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PFT’s wild card picks

Lions quarterback Stafford congratulates Saints quarterback Brees after the Saints beat the Lions in their NFL football game in New Orleans Reuters

With matching 10-6 records in Week 17, I finished the regular season seven games behind Rosenthal.

But there are still 11 games to go.  (Counting the Pro Bowl, there are 12.)

So I’m saying there’s a chance. . . .

For the regular season, Rosenthal is 169-87.  I’m 162-94.

Bengals at Texans

Florio’s take:  With neither team having any realistic shot at advancing beyond the division round, this one feels like a bowl game that, fortunately for the Texans, is being played on their home field.  The Texans have little playoff experience, but they get to play another team that doesn’t have much more.  With a flu bug possibly snaking through the Cincinnati locker room, there’s a chance that Bengals fans will be feeling nauseous by Saturday night.

Florio’s pick:  Texans 23, Bengals 17.

Rosenthal’s take: There’s a “happy to be there” vibe to both of these teams. But only the Bengals are lucky to even make the playoffs. They can’t beat quality teams. Houston’s defense is more dangerous and more balanced. The Texans running game is superior too. Throw in one of the best home atmospheres in the league, and the Texans may win going away.

Rosenthal’s pick: Texans 23, Bengals 13.

Lions at Saints

Florio’s take:  Through the first eight games of the 2011 season, Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford repeatedly connected, with 11 touchdowns and 804 yards.  After the Lions’ bye, teams spent more time blanketing Johnson.  When defenses took him away, Matthew Stafford had nowhere else to go — especially without a running game.  Eventually, Stafford decided to throw it to Johnson even if Johnson wasn’t open.  In the last three games, Johnson and Stafford have connected for 530 yards and four scores.  The Saints beat the Lions by 14 points during the period when Stafford wasn’t throwing it to Johnson when Johnson appeared to be covered.  And so, partially under the influence of a desire to catch Rosenthal and partially under the influence of one or more potent beverages, I’ve got a feeling that the Lions will make the last three-pointer in the basketball game that will unfold on the floor of the Superdome.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 44, Saints 41.

Rosenthal’s take: This isn’t the matchup Detroit wanted. Matthew Stafford struggles against the blitz; the Saints love to blitz. You beat New Orleans by running; Detroit can’t run. The vaunted Detroit defensive line is no longer a difference maker. This is like an Arena League game for New Orleans’ defense. Get three stops and they win.

Rosenthal’s pick: Saints 44, Lions 31.

Falcons at Giants

Florio’s take:  So Eli Manning once again is elite, even though Victor Cruz has saved Eli’s salsa with big catches — and runs — in the last two weeks.  And the Giants have some Super Bowl buzz, given the memories of what they accomplished back in 2007.  But these Giants have a bad habit of showing up only in huge moments, and there’s nothing about a wild-card visit from the Falcons that will make the Giants feel like they did in the past two games against the Jets and Cowboys.  If — and it could be a big if — the Falcons resist the urge to justify trading up for Julio Jones and/or to prove that Matt Ryan is a big-time quarterback and simply run the ball and run the ball and run the ball some more, they can get the Giants on their heels and infest MetLife Stadium with the same funk that existed when the Redskins, Seahawks, and Eagles won there.

Florio’s pick:  Falcons 24, Giants 21.

Rosenthal’s take: The Falcons traded up for Julio Jones to get more explosive on offense and they were more explosive down the stretch. The Giants defense is prone to giving up big plays. This just feels like a game the Falcons have been building towards for a few years. It’s their time. At least for one week.

Rosenthal’s pick: Falcons 24, Giants 21.

Steelers at Broncos

Florio’s take:  If Lions-Saints is destined to be a basketball game, a hockey match could be breaking out in Broncoland.  The Steelers are sluggish on the road, losing in Baltimore, Houston, and San Francisco, and barely winning in Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Cleveland.  But the Broncos aren’t the Ravens, Texans, or 49ers.  And the Steelers, despite any real or imagined or embellished injuries, will find a way to shut down the Denver running game, and in turn ensure that Air Tebow will be nothing more than a paper airplane.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 13, Broncos 9.

Rosenthal’s take: If the Chiefs and Browns can keep things close against Pittsburgh, the Broncos can make this a game. When Tebow Time arrives, however, the Steelers defense seems more likely to score a touchdown than this dreadful Denver passing attack.

Rosenthal’s pick:  Steelers 16, Broncos 10.

