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Buccaneers’ Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski move into 2nd all-time in regular-season TD connections

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ATLANTA — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski hooked up for their 89th and 90th touchdowns in a 30-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, moving them into second all-time for most regular-season touchdowns by a pair of players.

Also, wide receiver Chris Godwin set a franchise record with 15 catches, the most by any player in a game this season, as the Bucs improved to 9-3.

Brady and Gronkowski sit behind only Pro Football Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, who have 112 regular-season touchdowns, while Godwin moved ahead of running backs James Wilder (Sept. 15, 1985) and Earnest Graham (Oct. 21, 2007), who each had 13 catches in a game.

“Having Gronk back for the last few weeks is huge in our offense, those two guys controlling the inside of the field,” coach Bruce Arians said of the pair, adding that this was especially problematic when the Falcons (or any team) have played man defense.

Gronkowski’s first touchdown, in the second quarter, came on a catch-and-run on a crossing route working against safety Jaylinn Hawkins for a 27-yard TD. Then Brady called an audible in the third quarter and slipped the ball past safety Erik Harris to Gronkowski on a fade route — a play they spent nine years perfecting when they were with the New England Patriots and won three Super Bowls together — for an 11-yard score.

“That second touchdown definitely brought us back to the heyday — the fade,” Gronkowski said.” I wasn’t supposed to have a fade but he saw and just reminds me of the heyday for us.”

With their 90th regular-season TD connection, Brady and Gronkowski moved into sole possession of second place all-time, passing Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates.

Gronkowski now has 20 career games with multiple receiving touchdowns, one away from Gates for the most by a tight end.

“I think when you play that long together — I mean, like Gronk said the other day, Tom knows what he’s thinking before he does,” Arians said. “And it’s obvious out there a couple of times Tom’s thrown a couple balls and even Gronk wasn’t quite ready because he knew where he was going. It’s great chemistry they have.”

“He kind of makes it easy on any quarterback,” said Brady, who improved to 10-0 all-time against the Falcons. “He’s just so big, so quick, great hands. Just does an amazing job. A great catch-and-run that he had and then I threw the fade for a touchdown, which was really cool — he makes those pretty easy, too. I obviously love being out there with him.

“It was good to see him make those plays. He was out for quite a while this year, you know? Just seeing him back, playing great, really enjoying it — it’s really fun for me. That’s the best part.”

Will the two continue playing long enough to break Manning and Harrison’s record?

“I hope we do. I look for him down there — he is a really big target most of the game,” Brady said. “I think what makes him so amazing is to do what he does in the run game and block defensive ends. Some of the biggest and strongest guys in the world. To run routes and catch balls and be so athletic. Along with the endurance he has, it is just really amazing.”

As far as Godwin goes, he was on the receiving end of five of Brady’s 13 pass attempts on the opening drive — the most attempts on a single drive in his career and the most by a quarterback since at least 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, as the Bucs wanted to go up-tempo from the jump.

“That was a lot of passes, man,” Godwin joked. “I think we should do that some more.”

Part of this was because the Falcons loaded the box to try and stop running back Leonard Fournette, who was coming off a four-touchdown performance last week against the Indianapolis Colts. They also felt very good about Brady’s protection, forcing the Falcons into some blitzes that created some one-on-ones. Brady praised Godwin’s work ethic and called him “an unbelievable player.”

“That’s dope, to be able to set a record, especially when you have a guy like Mike [Evans] who’s been dominant here for so long,” said Godwin, who had 143 receiving yards on the day. “I think the biggest thing is getting a [win].

“I really had no idea until we were like walking off the field. I thought I was probably at like 10 or so. I think some of those little like quick-hitters you kind of forget about — getting bounced around and you’re like a little pinball.”

“He has the ability to play outside also, but he is lethal inside,” Arians said of Godwin, who made the move into the slot from the outside when Arians came to Tampa in 2019. “Obviously, the way he blocks is huge and gives you so much in between the numbers.”

Gronkowski has been most impressed by what Godwin does when the ball doesn’t go in his direction. His downfield blocking helped seal off Fournette’s game-winning, 28-yard touchdown last week.

“Chris is a beast. An unbelievable player,” Gronkowski said. “What’s so special about him is yeah, he makes some catches, but he always in the dirt in the run game too, to help out the running backs, to spring whoever has the ball for some extra yards. I’m not surprised. That’s CG for you. I think he deserves a veteran’s day off this week. Those 15 touches — just how many times you get hit when you catch it 15 times.”

When asked if Godwin could be even considered a ‘veteran’ given that he’s still in just his fifth year and has not signed a second contract (he’s currently playing under the franchise tag) Gronkowski said, “He’s kind of like a vet rookie, I guess. Like a veteran but on his first contract, I guess. We’ll consider him a vet because he’s that good of a player.”

Godwin laughed.

“I think if Gronk says it, I think he might have a little bit of pull for me. So I’m gonna have to talk to him a little more about that.”

