By JOSH DUBOW, BOB BAUM, SCHUYLER DIXON, JOSH DUBOW, ANDREW SELIGMAN, TIM BOOTH
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 8, 2018
SANTA CLARA, CALIF. GLENDALE, ARIZ. ARLINGTON, TEX. OAKLAND CHICAGO SEATTLE -- BRONCOS AT 49ERS When Kyle Shanahan was up for a head coaching job in the NFL two offseasons ago, he had one of his interviews in a very familiar place.
Shanahan met with Denver general manager John Elway for about four hours to interview for a job his dad, Mike, held for 14 seasons, helping Elway and the Broncos win a pair of Super Bowl titles.
Elway ended up giving the job to Vance Joseph in 2017, and Shanahan got hired by the San Francisco 49ers instead in what he believes is a better spot to make his imprint.
"I'd like to say I made the decision pretty hard on them. I'd like to think that," Shanahan said. "I didn't think I had much chance before. I definitely am happy where I am and I think it's definitely a better situation not being there with my dad. Also, that's my wife's home. That's my home. I enjoy going back there to visit, but I like living where I'm at."
Shanahan now gets the chance to coach against the franchise he spent so much time around as a kid when the 49ers (2-10) host the Broncos (6-6) on Sunday.
Shanahan has plenty of memories from his time in Denver, especially being the "cord boy" in Denver's 1998 Super Bowl win over Green Bay when he held the cords for his father on the sideline.
"After that Green Bay Super Bowl, they went wireless the next year," Shanahan said. "I think they only won one more because they didn't have as good of a cord-holder, is what I always tell my dad."
The 49ers are closing in on a record for ineptitude when it comes to causing turnovers. Their five takeaways through 12 games are the fewest ever at this point in the season, lowering the previous mark of seven by Jacksonville in 2016.
San Francisco needs six takeaways in the final four games to avoid setting the mark of 11 for fewest ever in a non-strike season, last done by Chicago in 2016.
LIONS AT CARDINALS Two first-year head coaches will be on the sidelines when the Detroit Lions meet the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, and both have had a rough season.
"Yeah, your first year you're going to have struggles," Detroit defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. "If you don't, you lucked up."
Most of the luck for these teams has been bad.
Matt Patricia's Lions (4-8) have lost five out of six.
Steve Wilks's Cardinals (3-9), though, are coming off the best performance of what's been a miserable season: a surprising 20-17 victory over the Packers in Green Bay.
But the Cardinals have been decimated by injuries. When left tackle D.J. Humphries and wide receiver Christian Kirk went down this week, that left 14 Arizona players on injured reserve, six of them offensive linemen.
"We've got guys who weren't on the team a week ago that are out there starting and playing," said receiver Larry Fitzgerald in his 15th season with the Cardinals. "We're not making excuses. We're paid to do a job. Whoever is lined up, doesn't matter where they're from, what their number is, whoever those 11 are on the field, we're going to do our best."
The Lions, who also don't have a lot to play for as far as standings go, echoed that theme.
"It's all about confidence," defensive tackle Damon (Snacks) Harrison said. "If a guy can gain some confidence from some wins, it's hard to gain confidence when you're losing. Just stay in it and be able to go into the off-season on a good note."
Detroit is 0-3 against the NFC West this season and has lost eight in a row at Arizona. Here is something to consider when the Cardinals host the Lions: Only one player from the offensive line remains for Arizona, rookie centre Mason Cole. And he became a starter only because A.Q. Shipley blew out his knee in preseason.
EAGLES AT COWBOYS Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys saved their season with a win in Philadelphia a month ago.
Carson Wentz and the Eagles will try to do the same in Texas - something the defending champs have been facing for three straight weeks following a blowout loss to New Orleans a week after falling to their NFC East rivals.
While Eagles coach Doug Pederson isn't big on the word "desperation" coming off his team's first back-to-back wins this season, he isn't dodging the significance of Sunday at AT&T Stadium, where the division lead will be on the line for the second time in three games.
On Thanksgiving Day, Dallas beat Washington to pull even with the Redskins . Now the Cowboys (7-5) have a chance for a fifth straight win that would all but eliminate the Eagles (6-6), and make things difficult for Washington as well.
"Every game for us is definitely a must win," Pederson said. "I think every game for them is a must win. Both of us are trying to accomplish the same goal. We've just got to get ourselves ready to go."
The Cowboys were in danger of losing touch with the playoff race when they visited the Eagles in early November.
The debut of new No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper, acquired in a trade, had been ruined in a loss to Tennessee. The offence had been struggling for the equivalent of a full season going back to 2017.
Including that 27-20 win to start a four-game surge, the offensive average is up almost 50 yards per game, Prescott's efficiency at quarterback has also significantly improved and there's little doubt that Cooper's impact has influenced both of those developments.
While the scoring hasn't spiked as much because of the surprising defensive struggle against the high-scoring Saints, the 13-10 win that ended New Orleans' 10-game winning streak was the signature moment for a defence that's been carrying the Cowboys all season.
STEELERS AT RAIDERS The Oakland Coliseum has been a bit of a house of horrors for Ben Roethlisberger in his career.
While Big Ben has had success almost everywhere he has played, he's still looking for his first career win in Oakland after losing on his three previous trips to Raiders teams that combined for just 10 wins in those three seasons.
Roethlisberger gets what will likely be his final chance to win in Oakland on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1) look to snap a two-game losing streak when they visit the struggling Raiders (210).
"Well that's what makes it fun, right?" Roethlisberger said. "You asked me about the venues, the fans, and all those things. It's not an easy place to play. What an awesome challenge for us."
The Raiders are the only AFC opponent Roethlisberger hasn't beaten on the road since entering the league in 2004.
Roethlisberger's first trip to Oakland came in 2006 as defending Super Bowl champion, and he threw four interceptions including two returned for touchdowns in a 20-13 loss to a Raiders team that finished that season with two wins.
Roethlisberger returned to the Bay Area in 2012 and 13 against Oakland teams that finished 4-12. He played better in those games, but still ended up on the short end, losing 34-31 in 2012 on a last-second field goal by Sebastian Janikowski, and 21-18 the following year thanks in part to a 93-yard run on the opening play by Terrelle Pryor.
Now he gets to face another down Oakland squad that at least showed some signs of life last week in a 40-33 home loss to AFC-leading Kansas City that got Roethlisberger's attention.
"You see what they did last week against of one of the best teams in football and fought them all the way to the end, so we can't worry about records," he said. "I've never won there, so that becomes a challenge as well." RAMS AT BEARS With a second straight division title in hand, Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams would love to grab a few more prizes. Another one is there for the taking.
The NFC West champion Rams look to clinch a first-round playoff bye when they visit the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears in a prime-time matchup on Sunday.
"You obviously want to win as many games as you can," Goff said. "But if you do, it will lead to those types of rewards and the first one we've done is win the division. Hopefully we can win a few more now or however many it takes to get the first-round bye and hopefully work toward the first seed."
The Rams (11-1) clinched their second straight division championship and became the first team to secure a playoff spot with their 30-16 victory at Detroit last week. It's quite an accomplishment for a franchise that endured 13 seasons without a winning record after capturing the NFC West in 2003.
It's the first division repeat for the Rams since a run of seven straight first-place finishes ended in 1979. And besides securing a first-round bye on Sunday, Los Angeles has a chance to move closer to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, with a one-game lead over New Orleans, which has beaten the Rams.
Chicago (8-4) won five straight prior to a wild overtime loss at the New York Giants last week. The Bears wiped out a 10-point deficit in the final 1:13 of regulation, only to lose when Janoris Jenkins knocked away a deep pass by Chase Daniel after Aldrick Rosas kicked a 44-yard field goal.
Daniels likely won't be at quarterback this week.
Mitchell Trubisky expects to return after missing the past two games because of a right shoulder injury.
Todd Gurley is already the NFL's leading rusher and its top-scoring non-kicker with 19 touchdowns, but the Rams might need to rely on their superstar running back even more than usual. His backup, Malcolm Brown, is out for the season after injuring his collarbone last week. Depth running backs Justin Davis and John Kelly have little regular-season experience, but both seem confident in their ability to contribute.
VIKINGS AT SEAHAWKS With where both the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks sit in the NFC standings, Monday night's matchup might as well carry a playoff title.
NFC play-in game? NFC elimination game?
"I think going on the road with that crowd and the type of football team that they are, I think yeah, a little bit. These next four games will determine what we do and where we go and how we perform in the clutch. Yeah, I guess you could say that," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
The Seahawks (7-5) host the Vikings (6-5-1) in a meeting filled with playoff implications. The Seahawks won't be able to catch the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West, but their three-game win streak has them sitting in the No. 5 spot in the NFC playoff picture going into the final quarter of the season, with three of their final four games at home.
It's far from a foregone conclusion that Seattle is headed to the postseason after missing the playoffs last year. But a win over the Vikings would be a huge step in locking up a playoff berth.
"Keeping your head down and grinding is really what it's all about at this point," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "We're upbeat and we're positive. We know that we can win every game and we're going out to get that done."
If the Vikings want a chance at catching Chicago in the NFC North race, a win in Seattle is almost a must. Far easier said than done, especially when it comes to night games. Seattle is 15-2 at home in Thursday, Sunday or Monday night games dating to Carroll's arrival in 2010.
Minnesota is currently in the No. 6 spot in the NFC and its tie earlier this season against Green Bay could end up being a hindrance - or a benefit. The Vikings are a half-game ahead of Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina entering the week.
Photos by The Associated Press and Getty Images
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff
Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer