Team Notes Week 18 2018
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. ...
Baltimore RavensCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
As the team's official website framed it, "Lamar Jackson wasn't looking to run out of bounds Sunday. He was looking to run into the playoffs. ..."
It was an attitude that permeated the Ravens' backfield as Jackson, Kenneth Dixon and Gus Edwards ran as if their season was on the line.
Because it was.
With the Ravens needing a victory to reach the playoffs, their running game produced a season-high 296 yards, the third most in franchise history, in a playoff-clinching 26-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Since Jackson became the starting quarterback, the Ravens' running game has been a force. But this was next-level.
Talk about getting off to a fast start, Baltimore's 121 rushing yards in the first quarter was their most on the ground in a quarter since 2008.
Jackson ran for two touchdowns, putting moves on defenders that left them grabbing for air. Dixon ran for a career-high 117 yards on just 12 carries. Edwards (12 carries, 76 yards) continued to power through holes and break tackles, picking up critical yards that kept drives moving.
Baltimore has the best running attack of any team in the playoffs, something Browns head coach Gregg Williams had already seen on film. The Browns used former Ravens quarterback Tyrod Taylor to emulate Jackson in practice, and Williams thought the Browns could handle it. Until the game started.
"Until you are on the field and see how quick Lamar Jackson is, and understand his ability to make plays and make some people miss out in space," Williams said. "We had the space populated at times. We just didn't make the plays."
Jackson routinely makes plays, some of them spectacular. He is the fastest quarterback in the NFL, capable of turning any play into a scoring play. Both of his touchdown runs were Lamar being Lamar.
He showed an extra gear of speed on his first touchdown, a 25-yard scamper that gave Baltimore a 10-7 lead. After faking a handoff to Ty Montgomery, Jackson found a seam in the Browns' defensive line and exploded toward the end zone. Once Jackson got past the first wave of Cleveland defenders, he could have waved goodbye. Nobody was going to catch him.
On his second touchdown, an 8-yard run in the second quarter, Jackson made a jump-hop move at the 5-yard line, then darted into the end zone untouched. It was another move you can't teach, and another move the Browns couldn't stop.
Jackson was still beating himself up after the game about his biggest mistake, a fumble near the goal line in the second quarter as he tried to reach the ball over the goal line. The Browns recovered, costing the Ravens a chance to go ahead, 27-7. Jackson has 12 fumbles this season, and had the Ravens lost, that goal-line turnover would have haunted Jackson all offseason.
"I have to do something," Jackson said of his fumbles, looking at his hands. "I might get on the JUGS machine. That's ridiculous. I'm ticked off."
While Jackson rushing for 90 yards was not a surprise, Dixon running for 117 yards was. The Ravens have always been aware of Dixon's talent, but staying healthy has been an issue and he spent most of this season on injured reserve. Since rejoining the team, Dixon has quickly emerged as the No. 2 back behind Edwards, and this performance was Dixon's best. He had never run for 100 yards in his three-year career.
His performance is something sharp fantasy owners might want to get in front of heading into next year's drafts, when he will likely still be flying under the radars of many owners.
Unless, of course, his run of high-end performances continue into the postseason.
The Ravens are happy to be playoff bound, with their running game a force to be reckoned with.
The Ravens (10-6) will play host to the Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) in the wild-card round next weekend. This will be a rematch of Baltimore's 22-10 win over the Chargers on Dec. 22.
Baltimore enters the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, thanks to the electric running of Jackson and the NFL's No. 1 defense. The Baltimore defense produced three interceptions and delivered the critical fourth-down stand.
As ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley reminded readers, a championship run seemed like a pipe dream in early November, when Baltimore reached the bye week with a 4-5 record, a three-game losing streak and an injured starting quarterback in Joe Flacco (hip).
Jackson, the last of the five quarterbacks drafted in this year's first round, took charge of an unconventional option running game that has confused and dominated defenses up front.
While Jackson remains a work in progress as a passer, it's difficult to argue with his success. He has gone 6-1 as a starter, his only loss coming in overtime at the Kansas City Chiefs, the top seed in the AFC.
For the record, Jackson became the first rookie quarterback to win the AFC North since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. He also became just the fifth rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win six of his team's final seven games, joining Roethlisberger, Vince Young (2006), Robert Griffin III (2012) and Russell Wilson (2012), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Given all that, it's worth noting that Jackson will start at quarterback for the Ravens in a playoff game against the Chargers. On Monday, Jackson will turn 22 years old.
According to Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith, Jackson will be the first quarterback in NFL history to start a postseason game before turning 22. The previous youngest quarterback to start a postseason game was Bernie Kosar, who was 22 years, 40 days old when he started a playoff game for the Browns against the Dolphins on January 4, 1986.
If Jackson can lead the Ravens to a win over the Chargers, he'll also be the youngest quarterback to win a postseason game. That distinction currently belongs to Michael Vick, who was 22 years, 192 days old when his Falcons beat the Packers on January 4, 2003.
One last note here. ... In our weekly reminder of how valuable Just Tucker is, keep in mind that the Browns' Greg Joseph missed a 46-yard attempt just before halftime in the finale. That could have changed things in the end, needless to say. Tucker, meanwhile, hit from 38, 44, 35 and 23 yards without a miss.
Tucker also made both extra points he attempted and was recognized as the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts.
It's the ninth time that Tucker has been so honored during his seven years with the Ravens and he'll now turn his attentions to trying to help the Ravens make a deep run in the playoffs.
QBs: Lamar Jackson, Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III
RBs: Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon, Javorius Allen, Ty Montgomery
WRs: Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead, Chris Moore, Jordan Lasley, Janarion Grant
TEs: Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Maxx Williams
Chicago BearsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
As ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson noted, the Chicago Bears delivered on their promise to treat Sunday's regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings with a sense of urgency.
By doing so, the Bears could be handsomely rewarded when the playoffs begin this week.
The Bears not only vanquished a division rival 24-10 but they ensured themselves a full head of steam entering the postseason.
The Bears fell short of clinching a first-round playoff bye by virtue of the Los Angeles Rams' blowout victory over the San Francisco 49ers, but Chicago opens postseason play as the hottest team in the conference, winners of four straight and nine of its past 10. The Bears will play host to the Philadelphia Eagles next weekend in the wild-card round.
Credit head coach Matt Nagy for setting the proper tone.
Nagy declared, on more than one occasion throughout the week, the Bears were not content to simply go through the motions just because they had already locked up -- at a minimum -- the No. 3 seed.
Rather, the Bears played to win at U.S. Bank Stadium, within reason.
The Bears were never going to tempt fate with injured wide receiver Allen Robinson, safety Eddie Jackson and linebacker Aaron Lynch, all of whom were inactive on Sunday. Chicago also pulled receivers Anthony Miller (shoulder) and Taylor Gabriel (shoulder) out of the game at the first signs of trouble and limited right guard Kyle Long to one half of action in his return from injured reserve.
Still, even after Los Angeles built a sizeable second-half lead over San Francisco, the Bears went for the knockout punch. Nagy kept Mitchell Trubisky and the rest of his offensive starters on the field for Chicago's deciding touchdown drive, and for good measure, he called for Trubisky to throw the ball to reserve linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski for a successful two-point conversion.
This wasn't about the Bears worrying about next week's opponent at Soldier Field.
As the No. 3 seed, the Bears shouldn't be afraid to play anyone at home, especially with their defense.
Of course, on paper, the Vikings would have been the easiest team for the Bears to play in the first round. Minnesota was a colossal bust in 2018, a team that was favored to reach the Super Bowl in the preseason. Instead, the Vikings came out on Sunday totally flat and uninspired -- at home -- in a do-or-die game with playoff ramifications.
The Bears beat a team they were supposed to beat. They buried the Vikings, and in the process, they picked up their fifth division win of the year after winning just three NFC North games under John Fox from 2015 to 2017.
The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles will be a tough assignment next week. Philadelphia embarrassed the Bears last year, a game that most of the holdovers from the Fox era are sure to remember.
But there is nothing to suggest the Bears won't be up to the challenge.
Also worth noting. ... Trubisky's Week 17 performance was also a testament to his growth over just the past few weeks. When the Bears hosted the Vikings in Week 11, they came away with the victory despite going 6-for-12 on third downs and having three turnovers. After that game, the second-year quarterback pledged to stay aggressive but admitted the team needed to be better at converting on third downs and he needed to do a better job protecting the ball.
