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 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.