Nobody parties like the Saints, and that's exactly what Sean Payton wants. The days of Gronk may be nearing an end. And the Rams may have found a lottery ticket in C.J. Anderson. All that and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.
1. Ain't no party like a Saints party
There may not be a coach left in these playoffs better suited to his team and this time than the Saints' Sean Payton.
For one, he is perhaps the best play-caller in the league, and maybe one of the best of all time.
And second, he has the pulse of his locker room.
In many ways, these two are intertwined. One of the things that makes Payton such a good coach is his meticulousness, which shows in his play-calling as well as in how hard he works to know his players. Nothing escapes his attention, and that includes postgame celebrations in the locker room.
They have become raucous affairs and some of the more fun things to watch. There are disco balls and smoke. It's incredible.
But the partying also has a purpose.
Players live extraordinarily regimented lives, and Payton wants them to have a moment for themselves when they can just let everything go. Allowing players their own space is as important as demanding their time and attention.
Many coaches fail to get this. They believe allowing players to blow off some steam in this manner means you've lost control of your team. Payton knows it's the opposite. It unifies the players.
"I think the little things MATTER," Payton said in a note to me, emphasis his. "Details! So the only time a team can enjoy wins together is from the moment a game ends until they leave the stadium."
So the players can celebrate for basically 24 hours, and then it's on to the next game. But Payton makes sure that before they move on, they enjoy the moment. That they really enjoy the moment.
How did it all start? Payton said it began with "a small investment for a real nice sound system."
Then they got a higher quality one the week they played at Cincinnati in November, a game won by the Saints, 51-14.
"When the upgraded system debuted in Cincy," Payton wrote to me, "they went crazy!! Add lights, smoke, etc."
What Payton has done is blend the professional and the exuberant. He gets the most from his players, and then allows them to enjoy the aftermath. Again, some coaches are simply not good at this.
I've seen plenty of celebrating in locker rooms but never anything like the Saints'. Not only do the players seem to love it, but it's also become almost a post-win tradition.
Payton, who can dance a little himself, gets it. He long has, on a number of different levels. It's his greatest strength as a coach, and why his Saints may be the most together team left in these playoffs.
2. Is this the end for Gronk?
There have been several reports in recent years that tight end Rob Gronkowski was considering retirement. The latest was from the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, who said Gronkowski "will strongly consider" retiring after this season comes to an end.
It would make sense. Gronkowski has looked sluggish and broken at times this season. He looked better against the Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs and was instrumental in the win, but overall, he's looked a step slow.
What does Gronkowski say?
"I was focused on L.A. the whole game, and it's going to be the same thing this week," he told reporters after the game. "I'm all-in right now. We've got the Kansas City Chiefs now. It's going to be another week of preparation, and I haven't thought about anything like that, so just got to go all-in, keep our focus and keep on doing what we've got to do, and I've got to keep on doing what I've got to do to help this team out to win next week."
That wasn't a no. It wasn't a yes, either, but it feels, to me, like this is the first time Gronkowski is seriously considering leaving the game.
3. You get a TD! And you get a TD! And you get a TD!
While there have been some remarkable defensive games this season, this year has largely been about the explosion in scoring, and that has carried into the playoffs.
As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out, this is the first time in the Super Bowl era the four highest-scoring teams reached the conference title games:
We are in a different era in football.
4. Much ado about nothing
Yes, the Saints are one of those four highest-scoring teams in the conference title games, but it's also true the Saints haven't been blowing teams out the same way they did earlier in the year.
But there's a reason for that: They've faced tougher competition.
Their final six regular-season games were against division rivals (the Falcons, Bucs and two against the Panthers), the Steelers (who almost made the playoffs) and the Cowboys (who did).
If you exclude Week 17, when the Saints sat a number of starters, they went 4-1, losing only to Dallas. And while they had to grind out a 20-14 win over the Eagles, let's not pretend the defending Super Bowl champions were some fluke.
Are they blowing out teams by 30? No. Are they winning? Yes. That's all that matters.
5. Winter is here
The National Weather Service is forecasting temperatures ranging from 10 degrees to below zero at kickoff for the AFC title game in Kansas City. The only thing that will be missing are sled dogs and Andorians.
A nonscientific poll of several assistant coaches showed the cold weather will give the Patriots a slight advantage. Why? A slick field is likely to cut down the number of explosive plays quarterback Patrick Mahomes can make.
Not sure I buy that. I'm not sure anything short of polar bears can stop Mahomes.
Before I discount the coaches' view, they also noted that while Mahomes' play in bad weather is a bit of an unknown, Tom Brady's is not. He's often played in miserably cold weather in big playoff spots (breaking news: it gets cold in New England), and the coaches don't think the cold will bother Brady at all. In fact, they think Brady prospers in it.
6. For sale: Elite QB
One player to watch as the season closes and teams start to focus on free agency is Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
With the emergence of Lamar Jackson, Flacco isn't likely to be back in Baltimore. Should the Ravens release him instead of paying him almost $27 million to be a backup, there will be enough teams looking for steady quarterback play to make Flacco one of the most highly pursued assets of the offseason. At age 34, Flacco clearly has lost a little bit on his fastball, but the options are slim for those teams looking for help in the draft or free agency.
That being the case, it looks to be a good offseason if you've proved to be a capable passer, which is why Flacco and Nick Foles (assuming the Eagles do not pick up his $20 million option for next season), and, hell, even Ryan Tannehill, are likely to have no shortage of options. In a league desperate for competence at quarterback, competence may be all that's available.
7. The Rams' secret weapon
It's been an interesting year for running back C.J. Anderson. He was cut by the Broncos in April. Signed by the Panthers in May. Cut by the Panthers in November. Signed by the Raiders in December. Cut by the Raiders a week later. And signed by the Rams a week before Christmas.
Now he finds himself in the NFC title game after rushing for 422 yards and four touchdowns in three games with the Rams. To put it mildly, he's been one of the most game-changing players of this season.
Former Colts player Reggie Wayne, on the NFL Network, broke down Anderson's value:
Anderson won't be easy to deal with for a Saints team that already has to figure out what to do with Todd Gurley and a good Rams passing offense. And if the last few weeks are any indication, Anderson may have as much of an impact on the game as any other player in it.
8. Is the title window closed for Philip Rivers?
The Chargers quarterback is likely a Hall of Famer. He ranks eighth in career passing yards (54,656) and sixth in career touchdowns (374).
But I wonder if we'll ever see him wearing a Super Bowl ring. He's 37 in an AFC that is younger and more brutal than ever. Not to mention Brady hasn't retired yet, either.
Rivers is well aware of how hard it is to just make the playoffs, let alone make a run in them.
"I only think I appreciated it as the more years I've been in it, that's how hard it is to get back to right where we were [Sunday]," he said, via Ricky Henne of Chargers.com. "It's not just like, 'Alright, we'll get them next year.' It's like, 'That was a heck of a task to get to where we were, winning 13 games.' I think as long as we acknowledge that and don't just think that it's going to happen—because I remember early in my career [in] 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, we were in. You have a shot, you have a shot, you have a shot, you have a shot, and then when that dries up a little bit, you realize how hard it was to do."
It won't be easy next year. It may not be easy ever again for Rivers. That doesn't mean he doesn't deserve a spot in Canton, but it probably means he'll go in with a little less jewelry than he might have once imagined.
9. Big money
If you want to understand why the state of New Jersey aggressively pursued legal sports gambling, you only need to look at these numbers, via ESPN.com's Ben Fawkes:
And it's only the beginning. The monetary returns for states will continue to grow, and it won't stop in New Jersey, of course. We're going to see this across the country. Gambling is huge already, but its increasing legality means there will be many billions, if not hundreds of billions, generated.
There are still numerous questions to answer from how will all this money be spent by the states to what safeguards will leagues put in place to prevent malfeasance?
This is all so new, and, potentially, so dangerous.
10. Everyone could use a hug
It's difficult to put into words how much it means to players that Doug Pederson greeted each of the Eagles individually after their loss to the Saints in the divisional round. It's special, but also typical Pederson.
Agents and players both have told me Pederson has become a major draw for free agents. He is seen as someone who understands players. That may not trump the biggest factor in free agency—money—but it doesn't hurt if someone is torn on his decision.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.