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.
THURSDAY NIGHT HIGHLIGHTS
Kansas City Chiefs 34, Houston Texans 20
The reigning Super Bowl champs proved early and often Thursday night why they are the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy again this season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked as talented as ever, completing 24 of 32 passes for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire dazzled in his NFL debut, almost immediately proving the Chiefs right for drafting him with the final pick in the first round. The former LSU Tiger carried the ball 25 times for 138 yards and a score.
The Chiefs defense made things difficult for quarterback Deshaun Watson, who looked out of sorts at time in his first game without wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Running back David Johnson, who the Texans acquired for Hopkins, was solid in his Texans debut, rushing for 77 yards and a touchdown. Houston’s warts showed Thursday night, especially on the offensive line, as Watson was sacked four times.
AROUND THE NFL THIS WEEKEND
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m., KDKA-TV
While Steelers fans wait patiently for the Monday Night Football doubleheader, they will be treated to a battle of division rivals in the early slot on CBS this Sunday, as the Cleveland Browns visit the Baltimore Ravens.
Coming off a disappointing 2019 campaign that saw the Browns fail to meet expectations and ultimately fire first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens, the Browns are starting over again with Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski is tasked with righting quarterback Bakery Mayfield, who threw nearly as many interceptions (21) as touchdowns (22) under Kitchens. Mayfield has thrown for 718 yards and four touchdowns in two career games at M&T Bank Stadium, but has also tossed four interceptions.
As for the Ravens, they are led by reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, who is attempting to duplicate his dominance from a season ago. Jackson accounted for 43 touchdowns a year ago, but the Ravens were stunned in the Divisional round by the Titans.
With the retirement of guard Marshal Yanda, Jackson and the Ravens offense may have trouble leading the league in rushing as they did in 2019. Still, the Browns had the third-worst rushing defense in the league last season, allowing 144.7 yards per game. Sunday’s matchup stacks up favorably for Jackson and Baltimore.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints, 4:25 p.m. WPGH-TV
Two legends at the quarterback position will square off on Sunday afternoon, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the New Orleans, pitting Tom Brady against fellow 40-year-old Drew Brees. Brees is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (77,416) and touchdowns (547). Brady is second in both categories with 74,571 and 541, respectively. While Brady enters the 2020 season trying to prove he can win without his former head coach Bill Belichick, Brees and the Saints are once again motivated by a heartbreaking playoff loss the year prior.
Sunday’s matchup also marks the return of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who ended his brief retirement to reunite with Brady in the Sunshine State. Brady and Gronkowski have combined for 78 touchdowns. By adding their connection to an already potent receiving core that features Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the Bucs should be explosive.
Expect a shootout in New Orleans.
Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos, 10:10 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Before the Steelers and Broncos meet at Heinz Field on Sept. 20, Denver will follow Pittsburgh on Monday night, taking on the Tennessee Titans in the second half of ESPNâ€™s annual doubleheader.
Quarterback Drew Lock is entering his first full season as the starter in Denver. The Missouri product put up solid numbers as a rookie a year ago, throwing for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns over just five games.
With the addition of explosive rookie wideouts Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler and Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon, expectation are high for Lock entering year two. He will get a favorable matchup to start his sophomore season, facing a Tennessee Titans defense that was 24th against the pass in 2019.
Fresh off an appearance in the AFC Championship last year, the Titans committed long-term to their workhorse Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Henry led the league with a career-high 1,540 yards last season, while Tannehill’s 2,742 yards and 22 touchdowns earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors.
REST OF THE SCHEDULE
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings, 1 p.m. WPGH-TV
Philadelphia Eagles at Washington, 1 p.m, FOX regional
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m., FOX regional
New York Jets at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m., CBS regional
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions, 1 p.m. CBS regional
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots, 1 p.m., CBS regional
Las Vegas Raiders at Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m., CBS regional
Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars, 1 p.m. CBS regional
Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals, 4:05 p.m., CBS regional
Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers, 4:25 p.m., FOX regional
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams, 8:20 p.m., NBC
Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, 7:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Around the NFL: Chiefs Reach Third-Straight AFC Championship, Lose Patrick Mahomes to Concussion
The Kansas City Chiefs will host their third-straight AFC Championship game next week, defeating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Kansas City’s victory did not come without sacrifice, as quarterback Patrick Mahomes exited the game in the third quarter with a concussion and did not return.
Still, backup Chad Henne stepped in beautifully, and made a pair of crucial plays in the final moments to ice the win. After nearly scrambling for a game-sealing first down, Henne found wide receiver Tyreek Hill on fourth and inches.
Mahomes was his usual self prior to the injury, carving the Browns defense up for 255 passing yards and touchdown each on through the air and on the ground.
Cleveland was impressive in defeat, but an ill-advised challenge and decision to punt late by head coach Kevin Stefanski thwarted their upset chances.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield passed for 204 yards and a touchdowns, but was baited by Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu and picked off early in the third quarter.
Cleveland also deviated from the run early, a ground game that had made their offense so potent and dangerous all season.
When they did run, the Browns found success. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined for 101 yards and a score, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
The Chiefs now turn their attention to the red hot Buffalo Bills, who they defeated back in Week 6. The Bills are 11-1 since that loss, led by an excellent defense and MVP candidate at quarterback in Josh Allen.
Around the NFL: Bills Top Ravens 17-3, Reach First AFC Championship Game in 26 Years
The Buffalo Bills are heading to their first AFC Championship game since 1994 following their 17-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night.
Quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills offense overcame swirling winds and the vaunted Ravens defense, winning with grit as opposed to flare.
Allen missed a number of deep shots early due to the conditions, but made plays in critical moments as he has all season. He passed for 206 yards and a score on the night.
Buffalo wideout Stefon Diggs once again showed why he was the acquisition of the season, catching everything thrown his way and consistently moving the chains Saturday. The former Viking finished with six receptions for 106 yards and the lone touchdown.
While not initially running the ball with much success, the Bill found some early in the second half behind running back Devin Singletary. The FAU product demonstrated a rare mix of power and elusiveness, needling the Ravens for a modest, but meaningful 25 yards on seven carries.
Not to be outdone, the Buffalo defense smothered Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, holding the former MVP to just 34 rushing yards on nine carriers. Jackson completed 14 of 24 passes for 162 yards before exiting the game with an injury.
Buffalo capped off their outstanding defensive performance with a 101-yard pick six by cornerback Taron Johnson, tied for the longest in postseason history and the first red zone interception of Jackson’s career. Bills Mafia erupted as expected.
The Bills now await the winner of Sunday’s weekend finale between the Chiefs and Browns, wondering if they will be heading to Kansas City or hosting their first conference championship game since the mid-1990’s.
For the first time since 1994, we’re… pic.twitter.com/9QmONpoT4g— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 17, 2021
Report: NFL to Make Significant Changes to Combine Due to COVID-19
Major changes to the 2021 NFL Scouting Combine are expected amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a report by Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, plans of hosting the combine as traditionally constructed are “dead” following a conference call between league officials Friday. It is becoming increasingly likely that the medical and performance-based portions of the event will be held separately.
A number of alternatives are being considered, including regionalized medical checks, standardized pro days and interviews conducting via Zoom.
With regards to the regional medicals, the NFL could set up shop and administer the examinations at hospital in states where a large number of players are conducting their workouts and preparation, such as Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.
The intent would be to limit travel for players, where as the team physicians conducting the examinations would likely have already received their vaccinations.
Other aspects of the medical process can be accomplished virtually, such as reviewing injury histories.
As for the pro days, NFL or individual team personnel would put players through drills at their respective schools, but standardize each workout to ensure prospects are going through the same exercises as they would in Indianapolis. Measurements and result would then be distributed league-wide as they normally would be.
League officials will continue to meet over the coming days, according to Breer, but a finalized plan is expected later this coming week.
The NFL has also weighed the option of postponing the combine until April, but still holding it in Indianapolis. While it is on the table, the move would likely requirement the 2021 NFL Draft to be postponed as well.