how I look at it at all,” Telesco said. “We’re focused on 2022. What can we do in 2022 to go win a championship? It doesn’t really bother me whether the quarterback is on a rookie deal or on an Aaron Rodgers deal.

    "Either way, we’ll make it work.”

    ___

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    Bears interview Leftwich, McKenzie for coach, GM positions
    1/21/22

    LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Bears interviewed Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and longtime NFL executive Reggie McKenzie for their coach and general manager jobs on Thursday.

    Tampa Bay has set franchise records for points and touchdowns in each of Leftwich's three seasons as offensive coordinator — with Jameis Winston at quarterback the first year and Tom Brady the past two. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last season after Brady arrived from New England.

    Leftwich, a former NFL quarterback, got his first coaching job in the league in 2016 as an assistant on Bruce Arians' staff with Arizona. He spent three years with the Cardinals before joining Arians in Tampa Bay.

    McKenzie, a senior personnel executive with the Miami Dolphins the past three seasons, spent 18 years in Green Bay's front office and had a hand in two Super Bowl championships. He was the Packers' director of football operations from 2008 to 2011 and was the Oakland Raiders' general manager from 2012 to 2018. McKenzie drafted current Bears star pass rusher Khalil Mack with the No. 5 overall pick in 2014.

    The Bears fired general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy after going 6-11.

    Chicago has interviewed several former head coaches to replace Nagy, including Doug Pederson, Brian Flores and Jim Caldwell, as well as Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.

    For the GM spot, the Bears have also interviewed their director of player personnel, Champ Kelly; Cleveland Browns executives Glenn Cook and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah; New Orleans Saints assistant general manager Jeff Ireland; Buffalo Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen; Tennessee Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort; Indianapolis Colts executive Ed Dodds; New England Patriots front office consultant Eliot Wolf; and San Francisco 49ers director of pro personnel Ran Carthon.

    ___

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    1st year coordinator has 49ers D at high level in playoffs
    By JOSH DUBOW, AP Pro Football Writer | 
    1/21/22

    SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — DeMeco Ryans' meteoric rise from quality control coach to defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers hit a speed bump three games into his first season calling plays.

    Ryans' defense allowed Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to drive for the winning field goal in the final 37 seconds of a 30-28 loss that raised questions if the 37-year-old former linebacker was ready to be in charge of an NFL defense.

    “Week 3 seems like so long ago, but I’m happy for Week 3. I’m very happy for Week 3,” Ryans said this week as the 49ers prepare for a rematch against the Packers in a divisional round playoff game Saturday night in Green Bay.

    “I think it was a definitely a pivotal moment in our season. Just defensively, for guys just making the turnaround and really changing.”

    The turnaround wasn't instant, as the loss started a 1-5 stretch for the Niners that also included a series of pass interference calls that led to a loss to Indianapolis and a string of missed tackles in a loss to a short-handed Arizona team.

    But since then, the Niners have been one of the league's stingiest defenses, ranking in the top five in yards per play allowed, points allowed, sacks and yards rushing allowed.

    The defense for the 49ers (11-7) is a big reason why the team gets another shot at the Packers (13-4) in a divisional round playoff game on Saturday night in Green Bay.

    “I think the best thing he did was remain the exact same person every day, through the highs and lows,” linebacker Fred Warner said. "Even though we had some rough patches, we had the right foundation, so over time, with more repetition, you’re going to get better.”

    Ryans has gotten better as a coordinator as well as he has filled the big shoes left by Robert Saleh, who helped put together a defense that got San Francisco to the Super Bowl two years ago and then left after last season to be head coach for the New York Jets.

    He has put his own tweaks on the defense and kept it at its high level despite several key injuries.

    “My style is it’s not about what I want to do, but it’s about what can you get players to do and who are the players that you have and what can you do and what does each week call for," he said. “So each week for me, it changes, based on who we’re playing and what do we need to do to win that game.”

    The 37-year-old Ryans was a star linebacker in the NFL for a decade, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006 and being an All-Pro the next season.

    His playing career ended following the 2015 season and he joined coach Kyle Shanahan's staff in San Francisco as a defensive quality control coach in 2017. Ryans was promoted to inside linebackers coach the next season and then coordinator when Saleh left.

    “I’ve seen head coach qualities out of DeMeco when he was a player,” said Shanahan, who was on the offensive staff in Houston when Ryans was a player. “When he was a quality control, when he was a linebacker coach and now when he is a coordinator. So he’s always had those qualities, it’s just about him getting the reps and getting the experience.”

