The Atlanta Falcons selected quarterback Desmond Ridder with pick 74 of the NFL Draft.

It was the first time since 2000 that only one quarterback was picked in the first two rounds – Kenny Pickett to the Pittsburgh Steelers at pick 20 – with Ridder's selection coming 10 picks into the third round.

In his senior season, Ridder had 3334 yards with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 14 games, leading the Cincinnati Bearcats to an undefeated 13-0 record before losing in the playoff semi-final to powerhouse Alabama.

It was the first time a school outside of the 'Power Five' conferences had made the College Football Playoff since its inception in the 2014-15 season.

For the Falcons, there is a glaring need at quarterback after shipping Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts, and Ridder will get a chance to compete with Marcus Mariota for the role of week one starter.

Perhaps the biggest storyline entering the 2022 NFL Draft did not concern a prospect, but one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL. Deebo Samuel of the San Francisco 49ers was not traded during Thursday's first round but, if there were any doubts that wideout is now a premium position, they were extinguished emphatically in Las Vegas.

Six wide receivers came off the board in the first 18 picks amid a flurry of trades, including two involving established receivers who at least have one 1,000-yard season in their first three years in the NFL.

There was mild surprise when the Atlanta Falcons made USC's Drake London the first receiver picked with the eighth overall selection, but significantly more eyebrow-raising moves were to follow.

The New Orleans Saints jumped from 16 to 11 to pick Ohio State's Chris Olave one pick after his former college team-mate Garrett Wilson was taken by the Jets with a 10th pick that was reportedly offered to the Niners as part of a package for Samuel.

It was the Detroit Lions who made the most ambitious receiver trade of the night, jumping 20 spots up the board from 32 to 12 in a deal with the Minnesota Vikings to make Jameson Williams their second selection of the first round despite doubts over when he will be ready to play after tearing his ACL in the final game of his college career.

Williams' appeal is obvious, the former Alabama star a dynamic speedster who registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 74.6 per cent of his targets in 2021.

He led all receivers in burn yards per target, his average of 19.34 nearly five full yards better than that of his nearest challenger, Cincinnati's Alec Pierce (14.74), and was also the cream of the crop in burn yards per route (4.9).

But it is the scale of the move up the board that is illustrative of just how determined NFL teams have become to add big-play receivers to their offensive arsenal, and the message was further hammered home as, after the Washington Commanders used the 16th pick on another wideout in Jahan Dotson, the Philadelphia Eagles made the defining move of the first round with their trade with the Tennessee Titans, sending the 18th pick and a third-rounder to acquire A.J. Brown.

Brown, a Pro Bowler in 2020 before injuries disrupted his 2021 campaign, was promptly reported as having received a four-year extension with Philadelphia worth up to $100million, with $47m guaranteed, the $25million average annual value of that deal reportedly what Samuel was looking to be paid before he requested a trade from San Francisco.

The choice for teams wanting to keep a playmaking receiver on the roster seems to be clear. Pay over $20m a year for one or spend a premium pick on a rookie. The Titans, in trading Brown and then selecting a rookie with a comparable playing style in Treylon Burks out of Arkansas, elected to do the latter.

"We got to a spot where it was going to be hard to get a deal done," Titans general manager Jon Robinson said of Brown after the first round.

The Ravens ran into difficulty with his namesake Marquise Brown, who was said to have requested a trade after the season and was also dealt on draft night to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for the 23rd overall pick.

While the Titans caved in and parted with Brown, the Niners remained steadfast in refusing to trade Samuel, even with a top-10 pick seemingly on the table, their resoluteness in itself reflecting the massive value of a player who was the heart and soul of the San Francisco offense as the 49ers made the NFC Championship Game last season.

Also running the ball out of the backfield consistently in a dual role, Samuel labelling himself a 'wide back', the 2019 second-round pick is a unique case. Yet the message that was definitively reiterated through the Niners refusal to part ways with him and the hive of activity surrounding receivers in the first round is clear, receivers who can make field-flipping momentum-changing plays are firmly among the most valued assets in the NFL.

Of the top 10 receivers with the most receptions of 20 yards or more in 2021, only two – Justin Jefferson and Tyler Lockett – did not feature on playoff teams. Four – Cooper Kupp (30), Samuel (23), Ja'Marr Chase (22) and Tee Higgins (17) – played on Conference Championship Sunday, as did the 11th-placed wideout in the category, Samuel's Niners team-mate Brandon Aiyuk (16).

Quarterback is king in the NFL, and tackle, edge rusher and offensive tackle have long since been viewed as next on the hierarchy as 'premium positions'. The 2021 season encapsulated the value of explosive wideouts and, with that campaign followed by an offseason in which Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill were both traded and received mega-deals and Thursday's first-round chaos brought on by the high demand for receivers, there can be little room for argument the position now carries the same importance as those other non-quarterback spots that have traditionally had the highest billing.

The Atlanta Falcons selected wide receiver Drake London with the eighth pick in the NFL Draft.

London, 20, was a two-sport athlete at the University of Southern California, initially playing basketball before committing full-time to football.

The 6'5 star broke out in a big way in 2021, recording 88 catches, 1084 yards and seven touchdowns in just eight games.

In six of his eight games, London had at least 130 yards, and caught at least nine passes in all but one fixture.

The Falcons are in big need of receiver help after former first-round pick and top option Calvin Ridley was suspended for betting on NFL games last season, when he was away from the team with an injury.

London was the first receiver selected on Thursday and while he was considered in contention for that honour, Ohio State's Garrett Wilson was the favourite, who ended up going 10th to the New York Jets.

Owner Arthur Blank believes the Atlanta Falcons needed to move on from quarterback Matt Ryan in pursuit of a new "long-term plan".

Ryan was Atlanta's starter from being taken with the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft until he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts last month.

The 2016 NFL MVP missed only three games in 14 years, with only two players – Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby (225) and Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch (223) – playing more than his 222 games in that time.

But Ryan is now 36 and last year failed to pass 4,000 passing yards in a season for the first time since 2010, despite the 17-game schedule.

The Falcons have not played a playoff game since 2017, and Blank felt it was time to reset.

"It has nothing to do with how much we appreciate or love Matt, which we do both," he said, as quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But you know there has to be a long-term plan.

"We have to get ready for the next 14, 15 years – and that's what our fans really should expect us to do.

"It shouldn't be a fire drill when we have that transition to make. So, we're trying to prepare for that as best we can."

Blank is not expecting a winning season in 2022 but is hopeful for 2023.

"Next year we should be in a position where there'll be the biggest cap space that we've had since I've owned the team over 21 years," he said.

"It'll be something north of $100million to $110m. So, we'll have an opportunity to extend our own players and be more active in free agency than we were this year."

New Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota acknowledges he has "big shoes to fill" with the team after stepping in to replace Matt Ryan.

Former NFL MVP Ryan was traded to the Indianapolis Colts this week, with Mariota – who spent the last two seasons with the Las Vegas Raiders – then brought in on a two-year, $18.75million deal.

Mariota, the number two overall pick in the draft for the Tennessee Titans back in 2015, is relishing the opportunity to compete for a starting job again after backing up Derek Carr in Las Vegas.

But he is aware his task to make the job his own and replace four-time Pro Bowler Ryan, whose contract had hindered Atlanta's attempts to build for the future, is a big one.

"Those are big shoes to fill, no doubt," Mariota about Ryan. 

"For me, something I definitely learned over the course of my career is that you can't compare yourself to other people. 

"What Matt did here, what he's accomplished here, is truly greatness.

"For me, I just have to kind of carve my own path. I appreciate what he's done, what he's been for this organisation, and the best thing that I can do is try to put my best foot forward and be the best player that I can be.

"These last couple of years for me was a great reset. I got a chance to take a step back, learn, and I feel like I have and these experiences have created a lot of value for me.

"It really came down to the opportunity. Obviously, there's a chance for you to play, a chance for you to start right away.

"Really, for me, at this point in time of my career, that's what I was looking for. No matter what the situation is, I have to my best to lead these guys and help these guys become the best of their abilities.

"That doesn't necessarily mean I'm the starter, but I know that with Art [Smith], he's always going to be honest with me and I can really put forth my best foot forward and see what I can do."

 

Falcons head coach Smith was Offensive Coordinator with the Titans when Mariota lost his starting job in 2019, being benched for Ryan Tannehill.

Mariota, 28, explained he had learned a lot since then, having felt physically and mentally drained at the time.

He added: "During my time in Tennessee, we went through a lot of different things. I went through coaching changes, went through a broken ankle, some of these things that people would call adversity.

"At that point in time in my career in 2019, I was tired. I was just kind of tired of all the turnover, was tired of being beat up, and I wasn't playing well.

"At the end of the day, this is a performance-based business, and when you're not playing well, things happen, and I understood that.

"Art always honest. Even to the point where in 2019 when things weren't going well for me, he always shot me straight. As a player, I truly appreciate that. 

"He's always been focused on making sure I can get better, he is somebody that's always been there for me.

"I knew what I was getting into, what kind of culture he's building here, so that's why I'm excited to be here because I really do believe in Art and what he's doing.

"I've learned a lot over the course of the last, even really three years going back to that season in 2019. 

"I was both mentally and physically beat up. I think this is a great opportunity for me to kind of showcase what I've learned over the course of the last couple years. 

"I have been around guys like Ryan Tannehill and Derek Carr – guys that have played at a really high level. I'm excited for this opportunity."

Matt Ryan never expected to leave the Atlanta Falcons and says his trade to the Indianapolis Colts is "bittersweet".

The Falcons confirmed Ryan's departure to the Colts on Monday, with the 36-year-old traded for a third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Ryan spent 14 seasons with Atlanta after arriving in 2008, with no player in the NFL throwing for more passing yards than the quarterback's 59,735 over that period.

He completed 67 per cent of his passes in 2021, his highest completion rate since 2018, for 3,968 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Prior to 2021, Ryan threw for 4,000 yards in 10 consecutive seasons, the high point coming in 2016 when he led the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

But with his time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium now over, the 2016 MVP is excited to begin a new journey with the Colts, who parted with Carson Wentz after just one season.

As part of a full page advert in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on Wednesday, Ryan said: "Thank you, Atlanta.

"From the moment I landed here, late at night just hours after having been drafted, I felt at home. 

"The team welcomed me, balancing the typical indoctrinations of a rookie with the generous acceptance of wise and experienced veterans. 

"The city supported me, bringing enthusiasm to games but also to the more casual interactions we had day-to-day, I knew how lucky I was.

"When my first NFL pass ended with a touchdown, I admit that I felt like this was all meant to be. 

"I was immediately determined to do as right by Atlanta as Atlanta was doing by me. I carried that determination with me through every season that followed.

"Sports are sports, and there is a reason why we play the game every week. Winners are not preordained, and every drive does not end in a touchdown. 

"Success become all the sweeter, not only because I knew it was not guaranteed, but because I was enjoying it with teammates and fans who worked hard to earn it.

"There were of course disappointments, large and small. That did not shake my faith in this team, or in my determination to deliver. This disappointments became motivations."

Across his 14 years in Atlanta, Ryan was a four-time pro bowler, won the MVP award and set multiple franchise records, including the most career touchdowns.

"I have long thought and often said I would retire as a Falcon. But the changes and growth continue," he added.

"As excited as I am about the this next step in my career, this is a bittersweet moment. I have spent more than a decade playing for you, the fans of Atlanta. 

"You have made all of this worth it, and all of this means something more than what could ever be reflected in a statistic. 

"I appreciate each and every one of you, and I thank you, so sincerely, for the life you have given me all of these seasons.

"I am also very grateful to the coaches and teammates I have played with over the years. 

"There are too many to list here, but I hope each of you know how much you have shaped me as a player and as a person. I look forward to crossing paths, on the field and off.

"It seems impossible to sum up 14 years, and to adequately express my feelings about them. 

"As much as I have learned about change, though, I know this: Nothing can change what this time has meant to me. So, again. Thank you, Atlanta."

The Atlanta Falcons have moved quickly to replace the outgoing Matt Ryan by signing quarterback Marcus Mariota in free agency.

The Falcons confirmed Ryan's departure to the Indianapolis Colts on Monday, with the 36-year-old traded for a third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Mariota – who was the second overall draft pick in 2015 – signs on a two-year contract in Atlanta having left the Las Vegas Raiders, where he was back-up to Derek Carr.

The 28-year-old is already familiar with Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, with whom he worked when Smith was tight ends coach and then offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.

