Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) looks onto the field from the sideline during the thirds quarter of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Philadelphia, Pa.

Nfl Tennessee Titans At Philadelphia Eagles

GM’s firing underscores Titans’ urgency vs. Jaguars

Owning a three-game lead in the AFC South with just five games left, the Tennessee Titans still pulled the trigger on a major move on Tuesday.

Owner Amy Adams Strunk canned general manager Jon Robinson, two days after watching wide receiver A.J. Brown, who Robinson traded in the offseason to Philadelphia, catch eight passes for 119 yards and two scores in the Eagles’ 35-10 rout of Tennessee.

The Titans try to pick up the pieces from that outcome and organizational upheaval Sunday when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are hoping to mount a late challenge to Tennessee in the division.

Fifth-year coach Mike Vrabel, whom Robinson hired in January 2018 after Strunk fired then-coach Mike Mularkey, will team with vice president of player personnel Ryan Cowden to handle player moves for the season’s remainder.

“The message is the same as it’s always been — we’re charged to win,” Vrabel said Wednesday. “We’re here to win championships. We all have a job to do and we’re held to a high standard and we’re evaluated each and every day on that job.

“And it’s the same thing I told the football team and the players this morning.”

The Titans (7-5) have lost their last two games after going 7-1 in their previous eight games to take command in one of the league’s weakest divisions. They are the only team with a winning record in the AFC South.

As things presently stand, they would be the fourth seed in the AFC playoffs and in the first round would face Cincinnati, which knocked them out of the postseason back in January and defeated them in Week 12. With just one winning team left on Tennessee’s schedule, there’s an opportunity to improve its playoff positioning.

For that to happen, the Titans need to get Derrick Henry going. A two-time league rushing champ, Henry has been held under 100 yards in each of the last four weeks, including just 30 on 11 carries at Philadelphia.

“I pride myself on being a playmaker for this team and I feel like I haven’t really done that these last two weeks,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville (4-8) has one shot to maneuver into some sort of contention. It either wins this week or it will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year since advancing to the AFC finals in 2017, when it held a fourth-quarter lead before losing in New England.

The Jaguars are coming off one of their worst games of the year, allowing points on Detroit’s first eight possessions last week in a 40-14 loss at Ford Field. The Lions carved up Jacksonville for 437 total yards and never punted, going 8-for-12 on third down.

“It was an ugly day for us, for sure,” said Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who went 17-for-31 for 179 yards and a touchdown in defeat.

And Lawrence didn’t go unscathed, leaving the game after his left leg was twisted during a sack. Lawrence didn’t practice Wednesday with a sprained toe and there’s a chance backup C.J. Beathard may have to play in his place this week.

“He’s been in these situations before in his career so it’s not unfamiliar territory to him,” said Jacksonville coach Doug Pederson of Beathard.

–Field Level Media

Dec 4, 2022; Santa Clara, California, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) drops back to pass during the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Miami in LA eyeing early sunset for wobbled Chargers

While the Miami Dolphins are enjoying the week in Los Angeles, the Chargers are trying to avoid starting another year with plans that don’t include playoff football.

Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins (8-4) know how Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) are feeling right about now heading into Sunday night’s game.

Miami was 6-7 entering Week 14 one year ago; Tagovailoa was being pounded by critics doubting his NFL readiness and durability and the Dolphins’ fanbase was eager for the arrival of his replacement.

That was one coaching change and a few landmark trades ago.

“He’s a baller. He’s a great player. He can do a lot of great things,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday of Herbert. “I feel very blessed, I’m just happy to be where I’m at. … For me, I’m just very fortunate and very blessed to be here.”

Herbert has been fighting to keep his nose above the waves as the Chargers bail water. Stringing together consecutive wins is the only way L.A. finds the postseason after missing out in heartbreaking fashion last season.

The fifth and sixth picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, Tagovailoa went one pick before Herbert and during their rookie season won the only pro matchup between the QBs.

