TAMPA, Fla. — With their road win over the Indianapolis Colts last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers improved to 8-3 and grabbed a three-game lead in the NFC South for the first time since Week 13 in the 2007 season.
The Bucs have one remaining game against the Atlanta Falcons (Sunday), one against the New Orleans Saints (Dec. 19) and two against the Carolina Panthers (Dec. 26 and Jan. 9), but barring a meltdown, they should clinch the division, and maybe more, as they are currently the No. 3 seed in the NFC and tied for the second-best record in the NFL.
“I mean it’s either going to [be] you can lock it up or be in a dogfight all the way to the end,” coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday, while implying that this race isn’t over.
“The Saints have had a ton of injuries. We’ve had some injuries also. But there’s still a long way to go. The Saints are a hell of a football team. That defense — I’ll never cross them out. Carolina has played good and bad, and Atlanta is a game out of the playoffs. Three-game lead right now — we’ve got a long way to go.”
Here’s a closer look at what has happened in the division, starting with the Falcons, whom the Bucs defeated 48-25 in Week 2.
Atlanta Falcons (5-6)
The Bucs’ goal against Atlanta is to make them one dimensional, and that starts with stopping Cordarrelle Patterson, who’s enjoying a breakout season at age 30, averaging 91.1 yards from scrimmage per game — which is tied for 12th in the NFL through 12 weeks.
It’s also limiting rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who has become a focal point of the Falcons’ offense since their first meeting in Week 2. His 661 receiving yards ranked third among tight ends through Week 12.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown five interceptions in his past three games. On the season, he is averaging just 237.9 passing yards per game, his lowest since 2010. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who stepped away from the team to focus on his mental health, has not returned, so they’ve had to lean more heavily on Russell Gage as a No. 1 receiver. He scored his first touchdown since Week 7 last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Defensively, they’re still struggling to disrupt the quarterback. Dante Fowler leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones also missed the last game with a shoulder injury. Cornerback A.J. Terrell has shown growth from Year 1 to Year 2, but as a whole, the Falcons’ defense is giving up 27.5 points per game — second most in the NFL. Overall, they need more pieces.
New Orleans Saints (5-7)
While quarterback Trevor Siemian beat the Bucs in Week 8 after Jameis Winston went down with a torn ACL, he has been unable to replicate that magic since, going 0-4. His replacement, Taysom Hill, had a disastrous outing against the Dallas Cowboys during a Thursday Night Football loss, 27-17, when he threw four interceptions.
But it’s not just the quarterback position ravaged by injuries. The Saints were without defensive end Marcus Davenport, running back Alvin Kamara, left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk on Thursday night, in addition to having wide receiver Michael Thomas and cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson on injured reserve.
Their defense — once considered one of the better defenses in the league — has taken a tumble, too. In the four games heading into Thursday, they had given up an average of 30.25 points per game, fifth most in the league, whereas in Weeks 1-8, they were surrendering 18.29 points per game, fourth best. Still, they’ve had the Bucs’ number, even with quarterback Tom Brady, outscoring them 128-83 in four games over the past two seasons (including the 2020 divisional playoff), which means they can never be counted out.
Carolina Panthers (5-7)
The Panthers started off 3-0 before a four-game losing streak. They did manage to upset the team with the best record (9-2) in the NFL in the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10.
Quarterback Sam Darnold went on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury after Week 9. The Panthers then started P.J. Walker against the Cardinals, before re-signing Cam Newton. Newton took over as the starter in Weeks 11 and 12, but he was then benched during the Week 12 loss to Washington after a poor start with Walker stepping in.
Their offensive line continues to struggle, giving up 31 sacks so far this season, tied for sixth most in the NFL. Running back Christian McCaffrey — the focal point of Carolina’s offense, even with all the speed they have at wide receiver — is out for the season with an ankle injury. The Panthers are 4-3 with him and 1-4 without him this year.
Defensively, they are giving up 21.08 yards per game — eighth in the league. But they did surrender 198 yards on the ground to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, 190 against Washington in Week 11 and 151 to the New England Patriots in Week 9. They’ve also gotten to a point where coach Matt Rhule is benching healthy players, like defensive tackle Derrick Brown, their 2020 first-round draft pick, and an irate Brian Burns blew up at teammates on the sideline against Miami.
Cornerback Donte Jackson was also just placed on injured reserve because of a groin injury. They are using Stephon Gilmore — acquired midseason from the Patriots to help fill the shoes of injured first-round pick Jaycee Horn — more, but he’s working his way back from a quadriceps injury and has been primarily used on third downs.
NFL moves to dismiss Jon Gruden lawsuit, calls ex-Las Vegas Raiders coach’s claims against league ‘baseless’
The NFL filed a motion asking a Nevada court to dismiss former Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s lawsuit against the league, saying accusations that the NFL leaked Gruden’s old, offensive emails are “baseless” and “should be dismissed for failure to state a single viable cause of action.”
The league responded Wednesday to the suit Gruden filed in district court in Clark County, Nevada, in November. The NFL filed a motion to dismiss the case and also asked the court to stay that motion until it first rules on whether the case should be moved to arbitration.
Gruden resigned as coach of the Raiders in October with more than six seasons remaining on his 10-year, $100 million contract.
He claimed a “malicious and orchestrated campaign” was used by the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell to destroy his career by leaking the old emails that included racist, misogynistic and anti-gay language.
The emails were sent to former Washington Football Team executive Bruce Allen and others from 2011 to 2018 during Gruden’s time as the lead analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The emails came from a set of 650,000 obtained by the league in June during an investigation into WFT’s workplace culture.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Oct. 8 that Gruden used a racist trope to describe NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith.
Gruden apologized, and then coached two days later as a listless Raiders team lost at home to the Bears.