Fast forward to the Bears' matchup with the Vikings on Sunday and Trubisky and the Bears followed through. The Bears went 8-for-14 on third-down conversions and for the third straight week, Trubisky was interception free.
"When you get into third down, that's the money down," Trubisky said. "You've got to convert, especially against a defense who's really good on third down. We know that, so for me it was just finding completions, moving the sticks."
As noted above, the feat was even more impressive given that Trubisky did it without three of his top receivers for part of the second half.
Trubisky connected with rookie receiver Javon Wims four times for 32 yards. Wims entered the game still seeking his first career reception. Trubisky also found receiver Kevin White -- who entered the game with just three catches this year -- on a third-and-six play in the first quarter for a pickup of 22 yards.
"When you've got three of your top receivers out, new guys have to step in," Trubisky said. "It's a testament to how [Wims and White are] working in practice, just waiting for their the opportunity, and when their opportunity came they took full advantage."
The game showcased the type of mistake-free football that the Bears need from Trubisky as they ready to face the Eagles in the playoffs this Sunday.
On the injury front. ... Matt Nagy expressed optimism Monday afternoon that Jackson and Robinson would have a green light to play Sunday.
"I'm hoping they're ready to go," Nagy said.
Both players are pushing to be back on the field when the Bears resume practice Wednesday. Nagy will be in close contact with head athletic trainer Andre Tucker in the lead-up to that day's work. And the Bears are hopeful that both players will progress well enough to play this weekend.
Miller and Gabriel will be worth monitoring as the week progresses, although Nagy is hopeful.
“They’re in a good spot with us. I feel good with where they’re at,” Nagy said, via Larry Mayer of the team’s website.
Still, in the big picture, the Bears are astonishingly healthy as the postseason begins. Only four players -- Sam Acho, Dion Sims, Long and Bryce Callahan -- have been placed on injured reserve during the regular season. As noted above, Long already has made his way back from IR and he logged 29 snaps against the Vikings on Sunday afternoon.
Nagy was pleased with what he saw from the 30-year-old guard in his first game action since late October.
"I thought he looked healthy," the coach said. "He held the line of scrimmage really well. He was great in the run game. When we did throw the ball, he was solid there.
"The biggest thing for him was going to be conditioning and getting in and out of the game. … And I liked where he was at."
Nagy hopes Long will be in line for a heavier workload in the playoff opener.
"We'd love to be able to put him out there, start and play a whole game," Nagy said. "We just have to see how he holds up. ..."
As Profootballtalk.com's Josh Alper suggested Wednesday, if you wanted to be negative about it, you might note that kicker Cody Parkey missed 10 kicks this year.
But the Bears kicker is choosing to look at the numbers in his own way. He hit 23-of-30 field goals, and that 77 percent accuracy is last among playoff kickers. But he's expanding the sample size to include his 42-of-45 accuracy on extra points.
"You calculate all the times I've kicked the ball this year, including extra points, which are 33-yard field goals essentially, I've kicked at 87 percent," Parkey told Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's easy to look at and be like, 'Oh, he's done terrible this year.' But I've kicked at 87 percent, which by no means is terrible, [although] it's not where I want to be.
"I look at the positives every game, if I do bad [or] if I do good. That's why I'm able to stand here in front of you today, five years into the NFL, still kicking."
As Alper went on to note, the Bears have gone to great lengths to keep Parkey on track this year, after signing him to a four-year, $15 million contract this offseason. After his four-miss game against the Lions (all hitting the uprights), they started having him go to Soldier Field for practice, creating a 80-mile round trip to help keep him confident. After he doinked another one last week against the Vikings, Nagy was careful to say the blame was not solely Parkey's.
"Because," Alper summed up, "they're living on defense and being careful with the ball, having him in the right mindset in the playoffs is crucial. And if that means letting him present his stats his own way, then they'll let him. ..."
And finally. ... Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio isn't permitted to interview for head coaching openings until after the Bears face the Eagles in the playoffs on Sunday and he won't be waiting long to speak to interested teams once eligible.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Fangio is expected to interview with the Broncos and Dolphins next Monday. Both teams requested permission to speak to Fangio after firing their head coaches on December 31.
Fangio has never been a head coach, but he has over two decades of experience as a coordinator under a variety of head coaches and has had his name come up with openings a few times in recent years.
QBs: Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray
RBs: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham
WRs: Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, Josh Bellamy, Javon Wims
TEs: Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker, Daniel Brown
Dallas CowboysCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
As ESPN.com's Todd Archer framed it, "This was supposed to be a meaningless game.
"So much for that being the case. ..."
The Dallas Cowboys' regular season ended with a 36-35 win against the New York Giants on Sunday to give them a 10-6 record.
Dak Prescott hit Cole Beasley with a 32-yard touchdown pass with 1:12 to play and Prescott hit Michael Gallup with the subsequent two-point play as the Cowboys overcame a late seven-point deficit to go into next week's playoffs with momentum.
Good thing. The Cowboys have not won a playoff game with a loss in their final regular-season matchup since 1996.
Archer went on to note the Cowboys enter the postseason as one of the NFL's hottest teams, having won seven of their last eight games. For the first time in franchise history, the Cowboys made the playoffs after starting the season 3-5. They beat the top seed in the NFC, the New Orleans Saints, with a dominating defensive effort. They swept the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Are they true contenders?
"Once you get in the show, it's just who plays well," Beasley said Friday. "It can go to anybody. Everybody can make the predictions, but in the NFL you can't predict nothing really."
Sunday's result was supposed to be a mere footnote on the season.
The outcome could not change the Cowboys' playoff standing. They were locked in as the fourth seed after last week's division-clinching win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears' victory against the San Francisco 49ers.
The best thing that happened for the Cowboys was nobody appeared to suffer a serious injury, although left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo injured his left ankle on the opening drive of the third quarter.
The Cowboys made sure nothing could happen to Ezekiel Elliott by making the NFL's rushing champion inactive. Pro Bowl offensive lineman Tyron Smith and Zack Martin did not play either, but both will be available for the playoffs. Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford did not make the trip to New Jersey because of a neck injury, but he should be available for the playoffs as well.
Curiously, Prescott played the entire game.
He played well, too, throwing a career-high four touchdown passes, with three to tight end Blake Jarwin, and completing 27-of-44 passes for 387 yards. But he was also sacked four times, ending his season with 56 sacks.
Prescott became just the second Cowboys quarterback to have three straight seasons of 20 or more touchdown passes, joining Tony Romo. Romo had a three-season streak from 2007 to '09 and a four-season streak from 2011 to '14.
Elliott won the NFL's rushing title for the second time in three seasons, despite not playing in the finale, just as he did in 2016. He finished with 1,434 yards on 304 carries. He also led the Cowboys with 77 receptions.
The offense even converted three of four red zone drives into touchdowns.
Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence had a first-quarter sack/fumble that was recovered by Antwaun Woods that gave him 10.5 on the season. He became the first Cowboy with back-to-back double-digit sack seasons since DeMarcus Ware in 2011-12.
It wasn't all pretty, especially defensively after getting two takeaways on the Giants' first two drives.
The Cowboys allowed more than 30 points in a game for the first time this season and the first time since Nov. 19, 2017. Saquon Barkley had 109 yards rushing, but 68 came on one rush. Eli Manning had more than 300 passing yards.
Offensively, Amari Cooper was held in check for the third straight game and he lost a fumble that led to the Giants' final points.
But the Cowboys won, most improbably, and will find out if their momentum can carry over into the playoffs.
Jarwin will be doing the same after being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his outburst against the Giants.
Jarwin caught seven passes for 119 yards and the above-mentioned three touchdowns.
Jarwin didn't catch a pass last year as a rookie, and only had 20 catches for 188 yards in the first 15 games of this season. Maybe it was just one game, but in the absence of Jason Witten, the Cowboys have needed someone to produce there. ...
Also of interest this week. ... Head coach Jason Garrett said Monday he didn't consider removing Prescott from a game. But Elliott was a different story.
"He's been banged up a little bit with different parts of his body," Garrett said on 105.3 The Fan, via Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. "We just felt like it was the right thing for him to not be a part of it [Sunday]. I do think he'll be fresher going forward."
Elliott played 890 snaps this season and had a career-high 381 touches this season, including 304 rushes.
Elliott feels "ready to go right now" this time around and he feels ready to do more than he's done at any other point this season.
