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  • Packers WR trio ailing, uncertain for NFC title game
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison would not likely play for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday if this were a regular-season game.

    • But head coach Mike McCarthy is holding out hope for all three to take the field for the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons.

      "In the regular-season mind-set, none of them would play," McCarthy said. "But, obviously, this is a different time, this is a different point where we are in the season. Everybody understands where we are here."

      Nelson sat out last week in Dallas with broken ribs and breathing, not to mention cardiovascular activity or full-contact football, has been challenging.

      Adams had his ankle twisted beneath him when he was tackled on a 16-yard gain late in the fourth quarter of last week’s game against the Cowboys, though he returned to the game for the final drive with a hobble.

      Allison, an undrafted rookie from Illinois emerging as a trusted target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, has an injured hamstring.

      McCarthy said he will not know whether the offense will have any or all of the trio until Saturday.

      "Don't really have enough information right now," McCarthy said. "Obviously, Davante's injury happened Sunday, so did Geronimo's. We want to give them the whole week just because of the timing of it. I'm not really concerned (Thursday afternoon) because you have to put the plan in. I'm not sure how we're going to line up or who's going to line up. We'll hopefully have a better gauge if we think these guys are going to make it. I don’t think we'll really know until Saturday."

      In Thursday's practice, Jeff Janis, Randall Cobb and rookie Trevor Davis lined up at wide receiver. Janis and Davis played significant snaps in Week 8 against the Falcons because of injuries, when Janis had four receptions for 30 yards and a touchdown.

      Rodgers said the Packers are not distracted by the uncertainty of the wide receiver depth chart. If necessary, Ty Montgomery could play more wide receiver. Montgomery moved to running back after injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks.

      "We've won without them before," Rodgers said.

  • Falcons WR Jones being cautious with toe injury
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones sat out practice for a second straight day on Thursday, but insisted he'll be ready to play in the NFC Championship Game.

    • Jones aggravated a toe injury in last Saturday's 36-20 divisional-round victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The All-Pro wideout is expected to be limited in practice leading up to Sunday's game against the visiting Green Bay Packers.

      "It's fine," Jones said on Thursday, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "I'll be ready to go."

      Jones, who initially sustained the injury in a Week 13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, led the Falcons with 83 receptions and 1,409 receiving yards during the regular season despite missing two games. His six touchdown receptions tied wideout Taylor Gabriel for the team lead.

  • Seahawks could lose draft pick for not revealing Sherman injury
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    The Seattle Seahawks could be flagged for a costly penalty long after their season has been completed.

    • Seattle may lose its second-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft as a result of its failure to disclose a knee injury to Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported on Thursday, citing league sources.

      Seahawks coach Pete Carroll revealed during Monday's interview on 710 ESPN Radio that Sherman was being plagued by an MCL injury for the second half of the season.

      "Honestly, I didn't realize we hadn't revealed it," Carroll said at the time. "I don't even remember what game it was, it was somewhere in the middle (of the season)."

      Carroll said on his weekly radio show that Sherman's sustained an MCL injury and said it was of a similar variety to the injury Russell Wilson suffered in Week 3. Wilson was listed with a knee injury on the injury report into early December. Meanwhile, Sherman was listed as "limited" or "did not participate" on several practice reports without disclosure of a knee injury, as required by league injury-reporting policy.

      Sherman appeared with an injury once all season, an ankle ailment leading up to Seattle's Week 12 game with Tampa Bay.

      "I don't know," Carroll said later on Monday when asked why Sherman was never listed on the report. "I'm feeling like I screwed that up with not telling you that because that happened, but he was OK. So I don't know. He never missed anything, which is probably why."

      NFL league policy states: "The Practice Report is expected to provide clubs and the public an accurate description of a player's injury status and his level of participation during the practice week. All players who have significant or noteworthy injuries must be listed on the Practice Report, even if the player takes all the reps in practice, and even if the team is certain that he will play in the upcoming game. This is especially true of key players and those players whose injuries have been covered extensively by the media."

      Seattle already has received a fifth-round forfeiture on Sept. 19 for a repeat violation of rules governing offseason workouts. The Seahawks were also fined $400,000 and Carroll $200,000 for what the league deemed violations of rules that prohibit excessive on-field physical contact during a June 6 organized team activity.

  • Wolf passes on 49ers, staying in Green Bay
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    Director of football operations Eliot Wolf withdrew from consideration for the San Francisco 49ers general manager position and signed a contract extension to return for a 14th season with the Green Bay Packers.

    • Wolf, 34 and the son of Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf, started his scouting career with the Packers in 2003.

      San Francisco began another round of interviews last week after deciding on Atlanta Falcons head coach Kyle Shanahan as head coach. Shanahan cannot officially be hired until Atlanta's season is over. The Falcons play Sunday in the NFC Championship game.

      Coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke were fired at the end of the 2016 season. The 49ers own the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

      While Wolf is out of the picture in San Francisco, Packers director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst and Minnesota Vikings assistant general manager George Paton remain top candidates.

      A front-office move is not expected until the candidates can meet with Shanahan.

      Should the Falcons beat the Packers on Sunday, Shanahan can interview for a second time with the 49ers, and the GM candidates are permitted to be present.

  • Raiders roll dice on Vegas with relocation application
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    The Oakland Raiders filed relocation paperwork to move to Las Vegas on Thursday, setting in motion the process to become the third NFL team since January 2016 to change markets.

    • "Today, the Oakland Raiders submitted an application to relocate their franchise to Las Vegas, as is provided for under the NFL Policy and Procedures for Proposed Franchise Relocations," the league said in a statement.

      "The application will be reviewed in the coming weeks by league staff and the Stadium and Finance Committees. The relocation of a franchise requires the affirmative vote of three-quarters of the NFL clubs (24 of 32)."

      Clark County (Nev.) Commission Chair Steve Sisolak took to Twitter to welcome the turn of events shortly before the league's statement.

      "It is official! The @RAIDERS have filed their paperwork to relocate to #LasVegas." Sisolak wrote.

      The proposal comes one week after the Chargers announced their decision to relocate from San Diego to Los Angeles, one year removed from the Rams moving to L.A. from St. Louis.

      The Raiders had until Feb. 24 to file relocation papers. NFL owners are expected to vote on the proposal at the annual league meeting in March.

      Should the vote pass, the Raiders are expected to play at least two more seasons in Oakland while a new stadium is built in Las Vegas, which is also adding an NHL franchise.

      The Raiders have played in Oakland from 1960-81 before moving to Los Angeles from 1982-94.

      The Raiders have been seeking a new stadium to replace Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The city of Oakland has made no progress to keep the team and has not come up with a stadium proposal the league and the Raiders believe is credible, sources told Rapoport.

      Raiders owner Mark Davis was in talks with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson last year about financing a Las Vegas stadium for $1.9 billion.

      In October, state lawmakers in Nevada approved $750 million in public funding for a stadium in Las Vegas by a vote of 16-5 in the Senate and 28-13 in the Assembly.

      The Raiders, who lost to the Houston Texans in an AFC wild-card game, had to wait until their season ended to announce any plans to relocate.

  • Ravens hire D'Alessandris as offensive line coach
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    The Baltimore Ravens hired veteran assistant Joe D'Alessandris on Thursday to fill their vacant offensive line coach position.

    • D'Alessandris will enter his 40th year of coaching and ninth in the pro ranks, with his last stint as an offensive line coach with the then-San Diego Chargers in 2013-15.

      "I feel very privileged and honored to come work with such a tremendous organization," said D'Alessandris, who also worked in the Canadian Football League and the World League in addition to spending time with the Kansas City Chiefs (2008-09) and Buffalo Bills (2010-12).

      "I very much look forward to the great opportunity of working for (coach) John Harbaugh and (general manager/executive vice president) Ozzie Newsome on an incredible staff."

      Harbaugh was pleased with the choice of D'Alessandris, who replaces Juan Castillo after the latter joined the Bills.

      "We had a number of very good, qualified candidates for this position, and we have the right fit with Joe," Harbaugh said. "He's a hard-nosed, experienced coach, who is an excellent teacher. He'll be able to work with our veterans to get the best out of them, and he'll take our young linemen to higher levels."

  • Jets name Wilson DB coach
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    The New York Jets addressed one of their many vacant coaching positions by hiring Dennard Wilson as their defensive backs coach.

    • Wilson replaced Joe Danna on head coach Todd Bowles' staff, which has five other vacancies. The move was announced on Wednesday.

      Wilson has served as the defensive backs coach for the last two seasons with the Rams after spending the three previous years as the team's defensive quality control coach.

      The 34-year-old Wilson will take over a unit that struggled mightily at times last season, allowing 244 passing yards per game.

