Team Notes week 20 2021
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF
Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...
Buffalo BillsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
As ESPN.com's Alaina Getzenberg put it, "The Buffalo Bills didn't just beat the New England Patriots on Saturday. They made a statement to the entire NFL. ..."
The Bills dominated the teams' third meeting in 41 days, winning 47-17 to move on to the divisional round of the playoffs. Buffalo scored a touchdown on all seven of its possessions outside of a kneel-down at the end of the game, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to score a TD on each of its first seven drives of a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Bills also became the first team in NFL history to go an entire playoff game without a punt, field goal or turnover.
"It's not often in coaching you can enjoy the last six minutes of a game and kind of look up in the stands and see the fans enjoying it and at home," head coach Sean McDermott said. "I'm happy for them more than anything. For us as a team this year, it's one game. That's a good football team and they've been at the top for so long. So, we have a lot of respect for them. We've just got to keep moving on."
With the victory, the Bills have beaten the Patriots twice by double digits in a single season (33-21 in Week 16), becoming the first team to do so since Bill Belichick became head coach.
"We just couldn't keep up with them. They certainly deserved to win. Well-coached. The team executed well, and we couldn't do much of anything," Belichick said after the game.
Dating back to that matchup in Week 16, the Bills' last 13 drives against the Patriots yielded 11 scores (10 touchdowns and a field goal). During that stretch, the only thing that stopped the Buffalo offense was the clock.
Not only did the offense put up an impressive performance, but the Bills continued to show improvements in areas that have caused issues throughout the season. The running game was effective, and the offensive line that has had a roller-coaster campaign set the tempo.
But the most impressive part of the game for the Bills was the performance of quarterback Josh Allen.
Coming into Saturday's tilt, one of the big questions was whether Allen could step up in freezing temperatures after averaging one of the worst completion percentages in such conditions. He did far more than that with temperatures below 10 degrees throughout the game, putting together one of the best performances of his career.
Allen continued his stellar performance against the Patriots from a few weeks prior, completing 21 of 25 passes (84 percent) for 308 yards and five touchdowns, in addition to six carries for 66 yards. It is the highest completion rate in a playoff game with 25 or more attempts since Aaron Rodgers' 86.1 percent in the 2010 divisional playoffs. He finished with the fifth-highest passer rating in a postseason game in NFL history (157.6) and more touchdowns than incompletions.
"I think that just kind of speaks for itself," tight end Dawson Knox said.
Allen became the third player in the Super Bowl era with at least 150 pass yards and 50 rush yards in a single half of a playoff game, per Elias, and he joined Drew Brees (2009) and Russell Wilson (2020) as the only quarterbacks to throw for five touchdowns against a Belichick-coached team.
Allen became the third player in NFL history with five-plus passing touchdowns, zero interceptions and fewer than five incompletions in single playoff game. Hall of Famer Peyton Manning did so in the 2003 wild-card round versus the Broncos, and Hall of Famer Kurt Warner did so in the 2009 wild-card round versus the Packers.
Allen became the first quarterback in the Next Gen Stats era to finish with a perfect 158.3 passer rating on passes with a time to throw of 2.5 or more seconds in a playoff game (minimum 15 such attempts).
His performance included two touchdown passes to Knox and one to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whose score was his first TD in the postseason, coming in his 14th career playoff game with his fifth different team.
Allen's fifth touchdown was a 1-yard throw to reserve offensive lineman Tommy Doyle. All five of the signal-caller's touchdown throws came in play-action, the most by any player in a regular-season or playoff game since 2006, when ESPN began tracking play-action. Allen has gone four straight games without being sacked.
Devin Singletary ran for two touchdowns behind an offensive line that dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the contest. Singletary is the second player in NFL history to score multiple touchdowns in three straight games, at least 40 games into his career, after never having scored two-plus touchdowns in a game once (WR Drew Bennett with the Titans in 2004).
Indeed, as NFL.com pointed out, Buffalo has been building toward this performance by committing to more than just Allen. The Bills spent much of the 2021 regular season gradually relying more and more on the talents of Allen, which can -- as we learned Saturday night -- produce incredible numbers, but also can hamstring their offensive potential.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll realized this in recent weeks and rededicated his approach to the ground game, which paid off in droves against the Pats. It wasn't just Singletary's 16 carries in this one. Daboll ran Allen six times for 66 yards and sprinkling in a little bit of receiver Isaiah McKenzie on perimeter runs, picking up 29 yards on just three attempts.
The Bills attacked the Patriots from every angle, converting 6 of 7 third downs and graduating from an Allen-dependent offense to one that featured Allen but could do much more than just hope he'd go win the game by himself. That makes them incredibly dangerous from here on out.
"We always talked about being two-dimensional," Knox said. "The way [Singletary] has been running the ball has been unbelievable. The movement the line is getting up front. It seems like we could have done anything we wanted to out there."
The Bills' defense limited rookie quarterback Mac Jones throughout the game, including forcing two interceptions -- one of which was a spectacular play by safety Micah Hyde in the end zone on New England's first drive of the game that set an early tone. The Patriots were never able to establish the run thanks to Buffalo's offensive dominance.
"For our offense to go out there right away and put up points and put up points again and put up points again and then put up points, I mean, that's great for us and made them one-dimensional," defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said.
The Bills will now head to the divisional round of the playoffs for a second straight season with a perfect record in home playoff games under McDermott.
They'll face the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday night.
K.C. beat Buffalo twice last season, including the playoff victory to send them to the Super Bowl. The Bills bested the Chiefs in Week 5 this year at Arrowhead, 38-20, in a game in which Allen threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
Buffalo is 0-3 in road playoff games since McDermott became head coach.
"When you're going into every game with a win-or-go-home mentality, and that's really what we've had in the last few weeks, just the attention to detail in practice, guys are more attentive," Allen said. "The urgency is there, and you're seeing us play better because of it. We're going to need that same mentality this week. ..."
Watch the start of this one. ... Buffalo's record this season when scoring a touchdown on its opening drive is 9-0. ...
Other notes of interest. ... As Associated Press sports writer noted, Cole Beasley's role has diminished. The slot receiver caught just one pass for 19 yards in continuing to show he struggles to get open against man coverage.
Since his big Week 14, a nine-catch (on 11 targets), 64-yard effort against the Buccaneers, Beasley's targets have diminished weekly and his production has followed suit. ...
Meanwhile, the Patriots found a hole in Buffalo's front by blocking two of Tyler Bass' extra-point attempts. It didn't mean much in a 30-point blowout, but could play a factor in a closer game against the Chiefs.
On the health front. ... Defensive end Mario Addison did not finish the game due to a shoulder injury.
I'll have any additional injury issues worth noting in the News and Views section of the site in coming days.
QBs: Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky
RBs: Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Matt Breida, Taiwan Jones
WRs: Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Emmanuel Sanders, Jake Kumerow
TEs: Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney
Cincinnati BengalsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
As NFL.com's Jeremy Bergman framed it: "The presumptive Offensive Rookie of the Year padded his résumé Saturday in dominant fashion. ..."
Ja'Marr Chase was Joe Burrow's go-to guy from the get-go in the Cincinnati Bengals' drought-destroying 26-19 win over the Las Vegas Raiders on Super Wild Card Weekend. The rookie hauled in nine catches on 12 targets for 116 yards, all team-highs, in the victory.
In doing so, Chase broke the franchise record for most receiving yards in a playoff game (Cris Collinsworth, 107, Super Bowl XVI) and logged the third-highest receiving yards total by a rookie in the Wild Card Round behind DK Metcalf (160) and Jeremy Maclin (146). Chase also passed Bill Groman and Randy Moss for most receiving yards (1,571) by a rookie in a season (including playoffs).
It was par for the course for the record-setting rookie.
"I'm like that every game, no matter who is across from me," Chase said after the game, per the team transcript. "I have that dog mentality. It's either be stopped or not be stopped. I don't think I can be stopped."
Cincinnati set the tone early when, on its first offensive drive, Burrow targeted Chase on his first four attempts, completing three passes for 37 yards, each completion resulting in a first down.
"It's always part of the game plan to target Ja'Marr Chase." head coach Zac Taylor said. "It was never forced. There was not one ball that was forced there -- there's always options. He just made the most of his opportunities."
On Saturday afternoon, those opportunities included earning rare carries out of the backfield. Chase saw three rushes for 23 yards against Las Vegas, two resulting in first downs, as Cincinnati leaned on the sweep game. He became just the third rookie since 1950 with at least 100 receiving yards and 20 rushing yards in a playoff game in the process.
"I haven't played running back in a long time," Chase said after the game. "They gave me those tosses. I got hit by linebackers, and I know what those feel like again. I'm built like a running back. They only do those plays for receivers who are built like running backs."
Chase looked built like a bona fide star against the Raiders, effortlessly corralling Burrow's back-shoulder throws and creating separation from veteran defensive backs, like ?Desmond Trufant?.
"Leaving me one-on-one is the wrong thing for a team to do," Chase told NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala.
Meanwhile, Burrow was efficient in his playoff debut.
After throwing for 148 yards earlier in the season against the Raiders, Burrow finished Saturday's win completing 24-of-34 passes for 244 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Worth noting, Burrow has completed nearly 80 percent of passes thrown Chase's way in the past three weeks.
But Burrow, Chase and Co. won't be relishing in having broken the franchise's 31-year playoff drought or the rookie's historic pass-catching campaign.
"We ain't accomplished nothing yet," Chase told Kinkhabwala. "We just got the first win. We've got more to go."
In fact, they face the AFC's top-seeded Tennessee Titans (12-5) on the road in the divisional round on Saturday.
And Cincinnati may have to do it without starting defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi. Hendrickson is in the concussion protocol and Ogunjobi was placed on injured reserve Monday.
That duo teamed up for a huge play in the first quarter when Hendrickson had a strip-sack of Carr and Ogunjobi scooped the fumble and returned it to the Las Vegas 15.
Hendrickson, the team's sack leader, is day to day.
The defensive line depth will be tested as the Titans are expected to get back RB Derrick Henry. He hasn't played since breaking his right foot in Week 8. Burrow and Chase have to keep up the spectacular connection.
The Bengals scored on four first-half possessions, and the defense had to bow up and hold the Raiders to a pair of field goals in the second. Evan McPherson became the first rookie kicker in NFL history to hit four field goals without a miss in his playoff debut.
"The whole second half we needed to put points on the board and we kept kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, and it was disappointing," Burrow said. "But we were moving the ball and scoring field goals, so you can't be too mad about it. But obviously, we need to execute better."
Or they need to keep getting lucky.
As Associated Press sports writer Mitch Stacy noted, the Bengals were on the right end of a controversial call by officials that tilted the game. Late in the first half with Cincinnati leading 13-6, Burrow rolled right to avoid pressure and threw from close to the sideline. Play continued despite an erroneous whistle by an official, who thought Burrow stepped out of bounds.
Tyler Boyd caught the 10-yard pass in the back of the end zone for a 20-6 lead.
The Raiders protested, citing the rule that the ball should be returned to the previous spot, but the play counted. The NFL stood by the call.
On area they need to improve on is finishing drives.
The Bengals made five trips to the red zone and got just two touchdowns out of it, one on the questionable call by officials. Fortunately, McPherson, doesn't miss much. He was perfect on field goals of 31, 30, 43 and 28 yards.
Another aspect of the offense that needs to pick up the pace is the rushing attack.
Pro-Bowl running back Joe Mixon had one of his best games of the season against the Raiders in Week 11, rushing for 123 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-13 Bengals win. He wasn't as big a factor Saturday, averaging only 2.8 yards on 17 attempts for 48 yards.
Still, Mixon finished as the league's third-leading rusher with a career-best 1,205 yards after missing last season's game against Tennessee with a foot injury that limited him to six games.
Worth noting. ... Burrow's second NFL win came against the Titans back on Nov. 1, 2020 at Paul Brown Stadium when he outpitched the Titans Ryan Tannehill with a passer rating of 106.7 (249 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) to 92.8 (233 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) in a 31-20 victory in a game remembered for the Bengals starting four different offensive linemen because of injury and illness.
Mixon missed that game with a foot injury that limited him to six games.
But it's a much different Tennessee defense this time around. Last year's Titans defense ended the season ranked 28th in yards allowed while this one is 12th and that includes a No. 2 ranking against the run.
The Bengals offense, tied for seventh in scoring, plays a scoring defense ranked sixth. Cincinnati's defense, ranked 17th in scoring, plays a Titans offense ranked at No. 15. The Bengals have a stingy run defense, too, ranked fifth, and tees it up against a Tennessee running game that is also ranked fifth despite the loss of Derrick Henry.
The Bengals have forced 21 and the Titans 22, but Cincinnati is tied for 16th in the NFL with an even plus-minus differential and Tennessee is tied for 20th at minus-three. ...
As for preparation. ... Sticking with the Saturday schedule, the Bengals are off Monday, have extended practices Tuesday and Wednesday and then a brief Thursday morning workout before heading to Nashville Friday.
On the health front. ... Hendrickson took a step in his recovery from a concussion. He practiced on a limited basis Tuesday.
Hendrickson was diagnosed with a concussion during the wild card victory over the Raiders.
"Progressing through the concussion protocol in a positive manner," Taylor said, via Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic.
Receiver Stanley Morgan (hamstring) and defensive tackle Josh Tupou (knee).
Cornerback Jalen Davis (ankle), cornerback Mike Hilton (ankle) and defensive end Sam Hubbard (ribs) were full participants.
I'll have any additional injury issues worth noting in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...
And finally. ... After ending the NFL's longest active postseason-victory drought entering Super Wild Card Weekend, Taylor dedicated a game ball to franchise owner Mike Brown -- who assumed ownership seven months after that '91 win -- and his wife, Nancy, before sharing a special message with a city that's supported them through many tumultuous seasons.
"The next one is a new tradition we start today with our first playoff win," Taylor said. "It goes to the city of Cincinnati and we pass this thing out at bars across Cincinnati tonight and we let the fans celebrate with us. Every playoff game from here on out, the city shares in this with us."
The team later announced it would send three game balls to popular local watering holes, Pontiac, Walt's Hitching Post and Mt. Lookout Tavern.
Burrow, who spent a portion of his childhood in Ohio, attended high school in the state and played one season at Ohio State before transferring to LSU, wasn't shy about reminding everyone of the team's mission to give Cincy something else to cheer about in the weeks ahead.
"It's exciting, but this was expected," he said. "This isn't the icing on top of the cake or anything, this was the cake. So, we're moving on."
QBs: Brandon Allen, Joe Burrow
RBs: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans
WRs: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Mike Thomas, Auden Tate, Stanley Morgan Jr.
TEs: C.J. Uzomah, Drew Sample
Green Bay PackersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky reminded readers, when the Green Bay Packers played the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs two years ago, one of the biggest storylines was the coaching connection -- almost a brotherhood -- between Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan.
It was LaFleur, the first-year Packers coach, against one of his mentors and close friends.
Two years later, with the two teams set to meet in Saturday night's NFC divisional-round playoff game at Lambeau Field, they're the story again.
But for a much different reason.
Cue the video of the postgame handshake from the Packers' last-second win over the 49ers in Week 3.
Even before "The Handshake," there was talk of bad blood between the two stemming from the 49ers' run at Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers last offseason. While both downplayed it before and after the game, few came away convinced that all was peachy between the two. It will no doubt be a topic of conversation all week.
The coaching relationship isn't the only thing that has changed about this matchup.
The Week 3 game -- which the Packers won with two Rodgers-to-Davante Adams completions and a 51-yard Mason Crosby walk-off field goal all in the final 37 seconds and without a timeout -- was the start of the ugliest stretch of the season for the 49ers. It was the beginning of a three-game losing streak and five losses in six games.
But San Francisco is 8-2 in its last 10 games, including Sunday's 23-16 upset of the third-seeded Dallas Cowboys on the road in the wild-card round.
The two biggest differences in the 49ers since the Packers saw them on Sept. 26 are their quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, and their running game.
Cornerback Jaire Alexander intercepted Garoppolo in Week 3, one of eight games this season in which he threw at least one interception. Garoppolo was 2-6 in those games and 7-0 in games without one. He was much more efficient in the second half of the season. From Week 10 until the end of the regular season, Garoppolo ranked seventh in the NFL in Total QBR and second in yards per pass attempt.
The Packers also didn't have to face 49ers leading rusher Elijah Mitchell, who missed the game because of a shoulder injury. The 49ers ran for only 67 yards on 21 carries. Mitchell, who led the 49ers in rushing with 963 yards in 11 games and tied for 12th in the NFL with a 4.7-yard average carry, rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys on Sunday. While the Packers ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing defense (109.1 yards per game), they were 30th in rushing yards allowed per carry (giving up 4.7 yards a rush).
This will be the fifth meeting between LaFleur and Shanahan since the start of the 2019 season. The previous four, including playoffs, were all at the 49ers'. LaFleur lost both in the 2019 season -- 37-8 in the regular season and 37-20 in the NFC Championship Game -- but won in 2020 (34-17) and in the Week 3 game this season (30-28).
There's also the weather element.
The weekend forecast for Saturday is a high of 21 and a low of 3 degrees. The previous four meetings in Northern California had kickoff temperatures of 69, 78, 58 and 63 degrees.
There won't be a toe element, however.
At least not according to Rodgers.
Last week, the veteran signal caller made it sound like his toe injury won't be an issue in the playoffs.
Not that it was ever a huge issue.
Rodgers has thrown 20 touchdown passes without an interception over his past seven games despite playing through the injury. Adams set franchise single-season records in catches (123) and yards receiving (1,553).
"It's been a fun season," Rodgers said. "Now, we've just got to find a way to finish it off with winning our last game. ..."
On the health front. ... First came left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Josh Myers. Now, the Packers seem likely to get some help on defense.
Edge rushers Za'Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus both returned to practice last week after extended stays on injured reserve. Alexander was activated a few weeks ago after his own stint on the list, but landed on the COVID-19 reserve list and did not play before the end of the regular season.
LaFleur said that the team expects all three players to continue practicing this week. He said he's "hopeful" that Smith and Alexander will be able to play and that the team will be "ecstatic" to get Mercilus back from what was believed to be a season-ending torn biceps.
Without Smith, the Packers leaned heavily on a bounce-back season from Preston Smith and a third-year leap from former first-round pick Rashan Gary. The two combined for 84 tackles, 45 quarterback hits, 18½ sacks and four forced fumbles.
Still, Smith's return could provide a significant boost to depth at outside linebacker. Mercilus would obviously add to that.
The defense also could get Alexander back. He hasn't played since his Week 4 shoulder injury. He might have been on track to return for the regular-season finale but landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Asked about Smith and Alexander on Tuesday, LaFleur said: "They'll be out there today and we'll see how they react over the course of the week."
Bakhtiari made his season debut on Sunday against the Lions, playing 27 snaps in his first action since he tore an ACL more than a year ago. Myers also returned and played for the first time since a Week 6 knee injury. A third offensive line starter also could return in right tackle Billy Turner, who missed the past four games of the regular season because of a knee injury.
Bakhtiari was not practicing Tuesday for what LaFleur called "load management" reasons.
The biggest injury question this week surrounds receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who dropped out of Sunday's game at Detroit because of a back injury.
Valdes-Scantling, did not practice last Wednesday but fellow receiver Randall Cobb continued his attempted return from core muscle surgery by practicing again and appears to be on track to return for the first playoff game.
I'll have any additional injury issues worth noting in the News and Views section of the site in coming days.
QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Benkert, Jordan Love
RBs: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill
WRs: Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Amari Rodgers, Malik Taylor, Randall Cobb
TEs: Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Robert Tonyan
Kansas City ChiefsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
As ESPN.com's Adam Teicher noted, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will meet for the fourth time in two seasons in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs Sunday, this time with each of their respective teams on an offensive roll.