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Dallas Cowboys’ Mike McCarthy told he will return as head coach in 2022

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Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has been told that he will return in 2022, a source confirmed to ESPN’s Ed Werder on Thursday.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones has so far declined to commit to McCarthy’s return publicly after Dallas’ playoff exit with a wild-card round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

USA Today Sports first reported that McCarthy had been told he will return.

On Jan. 17, Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said in an interview with 105.3 The Fan in Dallas that he was “very confident” McCarthy would return but just days later, Jerry Jones wouldn’t divulge his conversations with the coaching staff and their futures in an interview with the same radio station.

McCarthy has said that he wasn’t concerned about his future as head coach, saying in a new conference on Jan. 19 that he had positive conversations with Jerry Jones after the loss to the 49ers.

McCarthy has an 18-15 regular-season record in two seasons, which includes a 12-5 mark and NFC East title in 2021, buoyed by quarterback Dak Prescott‘s return to health and a revamped defense that led the NFL in takeaways (34) under new coordinator Dan Quinn.

Sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Dianna Russini on Thursday that Quinn will return next season as defensive coordinator interviewed for the head-coaching vacancies of the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins and New York Giants.

While the offense finished No. 1 in yards and points this season, they had no consistency, scoring 16 and 9 points in losses to the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs in a three-week span mixed around a 43-3 win against the Atlanta Falcons. They scored 56 and 51 points in two of their last three games, wins against the Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles, but lost a key home game in Week 17 against the Arizona Cardinals that effectively ended their chances for the No. 2 seed in the postseason.

In the playoff loss to the 49ers, they scored just 17 points and trailed by 16 points in the fourth quarter. A potential game-winning drive was thwarted when the clock ran out after a 17-yard run by Prescott when the ball was not set for play in time. It is one of several clock-management issues McCarthy has had in his two-year tenure.

Penalties also have been an issue. The Cowboys led the league in penalties with 127 for 1,103 yards. In the playoff loss to San Francisco, the Cowboys were flagged 14 times for 89 yards, tied for the most in a playoff game in team history (Eagles, 2009 wild card, which Dallas won.)

ESPN’s Todd Archer contributed to this report.

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Why Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill had to pivot this season

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Used to providing big plays and long touchdowns for the Kansas City Chiefs, Tyreek Hill sounded weary earlier in the season with his new role as more of a possession receiver.

“It’s hard, especially for me, because I’m used to going 80 [yards] every play,” Hill said after a Week 10 win over the Las Vegas Raiders in which he caught two touchdown passes, one from 1 yard out and the other from 8.

“Coach [Andy] Reid, he’s just got to keep me calm on the sideline. I’m a head case, man. I’m used to going down the field. Now I’m running 12-yard ins. That’s not something I’m used to.”

Hill has had to adapt this season with so many teams using two deep safeties against the Chiefs. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has thrown him shorter routes underneath the coverage rather than not getting him the ball at all. And it has worked.

Exhibit A: His 64-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter of last week’s divisional-round playoff win over the Buffalo Bills. Hill caught the pass around midfield for what would have been a modest gain, but he turned on the jets for one of several late scores that propelled the Chiefs into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Cincinnati Bengals (3 p.m. ET, CBS).

“He’s excellent after the catch,” said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety. “You talk about catch-and-run ability, his is near the top of the league. That’s why you see Kansas City throw so many quicks, throw so many unders and use him on wide receivers screens. That allows him to play to his ability of attacking open grass.”

Hill (and his speed) is the reason for the Chiefs facing so many defensive looks with two deep safeties designed to take away his ability to get the big play. It’s a defensive concept the Chiefs have seen in the past but one that was proved especially effective by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their 31-9 victory over Kansas City in Super Bowl LV. In the season that has followed that Super Bowl loss, the Chiefs faced two high safeties 54.8% of the time, according to ESPN Metrics and NFL Next Gen Stats. That was not only the highest percentage in the league this season — by nearly 5% — but the highest in at least the past five years.

“You have to respect the speed,” Bowen said. “It creates consistent conflict for opposing defenses. What you’re going to get is more two-high looks because defenses are threatened by his ability to get down the field.”

Those looks caused the Chiefs and Mahomes to sputter at times, especially early. But it wasn’t just Mahomes who had to adjust as opposing defenses worked to take away the many big plays that were the signature of the Chiefs’ offense.

Hill is another player who had to learn another way of doing things. He caught 13 passes this season of 20 yards or more, and 26 receivers around the NFL had more. As a comparison, Hill caught 27 passes of 20 or more yards in 2018 — most in the NFL. He averaged 11.2 yards per catch during the 2021 regular season, or fewer than tight end Travis Kelce, wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle and running back Derrick Gore. In 2018, he averaged 17 yards per catch to lead the Chiefs among their regulars.

Hill might not have loved his new role during the 2021 season, but he took to it nicely. His 111 catches broke Kelce’s year-old team record.

