Thu Dec 12 2:04pm ET
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, center, celebrates after intercepting a pass by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) intercepts a deflected Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson pass intended for Willie Snead (83) during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/John Munson)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges (6) pumps his fist after a first down completion during the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) celebrates his touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) lines up against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) looks to pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/John Munson)
PITTSBURGH (AP) Sean McDermott remembers lining up across from Mike Tomlin and wanting to do everything he could to impress everyone watching, from the William & Mary coaches to his teammates to Tomlin himself. It comes with the territory when you're a freshman defensive back and the wide receiver you're facing happens to be an upperclassman and a team captain.
''We had our battles,'' said McDermott, who played with Tomlin for two seasons in 1993-94. ''I was a walk-on, he was a scholarship athlete. He was established and I was just trying to get a pair of cleats.''
A quarter century later, the stage is a much different one.
Like McDermott during his early college days, the Buffalo Bills are the upstart in search of some street cred heading into a rare prime-time visit to Pittsburgh to face Tomlin and the Steelers. A win and the Bills (9-4) clinch their second playoff berth in McDermott's three seasons. A victory by the surging Steelers (8-5) and Pittsburgh leapfrogs Buffalo for the AFC's top wild-card spot.
McDermott and Tomlin have remained in touch during their respective professional careers, with McDermott occasionally reaching out to Tomlin in search of advice. All of which is kind of funny to Tomlin, who remembers McDermott as the more focused of the two when their playing careers for the Tribe overlapped in 1993 and 1994.
''I was just trying to have fun,'' Tomlin said with a laugh.
He still is. Tomlin might be in the midst of the most remarkable coaching job of his 13-year tenure. Last week's victory over Arizona assured the Steelers of a 16th straight season season finishing .500 or better - the second-longest active streak in the league behind New England - and they've done it despite an avalanche of injuries on offense that has forced Pittsburgh to reinvent itself on the fly.
Undrafted rookie free agent and budding cult hero Devlin ''Duck'' Hodges is the quarterback. Two other rookies - Benny Snell and Kerrith Whyte - have carried the bulk of the running game since James Conner injured his right shoulder before Halloween. Third-round pick Diontae Johnson electrified while accounting for both of Pittsburgh's touchdowns against the Cardinals. Pittsburgh isn't lighting up scoreboards as it did during the ''Killer B'' era led by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Yet the Steelers are still in the thick of things in mid-December, just like always.
''In the locker room, no one doubted him one bit, ever,'' Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree said. ''The outside world probably doubted him because he didn't win the Super Bowl every year. But it's the Steelers. People expect the Steelers to win the Super Bowl every year. But if he was on another team, he would be coach of the year plenty of times. But being here, expectations are a little higher. He really handled the pressure.''
Something McDermott is learning how to do in Buffalo. From the moment he and general manager Brandon Beane were hired in 2017, they've talked about building the franchise into consistent contenders. A victory over McDermott's college teammate turned mentor would be another symbolic step in the process.
''I think we've moved that needle drastically since we've got here and in the entire building,'' McDermott said. ''It's been a long time since this organization has been in a position like this, this late in the season, and we don't take it lightly.''
Hodges won over Tomlin and the rest of Pittsburgh's coaching staff with his pragmatic approach. He has thrown just two interceptions and taken just six sacks in his five appearances. Yet he's starting to evolve from caretaker to difference-maker. Hodges made a handful of clutch plays against the Cardinals, including an improvised third-down completion to Johnson that helped set up the game-sealing field goal.
Still, the Alabama native might face a new challenge against the Bills: playing in the cold. The forecast calls for snow showers in the morning with gusty winds and temperatures in the 20s at kickoff. Hodges, however, doesn't expect to be bothered. The avid hunter says trips to Saskatchewan, Canada, have left him well-prepared for whatever comes.
READY FOR PRIME TIME?
Buffalo's rise has caught the attention of the television networks. The league flexed the meeting with Pittsburgh from the early afternoon window to prime time a couple weeks ago and moved the team's visit to New England next weekend from Sunday to Saturday. The Bills haven't played on Sunday night in 12 years, when they were dismantled by the Patriots 56-10.
''That's something we haven't experienced as a team yet,'' said quarterback Josh Allen, who was 11 the last time Buffalo played under the Sunday night lights. ''It's definitely going to be a learning adjustment for us, but I really feel like the schedule is the only thing that changes.''
Trey, Terrell and Tremaine Edmunds will become the first trio of brothers to be active in the same NFL game in nearly 100 years when they run on to Heinz Field in front of a crowd that will include over 30 friends and family to commemorate the occasion.
Trey, the oldest, is a backup running back and special teams ace for Pittsburgh. Terrell, the middle brother, is the Steelers' starting safety. Tremaine, the youngest, is a second-year linebacker coming into his own for one of the NFL's top defenses. Terrell is curious to see where their parents - former NFL tight end Ferrell Edmunds and wife Felicia - place their allegiance.
''It's going to be funny to see how they're going to try and split it up,'' Terrell Edmunds said. ''Hopefully they pick the right team. It's a home game for us. We're playing at Heinz Field. Hopefully they pick the right jersey to wear.''
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson was not targeted often, but made it count when he was called upon. Robinson hauled in both of his targets for 31 yards during their victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. His first reception was a 24-yard catch that helped the Chiefs move upfield for their second quarter comeback. However, Robinson is normally an afterthought with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce on the roster. He could have some cheap DFS value for Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman was unable to make much of an impact during the AFC Championship game on Sunday. Hardman finished with one reception for eight yards. His reception was technically a jet sweep play that was a handoff on the second drive of the game. However, he drew a big defensive pass interference call that helped the Chiefs get into scoring position. Hardman is a fantastic special teams player, but won't bring much value to DFS contests for Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill was able to find the end zone twice during Sunday's AFC Championship game. Hill caught five of his seven targets for 67 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over the Tennessee Titans. His first score was a 10-yard jet sweep handoff that counted as a reception, but regardless it was a nice way for Hill to show off his ridiculous speed. The performance of Hill in Super Bowl 54 could help make or break plenty of DFS players.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was surprisingly held in check by the Tennessee Titans during Sunday's AFC Championship contest. He caught three of his four targets for 30 yards in the win over the Titans. Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins were the players making the splash plays in this game. DFS players shouldn't be worried as Kelce should see plenty of opportunities during Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams was able to find the end zone three times last week in the Divisional Round battle with the Houston Texans. Williams continued his strong play against the Tennessee Titans in Sunday's AFC Championship game. Williams rushed 17 times for 45 yards and a touchdown. He also caught five passes for 44 yards through the air. Veteran back LeSean McCoy (illness) didn't play and rookie Darwin Thompson saw just one carry in this game. It's clear that the Chiefs trust Williams to be their lead back going forward. Look for him to make a significant impact in Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins was able to finally find the end zone for the first time since Week 1. It's been a tough season for Watkins, but at least he was able to do damage when it mattered most. Watkins hauled in seven receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown in the victory over the Tennessee Titans. Watkins caught a 60-yard touchdown that basically sealed the Chiefs ticket to Super Bowl 54. It's been impossible to trust Watkins this season, but maybe he's finally turning the corner.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Darwin Thompson was not able to make much of an impact in the AFC Championship game on Sunday. Thompson had one rushing attempt for seven yards in the victory over the Tennessee Titans. Damien Williams continues to be the workhorse while LeSean McCoy (illness) didn't play in this one. Thompson has only two carries this postseason, so he won't be much of an option for Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was phenomenal in the AFC Championship game against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. He completed 23 of 35 passing attempts for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Mahomes also had eight rushing attempts for 53 yards and a touchdown. It was a fantastic performance for Mahomes and DFS players who stuck with him despite the high price are smiling now. The Chiefs are heading to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years.
San Francisco 49ers running back Tevin Coleman (shoulder) was forced from the Conference Championship game with an injury in the second quarter, and is questionable to return. After being tackled on the play, it initially looked like Coleman sustained an elbow or arm injury, but it is now being called a shoulder injury. He remained down on the field in pain, and was eventually carted to the locker room. Raheem Mostert has taken over as the lead running back, and Matt Breida will be sprinkled in as well for as long as Coleman remains sidelined.
The San Francisco 49ers have declared TE Daniel Helm, DT Kevin Givens, LB Azeez Al-Shaair, RB Jeff Wilson Jr., CB Dontae Johnson, QB C.J. Beathard and WR Jordan Matthews inactive for NFC Championship.
The Green Bay Packers have declared FB Danny Vitale, WR Ryan Grant, OL Alex Light, RB Dexter Williams, OT John Leglue, CB Ka'dar Hollman and DB Raven Greene inactive for Conference Championships.
Updating a previous report, Tennessee Titans LB Rashaan Evans (foot) has returned to the AFC Championship game after missing time because of a foot injury.
Philadelphia Eagles TE Zach Ertz will be a candidate for a contract extension this offseason.
Fantasy Spin: Ertz has been one of the top tight ends in the NFL over the last few seasons and should be a main option in the passing game for the Eagles again in 2020. He will be a No. 1 tight end in all fantasy leagues next season.
Tennessee Titans LB Rashaan Evans (foot) suffered a foot injury during the AFC Championship game and is considered questionable to return.
Dallas Cowboys impending free-agent TE Jason Witten has not ruled out playing in 2020 and could join the New York Giants because of his connection with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, according to sources.
Tennessee Titans WR Adam Humphries (ankle) is officially active for the AFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Humphries will return to the lineup for the first time since Week 13, but his role in the passing game is uncertain. He probably will see a few targets during the game but can be avoided in fantasy leagues.
The Tennessee Titans have declared DT Isaiah Mack, OG Kevin Pamphile, WR Rashard Davis, LB Reggie Gilbert, WR Darius Jennings, DT Joey Ivie and WR Cody Hollister inactive for Conference Championships.
The Kansas City Chiefs have declared OG Andrew Wylie, OL Ryan Hunter, RB LeSean McCoy, LB Darron Lee, QB Matt Moore, OT Jackson Barton and CB Morris Claiborne inactive for Conference Championships.
Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith hauled in a beautiful one-handed touchdown grab in last week's win over the Ravens, showcasing his elite athleticism at the position. That being said, he only has four targets and 21 receiving yards in the playoffs, which is nothing to write home about. The entire offense has taken a backseat to Derrick Henry as the running back has carried the offense in their playoff victories. The Chiefs Defense has not been great at stopping tight ends this year but projecting any kind of significant volume for Smith seems to be a reach as he's only topped four targets four times this season. The Titans being 7.5-point underdogs on the road could mean more passing attempts from Ryan Tannehill, but Smith is still just a touchdown-or-bust, low-owned tournament option at a top-heavy tight end position during Conference Championship Weekend.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis has barely been a whisper this postseason and isnt an appealing fantasy option in the AFC Championship against the Kansas City Chiefs. The third-year pros only catch in the playoffs was a three-yard touchdown and he hasnt eclipsed 80 yards since Week 7. While game flow has been a critical factor in his low usage, Davis has also fallen behind rookie wideout A.J. Brown in snaps and targets. The Titans will likely utilize a more balanced offensive approach against Kansas City, but Davis will need a few splashy pay to return dividends to DFS investors against the sixth-best pass defense by DVOA.