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Arizona Cardinals DE J.J. Watt likely in store for season-ending shoulder surgery, sources say



TEMPE, Ariz. — On the eve of their biggest game of the season to date, the Arizona Cardinals lost one of their most important defensive players.

Defensive end J.J. Watt will undergo what is likely to be season-ending shoulder surgery, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Wednesday night. No date has been set for the procedure.

The Cardinals host the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night in a matchup for early control of the NFC. Arizona is 7-0, and Green Bay is 6-1, producing, perhaps, the best Thursday night game of the Super Bowl era. It’s the highest combined winning percentage (.929) for a Thursday game in October or later during the Super Bowl era and the first time since the 1970 merger that two teams with at least 13 combined wins meet in Week 8 or earlier.

Watt, in his first year with the Cardinals, injured his shoulder in the second quarter Sunday, yet still managed to play the rest of the game with the injury. He finished with a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit.

The undefeated Cardinals, who sit in first place in the NFC, ruled Watt out against the Packers when the injury report was released earlier Wednesday. He didn’t participate in the Cardinals’ only practice of the week on Tuesday. Turns out, his status was much worse.

Watt had recently found his groove in the Cardinals’ defense after needing about four games to both get his football legs under him after missing all of training camp because of a hamstring injury and getting acclimated to a new defense.

Watt had 10 tackles, including five for a loss, and one sack this season. Meshing in with new defensive teammates, he managed to do what has been a staple of his career: getting to the quarterback often. He finished with 10 quarterback hits in the first seven games, including nine in his past four.

But his impact goes deeper on a Cardinals defense that’s the best on third down and is tied for the league-lead in fewest points allowed per game.

He has the third-highest pass rush win rate for defensive tackles, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Watt beat his blocker within 2.5 seconds on 22.8% of snaps when he lined up at defensive tackle, the third-best rate in the league.

Watt’s pass rush has led to three sacks and two interceptions

“I think J has played well the last three weeks,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said before Sunday’s win against the Houston Texans. “He missed camp, so the first couple games during the season, he wasn’t in form. From the Rams game, the San Fran game last week, to [Sunday], he’s played at a high level. He’s so disruptive. He’s making plays. The sack numbers are not there, but as far as the plays he’s made on third downs, knocking balls down, making TFLs on first and second down, he’s been a dominant player the last three weeks.”

And now another injury for the three-time defensive player of the year.

After starting all 80 games in his first five seasons, Watt missed 13 games in 2016 because of two back surgeries, 11 games in 2017 because of a fractured left tibia and eight games in 2019 because of a torn pec. If he misses the rest of this season, he will have missed 42 games in the six seasons since that 80-game run, missing at least half the games in four of those six seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. It also will be the fourth time in the past six seasons he has suffered a season-ending injury.

Though Watt will be out, the Cardinals will get back pass-rusher Chandler Jones, who missed the past two games because of COVID-19. He was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday.

A win would make the Cardinals 8-0 for the first time in franchise history.

Even with Watt not at 100%, Arizona’s defense was dominant Sunday in a 31-5 victory over the Texans.

“It was a game we should have won,” Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. “And we did.”

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Who’s responsible for Green Bay Packers’ special teams debacle this time around? – Green Bay Packers Blog



GREEN BAY, Wis. — Matt LaFleur might change special teams coordinators for the second straight year. And most probably think the Green Bay Packers coach has to after the debacle that wasn’t just Saturday night’s 13-10 divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers but also a season filled with special teams catastrophes.

But will it really do any good?

Maybe Maurice Drayton was the problem. And Shawn Mennenga the problem before that. And Ron Zook before that. And Shawn Slocum. And Mike Stock. And John Bonamego. And on and on.

The previous seven special teams coordinators in Green Bay have seen their end come in one of two ways: fired or forced into retirement. The most recent with a different fate was Johnny Holland, but even he didn’t retain his position. He ran the special teams in 1998, but when Mike Holmgren left to coach the Seattle Seahawks in 1999, Packers coach Ray Rhodes moved Holland to coach linebackers — the position he played in the NFL.