Mariota mostly acted as an alternative rushing option for the Raiders in 2021, with his last significant game time coming in Week 15 of the 2020 season when he threw for 226 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Los Angeles Chargers. He also had nine carries for 88 yards and a touchdown in a 30-27 Raiders defeat.

It is expected the Falcons will still bring in another QB, so it remains to be seen whether Mariota is Ryan's long-term replacement or merely a stopgap. Atlanta have the eighth pick in this year's draft.

The Falcons previously had been interested in Deshaun Watson, who instead joined the Cleveland Browns in a trade with the Houston Texans.

It is widely thought negotiations for Watson played a role in Ryan leaving the team, although Falcons owner Arthur Blank released a statement following confirmation of his trade to the Colts, thanking the player and explaining the decision. 

"Matt Ryan has been the epitome of a franchise quarterback during his time here in Atlanta," Blank wrote.

"He has represented this organisation with great class, professionalism and leadership, both on and off the field, over the past 14 years.

"It is difficult to overstate what he has meant to me personally, our organisation, his team-mates and our fans. From his first day in the building, Matt has given his all in the pursuit of winning a championship for Atlanta.

"This business is not without its difficult decisions, and while this is one of the most difficult decisions we have faced as a club, we feel it is in the best long-term interests of both the Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan.

"On behalf of the entire Falcons organisation, I wish him success as he continues his career and know that he will bring the same dedication and professionalism to his next club."

The Indianapolis Colts hope they have found the quarterback that can help them contend in the AFC, after striking a deal with the Atlanta Falcons for Matt Ryan.

According to multiple reports, the Colts will send a third-round pick to the Falcons in exchange for the 2016 MVP.

It comes after the Colts parted with Carson Wentz, whom they acquired last year, after just one season, trading him to the Washington Commanders in a deal that saw the two franchises swap second-round picks and Indianapolis acquire a pair of third-rounders.

The Colts are viewed by many as having a roster ready to challenge for a deep playoff run, yet their inability to find an answer at quarterback following Andrew Luck's shock retirement in 2019 has prevented Indianapolis from reaching such heights.

Philip Rivers helped them to the playoffs in the 2020 season but retired after one year with Indianapolis. It was hoped Wentz's past relationship with Colts head coach Frank Reich would revitalise his career, yet a dismal end to the 2021 campaign in which they missed the playoffs after a blowout loss to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 18 helped convince Indianapolis to move on swiftly.

Ryan appears to have a much better chance of proving to be the solution for the Colts. Though Atlanta missed the playoffs last year with a 7-10 record, Ryan completed 67 per cent of his passes, his highest completion rate since 2018, for 3,968 yards and 20 touchdowns. He did, however, throw 12 interceptions.

He remains a very accurate quarterback, delivering a well-thrown ball on 80.7 per cent of his throws in 2021, according to Stats Perform data, tied for the sixth-best rate among QBs with at least 200 attempts.

No player in the NFL has thrown for more passing yards than Ryan's 59,735 since he entered the NFL as a first-round pick of the Falcons in 2008.

Prior to 2021, Ryan threw for 4,000 yards in 10 consecutive seasons, the high point coming in 2016 when he led the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

He threw for a career-high 4,944 receiving yards, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

However, that season ended in bitter defeat as the Falcons gave up a 28-3 lead in their Super Bowl LI loss to the New England Patriots. The Falcons have won just one playoff game since.

Given his achievements, a third-round pick seems like scant compensation for the 36-year-old, with the Falcons agreeing to a trade that will see them incur the largest dead cap hit in NFL history ($40.52million).

The Falcons, who decided against taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in last year's draft, are believed to be interested in signing former second overall pick Marcus Mariota as an immediate replacement for Ryan. Malik Willis, one of the top quarterbacks in the 2022 class, was born in Atlanta and could be a developmental option for the Falcons with the eighth pick in this year's draft.

Atlanta had been interested in Deshaun Watson even before dealing Ryan, but he instead joined the Cleveland Browns in a trade with the Houston Texans.

The Tennessee Titans are releasing future Hall of Fame wide receiver Julio Jones after an injury-riddled year saw him miss nearly half of the season.

As well as missing games, the 33-year-old showed signs of decline in his on-field play, finishing with career-low marks in yards, touchdowns, and receptions – both on a per-game basis and in total.

The trade to acquire Jones – which involved sending a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons – will go down as a painful one for the Titans in a draft stacked with exciting wide receiver prospects, many of whom will be available in round two.

Tennessee do still have one of the NFL's most exciting young receivers in A.J. Brown, who finished with 869 receiving yards and five touchdowns despite missing four games in 2021.

Jones' departure does, however, create a gaping hole behind Brown on the depth chart, signalling there will be some incoming help for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, either in the draft or in free agency.

The NFL has suspended Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley for at least the 2022 season for betting on league games in 2021.

Ridley's bets were made over a five-day span in November when he was away from the team to focus on his mental health and was on the reserve/NFL list.

The league opened an investigation and concluded there was no insider information on the betting activity and none of the coaches or players on the Falcons were aware or involved.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the ban on Monday, notifying Ridley of his suspension in a letter, writing:

"There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL's success - and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league - than upholding the integrity of the game. This is the responsibility of every player, coach, owner, game official, and anyone else employed in the league.

"Your actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players throughout the NFL.

"For decades, gambling on NFL games has been considered among the most significant violations of league policy warranting the most substantial sanction. In your case, I acknowledge and commend you for your promptly reporting for an interview, and for admitting your actions."

Ridley, who was slated to make $11,116,000 in 2022, may not apply for reinstatement until February 15, 2023.

The NFL Network reported that Ridley made parlay bets on NFL games using his cell phone, but the specific games he bet on has not been revealed.

The player has not responded to the suspension, but the Falcons issued a response on Monday.

"We were first made aware of the league’s investigations on February 9," the Falcons statement said. "We have cooperated fully with the investigation since receiving notice and support the league's findings and actions. We are moving forward in the 2022 season with the decision that was made."

Ridley appeared in just five games in the 2021 season, catching 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns after finishing tied for fifth in receiving yards in 2020 with 1,374.

The San Francisco 49ers punched their ticket to the postseason as Ambry Thomas' overtime interception clinched a dramatic comeback win over the Los Angeles Rams.

San Francisco went into the Week 18 clash knowing a win would see them reach the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. A loss would allow the New Orleans Saints, who cruised past the Atlanta Falcons, to sneak in and claim the final Wild Card berth.

The latter outcome looked the more likely when the Rams surged to a 17-0 lead and, even though the Niners got a field goal before half-time, San Francisco still faced an uphill battle.

However, Deebo Samuel scored a touchdown on the ground and then threw another to Jauan Jennings on a trick play to tie things up.

A juggling interception of Jimmy Garoppolo by Jalen Ramsey in the endzone followed by a Matthew Stafford strike to Cooper Kupp put the Rams in a seemingly commanding position at 24-17.

However, Garoppolo - playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb - led a five-play, 88-yard drive that finished with him connecting with Jennings, forced overtime at SoFi Stadium.

The 49ers won the coin toss and a 12-play, 69-yard drive on which Jennings featured heavily set up a Robbie Gould field goal to give San Francisco the lead for the first time.

And it was an advantage they held as Stafford's deep shot for Odell Beckham Jr. was plucked out of the air by rookie cornerback Thomas to set up a mouth-watering Wild Card matchup with the Niners' historic rivals the Dallas Cowboys.

For Los Angeles, it is a sixth successive defeat to the 49ers, though they still won the NFC West after the Seattle Seahawks beat the Arizona Cardinals, whom the Rams will host in the opening round of the playoffs.

Matthew Stafford inspired the Los Angeles Rams to move one step closer to securing their second straight NFC West title with a 20-19 win over the slumping Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

The defeat for the Ravens, who were without quarterback Lamar Jackson for the third straight game, leaves them perilously close to slipping out of the Wild Card hunt after their fifth consecutive loss.

Justin Tucker's field goal had put the Ravens up 19-14 with 4:33 left but Stafford launched a game-winning 75-yard drive to overhaul the deficit.

Stafford completed a 15-yard pass to Tyler Higbee and a 24-yarder to Cooper Kupp, before finding Odell Beckham Jr twice in a row, with the latter being the decisive TD.

The Rams QB finished with 26 of 35 passes for two touchdowns but also two interceptions, including a Chuck Clark first-quarter pick six, as well as a sack.

Clark's TD was the Ravens' only for the game, as QB Tyler Huntley completed 20 of 32 passes for 197 yards.

Rams running back Sony Michel had 19 carries for 74 yards including a TD along with wide receiver Kupp with six receptions for 95 yards and one touchdown.

Over a month ago the Ravens had been 8-3 and looking good for the AFC top seed but now they are scrapping for a playoffs spot after a series of narrow defeats and desperate for Jackson's return.

Carlson field goal gives Raiders edge in Wild Card race

The Las Vegas Raiders claimed a crucial last-gasp win from Daniel Carlson's 33-yard field goal in the AFC Wild Card race with a 23-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Colts quarterback Carson Wentz cleared protocols for the game but completed 16 of 27 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown, while running back Jonathan Taylor had one TD from 20 carries for 108 yards, with the defeat marking the first this season when he has rushed more than 100 yards.

The Raiders pipped the Colts in the final quarter, trailing 17-13 at the final break with QB Derek Carr hitting Hunter Renfrow on a fourth-down play for a TD, before Michael Badgley squared the game with a 41-yard field goal, only for Carlson to win it with one from 33 yards as time expired. The Raiders improve to 9-7, pulling ahead of the 9-7 Colts in the AFC Wild Card race.

 

Bengals clinch maiden AFC North title

The Cincinnati Bengals clinched their first-ever AFC North title as Evan McPherson kicked a late 20-yard field goal to secure a 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase set an NFL rookie record and franchise record with 266 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches, while QB Joe Burrow threw 30 of 39 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns.

Burrow got the better of opposing QB Patrick Mahomes who completed 26 of 35 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs, who have already won the AFC West title, moved to 11-5.

 

Brady cool after Brown meltdown

Tom Brady was cool in a crisis after Antonio Brown stormed off the field as the NFC South-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied to win 28-24 over the New York Jets.

Brady completed 34 of 50 attempts for 410 yards and three touchdowns, including leading them on a 93-yard drive in the final minutes to clinch the victory.

The game was marred after Brown's meltdown, storming off the field in the third quarter with the Bucs 24-10 down, with head coach Bruce Arians confirming "he is no longer a Buc" after the game.

Matthew Stafford inspired the Los Angeles Rams to move one step closer to securing their second straight NFC West title with a 20-19 win over the slumping Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

The defeat for the Ravens, who were without quarterback Lamar Jackson for the third straight game, leaves them perilously close to slipping out of the Wild Card hunt after their fifth consecutive loss.

Justin Tucker's field goal had put the Ravens up 19-14 with 4:33 left but Stafford launched a game-winning 75-yard drive to overhaul the deficit.

Stafford completed a 15-yard pass to Tyler Higbee and a 24-yarder to Cooper Kupp, before finding Odell Beckham Jr twice in a row, with the latter being the decisive TD.

The Rams QB finished with 26 of 35 passes for two touchdowns but also two interceptions, including a Chuck Clark first-quarter pick six, as well as a sack.

Clark's TD was the Ravens' only for the game, as QB Tyler Huntley completed 20 of 32 passes for 197 yards.

Rams running back Sony Michel had 19 carries for 74 yards including a TD along with wide receiver Kupp with six receptions for 95 yards and one touchdown.

Over a month ago the Ravens had been 8-3 and looking good for the AFC top seed but now they are scrapping for a playoffs spot after a series of narrow defeats and desperate for Jackson's return.

Carlson field goal gives Raiders edge in Wild Card race

The Las Vegas Raiders claimed a crucial last-gasp win from Daniel Carlson's 33-yard field goal in the AFC Wild Card race with a 23-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Colts quarterback Carson Wentz cleared protocols for the game but completed 16 of 27 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown, while running back Jonathan Taylor had one TD from 20 carries for 108 yards, with the defeat marking the first this season when he has rushed more than 100 yards.

The Raiders pipped the Colts in the final quarter, trailing 17-13 at the final break with QB Derek Carr hitting Hunter Renfrow on a fourth-down play for a TD, before Michael Badgley squared the game with a 41-yard field goal, only for Carlson to win it with one from 33 yards as time expired. The Raiders improve to 9-7, pulling ahead of the 9-7 Colts in the AFC Wild Card race.

 

Bengals clinch maiden AFC North title

The Cincinnati Bengals clinched their first-ever AFC North title as Evan McPherson kicked a late 20-yard field goal to secure a 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase set an NFL rookie record and franchise record with 266 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches, while QB Joe Burrow threw 30 of 39 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns.

Burrow got the better of opposing QB Patrick Mahomes who completed 26 of 35 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs, who have already won the AFC West title, moved to 11-5.

 

Brady cool after Brown meltdown

Tom Brady was cool in a crisis after Antonio Brown stormed off the field as the NFC South-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied to win 28-24 over the New York Jets.

Brady completed 34 of 50 attempts for 410 yards and three touchdowns, including leading them on a 93-yard drive in the final minutes to clinch the victory.

The game was marred after Brown's meltdown, storming off the field in the third quarter with the Bucs 24-10 down, with head coach Bruce Arians confirming "he is no longer a Buc" after the game.

There were celebrations in the Atlanta Falcons' draft war room back in April when the team picking before them, the San Francisco 49ers, made Trey Lance their quarterback of the future.

Atlanta's delight was not related to any unfavourable opinions on Lance. The Falcons' jubilation was because the Niners' decision allowed them to enact their plan to select tight end Kyle Pitts the fourth overall selection, turning him into the highest-drafted player at his position in NFL history.

Yet the Falcons' Week 15 performance only served to raise further questions concerning whether those celebrations were misguided as they were crushed 31-13 on the road by the surging and right now seemingly playoff-bound 49ers.

There has been plenty of discourse about the merits of San Francisco selecting Lance and then having him sit for a year behind an often-volatile veteran in Jimmy Garoppolo. 

Whether that approach pays dividends in the long term remains to be seen, yet San Francisco's dominant success in a crucial matchup in the playoff race should intensify the scrutiny on a Falcons team whose vision for the future appears conspicuous by its absence.

The Pitts problem

It was easy to see why the Falcons were so enamoured with Pitts. A monstrous athlete blessed with wide receiver speed and a near 6ft 6in and 245-pound frame, Pitts was viewed as perhaps the finest tight end prospect to enter any draft because of his ability to separate from coverage, dominate at the catch point and make things happen with the ball in his hands.

With 847 receiving yards to his name, Pitts is on course for a 1,000-yard season but has just one touchdown, the superiority he was expected to show in the red zone as yet failing to materialise.

The separation has also not been as consistent as perhaps anticipated. Pitts has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, 62.8 per cent of the time. That is above the average of 60.2 per cent but only 31st among tight ends with at least 10 targets in 2021.

Pitts is above average in terms of burn yards per target (11.3) and burn yards per route (2.8), while he is producing a big play on 34.4 per cent of his targets, putting him seventh among tight ends with at least 25 targets.

Tight end is a position where rookies typically tend to struggle, so in that context, Pitts' numbers are impressive. Still, his impact to this point can hardly be considered worthy of his draft slot.

Pitts is not to blame for failing to live up to expectations that were always likely to be too high, the former Florida Gator put in a difficult position by a franchise unsure of its direction.

Playoff contention a pipe dream

The acquisition of Pitts suggested the Falcons believed they were in a position to contend in the NFC with 2016 MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback and a talented offensive mind in Arthur Smith hired as their head coach.

But his selection was followed by a move that flew in the face of any such belief as the Falcons traded future Hall of Fame receiver Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans.

That deal was in part motivated by the Falcons being pressed up against the salary cap limit, as well a desire from Jones for a change of scenery and his increasingly troubling injury history.

Though the trade was justifiable, it extinguished any notion of Atlanta wanting to build around Ryan and contend, and the Falcons' inconsistent and underwhelming 2021 campaign has delivered a reminder that the idea of them competing at the sharp end of the NFC was always ambitious.

Atlanta entered Week 15 still firmly in the mix for the playoffs at 6-7 but with a point differential of minus 108. After their blowout loss to the Niners, that has dropped to minus 126, the fourth-worst in the NFL.

The Falcons rank 21st in yards per play on offense and 25th in yards per play allowed on defense, with their struggles on both sides of the ball linked to sub-par play in the trenches.

Prior to the 49ers game, the Falcons ranked 28th in Stats Perform's pass protection win rate and last in pass rush win rate. Against San Francisco, they allowed 19 quarterback pressures and registered just four.

