Dec 24, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) before the game against the New England Patriots at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

NFL free agency notebook: Russell Wilson headed to Pittsburgh

After two underwhelming seasons with the Denver Broncos, quarterback Russell Wilson will get a fresh start with the Pittsburgh Steelers on a one-year deal, multiple media outlets reported late Sunday night.

The contract is worth $1.2 million, the veteran’s minimum, per the reports.

Wilson, 35, is still under contract until the new league year begins on Wednesday, but Denver granted him permission to meet with other teams after telling him last week that it planned on releasing him.

In 30 games (all starts) with the Broncos, Wilson compiled an 11-19 record while completing 63.3 percent of his passes for 6,594 yards. The nine-time Pro Bowl selection threw for 42 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. Denver will be paying $37.8 million of Wilson’s salary while he plays for the Steelers.

–The buzz that Wilson generated carried into Monday, when a frenzy of moves were made, including the Atlanta Falcons’ decision to sign quarterback Kirk Cousins to a four-year deal.

“Excited for (Cousins) agreeing to a 4 year deal with the (Falcons),” Cousins’ agent, Mike McCartney, wrote in a post on X. ESPN then reported that the contract was worth $180 million, with $100 million guaranteed.

Cousins, 35, heads to his third NFL team. He has thrown for 39,471 yards with 270 TDs and 110 interceptions in 150 career games (145 starts) over 12 seasons with the Washington Commanders (2012-17) and the Minnesota Vikings (2018-23).

–Star running back Saquon Barkley is switching allegiances in the NFC East, agreeing to a three-year, $37.75 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, according to multiple media reports.

Barkley’s contract could be valued as high as $46.75 million and features $26 million fully guaranteed at signing, per ESPN.

In six seasons with the New York Giants, the 27-year-old Barkley amassed 5,211 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns in 74 games (all starts). He added 2,100 yards and 12 TDs on 288 catches.

As a countermove, the Giants reportedly agreed to a three-year, $16.5 million deal with Devin Singletary. They also reportedly added to their offensive line, bringing in guard Jon Runyan on a three-year deal worth $30 million.

On the defensive side, multiple reports indicated that the Giants acquired edge rusher Brian Burns in a trade with the Carolina Panthers. Burns, a two-time Pro Bowler, will be signing a five-year deal with the Giants worth up to $150 million, per the reports. He will get $87.5 million guaranteed.

–Free agent running back Austin Ekeler agreed to a two-year contract with the Commanders, according to multiple media reports.

NFL Network and The Athletic reported the deal to be worth up to $11.43 million.

Ekeler, 28, will be reuniting with Washington running backs coach and run game coordinator Anthony Lynn, who was head coach of the Chargers from 2017-20. Ekeler has spent all seven seasons of his NFL career with Los Angeles (2017-23), rushing for 628 yards and five touchdowns across 14 games (all starts) in 2023.

–The Green Bay Packers also bolstered their backfield, bringing in running back Josh Jacobs on a four-year deal, according to multiple media reports.

NFL Network reported Jacobs’ deal to be worth $48 million. The 26-year-old led the NFL in rushing in 2022 with 1,653 yards before settling for 805 last season.

Jacobs’ arrival reportedly led to the release of fellow running back Aaron Jones. Jones, 29, had 656 yards and found the end zone twice on the ground a season ago. He also had 30 receptions for 233 yards and a score. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari was also released after 11 seasons with the Packers.

ESPN reported that Green Bay also agreed to a four-year deal worth up to $68 million with safety Xavier McKinney. Jacobs and McKinney were teammates at Alabama.

–Wideout Michael Pittman Jr. is staying with the Indianapolis Colts, with Bleacher Report and NFL Network reporting that he agreed to a three-year, $71.5 million contract.

Pittman, 26, hauled in 109 catches for 1,152 yards — both career highs — in 2023. He had four TDs despite having little time to build rapport with rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, who was limited to just four games due to a shoulder injury.

–The Bengals could be heading into the 2024 campaign with a new-look offense, as multiple reports indicated that wide receiver Tee Higgins requested a trade before it was later reported that Cincinnati had released running back Joe Mixon.

Higgins had been hit with the franchise tag, but he was growing frustrated with the team because of a lack of effort to sign him to a contract extension, per the reports.

–With Ekeler on his way to Washington, the Chargers reportedly agreed to terms with running back Gus Edwards. Financial details of the two-year contract were not released.

–Running back D’Andre Swift is also on the move, agreeing to a three-year deal, $24 million with the Chicago Bears, according to multiple media reports.

–Kicker Greg Zuerlein reportedly will be returning to the New York Jets for a third season, agreeing to a two-year, $8.4 million deal.

–Just one day after trading former first-round pick Mac Jones to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New England Patriots are reportedly adding to their depth under center by way of a reunion with quarterback Jacoby Brissett.

Brissett agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal, but NFL Network reported that incentives could bump the contract up to $12 million.

–In addition to the splash it made by agreeing to a deal with Barkley, Philadelphia also went out and reportedly signed left guard Landon Dickerson to a four-year extension worth $84 million. The deal includes $50 million guaranteed.

–Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins will get a four-year, $110 million contract from the Las Vegas Raiders, according to NFL Network. Wilkins spent the first five seasons of his career in Miami, but the Dolphins opted not to use the franchise tag on him.

Miami did, however, reportedly bring back left tackle Terron Armstead, and former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Jordyn Brooks agreed to a three-year deal with the Dolphins worth $30 million, per reports.

–With the end of the Derrick Henry era likely on the horizon, the Tennessee Titans agreed to a three-year, $24 million deal with running back Tony Pollard, according to multiple media reports.

–Field Level Media

Feb 5, 2024; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Lucas Niang (77) draws on the stomach of Guillermo Rodriguez Super Bowl LVIII Opening Night at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Night notebook: Blue Man Group and Taylor talk

LAS VEGAS — Shenanigans are the name of the game at Opening Night, a Super Bowl custom unlike any other.

Andy Reid’s press conference opened with a question from a vastly younger lookalike wearing Chiefs paraphernalia, a mustache, headset and holding a color-coded playsheet in front of his face.

The “Blue Man Group” troop that kicked off the three-hour, made-for-TV session marched from player to player to pose for selfies.

Guillermo Rodriguez, a TV personality from “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” interviewed players and then handed them a sharpie as he revealed a grid of Super Bowl score squares on his bare belly.

Chiefs safety Justin Reid took the bait, and the marker, before signing his name on the man’s gut.

“This is crazy,” Justin Reid said.

SOUND MEN

The 49ers hit the field carrying an oversized boom box typically controlled by left tackle Trent Williams.

Williams said he wouldn’t give away any decisions yet, but said NBA YoungBoy has been the team’s sound during the entirety of their playoff run.

“As long as we keep winning, we keep the music the same,” Williams said.

TAYLOR TALK

Chiefs cornerback Trent McDuffie was stumped when asked for his favorite Taylor Swift song, and head coach Andy Reid drew a blank, too.

“Nothing from me. Travis (Kelce) knows a few,” Reid said with a chuckle. “My wife knows them. She can sing all of them.”

BOOK OF ISIAH

Plenty has been written about seventh-round pick and Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 NFL Draft Brock Purdy lifting the 49ers back to the Super Bowl. Don’t forget about Isiah Pacheco.

The Chiefs’ second-year running back was selected 11 spots ahead of Purdy. On Sunday in Super Bowl LVIII, Pacheco would become the first player at his position to start Super Bowls in each of his first two pro seasons since Tony Dorsett in 1977-78 with the Dallas Cowboys.

“I’m not surprised, not surprised to be here,” said Pacheco, who unseated first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire after entering the league as the 251st overall pick. “I would say this was all predetermined, destined. I am meant to be here.”

MEET ME IN MURFREESBORO

At least three players at Super Bowl LVIII can find Murfreesboro on the U.S. map.

The Tennessee town and location of Middle Tennessee State University has been home to 49ers Pro Bowl cornerback Charvarius Ward and Chiefs linebacker Darius Harris and wide receiver Richie James, who stretch the streak of Super Bowls with former Blue Raiders on the field to five in a row.

Ward, who broke into the NFL with the Chiefs in 2018 and signed with the 49ers as a free agent in March 2022, played against James (then with San Francisco) when the teams squared off in Super Bowl LIV.

