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Week 17 Monday 10-pack

Green Bay Packers quarterback Flynn hands off the ball against the Detroit Lions during the second half of their NFL football game in Green Bay Reuters

It’s the first Monday of the year, and it’s the last Monday 10-pack of the year.

I miss the days when football season ended before December 31.

As a setup goes, that’s all I got.  Let’s get on to the 10 takes from a 32-team season-ending Sunday.

1.  Packers should strongly consider franchising Flynn.

In 2008, after the first annual Brett Favre retirement, the Packers drafted two quarterbacks.  The gesture was interpreted by some (i.e., by us) as a bolting of the door behind Favre and the blocking of it with large pieces of furniture.

Brian Brohm, who entered the 2007 college football season as one of the top prospects, slid to the Packers in round two, pick 56.  LSU’s Matt Flynn was an afterthought, with pick number 209 in round seven.  Four seasons later, Brohm is long gone — and Flynn showed on Sunday that he’ll be the hottest commodity in the 2012 free-agent market.

If he gets there.

Like Matt Cassel of the Patriots in 2009, the Packers should think about slapping the franchise tag on Flynn, in order to trade him to a quarterback-needy team.  With Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III the best options in the draft, teams like the Redskins and Dolphins and Browns and maybe the Seahawks will be clamoring for a proven commodity like Flynn.

The risk, of course, is that Flynn would sign the franchise tag but no serious offers would come for his services, given that the starting point for a long-term deal would be the one-year guaranteed salary of $14.5 million or so in 2012.  If that would happen, the Packers would be stuck with a backup earning roughly $6.5 million more next year than starter Aaron Rodgers, who is due to earn a base salary of $8 million next season.

The other side of the coin is that Flynn will walk away with plenty of coins in his pockets — and zero compensation to the team that transformed him from a seventh-round pick into a guy who’ll be the most coveted quarterback not named Luck or Griffin.

2.  Rex should be on the hot seat.

Though it’s too early to fire Jets coach Rex Ryan, who has two appearances in the AFC title game in three seasons as a head coach, he deserves the pressure that goes along with the accountability for guaranteeing a Super Bowl win (and, even more importantly in New York, a win over the Giants) and failing to deliver.  Only so many times can a head coach protect his players and assistants by saying “put the blame on me” until someone decides to put the blame on him.

Yes, his players seem to still believe.  More importantly, the owner seems to still believe.  But the players and the owner may believe a little less in 2012 — especially if Rex emerges from a disappointing 2011 season (in light of the expectations fueled by Ryan) as brash and bold as ever.

Beyond the boundaries of his team, Rex has become a caricature.  (Some would say he already was one.)  If that sense ever makes its way into the locker room, and eventually it should, it’ll be time to move on.

Apart from all the words, it’s one specific action that could, as a practical matter, put Rex in a position to be coaching for his job in 2012.  The misguided decision to make receiver Santonio Holmes a captain, given that Holmes spent much of the year not acting like a captain, could come back to haunt Ryan.

Arguably, it already is.  And now Rex has a mess on his hands, especially since a guy who spent much of Sunday acting like he didn’t want to be with the Jets signed a long-term, big-money deal before the season.

3.  Steelers fleeced Jets on Holmes.

Speaking of Santonio, Steelers fans didn’t care much for the abrupt decision to trade Holmes to New York for a fifth-round pick in 2010.  With a four-game suspension for violation of the substance-abuse policy coming on the heels of Ben Roethlisberger’s misadventures in Milledgeville, it was perceived that the Steelers’ decision was driven less by football strategy and more by public relations sensitivities.

But the Steelers were looking ahead.  With Holmes due to miss the first four games of the 2010 season and one wake-n-bake away from a one-year suspension, the Steelers opted to unload a potential headache — especially since the Steelers knew they’d never tie their hands by giving Holmes a huge contract.

And so the Steelers didn’t simply get a fifth-round pick.  The Steelers also received the peace of mind that comes from dumping a wideout who would have been a major pain in the butt for the balance of 2010, and who simply no longer factored into their plans.