      In addition to Danna, quarterbacks coach Kevin Patullo, running backs coach Marcel Shipp, defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and outside linebackers coach Mark Collins were dismissed after the conclusion of the Jets' season.

  • Colts QB Luck undergoes shoulder surgery
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck underwent surgery on his right shoulder to repair a two-year old injury.

    • Team owner Jim Irsay announced the news via Twitter on Thursday morning. Irsay said Luck would be ready for the start of the 2017 regular season. It is not known whether Luck's offseason availability will be impacted by the operation.

      Luck said at the season-ending press conference at the Colts' facility that he didn't think surgery would be necessary. Irsay told NFL Network last month that the Colts were not considering surgery as an option.

      But with the Colts out of the playoffs for a second consecutive season, Luck opted to have the injury repaired.

      No quarterback has taken more hits than Luck since he was the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

      Luck missed one game in 2016 with a concussion but was listed on the injury report every week. He missed two games in 2015 with a shoulder injury.

  • Packers, Steelers have Super formula
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    History tells us that the Super Bowl usually is won by the team with the better quarterback and the better defense. You can plan on rewriting that equation this year to this simple truth: In today's game, it's all about the quarterbacks.

    • The group of four quarterbacks -- Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan -- playing in the conference championship games is the strongest in history.

      Three of the four have won a total of seven Super Bowl titles, and the fourth is the reigning NFL passer rating leader. Counting this weekend, the four will have 20 combined appearances in conference championship games -- 11 by Brady alone. It's the fourth appearance for Roethlisberger, third for Rodgers, second for Ryan.

      And, this marks only the third time that the conference championship games feature three quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings -- Brady with his four, Roethlisberger with two and Rodgers with one.

      It also happened two years ago, with Brady, Rodgers and Russell Wilson, but before that you must go back to the 1983 post-season that included Joe Montana, Joe Theismann and Jim Plunkett.

      Among other things, this means we shouldn't expect any stage fright. Except for Ryan, all three have been through the playoffs successfully, and even Ryan, whose passer rating of 117.1 dwarfed the league, could have a Super Bowl ring but for an Atlanta defensive collapse in the 2012 playoffs.

      That experience ought to serve Ryan well against Rodgers and the Packers, because he learned never to take your foot off the gas at this stage. In the 2012 NFC championship game, Ryan staked the Falcons to a 17-0 lead over the 49ers six seconds into the second quarter. But a pair of third quarter turnovers and a defense that permitted three 80-yard touchdown drives turned the game in the 49ers' favor.

      Ryan, Brady and Rodgers ranked 1-2-4 in the league in passer rating this year (the interloper, No. 3 Dallas' Dak Prescott, was eliminated by Rodgers' Packers last weekend). Roethlisberger ranked 11th but brings the longest winning streak to this championship weekend -- the Steelers have won nine games in a row.

      The emphasis on quarterbacks is merely a reflection of how professional football has evolved over the years. A little more than four decades ago, the Miami Dolphins won back-to-back Super Bowls, the first completing an undefeated season, with quarterback Bob Griese throwing 18 passes. That's total, in the two Super Bowls. Rodgers threw 24 passes against Dallas last week. In the first half.

      During the regular season, the four championship game quarterbacks threw 135 touchdown passes and 29 interceptions, a ratio of better than 4-to-1. That foursome in 1983 including Montana, Theismann and Plunkett? They threw 82 touchdown passes and 48 interceptions, a ratio of less than 2-to-1.

      Want more?

      All four of these final four teams ranked higher in the league on offense than they did on defense, which stands the old cliche -- defense wins championship -- on its head.

      The two NFC contenders, Atlanta and Green Bay, both ranked among the league's 11 worst on defense. The highest defensive ranking among the final four teams, New England's No. 8, just happened to match the worst offensive ranking among the four, Green Bay's No. 8.

      It used to be rare to see a defense still playing at this stage that was not among the very best in the league, and they all had catchy nicknames -- remember the Steel Curtain, the Fearsome Foursome, the No-Name Defense, the Doomsday Defense, the Orange Crush? Now, we don't have defensive nicknames, we have defenses that just try to hold on.

      Right about now, someone is going to shout, "What about Denver last year?" Yes, what about Denver last year? The Broncos were something of a throwback team, with a suffocating defense carrying a Hall of Fame quarterback at the tail end of his career. The Broncos were the exception that proves the rule.

      Which brings us to the point that you were waiting for.

      Who wins?

      First, some background. Brady is 6-4 in championship games including 4-1 at home. Roethlisberger is 2-1, all at home, so this is his first championship game on the road. Rodgers is 1-1, both on the road. Ryan is 0-1, at home.

      More historical facts: The average defensive ranking for a Super Bowl champion is No. 7; these four teams averaged 14th on defense. The top-ranked defense has reached the Super Bowl 11 times. This year's top-ranked NFL defense, Houston, was the only one of the top four defensive teams even to reach the playoffs.

      The world seems to be anticipating a Brady-Rodgers matchup, and that's probably the sexiest possible, too. Pundits already are salivating over the prospect of Roger Goodell having to hand the Lombardi Trophy over to Brady, whom he suspended for the first four games the season because of that ridiculous Deflategate matter.

      But we don't always get what we want.

      Pittsburgh's running game, with Le'Veon Bell, is the best going right now. And you can throw out that regular season meeting, won by the Patriots, 27-16, because Roethlisberger did not play.

      AFC pick: Steelers.

      In the NFC, neither the Packers nor the Falcons have the kind of defense that figures to be able to stop the other team. That's how their October game played out, Atlanta winning, 33-32, on a last-minute touchdown; both quarterbacks had passer ratings north of 125. Look for the same thing, different result.

      NFC pick: Packers.

      --Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

  • AFC Championship GameScout: Steelers at Patriots
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)

    • KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson, Jay Feely.

      SERIES HISTORY: 30th meeting in the series, including postseason. The Steelers lead 15-14 in the regular season, the Patriots 3-1 in playoff games. New England beat the Steelers 27-16 on Oct. 23 in Pittsburgh, although Ben Roethlisberger missed the game with injury. The Patriots have won the last three regular-season meetings and two playoff games, although those latter two came more than a decade ago. This marks the third straight playoff meeting that came in the AFC title game, with New England winning in Pittsburgh, 41-27 during the 2004 season and 24-17 during the 2001 campaign. Each of those wins came on the way to Patriots Super Bowl titles. Tom Brady is 9-2 against Pittsburgh, including 2-0 in the postseason. Brady is 4-0 against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium.

      GAMEDATE: 1/21/17

      KEYS TO THE GAME: The two most successful teams in AFC annals are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004, when the Patriots won the AFC title game at Heinz Field.

      Both teams come in on a roll, the Steelers having won nine straight and the Patriots eight.

      The Steelers are built around a strong running game and an opportunistic defense that has improved greatly since the beginning of the season.

      If the Steelers are going to beat the Patriots, running back Le'Veon Bell has to touch the ball at least 30 times. He has been nearly unstoppable in the last eight games, rushing for 1,172 yards (146.5 per game). But his 337 yards in the playoffs came against the 30th and 26th-ranked rush defenses, and the Patriots, third vs. the run, will prove a stiffer test. They held Bell to 81 yards on 21 carries earlier this season.

      But that came with Roethlisberger injured. The Patriots are going to have to respect the Steelers' passing game much more in the rematch. And if the Patriots do stack the box with run defenders, Roethlisberger has to be able to make some big plays in the passing game to back them off.

      Tom Brady has always had big games against the Steelers, including five straight with a passer rating of 100 or better, with 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions. This certainly could be a game where the offense opens with spread sets, Dion Lewis in the backfield and Brady looking to pick apart the Steelers with a quick passing game.

      The Steelers have to shut down the running game and apply pressure on Brady. In the October game, LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers' run defense is much-improved since then and must get the job done against Blount in the rematch.

      The Steelers are 5-0 in rematch games this season and they'll have to go 6-for-6 if they want to get to Super Bowl LI. The Steelers beat their three divisional opponents the second time around and then won regular-season rematches against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

      "You are going up to the lion's den, the dragon's lair," Roethlisberger said. "They are the dragon. We are trying to slay them. It doesn't matter who it is, but they are the gold standard."


      --Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Steelers DC Keith Butler. Brady has a career record of 9-2 against Pittsburgh, including the postseason. He topped a 100 passer rating in eight of the 11 games, including seven of the last eight. Much of that came against former DC Dick LeBeau's defense, but Brady hit Butler's defense for two touchdowns in October and that came after a four-touchdown effort last fall. The LeBeau disciple must find a way to scheme up the Steelers' young defense to find more success than usual vs. Brady. Brady is coming off a disappointing two-interception performance with a 68.6 rating last Saturday night against Houston's tough defense.