"Just knowing that we're going into these playoffs, I'm going to have the highest workload I probably had all season," Elliott said, via ESPN.com. "Just great, getting fresh and ready going into this last stretch of the season and ready for whatever they throw at me."
Elliott averaged over 25 touches a game this season and topped out with 40 touches in the team's Week 14 win over the Eagles. That game came after an extended break following a Thursday game, so Elliott may be right about what's coming his way on Saturday night.
Beyond Elliott, the Cowboys go into the practice week relatively healthy.
Defensive lineman David Irving (ankle) and Su'a-Filo were the only players not working fully.. Rookie Connor Williams worked in Su'a-Filo's place with the first team. Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford went through some light contact drills at the start of practice to test his injured neck. Garrett said he anticipated Crawford taking part in practice.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch left Sunday's game after being kicked in the shin, but the injury isn't expected to affect his availability for this week's game.
Meanwhile, Garrett said the Cowboys started to look at Seattle late last week, knowing the percentages they would play the Seahawks in the wild card round were high.
The Seahawks beat the Cowboys in Week 3, which was their first win of the season.
"I think at the outset of the season, they were finding their way a little bit and I think they developed an identity offensively where they want to run the football," Garrett said. "I think they lead the league in rushing percentage attempts and they're very good running the ball. They're the No. 1 rush team in the NFL, so clearly that's what they want to do. When they've played their best football in the past, that's been a big part of how they played and then the quarterback (Russell Wilson) is outstanding."
And finally. ... The Dolphins have joined the Jets in contacting the Cowboys, seeking permission to talk to Cowboys assistant Kris Richard, Adam Schefter of ESPN reports.
The Dolphins have a long list of interview candidates, including Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak and Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
Richard, 39, has earned credit this season for the Cowboys ranking seventh in total defense and sixth in points allowed. He joined defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli in Dallas as secondary coach and passing game coordinator in the offseason after being fired as the Seahawks defensive coordinator.
Richard spent three seasons as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator.
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Mike White
RBs: Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith
WRs: Amari Cooper, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Noah Brown, Tavon Austin
TEs: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, Rico Gathers, Geoff Swaim
Houston TexansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
NFL scouts staring through binoculars in the press box at NRG Stadium on Sunday caught an eyeful of what opponents could expect come postseason from Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
As ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright reported, utilizing an array of designed runs, Watson outrushed the Jacksonville Jaguars (48 yards to 16) in the first half of what turned into a 20-3 victory that clinched the AFC South for the Houston Texans.
"I'm going to be careful about how I answer that," said head coach Bill O'Brien when asked about what prompted Houston to call so many designed rushes for Watson. "So I'm not gonna answer that question. It's a great question, but you'll have to figure that out on your own. I just don't want to get into the schematics of all the things we did today."
Along the way, Watson became the first quarterback to throw for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns and rush for 500 yards and five touchdowns in a single season in NFL history.
"Of course, I want to throw it," said Watson, who completed 25 of 35 for 234 yards and was sacked six times. "But at the end of the day, if the ball is in my hands, I feel like I'm a playmaker. Every time I have the ball in my hands, which is every play, I feel I'm the best player on the team. That's just my mentality. I'm not saying that in a cocky way, but everybody should have that mentality when they step on that field. As we play, I just kind of make the best decision and try to move the chains."
Houston's offense scorched the Jaguars early with designed runs for the multifaceted Watson. Watson ran for 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. The quarterback ran the ball (five attempts) almost as much as he passed it (eight attempts) in the opening quarter. Watson's 5-yard run with 14:56 left in the second quarter put the Texans ahead 10-3 after the extra-point kick.
The play also marked Watson's fifth designed rush of the contest, which ranked as his most in a game in his career. By the 10:30 mark of the fourth quarter, Watson had run on designed rushes 8 times for 57 yards.
That registers as the most designed rushes for a Texans quarterback in a game in the last 10 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
"The way Deshaun plays the game, it makes everybody in that locker room want to take their games up," said receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished with 12 catches for 147 yards and tied Andre Johnson's single-season franchise record set in 2008 for receptions in a season (115). "The guy takes a lot of hits, but he's still going out and staying in the pocket. Me seeing that, it makes me want to go out and make a play for him."
While it would seem short-sighted to put your quarterback in harm's way with the playoffs on the horizon, for the Texans, the tactic worked. Houston averaged 7.4 yards per rush when using the zone read in the first half, as Watson racked up 48 yards and a touchdown on seven attempts, while the Jacksonville trio of Carlos Hyde, Dave Williams and Blake Bortles combined for 16 yards on 10 carries.
When Houston didn't utilize zone-read runs with Watson, Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue took turns grinding down the Jaguars for a combined 78 yards on 2o attempts.
"It's very important [to establish the running game], especially now that we are about to start the playoffs," Miller said. "Just being a more balanced offense, keeping the defense on their toes will always be good. Whoever we play next week, we just have to find a way to keep the chains moving, and find a way to put points on the scoreboard."
Houston's leading rusher, Miller made his return against the Jaguars after missing last week's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles due to a sprained ankle. Miller's 7-yard touchdown with 3:01 left in the first half gave Houston a 17-3 lead after the PAT kick.
Watson would finish with a game-high 66 yards rushing.
"It's good to be able to run and have a balanced offense," Watson said. "They've got to be worried about both things. They can't just focus on the run game or the passing game, and have us locked down that way. So when you have balance, good things are going to happen on offense. You never know with the game plan. It depends how the game's flowing. I try to do what's best for the team, try to get the win, and try to have success on offense."
Per ESPN.com, the Texans head into their first-round playoff game against the Colts as a dangerous team that could win multiple playoff games. But issues in pass protection and in the secondary could be too much for Houston to overcome.
"Their offensive line has been banged up, and the quarterback just took 62 sacks for the season," a personnel director said. "Their secondary is a little questionable. But their defense plays well. They are opportunistic on that side of the ball and have the weapons on offense to make a deep run."
Houston is the fifth team in the 16-game schedule era to reach the playoffs following an 0-3 start and the first since divisional realignment in 2002. ...
One the injury front, Houston Chronicle staffer Aaron Wilson reports that five weeks of rehabilitating chronic hamstring injury could finally lead to rookie wide receiver Keke Coutee returning in time for the playoffs.
The fourth-round draft pick from Texas Tech has been limited in practice for weeks as he tries to manage his third hamstring injury of the season. Because of the injury, Coutee has only played in six games with two starts. He has 28 receptions for 287 yards and one touchdown.
Head coach Bill O'Brien hasn't ruled out Coutee potentially playing Saturday in an AFC wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.
"Definitely, I think he's trending that way," O'Brien said. "I think there's a shot. We have to see how he looks in practice on a day-to-day basis, but there's a shot there."
The Texans held a walk-through practice Tuesday. They estimated that safety Mike Tyson (knee/ankle) would not have practiced.
Nose tackle Brandon Dunn (ankle), Hopkins (ankle), running back Buddy Howell (hamstring), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (neck), inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney (heel) and defensive end J.J. Watt (elbow/knee) earned limited designations.
The Texans listed inside linebacker Dylan Cole (wrist), Coutee (hamstring), offensive lineman Zach Fulton (hand), safety Andre Hal (ankle), offensive guard Senio Kelemete (knee/rib) and safety Justin Reid (wrist) as full participants on Tuesday; Coutee worked fully again Wednesday.
I'll follow up on all involved as needed via the News and Views section of the site in coming days; you'll also want to monitor the daiy NFL Injury Report updates posted on the site as well.
QBs: Deshaun Watson, Brandon Weeden
RBs: Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue, D'Onta Foreman
WRs: DeAndre Hopkins, Demaryius Thomas, Keke Coutee, DeAndre Carter
TEs: Ryan Griffin, Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas
Indianapolis ColtsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
ESPN.com's Mike Wells reminded readers this week that the Colts reported for training camp nearly 160 days ago with questions about their team.
Could Andrew Luck return to pre-injury form?
How would four first-timers at head coach and the three coordinator positions do in their roles?
That was just the start of their issues.
The Colts fell to 1-5 and looked like they were on their way to another top-10 draft pick after losing to the lowly Jets in October. But through it all, the coaching staff, led by head coach Frank Reich, the players, even the front office never wavered.
Now, 10 weeks after that loss, the Colts are heading back to the playoffs for the first time in four years after winning their biggest game since reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2014, winning 33-17 against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday to clinch the final playoff spot in the NFL.
