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2024 NBA picks, January 18 predictions from proven model

The Sacramento Kings will face off against the Indiana Pacers at 10 p.m. ET on Thursday at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. Both teams are 23-17; Sacramento is 13-7 at home, while Indiana is 10-9 on the road. The Kings have won and covered two of the three games they’ve played against the Pacers since the blockbuster trade that sent Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento and Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana to reshape both franchises.

This season, the Kings are 22-18 against the spread while the Pacers are 23-16-1 against the number. For Thursday, Sacramento is favored by 7.5 points in the latest Kings vs. Pacers odds, per SportsLine consensus, and the over/under is 248 points. Before entering any Pacers vs. Kings picks, you’ll want to see the NBA predictions from the model at SportsLine.

The SportsLine Projection Model simulates every NBA game 10,000 times and has returned well over $10,000 in profit for $100 players on its top-rated NBA picks over the past five-plus seasons. The model enters Week 13 of the 2023-24 NBA season on a sizzling 42-23 roll on all top-rated NBA picks this season, returning nearly $2,000. Anyone following it has seen huge returns.

The model has set its sights on Indiana vs. Sacramento. You can head to SportsLine to see its picks. Here are several NBA odds and betting lines for Pacers vs. Kings:

Kings vs. Pacers spread: Kings -7.5
Kings vs. Pacers over/under: 248 points
Kings vs. Pacers money line: Kings: -304, Pacers: +243
Kings vs. Pacers picks: See picks at SportsLine
What you need to know about the Kings
The Kings’ recent rough patch got a bit rougher on Tuesday after their third straight loss. They fell just short of the Phoenix Suns by a score of 119-117. The defeat came about despite the Kings having been up 22 with 8:22 left in the fourth quarter but Sacramento was ultimately undone by eight fourth-quarter turnovers.

The Kings’ loss shouldn’t obscure the performances of Sabonis, who dropped a triple-double on 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, and De’Aaron Fox, who went 6 for 10 from beyond the arc en route to 33 points and six assists. However, Sacramento was outrebounded 46-31 in the defeat, which is unusual for it as the Kings allow the lowest defensive rebound percentage in the NBA. See which team to pick here.

What you need to know about the Pacers
Meanwhile, the Pacers found themselves on the business end of a 132-105 beatdown against the Utah Jazz on Monday. All five starters scored in double-figures for Indiana but nobody scored more than 14 points. However, there were even bigger issues defensively, as the Jazz were able to shoot 55.6% from the floor and 44.0% from the 3-point line.

However, Indiana should have some reinforcement on the way as All-Star point guard Haliburton (hamstring) is listed as questionable for Thursday’s contest after missing the last four games. Aaron Nesmith (leg) is also questionable after missing two games, while Bennedict Mathurin (ankle) and Obi Toppin (calf) are game-time decisions as well. See which team to pick here.

Key Betting Info
The Pacers might be without Haliburton in this one and you’ll want to keep a close eye on his status. For the season, Haliburton has averaged 23.6 points, 12.5 assists and 1.1 steals.

Some of the betting trends to consider are:

The Pacers are 22-10-2 against the spread in their last 34 games after a day off.
The Kings are 9-5 against the spread in their last 14 games vs teams that win more than 55% of games.
The Kings are 21-13 against the spread in their last 34 games after a day off.
How to make Kings vs. Pacers picks
The model has simulated Kings vs. Pacers 10,000 times and the results are in. We can tell you that the model is leaning Over and it’s also generated a point-spread pick that is hitting in well over 50% of simulations. You can only see the pick at SportsLine.


2024 NBA picks, January 18 predictions from proven model

The Minnesota Timberwolves will take on the Memphis Grizzlies in an exciting Western Conference matchup on Thursday. Minnesota is 29-11 overall and 16-2 at home, while Memphis is 15-25 overall and 11-10 on the road. The Timberwolves have won their first two meetings this season by an average of 23 points.

Tip-off is set for 10 p.m. ET at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Minnesota is a 12-point favorite in the latest Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies odds, according to the SportsLine consensus, and the over/under is 214 points. Before entering any Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves picks, you need to see the NBA predictions and betting advice from SportsLine’s advanced computer simulation model.

The SportsLine Projection Model simulates every NBA game 10,000 times and has returned well over $10,000 in profit for $100 players on its top-rated NBA picks over the past five-plus seasons. The model enters Week 13 of the 2023-24 NBA season on a sizzling 42-23 roll on all top-rated NBA picks this season, returning nearly $2,000. Anyone following it has seen huge returns.

