Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes tries to make a throw as his is hit by Bills Matt Milano.

Super Bowl LVIII prop bets: Put your money on Travis Kelce

As the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs prepare to meet in Super Bowl LVIII, the primary betting lines established after the Jan. 28 conference title games have largely held up.

BetMGM is similar to most major sportsbooks, listing the 49ers as a two-point favorite. The game total, which opened at 47, has risen only a half-point in 10 days.

The big players holding the sharp money frequently wait to see the crush of public money on Super Bowl Sunday and react accordingly, finding value in the adjusted numbers.

We can’t wait, so we are offering our three best Super Bowl prop bets.

TRENDS

BetRivers shows only 30 percent of the money and 27 percent of the tickets on the 49ers moneyline, and 28 percent of money and tickets on the Niners spread.

People can’t quit believing in Patrick Mahomes.

More from BetRivers:

Mahomes is 14-3 straight up and 12-5 against the spread (ATS) as a starter in playoff games.

For his career, he is 10-3 straight up and 11-1-1 ATS as an underdog.

Playing the total? It’s been bet up to 47.5, but …

Eleven of the 49ers’ past 14 postseason games have gone under the total points line. Six of the Chiefs’ past eight games have gone under the total points line.

Finally, still thinking about betting against Mahomes? The Chiefs have covered the spread in five straight games.

Side note: We’re ignoring strange props such as these (available at BetOnline):

How many patties will be on Andy Reid’s postgame burger?
Over/Under 1.5

How many planes will be seen during the national anthem flyover?
Over/Under 4.5

Our three best stabs at the props menu keep things pretty football-centric.

PROP BET 1

Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers wide receiver over/under 12.5 yards with his first reception.

San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy doesn’t need a safety-valve target so much as he needs a guy who catches intermediate routes well.

In his past three games, Aiyuk has nine catches for 125 yards (13.9 yards per catch). In the two games prior to that, he averaged 16.3 and 18.8 yards per catch.

The Chiefs will plan to stop Deebo Samuel’s runs and receptions as well as wheel routes to Christian McCaffrey. They will hope to flex their newfound toughness in shutting down the middle of the field — Aiyuk’s specialty.

The thought here is that there aren’t enough defenders to blanket everyone and that Purdy will find Aiyuk early for a tone-setting completion of 13-plus yards.

The bet: Aiyuk’s first catch over 12.5 yards (-105 at BetMGM).

PROP BET 2

Starting QBs alternate passing yards over/under.

The game script for these teams is likely for both to establish the run.

Strong lead ball carriers McCaffrey of the 49ers and Isiah Pacheco of the Chiefs will have a busy first half trying to grab the upper hand.

The clock will run.

Is there a world in which a Patrick Mahomes-led team is blown out in a postseason game? Leaning no. Therefore, here’s the way this prop will work:

Kansas City succeeds in pounding Pacheco; San Francisco stubbornly stays with McCaffrey — running and receiving.

Mahomes doesn’t need to throw downfield to keep the Chiefs close, or in front.

Purdy will have more pass plays in the second half and should have no problem reaching 200 yards by early in the fourth quarter.

In a close matchup, the quarterbacks should both settle in around 230-250 yards passing.

The bet: Same-game parlay, alternate passing yards. Purdy over 214.5; Mahomes under 293.5 (-120 at DraftKings).

PROP BET 3

Travis Kelce catching the football.

We know 13 is a lucky number for Taylor Swift . And we know that “49” is part of 49ers. And 4+9 is 13.

And we know that this is Super Bowl 58, and 5+8 is 13.

But Kelce is No. 87. And 8+7 is 15. And 15 is Mahomes’ number.

Is there a world in which Mahomes ignores Kelce? No.

This 7/70 same-game parlay is largely predicated on Kelce’s postseason resurgence after looking very old (think Nick Nolte in “North Dallas Forty” … Google it) in December.

But his past three playoff games have been a revelation. Kelce has 23 catches for 262 yards in those games.

Kansas City will need him to be great again. No cold hands, no Super Bowl cold feet.

Hot bet, people.

The bet: Same-game parlay: Travis Kelce over 6.5 receptions and 70-plus yards (+114 at DraftKings).

–Field Level Media

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

49ers, Chiefs bring aces to Vegas in Super Bowl rematch

LAS VEGAS — Eight teams delivered back-to-back Super Bowl victories, and the Kansas City Chiefs are in line to become the first in 19 seasons to repeat as Lombardi Trophy winners if they can turn away the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday.

The same two teams met in the Super Bowl four years ago, with Chiefs coach Andy Reid again opposing 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.

“The 49ers have a lot of talent. They’re a better team than the one we played (in 2020),” Reid said. The Chiefs won that game 31-20.

Only four head coaches have at least three Super Bowl wins, and each of the previous three instances of a coaching rematch in the Super Bowl has gone to the victor of the first matchup.

That would be a positive omen for Reid.

The 65-year-old is closing in on all-time legends on the career wins list and is 2-2 in Super Bowls, including a victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. He gives an immense amount of credit to two-time NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and a reconstructed defense. In three career games against the 49ers (regular season and postseason), Mahomes is 3-0 with 1,023 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions.

“I think the quarterback is as hard to beat as anyone who’s ever played the game,” Shanahan said. “The things he can do from a talent standpoint and then you pair that up with his scheme with Andy, how Andy runs a team with Mahomes’ experience now. That’s why no matter what type of game it is, whether it’s low-scoring, high-scoring, whether they’re struggling or not, they always have a chance.”

Mahomes, 14-3 in 17 career playoff games, is the youngest quarterback to start four Super Bowls in league history at age 28.

Winning on Sunday would give Mahomes three Super Bowl wins — something five other quarterbacks have accomplished — and keep him ahead of Tom Brady’s record pace of seven wins in 10 appearances. Brady was 30 when he started his fourth Super Bowl.

“I mean, I’m not even close to halfway (to Brady’s Super Bowl wins record),” said Mahomes, who took his only Super Bowl loss and one of his two AFC Championship Game defeats head-to-head vs. Brady. “So right now, it’s doing whatever I can to beat a great 49ers team and trying to get that third ring. And then, if you ask me that question in like 15 years, then I’ll see if I can get close to seven. But seven seems like a long ways away still.”

