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Wilks 'disappointed, not defeated' over Panthers snub

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Former Carolina Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks is “disappointed, but not defeated” that he didn’t land the team’s full-time head coaching position.

The Panthers announced on Thursday they've agreed to hire Frank Reich as their new head coach.

“The sun rose this morning and by the grace of God so did I,” Wilks said in Tweet Friday. “Many people aren’t built for this but I know what it means to persevere and see it through.”

Wilks thanked players, coaches, and staff for their dedication, saying that he took pride in representing his hometown of Charlotte.

Wilks added “I do wish Frank Reich the best.”

Wilks' Tweet came less than 24 hours after his attorney Douglas Wigdor blasted the Panthers for their decision not to hire Wilks, who went 6-6 as Carolina's interim coach in 2022 after replacing the fired Matt Rhule in Week 6.

The Panthers interviewed Wilks, who is Black, twice for the position before settling on Reich, who is white.

“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper,” Wigdor said in an email. "There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”

The Associated Press reached out to Wigdor's office Friday to see if it planned more legal action.

“We do not have another comment at this time other than what we posted,” spokeswoman Courtney Cormican said.

The Panthers said the team will have their first public remarks when Reich is introduced at a press conference on Tuesday.

Wilks made no mention in his Tweet of whether the Panthers will be added to an ongoing lawsuit alleging racial hiring practices by the NFL and some teams. Nearly a year ago, Wilks joined Brian Flores' lawsuit in an effort to bring attention to the lack of Black head coaches in the NFL.

“When Coach Flores filed this action, I knew I owed it to myself, and to all Black NFL coaches and aspiring coaches, to stand with him,” Wilks said in a statement through his attorney last February. “This lawsuit has shed further important light on a problem that we all know exists, but that too few are willing to confront. Black coaches and candidates should have exactly the same ability to become employed, and remain employed, as white coaches and candidates.”

Several Panthers players said after the regular season ended they wanted Wilks to return in 2023, including longtime linebacker Shaq Thompson. Thompson suggested players wanted to have a meeting with Tepper to give player input on the coaching situation, and throw their support behind Wilks.

It's unclear if that meeting happened.

Wilks' future remains unclear. The NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons have reportedly expressed interest in bringing Wilks in as their new defensive coordinator.

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4 of NFL's best TEs on display in conference title games

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — When Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes headed up the tunnel inside Arrowhead Stadium to have X-rays taken on his sprained right ankle, and Chad Henne trotted onto the field in the second quarter of their divisional playoff game against Jacksonville, it was obvious who the backup quarterback was going to target.

Not that the Jaguars could do anything about it.

Henne's first throw went to Travis Kelce. So did another. And another. And by the time the Chiefs were on the doorstep of the end zone, it was the All-Pro tight end whose short touchdown grab finished off a 98-yard scoring drive.

In that respect, Kelce was like a big, comfy security blanket for the Chiefs, who went on to win 27-20 and advance into a Sunday night rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC title. Kelce finished with 14 catches, one off the NFL playoff record, and along the way continued his run on career statistical charts too numerous to count.

“Every time I step up here,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said afterward, “I feel like he breaks another record.”

Kelce isn't the only standout tight end in the conference championships, though. The Bengals feature Hayden Hurst in their high-flying attack, and the 49ers' George Kittle and the Eagles' Dallas Goedert will square off in the NFC title game.

But it's been Kelce who, over the past decade, has continued to revolutionize the position.

He is athletic enough to beat one-on-one coverage. Crafty enough to find holes in zones. And while the 33-year-old is a little bit older and perhaps a tad bit slower these days, he's also a whole lot wiser, and his uncanny rapport with Mahomes — and Henne, apparently — makes him a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators

“It's like Travis knows exactly where Patrick is, what he's going to do when he scrambles to his right or his left,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who sees enough of him in training camp and practice.

“To me, that's the most amazing thing," Spagnuolo said. "How they get that, I'll never know.”

Each of the tight ends playing Sunday brings something unique to their teams.

Hurst keeps defensive backfields from focusing entirely on Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, thus taking some of the pressure off one of the best trios of wide receivers in the game. He had four catches for 45 yards in the wild-card round against Baltimore before catching five passes for 59 yards and a score in the divisional round against Buffalo.

Goedert brings a certain physical attitude to the potent Philadelphia offense. Or, as Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts put it, when he's on the field “he’s trying to punish somebody. He’s not trying to spare no man.”

Take their divisional win over the Giants. Hurts threw to his 6-foot-5, 256-pound tight end on the game's third play, and Goedert proceeded to plant New York cornerback Adoree' Jackson with a stiff arm, helping to set the tone for the rest of the night. Goedert finished the drive with a touchdown catch to kick off the 38-7 rout.

“He's tough to tackle. He is really tough to tackle,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “I wouldn't want to tackle him.”

His counterpart in San Francisco is equally tough to tackle, though not because Kittle bulldozers defenders so much as he makes them miss. Kittle did that on five catches for 95 yards in their divisional win over the Cowboys.

The tone the ever-smiling Kittle sets for his team? One of loose, unbridled joy.

“Times we sort of feel uptight and whatnot, Kittle is like, the guy to put a smile on your face and say, ‘Hey, we’re good enough,' that kind of thing,” 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy said. “He does bring energy and good vibes to everyone, and honestly, I do feel like he gets us back into the zone of playing well.

"So that’s what he does, and I think he’s the best in the NFL with just his personality and everything like that, too.”

Kelce is playing in his fifth consecutive AFC title game. Hurst made the playoffs earlier in his career in Baltimore. Goedert is in the postseason for the fourth time while Kittle is playing in his third conference title game in four years.

That's four of the game's best tight ends, all trying to reach the Super Bowl this Sunday.

“It's what you dreamt about since you were a kid,” Kittle said. “It's what you dream about when you’re in high school and college. You dream about it when you’re in the NFL. You dream about situations like this. Whether it’s a hunger, starvation or desperation, you do everything you can to make sure at the end of the game you can win it.”

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AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow in San Francisco and AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL



Analysis: Nick Sirianni won over fans who didn't want him

Nick Sirianni is getting his flowers figuratively instead of thrown at his face.

The chest-bumping, sideline-prancing, expletive-tossing head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles has won over a tough city that questioned his credentials and mocked his introductory news conference when he was hired two years ago.

Sirianni has the Eagles in the NFC championship game and now he’s becoming more popular than Rocky Balboa in the city of cheesesteaks and Liberty Bell.

The Eagles (15-3) will host the San Francisco 49ers (15-4) on Sunday with a chance to reach the Super Bowl for the fourth time in franchise history and second time in six seasons.

Sirianni is leading the way with his swagger and an offensive system labeled “unstoppable” by CBS analyst Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback.

Things didn’t start out so well for Sirianni, however.

He made a poor first impression on people more concerned with style than substance. Sirianni came across as nervous, rambling and overmatched in a video conference. The former offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts wasn’t used to a media contingent like the one that greeted him in Philadelphia. Also, the video setup made it difficult for him to be comfortable because he didn’t see the reporters asking the questions.

Philly, as it’s known to do, piled on unfairly.

Sirianni, who isn’t afraid to admit mistakes, was ticked about his performance. He told players in his first full team meeting that he messed up and had to do better. It set the tone for a team goal to see daily improvement from the coaching staff and the players.

Still, the worst moment came later in his first season.

After the Eagles started 2-5, Sirianni used a flower analogy that sent Philly into a frenzy and had some fans and media calling for his job.

“This is what I said to the team. ... the results aren’t there right now, but what’s going on here is that there’s growth under the soil,” Sirianni said on Oct. 27, 2021. “I put a picture of a flower up, and it’s coming through the ground, and the roots are growing out. The roots are continuing to grow out. Everybody wants to see results. Shoot, nobody wants to see results more than us, right? We want to see results, too.

“But it’s really important that the foundation is being built and that the roots are growing out. And the only way the roots grow out every single day and they grow stronger and they grow better is if we all water, we all fertilize, we all do our part, each individual, each individual coach, each individual player, everybody in the building, that we do our part to water to make sure that, when it does pop out, it really pops out and it grows. ... But just keep doing what we’re doing, keep watering, and look at yourself first and know are you watering and are you fertilizing every day? So, when it’s time to pop, it will pop.”

The Eagles beat the Lions on the road in their next game but lost at home to the Chargers on Nov. 7, 2021. As Sirianni was leaving the field after that loss, a fan threw a bouquet of flowers at him. He stopped, looked up and said a few words before being escorted under the tunnel.

The Eagles went 6-2 the rest of the way and earned a wild-card berth. They were blown out by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs but opened this season 8-0 and were 13-1 before Jalen Hurts missed two games with a shoulder injury.

Sirianni has helped develop Hurts into a finalist for AP NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. He’s designed an offense that can dominate opponents on the ground or in the air.

And, Sirianni is still talking. From cursing at officials to screaming at opposing coaches to loving on his players, Sirianni is a quote machine. He compared Hurts to Michael Jordan after the Eagles whipped the New York Giants 38-7 in the divisional round.

The Eagles have responded to Sirianni’s “dawg mentality” and blossomed into championship contenders.

As for those fickle Philly fans, they’re angry he wasn’t a finalist for AP NFL Coach of the Year. They’ve got his back now. Well, until he loses or mentions gardening again.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi

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Eagles, 49ers ride QBs Hurts, Purdy to brink of Super bowl

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The late-game meltdowns stick in San Francisco.

Take the Super Bowl against Kansas City following the 2019 season. The 49ers became the third team in Super Bowl history to cough up a 10-point lead in the second half and lost to the Chiefs. Or last season’s NFC title game, when a 17-7 lead unraveled because of a dropped interception, a conservative fourth-down call and an interception on the final drive. Winner, Rams.

Another blown opportunity at a championship that's hard to forget.

“As you go back to last year, we were a couple of plays away from making it to the Super Bowl again,” wide receiver Deebo Samuel said. “What’s it really going to take for us to get there? We just have to minimize the mistakes and everybody has to be on their assignments."

Near perfection.

That’s a pretty heady task for any team, much less one headed into Philadelphia, where the cold, an MVP finalist and the top-seeded team in the NFC await. It’s going to get crazy loud — or is it crazy and loud? — at Lincoln Financial Field.

The 49ers say they’re ready. They have won 12 straight games, including seven in a row since rookie Brock Purdy, a seventh-round draft pick, took over at quarterback after Jimmy Garoppolo was injured.

The second-seeded 49ers have been on the brink of adding a sixth Super Bowl for years, and their appearance Sunday in the NFC championship game is their third in four seasons. The Eagles may not have been a preseason favorite to get here, but a series of bold moves — notably the acquisitions of wide receiver A.J. Brown, linebacker Haason Reddick, cornerback James Bradberry and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson — have turned them into a team with a Super Bowl-or-bust outlook.

Want near perfection? The Eagles know something about that in Pro Bowl QB Jalen Hurts’ starts, with a 14-1 record in the regular season and last week’s playoff victory against the New York Giants. Hurts is playing through the lingering effects of a sprained right shoulder that cost him two games. He is putting in overtime ahead of his biggest test of the season against the 49ers’ No. 1-ranked defense.

“It’s in his DNA to be here at all times working on his craft,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “Whether that’s in the weight room, whether that’s in the training room, whether that’s in the film room, this guy is obsessed with getting better.”

Hurts had some doubters that he was the real-deal franchise QB headed into training camp. He wiped out any concerns pretty much after the opening-week win against Detroit and kept piling up big numbers and wins to the point where he was an NFL MVP finalist.

All that’s keeping Hurts from a Super Bowl, the Eagles' second in six seasons, is the last pick of the draft.

Maybe it’s more than just Purdy’s play — he's had a meteoric rise this season from “ Mr. Irrelevant ” to undefeated rookie QB in the NFC title game — that helps the 49ers. He has no memory of the Super Bowl collapse. He played no role in the debacle against the Rams.

Purdy just knows how to win.

“He has a natural ability to play the position and that’s why he’s fun to coach because when he does make mistakes and do things, he can see it, he can know why, we can see it and we can all understand it,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.

He gives them a chance, one reason the oddsmakers list the 49ers as just 2 1/2-point underdogs, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

SILENT COUNT

Purdy hasn’t had much experience playing in a hostile environment during his brief NFL career with only two road starts. The first one at notoriously loud Seattle should have provided a good test for what Purdy will face Sunday in Philadelphia. Purdy got experience that week using the silent count, which Shanahan told him at the time would be beneficial in the future.

“He did say it was good preparation for what we might have to play in terms of the playoffs, going on the road for road games and obviously Philadelphia,” Purdy said. “In these kind of games, it’s all about communication. How can you operate smoothly, get in and out of the huddle, get the play off the right way, make sure everyone is on the same page. So that’s definitely a big emphasis this week.”

SLOWING HURTS

The 49ers' aggressive defense hasn’t had many chances against mobile quarterbacks this season, with only six teams facing fewer run attempts by QBs than the 50 against San Francisco. That figures to change against Hurts and the Eagles, who use designed quarterback runs and scrambles as a big part of their offense. Hurts rushed for 760 yards and 13 TDs this season.

“Any time you’re facing a quarterback that has that type of ability, you just got to be on your assignments for a full 60 minutes, which is way easier said than done,” All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said. “There’s times in a game where you might be part of a long drive, guys get tired and all of a sudden the first thing that goes is your mind and you forget where you might need to fit in a certain play. It’s all about being detailed and everybody swarming to the ball if and when he does (run).”

CLOSING TIME

The Niners have had great success ending the first half on a high note since Purdy took over. In the eight games since he stepped in, San Francisco has scored four TDs and two field goals for a league-best 34 points in the final 2 minutes of the first half. The Eagles have allowed only three points in the final 2 minutes of the first half in their last eight games.

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AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow in Santa Clara, California, contributed to this report.

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Bengals return to Kansas City for another AFC title game

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have lost three straight games to the Cincinnati Bengals, including last year’s AFC title game, when they blew an early 21-3 lead in an overtime defeat before a sea of stunned fans inside Arrowhead Stadium.

Patrick Mahomes, who expects to lead the Chiefs against the Bengals on a sprained right ankle in Sunday night's rematch, is likewise winless against Bengals counterpart Joe Burrow, the only quarterback to have beaten him three straight times.

In other words, there's a reason the AFC North champions are imbued with a certain degree of confidence as they return to Kansas City, where the burgeoning rivals will once again determine who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl.

“Your preparation leads to confidence. That’s just what you see from Joe and all of our players,” explained the even-keeled Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who has somehow out-schemed, out-coached and gotten his team to out-execute Andy Reid and his Chiefs over the past 13 months. “So when they walk on the field on Sunday, they’re relaxed.”

In fact, the Bengals are so confident that some have taken to calling the Chiefs’ home “Burrowhead Stadium.”

Which, as you can imagine, doesn’t sit well with the AFC West champs.

“I’m sure a lot of guys are aware of the comments they’re making,” Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster admitted. "The Bengals have always been the rah-rah team, and they back it up. And they’re doing so again in the postseason.”

Yet it’s not as if the Bengals, who roared past the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round, have dominated the Chiefs, who took care of the Jacksonville Jaguars despite losing Mahomes for most of a quarter following his injury.

All three of their meetings have been decided by just three points each.

“We know what team we’re playing, a team that has been to this game the last five seasons, and they’ve all been in that stadium,” Burrow said. “So to me, they’re still the team to beat and we’re coming for them, but we know it’s going to be tough. We know it’s going to be hard-fought, and we know the kind of players they have on that side.”

Their matchup in last year's title game was a classic. Mahomes threw three first-half touchdown passes, then Burrow led a dramatic comeback for Cincinnati. And when the Chiefs' Harrison Butker kicked a 41-yard field goal with no time left to send the game to overtime, the Bengals quickly picked off Mahomes to set up Evan McPherson's winning kick.

“Listen, they probably should be confident. They've won three games,” said Reid, who is trying to guide Kansas City back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons. “That's OK. We're still going to play the game.”

Besides, the Chiefs have a quiet confidence about them, too.

“I would say they know us. We know them. And we’re all searching for that little extra that you can throw at them,” Reid said. “We’ve played each other enough that I’m sure both sides feel the same way.”

MAHOMES ON THE MEND

The Chiefs' All-Pro quarterback practiced as usual this week, and Mahomes' ailing right ankle did not appear more heavily taped than the left. His ability to scramble is a big part of his game, though, particularly when it comes to finding time to make off-schedule throws, and any hesitation could be costly for Kansas City's offense.

“It's about being a competitor,” Mahomes said this week. “You want to be out there, especially in these games.”

RECHARGED RUN GAME

The Bengals often struggled to run the ball this season, but Joe Mixon dominated the Bills last week, despite an offensive line forced to use a trio of backups because of injuries. He finished with 105 yards rushing and a touchdown.

“That’s nothing I’m surprised about,” Mixon said. “At the same time it’s a great thing to be able to contribute in a major way with my teammates in a crucial moment. So as the moments get bigger, I’ve just got to keep elevating my game.”

SPEAKING OF RUNNING

Whatever the limitations on Mahomes because of his ankle, the Chiefs will almost certainly try to help him out by getting their run game going. Isiah Pacheco had 95 yards on just 12 carries last week, and the bulk of that came during a 12-play, 98-yard drive when Mahomes was getting examined and backup Chad Henne was in the game.

QUICK RELEASE

A big part of Burrow's success is getting the ball out quickly, before pass rushers can find a lane and defenders can process what’s happening. His release time averaged about 2 1/2 seconds last week and the Bills sacked him just once.

“We can't let him sit back in the pocket and get into rhythm throws because that's when he's most dangerous,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “You're not going to win games if you don't get sacks and turnovers, especially against a team like this.”

INTRIGUING MATCHUPS

The Bengals have one of the league's best groups of wide receivers, headlined by Ja'Marr Chase, who set the franchise's single-game record with 266 yards receiving in a regular-season win over Kansas City last season.

They'll be facing one of the youngest defensive backfields, which often has three rookie corners and a rookie safety on the field at once.

“Hopefully we've grown enough that we can match what they put out there,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “This is an elite group we're going against. We have to have an elite game. We have to play our best game of the year.”

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AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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Final 4 NFL teams all feature offensive-minded head coaches

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Chris Foerster had spent nearly two decades as an assistant in the NFL when he first crossed paths with Kyle Shanahan long before he became one of the NFL's most-accomplished play-callers.

Shanahan was in his third year as an offensive coordinator in the NFL when Foerster joined head coach Mike Shanahan's staff in Washington as offensive line coach in 2010 and immediately was impressed by the knowledge, creativity and teaching ability of the precocious Shanahan.

That only grew during their four years together in Washington and the past four in San Francisco where Foerster has been an assistant on Shanahan's staff.

“I’ve been amazed since I’ve worked with him and I don’t stop doing that,” Foerster said. "It’s just how he does it and it’s just his grasp on what he’s doing.”

Shanahan's success in San Francisco overseeing productive offenses without elite quarterback play is a reason why so many teams each January are seeking the next trendy, play-calling offensive coach to take over their teams.

All four head coaches in the conference championship games come from an offensive background with Kansas City's Andy Reid and Cincinnati's Zac Taylor also calling plays like Shanahan, while Philadelphia's Nick Sirianni delegated that duty during his first season.

“Plays are just plays,” Shanahan said. “It’s how you tie them together, how you hide them, how you do things off of them and it’s how you coach them.”

Few do it better than Shanahan and Reid, whose influence on modern offenses runs deep with nearly half the teams in the NFL running offenses inspired by those two coaching philosophies.

Shanahan's offense is based on the running game, with his commitment to sticking with the ground game leading to opportunities with play-action passes downfield.

“He’s not just copying plays from other people,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "He has that very creative mind and he’s always putting his players in position to make plays. That’s what sets him apart from all the other coordinators in the league.”

The Niners use frequent motion and different formations to disguise their intentions and Shanahan has created a nearly position-less offense that allows him to move playmakers such as Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk all over the field to create mismatches.

“He pays attention to detail on every little thing,” 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy said. “He’s the one that’s installing the plays every single day, which is pretty cool to have your head ball coach be the one that teaches you what you’re running.”

Shanahan built on the offense his father ran during two Super Bowl runs in Denver in the 1990s and has evolved it to the modern game.

He has built an encyclopedic knowledge of his system that allows him to pull plays from his past and tailor them to his current team.

Foerster also said Shanahan has the uncanny ability during a game to see how a defense is playing the Niners and will pull out a play they didn't even practice that week.

That has led to several big plays already this season.

“He’s just looking, where’s that dagger,” Foerster said. “Where’s that play that I think will really get them on this one?”

Reid's approach is a little different, relying much more on the passing game over his career with an offense that has hit a peak ever since Patrick Mahomes took over as QB in Kansas City.

Reid also likes to pull out some gadget plays — whether it was a play from the 1949 Rose Bowl he used against San Francisco in the Super Bowl three years ago or the “ ring-around-the-rosie” Snow Globe play against the Raiders in Week 18.

“You do (want to make it fun), but you want to score, too,” Reid said. “It’s not fun when you’re not doing that.”

The Chiefs have done plenty of that since Mahomes took over in 2018, averaging a league-best 30.1 points per game in that span — 3.6 more points per game than No. 2 Tampa Bay in a gap that's bigger than the one between the Buccaneers and the 16th-place team.

“When you got Coach Reid, he can get anyone (open)," tight end Travis Kelce said. “He can get my dad open, if he was out there. So, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be under his guidance, programmed the way he is, because I do genuinely believe he does it the right way.”

Not all the head coaches still alive in the playoffs call the plays, with Sirianni having made the decision during his first year in Philadelphia in 2021 to delegate those duties to coordinator Shane Steichen.

Sirianni said that has allowed him to better manage the game and deal with defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and special teams coordinator Michael Clay instead of always looking at his play sheet for the next play to call.

“That’s my job as the head coach is to manage the game. Everybody does it a little bit differently, I get it, and what works best for us is that I do it this way,” he said. “We like our processes of how we’re going. We’re always trying to tweak it and make it better, but I’ve got great coaches that I’m able to lean on there, and Shane is doing a great job of calling it.”

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AP Sports Writers Dan Gelston and Dave Skretta contributed to this report

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49ers' McCaffrey misses another practice, but vows to play

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — San Francisco 49ers star running back Christian McCaffrey missed his second straight practice with a calf injury but said he will be available for the NFC title game.

McCaffrey played through the calf injury during a divisional-round win over Dallas but hasn't practiced this week. When asked Thursday if there was any chance he wouldn't play on Sunday against Philadelphia, McCaffrey said “zero.”

McCaffrey said he will go through walkthroughs and go over the plays with running backs coaches Anthony Lynn and Bobby Turner even though he can't practice.

“It’s the same process for me but just lowering the physical load,” he said.

McCaffrey's backup, Elijah Mitchell, also missed a second straight practice with a groin injury. Coach Kyle Shanahan said he remains hopeful that both will be able to play on Sunday.

McCaffrey leads the 49ers with 1,403 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs in the regular season and playoffs despite not joining San Francisco until Week 7. He has scored at least one touchdown in eight straight games.

Mitchell has played only seven games this season because of a pair of knee injuries, but keyed the second-half running game last week against Dallas with 51 yards.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo remains out with a foot injury, but could be available as a backup if San Francisco reaches the Super Bowl.

Receiver Deebo Samuel (ankle), defensive lineman Charles Omenihu (oblique) and cornerback Ambry Thomas (ankle) were all limited again.

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Rooney: Steelers' late push led to decision to retain Canada

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Art Rooney II wants the Pittsburgh Steelers to score more points. He's confident the partnership between offensive coordinator Matt Canada and quarterback Kenny Pickett can make it happen.

The Steelers president pointed to Pittsburgh's surge to a 9-8 finish following a 2-6 start — a surge fueled by some late-game heroics from Pickett — as proof an offense that ranked 26th in points and 23rd in yards is heading in the right direction going into 2023.

That momentum is the main reason the Steelers opted to bring Canada back for a third season.

“(Canada and Pickett) seem to work well together,” Rooney said Thursday. “You know, they built a good working relationship. To start over again with a new offensive coordinator (if we moved on), we could wind up back in the same situation again where the first half of the season you’re breaking in a new coordinator.”

While Rooney lamented a nightmarish first two months of the season that included losing star outside linebacker T.J. Watt for seven games because of an injury and tentative play by quarterback Mitch Trubisky that led Pickett being thrust into the starting job at halftime of a Week 4 loss to the New York Jets, Rooney praised coach Mike Tomlin for mounting an improbable run at the playoffs over the second half.

“I think we wound up with a rookie quarterback who got better as the season went on,” Rooney said. “And I think we’re excited about the future because of that. So I think those things are encouraging the way Mike handled them.”

Rooney demurred when asked if the Steelers will offer Tomlin a contract extension during the offseason. Tomlin, who is 163-93-2 since succeeding Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in 2007, has two years left on his current deal, a timeframe in which the Steelers traditionally approach their head coaches about a new deal.

Rooney said he didn't want to “speculate,” but made it clear the way Pittsburgh performed over its final nine games provided ample evidence Tomlin remains firmly in charge of a young roster that included no starter on offense over the age of 26.

“The No. 1 thing I want to see is if you get better as the season goes on," Rooney said. "It should be your best team as the season goes on. I think we did that.”

The Steelers will have a chance to reload over the next several months. The decision to trade wide receiver Chase Claypool to Chicago at midseason for a second-round pick gives Pittsburgh three selections inside the top 50 when the draft convenes in Kansas City in late April.

The club could also have some money to spend in free agency to supplement a defense that has stars in all three levels in Watt, defensive tackle Cam Heyward and All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. However it also has depth issues, particularly at cornerback and inside linebacker.

Rooney said it was “too early" to lay out what the team might do on the open market, but added “we’ll do the best we can to try to plug holes where we think we have them.”

The Steelers were active in free agency last spring during the final days of longtime general manager Kevin Colbert's tenure. O mar Khan replaced Colbert in May. Khan lured Andy Weidl away from Philadelphia to serve as his assistant general manager. Weidl played a critical role in the roster construction of an Eagles team that is hosting the NFC championship game this weekend.

Rooney expects to see changes in the way Khan and Weidl approach the draft compared to Colbert and said he likes the way Khan has gone about his preparation so far, though he declined to offer specifics on what Khan is doing differently.

Though the 70-year-old Rooney joked “he's not getting any younger” don't expect the Steelers to move too far away from the draft-and-develop model that's made them one of the most consistent teams in the NFL.

Pittsburgh hasn't had a losing season since 2003, though the club also hasn't won a playoff game in six years, the longest drought in the AFC North. It's a fact not lost on Rooney, who didn't rule out the team “taking some chances” in free agency, but doesn't expect to deviate much from “The Steeler Way" of staying the course.

“I don't see anything changing dramatically in that regard.”

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Joe Burrow, Bengals go for 4-0 vs. KC in AFC title rematch

The Bengals and Chiefs have become familiar foes.

When the teams face off Sunday in Kansas City to determine the AFC champion, it’ll be their fourth meeting in 393 days and a rematch of last year’s conference title game.

The No. 1 seed Chiefs (15-3) dropped all three games, including a 27-24 loss in Cincinnati on Dec. 4. That was the same score for the Bengals’ overtime victory in Kansas City in this game last season.

The Bengals (14-4) are riding a 10-game winning streak after eliminating the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round.

Both teams are here because of their quarterbacks.

Sure, they have plenty of talented players on both sides of the ball. But these are two pass-happy squads who rely on their QBs to carry the offensive load with their arms.

All-Pro Patrick Mahomes led the NFL with 5,250 yards passing and 41 TDs, helping the Chiefs reach the AFC championship game for the fifth straight season.

Joe Burrow threw for 4,475 yards and 35 TDs and has led the Bengals to a 5-1 record in the playoffs over the past two seasons.

The Chiefs are seeking their third trip to the Super Bowl in four seasons and fifth overall.

The Bengals are aiming for their fourth appearance in the Super Bowl.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL:

It’s the Joe “Cool” show. With Burrow leading the way, the Bengals had the fifth-ranked passing offense in the league. Burrow has two talented wide receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Chase had 87 catches for 1,046 yards and nine TDs. Higgins had 74 for 1,029 and seven scores. Tyler Boyd (58-762-5) and tight end Hayden Hurst (52-414-2) also are integral parts of the passing attack. So are running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, who combined for 98 receptions for 728 yards and six TDs.

The Bengals had the fourth-fewest yards rushing in the NFL, but Mixon and Perine can do their damage. Perine had 106 yards rushing against the Chiefs last month. Mixon ran for 105 in last week’s win over Buffalo.

Cincinnati’s depleted offensive line has a tough task trying to stop All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones and end Frank Clark. Jones had 15 1/2 of Kansas City’s 55 sacks. Clark had six and added another in a win over the Jaguars last week.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is aggressive and isn’t afraid to blitz to bring more pressure. Rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson, who had a pick against Jacksonville, L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie have a difficult challenge against Cincy’s wideouts.

Linebackers Nick Bolton, Willie Gay and safety Justin Reid are always around the ball.

The Chiefs had the 11th-ranked defense, eighth against the run and 18th against the pass.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL:

A high ankle sprain may slow Mahomes down, but the superstar has proven to be superhuman on the football field. Whether it’s off-balance throws, no-look or sidearm passes, or using his legs to escape the pocket, Mahomes is the king of improvising. He lost All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill to an offseason trade but didn’t miss a beat. All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce had 110 catches in the regular season and 14 more vs. the Jaguars. He’s the go-to guy for Mahomes anytime he needs a first down or big play.

JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped into the No. 1 wide receiver role and caught 78 balls for 933 yards. Marquez Valdes-Scantling had 42 for 687. Running back Jerick McKinnon had 56 catches.

Rookie seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco led the Chiefs with 830 yards and he had 95 against Jacksonville. Kansas City was 20th in rushing, averaging 115.9 yards per game.

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo came up with an excellent game plan to shut down Josh Allen and the Bills in the divisional round. He only blitzed seven times, but used it creatively and disguised it to confuse Allen.

The Bengals only had 30 sacks, 14 1/2 of those coming from Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt and safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates are Cincinnati’s top tacklers.

Cornerbacks Mike Hilton, Eli Apple and Cam Taylor-Britt should expect plenty of action with Mahomes throwing their way.

Nobody can stop Kelce but the Bengals have to figure out a way to limit his production.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Bengals kicker Evan McPherson was clutch in the playoffs as a rookie last season. He missed four extra points this season, including two in the last four games. He’s made 16 of his past 17 field goals. McPherson has a strong leg. He’s 14 for 16 from beyond 50 yards in his career, including all five in 2022.

Cincinnati is bottom third in punting but has improved since Drue Chrisman replaced Kevin Huber. Chrisman has dropped three of his five punts in the playoffs inside the 20.

The Bengals’ return teams are middle of the pack.

Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker battled injuries and had his least accurate season, converting only 75% of his field goals. But he made both tries from 50 yards last week.

Punter Tommy Townsend had an All-Pro season with a net of 45.6 yards.

The Chiefs’ return teams were both in the top seven.

COACHING:

Chiefs coach Andy Reid is a future Hall of Famer. He’s tied with Tom Landry for second place with 20 career playoff wins. Only Bill Belichick (31) has more. This is Reid’s 10th conference championship game, five with the Eagles and five with the Chiefs. He’s 3-6.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor is one of the league’s bright, young minds. Only 39, Taylor has rebounded from winning six games combined his first two seasons to guide the Bengals to consecutive AFC championship games.

INTANGIBLES:

It’s revenge time for Mahomes and the Chiefs, who only measure success by winning the Super Bowl. They’ve got the home-field advantage at raucous Arrowhead Stadium.

The Bengals felt disrespected because the league sold 50,000 tickets for a potential neutral-site Bills-Chiefs game this week that isn’t happening. They’ll play that card for as long as they’re playing this season.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL



49ers-Eagles NFC championship matchup has old-school feel

Nasty defenses. Strong rushing offenses. Physical in the trenches.

This 49ers-Eagles matchup in the NFC championship game Sunday has all the elements of old-school football.

But don’t overlook all the playmakers at the skill positions on both teams.

Philadelphia has running back Miles Sanders, wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert to go with quarterback Jalen Hurts, a finalist for both the AP NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.

San Francisco has running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle to take pressure off rookie QB Brock Purdy, the last player selected in the draft.

The defenses are ranked 1-2 in the NFL. The coaching staffs feature some of the game’s most brilliant minds.

Home-field advantage is the clear edge. Philadelphia’s rabid fans are programmed to make life miserable for opponents.

Both teams are quite familiar playing for a trip to the Super Bowl.

The Eagles (15-3) are in the NFC title game for the seventh time in 22 seasons and are seeking their third Super Bowl appearance in that span. They won it all after the 2017 season.

The Niners (15-4) are making a record 18th appearance in this game, second in a row and third in four years. They’re 7-10 overall.

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL:

Purdy is 7-0 since replacing the injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who took over after Trey Lance got hurt in Week 2.

He has thrown 16 touchdown passes, four interceptions and posted a 107.3 passer rating in the regular season, earning a spot as a finalist for the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Purdy has plenty of help. McCaffrey had 746 yards rushing, 464 yards receiving and 10 TDs combined after the 49ers acquired him in a trade with Carolina.

Samuel had 864 yards combined receiving and rushing in 13 games, Aiyuk had 1,015 yards receiving and Kittle caught 11 TDs.

Coach Kyle Shanahan is known for his creative offensive system and game plans.

The Eagles led the NFL with 70 sacks and can generate pressure without needing to blitz. Haason Reddick had 16 sacks. Javon Hargrave, Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat each had 11. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry are among the best duos in the game and the Eagles had the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL. But they’re 16th against the run.

Shanahan knows his best option will be to attack Philadelphia on the ground.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL:

Philadelphia’s rise this season is due to Hurts developing into one of the best all-around players in the game. The addition of wide receiver Brown has been a major boost to the passing game. The Eagles can beat teams in the air with Hurts throwing to Brown, Smith and Goedert or on the ground with Sanders, Kenny Gainwell and Boston Scott. Brown and Smith both had more than 1,000 yards receiving, Sanders ran for 1,268 yards and Hurts also ran for 760 yards and 13 scores.

It all starts for Philadelphia behind a dominant offensive line featuring All-Pros Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson.

Coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen have implemented a system that allowed Hurts to thrive and the Eagles have looked unstoppable at times. But the 49ers have the No. 1 defense featuring three All-Pros: edge rusher Nick Bosa, linebacker Fred Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, a hot coaching candidate, will present Philly its toughest test.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Niners kicker Robbie Gould is perfect in the playoffs. Not just this season, but over his entire career. He’s made all 38 extra points and 29 field goals.

Eagles kicker Jake Elliott, who was part of the Super Bowl championship team five years ago, is 16 of 18 on extra points and 12 of 12 on field goals.

Niners punter Mitch Wishnowsky had a 39.7 net average while Eagles veteran Brett Kern has a 36.6 net in four games since joining the team.

Ray-Ray McLoud is a solid returner for the Niners. Scott and Britain Covey handle return duties for the Eagles.

COACHING:

Shanahan is 6-2 in the playoffs and aiming for his second trip to the Super Bowl in four seasons. He was offensive coordinator for Atlanta when the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead against Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl 51.

Sirianni is 23-11 in two seasons as a head coach, including 1-1 in the playoffs. He never coached in a conference title game as an assistant.

INTANGIBLES:

Fans. Fly Eagles Fly. Opponents hate going to the Linc to face the rowdy, obnoxious Philly faithful. It’s a rabid crowd that would turn on their own team if they fall behind early.

___

Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi

___

AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL



Ex-Lions, Liberty linebacker Jessie Lemonier dead at 25

DETROIT (AP) — Outside linebacker Jessie Lemonier, who appeared in seven games for the Detroit Lions in 2021 in a brief NFL career highlighted by a sack of Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, has died. He was 25.

The Lions disclosed his death in a statement Thursday, adding they confirmed it with his family. They did not provide any details.

“Jessie was a model teammate and a wonderful young man who is gone far too soon," the Lions said. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Lemonier was signed to the Lions practice squad before the 2022 season, days before being released by the Los Angeles Chargers. He had 17 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks, with the other half coming against Arizona on Dec. 19, 2021.

Liberty University, where Lemonier played for two seasons, said it also saw the Lions statement on Twitter. It later got a call from its former coach and current Auburn coach Hugh Freeze about the player's death.

“The Liberty Athletics family is deeply saddened to learn about the passing of former Flames football great Jessie Lemonier,” the Lynchburg, Virginia, school said in a statement. “Jessie was loved by Flames Nation for being a fierce competitor on the gridiron and cherished by his coaches and teammates in the locker room.”

Lemonier was waived by the Lions in May and claimed by Arizona. He spent the offseason with the Cardinals and part of training came before being cut this past summer. He signed with the Houston Gamblers of the XFL in December and was traded to the Birmingham Stallions.

Lemonier was selected by the Arlington Renegades in the 2023 XFL Draft but opted to stay with the USFL.

After playing at Hialeah High School in Florida, Lemonier spent a season at Ventura College in California before transferring to Liberty, where he helped the school make the transition from the FCS to the FBS level during his two seasons (2018-19).

Lemonier capped his career at Liberty by earning MVP honors in the 2019 Cure Bowl, helping the Flames secure their first-ever bowl game victory. With the win over Georgia Southern, Liberty became the third FBS to win a bowl game during its first full season.

Lemonier ended his career for the Flames with 20 1/2 sacks, which ranked third at the time in program history. He was signed by the Chargers as an undrafted free agent.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL



Panthers hire Frank Reich over Steve Wilks as head coach

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Frank Reich is returning to the Carolina Panthers as their coach, more than 27 years after starting the franchise's first game at quarterback in 1995.

The Panthers announced Thursday they've agreed to terms with Reich to become the sixth head coach in franchise history. An introductory news conference was set for Tuesday.

Reich was chosen among nine candidates who interviewed for the job, including former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and this season's interim head coach, Steve Wilks.

Reich received a four-year deal from the Panthers, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team does not release details of coaching hires.

The 61-year-old Reich joins the Panthers after spending the past four-plus seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, where he went 40-33-1 as head coach before being fired on Nov. 7 after a 3-5-1 start. The Colts went to the playoffs twice as a wild-card team under Reich, going 1-2 in the postseason.

Before joining the Colts, Reich worked two years as the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, helping them win the Super Bowl in his second season under head coach Doug Pederson.

NFL analyst and former Panthers general manager Bill Polian, who brought Reich with him from Buffalo to Carolina in 1995 to help mentor first-round draft pick Kerry Collins and provide quarterback stability, called Reich “as fine of a person as you'll ever meet” and a head coach with “a great football mind.”

“I think he will fit in perfectly in Carolina,” Polian said. "This is where he wants to be. He literally knows the building and has been there as a player. He will bond with the players and put together a great staff. There is a still a lot of building to do with this team, but he will work great with (general manager) Scott Fitterer.”

Polian added that Reich is low key but detail-oriented.

“He's inspirational when he needs to be,” Polian said. “And he's very rationale and honest and straightforward with his players.”

Wilks, who is Black, was already part of a lawsuit that included Brian Flores alleging racist hiring practices by the NFL.

Douglas Wigdor, the lawyer who is representing Wilks in the lawsuit, said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday “we are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper.”

Wigdor continued: “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”

Reich inherits a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2017 — and hasn't won a postseason game since winning the NFC championship in 2015 with league MVP Cam Newton at quarterback.

The Panthers have been searching for stability at quarterback ever since Newton began struggling with injuries shortly after the team's 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. The Panthers cut Baker Mayfield this season and Sam Darnold is an unrestricted free agent, so Reich will have a key say in the future of the team's quarterback situation.

Reich becomes the first Panthers head coach to come from an offensive background.

The Panthers finished 29th in the league in offense and 29th in passing this season after struggling with quarterback play.

Reich is no stranger to dealing with a revolving door of quarterbacks.

In his four full seasons at Indianapolis, the Colts had three top-10 scoring offenses with three different quarterbacks — Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz.

Reich has also served as Peyton Manning’s position coach.

He also knows a little bit about winning big games as a quarterback, too. Reich spent 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback. In the 1992 AFC playoffs, Reich orchestrated the biggest postseason comeback in league history when the Buffalo Bills rallied from a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers.

Panthers owner David Tepper has been eager to establish a winning program since purchasing the team for a then-record $2.3 billion in 2018 from Jerry Richardson, who sold the team amid allegations of sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace.

The Panthers are 29-53 since Tepper purchased the team and have never won more than seven games in a season.

Reich follows Dom Capers, George Seifert, John Fox, Ron Rivera and Matt Rhule as the franchise's sixth full-time head coach.

Rivera is a minority, but the Panthers have never hired a permanent Black coach. They've had two Black coaches who've worked on an interim basis — Perry Fewell and Wilks.

Wilks went 6-6 last season. He took over for Rhule, who was fired by Tepper less than three seasons after giving him a seven-year, $72 million contract. Rhule was 11-27 overall, and the Panthers were 1-4 when he was fired.

Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and Wilks also received strong consideration for the job.

The others who interviewed for the position were Payton, former Detroit Lions and Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and NFL offensive coordinators Shane Steichen from Philadelphia, Ken Dorsey from the Buffalo and Mike Kafka from the New York Giants.

The Panthers are now expected to turn their attention to Reich hiring his own staff.

The Panthers already have interviewed for that position is Vic Fangio, the former head coach of the Denver Broncos. Fangio was the Panthers' defensive coordinator in 1995 when Reich was the quarterback.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL



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