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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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Bruce Allen: RG3 was asked to do the impossible last year

Redskins' Griffin III is tackled by Eagles' Ryans during second half action of their NFL football game in Landover Reuters

Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was rushed into starting Week One last season after an offseason of rehabbing his surgically repaired knee left him unprepared to run the offense.

That’s the word from team President Bruce Allen, who said on ESPN 950 that Griffin was unprepared last year through no fault of his own.

“What you saw last year was almost a little disrespectful to the game of football,” Allen said, via the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It’s impossible to ask a player to perform well during the regular season if you haven’t practiced. Last year at this time, he was still rehabbing his knee, and he wasn’t allowed to practice or work in team drills. We put him on the spot by trying to do that. And this year he’s had a full offseason, his knee is 100 percent, knock on wood, and he’s had all [the practices], and that’s how you get ready to play a football season.”

Although Allen didn’t name former head coach Mike Shanahan by name, that sure sounds like Allen is saying Shanahan botched the Griffin situation by starting him in Week One, rather than letting Griffin come along slowly. Just about everyone in Washington seems to agree that Griffin will be better off this year, with Jay Gruden as his coach.

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Ravens fans cheer Ray Rice at open practice

rayrice AP

Ravens running back Ray Rice may be loathed in most of America after an offseason that saw him face an assault charge for hitting his wife. But Rice is still beloved in Baltimore.

The Ravens had an open practice at their home stadium on Monday night, and Rice heard loud cheers from the fans in attendance. Rice was twice shown on the big screen, and both times he got enthusiastic ovations, according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com. Rice tapped his chest to show his appreciation as he soaked in the applause.

Many fans wore Rice jerseys, and several Rice jerseys were spotted on women and children.

Rice’s actions this offseason have not been worthy of people cheering him, and when the NFL let Rice off with only a two-game suspension, it provoked nationwide outrage. That doesn’t seem to matter to the adoring public in Baltimore, however. What matters there is that Rice remains an important part of the Ravens’ offense.

It happens often, in every sport and every city. No matter how heinous an athlete’s actions, if he can help the home team win, he’s going to hear the cheers.

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Richard Sherman: Seahawks have “tremendous leadership”

Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman AP

As with any Super Bowl winning team, it’s impossible to return every player the year after winning the championship. The Seattle Seahawks had to make a few salary cap related cuts and saw other players depart in free agency this offseason.

Defensive end Red Bryant, fullback Michael Robinson and receiver Sidney Rice were some of the most respected voices in the Seahawks locker room over the past few seasons. Now all three players are no longer on the roster.

Bryant was released and signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Rice retired last week and Robinson is a free agent currently pursuing a media career.

Robinson wondered whether there would be a strong enough presence in Seattle’s locker room to keep the team focused following some of the veteran departures. However, cornerback Richard Sherman believes the young core of the Seahawks will be over to take over the burden as team leaders.

“I think we lead by example. And that’s how our team plays. Guys follow guys who make plays, and who show up on game days and make big plays in big games. We have all those things so we have tremendous leadership,” Sherman said.

Sherman, safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, defensive end Michael Bennett and quarterback Russell Wilson will likely assume most of the leadership duties for Seattle this season. Sherman and Thomas are more vocal leaders while Chancellor and Wilson are more prone to lead by example.

Sherman says they are up for the job.

“We lead by example and the example will be what it has been. Earl Thomas is going to say a lot, Kam Chancellor is not going to say a lot, guys know who the leaders are guys know who to follow and when you are following those guys then we will be fine,” Sherman said.

“We have guys who show up in big games. They don’t have to talk they don’t have to say what they are going to do, they don’t have to give a rah-rah speech but when you need them they will be there for you. That’s the kind of guys we got and those are the kind of guys we need.”

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Another day, another fight at Eagles training camp

Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp AP

After a fight involving running back LeSean McCoy and defensive end Trent Cole on Sunday, another fight broke out in training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday.

According to Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com, a scuffle took place between receiver Jeremy Maclin and cornerback Bradley Fletcher during the team’s first full-padded practice of camp. The two players hooked up and exchanged blows after a physical play toward the end of practice.

One thing led to another,” Fletcher said. “It’s football. Emotions get going and things happen, but we’re all just working to get better.”

