Team Notes week 18 2017
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFFDirectly 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. ...
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Atlanta FalconsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio framed it, "The best news for the Falcons is that they managed to secure a playoff berth in Week 17. The good news is that a couple of their key offensive players have made some history."
According to the NFL, quarterback Matt Ryan finished the season with 41,796 yards. That's the highest total for any player in his first 10 seasons, surpassing Peyton Manning's 41,626.
Likewise, receiver Julio Jones has gotten to 9,000 receiving yards faster than any other player. It took Jones just 95 games to reach the milestone, passing San Diego's Lance Alworth (98 games), Detroit's Calvin Johnson (102), St. Louis' Torry Holt (105), Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (107) and Minnesota's Randy Moss (107).
While Devonta Freeman didn't get 1,000 yards rushing for the third consecutive season, he essentially played in 13 games (he left the Dallas game on the second play). He had 1,182 yards from scrimmage (865 rushing and 317 receiving) and scored eight touchdowns (seven rushing, one receiving).
Ryan finished the season with 4,095 passing yards, going over the 4,000-passing yard mark for the seventh-straight season.
Ryan's string of 4,000-yard seasons is tied for the second-longest active streak in the NFL, and it is tied for the third-longest in NFL history.
With Ryan, Jones, Freeman and an array of other offensive weapons, the Falcons could be one of the most dangerous six seeds the NFL playoffs have ever seen -- if they can keep their momentum going.
With a gritty win over the Carolina Panthers, the Falcons became the only team from the NFC to make the playoffs in 2016 and 2017.
The Falcons earned their second straight playoff berth - 14th in franchise history - with a 22-10 victory in Atlanta on Sunday.
The first team that will get a chance to slow them down is the Rams, Saturday night.
It might help that the Falcons had to battle their way into the postseason with a 22-10 victory over Carolina. According to Associated Press sports writer George Henry, the best sign head coach Dan Quinn saw against the Panthers was a plus-three turnover margin.
Atlanta has four interceptions over the last two games - as many as it had in the first 15 to rank second-worst in the NFL - so maybe it's the start of a good trend.
"Having a mindset for it is one thing," Quinn said, "but having it come to life on game day, that's another."
But as Henry noted, there are other areas to clean up. The rushing attack overcame its least-efficient game of the season, averaging just 2.3 yards on 26 rushing attempts. Three of the seven penalties came on punt returns that cost Atlanta about 60 yards in field position.
Atlanta converted just one of five trips to the red zone with Matt Bryant bailing out the offense each time and kicking five field goals in the second half. The offense has yet to shake its penchant for dropping passes - it tied for the league lead - and false start flags.
But there also was plenty for Quinn to like.
Freeman, after losing fumbles in the last two games, had no issues in 20 touches.
"You really saw the ball high and tight for him, especially on the touchdown, all the way down to the ground," Quinn said. "He's worked hard at that. It really showed."
Freeman finished the game with 108 total yards, including a career-high 85 receiving yards on nine receptions - second-highest receptions total.
Freeman also caught his first receiving touchdown of the season - seventh of his career, which ties him with former Falcon running back Jamal Anderson for the fourth most receiving touchdowns by a running back in franchise history.
But a team that was built to perform on offense, now has a top 10-ranked defense. The Falcons spent $90.7 million on the offense and $59.1 million on the young defense, which continued to improve this season.
The defensed finished the regular season ranked eighth in scoring defense (21 points per game) and 10th in total defense (323.1 yards per game). The defense finished eighth in rushing defense (105.2 yards per game) and 12th in pass defense (217.9 per game).
The Falcons have not ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense since the 1998 team, which went to the Super Bowl.
Against the Panthers, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was an inside force with a sack, two quarterback hits and two tackles for lost yardage. Rookie end Takk McKinley, a late first-round draft pick from UCLA, is emerging as a force from the left and right sides.
And middle linebacker Deion Jones, with team highs in tackles (138) and interceptions (three), has become the undisputed leader of the defense in his second season.
Jones loved how the Falcons forced Panthers quarterback Cam Newton into the worst passer rating of his 109-game career. Even though Newton was without a strong receiving corps and running back Jonathan Stewart was sidelined by a back injury, Jones was pleased with how the defense held Carolina to one touchdown while Atlanta's offense was grinding through a long afternoon.
"We have our offense's back, and that's what we always talk about," Jones said. "I feel like if they have the ball, they can do amazing things with it once they get in rhythm. It's just a matter of giving it to them."
The offense has yet to match last season's output when it led the league in scoring. Ryan, the 2016 MVP, finished with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He had career bests with 34 TDs and seven picks last season.
As ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure suggested, to succeed in the postseason, Ryan will have to display the same type of form that made him the MVP last season. Jones has to be Julio Jones. And Freeman and Tevin Coleman have to find running lanes despite dominating Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald being in front of them.
The offensive line has to be stout after an average performance during the regular season. In the season finale, Pro Bowl center Alex Mack played through a calf strain and left guard Andy Levitre exited after aggravating a triceps injury.
But whatever the case, 10 months after blowing the biggest lead in Super Bowl history, are back in the playoffs for a second straight year. They're a No. 6 seed, but they're in the mix. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Jones didn't practice for the Falcons on Tuesday, which isn't a great surprise given the cautious approach the Falcons have taken with one of their biggest stars over the course of the season.
Jones didn't practice last Wednesday, for example, but returned to work later in the week and played last Sunday. He's listed with ankle and rib injuries this time around and should be in the lineup against the Rams if things play out as usual in the next few days. Indeed, Jones told AJC.com's D. Orlando Ledbetter on Wednesday, "I feel great. I'll be ready to go."
Freeman sat with a knee injury to mark his first appearance on the injury report since returning from a concussion in early December.
The Falcons promoted running back Terrance Magee from the practice squad when they placed left guard Andy Levitre on injured reserve earlier on Tuesday, so they have some extra depth in the event Freeman's absence on Tuesday wasn't simply about maintenance. ...
We'll be following up with daily injury report updates released by the league and via our News and Views section through the inactive announcements in the 90 minutes leading up to each game's respective kickoffs. ...
And finally. ... Bryant went 5 of 5 against the Panthers, which is the most field goals he's made in a game all season. Bryant also made a 56-yard field goal, which was the second-longest field goal of the season.
On Wednesday, Bryant was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his effort.
For what it's worth, Bryant's 1,029 points since joining the Falcons in 2009 ranks third in the NFL over that span.
QBs: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Matt Simms
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward
WRs: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams, Andre Roberts
TEs: Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert, Levine Toilolo
Buffalo BillsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
The Buffalo Bills beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. Then the watch party began.
The Bills win alone wouldn't end their 17-year playoff drought. They needed the Cincinnati Bengals to come back and beat the Baltimore Ravens.
The Bengals were trailing by three points with 44 seconds to go when Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd on a 49-yard touchdown pass to seal a 31-27 win.
Bills fans watching from the concourse of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami went crazy.
The Bills have not been to the playoffs since 1999, the famous Music City Miracle when they lost to the Titans on a controversial trick-play kickoff-return touchdown in Tennessee. That game was played on the eighth day of the 21st century, and the Bills haven't made it back to the postseason since, suffering through the longest active playoff drought of any team in the four major professional sports leagues.
As the Sports Xchange suggests, what made this so interesting is that the Bills were forecast to be, at best, a five- or six-win team, especially after they traded players like wide receiver Sammy Watkins, cornerback Ronald Darby, and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Many in the fan base thought they were tanking so that they could improve their draft position in 2018.
Instead, they won nine games for just the third time in the drought, and this time that was good enough, so they head to Jacksonville to meet up with their old coach, Doug Marrone, who contributed two non-playoff years to the Bills' drought.
"At the time, we kept saying, 'I don't think we're tanking, we're not rebuilding, we have too much talent for that,'" said center Eric Wood, the second-longest tenured Bill, speaking for his teammates. "We're getting rid of some good players, but I don't see how we're tanking unless they're going to take Kyle Williams out of here, LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor, and all this talent and hard workers we have. It's not going to work out for them if their plans are to tank. It's a special day.
But there's a problem. The Bills will go to Jacksonville quite possibly with McCoy on the sideline.
