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      NFL suspends Bears DL Edwards Jr. 2 games
      1/15/21

      LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The NFL suspended Chicago Bears defensive linemen Mario Edwards Jr. for the first two games next season Friday for violating the league's policy against performance-enhancing substances.

      Edwards, who is not under contract for 2021, will be able to participate in preseason practices and games.

      He had four sacks last season — his first in Chicago. He has 141/2 sacks over six years with the Raiders, New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and Chicago.

      Edwards was charged in October with assault over a domestic violence situation at the team hotel in Charlotte. The incident occurred Oct. 17 on the night before the Bears beat the Carolina Panthers.

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      Saleh's hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community
      By DENNIS WASZAK Jr., AP Pro Football Writer | 
      1/15/21

      NEW YORK (AP) — Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.

      The New York Jets' new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.

      That's a source of great pride for a group that has been generally underrepresented in the league's on-field leadership roles.

      “It’s something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we’re trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it's a very positive sign.”

      The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.

      “I think he’s just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons — including his first two with the Jets.

      “He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you’re professional and you’re passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it’s an attainable dream.”

      After Saleh's college playing career as a tight end at Northern Michigan ended, he got his start in coaching by working as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005.

      Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year with his No. 2-ranked unit. He was a popular candidate among the seven teams looking for a new coach this offseason, and quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets job.

      Saleh, known for his energy on the sideline and being well-liked by players, impressed the Jets during his first remote interview. He was flown in a few days later for an in-person meeting with Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at the team's facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.

      After a two-day visit, Saleh left to meet with Philadelphia for its coaching vacancy — but the Jets knew they found their new coach. The team announced Thursday night the sides reached an agreement in principle.

      “As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR's New Jersey chapter, said in email to The Associated Press. "In addition to the positive impact that he’ll have on Muslims, Saleh’s presence in the field and on the screen will remind the rest of America that Muslims are a part of the fabric of this nation and proudly contribute to society. It’s a step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.

      “Welcome to Jersey, brother!”

      Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director of CAIR's New York chapter, congratulated the Jets and Saleh for what he called a “historic hiring in the National Football League.” He's optimistic it's a sign of increasing inclusion and recognition of the Muslim community.

      “For all the Muslim youth who may be told they don’t belong or can’t do something because of how they pray, we hope that when they see Mr. Saleh on national television, they will say to themselves that anything is possible and will reach for the stars," Mohamed said in an email to the AP. "We hope Mr. Saleh’s hiring opens the door for other American Muslims in sports.”

      Saleh is believed to be the third Arab American to become a head coach in the NFL. He follows Abe Gibron, who led Chicago from 1972-74, and Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles (1991-94) and Jets (1995-96) — both of whom also had Lebanese roots.

      Saleh is also just the fourth active NFL head coach who is a minority, joining Miami's Brian Flores, Washington's Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin.

      “Robert Saleh has made history on the field and off,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Friday night. “Now he’s knocking down barriers in our own backyard. Congrats, Coach!”

      While Saleh's focus will be on restoring the Jets to respectability and not necessarily being an inspiration, he has provided a path for others to someday follow.

      “Any person in a new job, their first goal is going to be performance in their job,” Hooper said. "But I think a secondary consideration might be being an example to Muslim and Arab American youth around the country, that this kind of inclusion and respect for diversity is possible.

      “But I don’t think he got the job because of his ethnic or religious background. He got this job because he’s good at what he does.”

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      Packers' Adams finally gets to face off with LA's Ramsey
      By STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer | 
      1/14/21

      Green Bay’s Davante Adams has caught more touchdown passes over the last five seasons than any other player. Jalen Ramsey of the Los Angeles Rams is one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks.

      They finally will face each other in a game that matters Saturday when the top-seeded Packers (13-3) host the Rams (11-6) in an NFC divisional playoff game.

      The only time they’ve squared off in the regular season was in 2016 when the Packers beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in Ramsey’s first career NFL game, though Adams was quick to disagree with the suggestion that was their lone previous matchup.

      “Not right, not right,” Adams said as he shook his head during a Zoom session. “We had like five reps in the Pro Bowl. That was the other one. And we know how competitive the Pro Bowl is.”

      Adams’ sarcastic references to the Pro Bowl aside, these two All-Pro performers never have matched up against each other with so much at stake.

      Frankly, they rarely have faced off with anything on the line before. Adams noted that in the 2016 game, he primarily worked against Davon House and Prince Amukamara while Ramsey spent much of his time in the slot.

      “We actually honestly got together more in the Pro Bowl than probably we did in the 2016 game,” Adams said.

      It remains to be seen how often they’ll face each other Saturday. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers noted that the Rams’ coverage schemes mean a receiver isn’t necessarily lining up against the same cornerback throughout a game.

      “They’ve been playing a lot of two-shell, so it’s different,” Rodgers said. “Just like I feel the NBA is different where it’s not like MJ (Michael Jordan) is coming to town and somebody’s got him one-on-one all game and he’s going to try to drop 50 on him. The Rams have a dynamic, dynamic player in Jalen, but they have been playing a lot more two-shell, so I don’t know how much mano a mano is going to be out there.”

      Yet they figure to face off at least some of the time in a matchup between two stars having arguably their greatest seasons.

      Adams had 18 touchdown catches during the regular season to lead the NFL and tie Sterling Sharpe’s 26-year-old franchise mark. He also had a franchise-record 115 overall catches for 1,374 yards despite missing two games with a hamstring injury. He has helped the Packers score an NFL-leading 31.8 points per game.

      “We all know that Davante Adams is one of the top players in the league,” Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said.

      Ramsey has strengthened the Rams’ secondary since they acquired him from Jacksonville in October 2019 for two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection. The Rams ended the regular season leading the NFL in total defense and scoring defense.

      “I think he’s really showing why he’s the most complete DB in this league,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “The tape doesn’t lie.”

      Both players earned All-Pro honors this year. It was the first time for Adams and the second for Ramsey, who also earned that status with Jacksonville in 2017.

      “I think there’s probably like three, three or four super-elite, is what I like to call them, corners,” Adams said. “And he’s definitely one of those guys.”

      ___

      AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed to this report.

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      Leonard Fournette grateful for second chance with Buccaneers
      By FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer | 
      1/14/21

      TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — When Leonard Fournette suddenly found himself out of work, one of the first people who reached out to the former Jacksonville Jaguars running back was Tom Brady.

      The six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback thought he’d be a nice addition to a talented group of playmakers being assembled around him in Tampa Bay. So, he encouraged the fourth-year pro to consider joining the Buccaneers.

      “I knew I could come in and help the team out,” Fournette said, reflecting on his surprise release by the Jaguars in early September and getting an opportunity to restart his career with a team with championship aspirations.

      Four months later, he has no regrets.

      The Bucs (12-5) are preparing for an NFC divisional playoff matchup against the New Orleans Saints, and the fourth overall pick from the 2017 draft has embraced a supporting role in Tampa Bay’s offense after being a featured back in Jacksonville.

      “Tom hit me like, ‘Man, I would love for you to come help us out.’ First thing, who wouldn’t want to play with Tom? Now that I’m here, I’ve just surrounded myself with a great group of people,” the 25-year-old running back said.

      “I could have gone another route ... but I felt like it was the perfect decision for myself,” Fournette added. “It’s going very well right now, to be honest.”

      A two-time 1,000-yard rusher, Fournette was a versatile every-down back who gradually fell out of favor in Jacksonville after helping the Jaguars reach the AFC championship game as a rookie.

      Despite rushing for 1,152 yards and catching 76 passes for another 522 yards in 2019, the Jaguars parted ways with him last summer after attempts to trade the 6-foot, 228-pound running back failed.

      The Bucs welcomed his arrival, even though they had already addressed the need for depth behind starter Ronald Jones by drafting Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round and signing former Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy in August.

      “Incredible talent. You don’t see backs that big be able to move that quick and be able to get in and out of breaks, to be able to accelerate the way he does,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis said.

      “They feel comfortable being able to use him in the run game and in the pass game,” Davis added. “He’s a complete back. And so, they definitely got a good one when they got him.”

      The move has paid off, with the native of New Orleans who also starred at LSU rushing for 367 yards and six touchdowns and finishing with 36 receptions for 233 yards while sharing playing time with Jones during the regular season.

      And although it took some time to adjust to his limited role, Fournette concedes the lighter workload kept him fresh for the playoffs.

      Filling in for Jones, who sat out last week’s wild-card victory over Washington with a quad injury, Fournette rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown. He also had four receptions to 39 yards.

      “I thought Leonard played his best game,” since joining the Bucs, coach Bruce Arians said.

      Another high-profile addition getting a second chance with Tampa Bay, receiver Antonio Brown, had two catches for 49 yards and a TD.

      “It’s been an up and down season for me. This year tested my humbleness,” Fournette said. “Coming from being the whole offense to being a minor piece, it’s been off and on. But I just kept faith, and they believed in me. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m happy where I stand. ”

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      Russell Wilson expects to have input on Seahawks' next OC
      By TIM BOOTH, AP Sports Writer | 
      1/14/21

      SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson expects to be involved in determining the team’s next offensive coordinator after Brian Schottenheimer was let go.

      Wilson said Thursday that he will miss working with Schottenheimer.

      “Me and Pete have been talking about, (general manager) John (Schneider) too as well, but just making sure that we get all the options possible and find the best person that can help us win Super Bowls,” Wilson said. “Not just win games, we’ve won a lot of games, but the reality is ... we want to win more Super Bowls. That’s the fun part.”

      Seattle's postseason ended last weekend with a 30-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the opening round of the NFC playoffs. Seattle announced a few days later that Schottenheimer would not return for a fourth season as offensive coordinator. The team cited philosophical differences with head coach Pete Carroll.

      Seattle went 12-4 and won its first division title in four years. Individually, Wilson set a career-high in touchdowns with 40, and nearly set a career mark in yards passing during the regular season. Seattle also saw DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett set franchise records for yards receiving and catches, respectively.

      But the season was filled with inconsistency. Seattle’s offense was among the best in the league for the first half of the season and Wilson was in the middle of the MVP conversation. That changed midway through the year and the Seahawks struggled badly at times over the final eight games.

      After the loss to the Rams, Carroll and Wilson noted that Seattle’s struggles to make offensive adjustments to opposing defenses contributed to the problems later in the season. Even with his critical comments about how the offense operated, Wilson said he did not want to see Schottenheimer go.

      “Was I in favor of it? No. It wasn’t my decision to change. Coach Carroll made that decision. I trust his decision,” Wilson said. “But at the same time (Schottenheimer) and I have been so close. I think he’s going to be a tremendous coach somewhere else. But what I am in favor of is our football team getting better.”

      Carroll said Monday that he wanted to have a more effective running game, which would seem to run counter to an offense that relies more on Wilson’s arm. Carroll’s implication wasn’t that Seattle would be a run-dominant team, but running the ball regularly and efficiently and supplementing with quick passes and occasional deep shots seemed to be the direction he wants to go.

      The first half of the 2020 season was one of the few times since Wilson’s arrival that Seattle went pass heavy. Seattle averaged 37 passes to just 24 runs for the first eight games of the season. Wilson had 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions and averaged nearly 300 yards per game passing.

      The second half of the year, pass attempts dropped by four, running attempts went up by three, but most notable was a significant dip in Wilson’s yards (194.5) and touchdowns (12).

      All of that makes hiring an offensive coordinator one of the more important personnel decisions during Wilson’s tenure. He’s had just two coordinators with the Seahawks — Darrell Bevell for six seasons and then Schottenheimer for the past three.

      “I’m going into my 10th year of my career. The next 10 years are super critical right for everybody involved in the whole organization and me as a player,” Wilson said. “The legacy that I want to be able to create, and do and to be able to set the tempo on. So I think it’s vital, it’s critical, super significant that obviously that we’re part of that process.”

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      The New York Jets have reached an agreement in principle with 49ers assistant Robert Saleh to become their head coach.
      1/14/21

      NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Jets have reached an agreement in principle with 49ers assistant Robert Saleh to become their head coach.

      Jets hire 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as coach
      By DENNIS WASZAK Jr., AP Pro Football Writer | 
      1/14/21

      NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Jets were searching for a leader, someone who could bring a frustrated, playoff-starved franchise back to respectability.

      They think they found their guy in Robert Saleh.

      The Jets reached an agreement in principle with the popular and energetic San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Thursday night to hire him as their head coach. Saleh replaces Adam Gase, who was fired by on Jan. 3 after going 9-23 in two seasons.

      The 41-year-old Saleh, believed to be the first Muslim head coach in NFL history, emerged as a favorite for the Jets job when he was brought in for a second — and this time, in-person — interview Tuesday night and those discussions extended into Wednesday. He was the first of the nine known candidates New York interviewed remotely to meet with chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, team president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at its facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.

      Saleh left the Jets and met with Philadelphia, which fired Doug Pederson on Monday. And New York also had an in-person meeting with Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

      After Smith left without a deal, New York had internal discussions and opted to hire Saleh.

      “YESSS SIRRRRRRRRRR,” an excited defensive tackle Quinnen Williams wrote on Twitter.

      Saleh, recognized as an energetic leader who is well liked by his players, had been the 49ers’ defensive coordinator under Kyle Shanahan since 2017, overseeing San Francisco’s defense that ranked No. 2 overall on the way to the Super Bowl last season.

      The 49ers ranked fifth in overall defense this season despite season-ending injuries to pass rushers Nick Bosa — the 2019 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year — and Dee Ford, as well as defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and Ezekiel Ansah. While San Francisco missed the playoffs, Saleh’s work with a banged-up and short-handed defense made him a popular candidate among the teams looking for a coach.

      “The @nyjets got a great one!” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted. “Congrats to them!”

      Saleh, the son of Lebanese parents, is the the second minority coach to be hired by the Jets in the last six years and first since Todd Bowles, who is Black, in 2015. He’s the fourth active minority coach in the NFL, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.

      Saleh, who first interviewed remotely with the Jets last Friday, also spoke with Detroit, Atlanta, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Chargers.

      New York pounced, though, after Douglas promised the team would “cast a very wide net” in its search. Both Johnson and Douglas spoke about finding a leader, a CEO-type of coach who would oversee the entire operation of the team and help re-establish a culture and identity for the franchise.

      The 20th coach in franchise history, Saleh beat out Smith, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, New Orleans defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn, former Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, and Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.

      Saleh is the sixth out of the past seven coaches hired by the Jets to not have previous full-time head coaching experience, with Gase being the exception. Bowles was Miami’s interim coach in 2011. Saleh is also the fourth former defensive coordinator to get the job among New York’s past five hires, with Gase again the only exception.

      With the Jets, Saleh will have plenty of work to do. New York hasn’t made the postseason since the 2010 season, the NFL’s longest active playoff drought with both Cleveland and Tampa Bay getting in this season.

      Saleh and Douglas will also have lots of questions to answer about the roster, none bigger than what the Jets should do at quarterback.

      Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status and regressed this season under Gase. New York currently holds the No. 2 pick in the draft and could opt to take a quarterback — perhaps Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson — and start fresh at the position. The Jets, who also have the No. 23 selection, could trade down to collect more picks. A lot will depend on who Saleh brings in as his offensive coordinator, and how they view Darnold against the quarterbacks coming out in the draft.

      Saleh could bring in 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, brother of Packers coach Matt LaFleur and Saleh's best man at his wedding, to run his offense.

      The Jets also have 20 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including several standouts on defense, with safety Marcus Maye, cornerback Brian Poole and linebackers Neville Hewitt and Tarell Basham among them.

      Saleh, from Dearborn, Michigan, began his coaching career in 2002 as a defensive assistant at Michigan State for two seasons, followed by stints at Central Michigan and Georgia. He joined the Houston Texans in 2005 as a defensive intern under Dom Capers and worked three seasons as a defensive quality control coach under Gary Kubiak before being promoted to assistant linebackers coach in 2009.

      Saleh joined Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle as a defensive quality control coach in 2011 before being hired by Gus Bradley in 2014 as Jacksonville’s linebackers coach. He spent three seasons with the Jaguars before joining the 49ers.

      “He makes sure there’s no gray area in terms of coaching and teaching,” San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner said last month. "There’s a lot of coaches out there who just coach. But he’s a great teacher.”

      ___

      AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      Browns' Bitonio 'pumped' for playoff debut after COVID-19
      By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer | 
      1/14/21

      CLEVELAND (AP) — Joel Bitonio's neighbors set off fireworks late Sunday night after the Browns stunned the Steelers in the wild-card game.

      The loud bangs signified something more for the Pro Bowl guard — a second chance.

      Cleveland's longest-tenured player, Bitonio was activated from the COVID-19 list Friday after missing last week’s win, and he'll finally make his long-awaited postseason debut Sunday as the Browns face the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.

      Stuck watching the Pittsburgh game from home because of the virus, Bitonio felt helpless. But the Browns came through to extend their season and to give the popular Bitonio, scarred from years of losing since coming to Cleveland in 2014, his playoff wish.

      “It was just really cool to see those guys step up and make plays,” Bitonio said Friday following his first practice in two weeks. "Obviously, I'm pumped to keep playing and ready to get after it this weekend.”

      After testing positive with COVID-19 — on the same day as Browns coach Kevin Stefanski — Bitonio isolated at home and participated in team meetings last week, but couldn't join his teammates for Cleveland's first postseason appearance since the 2002 season.

      It was a cruel development for Bitonio. But as he tried to stay calm while watching TV from a chair in his basement, his teammates, many of whom dedicated their performance last week to him, busted out to a jaw-dropping 28-0 lead and then held on 48-37 for Cleveland's first playoff win since 1994.

      Bitonio said he mostly kept it together, except for the game's first play when Pittsburgh's first snap rocketed over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's head and into the end zone. The Browns recovered it for a touchdown 14 seconds into the game.

      “I stood up for that one and made sure we got the recovery,” he said with a laugh. “It was more of a shock thing, like make sure there are no penalties and make sure everything is right.”

      When the game ended, his neighbors got to work.

      “They were outside of my house going crazy and lighting off fireworks,” he said. "My wife got some of the footage on video. It was pretty cool. It was just cool how I was kind of part of the celebration in the sense where you do not really get to experience that when you are playing in the games.”

      Pretty cool. That's how the Browns feel now about Bitonio being back.

      "Elated for Joel,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said on a Zoom call with local writers. “He’s been here his entire career. He has been a leader, consummate teammate, everything that you could really want out of a player.

      “We were all heartbroken when he wasn’t getting the opportunity to play in his first playoff game, so for us to be able to activate him today and for him to be able to take his place in the starting lineup this weekend against the Chiefs, it really does mean everything.”

      Bitonio was one of several Browns players and coaches to be sidelined over the past three weeks with the coronavirus. But top cornerback Denzel Ward came back Wednesday, Stefanski on Thursday and Bitonio and three assistant coaches on Friday.

      The Browns actually got to practice this week.

      Bitonio's return is a huge boost for Cleveland's solid offensive line, which has had to adjust numerous times over the past few weeks because of injuries and COVID-19.

      Last week, Michael Dunn, who barely played all season, started in Bitonio's spot and played well before suffering a season-ending calf injury. He was replaced by Blake Hance, who had just been signed off the New York Jets' practice squad and first met Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in the locker room before the game at Heinz Field.

      While Bitonio's return is a welcome development, the Browns have another worry as All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin is questionable for Sunday's game with a hamstring issue. He was limited in practice Friday, and Stefanski said it's too early to know if he'll play.

      Kendall Lamm came in when Conklin got hurt last week.

      “He's been a good player for us,” Stefanski said of Conklin. "Obviously, you want to go into the game with the full complement of your players. We will see how it shakes out.”

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      Tight games this weekend, with one upset projected
      By BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer | 
      1/14/21

      Aaron, meet Aaron. And Aaron.

      Aaron Donald, the unanimous All-Pro defensive tackle who owns a couple of Defensive Player of the Year awards, certainly hopes to meet fellow All-Pro Aaron Rodgers on Saturday — in the Packers' backfield. Donald hopes to put the star quarterback on the ground a few times, too.

      Same for when Green Bay running back Aaron Jones comes in the vicinity of the Los Angeles Rams' dynamic D-lineman.

      For the Rams to have a strong chance of advancing to the NFC championship game, they need Donald and the top-rated defense he anchors to, well, sink the Pack.

      “He’s a special, special player,” Rodgers says. “Obviously a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Impact player every single year, a guy that you have to game-plan for, have to be aware of where he’s at at all times, and just one of those special talents that we haven’t seen a whole lot of in this game in the history of the game. A lot of credit to him, the way he takes care of himself, his motor and he’s somebody that you gotta be worried about.”

      Naturally, the Rams should be worried about Rodgers and a four-pronged offense featuring the versatile Jones, All-Pro receiver Davante Adams in the midst of a career season, and breakout tight end Robert Tonyan. The LA offense also hasn't been special. Jared Goff will start at quarterback with John Wolford inactive one week after incurring a neck injury against Seattle.

      Los Angeles is a 7 1-2-point underdog at Green Bay. With about 6,500 fans in attendance, the home-field advantage will be less than it is normally, but frigid Lambeau for a team from SoCal? It will be close, but ...

      PACKERS, 23-19

      KNOCKOUT POOL: For those with all options open, go with KANSAS CITY. But don't expect a rout.

      Baltimore (plus 3 1-2) at Buffalo, Saturday

      John Harbaugh has a pretty amazing NFL record: eight road playoff victories. He snapped a tie with Hall of Famer Tom Landry and Tom Coughlin when the Ravens won at Tennessee.

      This is a much bigger challenge. Buffalo has won seven straight, has a far better defense than the Titans, and a more dangerous passing attack. The Bills' win against Indianapolis was tight, but also had to be a huge confidence boost for a franchise that last advanced in the playoffs in 1995.

      Of course, the performance by Lamar Jackson in his first postseason win after two defeats, and Baltimore's defense shutting down 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry, bodes well for the Ravens.

      Just not quite well enough.

      BUFFALO, 26-24

      Cleveland (plus 10) at Kansas City, Sunday

      Another team with a swell of confidence has to be the Browns. That they mauled the self-destructing Steelers should be taken into account, but that offense was impressive, and the defense was a takeaway machine.

      One trouble for Cleveland is that the D showed some real vulnerability after building the big lead at Pittsburgh. Sure, the Browns were able to get conservative, but don't try that against Patrick Mahomes and the reigning champions.

      KC has been idle since the regular-season finale, when several important regulars were rested. So rustiness is a consideration. Losing probably isn't, but this spread is too wide.

      BEST BET: CHIEFS, 30-24

      Tampa Bay (plus 3 1-2) at New Orleans, Sunday

      Old-timers day at the Superdome. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are a collective 85 years old. They also are headed to Canton five years after they retire — if they ever do — and will take lots of records with them.

      The Saints won both meetings between these NFC South rivals during the regular season. The team that swept the regular-season series has won 14 of the previous 22 matchups. And New Orleans was the previous team in such a situation, achieving the sweep by beating Carolina 31-26 in the wild-card round after sweeping the Panthers in the 2017 regular season.

      We don't have to pick an upset, but we're not going against TB12.

      UPSET SPECIAL: BUCCANEERS, 24-23

      ___

      2020 RECORD

      Last Week: Straight up: 3-3. Against spread: 5-1

      Season: Straight up: 172-88-1. Against spread: 129-114-8

      Best Bet: Straight up: 13-5. Against spread: 9-9

      Upset Special: Straight up: 7-10. Against spread: 7-8-2

      ___

      AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed.

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

      Meyer believes Jacksonville 'is the place' he can win in NFL
      By MARK LONG, AP Pro Football Writer | 
      1/14/21

      JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Urban Meyer first started thinking about the NFL about a decade ago.

      He was getting phone calls from team owners. He was intrigued by the notion of testing his coaching skills at football’s highest level. He was ready to make the jump.

      But he put it off time and time again, waiting for a situation that “had to be perfect.”

      He feels as if Jacksonville has everything he needs to make the move successful: an opportunity to land a franchise quarterback, a chance to mold the league’s youngest roster and the financial support to provide players with the “best of the best.”

      The Jaguars formally and virtually introduced Meyer on Friday, with the three-time national championship-winning coach saying, “I believe this is the place.”

      “I’m not going to jump into a situation where I don’t believe we can win,” said Meyer, who won titles at Florida (2006, '08) and Ohio State (2014). “I won’t do that.”

      Here’s a rundown of Meyer’s first news conference with Jacksonville:

      — Meyer plans to monitor his health, which was instrumental in him walking away from Florida and Ohio State. He stepped down at Ohio State in 2018 mostly because of a congenital arachnoid cyst in his brain, which required surgery in 2014 and bothered him throughout his final season with the Buckeyes.

      “I’m not going to be running around like a nut on the practice field,” he said. “Those days are gone. I know what it’s supposed to look like and I want to be very demanding of everyone. It’s something I’m going to watch very closely. ... I had that surgery in 2014 that really helped things. But it’s just something that I watch very closely.”

      — Meyer insisted he won’t coach at the college level again. Not at Texas. Not at Notre Dame. Not anywhere, ever.

      “The times are changing. College football is different now,” he said. “The days of coaching the way you did back when I was at Bowling Green or when I was an assistant coach, I mean, the whole country has changed. Everything has changed, so you have to adapt. Those who adapt have success and those who don’t, fail.”

      — Meyer declined to say which quarterback he will draft with the No. 1 pick in April. He mentioned Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson as options.

      “This is a monumental moment for this franchise and we’ve seen some franchises explode and we’ve seen others fail,” Meyer said. “I’ve said this many times throughout my career: When the NFL says it’s a quarterback league, I would say well so is college and so is high school and so is Pop Warner. It’s a quarterback sport. ...

      “Who we pick at that quarterback spot, that’s going to be one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my lifetime, along with the partnership of our owner and general manager. ... I see some elite quarterbacks out there right now.”

      — Owner Shad Khan is switching to a coach-centric model that will mean Meyer could have as much input, or more, as the general manager.

      “The head coach really has to lead the kind of players he wants, the kind of team we need to be,” said Khan, who added the next GM could be announced in the next week or so. “And the general manager, myself, we have to support that vision. Somehow, someway that had been lost, and the idea here is really more about transparency, collaboration, teamwork and accountability.”

      — Meyer clearly has a vision to upgrade Jacksonville's football facilities. The Jaguars are one of the few NFL teams remaining that practice at their stadium. They don’t have traditional offices, much room to expand or any of the elaborate amenities others enjoy.

      “People who work for me, with me, they all hear a statement of ‘It this the best of the best?’ And if it’s not, then the question is, ‘Well, why?’ That’s the same thing that I’m doing every time I walk through everywhere. We did that at Ohio State. We did that at Florida. ‘Is this the very best?’ And if it’s not, especially when you start talking about player welfare and safety and just the players, let’s have a chat and do what’s very best.

      “The Jacksonville players are going to get pushed. They’re going to get pushed. In return, we give them the very best. That includes the coaching staff.”

      — Meyer also vowed not to raid Ohio State’s current coaching staff.

      “I won’t do that,” he said. “Does that mean there might be one? Maybe. I’m not there yet. ... I’m not going to do that to that organization. And I’m not sure they would go. Ohio State is home to those guys now.”

      ___

      More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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