Meanwhile, the Steelers traded that fifth-round pick to the Cardinals for cornerback Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick.  And with that sixth-round pick the Steelers found their 2011 MVP in round six of the same draft.  Receiver Antonio Brown has become almost everything Holmes was as a player, without creating any of the headaches or other issues that go hand in hand with having Holmes on the team.

Advantage Steelers.

4.  Texans-Bengals game could be the key to the AFC playoffs.

I’ve been concerned throughout much of the 2011 season that, once the Texans get to the postseason, a lack of playoff experience would keep them from being successful.  But their first opponent is the Bengals, a team with young players having no playoff experience and, by all appearances, no players having any positive playoff experiences.

So the Texans, who beat the Bengals last month after trailing 16-3 at the half and 19-10 after three quarters, will have a very good shot at holding off the No. 6 seed.  Taking a broader look at the AFC field, the outcome of that game could have a huge bearing on the determination of the eventual conference champion.

If Houston holds serve at home, it will be time for a return to Baltimore, where the Ravens’ eight regular-season wins included a trouncing of the Texans.  The Steelers, after most likely beating Denver, will head to New England.

Though Baltimore would have to face one of those two potent teams (either Pittsburgh at home, where the Ravens won 35-7 in Week One or the Patriots in New England, where the Ravens won in the playoffs two years ago, 33-14), the Ravens wouldn’t have to play both of them.  Which, for the Ravens, is nice.

If, in contrast, the Bengals upset the Texans, Cincinnati would head to Foxboro — and Pittsburgh would return to Baltimore with a burst of momentum and a shot at becoming the latest wild-card winner to catch a division rival flat-footed after a bye week and knock them out of the playoffs.  If Baltimore manages to beat the Steelers for a third time this year, the reward would be a trip to New England.

The converse is true for the Pats.  A win by the Bengals keeps New England from having to play both Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  If Houston wins, the Patriots would have to face a Steelers team that gave New England one of its three 2011 losses before inviting the Ravens back to town.

One way or the other, the outcome of Saturday’s game will make the path to Indy considerably easier for New England or Baltimore, by sending the Steelers to one place or the other.

5.  Crossroads for Daniel Snyder.

The Redskins became the property of Daniel Snyder in 1999.  In the 13 seasons since then, Snyder has employed (excluding interim hires) six head coaches.  Other than Snyder’s boyhood hero, Joe Gibbs, no coach has made it more than two seasons on the job.

Mike Shanahan has just completed his second season on the job.  Recently, Shanahan has been subtly justifying his two losing seasons by explaining that much work needed to be done to improve the bad team he inherited.  And while there’s no indication that Shanahan will be fired, there likewise was no indication that the end was coming three years ago for Shanahan in Denver.

The bigger question for Snyder is whether he’s willing to stay the course not only now but after the 2012 season.  If Shanahan and G.M. Bruce Allen position themselves to land Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the draft, it would be foolish to give Shanahan only one year to work with the new quarterback.

And so Snyder needs to realize that, by deciding to keep Shanahan now, Snyder essentially is deciding to keep Shanahan for 2013 — and possibly for 2014.

6.  Another Manning/Leaf dilemma coming?

Speaking (twice now) of Luck and Griffin, what once was a one-man show at the top of the draft quickly has become another Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf conundrum.  On Sunday’s Football Night In America, former Colts coach Tony Dungy explained that Colts vice chairman Bill Polian has shown a willingness to go against conventional wisdom in the draft, taking Edgerrin James in 1999 over Ricky Williams and Dwight Freeney over Albert Haynesworth in 2002.

Dungy even said he’d personally lean toward Griffin, the Heisman winner and architect of a 67-point explosion in Baylor’s bowl win.

Luck still has one more chance to create some separation, when Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.  Despite the obsession over measurables and the things a guy can do when not wearing pads, scouts seem to be influenced heavily by performances on the big stage.

