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Around the NFL: Bills Look to Clinch First Division Title Since 1995, Browns Seek Elusive Ten-Win Season

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Welcome to Around the NFL, where Cale Berger of Steelers Now will recap early-week action and take a look ahead at some of the most important matchups from the Pittsburgh Steelers perspective. 

AROUND THE NFL THIS WEEKEND

Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., NFL Network

Fresh off their statement win over the Steelers, the Bills will now look to clinch their first division title since 1995 when they visit the Broncos on Sunday.

As Pittsburgh saw firsthand last week, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen has come a long way from the project he was when drafted seventh overall out of Wyoming in 2018. He has thrown for a career-high 3,641 passing yards and is on pace to become just the second Bills quarterback ever with more than 4,000 passing yards in a single season. Allen is also completing a career-best 68.6% of his passes and has 28 touchdowns.

Allen’s breakout season would have not been possible if not for the addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who has been a godsend for the young passer. Diggs is tied for the league-lead with 100 receptions, and has already posted a career-high 1,167 receiving yards. He has been especially dominant of late, catching 37 passes over just the last four weeks alone.

Facing a Denver pass defense that is ranked ninth in the league, Allen could be forced to utilize his legs more than usual. Luckily for Buffalo, their leader has 23 career rushing scores, and the Broncos have surrendered the fourth-most touchdowns in the league on the ground.

Currently sitting at third in the AFC West, all that is left for the Broncos is to play spoiler Saturday, delaying the Bills’ inevitable clinch for another week. Denver quarterback Drew Lock is coming off a superb performance in Charlotte, having thrown for a career-high four touchdown passes on 280 yards with no picks. For his Broncos to pull of the upset, the second-year starter will have to fair better than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did a week ago against Buffalo’s opportunistic pass defense.

Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional

Meeting for the second time in a three week span, the Colts are in desperate need of another victory over the Texans if they are to remain in competition for the AFC South crown.

Winners in three of their last four, Indianapolis is riding high atop their revitalized run game. Rooke running back Johnathan Taylor ran for a career-high 150 yards and two scores on the Raiders last week, while his partner Nyheim Hines has accumulated more than 95 scrimmage yards in two of his last three game versus division opponents. The Colts’ one-two punch should run wild Sunday on a Houston defense that is second-worst in the NFL at stopping the run. Texans opponents are averaging five yards per carry and have scored 17 touchdowns.

Defensively, Indianapolis has continued to be stellar. The Colts have forced the second-most turnovers in the league at 22, 15 of which are interceptions. They are also fifth against the run, and will get to flex their muscles once again Sunday opposing a Houston team that owns the league’s least productive rushing offense. The Texans average just 86 yards a game as a team, and have found the end zone just eight times via the ground.

While the run game has been laughable, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson is quietly having the best season of his career through the air, albeit on a 4-9 squad. With 25 touchdown passes thus far, Watson is just two away from setting a new career-high. He is also completing 68.9% of his passes for 289.3 yards a game, both personal bests. Watson has tossed a touchdown in every game this season except one, the Texan’s home loss to the Colts two weeks ago. He will have to improve upon his Dec. 6 performance if Houston is to pull off the upset this time around.

Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints, 4:25 p.m., KDKA-TV

Alone atop the AFC following Pittsburgh’s two-game skid, Kansas City will attempt to win their ninth-straight when the visit New Orleans.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is seeking his seventh-straight outing with at least 300 yards through the air, as the NFL’s face looks to add another marquee win to his MVP résumé. Specifically, he has been exceptional against NFC South foes. Mahomes has passed for a combined 834 yards and seven touchdowns in wins over the Panthers and Buccaneers. New Orleans did not exactly shut anyone down in their last outing either.

The Saints saw their own nine-game win streak snapped a week ago, as their usually stout defense was torched by the Jalen Hurts-led Eagles on the ground. New Orleans allowed a combined 221 rushing yards to the duo of Hurts and running back Miles Sanders, while surrendering their most points since Week 7. With 246 rushing yards surrendered in total, it marked the largest rushing total allowed by a Saints defense since Week 3 of 2016.

Considering the Saints’ porous defensive front, Sunday could prove the perfect opportunity for the Chiefs to reignite their sputtering run game. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was slowed after a strong start to his rookie campaign, having failed to eclipse 100 scrimmage yards in eight of the last nine games. With the weather worsening and the playoffs approaching fast, it would behoove Kansas City to find their ground game while they still can.

As for the New Orleans offense, they have been surprisingly successful switching quarterback Taysom Hill in for the injured Drew Brees. Hill is completing 79% of his passes over the last four game, and has tossed for 523 yards and four touchdowns the last two weeks combined. The Swiss Army Knife has used his legs effectively as well, rushing for four scores since taking over as the starter. He will attempt to keep it up versus a Chiefs defense that has picked off 15 passes.

Cleveland Browns at New York Giants, 8:20 p.m., WPXI-TV

Six days removed from their shootout home loss to Baltimore, Cleveland will look to refocus and get their dream season back on track with a trip to the Big Apple for Sunday Night Football.

The Browns offense was firing on all cylinders in their 47-42 defeat at the hands of the Browns, posting their third-straight performance with over 450 yards of total offense. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has been especially good of late, passing for an average of 312 yards, eight touchdowns and just a single interception. Running back Nick Chubb has been no slouch either, rushing for 306 yards and four touchdowns over the same span.

Cleveland will be presented with quite the challenge keeping their offense churning Sunday, as they will face a New York defense that is one of the league’s stingiest. The Giants rank tenth in both total and scoring defense, and have forced 20 takeaways. Cornerback James Bradberry has three interceptions alone and 17 passes defended, tied for the league-lead. The Browns may also find it challenging kickstarting their strong rushing attack against a Giants defense that is seventh in the league against the run.

Still searching for their first playoff appearance since 2002, the Browns will need a complete showing from their own defense to move a step closer this weekend. Although they are 26th in points allowed, Cleveland has been exceptional at pressuring the quarterback, with their pass rush spearheaded by defensive end Myles Garrett. The former top pick’s 10.5 sacks are tied for the third-most in the NFL, and he has forced four fumbles. Garrett should have his way with New York offensive line, which has allowed the third-most sacks in the league.

REST OF THE SCHEDULE

  • Los Angeles Chargers 30 Las Vegas Raiders 27 (OT)
  • Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers, Saturday, 8:15 p.m., NFL Network
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
  • Seattle Seahawks at Washington, 1:00 p.m., WPGH-TV
  • San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
  • Detroit Lions at Tennessee Titans, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
  • New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
  • Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
  • Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens, 1:00 p.m., KDKA-TV
  • New York Jets at Los Angeles Rams, 4:05 p.m., FOX Regional
  • Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals, 4:05 p.m., FOX Regional
  • Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns, Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN

NFL

Baltimore Ravens Sign WR Deon Cain to Reserve/Future Contract

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The Baltimore Ravens have signed former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Deon Cain to a Reserve/Future contract, the club announced Friday.

Cain spent the last two seasons with Pittsburgh, spending the majority of the 2020 season on the practice squad. He appeared into two games this past season, including the season finale loss to the Cleveland Browns, but recorded no stats.

Cain saw more extended action in 2019, where he appeared in six games and made three starts. He tallied five receptions for 72 yards a season ago.

A star for the Clemson Tigers, Cain was selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. He caught 130 passes for 2,040 yards and 20 touchdowns during his Clemson career.

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NFL

Washington’s Alex Smith Beats Ben Roethlisberger for PFWA Comeback Player of the Year

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Washington quarterback Alex Smith has been named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, edging out Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

After suffering a significant leg injury in 2018 and subsequent infection that nearly took his limb, Smith made his unlikely return to the field in 2020, leading Washington to a division title and playoff appearance.

Smith passed for 1,582 yards and six touchdowns with eight interceptions, but led Washington to a 5-1 record in his six starts. He is the first Washington player to win the award since its inception in 1992.

Roethlisberger was also believed to be a worthy candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, leading the Steelers to a 12-4 campaign and AFC North title after missing the majority of 2019 with a season-ending elbow injury. The 38-year-old threw for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns with ten interceptions.

Running back Jerome Bettis (1997) and quarterback Tommy Maddox (2003) are the only two Steelers to have previously been awarded Comeback Player of the Year.

Smith was not the only quarterback recognized by the PFWA on Friday, as Buffalo’s Josh Allen was awarded Most Improved Player of the Year.

Allen made a remarkable jump in 2020, passing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns with ten interceptions. He also accounted for eight scores on the ground.

Not only were his 37 touchdowns seven more than in his first two seasons combined, but Allen also completed a career-high 69.2% of his passes, a ten percentage-point increase from a season ago.

Allen will have another opportunity to demonstrate his jump in play Sunday when the Bills visit the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC Championship game.

Two Steelers have previously been named the league’s Most Improved Player, quarterback Kordell Stewart in 2002 and running back Le’Veon Bell in2015.

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NFL

Browns’ Kevin Stefanski Named PFWA Coach of the Year

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Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has been named 2020 NFL Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, the organization announced Thursday.

Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-5 record and their first playoff win since 1994 in his first season as a head coach. He is just the second Browns head coach to win the award in franchise history, joining Marty Schottenheimer in 1986.

A loaded Browns offensive reached its full potential under the play calling and tutelage of Stefanski, finishing as the league’s third-best rushing team and committing the fourth-fewest turnovers.

Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield also took a leap forward in 2020 under Stefanski, passing for 26 touchdowns and a career-low eight interceptions. Mayfield’s 95.9 passer rating was also the best of his young career.

The Buffalo Bills also earned a pair of honors for their outstanding 2020 performance. General manager Brandon Beane was named PFWA NFL Executive of the Year, while offensive coordinator was awarded Assistant Coach of the Year.

The Bills owned the NFL’s second-ranked offense, as quarterback Josh Allen became a bonafide MVP candidate under Daboll. Allen completed a career-high 69.2% of his passes, while also tossing 37 touchdowns, seven more than through his first two seasons combined.

Beane was the mastermind behind Buffalo’s addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs form the Minnesota Vikings, who proved one of the most successful trade acquisitions in recent memory. Diggs was named a First-Team All-Pro after leading the league with 127 receptions and 1,535 yards. He also caught eight touchdowns.

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