Tagged in: playoffs

Lamar Jackson’s return to Baltimore Ravens practice ‘boosts everybody’s spirits’

Lamar Jackson made an impressive return to the Baltimore Ravens, receiving positive reviews after his first practice of the offseason.

Jackson looked comfortable and had good velocity on his throws, and teammates expressed excitement over seeing him on the field for the first time in six months.

“I think everybody knows that Lamar, he’s what drives our team,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said Tuesday. “The energy around him being here lifts everybody up.”

Jackson, who is scheduled to talk to reporters Thursday, skipped all three weeks of the voluntary workouts before reporting Monday. He hasn’t given a reason for his absence.

The last time Jackson was on the field with Baltimore was Dec. 29, when he tried to practice with a pronounced limp. He missed the final four games with a right ankle injury, as Baltimore failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

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On Tuesday, it seemed like old times with Jackson. He moved around well, threw his usual sidearm passes and connected frequently with Andrews, including on a 30-yard pass while on the run. Teammates noticed Jackson’s passes were tight spirals and had some extra zip on them.

“He’s physically in very good shape. I thought his arm looked really good,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You can see he’s been throwing a lot. You can see he’s in great physical condition. It’s great to have him out there. He kind of boosted everybody’s spirits, too.”

Jackson appeared comfortable on the field despite not attending the nine previous practices.

There was only one instance where the team had to huddle again because there was confusion about a play.

But what upset Jackson the most was throwing two interceptions to safety Tony Jefferson.

“He’s a competitor,” Harbaugh said. “He’s mad about some passes here and there.”

Jackson is entering his fifth-year option, which will pay him $23.016 million this season. If the sides are unable to reach an extension by March 7, Baltimore is expected to place the franchise tag on him.

“He’s the ultimate pro,” Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell said. “He prepares and handles his business the way you’re supposed to. Just being a young guy, he’s so mature. He understands how to do things the right way.”

The Ravens also announced they reached an injury settlement with defensive tackle Derek Wolfe and will release him. This comes one day after Wolfe announced he had his second hip surgery of the year.

Wolfe was solid in 2019, when the Ravens went 14-2. But he was sidelined all of last season with hip and back injuries. “So that’ll be it with that,” Harbaugh said of Wolfe.

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Celtics roll past Heat 127-102, tie Eastern finals at 1-1

Jayson Tatum scored 27 points, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown each had 24 and the Boston Celtics dominated the first half to roll past the Miami Heat 127-102 on Thursday night and tie the Eastern Conference finals at a game each.

Smart was a rebound shy of a triple-double, after adding 12 assists and nine rebounds.

Grant Williams scored 19 points for Boston, which used a 17-0 run late in the first quarter — fueled by five 3-pointers in the span of six possessions — to take control. Payton Pritchard and Al Horford each had 10 for the Celtics.

Jimmy Butler had 29 points in 32 minutes for Miami, which fell to 7-1 at home in these playoffs. Gabe Vincent and Victor Oladpio each scored 14 points, and Tyler Herro added 11 for the Heat.

The Celtics — now 4-0 in these playoffs in the game immediately following a loss — made 20 shots from 3-point range to Miami’s 10. Game 3 is Saturday in Boston.

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And the margin could have been worse: Boston led by as many as 34 points in the fourth, putting this game on the cusp of really good Celtics history and really bad Heat history.

The Celtics’ record for biggest postseason victory ever is 40, the Heat record for biggest postseason loss ever is 36, and those numbers were within reach before a meaningless Miami run over the final moments.

Boston trailed by 10 in the first quarter, then outscored Miami 60-21 over the next 18 minutes — a 39-point turnaround that wound up leading to a 70-45 halftime lead.

The 25-point halftime lead was the biggest by the Celtics in any road playoff game, topping a 22-point edge at the break at Chicago in 2009.

Brown had 11 points in the first quarter, when the Celtics went 9 for 11 from 3-point range.

Tatum then had 17 points in the second and Boston kept pulling away, on a day where everything went the Celtics’ way.

They learned earlier in the day that two starters — Horford (virus-related issues) and Smart (mid-foot sprain) — were cleared to play in Game 2 after missing the series opener.