The model has set its sights on Memphis vs. Minnesota. You can head to SportsLine to see its picks. Here are several NBA odds and betting lines for Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves:

Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies spread: Timberwolves -12
Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies over/under: 214 points
Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies money line: Timberwolves: -775, Grizzlies: +533
MEM: The Grizzlies are 12-9 ATS on the road this season
MIN: The Timberwolves are 10-6-2 ATS at home this season
Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies picks: See picks at SportsLine
What to know about the Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are significantly banged up at the moment with Ja Morant (shoulder) out for the season, followed by fellow guard Marcus Smart suffering a finger injury in the ensuing game to cost him six weeks. Then Desmond Bane, who was averaging 24.4 points per game and controlling the offense during the stretches Morant’s been out with injury after a suspension, suffered a sprained left ankle this week and is expected to miss six weeks. With Derrick Rose (thigh) also out, the Grizzlies can’t catch a break lately, especially in the backcourt.

Memphis will likely need a huge performance from Jaren Jackson Jr. to cover the margin on Thursday. The 24-year-old power forward is averaging 21.2 points per game this season and will likely be the focal point of the offense over the next few weeks. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft has never had this much offensive pressure on him, but Memphis will need him to produce. See which team to pick here.

What to know about the Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have the second-best record in the NBA and best mark in the Western Conference at 29-11 nearing the midway point of the 2023-24 NBA season. They’ve built a young core around Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, who have elevated themselves to superstar status since both were selected as No. 1 overall picks. But even the most optimistic Timberwolves fan wouldn’t have seen a potential No. 1 seed in the West coming this season after being in the play-in tournament last year.

Edwards is averaging 26 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with Towns adding 21.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. But it’s the Minnesota defense that has elevated it above the rest in the West. The Timberwolves are allowing 107.6 ppg this season, the lowest in the NBA by nearly three points. The Grizzlies averaged 100 ppg in their two matchups against Minnesota this year with the Timberwolves winning both contests by at least 22 points. See which team to pick here.

How to make Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies picks
The model has simulated Grizzlies vs. Wolves 10,000 times and the results are in. We can tell you that the model is leaning Under, and it also says one side of the spread hits almost 70% of the time. You can only see the pick at SportsLine.


Defending champ Birmingham Stallions start at top, Philadelphia Stars No. 2

Fresh off of last year’s successful campaign, the USFL is gearing up for what could be an even better 2023 season — but which team will capture the title?

Led by quarterback J’Mar Smith, the Birmingham Stallions begin their defense of last year’s championship when the league kicks off this Saturday, April 15. The Philadelphia Stars, who came up just short against Birmingham in last year’s USFL Championship Game, are expected to once again be in the mix with the return of their quarterback, Case Cookus. The league’s two other playoff teams last year, the New Jersey Generals and New Orleans Breakers, are also expected to make a run at the crown.

Joining the fray of USFL teams for the 2023 season are the Memphis Showboats, who will be one of three teams that will get to play in front of their home fans this season (check out everything to know in our 2023 season primer, the complete season schedule and much more). After all the league’s regular-season games were held in Birmingham last year, three new venues have been added to the mix for 2023: Memphis, Canton and Detroit. The Showboats are in essence the Tampa Bay Bandits, who are on a hiatus in 2023 after going 4-6 in 2022.

With Week 1 on the horizon, who are the top teams? Here’s how we rank them in our Week 1 Power Rankings:

  1. Birmingham Stallions
    Last season: 9-1, defending champs, defeated New Orleans and Philadelphia in playoffs
    Skip Holtz’s team returns the majority of last year’s championship roster. That includes Smith, who said he is roughly 10-15 pounds lighter than he was last year. Running backs Bo Scarbrough, C.J. Marable and linebacker Scooby Wright are three other key members of Birmingham’s championship team that are back for the 2023 season.

Smith is expecting more of a contribution this season from receiver Marlon Williams, who last season finished second in the USFL in touchdown catches and third in receiving yards. The two connected on a deep touchdown pass in last year’s championship game win over Philadelphia.

In 2023, Birmingham will try to do something that no NFL team has done in nearly 20 years: repeat as champion.

“I love having a target on my back,” Smith recently told CBS Sports. “It makes me play harder. I know that everyone is going to give us their best shot. I’m not going run away from their shot. I love to step up to the challenge.”

  1. Philadelphia Stars
    Last season: 6-4, defeated New Jersey in playoffs, lost to Birmingham in championship game
    The Stars have their sights set on a championship after coming up just short in last year’s championship game. A big reason for Philadelphia’s optimism is the return of Cookus, who went 6-3 as the team’s starting quarterback last season. Cookus led a Stars offense that averaged a league-high 26.2 points per game.

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Cookus will again be aided on offense by running back Matt Coburn II (who scored nine total touchdowns) and Jordan Suell, who caught a touchdown in the USFL Championship Game. Cookus will have a new target this season in former Browns first-round pick Corey Coleman, who caught 20 touchdowns during his final season at Baylor back in 2015.

  1. New Jersey Generals
    Last season: 9-1, lost to Philadelphia in the playoffs
    New Jersey, which tied Birmingham with the league’s best record during the 2022 regular season, is motivated this season after last year’s playoff upset at the hands of the Stars.

