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Matthew Stafford, Kevin Smith appear to escape serious injury

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There’s little worse than having your starting quarterback leave with an injury in the preseason, but it looks like the Lions got little more than a temporary scare from Matthew Stafford on Saturday.

The Lions quarterback left the game with an injury to his left hand, but x-rays taken during the contest were negative. Stafford, who wore a wrap on the hand, said afterward that he would have returned if it had been a regular season game.

“Probably what would have happened in a regular season game is right after it happened, I would have up for x-rays,” Stafford said, via Anwar Richardson of MLive.com. “If they would have said they were negative, I would have come back in the game. It feels okay right now. It feels fine, really. It’s scary to look down and see your hand swell up by the second.”

Running back Kevin Smith also seems to have avoided an injury that will keep him out of the lineup for an extended period. The oft-injured running back hurt his ankle early in the second half, but also got good news when x-rays came back negative on Saturday.

“It just gets scary under the pile of those big guys laying on you. It’s just a minor tweak, something I’m pretty sure I can get rid of quick. Just stay in the training room,” Smith said. “More than anything, I was very scared. Just being that I had a high ankle sprain, I know how long it took to get back healthy. It’s not a high ankle sprain, so that’s positive. I’ll get in the treatment room and get back as soon as I can.”

Given the thin ranks at running back early in the season for Detroit, an injury to Smith would have forced the team to look for backfield help before the season starts. They still might do that, but it doesn’t appear they will be quite as desperate as many feared when Smith hobbled off the field in Oakland.

Now the Lions just need to clear up the status of the two cornerbacks who went down against the Raiders to make the whole night a momentary scare instead of a lingering problem.

 

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NFL announces partnership with YouTube

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The NFL is embracing online video.

The league, which has been slow and cautious about allowing its content to appear online and has often ordered highlight clips removed for copyright violations, has now decided that it makes more sense to use online video to reach as wide an audience as possible. As a result, the NFL and YouTube announced a partnership today that will result in an NFL YouTube channel that makes videos directly viewable on Google searches.

Realistically, it’s all but impossible for organizations like the NFL to prevent all of their copyrighted material from being posted online. So it makes more sense to form a partnership with the biggest provider of online video in the world than to keep futilely fighting online video.

The partnership also guarantees that kickoff times and broadcast information for every NFL game will be prominently displayed in Google searches. The league’s YouTube channel has already launched, and currently features a Super Bowl preview, Pro Bowl highlights, and big plays from the 2014 season. Some day, it may expand to include the league’s enormous NFL Films video archive. That would be a treasure trove for NFL fans. This announcement has great potential.

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Mike Westhoff thinks Pats are clean, this time

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One week ago this morning, the world was waking up to #DeflateGate.  Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, sounding still not quite fully awake for his Monday morning visit to WEEI in Boston, laughed the whole thing off as “ridiculous.”

While it may indeed now be “ridiculous,” it’s for reasons far different than Brady meant.  On Sunday, PFT pointed out that much of the blame for the distraction and debacle belongs to the NFL, which apparently set a trap without quite knowing what to do with the beast whose foot they caught in it.  Throw in the involvement of former Jets executive Mike Kensil, who now works for the league office, and the whole thing takes on a Hatfield-McCoy dynamic, with one of the Hatfields now walking around with a badge.

But former Jets special-teams coordinator Mike Westhoff has chimed in on this one, and he has reluctantly exonerated the Patriots.

“If it’s anybody that walks the edge on the rules, it’s these guys,” Westhoff told the Toronto Sun (via Tom Curran of CSN New England).  “Sometimes they remind me a little bit of Enron — they’re always the smartest guys in the room, until some day maybe they’re not.  That’s how I feel about them. . . .

“Did they do it? I honestly don’t think they did.  To tell you the truth, I’m not so sure they’re not sitting around today thinking, ‘I wish we’d thought this up,’ knowing them. . . .  As much as I hate to, I’m going to defend them.  And trust me, I hate to defend them. [Spygate] was only a part of it.  The number of things that were like this?  There’s only a handful of them that have been made public.”

“Trust me, what I’m tellin’ you.  There are quite a few others.  Clock violations.  You can go on and on.  There’s a whole sh-tload.”

The truth is there’s “a whole sh-tload” for many (if not most . . . if not all) teams.  Westhoff worked for the Jets when former strength coach Sal Alosi (supposedly acting alone) created a wall of humanity on the sideline with the goal of impeding the opponents’ gunners on punt coverage.  Other teams have done other things; in the recent Bill Walsh:  A Football Life documentary, Bill Parcells talked about his strong suspicion that the 49ers took down the communication lines early in playoff games at San Francisco, when the 49ers already had their first 15 plays scripted.

The current case has received much greater attention and scrutiny because of the profile of the team, coach, and quarterback involved — and because of Spygate.  But that made it all the more important that the NFL crafted a clear, reliable plan for connecting underinflated footballs to deliberate misconduct.  Apparently, the NFL didn’t.

Which in some ways makes this a lot like the Ray Rice case, only with different players and different details.  The incompetence of an organization shows itself in many ways, especially when the organization is confronted with an unusual situation.  The NFL’s handling of unusual situations in recent months has been quite unusual indeed, and the impact of this specific incident on the Patriots could be the tipping point for prompting one of the most influential owners in the sport to demand significant changes at 345 Park Avenue.

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Andrew Luck: Nothing doing on contract front

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There has been talk of a fat new contract in the offing for Colts QB Andrew Luck, but Luck said Sunday that he has as much need for a pen to sign for millions as he has need for a razor.

An ESPN report indicated that the Colts have been “working on the parameters” of an offer that would make Luck the highest-paid player in the league this offseason, but owner Jim Irsay said after the AFC Championship game that such a deal was not part of his “thought process” at this point. Luck sent a similar message after the Pro Bowl.

“There’s nothing there right now,” Luck said, via the Indianapolis Star. “I didn’t think about it all during the season and it’s only been a few days since it ended. I haven’t thought about it. I will have conversations with my agent just because you have to prepare, but I’m not sure where that report came from.”

Luck can’t sign an extension until the start of the new league year in March, so things could change. The Colts don’t have much pressure to do something now, though. Luck is signed for one more year on his relatively small rookie deal and they will obviously be executing their fifth-year option on his contract, so it will be at least 2017 before there’s a chance of losing Luck. That’s not much of a chance thanks to the franchise tag, one more reason why the Colts have time to figure out how they want to go forward with their quarterback.

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Bears keep it in the family with defensive line coach hire

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The Bears have shown a preference for assistant coaches that worked with head coach John Fox in Denver, including their hire of special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers.

So it’s no surprise that they found another former Broncos assistant to coach the defensive line, especially when that defensive line coach is also the older brother of the guy running the special teams.

The Bears announced the hiring of Jay Rodgers late on Sunday as they continue filling out Fox’s initial staff in Chicago. The elder Rodgers spent the last three years coaching the defensive linemen in Denver and was on the Broncos’ staff for six years overall.

Rodgers coached a pair of Pro Bowlers in DeMarcus Ware and Elvis Dumervil during his time with the Broncos and the Broncos were the league’s stingiest defense against the run for the last three seasons.

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After dunking at the Pro Bowl, Graham asks NFL to change the rule

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Saints tight end Jimmy Graham got to do what he loves to do after scoring touchdowns at the Pro Bowl: He dunked the ball over the goal post.

Graham, whose dunk during the 2013 season knocked a goal post off balance and led to a rules change for 2014, wants the league to change the rule back and allow players to dunk in celebration again.

“That was amazing. For me, it made the entire week,” Graham said. “Hopefully, one day they’ll look back and change this rule so I can do it in a real game. And hopefully one day in the Super Bowl.”

The NFL rarely goes back on excessive celebration rules, so it seems unlikely that Graham will get his wish. But it would make more sense for the league to modify the rule so that players can dunk as long as they don’t touch the goal post: The point of the rule was to prevent games from being delayed by a goal post knocked off kilter, so as long as a player doesn’t touch the goal post when he dunks, it shouldn’t be against the rules.

The game, after all, should be fun. And for Graham, it’s fun to pay tribute to his basketball background when he scores a touchdown. At the Pro Bowl, he could do that again.

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Monday morning one-liners

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Looking back at one of the Bills’ unsuccessful trips to the Super Bowl.