This is a bottom-half team that has been masquerading as a playoff challenger. Such a season would have been more acceptable had they used their premium pick on a quarterback in a class seen as an excellent one at the position. Having opted not to do so, the Falcons are mired in NFL no man's land.

No moving on from Matt... for now

The Falcons could theoretically get out of Ryan's contract this offseason but a dead cap charge of over $40million means they would only save a little over $8m against the salary cap.

A parting of the ways is more plausible in 2023 when the Falcons would save $28million by moving on from a quarterback who would then be entering his age-38 season.

Ryan is not the problem for the Falcons, but he is also not the answer.

He is delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on 81.2 per cent of his attempts, the eighth-best rate among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes, and is doing so despite losing Jones and Calvin Ridley, who has taken a break from the game to focus on his mental health, from his supporting cast.

At the same time, Ryan is averaging 7.16 air yards per attempt, the sixth-fewest in the NFL (min. 100 attempts). Ryan may be limited by those around him, but he is also not performing at a level to elevate that group.

That mix has the Falcons in quarterback purgatory, and their path to exiting that unenviable position is not clear. The 2022 quarterback class is, at least on the surface, well short of the standard of the 2021 vintage, and Ryan – while no longer a member of the league's elite – still has the requisite talent to win enough games to ensure the Falcons will not be in a position to draft a top signal-caller in 2023.

In Pitts, the Falcons have a weapon widely viewed as a possible generational talent, but the decision to select him means they are now stuck with a quarterback not good enough to help them contend but too good for Atlanta to be able to tank to land his successor. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the Falcons' short-sighted choice not to draft Ryan's heir apparent makes a route to the top hard to foresee.

Aaron Rodgers hit another career milestone as the Green Bay Packers held off a fourth-quarter charge by the Baltimore Ravens to clinch the NFC North with a 31-30 victory Sunday. 

Division champions for the third consecutive year, the Packers became the first NFL team to lock up a playoff berth. 

Green Bay led 31-17 before Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley, making his second career start, ran for a pair of touchdowns in the final five minutes. 

After the second of those, with 45 seconds remaining, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh opted to go for a two-point conversion that would have put the Ravens (8-6) on top, but Huntley could not connect on his pass attempt to Mark Andrews. 

That last defensive stand allowed Rodgers and the Packers (11-3) to escape with a win that gave them the division crown as the veteran quarterback completed 23 of 31 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

The last of those, an 11-yard strike to Marquez Valdes-Scantling early in the fourth quarter, was the 442nd touchdown pass of the quarterback's career, tying him with Brett Favre for the most in Packers history. 

His opposite number Sunday, the 23-year-old Huntley, was starting with Ravens star Lamar Jackson sidelined by ankle injury. 

Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020, Huntley had a brilliant game, rushing for 73 yards and two scores while completing 28 of 40 passes for 215 yards and two more scores. 

Andrews was his top target all day, catching 10 passes for 136 yards and both of those TDs, but the tight end could not get his hands on the critical conversion try at the end. 

 

Bengals edge Broncos after Bridgewater injury

Joe Burrow hit Tyler Boyd for a 56-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter that proved the difference as the Cincinnati Bengals picked up a key road win with a 15-10 defeat of the Denver Broncos. 

The lone Bengals TD of the afternoon came about five minutes after the Broncos (7-7) lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a head injury. 

Bridgewater collided with Bengals linebacker Joe Bachie in a scramble out of the backfield and both players went down. Bridgewater had to be carted off the field and was transported to a Denver hospital as a precaution. 

His replacement, Drew Lock, finished the drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Tim Patrick but Denver did not score again. 

Burrow completed 15 of 22 passes for 157 yards for the Bengals (8-6), who are tied with the Ravens atop the AFC North. 

 

Garoppolo, 49ers keep up winning ways

The San Francisco 49ers rolled to their fifth victory in six games, downing the Atlanta Falcons 31-13. 

Jimmy Garoppolo completed 18 of 23 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown and Jeff Wilson Jr. rushed for 110 yards and a score for San Francisco (8-6). 

The victory coupled with division leader Arizona's stunning loss in Detroit earlier Sunday kept the 49ers firmly in playoff contention as they sit third in the NFC West behind the Cardinals (10-4) and Los Angeles Rams (9-4). 

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