Rookie Fred Warner thrown right into middle of 49ers defense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Fred Warner isn’t being given time to ease into his NFL career.

The rookie for the San Francisco 49ers is slated to start in his debut on Sunday in Minnesota at a relatively new position of middle linebacker with all the responsibilities that come with calling the defensive signals.

“I’m very excited, being this will be my first start,” Warner said. “I’m just trying to make sure I’m as prepared as possible heading into that game on Sunday. I’m just going to do what I do, which is ball out and make plays and be the leader out there as the Mike.”

The Niners drafted Warner in the third round out of BYU in part because of his ability to guard tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers in the passing game as an outside linebacker.

But Warner has spent most of his time on the inside for the 49ers and is filling the void created by the two-game suspension that has sidelined Reuben Foster.

Now instead of being counted on to show off his coverage skills in space, Warner will need to take on much bigger offensive linemen in the run game for San Francisco.

“I feel like it’s kind of my natural position, you could say,” Warner said. “Obviously, I didn’t do a lot of that in college. But just being out there, I feel like if I wasn’t as natural, I probably wouldn’t be doing as well as I am — and being in the position I’m in.”

Playing middle linebacker comes with lots of responsibility as Warner will be the man relaying the defensive calls from coordinator Robert Saleh to the rest of the defense.

It’s a task he welcomes and that his coaches feel he is more than prepared to handle.

“He was one of, if not the smartest interviews I’ve ever had personally at the combine for a linebacker,” Saleh said. “He’s picked it up well. He’s got great command of it. He’s got a long way to go. I don’t want to crown him quite yet, but he’s a rookie, he’s going to have his peaks and valleys, but we have great confidence in him.”

Warner said he never doubted he was physical enough to play in the box and said most of the critics who said he couldn’t just hadn’t seen him do it. Saleh credited San Francisco’s scouts for finding plays from Senior Bowl week and other games that showed that Warner was willing to take on the contact that he will have to deal with in the middle of the NFL defense.

Saleh said that showed up again in the preseason and he has no questions about Warner’s physicality and ability to tackle.

The bigger challenge this week might come in dealing with Minnesota’s offense that relies heavily on run-pass options that make life difficult on linebackers and has star running back Dalvin Cook healthy again after last year’s season-ending knee injury.

Warner said he has studied film of Cook from last year and Eagles games from last year to try to get a sense of what kind of offense new coordinator John DeFilippo runs. He particularly watched how Philadelphia played against Atlanta and the Chargers last season since those teams run a similar defensive scheme to San Francisco’s.

Dealing with the RPOs that the Niners are anticipating will be key to their success.

“It puts stress on the defense as a whole if you’re not prepared for it,” Warner said. “So that’s why we’re kind of making some adjustments to make sure we’re not getting hit in certain areas where we’re not protected.”

NOTES: LB Malcolm Smith (hamstring) is doubtful. … LB Dekoda Watson injured his hamstring in practice and will miss the game. … T Erik Magnuson (hamstring) is also out Sunday.

___

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Report: Dolphins won’t block OC Loggains from leaving

Report: Dolphins won’t block OC Loggains from leaving

Report: Dolphins won’t block OC Loggains from leaving

The Miami Dolphins granted permission to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains to talk to other teams, essentially paving the way for the assistant to reunite with Adam Gase in New York, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday.

The Dolphins reportedly interviewed Loggains for their head coaching vacancy before deciding on New England defensive coordinator Brian Flores, a move that can’t be made official until after the Super Bowl. The Dolphins fired Gase after the season.

Loggains spent one year with the Dolphins as offensive coordinator under Gase, and the pair also worked together in Chicago. Loggains was named offensive coordinator in Chicago after Gase took the head coaching job in Miami.

The Dolphins finished 31st in total offense last season, averaging 289.9 yards per game. The Dolphins averaged 19.9 points per game, 26th in the NFL, but Gase called the plays, as he will do with the Jets.

The Jets last week named Gregg Williams defensive coordinator.

–Field Level Media

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Bears LT Leno, C Whitehair added to Pro Bowl roster

Bears LT Leno, C Whitehair added to Pro Bowl roster

Bears LT Leno, C Whitehair added to Pro Bowl roster

Eight members of the Chicago Bears are ticketed to the Pro Bowl after left tackle Charles Leno Jr. and center Cody Whitehair were named to the NFC roster on Tuesday.

Practice is scheduled to begin Wednesday in Orlando, Fla.

Leno Jr. is replacing New Orleans Saints tackle Terron Armstead while Whitehair was named as the alternate to Saints center Max Unger.

Leno Jr. and Whitehair are on the NFC roster to which quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was added on Monday.

Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, defensive backs Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson, return specialist Tarik Cohen and Trubisky will be in Orlando.

Linebacker Khalil Mack, who was named a starter in December, will not participate due to a knee injury.

–Field Level Media

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Cowboys’ Prescott, Cooper to Pro Bowl; Saints’ Brees, Thomas out

Cowboys' Prescott, Cooper to Pro Bowl; Saints' Brees, Thomas out

Cowboys’ Prescott, Cooper to Pro Bowl; Saints’ Brees, Thomas out

Cowboys teammates Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper were named to the NFC Pro Bowl roster on Tuesday, replacing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Michael Thomas.

Prescott and Cooper guided Dallas to the NFC East title and posted a regular-season win over the Saints in Dallas.

Cooper, acquired from the Oakland Raiders in October, is in the Pro Bowl for the third time. He had 53 receptions for 725 yards and six scores in nine games with the Cowboys.

Prescott passed for 3,885 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions to reach the Pro Bowl for the second time in three NFL seasons.

Brees and Thomas reported injuries as the reason for missing the game.

Brees, 40, is a 12-time Pro Bowl selection. He set an NFL record with a 74.4 percent completion percentage in 2018, and had 32 touchdown passes with five interceptions.

–Field Level Media

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Saints superfan expresses ire on Atlanta billboards

Saints superfan expresses ire on Atlanta billboards

Saints superfan expresses ire on Atlanta billboards

One Saints’ superfan is so angered by the referees’ missed call in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, which likely cost New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl, that he bought billboards all over downtown Atlanta to tell everyone how he really feels.

Matt Bowers, who owns several car dealerships in the New Orleans area, had some choice words for the league, including “SAINTS GOT ROBBED” and “NFL BLEAUX IT!” plastered on billboards along I-85 in Atlanta, the site of the 2019 Super Bowl. Another one of the billboards is located right outside of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Los Angeles Rams — not the Saints — and the New England Patriots will square off in two weeks.

Bowers wrote several social media posts on Monday hinting that he would take action in the wake of his ire, writing in one Twitter post, “I’m going to do something about this. #Saints #NFLBLEAUXIT,” and in another, “I won’t ever get over it but, I am going to make the NFL miserable. Watch me.”

The wave of billboards, reported to be seven in all with 16 placements, went live across downtown Atlanta on Monday evening, and fans and news outlets were quick to take notice. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Tuesday that Bowers stated, “I’m not done yet.”

Bowers, whose most recent billboard message targets the NFL commissioner (“Roger Goodell knew dat!”), has also made sure that folks will see the billboards for weeks to come: He announced on Twitter they will remain “All over … Downtown Atlanta through the Fake Super Bowl.”

–Field Level Media

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NFL to investigate report of laser on Brady at Kansas City

NFL to investigate report of laser on Brady at Kansas City

NFL to investigate report of laser on Brady at Kansas City

The NFL is “looking into” a report by a Kansas City television station that a laser pointer was aimed at New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game on Sunday.

KMBC shot video that showed a green dot flickering around Brady’s shoulder and face. ESPN reported an NFL spokesman confirmed the incident was being investigated.

According to the television station report, the laser was visible around Brady’s face and shoulder before he threw an interception in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots declined to comment on the report and the Chiefs said they were not aware of the incident during the game, won by New England, 37-31 in overtime.

–Field Level Media

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Report: NFL head of officiating could lose job

Report: NFL head of officiating could lose job

Report: NFL head of officiating could lose job

The job status of the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, Alberto Riveron, could be in question after a blown call Sunday in the NFC Championship Game likely cost the New Orleans Saints a Super Bowl appearance.

NBC’s Peter King quoted a source Monday who said, “Al Riveron (EVP of Officiating) is gone. He can’t survive this.”

King added that another source said the league would have to pay a lot of money to get Dean Blandino or Mike Pereira (the latter “a less likely candidate,” per King) to return to the position. Both men once held the VP of officiating title before moving into television as rules analysts.

Riveron was promoted to the position before the 2017 season to fill the vacancy created by Blandino’s departure for Fox Sports. Last January, multiple outlets reported Riveron would remain in the position for the 2018 season despite several high-profile officiating controversies, including one that led to the competition committee overhauling the catch rule last offseason.

Riveron was senior director of officiating before being promoted to replace Blandino. He became the first Hispanic NFL referee in 2008.

Blandino suggested in December 2017, not long after leaving the league, that he could be persuaded to return to his old post if the position were valued more within the league office.

On Sunday, Saints head coach Sean Payton said he spoke with Riveron via phone shortly after New Orleans’ loss to the Los Angeles Rams, saying Riveron admitted to a blown non-call on a play that should have been ruled pass interference in the final two minutes of regulation.

“The explanation … it was simple,” Payton said of his discussion with Riveron. “They blew the call. Not only was it (pass) interference, but it was helmet-to-helmet (contact). That was the first thing Al said. …

“I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call. That’s a tough one to swallow.”

Had the call been made, with the score 20-20, the Saints would have been able to run the clock down and attempt a short field goal as time expired. Instead, they were forced to kick with 1:41 remaining, leaving time for the Rams to tie the game and force overtime, where the Saints went on to lose 26-23.

Referee Bill Vinovich briefly addressed the play during a postgame interview with a pool reporter.

“It was a judgment call by the covering official,” Vinovich said. “I personally have not seen the play. … It is not a reviewable play.”

Multiple outlets reported Monday that the league will look closely this offseason at potentially changing that matter, perhaps making pass interference reviewable along with other “judgment” calls that have not been reviewable previously.

Saints owner Gayle Benson released a statement Monday saying she was “thoroughly disappointed” with the lack of “fair and equitable” decision-making from the referees, adding she has been in touch with the league and will “aggressively pursue changes” to prevent future errors from happening.

The officials on the field closest to the play in question were side judge Gary Cavaletto and down judge Patrick Turner. It’s unclear whether either will face discipline, although the league let go of down judge Hugo Cruz in October, less than two weeks after he missed a false start on a play that resulted in a Los Angeles Chargers touchdown against the Cleveland Browns.

–Field Level Media

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Former NFL RB McFadden charged with DWI

Former NFL RB McFadden charged with DWI

Former NFL running back Darren McFadden was arrested early Monday

Former NFL RB McFadden charged with DWI

Former NFL running back Darren McFadden was arrested early Monday in Texas on charges of driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest.

TMZ reported that the 31-year-old McFadden fell asleep in his SUV outside the drive-thru window of a Whataburger fast-food restaurant in suburban Dallas.

According to TMZ, McFadden resisted officers and that the driver’s side and passenger windows in his vehicle were both smashed.

McFadden was released on his own recognizance from Collin County jail a short time later, according to the Dallas Morning News.

McFadden played 10 seasons in the NFL after an All-American career at Arkansas. He rushed for 4,247 yards in 83 games with the Oakland Raiders (2008-14) and ran for 1,174 yards in 20 games with the Dallas Cowboys (2015-17).

McFadden rushed for 1,157 yards with the Raiders in 2010 and for 1,089 yards with the Cowboys in 2015.

–Field Level Media

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Chiefs LB Ford accepts blame for costly penalty

Chiefs LB Ford accepts blame for costly penalty

Chiefs LB Ford accepts blame for costly penalty

Dee Ford didn’t mince words or offer up an excuse.

The linebacker knows the fact he lined up offside on a pivotal fourth quarter play likely cost the Kansas City Chiefs a trip to the Super Bowl.

“Sloppy football on my end at the end of the day,” Ford told reporters on Monday, one day after the Chiefs lost 37-31 in overtime to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. “Whether it was six inches or however many inches, I was offside.

“I can’t go back and change it. If I could I would, but at this point we can create a new narrative and that’s what I’m all about. I’m going to get to work.”

The penalty on Ford wiped out an interception by Kansas City cornerback Charvarius Ward with 54 seconds left. The Chiefs led 28-24 at the time.

The mistake kept New England in the contest, and the Patriots drove for a touchdown before Kansas City later forced overtime with a field goal.

Ford, 27, said that he will sometimes be warned by an official when he lines up in the neutral zone but it didn’t occur on the crucial play.

“I can’t expect that,” Ford said. “I just have to line up onside at the end of the day. I’m not an excuse-maker … I’m looking right at the ball. Honestly, it’s just a critical mistake on my end.”

Not the happiest of endings for Ford, but he did have a strong season, recording 13 sacks and earning his first Pro Bowl berth.

But in Kansas City sports lore, his name will long be associated with the big miscue.

“That was an opportunity for the whole city of Kansas City to make history,” Ford said. “It is what it is at the end of the day. I’ll take it on the chest, and I’m going to use it as motivation.”

Chiefs coach Andy Reid was surprised the officiating crew didn’t warn Ford prior to the snap.

“He did have a great season,” Reid said of Ford. “He was doing everything possible to try to get to the quarterback. Like I said, it wasn’t but by a few inches. I thought it was legitimate. He was — it looked like on the angle of our camera, at least, that he might have been off by a tad.

“Normally, you’re warned and the coach is warned when somebody is doing that before they throw it a game of that magnitude. But they did (throw a penalty flag), and he didn’t waste any time doing it. He didn’t wait until the interception to throw it. He had his hand on his flag right from the get-go, so he saw on his angle and felt that that was the call.”

–Field Level Media

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NFL notebook: PI to be considered for review

NFL notebook: PI to be considered for review

NFL notebook: PI to be considered for review

Pass interference soon could be a reviewable play in the NFL, according to sources cited by The Washington Post on Monday.

That’s not soon enough from the perspective of the New Orleans Saints, who would have been in position to put the NFC Championship Game on ice late in the fourth quarter Sunday had a collision prior to the ball arriving — textbook pass interference in the NFL rulebook — been flagged.

Saints head coach Sean Payton erupted on the sideline and appeared to scold game officials for blowing “a Super Bowl call.” Payton said after the game the missed call is something New Orleans will “probably never get over.” The league admitted to Payton that an error was made.

“(Pass interference) will be discussed at length along with additional fouls that coaches feel should be subject to review,” a person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings told the Post.

–A day after the controversial defeat, Saints owner Gayle Benson issued a strong statement of disapproval.

“No team should ever be denied the opportunity to reach the title game (or simply win a game) based on the actions, or inactions, of those charged with creating a fair and equitable playing field,” Benson said, in part. “As is clear to all who watched the game, it is undeniable that our team and fans were unfairly deprived of that opportunity yesterday.

“I have been in touch with the NFL regarding yesterday’s events and will aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again.”

–Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford didn’t mince words or offer up an excuse, a day after he lined up offside on a pivotal fourth quarter play and likely cost the team a trip to the Super Bowl.

“Sloppy football on my end at the end of the day,” Ford told reporters one day after the Chiefs lost 37-31 in overtime to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. “Whether it was six inches or however many inches, I was offside.”

The penalty on Ford wiped out an interception by Kansas City cornerback Charvarius Ward with 54 seconds left. The Chiefs led 28-24 at the time.

–Philadelphia players rallied to Carson Wentz’s defense after unnamed teammates reportedly called the Eagles quarterback “selfish” and “egotistical.”

A report criticizing Wentz by PhillyVoice.com cited “more than a half dozen” players who requested to remain anonymous, “fearing repercussions.”

Among the claims in the report were that Wentz “bullied” offensive coordinator Mike Groh, played “favorites” by over-targeting Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, and generally acted “like he’s won 10 Super Bowls.”

–With Jared Goff and Tom Brady heading to Super Bowl LIII, Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson will take their place in the Pro Bowl on Sunday in Orlando.

One teammate Watson won’t reunite with this week is defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who was replaced by Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell. Other newly announced replacements include Oakland Raiders tight end Jared Cook (for the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce) and Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson (for the Dallas Cowboys’ Tyron Smith).

–The NFL announced all five international series games for the 2019 season:

Panthers at Buccaneers in London

Bears at Raiders in London

Bengals at Rams in London

Texans at Jaguars in London

Chiefs at Chargers in Mexico City

–The Miami Dolphins are expected to name Green Bay assistant coach Patrick Graham as their new defensive coordinator, according to multiple reports.

The Packers’ defensive run-game coordinator and inside linebackers coach reportedly will join the staff of future Dolphins head coach Brian Flores.

Miami has to wait until after Super Bowl LIII to officially hire Flores, the New England defensive coordinator whose Patriots will face the Rams in Atlanta on Feb. 3.

–The Tennessee Titans promoted tight ends coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator.

Smith joined the Titans’ staff in 2011 and has coached the tight ends since midway through the 2015 campaign. He replaces Matt LaFleur, who was named head coach of the Packers earlier this month.

–The fan-friendly menu prices at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium will remain intact for the Super Bowl.

The Atlanta Falcons instituted “Fan First Menu Pricing” when they moved into the new stadium in 2017, and team president and CEO Rich McKay told ESPN the prices of the 12 items on the menu will stay as is for the game, just as they have for other big events there.

–Former NFL running back Darren McFadden was arrested early Monday in Texas on charges of driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest.

TMZ reported that McFadden, 31, fell asleep in his SUV outside the drive-thru window of a Whataburger fast-food restaurant in suburban Dallas.

According to TMZ, McFadden resisted officers and that the driver’s side and passenger windows in his vehicle were both smashed.

–Field Level Media

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Film Study: Belichick’s plan mostly tamed Mahomes

Film Study: Belichick's plan mostly tamed Mahomes

Film Study: Belichick’s plan mostly tamed Mahomes

Bill Belichick will be enshrined in Canton one day, but one of his defensive game plans — for the New York Giants against the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV — is famously already there.

Eleven years after containing the Bills’ K-Gun attack, Belichick crafted another game plan that became part of Super Bowl lore, mashing Marshall Faulk at every available chance as the New England Patriots kick-started a dynasty by beating the then-St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Sunday’s plan against Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs might not earn that legacy — and with a different bounce or two, it wouldn’t have been enough — but it managed to flummox the best offense in football for three quarters, a tremendous feat.

Belichick’s intentions were clearly defined from the outset.

The Patriots planned a ball-control offensive approach to bleed time and keep the ball out of Patrick Mahomes’ hands. That couldn’t have gone better, as Mahomes didn’t touch the ball until the 6:50 mark of the first quarter and had just three possessions before halftime (besides one snap 21 seconds before the break). The Chiefs finished with just 47 plays, exactly half of the Pats’ total.

Next, Belichick sought to stop Tyreek Hill at all costs, even at the expense of doubling Travis Kelce.

New England played almost all man coverage — emphasizing physicality without worrying about drawing a flag or two — mostly out of dime personnel, with four cornerbacks and two safeties instead of their usual three of each. Top corner Stephon Gilmore took Sammy Watkins, while impressive rookie corner J.C. Jackson matched Kelce (until Gilmore and Jackson swapped assignments late), with Jason McCourty on the Chiefs’ third receiver. The fourth corner — Jonathan Jones and Keion Crossen alternated, perhaps to stay fresh against the speedster — tracked Hill underneath while free safety Devin McCourty bracketed him over the top, essentially leaving Cover-0 everywhere else.

With more two-high safety looks, the Patriots could have doubled Kelce and/or Watkins selectively, but that didn’t fit Belichick’s plan up front. He found it more important to use four- and (mostly) five-man rushes with a slew of blitzers, stunts and twists to flush Mahomes with one rusher into the arms of another.

New England incorporated edge rushers, inside linebackers and safety Patrick Chung (while one such player covered the running back), stunting them relentlessly to break down the Chiefs’ normally trustworthy protection. When only four rushed, the fifth was a lurker/spy, taking away inside routes and chasing down Mahomes if he fled the pocket. These designs shined early, producing four sacks for 46 yards lost.

Altogether, the plan was starkly different from the teams’ Week 6 meeting. Belichick used plenty of stunts and twists in that game, but not to the degree he did Sunday. Meanwhile, the coverage plan was completely overhauled. After keying heavily on Kelce — often doubling after a third defender jammed him at the line — in Foxborough, Belichick sold out to stop Hill at Arrowhead, ditching zone coverage almost entirely to do so. Hill managed one 42-yard catch, a far cry from his Week 6 output (seven catches, 142 yards, three scores). Kelce beat Jackson for a 12-yard touchdown and a 13-yard pass-interference call but finished with just three catches for 23 yards.

One of the few common threads between the plans was the use of Cover-0 double lurk — which we detailed in Thursday’s preview — though the Patriots called it only twice all game. The first was undermined by Mahomes’ sidearm throw (while getting crushed by Adrian Clayborn), converting a third-and-3 late in the third. The second forced a deep incompletion to Hill as Devin McCourty hit Mahomes on third-and-8 midway through the fourth.

As effective as Belichick’s strategy was, it couldn’t pin Mahomes down forever. The gunslinger escaped and hit Watkins for 54 yards off-schedule to set up the first touchdown. Starting late in the third, Mahomes was finally able to beat man coverage, with the help of a few pick plays from Reid.

Reid actually had several terrific designs, but many fell by the wayside amid the offense’s struggles. Hill’s 42-yarder was catered perfectly to beating double coverage, as the slow-developing post-corner forced McCourty to turn his hips the wrong way before Hill broke out. On the next snap, Reid called one of the Patriots’ favorite plays, a wheel route with legal offensive pass interference (within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage) by the tight end. Williams came wide open, only for Mahomes to air-mail a would-be 23-yard touchdown.

Reid featured Williams in several other ways. Late in the third, he used star motion to send Williams on a wheel up the sideline as Hill picked man-coverage mark Kyle Van Noy, creating a 33-yard gain. One play later, Williams zipped by Dont’a Hightower on a corner route from the backfield — a very uncommon route — but Mahomes overthrew him again. (The Chiefs scored two plays later.)

Williams’ 23-yard TD was also genius from Reid, a screen off outside-zone play-action that perfectly complemented a first-quarter design. In the first, Mahomes hit Kelce as he leaked out opposite the zone run fake; the second time around, Reid used Kelce’s route as misdirection to free Williams on the screen.

As we wondered in Thursday’s preview, Reid even broke out the halfback seam, a concept he used in Foxborough in the 2017 season opener (for Kareem Hunt’s 78-yard TD) and in Week 6 (Mahomes missed Hunt for a wide-open 26-yard TD). Late in the third, Reid sent Williams from the backfield up the left seam, where he ran away from John Simon as McCourty shaded heavily to Hill’s route out wide. But pressure intervened, as Van Noy blitzed around the edge (helped by a crafty hold from Malcom Brown) and forced Mahomes to move and run for 9 yards. Reid called another variant of the concept midway through the fourth, but the Patriots happened to be in a rare Cover-2 zone, and Elandon Roberts read the play and broke it up.

What will haunt K.C. most — besides Dee Ford lining up offsides on the would-be game-clinching interception — are the designs that worked but weren’t executed. The missed throw on Williams’ wheel route cost the Chiefs seven points (not just four) after a sack put them out of field-goal range. If Mahomes had time, the first HB seam might have been a 75-yard TD.

But Belichick’s plan was critical in shrinking the Chiefs’ margin for error.

Pressure from stunts and twists were responsible for K.C.’s biggest missed opportunities. Two men on Hill and a cornerback on Kelce limited the Chiefs’ best weapons to four total touches for 65 yards. And of course, the offense’s control of possession (43:59 of the game’s 64:52) limited Mahomes & Co. just 47 plays.

The Patriots needed every bit of those edges to survive, a credit to the coach who finds his team more tiny advantages than perhaps any coach in NFL history.

-Resourceful Rams’ offense found a way

Sean McVay’s staple offensive concepts weren’t working.

The New Orleans Saints’ defense gobbled up the Rams’ bread and butter for most of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, forcing L.A. to find success in less familiar ways. Had a certain flag been thrown on the other side of the ball, it wouldn’t have been enough, but given a break, the Rams’ offense took advantage by doing just enough to reach Super Bowl LIII.

For all of its brilliance, McVay’s scheme isn’t especially complicated. It’s built on a zone running game — which operates almost entirely from under center — and heavy downfield play-action off of those runs, all while using the same personnel on almost every snap.

For whatever reason, McVay changed up personnel Sunday more than he has almost all year, using two tight ends (instead of three wide receivers) on 17 snaps and favoring C.J. Anderson over Todd Gurley.

Gurley’s shrunken role was particularly shocking, as he received just four carries despite two of them going for 6 yards (and one for a touchdown). McVay suggested afterward he preferred Anderson’s grinding style, but Gurley is certainly capable of getting tough yards. Some have theorized McVay used Anderson to run inside instead Gurley’s preferred perimeter runs, but the Rams still ran plenty of outside zone with Anderson.

dRegardless, neither back was particularly successful. The Saints’ front seven squashed the run game by ignoring the bells and whistles (i.e. jet-sweep action), olding the pair to 54 yards on 20 carries (2.7 average).

Meanwhile, trusting that the run could be stopped without safety help, New Orleans employed a steady diet of zones — mostly Cover-2, sometimes with late rotations to get there — that diligently keyed on downfield routes. The deeper play-action concepts that the Rams feasted on in the teams’ Week 9 meeting simply weren’t there. Jared Goff routinely turned around from his play-fake and scanned the field to find no open targets, forcing him to hold the ball, check it down or throw it away.

Many of these plays were hopeless — one turned into the Saints’ only sack — but Goff scratched out a profit. Early on, he took what was available in the flat, throwing for pickups of 7, 6 and 4 yards and scrambling for 7 — modest but useful gains, considering L.A. had done little besides Johnny Hekker’s fake punt.

After halftime, the Rams adapted and attacked the flat off play-action by design, knowing they had to eat around the edges as the Saints’ zones keyed on deeper routes. Late in the third quarter, McVay sprung Brandin Cooks for 25 yards by having him cross the formation behind the line after the snap (called a “hide boot”), creating an easy dump-off and room to run after Robert Woods cleared out coverage. L.A. capped that drive with a play-action flat route to Tyler Higbee for a 1-yard touchdown. Then, twice in a three-play span in overtime, the Rams ran bootlegs with Higbee releasing into the flat. Goff found him despite getting clobbered on both, producing gains of 12 and 6 yards to get Greg Zuerlein in range for the game-winner.

Perhaps more impressive was how resourceful Goff was on straight dropbacks, an area in which he struggled mightily late in the year. After missing (with vision or accuracy) a few open targets on early third downs, Goff began attacking voids in zones with precision, moving the ball despite a few drops

During a two-minute touchdown drive to cap the first half, he delivered back-to-back dimes to Cooks for 17 yards (on a deep curl in a zone void) and 36 yards (on a slot fade against man coverage).

With everyone blanketed initially on third-and-3 early in the fourth, Goff bought time to his right and roped a throw to Gerald Everett, who came open late and collected 21 yards after the catch to gain 39. That kick-started a game-tying 85-yard drive.

Goff was sharp again when forced to throw in the final two minutes of regulation with the Rams down three. On eight straight dropbacks without play-action, he connected on five passes for 45 yards (despite a drop), including a laser 19-yarder to Josh Reynolds. Despite the deafening crowd, Goff orchestrated protections effectively during both two-minute drills, as the Rams were sharp picking up several Saints blitzes.

Of course, McVay did his part, too. With the run game struggling, he called a rare reverse — playing off jet-sweep tendencies by sending jet motion one way and the reverse the other — in the third quarter. The design, which kept offensive linemen blocking play-side and got Higbee out front as a lead blocker, was terrific, and Reynolds picked up 16.

McVay also sprung Reynolds on the only play-action deep shot that worked all game, a design that was simply too tricky for the Saints to cover. After New Orleans blanketed a throwback concept midway through the second, McVay called a similar play midway through the fourth. This time, McVay had Woods run a jet sweep to the left, flaring out to occupy the flat defender (safety Vonn Bell), while Cooks released vertically and broke inside on a dig to remove Marshon Lattimore’s coverage. Reynolds ran and out-and-up into Lattimore’s Cover-3 void, and with Bell eyeing Woods, only linebacker Demario Davis could cover Reynolds. The result was a 33-yard gain, which would have been a 40-yard TD with a better throw.

The sledding was tough, and the Saints made the Rams earn every inch. But L.A. ultimately managed just enough to earn a Super Bowl trip, despite a horrid start (including an interception deep in its own end), a career-worst outing for Gurley and the core of McVay’s offense getting stymied.

Perhaps it was good practice, considering Belichick is known for taking away what his opponent does best.

–David DeChant, Field Level Media

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Super Bowl food will be a super bargain in Atlanta

Super Bowl food will be a super bargain in Atlanta

Super Bowl food will be a super bargain in Atlanta

The fan-friendly menu prices at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium will remain intact for the Super Bowl.

A ticket to the game might cost more than a monthly mortgage payment, but fans watching the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII next month can save some money by eating $2 hot dogs and $3 nachos and washing it down with some $5 beer.

The Atlanta Falcons instituted “Fan First Menu Pricing” when they moved into the new stadium in 2017, and team president and CEO Rich McKay told ESPN the prices of the 12 items on the menu will stay as is for the game, just as they have for other big events there.

“We said this in our negotiations with the SEC, the college football championship, the Super Bowl, and the Final Four … what we basically said is every customer that comes through that door is our customer,” McKay said.

McKay said the menu has been a hit since Arthur Blank, the Falcons’ billionaire owner, introduced the idea and the team implemented it. Between the final season the Falcons played at the Georgia Dome, and their first season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, per-customer spending rose 16 percent even though prices dropped 55 percent, according to ESPN.

“So that just shows you the amount of volume that took place,” McKay said, adding other teams are starting to follow the Falcons’ model.

Other prices? A refillable soda, popcorn, pretzel or bottle of water costs $2. Waffle fries and a pizza slice are $3, and cheeseburgers sell for $5. For those who want to splurge, a basket of chicken fingers and fries goes for $6.

–Field Level Media

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Former NFL RB McFadden arrested for DWI

Former NFL RB McFadden arrested for DWI

Former NFL running back Darren McFadden was arrested early Monday

Former NFL RB McFadden arrested for DWI

Former NFL running back Darren McFadden was arrested early Monday in Texas on charges of driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest.

TMZ reported that the 31-year-old McFadden fell asleep in his SUV outside the drive-thru window of a Whataburger fast-food restaurant in suburban Dallas.

According to TMZ, McFadden resisted officers and that the driver’s side and passenger windows in his vehicle were both smashed.

McFadden was released on his own recognizance from Collin County jail a short time later, according to the Dallas Morning News.

McFadden played 10 seasons in the NFL after an All-American career at Arkansas. He rushed for 4,247 yards in 83 games with the Oakland Raiders (2008-14) and ran for 1,174 yards in 20 games with the Dallas Cowboys (2015-17).

McFadden rushed for 1,157 yards with the Raiders in 2010 and for 1,089 yards with the Cowboys in 2015.

–Field Level Media

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Saints’ owner issues statement on controversial loss

Saints' owner issues statement on controversial loss

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Saints’ owner issues statement on controversial loss

A day after her New Orleans Saints lost the NFC Championship Game due, in part, to a missed call by the officials, team owner Gayle Benson issued a strong statement of disapproval on Monday.

“I am thoroughly disappointed by the events that led to the outcome of yesterday’s game,” the statement said, in part. “Getting to the Super Bowl is incredibly difficult to do and takes such an unbelievable commitment from a team and support from its fans. No team should ever be denied the opportunity to reach the title game (or simply win a game) based on the actions, or inactions, of those charged with creating a fair and equitable playing field. As is clear to all who watched the game, it is undeniable that our team and fans were unfairly deprived of that opportunity yesterday.

“I have been in touch with the NFL regarding yesterday’s events and will aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again. It is a disservice to our coaches, players, employees and, most importantly, the fans who make our game possible. The NFL must always commit to providing the most basic of expectations — fairness and integrity.”

Officials declined to throw a flag after Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman clearly hit Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived on a third-and-10 pass. Had a penalty been called, the Saints would have been able to run the clock down before kicking a 31-yard field goal as time expired, which would have won the game and sent them to the Super Bowl.

Instead, they were forced to kick a field goal with 1:41 remaining, leaving time for the Rams to tie and force overtime, where the Saints went on to lose.

Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters after the game he spoke with Alberto Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, who confirmed the incorrect non-call.

Robey-Coleman admitted afterward he made contact before Lewis had a chance to catch the pass.

“Yes, I got there too early,” he said. “I was beat, and I was trying to save the touchdown.”

Referee Bill Vinovich briefly addressed the play during a postgame interview with a pool reporter.

“It was a judgment call by the covering official,” Vinovich said. “I personally have not seen the play. … It is not a reviewable play.”

The Washington Post reported Monday that the NFL will consider making pass interference a reviewable play this offseason.

“It will be discussed at length along with additional fouls that coaches feel should be subject to review,” a person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings told the Post.

Replay is not an option for pass interference and other “judgment calls” but was discussed as recently as March.

To implement a rule allowing for pass interference to be validated by replay or expose this and other judgment calls to a coach’s challenge, at least three-quarters of the 32 owners must vote to approve it.

–Field Level Media

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Bears QB Trubisky tagged in for Goff at Pro Bowl

Bears QB Trubisky tagged in for Goff at Pro Bowl

Bears QB Trubisky tagged in for Goff at Pro Bowl

Jared Goff has plans, opening his Pro Bowl roster spot for Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Goff and the Los Angeles Rams are bound for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, winning the NFC Championship game on Sunday at New Orleans.

Trubisky, whose Bears won the NFC North, guided Chicago to a win over Goff’s Rams in December.

Pro Bowl practice begins Wednesday and the all-star game will be played Sunday in Orlando, Fla.

The Bears haven’t sent a quarterback to the Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon in 1986.

Running back and return man Tarik Cohen, safety Eddie Jackson, cornerback Kyle Fuller, linebacker Khalil Mack and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks were voted into the Pro Bowl. Mack is sitting out due to a sprained knee.

–Field Level Media

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Trubisky, Watson to replace Goff, Brady in Pro Bowl

Trubisky, Watson to replace Goff, Brady in Pro Bowl

Trubisky, Watson to replace Goff, Brady in Pro Bowl

Jared Goff and Tom Brady have plans, opening Pro Bowl roster spots for Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Houston’s Deshaun Watson to participate in the all-star game in Florida this weekend.

Goff and the Los Angeles Rams are bound for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, winning the NFC Championship game on Sunday in New Orleans. Brady and the New England Patriots are making the familiar trip for the AFC after a victory in Kansas City.

Trubisky, whose Bears won the NFC North, guided Chicago to a win over Goff’s Rams in December.

Watson and the Texans lost to Brady’s Patriots in Week 3.

It is the first Pro Bowl for both quarterbacks, who were both drafted in the first round in 2017.

Pro Bowl practice begins Wednesday and the game will be played Sunday in Orlando, Fla.

In 2018, Watson became the first player with 4,000 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, 500 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns in a single season in NFL history.

Trubisky is the first Bears quarterback to make the Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon in 1986. He passed for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 421 yards and three scores.

–Field Level Media

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Report: NFL puts PI on review to-do list

Report: NFL puts PI on review to-do list

Report: NFL puts PI on review to-do list

Pass interference soon could be a reviewable play in the NFL, according to sources cited by The Washington Post on Monday.

That’s not soon enough from the perspective of the New Orleans Saints, who would have been in position to put the NFC championship game on ice late in the fourth quarter Sunday had a collision prior to the ball arriving — textbook pass interference in the NFL rulebook — not been a non-call.

Saints head coach Sean Payton erupted on the sideline and appeared to scold game officials for blowing “a Super Bowl call.”

Payton said after the game the missed call is something New Orleans will “probably never get over.”

“It will be discussed at length along with additional fouls that coaches feel should be subject to review,” a person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings told The Washington Post on Monday.

Replay is not an option for pass interference and other “judgment calls” but was discussed as recently as March.

To implement a rule allowing for pass interference to be validated by replay or expose this and other judgment calls to a coach’s challenge, at least three-quarters of the 32 owners must vote to approve it.

“They blew the call,” Payton said Sunday night. “It’s a game-changing call – third down with 1:45 left. A tough one to swallow. My problem with it is, if we’re playing pickup football in the backyard, it was as obvious a call. How two guys can look at that and come up with their decision – we’ll probably never get over it. The truth is, some of these losses … one like that, it’s too bad.”

Rams nickel cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman blasted Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis and admitted after the game he wasn’t concerned about the penalty — he thought is was a certainty — but was focused solely on not allowing a game-ending touchdown.

“Hell yeah,” Robey-Coleman said Sunday. “That was PI.”

No penalty was called. Instead, the Saints attempted and made a go-ahead field goal with 1:41 on the clock.

The Rams tied the game with their own field goal and then won it on a 57-yarder in overtime.

–Field Level Media

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Eagles defend QB Wentz from anonymous critics

Eagles defend QB Wentz from anonymous critics

Philadelphia players rallied to Carson Wentz's defense Monday after unnamed teammates reportedly called the Eagles quarterback "selfish" and "egotistical."

A report criticizing Wentz

Eagles defend QB Wentz from anonymous critics

Philadelphia players rallied to Carson Wentz’s defense Monday after unnamed teammates reportedly called the Eagles quarterback “selfish” and “egotistical.”

A report criticizing Wentz by PhillyVoice.com cited “more than a half dozen” players who requested to remain anonymous, “fearing repercussions.”

Among the claims in the report were that Wentz “bullied” offensive coordinator Mike Groh, played “favorites” by over-targeting Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, and generally acted “like he’s won 10 Super Bowls.”

Wentz, 26, received immediate support on social media from All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, offensive linemen Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks, and Ertz.

“None of that is true,” Cox wrote on Twitter. “We are all behind him 100 percent.”

“Don’t believe everything you read!!!” Ertz tweeted. “Carson has been nothing but a GREAT person, GREAT teammate and GREAT leader since Day 1.”

Johnson tweeted that “whoever wrote that article needs to check their ‘sources.'”

The No. 2 overall draft pick in 2016, Wentz is 23-17 in three seasons as the starter in Philadelphia. His last two regular seasons have ended with injuries, but head coach Doug Pederson confirmed last month that Wentz is “our guy” heading into 2019.

–Field Level Media

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Lowry back in top 50, Long vaults to No. 133

Lowry back in top 50, Long vaults to No. 133

Lowry back in top 50, Long vaults to No. 133

Adam Long skyrocketed 284 spots while Ireland’s Shane Lowry re-entered the top 50 in the official world golf rankings following victories over the weekend.

Long, 31, earned his first PGA Tour victory with a come-from-behind win at The Desert Classic – only the second made cut of his brief Tour career. Lowry rose 34 spots to No. 41 with his wire-to-wire victory in Abu Dhabi, his first worldwide win since 2015.

Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond also reaped the rewards of his victory at the SMBC Singapore Open, moving to a career-high 74th and earning a spot in The Open Championship this summer.

England’s Justin Rose retained the No. 1 spot for the seventh week in his career following his tie for 34th in La Quinta, Calif. There were no changes in the top 10, with Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau rounding out the top five.

They are followed by Xander Schauffele, Spain’s Jon Rahm – who finished sixth in his title defense at the Desert Classic – Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Italy’s Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau.

Rickie Fowler moved up two spots to No. 11 despite having not played a competitive round since the Hero World Challenge last month. He moved past Australia’s Jason Day and Tiger Woods, who will make his 2019 debut at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open.

Phil Mickelson, who is not playing at Torrey Pines this week, moved up eight spots to No. 26 after tying for second at the Desert Classic, where he held the lead after each of the first three rounds.

–Field Level Media

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Brady sought out Mahomes for postgame chat

Brady sought out Mahomes for postgame chat

Brady sought out Mahomes for postgame chat

Shortly after the New England Patriots won Sunday’s AFC championship game, and after quarterback Tom Brady had finished his obligatory meetings with the media, he had one thing he wanted to do.

The 18-year veteran left his teammates and wandered to the home locker room at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, seeking a few moments with the Chiefs’ second-year quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, according to multiple reports.

“Tom Brady just quietly approached a security guard waiting outside the Chiefs’ locker room – and asked if he could see Patrick Mahomes,” ESPN’s Jeff Darlington tweeted. “Brady was escorted into a room where he spoke briefly with him. A very clear display of respect from one incredible quarterback to another.”

The Patriots defeated the Chiefs 37-31 in overtime and are headed to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3. This will be Brady’s ninth appearance in the game, which his Patriots have won five times.

Of the gesture, Brady told Peter King of Football Morning In America: “I just went and saw him. I mean, he’s feeling like you think he’d feel when you lose a game like this. It hurts. He’s a hell of a … I mean, what a great young player. So impressed with his poise, his leadership. He is spectacular.”

Mahomes led a furious fourth-quarter comeback as the Chiefs scored 24 points to send the game to overtime. New England won the coin toss and never relinquished the ball, scoring a touchdown to win.

Mahomes was 16-of-31 passing for 295 yards and three touchdowns. Brady completed 30 of 46 passes for 348 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

–Field Level Media

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Titans promote tight ends coach Smith to OC

Titans promote tight ends coach Smith to OC

Titans promote tight ends coach Smith to OC

The Tennessee Titans have promoted tight ends coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator, the team announced Monday.

Smith joined the Titans’ staff in 2011 and has coached the tight ends since midway through the 2015 campaign.

Smith replaces Matt LaFleur, who was named head coach of the Green Bay Packers earlier this month.

“I am excited for Arthur and for our team to be able to elevate a deserving coach,” said Titans head coach Mike Vrabel. “I was impressed throughout the season in gameplan meetings with his ideas, in-game with his understanding of situations and the ability to get the most out of his position group.

“We spent a good bit of time last week talking about this opportunity. He has a great deal of familiarity with our players and the continuity of the offense will allow our players to continue to develop and improve.”

Smith’s success and reputation have kept him on the Tennessee payroll under four different head coaches: Vrabel, Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey.

Under Smith, Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker made three straight Pro Bowls (2015-17). After Walker went down with a season-ending injury in the 2018 opener, second-year tight end Jonnu Smith stepped up with 20 catches for 258 yards and three touchdowns.

The biggest challenge facing Smith after his big promotion is getting the most out of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Smith will be Mariota’s fifth OC in five seasons.

–Field Level Media

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