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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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Marc Trestman: Bears are “a very close football team”

trestman AP

Bears coach Marc Trestman says there are no rifts within his team, despite reports of screaming matches in the locker room after Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins.

“This is a very close football team,” Trestman said. “A lot of things can go on because people handle winning and losing differently, and we’re not judgmental about players expressing themselves.”

Asked specifically about receiver Brandon Marshall calling out quarterback Jay Cutler, Trestman said there’s “brotherly love” between Marshall and Cutler and that the two of them are fine, as are the rest of the guys in the locker room.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who I think are very close and like each other,” Trestman said.

Trestman said he’s fine with different players expressing themselves differently and that he welcomes passionate players.

“We have to always be accepting of how people express themselves after the game because they’re coming down from a week of working hard and building their emotions and passions for the game,” he said. “We have to be accepting and not judgmental, and let it pass.”

Ultimately, what the Bears really need to do to avoid players screaming at each other after a loss is to quit losing. With the next two games at New England and at Green Bay, that won’t be easy.

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Falcons place Peter Konz on injured reserve

Atlanta Falcons v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

The Falcons can’t stop losing offensive linemen to injuries.

The team announced Monday that center Peter Konz has been placed on season-ending injured reserve. He’s the second center to hit IR since the start of the regular season, joining Joe Hawley, and the fourth offensive lineman overall. Tackles Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes were also lost since the start of Week One and offensive lineman Mike Johnson went on injured reserve before the season got underway.

Konz injured his knee during Sunday’s loss to the Ravens and was replaced by James Stone, who figures to remain in the role when the Falcons face the Lions in London in Week Eight. Throwing an undrafted free agent into the middle of the line probably isn’t going to be the answer to the team’s issues with the unit, but they’ll have to make it work if they are going to turn around a season that has gone sour fast for the 2-5 team.

The Falcons also announced that they have signed tackle Jonathan Scott to take Konz’s place on the roster. Scott has played for the Lions, Bills, Steelers and Bears, but hasn’t seen regular season action since the 2012 season.

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Harvin says Jets have told him to be himself

Harvin AP

Jets receiver Percy Harvin met the New York media for the first time on Monday.  And while he wasn’t pressed as aggressively as the New York media’s reputation would suggest, Harvin elaborated much more on his circumstances than when he faced a strong of slo-pitch softballs from the media operation owned by the Jets.

Harvin opted not to delve into the events that resulted in the stunning trade that sent him from Seattle to New York.  “All I am is I’m moving forward,” Harvin said.  “I’m leaving what’s in the past in the past.”

On whether he’s a good teammate, Harvin said, “All I can say is judge me off of what you see.”

So what will we see?  Harvin said that management “told me to just come here and be myself.”  (Which reminds me of Bill Cosby’s take on cocaine.)

“I’m definitely not a perfect person,” Harvin said.  “I have a lot of things I wish I would have done a little differently.  I’m moving forward.  I’m learning from those lessons.”

He hopes to put the lessons to use for more than the next nine games.  “It’s definitely a place I want to be for a long time,” Harvin said.

“I just feel good here.  I feel welcome.  I’m ready to go.”

He’s ready to play for coach Rex Ryan.  “I love him,” Harvin said.  “Love him, love him.”

That’s good news for Rex.  Because Harvin reportedly has had multiple confrontations with coaches he didn’t love, love.

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Raiders veterans not sure how to get team moving in the right direction

Tony Sparano AP

The Raiders lost again on Sunday, running their record to 0-6 for the first time in 52 years and continuing a 12-game losing streak that extends into last season.

Among the many things to dislike about the outcome was the fact that the Raiders failed to build on the previous week’s gains on offense while the defense struggled to get off the field after spending the previous week concentrating on improving their play on third down. The Cardinals converted 60 percent of their third down tries, which was even worse than the NFL-worst 51 percent that the defense had given up coming into Week Seven.

“I don’t know how to take that … not being able to get it done,” safety Charles Woodson said, via the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m not sure where to go with it at this point.”

Woodson’s veteran teammates share his confusion about how to move forward at this point in the season. Defensive tackle Antonio Smith said the team tries to fix things every week, only to be left “wondering why it ain’t working” on gameday. It’s the kind of thing that can make a team want to close up shop, but cornerback Carlos Rogers vowed to keep fighting and keep his teammates fighting in the weeks to come.

Even with that fight, though, he knows that better days aren’t guaranteed for a team that hasn’t won in a very long time.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Rogers said.

The Raiders will be in Cleveland next weekend for their next shot at finding a formula that works.

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Lions add Kellen Davis

Kellen+Davis+DOjoqPnGYGSm Getty Images

Kellen Davis will continue his NFL career in London.  Technically.

As the Lions prepare to face the Falcons at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, Detroit has added the veteran tight end to the roster.

A pair of tight ends missed Sunday’s win over the Saints.  Joseph Fauria has an ankle injury, and rookie Eric Ebron has a hamstring problem.

Davis spent five years with the Bears, joining the Seahawks for 2013.  He was cut by the Giants before the start of the 2014 regular season.

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Cowboys give game ball to TE coach Mike Pope after beating his former team

Gavin Escobar AP

When the Bills beat the Lions, they carried defensive coordinator and former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz off the field at the end of the game.

The Cowboys didn’t carry anyone off the field at the end of their victory over the Giants on Sunday, but they did recognize that the win meant a little bit extra to one member of the organization. Mike Pope joined the team as their tight ends coach in the offseason after his long tenure with the Giants came to an end with a pink slip.

Pope had been an assistant with Bill Parcells, Jim Fassel and Tom Coughlin, making him part of every Giants team that has ever gone to the Super Bowl, but that history wasn’t enough for him to survive the housecleaning that the Giants did after the offense stumbled badly last season. Pope got some payback when tight end Gavin Escobar caught two touchdowns on the way to a 31-21 win that he’ll get to remember by looking at the game ball the team gave him after the final whistle.

“He spent a lot of time in New York with that team, so to be over on this side and get that win surely means a lot to him. You try to say it’s never personal, but for him to come down here and have success — especially against the Giants — was big,” tight end Jason Witten said, via the New York Post. “We knew he wanted to win this one. This was his big game, and he really wanted it. You know he was loving this after it was over.”

Giants tight end Larry Donnell had a key fumble in the second half of the game, a development that Pope might not have been able to stop if he were still with Giants but one that probably didn’t make the win feel any less sweet for him either.

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Jaguars lose Paul Posluszny for the season to torn pectoral

Le'Veon Bell, Paul Posluszny AP

The Jaguars got their first win of the season yesterday, but they didn’t get to celebrate for long.

Via Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, veteran middle linebacker Paul Posluszny suffered a torn pectoral muscle yesterday and will be out for the year.

That’s a huge blow for a young team that was beginning to show signs of life after an 0-6 start, taking the leader out of the middle of the defense.

It’s a big loss,” Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. “That will be a difficult one.”

Posluszny will have surgery this week, and will be placed on injured reserve.

Bradley also said that defensive end Andre Branch suffered a groin injury, and would miss about six weeks.

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Calvin Johnson will make trip to London with Lions

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Getty Images

The Lions have played without wide receiver Calvin Johnson for the last two weeks, but the door will remain open for his return in Week Eight even though the team will be playing a long way from home.

The team leaves for London on Monday night to begin their week of preparations for next Sunday’s game against the Falcons and coach Jim Caldwell told reporters, including Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, that Johnson will be making the trip with the team.

There have been suggestions that the team would hold the wide receiver out until after their Week Nine bye, but that clearly hasn’t been set in stone. Johnson worked out on the field before the team took on the Saints, but his high ankle sprain wasn’t well enough for him to return to action. If he can progress over the next few days and practice with the team later this week, the result may be a different one come Sunday.

While the Lions offense hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the two games without Johnson or the two games he played at considerably less than 100 percent, they have found that there’s a way to move the ball without Johnson being the centerpiece of the offense. Keeping that mentality while getting the talented wideout back in the lineup should help the Lions as they move into the second half of the season.

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Orakpo done for the year with torn pec

Orakpo

Brian Orakpo’s second annual contract year has not ended well.  The Washington linebacker, who had been struggling while playing under the $11.45 million franchise tag, suffered a torn pectoral muscle on Sunday against the Titans, per a league source.

Orakpo will be placed on injured reserve, ending his 2014 season.

A torn pec ended Orakpo’s 2012 season after only two games.  Healthy for 15 games last year, 10 sacks from the 2009 first-round pick prompted Washington to use the franchise tag.  A second application of the tag would cost $13.74 million.

Thus, Orakpo will undoubtedly hit the open market — and he’ll likely stay with Washington only if they offer him more than he could get elsewhere.

If it’s over for Orakpo in Washington, it ends with 71 games, 40 sacks, and a playoff appearance that was earned with Orakpo missing every game beyond Week Two.

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Panthers offensive line taking a beating, getting MRIs

Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers Getty Images

The Panthers had to clear the decks to keep an offensive line on the field yesterday, and don’t know yet who will be available this week.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said that starting left tackle Byron Bell (elbow) and right guard Trai Turner (knee and ankle) were getting MRIs today, to determine the extent of their injuries.

When they left yesterday’s seal-beating in Green Bay, the Panthers had to turn to a pair of undrafted rookies, Canadian tackle David Foucault and guard Andrew Norwell.

Considering an injury to left guard Amini Silatolu had backup Fernando Velasco on the field anyway, the Panthers line was a real hash by the end of the day. And it’s not as if they were the 1980s Washington Hogs to begin with.

Quarterback Cam Newton has played well for most of the season, but their lack of talent up front has impacted the way they run and pass, and appears that it will continue to be a problem.

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Idzik thinks acquisition of Harvin could be a coup for the Jets

John Idzik AP

Percy Harvin is at work with his new teammates on the Jets today, and the man who brought him to town thinks that’s a big deal.

“This could be a potential coup for the Jets,” General Manager John Idzik said at a press conference today.

There’s no doubt that Harvin has the talent to significantly upgrade the Jets’ offense, as well as their special teams. But Harvin had the talent to upgrade the Vikings and the Seahawks, too, and both teams ultimately decided that he wasn’t worth the headaches. So why will it be different in New York?

Idzik said the Jets have high standards, and that “acting like a Jet” will be a requirement of Harvin and everyone else, but the Jets believe Harvin has what it takes to improve their team. Idzik stressed that the Jets are still committed to developing their offense around quarterback Geno Smith, and bringing Harvin in gives Smith a big weapon.

The Jets are 1-6 and an extreme long shot to make the playoffs, which makes them an odd destination for a star player in a mid-season trade. But Idzik said the Jets don’t think it’s too late for them to go on a run and get to the postseason.

If that happens, Idzik will look brilliant for making this move. But if the Jets keep losing, and if Harvin turns out to be a locker room cancer, this could be a coup in which Idzik and Rex Ryan are overthrown.

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Fred Jackson hopes to return from groin injury within a month

Fred Jackson AP

Fred Jackson was one of two Bills running backs to leave Sunday’s 17-16 win over the Vikings with an injury, but the outlook for his injured groin is better than the one C.J. Spiller got for a broken collarbone.

Spiller is expected to miss the remainder of the season, but Jackson is going to try to make it back faster than the four-week timetable he’s been given by doctors.

“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” Jackson said on WGR 550, via ESPN.com. “It’s typically a four-week injury. But we’ll try to do some things to get it sped up. I like to think of myself as somebody who can come back before typical. It’s just gonna be on me to get in there and rehab and see the team doctors and do what it is they want me to do.”

The Bills will use Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown as their primary ball carriers until Jackson is ready to return to the lineup. Brown has yet to play a regular season game for the Bills in his first season with the team and Dixon ran for 51 yards after the injuries pressed him into an expanded role against Minnesota.

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PFT Live: Bills talk with Tim Graham, Jaguars talk with Mike Dempsey

Sammy Watkins AP

The Bills won in thrilling fashion on Sunday when Kyle Orton hit Sammy Watkins for a touchdown just before time expired to lift Buffalo to a 17-16 victory over the Vikings.

On Monday’s edition of PFT Live, we’ll talk about that contest with Tim Graham of the Buffalo News. Graham and Mike Florio will discuss Orton’s play since taking over the starting job, the injuries to running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and any changes that might be on the horizon now that the team has been sold to Terry Pegula.

The Jaguars also won on Sunday and it’s notable even though it didn’t come down to the very end of the game. Mike Dempsey of 1010XL in Jacksonville will be on the show to talk to Florio about rookie quarterback Blake Bortles‘ progress, how the plan put in place last year is coming together and what to look for in the coming weeks from the Jags.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Blake Bortles admits he had a bad game in Jaguars’ first win

bortles AP

Quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged by wins and losses, and Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles may be the prime example.

The Jaguars won their first game on Sunday, but Bortles is the first to admit he played badly: Bortles completed 17 of 31 passes for 159 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. He now has an NFL-high 10 interceptions, an average of two a game since he took over for the benched Chad Henne.

Bad, not good,” Bortles said of his performance. “The defense and offensive line and running game won this game, no doubt about it. Anybody can see that. Obviously, I’m not happy with the way I played, but I’m extremely happy with the outcome of the game.”

Bortles really isn’t ready to be an NFL starter, and the Jaguars have known that for months. That’s why Henne started the season, and the coaches initially said Bortles would sit out his rookie year. Unfortunately, Henne was so bad that the coaching staff felt it had no choice but to bench him, and Bortles is going through growing pains.

For now, the primary focus of the coaches is to make sure Bortles doesn’t lose confidence. Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said that when Bortles came off the field hanging his head after an interception, Fisch gave him a pep talk.

“I told him, ‘That’s not going to be the last pick you ever throw so move on,’” Fisch said. “We weren’t going to sit there and just go through each pick. We can talk about that [Monday].”

If Bortles keeps throwing interceptions at this rate for the rest of the season, he’ll finish 2014 with 28 picks. That’s terrible. But it’s also the same number of interceptions that Peyton Manning threw as a rookie. Sometimes a young quarterback just has to go through growing pains, and that’s what Bortles did on Sunday.

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Browns waive starting fullback Ray Agnew

Ray Agnew, J.T. Thomas AP

The Browns have released one of their offensive starters.

The club announced Monday it had waived rookie Ray Agnew, who started Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville, playing 18 snaps on offense and catching one pass for three yards. An undrafted free agent from Southern Illinois, the 23-year-old Agnew had started all six games for Cleveland, rushing twice for two yards and catching two passes for 15 yards.

To replace Agnew, the Browns called up rookie fullback Kiero Small, who was a seventh-round pick of Seattle in May. The Browns added Small (5-8, 244) to their practice squad before the start of the season. The 23-year-old Small played collegiately at Arkansas.

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