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Saints outclass Falcons to lock up NFC South

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The Falcons and Saints have played the most reliably entertaining games of any NFC rivalry over the last few years. The last four games between the two teams have been decided by exactly three points.

That streak ended dramatically on Monday night for a good reason: The Falcons are no longer in the same class as the Saints.

New Orleans won 45-16 in a game that will be remembered as the night Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s passing yardage record. It should also be remembered for the Saints re-establishing themselves as the dominant team in the NFC South.

It was only a year ago that the Falcons were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Now Atlanta is a good-not-great unit incapable of beating high quality competition.

They have lost to the Packers, Texans, and now the Saints twice. The Falcons came into this year looking for more playmakers on offense, but the total lack of a running game has negated the boost that Julio Jones gives to the offense.

While Atlanta’s defense has appeared improved this year, they had no answer for Brees. The pass rush was non-existent. New Orleans converted their first nine third downs, four of them on third-and-long. The Saints rushed for 164 yards on only 21 attempts.

Now 12-3, the Saints could tie for the best regular season record ever for any team that doesn’t get a playoff bye. The 49ers just have to beat St. Louis to clinch the No. 2 seed and push the Saints down to the third seed.

The Falcons, meanwhile, will be the No. 5 or No. 6 seed. They don’t look like a team capable of going far in the playoffs or stopping a high powered passing attack.

It is very possible that these two teams will play again in the Superdome only two weeks from now.

That’s a rematch the Saints should welcome.

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Rex Ryan thinks Aaron Donald can’t hold Sheldon Richardson’s jock

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Rex Ryan is going out in a blaze of glory.

The soon-to-be-former Jets head coach met with the media on Christmas Eve, one day after the NFL announced the players who qualified for the Pro Bowl.  And Ryan objected to the failure of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to make it by questioning the skills of a guy who did.

After saying Ryan was “kind of shocked” by the snub of Sheldon, Ryan took an indirect shot at Rams rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“If it kept him out of the Pro Bowl because some guy had ‘X’ amount of sacks, and that guy can’t hold his jock as a player, to be honest with you, I think that’s kind of strange to me,” Ryan said, via Dom Cosentino of

Ryan didn’t name names, but he said, “I guess you guys will figure out who I’m talking about.”  Cosentino, citing an unnamed source, explains that Ryan was indeed talking about Donald.

“Clearly, the guys missed on Sheldon Richardson,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to look at the big picture … I see the tapes. This guy deserves to be in there. There’s no doubt about it.”

A combined vote of players, coaches, and fans determines the Pro Bowlers.

While Donald and Richardson play in different conferences, the Pro Bowl players currently are compiled without regard to AFC or NFC.  So Donald took a spot that could have gone to Richardson.

While Richardson didn’t specifically call out anyone who made it instead of him, the second-year player admitted that his reaction to not making the team was “too explicit for TV.”

Apparently, he didn’t watch Hard Knocks when the Jets were the featured team and Ryan was the star.

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Michael Crabtree can’t wait to see what happens this offseason

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The 49ers season came apart weeks ago, leaving little for anyone to look forward to other than the end of the season-long Jim Harbaugh saga or their own future if their contract is coming to its conclusion.

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree is in the latter group. Crabtree will be a free agent this offseason and said Wednesday that he hasn’t had any talks with the team about returning. He evaded a question about whether he wants to return, saying that “it depends,” but did say that he’s excited to see what happens come the offseason.

“I’ve grown a lot, seen a lot,” Crabtree said, via “I feel like we’ve done a lot as a team. I feel like I’ve contributed a lot to the team. Feel like the sky’s the limit for me, and I’m taking it one day at a time. I can’t wait to see what’s next, the next chapter in my career. I’m going to go hard every day. I’m going to go hard every year, try to get better. Try to maximize my talent.”

Crabtree isn’t heading into free agency on a high note. He’s caught 64 passes for 657 yards, a career-low in average yards per catch, and has never built on what looked like a breakout season in 2012. The overall offensive issues with the Niners surely didn’t help, but Crabtree’s appeal to the league come March isn’t an obvious one thanks to his middling production this year.

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Odell Beckham picks up $10,000 fine

St. Louis Rams v New York Giants AP

Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham has notched a lot of firsts during his rookie season, but not all of them are positives.

On the other side of the ledger is Beckham’s first fine as an NFL player. Giants players have received word from the league about fines levied for their behavior during a chaotic game with the Rams that featured three ejections after a brawl on the sideline.

Beckham was hit late by Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree to touch off that brawl and he’s been fined $10,000 for kicking at Ogletree when Ogletree was on the ground after the tackle. Ogletree was penalized for a late hit, but said Wednesday that he hasn’t heard from the league about a fine.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher said that he thought Giants kicker Josh Brown should have been ejected for kicking at a Rams player, but he was penalized and fined $8,200 instead. Brown said, via the Associated Press, that he plans to appeal.

Defensive end Damontre Moore joined wide receiver Preston Parker with a $15,000 fine after getting ejected for throwing punches during the melee and long snapper Zak DeOssie was fined for a late hit. With defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins also picking up a fine for roughing the passer, Giants players wound up handing over more than $72,000 for their actions in a game that saw players on both teams lose control of themselves far too often.

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Thursday morning one-liners

Devonta Freeman AP

Bills players are redefining the definition of “home for the holidays.”

The numbers show the Dolphins have made great strides on offense.

The Patriots practiced in full pads on Christmas Eve.

Jets QB Geno Smith wants to be part of the solution.

I want the Ravens Christmas Album under the tree.

The Bengals are a sick ward, with four players sent home with the flu.

For Browns K Garrett Hartley, kicking was the easiest part of last week.

The Steelers have one goal (which is shared by 31 other teams).

Texans CB Kareem Jackson has been part of the team’s bounceback season.

The Colts are all business this week, even with nothing to gain.

Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon has sold his Jacksonville home.

Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton apologized for his side’s showing.

Broncos S T.J. Ward took part in practice, though there were no pads or helmets.

Chiefs S Eric Berry is getting strong support from his teammates.

The Raiders’ rookie class continues to shine.

Chargers CB Steve Williams credits his bigger game to bigger pants.

The Cowboys are happy to bump up the pick they owe the Ravens for what they’ve gotten from LB Rolando McClain.

There’s plenty of meaning for the Giants in a meaningless finale.

Eagles OLB Trent Cole wants to retire there, just not yet.

Washington has fundamental problems on defense.

Does Bears G Kyle Long have a future at T?

Lions RB Joique Bell was limited in practice with an Achilles injury.

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers didn’t let a sore calf keep him from pulling the sleigh.

The Vikings have sold 30,000 PSLs for their new stadium.

Falcons QB Matt Ryan thinks RB Devonta Freeman deserves more touches.

Panthers QB Cam Newton played Santa before leading his team to his hometown this weekend.

The Saints practiced without both starting OTs yesterday.

Buccaneers MLB Mason Foster doesn’t want to leave.

One prognosticator has an uncanny knack for the Cardinals.

The Rams face a critical offseason on offense.

49ers S Eric Reid was held out yesterday because of his concussion.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson can move into the top five in QB rushing yards for a season this week.

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Jim Harbaugh says his future’s no distraction at all

Jim Harbaugh AP

With his own local media, Jim Harbaugh has grown terse, having covered the ground about his future often.

But while he didn’t exactly drop any clues in his conference call with Arizona reporters, he at least dropped his guard a bit.

When asked the inevitable question about how difficult it was to coach amid the swirl of reports about his future, the for-now 49ers coach said it wasn’t.

“The interesting thing is if you don’t look at the Internet and you don’t watch TV, you really do not know that it’s going on,” Harbaugh said, via Matt Maiocco of “That has been exactly what I have done. Put the focus on the week of preparation, put the focus on the players and the coaches and what we are trying to get done here. It works if you really don’t pick up.

“On the way home, you don’t turn on the talk radio and you don’t look at the Internet, you can be completely unaware that anything is swirling. I walk by people and I see their faces. I know something is going on.”

There was a laugh after that part, and he was then asked what it was like to be the only American not watching TV or on the internet.

“There has to be another American beside myself,” Harbaugh said. “Don’t you think? Yeah, I bet there is. I would think there would be plenty of Americans who probably focus on another task at hand and dedicated to the mission they have and excelling and not having distraction.”

If there were, we might not be having as Merry Christmas here. So thanks Jim, for being unique.

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Adam Vinatieri’s workouts have evolved, leading to his best year at 41

Adam Vinatieri, Pat McAfee AP

Adam Vinatieri is doing something almost unheard of not just in football, but in all of professional sports: He’s having the best year of his career while he’s in his 40s.

Vinatieri, who will turn 42 on Sunday, is a perfect 28-for-28 on field goals this season. Vinatieri told the New York Times he’s taking good care of his body and the results speak for themselves.

“I don’t get under a heavy squat rack or do a lot of heavy power cleaning anymore,” he said. “It’s hard on the joints, and when you get a little bit older, you can do other things that doesn’t take quite as much strain on your body. I do a lot of core stuff to keep my core and hips loose and limber and strong. The workouts have evolved.”

If Vinatieri doesn’t miss a kick in Sunday’s season finale, he’ll join Gary Anderson of the 1998 Vikings, Jeff Wilkins of the 2000 Rams and Mike Vanderjagt of the 2003 Colts as the only kickers who have kicked a full season without a miss. Not bad for the NFL’s oldest player.

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Peyton Manning fully participates in practice

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On the same day Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said he doesn’t plan to retire after the current season, he was able to fully prepare for his next game.

Manning fully participated in practice despite a thigh injury suffered in Week 15.

He practiced less than two days after a Monday night game during which he once again seemed to be not the same Peyton Manning, fueling speculation that there’s something wrong with him beyond the thigh injury that appears on the report.

Still, his ability to fully participate in practice on Wednesday suggests he’ll be in better physical condition on Sunday against the Raiders, which possibly means he’ll throw fewer than four interceptions and in turn lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

Also fully participating despite injury were running back C.J. Anderson (ankle), safety David Bruton (calf), tackle Ryan Clady (thigh), tackle Chris Clark (back), running back Ronnie Hillman (foot), center Will Montgomery (knee), tight end Jacob Tamme (foot), receiver Demaryius Thomas (ankle, hip), tight end Julius Thomas (ankle), running back Juwan Thompson (hip, knee), cornerback Kayvon Webster (shoulder), and defensive end Derek Wolfe (knee).

Tackle Paul Cornick (toe), receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip), and safety T.J. Ward (neck) practiced on a limited basis.    Linebacker Lamin Barrow (illness), linebacker Brandon Marshall (foot), center Manuel Ramirez (illness), and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (illness) didn’t practice.

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Bears re-sign Austen Lane to replace Willie Young

Austen Lane Getty Images

The Chicago Bears have re-signed defensive lane Austen Lane to replace starter Willie Young, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a torn Achilles.

Lane spent the preseason with Chicago before being released during cuts.

Lane has played in 30 games in his career since being selected in the fifth round of the 2010 draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Lane has also spent time with the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions.

Young leads the Bears with a career-high 10 sacks this season. He injured his Achilles in last week’s loss to the Lions.

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Why aren’t other teams lining up for Jason Garrett?

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Rarely if ever does a head coach become a free agent.  Rarely if ever does a free-agent head coach find a high demand for his services elsewhere.  Usually, it’s because the free-agent coach is a free agent for a reason.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose contract expires after the season, could be the most desirable lame duck to ever hit the market.  With 11 wins and a division title while working under General Manager Jerry Jones, why isn’t Garrett showing up on the short list for other teams?

Sure, Garrett generated mediocre results during his first three years on the job, struggling at times to juggle the micro of play calling and the macro of, you know, not icing his own kicker with a time out.  But Garrett has found his way in 2014 (he no longer calls the plays on offense), presiding over a team that arguably has exceeded expectations more than any other — which should put Garrett in line for coach of the year consideration.

But Garrett isn’t being mentioned as a candidate for looming or possible vacancies in San Francisco, Oakland, New York (Jets or Giants, though a Tom Coughlin termination seems like likely), Chicago, and Atlanta.  Maybe it’s the perception that Garrett doesn’t want to leave Dallas.  Maybe it’s the belief that there’s already a wink-nod extension in place.  Or maybe he’s just not getting the credit he deserves.

Every year, the coordinators of the best teams land on the A- or B-list for coaching vacancies.  Shouldn’t the head coaches of the best teams be there, too, in those rarest of circumstances when the head coach of one of the best teams has a contract that’s about to expire?

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49ers’ Anthony Davis seems to have a problem with Greg Roman

San Francisco 49ers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

As the 49ers’ season comes to a close and the team prepares for a big shakeup in the offseason, offensive tackle Anthony Davis sounds like he hopes he’s not coached by offensive coordinator Greg Roman next season.

Davis went on Twitter today and seemed to take a shot at Roman, recalling a time when Roman first became offensive coordinator that Roman said something that got under Davis’s skin.

“Greg Roman to me when I was 21: ‘You know we can get someone off the street to do what you do,'” Davis tweeted.

Davis then tweeted, “The irony.” Perhaps he was suggesting that the 49ers are about to get someone off the street to do what Roman does, although Davis later deleted that tweet, so it’s not quite clear what he was trying to say.

In any event, Davis seems to have some kind of a problem with Roman, the kind of problem that could fester on a team — except that Roman is probably only going to coach Davis for one more game before they go their separate ways.

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Mike Pettine: Our first-round picks aren’t busts

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Much has been written and said about Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel over the course of his rookie season, culminating in his brief stint in the starting lineup and questions about whether he’d ever be the long-term quarterback that the Browns have been seeking since their re-entry into the NFL.

Manziel was just one of two Browns first-round picks this year, however. Cornerback Justin Gilbert may have drawn less attention than Manziel, but he didn’t play any better and didn’t convince too many people that he’ll be the kind of standout player you’d like to get at the top of the first round. Gilbert’s professionalism has been publicly criticized by veterans Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, something that Pettine has heard from those players and seems to agree with even as he says that no one is giving up on either player after their rookie seasons.

“Are we ready to write both of those players off as busts because they didn’t produce as rookies?” Pettine said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I’m not anywhere near that point. That’s just a knee-jerk. Some rookies come in and play right away. Others it takes some time.”

Conversations about whether either of your first-round picks will ever pay off aren’t ones any team wants to have at the end of the season and they certainly aren’t ones the Browns want to have after years of losing. They’ll probably need at least one of Manziel or Gilbert to break through to end that cycle, which makes it a big offseason for both players.

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John Harbaugh disputes report that Jim’s family is pushing him to Michigan

John Harbaugh, Jim Harbaugh, Jack Harbaugh AP

Jim Harbaugh reportedly is “torn” between taking the job at Michigan and staying in the NFL.  Harbaugh’s “family and friends” reportedly are urging him to return to his alma mater.  His brother, John, disputed that on Wednesday.  Strongly.

“My dad and I both . . . I will say this:  The report that said that his family is encouraging him to go to Michigan by Adam Schefter is absolutely incorrect,” the Ravens coach told reporters Wednesday.  “There has been no family that I know of that has given him any advice at all because that’s a personal decision.  It’s his to make, and that’s just absolutely false.  I don’t know where that came from, but it didn’t come from the Harbaughs.  My dad and I both said, ‘Hey, don’t tell us.’  If something gets out, we don’t want the finger pointed at us.  Just leave us out of it, and don’t tell us what you’re going to do.  I think he’s just trying to figure out what the next thing is for him, and more than anything, trying to have a great game on Sunday.”

Still, it sounds like John appreciates the fact that he’s not the Harbaugh making headlines.

“I open up my [computer] and you look at Google and it’s Jim Harbaugh,” John said.  “Perfect.  Perfect, it’s all Jim.  I will say this: I’m just proud of him.  I think he’s handled this.  He’s been a giant through all of this uncalled-for type of media onslaught sometimes that takes place.  Not anybody’s fault, just the nature of the business.  I think he’s handled it just perfectly.”

A reporter then seized on the word “giant” as a clue that Jim could be succeeding Tom Coughlin in New York.

“See, that’s what happens right there,” John said, laughing.  “That will be a headline.  No, that’s not what I said.”

If John is telling the truth (and there’s no reason to think he isn’t), he’s been saying nothing to Jim about Jim’s next job.  Regardless, John’s comments make it even more clear that there will indeed be a “next job” for Jim, sooner than later.

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Fletcher Cox was initially mad about Pro Bowl snub, now he’s not

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Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance represent the typical stages of grief.  When it comes to not qualifying for the Pro Bowl, Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox has short-circuited that process to anger and acceptance.

“Dude, I mean, I was mad all last night, kind of mad this morning,” Cox said Wednesday, via Geoff Mosher of  “Then I finally realized there was nothing I could do to change it or say anything about it.  Good luck to the guys, everybody that’s in it.  I wish them the best.

“Maybe I wasn’t good enough.  And I’m not in it and that might be a reason why, I’m not good enough and I’ll try again next year.”

Coach Chip Kelly also disagreed with the snub.

“I don’t know the exact formula and how it was picked,” Kelly said.  “I thought he had a Pro Bowl year.  He’s the one guy that when I was handed the results last night so I could call our players, that I was like, ‘Wow.’  That was the one that kind of surprised me.

“I think he’s been our top player.  He’s been really unblockable at times.  I think he’s a very disruptive force.  But sometimes you make the Pro Bowl, I guess, on reputation.  But I hope people recognize him and maybe like [first-time Pro Bowl center Jason] Kelce, where it’s probably a year later than he should have gotten it, Fletcher will get it next year.  But I know he may be our most valuable player overall to be honest with you.”

Part of the problem comes from the categorization of players for Pro Bowl purposes.  Defensive ends in the 3-4 scheme still fall within the “defensive end” category, even though they’re actually interior defensive linemen.

“Do I think [it was a factor]? Yes,” he said.  “There’s nothing I could do it about it.  Just move on, get ready for Sunday, man.”

It’s the right attitude.  Besides, this year’s Pro Bowl isn’t in Hawaii.  It’s in Arizona.  Nothing against Arizona, which is great.  But it’s not Hawaii.

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Peyton Manning has no plans to retire this offseason

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Since all he has to do is hand off and throw interceptions, of course Peyton Manning isn’t going anywhere.

The Broncos quarterback said Wednesday that he planned on playing for the Broncos next year, assuming they want a 39-year-old quarterback.

I certainly plan on being back if the Broncos will have me,” Manning said, via Mike Klis of the Denver Post. “At this point I’m thinking about Oakland. I know this is the time when there are conversations about what coaches are going to return.

“For some reason I guess I get to fall into that category because maybe I’m closer to the same age as some of the coaches. But I have no plans along those lines. I’m enjoying playing and looking forward to Sunday’s game and the game to follow that.”

There was plenty of speculation prior to last year’s Super Bowl about his future, and whether he’d ride off into the sunset with a win. The Seahawks made that a moot point, but it will be interesting to see how long Manning hangs on.

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Joe Flacco: Nothing to do but go out and win the next one

Joe Flacco AP

The Ravens need to win and get help from the Chiefs this weekend in order to make the playoffs, something they could have avoided with a win against the Texans last weekend.

They lost 25-13, however, and quarterback Joe Flacco’s dreadful game was a big reason why they lost. Flacco was 3-of-18 for 27 yards and threw two interceptions during the first half as the Texans ran out to a 13-0 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. It’s not the first time that Flacco has turned in a stinker, which leaves him with a clear handle on the best way to proceed.

“There’s not really too much you can do about it at this point. You just have to have confidence in yourself, confidence in yourself as a group, and go out and win the next one,” Flacco said, via the team’s website. ““We’re all adults out here. We’ve all been through tough situations and tougher situations and we’ll continue to go through situations like we had on Sunday and like we’re dealing with now. We’ve just got to pick ourselves up and move on.”

Flacco has bounced back from bad outings already this season, including a five-touchdown game against the Buccaneers a week after he played poorly in a loss to the Colts. The Ravens could use something similar this weekend, even if it won’t erase the sting from last week if the Ravens win and still miss the playoffs.

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