“The guys come in with a chip on their shoulder, kind of like unfinished business a little bit,” said offensive coordinator Steven Smith, via the league’s website. “The guys came in ready to go and focused on getting it done and making things happen that we didn’t finish last year.”

The Generals lost one of their key players from last year’s team to the NFL in Cowboys All-Pro return specialist KaVontae Turpin. Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Darius Victor is back, however, along with fellow running back Trey Williams. Last season, the duo helped the Generals average a league-high 161 yards on the ground per game.

Quarterback is the big question mark. De’Andre Johnson, the team’s backup last season, is looking to win the job over Kyle Lauletta, a former Giants draft pick who made two starts for the Maulers last season.

  1. New Orleans Breakers
    Last season: 6-4, lost to Birmingham in the playoffs
    One of the league’s four playoff teams in 2022, New Orleans will usher in a new era in 2023. The team has a new coach in John DeFilippo, who won a Super Bowl in 2017 as the Eagles quarterbacks coach.

New Orleans’ top-ranked defense is expected to again be among the league’s best. The big question is at quarterback, as the Breakers have a three-man competition between McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Davis Cheek and Aqeel Glass. The front-runner to win the job is the 34-year-old Bethel-Thompson, a two-time Canadian Football League champion who decided to move to the USFL instead of spending another season in Winnipeg.

“It’s all betting on one year, which is tenuous but also challenging,” he recently told the Toronto Sun. “Every game matters. Every practice matters. Every throw matters. If I don’t perform physically or mentally, or maybe play half the year and then get benched, I could very well have ended my career as opposed to having four more years in the CFL. It’s moving all your chips in on a pretty bizarre hand.”

  1. Memphis Showboats
    Memphis’ possible advantage at quarterback moved them up several spots on this list. Showboats coach Todd Haley recently announced that his starting quarterback will be Brady White, who enjoyed a prolific college career at Memphis that included throwing for a school-record 10,690 yards and 90 touchdowns.

“Brady has kind of cemented himself as the starter here as we get the season going,” Haley recently told Fox Sports. “But Ryan (Willis) and Cole (Kelley) are talented guys that have impressed us throughout this process. I don’t think it’s beyond thinking that you’ll see all these guys play at some point.

“The name of the game is winning. So, whoever gives us the best chance to win will be the guy handling the football most of the time. But Brady, having been with us most of the time last year, definitely had a head start. I know he’s excited about being in Memphis, where he played his college football. He’s like a superstar walking around town down here. I know he’s enjoying and embracing that, and we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”

Memphis’ offense also includes Alex Collins, a veteran NFL running back who nearly ran for 1,000 yards in 2017 with the Seahawks.

  1. Houston Gamblers
    Last season: 3-7
    Houston was much better than its 2022 record indicated. You could say the Gamblers were snake-bitten after losing five straight games where they led in the fourth quarter. The defense was Houston’s strength, but the unit underwent a total transformation this offseason. The defense will include 14 new players, including expected standouts in defensive end Eli Howard and linebacker Isaiah Pryor.

The Gamblers’ offense is expected to be significantly better, largely because of the expected uptick in play from quarterback Kenji Bahar. If Bahar is able to complement Houston’s talented running game (led by Mark Thompson), this could be the surprise team for 2023.

  1. Pittsburgh Maulers
    Last season: 1-9
    On and off the field, the Maulers underwent massive changes this offseason. They changed their color scheme to mimic the black and gold flavor of the city they represent. Speaking of Pittsburgh’s fabled football history, the team hired a former Steelers Super Bowl-winning assistant coach, Ray Horton, as their new head coach.

One of the things that is expected to stay the same in Pittsburgh is a Maulers defense that was one of the USFL’s better units last season, led by former NFL first-round pick Reuben Foster. Pittsburgh’s offense has the weapons to be a solid unit, but its success will likely come down to whether James Morgan or Troy Williams can provide steady play at quarterback.

  1. Michigan Panthers
    Last season: 2-8
    Michigan might be the USFL’s biggest enigma. Led by first-year head coach Mike Nolan, the Panthers could make a surprise playoff push while turning Ford Field into a massive home-field advantage. Michigan has a formidable rushing attack and is expected to field a good defense.

As with several other teams, quarterback is the big question in Michigan. The Panthers’ offense will be led by either Josh Love (who spent time with the NFL’s Rams and Panthers) or Carson Strong, an undrafted rookie last season who spent time with the Eagles and Cardinals.


Aaron Jones helping power NFL’s youngest team to postseason run as 49ers await

ARLINGTON, Texas — The seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers entered this postseason as the NFL’s youngest playoff team since the 1974 Buffalo Bills, and on Sunday on the road against the second-seeded Dallas Cowboys, they pummeled the home team 48-32. Green Bay led by as many as 32 in the fourth quarter before head coach Matt LaFleur took his foot off the gas.

