Wed Nov 13 2:03pm ET
By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
In this Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Steelers play at the Cleveland Browns on Thursday, Nov. 14. (AP Photo/Don Wright, File)
In this Oct. 27, 2019, file photo, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield passes during an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, in Foxborough, Mass. The Pittsburgh Steelers play at the Cleveland Browns on Thursday, Nov. 14. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)
CLEVELAND (AP) Separated by roughly 130 miles and six Super Bowl titles, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have a hostile, historic rivalry resuscitated from being heavily one-sided to much more competitive the past few years.
The hatred has never waned.
''It's a big game. It's Browns vs. Steelers,'' said Cleveland running back and native Kareem Hunt, who is about to get his first on-field taste of the long-running football feud. ''I've been watching this my whole life.''
The Steelers and Browns are getting together again Thursday night for the 135th time, renewing their deep disdain for each other in front of a national TV audience in what have been unexpected seasons for both teams.
The Steelers have salvaged theirs.
Cleveland has work to do.
''Everything's at stake, man,'' said Browns cornerback T.J. Carrie. ''We have no more time to waste.''
Their margin for error expunged by a flurry of penalties, turnovers, questionable plays calls by rookie coach Freddie Kitchens in several disappointing early season losses, the Browns (3-6) will try to keep their faint playoff hopes flickering against the Steelers (5-4).
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, leaned on its championship pedigree to regroup after moving on from Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and then losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 to injury. Led by a ball-hawking defense, the Steelers have wiped out a 1-4 start.
''We are still scratching and clawing to make this thing happen and to keep winning games and keep stacking victories and let the chips fall where they may,'' said second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, who has settled in after replacing Big Ben. ''We are not in the position where we can take anyone lightly.''
Talent and commercial endorsements haven't been nearly enough in Cleveland. The NFL's most publicized team in the preseason has failed to live up to expectations.
However, the Browns, who stopped a four-game skid with their first home win of the season Sunday over Buffalo, have a soft schedule ahead and haven't given up on ending the league's longest playoff drought going back to 2002.
Another loss would all but end their chances.
The key for Cleveland will be ball security. The Steelers are second in the league with 26 takeaways, the most for a Pittsburgh team through nine games since 1987.
''They are making a lot of plays right now,'' said Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who hasn't thrown a pick in two games after having a league-high 12 through seven.
During their winning streak, the Steelers have forced 14 turnovers, with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick returning two for touchdowns. Fitzpatrick came over in a trade from Miami and already has five interceptions and a fumble recovery in seven games.
Browns guard Joel Bitonio isn't surprised by the Steelers' surge. It's who they are.
''I know a lot of people probably tried to write `em off at the beginning of the year when they lost all those guys and had the injury to Ben,'' he said. ''But they fight. ... They rallied around their defense and their culture and said, `Hey, we're not giving up on this season.' It's really been impressive to see.''
Mayfield and Rudolph have history. They played each other three times in college, with Mayfield leading Oklahoma to a 3-0 mark against Rudolph's Oklahoma State squad in a rivalry known as ''Bedlam.''
In their last meeting, Mayfield passed for 598 yards and five touchdowns and Rudolph had 448 and five TDs in a 62-52 loss to the Sooners.
Rudolph isn't looking for revenge or at the past.
''You want to win every game you can and do your rival games hurt more when you lose? For sure. You wouldn't be human if you said otherwise,'' Rudolph said. ''We are trying to push the mud off us from the earlier September run we had.''
Now that Hunt is back from an eight-game suspension, the Browns are likely to pair him often in the backfield with Nick Chubb, who is closing in on 1,000 yards.
Both backs can run and catch, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows his defense can't focus on one or the other.
''They have big-time weapons,'' he said. ''Obviously, the two-back set is something that they did a week ago with a great deal of success. ... They are very multiple. That is one of the things that is challenging about them. Our hands are going to be full.''
SHOULDERING THE LOAD
Steelers running back James Conner is expected to play after missing two games with a sprained shoulder suffered against Miami on Oct. 28. Conner will wear larger shoulder pads for extra protection.
Pittsburgh's running game has languished much of the season. The Steelers are 27th in yards rushing, 28th in yards per carry. Those numbers need to change if Pittsburgh wants to take pressure off Rudolph.
''Having James back will be big for us, especially with the confidence that he'll have coming into it,'' tight end Vance McDonald said.
Conner lit up the Browns last season, piling up 404 yards of total offense and four touchdowns.
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden remembers his days with the Browns fondly even though they didn't have a single winning season during his tenure.
''It's always going to be a little special because I spent seven years there,'' said Haden, drafted by Cleveland with the No. 7 overall pick in 2010 and cut in 2017. ''That's not going to go away. I just want to win a little more. I don't know if that's possible.''
The 30-year-old has revived his career in Pittsburgh, signing a contract extension in August.
The Baltimore Ravens could rest quarterback Lamar Jackson if they lock up the AFC's No. 1 seed by Week 17. If that's the case, Robert Griffin III would be expected to get the start in Week 17 against the Steelers, even if the season finale is important for the Steelers' chances of sealing a wild-card berth. This is why most fantasy leagues only go until Week 16. If your league goes all the way and you own Jackson, you might be without the league's most dynamic player in your fantasy title game. RG3 has been impressive in limited spurts, but he'd be a huge downgrade to Baltimore's entire offense if he starts, and the Ravens could also choose to rest starters other than Jackson.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (foot), who was officially placed on Injured Reserve on Thursday, is dealing with a Lisfranc injury that is expected to require surgery. He's facing many months of recovery ahead and could be in danger of not being ready for training camp next summer. Jeffery will turn 30 in February and he'll probably be avoided by most fantasy owners going into 2020 drafts after not playing in a full season since 2017. He had just 43 receptions for 490 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games for the Eagles this year. At best, Jeffery will be seen as a WR3 for fantasy owners going into next season.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (hand) took snaps under center at practice on Wednesday, but his right hand was pretty swollen on Monday after he injured it in the Week 14 win over the Patriots. Mahomes has been getting more treatment on his hand since the swelling went down earlier this week, including strengthening it as Week 15 against the Broncos approaches. He admitted that it was a scary situation after Sunday, but there is no fracture in the hand, so Mahomes should be fine to play this Sunday. It's not idea if he's at less than 100 percent against a strong Denver secondary, but Mahomes remains a must-start in fantasy if he's playing.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross (foot) was at practice again on Thursday, and his foot injury is very minimal. He should be expected to play in Week 15 against the Patriots. A serious deep threat with his top-notch speed, Ross was on his way to a breakout season before he suffered a broken collarbone in Week 4. The 24-year-old had just two catches for 28 yards in his return from Injured Reserve last week against the Browns, and his matchup with the Patriots this weekend is less than ideal. Ross could get behind the defense for a big play or two, but much more likely that he's a fantasy bust for the second straight week.
Oakland Raiders rookie wide receiver Hunter Renfrow (ribs) is back at practice on Thursday. Renfrow has been out since Week 12 but has a shot at returning in Week 15 against the Jaguars. The 23-year-old first-year player has 36 receptions (53 targets) for 396 yards and two touchdowns on the year. Oakland just doesn't support anyone of much fantasy relevance in the passing game outside of tight end Darren Waller and receiver Tyrell Williams. You can ignore Renfrow in most leagues if he makes his return this weekend against Jacksonville.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (hamstring) called Thursday's practice a "win," but he will see how the rest of the week goes before he decides whether he'll play in Week 15 against the Chargers. Thielen is more optimistic about returning than he has been before. It's looking like he'll finally return for the first time since Nov. 3 when he re-injured his leg against the Chiefs. Most fantasy owners will immediately throw Thielen back into their lineups in the fantasy playoffs, but he'll be more of a WR3 if he returns, and he could be at risk of seeing limited snaps if the Vikings choose to ease him back into the fold. His return would be bad news for Olabisi Johnson and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor (knee) wasn't seen at practice on Thursday for the second straight day. Unless Agholor gets in a limited practice on Friday, he'll be on his way to missing another game. It hurts even more with Alshon Jeffery on Injured Reserve for the final three games of the season. Even if Agholor were to suit up this Sunday against the Redskins, he'd be a low-upside WR4/flex for desperate fantasy owners. Philly could be using three-wide sets consisting of J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Greg Ward Jr. and Robert Davis this weekend. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert will be heavily involved.
Seattle Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny (knee) doesn't have a timetable for a return next year after suffering a torn ACL last Sunday night against the Rams. Head coach Pete Carroll said that doctors will wait for inflammation to subside before undergoing surgery on Penny's knee. While he wouldn't say for sure that Penny won't be available for the start of next season, he didn't completely rule it out either. The Seahawks will rely on C.J. Prosise and Travis Homer as the backups to lead ball carrier Chris Carson for the rest of the 2019 season. Carson is a surefire RB1 with heavy volume expected in Week 15 against a suspect Carolina run defense. Penny remains a firm hold in dynasty/keeper leagues despite his devastating injury.
Philadelphia Eagles running back Jordan Howard (shoulder) returned to practice with the team on Thursday. He is currently questionable for Week 15 against the Redskins. If he's able to go this week, he could be a sneaky good start against a Redskins Defense allowing almost 135 rushing yards per game. Miles Sanders and Boston Scott have been shouldering the load while Howard has been out the past four games. If Howard returns, he'd likely be one of the team's primary rushers, with Sanders seeing more action in the passing game and Scott being relegated to single-digit touches. Keep an eye on Howard's status through the next few days.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said that running back Raheem Mostert has earned his role as the lead ball carrier of late and that "he's given us no choice." Mostert has had double-digit carries each of the last two weeks against the Ravens and Saints and has also caught four passes, including one for a touchdown. Over the last three contests, Mostert has four total touchdowns (three on the ground) and was impressive with 146 ground yards against Baltimore on Dec. 1. He's taken over the backfield from Tevin Coleman and should be considered an RB2 on the rise for Week 15 in a great matchup against the Falcons.
New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (knee, shoulder) returned to practice on Thursday after being held out on Wednesday. The Patriots were just giving Edelman a rest on Wednesday, as he's battled through nagging injuries for much of the season. He's clearly quarterback Tom Brady's favorite target -- eight straight games with double-digit targets -- and he'll be a no-brainer must-start in fantasy against a Bengals squad that the Patriots should be able to take advantage of through the air in Week 15. Edelman isn't in any danger of sitting out this Sunday.
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (hamstring) said "I'll be ready to go" for Week 15 against the Raiders. Henry has been rested early in the week recently as he navigates a nagging hamstring injury, but he should be fine for this Sunday and is a must-start in all fantasy lineups. The bruising 25-year-old back is once again carrying teams in the fantasy playoffs in 2019 with four straight 100-yard performances. We see no reason why that shouldn't continue against Oakland this weekend as long as Henry plays the entire game.
Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo has certainly risen to the occasion since joining the team in November. He's hit 16 of his 18 field goal attempts on the year, with three made field goals in four of the five games he's played with the Falcons. This week, the Falcons face the 49ers and both teams should be able to put some points on the board. Expect Koo to get around three field goal attempts in the game with a few extra-point opportunities to boot, making him a solid starting kicker option once again this week.
The Falcons Defense faces an extremely tough task in Week 15. They're up against a 49ers team that has put up 36-or-more points in three of the past four weeks. The only time they were held under that number was against the Ravens. Needless to say, the Falcons don't have quite as formidable of a defense as the Ravens. The Falcons will likely cede over 30 points in this game and they may struggle to come up with a turnover, let alone multiple turnovers, to save their day. They should be avoided in all formats.
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (calf) is returning to practice on Thursday. It gives him a chance to suit up on Monday night against the Saints. Hilton hasn't seen game action since Nov. 21 against the Texans, though, so he could have his snaps limited if he returns against New Orleans. That would obviously make him a pretty risky fantasy option, especially on a Colts team that is usually run-first. Making the decision even tougher for fantasy owners is that the game is on Monday. Zach Pascal is Indy's No. 1 receiver with Hilton out, so he'd be the plug-and-play option if you take your decision all the way to Monday.
Atlanta Falcons rookie wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus made waves with his first NFL catch last week. It went for 93 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, it was his only catch of the game. There might be more opportunities for Zaccheaus going forward as Calvin Ridley (abdominal) is out for the season and Julio Jones (shoulder) is currently questionable for Week 15 as well. Zaccheaus was fourth on the team in offensive snaps amongst receivers in Week 14, behind Jones, Ridley and Russell Gage. If Jones sits this week, Zaccheaus could be a worthwhile dart throw in DFS or as a WR4 in deep leagues. If Jones plays, it's probably best to just keep Zaccheaus on your watch list or add him to your bench.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage should see his role increase going forward with Calvin Ridley (abdominal) out for the year. Gage has earned at least four targets in each of his past six games, with nine-plus targets in three games over that stretch. Julio Jones (shoulder) and Devonta Freeman (ankle) have been dealing with injuries this week and are both questionable for Week 15 against the 49ers. If one or both of them sit, Gage's upside becomes even higher, making him a must-start in PPR and a more realistic non-PPR option as well. Regardless of Jones and Freeman, Gage is a great WR3 or flex play in PPR as he should have a great chance to catch about five passes for 60-plus yards.
Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper has had an absolutely exceptional season with 58 catches for 640 yards and six touchdowns over 10 games. Last week, in his return from a three-game absence, he had one of his weaker showings of the year, catching just two passes for 32 yards. However, it was a rare off-game in an otherwise top-end season. Plus, the team just lost Calvin Ridley (abdominal) for the season and there's a chance they could be without Julio Jones (shoulder) and/or Devonta Freeman (ankle) this week as well. Hooper should see at least six or seven targets regardless of the availability of Jones and Freeman, and we've seen him turn in high-end tight end numbers with targets like those all year, so make sure to get him in your lineups.
Indianapolis Colts WR T.Y. Hilton (calf) is expected to be a limited participant in practice Thursday, Dec. 12, as the Colts return to the field. Head coach Frank Reich said the team plans to take it careful with Hilton, and he will play in Week 15 on Monday night only if the Colts feel he's 100 percent.
Fantasy Spin: Hilton has played in only one game with three receptions for 18 yards since Week 8, and it would be a nice early Christmas for his fantasy teams if he were able to return. That still seems like more of a longshot at this point, but we'll have to monitor Indy's practice reports over the next few days to get a better gauge.
Atlanta Falcons running back Qadree Ollison is currently third on the team's depth chart behind Devonta Freeman (ankle) and Brian Hill. Freeman has been dealing with an ankle injury this week and is currently questionable for Week 15, but even if he sits, it would be Hill who stands to benefit more than Ollison. In Week 14, Freeman earned 17 carries, while Hill had nine and Ollison had only four. If Freeman plays, Ollison's playing time will be greatly limited and if Freeman sits, Ollison will be a touchdown-or-bust option. He's best to avoid in all formats.