Dec 20, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs for a first down during the second half against the Detroit Lions at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Titans seeking to remain on playoff path against Texans

There were moments this season when Tennessee played with such force and vigor that a playoff berth seemed all but assured, something akin to a foregone conclusion given their offensive weapons.

But with five teams vying for four AFC playoff spots all sporting the same record, there are no guarantees for the Titans (10-5) on Sunday when they face the host Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.

“I think your approach is that you just have to do things that help you win,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of the pending sense of urgency. “You have to play complementary. You’ve got to take care of the football. You’ve got to try to get some turnovers, be sound in the kicking game. Not trying to do too much but go out and make plays and make plays to win the football game.”

The Titans rank third in the NFL in points (450) and fifth in yards (5,851) behind the imposing collective of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry and receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis.

Tannehill ranks fourth in passer rating (106.7) and seventh in touchdowns (32) while Henry is threatening to claim a second consecutive triple crown for running backs by pacing the league in attempts (344) and yards (1,777) while sitting one touchdown shy of co-leaders Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara (with 16 apiece).

Brown and Davis both have 60 receptions for 900-plus yards while Davis is tied for sixth in the league with 10 receiving touchdowns.

Yet Tennessee has been undone by its defense, which ranks 29th in yards allowed, and is now in need of relying on past playoff experience to navigate the potential landmines in Houston. In theory, the run to the AFC Championship Game last season should serve the Titans well on Sunday, but in a season where guarantees have been few and far between, nothing is certain.

“I don’t know that,” Vrabel said. “We’ve got to focus on the Texans and the challenges that they present and our ability to prepare. I think you try to take from the games that you’ve played and past experiences and try not to think that it’s going to guarantee success because it doesn’t. Each week and each play doesn’t mean anything about the next one. It’s just about finding a way to get there.”

The Texans (4-11) are aiming to get Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson through the season finale. Watson has taken his lumps in recent weeks yet has remained a dynamic force. But the blow he took to his throwing arm in the fourth quarter last Sunday against the Bengals was worrisome enough to lead some to suggest that Watson should sit and call it a season Sunday.

Watson has made it clear, however, that if he is healthy he will play. And by all accounts, he will.

“As far as I know, he’s doing pretty good,” Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel said. “I haven’t heard that he’s not doing well, and so since I feel like he’s doing good, I hope he does good on Sunday, too.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) scores a touchdown as Detroit Lions cornerback Darryl Roberts (29)  pursues during the third quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Bucs WR Evans looking to make history against flailing Falcons

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, but coach Bruce Arians still has a major task at the forefront of his mind.

Arians not only wants to close the regular season with a victory in Sunday’s game against the visiting Atlanta Falcons, but he also wants to see Mike Evans’ name standing alone in the record books.

Evans needs 40 receiving yards against the Falcons (4-11) to become the first player in NFL history to reach 1,000 in each of his first seven NFL seasons. Evans shares the current mark of six with Hall of Famer Randy Moss.

“I desperately want that to happen,” Arians said. “Whatever he needs or whatever he has left — I’m sure Atlanta’s not going to want to give it to him, so we’ll have to find some creative ways to get it for him.”

There were certainly times when it looked like there wasn’t much of a chance of the streak being extended.

Evans, 27, was bothered by a hamstring injury at the outset of the campaign and later suffered an ankle injury. He had just 2 receiving yards — yes 2 — in both Weeks 1 and 3.

When he had just 10 yards in Week 6, Evans’ total was at 281. Even in mid-December, he had just 669 yards with three games left.

But Evans heated up quickly. He had 110 yards in Week 15 when the Buccaneers (10-5) defeated the Falcons 31-17, and had his top outing of the campaign on Dec. 26 when he had 10 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns in a 47-7 rout of the Detroit Lions.

And just like that, Evans’ total sits at 960 as he closes in on the record.

“Early in the season, I was hurt really bad,” Evans said. “But it’s my job to play, like I always say. It just feels good. I’m getting back on track and getting healthier.”

Despite the slow start, Evans has 67 receptions and a franchise-record 13 touchdown catches, breaking the mark he set in 2014 and 2016.

Evans meshes well with Tom Brady as the quarterback has set a franchise mark with 36 touchdown passes while throwing for 4,234 yards and 11 interceptions.

