/B/R Staff NFL Weekly Report Card for Conference Title Weekend

B/R Staff NFL Weekly Report Card for Conference Title Weekend

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    David Eulitt/Getty Images

    The NFL preaches parity, but most people want to see the two best teams playing one another in the Super Bowl.

    Fans are going to get exactly that when the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers meet in Miami for an opportunity to raise the Lombardi Trophy after they each claimed conference titles Sunday.

    The formula that helped them reach this point has been rather simple. The Chiefs have the league’s best quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, while the 49ers are football’s best-coached team.

    On the flip side, the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers will go home and lick their wounds after previously impressive runs to the championship games. Uncertainty surrounds those teams after uncharacteristically poor performances by their best players.

    Plenty will be settled in the coming days, weeks and months.

    First, Bleacher Report’s cadre of NFL writers—Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski, Gary Davenport, Mike Freeman, Mike Tanier and Ty Dunne—look ahead to the big game, next season and the long-term effects from this year’s postseason, basing their grades on how they expect things to progress.

         

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    For the second time in his illustrious career, Andy Reid will be the head coach of a Super Bowl squad.

    “I’m fired up. Fired up to go to Miami. I need to go on a diet so I can fit in my clothes and we can go do our thing,” Reid told reporters. “Very proud of everybody.”

    His 2004 Philadelphia Eagles squad came up short against the New England Patriots when the moment overwhelmed Donovan McNabb. Fifteen years later, Reid has a much different quarterback leading the way in Patrick Mahomes, who looked every bit the best league’s best player in the Chiefs’ 35-24 victory over the Titans on Sunday.

    The current Chiefs squad is arguably the best Reid has ever fielded as a head coach. Will it be enough for Big Red to finally win the biggest game of his career and cement his status as a legendary coach?

    Ty Dunne: B

    He has Mahomes, and Mahomes will give any coach in any year great odds to win a Super Bowl. The guess here is that he makes San Francisco match him drive for drive, and this one goes down as one of the best Super Bowls ever.

    Mike Freeman: A

    Best team he’s ever had, best quarterback he’s ever had, best defense he’s ever had, best coaching staff he’s ever had, best version of Andy Reid we’ve ever seen. If he doesn’t win now, he never will.

    Mike Tanier: B+

    Let’s give him 3-2 odds. Not only is this his best team ever, but this old Eagles fan felt the ghosts of Reid’s playoff failures past getting exorcised one by one over the last two weeks as the Chiefs overcame their own mistakes, stomped on the accelerator and left their opponents in the dust.

    Brent Sobleski: D

    Basically, the 49ers hold an edge going into the Super Bowl, and my grade reflects that status. The Chiefs are fantastic, especially on offense, and Reid is a Hall of Fame-caliber coach. But San Francisco is simply the better all-around team going into the championship meeting because it presents an elite defense, a dominant run game and a head coach at the peak of his play-calling prowess. 

    Brad Gagnon: B+

    My initial impression is that this Super Bowl is essentially a toss-up, but I’m giving the more experienced Chiefs a tiny edge.

    Gary Davenport: C-

    This is no knock on the Chiefs. Kansas City’s offense is ridiculous, and the defense is quietly better than many think. But you can flip that script in regard to the 49ers. I’m jacked for this Super Bowl: a classic offense vs. defense matchup with strength versus strength. But I tend to lean toward the latter, if only slightly. “Defense wins championships” is a saying for a reason.

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans maximized their potential this season with impressive playoff wins over the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens.

    The team relied on three factors.

    First, head coach Mike Vrabel and his staff out-coached and out-prepared Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh along the way. Second, the team played a disciplined and smart brand of football. Finally, running back Derrick Henry dominated with a performance unlike anything the NFL has seen during the playoffs.

    But Tennessee still came up short against Kansas City’s explosive offense and much-improved defense. On top of that, multiple key Titans are set to hit free agency in Henry, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, right tackle Jack Conklin and cornerback Logan Ryan.

    Do the Titans have what it takes to build upon their recent success, or will the team regress next season?

        

    Ty Dunne: A+

    Vrabel dug this team out of a 2-4 hole and proved to everyone he is legit. This team is built differently and built to last. They’re not going anywhere with a strong, young nucleus in place.

    Mike Freeman: A+

    They have a chance to be a massive force in the AFC for years. It’s not just Henry and Tannehill; it’s also wide receiver A.J. Brown. This guy is already a huge star and will only get better.

    Mike Tanier: C

    The Titans are the Vikings of the AFC. They are going to overpay Tannehill and Henry to keep this team intact, which will keep them from getting significantly better and result in more 9-7 finishes and wild-card berths. The only alternative is for the Titans to think outside the box by not paying Henry or by finding a creative alternative to Tannehill. Few organizations have the chutzpah to take risks like those after a season like this one.

    Brent Sobleski: B+

    The Titans could very well lose significant talent this offseason. Even if Tennessee does, the team will still be one of the best-coached and most disciplined squads in the league. That’s really what everyone learned this postseason: Vrabel is one helluva coach.

    Brad Gagnon: D

    I don’t fully believe in Tannehill, and I don’t think relying that heavily on a running back is a good, sustainable strategy. This year’s team got hot at the right time, but it’s not a Super Bowl-caliber team right now. Changes are necessary.

    Gary Davenport: B

    Tennessee is headed into the franchise’s most important offseason since…ever, maybe. Do you sign Tannehill and tag Henry? Tag Tannehill and sign Henry? And there are other areas that need to be addressed. But that playoff run showed the Titans aren’t far off. I have more than a little confidence in Mike Vrabel—and more confidence in Tennessee than any other team in the AFC South. So long as they don’t hire Bill O’Brien, the Titans should be fine.

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Derrick Henry was the NFL’s best runner during the 2019 campaign.

    The 6’3″, 247-pounder won a rushing title with 1,540 yards. He became the first running back in NFL history with two 175-plus-yard postseason efforts. His dominance throughout the season built like a runaway freight train.

    It didn’t matter in the end, though. The Chiefs held Henry to 69 yards in the AFC Championship Game.

    “I am definitely going to miss this team,” Henry told reporters after the loss. “And as I look back, I know I had a lot of good teammates, a lot of good moments I can look back on.”

    The running back’s phrasing is quite interesting since he’s now a free agent. He can sign anywhere unless the Titans decide to place the franchise tag on their offensive workhorse.

    Considering Henry’s performances, especially in the playoffs, what are the odds he’ll be the NFL’s highest-paid player at his position for the 2020 campaign?

    Ty Dunne: A

    I know. We’re all supposed to frown upon any team that pays a running back, right? Whatever. Henry is a beast. And he’s young. And he just proved he can throw an offense on his back all the way to the AFC Championship. He’s worth the money.

    Mike Freeman: B

    There’s a solid chance this is accurate, but I can tell you one thing teams (including the Titans) will be cautious about: the massive physical abuse Henry has taken. He delivers plenty of shots but also takes a ton of them. Teams will be worried about the wear and tear.

    Mike Tanier: C

    Henry is going to sign a $50 million contract, and he will rush for 857 yards, 12 touchdowns and 3.8 yards per carry next season. Yes, those are Todd Gurley’s numbers from this year. The same thing happens just about every time a running back (particularly a big power back) signs a long-term contract. If anything, Henry is more likely to go bust than someone like Gurley because he contributes so little as a receiver.

    Brent Sobleski: D

    Should the Titans do nearly everything in their power to retain Henry? Of course. Should they break the bank to make sure he stays in Tennessee? Absolutely not. The following are the league’s top five highest-paid running backs in total contractual value: Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and David Johnson. Yeeeeaaah.

    Brad Gagnon: A

    He’s certainly earned it, and the timing is right. Nobody should give a running back that kind of money, but somebody will.

    Gary Davenport: D

    As fantastic as Henry was in 2019, I don’t see the Titans signing him to a long-term deal worth over $15 million per season. And they shouldn’t—not after just one big year. Not with the beating he takes and the short shelf life of running backs. The smart move (not that Henry will like it) is to tag him while re-upping Tannehill on a relatively short-term deal that’s either fully guaranteed or close to it.

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    All of the same tropes will work their way to the forefront with two weeks of coverage before Super Bowl LIV.

    “The irresistible force meets the immovable object” will definitely be a favorite because it’ll apply to matchups when the San Francisco offense meets the Kansas City defense and vice versa.

    The 49ers’ ground game chewed up and spit out its two playoff opponents so far with 471 rushing yards. On Sunday, Raheem Mostert became the only player in league history with 200 or more rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in a playoff contest, according to NFL Research.

    Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has attempted only 27 passes through two postseason contests, including a measly eight during Sunday’s 37-20 victory over the Packers.

    However, the Chiefs were ready for the league’s leading rusher and held Henry to 69 rushing yards after he destroyed both the Patriots and Ravens.

    The 49ers present a different type of running scheme. Tennessee has a physical, downhill attack, whereas San Francisco uses a multifaceted approach built off its zone-stretch base.

    Will the 49ers’ rushing attack continue to roll through the Chiefs as it did against previous opponents?

    Ty Dunne: B

    Frank Clark will have something to say, surely, and maybe he’s shouting into a mic again on the field after a win. This KC defense is here for a reason, but Shanahan and this 49ers’ ground game is a machine. It was kind of sad to see the Packers absolutely knowing the 49ers were going to run—again and again and again—and unable to do a damn thing about it.

    Mike Freeman: A+

    The Chiefs just slowed Henry. And while that’s impressive, this 49ers offensive line is the most physical in football. It will maul the Chiefs defense. 

    Mike Tanier: B

    The 49ers are going to chunk out yardage against the Chiefs. But they will also almost certainly need Garoppolo to attempt more than eight passes. Like the Titans and Henry, they will need to tilt the game in their direction to run the ball like they want. And that means more than just taking the lead because if the last two weeks have taught us anything, it’s that no lead is safe against the Chiefs.

    Brent Sobleski: B+

    Too many slobbered over Henry and what the Titans were doing without realizing the 49ers were doing it better, albeit in a different manner. San Francisco doesn’t need a workhorse back because the scheme is so well devised. It can rely on its zone-stretch base or switch to man principles. And the Niners keep doing these things without missing a beat whenever someone like center Weston Richburg or running back Tevin Coleman is injured.

    Brad Gagnon: C+

    Kansas City’s run defense was a big problem earlier this year, but that unit has been great since November. If you can shut down Henry, you can probably shut down the 49ers on the ground, as well.

    Gary Davenport: C+

    Mostert was incredible against the Packers, and I fully expect the 49ers to be able to have some success on the ground against the Chiefs. But if Coleman can’t go, it’s going to put immense pressure on Mostert to keep the Niners out of 3rd-and-long and Mahomes on the sideline. Of all the games within the game in Super Bowl LIV, this may be the most important.

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson earned the NFL MVP award this season (once he’s finally named). But the Chiefs quarterback is the league’s best player.

    Mahomes currently exemplifies what it means to be a true franchise quarterback.

    His performance Sunday against the Titans only cemented his status. The 2018 MVP completed 23 of 35 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the team with 53 rushing yards, including a dynamic 27-yard touchdown scamper.

    “He’s the best quarterback in the league, and he shows it every time,” tight end Travis Kelce said on the field after Kansas City’s AFC Championship Game victory.

    No one is going to deny Mahomes’ greatness. At the same time, the 49ers defense is pretty damn good in its own right. San Francisco features the game’s best defensive front with five former first-rounders, each of whom can get after the quarterback. The 49ers also hold the title of the league’s best pass defense.

    As good as the 49ers are on the defensive side of the ball, is the unit capable of bottling up Mahomes?

    Ty Dunne: C

    The Titans thought they had a plan. They were ready to make Mahomes pay…until they didn’t. Unlike the Titans, the 49ers will have a steady pass rush, but Mahomes is on the kind of historic roll that feels borderline unstoppable.

    Mike Freeman: C

    This a gutless answer, but I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure any defense can stop—or even slow—Mahomes, but damn, that 49ers defense is good. They are one of the only defenses that has the speed, ferociousness and athleticism to impact Mahomes.

    Mike Tanier: C

    The 49ers defense is great, but the Chiefs are built to beat opponents in just too many ways. The 49ers just did a good job beating Vikings and Packers teams with limited weapons. They’re about to face a team made up almost entirely of weapons.

    Brent Sobleski: B

    Nothing bothers a quarterback more than pressure. Yes, even the mighty Mahomes can be flustered when enough pressure is applied by an opposing defense. For all of Kansas City’s talent, the Chiefs are not nearly as dynamic along their offensive interior, and that’s where San Francisco will hold a significant edge.

    Brad Gagnon: C

    This is an epic matchup that could go either way, but I’m not sure anyone can completely hold Mahomes in check right now. I’ll side with offense over defense.

    Gary Davenport: C-

    This all hedges on San Francisco’s ability to pressure Mahomes consistently. If they can do that, the Niners will likely win the game. The problem is Mahomes isn’t just mobile; he can flick a 60-yard pass past busted coverage for a score without batting an eye (ask the Titans). “In check” is a relative term, and I don’t expect him to explode for 400 yards and four scores. But I have to give a slim edge here to the best quarterback in football. He’s just that good.

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    What defines greatness? Usually, you know it when you see it.

    Rodgers has been a great quarterback for most of his starting career. But he wasn’t as effective during the Packers’ latest postseason run.

    He finished with 326 passing yards Sunday in a 37-20 loss to the 49ers. That number couldn’t be more misleading. San Francisco built a dominant 27-0 first-half lead. Rodgers threw for only 66 yards and committed two turnovers before halftime. His stats predominantly came in garbage time.

    “They did a couple different things we didn’t expect on third down that got us … give them credit,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters after the loss. “They made more plays than us and coached better than us.”

    The quarterback’s downturn started well before Green Bay’s final game of the season. In fact, the two-time league MVP played five games against top-10 defenses during the regular season and averaged only 181.8 passing yards per game.

    Despite those concerning performances, should Rodgers still be considered one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks?

    Ty Dunne: C-

    It’s time for the Packers to focus their offense round the other Aaron…as in Aaron Jones. He is the star playmaker on this team. Rodgers is still serviceable and good enough to win a playoff game (as he did against Seattle), but whether it was his call or the coaches’ or some mixture of the two, the early plan in Santa Clara backfired. The second-half stat-boosting shouldn’t cloud the fact that Rodgers struggled mightily in another conference title game. He’ll be 37 this time next year.

    Mike Freeman: A

    Still elite. Stop this. Just stop. I said stop. Now.

    Mike Tanier: B

    Rodgers remains elite at being Rodgers. Sunday’s game was all about Rodgers, from the throws no other quarterback (except Mahomes) can make to the first half of holding the ball too long, taking sacks, misfiring and fumbling snaps. He’s great. He’s a Hall of Famer. And if I were a general manager, I would strongly consider starting over instead of waiting for 2011 to come again.

    Brent Sobleski: D

    Mahomes is elite. Rodgers isn’t any longer. I know that’s tough to hear, and I’m sure many will be upset about it. But facts are facts. Elite quarterbacks can shoulder an offense when necessary and elevate the play of everyone around them. Does that describe what we’ve all seen from Rodgers this season? Nope. 

    Brad Gagnon: C+

    This loss wasn’t really on Rodgers, but I think he was hanging by a thread as an elite quarterback prior to Sunday’s game. He just hasn’t been right for several years now.

    Gary Davenport: B

    Is Rodgers the quarterback he once was? Nope. But Green Bay’s loss isn’t solely on him—or even mostly on him. The turnovers were admittedly bad. The run defense was infinitely worse. And it might be nice if Rodgers had more than one receiver he could rely on for more than two catches per game.