Friday, March 1, 2024
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AFC, NFC Championship previews, picks; Where will Bill Belichick land?

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🏆 Good morning to everyone but especially …

THE AFC, NFC CHAMPIONSHIP TEAMS

And then there were four. Conference championship weekend is here, and what a four it is: both No. 1 seeds, the defending champs and one of the best feel-good stories ever (and a very good team in its own right).

I’m absolutely stoked to be heading to Baltimore to cover Chiefs-Ravens, so let’s start there. Everyone is talking about the Patrick MahomesLamar Jackson rivalry, but those guys don’t actually face one another on the field.

The defenses both quarterbacks face, though, are terrific. Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton have been two of my favorite players to watch this season, and they both make Tyler Sullivan’s most impactful players list; they’ll see plenty of Isiah Pacheco and Travis Kelce.

I think the Ravens are the better team, and they’ve dominated the league’s best this season. But even when the Chiefs were at their lowest, I said I’d never count out Mahomes. That’s one of countless reasons this game is going to be so much fun. Tyler’s pick is in, and he likes …

  • Sullivan: “The Chiefs offense has started to click over the last few weeks, which is an encouraging sign for the franchise overall, but I don’t believe it’s going to help propel them to another Super Bowl appearance. Why? Because they haven’t faced a defense like the Ravens to this point. … The Ravens rank first in the league in points per game allowed (16.5), sacks (60) and takeaways (31). Ravens 28, Chiefs 20

I think I’m leaning this way, too, but Andy Reid has never lost to a former assistant.

Then the Lions and 49ers take center stage on the other side of the country. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but this entire game could hinge on Deebo Samuel‘s availability. The star wide receiver is on Bryan DeArdo’s most impactful players list, but a shoulder injury leaves his status in doubt. This season, Brock Purdy has a 22-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio with Samuel on the field and a 10-to-5 ratio when he’s not.

Both Pete Prisco and John Breech have this one being a thriller. Jared Goff needs to play well for that to happen, and Garrett Podell ranks him as the game’s second-biggest X factor.

  • Podell: “The formula for a Lions victory begins and ends with Goff playing efficient football, throwing touchdowns and taking care of the football. In Detroit’s two postseason wins, Goff has three touchdowns and no interceptions. … His ability to maintain composure and lead the Lions up and down the field for points will be the single biggest reason why the Lions win or lose on Sunday.”

As for everything else …

😄 Honorable mentions

😲 Not so honorable mentions

🏈 With the Panthers and Falcons hires, what’s next for Bill Belichick?

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Getty Images

Two of the NFL’s best coordinators are now the league’s two newest head coaches — and division rivals, no less. The Panthers hired Dave Canales, and the Falcons reunited with Raheem Morris.

The Panthers are on their third full-time coach of the last year and a half. After swinging and missing on Matt Rhule and somehow doing even worse with Frank Reich, Carolina, and especially Bryce Young, desperately need Canales to work. He’s coming off a terrific season as Baker Mayfield‘s offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, and before that, he worked with Russell Wilson and Geno Smith in Seattle.

Canales is taking the toughest job in the NFL. Owner David Tepper has struggled in every aspect, and Young had an awful rookie season surrounded by an awful offense. The Panthers don’t have a first-round pick due to last year’s trade to draft Young. Canales and new GM Dan Morgan have a lot of work to do.

Cody Benjamin graded all six head-coaching hires and says Carolina did well.

  • Benjamin: “Impatience has been the name of the game in Carolina, with Tepper burning through coaches and QBs in recent years. At 42, fresh off his first year as an offensive coordinator, Canales could represent a genuine pivot for the franchise. Grade: B+

Morris, meanwhile, gets his second shot as a full-time head coach, and it’s well-deserved.

  • Morris, 47, comes to Atlanta after three years as the Rams‘ defensive coordinator, a tenure that included the 2022 Super Bowl triumph. Prior to that, he had been with Atlanta in a variety of roles on both sides of the ball and interim head coach in 2020 after Dan Quinn was fired.
  • Morris also served as the Buccaneers‘ head coach from 2009-11, amassing a 17-31 record. He was only 32 years old when he took the job.
  • Jalen Ramsey, who played under Morris in Los Angeles, tweeted “Falcons got one of, if not the best coach in the NFL forreal!”

