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PFT’s Week Four picks

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Getty Images

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have complained about the Monday night debacle.

After all, I picked the Seahawks to win by a point and, thanks to the replacement officials, Seattle won by two.  Since MDS picked the Pack, it allowed me to win the weekly contest with MDS by two, 9-7 versus 7-9.

Given the crazy, upside-down games from Week Three, I’ll take a winning record and run with it — as quickly as the Seahawks ran with their unwarranted win.

For the season, I’m now 27-21, and MDS is 26-22.

This week, we disagree on three games.  All 15 of our picks appear below.

Browns at Ravens

MDS’s take: Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has actually looked decent the last two weeks, after a disastrous Week One. But the Ravens’ defense will bring far too much heat for Weeden to handle. I look for Haloti Ngata to pound Weeden into the turf a few times on Thursday night.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 27, Browns 6.

Florio’s take:  The Browns are another close loss or two away from imploding completely.  They won’t have to worry about another close loss on Thursday night.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 31, Browns 13.

Panthers at Falcons

MDS’s take: I still don’t believe the Panthers are as bad as they’ve looked this season, and that by the end of the year they could be fighting for a playoff spot. But Atlanta is the wrong place for the Panthers to try to get back on track.

MDS’s pick: Falcons 23, Panthers 17.

Florio’s take:  The Falcons have beaten the Panthers four straight times, scoring 31 points exactly in each game.  Atlanta could be on track to clinching the division by Thanksgiving.

Florio’s pick:  Falcons 31, Panthers 14.

Patriots at Bills

MDS’s take: This is a fascinating game in the AFC East race, one that could establish the Bills as the favorites to win the division. I’ve been saying all year that the Bills have made the right moves to become playoff contenders this season, but I just think the Patriots, with their backs against the wall, are going to come out focused and ready to play their best game of the season.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 24, Bills 14.

Florio’s take:  The Bills have beaten the Pats only once since the last time the Pats had a losing record.  Buffalo is moving in the right direction, but New England needs this one badly.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 30, Bills 23.

Vikings at Lions

MDS’s take: Another fascinating divisional game, as the Vikings have a real opportunity here to establish themselves as surprising contenders in the NFC North. However, I see far too many matchup advantages for the Lions’ receivers against the Vikings’ secondary.  Not just Calvin Johnson (who has a matchup advantage over every defensive back in the league) but also receivers Nate Burleson and Titus Young and tight end Brandon Pettigrew should be able to get open and get points on the board in Detroit.

MDS’s pick: Lions 28, Vikings 24.

Florio’s take:  The Lions have won three straight in the series, but the Vikings are gaining confidence,  The Lions continue to be more flawed than anyone realized.  Receiver Jerome Simpson returns from suspension in time to help the Vikings take advantage of Detroit’s biggest weakness.

Florio’s pick:  Vikings 24, Lions 16.

Titans at Texans

MDS’s take: The Texans are the best team in the AFC South by such a large margin that the question for me isn’t whether they’ll win the division but how quickly they’ll clinch. My guess is some time around Week 11. This win will be another step toward that.

MDS’s pick: Texans 34, Titans 10.

Florio’s take:  Yeah, I picked the Titans to win the division.  And if they upset the Texans on Sunday, the Titans will thrust themselves into the conversation.  And if they upset the Texans, it will mean that I picked this specific game incorrectly.  Despite last weekend’s epic in Nashville, the Titans aren’t nearly as good as I thought they’d be.  The Texans are much better than I thought they’d be.

Florio’s pick:  Texans 24, Titans 13.

Chargers at Chiefs

MDS’s take: The Chiefs looked pretty good against the Saints on Sunday, and the Chargers looked pretty bad against the Falcons on Sunday. But I’m expecting the Chargers to win, in a game that I have a hunch will come down to special teams, where the Chargers will make plays and the Chiefs will make mistakes.

MDS’s pick: Chargers 28, Chiefs 21.

Florio’s take:  One week often changes everything.  Last Sunday, the Chargers went from elite to “meh” status, and the Chiefs showed they’ve got some fight.  Home team gets the edge in this one, especially if Jamaal Charles saved some yards for Sunday.

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 24, Chargers 22.

49ers at Jets

MDS’s take: If not for the injury to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, I’d be very tempted to pick the 49ers to lose their second straight road game. But that Revis injury is devastating to the Jets not only because it radically changes what they can do on defense, but also because while seeing players and coaches on the Jets talking this week, you could practically feel the entire locker room deflating at the loss of their best player. I think the Jets are going to come out looking very bad on Sunday.

MDS’s pick: 49ers 27, Jets 14.

Florio’s take:  The difference between the 49ers defense and the Jets defense is that the 49ers didn’t put all their eggs in one island.

Florio’s pick:  49ers 20, Jets 13.

Seahawks at Rams

MDS’s take: The Seahawks don’t have any time to send thank-you notes to the league office for their gift on Monday night, because they’ve got a road trip to St. Louis on a short work week. I like the way Jeff Fisher’s defense is playing, and I think Russell Wilson will feel a lot of pressure, but Seattle’s defensive line will have Sam Bradford under pressure, and the Seahawks will win a low-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 10, Rams 9.

Florio’s take:  Short week, significant travel, improving opponent, and guilty conscience add up to trouble for the Seahawks in St. Louis.

Florio’s pick:  Rams 14, Seahawks 12.

Dolphins at Cardinals

MDS’s take: It’s taken me a while to learn to believe in the Cardinals, but I’m there now. Which probably means they’re going to lose. But I’m picking them anyway.

MDS’s pick: Cardinals 24, Dolphins 7.

Florio’s take:  This has the potential to be one of those early-season “correction” games.  But how can the Dolphins win if they can’t score any offensive touchdowns against once of the best defenses in the league?

Florio’s pick:  Cardinals 17, Dolphins 6.

Bengals at Jaguars

MDS’s take: I loved the game Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden called on Sunday against the Redskins. Look for Bengals receiver A.J. Green to have another big day against the Jaguars.

MDS’s pick: Bengals 28, Jaguars 24.

Florio’s take:  It would be fitting for the Bengals, a week after finally winning a game they were supposed to lose, to lose a game they’re supposed to win.  But the Bengals are better than the Jaguars on both sides of the ball — and the Jaguars will have a hard time keeping up with a suddenly dynamic and diverse offense.

Florio’s pick:  Bengals 24, Jaguars 14.

Raiders at Broncos

MDS’s take: It says something about what we’ve come to expect from Peyton Manning that he had 330 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers on Sunday against a very good Texans defense, and yet everyone is talking about how he’s just not the same. Playing a weak Raiders defense will result in Manning looking a lot better, and the Broncos improving to 2-2.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 35, Raiders 14.

Florio’s take:  Peyton Manning won’t need much arm strength to move the ball against a defense that can’t do much to stop him.  Or anyone.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 27, Raiders 17.

Saints at Packers

MDS’s take: Raise your hand if you predicted these two teams would be a combined 1-5 heading into this game. I see the Packers’ problems as much more correctable than the Saints’ problems, and I see Aaron Rodgers having a big day against a shaky Saints defense.

MDS’s pick: Packers 27, Saints 17.

Florio’s take:  The Saints can thank the Seahawks and the replacement officials for what they’re about to endure.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 45, Saints 17.

Redskins at Buccaneers

MDS’s take: The Bucs have a bad offense and a good defense; the Redskins have a good offense and a bad defense. I like Tampa Bay’s defense to keep it close and the Redskins’ defense to give up a big play at the wrong time.

MDS’s pick: Buccaneers 14, Redskins 10.

Florio’s take:  That win over the Saints in New Orleans is looking less impressive by the week.  And the Bucs are better than their record would suggest.

Florio’s pick:  Buccaneers 20, Redskins 16.

Giants at Eagles

MDS’s take: The Eagles need to bounce back in a big way after laying an egg against the Cardinals. I think they’re going to, with Michael Vick finally making it through a game without a turnover.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 24, Giants 21.

Florio’s take:  Eagles coach Andy Reid does his best work when his back is against the wall.  And his back is already against the wall.  And he said just enough this week to put his quarterback’s back against the wall, too.

Florio’s pick:  Eagles 27, Giants 24.

Bears at Cowboys

MDS’s take: As impressive as the Bears’ defense has been, I think they’ll struggle with the explosiveness of Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, who should have a huge game in a Dallas win.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 34, Bears 20.

Florio’s take:  If the Cowboys can keep Tony Romo in two or fewer pieces (factoring in the possibility of the partial loss of an ear), the Cowboys should win this one.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 26, Bears 17.

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Who wins Super Bowl LI?

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Super Bowl participants have been locked and loaded. In 14 days, the Patriots and Falcons will square off.

So let’s start the prognostication process now: Who wins the game?

Answer below, battle it out in the comments, and then tune in for Monday’s PFT Live, which will feature visits from Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy and Patriots fanboy (not really, but I like to accuse him of it) Tom Curran of CSN New England.

PFT Live begins at 6:00 a.m. on NBC Sports Radio, and the simulcast starts at 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

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Patriots advance to Super Bowl LI to face Falcons

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

Roger Goodell kept Tom Brady off the field for the first four games of the season.

Nothing was keeping Brady from finishing it, and giving himself a chance to accept another trophy from the NFL commissioner in two weeks.

The Patriots quarterback was clinical as his team crushed the Steelers 36-17, setting up a Super Bowl LI showdown with the Falcons in Houston two weeks from today.

Brady was 34-of-42 passing for 384 yards and three scores. It was his ninth career three-touchdown performance in the postseason, tying Joe Montana for the most in that category. And that underscores the kind of historic company he’s keeping, as he leads the Patriots to their ninth Super Bowl appearance.

It also sets the stage for plenty of talk about the four-game Deflategate suspension that delayed the start of his season, but the Patriots went 3-1 during that stretch with the kind of all-hands effort as they displayed Sunday night.

Offensively, wide receiver Chris Hogan was brilliant, with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

But the league’s best scoring defense also kept the Steelers from doing much of anything, making plays at critical junctures and forcing a pair of turnovers.

The Steelers were fairly helpless once running back Le’Veon Bell left with a groin injury early. He tried coming back for a play, but it wasn’t working, and without him, neither did their offense. With Bell offering just 20 yards on six carries, the rest of the Patriots’ attention went to slowing Antonio Brown, who will not be live-streaming any celebrations in the locker room tonight.

Brown finished with seven catches for 77 yards (cosmetic yards late padded that number), and the rest of the Steelers couldn’t overcome the attention.

Which means Brady and the Patriots will get plenty for the next two weeks, as they chase a fifth title.

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Source: Saints never spoke to Colts about Sean Payton

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24:  Head coach Sean Payton is seen prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Colts have denied it on the record, and the Saints eventually may do the same.

For now, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that no one from the Saints at any time has ever spoken to the Colts, directly or indirectly, about a deal for coach Sean Payton.

Colts COO Pete Ward has denied talking to the Saints, but Ward has said that a “Payton associate” called the Colts to gauge interest in the possibility of obtaining Payton by compensating the Saints.

Payton remains under contract with the Saints and there’s no indication that either side plans to change that reality, or that any team plans to try to secure the rights to Payton.

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Aaron Rodgers: We need to reload, can take “big step” this offseason

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers walks off the field after being defeated by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers’ hot streak came to an end in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon and that means quarterback Aaron Rodgers is already thinking about the future.

Rodgers was asked if he felt like he was running short on chances to win another Super Bowl, which the quarterback said wasn’t the case while adding that they have to “make sure we’re going all-in every year to win” a title. Rodgers said he thinks the team “can take a big step this offseason,” but that the changes didn’t need to be major ones in order for that to happen.

“We need to reload,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think we need to rebuild. We need to reload. We’ve got a lot of players who are young who are big contributors for us. We just need to reload a little bit this offseason. I think we had a lot of great contributions this season from guys we didn’t really expect. Geronimo Allison had a very big year for us. Aaron Ripkowski was fantastic. Jared Cook, I think, needs to be near the top of the priority list, the way he played this year. And the offensive line, keeping those guys together was a big part of our success.”

Cook was signed last offseason and provided a good target for Rodgers when healthy. The quarterback’s plug probably won’t hurt the tight end’s chances of sticking around for a second year in Green Bay.

Guard T.J. Lang and center J.C. Tretter are also free agents, which may account for Rodgers’ interest in keeping the offensive line together. There might be more desire for new faces at running back and in the secondary, although Cook represented the rare foray into veteran free agency for General Manager Ted Thompson so we’ll have to see if they’ll go that route as part of the reloading plan.

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Patriots pulling away from Steelers in third quarter

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a 1-yard rushing touchdown by LeGarrette Blount #29 (not pictured) during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers may not have had much margin for error anyway.

But when they made mistakes, the Patriots quickly made them pay.

New England sandwiched touchdowns around a Steelers fumble, and have a 33-9 lead over the Steelers in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers were already in trouble following LeGarrette Blount’s touchdown run, but when linebacker Rob Ninkovich collected Steelers wideout Eli Rogers‘ fumble, it didn’t take long to cost them.

Four plays later, Tom Brady found Julian Edelman for a touchdown, and only a missed extra point has marred this one.

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Julio Jones wasn’t slowed by toe injury on Sunday

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after defeating the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) Getty Images

Before Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reported that Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has been dealing with three injuries to his foot — two to a toe and one in the middle of the foot — in recent weeks.

Those injuries kept Jones from practicing twice in the week leading up to the matchup with the Packers, but they weren’t any trouble at all during the game. Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the win, including a 73-yarder that pretty much ended any remaining suspense a minute into the second half. The big day moved him into some rarified postseason air.

Jones joined Jerry Rice and Fred Biletnikoff as one of only three players in history to reach at least 180 receiving yards in more than one playoff game. Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to the 49ers in the NFC title game four years ago.

“He never ceases to surprise us because he makes the extraordinary plays seem ordinary,” coach Dan Quinn said after the game. “That’s not a very typical thing to do. He’s a heckuva competitor.”

Jones said his foot felt OK after the game. He’ll get two weeks to keep it rested in hopes of adding to the rich playoff history he’s already assembled.

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Colts deny Sean Payton report

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24:  Head coach Sean Payton is seen prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Colts have moved quickly to throw water on the report that they had back-channel talks with the Saints about a possible deal for coach Sean Payton.

Colts COO Pete Ward has gone on the record with multiple outlets to dispute the report. Via Mike Chappell of FOX 59/CBS 4 in Indianapolis, Ward called the report from Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports “totally fictitious.”

Ward added that he received a call from a Payton associate a couple of weeks ago inquiring as to whether the team had interest in a deal. Ward said, “No.” And that was that.

Ward, who was identified La Canfora as the person who spoke to the Saints on behalf of the Colts, called La Canfora after the report was published. It’s unclear whether La Canfora called Ward before publishing the report; nevertheless, La Canfora has revised his report to include Ward’s position. However, the report has not been revised to remove the claim that Ward actually negotiated with the Saints.

The end result is that the report (and La Canfora’s Twitter feed) characterizes the call from Ward as confirmation that something happened regarding the Colts and the Saints while glossing over the fact that Ward, who presumably called La Canfora because Ward was upset with the report, disputed that the Colts ever spoke to the Saints. (Indeed, the headline still declares that the two teams talked, even though Ward has denied it.)

Lost in the sauce (trademarked) is the perception/reality that a “Payton associate” called the Colts to gauge interest in doing a deal with the Saints. That would have been a pretty compelling “Sunday splash” item from La Canfora, if he hadn’t already locked in to the report that the Colts have gone on the record to debunk.