The 49ers won’t see many familiar faces on the defense of the Chiefs, which retains only defensive tackle Chris Jones and replaced 10 other starters on the crew that started Super Bowl LIV. But these aren’t the yesteryear 49ers, either.

San Francisco’s remodeling includes changes at quarterback and running back. Christian McCaffrey, acquired via trade from the Carolina Panthers, tied for the NFL lead with 21 total touchdowns in the regular season to become an MVP finalist alongside quarterback Brock Purdy.

Mr. Irrelevant as the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Purdy stormed to stardom with a 21-5 combined record in the regular season and playoffs the past two seasons. He underwent elbow surgery after getting hurt in last year’s NFC Championship Game, and now he has the 49ers in their eighth Super Bowl, tied for second most. San Francisco is shooting for a sixth Lombardi Trophy, which would match the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots for the record.

Purdy comes packing direct advice from Joe Montana, who downplayed the need for San Francisco’s quarterback to steal the show.

“You’ve got a good team around you, just go through the reads and what Kyle’s calling and trust in Kyle,” Purdy said of Montana’s guidance. “You don’t need to be this superstar or anything. If you go out and do your job, you’ve got a good team around you and you guys can win that way.”

Shanahan’s father, Mike Shanahan, won back-to-back Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos following the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Kyle Shanahan lost his only title opportunity as a head coach in the first matchup with Reid, and he was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons in Atlanta’s defeat at the hands of Brady and the Patriots after the 2016 season.

“I’ve been able to coach in two Super Bowls and to lose either of them, both of them are heartbreaking,” Kyle Shanahan said.

Purdy and McCaffrey aren’t the only key factors facing Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who can become the first four-time Super Bowl champion coordinator in NFL history. The Chiefs’ defense has some serious chops, ranking second in the NFL in points per game (17.3 average) but is well behind the 49ers in turnover margin. San Francisco was plus-10, and Kansas City was minus-11.

However, the Chiefs’ defense has been better this postseason, holding the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens to a combined total of 41 points.

“We focus on the points allowed, our third down, red zone, turnovers, two-minute, all the situational things,” Spagnuolo said. “Let’s face it: The No. 1 job of any defensive unit is to limit the amount of points that are scored. That gives your team a chance to win.”

Jones and cornerback Trent McDuffie were named first-team All-Pros in 2023.

The Chiefs lean on cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to erase the No. 1 receiver on the opposing team, as he did with Miami’s Tyreek Hill in the wild-card round and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs in the divisional playoffs.

Figuring out which 49ers playmaker is most dangerous is a crapshoot. In addition to Purdy clearing 4,000 passing yards, San Francisco had McCaffrey top 2,000 yards from scrimmage, while three of his teammates went over 1,000 total yards (wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle).

“They’re the best I’ve ever seen,” Jones said. “This is the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far.”

–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media

Dec 10, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) talks with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) after a game  at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes battles Josh Allen, Bills in playoff road debut

Two-time Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes will finally face rabid, boisterous and unfriendly fans in a postseason setting.

In his sixth season as an NFL starting quarterback, Mahomes plays in his first playoff road contest on Sunday night when the Kansas City Chiefs face the Buffalo Bills in the AFC divisional round at Orchard Park, N.Y.

Mahomes has played in 12 home games and three Super Bowls during the postseason. But he’s never once had to get on a plane and fly to play in a raucous road environment while leading the Chiefs to five consecutive AFC championship game appearances.

Until now.

“It kind of is what it is,” Mahomes said. “I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of games at home, at Arrowhead Stadium, and things have fallen that way. Now we get to go on the road to a hostile environment, and one I have not played in with fans in the stands. But it’s what you want to do when you grow up watching these games.”

Mahomes’ lone visit to play the Bills occurred during the 2020 season when stadiums were empty due to COVID-19. Kansas City won 26-17.

Since that contest, the Chiefs and Bills have met five times, all in Kansas City over a span of 34-plus months.

The Chiefs twice eliminated the Bills from the playoffs — 38-24 in the 2020 season AFC title game and again the following season, 42-36 in overtime in the divisional round.

But Buffalo’s 20-17 win this season at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 10 proved big, eventually leading to the Bills being the No. 2 seed and relegating Kansas City to No. 3.

Buffalo is relishing the opportunity to battle the Chiefs in its stadium after all the frequent flyer miles earned with trips to Kansas City.

“(Mahomes) might wanna come here, man, the many times we played there, he might need a change of scenery,” Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver said. “He might be happy to come here. Never know.”

Temperatures in the Buffalo area are projected to be the mid-20s, which is certainly better weather than both teams dealt with in the wild-card round.

Kansas City’s 26-7 home win over the Miami Dolphins was the fourth-coldest game in NFL history with the temperature at minus-4 degrees at kickoff.

The Bills’ had their game moved back a day to Monday because of a massive snowstorm. Workers cleared the field but left snow packed throughout the stands for the 31-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Buffalo star quarterback Josh Allen didn’t seem bothered by the elements as he passed for three touchdowns and scored another on a scintillating 52-yard run.

Now he’s looking to finally beat close friend Mahomes in a postseason game. Allen knows the task will be tough.

“They’ve been at the top of the mountain, they know what it takes to get there,” Allen said after Wednesday’s walk-through. “We’ve yet to do that. As a competitor, as a player, to be in a situation like this is something that you dream about.”

Mahomes knows a loss would make it a very difficult 18 holes of golf when he and Allen get together in the offseason.

“When you compete against your friends, you almost want to win even more because of it,” Mahomes said. “Josh is a great dude. I respect the way he plays football and just the guy that he is. But when two guys that are ultra-competitive that are friends off the field go up against each other, we obviously both want to win.

“We see each other in the offseason, and you want to have a little bit of those bragging rights.”

Stopping Mahomes will be more difficult for the Buffalo defense if linebacker Terrel Bernard (ankle) and safety Taylor Rapp (calf) are unavailable. Bernard was hurt against the Steelers, while Rapp was injured in the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins. Bernard (143 stops) was Buffalo’s leading tackler in the regular season.

Both players sat out Wednesday as did linebacker Baylon Spector (back), cornerback Christian Benford (knee), receiver Gabe Davis (knee) and punter Sam Martin (left hamstring). Buffalo signed Matt Haack to the practice squad as insurance in case Martin can’t play.

Nose tackle Derrick Nnadi (triceps) was the lone Kansas City player to sit out Wednesday. Standout cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (calf) was limited.

–Field Level Media

Sep 10, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) attempts a pass as Baltimore Ravens linebacker Odafe Oweh (99) rushes during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Underdog Texans ride CJ Stroud into matchup at Ravens

Houston Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud owns the same number of postseason victories as Baltimore Ravens star Lamar Jackson.

Stroud has rapidly revived the Texans since being the No. 2 overall pick in last April’s draft and now aims to engineer a massive upset Saturday when Houston visits the Ravens in the AFC divisional round.

Baltimore went 13-4 in the regular season to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. The Ravens are led by Jackson, the favorite to earn his second career NFL MVP award.

But with all the fuss surrounding Jackson, his lone playoff victory in four starts was way back in the 2020 season. He missed Baltimore’s postseason loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last season due to a knee injury.

Stroud was electric in his first appearance on the playoff stage. He passed for 274 yards and three touchdowns as the Texans clobbered the Cleveland Browns 45-14 in the wild-card round last Saturday.

“C.J. is the reason why we’re in this position,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He’s a special young man and special player and continues to shine. No matter how big the moment is, our whole team is leaning on him, and he has the shoulders to carry the weight. … No moment is too big for him.”

Stroud is ready to make a run at playoff victory No. 2 while many observers are predicting a long day for the Texans.

“We don’t really pay attention to what people say,” Stroud said. “It’s not up to them what goes on when you’re on the field, so it’s really just up to us to go out there and do our jobs, and we believe in ourselves and we trust in ourselves to win games.”

The Ravens expect to see a different version of Stroud than they saw in Week 1.

The strong Baltimore defense sacked Stroud five times in his NFL debut and held Houston out of the end zone in a 25-9 home victory. Stroud was 28-of-44 passing for 242 yards.

It was the start of a campaign in which Stroud has thrown just five interceptions. He now gets a second shot at a defense that ranks No. 1 in scoring defense (16.5 points per game) and sixth in total defense (301.4 yards per game).

“He’s not putting the ball in jeopardy. He’s making plays for his guys and being smart with the ball,” said Ravens safety Geno Stone, who was second in the NFL with seven interceptions. “They’re a different team, but so are we. We made strides as a defense. We’re ready for this opportunity.”

Jackson would like to increase that meager playoff victory count. Though he sizzles in the regular season, Jackson routinely fizzles in the postseason with just three touchdown passes against seven turnovers (five interceptions, two fumbles) in four starts.

Jackson maintains that he’s not feeling pressure with the Ravens viewed as the AFC favorite to reach the Super Bowl.

“It would be great,” Jackson said. “But we are just going to handle everything one day at a time.”

Jackson had a career-high 3,678 passing yards in the regular season and led NFL quarterbacks with 821 rushing yards.

“He’s a dynamic player,” said Texans linebacker Blake Cashman, who had a team-high 106 tackles in the regular season. “One of the more talented players in the league. Possibly our league MVP. We know he can attack it through the air and on the ground running the ball.”

The Ravens hope to have three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, who has been sidelined since undergoing left ankle surgery five days after being hurt against the Bengals on Nov. 16. Andrews was a full practice participant Wednesday.

Four Baltimore players sat out: cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf), linebackers Jadeveon Clowney (illness) and Del’Shawn Phillips (shoulder) and returner/receiver Tylan Wallace (knee).

Standout defensive ends Will Anderson Jr. (ankle) and Jonathan Greenard (ankle) were among five Texans players to sit out. Also missing were fullback Andrew Beck (back), defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (ribs, shoulder) and defensive end Jerry Hughes (ankle).

Baltimore won the lone previous playoff meeting, 20-13 in the 2011 season divisional round.

–Field Level Media

Jan 15, 2024; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half of a 2024 NFC wild card game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Bucs, Baker Mayfield test Lions’ talent, Ford Field noise

Baker Mayfield has been given fair warning. His voice may be no match at times for the raucous crowd in Detroit.

The Tampa Bay quarterback and his offensive teammates will not only have to battle the Lions’ defense but also the ear-splitting noise at Detroit’s Ford Field in the teams’ NFC divisional playoff round matchup Sunday afternoon.

The Los Angeles Rams experienced that in Detroit’s first playoff victory in 32 years this past Sunday night, a 24-23 thriller.

“Just talking to some of those Rams guys,” Mayfield said, “they said it was the loudest thing they’ve ever heard. So, we’ve got to be completely ready for that. It just comes down to everybody knowing exactly what the game plan is.”

The Lions’ winless drought in the postseason finally ended, but they didn’t have to wait long for another home playoff game, courtesy of NFC North Division rival Green Bay. The Packers’ upset of No. 2 seed Dallas allowed the third-seeded Lions (13-5) to play host to the fourth-seeded Buccaneers (10-8).

Tampa Bay advanced with a 32-9 thumping of Philadelphia on Monday night.

Tampa Bay has relied on its defense en route to winning six of its past seven games, holding opponents to an average of 15.3 points.

“We’ve gotten tougher over the course of the past few weeks,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “Everybody has finally gotten back and playing at the same time. … Communication has gotten a lot better, everybody’s trusting each other next to them and they’re playing for each other.”

Mayfield threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles, but he had a much different experience in a home game against the Lions earlier this season.

Detroit won 20-6 on Oct. 15 as Mayfield was limited to 206 passing yards and was intercepted once. The Lions also shut down the Bucs’ rushing game, limiting it to 2.9 yards per carry.

“I missed a ton of throws in that game,” Mayfield said. “Obviously, I have to play better. When there’s plays to be had, we have to take advantage of them.”

In contrast, Lions quarterback Jared Goff threw for 353 yards and two touchdowns and top target Amon-Ra St. Brown had 12 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown. Detroit needed to rely on Goff’s arm, as its rushing game produced only 1.8 yards per carry.

Detroit coach Dan Campbell is hoping for a more balanced attack this time around.

“There’s some things we need to do because we do them well,” he said. “We can’t go away from that. But by the same token, we’ve got to be smart about how we attack them.

“Some of this — the sledgehammer against the steel door — can only last for so long. We have to find a way to stay efficient. We certainly can’t have TFLs (tackles for loss). We know we can’t drop back 50 times in this game, either.”

