The greatest NFL playoff weekend ever

The 2021 NFL season featured unprecedented parity and a record number of walk-offs. This weekend was more of the same — and then some.

Why it matters: For the first time in NFL history, all four Divisional Round games ended in walk-off fashion. It was, quite simply, the greatest playoff weekend ever.

  • Chiefs 42, Bills 36 (OT): An instant classic. We may never see a better game. Patrick Mahomes (33/44, 378 yds, 3 TD; rush TD) and Josh Allen (27/37, 329 yds, 4 TD) were phenomenal, combining for 25 points in the last two minutes of regulation. Relive the game-winner.
  • Rams 30, Buccaneers 27: Tom Brady and the Bucs somehow rallied from a 27-3 third-quarter deficit to tie the game with 42 seconds left. But that was just enough time for Matthew Stafford to show why the Rams made him the centerpiece of a team with a Super Bowl mandate.
  • Bengals 19, Titans 16: The Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game in 31 years. They’ve now won two in a week thanks to rookie Evan McPherson’s game-winning FG. The Titans had a playoff-record nine sacks but couldn’t overcome Ryan Tannehill’s brutal day.
  • 49ers 13, Packers 10: Robbie Gould’s walk-off in the snow clinched San Francisco’s 17th trip to a conference title game, the most of any team since the 1970 merger. Aaron Rodgers fell to 0-4 against the 49ers in the playoffs, and may have just played his last game as a Packer.
Robbie Gould is mobbed by teammates after kicking the game-winner. Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Notes:

  • Night and day: The average margin of victory in the largely forgettable wild-card round was 17.2 points. The average margin of victory this weekend? 3.8 points.
  • Top seeds tumble: Both No. 1 seeds lost in the Divisional Round for the first time since 2010, when the top-seeded Patriots lost to the Jets and the top-seeded Falcons lost to the Packers. Jets fans click here.
  • Head up, Josh: Allen put together one of the finest two-game stretches in playoff history (771 total yards, 9 TD, 14 incompletions), but it wasn’t enough. I have a feeling he’ll be back — many times.
  • Golden legs: McPherson remains perfect on the road in his rookie season (18/18 FG), and Gould has still never missed a kick in the playoffs (20/20 FG, 32/32 PAT). Two absolute studs.
  • Hollywood ending? Last season marked the first time a team played the Super Bowl in its own stadium (Buccaneers). The Rams are one win away from making it happen two years in a row.
  • This is bonkers: Tom Brady’s exit means the NFL regular-season passing yards leader has still never won the Super Bowl (0-for-56).
Did we just watch Tom Brady for the last time? No way … right? Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The big picture: Mahomes and Allen are undeniably the future of the NFL (the new Brady-Manning?). What isn’t as clear is what Brady and Rodgers now represent: The present or the past?

  • Brady, 44, has long talked about playing until age 45, but some teammates are reportedly bracing for his retirement. Personally, I don’t see it — but stranger things have happened.
  • Rodgers has hinted at retirement. And if he returns, it could be in a different uniform due to the Packers’ financial mess. They’re $44.8 million over the salary cap and Davante Adams needs a new deal.

The bottom line: No matter what the future holds for Brady and Rodgers, this weekend already ushered in a new era of sorts: For the first time since 2010, neither of them will be playing in the Championship Round.

Looking ahead: The Chiefs opened as touchdown favorites over the Bengals, while the Rams opened as 3.5-point favorites over the 49ers.

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The push to get banks to consider climate-related risk

The response to a preliminary move by federal banking officials shows how Wall Street regulation is an increasingly important front in climate policy battles.

Driving the news: Over 1,900 people and counting are urging the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to use the “full extent of its authority” to press large banks to consider climate-related risk and make good on emissions pledges.

  • Their comments come via a form letter organized by the activist group Public Citizen to the OCC’s draft guidelines released in mid-December.

What’s next: The comment period is open until mid-February, and public, corporate and advocacy group submissions typically arrive close to deadlines. So look for more efforts to shape the OCC plan.

  • The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are also organizing comment campaigns.

Why it matters: It’s just one part of wider pressure on Biden administration regulators and the Federal Reserve to push Wall Street to get more active on global warming.

  • Part of the efforts are around greater risk analysis and disclosure, but activists also want regulators to impose policies that would more directly discourage investments in fossil fuels.

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Europe’s energy reliance on Russia is a crucial shield for Putin

Cracks in the NATO alliance regarding sanctions for Russia should President Vladimir Putin order troops into Ukraine are in large part based on energy supply concerns.

