Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) before the snap against the Cleveland Browns during the second half in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Chiefs set for AFC title vs. Bills, with or without Patrick Mahomes

The good news for the Kansas City Chiefs is that Patrick Mahomes is practicing.

However, Mahomes remained in concussion protocol as preparations began in earnest for Sunday’s AFC Championship game pitting the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs against the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

“(Mahomes) took all the snaps and he feels good, so we’re just going to follow this protocol as close as we possibly can,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters Wednesday.

Last year’s Super Bowl MVP suffered an injury in the third quarter of Kansas City’s divisional round game against Cleveland and did not return. Backup Chad Henne and the Chiefs defense held on for a victory, in part because Henne scrambled for a big gain and then converted a game-clinching first down with a surprising completion to Tyreek Hill.

“For my preparation, it’s going to stay the same: Prepare like you’re the starter each and every week, no matter what happens,” Henne said. “Whatever does happen, happens. I always stay ready.”

Pretty sound outlook, though when Henne was named the quarterback for the Chiefs’ last regular-season game after they had already clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the start was his first since 2014. The Los Angeles Chargers halted Kansas City’s 10-game win streak, but the Chiefs raced to an early lead against the Browns despite coming off a first-round bye.

It is worth noting that Mahomes sprinted off the field for testing after first wobbling to the sideline against the Browns. Reid said later that Mahomes sustained an injury to his neck area and also, a toe injury Mahomes suffered is not causing him any problems.

“We’re just leaving it the way we do,” Reid said of his quarterback situation. “Chad’s comfortable with it and he feels that he can handle that if need be, so I think that’s gone well there.”

While everyone is awaiting word on Mahomes’ status, the word on the Bills’ Josh Allen is he is playing at a level equal to any quarterback still competing in the postseason.

Considering that list of greats includes Mahomes, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, Allen is in select company. He doesn’t get distracted by comparisons, though.

“I’m just trying to be the best version of myself,” Allen said. “I’m not trying to compare to the other guys who are arguably some of the best to ever play the game, the ones who are left. I’m just focused on what I can do.”

Ever since a 26-17 loss to the Chiefs in Week 6, the Bills have rolled to 11 wins in 12 games, including eight straight, to gain their first AFC Championship appearance since 1993.

Allen’s steady improvement with the Bills rode a huge uptick this season when he recorded eight 300-yard passing performances.

“He’s poised. I’ve never seen him overly excited,” said Stefon Diggs, whose All-Pro season included NFL highs of 1,535 yards and 127 catches. “For him putting his head down and gaining actual (rushing) yards, things like that go far with us.”

If the matchup comes down to key defensive stops, consider that Buffalo has allowed touchdowns on just two of eight red-zone situations in the playoffs. Taron Johnson converted one into a pick-six in the divisional round win against Baltimore.

As for Kansas City, it ranked last in the NFL in red-zone defense, allowing a touchdown rate of 76.6 percent. Yet the Chiefs have held nine opponents to 20 or fewer points.

Two Chiefs playmakers, Sammy Watkins (calf) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) are practicing after missing the divisional round. Linebacker Willie Gay (ankle) did not practice Wednesday.

Vernon Butler (quad) and Gabriel Davis (ankle) did not practice Wednesday for Buffalo.

–Field Level Media

Oct 18, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (right) greets Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (left) after a NFL game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Bucs, Packers set for rematch in NFC Championship battle

The beat down was so horrific that a possible rematch didn’t seem enticing at the time.

But three months later, the fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers and top-seeded Green Bay Packers are clearly the best two teams in the conference and they will square off again in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

The winner advances to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 in a venue highly familiar to one of these teams — Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

But flash back to Week 6 when the host Buccaneers spotted Green Bay 10 first-quarter points and then spent the rest of the game pounding and dismantling the Packers in a 38-10 shellacking.

Tampa Bay star linebacker Devin White didn’t mince words afterward, saying the Packers “didn’t deserve to be on the field with us.”

In the eyes of Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur, White’s words aren’t bulletin-board material. They are facts.