Goff was sharp against the Rams, completing 22 of 27 passes against his former team for 277 yards and a touchdown.

In home games during the regular season, he completed 70.1 percent of his throws, including 19 touchdowns, compared to six interceptions.

The Bucs’ defense will need to pressure him to end the Lions’ fairy-tale season.

“They’re a better team than when we faced them,” Campbell said. “They’re playing better football but we’re better, too. And that’s the way it should be.”

Detroit’s main injury concern is wide receiver Kalif Raymond, who missed the first-round game with a knee injury. He didn’t participate in Wednesday’s walk-through.

A quartet of Tampa Bay players — linebackers Shaquil Barrett (ankle) and Yaya Diaby (shoulder), running back Chase Edmonds (toe) and wide receiver Chris Godwin (knee) — sat out the walkthrough.

– Field Level Media

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) participates in warmups prior to the game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Perfect at home, Cowboys cite comfort of playoff spot against Packers

Quarterback Dak Prescott and the NFL’s highest-scoring offense enter the playoffs with a confidence that can only be found at home.

The Cowboys host the Green Bay Packers in a wild-card matchup Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium, where Dallas had a perfect 8-0 record during the regular season.

Dallas averaged a league-high 29.9 points per game, posted a 12-5 record and won the NFC East for the second time in three years.

Prescott threw 36 touchdown passes, which led the NFL. CeeDee Lamb caught a league-high 135 passes for 1,749 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.

The statistics are impressive, but the Cowboys want something bigger: playoff success.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a sense of urgency because there’s no tomorrow, because it’s win-or-go-home every single week,” Cowboys wideout Brandin Cooks said. “At the end of the day, we’re looking at a great team (in the Packers) that has been playing at a high level to finish this season.

“As far as pressure (goes), no, because we know what’s in front of us. It’s playoff ball. That’s the best of everyone’s ball. We’ve just got to show up and continue to be who we are without putting more on ourselves than we need to. … We’ve just got to take care of business.”

Green Bay travels to Texas in an underdog role, but not without an air of confidence. The Packers, who have one of the NFL’s youngest rosters, won their last three games and six of their final eight with multiple strong showings from quarterback Jordan Love as running back Aaron Jones finally looked healthy.

Love threw 32 touchdown passes, which trailed only Prescott. He took control in his final eight starts as he threw for 18 touchdowns with only one interception.

“Everybody looks to him as a leader,” said guard Jon Runyan of Love’s development. “He’s got complete control of this offense, and what he does. We trust him, and you’re able to see it on the field.

Rookie wideout Jayden Reed led the team with 912 yards from scrimmage (793 receiving, 119 rushing) and 10 touchdowns (eight receiving, two rushing). Jones added 889 yards from scrimmage (656 rushing, 233 receiving) and three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving).

Packers coach Matt LaFleur said his team is playing as if it has nothing to lose.

“I think for us it’s just the opportunity to be in the dance and have a great week of preparation and put our best foot forward,” LaFleur said. “I think we’ve been going through this the last few weeks. We knew what was at stake. I mean, the last three weeks basically have been playoff games for us. So, really, it’s the next opportunity.”

On the opposite sideline, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy will have a chance to make history against his former team. McCarthy won a Super Bowl as the Packers coach during the 2010 season, and he can become the first person to win a playoff game against a team with which he won the Super Bowl as head coach.

McCarthy deflected questions about his tenure in Green Bay and what the game meant to him.

“This game’s about our commitment,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing.”

Both teams had one injured player sit out the first practice of the week. Packers running back A.J. Dillon was sidelined by thumb and neck injuries, and Cowboys cornerback Stephon Gilmore sat out because of a shoulder injury. Gilmore said he’s confident he’ll be on the field Sunday.

The teams’ most recent matchup was Nov. 13, 2022, when Green Bay held on for a 31-28 win. This is their first playoff meeting since Jan. 15, 2017, when Green Bay won 34-31 in Dallas.

–Field Level Media

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) pass the ball during the Sugar Bowl College Football Playoff semi-finals at the Ceasars Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, Jan. 1, 2024. The Huskies won the game over the Texas Longhorns 37-31.

Washington, Michael Penix Jr. take aim at Michigan in CFP title clash

Michael Penix Jr. claims he doesn’t remember much about slaying Michigan in 2020 when he was the quarterback at Indiana.

It’s safe to say what happens Monday night, good or bad, will stick in his memory bank much longer.

Penix will lead No. 2 Washington into the College Football Playoff national championship game against No. 1 Michigan on Monday in Houston, where the pair of 14-0 teams both will look to end long title droughts.

The Wolverines haven’t claimed the national title since winning in split fashion in 1997. The Huskies’ drought is a little longer, dating back to another season of co-champions in 1991.

The matchup is the last of the four-team CFP era. A 12-team playoff system will begin next season.

The contest also could be the final one at Michigan for coach Jim Harbaugh as NFL coaching rumors are flying fast and furious.

To get that title, Harbaugh’s defense must slow Penix, the Heisman Trophy runner-up who is third all-time in Washington history in passing yardage (9,289) and touchdown passes (66) despite playing in just 27 games for the school since transferring from Indiana.

Harbaugh hasn’t forgotten that Penix carved up the Michigan defense to the tune of 342 yards and three touchdowns in Indiana’s 38-21 win in 2020.

“He’s a super great player. My impressions of him when he played at Indiana were the same,” Harbaugh said this week. “Big-time arm talent, tremendous presence in the pocket, sees the field really well. He is so polished. … Yeah, it’s at an elite level.”

Yet Penix insists he has very little recall of what was a major deal for the Hoosiers — ending a 24-game losing streak to the Wolverines.

“I don’t really remember much. I just remember winning, really,” Penix said. “That was during the COVID year and it’s a totally different ballgame.”

Said Washington coach Kalen DeBoer: “I think the irony is that, yeah, he’s playing another Big Ten team that he’s faced before. It’s a cool moment for us as a team and for him as well.”

Washington leads the FBS with 21 consecutive wins after outlasting No. 3 Texas 37-31 in the CFP semifinals at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. The Huskies’ last 10 games have all been decided by 10 or fewer points.

Michigan continued its stellar season by rallying for a 27-20 overtime victory over No. 4 Alabama in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

Wolverines star running back Blake Corum scored the decisive points on a 17-yard run in OT before the defense stuffed the Crimson Tide on fourth down to end it.