What Luck does with it could ultimately determine whether Luck and Griffin will become another Manning and Leaf dilemma, which despite being a no-brainer in hindsight was a much closer call in 1998.

7.  Pay the Cruz.

Giants receiver Victor Cruz has made, in two seasons, the unlikely climb from undrafted free agent to superstar.  Nearly as shrewd as the Giants’ decision to give him a chance was their decision to sign him to a three-year contract.

And so Cruz remains contractually obligated to show up for mandatory offseason workouts and training camp in 2012, despite being slated to earn a paltry $490,000.

But the Giants need to send a message to the locker room that stellar play will be rewarded.  While they could force Cruz to continue to prove himself — and to bear the injury risk — for the final year of his rookie deal and a season as a restricted free agent, the best move would be to find a way to pay him a fair salary that reflects not only his skills and abilities but also the contributions he made during a season that seemed destined for failure again.

In each of the last two games, a long-yardage catch-and-run from Cruz gave the Giants the upper hand.  It’s only right to put a lot more money in the guy’s pockets.

8.  Broncos should get Quinn ready to play Sunday.

Tebowmania landed with a thud 15 days ago, with the Patriots providing the rest of the league with the blueprint for turning the page on the NFL’s flavor of the month.

As a result, Tim Tebow has played worse than poorly the last two weeks, with as many turnovers against the Bills and Chiefs (six) as Tebow had in his 10 prior games combined.

Enter the Steelers, who have made crafted their legacy over the past two decades by methodically building a lead and then gradually choking off the opposing offense.

As a result, if the Broncos want to have a realistic shot at advancing, it may be prudent to be ready to pull off a Rocky-style switch to southpaw, by switching from the southpaw to Brady Quinn.

This isn’t a long-term indictment of Tebow.  It’s a recognition of the fact that, at least for now, he has bumped up against his ceiling.  The goal on Sunday is to win one game, and it could be that the only way to do that will be to know when to flip the switch from the unconventional quarterback to the guy whose abilities would defy the Steelers’ preparation.

9.  MJD deserves high praise.

Every year, there’s a sense that Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has reached the limit of his abilities, and that a regression is coming.  Every year, he simply continues to play at a high level.

This year, on a team with no passing offense to draw safeties away from the box, Jones-Drew piled up 1,606 rushing yards, more than 240 yards better than Ray Rice, who finished at No. 2.  Jones-Drew added 374 receiving yards, which gives him 1,980 yards from scrimmage.

At a time when former USC tailback Reggie Bush is still trying to become the best running back in the game, the former UCLA running back who entered the league in the same draft as an afterthought to Bush is what Bush has always wanted to be.  Unfortunately for Jones-Drew, the Jaguars may not be able to develop a decent passing game before the window closes on his prime.

10.  Packers defense is even worse than the Patriots.

All year, the media has harped on the Patriots’ porous defense, barely noticing the Swiss cheese sieve in Green Bay.

At the end of the season, the numbers don’t lie.  The Patriots gave up 411.1 yards per game, and the Packers gave up 411.6.

The Packers also finished with a worse pass defense, giving up 299.8 yards per game.  The Pats surrendered, on average, 293.9.  That’s 34.1 yards per game more than the third-worst pass defense, the Saints.

Fittingly, the three worst pass defenses are complemented by the three best pass offenses.

And so, if the top two seeds make it to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl (or if the Saints get there instead of the Packers), it could be time to reduce the field from 100 yards to 50, put up nets at either end, and just call the game what it will be — arena football.

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Doug Pederson: “Not everybody” played hard on Sunday

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 4:  Head Coach Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles calls a play during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Eagles lost for the third straight week on Sunday and the margin of victory for their opponents has gotten steadily larger over that streak, which isn’t a trend that coach Doug Pederson would surely like to stop as soon as possible.

His chances of making that happen will increase if he can get everyone on the roster giving their maximum effort on a weekly basis. Pederson said that wasn’t the case when he was asked if everyone was playing hard in their 32-14 loss to the Bengals.

“Not everybody. Not everybody, and that’s the accountability that I talk about,” Pederson said in his Monday press conference. “You know, I hold coaches accountable for that. I hold myself accountable for that because it all starts with me and I pride myself each week to make sure the guys are ready to go. But at the same time, it comes down to a mentality by each individual player. You know, this is a business where we have to be ready to go every single weekend because every team in the league — I mean, there’s some teams that are better than others, obviously — but for the most part, anything can happen each weekend.”

Pederson said at another point that he didn’t see any quit in the team, but that may matter less than the fact that some engines never turned over in the first place. Pederson said he doesn’t have any doubts about his job security and that “it’s been 100 percent support on everything” from owner Jeffrey Lurie and General Manager Howie Roseman, but there’s no quicker way for that to change than losing games with lackluster effort from the roster.

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Ron Rivera on benching MVP: “I knew it would be a feeding frenzy”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wears a black coat and hat as he talks with reporters during a post-game news conference after an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 40-7. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday he’s disciplined players for dress code violations before, even though none of them were his quarterback and reigning MVP.

And he anticipated the reaction, after he benched Cam Newton for a series last night against the Seahawks for not wearing a tie on the team plane from San Jose to Seattle.

“I knew it would be a feeding frenzy,” Rivera said Monday.

Rivera insisted he’s done this to players previously, and that his goal was to “treat everybody the same.” And since Newton talked about it last night, Rivera declared the matter closed.

“There’s no underlying message, no feud, I’ve done it before,” Rivera said. “All I did was treat a player the way I did any other player.

“I’m done with it. We play the Chargers and we lost the game yesterday.”

Of course, the bigger question is why the tie signifies the respect and teamwork Rivera is trying to create. The turtleneck and jacket he was wearing yesterday were far more subdued than the clown pants he wore to the Super Bowl, but the tie is apparently important.

At least when you’re 4-8, I suppose.

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In the midst of an awful season, Todd Gurley looks in the mirror

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 04:  Todd Gurley #30 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball during the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

Last year, Rams running back Todd Gurley was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. This year, Gurley is one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments.

Far from building on his impressive first season, Gurley has just 679 yards on 211 carries. Among the 24 NFL running backs with at least 120 carries this season, Gurley’s average of 3.2 yards per carry ranks dead last. There are 34 players in the NFL this year with at least two runs of 20 yards or longer, and Gurley is not one of them.

Asked after Sunday’s loss to the Patriots what’s going wrong with the 4-8 Rams, Gurley said he’ll look at himself, as he thinks all of his teammates will do.

“At the end of the day,” Gurley said, “you just have to look at yourself and say, `We’re not doing a good enough job.’”

Gurley still doesn’t have a 100-yard game this season, and he admits that bad week after bad week gets old.

“It’s hard,” Gurley said. “It’s repetitive, over and over every week. It’s crazy.”

A player with Gurley’s talent just has to go off and have a big game at some point. But that point may not be until 2017.

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AFC playoff picture: Divisional races remain tight outside of the East

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 16:  Defensive tackle Stacy McGee #92 of the Oakland Raiders stops running back Spencer Ware #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs for a loss of two yards in the second quarter on October 16, 2016 at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California.  The Chiefs won 26-10.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) Getty Images

Barring an epic flop, the Patriots are going to win the AFC East for the 14th time in the last 16 seasons.

There isn’t anything close to that much clarity in any of the other divisions in the AFC. The Raiders currently hold the top seed in the conference, but they are just a game up on the Chiefs with a Thursday matchup at Arrowhead Stadium looming as a major factor in deciding the AFC West.

Neither of the other divisions have a team with even that slim a lead heading into the final four weeks of the season. The Ravens and Steelers are both 7-5 with a Christmas Day game on the schedule while the Texans’ three-game losing streak leaves them with a 6-6 record. The Titans have the same mark and the Colts could make it a three-way dance by beating the Jets on Monday night.