McCoy, who had 346 touches this season and played in all 16 games, suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter at Miami and had to be carted off the field. Afterward, he was in a walking boot, though it was learned that X-rays were negative.
"He's gonna have a chance, we'll see," head coach Sean McDermott said Monday. "We're continuing to go through the medical evaluation on that. We got some good news this morning, so we'll just continue to monitor that."
The Bills pushed forward without McCoy against the Dolphins as Marcus Murphy and Mike Tolbert picked up the slack, but the possibility of not having McCoy against the Jaguars is troubling. If he can play, head coach Sean McDermott said, "That would be big. He's obviously a big part of what we do, but that said, I love what we saw yesterday, which is true of our entire team. You've seen 53 guys prepare all season long and that was on display yesterday when Murph stepped up and did his job, and Mike Tolbert as well.
"Our coaches do a great job of preparing not only the starters but the guys who play after that."
Meanwhile, Williams lived out every defensive tackle's dream when McDermott gave him the chance to score a touchdown on a goal-line play. And Williams did not blow the opportunity. Wide receiver Deonte Thompson drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone in the third quarter that gave the Bills a first-and-goal at the 1. McDermott sent Williams into the game, and Taylor handed him the ball. Williams crashed up the middle and scored, then performed a touchdown celebration with his teammates.
"I'm starting my 10K chase," he said, a laughing reference to McCoy surpassing the 10,000-yard barrier a couple weeks ago. "I've got 9,999 to go, but one step at a time."
Beyond all that, how close McCoy can get to performing at his usual level will be a key this weekend.
The Bills have the worst pass offense in the NFL for several reasons, and some of those were on display in Miami: Taylor missed some easy throws, and turned a few routine plays into difficult ones because of his erratic ball placement.
Still, for the most part, in the biggest game of his career, Taylor was more than good enough to deliver the victory in Miami as he completed 19 of 27 for 204 yards and TD, and once again played turnover-free. Charles Clay, as he usually is against Miami, was the top target with six catches for 64 yards, and fellow tight end Nick O'Leary got wide open to catch Taylor's 26-yard TD on the first series of the game.
Kelvin Benjamin had a tough time with Miami's cornerbacks and was held to two catches for 27 yards. Zay Jones, who had gone three games without a catch, made two for 25 yards against Miami.
This weekend, they'll be going up against a Jacksonville defense that's known for pass defense.
So it's safe to say McCoy's status is something we'll be following closely in coming days. Any amount of ligament damage is going to be an issue for the guy who carries the load for the Bills offense (1,586 yards from scrimmage), and seriously compromises their chances against the Jags.
McDermott knows that too, and if nothing else is giving the Jaguars one more guessing game to worry about this week. And that means most of us will be playing that same game all week.
Indeed, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter early this week that McCoy, who didn't practice Wednesday, will be a "game-time decision" and a "close call."
In addition to McCoy, five other Bills players will not practice Wednesday: Thompson (shoulder), LB Matt Milano (hamstring), RT Jordan Mills (ankle), CB Shareece Wright (concussion), and Williams (groin).
Watch the News and Views section of the site for more through Sunday's inactive announcement.
QBs: Tyrod Taylor, Nathan Peterman
RBs: LeSean McCoy, Mike Tolbert, Joe Banyard, Taiwan Jones
WRs: Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, Deonte Thompson, Andre Holmes, Corey Brown, Brandon Tate
TEs: Charles Clay, Nick O'Leary, Logan Thomas
Carolina PanthersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
Head coach Ron Rivera sent a clear message to his players Monday: Forget about Atlanta.
Rivera took only a couple questions during his press conference about his team's uninspiring performance in a 22-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday before saying he was done talking about it. Rather than allow a bad New Year's Day football hangover to linger, the two-time NFL Coach of the Year told his players it is time to move on and turn their attention to next Sunday's NFC wild card game at New Orleans.
"The big thing that we need to do more than anything else is to move forward and get past the game we just played," Rivera said. "Right now that game isn't going to do anything for us."
The Panthers had plenty of momentum entering the regular season finale having won seven of their previous eight games.
Had Carolina beat Atlanta, they would have won the NFC South and had a home playoff game.
Now, as Associated Press sports writer Steve Reed put it, "They're limping into the postseason and likely will have to win three in a row on the road to reach the Super Bowl."
Cam Newton's struggles in one of the worst games of his career could be cause for concern entering the postseason. Newton missed on his first eight passes against Atlanta, his throws often sailing high and wide of his intended targets and could never get on track. It hasn't helped that the Panthers wide receiver position has been besieged by injuries, leaving Newton with a cast of no-name players.
One thing is for certain: Newton and the offense will need to be on its game Sunday against the Saints.
The Panthers (11-5) don't appear to match up well with the Saints (11-5), particularly on defense where they've been unable to slow Drew Brees and the NFC South champions.
New Orleans clobbered Carolina 34-13 in Charlotte in September, then beat them again 31-21 on Dec. 3 at the Superdome to take control of the NFC South.
Panthers coordinator Steve Wilks, who said he has already received interview requests for head coaching vacancies with the Giants, Colts and Lions, wants to stop the Saints running game first.
The Saints rushed for 149 and 148 yards against Carolina this season. That's the most and second-most yards the Panthers have surrendered.
Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara found gaping holes against the Panthers, racking up four touchdowns in those two games. The Panthers struggled with wrapping up Kamara and getting him to the ground.
"Their running game right now is dynamic," Wilks said. "That is the most important thing we have to stop."
Brees has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions. A repeat of that and the Panthers likely will have an early exit.
Carolina's biggest concern, though, has to be its own offense.
Against the Falcons, the Panthers wanted to keep Newton from taking too much contact during the regular-season finale, and that mostly worked out.
Still, he was active enough to rush for a team-best 59 yards in the game. That gave him a career-high 754 rushing yards this season (13 more yards on the ground than he gained in 2012).
Newton joined retired Michael Vick as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with three seasons of more than 700 yards rushing.
But most of the attention was on Newton's errant throws. His first nine passes fell incomplete, and by the end the Falcons were catching his passes. He was intercepted three times.
"A couple of throws got away from me there at the end," Newton said. "I was pressing a little too much."
As the Sports Xchange noted, the Panthers are usually one of the best teams in the NFL at sustaining drives, but that wasn't the case in the loss at Atlanta. They had time of possession at slightly more than 25 minutes.
"Too many blunders, that's not us," Newton said. "Things that are easily correctable. That's the optimistic approach about all of this."
The time of possession was a big decline from the season as a whole. Carolina finished with 32:17 minutes of time of possession per game, ranking fourth in the NFL. That broke the franchise record in that category. The previous mark was 31:54 in 2013.
Time of possession will be a key against the Saints.
Newton can't have another 0-for-9 start like he had against Atlanta. The offense can't be efficient rushing for 87 yards like it did against the Falcons.
Rivera said there's a need "to complete more passes, that we run the ball better."
Meanwhile, as for the it's-hard-to-beat-a-team-three-times theory, Reed notes that doesn't hold much water in the NFL.
Since 1970, there have been 20 teams that went 2-0 against an opponent during the regular season before facing them again in the postseason. Thirteen times those teams completed the sweep by winning the playoff game.
And some help could be on the way for Carolina.
Rivera said he's optimistic that safety Kurt Coleman will be back after missing Sunday's game with an ankle injury and running back Jonathan Stewart should return after sitting out against the Falcons with a stiff back. Also, guard Trai Turner could return if he clears the NFL concussion protocol. Turner has missed the last three games.
Devin Funchess was the only skill player not on the field for the start of Wednesday's practice. Stewart was working on a limited basis. ...
Other notes of interest. ... The Panthers placed tight end Chris Manhertz on injured reserve Tuesday. Manhertz played in all 16 games and caught two passes for 17 yards but a high-ankle sprain would have kept him out of the playoffs.
Carolina promoted offensive tackle Blaine Clausell from the practice squad in a corresponding move.
And finally. ... Graham Gano set a team record by making 96.7 percent of his field-goal attempts (29-for-30). That was the best rate in the NFL this season.
