Los Angeles Chargers tight end Virgil Green (88) spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer watches from the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins warms up before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
CARSON, Calif. (AP) The Minnesota Vikings realize they can't stop to take a deep breath in the final three weeks of the regular season - not even at sea level on the sunny West Coast.
With the Green Bay Packers ahead of them in the NFC North and the Los Angeles Rams right on their tails in the wild-card race, the Vikings (9-4) might need to be perfect in their final three games just to make the playoffs.
The next stop on Minnesota's perilous path to the postseason is a suburban soccer stadium hosting its next-to-last NFL game. The Los Angeles Chargers (5-8) have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but they've got more than enough talent and motivation to worry the Vikings in their final road game of the regular season.
''It's the NFL, so you can't take no team lightly,'' Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said.
The Vikings have won seven of nine with an increasingly impressive offense and a playmaking defense, but they realize the Chargers are a danger not indicated by their record.
Los Angeles' eight losses have all been by seven points or fewer, leaving the Chargers out of the playoff race despite a plus-38 point differential and elite talent on both sides of the ball. The Bolts' late-game execution has doomed them repeatedly, while the Vikings pulled out a pair of narrow victories last month to kick-start their playoff push.
A loss by the Vikings would greatly benefit the Rams, who will be the Chargers' stadium roommates next season. That's not a motivation for the Bolts, who are still fighting for coach Anthony Lynn's stated goal to rally back to .500.
''We want to win for us,'' quarterback Philip Rivers said. ''Obviously, it's been tough with every loss by one score. We're playing for us, but certainly, there's a lot on the line for them. The Rams are pulling for us as well. It'll be a heck of a game.''
TRIPPING UP Road games on the West Coast have long been tricky for teams in the Central or Eastern time zones, and the Vikings have been no exception.
After losing 37-30 at Seattle two games ago, they're 1-6 on the road in the Mountain and Pacific time zones in six seasons under coach Mike Zimmer. Their last such win was at Oakland in 2015. Five of those losses were in night games, so the NFL did the Vikings a favor by recently moving this contest out of prime time and into the late afternoon slot.
Another category that could hinder the Vikings? The natural grass at Dignity Health Sports Park. They've won only one of seven games on grass over the last two seasons, at Philadelphia in 2018.
''Good football teams, no matter what comes at them, find a way to still get the job done,'' quarterback Kirk Cousins said.
The Chargers haven't played a home game since Nov. 3, and they have just two left in their temporary stadium south of downtown Los Angeles. While the Vikings are likely to have a serious fan turnout, the Bolts are used to that - and they're still grateful to be home for the next two weeks believing they can reset their mentality with a regular schedule.
Minnesota's Stefon Diggs is fifth in the NFL with an average of 17.8 yards per reception. When he's targeted on an attempt of 20 or more yards in the air, the passer rating of 139.2 is second best in the league behind only Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. Diggs has seven catches of 40 or more yards, tied for second in the NFL with Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and trailing only Mike Williams of the Chargers with eight. His success with Cousins going deep has been a big reason the Vikings have won seven of their last nine games and stayed on track for the playoffs despite the loss of two-time Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen to a hamstring injury. Thielen has been limited to 16 snaps over the previous seven games.
''Be able to run routes at a high level, catch the ball and have success down the field is just part of the game that you work at, but I never wanted to be good at one thing. I just wanted to be a good receiver,'' Diggs said.
Thielen has practiced on a limited basis this week and could finally be at full strength again on Sunday. After the initial injury on Oct. 20 at Detroit, he had a false start on Nov. 3 at Kansas City that forced him out again in the first quarter, making the Vikings extra cautious about his return. The Vikings have averaged 27 points over their last seven games.
''I'm excited. The only thing you're worried about is, `Hey, we've got a good rhythm going, you know?''' Cousins said, smiling. ''It does feel different when you have him back. It has a different dynamic, so you just joke with him, `Hey, don't rock the boat too much.'''
Keep an eye on the matchup between Vikings sack machine Danielle Hunter and the Chargers' offensive tackles. While left tackle Russell Okung is usually rock-solid, right tackle Sam Tevi is learning on the job and has given up too many chances to get at the relatively static Rivers. Hunter is tied for fourth in the league with 12 1/2 sacks after becoming the youngest player to reach 50 career sacks last week.
Houston Texans WR Will Fuller (groin) underwent sports hernia surgery, according to sources Saturday, Jan. 25. He's expected to make a full recovery.
Fantasy Spin: Fuller was limited to 11 games in 2019. He managed to catch 49 of 71 targets for 670 yards and three touchdowns, but he's now four years into his career and has yet to play more than 14 games. He'll again be a risky but high-upside WR3 in 2020 drafts.
San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle in 2019 received the highest-ever full-season grade given to a tight end by Pro Football Focus, and has been named the site's 2019 Dwight Stephenson Award winner as the best player regardless of position.
Fantasy Spin: In catching 85 of 107 targets for 1,053 yards and five TDs, Kittle finished as fantasy's No. 3 tight end in both standard and PPR leagues. He's made more of an impact with his run blocking so far this postseason, but he'll be near the top of fantasy TE wish lists this summer once again.
Free-agent S Eric Berry (Chiefs) sat out the 2019 season but plans to play in 2020.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston is coming off an up-and-down season in which he hit career highs in yards (5,109) and touchdowns (33) but also interceptions (30), including seven pick-sixes, and former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said it's time the Bucs and Winston part ways. 'I would be surprised if they pay him,' Dominik told PewterReport.com. 'Maybe they will. It's their decision, but I would be shocked if the Bucs franchised Winston -- or transitioned him. I think the decision they have is certainly difficult because there has been some production there, but I don't know how you could justify paying Jameis Winston more money this year than he made last year.'
Fantasy Spin: Unless your league deducts heavy penalties for turnovers, Winston was fantasy gold last season, finishing only behind Lamar Jackson in total fantasy points. The interceptions and miscues, though, are a little more unforgivable in real football, and whether or not Winston is retained by the Bucs promises to be one of the most intriguing storylines of the offseason.
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver D.J. Chark doesn't expect his role to change going into next season under new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Chark became the team's No. 1 receiver under John DeFilippo in 2019, and he expects Gruden to do the same to utilize his playmaking abilities. The second-round pick of 2018 had a breakout year in 2019 and thinks Gruden's West Coast offense is a good fit for him. Chark is in his first Pro Bowl after catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns. He had 14 catches for 174 yards and no touchdowns as a rookie. He'll have WR2 upside going into 2020, but the uncertainty at quarterback will make him a bit volatile in fantasy drafts.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Albert Wilson won't have any of his $9.5 million salary guaranteed for the 2020 season unless he's on the roster for Week 1 of the regular season. The Dolphins are likely to discuss a restructuring of his contract in the weeks ahead. There will be $1.3 million in dead money but $9.5 million in salary cap savings if the Dolphins cut him. The 27-year-old slot receiver missed three games due to injury last season and caught 43 passes for 351 yards and just one touchdown in his second year in Miami. He could never really get on track after his slow start because of injury, and Wilson will be an afterthought in redraft leagues going into the 2020 season.
Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes reminds retired QB Brett Favre of himself with some of the traits he has displayed on the field. 'I see the comparison,â?³ Favre said. 'He may not admit this but he probably feels there is no throw he can't make or no angle he can't make it from. Whether he's flushed left or to the right, his vision always is down the field. I was always looking for the big play first and knew I could always react underneath if I needed, too. You have to have a certain confidence or air about you that you can make any throw, and it has been proven he can make any throw.'
Fantasy Spin: Mahomes is off to a particularly impressive start in the postseason with 13 total touchdowns (including two rushing), 1,313 total yards (125 rushing) and no interceptions in four playoff contests over two seasons. He'll challenge Lamar Jackson for first-QB-off the-board fantasy honors this summer.
The New England Patriots want to know if impending free-agent QB Tom Brady will return to the team for the 2020 season before the legal tampering period for free agency begins March 16, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Fantasy Spin: Schefter reasoned that the Patriots want a quick decision so they can pursue other quarterbacks in free agency in case Brady chooses to leave the only organization he has ever played for. New England wants to avoid a situation similar to last season when Rob Gronkowski waited until late-March to announce his retirement, meaning that the best free-agent tight ends had already been signed by other clubs. From a fantasy standpoint, Brady should be viewed as a QB2 in most formats at this stage of his career but he could merit consideration as a low-end QB1 if he has plenty of offensive weapons surrounding him.
San Francisco 49ers LB Kwon Alexander (pectoral) and DE Dee Ford (hamstring, quadriceps) were limited during practice Friday, Jan. 24, but are not listed on the injury report for Super Bowl LIV. LB Dre Greenlaw (ankle), S Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) and WR Dante Pettis (illness) fully participated in practice and are not on the injury report.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR DJ Chark Jr. said he expects to have a similar role in the offense next season under offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
Fantasy Spin: Chark was one of the breakout players this season and finished with 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns. He likely will be the main target in the passing game again next season and could be at least a No. 3 fantasy receiver.
San Francisco 49ers RB Tevin Coleman (shoulder) did not participate in practice Friday, Jan. 24, and is considered questionable for Super Bowl LIV.
Fantasy Spin: Coleman probably will need to practice at some point next week if he wants to play in the Super Bowl. He will share playing time with Raheem Mostert and Maatt Breida if he is active and could be a flex option.
San Francisco 49ers RB Tevin Coleman's (shoulder) MRI results were positive, but Coleman did not participate in any practices this week, according to head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Fantasy Spin: Fantasy players will need to keep an eye on Coleman's practice participate next week to see if he has a chance to play in Super Bowl LIV. Coleman will be part of a committee if he is active and should see some touches during the game. He can be considered a flex option.
Miami Dolphins WR Albert Wilson likely will be asked to restructure his contract this offseason if he wants to remain with the team. The Dolphins would save $9.5 million in salary cap space if they release Wilson.
Fantasy Spin: Wilson had a disappointing 2019 season with 351 yards and one touchdown. The Dolphins likely will look to upgrade at the position so Wilson probably would drop down the depth chart if he stays. He probably can be avoided in fantasy leagues next season.
Kansas City Chiefs S Jordan Lucas (illness) did not participate in practice Friday, Jan. 24, and is considered questionable for Super Bowl LIV. DT Chris D. Jones (calf) was limited during practice and is considered questionable. WR Demarcus Robinson (illness), WR Mecole Hardman (back), CB Morris Claiborne (shoulder) and C Austin Reiter (wrist) fully participated in practice and are not on the injury report.
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce (knee) was limited during practice Friday, Jan. 24, and is not on the injury report for Super Bowl LIV.
Fantasy Spin: Kelce appears to be on track to play and probably will see more practice time next week. He is a must-start option in fantasy leagues.
New Orleans Saints impending free-agent QB Drew Brees said he will only play for the Saints in 2020 if he decides to continue his playing career.
Fantasy Spin: Fantasy players will need to monitor the situation to see if Brees returns to the Saints next season. He posted solid numbers this season even though he missed some time because of an injury and could be a low-end No. 1 fantasy quarterback if he plays.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who will be a free agent in March, plans to return to the Saints if he comes back for a 20th season in the NFL. "I have never been in the situation where I was mulling over the thought of [returning]," Brees said. "To me, each one of these contracts, I don't know how many it's been with the Saints, I've played with them 14 years, it's not a matter of if it gets done, it's when. At this stage of my career, it's not a given that I'm coming back every year, but when that time comes, I'll always be a Saint." Despite diminished arm strength, Brees was one of the best quarterbacks when he returned from his thumb injury last season. He may no longer have sky-high QB1 upside for fantasy owners, but Brees will at least be a midrange QB1 target next season if he returns to New Orleans, which is what is expected.
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers had a 'really, really good ' first year in head coach Matt LaFleur's offense, general manager Brian Gutekunst said Friday, Jan. 24, and the GM is looking forward to the encore in 2020. I'm really excited to see what he can do in Year Two,' Gutekunst said. 'I know Matt talks a lot about what Matt Ryan did in Year Two, the comparatives there. I'm really excited to see where him and the offense can go.'
Fantasy Spin: Rodgers threw for one more TD (26-25) than he did in 2018 but his passing yards declined by 440 yards as he finished 12th among fantasy QBs in terms of total points. Rodgers will turn 37 before next season ends but don't be surprised if he takes a jump into solid QB1 territory with a year in the system under his belt and the Packers expecting to add wide receiver and, possibly, tight end help this offseason.
Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, a pending free agent, will be re-signed and remain the team's quarterback, Cowboys vice president Will McClay said Thursday, Jan. 23. 'We expect Dak to be our quarterback,' McClay said. 'If the owner/GM says we're going to get it done, he signs the checks. So we'll get that done.'
Fantasy Spin: Even though the Cowboys were an overall disappointment at 8-8, Prescott had a career year with 4,902 yards and 30 passing TDs to finish as fantasy's No. 3 QB. Barring an shocking turn of developments, Prescott will land a lucrative new deal from the Cowboys and be back in the QB1 mix this offseason.
Cleveland Browns RB Kareem Hunt's car was found to contain marijuana following a traffic stop Tuesday, Jan. 21, in which Hunt was issued a speeding citation in Ohio.
Fantasy Spin: Although Hunt wasn't cited for possession, he could face scrutiny from the league after sitting out the first half of the 2019 season due to a personal-conduct suspension. Without a ban, Hunt projects as a low-end RB2 entering next season.