Patriots expect to be tested on third down by Vikings

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Patriots have been at their best on offense this season when they’ve established the run and avoided facing a significant number of third downs.

Achieving success in both areas could be difficult on Sunday against a Vikings team that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is expecting to offer “as big a challenge as we’re going to have all year.”

The Vikings are the NFL’s stingiest defense on third down, allowing opposing offenses to convert on a league-low 28 percent of their opportunities. They are also allowing only 94 rushing yards per game, which is tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL.

One of the reasons, McDaniels said, is Minnesota’s ability to mix up its personnel and coverages. That is bolstered with talented players that are spread throughout its defense.

“They have a great front, they have linebackers that are very athletic, the team speed in general is tremendous,” McDaniels said. “You’re not going to outrun this group.”

The Patriots are 1-3 this season when converting on less than 33 percent of their third downs. The lone exception was their 27-20 season-opening win over the Texans. The Patriots went just 4 of 14 on third down (29 percent) in that game, but were able to take advantage of some early Houston mistakes in jumping out to a 24-6 lead.

New England can’t count on that against Minnesota.

The Vikings’ offense has been turnover-prone at times this season, but Minnesota enters Sunday’s matchup with a plus-2 turnover margin overall. The Vikings were turnover-free in last week’s win over Green Bay. It was their first game since their Week 7 road victory over the Jets in which they didn’t have a giveaway.

New England has had to adjust offensively in recent weeks as it played through the injury-related absences of its leading rusher Sony Michel (knee) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle, back), one of Brady’s favorite options on third down.

Both were effective in their returns to the starting lineup against the Jets. Gronkowski caught his first touchdown pass since Week 1 and Michel rushed for a season-best 133 yards.

“They are one of the best teams at running the ball in the red zone and one of the best teams at stopping the run in the red zone,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.

“When you can run the ball in the red zone that typically leads to touchdowns because you don’t get in third-and-longs and things like that where you’ve got to throw in a condensed area.”

The Patriots are also hopeful that the return of Rex Burkhead from injured reserve will ultimately provide a boost similar to those provided by Michel and Gronkowski. Burkhead was one of New England’s go-to options in short-yardage situations last season. But he played only three games before suffering a neck injury against the Lions on Sept. 23. His status for Sunday is to be determined.

While Burkhead’s absence hasn’t affected the Patriots’ ability to score touchdowns in the red zone (24 TDs on 38 drives inside the 20), center David Andrews said they recognize room for improvement.

“(The Vikings have) got a great defensive front, I think they play really hard, big, tough guys in there,” Andrews said. “I don’t know what the game plan is going to be yet, but whatever it is, we just have to execute it, do whatever we can up front to be at our best and be the most physical team.”


AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell in Eagan, Minnesota, contributed to this report.


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Steelers RB Conner on recent fumbles: "It's correctable"

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger cut off the question mid-sentence. The quicker to dismiss it, the better.

No, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback stressed, there are no issues about running back James Conner’s ability to hold onto the ball even after Conner’s fumble late in the third quarter on Sunday in Denver swung momentum to the Broncos in what became a 24-17 loss that ended Pittsburgh’s six-game winning streak.

“I’ll stop you now,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “There is no concern and we have all the confidence in him. We are going to ride with James because he’s our guy.”

Conner took responsibility for the mistake, saying he didn’t do a good job covering up before getting hit by Denver’s Bradley Roby at the end of a 23-yard reception. The fumble was Conner’s fourth of the season, tying him with Chicago’s Tarik Cohen and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott for most in the NFL by a non-quarterback.

“It’s correctable,” Conner said. “It’s not something that’s going to be a problem for me.”

It can’t be if the Steelers (7-3-1) want to lock down their fifth straight playoff appearance. Pittsburgh righted its season by relying heavily on Conner after falling into a 1-2-1 hole. He averaged 172.3 yards from scrimmage during a four-game stretch from Oct. 7-Nov. 4, a surge that earned him AFC offensive player of the month honors for October and made the absence of two-time All-Pro Le’Veon Bell a non-issue.

Those numbers have taken a steep drop since Conner left a blowout of Carolina on Nov. 8 with a concussion. He had just 15 touches in a comeback win over Jacksonville on Nov. 18, a number that would have crept up to 16 if he hadn’t let a pass go through his hands on Pittsburgh’s final drive that would have been a walk-in touchdown. That drop became moot when the Steelers found a way to win anyway.

Facing the NFL’s 27th-ranked run defense last Sunday in Denver, the Steelers opted to have Roethlisberger throw 58 times. Conner finished with 17 touches against the Broncos and just one after the fumble, a 1-yard run on second-and-goal from the Denver 3 with 1:53 left. Roethlisberger faked a handoff to Conner on the next play and threw a game-ending pick in the end zone.

Conner shrugged when asked about his drop in opportunities in recent weeks. The former college star at Pittsburgh understands he’s just a second-year player who has hardly earned the right to start making demands.

“(Offensive coordinator) Randy (Fichtner) has a game plan,” Conner said. “We talk about it in the hotel before the game and that’s just what it is. I’m in no position. It doesn’t matter what I like. My job is just to go out there and execute. When I don’t run the ball, I try to help the tackles and be involved in the pass game and do my job.”

Maybe, but the guys blocking for Conner wouldn’t mind it if they saw his No. 30 coming up behind them at the line of scrimmage with a head of steam.

“We got to get him the ball, get him back heated up again, getting him some runs he feels comfortable with, get him more involved in the game plan,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Obviously whenever he was doing things, he looked really, really good out there.”

Conner isn’t worried about getting run down in his first full season as a starter, or developing a reputation as a chronic fumbler. He coughed it up seven times in 689 career touches at Pitt. His four this season have come on 235 touches, not particularly alarming save for the timing.

He let one drop in the fourth quarter in Cleveland in Week 1, which set the stage for a comeback that allowed the Browns to rally from a 14-point deficit and force a tie. He caught a break in Week 5 against Atlanta when the ball squirted free and rolled out of bounds as he tried to break a tackle inside the Falcons 10. In a rematch with Cleveland on Oct. 28, the Browns were up 6-0 when Conner fumbled at the Pittsburgh 27. Fullback Roosevelt Nix fell on it and Pittsburgh — feeding Conner regularly on a day he ran for 146 yards and two scores — got it together in time to win going away.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t think Conner needs to change the way he runs, but Tomlin also knows the Los Angeles Chargers (8-3) will test that theory when they visit Heinz Field on Sunday.

“When you got some tape with some balls on the ground that people use that as motivation, I know we do,” Tomlin said.

Conner will use it as motivation even as he continues to adjust to the idea that for the first time in his football life, he’s not the focal point of the offense.

“You play the same teams over and over again, so you have to switch it up,” Conner said. “That’s just the way life goes.”

NOTES: WR Eli Rogers practiced Wednesday for the first time since tearing the ACL in his right knee in a playoff loss to Jacksonville in January. Pittsburgh has a three-week window before it has to decide whether it will activate Rogers. … RT Marcus Gilbert (knee), S Morgan Burnett (back), LB Bud Dupree (pectoral) and TE Vance McDonald (hip) did not practice. … DE Stephon Tuitt (elbow) was limited while TE Xavier Grimble (concussion) was a full participant.


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This is BIG: game between teams from Big Easy and Big D

They are beginning to think playoffs in Big D. They’ve been thinking Super Bowl for weeks in the Big Easy.

On Thursday night, the Cowboys host the Saints in, well, a big game.

New Orleans (10-1) has looked like the NFL’s best, even as it sits tied with the Rams for the league’s top record; the Saints handed Los Angeles its only defeat. Not only is the offense dynamic and Drew Brees is having the most proficient season of his spectacular career, but the defense appears more solid than any other Super Bowl threat.