“I got to get my rest, got to get my health back, got to watch and see some things and come out and execute in this game,” Smart stated.

And the good news kept coming well into the night.

Butler did all he could to try and manufacture a comeback, scoring 16 points in the third quarter and getting the Heat within 17. But a 12-2 run late in the quarter by the Celtics restored a 27-point edge.

The lead was 96-71 going into the fourth and the outcome was never remotely close to being in question the rest of the way.

Miami didn’t even use its starters in the fourth quarter.

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Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash: Ben Simmons won’t make season debut in regular season, also likely out of play-in games

Brooklyn Nets swingman Ben Simmons will not be making his season debut in the regular season as he continues to deal with a herniated disk issue in his back, Nets coach Steve Nash said after Monday’s practice.

Nash added that while he remains hopeful that Simmons will return at some point in the playoffs, he would be “shocked” if Simmons played in the Nets’ play-in game next week.

“He’s not running, so yeah,” Nash said. “I don’t see him [being ready]. I would be shocked.”

After requesting a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers last summer, citing mental health concerns, Simmons was ultimately dealt to the Nets just before the trade deadline in February but has not been able to play because of ongoing issues with his back.

Nash said that Simmons actually made progress Monday by being able to shoot and starting to do some work with resistance bands, but the organization still has no idea when, or if, Simmons might be able to play this season.

“I mean that’s a big progression just to get here,” Nash said. “So he was doing nothing on the floor. But obviously he clearly started strengthening and doing some light shooting. So super positive on one hand; on the other hand, it’s not like … we’re expecting him in the lineup in the next week.”

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Nash said recently that he wouldn’t have a problem with Simmons making his debut in a playoff game even if he hadn’t played all year.

He also made it clear Monday that the Nets would take every precaution before putting him back on the floor.

“If he had played 65 games, this year and we’re going into the playoffs, and he had a few weeks’ injury, maybe [you’d think about rushing the normal progression],” Nash stated.

“But, I think in this situation, we got to put his health and safety first and make sure that we’re certain he’s ready to play and contribute. And the other part is he hasn’t played basketball, so you don’t know what kind of Ben you get. And he hasn’t been in an NBA game for, you know, nine to 10 months.”

Simmons’ teammates and coaches have repeatedly said he stays in good spirits in his new surroundings, but they just don’t know when he’ll be able to return to the floor.

The Nets currently sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with a 40-38 record. Nash demurred when asked how realistic it would be to think Simmons could come back and play in the first round if the Nets were able to advance that far.

“We’ll see,” Nash said. “I don’t want to get too far down the road, like, I don’t want to walk through the next five weeks with you guys and guessing — you guys saw where he is today. He’s doing some increased strengthening, some increased mobility stuff, a little bit of shooting and that’s it.”

As far as the rest of the Nets’ injuries, Bruce Brown went through Monday’s practice and is expected to play Tuesday versus the Houston Rockets after missing Saturday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks because of a non-COVID illness.

Guard Goran Dragic (health and safety protocols) remains in Atlanta, and it is unclear when he’ll be able to return.

Nash also admitted that the Nets have discussed the chances of shutting down guard Seth Curry for the last four games of the regular season as he keeps to deal with left ankle soreness.

“That’s the position we’re in, is do we try to sit him?” Nash said. “Does him sitting for a week help? Or is he right back in the same boat anyway? And how important is it for us to try to creep up into the seven, eight spot? So we’re weighing all those things and it’s kind of more daily than it is making a decision.”

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Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry has sprained left foot, expected to return by playoffs

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry is expected to return for the beginning of the Western Conference playoffs with a left foot sprain, but will undergo further evaluation with specialists, sources told ESPN.

Curry and the Warriors are conferring with Dr. Richard Ferkel, a renowned foot specialist, on the injury, sources said.

Curry suffered the injury in a collision with Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart on Wednesday night, and an MRI overnight revealed the foot sprain. There’s no structural damage and Curry is considered to have avoided serious injury, sources said.

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The play occurred in the second quarter when Curry and Smart dove for a loose ball and Smart rolled on top of Curry’s leg.

