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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Marquez Valdes-Scantling pegged the exact moment when he realized he would be able to make an impact as a Green Bay Packers rookie receiver.

“Day 1,” he said recently.

Which might explain why he sees no reason Year 2 should be a difficult transition, even though the Packers will install a new offense under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

The ultra-confident Valdes-Scantling is like the rest of the Packers’ offense; he doesn’t know exactly what LaFleur’s offense will entail or how it will vary from what previous coach Mike McCarthy employed.

But he’s not concerned about the transition.

In fact, in at least one way he’s relishing it.

“I don’t know anything about the offense we’re going to be running; I don’t know what to expect when we walk in there,” Valdes-Scantling said last week in an interview from the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and Panini Trading Card rookie appreciation event.

“I haven’t spoken with our head coach yet, so I don’t know what we should be expecting and what will be changing, if anything. But it’s just going to be like learning a new system all over again, if it is that way, and we’ll all be on an equal playing field now. You won’t have vets who’ve been in the system for four, five or 10, 11 years. We’ll all be at the same level learning at the same time.”

It was the way Valdes-Scantling was able to learn McCarthy’s offense that gave him the first chance to make an impact ahead of fellow rookie receivers Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore. It led to early opportunities after injuries to Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison. The fifth-round pick became the first Packers receiver since Max McGee in 1959 to post two 100-yard receiving games in the same season with three or fewer catches in each games.

A year ago at this time, he was trying to woo scouts at that all-star game. This year, he was back there to mentor draft prospects and to autograph trading cards from his rookie year, when he became Aaron Rodgers’ most reliable deep threat, averaging 15.3 yards per catch, the highest average by a Packers rookie (with at least 25 catches) since James Lofton’s 17.8-yard average in 1978. Overall, his average was fourth best among all NFL rookies last season. He ranked seventh among all 2018 rookies in yards (581) and ninth in catches (38). He caught at least four catches for 40-plus yards, tied for the most among rookies last season with Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley and Buffalo’s Robert Foster.

That’s in contrast to Moore, a fourth-round pick who was the highest selection among the three receivers the Packers drafted last season. Moore couldn’t get on the field and admitted it was because he failed to grasp the offense. It also took St. Brown, a sixth-round pick, longer than Valdes-Scantling to make an impact.

“I was able to produce with a steep learning curve, probably steeper last time, because guys had been in the system for many years, and I’m coming in having to learn like eight years of a system in three months,” Valdes-Scantling said. “So now, if we do have to learn a completely different system, it won’t just be for the rookies this time.”

While Valdes-Scantling won’t technically get his hands on LaFleur’s playbook until the offseason program starts in April, he plans to refine his mental game between and now then while he works out in Florida.

“I have all the physical traits,” said the 6-foot-4, 206-pounder. “You can always get better, but physicality doesn’t get you a long way in this league playing wide receiver. If I was an O-lineman, it would be a little bit different, but going in the weight room and lifting 500 pounds is not going to make me a better receiver. Mentally is the next step for my game. Obviously you have to keep in shape, but I think mentally preparing myself to be able to battle a full NFL season again.”

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LOS ANGELES — In case it wasn’t obvious enough by the situation — fourth-and-1, one-score game, start of the fourth quarter, ball near field goal range — Mark Barron confirmed it right before the snap. The veteran inside linebacker saw Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown go in motion and set up right behind tight end Rico Gathers, a dead giveaway that an inside run was coming. The Los Angeles Rams’ defense had spent the entire week focused almost exclusively on containing Ezekiel Elliott, simultaneously fighting the incessant notion that their star-studded unit was generally inept against the run.

When the biggest moment presented itself at 7:40 p.m. PT on Saturday, they were ready.

Ndamukong Suh was the first to get free.

“I saw what they wanted to do, played off the center and tried to close up the gap,” Suh said. “My hands were tied, so I just went in head first.”

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Suh’s helmet was the first object to make contact with Elliott, right before a mob of his teammates swarmed in to help, taking possession away from the Cowboys and changing the complexion of an eventual 30-22 victory that saw the Rams advance to the NFC Championship Game and flip an entire narrative on its head.

The Cowboys were supposed to dominate the run on both sides, with the NFL’s leading rusher in their backfield and a stout defense that had allowed only 3.8 yards per carry. But it was the Rams’ offense, suddenly a two-back system with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, that amassed 273 yards on the ground. And it was the Rams’ defense, fresh off surrendering an NFL-worst 5.1 yards per carry in 2018, that limited the Cowboys to a mere 50 rushing yards, their lowest output all season.