Why it matters: Russia holds tremendous leverage over some European countries because it provides roughly 40% of Europe’s natural gas supply. In Germany, this figure is greater than 50%.

  • Should Russia choose to cut off the supplies in the middle of winter in response to the imposition of Ukraine-related sanctions, energy costs would skyrocket and millions could shiver amid power outages.
  • This would put pressure on political leaders to weaken the sanctions.

Between the lines: “It’s going to be an incredibly hard sell in any European country, to say that you have a 10 times higher energy bill and we feel as though our supply is not plentiful enough, because of Ukraine,” Kristine Berzina, of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.

  • “That is what is going to break [NATO] unity,” Berzina, a senior fellow with the group, told Axios.

Driving the news: In order to diminish Russia’s energy leverage, the U.S. is working overtime to boost commitments to deliver liquefied natural gas for Europe from around the world.

  • According to CNN as well as reports in Bloomberg and FT, the Biden administration is scouring the globe for companies and countries — including LNG export heavyweight Qatar — to add more deliveries to Europe in the event of any shortages.
  • In securing more natural gas for Europe, the U.S. is hoping to shore up allies’ resolve in the face of potential Russian aggression.

Yes, but: With the White House warning the Russian military could begin action against Ukraine at any moment, the gas may not arrive in time to stave off shortfalls.

Threat level: There’s already an energy crunch in Europe, due to global factors and recent Russian actions.

  • The region currently has the record lowest level of stored natural gas supplies for this time of year, and electric power prices have already climbed steeply.
  • Germany, which has long viewed Russia as a reliable provider of natural gas despite policy differences, is a key country to watch given its vulnerability to supply disruptions.
  • According to the International Energy Agency, European gas markets show signs of “artificial tightness,” noting that Russia reduced its gas exports to Europe during the fourth quarter of last year compared to 2020, despite higher market prices in 2021.
  • Berzina said the current crisis is one that “Russia has laid the groundwork for.”

The big picture: A Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. and an allied country response would have ripple effects beyond Europe, exacerbating inflation and roiling global energy markets.

  • There’s potential for boosting LNG supplies into Europe if the Ukraine crisis causes reduced flows or supply interruptions, but it’s not a silver bullet.

What they’re saying: “Europe has already taken in a lot of U.S. LNG, although some of it still goes to Asia. There is some LNG exported from Africa that is going to Asia; that could be rerouted to Europe,” Nikos Tsafos, an energy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said via email.

  • “The big balancer is Qatar: 83% of December exports went to Asia. That’s the gas Europe will try to grab. There are limits to how much can be rerouted, but even a modest shift could make a big difference,” adds Tsafos, who charted recent global flows.

Goldman Sachs analysts say record high northwestern Europe LNG imports this month don’t offset reduced Russian inflows, “underscoring that the supply shortfall in the region has not been resolved.”

  • “[S]hould tensions between Russia and the Ukraine escalate, the initial uncertainty around its impact on gas flows would likely lead the market to once again add a significant risk premium to European gas prices,” they said in a note.

The bottom line: “There’s no magic wand,” an unnamed U.S. official tells the FT, citing LNG companies’ contractual obligations with Asian buyers and other constraints.

Go deeper: State Department orders evacuation of U.S. diplomats’ families from Ukraine

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Ex-Pope Benedict admits to false testimony in German sex abuse case

Former Pope Benedict XVI on Monday admitted that he had attended a 1980 meeting over a sexual abuse case in Germany. He had previously told authorities he was not there.

Catch up fast: A report released last week faulted Pope Benedict for the mishandling of four sex abuse cases when he was archbishop of Germany’s Munich diocese from 1977 to 1982. Upon its release, he denied any wrongdoing.

  • Pope Benedict had said he did not recall being in a 1980 meeting to discuss an abuser priest, Reuters reports.

What he’s saying: Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Pope Benedict’s personal secretary, said Monday that the retired pope did attend the meeting, adding that the omission “was the result of an oversight in the editing of the statement” and “not done out of bad faith,” per Reuters.

  • Gänswein said that during the 1980 meeting, there was no actual decision about a new assignment for the priest.
  • Pope Benedict “is very sorry for this mistake and asks to be excused,” Gänswein said.

What we’re watching: Pope Benedict will address the entire 2,000-page report after he’s done “carefully” reading it, Gänswein said. Due to the former pope’s age, 94, the review “will take some time.”

Don’t forget: The report commissioned by the Catholic Church found that clergy in Germany abused at least 3,677 people between 1946 and 2014. Most of the victims were 13 or younger, and nearly a third were altar boys, according to AP.