Curry initially tried to walk off the pain but left the game after being checked out on the bench. After halftime, he was ruled out for the rest of the night.

Neither Warriors coach Steve Kerr or forward Draymond Green called the play on which Curry was injured dirty but deemed it “dangerous” and “unnecessary.”

“I saw the ball, I dove for the ball, trying to make a play,” Smart stated after the game. “Unfortunately, that occurred.”

Curry’s injury comes just two games after Green returned from a back injury that held him out two-and-a-half months. Curry, Green and Klay Thompson, who returned from two-and-a-half-month hiatus in January, have played just 11 minutes together this campaign.

“It seems like every time we get someone back, someone else goes down,” Green said. “So, it’s definitely a worry.”

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Indianapolis Colts still to decide Carson Wentz’s future with the team

The Colts are still working through the process that will decide quarterback Carson Wentz’s fate with the franchise, general manager Chris Ballard stated Tuesday.

“I don’t have a direct answer for you,” Ballard said at the NFL’s scouting combine. “Jim [Irsay], Frank [Reich] and I will sit down over the next 10 days and figure out where it’s going. Ultimately, we’ll do what’s best for the team in the short term and in the long term.”

The Colts are in the position of possibly looking for their third different starting quarterback in as many offseasons. They gave up a third-round pick in the 2021 draft and a first-round pick in the 2022 draft to acquire Wentz from the Philadelphia Eagles in February 2021.

Wentz threw for 3,563 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. What he rarely did, however, was take over games, especially in the final two weeks of the regular season, when the Colts needed just one victory to make the playoffs.

He didn’t throw for more than 185 yards in either of those games, completing 58.9% of his pass attempts and throwing a total of two touchdowns. Wentz’s in-game decisions frustrated members of the organization at different times during the season, and Ballard said after the season that he wasn’t ready to fully commit to Wentz for 2022.

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“Ultimately, you have to have a guy you believe in and you can win with,” Ballard said. Ballard was then asked why they didn’t believe in Wentz.

“I’m not saying we don’t,” Ballard said. “I think as we sit down and work through whether Carson is the best long-term answer or not is the best way I can put it. We’re not there yet, I’m not there. That’s something we’ll talk about as a group and move forward. Whatever decision we make will be the best one for us.”

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on Super Bowl Sunday that the chances of Wentz returning to Indianapolis for a second season looked “bleak.”

Wentz will get $15 million whether he’s on the Colts’ roster or not next season, but the team can save about $13 million if it releases him by March 18. His contract runs through 2024, though there is a potential out after 2022.

The quarterback position has been a nightmare for Ballard since he was hired by the Colts in the winter of 2017.

After missing the 2017 season, Andrew Luck led the Colts to the playoffs in 2018, only to suddenly retire two weeks before the start of the 2019 season. 

Jacoby Brissett failed to secure the position long-term that season. Veteran Philip Rivers served as a bandage for the Colts in 2020, and the team expected that Wentz would stop the revolving door at the position.

But here the Colts are again, unclear as to whom the Week 1 starting quarterback will be.

“I think about all the time,” Ballard said. “Also with a measured approach, knowing you have to be right. Even if you might not be right all the time, that’s the one position you have to keep firing away at until you get it right.”

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Kansas City Chiefs release linebacker Anthony Hitchens

The Kansas City Chiefs have released linebacker Anthony Hitchens, it was revealed Tuesday.

Hitchens had 80 tackles and an interception in 15 matches last season. Hitchens, 29, joined the Chiefs as a free agent in 2018, and he registered a career-best 135 tackles that season.

In four seasons with the Chiefs, Hitchens played in 70 games in the regular season and playoffs with two sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles.

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The Chiefs will save about $8.4 million against their salary cap in 2022.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to coach Anthony over the last four years,” coach Andy Reid said in a statement. “He’s as tough as they come in this league and is a team-first player. I appreciate the way he came to work, ready to do his part, but also his willingness to teach the younger guys around him.”

The Chiefs drafted one linebacker, Willie Gay, in the second round in 2020 and another, Nick Bolton, in the second round last year.

Before joining the Chiefs, Hitchens played four seasons for the Dallas Cowboys. In 63 regular-season and playoff games for the Cowboys, Hitchens had 3.5 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles.

“He has all the intangibles and was an integral piece in our franchise winning a Super Bowl title,” general manager Brett Veach said in a statement.

“We appreciate everything he’s done for the organization and wish him the best as he continues his career.”

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Super Bowl preview: Rams-Bengals

When you think of a classic Super Bowl matchup, you think of two teams that have dominated their competition and run rampant through the playoffs. 

Rams vs. Bengals is not that matchup.

Both teams trailed in their respective conference championship matches as the fourth quarter started.

The Bengals needed a dramatic comeback and a spectacular self-destruction from the Chiefs to move on. The Rams blew a 24-point lead in the divisional round versus the Bucs and needed Jaquiski Tartt to drop a gift-wrapped interception to spur their win over the 49ers.

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And yet, both teams are here because their stars did star things. Cooper Kupp and Ja’Marr Chase made huge catches to set up game-winning field goals. 

Jessie Bates started the Titans game with an interception and sent the Chiefs’ offense to the sideline for the winter by creating another. Aaron Donald finished Jimmy Garoppolo’s 49ers career with a pressure to force a pick. Joe Burrow ducked through a sure sack to scramble for a critical first down.

These two teams have weapons on both sides of the ball that can single-handedly decide games. Winning this game, then, might come down to whichever team can diminish or even eliminate as many of those mismatches as possible.

The Bengals, helpless for most of the first half in the AFC title game, shut down Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and the entire Chiefs offense after the break.

The Rams limited the vaunted 49ers rushing attack to 50 yards on 20 carries. We know what these teams and their stars are capable of doing.

Whichever team stops more of those stars wins this game.

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Tennessee Titans extend contracts for head coach Mike Vrabel, GM Jon Robinson

The Titans announced Tuesday that they have extended the contracts of general manager Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel.

“I am proud to say that Jon and Mike will be leading our football team for years to come,” Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said in a statement.

“I have seen the team improve on a yearly basis under their direction, and I know their singular goal is to deliver a championship for our fans. Together they have developed a culture within our organization that has been essential to our success. Their values align with mine and what I want the Titans to be. They demand excellence from themselves and others, work well together, are always striving to improve and they care deeply for our players and staff.”

Vrabel joined the Titans in 2018 and matched Jack Pardee’s franchise record for wins (43) over the first four seasons with the team. Vrabel’s .614 career winning percentage (43-27, including playoffs) ranks the highest in franchise history.

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He led the team to the AFC Championship Game in 2019 and back-to-back AFC South titles over the past two campaigns. Vrabel earned Coach of the Year honors by the Pro Football Writers of America this past season after guiding the Titans to a 12-5 record and the top seed in the AFC.

Robinson joined the Titans in 2016 and helped lead them to a winning record in all six of his seasons in charge.

In that time, Robinson has become the second-winningest general manager in franchise history with 62 wins, trailing only Floyd Reese (111 wins).

During Robinson’s tenure with the Titans, the team has added nine Pro Bowl players to the roster through the draft (S Kevin Byard, RB Derrick Henry, WR A.J. Brown, DT Jeffery Simmons, OLB Harold Landry), free agency (G Rodger Saffold, ST Brynden Trawick) and trades (RB DeMarco Murray, QB Ryan Tannehill).

Additionally, the team added two coaches to its staff on Tuesday: Tim Kelly as passing game coordinator and Bobby King as inside linebackers coach.

Kelly joins the Titans after spending the past eight seasons with the Houston Texans, the last three of which were as the offensive coordinator. Before becoming the offensive coordinator, Kelly spent two seasons (2017-18) coaching the tight ends for the Texans.

King brings 12 years of NFL coaching experience to the Titans, counting eight seasons (2017-21, 2011-13) with the Texans. King coached the Texans’ defensive line this season after coaching the inside linebackers the previous four seasons.

The team also revealed that Jim Haslett (inside linebackers), Matt Edwards (assistant special teams), Kenechi Udeze (defensive line assistant) and Mondray Gee (strength and conditioning assistant) will not be returning to the coaching staff.

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Baltimore Ravens fire defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale

The Baltimore Ravens have fired defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale with one year left on his contract.

