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Rams expect Bradford to sign before camp

It doesn’t look like the Rams will be making any sort of stand against the runaway spending on top rookie contracts.  They want their quarterback in camp on time.

Rams G.M. Billy Devaney told Alex Marvez of there is a “really good chance” that a deal will be completed with top overall pick Sam Bradford by Thursday when the team opens training camp.

Bradford is expected to get guaranteed money north of $45 million, which should make the rest of the top-ten picks smile as they line up to slot their money behind Bradford.

An on-time signing will help Bradford in his three-way competition to start with A.J. Feeley and Keith Null.  Yes, Keith Null.

“Nobody wins a job in OTAs and minicamps. That’s with any position,”
Devaney said. “You go to training camp, that’s when the battle begins.
It will be an open competition. I know it sounds crazy, but Keith Null
will be in the mix.”

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Titans clinch second pick in draft, lose to Colts

Coby Fleener, Daimion Stafford AP

The Titans ended their season Sunday with their 14th loss in 15 games.

And they didn’t even get the No. 1 overall pick for their troubles.

The Colts rolled to a 27-10 victory Sunday afternoon in Nashville, dropping the Titans to 2-14. However, the Buccaneers, not Tennessee, will pick first on account of a weaker strength of schedule.

Quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 160 yards and two TDs for 11-5 Indianapolis, which will host a wild-card game as the No. 4 seed in the AFC. The Colts were locked into their playoff position; as a result, Luck rested in the second half, with Matt Hasselbeck closing out the game.

Tight ends scored all three TDs for Indianapolis, with Coby Fleener catching one from Luck and Hasselbeck and Jack Doyle hauling in one from Luck.

In victory, however, the Colts saw Adam Vinatieri’s streak of 29 made field goals in a row come to a close after he missed a 46-yard attempt.

The Titans mustered just 192 yards of offense, with tailback Shonn Greene’s 52-yard run one of the few highlights. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was limited to 72 yards passing on 12-of-28 attempts, though he did toss a six-yard score to Kendall Wright.

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Micah Hyde punt return gives Packers 7-0 lead

rodgers AP

The Lions’ special teams have been an unmitigated disaster all season, and with the NFC North on the line, today is no different.

Green Bay got on the board first at Lambeau Field when Micah Hyde took a Lions punt 55 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. The Lions’ coverage unit wasn’t even close.

That punt came after the Lions’ defense had a great goal-line stand, stopping the Packers on seven straight goal-to-go plays. The Packers picked up an extra first down thanks to a pass interference penalty in the end zone, but even that wasn’t enough, as the Lions ultimately stuffed Green Bay on fourth-and-goal.

But while the Lions’ defense made a big play, their offense and special teams have done anything but. And the Packers have a 7-0 lead.

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Panthers with early, but tenuous lead over Falcons

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons AP

The Panthers put together another solid opening drive.

But as has happened too often this year, it stalled in the red zone.

The Panthers were forced for settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead over the Falcons at the end of a 12-play, 77-yard drive.

They were able to get a stop on the Falcons opening series, but Ron Rivera has been up front about the team’s problems inside the 20 being dangerous.

We’ll see if they’re able to solve it today, and sneak into the playoffs as the NFC South champion.

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Flea flicker turns into Ryan Lindley’s first NFL touchdown pass

Ryan Lindley

Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley came into Sunday’s game without a touchdown pass during his NFL career.

Perhaps the problem was not letting the running back touch the ball before he threw it. The Cardinals grabbed a 7-0 lead over the 49ers in the first quarter on Sunday when Lindley threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd on a flea flicker.

The score came on Lindley’s 229th pass attempt in the NFL, but it might not be his last scoring play if the early results hold up. Lindley hit on all four passes that he tried on the opening drive of the game, including a 24-yard strike to tight end Darren Fells. Stepfan Taylor also ran three times for 14 yards to help set the 49ers defense up to get suckered in by the flea flicker.

The Cardinals will win the NFC West if they win and the Seahawks lose on Sunday afternoon.

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Fourth-quarter comeback nets Baltimore AFC’s final wild-card spot

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

As long as the Ravens have Joe Flacco at quarterback, they will have a deep passing game.

And the long ball has helped put Baltimore back into the playoffs.

Flacco’s 53-yard rainbow to wideout Torrey Smith helped set up the go-ahead score as Baltimore came back to defeat visiting Cleveland 20-10 on Sunday afternoon.

With their win and the Chargers’ loss at Kansas City, the Ravens clinched the second and final wild-card spot in the AFC. They are one of three AFC North clubs in the postseason.

The Ravens trailed 10-6 with a little more than eight minutes left in regulation when Flacco play-faked, dropped back and lofted nearly a 60-yard rainbow to Smith, who beat Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden.

On the next play, Flacco and Smith connected again, this time for a 16-yard TD, giving the Ravens a 13-10 lead with 7:33 left.

The Ravens wouldn’t look back, adding to their cushion later in the period when Flacco hit receiver Kamar Aiken for a two-yard TD.

Flacco was 22-of-36 for 312 yards and the two scoring passes for Baltimore (10-6), which started sluggishly and looked in danger of its season ending in disappointment. But the Ravens got into gear just in time.

Browns rookie quarterback Connor Shaw was up-and-down in his NFL debut, connecting on 14-of-28 passes for 177 yards with two turnovers. Overall, though, this was a game effort by Cleveland (7-9), which was without wide receiver Josh Gordon and cornerback Justin Gilbert because of suspensions for team rules violations.

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No playoff spot, but Eagles get 10th victory

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Getty Images

Winning 10 games is usually a source of pride for an NFL team, but it will be a bittersweet pill for the Eagles to swallow.

They beat the Giants 34-26 at MetLife Stadium on Sunday to improve their record to 10-6, the same record that was enough for them to win the NFC East last year, but the three losses that preceded the Week 17 win were enough to keep them from making it back to the playoffs. One of the leading reasons why they fell short was on display against the Giants.

Eli Manning was erratic all day, completing 28-of-53 passes, but he hit big when he did hit. Manning threw for 429 yards, making big plays to both Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle over the course of the afternoon against an Eagles secondary that never figured out how to stop opponents from making big plays down the field. Beckham completed his rookie season with an 185-yard effort and tied Michael Irvin with an NFL-record ninth straight game with more than 90 receiving yards.

It was all for naught, however, and one of Philly’s bright spots all year had a lot to do with the Giants loss. Steve Weatherford had a punt blocked by James Casey and Trey Burton returned it for a touchdown that put the Eagles up 24-16 early in the third quarter. It’s the fourth blocked punt of the year by the Eagles, who also excelled in the return game as the team won nine of their first 12 games this year.

The teams went back and forth from there until Nate Allen picked off Manning late in the fourth quarter to bring things to their conclusion. Mark Sanchez heads for free agency off a 23-of-36, 292-yard effort and LeSean McCoy had 99 rushing yards to put a disappointing season to bed for him as well as his team.

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Justin Houston makes strong case in last game of contract

Rivers AP

Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston has completed the last game of the final year of his rookie contract.  Entering the game with 18 sacks, Houston notched four more against the Chargers, giving him 22 for the year.

Entering free agency, he now has plenty of leverage.  With the negotiating gap between the team and player now likely to get even bigger and with the injury risk gone until next September, look for the Chiefs to use the franchise tag on Houston.

And then look for Houston to instantly sign it.

With the Chiefs reluctant to make a market-value offer to Houston, Houston will go year to year, with the eight-figure guaranteed salary (it was $11.455 million for linebackers in 2014) going up by 20 percent for 2015.  Come 2016, the Chiefs would have to give Houston a 44-percent raise over his 2016 pay, pushing the guaranteed salary toward $20 million.

Look for Houston to also consider a grievance challenging his designation as a linebacker, with the argument being that he’s actually a defensive end, which carried a 2014 franchise tag of $13.1 million.

Either way, Houston will be very inclined to take the franchise tag and the cash that goes along with it.  After all, he made $2.786 million in four full NFL seasons.

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Cowboys stay perfect on the road with 44-17 win

DeMarco Murray AP

The Cowboys didn’t have a lot to play for, but they played it out with style.

They thrashed Washington 44-17, getting big performances from their new triplets to go into the postseason with a bit of momentum.

Tony Romo threw for 299 yards, Dez Bryant caught his 15th and 16th touchdowns of the year and DeMarco Murray ran for 100 yards and a touchdown as the Cowboys cruised.

The win moved them to 12-4, as they had already secured the NFC East title. More impressively, they finished 8-0 on the road this year, showing mettle they hadn’t previously.

For Washington, it was a chance for Robert Griffin III to make one more statement about his ability to be the quarterback of the future, but he didn’t really make it.

He was 27-of-41 for 336 yards, but he threw two interceptions and fumbled.

Washington finished 4-12, and has plenty of issues to address this offseason, none bigger than finding a way to get a quarterback and a coach on the same page.

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Geno Smith throws for 358 yards as Jets top Dolphins

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

A report from Chris Mortensen of ESPN indicated that the Jets could delay a decision on coach Rex Ryan’s future until after they hire a new general manager and Ryan’s players did their best to make the case for that new G.M. to think about if that’s how the Jets do wind up plotting their course.

Geno Smith threw for a career-high 358 yards and three touchdowns and Eric Decker caught 10 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown as both players had their best days in Jets uniforms during a 37-24 win. The two players hooked up for a 74-yard score in the third quarter just after Lamar Miller ran 97 yards for a Miami score and the game was all Jets from that point.

The Dolphins were stopped on a fourth down, missed a field goal and punted twice after Miller’s touchdown as the Jets Defense put its best effort forward for the defensive-minded Ryan. They sacked Ryan Tannehill seven times and hit him often while holding the Dolphins quarterback to a 8-of-19 outing in the final 30 minutes. Wide receiver Mike Wallace didn’t play much in the second half of the game, although there was no report of an injury from the team.

The loss comes a week after Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said coach Joe Philbin would be back for the 2015 season, a decision that some in South Florida will likely be grumbling about after seeing Smith and Decker look like one of the league’s best passing tandems on Sunday afternoon.

It’s hard to imagine Ross switching gears because of the loss, though, and it’s just as hard to say that the Jets’ performance in Week 17 should change the team’s decision about Ryan’s fate. If there was a belief that a coaching change was needed before Sunday, it should have been with enough conviction that the result of the game was immaterial. If that decision is going to be someone else’s to make,  though, it’s hard to know what criteria will be used to make the call.

Whatever happens, Ryan gets to go out with a winning Gatorade bath in 2014 and Smith will have a day full of Pro Bowl flashes to motivate him during the offseason.

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Matt Forte sets single-season catch record in Bears’ loss to Vikings

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings Getty Images

This was one for the kickers.

And for the record books, too.

In a game without playoff ramifications, the Vikings edged the Bears 13-9 Sunday in Minneapolis, with Teddy Bridgewater’s 44-yard third-quarter TD pass to Adam Thielen the game-winner for host Minnesota (7-9). The score was the game’s only touchdown, with five field goals accounting for most of the scoring.

However, the game did feature a bit of NFL history. With a fourth-quarter catch, Bears tailback Matt Forte set a single-season record for catches by a halfback (102). The old mark was formerly held by Cardinals tailback Larry Centers, who hauled in 101 passes in 1995.

The defeat was the fifth in a row for the Bears (5-11), who could be in for some major offseason changes, with coach Marc Trestman’s future a source of much speculation.

In his return to the starting lineup, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler completed 23-of-36 passes for 172 yards with no TDs and no picks. Bridgewater, the Vikings’ promising rookie passer, was 17-of-25 for 209 yards with the scoring pass and an interception.

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Texans close strong, just miss the AFC playoffs

Andre Johnson AP

A guy who wasn’t sure he wanted to be a Texans player anymore nearly lifted the Texans to the postseason.

With veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson leading the way, the Texans grabbed a 23-17 win over the Jaguars, and were close to a playoff berth before the Ravens came back to beat the Browns.

Johnson, who stayed away all offseason amid reports he was disgruntled with the direction of the franchise, was able to carry the weight for a team down to its third quarterback. He finished with 10 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.

Coupled with another dominant performance by defensive end J.J. Watt (3.0 sacks, giving him 20. this season, a forced fumble and a safety), it was enough.

Quarterback Case Keenum was 25-of-35 for 250 yards, a capable performance in relief of the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Mallett.

That was enough to get them to 9-7, a surprising finish for the team that picked first in this year’s NFL Draft.

Arian Foster wasn’t able to finish the game with a hamstring injury, but the Texans made just enough plays to get by a Jaguars team that played more competitively than their 3-13 record would indicate.

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Chiefs end Chargers’ playoff hopes

chasedaniel AP

The Chargers will not be going to the playoffs.

San Diego needed only to win today at Kansas City to earn the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot, but the Chiefs beat the Chargers 19-7, jumping out to an early lead and never looking back.

The Chiefs were led by their pass rush, which battered Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers all day. Kansas City’s Justin Houston had a particularly big game: Houston entered today’s game leading the league with 18 sacks on the season, and he had four more today. Houston’s total of 22.0 sacks this season leads the NFL this year and is just half a sack short of Michael Strahan’s NFL record.

Kansas City was playing without injured quarterback Alex Smith, but backup Chase Daniel filled in nicely. Daniel didn’t make many big plays, but he didn’t make any big mistakes, either. The Chiefs wanted him to play turnover-free football, and that’s exactly what Daniel did.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, to make the playoffs they would have needed not only to win, but to have the Texans and Ravens both lose as well. That didn’t happen, so the Chiefs’ season has come to an end as well. The Ravens will be the AFC’s sixth and final playoff team.

So at the end of this hard-fought game in Kansas City, both teams are done.

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Ravens on doorstep of postseason

Billy Winn, Joe Flacco AP

The Ravens are in control vs. the Browns.

Two fourth-quarter Joe Flacco TD passes have given the Ravens a 20-10 lead over the Browns in Baltimore. The latest score was a two-yard Flacco-to-Kamar Aiken connection.

Earlier, the Ravens surged back into the lead on Flacco’s 16-yard TD pass to Torrey Smith. On the previous play, Flacco hit Smith for 53 yards.

With a victory vs. the Browns and a Chargers loss at Kansas City, the Ravens will win the final wild-card spot in the AFC. The Chargers trail 19-7 with 2:23 left.

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Bucs secure top pick in 2015 NFL Draft with loss to Saints

Josh McCown, Cameron Jordan, Brandon Deaderick AP

The Buccaneers were too good at losing to stop this week.

So it’s only fitting they blew a lead when it mattered the most.

The Bucs allowed the Saints to come back for a 23-20 lead, which secured the top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

They were able to hold off the Titans on strength of schedule, and now will have the opportunity to draft Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, or whomever else they want.

The Saints came back from a 20-7 deficit, with Drew Brees overcoming three picks to hit Marques Colston with a game-winner with 1:58 left.

The Saints finished 7-9, but would lose tiebreakers to either the Panthers or Falcons, who are playing for the NFC South title this afternoon.

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Bills get to 9-7 with win over coasting Patriots

orton AP

In a game that didn’t mean much of anything to either team, the Bills emerged victorious over the Patriots today and can take pride in this: For the first time in a decade, Buffalo has finished a season with a winning record.

The Bills’ 17-9 victory puts them at 9-7 on the season, their first winning record since another 9-7 finish in 2004. The Bills had nine straight losing seasons until this year.

That represents progress, but today’s game didn’t mean much of anything. The Patriots, who had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, coasted through the game. Tom Brady exited early after going 8-for-16 for 80 yards. Brady was replaced by rookie Jimmy Garoppolo, who made a few good throws but didn’t do anything special.

The Bills got decent games from quarterback Kyle Orton and receiver Sammy Watkins, but the big question facing Buffalo going forward is whether it has the quarterback who can finally get the Bills back to the playoffs. Buffalo has plenty of talent on defense and some good young skill position players on offense, but it seems unlikely that either the veteran Orton or the 2013 first-round draft pick he replaced, EJ Manuel, is the long-term answer.

For the Patriots, the purpose of this game was to get out of it without any major injuries, and it appears that they succeeded, with one possible exception: Starting left tackle Nate Solder left the game with a knee injury. There was no immediate word on the severity of that injury.

Now the Patriots will get a week off and host a playoff game in two weeks. And the Bills will get to work on trying to put together another winning season next year — and perhaps threaten the Patriots in the AFC East.

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