“That one is supposed to be held by a wide receiver. The tight end isn’t always the focal point in the offense,” Kelce said. “Tyreek has done an incredible job of taking his game to the next level. Sure enough, you see him breaking records … and he’s just going to keep taking off. It’s so fun to play with him.”

Speed and quickness are obvious assets for Hill, but he has always fought back on the notion that he’s not a complete receiver. Wide receivers coach Joe Bleymaier said Hill practices more than deep routes.

“He’s always asking to run different routes and more types of routes and more variety,” Bleymaier said. Then, noting Hill’s displeasure with not getting more big passes, he added, “At times, I just remind him, ‘You were asking for these routes back in the day when you were just running downfield.’

“It’s all an adjustment period for Tyreek. He’s made so many plays down the field and he loves doing that. We still ask him to do that, but [also other routes including] the 12-yard ins or the facing-the-quarterback, back-to-the-defense type of routes that are open for him.

“We always want to get Tyreek the ball. The more times it’s in his hands, the better for everybody.”

In the last three games of the regular season, Hill caught nine passes for 61 yards, or an average of less than seven yards per reception. His long catch was just 17 yards.

He busted out in the playoffs, though, catching a 31-yard touchdown pass in the wild-card-round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers before his 64-yarder against the Bills.

“Pretty much every coverage he has two people on him or two people kind of shadowing over the top of him, and he’s still getting himself open, making tough catches over the middle of the field,” Mahomes said after the Steelers game. “He’s really evolved his game, and at the end of the day, whenever he gets into those man coverage situations … you can always hit him over the top for touchdowns.”

This version of Hill is not what the Chiefs imagined when they drafted him in 2016. Hill played just one season of Division 1 football — at Oklahoma State in 2014 — rushing 102 times for 534 yards to go with 31 catches for 281 yards. Hill was dismissed from Oklahoma State after the 2014 season following charges of domestic assault and battery by strangulation on his then-20-year-old girlfriend. He pleaded guilty, received three years of probation and finished his career at West Alabama.

When the Chiefs drafted him in the fifth round — behind 16 other receivers — they saw the obvious speed and quickness but didn’t necessarily see him developing a wide range of talents like he showed this year.

“When he came here, he was raw,” Reid said. “He had been a running back [in college], so you could imagine. That’s a big change. They flexed him out and did all that stuff, but that’s kind of where he was. Every year he’s gotten better. Now, he’s refining all of those wide receiver skills that he’s learned here, and with his talent, he’s a tough one to stop.

“Normally, people have ways of trying to double him, which is a compliment to him and his ability, but he’s learned to work through it. He’s better in space, he’s more patient against man, setting things up, so my hat goes off to him. He’s worked very hard at that.”



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New Minnesota Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah focused on finding coach as first major task

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EAGAN, Minn. — Not even a full day into his tenure as the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is already “deeply involved” in the team’s search for its next head coach, according to co-owner Mark Wilf.

Speaking at his introductory news conference Thursday, Adofo-Mensah reiterated that the conversations he has had regarding candidates are only in the beginning stages but that the direction the franchise wants to go in is clear.

“We know what we want to find,” Adofo-Mensah said. “We want leadership, we want somebody who is going to value the collective over the individual, we want somebody who has a vision, who can communicate, who has a solid football foundation, who understands how football is interconnected and what that means. That’s been our focus in these last few days honing in on what we want. In terms of specific names, we’re going to meet after this and talk about that further.”

The Vikings’ search has been narrowed down to six candidates after sources confirmed to ESPN that the Denver Broncos had hired Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as head coach and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn withdrew his name from head-coaching searches, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Dianna Russini.

Minnesota’s options now include San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

Adofo-Mensah overlapped in San Francisco with Ryans and O’Connell when he worked in football research and development for the 49ers before being hired by the Cleveland Browns, where he spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons as the vice president of football operations.

Wilf said Jan. 10 that the next general manager would have “input” in choosing the Vikings’ coach. Adofo-Mensah did not specify whether he would have the final say on whom Minnesota hires and referred to the decision as “a collaborative process.”

Asked whether he would have full control over the 53-man roster, Adofo-Mensah again deferred to seeking a collaborative approach with the team’s next head coach on personnel decisions.

“I always say that with a coach, a coach that I would work with, I would work for,” Adofo-Mensah said. “It’s somebody that I would want to partner with. I wouldn’t care about that distinction because they understand about personnel and about living in today and living in tomorrow that would make us a great partnership. I guess I know what the specifics of my contract say, but I don’t think it really matters to speak in this forum.”

Minnesota conducted interviews with eight general manager candidates before interviewing Adofo-Mensah for a second time Tuesday and announcing his hiring Wednesday. His was the only second-round interview the Vikings conducted after former Kansas City Chiefs executive director Ryan Poles was hired by the Chicago Bears as general manager before he was set to interview in Minnesota.

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