“You know, hey, he was right. They whipped us,” LaFleur said earlier this week. “There’s no sense in talking about it. The only thing you can do is you’ve got to prepare the best you can and then go prove it.”

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw two interceptions — one returned for a touchdown by cornerback Jamel Dean — and was sacked four times while passing for just 160 yards. His accuracy rate (45.7 on 16-of-35 passing) was his worst of the season.

Though things went exceedingly well in the first matchup, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians can sum up the meeting this way: Doesn’t mean a thing.

“You can’t fall into that trap of what happened last time,” Arians said. “They’re a much, much better football team and we’re a much better football team. Both (teams are) very different right now, so you better take care of today’s work each and every day.”

Tampa Bay reached the NFC title game with a solid 30-20 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. The Packers advanced with a 32-18 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday.

In fact, the Buccaneers also won at Washington this postseason and have won seven straight road games as they enter hallowed Lambeau Field while weather reports forecast a 50-percent chance of snow.

“Let’s keep that streak going — that would be pretty sweet,” Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady said. “Let’s get another one. We’re going to be challenged to get it because we’re going up against a great football team.

“It’s a great environment. This is one of the coolest stadiums in the league to play in. I know they’re excited, we’ll be excited, and it will make for a great football game.”

Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champ, will be playing in his 14th career league championship final and went 9-4 in AFC title games during his stint with the New England Patriots. The 43-year-old has been performing like someone younger as he passed for 4,633 yards and set a franchise record with 40 touchdown passes in the regular season.

Rodgers also had a stellar season with 4,299 yards and a franchise-record 48 touchdown passes and is a heavy favorite to win NFL MVP honors. He is playing in his fifth NFC title game and is looking to reach his second Super Bowl.

That lone Super Bowl appearance was 10 years ago, but Rodgers insists he isn’t feeling a raise in the stress level.

“No more pressure than usual,” Rodgers said. “It starts with the mentality and focus. Obviously, I put pressure on myself to perform every single week. There’s a lot to be said to be able to harness that pressure and the fear of failure and focus it into a real positive. But I don’t feel any extra pressure this week.”

Despite the sour outing against the Buccaneers, Rodgers and the Packers committed a league-low 11 turnovers in the regular season. Green Bay also features elite wideout Davante Adams, who led the NFL with 18 touchdowns receptions while making 115 catches for 1,374 yards.

Tampa Bay led the league in defending the run (80.6 yards per game), second-year pro White (140 tackles, nine sacks) blossomed into one of the top linebackers in the NFL and Mike Evans (NFL record seventh straight 1,000-yard season to begin a career) leads a deep group of targets.

Sunday’s game marks the first time Green Bay has hosted the NFC title game since the 2007 season when Rodgers was the backup to Brett Favre. The Packers lost to the New York Giants 23-20 in overtime.

Tampa Bay is playing in its first NFC championship contest since the 2002 season. The Buccaneers posted a 27-10 win over the host Philadelphia Eagles and went on to rout the then-Oakland Raiders 48-21 in the Super Bowl.

–Field Level Media

Dec 27, 2020; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) runs the ball against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Well-rested Chiefs host upset-minded Browns

Time off for Patrick Mahomes has not equated to time away from football.

He practiced for the Kansas City Chiefs. He cheered teammates on while sitting out the last regular-season game. And then last week, with the bye that goes to the top seed in the AFC playoffs, Mahomes scouted opponents.

He will rely on what he learned about the Cleveland Browns, who will be coming off an explosive 48-37 upset of Pittsburgh in the wild-card round, which elevated them into the divisional round Sunday at Kansas City, Mo.

“I had a day’s worth of film on the Browns,” said Mahomes, “so whenever we found that out, I was able to look back at that and look at my notes and see how it presents to us.”

Despite sitting out the Jan. 3 setback to the Los Angeles Chargers, Mahomes helped engineer a 14-2 season for Kansas City while passing for 4,740 yards and 38 touchdowns. He will square off against Baker Mayfield as they reprise their old Big 12 shootouts.

“To be able to play against him on this stage is going to be special,” Mahomes said. “I mean, he went to Oklahoma, I went to Texas Tech, so he got the better of me in college, so I’ll try to do my best to win in the NFL.”

Mahomes knows he has the weapons to accomplish that feat, especially after the Chiefs scored at least 31 points in each of their postseason wins a year ago. Travis Kelce, who set an NFL record for tight ends with 1,416 receiving yards, also sat out the defeat against the Chargers, which snapped a 10-game Chiefs’ winning streak.

“Everybody kind of locks in a little bit more and gets excited to play when the playoffs come around, especially in this building, especially (Mahomes) himself,” Kelce said.

The same could be said of the Browns after claiming their first playoff win since 1994.

Cleveland should regain several players off the reserve/COVID-19 list — Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio was removed Friday — while coach Kevin Stefanski returned to practice on Thursday after his own stint with the virus.

“We’re looking forward to getting a full complement of guys,” Stefanski said. “Anytime you get good players back, whether it be injury or COVID list, it’s always a big boost for your entire team.”

Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson have been activated and will provide depth to a secondary that grabbed four interceptions against Pittsburgh. Receiver KhaDarel Hodge was also taken off coronavirus protocols.

Mayfield will again look to execute a balanced attack, which also features the rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Hunt will have some additional motivation playing against the Chiefs. They cut Hunt during the 2018 season after video surfaced of him kicking a woman. Kansas City selected Hunt in the third round of the 2017 draft. He then led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards as a rookie.

Another Browns connection who can point to his time with the Chiefs is general manager John Dorsey, who was around when Andy Reid took over as Kansas City coach and traded up to take Mahomes in the 2017 draft after already drafting the likes of Kelce and Tyreek Hill.

Dorsey was eventually fired by the Browns in late 2019.

“He did a nice job here and there of bringing the right people in,” Reid said.

The Chiefs ruled out receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) and linebacker Willie Gay (ankle) on Friday. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) was listed as questionable.

The Browns listed four players as questionable: offensive tackle Jack Conklin (hamstring/knee), linebacker B.J. Goodson (shoulder), and tight ends David Njoku (hamstring) and Stephen Carlson (groin).

–Field Level Media

Oct 28, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) looks to pass as Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) rushes during the first quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

‘Gloves off’ for Packers with Rams eyeing upset

Friends turn foe if only for a few hours Saturday when the Green Bay Packers welcome the Los Angeles Rams in an NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field.

Two years and five days after being hired as head coach of the Packers, Matt LaFleur led his team and MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers onto the practice field to accelerate preparation for an unexpected guest.

Due to Jared Goff’s thumb injury, the Rams started undrafted rookie John Wolford at Seattle last week, but they beat the NFC West champion Seahawks by battering quarterback Russell Wilson and avoiding mistakes.

The toll was steep for the Rams, who returned to Los Angeles with no obvious choice at quarterback for the Green Bay game. Perhaps of greater importance, defensive tackle Aaron Donald (ribs) and leading wide receiver Cooper Kupp (knee) were injured in the team’s first playoff triumph since losing to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

“This is a legit, real-deal defense,” LaFleur said Tuesday of the Rams, calling Donald a “once in a lifetime player.”

Packers All-Pro center Corey Linsley draws the Donald assignment as Green Bay attempts to prevent Rodgers from being trampled by a Rams defense that sacked Wilson five times last week. Donald left little doubt he will play through his injury. He tied for second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in the regular season.

Kupp plans to play, too, but could be limited and more broadly impacted by who is throwing the ball for the Rams.

Wolford was not long for the wild-card win. He got hurt and was transported to the hospital for tests on his neck, leaving Goff to pilot the Rams in the second half. Coach Sean McVay said both players are trending in the right direction, but he won’t likely name a starter until later in the week.

Donald, Kupp and Wolford all sat out the team’s light workout Tuesday.

LaFleur likely has a good idea of what’s coming. He said Tuesday the Packers have to “prepare for both” Goff and Wolford and wouldn’t put a surprise or two past his good friend McVay.

The coaches assistants with the Washington Football Team from 2010-13, and when McVay became a head coach at age 30 in 2017, he hired LaFleur as offensive coordinator in Los Angeles.

“We still talk pretty regularly. I don’t know how much I’ll talk to him this week,” LaFleur said. “That’s one of my closest friends in life. He’s like a brother to me … but the gloves will be off on Saturday.”

McVay said, “He’s a great coach. He’s a great friend of mine. You’re so happy to see that success.

“It’s pretty crazy that we’re getting an opportunity to play against one another — really, our teams our getting to play each other in the divisional round. That’s going to be the most important thing, is the Rams versus the Packers and we’ll see if we can go and get after Matt a little bit. It’ll be fun.”

After Lambeau Field was mostly empty during the regular season, the Packers are allowing fans in the stadium — up to 6,000 — on Saturday afternoon.

Champions of the North division, the Packers were idle last week after securing the top seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record. Rodgers lost his previous meeting with Goff and the Rams in 2018 — 29-27 at Los Angeles — in a duel of Cal quarterback products. Rodgers was sacked twice by Donald in that contest.

Green Bay has won six consecutive games since a Nov. 22 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Rodgers was consistently great in 2020, leading the NFL with 48 touchdowns, a 70.7 percent completion rate, a 121.5 passer rating, a league-tying-low five interceptions and a loud and clear statement that he’s not done at age 37. He is 10-8 all-time in the playoffs with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Rodgers’ job has been easier this season with Davante Adams healthy. Adams will draw a lot of one-on-one coverage from Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, an aggressive and physical counterpart. LaFleur said the matchup should be entertaining but is confident in Adams, a player he called “one of the best route-runners of all-time.”

Adams is the first player in NFL history to have at least 100 receptions with 18 receiving touchdowns in a season, as he finished with 115 receptions and 18 touchdowns in just 14 games this fall.

During film study, the Packers have seen a lot of cover-2 looks from the Rams, and Rodgers said he might not see Ramsey over Adams as speculated.

That’s just another exhibit, Adams said, of how Rodgers makes his life easier on game day — a knack for simplifying everything with relentless focus.

“You can kind of see a weight off a guy’s shoulders in the huddle just hearing that from Aaron,” Adams said. “I think that’s how you wind up being MVP 16 seasons in, finding something in your game to get better.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 27, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes against the Indianapolis Colts during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 28-24. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers getting several players back for rematch with Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns will meet for the second straight Sunday, but it would be difficult to call it a true rematch.

Not just because this time it’s at Heinz Field. And not just because this time it’s a wild-card playoff game.

Both teams will have some key differences Sunday night from the Browns’ 24-22 win on Jan. 3.

Pittsburgh (12-4) had already clinched the AFC North title before last week’s game and rested four key starters — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cam Heyward. They are expected to play this week.

Cleveland (11-5) this time around will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Browns’ first playoff game since 2002.

Also out is starting guard Joel Bitonio, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, apparently because of contact tracing, and defensive end Olivier Vernon (Achilles tendon), who was placed on injured reserve.

Roethlisberger, who will be playing in his 22nd playoff game but first since 2017, refused to give Pittsburgh an edge given the nature of the one-and-done postseason — and that the Steelers closed the season 1-4.

“I think every player should approach this playoff game like it could be their last playoff game ever,” he said. “I think it’s prudent for every player to take that mindset and approach. I know I am because nothing is guaranteed in the game, or this world.

“Half of the teams in the NFL aren’t playing this week, so it’s an honor to have the opportunity.”

Cleveland’s special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as interim coach.

“The players understand that it doesn’t really matter who the head coach is on Sunday. They know how we play,” Stefanski said while participating in an interview session despite his positive virus test. He said he feels fine and is coaching remotely this week.

“This team is not in my image; it’s the Cleveland Browns. We’ve established an identity. We did it back in the spring. We told the guys how we were going to play. We made sure we brought players in there that fit that mold. And I think the guys understand perfectly how we play and how we win.”

Stefanski is the Browns’ offensive play-caller, leading a unit that ranked third in rushing in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will take over those duties.

“AVP has been a huge part of our offense’s success,” Stefanski said.

“He is a huge part of play calling. There is a ton of dialogue occurring between me, AVP and the rest of the offensive staff. He knows the things that we believe in. He knows how we play. He spends every waking moment with the quarterback (Baker Mayfield), which is important when you are talking about trying to get him in a rhythm and comfort level. I have a ton of confidence in AVP’s ability to get the job done,” Stefanski said.