I like this hire. Morris takes over a team with a lot of talent on offense, led by Bijan Robinson, Drake London and Kyle Pitts — though quarterback is a major issue — and a defense that ranked fifth in success rate. Rams pass game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson may follow Morris to Atlanta as offensive coordinator.

A source told our Jonathan Jones that Morris “killed the interview,” and he must have, considering he beat out Bill Belichick for the job. Belichick interviewed with Falcons brass twice.

There are just two head coach openings left — the Commanders and Seahawks — and Belichick hasn’t interviewed for either. Where does he go now? Jordan Dajani assessed the options.

🏀 Meet the NBA All-Star Game starters

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Getty Images

Add another record to LeBron James‘ resume. The Lakers star was selected to his 20th All-Star Game, the most ever.

James will captain the Western Conference team, whose starters are …

  • Luka Doncic, Mavericks
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
  • LeBron James, Lakers
  • Kevin Durant, Suns
  • Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

In the East, it’s …

  • Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers
  • Damian Lillard, Bucks
  • Jayson Tatum, Celtics
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks (captain)
  • Joel Embiid, 76ers

Sam Quinn has a really good deep dive on picking the 14 reserve spots. (Those will be named on Feb. 1.)

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USATSI

🏀 No. 1 South Carolina outlasts No. 9 LSU, stays undefeated

No. 1 South Carolina knew it was going to get No. 9 LSU‘s best shot. And it did. And then it showed outstanding resolve and composure, rallying past the Tigers, 76-70, to remain the nation’s only undefeated team at 18-0.

  • The Gamecocks scored the first basket of the game but didn’t lead again until 6:06 left. LSU had led by as much as 11.
  • Tied at 67, Bree Hall nailed a 3-pointer, only for Hailey Van Lith to answer. Those were the last points LSU scored. Hall cashed another 3-pointer, and Raven Johnson followed with a driving layup to put the Tigers away. Hall and Johnson outscored LSU 11-3 over the final 4:02.
  • Angel Reese‘s foul trouble was a huge subplot, and she fouled out with 4:02 remaining — not coincidentally right before South Carolina’s finishing flourish. Overall, the Tigers outscored the Gamecocks by 10 in Reese’s 29 minutes but were outscored by 16 in her 11 minutes off the court.
  • Dawn Staley is now 5-1 against Kim Mulkey. All five Gamecocks starters scored in double figures.

📺 What we’re watching this weekend

Friday

🏀 Mavericks at Hawks, 7 p.m. on NBA TV
🏒 Golden Knights at Rangers, 7 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Michigan State at No. 13 Wisconsin (M), 8 p.m. on FS1
🏀 Trail Blazers at Spurs, 9:30 p.m. on NBA TV

Saturday

🎾 Women’s Australian Open final, 3:30 a.m. on ESPN
🏀 Kansas State at No. 4 Houston, noon on ESPN
🏀 Seton Hall at No. 14 Marquette (M), 1 p.m. on FS1
🏀 No. 7 Kansas at No. 23 Iowa State (M), 1:30 p.m. on CBS
🏀 Nebraska at No. 5 Iowa (W), 2 p.m. on BTN
🏀 Heat at Knicks, 3 p.m. on ABC
🏀 TCU at No. 14 Baylor (M), 4 p.m. on ESPN2
🏀 76ers at Nuggets, 5:30 p.m. on ABC
🏀 No. 16 Dayton at Richmond (M), 6 p.m. on CBS Sports Network
🏀 Lakers at Warriors, 8 p.m. on ABC
🏀 No. 15 Notre Dame at No. 8 UConn (W), 8 p.m. on Fox

Sunday

🎾 Men’s Australian Open final, 3:30 a.m. on ESPN
🏀 Xavier at No. 1 UConn (M), noon on FS1
🏀 No. 19 Virginia Tech at No. 22 Syracuse (W), noon on ACC Network
🏀 No. 2 Purdue at Rutgers (M), 1 p.m. on Fox
🏈 Chiefs at Ravens, 3 p.m. on CBS
🏈 Lions at 49ers, 6:30 p.m. on Fox

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