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NFL morning after: Peyton Manning is just fine, thank you

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Getty Images

Broncos coach John Fox was asked last week, What’s wrong with Peyton Manning’s arm? Fox got a good laugh out of that question, and it’s a good thing he enjoyed it. Because he probably won’t get that question again.

Manning demonstrated on Sunday against the Raiders that he’s just fine, thank you: More than capable of carving up an opposing defense and leading his team to a big win, which is exactly what he did in completing 30 of 38 passes for 338 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions, as the Broncos beat the Raiders 37-6. Fox said afterward that he’s seeing just the kind of weekly improvement from Manning he expected from a player who had to sit out the entire 2011 season with a neck injury.

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Fox said. “Let’s not forget he didn’t play for over a year and this is a new team, new coaching staff, new city, new field, new everything for him. The type of guy he is, he’s going to get better and better.”

Is it possible that Manning has lost a little speed off his fastball? Maybe. But Sunday’s game demonstrated that any talk that Manning no longer had an NFL-quality arm after last year’s neck surgeries was every bit as laughable as Fox made it out to be. And anyway, Manning has always beaten opposing defenses more with his head than with his arm. After a year away, Manning looks like more or less the same player who won four league MVP awards in Indianapolis. Manning’s passer rating so far this season is 96.9 — better than the 91.9 rating he had in 2010, his final season with the Colts.

Up next for Manning is a trip to New England for a Sunday showdown with a Patriots team that was his biggest rival when he was in Indianapolis. When Manning and Tom Brady are squaring off, we’re seeing two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history on the field. And while both Manning and Brady are still playing great football, the reality is that they’re the two oldest starting quarterbacks in the NFL right now, and we probably won’t get many more opportunities to see them playing against each other. So when you watch Broncos-Patriots on Sunday, savor the greatness you’ll see from these two quarterbacks.

Here are my other thoughts on this week’s NFL action:

Cam Newton’s touchdown record may only last a year. As a rookie in 2011, Newton set a new NFL record for touchdown runs by a quarterback in a season, with 14. But Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is on pace to top that this year, with four touchdowns in four games. Griffin, who threw for 323 yards and ran for 43 yards in leading his team to a 24-22 win in Tampa Bay on Sunday, is the best athlete ever to play the quarterback position, and it’s easy to see him continuing to average a touchdown a game for 16 games this season — but only if he stays healthy enough to play 16 games this season. Griffin is so confident in himself that he takes some reckless chances with his body when he runs up the middle, and sometimes he takes violent hits. Eventually, he’s going to need to learn that if the end zone is not in reach, he needs to get down, or else he’ll be spending more time on the sideline than in the end zone.

Welcome back, real refs. Ed Hochuli’s bulging biceps were a sight for sore eyes Sunday, and so were the rest of the regular referees, back to work after the NFL wisely ended the lockout of the officials. All those baffling penalties and foolish mistakes from the replacement refs were a thing of the past, and for fans watching at home, it was especially nice having the real referees move the games along quickly: Most of the games that kicked off at 1 p.m. were over before the 4:05 p.m. kickoffs, something that didn’t happen on any of the first three Sundays of the season. Unfortunately, the Packers — who were ripped off by the replacement refs last week — were saddled with the worst regular ref in the NFL, Jeff Triplette. A week after the Packers were robbed of a victory over the Seahawks by the replacement officials, the Packers were nearly robbed of a victory over the Saints by Triplette and his crew. Green Bay overcame major officiating mistakes including a Saints fumble that was wrongly ruled down by contact and an obvious push-off on a Saints touchdown catch that was somehow not called. If bad officiating had cost the Packers another game, there might have been a riot at Lambeau Field.

When Vikings defensive end Jared Allen is inducted into the Hall of Fame some day, Jeff Backus should introduce him. Backus, the Lions’ longtime left tackle, knows better than anyone how hard it is to block Allen. Because Backus has to do it twice a year, and Allen always gets the better of him. Last season, Allen had three sacks in each of the Vikings’ two games against the Lions. On Sunday, in the Vikings’ 20-13 win over the Lions, Allen had a sack and three tackles for loss. There are few bigger mismatches in the NFL than a one-on-one battle between Backus and Allen.