“Early in the year, they gave up some points and yards and things like that, but you just really look at them in their last I guess three or four ballgames,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan says. “They’re just really doing a good job of getting stops and creating negative plays for the other team, whether it be sacks or turnovers.

“We’ve got a big challenge.”

And he’s talking about the New Orleans D!

The Dallas defense has been pretty darn good for much of the season, particularly recently. That’s as much a reason as any that the Cowboys (6-5) have taken over the NFC East lead.

But they need to show a lot more to reach the Saints’ level.

“We have all the confidence in ourselves,” quarterback Dak Prescott says. “They put on their pants the same way we do. They’ve won 10, and I guess we’ve won three (in a row).

It will be 11 for the Saints, unanimously top-ranked in the AP Pro32. They are 7½-point favorites over No. 12 Dallas.

SAINTS, 30-27


Dallas did the job on Thanksgiving, and as Pro Picks heads into December, time to go with rejuvenated SEATTLE.

No. 25 Buffalo (plus 5 1-2) at No. 21 Miami

Bills on upswing. It ends in South Florida.


No. 13 Baltimore (minus 1 1-2) at No. 22 Atlanta

Ravens haven’t hit road in a month.


No. 16 Denver (minus 4) at No. 24 Cincinnati

So many road favorites this week. We favor Broncos among them.

BRONCOS, 23-10

No. 2 Los Angeles Rams (minus 10) at No. 23 Detroit

So many road favorites this week. We definitely favor Rams.

RAMS, 44-24

No. 5 Chicago (minus 4) at No. 27 New York Giants

So many road favorites — enough already.

BEARS, 20-13

No. 15 Washington (plus 6 1-2) at No. 17 Philadelphia, Monday night

Two injury-plagued teams trying to keep up with Dallas.

EAGLES, 26-23

No. 32 Arizona (plus 14 1-2) at No. 19 Green Bay

Not sure Packers should be favored by this much over U of Arizona.

PACKERS, 28-20

No. 3 Kansas City (minus 15) at No. 31 Oakland

Remember when this was one of the NFL’s great rivalries?

CHIEFS, 40-22

No. 30 San Francisco (plus 10) at No. 10 Seattle

Wasn’t too long ago this was a great NFL rivalry, too.


No. 6 Los Angeles Chargers (plus 3 1-2) at No. 8 Pittsburgh

Steelers don’t do anything easily. Maybe Philip Rivers will be perfect.


No. 14 Carolina (minus 3 1-2) at No. 26 Tampa Bay

If Panthers don’t snap out of funk soon, wild-card playoff spot will disappear.


No. 11 Indianapolis (minus 4) at No. 28 Jacksonville

Suddenly, Andrew Luck and Colts look like postseason-bound team.

COLTS, 19-17

No. 20 Cleveland (plus 6) at No. 7 Houston

Texans won’t win out, but won’t lose this one.

TEXANS, 24-20

No. 9 Minnesota (plus 6) at No. 4 New England

Patriots might win out, won’t lose this one.


No. 29 New York Jets (plus 9 1-2) at No. 18 Tennessee

Titans are an enigma. Slumping Jets are not.

TITANS, 23-9


2018 RECORD:

Last Week: Against spread (9-4-1). Straight up (12-3)

Season Totals: Against spread (87-77-7). Straight up: (118-56-2)

Best Bet: 4-8 against spread, 8-4 straight up

Upset special: 8-4 against spread, 7-4-1 straight up


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Jets' Darnold limited at practice, hopeful about playing

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold was limited at practice, a positive sign after he had sat out team drills since injuring his right foot more than three weeks ago.

The rookie says Wednesday he was a little sore after practice, but is hopeful he will be able to play Sunday at Tennessee after missing the Jets’ past two games.

Darnold strained his foot against Miami on Nov. 4 and hadn’t previously thrown passes during quarterback drills during the half-hour window the media are allowed to watch until Wednesday. He says he took some snaps in team periods, and he and the team will continue to assess the injury throughout the week.

Darnold says he had no issues with planting his foot or running.

Josh McCown has started the Jets’ past two games, but was also limited as he deals with a sore back and right hand, which he cut during New York’s loss to New England last Sunday.


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Browns' Mayfield: "I'm not a cookie-cutter quarterback."

BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Baker Mayfield won’t back down, won’t change. Not for Hue Jackson or TV commentators or critics or anyone.

Don’t bother telling Cleveland’s rookie quarterback how he should act, what he should say or how he should feel.

He’s not listening.

“I’m not a cookie-cutter quarterback,” Mayfield said. “Never have been, never will be.”

Dismissing some condemnation for recent comments and actions, Mayfield doubled down on Wednesday by saying he doesn’t regret calling former Browns coach Hue Jackson “fake” and promised to stay true to himself.

After throwing four touchdown passes and leading the Browns to a 35-20 win on Sunday in Cincinnati, Mayfield was cool toward Jackson when they met on the field and then said he was unhappy with the coach’s decision to take a job with the Bengals, a division rival, just weeks after he was fired by the Browns.

Mayfield’s remarks drew some harsh criticism, especially from ESPN’s Damien Woody, a former NFL player who called the 23-year-old immature and hypocritical because he transferred from Texas Tech to Oklahoma. Mayfield fired back at Woody by posting a comment on Instagram assailing Jackson, pointing out he lost 30-plus games with Cleveland, labeling him “fake.”

Mayfield isn’t taking back a single word.

“People took it as me personally attacking Hue, but that’s not it,” he said. “It’s the fact that I get to have my own opinion on how it transpired and he gets to do what he wants. That’s how it is. I speak my mind. That’s just how I am, so I didn’t like the (Jackson) move and people don’t have to care. I’m not looking for anybody’s approval. I don’t regret any of it. It’s about this team and what we have, and we have to stick together and play together.”

Mayfield, who has played superbly in leading the Browns to two straight wins, believes his passion to play and lead has been misread.

“People get maturity confused with me being 100 percent comfortable in my own skin,” Mayfield said. “It’s not immature. It’s me being exactly who I am every day. Being that same guy for our team and I think that is very important for us right now.”

Mayfield declined to elaborate about his relationship with Jackson, saying “it’s in-house information and it doesn’t matter.”

But Mayfield’s conduct has struck a nerve — in Cleveland, where he’s being hailed as a franchise savior, and across the NFL, which is taking note of a Browns team making some noise.

This is the swaggering, headband-wearing, flag-planting Mayfield the Browns knew they were getting when the team selected him with the No. 1 overall pick. He arrived carrying a Heisman Trophy but with other baggage, which included some questionable on-field antics — and an off-field arrest — that concerned some front-office executives but didn’t dissuade the Browns.

Mayfield insists he’s just being himself, and he’ll deal with detractors the way he always has.

“I have an opinion and I’m entitled to that, but the most important thing is me doing my job and I can manage both, and that’s what people don’t understand,” he said. “Yeah, a quarterback that’s a little different from some of the guys to have a voice, but that’s just how I’ve always been and I’m not going to change for anybody.”

Mayfield’s relishes the rebel label. It fuels him, fires up his teammates and has endeared him to Browns fans, who believe the future is bright.

But while he loves being the outsider, Mayfield knows there’s a segment of people who wish he would tone down his act and behave more in line with Drew Brees or Peyton Manning.

That’s their opinion, though. Mayfield is going to be his own man.

“They are their own person. I’m not trying to be exactly like them,” Mayfield said. “Yeah, there are things that I absolutely admire about both of those guys, but I’m never trying to be anybody else. I’m going to be the best version of myself and that’s what has gotten me here.”

It’s gotten the Browns back to playing meaningful games in December.

Just as he does on Sundays, Browns left guard Joel Bitonio protected Mayfield.

“If you look at Baker’s body of work since he’s been here, I think it’s shown that he’s a confident, sometimes cocky player, but you need to be that to be a quarterback in this league,” Bitonio said. “People go about it differently and he plays the game the right way, he works the right way, he does things the right way and I’m happy he’s our quarterback.”

NOTES: Interim coach Gregg Williams said rookie OL Austin Corbett had his foot stepped on Sunday at Cincinnati. The No. 33 overall pick could be sidelined for an extended period. … Williams opened his news conference by offering condolences to the Texans following the death of their owner Bob McNair. Cleveland plays at Houston on Sunday.


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When Vikes visit Pats, Rhodes has 'good chance' of playing

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Xavier Rhodes was trailing Green Bay’s Davante Adams in coverage along the sideline late in the fourth quarter last week. Aaron Rodgers let the ball fly and Minnesota’s best cornerback raced to catch up.

Rhodes arrived in time to make the tackle after a 36-yard gain by the Packers, but in the process of the acceleration he hurt his hamstring. As soon as he stood up, he grabbed his right leg and fell back to the turf. The immediate fear was a multiple-week absence for one of the most valuable players the Vikings have.

But after testing and treatment, the diagnosis was a “very, very mild” injury, according to coach Mike Zimmer. He said on Wednesday, before Rhodes was held out of practice, that “there’s a good chance” the 2017 All-Pro pick will be able to play on Sunday at New England.

With Tom Brady and that potent Patriots offense up next, the timing could not be better for Rhodes to heal quickly. With first-round draft pick Mike Hughes out for the season because of a torn ACL in his left knee, the depth behind Rhodes and Trae Waynes has thinned. Mackensie Alexander is manning the slot on most of the nickel plays, and rookie Holton Hill has been sent in several times to play on the outside as a fill-in when someone’s hurt.

The latest opportunity came against the Packers, with the Vikings leading 24-14 when that reception by Adams set up the visiting team for a field goal.

“My confidence has always been like a thing for me. You can’t go out on the field if you don’t believe in yourself. It starts there,” Hill said. “Obviously it’s something I’m not used to, but as a player, I’m going to have to play my role. There’s no excuses. I’m about to get in and help the defense out.”

Rhodes and Waynes have each missed one full game, and they’ve also both been forced out of several contests because of injuries. The undrafted Hill was a priority free agent out of Texas for the Vikings right after the draft. Grasping Zimmer’s system took some time in training camp and beyond, but he has come a long way and been asked to play more meaningful snaps than anyone would have anticipated.

“Now they give us a call, and I just line up, and it’s like natural,” Hill said.

Though no soft-tissue injuries are the same, the Vikings have been especially conservative about handling them lately. Running back Dalvin Cook missed five games with hamstring trouble, and linebacker Anthony Barr was sidelined for three games with the same injury. So it stands to reason Rhodes won’t necessarily be cleared for action against Brady, who with two touchdown passes would move ahead of Peyton Manning, who had 579, for first place on the NFL’s all-time list, including playoffs. Regardless of how Rhodes fares over the rest of the week, Hill will need to be ready.

“He’s still learning, obviously, like most young guys are,” Zimmer said, “but he’s got a lot of really good competitiveness.”


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Houston's Watt still looking for more in comeback season

HOUSTON (AP) — On the day J.J. Watt was selected AFC defensive player of the week, the defensive end who missed most of the last two seasons with serious injuries was asked if he’s all the way back.

His simple answer: “No.”

As well as Watt is playing in his comeback, he still believes he can do much more for the Houston Texans, starting with helping them extend their winning streak to nine games with a victory Sunday over Cleveland.

“I have very high expectations for the way I play and where I want to be and … like I’ve told you many times I don’t know if I’ll ever say it,” Watt said. “But I’m going to continue to work to get there. The goal is always to be better than you were, you just don’t ever want to just be the same.”

Watt has been great in his return this season after not only sitting out the last 11 games of 2017 after breaking his leg, but also missing all but three games in 2016 because of a back problem which required two surgeries. He is tied for second in the NFL with 11 1/2 sacks, has 19 quarterback hits, 13 tackles for losses, has swatted down two passes, and is tied for first in the NFL with a career-high five forced fumbles.

“He’s one of the best players to ever play the game,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a great football player that impacts the game on every snap. I’m just the coach and I’m fortunate that he’s on our team.”

Then O’Brien was asked to weigh in on whether Watt is back to his old self after fighting through two years of injuries.

“That’s for him to answer because that’s the perfectionist that he is,” O’Brien said. “He’s always going to work to be better than what he thinks he is at that point. That’s what drives him … (but) he’s a great football player and we’re certainly glad we have him here in Houston.”

Watt won AFC defensive player of the month honors for September, but this is the first time he’s won player of the week recognition since Week 17 of the 2015 season. He’s now tied with Julius Peppers for most defensive player of the week awards among active players with seven.

He appreciates the recognition, but the three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year doesn’t think it means more because it comes in a season when he’s returning from injuries.

“I understand the comeback story is a story, and obviously I’m still working to get better every week … but also you just want to play good football to play good football, not just because you’re coming back,” he said. “I’m just happy to be out there playing with my guys. I’m happy to be winning. I’m happy to be contributing and helping the team win games.”

Watt’s work this season has helped the Texans become the first team in NFL history to win eight consecutive games after starting a season 0-3. After missing so much time over the last two years, Watt has relished being on the field with his teammates and being part of the turnaround.

And while he gets a lot of credit for how Houston’s defense is playing, he’s quick to point out the key to the team’s recent success has been that many players have contributed.

“It’s great to be with a group like this, because we’ve just been finding a way,” he said. “And it comes from different areas, different people, different ways, but we’re always a finding a way.”


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Gruden: 'No guarantee' Foster's ever plays for Washington

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Coach Jay Gruden says the Washington Redskins will continue to investigate Rueben Foster’s legal problems amid the outcry from signing the linebacker following his domestic violence arrest.

Gruden said Wednesday there is “no guarantee” Foster ever plays for Washington.

The 24-year-old Foster was arrested Saturday night at San Francisco’s team hotel in Tampa and charged with one count of first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence. Washington was the only team to put in a claim for Foster after he was released from the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday morning.

Gruden said after practice Wednesday the organization did not speak to the victim. He says the Redskins spoke “a little bit” to Tampa police and would continue to look into Foster’s situation at the same time as the NFL holds its investigation.

Foster reported to the team’s facility on Wednesday but is on the Commissioner Exempt list and while on it, he cannot practice or attend games.


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Jags' Marrone has 'high level of concern' for injured Ramsey

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Jacksonville Jaguars could be without cornerback Jalen Ramsey against division rival Indianapolis on Sunday.

Coach Doug Marrone says he has a “high level of concern” regarding Ramsey’s availability against the Colts. Ramsey missed practice Wednesday because of a knee injury and might not do any on-field work all week.

Marrone says “we have two games in (five) days, and he has a legitimate thing that he’s dealing with. I think it’ll be tough. I think we’ll have a better idea later in the week, but I do have a high level of concern.”

The Jaguars (3-8) host the Colts (6-5) and then play at Tennessee next Thursday night.

Safety Tashaun Gipson (ankle) and receiver DJ Chark (quadriceps) also missed practice Wednesday.


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Gruden: 'No guarantees' Foster's ever plays for Washington

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Coach Jay Gruden says the Washington Redskins will continue to investigate Rueben Foster’s legal problems amid the outcry from signing the running back following his domestic violence arrest.

Gruden said Wednesday there are “no guarantees” Foster ever plays for Washington.

Foster was arrested Saturday night at San Francisco’s team hotel in Tampa and charged with one count of first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence. Washington was the only team to put in a claim for Foster after he was released from the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday morning.

Gruden said after practice Wednesday the organization did not speak to the victim. He says the Redskins spoke “a little bit” to Tampa police and would continue to look into Foster’s situation at the same time as the NFL holds its investigation.

Foster reported to the team’s facility on Wednesday but is on the Commissioner Exempt list and while on it, he cannot practice or attend games.


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