Head coach Chip Kelly didn’t seem to be overly concerned about the fight between McCoy and Cole on Sunday either.

“Yeah, their emotions got the better part of them. Those things happen. It’s no different than sometimes little kids don’t get along very well and throw Tonka trucks at each other,” Kelly said. “…That two kids push each other in practice somewhere. It’s not a real big deal.”

The Eagles had just two fights in all of training camp a season ago. Now they’ve had two fights in as many days.

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Andre Johnson strains right hamstring on Monday

Andre Johnson AP

Some would say that a player missing the offseason program exposes him to a greater injury risk when training camp opens.  Those who would say that would point to Texans receiver Andre Johnson.

Johnson, who skipped all of the 2014 offseason workout program due to concerns regarding the direction of the team and his future role in it, tweaked his right hamstring muscle in practice on Monday.

After practice, both Johnson and coach Bill O’Brien downplayed the situation.

“I just got a little tight, it was just a precaution,” Johnson said.  “We’re going to go in and see what’s what. Just from the feeling of it, it’s not anything bad.”

O’Brien called the injury “minor.”

Still, it makes sense to pay attention to Johnson’s health or lack thereof as he tries to make up for lost time.  While having him back is better than not having him, an injury that knocks him out of action for an extended stretch will put the team in the same position as if he’d never shown up.

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Jim Harbaugh denies desire to be paid like Super Bowl-winning coach

Harbaugh AP

It’s a given in league circles that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to sign a new contract because he wants more money than the 49ers are willing to pay.  Per multiple reports (which are accurate), Harbaugh wants to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach, and the 49ers aren’t ready to do that until he, you know, wins a Super Bowl.

Earlier this year, Harbaugh denied wanting to be the highest-paid coach in football, without specifically addressing whether he wants to be paid like a coach who has won a Super Bowl.  More recently, Harbaugh has gone the rest of the way.

“For the record, I have never asked to be the highest-paid coach in football,” Harbaugh tells Jason Cole of Bleacher Report.  “I have never asked to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach.  I have never asked for more power.  Nor has anybody asked for those things on my behalf, which anybody in this organization can attest to, and all the focus will be on the 2014 season and achieving our goals of the team.”

Harbaugh also denies betting that his value will go up, not down, over time by not doing a new deal with two years left on his current contract.

“I don’t bet,” Harbaugh said.  “If I bet on anything, it’s for a chocolate milkshake. That’s the extent of the stakes I bet on.”

Here’s the flaw in Harbaugh’s denials.  If he didn’t want to be the highest-paid coach or to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach or to bet on himself in the hopes of getting more money later, he’d already have a new contract.

Last year, an effort to extend his contract occurred.  And failed.  This year, more talks occurred.  As of June 5, the 49ers had made Harbaugh an offer.  And Harbaugh had not responded.

Downplay it or deny it, there’s an impasse because Harbaugh wants more than the team has offered.  If he didn’t, he’d already have financial security beyond 2015.

For even more obtuse remarks from Harbaugh that could trigger a sudden desire to bang your head against the wall, read the whole interview.  But put on a helmet first.

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49ers agree to terms with Alfonso Smith

Arizona Cardinals v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

With Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James each suffering injuries this week, the San Francisco 49ers had to hit the free agent market to bolster some running back depth for training camp.

According to Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, the 49ers have agreed to terms with former Arizona Cardinals running back Alfonso Smith.

Smith appeared in 43 games for the Arizona Cardinals over the last four seasons. He’s carried 48 times for 156 yards and two touchdowns in his career.

Hunter suffered a torn ACL and will miss the entire 2014 season. James suffered a dislocated elbow that should keep him sidelined for the next month.

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Cardinals OLB John Abraham charged with DUI in June

John Abraham AP

Cardinals outside linebacker John Abraham, a key part of a strong Arizona defense, was arrested in late June in DeKalb County, Georgia on a DUI charge, the Arizona Republic reported Monday night.

The 36-year-old Abraham has been excused from the club to attend to personal business since the beginning of training camp.

According to the Republic, the Cardinals know of Abraham’s arrest but declined comment on the matter.