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith looks like the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Smith had an absolutely insane stat line against Baylor on Saturday: 45-of-51 for 656 yards, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Smith has a good arm, he’s a good athlete, and he’s an intelligent young man who should be a quick study in learning an NFL offense. A lot can change between now and April, but Smith looks like the kind of player who will make NFL scouts drool.

Rex Ryan had the quote of the day. Describing his Jets’ loss to the 49ers, Ryan said, “I was going to say we got our butt kicked, but really, we got our ass kicked.” Ryan was in too bad a mood to avoid profanity, and it’s hard to blame him. The Jets lost 35-0 and looked like a mess.

I can’t believe the Cardinals are 4-0. And I also can’t believe the Saints are 0-4. But that’s what makes the NFL so fun: We spend all offseason obsessing over coaching changes and free agency and the draft and training camp battles, and we’re sure we know how the league stacks up this year, and then by the time the season is a quarter of the way over, impossible things have happened. Like a team we knew was bad starting undefeated, or a team we knew was good starting winless, or an aging and injured quarterback still playing like a great one.

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John Madden: Super Bowl call will “torment” Pete Carroll forever

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 01:  Head coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks looks dejected after defeat to the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28-24.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Getty Images

Seahawks Pete Carroll acknowledged after the Super Bowl that he’d always regret the decision to pass at the goal line rather than run.

That’s almost easy to say now, at a time when he’s trying to insulate the coordinator who called the play, and the quarterback who threw the game-losing interception.

But one of the best coaches the game has ever known said the memory won’t get any easier with time.

That will torment him forever,” Hall of Famer John Madden told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. “Winning one game is hard. Getting to the Super Bowl is hard. Then getting that close and losing has to be tough, because we only remember the winners of the Super Bowl.

“One of the biggest gaps in sports is the difference between the winning and losing teams of the Super Bowl. They don’t invite the losing team to the White House. They don’t have parades for them. They don’t throw confetti on them.

“Does it haunt you? Hell yes, it haunts you. I’m still haunted by some championship games.”

Madden’s Raiders lost five conference championship games in seven years, nearly taking the pleasure out of finally winning one.

But he doubts that Carroll having won one will take the sting away from the chance at a second.

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Kraft tells Larry King he hopes he helped Brady’s appeal

larryking AP

There’s been plenty of talk around the NFL that Patriots owner Robert Kraft decided not to fight the NFL’s Deflategate penalties because the NFL has given a quiet assurance that Tom Brady will get a favorable ruling on the appeal of his four-game suspension. Now a report from Larry King (of all people) indicates that Kraft was thinking along those lines when he decided to accept the NFL’s punishment.

King wrote on Twitter that he talked to Kraft today, and that Kraft told him he’s hoping that accepting the NFL’s penalties will help Brady in his own fight against his four-game suspension.

It’s not often that NFL news is broken by Larry King, but this seems plausible. Even as Kraft has given up the fight against the Patriots’ sanctions, he still steadfastly supports Brady. It would make sense that Kraft would give up the fight against the league primarily because he wants to help Brady.

Although if that is Kraft’s intention, he probably would have preferred that King not tweet about it.

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“Free Tom Brady” rally set for Sunday outside Gillette Stadium

The Destruction Of Tea In Boston Getty Images

Those aggrieved by Tom Brady’s four-game suspension are invited to a rally at a parking lot outside of Gillette Stadium on Sunday, per an announcement on Facebook.

The “Free Tom Brady rally” will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday and will “protest the unjust football arrest of half God half man Tom Brady.”

There is no indication the team has any connection to the rally.

The gathering, according to the announcement, will be “peaceful.”

As of this writing, 375 fans had indicated on Facebook that they would be attending.

One fan wrote: “Can’t be there but best wishes from England!”

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Tyrann Mathieu finally feels “free” after dealing with injuries

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 30:  Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals stands on the field during warm ups prior to the game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on November 30, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) Getty Images

Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu had to overcome a lot just to stick in the NFL.

But once he got there, stuff kept happening which kept him from doing what he does best.

But after a series of injuries that limited him, he’s finally well and ready to get back to the player he was in 2013 before a late-season knee injury, which was followed by a broken thumb last year.

It just feels good to be free,” Mathieu said, via Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic.

