Team Notes week 19 2016

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris<

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. ...

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Atlanta Falcons

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

As ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure framed it: "Julio Jones vs. Richard Sherman. Dan Quinn vs. Pete Carroll.

"Most folks anticipated an Atlanta Falcons-Seattle Seahawks matchup in the second round of the playoffs. Now, it has come to fruition. ..."

Seattle's 26-6 wild-card victory over the Detroit Lions means the No. 3 Seahawks will travel to Atlanta next Saturday to face the rested No. 2 seed Falcons, who earned a first-round playoff bye. Game time is 4:35 p.m. ET at the Georgia Dome. The winner advances to the NFC Championship Game.

It's a familiar opponent for Quinn, who won a Super Bowl as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator under the Seahawks' Carroll. The Falcons also hosted the Seahawks in the 2012 divisional round and held on to win that contest 30-28 after racing to a 20-0 lead. It was the only playoff victory for MVP candidate Matt Ryan against four postseason losses.

Ryan, Jones and crew should know what to expect from the Seahawks. The teams played in Week 6 of the regular season and the Seahawks escaped with a 26-24 victory in Seattle. The game was marred by a controversial no-call when Sherman, the Seahawks' top cornerback, got away with grabbing Jones late in the contest.

The Falcons are a much better version of themselves now, with Ryan throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions during a four-game winning streak to finish the season. He has been spectacular all season and has thrown touchdown passes to 13 different targets, an NFL first.

In addition, the playoff bye week allowed receivers such as Jones (toe), Taylor Gabriel (toe/ankle), and tight end Austin Hooper (MCL) to recover from injuries. Gabriel and Hooper were slated to return to practice this week.

"We're in a good shape in that way," Quinn said of the overall health of the team. "We anticipate, for [Tuesday], everyone to be able to participate. So that's a good thing from our standpoint. There's a chance that some may be (limited), but we look strong heading into tomorrow."

The Falcons had a closed walkthrough Monday.

Meanwhile, Ryan guided the league's top-scoring offense at 33.8 points per game, but the Seahawks surrendered only 18.3 points per game. However, the Seahawks are not nearly as strong on the back end without free safety Earl Thomas, who was lost to a season-ending fractured tibia on Dec. 4. It makes the Seahawks more susceptible to big plays, even with Sherman shutting down one side of the field.

From a defensive perspective, the Falcons fully understand that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is capable of making plays. Pressuring him with NFL sack leader Vic Beasley Jr. and containing Wilson when he leaves the pocket will be key. The Seahawks have capable targets in Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson, who had a combined 17 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions. And a handful of those catches were highlight-reel material.

That being said, the Falcons know they have to stop the run first, with Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls rushing for 161 yards on 27 carries in the Wild-Card win. Certainly Seattle will want to control the clock and keep Ryan and his high-powered offense off the field.

Rookie middle linebacker Deion Jones' speed will be a key factor for the Falcons in slowing down Wilson and minimizing explosive runs. The same goes for rookie strong safety Keanu Neal and his hard hitting, giving the Falcons their version of Seahawks enforcer Kam Chancellor.

It could come down to which team comes up with the key turnover. The Falcons created 22 turnovers during the regular season and the Seahawks had 19 takeaways. Ryan's carefulness with the ball could take the Falcons a long way.

Maybe even all the way to Houston for the Super Bowl.

The X factor for the Falcons could be the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The two combined for 2,482 combined yards and 24 touchdowns during the regular season.

Worth noting, the Seahawks pulled off a Week 6 26-24 win over the Falcons in Seattle. Among the issues still bothering Quinn was a controversial late-game, no-call when Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman obviously held Jones.

If the Falcons learned anything from the first meeting, it starts with not turning the ball over against a team that prides itself on creating turnovers. Ryan's first lost fumble of the season -- he had just one other lost fumble and a career-low seven interceptions -- came after a first-quarter sack in Seattle and resulted in a Seahawks touchdown on the very next play. The outcome might have been different had the Falcons gotten off to a fast start, which became the norm for them at the end of the regular season.

We'll see if the Falcons learn from their Week 6 mistakes and play a clean game in their first playoff appearance since 2012. Playing at home in the Georgia Dome for perhaps the final time should work to their advantage, especially with the Seahawks having to make the long trip this time around.

In addition, Ryan has thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past four games, and the Falcons' offense has scored at least 28 points in its past six games (and nine of its past 10). With Jones back at full speed, the Falcons are primed to be their best on offense in the playoffs. ...

Other notes of interest. ...

A Wall Street Journal (via the Sports Xchange) analysis of in-game coaching decisions this season ranked Quinn as the fourth-most aggressive coach in the NFL. The study compared coaches' decisions against the league average in three categories: fourth down, general offense and defensive play-calling (and) special teams. The analysis considered "game situations," including score and time remaining.

Quinn's play-calling aggressiveness was about average, ranking 15th among the 32 head coaches. But he was fifth-most aggressive with his special-teams calls and seventh-most aggressive with his fourth-down decisions. Carroll, Quinn's former boss, ranks in the middle of the pack at No. 17 overall in aggressiveness.

Some caveats: The WSJ's data didn't include the final regular-season game. And the article is not clear on the specifics of its methodology regarding play-calling. Quinn, like all head coaches, does not make every offensive and defensive play-call though he obviously is in charge of game plans.

In particular, Quinn has been among the most aggressive coaches in terms of special teams and going for it on fourth-down situations. According to the Xchange, Quinn's aggressiveness on fourth-down calls likely goes back to his wrongheaded decision to punt late in the game at San Francisco in 2015.

Quinn has been more aggressive after that episode. But the strategy backfired in two Falcons losses this season.

Tied in overtime against the Chargers, the Falcons failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from their 45-yard line. San Diego went on to kick the winning field goal.

Against the Chiefs, a failed two-point conversion by the Falcons while trailing 27-22 with 11:57 still to play led to another two-point try when they went ahead 28-27. Eric Berry returned Ryan's interception for the first winning "pick two" in NFL history. In that game the Falcons also failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at Kansas City's 10-yard line while down 27-16 with nine minutes left in the third quarter.

Quinn's decisions didn't work in those cases, but bad outcomes don't always mean bad decisions. For example, Brian Burke of ESPN Analytics offered a quantitative defense of Quinn's fourth-down call against the Chargers. But the primary reason head coaches don't take more chances, even if the numbers say they should, is that when unconventional decisions lead to losses it means intense public criticism and possibly decreased job security.

Starting Saturday, Quinn's decisions will be examined more closely than ever. It will be interesting to see if he stays aggressive under the brighter lights of the playoffs. ...

And finally. ... 9News.com's Mike Klis reported this week that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan impressed the Broncos in his interview for the team's head coaching job, but the team hired Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph on Wednesday. Shanahan reamains of interest to the Rams and 49ers.


DEPTH CHART
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

Dallas Cowboys

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

According to ESPN.com's Todd Archer, as the Cowboys prepared to enjoy their first-round bye, they had no preference in opponents, be it the New York Giants, who beat them twice, or the Green Bay Packers, who closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak.

"We really don't care who we see," running back Ezekiel Elliott said last week. "There's not a certain team we want to play. We don't really worry about things we can't control."

Now the Cowboys know they will face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who dismissed the Giants in scary fashion Sunday.

The last time Rodgers played at ATandT Stadium, he was MVP of Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The last time he played the Cowboys in the playoffs, he delivered a 26-21 win at Lambeau Field in the 2014 divisional round of the playoffs.

The Rodgers who's coming to town this week is playing even better. He had four touchdown passes against the Giants and has 19 during Green Bay's seven-game winning streak.

Three months ago at Lambeau Field, Rodgers and the Packers were playing very differently when they faced the Cowboys. They were 3-2 at the time, and Rodgers was just off. He completed 31 of 42 passes against the Cowboys for 294 yards with a touchdown, but he had a costly interception and a fumble near the goal line in a 30-16 Dallas win.

For the Cowboys, the win at Lambeau Field solidified them as something more than just a team on a fast start with a rookie quarterback biding time until Tony Romo returned. As Archer reminded readers, it was the time Dak Prescott put both hands around the starter's job and wouldn't give it back.

Prescott had his first interception of the season but finished with the first three-touchdown passing game of his career. He twice found Cole Beasley and directed a 97-yard drive in 33 seconds to close the first half with a 20-yard touchdown to Brice Butler.

The postgame interviews marked the first time Jerry Jones did not say Romo was the No. 1 quarterback.

"I wouldn't say unequivocally anything other than we just beat the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay," Jones said. "That's great."

We all know how the rest of the season has turned out.

But just as the Cowboys dominated the Packers at Lambeau Field -- where Rodgers was booed in the second half -- Green Bay won the last playoff meeting, even if controversially with Dez Bryant's overturned fourth-quarter catch.

Bryant did not play in this year's October meeting because of a tibial plateau fracture in his knee, but he did hear plenty of fans say before the game, "It was a catch."

That playoff loss is ancient history. The October win is more recent, but you can bet the Cowboys will downplay its significance as well.

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Schuyler Dixon noted last week, the off-field relationship between Prescott and Elliott has been a big factor in the team's success. Indeed, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan believes Prescott and Elliott would have the same rapport even if circumstances hadn't thrust Prescott into a starring role alongside his running back, who carried the expectations of a No. 4 overall pick.

"They've both got real unique, really great personalities," Linehan said. "I would think if they were teammates in college or just passing friends, they would be pretty good buddies I think. I feel that our whole rookie class has been good that way. I've noticed them doing a lot of things together. So that's a good sign."

"I think everyone on this team is loose," said Elliott, the NFL rushing champion with 1,631 yards. "We're going to have fun. In a season that's so long, it can get a little hectic. But just the fact that we can keep each other loose and have fun with what we're doing just makes it better to go day by day."

Success, of course, has to be a big part of the formula.

Otherwise, who would notice? And it's hard not to notice the first quarterback-running back tandem in NFL history with 20 touchdown passes (Prescott with 23) and 15 touchdowns rushing (Elliott's 15).

Elliott in particular should benefit from the week off.

By the time this game comes along, he will have gone almost a month between playing full games. He'll be fresh to hit a Packers defense that will be sore after a physical game against the Giants. It's also difficult to imagine the Packers' pass defense staying with Bryant, Jason Witten and Beasley. The Packers have allowed 269.3 passing yards per game, second most in the NFL.

So while the Packers are hot and playing better, this is a different Cowboys team with Bryant healthy and the defense playing its best football of the season.

The Packers are certainly wary of the Cowboys and are approaching the game with respect.

"We've got to start faster. Dallas is a great football team. Dak and Zeke have been playing great all season. They are tremendous players. They aren't playing like rookies. They're both in the MVP conversation," Rodgers said following the Packers' wild-card victory over the Giants. "We can't let them run behind that big offensive line, and we've got to start fast and make them as one dimensional as possible."

Defensive end Kenny Clark said the Packers most slow down Elliott first.

"The O-line does a great job blocking for him and he's a great back. ... Just as you have seen this year, he exploded. He's a doing a really good job, offensive line is doing a really good job, Dak is doing a really good job. But just like every game in the season, it starts with stopping the run and we've got to stop the run and just play our style."

Stopping Elliott, of course, has been easier said than done. ...

Elliott did, however, have an eventful Wednesday morning on his way to work.

The rookie running back was involved in a minor, two-car crash at 7:05 a.m. CST in Frisco, Texas, Frisco Police Dept. spokesman Benito Valdez confirmed to NFL.com.

No injuries were reported and both parties involved in the crash went on their way a short time later, Valdez said. Head coach Jason Garrett later told reporters that the minor fender-bender occurred about a mile away from the team's facility.

As NFL.com suggested, "If the fender-bender is the most notable crash for the All-Pro running back this week, Cowboys fans will consider that a win. ..."

On the health front. ... The Cowboys are at full strength: Jerry Jones said on Tuesday that Morris Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence will all play Sunday.

Other notes of interest. ... Witten finished the season just 17 yards shy of breaking Michael Irvin's team record for receiving yards of 11,904. Witten had only one catch for 10 yards in the season finale. Witten holds the franchise mark for most receptions with 1,089, is 339 more than Irvin.

And finally. ... Defensive end Randy Gregory has been suspended without pay for at least one year for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy for the third time.

The NFL announced the suspension on Thursday. The punishment begins immediately and prevents Gregory from playing for Dallas in the playoffs.

All three of Gregory's suspensions have come in the past year. He served a four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 season and then served a 10-game suspension for his second offense.

Gregory also failed a drug test for marijuana at the NFL Combine in 2015.

Gregory, a second-round pick, played in Weeks 16 and 17 of this season and recorded his first career sack.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush
RBs: Alfred Morris, Rod Smith
WRs: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Ryan Switzer, Brice Butler, Noah Brown
TEs: Jason Witten, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers

Green Bay Packers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky framed it this week: "Here's a game of NFL fill in the blank: Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback when it comes to [fill in the blank with...]

"(A) Staying alive in the pocket for eight seconds to throw touchdown passes

"(B) Throwing Hail Marys

"(C) Hitting receivers in stride through tight windows

"In Sunday's 38-13 NFC wild-card win over the New York Giants, the correct answer was actually: (D) All of the above. ..."

And Demovsky went on to suggest that's why the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys should beware when Rodgers brings the Green Bay Packers to ATandT Stadium for next Sunday's NFC divisional-round game.

Rodgers did all of that, and then some, in the Packers' victory at Lambeau Field. He threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns, making him the only quarterback in team history with a pair of four-touchdown playoff games.

It came after the Packers were largely inept early on. They punted on their first five possessions. The last playoff team that did that was the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, which the Packers won.

And then Rodgers came alive.

In a touchdown pass reminiscent of the one he threw the week before in Detroit -- where he dodged pass-rushers for more than eight seconds and hit Geronimo Allison in the end zone -- Rodgers pulled it off again for the Packers' first score, a 5-yarder to Davante Adams (who had eight catches for 125 yards). It was just the third touchdown pass of this entire NFL season in which a passer took at least eight seconds to throw. Rodgers, of course, has two of them.

Then came a 42-yard Hail Mary to Randall Cobb on the last play of the first half. Much like the 61-yarder he threw to Richard Rodgers to beat the Detroit Lions December 2015 and the 41-yarder to Jeff Janis to force overtime at Arizona last January, the ball fell perfectly out of the sky and into one of his receiver's waiting hands. Rodgers has three Hail Marys in the last two seasons. The rest of the NFL has six in that same span.

Rodgers hit Cobb on the run for two more touchdowns: a 30-yarder on a post in the third quarter that helped offset coach Mike McCarthy's questionable -- and unsuccessful -- fourth-and-1 decision on the previous drive, and a 16-yarder in the fourth quarter that made Cobb the first Packers' player with three touchdown catches in a playoff game since Sterling Sharpe against the Lions in 1994. Cobb (five catches for 116 yards) also became the first player with 100 receiving yards and three touchdowns in a playoff game since the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski in the 2011 divisional round against the Denver Broncos.

Rodgers did it without his favorite target, Jordy Nelson, who left in the first half with a rib injury and did not return.

The Packers couldn't handle the Cowboys at Lambeau Field in Week 6; Dallas cruised to a 30-16 victory on the way to a 13-3 regular season.

Back then, however, Rodgers didn't play like this. Since Rodgers made his "run the table" remark, he has 19 touchdowns without a single interception.

The Packers are the hottest team in the playoffs. They've won seven consecutive games and their offense just put up a season-high 38 points on one of the NFL's top defenses. If the Packers did that to the New York Giants, can you imagine what they might do against the Cowboys?

If there is a way to beat a No. 1 seed on the road in the playoffs, it's with a quarterback who can't miss.

But all is not well. Specifically, Nelson is not well.

The Packers have said nothing about his status other than that he spent Saturday night in the hospital with a rib injury. Now we know that the injury is to ribs, plural, and they're broken. Nelson suffered at least two fractured ribs, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

The report suggests that Nelson hasn't been ruled out for Sunday's game against the Cowboys but is a long shot to play.

McCarthy confirmed in his day-after news conference Monday that Nelson has a rib injury. McCarthy, though, wouldn't say any more on the extent of the damage to Nelson, who took a big hit to his left side as a pass thrown to him was broken up in the first half of the game.

McCarthy said Nelson rejoined the team Monday, getting treatment at its Lambeau Field facilities.

"Talking with the medical staff, he's going to be in the rehab group through Friday," McCarthy said. "And, then Saturday, if he can practice, then he may have a chance" to play Sunday.

"But, we're not going to do anything (with him) until Saturday. I'll probably know more about where Jordy stands come Friday."

McCarthy emphasized that if Nelson doesn't practice Saturday before the team leaves for North Texas, he won't play Sunday.

Rodgers was still outstanding after Nelson left Sunday's game against the Giants, but losing Nelson would still be a major blow for the Packers against the Cowboys. Nelson led the team with 97 catches for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns during the regular season.

Rodgers said "it would be a huge loss for us" if Nelson were unable to play.

"But [Allison] has been playing a lot for us and he's been playing effectively," Rodgers said. "[Cobb] being back healthy -- you know I said this week in my press conference we're better with [Cobb] on the field. And he showed it tonight, made a ton of plays for us. He was excellent. And having him out there is going to help. But you know Geronimo is going to have to step up and play extended time if Jordy is going to be out."

For what it's worth, Rodgers knows what the Packers need to do in Dallas.

"We've got to start faster," Rodgers said shortly after their win over the Giants.

The Packers' quarterback could have just as easily been talking about the Giants game, when his offense managed only seven yards in the first quarter and punted on its first five possessions.

But actually he was recalling the Packers' 30-16 loss to the Cowboys in Week 6 at Lambeau Field, in which the Packers scored their first -- and only -- touchdown with 6:53 left in the game. The Cowboys jumped out to an early lead and rode the running of rookie Ezekiel Elliott (157 yards) and three touchdown passes from rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

The Packers' slow start was a recipe for a disastrous day.

"Dak and Zeke have been playing great all season," Rodgers said. "They are tremendous players; they're not playing like rookies. They're both in the MVP conversation. We can't let them run behind that big offensive line. We've got to start fast and make them as one-dimensional as possible."

And if they do that?

"It must be a scary sight to watch us right now," Cobb said. "We're a very dangerous team right now."

In addition to watching Nelson in coming days, we'll have an eye on Ty Montgomery as well.

He left briefly with an ankle injury before returning to finish the game.

"Why play it safe?" Montgomery said when asked why he came back with the Packers comfortably ahead. "It's the playoffs."

McCarthy said Monday he feels "pretty good" about Montgomery's status going forward.

The Packers struggled to run the ball against the Giants' stout front. They managed only 75 yards as a team on 25 attempts. Montgomery carried 11 times for 27 yards. Montgomery's backup, Christine Michael, finished as the leading rusher for the Packers. He carried 10 times for 47 yards and gave the offense a boost in the second half.

We'll have more on Nelson and Montgomery in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...

Also of interest. ... James Starks missed a fourth straight game Sunday. The veteran has been sidelined because of a concussion he sustained in a car crash in Green Bay last month. Green Bay continued to go with Montgomery, Michael and fullback Aaron Ripkowski in a back-by-committee approach for running the football. It seems likely they'll do the same this week.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan
RBs: Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Devante Mays, Ty Montgomery
WRs: Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, Jeff Janis, Trevor Davis
TEs: Richard Rodgers, Lance Kendricks

Houston Texans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

The Houston Texans travel to New England to play the top-seeded Patriots on Saturday night in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

After the Texans beat the Oakland Raiders 27-14 on Saturday afternoon, they had to wait for the Steelers-Dolphins game Sunday to see who they would play. Pittsburgh handled Miami and will head to No. 2 Kansas City for a matchup next Sunday.

The Texans' worst loss of the season came 27-0 in Week 3 to the Patriots and rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who was making his first start in place of the suspended Tom Brady and injured Jimmy Garoppolo.

As ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop reminded readers, in that game, Brock Osweiler and the offense couldn't find a rhythm and didn't cross midfield until there were less than two minutes left in the third quarter. Special teams also struggled, and fumbles on kickoff returns by Charles James and Tyler Ervin put the game even more out of reach.

The fumbles gave the Patriots short fields when the score was 3-0 and then 13-0 and put the game out of reach for Houston. New England capitalized on both fumbles by scoring touchdowns, having to go just 22 and 21 yards on the two drives. Osweiler also threw a first-half interception, giving the Texans three turnovers for the game.

It also was the last game three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt played for the Texans this season. Less than a week later, Houston put Watt on injured reserve because he re-aggravated his back and required his second back surgery in two months.

"When we went up their earlier, we shot ourselves in the foot," Texans owner Bob McNair said about returning to New England. "We had two fumbles in the first quarter and gave up the ball on the 20-yard line. Doesn't matter who you play, you can't win playing that."

On Saturday against the Raiders, the Texans played their best -- and most consistent -- game of the year. It was against a depleted Oakland team that was missing quarterback Derek Carr and Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn. Still, Osweiler took a step in the right direction, going 14-of-25 for 168 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a one-yard touchdown, and for just the third time in a game he started he did not turn the ball over.

Osweiler especially thrived in the first half, going 12-of-18 for 146 yards with a passing touchdown. In the second half, the Texans turned to a much more conservative approach that saw him throw the ball just seven times.

After the game on Saturday, head coach Bill O'Brien noted that the 14-2 Patriots had an "excellent" year, and Gillette Stadium will be a tough environment to play in. O'Brien knows well what his team is up against. He served on Bill Belichick's coaching staff from 2007 to 2011, serving as the offensive coordinator in his final season before becoming the head coach at Penn State.

"I think the big key for us is to just take care of our own business in here during the week," O'Brien said. "Let's work to put together a good game plan. Let's teach the game plan. Let's have good practices and then let's go to wherever we got to go and let's see what happens."

The good news?

Osweiler looked better against the Raiders than he ever has in a Texans uniform, most notably finding receiver DeAndre Hopkins for five receptions in nine targets, including a pretty 38-yard play down the right sideline. Osweiler avoided a turnover for just the fourth start of this season, and he threw for a season-high 119 yards against the Oakland Raiders' blitz.

If a one-game benching did something to shake Osweiler loose, the Texans have a chance to make more noise. A strong defense with a quarterback who doesn't self-destruct isn't a bad postseason formula.

The better news for the offense would be Lamar Miller returning to action after missing two games. That adds another dimension to the offense. However, the Patriots allowed the third-fewest rushing yards during the regular season, so Houston will have to be effective throwing the football in New England.

But according to Houston Chronicle staffer Aaron Wilson, two of the major reasons why the Texans advanced to the AFC divisional round were the upgrades they made with their red-zone offense and pass protection.

Problematic throughout the season as the Texans ranked 31st in red-zone offense, the AFC South champions scored touchdowns on each of their three trips inside the Raiders' 20-yard line. And after allowing a combined eight sacks and 16 quarterback hits against the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans, the Texans' offensive line yielded zero sacks or quarterback hits to the Raiders.

Also worth noting, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, had a quiet game against the Patriots in Week 3 with just two tackles. In 2015 against New England, he had seven tackles and two sacks.

According to ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, Clowney will be a focal point of the Patriots' offensive plans, as the Texans' wild-card win over the Raiders showed how he can wreck a game.

On the other side of the ball, Reiss noted the Patriots did a solid job limiting Hopkins (four catches, 56 yards) in Week 3. After the game, O'Brien noted how the Patriots played a significant amount of man coverage underneath with Cover 2 principles behind it. Said Osweiler, "If you go back and you watch the tape, they were playing a lot of two-high defense and they were very aware of our receiving threats and they weren't going to let us throw the ball down the field."

It's hard to imagine the Patriots straying too far from that Saturday night, and now the Texans have good game tape to review and help them in preparations.

The Texans stayed in Waltham, Massachusetts, on their trip to town in Week 3, and it took them one hour and 20 minutes to reach Gillette Stadium because of traffic, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. An audible on that part of the travel itinerary might be the smartest adjustment O'Brien makes this time around.

O'Brien announced Saturday that Osweiler -- who had been replaced by Tom Savage in Week 14 -- will start at quarterback for the Texans.

Savage has been cleared under the mandatory NFL concussion testing protocol and will be available to be the backup Saturday in New England. Brandon Weeden was the backup against the Raiders.

"He'll be ready to practice," O'Brien said. "He should be ready to go. ..."

Savage was a full participant Wednesday but Hopkins (knee) and Clowney (wrist, elbow) were among those limited. Expect both to play as usual, but we'll have more in the News and Views section of the site as needed in coming days (also watch the official Injury/Practice Report, which is posted daily through Friday). ...

Meanwhile, the noise surrounding the future of O'Brien hasn't quieted down despite owner Bob McNair insisting he won't be fired and the two-time AFC South champion having two years remaining on a five-year contract. There continues to be speculation nationally that O'Brien could potentially become available for head-coaching vacancies due to reported clashes with general manager Rick Smith and a desire for more power over personnel decisions.

O'Brien has gone 9-7 for three consecutive seasons and reiterated Monday that he's happy working for the Texans and emphasized that the talk about his status isn't affecting the focus of the team as it prepares for an AFC divisional-round game against the New England Patriots.

"Absolutely not, no, there's no distraction," O'Brien said. "Like I said after the game, I really enjoy coaching this team. I think one of the things about coming to work here every day is it's a great place to work because you have really good people here and you have a bunch of great players that really understand the meaning of hard work and have put a lot of time into this thing.

"The other thing is our staff. I really enjoy working with our staff. We had a good staff meeting, trying to get going here on an obviously very difficult challenge for us. Just enjoy every day."

As the Sports Xchange suggested, with so many job openings, O'Brien would be an extremely attractive candidate. However, he's not available unless McNair changes his mind and fired him or worked out a trade to receive compensation for allowing O'Brien to go elsewhere or O'Brien opted to quit and walked away from $10 million to $12 million over the remainder of the contract and wouldn't be able to coach elsewhere in 2017 or 2018 unless McNair allowed him out of his contract.

All of those factors make it appear to be a farfetched scenario that O'Brien would leave. O'Brien has repeatedly said he enjoys living and working in Houston.

"There's nothing to it," McNair said following the Texans' AFC wild-card playoff game win over the Oakland Raiders when questioned about reports that O'Brien would have been fired if they had had lost that game. "I'm not going to fire him. Forget that. If I were you, I wouldn't repeat it because it's false. No, I don't know where they get that. I got a chuckle out of it.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: T.J. Yates, Tom Savage
RBs: Lamar Miller, Andre Ellington, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin
WRs: DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, DeAndrew White
TEs: Stephen Anderson, Evan Baylis, MyCole Pruitt

Kansas City Chiefs

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

As ESPN.com's Adam Teicher reminded readers, the Chiefs were barely competitive in Week 4 when they faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh. They fell behind 22-0 at the end of the first quarter and 36-0 at the end of the third and wound up losing 43-14 as Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes.

But the Chiefs, at least, will be a different team when they see the Steelers again Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs.

"This team understands how far we've come from that game," quarterback Alex Smith said. "For us, we're certainly not the same team and every week is different. You got to put in the work and, obviously, every Sunday is different. I think that we enjoy that challenge."

The Chiefs walked into an ambush in that Sunday night game in early October against Pittsburgh, which was coming off a 34-3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Steelers announced their intentions on their first play from scrimmage when, despite being backed up near the goal line, they attacked cornerback Marcus Peters, one of the strengths of the Kansas City defense.

Roethlisberger took a deep drop and found wide receiver Sammie Coates, who was covered by Peters, down the sideline for a 47-yard gain. The Steelers didn't relent until the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Chiefs had repeated breakdowns in pass coverage, some by rookie cornerback D.J. White, who was playing because of an injury to then-starter Phillip Gaines.

The Chiefs clearly weren't prepared for Pittsburgh's aggressive play calling. They shouldn't be surprised if the Steelers and Roethlisberger play the same way on Sunday.

"You never come out having played the perfect game by any means, so there's always something to learn," head coach Andy Reid said recently. "There's always more work to do, but I will tell you that in the Pittsburgh game they got after us as well as anyone did. You take what you take from it and move on."

The Chiefs have continued to allow a lot of yards, but not the points they allowed against the Steelers. The Chiefs haven't yielded more than 28 points in any game since losing to Pittsburgh.

The Chiefs have changed even more on offense since they saw the Steelers. They were struggling on offense when they went to Pittsburgh, and only in the fourth quarter did they break a streak of 11 quarters with just one offensive touchdown.

The Chiefs continued to have stretches of offensive inconsistency but had two of their best offensive games to end the season, against the Broncos and Chargers.

One big difference has been the emergence of rookie receiver Tyreek Hill as a consistent offensive threat. He played just 18 offensive snaps against the Steelers. He did score a touchdown against Pittsburgh on a 9-yard catch, but with the Chiefs behind 36-0.

As the Sports Xchange suggests, from watching tapes of the 12 games played by the Chiefs since their last meeting, Pittsburgh has come to understand that Hill will be a much bigger force they must deal with in the divisional round game in the AFC playoffs this coming Sunday.

There was a reminder last week when Hill gained AP All-Pro status as a punt returner, garnering all 50 of the ballots cast for the honor. He led the NFL with a 15.3-yard average return on punts.

It's on offense where Hill's workload and production really increased. In the Chiefs' last three games, he ran the ball 10 times on offense, picking up 178 yards on touchdown runs of 68 and 70 yards. He was targeted 15 times in the passing game, but caught just five passes for 46 yards.

Hill has drawn more attention from defenses in pass coverage, but he also has dropped several passes. That's something that wasn't seen from the sure-handed receiver earlier in the season.

"It hasn't really jumped out at me," said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid of the drops. "Normally the ball is somewhere where it's a tough catch if he's going to drop it. He's got really good hands. He does it in cold weather. He's had a couple of drops on the punts that I noticed, but the other ones I never really considered drops necessarily."

In the final regular season accounting, Hill participated in 418 offensive plays or 41 percent of the snaps with 85 touches. Could his role increase in the playoffs?

"We'll see; every week we've given him a little bit more or moved him around," Reid said. "I think he had 38 snaps the other day (against the San Diego Chargers). I'd tell you we're just kind of moving him in different areas.

"Will he be higher? I don't know. I can't tell you that. We try to give him a little something different to his game every week."

The belief in Kansas City is the Steelers could dominate them on both sides of the ball, but a Hill race to the end zone, a Travis Kelce catch-and-run and/or a special-teams gem from coordinator Dave Toub's group could render it all moot.

It's a tremendous advantage in the postseason, where a handful of plays can change the trajectory of history.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs closed out the regular season without having linebacker Justin Houston or running back Spencer Ware on the field because of injuries, but the week off that came with the AFC West title and No. 2 seed in the conference has treated them well.

Reid gave an update on the team's injured players when he spoke to reporters on Monday, which turned out to be a pretty brief one because the news was all good.

"Everybody that was banged up is good to go," Reid said.

Ware missed Week 17 with injured ribs in what Reid said was a cautious move designed to make sure that Ware would be ready for the team's first postseason outing. He was on the practice field Wednesday. Houston missed the final two games with swelling in his knee, which caused a bit more concern given his offseason knee surgery and slip in production in the playoffs due to injury last year.

Having him off the edge to harass Ben Roethlisberger will be vital to Kansas City's chances of slowing the Steelers offense on Sunday, so Reid's update was a welcome way to kick off the week. ...

Also of interest. ... ESPN's Adam Schefter reported over the weekend the Chiefs' front office planned to discuss a contract extension with head coach Andy Reid upon the completion of the 2016 season. Reid has one more season remaining on the five-year deal he signed with the club in Jan. 2013.

Typical of Reid, he wasn't willing to discuss his contract situation, or that of general manager John Dorsey, who is wrapping up his four-year contract and has not yet been signed to a new deal.

"I'm not going to talk about contracts," Reid told the media on Monday. "You guys get a week off so you get the opportunity to talk about all that stuff. I don't think Dorsey or I even think about that to be honest with you. We are lucky to work here and privileged to be here. I know it's part of the business."

One thing that Reid was willing to talk about was the stability of the organization over the last four years with very few changes to his coaching staff and Dorsey's personnel department.

"It's great that we've been able to keep people together here, players, coaches and front office," said Reid. "We've all been able to stay together and help build something."

Since arriving in Kansas City prior to the 2013 season, under Reid and Dorsey's direction the Chiefs are 43-21 in the regular season. Only the New England Patriots (50-14) and Seattle Seahawks (45-18-1) produced more victories over the last four seasons than K.C.

And finally. ... Writing for his own official website Monday, Jamaal Charles outlined the surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews on both knees in November. When Andrews went in to repair a torn meniscus, the decision was made to clean out the other knee as well. Neither surgery was major, per Charles.

"The team put me on injured reserve, and we talked about it, and decided to have him clean out the other knee as well," Charles wrote. "That one wasn't as bad, but there was some stuff in there. It made sense to do it so I could just heal up and go out there feeling the same way in both knees, just completely ready."

After working out in Florida the past couple of months, Charles insists he's feeling better than he's felt all year.

So where does that leave his 2017 plans after turning 30 years old late last month?

Charles is "thankful" to be part of a Chiefs organization that is like "family" after nine seasons in Kansas City. Due nearly $7 million in salary and bonuses next season, though, he will almost certainly be asked to take a pay cut.

"I honestly don't know what the future holds for me," Charles said.

"What I do know is that I still want to play football. I was only 29 years old this season. My goal right now is to just focus on the now and my rehab and let the rest sort itself out later."

As NFL.com's Chris Wesseling suggested, if Charles and the Chiefs can't find common ground in contract restructuring talks over the next two months, we might see one of the best backs of the past decade in a different uniform.


DEPTH CHART
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

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

The New England Patriots will host the Houston Texans in the AFC divisional round Saturday as 16-point favorites.

The teams met in Week 3 on Thursday Night Football, with the Patriots recording a 27-0 victory. Rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett started for New England. While that game will obviously be part of the game-planning process, much has changed for both teams since.

The Patriots, with Tom Brady at quarterback, are now running a more diverse attack.

Of course, the Patriots have always had one of the NFL's best passing games. But New England is starting its playoff run with unprecedented efficiency.

The Patriots set an NFL record this season by throwing just two interceptions. The previous record for fewest interceptions in a season since the 1970 merger was five.

It's not that they're avoiding throwing — New England is fourth in the league with 4,308 passing yards. The two interceptions, both by Brady, came on 550 team pass attempts, setting a new NFL single-season low rate of 0.4 percent.

The lower numbers overall highlight a trend across the league thanks to rule changes and new offensive strategies. The league-wide interception rate of 2.3 percent in 2016 was the lowest of any season in NFL history, surpassing the previous mark of 2.4 percent in 2015.

This is the first year that any team finished with an interception rate of less than 1 percent, as the Vikings finished 2016 at 0.9 percent. New England's interception rate is three times lower than that of the next closest teams.

In 12 games, Brady set another NFL record for touchdown to interception ratio with 14 scores for each pick. He's still hard on himself about the turnovers.

"Those two that I threw, I wish I wouldn't have thrown those," he said.

The next best touchdown to interception ratio this season belongs to the Cowboys' Dak Prescott at 5.8 to 1 (23 TDs, four INTs). For perspective, Brady led the league in 2015 with a 5.1 to 1 interception rate (36 TDs, seven INTs).

Head coach Bill Belichick said the team has been fortunate to avoid many of tipped balls and dropped passes that often lead to turnovers.

"When you throw it a decent amount there are things that can go wrong that you have to try to avoid," he said.

Brady is also helped by production from the running game.

LeGarrette Blount finished the regular season with career highs with 299 carries, 1,161 yards and an NFL-high 18 touchdowns. Of course, the offensive line was vastly superior to last season's due to improved play at all five positions and Dante Scarnecchia's return as coach, but Blount, James White, Dion Lewis and James Develin also mastered their roles in the backfield.

The Pats had the third most rushing attempts in the league (482), and only trailed the league-leading, run-at-all-cost Cowboys by 17 carries. The Cowboys ran it 49.4 percent of the time this season.

With defenses forced to respect the run, receivers are open more often for Brady.

Because of that, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said he considers the lack of interceptions to a "team statistic."

"It comes down to understanding how valuable taking care of the football is and being able to make great decisions under pressure in a split-second," McDaniels said. "I think our team values the football. We talk about how important that is to winning each week."

That formula will be easier if the Patriots continue to jump on teams early, helping Brady relax. During its current seven-game win streak New England has won by an average of 16 points.

"It's nice when you're playing with leads because you don't have to necessarily force the ball into certain areas where the coverage may be really tight," he said. "But it's going to be the same formula for next Saturday night — not turning the ball over, making good decisions with it."

As Boston Herald staffer Jeff Howe notes, the positives of a balanced offense are wide-ranging. Brady was only sacked on 3.4 percent of his drop-backs, and the play-action burned defenses a number of times, including last week when the Dolphins bit on a play fake that allowed tight end Martellus Bennett to run free for a wide-open 2-yard touchdown catch.

It all works in concert, and the Pats' offensive efficiency improved dramatically from last season when they fielded their most one-dimensional offense (36.5 percent rushing ratio) since Belichick took control.

"Definitely, a complementary offense is a good offense," receiver Julian Edelman said. "Our offensive line has worked their tail off to help LG, Dion and James go out there and make plays, not only in the run game but the passing game. It sets up the play-action and all that kind of stuff. The running game is an offense's best friend."

Defensively New England will likely face Brock Osweiler, the once-again Texans quarterback, and a Houston attack that finished the regular season 29th in total offense and tied for 28th in points scored. But, coordinator Matt Patricia is clearly intent on taking nothing for granted.

"Coach (Bill) O'Brien and George Godsey, the offensive coordinator, are two guys that I have the most respect for in the entire league. These guys work extremely hard to get their team ready to go and prepare," Patricia said. "I'll say one of the other differences there's a little bit of tempo with the offense now. There's going to be some at the line of scrimmage offense that they try to run and try to catch the defense in a particular look, which obviously gives you a lot of problems in pace and tempo and snap counts and all those different things too, so it's a huge challenge."

Not surprisingly, Brady isn't taking this game lightly.

The QB said there will be "nothing easy" for the Patriots offense against Houston's defense and that nothing in the past will serve as a prologue to how things will play out this weekend.

"I think this is a day-to-day league," Brady said. "It really doesn't matter last time we played them or last year because things change so much with the game and a game plan and players. Coach talks about all the time, it's not who you play, it's how you play. We need to play well. ... If you don't execute it, you lose."

As Profootballtalk.com pointed out, Vegas disagrees with Brady's take and history — both Texans-specific and playoffs — says that the Patriots are going to be able to execute well enough to move on to another AFC title game. ...

On the injury front. ... Receiver Danny Amendola (ankle) hasn't played since suffering a reported high ankle sprain on a punt return Dec. 4 against the Rams. Though he spent much of the last month wearing a walking boot, the veteran receiver is walking with no noticeable issue and was on the practice field with his teammates for a bye-week work last Wednesday during the media's short viewing window.

"The only thing I've been focused on the past four to five weeks is to get as healthy as possible and feel as good as I can, and be available for whatever Coach (Bill Belichick) wants me to do. It's been a long four to five weeks, but I feel good today," Amendola told ESPN.com's Mike Reiss on Tuesday.

Amendola worked fully on Wednesday.

Fellow wideout Malcolm Mitchell (knee) was not on the field last Wednesday but he did do some work last Thursday. Mitchell missed the finale in Miami and he was limited Wednesday. His status will bear watching this week.

Brady has dealt with a thigh issue dating to a hit on his right let by Seattle safety Kam Chancellor on Nov. 13 and has occasionally missed or been limited in practice in recent weeks. That could be the case again this week, but he worked fully on Wednesday and it certainly won't keep him from playing. ...

In addition, Blount was held out Wednesday due to illness; he should still play as usual this weekend.

Keep an eye on the News and Views section of the site for more in coming days. ...

Also of interest. ... Josh McDaniels had interviews with the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars last Saturday regarding the teams' vacant head coaching jobs. The Jaguars subsequently hired Doug Marrone as head coach. While the interviews dominated his time on a snowy Saturday day off during the bye week in New England, McDaniels is well prepared to avoid potential distractions and remain focused on the task at hand.

"I think the profession that we work in requires that of us each week," McDaniels said. "I think honestly we've been trained to switch gears and really tie our focus into the thing that is at hand. If it's a work day then we know where our focus is going to lie. It's absolutely going to be on the Texans this week, and (I'm) looking forward to getting ready to go."

Patricia also spent the Saturday of the bye week interviewing for head coaching jobs, meeting with the Rams and San Diego Chargers.


DEPTH CHART
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

Pittsburgh Steelers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

A day later, the way the Steelers manhandled the Dolphins for long stretches during their lopsided wild-card win on Sunday felt just as good as it did the first time around.

"It was a pretty thing to watch," right tackle Marcus Gilbert said.

Except for that one snap late in the fourth quarter with the Steelers up three scores and things well in hand, the one that left quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wearing a walking boot postgame after tweaking his right ankle when Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake fell on Roethlisberger's legs during a third-down heave that led to an interception.

Roethlisberger was face down on the Heinz Field turf for a moment before walking off and later jogging to the locker room at the end of the 30-12 beat down.

While he brushed it off afterward and there appears to be no concerns over his availability for next weekend's visit to Kansas City, that didn't make it easier for Gilbert to deal with, particularly when he was the one who let Wake get loose.

"When you saw that, honestly kind of felt sick to your stomach," Gilbert said Monday.

"But you know he's one of the toughest guys I've been around. You know he's going to play through anything, get back up and do what he has to do to get to next week and play his kind of ball."

Even if the prospect of having Roethlisberger still under center and throwing with Pittsburgh firmly in control late seemed an unnecessary risk to some, particularly on social media even after Pittsburgh reeled off its eighth straight win.

"I think hindsight is always 20/20," guard David DeCastro said. "We've made plays like that before in that situation."

DeCastro isn't kidding.

Head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have built Pittsburgh's offense into one of the league's most dynamic by consistently and relentlessly staying aggressive regardless of the situation.

Roethlisberger remained in the game and threw passes with under eight minutes to play in seven games this season in which the Steelers were at least two touchdowns ahead.

"We had our foot on the pedal," Gilbert said. "You take it off, tends to turn the opposite way. We kept our foot on the pedal."

And now that foot is a bit achy, one of the few blemishes on an otherwise spectacular performance.

For the record, Tomlin said Roethlisberger's foot injury is not expected to limit the star quarterback in this weekend's divisional playoff game against the Chiefs.

"Ben aggravated his foot but it doesn't appear to be an issue," Tomlin said. "We'll watch him closely as we push forward toward the game. But not anticipating that limiting him."

While Roethlisberger is healthy, he might not have tight end Ladarius Green (concussion) to throw to once again. The athletic TE, who hasn't played since Dec. 18 against Cincinnati, remains in concussion protocol, Tomlin said.

For what it's worth, Washington Observer-Reporter staffer Dale Lolley reports it appears Le'Veon Bell (whose 174 scrimmage yards against Miami were the third-most in a playoff game in team history -- only Martavis Bryant (194) and Merrill Hoge (180) posted more) and Roethlisberger will be given practice off on Wednesday more for maintenance than due to injury, but we'll follow up in the News and Views section between now and kickoff. ...

Beyond that, Pittsburgh's biggest headache going forward will be the absence of outside linebackers coach Joey Porter.

The former Pro Bowler was placed on leave by the team Monday following his arrest at a Pittsburgh bar on Sunday night on charges of aggravated assault on an officer, simple assault, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, defiant trespass and public drunkenness.

General manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement Monday the team is continuing to gather information and remains in communication with the NFL as part of the league's personal conduct policy.

Preparations for a rematch with the Chiefs will go on without the fiery Porter. Pittsburgh had no trouble with Kansas City on Oct. 2, overwhelming the Chiefs early in a nationally televised 43-14 whipping that was never in doubt.

Roethlisberger had one of his best games of the season in that one. He was 22 of 27 for 300 yards and five touchdown passes. Bell had 144 yards on 18 carries.

But this game will be played at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs were 6-2 during the regular season. Kansas City's two home losses came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans, two teams that did not qualify for the playoffs.

Pittsburgh's offense hasn't been quite so potent on the road, though those issues eased during the second half of the season.

The Steelers averaged 25.7 points on the road in their past four road games, compared to 17.5 over their first four.

"I think we're a little more mature team," DeCastro said. "We have to be, especially this time of the season."

The Steelers and Chiefs met once previously in the playoffs. The Chiefs beat the Steelers 27-24 in overtime in January 1994 after Pittsburgh blew a 17-7 halftime lead

Roethlisberger, by the way, remained in that October win with it well out of hand too, throwing four times on a drive that ended with DeAngelo Williams' touchdown run that put the Steelers up 36 points midway through the fourth quarter.

A meandering season followed, as the Steelers dropped four straight before getting it together in mid-November.

Now they have the NFL's longest active winning streak and look very much like the team that moved up and down the field at will against the Chiefs three months ago, a night when Roethlisberger threw for at least five touchdowns for the fifth time in his career. ...

Other notes of interest. ... As Profootballtalk.com noted this week, there's not much a running back can do to earn the ire of coaches faster than failing to hit a hole quickly and at full speed.

Bell is the exception to that rule. He isn't one for urgency when it comes to running the ball and no one on the Pittsburgh staff is complaining about the results of his more measured approach to running the ball. Thanks to his ability to wait for the right spot and the offensive line's ability to limit penetration, it worked to the tune of 1,268 rushing yards in the regular season and 167 more last week.

Bell believes his patient approach to playing running back will change the NFL similar to how Stephen Curry changed the way basketball is played in the NBA.

"I think I'm changing the game," the Pittsburgh Steelers running back told Bleacher Report. "In that sense, I'm what Steph Curry is to basketball. Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily think Steph Curry is the best basketball player, but he changed the game so he's going to always go down as being remembered. Now, everyone wants to shoot the 3 and shoot it from deep."

That same patient approach is one that helped Bell run for 144 yards against the Chiefs earlier this year and it's led their coach Andy Reid to say that Bell is the "most patient that I've ever seen" out of the backfield.

"That's a unique style — one that he's kind of created. ... He's a good player," Reid said, via the team website. "He has a unique style about him — that delay to get to the line of scrimmage. It's been effective for him. He's really the only one that does it, so it's unique. The obvious thing is you have to contain him and take care of your gaps, for sure."

The experience gained in that earlier matchup should aid the Chiefs' adjustment to an unusual style in Sunday's game, but run defense was a sore spot for the Kansas City defense most of the season so the benefits may be limited against a back of Bell's quality. ...

In a related note. ... Bell doesn't want to leave Pittsburgh. The Steelers aren't planning to let him go. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported last Sunday that the Steelers will franchise tag Bell.

The tag should be more than $12 million for running backs this season. Franchising Bell will give the sides an opportunity to work out a long-term deal.

Bell's production speaks for itself. The 24-year-old back ranked first in the NFL in touches per game (28.0) and scrimmage YPG (157.0) and was second in rushing YPG (105.7), despite missing four contests this season (3 to suspension, 1 to rest).

From Weeks 4-16 (when Bell played), he led the NFL in touches (336) and scrimmage yards (1,884) -- 28 more touches than David Johnson's 308 and 189 more scrimmage yards than Ezekiel Elliott's 1,695 (both 2nd-most in that span).

In six of his past seven games, Bell has rushed for 118 yards or more. In the one game that he was held under 100 yards in that span, he posted 93 in a win at Cincinnati.