      --Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. Brown caught seven passes for 106 yards against the Patriots during the earlier meeting. That was with Landry Jones at quarterback. Brown has terrific chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and that should concern Butler and the Patriots. If the Patriots are successful in limiting Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, the Brown-Butler matchup could decide the game.

      PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots C David Andrews. The second-year former undrafted rookie had a tough night in last weekend's win over Houston. The Texans moved players all over the front, including snaps with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus over the center. Seeing how Andrews failed to deal with one-on-one matchups with athletic pass rushers, it wouldn't be surprising to see Pittsburgh try a similar approach at times. Andrews must clean up his work -- both in terms of line calls and his blocking technique.

      FAST FACTS: The Steelers are 36-23 in the postseason, the most playoff wins in NFL history. They rank fourth in postseason win percent (.610) and have seven division titles since 2002. ... Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is 3-1 in the AFC title game. He is 13-6 in the postseason, a .684 percentage that is the fifth-highest by a QB with at least 15 playoff starts. ... Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell rushed for a franchise postseason-record 170 yards last week. He has 337 rushing yards in the past two games, the third-highest two-game total in a postseason. He has rushed for 1,172 yards and eight TDs in his past eight games (including the playoffs). ... Steelers WR Antonio Brown had 108 receiving yards last week and is one of two players in NFL history with 100 yards in four straight playoff games. He ranked second in the NFL with 106 catches and tied for second with 12 TD catches. His 481 receptions in the past four seasons are the most in that span in NFL history. ... Steelers LB James Harrison has 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his past two postseason games. He aims for a fifth consecutive postseason game with a sack. He has 13 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in his past 10 playoff games. ... The Patriots have appeared in six consecutive conference championship games, the most all-time. They have won eight consecutive division titles, the longest streak in NFL history. Since 2001, they have won four Super Bowls, the most in the NFL. They are 30-19 in the playoffs, third-highest winning percent in playoff history. ... Patriots coach Bill Belichick has 24 postseason wins, most in league history. His four Super Bowl titles are tied with Chuck Noll for most in NFL history. ... Patriots QB Tom Brady has passed for 3,148 yards, 26 TDs and three interceptions in 11 meetings (including playoffs). He ranks first in postseason wins (23), attempts (1,221), completions (756), yards (8,244) and TDs (58). ... Last week against Houston, Patriots RB Dion Lewis became the first player in postseason history with a rushing TD, receiving TD and kick-return TD in a game. ... Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and two TDs in the last meeting. He led the NFL with a franchise-record 18 rushing TDs and has seven in six career postseason games.

      PREDICTION: Roethlisberger will give the Steelers a much better chance than they had in the last game, but they are up against a much tougher defense than they have faced so far. Oh, and the best quarterback in the AFC.

      OUR PICK: Patriots, 30-24.

      --Chris Cluff

  • Seahawks need to get healthy in mind and body, improve blocking
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, January 19, 2017

    RENTON, Wash. -- Injuries to key players, an offensive line that floundered for most of the season and a star player ripping both coordinators in sideline outbursts all ultimately contributed to a premature end to the Seahawks' season.

    • Despite winning at least one playoff game in each of the last five years, the Seahawks felt destined for a disappointing end in 2016. Quarterback Russell Wilson never seemed to be himself all season after a high-ankle sprain and MCL sprain in September severely limited his mobility. Accuracy was also an issue too frequently as throws sailed just beyond the reach of his receivers.

      While Wilson's injury lowered Seattle's offensive efficiency, the loss of Earl Thomas to a broken leg in early December took almost all the bite out of Seattle's usually vaunted defense. The Atlanta Falcons ripped through Seattle for 422 yards and 36 points in ending Seattle's season in the divisional playoffs. It put a massive spotlight on just how important Thomas is to Seattle's defense.

      A young, inexperience offensive line also faced significant issues. After a midseason injury to Bradley Sowell, Seattle started a former college basketball player, George Fant, at left tackle for the final 12 games. He hadn't played football since middle school before playing fewer than 30 plays last year at Western Kentucky. Of the five starters who finished the season, three were in their first year as starters. The other two, Justin Britt at center (a new position) and right tackle Garry Gilliam, just completed their third seasons in the NFL.

      Those were just the issues the Seahawks faced on the field. Cornerback Richard Sherman twice went ballistic toward assistant coaches on the sideline. After a busted coverage allowed Julio Jones to score an easy touchdown in Week 6, Sherman and defensive coordinator Kris Richard had a heated exchange. The team tried to play the incident off as Richard and Sherman being "passionate" about the team and said there wasn't an issue moving forward.

      Sherman then exploded again at offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and coach Pete Carroll in a Week 15 game against the Los Angeles Rams when Wilson's throw from the 1-yard line was nearly intercepted. The play reminded Sherman of the final play of Super Bowl XLIX, and he felt throwing from the 1-yard line was ultimately being disrespectful to the effort the defense was putting into the game.

      Carroll and Bevell both said Sherman was out of line, but Sherman never apologized. The incident hung over Seattle for the remainder of the season as Sherman began to turn his frustration toward the media, including threatening to ruin the career of a local radio host by getting his credential revoked. He later apologized for that exchange but was at odds with reporters for the final few weeks of the season.

      Seattle has several issues to address this offseason if the team wants to extend its run of playoff victories to six next year. Mending the offensive line; Wilson, Thomas and Tyler Lockett returning from injuries; and getting the entire team to pull in the same direction again will be the top priorities.

  • Rodgers' strong hands pivotal in Packers victory in Dallas
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn't asked about it in the jubilation that followed the Packers' 34-31 upset win over the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

    • When finally queried about perhaps the biggest play that preceded the bigger play that all anyone wanted to talk about, Rodgers had a two-word answer.

      "Size matters," the Packers quarterback said Wednesday, as he held up both of his hands with palms turned outward.

      Rodgers credited his big hands for allowing him to hold onto the football as he was creamed by Cowboys safety Jeff Heath on a blind-side sack late in the fourth quarter of the NFC divisional playoff game at AT&T Stadium.

      "His grip strength has got to be fantastic," Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said in a conference call Wednesday, as the build-up picked up for the NFC Championship at Atlanta on Sunday.

      "During the game, I said, 'That's amazing that the ball did not come out,'" Quinn added.

      By not losing the football and potentially turning it over to the Cowboys on the Green Bay side of the field in the final minute, Rodgers was able to make his incredible 36-yard throw to tight end Jared Cook two plays later. That set up Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal from 51 yards out as time expired.

      --Quinn is wary of seeing Cook back on the field.

      Atlanta's second-year coach has familiarity with Cook from when Quinn previously was the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator and the tight end was playing with the NFC West-rival St. Louis Rams.

      The eighth-year pro didn't play the Falcons' 33-32 win over the Packers on Oct. 30 because of a high ankle sprain.

      The 6-foot-5, 254-pound Cook has been a big weapon for Rodgers in the postseason. Cook ranks third on the team after two games with 11 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown.

      "He is a factor," Quinn said. "It's the length that he has. He's a huge target. They can split him outside and treat him like a receiver to play those kinds of routes. Anytime you have a guy with that kind of speed and length, those are the tough challenges.

      "In our own division (NFC South), we have some that are tall and long. Those are times in terms of matching up when you do play man-to-man, how do you go play the big, tall, long guys?"

      --Given the health concerns in the secondary, the Packers may have added some insurance this week who has familiarity with the Falcons' potent offense.

      Green Bay signed third-year cornerback Bene Benwikere to the practice squad.

      The 5-11, 196-pound Benwikere started 14 games for the Carolina Panthers in two-plus seasons before they cut him in October. The Panthers selected him in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of San Jose State.

      Benwikere later spent a few weeks this season with the Miami Dolphins, but he didn't appear in a game.

      To make room for Benwikere, the Packers released cornerback Keith Baxter from the practice squad.

      --WR Jordy Nelson was considered a limited participant in practice Wednesday as the Packers returned to the field in advance of the NFC Championship at the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. "I just caught some balls, tried to slowly work back to it and feel things out," Nelson said afterward. Nelson would seem to be a long shot to play just two weeks after he suffered cracked ribs in the wild-card playoff win over the New York Giants. Yet, head coach Mike McCarthy hasn't ruled out Nelson from suiting up with a spot in the Super Bowl at stake. "It's obviously a long ways away," Nelson said about the game this weekend. "I've improved every day. Hopefully, that continues."

      --WR Davante Adams joined Nelson in the rehab group Wednesday. McCarthy said the young starter may not practice until Saturday, a day before the NFC title game at Atlanta, because of the ankle injury Adams sustained in the 34-31 win at Dallas last Sunday. Adams returned to the game after rolling his left ankle. "I'm curious to see him move," McCarthy said.

      --WR Geronimo Allison also was held out of practice Wednesday. The rookie was included on the injury report this week with a sore hamstring that cropped up after the playoff win at Dallas on Sunday. The extent of the injury isn't known.

      --S Morgan Burnett didn't practice Wednesday, left to do rehab work. The veteran starter at strong safety suffered a quadriceps injury early in the playoff win at Dallas last Sunday and didn't play the last three quarters. Undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice filled in for Burnett and would be the likely replacement if Burnett can't play the NFC Championship at Atlanta on Sunday.

      --CB Quinten Rollins had limited work in practice Wednesday. "(He's) getting close, getting close," McCarthy said. Rollins remains in the concussion protocol and also has a neck injury, which have kept the second-year starter from playing in the postseason so far.

      --LT David Bakhtiari doesn't appear on the injury report this week. The fourth-year starter aggravated a knee injury in the first half of the win at Dallas last Sunday, but he returned to the game a short time later.

  • Packers' Peppers dodges retirement question, relishing another opportunity
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    The retirement question came up for Julius Peppers as he fulfilled his NFC Championship week media obligation at the podium Wednesday.

    • "Not yet," the linebacker replied when asked if he's thought about retiring. "The focus, right now, is on the Atlanta Falcons and nothing else."

      With the incentive of breaking through to the Super Bowl for only the second time in his stellar 15-year career, Peppers certainly isn't about to call it quits on this season. He's hoping that's the approach taken by all of his Green Bay teammates.

      "You're never guaranteed tomorrow in the playoffs," said Peppers, whose only Super Bowl appearance came in his second pro season in 2003 with the Carolina Panthers. "When you go out on that field, you never know if this will be the last game or not. You always have that in your head going out. You try to learn from past experiences in that situation. It is definitely tough to get back to the playoffs, not to mention the conference championship game."

      What was once thought unlikely when the Packers were scuffling with a 4-6 record is within reach as they get ready to play the Falcons on Sunday for a spot in Super Bowl LI.

      Standing between Green Bay and a trip to Houston for the league championship Feb. 5 is Atlanta, which is a slight favorite as the No. 2 seed and has the home-field advantage in what will be the final game at the Georgia Dome.

      "It's tough to get here," Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. "What was the number crunch, 28 teams that are home right now? There's only four teams that have this opportunity. It's very special. You have to capitalize on that."

      Fourth-seeded Green Bay is in the NFC title game for the second time in three years and the fourth time under Mike McCarthy since 2007. Yet, the Packers have only one win in those previous three games, which came in their run as road warriors as a No. 6 seed all of the way to the Super Bowl XLV title in the 2010 season.

      When the Packers last were in position to nab a Super Bowl ticket, they had one of the all-time meltdowns and lost 28-22 in overtime at the Seattle Seahawks two years ago.

      Those who remain from that team believe the outcome will be different this time, what with Green Bay on an eight-game roll and having the white-hot Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.

      "We've been to every game in the playoffs (through the years) and have won every game and lost every game, aside from the Super Bowl," eighth-year linebacker Clay Matthews said. "So, we're ready for this, hopefully, and I think it will show on Sunday."

      The Packers just hope they're healthy enough to avenge a 33-32 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Oct. 30.

      Rodgers had few pass catchers available on the practice field Wednesday. Davante Adams (ankle) and rookie Geronimo Allison (hamstring) sat out, but top wideout Jordy Nelson did get some work in as he caught passes from Rodgers.

      It was a small, but fairly significant step for Nelson, who isn't counting himself out from playing Sunday despite having cracked ribs he suffered in the wild-card win over the New York Giants on Jan. 8.

      "I've never played with broken ribs, (so) we'll find out, hopefully," Nelson said. "I don't know if you can prepare. It's one of those things that you'll figure out when you get out there. If it happens, we'll see how it goes. But, right now, I'm just focused on getting back to full motion and doing everything and seeing if we can get that opportunity, and it would b e a great chance to have."

      Rodgers likes his chances of being Super Bowl bound, no matter who's available at wide receiver Sunday.

      "Well, we've won without them before," he asserted.

      After guiding the Packers to a scintillating 34-31, last-second road win over the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round last Sunday, some pressure is on Rodgers to continue playing at a high level. Putting points on the board in just about every possession may be needed because the Falcons have the league's highest-scoring offense this season with MVP candidate Matt Ryan at the controls.

      "Just going through it, you're going to have to score some points," said Ryan, when asked Wednesday about the teams' previous meeting, which was decided on his 11-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 31 seconds left.

      "Obviously, they're capable of making plays," Ryan added about the Packers. "We had to score points late in that game. I think the biggest thing you know is it's going to be a 60-minute game. They're competitive, they're tough, and they play hard for four quarters. That's probably the biggest thing I remember from that game."

      The Falcons defense, meanwhile, is getting a heavy dose of trying to run down backup quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Simms in practice this week as they mimic Rodgers' masterful ability to extend plays outside the pocket.

      "I think he's played incredible," McCarthy said of Rodgers, who has thrown 24 touchdown passes with only one interception in the last nine games. "It's important for our team to play our best football come Sunday. He's in a great rhythm right now. Is he playing the best he ever has? He's played at this level so often, but I think this is probably one of his best runs."

      Looming over Rodgers and the Packers is that he's been far from productive in NFC Championship games. In his two previous starts, Rodgers completed only 36 of 64 passes for 422 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions for a mediocre passer rating of 55.6.

      Those games, though, were played outside at Chicago and Seattle.

      On Sunday, Rodgers will be in his preferred indoor element, particularly the Georgia Dome for its last hurrah.

      When the Packers steamrollered the top-seeded Falcons 48-21 in the divisional round during the 2010 season, Rodgers went 31-of-36 for 366 yards and three touchdowns with a 136.8 rating.

      In the game three months ago, Rodgers had four touchdown passes and a 125.5 rating, on par with Ryan's efficiency mark of 129.5 that day.

      "It's always fun," Ryan said. "Aaron's a good guy. I've known him for a long time, and (he's) a good friend. It's always fun catching up with him and seeing him. But, he's a tough competitor. I know he'll compete really hard on Sunday."

      All the more so with what's on the line.

  • Rodgers, Ryan at heart of NFC main event
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Defense wins championships.

    • That's the old adage. And it's about to be turned on its head by either the Green Bay Packers or Atlanta Falcons.

      The Packers finished 21st in points allowed. The Falcons finished 27th. And yet, one of them will win the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in Atlanta.

      The victor will be playing in Super Bowl LI, and it figures to be a battle of brilliant quarterbacks -- Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers -- who decide this one.

      Behind Ryan, the Falcons scored 71 more points than any other team in the NFL. Ryan's 117.1 passer rating not only led the NFL, but was the fifth-best in NFL history. He threw for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He topped 100 in passer rating in 12 of 16 regular-season games, then did it again against Seattle in the divisional round.

      The Falcons enter the game on a five-game winning streak. Ryan has 14 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during the five-game streak.

      "It's always a cool thing to watch when you see a good player go to a new spot," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "You guys have for sure seen it (with Rodgers). You know what it looks like, and Matt did that with his own game.

      "It started way back in February in terms of his intent for the offseason, the way he was going to set it off. He had some things in his own game that he wanted to improve upon and, honestly, it carried over all the way through OTAs, into training camp."

      Not to be outdone, Rodgers led the Packers to eight consecutive wins. Through the first quarter of the season, Rodgers ranked toward the bottom of the league in completion percentage (56.1) and yards per attempt (6.30). But he has been unstoppable as of late. During the winning streak, Rodgers has posted a 117.9 passer rating with 298.0 yards per game, 68.9 percent accuracy, 21 touchdowns and one interception. For the season, Rodgers threw for 4,428 yards with 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

      "I think he's played incredible," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's important for our team to play our best football come Sunday. He's in a great rhythm right now. Is he playing the best he ever has? He's played at this level so often, but I think this is probably one of his best runs."

      Both teams will need huge efforts from their quarterbacks in what could turn into a shootout. They'll be attacking what are at times poor defenses. Green Bay finished 31st in pass defense. Atlanta wasn't much better at 26th. Both teams finished in the bottom fourth of the league on third down and in the red zone.

  • Ryan can prove he's MVP vs. Packers, Rodgers
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Pro Football Writers of America selected quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons as the NFL's 2016 Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.

    • Ryan is the first Falcons' player to earn PFWA's MVP award in its 43-year history and is a top candidate for the Associated Press MVP Award, which was voted on before the playoffs and will be announced during Super Bowl week.

      Ryan already has been voted to the 2016 Associated Press All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl. It was his first All-Pro selection and fourth Pro Bowl honor.

      Ryan has passed for a franchise-record 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while completing a career-high 69.9 percent of his passes.

      The Falcons earned the NFC's No. 2 seed are set to face the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

      Ryan will face quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, another MVP candidate, who has led Green Bay to eight straight victories since the Pack was 4-6.

      "I don't specifically have to go out on the field and defend Aaron (Rodgers) which is a good thing for us," Ryan said. "It's fun. I've played against him a number of times and I've gotten to know him throughout the years. He's a good friend and I respect him so much because he's such a great competitor."

      Rodgers knocked Ryan and the Falcons out of the playoffs as the No. 6 seed back in Jan. 2011 with a 48-21 pasting. The Falcons took a switchblade to a gunfight and couldn't keep up in what turned out to be a shootout.

      "Regardless of the situation, he goes out there, competes hard and plays really well week in and week out," Ryan said. "He's had an unbelievable year.

      "For me, I think once we get into it it's about trying to do the best we can against their defense and focusing on how well we can play. At the end of the day, that's where my focus will be at on Sunday."

      Ryan has studied Rodgers' ability to make plays out of the pocket.

      "He makes a lot of really good plays and he's not just been doing it last week," Ryan said. "He's been doing it for his entire career. He's a great player. There is no question about it and has made some great plays throughout his career."

      Ryan carries the burden of having not taken his team to the Super Bowl. He's not sure if that will be required to be considered in Rodgers' class.

      "I don't know," Ryan said. "It's not really for me to decide. I don't think about it all that much. I think one thing I've learned throughout my career is that if you sit there and you're worrying about all these things that don't make a difference for this week, your focus is not where it should be.

      "Would it be nice to do that and all those things that you mentioned? Absolutely, but it's not going to help us Sunday. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is trying to focus all of my energy and my mental preparation toward what's going to have us play our best Sunday.

      "I don't think about those things all that often and certainly not this time of the year."

      --Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones did not practice Wednesday because of a lingering foot injury.

      "We will get him more work as the week goes on," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

      Quinn said earlier in the week that there is no doubt Jones will play against the Packers.

      Jones has dealt with foot/toe issues for more than a month. He didn't finish the divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday after he was in and out of the game several times.

      Jones played 42 of 72 offensive snaps (58 percent) against Seattle and caught six passes for 67 yards with a touchdown.

      Jones played the final two games of the regular season after missing two games because of a sprained left toe, but hasn't regained his usual form.

      In victories over the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, Jones didn't appear to have his usual explosiveness and periodically took himself out of the games.

      --When the Falcons' playoff run is completed, the San Francisco 49ers hopes to name Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as their new head coach.

      While it's not 100 percent certain Shanahan will say yes, owner Arthur Blank became aware of San Francisco's level of interest last week when he spoke to 49ers owner Jed York at NFL owners meetings.

      "I know (Shanahan) has been interviewed and I know he has interest," Blank said. "I saw Jed York at an owners' meeting and we chatted a little bit about his candidate pool. I spoke highly of Kyle. We'll see what happens."

      Blank said losing Shanahan, who with quarterback Matt Ryan has orchestrated the NFL's highest scoring offense this season, would be a significant loss, but he didn't appear overly concerned in terms of the future impact on the team.

      "That's what happens in the league," Blank said. "It's the same for any organization."

      --Falcons safety Keanu Neal and middle linebacker Deion Jones were selected to the Pro Football Writers of America's All-Rookie team on Tuesday.

      Neal, who was drafted with the 17th overall pick last year, finished second on the team with 105 tackles. He started 14 games and added a physical presence to the defense.

      Jones started 13 of 15 games and led the team in tackles with 106. He also had three interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

      NOTES: WR Julio Jones (foot) did not practice on Wednesday. ... DT Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder), WR Taylor Gabriel (foot) and SS Keanu Neal (foot) were limited at practice. ... QB Matt Ryan was 26-of-37 for 338 yards with three touchdowns and a 125.7 passer rating against Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs. Ryan has had a 120-plus passer rating in each of his last five games. In those five games he's been 115-of-157 for 1,469 yards with 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 131.8 passer rating.

  • NFL notebook: Ryan, Mack receive player of the year honors
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who led the top-scoring offense in the NFL with franchise records in passing yards and touchdowns, was selected as the 2016 MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, chosen in voting conducted by the Professional Football Writers of America.

    • Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack, who had a sack in an NFL record-tying eight consecutive games, was named the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, the PFWA announced Wednesday.

      Ryan started all 16 games in 2016, and completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 117.1 passer rating as the Falcons won the NFC South and gained the conference's No. 2 seed with a 11-5 record behind a club-record 540 points scored. He set franchise records in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and passer rating.

      Mack, in his third season, had 77 total tackles and 11 sacks. He also had one interception, four passes defensed, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

      --Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank admits the likelihood of losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the San Francisco 49ers is a "big loss."

      The 49ers plan to offer their vacant head-coaching position to Shanahan, according to multiple reports Tuesday.

      The 37-year-old Shanahan interviewed for head-coaching vacancies with the 49ers, Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars during the Falcons' playoff bye week. He can't come to an agreement with the 49ers until either after Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers with a loss or until after the Super Bowl.

      --The Falcons are exercising caution with All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, who participated in Wednesday's walkthrough before sitting out practice.

      Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said there was "no concern" about Jones' toe injury after the 27-year-old left Saturday's 36-20 divisional-round victory over Seattle. Jones is expected to be limited in practice leading up to Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the visiting Green Bay Packers.

      Jones, who initially sustained the injury in a Week 13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, led the Falcons with 83 receptions and 1,409 receiving yards during the regular

      --Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams isn't expected to practice until the weekend as the team prepares for its NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

      Adams sat out practice on Wednesday, three days removed from sustaining an ankle injury late in the Packers' divisional-round playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys. He had career highs in receptions (75), yards (997) and touchdowns (12) this season.

      --New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan will play in Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers despite a thigh injury.

      Hogan left the divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans last week but planned to participate in workouts with the team throughout preparation for the AFC Championship game on Sunday at Foxborough, Mass.

      Hogan said he's "feeling good" and called the thigh injury very minor while admitting he experienced a "setback" in last week's game. He finished the 2016 regular season with 38 receptions for 680 yards and four touchdowns.

      --The Houston Texans are planning to promote linebackers coach Mike Vrabel to defensive coordinator to replace Romeo Crennel, who is expected to stay with the team as assistant head coach, according to multiple reports.

      The Washington Redskins were interested in talking to Crennel about their vacant defensive coordinator position but were denied permission, a source told ESPN.

      Crennel has been the Texans' defensive coordinator for the past three seasons and his contract was set to expire next Tuesday.

      --Baltimore Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox was added to the Pro Bowl roster for the second straight season.

      Cox will join three teammates participating in the game on Jan. 29 in Orlando, Fla. -- kicker Justin Tucker, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and linebacker C.J. Mosley. Guard Marshal Yanda was elected to the team but will not play due to a shoulder injury.

      --The Buffalo Bills named Kelly Skipper as their new running backs coach.

      Skipper will be tasked with keeping LeSean McCoy and Buffalo's top-ranked rushing attack headed in the right direction. The Bills averaged 164.4 yards on the ground per game last season and 5.3 yards per attempt.

      Skipper, 49, held the same position for the last two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He becomes the third assistant officially hired by Buffalo coach Sean McDermott. Skipper spent the first nine years of his career working for UCLA (1998-2002) and Washington State (2003-06) before joining the Oakland Raiders (2007-14).

      --Pittsburgh Steelers rookie safety Sean Davis told reporters he was fined approximately $24,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley last weekend.

      Davis plans to appeal the fine for his hit that resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty in Pittsburgh's 18-16 victory over Kansas City in the divisional-round game.

      Davis had 69 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception while playing in all 16 games since being selected in the second round of the 2016 draft.

  • After Chiefs' loss to Steelers, Reid played it again
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    KANSAS CITY -- A couple hours after Kansas City's 18-16 loss to Pittsburgh, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid left Arrowhead Stadium, drove down the hill and pulled into his parking spot at the team's nearby facility.

    • Reid went to his office on the building's second floor, turned on his computer and began watching the action that had just ripped out his guts, that of his team and community.

      Why put yourself through that type of pain so quickly? That's just Reid and his grinding approach to the job.

      There was a game to wrap-up, with work on closing out a season on the horizon as well. His mind already clicked into what he could do to make sure his team didn't feel this type of disappointment again.

      "There's just a finalization to it that hits you right in between the eyes," Reid said. "I don't want to get away from the fact that the team had a good year. At the same time, we have to take care of business and improve as we go forward here and learn from this.

      "Little things add up. I have to make sure I take care of that. We have to eliminate some of the penalties and things. I still felt like after watching the tape that we had an opportunity there to win the game. Single elimination -- this is how it works. We're all big boys, and we have to learn from it and move forward."

      Soon enough, there are plenty of issues that Reid and general manager John Dorsey will have to address in the coming months to form the foundation of what will be the 2017 Chiefs. Here are just a few items that will pop up on their radar screen:

      --What is Dorsey's future with the Chiefs? The general manager is in the final year of his contract signed in January 2013. Rumors abound that Dorsey is the first choice in Green Bay if Packers executive vice-president-general manager Ted Thompson decides to slide out of those roles.

      On Tuesday, Thompson celebrated his 64th birthday. Dorsey played and scouted for the Packers for 27 seasons, leaving Wisconsin to take the Chiefs' job alongside Reid. He will be 57 years old in August.

      The combination of Reid and Dorsey has worked well over four years for the Chiefs and ownership hopes to continue their reign. Reid has one more season to go on his 5-year contract.

      --Is the commitment to quarterback Alex Smith still firm from his head coach and general manager?

      Over four seasons with the Chiefs, Smith's record as starting quarterback in the playoffs is 1-3. That's in direct opposition to his 41-20 record that led the team to the postseason three of the last four years.

      When asked directly this week whether Smith remained his No. 1 quarterback, Reid indicated his belief in the 32-year old veteran remains.

      Part of the discussion about Smith and the future of the quarterback position will include Nick Foles.

      Signed in August after he was released by the Los Angeles Rams, the 27-year old Foles started one game and looked good in other small opportunities. He finished with a passer rating of 105.9 on a much smaller sample size than Smith's final 91.2 rating in the regular season.

      If Smith and Foles stay at their current salary cap numbers, they will account for $27.6 million of the team's spending limit in 2017.

      --Can the Chiefs keep safety Eric Berry and defensive tackle Dontari Poe? Both players have been important elements in the Chiefs defense over the last four years, but both will become unrestricted free agents. Berry was in that spot last year, and when negotiations dragged on, the Chiefs tagged him as the franchise player. They could do that again in 2017, at 120 percent of his $10.8 million tender he played under last season, or right at $13 million.

      The last two seasons have been the best of Berry's seven years with the Chiefs. Playing in all 35 of the team's regular and postseason games after his fight against Hodgkin's lymphoma, he racked up 155 total tackles, seven interceptions plus another on a 2-point play. He knocked down 21 other passes and forced a fumble.

      Poe finished the regular season with 27 tackles, 1.5 sacks, nine quarterback pressures, a forced fumble and three pass deflections. He also ran for one touchdown and threw another on offense.

      Against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, he had four tackles and one tipped pass.

      --Will they keep a trio of dented veterans, all now 30 or older: running back Jamaal Charles (30), and linebackers Tamba Hali (33) and Derrick Johnson (34)?

      Charles and Hali are dealing with knee problems and Johnson with his second ruptured Achilles in three years. All are under contract for 2017, and hold salary cap numbers of $7 million (Charles), $8.583 million (Hali) and $7,750 million (Johnson). Charles would be the biggest money saver under the cap, with $7 million coming available.

      Charles' future will depend on how he bounces back from surgery on both knees late last year.

      --More contract considerations: There are only three others among the 14 players without deals for next season who would be important for the Chiefs to sign, and all are restricted free agents: kicker Cairo Santos, safety Daniel Sorensen and cornerback Terrance Mitchell.

      Also without contracts are unrestricted free agents running back Knile Davis, offensive lineman Mike Person and defensive linemen Jarvis Jenkins and Kendall Reyes. Plus, restricted free agents wide receiver Albert Wilson, defensive lineman T.J. Barnes and long snapper James Winchester. Two players who began the season on the injured-reserve list are scheduled to be exclusive rights free agents: wide receiver Kenny Cook and fullback Trey Millard.

      --Coaching staff changes? Reid has not made any deletions from his staff in the previous four seasons. The coaches that have moved on did so when hired for other jobs: assistant special teams coach Kevin O'Dea (Tampa Bay), offensive coordinator Doug Pederson (Philadelphia), assistant offensive line coach Eugene Chung (Philadelphia) and defensive assistant Dino Vasso (Philadelphia).

      Special teams coordinator Dave Toub interviewed with Denver and San Diego for vacant head coaching jobs, but was not picked. Rumors were about late last week that co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress was a candidate to become offensive coordinator with the Bills. Word out of Buffalo is the team has gone in a different direction.

  • Patriots have been here before, don't take it for granted
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Coach Bill Belichick and handful of New England players held press conferences on Wednesday in front of an AFC Championship Game backdrop at Gillette Stadium.

    • A few feet to their right was the Lamar Hunt Trophy, between helmets for the Patriots (15-2) and Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5).

      It was a visual realization of the spot the two historic franchises find themselves in this week, on the doorstep of a trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI.

      Though the Patriots are heading into their NFL-record sixth straight AFC title game -- and 11th overall since 2001 -- Belichick made a point to acknowledge that there is nothing old hat about being included in the final four contenders this weekend.

      "It's always an honor to be participating in the AFC Championship game," Belichick said before a packed house in the media workroom in Foxborough. "We have a great history and a great deal of respect for the Steelers, the organization, coach (Mike) Tomlin, their staff, their players.

      "They're a good football team, playing very well at the right time of the year now, the second half of the season. They have a good winning streak."

      Although New England dispatched the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 27-16, on Oct. 23, that victory came against a Steelers team without Ben Roethlisberger that was in the midst of a four-game midseason losing streak.

      Since then, Roethlisberger has guided the team to a Wild Card berth and nine consecutive wins, including playoff dismissals of the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. Pittsburgh has also made great strides on defense.

      "I think the game earlier in the season is not really that relevant," Belichick said. "I mean, it is, but it really isn't. There's a lot of water under the bridge since then.

      "What the Steelers have done in the last two-and-a-half months is really what we're probably going to see Sunday night, and that's what we've got to be ready for."

      What New England must be ready for is its defense to be tested by a star-studded Steelers offense that has scored on each of its first three possessions in its first two postseason games.

      Roethlisberger is the two-time Super Bowl champion leading the charge and making plays to All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, but it's not a stretch to say running back Le'Veon Bell is the centerpiece of the offense.

      Bell has carried the ball 29 and 30 times, respectively, the last two weeks for a total of 337 yards (a 5.7-yard average) with two touchdowns.

      Bell's production, value and unique style make him a key point of contention for Belichick's team's team, a defense that finished the regular season No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed and tied for third in run defense.

      "Defensively, we have to do a great job of playing team defense," Belichick said. "That includes everybody. And Bell has great vision, patience, and they have a very good offensive line, and a good scheme, so they make it hard to penetrate. They do a good job of getting on the blocks, staying on them and eventually, Bell does a good job of creating space or finding space or making it look like he's going to go to one spot and kind of enters in another gap.

      "No one guy can stop the running game. You've got to have team defense and multiple players playing good technique, playing the right responsibility and then tackling is an issue. Even if you play well, you've still got to get him on the ground, and that's hard."

      While the defense has its challenges against Pittsburgh's Killer Bs, Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense needs to bounce back from a disappointing performance against the Texans.

      While Houston didn't have the offense to take advantage of New England's three turnovers and sputtering consistency in the passing attack last Saturday night, Brady knows a repeat of such a performance could spell the end of the season.

      "We have to play our best game of the year," Brady said. "I think that's what it comes down to. We've got to all do whatever it takes to be at our best for those three hours on Sunday night.

      "They put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of areas. They're tough to prepare for. We're going to have to just rise to the occasion."

      An occasion Belichick, Brady and plenty of other Patriots have been in often in recent years with mixed results. New England is 2-3 in the last five consecutive AFC title games, although the mark is 2-1 at home.

      "It's the two best teams in the AFC," Belichick said. "You earn your way to this game. There's no other way to get there. You've got to earn it, and you've got to earn it on the field. You've got to go out there and beat somebody -- you've got to beat a lot of people to get to this game.

      "Both teams have done that, so that's the matchup. We're glad to be in the game, proud to be playing in it. We earned it, they earned it, and we'll play Sunday night and see how it comes out. Great to be part of this game."

      --WR Chris Hogan left last Saturday night's victory over Houston the Texans in the third quarter because of a thigh injury. He did not return, finishing the game with four catches for 95 yards.

      A few days later, though, Hogan downplayed the ailment and even indicated he could have returned against the Texans had it been necessary.

      "I'm feeling good, just had a little minor setback in the game, but I'm working back, feeling better every day," Hogan said.

      The first-year Patriots receiver seems to be enjoying his first taste of postseason action. After spending time with the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins before playing three seasons in Buffalo, Hogan finally got to where he's wanted to be this time of year.

      "On the couch, watching football, wishing I was in this position," Hogan described of past Januarys. "I'm beyond excited to be in this position, to play in the AFC Championship Game at home, with this team."

      --Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels of the Patriots interviewed with the Los Angeles Rams, 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars during New England's playoff bye week for those teams' open head coaching jobs. Los Angeles and Jacksonville went in other directions, and McDaniels took his name out of contention for the San Francisco job this week.

      "I was really impressed with (49ers CEO) Jed York and (Chief Strategy Officer and EVP of Football Operations) Paraag (Marathe) and (Director of Football Administration and Analytics) Brian [Hampton], the people that came from the 49ers organization," McDaniels said. "They did a great job with their presentation, and again (I'm) humbled to be included in that process. At this time, it's best for my family and myself to remain here in New England and focus on this year's playoffs and finish out the year however it turns out."

      McDaniels is finishing the fifth season of his second tour of duty in New England. He's interviewed with a variety of teams for head coaching jobs the last three years, but hasn't found the right fit, which is important considering how poorly his two-year stint (2009-10) went as a first-time head coach with the Denver Broncos.

      --CB Malcolm Butler and Steelers WR Antonio Brown have seen a lot of each other over the last couple seasons. Butler opened the 2015 season -- coming off his Super Bowl-winning interception and his first start as New England's No. 1 cornerback replacement for departed Darrelle Revis -- with man-to-man duties chasing the Pittsburgh playmaker all over the field. While Butler was seemingly competitive, Brown had nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in a Patriots win.

      Earlier this season, with backup Landry Jones leading the Steelers, the players went at it again, with Brown piling up seven catches for 106 yards in another New England win, although Butler picked off a pass in the end zone.

      The two even appear together in a humorous Visa commercial in which the cornerback Butler chases Brown all over town.

      There is a good chance Butler will draw Brown duty against on Sunday night in the AFC title game.

      "Malcolm is a great competitor; he takes this as a big challenge," Patriots captain and Pro Bowl LB Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He's arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he's ready to rise up to that challenge. Just like any other week, he's going to come in and work hard. That's just the kind of person that he is."

      Pro Bowl S Devin McCourty expressed a similar confidence in the New England Super Bowl hero, who will be asked to play a key role to get the team back to the big game.

      "They're two competitive guys," McCourty said. (They're) relatively around the same size. Probably if you broke them down (they're) very similar as far as athletic ability and quickness and speed and those things," McCourty said. "I think that the biggest thing is just them going out and competing. Whether it's Antonio Brown making a great catch or Malcolm making an interception in the end zone the last time that we played, just them two going at it.

      "Antonio Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job, but it's going to be all of us. All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that's getting everyone to the ball, whether it's a short pass (or) intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he's trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he's able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we're going to work on that all week."

      NOTES: WR Danny Amendola (ankle) was limited in practice on Wednesday after returning to his first game in more than a month against the Texans. Amendola saw limited work against Houston after missing the final four games of the regular season with a reported high ankle sprain. ... TE Martellus Bennett (knee) was limited in practice because of the injury sustained in the second half of the win over the Texans. Bennett was attended to by trainers, but walked off under his own power and returned a couple plays later to finish the game. ... RB Brandon Bolden (knee) was another new addition to the injury report, and was limited in practice on Wednesday. ... LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder) was limited in practice because of a new injury. The Pro Bowler dealt with a knee injury over the course of the regular season. ... WR Chris Hogan (thigh) was limited in practice on Wednesday. Hogan left the third quarter of the win over the Texans and did not return, although he said this week he could have finished the game had he needed to. .. WR Malcolm Mitchell (knee) remains limited in practice. The rookie missed the regular season finale and the playoff opener because of the injury. ... DL Jabaal Sheard (knee) was added to the injury report after being limited in practice on Wednesday.

  • Bills hire Skipper as RB coach
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    The Buffalo Bills named Kelly Skipper as their new running backs coach on Wednesday.

    • Skipper will be tasked with keeping LeSean McCoy and Buffalo's top-ranked rushing attack headed in the right direction. The Bills averaged 164.4 yards on the ground per game last season and 5.3 yards per attempt.

      The 49-year-old Skipper held the same position for the last two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He becomes the third assistant officially hired by Buffalo under the watch of new coach Sean McDermott.

      Skipper spent the first nine years of his coaching career working for UCLA (1998-2002) and Washington State (2003-06) before joining the Oakland Raiders (2007-14).

      The addition of Skipper comes one day after the Bills named Rob Boras as the team's tight ends coach. Defensive line coach Mike Waufle also joined Buffalo after McDermott was hired.

  • Dynamic rookies give Cowboys bright future
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys ultimately didn't get it done.

    • However, they will walk away from the heartbreaking 34-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC playoffs looking ahead, not back.

      After winning the NFC East with a 13-3 record behind a rookie quarterback and led by the best rookie running back team history, the Cowboys believe their time will come.

      The Cowboys didn't beat Green Bay but they know they were good enough to get the job done and ultimately win the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.

      "Our team enjoyed about as fairy tale of a season that you can draw up," owner Jerry Jones said. "I'm not at all in any way disappointed about what has happened to us. We have a lot more answers about the future than when we started.

      "You want to have this taste in your mouth. We have a team capable of winning it all. We really do. That team was capable of beating Green Bay."

      The Cowboys are looking ahead because of the presence of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott who took over the team and the locker room, while supplanting injured starter Tony Romo for good.

      Dallas will look ahead because running back Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in football make the Cowboys a contender every time they touch the field.

      The key for the Cowboys is making the necessary improvements on defense and finally finding a pass rush that can somehow slow the likes of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

      But there is no question the Cowboys will be back.

      "The biggest thing you have to do is learn from your experiences and you have to allow the disappointments to fuel the fire for what you want to accomplish in 2017," coach Jason Garrett said.

      Indeed the future looks bright with a core that includes rookies Elliott, Prescott, Anthony Brown and Maliek Collins. But the Cowboys have 18 unrestricted free agents, including Terrance Williams, Ron Leary, Brandon Carr, Barry Church and Morris Claiborne.

      "The youth in this team, it's a building block," Prescott said. "We're going to get better from it. It's going to make us better. We'll make plenty more runs."

  • Steelers S Davis fined, will appeal
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Rookie safety Sean Davis of the Pittsburgh Steelers told reporters on Wednesday he was fined approximately $24,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley last weekend.

    • Davis said he plans to appeal the fine for his hit that resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty in Pittsburgh's 18-16 victory over Kansas City in the divisional-round game.

      "I couldn't have done anything different, especially in the red zone," said the 23-year-old Davis, who would be fined a total of $24,309 for the play per NFL rules.

      "I'm forced to tackle high. If I tackle low, there's a chance of him falling on top of me into the end zone."

      Kansas City scored a few plays later to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 18-16, but a successful 2-point conversation was negated by Eric Fisher's holding penalty.

      The Chiefs failed on their next attempt due to Davis' pass breakup in the end zone.

      Davis recorded 69 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception while playing in all 16 games since being selected in the second round of the 2016 draft.

  • Best of AFC's best as Steelers face Patriots
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    PITTSBURGH -- The two most successful teams from the AFC since the NFL merger in 1970 will meet in this year's conference title game. The winner will be the first team in NFL history to play in nine Super Bowls.

    • The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots each played in eight, and have been the two best teams in the AFC by far since 2000.

      The Patriots won all four of their Super Bowls since then and the Steelers added their fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies during that span. No other AFC team has won more than one Super Bowl since the turn of the century.

      So it seems strange these teams are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004, when the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC title game at Heinz Field.

      When the Steelers went to the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2010, the Patriots were eliminated in the divisional round by the Denver Broncos and New York Jets, respectively.

      When the Steelers went in 2008, the Patriots did not qualify for the playoffs.

      Conversely, when the Patriots went to the Super Bowl in 2007, 2011 and 2014 the Steelers were eliminated each time in the wild-card round.

      Finally, they're meeting again.

      "I'm going to be honest, I don't care who we had to play in the AFC Championship Game," Roethlisberger said. "It's the championship game. You have one game to get to the Super Bowl.

      "Like I said, you are going up to the lion's den, the dragon's lair. They are the dragon. We are trying to slay them. It doesn't matter who it is, but they are the 'gold standard.'"

      The Steelers have won nine consecutive games, while the Patriots have won eight in a row.

      The Steelers are built around a strong running game and an opportunistic defense that has improved greatly since the beginning of the season.

      The Patriots are first in the league in scoring defense and third against the run while Tom Brady continues to play at a high level.

      The matchup between Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and the Patriots defense will be one to watch. Bell has almost 1,200 yards during the Steelers' nine-game winning streak, and he sat out the regular-season finale against the Browns.

      "They play real well up front," Bell said Wednesday. "They pride themselves on stopping the run. I think it was a circumstance of us not getting enough totes, too. Last time we played them we weren't as aggressive running the ball as we are now. It should be an interesting game going against those guys again."

      The Steelers got to the championship game by beating Kansas City, 18-16, in a divisional round game. The Patriots beat the Texans, 34-16, in their divisional round game.

      It wasn't the Patriots' best performance or Tom Brady's for that matter. But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows great teams advance in the playoffs even when they have an off-night because they find ways to win.

      That's exactly what the Steelers did in Kansas City, when they became only the sixth team in league history to win a playoff game without scoring a touchdown.

      "I think just watching them win that game last weekend, exemplifies that he is a great player, but they are a great team," Tomlin said. "They found multiple ways to win that game."

      --The Steelers are 5-0 in rematch games this season and they'll have to go 6-for-6 if they want to get to Super Bowl LI. The Steelers beat their three divisional opponents the second time around and then won regular-season rematches against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

      Up next is a second game against the Patriots, which beat the Steelers, 27-16, at Heinz Field in October.

      "I don't think it has anything to do with the second time around because I'd imagine the people we're playing are going through the same process as relative to us," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I just think largely over the course of the season we've been a group, and a group of individuals, that are on the rise. I think that we're growing by leaps and bounds week in and week out.

      "I think the guys individually are growing, not only in terms of technical growth but understanding, and that understanding allows them to play better within the group that they're working with to play more definitively, to make quicker, faster, more definitive decisions, and I think that has made us better collectively."

      --Coach Mike Tomlin said receiver Antonio Brown will be punished for putting a video of his postgame speech on Facebook Live after the playoff game against the Chiefs.

      "I will be bluntly honest here," Tomlin said. "It was foolish of him to do that. It was selfish of him to do that. It was inconsiderate of him to do that. Not only is it a violation of our policy, it's a violation of league policy. So there are consequences to be dealt with from his perspective.

      "We will punish him. We won't punish us. We will do so swiftly, and we will do so internally. And I would imagine that there are consequences associated with the NFL's policy in that regard. I am sure that he will appropriately absorb all of those things, and as he moves forward.

      "But larger than that, he has to grow from this. He has to. He works extremely hard. He is extremely talented. Those things get minimized with incidences such as this. You wear on your teammates when they routinely have to answer questions about things that aren't preparation or football-related. It's our desire for him and for everyone to be great teammates, as well as great players.

      "He is a great player. He is a hardworking player. He is respected, largely, in the locker room for those things. But incidences such as this, don't help him in that regard. That's just the reality of it."

      Tomlin also said the behavior Brown displayed is the reason why some great players don't finish with the franchise they start with. Brown has two years remaining on his contract and made All-Pro for the fifth time this season.

      "I think that's why oftentimes you see great players move around from team-to-team," Tomlin said. "And I definitely don't want that to be his story. I am sure he doesn't want that to be his story. So, he has to address these things that put him and us in positions from time-to-time, in settings such as this, where it needs to be addressed."

      --Ryan Shazier is the first Steelers linebacker to record interceptions in back-to-back playoff games since Levon Kirkland, who did it in 1998. Overall, Shazier has interceptions in four consecutive games, dating to the regular season.

      "Ryan is playing and playing with great consistency, urgency and speed," Tomlin said. "He's growing in terms of understanding what it is he's doing and how it fits in the bigger picture of what it is we're doing. And I just think that puts him in a better position to maximize our opportunities. So it's reasonable to expect that he's going to continue to grow in those areas. And we need him to continue to grow in those areas, because we need the plays associated with that growth."

      NOTES: TE Ladarius Green, who has missed the last four games due a concussion, was a limited practice participant Wednesday. It was the first time he practiced since the Thursday before the playoff game against Miami. He had a setback that day and did not practice at all last week before the playoff game against the Chiefs. ... LB Anthony Chickillo, who missed the first two playoff games because of an ankle injury, was a limited practice participant Wednesday. He's been a core special teams player this season. ... S Sean Davis, who has been playing despite a shoulder injury, did not practice Wednesday. ... LB Vince Williams, who also has been playing through a shoulder injury, did not practice. ... K Chris Boswell, OL B.J. Finney, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and QB Zach Mettenberger all missed practice because of illnesses.

  • Packers WR Adams not expected to practice until weekend
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams isn't expected to practice until the weekend as the team prepares for its NFC Championship Game against the host Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

    • Adams sat out practice on Wednesday, three days removed from sustaining an ankle injury late in the Packers' divisional-round playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

      "Curious to see him move," coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "I don't think he'll practice until Saturday."

      Adams recorded career highs in receptions (75), yards (997) and touchdowns (12) this season.

      The 24-year-old Adams joins fellow ailing wideout Jordy Nelson on the injury report. Nelson (NFL-leading 14 receiving touchdowns) was limited Wednesday. He's nursing broken ribs sustained during wild-card weekend against the New York Giants.

      "We've won without them before. We'd like to have them out there, but we'll see what happens," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday.

      Should Adams and/or Nelson remain sidelined, Green Bay will lean on wideouts Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison and Jeff Janis in addition to tight end Jared Cook.

  • Ravens long snapper Cox to return to Pro Bowl
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Baltimore Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox was added to the Pro Bowl roster on Wednesday for the second straight season.

    • Cox will join three teammates participating in the game on Jan. 29 in Orlando, Fla. -- kicker Justin Tucker, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and linebacker C.J. Mosley. Guard Marshal Yanda was elected to the team but will not play due to a shoulder injury.

      Long snappers are not voted onto the team like other position players.

      Cox, a seven-year veteran, was chosen by Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid as a "need" player for the Pro Bowl roster. Reid's staff will coach in the NFL's annual All-Star game.

      "Playing in the Pro Bowl for a second time is a huge honor for me," Cox said in a statement. "All the hard work that we put into this game is validated when you receive such an honor. I'm proud to represent a great organization like the Ravens, who are among the NFL's best.

      "To me, this award is not an individual one. I've been so blessed to be surrounded by such supportive people. Coach (John) Harbaugh and (special teams coach Jerry) Rosburg have pushed me since I came to the Ravens in 2010. They have put me in a position to be successful."

      Cox competed in every game this season, snapping on all 80 punts, 39 field-goal attempts (38 successful) and 27 extra-point kicks (all converted).

  • Falcons' Blank on losing Shanahan: It's 'a big loss'
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank admits the likelihood of losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the San Francisco 49ers is a "big loss."

    • The 49ers plan to offer their vacant head-coaching position to Shanahan, according to multiple reports Tuesday.

      "Kyle would be a big loss," Blank told ESPN on Wednesday. "But great coaches and great teams, that's what happens in the National Football League, unlike when I was running (Home Depot). When we had somebody who was ready to run a large division, it wasn't a problem. You'd take (him) and move him out of his division and give him his own division.

      "In the NFL, you only have one NFL team. And unless we're going to put Kyle in charge of our soccer team -- and we already have a good coach there -- that's it. We only have one great football coach.

      "Great coaches like Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells in the past, Coach (Joe) Gibbs and Andy Reid -- and the list goes on and on -- are great NFL coaches who have produced over time, and they lose their coordinators. Same with Mike Tomlin."

      The 37-year-old Shanahan interviewed for head-coaching vacancies with the 49ers, Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars during the Falcons' playoff bye week. He can't come to an agreement with the 49ers until either after Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers with a loss or until after the Super Bowl.

      If the Falcons advance, Shanahan can have a second interview with the 49ers between weeks of the NFC title game and Super Bowl LI, which will be played Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

      "I think Kyle has focused hard on being inclusive this year (with) the other players and coaches," Blank told ESPN. "He's focused on that. He's focused on being a good listener and trying to understand where they were coming from. Kyle is a brilliant offensive mind and a great play-caller. Part of being good at any position of leadership in life is being a good listener and understanding where other people are coming from. That just makes you better. I think he got better this year in that regard. And I think he and Matt were more on the same page this year than they've been in the past."

      Falcons head coach Dan Quinn can offer some guidance to Shanahan after a similar experience two years ago while with the Seattle Seahawks.

      Quinn was defensive coordinator of the Seahawks through the Super Bowl, while the Falcons held open their head-coaching job for him.

      "I definitely have shared insight with him as he was going through the process," Quinn told reporters Wednesday but declined to offer more specifics about Shanahan's status.

      Shanahan is in his second season as offensive coordinator with the Falcons, who averaged an NFL-best 33.8 points per game. He has also served as offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins (2010-13) and Cleveland Browns (2014).

      Shanahan is the son of longtime NFL coach Mike Shanahan.

      San Francisco is looking for a new head coach for the third time in as many seasons, with Chip Kelly being fired after the team's dismal 2-14 campaign.