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Hernandez jurors can watch Super Bowl

Aaron Hernandez AP

The presiding judge in the Aaron Hernandez murder trial will allow jurors to watch the Super Bowl.

According to ESPN’s Michelle Steele, Bristol (Mass.) County Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh said jurors can watch Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Seahawks, but she asked them to step out of the room if Hernandez — the former New England tight end — is mentioned during the telecast of the contest.

The trial is in its second day. Hernandez is accused in the June 2013 killing of Odin Lloyd in Massachusetts.

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Peyton Manning hasn’t made up his mind about next year

Colts Broncos Football AP

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning hasn’t made up his mind about his playing future, but said he thinks he’ll have a decision sooner rather than later.

Via Bob Glauber of Newsday, Manning said he’s still thinking about what he wants to do in 2015.

“I’m not interested in making this a lingering thing,” Manning said. “I’d like to make a decision soon.”

He said he didn’t think passing his annual physical in March would be a problem, at least as it pertains to his surgically repaired neck.

Of course, the leg injuries he was dealing with down the stretch were clearly an issue, and how they affected his play likely complicates his decision.

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LeGarrette Blount’s marijuana charges dropped

LeGarrette Blount AP

The Patriots gave LeGarrette Blount a clean slate, and now he has a clean record to go with it.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Blount completed his court-ordered 50 hours of community service in Boston, and the marijuana possession charges were dropped by local prosecutors.

Blount and then-Steelers teammate Le’Veon Bell were arrested on their way to the airport for a preseason game in August, and the DUI charges Bell had in addition to the possession could lead to a two-game suspension next year.

But after bailing out on the Steelers in midseason, Blount was released and quickly signed by the Patriots, who will be counting on him Sunday.

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PFT’s Super Bowl picks

Richard Sherman, Tom Brady AP

It’s finally here. And I still have no clear idea who will win. Even though a blowout could be brewing (especially if the Patriots can duplicate what the Packers did in the NFC title game before opting not to play to win but playing not to lose), I don’t have a really strong feeling.

But enough of that. This is the part where I write a few paragraphs to set up the picks.

And then I say the MDS and I were both accurate with our conference title picks, and that he’s 9-1 for the postseason, and I’m 7-3.

MDS’s take: Moving past #Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch sparring with reporters and all of the off-field issues of the last two weeks, I keep thinking it comes down to this: Seattle’s defense is just too good.

Last year the Seahawks’ defense made Peyton Manning look bad in the Super Bowl, and this year I think the Seahawks’ defense is going to make Tom Brady look bad in the Super Bowl. Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are about as good as it gets in the NFL, and I don’t think Brady is going to find many open receivers on Sunday. If there’s one weakness to Seattle’s defense it’s that a good tight end can beat them, and as a result I can see Rob Gronkowski having a big day. But even if Gronk gets 100 yards and a touchdown, that won’t be enough on a day when I don’t expect any of the Patriots’ wide receivers to play well.

The reason this game will be a lot closer than last year’s Super Bowl is that I don’t see Seattle putting a lot of points on the board. Bill Belichick will have a good game plan to neutralize Russell Wilson’s running, and the Patriots’ secondary should be able to shut down Seattle’s wide receivers. This looks like a fairly low-scoring game.

But in the end, it’s a game that sees Seattle coming out on top. The Seahawks will repeat.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 21, Patriots 17.

Florio’s take: Back in September, I picked the Seahawks and Patriots to make it to the Super Bowl. And I picked the Seahawks to win. And I can’t in good conscience abandon that selection.

I could be wrong. Very wrong. The Patriots may finish the job the Packers started. The Patriots may give Russell Wilson the Tim Tebow treatment, blowing the Seahawks out in the first half so that there’s no chance for a rabbit-from-hat finish. Or maybe it will be a close, down-to-the-wire, three-point margin with Stephen Gotskowski playing the role of Adam Vinatieri.

Coach Bill Belichick has the uncanny ability to develop a game plan that is unique to each opponent, figuring out how to move the ball against any defense he faces — and how to take away what any offense does best. Throw in the #DeflateGate disrespect, and Belichick may be able to press enough buttons to overcome the Seahawks.

But it’s the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, not Cincinnati in Week Five. Sometimes, no amount of Xs and Os and “us against them” and “win one for the Gipper” matters. G.M. John Schneider has put together an excellent roster, and Pete Carroll has coached them up to the point where they believe they can beat anyone.

This year, they didn’t beat everyone, but all that matters on Sunday is whether the can score more points than the Patriots. I believed they could in September, so I’ve got no choice but to stick with that now.

