Thu Dec 8 2:06pm ET
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Baltimore Ravens place kicker Justin Tucker (9) kicks a field goal, held by Baltimore Ravens punter Jordan Stout (11), in the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh watches from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley (2) runs with the ball, under pressure from Denver Broncos cornerback Essang Bassey (34), in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen (6) leaves the field in a medical cart after being injured in the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches play against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
PITTSBURGH (AP) The faces on the field keep changing. The stakes when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens meet do not.
Especially in December.
Ben Roethlisberger's retired. Lamar Jackson is hurt. It hardly matters. Not when Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh are on the sideline doing what they've done for 15 years and counting: attempting to prime their teams for a late surge that will shape the playoff race in the AFC North.
''It takes two to tango, and they're a great dance partner,'' Tomlin said. ''Collectively, man, we've produced some quality moments for football lovers. It's just cool to be a part of something like that.''
Albeit anxiety-inducing at times, though neither Tomlin nor Harbaugh would have it any other way. Their 32nd meeting - the second-most by two head coaches in NFL history - carries a vibe similar to the first 31. Even with the Steelers (5-7) in essentially a transition year with rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett taking over for Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and the Ravens (8-4) eyeing the start of a stretch run without Jackson, who's dealing with a knee injury and could be out multiple weeks.
''I understand it's still the Steelers, and you've got to come with that mindset regardless of who's out there - that you've got to go out there and play your best ball,'' Ravens linebacker Tyus Bowser said. ''So, it would be nice to still have him (Ben Roethlisberger) there. He's a great player, (and) I definitely respect him, but I'm looking forward to this week.''
Pittsburgh has won three of four to breathe life into its very faint postseason hopes, though the Steelers' wiggle room is essentially gone thanks to a 2-6 start.
While Baltimore is in a far more comfortable position, nothing has come easy. The Ravens needed a last-second touchdown dive by backup quarterback Tyler Huntley to escape against Denver and now head to a place where they've only had sporadic success with a quarterback who is just 1-3 as a starter.
The Steelers have won four straight in a series typically defined by rugged, low-scoring affairs. It figures to be more of the same this time around.
''I feel like both teams go out and get tough players, gritty players,'' Ravens safety Chuck Clark said. ''When those two teams clash on the field, that's what the result is, that you see a tough, hard-fought game all the time.''
Pickett spent five years next door at the University of Pittsburgh, essentially getting absorbed into the rivalry through osmosis. He has overcome a shaky start to his career by settling down in recent weeks, avoiding the kind of mistakes that plagued him earlier in the year to help the Steelers reach the fringe of the playoff race.
A loss and Pittsburgh's improbable shot at playing deep into January likely disappears. Then again, isn't that what Tomlin lovingly refers to as ''December football' is all about?
''I think the intensity is amped up, obviously,'' Pickett said. ''It's a big week. If you keep winning, every game gets bigger. So, that's what we're going to continue to just focus on, coming out of stadiums with wins.''
ON THE HUNT(LEY)
Huntley is no stranger to the Steelers. He started in place of Jackson in the 2021 season finale, throwing for 141 yards and running for 72 more in what became a 16-13 Pittsburgh victory that helped the Steelers slip into the playoffs.
He hardly looked cowed by the stage last week against the Broncos, calmly leading the Ravens on a 91-yard drive in the final minutes, covering the last 2 with a designed run that was Jackson-esque.
''(Huntley) has a good command of the offense, (and) the guys trust him,'' Baltimore tackle Morgan Moses said. ''That's the biggest thing - is trust. Trust that he's going to do the right thing to lead us, and I know he's preparing hard. He's been around; he's played a lot of football.''
PICKING ON PICKENS?
Steelers rookie wide receiver George Pickens has already put together a resume filled with impressive catches during the first 12 games of his career. He also, however, is still learning how to control his emotions.
Cameras caught Pickens demonstrably upset during last week's victory over the Falcons, a game in which he had just one catch for 2 yards while playing not far from where won a national championship last season at Georgia.
Pickens downplayed his behavior, saying he's hardly the first wide receiver who got upset because he wants to be involved in the offense. Tomlin and Pickett both came to Pickens' defense.
''George is a competitor,'' Pickett said. ''That's the thing about receivers, you only get so many opportunities and that's why we have to definitely take advantage of the little ones that we do get. We'll continue to push forward.''
Interview with TFC Winner
The Denver Broncos are allowing Ejiro Evero out of his contract, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. In simpler terms, the two sides are parting ways. On one hand, this move comes as a surprise considering the Broncos want to form a mega-staff under Sean Payton and Evero, who received several head coaching interviews, is viewed as a defensive mastermind. On the other hand, Evero was a member of Nathaniel Hackett's coaching staff and turned down Denver's interim head coaching job after Hackett was fired. As a result, it became clear that Evero did not see himself remaining with the Broncos long-term. Rapoport notes that the Vikings, who have a vacancy at defensive coordinator, are viewed as a possible landing spot for Evero. The same goes for the Panthers, who interviewed Evero for their head coaching job before hiring Frank Reich.
The Dallas Cowboys have hired Brian Schottenheimer as their offensive coordinator, according to Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News. The team needed to fill the vacancy after firing Kellen Moore. Schottenheimer most recently served as a Cowboys consultant in 2022 but does have experience as an offensive coordinator, filling that same role for the Seahawks from 2018 to 2020. Interestingly, although Schottenheimer will be in charge of the offense, head coach Mike McCarthy intends to call plays next season.
Las Vegas Raiders impending free agent running back Josh Jacobs "wants to be back but won't settle," according to Tashan Reed of The Athletic. There is mutual interest in keeping Jacobs in Las Vegas long-term, but the reigning rushing champion won't come cheap. Jacobs timed everything just right, compiling impressive stats in a contract year. The 24-year-old ultimately finished 2022 with 1,653 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns, all of which are career-highs. Jacobs' outlook for next season is contingent on where he signs, but if he does return to Vegas, we can consider him a strong RB1 option heading into fantasy football drafts.
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero has been a hot commodity in this year's coaching carousel, interviewing for head-coach openings with the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Houston Texans. Now that the Panthers have hired Frank Reich, they have requested to interview Evero again, but this time for the team's vacant defensive coordinator position. The Minnesota Vikings would also like to interview Evero for their defensive coordinator job, but Denver has not yet granted either team permission. The 42-year-old Evero remains firmly in the mix as a candidate for Arizona and Indianapolis, but because he is still under contract with the Broncos, it seems that the organization would be reluctant to let him go should he not be hired elsewhere as a head coach.
University of Texas running back Bijan Robinson is widely considered to be the best prospect at his position in the 2023 NFL Draft class. Although a running back has not been selected higher than pick 24 since Saquon Barkley in 2018, ESPN's Mel Kiper stated that he believes Robinson will be drafted in the first round. Kiper went on to describe Robinson as "top-10 caliber" in this year's draft. The 21-year-old possesses an elite three-down skillset, posting 3,410 rushing yards, 60 receptions, 805 receiving yards, and 41 total touchdowns in his three collegiate seasons. Robinson figures to make an immediate impact on any team willing to spend up to get him on April 27th.
Dynasty | Zach Wilson will likely remain with the Jets organization in hopes that he can develop in a backup role Dynasty Analysis: The article plainly points out that the Jets have exactly two choices: 1) Release him or, 2) Keep him; Wilson has no trade value. With a very palatable $3.8M expense for 2023, there's little reason for the team to move on and Wilson, for his part, appears determine to get better. There's a big difference between NFL reality and fantasy reality. A veteran backup would also exceed the cost of Wilson. He's been so bad under-center and without blue skies on the horizon, he's a difficult hold in dynasty. Amazingly, Wilson still possesses a QB25 ranking but is in steep decline and he'll likely fall as the quarterback situation in New York becomes more clear. At this juncture, Zach Wilson is a fading dynasty asset and, arguably, may only be a roster candidate in deeper dynasty leagues.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith is fresh off a career-best season and is now in pursuit of a long-term contract as a pending free agent. It has been reported for a few weeks that the Seahawks are expected to bring the 32-year-old back, and the two sides have begun negotiations since falling to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. "It's looking very good," Smith said of his contract discussions with Seattle on Pro Bowl Live on SiriusXM NFL Radio. Smith also stated that he has a great relationship with the organization and loves the city. Assuming talks continue trending in a positive direction, a deal is likely to get done before March 15th, when free agency officially begins.
The Baltimore Ravens interviewed Georgia offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Todd Monken for a second time on Friday for their offensive coordinator opening, according to sources. Monken is one of a handful of candidates that have received a second interview with the Ravens, and he also interviewed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' open offensive coordinator position. Other candidates that the Ravens have been considering include Eric Bieniemy, Dave Canales, Doug Nussmeier, Zac Robinson, Justin Outten, Chad O'Shea, James Urban and George Godsey. Monkey previously served as an offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. Baltimore's next OC will get to work with one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in Lamar Jackson.
The Denver Broncos officially signed new head coach Sean Payton to a five-year deal on Friday, tying him to the team through the 2027 season, according to sources. In order to pry Payton away from the New Orleans Saints, who he was still under contract with, the Broncos had to fork over a 2023 first-rounder and a 2024 second-rounder to the Saints. Denver fired first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett midway through the 2022 season after a disappointing start that saw quarterback Russell Wilson have the worst season of his career. While the Broncos still have some interesting weapons on offense and a solid unit on defense, Payton will have plenty of work to do to get Wilson back on track in 2023 and beyond.
The Athletic's Matt Barrows writes that he'd be very surprised if the San Francisco 49ers trade wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk this offseason. The Niners are light on receivers, and Danny Gray didn't light up the stat sheet in 2022. If the team picks up Aiyuk's fifth-year option in May, he'll be under contract for two more years. Barrows thinks the 49ers will hold tight in 2023 and start considering a contract extension in 2024. The 24-year-old posted career-highs in catches (78), targets (114), receiving yards (1,015) and touchdowns (eight) in 17 regular season starts in his third NFL season while working with quarterbacks Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy. With more stability under center potentially in 2023, Aiyuk could be just as good, if not better, for fantasy managers.
The Las Vegas Raiders have already granted quarterback Derek Carr permission to speak with other teams interested in trading for him that have also agreed to compensation with the Raiders, according to sources. It's the same arrangement the Houston Texans had with quarterback Deshaun Watson last offseason before he was dealt to the Cleveland Browns. Carr said on Thursday at the Pro Bowl that he wouldn't be extending the Feb. 15 deadline for $40.4 million in guarantees, so the Raiders would have to outright release him if they can't find a trade partner by that date. Either way, the 31-year-old veteran will draw plenty of interest from a handful of teams seeking upgrades under center heading into 2023. Carr's fantasy value next season will all depend on where he winds up.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (ankle, leg) said that he wouldn't be focusing on his throwing mechanics early in the offseason. "I feel like I'm in a really good spot," Lance said. He plans to remain in Santa Clara, Calif., for around the next three weeks to finish up his rehab before working on some other things. "I feel like I've got a much better plan this offseason. I said the same things last year. But even more (this year). As the years go on they get better just in knowing what they want from me and where I feel I'm at my best." Jimmy Garoppolo is a free agent and won't be returning, and Brock Purdy (elbow) may not be full go by training camp after tearing his UCL in the NFC Championship game. Lance, who is the former first-rounder, feels like the early favorite this offseason to open 2023 as San Fran's starting QB, if he's healthy.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) didn't practice all week and is listed as doubtful to play in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 12, against the Philadelphia Eagles. Hardman really wants to play in the big game and has been seeking second opinions after aggravating a core injury in the AFC Championship win over the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. The AFC Championship contest was Hardman's first game action since initially suffering a core injury in Week 9. All signs are pointing toward him missing the big game next Sunday, but that could change if he's able to return to practice at some point next week. The Chiefs are banged up at the position with JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) also questionable to play against the Eagles.
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox (toe) was held out of practice on Friday as a precaution, and the expectation is that he will be ready to play in Super Bowl LVII against the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday, according to a league source. Maddox was seen with a walking boot on his left foot after missing more than a month late in the year with a toe injury. The 26-year-old played only 19 defensive snaps in the NFC Championship win over the San Francisco 49ers last weekend, but it sounds as though he'll be available to play in the big game. Still, even if Maddox is active for the Eagles secondary, Josiah Scott could see more slot duties if Maddox isn't 100 percent.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) both missed practice all week and are listed as questionable for the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 12. Smith-Schuster and Toney were both forced out of the AFC Championship early with injuries, but the Chiefs remain optimistic that they will both be available for the Super Bowl after another week to rest up. Mecole Hardman (pelvis) also missed practice all week and is doubtful to play in the big game, so if Smith-Schuster and/or Toney are limited or out for the Super Bowl, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, rookie Skyy Moore and Justin Watson would be asked to step up in the passing game.
Dynasty | According to The Athletic, the belief is that the Rams would like to "build off" what Cam Akers was able to accomplish late in the 2022 season Dynasty Analysis: It's music to the ears of dynasty coaches rostering Akers. Following a tumultuous year in which the back appeared to be on the way out, he returned to the team, the Rams summarily released Darrell Henderson, and Akers performed as most fantasy players expected he would to start the season. The 23-year-old runner scored six touchdowns over his final six games and finished the season with three 100-yard performances, while also chipping in with six receptions. Listed as DLF's RB31, it's obvious dynasty coaches remain stung by the mid-season drama, but enterprising coaches who took advantage of plummeting risk-on opportunity may be rewarded with a young upside runner who could turn in RB1 production in 2023. The fact remains that Sean McVay remains one of the NFL's most mercurial coaches and when it comes to running backs, any back in the team's room is risk-on.
Dynasty | Aaron Rodgers is still in play for the Raiders Dynasty Analysis: The story reads more as possibility than probability while connecting the dots should Rodgers choose to depart Green Bay. The belief is the Raiders, instead, will select a rookie thrower in the first two rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft to be groomed behind a short-term veteran starter. The cost to acquire Rodgers, now 39, will be sky high and the team may wish to simply do a full reboot at the position. Rodgers, DLF's QB14 has yet to indicate whether he plans on staying, going or retiring.
New York Giants defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale is considered a a front-runner for the Indianapolis Colts' head-coaching job, according to a source. The Colts are considering a rare third round of interviews with a select few finalist following an extensive second round of interviews that includes nine candidates. The Colts fired Frank Reich in the middle of the 2022 season, and interim head coach Jeff Saturday remains in play for the full-time job despite going 1-7 down the stretch. If the Giants lose Martindale, they could take a look at Lou Anarumo, Steve Wilks, Sean Desai or Jerome Henderson for their defensive coordinator position.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said earlier this week that the team will be starting over at kicker in 2023, meaning they will move on from kicker Brett Maher. The 33-year-old will become a free agent next month, but the Cowboys won't be re-signing him after he famously missed six of his final seven extra-point attempts in the team's final three games. It was a tough way to close out his season after he made 29 of his 32 field-goal tries during the regular season, which was timed for third in the NFL. Maher should get another shot with another team in 2023, but it won't guarantee that he'll be fantasy relevant like he was with the Cowboys before he got the yips to close out the year.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (hernia) underwent sports-hernia surgery earlier this week, he announced on his official Instagram page. Robinson will become an unrestricted free agent next month, but the injury shouldn't limit him much, if at all, for offseason workouts. The 28-year-old was needed to step up for the Ravens in 2022 due to a season-ending injury to No. 1 receiver Rashod Bateman (foot). In 17 regular season games for Baltimore, Robinson recorded a career-high 48 receptions on a career-high 75 targets for 458 yards and two touchdowns. He became fantasy relevant for managers hurting at the receiver position, but Robinson will be more of a long shot for more playing time in 2023, depending on where he lands in free agency.