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NFL free agency winners, losers: 49ers, Seahawks headed in opposite directions

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —    The NFL’s first wave of free agency is over. Signings will continue to trickle in over the next few weeks, but the majority of high-impact moves are already on the books.

Many team officials and coaches will say they’re happy with how it all played out, but there often is a sharp separation when evaluating which teams capitalized on the market and which didn’t.

The true fallout from these moves won’t become fully clear until teams take the field. But here’s a look at what appears to be some of the biggest winners and losers of free agency a week after the market opened.


San Francisco 49ers: Continuing the momentum gained as they closed out the season on a 5-0 swing, general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan further upgraded their roster in the last two months.

First came the five-year deal for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, followed by a three-year extension for wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who is coming off of a career year. They then added four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman following his release by the Seahawks. San Francisco also upgraded at running back, replacing Carlos Hyde with Jerrick McKinnon, who will fit perfectly into Shanahan’s system both as a ball carrier and pass catcher. Center Weston Richburg and linebackers Brock Coyle and Jeremiah Attaochu further strengthen the team’s core.

It’s realistic to believe the 49ers will have a legitimate chance to leap-frog the re-tooling Seahawks in the NFC West, and they could even threaten the division-champion Rams.

Cleveland Browns: New general manager John Dorsey and third-year coach Hue Jackson aren’t messing around. Before free agency even started, they took drastic steps to upgrade the roster, trading for wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and defensive back Damarious Randall. Then came the signings of running back Carlos Hyde, tight end Darren Fells, and offensive tackles Chris Hubbard and Donald Stephenson, among others.

Taylor is an underappreciated passer who seldom commits turnovers. Armed with weapons like Landry, Josh Gordon and Hyde, he has a chance to significantly improve the offense. And his presence means coaches don’t have to play a rookie quarterback before he’s ready.

Meanwhile, despite their many trades, the Browns still own five of the first 64 picks in the draft.

Minnesota Vikings: Despite reaching the NFC Championship Game, they decided to move on from Case Keenum and go all in on Kirk Cousins, whom they landed him on a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. Minnesota then addressed the other side of the ball by signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

The Vikings believe they now have a roster fit to contend for a Super Bowl with a top-rated defense, a three-time 4,000-yard passer and a diverse collection of weapons.

Tennessee Titans: General manager Jon Robinson and first-year coach Mike Vrabel deepened their ties to the Patriots by bringing on cornerback Malcolm Butler (five years, $61.24 million) and running back Dion Lewis (four years, $20 million).

Lewis gives quarterback Marcus Mariota and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur a versatile piece, while Butler at times has been one of the better corners in the league. Just as importantly, the two bring a winning mentality.

Los Angeles Rams: Their changes were more fueled by trades than signings, but the Rams still look like winners. Los Angeles loaded up at cornerback, acquiring Marcus Peters from the Chiefs and Aqib Talib from the Broncos while also signing Sam Shields and re-upping Nickell Robey-Coleman. General manager Les Snead said his team would be aggressive this offseason, and he has certainly backed up those words in reshaping the defense.


Seattle Seahawks: They released Sherman, telling him they wanted to create greater financial flexibility. Additionally, they lost key pieces in tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Paul Richardson, and defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Michael Bennett. Team officials understood the need to reshape the roster in hopes of staving off a full-blown rebuild, but Seattle still looks poised to take a step back.

New England Patriots: They already find themselves in an offseason of change with former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia now the head coach of the Lions. But they’ve got more work ahead of them as they try to rebound from the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. Butler, Lewis, wide receiver Danny Amendola and left tackle Nate Solder all signed elsewhere. Solder’s departure to the Giants could be the biggest loss of all, as Tom Brady now needs a new blindside protector.

Miami Dolphins: The cap-strapped team still managed to sign Amendola away from the Patriots and acquired pass rusher Robert Quinn from the Rams. But Miami traded Landry and released star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and three-time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey.


The modern NFL quarterback has evolved over the past 35 years, beginning with Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway, continuing into the 2000s with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and then entering the new era with Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Andrew Luck. As QBs figure to dominate the draft-day discussion in the upcoming NFL draft, For The Win looks back at the last 35 drafts to pick the best classes of the era.

(Click here for the worst QB classes.)

But first, a look at some numbers. Starting with the 1983 draft, there have been 453 quarterbacks selected by NFL teams. They’ve run the gamut from Hall of Famers to players who never stepped on the field for a preseason game. A look at those 453 reveals:

The good:

• Six are in the Hall of Fame (five more aren’t yet eligible but figure to be locks: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger)
• 38 played at least 10 seasons as an NFL starter
• 48 had a winning record (minimum: 50 starts)
• 72 were elected to a Pro Bowl
• 169 were the primary starter for a team for at least one season

The bad:

• 175 never started a game in the NFL
• 190 never threw a touchdown pass
• 263 threw at least one touchdown pass (but 124 of them threw more interceptions)

The ugly:

• 128 never threw a single pass in the NFL
• 318 were taken with a pick higher than Tom Brady’s No. 199
• More than half of the drafted quarterbacks (248 of 453) haven’t combined to throw as many touchdown passes as Peyton Manning.

And now, the 10 best QB draft classes of the last 35 years.

Some things to remember: The draft was 12 rounds through 1992 and eight rounds in 1993 before adopting the current seven-round format in 1994. Also, our selection of the worst QB drafted takes into account draft position, expectations and (lack of) NFL success. If you were a first-round pick who started a season and flamed out of the league, that’s considered worse than a sixth-round QB who never played a game.


The best: John Elway (1st round, No. 1 overall)
Others: Dan Marino, Jim Kelly
The worst: Todd Blackledge (1st round, No. 7)
1st round QBs: 6
QBs drafted: 16

The Class of ’83 isn’t just hype; it’s by far the greatest collection of quarterbacks ever to be taken in a single draft. You could throw out dozens of statistics to prove why, but one is all you need: Three quarterbacks were elected to the Hall of Fame from the ’83 draft (Elway, Kelly and Marino). That’s the only draft of the Super Bowl era in which more than one QB went to Canton, let alone three. The six QBs taken in the first round is also a modern draft record.


The best: Philip Rivers (1st round, No. 4)
Others: Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick
The worst: J.P. Losman (1st round, No. 22)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 17

The top three picks in ’04 were Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger. That’s two Super Bowl winners and a Pro Bowl stalwart who may be the best pure quarterback of the draft, albeit one drafted to a team that didn’t have as much success.

(You can debate why. Is it the chicken or the egg? Were the Chargers mediocre because Rivers couldn’t lead them to bigger things or was Rivers placed in an impossible situation with an owner whose main concern was leaving San Diego? Whatever the answer, Manning seemed to make the right choice in refusing to play for the Chargers.)

Not even the ’83 draft can boast such quality with its top three picks, as Todd Blackledge was the second quarterback selected that year, in between Elway and Kelly. And, quite famously, Kelly and Marino didn’t win Super Bowls, leaving Elway as the only one from his class to win a ring. That leaves just one other QB draft class of the past 35 years that can boast multiple Super Bowl winners from the same draft. That class came in …


The best: Russell Wilson (3rd round, No. 75)
Others: Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill
The worst: Brandon Weeden (1st round, No. 22)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 11

Who’d have guessed? Thanks to Nick Foles’ surprising Super Bowl win with the Eagles, he joins Russell Wilson as a 2012 draftee with a championship.

Back then – heck, even a few months ago – that would have been impossible to predict. If you’d have been told another quarterback from 2012 would have won a ring already, there was a bevy of options from which to choose.

Andrew Luck would have been the natural choice before injuries derailed him promising career. He could either return to form or fade away, like too many NFL players before him. Then there was Griffin (the No. 2 pick) and Russell Wilson, leading their teams to the playoffs in their rookie seasons.

When, the next year, Foles was in the midst of an 27 TD, 2 INT season with the Eagles, there appeared the chance that the class of 2012 could just maybe – possibly – challenge the class of 1983 one day. Then RG3 fizzled, Luck got hurt and Foles was pushed out of Philly.

Now, with Luck and Tannehill on the road to recovery, Kirk Cousins (who the Redskins drafted after Griffin) becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL and Foles having a Super Bowl MVP to his name, maybe the class of ’12 can at least get within shouting distance of ’83.

Interestingly, the most successful quarterback of the draft (Wilson) is perhaps the biggest question mark headed into 2018, with his successful Seahawks stripped for parts in free agency.


The best: Aaron Rodgers (1st round, No. 24)
Others: Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton
The worst: David Greene (3rd round, No. 85)
1st round QBs: 3
QBs drafted: 14

The 49ers wouldn’t mind having that No. 1 pick back.

While Alex Smith turned into an above-average QB in San Francisco, Aaron Rodgers, who went 23 picks later, is a Super Bowl champ, MVP winner and future Hall of Famer. The rest of the draft class sounds nondescript – Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Campbell, Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, Derek Anderson – but they’ve combined to have the most 20-win careers of any QB class in our time span.

That sounds like a low bar to clear, sure, but compare that to the next year when just two quarterbacks have 20 wins or the year after that when none reached that mark.


The best: Drew Bledsoe (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Mark Brunell, Elvis Grbac, Trent Green
The worst: Rick Mirer (1st round, No. 2)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 8

The 10th anniversary of the ’83 draft didn’t bring any Hall of Famers into the NFL, but Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell and Trent Green all had solid NFL career with each posting 50+ wins. Bledsoe was a worthy No. 1 but the run of success didn’t last long – Mirer was one of the biggest busts of all time at No. 2. Brunell and Green were steals in the fifth and eighth rounds, respectively.


The best: Peyton Manning (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Batch, Brian Griese
The worst: Ryan Leaf (1st round, No. 2)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 8

Peyton Manning ended up going at No. 1, where he belonged, but the fact that it wasn’t even a debate is as preposterous now as it was then. Manning was a textbook example of NFL front offices overthinking decisions.

No quarterback was ever more hyped, or more scrutinized, as Manning was in high school and at Tennessee. Despite living up to those expectations, Peyton still got picked apart both in college (when he lost the Heisman to Charles Woodson in the greatest robbery in the award’s history) and before the draft when Ryan Leaf – RYAN LEAF – was seriously considered as an alternative.

But Indy got it right and the rest is history. Matt Hasselbeck was the second-winningest quarterback selected that year (sixth round, pick No. 187) and actually has the 15th most wins of any quarterback selected since 1993.


The best: Drew Brees (2nd round, No. 32)
Others: Michael Vick
The worst: Chris Weinke (4th round, No. 106)
1st round QBs: 1
QBs drafted: 11

At the top, the 2001 QB class is better than almost any. Vick was taken with the No. 1 overall pick and Brees was No. 1 in the second round. Few other drafts can claim such star power, even if Vick’s star burned too bright, too quick.

Brees is likely to retire as the NFL leader in most major passing categories and is a surefire Hall of Famer. The reason the draft ranks doesn’t rank as high as its top two? No one else had more than 20 career wins, not Quincy Carter, not Mike McMahon, not Josh Booty, not Marques Tuiasosopo and certainly not Chris Weinke, whose 2-18 record stands as one of the worst in NFL history.


The best: Matt Ryan (1st round, No. 3)
Others: Joe Flacco, Chad Henne
The worst: Brian Brohm (2nd round, No. 56)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 13

Joe Flacco has never made a Pro Bowl in his career, which isn’t a stunner until you consider how injuries, apathy and the movement of the game to before Super Bowl have made Pro Bowl bids about as hard to score as Valentines cards in elementary school. But Flacco is 92-62 in his career, won a Super Bowl, signed a $100 million deal and consistently has his Ravens in playoff contention.

Matt Ryan’s record is only slightly better than Flacco’s (95-63) and he doesn’t have the ring (he came close though) but he’s thought of as one of the game’s top QBs. The only other draft classes to produce two quarterbacks with 90+ wins are the two at the top of our list – 1983 and 2004.


The best: Tom Brady (6th round, No. 199)
Others: Chad Pennington, Marc Bulger
The worst: Giovanni Carmazzi (3rd round, No. 65)
1st round QBs: 1
QBs drafted: 12

Brady alone isn’t enough to propel this class into the top 10. (Consider: Brett Favre’s 1991 class is closer to the bottom of the list than the top, as no one else who was taken that year had more than 15 career wins.) So, in addition to Brady, there was Chad Pennington and Marc Bulger. Neither were NFL stars (they had two Pro Bowls between them) but they played a combined 13 seasons and each won more than 40 games. Touting the win total of the class of 2000 is kind of like saying that between Hank and Tommie, the Aaron brothers hit 768 home runs, but it’s impressive nonetheless.


The best: Vinny Testaverde (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Rich Gannon, Steve Beuerlein, Jim Harbaugh, Chris Miller
The worst: Kelly Stouffer (1st round, No. 6)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 19

A prime example of more being more, the ’87 draft didn’t produce a major superstar (Rich Gannon’s MVP season excepted) but between Testaverde, Gannon, Beurelein, Chris Miller and Don Majkowski, there were six legitimate NFL starters taken over the 12-round draft. They stayed around a while too; Testaverde played 21 seasons, Gannon played 18 and Beuerlein was in uniform for 17.

NFL competition committee to recommend catch rule changes

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —   WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The NFL’s catch rule would get less complicated if team owners approve recommendations from the powerful competition committee.

One of the first orders of business when the league’s annual meetings begin Monday in Orlando, Florida, will be a proposal by the committee to clarify what is a catch. Commissioner Roger Goodell said during the week of the Super Bowl he would urge simplification of the rules.

“Catch/no catch is at the top of everyone’s minds,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s football operations chief, said Wednesday before outlining the committee’s recommendations.

The owners will be asked to vote on clarifications that eliminate parts of the rule involving a receiver going to the ground, and that also eliminate negating a catch for slight movement of the ball while it is in the receiver’s possession. No calls in the last few years – not even pass interference – have caused more consternation than overturned catches in key situations, including those by Dez Bryant, Jesse James and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

“We were at the point as far as players and particularly coaches who asked, `Why is that not a catch?“’ Vincent said. “We talked to fans, coaches and players and we asked the groups, `Would you like this to be a catch?’ It was 100 percent yes.

“Then we began writing rules that actually apply to making these situations catches.”

Here’s what would constitute a catch if the owners approve the competition committee’s alterations:

control of the ball;

getting two feet down;

performing a football act or;

performing a third step.

The stipulation that slight movement of the ball while the receiver still has control no longer would result in an incompletion. Vincent pointed to the touchdown catch by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Corey Clement in the Super Bowl as an example of a player never losing possession of the ball despite slight movement.

“That’s what the fans, coaches and players want,” Vincent said. “They are the magical moments people are looking for, and that includes all of those (plays). It’s the biggest (proposed change). Why we want this is this is one call shaping results across the sport.”

Richard Sherman, the star cornerback who recently was cut by Seattle and signed with San Francisco, approves cleaning up the rules.

“I’m in favor of it because it gives the refs more clarity,” Sherman said. “I think anytime you can give the referees more of a straight line, an edge, to call plays, I think it’s better for the game.

“I think obviously there’s been a lot of scrutiny on the catch rule. Last year, my team was at the wrong end of it. A guy caught the ball and ran three or four steps, put his hand in the ground, fell, fumbled the ball and nobody touched him, and they said it was an incomplete pass. It was the most ridiculous thing I think I’ve ever seen.

“I think that they need to do more rules like that. They need to take the gray area out of a lot more rules because the rule book is getting too crazy. It’s getting too extensive. Every year, the refs are getting scrutinized left and right when it’s a bang-bang play. This game is happening at a million miles an hour and there’s really nothing you can do about it. The rule book is so complex. How many times can you think of 1,500 rules in a second of a play and see which ones apply to that particular play? So, I think any time they can simplify the rule book and simplify the ref’s understanding and the public’s understanding is better for the game.”

Competition committee members are chairman Rich McKay, president of the Falcons; Broncos general manager John Elway; Cowboys COO Stephen Jones; Giants owner John Mara; Packers President Mark Murphy; Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome; Saints coach Sean Payton and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

They also are recommending:

expanding protection of a runner, which also involves quarterbacks when they have given themselves up as a runner. Vincent cited Kiko Alonso’s hit on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco last season, saying the NFL must avoid an “unnecessary shot.”

    • “This is strictly a safety move,” Vincent said.

allowing the officiating staff at NFL headquarters in New York, using video review, to call for an ejection of a player committing an egregious non-football act. That would include throwing punches or being involved in a fight. Vincent pointed to acts by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans last season.

  • Vincent said there were no discussions within the competition committee regarding protocol for the pregame national anthem. Owners are expected to take up the subject on Monday or Tuesday, but no decisions are likely.


AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

NFL free agents in 2018: Which players will spark spending sprees?

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   With the deadline for NFL teams to apply the franchise tag passing on Tuesday, free agency is coming into focus.

Ahead of the window for players to sign with new teams opening on March 14, here is a rundown of the top 10 players currently set to be available on the market:

1. Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins

The clear crown jewel of the class, Cousins would instantly boost any of his potential suitors – likely landing spots include the Broncos, Vikings, Jets and Cardinals. But landing the 30-year-old will be costly. His annual average salary is a virtual lock to break 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s record of $27.5 million.

2. Drew Brees, QB, Saints

Brees’ presence on this list might be merely procedural, as he was restricted from being given the franchise tag and has given no indication he would look outside of New Orleans, especially after an NFC South title. Even at 39, he would be among the most in-demand players if he took a genuine look at the open market.

3. Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars

He’s coming off of an anterior cruciate ligament tear, but Robinson is just 24 years old, and has both the frame (6-3, 211 pounds) and skill set to reclaim his spot as one of the top young wideouts in the league.

4. Andrew Norwell, G, Panthers

It takes a rare player to command big money as a guard, but Norwell helped stabilize the offensive line for the Panthers and helped power Carolina’s bruising run game over the past several seasons. Using the contract Browns guard Kevin Zeitler signed last season (five years, $60 million) as a guide, Norwell could fetch a massive payday on the open market.

5. Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams

Posting a solid but unspectacular season under the franchise tag last season with the Rams, Johnson still could be set to cash in on a massive deal. Supply in the cornerback market doesn’t meet the outsized demand, so one team in need – think 49ers, Jets, Browns, Buccaneers or Even the Rams – likely will feel compelled to open up its wallet to lock Johnson in.

6. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seahawks

He still hasn’t replicated the pass-rushing production of his most effective seasons with the Jets in 2014 and 2015 and has had off-field issues that may scare away some teams. But if Richardson can focus on his game, his versatility could tempt defensive coordinators looking for a player who stops the run and can pressure the quarterback well.

7. Sammy Watkins, WR, Rams

Watkins – like Robinson – is only 24 years old and has shown big-play potential, scoring eight touchdowns on 39 catches in one season in Los Angeles. The dynamic receiver is still learning the NFL game, but he may land on his third team in five seasons. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft is still looking for a sense of consistency after showing some promising flashes throughout his career.

8. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings

The big question with Minnesota’s former starter centers on his health. But prior to his suffering a devastating knee injury in August of 2016, he looked every bit the franchise quarterback the Vikings had needed. He’ll likely need some more time to get back to game shape, but Bridgewater may be available at a significant discount relative to most starting-caliber options.

9. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks

This might be too high for a 31-year-old tight end. But even though he posted his least productive season for receiving yards (520) since his rookie season, Graham is still a force in the red zone with 10 touchdowns on just 95 targets last year. Graham may need fewer snaps, but can still be a difference maker on the right team.

10. Case Keenum, QB, Vikings

Keenum excelled in 2017, helping lead the Vikings to an NFC Championship Game appearance in a breakout season. If Minnesota doesn’t land Cousins, Keenum could return there, though he likely will spark considerable interest from other teams looking for a veteran to slide in as a starter.


NFL free agency officially begins March 14. Here’s an early look at how AFC teams might approach the market. (Each club’s projected cap space is noted in parentheses, courtesy of as of March 7.)


Buffalo Bills ($24 million)

Free agents: LB Preston Brown, CB E.J. Gaines, LB Ramon Humber, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Deonte Thompson, FB Mike Tolbert, DT Kyle Williams

Advice: They’d obviously like to upgrade at quarterback, but it makes sense to pay Tyrod Taylor’s $6 million roster bonus given there’s no assurance Buffalo can do better in free agency or the draft. Coach Sean McDermott loves Williams’ leadership, but he’ll be 35 this year. Limited cap space might be better used on Brown, Gaines or perhaps a No. 2 receiver.

Miami Dolphins ($8M over the cap)

FAs: S Nate Allen, OL Jermon Bushrod, QB Jay Cutler, TE Anthony Fasano, QB Matt Moore, K Cody Parkey

Advice: Given QB Ryan Tannehill’s injury history, Miami needs to consider a quality alternative, and bringing Moore back might be the answer. But the cap doesn’t offer a lot of options, especially as long as WR Jarvis Landry’s $16M franchise tag eats into it.

New England Patriots ($15M)

FAs: WR Danny Amendola, RB Rex Burkhead, CB Malcolm Butler, LB James Harrison, RB Dion Lewis, ST/WR Matthew Slater, LT Nate Solder

Advice: Tough choices for the AFC champs, who also have to start pondering QB Tom Brady’s next deal. With WR Julian Edelman (ACL) on the mend, keeping Amendola seems wise unless another team swoops in with a huge offer. Brady would surely like to see Solder back, too, though the Pats tend not to overpay linemen (or running backs).

New York Jets ($90M)

FAs: K Chandler Catanzaro, CB Morris Claiborne, ILB Demario Davis, DE Kony Ealy, QB Josh McCown, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

Advice: Quarterback remains the priority, and a run at Kirk Cousins appears inevitable given New York’s cap resources. If that fails, the Jets are better served to re-sign McCown and target their next franchise passer with the sixth pick of the draft. Whoever is under center will need help at the skill positions, and GM Mike Maccagnan needs to acquire corner help (Malcolm Butler?) while also rebuilding the defensive line.


Baltimore Ravens ($5M)

FAs: OL James Hurst, C Ryan Jensen, WR Mike Wallace, TE Benjamin Watson, RB Terrance West

Advice: Jensen, 26, developed into a player worth keeping. But Baltimore will have to do major restructuring in order to pursue top-line receivers like Sammy Watkins or Allen Robinson.

Cincinnati Bengals ($35M)

FAs: C Russell Bodine, TE Tyler Eifert, RB Jeremy Hill, QB AJ McCarron, LB Kevin Minter, OL Andre Smith

Advice: It would be nice to have Eifert back, though his injury history will deter any team from giving him a huge guarantee. But Cincinnati really needs help on the O-line and would be wise to recruit Nate Solder even though doing so would cut against the franchise’s general avoidance of outside free agents.

Cleveland Browns ($114M)

FAs: RB Isaiah Crowell

Advice: No team has more cap space, though few need more help than one coming off an 0-16 campaign. GM John Dorsey can set up the next two generations of Kirk Cousins’ family, though Cleveland doesn’t check the quarterback’s block for joining a contender. AJ McCarron, a favorite of coach Hue Jackson’s from their time together in Cincinnati, would be a more affordable bridge to DeShone Kizer or the quarterback Dorsey is expected to draft. Crowell should be easy enough to replace in a back-heavy draft, but Cleveland might also look at Solder if LT Joe Thomas retires. CBs like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler and a mid-tier wideout like Paul Richardson would fill significant holes.

Pittsburgh Steelers ($1M)

FAs: OL Chris Hubbard, LB Arthur Moats

Advice: With RB Le’Veon Bell carrying the franchise tag again, this time for $14.5 million, Pittsburgh has plenty of work to do to free some funds beyond restructuring WR Antonio Brown’s contract. A long-awaited multi-year deal for Bell remains an objective both sides seem to want.


Houston Texans ($67M)

FAs: T Chris Clark, T Breno Giacomini, S Marcus Gilchrist, CB Johnathan Joseph, QB Tom Savage, G Xavier Su’a-Filo

Advice: Their first- and second-round picks belong to Cleveland, so new GM Brian Gaine will be compelled to devote his ample cap space to rebuilding the offensive line and secondary. Solder, who played for Bill O’Brien during his rookie year in New England, also makes sense here. Houston could also target Panthers all-pro G Andrew Norwell in a bid to buy protection for franchise QB Deshaun Watson.

Indianapolis Colts ($72M)

FAs: LB Jonathan Bostic, DB Darius Butler, RB Frank Gore, G Jack Mewhort, LB Barkevious Mingo, WR Donte Moncrief

Advice: Name a position, and the cap-flush Colts probably need help — especially on defense, where a game wrecker like DL Sheldon Richardson or corner like Malcolm Butler are made to order. It’s also imperative they shore up the blocking in front of recuperating QB Andrew Luck, so count Indy among teams that should try to woo Norwell, Ryan Jensen and maybe Justin Pugh.

Jacksonville Jaguars ($35M)

FAs: CB Aaron Colvin, QB Chad Henne, WR Marqise Lee, G Patrick Omameh, LB Paul Posluszny, WR Allen Robinson

Advice: QB Blake Bortles needs receiving help. It would be nice to bring Robinson back, but his knee rehab apparently prohibited the Jags from franchising him. Big targets like WR Terrelle Pryor or TE Jimmy Graham might be helpful and more affordable. Even if the Jags draft a developmental quarterback (Lamar Jackson?), they should keep a familiar vet like Henne.

Tennessee Titans ($48M)

FAs: WR Eric Decker, WR Harry Douglas, DE DaQuan Jones, G Josh Kline, LB Erik Walden, LB Avery Williamson

Advice: Jones, Kline and Williamson are reliable players it would be nice to keep in order to maintain continuity without breaking the bank. A deep threat like Seattle WR Paul Richardson could really open up the offense.


Denver Broncos ($25M)

FAs: OL Allen Barbre, RB Jamaal Charles, DE Jared Crick, LB Todd Davis, TE Virgil Green, QB Brock Osweiler, T Donald Stephenson

Advice: GM John Elway will surely have to find more cap space if he’s going to lure Cousins. Pursuing Case Keenum or AJ McCarron would be an easier route to addressing the quarterback conundrum while keeping most of the roster intact. Crick and Davis, both starters, can be replaced internally.

Kansas City Chiefs ($3M over the cap)

FAs: OL Zach Fulton, LB Derrick Johnson, DL Bennie Logan, S Ron Parker, WR/KR De’Anthony Thomas, WR Albert Wilson

Advice: They’ve already been active, with QB Alex Smith and CB Marcus Peters set to be traded. Most holes can probably be addressed during the draft, though one more veteran corner, say Prince Amukamara or Morris Claiborne, would help.

Los Angeles Chargers ($22M)

FAs: S Tre Boston, QB Kellen Clemens, TE Antonio Gates, OL Matt Slauson, LB Korey Toomer, G Kenny Wiggins

Advice: Boston played well in 2017 but seems to be seeking a major payday. GM Tom Telesco might be wise to first bolster one of the league’s worst run defenses. And what about locking up a fairly reliable kicking option like Sebastian Janikowski or even Cody Parkey?

Oakland Raiders ($16M)

FAs: LB NaVorro Bowman, CB T.J. Carrie, DT Justin Ellis, K Sebastian Janikowski, QB EJ Manuel, S Reggie Nelson

Advice: It probably makes a lot of sense to re-sign Bowman, who made an impact after coming across the Bay midway through last season. Otherwise, start pushing money into the 2019 cap while Jon Gruden evaluates this roster.


NFL free agency officially begins March 14. Here’s an early look at how NFC teams might approach the market. (Each club’s projected cap space is noted in parentheses, courtesy of as of March 8.)


Dallas Cowboys ($3 million)

Free agents: WR Brice Butler, G Jonathan Cooper, LB Anthony Hitchens, RB Alfred Morris, LB Kyle Wilber

Advice: The looming question centers on WR Dez Bryant and whether he will accept a pay cut. Such a move would likely be the best outcome for both sides, but the Cowboys shouldn’t be afraid to move on from Bryant. Hitchens is likely too expensive to keep, and the team should focus on bringing along Jaylon Smith while finding cheaper depth.

New York Giants ($24M)

FAs: LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Ross Cockrell, RB Orleans Darkwa, G D.J. Fluker, LB Devon Kennard, OL Justin Pugh, C Weston Richburg, RB Shane Vereen

Advice: Fixing the offensive front is new GM Dave Gettleman’s top priority, and he could start by giving a serious payday to Panthers G Andrew Norwell, whom he signed as an undrafted free agent four years ago. While the linebacking corps is getting an upgrade with the trade for Alec Ogletree, Gettleman could continue looking elsewhere, perhaps plucking Nigel Bradham from the Eagles.

Philadelphia Eagles ($9M over the cap)

FAs: DT Beau Allen, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Nigel Bradham, TE Trey Burton, CB Patrick Robinson, RB Darren Sproles

Advice: The new champions already made their splashy move of the offseason, acquiring DE Michael Bennett. The focus now turns to sheering salary. Bradham and Burton will likely be too expensive to keep, while DE Vinny Curry and WR Torrey Smith could be cap casualties. Some of their free agents warrant short-term offers, but GM Howie Roseman was right to suggest the team won’t open the vault for anyone right now.

Washington Redskins ($48M)

FAs: CB Bashaud Breeland, LB Zach Brown, QB Kirk Cousins, G Shawn Lauvao, LB Trent Murphy, WR Terrelle Pryor

Advice: After acquiring QB Alex Smith, Washington is finally poised for a clean break from Cousins. But there’s still work to be done. The receiving corps could use a boost after Pryor’s struggles, and Paul Richardson would give Smith the vertical threat he needs to remain an efficient deep passer. Keeping Brown should be a priority.


Chicago Bears ($50M)

FAs: CB Prince Amukamara, QB Mark Sanchez, G Josh Sitton, DE Mitch Unrein

Advice: The receiving corps is in line for an overhaul. Kansas City’s Albert Wilson might be a nice starting point given his familiarity with new coach Matt Nagy’s system, but the real prize would be Allen Robinson, who would give QB Mitchell Trubisky a true No. 1 while increasing the second-year passer’s confidence. CB Kyle Fuller is on the transition tag but should receive a long-term deal.

Detroit Lions ($27M) 

FAs: CB D.J. Hayden, CB Nevin Lawson, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Tahir Whitehead, S Tavon Wilson, LB Paul Worrilow

Advice: Even with DE Ezekiel Ansah franchised, rookie coach Matt Patricia will need more help in the front seven to get the 27th-ranked defense up to snuff. Probably makes to retain Ngata and Whitehead while perhaps taking a hard look at Bradham. RB Rex Burkhead would be a sensible fit for a backfield needing a jumpstart.

Green Bay Packers ($20M)

FAs: LB Ahmad Brooks, S Morgan Burnett, G Jahri Evans, CB Davon House, TE Richard Rodgers

Advice: New GM Brian Gutekunst expressed a desire to be more “aggressive” in free agency, and there are sensible targets like DE Muhammad Wilkerson and TE Trey Burton. A tight cap outlook, however, likely prevents the team from making many moves. WR Randall Cobb might need to take a pay cut.

Minnesota Vikings ($47M)

FAs: G Joe Berger, QB Sam Bradford, QB Teddy Bridgewater, DT Tom Johnson, QB Case Keenum, RB Jerick McKinnon, CB Terence Newman

Advice: Ample cap space, a blank slate at quarterback and loaded roster make Minnesota a sensible spot for Kirk Cousins. But the Vikings need to strike a deal that won’t hamper the long-term outlook of the defense, a point coach Mike Zimmer has stressed. A third-down back likely will be needed to replace McKinnon, who wants a larger role.


Atlanta Falcons ($15M)

FAs: DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Taylor Gabriel, DT Dontari Poe

Advice: With Poe poised to walk, Atlanta could consider a serious upgrade on the interior with Sheldon Richardson. He still hasn’t tapped into his full potential, but coach Dan Quinn’s scheme could be the perfect fit. However accommodating Richardson would surely force GM Thomas Dimitroff to get creative, especially given QB Matt Ryan is entering the final year of his deal.

Carolina Panthers ($29M)

FAs: QB Derek Anderson, DT Star Lotulelei, G Andrew Norwell, DE Julius Peppers

Advice: Coach Ron Rivera said Carolina is pondering whether to add a dynamic receiver alongside Devin Funchess, and Sammy Watkins could be the desired upgrade. Norwell and Lotulelei will likely fetch deals too rich to match, especially if Carolina somehow lands Watkins. Getting Peppers back should be reasonable.

New Orleans Saints ($28M)

FAs: QB Drew Brees, QB Chase Daniel, DE Alex Okafor, S Kenny Vaccaro

Advice: Another deal for Brees is a virtual certainty given New Orleans would take an $18 million cap hit if one isn’t reached by Wednesday. With an emerging young core, New Orleans should manage its cap and avoid major signings that have proved costly in the past.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($71M)

FAs: CB Brent Grimes, G Evan Smith, S T.J. Ward

Advice: The Bucs have the spending power to make waves, but the pool of available talent doesn’t line up with their needs. With a scarcity of top-line pass rushers, GM Jason Licht might instead focus on a cornerback — perhaps Malcolm Butler or Aaron Colvin — and maybe a safety. Addressing the offensive line would also be wise. Nate Solder or Justin Pugh could upgrade an overwhelmed front.


Arizona Cardinals ($20M)

FAs: CB/ST Justin Bethel, G Alex Boone, WR Jaron Brown, WR John Brown, LB Karlos Dansby, QB Blaine Gabbert, DE Frostee Rucker, QB Drew Stanton, G Earl Watford

Advice: With no quarterbacks on the roster and sub-optimal positioning to address the spot in either via free agency or the draft, new coach Steve Wilks is in a bit of a bind. Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford might make the most sense as low-cost, starting-caliber fliers. Case Keenum could also be an attractive option if the price is right. Arizona should also be in the market for a bargain cornerback.

Los Angeles Rams ($28M)

FAs: LB Connor Barwin, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, C John Sullivan, WR Sammy Watkins

Advice: GM Les Snead has already packed a full offseason’s worth of notable moves into the past few weeks, agreeing to acquire CBs Marcus Peters from the Chiefs and Aqib Talib from the Broncos while crafting trades to move LBs Robert Quinn (Dolphins) and Alec Ogletree (Giants). Sullivan is worth keeping, but Robey-Coleman and Johnson, who was franchised in the previous two offseasons, are likely gone with Peters and Talib on the way. Unless Watkins is amenable to taking a discount, Los Angeles should be prepared to walk away given DT Aaron Donald is in line for a massive extension.

San Francisco 49ers ($70M)

FAs: G Brandon Fusco, RB Carlos Hyde, CB Dontae Johnson, S Eric Reid

Advice: After a measured approach in his first free agency go-around, GM John Lynch could reshape the roster this year. Trumaine Johnson fills the team’s profile and need at corner, while Allen Robinson would give QB Jimmy Garoppolo the jump-ball receiver he lacks. Dion Lewis or Jerick McKinnon could thrive as all-purpose threats in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and Lynch would also be wise to consider guards like Justin Pugh or Josh Sitton.

Seattle Seahawks ($13M)

FAs: TE Jimmy Graham, OL Luke Joeckel, CB Byron Maxwell, WR Paul Richardson, DT Sheldon Richardson, K Blair Walsh

Advice: With DE Michael Bennett shipped to Philadelphia and CB Richard Sherman’s future in doubt, Seattle must decide whether to go full tilt with a rebuild. GM John Schneider will have to navigate a difficult cap outlook, though relief could come from cutting DE Cliff Avril and CB Jeremy Lane. Keeping either Sheldon Richardson or Paul Richardson would be nice, but Schneider can probably only afford one right now. Seattle is likely best off letting Graham walk.


Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @mikemschwartz

NFL mock draft 2018: First round’s post-combine fallout

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —    INDIANAPOLIS — The scouting combine is supposed to provide one final, level playing field — theoretically — for NFL draft prospects to compete while being evaluated by all 32 teams. But Saquon Barkley, whom we pegged as the top pick in our mock draft a month ago, proved to be a man among boys during his workout at Lucas Oil Stadium and somehow managed to elevate his lofty stock. Asked if the Giants should take the Penn State star with the second overall selection, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock replied, “Saquon Barkley — if he’s there at two — is the most obvious choice in the draft. He’s special. He’s different. He’s all those things.”

And based on what we saw and heard during the combine, we think Barkley may wind up atop a lot more mock drafts — and, just maybe, the actual one.

1. Browns — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Some draft observers suggested his combine performance might have been the most impressive ever. The NFL Research Twitter account provided this context for the 6-foot, 233-pounder when comparing his numbers against those posted by recent all-pros in Indianapolis: Stronger than Joe Thomas, quicker than DeSean Jackson, faster than Devin Hester, jumps higher than Julio Jones. As crucial as quarterbacks are, how do you pass on talent like this, especially when you also own the fourth overall pick? Barkley’s persona also suggests he will have little trouble assuming the mantle of “face of the franchise,” and he embraces the challenge of turning around a franchise like Cleveland’s. He should be every bit as good as recent first-round backs (Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette), and placing Barkley in a backfield that’s about to lose leading rusher Isaiah Crowell to free agency alongside a rookie quarterback — remember what Elliott did for Dak Prescott in 2016 — could be the optimum way to ease a young passer’s transition. Take this to the bank: Cleveland will only get one crack at Barkley, and this is it.

2. Giants — Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: He didn’t throw at the combine, which could make him a perfect candidate for the Giants, who probably wouldn’t need him to throw a regular-season pass in 2018, either. New GM Dave Gettleman would probably love to get a shot at Barkley and will probably be tempted to add Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson, one of his beloved “hog mollies,” to what may be the league’s worst offensive line. But at the end of the day, it’s rare for the Giants to be in position to draft a franchise passer — they haven’t had a top-five selection since they wound up with Eli Manning in 2004. Though Manning, 37, may have another year or two in his tank, this is too good an opportunity to enact a bona fide succession plan, especially considering Darnold’s estimable upside and a low-key demeanor (like Manning’s) that would probably work well in The Big Apple.

3. Colts — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: With all signs pointing toward Andrew Luck’s return, they’re one of the few teams at the top of a quarterback-rich draft that doesn’t appear to actually need one. GM Chris Ballard will almost certainly be fielding calls from teams like the Cardinals and Bills  for what could be a very coveted spot. But Ballard also badly needs to reload a supporting cast — Barkley and Nelson would be ideal fits — that had too often let Luck down in recent years. Chubb looks like the pre-eminent pass rusher in a draft that seems deficient at this highly coveted position. And if Luck can revert to form and start putting points on the scoreboard, a guy like Chubb — remember how Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis did this back in the day for Peyton Manning — is the type of defensive game changer who can protect leads.

4. Browns (from Texans) — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Good luck finding better arm talent, and Allen put his hose on display to the world with a 70-yard hook-up during Saturday’s passing drills. Now arm strength isn’t necessarily a good indicator of success in the pros — just ask JaMarcus Russell — where decision making and accuracy are far more valuable attributes. However a big arm does count for something in Cleveland’s windy, lake-side atmosphere (not to mention tough conditions that arise in every other AFC North city), and new GM John Dorsey is the guy who traded up to get Patrick Mahomes’ howitzer for the Chiefs a year ago. Allen drew positive reviews in Indy, and his workout may have started to ease concerns about his 56% completion rate in Laramie, where he ran a pro-style offense but didn’t benefit from a ton of checkdown throws and was victimized by more than his share of drops.

5. Broncos — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Few teams appear as poised to win immediately as Denver, home to a championship-caliber defense and a pair of Pro Bowl wideouts — if GM John Elway can solve the quarterback dilemma that has existed since Peyton Manning retired two years ago. Rosen is widely viewed as the most NFL-ready passer coming out and seemed to allay some fears at the combine that his personality won’t mesh in a pro locker room, though a veteran-laden one like Denver’s might be a plus for a 21-year-old assimilating into the working world. Rosen’s football arrogance and belief he can make any throw — think former Broncos QB Jay Cutler — may be the bigger issue for him to work on at the next level.

6. Jets — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: This might be a good spot to pause and acknowledge that the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes — the Jets, Broncos and Browns are all expected to be serious suitors — could greatly influence the top of the board, as free agency generally will shape the draft once veterans can begin switching teams March 14. But the Jets, who have five different leading passers in the decade since they moved on from Chad Pennington, are still searching for a long-term answer to what’s become a perennial problem. Mayfield’s fiery persona and willingness to lead would theoretically fit well on a young team that needs an alpha male on offense.

7. Buccaneers — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: No team was worse at stopping the pass in 2017 than Tampa Bay, which is also set to lose CB Brent Grimes and S T.J. Ward in free agency. Enter Fitzpatrick, part of the breed of versatile young defensive backs who can roam deep like a safety, blitz like a linebacker and cover like a corner, especially in the slot. He’d definitely be a valuable asset in a division where the ball is so frequently in the air.

8. Bears — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Per Mayock, Barkley and Nelson are the two best players in a draft dominated by the quarterback conversation. Chicago has a Pro Bowl-sized hole on its O-line after declining G Josh Sitton’s option for 2018. Nelson will almost certainly be an upgrade, even when compared to an accomplished vet like Sitton, and has vowed to make a roomier pocket for his next quarterback, something Mitchell Trubisky would certainly appreciate in his second season.

9. 49ers — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: He can run all day and would form a nice three-down tandem with 2017 first rounder Reuben Foster as San Francisco transitions to a 4-3 defense that emphasizes rangy linebackers. And with 6½ sacks last year, Smith (6-1, 236) should also be an effective blitzer.

10. Raiders — Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech: At 6-5, 253 pounds, he’s bigger than Smith yet nearly as athletic. Edmunds racked up 30½ tackles for loss over
the past two seasons and is just the kind of asset a disappointing Oakland defense, ranked 23rd in 2017, badly needs. Only 19, Edmunds’ upside is insane.

11. Dolphins — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: The latest entry from a Buckeyes corner pipeline that’s produced three first rounders (Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple) in the past two drafts. Miami’s vulnerability at corner becomes apparent in games when opponents aren’t running the ball incessantly. And it always helps to have good cover guys in a division ruled by Tom Brady.

12. Bengals — Connor Williams, OT, Texas: It’s criminal that Cincinnati finished last in total offense in 2017 given the talent at the skill positions. The obvious reason for those struggles was horrific O-line play, especially at tackle, in a division where staunch defenses make it virtually impossible to mask such a problem. Williams may be a slight reach here, but that’s the position Cincinnati finds itself in at this point.

13. Redskins — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: No team gave up more yards on the ground last season than Washington, which was also gashed for a ghastly 4.5 yards every time an opponent handed off. Teaming Vea (6-4, 347) with 2017 first rounder Jonathan Allen, who only played five games as a rookie, would go a long way toward remedying this weakness, especially with D-line guru Jim Tomsula around to shepherd the youngsters’ development.

14. Packers — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: Despite having OLBs Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, Green Bay collected a pedestrian 37 sacks in 2017.  Worse, opposing quarterbacks had a collective 102.0 passer rating against the Pack, the worst showing by an NFC defense. Davenport will be making a big jump from UTSA’s competition level, but in this scenario he could focus early on showcasing his pass rush ability in sub packages.

15. Cardinals — Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Arizona desperately needs a quarterback but doesn’t presently have the cap room to make a serious play for Cousins and probably lacks the requisite draft position to get one of the top prospects. Maybe they can find a way to trade up, or maybe they move back a bit to get Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. But if they hold at No. 15, Payne could be the right value, an immensely strong player who would inject youth into an aging front, eating blocks that free guys like NFL sack champ Chandler Jones and former first rounder Robert Nkemdiche.

16. Ravens — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: He appears to be the best of what seems to be a relatively weak crop of receivers — and even the best at this position usually struggle adapting to the NFL. Ridley is probably equipped to step into the slot, but it’s probably a stretch to earmark him as a No. 1 target on Day 1. Regardless, Baltimore needs the help.

17. Chargers — Derwin James, S, Florida State: The Bolts are probably about to lose S Tre Boston in free agency. And GM Tom Telesco admitted the team needs more production at linebacker, a spot James could man on passing downs (unless he’s playing deep or in the slot). Also, the value is too good. James swore at the combine he won’t fall outside the top 10 and might be right.

18. Seahawks — Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida: Whether it’s planning for life after Richard Sherman or simply replacing Byron Maxwell, Seattle could use corner help. And with no picks in Rounds 2 or 3, the Seahawks only have one shot to get a good player at a premium position.

19. Cowboys — Arden Key, DE, LSU: Demarcus Lawrence had a breakout 2017 with 14½ sacks but is basically on a prove-it deal after being franchised. Key also has doubters after leaving Baton Rouge but made a good impression at the combine when he weighed in at a sculpted 238 pounds, though he’ll surely need to add some weight back to hold up in the NFL.

20. Lions — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Fournette’s former backup at LSU could be just the physical presence needed by a Detroit team that has ranked 28th or worse running the ball over the past four seasons and was dead last in 2015 and ’17.

21. Bills — Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama: Buffalo seems likely to lose leading tackler Preston Brown in free agency. What better way to offset such a loss than with an athletic, instinctive player from Tuscaloosa?

22. Bills (from Chiefs) — James Daniels, C, Iowa: A neck injury forced reliable C Eric Wood into retirement after the playoffs. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes are known for producing NFL-ready linemen, and Daniels has the chops to step into the vacancy left by Wood’s departure.

23. Rams — Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: He was one of the combine’s stars after blazing a 4.38 40-yard dash. But aside from the speed, he thrives in press coverage and isn’t afraid to hit. Good fit for a team that opted not to franchise CB Trumaine Johnson a third time.

24. Panthers — Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford: He’s strong (combine-high 42 reps on the bench), scheme versatile and highly intelligent after graduating early with a double major. Phillips also comes with an ever-revving motor for a team that will probably be replacing Star Lotulelei.

25. Titans — Sony Michel, RB, Georgia: Derrick Henry will take over as the primary back in 2018, but Tennessee could use a shiftier outside runner who’s likely to be more of a factor in the passing game. Michel, who averaged 8 yards per touch last season, seems to be in the mold of Alvin Kamara.

26. Falcons — Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: Atlanta’s roster isn’t lacking much. But a new slot receiver would help Matt Ryan and, perhaps, Julio Jones if Kirk can make an immediate impact in the short passing game with his sub-4.5 speed.

27. Saints — Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama: Kenny Vaccaro’s disappointing tenure is coming to an end. Harrison is the instinctive, reliable tackler Vaccaro rarely was and could be another nice addition to a blossoming secondary.

28. Steelers — Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: He has excellent ball skills (8 INTs in 2017). None of Pittsburgh’s corners had more than two picks, and the pass defense as a whole still looked too vulnerable in big games.

29. Jaguars — DJ Moore, WR, Maryland: Jacksonville opted not to tag Allen Robinson, increasing the need for them to reload at receiver with Marqise Lee also poised to leave. Moore is one of the risers coming out of the combine after posting a 4.42 40, the kind of speed that could also create space for the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.

30. Vikings — Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: For a team that will be making some kind of re-investment at quarterback (Cousins? Case Keenum?), improved O-line play is probably imperative. McGlinchey represents a nice value and would allow Mike Remmers to kick inside to guard.

31. Patriots — Leighton Vander Esch, OLB, Boise State: A long (6-4, 256), athletic player who would be a nice addition to a New England defense that obviously needs help given its most recent performance.

32. Eagles — Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh: Jason Peters is 36 and only lasted seven games last season. Philadelphia would be wise to begin eyeing a next-gen blind side bodyguard for Carson Wentz.


Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

NFL teams finally get to see QB hopefuls at combine

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — This year’s deep class of quarterbacks features as many as a half dozen first-round NFL prospects full of hope, hype and hazard.

There’s Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and questions about the Heisman winner’s size and stature. A lot of teams would love UCLA’s Josh Rosen for his skills and strength but wonder if he’s a good fit in the locker room and their organization.

Wyoming’s Josh Allen has enviable size but faces questions about his regression last season. USC’s Sam Darnold has to answer queries about his ball security and why he’s not throwing at the NFL combine this weekend like the other prospects.

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson , the 2016 Heisman winner, needs to prove he’s a better pro prospect throwing the ball than catching it. And teams wonder if Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph can transition to the pro offense after operating exclusively out of the shotgun.

Will these guys be the next Carson Wentz, who ignited the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl run in just his second season before getting hurt and rooting on Nick Foles from the sideline?

Or will they be the next Paxton Lynch, the 2016 first-round flop whose inability to grasp the complexities of the pro game has Broncos GM John Elway once again searching for answers at quarterback?

Elway has found it difficult to land a franchise quarterback from the college ranks like he did in free agency with Peyton Manning six years ago.

Last year, the Broncos cycled through his draft picks Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Lynch during the team’s worst season in decades.

“Believe me, I’m not done swinging and missing,” said Elway, who owns the fifth pick in this year’s draft. “Misses don’t bother me. We just have to figure out a way to get it right.”

Elway could go after a veteran again in free agency such as Kirk Cousins. But the Broncos staff coached Mayfield and Allen at the Senior Bowl and this week and they plan to bring in several of the other top prospects for visits leading up to the draft on April 26.

“There is a possibility of some really good quarterbacks coming out of this draft,” Elway said.

Maybe not like his own class in 1983, which produced three Hall of Famers in himself, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, but this year’s crop of quarterbacks is filled with intrigue and promise.

And plenty of questions.

Among them:


Is Mayfield too short? He measured in just over 6 feet tall with a hand size of 9¼ inches, under the standard targets of 6-2 and 9½ inches.

Elway, for one, isn’t concerned, about Mayfield’s measurements.

“I think that (stigma) has been broken,” Elway said. “You’ve got Drew Brees — they’ve proven that you can do it. He’s obviously very much a competitor. He’s had a great college career and won the Heisman Trophy. He’s proved he can play.”

Nor is Elway turned off by Mayfield’s crossing the line at times.

He was arrested last year and charged with disorderly conduct, public intoxication and resisting arrest. After the Kansas Jayhawks wouldn’t shake his hand, he was caught on camera grabbing his crotch and swearing at the Kansas sideline.

“A lot of times you get tied up in the emotions of the situation and where he is. I like to see a guy with that kind of passion,” Elway said.


Rosen’s time in Westwood was defined as much by his proclivity for creating headlines away from the field.

A viral photo showed a hot tub he brought into his dorm room. Another photo showed Rosen playing golf and wearing a headband that disparaged then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. When UCLA announced its 15-year, $280-million deal with Under Armour, Rosen used the big contract to mock the NCAA’s nonprofit status on social media.

Questions have arisen about how well Rosen will get along with his new teammates in the NFL, but two of his Bruins teammates also at the combine quickly dismissed those concerns.

“Josh came in No. 1 high school guy, a little cocky, of course you hear off-campus stuff about him, but as the years went on he really matured,” tackle Kolton Miller said. “He’s really well-rounded, he doesn’t try to be more than what he has to be, a really good leader. I don’t really have anything negative to say about him.”

Neither does center Scott Quessenberry, who said the negative rap of Rosen is unfair “because of the type of guy that he is and the type of stand-up human being that he is and the type of pro that he’s going to be.”

“He’s a great dude, I love hanging around him and being with him, and whoever gets him is extremely lucky. They’re getting a once in a millennium talent, in my opinion.”


Some teams want to see the dual-threat Jackson working out the wide receivers this week and not just slinging it around with the quarterbacks. But Jackson never caught a single pass at Louisville, where he threw for 9,043 yards and 69 touchdowns and ran for 4,132 yards and 50 TDs in 38 games.

“Is there a quarterback that’s gone and been a wide receiver successfully?” Elway asked.

Not many. Bert Emmanuel, Kordell Stewart, Antwaan Randle El, Terrelle Pryor.

“I think if he’s going to make it,” Elway said, “he’s making it as a quarterback in the right situation. He’s explosive.”


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NFL combine begins with deep group of quarterbacks

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jon Gruden is back from the broadcast booth and the highest-paid coach in NFL history.

Unlike his colleague, Matt Patricia didn’t balk at leaving Bill Belichick’s brigade.

Andy Reid is in the midst of another major roster shake-up and his protege, Doug Pederson, is basking in Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl triumph.

All are in Indianapolis at the NFL combine this week hoping to better their chances of winning in 2018.

Top college prospects, including a group of quarterbacks that could produce five first-round draft picks, will spend four days getting poked and prodded, tested and timed.

GMs and coaches will do their best to get to know them off the field as well, either in formal 15-minute interviews or during a mixed zone after their physical assessments.


The NFL descends upon Indianapolis this week for the scouting combine, where teams will get another up-close look at the top draft prospects, including a quarterback class that could feature as many as five first-round picks.

Saturday’s workouts will generate much buzz, but these passers already must face the notions that teams have of them.

After poring over hours of game film of each passer, scouts, coaches and general managers have already identified their strengths and weaknesses.

Yet greater challenges remain in projecting how quarterbacks fit into specific schemes and gaining a clearer understanding of these young men as people.

Here’s a look at a pressing question facing each of the top quarterbacks in team interviews.

Josh Rosen, UCLA: “Why do you play?”

Regarded by many as the draft’s most complete quarterback, the 6-4, 210-pounder threw for 3,717 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls him “the best pure passer I have seen in several years.” But teams want to know more about Rosen’s mental makeup. Some talent evaluators perceive him as a slightly immature, laid-back player with questions surrounding his fire and toughness. Durability is also a concern, as he suffered a shoulder injury in 2016 and two concussions in 2017. Teams want to know if he can he take a big hit on the next level, get back up and keep slinging.

Sam Darnold, USC: “Why so many turnovers?”

The 6-4, 225-pound Darnold, who will not throw at the combine per a report by ESPN, might have the most upside of any of his peers. The 20-year-old, however, is still somewhat of a work in progress. He threw for 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, but was also responsible for 22 turnovers, including 13 interceptions. Coaching can help to some degree, but ball security has a lot to do with instincts and decision making. Some of those habits are hard to break. Talent evaluators will want to hear Darnold take ownership for the struggles and explain how he’s working to improve.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: “Do you understand what comes with being the face of a franchise?”

Although undersized at just over 6-0 and 216 pounds, Mayfield has a body of work that might be unparalleled in this class. The Heisman Trophy winner passed for 14,607 yards, 131 touchdowns and just 30 interceptions for his four-year college career. Last season, he threw 41 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. There’s no questioning his determination. He walked on both at Texas Tech and Oklahoma. He’s a fighter and commands the respect of his teammates.

Some talent evaluators view Mayfield as the most NFL-ready of any passer in this class, but he’ll be under scrutiny for his past actions, including last February’s arrest on public intoxication and fleeing charges as well as a November incident in which he taunted Kansas players and grabbed his crotch. Fair or not, he now is having to shoot down comparisons to former Texas A&M and Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, who only lasted two years in the NFL. As the face of an NFL franchise, Mayfield can’t afford continual off-field missteps.

Josh Allen, Wyoming: “How do you explain the accuracy issues and last year’s regression?”

Comparisons to Carson Wentz are only natural for the strong-armed quarterback, especially given that he played for the same coach as the Philadelphia Eagles star (though at different schools) and possesses similar physical traits. But Allen has work to do, primarily on his accuracy after completing just 56% of his passes the last two seasons. He topped the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2016, but managed just 1,812 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in his final college season while missing two games with a shoulder injury. NFL insiders are befuddled by his drop in production. Yes, he lost some productive weapons. But he should have performed better, and teams will want him to provide accountability rather than excuses.

Lamar Jackson. Louisville: “Can you play quarterback on this level?”

The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner recorded more than 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons, with 96 touchdowns in that span. But Jackson has to fight a major stereotype: great athlete whose skills don’t project to long-term success as an NFL passer. That view very well could keep Jackson out of the first round. Fit is extremely important. Jackson is going to need to go to a team whose coach and offensive coordinator will tailor their scheme to accent his strengths, much like Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan overhauled their offense to help Robert Griffin III.

Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: “Can you transition to a pro-style offense?”

The 6-5, 230-pound Rudolph could be a first-round dark horse. He’s coming off a career year with 4,904 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His size and deep passing experience will be attractive, and the desire to work and improve. But he ran a spread offense, operating exclusively out of the shotgun, and he’s never called plays in a huddle. Adjusting to an NFL system from that starting point leads to growing pains. Those close to Rudolph say he’s well aware of the areas where he must improve. That realistic view of himself and an ability to convey his hunger to learn will help him in interviews.

Franchise tag player options for all 32 NFL teams

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   Beginning Tuesday, NFL teams have a two-week window (ending March 6) to place a franchise or transition tag on one of their potential free agents. After assessing the pool of expiring contracts, here’s the most logical player — if there is one, based on tag values relative to positions and team needs — for each club to franchise:

Arizona Cardinals — none: Their precious cap space must be preserved for pursuit of a quarterback, since none currently occupy the roster.

Atlanta Falcons — K Matt Bryant: He turns 43 soon but has been so intrinsic to this team’s success over the years. The Falcons don’t have much cap space, but they also don’t have many free agents to strongly consider re-signing aside from DT Dontari Poe. But committing around $5 million to tag Bryant (maybe as a preliminary step to a longer contract) passes the smell test.

Baltimore Ravens — none: Ryan Jensen developed into one of the league’s better snappers in 2017. But $15 million is too much for a center, even one who’s only 26.

Buffalo Bills — CB E.J. Gaines: He quietly turned in a strong year at a premium position and will only be 26 at the start of next season. Keeping him teamed with Tre’Davious White, at least in the short term, isn’t a bad option.

Carolina Panthers — G Andrew Norwell: He’s coming off an all-pro campaign. But giving a guard left tackle money — a dilemma the franchise tag creates because all offensive linemen are grouped together salary-wise — is hard to stomach. Might be smarter to put the transition tag on Norwell, 26, and see what happens for a team that currently has around $20 million in cap space.

Chicago Bears — CB Kyle Fuller: A year ago, the team declined the 2014 first rounder’s fifth-year option. But he finally showed ample signs he’s developing into a front-line corner, his 22 pass break-ups tied for second in the league. The Bears might be wise to give Fuller an extended look while trying to keep an ascendant defense intact.

Cincinnati Bengals — none: TE Tyler Eifert is a nice player but just too fragile to guarantee an eight-figure salary.

Cleveland Browns — none: RB Isaiah Crowell was their leading rusher but is no more than a platoon player.

Dallas Cowboys — DE Demarcus Lawrence: His 14 ½ sacks in 2017 trailed only Arizona’s Chandler Jones. However Lawrence managed just nine combined in his first three seasons, so it almost behooves Dallas to put him in a prove-it scenario before committing long term.

Denver Broncos — none: With Von Miller busily recruiting Kirk Cousins in the social media sphere, this team needs to clear cap space, not eat into it.

Detroit Lions — DE Ziggy Ansah: Consistency and durability have been issues, but Detroit probably can’t afford to let a guy who had a dozen sacks last year walk.

Green Bay Packers — none: No reason to use the tag and not enough cap space to burn anyway.

Houston Texans — none: Given their top draft picks belong to Cleveland, they need to wisely earmark nearly $60 million in cap space — and that definitely means no tag.

Indianapolis Colts — none: After reaching a new deal with 45-year-old K Adam Vinatieri on Thursday, utilizing a tag no longer makes sense. There are far more talented players shaking loose whom GM Chris Ballard should be targeting with the more than $70 million he can bring to the negotiating table.

Jacksonville Jaguars — WR Allen Robinson: An ACL injury limited him to one game and one catch in 2017. But the 24-year-old has far more upside than fellow free agent Marqise Lee, and Robinson’s 6-3 frame provides some margin for error for occasionally scattershot QB Blake Bortles.

Kansas City Chiefs — none: Even if they had sufficient cap room for a tag, they don’t have a free agent worthy of one.

Los Angeles Chargers — none: Be nice to have a guy like S Tre Boston back, but not for anything near $11 million.

Los Angeles Rams — S Lamarcus Joyner: WR Sammy Watkins is a bigger name, but Joyner was a far more productive player in 2017 … not to mention safeties are around $5 million cheaper to franchise than wideouts.

**Miami Dolphins — WR Jarvis Landry: The man who led the NFL in receptions last year with 112 was officially franchised Tuesday night. Landry is a slightly curious choice given he averaged just 8.8 yards per catch in 2017 (all those grabs didn’t even amount to a 1,000-yard season), and Miami has DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills under contract. But Landry’s undeniable production (400 receptions in four seasons) apparently sealed his case.

Minnesota Vikings — QB Case Keenum: The NFC North champs are in a fascinating position, with nearly $50 million in cap space and most of the roster locked down — with the exception of an experienced quarterback. Tagging Keenum might seem like a no-brainer. However Minnesota will be in a tricky spot if they intend to pursue Kirk Cousins, especially if Keenum were to predictably sign a tag that would be worth well north of $20 million.

New England Patriots — WR Danny Amendola: His regular-season production (61 catches, 659 yards) doesn’t warrant anything in the neighborhood of $16 million. But with WR Julian Edelman still rehabbing a knee injury, and TE Rob Gronkowski hedging on his future, the Pats may be compelled to tag postseason star Amendola as they did slot man Wes Welker six years ago. LT Nate Solder and CB Malcolm Butler would seem to be more deserving, but Solder’s contract has a no-tag stipulation, while it’s clear New England and Butler are headed for a divorce.

New Orleans Saints — none: They finally go into an offseason when they’re not right up against the cap. Unfortunately, most of New Orleans’ $30-plus million  savings will probably go to QB Drew Brees, whose contract spares him from being tagged.

New York Giants — none: When you go 3-13, it’s probably because of a dearth of franchise players.

New York Jets — none: They’ve got plenty of cap room, but no players worthy of a balloon payment. Better to hope useful players like QB Josh McCown and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins return on reasonable deals.

Oakland Raiders — none: Be nice to have a guy like ILB NaVorro Bowman back, and perhaps veteran S Reggie Nelson … but only on team-friendly terms.

Philadelphia Eagles — none: Retaining contributors like RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Nigel Bradham and TE Trey Burton is usually preferable, but those are often the types of players other teams overpay for hoping to catch some Super Bowl lightning in a bottle.

Pittsburgh Steelers — RB Le’Veon Bell: After being franchised for $12.1 million in 2017, the price tag for the two-time all-pro goes up to $14.5 million this year — and GM Kevin Colbert will have to do some payroll slashing to make room for that figure. Still only 26, Bell is probably worth it, though Pittsburgh would be wise to make another tag a precursor to a long-term deal or risk a costly Kirk Cousins-esque escalation in the future.

San Francisco 49ers — none: With apologies to RB Carlos Hyde and S Eric Reid, there are better ways for the Niners to distribute their cap war chest even after securing QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

Seattle Seahawks — DT Sheldon Richardson: TE Jimmy Graham might also be a consideration after catching a team-high 10 TDs last season (plus the fact a tight end’s tag, about $10 million, is among the lowest). But Richardson, 27, is four years younger and seems to be in Seatte’s long-term plans even with a significant roster reshuffle apparently afoot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — none: They don’t have anyone who merits a tag, which is another way of saying they have plenty of holes to fill and a quarterback who will likely soon command a megadeal.

Tennessee Titans — none: They signed Ryan Succop to a five-year, $20 million deal Tuesday, further proof that tagging kickers is probably the most economical route. Nice-but-expendable types like DE DaQuan Jones, G Josh Kline and ILB Avery Williamson should be allowed to test the market.

Washington Redskins — none: The drama would be delightful if they tried to construct a tag-and-trade scenario around QB Kirk Cousins. But that approach seems way too vengeful, fraught with potential disaster and would force the ‘Skins to reduce their spending power by more than $34 million to merely hold Cousins hostage.

**Already tagged


Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

NFL rebuild rankings: Which teams are in best shape for extended future?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   With the NFL season over, every team can consider itself a contender again — for now.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ successful run to Super Bowl LII (after consecutive losing seasons) should serve as inspiration to organizations that found themselves home this January. Some have the ingredients to make a similar surge next season, while certain playoff teams could be in for a fall.

Here’s our look at all 32 teams, ranked from best to worst on their outlook for the extended future:

1. Eagles: The underdog act is over. With a 25-year-old, MVP-caliber quarterback in Carson Wentz on the mend, Philadelphia has a robust core eyeing to build off the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. The Eagles have a tight salary-cap outlook in 2018 but face minimal losses from a group with few weaknesses.

2. Vikings: Yes, Minnesota has a Mall of America-sized hole at quarterback with Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford set to hit free agency. But with plenty of spending room and an enviable roster, the Vikings should be able to find a satisfying resolution. Perhaps no other team is as good at developing homegrown stars, as there’s outstanding talent at the skill positions and throughout the NFL’s top-ranked defense.

3. Patriots: Tom vs. Time is a battle the NFL’s latest MVP intends on winning, even if his opponent is undefeated. As long as Brady shows no signs of slowing — and coach Bill Belichick remains at the helm — New England shouldn’t slip far. TE Rob Gronkowski’s non-committal remarks about his future will keep many on edge until he reveals his plans, and the defense also needs to be addressed after being repeatedly sliced in the Super Bowl.

4. Falcons: They might be poised to pull off what Minnesota fell short of by becoming the first team to play in the Super Bowl as a host. OC Steve Sarkisian still must prove he can capitalize on his array of weapons, but the pieces are all there. Don’t overlook breakout star LB Deion Jones and what might be the NFL’s next great defense.

5. Jaguars: Is this The Good Place for Jacksonville? A defense loaded at every level and top-ranked run game led by Leonard Fournette indicates the Jags are here to stay. But keeping Blake Bortles under center, which the team appears content to do for another year, seems like a substantial limitation.

6. Rams: There’s no better young troika than coach of the year Sean McVay, 32, offensive player of the year Todd Gurley, 23, and defensive player of the year Aaron Donald, 26. Taking the next step, however, depends on the continued development of QB Jared Goff. Potential salary-cap sacrifices and losses in free agency could send the defense in the wrong direction.

7. Saints: Once a veteran-dependent group, New Orleans has given itself a rush of vitality with a sterling rookie class led by RB Alvin Kamara and CB Marshon Lattimore. Yet this is still Drew Brees’ show, and the quarterback’s expected return should give New Orleans all the confidence it needs to make another serious push.

8. Steelers: Despite boasting a league-best eight Pro Bowlers, Pittsburgh hasn’t done enough to close the gap on New England. The often deadly offense can still run cold at times, while LB Ryan Shazier’s injury revealed defensive shortcomings. Keeping Le’Veon Bell is essential, though striking an agreement might not be easy (or cheap).

9. Packers:  After grumbling about the loss of his quarterbacks coach, Aaron Rodgers returned to a more upbeat tone by noting his last comeback from a broken collarbone resulted in an MVP campaign. So long as the franchise centerpiece stays healthy, the Pack should be able to run with the elite despite deficiencies elsewhere. Joe Philbin could help Rodgers and the offense get back to top form in his second stint in Green Bay, but Mike Pettine could be the real boon in the staff shake-up for a perennially uninspiring defense.

10. Cowboys: Is Dallas done with drama for a while after the Ezekiel Elliott suspension saga? Even if Dez Bryant’s looming contract ordeal is ironed out, it’s clear that Dak Prescott needs more help from his receiving corps. DE Demarcus Lawrence is a promising piece who deserves a hefty contract in free agency, but the defense is still disproportionately reliant on LB Sean Lee.

11. Chargers: They proved they won’t settle for second banana in Los Angeles. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram constitute the NFL’s best young pass-rushing duo, while the fourth-ranked offense remains in good hands with Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon. But it’s past time to fix the farcical kicking woes and porous run defense.

12. Texans: The top of the roster is sterling, as Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt provide tantalizing possibilities as they mend from injuries, while DE Jadeveon Clowney and WR DeAndre Hopkins also stand among the best at their respective positions. Yet the offensive line gave up 54 sacks, and the secondary was burned for 30 touchdowns. Without a pick in the first two rounds, Houston might have to wait for remedies.

13. Seahawks: Ticking ever closer to a reset? Still, it’s unclear exactly what form that might take. With CB Richard Sherman rehabbing a torn Achilles and Pete Carroll casting doubt on the futures of S Kam Chancellor and DE Cliff Avril — theories of DE Michael Bennett’s departure have also been floated — the vaunted defense looks like it could be in for a major shift. Russell Wilson’s output (he had a hand in all but one of Seattle’s offensive touchdowns) was nothing short of heroic, but that formula ultimately proved untenable.

14. Chiefs: Let ‘er rip, Pat Mahomes. After Kansas City sent Alex Smith to Washington following a career year, last year’s big-armed first rounder should have free rein of an explosive offense. His first season as a starter might be a facsimile of his Texas Tech days, as the defense is still in bad shape (though the return of Eric Berry and acquisition of Kendall Fuller will boost the secondary).

15. 49ers: San Francisco has an impressive setup after closing the year on an NFL-best five-game win streak under Jimmy Garoppolo, who is returning on a record five-year contract. The full breakout might be a year off, however, as Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch continue to rebuild the roster. Expected to be among the teams with the most cap space, the Niners could choose to make a big splash in free agency.

16. Titans: Tennessee was the only playoff team to make a coaching change. Whether the Titans picked the right replacement in Mike Vrabel, who had just one year of coordinator experience in Houston, remains unclear. Marcus Mariota regressed in 2017 but could also use a more creative playbook and assistance from his supporting cast after he threw 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

17. Panthers: Between the expected sale of the franchise by Jerry Richardson and interim GM Marty Hurney being put on paid leave amid allegations from his ex-wife, few clubs face more uncertainty. And that’s to say nothing of the changes made on Ron Rivera’s staff, which will have two new coordinators, including Norv Turner taking over the offense.

18. Broncos: John Elway is in the batter’s box, waiting to take his big swing for a quarterback. Whatever move he makes might not be a cure-all for a group that underwent an eight-game losing streak last season. But Von Miller and the rest of the defense help position Denver to make a big leap if a competent passer is obtained.

19. Raiders: The Silver & Black aren’t waiting for their Vegas move to put on a show. Jon Gruden’s return raises both the team’s profile and expectations. Though many will focus on how he handles Derek Carr after last year’s struggles, the defense also needs to become more than the Khalil Mack solo act.

20. Redskins: Even after landing Alex Smith, Washington still doesn’t know how to find a graceful end to the Kirk Cousins saga. Smith should settle in nicely with coach Jay Gruden’s offense, though might undergo the same struggles Cousins did in developing a rapport with Josh Doctson and the rest of the receiving corps. Better luck on the injury front could provide a spark in 2018, but more consistency is needed.

21. Ravens: After spending most of the last five years in a post-Super Bowl stasis, Baltimore is headed for major changes. GM Ozzie Newsome is entering his last season, and John Harbaugh has been given a playoff mandate. For now, the story remains the same, as a formidable defense will be tasked with carrying Joe Flacco and his second-rate supporting cast.

22. Lions: Leading Detroit isn’t rocket science, which new coach Matt Patricia once studied. But notching the franchise’s first postseason win since the 1991 season might be similarly vexing. While Matthew Stafford provides a nice foundation, Patricia will have to find answers for a lackluster pass rush and long-dormant run game.

23. Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald is the last link to the most successful run in Arizona’s history, and it’s still not clear what his 2018 plans are. RB David Johnson’s return should re-balance the offense, while the sixth-ranked defense has cornerstones in sack king Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson, who’s now seven-for-seven on Pro Bowls in his career. With a murky outlook at quarterback and along the offensive line, however, Steve Wilks’ first year as head coach is shaping up to be rocky.

24. Bills: Ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought shows they’re in good hands with Sean McDermott. But even returning to postseason in the near future could prove difficult, as Buffalo lacks building blocks. Change at quarterback is likely afoot, and the offense needs to find other weapons beyond LeSean McCoy, who turns 30 in July.

25. Bears: Chicago is trying the Sean McVay plan by pairing new coach Matt Nagy with Mitchell Trubisky after the quarterback’s uneven rookie campaign. Retaining Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator constitutes a win, but the Bears’ rebuild looks more like a steady climb rather than rocket-fueled ascension.

26. Dolphins: Hard to assess a team that both bedeviled the Patriots yet was on the business end of a 40-0 drumming from the Ravens. Miami’s true self likely lies somewhere between those polarities, though dropping eight of their last ten was a discouraging trend. Ryan Tannehill’s return could keep them afloat, but it’s hard to see how this group gets much better given the lack of wiggle room on the salary cap.

27. Buccaneers: Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter are entering a defining season after their partnership showed signs of maxing out after a disappointing 5-11 campaign. Even if the offense gets back on track, the pass rush needs substantial help, and the secondary might undergo significant changes.

28. Bengals: Status quo is quite the surprise given a divorce from Marvin Lewis seemed inevitable. The Bengals actually boast intriguing young talent — RB Joe Mixon, CB William Jackson III and DE Carl Lawson are shaping up as high-level starters — but progress will be hard to come by until the offense line is sorted out.

29. Giants: Pat Shurmur’s measured approach seems ideal for what was a volatile locker room. Despite lingering questions about Eli Manning’s longevity and Odell Beckham’s contract, the G-Men have the tools to rebound quickly. But limited cap space will prevent them from spending away their problems.

30. Colts: So … who wants this job after Josh McDaniels bailed? If Andrew Luck heals, the franchise quarterback could again carry an otherwise lacking roster. But this is a team undone by the pass rush on both ends, as no offense gave up more sacks (56) and just one defense tallied fewer (25).

31. Browns: With cap space expected to exceed $110 million and five picks in the first two rounds, including the No. 1 and 4 overall selections, it’s time for new GM John Dorsey to capitalize on a stockpile of assets. There is some emerging talent on the roster, especially on defense. But Hue Jackson has exhausted his excuses after a 1-31 run.

32. Jets: This won’t be a fun situation to step into, even for the next quarterback. Perhaps no team is more bereft of talent, though last year’s rookies represent a step in the right direction. Smart drafting, which hasn’t occurred consistently for some time, remains essential for long-term building, especially given New York’s failed free agency forays in recent years.


Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz

NFL: Spring football could work, but XFL2 not the answer

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Vince McMahon is resuscitating the XFL.

OK, let’s get the bad jokes out of the way: Are some teams going to be wearing masks and representing parts unknown? Will the hook-and-ladder play involve smashing someone with a real ladder?

The XFL was a “colossal failure” the first time McMahon tried it — his words — and there’s every reason to believe XFL2 will meet a similar fate.

But a spring football league, done the right way, could work.

And, no, we’re not kidding around.

The United States Football League came up with the most feasible concept back in the 1980s, only to crumble after just three seasons because of out-of-control spending and a suicidal push by owners such as Donald Trump to compete directly against the NFL .

But the USFL might still be around today if it had stuck to its original concept, which was to serve as more of a complement to the NFL than a direct competitor.

The timing is ripe for another attempt.

While the economy is booming and football remains the nation’s most popular sport, the NFL is contending with shrinking TV ratings, empty seats and a lingering debate over players kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice. For the first time in decades, there are actually some cracks in the league’s armor.

Clearly, those issues figured into McMahon’s planned re-launch of the XFL in 2020 .

“As far as this league is concerned, it will have nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with social issues,” he said. “That’s what the fans want. When they tune in to a game, they don’t want to deal with political issues. They want to watch good football.”

Good football will likely be the fatal flaw in McMahon’s new venture, just as it was for the original XFL. While the risque cheerleaders and close ties to wrestling brought plenty of much-deserved ridicule, it was the amateurish quality of play that ultimately caused its downfall. As Bob Costas memorably observed, it was “mediocre high school football” combined “with a tawdry strip club.”

Since McMahon’s new XFL will follow the same single-entity plan — he’ll be the sole owner of the eight-team league — there’s unlikely to be nearly enough money to lure any recognizable names, unless Tim Tebow (yes, he came up during the announcement Thursday) decides to make a football comeback.

But an updated version of the USFL concept would have a real chance at succeeding during the spring and summer, football’s traditional offseason.

Here’s a few ideas:

— Start with 10 or 12 teams, split between major NFL cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; those that have lost teams (San Diego, St. Louis and soon-to-be Oakland); and untapped markets with big league stadiums (San Antonio comes to mind).

— Restrict ownership to those who not only have deep pockets, but are totally committed to the concept (i.e., not simply trying to turn their investment into a merger with the NFL). Point out the relative bargain of owning a team in the new league compared to, say, the Carolina Panthers, whose selling price will surely exceed $2 billion. Maybe Mark Cuban would be interested in a Dallas franchise. Reach out to Oprah Winfrey about a Chicago team.

— Don’t get into a bidding war with the NFL over players. Focus heavily on scouting and development, which means pursuing lower-level pros who might thrive in a bigger role and college stars projected to go in the later rounds of the NFL draft. Always be on the lookout for someone like 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, the subject of wildly varying draft projections, who might have a better chance at playing time in a new league. And let’s not forget: Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed.

— Line up a traditional TV deal to provide financial stability, perhaps some combination of a major network and a newer, sports-themed cable outlet such as NBCSN or Fox Sports 1. But also be on the cutting edge of subscription services, mobile streaming and other innovative conduits that appeal to a younger audience.

In essence, follow the model laid out by the late David Dixon, the New Orleans businessman whose longtime push for an out-of-season league finally came to fruition with the launch of the USFL in 1983.

Looking back, that first season was a rousing success in many ways. The Denver Gold averaged more than 41,000 fans. Overall attendance was roughly in line with the hoped-for 25,000 per game. TV ratings on ABC and then-fledgling ESPN actually exceeded projections. The quality of play was solid.

But the seeds of the USFL’s downfall were already in motion. When the New Jersey Generals skirted the salary cap to lure Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker away from Georgia, it only led more teams to dole out big bucks in pursuit of stars. That, in turn, led to huge financial losses. Dixon wisely walked away after that inaugural season.

In the end, the USFL’s most enduring legacy was the $3 judgment it “won” in an antitrust suit against the NFL, a ruling that finished off the league in 1986 before it carried out a Trump-backed move from spring to fall.

No one since has made a serious attempt at a spring football league.

A revived XFL certainly doesn’t qualify.

But someone out there should heed McMahon’s words.

“Football is America’s favorite sport,” he said. “We’ve got seven months of no football on the gridiron and 70 million fans. Why not now? Now is the perfect opportunity.”


Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at or at . His work can be found at


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Eagles vs. Patriots Super Bowl LII preview: Three things to know

This gallery contains 1 photo.

A preview of the Super Bowl LII matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots

When: Sunday, Feb. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

Where: U.S. Bank Stadium (Minneapolis)

Line: Patriots by 5½

Injuries: With two weeks between the championship round and Super Bowl LII, both teams should be at or near full strength. The one player likely to draw the most scrutiny is Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, who took a helmet-to-helmet blow from Jaguars S Barry Church on Sunday and never returned to the game.

New England QB Tom Brady appeared virtually unaffected by his four-day-old hand laceration against Jacksonville. And though Eagles QB Nick Foles needed X-rays on his ribs Sunday evening, he seems to have escaped any serious injury.


1. Pressure point: The Eagles’ deep and relentless front four only sacked Minnesota’s Case Keenum once Sunday but hit the quarterback eight times on a day he threw two INTs. Brady was sacked three times and hit seven by a Jacksonville defensive line that’s probably even more acclaimed than Philadelphia’s. However Brady shrugged off the heat, especially after halftime, when his pair of fourth-quarter TD throws proved fatal to the Jags’ Super Bowl aspirations. Starting inside with DT Fletcher Cox, Philly has the talent to make Brady uncomfortable, very often the key to beating him. However the four-time Super Bowl MVP has the intermediate weapons and hair-trigger release to negate the Eagles’ rush, plus the experience to pick apart a young group of corners. This may be the defining matchup of Super Bowl LII.

2. Will Eagles fly? The Vikings essentially dared Eagles QB Nick Foles to beat them. With 352 yards and three TDs through the air, he did. The next question is how will New England attack Philadelphia’s offense? Foles hasn’t committed a turnover in the playoffs, and his postseason efficiency is through the roof (122.1 QB rating). It might be worth focusing the game plan on him given the Patriots’ built-in familiarity with Eagles RBs LeGarrette Blount, who spent most of the previous four years in Foxborough, and Jay Ajayi, an ex-Dolphin. The Pats will surrender yards on the ground, but only one team allowed fewer rushing TDs than their six in 2017.

3. The big stage: Foles will be making his fourth playoff start in Super Bowl LII, while Brady makes his eighth Super Bowl appearance. The Patriots have reached the Super Bowl for the third time in four years, while the Eagles haven’t been since the 2004 season, when, incidentally, they lost to New England. Philly has a veteran coaching staff, headed by Doug Pederson, who continues to earn renown as one of the NFL’s cagiest play callers, and sharp defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. But it’s tough not to think they’re at a disadvantage going against such an experienced team and group of assistants, including two coordinators, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, who have been in their roles since 2012.


BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) — James Harrison and Malcolm Butler can probably trade notes when it comes to Super Bowl-changing defensive plays.

The two New England Patriots teammates are the authors of perhaps the two most memorable from the first 51 Super Bowls. One a game-sealing interception and the other a 100-yard return that provided a 14-point swing.

“They’re both all-time great plays,” said NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest, who played in four Super Bowls with the Patriots. “I don’t want to rank them against each other. They both were game-changers.”

Butler’s interception at the goal line that turned what looked like a Seattle repeat title into the fourth championship for Tom Brady and the Patriots three years ago might be the most impactful play of any kind in the Super Bowl when it comes to determining the champion.

“It feels like yesterday, but life goes that fast,” Butler said.

Butler was an unlikely hero that game. He played just one-sixth of New England’s defensive snaps all season and was on the field for just 17 defensive plays before being put in on the goal line at the end of the game.

He then stepped in front of Ricardo Lockette on a slant pattern and intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass to stake his place in Super Bowl history.

“Just be ready. Just be ready,” he said of his attitude that day. “I might not play, but I’m going to prepare like I’m going to play and I got the result.”

Harrison’s impact was much less of a surprise considering he was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 when he helped lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

Arizona appeared set to take the lead in the closing seconds of the first half when Harrison stepped in front of Anquan Boldin and intercepted a pass at the goal line before racing 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the half to put Pittsburgh up 17-7.

While the Steelers still needed a last-minute TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes to win 27-23, Harrison’s play was still one of the biggest in Super Bowl history, providing a potential 14-point swing.

Here are some other memorable defensive plays in Super Bowl history:

VON STRIP-SACK: Von Miller set the tone for the Super Bowl two years ago on Carolina’s second drive of the game. Miller sped past helpless right tackle Mike Remmers and ripped the ball away from league MVP Cam Newton on the sack. Malik Jackson pounced on the ball in the end zone to give Denver a 10-0 lead. Miller later iced the game with another strip-sack in the fourth quarter to earn Super Bowl MVP honors.

PICK-SIX: Peyton Manning had the Colts driving for a potential tying touchdown late in the game played in 2010 against New Orleans when everything changed on one play. With Indianapolis facing a third-and-5 at the Saints 31, Manning looked for favorite target Reggie Wayne over the middle. Tracy Porter stepped in front of Wayne to intercept the pass and raced 74 yards for the title-sealing touchdown.

GOAL-LINE STOP: Few Super Bowl endings have been as dramatic as the one between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans in the game played in 2000. The Titans rallied back from a 16-point deficit to tie the game only to have the Rams take the lead on the next play from scrimmage on a 73-yard pass from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce. Steve McNair took over with less than two minutes left and drove Tennessee down to the 10 with time for one more play. McNair found Kevin Dyson on a short slant and for an instant it looked as if he might be able to run it in the end zone, but Mike Jones wrapped him up for the tackle at the 1 , just short of a potential tying score.

MOMENTUM-CHANGER: Having lost three straight Super Bowls, the Buffalo Bills took a 13-6 halftime lead against Dallas in trip four and started with the ball in the third quarter. But instead of adding to the lead, the Bills lost it when Leon Lett stripped Thurman Thomas of the ball and safety James Washington scooped it up and weaved his way to a 46-yard touchdown . Emmitt Smith added two TD runs to earn MVP honors as Dallas ran away for a 30-13 win, but it was Washington’s play that was most important.

ROCKET SCREEN: Washington trailed the Raiders 14-3 late in the first half of the game played in 1984 when the Redskins took over at their 12 with 12 seconds to play. Rather than taking a knee, Washington coach Joe Gibbs called “Rocket Screen,” a play that had led to a big gain late in the half in the regular season against the Raiders. Los Angeles was ready this time, putting backup linebacker Jack Squirek in place of starter Matt Millen just for this moment. Joe Theismann faked a pass to his right before floating a screen to Joe Washington to his left. Before the ball could reach Washington, Squirek grabbed it and walked for a 5-yard score that set the scene for a second-half blowout.


AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower contributed to this report


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NFL – AP Sources: Chiefs agree to trade Smith to Redskins

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Kansas City has agreed to trade quarterback Alex Smith to Washington, a move that spells the end of Kirk Cousins’ time with the Redskins and hands the Chiefs’ job to Patrick Mahomes.

Two people with direct knowledge of the deal confirmed the move to The Associated Press on Tuesday night on condition of anonymity because the transaction can’t be completed until the start of the new league year in March. One person told the AP the Redskins had agreed to a four-year extension with Smith, who had one year left on his contract.

Smith, who turns 34 in May, spent the past five seasons with the Chiefs, leading them to the playoffs four times while throwing for 102 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. He carries a $17 million salary-cap hit for 2018.

Kansas City saves cap space and can turn to Mahomes, the 10th pick in last year’s draft out of Texas Tech, as its new starter.

Smith becomes Washington’s new franchise quarterback after throwing for 31,888 yards and 183 touchdowns in 12 NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and Chiefs.

Smith is “one of the best competitors and teammates I’ve ever been around,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce posted on Twitter. “Someone who I owe a lot of my success to, and a guy that’s been a class act through all the ups n downs.”

The Redskins acquired Smith and signed him to the kind of long-term deal they balked at with Cousins, who became the first QB to play back-to-back seasons on the franchise tag. Cousins can become a free agent next month at age 29.

“Nothing really surprises me anymore,” Redskins tight end Niles Paul tweeted . Former Redskins QB Robert Griffin III tweeted : “Some how…Some way…they will blame this on me. No doubt.”

Cousins, drafted by the Redskins in the fourth round out of Michigan State in 2012 — the same year they traded up to Griffin with the No 2 pick — likely leaves Washington with the fourth-most passing yards in franchise history, more than 16,000.

Under coach Jay Gruden, Cousins became the first Redskins QB to start all 16 games for three consecutive seasons. He threw for at least 4,000 yards in each, while totaling 81 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. But Washington only played in one playoff game during that span, going 9-7, 8-7-1 and, most recently, 7-9 in Cousins’ time as a starter.

Cousins has been the biggest question hovering over Washington’s offseason — and, indeed, hovering over the whole organization for a couple of years as the team failed to sign him to a long-term deal.

According to ESPN, Washington is sending a third-round draft pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller to Kansas City in the trade, which cannot be finalized until March 14. The Kansas City Star first reported the deal.

This is the second time a team coached by Andy Reid has traded a 33-year-old QB to the Redskins. Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles dealt Donovan McNabb to Washington in 2010 for second- and third-round picks.


AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta and Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.


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NFL Today, Divisional Playoffs


Sunday, Jan. 21

Jacksonville at New England, 3:05 p.m. EST. New England (14-3) has reached the AFC championship game for the seventh consecutive season and the 12th time overall in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. The Jaguars (12-6) are playing in the conference title game for just the third time in franchise history, and first since losing to Tennessee during the 1999 season.


Minnesota at Philadelphia, 6:40 p.m. EST. Nick Foles and the resilient Philadelphia Eagles (14-3) host Case Keenum and the surprising Minnesota Vikings (14-3) — in a matchup of teams that overcame losing their starting quarterbacks. Philadelphia is playing for the NFC title for the 11th time, but hasn’t won it since the 2004 season — when the Eagles went on to lose to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Vikings reached their 10th NFC title game and first since the 2009 season.




— Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers, was 37 for 58 for 469 yards with five touchdown passes and an interception in Pittsburgh’s 45-42 loss to Jacksonville. Roethlisberger is the first player in the Super Bowl era to have at least 400 passing yards and five or more passing touchdowns in a playoff game.

— Case Keenum, Vikings, was 25 for 40 for 318 yards, including a stunning 61-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs with no time remaining to give Minnesota an improbable 29-24 win over New Orleans.

— Drew Brees, Saints, was 25 for 40 for 294 yards with three second-half touchdowns and two interceptions in New Orleans’ 29-24 loss to Minnesota.



— Leonard Fournette, Jaguars, had 25 carries for 109 yards and three touchdowns in Jacksonville’s win over Pittsburgh.



— Antonio Brown, Steelers, had seven catches for 132 yards, including touchdown catches of 23 and 43 yards in Pittsburgh’s loss to Jacksonville.

— Stefon Diggs, Vikings, had six receptions for 137 yards, including a stunning 61-yard touchdown with no time remaining, in Minnesota’s win over New Orleans.

— Vance McDonald and Le’Veon Bell, Steelers. McDonald had 10 catches for 112 yards and Bell had nine receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s loss to Jacksonville.

— Michael Thomas, Saints, had seven receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns in New Orleans’ loss to Minnesota.


Special Teams

— Josh Lambo, Jaguars, made a 45-yard field goal with 1:45 remaining in Jacksonville’s win over Pittsburgh.

— Kai Forbath, Vikings, made three of four field goals, including a 53-yarder in Minnesota’s victory over New Orleans.



— Telvin Smith, Jaguars, had 16 combined tackles and returned a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown in Jacksonville’s win over Pittsburgh.

— Anthony Barr and Andrew Sendejo, Vikings. Each had interceptions in Minnesota’s win over New Orleans.



New England has reached the AFC championship game for the seventh consecutive season and the 12th time overall in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. The Jaguars are playing in the conference title game for just the third time in franchise history, and first since losing to Tennessee during the 1999 season. Philadelphia is playing for the NFC title for the 11th time, but hasn’t won it since the 2004 season — when the Eagles went on to lose to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Vikings reached their 10th NFC title game and first since the 2009 season. If the Patriots win next week, the AFC will be represented by either Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger in 14 of the past 15 Super Bowls. The exception is the Ravens’ Joe Flacco in Super Bowl 47.



Case Keenum completed a last-ditch heave near the sideline on the game’s final play, and Stefon Diggs slithered away for a 61-yard touchdown to give Minnesota a 29-24 victory over New Orleans and send the Vikings to the NFC championship game, with one more win needed to become a first-time Super Bowl host. The game had four lead changes in the final three minutes and it was the first game in NFL playoff history to end on a game-winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter.



The Jaguars and Steelers combined for 77 points in Jacksonville’s 45-42 win. It is the most points in a playoff game since the Colts and Chiefs combined for 89 points in the 2013 wild-card round. … The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger had 469 yards passing against the Jaguars. He is the only player to throw for at least 300 yards against the Jaguars this season. Wide receiver Antonio Brown had 132 yards. He is the only player with at least 100 receiving yards in a game against the Jaguars this season. Both Roethlisberger and Brown both have done it twice against Jacksonville. … The Jaguars have scored eight defensive touchdowns this season, three more than any other team. It is the most defensive TDs scored in a season by one team (including playoffs) since the 2012 Bears who had nine.



The Vikings’ 29-24 win over the Saints was the first game in NFL playoff history to end on a game-winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter. … Jacksonville’s 45 points tied the most ever allowed by the Steelers in the playoffs. The Steelers lost 45-28 to Miami in the AFC title game after the 1984 season.



“I don’t know if they misread the schedule or didn’t play us this week, but they didn’t acknowledge us at all. And we didn’t take that too kindly.” — Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack on the Steelers after beating Pittsburgh 45-42 to advance to the AFC title game.


“A heck of a game, wasn’t it? And the good guys won.” — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer after his team beat the Saints 29-24 on Case Keenum’s 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs with no time remaining to advance to the NFC title game.


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NFL divisional round matchups to watch: Can Le’Veon Bell pace Steelers against Jaguars?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   The Pittsburgh Steelers helped legitimize the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017. But after going 10-1 since falling to the eventual AFC South champions in a surprising 30-9 rout in Week 5, the Steelers’ potential return to the AFC Championship Game depends on the team carrying the lessons it implemented from that humbling defeat.

And while many expect the road to Super Bowl LII to feature a rematch of Pittsburgh and the New England Patriots, Jacksonville is anything but a speed bump.

Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions and the Steelers gave up 231 rushing yards in what served as the Jaguars’ emergence as a legitimate postseason threat. While Jacksonville rode the same lockdown, turnover-generating defense and rugged run game back to the divisional round, Pittsburgh was served the reality check it needed. Roethlisberger in particular finished the season on an upswing, posting a 102.7 quarterback rating in the 11 games since that point.

But even with wide receiver Antonio Brown expected to make a timely return, it could be the running attack that swings the second meeting.

Running back Le’Veon Bell still managed 25 touches in the first meeting, but just 15 of those were runs. Though the Jaguars steadily improved their rushing defense over the year, the unit still finished 21st with 116.3 yards allowed per game. In its six losses, Jacksonville gave up an average of 153.3 yards on the ground. Using him frequently would help  Pittsburgh negate a powerful pass rush led by defensive player of the year candidate Calais Campbell, as well as limit its turnover liability against Pro Bowl cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.

That could add up to a heavy workload for Bell, who last season set the NFL record for rushing yardage in a player’s first two playoff games with 337.

Much of Jacksonville’s burden for stopping Bell could fall to linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack. The two will not only be critical in preventing him from reaching the second level and breaking long runs but also containing him in the passing game. Bell had 10 catches in the first contest but managed just 46 yards.

Here are three more matchups that will define the divisional round of the playoffs:

New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas vs. Minnesota Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes

Whether this matchup truly manifests remains unclear. While putting arguably the league’s pre-eminent lockdown cornerback on the Saints’ foremost threat in the passing game would seem like a natural assignment, Rhodes was tasked with covering Thomas on just a handful of plays in the Vikings’ Week 1 win. But much has changed for both teams since that point, and Thomas has emerged as an even more dangerous target in a Pro Bowl season.

Rhodes has an established pattern of erasing opponents’ top receivers, having held the likes of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and A.J. Green to modest outputs in 2017. While Drew Brees completed passes to eight different receivers last week, having Thomas taken largely out of the equation would leave him with few reliable options against the second-ranked pass defense (192.4 points per game). New Orleans would also face a bleak outlook on third down, as it ranks a pedestrian 19th in conversion percentage (37.6) and is up against the league’s best unit in that facet (25.2% allowed).

With the running game integral to the Saints’ success, Thomas has to establish himself on Sunday in order to prevent Minnesota from consistently loading up the box. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram were held to just 68 combined yards from scrimmage in a wild-card win over the Carolina Panthers thanks in part to an athletic linebacking corps that prevented the Pro Bowl duo from turning the corner and finding open-field space. The Vikings could follow that formula with Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks while also disrupting plays up front through nose tackle Linval Joseph.

Philadelphia Eagles RB Jay Ajayi vs. Atlanta Falcons’ front seven

Ajayi has already found success against the Falcons this year, albeit not with the Eagles. Yet even with a stronger offensive line and supporting cast, duplicating or improving upon that production in the divisional round could be difficult.

While still playing for the Dolphins in a Week 6 meeting with the Falcons, Ajayi ran 26 times for 130 yards, the most Atlanta gave up to any one running back this season. And though he has averaged 5.8 yards per carry while in Philadelphia, the third-year running back has not had more than 15 carries in any game with the team. That should change Saturday, with the Eagles likely doing all they can to limit backup quarterback Nick Foles’ role.

But Atlanta’s rush defense steadily improved since its last meeting with Ajayi, as no other rusher cracked 100 yards during the regular season. The Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley netted 101 rushing yards in last week’s wild-card game but still was largely kept in check. Breakout linebacker Deion Jones and the rest of the defense should be able to focus on Ajayi, with the defense likely challenging Foles to prove he can beat it on the outside.

Tennessee Titans DT Jurrell Casey vs. New England Patriots’ offensive line

Whether motivated, distracted or unaffected by an ESPN report detailing his alleged discord with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady yet again faces another favorable outlook in the divisional round. The Titans’ hopes for pulling off the upset likely depend on generating pressure, the same key that opponents have been looking to for years.

Brady’s vulnerability to the rush has spiked this year, as he was sacked 35 times and on 5.7% of his dropbacks. After the 40-year-old’s number dipped from Week 13 to Week 16 (1,013 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions), Tennessee will try to keep him off beat by forcing him into turnovers and third-and-long situations. Though Brady has a famously quick trigger, the short passing game could be limited by the statuses of running backs Rex Burkhead, James White and Mike Gillislee, all of whom are listed as questionable.

Tennessee didn’t have any one player who finished with more than 7 1/2 sacks, but the defense as a whole ranked tied for fifth with 43. Its best bet for disrupting New England’s attack might be Casey, a slippery yet powerful rusher who fits the model of the kind of interior rusher that has given Brady trouble at times. The Titans will need that push, as the secondary struggled at times last week against the Kansas City Chiefs and looks ill-equipped to handle deep throws to Rob Gronkowski and now-healthy wide receiver Chris Hogan.


A quick glance at items of interest as the NFL’s divisional playoffs commence…

Who’s hot

Marcus Mariota. After sparking his team to an amazing comeback at Kansas City, what can the Titans quarterback do for an encore? Just beat Tom Brady. And that prospect probably is even tougher than usual, as Brady just might have a point to prove amid the reports that the Patriots’ signature icons — including Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft — are poised to implode from within. Mariota, the third-year pro, took his NFL street cred to a new level after winning his playoff debut. It undoubtedly put to rest any concerns that Mariota had significantly regressed during an injury-riddled Year 3 — and beyond that he may have saved coach Mike Mularkey’s job. It will take another Herculean effort to win at Foxborough and Mariota will need the help of Derrick Henry powering a running game that might be the best defense against TB12. And maybe Mariota can draw some juice by playing loose in a game that nobody expects he can win.

Pressure’s on

Nick Foles. Eagles coach Doug Pederson admitted that his team went into a bit of shock after playmaking quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament while in the midst of a potential MVP season. A month later, the effects linger with Foles pressed to silence the doubters, including oddsmakers who installed the Eagles as the first No. 1 seed since the merger to open the playoffs as an underdog. To topple Atlanta, the supporting cast needs to keep the pressure off Foles. That means controlling the flow with the deep stable of running backs (Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement) and with a defense needing to keep Philadelphia from engaging in a shootout against an offense directed by Matt Ryan. Still, to win, at some point the quarterback is going to need to make a clutch throw.

Key matchup

Antonio Brown vs. Jalen Ramsey. The Steelers’ wizard of a receiver is set for his much-anticipated return, nearly a month since suffering a partially torn calf. Ramsey, Jacksonville’s rising star cornerback, figures to log extensive snaps in coverage and like everyone else at Heinz Field will be eager to see if Brown has come back with the same pop that allowed him to miss two game and still lead the NFL for the season with 1,533 receiving yards. One potential snag: He was ill on Friday.

Next man up

Senio Kelemete. With Andrus Peat finished with a fractured fibula, Kelemete steps in at left guard for the Saints. But this isn’t exactly a replacement coming in cold. The fifth-year veteran — versatile enough to back up at guard, center and tackle — played 61% of the snaps and started eight games this season. He, too, deserves some of the credit for clearing the holes that allowed Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to rush for a combined 1,852 yards.

Stomach for an upset

Jaguars at Steelers. Can they do it again? No way the Jaguars will sneak up on Pittsburgh this time around, after the Week 5 drubbing best remembered for Ben Roethlisberger’s five interceptions. In Week 5, Roethlisberger threw 55 passes while Le’Veon Bell logged just 15 carries. To pull off another upset, the Jaguars defense will need to keep Bell in check. In Pittsburgh’s two playoff wins last year, Bell rushed 59 times for 337 yards. The Jags D might also be pressed to put points on the scoreboard to support the Blake Bortles-deficient offense. Can you believe that Jacksonville ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring? Well, that can happen with a defense that scored seven of the team’s 47 touchdowns — including two pick-sixes against Roethlisberger.

Did you notice?

During his first nine starts this season, Case Keenum was sacked just five times. In six of those contests, the Vikings’ improved offensive line pitched shutouts in the sack department. But that hasn’t been the case lately. Keenum, facing off against Drew Brees on Sunday, has been sacked at least twice in each of the past six games, and 17 times in total during that span.

Trend factor 

Over the past 18 seasons, the Patriots have ranked higher in the NFL for fewest points allowed than for fewest yards allowed in every campaign except two (2007, 2015). But this season presented the biggest gap yet between those categories, as New England ranked 29th for yards (366 per game) and fifth for scoring (18.5 points per game). More striking: After allowing 32 points per game during a 2-2 start, New England (13-3) allowed 14 points per outing in the 12 games since.

Stat’s the fact

Second-year star Michael Thomas not only became the first player in Saints history to post a 100-catch season (104, 1,245 yards), he also set an NFL record for most receptions (196) over a player’s first two seasons.


Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

NFL Today, Wild-Card Playoffs

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Sunday, Jan. 7

Buffalo at Jacksonville, 1:05 p.m. EST. The Bills (9-7) are making their first playoff appearance since 1999, ending a 17-year absence that was the longest for any team in the four major North American sports leagues. The Jaguars (10-6) are in the postseason for the first time since the 2007 season, and won their first division title since 1999. They’re coached by Doug Marrone, who was Buffalo’s head coach from 2013-14.


Carolina at New Orleans, 4:40 p.m. EST. Two familiar foes cap wild-card weekend as Cam Newton’s Panthers (11-5) take on Drew Brees’ Saints (11-5) for the third time this season. New Orleans won the previous two meetings, with the victories bookending an 8-1 stretch for the Saints en route to the NFC South title. The Panthers will have tight end Greg Olsen, who missed the earlier matchups because of a foot injury.




— Marcus Mariota, Titans, led three second-half touchdown drives, incredibly throwing one of his TD passes to himself, and the Titans rallied from a 21-3 deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 22-21 for their first playoff win in 14 years.

— Matt Ryan, Falcons, went 21 of 30 for 218 yards and a TD to lead Atlanta past the Los Angeles Rams 26-13.



— Derrick Henry, Titans, had a career-high 156 yards rushing and scored a 35-yard touchdown run.

— Devonta Freeman, Falcons, ran for 66 yards and a TD on 18 carries.



— Julio Jones, Falcons, had nine catches for 94 yards and a touchdown.

— Tyreek Hill, Chiefs, caught seven passes for a game-high 87 yards.

— Robert Woods, Rams, had 142 yards on nine receptions.

— Delanie Walker, Titans, had six receptions for 74 yards.


Special Teams

— Matt Bryant, Falcons, booted four field goals — from 29, 51, 25 and 54 yards.

— Ryan Succop, Titans, kicked a 49-yard field goal.



— Brian Orakpo, Titans, had 1 1/2 sacks.

— Deion Jones, Falcons had 10 overall tackles and a pass-defensed.



With a 22-21 loss to Tennessee, the Kansas City Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since January 1994. … Atlanta’s 26-13 win over the Los Angeles Rams gave the Falcons playoff victories in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. … Atlanta won a road playoff game for the first time in 5,481 days. The Falcons’ last postseason road victory came in the 2002 playoffs, when Michael Vick’s Falcons defeated Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers. … Tennessee won a playoff game for the first time in 5,117 days, beating Kansas City 22-21. The Titans’ last playoff win came on Jan. 3, 2004, when Tennessee topped Baltimore.



Los Angeles’ Cooper Kupp became the first Rams rookie to catch a touchdown pass in the playoffs since Torry Holt in the 2000 Super Bowl. … Derrick Henry became the third player in Titans history to have 100 or more yards rushing in a playoff game, joining Eddie George (twice) and Earl Campbell. … Alex Smith’s two TD passes against Tennessee put him past Len Dawson (seven) for the most in Chiefs playoff history with nine.



Tennessee became the third road team to rally from at least 18 points down to win a playoff game in NFL history. The Titans trailed Kansas City 21-3 at halftime before storming back in the second half to win 22-21. Dallas came back from 21-3 in the first half to beat San Francisco 30-28 in December 1972, and Detroit came back from 27-7 in the second half to beat San Francisco in December 1957.



Marcus Mariota capped a 91-yard TD drive to start the second half of Tennessee’s 22-21 win at Kansas City in bizarre fashion: He threw a TD pass to himself. His throw to the end zone was batted right back at him by Darrelle Revis, and Mariota hauled it in and dived for the goal line. It was the first time a player has thrown a TD pass to himself in the playoffs, and the first time in any game since the Vikings’ Brad Johnson during the 1997 season.



Atlanta’s 26-13 victory ruined a celebratory night for the Los Angeles Rams, who rebounded from a rough homecoming season in 2016 with an outstanding debut year under 31-year-old Sean McVay, the youngest head coach to reach the playoffs in NFL history. A raucous crowd of 74,300 packed the Coliseum on a crisp evening for the first NFL playoff game in the nation’s second-largest city since early 1994. Los Angeles went 21 years without pro football before the Rams returned last season, and the franchise emphatically ended a 13-year streak of non-winning seasons this fall with an inspiring run to the Rams’ first division title since 2003.



Pharoh Cooper is headed to the Pro Bowl after his outstanding regular season as a kick returner, but the second-year pro’s misadventures in his playoff debut cost the Los Angeles Rams dearly. He muffed a punt that bounced off teammate Blake Countess in the first quarter, and Matt Bryant subsequently hit the Falcons’ first field goal. After Bryant’s second field goal later in the quarter, Cooper got stripped by Damontae Kazee during a kickoff return at the Rams 32, and the Falcons drove for a TD.



Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce sustained a concussion on a wicked blow from Titans safety Johnathan Cyprien late in the first half of Kansas City’s 22-21 loss. Kelce, who had four catches for 66 yards, lay stunned on the turf for a moment before wobbling to his feet. Trainers quickly took him to the locker room and he did not return. …



“I’m in shock. The swing at halftime to the final whistle, definitely a shock. Yeah. Didn’t feel like we played up to how we’re capable of playing and that’s disappointing.” — Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith after the Chiefs blew an 18-point halftime lead and lost 22-21 to Tennessee.


“We knew it was going to take all four quarters, all my guys were ready to fight till the end and it was great.” — Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones after the Falcons topped the Los Angeles Rams 26-13.


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NFL Wild Card Roundup: Titans rally from hole, beat Chiefs / Falcons show playoff poise in 26-13 win over LA Rams

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Marcus Mariota did everything he could to help the Titans advance in the playoffs, throwing a crazy touchdown pass to himself , running for crucial first downs and providing the kind of spark that Tennessee needed to rally from a 21-3 halftime hole.

Heck, he even threw a crucial block on the run that clinched the game.

It all added up to a heart-stopping 22-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday, the first postseason win for the Titans in 14 years and one that will provide some relief — for the week, at least — for embattled coach Mike Mularkey and his remarkable bunch of underdogs.

“Special,” said Mariota, whose 205 yards passing included the go-ahead 22-yard strike to Eric Decker with six minutes left. “I’m part of a great team. I’m part of a group of guys that really believe in each other. And it’s something special.”

Now, the Titans will find out Sunday whether they’re headed to New England or Pittsburgh next.

Derrick Henry added a career-high 156 yards rushing and another score for Tennessee (10-7), while a defense fileted by Alex Smith and the Chiefs (10-7) in the first half pitched a shutout in the second half — dooming the Kansas City franchise to another humiliating postseason defeat.

The Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since January 1994.

“I’m in shock,” Smith said. “The swing at halftime to the final whistle, definitely a shock. Yeah. Didn’t feel like we played up to how we’re capable of playing and that’s disappointing.

Smith threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns , but most of that came before halftime. He couldn’t get going in the second half and misfired on fourth-and-9 at the Titans 44 with just over two minutes to go, denying the Chiefs a chance for Harrison Butker to kick a go-ahead field goal.

Adding to the depression? Henry appeared to fumble as Tennessee tried to run out the clock.

The Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown with 1:47 to go, and the crowd went wild as fireworks shot off over Arrowhead Stadium. But a replay clearly showed Henry down, the call was overturned and Tennessee succeeded in running out the clock. Mariota threw a block that helped spring Henry for a 22-yard gain on third-and 10 late that helped finish off the comeback.

“Grit. It’s just grit,” Henry said. “We told them we’ve got 30 minutes left, all we’ve got to do is play our game. Execute the plays and everything will take care of itself.”

In the first half, the Chiefs looked every bit the team that had won four straight in convincing fashion, and the Titans looked every bit the team that backed into the playoffs.

Kareem Hunt, the league’s top rusher this season , plunged in from 1 yard for a 7-0 lead. Smith hit Travis Kelce, who later left with a concussion, with a 13-yard touchdown pass. And he added another TD toss to Demarcus Robinson on the final offensive play for a 21-3 lead at the break.

“We were feeling good,” Johnson said. “We came in 21-3 and that’s all we were talking about: ‘Finish. Don’t get complacent. We have bigger goals than this game.'”

But it was the Titans who finished, and it was Mariota who led the way. He capped a 91-yard TD drive to start the second half in the bizarre fashions: Mariota threw a TD pass to himself.

His throw to the end zone was batted right back at him by Darrelle Revis, and Mariota hauled it in and dived for the goal line. It was the first time a player has thrown a TD pass to himself in the playoffs, and the first time in any game since the Vikings’ Brad Johnson during the 1997 season.

“Right place, right time,” Mariota said with a smile.

Tennessee nearly squandered its momentum when Adoree Jackson fumbled a punt, but the Chiefs were unable to pick up a first down and Butker knocked a 48-yard field goal off the upright. And the Titans capitalized when Henry rumbled nearly untouched 35 yards for a touchdown a few minutes later.

The Chiefs’ offense had been rendered impotent by that point, unable to move the ball after Kelce left with a concussion in the first half. And the Titans blanketed Tyreek Hill whenever he touched the ball, and they stacked the box to slow Hunt down in obvious rushing situations.

Finally, the Titans pulled ahead on Mariota’s strike to Decker, and that led to more controversy from the officials. Tennessee went for a 2-point conversion and a field-goal edge, Mariota fumbled as he was getting sacked and Frank Zombo scooped up the ball for two points the other way.

But the officials had blown the play dead, ruling Mariota’s progress had been stopped, and the Titans retained the slimmest of margins — one that would stand up to the final whistle.

“I feel really good around our football team,” Mularkey said. “I know what I’m going to get from them every week. That’s a good feeling, knowing how they’re going to come out, no matter what.”

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff is sacked by Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley during the first half of an NFL football wild-card playoff game, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons jumped to an early 13-point lead before the Rams mounted two swift scoring drives. Los Angeles went to the Coliseum locker room at halftime with just a three-point deficit amid raucous cheers from a home crowd thirsty for playoff success.

And then Matt Ryan and the tough, tested Falcons showed the upstart Rams what postseason poise is all about.

Ryan passed for 218 yards and hit Julio Jones for an 8-yard touchdown with 5:48 to play, and the defending NFC champion Falcons advanced from the wild-card round with a 26-13 victory over the Rams on Saturday night.

Devonta Freeman rushed for an early score and Matt Bryant kicked four field goals for the Falcons (11-6), who spoiled the Rams’ first playoff game in 13 years with a methodical performance derived from hard-earned experience.

Atlanta’s journey to the Super Bowl last season ended infamously with that blown 28-3 lead against New England. In their first playoff game since, the Falcons allowed no surprises from the NFC West champion Rams (11-6).

“We knew it was a situation we’ve been through before,” Atlanta defensive tackle Dontari Poe said. “We just had to keep playing and use what we’ve learned.”

Jones caught nine passes for 94 yards for Atlanta, which never trailed while winning playoff games in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Against an opponent that had just six players on its roster with prior postseason appearances, the Falcons’ experience showed through.

“I think having gone through these situations, understanding what it’s like, the atmosphere, those kinds of things, knowing that it’s going to be tough, all those things kind of carry forward,” Ryan said. “But at the end of the day, experience or no experience, you’ve got to execute.”

The Falcons advanced to face the top-seeded Eagles on Jan. 13 in Philadelphia.

“Doesn’t matter where we’re going, we’re going,” Ryan said. “And that’s the most exciting part.”

A raucous crowd of 74,300 packed the Coliseum on a crisp evening for the first NFL playoff game in the nation’s second-largest city since early 1994. Los Angeles went 21 years without pro football before the Rams returned last season, and the franchise emphatically ended a 13-year streak of non-winning seasons this fall with an inspiring run to the Rams’ first division title since 2003.

But the Falcons have been here before, and they showed it.

The Falcons jumped to their early lead by capitalizing on two mistakes by Pharoh Cooper, the Rams’ Pro Bowl kick returner. Atlanta’s offense then chewed up the clock and field position, with the first drive after halftime consuming 8:15.

“To end with a time of possession over 37 minutes, that’s hard to do in our league,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. “There was a nine-minute drive to start the second half, and I thought that really set the tone.”

The Falcons’ defense did more than enough to slow down the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, harassing Jared Goff into a 24-for-45 performance in his playoff debut.

“They did a real nice job there moving the ball up the field and keeping us on the sideline,” Goff said. “That can sure get you out of your rhythm.”

Robert Woods caught nine passes for 142 yards for the Rams, but rookie Cooper Kupp scored their only touchdown late in the first half.

Atlanta held MVP candidate Todd Gurley to 101 yards rushing — just 43 in the first three quarters — and four receptions for a mere 10 yards.

The Falcons ruined a celebratory night for the Rams, who rebounded from a rough homecoming season in 2016 with an outstanding debut year under 31-year-old Sean McVay, the youngest head coach to reach the playoffs in NFL history.

“You see why the Falcons are the defending NFC champs,” McVay said. “Certainly this is a humbling game. … This is an experience that we can learn from. But I don’t think this game was too big for our guys.”

The Rams’ offense finally figured it out late in the first half: Goff made several sharp throws on a 79-yard drive ending in Kupp’s TD catch, and Sam Ficken’s first field goal trimmed the halftime deficit to 13-10.

But the Rams’ defense simply couldn’t get off the field in the third quarter, whether due to missed tackles or clever play-calling by the Falcons.

Los Angeles trimmed the lead to 19-13 with 10:49 to play, but the Falcons made another drive highlighted by a beautiful 52-yard screen pass from a blitz-avoiding Bryant to Mohamed Sanu.

Jones then caught the sixth playoff TD pass of his career. Goff drove the Rams deep into Falcons territory, but LA turned it over on down at the Atlanta 5 with 2:05 to play. The Falcons stopped the Rams again on downs at midfield with 1:08 left.


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NFL wild-card matchups: Can Falcons contain Todd Gurley, Rams?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —    One year after their high-powered offense led the way on a Super Bowl run, the Atlanta Falcons likely will have to rely on their defense at the outset of the postseason.

With its attack regressing to the middle of the pack, Atlanta leaned on a defense that finished in the top 10 in scoring and total yards for the first time since 1998 to clinch the final spot in the NFC field. Yet the challenge facing the Falcons on Saturday is one larger than a matter of identity or balance.

The Los Angeles Rams are the NFL’s top-scoring outfit at 29.9 points per game. Avoiding a shootout and beating them in the first night-game at the Coliseum since their return to the city last season could hinge on accomplishing something few others have done this season: slowing Todd Gurley.

The Rams are 6-0 this season when the third-year running back has more than 100 yards rushing. But he also has raised his game in an MVP-caliber season by proving himself as a dynamic receiving threat, leading the team in receptions (64) and finishing first in the league with 2,093 yards from scrimmage despite sitting the final game.

Though it will take a swarming performance to slow Gurley, Atlanta has at least some reason for optimism. The defense firmed up against the run in the second half of the year, allowing just 93.6 yards per game on the ground in the last eight contests. Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett will be counted on to create a push up front and disrupt Gurley before he builds steam.

What Falcons coach Dan Quinn expressed concern about this week, however, was Gurley’s ability to make people miss in space. To prevent the kind of explosive runs that could break the game open, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal will have to be sound both in coverage and their tackling ability, as the two could be the best individual assets Atlanta has against the former Georgia star.

Here are three other matchups that will define this weekend’s wild-card games:

Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey vs. New Orleans Saints linebackers

Once viewed as a front-runner for offensive rookie of the year, McCaffrey never fully broke out despite leading the team in receptions (80) and finishing second in receiving yards (651). Though effective in small stretches, he had just two games in which he topped 100 yards from scrimmage.

One of McCaffrey’s best outings, however, came in the season’s first meeting with the Saints. He recorded a season-high 101 receiving yards on nine catches in a 34-13 loss. And though he was held to 49 total yards on 11 touches in the rematch, he hauled in a touchdown pass. As Carolina tries to crack New Orleans’ defense, it’s evident that getting McCaffrey more involved in the passing game could be the best way to give Cam Newton help.

Though the Saints’ linebacking corps improved this season, McCaffrey still remains a mismatch. New Orleans will have to be creative in its coverages, though it will be aided by the presence of cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who missed each of the regular-season contests against Carolina.

Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles vs. Buffalo Bills secondary

Bortles’ steady play for most of the season helped Jacksonville seal its first AFC South title, but a stigma remains for the fourth-year quarterback. Two days after beating the Jaguars in the season finale, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said Bortles would “choke” in a close situation late-game situation.

The insult was just the latest for Bortles, who also was ridiculed by Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas earlier this season. And while the league’s top rushing attack and a staunch defense has eased his burden, Bortles still must demonstrate he can be an asset rather than a liability. Turnovers are perhaps the biggest threat to derailing him and the Jaguars’ offense after he threw five interceptions in the last two games of the regular season.

Though it ranks just 20th in pass defense, Buffalo is tied for sixth in 18 interceptions (18) and sixth in opposing quarterback rating (78.9). For Bortles, the danger lies in a secondary that consistently shifts safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, creating confusion for opposing passers. Even if Marqise Lee is able to play through an ankle injury, Bortles will have to be cautious and methodical in picking his spots against a defense that has given up the fewest big passing plays in the league.

Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry vs. Kansas City Chiefs’ front seven

In discussing Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ offensive game plan, tight end Delanie Walker said that, “Sometimes you’ve got to overcome coaching.” While the remark appeared to emphasize the need for ad-libbing at times, the message was clear: Tennessee likely won’t be scheming its problems away.

While Mariota will be called upon to spark the offense, Henry is in line to be the one doing the heavy lifting. In the Week 17 win over the Jaguars, he had a career-high 28 carries despite being stifled for just 51 yards. But he took his lone catch 66 yards for a touchdown that would prove to be the difference in the game.

Henry derided his performance after the game as “soft,” but he should get the chance for a similar workload with DeMarco Murray ruled out again. Though he must establish himself as a more reliable inside runner, Henry could find opportunities against Kansas City’s 25th-ranked run defense after tallying two touchdowns and 54 yards on just nine carries in last season’s meeting. A workhorse approach also would help limit the Titans’ defensive vulnerability to the Chiefs’ offense.


Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

NFL Playoffs 2018: Brady, Patriots again top the AFC playoff field / Topsy-turvy NFC playoff field

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —   In a year when two-thirds of the NFL playoff field is new, the AFC still features fixtures Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger , who have seven Super Bowl rings between them, and Alex Smith, who is coming off his best season of his 13-year career.

The trio of graybeard QBs led their teams to division titles again this year, and for the second straight season they won’t have to worry about Von Miller wrecking their Super Bowl hopes. The Broncos missed the playoff party again along with the Texans, Raiders and Dolphins, who were here last year.

The Bills are back for the first time in 17 seasons , the Jaguars for the first time in a decade and the Titans return for the first time since 2008.

The AFC gets wild-card weekend started Saturday with the Titans visiting the Chiefs, who haven’t won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium in 14 years. On Sunday, the Bills visit the Jaguars.

New England has its customary bye week — its seventh straight — and Pittsburgh earned its first bye since 2010.

Strength and weakness of each of the six AFC playoff teams:

1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 51, 34-28 OT over Atlanta on Feb. 5, 2017.

Hope: Tom Brady still plays like he’s 30, not 40. He’s a leading MVP candidate again with a league-leading 4,577 yards passing and 32 TDs. He got hit a lot more than he did last season (32 sacks in ’17 after just 15 in ’16). But it hasn’t stopped the Patriots from having the league’s second-ranked offense, averaging 28.6 points. A healthy TE Rob Gronkowski , who missed last year’s playoffs, has given the Patriots a huge lift with 69 catches for 1,084 yards. WR Brandin Cooks added 65 receptions for 1,082 yards.

Nope: Brady heads into the playoffs without his favorite target, WR Julian Edelman (knee), who got hurt in the preseason. Gronk, Cooks and RB Dion Lewis have picked up the slack. But there are still other injury concerns with WR Chris Hogan, RB James White and RB Mike Gillislee all ailing. The defense also is very banged up. LB Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) was lost for the season in October, and the list of nagging injuries has grown throughout the season. Using the bye week to heal up will be huge for New England’s prospects.

The Dope: “I think we’ve got some work to do. We are not where we want to be and that’s what practice is for. The great thing about it is we’ve got one more chance to be able to go out there and play our best.” — Cooks.

2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 over Arizona on Feb. 1, 2009.

Hope: The “Killer Bs” are in full flight for the AFC North champions. Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell and K Chris Boswell are all headed to the Pro Bowl — if the Steelers aren’t playing in the Super Bowl — and rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has given Pittsburgh a youthful jolt. The Steelers averaged 29.9 points a game during the second half of the season and appear plenty comfortable when things get tight. They went 9-2 in games decided by six points or less.

Nope: One of those losses was a 27-24 setback to New England on Dec. 17, a game the Steelers led at home throughout until Brady and Gronkowski got going in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone on a fake spike when kicking a field goal and going into overtime made plenty of sense. That means a rematch with New England, if it happens, would be in Foxborough. Pittsburgh has not proven it can cover Gronk effectively — he averages over 100 yards receiving against the Steelers in his career.

The Dope: “It’s time to lock in and take this as serious as we can because we know how hard it is to get here and the opponents we have to play. We have a lot of belief in each other.” — LT Alejandro Villaneuva.

3. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-6). No Super Bowl appearances.

Hope: Defense wins championships. The Jaguars have one of the best D’s in the league — they rank second in points allowed (16.8), interceptions (21), sacks (55) and yards (286) — and they gave up 10 or fewer points in half of their games. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Yannick Ngakoue, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, and linebacker Telvin Smith are the cornerstones of a unit that gives Jacksonville a chance in every game.

Nope: QB Blake Bortles has five interceptions the last two weeks, raising concerns about his ability to carry the offense in the clutch. Bottom line is he needs more help around him. The NFL’s top rushing attack has stalled, slowed because of injuries to rookie Leonard Fournette and the offensive line, and Jacksonville’s young receivers have started dropping passes, messing up routes and looking far from ready for the playoff stage. The Jaguars are coming off nine consecutive losing seasons, so this is new to them.

The Dope: “I know he’s going to do everything he can to get back on that horse and lead us the right way and lead from the front. And everybody’s going to do their job around him and do a little bit more. It’s time to step it up, and that’s not just him, that’s everybody.” — TE Marcedes Lewis on Bortles.

4. KANSAS CITY (10-6). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970.

Hope: Smith had the best season of his 13-year career , helped along by the best supporting cast he’s ever had. WR Tyreek Hill is a game-changer not only on offense but as a punt returner, RB Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie, and TE Travis Kelce has arguably supplanted Gronkowski as the best in the game at his position. And should anything happen to Smith, rookie Patrick Mahomes II proved a capable starter and reliever in K.C.’s 27-24 win at Denver last week, when he returned to lead the team’s successful 2-minute drill to beat the Broncos.

Nope: The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium since January 2004, a year before Hunt was born. They have lost games in every manner, too — shut out by Baltimore in 2010, beaten by Pittsburgh despite holding the Steelers without a touchdown last year, even losing to the Colts in a game in which nobody punted. Perhaps they’re just cursed.

The Dope: “Everybody that is left still playing is good. Everybody is amped up and the season is on the line. It’s win or go home. I think all that just adds to the intensity a lot of times, and a lot to the stage, because the ramifications are so big and so real. But it’s still football at the end of the day.” — Smith.

5. TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7). No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 34 to St. Louis Rams in 2000.

Hope: QB Marcus Mariota has found his running mojo again . Mariota ran a career-best 10 times for a season-high 60 yards last week against Jacksonville in helping the Titans clinch their first playoff berth since the 2008 season, his best performance running the ball since breaking his right leg on Christmas Eve 2016. Mariota showed some serious swagger on the key third-and-5 run for 13 yards that featured a stiff arm on Jaguars safety Barry Church befitting the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.

Nope: Mariota has been intercepted more this season (15) than in either of his previous two years in the NFL. He also hasn’t gotten much help with opponents double- and triple-teaming TE Delanie Walker and with his receivers dropping too many passes or running the wrong routes too often. An inability to stretch the field through the air makes it too easy for defenses to load the box and stop the run.

The Dope: “We’re not just a one-hit wonder. We’re going to continue to be successful and keep winning games, so everybody should get used to this.” — S Kevin Byard.

6. BUFFALO BILLS (9-7). No Lombardis. Lost Super Bowl 25 to New York Giants in 1991, Super Bowl 26 to Washington in 1992, Super Bowl 27 to Dallas in 1993 and Super Bowl 28 to Dallas in 1994.

Hope: It took 17 years for the Bills to get back to the playoffs after losing to the Titans on the “Music City Miracle” on Jan. 8, 2000. The Bills have exceeded expectations during a season in which they overhauled their roster under the first-year tandem of HC Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane. They’re a resilient bunch, overcoming a QB shuffle in which McDermott benched Tyrod Taylor over his pedestrian passing numbers but went right back to him after rookie Nathan Peterman threw five first-half interceptions in a 30-point loss to the Chargers in November.

Nope: Muting their excitement over ending their playoff drought is the uncertain status of RB LeSean McCoy (ankle), who leads the team in yards rushing, receptions and TDs. The Bills are seeking to end another embarrassing drought: they haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. They don’t have a lot of grizzled veterans to lean on, either, after losing CB Stephon Gilmore in free agency and trading WR Sammy Watkins (to the Rams) and CB Ronald Darby (to the Eagles) in August. Then, they traded their highest-paid player, DT Marcell Dareus, to Jacksonville in October.

The Dope: “I’m the forever optimist, and I know that. But when everyone was talking about us tanking, I was looking around and saying, ‘Man, we better get rid of a whole lot more guys because this team is going to win some ballgames.’ We were able to get hot early, sustain a bad run and make the playoffs at the end.” — C Eric Wood.


Topsy-turvy NFC playoff field: 5 newcomers plus Falcons

In the topsy-turvy NFC playoffs, only the Falcons return from last year, and they sneaked in as the sixth and final team. They narrowly avoided the same fate as the Cowboys, Seahawks, Packers, Giants and Lions — all sitting this one out.

The top five seeds are newcomers, led by the Eagles. They are going with a backup quarterback and are making their first trip to the postseason party since 2013. The Vikings are back after a year away, hoping to become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in its home stadium .

The five new teams went a combined 32-48 in 2016 but 59-21 this season, providing hope to all those franchises and fans who are already preparing for free agency and the draft.

The field features just two Super Bowl winners, the Rams at the turn of the century when they were based in St. Louis, and the Saints in 2010, when they upset the Colts and Peyton Manning.

The Rams, in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, host the Falcons on Saturday in the showcase of wild-card weekend. The Saints, who ended a four-year playoff drought, host the Panthers on Sunday.

Strength and weakness of each team:


1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (13-3). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 15 to Oakland in 1981 and Super Bowl 39 to New England in 2005.

Hope: The Eagles have the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense with three productive backs: Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. They’ll have to rely on them more to take pressure off QB Nick Foles and a passing attack that has struggled since second-year sensation Carson Wentz tore his left ACL in December, a major blow to the Eagles’ bounce-back season .

Nope: Foles isn’t Wentz, who was a leading MVP candidate when he got hurt. But the offense still has plenty of pop and talent, and Foles has the ability to get on a roll. He needs to develop more chemistry with receivers during the bye, be more consistent and avoid mistakes. Otherwise, the Eagles could fall into the trap that befell the Cowboys last year when Dallas became the first No. 1 seed not to reach the Super Bowl since 2013.

The Dope: “We’ve got some good work the last couple of weeks with Nick, and we’ll go back and evaluate all of that. We have to get better in the run game. That helps any quarterback obviously, so we have to get better there. Then just taking a look at what his strengths are, strengths and weaknesses. Everything at this time of the year now becomes magnified even more going into the postseason.” — coach Doug Pederson.

2. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-3). No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 4 to Kansas City in 1970, Super Bowl 8 to Miami in 1974, Super Bowl 9 to Pittsburgh in 1975 and Super Bowl 11 to Oakland in 1977.

Hope: The defense , with all due respect to QB Case Keenum and the job he’s done. The Vikings ranked second in the league in both fewest rushing yards and fewest passing yards allowed, so there’s not really a one preferred way to attack them. No team gave up fewer points, either. With Pro Bowl picks at each of the three position groups yet a selfless attitude that’s kept individual players from chasing splashy plays or padding statistics at the expense of the scheme, coach Mike Zimmer’s unit will be a challenge for any opposing QB, especially in Minnesota at raucous U.S. Bank Stadium.

Nope: There aren’t many culprits, but Kai Forbath will certainly be a person of interest. Vikings fans still wince thinking about stunningly missed field goals by Gary Anderson (1998) and Blair Walsh (2015) that cost their team seemingly certain postseason victories. Forbath has been better than his predecessor Walsh, but he has missed eight extra points in 23 games with the Vikings. He also missed five of 15 field goals over the last seven games of this season.

The Dope: “Guys have to understand that you have an opportunity here to do some great things and you have to take advantage of that opportunity. If you don’t, you’ll probably regret it for the rest of your life.” — DE Brian Robison.

3. LOS ANGELES RAMS (11-5). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 34, beat Tennessee 23-16 on Jan. 30, 2000, while based in St. Louis.

Hope: The NFL’s most surprising comeback story shows few signs of ending prematurely. L.A. has the talent and smarts on both sides of the ball, with the league’s highest-scoring offense led by QB Jared Goff and MVP hopeful RB Todd Gurley. The Wade Phillips-led defense remains a strength with DT Aaron Donald disrupting offenses weekly. Rookie coach Sean McVay has outsmarted his older foes with impressive regularity.

Nope: They can’t act like they’ve been here before, because they haven’t. Only six Rams have any playoff experience whatsoever, easily the fewest in the current field. McVay, Goff, Gurley and Donald have never been under the postseason spotlight, where every mistake is magnified. So the big question is whether they’ll continue to thrive under pressure or crater.

The Dope: “There is a lot of value in experience. This is a very humbling business. … You try to learn from the experiences that you do have and not try to repeat the same mistakes twice. But I think, for a younger team, we’ve demonstrated a maturity throughout the course of the year.” — McVay, who was born 20 days after the Rams last hosted a playoff game in Southern California on Jan. 4, 1986.

4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 44, beat Indianapolis 31-17 on Feb. 7, 2010.

Hope: Although Brees passed for his fewest yards (4,334) since joining the Saints in 2006, he was as efficient as ever, setting a single-season record with his 72 percent completion rate. And Brees didn’t need to throw as much because the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara combined for 1,852 yards rushing. They also performed well as receivers, particularly on screens, each gaining more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

Nope: Although the defense made remarkable strides this season — particularly in sacks and interceptions — injuries have added up over the course of the season. They lost a productive starter at each level of the unit: defensive end Alex Okafor, middle linebacker A.J. Klein and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro.

The Dope: “It’s been a long season. We’ve had our ups and downs at times. We’ve shown ourselves what is possible. Obviously, you play the regular season to give yourself an opportunity to get into the tournament and that’s where we are now.” — Brees.

5. CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-5). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 38 to New England in 2004 and Super Bowl 50 to Denver in 2016.

Hope: They have one of the league’s best defenses behind LB Luke Kuechly, LB Thomas Davis and DE Julius Peppers. They also have more playoff experience than any team in the NFC playoffs — by a wide margin — and a versatile former league MVP at quarterback in Cam Newton . Carolina has three times run for more than 200 yards in a game this season, and that bodes well for the playoffs where the ground game is magnified.

Nope: Despite an 11-5 record in the toughest division in football, the Panthers don’t match up well against first-round foe New Orleans and could be one and done. The Saints beat them twice in the regular season by a combined score of 65-34. If Carolina can get by the wild-card round, it has the potential to make a deep run. But the pressure will be on Newton to perform because Carolina’s wide receivers aren’t going to scare anyone.

The Dope: “We all know what they say about pressure, that it does one of two things. We’re hoping to shine like diamonds on Sunday.” — Newton.

6. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6). No Lombardis: lost Super Bowl 33 to Denver in 1999 and Super Bowl 51 to New England in 2017.

Hope: Improved defense provides better balance to a team motivated by last year’s Super Bowl defeat. The Falcons were top 10 in scoring defense and total defense for first time since 1998 Super Bowl season. Defense boasts young, athletic playmakers, including LB Vic Beasley Jr., the 2016 NFL sacks leader, LB Deion Jones, LB De’Vondre Campbell and S Keanu Neal. Offense still has explosive potential with QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu and RB Devonta Freeman.

Nope: Offense took huge step back after leading league in scoring last season. Ryan’s regression makes 2016 MVP season look like outlier in his career. Freeman and RB Tevin Coleman each missed time with concussions and offensive line is missing LG Andy Levitre, who was placed on IR this week with a triceps injury.

The Dope: “You spend the last 20 weeks gaining a lot and now you get to test that, where your brotherhood is, where your game’s at. We know the easy road’s not for us. That’s the hard road, and we like those opportunities. We understand you have to earn them, and we’ve done that.” — coach Dan Quinn.


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AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell and Rob Maaddi and AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham, Steve Reed, Charles Odum and Brett Martel contributed.


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2018 NFL mock draft 1.0: Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen vie for No. 1

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   The draft is almost four months away, but more than half of the NFL’s teams have turned their focus to next season.

Any mock draft compiled at this point will be inherently flawed, as underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to decide whether to declare or to stay in college. With that said, here’s our initial look at how the first round might pan out based on the league’s projected order (picks 1-20 are essentially set).

1. Browns — Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California: Darnold’s positioning here might be precarious, as a 24-turnover season highlighted concerns about his footwork and ability to identify coverages. But few can match his playmaking ability and long-term potential, and his style and demeanor might be what Hue Jackson and GM John Dorsey need to give the organization some sense of direction.

2. Giants — Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: New GM Dave Gettleman seems prepared to move ahead with Eli Manning next season, but it will be hard to forego drafting a quarterback with the organization’s first top-five pick in 14 years. In Rosen, the Giants would get one of the most mechanically sound pocket passers in years. Concerns about his outspoken style and proclivity for forcing throws will dominate the pre-draft discussion, but sitting behind Manning before he takes the reins could provide a promising transition.

3. Colts — Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Given its languid pass rush and offensive line that gave up a league-worst 56 sacks this season, Indianapolis might be hard-pressed to take a running back this high, especially in a deep class. Barkley, however, is the sort of do-everything weapon who can be a transformational piece and give quarterback Andrew Luck the help he’ll need in a potential return. And it doesn’t hurt his case that owner Jim Irsay recently advocated for giving Luck an “Edgerrin James type of player.”

4. Browns (from Texans) — Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: With quarterback addressed, Cleveland can look to add another building block to join Myles Garrett on defense. Fitzpatrick’s versatility will make him an immediate asset on a unit that recorded just seven interceptions last season.

5. Broncos — Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Quarterback remains the foremost concern in Denver, as John Elway said there was “no doubt” the team had to improve at the position. Finding a suitable option in free agency or via trade, however, might be the preferable route given what’s likely to be available at this juncture in the draft. A guard at No. 5 might seem high, but Nelson is the best lineman in the draft and can be a stabilizing, Pro Bowl-level presence for years.

6. Jets — Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Even if 38-year-old Josh McCown gets an encore after an admirable year as a starter, the Jets need to find their long-term solution at some point. Although lacking prototypical size at 6-1, Mayfield displays the accuracy and decision-making to thrive in the NFL if he’s paired with a creative coach and offensive coordinator.

7. Buccaneers — Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State: The best pass rusher in the draft falls into the lap of the team that had a league-worst 22 sacks in 2017. With 20 sacks and 44 tackles for loss in the last two years, Chubb is a proven product who checks lots of boxes for 4-3 teams in need of an edge rusher.

8. Bears — Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: Mitchell Trubisky needs weapons if Chicago is to give the NFL’s worst passing attack a pulse. Although there’s no clear-cut top option at receiver, Ridley will threaten defenses downfield and open up opportunities for others within the offense.

x-9. 49ers — Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: For all the promise Kyle Shanahan’s offense showed as Jimmy Garoppolo went 5-0 as a starter, San Francisco still needs a big-bodied receiver. At 6-4 and 215 pounds, former basketball player Sutton can win 50-50 balls and boost a red-zone offense that ranked as one of the league’s worst (47% touchdown rate).

x-10. Raiders — Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: Oakland’s defense has little to offer outside of Khalil Mack and needs assistance at almost every level. With excellent instincts and a knack for finding the ball, Smith might end up a foundational figure for whichever team drafts him.

11. Dolphins — Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma: Miami can save $9 million by moving on from Ja’Wuan James at right tackle, and the line was one of several sore spots for the offense this season. The massive Brown (6-8, 345 pounds) can bring a physical tone to an attack that had just four rushing touchdowns.

12. Bengals — Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: An inability to provide consistent protection or open running lanes doomed Cincinnati’s skill positions from finding sustainable success. McGlinchey is well-rounded and experienced, though he might need time to adjust to facing the NFL’s elite speed rushers.

13. Redskins — Derwin James, S, Florida State: A torn lateral meniscus in 2016 and disappointing season for the Seminoles this season tempered the buzz for one of college football’s most physically gifted defenders. While medical checks will be paramount for his evaluation, James’ ability to be deployed in multiple roles should keep him in demand. Washington scraped by at safety last season and would stand to get an immediate upgrade.

14. Packers — Arden Key, DE-OLB, LSU: On physical tools alone, the 6-6 Key looks like a top-five pick. But concerns about his injury history and substantial weight gain last season will follow him through the pre-draft process. Green Bay needs to reinvigorate its defense, and Key’s value at this spot is enticing.

15. Cardinals — Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: The retirements of Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians leave Arizona essentially starting from scratch offensively. Although it’s unclear what direction the next coaching staff will take, Jackson could pair with David Johnson to give the Cardinals one of the NFL’s most dynamic backfields.

16. Ravens — James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State: Baltimore’s longstanding woes at wide receiver reached a crescendo in 2017, with Joe Flacco averaging a career-low 5.7 yards per attempt in a dink-and-dunk attack. Despite lacking the physical profile of an elite target, Washington has proved he can win both by hauling in deep throws and by creating separation.

17. Chargers — Connor Williams, OT, Texas: Philip Rivers was sacked the fewest times (18) of any season in which he has been a full-time starter, but the run game fell flat at times. Williams could start off on the right side and eventually take over for Russell Okung.

18. Seahawks — Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio: Pete Carroll’s defenses depend on creating havoc up front, and uncertain futures for Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett could limit Seattle’s options. Enter Davenport, a little-known edge rusher who shouldn’t fly under the radar for long given his impressive length and array of moves.

19. Cowboys — Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson: Dallas’ front four is in the best shape it’s been in for some time, though the team will have to figure out how to keep DE DeMarcus Lawrence as well as handle restricted free agent David Irving. Regardless of how free agency shakes out, Wilkins would add further depth on the interior with an attractive blend of quickness and power.

20. Lions — Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Ignoring the pass rush might be difficult, especially if Ziggy Ansah goes elsewhere. But Detroit had the NFL’s worst rushing attack and has finished in the bottom five in each of the last four years. Guice offers rare big-play ability and could take some of the pressure off quarterback Matthew Stafford.

21. Titans — Harold Landry, DE-OLB, Boston College: Tennessee finished tied for fifth with 43 sacks, but it could still use some fresh blood off the edge. A natural pass rusher with outstanding bend, Landry should provide quick returns if he can improve his strength.

22. Bills — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick before the season, he offered only glimpses of his potential as he completed 56.3% of his passes. Yet some team will look past the erratic ball placement and suspect field vision, instead focusing on the player he could become given his arm strength and 6-5, 230-pound build. Buffalo revealed its misgivings on Tyrod Taylor via a midseason benching, and just $1 million of the veteran’s 2018 salary is guaranteed.

23. Jaguars — Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: With Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee set to become free agents, Jacksonville might need to add a young target. Kirk excels at taking short throws for long gains and would further reduce the burden on Blake Bortles (or whoever is under center next season in Jacksonville).

24. Bills (from Chiefs) — Vita Vea, DT, Washington: Defensive-minded coach Sean McDermott has to be stewing over his run defense, which gave up an NFL-high 22 touchdowns this season. The 6-5, 340-pound Vea not only commands double teams but also delivers a serious push up front.

25. Falcons — Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan: Dontari Poe is set to become a free agent, and Atlanta could use another asset on the interior to place next to Grady Jarrett. Hurst somewhat duplicates Jarrett’s relatively compact frame, but he’s powerful and disruptive against both the run and pass.

26. Rams — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: Although lacking the elite ball skills and closing speed of former Buckeyes teammate Marshon Lattimore, Ward is a standout cover corner who should be the fourth Ohio State product at his position to be taken in the first round since 2016. Los Angeles’ interest could intensify if Trumaine Johnson departs after being franchise-tagged the last two years.

27. Saints — Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas: Improved play at linebacker was a crucial part of New Orleans’ defensive surge, but more athleticism is needed at the position. Jefferson brings plenty of that, though questions linger about why his collegiate production didn’t match his potential.

28. Panthers — Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson: Carolina cobbled together an ultimately impressive pass rush thanks in large part to 37-year-old Julius Peppers, who tied for the team lead with 11 sacks. Ferrell has the length and burst that defenses seek in edge rushers, and the 20-year-old should only become more productive as he refines his game.

29. Steelers — Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: Pittsburgh’s previously top-ranked pass defense slipped late in the season as cornerback Artie Burns and others made repeated mistakes. Jackson, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision with eight interceptions, brings the size (6-1, 192 pounds) and skill set necessary to handle man coverage against the Patriots and other premier passing attacks.

30. Eagles — Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan: Jason Peters’ season-ending knee injury highlighted the need to find another offensive tackle, even if the 35-year-old returns next season. A three-year starter, Okorafor could continue to polish his game and provide all-important protection for Carson Wentz.

31. Patriots — Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State: There’s no such thing as too many pass rushers in New England, which has several young options but no standouts. The Urban Meyer pipeline could continue with Hubbard, a well-rounded (albeit unflashy) defender.

32. Vikings — Billy Price, C-G, Ohio State: One year after finding a steal in third-round center Pat Elflein, Minnesota could look to Columbus, Ohio, again to further bolster its interior line. Price won the Rimington Trophy as the country’s best center but has the versatility to thrive at guard as well.

x-Order to be determined by coin flip at later date


Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @mikemschwartz.

AFC wild-card games preview / NFC wild-card games preview

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —  

A preview of the AFC wild-card matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars

When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

Where: Jacksonville’s EverBank Field

Line: TBA

Injuries: A major subplot of this game will be the status of Bills RB LeSean McCoy, who was carted off the field in Week 17 after suffering an ankle injury.


1. Let’s party like it’s 1999: The last time the Jags hosted a playoff game … was 1999. The last time the Bills reached postseason … was 1999 (a trip curtailed by the Music City Miracle). This is an opportunity that’s been a long time coming for both franchises, and the Jaguars have already gotten permission to boost their stadium capacity by 3,500 after removing those ugly tarps from the upper decks of EverBank Field. Both teams have to be thrilled to be here given almost no one could have predicted this meeting during training camp. But it feels like the Bills — given McCoy’s injury and their late entry into the field after a miraculous meltdown by the Ravens — are playing with house money, while the Jags’ propensity to draw attention to themselves could ultimately be counterproductive.

2. Defense of the defense: Though “quarterback-driven league” has become a popular NFL catchphrase in recent years, three of the last five Super Bowl champions (2012 Ravens, 2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos) have been primarily reliant on defense. That’s not to say a quarterback can be superfluous to a title run — Baltimore’s Joe Flacco caught fire in 2012, Seattle’ Russell Wilson ably executed what was more of a game-managing role in 2013, and Peyton Manning still provided plenty of wisdom and occasional big plays to Denver’s 2015 run.

But these Jaguars can — and will almost certainly have to — ride their deep and talented defense as far as it will take them. They have playmakers at all three levels, and their ability to dually apply intense pressure in tandem with tight coverage on the back end is a challenge to most opponents and certainly one as limited offensively as Buffalo.

The Bills defense hasn’t been quite as good, though they are stingy with TD passes allowed (tied for fewest with 13). Still, this could be a tight game, and one that could fuel even more scrutiny of QBs Tyrod Taylor and Blake Bortles, who are often perceived as hindrances rather than assets even if both have often outperformed their reputations in 2017.

3. Coachspeak: Buffalo’s Sean McDermott is a first-year head coach who’s already survived one infamous rookie move — his decision to bench Taylor for fifth rounder Nate Peterman in a Week 11 blowout loss to the Chargers that nearly scuttled the Bills’ season. Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone — remember, he chose to leave his post as Buffalo’s coach after the 2014 season — is also now taking a team to the playoffs for the first time and blamed his own game management blunders on the Jags’ Week 12 loss at Arizona. Just like rosters chock full of young, green players, inexperience could be an issue under the headsets on Sunday afternoon.


A preview of the AFC wild-card matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs

When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET (ESPN/ABC)

Where: Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium

Line: TBA

Injuries: A sprained knee sidelined Titans RB DeMarco Murray on Sunday, while Chiefs KR De’Anthony Thomas broke his leg.


1. Swan song? Chiefs QB Alex Smith is presumably entering his final days with the organization after watching heir apparent Patrick Mahomes start Sunday. But Smith will be back in the saddle Sunday and, despite his reputation for often being a risk-averse passer, some of the best performances of his 13-year career have come in the playoffs, where he has 12 career TD passes and just two INTs. And this could be the best supporting cast Smith has ever had. The Chiefs joined the 1981 San Diego Chargers as the only teams with a 4,000-yard passer (Smith, career-high 4,042) a 1,000-yard back (NFL rushing king Kareem Hunt) a 1,000-yard wideout (Tyreek Hill) and a 1,000-yard tight end (Travis Kelce).

2. Nowhere to run: Smith may have to beat the Titans, who are likely to put the clamps on Hunt. Tennessee allowed a league-low five rushing TDs in 2017 and held nine of its final 11 opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. Yet with 42 sacks, the Titans are no slouches rushing the passer, either. But if the Chiefs can give Smith time, he should be able to pick apart a secondary that’s been suspect aside from exceptional S Kevin Byard.

3. Pedestrian smashmouth? The Titans seemed to be successfully forging a physical identity with their run game last season and early this year, when they ground out more than 160 yards in three of their first six games. But they only managed that twice over the final 10 contests, and Murray was especially ineffective. Derrick Henry was even worse Sunday, managing just 51 yards on 28 carries, though QB Marcus Mariota chipped in with 60 on 10 runs. Tennessee could exploit a shaky Kansas City run defense and probably has to given how ineffective Mariota’s arm has been in his third pro season.


NFC wild-card games preview:

A preview of the NFC wild-card matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams

When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Line: TBA

Injuries: The Rams should be fresh after sitting QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, WR Cooper Kupp and DL Aaron Donald in the regular-season finale. The Falcons have been in playoff mode for weeks. WR Julio Jones, C Alex Mack and RB Tevin Coleman are among the walking wounded.


1. Scoreboard watching: The Rams shut down their stars Sunday, but no team had scored more points than the 465 they posted through 16 weeks. They’ve made immense strides — Goff especially — under rookie coach Sean McVay a year after producing the fewest points and yards in the league. The Falcons were the league’s highest-scoring outfit in 2016 but were much less explosive in 2017 without former OC Kyle Shanahan even though the offensive lineup was largely unchanged. Still, the potential exists for a shootout with California’s January climate conducive to offensive fireworks.

2. MVP! MVP? Last season’s NFL MVP, Falcons QB Matt Ryan, never came close to recapturing his 2016 form. A year after throwing 38 TD passes, Ryan plummeted to 20 and didn’t have more than two in any game. His struggles were a microcosm of the offense’s under Shanahan’s replacement, Steve Sarkisian. Ryan may be handing off the MVP hardware to Gurley, who led the NFL with 19 TDs and 2,093 yards from scrimmage and almost surely would’ve taken the rushing title if he’d played in Week 17. Stopping him in the run and pass game have to be focal points of Atlanta’s athletic defense, which would be wise to put the burden on Goff.

3. Special special teams: Saying the game is played in three phases often seems like lip service. But perhaps no team leverages special teams superiority like the Rams, who count KR Pharoh Cooper, P Johnny Hekker and K Greg Zuerlein among their Pro Bowlers. Cooper is always a threat to go the distance, Los Angeles scored two TDs this season off blocked punts, and Hekker’s background as a high school quarterback makes him dangerous on fakes. However a back injury prematurely ended Zuerlein’s season, forcing the team to rely on unproven Sam Ficken going forward.


A preview of the NFC wild-card matchup between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints

When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox)

Where: New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome

Line: TBA

Injuries: Panthers G Trai Turner (concussion), S Kurt Coleman (ankle), and CB LaDarius Gunter (illness) were all inactive for Sunday’s loss in Atlanta. RB Jonathan Stewart was rested. For the Saints, OT Terron Armstead (thigh), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion) and DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle) each missed Week 17.


1. Familiar foes: These NFC South rivals know each other very well, but Carolina is in trouble if the regular season is any indication. Not only did New Orleans sweep the Panthers this season, but Carolina also was outscored 65-34. The Saints forced the Panthers into committing six turnovers. That has been New Orleans’ M.O. this year: forcing opponents into making mistakes and then capitalizing with its explosive offense. With an electric atmosphere expected in the Superdome, Carolina can’t afford to make them early and fall behind.

2. Super Cam: Of Carolina’s 5,179 offensive yards in 2017, QB Cam Newton accounted for an overwhelming 4,056, or 78.3%. He led the Panthers in rushing in seven of their 16 games, winding up with 754 yards on the ground (most among NFL quarterbacks). Against some of Carolina’s weaker opponents, relying on Newton was enough to get by. But against a talented and aggressive defense, skill position players like Stewart and fellow RB Christian McCaffrey, TE Greg Olsen, and WR Devin Funchess need to step up.

3. Ground game: Despite having a surefire future Hall of Famer in QB Drew Brees, the Saints have reinvented themselves as a versatile rushing team, with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara leading the way. The pair became the first running back teammates in NFL history to eclipse 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season. Both are versatile, though Ingram does most of his damage between the tackles, while Kamara tends to slash on the margins (and even showed Sunday he can be a threat in the return game). In their 11 victories, the Saints ran for an average of 151.3 yards. In losses, however, that number dropped to just 81.2.


Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes

Are Eagles cursed with Nick Foles? Key question for each NFL playoff team

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    Wondering about a few things as the NFL playoffs approach …

Are the Eagles cursed with Nick Foles?

The energy that fueled Philadelphia’s offense before Carson Wentz suffered a torn ACL has largely vanished, clearly a reflection of the challenge to maintain rhythm with Foles. During the final two games, the Eagles converted three of 25 third downs. Just as bad, Foles lacks the athleticism that allowed Wentz to extend plays, run for the sticks or so often create something out of nothing. The Eagles still have a shot at going all the way, given the supporting cast, but that’s assuming mistake-free quarterbacking from Foles.

Will James Harrison provide the Patriots with championship impact?

If his New England debut was any indication, Harrison still has enough fuel in his tank to make a difference. In 27 snaps against the Jets, the man buried on the Steelers bench all season collected two sacks, five tackles, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Harrison may give Bill Belichick’s improved defense exactly what it needed at the perfect time – instant pass rush – in its bid to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

Should the Rams worry if it comes down to a last-minute field goal?

A few weeks ago, it would have been no sweat with NFL scoring leader Greg Zuerlein in the midst of a record season. But Zuerlein is now rehabbing from surgery for a herniated disc, so suddenly L.A. no longer possesses the most reliable kicking game in the playoffs. The Rams’ spectacular season of revival could very well hinge on a first-year kicker, Sam Ficken, who owns the Penn State record for consecutive field goals but missed a field goal and a PAT in his first NFL game in Week 16.

Will Antonio Brown return to pre-injury form for the Steelers?

The Steelers may have their best chance in years of getting back to the Super Bowl because, in part, the new additions have had such great impact. Rookies JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.J. Watt have provided big-play impact on both sides of the ball. Yet with Brown rehabbing from the partially torn calf muscle that knocked him out of the showdown against the Patriots, one of the more intriguing subplots is whether he will return to his typical standard of greatness – which included playing into the conversation to perhaps become the first receiver to earn MVP honors.

Will Drew Brees’ playoff experience push the Saints over the top?

If a trip to the Super Bowl comes down to one last-minute drive, you’d probably prefer a proven commodity like Brees or one of the other four Super Bowl-credentialed quarterbacks in the playoffs. In Brees’ case, though, the difference might be what it has been all season for New Orleans – balance. That means a lot of rookie Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram controlling the tempo with the running game. Fast fact: Brees, the NFC’s top-rated passer (103.9) has attempted his fewest passes (536) since 2009 … when the ticket to winning it all included a strong running game that allowed for balance.

Are the Bills due for another miracle?

The last time Buffalo appeared in a playoff game it was undone by the “Music City Miracle.” So maybe it was fitting that the NFL’s longest postseason drought (18 years) ended with some Charm City magic in the form Tyler Boyd’s 49-yard, fourth-down touchdown in the waning seconds to eliminate the Ravens. Now the Bills — with the lowest-ranked offense in the playoffs (29th) matched against the AFC’s top defense — need some quick healing from their best offensive player, RB LeSean McCoy, to have a prayer at Jacksonville as he nurses a sprained ankle.

Will the Vikings make history as a Super Bowl host?

The conditions are favorable for Minnesota to emerge as the first team to host a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Never mind that the franchise has one playoff win in 13 years. With the Eagles stung by the injury to Wentz, the Vikings suddenly look a lot like the team to beat in the wide-open NFC. They bring the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense, a fill-in quarterback who has exceeded expectations in Case Keenum, a running game that has quietly remained productive despite losing its star rookie and an understated coach in Mike Zimmer who has pushed the right buttons.

Are the Chiefs the best-equipped team to spoil an anticipated AFC title game rematch?

Maybe. Kansas City has re-booted in recent weeks to resemble the explosive team that was the last unbeaten (5-0) in the league. That’s what it would take to pull off a win in the divisional round that would throw a wrinkle into expectations for another Steelers-Patriots showdown for the AFC Championship. The Chiefs won at Foxborough in Week 1, creating matchup issues for New England’s defense. Perhaps they can do it again. In Week 6, the Chiefs stayed close enough to Pittsburgh to have a chance at the end. But one thing about loss against Pittsburgh that doesn’t bode well: the 25th-ranked run defense. With 179 yards the last time out, Le’Veon Bell has rushed for 493 yards in three games against Kansas City, dating to last season.

Can the Panthers execute a quick fix?

The regular-season finale at Atlanta was hardly classic Cam Newton. Too many passes sailed. He was picked off three times. The rush kept him under constant duress. In some ways, though, it reflected the struggle that Carolina’s offense has had for much of the season in trying to develop consistency. Sure, the Panthers are dangerous. Two of their victories came against New England and Minnesota. But Newton’s ability to get the desired flow with his targets in the passing game has been an adventure, which wasn’t made easier with the midseason trade of Kelvin Benjamin. Yet there’s still time. And a date at New Orleans, which might bring out the best in them.

Can the Jaguars trust Blake Bortles?

It’s a prove-it league, and just because the much-maligned Bortles quarterbacked his team to a division title hardly means the doubts are completely squashed. Sure, Bortles has ridden on the coattails of Jacksonville’s tremendous defense, and he’s handing the ball off a lot to supply the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack. The formula implemented by coach Doug Marrone, which includes lowering risk with Bortles, is working. And he’s better than he was when his starting job was jeopardized during the preseason. Yet there also comes a point in pretty much every game when the quarterback must make a big-time throw.

Remember the Titans?

No, they haven’t been out of the playoff mix for as long as Buffalo, but it has been a while. That Tennessee earned its first postseason berth since 2008 by winning a single game that followed a three-game losing streak, doesn’t scream quality at the bottom of the AFC bracket. Marcus Mariota’s game regressed during this injury-challenged season, but he’s added another marker. And his embattled coach, Mike Mularkey, is still on the job.

How did the Falcons get their groove back?

In early November, the defending NFC champs staggered along at 4-4, living up to the hard-luck history of teams trying to rebound after losing a Super Bowl. Now they are the only team in the NFC field returning to the playoffs. That’s resiliency, which has come with the need to win in a different fashion this season. Last year, the Falcons averaged 33 points a game, one of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history. The Matt Ryan-armed offense is not as consistent now (22 points a game), but the young defense is still on the rise. Strikingly, the Falcons’ second-half surge coincided with them finally playing division games. And with three teams in the playoffs from the NFC South, the division will indeed test mettle.

2 fired, 1 retired and 1 near miss on NFL’s ‘Black Monday’

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —    The Lions and Bears showed their coaches the door. Bruce Arians of the Cardinals found it himself. And Vance Joseph of the Broncos remained gainfully employed despite enduring the sort of season that doesn’t go down well in Denver.

What is traditionally the NFL’s biggest day for firings, “Black Monday,” started with a flurry when Detroit canned Jim Caldwell and Chicago did the same to John Fox, both before noon.

“Today is the tough part of our results-oriented business,” said Fox, whose team went 14-34 and finished last in all three of his seasons in Chicago.

He and Caldwell, who went 36-28 in four seasons but didn’t win a playoff game, joined Jack Del Rio of the Raiders and Chuck Pagano of the Colts, whose owners didn’t even wait until the calendar turned, choosing to sack them after their games Sunday.

But that was it.

Arians, who has been dealing with health problems, including a bout with kidney cancer, announced he was leaving Arizona, though that was widely expected.

In a teary news conference, the 65-year-old Arians called his stay in Arizona, which included 49 victories over five seasons “a great ride.” Sporting his trademark cap and toying with his grey goatee, Arians said an eye opener came over the summer when his wife told him his son, Jake, was soon to turn 40.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks, that I missed all that time,” Arians said. “That’s the culture. I probably wouldn’t change anything.”

Joseph, a rookie head coach who oversaw a 5-11 season that included an eight-game losing streak, was on the hot seat. But his boss, John Elway, slept on it and decided to keep Joseph and not begin a search for the team’s fourth coach in five years.

“We believe in Vance as our head coach,” Elway tweeted . “Together, we’ll put in the work to improve in all areas and win in 2018.”

The Marvin Lewis situation in Cincinnati — well, it’s complicated. Lewis completed his 15th season with the Bengals, and conventional wisdom held that he might not be asked to return. He met with owner Mike Brown on Monday, but no conclusions were reached. Lewis said the decision was more complicated than management simply asking him back, and that the owner and the front office need to be on the same page.

The five vacancies (six counting the Giants, who fired Bob McAdoo earlier in December) naturally triggered a flurry of speculation about which assistant coaches might be moving on to take over the teams.

Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks confirmed that the Colts, Lions and Giants had asked him to interview. Patriots coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia were, as usual, on a number of lists, and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was considered one of New York’s top candidates.

Maybe most intriguing was the prospect of Jon Gruden leaving the broadcasting booth and returning to the Raiders. ESPN reported that Raiders owner Mark Davis was trying to lure Gruden back to the sideline with an offer that could include an ownership stake.

In Houston, Texans general manager Rick Smith said he would leave the team for at least a year while his wife, Tiffany, fights breast cancer. There had been speculation that coach Bill O’Brien might lose his job, though it appeared O’Brien would stay on. Smith dismissed the notion that he and O’Brien don’t get along, saying they have a great working relationship.

“We continue to do that and that’s another reason why this is a decision that I can make,” Smith said.


The NFL coaching carousel is spinning at full speed, with several jobs opening up as the season closed down.

Stay here for all the latest news on every vacancy and the candidates (listed alphabetically) who could fill them.


Candidates: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Giants defensive coordinator/interim coach Steve Spagnuolo, ex-Broncos running backs/associate head coach Eric Studesville, Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks

Latest: Studesville, the former Broncos assistant who was let go on Monday in a staff shake-up, will interview for the job on Friday, according to multiple reports. New general manager Dave Gettleman will be tasked with finding the right person not only to lead New York but also repair a culture that yielded in-fighting and multiple team-issued suspensions. The Giants have been linked to some of the most notable names in the coaching search, including both of the Patriots coordinators and Schwartz.


Candidates: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard, Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks

Latest: Second-year general manager Chris Ballard faces the most important decision of his tenure so far in finding the coach to pull Indianapolis out of its rut. Ballard and Toub have a longstanding relationship after working together on the Bears and Chiefs, though the GM vowed to have a “wide-open search.”


Candidates: Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Lions offensive coordinator Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks

Latest: General manager Bob Quinn’s history with the Patriots could play a prominent role in this search, as he has ties to McDaniels, Patricia and Vrabel (interviewing Wednesday, per reports) from his time in New England. Detroit could be in for a wait if either of the Patriots coordinators or Shurmur emerges as the top candidate, as teams cannot hire a coach until his current team’s season has been completed.


Candidates: Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Vikings offense coordinator Pat Shurmur, Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks

Latest: With Mitchell Trubisky in the fold, the Bears could be looking to mirror the Rams’ success by finding someone to develop the first-round quarterback in his second year (GM Ryan Pace said Trubisky could have input on the decision) and jump-start the rest of the offense. DeFilippo, 39, could fit that mold after helping Carson Wentz to a breakout season. Fangio could also draw consideration after his defense ranked in the top 10 in both yards and points allowed.


Candidates: Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur

Latest: Whoever follows Bruce Arians will have the unenviable task of taking over for the winningest coach in franchise history. Though general manager Steve Keim can take stock of his outside options, he could have two formidable in-house candidates in Goodwin and Bettcher.


Candidates: ESPN analyst and former Raiders coach Jon Gruden

Latest: Jack Del Rio’s dismissal turned all eyes to Gruden, the perennially sought-after coach now expected to make a return to Oakland. Gruden is still scheduled to work ESPN’s Saturday broadcast of the Titans-Chiefs AFC wild-card game, and the Raiders will be closely monitored for adherence to the Rooney Rule. But this remains the opening with the greatest sense of clarity.


PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Eagles will be one-and-done in the playoffs.

Nick Foles has struggled in two of his starts filling in for Carson Wentz and the offense has only scored 13 points in the last two games. Despite being the No. 1 seed, Philadelphia (13-3) might even be an underdog against the Saints, Panthers or Falcons in the divisional round.

Foles can’t possibly outplay Drew Brees, Cam Newton or Matt Ryan in a shootout. The Eagles would be better off with Nate Sudfeld.

That’s a double dose of overreactions to dissect.

Starting Sudfeld over Foles isn’t happening. Sudfeld just made his NFL debut. Foles tossed four touchdown passes against the Giants only two weeks ago. The offense is in a funk but the starters played just one quarter in a 6-0 loss against the Cowboys. Perhaps they could’ve fixed their problems if they stayed in.

Foles isn’t Wentz. That’s obvious. But coach Doug Pederson isn’t benching him for a guy who hadn’t thrown a pass until Sunday.

The Eagles have the league’s third-ranked rushing attack and a strong defense. They also have home-field advantage. Don’t count them out just yet.

Here are other overreactions from Week 17:

OVERREACTION: Hue Jackson has what it takes to turn the Browns around after surviving an 0-16 season.

REALISTIC REACTION: His 1-31 record says otherwise.


OVERREACTION: The Rams are the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

REALISTIC REACTION: They’re inexperienced and might not get past Atlanta in the wild-card round.


OVERREACTION: Jon Gruden will return to the Raiders and win that Super Bowl he failed to deliver his first time in Oakland.

REALISTIC REACTION: He has to accept the job first.


OVERREACTION: Josh McDaniels will win wherever he goes if he decides to leave New England.

REALISTIC REACTION: It’s easier to win with Tom Brady than without him.


OVERREACTION: Kansas City got the best draw of wild-card weekend against Tennessee (9-7).

REALISTIC REACTION: The Chiefs went 5-6 after a 5-0 start. No opponent will be easy for them.


OVERREACTION: Nobody outside Buffalo and Jacksonville cares about the Bills-Jaguars wild-card game.

REALISTIC REACTION: This could be the best game of the weekend.


OVERREACTION: The Saints will struggle against the Panthers because it’s hard to beat the same team three times in one season.

REALISTIC REACTION: Teams who’ve swept the regular-season series are 11-5 in those situations in the playoffs since 1990.


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NFL playoffs schedule 2018 / Sunday’s Stats: Games, dates, times, TV channel info

(PhatzRadio Sport / AP)    —    The 2018 NFL playoffs schedule is now set for the wild-card round.

Wild-card round 

Saturday, Jan. 6

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

Sunday, Jan. 7

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars, 1:15 p.m. ET, CBS

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

Divisional round

Saturday, Jan. 13

TBD vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 4:30 pm. ET, NBC

TBD vs. New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS

Sunday, Jan. 14

TBD vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS

TBD vs. Minnesota Vikings, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

Championship round

Sunday, Jan. 21

AFC championship – TBD vs. TBD

NFC championship – TBD vs. TBD

Super Bowl

Sunday, Feb. 4

Super Bowl XLII – AFC champion vs. NFC champion



Saturday, Jan. 6

Tennessee at Kansas City, 4:35 p.m. EST. The Titans (9-7) ended an eight-season playoff drought as quarterback Marcus Mariota helped them to the franchise’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 2007 and 2008. Andy Reid’s Chiefs (10-6) are in the postseason for the third straight year and the fourth time in five years.


Atlanta at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. EST. Matt Ryan and the defending NFC champion Falcons (10-6) clinched a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season with a 22-10 win over division rival Carolina. Todd Gurley and Jared Goff led the Rams (11-5) to their first postseason appearance since the 2004 season.




— Andy Dalton, Bengals, threw three touchdown passes, including a 49-yarder to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds left, giving Cincinnati a 31-27 victory at Baltimore.

— Philip Rivers, Chargers, passed for 387 yards and three touchdowns in Los Angeles’ 30-10 victory over Oakland.

— Matthew Stafford, Lions, threw three touchdown passes and finished with 323 yards passing, and also caught a 2-point conversion pass from Golden Tate, in Detroit’s 35-11 win over Green Bay.

— Matt Ryan, Falcons, completed 28 of 45 passes for 317 yards and a touchdown in playoff-bound Atlanta’s 22-10 win over Carolina.

— Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers, threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns to lead San Francisco to its fifth straight victory, 34-13 against a Los Angeles Rams team that rested its big stars.



— Orleans Darkwa, Giants, rushed for a career-high 154 yards, including a 75-yarder on the second play from scrimmage, in New York’s 18-10 win over Washington.

— Latavius Murray, Vikings, rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 23-10 victory over Chicago.

— Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys, ran for 103 yards in Dallas’ 6-0 win at Philadelphia.

— Frank Gore, Colts, rushed for 100 yards on 24 carries in Indianapolis’ 22-13 win over Houston, falling 39 yards short of his second straight 1,000-yard season.

— Dion Lewis, Patriots, had a season-high 26 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown and also caught six passes for 40 yards and a TD in New England’s 26-6 win over the New York Jets.

— Carlos Hyde, 49ers, ran 15 times for 90 yards, scoring on runs of 8 and 5 yards in San Francisco’s 34-13 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.



— JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers, caught nine passes for 143 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 28-24 win over Cleveland.

— Keenan Allen, Chargers, scored on a 27-yard fumble recovery and a 6-yard TD catch, and finished with nine receptions for 133 yards in Los Angeles’ 30-10 win over Oakland.

— Golden Tate, Lions, caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, and also tossed a 2-point conversion pass to quarterback Matthew Stafford in Detroit’s 35-11 win over Green Bay.

— Josh Gordon, Browns, had four receptions for 115 yards in Cleveland’s 28-24 loss at Pittsburgh.

— Albert Wilson, Chiefs, caught 10 passes for 147 yards in Kansas City’s 27-24 win at Denver.

— Amari Cooper, Raiders, had 115 yards receiving and a touchdown on three catches in Oakland’s 30-10 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.


Special Teams

— Alvin Kamara, Saints, scored on a 106-yard kickoff return in New Orleans’ 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay.

— JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers, returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to help lead Pittsburgh to a 28-24 victory over winless Cleveland.

— Matt Bryant, Falcons, kicked five field goals, including a 56-yarder, for all of Atlanta’s second-half points in a 22-10 win over Carolina that clinched a playoff spot.

— Phil Dawson, Cardinals, booted four field goals, the last from 42 yards with 2:21 left, to lead Arizona past Seattle 26-24.

— Tyler Lockett, Seahawks, scored a touchdown on a 99-yard kickoff return in Seattle’s 26-24 loss to Arizona.



— Darqueze Dennard, Bengals, returned an interception 89 yards for a TD in Cincinnati’s 31-27 victory at Baltimore.

— Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars, returned a fumble 67 yards for a touchdown in Jacksonville’s 15-10 loss to Tennessee.

— Ezekiel Ansah, Lions, had three sacks for the second straight week, helping Detroit top Green Bay 35-11.

— Jordan Poyer, Bills, sealed a 22-16 victory for playoff-bound Buffalo with an interception in the closing moments at Miami.

— Marcus Williams, Saints, intercepted two passes in New Orleans’ 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay.

— James Harrison, Patriots, had two sacks — on consecutive plays to end the game — and finished with five total tackles and a forced fumble in his first game since being cut by Pittsburgh, a 26-6 win over the New York Jets.



New England finished the regular season with three players with 1,000-plus yards from scrimmage in the same year for the first time in franchise history: running back Dion Lewis, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. … Gronkowski was not targeted in a game for the first time in his career. … The Giants snapped a five-game losing streak with an 18-10 win over Washington and gave interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo his first victory since taking over from the fired Ben McAdoo on Dec. 4. New York finished 3-13, the most losses in team history. … Detroit (9-7) failed to make the playoffs, but finished with a winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time since doing it three years in a row from 1993-95. … Green Bay (7-9) finished with a losing record for the first time since 2008, which is also the last time the Packers didn’t earn a spot in the playoffs.



New England’s 26-6 victory over the New York Jets was Bill Belichick’s 250th career regular-season win, moving him into a tie with Tom Landry for third all-time among head coaches. … The Patriots haven’t lost to the Jets at home during the regular season with Tom Brady starting since 2006. Brady’s 13th win as a starter this season tied him with Brett Favre for the most by a starting quarterback at age 40 or older. Brady, who turned 40 earlier this year, finished with 4,577 yards passing to become the oldest player in NFL history to lead the league in that category. … Stefon Diggs became the fastest player in Vikings history to reach 200 receptions, doing it in 40 games. … Arizona’s Chandler Jones finished with two sacks in a season-ending win over Seattle, surpassing Simeon Rice and setting a franchise record with 17 sacks. … Kansas City’s Alex Smith finished the regular season with 4,042 yards passing and five interceptions, becoming the first QB in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and throw fewer than 10 interceptions in five consecutive seasons. … Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, who turned 21 in November, had 1,157 all-purpose yards (917 receiving, 240 kickoff returns) to become the youngest player to gain 1,000 all-purpose yards in a season.



The New England Patriots clinched home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs with a 26-6 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday. The win clinched the seventh 13-win season for the Patriots (13-3), which is second in NFL history to San Francisco’s nine seasons.



The Buffalo Bills snapped the longest current non-playoff streak in North American pro sports with a 22-16 victory at Miami and Cincinnati’s victory at Baltimore. The Bills hadn’t made the postseason since 1999. Buffalo (9-7) will travel to Jacksonville next weekend in a wild-card game.



The Cleveland Browns joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to go winless during a 16-game season when they lost 28-24 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Owner Jimmy Haslam reiterated Hue Jackson will return in 2018 as coach despite a 1-31 record through two seasons. Cleveland is 4-48 since Week 12 of the 2014 season, has dropped 21 straight road games and 17 straight games to AFC North opponents. “You can say a lot of things about us this year, but down to the last minute or two minutes, our guys played hard,” Haslam said.



The Indianapolis Colts fired coach Chuck Pagano less than two hours after they ended a 4-12 season with a 22-13 victory over Houston. Team owner Jim Irsay made the announcement in a statement, wishing Pagano and his wife well in the future. The move comes after Indy missed the playoffs for the third straight year, the team’s longest postseason drought since a seven-season absence from 1988-94. … Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was fired after his third year when the impressive turnaround job he engineered for his hometown team collapsed with a disappointing six-win season. Del Rio said owner Mark Davis told him after the team’s season-ending 30-10 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that he would not be retained as coach. Del Rio had signed a four-year contract extension last February after Oakland ended a 13-year playoff drought with a 12-win season.



Minnesota reached 13 wins for only the second time in the history of the 57-year-old franchise, holding a second straight opponent without an offensive touchdown in a 23-10 win over the Chicago Bears. The Vikings finished 12-2 four times with a 14-game schedule (in 1969, 1970, 1973 and 1975), but the only other time they’ve topped 12 victories was their 15-1 record in 1998. The Vikings also clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs.



The top of the NFL draft is set, with the winless Cleveland Browns getting the No. 1 spot, along with the fourth pick (from Houston). The New York Giants have the No. 2 selection, followed by Indianapolis at No. 3. Denver rounds out the top five selections.



Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt had a 35-yard touchdown run on his only carry in the Chiefs’ 27-24 win at Denver. But it gave Hunt 1,327 yards, making him the second rookie not selected in the first round of the draft to lead his league since 1967. Hunt, who was a third-rounder, joins Cincinnati’s Paul Robinson, who led the AFL with 1,023 yards rushing in 1968.



Dallas’ 6-0 win at Philadelphia marked the first NFL game to be 0-0 at halftime since Chicago and Denver played in Week 14 of 2011. Denver won 13-10 in overtime.

It was the first time in a Cowboys-Eagles game since the series began in 1960 to go 0-0 at the half.



It was 13 degrees at kickoff of New England’s 26-6 win over the New York Jets, and the Patriots wanted to make sure their visitors knew it. A thermometer was hung in the Jets’ tunnel, which New York players filed past on their way to and from the field before the game. It was the coldest regular-season home game in Patriots history. They had a playoff game that was colder — a divisional-round game against the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 10, 2004, when it was 4 degrees with a wind chill that made it feel like minus 10. Jets safety Jamal Adams went out pregame without a shirt to test the weather. He soon got a text from his mother. “I put my shirt on, real quick,” he said.



New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (1,554 yards) and Mark Ingram (1,540) became the first running back teammates in NFL history to each get at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season. Kamara, who returned a kickoff 106 yards for a TD in the Saints’ loss at Tampa Bay, joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers as the only rookies in league history to have at least five rushing TDs, five TD catches and a kickoff return for a score.



Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has 41,796 career yards passing and passed Peyton Manning (41,626) for the most by a player in his first 10 seasons. Falcons teammate Julio Jones has 9,054 career yards receiving, reaching the 9,000-yard mark in his 95th game — the fastest in NFL history to accomplish the feat.



Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown finished the regular season with an NFL-best 1,533 yards receiving, becoming the first player in franchise history to lead the league in receiving yards multiple times. He has 582 receptions and 7,848 yards receiving over the past five seasons, the most in NFL history over any five-year span for both categories.



Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy was carted off the field with a right ankle injury in the third quarter of Sunday’s 22-16 victory at Miami. After being tackled, he pounded the turf with his fist as trainers attended to him. He had 10 yards on 11 carries, giving him 1,138 yards rushing on the season. … Arizona tight end Jermaine Gresham tore his right Achilles tendon against Seattle, creating doubt about his ability to return in time for the start of the 2018 season. … San Francisco receiver Marquise Goodwin sustained a concussion on a vicious hit by Los Angeles Rams safety Blake Countess, who likely will be fined. … Jacksonville safety Barry Church (hamstring) left the loss at Tennessee in the second half and did not return. … Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins (calf) missed the first game of his NFL career, leaving four catches short of his second 100-reception season. Houston took another hit when receiver Will Fuller departed with a left knee injury on the first offensive series.



“Everybody went crazy. I’ve been a wreck for 10 to 15 minutes.” — Buffalo’s Kyle Williams after the Bills clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 1999.


“Our biggest games are ahead of us. We’re 13-3, that’s the best in the AFC, that’s what we’re playing for, so that’s pretty good.” — New England’s Tom Brady after the Patriots clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs with a 26-6 win over the New York Jets.


“It’s probably been my toughest year of football, I would say, with the losses, the injuries, the benching and coming back and everything going on, the losses more than anything.” — Giants quarterback Eli Manning after New York finished 3-13, a franchise-worst for losses.


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NFL Roundup: Bills end 17-year playoff drought with win and help

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns to lead the San Francisco 49ers to their fifth straight victory, 34-13 on Sunday against a Los Angeles Rams team resting its big stars for the playoffs.

The Rams (11-5), who clinched the NFC West title last weekend, did not use Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and other top players as they did not want to risk injury leading into their home playoff game next weekend, the franchise’s first postseason game since the 2004 season. Despite the loss, the Rams earned the NFC’s No. 3 seed and will host the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night.

Rams coach Sean McVay called the loss “humbling” but didn’t second-guess the decision to rest the stars.

“You certainly try to win the game,” he said. “But when you look at the way we approached it, we feel good about being able to allow some of players to get some rest, some recovery time that I think is much needed for those guys, and then you keep a couple of guys out of harm’s way.”

The visiting 49ers (6-10) finished last in the division but have soared since Garoppolo took over at quarterback. He threw touchdown passes of 8 yards to Marquise Goodwin — who later left with a concussion after a brutal hit by Blake Countess — and 12 yards to Aldrick Robinson and completed 20 of 33 passes.

Rams QB Sean Mannion made his first NFL start and was 20 of 34 passing for 169 yards with no touchdowns.

Buccaneers 31, Saints 24 • Jameis Winston threw for 363 yards, including a 39-yard scoring pass to Chris Godwin with nine seconds remaining, as host Tampa Bay snapped a losing streak at five games. Playoff-bound New Orleans (11-5) entered the day hoping to clinch its first NFC South championship in six years. The Saints wound up winning the title anyway, with Carolina losing to Atlanta.

Trailing 24-23 with 1:58 remaining, Winston moved the Bucs (5-11) 95 yards in 11 plays for the winning TD.

Alvin Kamara scored on a 106-yard kickoff return and had a second touchdown rushing for the Saints, who took a 24-20 lead midway through the fourth quarter when Zach Line caught a 3-yard TD pass from Drew Brees.

Chargers 30, Raiders 10 • Philip Rivers passed for 387 yards and three touchdowns, but the Los Angeles Chargers missed out on a playoff berth despite winning at home. Keenan Allen scored on a 27-yard fumble recovery and a 6-yard TD catch for the Chargers (9-7), who were eliminated from postseason contention when Tennessee won moments after their game ended. After the contest, the Raiders (6-10) fired coach Jack Del Rio.

Patriots 26, Jets 6 • Dion Lewis ran for a touchdown and caught a scoring pass, helping the Patriots clinch the top seed for the AFC playoffs by winning at home. New England (13-3) gained its seventh 13-win season, second-most in NFL history to San Francisco’s nine. It was also Bill Belichick’s 250th career regular-season win, moving him into a tie with Tom Landry for third among head coaches. New York finished at 5-11.

Vikings 23, Bears 10 • Minnesota’s defense turned in another dominant performance and Latavius Murray rushed for 111 yards and two TDs, helping the host Vikings win to secure a first-round playoff bye. Stefon Diggs caught six passes for 65 yards and a touchdown for the Vikings (13-3), who held a second straight foe without an offensive TD. Mitchell Trubisky completed 20 of 36 passes for 178 yards for Chicago (5-11).

Cardinals 26, Seahawks 24 • Phil Dawson kicked four field goals, the last from 42 yards with 2:21 left, to help visiting Arizona win. Seattle’s Blair Walsh missed a 48-yard attempt with 32 seconds left, but the Seahawks’ playoff hopes had ended a short time earlier when Atlanta won. Seattle (9-7) missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Arizona finished at 8-8.

Cowboys 6, Eagles 0 • Dak Prescott tossed a 20-yard TD pass to Brice Butler early in the fourth quarter and Dallas beat Philadelphia. The host Eagles (13-3) rested several starters on a frigid day and played others briefly after securing the NFC’s No. 1 seed a week earlier. They’ll host a playoff game on Jan. 13 or 14. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 103 yards for the Cowboys (9-7).

Chiefs 27, Broncos 24 • Patrick Mahomes II made his first NFL start and his first NFL relief appearance a success, leading visiting Kansas City to victory on Harrison Butker’s 30-yard field goal as time expired. With Kansas City already locked into the No. 4 seed for the AFC playoffs, Mahomes was given the start as No. 1 QB Alex Smith was rested — as were several other regular starters. He handed a 24-10 lead to No. 3 QB Tyler Bray midway through the fourth quarter, but came back with the score 24-24 and less than three minutes left. He drove the Chiefs 67 yards in 11 plays for the game-winning field goal that sent the Chiefs (10-6) to their fifth straight win. Mahomes threw for 284 yards, on 24-of-35 passing, with no touchdowns and an interception. The Broncos’ Paxton Lynch was 21 of 31 passing for 254 yards with two TDs, two interceptions and was sacked five times.

Elsewhere • Matthew Stafford’s three TD passes led host Detroit by Green Bay 35-11. The Lions (9-7) had with a winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1994-95. The Packers (7-9) have a losing record for the first time since 2008, which is also the last time they didn’t earn a spot in the playoffs.

• Jacoby Brissett threw for a touchdown and Marlon Mack ran for one to help Indianapolis defeat visiting Houston 22-13. Afterward, the Colts fired coach Chuck Pagano. Both teams finished at 4-12.

• Orleans Darkwa ran for a 154 yards to lead the Giants past the visiting Redskins 18-10. New York finished at 3-13, Washington at 7-9.

Five NFL Week 17 matchups to watch: Can Cam Newton knock Falcons out?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-    With a preseason play to diversify the offense gone by the wayside, the Carolina Panthers’ approach is clear. Now and into the playoffs, this remains Cam Newton’s show.

As Carolina finishes off yet another late-season surge by making a last push for the NFC South title, Newton has reaffirmed his role as the team’s lone offensive engine. In leading the Panthers to a 7-1 mark in their last eight games, he has thrown for 12 touchdowns with just three interceptions while racking up nearly 500 rushing yards and an additional three scores. He also is Carolina’s leading rusher and likely will set new career highs in carries (currently 128) and rushing yards (695).

But Newton’s greatest feat of all Sunday might be delivering a serious blow to the playoff chances of the Atlanta Falcons. If they fall, the defending NFC champions would need the Seattle Seahawks also to lose in order to claim the NFC’s final wild-card spot.

Newton was held to a season-low 137 passing yards in a 20-17 win over Atlanta earlier this season, but he led Carolina with 86 rushing yards and a touchdown on nine carries. The Panthers ran for 201 yards in total.

To combat the Panthers’ ground game, Atlanta will need not only improved performances from defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe but also its linebacking corps. Vic Beasley could be called upon to spy Newton, though Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell also likely will play substantial roles in ensuring the defense doesn’t give up the kind of long runs that could sink the team’s postseason ambitions.

Here are four other matchups that will define Week 17 in the NFL:

Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota vs. Jacksonville Jaguars’ pass rush

Despite being locked into the AFC’s No. 3 seed, the Jaguars are electing to play their starters. That could spell trouble for their divisional rival.

While the Titans raced out to a 37-16 win over the Jaguars in Week 2, the two teams have been on divergent paths for the rest of the season. Jacksonville now boasts the league’s third-ranked defense, though the unit is trying to regain its form after giving up a season-high 44 points in a loss to the 49ers last week. Meanwhile, Mariota has had two of his worst passing performances of the season during Tennessee’s three-game losing streak.

The Titans can clinch a wild-card berth with a win, but they’ll need Mariota to avoid the turnovers that have plagued him this season with a career-high 15 interceptions. With unfavorable matchups against the Jaguars’ lockdown secondary, he’ll also need help from the run game. Though DeMarco Murray has been ruled out with a knee injury, Derrick Henry had 92 yards on 14 carries in the first meeting this year and could play a prominent role again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. New Orleans Saints CB Marshon Lattimore

Any bad blood lingering over Evans’ hit to the back of Lattimore in the first clash between the two seems to have dissipated. But this looms as the latest in what could be a long series of meetings between two of the NFL’s best young stars at their respective positions.

For Evans and Tampa Bay, playing spoiler for New Orleans’ NFC South hopes would serve as one of the lone bright spots to an otherwise trying season. The fourth-year receiver is on track to end up with a career low in receiving yards (currently at 946) and has broken the 100-yard mark in just one game this season. He and Jameis Winston have struggled to get on the same page, as he has hauled in just 66 of 122 targets.

One week after his improbable “butt pick” interception, Lattimore can get another tune-up for the playoffs by facing a physical receiver who provides a sizable challenge on jump balls. More importantly, shutting down Evans would help wrap up the NFC South and give the Saints at least one home game in a cutthroat field. Three of New Orleans’ four losses have come on the road, and the lone home loss came to the New England Patriots in Week 2.

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Arizona Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones

The Seahawks will need the Falcons to falter in order to return to the playoffs for the sixth straight season. But Seattle also will need to take care of a divisional foe that has served as some of its strongest competition in recent years.

Wilson has made the postseason in every season so far in his career, yet he’ll continue to be counted on to carry a stagnant offense. He has thrown or rushed for all but one of the Seahawks’ 36 offensive touchdowns, but he has been stifled in the last three games, including a narrow win over the Dallas Cowboys last week in which he passed for a career-low 93 yards.

Waiting for him is Jones, the NFL’s sack leader with 15. He was part of a pass rush that sacked Wilson five times in the midseason meeting. And Arizona’s defense has given up just 22 points in its last three games. If the Cardinals give Wilson time, they could be stung by Doug Baldwin, who likely could avoid Patrick Peterson by consistently lining up in the slot, and Jimmy Graham, who hauled in two touchdowns against them earlier this year.

Buffalo Bills RB LeSean McCoy vs. Miami Dolphins’ front seven

Buffalo has the chance to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought, though it will need help elsewhere. As has been the case all season, the burden will be on McCoy to carry the offense.

McCoy currently ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,128 yards, but his average (4.09 yards per carry) is the lowest of his career. But he also has taken on an increased role in the passing game and has the most receptions (57) and receiving yards (426) of any season since he arrived in Buffalo in 2015.

Miami bottled up McCoy on the ground two weeks ago, holding him to 50 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. But he added four catches for another 46 yards and additional score as a receiver. For a Dolphins linebacking corps that has been repeatedly targeted in coverage, he could continue to be a mismatch.


Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

NFL: Belichick runaway winner in AP’s NFL coach rankings / Big doings in NFL finales center on NFC South

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —    With five Super Bowl titles and the third-most wins in NFL history, the comparisons for Bill Belichick are with the all-time greats in the game rather than his current peers.

Belichick’s unmatched 18-year tenure in New England made him the runaway winner in in The Associated Press’ top 10 rankings of NFL coaches released Friday.

Belichick received 10 of the 11 first-place votes and 105 of a possible 110 points from a panel that included Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton and 10 AP football writers.

“He’s the GOAT,” said Philadelphia-based Rob Maaddi. “It might be sacrilege to change the name of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but Belichick ought to have his name on an award for all his incredible accomplishments. And, he’s still adding to the list.”

Belichick won his record fifth Super Bowl last season and has the Patriots (12-3) in position for another run at the trophy with his record eighth straight 12-win season. He moved past Tom Landry on the all-time wins list earlier this season with his 275 combined victories in the regular and postseason, trailing only Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324).

“Best coach of this era and it’s not even close,” said New York-based editor Simmi Buttar. “He’s playing chess and the rest are on checkers.”

The only coach besides Belichick to receive a first-place vote was Sean McVay of the Rams, who was picked by Lofton based on an impressive one-year turnaround in Los Angeles that has featured the development of quarterback Jared Goff and the resurgence of running back Todd Gurley.

McVay finished 10th overall after leading the Rams to the NFC West title and their first playoff berth since 2004.

“Revived No. 1 pick and figured out how to use Gurley,” Lofton said.

While no one else ranked McVay higher than sixth, he appeared on nine of the 11 ballots.

“He has to make this list after what the Rams have done in his first season,” Dallas-based Schuyler Dixon said. “Doesn’t matter whether he’s a flash in the pan, and he sure doesn’t look like one.”

Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin was the only other coach named on all 11 ballots and finished second with 81 points. He has won six division titles, two AFC championships and one Super Bowl since replacing Bill Cowher in 2007.

“Game strategy is not a particular strength, but Tomlin is bold, energetic and his teams always play hard,” said AP lead NFL writer Barry Wilner, who is based in New York.

Three other Super Bowl-winning coaches were also in the top five with Seattle’s Pete Carroll getting 62 points, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh receiving 53 and New Orleans Sean Payton tying Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer for fifth with 44 points.

Zimmer was the highest-ranked coach without a championship as he got credit for his success this season in Minnesota with third-string quarterback Case Keenum and after the departure of running back Adrian Peterson.

“Peterson’s gone, quarterback changes, even personal health issues. Yet Zimmer has pushed the Vikings to a place few thought possible once Teddy Bridgewater went down,” said Teresa Walker of Nashville, Tennessee.

Washington-based Howard Fendrich ranked Carroll second based on his years of success with the Seahawks that could have had even more accolades if not for an ill-fated decision to pass at the end of a Super Bowl loss to Belichick’s Patriots following the 2014 season.

“Innovative and a terrific motivator and but for one play call from the 1-yard line, he’d have two Super Bowl titles,” Fendrich said.

The only other active coach with a Super Bowl title, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, finished just outside the top 10 at No. 11.

The other coaches to crack the top 10 were Kansas City’s Andy Reid in seventh place, Carolina’s Ron Rivera in eighth and Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson in ninth.

In all, 18 coaches got votes with Chicago’s John Fox the only one with a Super Bowl appearance who failed to appear on any ballot.


There’s no question the NFC has been the dominant conference this season, with the South being the top division.

The NFC won 41 of the 64 head-to-head matchups against the AFC; that .641 winning percentage is the best for the NFC since going 27-12-1 in 1970, the year of the merger.

New Orleans (11-4) and Carolina (11-4) already are in the playoffs and the division championship will be decided Sunday. Atlanta, which lost the Super Bowl with a colossal collapse in February, also could qualify.

All three are capable of going deep into January, or maybe even to the big game.

“Our situation is if we win, we’re in and if we don’t, you go home,” said Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. “It’s as clear as it gets.”

Well, not exactly. Should Seattle also lose, Atlanta (9-6) would advance.

You can be sure the Panthers would enjoy sending the Falcons home early, and they could take the division with a victory and a New Orleans defeat at Tampa Bay (4-11).

“We don’t want three teams from the NFC South in the playoffs,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We want two. We got to go down there and spoil their parade.”

The Panthers are 5-2 on the road while Atlanta is only 4-3 in its new home. Carolina’s defense has really come on, including 15 sacks and 10 takeaways in the last three games.

No team has a more balanced offense than the Saints, who rank fifth in both passing, thanks to Drew Brees throwing to Michael Thomas, and in rushing behind Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Ingram (1,486 yards from scrimmage, 12 TDs) and Kamara (1,426 yards, 12 TDs) are the only teammates in league history with at least 1,300 scrimmage yards and 10 TDs in the same season.

Slumping Tampa has dropped five in a row and QB Jameis Winston has lost eight consecutive starts. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick started the only games the team won during a stretch in which it dropped 10 of 12.

Arizona (7-8) at Seattle (9-6)

It would be a sixth straight playoff appearance for Seattle if it manages to advance, but the Seahawks have struggled with penalties, injuries and undisciplined play much of the season.

Russell Wilson is the first quarterback to have a winning record in each of his first six seasons. He really lights it up against Arizona, too: Wilson has thrown for nine touchdowns with no interceptions in the past four meetings.

Still, the Cardinals have won the past two meetings in Seattle, and the Seahawks uncharacteristically have three home losses this year.

Oakland (6-9) at Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)

There figure to be plenty of Raiders fans on hand — remember, the franchise once called LA home — in a game the Chargers must win for a shot at the postseason. LA began the schedule 0-4, yet it could replicate what it did in 1992 with a win and Tennessee loss or tie and Buffalo loss or tie; or a win and Tennessee loss or tie and Baltimore win or tie; or a tie and Tennessee loss and Buffalo loss or tie.

“We’re not going to scoreboard-watch, because if we don’t win, none of that matters,” Chargers pass rusher Melvin Ingram said. “Rivalry game. End of the year. No matter if we were both 0-15, the atmosphere is going to be amazing.”

Cincinnati (6-9) at Baltimore (9-6)

Baltimore has won five of six and the one defeat was by a point at Pittsburgh. The defense is fierce, with the Ravens leading the league with 33 takeaways and ranking first with a plus-17 turnover differential. Baltimore has won four straight at home and is 59-20 at M&T Bank Stadium under coach John Harbaugh, who took over in 2008. The Ravens have won 13 of their last 14 home finales.

This could be the final game for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who has done well against the Ravens, going 17-12. His legacy would be never winning a postseason game.

Buffalo (8-7) at Miami (6-9)

The Bills could end an almost unfathomable 17-year playoff drought — the longest active streak in North America’s four major professional sports. Buffalo clinches with a win and a Baltimore loss; a win and a loss or tie by Tennessee and the Chargers; a tie and losses by Los Angeles and Tennessee.

Look for star RB LeSean McCoy to carry the brunt of the offense; McCoy’s 1,554 yards from scrimmage account for 34 percent of the Bills’ net yards.

Miami WR Jarvis Landry leads the NFL with 103 catches but ranks 108th at 8.7 yards per catch. He needs eight receptions to break the team record of 110 he set in 2015. He needs 105 yards to become the first Miami player with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

Jacksonville (10-5) at Tennessee (8-7)

Jacksonville’s turnaround brought it an AFC South title for the first time since 1999, and now the Jaguars can see to it that their division rivals, the Titans, fall short of a wild card. But the Jags are settled as the No. 3 seed and have nothing to gain in this one.

Tennessee has slumped down the stretch, losing three straight. Still, the Titans have won nine of the last 11 home games, and three of the last four overall against Jacksonville. Losses by Buffalo and the LA Chargers get Tennessee in.

Dallas (8-7) at Philadelphia (13-2)

It has been a special season for the Eagles, who have the NFL’s best record. But they’ll need to pursue a Super Bowl berth with backup quarterback Nick Foles, and their defense occasionally has sprung leaks.

Philly probably will rest a bunch of starters, which could mean a huge day for Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who returned from his six-game suspension last week. One slumping Cowboy is usually precise placekicker Dan Bailey. He is 15 for 19 for a career-low 78.9 field-goal percentage. The four misses have come in the past three games.

New York Jets (5-10) at New England (12-3)

New England has won nine consecutive AFC East crowns, an NFL record.

Tom Brady can tie Brett Favre (13 wins) for most victories for a starting quarterback at age 40 or older. Brady leads the NFL with 4,387 yards passing, his ninth season with 4,000-plus. He also tears up the Jets at home.

New York will miss the postseason for a seventh straight season, but winning five games with such a weak roster is somewhat impressive.

Cleveland (0-15) at Pittsburgh (12-3)

The Browns avoided a winless season in 2016 by winning in their 15th game. That didn’t happen this year, and now they face one of the AFC’s powers. So matching Detroit’s 0-16 of 2008 seems a cinch.

Pittsburgh probably blew its chance to be the AFC’s top seed when it lost at home to New England two weeks ago. The Steelers need a Jets upset in Foxborough and their own win to get it. Regardless, they have a first-week bye in the playoffs.

Chicago (5-10) at Minnesota (12-3)

A Minnesota victory gives it a wild-card round bye. The Vikings lead the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 16.1 points per game. The defense has allowed 17 rushes of 10-plus yards, fewest in the league.

One thing Chicago can do is run. Jordan Howard is fifth in rushing with 1,113 yards; in three career games vs. the Vikings, Howard has 364 rushing yards.

This could be final game for John Fox as Bears coach. His 14-33 mark over three years (.424) is the second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history. Abe Gibron was 11-30-1 (.274) from 1972-74.

San Francisco (5-10) at Los Angeles Rams (11-4)

Two tailenders from last year that have found their dynamic franchise QBs.

Jared Goff might be the NFL’s most improved player this season under the guidance of new coach Sean McVay. It hasn’t hurt to have Todd Gurley turning in an MVP-caliber season.

The Niners gambled by sending a second-round pick in a deal with the Patriots in late October, bringing Jimmy Garoppolo to the Bay Area. It was a steal for San Francisco, which has won his four starts.

Kansas City (9-6) at Denver (5-10)

In a game devoid of meaning — the Chiefs are ensconced as the fourth seed in the playoffs — KC’s first-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes II will make his NFL debut at quarterback. Coach Andy Reid declined to say who else might sit out, but he indicated enough starters will play that his young quarterback will get a fair chance to succeed.

Denver has been one of the NFL’s biggest failures this year, particularly on offense, betraying a strong defense.

Green Bay (7-8) at Detroit (8-7)

A disappointing fade in Detroit could mean the end of Jim Caldwell’s coaching tenure, even though the Lions might win nine games, which would give him a 36-30 record in charge. The Lions were 3-1 and 6-4, then flopped down the stretch.

Green Bay’s chances pretty much ended when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on Oct. 15. The Packers got a lengthy look at Brett Hundley, who had some solid moments and plenty of weak ones, emphasizing how good A-Rod is.

Washington (7-8) at New York Giants (2-13)

The Redskins are looking for their first sweep of the Giants since 2011. A victory gives them a .500 or better record for the third consecutive season, last accomplished 1999-2001.

The Giants are wrapping up the worst season in franchise history in terms of losses. Interim coach Steve Spagnuolo is 0-3 since replacing Ben McAdoo this month. At least they have a new GM in Dave Gettleman, hired Thursday.

Houston (4-11) at Indianapolis (3-12)

Two teams glad to get out of 2017 and start the rebuild.

Two main questions for the Colts: Will Chuck Pagano remain the coach? When will Andrew Luck (shoulder) be healthy enough to play after missing the entire season? For Houston, getting back J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Deshaun Watson will be a good start for ’18.


EDITOR’S NOTE — The Associated Press is ranking the top 10 players at a different position every week of the NFL season, based on votes by Pro Football Hall of Fame member James Lofton and AP football writers Simmi Buttar, Dave Campbell, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow, Howard Fendrich, Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton, Teresa M. Walker, Dennis Waszak Jr. and Barry Wilner. This feature will move on Fridays.


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