Team Notes Week 19 2017
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFFDirectly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
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Atlanta FalconsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
As the Associated Press suggested this week, experience could be the Falcons' big edge as the only team in the NFC playoffs for the second straight year.
Head coach Dan Quinn believes that advantage was a factor in Saturday night's 26-13 wild-card win over the Los Angeles Rams.
One year after advancing to the Super Bowl, the Falcons are "a battle-tested brotherhood," according to Quinn, who added Sunday "That kind of experience I thought certainly showed up last night."
After showing impressive poise against the Rams, Atlanta will play Saturday's divisional round game at Philadelphia.
"We're not here just to get here," quarterback Matt Ryan said after the game. "We want to make noise while we're here, so this is what it's all about. It's about giving yourself the opportunity this time of the year to compete and play in games like this and win games like this."
The Falcons are only the No. 6 seed, making the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season with a home win over Carolina. Even so, Quinn senses his team, boosted by last year's long postseason run, is peaking at the right time.
"It helps because the guys who were in (last year's playoffs) have this experience and know how to separate your preparation and make sure the only battle you're in is this one," he said, adding that one-game focus "doesn't allow you to look too far back. ... And we're certainly not thinking about anything past this week."
Quinn said the win over the Rams, who lacked the Falcons' playoff experience, may have been Atlanta's most complete game of the season.
The coach compared his current "battle tested" team to a time early in last year's playoffs when he stopped practice because he thought "the guys were tight."
"We kind of loosened up after that," he said, adding he believes this year's team "started our push" following a loss to New Orleans on Dec. 7.
"There's been a shift that's taken place with our team, their readiness, their mindset, their belief, their support of one another is really at a strong point for this 2017 team and we'll need that kind of mindset again this week."
Meanwhile, as ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure pointed out, Ryan will be in familiar territory for Saturday's game.
Ryan grew up 32 miles outside Philadelphia in Exton, Pennsylvania, and attended Penn Charter High School. He was a big Donovan McNabb fan when McNabb was the quarterback of the Eagles.
"It's always good to go back and play there, for sure," Ryan said. "Obviously the family and friends, it's great to see them. But it doesn't matter where we go this time of the year. We're just excited to be going and just still have the opportunity to keep playing."
But Ryan certainly won't receive a warm reception from the Eagles or their fans.
Ryan is 1-3 all time against the Eagles in Philadelphia, completing 86 of 148 passes for 1,056 yards with eight touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 87. Last year's game there was arguably his worst of the season. He completed just 18 of 33 passes for 267 yards, with a touchdown, an interception and a season-low passing rating of 78.7 in a 24-15 loss at Lincoln Financial Field.
Ryan is 6-3 on the road this season following this past weekend's 26-13 wild-card win against the Los Angeles Rams. And his playoff road record is now 1-2.
According to McClure, for the Falcons to advance to the NFC Championship Game, Ryan will have to play at an MVP level against an Eagles defense that ranked fourth in total yards allowed (306.5 per game), first in rushing yards allowed (79.2), 17th in passing yards allowed (227.3) and fourth in points allowed (18.4). They also ranked third in the NFL in third-down percentage.
Working in Ryan's favor is the fact that Julio Jones has fared better against the Eagles than almost any other team.
The star wideout has averaged 107 receiving yards per game against the Eagles over his career. His 428 yards and three TDs in four games against Philly are career highs versus opponents outside the NFC South.
Jones caught nine passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in Los Angeles. Ryan was 9-of-10 when targeting Jones against the Rams, the duo's best completion percentage this season, per ESPN Stats and Information. Ryan and Jones have played seven postseason games together, connecting on 80 percent of their passes.
That's the best of any QB-WR duo with 20-plus attempts in the postseason since 2011.
One of the biggest questions is whether the Eagles' cornerbacks are capable of containing Jones. A group that includes Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and Ronald Darby was a big concern heading into the year but has held its own, including during the eight weeks Darby was out because of a dislocated ankle. There have been some shaky moments over the past few games, though. The DBs' biggest test comes this weekend.
That said, the Eagles held Atlanta to just 15 points in a November game at Lincoln Financial Field last season. That wound up being a season low for an Atlanta team that led the league in points per game (33.8). The Eagles dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, outrushing the Falcons 208-48.
Owning a serious time-of-possession advantage (38:10-21:50), the Eagles shortened the game and limited Atlanta's opportunities on offense.
So, Eagles coach Doug Pederson doesn't have to look far for a blueprint on how to beat the Falcons.
Not to be overlooked, however, is the fact that over the final eight weeks of the regular season, only four teams -- the Patriots, Vikings, Chargers and Eagles -- allowed fewer points per game than the Falcons' 17.88.
Atlanta improved that average in a wild-card matchup in which the Falcons allowed just 13 points to a Rams offense that averaged a league-leading 29.88 points in the regular season. While the Falcons' offense doesn't look as explosive as it did this time last year, ESPN.com's Dan Graziano believes they can win by playing ball control and keeping teams out of the end zone. ...
Other notes of interest. ... As the Sports Xchange notes, the Falcons had a season-low in average depth of target in their season-ending win over Carolina at 6.4 yards. The Panthers' wild pass rush forced Ryan to get the ball off quickly.
Basically, there was no time for any deep breaking routes.
The same happened in Los Angeles. With defensive tackle Aaron Donald on the loose, Ryan had to get rid of the ball even quicker against the Rams.
Ryan was even less likely to throw downfield against the Rams with a 4.3 average depth of target, according to ProFootballFocus.com. With the short passes, the Falcons relied heavily on the receivers getting yards after the catch and they had a season-high 70.6 percent of his passing yards coming after the catch against the Rams.
Jones caught all nine of his targets for 94 yards and had 13 yards rushing for 107 yards from scrimmage. Sanu has been targeted 19 times and seven times on third down over the past two games.
Sanu had 52 yards after the catch on his screen pass that busted open the game in the fourth quarter
The Eagles finished with 38 sacks this season. Defensive end Brandon Graham led the team with 9.5 sacks. Fletcher Cox had 5.5 sacks and Chris Long and rookie defensive end Derek Barnett added five each.
So Ryan, who has put a renewed emphasis on footwork the past few years, has made plays with his feet the past two games and might have to do the same against the Eagles.
For what it's worth, Ryan has thrown 19 touchdowns in nine career playoff games. Ryan has a 102.4 postseason passer rating in his career. The only two qualifying players with a higher mark are Pro Football Hall of Famers Bart Starr (104.8) and Kurt Warner (102.8). ...
Also according to the Xchange, Devonta Freeman, who had a troublesome three-game stretch, where he averaged just 1.75 yards after contact and had four fumbles, has pulled through his slump. In the last two games, he's averaged 2.93 yards after contact per carry and hasn't fumbled. ...
And finally, on the injury front. ... Quinn said during a Tuesday appearance on 92.9 The Game in Atlanta that Jones (ankle) would be the only player held out of practice Tuesday.
But Ryan left the team's training facility before practice to attend an appointment, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ryan did not make it back before practice ended, though a team spokesman said earlier in the day he might. It is believed to be the first practice Ryan has missed since a turf toe injury in 2009, according to Ledbetter.
Ryan was back on the field Wednesday and Quinn told reporters that Ryan caused setbacks in terms of the installing of the game plan. Ryan was in attendance for installation meetings but had to leave before practice.
Jones was held out Wednesday as well, but it would be a major upset if he's anywhere but in the starting lineup this weekend.
Freeman (knee) and Sanu (knee) were limited participants. Tight end Levine Toilolo (knee) had a full practice.
Again, expect all of them to play, but watch the News and Views section for pertinent updates right up through the inactive announcements.
QBs: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Matt Simms
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward
WRs: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams
TEs: Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert, Logan Paulsen
Jacksonville JaguarsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
According to ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco, Jaguars cornerback Aaron Colvin knows that Ben Roethlisberger wants another shot at the Jaguars defense to redeem himself for his five-interception performance in October.
But Colvin also knows that works the other way, too. Sunday's rematch at Heinz Field in the AFC divisional playoff round means the defense will get another crack at Roethlisberger, too.
"I think that the game was a great illustration of, if we play the way we're capable of playing, that we can beat anybody like that," Colvin said after the Jaguars' 10-3 victory over Buffalo at EverBank Field on Sunday. "But we know that they're going to come in motivated. Ben has said it earlier in the week or whenever he said it that he wanted to see us again, so we know we're going to get their best shot.
"But at the same time, they're going to get our best shot, too, and whenever somebody gets our best shot it hasn't turned out too good for people."
One of those other times was against Pittsburgh on Oct. 8. As noted above, the Jaguars intercepted five Roethlisberger passes and returned two for touchdowns. Le'Veon Bell had less than 100 yards of total offense (47 yards rushing and 46 yards receiving) and the only points the Steelers could muster were three Chris Boswell field goals.
"I'm sure they're thinking that game was a fluke," said fellow cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who had one of the five interceptions.
Now, the Steelers are one of the hottest offenses in the league. They've averaged the most points (31.3) and second-most yards (403) and passing yards (302) per game in the NFL since Week 11. Roethlisberger has thrown 16 touchdowns in that span, more than any other quarterback. The only player who has more yards from scrimmage in that span than Bell (855) is the Rams' Todd Gurley (933).
That offense is operating at a much higher level than it was in Week 5. But you could argue that the Jaguars' defense is, as well.
Per ESPN Stats and Information, the Jaguars allowed fewer passing yards per game in the regular season than the 2013 Seahawks, 2000 Ravens and 1985 Bears -- defenses that carried their teams to the Super Bowl. The Jaguars had 55 sacks in the regular season, which was 11 more than the 2013 Seahawks and 20 more than the 2000 Ravens.
The Jaguars continued that run against the Bills on Sunday. The Jaguars held them to 263 yards, forced two turnovers and didn't allow them past the Jacksonville 48-yard line in the second half. It marked the eighth time this season the defense has held an opponent to fewer than 10 points; no other team did that more than four times.
Cornerback A.J. Bouye, named a second-team All-Pro earlier last week and one of four Jacksonville defensive players named to the Pro Bowl, said he wants to see the unit that showed up at Heinz Field show up again.
"It's not our best game," Bouye said of Sunday's performance. "I know it's not our best game. We just have to find a way to bring the game from Pittsburgh earlier in the season. We have to find a way to bring that together and just be dominant. Things are going to happen. It's going to be a great opportunity next week.
"We're going against a Hall of Fame quarterback, Hall of Fame receiver. They are going to give us their best and they have a lot of weapons and that crowd is going to be amazing. We are just going to be ready for it."
But the offense? It hasn't exactly been hitting on all cylinders the last few weeks.
With the passing attack coming up short and his running game not helping much, Blake Bortles rushed for more yards (88) than he had passing (87) to become the first quarterback to win a playoff game with fewer than 100 passing yards on 20-plus attempts since Steve McNair in the 1999 AFC wild-card game against the Bills.
"Going into a game, there's no secret recipe on how to win," said Bortles, who completed 12 of 23 passes. "There's no number that says you've got to score this many points to beat them. You've got to score one more than they score, regardless of it's 50 or if it's three, you've got to find a way to outscore them."
That seemed unreachable with the way Bortles played in the first half. It appeared that the significant strides he made in 2017 were going to be wasted and the offseason was going to again be filled with questions such as, "What do the Jaguars do at quarterback?" Yet Bortles was able to rebound and proved to his teammates and coaches that he can be relied upon to win games.
It doesn't matter that Bortles did a large part of it with his feet.
"He found a way," Colvin said.
Still, Bortles was having by far his worst game of the season until he started scrambling and getting free. Per ESPN Stats and Information, Bortles gained 71 of his 88 rushing yards via scrambles. In the past 10 postseasons, only Colin Kaepernick has scrambled for more yards in a game (85 in the 2013 wild-card round).
"I kind of reference it to a pitcher," Bortles said. "You go out and something's not on. You don't have a fastball or you don't have a curveball, and you've got to find another pitch to be able to win and be successful and get guys out. That's kind of the same thing playing quarterback.
"I'm kind of fortunate to be able to run around and be able to do that stuff and have kind of an Option B to kind of help this offense move the ball and put up points. Trying to do really whatever I can to help this team win [and] help this team score points."
Bortles' rushing performance doesn't overshadow that the Jaguars won't be around in the playoffs much longer if the offense doesn't start producing.
Outside of Bortles, the run game was terrible: Leonard Fournette managed 57 yards on 21 carries. The rookie busted one run for 16 yards on a quick pitchout, but other than that he was held to 41 yards on 20 carries, barely two yards a shot. That won't scare many opponents and normally won't win many games.
In addition, Dede Westbrook was the only wide receiver to catch a pass against the Bills (he finished with five catches on eight targets and 48 yards).
That certainly won't be good enough when the Jaguars play in Pittsburgh Sunday with a berth in the AFC Championship Game on the line.
"We never really got into a rhythm and weren't able to get anything on third down," head coach Doug Marrone said. "I'd be a fool to sit here and say I'm not concerned, but I'm going to take a step back and go ahead and look at it again. Obviously, if you want to continue to keep playing, you're going to have to do a better job."
That includes Bortles' arm and legs.
Since Jacksonville can play defense with anyone, it's fair to expect Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown (since he's practicing fully this week) to not have their best days. And as ESPN's Dan Graziano suggested, it's also fair to assume they'll score more than the three points the Bills scored Sunday against Jacksonville (or the nine Pittsburgh scored in Week 5).
Can the Jaguars manufacture enough offense to outscore a rested Steelers squad?
That's the question in this one. And there are reasons for optimism.
As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review staffer Joe Rutter pointed out this week, the Steelers concluded the regular season by allowing five of their final six opponents to surpass 100 yards rushing, with two players reaching that number. Down the stretch, Baltimore's Alex Collins had 120 yards rushing, and Houston's Alfred Blue gained 108.
Starting in Week 13, the Steelers allowed 637 rushing yards in their final five games or 127.4 per game. That drop-off, which began Dec. 4 in Cincinnati, coincided with the spinal cord injury to Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ryan Shazier. They finished No. 10 for the season.
And they couldn't contain the Jags in that first meeting when Fournette gained 181 yards on 28 carries with his final attempt going 90 yards for a touchdown in that 30-9 win in Pittsburgh.
Other notes of interest. ... T.J. Yeldon was added to the Jaguars injury report on Friday and was inactive for Sunday's game due to illness and flu-like symptoms.
Return man/receiver Jaydon Mickens sustained a hamstring injury during the game and was eventually replaced by Westbrook in returning punts.
Tight end Ben Koyack had one catch for one yard that resulted in his first touchdown of the season. It was Koyack's second career score, the first coming in the season finale a year ago on a 14-yard reception against Indianapolis.
Paul Posluszny suffered a hip injury in the first half against Buffalo, went out for several plays and came back for one play before sitting out the rest of the game. It was painful for Posluszny to miss the game as he spent the first four years of his career playing in Buffalo.
Tyler Patmon filled in at nickel back for Colvin, who was limited in his play due to flu-like symptoms. Patmon played more snaps in this game than any contest during the regular season. He was credited with his first pass defense of the year.
And finally. ... Josh Lambo continued to excel with his kicking at EverBank Field. He made a 44-yard field goal just before intermission against the Bills.
QBs: Blake Bortles, Cody Kessler, Brandon Allen
RBs: Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant
WRs: Donte Moncrief, Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, Max McCaffrey, Jaelen Strong, Marqise Lee
TEs: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Ben Koyack, Niles Paul
Minnesota VikingsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
After spending wild-card weekend as spectators, the Minnesota Vikings have a rematch of their season opener when they host the New Orleans Saints on Jan. 14 in the NFC divisional round at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But as ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin notes, the Saints' defense looks a lot different now than it did Week 1 when it made way for Sam Bradford's dominating three-touchdown, 346-yard passing day and allowed Dalvin Cook to rush for 127 yards in a 29-19 win. The Saints also still had Adrian Peterson in their backfield then, before trading him to the Arizona Cardinals and clearing space for rookie Alvin Kamara to elevate his role next to Mark Ingram.
"From the first time we played them to now, it's totally different," Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said.
For these Vikings, the Saints simply represent their first obstacle to being the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
They had to wait until the very end of their bye week to find out who they would be facing in the divisional round game, with the Saints topping the Carolina Panthers 31-26 in New Orleans on Sunday night.
"I think they understand the magnitude of where we're at in the playoffs and that New Orleans is a heck of a football team," head coach Mike Zimmer said on Monday afternoon, when the Vikings reconvened for preparation.
For both teams, really. September was so long ago.
Bradford, who underwent surgery to clean out his troublesome knee, has resumed practicing, but he likely will remain on injured reserve this week with Teddy Bridgewater backing up Case Keenum at quarterback (although Zimmer has been predictably vague about Bradford's status). Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have taken over the backfield duties with Cook out.
Worth noting here, the Vikings have the best defense in the NFL. No other team allowed fewer yards (275.9) or points (15.8) per game in 2017 and is as stacked from its front seven to its secondary than Minnesota. The Vikings boasted great defenses overs the years, but this unit is elite.
As Cronin suggested, what better way to sum up the strength of this defense than its final goal-line stand against Chicago in Week 17 when the Vikings stopped the Bears six straight times inside the 5-yard line?
The time away ahead of Minnesota's first-round bye gave players like Kyle Rudolph, Rhodes, Pat Elflein and others dealing with nagging injuries some much-needed rest. The offensive line has handled injuries admirably this season while helping set up the league's No. 7 rushing attack.
While Adam Thielen was the 1,000-yard receiver, getting to 1,276 yards by the end of the season, Stefon Diggs reached 849 yards, despite missing two games with injury and having 47 fewer targets and 27 fewer receptions than Thielen.
Each of the last four games, Diggs had at least five catches and at least six targets, and he scored a touchdown in each of his final three games, tying Rudolph for the team lead with eight touchdown receptions in 2017.
Remember, the Vikings ended the regular season with their seventh different offensive line combination.
They might open the playoffs with No. 8.
Although Elflein is expected to return and start at center after missing the regular-season finale with a shoulder injury, don't assume the Vikings will go back to a lineup that includes Mike Remmers at right tackle, Joe Berger at right guard and Jeremiah Sirles at left guard.
With Elflein out against the Bears, the Vikings moved Berger, a former starting center, to center, Remmers to right guard and Rashod Hill to right tackle.
Hill has played well in six starts at right tackle, while Remmers played well at right guard in his first action there in five seasons. Meanwhile, Berger has experience starting at left guard as well as center and right guard.
The Sports Xchange advised readers not to be surprised if Berger starts at left guard and Sirles ends up being the odd man out.
"All I know is I'm ready," Elflein said. "I'm practicing. I'm rolling and ready to go."
Said Hill: "We're just building off of what we did against the Bears. We don't know yet what we'll do. We know we got Pat, he's good to go and healthy and everything."
Whatever the configuration up front, Keenum is being told to beware of the Saints' ability to knock passes down at the line of scrimmage. Short by quarterback standards, Keenum will need to know where DE Cameron Jordan is. Jordan had 12 pass deflections during the regular season. The Saints had 99 as a team.
In addition, Cronin notes that while none of the Vikings' past three wins were ever in question, the offense missed some shots downfield that it normally makes and hasn't been as dominant on third down.
Keenum has gotten the most out of his playmakers and magnified his incredible season with the highest Total QBR against the blitz and how efficient he has been at making plays outside of the pocket.
The thing that separates this team from others in the playoffs? This offense doesn't need to score big to win (but let's not forget the Vikings still put up 23 points on a very good Bears defense in the finale). Keenum and Co. have shown they can win games on their own, but with a defense this good, there shouldn't be any real panic if the offense doesn't strike heavy.
In addition, Minnesota has a 7-1 record at U.S. Bank Stadium and will rely heavily on that home-field advantage to get to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2009 against the team they played the last time they were there. ...
On the injury front. ... Rudolph (ankle) began the week practicing fully. He'll be ready to start and play as usual.
One last note here. ... Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has been one of the most in-demand head-coaching candidates interviewing for vacant jobs, but there's one additional reason his candidacy is attractive, especially to a team in need of a quarterback.
If Shurmur ends up being hired by a quarterback-needy team that he has interviewed with -- Arizona and the Giants stand out -- he could bring free-agent-to-be Keenum with him, league sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Shurmur and Keenum have developed a close working relationship in which the two men "both think very highly of each other," one source told Schefter.
It's only natural, then, that if Shurmur's new team needed a quarterback, the man he's expected to look to would be Keenum, who has played like an MVP candidate this season in Minnesota.
Shurmur has received interest from the Cardinals, Bears (who subsequently hired Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy), Lions and Giants. Keenum's contract is up after this postseason, and his value could grow with each round he helps Minnesota advance in the playoffs.
Shurmur has been Minnesota's offensive coordinator since November 2016, when he was promoted to replace Norv Turner. Keenum, 29, passed for career highs of 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns while throwing just seven interceptions this regular season.
QBs: Kirk Cousins
RBs: Latavius Murray, Mack Brown, C.J. Ham
WRs: Kendall Wright, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Tavarres King, Laquon Treadwell, Michael Floyd, Rodney Adams, Stacy Coley
TEs: Kyle Rudolph, David Morgan, Blake Bell
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
As the Associated Press put it, "Recharged and rankled are the New England Patriots, who await a visit from the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional playoffs (this) weekend. ..."
The Titans (10-7) are coming off their first playoff win in 14 seasons, a 22-21 thriller at Kansas City in the wild-card round Saturday that left the Chiefs winless at Arrowhead in the postseason since 1994.
The Patriots (13-3) are fresh off their eighth consecutive first-round bye as they seek their third title in four years.
They're not only refreshed but fired up after a report suggesting a fractured relationship that could break up the franchise's three most important pieces in Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.
The Patriots have won 11 of 12 after stumbling to a 2-2 start but the buzz around Boston isn't about their usual dominance but whether that excellence could be coming to an end soon.
Brady, Belichick and Kraft released a joint statement this weekend dismissing as "flat-out inaccurate" an ESPN report detailing an array of tension in New England between the triumphant triumvirate responsible for decorating team headquarters with five championship trophies.
In addition, Belichick told reporters on Monday he "absolutely" intends to return as Patriots coach next season despite the reported turmoil.
Belichick said Monday he had nothing to add to the joint statement from the three.
Asked about another report of his interest in coaching the New York Giants, the Patriots coach said he is focused on New England's playoff game Saturday night.
The ESPN story highlighted purported disputes concerning Brady's personal body coach and a supposed difference between Kraft and Belichick over the decision to trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The story implied Brady has taken issue with a lack of praise from Belichick this season.
Brady also addressed, during a Westwood One interview on Saturday, his thoughts on the ESPN article.
"I see it as I've seen it for the last 18 years: that we're all there to do a job, and that's to go out to do our best and help the team win," Brady said in the interview, which aired at halftime of the AFC wild-card game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Titans. "That's been very consistent here. That's been a big reason why our team has been so successful, and I don't see that any different going into this week."
One of the focal points in the article was the trade of Garoppolo to the 49ers last October, which was painted as a decision made at the behest of ownership with an eye on allowing Brady to remain the starting quarterback. That has been specifically disputed by Kraft and Brady disputed that he "seemed liberated" and "especially excited" the day after the trade.
"In 18 years I have never celebrated when a player was traded or cut. It is such a poor characterization, it's disappointing to hear," Brady said on WEEI Radio on Monday.
Brady also took issue with the notion that he was upset with Belichick about not receiving Patriot of the Week this year -- "there is no basis for it" -- and called Belichick "a great coach and mentor."
Worth noting, however, Brady took the additional step of addressing the issue via social media.
Attached to a photo the QB posted of the Patriots facing the Falcons on a foggy night in Foxboro is this quote: "Fate whispers to the warrior, 'You cannot withstand the storm.' The warrior whispers back, 'I am the storm.'"
Their collective responses are further evidence of the team's ability to navigate negativity.
Last year they overcame the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to win it all and they're trying to do the same this year without receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, two of their biggest stars.
Meanwhile, Brady said on Saturday night that he was excited to find out the Titans were this week's opponent.
As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss notes, the Patriots had already faced the other two teams that were possibilities -- the Chiefs and Buffalo Bills -- during the regular season.
So in the fresh-slate playoffs, they truly start with a fresh slate against a team they don't know much about. The last time the Patriots played the Titans was Dec. 20, 2015, when New England won 33-16 at home -- a game that was never in doubt. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota left that game early with a knee injury, giving way to Zach Mettenberger.
So this will be the first time the Patriots get an extended look at Mariota, and given his athleticism and mobility, the defense should be tested.
Still, the Patriots are heavy favorites, and rightfully so.
If there's reason for concern, Reiss suggested it might be that the Titans come to town with absolutely nothing to lose (the Patriots open at 13.5-point favorites).
Clearly, stopping the Titans' rushing game will a challenge for a Patriots defense that finished 31st in the NFL in yards allowed per opponent rushing attempt. Tennessee is a team with an old-school feel, built around running it on offense and stopping the run - the No. 4 rush defense in the regular season - on defense.
Mariota helped carry the Titans to the comeback win in Kansas City in a variety of ways. He actually caught his own touchdown pass on a ball batted back to him at the goal line by Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis. He then had a huge block to spring Derrick Henry - who rushed for 156 yards - for a 22-yard game-sealing run in the final minutes.
While the Titans' run defense is near the top of the league, the Patriots Brady-led passing attack should find room to work against a pass defense that ranked 25th in the league. Though the Patriots haven't played the Titans since 2015, Brady and his offense have a history of success against Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his schemes, dating back to his time leading Pittsburgh's defense.
"You get familiar with the scheme and the players at the same time," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of the first step in the week's preparations. "So you're just digesting as much as you can, really getting a feel for their identity, what the players do well, what they do within the scheme, what the coaches put them in position to do, how they create an impact in the game and then all the types of things that they do during the course of the situations that you're going to run into during the game.
"So, there's a lot of things that you have to do and tackle, but it's just part of the normal process that we go through. ..."
If experience matters, this one won't be close.
Brady will play in his NFL-record 35th career postseason game on Saturday, adding to a long list of playoff records that he owns.
As Profootballtalk.com noted this week, just by taking the field against the Titans Brady will add to his record, and he'll also add to his own career records with every attempt, completion, yard gained and touchdown. Here's a look at Brady's career postseason marks:
Games played: Brady now has 34 career playoff games played and has moved comfortably ahead of his old teammate Adam Vinatieri, who is No. 2 in NFL history with 30 career postseason games. No. 3 is Jerry Rice, with 29 career postseason games, while in fourth place are Peyton Manning and former Cowboys linebacker D.D. Lewis, with 27 career postseason appearances. Brady's Patriots are 25-9 in the games he's started; no other quarterback has been on the winning team more than 16 times.
Pass attempts: Brady has thrown 1,325 passes in the postseason. Peyton Manning is next, with 1,027, and no other quarterback has even thrown 800 playoff passes. This is a record no one will approach for many years, if ever: Ben Roethlisberger, with 618 career postseason passes, is second among active players, and he's not even halfway to Brady's total.
Pass completions: Brady owns the record with 831 postseason completions, 182 more than Peyton Manning. Again, no active player is close: Roethlisberger is second among active players with 385.
Yards gained: Brady has 9,094 postseason passing yards, which is nearly 2,000 more than Peyton Manning. Roethlisberger is the No. 2 active player with 4,787.
300-yard games: Brady has 12 games of at least 300 yards passing, three more than Peyton Manning. Drew Brees is next among active players, with seven.
Touchdown passes: Brady has thrown 63 touchdown passes in the postseason, easily better than No. 2 Joe Montana, who threw 45. Aaron Rodgers is second among active players with 36.
One piece of bad news for Brady: In last year's Super Bowl he also set the all-time postseason record for interceptions, when he threw his 31st. Brett Favre has the next-most, with 30. Play long enough and you're going to break some bad records, too. ...
The Titans should get their hopes up too much over that last one, but interceptions have been a bigger issue for Brady this season than they were the previous two years. ...
On the injury front this week. ... The Patriots held their first practice of the week on Tuesday and Malcolm Mitchell's continued absence put into question whether the wide receiver will remain on injured reserve or be moved to the 53-man roster.
Mitchell, the second-year receiver from Georgia, had been designated to return from the injured reserve list two weeks ago. He participated in five practices, and when asked about his progress on Tuesday morning, Belichick said, "We see him out there trying to get back into practice and do the things he's asked to do."
When asked how he's doing with it, because it seems he has a long way to go, Belichick said: "Exactly. That's the way I would characterize it."
According to Reiss, Belichick's tone didn't sound optimistic when it came to Mitchell, but it's not like the receiver position has a shortage of depth.
Beyond that, the Patriots are expected to have Chris Hogan, who missed seven of the final eight games of the regular season, back for Saturday's game. He would join Brandin Cooks atop the depth chart, with Danny Amendola, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt rounding things out.
Hogan, Rex Burkhead (knee) and James White (ankle) were all limited. Running back Mike Gillislee (knee) remains out of practice. He hasn't played since Dec. 24 against the Bills.
Worth noting, Boston Herald staffer Jeff Howe reports that Burkhead is still heavily favoring his injured left knee.
Howe went on to suggest if he is available Saturday against the Titans, it appears he’ll be limited, barring a rapid turnaround in the coming days.
Burkhead had a brace on his left knee and couldn’t complete most of his stretches that pertained to the left leg on Wednesday. He favored the knee while lunging to that side and also couldn’t pull back his left foot while stretching his quad.
Howe stressed this doesn’t necessarily mean Burkhead won’t be able to play or that he can’t be effective with treatment prior to the game, but it was easy to notice the knee remained an issue Wednesday as the Patriots prepared for a fully padded practice.
We'll be following up on the status of all the above in coming days; check the News and Views section for more through the inactive announcement. ...
And finally. ... As Profootballtalk.com put it, the band is going to be breaking up, but not in the way that some envisioned. Citing a source with knowledge of the situation, PFT's Mike Florio reports the Patriots are bracing for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to leave, most likely to become the next coach of the Detroit Lions.
Patricia, who has a degree in aeronautical engineering, joined the Patriots in 2004. He became the defensive coordinator in 2012.
Regarded as brilliant in all matters, Patricia also is believed to be more than ready to take over a team of his own. He has, Florio is told, a very good relationship with Lions GM Bob Quinn, who previously worked for the Patriots.
Of course, the Lions will have to wait until the Patriots' season ends before hiring Patricia. The longer the job remains open, the more obvious a candidate Patricia will become, like Kyle Shanahan last year in San Francisco and Dan Quinn three years ago in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, it appears to be down to the Giants, Colts and Patriots for McDaniels.
The Chicago Bears, one of the three teams who interviewed McDaniels last weekend for a head coaching vacancy, named Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy their new head coach Monday.
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer
RBs: Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, James White, Mike Gillislee, James Develin
WRs: Chris Hogan, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Matt Slater
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Troy Niklas, Dwayne Allen
New Orleans SaintsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints face the prospect of seeing their season end where it began. As Associated Press sports writer Brett Martel reminded readers, the Saints (12-5) rebounded from double-digit losses to the Vikings and New England Patriots in their first two games to win the NFC South. Now they're on to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs after holding off Carolina (11-6), 31-26 on Sunday.
New Orleans' next game comes one day before Brees turns 39 years old, and will come one week after the veteran quarterback reminded everyone he's still capable of big passing days if opposing defenses sell out to stop the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
Brees completed 23 passes to eight different receivers for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Only two of his completions went to Ingram or Kamara, who accounted for only 68 yards from scrimmage combined.
"We trust our system. We trust each other and what we proved is we can beat you in a lot of different ways," Brees said. "There's no better feeling than knowing you just won, not only won but won a playoff game as a team and now you're on to the next one."
His touchdown passes of 80 yards to Ted Ginn and 9-yards to tight end Josh Hill helped New Orleans open up a 21-6 lead late in the first half. Michael Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards, including a 46-yarder that set up Kamara's short TD run in the fourth quarter.
So while their Week 1 trip to Minnesota couldn't have gone much worse, there's at least some reason to believe they can fare better this weekend.
For starters, the team believes they have developed an identity. And what Kamara called "swag."
"It's confidence," Kamara told ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, as Ingram nodded next to him.
"We believe in each other, man," Ingram said. "It's that confidence we have in ourselves to perform and to do well. We know who we are.
"I don't think we knew who we were in Week 1, but we know who we are now."
Minutes later, in a different room, Brees said virtually the exact same thing -- adding that the first trip to Minnesota "feels like 10 years ago."
"We didn't have an identity yet," Brees said, explaining that the team was just coming together then, when they started 0-2 with lopsided losses at Minnesota and home against the New England Patriots (which don't look nearly as bad in retrospect).
"Now we've been through some big games together," Brees said. "We stuck together. We knew that we were really close to getting our first win and just kind of establishing that identity. And we were able to rattle off eight in a row after those two losses. So we're a completely different team. We've found our bread and butter. We've won in a lot of different ways. We've got a lot of confidence.
"We also understand the type of team we're going to play up there."
That game does feel like 10 years ago.
It was all about Adrian Peterson and the Saints' awful defensive play -- both of which have become things of the past, with Peterson being traded to the Arizona Cardinals and the Saints drastically improving their play in the secondary (at least until Sunday's game against Carolina, that is).
Unfortunately for the Saints, there was nothing fluky about the Vikings' Week 1 performance.
Minnesota went 13-3 this season, despite losing quarterback Sam Bradford (who threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in that game) and running back Dalvin Cook (who ran for 127) to injuries.
The Vikings have the No. 1 defense in the NFL in both yards allowed (275.9 per game) and points allowed (15.8 per game). They're ranked No. 2 against the run and No. 2 against the pass. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who shut down Atlanta's Julio Jones this year and likely will try to do the same against the Saints' Michael Thomas, is a first-team All-Pro. So is safety Harrison Smith. Pass-rushing defensive end Everson Griffen is a second-team All-Pro.
And there was nothing fluky about the way they shut down Peterson, Ingram and Kamara all at once (they combined for a total of 53 rushing yards on 19 carries).
It seems impossible to think the Vikings can be as stifling now that Ingram and Kamara have become one of the best backfield duos in NFL history and now that Brees just had his best performance of the season with 376 yards and two touchdowns against Carolina. But they'll likely provide the stiffest defensive test the Saints have faced since Week 1.
Likewise, the Saints' secondary has become much better, led by rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, rookie free safety Marcus Williams and second-year cornerback Ken Crawley (who was a healthy inactive in Week 1 before the Saints realized the error of their ways).
But if they make the kinds of mistakes they made against Carolina on Sunday, when they let Cam Newton throw for 349 yards (his second most all season) -- often to some wide-open pass-catchers -- they're at risk for a repeat performance of Week 1, when second-team All-Pro receiver Adam Thielen had nine catches for 157 yards and receiver Stefon Diggs had seven catches for 93 yards and two TDs.
"That was the first time we had a young defense that was still learning," said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had a monster game Sunday that followed up a monster regular season that earned him a first-team All-Pro nod himself. "We've [jelled], we've clearly turned the corner. Now we're into the playoffs and we've got bigger and better goals."
Like trying to head back to Minnesota for a third time next month, when it will host Super Bowl LII in U.S. Bank Stadium.
While the Saints won their sixth straight home playoff game and improved to 5-0 in the Superdome in postseason games under coach Sean Payton, they've won only one road playoff game in their history. That was during the 2013 season, when they won a wild-card round game at Philadelphia before losing the next week at Seattle.
The Saints' all time road playoff record is 1-6.
On the injury front. ... According to the Sports Xchange, Andrus Peat's versatility has been a key factor in the Saints' offensive line's ability to play well amid a series of injuries. Peat has been the starting left guard, but played a significant amount of time at left tackle because of a series of injuries that have had Terron Armstead going in and out of the lineup. Now Peat is unavailable because of a broken fibula suffered against the Panthers. Senio Kelemete has been effective stepping in at left guard when Peat has moved to tackle, but if Armstead should go out again, the impact of Peat's absence will be magnified.
A few final notes here. ... Tight end Josh Hill scored his first career postseason touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Brees in the second quarter. He finished with three catches for 49 yards.
Fullback Zach Line scored a touchdown for the second consecutive game after not having scored an NFL touchdown previously. He scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter, a week after he caught a 3-yard scoring pass from Brees against Tampa Bay.
And finally. ... Wil Lutz made a career-long 57-yard field goal in the third quarter against Carolina. It was the only field goal Lutz attempted in the game.
QBs: Drew Brees, Tom Savage
RBs: Mark Ingram, Jonathan Williams, Alvin Kamara, Daniel Lasco
WRs: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman, TommyLee Lewis
TEs: Ben Watson, Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui
Philadelphia EaglesCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
As Associated Press sports writer Rob Maaddi noted, Carson Wentz's value to the Eagles is reflected clearly in a historic betting line.
The Eagles (13-3) are the first No. 1 seed to be an underdog in their opening playoff game. The sixth-seeded Atlanta Falcons (11-6) are 2 ½-point favorites in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff.
"It doesn't really matter," wide receiver Torrey Smith said Monday. "We're better than that, but we have to show it."
After Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14, the Eagles went 2-1 with backup quarterback Nick Foles. But the offense was inconsistent. Foles played well in his first five quarters after replacing Wentz and struggled in the next five. He sat out the final three quarters in Week 17 along with most of the starters.
Oddsmakers weren't impressed. Of course, players and coaches shrugged off the disrespect.
"I don't care what people say because what people say has never won a game for me and my teammates," linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said.
Defensive end Chris Long said it would be foolish for the team to use this as motivation.
"This is not the way we think," he said.
The Falcons are coming off a 26-13 playoff win at the Los Angeles Rams after beating Carolina in a win-or-out regular-season finale. The defending NFC champions had their worst offensive performance during the 2016 season in a 24-15 loss at Philadelphia in Week 10.
Of course, based on a season-long sample size, this was the ideal draw.
Slow to rebound from a Super Bowl collapse against the Patriots, and dealing with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (now head coach of the Niners), the Falcons were mediocre for much of the season. They experienced a big scoring dip this year, averaging 22 points per game compared to 34 PPG in 2016.
The Eagles boast the fourth-ranked defense in football and can gain an edge with their physicality, particularly up front. They are 7-1 at home this season -- the lone loss coming in the regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys in which they rested many of their starters.
According to ESPN.com's Tim McManus, well-rested and with the Philly crowd behind them, the Eagles should come out smoking.
But you don't have to look much further than quarterback to understand why the Eagles are home underdogs.
As noted above, with Foles at the controls, the Eagles won on the road against the New York Giants (34-29), beat the Raiders (19-10) and lost to the Cowboys (6-0).
Foles has completed 57 of 101 passes (56.4 percent) for 537 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He has a 61.6 third-down passer rating. Foles completed just 11-of-27 third-down attempts.
"Most often the scheme stays the same based on who's playing quarterback," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "Now, they may feature certain plays more than another based on who that backup quarterback is. That's what we'll go to see, what's the same and what's different in terms of what they do."
Wentz had the Eagles passing attack flourishing at a high level. The top three receivers finished the season with a combined 25 touchdown passes.
"Likely there's not a wholesale change unless there was a quarterback that had unbelievable movement or ways to run it more based on who he was," Quinn said.
The Eagles' rushing attack is led by LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry after being trading to the Eagles by Miami.
Ajayi is the only back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Falcons this season. He rushed 26 times for 130 yards to help the Dolphins defeat the Falcons 20-17 on Oct. 15.
At the trading deadline, Ajayi was traded to the Eagles for a fourth-round pick.
The Eagles' defense is anchored by three-time Pro Bowler, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the former Mississippi State standout.
The Eagles finished with 38 sacks this season. Defensive end Brandon Graham led the team with 9.5 sacks. Cox had 5.5 sacks and Chris Long and rookie defensive end Derek Barnett added five each.
The Eagles ranked fourth in total yards allowed (306.5 per game), first in rushing yards allowed (79.2), 17th in passing yards allowed (227.3) and fourth in points allowed (18.4).
"They've played terrifically this year," Quinn said. "I think if I'm not mistaken, they finished plus-11 in the turnover margin (they did) and finished as the No. 1-ranked rush defense, good job in scoring, so we'll have our work cut out for us for sure.
The Eagles should be able to lean on their run game, their very good offensive line and their tough defensive front to win a playoff home game or two. But they don't appear to be the frightening offensive juggernaut they were when Wentz was healthy. ...
Also of interest. ... Ajayi didn't play in the Eagles' final regular-season game. The 24-year-old Ajayi has arthritic knees and the Eagles have been trying to keep him fresh for the playoffs. They held him out of practice last week. ...
Tight end Zach Ertz has eight touchdown catches. All eight have been in the red zone. The Eagles finished first in red-zone touchdown percentage this season. ...
And finally. ... Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz interviewed with the Cardinals last week. He would not answer why he didn't interview with the Giants over the weekend.
Instead, Schwartz wanted to talk only about the Falcons, the Eagles' opponent this week.
"I think it's not fair to our players . . . to talk about anything else," Schwartz said, via Zach Berman of phillynews.com. "I think that's the respect that that game has from my point of view."
If the Giants want to interview Schwartz, they will have to wait until the Eagles are eliminated or during the Super Bowl bye week if Philadelphia wins the NFC.
Schwartz, who coached the Lions for five seasons, insists his focus has remained on the prize and not on a potential head coaching job.
"There was no balancing. We have enough work here," Schwartz said when asked if he had a balancing act while interviewing last week.
QBs: Nick Foles
RBs: Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Kenjon Barner, Wendell Smallwood
WRs: Mike Wallace, Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson
TEs: Zach Ertz, Richard Rodgers
Pittsburgh SteelersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
Even as he sat in the back of a police car racing to the hospital to get a precise prognosis on his injured left calf while the Steelers played on without him during a loss to New England three weeks ago, Antonio Brown always believed he'd be back.
"Absolutely," Brown told a gaggle of media after rejoining his team in practice Monday for the first time. "As soon as the incident happened, we had an MRI and went in a police car right to the hospital.
"I'm glad I'm able to be on my feet today talking to you guys and persevere from that situation."
According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffer Ed Bouchette, Brown's calf injury needed immediate attention, and while he did not want to talk about it Monday, one of his recent videos showed two bandages on his calf where it appears some sort of surgery was required.
"I can't tell you what they did," Brown said. "It was pretty ugly."
When his teammates provided the opportunity by assuring the AFC North champions of a first-round bye, Brown pushed his rehab. By last weekend video surfaced of Brown working out in Florida with former NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
And, as Associated Press sports writer Will Graves reported, there Brown was on Monday, going through drills with the rest of the Steelers well on track for a return on Sunday against Jacksonville in the divisional round of the playoffs.
"I never count myself out regardless of circumstances," Brown said. "I know playing football you're going to have adversity. Just got to grow from it."
The star wideout declined to give a percentage Monday on how healthy his calf is feeling, and when asked if he'll play in Sunday's playoff game and how close to his usual self he'll be, the receiver danced around the questions. While stressing he's "still got a lot to test," Graves advised readers the only unanimous selection on the 2017 All-Pro Team and the only player in NFL history with five straight seasons with at least 100 receptions appeared to be relatively close to his old self.
"AB is nice," cornerback Joe Haden said. "If he's out there, I expect him to be AB. He's not going to be out there limping around. When he was running, he looked pretty good. You never know how it's going to feel afterward, but while he's out there, while he's running his routes, he looked like AB."
Indeed, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport advised viewers on Monday that Brown will be full-go on Sunday.
"My understanding is he is 100 percent," Rapoport said. "He is going to be able to go for this game. ... He is doing very well. Finally the Steelers are going to be 100 percent with all their top guys going into the playoffs. Obviously very good news for Pittsburgh."
All that was backed up on Wednesday, when Brown worked fully and looked "amazing, like he hasn't skipped a beat," according to teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster.
As noted above, Brown left in the first half against New England on Dec. 17 when his legs got tangled with a pair of Patriots defenders while trying to haul in a touchdown pass. The Steelers lost 27-23 before rebounding to close out the regular season with wins over Houston and Cleveland.
Still, their best chance at reaching the AFC championship game for a second consecutive season comes with Brown in the lineup.
The Jaguars have one of the NFL's top defensive backfields, though Brown still finished with 10 receptions and 157 yards on Oct. 8. He was targeted 19 times in that game, which came one week after he complained during a game in Baltimore about not getting the ball enough, and he was the lone bright spot for the Steelers in a 30-9 loss in which Jacksonville scored the final 23 points and left Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shaken after throwing five interceptions.
Roethlisberger hasn't shied away from talk of a rematch. That's fine by the Jaguars.
"Be careful what you wish for," Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye said. "This is what he wanted. This is what he's going to get."
What the Steelers are likely to get in return is a heavy dose of Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette.
He was dominant with 181 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh in October, including a backbreaking 90-yard sprint with 1:47 left that showcased the speed and the power that makes him so dangerous. Jacksonville finished with 231 yards rushing in all, the most given up by the Steelers all season.
It was perhaps the biggest upset in the NFL season at the time. In the rearview, not so much. The Jaguars have proven they're legit while reaching the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Though Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey suggested Pittsburgh must feel like the loss was a "fluke," the Steelers insist that's not the case.
"We don't feel like it was a fluke," linebacker Bud Dupree said. "We actually saw the plays they made and everything that was going on and the mistakes that we made and ... that's what happens. We let them get a couple of explosion plays."
Yet Steelers safety Mike Mitchell is quick to point out the blowout on the scoreboard didn't exactly reflect what happened on the field. Even with Fournette's closeout dash to the end zone, Pittsburgh outgained the Jaguars 373-313.
"If you watch that football game, it's not like their offense exploited us a ton," Mitchell said. "I don't think it was a dominant performance from that standpoint. I thought we played well enough to win the game. Obviously we didn't. We've got to do better Sunday as a complete team to win the game."
One of the reasons Roethlisberger wanted another shot at Jacksonville. The two-time Super Bowl winner facetiously wondered if he still "had it" after turning the ball over repeatedly back in October.
All he did over the second half of the season was throw 18 touchdowns against five interceptions while leading Pittsburgh to a second straight division title and fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
Roethlisberger's swagger is back. And with Brown nearing a return, the Steelers believe they're three wins away from a seventh Lombardi Trophy regardless of who may stand in the way.
"(Got to) find a way to win this one," Brown said, "and then the next one and the next one."
That seems like a reasonable enough goal.
As ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler put it, "The Steelers are one of the hottest teams in football and believe they can beat anyone."
After a slow start to the season on offense, Pittsburgh is averaging 31.2 points per game over the past seven weeks behind the "Killer B's" of Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell. The Steelers' defense is mostly healthy and ranks fifth in total defense, setting a franchise record with a league-high 56 sacks.
That said, linebacker Ryan Shazier's spinal injury in Week 13 leaves the Steelers without one of their most prolific playmakers and forces the defense into platoon duty at inside linebacker. The defensive backfield has given up 10 passes of 40 or more yards over the past eight games against a mostly unimpressive group of quarterbacks.
The Steelers failed to score more than 23 points in seven of their eight road games. Hitting at least that number will be required to win in Gillette Stadium in the AFC title game.
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs
RBs: Le'Veon Bell, Terrell Watson, Stevan Ridley
WRs: Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown
TEs: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald
Tennessee TitansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 8 January 2018
Go ahead and pick against the Tennessee Titans. Count them out against the New England Patriots or call them the ugliest team left in the NFL playoffs.
A franchise only two years removed from the NFL's worst record over a two-season stretch cares only about winning.
"Our guys kind of like that role," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of being underdogs. "Again, this is not a flashy team. It's not sexy. It's just a blue collar, come to work, see what happens when you do and see ... everybody compete for 60 minutes, see what the outcome is going to come. ... Don't worry about predictors. That's their job. We have a job to do."
The Titans (10-7) went 5-27 between 2014 and 2015, costing Ken Whisenhunt his job after 23 games. Mularkey took over, and he's now 21-21 after a stunning comeback for a 22-21 win at Kansas City in the wild-card round.
Now they will visit New England (13-3) on Saturday night for Tennessee's first divisional playoff game since January 2009 and their first divisional road game since losing to the Patriots 17-14 in January 2004. They've already been installed as 13-point underdogs, though being at least an 8-point underdog at Kansas City and trailing 21-3 at halftime didn't stop the Titans.
Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said the Titans' confidence never wavered as they tied for the second-largest comeback by a road team in the playoffs.
"Everybody was hungry and had the want to," Casey said. "When you have that, and look around the sideline and see it in their eyes, there's no reason to panic. That's what we've been doing all year long, and we'll continue to do that."
Actually, as Associated Press sports writer Teresa M. Walker pointed out, the Titans have been doing that for the past couple seasons under Mularkey. The Titans now are 7-1 since the start of the 2016 season in games decided by three or fewer points -- best in the NFL.
Tight end Delanie Walker said they are comfortable when trailing, confident in their ability to rally.
"We fight to the end," Walker said. "We weren't worried about it. We came in (at halftime) and we were like, 'They haven't done anything to stop us.' We made some adjustments. We went back out there, moved the ball, scored some points and there you have it."
Mularkey said being in close games is expected with how Tennessee attacks on offense with its run scheme. That's what makes coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense so crucial.
The Titans rallied against Kansas City with the defense holding the Chiefs to just 61 yards total offense and no points in the second half. On the other side, the offense held the ball for more than 19 minutes, scored on four straight possessions and Derrick Henry had 85 of his career-high 156 yards rushing in the fourth quarter.
Marcus Mariota also notched the ninth game-winning drive of his career and fifth since the start of the 2017 season in beating Kansas City.
Mularkey said the mental toughness required to pull out so many close games is critical, especially on the road.
"We did a lot of good things in that game to give us a chance to win," Mularkey said. "Unfortunately, we had to do it late, but we did a lot of good things as a team I think will carry over as we go forward."
General manager Jon Robinson, who got his start in the NFL with 12 seasons in New England starting as a scout, has been busy rebuilding this roster over the past two years. Cornerback Logan Ryan, who signed as a free agent last offseason after four seasons and two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, said the Titans feature a bunch of players with nothing to lose.
"A bunch of guys who are underrated, undervalued, who came from different places, and who were trying to do something special. We believe that," Ryan said.
Now the longshot Titans face their biggest test yet Saturday night in New England.
"We want more," Walker said.
Meanwhile, Derrick Henry will be the starting running back against the Patriots. Mularkey confirmed this even before ruling DeMarco Murray out on Wednesday. Murray hasn't played or practiced since he suffered what Mularkey called a "pretty good" knee injury at the end of the Titans' Dec. 24 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported two weeks ago that Murray suffered a grade-three MCL tear. Murray was walking on the treadmill during practices over the past week.
So it will be Henry's show for the third consecutive week, and he will play a big part in whether the Titans can give the Patriots a strong challenge Saturday. Henry set a franchise record on Saturday at Kansas City by gaining 191 yards from scrimmage.
Henry promised to be motivated after what he called a "soft" Week 17 performance against the Jaguars. There was nothing soft about how Henry played Saturday, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry after contact and dominating an overmatched Chiefs defense.
"That was his big coming out party," left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "If he runs like that, we're going to be all right."
The Titans hope to use Henry quite a bit Saturday to exploit some holes in the Patriots' run defense.
The Patriots were a middle-of-the-pack run defense this year, but it's still hard to imagine that the Titans can afford to fall behind by 18 at the half for the second week in a row. As ESPN.com's Dan Graziano suggested, Henry will have to do in the first half against New England what he did in the second half against Kansas City if the Titans have a chance to keep the game under control and steal one in Foxboro. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Based on his recent efforts, Mariota is healthier now than he was a couple of months ago when the running element was conspicuously absent from his game.
"At this point in time, every guy is probably not going to feel 100 percent. It's just that time of the year," Mariota said. "With the magnitude of these games, you've got to win these games. You're going to find a way to make a play and hopefully help your team win."
Mularkey agreed with that assessment and says that it is a matter of doing what is necessary to win games and move forward.
"We're at that point right now when every man needs to do whatever he can, whatever it takes, to make this thing go," Mularkey said.
All that said, Mariota's rushing stats this year were actually not far off what he did last year when the read option and scrambling to make big plays out of broken plays were key elements of his game.
A year ago, Mariota ran 60 times for 349 yards with two touchdowns. This season, Mariota had 312 yards rushing on the same 60 carries, but has five rushing touchdowns.
And finally. ... Tennessee owner Amy Adams Strunk shot down speculation that e Mularkey's job is at risk, saying her coach is going nowhere after helping change the Titans' culture and getting their first playoff victory in 14 years.
National reports first had Mularkey potentially fired if the Titans lost their regular-season finale and again if Tennessee lost its AFC wild-card game at Kansas City.
Strunk tried to stop all the talk with her statement on Mularkey's job security Sunday.
"I regret that outside rumors gained a life of their own," Strunk said. "No one has been a bigger supporter of Mike Mularkey than I have over the last two-plus seasons. ... Just to eliminate any distractions moving forward, Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward."
Mularkey addressed the national reports that his job was on the line after the Titans beat Kansas City.
"No," Mularkey said. "I haven't had any support to say that I was (secure). No. I just assumed the worst."
Hours after his owner's statement of support, Mularkey said that the Titans "absolutely" are on the same page together. He also called Strunk's statement nice and that he had only wanted to talk about the Titans beating a good team in their own backyard after the game.
Asked if the statement has put his mind at ease, Mularkey said he's addressed the situation with his staff and won't talk about it anymore.
"I'm already onto New England," Mularkey said. "It's been addressed, and I'm full-speed ahead getting ready for New England with our staff."
QBs: Marcus Mariota, Blaine Gabbert
RBs: Dion Lewis, Derrick Henry, David Fluellen
WRs: Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, Taywan Taylor, Eric Weems, Michael Campanaro, Corey Davis
TEs: Delanie Walker, Luke Stocker, Jonnu Smith, Phillip Supernaw