Sat Jan 19 2:47pm ET
By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
Players: Tom Brady
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid watches workouts Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs host the New England Patriots in the NFL 's AFC football championship game on Sunday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
In this Oct. 14, 2018, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) gives a stiff arm to Kansas City Chiefs free safety Ron Parker (38) after catching a pass during the second half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass. It seems football fans everywhere are suddenly on the Kansas City Chiefs bandwagon, enthralled by their record-setting young quarterback and exciting offensive playmakers while hopeful that their amiable old coach can finally win the big one. Then again, maybe theyre just fans of anybody facing New England. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The only defense the Kansas City Chiefs played most of this season was, well, in defense of their own defense, which gave up so many yards and points that it became a running joke around the league.
Yes, the Chiefs scored in bushels. They also allowed points in bunches.
The fact that they spent most of the season coughing up 30 points and 400-plus yards per game came despite the fact that they excelled at sacking the quarterback. They finished with 52 of them, tied for the NFL lead, thanks primarily to the trio of Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston.
Yet things began to change in Week 17, when the Chiefs shut down the Oakland Raiders in a game they needed to win to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. And when critics claimed that the Raiders were playing for nothing, the Chiefs backed it up with a defensive gem in the divisional round against the Colts.
Now, that suddenly stingy defense gets its biggest test Sunday against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
At stake: A trip to the Super Bowl, the first for the Chiefs in 49 years.
So what changed? How did a Swiss cheese defense that was torched by the Patriots for 43 points in a Week 6 loss in Foxborough suddenly turn into a steel curtain, and just in the nick of time?
''In the last couple of games, the three things we've done is we've limited the explosive plays, we've done a really solid job of tackling and we've had one defensive penalty in two weeks,'' Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. ''Those three things allow you to function and go.''
Take each one in order.
In the Chiefs' four losses this season, they allowed four plays of 40-plus yards and 21 plays of at least 20 yards. Seven of those came in a particularly dismal defensive performance against the Rams, who ultimately won a 53-50 shootout at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.
But the Chiefs didn't allow a single play over 15 yards against Oakland, and didn't allow the Colts a play over 30 yards. In fact, Indianapolis didn't score on offense until late in the fourth quarter.
Their success in limiting big plays is, at least in part, a byproduct of improved tackling.
Then there are the penalties. After leading the league in total penalties and defensive penalties this season, their defense has been flagged just once over the past two games.
''Most points that are produced in a drive usually result from an explosive play and-or a penalty in the drive,'' Sutton explained. ''The common thing when you look back and say, `Hey how'd they get down the field?' It's usually you had a (pass interference) here or you gave up a 20-yard run here or whatever it was. So, if you can manage those and do a relatively good job on those things, you put yourself in a good position to play. I think the guys that have played have done a good job.''
Ah, there's the caveat: The guys who have played have done a good job.
The Chiefs have been missing pieces on defense the entire season, and often they have been crucial playmakers. Highly paid linebacker Justin Houston, who had a pair of sacks against the Colts, missed four games with a hamstring injury. Top cornerback Kendall Fuller missed a game with a broken hand. Starting safety Daniel Sorensen missed half the season with a broken leg.
Those injuries alone are enough to derail any defense, but the Chiefs have also played almost the whole season without Eric Berry, their star safety and arguably the team's emotional leader.
He played in just two games because of his heel but is poised to play Sunday against New England.
''That's my guy. Eric Berry has kind of taken me under his wing since I got here,'' Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson said. ''We call him `Coach' in our room because he's so knowledgeable. He means a lot to our team and our defense, so whenever we can have him out there, it's a great thing.''
The Patriots are under no preconceptions the defense they marched up and down the field against in Week 6 will show up on Sunday. Bill Belichick said this week that there is little to glean from that win, while Brady was quick to heap praise on a defense playing its best all year.
''We've played them quite a bit over the years,'' the Patriots quarterback said. ''They've had some incredible units that we've played against. They've got play-makers at each level. Obviously, a good scheme. They make you work for it. It's a very tough, hard-nosed team. They compete on every snap. They've been in a lot of close games this year. It's a great challenge for us. I don't think you can take anything for granted.''
The Detroit Lions released wide receiver Bruce Ellington, safety Glover Quinn and linebacker Nicholas Grigsby on Friday. Ellington signed with the Lions after they traded Golden Tate to the Eagles and became their slot receiver until he landed on Injured Reserve on Dec. 22. He had 23 catches for 132 yards in four games for Detroit. Ellington's best year came in 2017 with the Texans when he had 29 catches for 330 yards and two touchdowns. Wherever he signs, he'll battle for a roster spot in training camp.
The Buffalo Bills released tight end Charles Clay on Friday. Clay provided only 21 catches (36 targets) for 184 yards (career-low 8.8 yards per catch) and no touchdowns in 13 games for Buffalo in 2018. He was rarely in the game plan for the Bills the last two seasons and won't be a very popular target on the free-agent market. His best season came in 2013 with the Dolphins when he had 69 receptions (103 targets) for 759 yards and six scores over a full season. The days of Clay being on fantasy rosters is over.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles would "probably" be interested in playing for the New York Giants if they decide to move on from Eli Manning, according to one person with knowledge of Foles' thinking. Foles landing with the Giants would be less likely if the Eagles place the franchise tag on him, which is unlikely. The Jaguars are another team to watch out for, and there is mutual interest between them and Foles. After winning Super Bowl MVP two years ago and playing well as a starter again in 2018 when Carson Wentz was injured, Foles should earn a starting gig on the open market with several teams looking for a signal caller. While Foles has QB1 upside in the right matchups, his 2019 fantasy value will ultimately depend on where he winds up.
All indications are that the Pittsburgh Steelers plan to use the transition tag on running back Le'Veon Bell by the deadline on March 5. It's expected to have a value of $9.5 million to $14.5 million for one season and gives the Steelers a chance to match any offer he'd receive on the open market. Pittsburgh doesn't plan on matching any offer to retain Bell, but only to trade him. However, even if the Steelers find a taker in a trade, they'd need Bell to sign the transition tag first, which is highly unlikely. This situation continues to get uglier, but Bell won't be playing in Pittsburgh in 2019 no matter what. Despite having 1,229 rushing attempts in five seasons, Bell is in the prime of his career and has reached the 1,000-yard mark three times. He's one of the more versatile backs in the NFL and should remain an RB1 in his next home.
Arizona Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson will return to shadowing the top opposing wide receivers in 2019, according to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
Free-agent RB Mike Gillislee (Saints) worked out for the Detroit Lions Thursday, Feb. 14.
Miami Dolphins WR Danny Amendola could fill the slot receiver role for the Detroit Lions in 2019 because of his connection to head coach Matt Patricia, in the opinion of Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com.
Denver Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders (Achilles') said he is no longer wearing a walking boot but still has a 'slight limp' when walking around.
Fantasy Spin: After suffering an Achilles' injury late in the year, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Sanders miss time in 2019. He showed last year that he can be a WR2 as the top option in Denver's passing attack, but fantasy owners will need to be patient as he returns to form.
Arizona Cardinals WR Chad Williams caught 37 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2018 and had two catches or less in all but two games.
Minnesota Vikings WR Laquon Treadwell averaged 5.7 yards per target last year, the fourth-worst mark among receivers with at least 50 targets, and Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com expects Treadwell's fifth-year option to be declined.
Fantasy Spin: The former first-round pick has been a bust, and he didn't show any signs of righting the ship despite a bigger role in 2018. Even in dynasty formats, it may be time to give up on Treadwell.
Philadelphia Eagles impending free-agent WR Golden Tate and Washington Redskins impending free-agent WR Jamison Crowder are options to fill the need the Green Bay Packers have at slot receiver, according to Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com.
Fantasy Spin: The Packers need a dependable option to support Davante Adams, and both Tate and Crowder would quickly become potential WR3 options if Aaron Rodgers is throwing them the ball.
Atlanta Falcons SS Keanu Neal (knee) posted a video of himself going through agility drills without a brace on his injured left knee.
Washington Redskins QB Colt McCoy (leg) was seen without any braces or supports for his injured leg.
Los Angeles Chargers impending free-agent LB Denzel Perryman will be re-signed this offseason if the Chargers have their way, according to a source.
Updating a previous report, free-agent QB Colin Kaepernick (49ers) desired at least $20 million to play in the Alliance of American Football, according to a source.
Free-agent QB Nick Foles (Eagles) is expected to 'keep tabs on' the New York Giants this offseason, according to NJ.com's Zack Rosenblatt. A source with knowledge of Foles' thinking said the former Super Bowl MVP would 'probably' be interested in starting for the Giants if they were to release QB Eli Manning.
Fantasy Spin: There are many pieces that must fall in order for Foles to the Giants to work out. It's a sensible destination, though, with Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley leading one of the most talented offenses in the NFL. Foles could be the piece that makes them take a forward step. Were this signing to come to fruition, Foles would demand QB1 consideration given the pieces that would be around him.
Free-agent QB Nick Foles (Eagles) is not expected to return to the Philadelphia Eagles as the backup to Carson Wentz.
Fantasy Spin: Foles deserves a starting job. He won't want to play as a backup and make less money when there are teams willing to pay him to be their starter. He can be a part of the QB1 conversation if he lands in the right spot. Of course, when Wentz is healthy he too has QB1 appeal.
Free-agent QB Colin Kaepernick (49ers) and former NFL QB Tim Tebow were asked if they wanted to join the Alliance of American Football, according to league co-founder Bill Polian. Polian said he doesn't know what transpired with Kaepernick, but added that he spoke personally with Tebow, who declined.
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown and Steelers impending free-agent RB Le'Veon Bell are not expected to be intensely pursued by the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. The Colts will have the most salary cap space in the league this offseason and will do their due diligence, but Brown's off-field drama and Bell's asking price may be too much for the Colts.
Fantasy Spin: The Colts did just fine last year without the services of Brown or Bell. Brown seems like more of an immediate need, but general manager Chris Ballard wants a cohesive and cooperative locker room. While the fantasy marriage of Brown and/or Bell with the Colts might be ideal, don't get your hopes up.
Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee is considered a strong candidate to be cut this offseason, in the opinion of NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal. Lee's extensive injury history, $10 million cap hit and the presence of fellow LBs Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith don't bode well for a possible return.