On Monday, Cardinals G.M. Steve Keim told the club’s website that he was “not concerned at all” about Abraham’s time away from camp, noting that coach Bruce Arians had excused the linebacker.

DeKalb County public records show that a John Antonio Abraham was cited for DUI and parking, stopping or standing in a prohibited place on June 29. A booking photo of Abraham was included in the online records.

Abraham recorded 11.5 sacks for the Cardinals last season. He joined Arizona last July.

Abraham was also reportedly arrested on a DWI charge as a member of the Jets in 2003. According to published reports, Abraham pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and was benched for one game as punishment by Jets coach Herm Edwards.

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Sanchez, DeSean have different opinions on Philly fans

Sanchez AP

One is a new arrival in Philly after spending five seasons in New York.  The other landed in Washington after being cut by the Eagles.  And they both have different views about the fans in the City of Brotherly Love.

Said former Jets and current Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez, via Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post:  “The fans are a lot nicer here.”

Former Philly receiver DeSean Jackson’s perspective varies from Sanchez’s.

“In Philly sometimes things got a little negative,” Jackson told Chick Hernandez of CSNWashington.com.  “And they booed their own players.”

Of course, it’s possible that Philadelphia are both nicer than New York fans while also booing their own.  Regardless, it’s safe to say Jackson will be booed by Eagles fans; that’s expected.  If/when Sanchez is ever booed by Philly fans, that’s a problem.

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Broncos DT Kevin Vickerson has strong words for Seattle

Washington Redskins v Denver Broncos Getty Images

Well, the Seahawks-Broncos preseason opener on August 7 in Denver just became a little more intriguing, to say the least.

In an interview Monday with the Colorado Springs Gazette, Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson voiced his dislike for the Super Bowl-champion Seahawks in memorable terms.

“(Bleep) Seattle,” Vickerson said, according to the Gazette‘s Paul Klee, a columnist for the paper. “Write it down. Take a picture.”

Vickerson, it should be noted, was released by Seattle in September 2010 — Pete Carroll’s first season with the Seahawks. The Broncos picked him up the next day, and he’s been with Denver ever since. Also, Vickerson didn’t play in Super Bowl XLVIII after suffering a dislocated hip in the November loss at New England.

“It was a very personal game for me,” Vickerson said of Super Bowl XLVIII, according to the Gazette.

In the Gazette story, Vickerson also indicated he doesn’t like off-field trash talk. And some Seahawks personnel have taken the opportunity to needle the Broncos at various points after their Super Bowl win, as the Denver Post‘s Mike Klis pointed out in a feature published earlier Monday.

“Some guys, that’s what they do to get ramped up. But when you step in between the lines, pads talk. Let your pads talk,” Vickerson told the Gazette. “That’s my mindset, that’s my demeanor when I go out on the field. Some guys are media guys. Some guys are cut different. But when you go to really looking at football and playing football, it’s between the lines. Buckle your chinstrap and let your pads talk, man.”

The pads figure to be howling when these teams meet in Seattle in September. And the preseason matchup in August just got a dash of hot sauce, too.

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Victims’ lawyer fires back against Pounceys

Pouncey AP

On Friday, three people filed a lawsuit against Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey and Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, alleging that they committed an assault during their birthday party at the Cameo nightclub.  On Saturday, the lawyer representing the Pounceys called the case a “complete sham.”

On Monday, the lawyer representing the three alleged victims fired back.

Appearing on WINZ with Andy Slater, attorney Marwan Porter predicted that criminal charges will be filed.

“We’ve been in contact with the Miami Beach Police Department and the investigators on this particular case,” Porter said.  “My clients have been very cooperative with them.  And more importantly that have independent witnesses who are corroborating the allegations made by my clients.  So when you have independent witnesses who are swearing under oath to certain allegations, I think it’s gonna be tough for them not to make a charge in this particular case.”

Porter added that surveillance video exists, but that he has not yet seen it.  He added that letters have been sent to Cameo nightclub instructing them to preserve the evidence harvested via the cameras in the facility.

Porter also said the comments from the Pounceys’ lawyers displayed a lack of professionalism.

“These people were beat up, bad,” Porter said.  “So I really think that shows a lack of taste. . . .  These people had physical injuries.  The injuries were visible, and obviously something happened to these people.  And you have witnesses that said it was the Pouncey brothers who were responsible for inflicting these injuries. . . .

“The fact will come out.  The facts will come out, and the truth will come out.  And justice will be served, and they will have to be accountable for their actions.”

Ultimately, the surveillance video will help tell a lot of the story.  But if independent, neutral witnesses have submitted sworn statements claiming that a Pouncey pounded one or more of the plaintiffs, the only viable defense for each Pouncey could be to blame it all on his identical twin.

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Browns sign wide receiver Marlon Moore

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

The Browns have filled one of their open roster spots with a free agent wide receiver.

The club announced the signing of Marlon Moore, who has had stints with Miami (2010-2012, 2013) and San Francisco (2013). Moore, 26, has appeared in 43 regular season games, catching 19 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns.

Moore will miss the first game of the 2014 regular season serving an NFL suspension, Howard Balzer of The Sports Xchange reported in May.

Moore’s addition will give the Browns 13 wide receivers on the roster. However, the WR count includes Josh Gordon, who could be facing a lengthy NFL suspension.

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Larry Donnell bubbles to top of Giants tight end depth chart

Donnell AP

Since the Giants will be playing the Bills on Sunday night (on NBC), the Giants are required to release a depth chart, too.  It doesn’t contain many surprises, but it begins to answer the fairly important question of who will start at the undermanned tight end position.

The official chart gives the gig to Larry Donnell (pictured).  He’s followed by Daniel Fells on the second team and Dickensian antagonist Xavier Grimble as the third-string option.  Falling in the ominous “other” category are Kellen Davis and Adrien Robinson.

Donnell appeared in 16 games with one start in 2013, catching three passes.

Elsewhere on the depth chart, injured rookie receiver Odell Beckham appears as a second-stringer behind Rueben Randle, and Ryan Nassib is listed as the No. 2 quarterback, ahead of Curtis PainterRashad Jennings is the starting running back, followed by David Wilson and then Peyton Hillis.

Newcomer Trindon Holliday, who’ll play receiver only if the rest of the wideouts eat a bad batch of clams casino on Saturday night, is listed at the top punt returner and the No. 2 kickoff return specialist, behind Quintin Demps.

Again, none of this is binding.  But it’s more informative than a 90-man roster listed in alphabetical order.

 

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Bills release first depth chart (spoiler alert: Watkins is a starter)

Watkins AP

Nothing says football season like the non-binding depth charts teams are required to release when preseason games approach.  Up first in six days against the Giants for the Hall of Fame game, the Bills have issued the first depth chart of 2014.

To no surprise whatsoever, receiver Sammy Watkins is listed as a starter, across from Robert Woods.  Mike Williams, who reportedly struggled in the offseason, appears as the understudy to Woods.  Watkins also shows up as the No. 3 kickoff returner, behind Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham.

With left tackle Cordy Glenn still unavailable due to a still-undisclosed illness, rookie Seantrel Henderson is the de facto starter at the fairly important position.  Henderson, who fell to round seven due in part to off-field issues, could end up being a steal, if he can stay on the right path.

In a bit of a surprise, newcomer Bryce Brown appears as the fourth-string tailback, behind C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, and Anthony Dixon.

On defense, Nigel Bradham appears as the starter in Kiko Alonso’s spot at weakside linebacker.  Alonso will miss the entire season with a torn ACL suffered during offseason workouts.

With five preseason games, the depth chart could change a lot before Week One.  But it’s the only tangible hierarchy of any NFL team at this point of the season.

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Giants awarded Mark Asper on waivers

Buffalo Bills v Minnesota Vikings Getty Images

The Giants added a veteran offensive guard Tuesday, claiming Mark Asper on waivers from Buffalo, according to the league’s transaction wire.

The 28-year-old Asper was active for six regular season games for the Bills in 2013. He has also had stints with Jacksonville (2012-2013) and Minnesota (2012). Asper (6-7, 325) was a sixth-round pick of the Bills in 2012.

To open a roster spot for Asper, the Giants waived offensive tackle DeMarcus Love with an injury waiver. The 26-year-old Love is a second-year pro from Arkansas.

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