Fri Jan 22 1:08pm ET
By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer
Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) celebrates with Jordan Poyer (21) and Taron Johnson (24) during the second half of an NFL divisional round football game Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Bills won 17-3. (AP Photo/John Munson)
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) celebrates after an NFL divisional round football game against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Bills won 17-3. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) catches a pass over Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (21) during the second half of an NFL divisional round football game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes walks on the sideline during the second half of an NFL divisional round football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) is helped off the field after getting injured during the second half of an NFL divisional round football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Two teams so absent from championship history for so long until recently face off for the AFC championship.
The Kansas City Chiefs won their first NFL title since 1970 when they beat San Francisco in last year's Super Bowl. When they host Buffalo, the Chiefs will take on a franchise that went from the 2000-2016 seasons without even getting to the playoffs.
What we get Sunday is a matchup of dynamic offenses and overlooked defenses, the top two teams in the conference. Kansas City (15-2) has the confidence of a reigning champion and a charisma few NFL teams can match. Buffalo (15-3) has an undying belief that after years in the doldrums, the formula is on hand for a return to the Super Bowl.
Here's what we figure to see.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL:
Some Bills fans are worried about their team's ability to run the ball because Buffalo ranked 20th and didn't do much on the ground in the playoffs. It would be a boost to get Devin Singletary going behind a solid line anchored by center Mitch Morse and right tackle Daryl Williams. Of course, Josh Allen is one of the biggest threats as a runner among all quarterbacks, and he will use his feet and bulk to advantage.
Allen isn't as proven a passer yet as Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, but Allen's third pro season has been superb. He has learned to read the field and make smarter decisions while also utilizing a deeper receiving corps than some recognize.
Sure, All-Pro Stefon Diggs is the primary target and will cause havoc for Chiefs cornerbacks Charvarius Ward, Bashaud Breeland, Rashad Fenton and L'Jarius Sneed. Allen to Diggs is the key offensive combination and one of the league's best, but Cole Beasley, John Brown, Isaiah McKenzie and rookie Gabriel Davis can be playmakers.
The Chiefs have All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu and underrated Daniel Sorensen at safety and they will play significant coverage roles. They'll need Chris Jones, Frank Clark and others up front to get some pressure on Allen while keeping him from getting outside and making plays with his legs and arm.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL:
There's always excitement when KC is on offense, but there's also the uncertainty of how Mahomes will perform - and for how long - coming off the concussion sustained last week. Even as the Chiefs downplay it, there has to be concern. Not to be unkind, but expecting the Chiefs to advance with Chad Henne at quarterback is a long shot.
At his peak, Mahomes is football's most resourceful QB, a gambler who comes up aces most of the time. The Bills must produce a pass rush and have the players to do it up front with Jerry Hughes, Ed Oliver and Mario Addison among a deep line rotation. The winner of the trench battles with the likes of Chiefs LT Eric Fisher and C Austin Reiter will be impactful.
Unquestionably, though, the matchup of outstanding Buffalo CB Tre'Davious White and All-Pro WR Tyreek Hill will be in the spotlight. The Chiefs find dozens of ways to get Hill the ball as a receiver or runner, and White is among the top shutdown cornerbacks.
Even if Hill is not a major contributor, Mahomes has unanimous All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, wideouts Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman. Kelce is most dangerous on third downs and near the end zone, but that's like saying Justin Timberlake has a few dance moves. Not allowing Kelce to dominate is essential for Buffalo, whether it's safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde or one of the linebackers in coverage.
Kansas City is eager to have rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire back from a high ankle sprain to fill out its dynamic attack. Edwards-Helaire had a season-high 161 yards rushing in KC's 26-17 win at Buffalo in Week 6.
Kansas City placekicker Harrison Butker has been a tad inconsistent lately, and the Chiefs can't afford that Sunday. But he has a big leg and has made dozens of crucial kicks. That could provide an edge over Bills rookie Tyler Bass - except that Bass has been very reliable all season.
The Bills rank first in starting field position (29.8-yard line), and the Chiefs are fourth (27.4).
Buffalo punter Corey Bojorquez and Kansas City rookie Johnny Townsend were two of the most dependable in the AFC.
Andre Roberts is one of the NFL's most dangerous kick returners. Hardman has the speed to break any runback for Kansas City, too.
Andy Reid might have the most impressive coaching tree among the NFL's current head men, and Sean McDermott is on one of the branches.
McDermott has done a spectacular job in Buffalo, a franchise that last saw the playoffs at the turn of the century until he arrived, changed the culture and upgraded the confidence level. Reid fired McDermott in 2010 when both were with the Eagles, and told him he would benefit from the move.
''Yeah, we kind of jab about it here and there,'' McDermott said. ''But we can do that because he knew. He told me then, `This is the best thing for you.' And he was right.''
His offensive coordinator , Brian Daboll, was a frontrunner for head coaching jobs since filled by the Jets and the Chargers, and has decided to stay with the Bills and continue developing Allen. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, a former head coach, is never intimidated.
Reid simply has been among the NFL's best coaches for more than two decades, and his innovative, risk-taking nature on offense are a hallmark in KC. The fourth-down gamble that sealed the win over Cleveland last weekend surprised plenty of people. It shouldn't have.
In DC Steve Spagnuolo and OC Eric Bieniemy, Reid has two of the top assistants around: instinctive and hawkish enough to match Reid's philosophy.
Off the charts.
Buffalo went to four Super Bowls, 1991-94, losing them all. No other franchise has made the big game four straight times. But the Bills, unfairly, were branded as losers for dropping those games. Here's a chance to erase those memories and silence those critics.
They went from 2000 through 2016 without getting to the playoffs. Now in their third postseason in four seasons, that's another memory to wipe out.
Kansas City, which won its first NFL championship in a half-century a year ago - talk about droughts - can become the first repeat winner since New England in the 2003-04 campaigns. The Chiefs keep playing close games, dating to the 2020 postseason, so they know how to handle the heaviest pressure.
Reid is an all-time great coach who could tie Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs for postseason victories with his 17th.
Interview with a Champ
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) has been ruled out for the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Brown's knee injury that he suffered in the divisional round win over the Saints wasn't deemed serious- though he was unable to take the practice field on Wednesday and Thursday. While head coach Bruce Arians said that his star wideout wouldn't need to practice to play, he also noted this morning that the knee would swell from the team's flight to Green Bay, so playing him wouldn't make much sense. Fellow wideouts Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller will take on a larger role in the offense. Miller makes for a potential value DFS play, as he and Tom Brady showcased the ability to make big plays down the field earlier this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement from the NFL on Friday. McDonald was a second-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. He spent four years with the Niners before being traded to Pittsburgh shortly before the 2017 season. McDonald played in 101 career games (77 starts) and finished with 181 catches for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. In his four years with the Steelers, McDonald reeled in 117 passes for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns in 53 games (47 starts). His best season came in 2018, when he caught 50 passes for 610 yards (12.2 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. The 30-year-old dealt with his fair share of injuries in eight seasons. His retirement will save the team $5.2 million in salary cap space heading into the 2021 season.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' (foot, shoulder) wife Brittany revealed that the 42-year-old signal-caller was playing through a torn rotator cuff and a torn fascia in his foot. "He's as courageous and as tough a player as I've ever been around," head coach Sean Payton said, via The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Brees' injuries likely played a part in his struggles pushing the ball downfield, and he threw three interceptions in what will be the final game of his storied career in the Divisional Round loss to the Buccaneers. He has yet to make his retirement official, but it's expected to come eventually, especially after playing through other injuries that we didn't know about. If this is the end, Brees will go down in NFL history as one of the greatest to ever play the position.
Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams led the NFL with 23 red zone receptions and 14 red zone touchdowns in 2020, and his 46 red zone touchdowns since 2016 are 17 more than any other player.
Fantasy Spin: Adams led the NFL with 18 receiving touchdowns, tied for second with 115 receptions and finished in a tie for fifth in receiving yards. His status as the unquestioned go-to target for Aaron Rodgers should continue to make him one of the safest fantasy options at any position for the foreseeable future.
Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry led all running backs with 75 forced missed tackles this season, and his 1,490 rushing yards after contact were the most in the league.
Fantasy Spin: Henry has been a fantasy monster since Ryan Tannehill took over as the Tennessee quarterback. His massive workload will likely take a toll at some point, but there is no reason he shouldn't deliver another RB1 campaign in 2021.
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers led the NFL with 1,242 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield during the 2020 season.
Fantasy Spin: Rodgers also led the league in touchdown passes in a season that could net him MVP honors for the third time and a second Super Bowl ring. After seeing his numbers dip a bit the last couple of years, he is back in the mix of top-five fantasy options at the quarterback position heading into next season.
Things are trending in the right direction for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (concussion) to play in the AFC Championship against the Bills on Sunday. Mahomes was limited in practice for the second straight day on Thursday and took the majority of the snaps on offense, a good sign that he didn't suffer a setback after practicing on Wednesday. The hope is that he's a full participant in practice on Friday, which means he'd likely be on his way toward being cleared from the league's protocol before Sunday. The 25-year-old former MVP will be a tad more risky at his elevated DFS price against Buffalo coming off a head injury that knocked him out of the Divisional Round game against the Browns, but Mahomes should put up numbers in what could be a high-scoring affair this weekend as long as he doesn't suffer another head injury.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to hire Darrell Bevell as their new offensive coordinator, according to sources. Several teams were trying to hire Bevell after he finished the 2020 season as the Detroit Lions interim head coach. The 51-year-old was the offensive coordinator in Detroit the last two years, with the team averaging 22.5 points per game and 348.5 total yards per game in his two seasons at the helm. Bevell became the Seahawks offensive coordinator in 2011, 11 seasons after breaking into the NFL as an assistant quarterbacks coach with Green Bay. He made back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl with Seattle in 2013-14 and won one championship. His biggest task will be working with a likely rookie quarterback -- expected to be Clemson's Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall selection in the draft -- to mold Jacksonville's offense to the young signal-caller's strengths.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (quadriceps) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Godwin should be ready for the NFC Championship game as long as he does not suffer a setback. He will see plenty of targets against the Green Bay Packers and can be a starting option in all fantasy leagues.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (knee) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Evans continues to be one of the main options in the passing game when healthy and is a must-start option in all fantasy leagues if active.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (finger, quadriceps) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Jones shared playing time with Leonard Fournette in the last game but may see a few more touches this week. He can be a starting option in most fantasy leagues.
Green Bay Packers RB Jamaal Williams (ankle) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Williams received 12 carries in the Divisional Round playoff game and probably will receive a similar workload against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He can be a possible flex option in some leagues but is not a must-start option.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Vita Vea (ankle) participated in practice Thursday, Jan. 21, and 'looked fit and didn't appear to be having any challenges getting in and out of stance.' according to ESPN's Jenna Laine. 'Vita moved around pretty good today when it was full speed,' head coach Bruce Arians said.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown (knee) did not practice for a second consecutive day Thursday, Jan. 21, and is expected to be a game-time decision for the NFC Championship game versus the Green Bay Packers, according to head coach Bruce Arians.
Fantasy Spin: As Arians told reporters, Brown is "veteran enough" to handle his business Sunday without getting in any practice this week if it comes to that. Either way, a limited Brown is enough of a reason to back off of him in all fantasy formats, especially because the Buccaneers are deep at receiver. Scott Miller and Tyler Johnson would likely split snaps if he is unable to go.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin is poised for a great showing against the Packers in the NFC Championship game. Godwin has 19 targets in the Buccaneers' two playoff games, a mark that leads the team. He could be in line to receive more work than usual, as Mike Evans will likely have to deal with star corner Jaire Alexander and Antonio Brown (knee) is a game-time decision. The drops have been an issue for Godwin in the postseason, but Tom Brady's trust in him hasn't wavered. He won't be as pricey as Stefon Diggs or Davante Adams, but he could provide similar production, making him a great DFS value play this week.
Buffalo Bills WR Cole Beasley (knee) was added to the injury report and limited in practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: There has been no indication as of yet from Buffalo's beat writers that Beasley had a setback Thursday, but his name was a curious omission from the injury report on Wednesday considering he is far from 100 percent. Friday's practice report will be telling in terms of what fantasy owners and DFS players should expect, but the likely absence of rookie Gabriel Davis may help Beasley bounce back from his bagel against the Baltimore Ravens in a big way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans will likely face off with Packers' star corner Jaire Alexander in the NFC title game. This is fresh off of being held to one catch by Marshon Lattimore- though his lone reception was a touchdown. Evans and Alexander went toe-to-toe in Week 6, with Alexander following him on 76 percent of the routes, holding him to zero catches, per Pro Football Focus. Evans is talented enough to beat any corner, but this is legitimately a matchup to fear. He should be faded in DFS tournaments this weekend.
Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs (oblique) was limited in practice for a second consecutive day Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Diggs began last week the same way before practicing in full Friday and posting an 8-106-1 line on the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round. There's been no indication the stud receiver has had a setback since he first landed on the injury report days before the first playoff game, so he should be expected to perform at his usual elite level against the Kansas City Chiefs even though they were among the best during the regular season in limiting wide receiver production.
Seattle Seahawks DE Jonathan Bullard was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, Jan. 21.