Everything Jon Gruden touches turns to gold. Well, sort of.
They say if you love something, set it free. I doubt that’s what motivated Gruden to trade Khalil Mack to Chicago, but clearly the change of scenery did wonders for the star linebacker, who achieved All-Pro status for the Bears while setting career marks in both sacks (12.5) and forced fumbles (six). Meanwhile another ex-Raider, Amari Cooper, enjoyed a similar revival with the Cowboys, emerging as Dak Prescott’s go-to receiver en route to leading Dallas to its second playoff berth in three years. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you of Gruden’s Midas touch, consider the unlikely resurrection of C.J. Anderson, a 1,000-yard rusher-turned-journeyman whose career was on life support when he joined the Rams last month.
Signed as an injury replacement for an ailing Todd Gurley, not much was expected of Anderson, who arrived in Los Angeles on the heels of a forgettable six-day stay in Oakland. With only a few days to absorb Sean McVay’s playbook prior to his Rams debut, Anderson was expected to work in tandem with John Kelly, a sixth-round rookie who shared a college backfield with Alvin Kamara. There were rumblings that Gurley, despite sitting out the entire practice week with knee inflammation, might still suit up in Week 16. With the NFC’s top seed up for grabs, Gurley intended to play through the pain, though the Rams changed course after seeing their hobbled workhorse labor through pre-game warmups.
Now let’s get one thing straight. Anderson didn’t get to the NFL by eating salad—the Rams list him at a beefy 224 pounds. But even by his usual hefty standards, the 27-year-old Cal-Berkeley product looked especially thick when he took the field for the first time as a Ram in Week 16. Maybe Anderson—who barely played during his nine-game stint with Carolina early in the year—spent his down time in Charlotte frequenting the city’s various barbecue joints.
But even with the physique of late-career Mike Tolbert, the feisty Anderson ran like a man possessed, obliterating Arizona for 167 yards in his Rams debut. Anderson’s out-of-nowhere explosion would have been easy to shrug off (he was playing the lowly Cardinals, after all) if not for his masterful follow-up performance against San Francisco in Week 17. Anderson proved his destruction of Arizona was no fluke by throttling the Niners in emphatic fashion, sending the Rams to a first-round bye on the strength of 154 yards (132 rushing, 22 receiving) from scrimmage. The 299 rushing yards Anderson compiled between Weeks 16 and 17 were more than Gurley produced over any two-game stretch this season.
But even after seeing Anderson blow the doors off in his two-game cameo, it was supposed to be business as usual for the Rams against Dallas. Fresh off his three-week breather, conventional wisdom suggested Gurley would reclaim his backfield throne with Anderson reverting to handcuff status. FanDuel adjusted accordingly, pricing Anderson at a meager $5,400 for the Divisional Round compared to Gurley, the most expensive item on last week’s DFS menu at a whopping $9,000.
Low expectations are no new obstacle for Anderson, an undrafted overachiever who has worn the underdog crown so long it may as well be sewed to his head. Doubt has been Anderson’s co-pilot since the very beginning, following him from junior college to Cal, to Denver, to Carolina, to Oakland (though he wasn’t even there long enough to unpack) all the way to Los Angeles. After burning through three teams in a two-month span, it’s hard to believe Anderson rushed for a career-high 1,007 yards just last season. His reward for topping the elusive 1,000-yard threshold? A pink-slip from John Elway and a $2.8 million pay cut to be Christian McCaffrey’s towel boy. Anderson ranked ninth in rushing yards last year, yet the football world treated his mere employment like an act of charity.
But if his two years atop the Rams’ coaching kingdom have taught us anything it’s that Sean McVay always has a trick up his sleeve. Rather than handing the 27-year-old a front-row seat to the Todd Gurley Show on Saturday, McVay let Anderson shine with 23 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns in L.A.’s playoff opener. Still on the mend, Gurley was on a tight leash, seeing an abbreviated workload (just 16 carries) in the win over Dallas. Maybe that will change this week when the Rams visit New Orleans for Sunday’s NFC title bout. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, now isn’t the time to slow-play it with Gurley, a three-time All-Pro selection who visited the end zone an incredible 21 times during the regular season. But with Anderson playing arguably the best football of his career, why would the Rams shy away from him?
Pairing Gurley with Anderson may give L.A. its best chance to steal a win in the Big Easy. In all three of their losses this year, the Saints trailed in time of possession. There’s no easy way to slay the Saints, particularly on their home turf, but keeping Drew Brees off the field by maintaining drives and featuring a smash-mouth running attack has worked for teams before and it could work again. And let’s not dismiss Anderson’s playoff pedigree. The sixth-year vet was a key contributor on Denver’s Super Bowl team in 2015, rushing for 234 yards and two touchdowns during the Broncos’ postseason run. Regardless of what transpires underneath the Superdome on Sunday, never count out Cortrelle Javon Anderson. McVay should probably send his mentor, Jon Gruden, a case of Coronas for letting Anderson fall through the cracks.
I could wax poetic about the unrelenting brilliance of football’s ageless sorcerer, Tom Brady, but that wouldn’t be covering any new ground. Brady’s playoff dominance, particularly in the frozen trenches of Foxboro, Massachusetts, is well-documented. Like clockwork, the Patriots, led by an ultra-precise Brady and a career game from first-year bull-dozer Sony Michel, embarrassed the Chargers Sunday in a game that was decided by halftime.
Don’t let the final score (41-28) deceive you. The Chargers were never in this one, laying an all-time egg against a Patriots team that seemed ripe for the picking. With Father Time gaining on Brady and Rob Gronkowski a shell of his former, touchdown-spiking self, New England entered Sunday’s playoff opener looking as vulnerable as ever. But the Chargers didn’t measure up, squandering their chance to punch a hole in the Patriots’ long-standing dynasty.
The Bolts played with slightly more purpose in the second half, outscoring New England 21-6 after the break, but it was still a sour end to a season that began with Super Bowl aspirations. Philip Rivers spent much of the afternoon barking at officials, but the Chargers only had themselves to blame for Sunday’s collapse.
After stymying the Ravens by stacking the secondary with seven defensive backs in the Wild Card round, the Chargers employed a similar approach in Foxboro, using a zone scheme to combat Brady and the Pats’ high-octane offense. L.A.’s radical, seven DB alignment may have worked against Lamar Jackson—not exactly the gold standard for passing excellence—but when the Bolts tried it on Brady, the 41-year-old cut them down to size. With no linebackers manning the middle, the living legend did what he does best by shredding the Chargers with an endless supply of short passes. Brady peppered the middle of the field, teaming up with James White (15 catches for 97 yards) and Julian Edelman (nine grabs for 151 yards) to annihilate the Chargers’ leaky defense. Anchored by 380-pound giant Trent Brown, the Patriots’ line held strong against top pass-rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, not yielding a sack over 82 offensive snaps. Anyone familiar with his work knows Brady rarely misses when he has a clean pocket and that certainly rang true Sunday as the four-time Super Bowl MVP had eons to throw behind New England’s stout offensive line.
Unable to thwart Brady’s wizardry, the Chargers kept digging a bigger hole for themselves, allowing touchdowns on each of New England’s first four possessions. Give the crafty Patriots credit for making lemonade out of lemons. Gronkowski isn’t the fleetest of foot anymore, a shortcoming that has clearly hampered him as a pass-catcher, but the always resourceful Pats still found a way to make him useful, employing the hulking tight end as a lead blocker. With Gronk clearing the path, Michel enjoyed a breakout game, rumbling to 129 yards and a career-high three touchdowns on 24 rushing attempts.
Aside from a first-quarter lapse that led to a long Keenan Allen touchdown, New England’s defense held up its end of the bargain, blitzing the bejesus out of Rivers while holding the veteran to a dismal 49.0 completion percentage. All-Pro selection Stephon Gilmore was burned on Allen’s touchdown but redeemed himself with a fourth-quarter pick, extinguishing the flame on L.A.’s dim comeback hopes.
You could argue the Chargers were a victim of the NFL’s flawed playoff seeding. Despite finishing a game behind L.A. (12-4) in the standings, the Patriots still garnered a first-round bye and home-field advantage over Los Angeles by virtue of winning their division, the pillow-soft AFC East.
We know the Patriots are nearly unbeatable at home—they’ve won 16 straight at Gillette—but let’s not forget that Los Angeles entered Sunday’s game with a perfect 9-0 record outside of Southern California. Which begs the question, does home-field really matter when your team doesn’t have a home? The Dignity Health Sports Park (formerly known as the Stubhub Center) may technically be the Chargers’ home field—at least until they open their new digs in Inglewood—but calling a placeholder, 25,000-seat soccer stadium “home” would probably be a stretch, especially with the Rams emerging as L.A.’s favorite child.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for Sunday’s no-show and it starts at the top with coach Anthony Lynn, who spent the afternoon playing checkers while Bill Belichick played chess. The Chargers also put themselves at a disadvantage by flying back to Los Angeles instead of staying on the East Coast after their win at Baltimore the previous week. The Bolts looked gassed against New England and flying cross-country twice in one week surely didn’t help matters, not to mention that practicing in L.A. wasn’t the best prep for the arctic conditions they’d face in Foxboro. As phenomenal as he’s been throughout his Chargers tenure, Rivers’ ghastly 0-8 record against Brady is certainly a stain on his resume.
The well-rounded Chargers had a chance to do damage in a wide-open AFC but as the great philosopher Omar Little once said, “you come at the king, you best not miss.”
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