Corum has set the Michigan single-season rushing touchdown record with 25 while also topping 1,000 rushing yards for the second straight season. He has 1,111 rushing yards this season.

“I feel like he in my eyes is the most valuable player of our team,” Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “… I feel like he’s one of the guys that makes our offense go.”

Hanging over the Michigan program is the sign-stealing controversy that led to a three-game suspension for Harbaugh to complete the regular season.

There is speculation that the program could be stripped of wins or perhaps even the national title if it should win.

“I don’t know if you want to live in rumorville or speculation,” Harbaugh said, “but we just don’t really have any room to be doing that at this point.”

Michigan holds an 8-5 lead in the all-time series and defeated the visiting Huskies 31-10 in 2021. Corum rushed for 171 yards and three touchdowns.

That game seems like a distant memory to defensive end Bralen Trice, one of the Washington players who played that day in Ann Arbor.

“Yeah, that was a while back, completely different team, different group of guys, but now we have a whole different team, whole different coaching staff, and we have a way better team, way better thing going out here,” Trice said. “But the level of preparation and the mindset that this team has is a lot different than that in the past. It’s a different time, it’s a different era, and this is a team of winners.”

Washington running back Dillon Johnson (leg) is expected to play despite being hurt late in the victory over Texas. He has rushed for 1,162 yards and 16 touchdowns.

–Field Level Media

Oct 22, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) passes the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Week 18 NFL Capsules

Saturday

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) at Baltimore Ravens (13-3): Baltimore can rest key players, including Lamar Jackson, after the Ravens thrashed the Miami Dolphins 56-19 last Sunday for their sixth straight victory, clinching the AFC North and a first-round playoff bye in the process. Jackson threw more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (three) as public support grew for the quarterback to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player award. The Steelers don’t mind facing Baltimore’s backups in Week 18. After staying in the AFC wild-card hunt with Sunday’s 30-23 win at Seattle, they have five paths to earn a playoff berth but no guaranteed ticket win or lose at Baltimore. The Steelers continue to place their hopes on the shoulders of Mason Rudolph, their third starting quarterback this season. In Rudolph’s two starts, two Pittsburgh wins, he has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 564 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Pittsburgh star T.J. Watt is tied for the league lead with 17 sacks. He recorded two sacks and recovered a fumble when the host Steelers defeated the Ravens 17-10 in October, Pittsburgh’s sixth win in the past seven meetings with Baltimore.

Houston Texans (9-7) at Indianapolis Colts (9-7): C.J. Stroud and DeMeco Ryans led the Texans to their first winning season since 2019. Now, they want a playoff berth. Indianapolis also would wrap up a postseason berth with a win. In addition, the Houston-Indianapolis winner would capture the AFC South title and get a home playoff game if the Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7) lose their Sunday road game against the Tennessee Titans. Indianapolis enters Week 18 with the AFC’s final wild-card spot in hand. While Stroud has breathed new life into the Texans as a rookie, the Colts are without Anthony Richardson, drafted by the Colts No. 4 overall last April. Richardson provided a tantalizing glimpse of his vast potential during a 31-20 thumping of Houston on Sept. 17, running for two first-quarter touchdowns before leaving due to a concussion. Backup Gardner Minshew helped steer the Colts and their own rookie head coach, Shane Steichen, into this position with a 23-20 win over the Raiders last week. The running game is crucial to the Colts’ success. Jonathan Taylor, in his second game back from thumb surgery, piled up 96 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries last week. Both defenses are in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks. Texans’ sack leader Jonathan Greenard (12.5) was ruled out with an ankle injury.

Sunday

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-11): With no ground to gain in the AFC playoff picture and locked into the No. 3 seed for next week’s wild-card round, the Chiefs aren’t risking QB Patrick Mahomes’ health at Los Angeles. Blaine Gabbert will start and be surrounded by mostly backups while staring down a Chargers’ team with four consecutive losses and defeats in seven of its last eight games. Easton Stick, serving as the Chargers’ starting quarterback since Justin Herbert was placed on injured reserve with a broken finger Dec. 12, is tasked with getting the Chargers their first win in the past five games. Los Angeles is 1-7 since Nov. 6. Stick could be taking the field again without leading receiver Keenan Allen. He’s dealing with a heel injury and hasn’t played since Dec. 10. Allen has 108 receptions for 1,243 yards and seven touchdowns. Among Gabbert’s goals for the game: get tight end Travis Kelce over 1,000 receiving yards for the eighth consecutive season. He’s at 984 through 16 games. Kelce, who was inactive Week 1 with a knee injury, had a season-best 12 catches and 179 yards in Kansas City’s win over the Chargers in Week 7.

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at New York Giants (5-11): Philadelphia hasn’t won on the road since before Thanksgiving, and the Eagles didn’t beat anyone in December — except the Giants. After losing to the Arizona Cardinals last week, the road is the likely path for Philadelphia in the postseason. Despite a 1-4 December, a win still could give Philadelphia its second straight division title if the Dallas Cowboys (11-5) should stumble at Washington (4-12). Otherwise, the Eagles could be looking at the NFC’s No. 5 seed and all road games for the postseason. Philly’s failures have been on both sides of the ball. That includes a secondary that has surrendered 34 touchdown passes (only Washington has given up more with 35) and an inconsistent offense propped up by the overwhelming red-zone success of the “Brotherly Shove.” For the first time in franchise history, Philadelphia has lost three games where it held double-digit leads. The Eagles led the New York Jets 14-3 and lost 20-14 (Week 6), led the Seahawks 10-0 and lost 20-17 (Week 15) and built a 21-6 lead against the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday before falling 35-31. The Giants did put a scare in the Eagles in the first meeting with Tyrod Taylor coming off the bench for a near comeback. The Giants are on a three-game losing streak, including a 33-25 decision at Philadelphia on Christmas Day. New York has lost its past five meetings with the Eagles, including last season’s divisional playoff game. Taylor starts again Sunday after he passed for 319 yards with one touchdown and one interception in last Sunday’s 26-25 loss to the visiting Los Angeles Rams. The Giants are 3-4 at MetLife Stadium, where they have been outscored 139-86 this season.

Buffalo Bills (10-6) at Miami Dolphins (11-5): The Bills were three games behind the Dolphins in the AFC East with five games remaining, but are now thriving in playoff mode, one win away from four consecutive division titles. The Dolphins can block Buffalo’s path and snag the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a home playoff game next week by winning Sunday night — and claiming the division for the first time since 2008. The Bills own the tiebreaker by virtue of their 48-20 home beatdown of Miami in Week 4. The Dolphins were annihilated in every facet of the game against Baltimore last week while missing running back Raheem Mostert (franchise-record 21 total touchdowns) and receiver Jaylen Waddle (1,014 receiving yards). Waddle is fighting an ankle injury and Mostert is dealing with ankle and knee soreness. Back-to-back wins over two playoff teams — the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys — ignited Buffalo’s dynamite December, which also included wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots. Last weekend’s 27-21 home win over the Patriots was achieved behind Josh Allen’s two rushing touchdowns. He had a poor game against New England’s stingy pass defense, throwing for 169 yards and one interception. But Allen has fared well against Miami with a 10-2 starting record (including last season’s playoff victory). He has 34 touchdown passes and seven interceptions in those 12 games. Buffalo has clamped Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill in recent matchups — a season-low three-catch game earlier this season and two receptions for 33 yards when the Bills visited South Beach in 2022.

Los Angeles Rams (9-7) at San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Playoff-bound NFC rivals roll into a regular-season finale neither team wants to lose, but the blatant priority is avoiding injuries. With a wild-card spot clinched, the Rams take a nine-game regular-season losing streak to the 49ers to San Francisco, where Carson Wentz replaces starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. San Francisco clinched the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and plans to keep Pro Bowl quarterback Brock Purdy on the sideline this week in favor of backup Sam Darnold. Los Angeles clinched the NFC wild-card berth by winning six of its last seven games. The Rams will either be the No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the postseason.

Rams head coach Sean McVay wasn’t swayed by the seeding uncertainty and is resting Stafford and some other key players: RB Kyren Williams (1,144 rushing yards), WR Cooper Kupp (59 receptions), DT Aaron Donald (16 tackles for loss) and LB Ernest Jones (career-high 145 tackles). Wentz is making his 93rd career start. He appeared in mop-up duty once since joining the Rams in November, just days after a 20-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Los Angeles then went on its 6-1 surge. Though the Rams have their long streak of regular-season futility against San Francisco, they did beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship following the 2021 season en route to winning the Super Bowl. NFL rushing leader Christian McCaffrey (1,459 rushing yards) is out with a calf injury. No rest is planned for Rams receiver Puka Nacua, who has 101 receptions for 1,445 yards. He needs four catches to break the NFL rookie mark set by Jaylen Waddle of the Miami Dolphins in 2021, and 29 yards to surpass the rookie record held by Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers since 1960.

Denver Broncos (8-8) at Las Vegas Raiders (7-9): An eight-game winning streak over the Broncos that dates to 2019 is providing motivation on both sides of an otherwise insignificant game. Las Vegas beat Denver 17-16 in the season opener on Sept. 10. Since then, major changes have altered each team. Among those impacted by the in-season overhaul were both starting quarterbacks in Week 1. Jimmy Garoppolo took the field for the Raiders in the season opener, but injuries and ineffectiveness opened the door for rookie Aidan O’Connell to get a shot when head coach Josh McDaniels was fired. The Raiders have gone 4-4 over the past eight games. Russell Wilson started the first 15 games for Denver, but the Broncos decided to bench Wilson for Jarrett Stidham in a contract-related squabble similar to the drama that unfolded involving Derek Carr at the end of last season. At that time, Stidham was with the Raiders and was pushed into a starting role for the final two games of the regular season. The season finale is an ongoing audition for O’Connell, but also for interim coach Antonio Pierce, who took over after McDaniels was fired on Nov. 1. Las Vegas won its first two games under Pierce, but has gone 2-4 since, most recently losing to the Indianapolis Colts 23-20 last Sunday.

Chicago Bears (7-9) at Green Bay Packers (8-8): If the Packers win for the sixth time in eight games, Green Bay is playoff bound behind first-year starting QB Jordan Love. But no defense has been stingier against opposing quarterbacks than the Bears in the past seven weeks, leading the NFL in defensive passer rating during that time while also holding the league lead in interceptions for the season. The Packers went 8-9 a season ago and missed a chance to reach the playoffs after losing the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions. Love draws a much-improved Chicago defense than the one he lit up in Week 1 back in September. Since Week 11, the Bears have 16 takeaways and allowed fewer than 20 points four times. Chicago would love to spoil the playoff hopes of their biggest rival in the NFC North. Despite losing eight of their first 11 games, the Bears have continued to battle under coach Matt Eberflus and won four of their past five games. But the Packers are 5-0 against Chicago since quarterback Justin Fields took over at quarterback. The regular-season finale will offer another chance for Fields to try to clarify questions about his future.

Seattle Seahawks (8-8) at Arizona Cardinals (4-12): Seattle reaches the finish line of the regular season as it did last year — needing a Week 18 win and a big assist. A loss last week left the Seahawks in the same predicament they were in a year ago. They need a victory over a division opponent and a Green Bay Packers loss to make the NFL playoffs. Things worked out for the Seahawks last season, but can they go 2-for-2? The Seahawks needed a victory in Week 18 against the visiting Los Angeles Rams and for Detroit to win at Green Bay in the Sunday night game that added to the season-ending drama. This time Seattle will need to win on the road while rooting for the Packers to lose again at home, this time to Chicago. There will be some scoreboard watching with the games kicking off at 4:25 p.m. ET. The Cardinals rallied from a 15-point deficit to shock the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday. Now 3-4 since Kyler Murray returned from surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament, the Cardinals were thrilled with his second-half performance. Murray completed 25 of 31 passes for 232 yards and a season-high three touchdowns. Running back James Conner played a starring role, including the game-winning TD, which could be cause for concern after the Seahawks were demolished by Pittsburgh’s previously stagnant ground attack to the tune of 203 yards.

New York Jets (6-10) at New England Patriots (4-12): Coach Bill Belichick might be unsure what the future holds, but he’s not showing much emotion entering Sunday’s possible curtain call at Gillette Stadium. Belichick has patrolled the New England sideline for the past 24 seasons, but doubts have doubled that he’ll return for a 25th as the Patriots prepare to face the New York Jets on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, Mass. But Belichick (333 victories) plans on coaching next season as he chases Don Shula (347) for the all-time wins record, raising the question of whether he can find the right fit elsewhere. For now, Belichick maintains he’s only focused on the Jets. The Jets have split their past four games following a five-game skid, most recently falling 37-20 to the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 28. Trevor Siemian completed 32 of 45 passes for 261 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his second start of the season for New York, which has never fully recovered from losing Aaron Rodgers to a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1. Siemian will start again on Sunday, when the gameplan is likely to be turning to Breece Hall. He leads the Jets in rushing (186 carries, 816 yards, four TDs) and is second with 74 receptions for 579 yards and four TDs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) at Carolina Panthers (2-14): Even without a playoff spot clinched, the Buccaneers know there are worse predicaments to be in entering Week 18 than a win-and-in gig against the NFL’s worst team. Tampa seals the NFC South on Sunday with a win at Carolina. In their first season since Tom Brady retired, the Buccaneers are aiming for their third consecutive divisional title. The Panthers entertain their opening starter from last season — Baker Mayfield — and have some confidence of late. They nearly took down Tampa Bay in the first meeting, a 21-18 loss on Dec. 3. And Carolina knocked the Falcons out of a share of first place in the division last month in a rain-soaked 9-7 home victory. In the first matchup, Panthers QB Bryce Young was sacked four times and intercepted once. Carolina’s offense is averaging 167.1 yards per game for the second-worst mark in the league.

Atlanta Falcons (7-9) at New Orleans Saints (8-8): Winning this NFC South showdown in New Orleans won’t be enough to put either team in the playoffs. That requires a Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ loss at Carolina or, for the Saints, a win and losses by the Packers and Seahawks. Innumerable variables are in play with a whopping 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams still alive entering Week 18. New Orleans kept its playoff hopes alive and prevented the Bucs from clinching the division title when it won at Tampa, 23-13, last Sunday. The Falcons, who lost at Chicago, 37-17 in Week 17, defeated the Saints 24-15 on Nov. 26 in Atlanta. Atlanta ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing (130.1 yards per game) and had the most rushing yards by a New Orleans opponent (228) in the first meeting. The Falcons’ 41 attempts were the most by a Saints opponent this season and their average (5.6) was the second highest.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9) at Detroit Lions (11-5): The Lions have faint hopes of moving up to the No. 2 spot, but coach Dan Campbell says he’s not resting his regulars in the regular-season finale against Minnesota on Sunday afternoon. Detroit (11-5) needs a win, while the Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles would have to lose or tie in their games on Sunday in order for the Lions to snag the No. 2 seed. The Lions are still smarting from the 20-19 loss to the Cowboys on Saturday night, when mass confusion involving whether OT Taylor Decker reported as an eligible receiver wiped out the go-ahead two-point conversion when officials threw a flag. A week earlier, Detroit clinched the NFC North title with a 30-24 win at Minnesota. The Vikings haven’t been eliminated from the wild card race. But their playoff hopes were virtually snuffed out with a 33-10 loss to Green Bay on Sunday night. They need a victory on Sunday and losses by the Packers and Seattle, along with a loss by either Tampa Bay or New Orleans, to sneak into the postseason. Nick Mullens will start at quarterback this week. He threw for 411 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions but was also intercepted four times.

Dallas Cowboys (11-5) at Washington Commanders (4-12): Eliminated from playoff contention, the Washington Commanders can still deliver a parting gift to an NFC East rival. Mired in a seven-game losing streak, the Commanders (4-12) welcome the Cowboys (11-5) for the regular-season finale on Sunday, knowing a Washington win could erase Dallas from the top of the division standings and open the passing lane for the Philadelphia Eagles to crash into first. If the Cowboys win, Dallas would be the NFC East champion and the No. 2 seed in the conference. The Cowboys would head home for a wild-card playoff game at AT&T Stadium, where they are 8-0 this season. QB Dak Prescott was nearly flawless in the first matchup with the Commanders this season and his offense is featuring WR CeeDee Lamb — the NFL leader with 122 catches, second with 1,651 receiving yards — establishing single-season franchise records in each category. The Cowboys’ 45-10 blowout of the Commanders in November led to the firing of Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. A similar result is almost certainly the final gavel for head coach Ron Rivera in Washington. The Commanders rank last in total defense (385.8 yards per game), 31st in pass defense (259.3 yards per game) and aren’t built for comebacks with an NFL-worst minus-12 turnover margin.

Cleveland Browns (11-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-8): Signed off the couch last month, Joe Flacco went from perceived Old Man Winter to Ice Cold Clutch and has the Browns spending Week 18 warming by the fire awaiting their playoff assignment. Cincinnati, out of playoff contention following a 25-17 road loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week, won’t face Flacco while attempting to apply the brakes on the Browns’ four-game winning streak. A victory Sunday would seal the first 12-win regular season since 1986 for Cleveland. Regardless of the result, Cleveland is cemented as the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs, the first wild-card position. The Browns have won nine of the past 11 meetings with the Bengals, including a 24-3 rout in the season opener at Cleveland on Sept. 10. Browns backup Jeff Driskel starts for Flacco to become Cleveland’s fifth starting QB this season. The Bengals’ biggest motivation is to finish with a third straight winning season under Zac Taylor, but 9-8 still would be a disappointment following two straight division-winning seasons that ended with deep playoff runs.

Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7) at Tennessee Titans (5-11): Without Trevor Lawrence at Carolina, the Jaguars’ 26-0 shutout of the lowly Panthers put Jacksonville in a division-winning scenario at Nashville this week. A victory would give Jacksonville (9-7) the AFC South title and a home game in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Whether Lawrence (shoulder) is 100 percent isn’t clear after a four-week stretch in which he was also fighting off an ankle injury and concussion. Injuries hit Lawrence back when the Jaguars were 8-3. But four consecutive losses followed, putting the Indianapolis Colts (9-7) and Houston Texans (9-7) in play for the division title. The Titans are literally and figuratively limping to the finish line. Tennessee lost 26-3 last week in Houston, their fourth defeat in five games, and they had 15 names on the injury report for Week 18. That list included rookie quarterback Will Levis, who is battling right foot and left ankle maladies that kept him out of practice. Levis wants to play, but this could be a spot for the Titans to send off 36-year-old Ryan Tannehill and 30-year-old RB Derrick Henry, who has rushed for 9,349 yards in eight seasons with the Titans. Both are in the final year of their existing contracts.

–Field Level Media

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Blaine Gabbert is the starter this week at Los Angeles. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Chiefs visit Chargers, choose rest in playoff tune-up

With no ground to gain in the AFC playoff picture by beating the host Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs are in preservation mode in the regular-season finale.

Blaine Gabbert will start in place of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and multiple regulars are headed for plenty of rest in a game head coach Andy Reid said would be used as a good audition for younger players.

Gabbert said he told the team, “Go out there and have fun.”

Win or lose to the Chargers (5-11), Kansas City (10-6) owns the No. 3 seed in the AFC regardless of any outcome on the Sunday schedule. Los Angeles has lost four consecutive games and seven of its last eight.

The Chargers aren’t going to miss Mahomes, who threw for 424 yards and four TDs in their first meeting this season. He had five TDs and no interceptions in two wins over the Chargers in 2022 and a pair of three-TD games in 2021.

Easton Stick, serving as the Chargers’ starting quarterback since Justin Herbert was placed on injured reserve with a broken finger Dec. 12, is tasked with getting the Chargers their first win in the past five games. Los Angeles is 1-7 since Nov. 6.

“This is the last one. Just trying to go out there and find a way to win, and finish this thing together,” Stick said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. I’m really grateful. I’ve really enjoyed getting to go out there every single day, be in the huddle and really compete.”

Stick could be taking the field again without leading receiver Keenan Allen. He’s dealing with a heel injury and hasn’t played since Dec. 10. Allen has 108 receptions for 1,243 yards and seven touchdowns.

Among Gabbert’s goals for the game — get tight end Travis Kelce over 1,000 receiving yards for the eighth consecutive season. He’s at 984 through 16 games.

Kelce, who was inactive Week 1 with a knee injury, had a season-best 12 catches and 179 yards in Kansas City’s win over the Chargers in Week 7.

“He’s the best,” Gabbert said. “He has a rare feel for the game of football. He sees the game like a quarterback.”

Reid hasn’t made the final call on Kelce’s status, but Gabbert said the prolific production is a standard for not just Kelce, but the entire organization.

“If he wants to play, he’ll play. If Coach Reid says have him rest, he’s gonna rest,” Gabbert said. “Ultimately that’s on Coach Reid, but if we’re out there we’re going to do our damn best to get him 17 yards.”

Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones has literal incentive to play at Los Angeles. He can trigger a $1.25 million bonus by reaching 10 sacks for the season, and currently stands at 9.5. Another player with a history of devouring the Chargers, Jones had 4.0 of his 15.5 sacks last season against Los Angeles but sat out the first meeting this season.

Jones was also out of practice Wednesday. He’s dealing with a groin injury and Reid indicated rest might be in the best interest of the team and Jones.

Stick has been sacked 11 times since taking over for Herbert.

–Field Level Media

Dec 17, 2023; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams quarterback Carson Wentz (11) reacts during the first half against the Washington Commanders at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Backups saddle up for Rams, 49ers in playoff primer

On the brink the of the playoffs, a preseason feel surrounds the regular-season finale between the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.

With a wild-card spot clinched, the Rams take a nine-game regular-season losing streak to the 49ers to San Francisco, where Carson Wentz replaces starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. San Francisco (12-4) clinched the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and plans to keep Pro Bowl quarterback Brock Purdy on the sideline this week in favor of backup Sam Darnold.

Los Angeles (9-7) clinched the NFC wild-card berth by winning six of its last seven games. The Rams will either be the No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the postseason.

Rams head coach Sean McVay wasn’t swayed by the seeding uncertainty and is resting Stafford and some other key players.

“I think when you look at the projections, I think they’re excellent teams regardless,” McVay said of possible playoff opponents. “There’s a couple layers to it, and when you look at it, what we just felt like was this approach is the best one for our team. You want to see guys go compete and do well, but that was what we felt like.”

McVay also ruled out running back Kyren Williams (1,144 rushing yards), receiver Cooper Kupp (59 receptions), defensive tackle Aaron Donald (16 tackles for loss) and linebacker Ernest Jones (career-high 145 tackles).

Wentz is making his 93rd career start. He appeared in mop-up duty once since joining the Rams in November, just days after a 20-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Los Angeles then went on its 6-1 surge.

Though the Rams have their long streak of regular-season futility against San Francisco, they did beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship following the 2021 season en route to winning the Super Bowl.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan definitely has the big picture in mind this week. Purdy and Darnold split the repetitions in Wednesday’s practice. Darnold will handle nearly all the work Thursday.

“I want our team to treat this week as like Brock going down on the first play of the game,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I want them both repping it. I want Brock to get some work this week, and that’s something I’d like us to be ready for if that unfortunately did happen.”

Holding out star runner Christian McCaffrey (1,459 rushing yards) was an easy call due to a calf injury. Cornerback Ambry Thomas (broken hand) underwent surgery this week and is expected to sit out. Defensive end Arik Armstead (foot) and safety Tashaun Gipson (quadriceps) were among the players who didn’t practice Wednesday.

Left tackle Trent Williams, tight end George Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are slated to play sparingly.

Star defensive end Nick Bosa and standout linebacker Fred Warner also are expecting a lesser workload.

“I think as of now most guys are going to play a little bit at least,” said Bosa, who has a team-high 10.5 sacks. “Don’t know exactly how much but our mindset is to prepare like a normal week. Try and hone in. We could possibly see them again down the road so whatever advantages we can get from this week is important.”

No rest is planned for Rams receiver Puka Nucua, who has 101 receptions for 1,445 yards. He needs four catches to break the NFL rookie mark set by Jaylen Waddle of the Miami Dolphins in 2021, and 29 yards to surpass the rookie record held by Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers since 1960.

Nacua, a fifth-round selection, credits the atmosphere established by McVay as the prime reason for his quick success.

“When he comes to the facility, he’s super excited to be talking about ball, and ways for us to improve and to get better,” Nacua said. “So, seeing how excited he is for us to get better, wanting to improve and knowing that progress is being made, makes it super fun. His confidence goes right into you.”

–Field Level Media