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The Fed’s inflation fight ignites interest rate debate

A debate is shaping up over whether tighter money from the Federal Reserve hiking rates will actually rein in inflation.

Why it matters: Consumer prices are up 7% year over year, the highest rate of increase since 1982. It’s causing major headaches for the White House.

What they’re saying: Until we diagnose what’s really causing the inflation, we won’t be able to treat it, economist Stephanie Kelton wrote in a Substack column last week.

  • “It takes a certain hubris to assert that by nudging a single price — the federal funds rate — higher, the entire economy can be shifted back to a stable inflation path,” she writes.
  • Point is, it’s a mistake to believe the fix for inflation that worked 40 years ago will work again.

Other economists think the Fed needs to move quickly.

  • “The Fed is seriously behind the curve and has to get serious about fighting inflation,” Ethan Harris, the head of global economics research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research, wrote in a note last week.
  • Larry Summers has been saying the same thing; he and others argue that too much U.S. stimulus is to blame for price increases.

The pandemic is still making the economy weird. Kelton — and many others — cite the continuing supply chain snags as part of the story.

  • “If supply-chain issues can be sorted out, the current inflation tizzy will probably subside early this summer,” writes economist James K. Galbraith in a blog post last Friday.
  • The White House was saying similar things this summer — but Biden also said last week that fighting inflation was the Fed’s job.

Go deeper: Why the Fed might want to jolt the markets

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IRS face recognition program raises hackles

The IRS’ move to require some taxpayers to use facial recognition to identify themselves is reigniting a debate over how the government should use such technology.

Why it matters: Critics warn that, without sufficient guardrails, information collected by one agency for a seemingly benign purpose could easily be re-used in other ways.

Driving the news: The IRS will soon require taxpayers to provide a third-party company — ID.me — with a combination of documents and a video selfie to verify their identity before undertaking certain online interactions with the agency.

What they’re saying: “This announcement signals one of the largest expansions of facial recognition technology in the U.S. and there is no question that it will harm peoples’ privacy,” says Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight For the Future.

  • ID.me’s terms of service, she notes, give the company the right to share peoples’ data with police, government and “select partners.”

Critics see red flags in the involvement of a private company in general, and also raise questions regarding ID.me specifically.

  • “When ID.me was rolled out for state unemployment benefits we heard from many people who had issues with the system,” Seeley George said. “Not only is it an issue that ID.me misidentifies people of color, gender-nonconforming people and women, but this system requires people to have a smart phone or a web camera in order to submit photos, which means economically disadvantaged and older people are going to have greater challenges getting through the system.” (ID.me says its research found no disparity based on skin color.)
  • “This basically is putting a private company between people and the government services that they need,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU, noting the equity issues involved in requiring people who may have limited technology access and knowledge to go online. “They are forced to use this company if they want to access services to which they are entitled.”

The other side: ID.me defended its technology and practices. In an interview, CEO Blake Hall said the company is committed to making its service both equitable and available, including a new option for people to verify their identity in person at more than 650 locations in the U.S.

  • In 90 percent of cases, Hall said, people are able to get verified on their own, with about 10 percent needing to use the company’s live video chat option.
  • Although he said there have been time periods where wait times were long, he said most of those were due to huge pandemic-related demand spikes (or outbreaks within his company’s staff that temporarily limited its workforce), and said wait times have declined significantly.
  • Hall also drew a distinction between what his company does — matching a face to a known document — versus trying to pick a face out of a crowd or classify an image using face recognition.

Between the lines: An understaffed IRS is facing an especially tough battle to process all the country’s tax returns a timely manner while trying to limit fraud.

  • Tax evasion and underpayment remain problems, but recent years have seen a surge in fraud schemes aimed at claiming somebody else’s refunds by filing false returns.
  • Beefing up authentication measures is designed, in part, to help fight that scam.

The big picture: The U.S. government has been increasing its use of facial recognition technology overall, with a recent GAO report indicating at least 10 federal agencies plan to expand adoption of face recognition.

  • Some cities, such as Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Boston, have passed laws limiting use of the technology, but there has been little action on the federal level to set guidelines.
  • ID.me’s Hall said he supports legislation that would specify how government agencies can make use of facial recognition technology. “There are things around tracking and surveillance that absolutely need to be regulated,” Hall told Axios.

Be smart: Verifying one’s identity using ID.me is not required of everyone who needs to file taxes.