“He has a gleam in his eye that I didn’t see at all last year,” coach Bruce Arians said.

That’s saying something, because Mathieu was a playmaker on a good defense as a rookie, before the injuries took a toll on him. He admitted he was tentative last year, not confident in his own health.

“You try to stay as optimistic as possible,” Mathieu said. “But there is a reality to it, too. It’s kind of hard to keep telling yourself it’s going to be all right, especially when we got into the thick of everything last year, thinking that if I was 100 percent, I’d probably be able to help my team a whole lot more than I’m doing right now.”

So instead of playing freely, he worried about making mistakes.

“You play scared because you don’t want to give up a touchdown,” Mathieu said. “Or you play too aggressive because you don’t want to be singled out as if you’re not giving the effort. It’s kind of like the worst of both worlds.

“I’ve never thought about it as hard as I did last year. I was always thinking about something, rather than just going out there to play.”

So the fact he’s out there now, running around in OTAs, is a positive sign. Because when the Honey Badger doesn’t care about making mistakes, he’s at his most dangerous.

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Marcus Mariota has the NFL’s best-selling jersey in May

Marcus Mariota AP

Titans fans are eager to throw their support behind new quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Mariota has the NFL’s best-selling jersey for the month of May, Titans director of finance Stuart Spears told Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.

A study by a sports marketing company also found that Mariota ranks as the 39th most marketable athlete in the world. That may sound rather shocking for a player who hasn’t played a professional game yet, but Mariota was a popular Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon who enters the NFL with a significant fan base. It also helps that Mariota (unlike the only player drafted ahead of him, Jameis Winston) has a squeaky-clean image off the field.

So for now, Mariota is among the NFL’s top stars. But that popularity won’t last long unless he can prove himself on the field.

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On this day in 1985, the NFL ramped up its overseas efforts

2005 American Bowl in Tokyo - NFL Party - August 4, 2005 Getty Images

The NFL’s push to expand its international reach is no secret. Three regular season games are set for London in 2015, and the league has studied Brazil, Germany and Mexico as potential future game sites.

However, the league’s desire to grow its influence beyond the United States isn’t a new development. In fact, we’ve now reached the 30-year mark of the NFL’s serious concerted efforts to go international.

On this day in 1985, league owners approved a plan to play at least one overseas preseason game beginning in 1986, per the NFL’s Record and Fact Book. And beginning with a Bears-Cowboys matchup in London in ’86, the NFL scheduled at least one exhibition in another country for 18 consecutive years, according to footballgeography.com.

The NFL had previously staged preseason games outside of the United States, with a Cardinals-Chargers game in Tokyo in 1976 the first played outside of North America. However, they were not annual events.

But as the 1980s went on, the NFL’s international ambitions broadened. In 1989, the NFL would found and fund the World League of American Football, which lasted 15 seasons before the league decided to focus on staging regular season games outside of the United States.

Now, the NFL International Series has a foothold on the league calendar. The next logical question is whether an internationally based team will follow.

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Pats fan takes belief in Brady’s innocence to the grave

Tom Brady AP

Deflategate has taken a lot out of Tom Brady’s reputation across most of America. But in New England, Brady is as beloved as ever.

In fact, the extent to which some in New England are rallying around Brady has reached new highs — or lows, depending on your perspective.

We now have the late Patricia Shong of Auburn, Massachusetts, who passed away on Monday at the age of 72. Shong’s obituary ran in the local paper and told the story of her life, her family, her career and her favorite activities. And then it included a line about Shong’s continuing support of Brady.

“She would also like us to set the record straight for her: Brady is innocent!!” the obituary says.

That’s a popular sentiment in New England. But this is the first time we’ve heard it expressed from beyond the grave.

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Stephen Ross told Dolphins’ execs to go into win-now mode

Baltimore Ravens v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is tired of building for the future. He wants to win now.

That’s the message Ross has given his front office staff from Day One — and even before Day One. Dolphins G.M. Dennis Hickey says that when he was interviewing for the job, Ross said the time to win is now — and Ross vowed to pony up the money to make that happen.

Hickey said on 104.3 The Ticket that everyone in the front office and the coaching staff has been on the same page about the way to build the Dolphins, and that starts from the top, with Ross making clear from the beginning where his expectations were.