Then on Oct. 11, the New York Times revealed Gruden sent additional emails using misogynistic and anti-gay language over a seven-year period. He resigned that evening, apologizing again and saying he never meant to hurt anyone.
“Gruden does not, and cannot, dispute that he wrote the published emails. He does not, and cannot, dispute that he sent those emails to multiple parties,” the league’s filing said. “Nor does he claim that they were somehow altered or edited and that the repugnant views espoused in them were not in fact expressed by him. Instead, Gruden filed the instant complaint against the NFL and the commissioner, painting himself as the victim in a fictional story and seeking money through baseless claims against the NFL.”
Gruden’s lawyer had said “there was no explanation or justification for why Gruden’s emails were the only ones made public out of the 650,000 emails collected in the NFL’s investigation of the Washington Football Team or for why the emails were held for months before being released in the middle of the Raiders’ season.”
The league denied leaking the emails, which had been sent to up to a half-dozen people and added that Gruden had no “expectation of privacy” for the emails.
The filing said even if the league had leaked the emails it still would not constitute “intentional interference with a contract” as claimed by Gruden because the NFL had no obligation to protect the confidentiality of the emails, had the right to disclose truthful information to the media and could have suspended or canceled Gruden’s contract because of the emails.
Raiders owner Mark Davis said in October he had reached a settlement with Gruden over the final six-plus years of his contract. Davis did not reveal the terms of the settlement.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford says toe feeling fine ahead of playoff game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Stafford suffered the injury in the Rams’ regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers, a 27-24 overtime loss.
“I’m feeling OK,” Stafford said Wednesday. “The toe kind of happened in that game and that was kind of a real thing, but I got a bunch of treatment on it. I’m feeling a lot better. So I don’t see anything limiting me in this game.”
Coach Sean McVay said one of the reasons he tried to put the 49ers away with their run game near the end of regulation was because Stafford was hobbled. He said Stafford had “no limitations” Monday night against the Arizona Cardinals as the Rams leaned on their run game for much of their 34-11 wild-card victory.
Stafford was 13-of-17 passing, both easily season lows, for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also ran for a score in the first playoff victory of his 13-year NFL career.
“He felt good,” McVay said. “Everything was up and available to be called. He was feeling great.”
Whitworth, 40, got his right knee rolled up on during the Rams’ opening play against Arizona. He played 30 of the team’s 60 offensive snaps before Joe Noteboom replaced him for the remainder of the game.
McVay said tests results haven’t indicated that the Rams need to rule Whitworth out yet. He’d be a nonparticipant if the Rams were practicing Wednesday, per McVay.
“He’s got some swelling in that knee and that ankle,” McVay said. “It’s a miracle. He’s like Gumby with the way that he got rolled up on. It was not a good looking play when you watch it on the replay. But he’s a resilient guy. He responds quickly. He’s been a quick healer. For him to be able to play and start at tackle at the age of 40 tells you everything you need to know about how blessed he is with his genetics and the way he takes care of himself.
“But we’ll see how quickly he can turn around. Not sure whether he’ll be able to go or not this week. We’ll take it a day at a time. Fortunately his scans gave us some information where we didn’t have to rule him out.”
Whitworth ranked third during the regular season in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate among offensive tackles.
Rapp, who missed the Cardinals game, remains in concussion protocol. His absence and Jordan Fuller‘s season-ending ankle injury prompted the Rams to bring 37-year-old Eric Weddle out of his two-year retirement last week to pad their safety depth. He played 19 of 56 defensive snaps while Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess started.
“With Rapp, we’re just taking that a day at a time,” McVay said. “The concussion protocol and kind of going through those strategic steps and making sure that when you are active, you’re not having any symptoms. Those are the things we’re working through right now and I know Taylor’s going to do everything in his power to be ready if he can.”
Cornerback David Long Jr. (knee) is “doing good,” per McVay. He returned one of the Rams’ two interceptions of Kyler Murray for a touchdown Monday night. McVay said backup running back Buddy Howell (hamstring) also would have been a nonparticipant Wednesday and that “everybody else would be in good shape” if the team was practicing.
McVay expects the Rams to designate linebacker Ernest Jones to return to practice from injured reserve on Thursday, thereby starting his 21-day window to be activated to the 53-man roster.
Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield has shoulder surgery, eyes return to ‘my true self’
Dr. Orr Limpisvasti, the orthopedic surgeon for the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, performed the surgery on Mayfield’s left shoulder in California.
“Surgery went great. Was a complete success,” Mayfield said in a video posted to social media. “Now it’s on to the road to recovery. It’s one of those steps to get back to my true self. … This is not the end of my story.”
Thanks to Dr. Limpisvasti and his team for performing a successful surgery. This is only going to be a minor bump in the road.. excited to get healthy and back to my normal self. Thank y’all and God Bless. pic.twitter.com/cRVdkB6t9d
— Baker Mayfield (@bakermayfield) January 19, 2022
The Browns said the likely time period for Mayfield’s recovery is four to six months. He will start physical therapy on his shoulder next week and is expected to be cleared by training camp, if not sooner, a source told ESPN.
Mayfield, who suffered the shoulder injury in Week 2 and played through it for the rest of the season, will begin light throwing in April and should be able to participate in the off-season program on a limited basis, the team said.
After the Browns’ Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mayfield admitted that he was “pretty damn beat up.”
With Cleveland already eliminated from playoff contention, Mayfield sat out the team’s season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 9.
Even though Mayfield finished 27th in the league in QBR (35.3) this season, Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry declared last week that the Browns “fully expect” the 2018 No. 1 draft pick to be their starting quarterback in 2022 and “bounce back” from his injury-plagued season.
Mayfield will be entering the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay him close to $19 million in 2022 after the Browns exercised his fifth-year option last offseason.
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