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NFL morning after: It’s the Texans and everyone else in the AFC

Baltimore Ravens v Houston Texans Getty Images

Is seven weeks into the season too early to declare home-field advantage wrapped up? Probably. But let’s be real about the state of the AFC right now: It’s the Texans and everyone else.

The Texans are so much better than the rest of the AFC that only a string of major injuries to key players (like Houston had last year) can prevent them from clinching home field for the playoffs, probably with a couple games left in the regular season. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Houston.

Entering Sunday, the Texans and Ravens were tied for the best record in the AFC at 5-1, and their meeting at Reliant Stadium looked like a possible AFC Championship preview. But on Sunday the Texans absolutely humiliated the Ravens, jumping out to a 29-3 halftime lead and coasting through the second half to win 43-13. If the Ravens are the second-best team in the AFC, then I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between the first and second-best teams in either conference in NFL history.

The Texans are such a complete team. They pass the ball well with Matt Schaub throwing to receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels. In Arian Foster they have one of the NFL’s best running backs. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt is my choice for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL right now. Johnathan Joseph has been slowed by a groin injury this season, but when he’s at full speed he’s among the NFL’s best cornerbacks — and he looked like he’s getting closer to full speed when he picked off Joe Flacco and returned the interception 52 yards for a touchdown on Sunday.

All of that is half of the reason the Texans are so far ahead of the pack in the AFC. The other half is that every other team in the AFC is deeply flawed. Only the Texans, Ravens and Patriots have winning records, and it’s looking like a year when 8-8 may be enough to make the playoffs in the AFC. All those AFC teams hovering around .500 may look to some people like just the kind of parity everyone likes about the NFL, but it looks more like mediocrity to me.

The Texans’ loss to the Packers a week ago is a strong demonstration of how much better the NFC is than the AFC this season: If the Texans were in the other conference, they wouldn’t be the favorites to earn home-field advantage. But as the one and only really good team in a mediocre conference, the Texans have the clearest path to the Super Bowl of any team in the NFL.

Here are my other observations from the seventh Sunday of this NFL season:

Chris Johnson may be the most inconsistent player in NFL history. Johnson was absolutely sensational for the Titans in Sunday’s win over the Bills, carrying 18 times for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including one 83-yard run on which he looked like he could give Usain Bolt a competitive race. Johnson’s game-breaking ability is unmatched; previously in his NFL career Johnson has had touchdown runs of 91, 89 and 85 yards, and he’s the only player in NFL history with four career touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer. But for the Titans, it’s maddening that a player with the talent to run like that has so many absolutely terrible games. In the first six weeks of this season, Johnson had four different games in which he failed to gain even 25 yards. In those four games, Johnson’s total stat line is 48 carries for 69 yards and zero touchdowns. How can a player who’s good enough to gain 195 yards on 18 carries in one game be bad enough to total just 69 yards on 48 carries in four other games? It’s inexplicable.

Browns rookie defensive lineman Billy Wynn committed one of the dumbest penalties of the year. On a fourth down from the Colts’ own 22-yard line in the second quarter, the Indianapolis offense stayed on the field. Obviously, all they were going to do is try to draw the Browns’ defense offside: No NFL team ever goes for it on fourth down in that situation. Which obviously means that all the Browns had to do was not jump offside. And yet Wynn jumped offside, giving the Colts a free first down. Penalties don’t get much dumber than that.

Wynn’s penalty wasn’t even the Browns’ dumbest fourth-down decision. Browns coach Pat Shurmur made one of the bonehead calls of the year when he sent out his punter on fourth-and-1 from the Colts’ 41-yard line while trailing 17-13 with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter. That’s a situation where you have to go for it. You simply cannot give the ball away because you don’t trust your offense to gain one yard with the game on the line. The Browns, of course, ended up losing by that same 17-13 score. Shurmur is coaching for his job right now, and these are the decisions that get coaches fired.

We’re running out of superlatives for Robert Griffin III. Even in defeat, Griffin is doing amazing things as the Redskins’ quarterback. After Griffin completed 20 of 28 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, plus 89 yards rushing, players on the Giants’ defense declared Griffin the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora described Griffin as “flat-out unbelievable.” It’s amazing how good this guy is, at just 22 years old.

