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Bills among the NFL's 4 defenses peaking in the postseason

Wed Jan 20 7:04pm ET
AP Sports Writer

Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver (91) celebrates after stopping Baltimore Ravens' J.K. Dobbins in the backfield during the second half of an NFL divisional round football game Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) Leslie Frazier's faith in his Bills defense never wavered even at the lowest point of Buffalo's season.

It was mid-November and the Bills were entering their bye week on the heels of a 32-30 defeat at Arizona. Immediately dubbed ''The Hail Murray,'' the Cardinals won on Kyler Murray's desperation 43-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins, who outleaped three defenders in the end zone with 2 seconds left.

Frazier, Buffalo's defensive coordinator, recalled collecting his thoughts on the flight home when frustration turned to hope in coming to the realization of how the experience could become a valuable motivating tool.

''I said to myself, `If we handle this the right way, this could turn out to be a positive instead of a negative.' It didn't have to be something that carried over to the next one and affect the rest of your season,'' Frazier said this week. ''To our players' credit, I think they rebounded. ... That was a hard loss for a lot of reasons and they didn't let it hold them back.''

The Bills (15-3) have won eight straight since and are preparing to make their first AFC championship game appearance in 27 years Sunday, when Buffalo travels to face the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs (15-2).

Though much of the credit for Buffalo's success has centered on a dynamic Josh Allen-led offense, the defense has shown signs of shedding its early season deficiencies to find itself gradually peaking over the final half of the year.

Buffalo has allowed just 137 points since the loss to Arizona after giving up 273 points in its first 10 games. And rather than blowing leads, the defense is now closing out victories as evidenced in two playoff wins.

Safety Micah Hyde, one of the defenders burned by Hopkins, sealed a 27-24 wild-card win over Indianapolis by batting down Philip Rivers' desperation pass intended for T.Y. Hilton as time ran out. On Saturday, cornerback Taron Johnson punctuated the defense's most complete performance by returning Lamar Jackson's interception for an NFL playoff record-matching 101-yard touchdown in a 17-3 win over Baltimore.

The outings validated the patience Frazier showed in a unit that opened the season allowing an average of 387 yards over its first six games, following consecutive losses to Tennessee and Kansas City. And it brings confidence to a group eager to show it's better than the unit that was trampled by the Chiefs in allowing a season-worst 245 yards rushing in a 26-17 loss on Oct. 15.

''I think more than anything, it emphasizes and highlights a very resilient group of players that have continued to develop all the way through the season,'' coach Sean McDermott said. ''And that's important because it's a journey. There's going to be highs and lows through a season. And those players have done a phenomenal job of learning from previous situations and experiences.''

The Bills aren't the only defense to have overcome obstacles among the four remaining playoff teams.

The Chiefs' defense is no pushover despite finishing the season 16th in yards allowed.

Kansas City limited Buffalo to a season-low 206 yards of offense in Week 6; limited the Saints to 285 yards in a 32-29 win at New Orleans on Dec. 20 in Drew Brees' return after missing a month with rib injuries; and finished the season tied for ninth in the NFL in forcing 26 takeaways.

In the NFC, the Packers are allowing an average 306 yards offense over their past seven outings. And Green Bay is coming off a 32-18 divisional-round win over the Rams in which Los Angeles finished with a time of possession of 23 minutes and 48 seconds.

''They were relentless all game,'' Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of his defense. ''That's the one thing that I think has really shown through the last half of the season, is just the intensity level.''

As for Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers head to Green Bay coming off a 30-20 win over New Orleans in which their defense forced four turnovers, three leading to touchdowns, and limited the Saints to 73 yards offense and four first downs on their final four possessions.

The Buccaneers were led by second-year linebacker Devin White, who had an interception, recovered a fumble, and tied a franchise record with 11 tackles in his playoff debut.

Since allowing a combined 956 yards in back-to-back losses to the Rams and Chiefs in late November, the Buccaneers have returned from their bye week to to allow a combined 1,943 yards and force 10 takeaways in their past six.

''It's a different football team than that week,'' coach Bruce Arians said, referring to a 38-3 loss to New Orleans on Nov. 8. ''I tell everybody that. Nobody wants to believe me.''

The same can be said in Buffalo, where the Bills' two playoff wins came against a 10th-ranked Colts offense and the league's top running attack in Baltimore.

Here comes Patrick Mahomes, should he clear the NFL's concussion protocol, and the league's top-ranked offense.

Safety Jordan Poyer understands the challenge ahead, and knows critics are counting out Buffalo, just as they had last week.

''I don't think anybody's given us a chance really all year,'' he said.

''We're the ones that believe in ourselves, have the confidence,'' Poyer added. ''We're just worried about us. And at the end of the day, we always talk about them, they've got to come play us.''

The turning point was losing at Arizona.

''You go into the bye with that taste in your mouth, it gives you a little bit of an edge,'' Poyer said. ''That's not us. We're better than that.''

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Player Notes
Ronald Jones II Jan 20 6:50pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (quadriceps) and wide receivers Mike Evans (knee) and Chris Godwin (quadriceps) were all limited participants during Wednesday's practice. Jones was able to practice in a limited fashion last week before ultimately suiting up against the Saints, while Evans' and Godwin's reps are being managed as precautions. Jones has a good matchup against Green Bay's front, though he and Leonard Fournette are trending towards a timeshare after head coach Bruce Arians described them as a "1-2 punch." Meanwhile, Evans will likely tango with star corner Jaire Alexander on the outside, as tough a matchup as any. Godwin is due for a rebound performance after dropping a surefire touchdown last week and could see more targets if Evans struggles and Antonio Brown (knee) is banged up.

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Antonio Brown Jan 20 6:20pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) was listed as a non-participant for Wednesday's practice. Brown sustained the knee injury during the divisional-round win over the Saints, with Tampa Bay officially listing him as day-to-day. The veteran wideout will look to ramp up his activity during Thursday and Friday's sessions to give him a chance at suiting up against Green Bay in the NFC title game. Fellow wideouts Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson- who both made big plays in the victory over New Orleans- would be in line to receive more targets if Brown isn't healthy enough to play.

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Stefon Diggs Jan 20 4:40pm ET

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (oblique) remains on the injury report and was a limited practice participant on Wednesday. Diggs has been battling an oblique injury late this season, but it hasn't really slowed him down at all. The NFL's leader in receptions and receiving yards in 2020, the 27-year-old has 14 catches on 20 targets for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the team's two playoff tilts against the Colts and Ravens this year. Diggs was able to haul in six of his eight targets for 46 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Chiefs back in Week 6 in a 26-17 loss. With quarterback Josh Allen having a breakout season under center, Diggs has been one of the most valuable fantasy wideouts this season, and that shouldn't change in the AFC Championship this Sunday.

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Gabriel Davis Jan 20 4:30pm ET

Buffalo Bills rookie wide receiver Gabriel Davis (ankle) and defensive tackle Vernon Butler (quadriceps) both missed practice on Wednesday. Davis injured his ankle in the Divisional Round win over the Ravens last Saturday night. As of right now, the impressive 21-year-old should be considered questionable to play against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship on Sunday, but keep an eye on his practice status through the rest of the week. He was unable to haul in any of his four targets against Baltimore's defense last week after going for four catches and 85 yards in the wild-card win over Indianapolis the week prior. He's hard to trust for consistent production behind Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley. If Davis can't play this weekend, Isaiah McKenzie could see an expanded role.

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Ronald Jones II Jan 20 4:20pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (quadriceps) said he's all good and is already feeling better than last week when he was questionable heading into the Divisional Round against the Saints. Jones couldn't get loose during pre-game warmups before the wild-card win against Washington and didn't play at all in that contest, but he returned last Sunday and carried the ball 13 times for 62 yards in the 30-20 win over New Orleans. However, he saw four fewer carries than Leonard Fournette. The 23-year-old appears to be close to full health at this point, but his workload should be a concern for those that roster him in the NFC Championship, as Jones and Fournette appear headed for a 50-50 split in touches. Fournette had five catches on six targets for 44 yards and a touchdown against the Saints, too, while Jones missed his only aerial target.

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Matt LaFleur Jan 20 4:20pm ET

Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said that rookie running back A.J. Dillon (quadriceps) "should be out there a little bit today" at practice. Meanwhile, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer remains in the COVID-19 protocols, while running back Tyler Ervin (foot) will not practice. Dillon's injury doesn't appear to be very serious, so he should have a good shot at suiting up on Sunday in the NFC Championship against the Buccaneers, but keep an eye on his practice status the rest of the week. If the 22-year-old is limited at all or is inactive, Jamaal Williams would take on a much bigger role as the backup behind lead-back Aaron Jones. Dillon carried the ball six times for 27 yards in the Divisional Round victory over the Rams last weekend.

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Clyde Edwards-Helaire Jan 20 4:00pm ET

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (concussion, toe), rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip) and wide receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) all took part in practice on Wednesday, but head coach Andy Reid said that Thursday's practice is the big day. Mahomes was a full participant and took all of the snaps, a very positive sign that he'll be ready for the AFC Championship against the Bills. He remains asymptomatic and is expected to increase his activities throughout the week, barring a setback. Edwards-Helaire hasn't played since Week 15 and could see his snaps limited if he's active this Sunday, making him a boom/bust fantasy option. Watkins hasn't played since Week 16 and has been hit-or-miss all year (mostly miss), making him a dart throw in DFS if he's active against Buffalo.

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Vita Vea Jan 20 4:00pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said on Wednesday that defensive tackle Vita Vea (ankle), who has been out since Week 5 with a fractured ankle, looked good after taking part in the team's walkthrough practice. Arians thought that Vea had a chance to return after watching him run in a pool around three weeks ago. Vea was designated to return from Injured Reserve on Monday, but it remains to be seen if he'll come off IR by Sunday to play in the NFC Championship against the Packers. If the 25-year-old is able to suit up against Green Bay, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who has handled nose-tackle duties in Vea's absence, will move back to more of a rotational role along Tampa's strong defensive line.

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Saquon Barkley Jan 20 12:00pm ET

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Joe Burrow Jan 20 11:50am ET

Newly acquired Cincinnati Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack said the team's No. 1 priority going into 2021 is to keep quarterback Joe Burrow upright and off the Injured Reserve. Burrow had been sacked 32 times at the time of his season-ending left knee injury in Week 11, which was the third-most in the league. He had taken 72 hits entering his final game, which was tied for the most by a rookie QB in his first nine games since 2000. Burrow saw pressure on 146 of his 453 dropbacks in 10 games. The Bengals allowed an AFC North-high 215 pressures in 2020. Under Pollack's direction in 2018, Cincy ranked 11th in the league in fewest sacks allowed per game at 2.3. Burrow remains on track to be ready for the 2021 season after a promising rookie campaign, but his Year 2 upside could be capped if the Bengals don't fix their offensive-line issues.

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Patrick Mahomes Jan 20 11:23am ET

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Philip Rivers Jan 20 11:20am ET

Long-time San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers announced his retirement from football on Wednesday. Rivers went to the Chargers in a draft-day trade in 2004 and played for the Bolts for 16 seasons before spending his 17th and final NFL season with the Colts. He played in 244 games, starting the final 240 without missing a game, the second-longest streak by an NFL QB behind Brett Favre's 297. The 39-year-old finishes his career ranked fifth all-time with 63,440 passing yards and 421 touchdown passes. "I can sit here and say, 'I can still throw it. I love to play,'" Rivers said. "But that's always going to be there. I'm excited to go coach high school football." The future Hall of Famer topped 4,000 passing yards for the eighth straight season in 2020 and 12th time in his career.

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Patrick Mahomes Jan 20 11:10am ET

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Zack Moss Jan 19 9:00pm ET

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