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NFL wildcard playoff picks: Favorites to sweep ‘super’ six-game slate



After the first Week 18 in NFL history ended a topsy-turvy season in suitably dramatic fashion, we’re headed into the first ever Super Wild Card Weekend. The NFL is giving us six games over the next three days and while you can’t predict football – just ask the Indianapolis Colts – we can at least make semi-educated guesses how the following games will go.

Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday, 4.30pm EST/9.30pm GMT)

What the Raiders need to do to win: Las Vegas were the last team to qualify for the playoffs and will be road underdogs on Saturday. Oddly enough, they have an identical regular-season record as the 10-7 Bengals. Given Cincinnati’s history of underachieving, all of the pressure is on the other side. If the Raiders can get an early lead, force a key turnover or two with their talented group of pass rushers, that could be enough to plant the seeds of doubt in their opponents.

What the Bengals need to do to win: Quarterback Joe Burrow simply must keep doing what he’s doing, having thrown for 971 yards over the course of the last two games. The last time these two teams met, the Bengals won 32-13, on the road nonetheless. If he plays like this, this could be a laugher (which is what the league obviously expects, since they put this in the Saturday afternoon “ratings death” slot). The world is ready for the first text message ever sent celebrating a Bengals victory, who last won a playoff game in 1991.

Key player: Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver, Bengals. It was a cute story when the Bengals drafted Chase in last year’s NFL draft, reuniting him with his old college quarterback in Joe Burrow. Instead, it was a stroke of genius. The dynamic duo recently set a franchise record, combining for 266 yards and three touchdowns in an impressive Week 17 win over the Chiefs. The two have an almost psychic connection and it could be something to see this postseason.

Prediction: Bengals over Raiders

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Saturday, 8.15pm EST/Sunday 1.15am GMT)

What the Patriots need to do to win: Run like the wind. In the previous meeting between these two teams, the Patriots altered their game plan to take advantage of extremely windy weather conditions. Quarterback Mac Jones threw for 19 yards as New England relied on a talented running back corps to put together a flat-out hilarious 14-10 victory. Jones will have to do more this time around, but it wouldn’t hurt to go back to this blueprint.

What the Bills need to do to win: The Good Josh Allen is going to have to show up. For Allen’s first few seasons, the Bills QB had serious issues with ball control despite his obvious physical talents. After Tom Brady relocated to Florida, he has emerged as the best QB in the AFC East. However, old habits die hard. In a four-game stretch this season, Allen threw seven interceptions and lost a fumble. He can’t afford that kind of carelessness again against a Patriots team with one of the league’s most opportunistic defenses.

Key player: JC Jackson, cornerback, Patriots. To do so, Buffalo will have to neutralize this guy. Jackson might be their most impactful player on that side. Jackson’s eight interceptions were the second-most in the league this year and he has 25 over the course of his four-year career. The Patriots will desperately need him to work his magic for New England to pull off a road upset.

Prediction: Bills over Patriots

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1pm EST/6pm GMT)

What the Eagles need to do to win: Hope that momentum is still a thing. The Eagles started their season 2-5, seemingly falling out of the playoff mix, but have looked like an entirely different team since. Since losing 28-22 to Tampa Bay back in Week 6, they have even led the league in rushing with 184.8 rushing yards per game. If they keep that up, we should have a competitive ballgame.

What the Buccaneers need to do to win: This actually isn’t the worst time for the Eagles to face the Buccaneers with Tampa Bay still reeling from the fallout of the Antonio Brown situation. Despite his endless deficiencies as a teammate, the team will miss him what with Chris Godwin out for the season with an ACL injury. If Tom Brady’s favorite receiver is the “open receiver”, then the players lower on the depth chart are going to have to do their best to get themselves open.

Key player: Tom Brady, quarterback, Buccaneers. No reason to overthink this one. Brady might just be the greatest player in NFL history. He’s also 44 years old and – despite all available evidence – Father Time will eventually have his say. He says he wants to play until he’s 50, and maybe he will, but he has to know this game could mark the start of his final Super Bowl run.

Prediction: Buccaneers over Eagles

Jalen Hurts
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts has the fans in Philadelphia forgetting about departed franchise player Carson Wentz. Photograph: Derik Hamilton/AP

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4.30pm EST/9.30pm GMT)

What the 49ers need to do to win: Limit Dak Prescott’s production. While the Dallas Cowboys quarterback struggled a bit down the stretch, he ended the season with a 295 yard, five-touchdown performance. If he’s even as two-thirds as good on Sunday, that’s probably a wrap for San Francisco – even if their run game is as good as advertised.

What the Cowboys need to do to win: In contrast, Dallas must stop the run. The 49ers, who are basically between quarterbacks, rely on their running game to wear down opposing defenses. If the Cowboys’ defense, particularly recently acquired free agent safety Jayron Kearse, can limit their rushing yards, it could prevent the team from even needing a big game from Prescott.

Key player: Deebo Samuel, wide receiver, 49ers. We’re listing Samuel as a wide receiver here, but he’s a new breed of do-everything offensive player who has picked up a total of 1,845 yards, 365 of those on the ground. In fact, with Jimmy Garoppolo hurt and rookie Trey Lance not quite ready to take the mantle, Samuel has even occasionally performed emergency QB duty, meaning that the 49ers have the luxury of running “trick plays” that are just “plays”.

Prediction: Cowboys over 49ers

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 8.15pm EST/Monday, 1.15am GMT)

What the Steelers need to do to win: Ben Roethlisberger has to have one more great (not just good) game left in his Hall of Fame career. It’s a tall order and even he seems to know it: “Let’s just go in and play and have fun,” he said earlier this week. Still, if he stays upright, at least long enough to make plenty of big plays (either with his arms or with his feet) maybe his Steelers career lasts another week.

What the Chiefs need to do to win: The Steelers are 12.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs for a reason. They are playing against the most talented team in the AFC. One expects that Patrick Mahomes and company will be able to score, meaning the key question is whether or not the team’s much-improved defense turns into a pumpkin come into playoff time. If they can keep getting to Big Ben, the Chiefs win this game.

Key player: Travis Kelce, tight end, Chiefs. Kansas City don’t even need Kelce to crush the Steelers, as they showed the last time these two teams faced each other. Even without the most dangerous tight end in the league, the Chiefs still steamrolled the Steelers. Kelce should be good to go on Sunday and that could be very bad news for this Pittsburgh defense.

Prediction: Chiefs over Steelers

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams (Monday, 8.15pm EST/Tuesday, 1.15am GMT)

What the Cardinals need to do to win: With Kyler Murray on their side, the Cardinals have a decisive edge at quarterback. However, given how good the Rams have been as a team, it won’t matter if the defense doesn’t do its part. The Rams have a 9-1 record when Matt Stafford is sacked one or fewer times in a game this year, but a 3-4 when he’s sacked multiple times. Correlation is not always causation … except when it is.

What the Rams need to do to win: Well, obviously, the inverse to this is that the Rams will have to keep Stafford upright and Stafford will have to avoid throwing multiple picks. He does, however, have the edge in experience here as this will be Murray’s first postseason start. The win-loss record for quarterbacks making their playoff debut in the wild-card round since 2002: 11-31. May the least-rattled quarterback win.

Key player: Andrew Whitworth, offensive tackle, Rams. There are plenty of players to pick in this matchup, but let’s take this opportunity to praise the most overlooked non-special teamers on the roster: the offensive linemen. Pro Football Focus puts Whitworth, the second-oldest player remaining in the NFL playoffs behind you-know-who, as the best pass blocker among the peers. Stafford’s desperately doing to need him to keep that level of play up.

Prediction: Rams over Cardinals

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Actress Regina King’s son Ian Alexander Jr. has died at 26: «Our family is devastated at the deepest level»



Regina King’s 26-year-old son, Ian Alexander Jr., has died, a spokesperson for the actor confirmed Saturday morning. 

«Our family is devastated at the deepest level by the loss of Ian,» the statement read. «He is such a bright light who cared so deeply about the happiness of others. Our family asks for respectful consideration during this private time.»

Alexander Jr. — King’s only child, whom she shared with ex-husband Ian Alexander Sr. — died by suicide, a spokesperson confirmed to The Associated Press.

The two were very close, with Alexander Jr. often accompanying his mother on the red carpet. They even had matching tattoos reading «unconditional love» in Aramaic, the AP reported.

Last year, Alexander Jr. posted a tribute to his mother on her birthday, writing, «To be able to watch you take this lifetime by its neck and make it yours is something i will forever be grateful for. But to have you as my mother is the greatest gift I could ask for. To be all that you are while always having the time to be there, love and support me unconditionally is truly remarkable.»

Alexander Jr. was a DJ who went by desduné. He had just recently released a song called «Green Eyes,» which King posted about on her Instagram last week. According to Alexander Jr.’s Instagram, he had a show scheduled for January 28 in Los Angeles.

King is known for her roles in the movie «If Beale Street Could Talk» and on the television show «Watchmen.» She also directed the 2020 film «One Night in Miami…» She has won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, four Primetime Emmy Awards and two NAACP Image Awards over the course of her more than 30-year career.

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German navy chief resigns over Putin comments



Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht visits the navy base in Warnemuende, Germany, December 17, 2021. Bernd Wuestneck/Pool via REUTERS

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BERLIN, Jan 22 (Reuters) – Germany’s navy chief stepped down on Saturday after drawing criticism for saying Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved respect and that Kyiv would never win back annexed Crimea from Moscow.

«I have asked Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect,» Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach said in a statement. «The minister has accepted my request.»

Schoenbach made the remarks to a think-tank discussion in India on Friday, and video was published on social media. The comments came at a sensitive time as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders.

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Diplomatic efforts are focused on preventing an escalation. Russia denies it is planning to invade Ukraine.

In New Delhi, Schoenbach, speaking in English, said Putin seeks to be treated as an equal by the West.

«What he (Putin) really wants is respect,» Schoenbach said.

«And my God, giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost… It is easy to give him the respect he really demands – and probably also deserves,» Schoenbach said, calling Russia an old and important country.

Schoenbach conceded Russia’s actions in Ukraine needed to be addressed. But he added that «the Crimea peninsula is gone, it will never come back, this is a fact,» contradicting the joint Western position that Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 cannot be accepted and must be reversed.

Prior to Schoenbach’s resignation, the defence ministry publicly criticised his remarks, saying they did not reflect Germany’s position in either content or wording.

Schoenbach apologized for his comments.

«My rash remarks in India … are increasingly putting a strain on my office,» he said. «I consider this step (the resignation) necessary to avert further damage to the German navy, the German forces, and, in particular, the Federal Republic of Germany.»

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry had called on Germany to publicly reject the navy chief’s comments. Schoenbach’s comments could impair Western efforts to de-escalate the situation, Ukraine said in a statement.

«Ukraine is grateful to Germany for the support it has already provided since 2014, as well as for the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and run counter to that support and effort,» Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said separately in tweet.

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Reporting by Sabine Siebold; Editing by Catherine Evans and Cynthia Osterman

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Butler announces retirement



Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler announced his retirement on Saturday evening in a statement released by the team.

«It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career,» said Butler. «I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

«I want to thank the Rooney Family, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and all the coaches and players that I have been involved with over my entire coaching career. I look forward to spending more time with my family, whom have been so supportive of me throughout the years. I wish nothing but the best to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I will be cheering them on during my retirement.»

Butler served as the team’s defensive coordinator since being promoted to that role in January 2015. He had previously served as the team’s linebackers coach for 12 seasons from 2003-14. Butler was a part of two Super Bowl winning teams with the Steelers (Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII).

The Steelers lead, or tied for the lead, in overall sacks for the last five years under Butler, setting an NFL record in 2020 when they did it a league-high four years in a row.

In 2020 the Steelers broke an NFL record with a streak of 70 games with at least one sack, breaking the record set by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 69 straight games with at least one sack (1999-2003). The team extended the streak to 75 games, which is still the NFL record.

He came to the Steelers after an NFL coaching career that began with the Cleveland Browns (1999-2002) and before that in the college ranks at Arkansas State (1998) and Memphis (1990-97).

Butler played in the NFL for 10 seasons (1978-87) for the Seattle Seahawks.

Butler was a three-year starter at inside linebacker for the University of Memphis, leading the team in tackles his junior and senior seasons and being named as Associated Press All-American in 1977.

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