The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

With free agency in the rear-view mirror and the 2021 draft all wrapped up, NFL teams can now draw breath and start to reflect on what has unfolded during the offseason.

Ideally, all teams will hope they sit in a better position to challenge than they did a few months back, but the reality is some are just starting from further back than others.

When it comes to Super Bowl challengers, undoubtedly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs remain strong favourites to get back to the big game. The Bucs have got the band back together after hoisting aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy on home turf, while the Chiefs have responded to a harrowing loss by rebuilding the offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes.

But what about the chasing pack? Stats Perform picks out some of the leading contenders for glory while reflecting on what has happened since they last played.

Buffalo Bills

An appearance in the AFC Championship Game inspired by the improved play of quarterback Josh Allen left Buffalo rightly believing they needed minor tweaks, rather than dramatic alterations, to challenge once again in 2021. They kept the offensive line together, then added depth at a key area in the draft when selecting Spencer Brown in round three.

However, the Bills – who ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5) last term but were a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62) – used first and second-round selections to help their defense, with Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr firming up a pass rush that tied 15th for sacks. Add in Emmanuel Sanders to the receiving group and Buffalo appears to be in rude health as they aim to go one better than last season.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are swinging for the fences as they bid to get back to the Super Bowl. Jared Goff was the starter when they lost to the New England Patriots in February 2019, but his time with the franchise is over. The blockbuster deal to get Matthew Stafford from Detroit has ramped up the pressure to get results on the field – and not just in the regular season either.

Leonard Floyd remained thanks to a bumper contract, but John Johnson and Troy Hill are gone from the secondary. They will continue to lean heavily on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to lead a defense that allowed the fewest passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76). While trades have seen the Rams become accustomed to watching on as teams are on the clock in round one, it was notable they added three wide receivers with their picks as they aim for a fifth successive winning season under head coach Sean McVay.

San Francisco 49ers

Yes, a team who finished the 2020 regular season with a 6-10 record should be considered as genuine contenders. The 49ers went so close to Super Bowl glory 15 months ago, while a roster ravaged by injuries last season will hope for better fortune when it comes to keeping key personnel healthy. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has jetted off to New York, but Nick Bosa should be back.

In truth, it will be the offense that defines San Francisco's chances. Jimmy Garoppolo failed to inspire in his limited appearances, throwing seven touchdowns to five interceptions, so getting a quarterback in the draft – even if trading up to number three came at a high cost – made sense. Trey Lance was their choice, a high-upside selection who showed plenty of promise in 19 games for North Dakota State. The run game remains pivotal, though, which explains why they splashed out to make sure Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk stuck around.

Cleveland Browns

Having made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Browns knocked out divisional rivals Pittsburgh and then came close to upsetting Kansas City on the road. The defense was bolstered up front with the signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson. However, having given up 31 passing touchdowns, the secondary has rightly been the focus. After snapping up former Rams duo Johnson and Hill, Cleveland selected cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds of the draft.

Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski built the offense around the rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – the team averaged 4.8 yards per rush – easing the pressure on Baker Mayfield to move the sticks. Still, he ranked sixth in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, showing teams cannot fill the box and focus solely on stopping the run. If they can get out of a highly competitive AFC North again, the Browns will believe they can build on a Divisional Round appearance.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' hopes will once again rest with Lamar Jackson, their dual-threat quarterback who is on course for a significant pay rise when an agreement is reached over a long-term extension. His ability to run helped Baltimore finish first in rushing yards per play with 5.53, while the passing game has a little extra help now after receiver Rashod Bateman was taken with the 27th pick. Still, there was no flashy free-agency signing at the position, despite links with JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton. Kevin Zeitler did pen a deal, securing an experienced guard to bolster the offensive line.

Defensively, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue have moved on to the Patriots and Raiders respectively, though the Ravens have a reputation for building a pass rush no matter who is on the roster. Tyus Bowser can expect an increased role, plus outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was chosen with the late first-round pick acquired in the trade that sent offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr to the Chiefs.

Honourable mentions

The Green Bay Packers would have made the list were it not for the uncertainty surrounding the future of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. For all their quarterback's undoubted qualities on the field, they have not made a Super Bowl in 11 years. And what is going on in Seattle too? Rumours relating to Russell Wilson's future have dominated the offseason for the Seahawks.