It’s apparently not too early to predict all seven rounds of the Dolphins draft.

What kind of impact can Patriots RB Shane Vereen have in the Super Bowl?

Longtime Jets beat writer Paul Needell died at the age of 57.

The offensive line went from a weakness to a strength for the Ravens.

Former Bengals RB Ickey Woods’s career as a pitchman continues to grow.

A call for the Browns to cut WR Josh Gordon to show they are serious about accountability.

Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons was miked up during Pro Bowl week in Arizona.

Texans DE J.J. Watt added to his highlight reel in the Pro Bowl.

Colts QB Andrew Luck and WR T.Y. Hilton hooked up for one more touchdown on Sunday night.

Talent will have more to do with the Jaguars’ results than the identity of the play callers.

Titans S Michael Griffin is expecting a close Super Bowl.

The Broncos should move forward in their defensive coordinator search this week.

Seven free agents who could interest the Chiefs.

Raiders FB Marcel Reece showed off his kicking leg at the Pro Bowl.

Said Chargers S Eric Weddle, “Obviously, I play to win a Super Bowl. I play for my teammates and the organization. I just hope we don’t waste the guys we have on this team and they give us a shot to win the Super Bowl.”

How will the Cowboys move forward at linebacker?

Giants WR Odell Beckham had a couple more highlights at the Pro Bowl.

Eagles RB Darren Sproles helped his team to a Pro Bowl victory.

A review of the Redskins’ outside linebackers.

A hand injury didn’t ruin Bears G Kyle Long’s trip to the Pro Bowl.

The sight of several Lions on Pro Bowl rosters is a sign of how well their season went in 2014.

A Pro Bowl touchdown was cause for Packers WR Jordy Nelson to celebrate with everyone.

The Vikings hope former C Mick Tingelhoff makes the Hall of Fame.

The Falcons coaching staff will have a lot of pieces in place when their new head coach is announced.

Panthers TE Greg Olsen had a pair of touchdowns in the Pro Bowl.

Saints TE Jimmy Graham brought back the goalpost dunk on Sunday night.

David Garrard is a fan of new Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Said Cardinals DL Calais Campbell of his Pro Bowl impressions, “Just how cool everybody is. These are all the superstars of the game, and guys you admire, just getting to know them and seeing how cool they are.”

Are the Rams right to want Sam Bradford back in 2015?

49ers coach Jim Tomsula has roots in Pennsylvania.

Seahawks T Russell Okung said things feel the same as last year’s Super Bowl thus far.

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Carroll will tell Marshawn not to grab his crotch

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Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has heard the NFL’s warning that Marshawn Lynch will get a 15-yard penalty if he grabs his crotch during the Super Bowl. And Carroll says Lynch will hear from him about it.

“I haven’t talked to him about the thing that just came up from the league and the things about the game and all that yet, but that will be addressed and I expect him to have a great Super Bowl week,’’ Carroll said. “I think he’s going to have a great time doing this and playing in this game come game day.’’

While Carroll doesn’t want Lynch doing anything that will give the team a penalty, Carroll doesn’t sound too concerned about the other question facing Lynch this week: Will he answer questions from the thousands of credentialed media in attendance?

“First off, let’s not miss that he is a very unique individual and he has a way that we have embraced, that we understand Marshawn and we support him every way that we can,’’ Carroll said. “But he is a very unique guy, and he’s got his own way of looking at things, and he’s also a very private person, too. That’s why the media thing is as it is. It’s not something that he is going to express a whole lot to you. I’ve said this before, that there’s a great deal spoken in his silence as well.”

So Carroll doesn’t want Lynch drawing a 15-yard penalty for grabbing his crotch on the field. But if Lynch does nothing more than grab his crotch on Super Bowl Media Day, Carroll won’t have a problem with that.

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Vontaze Burfict recovering from microfracture surgery

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As the regular season wound down, there was word out of Cincinnati that linebacker Vontaze Burfict might need to have a second surgery on his knee after landing on injured reserve following an initial operation in October.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis confirmed last week that Burfict had another operation, but stopped short of revealing all the details of the surgery. It turns out that Burfict needed to have microfracture surgery, an operation that’s designed to regrow cartilage in the knee and comes with added fears about how Burfict will respond for the 2015 season.

His surgeon Neal ElAttrache was cleared to talk about the surgery and told Ian Rapoport of NFL Media that he’s not worried about that aspect. He said the goal is for Burfict to be ready to go full speed at training camp, but he wouldn’t rule out a return in time for mandatory minicamp.

“I don’t see any reason, if this thing heals like we want and we think it will, why he won’t be back like he was,” ElAttrache said. “Microfracture has a bad connotation, but there are plenty of guys who have come back and been able to play like before. But it’s not really news when it works out.”

There’s a long way to go before anyone will know if it works out. Burfict will be on crutches for several weeks and it will be three months before he can start running, so the Bengals have to have a plan for how to go forward on defense if things don’t work out with Burfict.

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Joe Lombardi: “Added layers of complexity” in coaching Calvin Johnson

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One of the things that offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi learned during his first season with the Lions is that getting the ball to Calvin Johnson isn’t as easy as just telling him to run down the field and throwing the ball in his direction.

Lombardi learned that the way he could use Johnson was impacted heavily by the way that other teams defended him, pointing to a game against the Vikings when the Lions installed a new play during halftime in order to beat the coverage that Minnesota was sending Johnson’s way. That taught Lombardi to always have a few calls in reserve for use against unexpected defensive looks.

“I don’t want to say [Johnson] makes it more difficult because he really makes it easier,” Lombardi said, via the team’s website. “But there are added layers of complexity when you have a player that can be that dominant. If they play like this than maybe we go to this. There is definitely a comfort level in watching film during the week and saying this is who they are, this is what they are going to do and I’m not sure you can ever do that with him.”

Tackling that learning curve in 2014 should make things easier in 2015, especially if Johnson is able to avoid the injuries that cost him three games and limited him in several others. While the Lions Offense had its issues over the course of the year, Lombardi was able to feed Johnson and Golden Tate often enough for both men to finish with more than 1,000 receiving yards and that offers reason for optimism about a more productive second season in Detroit.

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Jets players enjoy seeing Patriots in another controversy

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We’ve found someone more skeptical of Bill Belichick’s #DeflateGate claims than Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Jets Pro Bowlers Nick Mangold and Sheldon Richardson said after the Pro Bowl they weren’t surprised to hear their division rivals involved in another controversy.

“That’s the Patriots,” Richardson said, via Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post. “I’m not surprised at all. If they ain’t winning with controversy, they ain’t winning. . . .

“It’s funny when they say, ‘We keep it professional and clean cut.’ Because they don’t. They don’t at all.”

Mangold was also skeptical of the fact 11 of the 12 balls the Patriots put into play were all under-inflated, while none of the Colts’ were.

“All 12 of [the Patriots’] balls having something wrong with them does tell you something is amiss,” Mangold said. “It does seem like it’s always something with the Patriots. It does seem that way.”

And it does seem like the Jets would be all too happy to enjoy their rivals’ misfortune.

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Giants matriarch Ann Mara recovering after a fall

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The Giants didn’t have a season to remember, but things got worse for team matriarch Ann Mara recently.

Via Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, the matriarch of the team is recovering after slipping on ice and hitting her head.

The 85-year-old Ann is the wife of late Giants owner Wellington Mara, and the mother of team co-owner John Mara. She’s still hospitalized

While she’s not very public, her son John did mention her at the end of the season, when discussing a disappointing season.

“She is not very happy with me right now, believe me,” John Mara said. “She suffers through this probably even more so than I do.”

We wish her a speedy recovery.

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Pete Carroll knows every step of football handling procedures now

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In his first of two press conferences about the NFL’s investigation into the use of under-inflated footballs during the AFC Championship game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said that he had no knowledge of the way footballs were prepared for games.

He was the only coach facing questions about whether his team was breaking the rules about the way they were doing that, but he wasn’t the only coach in the dark about the procedures. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was asked about the story of the day in his arrival press conference on Sunday and said that he was just as clueless as Belichick when the week opened. And, like Belichick, he’s spent some time brushing up on football handling procedures.

“Things come up and we have to face things sometimes for the first time, a first-time realization, that maybe everybody would think you should have seen it before. But I never checked on the whole process of how our footballs were handled until this week,” Carroll said. “I can empathize with Coach Belichick in that same way. I never have, so I can understand that he never has either. It’s something that just is part of the equipment standards that are carried out by our people in the organization. That’s one that has not been looked at maybe as intently as it is now, but I know every step of it now. So my awareness is up and I’m sure theirs is and everybody else that’s around our game in particular will never be the same because of what just happened.”

Carroll was asked other questions about the integrity of the game after a year that saw the league face crises on several fronts. He said he thought the deflated ball controversy provided the league with “another opportunity for us to grow and to see that we don’t have everything nailed yet,” but avoided the kind of direct comment on the Patriots’ situation that cornerback Richard Sherman made upon arriving in Arizona.

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Odell Beckham: I played with two hamstring tears all season

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Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham made as big a splash as we’ve ever seen from a rookie wide receiver in 2014 and he did it despite playing in just 12 games as a result of an early-season hamstring injury.

Those 12 games produced 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, but Beckham suggested that even that impact could have been bigger after the Pro Bowl on Sunday night. Beckham said that he played the entire year with two tears in his right hamstring that left him at less than 100 percent while he was blowing up defenses.

“They healed up enough to where I could play with them, but they were never truly good and I’m still just working on them and trying to get ready,” Beckham said, via the New York Post. “I should be good by training camp. The plan is to play at full strength next season, and I definitely hope to do it. I’m just looking forward to getting healthy.”

The prospect of having an even more potent Beckham in the lineup is something that should be pretty exciting to the Giants, especially if they get Victor Cruz back at full speed to go alongside him in their offense. If Steve Spagnuolo can get the defense back on track, the pieces would be there to get the Giants back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

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Michael Irvin’s team wins the Pro Bowl

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The team chosen by Michael Irvin has defeated the team chosen by Cris Carter.

The Pro Bowl, in its second year of the new format with team captains picking the teams, went down to the final minute, with Team Irvin beating Team Carter 32-28. Team Carter’s last, best chance ended when an Andy Dalton pass fell incomplete; on a day when offenses dominated, Dalton was an exception, completing just nine of his 20 passes for 69 yards.

Does it matter who wins the Pro Bowl? Not really. There’s $27,000 on the line (players and coaches on the winning team get $55,000 while those on the losing team get $28,000), but that’s not enough to make the players play particularly hard.

But what does matter is whether the Pro Bowl is a compelling enough product for the fans to keep watching. The fans at University of Phoenix Stadium seemed to be enjoying themselves, although thousands left early, and there were many empty seats late in the fourth quarter, even though the game was close. The Pro Bowl needs to be well played enough that the fans don’t turn away.

So far, the fans aren’t turning away. And that alone makes it a success, from the NFL’s perspective.

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Pro Bowl still attracts thousands at the stadium, millions on TV

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Plenty of people think the Pro Bowl is such a lousy exhibition game that the NFL ought to scrap it. Here’s why the NFL will do no such thing: Plenty of fans still enjoy it.

Here at University of Phoenix Stadium, there are very few empty seats and tens of thousands of fans who seem to be having a good time. Cardinals fans dominate (the three most common jerseys I’ve seen are Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson and Pat Tillman), but a quick look at the crowd reveals jerseys representing just about every team in the NFL. And they seem to be enjoying themselves. A great Odell Beckham catch drew a loud ovation, and even during the commercial breaks fans are laughing and cheering as mascots from a dozen or so teams engage in their usual mascot buffoonery. (There were loud cheers while mascots played musical chairs during a commercial break, then even louder cheers when some mascot-on-mascot violence broke out and the Patriots’ mascot took the brunt of it.)

The fans also enjoyed the opportunity to do some booing: When the Seahawks’ Pro Bowlers (who aren’t playing in the game because they’re preparing for the Super Bowl) were shown on the big screen, the crowd booed loudly. Putting Richard Sherman’s face on the screen seemed to draw particular ire from the fans.

And, of course, the TV ratings will be strong, as they always are. In fact, the Pro Bowl frequently draws bigger television audiences than the baseball, basketball and hockey All-Star games.

So while the NFL may continue to tinker with the format, make no mistake: The Pro Bowl is here to stay.

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