Fri Jan 22 4:53pm ET
By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo addresses the media during a news conference at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., in this Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, file photo. All four defensive coordinators who will be trying to shut down high-powered offenses in the NFL playoffs this weekend have been head coaches before, providing valuable experience in the conference championships. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
This is a 2019 file photo showing Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL football team. All four defensive coordinators who will be trying to shut down high-powered offenses in the NFL playoffs this weekend have been head coaches before, providing valuable experience in the conference championships. (AP Photo/File)
Buffalo Bills Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier walks the field before an NFL divisional round football game against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. All four defensive coordinators who will be trying to shut down high-powered offenses in the NFL playoffs this weekend have been head coaches before, providing valuable experience in the conference championships.(AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator Mike Pettine addresses the media during a press conference in Green Bay, Wisc., in this Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, file photo. All four defensive coordinators who will be trying to shut down high-powered offenses in the NFL playoffs this weekend have been head coaches before, providing valuable experience in the conference championships. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke, File)
All four NFL teams playing in the conference championships have a defensive coordinator who flopped as a head coach but who has the chops as a lieutenant to help his team and his head coach get to the Super Bowl.
The NFC championship pits high-powered offenses led by Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, who is making his 14th title game appearance, and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who is starting in his fifth conference title game but first at Lambeau Field.
Which of the iconic quarterbacks makes it to Super Bowl 55 in Tampa next month might come down to the chess moves made by Mike Pettine of the Packers and Todd Bowles of the Buccaneers on Sunday.
In the third consecutive AFC championship contested at Arrowhead Stadium, it's Steve Spagnuolo trying to outwit Bills breakout quarterback Josh Allen and Leslie Frazier tasked with prying the Lamar Hunt trophy from the grip of Chiefs young star QB Patrick Mahomes.
Together, the four defensive coordinators won just 33.6% of their games as head coaches in the NFL and made it to a single playoff game (Frazier's Vikings lost to Green Bay in a wild-card game in January 2013). But all are credited with providing a steady helping hand, a sturdy shoulder and a willing ear to their team's current head coach.
Pettine went 10-22 (.313) as head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 2014-15, before joining Matt LaFleur, who was named Packers head coach in 2018 after just two seasons as an offensive coordinator, a year each with the Rams and Titans.
Pettine, 54, has provided LaFleur, 41, not only advice on the bigger things but suggestions on the day-to-day routines, as well.
''From the first day that we started working together, he's been just a great sounding board because he's been through a lot of these situations in terms of practice schedules and certainly many other things,'' LaFleur said. ''I think he's been awesome for me; a great resource for us as we've built this thing over the last two years.''
Bowles, 57, compiled a 26-41 mark (.388) as New York Jets head coach from 2015-18. He was fired around the same time Bruce Arians, 68, came out of retirement to take the Buccaneers' head coaching job in 2019. Arians brought along Bowles, whom he coached at Temple in the mid-1980s and who had been his defensive coordinator in Arizona from 2013-14.
Before Brady turned around Tampa Bay's fortunes in 2020, leading them to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, it was Bowles who made his mark on the Bucs.
The Bucs led the league in rushing defense for the second straight year in 2020 and have improved from No. 27 in total defense the year before Bowles arrived to No. 6 in two years.
''Todd is one of those guys, he's here at 4:30 (a.m.), so there's guys coming in the door to sit down and watch film with him every single day,'' Arians said. ''Todd does a great job. He's a great communicator, he's a great teacher. It's really, really helped their growth as players and their confidence, too.''
Frazier, 61, went 21-33-1 (.391) in Minnesota from 2010-13. A defensive back on the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, he was among the first hires by head coach Sean McDermott, 46, in 2017.
McDermott has talked about how Frazier's experience has been invaluable to him, and how he uses him as a sounding board on addressing issues within the team.
Frazier called it ''an honor to stand alongside Sean,'' and said that while some of their conversations have been challenging, he appreciates his voice being valued. It began with Frazier saying he didn't want McDermott to make the same mistakes he did as a first-time head coach.
''Now, you have to be an ego-less guy in Sean's shoes to take some of that conversation and not feel threatened,'' Frazier said. ''So I just appreciate his willingness to allow me to share my thoughts and then to listen and give feedback. I have to be able to not be prideful if he says no, let's do it this way or that way to let it go.
''At the end of the day, these have to be his decisions. I'm so thankful that I worked with a guy and we could have that type of dialogue and come to a conclusion that's best for our team and someone willing to utilize my experience,'' Frazier added. ''That's not always the case. It's a business with a lot of egos, a lot of people concerned with who gets the credit.''
Spagnuolo, 61, compiled an 11-41 record (.212) as head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2009-11 and as interim head coach of the New York Giants in 2017, when he went 1-3. He joined Andy Reid, 62, in Kansas City in 2019 and played a big role in turning around the Chiefs' defense in their Super Bowl-winning season a year ago.
Spagnuolo didn't shy away when asked a couple of weeks ago whether he wanted another crack at a head coaching job.
''Certainly. The fire burns in me for that,'' Spagnuolo said. ''I had that one opportunity, things didn't work out. But, yeah, listen, I want to say this: I'm really happy with the job I've got. I'm good there.
''But someday I would love that opportunity.''
Interview with a Champ
The Chicago Bears are hiring Sean Desai as their new defensive coordinator on Friday, according to sources. He'll become the first person of Indian descent to become a coordinator in the NFL. Desai will be replacing Chuck Pagano at the position after he announced his retirement following the conclusion of the 2020 season. Desai had previously been working as the team's safeties coach, originally joining the Bears franchise in 2013 as a quality control assistant. He was promoted to safeties coach in 2019, so he has familiarity with Chicago's defense for the last seven years. The Bears Defense has plenty of potential to improve in 2021 under Desai, but they'll need more out of pass-rushers Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks up front.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle) is listed as questionable for the NFC Championship game against the Packers after missing practice on Friday. The 22-year-old safety practiced in full on Thursday, so this is definitely something to keep an eye on as Sunday's big game approaches. Losing the talented defensive back would be a downgrade for the Buccaneers Defense in fantasy in an already tough matchup against Aaron Rodgers and company. Winfield had a combined 94 tackles (64 solo), one interception, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and three sacks in 16 regular season games. He also had a big forced fumble in the win over the Saints in the Divisional Round last weekend.
Buffalo Bills rookie wide receiver Gabriel Davis (ankle) and defensive tackle Vernon Butler (quadriceps) are both questionable for the AFC Championship against the Chiefs on Sunday. Both players missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday before getting in a limited session on Friday, so they'll have a chance to be active this weekend. If healthy, the rookie wideout will serve in four-receiver sets alongside Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown. The 21-year-old fourth-round pick has been serviceable for the Bills this year with 35 receptions (62 targets) for 599 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, but he whiffed on four targets last week and has just four catches for 85 yards in the two postseason games. As the fourth wideout in a stacked Bills offense, it's hard to expect Davis to produce much if he plays. Isaiah McKenzie would see an expanded role if Davis is inactive.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Scotty Miller may have a bigger role in the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Miller saw more playing time last week when Antonio Brown (knee) left the field with an injury, hauling in a 29-yard reception. Now, Brown has been ruled out- while Tyler Johnson could be a factor in the passing game, the coaching staff appears to favor Miller a bit more. The 23-year-old has exceeded 70 receiving yards in four games this year, as he and Tom Brady showed nice chemistry on passes downfield. Miller does have some risk, but he is a low-cost option with decent upside against the Packers this week.
Kansas City Chiefs running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip) and Le'Veon Bell (knee), wide receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) and cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland (shoulder) and Rashad Fenton (foot) are all questionable for the AFC Championship against the Bills. Bell missed practice the last two days, while the others were limited in practice all week, so Bell is the only one on the wrong side of questionable. Edwards-Helaire is expected to play, but he's been out since Week 15 and could lose valuable touches to Darrel Williams, especially if Bell is inactive. Still, the 21-year-old rookie would have the most fantasy upside as the likely leader of this backfield against Buffalo. Watkins has been out since Week 16 and will be a risky boom/bust fantasy pass-catcher if he suits up for the first time this postseason. His presence would be bad news for Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson.
Buffalo Bills wide receivers Stefon Diggs (oblique) and Cole Beasley (knee) will not have injury designations heading into Sunday's AFC Championship game against the Chiefs. Kicker Tyler Bass (hand) is also off the final injury report after practicing in full all week. Diggs has been fighting through an oblique injury late in the season, but it hasn't slowed him down one bit, as the 27-year-old All-Pro has 14 catches on 20 targets for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the two playoff games against the Colts and Ravens. Diggs led the league in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535) during the regular season and is worth the high DFS price against KC. Beasley likely won't be 100 percent the rest of the way, but he'll remain a trustworthy third-down weapon for Josh Allen. Beasley could be even more attractive on Sunday if rookie Gabriel Davis (ankle) is limited or inactive.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (concussion) said that he has been cleared from the league's concussion protocol, which makes him good to go for the AFC Championship against the Bills on Sunday. He was on the practice field on Friday, and head coach Andy Reid said that Mahomes took all of the snaps in Wednesday's practice and most of them on Thursday. The All-Pro signal-caller didn't actually suffer a blow to the head when he was forced to leave the Divisional Round against the Browns, so it was expected all along that he'd be available this weekend. The 25-year-old might be a tad bit more risky given his high DFS price against Buffalo, but Mahomes should be all systems go and has as much upside as any QB this weekend among Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Josh Allen.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are officially activating defensive tackle Vita Vea (leg) from Injured Reserve on Friday, and he will be eligible to play in the NFC Championship game against the Packers on Sunday, according to a source. Vea has been out of action since fracturing his leg in Week 5, but he'll be in the trenches for Tampa's strong defensive front in an effort to slow down quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. Rakeem Nunez-Roches has been holding down the fort at defensive tackle with Vea out this year. We wouldn't be surprised if Vea is limited in how many snaps he can play in his first game back, though, so don't be surprised if Nunez-Roches continues to play a big role. Either way, it's a slight upgrade for a Buccaneers Defense that has a tall task ahead of them at Lambeau Field.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) has been ruled out for the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Brown's knee injury that he suffered in the divisional round win over the Saints wasn't deemed serious- though he was unable to take the practice field on Wednesday and Thursday. While head coach Bruce Arians said that his star wideout wouldn't need to practice to play, he also noted this morning that the knee would swell from the team's flight to Green Bay, so playing him wouldn't make much sense. Fellow wideouts Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller will take on a larger role in the offense. Miller makes for a potential value DFS play, as he and Tom Brady showcased the ability to make big plays down the field earlier this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement from the NFL on Friday. McDonald was a second-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. He spent four years with the Niners before being traded to Pittsburgh shortly before the 2017 season. McDonald played in 101 career games (77 starts) and finished with 181 catches for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. In his four years with the Steelers, McDonald reeled in 117 passes for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns in 53 games (47 starts). His best season came in 2018, when he caught 50 passes for 610 yards (12.2 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. The 30-year-old dealt with his fair share of injuries in eight seasons. His retirement will save the team $5.2 million in salary cap space heading into the 2021 season.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' (foot, shoulder) wife Brittany revealed that the 42-year-old signal-caller was playing through a torn rotator cuff and a torn fascia in his foot. "He's as courageous and as tough a player as I've ever been around," head coach Sean Payton said, via The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Brees' injuries likely played a part in his struggles pushing the ball downfield, and he threw three interceptions in what will be the final game of his storied career in the Divisional Round loss to the Buccaneers. He has yet to make his retirement official, but it's expected to come eventually, especially after playing through other injuries that we didn't know about. If this is the end, Brees will go down in NFL history as one of the greatest to ever play the position.
Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams led the NFL with 23 red zone receptions and 14 red zone touchdowns in 2020, and his 46 red zone touchdowns since 2016 are 17 more than any other player.
Fantasy Spin: Adams led the NFL with 18 receiving touchdowns, tied for second with 115 receptions and finished in a tie for fifth in receiving yards. His status as the unquestioned go-to target for Aaron Rodgers should continue to make him one of the safest fantasy options at any position for the foreseeable future.
Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry led all running backs with 75 forced missed tackles this season, and his 1,490 rushing yards after contact were the most in the league.
Fantasy Spin: Henry has been a fantasy monster since Ryan Tannehill took over as the Tennessee quarterback. His massive workload will likely take a toll at some point, but there is no reason he shouldn't deliver another RB1 campaign in 2021.
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers led the NFL with 1,242 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield during the 2020 season.
Fantasy Spin: Rodgers also led the league in touchdown passes in a season that could net him MVP honors for the third time and a second Super Bowl ring. After seeing his numbers dip a bit the last couple of years, he is back in the mix of top-five fantasy options at the quarterback position heading into next season.
Things are trending in the right direction for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (concussion) to play in the AFC Championship against the Bills on Sunday. Mahomes was limited in practice for the second straight day on Thursday and took the majority of the snaps on offense, a good sign that he didn't suffer a setback after practicing on Wednesday. The hope is that he's a full participant in practice on Friday, which means he'd likely be on his way toward being cleared from the league's protocol before Sunday. The 25-year-old former MVP will be a tad more risky at his elevated DFS price against Buffalo coming off a head injury that knocked him out of the Divisional Round game against the Browns, but Mahomes should put up numbers in what could be a high-scoring affair this weekend as long as he doesn't suffer another head injury.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to hire Darrell Bevell as their new offensive coordinator, according to sources. Several teams were trying to hire Bevell after he finished the 2020 season as the Detroit Lions interim head coach. The 51-year-old was the offensive coordinator in Detroit the last two years, with the team averaging 22.5 points per game and 348.5 total yards per game in his two seasons at the helm. Bevell became the Seahawks offensive coordinator in 2011, 11 seasons after breaking into the NFL as an assistant quarterbacks coach with Green Bay. He made back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl with Seattle in 2013-14 and won one championship. His biggest task will be working with a likely rookie quarterback -- expected to be Clemson's Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall selection in the draft -- to mold Jacksonville's offense to the young signal-caller's strengths.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (quadriceps) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Godwin should be ready for the NFC Championship game as long as he does not suffer a setback. He will see plenty of targets against the Green Bay Packers and can be a starting option in all fantasy leagues.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (knee) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Evans continues to be one of the main options in the passing game when healthy and is a must-start option in all fantasy leagues if active.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (finger, quadriceps) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.
Fantasy Spin: Jones shared playing time with Leonard Fournette in the last game but may see a few more touches this week. He can be a starting option in most fantasy leagues.