The Indianapolis Colts will hope they can get the best out of signal-caller Carson Wentz and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem set for one last ride with Ben Roethlisberger. As for a trendy pick who missed out on the playoffs last season, look no further than the Los Angeles Chargers, complete with a revamped offensive line to help keep QB Justin Herbert safe.

The Los Angeles Rams have never been afraid to take big swings, and they will be hoping the one they took back in late January will get them over the hump.

Los Angeles handed the keys to an offense that can be one of the most explosive in football to Matthew Stafford, parting ways with Jared Goff and some significant draft capital to acquire him from the Detroit Lions.

Stafford joins a team that was two wins away from the Super Bowl last season, the Rams undone by league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

The Rams are gambling that Stafford's arrival gets them back to the sport's grandest stage.

However, the financial pressures facing Los Angeles mean the Rams' roster is likely to look very different in 2021.

What will their remodelled group need to do to realise their ambitions next season?

Here we try to answer that question by looking back at the Rams' 2020 campaign using Stats Perform data.

Offense

It is not difficult to see why Sean McVay lost patience with Goff, the number one overall pick of the Rams in the 2016 draft.

The Rams finished the season 18th in yards per play with 5.54, their second successive year outside the top 10 in that regard having been second in 2018 (6.36) when they reached the Super Bowl.

Goff's inability to hang on to the football played a contributing role in their struggles to move the ball more efficiently.

His 17 giveaways were tied for the fourth-most in the NFL while 73 of his 182 incompletions were down to poor throws. Only nine quarterbacks delivered more poor throws in 2020.

Just 14 of Goff's incompletions were drops, tied for 20th among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts, indicating his receivers were relatively reliable.

Goff had decent success going downfield. His passer rating of 103.4 on throws of 21 or more air yards ranked 10th among quarterbacks to have attempted 25 such throws.

Stafford, however, ranked fifth with a rating of 118.5 and attempted 57 such passes to Goff's 36 at a better completion percentage (35.1 to 33.3), illustrating his greater willingness to push the ball deep and his superior prowess as a downfield thrower.

The Rams will want to give Stafford more support than Goff received from the running game, which averaged 4.27 yards per attempt last year, putting them 17th in the NFL.

Cam Akers' progress could be key in that regard. The 2020 second-round pick came on strong down the stretch and proved himself a big-play threat.

He had four rushes of at least 20 yards with his average distance of 41.8 yards on those carries the most among rookie running backs to have more than one such attempt.

But any progress the offense makes may be cancelled out if the defense takes a step back from its position among the league's elite.

Defense

By many measures, the Rams had the best defense in football last season.

Los Angeles ranked first in opponent yards per play allowed (4.56) in 2020, with their dominance encompassing both the passing game and the run game.

Indeed, the Rams allowed the least passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76).

Just 46.8 per cent of offensive plays run against them were successful, with only three defenses performing better by that measure. The Rams were the third-best team in the league at stopping teams on the critical third and fourth downs, allowing a success rate of 35.9 per cent.

Their numbers in terms of takeaways were not quite as impressive, the Rams finishing with 22, seven shy of the league-high 29 set by the Miami Dolphins.

Though the Rams perhaps did not take the ball away as much as they would have liked, Los Angeles still excelled at preventing opponents from scoring.

Los Angeles finished the year first in opponent scoring efficiency, allowing scores on 51 of 183 opponent drives.

The Rams' defense was led by another Defensive Player of Year effort from star defensive lineman Aaron Donald.

Donald's sack total of 13.5 was a low number by his lofty standards, but he was the clear leader in knockdowns and hurries, his combined total of 94.5 comfortably outstripping the man he beat to the DPOY award, T.J. Watt (83).

There is little to suggest Donald will not continue to dominate but, for the Rams to remain the league's best on defense, they will need to adapt to the loss of coordinator Brandon Staley - who was replaced by Raheem Morris - and the likely departures of several key pieces.

Offseason

The Rams' move to land Stafford came at a high price, leaving them with a distinct lack of capital with which to furnish the roster around him.

Los Angeles traded a third-round pick this year along with first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 to acquire Stafford, leaving them without a first-round selection until 2024.

With Donald and Jalen Ramsey in place for the long term, the defense looks in pretty good hands, but it may be a little top-heavy given the talent the Rams look likely to lose on that side of the ball.

Safety John Jonson, cornerbacks Darious Williams and Troy Hill, and edge rusher Leonard Floyd are all set to hit the market in a year where the Rams are projected to be nearly $30million over an assumed salary cap of $185m.