His combination of above-noted patience, burst and receiver-like hands make him a dangerous dual threat that is certain to get paid. Bell should get a deal that resets the running back market and recognizes his value outside of the run game. Pittsburgh will utilize the franchise tag to ensure it has as much negotiating leverage and time to get a deal time as possible

Rapoport also noted that Pittsburgh would like to extend Antonio Brown ahead of his final season under contract. Locking down both Bell and Brown in 2017 would stabilize the Steelers' offensive future well into Roethlisberger's twilight years.

By the way, Brown became the second player in team history to record two touchdown catches in a playoff game. Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann did it twice.


DEPTH CHART
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

Seattle Seahawks

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2017

According to ESPN.com's Sheil Kapadia, before Pete Carroll exited the locker room Saturday night, he made a stop at Thomas Rawls' locker.

The Seattle Seahawks' second-year running back still had his uniform pants on and had yet to shower. It was about 9 p.m. local time, and most of his teammates had already left the stadium.

Rawls, though, sat alone with his thoughts. He had reason to move slowly after carrying 27 times for 161 yards in his team's 26-6 win over the Detroit Lions.

"Feeling every bit of those carries right now," Rawls said later.

Carroll knelt down, wrapped his right arm around Rawls' neck and gave him a hug. This was what the Seahawks had been waiting for -- a return to the identity that has made them so successful for the past five years. An identity that has been missing for much of the season.

"That's the game we've been looking for," Carroll said.

The Seahawks will go to Atlanta this week as underdogs against the Falcons. They are a flawed team and have plenty of obstacles to overcome if they're going to make a Super Bowl run. But what had players and coaches excited following Saturday's win was that the formula they have come to count on again seems available.

During the regular season, the Seahawks averaged 3.95 yards per carry as a team, which ranked 24th in the NFL. They had 18 different players notch a carry and were unable to find any kind of consistency in the run game during their first season without Marshawn Lynch on the roster.

But against the Lions, Rawls spun by defenders and ran through would-be tacklers all game long. He looked like the same player who led the NFL with a yards per carry average of 5.65 as a rookie last season.

"It opens up everything for us," wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "I've told you guys before that everything runs through our run game. When Thomas Rawls is doing that, they can't help but put another safety in the box, and then that gives us one-on-one matchups on the outside."

Rawls worked all offseason to rehab from a broken ankle. Then in Week 2, he suffered a fibula injury and missed seven games.

It had been a frustrating sophomore campaign in which he averaged only 3.20 YPC. But when the Seahawks needed him, he came up big, breaking Lynch's franchise record for rushing yards in a postseason game.

"It means a lot," Rawls said. "Marshawn Lynch? I looked up to him. I still do. I still communicate with him. I still talk to him. Just over time, I reminisce back when I was younger, just watching him, man, hopefully one day. And that day is now. I'm kind of lost for words."

Rawls spoke slowly and with an uncommon intensity. It felt as if his words could have easily been part of a pregame or halftime speech in the locker room.

"When you're in the backfield and you're a runner, you have to have a whole different level of toughness," he said. "Sometimes you have to leave your mind and your body. Sometimes, nothing matters but that play. Every time, every play. Just keep pounding. Then I think it is who can last the longest. Can you truly endure that much pain? Because everybody out there is hurting. Who is the last one to give up?"

Rawls' performance has the Seahawks feeling good going into next Saturday's matchup with the Falcons. Atlanta ranked 27th in defensive efficiency during the regular season and 29th against the run.

The Seahawks have flaws for sure, and one victory over the Lions is not going to erase them. The defense played well against Detroit but has struggled previously without safety Earl Thomas. And now Seattle has to face Matt Ryan and the Falcons' high-powered offense.

But suddenly, the Seahawks have a realistic formula for success that includes running the ball with Rawls and keeping Ryan off the field.

Russell Wilson completed 23 of 30 passes for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Paul Richardson provided a spark with three catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.

And Baldwin was brilliant, catching 11 of 12 targets for 104 yards and a score.

Rawls was injured in Week 14 last season and didn't get to play in the postseason. His first playoff performance was an all timer. Now Rawls has to prove he can do it again.

"I'll do whatever I have to do to contribute to this team," Rawls said. "I want a championship. I've been waiting my whole life for this. I wasn't here last year. I broke my ankle. I was sitting on the couch. I had my leg up. I told myself, when I got to this point, oh man, I'd do whatever I have to do for it."

This week, Rawls could get some help.

Carroll said on Monday that C.J. Prosise would practice with the team on Tuesday as they start on-field work ahead of Saturday's game in Atlanta.

Prosise has been out with a fractured scapula since Week 11 and missed 10 games overall during his rookie season due to injuries. That was an issue across the board for Seattle backs in 2016, but Rawls appears to be in fine form and Prosise's limited appearances showed that he can make plays as a receiving option out of the backfield.

Carroll subsequently said, "He's going to have to go full speed and let it rip. If he's holding back, he won't play."

Carroll also said that fullback Marcel Reece's outlook for this week is uncertain after his foot was stepped on against the Lions. Reece played almost half the snaps against the Lions in a sharp rise from the four weeks he spent with the team in the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have moved on to the divisional playoff round for the fifth consecutive season. They are no strangers to what looms at the Georgia Dome. They've already defeated the Falcons once this season, a 26-24 outcome in Week 6 at CenturyLink Field, and we all know how effective they can be in the postseason when their running game gets moving.

But the Falcons present a formidable opponent.

And as ESPN.com noted, the Seahawks shouldn't go overboard in celebration over the Lions' six-point effort. Detroit receivers left at least 100 yards of offense on the field via drops. The Falcons' elite passing crew isn't likely to provide such favors. ...

Other notes of interest. ... As the Sports Xchange reminded readers, it was two years ago this week when Richardson suffered a torn ACL in a divisional round victory over the Panthers. After last year was almost completely derailed by injuries, Richardson is stepping up to fill the shoes of an injured Tyler Lockett.

As noted above, Richardson caught just three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown against the Lions but every catch was a contested ball that resulted in big plays for Seattle's offense. Richardson hauled in a 2-yard touchdown pass with one hand from Wilson on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter that gave Seattle a 7-0 lead. Richardson somehow corralled the ball with his left hand while being draped by Lions' safety Tavon Wilson.

Richardson also caught 19- and 27-yard passes to add to his total.

Richardson missed the first nine games on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from January 2015 knee surgery. He returned to the lineup and caught one pass for 40 yards against the Arizona Cardinals only to suffer a torn hamstring that again landed him on injured reserve.

Now healthy, Richardson is finally contributing. He's had three straight games with at least three catches since Lockett went down with a broken leg against Arizona two weeks ago.

And finally. ... Newly-signed return man Devin Hester appeared on offense for one snap in the first quarter for Seattle in addition to his eight snaps of special teams duty.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: Russell Wilson, Austin Davis
RBs: J.D. McKissic, Mike Davis, Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, Tre Madden
WRs: Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson, Tanner McEvoy, Amara Darboh
TEs: Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson, Nick Vannett