Team Notes week 19 2021

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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Arizona Cardinals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

The Cardinals will play their first playoff game in six years on the road. As Associated Press sports writer John Marshall suggested, it might work in their favor.

The Cardinals concluded a season of struggles at home with a 38-30 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, sending them to Los Angeles for an AFC wild-card game on Monday night.

"We haven't played very well here," head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "They wanted it more."

Arizona's chances to win the NFC West hinged on beating the Seahawks (6-11) and the San Francisco 49ers knocking off the Los Angeles Rams.

The 49ers did their part, beating the Rams 27-24 in overtime to earn a playoff spot.

The Cardinals (11-6) couldn't hold up their end. It wasn't much of a surprise.

Arizona went 8-1 on the road, but 3-5 at home, losing five straight after winning the first three. The home-field disadvantage means the Cardinals will play the Rams on the road next weekend for their first playoff game since reaching the NFC championship match in 2015.

Arizona beat the Rams 37-20 at home on Oct. 3, but lost 30-23 at Los Angeles on Dec. 13. The Cardinals closed the regular season with four losses in five games.

According to Marshall, the season finale played out a lot like the other home losses.

Arizona hurt itself with penalties in key situations, including two that negated 57 yards of receptions by A.J. Green. The Cardinals had trouble stopping the run, allowing Rashaad Penny to rush for 190 yards and a 62-yard touchdown that put the Seahawks up 38-27 with 4:45 left. Tyler Lockett, who's had plenty of past success against the Cardinals, broke free for two touchdown catches.

Kyler Murray was frustrated most of the afternoon, both by miscommunications with receivers and an offensive line that allowed five sacks. He finished with 240 yards and a touchdown on 28-of-39 passing.

"Obviously, everyone is frustrated with losing," Murray said. "Just the (missing the) opportunity and losing."

According to Associated Press sports writer David Brandt, the offense has to figure out a way to make some big plays, especially in scoring position. The Cardinals put together some long drives against the Seahawks, including one that lasted a whopping 19 plays and two others that spanned 14 snaps.

But all three ended in field goals. That didn't work against the Seahawks and it probably won't against the Rams, either.

And that might not be the worst news.

Pro Bowl running back James Conner, questionable for Sunday's game with a foot injury, took a shot to the ribs on a 19-yard run in the fourth quarter and didn't return. Running back Chase Edmonds also didn't play due to rib and toe injuries, and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins has missed four games with a knee injury.

Arizona's offense hasn't looked the same since Hopkins went down with a knee injury last month; it appears highly unlikely he'll return for the Rams game. His absence is certainly part of the explanation for the aforementioned lack of big plays and at least some of the red-zone issues.

According to Kevin Parrish Jr. of the team's official website reports the Cardinals are hoping they are going to be able to depend on Conner in Los Angeles.

The former Steeler had 93 total yards and two touchdowns before leaving.

"He means a lot," Murray said. "I'm not sure what he's got, but I hope for the best for him. But he means a ton for this team."

Conner's most electrifying play came early in the third quarter when Conner caught a pass from Murray near the 20-yard-line, broke one tackle, then leap-frogged over another defender before reaching the end zone. The play marked Conner's 18th touchdown this season, the second-most in franchise history behind former Cardinals running back David Johnson.

Conner's health will be crucial, especially if Edmonds can’t go. Kingsbury said Edmonds is going to be day-to-day this week. And a third running back, Jonathan Ward, left the game with a knee injury.

And running back isn't the only position getting hit.

The secondary already is missing cornerbacks Marco Wilson and Robert Alford, and fill-in Kevin Peterson suffered a concussion early Sunday.

Kingsbury said he hopes Wilson can be back this week.

"I'm not sure how he'll progress this week, but he made some strides last week, and we need some depth at that position right now," Kingsbury said.

Whatever the case, I'll be watching for more on Conner and Edmonds, as well as Rondale Moore, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury in coming days. Watch the News and Views section of the site for all the latest leading up to Sunday's kickoff. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Christian Kirk finished with 77 catches for 982 yards, just short of 1,000. Kyler Murray finished with a 100 passer rating (100.5), but he fell just short of 70 percent completions (69.2) and less than 3,800 yards, which is a surprise (although he missed three games.)

Tight end Zach Ertz has been very good since his midseason trade from the Eagles in October. He's played in 11 games and had 56 catches for 574 yards and three touchdowns.

Ertz came close to setting the franchise record for catches in a season for a tight end. Instead, he tied Jackie Smith's season mark.

"I've said it all along throughout my career, when I'm in the moment I don't focus on what's going on," Ertz said. "It's always, how can I be better, how can I improve? When I am done playing can be a time of reflection."

Ertz did say any record is about how his teammates helped him get there. It'll take that kind of teamwork to make sure the season goes for more than just one more week.

According to Brandt, if the Cardinals are going to fix their red-zone woes, Ertz will likely be a big part of the solution.

Bottom line?

As Brandt put it, "The Cardinals are right about one thing: previous record doesn't matter when they take the field against the Rams. Arizona's got to find a way to recapture its big-play capabilities on offense and patch up a defense that didn't play particularly well against the Seahawks."

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy, Trace McSorley
RBs: James Conner, Chase Edmonds, Jonathan Ward, Eno Benjamin
WRs: A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Antoine Wesley, Rondale Moore, Andy Isabella, DeAndre Hopkins
TEs: Zach Ertz, Darrell Daniels, Maxx Williams

Buffalo Bills

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

According to ESPN.com's Alaina Getzenberg, in the locker room after the Bills' 33-21 win over the Patriots in Week 16, head coach Sean McDermott included some choice words in his postgame speech, aware of the road still ahead.

"We got to stay humble, we may play them again, also," McDermott said, referring to the postseason.

He wasn't wrong.

The No. 3 seed Bills and No. 6 seed Patriots will meet for the third time this season on Saturday night. It's their first playoff meeting in the Super Bowl era. The only previous postseason matchup was an AFL divisional round game in 1963 -- a Boston Patriots 26-3 win over the Bills.

"The team that we just played, that's a great team," quarterback Josh Allen said after the Week 16 win over New England. "They came into Buffalo [in Week 13] and they played us really well. And they came out and I think they played really well today, and whether or not we see them in the future we don't know, but we had guys step up, make some plays."

The teams split the regular-season series, with each taking a victory on the road.

Coming into this playoff meeting -- the first road wild-card game of Bill Belichick's head-coaching career -- the teams are on different sorts of streaks. The Bills have won four straight and clinched the AFC East crown for a second straight year. The Patriots, however, have lost three of their last four, including that Week 16 game against the Bills.

As they did against the offensively challenged and injury-depleted Jets, the Bills proved more than capable of smothering Jets rookie Zach Wilson. Buffalo finished the season going 7-2 against opposing quarterbacks with 16 or fewer career starts, with their only losses coming against the Patriots' Mac Jones and Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence.

On the other hand, Buffalo went 4-4 against more experienced starters, with losses against Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill and Indianapolis' Carson Wentz. Aside from splitting two games against New England's Jones, the only other playoff-bound quarterback Buffalo defeated this season was Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes in Week 5.

Another question mark revolves around Buffalo's inconsistencies against the run. The Bills finished 3-4 when allowing 100 yards rushing, including a 41-15 loss to Indianapolis in which Jonathan Taylor scored five times (one receiving) in the Bills' most lopsided defeat since Week 5 of last season.

The Patriots, featuring a backfield of Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden and Rhamondre Stevenson, have combined for 372 yards and four touchdowns rushing in two meetings this year.

Happy as he was with the regular-season results, coordinator Leslie Frazier was already looking to what lies ahead.

"It doesn't get any easier," Frazier said. "We'll play some really good offenses, starting with the offense that we're going to face this weekend."

For the record, the Bills defense finished the regular season as the No. 1 scoring defense and the leader in almost every pass defense category, with the Patriots just behind them. It will be the first time the top two scoring defenses have met in the wild-card round, and only the fourth time in the last 20 postseasons in any round, per ESPN Stats and Information.

The Bills' pass rush has also been at its best late in the season. Of the team's 42 sacks in the regular season, 21 came over the last five games, including nine in the Week 18 win over the Jets.

But as important as the Bills defense has been, their playoff success could rest on the arms and legs of Allen.

The quarterback was especially successful in the second meeting against the Patriots on third and fourth downs, completing 9 of 14 passes, a career-high. In the Week 13 loss, however, Allen went 3-of-12 on third and fourth downs, tied for the most such incompletions in his career.

As Getzenberg suggested, Allen can't have accuracy issues and miscommunications with receivers -- which have been prevalent in recent home games, including against the Patriots -- with so much more on the line.

"I think the main goal is the Super Bowl and winning the division just gives you an opportunity to do that," Allen said. "So that's really our focus. It's great, it's fine, hats and shirts are cool, but at the end of the day, we got a lot more work to do."

Against the Jets, Devin Singletary sparked a sputtering offense by scoring twice in the final eight minutes, but Stefon Diggs was completely dialed in all game long.

Buffalo's top wideout was busy early in Sunday's regular season finale against the Jets, logging eight receptions in the first half alone on a night where he finished with nine receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown.

When the dust had cleared, Diggs was the first receiver in Bills history to post back-to-back 100 catch seasons after posting a team record 127 last season. And though his targets were down from what they were a year ago, Allen indicated it was part of a plan to pace him through the season without such a heavy burden.

That way he wouldn't be worn out at the most important time of the season.

"Throughout the year, he didn't have as many targets and receptions as he did last year," Allen said. "And maybe that was a little bit by design just to try to keep him fresh in the hopes that we have an opportunity to be in the playoffs. But he looks really good. And I want to try to throw it to him as much as possible because again with the ball in his hands, you never know what's going to happen."

Diggs' eight catches in the first half also marked a personal best in the first half in his career.

His total of nine receptions on Sunday also made him the most prolific receiver in league history in his first two seasons with a new club. Diggs surpassed Wes Welker's previous record of 223 receptions in his first two years with New England (2007-2008) with a total of 230.

Meanwhile, one of the surprising developments over the course of the season is Singletary combining for 375 yards rushing and five touchdowns (including one receiving) over the past 18 quarters. The Bill appear to have their running back rotation narrowed down to one -- plus Allen. ...

On the health front. ... Receiver Emmanuel Sanders missed his third consecutive game with a knee injury. DE Efe Obada did not play due to an ankle injury. Both were listed as full participants on Tuesday.

I'll have more on Sanders as developments warrant in the News and Views section of the site in coming days. ...

One last note here. ... The wintery conditions worked in New England's favor in the Week 13 meeting, with the Patriots successfully running the ball and asking Jones to throw only a historically low three times. The Bills offense, on the other hand, struggled to take advantage of opportunities, finishing 1-for-4 in the red zone.

Getzenberg pointed out weather is likely to once again be a factor. The Bills have played few home games this season that didn't have some form of precipitation. It's too far away to predict for sure, but the current expected low is 14 degrees with a 40 percent chance of snow and 5-10 mph winds.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky
RBs: Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Matt Breida, Taiwan Jones
WRs: Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Emmanuel Sanders, Jake Kumerow
TEs: Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney

Cincinnati Bengals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

As ESPN.com's Ben Baby notes, very few expected the Cincinnati Bengals to be in playoff contention in January.

But the Bengals surprised the preseason prognosticators, won the AFC North and are officially gearing up for their first playoff berth since 2015, when they host the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday. Cincinnati used its Week 18 game against the Cleveland Browns as an opportunity to rest its starters and was accordingly handed a 21-16 loss in the regular-season finale.

The decision to bench key players proved to be wise as several Bengals players picked up injuries. Safety Ricardo Allen (concussion) and defensive tackle Josh Tupou (right knee) were knocked out of the game.

The Bengals made their intentions clear in the lead-up to the game. Starting quarterback Joe Burrow was ruled out early in the week, and didn't travel to Cleveland along with defensive tackle DJ Reader.

With the AFC North title already locked up, Cincinnati used the NFL's first 17th regular-season game as an unofficial off week ahead of the postseason.

The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since Jan. 1991.

Cincinnati will be looking to end the NFL's longest postseason victory drought in next weekend's home Wild Card game against the Raiders.

"We finished the season, aside from the loss today, on a really good note and with a lot of confidence. That really does matter in this league. To finish, going into mid-January in the playoffs, feeling like we're playing our best football and playing with a lot of confidence," said head coach Zac Taylor after the game. "Our guys really feel that right now.

"It's the biggest game that any of these players have ever had wearing a Bengals jersey, next week at our home stadium. We had tremendous crowds these last couple weeks when we were at home, and we're expecting our best one yet whenever we find out when we're playing and who we're playing. Our guys are excited for that opportunity."

Not everybody given the entire day off.

Rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase broke the team record for single-season receiving yards with a 24-yard completion in the first quarter. He saw one more snap after that play and then was promptly rested for the remainder of the day. Chase finished with 1,454 receiving yards, breaking Chad Johnson's mark of 1,440-yard set in 2007.

Chase's rookie season ends with another big accomplishment that indicates a promising future for the 2021 fifth overall draft pick.

"When we drafted him, he said he was going to break all the records and it was hard to know if that was going to be true or not. He's put himself in a position to do that, not just relying on his talent, but becoming a professional really since day one and in his consistency over the course of the season," Taylor said. "That's one of the reasons why you want to play him in a game like this -- for an opportunity to get a couple more yards, to put himself in a position to do something really special -- because he is about what we want to be about. We want our best players to have the best work ethic and come to work every single day and be consistent with their demeanor and their actions. Ja'Marr has been that for us. Just really proud of him and the season that he's had."

Meanwhile, rookie running back Chris Evans had an effective day. He showed his value as the team's primary kick returner and was also strong on the ground. Evans had seven carries for 35 yards and four catches for 24 yards and a touchdown.

He caps a solid rookie season that indicates he could replicate the team's previous No. 25, Giovani Bernard, as a versatile all-purpose back.

Looking ahead, Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson reports the team's coaches are treating Saturday's Wild Card Game as a quasi-divisional matchup after the Bengals won the Nov. 21 game in Las Vegas, 32-13.

Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo made it known Monday that the recipe for success once again lies on the line of scrimmage.

"It's as good of a group as you can play against," Taylor said of the Raiders defensive line. "Those two edge guys really bring it and they're really stout inside and have some good pass rush tackles as well."

Raiders defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue have been a matchup nightmare for opposing offenses with defensive tackle Darius Philon assisting along the way. Philon suffered a season-ending injury against the Chargers, but Crosby has been one of the league's best, which earned him his first Pro Bowl selection of his career.

"I'm not sure there's two that are better at affecting the quarterback in the NFL," Callahan said. "(Crosby and Ngakoue) are always around the quarterback and it's always a muddy pocket."

Callahan says helping out his tackle positions with chips and double teams are necessary are key.

"You have to be smart with your game plan and put guys in position to help when you can help," Callahan said.

However, he also expressed confidence in the line's progress.

"Our guys play hard, they play physical," Callahan said. "I think we're in a good place, I think all of those guys have gotten better."

In addition, the Bengals defense has its hands full trying to defend against one of the best quarterback-tight end tandems in the NFL in Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and tight end Darren Waller.

Callahan spent a year as Carr's quarterbacks coach before joining the Bengals and described him as "smart," "accurate" and "he sees everything."

Anarumo says Waller's ability to move like a smaller player while being 6-foot-6, 255 pounds is one of the reasons "he's a special player". Anarumo has used 6-3 cornerback Tre Flowers, picked up on waivers in October, to cover the gauntlet of productive tight ends the team has faced all year and may again. ...

On the health front. ... The Bengals are returning to full strength ahead of Saturday afternoon's home game.

The team announced that seven players have been activated from the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday. Running back Joe Mixon headlines that list and he'll be making his playoff debut after rushing for a career-high 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

Cincinnati will also be getting center Trey Hopkins and left guard Quinton Spain back on the offensive line.

Safety Vonn Bell, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle B.J. Hill, and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi have all been activated on the other side of the ball.

In addition, the Bengals cleared receiver Auden Tate to return to practice.

Tate has been on the Reserve/Injured list since Dec. 4 with a calf injury. Tuesday started a 21-day period during which he may practice with the team without counting against the 53-player active roster. He is eligible to be activated to the roster at any time during that period.

Beyond that. ... But after taking Week 18 off, Burrow said on Tuesday that he feels good.

"Physically it was good," Burrow said of his off week. "Mentally it was a little weird not being with everybody. But it was a good little break. Ready to be back at it."

Although this is the first playoff start of his NFL career, Burrow won a national championship at LSU and said he feels like he played in enough big games down the stretch this season that the playoffs won't be too big for him.

"I played in a lot of big games, throughout my college career, but this year as well," Burrow said. "I've always prided myself on making plays when the game is on the line."

For the record, Burrow was listed as a full participant in Tuesday's practice.

Cornerback Ricardo Allen (concussion), receiver Stanley Morgan (hamstring), and defensive tackle Josh Tupou (knee) did not participate in Tuesday's session.

Cornerback Jalen Davis (ankle) and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (ankle) were limited.

Guard Hakeem Adeniji (ankle), defensive end Sam Hubbard (thigh), kicker Evan McPherson (groin), defensive end Cam Sample (hamstring), Spain (ankle), and tight end C.J. Uzomah (knee/hip) were all full.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen
RBs: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans
WRs: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Mike Thomas, Auden Tate, Stanley Morgan Jr.
TEs: C.J. Uzomah, Drew Sample

Dallas Cowboys

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

As Associated Press sports writer Schuyler Dixon noted, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys didn't see the regular-season finale at Philadelphia as meaningless because they wanted to feel an offensive rhythm going into the playoffs.

Turns out it mattered in the postseason pecking order, too.

The Cowboys (12-5) will face old playoff rival San Francisco (10-7) in a wild-card game at home Sunday when most scenarios had them in a rematch with Kyler Murray and Arizona two weeks after losing to the Cardinals in Dallas.

After beating the Eagles 51-26 on Saturday to finish 6-0 against the NFC East, the division champions watched Sunday as the outcomes lined up for them to move up to the third seed.

Dallas also avoided a divisional-round trip to potentially frozen Green Bay, where head coach Mike McCarthy went to the playoffs nine times in 12-plus seasons and won a Super Bowl.

If the favorites win, the Cowboys would return to Tampa Bay, where they lost to the reigning champs and seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady on a last-second field goal in the opener.

It's hard to know what Dallas accomplished against the playoff-bound Eagles with Prescott's career-high five touchdown passes and scoring runs from two players who likely won't even be active in the playoffs. Philadelphia sat plenty of starters, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, because there wasn't a chance to be seeded higher than sixth.

Dallas' star QB is confident his club accomplished plenty.

"The stats aligned, the way that we finished was great," Prescott said. "That's what we wanted to do to carry momentum, get in a rhythm. But none of that matters anymore."

Of some interest. ... The Cowboys had their fifth game with at least 150 yards rushing against the Eagles (171 yards). It was the first since four consecutive games ending in Week 5, when Dallas was on a six-game winning streak. The per-carry average was at least 5.0 yards for the sixth time this season -- and they did it with Tony Pollard taking the night off to rest his tender foot.

It's difficult to say how much it mattered with Philadelphia not playing as many starters, but it's safe to say Dallas feels better about a running game that fell short of 100 yards five times in a 10-game stretch before the regular-season finale.

The Cowboys and 49ers meet in the playoffs for the first time since three consecutive NFC championship games in the 1990s. Each of those winners (Dallas during the 1992 and '93 seasons, San Francisco in '94) went on to win the Super Bowl.

Their eighth postseason meeting is tied for second most in the Super Bowl era. The Cowboys and Rams have met nine times.

Of course, the Cowboys have not won a Super Bowl or advanced to an NFC Championship Game since 1995. They have won all three of the wild-card round playoff games they have played at their current stadium (2009, 2014, 2018), but they know this season is about more than one playoff game.

"Line them up," Prescott said. "We're ready to go, and we're going to look forward to making a good run."

As ESPN.com's Todd Archer notes, before they reached the starting line, the Cowboys -- a year after going 6-10 with Prescott limited to five starts because of a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle -- put together a season filled with accomplishments. Here are a few:

For the first time since 1998, the Cowboys finished undefeated against the NFC East and are the first team to go unbeaten in the division since the 2004 Eagles.

The Cowboys set a franchise mark for points in a season (530). They set an NFL record with 22 different players scoring a touchdown. A season after allowing a franchise-record 473 points, they gave up 358 points.

Prescott set the team record for touchdown passes in a season with 37 thanks to the first five-touchdown game of his career against the Eagles in Week 18.

It helped to have a 17-game regular season, but the Cowboys became the first team in NFL history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Prescott), 1,000-yard rusher (Ezekiel Elliott), 1,000-yard receiver (CeeDee Lamb) and defenders with 10-plus sacks (linebacker Micah Parsons) and 10-plus interceptions (cornerback Trevon Diggs).

They finished the season with 34 takeaways, their most in a season since 1987.

"But none of that matters anymore. You get into this tournament and it's one game at a time and it's must-win," Prescott said. "So that's the focus and it's about getting healthy, getting this team healthy and doing what we can to make sure we put ourselves in a great position come next weekend."

There are still some warts that could hurt the Cowboys in the postseason, but every team seems to have issues. If nothing else, being at home to get the ball rolling is a major plus. ...

On the health front. ... Four starters in Parsons, LT Tyron Smith, CB Anthony Brown and S Jayron Kearse went on the COVID-19 list last week. McCarthy said he expected each to be available this week. The last would appear to be Kearse on Thursday. He was placed on the list before Saturday's game. CB Trevon Diggs also was out with an illness but wasn't placed on the COVID-19 list.

As noted above, Pollard, the backup to Elliott, didn't make the Philadelphia trip because of a foot injury he's been dealing with since a victory over New Orleans on Dec. 2. But Pollard has been playing through the issue and seems all but certain to continue to do that given the circumstances.

We'll follow up as developments warrant; check the News and Views section of the site for the latest. ...

Cooper and Lamb were guilty of bad optics by showing up courtside without masks when the Dallas Mavericks retired franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki's No. 41 last week. That was the same day rookie linebacker Micah Parsons tested positive for COVID-19, which was two days after Parsons was maskless courtside.

While Cooper was somewhat defiant on his radio show, both seemed to have gotten the message by the time they talked to reporters after the Philadelphia game.

"We're going to tighten it up," Lamb said. "We understand where we're trying to go. I didn't really get the criticism part. I understand we're in the playoffs and a lot of things can come from going to the (Mavericks) game. COVID is a big thing, so I'm trying to tighten things up and prepare for the next game."

Said Cooper, "We're going to do everything we can do to not get sick. If that means isolation, then that's what that means. Hopefully we can isolate enough to not catch it. ..."

As Dixon pointed out, Cedrick Wilson could be an X factor in the playoffs with Michael Gallup sidelined by a knee injury. While it was mostly against backups, Wilson had a career-high 119 yards receiving with two touchdowns against the Eagles. His 23.8-yard average per catch was eye-opening considering how much teams have tried to take away downfield opportunities for Prescott and the Cowboys. ...

Kicker Greg Zuerlein has an NFL-high six missed extra points, including one early against the Eagles. He has missed at least one kick (field goal or PAT) in eight games this season. The Cowboys will say they're confident in the 10-year veteran, but Dixon believes a few might be crossing their fingers behind their backs when Zuerlein sets up because there's about a 50-50 chance of a miss going into a game.

And finally. ... As more head coaching jobs opened around the league Monday, it's no surprise that Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore continue to draw interest.

The Broncos are the latest team requesting permission to speak with Quinn and Moore, according to reports, after they parted ways with Vic Fangio on Monday.

Moore interviewed virtually for the Jaguars' head coaching vacancy Friday, the eve of the Cowboys' regular-season finale against the Eagles. Quinn did not meet with the Jaguars during the NFL's two-week regular-season interview window, saying last Thursday, "I'm enjoying what I am doing and I'm really having the time of my life with this group of guys."

Asked Monday about possible interest from other teams, both coordinators had their eyes on Sunday's home wild-card game against the 49ers.

"There's just simply nothing to report on from my end," Quinn said. "When job changes happen and coaches are let go, it's a difficult time for them and their families, the assistants, the team, everybody that goes into that. It's nice to hear if someone is interested. That's not lost on me. … But there's really nothing to add on my end. There’s not a lot of time management or anything that has to go into mine other than kicking ass and being right where my feet are. Hopefully, we can just talk Niners today because that's where my heart and my head are moving forward."

Said Moore: "We're just focused on this (playoffs) thing. I'm smart enough to know that while I'm honored and feel very fortunate to be recognized in those conversations, you only get those when you're around really good people and that's what we have here. We have a really special group and a really special opportunity ahead of us."

Quinn has extensive head coaching experience in the NFL, having led Atlanta to the NFC title in 2016 during his five and a half seasons with the Falcons. Moore is in his fourth season as an NFL assistant and third as the Cowboys' play-caller.

McCarthy said recently that he's supportive of assistants on his staff having a chance to possibly advance their careers.

"It's definitely well deserving and they're ready, so you embrace that," McCarthy said. "But I think these are hard jobs to get, and when you see someone put themselves in position you appreciate that because obviously we as a football team and our operation definitely benefit from that."

As of Monday afternoon, the Jaguars, Broncos, Vikings, Bears and Dolphins all have parted ways with their respective head coaches.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Will Grier
RBs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Corey Clement, Ito Smith
WRs: CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Cedrick Wilson, Malik Turner, Simi Fehoko, Noah Brown, Michael Gallup
TEs: Dalton Schultz, Blake Jarwin, Sean McKeon

Green Bay Packers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

Aaron Rodgers got his work, Davante Adams got his record and the Green Bay Packers got out of town without any more costly injuries heading into the playoffs.

All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari was fatigued and called it a day after 27 snaps in his first game action since he tore his left ACL in practice on Dec. 31, 2020. All things considered, the regular-season finale -- even with a 37-30 loss to the Detroit Lions -- was a success for the Packers.

As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky noted, Sunday's game had no bearing on the Packers' playoff seeding; they secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a week left in the season and finished at 13-4. But it wasn't meaningless to Matt LaFleur and Co., something the coach repeated on more than one occasion in the days leading up to it.

With a first-round playoff bye this week, LaFleur wasn't crazy about his quarterback and others being sidelined for essentially three weeks if they didn't play against the Lions.

And Rodgers was all-in about playing, especially considering his fractured left pinky toe felt as good as it had at any point since the November injury.

He directed a pair of touchdown drives, both of which ended with passes to Allen Lazard, and completed 14 of 18 passes for 138 yards without an interception in the first half. His MVP candidacy will be based off these season numbers: 4,115 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, four interceptions and a completion percentage of 68.9 percent for a passer rating of 111.9.

He finished on a streak of seven straight games with multiple touchdown passes and no interceptions -- the second-longest streak in NFL history. Only Tom Brady (with nine in 2010) has more.

Along the way, he helped Adams set the franchise single-season receiving record, breaking Jordy Nelson's mark of 1,519 in 2014. A

"He just texted me when I was walking in here right now," Adams told reporters after the game, saying his former teammate congratulated him.

Adams finished with 123 catches for 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns.

In the last two seasons, Adams has set the Packers single-season records for receptions (this year), receiving yards (this year) and touchdown catches (18 last year).

Jordan Love finished the game, his most extensive action since his lone start of the season in the loss at Kansas City, and threw a touchdown and two interceptions.

About the only other thing that could be concerning is coordinator Joe Barry's defense falling victim to a pair of trick plays that led to touchdowns.

The Packers will practice a few days next week but won't know their divisional-round opponent until after next weekend's wild-card games are completed.

Rodgers talked to his teammates about the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity.

"The message was what are you willing to do to put yourself in a better position to help this team out?" Lazard said. "Are you sacrificing your time? Are you putting the right efforts into your film and your practice and recovery? Are you making sure you're staying on your sleep? Are you more focused on what's going on on social media and stuff like that?

"It was very simple, very plain. Nothing out of the ordinary for the message that he delivered. But I think putting a cap on it, just everybody being on the same page going forward for the playoffs."

Better still, more familiar faces could be back for the postseason.

Cornerback Jaire Alexander hasn't played since injuring his right shoulder Oct. 3 but has returned to practice. So has wide receiver Randall Cobb, who missed the Packers' last five games with a core injury.

LaFleur was cautiously optimistic Monday that outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and offensive tackle Billy Turner could practice this week.

"I want to kind of temper the expectations," LaFleur said. "Here's a guy that hasn't practiced since really that New Orleans game. We'll get him back out there and see how he looks, see what type of shape he's in. If he progresses and checks all the boxes, then he'll be back out on the field."

Turner missed the Packers' last three regular-season games after suffering a knee injury on Dec. 12.

The potential return of Alexander and Smith, who each earned second-team honors in last season's All-Pro balloting, would boost a defense that tailed off late in the regular season.

Through their first 10 games of the season, the Packers were allowing 18 points per week, 309.9 yards per game and 5.1 yards per play.

Over their last seven contests, they've yielded 27.3 points a game, 354.3 yards per game and 5.8 yards per play.

The defense must regain its early-season strength for the Packers to get to the Super Bowl. And, as Associated Press sports writer Steve Megargee suggests, the Packers also need to start faster.

They've been outscored 84-51 in the first quarter of games.

Positives?

Receiver Allen Lazard had five catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns. He now has five touchdowns over his last five games. ... Tight end Josiah Deguara turned a short completion into a career-long 62-yard touchdown. ... Running back Patrick Taylor Jr. capitalized on his second-half playing time by rushing for 53 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

Next up, the Packers will practice, rest and wait to learn which team they will host in the divisional playoffs either Jan. 22 or Jan. 23.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Benkert, Jordan Love
RBs: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill
WRs: Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Amari Rodgers, Malik Taylor, Randall Cobb
TEs: Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Robert Tonyan

Kansas City Chiefs

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

As Associated Press sports writer Dave Skretta framed it: "The Kansas City Chiefs did what they had to Saturday, beating the Broncos on the road to finish up the regular season.

