Bucs, Browns, Bills out to follow footsteps of champ Chiefs

Thu Jan 14 2:54am ET
By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) is tackled by Indianapolis Colts' Kenny Moore II during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)


Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) celebrates as he walks off the field following a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)


Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Washington Football Team, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)


Aside from winning the final Super Bowl before the merger in 1970, the Kansas City Chiefs' biggest claim to fame for over half a century was team founder Lamar Hunt coining the phrase Super Bowl.

Patrick Mahomes changed all of that a year ago when he led a furious fourth-quarter rally that sent the Chiefs to a 31-20 win over San Francisco in Super Bowl 54.

Now, there are Mahomes murals all over town, the city's famous restaurants run specials in his honor and he even has a cereal named after him.

The Chiefs (14-2) are again a top seed and they're one win away from becoming the first team ever to host three consecutive AFC championships. The only NFC team to do that was the Philadelphia Eagles from 2002-04 when Andy Reid was their coach.

Even after an excruciatingly long wait, a franchise's fortunes can change quickly.

Three long-downtrodden teams - the Browns, Bills and Buccaneers - have made it to the divisional round this weekend and are certain they have as good a chance as the Chiefs, Packers, Saints, Ravens or Rams of winning Super Bowl 55.

BRASH BROWNS

In Cleveland, a strange season has turned surreal.

The Browns are playing football in January - not searching for a coach or general manager or trying to figure out what to do with one of their high draft picks.

After a nearly two-decade crawl, the Browns (12-5) are among the NFL's elite, one of eight teams remaining with a shot at winning it all. That's heady stuff for a franchise that has never made it to the Super Bowl.

Yet, under first-year coach Kevin Stefanki's steady hand, the Browns have steered around one obstacle after the next and have taken off on a run few imagined.

They won 11 games to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season. Then, with Stefanski unable to make the trip after he tested positive for COVID-19 and missing two other key players and four assistant coaches, the Browns won their first playoff game in 26 years last Sunday by stunning the rival Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, where so many Cleveland seasons had died previously.

They did it with Stefanski in his basement back home, and they finished off their first playoff road win since 1969 with a left guard who introduced himself to quarterback Baker Mayfield in the locker room before kickoff.

Stefanski took part in the postgame celebration on FaceTime in a scene that seems oddly perfect in a pandemic season of Zoom calls, protocols and social distancing.

The Browns' success has provided a needed lift for a football-crazed region that's known mostly losing during an expansion era with few highlights.

Stefanski can sense Cleveland's passion.

''I have done a lot of driving around town the last few days just because I have to get out of here,'' he said, speaking on a conference call from his basement. ''Just to see all of the Browns flags and seeing everybody wearing the Browns hats, I definitely feel it. I think our players understand how big it is for this community, and we have to keep it going.''

BULLISH BILLS

Behind Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, the Bills (15-3) erased plenty of franchise records established by Jim Kelly & Co. back when the Bills won a record four consecutive AFC titles in the 1990s.

''There has been so much stuff that we have said as former players, 'These guys got a damn good football team,'' Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas said. ''Their defense probably won't hold you to 3 points or whatever, but their offense? Their offense is a problem.''

The Bills led the AFC with a 30.3-point scoring average during the season, and they haven't lost since Nov. 15, when DeAndre Hopkins hauled in Kyle Murray's 42-yard Hail Mary as time expired, giving Arizona a 32-30 win.

Allen's 69.2 completion percentage represents an NFL-record jump of 16.4% since his rookie season in 2018.

''But you give him Stefon Diggs and you see what he's made of and how he's gone about his business,'' Thomas said. ''And he has been tremendous. I think Bills fans, including myself, didn't think he was going to be this good this good this early. And he has proved a lot of people wrong.''

No, there's no comparing this Bills team to those of his playing days, Thomas said.

Not yet anyway, Thomas said, but those comparisons are undoubtedly coming.

''Especially if they go on to win the Super Bowl this year, I mean, you're going to have to talk about it,'' Thomas said. ''I really think it's going to come down to the Bills and Kansas City. ... These guys believe they can win anywhere. They don't care where they're playing.''

BOLD BUCCANEERS

The Buccaneers ended the NFC's longest playoff drought with their first playoff berth since 2007 thanks to the arrival of six-time champion Tom Brady in the offseason.

The Buccaneers immediately went from a franchise that spent more than a decade trying to transform themselves into playoff contenders to a club with expectations of becoming the first team to appear in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

Brady was attracted to a roster featuring a slew of offensive playmakers, including receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller, running back Ronald Jones and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

The Bucs then lured Rob Gronkowski out of retirement, upgraded the offensive line by drafting tackle Tristan Wirfs, and signed veterans LeSean McCoy, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown to bolster the depth around their 43-year-old quarterback.

Coach Bruce Arians acknowledged before the start of the playoffs that the Bucs won't consider it a successful season unless they win it all.

''Really, it's not going to be if we don't put rings on our fingers because once you're in the tournament, that's what you're playing for,'' Arians said. ''We did enough to get here and it will not be satisfying unless we finish it.''

How quickly expectations change.

And maybe fortunes, too.

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Player Notes
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense was shredded by Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the first quarter of their Week 12 matchup, as Hill went off for 203 yards on seven catches and two touchdowns. Cornerback Carlton Davis was left on an island with Hill, and it didn't yield pretty results. "We'll help a little bit more than we did in that ballgame," Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. Tampa's D allowed 462 yards passing to quarterback Patrick Mahomes and three touchdowns. Hill finished with 269 yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches (only 59 yards in the second half). Tight end Travis Kelce had eight catches for 82 yards. With offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz out, Bucs pass-rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul must get pressure on Mahomes to have a chance at getting last year's Super Bowl MVP out of his rhythm.

From RotoBaller

Cole Beasley Jan 25 4:20pm ET

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley (leg) suffered a broken fibula in the Week 16 game against the New England Patriots. Beasley sat out the regular season finale in Week 17 before catching 14 passes for 145 yards in three postseason games against the Colts, Ravens and Chiefs. "It was bad the first game I played but after that, you take a few meds and suck it up," Beasley said with a chuckle. The injury wasn't a full break, but Beasley said it was painful in the wild-card win over the Colts. The 31-year-old veteran hauled in seven of his nine targets for 88 yards in the AFC Championship loss to the Chiefs on Sunday. Beasley set career-highs in catches (82), targets (107), receiving yards (967) and yards per catch (11.8) while visiting the end zone four times in 15 regular season games in 2020. He'll be back as Josh Allen's most trusted third-down weapon in 2021 and will be more expensive in PPR leagues as a result of his career-best season.

From RotoBaller

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Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said that the team could reach a long-term contract extension with quarterback Lamar Jackson this offseason, and the GM plans to speak to the reigning NFL MVP in the next 10 days. Jackson just finished his third season and will command at least $40 million per season on an extension. He's scheduled to make $1.77 million in 2021 on the final year of his rookie deal, which currently ranks 25th among QBs in base salary. "[He] certainly deserves a contract," DeCosta said. Jackson has won more games (30) than any other QB since he took over as the team's starter in 2018 and became the fastest QB in history to reach 30 regular season wins (37 games). Jackson is also the first in NFL history to produce 5,000 yards passing and 2,500 yards rushing in his first three seasons. The young signal-caller has been more effective with his legs than his arm and has won just one playoff game, but Jackson should be locked up long term in Baltimore and will be a top-five fantasy QB yet again in 2021.

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Aaron Rodgers Jan 25 11:50am ET

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was uncertain about his future after the team's 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship on Sunday. The 37-year-old is expected to win the MVP this year and is under contract through the 2023 season via the $134 million extension he signed in 2018. But the Packers also drafted Jordan Love, Rodgers' possible replacement, in the first round last year. Rodgers threw 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions in the regular season in 2020, but he also became the first QB in NFL history to lose four straight appearances in a conference championship. If Green Bay were to move on from Rodgers this offseason, they'd save just $4.76 million on the salary cap and would have $31.556 million in dead money. Rodgers may be contemplating retirement, but the Packers want him back and he'd be a high-end QB1 if he does return after going 33-for-48 for 346 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in the loss to Tampa to end the season.

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Joey Bosa Jan 25 11:50am ET

The Los Angeles Chargers are hiring Denver Broncos defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill as their new defensive coordinator on Monday, according to sources. Hill worked with head coach Brandon Staley in Denver in 2019 and played in the league for a decade. Staley said last week that he will be making the defensive play calls in his first season as head coach in LA. Hill will be replacing Gus Bradley, who left to become the defensive coordinator for the Las Vegas Raiders. Hill will help oversee a defense that ranked 10th in the NFL last year and features three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. and standout safety Derwin James, who missed all of 2020 with a knee injury.

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Lamar Jackson Jan 25 10:23am ET

Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson could sign an extension this offseason, according to general manager Eric DeCosta, who will begin talks with Jackson in 10 days.

Fantasy Spin: Jackson ended up the QB10 in traditional leagues as he missed a game due to COVID-19. With the emergence of Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and others, the position has become pretty loaded. Dak Prescott (leg) is expected back to join the flux of QB1s. A midrange QB1 is probably where Jackson is supposed to be considering the plights he faces through the air. Don't overdraft him for the rushing numbers next season because the gap has narrowed.

From TheHuddle

Josh Allen Jan 24 10:33pm ET

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From RotoBaller

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Mecole Hardman Jan 24 10:20pm ET

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