The Colts will play in Houston against their AFC South counterpart Saturday.
The teams split their regular-season meetings, with each winning on the road. Indianapolis joins Kansas City (2015) and Cincinnati (1970) as the only teams to make the playoffs after starting the season 1-5.
"At the end of the day, what we did is a pretty good feeling," head coach Frank Reich said. "To be 1-5 and do something that only two teams in the history of this league ... to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start is quite an accomplishment. Real credit to the guys, and we talked about there's three things. There's trust, there's toughness and there's team, and that's what the foundation is. That's what the culture is. That's what the belief is, those aren't just words. We lived that this year."
As Wells understated, the road to the playoffs hasn't been an easy one for the Colts. They faced -- and defeated -- teams on winning streaks of nine, five and four games over the past four weeks to close the season. Indianapolis won nine of its final 10.
The Colts (10-6) didn't talk about it publicly, but knew that expectations weren't high at the start of the season. But Reich, who is known for his comeback heroics as a player in college and during his 13-year NFL career, had his first as a head coach in proving doubters wrong about the season despite having one of the youngest rosters in the NFL.
"I never thought of it as a rebuild," Reich said. "We don't want to hear everything about what everybody said about the roster. We were ranked in all preseason polls. We talked about that, and then we were ranked 32nd after the draft with the draft we had. I like where we're at."
Indeed, while Luck is clearly the centerpiece of the offense, general manager Chris Ballard made sure to point out during his introductory news conference nearly two years ago that the Colts are not just about their quarterback. Ballard wanted a complete team.
That's what the Colts have this season.
The offensive line tied for first in the league by allowing just 18 sacks this season. Running back Marlon Mack topped the 100-yard rushing mark four times, which is the first time that has happened for the Colts since Joseph Addai did it back in 2007.
"To start protecting the passer, that was a huge focus," Reich said. "And I talked about getting it up front, having an offensive system and plans that would be conducive to protecting the quarterback. The best way is to run the football well. We've been able to do that. Andrew has complete mastery over it. So to protect him the way that we have all year is really satisfying."
The defense, led by rookie Pro Bowl snub and league-leading tackler Darius Leonard, ended the season near the top 10 in the league and didn't give up 100 yards rushing to any player this season despite facing the likes of Adrian Peterson, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley. Coordinator Matt Eberflus' ball-hawking style of defense produced a turnover in all but one game this season.
And now the Colts are headed back to the playoffs with their most complete team in Luck's career.
That should make the other teams involved a bit nervous.
And what should make the Texans nervous?
T.Y. Hilton. Or more specifically, Hilton playing in their stadium.
"I'm going to my second home," Hilton said earlier this week.
NRG Stadium in Houston has indeed been like a second home field for Hilton throughout his seven-year NFL career. He has 41 receptions for 932 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games played in Houston. In Hilton's most recent game in Houston -- on Dec. 9 -- he had nine catches for 199 yards, including a 60-yard pass to get the Colts going in the second quarter.
"I don't know what it is -- I just like playing in that stadium and now I get another chance at it," Hilton said Sunday.
How effective Hilton will be against the Texans is anybody's guess. It was on that 60-yard reception that Hilton first injured an ankle more than three weeks ago. He hasn't been healthy since, and likely won't be until at some point after the season. But he has played in every game since, missing only practice time to help try to ease the workload on the ankle.
To add to Hilton's ankle problems, he'll have less time to rest it because the game will be played Saturday instead of Sunday this week.
"Every day of rest helps, so not having that is probably a small factor," Reich said.
Hilton said he aggravated the ankle on his first reception in Sunday's game against the Titans. He tried to turn quickly back toward the middle of the field before being tackled on his 18-yard gain.
"I'll be all right," Hilton said. "Short week -- I don't have a choice, I'll be ready."
Hilton noticeably limped to the sideline after that play and missed a couple of snaps before returning to the game.
"I love T.Y. He's unbelievable," Reich said. "In the game [Sunday] after he had that first reception and long gain. The next series he's sitting off over on the bench and I kind of look back over at him. I just want to make eye contact with him to see how he's doing. I look back and I just kind of give him a look of 'Thumbs-up or a thumbs-down -- are you good, are you going?' He just looks at me with a smile and nods his head like he's going."
Hilton finished with just two catches, his second lowest of the season, but he proved once again -- as he said earlier this season -- that his less than 100 percent is better than a lot of other receivers' 100 percent when he took a bubble screen and picked up 43 yards while basically running on one leg.
Toughing it out is the way Hilton will have to continue to play. His presence on the field causes defenses -- especially Houston's -- to respect the side of the field that he's on.
"It just gives me a comfort," Reich said. "Having him out there -- and I know he's not full speed. He's far from it. Who knows what percent he is, but I just know he's fighting for every rep and every catch he can make."
For the record, the Colts have a long injury list heading into the wild-card playoff week, with five receivers -- including Hilton -- banged up.
They didn't practice Tuesday, holding only a walk-through, but estimated that five players wouldn't have practiced and seven others would have had limited practices.
The Colts listed Hilton (ankle), safety Clayton Geathers (knee), receiver Ryan Grant (toe), defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis (knee) and receiver Zach Pascal (knee) as missing practice.
Safety Malik Hooker (hip), receiver Daurice Fountain (ankle), receiver Dontrelle Inman (shoulder/finger), center Ryan Kelly (neck), defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard (knee), linebacker Anthony Walker (shoulder) and running back Jordan Wilkins (knee/ankle) were listed as limited.
Kelly told reporters Wednesday he will play this week.
Beyond that, Hilton was not on the field for Wednesday's session while Inman was limited. The team will have another full practice Thursday before holding another walk-through Friday. ...
Against the Titans, Leonard had eight tackles, an interception and two passes defensed in the victory. That led the league to name him as the AFC Defensive Player of the week for the final week of the regular season.
Leonard is a frontrunner for defensive rookie of the year and a foundation piece for the Colts defense for years to come. ...
And finally. ... Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has played in the most postseason games in NFL history, and Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri is No. 2. And they'll put some distance between themselves and everyone else in NFL history this postseason.
Vinatieri will play in his 31st postseason game on Saturday when the Colts play the Texans. Next weekend, Brady will play in his 38th postseason game when New England takes on the Texans, Ravens or Chargers.
The two of them are easily the top two players in NFL history in total postseason games played. Brady's record appears to be untouchable for many, many years. The only person who might be able to approach Vinatieri's postseason game total is his successor as the Patriots' kicker, Stephen Gostkowski. The Patriots' next playoff game will be the 26th postseason game of Gostkowski's NFL career.
Gostkowski is currently eighth in NFL history (and third among active players) in total postseason games played. If the Patriots get to the Super Bowl this year, that would be Gostkowski's 28th career postseason game and would put him in third place all-time, behind only Brady, Vinatieri and Jerry Rice.
QBs: Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett
RBs: Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins, Nyheim Hines
WRs: T.Y. Hilton, Dontrelle Inman, Ryan Grant, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal
TEs: Eric Ebron, Mo Alie-Cox, Ryan Hewitt
Kansas City ChiefsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
The Kansas City Chiefs will make good use of the first-round playoff bye they earned with Sunday's 35-3 win over the Oakland Raiders.
The Chiefs played without several injured starters, including safety Eric Berry, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Spencer Ware. All will benefit from an extra week of rest.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 14 of 24 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns and an interception on Sunday. His touchdowns went for 67 yards and 89 yards to Tyreek Hill and Demarcus Robinson, respectively.
When the Chiefs do play their first playoff game in two weeks, it will be at Arrowhead Stadium, where they went 7-1 this season.
This is the third time since seeding began that the Chiefs earned the top seed in the AFC; they lost their first game the previous two times.
Against the Raiders, the Chiefs scored 30 or more points for the 12th time this season, most in franchise history. It's tied for second most in a season in NFL history: Only the 2013 Denver Broncos had more such games with 13.
Meanwhile, as ESPN.com's Adam Teicher notes, even as Mahomes piled up spectacular statistics during the season, head coach Andy Reid resisted the urge to call his quarterback the NFL's most valuable player.
On Sunday, Reid couldn't help himself any longer.
"He's been the MVP," said Reid, who was once Brett Favre's quarterbacks coach for several seasons with the Green Bay Packers. "He's done good. He is a heck of a player. I was fortunate to be around a three-time MVP and a couple of guys who were right on the edge of being the MVP and this guy is in that category. He is so deserving. In a world of great players, for him to do the things he's done is phenomenal and he will continue to do that. He still has room to grow.
"That's the exciting part and something for Kansas City to be very excited about. His work ethic and everything else is MVP-caliber level. He comes to work with a purpose, makes everyone feel a part of it, makes everyone around him better and has done that for our organization, for all of us, his fans and coaches and owner, too. He's been very important."
Mahomes finished the season with 50 touchdown passes and 5,097 yards, making him only the second quarterback to go over 50 TDs and 5,000 yards in a season.
The first was Denver's Peyton Manning in 2013, and he was the NFL's MVP that year.
The Chiefs traded last season's top-rated passer, Alex Smith, last offseason to make room in their lineup for Mahomes, so they thought their young quarterback was ready to be a productive player.
But few quarterbacks have MVP-type seasons in their first season as a starter.
"I am not much of a crystal-ball guy," Reid said when asked if he expected so much from Mahomes so early. "I know he had a good foundation that was set. Alex was a big part of that and helping him understand what this league is all about.
"But who knows? In this game you don't know week to week. You go out and do your best. You work hard and you keep that process going every day, every week that you have an opportunity to do so and he did that. Does it surprise me? Nothing he does really surprises me. I saw that the first year. You don't know, but heck, I still think he can keep growing. We haven't seen the end of it."
Mahomes was also asked after Sunday's win whether he deserved to be MVP.
"That's a hard question," Mahomes said. "There (are) a lot of guys that have played this year that I feel like deserve the MVP. It's not up to me. ... Hopefully I'm still playing whenever it happens."
His teammates, not surprisingly, weren't as reluctant to weigh in on the topic. Linebacker Justin Houston was one of them.
"He means a lot," linebacker Justin Houston said. "His numbers speak for themselves. ... Any quarterback that can come into the game and put up that many touchdowns, it gives the defense some breathing room and put us in a position to do what we like to do as defensive linemen and outside linebackers. We like to rush the passer. Anytime you are ahead going into the fourth quarter, you can pin your ears back and go."
In the second half of Sunday's game, with the Chiefs holding a big lead, fans at Arrowhead Stadium chanted "MVP." Houston, who played with quarterbacks like Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko and Kyle Orton since joining the Chiefs in 2011, had never heard such a thing in his home stadium.
"First time," he said. "I am pretty sure it won't be the last time with that guy. ..."
For what it's worth. ... The Chiefs will practice for a couple of days this week, which represents a change for them from the way they handled the playoff bye two years ago, the last time they had a week off in the postseason. "We know our work clearly isn't done," Reid said. "It's important how we handle this next week."
Reid said he changed the schedule because the Chiefs had a late regular-season bye, in Week 12, and also a Thursday night game in Week 15 that gave the players some extra days of rest.
And finally. ... According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, a number of teams have requested permission to talk to Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy for their coaching vacancy.
According to multiple reports (via Profootballtalk.com), Bieniemy will kick off the interview process by speaking to the Buccaneers and Jets on Wednesday. He'll move on to an interview with the Dolphins on Thursday and then speak to the Bengals on Friday.
Rapoport adds that Bieniemy has elected to pass on the opportunity to interview with the Cardinals, so he'll be speaking with half of the eight teams currently looking for head coaches.
Bieniemy is finishing his first year as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City. That job was used as a stepping stone by Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Bears head coach Matt Nagy and their success has likely helped boost Bieniemy's profile among teams looking for the same kind of turnaround.
Beyond that, Bieniemy's name was on the league advisory committee's list of suggestions, and the numbers Kansas City has put up this year help (though he doesn't call plays). The 49-year-old has also worked as a running backs coach with the Vikings, and was a coordinator at the University of Colorado.
He played nine seasons in the league with the Chargers, Bengals and Eagles.
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne, Matthew McGloin
RBs: Damien Williams, Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, Anthony Sherman
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Chris Conley, Demarcus Robinson, Gehrig Dieter, Marcus Kemp
TEs: Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris
Los Angeles ChargersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
Chargers safety Derwin James didn't mince words when asked about the prospect of playing the Baltimore Ravens for the second time in three weeks, this time on the road in the AFC wild-card round of the playoffs Sunday.
"We love coming into your place -- whichever team you may be -- and doing our thing," the rookie safety said. "We come into your place ready to play. Our motto around here is 'Any squad, any place,' that's what we say around here.
"Playing at Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Seattle at the beginning of the season was big for us. We've played in all of those hostile environments, and it helped us."
James has reason to be confident: The Chargers are 8-0 when they board a plane for a game this season, including road wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and a home game in London against the Tennessee Titans.
Tight end Virgil Green said he looks forward to the animosity he receives from fans on the road.
"We're not going to lay down for anybody," Green said. "We're going to go compete and fight. I will tell you this: We do like hostile environments."
"When your back's against the wall, you're either going to fight or you're just going to run," Green said. "I can't speak for anybody else, but I know Virgil Green thrives in hostile environments. I want you talking. I want you saying bad things to me. I always say, 'You're talking sexy to me.' When people are talking crazy like that, they're talking sexy to me."
Of course, the Chargers were tamed by the Ravens at home in Week 16, losing 22-10, their lowest scoring output this season.
The Chargers recorded a season-low 198 total yards and quarterback Philip Rivers was under siege most of the game, getting sacked four times.
"These guys smacked us around the last time we played," left tackle Russell Okung said. "They got the best of us, so it's a great challenge. We're looking forward to getting back, checking out the film and getting better and heading to Baltimore.
"I think we've proven that we're a resilient, persistent team and being on the road doesn't bother us. So I think that really speaks to the character of our team, who we are and what we've been trying to do."
Rivers doesn't see an advantage for either team in the rematch.
"It absolutely will be interesting," Rivers said. "A little bit of an extension to that first game to see the counter moves -- a long halftime -- to see what the counters are and kind of how this game gets going, what the strategies are on both sides."
That said, Rivers needs to get on track quickly.
As ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams noted, Rivers threw an interception on his team's opening possession for a third straight game in Sunday's tilt with the Broncos. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, the last quarterback to do that was Josh Freeman in 2009.
After throwing just six interceptions in his first 13 games, Rivers has six in his past three.
The 37-year-old signal-caller finished 14-of-24 for a season-low 176 passing yards against the Broncos, with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams and two interceptions.
Though Rivers and Chargers' offense struggled, the defense scored a touchdown on an 18-yard fumble return by linebacker Kyle Emanuel and forced four turnovers, as the Bolts escaped Broncos Stadium at Mile High with a 23-9 win to finish the season 12-4.
The Chargers earned their first win in Denver since December 2013.
The Chargers have to figure out how to get things going in a rematch with the Ravens on the road next week in the opening round of the AFC playoffs. The Chargers will be playing the Ravens in the postseason for the first time, and the Bolts are 5-7 all-time against them.
The Chargers are expected to have a pair of key offensive playmakers in the lineup for the first round of the playoffs, including the return of a star tight end who has yet to play this season.
Despite limping off in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos in Week 17, running back Melvin Gordon is expected to play Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Tight end Hunter Henry, who tore his ACL during the offseason, also is expected to play, the source told Schefter.
Gordon left Sunday's game against the Broncos in the fourth quarter. After the 23-9 win, Gordon said he had tweaked his knee but planned to be ready for the first round of the playoffs.
Gordon sent the same message when he spoke to the media on Wednesday. Gordon declared himself ready to go for what will be the first postseason game of his career.
Gordon added, via Williams, that he feels healthier now than he did heading into the Chargers’ Week 16 game against the Ravens.
Henry suffered a noncontact ACL tear during organized team activities in May and missed the entire regular season.
Following the injury, the Chargers signed longtime tight end Antonio Gates to a one-year contract, and he would lead the Chargers' tight ends in catches (28), receiving yards (333) and touchdowns (2).
Head coach Anthony Lynn said they need to make sure Henry is truly ready and able to contribute before they give him the green light.
"We want to give a good look at him this week to see where he's at," Lynn said via Williams. "I like the progress that he's been making, but he hasn't played football for a long time -- since last December … so it's been a while. He's going to need to really show us that he's ready [to play].
"I believe that the knee is stable. We did some things last week and thought he looked really good. Now, it's just about conditioning, the chemistry with the offense and just playing football."
Henry has caught 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons with the Chargers.
We'll be following up on Henry's progress in the News and Views section of the site in coming days.