The Buccaneers are also hoping to have running back Ronald Jones II (900 rushing yards) back on the field. Jones came off the reserve/COVID-19 list but still is dealing with a fractured pinkie. He was limited in practice Wednesday, as was cornerback Carlton Davis (groin) and linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (knee).

While Tampa Bay is seeking a fourth straight victory, the Falcons are hoping to avoid a fifth straight loss.

In fact, Atlanta fans won’t be overly crushed with another loss as many are consumed with the 2021 draft order. Only two teams — the New York Jets (2-13) and Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14) — have fewer victories than the Falcons.

“Our fan base is very knowledgeable and that’s their job to cheer for those types of things, but our job is to go out and win football games,” interim head coach Raheem Morris said. “We really love those guys, we really love Atlanta, we love everything we stand for, and when that time comes we’ll address those accordingly.”

Morris replaced Dan Quinn after the team’s 0-5 start and temporarily had things moving in the right direction with four wins in six games. The final game in that stretch was a 43-6 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.

But the Falcons lost all four of their December games. The losses were all close with the margin of defeats by a combined 15 points.

The season as a whole leaves veteran quarterback Matt Ryan with mixed feelings. He sees all the chances his squad squandered but he feels optimistic about the near future.

“I feel like we’ve got a good core group of guys here that you can build on and I think we’ve been competitive,” Ryan said. “We just haven’t found a way to get the job done in finishing situations enough this year and it’s something we definitely have to improve at moving forward.”

Veteran receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) didn’t practice Wednesday and could miss his third straight game.

–Field Level Media

Dec 27, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers (17) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 28-24. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Rivers, Colts hope to extend season vs. Jaguars

Could Sunday be the last hurrah for veteran quarterback Philip Rivers?

Addressing the uncertain nature beyond the host Indianapolis Colts’ Week 17 game against the skidding Jacksonville Jaguars, Rivers acknowledged the thought crossed his mind.

With the Colts (10-5) needing a victory against the Jaguars (1-14) plus a loss from either the Cleveland Browns (10-5), Baltimore Ravens (10-5), Miami Dolphins (10-5) or Tennessee Titans (10-5) to make the AFC playoffs, Indianapolis’ postseason prospects aren’t the only “What if” swirling around town.

“I guess it’s probably healthy to have that thought because, shoot, you’re not guaranteed anything moving forward,” Rivers said. “But to think it could be the last game, the last game I ever play, certainly. I don’t intend it will be, I don’t hope that it is, but you have to acknowledge it is a possibility.”

Rivers, 39, signed a one-year contract with the Colts in the offseason following a 16-season career with the Chargers franchise. Still, coach Frank Reich admitted this season he could see the Colts bringing Rivers back, were he interested.

Behind Rivers’ 23 touchdowns and 68.2 completion percentage against just 10 interceptions — half his total from 2019 — the Colts rank eighth in the NFL in passing yards per game (259.3) and ninth in scoring at 28.2 points per game.

Rivers will aim to stay upright Sunday with a shuffled offensive line. The Colts, who are coming off a 28-24 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 16, announced Wednesday that left tackle Anthony Castonzo (knee) will be out for the remainder of the season.

Jacksonville earned its lone win of 2020 with a 27-20 home victory against the Colts in the season opener. Rivers was 36 of 46 for 363 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, outshined by Jaguars counterpart Gardner Minshew II, who had one incompletion in 20 attempts while passing for173 yards and three touchdowns.

Jaguars rookie running back James Robinson rushed for 62 yards on 16 carries in his NFL debut en route to a 1,070-yard, seven-touchdown season that ultimately was cut short. After missing Jacksonville’s Week 16 home loss to Chicago with a left ankle injury that hampered him the previous week, the Jaguars announced Wednesday that Robinson would be shut down for the remainder of the season.

Robinson fell just 35 yards shy of breaking the league rushing record for an undrafted rookie.

“I could never, ever say enough about that guy, how hard he’s tried,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “He wants to come back. He wants to play.”

The same could be said for a healthy Minshew, but Marrone has confirmed that veteran Mike Glennon will start under center in the season finale, completing a quarterback carousel that saw Minshew, rookie Jake Luton and Glennon split starts after Minshew started the first seven games.

Glennon was 24-for-37 for 211 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 41-17 loss to the Bears, and he figures to have a depleted core of weapons against the Colts. Marrone said wide receiver Collin Johnson (hamstring) would be out Sunday, while fellow wideout D.J. Chark (shin) didn’t practice Wednesday.

–Field Level Media

Dec 17, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller (83) against the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Raiders hope to finish on high note at Broncos

Now that 2020 is ending without a postseason for the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos, the teams are looking toward 2021 already.

First, they have to wrap up this schedule and start making decisions for the next one, and that will happen when Las Vegas plays at Denver on Sunday afternoon.

For the Raiders (7-8), their first year in their new home was marked by missed opportunities that cost them a chance to get in the expanded playoff field. Las Vegas is the only team to beat the Kansas City Chiefs this season, but a flat performance against Atlanta and last-second losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins turned what could have been an 11-win season into a mediocre one.

Despite the tough losses, there is a silver lining. Tight end Darren Waller is on the verge of 100 receptions; his 98 catches (for 1,079 yards and eight touchdowns) are just seven shy of Tim Brown’s franchise record and earned him a Pro Bowl selection.

Running back Josh Jacobs is 24 yards from a second straight 1,000-yard rushing season and was also named to the Pro Bowl.

“Oh, they’re great,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of the duo. “(Waller’s) a man that’s on the verge of potentially breaking Tim Brown’s record, one I thought never would be broken. And Josh Jacobs, those are two great building blocks.”

Waller, Jacobs and the rest of the Las Vegas offense could have a big day against Denver’s banged-up defense. Linebacker Bradley Chubb, who was also named to the Pro Bowl, has an ankle injury that kept him out of last week’s loss at the Chargers.

Defensive end Shelby Harris (knee) and safety Trey Marshall (quadriceps) are also nursing injuries. Wide receiver KJ Hamler is in the concussion protocol.

The Raiders listed several players on their injury report — tackle Trent Brown (knee), defensive end Clelin Ferrell (shoulder), guard Denzelle Good (ankle), defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (calf) and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner (thigh).

Denver (5-10) failed to reach the postseason for the fifth straight year, matching the drought from 2006-10. The Broncos hoped to see quarterback Drew Lock make a big leap after he had an impressive ending to 2019, but the second-year QB out of Missouri has struggled.

Lock has thrown 15 interceptions and has at least one turnover in 11 straight games, but he hasn’t lost confidence in himself and embraces the pressure of being a franchise quarterback.

“You feel that from Day 1 when you’re playing quarterback for any team,” Lock said Wednesday. “It’s a given pressure that is put on you, but it’s one that I’m excited about. It’s one that I’m going to carry with me into the offseason, so I can have an offseason unlike any other.

“The only thing I need to prove is that we can win a game with me under center. That’s what every quarterback has to prove — take care of the ball, put us in a good position to win the game and finish it out with a win. That’s all I want to do, and that’s all I care to do. However that needs to happen and however it does happen, I’m going to do everything I can to get us that.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 28, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches from the sideline as they take on the Buffalo Bills in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Patriots in rare position against Jets in final contest

This is new territory for the New England Patriots.

When they finish the season Sunday at home against the New York Jets, it will mark the first time since 2008 that the last game of the regular season won’t be a tune-up for the playoffs.

At 6-9, New England will endure its first losing year since 2000, the first year Bill Belichick coached the team.

“Let’s finish what we started,” said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. “We started a race and obviously, we’re not going to win that race, but if we have that ability to do so, let’s finish that race and let’s finish it the right way.

“Let’s go out and represent ourselves in the best way possible, and not just ourselves: all the people that made the season possible for us.”

As recently as Week 14, it appeared there might be a path for New England to play January football. After a 45-0 shellacking of the Los Angeles Chargers, it was 6-6 and appearing to peak when Belichick teams tend to.

But the Patriots’ offense, a source of concern all year, simply petered out in the last three games. New England has scored just one touchdown — Cam Newton’s 9-yard run in the second quarter of Monday night’s 38-9 blowout loss to Buffalo — and 24 points.

That was the lone highlight for Newton, who was pulled in the third quarter after throwing for just 34 yards on 5 of 10 accuracy. Jarrett Stidham took over and wasn’t much better, going 4 of 11 for 44 yards.

Speculation is rife on whether Stidham will start against the Jets, although one might have better luck stopping Michael Jordan in his prime than getting Belichick to reveal the identity of his quarterback in Week 17.

“I think it’s a combination of things that we can all do better,” Belichick said about the offense.

Meanwhile, New York (2-13) may have disappointed those that were hoping for an 0-16 finish, but it’s pleased itself with back-to-back wins over playoff contenders.

After getting the bagel out of its win column with a 23-20 decision at the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15, the Jets kept Cleveland from clinching last week with a 23-16 verdict in the Meadowlands.

The consecutive victories aren’t likely to keep coach Adam Gase from getting fired after the season ends. And they kept New York from possibly drafting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence with the top overall pick, but they’ve given rookies like wide receiver Denzel Mims hope for the future.

“I think we just sat down, watched film and saw all the mistakes we were making,” he said. “We saw all the plays we left on the field. We’re just trying to do everything we can to get better.”

In the wins, quarterback Sam Darnold has looked like the guy capable of propelling the Jets to contention. After going 22 of 31 in his return to Los Angeles, the former USC star hit two crucial touchdown passes against Cleveland. And in both games, the mistakes that have consistently derailed this offense didn’t occur.

“Winning cures everything,” Darnold said. “When you win, the guys have more energy throughout the week.”

New York will play without starting running back Frank Gore (chest/lung) and backup La’Mical Perine (COVID-19). Ty Johnson will get most of the carries in New England.

–Field Level Media

Dec 27, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos in the third quarter at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Chiefs looking to stay healthy vs. Chargers

Apparently subbing for Patrick Mahomes provides a potential shot of youthful exuberance.

With the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs already secured by Kansas City (14-1), the Chiefs will rest their MVP candidate Sunday when they play host to the Los Angeles Chargers (6-9).

Mahomes’ backup, Chad Henne, is no stranger to the NFL. That didn’t prevent Chiefs coach Andy Reid, however, from telling his backup quarterback to go be a kid again.

“I think he’s excited,” Reid said. “I told him, ‘Act like you’re 20, man, and try to remember those days and feel it.’ He’s all in.”

Henne, 35, will start for the first time since the first three games of the 2014 season with Jacksonville. He entered as a reserve in two blowouts this season, completing 5 of 6 passes while rushing for one touchdown after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle.

Not quite the numbers Mahomes has posted leading Kansas City to 10 straight wins as the NFL passing leader with 4,740 yards.

The Chiefs have already established a club-best win total and can set another franchise record with an 11th consecutive win in the same season.

Nonetheless, Reid embraced the opportunity to rest several regulars before the Chiefs observe a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

“It’s crazy to think it’s my first (start) since 2014,” Henne said. “I got all my games in when I was young and then I had like a five- or six-year span where I didn’t get much playing time. I’m excited and excited about the group we’re going to have out there.”

The lineup could lack some firepower the Chiefs typically deploy.

Tyreek Hill (hamstring), Le’Veon Bell (knee), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) and Sammy Watkins (calf) all missed practice Wednesday. Travis Kelce could be another weapon the Chiefs sit since he has already set the NFL season record for receiving yardage (1,416) by a tight end and the franchise record for catches (105).

The Chargers carry a three-game winning streak behind Justin Herbert, who engineered game-winning drives in each of the three wins. The No. 6 overall pick from Oregon owns an NFL rookie record with 28 touchdown passes.

Herbert’s first start came in Week 2 against the Chiefs after a pain-killing injection punctured the lung of Tyrod Taylor. The Chargers, who started 2-7, took the Chiefs into overtime before falling 23-20 as Herbert passed for 311 yards and one touchdown.

“I think I’m a better teammate, son, friend because of all those tough times we had this year,” Herbert said. “I know I learned a lot going forward, I know I’m going to be better prepared for 2021.”

One question is whether he will be joined by fourth-year coach Anthony Lynn, who said he has not been given any indication on his future with Los Angeles.

“I am not concerned about that; I am concerned about Kansas City,” Lynn said.

Defensive end Joey Bosa (concussion), wide receiver Keenan Allen (hamstring) and safety Rayshawn Jenkins (ankle) are questionable for the Chargers.

–Field Level Media

Dec 20, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) hands the ball to running back Salvon Ahmed (26) during the second half against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Bills head to Miami looking to secure No. 2 seed

Miami needs a win in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Buffalo to guarantee its first postseason berth since 2016.

The Dolphins (10-5) can also get into the playoffs with one loss by either the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts or Baltimore Ravens.

The Bills (12-3) have already clinched their first division title since 1995, but a win would lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Miami will be without starting linebacker Elandon Roberts, who suffered a knee injury in last week’s win over the Las Vegas Raiders. Wide receiver/punt returner Jakeem Grant, who suffered an ankle injury against the Raiders, is expected miss the Buffalo game. Three other key Dolphins are questionable: receiver DeVante Parker (hamstring), guard Solomon Kindley (knee) and defensive end Shaq Lawson (shoulder).

For Buffalo, wide receiver Cole Beasley is doubtful due to a knee injury. He ranks second on the team in receptions (82) and receiving yards (967) and has four touchdowns this season.

If Beasley sits, that could open the way for rookie Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie to get more targets. Starting receiver John Brown (COVID-19 protocol) is already on injured reserve.

At quarterback, the Dolphins will again start rookie Tua Tagovailoa, who was benched in the fourth quarter against the Raiders and replaced by veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. Even though Fitzpatrick led Miami to victory, Dolphins coach Brian Flores said he is sticking with Tagovailoa as his No. 1.

“Tua has brought us a spark in many other games, but people forget that because they just remember the last thing,” Flores said. “I think Tua has played fairly well. People can disagree. We will agree to disagree in that case.”

Tagovailoa is 6-2 in eight starts this season and has done a good job of avoiding turnovers. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is an impressive 10-2. He is also completing 65.1 percent of his passes for 161.4 yards per game.

At times, however, Tagovailoa has been indecisive, which has led to 19 sacks (sack rate of 7.6 percent).

Fitzpatrick has been sacked 14 times with a sack rate of 5.0 percent, which is a sign that the 38-year-old veteran knows where he wants to go with the ball and gets rid of it quickly.

Overall, Fitzpatrick is completing 68.5 percent of his passes for 232.3 yards per game for 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His interception rate is much higher than Tagovailoa’s (3.0 to 0.9).

Fitzpatrick, who has never made the playoffs in his 16-year NFL career, is 4-3 as a starter this season.

For Buffalo, wide receiver Stefon Diggs is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week after catching nine passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns in Monday’s 38-9 road victory against the New England Patriots.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen has 34 touchdown passes this season, breaking Jim Kelly’s previous franchise record. Allen also has eight 300-yard games, which broke the previous team record set by Drew Bledsoe.

So far this season, Allen has passed for 4,320 yards at a completion rate of 69.1 percent.

“The records, this and that, it’s cool,” Allen said. “But the plan is to get us to 13-3 to give us a chance in the playoffs. The records don’t mean much if we can’t get it done.”

That quote ought to answer anyone who doubts the Bills will be playing to win on Sunday.

And a motivated Bills team is dangerous, especially with Diggs, who has already set a franchise record this season with a league-leading 1,459 receiving yards. Diggs, who also leads the NFL with 120 receptions, credits Allen.

“We have a young quarterback who’s balling,” Diggs said.

Buffalo’s top two running backs — Devin Singletary and Zack Moss — both have South Florida roots, and they have combined to rush for 1,153 yards and six TDs this season.

Allen is also a major threat to run, with 418 yards and eight touchdowns. But he has to be wary of turnovers — he has nine interceptions and nine total fumbles (six lost) this season.

–Field Level Media

Dec 14, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws the ball against Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (90) during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Browns treating visit by Steelers as ‘playoff game’

Technically, it’s not a must-win game for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season finale.

The Browns (10-5) can still slink into the playoffs with a loss, provided the right combination of other teams lose and/or win. But Cleveland isn’t viewing another showdown with the Steelers (12-3) in such a light.

“We’ve got to come ready to play like it’s a playoff game,” said Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt.

With a win, Cleveland is in. Pittsburgh already knows it will be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the postseason, which led to Mike Tomlin declaring this week that Ben Roethlisberger will get the week off. Backup Mason Rudolph will get his first start of the year.

The move adds more intrigue to the matchup. Last year, Cleveland broke a five-year non-winning streak against Pittsburgh in Cleveland with a 21-7 victory on Nov. 14, 2019. But in the closing moments, defensive end Myles Garret ripped off Rudolph’s helmet and swung it at the quarterback to spark an on-field brawl.

The incident led Garrett to be suspended for the final six games of last season. Garrett, who had 10 sacks through 10 games last season before the suspension, has 44 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 12 sacks this year.

Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski isn’t concerned about that subplot. Rudolph, who has just four passing attempts and 20 offensive snaps all season, had seven plays on the field during Pittsburgh’s 38-7 rout of the Browns in Week 6 this season.