This surprising shake-up represents the first move made by the Ravens since they lost six consecutive games to end the season and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh issued a statement Friday saying he and Martindale “agreed to move forward in separate directions.”

“We have had a great run on defense, and I am very proud of what has been accomplished and the work he has done,” Harbaugh said in his statement.

“Don has been a major contributor to the success of our defense since 2012, and especially since he became defensive coordinator four years ago. He has done a great job. Now it is time to pursue other opportunities.

“Sometimes the moment comes, and it’s the right time. I am personally grateful for our friendship and for everything he has done in Baltimore.”

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According to a source, the sides couldn’t reach an agreement on a one-year extension for Martindale through 2023.

There were members in the organization who were caught off guard by the parting of ways with Martindale. The decision came 12 days after the Ravens’ season-ending, 16-13 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and came after Martindale had participated in personnel meetings last week.

Martindale also was asked to address the players in the final team meeting a day after the season ended.

The move was revealed while the Ravens’ brain trust — Harbaugh, owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Eric DeCosta — was holding its annual organizational summit.

Baltimore ranked No. 25 on defense last season, the first time the Ravens had finished out of the top 10 in Martindale’s four seasons as defensive coordinator. The Ravens also permitted the second-most yards (363.4) in the franchise’s 26-year history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Martindale, 58, had been with the Ravens since their 2012 Super Bowl season and was known for his ultra-aggressive style. The Ravens regularly ranked among the highest-blitzing teams.

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Green Bay Packers clinch No. 1 seed with one week to spare

Matt LaFleur has this regular-season thing all figured out.

Three years with LaFleur as the Green Bay Packers’ coach, three times they’ve had a first-round bye in the playoffs — including the No. 1 seed each of the past two campaigns.

But he has never done this before: His team wrapped it up with a match still left in the regular season.

Before the Packers (13-3) even stepped on Lambeau Field on Sunday night, they knew that a victory would make next week’s regular-season finale at Detroit meaningless in terms of their playoff position.

They had the Arizona Cardinals, who beat the Dallas Cowboys earlier in the day, to thank for that.

They took care of the rest themselves with a 37-10 triumph over the Kirk Cousins-less Minnesota Vikings. Before LaFleur & Co. start to think about that, they’ll have to decide how to handle Week 18 versus the Lions. The past two years, they needed the final weekend of the season to secure their playoff seed.

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Now, LaFleur faces the age-old NFL debate: Play the starters in the finale to keep them sharp or give them the weekend off to preserve their health. After the Packers watch wild-card weekend, their first playoff game will be either Jan. 22 or 23 in the divisional round.

Aaron Rodgers’ fractured pinkie toe on his left foot no doubt will factor into LaFleur’s decision.

The toe didn’t seem to bother Rodgers on Sunday night even in the bitter cold. It was 11 degrees at kickoff and got colder as the night went on.

“This is a first game that my toe got through the game without any issues,” Rodgers said. “No pregame painkiller shot. I’m feeling good. I’m happy about it.

There was definitely a time a few weeks ago when I started to project out and think if we can get the 1-seed, it could be two-plus weeks of rest. I’m going to play next week, and I expect Davante to play and our guys to play. So, we’re looking forward to finishing off the season on a high note and then getting the bye.”

Rodgers, who stated this week that he likes it “the colder, the better,” threw for 211 yards in the first half, 118 of them to Davante Adams. It was Rodgers’ highest first-half total since Week 4 of last season and Adams’ highest in a first half since Week 4 of 2019.

The Packers’ halftime lead of 20-3 should have been even bigger but for three failed red zone trips (two field goals and a turnover on downs).

They even ran the ball well, with their second-highest first-half total (88 yards) of the season, thanks in large part to Aaron Jones’ runs of 27 and 28 yards — the first time in his career he has had multiple 25-plus-yard carries in the same game.

Rodgers concluded 29-of-38 for 288 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was his sixth straight game with multiple touchdowns and no interceptions, tying Don Meredith for the second-longest streak in NFL history. And Adams ended with 11 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown.

He’s 21 yards away from Jordy Nelson’s single-season record and half-jokingly offered that as a reason to play next week.

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