The Browns were relegated to holding a virtual walk-through Wednesday.

Pittsburgh will not only get its rested starters back, but could also have others return. Guard Matt Feiler (pectoral) and linebacker Robert Spillane (knee) practiced Wednesday and could come off the reserve/injured list and play Sunday.

Safety Terrell Edmunds (shoulder), who missed Sunday’s game, was a full participant in practice, while kicker Chris Boswell (groin) was limited. However, Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden is out after testing positive for COVID-19.

–Field Level Media

Jan 3, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs with the ball during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Rush offenses collide as Titans host Ravens

In a quarterback-driven league, Derrick Henry is unlikely to win Most Valuable Player.

But the Tennessee Titans’ running back is perhaps the most feared player out there, as the Baltimore Ravens found out on Nov. 22. His 29-yard touchdown run with 4:39 left in overtime gave Tennessee a 30-24 win in Baltimore.

The Ravens get a second date with Henry on Sunday when the teams meet in the first round of the AFC playoffs in Nashville, Tenn. And prideful veterans such as defensive end Calais Campbell know exactly what they’re facing.

“Derrick Henry is one of the best running backs to ever play this game,” Campbell said. “He’s in a zone right now. I take pride in the challenge of trying to slow him down.”

Hardly anyone has slowed him this year. Henry became the eighth back in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards, finishing with 2,027 courtesy of a 250-yard performance last week in a 41-38 victory at Houston that clinched the Titans’ first AFC South title since 2008.

Henry’s historic season made Tennessee (11-5) the first team to boast two 2,000-yard rushers. Chris Johnson accomplished the feat in 2009, when he compiled 2,006 yards. The difference was that Johnson’s yards came in an 8-8 season in which the Titans started 0-5 and were out of the playoffs before Week 17.

Henry’s yardage enabled Tennessee to earn its first home playoff game since 2008. That game was also against the Ravens, who toppled the top-seeded Titans 13-10 to earn a spot in the AFC title game.

It was coach John Harbaugh’s first year in Baltimore, and it was a symbol of many of his 139 wins, which includes 10 in the playoffs: Tough, physical and uncompromising.

“It’s been a very physical, very tough rivalry over the years,” Harbaugh said, “and I don’t think too much has changed.”

The former AFC Central rivals have been a mirror image for most of the last 20 years, built on defense and the running game. But the Titans have pivoted somewhat from that mold this year, instead outscoring most teams with a top five offense and a bottom 10 defense.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill enjoyed the best year of his career, throwing for 3,819 yards and 33 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. A.J. Brown collected 1,075 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns, while Corey Davis added 984 yards in the air.

Meanwhile, the Ravens (11-5) enter the playoffs with five wins in a row and the league’s top running attack at 191.9 yards per game. Their offense has found last year’s rhythm during the winning streak, racking up 37.2 points per game.

Baltimore blew out Cincinnati 38-3 in Week 17, rolling up a club-record 404 rushing yards and becoming just the fourth team to break the 400 mark in a game since 1950. Rookie J.K. Dobbins compiled a season-high 160 yards and two scores on just 13 carries.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson added 97 yards on the ground while throwing for 113 yards and three touchdowns, giving him a second straight 1,000-yard season rushing at 1,005.

Simply put, this game figures to be a fascinating contrast of rushing attacks.

“I expect a physical slugfest,” Tennessee guard Rodger Saffold said. “When it comes to the playoffs, we know that we need to earn everything. People know that we are a great running team, and they are going to give us their best shot every time.”

–Field Level Media

Jan 3, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) drops back against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady brings vaunted record as Bucs visit Washington

Tom Brady’s postseason resume is as attractive as it is long, making it little wonder why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcomed him with open arms in the offseason.

The six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback looks to add to his decorated postseason legacy on Saturday when the fifth-seeded Buccaneers visit the fourth-seeded Washington Football Team in an NFC wild-card game.

Brady is the NFL’s all-time leader in playoff wins (30), completions (1,025), passing yards (11,388) and touchdown passes (73), while his nine Super Bowl starts with the New England Patriots are the most by any player in league history.

So while the Buccaneers are set to play their first postseason game since 2007, it’s old hat for Brady. And he had no issue stressing a sense of urgency for his team.

“I think that nothing is given — you have to earn everything,” Brady said on Wednesday. “You get to this point in the year, you have to earn it. To win this game, you’ve got to earn it. You’re playing against teams that have really proven themselves to be the best teams in their divisions all year.”

Brady appears to have found his chemistry with his wideouts on Tampa Bay’s third-ranked scoring offense (30.8 points per game), throwing for at least 341 yards in five of the last seven games. All told, the 43-year-old threw for 20 of his franchise-record 40 touchdowns in that span and even rushed for one to help the Buccaneers finish with an 11-5 record.

Whether Brady has star wideout Mike Evans on Saturday is in question, however. Evans participated in a walkthrough on Tuesday before sitting out the following day as he attempts to work his way past a knee injury.

Cornerback Carlton Davis was able to practice in a limited capacity on Wednesday as he attempts to return from a two-game absence due to a groin injury.

Speaking of injuries, Alex Smith has rebounded from a gruesome leg injury in November 2018. Smith underwent 17 surgeries to save his leg before coming back with a flourish, posting a 5-1 record as a starter this season.

Washington answered a dismal 2-7 start by winning four in a row en route to a 7-9 finish, which was good enough for its first NFC East title since 2015.

“We don’t see them as a 7-9 team, we see them as a (5)-1 team because every time Alex Smith has played, they went (5)-1 and had a plus-three turnover margin,” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s a different team when Alex is playing, and we know that. We’re playing that (5)-1 team, not that 7-9 team.”

Smith was limited in practice on Wednesday, leading to backup Taylor Heinicke receiving first-team reps.

Rookie Antonio Gibson (team-leading 795 yards, 11 rushing touchdowns) and Terry McLaurin (club-best 87 catches, 1,118 receiving yards) were also listed as limited in practice on Wednesday. Gibson is nursing a toe injury while McLaurin has an ankle issue.

Washington’s stingy defense, led by Pro Bowl rookie defensive end Chase Young, ranked second in total yards allowed per game (304.6), second in pass yards allowed (191.8) and fourth in points permitted (20.6).

Young was quick to call his shot on Sunday, when the 21-year-old was caught on camera saying: “Tom Brady, Tom Brady, I’m coming! I want Tom! I want Tom.”

Young doubled down on his comments on Wednesday.

“I play ball,” Young said. “I’m excited to go against the best. The media — their job is to stir it up. If you know me, I’m excited for every game. Tom Brady, you think I’m not excited to play against the G.O.A.T.? You trippin’. I’m not going to apologize for saying I want Tom. No, I want every quarterback I play against.”

–Field Level Media

Jan 3, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams quarterback John Wolford (9) throws a pass during the froth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals  at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Rams’ choice for QB unclear entering matchup with Seahawks

Los Angeles coach Sean McVay was asked whether he had a timetable to determine his starting quarterback for the Rams’ playoff opener Saturday afternoon at Seattle.

“Yeah,” McVay said. “Saturday at 1:39.”

That would be just before the scheduled 1:40 p.m. PT kickoff for the NFC wild-card matchup.

Starter Jared Goff suffered a fractured right thumb in a 20-9 loss at Seattle on Dec. 27 and had surgery the following day.

John Wolford replaced Goff last weekend against Arizona, helping the Rams clinch a playoff berth with an 18-7 victory. Wolford completed 22 of 38 passes for 231 yards and rushed for a team-high 56 yards, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 200 and rush for 50 in their debut.

“Jared is our starting quarterback — the reality is that he had a thumb surgery,” McVay said. “We’re monitoring that every single day, and that’s something we’re taking a day at a time, but the anticipation is both those guys are getting themselves ready to go.”

Troy Hill returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown for the Rams (10-6), and the league’s top-ranked defense also contributed a safety, while the offense failed to reach the end zone for the second consecutive game.

Los Angeles’ defense allowed the fewest points, total yards, yards passing, touchdown passes and first downs in the league this season.

“We’re happy with what we accomplished as a unit,” Rams defensive end Morgan Fox said. “It was something that was in the back of our minds. Everything in the forefront was winning games and trying to be the best team that we could be, but it is a cool achievement. I think everyone kind of saw and noticed it, but everyone is focused on Seattle and winning everything. We’re pumped about it, but it’s not done.”

The Seahawks (12-4), who clinched the NFC West title with their victory Dec. 27 against Los Angeles, rallied from a 10-point deficit to win their regular-season finale 26-23 against San Francisco in Glendale, Ariz.

Russell Wilson threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Tyler Lockett, who finished with a franchise-record 100 catches this season.

“I’m really fired up that we continue to be a finishing club and we find ways to do it,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.

If not for a 49ers touchdown with 23 seconds remaining Sunday, the Seahawks would have held each of their final six opponents to fewer than 20 points.

“Where we were at the beginning of season to where we are at now is night and day, but we’ve got to keep it up,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said.

The Seahawks have their own injury concerns heading into the wild-card round.

Safety Jamal Adams, who set an NFL record for sacks by a defensive back with 9 1/2 this season, suffered a left shoulder injury in the second half of the regular-season finale. Both Adams and defensive tackle Jarran Reed (oblique), who was second on the team with 6 1/2 sacks, have missed practice time this week.

Adams insisted he’ll play Saturday. “Let’s get that out there — I’m full-go.”

The Seahawks and Rams split their two meetings this season, with Los Angeles winning 23-16 on Nov. 15 at home behind Malcolm Brown’s two rushing touchdowns.

Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the first meeting against the Seahawks, but plans to return Saturday.

–Field Level Media

Dec 25, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) gestures in the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Saints go for historic NFC South sweep vs. Panthers

The New Orleans Saints still have things to accomplish in the final game of the regular season on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

The Saints are on the verge of dominating the NFC South in an unprecedented fashion when they visit Charlotte, N.C.

That’s just part of the objective.

“I just want to be playing our best football,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. “I want to be as sharp as we possibly can, understanding that obviously we’re still missing a few guys that hopefully we’ll have when we get to the playoffs.”

The Saints (11-4) can clinch the overall No. 1 seed in the NFC and a subsequent first-weekend bye in the playoffs if they win at Carolina (5-10) along with a Seattle (11-4) victory at San Francisco (6-9) and a loss by Green Bay (12-3) at Chicago (8-7).

“We just have to keep playing our game,” Saints offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk said. “… The stakes are high right now.”

Already, New Orleans has secured its fourth straight NFC South title. A victory against the Panthers would mean the Saints complete a six-game sweep of the other NFC South teams, which is something no team in the division has ever accomplished.

“You understand how hard it is to win the division,” Brees said. “Week-in and week-out, there are so many battles. … That would be a great accomplishment. At the end of the day, it’s just getting another win, which just better positions ourselves for the playoffs.”

Carolina won for just the second time in a 10-game span with last weekend’s conquering of Washington. Yet the Panthers are accustomed to taking on first-place teams as this will mark their fifth game in a nine-game stretch against a divisional leader.

With a first-year staff under new coach Matt Rhule, the Panthers are trying to set a foundation that will be beneficial in the future.

“For us to have this new staff, new players, it’s about building each and every week,” Carolina safety Tre Boston said. “I told y’all a few weeks back: When that wall on the house is just one wall, everybody is going to say stuff about it, but as we build this house and make it a home, we’re going to be one to reckon with.”

The Panthers, who posted a November shutout of the Detroit Lions, held Washington without a touchdown until the last two minutes.

“A lot of points this season, we were really searching to find our identity and find out what we do and what we have — and that’s what we’re doing,” Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson said. “We were in a search trying to find our identity, but we found it.”

The Saints aim to build on their reputation and be in position for a long playoff run.

“Understand exactly what wins football games and let’s make sure we’re doing all those things,” said Brees, who pointed out it’s important for the offense to retain timing and rhythm.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara’s NFL record-matching six-touchdown performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas night showed what the team is capable of doing with its talent-laden offense.