“We talk about maintaining our composure in every single game, it’s nothing new this week,” Stefanski said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re keeping the main thing (in mind) and focusing on our work.”

Tomlin said the Garrett/Rudolph issue is a non-starter for him.

“That is so far in our rearview mirror that we can’t see it,” he said.

Cleveland has more pressing issues to address. The team temporarily closed its facility again on Wednesday following more positive COVID-19 tests within the organization.

On Tuesday, the team put tight end Harrison Bryant and safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Last Sunday, in a 23-16 loss to the New York Jets, the Browns played without their top four wide receivers, who were forced to sit out of the game because of contact tracing. The Browns are hopeful the receiving corps, including leader Jarvis Landry (789 yards), will be able to return against the Steelers.

Stefanski said Wednesday that rookie offensive tackle Jedrick Wills would return this week from a non-COVID-related illness, but the Browns weren’t sure when he will practice. Starting right guard Wyatt Teller (ankle) was also expected to be available after missing the last two games.

“We have to do everything in our power to win this week,” Stefanski said.

Pittsburgh rallied from a 17-point deficit last week to beat the Indianapolis Colts and lock up a playoff spot. The win snapped a three-game losing skid.

Pittsburgh secures the No. 2 seed with a win and a loss or tie by the Bills (12-3) against the Dolphins (10-5), but without a bye within reach, Tomlin said his team might benefit more by resting key players. He hasn’t said who, beyond Roethlisberger, will sit or for how long, but vowed the Steelers will play to win.

If the Bills and Steelers finish with identical records, Buffalo would receive the higher seed since the Bills defeated the Steelers, 26-15, on Dec. 13.

“The standard is the standard,” Tomlin said. “Our job is to win football games.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 14, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball past Cleveland Browns strong safety Karl Joseph (42) during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Ravens face improving Bengals with playoff spot at stake

The Baltimore Ravens will look to punch their ticket for a third straight trip to the playoffs with a win Sunday over host Cincinnati, which has won two straight games.

The Ravens (10-5) clinch a spot in the AFC playoffs by beating the Bengals (4-10-1), or if the Cleveland Browns (10-5) lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3), or via a loss by the Indianapolis Colts (10-5) to the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14).

The Ravens could also get in with a tie, if the Dolphins (10-5) lose to the Buffalo Bills (11-3) or if the Tennessee Titans (10-5) lose to the Houston Texans (4-11). If the Ravens and the Colts or Browns also tie, the Ravens would advance.

“You try not to look too far elsewhere, but we control our own fate, and that’s a great feeling,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “We’re just trying to get better and win this game, and the cards will fall how they fall.”

The Bengals are seeking to end the season on a three-game winning streak by defeating the Ravens for the first time in five meetings dating back to a 34-23 win in Cincinnati on Sept. 13, 2018.

The Ravens, who are coming off a victory over the New York Giants on Sunday, have won four straight games to control their postseason destiny.

“Obviously, we still have another one that we have to win,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “So, we’re still in the process of trying to finish this thing out the right way and get into the playoffs.”

Lamar Jackson has fueled the Ravens’ surge, throwing for 2,644 yards with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has also rushed for a team-high 908 yards and seven touchdowns, leading a rushing attack that also features Gus Edwards (663 yards, six TDs) and rookie J.K. Dobbins (645 yards, seven TDs).

The Ravens are the only team in the NFL history — based on data since 1932 — with three players who have rushed for at least 600 yards and six touchdowns in a season.

The Bengals have played their two best games of the season in consecutive weeks, following a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15 with a 37-31 win at Houston on Sunday.

Quarterback Brandon Allen threw for a career-high 371 yards, two touchdowns and a 126.5 passer rating against the Texans.

Tee Higgins, who is questionable for Sunday’s game (hamstring), had six catches for 99 yards and a score and Samaje Perine added 13 carries for 95 yards and two touchdowns as Cincinnati posted 540 yards of total offense. Perine will start against the Ravens after head coach Zac Taylor said Joe Mixon, the team’s leading rusher with 428 yards, remains sidelined with a foot injury suffered in Week 6.

Allen was forced into action after Joe Burrow, the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, tore his left ACL and MCL and also suffered partial tears to his PCL and meniscus during a 20-9 loss to Washington on Nov. 22.

“Winning two games in a row is really insignificant in this NFL, but it is significant for us right now, just everybody seeing what we’ve been through,” Taylor told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It means a lot to these guys and something to build off of.”