QBs: Cam Newton, Derek Anderson
RBs: Christian McCaffrey, Jonathan Stewart, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne
WRs: Devin Funchess, Russell Shepard, Brenton Bersin
TEs: Ed Dickson, Greg Olsen
Jacksonville JaguarsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
As ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco noted this week, the Jaguars were built to win in the playoffs -- with a stout defense and a strong running game.
The defense has stumbled a bit at the end of the season but still remains one of the NFL's best units. The running game, however, needs to improve significantly heading into the team's playoff opener against Buffalo on Sunday.
That may be a good matchup for the Jaguars (10-6), though, because the Bills (9-7) have one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL.
"I think that we're going to go back and plan and take a good look at things," head coach Doug Marrone said. "We're not going to be out there celebrating the new year. We're going to be working and seeing what we have to do to get ourselves ready."
The Jaguars entered Week 17 ranked first in rush offense (145.3 yards per game) but weren't as effective in the final six games of the season, when they averaged just 114.6 yards per game. They've rushed for fewer than 100 yards five times this season and four have come in the past six weeks, including Sunday's 83-yard performance in a 15-10 loss at Tennessee.
Leonard Fournette has had three of his five worst rushing totals in the past six games, as well, including 25 yards in a Week 12 loss in Arizona.
According to DiRocco, it's not a coincidence that the Jaguars are 3-3 in those final six games, either. The Jaguars built their offensive identity around being a physical, tough, run-first team, and when they haven't had as much success running the ball, they've had trouble winning games.
"That's who we are. There's no doubt about it," receiver Allen Hurns said. "Yeah, there's been some games where we've passed the ball pretty well, but our run game is who we are as the offense. Of course we want to be balanced, but in order to be balanced you've got to get the running game going, no matter what it is.
"If we've got to find out different personnel, run out of three-wides, or whatever it may be, we've all got to get on the same page and get this thing rolling because we want to win in the playoffs and we're going to need our running game."
That means getting Fournette going. He had 69 yards on 19 carries against the Titans, which is 3.6 yards per carry. His -- and the Jaguars' -- longest run on Sunday was 9 yards. The Jaguars are 4-1 when he runs for more than 100 yards.
Fournette is more concerned with another set of numbers than his total yardage and per-carry average.
"It's about winning," he said. "I don't care too much about no run game or whatever. It's about winning."
That means running it against the Bills. Buffalo has given up more than 100 yards rushing nine times this season, including 298 to New Orleans in Week 10. They're 4-5 in those games.
"We've got to keep working on finding ways to run the ball, working on creating holes for our backs and giving them an opportunity to go get some yards," quarterback Blake Bortles said. "I thought Leonard ran hard today for what he had. We've got to stay with it and continue to try and find it and come up with different ways to create some lanes for him to go."
All that said, for the second straight week, a Jaguars loss was accompanied by what could be perceived as good news.
Two weeks ago, the loss to San Francisco was softened by the news that Tennessee had lost to the Rams, thus giving the Jaguars the AFC South title.
On Sunday, the Jaguars lost to the Titans for the second time this season. However, Jacksonville was spared a third game against the Titans in the opening round of the playoffs when Cincinnati beat Baltimore on Sunday, knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs and giving the No. 6 AFC seed to Buffalo. As a result, the Jaguars will host the Bills instead of a Tennessee team that has given Jacksonville problems.
By winning the AFC South, the Jaguars will host a playoff game for the first time since January 23, 2000 when they fell to the Titans in the AFC Championship game.
The Jaguars are returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, snapping a nine-season playoff drought that was tied for the fourth-longest in the NFL entering 2017.
Buffalo might be without its leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, who suffered an injured ankle on Sunday in the win over Miami. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor may be asked to carry the offense. ...
For the Jaguars, when wide receiver Marqise Lee hurt his ankle in mid-December, word was that he would be back in action in time for the playoffs.
Time is running short for that prognosis to come true and Lee hasn’t made it back onto the field yet. Lee, who missed the last two games of the regular season, remained out during the first Jaguars practice of the week on Wednesday.
Lee wasn’t practicing in the final weeks of the regular season either and it may be tough for him to get the green light to play this weekend without a big change in his practice workload over the next couple of days.
Left tackle Cam Robinson and defensive tackle Abry Jones were limited participants in practice after sitting out the final game of the regular season, so the outlook is more positive on those fronts than it is with Lee. ...
We'll be following up on Lee in the News and Views section of the site through the inactive announcement. ...
Meanwhile, Marrone's past and present colliding in the playoffs is a major storyline here -- not matter how much the coach downplays it.
Marrone spent two seasons (2013-14) as head coach of the Bills before walking away with $4 million thanks to an uncommon opt-out clause in his contract.
He knows he can't elude the topic. He just doesn't want to entertain it.
"What's past is past," Marrone said Monday. "I'll tell you guys the truth. My goal and my function - and I'm going to shoot everyone straight - this stuff happened so long ago, OK? There's obviously been a lot of stuff out there. That stuff is done. It's over. I can't put it any simpler than that.
"So I'm not going to take away my primary responsibility to look back on a situation that occurred, what, three years ago."
Marrone led Buffalo to its first winning record (9-7) in a decade in 2014 and then abruptly quit a few days after the end of the regular season. His contract gave him a small window to walk away with the significant payout.
His decision stunned players, assistant coaches, management, owners and fans.
There were reports Marrone was unsure about the direction of the franchise under new ownership and believed he would land an open job with Atlanta, Chicago, the New York Jets or San Francisco. He was considered the front-runner for the Jets job until the New York Daily News ran a column citing unnamed people saying Marrone was a control freak and a phony who belittled his staff.
At the NFL Combine last year, Marrone acknowledged he made a mistake by leaving Buffalo and said he had relayed that to Bills co-owner Terry Pegula.
Marrone landed in Jacksonville as the team's offensive line coach. He spent two years under Gus Bradley and was named interim coach for the final two games of the 2016 season. Marrone got the job full time last January and meshed seamlessly with decision-maker Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell.
"You go back and it's always people make stuff bigger than it is," Marrone said. "My job is to coach this team; it's plain and simple."
QBs: Blake Bortles, Chad Henne, Brandon Allen
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant
WRs: Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, Allen Hurns, Max McCaffrey, Jaelen Strong, Marqise Lee
TEs: Marcedes Lewis, Ben Koyack
Kansas City ChiefsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
According to ESPN.com's Adam Teicher, Andy Reid wanted to give Kareem Hunt the day off in Sunday's final regular season game and let the Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back rest for the upcoming playoffs.
Hunt had other ideas and was able to convince Reid to let him play in Sunday's 27-24 win over the Denver Broncos. Winning that battle with Reid also allowed Hunt to win the NFL rushing title.
His 35 rushing yards, all coming on his first-quarter touchdown run, allowed Hunt to finish the season with 1,327 yards. That pushed him past Todd Gurley, who sat out Sunday's game for the Los Angeles Rams.
"He came to me and he wanted to play and he wanted to do this thing," Reid said of Hunt, who needed 14 yards against the Broncos to pass Gurley. "I fought him a little bit on it, and he won that fight. He told me he'd get it taken care of quick, and he did that. My hat goes off to him."
Hunt had just the one carry and also caught one pass for four yards. He was in for just five snaps.
Reid's plan for much of the week leading up to the Broncos game was for Hunt not to play. The Chiefs on Sunday rested several other key offensive players, including quarterback Alex Smith, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
"He waited until later (in the week) when he kind of saw the direction I was going," Reid said of Hunt and his reduced role in practice.
Reid's decision was complicated by the illness of backup Charcandrick West, who didn't make the trip to Denver. The only other true running back, Akeem Hunt, injured his ankle in the second quarter, limiting him to four carries.
Fullback Anthony Sherman was Kansas City's leading rusher on Sunday with 40 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Hunt said he appreciated winning the rushing title but would have understood had Reid held him out.
"If it happens, it happens," Hunt said of his attitude about the rushing title. "Honestly, it wasn't on my radar because I wasn't supposed to play. I got told (Saturday night) that I had to dress and play.
"I just had to be ready. We were low on numbers at the running back position. Akeem and Sherm were the only guys there, so I had to dress and have their backs."