Florio’s pick: Seahawks 27, Patriots 24.

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Baseball scout thinks Tom Brady could have been a good catcher

AFC Champion New England Patriots Team Media Availability AP

Tom Brady’s football accomplishments are certainly impressive, but if the Montreal Expos had their way, he might have never made it to the Super Bowl.

Like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Brady was once a baseball prospect as well, and the Expos used an 18th-round pick on the left-handed-hitting catcher in 1995, hoping to steer him away from Michigan.

Instead, he went to college, was drafted 12 rounds earlier in the NFL Draft by the Patriots, and the rest is history.

But the scout who encouraged the Expos to try to lure him to the diamond is convinced the same qualities that enabled him to lead six teams to Super Bowls would have translated well.

I think he would have been a pro,” veteran scout John Hughes said, via Joe Frisaro of MLB.com. “He had all the intangibles. He could throw, left-handed power. There is no reason to think this guy couldn’t have been a big league catcher.”

Brady was a promising baseball player at Serra High School, which also produced Barry Bonds and Gregg Jefferies.

“I could have ruined NFL history if I signed this guy,” Hughes said. “To this day, in all my years of scouting, Tom is still the most impressive high school kid I’ve ever been around. Just the person, the way he carries himself. What you’re seeing now, obviously, he is more mature. But it’s not a drastic change. He just had this presence.

“He’s a good guy. His family are great people. I always say, it was the most fun summer I tried to sign a guy I didn’t sign.”

Bill Belichick’s certainly glad he didn’t.

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Belichick, Carroll both downplay eligible receiver issue

belichickcarroll AP

The Patriots have confused both of their playoff opponents by switching offensive players back and forth from eligible to ineligible receivers. But neither coach Bill Belichick nor his opponent on Sunday, Pete Carroll, thinks that’s going to be an issue in the Super Bowl.

At the coaches’ final media appearance today, PFT asked both coaches about the issue, and they both said they’re confident that the officials will handle any such plays properly, with no problems.

“That’s not my job, so whatever the officials do, that’s their protocol and their mechanics, so whatever that is, you should direct that concern to the league,” Belichick said.

Carroll said that he is confident the officials will handle the Patriots’ formations correctly. And although there have been some suggestions that Belichick is pushing the bounds of the rules when he tries those formations, Carroll said he admires the Patriots for constantly finding new ways to play.

“I don’t have any problem with the way it’s been handled,” Carroll said. “Bill has done a good job of challenging us with really unique and innovative ideas in how to move people around. . . . I don’t think there’s going to be any issue.”

Here’s hoping that Carroll is right. It would be nice to see the NFL get through a game without an officiating issue.

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PFT Live wraps up its week in Arizona at noon ET

pftlive

It’s been a great week in Arizona getting ready for the Super Bowl and we’re just about ready to stop talking about the game and start playing it.

There’s still some time left before “just about ready” flips over to “ready,” though, and that moment won’t come before the end of Friday’s edition of PFT Live. Mike Florio will be coming to you once again from Radio Row with everything you need to know about the Super Bowl and the rest of the football world.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can listen live via the various NBC Sports Radio affiliates, through the links at PFT, or with the NBC Sports Radio app. And, as has been the case all week, you can also watch a simulcast of all three hours of the show by clicking right here.

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NFLPA will offer its own salary cap estimates soon

Super Bowl Football AP

The NFLPA wants to make sure teams are spending enough money on players, and they’re going to release their own set of numbers to try to encourage just that.

Via Tom Pelissero of USA Today, union boss DeMaurice Smith said they would release their own salary cap projection next month, since they feel the league has tried to deflate the market with low-ball estimates.

Last year, the salary cap rose from $123 million to $133 million, and the league’s management council told teams to expect next year’s to fall between $138.6 million to $141.8 million. But Smith said he thinks the final figure will be higher than that.

Look, I’m thrilled when the salary cap goes up 10 million dollars,” Smith said. “I’m ecstatic when they’re paying 8.5 (million) of that. . . .

“The last few years, you have seen various stories reported by some of you in the room … where you have reported things about the salary cap from ownership that has turned out to not be true. We believe that that not only misrepresents the economic reality of how the salary cap works, but our concern is that those inaccurate projections may have a negative consequence on some players who are trying to negotiate new contracts.”

Smith also pointed to 10 teams that didn’t spend required the 89 percent cash spending minimum in 2013, the Browns, Texans, Jaguars, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Raiders, Steelers and Washington.

“Let’s be blunt: it’s not overly titillating,” Smith said. “But the reason why I think it’s interesting to look at those 10 teams that were under the 89 percent — and there were a couple that were hovering around the 80 percent – (is) they’re going to be in a situation where hypothetically, if the cap continues to rise as we expect, on the back end of this deal, they’ve got to spend 110 and 120 percent of a salary cap that’s 20 million dollars higher than it was three years ago. To that, I say, ‘Fantastic.'”

While Smith’s right that the math won’t grab headlines, the fact that the salary cap is rising at a rate higher than expected will force teams to spend more, which is what he’s after.

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Pete Carroll on Richard Sherman’s imminent arrival: I can’t wait to see little Petey

Pete Carroll AP

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is set to become a father soon enough that there’s a possibility that the baby could come before the end of the Super Bowl on Sunday, which led to questions for Sherman about what he’d do if his son decided to arrive before the Lombardi Trophy.

Sherman said he hopes his son is a “disciplined young man” who waits until his father and the rest of the Seahawks have finished the game on Sunday, but, as any father knows, even the best laid plans are meaningless in the face of a baby’s schedule. Sherman won’t say whether he’d miss the game if the little one decided to make his appearance on Sunday and coach Pete Carroll said Friday that the team is behind Sherman in any choice he makes.

“It’s about family first and we will support his decision,” Carroll said before adding that he “can’t wait to see little Petey.”

We’ve got no insight into what Sherman will be naming his son, although if we were forced to guess we’d say Carroll’s only a slightly likelier namesake than Michael Crabtree.

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Dean Blandino: Nate Solder’s AFC Championship TD shouldn’t have counted

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The Patriots’ use of offensive linemen as eligible receivers and running back Shane Vereen as an ineligible receiver has created confusion for defenses and officials in the playoffs.

That confusion led to a touchdown that shouldn’t have counted in the AFC Championship game. Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to tackle Nate Solder during that game on a play that NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino should have been flagged as an illegal substitution.

“There was an issue on that play where on the previous play, [Cameron] Fleming had reported as an eligible player,” Blandino said, via CSNNE.com. “And on the Solder touchdown he went back to playing an ineligible position. That’€™s illegal. That’€™s an illegal substitution. So that’€™s something we discussed with the crew. Bill [Belichick] was made aware of it. So we’€™re going to be looking for that, make sure we follow the proper mechanics so that doesn’€™t happen again.”

Jim Miller of Sirius XM NFL Radio picked up on the missed call last week and pointed it out, but there was no confirmation from the league until Blandino’s press conference on Thursday. Plenty of other people probably would have picked up on it as well had the score not been 45-7 and another issue having to do with the air pressure of footballs not taken hold of the United States for the last two weeks.

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Martellus Bennett thinks Marc Trestman will be better offensive coordinator than head coach

Martellus Bennett, Marc Trestman AP

Things went south quickly for Marc Trestman and the Bears in 2014, leading to a 5-11 record and the team’s decision to fire both Trestman and General Manager Phil Emery when the year came to an end.

Trestman’s leadership abilities have come under fire in the wake of his two-year stint in Chicago, something that tight end Martellus Bennett didn’t do much to argue against in an appearance on NFL Network on Friday. Bennett did say that he thinks a move to the offensive coordinator role with the Ravens will work out well for coach and team.

“Trestman, I think, first off, the issue that he had, probably, was managing us all, all the different personalities,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of big personalities. And I think, for a first-time head coach in the NFL, dealing with all the personalities that you have, I think that’s hard when you got guys like me, you know, [Brandon] Marshall …  Lance Briggs on defense, (Charles) Tillman … Calling plays, he was excellent. I think he’s going to be an excellent coordinator for the Ravens. Strategically, he was great. But on the field, guys just weren’t executing.”

Trestman’s issues dealing with those big personalities likely played a role in the Bears’ decision to install an experienced NFL head coach for the first time since George Halas’s second stint on the sideline. If John Fox can get a grip on the locker room, a reprise of the rapid turnarounds he pulled off in Carolina and Denver could be within reach.

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Prosecutors say Hernandez DNA found on joint, bullet casing

Hernandez AP

The first Aaron Hernandez murder trial got rolling on Thursday, with opening statements in the case arising from the June 2013 shooting death of Odin Lloyd.

Via the Boston Herald, prosecutors revealed during their overview of the evidence to be introduced two intriguing pieces of information. A marijuana joint was found near Lloyd’s body, and the joint had DNA evidence that matches Hernandez’s. Likewise, a bullet casing found in a rental car used by Hernandez contained DNA matching Hernandez’s.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a jury disregarded overwhelming DNA evidence in a murder case involving a former NFL player. But Hernandez’s lawyer, Michael Fee, possibly will need something on the level of an “if-it-doesn’t-fit-you-must-acquit” moment to overcome the DNA evidence.

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Colin Kaepernick: Jim Tomsula a players coach who will be great for us

Colin Kaepernick, Kevin Minter AP

The 49ers’ regular season was a disappointment and plenty of people have registered the same reaction to the early part of their offseason, which saw the team part ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh and promote defensive line coach Jim Tomsula as his replacement.

It’s been widely viewed as an underwhelming hire motivated by the desires of General Manager Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York more than what might be best for the football team. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick expressed a different point of view during an interview with FOX Sports, however.

“Jim Tomsula’s gonna be a great coach for us. Players coach, always around the guys,” Kaepernick said. “Someone that’s willing to listen to what players say and has their intake. And I think that’s something that will help this team move forward. We have a lot of veteran players that know what they’re seeing on the field and know what they’re doing, so I think that will help us.”

Kaepernick’s point about the continuity on the roster is sound and should get a boost with the expected returns of linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman from injury. By promoting Geep Chryst and Eric Mangini to offensive and defensive coordinator guarantee that carryover will extend to the coaching staff as well. Should that lead to a rebound in 2015, concerns about Tomsula should dissipate quickly but anything else will likely lead to even louder calls that the 49ers stepped off a good path for all of the wrong reasons.

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Friday’s most important NFL employees will be the folks with the microphones

Goodell Getty Images

On Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will face a collection of media far more extensive than he usually does at his annual pre-Super Bowl press conference. Although his September 19 emergence-from-hiding event attracted non-NFL media who would be far more inclined to ask unexpected, unusual, and/or utterly hostile questions, the midtown Manhattan gathering occurred with limited advance notice.

Everyone who has been paying attention to the NFL knows that the Friday before the Super Bowl always consists of a no-holds-barred (in theory) session, which like most press conferences becomes a shotgun approach that depends largely on which of the collected credentialed get an opportunity to introduce themselves and then to formulate a query. Inevitably, there will be far more potential questioners than there will be time to pose questions.

And so it becomes important for the league office employees who have custody of the microphones used to ask questions to the Commissioner to exercise extreme discretion when determining who gets one of them. It’s been part of the reality of the pre-Super Bowl press conference for years now; those walking around with the wireless talking sticks need to make good decisions about who gets the chance to hear themselves talking while spending way too many words formulating a question, dumbstruck by the power of finally getting a chance to be the one to speak.

So who will get the chance to ask questions? Will it be restricted to the familiar faces of folks who cover the NFL on a regular basis and who have an inherent desire not to alienate the Commissioner or the office over which he presides? Will the persons employed by NFL Media, whose paychecks the Commissioner signs, get two or three (or more) bites at the apple? And will anyone who looks like a potentially reckless agitator who may ask tough questions about #DeflateGate or the unexplored nuances of the Ray Rice case (such as the discrepancies between the memo the Commissioner sent to the owners after the in-elevator video emerged and the findings made by Robert Mueller) or anything else that may force the Commissioner to wade through waters he’d rather avoid altogether?

It’s a drama that won’t play out on camera. But the handling of the microphones will be a very real aspect of this and every pre-Super Bowl Commissioner press conference. The event will be only as informative (and compelling) as the questions allow, and the folks with the keys to the questioning castle likely will be inclined to allow only those questioners who will permit the Commissioner to dispense information he’s comfortable sharing.

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Devon and Leah Still releasing book for kids fighting cancer

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Leah Still is still fighting cancer and will start a new round of chemotherapy on Friday, but that’s not stopping her from finding a way to offer some help to other kids in the same position.

Bengals defensive tackle and Leah’s father Devon Still got a lot of questions from other parents with kids fighting cancer about how their family has approached Leah’s treatment and he asked his daughter for her thoughts. That led the four-year-old and her dad to write an animated book called I Am Leah Strong that will be available online next month.

“I talked to my daughter and asked her if she wanted to do a children’s book to help kids who are fighting pediatric cancer now and kids who will be diagnosed in the future to help them with the transition from normal life to being in the hospital all the time,” Still said, via USA Today. “That book was written by her. I just had an outline of questions I wanted to ask her. Whatever answers she had I wrote in book form.”

Leah Still was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in June and the hope is that her next round of chemotherapy does enough damage to the disease that she’s able to begin stem cell therapy.

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