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.
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.