Mahomes and the Chiefs matched the offensive firepower of Allen and the Bills in their wild-card round playoff opener on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
Mahomes wound up throwing for 404 yards and five touchdowns, most coming in the final three quarters, as the Chiefs turned an early seven-point deficit into a 42-21 rout. It was a vintage performance by the Kansas City offense, a throwback of sorts to the past few years, when Mahomes and his fleet of playmakers made defensive backfields look silly.
Mahomes, who also tossed an interception, became the third player in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass to a running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive lineman in a regular-season or playoff game.
Travis Kelce the receiver caught five passes for 108 yards and a score. Kelce the quarterback threw a 2-yard TD pass to Bryon Pringle. In doing so, Kelce the tight end became the first NFL player to throw a touchdown pass, catch a touchdown pass and have at least 100 yards receiving in a single playoff game.
"I don't think I have ever had the (courage) to tell coach (Andy) Reid that I was a high school all-league player," said Kelce, who also played a bit of quarterback in college. "That really doesn't mean much at this level. He knew that I could throw the ball since the first day I got there. It just took me a while to get a completion."
"In the playoffs, teams get a little more aggressive," Mahomes explained. "They played a little bit more single-safety-middle, especially toward the end of the second quarter, and we showed that we can always be explosive. That's who we are. We're going to make big plays happen if we get the looks, and I think over the season we've learned to be patient as well."
In truth, the Chiefs (13-5) probably didn't need quite the fireworks against the Steelers. Their defense simply shut down Ben Roethlisberger in his career finale, allowing the Chiefs to build a 35-7 lead and cruise to the finish.
Still, they were happy to see it.
"When you have been to the Super Bowl the last two years and you walk off the field with a loss last year, you want to go back and get that revenge and get that win," Mahomes said on the broadcast after the game. "For us, we understand it's a hard division. We got the Bills coming here this weekend, we are going to have to play our best football. We are just excited for the journey, and we'll stay with the process.
"I am glad we are playing at Arrowhead next week."
For the record, Allen and the Bills scored a touchdown on seven of their nine possessions in their playoff opener against the New England Patriots, failing only when killing the clock at the end of each half.
"You expect a really good football team that's going to play real hard," Mahomes said. "They have a great offense, a great defense, great special teams. We know it's going to be another fight for us if we try to move on to the AFC Championship Game this year."
The Chiefs beat the Bills twice last season, including a 38-24 win at Arrowhead in the AFC Championship Game. The Bills beat the Chiefs 38-20 this season in Week 5 at Arrowhead, with Allen throwing for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Mahomes threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns but was intercepted twice.
"You've got Josh Allen [and] you've got Pat on our side," defensive end Frank Clark said. "These are two of the best guys in the league. You say the two best young quarterbacks in the league today, I'd say 99 percent of the people in the world are going to say Pat Mahomes and Josh Allen."
Meanwhile, Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn't get the results he hoped for last week when he practiced for the first time since sustaining a shoulder injury in Week 16 but Reid expects his starting running back to give it a go again this week as the team prepares to face Buffalo.
"I thought we'd be able to do more last week, so I'm just curious to see," Reid said Monday. "I'm thinking he almost has to get out on the field to feel that, see where he's at. I think he thought he could do more last week, too, it just didn't work out that way."
As ChiefsDigest.com's Matt Derrick reminded readers, Edwards-Helaire took part in the team's light Wednesday workout without pads or helmets but didn't appear on the practice field Thursday or Friday. The team's Thursday practice this week would be a critical indicator for how much contact Edwards-Helaire can absorb without complications.
The team's No. 2 running back, Darrel Williams, played just eight snaps due to a toe injury in Sunday's victory over the Pittsburgh. Jerick McKinnon took the lead running back role against the Steelers, tallying 142 total yards along with a touchdown.
Having multiple backs upon which the team can rely is "a good problem to have," Reid explained.
"We'll just see how it all plays out," Reid said. "Darrel, he tried to go but he was having a hard time pushing off that toe. We're fortunate to have a number of running backs that we feel are good runners. (Derrick) Gore is another one, and then we'll just see about Clyde, what we get from him."
The only other injury coming out of the Steelers game involves cornerback Rashad Fenton, who was a last-minute scratch due to a back issue.
"Right before the game he came in, his back had locked up, so we had to sit him down," Reid said. "That was like right before we had to turn our (inactive) slip in."
Mike Hughes handled the bulk of the work as the nickel back in Fenton's absence, playing 59 of the team's 67 defensive snaps. Deandre Baker also played 17 snaps, mostly in the fourth quarter. Reid gave no indication of the extent of Fenton's injury and whether it might keep him out of Sunday's game against the Bills.
I'll have more on Edwards-Helaire, Williams and any other injury issues that arise in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...
Also of interest. ... The Chiefs had high hopes for Josh Gordon when they signed the former All-Pro wide receiver as a reclamation project early in the season. He wasn't even active on Sunday as the Chiefs went with journeyman Daurice Fountain instead. ...
And finally. ... The Chiefs have won five consecutive playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium, including the last two AFC title games, the longest streak in franchise history. One more win would move the Chiefs into a tie with the Broncos for the 10th-best streak since the 1970 merger.
Five consecutive games are also the longest active streak in the NFL.
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
RBs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, Derrick Gore, Jerick McKinnon
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, Marcus Kemp, Josh Gordon
TEs: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, Blake Bell
Los Angeles RamsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
As ESPN.com's Brady Henderson noted, Matthew Stafford entered Monday night's wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals having never won in the playoffs, losing in all three of his appearances over 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.
If only he had a team around him as talented as the one he now quarterbacks.
Stafford combined for three touchdowns, vastly outplaying Cardinals counterpart Kyler Murray, and the Rams got contributions from up and down their star-studded roster en route to a stress-free 34-11 win at SoFi Stadium. It filled the playoff hole in Stafford's résumé and punched the Rams' ticket to the divisional round, where they'll face Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers on Sunday in Tampa, Florida.
Stafford's 323 career touchdown passes in the regular season were the most of any player without a playoff victory, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.
"I'm just excited for our team to get the win," Stafford said. "What a team effort. Our defense played outstanding tonight, special teams basically set up a score with [punter] Johnny [Hekker] pinning them down there, did a great job on field goals. And we were good enough on offense to score some points and come away with the win. Just happy to be moving on."
Stafford turned in one of his most efficient performances of the season, even if it wasn't his most prolific. He threw touchdown passes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp and ran for another on a goal-line sneak for his first rushing TD since 2016. After ending the regular season with eight interceptions over the final four games, he didn't commit a turnover against Arizona while finishing with a nearly perfect 154.5 passer rating.
His 13 completions and 17 attempts were easily season lows, while his 202 passing yards were his second fewest. His 17 attempts also were his fewest in a win in his career, regular season or playoffs, according to ESPN Stats and Information data.
With the Rams' running game finding its groove from the get-go and their defense leaving Murray looking lost all night long, they didn't need Stafford to carry the load.
Sony Michel, acquired just before the season via trade in the wake of Cam Akers' Achilles tendon tear, rushed 13 times for 58 yards. Akers, in his second game back from that injury, went for 55 yards on 17 carries. Los Angeles' 11 rushes in the first quarter and 38 rushes in all were both season highs.
With their defense playing at a dominant level, McVay was able to take some chances on offense.
Early in the third quarter, McVay called a trick pass that had Beckham catching a lateral from Stafford then throwing to Akers for a 40-yard completion down the sideline. As Henderson pointed out, in another illustration of how dominant the Rams' defensive effort was, that play gained 12 more yards than the 28 Murray had thrown for to that point.
Beckham said the play was installed this week and that the wind made it difficult to execute the throw in practice. He appreciated the coaching staff for keeping it in the game plan.
Akers couldn't haul in a catchable deep ball from Stafford earlier in the game.
"The opportunity came up, I know I got to someone who's easily gonna catch the ball," Beckham said. "All I got to do is put it in the vicinity [to] Cam Akers, and he made the play."
Beckham became the first player in NFL postseason history to finish with a 30-yard reception and a 30-yard completion in the same game. He caught four passes for 54 yards and hauled in the first playoff TD of his career.
"I feel like I've gotten to a certain age where I'm a realist and not an idealist, and I understood the situation of what I was coming into in this team and everything that they were capable of," Beckham said. "And it just feels amazing to get that win. Get the first one off your back. Now knowing it's just time to put it together and make a run."
The Rams signed Beckham and traded for pass-rusher Von Miller (one sack, three tackles for loss) earlier this season in the two latest instances of the team loading up on star players in a bid to follow in the Bucs' footsteps and win the Super Bowl on their home field.
That also included their offseason trade for Stafford, who looked every bit the upgrade over Jared Goff they envisioned.
"I thought he did a great job leading the way," McVay said of Stafford. "He's still the same great player to me. And he always was before this game, as well. So I think it's good so you guys don't have to talk about [him not having a playoff win] anymore. So he can get that one out of the way. But really proud of him. Just so lucky to be able to do this with him. He's our leader. We wouldn't be here without him."
Against the blitz, Stafford went 7-of-8 for a season-high 148 yards and the touchdown pass to Kupp, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Stafford now has 16 TDs and one interception against the blitz this season, including Monday night's game. He was pressured on only six dropbacks, one shy of his fewest dropbacks under pressure this season.
Kupp, who became the fourth player since 1970 to lead the league in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, topped the Rams with five catches for 61 yards.
Stafford called the looming matchup with Tampa Bay "a huge challenge," noting the Bucs' success at home, where they were 7-1 this season at Raymond James Stadium.
"Obviously, a fantastic quarterback, great defense, a really good football team," Stafford said.
The Rams were one of only three teams to beat the Bucs -- 34-24 in Week 3 -- during the regular season. Tampa Bay struggled to get pressure on Stafford that day and set season worsts defensively in multiple categories.
"I think their team is different than when we played them last, and I think we are, too, both [in] personnel and scheme a little bit. You always evolve throughout the season," Stafford said. "So it'll be interesting to see what they look like here as of late, and we'll go out there, attack and see what happens."
On the health front. ... David Long (knee) and Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth (ankle) both missed time in the second half.
I'll have any additional injury issues worth noting in the News and Views section of the site in coming days.
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Sony Michel, Cam Akers, Jake Funk, Darrell Henderson, Javian Hawkins
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell, Robert Woods, Landen Akers
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins, Johnny Mundt, Jacob Harris
San Francisco 49ersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
In a finish befitting their storied rivalry, the 49ers and Cowboys battled to the bitter end of their nostalgic NFC wild-card meeting. But the Niners -- buoyed by a dominant defense, a strong rushing attack and myriad Cowboys mistakes -- emerged with a 23-17 victory that ensured another post-season contest.
"I said, 'These guys become everyone's heroes because of what you do in the playoffs, not what you do in the season,'" head coach Kyle Shanahan said after his team's harrowing win. "I don't think our guys totally know the rivalry. They've got an idea now. But they knew the moment, and they were ready for it."
As ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner noted, in the first playoff meeting in NFL history between two franchises with at least five Super Bowl titles each, the Niners seemed to be in control the whole way.
Even missing defensive end Nick Bosa for the entire second half and linebacker Fred Warner for the final 8:40, San Francisco's defense ruled the day. That group sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott five times, pressured him on 20 more occasions and limited Dallas' high-scoring offense to 17 points and 307 yards of offense. The Niners' run game also was up to its usual tricks, ripping off 38 carries for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
When the Niners weren't helping themselves, the Cowboys were doing their part to help them out. Prescott's third-quarter interception set up wide receiver Deebo Samuel's 26-yard touchdown run, and the Cowboys racked up 14 penalties for 89 yards, many of which Dallas coach Mike McCarthy apparently did not see the same way.
All of that led to the 49ers jumping out to a 23-7 lead with just under 12 minutes to play. As the Niners have in most games this season, they allowed the Cowboys back in the game with some mistakes of their own, including nine penalties for 58 yards.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo also missed wide-open receiver Brandon Aiyuk for a would-be big gain in the third quarter, and the signal-caller's second-half interception set up a Dallas touchdown.
"It was just an emotional game," said Garoppolo, who finished 16-of-25 passing for 172 yards with an interception for a passer rating of 67.4. "The highs and lows of it, everything just never felt like it was getting away from us. I always felt like we were in control of the game."
Indeed, the final sequence was what Niners tight end George Kittle called "wild."
The Niners appeared to have the game sewn up on a Garoppolo sneak with 40 seconds left, but left tackle Trent Williams was flagged for a false start. That gave the Cowboys a chance to drive 80 yards for the potential game-winning score.
Dallas quickly moved into San Francisco territory and had a second-and-1 at San Francisco's 41 with 14 seconds left. Prescott took off on a designed run for a gain of 24 to the Niners' 17. But the Cowboys couldn't get another snap off, and the officials declared the game over.
"Just a little bit of a roller coaster," Kittle said. "A lot of ups and downs, a lot of unknowns. I think the Niners make for great TV."
That's certainly true of at least one Niner in particular: Samuel.
When teammate K'Waun Williams intercepted Prescott deep in the third quarter Sunday, setting up the Niners with a chance to stretch their lead to double-digits.
Directly following the INT, Samuel demanded the ball in a pivotal spot.
"Deebo's been a stud all year, as everyone knows, and, right before he went out there, he just mouthed something to me, which I kind of guessed was, 'Give me the ball,'" Shanahan said after the game. "When I look at him talking that way, it's extremely motivating, and he makes it a lot easier to call plays."
The coach did indeed give Samuel the ball, and the WR took the handoff for a 26-yard TD to push the lead to 23-7. The score ended up being the difference in the Niners' 23-17 victory.
After the contest, Deebo confirmed he told the coach he wanted the pigskin.
"That's absolutely right," Samuel said. "When K'Waun got the interception, I looked at Kyle and said, 'Hey, just give me the ball. I got you.' I went out there, and next play, I scored."
As NFL.com's Kevin Patra reported, it was a TD that displayed Samuel's still burgeoning ability out of the backfield. The WR took the handoff, gained the edge, showed the patience of a running back to let the defense flow past him, then stuck his foot in the ground and got upfield, looking like Barry Sanders picking his way through defenders. Once he found open space, the afterburners kicked in, and he blasted past the defensive backs' angles for a score.
"It was just a little sweep in front of Jimmy -- but they kind of overplayed it, and I played it kind of slow, saw the cutback, and just hit it," Samuel explained. "They were overplaying it a lot today. It was just a matter of me seeing the hole and hitting it as fast as I can."
Shanahan noted that Deebo's vision in open space created the big play out of what could have been a meager gain.
"It was unbelievable," the coach said. "It's not at all where we thought the play would go, where it's designed to go. But when you've got a guy out there who's running, he's very tough, he's got the skillset, and he sees the (field) very well, usually he goes outside. He stopped, reversed the field, and if he gets a lane, he's running through everyone's arm tackles."
Samuel embodied a tough Niners team that bullied the Cowboys on Sunday. It felt like every time he touched the ball -- particularly out of the backfield -- he was unstoppable.
Deebo generated 110 scrimmage yards and the TD (a career-high 10 carries, the afore-mentioned 72 rush yards, one TD, 3 receptions, 38 receiving yards).
He became the second WR with 50-plus rush yards and at least one rush TD in a playoff game since 1950; Green Bay's James Lofton had one rush for a 71-yard TD in the 1982 Divisional Round at Dallas.
Samuel has been the engine of the Niners' offense down the stretch, averaging 108.4 scrimmage yards per game and netting 10 TDs since Week 10 while averaging 7.0 carries per game.
"I had a pretty good view of it," Garoppolo said of Samuel's TD. "He had another gear. He always does. It shocks me, it shocks defenses when they see it for the first time. He played his ass off today, he really did. Everyone did. It started with the O-line; they set the tone up front. The rest of the skill guys just followed in suit."
With the win, the 49ers (+3.5) became the first underdogs and road team to win in this postseason. It's a victory that comes 40 years and a week after "The Catch" in a win versus the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game following the 1981 season.
The Niners and Cowboys entered Sunday's meeting with a combined 67 playoff wins, tied for the most entering a playoff matchup all time. Dallas had won its previous three wild-card games, all at home, before Sunday's defeat.
Traditionally, the winner of a 49ers-Cowboys playoff game has continued on to postseason success.
The victor of five of the previous seven postseason meetings, including each of the past four, has gone on to win the Super Bowl.
The Niners' victory also moved them to 3-5 all-time against Dallas in the playoffs, and it sets up an NFC divisional-round matchup against another historic rival, the Green Bay Packers, on Saturday night at Lambeau Field.
Now the 49ers travel to Green Bay to face the Packers for the ninth time in the playoffs in their history. ...
On the health front. ... Already playing through a torn ligament in his right thumb, Garoppolo suffered another injury in Sunday's victory. This time, Garoppolo is dealing with what Shanahan called Monday a "slightly" sprained right (throwing) shoulder. According to Shanahan, the injury occurred in the second quarter.
Garoppolo joins Warner (sprained right ankle) and Bosa (concussion) on the list of key Niners nursing injuries to watch this week as the team prepares for Saturday night's game.
The good news, according to Shanahan, is that Warner and Garoppolo should be ready to go against Green Bay. In fact, Shanahan believes Garoppolo will be able to practice when the team resumes those sessions on Tuesday.
"He should be fine for practice," Shanahan said. "He had to play through some pain and stuff, but he ended up checking out all right. Just a slight shoulder sprain and he should be good for [Tuesday's] practice."
In addition to Garoppolo, Bosa and Warner, Niners defensive end Jordan Willis suffered a high ankle sprain against the Cowboys, which puts his status in doubt against the Packers.
With a short week and less time for their injured players to heal, Shanahan said the Niners will have a lighter schedule this week. They will have a late start time on Tuesday, followed by less strenuous practices on Wednesday and Thursday before traveling to Green Bay.
"I think the biggest thing about this week is going to be about recovery," Shanahan said. "So, the more sleep we can do, we'll slow most of the stuff down. I doubt we get many full-speed reps in this week. ... [We'll] make it pretty easy on the guys this week."
I'll have more on Garoppolo, the defenders and any other injury issues that arise in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...
The 49ers removed running back Raheem Mostert from the COVID-19 reserve list. Mostert reverts to injured reserve, where he landed on Sept. 14 with a knee injury.
His 2021 season lasted only four plays in the season opener as he rushed for 20 yards on two carries against the Lions. His injury required season-ending surgery. ...
Also of interest. ... Kicker Robbie Gould made all three field goal tries in Dallas, making him 18 for 18 in his postseason career. That's the most field goals made in the playoffs without a miss in NFL history. Gould made kicks from 53 and 52 yards, becoming the seventh player ever to hit two FGs of at least 50 yards in a playoff game.
And finally. ... Shanahan and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur didn't have the warmest handshake after the Packers beat the 49ers 30-28 in Week 3, but there's no bad feelings between the coaches heading into Saturday night's divisional round game at Lambeau Field.
LaFleur was an assistant when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Houston, Washington, and Atlanta earlier in his career and the two men remain good friends while competing in the NFC. Shanahan called himself a fan of LaFleur's on Monday, but added that he's not going to be rooting for him this week.
"Matt's my guy. Matt and I are totally good," Shanahan said, via 49ersWebzone.com. "I was pissed after that game because of how the game just ended. That was a tough one. It took a while to get over. But we're good. I talked to Matt a lot. He's done a hell of a job this year. I've been real happy for him, but that stops this week."
Saturday's game will be the second time that the two coaches have met in the postseason.
Shanahan's 49ers beat LaFleur's Packers 37-20 in the NFC Championship Game two years ago, but the Packers beat the Niners in each of the last two regular seasons.
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance
RBs: Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, Trey Sermon, Trenton Cannon, Raheem Mostert
WRs: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Sherfield, Jauan Jennings, Mohamed Sanu
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Tanner Hudson, Charlie Woerner
Tampa Bay BuccaneersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
As Associated Press sports writer Fred Goodall suggested, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are running out of superlatives to describe the impact of Tom Brady.
The defending Super Bowl champions improved to 5-0 in postseason games since the 44-year-old quarterback joined the Bucs in 2020, dominating the Philadelphia Eagles 31-15 in a NFC wild-card victory.
Brady didn't have a monster game statistically, but that really wasn't necessary with a re-energized defense benefiting from the return of several key players from injury, and the offense moving the ball effectively on the ground as well as through the air.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers got a number of key defensive players back in the lineup for Sunday's game against the Eagles and their return helped spur the unit to a big day.
Shaq Barrett returned from injury to record one of the team's two interceptions and the team recorded two sacks while hitting Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts 10 times over the course of the afternoon. The Eagles didn't score any points until the fourth quarter of a 31-15 Bucs win that tight end Rob Gronkowski said was fueled by the defense.
"Just the level of intensity that the defense came out with, it was just exceptional," Gronkowski said, via the team's website. "We just had to match them on the offensive side of the ball, and we did at times for sure. Just overall, we played some complementary football -- offensive, defensive and special teams. We all contributed. We all played off each other and that's how you win playoff games. You've got to bring it in all three phases at all times."
Receiver Mike Evans had nine receptions for 117 yards and one touchdown, while Brady continued to get timely contributions from some lesser-known players filling in for injured offensive playmakers Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and Chris Godwin.
"Just like I told them, I feel proud of all the ones who stepped in and stepped up," head coach Bruce Arians said.
"When you put a Bucs helmet on, there's a level of expectation," Arians added. "You don't have to be the guy you replaced, you just have to be the best you and just play your best, and everybody that has had an opportunity has done that."
The Bucs (14-4) won for the fourth straight time and have turned the ball over only once during the winning streak.
"I think everybody touching it -- our runners, receivers -- everybody's very conscious of ball security," Arians said. "Tom hasn't come close to throwing one. It's hard to beat us when we score points and don't give it to the other team."
Evans noted the impact of Brady, who extended his NFL record for postseason victories to 35, is immeasurable.
"When he came to this team I knew he was going to change the franchise. He's done that and then some," Evans said. "He makes sure we're always ready to play. He makes sure that we know what we're doing, and he makes sure that we give it our all. That's all you can ask for from a leader."
Brady threw for the third-most yards in NFL history during the regular season, yet by the time he threw the first of his two TD passes against the Eagles the Bucs were up 17-0.
Second-year running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn stepped in during the absence of Fournette and Jones, setting the tone with a 17-yard run on the first play of the game and finishing with 53 yards and one TD rushing. Fellow running back Giovanni Bernard returned from a month-long stay on injured reserve, running for 44 yards and one TD and catching five passes for 39 yards.
The Bucs have scored at least 30 points in each of their five postseason games with Brady, joining the New Orleans Saints (six straight, 2010 to 2012) and Kansas City (five in a row, 2019 to 2020) as the only teams that have done so in at least five consecutive games.
They've scored 30-plus 11 times this season and are 23-0 in such games since Brady's arrival in 2020.
Tampa Bay will host and NFC divisional playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
It's worth noting no team was better than Tampa Bay protecting the quarterback this season, allowing a league-low 23 sacks in 17 games. With All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs hobbled and sidelined most of the day with an ankle injury, Brady was sacked four times, but the offense went heavy on the ground and incorporated the league's quickest passes of the season, getting rid of the ball in 2.17 seconds per throw -- Brady's fastest since 2016, the year NFL Next Gen Stats began tracking the metric.
"It was tough conditions out there. It kind of favored more of a running game with the wind -- the way that kind of played a factor," Brady said, referring to 18 mph winds that came through, although rain wasn't a factor at kickoff the way it was feared to be earlier in the week. "We kind of found a way to kind of play well against a really good football team."
If Wirfs isn't able to play this Sunday, backup Josh Wells— himself dealing with a quad injury -- is going to have to play better than he did in relief against the Eagles.
Wirfs, who had played every offensive snap this season, was injured on the fifth play against the Eagles. He returned for three plays in the second quarter, exiting for the remainder of the day after yielding a sack. Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen also limped off at one point, but finished the game.
The big question though, is how will they regroup if Wirfs can't go?
Arians said it's a sprain. Backup Josh Wells -- whose action all season has been serving as an extra tackle -- struggled filling in for Wirfs. Also, how much will Jensen be affected by his ankle injury?
"Hopefully we can keep our offensive line intact because I think they're the best in football," Arians said. "Tristan especially. They'll be working on that ankle nonstop. I think staying healthy, turnover free and taking the ball away -- that's a good recipe."
Fournette, who led the league in scrimmage yards last postseason, could return this week, which would help alleviate the pressure on Brady.
"He tried to hit top speed a couple times and he could feel it," Arians said. "Until he's full speed, we're not gonna use him."
I'll have more on Fournette, Jones and the other injuries in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...
And finally, for the record. ... The Buccaneers' win over the Eagles on Sunday was the 35th postseason win of Brady's career. That's not just an NFL record, it dwarfs second-place Joe Montana, who won 16 postseason games as a starting quarterback.
Brady also threw two touchdown passes, giving him 85 in the postseason in his career. Again, no one else is close: Montana and Aaron Rodgers are tied for second, with 45 career touchdown passes in the postseason.
Overall, Brady has completed 1,135 of 1,801 passes in the playoffs, for 12,720 yards, with 85 touchdowns and 38 interceptions. His playoff numbers are so far ahead of the rest of the NFL that the records may prove to be unbreakable.
QBs: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Giovani Bernard, Le'Veon Bell, Ronald Jones
WRs: Mike Evans, Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Jaelon Darden, Scott Miller, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate
Tennessee TitansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2021
Running back Derrick Henry is expected to be back in action at Nissan Stadium when No. 1-seeded Tennessee opens its playoff run after earning the AFC's bye in the wild-card round.
Head coach Mike Vrabel said Monday that there is a "big week" of practice is ahead for Henry, Ben Arthur of the Tennessean reports.
"It's going to be a big week of practice for us to continue to get Derrick back out there and get him acclimated to running the football and to seeing blocking schemes and seeing where guys are and to see where the cuts are," Vrabel explained.
The Titans will look for Henry to get acclimated running the ball again in practice Tuesday through Thursday ahead of Saturday's AFC divisional-round game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Nashville.
Henry was slated to practice in pads Tuesday. How well he does in a contact practice will go a long way toward determining whether and how much he can play on Saturday.
"I think that's a good step for him to have contact," Vrabel said of Henry. "It's been a while since he's had contact and had to do these things that come close to replicating what's going to be asked of him in a football game. We'll have a week to work, see how he feels and make a decision."
The Titans designated Henry, who missed the past nine games with a fractured foot, for return to practice from injured reserve on Jan. 4, giving them 21 days to add him to the 53-man roster.
Even though he hasn't seen any game action since Oct. 31, Henry will have an impact as soon as he puts on a Titans jersey.
"Derrick is a heck of a player," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "Any time we can get him back out here working, and working his way to going out and competing with us, is going to be huge for us."
As ESPN.com's Turron Davenport reminded readers, before his injury, Henry was leading the NFL with 219 carries for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns through eight games. He finished tied for sixth in the league in rushing touchdowns and ninth in rushing yards even though he missed the rest of the regular season.
Tennessee had a 6-2 record before Henry was injured. The Titans' winning formula was simple: Keep feeding him.
"The balance is wins and losses," offensive coordinator Todd Downing said in October. "That's the scale that I'm trying to keep balanced. Getting Derrick Henry the ball gives us a better chance to win."
Downing vowed to avoid "jerking the wheel" on the offense when Henry went down. That was his way of saying that he would stick to the run.
The rushing attack remained solid without Henry, as the Titans went 6-3 without him.
D'Onta Foreman's 133 carries, 566 yards and 3 touchdowns led a committee that included Adrian Peterson, Dontrell Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols.
They combined for 223 carries for 1,036 yards and 6 touchdowns. But the offense was missing a true, consistent home run threat.
Henry's return brings back one of the team's most explosive players.
Foreman and Hilliard combined for five rushing attempts that gained 20 or more yards, including Hilliard's 68-yard touchdown run against the New England Patriots.
By comparison, Henry alone had three of his carries go for 20 or more yards, including a game-changing 76-yard touchdown run in the Titans' 34-31 win over the Buffalo Bills and another 60-yarder in Tennessee's 33-30 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Since entering the NFL in 2016, Henry's 44 scrimmage plays that have gone for at least 20 yards is seventh among all running backs, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Henry has 16 scrimmage plays that resulted in at least a 40-yard gain, which ties him with New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley for the most over that same span.
"Simply put," Davenport wrote, "Henry changes how defenses attempt to stop the Titans."
Davenport went on to explain that opposing teams will at times put eight in the box to try to stop him. But well-executed blocks, along with Henry's ability to get yards after contact and accelerate from the defense, lead to long touchdown runs. Stacking the box also opens up passing lanes for Tannehill when the Titans utilize play-action because Henry greatly influences linebackers who are forced to respect his rushing ability.
Tannehill's play-action passing numbers in 2019 and 2020 with Henry in the backfield have been impressive. According to ESPN Stats and Information, in 2019, Tannehill completed 76.9 percent of his pass attempts for 1,353 yards and 12 touchdowns off of play-action. Tannehill averaged 12.53 yards per attempt that season.
Last season, Tannehill completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,618 yards and 11 touchdowns on play-action, and he averaged 9.46 yards per attempt.
Henry has a week of practice under his belt and is working with head trainer Frank Piraino to get his conditioning up to par. Nothing can replicate reps that come in games, so it remains to be seen how much Henry will be able to handle in his first game back.
Tennessee has found success with Foreman and Hilliard, which shouldn't force the Titans to run Henry too much in his return.
But, the Titans are a team that will go with the hot hand on game day.
If Henry gets into a groove, they will likely keep feeding him. That will allow them to play the physical style of football that steadily grinds away at opposing defenses like a steady flow of water erodes rocks.
Henry's playoff performance in the 2019 season was one for the ages, as he finished with 446 rushing yards. He became the first player in NFL history to run for 175 or more yards in back-to-back games, as he led the Titans to the AFC Championship game.
However, considering last season was a bitter ending -- when the Baltimore Ravens held Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries and beat the Titans 20-13 win in the wild-card round of the playoffs -- Davenport believes the Titans' star could have an extra bit of motivation.
With or without Henry, Vrabel stressed that the Titans' priority against the Bengals is running the ball.
Cincinnati has the league's fifth-rated run defense, but it placed starting defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi on season-ending injured reserve Monday with a foot injury and standout defensive end Trey Hendrickson is currently in concussion protocol.
"We're going to need to run the football," Vrabel said. "We're going to need to do that to be who we are and to be at our best and not be one dimensional. To be able to run it to set up things to be able to run our offense. That's always been critical."
That said, they can pass.
Since becoming a starter for the Titans in 2019, Tannehill's regular-season record is 30-13. He is the franchise's first starting quarterback since Warren Moon (1987 to 1993) to direct his team to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. During the 2021 regular season, he passed for 3,734 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he added seven rushing touchdowns.
Tannehill and Moon are the only players to record multiple seasons with at least 3,500 passing yards for the franchise.
For the third consecutive season, Tannehill's top target was wide receiver A.J. Brown, who totaled 63 receptions for 869 yards and five touchdowns. With 2,995 career receiving yards, Brown has more than any player in franchise history through his first three NFL seasons other than Charlie Hennigan (3,336 from 1960-62).
Especially with Henry, assuming he plays coming off an extended absence, the passing attack will be a factor. ...
Worth noting. ... The Titans are 2-3 in the postseason at Nissan Stadium, with the losses all at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. They haven't won a playoff game at home since edging Pittsburgh 34-31 in overtime in the divisional round in January 2003.
Cincinnati has never won on the road in seven playoff games.
Tennessee sold out Saturday's game before the opponent was set, and Vrabel is expecting an amazing atmosphere for kickoff.
"It is playoff football in January," Vrabel said. "We have had amazing support the entire season. ... Hopefully they are ready to get back into our stadium and have an atmosphere that helps us win on Sunday. ..."
On the health front. ... The Titans are healthy after a week off as they prepare for Saturday's divisional round game.
All 53 players practiced. Defensive lineman Teair Tart (ankle) was the only one who was limited.
Defensive lineman Naquan Jones (knee) and cornerback Buster Skrine (hamstring) were full participants.
Henry won't appear on the injury report until he's added to the active roster. I'll have more on his progress in the News and Views section as the game draws nearer. ...
A few final notes. ... The Titans on Monday moved fullback Tory Carter to the team's "Designated for Return from Injured Reserve" list, clearing his return to practice.
This designation opens up a 21-day window for Carter to practice with the team, and he will not count against the team's 53-man roster until being activated from injured reserve.
Carter suffered an injury in the team's December 12 game vs the Jaguars, and he's missed the last four games. An undrafted player out of LSU, Carter has played in eight games for the Titans this season, with two starts.
Also on Monday, the Titans activated running back Jordan Wilkins to the practice squad and off the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside, Kevin Hogan
RBs: Derrick Henry, D'Onta Foreman, Jeremy McNichols, Dontrell Hilliard, Khari Blasingame, Darrynton Evans, Jordan Wilkins
WRs: A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Nick Westbrook_Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Racey McMath, Dez Fitzpatrick, Cameron Batson
TEs: Geoff Swaim, MyCole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser