Thu Dec 12 1:29pm ET
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, center, argues a call in the second half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lands on the turf after being sacked by Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
CINCINNATI (AP) Zac Taylor watched helplessly on the Rams' sideline as Bill Belichick's defense thwarted everything they tried to do in the Super Bowl. The first-year Bengals coach has even fewer options at hand when they go head-to-head again.
The Patriots can clinch their 11th straight playoff appearance Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium by thwarting Taylor's best designs. He was the Rams' quarterbacks coach when New England won the title.
This time he'll be calling the plays and knowing what to expect from that deflating Super Bowl experience.
''That was a heck of a day in a lot of ways,'' Taylor said. ''They do a great job adapting to their opponent. They always have a great plan in place, and that's what makes them difficult.
''They do a great job evolving because they've been together for so long.''
Taylor's Bengals (1-12) haven't done much against lesser defenses this season. They're reliant on running back Joe Mixon to get yards. The NFL's only one-win team has to play nearly perfect to pull off the upset.
''They're very opportunistic,'' said Andy Dalton, who threw a pick-6 in a loss at Cleveland last weekend. ''When they see a tipped ball that's up in the air, they're coming down with interceptions. They're great at forcing fumbles, and all that stuff.''
The Patriots (10-3) see few similarities between the Bengals' offense and the one they mastered in the Super Bowl.
''It's not really the same offense,'' safety Devin McCourty said. ''There's some crossover in there, but I would say you gotta kind of watch Cincinnati for Cincinnati.''
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
The matchup got a little extra intrigue when a video crew affiliated with the Patriots was caught taping the Bengals' sideline from the press box during their loss at Cleveland. The Patriots acknowledged the crew improperly videotaped while doing a feature on a scout. The Bengals were curious to see how the NFL responds.
New England's persistent issues on offense have gotten worse in the last five games. The Patriots are 2-3 over that stretch, averaging only 17.6 points. They've also had big problems on third down and in the red zone. For the season the Patriots rank 17th in third-down conversion percentage (37.4%). They are also scoring on only 48% of their trips inside the 20-yard line, which ranks 27th in the league. The Bengals' defense has improved significantly the last four games, giving up 20 points or less, and it's been particularly good in the red zone, allowing only 19 touchdowns this season.
Of the seven 2019 draft picks currently on the Patriots' roster, only punter Jake Bailey and edge rusher Chase Winovich have received significant playing time. Receiver N'Keal Harry, chosen 32nd overall, is slowly being integrated into the offense after sitting out the first eight games with an ankle injury. Since returning in November he has appeared in the past four games with two starts.
Belichick said he has been pleased with the contributions of Bailey and Winovich, who is second on the team with 5 1/2 sacks. He said the lack of playing time for other rookies isn't an indication of a lack of trust in them.
''Things change week to week based on game-plan situations,'' Belichick said. ''We're 10-3, I wouldn't say we're a terrible team. But there's a lot of other good players out there.''
The Bengals' best chance for the upset is to make some space for Mixon. He has been by far their best player on offense and is coming off a career-best 146 yards rushing in the 27-19 loss in Cleveland. The Bengals changed their blocking schemes and started running toss plays with Mixon at midseason, and he's become a threat again. In the past five games, he's picked up 469 yards - third-most in the league - and he leads all running backs with 105 carries over that span.
''I think we are starting to build an identity,'' Mixon said.
Bengals receiver John Ross III returned last week after missing eight games with a shoulder injury. He had only two catches for 28 yards and dropped the other pass thrown his way. The Bengals have lacked a deep threat with Ross hurt and A.J. Green recovering from ankle surgery. They could use a big game from Ross against the Patriots. Injuries have limited him all three years in the NFL, so he wants to have a strong finish to this one.
''That's the biggest thing I want do to, to be able to finish, and I've got the chance these last couple games,'' Ross said.
Kansas City Chiefs running back LeSean McCoy, who hasn't had a touch since Week 15 and who was inactive for the AFC Championship against the Titans, said he's not ready to retire after this season. "Nah, I'm not ready to retire, yet," McCoy said. "I still can play. So, I'm not going to retire yet, but that day is coming. That day is definitely coming." The 31-year-old has taken a back seat to running backs Damien Williams and rookie Darwin Thompson down the stretch, and he's unlikely to have much of a role, if any, in the Super Bowl against the 49ers. Shady has become more of a mentor in the running back room than an on-field performer for fantasy owners.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (shoulder) said that he's been playing through a torn labrum in his right shoulder since the start of the 2018 season. "So I dislocated my shoulder last year," Kittle said Sunday on the Pardon My Take podcast, "and my labrum is completely torn. So I don't get surgery on it -- [The protective sleeve] basically helps me, so it doesn't hurt all the time." He didn't miss any games in 2018 and set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377. Kittle said there's "no chance" he has surgery in the future. The 26-year-old has been quiet in the postseason with four catches for 35 yards in two games, but the Niners haven't really needed him with their ground game humming. That could change in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs on Feb. 2.
Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt, who will be a free agent in March, emotionally admitted that he would fail a drug test to a police officer during a traffic stop recently. This was caught on video of the police officer's dash cam during the traffic stop. Hunt also admitted that the small amounts of marijuana found in the car were his, but the officer let Hunt off with just the speeding ticket. It remains to be seen if the NFL will consider a suspension for the 24-year-old from this incident. Hunt was released by the Chiefs during the 2018 season due to a domestic-violence incident, and he served a suspension before making his Browns debut in 2019. If he signs with another team this offseason and is given bell-cow duties in the backfield, Hunt could have RB1 upside.
The Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on from Philip Rivers," according to FOX Sports' Jay Glazer. Rivers is set to become a free agent in March, and the writing was on the wall when he recently moved his entire family from San Diego to Florida. Rivers will end a 16-year run with the Chargers, but it remains to be seen where he'll land on the free-agent market this offseason. The Buccaneers are a popular expected destination, but that'll only be if they move on from Jameis Winston. Rivers completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,615 yards, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 2019 for a QB rating of 88.5. He might have a few more seasons left in him, but at 38 years old his arm strength is clearly deteriorating, and he'll probably be more of a QB2 in 2020, depending on where he winds up.
Baltimore Ravens defensive end Matthew Judon is a candidate to receive the team's franchise tag and could also be traded, according to league sources. The Ravens would like to bring Judon back in 2020, but they are also likely to listen to trade offers if another team shows interest. The Niners dealt a second-round pick to the Chiefs last year for defensive end Dee Ford, who then signed a five-year deal worth up to $87.5 million last March. The Chiefs also traded first- and third-round picks to the Seahawks last April for defensive end Frank Clark, who then signed a five-year, $105.5 million deal. Judon has emerged as a high-end pass rusher with at least seven sacks in each of the last three years. The 27-year-old had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2019 and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Philadelphia Eagles DT Fletcher Cox was credited with a 61-yard interception return for touchdown at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Indianapolis Colts TE Jack Doyle posted three catches for 63 yards and a touchdown on four targets for the AFC at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Pittsburgh Steelers DE T.J. Watt posted an 82-yard fumble return for touchdown in the fourth quarter for the AFC at the Pro Bowl in Orlando on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews ended up with a game-high nine receptions for an AFC-best 73 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR DJ Chark Jr. registered two grabs for 67 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown in the third quarter, for the AFC at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams ended up with a team-high six receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns on seven targets for the NFC at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Dallas Cowboys WR Amari Cooper finished with three grabs for 24 yards and a touchdown on seven targets for the NFC at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins completed 13-of-22 passes for 181 yards, two touchdowns and one interception at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26
New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas hauled in five receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown with a team-high eight targets at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Calais Campbell had a solo tackle, a sack and a quarterback hit in the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26, winning the Defensive Most Valuable Player award.
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson completed 16-of-23 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for the AFC in the Pro Bowl, winning Offensive Most Valuable Player. He also ran twice for six yards in the 38-33 win.
Houston Texans impending free-agent TE Darren Fells is a player the Texans will try to re-sign this offseason, but he probably will receive interest from multiple teams in free agency.
Houston Texans impending free-agent QB AJ McCarron is a candidate to be re-signed this offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop.
New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley (groin), who is six weeks removed from groin/abdominal surgery, said he is jogging "a little bit" and is on track to take part in "spring football." Mosley has also started a vegan diet after playing in just two games last season because of his injury in his first year in New York. The 27-year-old should be ready for a full training camp heading into the 2020 season, and he should give Gang Green a steadying presence in the middle of the field next season. Mosley recorded 100-plus tackles in four of his five seasons in Baltimore before signing with the Jets in free agency last offseason.
Former Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who did not play at all in 2019, plans to play in 2020 after intentionally taking the season off to rest his body and mind. Berry was cut by the Chiefs in 2018 and has only played in three games since 2016 due to injuries and a bout with cancer. The former first-round pick in 2010 has 14 career interceptions and five touchdowns and could provide a team with a veteran presence in the secondary in 2020. However, it remains to be seen if any team will take a chance on the veteran moving forward. Berry is unlikely to be an asset in IDP leagues if he gets picked up by a team.