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Week Three Monday 10-pack

The third week of the 2010 season provided plenty of memorable highlights and outcomes. 

From an overtime thriller in New Orleans to a couple of 0-2 underachievers getting things pointed in the right direction to what nearly became an overtime thrilled in Miami, we hope the next 14 weeks are just like this one.

Then again, some teams would prefer to forget all about Week Three.  For 10 story lines focusing on the good and the bad from Week Three, read on.


1.  Coughlin out, Cowher in?

Two years ago, the Giants started the season 0-2, giving up 80 points in
two games.  This year, after a sloppy Week One win against a grossly
overmatched Panthers team, the Giants have surrendered 67 in two even
sloppier losses.

Publicly, coach Tom Coughlin has taken the blame.  Privately, he has
begun the process of holding his players accountable.

Whether it works remains to be seen.  The Giants are becoming every bit
as dysfunctional as they were when Coughlin somehow pulled a Super
Bowl-sized rabbit out of his hat.  The championship season has become
largely forgotten, however, especially as the Giants become upstaged in their new
stadium by the look-at-me Jets, at whom New York and the rest of the
country are looking, both for what they do on the field, and what they
do off it.

After the Giants collapsed down the stretch and missed the playoffs,
co-owner John Mara blew a gasket.  This year, if the Giants fail to
qualify for the postseason, he’ll do more than talk tough.

Coughlin has one year left on his contract, and the Giants will have to
decide after 2010 whether to re-up Coughlin’s deal — or whether to move
on.  If they choose to thank the 64-year-old coach for his
contributions and pay him not to work for the franchise in 2011, the
most obvious candidate to replace him becomes Bill Cowher.

The 15-year coach of the Steelers, who resigned after the 2006 season,
recently said that he’s looking for the “right situation.”  And former
Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis, who called Cowher’s coming resignation
at the outset of the 2006 season, sad earlier this year that Cowher
covets” the Giants job.

Unless and until Coughlin can get his Giants to play disciplined,
winning football, a guy who led the Steelers with square-jawed intensity
could become the ultimate answer to the cross-town team led by a
player-coach who doesn’t actually play.

2.  Tebow takes a big step backward.

Entering the regular season, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow occupied the
No. 2 spot on the depth chart, behind starter Kyle Orton and ahead of
Brady Quinn.  Per a league source, Tebow was under the impression that
he’d be the top backup all year.

After only two games, Tebow fell to No. 3.  Inactive for Sunday’s game
against the Colts, the elevation of Quinn prevented Tebow from entering
the game before the fourth quarter, essentially eliminating the team’s “Wild Horse”
single-wing package.  As it turns out, neither Quinn nor Tebow entered
the game at all.

Following the 27-13 loss to Indy, Bronco coach Josh McDaniels downplayed
the situation.

“Just made a decision after the week of practice,” McDaniels said. 
“Brady had a good week and it wasn’t anything about Tim — we just felt
like Brady was probably better equipped at this point to handle this
style of game plan, the style of defense that they played.  Again, they
get very few reps anyways, but the reps that they get — we felt more
comfortable doing that.”

Whether it’s a one-time thing remains to be seen.  The fact that Tebow
believed he’d be the No. 2 guy all year makes the move surprising.  The
possibility that he’ll stay at No. 3 shows just how far he has to go
before he becomes the full-time starter.


3.  Pink slips coming soon?

The desperation that has prompted so many quarterback changes could soon
result in a flurry of firings.  Coordinators could be the initial
scapegoats in some cities.  But with bye weeks beginning,
underperforming head coaches could soon find themselves staying home for
the rest of the year, with pay.

The Panthers have looked putrid, and if they hit their break at 0-5,
coach John Fox could be out the door.

The Browns, who are 0-3 but just as easily could be 3-0, face the
Bengals, Falcons, Steelers, and Saints before their bye.  And if the
Browns are 0-7, Eric Mangini may not get a chance to host the Patriots
and the Jets in consecutive weeks — which likely would drop Cleveland
to 0-9, anyway.

Another potential candidate for a bye week “buh-bye” is Jaguars coach
Jack Del Rio.  As one league source explained it, multiple factions
currently are clashing in Jacksonville.  “If [Del Rio] survives the
season,” the source said, “he likely won’t survive the offseason.”

Whether Del Rio survives the season depends on whether the Jaguars can
turn things around, quickly.  Outscored by a total of 50 points in two
weeks, things get no easier next week, when the Colts come calling.  (It also doesn’t help that the Jags are stuck in a division with Indy, Tennessee, and Houston.)

In San Francisco, Mike Singletary could be on the hot seat, too — if
anyone there had the nerve to actually communicate the decision to fire him. 
(Would you?)

Then there’s Raiders coach Tom Cable, who faces some risk of being fired
every minute of every day, of every season.

4.  Time to change inherently unfair fumble rule.

While watching the Chargers-Seahawks game, which Seattle surprisingly
won, a play late in the first half reminded us of one of the most
inequitable rules in all of sport.

When an offensive player fumbles the ball out of bounds, his team keeps
possession.  But when an offensive player fumbles the ball out of the
end zone that his team is trying to invade, the ball is regarded as
having been recovered by the other team, and it’s placed at the 20.

NFL spokesman Michael Signora described it as a “long-standing rule, in
place for decades.”

That’s fine, but that doesn’t make it fair.

It simply makes no sense to punish the offensive team for getting so
close to the end zone, losing the grasp on the ball near paydirt, and
then losing possession even if the other team never actually recovers
it.  

Instead of giving the ball to the defense at the 20, the rule should
give the ball to the offense, at the opponents’ 20.  Some would argue
that possession should be awarded at the line used for the try after a
touchdown.  Either way, possession shouldn’t be handed over the defense
when the defense has done squat to secure possession.


5. Jets, Falcons seize control of their divisions.

With 13 games to go, a lot can — and will — happen.  But two teams
confidently can claim that, for now, they rule the four-team roosts in
which they reside.

Both the Jets and the Falcons went on the road and knocked off rivals
who had been 2-0.  So now the Dolphins will have to win in New York and
the Saints will have to win in Atlanta in order to avoid what amounts to
a three-game swing in the standings — 2-0 versus 0-2, plus ownership
of the tiebreaker.

Coupled with the Jets’ win over the Patriots, New York has come a
long way in only 13 days

Ditto for the Falcons, who lost a heartbreaker in Week One and suddenly
have broken the Saints’ hammerlock on the NFC South.  It likely was the biggest win of quarterback Matt Ryan’s three-year career.

Again, there’s a long way to go.  For now, though, the Jets and Falcons
have to be feeling pretty good about where they are.


6. Chiefs are for real.

When a team exceeds expectations, expectations eventually will be
adjusted.  For that reason alone, look for the Chiefs to continue to
downplay their success, in the hopes that no one will believe that
they’re a legitimate contender to win the AFC West.

But they are.  Already, the 3-0 Chiefs possess a two-game lead over the rest
of the division, and they’ve toppled the perennial top dogs from San
Diego.

Moving forward, the Chiefs benefit from a fourth-place schedule.  While
the Chargers play the Ravens and the Patriots, the Chiefs get the Browns
and the Bills. (All four AFC West teams play all four AFC South teams
in 2010.)  Those two games could end up making a huge difference, if the
race gets tight in late December.

The biggest question mark comes at quarterback, but that question mark
became an exclamation point, at least for a day, when Matt Cassel
completed 16 of 27 for 250 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception
— good for a passer rating of 111.7.

It’s the kind of triple-digit performance that became commonplace for
Cassel in 2008, when he replaced Tom Brady in New England.  Now that
Cassel could be clicking with Charlie Weis, the guy who helped make Tom
Brady into Tom Brady, there could be even more strong performances from the
player whom many regard as the weak link on a slowly-improving
franchise.

Until then, the Chiefs would prefer that we all regard them as
slowly-improving, with no reason to think that they may be headed in the
direction that their 3-0 record suggests they’re heading.

7.  Dallas Desperadoes deliver for Wade.

Backed against the wall, the Dallas Cowboys proved the value of a single
NFL weekend by avoiding an 0-3 start, pulling into a three-way tie for
second place in the NFC East, and getting themselves back on track for a
season that still could end with a Super Bowl.

Desperation suited the Cowboys well on Sunday in Houston, and now
they’ve got time during their bye week to continue to tweak the offense
and refine the defense and prepare to continue the push toward and
beyond .500.

At a time when the NFL is considering a move from 18 games, it’s
important to remember the impact of a single NFL game when a total of
only 16 are played.  The significance of each and every contest makes
each and every one dramatic and memorable; for the Cowboys, who
faced full-blown implosion after only two weeks, a single game changed
everything.

If the season is “enhanced,” that quality could quickly be diminished.

8.  Steelers could run the table.

We know it’s way too early to say this, but we’re going to say it
anyway.

The Pittsburgh Steelers could go undefeated.

It’s unlikely.  Eventually, they’ll surely lose.  But if they can get past the
Ravens on Sunday in the last game without Ben Roethlisberger and if he
pumps up an offense that is complemented by the best defense in the
league, the Steelers will be unstoppable.

If they get to 16-0, it won’t have happened against a slew of patsies. 
They play at Miami and at New Orleans, and they host the Patriots and
the Jets.

Still, there’s already something special about this team, and it could
become even more special if Roethlisberger helps light up a scoreboard
that rarely will reflect many points from the opposition.

9.  Vick’s historic redemption tour continues.

As the football-watching world waits for Mike Vick’s triple-digit
passer-rating performances to drop dramatically, as they always have done in the past, Vick has instead put his
foot harder on the gas, authoring his best performance to date with the
Eagles.

In a 28-3 win at Jacksonville, Vick completed 17 of 31 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 119.2.

In 10 quarters, Vick has thrown six touchdown passes and not a single
interception.

He’ll face his toughest test yet next week, when Donovan McNabb returns
to Philly for a game that Eagles fans will want to win more than any
non-playoff game in franchise history.  And regardless of how well
McNabb does or doesn’t play, another strong showing from Vick could make
McNabb’s performance moot.

Meanwhile, at some point we need to acknowledge that we’re witnessing
one of the most compelling stories in league history.  Rather than
merely returning to the level he occupied before missing two years while
in prison, Vick could be on the verge of reaching new heights — and of
becoming the franchise quarterback he never quite became in Atlanta.

10.  Saints need to lose their blind spot for Garrett Hartley.

Kicker Garrett Hartley forever will occupy a position in the pantheon of
Saints stars, thanks to his delivery of the franchise’s first NFL title
via a 40-yard overtime kick in the NFC Championship and a trio of
40-plus-yard field goals in the Super Bowl.

But kicker remains one of the most fungible positions in football, and
if a guy can’t do his job there are plenty of others who can, and who will.

The challenge for coach Sean Payton and G.M. Mickey Loomis will be to
forget about the things Hartley did in the past, and to focus on what
he’s doing now.

Or, more importantly, on what he’s not doing.

Two missed field goals in Week One allowed the Vikings to hang around
much longer than they should have, and a redirection from 49ers
defensive tackle Ray McDonald may have prevented Hartley from being the
goat in Week Two.

The goat he was on Sunday, when he missed an overtime chip shot after
knuckling the game-tying kick that forced the extra session.

Peter King reported on Sunday night that the Saints will bring in
kickers this week
.  It shouldn’t simply be a shot across Hartley’s bow. 
Kickers need to be much more reliable than Hartley has been.  And if
Hartley continues to receive extra consideration for what he did in last
year’s Super Bowl, the Saints won’t win another one this year.

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Sunday Night wrap-up: Seahawks have too many big plays

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Seahawks had more than enough offense to beat the Cardinals Sunday.

Actually, they had more than enough on four snaps.

The Seahawks traded on big plays and an opponent which couldn’t score, taking a 35-6 win over the Cardinals and the inside track for the NFC West title.

They racked up 596 yards, but 263 of those yards came on four plays.

They’re hurt up front and they’re thin in receiving threats, but they had enough Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch to make the difference.

Lynch came back from an upset stomach which kept him out for a quarter to run for 113 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Wilson’s 55-yard scramble was impressive, but it was his 80-yard touchdown pass to Luke Willson which gave the Seahawks a double-digit edge they weren’t going to give up. Throw in a 49-yard pass to Doug Baldwin, and they had enough home run plays to overwhelm.

Whether that’s enough to compete with teams that might actually be able to score points is another matter.

As long as they can run and play defense the way they do, they’re going to have a chance against anyone in the league.

But when they’re able to get yards in chunks the way they did this week, it might be hard for anyone to have a chance against them.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1. Back in my former life as a newspaper reporter, I covered one of the truly ridiculous games in NFL history.

With both teams beset by injuries at quarterback in 2007, the Cardinals and Panthers ended up competing for the signature of Vinny Testaverde. The Panthers won the battle and the war, as the Cardinals ended up signing Tim Rattay and then beating him the following week in Arizona.

Which is a long way of saying, either Testaverde or Rattay might be a better option than Ryan Lindley right now.

Bless his heart, the poor kid simply doesn’t look competitive, especially against a defense the quality of Seattle’s. The Cardinals even tried to run Logan Thomas out there for a change of pace (to throw a deep ball, not run), but it didn’t work.

At the moment, barring a Testaverde comeback at age 51 or Drew Stanton making a quick comeback, it’s hard to see how the Cards have much of a chance in the playoffs against anyone.

2. The Seahawks played without left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger. But they actually protected fairly well.

The Cardinals sacked Wilson seven times in the first meeting, but got him just once this week. Credit to Alvin Bailey and Patrick Lewis for replacing injured starters and allowing their offense to continue at record pace.

That’s a solid showing for the group they scrapped together, which they hope will be back to normal soon.

3. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians gets a lot of credit (which he should), but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was making chicken salad too, prior to Sunday

The Cards are not just competitive, they’ve been good with a defense missing three difference-makers in Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and John Abraham, which is emblematic of their next-man-up approach.

They don’t really have what you’d call a pass-rusher, and they’ve got a bunch of role players like Larry Foote and Frostee Rucker playing bigger roles than you’d normally expect of them.

It was hard to tell against the Seahawks once the avalanche started rolling downhill, but this can still be a dangerous defense.

4. Should we be worried about Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka missing three field goals?

Of course we should.

The misses are rare for Hauschka, and they were from distance. But kicking is a confidence game, and misses in big games can linger.

Until he hits something, it’s worthy of being concerned about, as you pick out every little weakness in a team playing well.

5. Willson, the tight end (man, that extra L in a similar last name is murder on spellcheck), can be a match-up problem for a lot of teams.

He seemed to surprise the Cardinals with his speed, but he ran a 4.51 40-yard dash prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, so he’s a legitimate threat to run away from linebackers.

It was still a bit of a shock to see him pull away from a safety, but he has the kind of size and speed to create space, and make the most of it.

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Lynch caps touchdown with dive that probably will provoke a fine

lynch5

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch iced Sunday night’s win over the Cardinals with a career-long 79-yard touchdown run.  He entered the end zone with a dive that included a crotch grab.

The maneuver was identical to the manner in which Lynch capped off the “Beastquake” touchdown run from the wild-card playoffs four years ago.  When he did it the last time, no one noticed — so he was neither flagged nor fined.

This time around, it was noticed.  (Even though it wasn’t flagged.)  Lynch will now be in line for a fine.

Last year, Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan was fined $10,000 for making the same gesture.

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Packers favored by at least seven points

Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers AP

The Lions and Packers have identical 11-4 records. Moreover, Detroit won the first 2014 regular-season meeting between the clubs by double digits.

Nevertheless, in the rematch, host Green Bay is a big favorite to knock off Detroit next Sunday and capture the NFC North for a fourth consecutive season.

Oddsmakers have made the Packers 7- to 7.5-point favorites over Detroit at Lambeau Field, where the Lions have not won since 1991.

Per Spreadapedia.com, the Lions haven’t won as underdogs of seven points or more since upsetting Green Bay 7-3 on December 12, 2010.

The Packers, meanwhile, have not lost as favorites of seven or more since falling 27-20 to Chicago on November 4, 2013.

The common factor in both games? Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t finish the game because of injury.

Rodgers, of course, tweaked his calf in Sunday’s victory at Tampa Bay, but he played through it, and the Lions will likely need their best defensive effort to stop Green Bay’s powerful offense on its home turf.

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Steelers host Bengals next Sunday night

Roethlisberger AP

The final Sunday night game of the season has been announced.  And it won’t be the NFC South win-and-in-lose-and-go-home championship game.

Instead, it will be the AFC North title game, with the Steelers hosting the Bengals.  The league opted for Bengals-Steelers even though the Steelers already have clinched a playoff berth.  On Monday night, the Bengals can do the same, with a win over the Broncos.

Of course, Cincy’s Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe tendencies suggest they’ll lose on Monday night.  Which would make Sunday night the equivalent of a playoff game for the Bengals.

Which the Bengals would become more likely to lose because the game is being played in prime time.

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Seahawks offense finally wakes up, now up 14-3

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

Marshawn Lynch is obviously feeling better.

The Seahawks running back, who missed exactly the first quarter with what was reported as an upset stomach, has now upset the Cardinals fans.

His touchdown run has given the Seahawks a commanding 14-3 lead, on a night which doesn’t seem to favor the Cardinals ever scoring that many.

The Seahawks scored the game’s first (and looked like possibly only) touchdown when Russell Wilson hit tight end Luke Willson for an 80-yard strike earlier in the second.

It was a surprising play for a number of reasons, including Willson’s ability to run away from the Cardinals secondary.

But the Seahawks Defense has put the clamps on Ryan Lindley, making a comeback look unlikely.

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Cardinals jump out to big 3-0 lead on Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

Points are so overrated.

The Seahawks and Cardinals are whaling on each other thus far in this one, and the Cardinals might have just taken a decisive 3-0 lead with a second-quarter field goal.

Cards sub quarterback Ryan Lindley is off to a rough start, hitting 4-of-10 passes for 39 yards. But he managed to scratch together enough short passes and Seahawks penalties to get Chandler Catanzaro in position for a short field goal.

That’s been enough so far, because the Cardinals Defense is doing its part.

Other than a 55-yard scramble by Russell Wilson, the Seahawks haven’t put together much offense.

Marshawn Lynch’s upset stomach miraculously cured itself at the end of the first quarter, but he hasn’t contributed anything to the stat sheet yet.

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Report: Harbaugh decision will be “swift”

Harbaugh Getty Images

No one still knows what 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh’s future will be.  Answers apparently will be coming soon after the regular season ends.

Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reported during the Sunday pregame show that a “swift” decision will come after the regular season ends regarding Harbaugh’s future.  The options are fairly limited in number:  (1) keep him for 2015, the final year of his contract; (2) extend his contract beyond 2015; (3) trade him; or (4) fire him.

The most likely options are No. 3 and No. 4.  It has been widely reported that the 49ers will try to trade Harbaugh, and for good reason; in February, they nearly sent him to Cleveland for a pair of third-round picks.

But it won’t be easy to accomplish a trade quickly.  To move Harbaugh, another team must fire its current coach, comply with the Rooney Rule by interviewing at least one minority candidate, negotiate a deal with the 49ers, and negotiate a deal with Harbaugh.  That only happens within 24-48 hours after the season ends if plenty of winking and nodding happens before then.  Which means that the minority-candidate interview will make a mockery of the Rooney Rule.

So if a swift decision is truly coming, it could be that the 49ers simply fire Harbaugh, get nothing for him, and possibly watch him drive up the Bay to coach the Raiders.

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Marshawn Lynch misses early work with upset stomach

Marshawn Getty Images

The Seahawks may be thinking about life without Marshawn Lynch after this season.

They got a sneak preview tonight.

Lynch wasn’t on the field for the start of the game, with what the Seahawks called an “upset stomach.”

In his place, Robert Turbin got the start and ran four times for 22 yards.

The Seahawks opening drive stalled at midfield, and it remains to be seen how much of a role Lynch is going to play.

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Cardinals won’t release Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald Getty Images

When Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill hired G.M. Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians, no one expected them to face so much adversity due to injury — or to have so much success with a collection of next men up.

Next year, they also could be dealing with a salary-cap problem.

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald has a cap number of $23.6 million for 2015.  It’s widely believed he’ll be cut.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, he won’t be.

He could be traded, he could restructure his deal, or he could elect to negotiate an extension.  But he won’t be released — even if it means carrying $23.6 million in cap space.

Few players other than quarterbacks have cap numbers even approaching $20 million.  For Fitzgerald, who remains a solid player but no longer dominant, that’s a huge commitment.  The Cardinals are willing to make it, if necessary.

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Bills eliminated from playoff contention with loss at Oakland

marcusthigpen AP

A promising season for the Bills has come to a disappointing end, as a loss in Oakland today has eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention.

The Raiders came out playing hard and surprised the Bills, winning 26-24.

Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr showed again that he’s a promising prospect, if not yet a great quarterback. He had his ups and his downs against a very good Bills Defense, but late in the fourth quarter, after the Bills inexplicably punted, Carr marched the Raiders down the field on a long drive that ended with a game-sealing touchdown pass to Jamize Olawale.

The win means the Raiders will not earn the first overall pick in the draft, but most Oakland fans are probably OK with that. The franchise quarterback of the future in Oakland isn’t Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, it’s Carr.

For the Bills, who fall to 8-7, tough questions about the quarterback position will have to be answered this offseason: If Kyle Orton and EJ Manuel aren’t the right men for the job, who is?

The Bills have a good roster but no franchise quarterback. The Raiders don’t have a good roster, but in Carr, they seem to have a quarterback they’ll be able to win with in the future.

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Raiola could be facing a suspension after Sunday stomp

Raiola Getty Images

When the Lions head to Lambeau Field for the NFC North championship game next week, they possibly won’t have veteran center Dominic Raiola.

Raiola is facing discipline in the wake of his stomp on the leg of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson.  That discipline could include a suspension.

“I want to emphasize that our number one goal and priority is protecting our players from unnecessary risk,” NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent told PFT on Sunday afternoon.  “Actions or techniques that may result in harm or injury are unacceptable.  This will be reviewed and appropriate discipline will be applied to these actions and any potential playing rule violations.”

Vincent declined comment on potential discipline for Raiola.  The player’s history will potentially work against him.  Last month, Raiola was fined $10,000 for clubbing Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore in the head.  Raiola escaped discipline for firing into Moore’s knees during a kneel-down snap to end the game.

Some believe the stakes of the game will be a factor in any decision to suspend Raiola.  Per a league source, that won’t matter.

Look for a decision to come by the middle of the week.  Raiola then will have immediate appeal rights, if he’s indeed suspended for Sunday’s game.

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Giants help Tom Coughlin’s cause with third straight win

Eli Manning AP

The two best arguments to use in favor of Tom Coughlin returning as Giants head coach for another season are that the team’s players still play hard for him and that the offense installed this season will be a strong unit with a year of experience under its belt.

Sunday brought support for both notions. The Giants may have been playing too hard for Coughlin, as evidenced by their excessive penalties and two ejections, but they certainly weren’t rolling over with their coach’s fate for 2015 publicly unaddressed. And their offense put up a great performance against a Rams Defense that hadn’t allowed a touchdown in its last three games.

The Giants won 37-27 as Eli Manning completed 25-of-32 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns. Two of the scores went to Odell Beckham, who became the first rookie in NFL history to post at least 130 receiving yards and a touchdown in three straight games during his first pro season. Beckham had eight catches for 148 yards overall and the prospect of teaming him with a healthy Victor Cruz in 2015 is a pretty good reason not to rock the boat on offense for the Giants.

Rookie running back Andre Williams chipped in with 110 yards to add to the reasons for positive thoughts about the future on the offensive side of the ball for the Giants. Recent signs for Coughlin’s future with the team have been encouraging and this win shouldn’t do anything to swing the pendulum the other way.

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Cowboys rout Colts, win NFC East

Tony Romo AP

After an agonizing five-season absence, the Cowboys are back in the playoffs — and as division champions to boot.

Led by a spectacular performance by quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys rolled to a 42-7 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Romo was splendidly efficient, completing 18-of-20 passes for 218 yards with four TD passes, three of which came in the first half as Dallas quickly burst clear of sloppy Indianapolis, which committed eight penalties and three turnovers.

With the win, the Cowboys (11-4) clinched the NFC East title. They are guaranteed of hosting at least one playoff game. They will be the only NFC East club in the postseason, as Philadelphia has now been eliminated from playoff contention.

The Cowboys made short work of the Colts (10-5), who saw their faint chances at a first-round bye go completely by the wayside. The Cowboys never trailed, scoring on their first drive and never looking back.

The game was decided in about a 15-minute span in the first half. After Dallas had taken a 7-0 lead about eight minutes into the game, Indianapolis tried a fake punt on its own end of the field. The play looked it would lead to a first down, but rookie defensive back Dewey McDonald dropped a pass from punter Pat McAfee.

On the next snap, Romo threw his second TD pass, hitting Dez Bryant from 19 yards out to make it 14-0.

And from there, Dallas poured it on. A minute into the second quarter, Romo threw another TD, connecting with Colt Beasley on a 24-yard score. And when tailback DeMarco Murray plunged in from a yard out later in the period, Dallas had a 28-0 lead.

Incredibly, the Colts’ first points didn’t come until about five minutes were left in regulation. By then, quarterback Andrew Luck had been pulled from the game as the AFC South champs looked ahead to January. And for as poorly as they played, the Colts will be one of 12 teams with a chance to win the Super Bowl.

So too will Dallas. And with Romo in sharp form and their defense holding up its end of the bargain, the Cowboys look like real contenders.

It’s enough to make 90s kids dust off their Apex One and Starter Dallas jackets. On Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys were back. And the NFC East, finally, is theirs once again.

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Twelve fans injured by indirect lightning strikes at Bucs game

Buccaneers Lightning Strike AP

A total of 12 people were injured, though it appears none were directly struck by lightning outside today’s Buccaneers-Packers game.

According to WFLA in Tampa, a dozen fans outside Raymond James Stadium were injured by an indirect lightning strike.

Tampa Fire Rescue got a call at 4:11 p.m., right after the Bucs lost a 20-3 decision to the Packers. First responders included crews who were already at the stadium.

Seven patients were taken the St. Joseph’s hospital in stable condition, and four or five more were headed there on their own.

Some of the injured were knocked to the ground when the lightning struck nearby.

Given the large amount of people in a large open space, it’s likely fortunate the injuries weren’t worse.

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Drew Stanton inactive on Sunday night

Cliff Avril, Drew Stanton AP

The Cardinals confirmed that Ryan Lindley was going to start at quarterback no matter what they decided to do with Drew Stanton on Sunday night.

Stanton hurt his knee in the Week 15 victory over the Rams and was able to get in a limited practice during the week, which was enough for Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to leave the door open to Stanton serving as Lindley’s backup against the Seahawks.

That door’s been closed. Stanton is one of seven inactive Cardinals for the NFC West clash, leaving rookie Logan Thomas as the No. 2 behind Lindley. Wide receiver Brittan Golden, safety Chris Clemons, guard Jonathan Cooper, defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu, guard Anthony Steen and defensive end Kareem Martin are also out for Sunday night.

The Seahawks knew they would be without left tackle Russell Okung this week and expected to be without center Max Unger after listing him as doubtful. Both men are inactive along with tight end Tony Moeaki, wide receiver Kevin Norwood, defensive end Demarcus Dobbs, wide receiver Chris Matthews and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.

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