Team Notes week 20 2016

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris<

NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF

Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...

Please feel free to download Text-Only or MS Word formatted versions of this file as necessary.

Team Menu

Atlanta Falcons

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2017

Don't worry fantasy owners. ... Julio Jones will be ready to go in the NFC championship game.

Head coach Dan Quinn insisted Monday that his All-Pro receiver will be in the lineup when the Falcons play for a spot in the Super Bowl against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, despite a lingering foot injury that limited Jones in the second half of a divisional-round victory.

Jones wasn't in the locker room for media availability following the 36-20 triumph over the Seattle Seahawks, leading to speculation that the injury might be more serious than the Falcons were letting on.

But Quinn did his best to put all that to rest.

"We'll limit him throughout the week, and then as the week progresses, we'll get him a little more at the end," the coach said. "That's the plan from last week. That will be the plan moving forward for us. He's excited to play."

Quinn amended that on Wednesday, confirming that Jones wouldn't practice Wednesday by design, but he will pick up the pace as the weekend draws nearer.

It's obviously something we'll be following up on in coming days (watch the News and Views section for more), but as Associated Press sports writer Paul Newberry reminded readers, Jones dealt with foot issues through much of the regular season, even sitting out a couple of games. Quinn initially called the condition "turf toe" — a potentially serious condition involving a sprain of ligaments around the big toe — but later said it was just a simple sprain.

Jones has learned to deal with the pain and the limitations he must place on himself during the week to ensure he's ready to go on Sunday, according to Quinn.

Even though Jones was sidelined for a significant part of the second half against the Seahawks, he had his way against cornerback Richard Sherman and finished with a team-high six receptions for 67 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown. During the regular season, Jones totaled 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns.

The Falcons are largely focused on making sure he gets enough work to stay on the same page with quarterback Matt Ryan, while not doing anything that might lead to a setback physically.

"The biggest challenge we have is making sure the practice reps are the right ones for him and Matt so they get that clear connection on the routes they need," Quinn said.

"We've spent a lot of time on that to make sure as they go through the week, they both feel comfortable with the work they have."

The news wasn't as good for defensive end Adrian Clayborn. After working hard to come back from a knee injury that sidelined him for three games during the regular season, he is done for the season with a biceps injury sustained on Seattle's opening possession. The team placed him on injured reserve on Tuesday.

The loss of Clayborn will lead to a larger role for backup Courtney Upshaw.

The Falcons (12-5) will be hosting the NFC championship game for only the second time in the franchise's 51-year history.

Four years ago, Atlanta was the conference's top seed but squandered a 17-point lead in the first half against the San Francisco 49ers, who held on for a 28-24 victory and a trip to the Super Bowl by stopping the Falcons' last chance at the 10-yard line.

If top-seeded Dallas had won the NFC's other divisional game Sunday, the Falcons would have traveled to Texas this weekend.

Instead, it was the Packers pulling out a dramatic 34-31 victory, giving Atlanta one more chance to close out the Georgia Dome, which is being replaced after this season by $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Quinn said the Falcons are thrilled to get another home game, even though Green Bay is one of the hottest teams in the league, winning eight in a row, and Rodgers dominated the Falcons in a divisional-round game at the Georgia Dome during the 2010 season.

"It's as much fun as you can possibly imagine when you get to do it in front of your own fans," Quinn said. "This dome is closing and we get to be a part of the last game here. Talk about what a cool thing that is."

Meanwhile, as ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure suggested this week, the poise Ryan has played with all season is the reason why the Falcons have a legitimate shot to win the Super Bowl, not just get there and be satisfied.

He didn't throw an interception against the Seahawks, giving him five consecutive games without a pick going back to the regular season.

Remember, turnovers are what made last season such a miserable one for Ryan.

His final stat line Saturday read as follows: 26-of-37 for 338 yards, three touchdowns, 125.7 passer rating.

Ryan certainly was helped by some great catches by his receivers, namely Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. He also received some explosive plays from running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, including an ankle-breaking move by Freeman in the open field. Freeman finished with 14 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown and had four catches for 80 yards, while Coleman had 57 yards on 11 carries with three grabs for 22 yards and a score. Ryan also singled out the toughness and effort displayed by Schraeder and the rest of the offensive line.

In case you missed it, Ryan completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 117.1 passer rating in the regular season, the fifth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history.

As long as Ryan continues to play at this level, it's hard to imagine the Falcons being stopped. They lived up to their regular-season standard in surpassing 30 points for the 12th time this season. Remember, they led the league at 33.8 points per game and were the only team to average 30-plus.

Now the focus shifts to the Packers. And it's possible that, even on the road, they are the tougher foe for the NFC championship. Aaron Rodgers, a two-time league MVP, carried the Packers to a last-second 34-31 victory at the Cowboys.

The Packers have played in five Super Bowls with four victories and also own nine other NFL championships. The Falcons are seeking their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history after they lost the 1999 Super Bowl (following the 1998 season) to the Broncos.

In a previous meeting this season, the Falcons beat the Packers 33-32 on Oct. 30 at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons opened as 4-point favorites in the rematch before the betting line quickly moved to 5 points, according to ESPN gambling writer Dave Tuley.

The Falcons had the league's best offense all season and thrashed Seattle's third-ranked scoring defense. Injuries have hurt their defensive depth but the unit improved as young players developed.

After eliminating Seattle, the Falcons could make a credible case that they weren't concerned about which opponent they would meet in the NFC championship game.

"For us, it's just focusing on us," safety Keanu Neal said. "We are focused on us and the process. ..."

Still, it's safe to say the Packers will be a big part of that focus this week. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The Falcons one-two punch of Freeman and Coleman combined for more than 200 total yards for the fourth straight game.

Against Seattle the two combined to rush 25 times for 102 yards and a touchdown. They caught seven passes for 102 yards and a touchdown.

The Seahawks held the Falcons to 52 yards rushing in the regular season meeting.

"They are so stout against the run, but our two guys are so important to us," Ryan said. "I thought it was important for us to get them involved in the passing game early to make some plays. I thought Tevin and Devonta did a great job for us today."

Freeman had four catches for a team-leading 80 yards receiving. He had a 53-yard reception in which he put a wicked move on Seattle free safety Steven Terrell in the open field. ...

On the other side of the ball. ... One area in which the Falcons have to show great discipline is personnel changes on defense, knowing Rodgers is waiting to catch them napping with the no-huddle, quick game. Going between the nickel and base defenses, of course, means different waves of players entering and exiting for the Falcons, and that gives Rodgers a chance to pull off one of his signature moves.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Rodgers has gotten officials to flag opponents for 12 men on the field a league-high eight times this season. The Packers have forced 21 such penalties the past two seasons, 11 more than anyone else. In Sunday's divisional playoff showdown in Dallas, Rodgers drew such a penalty against the Cowboys on a third-and-5 play from his own 30 in the first quarter. It eventually led to the Packers' first touchdown in what ended up being a last-second 34-31 win.

Falcons defensive end Brooks Reed was also caught by one of Rodgers' quick snaps in that Week 8 win over the Packers.

Such a mistake could be extremely costly in a game with a Super Bowl berth at stake. And the Falcons know it.

And finally. ... The 49ers have offered Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan their vacant head coaching job, and Shanahan is almost certain to accept the position, sources familiar with both parties' intentions told NFL Network's Michael Silver on Wednesday.

Because of NFL rules, the two sides cannot formally agree to a deal until after the Falcons' season is over, but barring an unforeseen change of heart on either side, Shanahan will eventually be signed to a multi-year contract.

The 49ers are replacing Chip Kelly, who was fired as coach after just one season. San Francisco, which finished 2-14 last season, holds the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Matt Simms
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward
WRs: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams
TEs: Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert, Logan Paulsen

Green Bay Packers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2017

As the Associated Press put it, "Aaron Rodgers doesn't just make the big throws, he designs them. ..."

The Green Bay Packers quarterback went schoolyard and drew up that amazing pass play in the huddle that set up Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal in Dallas.

Rodgers' 36-yard strike to toe-dragging tight end Jared Cook on third-and-20 from his 32 was the biggest play in an NFL divisional playoff weekend that was filled with big calls.