“Over time,” Brees said, “it wears defenses down.”

Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has another opportunity to face New Orleans. Last year with the Saints, he filled in for an injured Brees during a midseason stretch.

This is the final chance for Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn to make a case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“It has been my goal to finish the season strong,” said Chinn, who has 110 tackles, five passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and a sack to go along with scoring two touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey won’t play in the finale. He appeared in just three games this season. Running back Mike Davis (ankle) and receiver Robby Anderson (groin) also sat out Wednesday’s practice.

The Saints defeated the Panthers 27-24 on Oct. 25, with the outcome not decided until a late-game field-goal attempt from 65 yards out was just short for Carolina’s Joey Slye.

New Orleans has defeated the Panthers in the last three meetings and in seven of the teams’ past eight games.

Attendance will be limited to 1,500, with only family and friends of team members permitted entry, because of increased concerns in the Charlotte area regarding the coronavirus pandemic. This is a change from most of the season, when more than 5,000 fans were allowed to purchase tickets for Carolina home games.

–Field Level Media

Dec 27, 2020; Landover, Maryland, USA; Washington Football Team running back J.D. McKissic (41) catches a touchdown pass as Carolina Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn (21) defends during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Washington seeks to claim NFC East by grounding Eagles

The battle for the last playoff spot comes down to the last game of the season and involves one of the last teams anyone thought would be in this position back in September.

The Washington Football Team (6-9), which began the season by abandoning a controversial nickname and ends it by moving on from a controversial quarterback, will clinch the NFC East with a victory Sunday night against the host Philadelphia Eagles (4-10-1).

A loss to the Eagles will give the division title and No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs to the winner of Sunday afternoon’s game between the visiting Dallas Cowboys (6-9) and New York Giants (5-10).

Washington played well in two previous appearances in the national spotlight, roasting the Cowboys 41-16 on Thanksgiving Day and defeating the previously unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers 23-17 in a Monday game in Week 13. Both of those wins were on the road.

“The one thing I will say, the other two games we’ve been on the stage: our guys came out and played well and had fun,” said head coach Ron Rivera. “That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to get back to having a little bit of fun. The truth of the matter is we’re playing with house money. That’s the best part about it.”

In his first season on the job, Rivera has Washington on the brink of its first playoff berth since 2015.

“Take the pressure off ourselves and go have fun. That’s the truth of the matter,” Rivera said. “We control our own destiny. It’s in our hands. All the cliches. We’re going to have fun with it and go with it.”

Second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins won’t be part of the fun. Washington released the 2019 first-round pick on Monday, the day after he committed three turnovers in a 20-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers and a few days after he was fined $40,000 and stripped of his captaincy for COVID-19 protocol violations.

Haskins passed for 178 yards and a touchdown in Washington’s season-opening 27-17 victory against Carson Wentz and the Eagles. Sixteen weeks later, Haskins is gone and Wentz is on the bench for the fourth straight game since losing his job to rookie Jalen Hurts.

Rivera is hoping Alex Smith will return after missing two games with an injured right calf. If not, Taylor Heinicke will run the offense for Washington. Smith did not practice Wednesday.

The Eagles, who have allowed 1,039 yards in their last two losses, want to make sure whoever is under center for Washington does not have any fun Sunday night.

Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz issued a “no-hat rule” this week, meaning he wants to make sure Washington doesn’t get to celebrate at Lincoln Financial Field.

“We’ve got to have a no-hat rule this week,” he said. “We can’t let opponents put division win hats on at the Linc. There’s a lot of pride in that, and all our focus has to be to accomplishing that this week.”

Nine players did not practice for the Eagles on Wednesday, including defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (neck), defensive end Derek Barnett (calf), wide receiver DeSean Jackson (ankle) and tight end Dallas Goedert (calf). Linebacker Duke Riley (biceps) was a limited participant.

In addition to Smith, leading rusher Antonio Gibson (toe) and leading receiver Terry McLaurin (ankle) were among the six players held out of practice Wednesday by Washington. Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle) and defensive tackle Tim Settle (shoulder) were limited participants.

–Field Level Media