Sat Jan 23 3:34am ET
By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins (82) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) after catching a pass during the second half of an NFL divisional round football game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Kansas City. The Chiefs won 22-17. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) returns an interception during the second half of an NFL divisional round football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Two years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were coming off an AFC championship heartbreak against the New England Patriots that rested largely on the shoulders of their defense, which couldn't stop Tom Brady and Co. in overtime.
Not enough talent? Maybe. Not enough playmakers? Absolutely.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and coach Andy Reid knew they needed to rectify the problem or risk squandering the best years of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. So they hired Steve Spagnuolo to coordinate the defense, traded for elite pass rusher Frank Clark, drafted wisely and - perhaps most importantly - outbid the Texans for safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The Honey Badger has made that $42 million, three-year deal look like a bargain.
After helping the Chiefs win their first Super Bowl in five decades last season, Mathieu has followed up with what can only be described as the best season of his career. He has seven interceptions, including one in last week's divisional-round win over Cleveland, and has become the biggest playmaker on a defense that suddenly seems underappreciated.
''He's a great player,'' said Bills coach Sean McDermott, whose team offense gets the next crack at the Honey Badger in the AFC championship game Sunday. ''Watched his career unfold at LSU and the different places he's been - he brings a lot of energy and juice to their team, and their defense in this case.''
The numbers alone are impressive. Mathieu has picked off five passes in the past seven games, and he returned one for a touchdown against New England earlier this season. Quarterback ratings plummet when they throw in his direction, and his versatility is evident in the fact that he has tackles-for-loss in three of his past five games.
No wonder he was voted an All-Pro for the second straight year and the third time in his career.
''Just the energy he brings, what he's saying to guys on the sideline or in the huddle - they trust him,'' Spagnuolo said. ''They believe in him. The guy is a winner. He's made plays for us, and when you get enough guys like that you have a unit.''
It's hard to find another guy like Mathieu, though, with his unique ability to wreak havoc from his ''robber'' position. He bounces around the field like a pinball, both before the snap and after, putting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks to make sure they know where he is on any given play.
On a quarter of snaps this season, he's lined up in the deep safety spot. In about a third, he's lined up in the box to provide run support. On almost 40% of snaps, he has lined up in the slot, essentially becoming an extra cornerback.
In other words, Spagnuolo is using Mathieu in ways he's never used another player in 40 years in coaching.
''I hadn't thought about it until you just said that,'' Spagnuolo said, ''but I'd probably say yes, that we have gone a little more beyond, because there are some things that we do with him now that I don't recall us doing in prior places.
''First and foremost, him from the chin to the hairline, you're talking about an intelligent football player that loves it. You know that if you feed something to Tyrann, he's going to get it and he's going to know why,'' Spagnuolo said. ''We lay out all of these plans and you go from Monday to Saturday and into Sunday, but things change so quick on game day. The one thing about Tyrann is you can go over to him and say, `Let's tweak this or do that.' He knows exactly why and he does it.''
He gets everybody else to do it, too. The middle linebacker may call the defensive plays - for the Chiefs, that's Anthony Hitchens - but Mathieu is often the one making sure everybody everybody knows what is going on.
Then he takes care of his own business.
''I think any position on the field allows you the chance to make plays,'' Mathieu said. ''It's all about staying committed.
''Early in the season I wasn't making those plays,'' he continued, ''and as a high competitor you can get out of it thinking none of those plays is ever going to come to you. For me, it's just about staying involved, staying committed to what my coaches want me doing.''
Interview with a Champ
Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King (back) is listed as questionable for the NFC Championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Defensive lineman Kingsley Keke (concussion) was ruled out. King popped up on the injury report on Friday and did not practice. Mid-week additions to the injury report are usually never a good sign, especially this late in the week. Jaire Alexander will likely be matched up against Mike Evans on one side of the field this weekend, but a King absence could benefit Scotty Miller or rookie Tyler Johnson the most in Tampa's passing attack with veteran Antonio Brown (knee) already ruled out. Chris Godwin could also have a big game for the Bucs out of the slot.
Los Angeles Rams impending free-agent LB Leonard Floyd is a player head coach Sean McVay hopes to re-sign this offseason.
Las Vegas Raiders impending free-agent WR Nelson Agholor may be too expensive for the Raiders to re-sign this offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez.
Fantasy Spin: Agholor is coming off a career season and probably will receive interest from multiple teams. He should have fantasy value no matter where he signs but probably will not be a weekly starting option in fantasy leagues.
Baltimore Ravens impending free-agent LB Matt Judon has been looking for $20 million per season in a new contract, according to a source.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense prepares to face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. Tampa Bay had a strong showing against the Saints last week, creating four takeaways, though they didn't register a sack. They will need to put more pressure on Rodgers than they did Brees, or they'll have a long day. If the Buccaneers follow their Week 6 formula- they sacked Rodgers four times and intercepted him twice- they'll be in a great position to win, as well as delivering for fantasy managers who turn to them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate is playing well heading into a playoff matchup with Green Bay. Brate has at least 50 receiving yards in each of his last two games and has seen 11 targets in that span. However, he's been out-snapped by Rob Gronkowski in both playoff wins, which makes it hard to trust him fully. Both tight ends could have good games, with Gronkowski being more of a touchdown favorite- and Brate more of a between-the-20s guy.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski takes on the Packers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday. Gronkowski has been out-produced by his teammate Cameron Brate lately, but the former has been on the field far more than the latter. The former Patriot also saw the same amount of targets as Brate last week and even had a touchdown catch fall just out of his reach. Both players could have good games, but Gronkowski is due for a strong performance- and he's no stranger to big games. Bet on Gronkowski seeing more looks with Antonio Brown (knee) sidelined against Green Bay, a team who allowed a 5-78-1 line to the big tight end in Week 6.
Green Bay Packers RB Jamaal Williams (ankle) was limited during practice Friday, Jan. 22, but is not on the injury report for the NFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Williams should see a decent amount of carries in the championship game but will be facing one of the better run defenses in the NFL. He can be a possible flex option in some leagues but can be benched if better options are available.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (quad) was limited in practice all week but was removed from the injury report for the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
Fantasy Spin: Godwin's availability takes on a little bit more importance with Antonio Brown getting ruled out Friday. While Tampa Bay has plenty of depth at receiver, Godwin will likely be asked to do a bit more now. Although his expected matchup in the slot with Chandon Sullivan is not an easy one, Godwin could end up being a great contrarian play in DFS if the market is off of him after a bit of a disappointing effort last week when his 4-34-0 dud - which included a drop in the end zone - ended a four-game scoring streak.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (quad, finger) was upgraded to a full practice Friday, Jan. 22, and was removed from the injury report for the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
Fantasy Spin: Leonard Fournette has been a fantasy beast through Tampa Bay's first two playoff games, but that production has largely been a product of two touchdowns and a fair amount of work in the passing game. His rushing efficiency has remained right around his regular-season levels. All of that is to say Jones should probably be considered the favorite to handle most of the rushing workload this weekend, which should be enough to make a strong contrarian option in DFS.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (knee) was limited in practice all week but no longer appears on the injury report for the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
Fantasy Spin: Evans is a bit of a wild-card this week. He was shadowed and mostly silenced by Jaire Alexander on most of his routes in the first meeting back in Week 6, but the Packers' stud cornerback has rarely moved off his left cornerback spot since that game. Assuming Green Bay sticks to that and Evans doesn't get followed by Alexander this week, Evans could have a huge game this time around. The decision to have Alexander shadow (or not) figures to determine whether Evans or Chris Godwin will be the best Bucs' receiver to play this week.
Kansas City Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins (calf) practiced in a limited fashion again Friday, Jan. 22, and is listed as questionable for the AFC Championship game versus the Buffalo Bills.
Fantasy Spin: Watkins is expected to play and resume his No. 2 receiver duties opposite Tyreek Hill. It helps his cause for playing time that he is probably the team's best blocker at receiver in what could be another run-heavy game plan against Buffalo, but he's a tough sell in all fantasy formats given his risk for an in-game setback and the fact he hasn't exceeded 62 yards receiving in a game since the opener. Nonetheless, Watkins has come up big in the playoffs as of late and the Bills' likely defensive game plan of preventing the deep ball should work in his favor.
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.
Buffalo Bills WR Cole Beasley (knee) practiced in full Friday, Jan. 22, and no longer appear on the injury report practiced in full Friday and also no longer appear on the injury report.
Fantasy Spin: Beasley, who suffered his knee injury late in the regular season, curiously popped up on the injury report Thursday after not appearing on it on Wednesday. It is obvious he isn't anywhere close to full health, but his presence is a boon for Josh Allen as it gives him a solid outlet option underneath when Stefon Diggs and/or John Brown can't get open right away. Assuming he doesn't suffer an in-game setback, Beasley is a solid low-priced DFS option with decent upside.
Former Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia was reportedly hired by the New England Patriots to 'assist the coaching staff in a variety of roles' Friday, Jan. 22, according to Jim McBride of the Boston Globe.
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.
Free-agent WR Deon Cain (Steelers) signed a Reserve/Future contract with the Baltimore Ravens on Friday, Jan. 22.
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.