Meanwhile, the Chiefs won't get a first-round playoff bye. Their stretch of six losses in seven games in the middle of the season saw to that.
Still, the Chiefs should be in good shape for Saturday's wild-card playoff game against the Titans at Arrowhead Stadium.
"It was good to get a couple bumps and bruises healed up," Reid said. "I've done this before and it's worked out OK."
Reid knows Titans will be formidable foe.
"We had a chance to play them last year and they've got a couple of new people there," Reid said. "It's an active defense. Their offense is explosive, they've got good runners, good receivers and a good quarterback. Offensive line is tough. They've got a good football team worthy of being in that position."
The Titans brought a 7-6 record to Kansas City in Week 15 of the 2016 season to take on the 10-3 Chiefs. Hill ran 68 yards out of the backfield for a touchdown and Smith scrambled for another score, putting the Chiefs up 14-0 in the first quarter. They carried a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter, but Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota led three scoring drives in the final 12 minutes, with kicker Ryan Succop booting a 53-yard field goal to send Tennessee to a stunning 19-17 upset victory.
Smith finished the game with a pedestrian 15-of-28 passing line for 163 yards. He threw an end-zone interception from the Tennessee 7-yard line midway through the third quarter. That ended a potential scoring drive that likely would have given Kansas City the win.
The Titans have stifled Smith in three matchups during his five seasons in Kansas City. The Chiefs won just one of those three games, with Smith completing just 53 percent of his passes with one touchdown and five interceptions for a passer rating of just 54.0.
Reid doesn't believe Smith's struggles against the Titans mean much heading into this postseason matchup.
"I know last time he started off like gangbusters with a big shot to (former wide receiver) Jeremy Maclin and so on, had a big run with Tyreek," Reid said. "Then things were just kind of average after that. I think it's just by coincidence."
Reid maintains confidence this year's edition of the Chiefs can score when needed, including against a talented Titans defense.
"I'm confident in them," Reid said of his offense. "There's good chemistry there. But every week's important that you get yourself prepared and ready to go. That's where we're at and what we need to do. ..."
Other notes of interest. ... A couple of injuries challenged the team's depth and present the potential need for a couple of roster moves this week.
Wide receiver De'Anthony Thomas suffered the severest of the team's injuries in Denver. Filling in for Hill on punt-return duties, Thomas fielded a punt over his shoulder and went down awkwardly under the weight of tackler Marcus Rios. Thomas suffered a broken tibia and underwent surgery following the game in Denver.
"His surgery they said went well," Reid said. "Other than that, he's going to be up there for a day or so and then they'll make the decision on when he can come back (home) after that."
The team announced that Thomas, Akeem Hunt and cornerback Phillip Gaines (elbow) were placed on injured reserve on Tuesday (Gaines on Wednesday).
According to Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star, the Chiefs re-signed veteran running back C.J. Spiller on Tuesday. That's the fifth stint on the team this year for Spiller, who was up and down from the roster earlier this year when injuries hit.
The 30-year-old Spiller had two carries against the Raiders in Week 7, but gained a yard and lost a yard, leaving no net yards on the back of his football card. He has eight carries the last two seasons, including time with the Jets, Seahawks and Saints as well.
Spiller could handle kickoff returns. ...
Wide receiver Marcus Kemp joins Spiller in returning to the roster in their place. Kemp was active and played eight snaps against the Steelers early this season.
In addition to making roster alterations on Tuesday, the Chiefs also started practicing for Saturday's game against the Titans.
Wide receiver Albert Wilson (hamstring), defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins (knee) and defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches (ankle) all sat out the practice. Wilson and Nunez-Roches all left last Sunday's game with their injuries and the team will practice twice more before issuing injury designations for the game.
The Chiefs also continue to battle a flu bug that was swept the team in recent weeks. West remained in Kansas City on Sunday due to the illness.
"We've tried to quarantine the guys as best we could, get them out of the building," Reid said. "Some of the guys missed because of that. Charcandrick we left back because of that."
The Chiefs held four players out of practice Friday due to illness, but other than West the other three played in Sunday's game. ...
Wilson turned in a sterling performance against the Broncos, hauling in a career-high 10 catches on 11 targets for 147 yards, the first 100-yard receiving day of his five-year career. Wilson left the game late in the fourth quarter with tightness in his hamstring, but Reid expects Wilson to play Saturday. ...
Rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked sharp in his debut on Sunday against the Broncos, according to head coach Andy Reid.
"He managed the game well, getting in and out of the huddle and doing all those things," Reid said. "I thought he did that well. He ran the 2-minute well. There are some things there that were good to see. I thought he handled things, he did a good job of handling things."
Mahomes finished the game 22-of-35 passing for 284 yards and an interception for a passer rating of 76.4. Third-string quarterback Tyler Bray relieved Mahomes for two fourth-quarter drives before the rookie returned to lead the team's final drive culminating in a game-winning field goal.
Mahomes showed off his ability to deliver dazzling throws on the run and under pressure. But he also showed some need for seasoning when it comes to decision making and reining in his powerful arm. ...
And finally. ... Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy and special teams coach Dave Toub are candidates for the head coaching vacancy in Indianapolis.
The Bears have also requested to interview Nagy.
Nagy, a former Arena League quarterback, took over as the Chiefs' play-caller for a Dec. 3 game against the Jets. The 39-year-old is in his fifth season as a Chiefs' assistant.
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Alex Smith, Tyler Bray
RBs: Kareem Hunt, Charcandrick West, Akeem Hunt
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Albert Wilson, De'Anthony Thomas, Jehu Chesson, Demarcus Robinson
TEs: Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris
Los Angeles RamsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
The Los Angeles Rams scored only one touchdown in Sunday's 34-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but it really didn't matter. They finished the regular season as the NFL's highest-scoring team, one year after finishing as the NFL's lowest-scoring team.
"Man," Rams left guard Rodger Saffold said, "that's amazing."
According to ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez, the Rams are now the only team in the Super Bowl era, which began in 1966, to go from last to first in scoring from one season to the next. The only other team throughout history to accomplish that feat was the 1965 49ers, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. The Rams went from averaging 14.0 points per game in 2016 under Jeff Fisher to 29.9 points per game in 2017 under Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history.
The Rams finished with an 11-5 record and remained the No. 3 seed in the NFC despite resting their starters and dropping the finale. They'll now host the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday and can advance to face the Minnesota Vikings on the road in the second round with a win.
The Rams ended a 12-year playoff drought largely because their offense finally caught up to their defense.
As Gonzalez reminded readers, it started with McVay, the 31-year-old who is already considered one of the game's sharpest offensive minds. He brought with him a slew of talented coaches, including offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who previously worked with Matt Ryan; quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, a longtime offensive coordinator; and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who helped the Buffalo Bills become the NFL's best rushing team over the past two years.
Then sixth-year general manager Les Snead added all the right pieces, including left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center John Sullivan and three standout receivers -- Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Through all that, Jared Goff made significant strides as a second-year quarterback, enough to be named a first alternate for the Pro Bowl. And Todd Gurley re-established himself as a premier running back, enough to be considered for the MVP award.
"The mentality that we have now has been pretty much a complete 180 from the year before," said Saffold, in his eighth year with the organization. "I expected success, but going from worst to first, that's amazing to me."
"Sean, like any player would say, came in, and he set the expectations and the bar for how this team should be producing," Rams left guard Jamon Brown added. "It's not a shocker that we stand first in the NFL in scoring."
Many would disagree. The Rams weren't just bad on offense last year, they were deplorable. And their offensive struggles date back much further than that. They finished each of their previous 10 seasons outside of the top 20 in DVOA and through that went eight years without producing a 1,000-yard receiver.
Then McVay came along.
True to form, McVay -- the likely coach of the year -- deflected credit. He noted that a lot of the Rams' points have come from a Wade Phillips-led defense that forced 28 turnovers and a John Fassel-led special teams unit that featured the game's most productive kicker, Greg Zuerlein.
"I thought our players did a nice job of being able to consistently play pretty well throughout the course of the year; coaches put guys in good positions," McVay said. "We talk about points as being one of the most important factors, but for us it's about winning football games and doing those things the right way. Next week is a great challenge, and I know we're excited about that."
Indeed, the attention now turns to the Falcons.
"I think when you just look at their personnel -- Matt Ryan becoming an MVP last year, you look at two of their backs with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are two of the best kind of all-purpose backs that can contribute as runners, but also excellent receivers," McVay said. "Julio Jones is one of the best players in this league and he can kind of do a little bit of everything, I think they do a nice job mixing up some of their personnel groupings on defense - very similar schematically to what we've seen from San Francisco, Seattle and the Jacksonvilles where it's kind of all predicated on some of those three-deep, four underneath principles and playing some man coverage and things like that.
"Obviously (Falcons outside linebacker) Vic Beasley is a dangerous rusher, but haven't really had a chance to dive into the deep preparation. But, we know it's going to be an exciting week for us, our players will be juiced up to be able to get this preparation going and I certainly know that our coaches feel that way as well."
It's the Rams' first home playoff game at the Coliseum since 1978. And while they will go into it coming off a loss, they will take the physical and mental rest over a meaningless win anytime. ...
Other notes of interest. ... After last year's miserable rookie season, it's almost hard to believe Goff is just days away from making his first playoff start. Goff concluded a remarkable turnaround season in which people were seriously considering him a bust to earning Pro Bowl alternate honors in his second season.
"I feel good. I think we match up well," Goff said. "I think any of those teams that we would've ended up playing - all of them present challenges. No different with Atlanta. It'll be a fun game. We're excited to get to it next week and it'll be fun."
Nevertheless, Goff is trying not to make too big a deal about it being a playoff game.
"Prepare no different than any other game," he said. "I've played in playoff games before. It was a lot of pressure. It was a lot of implications, but you can't treat them any different."
QBs: Jared Goff, Sean Mannion
RBs: Todd Gurley, Malcolm Brown, Lance Dunbar
WRs: Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, Tavon Austin, Pharoh Cooper, Josh Reynolds
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett
Minnesota VikingsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
After finishing 13-3 , their second-best record in 40 seasons since the NFL implemented a 16-game schedule in 1978, the Vikings were rewarded with a first-round bye and a home game on Jan. 14 in the divisional round.
If Los Angeles beats Atlanta at home, the Vikings will host the Rams. If the Falcons are victorious on Saturday, the Vikings will face the Carolina-New Orleans winner. The Saints host the Panthers on Sunday.
Nine of the past 10 teams to reach the Super Bowl did so with the first-round bye. The only outlier was the Baltimore Ravens, the AFC's No. 4 seed in 2012.
That's a fact that head Zimmer made sure to share with his players last week, prior to completing their pursuit of the bonus rest time and automatic advancement to the quarterfinals of the tournament that conveniently concludes this time on their home turf.
Adding to the positive vibe, the Vikings' defense capped off a dominant 2017 campaign by clamping down on the Chicago Bears while etching its name in NFL history.
Minnesota ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in both total defense (275.9 yards) and scoring defense (15.8), a mark the franchise last achieved in 1969 and 1970.
"It's a heck of an achievement for our guys," Zimmer said of the Vikings' league-best scoring defense. "You can't do that if your offense isn't running the football and controlling the ball. You can't do that if your defense is out there all the time. It's a nice stat for the defense and these guys take a lot of pride in it."
Entering Week 17 with the lowest third-down conversion rate (26.3 percent) allowed in 15 seasons, Minnesota set the all-time record for defensive efficiency on third down at 25.2 percent on Sunday. Chicago converted just one time on 12 attempts, an area that the Vikings have focused on for months.
For a third straight week, Minnesota held its opponent under 10 points. Chicago's only touchdown came off a trick punt return in the first half.
Jordan Howard was one of the few running backs who had consistent success against the Vikings' defense, averaging 5.3 yards per rush in his previous three outings against Minnesota.
On Sunday, Howard was limited to 9 yards on nine carries, his longest run of the day topping out at 4 yards. After registering minus-1 yard rushing at halftime, the Bears finished with 30 yards on the ground.
Chicago didn't cross midfield for the first time until the fourth quarter. Even when the Bears showed fight, it wasn't nearly enough to match the Vikings' strength across the board.
"We just don't give up," Xavier Rhodes said. "We make mistakes here and there, but we don't give up. We're resilient, we just go out there and we play. We play physical, and no matter what the outcome is, such as penalties, which we had a lot of this game, we're going to go out there and play our defense."
Since losing to Carolina in Week 14, the Vikings' third loss of the season, Minnesota has held opposing quarterbacks well under its average of 192.4 yards per game. Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was 20-of-36 passing for 178 yards and finished with a passer rating of 69.0.
Sunday's 23-10 win was just a piece of the bigger picture for Minnesota. Outside of Carolina, Minnesota has had notable success against three other playoff teams.
The Vikings held Atlanta to 1-of-10 on third down. New Orleans converted once in five tries inside the red zone. The Rams came to U.S. Bank Stadium boasting the most prolific scoring attack in the NFL and were held to just seven points.
While the Vikings' offense has fizzled at times this season, the defense has consistently been able to pick up the slack and dismantle its opponents.
But the team's rushing attack has come on and it can complement their stout defense.
This past weekend, Minnesota played mostly a power game, and it eventually wore the Bears down. The Vikings ran the ball 36 times, passing it 29 times. Latavius Murray topped 100 yards for the second time this season (111) while averaging 5.6 yards and scoring twice from the 1-yard line.
That could be a key element when the Vikings return to action. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Case Keenum had 10 games without an interception this season. That ties the team record for most games without an interception. His 98.3 passer rating is fifth-best in team history. With an 11-2 record, he also set the team record for most victories by a quarterback who wasn't drafted. Gary Cuozzo was 10-2 in 1970.
Stefon Diggs had six catches, giving him 200 in 40 games. That's the fastest track to 200 catches by a Vikings player in franchise history. ...
Sam Bradford will return to practice this week for the first time since early October.
Bradford was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 8, two months after his commanding Week 1 performance over New Orleans. The quarterback sustained a non-contact injury to his left knee against the Saints, the same knee he had surgically repaired twice after tearing his ACL.
As ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin notes, Bradford was eligible to return to practice after six weeks on IR, but the playoff-bound Vikings chose instead to bring him back during their first-round bye week. Minnesota will practice on Tuesday and Wednesday before players are given four days off.
It will be Zimmer's first chance to see Bradford up close in months.
"I just want to see where he's at, how he's moving, things like that," Zimmer said. "I hear he's moving good, I hear he's throwing the ball good, but it's all I do is hear. We'll just go about it and see how it goes."
Once Bradford returns to practice, the Vikings have a three-week window to decide whether to move him to the 53-man roster. Much of what will determine whether Bradford is available for the playoffs will be based on how he looks and performs in practice. ...
And finally. ... It's shaping up to be a busy week for Pat Shurmur.
The Vikings offensive coordinator is scheduled to meet with the Lions and Cardinals on Thursday, the Bears on Friday and the Giants on Saturday. All interviews will take place in Minnesota.
Shurmur went 9-23 in his two seasons as the Browns' head coach. He might get a second chance based on his work with Keenum this season. The Vikings ranked 11th in total offense and 10th in scoring.
The Bears and Cardinals are the teams expected to have the most interest in Shurmur, via Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune.
QBs: Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford
RBs: Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon, Mack Brown, C.J. Ham
WRs: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Laquon Treadwell, Michael Floyd, Jarius Wright, Rodney Adams, Stacy Coley
TEs: Kyle Rudolph, David Morgan, Blake Bell
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss notes, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' offense aren't entering the playoffs on a high note, but help is on the way. That's why some of the struggles the unit had in Sunday's 26-6 victory over the New York Jets at frigid Gillette Stadium won't necessarily carry into the postseason.
Running backs James White (ankle) and Rex Burkhead (knee) will benefit from another week of rest. So, too, should receiver Chris Hogan (shoulder). All three didn't play Sunday.
In fact, Mike Gillislee (knee) and Eric Lee (ankle) were the only players missing from practice on Wednesday this week.
There's also a chance that receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who was so clutch in the second half of Super Bowl LI, could return off injured reserve.
What the Patriots' attack looks like on Jan. 13 in the divisional round should be significantly different in certain areas.
"If those guys are able to get out there and play, I think anytime you get good players healthy, it helps a lot," Brady said. "So there's a lot of guys, like Brandin Cooks, Danny [Amendola], they played a lot of football this year and have been out there for a lot of snaps. Dion Lewis has. So if guys can kind of take some snaps off, I think throughout the week of practice and the games, I think that really pays off.
"It's got to be more than just two or three guys doing it. If we can get five or six guys healthy and everyone plays a role, then that's going to be great for the offense."
Along those lines, tight end Rob Gronkowski surely won't go through the next game without being targeted once, like he was against the Jets, even if the opponent is devoting multiple players to cover him.
Whether it's the No. 4 Kansas City Chiefs, No. 5 Tennessee Titans or No. 6 Buffalo Bills, Brady seems confident that the Patriots' offense will respond.
"It's going to be a different defense, different plan, and we've just got to get going and execute better," he said. "I think we can do that."
But first, they'll get some time to recover. Players are off Monday and Tuesday before returning for work on Wednesday and Thursday. That's why the bye week was deemed so important for this team.
"Being able to come here and get in some good work, get some rest and get some guys back, I think it will be huge," said Cooks, who qualified for the playoffs for the first time in his four-year career.
"We've got some work to do. We are not where we want to be, and that's what practice is for. The great thing about it is we've got one more chance to be able to go out there and play our best."
Meanwhile, with Burkhead, White and Gillislee all inactive with injuries, Lewis played a season-high total of snaps (surpassing his 51 from last week) and finished with 93 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown while adding six catches for 40 yards and another score.
"I'm embracing it. I like having the ball, I like helping my team win," Lewis said. "They counted on me today and I had a lot of fun out there."
His play is a positive heading into the postseason. One aspect of the offense that could use some fine tuning over the bye?
The Brady-to-Brandin Cooks connection came up short against the Jets.
As Reiss reminded readers, there were some good moments, and the frigid conditions are part of the consideration, but Cooks was targeted a game-high 11 times, finishing with five catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. That's still a solid day on the stat sheet, although there was an opportunity for more.
Brady was frustrated with himself for missing Cooks for what could have been an easy touchdown, and Cooks dropped one screen early. ...
Beyond that, as the Associated Press suggested, a post-season bye week for the Patriots means Bill Belichick's assistants to interview for head coaching jobs.
Both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are expected to be coveted by the teams looking to fill openings this offseason. With the Patriots off until their divisional playoff game on Jan. 13, McDaniels and Patricia will have a chance to make their case.
"There's a time and a place for all of that," McDaniels said Monday in a conference call with reporters. "My focus here when I come into this building will always be on what's best for the Patriots and trying to do what I can to help us prepare to play our best game the next time we go out on the field."
McDaniels and Patricia said Monday morning that they hadn't heard from any suitors yet, but reports on Tuesday indicated McDaniels' interview will be Thursday with the Colts.
McDaniels has gone through this before, when he was hired to coach the Denver Broncos in 2009; he lasted less than two seasons. As a top assistant in one of the most successful regimes in NFL history, he is annually a top target, including last year when he interviewed with the Jaguars and 49ers while the Patriots were on their way to a fifth Super Bowl victory.
"I've gone through it before, which is helpful in terms of being able to balance that and multitask it," McDaniels said.
Patricia brushed aside questions about his next job, saying he was concentrating on his current one.
"None of that is even really applicable for me right now because I don't have any information on that," he said a day after Sunday's 26-6 victory over the New York Jets left New England at 13-3 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
"I'm in normal mode - came in and graded the Jets," Patricia said. "(I'm) working to make sure that we have a good, productive week this week and try to improve those things."
In addition, the Texans reportedly have interest in Pats exec Nick Caserio for their now-open general manager position.
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer
RBs: Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee, James Develin
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Kenny Britt, Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Matt Slater
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen
New Orleans SaintsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
According to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, there were several players wearing championship T-shirts. Maybe two or three wearing championship hats.
But there was nothing jovial about the New Orleans Saints' postgame locker room as players almost reluctantly forced themselves to try to enjoy "winning" the NFC South title on a day when they suffered an ugly 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay.
"It's great that we had a division championship. Awesome. I've got higher goals. I want more," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said after the Saints (11-5) backed into their first division title in six years, thanks to the Carolina Panthers (11-5) also losing at Atlanta.
Now the Saints (as the No. 4 seed) and Panthers (as the No. 5 seed) will meet for a third time next Sunday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- both of them hoping that the idea of momentum is overrated.
And as Triplett went on to suggest, the Saints may have finished with a dud in Week 17. But there might not be a single NFL player providing more fireworks heading into the new year than rookie running back Alvin Kamara.
More importantly: There might not be a bigger X factor in the entire playoff field.
That's awfully important for a Saints offense that is surprisingly still struggling to find a consistent rhythm -- especially on third downs.
Triplett conceded that Kamara can't win a game all by himself, but he came pretty darn close on Sunday with one of his best performances to date in the 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay, as he kept trying to revive the offense on a sluggish day.
Kamara started things off with another "wow" moment -- a franchise-record 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown before the Saints had an offensive possession. He added 128 yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown to finish the season with 1,901 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns.
The third-round draft pick from Tennessee joined Gale Sayers as the only rookies in NFL history with at least five rushing TDs, five receiving TDs and a kickoff return TD.
And he and veteran running back Mark Ingram became the first duo in NFL history to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same backfield.
"The production, and the way those guys compete, is significant. And you don't take it for granted. It's a big part of our team," said head coach Sean Payton, whose offense ranked second in the NFL with 395.7 yards per game, even though quarterback Drew Brees had his lowest total of passing yards (4,334) and passing TDs (23) in 12 seasons with the Saints.
"We're going to lean on them in the playoffs, just like we're going to lean on the rest of the starters," Payton said. "Obviously those two give us a spark in the rushing game and the receiving game."
And, apparently, the kick return game.
Kamara had not been returning kickoffs much since the first month of the season because his role expanded so much on offense. But Payton decided to reinsert Kamara into that role over the final two weeks to try and seal the division title.
It led to a 49-yard return in last week's victory over the Atlanta Falcons -- then the 106-yarder Sunday.
Kamara actually hesitated for a moment in the end zone, looking like he might take a knee, before he weaved a path through his blockers for a touchdown that looked way too easy.
Earlier this year, Kamara said he sees the field like "The Matrix" -- though his reaction was more subdued Sunday after the disappointing loss.
"Yeah, it was cool, you know," Kamara said of his first NFL kickoff return TD. "It was blocked up perfect. We worked it all week, we knew it would be open. So kudos to those guys up front blocking. I mean, my job is easy. They're the ones that gotta get up there and block and do the dirty work. So I just run."
Perhaps the most stunning (and disturbing) statistic with the Saints this season is that they rank 22nd in the NFL in third-down conversion rate at 36.8 percent -- which makes little sense considering the efficiency and explosiveness of their offense.
The Saints led the NFL in third-down conversion rate in each of the previous three seasons and five of the previous seven. And Brees set the NFL record for single-season completion percentage at 72.0. Sure-handed, physical receiver Michael Thomas set the franchise record with 104 catches on the season.
But that's a number that can easily be flipped in what Payton referred to as the "second season," when all 12 playoff teams start over with a clean slate. Kamara joins Ingram and Thomas as the best reasons for hope in that department.
Not only did Kamara catch 81 passes for 826 yards and five TDs, but he also led the NFL with 6.1 yards per rush while gaining 728 rushing yards and eight rushing TDs.
"He's got incredible balance, obviously," Brees said as he began listing Kamara's traits. "He's a very natural runner. His ability to fit into tight seams when he's running the football is pretty uncanny -- and then to shed tacklers. He's always got his feet on the ground, and he's a very smooth athlete.
"You could see that on the kickoff. It barely looked like he was running. So he's got some rare traits in that regard."
Still, as the Saints head into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, they're admittedly anxious about recent stints of sluggishness that have plagued their normally prolific offense.
Twice in the past four games, the Saints' defense has intercepted three passes. But New Orleans still lost those both games after the offense couldn't close the deal.
Asked if he was generally pleased with his offense, which ranked second overall in the NFL this season with 391.2 yards per game, Payton said, "No."
"There's things we've got to improve on if we're going to play well in the playoffs," Payton said Monday.
"We've had our moments where offensively, defensively and specials teams, we have played well enough to be the best," Brees said. "Now, we have to do that on a consistent enough basis in order to move on."
The good news for the Saints is they played well and had success in both games against Carolina, prevailing 34-13 on the road and 31-21 at home. ...
Other notes of interest. ...
Thomas set a franchise record for pass receptions in a season (104).
Fullback Zach Line scored his first career touchdown when he caught a 3-yard pass from Drew Brees in the fourth quarter Sunday.
QBs: Drew Brees, Chase Daniel
RBs: Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, Daniel Lasco
WRs: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman, TommyLee Lewis
TEs: Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui
Philadelphia EaglesCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
According to ESPN.com's Tim McManus, head coach Doug Pederson had a simple request heading into the regular-season finale Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
"I just want to see execution by our guys going into the postseason," he said on Friday.
That's why Pederson had just about all of his offensive starters, including quarterback Nick Foles, play through the first quarter despite already having the No. 1 seed in the NFC locked up. The idea was to build a little confidence and momentum to carry into the playoffs. If nothing else, it would help erase a shaky performance against the Oakland Raiders last week.
Instead, the concerns that cropped up on Christmas night were reinforced. Foles finished 4-of-11 for 39 yards with an interception as the Eagles were shut out 6-0 by the Cowboys.
A Philadelphia team that led the league in scoring for much of the season was once again unable to get it going offensively. The drop-off on third down minus MVP candidate Carson Wentz has been drastic. The first unit was 0-for-3 on third down Sunday after going 1-for-14 against the Raiders.
Foles' numbers aren't much better over the past two weeks. He's 23-of-49 (47 percent) for 202 yards with a TD and two interceptions since his four-touchdown outing against the New York Giants in Week 15.
"I'd say because I've played a lot of football," said Foles, when asked why he remains confident. "I know who I am as a player, and I also know that throughout my career and my life I haven't always played great games, I've been in games where execution hasn't always gone like we wanted to, and the key is you remain confident because you know who you are. You know you're going to prepare every day to do everything to the best of your ability. ... We went out there and played as hard as we could. We didn't execute, but that's stuff we can fix."
If there was a positive takeaway regarding the Eagles' quarterback position, it's that backup Nate Sudfeld looked capable given the circumstances. He went 19-of-23 for 134 yards in his first game as a pro.
Still, as Pederson explained during a Tuesday press conference, Foles will indeed start, when the Eagles host the Saints, Panthers, or Falcons on January 13.
Pederson added the team will study things from Foles' past performances in order to find plays and concepts that he'll be able to run effectively.
"I've gone back and watched a lot of his tape here, [from] St. Louis and when he was here before when I was here," Pederson told reporters. "I just wanted to go back and just see the types of plays. [T]he quick throw was there, a little play-action pass, the shotgun stuff. . . . Those are all things that are in our system. We might just have to dust a few more off and get that ready to go. But that's kind of what this week is for: To get some of those ideas and thoughts down on paper and execute them this week in practice."
Of course, as Profootballtalk.com suggested, that's also a clue for whoever the Eagles will be playing regarding their plans for the playoff game. They now know to study the things Foles has done well in the past, and to prepare to see those plays and concepts.
If the new concepts don't work, in whole or in part because defenses are prepared for them, Pederson didn't rule out switching to Sudfeld.
"Listen, it's a one-game season," Pederson said. "It's hard to be in desperation mode, but if you are in that mode, who knows? I do know this: It's not about one guy. It's about 11 on offense, defense, and special teams. A lot of contributing factors go into winning a game."
Only one factor can go into losing a game. Poor quarterback play is one of those factors. That's precisely what the Eagles have had for most of their time without Wentz.
The Eagles finish the regular season at 13-3 -- one win shy of a franchise record. The NFC playoffs still run through Philly. They have a first-round bye and get to rest and scheme while their next opponent toils in the wild-card round.
During that time, Pederson and his staff need to figure out the best way to deploy this offense.
If the past two weeks have proved anything, it's that this is not the same team that routinely blew out opponents with Wentz at the helm. With Foles, the offense is more limited. The defense is the strength. That was on display once again Sunday, as Jim Schwartz's unit limited Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' attack to six points despite resting a bulk of the Eagles' starters.
In order to advance in the playoffs, the Eagles will need to lean on their defense and ask their offense to play opportunistic ball while limiting turnovers. They'll need significant production out of their ground game. Running back Jay Ajayi was the lone offensive starter inactive against the Cowboys. Perhaps they're getting him ready for a heavy workload in the postseason. The Eagles have brought him along slowly since acquiring him from the Miami Dolphins at the trade deadline. It's more than time to turn him loose.
Ajayi was held out of the team's initial bye-week practice on Wednesday with a sore knee; at this point, there's no reason to believe it's a major issue. ...
While the Eagles can tweak their approach to accentuate their strengths and partially mask their vulnerabilities, McManus pointed out you can't hide your quarterback for an entire Super Bowl run. In order to make it where they want to go, Foles will have to look more like he did against the Giants than in the two weeks since.
The Eagles will have to wait until the divisional round to see if he can turn things around.
"Our defense is playing extremely well right now. You get into the postseason and have to play great defense and be able to run the football," Pederson said. "That's been our formula pretty much all season long. We have to get back to that, and I've got a lot of confidence moving forward. ..."
Also of interest. ... ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Sunday that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a candidate for the Giants' head coaching job. Head-coaching candidates for playoff teams with a first-round bye can be interviewed this week. Schwartz is expected to travel to north Jersey to meet with the Giants. Arizona is also reportedly interested in Schwartz.
In addition, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo will interview for the Cardinals and Bears head coaching openings on Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia, according to the MMQB.com's Albert Breer. DeFilippo will not be available for a second interview unless the Eagles are bounced from the playoffs or make the Super Bowl, which would leave DeFilippo free to talk during the week after the conference title game.
DeFilippo has also spent time as a quarterbacks coach with the Jets and on two different occasions with the Raiders. He also spent one year as the Browns' offensive coordinator before moving to the Eagles in 2016.
His work with Wentz over that period is likely a big part of his appeal as the Bears would love to see Mitch Trubisky take the same kind of strides and the Cardinals will likely have a young quarterback on hand whether Carson Palmer returns or not.
"I think any time you have success as a team I think your assistant coaches are going to be looked at for potential jobs," Pederson said. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there.
QBs: Nick Foles
RBs: LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Kenjon Barner
WRs: Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson
TEs: Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, Brent Celek
Pittsburgh SteelersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
As ESPN.com's Dan Graziano noted this week, we've grown used to the notion that the Steelers' January hopes rest on three offensive stars. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are the big three -- the Killer B's -- and they all have to be on the field together before we know the things of which this group is truly capable.
But none of those guys was on the field Sunday, in Pittsburgh's ultimately meaningless regular-season finale against Cleveland, which Pittsburgh won 28-24.
And while there is no "B" in JuJu Smith-Schuster's name, he put on a show in their absence and may make the Steelers' offense even scarier than usual against the Browns.
Running alongside fellow X factor receiver Martavis Bryant with backup Landry Jones at quarterback, Smith-Schuster tormented the Browns on a frigid day at Heinz Field.
He had 127 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions in the first half and finished with 143 yards on nine catches. And when the winless Browns put a scare into the few frozen Steelers fans who showed up for this one by tying the game at 221 in the third quarter, Smith-Schuster ran the ensuing kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown.
He's the first Steeler with a receiving touchdown and a kick-return touchdown in the same game since Gary Ballman (the original Killer B?) in 1963.
On Wednesday, Smith-Schuster was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
As Graziano wrote, "Electrifying, enthusiastic and just plain fun, Smith-Schuster has been at the center of this Steelers season almost all along."
The 21-year-old Smith-Schuster is the league's youngest player and he's spent most of his rookie season documenting his acclimation to life in the NFL, episodes that include putting together some of the league's most entertaining touchdown celebrations , losing his bicycle, having left tackle Alejandro Villanueva teach him how to drive and adopting a French Bulldog named Boujee.
"I wish everybody had a JuJu in their life," Villanueva said.
Of course, Pittsburgh's best chance at reaching the Super Bowl in Minneapolis next month is with Brown's No. 84 on the field.
The good news for Mike Tomlin is that the Steelers don't have to play this week, so he doesn't have to file an injury report.
But if he did, he said on Tuesday that Brown would be questionable.
Via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tomlin said his star wideout was making good progress in his rehab from a calf injury.
That's a good sign as the Steelers take the week off in preparation for the divisional round.
Yet the past two weeks have shown the Steelers have the versatility to survive and perhaps even thrive even if he's limited.
Smith-Schuster and Bryant were spectacular against New England and kept it going against Houston and Cleveland.
When all was said and done, Smith-Schuster set the franchise record for most receiving yards by a rookie with 917. That number also was good enough to lead all NFL rookies. Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams was next with 869 yards. ...
Meanwhile, the Steelers might have missed out on the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the No. 2 seed has treated the Steelers very well over the years. They won Super Bowl XLIII as the No. 2 seed in 2008 and reached Super Bowl XLV as the No. 2 seed in 2010.
The Steelers might have to deal with some rust in their first playoff game, but it's a welcome trade-off for a team that's had to play on wild-card week in their previous four playoff appearances.
Also of interest. ... The Steelers aren't very eager to find out what life is like without Roethlisberger. But at the very least they know if Roethlisberger does decide to retire that Jones can beat the Browns.
Jones has three career victories as a starter and all three came against the Browns. His other victory against the Browns came in 2015, when he started but got injured on the first series of the game. The Steelers won the game, 30-9, and Jones was credited with the win.
Jones was 23-for-27 for 239 yards and passed for a touchdown Sunday. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble.
As the Sports Xchange noted, Stevan Ridley was signed two weeks ago after James Conner went on injured reserve with a knee injury. Ridley hadn't played in the NFL all season, but he knocked the rust off against the Browns. Ridley led the Steelers with 80 yards on 17 carries and scored his first touchdown in more than three years. His previous touchdown came on Oct. 5, 2014 when he was with the Patriots. The Steelers finished with 124 yards on 28 carries.
Ridley went over 3,000 rushing yards for his career. He now has 3,022 yards. ...
And few final notes. ... The Steelers announced Tuesday that offensive coordinator Todd Haley was injured in a fall following their season-ending win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Haley was shoved down outside a bar near Heinz Field on New Year's Eve, sources told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero. It resulted in a hip injury. Police have looked into it.
The team expects Haley to return to the Steelers' facility this week in advance of Pittsburgh's Divisional Round game next weekend.
The Cardinals have requested permission to speak with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Munchak, who had a stint as head coach with the Titans, will get a much-deserved look.
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs
RBs: Le'Veon Bell, Terrell Watson, Stevan Ridley
WRs: Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown
TEs: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald
Tennessee TitansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2018
As the Sports Xchange suggested, it wasn't the prettiest and at times there were lots of questions and criticisms, but the end result has the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, thanks to an ugly 15-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For several long-time Titans players, the chance to reach the postseason was especially sweet.
But only 18 of the Titans who helped beat Jacksonville 15-10 in the regular-season finale to clinch the AFC's No. 5 seed have been to the playoffs before.
That leaves 35 making their playoff debut Saturday when the Titans (9-7) visit the Kansas City Chiefs (10-6).
The Titans, given Monday off, snapped a three-game skid to earn their playoff berth. They will go to Kansas City as big underdogs with the Chiefs already favored by 7½ points.
Long odds are no issue for the Titans who saw firsthand last spring what a team can do in the postseason no matter the seed.
The Titans' defense, which had been torched at times this season against Houston, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, stood up big to prop up a faltering offense Sunday and get the Titans into the playoffs. Tennessee did not allow the Jaguars a touchdown, with the only Jacksonville TD coming on a fumble return for a score by the Jaguars defense.
Considering where they came from and being a franchise that showed it still has many issues on both sides of the ball to address in the offseason, to reach the postseason two years after having the first pick in the NFL draft is a rather remarkable improvement.
"It's more gratifying because I was here for two of the years that we weren't so good," head coach Mike Mularkey said. "To watch a team take a franchise and believe in something, and watch it turn around and become competitive every Sunday, where they have a chance to win every single Sunday, is gratifying."
Mularkey's job status reportedly was at risk with a loss. Controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk, who promoted Mularkey as an interim coach in November 2015 and gave him the job in January 2016, was in the locker room to greet her coach who just earned his first playoff berth in his fifth full NFL season.
Mularkey said he didn't feel the need to address the reports that he might be fired with his team.
Instead, he led the Titans to their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2007 and 2008, and linebacker Wesley Woodyard gave him a game ball after the game.
As ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe noted, Mularkey has done it his way -- a little stubborn, old-school, run-heavy, often predictable and maybe even "dump truck" football, as NBC analyst Tony Dungy called it -- but he's right in that this style gave his team a chance to win in just about every game it played, besides maybe at Houston in Week 4.
It was enough to lead them to the playoffs.
It's with a little symbolic irony that the Titans clinched the playoffs in a similar manner to what they have done all season: Largely ugly and frustrating on offense, with clutch plays in the fourth quarter.
In Mularkey's two full seasons as Tennessee's head coach, the Titans are 18-14. That's slightly better than average on the surface, but a look at where they came from -- 2-14 in 2014 and 3-13 in 2015 -- shows obvious signs of progress.
Yes, there needs to be more done to get quarterback Marcus Mariota more comfortable. Yes, the Titans underachieved based on their expectations, particularly on offense. Yes, there might still need to be some staff changes. And yes, starting in 2018, Mularkey will need to be more flexible to open up the offense. But his players believe in him, and he has a strong-minded group that wants to fight for him.
Now the Titans have another goal they will try to scratch off Saturday: Win their first playoff game since January 2004. ...
Other notes of interest. ...Mariota has been hobbled most of the year and hesitant to run on scrambles for whatever reason might exist other than that. But in Sunday's win over Jacksonville, Mariota ran a season-high 10 times and had a team-leading 60 yards.
Mariota got a little encouragement earlier in the week from some veteran teammates, who basically told him it was go time on the offense - that if he saw a chance to run, he had to take full advantage of it. Linebackers Brian Orakpo and Woodyard took Mariota aside and imparted that bit of advice to him during the week leading up to the game.
A key fourth-quarter run allowed the Titans to run out most of the clock, with Mariota doing a stiff-arm on Jaguars safety Barry Church as part of his run.
"When I looked into his eyes, he had those Oregon eyes like he did back in college, running around making plays," Orakpo said. "I think me and Wood got in his head a little bit - in a positive way. We talked to him like, 'If you see something, take off, man.' We had a nice little talk and it just paid off the way he was digging down deep."
Mariota said he appreciated his veteran teammates giving him such encouragement.
"It's a privilege to play with these guys. A lot of these older guys, I look up to and learn a lot from and for them to bring me aside and talk to me about just playing my game meant a lot to me," Mariota said.
Mariota was just 12 of 21 for 134 yards passing with 66 of that coming on a screen pass TD to Derrick Henry. So the 60 rushing yards were needed. ...
Also worth noting: Eric Decker had a rough day for the Titans, as he dropped three of the six passes thrown his way against the Jaguars. Mariota will need more help from all his receivers in Kansas City. ...
Henry found the yards tough to come by on the ground in his first game playing full-time as the starter for an injured DeMarco Murray. Henry had 51 yards on 28 carries. His best moment came when he turned a screen pass into a 66-yard touchdown pass.
Murray didn't practice on Tuesday or Wednesday and his status for this week's game remains unclear. Otherwise, rookie tight end Jonnu Smith, currently in concussion protocol, practiced fully and should be cleared in time to play barring a setback.
We'll have more on that in the News and Views section of the site in coming days.
QBs: Marcus Mariota, Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden
RBs: Derrick Henry, DeMarco Murray, David Fluellen
WRs: Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, Taywan Taylor, Eric Weems, Corey Davis
TEs: Delanie Walker, Luke Stocker, Jonnu Smith, Phillip Supernaw