Replenishing those positions, and sourcing a replacement for unrestricted free agent guard Austin Blythe, will be priorities for the Rams, along with finding a deep threat who can help them harness the most of Stafford's upside throwing the deep ball.

The problem is that the Rams, as it stands, only have three picks in the 2021 NFL Draft with which to add to their group.

That number will go up when compensatory selections are factored into the equation, but the reality is that the Rams will not be as deep as in previous years.

Los Angeles will need to get creative to bolster the roster this offseason, yet the fate of the Rams' 2021 campaign rests predominantly on the success of their bet on Stafford to be a significant upgrade on the quarterback they were so eager to ship out.

Matthew Stafford is excited to join the Los Angeles Rams, but he expected to end up playing with the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers or Washington Football Team in 2021.

The 33-year-old quarterback left the Detroit Lions in a trade after representing the team for 12 years, with the Rams sending QB Jared Goff and a package of draft picks that contained two first-round selections in the other direction.

Stafford and the Lions agreed it was the best move as the team embarked on a rebuild after firing head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn towards the end of a 5-11 season in 2020.

The number one overall pick in 2009, Stafford leaves the Lions without having won a playoff game.

He hopes the chance to represent the Rams, who were in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2018 season, will give him a chance to play in the biggest NFL games.

Stafford should upgrade the QB position for Rams coach Sean McVay, but he was not expecting to join the likes of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey in LA when his offseason began.

"I've always wanted to play in those big games," Stafford said to the Detroit Free Press. "I feel like I will excel in those situations. I wanted to shoot my shot.

"I thought [I would go to] all the places that everybody else thought. Indianapolis. San Francisco - although you didn't know what was gonna happen with Jimmy [Garoppolo] - Washington.

"But we obviously didn't know what was gonna happen there. I just didn't know how they [the Rams] would ever be able to [pull it off]. You know, I'm not a salary cap guru. It kind of got to a point where I'm like, 'OK, I can't sit there and go crazy'. I just tried to let it happen and LA aggressively jumped into it.

"I'm excited about their roster, their coaching staff, what they can bring to the table and their recent success."

Stafford initially thought he would never leave Detroit, but he came to realise a rebuild could be on the cards if the 2020 season did not meet expectations as the pressure grew on Patricia.

"To be honest, [my wife] Kelly and I probably started talking about it before last season," he said. "It was one of those where we were hoping, 'Golly, let's go, I hope this thing takes off and we play great'.

"But if it doesn't, you just knew what was going to happen. They were going to tear it down and rebuild.

"Anytime you switch GMs and a head coach, you know that they're going to want to bring their own people in, and that's going to take time. Frankly, I didn't feel like I was the appropriate person to oversee that time."

Stafford thought his ability would hinder the Lions' rebuild as he would win too many games to prevent them from topping the draft order.

He leaves with 45,109 passing yards, 282 touchdowns, 144 interceptions and 74 wins – all franchise QB records.

Stafford finishes with a record of 74-90-1, though, and with no NFC North titles after enduring three consecutive losing seasons between 2018 and 2020.

He added: "Sometimes it's not the perfect storybook ending in the same place, but I can leave here knowing that I gave this team every damn thing I had."

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been crowned the NFL's MVP for a third time.

Rodgers was honoured during Saturday's awards – on the eve of Super Bowl LV between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – as he added to his 2011 and 2014 MVPs.

The 37-year-old is now level with Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, Packers great Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown with three Most Valuable Player honours – only Peyton Manning (five) has more in NFL history.

The Packers fell short in the NFC Conference Game, beaten by Super Bowl finalists the Buccaneers, but Rodgers still enjoyed a memorable campaign.

Packers star Rodgers amassed 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a completion rate of 70.7 per cent this season.

His quarterback rating of 121.5 puts him second on the all-time list among qualifiers, behind only his 2011 campaign (122.5).

In total, Rodgers completed 372 of 526 attempts for 4,299 yards as the Packers topped the NFC North with a 13-3 record to clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Rodgers – a Super Bowl champion during the 2010 season – featured in his first NFC title decider at Lambeau Field, but the Packers fell to Brady's Buccaneers 31-26.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald won the Defensive Player of the Year for a third time.

Pittsburgh Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt had been tipped to win the award, but Donald maintained his dominance, having also reigned supreme in 2017 and 2018.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski claimed the Coach of the Year award after leading the franchise to their first postseason victory in 25 years.

Not since the 1994 season had the Browns won a playoff matchup, until upstaging the Steelers before losing to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.

 

List of NFL Honors

Rookie of the Year: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Defensive Player of the Year: Los Angeles Rams DL Aaron Donald
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Offensive Player of the Year: Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Washington DE Chase Young
Comeback Player of the Year: Washington QB Alex Smith
Coach of the Year: Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski
Most Valuable Player: Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

The Los Angeles Rams' brass didn't say much when pressed on the future of Jared Goff in the wake of their season coming to an end in the Divisional Round.

They didn't need to. The brevity head coach Sean McVay and Les Snead displayed and their unwillingness to express confidence in Goff as the long-term starter at quarterback spoke volumes.

Indeed, their reluctance to offer vociferous support for the quarterback proved a harbinger of an offseason blockbuster, which was agreed with the final chapter of the 2020 NFL season still to be written in Tampa.

Los Angeles paid a steep price to move on from Goff, sending him to the Detroit Lions along with a third-round pick in this year's draft and first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 to acquire Matthew Stafford. The Rams have not made a first-round pick since selecting Goff in 2016 and, through this latest aggressive move, are not scheduled to do so until 2024.

It is a move made with the intention of realising the potential of a championship calibre offense that has too often operated with the handbrake applied during Goff's time with the team.

"I'm just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me," Goff told NFL.com of his trade to Detroit.

But were Goff's contributions underappreciated in Los Angeles? And will Stafford, himself one of the more underrated quarterbacks in football, unlock McVay's offense in a way Goff couldn't?

Goff prolific under McVay

There are raw numbers that would indicate Goff at least being Stafford's equal. 

Since McVay took over from Jeff Fisher in 2017, Goff has thrown 102 touchdowns, seven more than Stafford and 10th in the NFL in that span.

His yards per attempt average of 7.71 is also superior to Stafford over the past four seasons, albeit by a narrow margin, Stafford having gained 7.64 yards per pass in the same period.

In the 2018 season, when the Rams were defeated by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, Goff was third in yards per attempt with 8.36 compared to Stafford's 6.81.

Only Patrick Mahomes (52) managed more passing plays of 25 yards or more than the 40 produced that year by Goff, who was third in the NFL in percentage of throws that went for a first down (41.5).

Yet those statistics must be looked at through the prism of him operating in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in football.

Set up for success

Though the two attacks have their differences, a useful way to judge Goff's performance in McVay's offense is to compare his performance to the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks in Kyle Shanahan's system.

Both offenses are based heavily on play-action and passing concepts designed to maximise their receivers' ability to pick up yardage after the catch.

The 2018 season, in which the 49ers played without starter Jimmy Garoppolo for 13 games, saw then third-stringer Nick Mullens feature for eight weeks of the season and average 8.31 yards per attempt.

That negligible difference between Goff and Mullens is reflective of the assistance schemes such as those of McVay and Shanahan give to quarterbacks.

Stafford has had no such help in recent times in Detroit and yet, over the last four seasons, he comes out as the superior signal-caller in a series of categories.

Stafford's downfield dynamism

While Stafford has been recognised as more of a gunslinger than Goff, he has done a superior job of taking care of the football.

Since 2017, Goff has a touchdown to interception ratio of 2.13, putting him 21st in the NFL. Stafford, meanwhile, is 12th with a TD-INT ratio of 2.64.

Stafford has also been the more accurate thrower in that timeframe, completing 65.2 per cent of his passes compared to 64.3 per cent for Goff, while his greater aggressiveness as a downfield thrower is reflected by their respective air yards per attempt averages across the past four seasons.

Goff has averaged 7.4 air yards per attempt, as opposed to 8.4 for Stafford, who has been substantially more successful when pushing the ball downfield.

Indeed, Stafford has completed 40.8 per cent of throws of 20 air yards or more since 2017, putting up 3,449 yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, resulting in a passer rating of 106.7.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to Goff, who has connected on 35.8 per cent of such passes for 2,639 yards, 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 89.3.

Stafford has also fared better in an area of the game this is pivotal to the Rams' offense under McVay.

Play-action production

Goff attempted 768 play-action passes during his time working under McVay, completing 65.1 per cent of them for 6,861 yards, 38 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 103.0 passer rating.

Those are excellent numbers but they are inferior to those of Stafford. In a smaller sample size of 470 play-action throws since 2017, Stafford has a completion percentage of 69.4, passing for 4,364 yards and 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 111.0.

Play-action is a tremendous tool for slowing down aggressive defenses and negating pressure, but the Rams can afford to have more confidence in Stafford's ability to handle pressure than they did with Goff.

Goff made his first NFL start in Week 11 of the 2016 season. Since then he has completed 46 per cent of his passes when under pressure - compared to 72.5 when the pocket is kept clean - for 4,907 yards, 26 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

Over the same span, Stafford's completion percentage dropped to 51.7 when pressured as opposed to 70.8 from clean pockets. He threw for 4,777 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions when under duress, his passer rating of 65.6 well above Goff's 55.3.

There is no question Goff has previously flourished in McVay's offense. The numbers and the playoff wins speak to that, but the fact he ranks fifth in the NFL in yards after catch per reception (6.0) since 2017 is evidence of him being aided by a play-action heavy system that can keep pressure off him and puts the onus on receivers to make plays in the open field.

Stafford, who got an average of 5.5 YAC per reception in the last four seasons, has not enjoyed the perks of playing in one of the most innovative offenses in football, yet the data paints a clear picture of why the Rams made the trade.

He can add a downfield element to the passing game that has been sorely lacking with Goff and improve the Rams' play-action game while giving them the option of leaning more on straight dropback passes without as much fear of what will happen when the pocket breaks down.

Goff is worthy of credit and, yes, appreciation for his early success in McVay's scheme. However, in recent times he has drastically limited the ceiling of the Rams' offense. Stafford can remove those limits and help the Rams finally cash in after years of throwing their chips to the middle of the table.

Jared Goff is relishing the opportunity to move to a team that "wants me and appreciates me" after the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams reportedly agreed a blockbuster trade.

Goff is Detroit-bound after the Lions agreed to send quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams for the former and multiple NFL picks.

Reports claim the Rams will trade QB Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round selection to the Lions in exchange for Stafford.

Goff called the Rams home for five seasons and was also a number one draft pick – selected in 2016.

The two-time Pro Bowler helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII, which they lost to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

"I'm just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me," the 26-year-old Goff told NFL.com.

"I'm moving forward and couldn't be more excited to build a winner there. I'm excited about Dan [Campbell] and the whole staff."

Goff completed 370 of 552 passes for 3,952 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during the 2020 regular season as the Rams reached the playoffs before losing to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round.

The Lions have not advanced to the postseason since their Wild Card loss to the Seattle Seahawks in 2016.

The Detroit Lions are reportedly trading Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff and multiple picks.

Stafford, 32, spent 12 seasons with the Lions after being selected with the top pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

But the quarterback will join the Rams, according to NFL Network and ESPN.

The reports said the Rams will send QB Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder to the Lions in exchange for Stafford.

Stafford started all 16 games for the Lions this season, completing 339 of 528 passes for 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Detroit were 5-11, missing the playoffs for the ninth time in 12 seasons since Stafford's arrival.

The Lions are without a playoff victory since the 1991 season, having lost in the Wild Card Round in the 2011, 2014 and 2016 campaigns.

Goff, 26, was with the Rams for five seasons and was also a number one draft pick – selected in 2016.

He helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII, which they lost to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Goff completed 370 of 552 passes for 3,952 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during the 2020 regular season as the Rams reached the playoffs before losing to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round.

The Los Angeles Chargers have hired Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as head coach. 

Staley succeeds Anthony Lynn after the Chargers endured an underwhelming 2020 season, finishing 7-9 despite four consecutive wins to conclude the campaign. 

It was a second successive losing season for the Chargers, underlining the task facing Staley. 

But president of football operations John Spanos is confident the 38-year-old is the right man for the job.

"It doesn't matter if you've known Brandon for five minutes or five years, what quickly becomes apparent is the amount of energy and passion he approaches each and every moment with," Spanos told the franchise's official website. 

"The consistency of that enthusiasm is unique and, most importantly, it drives his ability to connect with people. 

"His coaching journey to this particular moment is inspiring; if not for the sheer perseverance and determination of it all, then certainly for the dramatic results it has produced for the teams and players he has coached." 

Staley impressed as a coordinator in 2020, his maiden year with the Rams, as the team enjoyed its best defensive season since 1975, conceding just 9.6 points and 237.3 yards per game. 

He is now looking forward to leading the Chargers, describing the opportunity as "a dream come true". 

"It's hard to put into words just how excited I am for the opportunity to be the Los Angeles Chargers' head coach," he said. 

"While this is certainly a dream come true, it's also a dream that's just beginning. There's a reason this was probably the most sought after job out there – from ownership, to the fans, to the city, to the men in that locker room – it's the total package."

Aaron Rodgers is relishing the opportunity to feature in a long-awaited NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field after the Green Bay Packers downed the Los Angeles Rams.

Rodgers will play a conference title game at home for the first time in his stellar career following the Packers' 32-18 win over the Rams in the NFL playoffs on Saturday.

Top MVP candidate Rodgers finished 23-of-36 passing for 296 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks, while the Super Bowl champion rushed for another TD.

Either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or New Orleans Saints await the Packers in Green Bay on January 24 – the winner progressing to the Super Bowl – and star quarterback Rodgers is excited.

"It means a lot. [Former Packers receiver] Jordy [Nelson] and I talked about it years ago. Made a lot of starts in this league without hosting the NFC Championship," Rodgers – whose four previous NFC Championship appearances have been on the road – told reporters when asked what it meant to host the title game in Green Bay.

"Hopefully it is a little colder than it was tonight. The fans were special and the energy was special. There is a home-field advantage. The fact we get to host, can't say sleep in our own bed because there is still an antiquated idea of staying in a hotel the night before a game instead of your warm, cosy six-night a week bed. I know COVID-19 is involved in that. I'm still salty about that antiquated idea.

"But it is meaningful to have fans at the game. Hopefully we can get even more if this worked out. It will be exciting. Enjoy this tonight, celebrate and to watch tomorrow, knowing whoever wins is coming to our place."

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, less than 9,000 fans were allowed to attend the Packers-Rams matchup in Green Bay, where Rodgers recorded his 12th career playoff game with 250-plus passing yards and two-plus passing touchdowns.

According to NFL Research, the only other payers in NFL history with 10-plus such games are Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (17), Joe Montana (12) and New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees (10).

Rodgers – whose Green Bay are eyeing their first Super Bowl crown since 2010 – also eclipsed Brett Favre for most playoff completions (439) in Packers history.

Per Stats Perform, Rodgers has thrown for multiple passing TDs in eight consecutive postseason games, tied with Joe Flacco for the longest streak in history. Now with 233 in his career, Rodgers also passed Favre for the most touchdown passes thrown at Lambeau Field (regular and postseason).

"It felt like 50,000 when we ran out of the tunnel, it really did," Rodgers said. "It was such a special moment. Forgot how much you truly, truly miss having a crowd there ... it felt like, 50,000, 60,000."

Rodgers added: ''I'm definitely a little emotional, just thinking about what we've been through. It got me emotional with the crowd out there today.''

Another year, another NFC Championship Game berth for the Green Bay Packers, who took down the Los Angeles Rams 32-18.

Aaron Rodgers – the top MVP candidate – led the way as the number one Packers advanced to their second successive NFC title game by beating the Rams in the Divisional Round at Lambeau Field on Saturday.

Packers quarterback Rodgers flexed his muscles – finishing 23-of-36 passing for 296 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks, while the Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL MVP rushed for another TD.

Rams QB Jared Goff was 21 of 27 for 174 yards and a touchdown in Green Bay, where he was sacked four times.

The Packers, who lost to the San Francisco 49ers in last season's Championship Game, and Rams traded field goals in an evenly contested opening quarter.

But the Packers moved clear after outscoring the Rams 16-7 in the second period – Rodgers throwing a TD pass to Davante Adams and running for his own TD while Goff connected with Van Jefferson as Green Bay took a 19-10 lead into half-time.

Aaron Jones extended the Packers' lead to 25-10 with a one-yard run before Rams star Cam Akers helped close the visitors within seven points of Green Bay.

However, the Packers were too good as Rodgers threw a 58-yard pass to Allen Lazard with less than seven minutes remaining in the final quarter to send Green Bay back to the NFC title contest.

 

Turning point – Green Bay maintain second-quarter dominance

There is no better team than the Packers in second quarters.

Green Back set an NFL season record for second-quarter points with 205 heading into the postseason. The New England Patriots had previously held the record with 199 in 2007.

The Packers showed why they are so good in second periods after scoring 16 points to move clear of the Rams on Saturday.