  • It’s for those looking to check their account online or get a transcript online.
  • “There have been some wildly inaccurate statements regarding the use of selfies relating to paying and filing taxes,” the IRS said in a statement. “The IRS emphasizes taxpayers can pay or file their taxes without submitting a selfie or other information to a third-party identity verification company.”
  • Yes, but: The IRS’ use of the technology could expand.

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White House unveils efficient buildings effort

The White House has created a new partnership with state and city governments aimed at boosting the energy efficiency of buildings.

Why it matters: The commercial and residential buildings sector is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s next: The administration said the “Building Performance Standards Coalition” will seek to help bolster local policies.

  • A White House summary Friday notes the bipartisan infrastructure law provides $1.8 billion for retrofits and to aid state and local policy implementation.

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Virginia school boards sue Gov. Youngkin for lifting mask mandate

At least seven school boards have sued Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) over his decision to end the commonwealth’s mask mandate in public schools.

Why it matters: The school boards — including Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. with more than 178,000 students — asked for an injunction to prevent Youngkin from enforcing the order, which leaves masking decisions up to parents and went into effect on Monday.

  • The boards said the order violated an article of Virginia’s constitution that leaves supervision of schools up to the boards and a state law that requires school districts to follow federal health guidelines.

What they’re saying: “The Governor’s Executive Order to the contrary is a clear violation of the School Boards’ constitutional rights and responsibilities, as well as to the entire structure for the supervision of public education in Virginia, prescribed by the Constitution of Virginia,” the lawsuit reads.

The other side: Youngkin defended the order in a statement over the weekend, saying it “is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents.”

  • “I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1,” he added.

The big picture: Youngkin also faces a lawsuit from 13 parents over the masking order.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with new details from the lawsuit.

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Supreme Court agrees to hear challenge to affirmative action at Harvard, UNC

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a pair of cases challenging the consideration of race in the college admissions processes.

Why it matters: The conservative high court’s ruling could determine the future of affirmative action in higher education.

Driving the news: The challenges — one against Harvard, a private institution, and the other against the University of North Carolina, a state school — argue their admissions processes discriminate against Asian American applicants.

  • The challenges have been brought by the conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA).
  • Lower courts have rejected the claims, pointing to decades of high court rulings affirming the use of race in college admissions. The schools have denied their processes discriminate.

The big picture: The Biden administration last month urged the Supreme Court to reject the challenge to Harvard’s affirmative action policy.

  • The administration argued that SFFA has not proven the “special justification” needed to overturn precedents on affirmative action, which “correctly recognize that securing the educational benefits that flow from such diversity is a sufficiently compelling interest to justify race-conscious measures,” Axios Shawna Chen reported.

Go deeper: Affirmative action on campus is endangered

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Wall Street’s billionaire soap opera gets messier

The backroom fight between Apollo Global Management co-founders Leon Black and Josh Harris has tumbled out into the open, providing plenty of free material to the writers of Wall Street soap operas like “Billions” and “Succession.”

Why it matters: This is shaping up to become the messiest fight in private equity’s 45-year history.

What to know: Apollo isn’t a party to any of the related lawsuits, and is trying to portray this as an arms-length dispute between what it calls “two former employees.” But Harris remains on the publicly-traded firm’s board of directors, and current CEO Marc Rowan (the firm’s third co-founder) was coaxed out of Hamptons retirement by Black.

  • In other words, the calls are still coming from inside the house.

Background: A model named Guzel Ganieva last July sued Black, who at the time was still Apollo’s CEO, for defamation and sexual assault. Black, who had previously admitted to having an affair with Ganieva, countersued by denying the assault allegations (which are explicitly horrific) and calling her complaint an extortive “work of fiction.”

  • Black’s response also noted that he was seeking to learn if Ganieva “is acting alone or is working in concert with” others.
  • This felt like code for “I’m looking into Josh,” as there were plenty of murmurs that Harris had been a driving force behind an Apollo investigation into Black’s dealings with Jeffrey Epstein. Moreover, Harris was widely believed to be angling for the CEO job that ultimately went to Rowan.

Fast forward: In a court filing last week, Black accused Harris of orchestrating a “coup” and “malicious campaign,” insinuating that Harris had a role in Ganieva’s legal actions. A Harris spokesperson tells the WSJ that he has “no involvement of any kind in the filing of any claims by her.”

  • Black’s filing also says that Apollo was founded only by Black and Rowan, with Harris joining “soon afterwards as a junior employee.” It’s worth noting that Apollo, while run by Black, regularly referred to Harris as a “co-founder” in securities filings (including its IPO registration statement).

The bottom line: Apollo is the oldest private equity firm to have not successfully set up a founder succession plan, and that failure is set to play out in a courtroom.

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