Tagovailoa, the leader in Pro Bowl voting and passer rating (112.0) with a month left in the regular season, pilots Miami into Los Angeles just one game behind AFC East-leading Buffalo. The Dolphins have the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL (380.2 yards per game) and No. 2 passing offense (290.5 yards per game).

Tagovailoa is squarely on the MVP radar, overtaking Herbert, a player many thought could be in this position in 2022.

Big plays and dynamic playmakers are setting the Dolphins apart. Tagovailoa has six TD passes of 25-plus yards and averages 9.0 yards per attempt. In San Francisco last week, the Dolphins lost to snap a five-game winning streak. Tagovailoa suffered a minor ankle injury and threw his first interception (two, in fact) since Sept. 29. The ankle is fine, but the Dolphins are determined to prove the 49ers’ fortune won’t be a blueprint to slow head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense.

“Everything that went wrong wasn’t a direct result of the quarterback,” McDaniel said, noting the eight called running plays is Miami’s low-water mark for designed rush attempts.

There’s a great chance McDaniels’ call sheet will highlight the running game at Los Angeles, and not just because left tackle Terron Armstead (knee) has been out and worked out on the side in the team’s practice at UCLA on Wednesday.

The Chargers allowed 154 rushing yards last week, the sixth consecutive game opponents have topped 150.

Looking for his first home win since the 19-16 rock fight with the Denver Broncos on Oct. 17, Herbert might have a case if he points to the supporting cast as the differentiator between these teams.

What Herbert wouldn’t do for a player with Tyreek Hill’s production at that position right now. Hill has six games with 125-plus receiving yards in 12 games with the Dolphins, who landed the former Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro via trade. The Chargers know Hill well. He had 12 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers last December.

The Chargers don’t have a wide receiver ranked in the top 30 statistically through 13 weeks and running back Austin Ekeler leads L.A. in receptions (85) and TD catches (five). Wideouts Mike Williams and Keenan Allen have shared the field for less than 50 snaps and the IR cache for the Chargers is a veritable Pro Bowl stock, including top free agent cornerback J.C. Jackson, defensive end Joey Bosa and left tackle Rashawn Slater.

The Chargers could be without three offensive linemen on Sunday. Center Corey Linsley (concussion) and rookie guard Zion Johnson (shoulder) were listed as limited participants Wednesday. Right tackle Trey Pipkins (knee) did not practice and missed Week 13.

“The games do mean more as you go,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “Every week they’re going to mean more and more because you’re getting closer to the end and there’s a lot at stake in terms of positioning, but you got to pour yourself into that week, and that’s where our focus is, on Miami.”

Allen has rounded into form of late. He caught six passes for 88 yards and has touchdown receptions in consecutive games. Williams, listed as limited Wednesday with an ankle injury, didn’t play last week and has one reception for 15 yards in the team’s past five games.

That has meant more — and more — Ekeler, who has 104 targets as a receiver, ranks fourth in the NFL in receptions and leads the team with 589 rushing yards.

Herbert has continued the fight. He posted his 19th career 300-yard passing game last week — matching Andrew Luck for the record in the first three years of a career — but the production was again delivered in a painful loss (27-20 to the Raiders). Herbert’s 23 losses since his rookie season in 2020 are the most for any quarterback other than Matt Ryan (28).

Another defeat Sunday night could stack the deck against the Chargers with the Titans (7-5) up next in Week 15. Tennessee is one of seven AFC teams to already record seven wins in 2022.

“We need to win the rest of these games,” Chargers wide receiver Josh Palmer said. “For us, the playoffs really started last week.”

Miami has another primetime road game looming with massive postseason implications next Saturday night against the Bills.

“The bottom line is we have two opportunities to play in front of a national audience,” McDaniel said. “It’s something we’ve been building towards for the whole season in terms of how we play, but only one of which we can really do anything about in the immediate future.”

–Field Level Media

Nov 20, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) reacts to the crowd against the Cincinnati Bengals during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. The Bengals won 37-30. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers stalking fifth straight win in Ravens rivalry

As the Baltimore Ravens continue to jockey for playoff position, a meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers might not be a welcome sight.

Baltimore has dropped four straight games against the Steelers but will look to reverse its fortunes against its AFC North rival when the teams clash on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

The Ravens (8-4) are well on their way to clinching a playoff berth for the fourth time in the last five seasons, but they still have an opportunity to drastically improve their chances of making a deep run.

With five games left, Baltimore sits just one game behind both Buffalo and Kansas City in the AFC. If the playoffs started now, the Ravens would face Miami in the wild-card round, but they haven’t lost sight of potentially rising to the top of the conference to secure a first-round bye.

However, accomplishing that just got a whole lot harder.

Star quarterback Lamar Jackson exited last Sunday’s 10-9 victory over the Denver Broncos with a knee injury at the end of the first quarter, and chances are he won’t be suiting up against the Steelers (5-7).

Jackson did not practice on Wednesday.

“I would say it’s kind of week-to-week,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson’s injury status. “As the week goes on, we’ll see for this week. Probably less likely for this week, but it’s not impossible. After that, it’ll become more and more likely.”

Tyler Huntley, who completed 27 of 32 passes for 187 yards and an interception against Denver, would draw the start under center if Jackson can’t go.

“Both quarterbacks play a similar game,” Harbaugh said. “(Huntley) can throw, he can run, he operates really well. … He’ll be excited to play and our guys will be fired up.”

Regardless of who will be directing the offense, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin knows his team has to try and keep them in the pocket.

“Quarterback mobility is going to be an issue in this game, no matter who is playing. We had better be sharp in that area,” Tomlin said. “We had better minimize that component of play.”

Although the Steelers’ playoff hopes are dwindling, they are determined to finish the season on a high note.

Pittsburgh had a strong showing last Sunday, beating Atlanta 19-16 for its third win in four games.

Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett continued to make strides in the right direction, playing turnover-free football for the fourth straight game while completing 16 of 28 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons.

“That’s what you have to do in December. That’s what you have to do as the road gets narrower,” Tomlin said. “Anybody that’s committed to winning here in December better develop an appetite for that.

“Hopefully we use those lessons learned as we move forward and continue to get better and grow, better define our division of labor, better understand our roles within this thing and more consistently engineer a formula that produces victory.”

Running back Najee Harris might not be able to help with that formula come Sunday after missing Wednesday’s practice with an oblique injury. Linebacker T.J. Watt (ribs) and receiver Diontae Johnson (hip) were limited.

In addition to Jackson, offensive lineman Patrick Mekari (toe) and cornerback Daryl Worley (hamstring) were held out of Baltimore’s practice. Linebackers Patrick Queen (thigh) and Kristian Welch (concussion) were limited.

–Field Level Media

Nov 20, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson (87) looks on during the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Vikings looking to lock up NFC North in Detroit

The Minnesota Vikings can wrap up the NFC North division championship with four games to spare with a victory against the surging Lions in Detroit on Sunday.

The Vikings (10-2) have already clinched a tie for the division title with the Lions (5-7), who sit in second place and are winners of four of their last five games.

“It would be everything to us,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said of clinching Minnesota’s first division championship since 2017. “It’s a great opportunity, and you have to go earn it. You don’t want to back into anything.”

The Vikings have been the masters of the single-digit victory, with their last nine wins by eight points or less.

“They find ways to win, that’s what they do,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “And those are the hard teams because they’ve done it against multiple opponents, different ways. Special teams, offense, defense, they’re finding ways to win.”

In their latest cliffhanger, the Vikings pulled out a 27-22 victory over the New York Jets. Minnesota staged a goal-line stand in the late going but still couldn’t exhale until Camryn Bynum’s interception at the 1-yard line with 10 seconds remaining.

Surprisingly, this will be the first time Minnesota has gone on the road this season to face a division opponent.

“Conference games, division games — these players know each other well,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said. “They have competed against each other and regardless of the outcome of any previous game, I really don’t think any of that matters.”

In their first meeting against the Lions in Minneapolis on Sept. 25, K.J. Osborn caught a go-ahead, 28-yard touchdown pass from Cousins with 45 seconds remaining. The Vikings trailed 24-14 entering the fourth quarter.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson scored a receiving touchdown for the Lions that day, but he’s now wearing a Vikings uniform after being moved at the trade deadline. Hockenson has made 30 receptions in five games since joining Minnesota.

“We’ve got to keep using his skill set and putting it to work,” Cousins said.

The Lions’ secondary has an even bigger challenge trying to contain Justin Jefferson, who has caught 88 passes for 1,277 yards and six touchdowns.

“We’ve got to have answers for him,” Campbell said. “You’ve got to know where he is at all times because he’ll hurt you.”

The Lions have a long-standing reputation of hurting themselves with turnovers, penalties and late-game lapses. They were 1-6 after losing four games by four points or less. They’ve played much cleaner of late, highlighted by their 40-14 thumping of Jacksonville last weekend.

Detroit didn’t have a turnover, committed just one penalty and scored touchdowns on all four trips to the red zone.

“We’ve done things a certain way now for a while and have gained confidence from it,” Campbell said. “It’s all about stay the course. No shortcuts, no detours, just stay the course with what we’ve been doing.”

Jared Goff passed for 340 yards and two scores against the Jaguars. He’s thrown eight touchdown passes, compared to one interception, over the past six games.

Top receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has been just as dangerous as Jefferson over the last four games, hauling in 37 receptions for 431 yards and three TDs.

Minnesota won’t have cornerback Akayleb Evans, who has suffered two concussions in the past four weeks.

Offensive linemen Frank Ragnow (foot) and Taylor Decker (elbow) were among the Lions who didn’t practice Wednesday.

–Field Level Media

Nov 6, 2022; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; 
New York Jets defensive end Vinny Curry (99) tackles Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) in the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Bills bring 3-game win streak into Jets rematch

The New York Jets and host Buffalo Bills battle for the second time this season on Sunday, but the remaining weeks of the season will answer one big question: Will there be a third meeting in the playoffs?

It’s possible, and this Week 14 clash in Orchard Park, N.Y., likely will go a long way toward determining how high those odds are the rest of the year.

Heading into the game, Buffalo currently sits in the No. 1 spot in the AFC playoffs with a 9-3 record, which at the moment would earn the Bills the conference’s lone bye into the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Jets (7-5) currently hold the No. 7 seed — the final wild-card spot — a position that would earn them a matchup with Buffalo should the Bills stumble into the No. 2 seed.

Given that, it’s obviously going to be a game with huge playoff implications.

Buffalo controls its own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the AFC following Kansas City’s loss on Sunday in Cincinnati, but Bills head coach Sean McDermott insists there hasn’t been any change in his team’s mindset.

“Just kind of business as usual,” McDermott said. “Certainly focused on this Jets team, a team that beat us in the first go-round, so we’ve got to figure out a way to get it done this go-round.”

Buffalo enters on a three-game winning streak and has had an extra few days to prepare following a 24-10 win at New England last Thursday.

“This is when teams have to play their best football and continue to come together as a team,” McDermott said.

The Bills are seeking a little bit of payback after the Jets earned a 20-17 home win on Nov. 6, a game that saw Bills quarterback Josh Allen throw for two interceptions and no touchdowns.

While the Jets will once again try and slow down Allen, the Bills will likely be tasked with trying to deal with a different New York quarterback from the first meeting.

Since that first meeting, the Jets have benched Zach Wilson in favor of backup Mike White, who’s played well the last two weeks.

White threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns against Chicago on Nov. 27 before throwing for 369 yards in a loss at Minnesota last week, although White did attempt an unusually high 57 passes.

White has added some energy and playmaking to the offense for the Jets, whether it’s on short or deep throws.

“We feel like Mike can do both,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh said. “He can push it downfield. He can take his check downs. He’s capable of doing both. I’m not surprised. It’s just stuff he’s really good at, making the decisions he needs to make on game day to move the ball forward.”

The Jets actually outgained the Vikings by a 486-287 margin, but only scored one touchdown in six trips to the red zone.

The Jets hope to rectify that in their attempt to win for a second time over Buffalo.

“They’ve got Superman at quarterback, they’ve got a hell of a defense,” Saleh said. “They do as good of a job as anybody with situational football. … They are clearly a Super Bowl contender.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 4, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (28) scores a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Revived Raiders pay visit to Rams, fresh off claiming Baker Mayfield

It took more than a half season for the Las Vegas Raiders to find their stride, with the Thursday primetime stage ahead to give their revival a little limelight.

Following an impressive 27-20 home victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, the Raiders head into the short week on a three-game winning streak. They’ll hit the road to face the Los Angeles Rams, who are expected to have a new quarterback under center after claiming Baker Mayfield off waivers from the Carolina Panthers.

When the season started, the Raiders (5-7) were all about quarterback Derek Carr and his reunion with wide receiver Davante Adams, his former Fresno State teammate. But that connection took some time to rekindle itself.

When the Raiders have delivered success, it’s been when running back Josh Jacobs has been able to shine. Jacobs had 144 yards rushing against the Chargers, with the Raiders now 5-1 when he gains 100 yards or more.

With 1,303 rushing yards, Jacobs is 457 yards away from breaking Marcus Allen’s franchise record set in the 1985 season. He has 10 rushing TDs, five away from surpassing Pete Banaszak’s franchise record set in 1975.

“I think (the offensive line) believes in me like I believe in them,” said Jacobs, who is on this week’s injury report with a quad contusion but is expected to play. “I encourage them guys all the time. I’m their biggest advocate. Even when they do bad, I tell them I believe in them. You can tell they lay it out on the line for me and that’s a great feeling to have.”

Carr and Adams showed just how much they are on the same page now with a pair of long TD passes that were key against the Chargers. The first was a 31-yard strike to give the Raiders a 17-13 lead early in the second half, before a 45-yard flea-flicker later in the third quarter for a 24-13 advantage.

Carr is 20 passing yards away from reaching 3,000 for the ninth time in nine seasons. Only Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson have accomplished that feat. Adams is 36 receptions away from becoming the first player in NFL history with 115 receptions in three consecutive seasons.

“We’re definitely playing a better brand of football right now,” Adams said. “(It’s) complementary. When the offense isn’t doing great, the defense goes out there to do their job and they hold teams to no scoring or stopping (opponents) in critical moments.”

The last time the Rams (3-9) played complementary football was in the Super Bowl in February. Chances of a repeat title were doomed early, first by poor play, then by injuries that have devastated the roster.

Initially, it was the Los Angeles offensive line that was banged up. Now the Rams are without the top three players that led last year’s title charge: quarterback Matthew Stafford (neck), wide receiver Cooper Kupp (ankle) and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (ankle). None of the three are expected to play Thursday.

That led to Mayfield being claimed Thursday. The 27-year-old started six of the seven games he played in for Carolina after a trade last July, completing 57.8 percent of his passes for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns against six interceptions. The No. 1 overall selection in the 2018 draft by the Cleveland Browns is 30-35 as a starting QB.

The Rams are on a six-game losing streak and their last victory was so long ago, Christian McCaffrey was still a member of the Panthers when Los Angeles defeated Carolina in October.

“I’ve heard it said before, ‘Calm seas don’t make good sailors,’” Rams head coach Sean McVay said, trying to be as optimistic as possible moving forward. “And know this: We’re growing. I’m not going to allow this to be anything but a growth opportunity. You’re going to continue to see us compete to the best of our ability, regardless of the circumstances.”

–Field Level Media

Nov 27, 2022; Santa Clara, California, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Rashid Shaheed (89) stands on the field after an incomplete pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the third quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Below-.500 Bucs shoot to get moving against Saints

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a losing record, but they still lead the NFC South.

The New Orleans Saints have an even worse record, but are still in contention for the division title.

Two teams will try and strengthen their playoff chances when they meet Monday night in Tampa, Fla.

The Buccaneers (5-6) are the defending division champion and had won two consecutive games to get to .500 before losing at Cleveland 23-17 in overtime last Sunday.

“We’ve got to come ready for a dogfight,” Tampa Bay running back Rachaad White said. “That’s what this game is about, what this division is about regardless of records.”

The Bucs are two games ahead of the Saints (4-8), who have their bye next week, in the loss column. They also have a leg up in the head-to-head tie-breaker because they beat New Orleans 20-10 in Week 2, but the Saints can negate that with a win Monday night.

“At this point we understand every week is a big game,” Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles said. “Every game we play from here on out is going to be a big game for us.”

The Saints have lost two games in a row and have yet to win consecutive games this season.

“I think the important thing is that you’re still in the hunt,” Saints tackle James Hurst said. “We could be 10-1 or whatever and if the rest of your division is 9-2 you’re still in the same circumstance.”

A loss to the Bucs would leave the Saints with no margin for error with four games remaining. But a victory would keep them in the thick of the division race and they still have head-to-head opportunities against second-place Atlanta (5-7) and Carolina (4-8).

“We’re going to go out and compete our (butts) off and see what happens,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “I don’t think we can pay attention to the standings too much. We just need to focus on ourselves and improving our football team.”

New Orleans is coming off a 13-0 loss at San Francisco last Sunday, which ended a streak of 332 consecutive games in which the Saints had not been shut out.

Tampa Bay had a similar experience the last time it hosted the Saints. New Orleans won 9-0 last December, marking the first time Bucs quarterback Tom Brady had been shut out as a starter in 256 games.

Both teams have lengthy injury lists. The Saints had 15 players on their list Thursday, but they’re hopeful that two key starters — cornerback Marshon Lattimore and linebacker Pete Werner — might be able to play.

Lattimore (abdomen) has missed the last seven games and Werner (ankle) has missed the last three games, but both practiced on a limited basis.

Tampa Bay, which listed 10 players, knows that star tackle Tristan Wirfs is going to miss multiple weeks because of an ankle injury suffered last week.

Four other starters didn’t practice — safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle) and Mike Edwards (hamstring), nose tackle Vita Vea (foot) and tight end Cameron Brate (illness).

Running back Leonard Fournette (hip) participated fully after missing last week’s game. Two other starters that did not play last week — wide receiver Russell Gage (hamstring) and guard Luke Goedeke (foot) — were limited.

–Field Level Media

Oct 10, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys receiver Cee Dee Lamb (88) celebrates his second quarter touchdown with quarterback Dak Prescott (4) against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys hit stride, Colts summon pride for stretch run

Jeff Saturday and the Colts chase dimming playoff hopes to Dallas, where the Cowboys pursue division title hopes entering December.

Dallas (8-3) hits Week 13 with momentum from a Thanksgiving Day win over the New York Giants that came after the Cowboys went on the road and manhandled the Minnesota Vikings, 40-3.

“Our real focus is on the fact that we haven’t played this team. There’s a lot of new faces since the last time we lined up and competed (in 2018),” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said.

An opportunity to continue building could be in place before a pivotal NFC East game with Philadelphia on Dec. 18. The next three opponents for Dallas — the Colts (4-7-1), Texans (1-9-1) and Jaguars (4-7) — have a combined nine wins and net TD total of -18. The Cowboys are tied with the NFC-leading Eagles (10-1) with a plus-14 net TD total.

Installed as interim head coach of the Colts on Nov. 7, Saturday has a short week to rally Indianapolis (4-7-1) coming out of a Monday night loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that dropped the team to 10th position in the overall AFC standings.

Saturday said he spent significant time speaking to his players about professionalism, speaking from his “worst years” with a 2-14 record alongside Peyton Manning in 2011.

“It was a miserable experience from the winning and losing standpoint,” Saturday said. “I encouraged guys — this will be a defining moment in your life. Do you love ball? Because it’ll show up. Do you love the work, do you love the process?”

The Indy defense continues to show up. The Colts are sixth in the NFL in pass defense and total defense, yielding 190.6 passing yards per game and 308.9 total yards per game.

They’ve had a vintage Stephon Gilmore at cornerback to thank in large part, considering he hasn’t surrendered a TD pass in 61 targets as the primary defender. The Cowboys and CeeDee Lamb present another test for Gilmore on Sunday. In five games since quarterback Dak Prescott returned from a thumb injury, Lamb has 31 receptions — including 20 first downs, 11 for 20-plus yards — for 448 yards with three TDs.

A miserable third-down rate (36.02 percent, 28th in the NFL) adds to a razor-thin margin for error and at just 15.8 points per game, the Colts place abundant pressure on running back Jonathan Taylor and that rugged defense to keep Indy in games with a throwback approach. Nine of the Colts’ 12 games — including a Week 1 tie with the Texans — were decided by one possession.

McCarthy said Taylor, a “dynamic runner,” is the key for Dallas.

“I’ve been to two college football games the last 30 years — that was one of them, (Wisconsin) against Iowa,” McCarthy said. “We’re spending extra time on him and the run game. … Will not be surprised if he carries it north of 20 (times) against us.”

Colts quarterback Matt Ryan had little time and small windows to throw through facing Pittsburgh’s 3-4 zone defense. Dallas has mixed fronts with heavy zone usage behind a pass rush with 45 sacks and the Cowboys are fourth in the NFL with a turnover margin of plus-5 on the legs of 16 total takeaways. The Colts are tied for last in the NFL with 21 giveaways and 31st in the league with a margin at minus-10.

“Unfortunately I’ve been in this spot before,” Ryan said. “It’s never fun. You want to be driving the ship, you want to be the one where the division is running through it and you’re playing for position and home field advantage.”

While the Colts are rushed out of a Monday loss to get ready, the Cowboys granted extra rest to pass rusher Micah Parsons (knee), who is second in the NFL with 12.0 sacks and fifth with 21 QB hits, and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (6.0 sacks, 10 QB hits). Lawrence is playing with a fractured foot and might not practice the rest of the season.

–Field Level Media

Aug 27, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA;  Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) gives a thumbs up to fans before the game between the Browns and the Chicago Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Rusty or not, Deshaun Watson makes Browns debut vs. Texans

For all the hubbub over the return of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, the individual with the least to say about the unusual circumstance is Watson himself.

Watson, reinstated on Monday after serving an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, will make his Browns debut when Cleveland (4-7) visits the Houston Texans (1-9-1) on Sunday.

Watson sat out the 2021 campaign after a trade demand from Houston prior to that season and he hasn’t played this year due to the suspension he received after being accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women.

On Sunday, Watson will get his first action since Jan. 3, 2021, when he passed for 365 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-38 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Houston.

Watson earned three Pro Bowl nods in his four seasons with the Texans and led the NFL in passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.9) and yards per completion (12.6) during his final season in Houston.

He has practiced with the Browns since Nov. 16, and given his reputation, enthusiasm is cresting in Cleveland as Watson returns despite the long layoff between contests.

“We’re all excited. We’ve all waited for a long time for him to come back,” Browns running back Nick Chubb said of Watson, who has not spoken publicly since his suspension was announced.

“He’s special. He’s a playmaker. He puts the ball exactly where he needs it to go and guys like that. Guys are excited. We all are. We’re ready.”

In theory, Watson should be a boon for an offense that ranks fifth in total yards (4,146), bolstered by the Chubb-led rushing attack that also ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,698 yards. The Browns should benefit from having a quarterback renowned for accuracy — Watson completed 70.2 percent of his attempts in 2020 — and an ability to dismantle defenses with his scrambling ability.

Still, the concern over the time that has elapsed since Watson last played is a legitimate one. And while it is difficult to anticipate how rusty Watson will be, there is an expectation for rust.

“I don’t think I can predict that type of thing,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “But I know this: he’s focusing on his work. Really, in any endeavor, you’ve got to focus on your preparation for Sunday. You can’t really worry about Sunday until you worry about Wednesday.”

The Texans, mired in a six-game losing skid, are in a position similar to that of the Browns, just from a different perspective. Houston has ample game footage of Watson to dissect and first-hand knowledge of his myriad skills. The struggle for the Texans is factoring in the layoff and how that shapes what version of Watson will be under center for the Browns.

Expecting the Pro Bowl iteration of Watson would seem to be folly. However, the Texans are preparing for precisely that.

“We’re telling our guys we’re going to see the best version of Deshaun,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “I think you go into every game that way. We have no idea. He hasn’t played for a long period of time, but we hope there is some rust and all those things. But no, that’s not what we’re telling them.

“We’re showing them the stats. One of the best offenses in the league statistically, adding a great player, so that should say that they’re going to be better. That’s how we’re going into the football game.”

–Field Level Media

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) high-fives tight end Evan Engram (17) during the second quarter of a regular season NFL football matchup Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. The Jaguars edged the Ravens 28-27. [Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union]

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Clinging to slim playoff hopes, Lions, Jaguars clash

The Jacksonville Jaguars and host Detroit Lions bring identical records into their matchup on Sunday.

At 4-7, both teams would probably need to run the table to challenge for a playoff spot. Yet in different ways, they each enter the contest with a renewed sense of confidence.

Jacksonville rallied from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Baltimore Ravens 28-27 last Sunday. Trevor Lawrence hasn’t often resembled a No. 1 overall pick, but he looked like a star in the making during the comeback.

Lawrence led the Jaguars on a 10-play, 75-drive in the final two minutes, culminating with a touchdown pass to Marvin Jones and a two-point conversion toss to Zay Jones.

It’s a much bigger longshot for the Jaguars to go on a winning streak and join the playoff race, but coach Doug Pederson won’t discount that possibility.

“I’ve been around this league a long time. Anything is possible,” Pederson said. “Detroit’s in a situation where they could go on a little run here and affect the outcome of their season too. Yes, we understand that it’s a one-game season, the importance of this game and we’ve got some really good opponents down the stretch here.”

Lawrence passed for a season-high 321 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens.

“I see a player who’s gotten better, particularly over the last three or four weeks,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “That last drive last week was — that was big. Every week I feel like, man, if you’re not careful, he’ll pick you apart.”

The Lions had a three-game winning streak halted in their annual Thanksgiving Day game but earned some national respect in the process. Buffalo, one of the league’s top teams, needed a field goal in the closing seconds to escape with a 28-25 win.

“Oh, it’s turned (the corner),” quarterback Jared Goff said. “We’ve turned and have won three of our last four and felt like we had a good chance to win last week and feel like we can play with anybody. So, yeah, we’re there and certainly a different team than we were earlier in the year and can play with anybody and beat anybody.”

Goff hasn’t thrown an interception over the last three games. He’s thrown 15 touchdown passes compared to three interceptions in six home starts this season.

“The offensive line is really good at protecting Jared,” Pederson said. “He’s done a nice job of distributing the football. They’ve been scoring points. It hasn’t been one of their issues. They’re putting points on the board and (gone on) a little bit of a hot streak recently.”

Jamaal Williams has emerged as a premier goal-line back, scoring an NFL-best 13 touchdowns.

Goff doesn’t feel like the playoffs are out of reach, despite the team’s record.

“Last year, you think about this time last year, and you’re kind of out of it. Just human nature, it’s hard to get going every day,” he said. It’s hard to get yourself ready to go on Sundays and even throughout the week, Wednesday through Friday. Now, we’re in the mix.”

Detroit’s biggest injury concern entering the game is offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who missed Wednesday’s practice due to an ankle injury. The Jaguars top running back, Travis Etienne Jr., was limited in practice on Wednesday due to a foot injury.

–Field Level Media