Rodgers produces the goods… again

Rodgers showed he is the man for the big stage once again after recording his 12th career playoff game with 250-plus passing yards and two-plus passing touchdowns.

According to NFL Research, the only other payers in NFL history with 10-plus such games are Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (17), Joe Montana (12) and New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees (10).

Rodgers also eclipsed Brett Favre for most playoff completions (439) in Packers history.

Per Stats Perform, Rodgers has thrown for multiple passing TDs in eight consecutive postseason games, tied with Joe Flacco for the longest streak in history. Now with 233 in his career, Rodgers also passed Favre for the most touchdown passes thrown at Lambeau Field (regular and postseason).

What's next?

The Packers – eyeing their first Super Bowl crown since 2010 – will face the winner of the Buccaneers-Saints matchup in the NFC Championship showdown on January 24.

For the Rams, they are left to pick up the pieces after returning to the playoffs following a year absence, having lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

The Wild Card Round was, well, wild.

The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns ended long postseason droughts, while the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Ravens impressed as they produced upset results on the road.

Meanwhile, Tom Brady made sure the Tampa Bay Buccaneers progressed, securing a showdown with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints that will be an all-NFC South battle between starting quarterbacks with a combined age is 85.

As for the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions - along with NFC top seeds the Green Bay Packers - prepare to return to action after a well-earned bye week.

A four-game schedule has all the potential for another bumper weekend of NFL action, with fans watching on to found out who will be the final four left standing in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers - Saturday, 4.35pm (all times Eastern)

- The Rams are the only current NFC team with an all-time winning record against the Packers (46-45-2), but they have lost five of the previous six and 11 of the past 15 meetings. Green Bay, meanwhile, earned the No.1 seed in the conference for just the third time in their history.

- Aaron Rodgers posted the second-highest passer rating in NFL history this season (121.5), trailing only his own 122.5 in 2011, when he was voted the league's MVP. Rodgers had six games with four or more touchdown passes and zero interceptions, tying the most in a season all-time (Peyton Manning in 2013). In Rodgers' playoff career, the Packers are 8-1 when he does not throw an interception - but 2-7 when he does.

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills - Saturday, 8.15pm

- Baltimore (191.9) and Tennessee (168.1) finished first and second in the NFL in rushing yards per game in the regular season, but the Ravens out-rushed the Titans 236-51 last week to progress. Lamar Jackson ran for 136 of them, the third most ever by a quarterback in a playoff game.

- Josh Allen completed 26 of 35 passes in the Wild Card win over the Indianapolis Colts (74.0 per cent), the highest completion percentage by a Bills starting QB in a playoff game. Allen also became the fifth player in NFL history with a passing TD, a rushing TD and a receiving TD in the playoffs, joining Freeman McNeil, Kordell Stewart, Julian Edelman and Nick Foles.

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs - Sunday, 3.05pm

- This is the first postseason game between the teams. The Chiefs have won the past three meetings, most recently on November 4, 2018 (37-21). In fact, Cleveland have not beaten Kansas City since December 2012, while they have triumphed at Arrowhead only once in the past 32 seasons (December 2009).

- Against the Steelers, Baker Mayfield became the seventh player in league history to throw at least three TD passes without an interception in his postseason debut. Only one other player has done this in the previous 15 years (Alex Smith in 2011). He goes up against Patrick Mahomes, who has accounted for 16 total touchdowns – 13 TD passes and three rushing scores – in five postseason outings.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints - Sunday, 6.40pm

- This will be the 59th all-time meeting of these franchises, albeit the first in the postseason. The Saints have won five straight in the rivalry, outscoring the Bucs by a combined 165-81 during that streak.

- Brady's two touchdown passes against the Washington Football Team moved his career postseason total to 75, while the victory was his 31st in 42 career playoff starts. In the entire NFL, only five teams have as many as 31 postseason wins in their history. Brady (341) and Saints QB Brees (303) rank first and third respectively in career starts among quarterbacks, regular season and playoffs combined.

The Detroit Lions have found a rookie general manager after Brad Holmes ended a long association with the Los Angeles Rams to take the key post.

Holmes, 41, also assumes the position of executive vice president after leaving the Rams, where he served as director of college scouting.

He takes over the role that had stood vacant since Bob Quinn was fired on November 28, when head coach Matt Patricia was also dismissed.

A full-time successor to Patricia has yet to be appointed, but the key front office role is now filled as Holmes takes up his most senior post yet, reportedly on a five-year deal.