We’re a process-driven organization,” Hickey said, via Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. “Part of the process is collaboration, getting our coaches together with our scouts and getting them together to do their due diligence. The process is about making good, sound decisions that make sense.”

The Dolphins spent a fortune to sign Ndamukong Suh, and they’ve also spent a lot on players including Ryan Tannehill, Mike Pouncey, Cameron Wake, Branden Albert, Brent Grimes and Jordan Cameron. Those moves may help the Dolphins win now, but a day of reckoning is coming. Next year, the Dolphins are projected to be $17 million over the cap — putting them in by far the worst cap shape for 2016 of any team in the NFL. If the Dolphins don’t win now, they may regret the way they’ve structured their salary cap — because all those expensive contracts are going to make it harder to make more big moves in the future.

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Staubach on Hardy: I wouldn’t want an abuser as a teammate

Staubach Getty Images

If it were up to Hall of Fame Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, Greg Hardy wouldn’t be in Dallas.

Staubach said on KTCK-AM that while he admires the way Cowboys Executive Vice President Charlotte Jones Anderson has taken a leadership role in the NFL’s efforts on domestic violence, he still has a hard time justifying allowing a player like Hardy on the team.

“Well, it depends on getting a chance to understand the red flags . . . like the Hardy situation,” Staubach said. “Charlotte Jones is fantastic. She’s involved with the NFL on the committees. I think she had a hand in trying to understand that this guy deserves a second chance. I don’t have any tolerance toward domestic violence. If I was making the decision, it probably wouldn’t have been good for the Cowboys.”

Hardy missed 15 games last year and is suspended for 10 games this year for a domestic violence incident. Staubach said that’s not the kind of person he’d want as a teammate.

“I wouldn’t really enjoy being in the locker room with someone I knew was a domestic violence person. That’s how I feel,” Staubach said. “Today you know more about the personal lives of players. Back in the old days, there were some issues. But we never really had a domestic violence, smoking marijuana or . . . I’m sure it happened though, we just didn’t know about it. I would have really had a hard time with a teammate that you look at as a courageous, tough guy on the football field . . . to abuse a women in any shape or form, there’s just no excuse for it.”

The Cowboys have taken a lot of criticism for signing Hardy, but this criticism may sting the most. Few people are more respected in Dallas than Staubach, and Staubach doesn’t think Hardy belongs in the Cowboys’ locker room.

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Alouettes welcome Michael Sam, hope he becomes a football story

michaelsam AP

The Montreal Alouettes know there’s a social statement being made, with the signing of Michael Sam.

And while they’re clearly fine with being viewed as progressive, they’re also expecting what football teams expect from football players — production.

Alouettes president Mark Weightman, suddenly in the middle of an international story, said  he hopes the focus soon turns to what kind of player Sam can be.

We’re very excited because we have a very good football player on our hands. That needs to be the opening statement. We’re excited to see what he can do on the field,” Weightman said, via Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette. “I think we all see it as a positive thing. We, as a league, have always been very open to all players — regardless of race, background, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. This is just another example of it. And it’s a great opportunity for us to show that leadership with a guy like Michael.

“We got ourselves a fantastic football player who has a lot of strength of character, who demonstrated a heck of a lot of courage to do what he did by coming out before the [NFL] draft, before his professional career. I think that shows a strength of character and a strong . . . moral belief system. Those are the kinds of people that are good leaders. You want leaders on your team.”

Sam is slated to be in Montreal Monday, and will meet the media there Tuesday morning. And then when camp begins Wednesday, he can begin the path to showing he’s a football player and not just a guy hoping to become the first openly gay football player in the NFL.

If all he was interested in was celebrity, the CFL probably wouldn’t have been his destination. But if he’s serious about proving himself as a player, he has his opportunity, and he’s found a place which will welcome him.

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Houston “Hard Knocks” lets NFL put Watt front and center

Watt AP

J.J. Watt is just the kind of player the NFL wants to market, a fierce warrior on the field who turns into an easygoing, likable guy as soon as the game ends. So with process of elimination seeming to leave the Texans as the team that will be featured on this year’s Hard Knocks, it’s a good bet that NFL Films will put Watt front and center.

Watt is the NFL’s best defensive player but is not as well known to a mass audience as some of the league’s biggest stars. Hard Knocks is a way for the league to humanize Watt and bolster his popularity.

Hard Knocks also needs Watt because the Texans are, frankly, not as compelling a team as some of the past teams featured on the show. Coach Bill O’Brien isn’t made for reality TV the way Rex Ryan is, and although the Texans’ quarterback competition will be a major element of training camp, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett don’t exactly make for appointment television.

So it will be Watt around whom the upcoming season of Hard Knocks will be featured. At a time when many well-known players are getting attention for the wrong reasons, the NFL will like that.

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Moss shows up for high school graduation of fan in Minnesota

Moss Getty Images

In 1998, then-Vikings rookie Randy Moss made good on his vow to rip up the league. Along the way, he befriended a toddler named Kassi Spier.

Kassi fought leukemia as a four-year-old in 2000. In 2004, her father died in a car accident. In 2013, Kassi learned that she had a brain tumor.

On Friday, Kassi Spier graduated from high school. And her friend Randy Moss was there for it.

Via inforum.com, Moss traveled to Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, a 2,500-resident town 45 miles southeast of Fargo, to hand Kassi Spier her high school diploma at Friday’s commencement ceremony.

Moss last played in the NFL in 2012, appearing in Super Bowl XLVII with the 49ers. He started his career with the Vikings, spending 1998 through 2004 in Minnesota. He returned to the Vikings for a brief stretch in 2010.

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New coordinator aside, few changes expected on Steelers’ defense

Ryan Shazier, Keith Butler AP

Dick LeBeau is out and Keith Butler is in, but the Steelers’ defense isn’t changing.

That’s the word from Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward, who says the change at defensive coordinator is the only difference for the Steelers. Heyward says the Steelers’ D will still run the same schemes with Butler (who has been the team’s linebackers coach for the last 12 years) as it did under LeBeau (who has moved to the Titans after spending the last 11 years running the defense in Pittsburgh).

“I don’t think there are going to be too many changes,” said Heyward. “It’s going to be the same details. We will have a couple of new wrinkles, but we won’t share them now.”

The Steelers’ defense had a rough year in 2014, and they need to change something. But those changes will have to come from the players. The coaches are going to run the same system they’ve been running in Pittsburgh for a long time.

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Hernandez claims he’s running out of cash

Hernandez Getty Images

After nearly two years of legal maneuverings in multiple criminal cases and with no income, it’s no surprise that former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is running out of cash.

One of his lawyers, John Fitzpatrick, made that argument to a Massachusetts judge on Thursday in connection with the efforts of the mother of Odin Lloyd, Ursula Ward, to find assets that can satisfy the wrongful death lawsuit filed previously against Hernandez.

Ward’s lawyer, Douglas Sheff, hopes to obtain more information about property owned by Hernandez. Already, his $1.3 million North Attleboro home can’t be sold. Also, a court order has blocked Hernandez from selling a 2005 Hummer.

The families of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu have also filed wrongful death claims against Hernandez, as has Alexander Bradley, who claims Hernandez shot Bradley in the face in February 2013.

Still pending is an effort by Hernandez to recover the remainder of his August 2012 signing bonus — $3.25 million from the Patriots. That money presumably will go to any victims who can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Hernandez injured or killed them. With Hernandez also convicted via proof beyond a reasonable doubt of killing Lloyd, the civil action against Hernandez arising from Lloyd’s death is a slam dunk.

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No developments yet in Mariota talks

Marcus Mariota, former Oregon quarterback and overall No. 2 NFL football draft pick by the Tennessee Titans, answers questions during a news conference Friday, May 1, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Mariota was selected by the Titans in the first round Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) AP

The Titans and quarterback Marcus Mariota had intended to commence contract negotiations this week. If they did, they didn’t get very far.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, no developments are expected this week.

Mariota is the only pick taken in the top seven who has not yet signed. Because the first overall pick in the draft (quarterback Jameis Winston) signed a deal that includes offset language for the fully-guaranteed four-year deal and the third overall pick (linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.) agreed to a contract that has no offset language (allowing Fowler to get paid twice, if he gets cut), the question of whether Mariota’s language will include offset language could become a major sticking point.

Otherwise, the deal could be done very quickly, especially since the ceiling has been set by Winston and the floor by Fowler.

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