The victory made the Packers the youngest team (average age: 25 years, 214 days) to win a playoff game since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. First-time starting quarterback Jordan Love’s “wow” performance — throwing for 272 passing yards and three touchdowns on 16 for 21 passing, with a 157.2 passer rating, 1.1 points short of a perfect rating — was obviously a crucial component to the Packers’ victory. His 157.2 passer rating is the new single-game Packers postseason record, as are his 13 yards per pass attempt.

However, in a time in which the NFL sentiment is that one running back isn’t more valuable than another, Aaron Jones, one of the offense’s elder statesmen at age 29, served as the Packers’ tone-setter. Green Bay’s RB ran for playoff career-highs of 118 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries, an incredibly efficient 5.6 yards per carry. That output tied the NFL all-time record for rushing touchdowns in a road playoff game, rushing touchdowns in a wild-card round game and rushing touchdowns in a Packers postseason game. Jones’ seven career playoff rushing touchdowns are the most in Green Bay history.

“You guys see it, right? Just his ability to put his foot in the ground and just be explosive, make people miss,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of Jones postgame. “I can’t say enough great things about the guy, the football player. What he means to our team. The leadership he brings. He’s a rare guy. There’s not many like him. Just how he encourages his teammates, how he uplifts his teammates. But I think you’ve got to give it up for the offense line, too. It’s not just those guys, it’s really the other 10 men on the field. But it starts up front. I thought our tight ends really did a great job. I know on the one touchdown, (tight end) Josiah (Deguara) had a great cut block on the backside. I think he got the Parsons down. And the receivers, their willingness to go in and dig out safeties, and block at the second level. They’re usually the difference, in my opinion, of springing an explosive gain into a touchdown. Those guys bring it. They battle and they fight for one another.”

Jones dominating the Dallas Cowboys isn’t anything new. The El Paso, Texas native now has over 100 rushing yards and at least one touchdown in all four of his career games against his home team, joining Pro Football Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the only other player in NFL history to begin his career with four such games in a row against a single opponent, including the postseason, per OptaStats. Tomlinson’s victim was the Cleveland Browns.

“You know, it was a full circle moment,” Jones said of his historic domination of the Cowboys. “I feel like this is kind of how we got into football. This was my dad’s team. This was my team growing up. You always want to be like your father, so that’s how it became my team. Emmitt Smith was my running back. My first jersey was a No. 22. I got the chance to speak to him before the game, so that was special to me as well. My dad did get to see me play here my rookie year and I know he was in here tonight. Dallas is a special place to me. It was a first circle moment. It feels like home.”

What’s different for Jones now following this Packers victory over the Cowboys (Green Bay has won 10 of the last 11 games against Dallas) is that, at 29 years old, he’s positioned as the offensive leader to help cultivate the growth of his offensive skill position teammates, just about all of whom are younger than him:

2023 fifth-round pick wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (22 years old)
2023 second-round pick tight end Luke Musgrave (23 years old)
2023 third-round pick tight end Tucker Kraft (23 years old)
2023 second-round pick wide receiver Jayden Reed (23 years old)
2022 fourth-round pick wide receiver Romeo Doubs (23 years old)
Undrafted wide receiver Malik Heath (23 years old)
2022 second-round pick wide receiver Christian Watson (24 years old)
2022 seventh-round pick (by Seattle Seahawks) wide receiver Bo Melton (24 years old)
2020 first-round pick quarterback Jordan Love (25 years old)
2020 second-round pick running back AJ Dillon (25 years old)
2022 seventh-round pick wide receiver Samori Toure (25 years old)
“I’ve had to become a little bit more vocal,” Jones told CBS Sports back in July when talking about his role in Green Bay’s youth movement. “We have a very, very young team. I was more of a lead-by-example guy, but now I’ve had to become more vocal because we don’t have those vets that we have had like the Randall Cobbs, the Aaron Rodgers’ and the Marcedes Lewis’ on the offensive side of the ball. I have to [become more vocal]. It’s only right. Those guys did it for me, instilled the confidence and so many other things in me, so it’s only right that I give it back to these young guys.”

He is living up to his preseason promise to lead his younger teammates with words and actions. In years prior, future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers likely would have led the offensive pregame huddle with a speech. On Sunday, it was a different Aaron but the same result against the Cowboys.

“This our shit. We are going to take it over,” Jones said in a pregame huddle to the Packers offense prior to their win at the Cowboys on Sunday, via “Inside The NFL.” “We already set our standard. We are going to punch the frontrunners in the mouth. We are going to set our tone. It’s going to be four quarters of locking them in a cage and giving them that G Way ball.”

Quarterbacks are typically positioned as a football’s team primary leader, but Love fully embraces Jones as the offense’s vocal and on-field center for a unit whose plays revolve around their success in their under-center, zone-blocking ground game.

“You get so much. Obviously, just the leader he is on the team and then you add his playmaking ability when he gets the ball,” Love said on Sunday. “He’s the total package right there. I love Aaron Jones. He brings a huge spark to the team just the way he carries himself, the way he handles his business and shows up ready to work every day. I can’t enough about him.”

Love may not be able to say enough about him, but the records can. Jones has run over 100 yards in four consecutive games, tied with Ahman Green in 2003 for the such longest streak in Packers history

“We’re playing all together as one,” Jones said when asked about his success. “The blocking unit is doing their thing up front. They make it easy for me to pick and chose which hole I want to run through…I think it’s a credit to them and the play calling as well.”

Playing together for Jones means also uplifting his young teammates. Rookie fifth-round pick Dontayvion Wicks struggled to find a role in the Packers’ crowded, young attack early in the season. After a drop against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 9, Wicks’ head drooped as he trudged back toward the Green Bay sideline. Jones stopped Wicks in his tracks and physically lifted his head up.

Wicks has basically been en fuego since this moment pic.twitter.com/MaqdWXMfoy

— Shanahannigans™ (@Ferd_Turgeson) January 16, 2024
That type of encouragement eventually paid dividends for Wicks and the Packers. The rookie caught three touchdowns in his last two games played in the regular season, Week 16 at the Carolina Panthers and Week 18 against the Chicago Bears. He also hauled in a 20-yard receiving touchdown on Sunday against the Cowboys in an incredibly pivotal moment. Green Bay faced 3rd-and-7 from the Dallas 20. The Cowboys showed they were going to blitz as the play clock dropped under 10 seconds.

Love quickly made an audible before snapping the football with a second remaining on the play cock. Wicks cooked 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore off the line of scrimmage and corralled Love’s scoring strike that essentially functioned as a Cowboys kill shot with the Packers going up 20-0.


📺: #GBvsDAL on FOX
📱: Stream on #NFLPlus https://t.co/Ut3BRhC2CE pic.twitter.com/NdIftoEEW9

— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2024
“Yeah, yeah. I’m happy for him (Jones),” Wicks said Sunday when asked about Jones’ performance. “One-hundred-yard games back to back, that’s hard. He’s just our fire starter, and we keep the flame going.”

Fellow rookie wide receiver Jayden Reed, a second-round pick who led the Packers in catches (64), receiving yards (793) and receiving touchdowns (8, tied with Romeo Doubs for the team lead), didn’t register a single catch on three targets in the Packers victory on Sunday. However, he didn’t pout. Instead, he put everything he had into blocking for Jones because of the way he has poured into the Green Bay youngsters this season.

“You’re the reason I go hard bro,” Reed said to Jones during the team’s win on Sunday, per Inside The NFL. “You somebody to look up to bro. You somebody to play for. I want to go out there and block for you. I feel fu–ed up when I don’t make the block.”

Jones has a similar effect on his young offensive linemen.

“It motivates us for sure,” Packers offensive lineman Zach Tom, a 2022 fourth-round pick, said Sunday when asked about how hard Jones runs. “We know all you have to do is give him a tiny little crease and he’ll make something happen. It motivates us.”

Now, the Packers degree of difficulty ratchets up considerably as they head west to take on the NFC’s top seed, the San Francisco 49ers, on Saturday night. The 49ers are the first team since the 2004 Indianapolis Colts — who an offense compromised of three Hall of Famers (QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James and WR Marvin Harrison) and a 2024 Hall of Fame finalist (WR Reggie Wayne) — to have a 4,000 yard passer (Brock Purdy) and four players with at least 1,000 scrimmage yards (RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Brandon Aiyuk, WR Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle).

“Because we believe in each other,” Jones said when asked why the Packers can to continue having success this postseason. “We have faith in each other…we have all the weapons we need on this team. People can continue to doubt us. That’s fine. We love the underdog mentality. We love the underdog approach.”

LaFleur clearly believes in Jones, giving him 19 more carries after his first two went for negative-3 yards against Dallas on Sunday.

“I think that was huge even though the first two run plays they stopped,” Jones said. “I’m glad we stuck with it. Like I said, when you’re able to run the ball, it opens everything else up. We were able to set them up pretty nice on Luke’s touchdown. We had
seen a lot of outside zone all game and we hit them with that.”

As for those who still don’t believe in the Packers after their demolition of the Cowboys, all Green Bay does is smile, laugh and let their play on the field do the talking.

“Just a little chuckle,” Jones said when asked about his reaction to those still doubting his Packers. “You know it’s in your memory bank and you go tell your teammates…We talk about how we feel and if you feel disrespected, you go do something about it.”


Can 49ers, Ravens live up to hype?

Super Wild Card Weekend is in the books, and we’re already onto the next round of action in the 2024 NFL playoffs. Six teams have moved on. Another six have been left behind. While the latter clubs will no doubt hurry to begin planning for the offseason, those who remain in the mix for this year’s Lombardi Trophy have plenty of their own hurdles to clear in the coming weeks.

On that note, here are the biggest questions facing each of the teams remaining in the playoffs:

Baltimore Ravens: Can Lamar get over the hump?
Past playoff games may not directly affect Lamar Jackson going into their Divisional Round matchup with Houston, but just like Dak Prescott in Dallas, he’s still got big-stage boxes to check, entering with a 1-3 record as a playoff starter. He’s been more efficient as a passer and decision-maker in Todd Monken’s system, but now it’s time to deliver in a must-win scenario.

Buffalo Bills: Can they survive more injuries on ‘D’?
We all know Josh Allen, James Cook, Stefon Diggs and Dalton Kincaid are capable of getting this team on the scoreboard. But after missing key starters in Rasul Douglas and Tyrel Dodson, Buffalo’s defense took more hits against Pittsburgh, losing Taron Johnson and Terrel Bernard, among others. They’ll need as many reinforcements as they can get versus Kansas City.

Detroit Lions: How long will the clean pockets last?
They deserve all the credit in the world for bringing playoff hopes to fruition, and Jared Goff was particularly sharp in their back-and-forth with the Rams. But almost all his work came from a pristine pocket. We know Goff is a different quarterback when pressured — more affected than most — and the Buccaneers are coming into town after a blitz-crazy domination of the Eagles.

Green Bay Packers: How far can the youth movement go?
Jordan Love looked unstoppable slinging it against the so-called “elite” Cowboys defense in Green Bay’s blowout wild-card win. The speed at his disposal was also apparent. But facing the 49ers is a different task, with even more experience and physicality on the other side. Is it possible the Packers are a year ahead of schedule? Or are they so electric to play spoiler again?

Houston Texans: Can the defense hold up?
There are precious few questions about C.J. Stroud right now, especially after the remarkable rookie QB shredded the Browns’ vaunted defense in the wild-card round. But Joe Flacco’s reckless passing may have aided their own “D,” whereas Lamar Jackson and Co. should pose a greater threat this weekend. They’ve been a bit more vulnerable through the air.

Kansas City Chiefs: Will they stay committed to the run?
Let’s be real: When push comes to shove, it’s Patrick Mahomes who’s built to propel this team, as well as the Chris Jones-led defense, whose physicality completely befuddled the Dolphins. But Isiah Pacheco has been an underrated key for their success; the Chiefs are 8-2 this year when he gets at least 15 carries, helping balance an attack also featuring an emergent Rashee Rice.

San Francisco 49ers: Can they live up to the hype?
No one really denies the all-star talent they’ve got on both sides of the ball, not to mention the sidelines. Now it comes down to meeting expectations. Brock Purdy’s last playoff start ended early due to injury, and Christian McCaffrey is coming off a calf issue. If they’re both healthy along with the other pillars of Kyle Shanahan’s attack, they’re well positioned to advance.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can they tighten up in opposing territory?
Baker Mayfield was on fire dicing up the porous Eagles defense on Monday, as was Todd Bowles’ pass rush, but the crazy thing is Tampa Bay probably could’ve — or should’ve — beaten Philly by even more. Mayfield took a couple sacks that pushed them out of field-goal range, and drops also hurt potential scoring series. They’ll need to be sharper to beat Detroit.


49ers edge Ravens for No. 1, plus surprise to round out top five

There are only eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs with Super Bowl LVIII just 25 days away. Of the eight remaining teams, it’s hard to argue that any of them aren’t among the league’s upper echelon.

Five of the six remaining teams who played last weekend defeated a lower-ranked team at home. The lone exception was the Packers, who shocked the No. 2-seeded Cowboys after putting 48 points on the board. By virtue of their performance in that game, the Packers should be considered as one of the league’s top teams and a legitimate threat moving forward.

The Packers have a daunting test in front of them, though. Up next for Green Bay is a 49ers team that is oozing with talent and coming off a bye week. It was a similar scene in 1995, when a young quarterback named Brett Favre dethroned Steve Young and the rest of the defending champion 49ers in San Francisco in the divisional round.

Both the 49ers and Packers are included in our rankings of the eight remaining playoff teams. We’ll see how accurate our list is when the divisional round wraps up next Sunday night in Buffalo.

  1. Houston Texans
    I’m not taking anything away from Houston and the awesome season they’ve had. But someone has to be last on this list, and that distinction unfortunately goes to a Texans team that has the most question marks of any of the remaining teams.

The Texans have a rookie phenom in C.J. Stroud, but they don’t have a proven running game that can back him up. Houston has a young and talented defense that has been stellar against the run. But its pass defense (much like Detroit) can be a liability.

No one should be surprised, however, if Demeco Ryans’ team manages to surprise anyone this weekend by pulling off a major upset. The Texans are a confident team that doesn’t look at themselves as underdogs. That mindset alone gives Houston a puncher’s chance against Lamar Jackson and the top-seeded Ravens.

If they do pull off the unthinkable, it’ll likely be because of Stroud and a defense that had two pick-sixes during last weekend’s blowout win over Cleveland.

  1. Detroit Lions
    I can hear the boos from Detroit, but before Lions fans bury me, let me just say that it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Detroit wound up in the Super Bowl. The Lions are that good and have been that good all year, starting with their season-opening win over the Chiefs.

Detroit’s pass defense, however, is a red flag, and a big one. The unit, despite the inspired play of rookie safety Brian Branch, has struggled all year, especially against elite receivers. That’s bad news this weekend considering the wideouts the Buccaneers have.

The Lions have the offense, though, to go all the way. More specifically, they have the quarterback to get them to the place they’ve never been. Jared Goff’s resurgence in Detroit is something we really haven’t seen in the NFL since 1980, when fellow former No. 1 overall pick Jim Plunkett overcame a disappointing start to his career to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl win.

Could Goff do something similar over the next month? He could, but he’ll have to beat the Buccaneers first.

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    It was a hard call between Tampa and Detroit, but the Buccaneers’ defense ultimately gave them the nod over the team they’ll face this weekend. Defense usually wins games in the playoffs, and Tampa has a decided edge here. Todd Bowels’ unit was seventh in the NFL in points allowed during the regular season and allowed just nine points during Monday night’s win over the Eagles. The unit is led by All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who had three interceptions, six sacks, four forced fumbles and 122 tackles during the regular season.

Tampa’s offense is more talented that the stats would suggest, especially when you consider what it has at receiver. The Buccaneers still have one of the league’s top WR duos in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who are both still playing at a high level. The quarterback throwing to them, Baker Mayfield, is playing the best ball of his career.

  1. Green Bay Packers
    You could argue the Packers deserve an ever higher spot after being the only road team to win a playoff game during Super Wild Card Weekend. But given where they were at the start of the playoffs (a 9-8 team that made the postseason as a No. 7 seed), I think No. 5 is a fair spot.

Green Bay’s shocking upset win over the Cowboys was anything but a fluke. The Packers manhandled Dallas on both sides of the ball, especially on offense. Jordan Love throughly outplayed Dak Prescott and was extremely close to becoming only the third quarterback to post a perfect passer rating in a playoff game.

Love had success by spreading the ball around and finding the soft spots in the Cowboys’ defense. He was complemented by Aaron Jones, who submitted his third straight 100-yard rushing performance.

Green Bay’s defense was just as good, with four sacks and two picks of Prescott. It also shut down the Cowboys’ running game, which will have to happen again in San Francisco if the Packers are going to keep their season going.

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  1. Kansas City Chiefs
    The Chiefs remind me a lot of the 2018 Patriots team that “sucked” (in Tom Brady’s words) before winning the franchise’s sixth Lombardi. That New England team underwhelmed for most of the year before turning it on in the playoffs.

The Patriots received a big postseason that year from then-rookie first-round running back Sony Michel. This past Saturday night, the Chiefs’ offense got a big performance from rookie first-round wide receiver Rashee Rice, who recorded a career-high 130 yards that included the game’s first touchdown.

If you recall, the Patriots held the Rams to just three points in that year’s Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ defense could pull off a similar feat this postseason. Led by Chris Jones, the unit finished second in the league in points allowed during the regular season.

New England’s defining moment that year came in Kansas City in the AFC title game. If the Chiefs are able to repeat as champions this season, it’s safe to say their defining moment will come Sunday in Buffalo in what will be Patrick Mahomes’ first road playoff game.

  1. Buffalo Bills
    If Buffalo doesn’t go all the way, injuries will be a big reason why. Sean McDermott classified nine players as day-to-day one day after his team’s Super Wild Card Weekend win over Pittsburgh.

Injuries aside, the Bills are still a dangerous squad. Buffalo jumped out to a 21-0 lead over the Steelers en route to a 31-17 win. Josh Allen played like the star that he is with three touchdowns passing and a 52-yard scoring jaunt. The defense forced two critical Steelers turnovers that the offense turned into 14 points.

Along with Buffalo’s stingy defense, a reason why this could be Buffalo’s year is its resurgent running game, led by James Cook. Cook’s running has further opened things up for Allen while giving Buffalo’s offense the balance it had been lacking in previous years.

  1. Baltimore Ravens
    Baltimore enters the playoffs with a healthy Jackson and the regular season’s top-ranked scoring defense. Jackson will probably win his second league MVP of his career after throwing more than three times as many touchdown passes as interceptions and also leading the Ravens in rushing. It’s safe to say Jackson enjoys playing in first year OC Todd Monken’s offense.

As great as Jackson is, he won’t get his just due until he wins a Super Bowl. That may happen this season as long as Jackson stays healthy. If Baltimore is able to win it all, it’ll likely be because of Jackson and a defense that tallied 60 sacks and 18 interceptions during the regular season.