In other words, there’s a lot to sort out in the AFC.

LEADERS
1. Raiders (10-2): More late heroics have Oakland on top, but it will be fleeting if they can’t win in Kansas City.

2. Patriots (10-2): The Patriots could end Week 14 with both a division title and a first-round bye.

3. Ravens (7-5): Four home wins in the last five weeks have righted the ship in Baltimore, but they’re closing out the year by going on the road three of the next four weeks.

4. Texans (6-6): Houston will be hosting the Super Bowl, but the Texans need to find themselves in a hurry if they’re going to have any shot of playing in it.

5. Chiefs (9-3): A win on Thursday gives them a big tiebreaker advantage with a season sweep of the Raiders.

6. Broncos (8-4): They survived in Jacksonville and will be in the playoffs if they win out, although that’s a big if with the Titans, Patriots, Raiders and Chiefs left on the schedule.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
7. Dolphins (7-5): Their winning streak and their time in playoff position ended in Baltimore, so Miami will need some help from others to climb the ladder again.

8. Steelers (7-5): Three straight double-digit wins have the arrow pointed up for Pittsburgh.

9. Titans (6-6): A bye week offered some rest for Tennessee ahead of their final playoff push.

10. Bills (6-6): Blowing a 15-point lead in the final 24 minutes might have been the last gasp for Buffalo’s playoff aspirations.

11. Colts (5-6): If the Colts beat the Jets, they’ll be in position to make a run at the division crown. If they can’t beat the Jets, they probably don’t deserve a playoff spot.

12. Chargers (5-7): It was a long shot before they lost a home game to the Bucs.

13. Bengals (4-7-1): They looked better on Sunday than they have in weeks, but that has more to do with draft positioning than the playoff race at this point.

14. Jets (3-8): They can play spoiler on Monday night, but their own season was spoiled long ago.

15: Jaguars (2-10): When your quarterback calls the year “the biggest nightmare possible,” there’s not much left to say.

16: Browns (0-12): Four chances left to avoid a winless season in Cleveland.

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Bill Belichick never considered pulling Tom Brady with late lead

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16: Tom Brady #12 and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots shake hands at the start of the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Patriots are missing enough firepower on offense, but coach Bill Belichick said he never considered taking his most important player off the field yesterday.

Tom Brady’s nursing a knee injury, and the Patriots were up 26-3 with five minutes and 52 seconds left against the Rams. But the idea of protecting his quarterback seemed foreign to Belichick.

“Well, after the game turns out, it’s easy to go back and make those suggestions,” Belichick said, via Mike Reiss of ESPN.com. ” I’ve seen a few games in this league, seen those double-digit leads evaporate in a minute or two.

“I know that’s not a big concern when it doesn’t happen. [But] when it does happen, it’s a major crisis and a lot of second-guessing about what should have been done or shouldn’t have been done. Trying to win the game.”

The Rams, as presently constructed, would need far more than a minute or two to score 23 points. Weeks, perhaps.

Asked a similar question during his weekly appearance on WEEI, Brady said: “We’re playing for a lot here. I don’t think it’s ever right to take your foot off the gas pedal.”

Even with tight end Rob Gronkowski out and wide receiver Danny Amendola sidelined, the idea of staying out of harm’s way is not one that resonated with the Patriots, who have plenty to play for over the next month.

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Kapri Bibbs dealing with a high ankle sprain

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 04:   Kapri Bibbs #35 of the Denver Broncos runs for yardage against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 4, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Broncos offense didn’t do much in Sunday’s 20-10 victory over the Jaguars, producing just 206 yards while playing without starting quarterback Trevor Siemian.

It looked for a while like running back Kapri Bibbs might provide some spark as he put up 37 rushing yards on the team’s lone touchdown drive of the day, but Bibbs’ afternoon ended a short time later thanks to an ankle injury. After the game, Bibbs, who ran five times for 49 yards overall, was in a walking boot and said he suffered a high ankle sprain.

“It was going to be a real good day,” Bibbs said, via the Denver Post. “I can bring a lot to this team. I can help this team a lot and that’s all I want to do.”

The Broncos will surely be doing more tests on Bibbs’ ankle, but such injuries typically mean missed time for players. If that’s the case, the Broncos may need to look for help with Devontae Booker and Juwan Thompson as the only other running backs on the roster.

One option could be Justin Forsett. The veteran was dropped by the Lions on Friday and played for Broncos coach Gary Kubiak in both Houston and Baltimore.

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Rex Ryan: It just snowballed on us

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 04:  Head coach Rex Ryan of the Buffalo Bills looks on from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during their NFL game at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on December 4, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Bills were up 24-9 against the Raiders after running back Mike Gillislee ran for a touchdown with nine minutes to go in the third quarter, but any thoughts that they’d win the game and rally to move back into the mix for a playoff spot soon disappeared.

The Raiders would draw within one point before the quarter was over and they’d tack on 15 more points in the fourth quarter on their way to a 38-24 victory. Everything unraveled at once for the Bills as the offense went three-and-out three times while the Raiders were driving for touchdowns and two fourth quarter turnovers sealed the deal for Buffalo.

Cornerback Corey Graham said he was in “shock” as things fell apart for a team that’s now 6-6 and looking at the longest of playoff shots.

“Well, it hasn’t happened a whole lot in my career, but it has happened before,” coach Rex Ryan said, via the Buffalo News. “Sometimes you feel that momentum shift and it just snowballed on us. Sometimes, I think we lose confidence. You can’t ever have that happen to you.”

Things may not play out like that very often for the Bills, but the story of Buffalo’s season has been one of finding a way to lose when matched with tougher competition. That’s not so different from the path they took to 8-8 in 2015, which leaves the team with an obvious area for improvement next season.

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Mike Pouncey doesn’t know if he’ll play again this year or not

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04:   Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins awaits the snap from Mike Pouncey #51 of the Miami Dolphins during the game against New York Jets at Wembley Stadium on October 4, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images) Getty Images

Mike Pouncey hasn’t played in the last three games because of a recurring hip problem.

He doesn’t know if he’ll play in any of the next four, either.

The Dolphins center admitted he wasn’t sure when or if he’d be back this season, deferring the question to coach Adam Gase

“You’ve got to ask coach Gase that one,” Pouncey said, via Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. “I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.”

He said he didn’t know how he re-injured the hip, but said it “feels good.” But he visited a specialist while the team was on the West Coast, and was told he didn’t need another surgery.

“Anytime you don’t have to get surgery, it’s the best news in the world,” he said.

The Dolphins started Anthony Steen in his place during Sunday’s loss to the Ravens, while Branden Albert and Laremy Tunsil were just coming back from injuries. The line as a whole didn’t hold up well, and could clearly use some stability in the middle.

Pouncey missed the first four games of the season, but then returned to the lineup before missing the last three.

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Woody Johnson under consideration for U.K. ambassadorship

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15: New York Jets owner Woody Johnson talks on the sidelines before the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on September 15, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Michael Adamucci/Getty Images) Getty Images

As the NFL continues to expand its presence in England, it may have an owner there on a full-time basis.

The New York Post reports that Jets owner Woody Johnson is under consideration for the position of ambassador to the United Kingdom. Johnson, who supported President-Elect Donald Trump, is a “leading contender” for the position, according to the report.

Steelers chairman Dan Rooney served as ambassador to Ireland from 2009 through 2012. He was appointed to the position by President Barack Obama.

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Mike Zimmer returns to Vikings, is expected to travel with team

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 18:  Head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings looks on against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on August 18, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Vikings haven’t gotten much good news lately. They got some on Monday.

“Mike Zimmer has returned to his coaching duties and is expected to travel with the team to Jacksonville for this weekend’s game,” G.M. Rick Spielman announced.

The phrase “travel with the team” implies he’ll be flying from Minneapolis to Jacksonville. The phrase “is expected to” implies that plans could change.

Zimmer, who had emergency surgery on Wednesday to repair a detached retina, will need clearance to fly in a pressurized cabin. Otherwise, the Vikings would have to find another way to get Zimmer to Florida.

The 6-6 Vikings remain alive for the wild-card berth. They have a longer shot to win the NFC North; they’ll need to run the table and hope the Lions lose three of their final four games.

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NFC playoff picture: Buccaneers making a move

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 04:   Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks to pass under pressure from  Kyle Emanuel #51 of the San Diego Chargers during the second half of a game at Qualcomm Stadium on December 4, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) Getty Images

If the playoffs started today, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be in. How many people saw that coming?

With yesterday’s win over the Chargers, the Bucs now have a 7-5 record and a half-game lead over Washington in the wild card race. Tampa Bay also has a good chance at catching Atlanta in the NFC South, although the 7-5 Falcons currently have the tiebreaker advantage.

Here’s how the whole NFC looks with four games to go:

LEADERS
1. Cowboys (11-1): With a three-game lead in the NFC East, Dallas has already clinched at least a wild card and appears poised to earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

2. Seahawks (8-3-1): The NFC West race is all but over.

3. Lions (8-4): Detroit has a two-game lead in the division with four to play.

4. Falcons (7-5): Atlanta is in danger of losing what looked like a comfortable division lead.

5. Giants (8-4): Sunday’s loss probably ruined any hope the Giants had of winning the division.

6. Buccaneers (7-5): Keep winning and they’re in the playoffs.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
7. Washington (6-5-1): That tie game in London is starting to loom large.

8. Vikings (6-6): Currently owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Green Bay.

9. Packers (6-6): If they win out they only need the Lions to lose once between now and the Week 17 finale.

10. Cardinals (5-6-1): Sunday’s win is probably too little, too late.

11. Saints (5-7): Losing to the Lions at home sealed their fate.

12. Eagles (5-7): Both the offense and the defense have declined significantly since a promising start.

13. Panthers (4-8): A blowout loss to Seattle ended the reigning NFC champions’ hopes.

14. Rams (4-8): Yet another non-winning season for Jeff Fisher.

15. Bears (3-9): At least they’re better than the 49ers.

16. 49ers (1-11): At least they’re better than the Browns.

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Doug Martin says he’s fine, but Bucs offense took some injury hits

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 04:  Doug Martin #22 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  carries the ball while being pursued by Denzel Perryman #52 of the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on December 4, 2016 in San Diego, California. The Buccaneers defeated the Chargers 28-21.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Buccaneers closed out Sunday’s 28-21 win over the Chargers with running back Doug Martin on the bench, but it doesn’t look like the veteran is going to be out for another extended period.

Martin, who missed six games with a hamstring injury this year, watched while Jacquizz Rodgers made a big catch on the game-winning touchdown drive and then ran the clock out on the next Tampa possession. He said after the game, via Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, that he was “bent back” before heading for the sideline and that he expects to be fine.

The outlook is less positive for wide receiver Cecil Shorts. Shorts had to be carted off with a knee injury and the team fears that he tore multiple ligaments while also dislocating his knee.

“I don’t know how he was conscious after that,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “That was one of the most gruesome hits I’ve ever seen.”

Tight end Luke Stocker left for the day with an ankle injury and wide receiver Adam Humphries was knocked out with a concussion. Freddie Martino stepped up at receiver and Brate caught the winning touchdown, allowing the Bucs to end the day with the same record as the Falcons with four games left to decide the NFC South.

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Sickness, Saints didn’t slow down Matthew Stafford

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 04: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions reacts during the first half of a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 4, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Lions have made a habit out of playing nailbiters this season, but they went the other way against the Saints in New Orleans on Sunday.

Their defense held the Saints to 13 points and Matthew Stafford threw a pair of touchdown passes, including a 66-yarder to wide receiver Golden Tate that allowed them to breathe more comfortably in a 28-13 victory. It was a big day overall for Stafford, who hit on 16-of-17 passes to open the game and ended up 30-of-42 for 341 yards.

All of that came on a day when Stafford was feeling less than 100 percent. Tate revealed that Stafford showed up feeling sick on Sunday, “but just found a way.” Stafford downplayed any effect of the sickness, which coach Jim Caldwell said he didn’t even know about until after the game.

“He got rolling,” Caldwell said, via MLive.com. “Things you know — he had two touchdown passes, whatever his percentages were, he earned a [111.3 quarterback] rating. But he does much more than that for us. This was a team that blitzed us quite a bit. Getting us into the right protections, giving us a chance to try to get some big plays as a result of pressures, getting runs, taking us out of bad runs, getting us into better run situations. He does a lot of those things, but not only that, just in terms of leadership on the field, he does a tremendous job. He seems to just get better and better every week.”

The Lions hold a two-game lead in the NFC North and Stafford’s been a big reason for that as he turns in perhaps the best season of his career. The Bears will get the next crack at slowing him down, but there’s been little evidence that either defenses or bacteria can find the right formula this year.

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Larry Fitzgerald glad milestones came in a win

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 04:  Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals embraces teammate J.J. Nelson #14 after Nelson's touchdown catch against the Washington Redskins during the fourth quarter of a game at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) Getty Images

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald passed a pair of Hall of Famers on the all-time receptions list, and since his team won Sunday, he was able to appreciate that accomplishment for a second.

But the context of the list as a whole doesn’t escape him.

Fitzgerald caught 10 passes in the Cards’ win over Washington, passing Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison for third place on the list.

“The thing I’m most happy about is it came in a winning effort,” Fitzgerald said, via Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic. “A tough, hard-fought game at home that we definitely needed. It’s always nice to be able to climb up a little higher, but it is humbling to know that I am still 400 catches behind Jerry Rice.”

Rice’s 1,549 and Tony Gonzalez’s 1,325 are still seasons (plural) beyond anything Fitzgerald can reach (he has 1,106), but he’s put himself in a rare category. And he joked that at his age, the catch that pushed him past Harrison was a 3-yarder.

“They keep getting shorter and shorter,” Fitzgerald said. “But, hey, I am still getting it thrown to me, so that is all I can ask for.”

He’s also 10th on the all-time receiving yards list, with his 78 against Washington moving him past Andre Johnson. He now has 14,246 yards.

“Mind-boggling,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “I’ve been around some great receivers, but to see those statistics and the names he just passed is mind-boggling and hats to a great player and an even better person.”

The 33-year-old Fitzgerald may not be the same kind of downfield threat he once was, but he has proven himself dependable over time and could climb even higher (he’s 99 yards behind Reggie Wayne for ninth on the yardage list).

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Brock Osweiler: We’re close to exploding on offense

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 04:  Brock Osweiler #17 of the Houston Texans drops back to pass in the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on December 4, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) Getty Images

There have been plenty of games this season when the play of quarterback Brock Osweiler was a major negative for the Texans, but he turned in one of his better games of the year in Green Bay on Sunday.

Osweiler didn’t turn the ball over while completing 22-of-35 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown in the 21-13 loss. While that wasn’t enough for the team to get a win or score more than two touchdowns for the second time this season, it was enough for Osweiler to say after the game that he feels the offense is close to catching fire.

“I feel like we’re very close to exploding as an offense,” Osweiler said, via ESPN.com. “We are three, four plays away from changing multiple football games. Because of that, I don’t think we can get discouraged. … We’re tired of being close. We really are, as a team. We’re all able to see it on the film. We see it on the film every single week that we’re so close to turning that corner.”

Sunday’s loss dropped the Texans to 6-6, which is the same record as the Titans and the Colts can join them with a win over the Jets on Monday night. The Texans are in Indianapolis next Sunday and close out the year in Tennessee, so it would be a fine time for Osweiler and company to turn that corner once and for all.

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