Last year we were running out of superlatives for Cam Newton. If you want to make the case that no one should get too excited about Griffin, all you have to do is point to Newton. Last year Newton was doing many of the same things Griffin was doing, making plays with his arm and his feet in an unbelievable rookie season for the Panthers. But this year Newton just doesn’t appear to be the same player. It’s not that Newton has been terrible, but in games like Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, he just hasn’t been able to make plays when the Panthers need him. Becoming a great pro quarterback is a lot of work, and while Newton may achieve greatness eventually, he’s not there yet. Maybe a full year of film on Newton has better prepared NFL defenses to stop him, or maybe Newton let all the fame get to his head last year. But he’s not playing as well as he did in 2011.

The Jets aren’t going down without a fight. After they lost their best player, Darrelle Revis, to a season-ending knee injury and then lost their next game 34-0 to the 49ers, I thought the Jets would be one of the worst teams in the league the rest of the season. But I was wrong. The Jets are playing tough, competitive football. On Sunday in New England the Jets were (at least according to the Vegas lines) the biggest underdogs in the NFL. And yet they took the Patriots to overtime. Rex Ryan turns a lot of people off with all his bluster, but the guy is a damn good coach.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano had the biggest win of the day. Not because his team beat the Browns to improve to 3-3 and surpass last year’s win total, but because he was sent home after four weeks in the hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. For Pagano, that’s an important step to getting where he wants to be: Back to coaching his team.

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Sammie Hill to miss three games after surgery on knee

Sammie Hill AP

Tennessee Titans nose tackle Sammie Hill had surgery to repair an injured MCL in his knee on Wednesday.

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Hill is expected to miss the first three games of the season for the Titans but will be able to play after the team’s bye in Week 4.

The team was still debating a course of action for Hill on Tuesday for the injury suffered last week, either in practice or early in the Titans preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Hill suffered a knee injury during OTAs in May that kept him on the Physically Unable to Perform list for the start of training camp. He passed a physical and last week’s game against the Chiefs was his first game action of the preseason.

Hill played just four snaps against the Chiefs before being sidelined again.

Hill appeared in 15 games for the Titans last season and recorded 34 tackles and three sacks.

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Former Seahawks pro personnel director Tag Ribary dies at 48

tagribary

Tag Ribary, a long-time member of the Seattle Seahawks front office, died Friday at the age of 48.

The former Seahawks executive had parted ways with the franchise in May after working for the team since 2009. Ribary  (pictured right) worked for Seattle as an assistant director of pro personnel from 1990-2000 before joining the Washington Redskins as director of pro personnel in 2001. After one year, Ribary became a pro scout for the Carolina Panthers until returning to Seattle.

Ribary served as a scout for the Seahawks in 2009 before being promoted to director of pro personnel under new head coach Pete Carroll in 2010. He was promoted to director of team operations in 2013, where he spent his last two years working for the franchise.

Ribary is survived by his wife Eva, two children Regan and Bennett, his father John Ribary [wife Sharon], his mother Marsha Brody [husband Steve], and his brother Chuck Ribary.  Step siblings include Shon Steger and Heather Meyer.

photo courtesy of Seahawks.com

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Pylon cameras are mainly “worthless”

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long been a proponent of fixed cameras. The NFL has resisted using them, due ostensibly to the expense.

So ESPN and CBS will be using them instead, with cameras installed in pylons. The chances of the NFL expanding pylon cameras to all games likely will diminish once the NFL sees the fruits of the networks’ labor.

An industry source predicts that the shots from the pylon cameras will be “worthless” in most cases, pegging the chances of a pylon camera providing a conclusive view of a play at one in 100,000.

“Short of someone spiking or dropping the ball before crossing the goal line this cam is a sham,” the source said.

The problem comes from the many legs and arms and torsos and helmets that will get in the way of the pylon cameras, which are low to the ground and easily obstructed.

And it’s not a fresh take; the viability of pylon cameras was first questioned here three years ago.

The far better system currently is used by NBC at AT&T Stadium in Texas, with a series of cameras allowing for a 360-degree rotating view of the red zone through the back of the end zone. It’s a far more expensive system than pylon cameras, but it allows for a much more comprehensive look at the action.

Besides, the NFL can afford it, whatever it costs.

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ESPN “obviously extremely disappointed” by wife of Scot McCloughan

Scot McCloughan AP

ESPN has released a statement backing its reporter in a bizarre dustup with the wife of Washington General Manager Scot McCloughan.

After a report from ESPN’s Dianna Russini about dissension within the organization about whether to move on from quarterback Robert Griffin III, Jessica McCloughan directed a tweet at Russini saying, “Please tell us how many BJ’S you had to give to get this story. And did they laugh at you before or after?”