The Lions (5-11) finished bottom of the NFC North in 2020, as they now have for three consecutive seasons, and principal owner and chairman Sheila Ford Hamp said Holmes had made an immediately positive impression.

"On behalf of the entire Lions organisation, I am thrilled to welcome Brad Holmes to Detroit," she said.

"Several weeks ago, when we embarked on this process, it was critical that we find the right person to fit our vision for this team. It was evident early on that Brad is a proven leader who is ready for this opportunity. We are thrilled to introduce him to our fans as a member of our football family."

The Lions were reported to have considered an array of candidates, some of whom had GM experience in the NFL, including Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli.

Rod Wood, the CEO and team president, said Holmes "stood out immediately" because of his commitment to using data to identify emerging talent.

"His abilities as a critical thinker, along with his extensive experience implementing technology and analytics into his approach to scouting, were among the many decisive qualities Brad displayed in our time getting to know him during the interview process," Wood said.

"We look forward to him helping lead our organisation as we take the next steps as a team."

Holmes had been with the Rams since joining as a public relations intern in 2003. He soon joined the scouting staff and was appointed in 2013 to the role he has vacated to switch allegiance.

The Rams will pick up a third-round draft pick for each of the next two years as compensation for losing Holmes, NFL.com said.

Jared Goff will start at quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams in their NFC divisional round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.

Regular QB Goff has not started since the Rams' Week 16 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks, having undergone surgery on his thumb.

However, John Wolford, who played in Week 17 and then again in the playoff opener against Seattle, took a blow to the head in the postseason Seahawks game.

Wolford was not able to return – with Goff required to step up, still nursing his thumb – and the 25-year-old has now been ruled out against the Packers, the team confirmed on Thursday.

That means a return for Goff, who completed just nine of 19 passes from the bench last time out but threw for a touchdown and no interceptions in an upset win.

The former first overall pick has failed to convince since a dismal Super Bowl defeat at the end of the 2018 season.

Goff was rewarded for that playoff run with a new $134million contract, including a then-record $110m in guarantees, yet he has thrown 29 picks over the subsequent two campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Week 17 win over the Arizona Cardinals was Wolford's NFL bow and he put up 231 passing yards and another 56 over the ground, despite one interception.

With Wolford not involved at all against Green Bay this week, Blake Bortles is in line to serve as back-up to Goff.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback John Wolford returned from hospital to celebrate with his team-mates after they defeated the Seattle Seahawks 30-20 in the NFL playoffs on Saturday.

Wolford was in a neck brace when he was taken away from Lumen Field in an ambulance having been struck on the head by the shoulder of Seahawks safety Jamal Adams in the first quarter.

Asked for an update on the 25-year-old, Rams head coach Sean McVay told the media he had been released from hospital.

"He must be good because he was in the locker room smiling, looking good," said McVay.

"I think it was just a stinger, but he definitely seemed good. We wanted to be as cautious as we could with something like that. It looks like it's trending in a positive direction."

Wolford was selected to start the Wild Card game after completing 22 of 38 throws for 231 yards passing as the Rams clinched their playoff spot by defeating the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17.

The fact starting quarterback Jared Goff underwent thumb surgery less than two weeks ago played a part in McVay's decision.

However, Goff came off the bench to replace Wolford and passed for 155 yards - the most by any player off the bench since Jay Fielder's 172 for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1999 Divisional Round.

He connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Robert Woods, while Cam Akers had 176 scrimmage yards - the second-most by a rookie in his playoff debut - and Darious Williams scored a 42-yard interception return.

"For [Goff] to be able to throw the football is pretty impressive," McVay said.

"There were a couple limitations which led to the decision to go with John. I was real pleased with Jared, and I think it was a real credit to him to be able to handle this week the right way and have himself mentally ready to go."

Asked for his opinion on McVay's decision, Goff said: "It was tough. It was some long conversations we had, but ultimately, I respect his decision.

"He's the coach. He had to make a decision that he needed to make early in the week to get out in front of some stuff, and I get it, but as a competitor of course I wanted to play."

Goff suggested there was added motivation for the Rams after seeing the Seahawks celebrate clinching the NFC West division title by beating them 20-9 in Week 16.

"Two weeks ago, you saw them smoking cigars and getting all excited about beating us and winning the division, and we're able to come up here and beat them in their own place. It feels good," he said.

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