    Ryans is getting notice as well and has interviewed for the head coach opening in Minnesota on the heels of a couple of particularly impressive defensive performances.

    The Niners held the Rams to 24 points in a Week 18 win that sent San Francisco to the playoffs and then San Francisco held Dallas to 17 points last week in one of the Cowboys worst offensive performances of the season.

    None of it comes as a surprise to Packers coach, Matt LaFleur, who saw Ryans up close as a player during his team as an assistant on the Texans in 2008-09.

    “He was the quarterback of the defense," LaFleur said. "When I found out that he was going to get into coaching, it definitely always crossed my mind that he would be a hell of a coach. He’s proven that. I’ve got a lot of relationships with a lot of guys over on that staff, and everybody speaks the world of him.”

    ___

    AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report

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    Bills prove Patriots were bogus, can they do same to Chiefs?
    By BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer | 
    1/21/22

    So Pro Picks was correct on one count in the Patriots-Bills wild-card game. One of those teams was a bogus playoff contender.

    We just had the wrong team. For an Upset Special, no less.

    The beating Buffalo put on New England came the night before Tom Brady and the Buccaneers crushed Philadelphia. Both results only bolstered the narrative that the Patriots' dynasty was built on the quarterback's unsurpassed talents.

    Brady gets to extend his legacy on Sunday when his defending Super Bowl champion Bucs host the Rams. Buffalo visits Kansas City in the other high-profile matchup that day.

    On Saturday, the top seed in each conference comes off its bye, with Tennessee home for Cincinnati, and San Francisco at Green Bay.

    And despite our success with upset specials this season, we'll pass on one for the divisional round. Read on to see why.

    San Francisco (plus 6) at Green Bay, Saturday

    There’s some great history between these teams, and the 49ers won’t be fearful of playing at Lambeau Field, particularly after being the only road team to win in the wild-card round. But this is a step — make that a frigid, slippery step — too far right now for the Niners.

    Obviously, San Francisco must get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, who last threw an interception in, uh, who remembers when? We expect the Packers to get lots of pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo, who is battling some injuries. And he last threw a pick, well, last week at Dallas.

    BEST BET: PACKERS, 27-16

    Cincinnati (plus 3 1/2) at Tennessee, Saturday

    The fact that Derrick Henry could be active for the AFC South champs adds some attractiveness to a Titans pick. Even without Henry, Tennessee's running game has been solid, and the 2020 Offensive Player of the Year figures to be a part-time player Saturday.

    “I would think anybody who hasn’t played in two months feels pretty good about their body,” Henry said.

    Pro Picks feels pretty good about the Titans for a variety of reasons that includes their getting healthier. Cincinnati is banged up, especially on the defensive line, and it is a newbie for this round of the playoffs. Some folks are forgetting that the Titans reached the conference title game two years ago and won their division in 2020.

    TITANS, 23-17

    Los Angeles Rams (plus 3) at Tampa Bay, Sunday

    That LA defensive front can be fearsome, as befits the Rams' history. It will need to be dominant at Tampa, making Brady uncomfortable and forcing him to throw before he wants to. That will be especially true if the Bucs can't run the ball, and their backfield situation is dicey.

    Tampa certainly can stop the run, which could be another key here because of the way the Rams controlled the ground game against Arizona.

    But there is one mismatch that might prove decisive: Tampa tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate against LA's main weakness, its safeties.

    There's always a chance with a defeat this will be Brady's final NFL game. Then again, he's only 44.

    BUCCANEERS, 28-26

    Buffalo (plus 1 1/2) at Kansas City, Sunday

    The football world seems to be in love with the Bills, and why not? With the exception of the New England area, was anyone rooting for the Patriots last Saturday night?

    To fully validate that victory — and probably stamp themselves as a Super Bowl favorite — the Bills need to get past a Chiefs team that's vastly improved since a home loss on Oct. 10 to the Bills. Buffalo must continue its balanced offense, regularly looking to running back Devin Singletary. Josh Allen will be creative as both a runner and passer, but he also can be damaging with some of his decisions.

    So can Patrick Mahomes, of course. He also has just as many playmakers as Allen, which likely leads to a shootout. We'll go with the reigning sheriff in this matchup.

    CHIEFS, 30-27

    ___

    2021 RECORD

    Last Week: Straight up: 4-2. Against spread: 4-2.

    Season: Straight up: 183-94-1. Against spread: 155-120-2.

    Best Bet: Straight up: 12-6-1. Against spread: 13-6.

    Upset Special: Straight up: 15-3. Against spread: 15-3.

    ___

    More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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