QBs: Philip Rivers, Geno Smith
RBs: Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Detrez Newsome
WRs: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, Geremy Davis, Dylan Cantrell
TEs: Antonio Gates, Hunter Henry, Virgil Green
Los Angeles RamsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
After missing the playoffs in every season since 2004, the Los Angeles Rams emerged as the kings of the NFC West division and entered last year's postseason not knowing what they didn't know.
As ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner reminded readers, the Rams entered those playoffs with little in the way of big-game experience, a young quarterback who had never performed on the playoff stage and the youngest head coach in the league in his first season on the job trying to guide them through it all.
Like anything, the only way to gain the needed heat on your feet is to jump into the postseason fire. The Rams did that, lost and emerged this season on the other side with not only a better roster and a better record (13-3), but with a team better-equipped to make noise in the postseason.
Where last year's Rams were a classic worst-to-first story, this year's edition heads toward January as a bona fide Super Bowl contender with the expectations to match.
And while Sunday's 48-32 win against the San Francisco 49ers doesn't offer much insight into how the Rams will perform when they reach the postseason, it did plenty to ensure the Rams are much better positioned to make some noise in the next month.
With this victory against the Niners, the Rams secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC and, most important, a bye that pushes them through to the NFC divisional round. As Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has put it, a bye in the postseason is as good as a win because it ensures you've advanced into the next round.
For the Rams, Wagoner believes it could mean even more than that.
First and foremost, it offers an opportunity to get running back Todd Gurley (knee) and safety Lamarcus Joyner (ankle) back to full strength and heal up any other remaining bumps and bruises.
Having Gurley, in particular, will be critical for an offense that has shown some warts over the past month. He has missed the past two games because of left knee soreness, though the Rams get the added bonus of C.J. Anderson, who has rushed for 299 yards in two games in Gurley's stead, for depth. Fresh legs are an impossibility at this point in the season, but a healthy Gurley, even if he's a bit rusty remains the Rams' most dynamic offensive weapon.
McVay said Monday he expects the team's star running back to play in the divisional round of the postseason Jan. 12.
"I think it's been making good progress. He's feeling good," McVay told reporters. "He came in today and everything was positive with what we're getting from [senior director of sports medicine and performance] Reggie [Scott]. We'll take it a day at a time.
"I would be very, very surprised if he wasn't going to be ready to go for the playoffs, but I think we're going to be smart with whether he goes or not this week with those extra days. We'll still continue to have that same rehab program. He's taking steps in the right direction, and I would be very surprised if he's not feeling good, ready to roll for our divisional game."
The Rams' offensive line has also had some hiccups in recent weeks, particularly against top pass-rushing teams such as the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, the exact types of teams that await in the postseason.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the leader of that offensive line group, departed Sunday's game with a knee injury and did not return. The extra week off provides him and some of the other veteran linemen a chance to hit refresh, as well.
Perhaps just as important as any of that, though, is that these Rams don't figure to enter this postseason as wide-eyed or just-happy-to-be-there as they did a year ago. In 2017's Week 17 matchup against the Niners, the Rams chose to steal some rest for their starters at the expense of momentum.
Whether it had anything to do with the ensuing loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round is in the eye of the beholder, but it's something McVay has acknowledged he has learned from. That was a disappointing end to an impressive season, but it provided their key young players a taste of the postseason crucible.
On Sunday, the Rams got that win and, in the process, put themselves in better position to turn postseason lessons learned into playoff victories earned. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor has popped up on the radar of several teams looking for a head coach and he's reportedly set up interviews with a couple of them.
Albert Breer of SI.com reports that Taylor is scheduled for interviews with the Broncos and Cardinals on Saturday. Breer adds that he is still working to schedule an interview with the Bengals and that it is likely to take place on Friday.
The Bengals have also requested permission to interview Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron, so they may be trying to schedule time to meet both coaches in Los Angeles.
Taylor is eligible to speak to teams this week because the Rams have a bye through the first round of the playoffs. Any future conversations would have to wait until the Rams have been eliminated or until the week after the conference title games.
QBs: Jared Goff, Sean Mannion, Brandon Allen
RBs: Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson, John Kelly, Justin Davis
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, JoJo Natson, KhaDarel Hodge
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Johnny Mundt
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
Tom Brady had described Sunday's regular-season finale as a playoff game, and then he went out and turned in one of his trademark postseason-type performances.
That's good news for the Patriots, as their 38-3 victory over the New York Jets clinched a first-round bye.
As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss noted, the bye was why Brady called this a playoff game. His point was that if the Patriots won, it essentially meant that they won on wild-card weekend by not having to play a game.
"We had a great opportunity for it and I'm just glad we could close it out," Brady said. "Just ended up being a great way to finish the year -- win two games at home against division opponents after two pretty tough losses. Showed some resiliency. We're going to need it going forward. Certainly a lot of things to learn about ourselves, a lot of things we can improve on. See if we can win a game here in two weeks."
Brady, of course, is uniquely qualified to comment on playoff football, as he's played in an NFL record 37 career postseason games. That's more than two full seasons worth of football.
As he prepares for his 38th, he does so coming off one of his best games of the season -- 24-of-33 for 250 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions against a depleted Jets defense that did little to disrupt him. Along the way, he hit 6,000 completions for his career, joining Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to reach the milestone. It also marked Brady's 29th career four-touchdown game.
Brady's strong passing day was a notable change from Week 16, when Brady was held to 126 yards passing against the Bills, who entered the final week of the season as the NFL's No. 1-rated pass defense.
What stood out most against the Jets was the decisiveness with which the ball left his hands, and the accuracy of some tight-window throws. His second-quarter touchdown pass to running back Rex Burkhead was arguably as impressive as any throw he's made this season -- perfect touch -- while he was consistently stepping up in the pocket and delivering lasers down the field.
"I'm pretty much used to it -- he's Tom Brady," said receiver Julian Edelman, who has played alongside Brady for the last 10 seasons. "You don't want to take it for granted, what he does."
With Brady and the passing offense clicking overall, their play was complemented by a defense that has played its best at home this season, where the Patriots are 8-0 (the NFL's only undefeated team at home in 2018). A forced fumble and recovery that led to a touchdown, and two fourth-down stops against rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, highlighted a decisive performance from the D.
So now it's on to the playoffs, where the Patriots aren't the favorite in the AFC like they've been in past years.
But first, with Brady playing a key role, a well-deserved and most coveted bye -- for the ninth straight season.
"They're all different and they're all hard to compare and so forth," Brady said of bye weeks each of the last nine years. "11-5 is nothing to be sad about. I mean, we fought pretty hard and put ourselves in a decent position here, and now we've got to go try to take advantage of it."
Brady has played in the most postseason games in NFL history. Next weekend, Brady will play in his 38th postseason game when New England takes on the Texans, Ravens or Chargers. That is the most postseason games in NFL history.
The Patriots' next playoff game will be the 26th postseason game of kicker Stephen Gostkowski's NFL career.
Gostkowski is currently eighth in NFL history (and third among active players) in total postseason games played. If the Patriots get to the Super Bowl this year, that would be Gostkowski's 28th career postseason game and would put him in third place all-time, behind only Brady, former Patriot and current Colt Adam Vinatieri and Jerry Rice. ...
On the injury front. ... Bill Belichick struck an optimistic note on the Patriots' health heading into their playoff bye week.
"I think right now we're in pretty good shape. Cordarrelle Patterson wasn't able to play against the Jets, but hopefully we'll be able to get him back," he said in his weekly radio interview on WEEI. "I think our overall continuity the last few weeks, of not only the injury report for games but just being able to practice consecutively with players that are going to play in the game gives you better timing and execution, and has helped us that way.
"We'll see, but so far, I think we'll have a full group out there this week at practice. ..."
And finally. ... Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may or may not take a job. But he's interviewing for one this weekend.
According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, McDaniels will meet with the Packers Friday to interview for their head coaching job.
The Patriots have the weekend off after earning a bye in the AFC playoffs, so McDaniels could ostensibly squeeze another interview in this weekend.
It's unclear if he will, or whether he'll go all the way with his next suitor.
As Profootballtalk.com's x noted, McDaniels leaving the Colts at the altar last year hasn't seemed to discourage interest in him this time.
The Packers have already interviewed former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, and former Colts coach Chuck Pagano. Their list of candidates also includes Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell, Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, and Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores.
CBS' Jason La Canfora reports that Flores has lined up an interview with the Broncos in addition to the Browns, Packers and Dolphins.
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling
RBs: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, James Develin
WRs: Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen
New Orleans SaintsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
Fortunately, Week 17 was truly meaningless for the Saints.
Because, as ESPN.com's Mike Triplett suggested, they somehow played worse than expected -- especially on defense -- in a 33-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers that technically didn't matter with the NFC's No. 1 seed already locked up.
Although the Saints (13-3) kept some starters such as Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara inactive, they started their normal defense for the entire first half while falling behind 23-0 to undrafted rookie quarterback Kyle Allen.
It was the first time the Saints had been shut out in the first half of a home game since 2001. And head coach Sean Payton didn't let them off the hook afterward.
"You don't come in here and say, 'It's gonna be a great learning [experience]. There's nothing about it that's good. It's disappointing ... coaches and players, all of us," Payton said. "We can spin it any way we want to -- we didn't play well. Listen, it starts with me. We'll get the corrections made. But we didn't play well. Credit Carolina, they came ready to play.
"[The defense] wasn't good, it wasn't good. We didn't get any pressure on the quarterback, we didn't tackle well. Holding the receivers. Pick something. Run fits weren't good. ... Listen, you can't just turn it on and off and decide when you want to -- this game has never been like that. ... You take that personally as a coach, and it was disappointing. We played poorly."
Ideally the Saints will in fact be able to "turn it back on" when they host their playoff opener in the divisional round in two weeks against the NFC's lowest-remaining seed at the time.
History suggests they'll be able to.
They became the first team to lose its final three regular-season games in 2009 before winning a Super Bowl that year. But obviously they weren't looking for a free pass after this finale flop.
As Payton referenced, the Saints' defense struggled in every area. Not only was Allen making his first career start, but star Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey also left the game after one series.
But the real daggers came in the deep passing game -- which is especially disturbing since that has been a nagging problem for the Saints' defense throughout the season. Saints cornerbacks Eli Apple and Ken Crawley were each flagged for deep pass interference penalties. And Allen and receiver D.J. Moore connected on a beautiful 38-yard throw and catch against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore near the sideline.
In the second half against the Saints' backups, Allen completed a 53-yard TD pass to receiver Curtis Samuel.
As for the Saints' offense, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater played decently during his first start in nearly three years -- considering he was under constant pressure behind a makeshift offensive line that included only one usual starter for most of the game.
Bridgewater, who had not started a game since he suffered a major knee injury with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, completed 14 of 22 passes for 118 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Both the TD and the pick came early in the fourth quarter.
Saints' third-string running back Dwayne Washington was even more impressive, running for 108 yards on 11 carries -- all in the second half.
But Bridgewater and Washington ideally won't be needed again for the remainder of the Saints' playoff run. The offense will look totally different two weeks from now, since Brees, Kamara, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and starting offensive linemen Terron Armstead, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk all did not play.
As Triplett summed up, "Hopefully for the Saints' sake, everything about Sunday's game will look different the next time they enter this building. ..."
Meanwhile, Payton said this week of practice during the first-round bye will be "strictly on Saints" and "not at all opponent-driven" after their ugly loss to the Panthers. ...
Other notes of interest. ... The Saints signed versatile tight end Josh Hill to a three-year extension worth $8.85 million, sources told ESPN's Field Yates.
Hill, 28, has been a valuable blocker, pass-catcher and special-teams player for the Saints since they first signed him as an undrafted free agent from Idaho State in 2013. He is one of only six players on the roster who have been with the Saints for more than four years. The 6-5, 250-pounder has 16 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown this year. He has 83 catches for 799 yards and 11 TDs during his six-year career. ...
The Browns, Cardinals and Packers have requested interviews with Saints tight ends coach/assistant head coach Dan Campbell as first reported by the NFL Network. Campbell, a longtime former tight end and a former interim head coach for the Dolphins, has spent the last three years in New Orleans. He spent most of his playing career under Payton, too, and also counts Bill Parcells as a mentor.
The Packers have also requested an interview with Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr. ...
And finally. ... Also according to Triplett, injured receiver Cameron Meredith (knee) and cornerback Patrick Robinson (ankle) were both in the locker room Monday -- and both said they're confident they will be healthy in time for OTAs and a full offseason. Meredith, who went on injured reserve in November, never fully recovered from the major knee injury that wiped out his 2017 season in Chicago. He said he rolled his ankle in training camp, then the knee started to experience some nagging swelling as the season went on.
"It's been rough, man. It hurts to not be out there with your teammates and not be able to make plays, and sitting out twice in a row," said Meredith, who called it "a Groundhog Day type of feeling." "But everybody has to face obstacles," Meredith said. "And I'm looking forward to the road ahead."
QBs: Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill
RBs: Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Dwayne Washington
WRs: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Tre'quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr
TEs: Ben Watson, Josh Hill, Dan Arnold
Philadelphia EaglesCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
As ESPN.com's Tim McManus framed it, "The defending champs are in the dance. ..."
The Eagles got the break they needed Sunday, as the Bears beat the Vikings 24-10. That, coupled with their 24-0 win over the Redskins, gave the Eagles the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC.
It sets up a wild-card matchup between the Eagles and the team that gave them an assist, the third-seeded Bears, in Chicago.
"I mean, there was a lot of excitement, a lot of jubilation in the locker room, and I just told the guys, 'Congratulations, we're in the postseason,'" head coach Doug Pederson said. "I told them, 'You set out to get yourself into the tournament.' They've done that and we just got another opportunity next week."
Not that it didn't come with some concern after Nick Foles exited in the second half with a chest injury and did not return. Nate Sudfeld stepped in and finished the game.
The good news?
Foles will be ready to start against the Bears, Pederson said Monday.
Pederson said the tests Monday on Foles' sore ribs came back "clear" and that the quarterback was feeling good.
Foles will be able to ease into the week, as Pederson has altered the team's schedule of late, replacing Wednesday practices with a light walkthrough to keep his players fresh. Foles' workload will pick up Thursday.
"We'll take care of him and make sure he's ready for Sunday," Pederson said.
Foles said Wednesday he expects to be “feeling great” by game day.
“Yeah, a little bit of soreness, but every day drastically improving,” Foles said, via video from the team. “A lot of time working on recovery, getting ready for this game. But I feel great. We just did the first part of our day. I was able to move around a little bit and feel really good.”
Foles said he will wear his normal stuff plus “maybe a little bit in there just for a little bit more” protection.
“I want to be able to function and move around,” Foles said.
Sudfeld will serve as Foles' backup for Sunday's game as of "right now," said Pederson, who offered no updates on the status of Carson Wentz, who was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back in Week 15.
For this week, it appears the Eagles will continue to hold Wentz out and allow him to heal.
In case you haven't been following along, Foles has been red hot since taking over for Wentz in Week 15.
That hot streak continued against Washington before Foles was sidelined. He completed 25 consecutive passes, tying a mark shared by Philip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill for most consecutive completions in NFL history. Foles finished 28-of-33 for 221 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Wentz is still on the active roster, allowing for at least the possibility that he plays again this season.
According to Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith, one of the reasons the Eagles won the Super Bowl last year is that Foles proved excellent at avoiding the pass rush: In the Super Bowl he threw 43 passes and was never sacked. That came after an NFC Championship Game in which he threw 33 passes and was only sacked once, and a divisional round game in which he threw 30 passes and was only sacked once.
Smith went on to suggest It would be tempting to credit the Eagles' offensive line for that, but it would also be wrong. Because Wentz, playing behind the same offensive line last season, was sacked far more often: Wentz took 28 sacks in 13 games.
This season, Smith reports the story is the same: Foles is avoiding the pass rush better than Wentz did. Foles has been sacked nine times through five games after Wentz was sacked 31 times in 11 games.
Overall, in the last two seasons, counting Foles' postseason run, Wentz has been sacked on 6.6 percent of his dropbacks, while Foles has been sacked on 3.8 percent of his dropbacks.
Foles is simply better than Wentz is at avoiding the pass rush, and that's a significant difference between them as quarterbacks.
Smith summed up, "With the Eagles heading to Chicago to take on Khalil Mack and the Bears' defense, they may be better off with the quarterback who's better at avoiding pressure. ..."
Meanwhile, Philly's defense ensured that the game was never close. It yielded just 89 total yards and limited Josh Johnson to 12-of-27 passing. Washington went 0-for-9 on third down. The Eagles dominated time of possession 43:19 to 16:41.
And now, the Eagles are back to their preferred identity as underdogs.
The Bears open as 4.5-point favorites for Sunday's wild-card game. It's the largest point spread of the weekend. Last season, the players broke out dog masks during their postseason run. This season, beginning Week 15 against the Rams, members of the defense started bringing ski masks onto the sideline, sending the message that whatever they wanted for the rest of the season -- turnovers, wins, a playoff berth -- they were going to have to take it.
Other notes of interest. ... As NJ.com's Zack Rosenblatt reminded readers, Golden Tate is a player the Eagles traded a valuable draft pick for, who had three 1,000-yard seasons in the previous four years and was on pace for another when he was acquired, yet the Eagles couldn't even figure out how to use him.
The 30-year-old flashed what he could do in a Week 13 win over the Redskins, where he finished with seven catches on seven targets for 85 yards and a touchdown, on multiple occasions making himself available during Wentz scrambles and reeling in impressive catches.
Otherwise, he has just 22 catches for 193 yards and no touchdowns in seven games. He played seven games with the Lions this season, wherein he amassed 44 catches for 517 yards and three touchdowns.
The drop-off is precipitous, and the production non-existent.
He's only played more than 50 percent of the team's offensive snaps on three occasions, four other times playing less than 40 percent. There is a simple explanation for his lack of playing time.
Ultimately, the Eagles have been unable to keep tight end Dallas Goedert off the field in 12 personnel groupings -- two tight ends, two receivers, one running back -- flanking Zach Ertz. Plus, at receiver, Nelson Agholor has taken a swift upturn in production to end the season. Agholor has 17 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns in the last five games, one touchdown going for a career-high 83 yards against the Texans.
So, when the Eagles are trying to get their best offensive weapons on the field, that means 12 personnel, that means Goedert, that means Agholor and that doesn't mean Tate.
In a semi-related note. ... Mike Wallace (ankle) was limited in Wednesday's practice. The veteran was activated off injured reserve last week and it's not clear if he'll be on the game-day roster for this one or not (watch the News and Views section for more in coming days). ...
And finally. ... Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after his three-sack outburst against Washington last week. He also forced a fumble, as the Eagles forced their way into the postseason.
Cox finished the season with 10.5 sacks, and while Aaron Donald (rightfully) gets all the attention, Cox remains one of the top interior rushers in the league.
The Eagles need that kind of pressure entering the playoffs this week against the Bears, but he's a consistent contributor on a team on a roll.
QBs: Nick Foles, Nate Sudfeld, Carson Wentz
RBs: Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, Darren Sproles
WRs: Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Golden Tate, Jordan Matthews, Mike Wallace, Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson
TEs: Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Richard Rodgers
Seattle SeahawksCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 2 January 2019
As ESPN.com's Brady Henderson reminded readers, whenever the subject came up this week about the Seahawks possibly sitting some players in the regular-season finale with their playoff berth already secured, head coach Pete Carroll quickly shot it down.
His stated reasoning was that maintaining momentum trumped whatever benefit there would be in giving some starters a rest against the Arizona Cardinals.
That momentum exists at least on paper for the Seahawks (10-6). Because while they beat the Cardinals 27-24 on a last-second Sebastian Janikowski field goal to finish the regular season with wins in six of their past seven games, they did so with a clunker of a performance. It included six sacks of Russell Wilson and two blocked punts that resulted in 14 points for Arizona.
Recent playoff history shows this type of performance might not matter all that much, but it doesn't exactly leave anyone with a good feeling heading into next weekend's wild-card game at the Dallas Cowboys.
That matchup would have been set with either a Seahawks win or a Minnesota Vikings loss on Sunday. Both happened, but Seattle's end of that came down to the wire, like it so often has this season.
If the Seahawks' victory against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15 showed how high their playoff ceiling could be, what did the performances that bookended it indicate? The Seahawks lost to the lowly San Francisco 49ers, then needed a game-winning drive and a 33-yard Janikowski field goal to put away the three-win Cardinals.
All's well that ends well, right?
There's also this: Contrary to what's easily assumed, teams don't necessarily have to be playing their best football heading into the playoffs in order to make a deep run. In fact, of the past 12 Super Bowl winners, seven of them lost at least two of their final four games. That includes the 2013 Seahawks, who finished 2-2 before claiming the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Worth noting. .. The score was tied with less than two minutes to play in the finale and the Seahawks needed a drive to set up a potential game-winning score.
And as has been the case so often this season, Wilson turned to receiver Tyler Lockett when the offense needed a big play, and Lockett delivered, getting open for a 37-yard catch that helped set up Sebastian Janikowski's field goal that gave the Seahawks a 27-24 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
It should come as no surprise that Wilson looked to Lockett when the offense needed a big play, just as it should come as no surprise that that said pass attempt worked out for the Seahawks, because when Wilson looked Lockett's way this season, good things tended to happen.
In fact, when Wilson targeted Lockett in 2018, he had a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
Lockett's numbers paint the picture of a great season on their own, with the fourth-year receiver setting career highs in catches (57) receiving yards (965) and touchdowns (10). But what makes Lockett's big season all the more impressive is how efficient Wilson was when throwing to his No. 1 target this season. Over the course of the entire regular season, Wilson completed 80.3 percent of his attempts to Lockett (57 for 71) for 965 yards, giving him a 13.6 yards-per-attempt average, and Wilson did not throw an interception when targeting Lockett. Add those numbers up, along with the 10 touchdowns, and Wilson had a perfect 158.3 passer rating when targeting Lockett.
How impressive is that?
According to NFL Operations, going back to 2002, no other receiver had ever put up a perfect passer rating while being targeted more than 15 times.
There's more. ... As Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith noted, the signature statistic used by analytics site Football Outsiders, DVOA, measures players' effectiveness on a play-by-play basis. Football Outsiders' data goes back to 1986, and Lockett had the highest DVOA of any wide receiver Football Outsiders had ever measured.
Lockett averaged 13.79 yards per target. Pro Football Reference has target stats going back to 1992, and Lockett's average was the highest ever for any receiver who was targeted more than 60 times.
"Tyler has been special all year," Wilson said. "We were hoping that he would get to 1,000 yards this year. He has had an amazing year. I think he has 10 touchdowns, is that right? 10 touchdowns on the season, he has been special all year. His work ethic has been amazing, and he showed up once again."
And it might have been even more amazing if the Seahawks didn't have the highest run-pass ratio in the NFL this season (534 rushes vs. 427 pass attempts). So Lockett didn't have as many opportunities as he would have playing on another team.
For what he was asked to do on his team, however, Lockett was as good as any wide receiver in football. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Wilson played every offensive snap for the Seahawks this season for the first time in his seven-year career. Wilson has never missed a game, but in the past has missed a handful of snaps each season, mostly in the closing minutes of blowouts and on a few occasions because he was being evaluated on the sideline.
Of note from the Seahawks' win over Arizona: Rashaad Penny played only four of 63 offensive snaps as Seattle stuck with Chris Carson (32) and Mike Davis (25).
During a Tuesday night appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, Associated Press Seahawks reporter Tim Booth advised listeners that we shouldn't expect a huge bump in Penny's workload this weekend with Carson firmly locked in as the primary weapon in the rushing attack. ...
On the injury front. ... Receiver Doug Baldwin, cornerback Shaquill Griffin and guard J.R. Sweezy missed practice Tuesday as the Seahawks got to work for their wild-card playoff game.
Griffin (ankle) and Sweezy (foot) are the big question marks for Saturday's game.
Baldwin (knee) has missed three games this season but has played through most of his injuries. He has had injuries to his left knee, his right knee, a hip, an elbow, a groin and a shoulder this season.
Davis (foot), fullback Tre Madden (hamstring), safety Bradley McDougald (knee), left tackle Duane Brown (knee) and Carson (not injury related) also sat out Tuesday.
Offensive guard D.J. Fluker (hamstring) was limited, and safety Tedric Thompson (ankle) and defensive end Dion Jordan (knee) were full participants.
Linebacker K.J. Wright, who has played in only five games, is off the injury report. He said he is ready to resume an every-down role, Brady Henderson of ESPN reports.
QBs: Russell Wilson, Brett Hundley, Paxton Lynch
RBs: Chris Carson, Mike Davis, Rashaad Penny, J.D. McKissic, Bo Scarbrough, C.J. Prosise
WRs: Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, David Moore, Jaron Brown
TEs: Nick Vannett, Ed Dickson