Thu Jan 21 4:38pm ET
By JOHN WAWROW
AP Sports Writer
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, left, talks to Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott before an NFL divisional round football game Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
IN this Jan. 30, 1994 file photo, Buffalo Bills' Bruce Smith holds up his injured hand during the third quarter of Super Bowl XXVIII against the Dallas Cowboys in Atlanta. Smith is happy seeing the Buffalo Bills finally back in the AFC championship game for the first time in 27 years. What excites him more is a belief the team seems poised for long-term success in drawing comparisons of Buffalo's team in 1988, which would eventually go on to make, and lose, four straight Super Bowl appearances starting in '91. (AP Photo /John J. Gaps III, File)
Buffalo Bills fans leave Bills Stadium as a mascot waves a flag after an NFL divisional round football game against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Bills won 17-3. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) celebrates after an NFL divisional round football game against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Bills won 17-3. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) Win or lose, and make no mistake Bruce Smith is rooting for the Bills to beat the Chiefs on Sunday, the NFL's career leader in sacks is confident Buffalo's future is bright.
''This is just the beginning,'' Smith told The Associated Press by phone this week.
''It's been fun to watch the process. It's unfolded right before our very eyes,'' he added. ''We've got a great foundation of guys that are playing at high levels.''
The Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end is referring to Buffalo's young Josh Allen-led collection of stars who have helped transform a losing franchise into a bona fide contender in four seasons under coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane.
The Bills (15-3), traveling to play top-seeded Kansas City (15-2), are making their first AFC championship game appearance in 27 years and are one win short of their first Super Bowl berth since 1994. It's a remarkable - and to Smith, long-awaited - turnaround for a franchise that endured a 17-year playoff drought which ended in 2017, following McDermott and Beane's arrival.
Aside from Allen, a third-year starter, the Bills' core includes third-year middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, fourth-year cornerback Tre'Davious White, and sixth-year receiver Stefon Diggs, who still has three years left on his contract.
In many ways Smith can see the parallels comparing where the Bills are today to Buffalo's 1988 team he was a member of, and was poised to begin dominating the conference.
''I think there was a realization that we were on the brink of becoming a damn good football team,'' Smith said of the Bills who would go on to lose the AFC championship game to Cincinnati. Two years later, Buffalo began a run of making - and losing - four straight Super Bowl appearances.
The Bills' lineup in 1988 featured four eventual Pro Football Hall of Famers in Smith, quarterback Jim Kelly, receiver Andre Reed and then-rookie running back Thurman Thomas. And the team was headed by eventual Hall of Famers in coach Marv Levy and GM Bill Polian.
Though it's far too early to project today's group, Smith credited McDermott for establishing a winning culture, and Beane for methodically addressing deficiencies through the draft, free agency and trades.
Beane's most impressive splash came in March when he traded a first-round draft pick to Minnesota to acquire Diggs, an All-Pro who became Buffalo's first player to lead the NFL in yards receiving (1,535) and catches (127).
It's no different than Polian's move to acquire then-rookie linebacker Cornelius Bennett in a three-team trade involving Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Rams in 1987. Bennett would become a fixture on Buffalo's defense for the next seven seasons.
Former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley also sees similarities to '88.
''This is where we were at. They're right there at the cusp of that,'' said Talley.
He began envisioning Buffalo's potential at the end of the 1987 strike-shortened season. The Bills finished 7-8, capping a string of six seasons in which they went a combined 27-61 under four coaches. Buffalo would then make the playoffs in eight of the next 10 years.
Talley recalled a conversation he had sitting next to Bennett following a 1987 season-ending loss at Philadelphia.
''I told him, `Dude, you know what, if they leave us together, we're going to be pretty damn good,`'' Talley said. ''And when we came out in '88, everybody looked at us like, `Where the hell did they all come from?' And that started the year before.''
The memories come flooding back for Talley.
''Phew, you don't know how enjoyable it is,'' he said before referring to Buffalo's 17-3 win over Baltimore on Saturday.
''When they won, I felt like I won a playoff game because it's been so long since I've gotten to see the Bills in the postseason,'' he said. ''Now that they're doing some of the things that we did, now that they're embarking on where we went, yes, I'm all in.''
So is Smith, who has had several opportunities to address the Bills at McDermott's request over the past few years.
''Some of the things that I would talk to them about was: `Guys, there's a tremendous amount of history that's in this organization that was made by Jim and Thurman, myself and Darryl and Cornelius and so many others. But it's time for you to make your history,''' Smith said. ''Ours is already written and so forth and so on, but it's time. And I think they're built to handle that.''
Interview with a Champ
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has led his team on a six-game winning streak all the way up to Aaron Rodgers' doorstep at Lambeau Field for the NFC title game. Brady is playing some of the best football of his career in those six games, a stretch that includes the playoffs, where he's thrown for 580 passing yards, four passing scores, and one rushing touchdown against two of the league's better overall defenses. Tampa Bay may try to attack the Packers with the ground game, a formula that helped lead to their Week 6 blowout win. Brady might not provide the upside that the other quarterbacks on the slate can deliver, but he's been a safe, dependable option. That should continue on Sunday against Green Bay.
Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator officially announced his retirement on Thursday after 25 seasons of coaching in the NFL. He was hired in Minnesota in 2019 to be the team's assistant head coach/offensive advisor, serving as the offensive coordinator in 2020. The 59-year-old was leaning toward retirement after the season, but he has made it official. The Vikings will have their sixth offensive coordinator in eight seasons in 2021. The team ranked fourth in yards per game (393.3) and finished 11th in points at 26.9 per game in 2020 under Kubiak. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had a career year and running back Dalvin Cook made Pro Bowls each of the last two seasons. Kubiak will retire with four Super Bowl rings to his name -- one as Denver's head coach, back-to-back titles in 1997-98 as Denver's offensive coordinator and his first Super Bowl ring in 1994 as the 49ers quarterbacks coach.
The Los Angeles Rams officially hired Raheem Morris to be their next defensive coordinator on Thursday. Morris will be replacing Brandon Staley, who was hired as the Chargers head coach last Sunday. The 44-year-old will bring 18 years of NFL coaching experience on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. He served as the interim head coach of the Falcons for their final 11 games in 2020. Morris was with Atlanta the last six seasons. He was the youngest head coach in the league in 2009 when he was hired by the Buccaneers. Morris started his NFL coaching career as a defensive quality control coach for Tampa in 2002 and was promoted to assistant defensive backs coach in 2004. He worked with head coach Sean McVay a combined four seasons with the Bucs and Washington. Morris will take over a nasty defense led by All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The Rams D will likely be the first fantasy unit off the board in 2021 drafts.
The New York Jets are hiring Jeff Ulbrich as their defensive coordinator, and he will call plays on defense for the Jets in 2021. Ulbrich started last year as the Atlanta Falcons assistant head coach and linebackers coach, and he was promoted to defensive coordinator when Raheem Morris took over as the interim head coach in October. In six seasons as the team's linebackers coach, Ulbrich mentored players like Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Foye Oluokun. He was a third-round pick of the 49ers in 2000, recording 488 career tackles, six forced fumbles, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions with San Francisco from 2000-09. Head coach Robert Saleh and Ulbrich coached together in 2011 with the Seahawks under Pete Carroll.
The Philadelphia Eagles are hiring Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni as their next head coach on Thursday, according to sources. Sirianni spent three seasons as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, five seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers and the past three years with the Colts. The Colts went 4-12 and ranked 30th in the league in points and 31st in yards in 2017, the year before Sirianni joined Indy. In the last three years, the Colts ranked fifth, 16th and ninth in scoring under the 39-year-old and made the playoffs twice. Sirianni becomes the Eagles second-youngest head coach and the fourth straight offensive-minded head coach under owner Jeffrey Lurie. He's also the team's seventh straight head coach with no previous head-coaching experience, and one of his primary jobs will be to see if the team can salvage their relationship with quarterback Carson Wentz and turn him around after the worst season of his career.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) hasn't practiced yet this week and will be a game-time decision for the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, according to head coach Bruce Arians. Brown is still being listed as day-to-day, but fantasy managers should consider him very questionable to suit up this weekend. Even if the 32-year-old veteran does play, he'll be a risky touchdown-dependent option and will be at risk of seeing fewer snaps in an offense with plenty of pass-catching weapons. He'll need to get in at least a limited practice on Friday to have a chance at playing. Rookie Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller should see more opportunities behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin if Brown is inactive against the Packers.
Former Baltimore Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen is joining the Jacksonville Jaguars and new head coach Urban Meyer as the team's defensive coordinator, according to sources. Cullen becomes the third defensive assistant to leave the Ravens Defense since the 2020 season ended, joining Mike Macdonald and Jesse Minter. He had spent the last five seasons with the Ravens and will return to the Jaguars after serving as a defensive line coach from 2010-12 with them. It will be Cullen's first job as a defensive coordinator in the NFL after being a D coordinator at Richmond and Indiana. Jacksonville's defense ranked 31st in sacks (18) and 29th in fumble recoveries (five) while allowing the second-most points (492), ninth-most passing yards per game (270.1) and third-most rushing yards per game (153.3) in 2020.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are planning to sign former first-round quarterback Dwayne Haskins on Thursday, according to sources. Haskins is meeting with Steelers coaches right now and a deal should be hammered out if all goes well. He was cut by the Washington Football Team in late December after just 13 starts in less than two years. Haskins also visited the Carolina Panthers. Ben Roethlisberger's future is in doubt after a rough second half of the season, and the Steelers didn't upgrade their quarterback room of Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs last year. Despite struggling in his first two years, Haskins has a strong arm, but poor mechanics and struggles to read defenses have led to inconsistent play so far. A change of scenery and proper coaching could turn things around for Haskins, but he'll still be off the fantasy radar in redraft leagues in 2021.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Le'Veon Bell (knee) was added to the injury report and did not practice on Thursday. Linebacker Willie Gay (ankle) also missed his second straight practice this week. Mid-week additions are usually not a good sign, but the Chiefs might just be giving the veteran Bell a little extra rest ahead of the AFC Championship tilt against the Bills on Sunday. Bell's practice status on Friday will be telling. The 28-year-old just hasn't looked like his old self in KC while mainly splitting touches with rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but Bell hasn't really taken advantage of CEH's injury late in the season. He carried the ball just two times for six yards in the Divisional Round against the Browns and has just nine carries for 36 yards in two games with Edwards-Helaire sidelined. It's looking like the rookie will return against Buffalo, too, which makes Bell one to avoid in fantasy lineups.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (concussion) is practicing again on Thursday with a helmet. Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip), wide receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) and cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland (concussion, shoulder) and Rashad Fenton (foot) are also practicing. Mahomes might be limited again on Thursday, but he appears to be making good progress in the league's concussion protocol after clearing some steps initially on Monday. While he's not officially out of the protocol, the 25-year-old is expected to suit up in the AFC Championship against the Bills on Sunday after leaving the Divisional Round with a concussion. Mahomes will be a bit more risky at a high DFS price this weekend, but he did throw for 225 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo earlier this year and could easily go off if he's past his concussion issues from a week ago.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown (knee) was not seen Thursday, Jan. 21, in the portion of practice open to the media. Afterward, head coach Bruce Arians said he expects Brown's status for the NFC Championship Game on Sunday to come down to a game-time decision, adding that Brown doesn't necessarily need to practice this week in order to play.
Fantasy Spin: Brown was limited to 40 percent of the offensive snaps and one 10-yard reception on three targets in the divisional-round win over the Saints, but his status is obviously very much in question this week. Even if he does play, it's tough to imagine Brown seeing a ton of snaps or having a big impact.
Kansas City Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins (calf) is participating in practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Watkins, who was limited in practice Wednesday, hasn't played since Week 16, and upping his participation level Thursday or Friday will go a long way toward doing so.
Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (concussion, toe) is participating in practice with a helmet Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Another necessary step as Mahomes navigates the concussion protocol this week. There will be a forthcoming update regarding his level of participation Thursday.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown (knee) was out of practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: He's still expected to play in the NFC Championship game, and he'll be a WR2 option in playoff leagues.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are retaining defensive coordinator Keith Butler for at least one more season, according to a source. The 64-year-old has been with the team since 2003 and in his role as the defensive coordinator since 2015. Pittsburgh's defense was a top-five unit in 2020, finishing first in total QBR (55.9) and sacks (56). However, they began to fall apart in the final month of the season. They allowed 111.4 rushing yards per game and 4.31 yards per carry after being the best run defense in the first half of the year. They ranked third in the NFL in passing yards per game (194.4) and yards per attempt (5.91). Losing linebackers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree to injuries during the season was a big reason why Pittsburgh's defense wasn't as strong to close out the year. Despite the disappointing finish, this unit should be a top target for fantasy managers late in drafts in 2021.
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said on Wednesday that he's "not apologizing" for quarterback Lamar Jackson's style of play or the team's run-first approach on offense. Baltimore scored just three points in the Divisional Round loss to the Bills, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman received criticism for what looked like a simplistic passing attack. The Ravens finished last in the NFL in passing for the first time since 2003. Harbaugh points out that they finished seventh in scoring in 2020, averaging 29.3 points per game. While Baltimore doesn't air the football out like other teams, they've also led the league in rushing each of the last two years, and Jackson has been a big part of that. Despite his limitations as a passer, Jackson remains a high-end QB1 for fantasy managers entering the 2021 season. Running back J.K. Dobbins will only see his stock rise as well in one of the NFL's most run-heavy offenses heading into his second season.
Former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Hue Jackson interviewed for the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator opening this week.
The Buffalo Bills Defense has improved dramatically since their Week 11 bye, allowing only 17.1 points per game, fewer than 340 total yards per game and just a 35.1 third-down conversion rate since Week 12. Buffalo's D held the Baltimore Ravens to just three points and 340 total yards in the their win in the Divisional Round last weekend. The Bills defense made a point to limit big plays in their Week 6 loss to the Chiefs. They held wide receiver Tyreek Hill to three catches for 20 yards and tight end Travis Kelce to five catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns. KC carried the ball 46 times for 245 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Buffalo will have their hands full again and will probably be avoided in most DFS formats this weekend, making them mostly a contrarian play if Patrick Mahomes (concussion) is active.
Former Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins has a visit with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, according to sources. Haskins could represent potential quarterback depth and upside. The free agent and former first-round pick also had a recent visit with the Carolina Panthers after being cut by Washington after their Week 16 loss. Although Ben Roethlisberger is expected to return for another season in 2021 following a disappointing end to their season, the Steelers could use more depth behind Big Ben and Mason Rudolph, with Joshua Dobbs being the other signal-caller currently on the roster. The 23-year-old Haskins has struggled mightily in his two seasons in the NFL, and he hasn't helped himself with some off-field issues. He's hoping to rehabilitate his image and eventually get another shot with a new organization.