"Too bad the Titans did what they had to Sunday, too."

So rather than have the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye, the Chiefs will face seventh-seeded Pittsburgh on Sunday night in the wild-card round at Arrowhead Stadium. It will be a rematch of a game from just a few weeks ago, when the Chiefs led 23-0 by halftime and rolled through the second half in a 36-10 romp.

"When you get a first-round bye, it's more of a win because you're getting past a round in the playoffs, which are never easy," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "But we're ready to go wherever against whoever. We just go in with the mindset of we're going to have to play each-and-every week to get back to that Super Bowl."

The Chiefs didn't exactly cruise into the playoffs, though. The hot streak they were on when they played Pittsburgh ended the next week, when the Bengals not only ended their eight-game win streak but also knocked them from first place in the conference.

And they weren't exactly great against the Broncos on Saturday, either.

The Chiefs struggled to contain the Denver ground game, gave up too many long runs to fill-in Broncos quarterback Drew Lock and trailed on the scoreboard until the fourth quarter. That's when linebacker Nick Bolton bailed them out by taking a fumble 86 yards for a score that finally gave Kansas City the lead for good in a 28-24 win.

"That was a big play. That was a big-time play by a big-time player," Mahomes said. "That's why we brought Melvin (Ingram III) over here: to make plays like that. He made a big play for us, Nick picked it up and got to the end zone."

The Chiefs certainly would have preferred to have this weekend off as the No. 1 seed. But the fact that their game against Denver was flexed to Saturday at least gave them an extra day to rest up and get ready for a playoff run.

"We'll be ready," head coach Andy Reid said. "We're going to utilize whatever time we have to make sure we get ourselves right for the next game."

As ChiefsDigest.com's Matt Derrick reported, Tyreek Hill played just 14 of 78 snaps against Denver, but Reid expects his star wide receiver to play against the Steelers on Sunday night.

"His heel was sore after the game and it's making a little progress the other way," Reid said Monday after Hill aggravated his heel during pregame warmups on Saturday. "We're anticipating he's going to be OK to go."

Reid also indicated positive news on the team's other injury situations. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has missed the past two games with a shoulder injury, is "making great progress," Reid said. He could be back on the practice field Wednesday when the club begins workouts for the Wild Card game.

"I think we'll be able to get a little work out of him this week," Reid said. "We'll see, we'll see how the next couple of days go. He's got a great attitude and wants to be out there."

Fellow running back Darrel Williams left Saturday's game with a sore big toe but Reid expects Williams to practice this week.

"It's still a little tender but he's working through that," Reid said. "We'll just see how he does this week but I would anticipate he would be out going."

Reid also dismissed any issues regarding Travis Kelce and linebacker Willie Gay, both of whom showed signs of discomfort during the fourth quarter of Sunday's win over Denver.

The Chiefs could also be close to getting back three other players this week for the postseason run. Defensive end Joshua Kaindoh was designated to return from injured on Dec. 22 and his three-week practice clock expires this week. He suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 4 against Philadelphia.

Kaindoh is expected to return to the active roster in the next few days. The club currently has an open position after placing offensive lineman Lucas Niang on injured reserve on Friday.

Last week the team designated cornerback Chris Lammons (ankle) and defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (knee) to return from injured reserve. Both players still have two weeks remaining in their practice windows but are eligible to return at any time. The club would have to make a roster move for either Lammons or Saunders to rejoin the active roster.

I'll be watching for more on Hill, Edwards-Helaire, Williams and the rest in coming days; watch the News and Views section of the site for all the latest. ...

While the Broncos followed the tried-and-true game plan of doubling Kelce, and the obviously-hobbled Hill, the rest of the receiving group took a step forward.

Mecole Hardman caught eight passes for 103 yards, Byron Pringle caught five balls for 56 yards and Demarcus Robinson had three catches for 19 yards.

One last note here. ... The Chiefs have won the past two against Pittsburgh, but it was Mike Tomlin's bunch that won their previous playoff matchup in January.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
RBs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon, Darrel Williams, Derrick Gore
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, Marcus Kemp
TEs: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, Blake Bell

Las Vegas Raiders

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

The Raiders, after a season filled with an unusual amount of turmoil and adversity, are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, just their second postseason appearance since playing in Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season.

A white-knuckle 35-32 overtime victory against the AFC West rival Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night at Allegiant Stadium clinched a wild-card spot for the Raiders and the No. 5 seed in the AFC.

The Raiders (10-7) will now travel to face the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals (10-7) on Saturday. The Bengals beat the Raiders 32-13 in Las Vegas on Nov. 21.

A 47-yard field goal from Daniel Carlson with no time on the clock in OT -- after the teams traded field goals to start the extra period -- ended the game. It was the Raiders' record sixth walk-off win of the season, the most since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

"We've been in this situation before," interim coach Rich Bisaccia said. "Derek Carr has been in two-minute situations before; he's been in four-minute situations before. Our defense has had to come up with stops at the end of the game. So you just can't say enough about how this team prepares. ... I just know they believe in each other when they go out there.

"They don't blink; they reset. They recover quickly."

According to ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez, the Raiders will be the fourth playoff team to have a different coach in the postseason than in its season opener, with Bisaccia joining the 1961 Houston Oilers (Wally Lemm), the 1952 Los Angeles Rams (Hamp Pool) and the 1942 Chicago Bears (co-coaches Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnson), according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

Bisaccia acknowledged the Raiders did have conversations about settling for a tie, which would have gotten both the Raiders and Chargers into the postseason.

"We ran the ball there [near the end of OT], and they didn't call timeout," Bisaccia said. "So I think they were probably thinking the same thing."

But a 10-yard Josh Jacobs run to the Chargers' 29-yard line set up Carlson.

"We were going to take the field goal and try to win it," Bisaccia said. "But we were certainly talking about it on the sideline."

Carlson made 40 of 43 field goals this season (93.0 percent), the second-best field goal percentage among the three kickers who made at least 40 field goals in a single season in the past 80 years, joining Neil Rackers (40-of-42, 95.2 percent in 2005) and David Akers (44-of-52, 84.6 percent in 2011), per ESPN Stats and Information research.

In fact, Carlson missed as many FGAs as PATs this season.

The Raiders experienced a tumultuous regular season, from coach Jon Gruden's resignation to wide receiver Henry Ruggs' DUI and fatal car crash to cornerback Damon Arnette being released after making death threats in a viral video to even last week, when rookie cornerback Nate Hobbs was arrested for DUI.

Las Vegas lost five of six games coming out of its bye week but rebounded to win four straight to close the regular season and advance to the playoffs.

Carr, a second-round pick in 2014 who owns virtually every passing record in franchise history and set a new single-season passing standard Sunday night, will play in his first career postseason. He suffered a broken right leg in the penultimate game of the 2016 season, when the Raiders, then calling Oakland home, finished 12-4. The Raiders' playoff stay was short-lived then, with a 27-14 loss at the Houston Texans.

"I'm excited, thinking about the next team we play, and then everything hurts," said Carr, who passed for 186 yards and two touchdowns while completing 20 of 36 attempts. "I just have this weird feeling in my heart like, 'The job's not done.' Like my favorite player, Kobe [Bryant], said, 'Job's not done.'

"It feels cool, it's awesome, but. ... We've got to play a team that already beat us. So it's going to be tough."

Carr had the third-most regular-season starts at QB without a playoff start in the Super Bowl era (127), behind Ryan Fitzpatrick (147) and Archie Manning (139).

Jacobs referred to himself as the "closer" for the Raiders and implored offensive coordinator Greg Olson to give him the ball after the Chargers kicked a field goal to tie the game in overtime.

"I said, 'It's time,'" said Jacobs, who rushed for 23 of his career-high 132 yards in overtime while playing through a rib injury that had him listed as questionable on the injury report. "We collectively came together, the offensive line, DC, everybody. And we just made it happen."

Indeed, the Raiders won their final four games by a total of 12 points, the lowest scoring margin in NFL history by a team to win its final four games, per Elias. The 1926 Kansas City Cowboys won their final four games by a combined 16 points.

They also finished with the fourth-worst point differential for a playoff team of all-time, getting outscored by 65 points. Before this season, seven teams made the playoffs despite getting outscored by at least 50 points and six of them won their first playoff game.

As Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow pointed out, the formula for success the past month has been consistent. The defense has stepped up its play and delivered key stops, Carr has led clutch drives and Daniel Carlson has finished it off with game-winning field goals on the final play in three of the past four weeks.

Now the Raiders need to put that sense of accomplishment in the past and prepare for a rematch with the Bengals, who won the first meeting 32-13 in Week 11.

"We've had a one-game, one-practice, one-play, one-day mentality here for a long time now," Bisaccia sad. "I think they went through [Sunday night's] victory and they took care of it last night in the locker room. ... We're onto to what's next. ..."

The Raiders-Bengals game is a matchup of two of the four teams with the longest playoff droughts. The Bengals last won a playoff game Jan. 6, 1991, with their eight-game skid starting the following week with a loss to the Raiders. The Raiders last won on Jan. 19, 2003, in the AFC title game against Tennessee.

Worth noting. ... Jacobs ended a mostly disappointing third season in the NFL with the most productive game of his career. He had 26 carries for a career-best 132 yards, including seven carries for 69 yards in overtime to help set up the win. Jacobs gained a career-high 130 of his yards rushing after contact, according to NFL NextGen stats.

The Raiders were hoping for a big boost with Darren Waller's return but he had little impact. He had two catches for 22 yards on nine targets and also had a drop as he and Carr seemed out of rhythm most of the game.

On the health front. ... The Raiders held a walk-through instead of a full practice on Tuesday in preparation for their Saturday matchup against the Bengals. But if they had practiced, two of their key contributors would've been on the field in a limited capacity.

Waller (knee) and Jacobs (ribs) both would have been limited.

Cornerback Casey Hayward (ankle) and safety Tre'von Moehrig (shoulder) were also limited. Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (back/knee) would not have practiced. Linebacker Divine Deablo (shoulder/wrist), center Andre James (foot), tight end Foster Moreau (abdomen/ankle), linebacker Denzel Perriman (wrist), and receiver Hunter Renfrow (hip) were full.

Las Vegas also activated linebacker Marquel Lee and defensive tackle Kendal Vickers off the reserve/COVID-19 list, designated linebacker Nicholas Morrow to return from injured reserve, and placed defensive tackle Darius Philon on IR after suffering a knee injury on Sunday.

Defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, tight end Daniel Helm, and linebacker Justin March-Lillard were signed to the practice squad with receiver Javon Wins and linebacker Asmar Bilal being released from the unit.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota
RBs: Josh Jacobs, Peyton Barber, Jalen Richard, Kenyan Drake
WRs: Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones, DeSean Jackson, Bryan Edwards, Dillon Stoner
TEs: Darren Waller, Foster Moreau, Daniel Helm, Nick Bowers, Derek Carrier, Matt Bushman

Los Angeles Rams

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

While the Rams shook hands with the San Francisco 49ers down on the field Sunday, a celebratory graphic blared from the massive Oculus videoboard above them. Virtual confetti flew while SoFi Stadium heralded Los Angeles as the "NFC West Division Champs."

As Associated Press sports writer Greg Beacham suggested, a few moments after the Rams' heartbreaking sixth consecutive loss to their archrivals sure didn't seem like the time or the place for a celebration.

The Rams' 27-24 overtime defeat sent them into the playoffs on a demoralizing down note, even if Arizona's equally dismaying home loss to Seattle allowed Los Angeles to stumble into another division title.

"In the moment right now, this is a tough feeling," a frustrated head coach Sean McVay, whose streak of 43 wins without a loss when leading at halftime came to a jarring end, after the game. "Our guys did a good job being able to navigate through the season and still win the division. It's a good accomplishment, but I don't know that right now is a good time to celebrate that."

Fortunately, the fourth-seeded Rams (12-5) have an opportunity to erase this particularly sour ending to McVay's fifth regular season.

They're hosting the first playoff game in SoFi history on Monday night against the Cardinals (11-6), whose late-season disappointment with their 1-4 finish is exponentially worse.

But the Rams have already lost to Arizona once in Inglewood this season, and they've got plenty of areas to improve if they hope to avoid an opening-round exit.

The Rams must regroup quickly.

"You don't want to take for granted the difficulty of winning a division title but at the same time, a loss never feels good," Cooper Kupp told ESPN.com's Lindsay Thiry. "The focus is really on getting ready for next week, being able to respond from this thing, watch the film, make the changes that we need to and be ready to respond with a great week of practice and play a very good Cardinals team."

Matthew Stafford took little comfort Sunday despite earning his first division title in 13 NFL seasons.

"I guess it's nice," Stafford said. "It means you get a home playoff game, but obviously would have rather won the game for sure."

As Thiry reported, Stafford led the fast start, directing a mistake-free first-half effort that included completing 15 of 16 passes for 153 yards and two touchdown passes to Tyler Higbee.

However, the offense -- which produced only 14 rushing yards in the first half -- began to stall out of the break.

Stafford finished 21-of-32 for 238 yards and three touchdown passes with two interceptions -- marking his third consecutive game with multiple interceptions and his sixth game with multiple turnovers this season.

The Niners closed out Sunday's win when cornerback Ambry Thomas picked off a deep pass late in overtime that was intended for Odell Beckham Jr.

"I just left it short," said Stafford, who the Rams acquired in a blockbuster offseason trade behind the notion that he would be the final piece needed to win Super Bowl LVI at their home stadium on Feb. 13.

Stafford didn't get much help from the ground game, as the Rams rushed for only 64 yards behind Sony Michel and Cam Akers, who made his season debut less than six months after suffering a torn right Achilles tendon.

Defensively, the Rams held the Niners to 83 yards in the first half and safety Taylor Rapp intercepted his fourth pass of the season.

However, the 49ers offense exploded out of halftime to finish with 449 total yards, including 135 on the ground.

"You've got to finish," McVay said. "Our guys came out ready to go, but you've got to play four quarters, or five quarters in this instance."

Washing the bitterness out of their mouths following the collapse is the key for McVay.

"That we got a chance to respond and this group has shown that they can respond," the coach said when asked what he's looking forward to in the postseason. "Sure, you want to play every game to be able to win, but I think the fortunate thing and the 'half glass full' approach that we'll take is that (we) still found a way to win the division by winning 12 of your 17 games. Guys came ready to go. They battled. Just didn't make enough plays.

"And there were some things that you certainly want to do as a coach to help try to facilitate finding a way to get that done. But I'm just grateful for the opportunity that we have to continue to play and that's what gives me confidence."

Worth noting. ... The Rams beat Arizona in December with decisive big plays on offense and defense even while Kyler Murray's group racked up 447 total yards. Los Angeles probably will need to put up big numbers again to knock off Arizona, which hasn't allowed fewer than 22 points since mid-November.

The Rams' defense finished 17th in the NFL in total yards allowed after being No. 1 in the league last season. As Beacham suggested, the squad just doesn't scare good offenses, even though Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller are all playing well. Their supporting cast misses tackles (a season-high 19 against the Niners, according to Pro Football Focus), doesn't adjust on the fly and simply doesn't have the talent to avoid being exploited by clever coaches and quarterbacks.

Even if the Rams can outscore Murray, Beacham believes it's hard to see how Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady won't chew them up. ...

Of course, they have things going for them: The Rams have the most effective receiver in the sport after Kupp completed his historic season by becoming the fourth player in NFL history to lead the league in receptions (145), yards receiving (1,947) and touchdown catches (16).

Arizona held Kupp to a season-low five catches in the Cardinals' win in Inglewood, but he rebounded with a season-high 13 catches in the Rams' rematch victory in Glendale.

Higbee was a difference-maker against the Niners in his two-touchdown performance, finishing with six catches for 55 yards.

Giving him a prominent role in the offense makes Stafford and Kupp even more dangerous.

Of some concern. ... The Rams' offensive line got bossed around in the biggest game of the season. San Francisco dominated up front, pressuring Stafford constantly (22 times, according to PFF) and recording eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

On the health front. ... Sunday's loss not only wounded pride but a toe that may or may not be injured for Stafford.

"He was just hobbled on," McVay told reporters on Monday. "He had gotten hit on a third down earlier and he kind of came up limping a little bit. He doesn't say [he's hurting]. He's so tough. It was maybe certain phases of your offense just a little bit more limited in terms of [his] ability to execute at the level that we all know he's capable of. But it wasn't like he was going to come out of the game. There's just certain things that maybe you would potentially call on those scenarios that you're not as comfortable with the ability to execute at the level that you want."

McVay doesn't believe the toe will be an issue moving forward.

"He came in, he felt good today," McVay said regarding Stafford. "He was just typically sore."

Akers ran the ball five times and caught three passes in his season debut for Los Angeles. The second-year pro tore his Achilles tendon shortly before training camp, but made an exceptionally quick recovery.

Leading tackler Jordan Fuller left in the fourth quarter with an apparent right ankle injury. His absence could be crushing for a secondary already relying heavily on him and Ramsey while Darious Williams, Dont'e Deayon, Nick Scott and David Long all struggle.

I'll be watching for more on Stafford and how Akers responds to his first game action of the year as developments warrant. Watch the News and Views section of the site for all the latest.

And finally. ... Do the Rams have to worry about the crowd at SoFi Stadium?

On Sunday, the place was overrun by zealous 49ers fans.

"I think it did catch us off guard," McVay said. "I think just because of the way that it's been this year. It's been a great, great atmosphere, great environment. Yesterday was the same thing, but there was a lot of red there. That was definitely a surprise -- I think it's a fair way to put it."

A different kind of red may show up on Monday night, when the Cardinals come to town for a playoff game. And Arizona should be happy about playing away from State Farm Stadium. They were 8-1 on the road in the 2021 season, and they finished the slate with five straight home losses.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Cam Akers, Sony Michel, Jake Funk, Darrell Henderson, Javian Hawkins
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell, Robert Woods, Landen Akers
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins, Johnny Mundt, Jacob Harris

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

As Associated Press sports writer Kyle Hightower noted this week, the Patriots have talked about needing to summon a heightened sense of urgency since having their seven-game win streak ended during a mistaken-laden loss at Indianapolis last month.

Three games and two more losses later, New England is still trying to find a way out of its fog as it attempts to retool in time for its wild-card playoff matchup with division rival Buffalo on Saturday night.

If nothing else, head coach Bill Belichick said they know what they can expect from the Bills this week.

"We know they're a good team," he said. "They certainly played well in the last game we had against them. Yeah. We have a lot to get ready for."

Another slow start and unforced errors doomed the Patriots from the outset of their 33-24 loss at Miami on Sunday.

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones' second-quarter pick-6 to Xavien Howard put the Patriots in a 14-0 hole, which typically hasn't meant good things this season.

The Patriots fell to 4-6 on the season when failing to score first and to 2-6 when not scoring in the first quarter.

"It's super embarrassing, honestly, just from my point how I played," he said. "Wasn't good enough. And I can be better. And it starts with me. I'm the quarterback. And that's my job is to make people around me have success. And it starts with me, so we'll get it fixed. ... We've got a great opportunity next week. And that's all you can ask for."

Belichick said his message to the team this week is uncomplicated.

"Try to play and coach well," he said. "It's a one-game season. It's no big mystery."

If there is something positive for New England to build on offensively heading into the postseason, it's that its run game continues to be productive. The Patriots rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. For the season, the Patriots ranked second in the NFL with 24 rushing TDs and eighth in the league with 2,151 rushing yards.

Brandon Bolden showed exactly why the Patriots brought him back this season, producing his first rushing touchdown of the season on a 15-yard run in the second quarter. He also caught an 18-yard TD pass in the fourth during their comeback effort.

But the Patriots were called for eight penalties Sunday, tying their season high. It was the fourth time New England has been flagged eight times in a game this season, all losses. The Patriots also had eight penalties in their season-opening loss to the Dolphins.

Whatever the case, the Patriots have been able to run the ball effectively on a consistent basis down the stretch.

As the team's official website notes, that was the case in both meetings against Buffalo, especially in the first one. We all remember that windy Monday night in Orchard Park when the Patriots attempted just three passes for the entire game, yet still piled up 222 yards on the ground.

In some ways New England was even more efficient in the second meeting when it averaged 5.5 yards per carry while piling up 149 yards. Damien Harris topped 100 yards in both games and he'll be relied upon once again the get the offense in gear. Stevenson was outstanding in the first game, picking up tough yards while running into the wind often against stacked boxes with heavy personnel. He missed the rematch due to a concussion, though, and Harris was on his own.

Buffalo's run defense remains suspect.

The Bills finished 13th in the league, allowing an average of 109.8 yards per game and 11th with 4.2 yards per rush.

The Patriots need the ground game to be productive, particularly early, in order to move the ball and avoid falling behind. The Bills are healthier up front than they were in the regular season, while left tackle Isaiah Wynn left the finale in Miami with an ankle injury.

That will be worth monitoring during the short week leading up to Saturday night.

Beyond all that, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was adamant last week that Jones hasn't hit a rookie wall late in the season. But his efficiency certainly tailed off over the final four games (six TDs, five INTs). As Hightower suggested, the pick-6 he threw to Howard was one of his worst throws of the season. He also had a costly false start just before halftime that forced a punt.

Still, the rookie turned in a solid season with 22 touchdowns and 13 picks while completing over 67 percent of his passes for a Patriots offense that is still searching for consistency.

For the most part he operated efficiently while leaning on Jakobi Meyers (83 catches, 866 yards, 2 TDs), Kendrick Bourne (55-800-5) and tight end Hunter Henry (50-603-9). The Bills did a great job of neutralizing that trio in the second game, limiting them to a combined nine catches for 101 yards and no TDs.

Jones will need to be more efficient so the offense can offer some balance and more production.

Of course, New England found a way to get it done in chilly, wet and windy conditions in its Week 13 win at Buffalo. The weather will be even more uncomfortable this time, with early forecasts predicting temperatures in the teens with snow showers. ...

On the health watch. ... The Patriots turned in their first practice report for Saturday's playoff game against the Bills, but they'll have to wait for their first actual practice of the week.

New England estimated practice participation on Tuesday because they will not be getting on the field until Wednesday. The estimation brought some positive news about a pair of defensive players.

Defensive lineman Christian Barmore and linebacker Dont'a Hightower would have been limited participants. Barmore hurt his knee in last Sunday's loss to the Dolphins while Hightower sat out with his own knee issues.

Center David Andrews (shoulder), defensive back Cody Davis (wrist), defensive back Kyle Dugger (hand), kicker Nick Folk (knee), defensive lineman Lawrence Guy (shoulder), Harris (hamstring), linebacker Brandon King (toe), Meyers (thigh), safety Adrian Phillips (knee), and Wynn (hip, ankle) also would have been limited participants on Tuesday.

Stevenson, who suffered a head injury against Miami but was able to return, is not on the initial injury report.

I'll be watching for more on Harris, in particular, in coming days; watch the News and Views section of the site for the latest.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Mac Jones, Brian Hoyer, Jarrett Stidham
RBs: Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor, James White
WRs: Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kristian Wilkerson, N'Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski
TEs: Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Devin Asiasi

Philadelphia Eagles

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

According to Associated Press sports writer Rob Maaddi, Nick Sirianni is approaching his first playoff game with the Eagles against the defending Super Bowl champions the same way he did 17 regular-season games.

The only rookie coach to lead his team to the playoffs this season isn't changing anything now that the Eagles (9-8) are here and getting ready to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4) on Sunday.

"We're going to have our same process that we've had throughout the entire year of trying to get a little bit better each day to give ourselves a chance to go 1-0," Sirianni said Monday. "And we know how good of a team that Tampa is. That's going to be typical through the playoffs. ... We're going to stay the same way. I know it sounds cliché, but it's just if you start doing anything different now in the playoffs than you've done the entire 18 weeks prior, you've done the 17 or 18 weeks wrong.

"That's my philosophy, that's how I was raised in this business, and I think that's what good coaching is.

"If you're going to do something different this week, then you haven't prepared the right way for 18 weeks this season. So, we know we got a challenge. We know we're playing a very good team, the defending Super Bowl champs, and we're going to prepare like crazy. We got the right guys in this building that I know are going to give everything we got and do everything we can do to get better each day to put ourselves in position to win this week."

The Eagles secured a wild-card spot last week so they rested Jalen Hurts and most of their starters Saturday night in a loss to Dallas. In addition, the coaching staff focused much of their preparation Sunday on Tampa because it was the most likely matchup for Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Tom Brady and the banged-up Bucs played until late in the fourth quarter in a rout over Carolina on Sunday that earned the NFC South champions the No. 2 seed.

"A lot of our focus was on Tampa and it's nice when it comes out that way where you've put in the work there and you don't have to start again," Sirianni said. "So, that was a lot of our emphasis (Sunday). It was fun to just be able to have the games on in the background and watch some things that we were tracking as we got ready to play our game next week."

Of course, the Eagles won seven of nine to clinch a playoff berth by relying on their run game led by Hurts and running backs Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell. Injuries have forced them to use a rotation of backs but thanks to a dominant offensive line, they've had success.

The Eagles finished No. 1 in the NFL, averaging 159.7 yards rushing per game.

They also ended the regular season with 100-plus yards rushing in 11 consecutive games, the team's longest streak since a 19-game stretch in 2010-11. But the Buccaneers have the league's third-best run defense, allowing just 92.5 yards rushing per game.

So it's worth noting the Eagles, who were down to Gainwell and practice squad promotee Jason Huntley at running back for Saturday night's loss to the Cowboys, will be in better shape for their visit to Tampa in the Wild Card round.

Howard and n Scott were both activated from the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday. In fact, everybody on the list came off, including tight ends Dallas Goedert and Jack Stoll.

In addition, Sirianni said at his Monday press conference that the team believes Sanders can also return after missing the last two games with a broken hand.

"We're hopeful for Miles this week," Sirianni said. "Again, that's why we didn't put him on IR way back when he did have the hand injury. So, we're hopeful for him. We're hopeful for Jordan this week and Boston and Kenny. So, I think we'll have our full stable of backs and really excited about where our backfield is. I think a lot of teams in this league would like the depth we have at this position."

Sanders averaged 5.5 yards per carry this season, which makes it easy to understand why the Eagles would be happy to welcome him back to action this weekend. ...

While most of the starters sat out the 51-26 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night, one of the few regulars who did suit up, DeVonta Smith, had three catches for 41 yards in limited action, and established a new franchise record in the process.

He finished with 916 yards this season, passing DeSean Jackson (912) for most receiving yards by a rookie in team history.

Quez Watkins had five catches for 84 yards and one TD in the loss to Dallas. He finished with 43 catches for 647 yards and a team-high 15.0 yards per reception. Jalen Reagor only had two catches against the Cowboys. He finished with 33 catches for 299 yards and two TDs in 17 games.

Gardner Minshew got his second start of the season and finished 19-of-33 for 186 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception. The Eagles scored 17 or more points in the first half five times this season, two of which came in Minshew starts.

As noted above, Hurts was one of the many regulars getting the night off. He's still dealing with a nagging high-ankle sprain suffered in late November. As ESPN.com's Tim McManus suggests, the Eagles are trying to get him as close to 100 percent as possible before the postseason.

"We've got to be able to be our full arsenal of offense and not have any limitations to do what we want to do in the playoffs. That's what went into that [decision]," said Sirianni of resting Hurts.

The bigger question, can they beat a good team?

The Eagles dropped to 0-7 against teams with winning records this season. They took care of business against mediocre to bad teams (9-1), but have yet to prove they can topple high-quality competition. They'll have another opportunity to do that against the Bucs this weekend. ...

Meanwhile, tight end Tyree Jackson suffered a torn ACL in regular-season finale against Dallas. The former college QB caught his first TD pass Sunday, received regular snaps this season. Team excited for his future. Another injury hurdle after hurting his back this summer.

Jackson and receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who suffered a foot injury against Dallas, were placed on injured reserve.

Huntley was signed to the active roster

"He did a really nice job in the game with a lot of different things, right? Not only kick returns, but also running the football," Sirianni said of Huntley on Monday. "You saw how explosive of a player he is."

Huntley was called up from the practice squad for Saturday's regular-season finale and gained 51 yards on the ground and averaged 28 yards as a kick returner.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jalen Hurts, Gardner Minshew
RBs: Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, Kenneth Gainwell
WRs: DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward, Quez Watkins, JJ Arcega-Whiteside
TEs: Dallas Goedert, Jack Stoll, Tyree Jackson

Pittsburgh Steelers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

As Associated Press sports writer Will Graves suggested, it sounded like wishful thinking at best. A throwaway line at worst for a coach bracing himself for imminent disappointment.

"I'm capable of talking myself in(to) anything," Mike Tomlin said last week when asked about the seemingly unlikely series of events the Steelers needed to unfold if they wanted to navigate their way to the playoffs.

Yet what could have come off as naive or trite instead provided a glimpse into Tomlin's relentless tunnel vision, the kind that's helped him guide the Steelers (9-7-1) to their 10th -- and by far most unlikely -- postseason appearance during his 15 years on the sideline.

Over the past four months, through injuries, uncharacteristically lopsided losses and a series of wins whose only saving grace was the final score -- oh and that comical tie with Detroit -- Tomlin's message has not changed.

Down 29 at the half to Minnesota? Keep going. Steamrolled by Cincinnati. ... Twice? Keep going. Destroyed in Kansas City the day after Christmas? Keep going.

By comparison, needing a win in Baltimore in the regular-season finale, a loss by Indianapolis to a team so bad fans came dressed up as clowns and the game between the Chargers and Raiders to not end in a tie -- which it nearly did -- seemed doable.

"Whether we were winning or losing, whether we were up or down, it was always the same attitude, and that's hard to find," said wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, who has stunningly morphed from a punt return specialist to one of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's favorite options. "You never change your ways. You know you've just got to win."