Thanks to a first-down spike by Cowboys rookie quarterback Zak Prescott just before Dan Bailey's 52-yarder, the Packers got the ball back with 35 seconds left.

Just enough time for Rodgers to work his magic.

But this one looked headed to overtime after Jeff Heath's sack put the Packers back at their 32 with 18 seconds left.

Following an incompletion, Rodgers drew up routes in the huddle before rolling left on third-and-20 and hitting Cook on the left sideline at the Dallas 32.

"It was a heck of a throw," Cook said.

Heck of a catch, too.

And a great call.

"It's just kind of schoolyard at times late in the game," Rodgers told Fox after Green Bay's 34-31 win.

Now the Packers head into Atlanta for Sunday's NFC Championship Game facing the likelihood that Jordy Nelson will have to sit out.

A source told ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky on Tuesday the veteran receiver has a chance to play against the Falcons, but it's only a small chance.

Demovsky's source reiterated what Demovsky reported last week that Nelson did not sustain any major internal injuries, but added that it would still be difficult for Nelson to play just two weeks after he sustained broken ribs. In fact, the source told Demovsky most players would have little or no chance to play that soon after such an injury but that "Nelson is different than most players."

The Packers didn't even wait until game day to rule out Nelson from last week's NFC divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys. Head coach Mike McCarthy said last Friday that team physicians Dr. Pat McKenzie and Dr. John Gray would not clear Nelson to play, and that Nelson would be re-evaluated on Monday.

On Wednesday, McCarthy told reporters that Nelson will be working with the rehab group instead of practicing to start the week.

Nelson was injured in the Packers' wild-card win over the New York Giants on Jan. 8, when safety Leon Hall hit him in the ribs after Nelson couldn't hang on to a catch near the sideline. Hall was not penalized or fined for the hit. Without Nelson, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers still threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns without Nelson in Sunday's 34-31 win over the Cowboys.

Last week, Rodgers said he was hopeful Nelson could return for the NFC title game.

"We're going to try to get this one and hopefully get him back if he can't play this week," Rodgers said last week.

"He's been a warrior all season. I don't think he's missed a practice hardly all season. Different without him out there, but we're hopeful he's going to be able to heal quickly and be able to go."

In the regular season, Nelson led the Packers in catches (97) and receiving yards (1,257) and led the entire NFL in touchdown catches (14).

Meanwhile, McCarthy said Davante Adams' left ankle injury was sufficiently worrisome that they'd hold him out until the end of the week.

"Curious to see him move," McCarthy said. "I don't think he'll practice until Saturday."

Of course, that's the same early prognosis he set for Nelson last week. But Nelson didn't make it to Saturday, as he was ruled out the Friday before playing Cowboys. Adams was able to come back and play Sunday, but his absence would further deplete a receiving corps already dealing with Nelson’s issue.

We'll obviously have more on both men in coming days; watch the News and Views section of the site for updates.

The good news?

I turns out the Packers are pretty deep when it comes to their skill players.

The tight end duo of Cook (six receptions, 104 yards, 11 targets) and Richard Rodgers (one catch, 34 yards) each had a touchdown reception. Randall Cobb (seven catches, 62 yards, eight targets), Adams (five receptions, 76 yards, 10 targets), Ty Montgomery (six catches, 34 yards, seven targets) and Geronimo Allison (three receptions, 46 yards, five targets) also were impactful.

Montgomery also ran for two scores.

The bottom line? Rodgers had more than enough qualified playmakers.

And in the end, there was Crosby, who made two field goals in the final 93 seconds -- including the game winner at the gun from 51 yards after he had just made a 56-yarder with 1:33 to play. Crosby had never made two 50-plus-yard field goals in a game before Sunday.

The Packers even got a key contribution from defensive back Micah Hyde, who picked off Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the third quarter to preserve what at the time was a 15-point lead.

"It was great to see so many guys making plays out there," said Rodgers, who threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns. "Richard, obviously, on the offsides adjustment for a touchdown early in the game to get us going, and then Cookie had a big game, Randall's been very solid for us, Geronimo made some plays. Those guys did some great things. I think Ty Montgomery the last couple of weeks hasn't been a huge, huge part of the offense but he made some absolutely clutch, highly intelligent plays tonight that probably don't show up on the TV copy.

"Just stuff that he did that was above and beyond his responsibility, and I'm really proud of his effort because we're going to need him moving forward."

Other than a rare interception by Rodgers, which ended a streak of 318 straight passes (and 24 touchdowns) without one, the Packers' offense hummed along nicely even after the Packers' suspect defense blew a 15-point third-quarter lead.

Entering the game, the Packers had scored only six points in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter this season, the fourth fewest in the NFL. Three of those came on Crosby's game-winning field goal at Chicago in Week 15. They equaled that on Sunday, and now they're back in the NFC title game for the first time since their meltdown in Seattle in the 2014 conference championship game.

"It's just resilience," said Cook, who caught six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. "It speaks volumes about what this team is made of all year, just fighting through certain situations to be able to keep climbing and climbing to get to the top. We've got another one down, Now we're focused on the next one."

And with Atlanta's high-powered offense going at them, it's safe to say Rodgers and his crew will need to be on point again -- much like they were in the first meeting with the Falcons, a 33-32 loss in Atlanta on Oct. 30.

Worth noting. ... Crosby's 51-yard field goal as time expired was the third of an ongoing NFL-record 23 in a row Crosby has made in the playoffs. His last postseason miss was in the divisional round during the 2010 season, a 50-yard kick that hit off the upright in the Packers' lopsided road win over the top-seeded Falcons.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: DeShone Kizer, Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan
RBs: Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Devante Mays, Ty Montgomery
WRs: Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis
TEs: Jimmy Graham, Lance Kendricks

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2017

Tom Brady was visibly and admittedly agitated Saturday night after the Patriots' 34-16 victory against the Texans because he knew the offensive sloppiness wouldn't be up to snuff in the team's looming AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Indeed, the Pats made some ugly mistakes, Brady himself included, but the notion also shouldn't discount the Texans' strong defensive showing. The Patriots dispatched of a defense that is likely the best they'll face during the playoffs, and they scored 27 offensive points while doing so.

As Boston Herald staffer Jeff Howe noted, that's not to say the Patriots couldn't have done a better job handling some of that Texans-imposed adversity.

That was also Brady's point.

"It doesn't feel great because we worked pretty hard to play a lot better than we played," Brady said to sum up his sentiment.

After all, he had the worst completion percentage (47.4) of his 32 playoff starts, and he won for just the fifth time in nine playoff games when he was intercepted at least twice.

The majority of the miscues started with the Texans' pressure. Brady was hit eight times, including two sacks, which signified the second worst beating he took all season (Week 8, Bills).

Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and the Texans front gave the Patriots offensive line fits and hit Brady with alarming frequency and physicality. As such, New England held just a one score lead early in the fourth quarter of what many expected to be an easy blowout.

"They played well. They did a great job defensively. They knocked the ball off of us. We fumbled, they intercepted us, we had too many balls out and we're lucky we didn't lose more than we did," Belichick said, noting that even the success in the passing game even came in part to a "few prayers" Brady completed.

Brady's interceptions have him now tied with Brett Favre (30) for most in NFL postseason history and his 68.6 rating for the game was barely half of his 112.2 rating during the 2016 regular season.

"They had some good scheme stuff that worked. They have good rushers and they had some good guys in coverage, so they had a pretty good scheme. It was a lot of things, and then when you add our poor execution on top of that, then you add our turnovers on top of that, it doesn't feel great because we worked pretty hard to play a lot better than we played. I give them a lot of credit, but we're going to have to play better on offense," Brady said.

Fortunately, Dion Lewis was the playmaking star.

The passing back became the first player in postseason history, and just the third player overall (joining Gale Sayers and Tyreek Hill), to record rushing, receiving and return touchdowns in a single game. But, Lewis also had a costly fumble on a kickoff return to set up a Houston short-field score that had New England clinging to a 14-13 lead in the second quarter.

Belichick made it clear the room for improvement is widespread for the Patriots this week as they prepare for Sunday evening's AFC title game at Gillette Stadium against the Steelers.

Meanwhile, the advent of social media added a few new ones to Belichick's repertoire, particularly when it comes to using the wrong names for well-known companies that operate in that space. The video posted by Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown from the team's locker room on Facebook after Sunday's win that featured Mike Tomlin telling his team to get their minds on the AFC title game because the a-holes in New England have had an extra day to prepare.

"As you know I'm not on Snap Face and all those," Belichick said on WEEI on Monday afternoon. "I'm not too worried what they put on Instant Chat."

Should Belichick watch the video, chances are he isn't going to be too shocked by anything that goes on given how long he's been in the game and that nothing's going to change his mind about being a more active Face Page user.

Other notes of interest. ... As the Sports Xchange noted, the Patriots finished running the ball 27 times for 98 yards (for a 3.6 yard-per carry average) against Houston, but that included end arounds/reverses of 12 and 15 yards by receivers. Lewis was able to muster just 41 yards on his 13 attempts (3.2 avg.), including a 1-yard touchdown. LeGarrette Blount had 31 yards on eight attempts, but that included an 18-yarder with the game well over in the fourth quarter.

Vince Wilfork and the Texans front did an impressive job in the trenches, including stopping Blount on third-and-goal from the 1 to force a field goal late in the second quarter. It was a lackluster day all around for the Patriots offense, with the ground game and the offensive line part of the problem rather than serving as the complementary production it has been most of the season.

They'll need to get that on track against Pittsburgh. ...

Wide receiver Chris Hogan had four catches for 95 yards in two-plus quarters against the Texans last Saturday night, but didn't get a chance to build on those numbers after he hurt his thigh. Hogan went back to the locker room and didn't return to the 34-16 win. It doesn't sound like he has much concern about the injury keeping him from playing against the Steelers, however.

Hogan said that he felt he could have returned to the game had the Patriots needed his services and that he's feeling even healthier now.

"Feeling good, just had a little minor setback in the game, but I'm working back every single day and feeling better every day," Hogan said in comments distributed by the team.

The Patriots played without Malcolm Mitchell for the second straight game as he continues to deal with a knee injury. Mitchell practiced on a limited basis last week and was the only Patriots player with an injury designation on the team's Friday injury report, listed as questionable for his first postseason game before being declared inactive.

Hogan and Julian Edelman, who had eight catches for 139 yards, were the leading receivers in the divisional round win.

For the record, wideout Danny Amendola (ankle), tight end Martellus Bennett (knee), running back Brandon Bolden (knee), LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder), Hogan (thigh), Mitchell (knee) and DE Jabaal Sheard (knee) were all limited in Wednesday's practice. Hightower's shoulder and knee injuries for Bolden and Sheard are new additions to the injury report this week.

We'll have more on their status in the News and Views section of the site as the week progresses. ...

And finally. ... The job search is over for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He will remain in New England and is no longer a candidate for the vacant head coaching job in San Francisco.

McDaniels confirmed on a conference call that he intends to be back with the Patriots next season.

"I was really impressed with (49ers owner) Jed York and (team executives) Paraag (Marathe) and Brian (Hampton), the people that came from the 49ers organization," McDaniels said. "They did a great job with their presentation. Again, humbled to be included in that process.

"At this time, it's just best for my family and myself to remain here in New England and focus on this year's playoffs and finish out the year however it turns out," he added after reports emerged that he would no longer be a candidate to coach the 49ers.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer
RBs: Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, James White, Mike Gillislee, James Develin
WRs: Chris Hogan, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Matt Slater
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Troy Niklas, Dwayne Allen

Pittsburgh Steelers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 18 January 2017

As the Associated Press reported it, Antonio Brown wanted to let the world in on the party when he live streamed the giddy celebration in the Steelers' locker room after an 18-16 playoff win over Kansas City.

The All-Pro wide receiver also happened to catch coach Mike Tomlin indelicately describing the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh's opponent in the AFC Championship game.

Tomlin's word choice -- an expletive -- didn't bother his players as much as Brown's decision to throw back the curtain on what is usually a private moment.

"Personally I'd like some of that stuff sacred," long snapper Greg Warren said Monday. "But this is a changing world, a changing environment. I can't be some old guy stuck under a rock, that's for sure."

Brown's 17-minute video collected more than 900,000 views in a few hours before being removed (though it lives on through YouTube).

It included players dancing and Tomlin -- who was out of the shot and unaware it was being filmed but who could be heard clearly in the packed locker room -- beginning his postgame speech by telling his team to "say very little moving forward" then adding "we spotted those (a--holes) a day and a half."

New England advanced to the AFC title game by beating Houston on Saturday night, 24 hours before Pittsburgh held off the Chiefs.

The Patriots beat Pittsburgh 27-16 on Oct. 23 behind two touchdowns from Tom Brady and 127 yards rushing from LeGarrette Blount.

Pittsburgh (13-5) played without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who sat out while recovering from surgery on his left knee.

Backup Landry Jones was steady if not spectacular, throwing for 281 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The Steelers actually outgained the Patriots by 13 yards (375-362), but settled for three Chris Boswell field goals when they needed touchdowns in hopes of pulling off an upset.

It's an issue that popped up again on Sunday night, when Boswell drilled a postseason record six field goals to provide all of Pittsburgh's 18 points.

Boswell is 14 of 14 on field goals in four career postseason games and is just three shy of setting the franchise record for most postseason field goals in team history, so he'll be standing by as needed this weekend. But more will almost certainly be required against New England, which is averaging 31.6 points at home when Brady plays this season.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday that Big Ben's return makes the Steelers' primary offensive options — running back Le'Veon Bell and Brown — only that much harder to contend with. Bell rushed for 81 yards in the first meeting and Brown had seven catches for 106 yards.

"They're a tremendous offense. Kansas City was able to make some plays in the red area, but I mean (the Steelers) could've easily been up in the 40s," Belichick said.

"They do a lot of things well; can run it, can throw it. Brown's the main guy, but all of the receivers, tight ends, backs, I mean they're all a problem."

The Chiefs may have planted the seed for how to keep Roethlisberger out of the end zone, however.

The Steelers were held without a touchdown in Sunday's 18-16 divisional-round win over Kansas City. They also ranked 12th in the NFL during the regular season in red zone efficiency, scoring a touchdown on 59 percent of the trips inside the 20-yard line. They were 0 for 5 in their trips against Kansas City.

Roethlisberger had 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the red zone in 14 regular-season games.

But so far in the playoffs, Big Ben has just two total passing touchdowns and three interceptions.

Still, the Steelers coaching staff's trust in him to throw the deep ball is something that will be a point of emphasis this week, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.

In particular he said Roethlisberger's calm in the pocket and his offensive line's ability to protect him helps him buy time to improvise.

"If those plays can get extended or prolonged, that's when it becomes really difficult," Patricia said. "I think Roethlisberger right now (is) very mobile, very healthy, a guy that showed even again (Sunday night) that just a slight bit of movement or a slight bit of ability to maybe evade the rush, or stand in there just a little bit longer gives his guys enough time to get open in those situations."

Of course, getting past the Patriots will be challenging enough, not worrying about getting worked up over something Tomlin thought he was saying in the intimacy of the locker room or even the slight head start the Patriots will have in preparations.

As ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler pointed out, the Steelers and Patriots haven't clashed in the playoffs since Roethlisberger's rookie year in 2004-05. But the Steelers rarely have won a meaningful regular-season game against the Patriots, who own seven of the past nine games in the series. In his past six games against Pittsburgh, Brady has 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

Perhaps the Steelers are a different team than those of the past, complete with a triumvirate of Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell, who just set a playoff record with 337 rushing yards in his first two postseason games.

"I think I'm a lot more confident in myself. Our team is confident. We feel we can beat anybody right now," Bell said. "We feel we owe those guys one. It's going to be tough. ... It's going to be fun. It will definitely be a showdown."

Meanwhile, as Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio pointed out, when it comes to devising a defensive game plan, Belichick has a simple approach: Take away what the opposing offense does best.

So what will he try to take away from the Steelers on Sunday?

Putting the clamps on Bell could open up a passing game for Big Ben and Brown. Taking away the passing game means Bell could run wild.

One of Belichick's best game plans came when he served as the defensive coordinator of the Giants in Super Bowl XXV. He persuaded the New York defense to buy in to an approach that invited Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas to run the ball, allowing Thomas to have a big day on the ground but slowing down the quick-strike K-Gun offense.

Fifteen years ago, when facing the Greatest Show on Turf in Super Bowl XXXVI, Belichick focused on taking away the passing game, dropping extra players into coverage and daring coach Mike Martz to run the ball.

Martz, too stubborn to deviate from what we wanted to do, refused to adjust.

So what will Belichick do against the Steelers and Bell? Sunday night's 170-yard output from Bell resulted in zero touchdowns for the team, so maybe Belichick should be willing to let Bell get his yards with a bend-don't-break effort to avoid big plays and easy scores in the passing game.

That might not be the best idea. After Sunday night's output, Bell has the most rushing yards through two playoff games in a single postseason in NFL history. John Riggins holds the record for most rushing yards over an entire postseason, with 610 over four games in 1982.

Whatever the case, the Steelers realize what they're up against.

"It's tough," Roethlisberger said on Tuesday. "It's just like playing a Bill Belichick team. His hand prints, his fingerprints, are all over that whole team, all three phases. They often out-coach their opponents…When you're playing a defense like that, you have to be prepared for everything."

The Patriots are playing in an NFL-record sixth consecutive AFC Championship Games. The Steelers, meanwhile, will play in the title game for the first time since 2010.

"It means everything," said Brown, who was a rookie in 2010. "That's why we play this game to get to those type of situations. I know, last year at this time, I was on the couch. I'm just grateful I can be here in this moment with my team, with all the guys healthy. We're a step closer to next week. ..."

Other notes of interest. ... Ladarius Green is still in the NFL's concussion protocol, Tomlin told reporters on Tuesday.

The athletic tight end did, however, work on a limited basis Wednesday creating some optimism about his availability this weekend.

Green has been out since mid-December with a concussion, leaving his status for Sunday's game uncertain at best. If Green is unable to pass the league's concussion protocol before then, Jesse James should once again see a majority of the Steelers' tight end targets, as he recorded five catches for 83 yards against the Chiefs in the divisional round.

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

By the way. ... Tomlin on Tuesday said that he is sorry for the language he uses in the video posted by Brown, and wishes he hadn't been shown that way in his role as the leader of the Steelers.

"The language on the video is regrettable, by me and by others," Tomlin said, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That's why we go to great lengths to preserve certain moments and interactions between us. As a parent, as a member of the community I take that very seriously. I issue an apology in that regard."

Tomlin also said the Steelers will issue an internal punishment to Brown, and he indicated he thinks the league may punish Brown as well.

"It was foolish of him to do that, selfish and inconsiderate. It was violation of our policy and league policy," Tomlin said. "He's a great player, respected in the locker room, but incidents such as this don't help him in that regard."

Tomlin said he hasn't yet spoken to Brown about the matter, but will deal with it and then move on to preparing for the Patriots.

Brown apologized late Tuesday night

"I let my emotions and genuine excitement get the best of me," Brown wrote. "And I wanted to share that moment with our fans."

For the record, Brown violated the league's social-media policy, which prohibits tweets, live videos, etc. from 90 minutes before kickoff through the conclusion of the post-game media obligations. For that infraction, Brown undoubtedly will be fined.

In addition, as Profootballtalk.com pointed out, the broader problem from the team's perspective is that Brown's decision to broadcast live video triggers a violation of the league's TV contracts. The broadcast partners have exclusive rights to video shot in the locker room after the game, and the teams or the league can't use it for 24 hours.

While it's unlikely that NBC will make a fuss about it, it's the kind of practice that teams need to prevent; if unchecked, it eventually could trigger a claim that the deals are being breached.

And finally. ... According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, suspended Steelers wideout Martavis Bryant has applied to the league for reinstatement. The process can take some time for the league to process (see Aldon Smith), so this simply sets the stage for a potential return next season.

Bryant was suspended for a year for multiple violations of the league's substance abuse policy.

The Steelers made their disappointment with Bryant clear, so it's not automatic that they're going to want to bother with him.

They're not overburdened with depth without him, but they're also proving by still being on the field in January that his absence didn't kill their chances.


DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs
RBs: Le'Veon Bell, Terrell Watson, Stevan Ridley
WRs: Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown
TEs: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald