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Division-round game picks

Lofa Tatupu, Jordan Babineaux

Last week, Rosenthal and yours truly generated identical picks for the wild-card weekend games.  Picking the Saints and Colts left us at 0-2 for Saturday; relying on the Ravens and Packers made us 2-2 for the weekend.

I’m still four games behind him in the full-season chase.  And now it’s time to close the gap.

Or watch it get really, really wide.

Ravens at Steelers

Florio’s take:  Way back in May, I picked the Ravens to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.  And with Saturday’s rubber match between Baltimore and Pittsburgh presenting a coin-flip proposition, honoring a past prognostication is as good a reason as any to help me finally make a decision.  Expect fifty-six minutes of hard-fought football followed by 240 intense seconds during which one of the AFC finalists will emerge.  Look for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to finally beat the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger plays, and for Baltimore to extend their road playoff record since 2008 to 5-2.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 23, Steelers 20.

Rosenthal’s take: The best game of the weekend comes first.  The only game that wasn’t a nail biter between these two teams in their last seven matchups was the ’08 AFC Championship.  I worry for Ravens fans the result Saturday could be similar.  Going on the road on a short week is a huge disadvantage.  So are the Ravens’ slow receivers going up against tight man coverage.  Look for the Baltimore’s defense to wear down in the fourth quarter, like they did for much of the year.

Rosenthal’s pick:  Steelers 24, Ravens 16.

Packers at Falcons

Florio’s take:  Several weeks ago, in an SNF Extra online chat, someone asked me for a revised Super Bowl prediction.  I wanted to stay true to the prediction made in our season preview magazine:  Ravens and Cowboys.  But since the Cowboys were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs at the time, I opted for the Falcons instead.  Thus, I’ve got to stick with that well-reasoned selection I made with barely an instant of thought and while trying to type with one hand and wolf down a tin-foil container full of chicken with spinach and mushrooms and some sort of cheese in the other.  Besides, everyone else is picking the Packers.  And that will likely make the Falcons even more motivated to justify their 13-3 season by winning their first playoff game of the post-Vick era.

Florio’s pick:  Falcons 24, Packers 20.

Rosenthal’s take:  The first Packers-Falcons game was an entertaining matchup marked by long drives and two failures by the Packers inside the 10-yard line. Green Bay had no running game then, but now James Starks could be the key to the game.  Starks should find running room because Atlanta’s secondary – especially Dunta Robinson — can be vulnerable without help in coverage.   The Packers have more offensive talent, the better defense, and the coach more likely to make a Caldwell-like brain fart.  In the end, the Packers have more ways to win.

Rosenthal’s pick:  Packers 28, Falcons 24.

Seahawks at Bears

Florio’s take:  Sometimes, football makes no sense.  Last week, a clearly superior Saints team went to Seattle and lost.  This week, the Seahawks return to Soldier Field with plenty of confidence and a lot of momentum, against a Bears team that isn’t as good as the Saints team that the Seahawks beat last weekend.  Sure, the Bears are the safe pick.  The Bears are the smart pick.  The Bears also may be the right pick.  But I’m four games behind Rosenthal with seven games to go, so it’s time to start flailing for a knockout.  Besides, the Bears could be tight and the Seahawks could catch them flat-footed and Seattle could do that which no one — including the Bears — expects them to do.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 23, Bears 20.

Rosenthal’s take: Can the Seahawks win?  Of course.  They already did once in Chicago without the help of turnovers and special teams.  Is it likely the Seahawks win?  No, because the regular season has to mean something.  Seattle lost nine games this year by 15 points or more, the most in the NFL.  Carolina was next with seven such losses, the Cardinals six, and the Bills five.  That’s the company Seattle kept for 17 weeks.  It’s going to show up in January eventually.

Rosenthal’s pick: Chicago 27, Seahawks 13.

Jets at Patriots

Florio’s take:  Early in the week, I planned to pick the Jets.  The Pats ran up the score when the two teams played in December, hoping to spark a tailspin that would wash the Jets right out of the playoffs.  But the Jets have been chattering too much, and the Patriots will now be even more motivated to repeat the outcome of the Monday night massacre.  Though it won’t nearly be so lopsided this time around, these two teams have different agendas.  The Jets are determined to beat the Pats, and the Pats are determined to beat the NFC representative in the Super Bowl.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 30, Jets 21.

Rosenthal’s take: Until the 45-3 whitewash, Rex Ryan’s Jets gave Tom Brady problems.  Brady’s numbers in his first three games against Ryan as Jets coach:  57% completion, 6.24 yards-per-attempt, three touchdowns, and three interceptions.  Don’t be shocked if the Jets defense makes life difficult on Brady for a while.  My concern for New York is more about Mark Sanchez’s wild throws against a turnover-crazy Patriots defense that held opponents under 10 points four times in New England’s last five games.

Rosenthal’s pick:  Patriots 27, Jets 14.

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Terron Armstead, Cam Heyward, Marcus Gilbert all leave early with injuries

New Orleans Saints tackle Terron Armstead (72) shows off his dance moves during the NFL football teams training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley) AP

The Steelers and Saints have both seen some key members of their lineups depart with injuries in the first half of their game at the Superdome.

Saints left tackle Terron Armstead left the game shortly after picking up a holding penalty and went back to the locker room. There’s been no announcement from the team about his status and Tony Hills has been manning the left side of the line since his departure.

The Saints also saw tight end Michael Hoomanawanui carted off with what looked like a left leg injury.

On the Steelers side, defensive end Cam Heyward was carted off with a bag of ice on his right ankle and right tackle Marcus Gilbert has departed with an elbow injury. Safety Shamarko Thomas was also ruled out for the rest of the night after suffering a groin injury.

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Steelers starting offense looks just fine in first preseason action

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) works against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) AP

The Steelers rested many of their key offensive players in the first two weeks of the preseason, but there’s no sign of rust in Week Three.

The Steelers have scored touchdowns on both of their possessions in the first half and they’ve looked quite good doing it. Ben Roethlisberger used no huddle for most of the opening 15-play, 74-yard march to the end zone and capped the drive by evading the rush and tossing a four-yard score to tight end Jesse James.

The Saints forced the Steelers into a third down quickly on the next Steelers possession, but Antonio Brown beat Saints corner De’Vante Harris for a 57-yard score that extended Pittsburgh’s lead to 14-0.

Roethlisberger is 12-of-17 for 148 yards, Le’Veon Bell has run twice for 15 yards and caught a pass for 13 more and six different players have caught passes already in a performance that should leave the Steelers feeling full of confidence about their offense heading into the regular season.

UPDATE 8:44 p.m. ET: And that’s all the Steelers needed to see from Roethlisberger. Landry Jones is in the game for the third Steelers possession.

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Washington loses Ryan Kerrigan, Keith Marshall to injuries

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 12:  Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan #91 of the Washington Redskins on the sidelines during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 12, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 30-20.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

Injuries are always a problem in the preseason. But when they come at the same position, teams have to worry.

As such, Washington’s may have to start looking for running backs and pass-rushers.

The team announced that rookie running back Keith Marshall would not return tonight, after suffering a sprained elbow in their preseason game against the Bills.

Coupled with outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan leaving with a groin injury, it’s a rough night for Washington. The team announced that Kerrigan would not return.

Starting running back Matt Jones isn’t going to play again in the preseason because of a shoulder sprain, leaving them short on numbers.

Rookie Robert Kelly’s going to get plenty of work now, and he seems to be doing his part to earn the backup job, and potentially more.

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Buccaneers make a field goal, lose a wideout to injury

TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 26:  Kicker Roberto Aguayo #19 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers warms up before the start of an NFL game against the Cleveland Browns on August 26, 2016 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) Getty Images

Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo’s night got off to a good start.

After their opening drive stalled inside Cleveland territory, the Buccaneers sent Aguayo into the game to try a 48-yard field goal that was watched a bit more closely than many other preseason field goal attempts. Aguayo has missed two field goals and an extra point already this offseason, but he nailed the kick to put the Bucs up 3-0 on Friday night.

Jameis Winston moved the team with nice throws to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans before things slowed down as they neared the red zone.

The news hasn’t been all good for the Bucs thus far, however. Wide receiver/kick returner Donteea Dye is out for the rest of the game after hurting his hamstring, which will provide more opportunities for Kenny Bell and other wideouts trying for spots at the back end of the depth chart.

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Mike Scifres hurt, Panthers could be in punter market (if they weren’t)

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 11: Head coach Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers looks on in the first quarter of a preseason NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on August 11, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

At a time when other teams are looking for things like quarterbacks, the Panthers have what can fairly be considered a first-world problem.

But it looks like they’re going to need to find a punter.

Their competition for the job has been less-than-inspired to begin with, and now they may have an injured one.

Veteran Mike Scifres is out for the rest of the game after he took a shot to the knee, though he stayed in the game to hit a stirring 21-yarder. Scifres has been dealing with injury throughout the preseason, so it’s hard to tell if he’s winning or not, or whether they were just banking on a known commodity.

The only other punter on the roster is Kasey Redfern, whose primary qualification seems to be that he went to Wofford, where the Panthers have training camp. He recently replaced Swayze Waters, whose primary qualification seemed to be that he was named Swayze.

It was possible (likely even) that the Panthers were going to be looking for punters prior to the regular season anyway, but Scifres’ condition may have forced the issue.

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Sam Bradford urges everyone not to overreact to the preseason

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford warms up prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright) AP

In last year’s third preseason game, Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford went 10-for-10 for 121 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles blew out the Packers to improve to 3-0.

“Last year after the third preseason game, everybody thought we were going to the Super Bowl,” Bradford said today.

The Eagles did not, in fact, go to the Super Bowl. Or the playoffs. Bradford said people need to understand that the preseason — even the third game of the preseason, when starters usually play the longest — doesn’t mean much.

“But there’s very little game-planning that goes into preseason — I’m sure Green Bay didn’t game plan to stop us last year; they probably hadn’t even practiced our offense,” Bradford said. “Obviously it was nice to go out there and execute the way we did in that third preseason game, but I don’t think anyone in our locker room really bought into the fact that because we looked great in a preseason game, it was going to be easy during the regular season.”

So as the Eagles prepare for tomorrow night’s third preseason game, Bradford knows that an impressive win doesn’t mean they’re heading for the Super Bowl. Everyone else should know that, too.

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Bosa, Chargers need to commit to compromising, now

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Defensive lineman Joey Bosa #97 of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts as he walks off the field after defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 44-28 in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

It’s been two days since the Chargers opted to take the gurgling impasse with Joey Bosa public, backing the player and his agents into a corner and making it much harder for a reasonable deal to be finalized. NFL Media, partially owned by the Chargers and entirely owned by franchises that could find themselves in similar situations in the future, seems to be slanting coverage in a subtle (or not-so-subtle) effort to pressure Bosa and, ideally, to drive a wedge between Bosa and his agents, with the goal of having Bosa roll out of bed one day with a decision to take the offer that’s on the table.

Making matters worse is the reality that plenty of current and former players are doing the bidding of The Boss, adding to the pressure on Bosa by suggesting that his reluctance to take the pending offer amounts to a reluctance to play football.

But every argument directed at Bosa (e.g., he’s not haggling over much money at this point) can be directed at the team, and the idea that “Bosa must not want to play for the Chargers” easily can be phrased as “the Chargers must not want Bosa to play for them.”

The divide continues to spring from the team adhering to franchise precedent and Bosa adhering to top-three-in-the-draft precedent. Without much separating the two sides (at least until the Chargers vowed to shrink their offer), each side is sitting back, folding its arms, and saying, “What’s the big deal?”

Here’s what needs to happen. The two sides need to get in a room and commit to negotiating until a deal is done.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because we consistently took the same position about the Jets and Ryan Fitzpatrick. When two sides who disagree commit to engaging in good-faith negotiations, a spirit of compromise and practicality takes over, and a middle ground is reached.

It happens all the time in civil litigation, where parties that despise each other submit to efforts to settle their claims in good faith with the intent of working out their differences and, despite the animosity, they routinely do. Even with apparent anger between Bosa and the Chargers, a genuine effort to get together and strike a deal will most likely get a deal done.

At this point, one side needs to be big enough to make the call, and the other side needs to be big enough agree to give it a try. Once that happens, the deal will be 95 percent complete.

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Report: Jimmy Garoppolo to start Friday night

New England Patriots quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo, left, and Tom Brady, right, walk on the field following an NFL football training camp practice with the Chicago Bears Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) AP

It will reportedly feel like 2001 all over again in Charlotte on Friday night.

Mike Reiss of ESPN.com reports that, barring a last-second change or scissor accident, Jimmy Garoppolo will get the start against the Panthers in the Patriots’ third exhibition game of the summer. Tom Brady is also expected to play, so he will be coming off the bench to get his first playing time of the preseason.

It’s been a long time since Brady has been in that role, but the circumstances for the Patriots make it a sensible way to go about their business.

Garoppolo has a chance to start a game on the road against a good defense, just as he will in Week One against the Cardinals, and he gets to prepare for the game as the starter. That’s not insignificant for a player who will be making his first NFL start in that game and coach Bill Belichick has called getting Garoppolo ready the No. 1 priority for the offense.

Brady has plenty of experience on that front and whatever time he sees on Friday will be to get him on the field before he serves his four-game suspension to start the season. One bit of worry could be Brady seeing time alongside backups, but there’s no word on when Brady will be in the game and what kind of playing time the rest of the first team is expected to see against Carolina.

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Teams begin preparing for glut of cut players

73101766202155_Fuse_Getty-Images_crop Getty Images

Currently, NFL rosters have up to 90 players. On Tuesday, the maximum drops to 75. Four days later, the limit reduces to 53.

My calculator tells me (assuming I entered the information correctly) that up to 1,184 roster moves will be made over the next eight days. Most of those will come from the termination of contracts or the placement of players on waivers. Teams are preparing for the coming glut of cuts by, for example, contacting agents to find out which of their clients are on the bubble.

It’s a common practice, and as a practical matter it’s happening now. Because very soon plenty of guys will be looking for jobs, and plenty of teams will be looking to upgrade their 53-man rosters by grabbing guys cut by other teams.

Regardless of how it all works out, more than 1,000 guys who currently are playing in the NFL and very much want to do so will soon be told they can’t. Plenty more would currently love to be on a 90-man roster but still can’t get a shot (thank heavens I read this one more time before hitting “publish,” because I had a word other than “shot” in there).

Hopefully, the media will keep this dynamic in mind before making a big deal about a handful of guys who choose to leave football before football chooses to tell them to leave. Far more will be leaving football before they want to.

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Falcons announce five roster cuts

Atlanta-Falcons-helmet-Al-Messerschmidt-Getty-Images-jpg Getty Images

The Falcons announced five roster cuts Friday as they began the process of trimming their roster to 75 players by next week’s deadline.

Waived by the team were wide receiver David Glidden, defensive end Efe Obada, fullback Will Ratelle, cornerback Jordan Sefon and guard Jordan Walsh. All but Obada were undrafted rookies signed by the Falcons last spring. Obada spent some time with the Cowboys last season.

The moves put the Falcons’ roster at 84 players.

All teams must trim their rosters to 75 by Aug. 30, then to the regular season size of 53 by Sept. 3.

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Jeremy Maclin, Lamarcus Joyner fined $9,115 after ejections

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, left, and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, right, scuffle during the first half of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, in Los Angeles. Both players were ejected. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang) AP

Preseason ejections aren’t the most common thing in the world, but there were a pair of them in last week’s game between the Chiefs and Rams.

Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner were both ejected from the game after getting into a scuffle late in the first half of last weekend’s game in Los Angeles. In another reminder that it is still the preseason, referee Tony Corrente announced Joyner as No. 20 of St. Louis, eliciting a round of boos from the Rams’ new home crowd.

It may have been a practice game, but the league issued real fines in response to the pushing and shoving.

Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports that both players have been fined $9,115 for striking an opponent. That fine is this year’s minimum penalty on the fine schedule used by the league while offenses judged to be more serious, like Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed roughing Vikings quarterback Shaun Hill last week, will cost $18,231 or more.

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Andy Reid predicts more kickoff returns “than ever”

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library Getty Images

The “most dangerous play” in the game is about to get even more dangerous. And the NFL has 13 days to keep that from happening.

The five-yard change to the touchback rule was supposed to reduce kickoff returns, by enticing the receiving team to take a knee. The opposite outcome is expected, with the kicking team opting to try to pin the opposing team inside the 25.

“I think these special teams coaches are smart guys,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid told PFT Live on Friday. “They’re popping the ball up, so we might have more returns than we’ve ever had. It’s crazy. I’m not sure it’s the same thing the league was trying to get, but that’s what we’re getting right now. These kickers are so accurate and they can put it right down there within the five yard line and the goal line and force you into a return and then your coverage teams have got to do their thing. Special teams coaches and coverage teams have the confidence that if the kicker does that then they can keep them within that 25-yard area or actually within that 20-yard area. So I think your probably gonna see more returns than ever.”

PFT previously reported that a change to the rule would happen during the season only under extraordinary circumstances. But if there’s reason to believe that something extraordinary is coming (i.e., more returns than ever), why not change the rule back before Week One of the regular season arrives?

Given the one-year nature of the rule, it will take 24 owners in the offseason to extend the rule beyond 2016. But 24 owners can decide right not to scrap the rule for 2016. Given the very real likelihood that the new rule won’t have the intended effect, why in the world wouldn’t they?

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Report: Concerns raised about Ezekiel Elliott’s pattern of behavior

FILE - This Aug. 19, 2016 file photo shows Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott laughing as he talks with teammates on the sideline in the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Miami Dolphins in Arlington, Texas. Elliott appears set for his preseason debut at Seattle after the running back taken fourth overall by the Cowboys missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins, file) AP

Like many people on out-of-town visits to states where marijuana is legal, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott decided to check out a pot store while he was in Seattle for last night’s preseason game. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wasn’t happy about that.

But beyond that, the Cowboys organization is apparently concerned about the way Elliott handles himself off the field. Ed Werder of ESPN reported today that there are concerns about “a pattern of disturbing behavior” from Elliott.

Werder didn’t detail what behavior was involved in that pattern, but far more concerning than entering a legal marijuana store is that there’s an investigation in Columbus, Ohio, into an allegation of domestic violence. The Columbus city attorney’s office said a month ago that there’s an “open investigation” into that allegation. There has been no update to that story since.

Frankly, it feels a little ridiculous to even be talking about visiting a legal marijuana store when there’s also an investigation into a domestic violence allegation. The latter is a serious concern, while the former is something that shouldn’t even be the NFL’s business. After Werder’s report aired on ESPN, his colleague, former NFL running back Merril Hoge, said somebody should sit Elliott down and tell him, “Nobody’s ever played with drugs and won.” But that’s silly. Many people who have smoked marijuana have become Hall of Fame football players and had success in other fields, up to and including becoming president of the United States. (And it’s also worth noting that there’s not even any evidence that Elliott actually used marijuana. He may have simply been curious to see how a legal marijuana store operates.)

The domestic violence allegations against Elliott are, indeed, concerning. The marijuana issue is nothing.

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Tom Brady reportedly playing in tonight’s preseason game

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, grasps the hand of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, right, during NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) AP

Barring another unfortunate scissors incident, it appears we’ll see Tom Brady for the first time this preseason when the Patriots play against the Panthers.

Whether he starts, however, remains to be seen.

According to Tom Curran of CSNNE.com, Brady has joined the Patriots in Charlotte with the intention of playing.

Of course, the plan was for Brady to play a week ago, before he cut his thumb with a pair of scissors in pregame. That forced Jimmy Garoppolo to make a quick start, and it’s worth wondering whether Bill Belichick sat Brady on purpose just to see how Garoppolo would react.

Belichick has also maintained that having Garoppolo prepared for starting the first four games of the regular season was his priority, so it will be interesting to see how much Brady actually plays tonight.

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Rueben Randle feels he still has plenty to prove

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 03:   Rueben Randle #82 of the New York Giants catches a pass in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles during their game at MetLife Stadium on January 3, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Eagles knew wide receiver Rueben Randle well from his time with the Giants, and the team should know Randle much better now that he’s gone through spring and training camp trying to earn a starting role after signing with the Eagles in free agency.

But Randle still feels like he’s not only proving himself as a player. He believes there were knocks on his consistency and work ethic that may have scared away some potential free agent suitors.

“I feel like I get read wrong because I do a lot of things naturally and it doesn’t seem like I’m giving much effort,” Randle said, per ESPN. “If I go out there and make a one-handed catch and make it look effortless, I get praised for it, but if I do all these other things effortlessly, it’s like I’m not giving much effort.

“It’s just kind of one of those things, you just have to go out there and just make some plays and see how it goes from there.”

The Eagles would like Randle to make a bunch of plays. Jordan Matthews, who led the team in every receiving category last season, has been out for the last three weeks and Randle is in a crowded group of wide receivers trying to make an impression. Randle, who caught eight touchdown passes last season for the Giants, has three preseason catches in two brief appearances.

Though Randle’s focus has been on getting up to speed with a new offense and earning a role in the starting lineup, he’s also playing for the future. He’s just 25 and is on a one-year contract, so he could be back on the free agent market next spring — or play his way into the Eagles’ long-term plans.

The Eagles expect Matthews back for the season opener, and in the meantime Randle and the other receivers are trying to stand out.

“If I didn’t [feel confident], I shouldn’t be here,” Randle said. “We all should feel confident in where we are. We just have to go out and prove ourselves.”

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