Although the team initially claimed the tweet came from a fake Twitter account, Jessical McCloughan has now admitted that she did, in fact, write the tweet. ESPN is understandably not happy about that.

“Dianna is an excellent reporter who should never have to be subjected to such vulgar comments. We are obviously extremely disappointed by today’s developments,” ESPN said in a statement.

ESPN is, obviously, correct in standing by its reporter, as the accusation that Jessica McCloughan leveled is completely inappropriate, and dragging Russini’s name through the mud is unacceptable.

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Wife of Washington G.M. admits to “disparaging remarks” about ESPN reporter

Scot McCloughan AP

After initially insisting that a controversial tweet apparently sent by the wife of Washington G.M. Scot McCloughan had come from a fake account, the team now admits that she indeed posted a disparaging comment about ESPN reporter Dianna Russini.

“I deeply apologize for the disparaging remarks about an ESPN reporter on my personal Twitter account,” Jessica McCloughan said in a statement issued by the franchise to PFT. “The comment was unfounded and inappropriate, and I have the utmost respect for both the reporter and ESPN. I regret that my actions have brought undeserved negative attention to the Redskins organization and its leadership. My comments in no way reflect the opinions or attitudes of the organization and I regret that my behavior has in any way negatively impacted the team and its loyal fan base.”

On August 30, Jessica McCloughan directed this message to Russini, via BlackSportsOnline.com: “Please tell us how many BJ’S you had to give to get this story. And did they laugh at you before or after?”

Many were skeptical of the denial, due to the apparent interaction of the account with an account belonging to Jessica McCloughan’s son..

PFT previously asked ESPN for a comment on the story, before the admission and apology from Jessica McCloughan. A response is expected soon.

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Gruden is concerned about Manziel’s elbow problems

Buffalo Bills v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden loves him some Johnny Manziel. Gruden doesn’t love him some Manziel elbow tendinitis.

It was a little bit of a surprise to me,” Gruden said Wednesday regarding Manziel’s elbow problems, via Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. “I don’t remember hearing about a lot of arm problems until recently. I had not had that brought to my attention, so I would be very concerned. His arm never came up when I met with him.”

Gruden met with Manziel for two days in 2014 as part of the Gruden’s QB Camp series, and Gruden then worked with Manziel earlier this year. Gruden knew nothing about a supposedly chronic issue with which Manziel has been dealing for years.

“Hopefully it’s nothing severe, but I’d be very concerned anytime a young quarterback or any quarterback is on the shelf for arm reasons,” Gruden said. “I haven’t seen that anywhere else in pro football this year.”

The elbow problems have prevented Manziel from playing at a time when he was making real progress on the field. And the progress came after an offseason in which it seemed that the Browns were ready to move on from him.

While there’s no specific indication that Manziel may be in danger of not making the team, consider this: He’s owed a total of $3.257 million guaranteed over the next three seasons. If the Browns were willing to let Phil Taylor walk away with $5.477 million in fully-guaranteed salary with no offset for 2015, maybe the Browns would consider cutting the cord on Manziel, who has offset language in his deal.

Before doing that, they’d probably consider trying to trade him. But if he can’t play due to elbow problems arising from the primary thing a quarterback does, it would be tough to get anyone else to take on that commitment.

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Report: Chris Johnson will start for Cardinals Thursday

Chris Johnson AP

Chris Johnson is set to debut with the Arizona Cardinals Thursday night, and per ESPN’s Josina Anderson, Johnson will be the team’s starting running back in the preseason finale.

Johnson signed with the Cardinals Aug. 17, before the second preseason game, but has been slowed by a hamstring injury. The Cardinals know that Johnson, who’s three weeks from turning 30, isn’t the same player who had six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Tennessee to start his career but they hope he can still provide some big-play pop and catch up to a new offense.

Johnson’s contract option wasn’t picked up by the Jets after he rushed 155 times for 663 yards last year. He was shot in the shoulder last March in an incident during which his friend was killed in Florida.

The plan, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told reporters Wednesday, is for Johnson to get 10-12 carries as the Cardinals evaluate him. Arians has said he believes Johnson can help the Cardinals but is guaranteed nothing.

The Cardinals won’t play their starters Thursday, so it will be Chris Johnson and rookie David Johnson getting the carries early. They’re competing for touches behind the team’s current starter, Andre Ellington.

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Redskins deny that G.M. Scot McCloughan’s wife sent vulgar tweet (updated)

McCloughan AP

Several websites have published a tweet today that originated with a Twitter account purportedly belonging to the wife of Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan. The tweet in question directed a vulgar message and alleged improper behavior by an ESPN reporter who has reported on the team.

But the team says McCloughan’s wife did not send the tweet in question. Redskins Senior Vice President Tony Wyllie tells PFT that Jessica McCloughan did not post the tweet, it came from a fake account, and it has been forwarded to the NFL’s security department. The Twitter account has since been deleted.

We’re choosing not to publish the identity of the ESPN reporter named in the tweet, or the specific contents of the tweet. We initially thought we’d just ignore the tweet entirely, but it’s been picked up in enough places that we decided we’d publish what we know.

And what we know is that the team is adamant that the tweet is a fake.

UPDATE 8:29 p.m. ET: The team has now admitted that Jessica McCloughan made the statement on Twitter, and she has issued an apology for the remarks.

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Phil Taylor visits Steelers

Cleveland Browns v Buffalo Bills 10-3-2013 Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Browns gave defensive tackle Phil Taylor $5.477 million to not play for the Browns. The Steelers may now be paying Taylor even more to not play for the Browns.

Per a league source, Taylor visited the Steelers on Wednesday.

It was only a visit, but it could lead to something more, given that the Steelers could use any help they can get on defense.

A first-round pick in 2011, Taylor asked to be released by the Browns after Danny Shelton emerged as a starter. The Browns made no request that Taylor reduce the money he’s owed or agree to provide any offset in exchange for his freedom.

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Peyton Manning visits Wednesday’s PFT on NBCSN

Denver Broncos v Houston Texans Getty Images

Peyton Manning doesn’t have (so far) a commercial in which he’s a really hip and cool Peyton Manning who has DirecTV and a dorky, undesirable Peyton Manning who has cable. But he was nevertheless hip and cool on Wednesday, because he visited Pro Football Talk on NBCSN via satellite as part of his annual preseason DirecTV promotional tour.

A clip from the interview appears below. For the whole thing, tune in to NBCSN at 6:00 p.m. ET. Rodney Harrison (who has caught a couple of passes from Peyton Manning that weren’t intended for Rodney), Paul Burmeister (crack about Paul throwing interceptions while playing quarterback at Iowa has been omitted), and yours truly will get you caught up on all the latest news in the NFL.

Including a full assessment of the #DeflateGate ruling. (There hasn’t been one yet; I’m just seeing whether you’re paying attention.)

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Raiders sign former Cards linebacker Lorenzo Alexander

Lorenzo Alexander,Devonta Freeman AP

Veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander wasn’t out of work long.

The Raiders announced that they had signed Alexander, a day after he was cut by the Cardinals.

Alexander had officially qualified as a journeyman long before he made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer with Washington. He’s also had practice squad stints with the Panthers and Ravens, back when he was a defensive tackle.

The former Cal standout grew up in Berkeley, so getting back to the Bay Area made sense. But he adds a stable, adult presence for a Raiders team that seems to have made strides toward stability this year.

They waived linebacker Horace Miller to make room for Alexander.

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Report: Dolphins shopping Will Davis

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

The Texans were able to get a 2017 sixth-round pick for tight end Khari Lee in a trade with the Bears on Wednesday and they won’t be the only team trying to see if they can shake loose something in return for a player that might not be in their plans for the 2015 season.

Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald reports that Dolphins cornerback Will Davis is such a player. Salguero reports that the Dolphins are shopping the 2013 third-round pick around the league ahead of Saturday’s cut to 53 players, although it is “unclear” if the team will cut him if they can’t find a trade.

Davis doesn’t have the most appealing profile as a trade target. He’s played just 15 games over his first two seasons because of injuries, including a torn ACL that ended his 2014 season after 10 games. He’s played in all three preseason games this summer and coach Joe Philbin said recently that the team is trying to gauge where he is now against where he’ll be down the road.

“I think there’s a little bit of both,” Philbin said. “Obviously, he is coming off of an injury and we’ve seen development over the last five weeks and so we think there will be some more development there from a physical standpoint. Then obviously the performance, you’ve got to weigh all those things when you make a decision.”

That’s the same determination any team considering a deal for Davis will have to make, although it’s hard to imagine any evaluation resulting in more than a late-round pick coming back to Miami.

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Lance Briggs takes TV job, hasn’t “officially” retired

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears Getty Images

After a 12-year NFL career, former Bears linebacker Lance Briggs is moving on to a job in TV.

Briggs announced today that he is retiring from football and taking a job as a Bears analyst for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

This was the right decision for me,” Briggs said.

Briggs later said on Twitter that he hasn’t “officially” retired, although at this point it’s extremely unlikely that any team is going to sign him.

A third-round pick of the Bears in 2003, Briggs spent his entire career in Chicago. At his best, Briggs was one of the top linebackers in football, making seven consecutive Pro Bowls from 2005 to 2011. After an injury-plagued season last year, the Bears weren’t interested in bringing him back.

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Concussion director fires back at New York Times

Peter+Landesman+I2oYAhwshTam Getty Images

Well, the Concussion movie is getting plenty of free publicity.

In response to a New York Times article that created the impression that Sony revised the script for the film due to concerns that it would antagonize the NFL even though Sony has no business relationship with the league, writer/director Peter Landesman accuses the New York Times of unfairly making Sony look worthless and weak.

“It does seem to me like the New York Times is working for the NFL,” Landesman tells Deadline.com. “That’s how it seems to me. It seems like a hatchet job has been done here, and came out of the NFL’s offices, that’s how it seems to me.”

Landesman’s assessment is likely wrong. Ken Belson, who wrote the first story criticizing the Hall of Fame and the NFL for trying to silence the daughter of Junior Seau at the August 8 induction ceremony, wouldn’t be trying to make the NFL look good. If anything, Belson and the Times would be trying to make the NFL look bad by painting the league as sufficiently powerful and intimidating to compel Sony to spontaneously slash portions of the Concussion script and to prompt Landesman to attempt to kiss the ring of Roger Goodell until the studio angrily told Landesman to not meet with the Commissioner.

“In the end even Sony, which unlike most other major studios in Hollywood has no significant business ties to the N.F.L., found itself softening some points it might have made against the multibillion-dollar sports enterprise that controls the nation’s most-watched game,” Belson wrote in the second paragraph of the story.

So the agenda, if there was one, was to make NFL look strong enough to bully even those companies with which it has no business relationship. Making Sony look lame was collateral damage.

The truth, as previously explained, seems to be that Sony was committed to telling the truth about a supposedly true story that makes necessarily the NFL look bad. Certain techniques that make movies more entertaining, like a real sense of physical peril for the protagonist and/or his family members, need to be used carefully — or not at all — when the goal is to tell a true story that does not make inaccurate claims.

“When you are telling a true story about something this controversial, it’s incumbent on us, it’s our responsibility to be as fair an accurate as possible,” Landesman said. “We don’t want to defame anybody, we don’t want to injure anybody. We just want to tell the truth, and that’s all we’ve done.”

The key words in that comment are “defame” and “injure.” Sony’s lawyers reviewed the script for any scenes or dialogue that would tell a story other than the truth, in a way that would unfairly characterize the actions and words of NFL officials. It wasn’t the result of Sony running scared from the NFL, or of the NFL thumping its chest. It was the result of good and prudent lawyering, the kind of lawyering that happens in the crafting of any movie based on a real people and actual events.

“This movie is about an underdog, a David and Goliath story of telling the truth, against all odds,” Landesman said.  “About a thing that is such a sacred cow to America, that in its core, on this particular issue, is corrupt. Isn’t it ironic that another American institution, a newspaper, seems to be trying to damage that effort? In a way, it seems to be a strange self-fulfilling prophecy, or a weird mirror of the reality of this film.”

That comment shows that Landesman has no fear of the NFL (or, for that matter, of the New York Times). But it also suggests that Landesman doesn’t understand what the Times was actually doing — or that he does but is choosing to advance a narrative that makes himself and Sony seem like the David for which people will choose to cheer.

Or, more specifically, to surrender $10 for the purposes of sitting in a chair and staring at a screen for two hours.

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NFLPA files injury grievance on behalf of Taylor Thompson

Titans at Chiefs Getty Images

The Titans said Taylor Thompson was fine when they cut him.

He and the knee surgery he’s about to have disagree, so the union is going to bat for him.

According to Adam Caplan of ESPN, the NFLPA recently filed an injury grievance on behalf of the former Titans tight end.

Thompson worked during OTAs, but didn’t take part in minicamp because of knee problems. The Titans released him in June.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know what to tell you,” Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said then. “When [Thompson] left here, however many weeks ago, he was healthy. We communicated, he said he was fine, no issues, other than some personal matters. He shows up, says there’s something wrong with his knee, and I have no idea what he is talking about.”

When they released him, there was no injury designation, despite the fact he had played just three games because of a knee problem last year.

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