Thu Dec 12 9:07pm ET
By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) hurdles over San Francisco 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward (20) in the first half an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack celebrates with offensive tackle Braden Smith (72) after his 2-yard touchdown run during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) reacts after throwing a touchdown pass to Michael Thomas in the second half an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett (7) runs away from Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Lavonte David (54) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Zach Pascal (14) celebrates his touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with running back Nyheim Hines (21) and wide receiver Parris Campbell (15) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
New Orleans Saints linebacker Craig Robertson (52) celebrates his interception in the second half an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Saints coach Sean Payton is trying not to let New Orleans' latest bout with key injuries undermine his club's Super Bowl aspirations.
A pair of starting defensive linemen who are both former first-round draft choices - end Marcus Davenport and tackle Sheldon Rankins - left last week's loss to San Francisco with what turned out to be season-ending injuries.
But as the Saints (10-3) prepare to meet Indianapolis (6-7) on Monday night, they do so having already demonstrated how resilient they can be without prominent players in the lineup.
The Saints went 5-0 while record-setting quarterback Drew Brees was out with a thumb injury early this season. Star running back Alvin Kamara, top receiving tight end Jared Cook, left tackle Terron Armstead, left guard Andrus Peat, top cornerback Marshon Lattimore and return specialist Deonte Harris have missed games with injuries this season as well. Rankins also sat out the season's first three games while finishing up his recovery from an Achilles tendon tear in last season's playoff opener.
Yet by Thanksgiving, the Saints were NFC South Division title holders for a third season running and are still in contention to capture one of the top two playoff seeds in the conference.
''It's been a little bit more than we're used to,'' Payton said of the injuries to top contributors. ''You start with Drew, but it is what it is. You learn as you get older that there are certain things you can control. Those are the things you spend more time focusing on than the things you can't.''
The Saints are somewhat fortunate that they entered this season emphasizing depth on the defensive line. They still have experienced, productive players across their defensive front - just fewer of them. And they will be tested against Indy's sixth-ranked running game, featuring Marlon Mack.
''One of the things this year that we felt was beneficial was our depth at the defensive line position, carrying eight each game and getting into a rotation.'' Payton said. ''So that when you lose two starters, the depth helps you.''
The Colts could use a break, having lost five of six. They're now one loss from playoff elimination as they meet a Saints squad that odds makers have favored by more than a touchdown.
Indianapolis coach Frank Reich doesn't expect New Orleans' normally stout defensive front to crumble.
''They're rotating guys who substitute that are good players. I'm sure they feel like us and most teams do, these backups are going to step in and do a good job,'' Reich said. ''We certainly know we are going up against a good front.''
Dynamic Saints running back Alvin Kamara is coming off a relatively quite game by his prolific standards, with just 25 yards rushing and 18 receiving against San Francisco. That marked his second straight game with fewer than 100 yards from scrimmage, and third in the last five.
But Brees doesn't sound worried about Kamara, who needs just 38 yards receiving to become third player in NFL history with at least 500 yards receiving and 500 yards rushing in each of first three seasons.
''There's just only so many balls to go around,'' Brees said. ''Alvin is one of our playmakers. We want to get on the ball. We want to give him opportunities.''
The Colts have blown second-half leads each of the past three weeks, putting their playoff hopes in peril.
Indy has slid from the top of the AFC South to third place, and the reason is simple. Houston, Tennessee and Tampa Bay have outscored the Colts 31-0 in the fourth quarter.
''Very frustrating,'' tight end Jack Doyle said, but added that he believes the Colts ''have the right group of guys'' to bounce back.
Rookie Parris Campbell became the fifth Colts receiver to land on injured reserve this season when he broke his foot last week.
Indy filled his spot by bringing back a familiar name, Dontrelle Inman.
The Virginia alum was one of the Colts' midseason acquisitions last season, finishing with 28 receptions 304 yards and three TD catches in nine games. But the Colts and Inman couldn't agree to terms during the offseason. He wound up playing four games for the Los Angeles Chargers before returning to Indy.
He'll try to take pressure off of four-time Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton, who has missed five of the last six games with an injured calf and was limited in practice this week.
The Saints moved quickly to add a pair of free-agent veterans - tackle T.Y. McGill and end Noah Spence - but it remains to be seen how they perform in New Orleans' scheme.
''There's a vision with each one relative to what they do well and how we would use them. They are in good football shape and I'm anxious to see how they do.''
McGill was a teammate of Colts QB Jacoby Brissett at North Carolina State. He wasn't allowed to touch Brissett in practice, but now might get his first chance to sack him.
ARE YOU READY?
Indy is making its first Monday appearance since October 2016.
That might be a bigger deal for some than Colts 2018 All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, who enjoyed watching pro wrestling as a kid.
''I'm not going to lie, I watched Monday Night Raw,'' the reigning defensive rookie of the year said. ''But it's really special when you know the whole world is watching.''
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill had an incredible performance against the Tennessee Titans during their Week 10 matchup. He caught 11 of his 19 targets for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Tennessee. He'll get another chance to run over the same team in the AFC Championship matchup on Sunday. Hill hasn't been able to get over 100 yards receiving in a single game since that matchup. DFS players know that Hill has a chance to be a complete bust, but the fact he destroyed Tennessee the first time is hard to ignore. Hill has given DFS players a lot to think about before Sunday's kickoff.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is coming off a three touchdown performance against the Houston Texans last week. He hauled in 10 receptions for 134 yards and three touchdowns in the Divisional Round victory. The Tennessee Titans main focus has to be slowing down Kelce. They allowed seven receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown to Kelce earlier in the season. Kelce isn't going to be cheap for DFS contests, but he's proven all season long that he's worth the risk.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins has been tough to watch all season long. He started off the year with a three touchdown performance, but it was downhill after that. Watkins was only targeted more than five times in a game once over the last five games. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce have taken over the passing attack in Kansas City. Watkins was able to haul in five receptions for 39 yards during his regular season matchup against the Titans. DFS players shouldn't expect a better performance out of Watkins this time around.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is set to battle with the Tennessee Titans for the AFC Championship on Sunday. Mahomes is coming off a five touchdown performance against the Houston Texans last week. He's already faced off against the Titans once this season and Mahomes didn't disappoint. He threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns in that game. DFS players should be able to lean on Mahomes to at least be efficient on Sunday. He has a solid chance of being the best quarterback out of the bunch in the division title games.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams is coming off a three touchdown performance against the Houston Texans last week. He rushed 12 times for 47 yards and caught two passes for 21 yards through the air. LeSean McCoy and Darwin Thompson have been absent from the backfield lately. The Chiefs have been leaning on Williams and it's been paying off. He's been able to find the end zone when he's called upon and piled up 109 yards against the Titans earlier in the season. Fantasy owners are aware that Williams has been up and down this season, but he's red-hot right now. He'll be used in both the rushing and passing attack, so DFS players should give Williams a long look for Sunday's slate.
San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo has the confidence of former 49ers QB and Hall of Famer Steve Young. 'When they've asked him to raise up and go win it, he did it,' Young said. 'Those are hard things to do. That just doesn't happen. When you see it in the NFL and someone is able to do it, you go, once you've done it, you can do it again. You can keep doing it.'
Fantasy Spin: Jimmy G wasn't a fantasy factor with his 11-of-19, 131-yards, one-TD, one-interception game in the divisional-round playoff win over the Vikings, but that's largely due to the Niners' overwhelming success on the ground (47 rushes-186 yards). When Garoppolo has been forced to pass, he's delivered the majority of the time, and his fantasy numbers Sunday likely will depend on how much the opposing Packers are able to get done against the San Fran defense.
San Francisco 49ers RB Raheem Mostert is the only player since special-teams tackles were first tracked in 2001 to lead his team in rushing yards and special-teams tackles in the same season.
Fantasy Spin: While Mostert is a breakout talent who led the Niners in rushing in each of their last six regular-season games, keep in mind that it was Tevin Coleman who led the squad in rushing attempts (22), yards (105) and touchdown runs (2) in the divisional-round playoff win over the Vikings as Mostert (12-58-0) battled a calf cramp which he said was an after affect of an illness he dealt with the week leading up to the game. In the meantime, it's a plus matchup Sunday against a Packers defense which allowed the ninth-most rushing yards (120.1) per game during the regular season.
Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry has rushed for 377 yards on 64 carries in two wins this postseason, but Kansas City Chiefs DE Frank Clark says he isn't intimidated heading into the AFC Championship matchup with the Titans on Sunday, Jan. 19. 'He's not hard to hit,' Clark was quoted as saying on NFL Network. 'He's just a big guy -- 240, 245, 250 (pounds). Honestly he should be running harder at his weight and size. I don't see no difficulty in tackling him. ... He's just easy to me up front because I don't look at any running back like they can't be tackled. He's not one of the best guys at breaking tackles to me, honestly.'
Fantasy Spin: Henry is on a truly historic run -- with only Terrell Davis owning more 150-yard postseason games (four) than Henry's three -- and it will be challenge for Clark and the K.C. D, which ranked in the bottom fourth of the league in allowing 128.2 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry, to slow down -- let alone shut down -- Henry and the run-first Titans.
Cleveland Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr. likely won't face simple-assault charges for slapping a security officer's buttocks Monday, Jan. 13, as the officer has declined to press charges, according to a source.
Fantasy Spin: The Browns -- and OBJ's fantasy dynasty-league owners -- are hoping this the final negative offseason headline the wideout generates for a good while and he starts focusing his energies on improving on his disappointing debut season with Cleveland.
Confirming a previous report, the Dallas Cowboys have hired New Orleans Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan to be their new defensive coordinator. Head coach Mike McCarthy said he plans to run a defense with four down linemen.
New England Patriots CB Jason McCourty (groin) recently underwent surgery on the groin injury that hampered him throughout the 2019 season.
Former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has agreed to become the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, according to a source.
San Francisco 49ers RB Tevin Coleman (elbow) fully participated in practice Friday, Jan. 17, and is not on the injury report for the NFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Coleman is coming off one of his best games of the season last week and should continue to receive most of the carries in the running game. He should be a starting option in all fantasy leagues.
San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle (ankle) fully participated in practice Friday, Jan. 17, and is not on the injury report for the NFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Kittle is one of the top options in the passing game for the 49ers and is a must-start option in all fantasy leagues.
San Francisco 49ers RB Raheem Mostert (calf) fully participated in practice Friday, Jan. 17, and is not on the injury report for the NFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Mostert will have a solid role in the running game against the Green Bay Packers and could see a few targets in the passing game. He has a chance to be a flex option in fantasy leagues.
San Francisco 49ers LB Kwon Alexander (pectoral) was limited during practice Friday, Jan. 17, but is not on the injury report for the NFC Championship game. DE Dee Ford (hamstring, quadriceps) fully participated in practice and is not on the injury report.
Green Bay Packers FB Danny Vitale (knee) was limited during practice Friday, Jan. 17, and is listed as questionable for the NFC Championship game. TE Marcedes Lewis (non-injury), LB Preston Smith (ankle) and CB Tramon Williams (non-injury) were limited during practice but are not on the injury report. S Adrian Amos (chest), OT Bryan Bulaga (non-injury), DT Kenny Clark (back), WR Ryan Grant (non-injury), LB Blake Martinez (hand) and OT Billy Turner (ankle) fully participated in practice and are not on the injury report.
Green Bay Packers WR Geronimo Allison (illness) fully participated in practice Friday, Jan. 17, and is not on the injury report for the NFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Allison has only been targeted 12 times over the last five games and was held to nine yards in his last game against the San Francisco 49ers. He can be avoided in fantasy leagues.
Green Bay Packers TE Jimmy Graham (non-injury) was limited during practice Friday, Jan. 17, but is not on the injury report for the NFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Graham likely will see a handful of targets in the passing game against the San Francisco 49ers and could be a stating option in some fantasy leagues.
The Green Bay Packers Defense faces a tough task this weekend in the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. In their regular-season meeting, the Packers gave up 37 points and only dropped Jimmy Garoppolo only three times. They also failed to generate any turnovers. Green Bay's defense may need to lend their offense a helping hand by creating a turnover or two to swing the field position game. If Za-Darius and Preston Smith can ramp up the pressure, the Packers will have a good chance of generating a turnover or two and winning the game. It certainly won't be easy, considering how formidable the 49ers offense has been this season.