“It’s better over here,” Ward said. “In every way.”

Ward, whose Chiefs team claimed the title four years ago, wouldn’t say that Kansas City made a mistake letting him go.

“But it was a great addition for the 49ers,” Ward said.

Ward was undrafted and signed out of college by the Cowboys in 2018, then was traded to the Chiefs during his rookie training camp.

–Field Level Media

Dec 1, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Washington Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) celebrate after the Pac-12 Championship game against the Oregon Ducks Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

CFP notebook: Washington can give Pac-12 a champion’s farewell

The College Football Playoff title game against Michigan is Washington’s final contest as a member of the Pac-12.

The Huskies move into the Big Ten next season, and one of their nine conference games in their debut season will be against Michigan.

The Wolverines are scheduled to visit the Huskies in Seattle on Oct. 5.

“Certainly, they’re on our schedule a year from now and it’s a whole different deal that we’ll be involved with as far as a new conference,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. “I think this year where we’re at right now in the season, this is all about really us representing the Pac-12 and going to win a national championship for our program and finishing off this season for this group of guys that have worked really hard.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is trying to keep the rematch as a topic for another time.

“Yeah, I guess I have thought about that,” Harbaugh said of the 2024 matchup. “I’m thinking more about the here and now for sure.”

–While Harbaugh repeatedly taps around questions regarding Michigan sign-stealing allegations, quarterback J.J. McCarthy made some pointed comments this week involving the team’s fiercest rival while trying to defend the Wolverines.

“I also feel like it’s so unfortunate because there’s probably — I don’t want to say a crazy number, but I’d say a good number — 80 percent of the teams in college football steal signs,” McCarthy said. “It’s just a thing about football. It’s been around for years.

“We actually had to adapt because in 2020 or 2019 when Ohio State was stealing our signs, which is legal and they were doing it, we had to get up to the level that they were at, and we had to make it an even playing field.”

Harbaugh was suspended for the final three games of the regular season due to the issue. The NCAA is still investigating the situation.

Harbaugh also served a three-game suspension at the outset of the season for his role in NCAA violations involving recruiting and coaching time.

Michigan players continue to say that suspensions and scrutiny of the program have been fuel for their success.

“Things happen along the way that don’t kind of fall into place,” Wolverines defensive tackle Mason Graham said. “We’ve overcome a lot of adversity this season. I’ve felt like it’s brought us closer together, and I think everyone is starting to see this in the outside world.”

–Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has received considerable acclaim for a stellar season that includes being named Heisman Trophy runner-up.

His top receiver, Rome Odunze, operates in a relative vacuum despite setting a program record with 1,553 receiving yards, third-most in Pac-12 history. Odunze also has 87 receptions and needs eight catches on Monday to set that school mark as well.

“I think a big thing is his consistency,” Penix said of Odunze. “You see that each and every week on a consistent basis. He doesn’t just do it on game day, either. He shows up in practice, always giving the best looks, the best reps that he can to help his team, and that’s what I think makes him so special.”

Odunze had six receptions for 125 yards in the CFP semifinal win against Texas. The 100-yard outing was his 10th of the season.

–Michigan running back Blake Corum’s decisive touchdown against Alabama in the Rose Bowl was his 56th career rushing score, snapping a tie with Anthony Thomas (55 from 1997-2000) for the school record.

Corum is second in Michigan history with 354 career points, tied with former kicker Garrett Rivas (2003-06). Former kicker Jake Moody (2018-22) holds the school mark of 355.

–Field Level Media

September 22, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Around the League: Rams WR Cooper Kupp, Chiefs TE Travis Kelce hurt

Travis Kelce hyperextended his knee in practice two days before the Kansas City Chiefs begin defense of their Super Bowl title.

The All-Pro caught 110 passes for 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2022, but the Chiefs are maneuvering the game plan with the expectation Kelce will be on the sideline when the Detroit Lions arrive at Arrowhead Field on Thursday night.

“We’ll just see how he does moving forward,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said.

Kelce went down during a red-zone installation period in practice.

There was no sign of star defensive tackle Chris Jones on Tuesday, scuttling reports the contract holdout could end before Week 1. Reid said there was nothing new to report with Jones.