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Patriots catch a break on review, extend lead

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches from the sideline during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) AP

The Patriots have extended their lead over the Steelers, and they appear to have been fortunate to be able to kick a field goal.

A Tom Brady sneak attempt for a first down appeared to include him losing the ball, and Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave came out of the pile with the ball.

But the officials on the field ruled Brady down by contact, and the league backed them, or at least said there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call. NFL vice president of officiating was quick to tweet out support for his guys.

As a result, the Patriots were able to extend the drive and get a 47-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, giving them a 20-9 lead in the third quarter. And the Steelers lost a timeout they might need later by losing the challenge.

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Jonathan Kraft: AFC title game loss might have been Ryan Grigson’s pinnacle

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 16: General manager Ryan Grigson of the Indianapolis Colts looks on during a rookie minicamp at the team complex on May 16, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson was fired on Saturday and he was on the receiving end of a shot from Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on Sunday.

During a pregame appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Kraft was asked about Grigson’s dismissal and he mentioned the AFC title game two years ago as being the moment when everything started going downhill for the former G.M. in Indianapolis.

“I don’t, you’d have to ask Jim Irsay about it,” Kraft said, via the Boston Herald. “He’d be the one to ask. That game might have been Ryan’s pinnacle, I don’t know. Jimmy can talk about what’s going on with the Colts. We’re fortunately playing football today.”

In addition to being the last time the Colts played a postseason game, that 45-7 Patriots win was also the game that introduced Deflategate to the national lexicon. Grigson sent an email to the league about suspicions regarding the intentional deflation of balls before the game and complained to league officials during the game as well.

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Patriots up 17-9 at halftime, thanks to Chris Hogan

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with wide receiver Chris Hogan (15) after a touchdown pass during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) AP

The Steelers have the name-brand talent on offense, but the star of the AFC Championship Game so far is a guy the Bills didn’t want to keep this offseason.

Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan has two touchdowns so far, and the Patriots have a 17-9 halftime lead.

It seems like a good time to point out that the Bills could have kept Hogan this offseason, but didn’t want to match the three-year, $12 million deal the Patriots offered the restricted free agent.

All he’s done so far is catch seven passes for 117 yards and two scores, the second on a wide-open flea flicker in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, the Steelers appear to be without Le’Veon Bell, after he was declared questionable with a left groin injury. He came back in for one play, but immediately limped back to the sideline. He has 20 yards on six carries so far, as the Patriots have kept the Steelers’ big-play threats from hurting them.

Antonio Brown has just three catches for 26 yards so far, as the Patriots have forced Ben Roethlisberger to spread the ball around.

They also closed with a disappointing stretch to end the half, with an apparent touchdown overturned on review, followed by a pair of negative-yardage runs by DeAngelo Williams and an incomplete pass, forcing them to settle for a field goal.

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Dan Quinn: Shift took place after loss to Kansas City

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons has gatorade dumped on him by his team late in the game against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Falcons played a wild game against the Chiefs in Week 13 of the regular season that saw them score 12 straight points in the fourth quarter to grab a one-point lead with over four minutes to play.

They would wind up losing by one after Chiefs safety Eric Berry intercepted Matt Ryan on the two-point try and returned it for two Kansas City points. It was a painful loss at the time, but coach Dan Quinn credited it with kicking his team to a higher level of play that helped catapult them into Super Bowl LI. They would win 42-14 in Los Angeles the next week and they have scored at least 33 points every week while winning their last six games by an average of over 19 points.

“We had a difficult loss against Kansas City and that was probably the first shift for us before we went out to L.A. as a team. We knew we could play better,” Quinn said during his postgame press conference. “The unconditional support for one another, our intent took it up a notch. I thought another shift took place our first playoff bye week. We didn’t just kinda hang around. We had real intent on getting better and finding an edge. I thought that carried over into this week.”

Quinn said his experience as a defensive coordinator hasn’t given him any empathy for coaches who have to try to slow down the Falcons offense and the defense has proven increasingly adept at making sure the Falcons stay up once they get up each week. If they kick things up another level before kickoff on February 5, it’s going to be tough on both sides of the ball for the Patriots or Steelers.

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Report: Saints, Colts talked Sean Payton deal

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints looks on during the second half against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on January 1, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

Manning isn’t the only Peyton the Colts wanted to hire, apparently.

The Colts also explored via back channels the possibility of obtaining the services of coach Sean Payton from the Saints, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. The two teams were unable to strike a deal regarding the compensation the Saints would receive for Payton’s services.

Payton also would have been a factor in the discussions, since the procedure would have initially required the Colts and Saints to have a tentative deal in place regarding compensation before the Colts would have had direct talks with Payton as to: (1) whether he wants to coach the Colts; and (2) what it would take to get a deal done with Indianapolis.

Many in the media erroneously describe the situation as a “trade.” The transaction can’t occur without the consent of the coach, and the coach’s current contract is torn up as part of the process and replaced with a brand new deal.

If the Colts and Saints had struck a tentative arrangement, it would have been imperative for both sides to keep things quiet until the Colts fired G.M. Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano and complied with the Rooney Rule as to both positions. Per the report, Payton would have brought Jeff Ireland with him from New Orleans to serve as G.M.

The fact that the Saints were willing to consider parting ways with Payton and that, apparently, Payton was willing to go will do nothing to end the annual “Sean Payton Could Be Leaving The Saints” reports. With Saints quarterback Drew Brees under contract for only one more year and taking the position that there won’t be an extension, maybe this will raw the year when the reports are finally right.

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Steelers close the gap, without Le’Veon Bell

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts prior to the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers are making a bit of a run, and they’re doing it without their best runner.

Le’Veon Bell left the game early in the second quarter and hasn’t returned, and the Steelers have announced he’s questionable to return with a left groin injury.

They’re fortunate they have a talented backup in DeAngelo Williams, and the veteran just ran for a touchdown which cut the gap to 10-6. Kicker Chris Boswell missed the extra point, which could cause the Steelers to be more aggressive going for two later in the game.

Williams has four carries for 25 yards, after Bell gained 18 on his first five tries. While they’d obviously rather have their regular in there, Williams is keeping them close, and his decisive style might be a better fit than Bell’s stop-and-go patience.

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Chris Hogan puts the Patriots up 10-0

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots reacts during the first half against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

He’s not Rob Gronkowski, but Chris Hogan has created quite a niche for himself in New England.

He just scored to put the Patriots up 10-0 on the Steelers late in the first, dominating a drive.

Hogan caught four passes for 57 yards, including the 16-yard touchdown which capped a quick, effective drive.

He doesn’t fall into the diminutive Julian Edelman/Wes Welker profile the Patriots have had such success with over the years, and they’re using him on some of the same seam routes that have been so productive when their All-Pro tight end was healthy.

Tom Brady’s already 10-of-12 for 128 yards so far, an efficient start as he’s been willing to go no-huddle to keep the Steelers off balance.

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Mike McCarthy: We ran into a buzzsaw

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers walks off the field after being defeated by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn’t see Sunday’s NFC Championship Game much differently than anyone else who watched the Falcons roll to Super Bowl LI with a 44-21 win.

McCarthy noted the rough start that saw the Packers miss a field goal and lose a fumble in the end zone on their first two drives while the Falcons were scoring on their first three possessions. That left the Packers down 17-0 and McCarthy said that’s “a game you don’t want to play” on the road against a team as good as the Falcons.

We ran into a buzzsaw,” McCarthy said during his postgame press conference. “…We couldn’t overcome the pace that these guys were playing. They played lights out and it got away from us.”

McCarthy was asked about injuries taking a toll and he admitted they did, but the overall theme of the press conference was the same as the overall theme of the game. The Falcons were just too much for the Packers to handle across the board on Sunday.

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