McCloud began the season with 28 targets during his three-year career. Roethlisberger has looked his way 66 times this season and McCloud's 39th and final reception came on a 10-yard gain on fourth-and-8 in overtime that set up Chris Boswell's winning kick.

Something the Steelers somehow managed to do nine times this season -- the 15th straight non-losing season under Tomlin's watch, the longest by a coach to start a career in NFL history -- despite finishing in the bottom third of the league in every major statistical category. Well, except for the most important one.

"I do think it shows something about this team, that you can continue to fight and never give up," Roethlisberger said.

It's a mindset that's served as the backbone of Tomlin's philosophy since the day he replaced Bill Cowher in January 2007. He was 34 at the time and largely anonymous. Going on two decades later, Tomlin's steadfastness keeps his team calm and tends to rattle opposing coaches.

How else to explain Cleveland and Tennessee -- two of the best running teams in the NFL -- turning to their quarterbacks instead when facing the worst rush defense in the league?

The Titans turned it over four times and lost despite allowing just 168 yards. The Browns seemed to forget they had Nick Chubb and tried to let Baker Mayfield beat the Steelers instead. It didn't work either time.

If any of those three games go the other way, Pittsburgh's season is over. If the Detroit Lions have their regular kicker instead of the backup punter attempting an overtime field goal during that strange tie in November, Pittsburgh's season is over. If Baltimore coach John Harbaugh opts for overtime instead of going for 2 and the win during the rivals' first meeting in December, Pittsburgh's season is (maybe) over.

It's not. The Steelers, with their minus-55 point differential, an offense that sputters far more often than it shines, a defense that has T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and seemingly not much else, play on.

Their reward is a trip to visit the Chiefs (12-5) on Sunday, the same place where Kansas City crushed Pittsburgh 36-10 three weeks ago, a victory that seemed to highlight the chasm between the two clubs.

Despite being listed as 13-point underdogs the Steelers -- stunningly -- have a chance to bridge that gap thanks in large part to a coach who seems to have a mystical ability to speak things into existence.

"We've got a lot of warts," Tomlin said. "But we're here."

But how far will they go?

As Graves put it, "The offense can be difficult to watch."

Roethlisberger's 6.2 yards per attempt is the lowest of his 18-year career because of a combination of things. The Steelers aren't equipped to win a shootout. Any chance they have to upset Kansas City relies heavily on the defense forcing Patrick Mahomes into mistakes.

The good news?

The defense can cause problems for opposing QBs. More specifically, J.J. Watt can cause problems for opposing quarterbacks.

Watt tied Michael Strahan's single-season sack record when he pushed his total to 22 1/2 by taking down Baltimore's Tyler Huntley on Sunday. When the possible NFL Defensive Player of the Year is close to healthy, he can make up for Pittsburgh's glaring shortcomings, though he'll need to make more of an impact against the Chiefs than he did the first time around, when he was limited to one tackle.

"They handled us and handled us definitively," Tomlin said of last month's loss in Kansas City. "And so we understand that. But at the same time, we're not paralyzed by that. We accept that we didn't play well enough last time. We accept that we didn't plan well enough last time. But that's the last time."

Tomlin also acknowledged it wasn't quite a performance his team could take much from.

"I don't know how much you learn from it, to be quite honest with you," he said. "They smashed us so definitively. More than anything, it's like a reboot."

In that game, Mahomes completed 23 of 30 attempts for 258 yards and three touchdowns, while Roethlisberger exited early and threw for 159 yards and a touchdown with an interception.

Meanwhile, on the health front. ... Tomlin is optimistic about rookie running back Najee Harris' availability for the Chiefs game. The coach said Harris is aggressively treating an elbow injury sustained in the win over the Ravens. Harris played most of Sunday's win over Baltimore with a sleeve on his right elbow after getting injured in the first quarter.

His availability, and effectiveness, will be crucial to the Steelers' chances of an upset.

Harris has rushed for 1,200 yards this season and has been a key target for Roethlisberger in the passing game, as well; I'll have more on Harris in the News and Views section of the site as developments warrant in coming days. ...

And finally. ... While the rest of Pittsburgh was on the edge of its collective seat watching the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders late Sunday night,
Tomlin admitted he didn't see the game-winning field goal in overtime by Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson that ultimately sent his team to the playoffs.

"I dozed off," Tomlin said Tuesday. "I knew I had a workday waiting on me, or I assumed that I had a workday waiting on me. I think at one point, [the Raiders] were up by 15, and that number made you somewhat comfortable.

"I'm probably better off not having watched it."

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins
RBs: Najee Harris, Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage, Anthony McFarland Jr.
WRs: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Ray-Ray McCloud, James Washington, Cody White, JuJu Smith-Schuster
TEs: Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, Eric Ebron

San Francisco 49ers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

According to ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner, "It was a fitting way for the San Francisco 49ers to punch their ticket to the postseason. ..."

Wagoner went on to explain, "Left for dead at halftime much like they were at the halfway point of their season, the Niners, led by a gutsy performance from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, scratched and clawed their way back from a 17-point deficit for a dramatic 27-24 win in overtime against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday."

Indeed, Kicker Robbie Gould made a 24-yard field goal with 2 minutes, 45 seconds to go in OT, and San Francisco's defense held on for the win with the aid of the first career interception from rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas.

"Guys came together, guys made huge plays on third down, defense stepped up huge, interception by Ambry at the end there -- a rookie making that play -- all the things are coming together," Garoppolo, who played through a torn ligament in his right thumb, told FOXSports on the field after the game. "It was a good night."

With the victory, the 10-7 Niners locked up the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs and will meet the Cowboys in Dallas in the wild-card round Sunday.

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the 49ers' 17-point rally tied the largest comeback in a season finale to wrap up a playoff berth since 1990, joining the 1993 Raiders, who also came back from down 17 to beat the Broncos in overtime to seal a postseason bid.

"Our guys are really resilient," head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Our goal every year is to get in the tournament so you've got a chance at the ultimate one, and our guys, I think it's real hard where you have a season where you lose four in a row. Most places, you lose four in a row, it's tough to keep guys together -- and just the character in the building and the players and everyone around, it makes it easy, you just focus on your job and keep fighting, and that's what our guys have done all year."

The 49ers' comeback win was tied for the fourth largest on the road in franchise history, and it was their sixth consecutive win against the Rams.

"Everyone made plays today whether it was run game, pass game, special teams, defense -- everybody played really well," tight end George Kittle said. "We came back and played through it."

Asked how his injured thumb held up, Garoppolo said, "It was definitely tested. It's football," before adding with a laugh, "It f---ing hurt."

"It is what it is," he continued. "We got the win and that's all that matters."

Garoppolo finished 23-of-32 for 316 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 87.5.

They were just two of the heroes on a day when the Niners needed all hands on deck to keep this wild, unpredictable season alive.

"A lot of emotions," Garoppolo said. "Throughout the whole game, too, just the ups and downs, getting off to a slow start and then coming back like we did. It took everything. We say that a lot of weeks, but this one really did, and I felt it after the game. I know a lot of guys in that locker room did. It was worth it, though. It was one of those games that you won't forget anytime soon."

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow suggests, no matter how the 49ers use Deebo Samuel, he delivers big plays. He scored San Francisco's first TD on a 16-yard run to give him eight touchdown runs on the season, the most ever for a wide receiver. He tied the game later in the third with a 24-yard TD pass to Jauan Jennings and also had a 43-yard catch to set up the game-tying TD in the final minute of regulation.

Samuel finished the season with 1,770 yards from scrimmage with 14 TDs scored and another on the throw.

Jennings, the former seventh-round draft pick who has emerged over the past month as a key target in meaningful moments, finished with six catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns.

One issue?

The Niners came out slow again offensively for a second straight week as they had three first downs, two punts and one interception on their first three drives. This comes after San Francisco failed to score on the first five drives in Week 17 against Houston.

In both games, a late field-goal drive at the end of the half sparked the offense, but the Niners might not be able to wait that long again this week.

The 49ers travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys for the eighth time in the playoffs in their history.

The only matchup that has happened more in the Super Bowl era is the nine games between the Cowboys and Rams. Dallas has won five of the seven previous meetings. ...

On Tuesday morning, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined 105.3 The Fan and offered a scouting report on the visiting 49ers.

"I think they're very physical, and distinguishably so," Jones said. "They've got a really stout defensive line. They're really good in their offensive line. They seem to have some pretty good flexibility there, position flex. They've moved them around a tad. But more importantly than anything, they use it on both sides of the ball, the physical part of it. So, this team is about that.

"They're very confident. They've won some big games. They've won it against some good teams. They play in a tough division over there. The playoffs just demonstrated that completely with the fact that three out of the four teams in the division [made it], and Seattle was no slouch. They come tested. They come playoff-ready. They'll be tough."

Jones holds a great deal of respect for the 49ers organization and its head coach.

There will be no looking past Sunday's game with San Francisco looking like a dangerous opponent.

"I have such respect for Coach Shanahan," Jones said. "I had respect for his dad (Mike Shanahan). He obviously comes with the pedigree of having grown up in it, as well as having had success. And you've got to respect that. They've got a fine organization. And they've been to the Super Bowl since we have, obviously, and have competed here these last two or three years at a higher level than we have.

"So, we've got to factor all that in. They'll be a real, real mess to deal with out here Sunday."

On the health front. ... S Jaquiski Tartt (groin) and S Talanoa Hufanga (knee) both are dealing with minor injuries but Shanahan is hopeful they will be able to practice this week. ... P Mitch Wishnowsky is in concussion protocol. ... LT Trent Williams (elbow) and CB K'Waun Williams (COVID-19) also could return this week. ... CB Deommodore Lenoir was activated from the COVID-19 list. ...

Worth noting. ... Jeff Wilson Jr. After delivering a couple of key performances when rookie Elijah Mitchell was out with a knee injury, Wilson has become an afterthought the past two weeks. He has played just 18 snaps on offense and hasn't had a touch from scrimmage.

Mitchell, meanwhile, rushed 21 times for 85 yards against the Rams.

Mitchell did not carry an injury designation heading into this matchup, which has been a rare occurrence during an injury-filled rookie campaign.

As CBSSports.com noted, the 2021 sixth-round pick finishes the regular season way ahead of expectations with 1,100 combined yards and six total touchdowns in 11 games. It will be very interesting to see how the 49ers treat Mitchell's role next season when the team's running-back corps heals up, as he has clearly established that he can produce as the lead rushing option in a complex offensive scheme.

The rookie will lead San Francisco's backfield in a playoff matchup against the Cowboys this week.

That backfield could include Trey Sermonwho was activated from injured reserve on Tuesday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance
RBs: Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, Trey Sermon, Trenton Cannon, Raheem Mostert
WRs: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Sherfield, Jauan Jennings, Mohamed Sanu
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Tanner Hudson, Charlie Woerner

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

According to ESPN.com's Jenna Laine, on the heels of quarterback Tom Brady's three-touchdown performance in a 41-17 win over the Carolina Panthers, which ended in "MVP!" chants from fans inside Raymond James Stadium, head coach Bruce Arians made a strong case for his 44-year-old signal-caller to win the award.

"I think if he doesn't get it, it's a travesty," Arians said Monday, as his team began preparations to host the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC wild-card round this weekend. "Most completions ever, 5,000 yards, touchdowns -- the whole nine yards. To me, it's not even a close race."

Brady finished the 2021 regular season with 719 passing attempts, 485 completions, 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes -- all tops in the league -- making him just the third quarterback along with Drew Brees (2018) and Peyton Manning (2013) to lead the league in all four major statistical categories since 1991.

Brady's 485 completions set an NFL record for a single season, besting Brees' 471 completions in 2016. Brady joined Brees as the only two players in NFL history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons.

Brady also broke Brees' record for most career passing yards in his Week 4 return victory over the New England Patriots. He then broke Brees' career completions record while throwing his 700th touchdown pass in a 33-27 overtime victory against the Buffalo Bills.

When Le'Veon Bell caught a 1-yard touchdown pass on Sunday, he became the 90th different player to score on a reception from Brady during the quarterback's 22-year career. That's the most different TD targets for a QB in league history.

"It just shows what his work ethic is, how dedicated he is to the game of football and just how talented he is," tight end Rob Gronkowski said of Brady's record-breaking. "Just his determination week in and week out -- it's just unbelievable. And it's just surreal how he's pulling it off at age 44 and just coming out here like he's in his 20s still, just winging that ball, zipping it where it needs to be, making fantastic throws week in and week out."

Brady's 5,316 passing yards this year were third-most in NFL history behind Manning (5,477 in 2013) and Brees (5,476), and bested his own personal record of 5,235 passing yards in 2011. Even without counting the NFL's 17th game this year -- and Brady left his Week 18 game with 6:39 to go in the fourth quarter -- Brady's 4,990 passing yards in his first 16 games would have put him 14th all-time in single-season passing records.

Brady has been voted league MVP three times in his career: 2007, 2010 and most recently in 2017. He was also voted NFL Offensive Player of the Year twice, in 2007 and 2010. In the postseason, he's been awarded Super Bowl MVP honors five times: Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII, XLIX, LI and LV.

"Tom's the MVP every year," Gronkowski said. "Just the way he adjusts on the fly to his personnel, just trying to get the ball into the best players' hands or the best matchup on that current play -- he's just always ready to go no matter what the situation is. He's the MVP every year."

He faces his stiffest competition from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the two quarterbacks could wind up meeting in Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game, as some have predicted, which would be a rematch of last year's conference title game.

But the Bucs need to get healthy first. Arians said Monday running back Leonard Fournette and outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul should return this week.

"Leonard looks great. He's been working good. He should be back," Arians said. "Shaq and JPP should both be back. Lavonte [David] -- he'll be the one that's the closest, but he is starting to move around pretty good so we'll wait and see. I'm still waiting to hear about [cornerback] Jamel Dean. That's the one that's got me concerned from this ballgame. But those guys that are on IR that have been out, I expect all to be back. Maybe Lavonte could not."

Fournette suffered a hamstring strain in Week 15 and was placed on IR. Pierre-Paul has not played since Week 15 because of a torn rotator cuff. David, who is on injured reserve, suffered a sprained foot in Week 15. Barrett sprained an ACL and an MCL in Week 16 and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday; he was activated on Tuesday.

Getting Fournette back would be huge, considering he had the most scrimmage yards (448) of anyone in the playoffs last season.

Fellow running back Ronald Jones shed his walking boot this week after suffering an ankle injury against the Jets, but he remains a question mark because he still cannot cut, Arians said.

Cyril Grayson, who stepped in for Antonio Brown and caught the winning touchdown against the New York Jets in Week 17, left Sunday's game against the Panthers with a hamstring injury and did not return. Arians said of Grayson: "It's not quite as bad as you thought, but his availability this week will be in question."

The Buccaneers haven't let the injuries get the best of them.

"The guys' mentality has been great," said wide receiver Mike Evans, who had six catches for 89 receiving yards and two touchdowns. "It's been 'next man up' mentality all year really. We haven't had our full team the whole season, and that's how it's had to be. We've had to adjust. It helps that we have a surplus of talent on this team for guys to step up."

This isn't the first time Brady or Arians has entered the postseason short-handed. Brady was with the New England Patriots when they lost standouts Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Vince Wilfork in 2013 and still reached the AFC Championship Game before they fell to the Denver Broncos 26-16.

In 2015, the Patriots were hobbled by injuries to Sebastian Vollmer, Dont'a Hightower, Nate Solder, Julian Edelman and the loss of Dion Lewis. They lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, 20-18.

Brady was also without Gronkowski in Super Bowl LI following the 2016 season, when the Patriots erased a 25-point deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28. Brady entered the 2017 playoffs with an injured thumb to his throwing hand before falling to the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Brady also went a stretch of 31 games -- regular and postseason games combined -- without Gronkowski and Edelman together on the field from 2016 to 2018.

Whatever, the case, Tampa Bay finished second in the league behind Dallas in total offense (405.9) and scoring (30.1).

Including playoffs, the Bucs have scored 30 or more points 22 times since Brady joined them in 2020. They are 22-0 in those games.

The Bucs have had one of the NFL's stingiest run defenses over the past three seasons; however, they haven't been nearly as good stopping the run lately. Carolina had 110 yards rushing on Sunday. Arians said the absence of David, who's missed the past three games, is a factor.

Worth noting. ... Sunday's game will be the first playoff meeting between the teams since Tampa Bay won the NFC championship game in Philadelphia 19 years ago. ...

I'll be watching for more on Fournette, Jones and Grayson -- as well as any other issues that arise -- in coming days; check the News and Views section for the latest.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Giovani Bernard, Le'Veon Bell, Ronald Jones
WRs: Mike Evans, Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Jaelon Darden, Scott Miller, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate

Tennessee Titans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 11 January 2022

The Tennessee Titans have a chance to see if the third time is the charm.

The Titans (12-5) earned the AFC's No. 1 seed for the third time in franchise history -- all since leaving Texas for Tennessee in 1997 and clinched beating the team that replaced them in Houston with a 28-25 win over the Texans.

The challenge for this franchise will be proving they can take advantage of the first-round bye not knowing their opponent yet for the divisional round. Home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs didn't help in their two previous tries.

Head coach Mike Vrabel said Monday it's time to focus on themselves and what they need to do to try to keep winning.

"Now. ... It's single elimination," Vrabel said.

As Associated Press sports writer Teresa M. Walker notes, despite posting the NFL's best records in 2000 and 2008 at 13-3, the Titans lost in the divisional round to the Baltimore Ravens each time. Now the Titans won't see the Ravens who didn't make this postseason.

Another difference? The Titans are 8-0 under Vrabel when coming off a bye or extra rest from a Thursday night game. That's tied with Pittsburgh for the best mark in that category over the past four seasons.

These Titans need the first-round bye to rest up after using an NFL-high 91 players, most ever in a non-strike season. That also gives Derrick Henry, the 2020 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year, more time to practice for an expected return for the divisional round.

Monday marked 10 weeks since Henry was placed on injured reserve with a broken right foot, and he started practicing with the Titans last week. Henry still finished the season ninth in the NFL in rushing after leading the league each of the past two seasons.

"There's going to be some looks that he's going to have to get in practice," Vrabel said of Henry. "We're going to have to see how he responds to some cutting and some reactionary stuff. We'll continue to look and see how he is progressing, and then we'll make a decision."

Meanwhile, the passing game has been working pretty well.

Ryan Tannehill was sacked only once, and he completed passes to nine different Titans.

Tannehill finished with a 138.9 passer rating and showed serious elusiveness escaping a would-be sack to complete a 37-yard pass on a game-winning TD drive. The Titans also had the best performances from receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones in the same game since the middle of October in a win over Buffalo.

Jones, the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, has been dismissed as a bust for a lackluster season where he finished with 31 catches for 434 yards. But Jones had a team-high five catches for 58 yards, and his first touchdown catch this season provided the winning margin for the Titans to clinch the No. 1 seed.

Of some concern?

The Titans strung together a 13-play drive late in the first quarter, and they turned to Randy Bullock when they bogged down at the Houston 24. He missed a 42-yard field goal wide right. The Titans' third kicker finished the regular season 26 of 32 on field goals, but was just 8 of 14 between 40 and 49 yards.

For now, the Titans can focus on resting and healing up all the nagging injuries. They will also the bye week trying to clean up some issues and continue Henry's recovery.

Remember: The Titans only need one win to host their first AFC championship game.

The Houston Oilers had to go to Pittsburgh for the conference games for the 1978 and 1979 seasons. The Titans won in Jacksonville in January 2000 to reach the franchise's lone Super Bowl. They lost in Oakland following the 2002 season and in Kansas City in January 2020.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside, Kevin Hogan
RBs: Derrick Henry, D'Onta Foreman, Jeremy McNichols, Dontrell Hilliard, Khari Blasingame, Darrynton Evans, Jordan Wilkins
WRs: A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Nick Westbrook_Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Racey McMath, Dez Fitzpatrick, Cameron Batson
TEs: Geoff Swaim, MyCole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser