Team Notes Week 20 2017
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFFDirectly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
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Jacksonville JaguarsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 16 January 2018
As ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco framed it, "A rookie running back. An inconsistent quarterback. Not much production from the wide receivers. A defense that kept giving up play after play, especially on fourth down. On the road against an eventual Hall of Fame quarterback leading an explosive offense in frozen conditions.
All the ingredients were there for the Jacksonville Jaguars to fall apart at Heinz Field. Yet despite the belief of most of the 64,524 in attendance and likely a large chunk of the national television audience, they didn't. ..."
Indeed, the Jaguars never flinched and held on to beat Pittsburgh 45-42 in an AFC divisional playoff game on Sunday afternoon, a victory that will send them to the AFC Championship Game in New England this weekend. That's a characteristic that they'll certainly need if they're going to have any chance to beat the Patriots and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
Associated Press sports writer Mark Long, noting the Jaguars haven't faced New England in a game that matters in more than two years, pointed out they at least know where they can get a heads up on their opponent in the AFC title game.
"We need the notes the Steelers have on the Patriots because they were doing a lot of advanced scouting," safety Barry Church said after Sunday's win in Pittsburgh. "We need all the notes they got on the Patriots. Other than that, it's time to roll to New England baby."
One thing the Jags aren't lacking?
"You can do all the talking you want on Twitter, to the media, all of that," cornerback Jalen Ramsey said. "But when you get on the field you're going to have to produce, you're going to have to show us what you're about. We're confident because we know the work we put in. We're going to go out there confident."
Ticked off by several Steelers openly talking about a rematch with the Patriots with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line, the Jaguars took it out on Pittsburgh one touchdown at a time.
Now it's on to New England, a place they've never won and where the Patriots hung 51 on them in 2015. But that was before head coach Doug Marrone put together the NFL's best defense. Before Leonard Fournette arrived. Before Blake Bortles embraced his role as the offensive focal point for a team that suddenly looks like a threat on both sides of the ball.
In Pittsburgh, Jacksonville (12-6) never trailed and was only rarely threatened on an afternoon it matched the most points the Steelers have given up in their storied playoff history. Bortles bounced back from an ugly performance against Buffalo by throwing for 214 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown to at least temporarily hit mute on his critics.
"I have no animosity against anyone who said anything," Bortles said. "I'm happy to be able to come here and do this with this team. There are a lot of guys on the couch watching this."
That group now will include the Steelers. ...
Worth noting, the Jaguars won their second straight playoff game with relatively little contribution from their wide receivers. The week before against Buffalo, Dede Westbrook was the only receiver to record a catch, grabbing five of the eight targeted throws his way for a total of 48 yards. The team's other three receivers -- Marqise Lee, Allen Hurns and Keelan Cole -- were all targeted once but had no catches.
In Pittsburgh, Lee caught three of the six passes sent his way, but finished with just 28 yards. Cole had the biggest gain, latching on to a 45-yard throw downfield that he caught inside the 5-yard line. It was one of two passes intended for Cole in the game. Hurns and Westbrook also had one catch each for 12 and 8 yards respectively. That amounts to six receptions for the four wide receivers for a total of 93 yards, albeit nearly half of that total came on Cole's reception.
That's highly unusual for a team to get five or six total catches from their wide receiver unit and still come out a winner.
Fortunately, Fournette came through.
As the Sports Xchange suggested this week, next to Bortles, Fournette may have been the most scrutinized player on an offensive unit that had its share of good and not-so-good days during the 2017 season. Fournette set his personal bar fairly high in his first six games when he rushed for 596 yards, including a 181-yard effort against the Steelers in Week 5. But his troubles started in Week 6 against the Los Angeles Rams. He finished with 130 yards including a 75-yard for a touchdown, but late in the game suffered a sprained ankle.
That led to his being held out of the following week's game at Indianapolis where the Jaguars didn't feel they needed his services as they rushed for 188 yards and passed for 330 more against a porous Colts defense. Fournette then had an extra week of rest during the bye week, but following that week he was listed as inactive against the Cincinnati Bengals even though he was not a part of the injury report late that week. Fournette had reportedly missed a team photo shoot, though neither the franchise nor Fournette ever revealed what the reason was for his being inactive that week other than a violation of team rules.
In the eight weeks that followed, Fournette had just two games in which he rushed for at least 70 yards. Three games he didn't even reach the 50-yard mark. But Fournette looked like his old self in Sunday's game at Pittsburgh, the same site that he had produced his longest run of the season (90 yards) and his most productive game. Midway through the second quarter, Fournette had already gained 80 yards in just 11 carries.
"We were able to get some movement and create some holes for him," Marrone said. "I thought he was really running extremely well and hard. He was getting a lot of the extra push that we needed, putting us in manageable situations."
Bortles had praise for both Fournette and the offensive line for their play in helping the Jaguars rack up 164 yards on the ground, their third-highest rushing output in 18 games this season.
"I think from what our offensive line and Leonard have done all year, we had all the confidence in the world that we could go get a yard when we needed to," Bortles said.
Fournette finished with 109 rushing yards on 25 carries. Most important were his three rushing touchdowns of 1, 3 and 18 yards.
He also aggravated his ankle injury.
Fournette had 82 yards on 12 carries against the Steelers before re-tweaking that troublesome ankle. After going to the locker room to have it re-taped, he managed just 27 yards in 13 carries in the second half, an indication the ankle was bothering him.
The good news is Fournette was scheduled to practice Wednesday and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport advised his Twitter followers the rookie should be good to go come Sunday. ...
Meanwhile, as DiRocco pointed out, the Jaguars' biggest problem in Pittsburgh was the defense. They ranked second in the NFL in pass defense and scoring during the regular season, but the Steelers rolled up 545 total yards (469 yards passing), both season worsts for the Jaguars. They allowed the Steelers to convert four fourth downs, including three that went for touchdowns.
DiRocco added that's exactly what the Jaguars will have to deal with in New England against Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, James White, Dion Lewis and the rest of the team's offensive weaponry. The Patriots can come at you in waves, and games can get out of control in a hurry, which was evident during their rout of Tennessee last Saturday night. The Titans led 7-0 before the Patriots rolled off 35 unanswered points.
DiRocco went on to suggest the Jaguars almost have to treat Sunday as an NBA game. The Patriots are going to make a run, and they have to weather that run and come back with one of their own. On the road. In harsh conditions. Against an eventual Hall of Fame quarterback with an explosive offense.
But as Long pointed out, even though their offense has endured dry spells this season, the Jaguars finished the regular season fifth in scoring. While the defense chipped in a touchdown on a 48-yard fumble return by linebacker Telvin Smith in Pittsburgh, Bortles kept the Jaguars moving.
Jacksonville converted 8 of 14 third downs and its lone fourth-down conversion came on Fournette's 1-yard leap in the first quarter.
Much, however, will depend on Bortles.
A month ago, Bortles was as hot as any quarterback in the league. But he finished the season with five interceptions in two games and then played a stinker in a wild-card-round victory over Buffalo. But as ESPN's Dan Graziano wrote, against Pittsburgh, "Bortles was a cool, efficient, third-down machine, making wise decisions with the ball, managing the game through the run and short passes and taking (and hitting!) big shots downfield on the few occasions when it was called for."
So he can be that guy.
The question is, will he be that this weekend?
Whatever the case, Bortles' inconsistency is the team's biggest weakness. The Jaguars don't know which version of Bortles is going to show up each week.
Even if Bortles is at his best, ESPN's Kevin Seifert summed it up pretty well when he wrote: "The Jaguars are a tough, physical and still very inexperienced team. They'll need to punch the Patriots in the mouth and then play a near-perfect game thereafter to pull off the upset. The chances of that turn of events seems low."
Other notes of interest. ... Also according to the Xchange, Fournette's ankle aside, free safety Tashaun Gipson suffered the most serious injury in the Pittsburgh game when he was sidelined in the second half with a foot injury. He left the game and did not return. Reports surfaced Monday that he was walking around the locker room with a boot on his foot.
Jarrod Wilson replaced Gipson in the second half and was solid, including a big pass breakup on a downfield throw to Pittsburgh receiver Martavis Bryant with under five minutes left in the game.
Smith had one of the best games of his career. He matched his career-high of 16 tackles and scored his second TD of the season when he scooped up a fumble and took it 50 yards to the end zone. Smith's other score this year was also against Pittsburgh when he posted a 28-yard pick-six against the Steelers in Week 5.
A.J. Bouye was covering Antonio Brown for a good share of the game and was burned for his first two touchdowns allowed this season. Bouye was credited with five tackles in the game.
Ramsey has made his mark as a tough pass defender, earning first team All-Pro honors this season. But Ramsey's best play in Sunday's game was when he dropped Bell for a 4-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 situation in the first half. ...
The Jaguars announced on Tuesday Fournette was in a minor car accident that morning. Per the announcement, Fournette's car was rear-ended by another vehicle and both Fournette and the car came through well enough to drive home after the incident. Ashley Harding of WJXT reports, via the Florida Highway Patrol, that Fournette's car was at the end of a three-car chain reaction and not at fault. ...
Fullback Tommy Bohanon sold his dive into the line only to break free into the end zone and make his first catch for a touchdown since the regular-season opener against Houston. ...
Kicker Josh Lambo has made 21 of 22 field goal attempts (including the postseason) since being signed as a replacement for Jason Myers on Oct. 17. The only kick he missed was a 41-yard attempt in the swirling winds in Cleveland. He's also 2-for-2 of attempts of 50 or more yards (51 and 56 yards). It was one of the team's most underrated signings and solidified a spot that was pretty shaky under Myers. ...
The game in Pittsburgh Sunday was the fourth-coldest that Jacksonville has ever played in during its 23-year history. Temperature at kickoff was 18 degrees. The only colder games were on Dec. 17, 2000 at Cincinnati (9 degrees), Dec. 19, 2004 at Green Bay (12) and Jan. 2, 2010 at Cleveland (16). It was also the second time this year that the Jaguars have played in a game where the temperature was below freezing at kickoff.
In the regular-season finale at Tennessee, game-time kickoff was 23, the sixth-coldest game ever in Jaguars history.
The Jaguars have historically not done well in cold weather. Prior to Sunday's win, the Jaguars had only recorded one win in their previous 10 coldest games ever. That came in December of 2004 when they won at Green Bay 28-25. Sunday's cold weather obviously didn't prevent the two offensive units from moving up and down the field. The teams combined for 923 total yards and 87 points.
The latter mark made this the fourth highest-scoring playoff game since 1940 according to ProFootballReference.com.
The good news?
The weather in Foxboro this weekend won't be nearly as chilly. According to Weather.com, the low on Sunday will be 30 degrees with a high of 44. It will be partly cloudy with a 10 percent chance of precipitation. Winds will be 10 miles per hour.
One last note here. ... Ramsey told thousands of fans awaiting the team's return from Pittsburgh late Sunday that the Jaguars "are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win that (expletive)."
Ramsey's comments surely will find their way north.
"You come back and you've got all the fans here and things of that nature," Marrone said.
"Obviously that's something that everybody, they want to do when you get close. Whether you have to say it or not? The one thing I do know is the road to it always leads through New England.
"Our focus isn't on anything else but the New England Patriots. It will be a great challenge for us obviously."
QBs: Gardner Minshew, Nick Foles, Josh Dobbs, Phillip Walker
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo
WRs: D.J. Chark, Dede Westbrook, Chris Conley, Keelan Cole
TEs: Ben Koyack, Nick O'Leary, Seth DeValve
Minnesota VikingsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 16 January 2018
The Vikings are feeling charmed and invincible heading into their first NFC Championship Game in eight years.
As the Sports Xchange suggested, they might be right.
A franchise tormented relentlessly by painful postseason letdowns going back to Super Bowl IV is one game from becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium. And all that stands in its way is Nick Foles and not Carson Wentz.
Actually, the Eagles have flexed an ample supporting cast since Foles, the career journeyman, had to step in for Wentz, the franchise quarterback who was having an MVP-worthy season before tearing an ACL. But the Vikings (14-3), who have their own surprising career journeyman quarterback in Case Keenum, still opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite at Philadelphia (14-3) on Sunday.
They just have to return to planet earth first after Sunday's 29-24 divisional playoff win over the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium. With four lead changes in the final three minutes, the game ended with Stefon Diggs taking a Keenum pass 61 yards for the first game-winning touchdown as time expired in NFL postseason history.
According to NFL.com's Dan Hanzus, Diggs' 61-yard score was the second-longest winning touchdown in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter of a playoff game in NFL history. The only longer touchdown? Kevin Dyson going 75 yards after the "lateral" from Frank Wycheck in the Music City Miracle against the Bills in January 2000.
Hanzus went on to note that when Vikings radio man Paul Allen called it the "Minnesota Miracle" in real time, what his description lacked in innovation it made up for in dead-on accuracy.
The name of the play is "Seven Heaven," something the Vikings have been working on since training camp.
"We had a meeting this morning, did our lift and our run, and I told them we can't make these mistakes (blowing a 17-0 halftime lead) in this playoff game or we'll be going home," head coach Mike Zimmer said on Monday. "Like everything, it's time for that one is done and gone with, and we're moving on to Philadelphia now. I verbally said that and I talked to the captains today. It's kind of what we do. We move on and go to the next one."
Zimmer and the Vikings set their sights on Foles a day after felling Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense. But Brees did manage to score 24 second-half points and take two leads in the final three minutes until perhaps the best play in Vikings history unfolded in the final 10 seconds.
"When I woke up (Monday morning)," said receiver Adam Thielen, "I had to make sure that it wasn't a dream."
Diggs felt the same way.
"It's a storybook ending, and it never ends that way," Diggs said. "Usually, it's reality. It's real life. Things go, you walk home and worry about tomorrow. But there were other plans. I give it all to God because things like this don't happen."
Not to the snake-bitten Vikings, that's for sure.
Of course, the Vikings do have two more wins to go before all of their demons can be exorcised. And the next step is against an Eagles team that's relishing its underdog status, having already dismissed the Falcons as underdogs on Saturday.
But as Associated Press sports writer Dave Campbell suggested, the Vikings wouldn't have advanced this far without an unassuming attitude, though, so they were quick on Monday to dismiss the danger of savoring the moment too long.
"I think it took a little bit longer yesterday to probably get over it, but, no, today I think guys are ready," Thielen said. "We know how tough this game's going to be for us, and we know that we still have a long ways to go."
To beat the Eagles, the Vikings have some more work to do. They won't have the crowd noise or the fast surface, for one.
They'll have to face a defense just as strong if not stronger than the Saints. That's why Zimmer, who let his guard down during an uncharacteristically playful postgame news conference, was all business at the podium inside the team's practice facility on Monday.
"We can't make these mistakes in playoff games or we'll be going home," Zimmer said. "There's always good and always bad in some of the games, but we made some critical errors in that game that could have gotten us beat."
Still, as noted above, Minnesota is a three-point favorite at the Eagles and could become the first team to play in its home stadium in the Super Bowl.
As ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin noted, Case Keenum rose above the pressure of the moment and proved he could win the duel against a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees. Even after he threw an interception in the third quarter, Keenum bounced back with magnificent throws to Jarius Wright and m Thielen, each of which set up field goals of 49 and 53 yards, respectively, that Kai Forbath booted with no trepidation.
When Brees drove the Saints back in the second half, the Vikings turned to their No. 1 defense to save the day. A defining moment of this game is something we've seen the top third-down defense in NFL history do time and again. Defensive end Brian Robison tackled Alvin Kamara for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1, forcing New Orleans to kick a field goal with 25 seconds to play.
Even with its stout defense coming through with a last-second stop, Minnesota proved that it can win games with offense.
That said, Minnesota blew a 17-point lead against New Orleans. Keenum was irritated with his errant throw that was picked off and set up a Saints touchdown. He has had several of those throws this season against Washington, Cincinnati and Green Bay, but the defenses he faced didn't capitalize like New Orleans. If that happens again, it will be more difficult to overcome.
In addition, while the Eagles' quarterback play is nowhere near the Saints', Cronin noted that Philly receiver Alshon Jeffery has caused this defense problems in the past, with seven touchdowns in nine games against the Vikings. Xavier Rhodes could see himself matched up against the Eagles' No. 1 wide receiver after struggling in coverage against Michael Thomas (seven catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns) and sustaining another in-game injury.
The Vikings' and Eagles' strengths are one in the same.
Philadelphia's defense is just as stingy as Minnesota's, leading the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (79.2) and fourth in total defense (306.5) and scoring (18.4).
Also worth pointing out, the Vikings are 8-1 at home this season and 6-2 on the road, so it isn't as if they can't pull it off. But the road wins were in Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and Green Bay after the Packers were eliminated.
Philadelphia's defense presents a more fearsome challenge than any of those did.
According to ESPN's Dan Graziano, to get the win, Minnesota will need to run the ball, control time of possession and force Foles into mistakes that Brees didn't make.
Graziano's ESPN colleague Kevin Seifert added that Minnesota's defense is better positioned than the Falcons' was to stop what the Eagles cooked up in the divisional round. The Vikings led the NFL by holding opposing runners to 1.38 yards per carry after first contact and ranked ninth in average yards allowed after the catch (1.37); in other words, they're great tacklers. That will make it more difficult for the Eagles to turn short passes into big gains, like they did against the Falcons, against whom Philadelphia averaged 4.9 air yards per throw and had a season-high 164 yards after the catch.
The Vikings also have a decent chance to limit tailback Jay Ajayi, who managed a career-high 64 yards after first contact against Atlanta. ...
On the injury front. ... The Vikings have had only two defensive starters miss a total of three games due to injuries this season. Strong safety Andrew Sendejo, who has two of the missed starts due to injury, could make it three in Philadelphia due to a concussion suffered against the Saints -- although Sendejo was able to work on a limited basis Wednesday.
Thielen did not participate in practice Wednesday because of a low back injury. He was present watching, however. That's likely an indication the team isn't worried about his availability against the Eagles (he'd be inside getting treatment if that was the case). Indeed, Thielen told reporters "I'm good," after the session was over.
That said, we'll continue to follow up as needed. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Keenum's 318 yards passing rank third in franchise history for a playoff game. The record is 423 by Jeff George against the Rams in January of 2000. Next is Randall Cunningham's 331 against the 49ers in January of 1998. ...
Diggs' 61-yard catch was the longest game-winning postseason touchdown in franchise history. It also was the seventh-longest postseason reception in franchise history. The longest was a 75-yarder by Gene Washington versus the Browns in January of 1970.
Forbath made up for a missed 49-yard field goal by making a 53-yarder in the closing minutes. It was the longest postseason field goal made in franchise history. Forbath also made field goals from 20 and 49 yards.
OL Mike Remmers played his third different position in the past three games. Originally, the team's starting right tackle this season, he played right guard in the regular-season finale against the Bears. Sunday, he played left guard. It was the eighth different line combination the team has used this season. ...
It didn't factor into Sunday's result, but the Vikings did make an interesting roster move on the eve of the Saints game.
They activated quarterback Sam Bradford from injured reserve two months after arthroscopic knee surgery. Then, the next morning they announced that Bradford would be the No. 2 quarterback while Teddy Bridgewater would be deactivated.
Bridgewater had been the No. 2 quarterback for the last eight games of the season. His only action came during mop-up duty when the Vikings led the Bengals 34-0.
Zimmer warned not to read too much into the decision long-term. The top three quarterbacks on the roster - Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater - have contracts that expire after this season. The only quarterback on the roster under contract beyond this season is undrafted rookie Kyle Sloter, who hasn't played.
Zimmer hasn't activated three quarterbacks on game day since becoming Vikings coach in 2014.
Bradford's only full game this season came when he posted a career-high 143.0 passer rating in a season-opening win over the Saints. He tried to play on the knee in Week 5, but couldn't move or protect himself and was pulled with the Vikings leading 3-2 late in the first half of a win at Chicago
And finally. ... NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported Monday that the Giants are expected to hire Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as the team's new head coach. Shurmur cannot negotiate or sign with the Giants until the Vikings are eliminated from the playoffs.
Shurmur, 52, became a hot coaching candidate due to his work with Keenum this season, and Bradford last year after taking over for Norv Turner midway through the campaign.
As the Vikings OC, Shurmur led Keenum and the offense to a top-10 rating in points per game (10th, 23.9), rushing yards per game (seventh, 122.3) and third-down conversion rate (third, 43.5). Minnesota finished 11th in passing yards per game with 234.6.
Shurmur's work with the quarterbacks in Minnesota makes him an ideal pairing in New York, where Eli Manning nears the end of his run, and Big Blue must find the next franchise signal-caller.
Shurmur's ability to coax production out of Keenum -- left for dead under Jeff Fisher last season -- and his work with unheralded players such as Thielen should be a boon for a Giants offensive attack that was one of the worst in the NFL under Ben McAdoo sans Odell Beckham in 2017.
Shurmur also interviewed with the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.
QBs: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion
RBs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah
WRs: Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Olabisi Johnson, Laquon Treadwell, Davion Davis
TEs: Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., Brandon Dillon, Tyler Conklin
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 16 January 2018
Tom Brady and the big game-tested Patriots (14-3) square off against the sack-happy Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) Sunday in the AFC championship game in Foxboro, Massachusetts - with the winner headed to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots have made it to the AFC championship game for seven straight seasons, clinching this trip with a 35-14 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night.
"The reality of the NFL is what we did this week will have nothing to do with what happens next week," Brady said. "We're going to have to go repeat it, so you've got to get right back to work, right back to the process of trying to figure out how to break down our opponent.
"Everyone's got to feel good physically and mentally and go out there and try to cut it loose one more time in a huge game."
The Patriots know how to do that, and they're masters of tuning out distractions. Despite a published report during the week that raised questions about the relationships between Brady, Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft, New England was all business on the field against the Titans.
"It's pretty incredible to be a part of that," Brady said. "I think the thing is that we don't really take it for granted around here. I know how hard it is to get to this game. We're very blessed to do it."
Meanwhile, the Patriots haven't faced the Jaguars since blowing them out in 2015.
Much has changed since then for the previously downtrodden franchise that went a decade between playoff appearances.
The Jaguars are able to pressure opposing quarterbacks despite rushing only four men. Indeed, they've been so successful in getting pressure that they blitzed the fewest times in the league in the regular season.
Having two lockdown cover corners in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye allows the Jaguars to mix and match the corners on the opponent's top receiver and play sides instead of always matching Ramsey up on the opponent's best receiver.
"There is not a lot of time for the quarterback to throw," Brady told WEEI on Tuesday. "I think the whole secondary knows it. The linebackers know it. They're aggressive. They take chances. They get a lot of turnovers. ... [The quarterback] is under pressure all day."
As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio suggested, while Brady may say that publicly, he and the coaching staff surely are dissecting every frame of film to figure out how the Steelers scored 42 points, and how quarterback Ben Roethlisberger generated 469 passing yards and five touchdowns.
Whatever the Steelers did, the Patriots will hope to do some of the same, while also trusting the defense to find a way to give up fewer points than however many New England can score.
The Patriots did get an early taste of the Jaguars way back in August. That's when the teams held three days of joint practices before a preseason game won by Jacksonville 31-24.
Belichick said Monday that the joint practices between the two teams during training camp don't have much relevance as the two teams prepare to meet for a berth in the Super Bowl. What does have relevance is the impression that a young and hungry Jags team made on some of the Patriots players.
"Those guys are competitive," tackle Nate Solder told reporters on Monday. "They play hard. They're very talented. The way that they practiced was hard, so you know that they're going to improve and get better and that's what they've done and that's what we have to perform against."
Special-teams captain Matthew Slater noticed the Jaguars' physicality during the sessions between franchises.
"They have the mentality," Slater told reporters. "Coach [Doug] Marrone, having a background as an offensive line coach, they have that toughness. They have those types of players who bring out toughness and edge, and it shows up on the film. You can be watching the film for a handful of plays and it shows up. That was something definitely that we saw when we left practicing with them, and it's something that they've consistently shown all year long."
"We knew from the beginning they were a good football team," safety Duron Harmon told reporters. "You could just tell. You could tell the mood around the team - they came up here and instantly they wanted to show that they were a good football team just like we are a good football team, and they did. You saw it then and they didn't have Jalen Ramsey and Calais Campbell practicing at the time. ... We saw it. We saw it. We knew they were going to be a good football team and they just kept progressing, kept getting better, and that's the reason why they're here right now."
As one source explained it to Florio on Sunday night the Jaguars may be too young to realize that they should be intimidated by the almighty Patriots.
As noted above, the Patriots and Jaguars last played in 2015, with New England winning at home, 51-17. The Patriots have a 7-0 record against the team that joined the NFL in 1995 in the regular season, and a 3-1 record in the postseason. The only win for the Jaguars happened during the 1998 playoffs, 25-10 in Jacksonville.
Asked about how impressive it was for the Jaguars to go into Pittsburgh and win, Belichick said, "Very impressive; yeah. They did a great job. Again, they do a lot of things well, play good defense, can rush the passer, can stop the run, turn the ball over, can run the ball, have a lot of explosive players in the passing game, they're good in the kicking game, they're very aggressive in the kicking game."
"They're well coached. I know that, for sure. They've handled the situations that have come up in those games very well - fourth-and-1 in the first quarter, things like that. They've really done a good job, so yeah, it's impressive."
Still, as ESPN.com's Mike Reiss suggested, entering Sunday, the idea that the Patriots could avoid the Steelers -- who played them tough in a 27-24 New England win on Dec. 17 in Pittsburgh -- would have been viewed by many as a victory for the team in and of itself.
So for those who preferred the "easier" path, this would seem to be it.
But as brilliantly successful as New England's Brady/Belichick run has been, there is the nagging little fact that a Tom Coughlin-coached Giants team beat them in the Super Bowl twice, including the one that wrecked their undefeated season. As ESPN's Dan Graziano noted, Coughlin is not the Jaguars' coach, but he oversees their football operations, and they are a team built in his mold.
As ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert pointed out, the Jaguars are by far the most physical team remaining in the playoffs.
They're perfectly capable of pushing back the line of scrimmage, hitting Brady often and hard, and keeping the Patriots off balance on both sides of the ball. If Jacksonville can use that physicality to cajole a few well-timed mistakes, and if tailback Leonard Fournette can get up a head of steam to minimize the pressure on quarterback Blake Bortles, then why not?
All in all, it's fair to wonder if Coughlin, who coached with Belichick under Bill Parcells with the Giants decades ago, won't continue to be a thorn in Belichick's side. ...
On the injury front. ... Rex Burkhead didn't play against the Titans in last Saturday night's victory and hasn't played since Week 15 because of a knee injury, but his absence from the lineup looks like it will end this week.
Burkhead was listed as questionable after a week of limited practices and Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported early this week that veteran running back is expected to play against the Jaguars.
It will be Burkhead's first playoff game with New England and the third overall of his career.
Dion Lewis moved into the lead role in the backfield while Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and James White were dealing with injuries at the end of the regular season and turned in another strong game against Tennessee. Lewis ran 15 times for 62 yards and caught nine passes for 79 yards in the 35-14 win.
White (ankle) returned to action against Tennessee after missing the final two games of the regular season. White had eight total touches in the win over the Titans, including a pair of touchdowns.
Receiver Chris Hogan (shoulder) returned to the starting lineup to open the postseason after missing seven of the final eight games of the year with the injury suffered in Week 8 against San Diego. Hogan had one catch for 4 yards against the Titans.
Gillislee (knee) was inactive for the playoff opener after missing practice throughout the bye. ...
Brady didn't hold his usual Wednesday press conference. A Patriots public relations staffer told the assembled media the QB is meeting with the medical staff and will be on the injury report when it is released later today. He was officially listed as limited (along with Burkhead and Gillislee) due to a right hand injury.
The Patriots have listed Brady with an Achilles injury several times in recent weeks, and he has missed some Wednesday practices this season while getting treatment. He also has shown up on the report with a left shoulder injury.
Brady was not on the team's injury report last week.
I'll obviously have more on that and the rest of the team's walking wounded in the News and Views section of the site as the week progresses. ...
Other notes of interest. ... As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio noted Wednesday, one of the biggest mysteries regarding the AFC title game relates to Jacksonville's plan for covering Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Arguably the best tight end in NFL history, he's a matchup nightmare for most teams, primarily since most teams don't have the firepower to handle him with one player.
The Jaguars have more than one player who could potentially cover Gronk without any, or much, help. The question becomes how they'll do it.
Mike Dempsey, cohost of FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and host at 1010XL Radio in Jacksonville, joined PFT Live, and one of the biggest topics related to the plan for dealing with Gronkowski. According to Dempsey, the Jags may assign cornerback Jalen Ramsey to Gronk, copying what the Broncos did two years ago, when cornerback Aqib Talib drew the assignment. The Jags also could try linebacker Myles Jack or linebacker Telvin Smith, both of whom have the speed and athleticism to try to keep up with him.
Or they could mix it up, keeping Gronk and the Pats guessing by using a variety of looks.
As Florio suggested, if it's Ramsey, there's a fascinating dynamic that could play out.
The second-year corner very much likes to talk to his opponents, and it definitely got under the skin of Bengals receiver A.J. Green during the regular season. Given that Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White successfully got under the skin of Gronkowski (primarily due to a belief by Gronk that he'd been held all game), Ramsey could do the same.
Gronk can be hard to slow down, but getting him frustrated and off his mental game is a good start. ...
Amendola had a solid season in New England, finishing third on the team with 61 catches for 659 yards with two touchdowns while starting eight of 15 games played. That production came with the team clearly monitoring the veteran's reps and targets in an effort to keep him healthy for the postseason despite a knee issue that's hampered him in recent years.
It worked. In the win over Tennessee, Amendola was targeted a game-high 13 times leading to 11 catches for 112 yards, the first 100-yard postseason game of his career.
"He's a great player. He works his tail off and he's just Danny 'Playoff' Amendola," Gronkowski said. "For real. Every time the playoffs come, big games, he's always there. He's always stepping up his game. He's a great player, great teammate, great dude so it's great to see that."
Brady described Amendola's contributions to the win as "incredible," while Belichick noted the veteran's sure-handed work on punt returns on a cold, windy night in Foxboro.
"He's kind of a guy you take for granted, but he delivered a lot tonight, as he always does," Belichick said of the receiver who had eight catches for 78 yards and a touchdown in last February's Super Bowl LI comeback after failing to catch more than four passes in any game during the 2016 regular season.
"He's one of the all-time great teammates, no question about it - very unselfish," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "However big or small you tell him his role's going to be on a week-to-week basis, he embraces that. ... It's a testament to him, how much he cares about his teammates and our team in general and love having the guy. It's a privilege to coach people like him. ..."
Today was the deadline for the team to either activate receiver Malcolm Mitchell from IR or leave him there for the rest of the season.
It will be the latter.
Mitchell was not activated by the deadline. He wasn’t on the practice field Wednesday, either.
Mitchell returned to practice on Dec. 27, opening the three week window. He was placed on IR before the start of the season with a knee problem, and practiced last Thursday after getting a couple of days off.
Mitchell caught 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie last season, and performed well in the Super Bowl, which may be part of the reason they gave him all the time they could to come back. ...
Receiver Kenny Britt was a healthy scratch for the postseason opener after playing a reserve role in the final three regular-season games after signing with New England in December. ...
A few final items. ... As they normally do when the opposition says something you might post on a bulletin board, the New England Patriots reacted diplomatically Monday to Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey guaranteeing his team is "going to the Super Bowl and we gonna win that b----."
"Man, that guy's really good," said a smiling Slater, asked to react to Ramsey. "He should be confident, because he's very, very good.
"The good lord made that guy and he said, 'let there be corner' and there he is, so I'd be confident if I were him as well."
As Reiss suggested, that's just the way the Patriots, who never say anything negative about their opponents, handle these things.
At least publicly. ...
And finally. ... Though NFL rules prohibit teams from hiring or even reaching agreements with coordinators from teams that remain in the postseason, it continues to appear that both Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could be leaving New England for head coaching jobs when the season ends.
Patricia, who spent the first-round bye interviewing with the Giants, Lions and Cardinals, reportedly is going to get the job in Detroit, where he'll work under general manager Bob Quinn, who worked in various roles in the Patriots' front office from 2000 until taking the Lions job in 2016.
Despite reports that the Lions' job is all but his at this point, Patricia downplayed the story in a Monday conference call as he began preparations for Sunday's AFC title game against the Jaguars.
"I'm really just in the same place as I was last week," Patricia explained. "I went through the process that the NFL allows us to go through and during the bye week I was able to have the opportunity to talk to a couple teams, which I did, and then quickly turned my focus to a very good Tennessee team and now I'm on to a very dangerous Jacksonville team. There's a process involved with that. There's things that the league sets out guidelines and I followed those when I could and fortunately, the good part about it for me is those are set up so that I can really focus on my job that I need to do and that's get ready for Jacksonville."
McDaniels also interviewed with a trio of teams during the bye week, including the Giants, Bears and Colts. Reports now indicate that he will get his second chance as a head coach - McDaniels coached the Broncos for two seasons, going 8-8 in 2009 and then 3-9 before being fired a year later - in Indianapolis where he will bring his offensive system and prowess to young passer Andrew Luck.
QBs: Tom Brady, Jarrett Stidham, Cody Kessler
RBs: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Damien Harris
WRs: Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers
TEs: Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo
Philadelphia EaglesCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 16 January 2018
As Associated Press sports writer Rob Maaddi put it, "The dog masks aren't going anywhere. ..."
The Philadelphia Eagles (14-3) are home underdogs again. Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings (14-3) opened the week as 3½-point favorites in the NFC championship game on Sunday.
That's just fine with the Eagles, who embraced their underdog role against sixth-seed Atlanta. Philadelphia was the first No. 1 seed in league history not favored to win its first playoff game.
After beating the Falcons 15-10, Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson and veteran defensive end Chris Long mocked doubters by wearing German Shepherd dog masks as they walked off the field.
The dog masks have become a popular item in Philly since the players wore them Saturday night. The team announced fans can wear them on Sunday as long as they take them off during security check entering the stadium.
"To have a lot of people not having a lot of confidence in us and yet to find ways to win just makes it that much more special for this group," head coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
Expectations for the Eagles have dropped since Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14. Nick Foles is 3-1 in his place with the only loss coming in Week 17 when the starters only played one quarter.
But the offense clearly isn't the same without Wentz, who is an MVP candidate after tossing 33 touchdown passes in 13 games.
"Since that point, no one has given us a chance," Pederson said. "Nobody has given us a chance. And I understand, Carson's a great player, but every week, our guys are hearing the same thing; that now we are all of a sudden not good enough. We're 13-3 and have the best record in football, we've got home-field advantage throughout.
"The guys are going to motivate themselves just based on what they have done and heard for the last month of football.
"Listen, it really doesn't matter what you guys talk about because that locker room in there is united and I'll go to bat for every one of those guys and I'll go to war with every one of those guys in that dressing room."
For the record, Foles turned in a solid performance in the win over Atlanta.
While he didn't throw a touchdown pass, he completed 23-of-30 passes for 246 yards, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and didn't throw an interception.
As the Sports Xchange noted, Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich had a good game plan for Foles, which featured a lot of short, high-percentage throws that allowed him to gain confidence as the game wore on.
Twenty of Foles' 28 "aimed" passes (he had one attempt batted away and threw away another pass) traveled six yards or less beyond the line of scrimmage. Six of those 20 were thrown behind the line of scrimmage, including a 32-yard screen to running back Jay Ajayi on a fourth-quarter drive that set up Jake Elliott's third field goal of the game and gave the Eagles a five-point lead with six minutes left.
Foles completed 12-of-15 passes in the second half, averaged 9.7 yards per attempt and wasn't sacked (he was sacked only once in the first half).
"We didn't make a lot of wholesale changes at halftime," Peterson said Monday. "We just stuck to the game plan.
"Nick started getting into a little bit of a rhythm in the second half a little bit more, and things began to open up. Alshon (Jeffery) started getting the ball a little bit (he finished with four catches on five targets for 61 yards). (Tight end) Zach Ertz got the ball a little bit more.
"We were able to take advantage of some things down the field. The screen game was a big part of that in the second half."
The Eagles rushed for 96 yards on 32 carries against the Falcons, but 77 of those 96 yards came in the first half. They averaged just 1.2 yards per carry in the second half. Jay Ajayi had 54 yards on 15 carries. But he had an early fumble that set up Atlanta's first score and didn't have a carry for more than two yards after the first quarter. That won't cut it this week against the Vikings, and he knows it.
"I feel like I did some of the job," Ajayi said. "But to be honest, I felt like I played poorly. The fumble, you can't do that in a big game. I feel like I could have executed a lot better."
Indeed, Foles and Co. will have his work cut out for him Sunday against Minnesota.
The Vikings allowed a league-low 13 touchdown passes, held opponents to a league-best 6.0 yards per attempt and gave up a league-best 35 pass plays of 20 yards or more. They also finished third in opponent passer rating (73.0).
"It's just a smothering defense," Pederson said. No. 97 (defensive end Everson Griffen) is a game-wrecker. They have outstanding personnel at every position.
"What you see with them is just the speed of the D-line getting to the quarterback and then just playing man coverage in the back end. (Xavier) Rhodes is a tremendous corner. The safeties are playing extremely well. It's not going to be easy. It's going to come down to execution."
According to ESPN.com's Tim McManus, it's difficult to envision the offense suddenly taking off against this group.
And while Vikings quarterback Case Keenum isn't a household name (or wasn't until his 61-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs as time expired against the Saints on Sunday), he has had a strong year, leading a Vikings team that finished 10th in scoring (23.9 ppg), and he just hung 29 points on a respectable Saints defense.
In other words, as ESPN's Dan Graziano noted, the Eagles will face a more efficient offense than Atlanta's and a tougher defense.
Graziano went on to ask, "It's unlikely that Philadelphia can pull off another 15-10 win, but can it keep the game under control, avoid turnovers, make enough plays on defense and ride the energy of its home crowd all the way to the Super Bowl?"
ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert believes they can.
According to Seifert, Philadelphia's home-field advantage matters more than you might realize. The past eight NFC/AFC title games have all been won by the home team. Just as important: Consider that the Vikings have won only three road playoff games in the 35 years since they moved into an indoor home stadium in 1982.
Every team is different, of course, but a clear trend over that long of a timeframe -- three victories in 15 total road playoff games -- is revealing. This season, two of the Vikings' three losses came on the road on grass outdoor fields.
The grass at Lincoln Financial Field was noticeably slippery in the Eagles' divisional-round matchup with the Falcons. These are not trivial matters. Read more on the Eagles from Tim McManus.
The Eagles' home-field advantage is real. The Vikings, on a neutral field, are objectively a better team. This will likely be another defensive battle. ...
On the injury front. ... CB Sidney Jones was inactive for Saturday's game against Atlanta. He was limited with a hamstring injury during practice last week, but the rookie also probably would have been used only on special teams. That said, he did practice fully on Wednesday, a good sign for his availability this weekend. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe did not practice due to a hamstring injury. No other names appeared on the injury report. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Corey Clement had just one carry against the Falcons, but caught a team-high five passes. Clement played 16 snaps in the game. LeGarrette Blount played 20 and Ajayi played 29.
DT Destiny Vaeao was a healthy scratch for the Atlanta game. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz decided to go with just three tackles for the first time this season. Vaeao was the odd man out. DE Chris Long, who was the team's second-best pass rusher the last half of the season, played just 20 snaps against Atlanta. That was his fewest of the season. ...
As Profootballtalk.com notes, Pederson spends most of his time working with the offense, but since Saturday's game he has taken an increased role in working with the special teams.
Pederson said after the Eagles lost the ball on a muffed punt and missed an extra point Saturday that he has met with special teams coordinator Dave Fipp twice since that game to figure out how they can correct those issues.
"It's just something we've just got to keep coaching our players," Pederson told Matt Lombardo of NJ.com. "I talked to Dave again today and yesterday about it, and we've just got to make sure we keep talking. We had some young guys on those plays that were exposed for kind of the first time in that situation, and we've just got to keep talking to our players and keep coaching them up."
Pederson said he told Fipp to make sure the players understand what they have to do to avoid special teams mistakes.
"A lot of times it is about awareness and just being aware of the situation," Pederson said. "As coaches we try to put our players in positions to be successful, and then once the play goes and the play and the snap of the ball, then it's kind of up to the player to execute the plan and the details of their work. A lot of times, as much as I stand up here and talk to the guys about weather and wind and it's cold, it's sunny, it's hot, and ball security, this, that and the other, it's part of being a professional athlete sometimes, being aware of the situation and what we're trying to get accomplished."
The only touchdown the Eagles gave up on Saturday was set up by that muffed punt. Pederson doesn't want to see that kind of mistake again. ...
It doesn't sound like weather will be a factor in this one. ... According to Weather.com, the projected high on Sunday will be 51 degrees, with a low of 39. The chances of precipitation are 10 percent, with winds coming out of the southwest at six miles per hour.
Wind became an issue for last weekend's game against the Falcons, especially as balls soared higher, where the wind was blowing more strongly. The field also was choppy, even though the field was dry.
And finally. ... According to TitanInsider.com's Terry McCormick, Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who is most known to Oilers/Titans fans for the playoff comeback he directed back in 1993 with the Buffalo Bills against the franchise, is a candidate for the sudden opening for head coach in Tennessee.
A longtime NFL backup quarterback, Reich's coaching specialty has been wideouts and signal callers. He earned a promotion to offensive coordinator for the Chargers in 2014-2015, and then served as the Eagles' coordinator the past two years in a secondary role under Pederson, who calls the Eagles' plays.
In addition, ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler reports Eagles QBs coach John DeFilippo is expected to get a second interview for the Cardinals' head coaching vacancy.
DeFilippo is also thought to be Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks' top choice for an offensive coordinator if he lands a lead job, but DeFilippo remains in the running in Arizona himself. DeFilippo did surprisingly well as the Browns' coordinator in 2015 and has played a large role in Wentz's development. If he doesn't land a head coaching job, it's safe to assume DeFilippo will be on the radar for other coordinator spots.
QBs: Carson Wentz, Nate Sudfeld, Clayton Thorson
RBs: Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, Jay Ajayi
WRs: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Greg Ward, Robert Davis, Nelson Agholor
TEs: Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Josh Perkins