–Cowboys owner confident Dak Prescott is secure in Dallas

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stirred a bit of drama when he said he unilaterally pulled the trigger on acquiring backup quarterback Trey Lance from the San Francisco 49ers.

Jones doesn’t believe the acquisition changes anything for quarterback Dak Prescott and said the plan remains to work toward another long-term extension with his starting quarterback.

“Those contracts, those types of numbers, especially the big ones, you live with constantly,” Jones told 105.3 FM The Fan on Tuesday. “That’s always on your mind. There’s never a time where it goes away. We expect Dak to be with us a long time.”

–Steelers expect 49ers holdout Nick Bosa to play Sunday

NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa remains a holdout, working out away from the San Francisco 49ers for the past five weeks while hoping for a new contract.

Even as 49ers general manager John Lynch casts doubt on Bosa reporting to the team, passing a physical, practicing and playing at Pittsburgh on Sunday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin implored his team to expect the All-Pro on the field.

“That’s what those guys do,” Tomlin said, drawing parallels to the 2021 holdout of J.J. Watt that ended the week of the opener. “They show up and they are who they are, and so we expect him to be there as a prudent approach to take. And if he’s going to be there, we know the type of player that he intends on being, and so that’s something to be dealt with.”

–Kupp of woe for Rams

Cooper Kupp is trending the wrong direction in Los Angeles. Head coach Sean McVay said the Rams’ top receiver had a setback in his recovery from a strained hamstring and spent multiple days with a specialist in Minnesota this week.

His status for Week 1 at Seattle is in doubt. Van Jefferson would rise to the No. 1 receiver role on the depth chart if Kupp doesn’t play.

Kupp, 30, was first injured in a training-camp practice Aug. 2, leaving the field 30 minutes into a workout. He was originally expected to be out 1-2 weeks but he missed all three preseason games.

Kupp played nine games last season before a season-ending ankle injury but led the NFL in receptions (145), yards (1,947) and touchdowns (16) in 2021.

The Rams are set to open the season Sept. 10 at Seattle, leaving little time for the 2021 All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection to resume on-field work.

–Bears list Nathan Peterman as No. 2

Nathan Peterman is the backup quarterback to Justin Fields on the depth chart released by the Chicago Bears on Tuesday.

Peterman is ahead of rookie Tyler Bagent, the rookie Division II product who excelled in preseason to win a roster spot. Bagent is No. 3 but remains on the active roster.

Bears head coach Matt Eberflus said Peterman, who was on the practice squad most of last season, is an asset to Fields.

“Him and Justin learned the offense together, so to speak, so they’re speaking the same language. They understand it really well. I think it’s good to have him in the room,” Eberflus said.

–Field Level Media

Jan 21, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs against the New York Giants during an NFC divisional round game at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Notebook: Eagles QB Jalen Hurts not discussing MVP possibility

Jalen Hurts isn’t overly concerned with being one of the five finalists for NFL MVP honors.

The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback has gone from being viewed as a liability as a passer to one of the top players in the game. But if you want to discuss his rise to greatness, Hurts isn’t going to partake in the discussion.

“It’s not the time for me to reflect on that because I’m not done,” Hurts said in a press conference.

Hurts passed for 3,701 yards and 22 touchdowns against six interceptions and rushed for 760 yards and 13 scores during the regular season.

Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is happy to pump up Hurts’ candidacy.

“His body of work speaks for itself. He’s had a phenomenal year,” Sirianni said. “Now, I get to watch him. I’m biased, right? I get to watch every one of his games and correct every one of his games. Obviously, I know there are other players who are playing good as well.

“I hope Jalen wins it because you want that for your players. And he’s had a great year but there are other people deserving as well. He’s just going to continue going about his business.”

The other finalists are Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson.

–The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Kansas City Chiefs three times during the 2022 calendar year — including last season’s AFC Championship Game — and tensions are high entering Sunday’s matchup.

Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. insisted his team doesn’t engage in trash talk. The next question referenced what impresses Gay about the Cincinnati offense and he replied, “Nothing.” A short time later, unprompted, he again said “nothing.”

Some Chiefs, including tight end Travis Kelce, were upset when Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton referred to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium as “Burrowhead.”

Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates III also had a shot in regards to Mahomes’ injured right ankle. “I hope that he is 100 percent healthy so there is no excuses,” Bates said.

–Kansas City receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) practiced Thursday on a limited basis for the second straight day. Hardman was injured in Week 9 and sustained an injury setback earlier this month. Mahomes was a full practice participant for the second straight day.

For Cincinnati, left tackle Jonah Williams (knee) and right guard Alex Cappa (ankle) again sat out practice on Thursday. If both players again sit out the game, it would again leave the Bengals without three offensive line starters. Right tackle La’el Collins (knee) was recently lost for the season.

Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst (calf) was added to Thursday’s injury report. He was a limited practice participant.

In the NFC, San Francisco running backs Christian McCaffrey (calf) and Elijah Mitchell (groin) both missed practice for the second straight day. Coach Kyle Shanahan expects both to play Sunday.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (foot), who isn’t expected to suit up, also sat out for the second straight day. Receiver Deebo Samuel and cornerback Ambry Thomas were both limited due to ankle injuries.

Defensive end Charles Omenihu (oblique) also was limited. Omenihu was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence earlier this week but Shanahan said he will play if healthy.

Philadelphia listed offensive tackle Lane Johnson (groin) and cornerback Avonte Maddox (toe) as limited for the second straight day.

–Field Level Media

Jan 9, 2023; Inglewood, CA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) holds the trophy after winning the CFP national championship game against the TCU Horned Frogs at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

CFP title game notebook: Georgia makes history with blowout

It didn’t even take a full half for Georgia to show that it was eager to defend its national championship against a TCU squad that was looking to cap a magical season on a high note.

The Bulldogs took just 21 1/2 minutes to establish a 24-7 lead, went into intermission up by 31 and went on to finish with the most points in a College Football Playoff title game, downing the Horned Frogs 65-7 to become the first-ever back-to-back CFP champions.

After being picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 Preseason Poll, TCU exceeded expectations to become the first team to represent the conference on the biggest stage.

However, the Horned Frogs were unable to oust the top team in the nation at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., where a number of players featured in Monday’s game could be spending a handful of their Sundays next season.

–The 58-point drubbing marked the largest margin of victory in a bowl game in college football history. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the win is also the second-largest margin over a top-five opponent, taking the back seat to No. 1 Army’s 59-0 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame back in 1944.

–Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett was stellar, completing 18 of 25 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy finalist also rushed for a pair of scores to finish with six total, matching Joe Burrow’s CFP championship game record, which was set in 2020.

–Quarterback Max Duggan provided TCU’s only points, scoring on a 2-yard keeper with 4:45 left in the first quarter. The TD pulled the Horned Frogs within 10-7, but the Bulldogs went on to rattle off 55 unanswered points.

–Prior to Monday, TCU had scored at least 28 points in 13 of 14 games this season. In the other game — a win against Texas on Nov. 12 — the Horned Frogs totaled 17, but hadn’t scored less than 10 since a 24-6 loss to West Virginia on Nov. 14, 2020.

–Defensive back Javon Bullard was a defensive catalyst for Georgia in the first half, picking off Duggan twice and also recovering a fumble. He didn’t play in the second half, though, due to a shoulder injury.

–The Bulldogs outgained TCU 589-188 and picked up 32 first downs to the Horned Frogs’ nine. TCU’s offense was especially stagnant following the break, totaling just 67 yards, only 12 of which came on the ground.

–“As long as you don’t have entitlement in your program, you got a shot,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “And right now we don’t have that. It’s creeping — games like tonight make it that way — but we got a lot of humble guys.”

–Many sportsbooks had the over/under of Monday’s game at 62.5. Georgia covered the over by itself when Branson Robinson rushed for a 19-yard TD with 7:23 left to play.

–Field Level Media

Feb 13, 2022; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) celebrates after a pressure in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl notebook: Aaron Donald bolsters stellar career with title

Entering Sunday, Aaron Donald had been a Rookie of the Year, a Pro Bowler, an All-Pro selection and a Defensive Player of the Year.

By day’s end, he had earned a new distinction: Super Bowl champion.