The Ravens had nine players sit out practice Wednesday including receiver Willie Snead (ankle), defensive backs Jimmy Smith (ribs, shoulder), Marcus Peters (calf) and Marlon Humphrey (shoulder), running back Mark Ingram (illness) and defensive end Calais Campbell (calf). Punter Sam Koch was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and his availability for Sunday’s game is unclear.

Cincinnati linebackers Logan Wilson (ankle) and Jordan Evans (hamstring), receiver Tyler Boyd (concussion) and center B.J. Finney (abdomen) all missed practice Wednesday after not playing against the Texans last week.

–Field Level Media

Dec 27, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) throws a pass in the third quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Giants and Cowboys clash for potential playoff berth

The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants both find themselves facing the same scenario heading into their regular-season finale on Sunday afternoon in East Rutherford, N.J. — win and wait.

The victor of their contest at MetLife Stadium will keep its NFC East Division title hopes alive for at least a few more hours. But both teams need a victory by the Philadelphia Eagles over the visiting Washington Football Team on Sunday night to clinch the crown and become just the fifth team since the NFL-AFL merger to enter the playoffs with a losing record, and only the third during a 16-game season.

The Giants (5-10), who bring a three-game losing streak into the contest, also could become the first team to advance to the postseason with a 6-10 record. Both Seattle (7-9, 2010) and Carolina (7-8-1, 2014) made the playoffs with losing marks while Cleveland and Detroit also qualified for a special 16-team playoff tournament with 4-5 records during the strike-shortened 1982 season.

Here’s the kicker. Providing they get an assist from the Eagles, the winner of Sunday’s elimination game not only gets to claim the NFC East crown but also will go into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and will likely host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round.

First-year Giants coach Joe Judge made it clear during a Zoom call with reporters that he wanted his team to concentrate on trying to snap its seven-game losing streak to the Cowboys (6-9) and not the possibility of playing in the postseason.

“Our focus still needs to remain on the Cowboys,” Judge said. “That’s the priority this week. We remain focused on improving as a team. We have a division rival coming up ahead, it’s a big game for us. Obviously, there are implications. As I’ve said all along, those games now don’t exist. Until I can talk about any kind of opponent coming up beyond who we’re playing, there’s not a conversation to be had. Our focus remains on the Cowboys.”

“I’m just focused on Dallas,” added center Nick Gates. “We have to beat Dallas first to be able to even think about the playoffs. After we beat them, we have to see if Washington wins. I’m just focused on Dallas and trying to give ourselves the best opportunity.”

The Cowboys bring a three-game winning streak into the contest including a 37-17 victory over the Eagles last Sunday as Andy Dalton threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns and Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 105 yards on 19 carries.

“A win is a win. No matter how you get there, a win is a win,” Elliott said when asked about the possibility of winning the NFC East with a losing record. “So, I mean, if we win the division at 7-9, it’s the same as winning it at 14-2.”

Besides, many wrote the Cowboys off after losing starting quarterback Dak Prescott to a season-ending injury in the first meeting with the Giants in Week 5. Dalton came off the bench to finish 9 of 11 for 111 yards and lead a game-winning drive capped by Greg Zuerlein’s 34-yard field goal as time expired in the 37-34 victory.

“You go into the playoffs with a 0-0 record, so I mean, winning the division, it doesn’t matter what the record is.” Elliott, who needs 63 rushing yards to hit the 1,000-mark, said. “If you win it, you win it.”

Four Cowboys — safeties Darian Thompson (concussion) and Donovan Wilson (illness), linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (ankle) and cornerback Rashard Robinson (knee) — didn’t practice Wednesday while corner Chidobe Awuzie (hamstring, groin) and safety Xavier Woods (ribs) were limited. All-Pro guard Zack Martin, on injured reserve with a calf injury, and defensive back Steven Parker (ankle) were both designated for return but owner Jerry Jones said on his radio show it was “unlikely” Martin, who didn’t practice Wednesday, would play Sunday.

Wide receiver Golden Tate (calf) and fullback Eli Penny (illness) both did not practice Wednesday for the Giants but quarterback Daniel Jones (hamstring) was a full participant as was corner Darnay Holmes (knee). Tight end Evan Engram (calf), safety Jabrill Peppers (ankle) and wide receiver Sterling Shepard (ribs) were limited.

–Field Level Media