  1. San Francisco 49ers
    It’s hard to argue against the 49ers, whose roster boasts a league-best nine Pro Bowlers. San Francisco finished third in the NFL in both points scored and points allowed during the regular season.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense has been extremely balanced this season, which is one of the things that makes playing them so difficult. The offense is centered around the talents of MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey, who makes plays in both the running and passing games. If there is a question here, it is whether or not Brock Purdy can lead the 49ers to victory in the playoffs if McCaffrey and the running game are held in check.

Defensively, the 49ers are as good as it gets. They have a ferocious pass rush that only got stronger with the arrival of Chase Young at the trade deadline. The unit is anchored by Fred Warner, who filled the stat sheet this season with 132 tackles, four interceptions, four forced fumbles and 2.5 sacks.


Jerry Jones believes team ‘very close to achieving ultimate goals’

The Dallas Cowboys are retaining head coach Mike McCarthy for the 2024 season, the team announced Wednesday night. McCarthy will return for the fifth and final season of his current deal.

“I believe this team is very close and capable of achieving our ultimate goals and the best step forward for us will be with Mike McCarthy as our head coach,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said in a statement Wednesday night. “There is great benefit to continuing the team’s progress under Mike’s leadership as our head coach. Specifically, there are many layers of success that have occurred this season as a result of Mike’s approach to leading the team, both with individual players and with our team collectively. Mike has the highest regular-season winning percentage of any head coach in Cowboys history and we will dedicate ourselves, in partnership with him, to translating that into reaching our postseason goals. Certainly, Mike’s career has demonstrated postseason success at a high level, and we have great confidence that can continue.

“Further, our loss on Sunday is shared by everyone here, not just Coach McCarthy. Our players. Our coaches. Our front office. Myself. There is accountability for our results. I am accountable for our results. The lens we use to view and evaluate Coach McCarthy is holistic. While we’re all disappointed with the result on Sunday and with our playoff record, I am 100 percent supportive of him as our head coach and ability to reach our goals. We will start our process of review and decision making regarding everything that impacts our team and roster and, while we’re not going to address specific players and extensions or free agents at this point, it deserves our deepest review and consideration, and it will get it.”

Many Cowboys fans were ready to kick McCarthy to the curb after the team’s latest crushing postseason exit — a 48-32 blowout loss to the seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers on Super Wild Card Weekend. The loss ran McCarthy’s postseason record with Dallas to 1-3. It also ran Dallas’ streak of playoff appearances without reaching a conference championship game to 13, the league’s longest active such streak.

The Cowboys entered the postseason with a 12-5 record. They were the NFC’s No. 2 seed and boasted the NFL’s highest-scoring offense (29.9 points per game), quarterback Dak Prescott led the NFL in touchdown passes (36), wide receiver CeeDee Lamb led the league in receptions (135) and they possessed the NFL’s only perfect record at home (8-0). None of it mattered.

Dallas has at least 12 wins for three seasons in a row under McCarthy. This stretch marks the second time in franchise history for that to occur, joining the Cowboys’ 1990s dynasty run from 1992-1995 in which they won three Super Bowls in four seasons. McCarthy is the first Cowboys head coach to accomplish this feat. Only the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (37) have more regular-season wins than Dallas since 2021.

However, McCarthy’s Cowboys also became the first team to win 12 games in three straight seasons and fail to make the conference championship in any of them. That left everyone at The Star, the team’s headquarters, with unresolved feelings of grief and anger on Monday. McCarthy’s regular season record as the Cowboys head coach is 42-25 (62.7% win percentage), giving him the highest career win percentage of any coach in team history.

Prescott himself stumped for McCarthy’s retention after he bounced back from co-leading the NFL in interceptions (15) in 2022 to becoming the the first quarterback in Cowboys history to lead the NFL outright in passing touchdowns while compiling a career-high 105.9 passer rating in 2023 with McCarthy as the offensive play-caller. Prescott is set to have a $59.5 million cap hit in 2024, the second-highest in the NFL behind only Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s $64 million, in the final year of his contract.

One way or another, Dallas has to do something with its quarterback contractually. Restructure or extension. Following another January disappointment, Prescott’s long-term future as the starting quarterback of the Cowboys may begin to get murky.

“He’s been amazing,” Prescott said postgame. “I don’t know how they can be (calling for his job), but I understand the business. In that case, it should be about me as well. I’ve had the season that I’ve had because of him. This team has had the success that they’ve had because of him. I understand it’s about winning the Super Bowl. That’s the standard of this league and damn sure the standard of this place. I get it but add me to the list in that case.”

McCarthy remains one of the most accomplished coaches in NFL history, ranking 10th in all-time playoff wins (11), including a Super Bowl XLV victory in AT&T Stadium as the Packers head coach in 2010, and just outside the top 30 in all-time regular-season wins (167).