“We knew we could stop the run — it was just a matter of doing it,” Barron said. “It really wasn’t that hard. It was everybody being where they’re supposed to be and doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It was really simple.”

The Rams are going to need a lot more of that on Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox) when they face a New Orleans Saints offense that features the devastating two-prong attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

The Rams are going to need more performances like these from Suh.

On Saturday night, in what became the Rams’ first playoff victory at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in more than 40 years, Suh jumped off the film in a way he rarely had all season. The numbers — two quarterback hits, one tackle for loss — weren’t gaudy. But Suh displayed the quintessential balance of ferocity and discipline, consistently winning at the point of attack and constantly clogging holes to help keep Elliott at 2.3 yards per carry.

Suh was given the highest grade on the Rams’ defense by Pro Football Focus, which had him with four pressures in 30 pass-rush snaps and a run-stop percentage of 11.8.

After a mostly quiet regular season, Ndamukong Suh led a Rams defense that limited Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys to just 50 rushing yards. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
When it mattered most, he might have been the best player on the field.

“It’s a great compliment,” Suh said late Saturday night. “At the end of the day, how I look at it is I’m still going to play at an elite level. Given opportunities, which I was given today, I’m going to make plays. This atmosphere, being at home, great fans, and it’s the playoffs — you bring it all or you go home. And I’m not trying to go home anytime soon.”

The Rams stacked the box, as expected, against the Cowboys. They played in their base set (four defensive backs, two interior defenders and two edge rushers) on 35.3 percent of the snaps in which the Cowboys ran “11″ personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). During the regular season, the Rams were in base sets on only 8.2 percent of opponents’ “11″ personnel snaps.

“We knew that they were going to run, try to get Zeke loose,” Rams outside linebacker Samson Ebukam said. “And we knew that if we could contain Zeke, the game was basically over.”

At the nine-minute mark of the first quarter, Suh sprinted from the hash marks to the numbers to stop Elliott for no gain. At the 10-minute mark of the third quarter, Ebukam set the edge to help Suh slam Elliott for a 2-yard loss. Nine minutes later, Aaron Donald went basically unblocked into the backfield and stuffed Elliott for a loss of 4. And in the final minutes of regulation, inside linebacker Cory Littleton sniffed out a shovel pass in the flat and tackled Elliott for another 2-yard loss.

The Rams outgained the Cowboys 459 yards to 308, accumulating 11 more first downs and running 21 more offensive plays.

But it was their defense, agonizingly inconsistent throughout the year, that finally made its presence felt.

“We arrived,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, “and you could feel our guys at the point of contact.”

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The Rams face an entirely different challenge against the Saints.

Their run game is just as lethal, but their passing attack, led by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, commands respect. The Rams can’t load the box against the Saints like they did against the Cowboys. They’ll need more coverage in their backfield, which means their interior players must stay disciplined in their gap assignments.

“It’s going to be a huge point of emphasis this week,” McVay said. “They can beat you both ways — they can run it or they can throw it — and that’s what really presents such a great challenge.”

Suh came over on a one-year, $14 million contract and has been overlooked with the Rams, mostly because his teammate, Donald, put together a historically great regular season with 20.5 sacks. But Suh still compiled 4.5 sacks and the metrics say he defended the run well, even while adjusting to operating as a nose tackle.

On Saturday, Barron felt Suh played his best game of the season.

“To me he did,” Barron said. “He was just dominant.”

“You definitely felt his presence,” McVay added. “I thought he pursued the football outstanding. I thought he was able to get [into the backfield] all night, and I thought that affected some of the different things that they were talking about, so I think he was outstanding in those early downs. When he’s able to do that, it makes a huge difference. I thought he really came with a great focus and concentration this week, and I think it showed up with the way that he was able to play.”

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PHILADELPHIA — A 48-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11 was the low point of the season for the Philadelphia Eagles, but quarterback Nick Foles says it was also the turning point.

“That game has helped us become the team we are today,” Foles said Wednesday as the Eagles began preparations for this weekend’s divisional playoff against New Orleans. “Going through that, that’s not easy as a team to lose like that. But there was never a pointing of the finger. It actually brought us closer. It can separate a team or it can bring us closer, and it brought us closer.”


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That loss dropped the Eagles to 4-6 and put their postseason hopes in peril. They responded by winning five of six to capture the sixth and final playoff seed.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins, stinging from what he described as an embarrassing loss to his former team, took issue with the Eagles’ demeanor during that game and suggested some players lacked fight.

“At that point in time, obviously, that’s the low point of our season. But at no point did we doubt that we have the locker room,” Jenkins said. “We just knew that we had to put it together. Since then, I think we responded and earned our opportunity to go back down there.”

Late in that game, Jenkins made an obscene gesture, extending his middle finger toward Sean Payton following a Saints touchdown because he believed his former coach was running up the score — a sentiment others in the Eagles locker room, including tackle Jason Peters, have shared.

Coach Doug Pederson, however, did not play into that angle when addressing the media Wednesday.

“No, I did not [think they ran up the score]. Listen, we get paid to play, just like they do. We just didn’t make enough plays,” Pederson said. “We have to keep them out of the end zone and we have to score. We didn’t do either one very well.”

Foles has been a key part of the Eagles’ turnaround since that loss. He has won four straight in place of the injured Carson Wentz, including a 16-15 thriller over the Chicago Bears in the wild-card round last weekend.

As Bears kicker Cody Parkey lined up for the potential game-winner at the end of the game, center Jason Kelce found Foles on the sideline to let him know that he was going to miss him if this was in fact the end. Then came the Treyvon Hester tip and the double doink, extending Foles’ time in Philly and setting up a rematch with a Saints team that sparked the turnaround.

“”It means the world,” Foles said. “I’m not worried about the future, but at the same time, I understand where I stand. And every time I wear that jersey is special and to play with guys like Jason, that’s special. I’ve been fortunate to play with the best center in the game.

“I’ll never forget that. Fortunately, we tipped the field goal and it didn’t go in, which was a huge play by Hester. But we get one more week together, at least.”

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CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis was composed and smiling when he sat at his usual spot at the podium in Paul Brown Stadium on Monday morning. He cracked a few jokes and seemed as relaxed as he could be considering the circumstances.

If it weren’t for the tears visible in his eyes at times, it would’ve seemed like any postseason news conference he has given over the past 16 years.

Lewis was officially out as head coach of the Bengals. It was a decision both the Bengals and Lewis said was mutual, although it is unclear who proposed the split.

“Mike [Brown] and I both decided that it’s time. It was a tough moment for both of us, but I think we both realized … ” Lewis said.

Things happened quickly in the hours after the Bengals concluded their season with a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. While the Bengals have dragged their feet in previous years about Lewis’ future, they already had a clean break by 10 o’clock Monday morning.

As Lewis sat down to talk to the media, players were already packing their things and heading out. Lewis had just addressed the team in what he said was one of the toughest moments of the morning. Players said he stayed composed during the talk and spent most of it telling them that he believed in a bright future for them.

Lewis won’t be around to see that future realized. The Bengals had a young roster this season that became even younger due to injuries. Lewis recalled how he walked off the practice field last weekend and remarked how young everyone seemed.

Throughout the season, Lewis seemed equal parts invigorated and exhausted by the youthfulness of the team.

“Our players got younger this year, as we know, and you enjoy that part of them,” Lewis said. “I told [public relations director Emily Parker] as we were walking off the field Friday or Saturday, ‘It’s the same thing, they’re kids.’ I wish they were more hardened veteran kids, but they’re kids. They ran around yesterday and played their tails off.”

Lewis also addressed many of the players individually that morning.

“He said he was proud of me and I had a good season and take care of myself, my body. And he said I’m a good player. That’s good to hear from him,” linebacker Nick Vigil said. “He’s been here for so long. He gave all of us a chance. He’s the one who picked us. He’s the one that wanted us to be here. Bummer deal.”

Said linebacker Preston Brown: “He just told us that they mutually decided that he wasn’t going to be the coach anymore, and that we have a lot of talent in the room, and whoever comes in is going to get us over that hump. … He told us all to just stay safe and continue to get better. He had a good message for us and … whoever comes in is going to get a good team.”

Over the past few weeks, the reactions of players have ranged from defense of Lewis to shrugging and saying it was out of their control. But the overwhelming reaction from the locker room was that the team would be OK no matter who was in charge. Running back Joe Mixon went so far as to confidently proclaim Sunday night the Bengals would be in the playoffs next year.

Marvin Lewis shares a moment with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin after Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh. Joe Sargent/Getty Images
“This definitely is going to sting for seven or eight months, but I know one thing,” Mixon said. “Next year, our team is definitely going to the playoffs, and you can put whatever you want on that. I know that.”

Lewis also sent an email to the Bengals’ staff telling them to keep chasing the Super Bowl dream he couldn’t achieve in Cincinnati.

“They have to keep chasing that, you want to chase that. The gleam in their eye for everybody that does all the hard work in this building, to have that opportunity,” Lewis said.

And in an unusual move, Lewis chose to address the media one last time even though he was no longer obligated to, declining to wax nostalgic or talk about his hopes for the future. He conceded that he never delivered on his goal to win the Super Bowl, and that was bittersweet.

The Bengals certainly stuck by Lewis through the difficult years, long past the point that most front offices would have given up. And on the other side, there were times Lewis stuck by the Bengals as well, even when it seemed he might want out.

A mutual parting of ways seemed entirely possible after the 2010 season, but instead Lewis signed a new contract, drafted A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and took the team to five straight playoff appearances. It almost seemed as if he would coach in Cincinnati for the rest of his career.

So why did it end now?

“’It’s been a lot — this season has been a lot,” Lewis said. “From Indianapolis [in Week 1] and the ride home on the bus, all the way through. It’s been a lot.”

The season had to take its toll on the 60-year-old Lewis, who saw a promising 4-1 start slip through his fingers. The Bengals looked like they had the makings of a promising team in September, with a defense that could force turnovers and an offense that seemed poised behind Dalton, who flourished under new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.

The Bengals forced last-minute turnovers to seal wins against the Colts and Ravens. They defeated the Falcons on the road with a game-winning drive after Tyler Eifert, John Ross and Giovani Bernard all went down. They scored 17 straight points to upend the Dolphins. It seemed they were on their way to being something special.

“Even in camp we thought this year would be different,” Bernard said. “I’m sure every team says the same thing, but we really believed that at the beginning of the season. Guys go down. Next man has to step and we just couldn’t keep up with that. But we definitely felt in the beginning of the season we had a roster full of playmakers.”

But if the Bengals were being honest, they probably would have admitted it all went south on Oct. 14 when they failed to hold off the Steelers in the final 1:18. The Steelers have always been Lewis’ albatross, and his failure to beat them will define his legacy as much as his 0-7 playoff record.

“We started out at 4-1 and then we could’ve won that Pittsburgh game and been 5-1 but after that it was just downhill from there,” Preston Brown said. “I think once we get over that Pittsburgh hump, we can beat anybody. So we’ve got to find a way to win those type of games.”

When the Bengals gave up another heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh, it was not only the beginning of the end for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was fired less than a month later, but it embodied the lack of change that had come to define the Lewis era.

It got worse quickly. The Bengals had no answer for the Chiefs or the Saints, who blew them off the field. They struggled against rookie quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. Their inspired performance against the Chargers was stymied by coaching decisions that seemed desperate at the time.

Although Lewis had always erred on the conservative side of two-point conversions and fourth-down tries, he flipped the script against the Chargers and failed in what ended up as a four-point loss. The Bengals didn’t seem to be able to do anything right.

Vontaze Burfict, who was once considered their best linebacker, was kept off the field due to suspensions and injuries and played poorly when he was on the field. Eighteen players ended up on injured reserve, and the Bengals lost their quarterback, two best receivers, two starting linebackers and their best tight end.

There was also Austin’s departure and a scramble to try to correct a defense that was on the path to being one of the worst in NFL history. Lewis took up the coordinator position with almost childlike enthusiasm and optimism. Lewis, who once coordinated one of the best defenses in NFL history in Baltimore, seemed positive he could turn things around.

Slowly the defense appeared to right itself toward the end of the season, but too much time had been wasted. Paul Brown Stadium was half filled to see the Bengals’ final win of the season on Dec. 16, the same day the team was eliminated from playoff contention.

And even though it was clear the remaining players were still giving it their best, the weight of the failures from the previous years and the frustration of the fan base were the final nails in the coffin. At the end of the day, the best the Bengals had to give simply wasn’t enough anymore.

“I worked my tail off. Everybody has,” Lewis said simply when asked if he was given every chance to succeed.

In his final comments on Monday morning, Lewis said he was proud of his work with the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. He thanked reporters for the coverage over the years. He told everyone he still hoped to coach but didn’t know what the future would bring.

Lewis shook hands, gave out a few hugs, then walked through the locker room in the direction of his office, perhaps to pack up his things. For the first time in 16 years, the Bengals and Lewis were looking toward a future that didn’t include each other.

“I wish I had all of you working [here] for another month [in the playoffs], as I know you want to work, and I certainly do too,” Lewis said. “That’s what I told the rookies today — imagine this is what you want. You want today to be an off day because you’re maybe playing a Saturday night home playoff game. That is what you’re training for moving forward. They’ll get there. Thank you.”