If it’s not scheme and coaching, then why are the Packers so repeatedly substandard on special teams?

“Ted never prioritized special teams and neither does Gutey,” said a longtime NFL agent who has had several players — including many who have played on special teams — with the Packers.

That’s in reference to the past two Packers general managers, the late Ted Thompson and current GM Brian Gutekunst. It was especially surprising with Thompson, who made a decade-long NFL career out of being a special-teamer. But perhaps it’s not as surprising that Gutekunst has a similar approach — although in 2018 he did draft a punter and a long-snapper, neither of whom are still on the roster — given that he worked under Thompson.

Thompson gave up on a pair of players who would be among the top special teams players in the league. In 2016, he cut safety Chris Banjo, who has been a core special teams player for the New Orleans Saints (2016-18) and now the Arizona Cardinals (2019-present). Before that, safety Anthony Levine, who spent two years on the Packers’ practice squad (2010-11) before he was cut at the end of the 2012 training camp, signed with the Baltimore Ravens. He was a core player on special teams units that ranked in the top six in the NFL annually from 2012 to 2018. Levine is still on their roster.

While neither likely would have had much of a role on defense, and two players over the course of a decade don’t make special teams better or worse, they’re just two examples of how the Packers’ approach to special teams has impacted their units over the years.

Coincidentally, the last two teams that eliminated the Packers from the postseason had long-snappers who once were in Green Bay: Taybor Pepper with the 49ers and Zach Triner with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers moved on from both. Meanwhile, they tried two different long-snappers this season, which might have contributed in part to kicker Mason Crosby’s struggles.

ESPN’s Football Power Index ranked the Packers 31st among the 32 teams in special teams efficiency during the regular season, so expecting the playoffs to be different was unrealistic.

But this seemed excessive even by their standards.

The 49ers blocked a field goal and a punt, making the Packers the first team in 33 years to have both happen to them in the same playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. It last happened to the Houston Oilers on Jan. 1, 1989, against the Buffalo Bills.

The blocked field goal, a 39-yarder, came on the final play of the first half and would have given the Packers a 10-0 halftime lead.

The second block came with the Packers punting from their own 12-yard line in the fourth quarter. The 49ers returned it for a gimme touchdown to tie the game at 10-10 with 4 minutes, 41 seconds to play.

“You could argue that was the difference in the game,” LaFleur said. “But I think it was more than just that play.”

Oh, there was more on special teams.

In between the two blocked kicks, Deebo Samuel returned the opening kickoff of the second half 45 yards to set up the 49ers’ first score, a 29-yard field goal that made it a 7-3 game.

And the final ignominy came when the field-goal-blocking unit that Drayton sent out as Robbie Gould lined up for the game-winning 45-yarder included only 10 Packers players. Based on alignments and personnel the Packers used against the 49ers previous two kicks — the third-quarter field goal and the fourth-quarter extra point — it appears that linebacker Tipa Galeai was the one who didn’t take the field.

“That can’t happen,” LaFleur said. “It’s unacceptable. Again, that’s on me.”

It’s not like LaFleur didn’t see it coming. Special teams was a problem when the season started and a problem when it ended.

Drayton seemingly spent all season trying to get it right.

Six weeks into the season, he said: “When I go back to Week 1 and I go to now, I see a progression of us getting better. The untrained eye may not see it. The stats column doesn’t see it, but I see it. As long as I see it and those young men see it, we will be where we need to be when it truly, truly counts in November, December, January.”

Little had changed by Dec. 12 against the Chicago Bears, when the Packers had no fewer than nine special teams plays that went against them, and Drayton said: “Right now we’re just trying to fix, fix, fix and we’ll judge it in the end.”

The end is now here, and LaFleur is the judge. Maybe he won’t make a change because no head coach wants the reputation of firing assistants left and right; that makes it harder to attract good coaches.

Or maybe he will decide to shake things up and bring in someone from the outside.

Drayton was promoted from within, having served as an assistant to both Mennenga and Zook (who worked under previous head coach Mike McCarthy). Zook got the job the same way, stepping in after Slocum was fired following the botched onside kick recovery in the 2014 NFC Championship Game.

“These are things I’ve got to do a better job, obviously, in being more involved to make sure that those types of things don’t happen, that we’re putting those guys in the right position and coaching them the right way,” LaFleur said. “And ultimately, it all falls on me.”

A dominant defensive performance against the 49ers led by budding star outside linebacker Rashan Gary couldn’t make up for the special teams blunders and another mediocre playoff performance by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“We just would like to play even — make some plays [and] kinda have a wash in the special teams,” Rodgers said. “That’d be good. But in crucial, critical situations, we had obviously some issues. But offensively, you score 10 points, you’re not going to win a lot of those games.”

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Denver Broncos’ coaching search goes coast-to-coast as 10 candidates (so far) have made their case – Denver Broncos Blog



ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos have finished the first round of interviews for the team’s head-coaching job.

They covered four time zones — five cities and seven interviews this past week alone — and got almost all of them done face-to-face. Now they’ll decide if any of the 10 people they’ve interviewed gets a callback as they move toward the selection of the kind of leader general manager George Paton has said he wants to replace Vic Fangio.

A couple of big-picture items to remember: Since Mike Shanahan was hired in 1995, the only Broncos head coaches to take the team to the playoffs had been head coaches before: Shanahan, John Fox and Gary Kubiak. None of the three first-time head coaches during that span (Josh McDaniels, Vance Joseph and Fangio) made it past three seasons.

Here’s a rundown of whom the Broncos spoke to, the biggest football questions those coaches had to answer and any potential hurdles they face — in the order they were interviewed by the team:

Aaron Glenn

Age: 49

Current job: Detroit Lions defensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: Glenn played 15 seasons in the NFL with four different teams. A three-time Pro Bowl selection as a player, he made the transition to coaching after first working as a scout with the New York Jets for two years.

He worked in both the Jets’ pro personnel department as well as college scouting. Couple that with his work as a secondary coach with the Browns (2014-2015) and Saints (2016-2020), and Glenn has the job diversity in his background Paton has said he wants.

Football questions he had to answer: He’s been a coordinator for one season. And in that season the Lions finished 29th in the league in total defense, 31st in scoring defense, 29th on third down and 31st in the red zone.

His work down the stretch with a depleted depth chart got noticed by some in the league. Yes, the Seahawks did pile on 51 points in Week 17, but five of the Lions’ final nine opponents scored 20 or fewer points.

Bottom line: He has played at a high level in the league, worked in scouting, been one of the best position coaches in the league during his time with the Saints and players have responded to him at every stop.

His plan for the offense as well as his ability as a first-time head coach, to assemble a staff would be top priorities.

Luke Getsy

Age: 37

Current job: Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: He has plenty of responsibility in one of the league’s best offenses with the quarterback poised to win back-to-back league MVP awards.

Paton spent enough time around the NFC North during his 14 years with the Minnesota Vikings to have scouted the coaching staffs of the other teams in the division as well as the rosters for well over a decade.

Football questions he had to answer: It’s an enormous jump from a position coach to a head coach, especially for a coach who has had no playcalling responsibilities in the NFL. Packers coach Matt LaFleur has let his assistants call plays in the preseason at times, but calls them in the regular season.

He, too, had to outline how much reach he would have in the league to assemble a staff to help him in his transition and not slip too much defensively.

Bottom line: Getsy, in the right scenario, could also be a candidate for the Broncos’ offensive coordinator, but in terms of the head-coaching job, he would have to roll out a very specific, and doable, plan for his coordinators, starting with who he could actually hire.

Nathaniel Hackett

Age: 42

Current job: Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: Of the offensive assistants the Broncos interviewed, Hackett has the deepest résumé as a former playcaller for both Buffalo and Jacksonville before his time with the Packers.

When his father, Paul, was on Marty Schottenheimer’s Kansas City Chiefs staff, Hackett was a ball boy for the team and even filled in as a long-snapper during drills at times. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has lauded Hackett’s preparation and ability to break down, as well as deliver, the information to players.

Football questions he had to answer: Hackett had to detail how he would make the transition to running the entire team as well as the construction of the defensive staff. Also, how he would keep his game day organized if he, as a first-time head coach, was also going to try to call plays.

Bottom line: Hackett is a football lifer who is at the stage of his career when a head-coaching job is the next step. He has the background in an offense the Broncos clearly want to play, has worked with quarterbacks at all phases on the developmental curve. Construction of the staff will be the biggest item on his to-do list.

Kellen Moore

Age: 33

Current job: Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: The Cowboys finished the regular season as the league’s scoring leader — 31.2 points per game — and one of only two teams that topped 500 points.

He played six years in the league after a record-setting career as a Boise State quarterback.

Football questions he had to answer: He’s coached four seasons overall and all four of those years have been with the Cowboys since he started as the team’s quarterbacks coach in 2018. There isn’t much vocational diversity that comes with that and he’s seen one team’s infrastructure along the way.

He’s been in the highly visible role as a playcaller for one of the league’s most high-profile teams so he understands pressure, but it’s a big step to run the whole show. And it likely didn’t come up specifically, but it is a little strange the Cowboys may have been the only opponent the Broncos dominated on both sides of the ball this season and yet Paton chose to interview both Dallas coordinators.

Bottom line: He’s the youngest candidate among those the Broncos interviewed or slightly older than McDaniels was — three months shy of his 33rd birthday — when the Broncos hired him in January of 2009.

And while age is just a number, Moore would have had to show the Broncos a maturity regarding how he would run the day-to-day operations of the team as well as how he would construct his staff with a limited background outside of the Cowboys.

Dan Quinn

Age: 51

Current job: Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: Paton and Quinn were both with the Miami Dolphins previously and many in the league have said Paton has eyed Quinn since taking over the Broncos last January. Quinn is the only one of the 10 interviewed who has been a head coach in the league — he was 43-42 with the Atlanta Falcons when he was fired five games into the 2019 season.

Football questions he had to answer: Essentially explain what happened when Kyle Shanahan left the Falcons — he was the offensive coordinator — after the 2016 season and the team went 10-6, 7-9, 7-9 and 0-5 under Quinn before he was fired in 2019.

In Atlanta, Quinn had a solid quarterback in place — Matt Ryan — and a respected general manager in Thomas Dimitroff. Answering why success was elusive, for the most part, after Shanahan’s departure should have been covered.

Since guiding the fabled Legion of Boom secondary in Seattle — the Seahawks were the league’s No. 1 scoring defense in 2013 and 2014 — just one of Quinn’s defenses has finished in the top five in scoring (this year’s Cowboys team) and five have finished 19th or worse over the past seven seasons.

Bottom line: Quinn has been considered the front-runner because of his previous work with Paton as well as his Super Bowl appearance with the Falcons. But he would need a big-time plan for the offensive staff to fare better than the Broncos’ last two head coaches with defensive backgrounds.

Jerod Mayo

Age: 35

Current job: New England Patriots inside linebackers coach

Why Broncos interviewed him: He has spent 11 years in the winning culture in the NFL over the past 25 years — eight as a player and the past three as a coach for the Patriots.

He also has some business-outside-of-football perspective, having worked in finance for a health care company before he started his coaching career. Mayo’s players have spoken highly of him and Mayo said last week Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been an “open book” for him “whether we’re talking about X’s and O’s, or structuring a team or anything like that.”

Football questions he had to answer: McDaniels was a former Patriots assistant who had no head-coaching experience, too. McDaniels didn’t last through his second season as Broncos head coach.

Mayo will have had to show what would be different during his tenure and how he would make the substantial jump from just three seasons as a position coach to head coach.

Bottom line: Those who know Mayo in the league say he is smart, driven and understands how to communicate with those around him. He also has the benefit of actual business experience, outside of football, in terms of organization and a big picture assessment of things. So much so, even with just three seasons of coaching experience, many in the league were not surprised the Broncos interviewed him.

Jonathan Gannon

Age: 39

Current job: Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: Paton was the Vikings’ assistant manager during Gannon’s four seasons as an assistant defensive backs coach with the team (2014-17). Gannon, like Glenn, has a background in scouting with one season as a college scout for the Rams to go with two seasons in the team’s pro personnel department.

Eagles coach Nick Sirianni has said Gannon will make “a great head coach.”

Football questions he had to answer: Gannon would have had to explain how he would make the jump from a short run as a playcaller to leading a team. He has been the Eagles’ defensive coordinator for one season — they finished 18th in scoring defense, 10th in total defense.

The Eagles were much better during their 7-2 stretch to close out the regular season as they allowed 16.6 points per game in Weeks 8 through 17 against a long list of backup quarterbacks. Philadelphia lost, 31-15, to Tampa Bay in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Bottom line: Another candidate with a shorter coaching résumé who fits the leader-communicator profile Paton outlined the day Fangio was fired. And like the rest of those candidates the construction of his staff, and especially the construction of staff and playbook on offense, are enormously important.

Brian Callahan

Age: 37

Current job: Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: Callahan has the most history with the Broncos among those interviewed. Callahan was such a good assistant coach with the Broncos he survived two coaching changes and worked on the staffs of McDaniels, Fox and Kubiak, including the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 winner.

As a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator he’s worked with Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr and now Joe Burrow. His father, Bill, is a long-time, and well-respected offensive line coach (he’s currently with the Cleveland Browns).

Football questions he had to answer: He’s in his third year as a playcaller for the Bengals with a 25-year-old superstar behind center in Burrow so Callahan figures to now be on the “hot” list for jobs in the foreseeable future. He has the luxury of patience, so more than any other, Callahan had to show how much he really wanted the job with the Broncos.

Because more than one general manager in the league has crossed a guy off a list for the old didn’t-seem-like-he-wanted-the-job assessment.

He would also need to show how the Broncos would not take a step back on defense.

Bottom line: His history in the offense the Broncos want, his success in working with some of the game’s best quarterbacks and his overall view of the game make him one of the most well-rounded candidates even though he is one of the youngest.

Kevin O’Connell

Age: 36

Current job: Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: He played in two games during an NFL career that spanned five seasons, five teams and three practice squads. Coaches with that kind of background often do well communicating with players worried about their standing or future.

He’s worked in the Mike Shanahan-rooted offense the Broncos want to run, especially during the past two seasons as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams. And while he doesn’t call plays for the Rams — McVay does — O’Connell oversees game preparation, meetings and does plenty of the heavy lifting before game day each week.

Football questions he had to answer: Like the others on the offensive side of the ball, O’Connell had to not only outline his plan for the team’s struggling offense, but outline what kind of defensive staff/playbook he would assemble in a division that contained two of the league’s top five scoring teams this season.

Bottom line: O’Connell has drawn raves for his work in the Rams’ offense, as well as his work with quarterbacks since he began coaching. The move to the big chair is in his future, but the Broncos have to decide if they believe enough in his overall vision at this point on the developmental curve.

Eric Bieniemy

Age: 52

Current job: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator

Why Broncos interviewed him: He played nine seasons in the NFL, has coached in college and was with the Vikings for five seasons when Paton was with the team as well, including Bieniemy’s time as Minnesota’s assistant head coach. And the Broncos have seen the quality of his recent work up close given the Chiefs haven’t lost a game to the Broncos since Sept. 17, 2015.

The Broncos offense needs points and Bieniemy has been part of an offense that has scored plenty of them on the way to two Super Bowls over the past three seasons. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has publicly said, multiple times, how important Bieniemy has been to his development into both a league and Super Bowl MVP.

Football questions he had to answer: Bieniemy is on the hasn’t-called-plays list of candidates for the Broncos. Any time an assistant works for a head coach like Andy Reid, who has such a pronounced presence on one side of the ball, that assistant coach is always going to have to outline his responsibilities when he’s interviewed for another job.

He would also have to outline his staff construction. Any team looking to hire Bieniemy — like Hackett, Getsy, Callahan and O’Connell — will have to decide how much of the success comes from the uber-talented quarterback running the plays and how much is from the plays themselves.

Bottom line: Bieniemy, with his 11th interview for a head coaching job in the past four years, may have been through the job search circuit more than the rest of the candidates combined. The past two offensive coordinators for Reid who were named head coaches — Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy — didn’t call plays with the Chiefs either.

Reid and Mahomes have heartily endorsed Bieniemy to be a head coach and given he was the last of the 10 to interview, he had the closing argument of sorts.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ back-to-back Super Bowl aspirations fall short vs. Los Angeles Rams – Tampa Bay Buccaneers Blog



TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quest to “go for two,” as coach Bruce Arians called it, for an eighth ring for quarterback Tom Brady and for a second boat parade along the Hillsborough River, has fallen short.

There will be no NFC Championship Game in Tampa next week, and there will be no shot at a repeat Super Bowl for the Bucs as they suffered a heartbreaking, 30-27 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC divisional round Sunday.

Tampa Bay scored 24 straight points to knot the score at 27 with 42 seconds left and clawed its way back thanks to a 55-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Mike Evans and two touchdown runs from Leonard Fournette. But the defense surrendered plays of 20 and 44 yards on the final drive to set up a 30-yard field goal from kicker Matt Gay as time expired.

“It hurts because we had hopes of going to the Super Bowl again to try and repeat,” cornerback Jamel Dean said. “Knowing we were down, we got back into the game and there was hope. And then seeing them kick the field goal just crushed everything.”

“It’s hard,” Arians said. “The finality of this league’s a b—-. And that locker room [of] guys has been through hell and back this year, and I love ‘em. They stuck together through all the injuries and everything else. Really, really proud of the comeback – not the finish.”

Now, the San Francisco 49ers, who handed the top-seeded Green Bay Packers a stunning defeat in some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded at Lambeau Field on Saturday, will travel to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles — the site of Super Bowl LVI — for a rematch of the Niners’ Week 18 overtime victory. That game allowed the Bucs to move into the No. 2 seed and bump the Rams to No. 4, which meant a cross-country flight to Tampa for Sean McVay and his team, who are now 3-0 against Brady and Arians over the past two years.

The only other time both of the NFC’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds were wiped out in the divisional round was 2008.

Brady, who finished 30-of-54 for 329 yards, one touchdown pass and one interception, was pressured heavily on 17 dropbacks Sunday – the second-most of his time with the Buccaneers – and struggled to connect with his weapons on third down.

“I think there’s a lot of really tough, hard-nosed guys that believe in each other, and we all believe that we’ve just gotta make one play,” Brady said. “But at the end of the day, it was just way too many mistakes. … They made plenty of mistakes too. I wouldn’t say it was a perfect game by them either. But in the end, they just made one more play than us.”

His seemingly bulletproof offensive line that played 1,769 snaps together since his arrival suffered not one, but two colossal blows last week. All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs suffered a right high ankle sprain and couldn’t play, while Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen suffered a left ankle sprain and wasn’t close to full strength.

Then Wirfs’ backup, Josh Wells, suffered a right ankle injury during the game, forcing backup guard Nick Leverett to step in, although Wells returned.

“I’ve got to give Josh Wells a lot of credit,” Arians said. “He was playing on a really bad leg.”

They were able to get a big piece back Sunday in Fournette, who spent the last month on injured reserve with a hamstring injury and missed the wild-card round. But they were without wide receivers Chris Godwin, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 15, and Antonio Brown, who was released.

Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who started last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, was also ruled out Friday with hip and abdominal injuries, and Cyril Grayson, who caught the game-winning touchdown in Week 17, was held out with a hamstring injury.

Like their Week 3 loss to the Rams, the Bucs’ starting defense — finally 100% healthy for the first time all season — was unable to consistently pressure quarterback Matthew Stafford, who picked apart their blitzes. They had no answers for MVP candidate Cooper Kupp, either, as the Rams receiver got wide open on a 70-yard touchdown when safety Mike Edwards faltered in two-deep coverage.

They did manage to get some takeaways, though. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting both had fumble recoveries to keep the Bucs afloat, with Murphy-Bunting’s setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Fournette to make it 27-13 heading into the fourth quarter. Fournette also scored the tying touchdown with 42 seconds left after Ndamukong Suh forced a Cam Akers fumble that was recovered by Lavonte David, one of four fumble recoveries by Tampa Bay.

But defensive coordinator’s Todd Bowles all-out blitz failed to pressure Stafford, and it left Winfield Jr. alone in the middle of the field on Kupp.

“It was an all-out blitz. We should have gotten a ton of pressure,” Arians said, adding that he doesn’t second-guess the decision, but he wasn’t sure everyone was on the same page, something David, a team captain, agreed with.

“It was just the situation – hurry up, guys scrambling all over the place trying to get lined up – just an unfortunate situation,” David said. “Some people got the call, some people didn’t. It is what it is. They made a great play, they had a great playcall lined up and they made that play. It just sucks for us to lose in that manner, from battling back the way we did.”

But is this how it all ends for Brady? Is this the lasting image fans will have of his 22-year career? Battered, bloody-lipped and falling just short of yet another epic comeback win, reminiscent of his Super Bowl LI victory against the Atlanta Falcons and the 38 other times in his career (six in the playoffs) that he surged back from a double-digit deficit?

Sources told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington and Adam Schefter that Brady will mull his options over the next month and possibly longer before making that decision.

Arians said there is no timeline for when a conversation will be had with Brady.

“It’s up to Tom,” Arians said. “Just like all veteran players.”

The Bucs were lauded for their salary cap gymnastics this past offseason to retain all 22 of their starters on offense and defense, which hadn’t been done by a defending Super Bowl champion since the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers. But health wasn’t on their side. History wasn’t either. They fought tooth-and-nail, but they came up short.

Of the 11 previous defending Super Bowl champions who played in the wild-card round the next season, none advanced past the divisional playoffs, including two teams led by Brady. Also, no team had won six straight playoff games since Brady’s New England Patriots won 10 straight from 2001 to ’05.

Now that the focus shifts to next year, there’s much uncertainty.

Arians said after the game that he will return for 2022. But at quarterback, the Bucs don’t have a viable successor on their roster. Their two backups? Journeyman Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin, while rookie Kyle Trask, who was selected in the second round of the draft, has been inactive all season and has gotten few practice reps.

The Bucs have 24 players on their active roster who are set to become unrestricted free agents. The cascade of players who could defect if Brady retires could be even more devastating.

On a day when the Bucs needed to be at full strength — against a Rams team that has been “Super Bowl or bust” since, ironically, the same year Brady handed them a 13-3 defeat in Super Bowl LIII — they weren’t. They just didn’t have enough.

“We scratched and clawed,” Evans said. “They kept giving us chances. We took advantage of ‘em. We just couldn’t get the stop in the end.”

“Obviously we showed a lot of fight,” Brady said. “But at the end of the day, you lose a game, you lose a game.”

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