Donald, the standout defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, recorded two of his team’s seven sacks in Super Bowl LVI, helping to secure a 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He made several big plays down the stretch to punctuate what has been one of the greatest careers by a defensive player in NFL history.

“I’m just so happy,” Donald told NBC following the game. “I wanted this so bad. I dreamed this. Man, I dreamed this. And it’s surreal. Look at this. I feel amazing. I feel amazing.”

With the game on the line in the final minute, Donald broke through the Bengals’ offensive line and wrapped up quarterback Joe Burrow, who flung a desperation fourth-down pass that fell incomplete.

“One last play to be world champs. Give it everything you got, and I found a way to get to him,” Donald said. “We made a play and we won. That’s all that matters.”

Now it remains to be seen if Donald, who reportedly was considering retirement if Los Angeles won the title, will walk away as a champion, or if he’ll return for a ninth season with the Rams.

“I’m in the moment. I’m just going to enjoy right now with these guys,” Donald said. “My kids (are coming) on the field. This is a promise I made to my daughter when she was 5. We’re going to play in the confetti for a minute and live in the moment.”

–Rams safety Eric Weddle said after the game that he believes he tore his pec early in the contest. A postgame report by ESPN confirmed the injury, which often is a season-ending ailment for most players.

The six-time Pro Bowler was lured out of retirement last month to rejoin Los Angeles for its Super Bowl push. The 37-year-old Weddle finished Sunday’s game with five tackles, earning the first — and, as it appears, the only — championship of his career.

“I am re-retiring,” Weddle announced after the game. “Back to my daily life.”

–Cincinnati earned its spot in the Super Bowl, emerging from one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions and then defeating the Las Vegas Raiders, Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs, with the final two victories coming as road upsets.

The Bengals then held the talented Rams offense to 313 total yards in the Super Bowl before falling in the final two minutes of the game.

Still, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie commented postgame that Sunday’s loss, while tough, is merely the beginning of things to come.

“Our heads are still high. We know who we are,” Awuzie said. “I’m really excited about the future.”

–Field Level Media

Feb 11, 2022; Thousand Oaks, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth during press conference at Cal Lutheran University. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rams notebook: Andrew Whitworth calls on peers to aid in community

If playing left tackle in the Super Bowl at age 40 weren’t impressive enough, Andrew Whitworth just raised the stakes even higher.

The Los Angeles Rams veteran was selected as the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year on Thursday night, the top off-field honor an NFL player can receive.

One day later, Whitworth said he figured out he was the winning recipient prior to the announcement. He said multiple NFL personnel members approached him to see if his speech was ready.

Regardless, he was honored to win the prestigious award, which recognizes “outstanding community service activities off the field, as well as excellence on it.” Whitworth is dedicated to numerous causes in Southern California and his native Louisiana related to housing insecurity and financial inequities.

“Our game is driven by the fans and the communities that pay attention and watch and buy jerseys and come to games,” Whitworth said Friday. “In the ways I give back to my communities, it shows my respect for the communities. … I believe in paying forward. To me, community service is important.”

Whitworth has spent the past five seasons with the Rams after playing his first 11 seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals — Los Angeles’ opponent in Super Bowl LVI.

Rams coach Sean McVay said he is just in awe of Whitworth’s accomplishments.

“I can’t say enough about what he has meant to me personally as a coach and a person,” McVay said. “I’m so grateful for him. He’s been an instrumental part in everything that is right about the Rams the last five years.”

During his acceptance speech on Thursday night, Whitworth called on his peers to step up their level of community service.

“It’s called an investment,” Whitworth said. “You can apply these three things to any charity or cause you have a passion for. You can invest your time, you can invest your finances or you can invest your voice. Doesn’t matter which, we just have to keep investing in each other. Let your heart lead you all the way.”

Whitworth doesn’t yet know if he will play a 17th NFL season. He said he would talk to him family after the Super Bowl.

“I’ve cried wolf so many times, they may not want to listen,” Whitworth said per past retirement conservations. “At some point, it will actually happen.”

–The Rams placed tight end Tyler Higbee (knee) and offensive tackle Joe Noteboom (chest) on injured reserve Friday, ending their seasons.

Higbee was injured against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and his chances of playing didn’t sound good after McVay said Monday that he wouldn’t practice all week. Noteboom was injured one week earlier in the divisional round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Los Angeles activated running back Darrell Henderson Jr. (knee) and defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day (pectoral) from IR.

–With Henderson set to play Sunday for the first time since being injured in Week 16, the Rams suddenly have what McVay termed the “full arsenal” in backfield options.

Cam Akers returned from a July Achilles injury during the final week of the regular season and has carried the ball 54 times for 151 yards in the playoffs. Sony Michel led the Rams in the regular season with 845 rushing yards and Henderson had 688.

McVay believes it is a good dilemma and said the Rams would go with the “hot hand.”

McVay has seen Michel stand out on the Super Bowl stage but from the opposite side. As a rookie, Michel carried 18 times for 94 yards and one score when the New England Patriots notched a 13-3 victory over Rams in the Super Bowl after the 2018 season.

Akers is just happy to be a part of this game after a surprisingly fast rehab period.

“I knew the chance was real of going to the Super Bowl,” Akers said of his commitment to return this season. “I knew we had a good chance of going. I knew we had a good chance of making that run, and I wanted to be a part of it. I’m blessed to be able to.”

–Rams safety Eric Weddle is playing in his final NFL game after a return to the club following two seasons of retirement.

Earlier this week, Weddle detailed how he was doing nothing but sitting on the couch last month prior to getting the call from Los Angeles to see if he was fit enough to play.

However, people familiar with Weddle knew his lap wasn’t empty when he was sitting on the couch. After all, this is the same NFL star who has fessed up to eating a gallon of ice cream after victories.

Thus, it’s no surprise what Weddle’s post-Super Bowl routine will be like.

“I’m going to do nothing but ice cream celebrations for a week to make up for these last five weeks,” Weddle said Friday in reference to his time with the Rams. “I will make up for it when it is all said and done. The celebrations will happen.”

–Field Level Media

Jan 22, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah (87) celebrates after the Bengals defeated the Tennessee Titans 19-16 during the AFC Divisional playoff football game at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Notebook: Bengals’ C.J. Uzomah, Jackson Carman on track for Super Bowl

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor told reporters Friday that tight end C.J. Uzomah was on track to play in Super Bowl LVI Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams in Inglewood, Calif.

The Bengals listed Uzomah as questionable for the contest. The team said he was a full practice participant.

Uzomah, in his seventh year with the Bengals, suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee during the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs and did not return to practice until Thursday, when he was a limited participant.

Uzomah had said throughout the week that he would not miss the biggest game of his life. The 29-year-old had 49 catches for 493 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season — all career highs — and added 13 receptions for 135 yards and a score in three playoff games.

Taylor also revealed a bit more about injured rookie Jackson Carman, a second-round pick who made six starts at right guard in the regular season. Carman was limited in Wednesday’s practice due to a back injury but was at full participation the past two days.

The coach told reporters that they had seen enough from Carman to believe he could start at right guard. But when pressed if that was the team’s plan, he replied, “We’ll see.”

Hakeem Adeniji would be in line to start if Carman does not.

–Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase and Los Angeles’ Cooper Kupp each earned some hardware at Thursday night’s NFL Honors awards show. Chase won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year title, while Kupp was named Offensive Player of the Year.

Chase ranked fourth in the NFL in receiving yards and third in touchdowns receptions, but his terrific season did not stop him from admiring Kupp and his receiving triple crown (leading the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdowns).

“Cooper Kupp’s game is like magic, man,” Chase said. “The way he plays, the way he gets in and out of his cuts, the way he sets defenders up, it’s just crazy. … He’s at a level that I want to make.”

Chase also joked that it will be great to finally watch star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. in person. The three-time Pro Bowler has been considered one of the league’s most talented receivers since he entered the league in 2014 and is now on his third team. Both Chase and Beckham are LSU products.

“I hope (Bengals cornerback) Eli Apple does his thing of course,” Chase added, referring to his teammate assigned to cover Beckham. “But it’s gonna be a lot of fun watching this game.”

–The Bengals’ most famous No. 85 never played in a Super Bowl, but wide receiver Tee Higgins will carry Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson’s jersey number onto the field on Sunday.

Higgins wanted there to be a 5 in his NFL jersey number after wearing the single digit in college. But before the NFL changed its rules governing jersey numbers in 2021, that limited Higgins to 15 or 85. When the Bengals drafted Higgins in 2020, No. 15 was taken.

“I hit up Chad on Twitter,” Higgins explained Friday. “I was like, ‘With all due respect, I would like to ask you if it would be cool if I wear 85.’ He was just like, ‘Yeah, man, go ahead! It would be an honor for you to wear it.’ I picked the number and the rest is history.”

But Higgins may still change his jersey to No. 5 after this year, now that the league is allowing receivers and tight ends to wear any number from 1-49 and 80-89.

–The mayors of Cincinnati and Los Angeles announced their Super Bowl bet Friday morning. In addition to a traditional component, in which the mayor of the losing city will wear the winning team’s jersey during a press conference, the winning city and team also will make a donation to a children’s hospital in the losing city.

In a TV interview, Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval was asked if the city’s decision to give its schoolchildren Monday off was contingent on the Bengals winning the game.

“Your question is irrelevant, because we’re going to win,” Pureval said, tongue in cheek. “We will have the school day off. We’re planning a Super Bowl parade already.”

–Field Level Media

Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Los Angeles Rams punter Johnny Hekker (6) against Green Bay Packers during the NFC Divisional Round at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Notebook: Rams P Johnny Hekker would be happy with quiet Super Bowl

Johnny Hekker has been part of the Rams’ organization for 10 seasons, the first four when the franchise was housed in St. Louis before moving to Los Angeles.

But six months ago, the four-time Pro Bowl punter was a bit concerned over whether he would remain a member of the Rams. He was sidelined due to COVID-19 and was mighty concerned when his competition, Corey Bojorquez, boomed a 67-yard punt in a late August preseason game against the Denver Broncos.

“I was at home with COVID watching the preseason game from Denver and I felt my heart sink and thought he might have solidified the job for him,” Hekker said. “I turned off the game at halftime. I’ll say that now.”

The concern proved to be for naught. Hekker ended up keeping the job when the Rams dealt Bojorquez to the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 31.

Hekker will punt in his second Super Bowl when the Rams face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. He averaged 46.3 yards on nine punts during a 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in the 2018 Super Bowl.

The 32-year-old will be happy if he’s not so busy this time around.

“It’s a joy to sit there and watch,” Hekker said. “I really relish those games with one or two punts and watching our offense go up and down the field and score points.”

Hekker also said his arm is ready if needed. He has completed 14 of 23 fake-punt throws — including one for a touchdown — in the regular season and he is 1 for 1 in the postseason.

When it was pointed out his long completion is 23 yards, Hekker said, “I fancy myself as a good deep ball thrower so I need to pump that up.”

–Rams coach Sean McVay couldn’t resist poking fun when a reporter asked what the feeling was like when he was on the losing side in the 2018 Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.

“You’re the first person to ask me this the whole entire week,” McVay cracked. “Not really.”

McVay has been asked about the situation each day and he has continued to accept responsibility for not functioning at his best in the 13-3 loss to the Patriots.

“That was a very humbling, hard night,” McVay said. “When you feel as a coach that you didn’t pull your weight, that’s a hard thing.

“That memory will always stick with me. It bothers me but some of the worst things that happen to you can turn into one of your better blessings. It gives you an appreciation for how hard it is to finish this game.”

–The Rams practiced at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Thursday due to high winds at their practice site in Thousand Oaks. It was an approximate 45-mile drive each way.

The iconic stadium proved to be a good place for quarterback Matthew Stafford. McVay said the 13-year veteran had a top-notch practice.

“That’s what we wanted,” McVay said. “What kind of game it ends up being will dictate exactly what plays that we will run. But he did a great job, found a lot of completions, got a lot of guys involved. That’s what we wanted to do.”

Stafford has guided the Rams to three wins this postseason after being 0-3 in the playoffs during 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.

–Los Angeles tight end Tyler Higbee (knee) didn’t practice Thursday and his availability for Sunday remains undetermined. Higbee was injured in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 30.

Offensive lineman Joe Noteboom (chest) was a limited practice participant. His status also is up in the air.

Running back Cam Akers (shoulder) was a full participant and he is expected to start Sunday.

–Field Level Media